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Doctor Who: A Fix With Sontarans

There were two big knock-on effects from the decision to start Colin Baker’s run of Doctor Who with his own adventure at the end of season 21 instead of a final-minute regeneration and a nine or twelve month break like it usually happens. First, Colin became the Doctor on all the merchandising immediately, which made for some very, very strange comics. Steve Parkhouse was scripting the monthly strip for Doctor Who Magazine and he suddenly had a new Doctor and no idea what his personality would be like.

You sometimes see people really praise the resulting run of comics – “Polly the Glot,” “Voyager,” and “Once Upon a Time Lord” – as though they were the high point of the strip. I’ve never been quite as wild about them myself, but the depiction of this brash and boisterous Doctor as a quiet and contemplative figure is unusual and effective, and the visuals are really something else. The run was drawn by John Ridgway. Later on in the strip, Ridgway would just provide pencils for Tim Perkins to ink and I’ve never been as interested in those, but the first two-thirds of the Colin series, with Ridgway’s beautiful inks, look amazing. It’s a pretty good run of stories overall, with a couple of Grant Morrison tales, and those first three in particular suggest a path the television adventures might have taken, with Colin Baker playing a Doctor far less garish. I’d certainly rather reread “Voyager” than watch most of these TV stories again.

The other big knock-on was that young Gareth Jenkins’ grandmother had time to knit a Sixth Doctor costume for him. Gareth, then eight years old, wrote into a popular BBC program where the host granted wishes, asking to meet the star of his favorite show. Script editor Eric Saward hammered out a seven minute adventure set in the TARDIS console room, Janet Fielding was asked to swing by Television Centre as Nicola Bryant was on vacation, and the two tall actors who wore those Sontaran suits with the ill-fitting collars were asked to bark out some menacing dialogue and die in a waterfall of green goo.

“A Fix With Sontarans” is Doctor Who aimed specifically at kids who dream of flying away in time and space with their hero. For adults, it’s just more of Eric Saward choosing to write nothing for the characters to say beyond insults and arguments. But for kids, it’s just perfect wish fulfillment. Our son thought this was completely wonderful, and the lucky sprog got to walk away with one of those big prop laser rifles. Our kid was jealous. Me too, come to think of it.

This little story is no longer commercially available. Some years later, after he died, a police investigation concluded that the host of the program, who had been one of the BBC’s biggest light entertainment celebrities for something like thirty years, had committed dozens of crimes against minors. None of the material that he hosted – including several hundred installments of Top of the Pops, where he had been one of the rotating emcees since the mid-sixties – is available any longer, and none of it can be repeated. “A Fix With Sontarans” was included as a bonus feature on the original edition of the DVD of “The Two Doctors.” When it was upgraded as a special edition with better picture and sound, “Sontarans” was omitted. So if you click the image above, you can go buy a copy of the “Voyager” comic instead.

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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 Invasion of Time (parts five and six)

People have been making new suggestions for Doctor Who spinoffs since the mid-sixties, but I think that our son’s onto a unique one. He believes that there should be a show that sounds just perfect, and since he is still a few years from meeting Strax, I’m amazed by his prescience. He calls his show Stupid Sontaran and it’s about a Sontaran who acts just like all the others and is obsessed with war, but he either gives or receives really dumb orders, like “I order you to take a nap for the glorious Sontaran empire!” So, Chris Chibnall, if you like it, and I’m sure that you do, drop me a line, and we’ll get our boy some representation to make it all nice and legal.

Everyone remembers the Sontarans’ surprise appearance for this story’s last two episodes, and everybody remembers that the very noisy original K9 stays behind on Gallifrey, and so does Leela, in what might be the all-time worst companion departure in the entire series. It would have been better if she had died heroically saving the Doctor…. or if she stayed behind to join the fur-clad Gallifreyan dropouts who live outside the city… or if she stayed behind with Rodan, with whom she’s actually spent some screen time in this adventure, though that might have been pretty unlikely for the BBC in 1978. No, she has fallen in love, completely offscreen, with that Chief O’Hara dude. Both actress Louise Jameson and her character deserved a lot better than this.

Yeah, I know, these observations are all that anybody ever says about the end of this story, but that’s all I’ve got. Well, I guess that our son was impressed by just how many corridors and rooms there are inside the TARDIS, much more than he believed was in there. And he did get a kick out of the Doctor’s greenhouse having a big Sontaran-eating flytrap, but otherwise this, like several serials this season, was an adventure that limped to its finale. The next season will be better.

We’ll take a break from Doctor Who to rotate something else in, but stick around! We will begin season sixteen in about three weeks!

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Doctor Who: Horror of Fang Rock (parts three and four)

It’s always nice when our son is happy and excited about what we’re watching. He didn’t want breakfast this morning, he wanted to watch Doctor Who. Those last five Twilight Zone stories we watched were really sapping his enthusiasm!

He was thrilled and enjoyed this one, and I agree. It’s really entertaining, and amazingly, only the Doctor and Leela survive the incident. Even more amazingly, he doesn’t seem to notice, and certainly doesn’t say anything about it. The Doctor is shown as brooding and frightened for much of the story, until he figures out that their enemy is an alien blob called a Rutan, at which point he becomes the more relaxed and confident hero that we know.

