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Doctor Who: The Two Doctors (part three)

Other than his usual dislike of seeing his heroes getting captured, our son really enjoyed this runaround. Of course, I did as well, with the story’s only flaw being the unbelievably pedestrian and thoughtless direction by Peter Moffatt. It’s not just that he failed to rein in some of John Stratton’s excesses and let him shout at the rafters for comedy, but he even brought along that flaw that kept happening in “The Five Doctors” where characters don’t respond to information that is clearly in their sight line. I love the script and the humor and having the villains turn on each other so malevolently, but another director could have made this story a masterpiece.

But the general feeling in 1985 was that masterpieces were all in Doctor Who‘s past. It was during the three weeks that this story was broadcast that the newspapers got wind of a story that Doctor Who was finally being “axed in a BBC plot.” It really was the right decision at entirely the wrong time. In early 1985, Doctor Who‘s American audience was really growing and most of the country’s PBS stations were picking up the show. With sweet merchandising money coming in from the USA for the first time, there was a really good opportunity to push and grow the program here, but the higher muckity-mucks at the BBC have never understood what to do with a good opportunity, ever.

Richard Marson’s biography of the show’s producer, Totally Tasteless: The Life of John Nathan-Turner, is out of print and only being offered for insane sums right now, but it’s a captivating and incredibly detailed look at the chaos and crisis when Who was cancelled, and then un-cancelled and postponed for nine months instead. These days, we’re so used to the BBC’s inability to put a show on the air for thirteen weeks a year that we just shrug at it, but the delay of season twenty-three from January to September 1986 felt like the end of the world at the time. I honestly felt like somebody had lied to me. I’d been sold this amazing, indestructible program that had gone on and would continue to go on for years, and within four weeks of that great moment where I could read and marvel at what was to come, I was reading that the show was being “rested.”

Then everybody in Britain who tuned into the Doctor’s next adventure, “Timelash,” wondered why this dumb show hadn’t been axed in a BBC plot years ago.

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Doctor Who: The Five Doctors

When I was a kid and comics cost 35 or 40 cents, Superman’s father Jor-El was so recognizable that he was regularly merchandised. There were dolls and action figures of the guy. DC’s writers and editors were almost pathologically obsessed with telling stories of Superman’s home planet. There was a World of Krypton miniseries, and even the Legion of Super-Heroes time-traveled back to meet him. It was all very, very boring and unnecessary to me.

With that in mind, in Terrance Dicks’ anniversary adventure “The Five Doctors,” we finally say goodbye to the Doctor’s home planet for a good while. It is the most boring and unnecessary place for our hero to ever visit, and this stale feeling is driven home by the actors who play Time Lords. This is the fourth story in seven years set on Gallifrey and exactly one actor – Paul Jerricho, as Commissioner “Castellan” Gordon – appears in two of them. Even the most important supporting character, President Borusa, is played by four different actors. How are we supposed to feel any connection to any of these people?

Fans just love kvetching and kibitzing about “The Five Doctors” and all its missed opportunities, but I think the biggest one comes in not addressing these unfamiliar faces. When the Master is shown into the president’s office, he addresses the three people inside. He says “President Borusa, Lord Castellan,” and then Anthony Ainley should have looked at the woman and said “I have no idea who you are.”

But everyone loves “The Five Doctors” anyway, because it’s a lighthearted anniversary celebration and it’s fun to watch Pertwee, Troughton, and Courtney squabbling again. Yes, Peter Moffatt’s direction is incredibly pedestrian and slapdash (count how many times actors don’t respond to objects that are clearly in their sight line), yes, they could have at least given us one clear and well-lit shot of the Yeti, and yes, surely while stuck in the TARDIS, the strange alien teenager and the Doctor’s granddaughter could have found something more interesting to talk about than “what do you think the Cybermen are doing.”

