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Into the Labyrinth 2.5 – Shadrach / 2.6 – Siege

Mostly, Into the Labyrinth charms our son a whole lot more than it does me, but “Shadrach” is completely wonderful. Robert Holmes wrote it – that’s right, so sit up straight – and it introduces Belor’s best idea yet. She magically alters the features of the first fellow she comes across so he will look like Rothgo and the kids, once they turn up, will waste valuable time trying to convince a complete stranger that he’s an immortal time-jumping wizard.

Then she plans to drug the unfortunate bystander so they’ll waste even more time waking him up. The bystander in question is a detective called T.J. Shadrach, and he’s been hot on the trail of two villains from India who have plans to steal the Koh-i-Noor Diamond from the Tower of London. So Ron Moody and Pamela Salem get to have a pair of hilarious exchanges while she dons a pair of disguises herself to get him to drink her knockout micky.

Shadrach used to be a miner, and his lack of formal education causes him to make a few slips of grammar and word choice, plus, like Parker in Thunderbirds, he alternately adds and drops haitches. Once he’s finally roused, the kids comment on how he dresses like Sherlock Holmes and poor Shadrach becomes infuriated because that blasted Holmes stole his dress sense and style and, in the end, all his thunder and glory. Even when he does get to meet Her Majesty after wrapping up the case, it’s not really her, it’s Belor again. Poor guy. He never gets to learn what actually happened. I’m not sure what the third series of this show will be like, but I bet it won’t be a tenth as entertaining as a seven-part T.J. Shadrach series would have been.

Episode six is more of the same. This one’s a Crusades story written by John Lucarotti and featuring Ewen Solon, back again in a new guest star part. I don’t know much about the Crusades myself, but I could give my son a really brief explanation of what was going on with all these French knights in Malta holding out against the massive forces outside their fort’s walls. Episode five won our son’s affections with a played-for-laughs fight scene, while episode six has a… erm… not so great swordfight. Pamela Salem’s male stunt double showed his face to the camera two or three times more than he should have. The kid didn’t notice, but I had a chuckle or two.

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Doctor Who: The Trial of a Time Lord (parts thirteen and fourteen)

“There’s a lesson here,” our son opined. “If you’re a bad, bad person, don’t stand so close to your crazy, crazy high-tech machine!” Well, you said it, kid.

So at last this troubled season and absolute mess of a story comes crashing into its barely watchable end. It should have been a much more satisfying conclusion than this. The problem is that the final two parts were meant to have been written by Robert Holmes, in close collaboration with the script editor Eric Saward. But Holmes was dying, and Saward is said to have completed the final draft of part thirteen before writing the concluding half-hour himself. Then Saward elected to leave the show and took his script with him. With deadlines looming, the producer turned to Pip and Jane Baker, who’d written parts nine through twelve, to finish from the half-hour that Holmes had set up, while a grave BBC attorney ensured that not one word of Saward’s script was used.

I contend that the more sensible solution would have been to dump the script of part thirteen as well. I know that’s heretical – Holmes was the grand master of classic Who, the writer everyone loves – but the Bakers shouldn’t have been hamstrung with all that setup to bring the epic to their rushed conclusion. I can’t imagine what they would have come up with, and since I dislike very nearly all their Who writing, I wouldn’t bet that I’d have enjoyed it, but I do believe that they could have developed something much more coherent than all the guff about Victorian bureaucracy, wherever that was going. Perhaps it was considered, and perhaps they told the producer that they had barely enough time to write one half-hour, let alone two.

One thing these parts badly needed was a proper conclusion to the huge revelation that Peri had been killed. There’s an all-smiles moment where the Time Lords tell the Doctor that she’s alive and well and living with Yrcanos as a “warrior queen.” So how’d that work? Did they reverse time so that the mad scientist never transplanted Kiv’s brain into her body? Did Yrcanos still storm into the room shooting people? What happened to everybody else in the room, and the scientist the Time Lords were so afraid of? Even more insanely, the Doctor accepts that this is a satisfactory happy ending for Peri and leaves her to life in the 24th Century, departing with Bonnie Langford’s character Mel, presumably to transport her back to her timeline.

Naturally, this hasn’t set well with anybody. There are novels and audio dramas that pick up Peri’s story and, in different ways, resolve this properly. But to be honest, I like the first way this was resolved. In the late eighties, Philip Martin, who wrote the Yrcanos episodes of the story, novelized it for Target Books and explained that Peri and Yrcanos did not go back to his planet where she could live with him, but they returned to Earth in the 1980s and Yrcanos entered the world of professional wrestling in California, with Peri as his manager. I have never been interested in wrestling, but I can get behind Yrcanos putting Hulk Hogan and the Iron Sheik in choke holds. With or without the wrestling part, Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant should have had a farewell scene together, and the Doctor should have gone immediately to his companion to see that she was all right rather than just taking some random woman’s word for it. Nobody thought this through.

