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Doctor Who: The King’s Demons (parts one and two)

Fans often ask what in the sam hill producer John Nathan-Turner was thinking, deciding that Doctor Who needed a robot companion. These fans often forget that they were ever kids. When I read that Radio Times / Starlog 20th Anniversary magazine back in 1984, I was incredibly anxious to meet Kamelion, and incredibly confused that while he’s listed right there on page 20 as a companion, he isn’t mentioned in the previews for any of the forthcoming adventures.

Our son quite liked the appearance of Kamelion as well. It distracted from the Master showing up again, to his growling disapproval. Kamelion came about when its designers showed the robot to Nathan-Turner, thinking that an appearance on Doctor Who might be good for business. Nathan-Turner kind of went a little overboard with enthusiasm and made the robot a companion. Unfortunately, the robot required too much time-intensive and laborious programming to be reliable for a seat-of-your-pants TV show with frequent last-minute script changes, and then its chief programmer was killed in a tragic accident at sea. So instead of having the robot transform into a guest star of the week until they could write it out, they just didn’t mention it in any way whatsoever until they could write it out. Kamelion is completely forgotten onscreen, although fan writers and novelists have made sure that the robot had many more adventures.

Actually, you know what Kamelion reminds me of? In 1991, the designers of a much bigger robot showed it to Universal, thinking that an appearance on some new TV show might be good for business. Universal then sold NBC on a two-hour pilot called Steel Justice, in which a cop magically brings his dead son’s toy robot to life, leading to a twenty-foot tall “robosaurus” breathing fire at bad guys. The big difference is that Kamelion is probably housed in somebody’s collection, while the “robosaurus” can probably be seen at a monster truck show near you next weekend. (Nobody believes me when I tell them this, because the robot is just so stupid, but the whole angle of magically animating your dead kid’s toys made parts of that film quite eerie and odd. Nevertheless, NBC didn’t buy a series. Can’t imagine why…)

“The King’s Demons,” which was the last Who adventure written by Terence Dudley, isn’t all that exciting, but it’s a simple and short story which has lots of swordfighting and a joust, and an interesting collection of guest stars. Gerald Flood plays the imposter King John and provides the voice of Kamelion. Isla Blair and Frank Windsor play the local barons who are caught in the Master’s plot. I enjoyed how Windsor and his Softly, Softly co-star Stratford Johns both showed up in The Avengers a few weeks apart in 1968. It’s not quite the same, but Johns had been in a Who in 1982 and Windsor popped in the following year.

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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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Doctor Who: Four To Doomsday (parts one and two)

My abiding memory of Terence Dudley’s “Four to Doomsday” is that it’s incredibly slow. This time around, though, that’s revealed to be a good thing. There’s not an immediate threat or menace in this exploration of a giant spaceship four days from Earth, at least in the first half, anyway. It plays out in almost real time, as the Doctor and his companions explore the ship, which is controlled by Monarch of the planet Urbanka. Two other of his kind are on board, along with several representatives of ancient Earth cultures, and everybody’s lips are sealed about the past or the immediate future.

So it’s great television for a seven year-old who wants to chew on this for a bit. He says that he really likes this one, although the revelation that the friendly fellow from ancient Athens is a robot was a big surprise to him. I like how it plays out in a really enormous and believable space. The spaceship looks and feels completely gigantic, with lots of corridors and chambers.

Joining the regulars this time, there’s Philip Locke and Burt Kwouk as two of the old Earth refugees, but the guest cast is led by – of all people – Stratford Johns as Monarch, resplendent in his green, mottled skin. I reminded our son before we started that Johns had appeared in the great Avengers episode “Legacy of Death” doing a Sidney Greenstreet impression, and that our son certainly wouldn’t recognize him unless I pointed him out. Johns had played DI, and later Superintendent Charles Barlow in more than 200 episodes of four or five different, related series, for more than a decade, and even though he’d stayed real busy since the last of those shows ended and was always in demand, he still strikes me as unlikely for the role of a bipedal frog with a God complex. I mean, Johns is great, but imagine Karl Malden as Monarch. Like that.

Meanwhile, because this was actually the first story in production for season nineteen, everybody remembered that Tegan did not sign on to be a companion and wants to get to Heathrow Airport so she won’t lose her job on her first day. I really like the characterization. She doesn’t want to be here, she is terrified of getting fired. That’s how it should be. Except… while it’s been a few days for her, in Earth time, her aunt was just murdered a couple of hours ago. She even mentions this, but she’s only thinking about her job. Who’s she working with, Qantas? I don’t think that they’ve got the worst HR department on the planet. They will understand that the new girl’s aunt was murdered on the way to Heathrow. They’ll hold the job.

They maybe won’t quite understand that she was murdered by a space alien with a shrink ray, of course…

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K9 and Company 1.1 – A Girl’s Best Friend

The only spinoff that made it to the screen during Doctor Who‘s first 26 years was this lone unsold pilot starring Elisabeth Sladen that aired as a Christmas special in 1981. It’s also the first occasion that the show ever gave some screen time to a former companion, as we catch up with Sarah Jane Smith, last seen in 1976’s “The Hand of Fear”.