Yes, the Doctor’s granddaughter is in this, but Carole Ann Ford is only allowed to play Random First Doctor Companion. She calls her Doctor “Grandfather” twice and that’s it. This is apparently because the producer at the time insisted on presenting the Doctor as an asexual figure to avoid British tabloid journalists making rude headlines about Peter Davison and his attractive female co-stars in short skirts. That’s another huge missed opportunity and a scene we should have had: the fifth Doctor introducing his granddaughter to Tegan and Turlough.

Our son mostly loved it, as you’d expect. He did that standard grumble about the Master and the Cybermen and a Dalek showing up, but then he went eyes-wide and jumped with a huge smile when he saw the Yeti. He loved the famous “Cyber-massacre” scene, where about nine of them get impaled and decapitated before firing a single shot, but his favorite part of the whole story was when the third Doctor and Sarah “zip-line” down to the top of the tower.

I really enjoyed teasing our son with the strange possible-continuity-error brainteaser about Jamie and Zoe. Frazer Hines and Wendy Padbury show up for a cameo as “phantoms” warning the second Doctor from going any deeper into the tower. The Doctor realizes that they’re fake when he remembers that Jamie and Zoe’s minds were erased of the period they spent with him. (The real error is that Troughton asks “So how do you know who we are.” They should both remember the Doctor, but Jamie shouldn’t know Zoe. Glossing over that, the important part is that neither should know the Brigadier. The line should have been Troughton pointing at Courtney while saying “So how do you know who he is.”)

It took our son a minute to wrap his brain around the problem. Where in his lifetime does the second Doctor come from if he knows about Jamie and Zoe’s memory wipe, when (we’ve been led to believe) that the very next thing that happened after the mind wipe was the Doctor regenerated and was shipped to Earth? I told him that we’d get a little more information about that in a couple of months, and that we’d see Patrick Troughton again in a different role in just a few days…

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Doctor Who: Mawdryn Undead (part four)

The dude on the right is Mawdryn, played by David Collings, a character actor that everybody loves and who we saw a few months ago in “The Robots of Death”. He and his seven fellow mutants are not wearing the most fashionable in outer space wear. Marie called their clothes “terrible bridesmaid dresses.” Even when you’re missing a chunk of your scalp, it’s hard to look menacing dressed like that.

But Mawdryn isn’t a traditional villain. He and his gang stole some Time Lord tech several centuries ago and have been trapped in perpetual, mutating rejuvenation ever since. All they want now is to die, and by chance, the Doctor has shown up. Apparently he can exchange the potential energy from each of his remaining eight regenerations to kill all eight of the gang, but he’ll never be able to regenerate again himself. As motivations go, I think that’s incredibly original. It’s also a little convenient, what with the numbers working together like they do, but that’s fiction for you.

I’m glad to say our son came around in the end. As I remembered, there’s a good bit of padding in part four, reminding everybody of the plot, emphasizing all the relevant points again and again, but there are enough moral dilemmas and runarounds to keep things moving, and our son was very happy with the adventure. It even ends with an explosion! It may not be a great story, but it made a splendid recovery from that lousy opening installment.

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Doctor Who: Mawdryn Undead (parts two and three)

Our son is putting on his usual airs of the story being “too creepy,” but he’s really synced in with the adventure. There’s a bit in part three where Tegan, keeping watch in the corridor, spots the seven mutants gliding her way and she jumps back to warn everyone. Our kid jumped right in time with her, leaving his shoes behind.

The problem with “Mawdryn Undead” is that it could have been the best two-part story the show ever made in its original run, and the best by a mile. It might have made an excellent three-parter. Unfortunately, it’s lumbered with that godawful opener, and I’m afraid part four will kind of run in place a bit to fill its running time. But these middle episodes are just cracking with imagination and originality. Once the story finally decides to place the Brigadier in the center of things – two Brigadiers, in 1977 and in 1983! – Nicholas Courtney gets to really shine. And who can’t sympathize with our old friend when he grumbles about “yomping up that wretched hill” three times in one afternoon?