But he never returns to brood over the fact that he failed to save any of the humans in the lighthouse, and left behind what must have been one of England’s greatest unsolved mysteries. Think about it: at some point, the authorities would find the bodies of these eight people, one of them graphically disemboweled by the Rutan to understand how Earthling anatomy works. One is a peer called Lord Palmerdale and another is a highly respectable retired colonel, and the killer left a fortune in diamonds behind, before fleeing. The History Channels and the In Search Ofs of the Who world probably feature recreations of “The Fang Rock Lighthouse Murders” as often as stories about Jack the Ripper, the lost colony at Roanoke, and the Oak Island Money Pit.

The Rutans, incidentally, are kind of the big Doctor Who monster that wasn’t. They were first mentioned in 1973’s “The Time Warrior” as the primary enemies of the Sontarans, but as for television Who, they’re an offscreen enemy, existing only to motivate the Sontarans into moving into this situation or that to gain a strategic advantage over them. It’s always “What are you Sontarans doing on Koosbaine?” and they say “We must conquer Koosbaine to establish a bridgehead into Andromeda to defeat the Rutans, don’t stand in our way, puny Time Lord!”

The next time a Rutan would actually be seen is in a 1995 direct-to-video movie called Shakedown: Return of the Sontarans. This is an independent production made with the cooperation of Robert Holmes’ estate, who own the rights to the aliens and license them out, but without any BBC input. The producers even got Terrance Dicks to write the script for the movie, and cast a bunch of Who and Blake’s 7 actors to play the parts.

It’s not actually a shame that the Rutans have never reappeared on the show, I say. The shapeshifting and electrical powers are interesting, but as characters, all they do is rant about the glory of war, and we get enough of that from the Sontarans!

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Doctor Who: The Sontaran Experiment (parts one and two)

“The Sontaran Experiment” is an oddball little curiosity in all of seventies Doctor Who, the only two-part serial of the decade. And it’s exactly what I’ve been talking about all through the Pertwee years: almost all of those six-part stories are too long, and would have been improved by paring them down and using the remaining episodes to do something else. That’s what they did here: it and “The Ark in Space” is a single production block. They videotaped this story as the location shoot, and then taped “Ark” in the studio.

Our son really enjoyed this, once he learned who the villain was. I set up the TV with him out of the room so he’d be surprised by the cliffhanger. Before that, he seemed a little bothered by the claims that there’s an alien in the rocks torturing people. It builds to a climactic fight between the Doctor and the Sontaran, Styre – and he’s a really nasty and sadistic piece of work – and the fight probably doesn’t look like all that much, but he just loved it. He was all wide-eyed and feet kicking as the two throw each other around.

There’s a fun little bit of backstory about the fight. The character of Harry Sullivan had been introduced because the producers were considering a much older actor for the Doctor, and so Harry was created specifically for fights like this. But Tom Baker was young enough to do the rough stuff, leaving Harry with a lot less to do in some of these stories. He’s really surplus to requirements in this one, actually.

But then Tom Baker had a nasty accident on location and broke his collar bone. That’s why there’s an obvious double for Baker in the fight scenes and a lot of the long shots, and why you frequently see Baker very still, with his hand wrapped up in his scarf. He had a big cast on his shoulder under his overcoat. But they didn’t do a quick rewrite and send Harry Sullivan into single combat with the Sontaran while the Doctor rewired and removed the critical macguffin in his ship. That’s what poor Harry was originally created to do!

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Doctor Who: The Time Warrior (parts three and four)

For a show whose hero owns a time machine, Doctor Who didn’t actually go back in time all that often for a huge chunk of its history. When William Hartnell was the Doctor, they did a “historical” nearly half of the time, but since the show’s later producers wanted to do more science fiction-oriented tales, they phased them out. Patrick Troughton’s Doctor went back in time in only three of his stories, and those are mostly missing. Troughton’s final story, “The War Games,” seems to start in 1918, but that proves to be a feint. This is the only story where Jon Pertwee’s Doctor is seen to go back in time.

I think that Robert Holmes, who wrote this adventure, had such a good time crafting the dialogue and the situations that he made the call to play with historical pastiches more frequently when he became the program’s story editor the following season. I suppose that he could have gone for historical accuracy, but why do that when you can have the villains snarling at each other with Shakespearean-styled insults? There’s even a lovely bit where the Doctor and Sarah are disguised as friars and speak with a remarkably literate-sounding guard, who assures them of Irongron’s generosity and kind temper. And so season 13’s “Pyramids of Mars” will give us the literature lovers’ version of Edwardian England, and season 14’s “Talons of Weng-Chiang” won’t be the real Victorian London, but the one of Doyle and Rohmer and Freeman and movies about Jack the Ripper. And it’s all so amazingly fun!

That hilarious exchange with the guard went over our son’s head, but he had a ball with the scene in part three where the Doctor drives away Irongron’s troops with some stink bombs that send up great clouds of yellow and pink smoke. Linx was a little bit frightening, and he was glad when Linx gets killed by an arrow in the vent in the back of his neck. We’ll meet plenty more Sontarans in the years to come – I will happily confess that I spent most of my sophomore year of high school bellowing “I DO NOT TAKE ORDERS FROM CIVILIANS!” in my best imitation of Major Varl whenever anybody asked me to do anything – but the terrific Linx is the best of them all.

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