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Doctor Who: Terminus (parts three and four)

In whatever time zone this is, there’s a company that accepts some kind of payment to cure the degenerative Lazar’s Disease. Doing this as cheaply as possible, they’ve learned that a certain kind of radiation works sometimes. So the company enslaves a bunch of ex-military grunts and gets them hooked on a drug. They use them as labor, along with a big wolf-dog monster that is not affected by the radiation. The old space station where this radiation can be found via an engine leak is monstrously unsafe, but the Company figures they’ve got decades before it fails, so they pay their slave labor with drug supplies that arrive on an automated drone ship with the latest batch of Lazars. They sit back and profit while the money’s still good.

If “Terminus” had been about that, it might have turned out entertaining. But all these pieces aren’t even put together until the final episode, and so this isn’t a story about the Doctor overthrowing a profit-obsessed “health care” company. “Terminus” is actually all guff about an exploding engine ending the universe, and running up and down lots of corridors that are just plastic sheeting and duct tape. Actually, because the sets are so small, the actors never even run to prevent the end of the universe, they just walk with urgency.

And I’ll tell you what sounds like the end of the universe: the drug addict guards wear these uniforms which are layers of armored plates of plastic molded to look like copper with a design of bones. Every time the actors move, you hear the constant squeaking and thumping of the plastic plates rubbing and bumping against each other. I wish the next time this story gets remastered for home video, they’d work on the sound mix and edit all that out.

“Terminus” was Sarah Sutton’s last story as Nyssa, as her character stays behind to improve conditions on the old space station. Nyssa gets a sweet final scene with the Doctor and Tegan, but she doesn’t say goodbye to the new character Turlough, who isn’t going over well with my family. Discussion after the story was centered around why the Black Guardian has drafted somebody so utterly incompetent as Turlough to kill the Doctor, and why he didn’t make an offer to an assassin or someone like Boba Fett. I think it’s because “eh, that’ll do” seems to be the mission statement of the producer and script editor this season. No wonder it was around this time that Peter Davison decided that he’d finish his three year contract and move on.

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Doctor Who: Terminus (parts one and two)

This being my blog and all, I wanted to indulge myself with a detour, but wasn’t sure where it would go. Then I remembered that Stephen Gallagher’s “Terminus” is one of the most boring Doctor Who stories ever and I didn’t want to watch it in the first place, let alone write about it. And it was taped toward the end of 1982, which I think was an important year when you’re talking about the look and feel of a videotape production versus a filmed one.

In the seventies, I think that there was a different perception. Doctor Who was made the way that most British television was made in the 1970s. It was three-camera, as-live videotape in the studio. There certainly were exceptions. All the programs that were made, typically by ITC, with an eye on sales to the United States were made on film, and so were a handful of shows, like The Sweeney, that were made by Euston Films. But the bulk of British programming from the seventies was made on color videotape. I love watching this style of production. It’s my comfort TV, if I may borrow that fine blog‘s title. Who may have been set on spaceships or on other planets, but it still looked and felt more like Upstairs, Downstairs than Battlestar Galactica.

But expectations changed, and I’m afraid that you can thank America for that. One of the first places that younger audiences saw a change in expectations was in the world of music videos. MTV launched in August of 1981 and needed lots and lots of programming. Certainly before MTV, you occasionally saw videos here and there. Broadly, and admitting there were exceptions, the American acts used 16mm film and many of the British ones used tape. Stacked back-to-back on MTV, no matter how popular Duran Duran was to become among its growing audience, their video for “Planet Earth” looks like the cheapest thing in the universe when you play it immediately after even a zero-effort performance clip of the J. Geils Band, which is why EMI shelled out for film for Duran Duran’s next clip, “Careless Memories.”

So during 1982, videotape started vanishing from the pop music world. Much as documentaries might try to convince you that the “Hungry Like the Wolf” and “Save a Prayer” clips ushered in a life of lavish overspending, these were exceptions to the rule, and the era of “big budget” productions, usually for Madonna and Michael Jackson, was a few years in the future.

Film wasn’t egregiously more expensive than tape, even with extras, cars, and pretty girls, but it became necessary around 1982. So Spandau Ballet’s “To Cut a Long Story Short” was on tape and “Chant No. 1” wasn’t, the Cure’s “Charlotte Sometimes” was on tape and “The Hanging Garden” wasn’t, all of Roxy Music’s clips through “More Than This” were on tape and “Avalon” wasn’t. 1982 was the last year Kate Bush did clips on videotape. Bowie was all-tape on RCA and film on EMI. (Incidentally, and bizarrely, the 1980 clip for “Fashion” wasn’t actually videotaped in the UK; it was made in New York City.) Adam Ant’s classic clips were on tape and the later ones that nobody remembers weren’t, and Culture Club had the good sense to never use tape in the first place.