I really think that all of Steven Moffat’s “timey-wimey” stories from his run have their genesis here. When Moffat was a fanboy, he wore out his off-air videotape of this adventure from rewatching it over and over.

Of course, another thing our son’s pretending to be aggravated with is the return of Valentine Dyall as the Black Guardian, after his brief but memorable appearance in part six of “The Armageddon Factor” a little over three years previously. About the only thing I don’t like about these episodes is the casual way the Doctor has decided to just take Turlough’s knowledge of alien science at face value without challenging him on it. Clearly he knows something is up with this kid – and since, despite casting an obvious twentysomething in the role, Turlough can’t be much older than seventeen to still be at this posh private school – even though he doesn’t know that the Black Guardian is the one manipulating him.

Dyall is amazing, a real force of nature. After he gets done yelling at Turlough in the school clinic, I want to go give the poor fellow a hug and order him some milk and cookies to calm his nerves. And I don’t even like Turlough.

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Doctor Who: Mawdryn Undead (part one)

“Mawdryn Undead” is a four-part serial written with passion and enthusiasm by Peter Grimwade, directed with either disinterest or contempt for the material by Peter Moffatt, and featuring music by Paddy Kingsland that sounds like a joke B-side from one of Erasure’s earliest singles.

As I’ve mentioned before, many Doctor Who adventures from the serial days will start strong before petering out. “Mawdryn Undead” is possibly unique in that it becomes a good, interesting story with a great idea at its core, but it begins with what is very nearly the worst first episode in the whole of the program. The first episode of “The Twin Dilemma” is even worse, but that serial never gets any better as it goes along, so the mind-crushing awfulness of the first part of “Mawdryn” is an amazing standout.

And, in fairness, I should concede that Kingsland’s music also gets a little better as the story continues, but the dumb, jaunty “joyride” music that accompanies the young men pretending to be teenagers in their straw boater hats as they steal the car will be stuck in my head on my dying day. I’ll talk more about Turlough, one of the biggest missed opportunities in the whole series, another time. Suffice it to say for now that in 1982-83, Doctor Who was in such a dumb headspace that they honestly thought that making the school bully into a companion was a good idea.

Even the effects defy suspending disbelief. Most of the time, when Doctor Who gives us a show-stopping terrible special effect, it has the decency to wait until the end of the serial, and it almost always looks like the work of very talented people who did their very best with the time and money available and just couldn’t quite bring it off. Four minutes into “Mawdryn” and Turlough is supposed to be having an out-of-body experience on the astral plane, and all that the visual effects team bothered to do was switch on the background animation from a game show hosted by Wink Martindale.

But here’s what really gets my goat. Here’s your big guest star this week: some guy.

Come off it. There’s never been a worse directorial decision than Peter Moffatt’s stultifying choice in reintroducing Nicholas Courtney as Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart*. Turlough and “Hippo” do not name the owner of the car they steal. There could have been a line like “This is that retired brigadier’s car,” for starters. No, an actor with his back to the camera says “How are things on your end, Brigadier?” and we’re supposed to recognize the man who responds to that line as the same man who we know by his military uniform and mustache, and who had not appeared in the program in eight years.

This is the lazy work of a show that is not trying. Everybody involved has figured they can pull it off because they wager that the only people watching will have read about it in magazines and newspapers ahead of time. They’re letting the PR department announce the character so they don’t have to bother. I made a different bet: that Marie and our son wouldn’t have a clue who this guy was, and I was right. Marie noted that he was called “brigadier,” but didn’t realize it was Lethbridge-Stewart, because after twenty-five minutes, the script still hasn’t identified him as anybody we’ve ever met before.

At least it gets better. The next episode is almost terrific.

*Although another candidate for this honor would be Peter Moffatt again, two years after this story, reintroducing the Sontarans by way of an establishing shot from about a hundred yards away.

