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Doctor Who: Arc of Infinity (parts one and two)

For Thanksgiving, we’re watching this turkey! Gobble, gobble!

Season twenty’s where it all falls apart for me. There are still some terrific stories ahead in the next four seasons – they average about one classic a year – and some great moments here and there, but overall there’s a sense of… I guess complacency. There’s an overriding sense of “that’s good enough” in the scripting and the design and the direction.

That said, Johnny Byrne’s “Arc of Infinity” does have one nice moment in its first two parts (and I admit I cheated; the image above is from part three). There are two plots running parallel at first: a pair of young hitchhikers sleeping in an old crypt in Amsterdam, and the Doctor and Nyssa having a contest of technobabble and continuity in space. It looks like our heroes will be materializing in the Netherlands, and we hear the TARDIS sound effect… but it’s somebody else’s ship, apparently piloted by the weird turkey monster on the left in the picture above. I like the misdirection.

The turkey monster is called an Ergon, and at no point in this story does it ever move convincingly enough to fool anybody into thinking that it’s an alien monster that grew up knowing how to move its own muscles. It moves like an underpaid actor wearing fifty pounds of latex, flippers, and a tall floppy hat.

At least there’s Amsterdam, and some other notable actors, all probably also underpaid. Janet Fielding is back as Tegan, conveniently reentering the Netherlands part of the plot while the Doctor and Nyssa get to do breathtakingly boring outer space stuff on Gallifrey. Last time we were stuck here, in “The Invasion of Time”, we had a completely different set of actors as Borusa, the High Council, the Castellan (Commissioner Gordon), and the commander (Chief O’Hara). This time, a future star of the show, Colin Baker, is playing Chief O’Hara, and Paul Jerricho, who will be back in a few stories to deliver one of the all-time great bad Doctor Who line readings, is Gordon. On the High Council, there’s Elspet Gray, who was the clueless mom in the second series of Catweazle, and starred-in-everything cult TV legend Michael Gough as an old friend we’ve never heard of before.

There are five suspects in the mystery of who on Gallifrey has betrayed the Doctor. Four of them either don’t like the Doctor very much or are generally indifferent to him. One is played by an internationally recognizable actor who greets our hero with smiles and phrases like “My dear Doctor!” and is trying ever so hard to keep our hero from being executed. I wonder who the traitor could possibly be.

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Doctor Who: Time-Flight (parts three and four)

I’m reasonably sure our son’s the only person to ever be thrilled by “Time-Flight.” He thought this one was fantastic, and really loved the Concorde’s unlikely takeoff from a barren prehistoric plain. I was reminded that he was also thrilled by that episode of MacGyver where our hero gets a plane airborne under very implausible conditions.

I’m not going to kick “Time-Flight” any more than I did last time. Watching it wasn’t fun, and reliving it isn’t either. Our kid liked it a lot, and that’s what matters. He enjoyed wrapping his brain around the idea that the missing Concorde wasn’t actually salvageable (like one of the characters joked) after 140 million years. He got to sneer the Master a little and be surprised by the out-of-the-blue ending. It’s a win in his book.

I really think this ending was a huge missed opportunity. The producer intended the scene of Tegan realizing the Doctor has dropped her back in London without a goodbye as a cliffhanger, but it sure doesn’t come across that way. There’s barely any buildup, and no sense that this was a big moment. It doesn’t feel like the end of the season. It doesn’t even feel like the end of the story!

But what if they had swapped “Time-Flight” with “Earthshock” and dropped Tegan off one story early? It’s not like she and Nyssa are really both required for the story of “Earthshock” anyway. You get “Time-Flight” with Adric and “Earthshock” without Tegan, and then you get Adric’s death and the silent credits as your season finale. Wouldn’t that have been interesting?

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Doctor Who: Time-Flight (parts one and two)

The bubble had to burst eventually. It’s just a shame that two very, very solid and entertaining seasons of Doctor Who had to crashland with one of the all-time misfires. “Time-Flight,” written by Peter Grimwade, had been in development for so long and rewritten so many times that the author had asked “Look, do you mind if I direct a few stories while you’re waiting?”

There’s a school of thought that says that Grimwade’s original idea about two “tribes” of mental aliens who exist only as energy – a concept we won’t even encounter until part three of the story – might have been pretty interesting before the producer started shoehorning two missing airplanes and the return of the Master into the narrative. Part one at least begins promisingly, with the Doctor, Tegan, and Nyssa discussing Adric’s death, and then there’s some nice location filming at Heathrow Airport while the Doctor just tries to read the sports page, a moment that I’m pretty sure is unique in the program.

