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Doctor Who: Pyramids of Mars (parts three and four)

Our son was still about as frightened as a kid could be during the second half of this adventure, so much so that we had to pause during part four to get him to calm down. He was distracting himself from the horror onscreen, which reached new depths when Sutekh took control of the Doctor’s mind, first by firing an imaginary gun at Sutekh with a growl, and then by, I’m sorry to say, belching. And then giggling about it. You try to be understanding. He is just six and needed a distraction from one of his heroes being used as a plaything by the most evil and powerful creature in the cosmos. But man, was it an obnoxious mood killer!

Anyway, I think there’s an unheralded moment in this story. I think this is the first time, at least the first in quite a while, that evil forces take control of the TARDIS. I remember the villains came on board, briefly, in “The Enemy of the World” and in “The Claws of Axos,” but is this the first occasion where something as awful as this happens? It really adds to the feeling of gloom.

I think it’s an absolutely terrific production. Many people call it one of their favorite Doctor Who stories from the era for good reason. There are a few brief moments of sparkling wit among the incredibly high stakes, and Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen are fantastic together, especially in part three when the Doctor shows no emotion at all when Michael Sheard’s character is found to be dead, and Sarah starts to lose her temper with his dispassionate lack of what she starts to call “humanity” before checking herself. It’s scary and exciting, and people love it to pieces for a reason.

Hopefully the next story won’t have our son too terrified, but I’m a little concerned about the one after that…!



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Doctor Who: Pyramids of Mars (parts one and two)

The third saddest child I think I’ve ever seen would be our son, tonight, right after the cliffhanger to part two of “Pyramids of Mars.” He didn’t completely break down, but his lower lip trembled more than I’ve seen it in a while. Almost frozen with fear, he huddled beneath his security blanket and said “I need a hug.” Thumbs were definitely down. “Pyramids of Mars” is the scariest thing ever.

The first and second saddest children I think I’ve ever seen would be his older brother and sister, who saw this story in late 2003 or early 2004. They did indeed completely break down. There was screaming and there were tears and then there were two kids in bed with me.

Even worse, I didn’t have this story in serial version at the time, I had a VHS copy of the compilation movie that was shown on public television. So these robot mummies that have indiscriminately killed everybody they’ve come across in the grounds of this old priory in 1911 and are completely unstoppable come charging into the lodge after – unbelievably – crushing a poacher to death between their chests, they smash the Doctor to the ground, kick the furniture over, and are about to strangle Sarah as the music swells. And, since I had no other way to do it, I just pressed stop in the middle of the mayhem. Screams.

So “Pyramids of Mars,” which was written by Robert Holmes and directed by the brilliant Paddy Russell, has a reputation for being just about the perfect example of seminal, classic, scary Doctor Who. It’s the first time that the show consciously decides to be a Hammer horror film in the classic style with a sci-fi sheen. It’s mummies coming to life in a big old house in 1911, but they’re the robotic servants of the phenomenally powerful Sutekh, an alien who has been paralyzed in an Egyptian tomb for thousands of years. The Mars bit comes because the prison has two parts: the force field that keeps Sutekh motionless is on another planet, to keep anybody on Earth from screwing with it. But his jailers didn’t shut off their prisoner’s mind, and as soon as one of those rich Englishmen showed up to rob tombs in the name of archaeology, Sutekh took control of him and set the man and his robots to work freeing him from his prison.

But the sci-fi stuff is darn near irrelevant. The whys really, really aren’t important, because this is about killer mummies in the woods and evil servants bringing Sutekh’s gift of death to all humanity:

Bringing this to life (ha!), you’ve got Bernard Archard playing the archaeologist as a walking corpse, and Michael Sheard as his unfortunate scientist brother. Peter Copley is another scientist who has a thing or two to say, sir, about all this unpleasantness before he gets killed. The sets are amazing, and the location filming is just terrific. Tom Baker is on fire in this story, as the Doctor knows that he’s up against the greatest threat that he’s ever faced, something that will change the course of history and destroy all life on Earth in 1911 unless he can find a way to stop it.

