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Doctor Who: The Caves of Androzani (parts three and four)

I enjoy watching old Doctor Who in a vacuum, with my family not knowing what to expect, like the Doctor regenerating. It makes for some fun surprises. Our son was particularly blindsided, and says that he’ll miss this Doctor.

Me, I say there definitely should have been another way. Peter Davison has never been shy about expressing his frustrations making the show. He loved being the Doctor, but the experience of actually working on this show, particularly in his delay-plagued second season, was too frustrating to continue. Davison said that Patrick Troughton had advised him to not stay for more than three years up front, and I still think Troughton should’ve zipped it. Particularly with the original version of “Resurrection of the Daleks” canceled and the producer’s very disagreeable decision to give Colin Baker one story at the end of this season, Davison was already down eight episodes that he should have been able to make – ten if you count K-9 and Company, which was made with season nineteen’s budget. We should have had more.

I’ll come back to that “disagreeable decision” when we start watching the Sixth Doctor next month, but speaking of “Resurrection,” this is the second story this season where darn near every person in the thing dies. The only ones to make it out in one piece are Peri, the evil Miss (“Krau”) Timmin on the other planet, and that dude in part one who doesn’t have any lines but is seen on his way to blow up the North Core Copper Mines, and he was probably arrested in the sweep of Morgus’s businesses and sentenced to death. Unlike “Resurrection,” all these creeps had it coming. A great character actor named John Normington plays Morgus, and I just love his asides directly to the camera. These are meant to be very theatrical, but it’s almost like Morgus knows that we’re watching him!

Roy Holder, who had been Chas in the third series of Ace of Wands twelve years earlier, is one of the gun runners. I mentioned earlier the fun of watching the show with my family, who don’t know what to expect. Holder’s character is one of two who decide against joining their boss and Morgus in their last, desperate search for more of the rare McGuffin element. They say they have two kilos and that’s more than enough. So Morgus and their boss leave them to it. Marie quietly told our son “I think he made the sensible decision.” I smiled, knowing that “sensible” decision was seconds away from ending his life.

“Caves” is excellent, but it’s also so unpleasant that I can’t believe that Peri would have chosen to stick around had this been her first trip after “Planet of Fire.” Would you? I’d be saying “Take me home immediately” after this – particularly when the guy with whom I agreed to travel about a day previously sat up looking like Colin Baker and got snide with me – unless I’d spent a few weeks with less traumatic events first. So there are several novels and more than a dozen audio adventures with Peter Davison and Nicola Bryant, several of which also feature an additional companion from ancient Egypt called Erimem.

I don’t actually enjoy the audio adventures myself – I think that my problem is that I lack the imagination to see the worlds that they’re describing – but I love that there are so many to choose from for all the fans who enjoy them. The same is true for the next two Doctors, who also had their BBC runs truncated before they should have ended. At least Peter Davison got to end his Doctor’s TV run on a really high note, and got to leave when he was ready to go.

We’ll start watching Colin Baker’s run as Doctor Who in mid-February. Stay tuned!

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Doctor Who: The Caves of Androzani (parts one and two)

Ask a hundred people which is their favorite Peter Davison Doctor Who story. Five will say “Kinda.” I’m one of the five who’ll say “Snakedance.” The other ninety will say it’s this one. Less the stragglers who’ll eventually pop in the comments and protest that it’s something else, of course.

“The Caves of Androzani” really is blisteringly good. It’s the first of two adventures in the eighties that Graeme Harper directed, and wow, did he ever know what he was doing. This looks amazing, and the great music by Roger Limb helps a lot, too. The direction is so good that Harper could have made even a mediocre story into a highlight, but this story isn’t mediocre. It’s the first Doctor Who script by Robert Holmes in five years. Man, was he ever missed.

“Androzani” features some of Holmes’s effortless world-building, but this one’s a little different from the planets and cultures he’d designed in the past. There is no wit, and there aren’t any heroes. We only see the horrible people: an army of brutal military thugs, the corrupt politicians and businessmen bankrolling them, a team of bloodthirsty gun runners, and the criminal who controls the rare substance they all want: spectrox, which can extend or even double the life spans of humanoids. They are all terrible. And they are all going to get what’s coming to them.

A lot of people will tell you that this story is perfect except for a dopey, fake, and honestly quite unnecessary monster in the middle of it. Typically, the monster – it’s called a Magma Beast – is by far our son’s favorite part of it. Since he likes good guys and never villains, there isn’t anybody in this story, other than the Doctor and Peri, for him to cheer on. So the Magma Beast is perfectly placed to keep his interest!