A special note here about the Human League: they had several chart hits that never had videos at all, but they were omnipresent on videotape on programs like Top of the Pops, which is where young audiences learned that the lip-synced performances would be on tape, but the video clips weren’t. When the Human League did make their first video, for “Don’t You Want Me,” they’d “graduated,” in a sense. I’m going on like this because in 1982, this really did matter for the audience that Doctor Who should have been cultivating. Tape was not the medium for music videos any longer, so, in the eyes of the newest generation of TV viewers, it shouldn’t be the format for anything else, either.

Around the same time, the British television industry started taking larger steps away from tape. Again, you might can blame America. There were “prestige” productions, most obviously of Brideshead Revisited and The Jewel in the Crown, but these only reinforced the view of what was achievable. By 1984, even a character as popular and accessible as Sherlock Holmes would be made on film rather than tape. Granada’s very successful series, which starred Jeremy Brett as the definitive Holmes, was made with co-production money from WGBH in Boston, which led every television company in Great Britain to start knocking on WGBH’s door looking for capital. Almost all of the many resulting co-productions were made on 16mm film. It was no longer just the ITC factory looking at American sales; it was everybody. (And can you imagine a videotaped Inspector Morse?)

While there were still many British programs made on tape, even into the mid-nineties, these seemed ever-increasingly cheap and nasty in the face of what the rest of television looked like. There’s a reason why seventies children’s serials like Sky and Children of the Stones are fondly remembered in hushed tones, but people giggle about 1996’s Neverwhere looking “cheap.” Yet Neverwhere honestly looks exactly like its forerunners. Another favorite example: the characters in the hilarious and very meta “Detectives on the Edge of a Nervous Breakdown,” a Comic Strip Presents episode shown in 1993, dismissively sneer at the police soap opera The Bill because it’s on tape.

Madly, because of the way that its budget changed, Doctor Who doubled down on video in 1986, and stopped using film entirely, even for the exterior scenes. I wonder whether things might have been different had the 1986 season been six or seven individual hour-long episodes, made on film. That fall, Who was getting absolutely killed in the UK ratings by, of all things, The A-Team. The ten year-olds of 1986 knew cheap when they saw it.

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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: Snakedance (parts three and four)

We had a theory that as the story went on, our son would be less creeped out and frightened by “Snakedance,” and when the Doctor wins, everything would be just fine. Didn’t happen. To my surprise, he remained worried by this story right through the end, spending most of part three on his mom’s lap, and he was still so bothered that he insisted on bringing both his security blanket and his favorite stuffed animal to dinner.

“In fairness,” I said, “we are going out after dark.”

“Yeah,” he replied, “I don’t like dark and I don’t like snakes!”

Never mind him. I think “Snakedance” is terrific. It’s one of my favorite stories of the eighties. I really like Martin Clunes’ bored diplomat, and I love the relationship he has with his smothering mother, who gives him a believably obnoxious passive-aggressive silent treatment when he tells her to back off. All of the dialogue and the character relationships in this story are so natural. It’s a million miles removed from whatever tin ear penned the last story.

One final note: partway through the last season, Marie asked, not unreasonably, whether these people were ever going to change clothes. Even Leela found a second set of leathers, so you had to wonder why Adric, Nyssa, and Tegan never raided the TARDIS closets. (Especially when one imagines Tegan might not have wanted to stain or tear her Air Australia uniform until she was certain they were safely back in 1981.) Adric never did find anything new to wear, but Tegan has changed into an awful white ensemble that actress Janet Fielding didn’t like and once called her “boob tube.” And now finally Nyssa has found some new clothes, which calls into question just who in the world stocked the TARDIS wardrobe in the first place. Funny how nobody ever cosplays in this hideous thing, isn’t it?

Between the two halves of this story, our son asked to watch “The Woman Who Fell to Earth,” Jodie Whittaker’s first episode, again. There’s a bit toward the end where the Doctor mentions that it’s been a long time since she shopped for women’s clothes. I wonder, at some point when she was in her first or second incarnation, did she say “I should probably buy racks and racks and racks of clothes since I’m going to have a never-ending stream of young people from Earth gallivanting around with me.” Somebody should be blamed for Nyssa’s weird space waitress costume. Was it Troughton’s Doctor? I bet it was Troughton.

