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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: Warriors’ Gate (parts three and four)

The other thing I really don’t like about “Warriors’ Gate” is Romana’s departure. It’s not as bad as Leela’s was, but it’s far too sudden and it isn’t given any sense of occasion.

Imagine this story with the roles reversed. If Romana had spent part three behind the mirror, then we’d see a reason for her empathy with the Tharils and her decision wouldn’t seem like it came from nowhere. I think that could have made a good serial much stronger.

But this is otherwise a solid story, and I like the way it assumes that the viewers are intelligent enough to figure out that time can flow in different directions on the other side of the gateway’s mirror. I don’t really have a lot of time to talk about it tonight, but our son also enjoyed it, and thought it was compelling and weird. It probably needed more of those Gundan robots, though. He really liked those things.

He’s also got his fingers crossed that there will be a K9 Mark Three. He’ll find out pretty soon.

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Doctor Who: Warriors’ Gate (parts one and two)

It’s kind of the nature of characters in adventure shows to do dumb things. Admittedly, the audience is given a lot more clues than Romana could know that the dudes who show up outside the TARDIS – one of them played by the great Kenneth Cope – are some of the cruelest, most desperate, and most hateful villains the show’s given us for some time: slave traders. But Romana was given enough of a warning when a strange lion-man, wearing shackles!, actually enters the TARDIS and warns them about the people who are chasing him. I guess she figures that she can be smug and superior and push these guys around, and she’s completely out of her depth, kidnapped, and nearly killed by them.

This has always weighed heavily on this story for me. “Warriors’ Gate” is the first Doctor Who serial written by Stephen Gallagher, who would later write some successful science fiction and fantasy novels and short stories. It’s an extremely interesting and complex story with some really interesting visuals – particularly in the next two parts – but Romana’s idiotic decision to put herself in danger has always aggravated me. There should have been another way to get her involved in the narrative than that.

I thought that our son would be a little more baffled than he was, but really, the first two parts are actually pretty straightforward. It’s when we get to the other side of the Gateway that the narrative gets a little less direct. He really enjoyed the Gundan robots, creaky, decaying skeletal things in armor with axes that have been left to be covered by cobwebs and dust. Like I say, it certainly is a story with great visuals, and part two ends with a very effective hand-held camera shot from the POV of one of the lion-man slaves, stalking his way through the cargo ship toward the helpless Romana, which he said was incredibly scary.

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