Incidentally, for those mildly curious about these things, this story is the one that emphatically – and repeatedly – finally puts a firm date on the “present day” of Doctor Who. It’s five years ahead of the broadcast date: 1980. This will later get retconned. Some of us find this terribly amusing and entertaining. About nine people lose sleep over it. They all have book deals.

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Doctor Who: Revenge of the Cybermen (part four)

In a very nice turn of events, our son completely loved the final episode of this story. He was especially impressed with the destruction of the Cybermen’s ship. Afterward, he told us “that’s the biggest bang I ever saw in the whole history of Doctor Who!” He loved that so much that – for now – he’s actually claiming this is his very favorite story that he’s seen. Come on, nobody thinks that!

Although, honestly, it’s better than I remembered. It has a good script, and I love how David Collings plays Vorus at maximum volume, absolutely furious in every scene he’s in. It’s still flawed in the execution in a few places, of course. There’s a particularly weird – and phony, but mainly weird – special effect when they nearly crash into the planet, and if I’ve been picking on MacGyver for all it’s repurposed film footage, then the use of an Apollo rocket launch to substitute for the Vogans’ missile can’t go without comment. The same blasted clip gets reused the following season. They might have picked film of a rocket that didn’t say “United States” on the side.

I’m particularly disappointed in the Cybermen’s leader. It’s not just that they all sound much more like humans talking through a funny voice-changer when they speak instead of the computerized buzz of the sixties Cybermen, it’s that their leader acts like a human. Maybe Robert Holmes meant to explain that the leader actually still has some emotions in him and ran out of space and time, but the other Cybermen speak simply and logically, and the leader speaks like a cartoon supervillain, and uses words like “excellent” when he hears good news, keeps his hands on his hips, and finds a thesaurus of extra verbs to describe how Voga will be destroyed, vaporized, etc. The dude needed about a quarter as many lines as he has.

Producer Philip Hinchcliffe would only do one more story with a returning villain, and the next producer, Graham Williams, would only bring back two across three years. With the show looking forward more than it had in a long time, there wasn’t room in the series for the Cybermen, and they wouldn’t be seen again for seven years. Unfortunately, this story seems to have served as the template for their appearances in the 1980s, with Cyberleaders emoting too much and saying “excellent,” and everybody worried about gold.

One final note: “Revenge of the Cybermen” was the first story that the BBC issued on home video, in an insanely overpriced 50-minute compilation. Well, everything on VHS was insanely overpriced, but £39.95 for a tape with half the story edited out really was ridiculous. With that in mind, the DVD is the perfect place for a completely wonderful documentary feature called “Cheques, Lies and Videotape,” which looks at the world of bootleg and pirate Doctor Who tape trading in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and the wild lengths that fans in the UK had to go to collect episodes of the series.

Of course, at the time of writing, the Region 1 DVD of “Revenge” is out of print and Amazon wants $123 for a copy, so some things never change. It’s still better than the £300 one of the fans in the documentary paid for a washed-out nth generation copy of “Doctor Who and the Silurians,” though!

We’ll take a short break from Doctor Who to watch something else, but stay tuned! Season thirteen begins next month!


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Doctor Who: Revenge of the Cybermen (part three)

Our son is very, very clear that he doesn’t enjoy this story at all. We recapped the adventures in season twelve tonight, and he’s found something to like about every one of them, especially “Robot” and “Genesis.” Sadly, in a sign of future smart-aleckness to come, the thing that he liked most about “The Sontaran Experiment” was that it was only two episodes long, ba-dum-tish.

“Revenge,” however, is very scary for him. This is another case where the villains absolutely have the upper hand. He doesn’t like how they’ve been physically violent toward the Doctor, and he doesn’t like how powerless everyone seems to be. He did enjoy the very good gunfight between the Cybermen and one faction of Vogans, but he absolutely hated the cliffhanger, where a rockfall kills Jeremy Wilkin’s character and knocks the Doctor unconscious. The episode ends with Harry, who isn’t aware that the Doctor’s got explosives strapped to him, trying to unlatch a buckle that will blow up and kill them all. No, our kid can’t wait for this nightmare to be over.