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Doctor Who: The Visitation (parts three and four)

So these are the Tereleptils, and I’ve always thought they were good-looking monsters. They made the interesting, and probably correct, choice, to give the one with the full animatronic mask the additional detail of being horrifically scarred and missing an eye. This unfortunately limited the aliens from ever returning to the show, because they’d have had to start from scratch and rebuild an entirely new head. Otherwise, you’d have dialogue like “You know, I met one of your species on seventeenth century Earth with wounds exactly like yours…”

Actually, they did reuse one of the non-animatronic heads for another alien that made a fleeting appearance in a story four seasons down the line. Perhaps they thought nobody would notice.

Fans and writers have thrown a lot of criticism at the producer of the show throughout the eighties, John Nathan-Turner, and as the program starts getting complacent and annoying – very soon now – I’ll have a lot to say about what I see as some very poor decisions. But let’s give him a round of applause for having that Tereleptil blow up the Doctor’s sonic screwdriver in part three of the story. Nathan-Turner believed that writers were using the device as a crutch instead of coming up with clever and inventive ways around problems. So when the screwdriver explodes, Marie told our son – who’s only seen the latest four episodes of what we call “the modern show” (and enjoyed them very much) – not to worry, that the Doctor can build another. But the beautiful thing is, he doesn’t, not for years.

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Doctor Who: The Visitation (parts one and two)

As I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve mentioned the always-evolving production crew of Doctor Who as I go, but I’ve left a small hole with season nineteen because the script editor’s job was strangely in flux that year. About half of the stories were edited by Antony Root, and the other half by Eric Saward, who would keep the job for the next four years, but since they were made way out of transmission order, I wasn’t sure where to mention it.

“The Visitation” is the first of Saward’s scripts for the program, and I think he gets the balance of the character interplay just perfect in this one. He seems to lose interest in the lead characters after this story, preferring instead to use them as foils for the guests. This story, for example, is almost every bit as much about a gravel-voiced highwayman, played by Michael Robbins, the longtime star of On the Buses, as it is about the Doctor and his friends. Later Saward stories would be much more about the guests.

I had meant to give our son a teeny history lesson before we got started tonight, but I forgot. The story will memorably end with a cute revelation about the Great Fire of London in 1666. This, I figured, would be completely lost on our son, because the second grade curriculum in the United States doesn’t actually mention it. So we talked about the rats that the mysterious and scarred alien creature has been keeping in these Plague-fearing times, and then I mentioned that the really big world event that year was the fire, which destroyed thousands of homes. He told me that he knew all about it. Apparently, it’s revealed in one of his Beano Books that not only did Beryl the Peril start the fire, but she also ate five pies while starting it. Well, did she, now!

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Doctor Who: State of Decay (parts three and four)

It’s a “be quiet and don’t wake up the monsters” cliffhanger at the end of part three, meaning, of course, that Romana isn’t quiet enough and she wakes up the monsters. And it gave our son one of the biggest frights he’s ever had. He was under his blanket like a shot and when the end credits started, he bolted off the sofa and ran for the front door. He’s never hid all that way before. He didn’t come back to the den until he could hear that the third vampire had come into the “inner sanctum” and told the other two to knock it off, because he has important plans for them.

This is a terrific story. There’s a great bit where K9 warns the Doctor that using the “indigenous dissident population” to start his riot doesn’t have a high probability of success, which means that K9 hasn’t been watching the same show the rest of us have. Another great bit has Emrys James, who, to be fair, is indulging in a little overacting, as people playing vampires often do, telling one of his guards that dying is what guards are for.

For his final verdict, our son gave it a thumbs-sideways. He explained that it was totally awesome, but it was also “totally too scary!” This may be the last time he says that for a while. I honestly don’t think Doctor Who was this deliberately scary again for a long time. I’m sure something will give him an unexpected shock or two, but eighties Who rarely went in for real horror. I think he’ll be eight when we get to “The Curse of Fenric,” which is the story I’m thinking of, but if anything else sends him behind the sofa – or to the front door – I’ll be sure to write about it!

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