But that’s kind of the Colin Baker era in a nutshell. Everything should have been better. Colin Baker’s a good actor and certainly seems to be a great guy. He could have been a great Doctor in better circumstances, without the lousy scripts that Saward had developed for him, and without the interference of the higher muckity-mucks at the BBC screwing with the show. Twisting the knife one last time, they accepted the producer John Nathan-Turner’s resignation on the understanding that he fire the star before he went. Then they unaccepted his resignation and told him the only show they wanted him to produce was more Who. But with Saward gone, this is the end of what I call “the swamp.” There are a couple more turkeys to come, but overall, things are about to get a lot better.

We’ll take a short break from Doctor Who to resume a couple of shows that we’d shelved for a breather, but we’ll start Sylvester McCoy’s first season in a couple of weeks. Stay tuned!

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Doctor Who: The Trial of a Time Lord (parts three and four)

This season is flawed in many ways, but one that irks me is that we keep hearing about plots and subplots that are far more interesting than what we actually see. The story of some people from the Andromeda Galaxy stealing secrets from [REDACTED], the greatest information source in recorded history, and being forced into hundreds of years of cryosleep is much, much more interesting than the Doctor’s latest adventure. Though I really do love how the Doctor talks and talks and talks and completely fails to convince the robot to see his point of view, and Sabalom Glitz stumbles in, sizes up the situation, and instantly cons the robot into falling for his scheme.

Our son mainly liked the robot stuff, but he got a great laugh out of Joan Sims yelling at everybody when they can’t decide which way down a corridor to stampede. Older fans, for whom this show is very often such SRS BSNSS, have always hated a tiny bit where a supporting player gets a face full of slime like a contestant on an ’80s Nickelodeon game show. I always figured that was for the kids, but ours was completely indifferent to it.

I have a very odd little memory about “Trial” that I feel like sharing. In the summer of 1986, the letters page of Doctor Who Magazine printed several notes from readers speculating and passing along rumors of the new season. There was one which stood out, and this isn’t an exact quote as I don’t have the issue anymore, but one part of the letter went something like:

I have heard it is to be totally modernised, whatever that means. (Theme music by Frankie Goes to Hollywood?)

I’m sure the writer didn’t intend to start a rumor that Frankie Goes to Hollywood was doing the theme music to Doctor Who, but he offered that as an example of what “totally modernised” could mean.

So come August, and I was in a fan club in Atlanta called Terminus TARDIS that met at Emory University’s White Hall and showed old episodes and had a monthly newsletter. And just before the season started, whoever wrote the season 23 preview column ran that example as fact: the new theme music is by Frankie Goes to Hollywood. In actuality, it was by Dominic Glynn and I like it a lot more than the previous “starfield” music.

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Doctor Who: The Trial of a Time Lord (parts one and two)

So now we’re in September 1986. Doctor Who was unfortunately back down to 25 minute episodes, and more unfortunately still shot entirely on videotape. Fans have been Monday-morning-quarterbacking season 23 more than any other point in the program’s history and saying what they would’ve done to prove the show’s worth in the face of its postponement and newfound hostility from the higher-ups at the BBC. My simple take, assuming anything was possible: instead of 14 half-hour episodes, seven one-hour episodes, each self-contained, on film.

Certainly instead of being so foolish as to reflect in the narrative that the show was “on trial,” I’d have forged ahead confident that the battle was won and the show had survived. That’s PR 101, but the producer’s instincts were at a pretty low point in 1986, and his script editor was so dispirited that he was just months from a flounce so spectacular that he hasn’t worked in TV since. So we’ve got a script by the amazing Robert Holmes that’s full of lines like “Be silent!” and “You must think me a fool!” among many other issues.

Joining the proceedings in weeks one and two, we’ve got Michael Jayston as a rival Time Lord who’s got it in for the Doctor, along with Tom Chadbon as a guard in an underground city, and Tony Selby as a new recurring character, the “lovable rogue,” it says here, Sabalom Glitz. The most interesting casting choice is Joan Sims, best known for playing daffy old ladies in comedy films, as the leader of a tribe of peasants.

The story was witty enough for our son to enjoy it, and he liked the two big robots a lot. Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant have a much more relaxed and friendly rapport in this story than we’ve previously seen, and there’s a genuinely great scene in part one where the Doctor tries, and fails, to reassure Peri that she shouldn’t be sad to learn that Earth, two million years in the future, has been wiped out, because all planets and stars find an end eventually. I really enjoy that moment. Like a lot of Doctor Who, it starts well for me and runs out of steam pretty quickly. The problem is that unlike a lot of Doctor Who, this continues running out of steam a lot longer than it usually does.

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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 Two Doctors (part two)

The great news to report is that our son is loving this one. Between the Sixth Doctor being arrogant and rude and the Second Doctor doing his “Oh my giddy aunt”s and yelling at the Sontarans, he’d be having a ball already, but Shockeye’s constant talk of food just seals the deal. “They’re talking so much about food that it’s making me hungry!” he said, and I’d forgotten the incredibly funny moment where Shockeye asks Dastari whether he’d ever eaten Sontaran flesh before. “Certainly not,” Dastari says, baffled that even an Androgum would consider anything so weird. This remains my favorite Colin Baker story by a thousand miles, although there are a few very good moments in “Revelation” as well.