But I love how well he’s paying attention! We know that his mind wanders during talky bits, but this time, as the Cybermen explain that they want to destroy Voga because “glitter guns” that used the planet’s gold routed them during their last military campaign, he was watching closely. Later on, as the Vogans get mowed down, he asked why they don’t use glitter guns. That’s a pretty good question, really.

Speaking of the Vogans, this serial is just packed with recognizable actors, which kind of makes it a shame that some of them are completely unrecognizable under those strange latex masks! The two lead Vogans, one of whom has worked a deal with the human traitor to lead the Cybermen into a trap, are played by Kevin Stoney and David Collings. Another is played by Michael Wisher. He’d been in the previous story as Davros and would be back two stories later without a latex mask. Wisher may be the only actor in Who to play three different speaking parts across four stories. And of course, among the humans, you’ve got William Marlowe, who we saw in “The Mind of Evil,” and Ronald Leigh-Hunt, who had been Col. Buchan in Freewheelers. Jeremy Wilkin, who passed away in December, had a tiny part in Journey to the Far Side of the Sun and was the second voice of Virgil Tracy in Thunderbirds.

But the real surprise is that the music for this story is by Carey Blyton, the fellow who tried so hard to undermine and ruin the drama of “Doctor Who and the Silurians” and “Death to the Daleks” with his inappropriate horns and kazoos… and it’s not bad at all. It’s never intrusive and never undercuts the tension. It’s at least as good as the usual job by Dudley Simpson. So while it’s a shame that our son isn’t enjoying this story, I certainly am.

Then again, I also know that part four’s going to let us down somewhat. I think he’ll enjoy some of the visuals of the climax more than the adults on the sofa will!


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Doctor Who: Revenge of the Cybermen (parts one and two)

Today’s post is one of more than a dozen in the Classic TV Villain Blogathon, and so with that in mind and several million new readers joining us, I should explain that here at Fire-Breathing Dimetrodon Time, my son and I watch popular, family-friendly adventure programs together. We’re usually joined by my wife and we enjoy looking at TV through the eyes of our favorite six year-old critic – when he’s not hiding behind the sofa or has his security blanket, “Bict,” in front of his face anyway – and sharing the experience with all you good readers. Our posts here tend to be on the short side, unless I’m in a long-winded and/or analytical mood and I feel like diving into the continuity or production of old programs, recognizing favorite character actors, or, like this one, digging up anecdotes from my youth and the first time I encountered a particular episode of a show.

But we’re meant to be talking about the Cybermen today. At this point in our viewing of Doctor Who, we’re in April 1975, at the end of season twelve, and the Cybermen are making their first appearance in the show for almost five and a half years. They’re yesterday’s news, basically, and this very flawed but interesting serial treats them that way.

The Cybermen were created by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis in 1966. Pedler was very concerned about artificial organs, and how humans may lose their humanity through replacement parts. This was a very sixties worry, and the Cybermen, originally, were very sixties villains. We’ve noticed several examples here of how many TV writers in that decade, particularly in the UK, seemed to work out their technophobia issues in their scripts. In The Avengers, the Cybernauts could be programmed to murder any business rival, regardless of what any of Asimov’s laws of robotics suggested. In the Who serial “The Ice Warriors,” humans in the future rely on a computer which puts all of Europe in danger. And while we’re not going to blog about The Prisoner, which everybody enjoys more than I do, I keep mentioning “The General” in these pages. That’s the one with the supercomputer that’s going to solve every problem and make every decision and destroy free will as we know it, and which Patrick McGoohan destroys just by asking it “Why?”

The Cybermen appeared in five stories over two years, and their principal motivation was to make other organic beings into machine-creatures like them. This was rarely addressed at length or lingered on in the original run of Who. Some of their more recent appearances in the modern series have gone into more grisly detail about what this might mean, but an all-ages show in the 1960s was a lot tamer than one in the present day. We watched 1967’s “The Moonbase” earlier this morning, and there’s an interesting bit where the Cybermen decide against taking the Doctor’s companion, Jamie, along for conversion because he’s injured his head and doesn’t have any value to them.