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Doctor Who: The Power of Kroll (parts three and four)

I have rarely returned to rewatch “The Power of Kroll” because the script has next to none of Robert Holmes’ trademark wit and energy. It’s also got these green-skinned squid-worshipers. The other characters tell us that they are primitives and savages, but they’ve all taken courses in BBC Villain. Every other line out of John Abineri’s mouth is something awful like “Have a care, Doctor!” or my favorite, “Let not thy wrath fall upon thy true servants!”

Happily, our son was much, much more thrilled than I was. He loved the giant monster stuff so much he was yelling at the screen. At one point, the Doctor is outside on a gantry at the refinery and a tentacle appears behind his head. Our kid shouted “Look out, Doctor!” before hiding his face. He’s enjoying the Key to Time stories so much that he somehow convinced himself there are seven segments, not just six. I guess he just didn’t want the fun of chasing them down to end in a few days.

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Doctor Who: The Power of Kroll (parts one and two)

When you’re watching Doctor Who, there should ideally be more interesting things about the adventure than who was cast to appear in it. “The Power of Kroll” is a dreary, boring slog and the best thing about it is the guest actors. Above, here’s our hero along with familiar faces Neil McCarthy and Philip Madoc.

Weirdly, this would be Robert Holmes’ last story for the series for about six years. If he hadn’t come back in the mid-eighties for more, then not only would his Who career be topped and tailed by his two weakest adventures, starting with “The Krotons” in 1969, but Philip Madoc would have been in both of them.

John Abineri, a good character actor who everybody remembers fondly as General Carrington in “The Ambassadors of Death”, is also in this one, only he has the indignity of being painted green from head to toe and cast as the leader of a superstitious ooga-booga tribe of men with green dreadlocks.

Outside of these actors, the story is just boring and not at all engaging. Too much of the drama is built around people in space uniforms sitting in plastic chairs looking at computer readouts saying this just can’t be happening, and debating whether to use depth charges or poison to kill the mighty Kroll, a squid that’s about a mile across and has awakened just in time to join all the other parties as they squabble about guns, native rights, and methane. Our son says that Kroll is too big and too scary. I say that every Doctor Who producer has to learn the hard way that if you try to realize a giant monster on a BBC budget, you are more likely to fail than to thrill.

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Doctor Who: The Ribos Operation (parts three and four)

Told you we’d see Timothy Bateson again in a couple of nights! Bateson plays one of the great little one-off Doctor Who characters, a little old man who the locals sneeringly call Binro the Heretic. Binro’s great crime has been measuring the space between the lights in the night sky and concluding that those are suns just like the one in Ribos’s sky. I love how they take time in episode three for a quiet little moment where the kinder of the two con artists lets Binro know that he isn’t wrong.

Other than Bateson, I’m afraid these two episodes have a few actors who really get on my nerves, but Iain Cuthbertson’s delightful repartee with Tom Baker makes up for it. And while our son was thrilled and frightened by more run-ins with the scary Shrivenzale monster in the catacombs beneath the city, he loved seeing K9 again, and really liked the Doctor and Cuthbertson’s character pulling fast ones on each other, and the Doctor getting away with the macguffin that Cuthbertson thought that he had pocketed.

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Doctor Who: The Ribos Operation (parts one and two)

Before we get started with tonight’s story, I always like to point out that the old Marvel UK has been doing a completely terrific Doctor Who comic since the late seventies. It’s had its ups and downs, but the run of Fourth Doctor stories is really incredibly fun. Almost all the episodes were drawn by Dave Gibbons, and the writers include Pat Mills, John Wagner, and Steve Moore. They’re available in two volumes from Panini, and they fit beautifully in the continuity right between “The Invasion of Time” and this story, so check them out.

Back to television, and we’re in the fall of 1978 for Doctor Who‘s sixteenth season. Graham Williams is still the producer and Anthony Read the script editor. New in the TARDIS is Mary Tamm as Romana, a young woman from the Doctor’s home planet of Gallifrey. Well, young-ish. She says she’s 140, and that the Doctor is lying about his age when he claims to be 746. He’s actually 749, she says.