According to this episode, the Doctor dropped K9 Mark Three off at Sarah Jane’s house in Croydon in 1978. He sat boxed up in an attic while Sarah was off being a journalist, and eventually the crate made its way to the large country house owned by Sarah’s Aunt Lavinia, just in time for Sarah to finally be in the same place as her gift and have a small adventure around some superstitious country folk still a-worshippin’ the “Black Arts” while people start disappearing, including her aunt’s science-obsessed ward Brendon.

(Incidentally, there’s no particular reason to think that the fourth Doctor dropped off a new K9 for his old friend somewhere in the space between “The Keeper of Traken” and “Logopolis,” but that doesn’t stop list-making fans from trying to crowbar it in right there. For all we know, the Doctor assembled Mark Two and Mark Three together, before he even met Romana. Or maybe the next Doctor built him.)

Anyway, despite the presence of notable actors like Bill Fraser and Colin Jeavons, the episode, written by Terence Dudley, has never engaged me much, but we had the actual target audience on the sofa between us, and our favorite seven year-old critic thought this was just fine. It may not be particularly thrilling, and it might lack menace or urgency, but the pace is just perfect for kids this age to chew on the mystery and consider who, other than Jeavons’ character and his leather-jacketed son, is in Hecate’s coven. Of course, he was most pleased with K9’s two action scenes.

The episode got some very respectable ratings – better than season 18 of the parent show, in fact – but there was some changeover of the muckity-mucks in charge at the BBC and more episodes weren’t commissioned. Elisabeth Sladen would have to wait another quarter-century to headline a Who spinoff, but she and K9 would be back in just a couple of years.

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Doctor Who: Meglos (parts three and four)

Our son came around and started enjoying this story as it went on. There’s a gunfight in episode three, and then the inevitable bit where Tom Baker gets to play both the Doctor and Meglos and the two have the contractually-obligated confrontation that all adventure television doubles stories need to have. Our son did, however, suffer the huge cheat of the villain’s base not actually exploding. The visual effects team did that rotten cheat that they sometimes do of turning up the lights and the contrast really fast so it simulates an explosion without actually blowing the model to pieces.

I think that “Meglos” would be the last time that Doctor Who would be quite this by-the-numbers for a little while. I think that the only real spark that the story has at all comes when Romana gets captured by the mercenaries and leads them around in circles, supposedly back to her ship as she’s been ordered. She feigns confusion caused by the planet’s anti-clockwise rotation and seems to be enjoying herself as she looks for an opportunity to turn the tables on the villains. Bill Fraser is also pretty amusing as the bad-tempered leader of the mercenaries, and these are high points in a story that doesn’t want to push any envelopes.

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Doctor Who: Meglos (parts one and two)

Our son has really enjoyed so many of the most recent Doctor Who stories that we’ve watched, so it was probably inevitable that we’d hit a turkey eventually. It’s one that lots of people agree is a turkey, so he’s in good company. The problem is that the planet of the story has a gigantic underground city powered by a huge artifact that nobody understands. The religious nutballs of the city believe it’s a gift from God and the eyes of disbelievers cannot be allowed to see it, and the scientists of the city think this is ridiculous and, since its power is fluctuating wildly after decades of steady flow, could we please just take some measurements of the thing before it spirals out of control and kills everyone?

So the nutballs argue with the sensible people, and the nutballs win every argument because they refuse to compromise an inch. The planet is ruled by a Mr. Make Everybody Happy type played by Edward Underdown, instead of by a Mr. Shut the Hell Up and Let Some People in There Who Know What They’re Doing type, which is what this planet badly needs. And so our son rolled his eyes at this shenanigans, because while he may not be able to spot an evil supercomputer until it’s practically on top of him (like last night), he knows that the nutballs are not going to win this argument.

I had been saying that the new production team for Doctor Who needed new blood. “Meglos” was the third story produced in season eighteen. The second story produced would be shown fourth, and it’s the only other one for the next four years to be written by a screenwriter from the show’s past. So “Meglos” is the first production with a new-to-the-show director and writers. The director is Terence Dudley, who had worked with the producer on the BBC series All Creatures Great and Small, and the writers, John Flanagan and Andrew McCulloch, were discovered by the new script editor.

Unfortunately, the story they concocted is a very predictable bore. There’s a cactus-alien called Meglos who wants the artifact, and, because the Doctor is acting insanely out of character and sends a passing hello from space to his old friend Edward Underdown and gets invited to come help them with their technology issues, Meglos traps the Doctor, impersonates him, and goes to steal the artifact. It takes forty-some minutes to get to a point in the plot that probably could be done in under ten. Our son summed it up by saying “There’s just not a lot of action in this one, and I don’t like anybody in the city.”

Anyway, for all the new blood behind the scenes, this story’s full of veteran actors. Apart from Edward Underdown, the cast also includes Jacqueline Hill as the leader of the nutballs. She had played one of the show’s original companion characters, Barbara Wright, from 1963-65. And there’s comedy star Bill Fraser as one of Meglos’s mercenaries. Fraser was the best thing about the Avengers episode “Small Game for Big Hunters,” which I don’t enjoy very much. There are some forgettable younger players in the story, but it’s really dominated by these three older actors, and with the Doctor and Romana trapped in space for most of the show’s first half, it all adds up to a story that younger viewers just can’t appreciate. But it’s all so predictable and dull that older viewers can’t really appreciate it either.

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