After a reasonably promising beginning, it all falls apart. “Meglos” in the previous season certainly wasn’t very good, but at least it felt coherent. This is just scene after scene of the Doctor reciting technobabble in a succession of stunningly fake and very small environments. We’re back to character actors again this time: Nigel Stock, who had been so very entertaining in the late sixties as Watson to Peter Cushing’s Sherlock Holmes, is so very tedious as a professor who thinks they’ve been hijacked to the Soviet Union instead of the Jurassic period. Michael Cashman, who had been one of The Sandbaggers and is today The Rt Hon. The Lord Cashman CBE – now there’s an interesting career arc – is a British Airways co-pilot.

And there’s the Master. When he’s revealed at the cliffhanger of part two, our son’s response was as follows: “Oh, come on! Come on! Not the Master! He’s so annoying!” Perhaps because the villain of the piece had possibly originally been a villain in the style of the Arabian Knights, everybody decided to just let the Master disguise himself as an overweight grey-skinned magician with packs of green slime under his mask. He must have figured the Doctor would show up… although I believe there’s genuinely no part of his plan that requires him pretending to be anybody else in the first place. Let’s see what happens tomorrow night in the second half and see whether I’m wrong!

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Doctor Who: Earthshock (part four)

In 1966, over the course of a legendary twelve-part serial, two of Doctor Who‘s companions were killed. They were both created to die; Katarina and Sara were only around for five weeks and eight weeks respectively. Adric’s death was quite different. And the fallout, in the next episode, is one of just a couple of things about that story I enjoy. Is that enough foreshadowing for you readers?

As kids, we were glad to see Adric go. As a character and as a performance, Matthew Waterhouse’s look and costume, and his often petulant portrayal, all seem almost specifically designed to annoy male teenagers. There are probably essays about why viewers of that age disliked Adric so intensely. I’ve written in the past about how I watched Who in a vacuum in the seventh grade. By the time the Peter Davison years started showing on our PBS station, I was in the eighth grade, with a different set of classmates. Not only was my older pal Blake watching, but so were four or five of us in Pod 8A in late 1984. We were all about thirteen and we all detested Adric. The feeling, I learned, was widespread. Eighteen months later, Peter Davison was at a convention in Atlanta and explained by way of an explosion noise into a microphone what he thought Adric’s best moment was and the whole room applauded.

But as for the viewers in the seven year-old age bracket, the one in our house was incredibly surprised and taken aback. His older brother and sister were also in elementary school when they saw this story and were also stunned. Smaller kids like Adric. He’s not the awkward, oily-haired kid in the school A/V club to them but a young hero to look up to.

As a grownup – assuming I can be called a grownup – of course I’ve come to like Adric more and more, especially seeing him through my kids’ eyes. It’s true that Matthew Waterhouse’s performance and line delivery often take me out of the fiction, to say it mildly, and I do like the way that Adric doesn’t even get to die heroically. He’s at least granted a stoic finale, and the music is subtle and perfectly in tone with the moment. For the only time in the show’s history, the credits of part four roll silently. The camera lingers over Adric’s broken gold star badge while the program gives one of its main characters a moment of silence, and I think it’s done extremely well.

It’s certainly the best in-the-show death any companion’s probably ever going to get. I’m never pleased when they undermine the drama of a death with a get-out clause a week or two later, as Steven Moffat did as often as possible. This was done right, and I really enjoyed it. Adric may or may not have been a great character, but he got a terrific ending.

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Doctor Who: Earthshock (parts two and three)

Well, what I was going to say last night, before our son went and stole my thunder, is that “Earthshock” is a very popular and very entertaining story written by Eric Saward and directed, with incredible tension and a frantic pace that Who rarely employed as effectively as here, by Peter Grimwade. It featured the return of the Cybermen after seven years away from the program.

And it features Beryl Reid, interestingly, as one of the main guest stars. Reid is one of those names in British entertainment largely unknown to Americans, but I’m assured that she’s a very curious choice. It strikes me as part of the same spirit of season nineteen, where we’ve seen more prominent “guest stars” better known for starring comedy roles than ever before, rather than returning to the usual bench of character actors. I mean, sure, you want somebody to play the chief constable in a quiet English village in 1925, you go to Moray Watson (or you phone Glyn Houston if Watson turns it down), but I like seeing people like Reid, Nerys Hughes, and Michael Robbins in parts like these.

(I’ve also been oddball-casting what this season of Who would have looked like as an American show in 1982 to drive home just how strange these choices are. I figure Karl Malden as Monarch, Penny Marshall as Dr. Todd, and John Ritter as Richard Mace. I can’t quite decide between Betty White or Jean Stapleton as Captain Briggs.)

Anyway, in the nineties, fandom started turning on “Earthshock” because it’s full of tough men with guns trying to be macho. There’s more of this to come in the Eric Saward years, which is a disappointment to people who only want Doctor Who to be about Tom Baker trading witty insults with Julian Glover. That said, I’m not looking all that forward to a couple of upcoming adventures which don’t have the great bonus of Peter Grimwade’s direction. Considering the severe limitations of videotaping gun battles “as live” in a studio, the shootouts in “Earthshock” rank among the best in the whole program.