This is the celebrated season where the Doctor and Romana search for a macguffin called the Key to Time across 26 episodes. The first adventure is my favorite of the six stories, an incredibly witty escapade written by Robert Holmes where our heroes stumble across two con artists pulling a scam on a disgraced, and easily offended, warlord. The lead criminal is played by Iain Cuthbertson, who seems like he’s having the time of his life. It’s set on a backwater planet where the superstitious locals haven’t yet discovered the telescope, and their relics are guarded by a savage, green monster that our son called a “multi-demon alien beast!”

I thought that our son might not enjoy this one because it’s too talky for him and doesn’t have any action scenes, but he surprised me by saying he isn’t enjoying it because it’s too scary! The green monster, which is called a Shrivenzale, is one of the program’s less impressive beasts, but its offscreen roaring and the worry it causes everybody has him convinced.

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Doctor Who: The Sun Makers (parts three and four)

The most important thing to note this morning is that our son really, really enjoyed this adventure. It’s easily one of his favorites from this Doctor. He didn’t get frightened or scared, but he got into things hugely. When the workers begin their uprising, he was cheering them on. He also had a blast with the cliffhanger to part three. It’s a very well done moment, with the pressure rising and only seconds to go before Leela is steamed to death in a public execution, and one sadly undermined by the total lack of urgency in part four as the Doctor rescues her, but wow, his eyes were as wide as they get and his feet kicking furiously as the credits rolled.

Our son says he had two favorite moments: he loved that buggy in part three, and he loved the Doctor’s confrontation with Henry Woolf’s vulgar Collector. This great scene ends with the Collector reverting to his true alien form and shrinking down into his survival chair, and he was imitating the villain with shouts of “Liquidate, liquidate!”

I’ve always thought this was a pretty good story, but I enjoyed it even more this time around. Woolf and Richard Leech are a great double-act, and they get all the best dialogue. I loved it when the Collector gets a scent of the Doctor’s moral outrage and sneers about it being the “vicious doctrine of egalitarianism.” I was also intrigued by the Collector researching the Time Lords and the Doctor, finding them a commercially non-viable target, and the Doctor himself a very well-documented thorn in the side of countless oppressors and tyrants over the centuries. If you remember that scene in 2008’s “Forest of the Dead” where the Doctor tells the Vashta Nerada “Look me up,” I think its spiritual ancestor is this little bit.

I think “The Sun Makers” is sometimes overlooked because it doesn’t have a monster, and because the black limbo sets are unconvincing, and because all the location filming in the basement of some building succeeds in making this look nothing like Pluto in the year six million and exactly like the basement of some building. But the script and the acting are so fantastic! I enjoyed seeing this one again almost as much as our kid enjoyed seeing it for the first time.

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Doctor Who: The Sun Makers (parts one and two)

I was all set to talk and talk about the choices that director Pennant Roberts made in using 16mm film versus videotape in this story, and then our son derailed my thoughts by “collapsing” at the sight of the buggy that the armed guards on Pluto use in their long, weird corridors when it shows up at the cliffhanger to episode two. “It has seven turbo machine gun cannons,” he told us! All I saw was a dressed-up golf cart. There’s more proof we should all be watching television in the company of children. Sometimes they’ll appreciate the things that you overlook, and sometimes they’ll keep their boring old dad from writing an even more boring blog post than usual.

What I was going to say was that Robert Holmes’ story “The Sun Makers” marks the debut of Anthony Read to the show as its script editor, a post he’ll hold for the rest of this season and all of the next. It features some very entertaining guest performances by Richard Leech and Henry Woolf as the money-obsessed villains who drug Pluto’s population and burden them with inhumane tax rates. Michael Keating, who would join the cast of Blake’s 7 right after making this story, also has a small role as one of Pluto’s rebels, but the real fun is watching everybody bowing and scraping to Leech, and watching Leech bowing and scraping to Woolf.

Our son was, of course, mostly taken by K9 and the buggy, but he paid good attention tonight and enjoyed the adventure, even if he’s vocally outraged by how evil the company that runs Pluto is. We had a pre-show chat about some things he knows about that might help a seven year-old understand this story. Earlier this year, we visited The Children’s Museum of Oak Ridge and saw some examples of company scrip, which Appalachian mining corporations would issue to exploit their workers. We also talked about the good that comes from paying taxes, but how it would be wrong for the government and the only job on the planet to be one and the same, and for that job to collect taxes from the wages that they pay you. There’s even a tax on medicine, which is pretty cheeky considering the population is all on the verge of nervous exhaustion from the hours they have to work and the fear drugs pumped into the air conditioning.

In other words, this is the sort of society that we’re going to greatly enjoy the Doctor knocking over when we sit down for the next half!

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