When Russell T. Davies steered Doctor Who back to television, he was very careful about using old villains. He brought back the Daleks in series one, the Cybermen in series two, the Master in series three, and the Sontarans in series four. Colin Baker got to battle ’em all in a single season, and we didn’t think that was odd at the time. I remember reading about this season in the pages of Marvel’s American-sized comic book, which reprinted all the Fourth Doctor strips, and most of the Fifth Doctor ones, from the pages of the British magazine, colorized, resized, and with new covers by Dave Gibbons. The comic ran for 23 issues and had a news column which kept us appraised of what was airing in the UK and this sounded like the most exciting run of stories ever, because when you’re fourteen, recurring villains are the most important ones.

I then started buying the British magazine, which showed up here nine or ten weeks late – this would have been around issue 102, I suppose – and falling in love with the original black and white comic. More on that in a post next week. It was a really exciting few weeks to be a fan. The Starlog reprint of the Radio Times 20th Anniversary magazine gave us all the details of the original stories, the Marvel comic was giving us news about this amazing run of promising new adventures with this new Doctor (which Atlanta wouldn’t see for a good while yet), I’d found Pinnacle Books’ reprints of ten of the Target novelizations, and I actually had several friends who started watching the show with me. In time, I’d actually see these stories and be mostly really disappointed with them, but for those few weeks in 1985, the program seemed like it was at the top of its game and completely indestructible.

And then I’d buy the next issue of that Marvel comic.

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Doctor Who: The Two Doctors (part one)

I had fun presenting tonight’s story to our son. I cued it up partway through the credits, pausing on “By Robert Holmes.” That way, he was very surprised to see the show begin in black and white and with an older Doctor at the TARDIS console.

So, a couple of huge points about “The Two Doctors.” First, obviously, it features the return of Patrick Troughton and Frazer Hines as the second Doctor and Jamie, but they’re not quite the same as when we last saw them traveling together sixteen years ago. They’re visibly older – Hines was in his early forties when this was made – they’re on a mission for the Time Lords, of whom Jamie had never heard until his final appearance (“The War Games”), and they mention that Victoria, who had left the duo about a year prior to Jamie’s final appearance, is not with them on this mission because they dropped her off somewhere to study graphology.

So this doesn’t actually fit into the show’s established continuity very neatly at all. Nor does that one bit in “The Five Doctors” where we learn the second Doctor came from a point in time after the events of his and Jamie’s final story. So all of this sparked a terrific fan theory called “season 6B,” which Terrance Dicks, who wrote both “The War Games” and “The Five Doctors,” and script edited the show for the period before and after “Games,” later confirmed in a novel for the BBC called Players. Immediately after the Doctor went tumbling into a void at the end of “The War Games,” some other Time Lords interrupted things and told our hero that before his exile would begin, they would be requiring his services for some very discreet and very sensitive situations where the Time Lords could not act openly. The Doctor would be available to step in and do their dirty work for them, maintaining some plausible deniability.

So in Players, the Doctor has a solo mission for his new superiors, and it ends with him saying that he works better with an assistant and would like them to pick up Jamie and restore his memory. From there the pair work together for several years and reunite with Victoria at some point, and then have this adventure, crossing paths with the sixth Doctor and Peri.

I’ve always thought this was a blindingly fun retcon. It’s pear-shaped and not the smoothest one you could invent, but since it was beaten into shape by Terrance Dicks himself in a novel for the BBC, it’s as close to authority as it can be. But more about this in the comments, because I spend a lot of words on it.

The second huge point is that this introduces a character who Teenage Me thought was just about the greatest and most fun character in all of fiction: Shockeye o’the Qwancing Grig. (Teenage Me was prone to hyperbole.)

Shockeye is an Androgum, which is a very strong humanoid that lives on base instincts, shouldn’t have the capacity for intellectual reasoning, absolutely loves food, and has really been looking forward to eating a human for the first time. He’s played by John Stratton and he gets all the best dialogue. “Religion? I am not interested in the beliefs of primitives, only in what they taste like,” he bellows at one point, which isn’t the best line delivery ever, in retrospect, but I sure did love it in high school. I also overquoted one of the Sontarans in the story as often as possible, snapping “I do not take orders from civilians” whenever I could.

We had this semester-long creative writing exercise when I was in the tenth grade and had to keep using the same characters in our own stories, and use the characters that other people in our team had created. I just cheated and stole Shockeye for mine and didn’t tell anybody. I remember everybody else’s take on my version of Shockeye being very amusing. I was also friends with a fellow at another school and played GURPS for several months with his mates. I just rolled up Shockeye, and entertained myself with my character wanting to eat all the other members of the party.

And I’d have done exactly the same thing with the Kandyman had he been around at that time. Oh, that would have been fun. I can’t wait for my son to meet him in the summer…

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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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