And they had our kid on the edge of his seat, up off his seat, hiding behind the sofa, and having a complete blast. He says that he totally loves the action in this story, but he’s also simultaneously protesting that the Cybermen are too scary. “I like action, but the Cybermen are about domination, not action!” That, and their thumbs are mean, we mustn’t forget.

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Doctor Who: Earthshock (part one)

“Oh, come on! Come on!”

Was that a cool cliffhanger, Little Dude?

“No! It was NOT a cool cliffhanger!”

Really? Don’t you want to see what happens next?

“Duh, yeah!”

Well, a cool cliffhanger makes you want to see what happens next. So…

“But it’s the Cybermen! And they’re TOO MEAN!”

They’re too mean?

“The Cybermen are mean! They are TOTALLY mean! Even their thumbs are mean! They’re even meaner than the Daleks! The Daleks are only HALF-mean and the Cybermen are all mean. They want to take over EVERYTHING!”

Millions of opinions about Doctor Who have been voiced in fifty-five years. I think I like this one best of all.

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Doctor Who: Black Orchid (parts one and two)

“Black Orchid” is another story that I could talk about all day. It’s certainly got a flaw or ten, but it’s just so incredibly likable and charming that it doesn’t really matter too much to me. The cricket and the silliness and the fancy dress party at the big country house are enough to paper over most of the story’s problems. Plus I absolutely love Tegan boozing up and dancing the Charleston with Moray Watson. Until there’s a murder, I choose to think this is the sort of thing that usually happens to our heroes when there’s not a disaster: they gatecrash parties, eat well, play some cricket and leave before their cover’s blown. Maybe do some shopping or see a museum.

I like how the closest things to villains in the story are a pair of incredibly rich toffs whose world was upturned when the son they thought had died years before turns up hideously scarred and brain damaged and they just try to keep it quiet and lock him in one of the secret chambers of their huge home. These are people who really don’t deserve our sympathy in the end – their selfishness results in the deaths of three innocent people – but the Doctor chooses to forgive them, and, in what must be a first for the show, he actually chooses to stay on Earth for several days, not leaving until after they have had a small funeral service for George, helping the family heal.

Our son was incredibly surprised that this is just a two-part adventure. “That was short!” he exclaimed. I enjoyed playing compare-and-contrast with him about the state of the big country house that we saw in Adam Adamant Lives! the other night. This story’s set in 1925, forty-one years earlier than “The Last Sacrifice,” and Cranleigh Hall is the center of its community, highlighting that between-the-wars opulence that was recapturing the imagination of British television executives in the eighties. Brideshead Revisited had been shown just a couple of months before this and Love in a Cold Climate the year before. New and reasonably high-profile TV adaptations of Christie, Bowen, Sayers, and Allingham were just around the corner.

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Doctor Who: Four To Doomsday (parts three and four)

I’m pleased to report that our son really, really liked this adventure. In fact, he was so thrilled that when the Doctor uses his cricket ball to give himself the momentum to drift backward through the vacuum of space to the TARDIS, he actually applauded. So we felt a little bad bursting the bubble and telling him just how utterly ridiculous the science in that scene was, but if we’re going to point out when television gets it wrong when it comes to social issues, we need to be consistent across the board and talk about bad science as well.

Speaking of social issues, there’s a remarkable part of this story where Adric swallows the villain’s rhetoric completely and thinks Monarch makes some very valuable points, pretty much like any other fourteen year-old idiot who starts hearing some claptrap on YouTube about how taxes are bad and falls down a hole. It’s certainly annoying, and it helped make everybody hate Adric when we were younger, but now I’m finding it’s really a fresh take on things to have a character too naive to know better. Incidentally, this story does support both Adric and Nyssa being young teenagers; they’re repeatedly called “children” throughout it.

But our son’s favorite part was the chaos that ensued when all the robots who represent different cultures on Earth being reprogrammed to have their recreational dances at the same time. He also loved Monarch getting smacked by his germs, remembering that Philip Locke’s character specified that even a small amount could reduce organic matter to the size of a grain of salt.

I’m glad he enjoyed the heck out of this story. I’ve never disliked it, but I’ve probably never enjoyed it as much as I did this time around. I think the creepy menace that comes out in the third episode is really well-timed and very effective, and I like the extra characterization paid to Tegan and Adric. Nyssa gets a few good moments, too, proving that for a fourteen or fifteen year-old, she’s incredibly well schooled in science and in philosophy. Yes, that was very entertaining. And the next one has always been among my favorites. I hope it holds up!

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