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Doctor Who: Snakedance (parts one and two)

Even while I’ve grumbled about the last two Doctor Who stories, our son has been loving this run of adventures, and really enjoys Peter Davison’s Doctor. So naturally, we get to my favorite Davison story and he’s utterly miserable. “Snakedance,” which was written by Christopher Bailey and directed by Fiona Cumming, features the return of the Mara and an early TV appearance by future sitcom megastar Martin Clunes as a bored young aristocrat. I think it’s a tremendously entertaining story that moves at a much faster pace than a typical Who adventure, but our son protests that it’s too creepy and too scary. It’s full of dark caves and possessions and Tegan acting malicious and evil.

Of course, another reason our son may be less than thrilled is because he saw right through a visual effect again. This doesn’t happen often, in part because he’s perfectly happy to suspend disbelief, but when it happens, he’s disappointed. In “Kinda,” the first story with the Mara, the creature manifests itself as a snake tattoo on its victims’ arms. In this story, the makeup and costume department evidently decided to save a little time and slap a big decal on the actors’ forearms rather than drawing and painting something. “That looks like a sticker,” he snorted.

I chose the picture above because “Snakedance” has a pretty unique point of view for the show: the Doctor comes across as an unhinged lunatic. Imagine the mayor of a big city working with the local archbishop to plan the annual Easter celebrations, and now dump in some loudmouthed nut in a cricket uniform bellowing that the ceremonies must be cancelled because Satan’s coming back. That’s kind of what the Doctor’s doing here, crashing dinner parties and yelling at everybody that the devil’s real before he gets dragged away by the cops. And the local dignitaries are perfectly reasonable and rational people; they’re not depicted as the typical meatheads who need to pay attention to our sensible hero. Hopefully the Doctor can take it down a notch so he can save the day. Maybe a night cooling off in the local jail’s drunk tank will help?

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Doctor Who: Arc of Infinity (parts three and four)

By far the most interesting thing about “Arc of Infinity” is that all the location filming was done in Amsterdam in the summer of 1982. Unfortunately, the story feels like it tries its best to have as little to do with Holland as possible in favor of deeply boring political intrigue on the Doctor’s home planet. Most of this serial’s faults could have been overcome by setting the whole story on Earth. They could have, for instance, had Michael Gough’s gone-bad Time Lord working in league with some human criminal who lived in Amsterdam to bring Omega back.

Oh yes, Omega, by far the least interesting thing about “Arc of Infinity,” or at least the way it’s presented. Not content with recasting all the characters who were seen the last time we were on Gallifrey four years before, they also recast the villain, and gave him a costume which wasn’t a patch on the iconic original that we saw in “The Three Doctors” a decade previously. I don’t think Omega’s even been mentioned in the program since 1973, but the show is working under the assumption that everybody watching the program knows exactly who he is.

In fairness, “The Three Doctors” had been repeated by the BBC a little over a year earlier, but this is part of that sense of complacency I mentioned earlier today. A little over a year is a lifetime in little kid terms; we watched that story thirteen months ago and it took a good bit of poking for our seven year-old to recall that the second Doctor teamed up with the third in the first place, let alone who the villain was. It’s here that we really start getting evidence that the people making the program are doing so for an audience that’s already completely committed, buys all the books, reads all the magazines, and can tell you who all the recurring villains and characters are when they turn up.

Mind you, I’m not opposed at all to villains and characters making return visits. Now I do think there needs to be a “ground zero” every few years, like we’re experiencing with Jodie Whittaker’s run right now, which doesn’t relive past glories for several weeks and lets a new audience in. But I like old faces and foes. However, these either need to be done as subtle winks and Easter eggs, or they need to be done properly, with an honest attempt at reintroduction. I mean, at no point in this story’s narrative do they even explain who Omega is; they just figured that all seven million who watched this on its original broadcast knew already. This will get worse before it gets better.

For what it’s worth, while our son was confused by the villain, he really did enjoy the story, and thought it was very exciting and creepy. He took the revelation of the baddie with a shrug; what really confused him was a street scene where the regenerated Omega joins a small crowd around a draaiorgel barrel organ. He’d never seen anything like that and needed to be reminded that once upon a time, we didn’t have the option of listening to music on our phones!

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