Their secondary motivation was to eliminate potential threats against them, which is what gets the plot of “The Moonbase” going. In fact, there’s a funny exchange in part three of the story:

HOBSON: You’re supposed to be so advanced, and here you are, taking your revenge like… like children!
CYBERMAN: Revenge? What is that?
HOBSON: A feeling people have–
CYBERMAN: Feeling. Feeling. Yes, we know of this weakness of yours. We are fortunate. We do not possess feelings.

So it’s just typical of television that when the Cybermen showed up for the first – and only – time in the 1970s, it’s in a story called “Revenge of the Cybermen.” I reminded our son of this exchange before telling him the title of tonight’s adventure. He facepalmed.

“Revenge” seems to be set in the early 30th Century, hundreds of years since the Cybermen’s last chronological appearance. But, since this is a show about a time traveler, it gets to skip around, fill in gaps, contradict itself, rewrite history, or just screw up somehow. Sometime in those hundreds of years, there had been some massive Cyber-Wars, which ended very badly for the Cybermen. All that’s left of them are roaming bands of “pathetic tin soldiers skulking around the galaxy,” as we’ll hear in tomorrow’s episode.

The script for this adventure is credited to Gerry Davis, but it was rewritten, massively, by Robert Holmes. Davis’s original story had something to do with a space casino, but Miles & Wood’s relevant volume of their book series About Time is incorrect to say that this should suggest a connection between this and the Robert Urich detective series Vega$. They write that Davis later went to America to “make” the series. It was created by Michael Mann and Davis only wrote two episodes. Anyway, it’s directed by Michael E. Briant, using many of the sets from “The Ark in Space” as a cost-saving measure.

Last week, as we looked at “Genesis of the Daleks,” I explained how I first encountered Doctor Who in 1984 without access to a guidebook or anybody who’d ever even heard of the show. I’d missed “The Ark in Space” and made some assumptions about the series based on these two TV movies, almost all of which were completely wrong. Since the Doctor, Sarah, and Harry are traveling around this season via transmat and time ring, I didn’t see the TARDIS for a while and didn’t know what it was when I did. I thought this set – the Ark / Nerva Beacon – was where our heroes lived. The dialogue in this story explains that they’re currently in the past of Nerva Beacon. So they didn’t build their spaceship, they moved into it later. Got it, I think.

But here’s where I got very confused. Because I was a comic book-obsessed kid, I assumed that every single villain that we met as this show went on were all part of the Doctor’s big rogue’s gallery. And since I’d seen that listing in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution‘s TV Week for “The Five Doctors” which called it a 20th anniversary special, I knew there was a lot of continuity and backstory for me to catch up on… I just didn’t know where in the program I was. I reasoned that I must be kind of early on, because Sarah and Harry were played by actors in their twenties or so (I was assuming that Tom Baker, Elisabeth Sladen, and Ian Marter had starred in the show for all twenty years), but the Cybermen were old villains. How old, though… that didn’t make sense. The story implies they’ve gone back in time thousands of years to have this adventure, and these Cybermen are clearly on their last legs… if Doctor Who has to keep going back in time thousands of years to fight the Cybermen, they can’t pose that much of a threat to his “present,” and his spaceship home, can they?

Fortunately, our son was nowhere as confused, but he wasn’t all that happy about this adventure either. We started this serial tonight with its first two episodes, and he gave it a thumbs mostly down. The problem is that there are three rival factions ready to gun everybody else down: the Cybermen and two groups of Vogans. He seems to have a point. Even in a series where our heroes are constantly jumping from danger to danger, the Vogans are trigger-happy and don’t feel like sharing plans with any outsider. Their ranks are packed with good actors – more about them next time – but all he sees are a gang of threats with machine guns.

On top of that, one of the human characters is a traitor, and he seems to be working for both the Cybermen and one of the Vogan groups at the same time. Throw in a nasty Cybermat, a metallic snake-slug thing that injects alien poison into your body, and this is just an intense experience for a young viewer. Maybe we’ll clear up some of the questions when we start part three Sunday evening!

This post is part of the Classic TV Villain Blogathon hosted by the Classic TV Blog Association. To read all the fabulous posts in this blogathon, click here.



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Doctor Who: The Ark in Space (part four)

I’m glad to report that our son mostly came around in the end. He gave this one what you might call a “nearly thumbs up.” It might have helped that the Wirrn are stomping around in their full wasp form in this episode instead of being either a blobby, single-eyed horror behind glass or a big carpet roll of bubble wrap. Not that the full insect form is all that impressive a costume – are they supposed to be sliding along on their stingers or something? – but it looks like a proper monster and it sounds like a proper monster instead of the actor slowly being transformed, horrifically, into a hideous green thing. The almost existential, “creepy” terror of the previous episodes gives way to more conventional heroes versus monsters in the final part, which is better for a six year-old to understand.

Interestingly, this is one of the few Doctor Who adventures to unfold in nearly real time. It all takes place over about a couple of hours, with only a few narrative jumps to cover walking down corridors. It also leads directly into the next adventure, with the Doctor, Harry, and Sarah taking a transmat down to Earth to make sure the connection will work for all the planet’s sleepers on the Ark. I really like the way the first six of this Doctor’s adventures all lead directly into each other.


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Doctor Who: The Ark in Space (parts two and three)

Our son is at the perfect age for most classic Doctor Who. As we noted just a couple of months ago, he’s not too old to see the sorry little puppets in “Invasion of the Dinosaurs” as anything other than gigantic and terrifying reptiles. But the transmutation of Noah, criticized by absolutely everybody as an actor struggling against a hopelessly dopey visual effect, failed with even this six year-old critic. “That actually looks like green bubble wrap,” he pronounced.

But his disbelief was not completely shattered. Even though he, like everybody on Earth older than six, saw right through Noah’s glove, the incredibly bleak and doom-laden tone of this story weighed very heavily on him. After a run of Who adventures that he has really enjoyed, this one is “too creepy and too scary.” That doesn’t really bode well for some of what’s to come, does it?

An interesting tidbit about “The Ark in Space” is that the tone is so incredibly different to what we saw over the last five years that something curious happened after part one was shown. The first episode got a little over nine million viewers, which was about what the show had been getting for several years. Apparently they all told their friends that Who was doing something very strange and different in this story. The ratings shot up for part two to almost 14 million, dropping back down to just below 12 for the next two parts. I’m no ratings expert, but a jump of nearly 50% in one week sounds pretty unique to me.


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Doctor Who: The Ark in Space (part one)

I’ve met a good few Doctor Who fans over the years whose favorite era starts with this story. It’s the sixteen stories, over three seasons, produced by Philip Hinchcliffe and script edited by Robert Holmes. These first four all have their earliest germination in the previous team’s days, but it’s still a pretty compelling argument. Even the weakest Hinchcliffe-Holmes story is more entertaining than many, many others.

“The Ark in Space” starts off magnificently. It’s a slow exploration of an unknown environment, with no guest actors. They’re all still in suspended animation. This is set thousands of years in the future, after some disaster has befallen the planet Earth. Our son was intrigued if not thrilled, and that’s fine. This isn’t meant to be a thriller yet. It’s a detective story at this point.

The story was originally commissioned from a veteran TV writer, John Lucarotti, who had written three serials for William Hartnell’s Doctor, as well as six episodes of The Avengers: five from the videotape era and one, “Castle De’ath,” for the Mrs. Peel years. Lucarotti got back in contact with the Doctor Who team when Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks hired him to write two of the six episodes of their ill-fated series Moonbase 3. Unfortunately, Robert Holmes was not satisfied with the way this story was going, so he stepped in and rewrote the adventure from the ground up. This features the fabulous scene where the Doctor, alien but admiring, steps away from the ears of his companions and enjoys a nice monologue praising the human race.


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