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Doctor Who: Robot (part four)

If you were to ask me, the boring old Mr. Grouchy Adult that I am, I’d say that “Robot” could have been safely wrapped up in three episodes. But that would rob our son of his favorite part of the serial. The Brigadier blasts the robot with the disintegrator gun, and, thanks to a little technobabble magic, the robot grows to giant size.

From the boring light of adulthood, this doesn’t look particularly convincing, and while director Christopher Barry does as good a job as can be expected, something shows up in shot after shot that destroys a grown-up’s suspension of disbelief. At the very least, it genuinely does look better than those dinosaurs from a few stories ago.

But our kid adored it. He shouted “Whoops!” when the robot started growing and it was all as convincing to him as Hollywood’s latest bit of CGI mayhem. After that mid-serial lull, he completely loved this story, and he believed in it, because he’s six and hasn’t become jaded by special effects. The new Doctor’s off to a fine start for him, and, with Lt. Harry Sullivan joining the Doctor and Sarah in the TARDIS, it’s time for Barry Letts to leave the role of producer to the new man in charge, Philip Hinchcliffe. And we’ll see what his take on the series will be this weekend.


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Doctor Who: Robot (part three)

Beginning with the most important thing about tonight’s episode, our son was much, much happier with it. It’s full of action and explosions, and at the end, a tank shows up, which thrilled him to no end, as he knew instinctively that the tank would be disintegrated.

It’s also full of UNIT troops not using their brains very much. The villains and the robot escape from the SRS meeting because not one of the dozen or so soldiers thinks to shoot out their truck’s tires. Honestly, this story could have ended here and been a satisfying three-parter. All the business at the bunker is less entertaining than what’s come before. It’s never more entertaining than when the Doctor agrees with the Brigadier that only Great Britain could be trusted with international secrets, because the rest are all foreigners. That’s one of my favorite lines in the whole program.

Unfortunately, there’s a conclusion that will require some visual effects trickery, something not unlike what we saw in the story “Invasion of the Dinosaurs.” To make the joins a little less visible, if you take my meaning, the production team decided to mount this entire production on videotape. That way we won’t have the tank in part three (and the robot in part four) videotaped in the studio on a blue screen, and then chromakeyed into a 16mm film picture.

Part of me is glad that they learned from their earlier work, but another, bigger, part of me just loathes the look and feel of “outside broadcast” location video. This was only used sporadically until Doctor Who‘s last four seasons in the late eighties, when the whole program was taped. I’m absolutely fine with it in the studio, but sending those sorry camcorders on location just emphasizes the robot’s unreality to me. It’s a shame they couldn’t have taken both a film camera and an OB camera on location, videotaped the necessary bits for the visual effects team and filmed all the action stuff. It would have looked so much better.

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Doctor Who: Robot (part two)

I’m afraid I spoke too soon when I said last time that this is a straightforward and simple adventure for six year-olds. This episode introduces the plot complication that the villains, Miss Winters and Mister Jellico, are members of a fascist fringe group called the Scientific Reform Society, and that just left our son behind completely. The scene where Sarah puts on her journalism hat and trendy seventies clothes and gets some information from them might as well have been delivered in pig Latin, because he didn’t get what was happening at all!

Actually, what he really needs to take from this scene is that the delightful thing about watching old television is that we can time travel back to the days when outfits like that were the in thing. Once they put a stop to Winters and Jellico, Sarah’s going to wear this outfit when she interviews Elton John before his Saturday night gig at the Rainbow.

After starting well, this one’s obviously cratering a bit for him. He loved part one, was thrilled by the sight of the giant robot, and the Doctor’s oddball rudeness, including going to sleep on his lab table, is really fun for him. But then we not only got all talky with people who didn’t make sense to him, but also the Doctor has a cliffhanger confrontation with the robot that really looks like it’s going very badly for him.

It strikes me that seeing the Doctor in physical jeopardy and about to get beaten up isn’t a very common turn of events in the show. Another incident was the end of part three of “The Three Doctors.” He was also very, very aggravated when Jon Pertwee’s Doctor was getting thrown around Omega’s “mind palace” by the villain’s weird pig-faced champion. Revealing a monster or a Dalek or a giant robot is a thrill, but seeing the hero get pummeled is emphatically not.


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Doctor Who: Robot (part one)

At the end of 1974, Tom Baker’s first episode of Doctor Who first aired. Writer Terrance Dicks believed that this should be a simple and straightforward adventure story for audiences to get used to the new lead actor, and he seems to have absolutely nailed how to hook any six year-olds in the crowd. Our kid loved this. There are no politics and no complicated “life in the seventies was like this” distractions about communes or meditation centers. There’s just a big stomping robot stealing the ingredients for a top secret disintegrator gun. Along the way, the Doctor checks himself out of the sick bay, frustrates UNIT’s medical officer, and tries on some new clothes. There’s not a six year-old on the planet who wouldn’t enjoy this.

Behind the scenes, this is a time of massive change. “Robot” was videotaped at the end of the same production block as Jon Pertwee’s last stories, making it the final story for Barry Letts as producer. He’ll be back in different capacities down the line, though. It’s the first story for Robert Holmes, who had written several memorable stories previously, as the script editor, but the previous script editor is still around! Terrance Dicks kind of shamelessly told the new boy that there was a BBC tradition that incoming script editors were expected to promptly commission a script from their predecessor. This way, while Dicks was no longer on the BBC payroll, he could still net some quick freelance work before his next assignment. The director is Christopher Barry, the veteran who had helmed several Who serials already, including Patrick Troughton’s first story.

Onscreen, UNIT, represented again by Nicholas Courtney and John Levene, has a new member, a naval medical officer called Harry Sullivan, played by Ian Marter. He had been up for the role of Captain Yates four years previously, and was cast because the original ideas for a new Doctor had been for an older and less active leading man. Famously, Richard Hearne and Fulton Mackay had been offered the part, but both of them turned it down – in Mackay’s case, because a sitcom pilot he’d done, Porridge, had been picked up as a series – and it went to Tom Baker, then forty years old and not getting nearly as much acting work as he should have had. His agent couldn’t find him anything after he’d filmed The Golden Voyage of Sinbad in the summer of ’73 and he was working with a construction crew in London to make ends meet while the movie was in theaters. The glamour of showbiz, folks.

And of course Elisabeth Sladen is back as Sarah Jane. This is one of the few times that we get to see her working as a journalist, and unknowingly – because, again, this is a simple story for the young viewers to easily manage – working the other end of the disintegrator gun angle. UNIT and the Doctor are looking into the thefts and she’s working on a story about the thieves, leading up to a memorable cliffhanger when the great big robot looms over her. We don’t see the robot in full just yet, which our son loved. He said that he now knows what its feet, hands, and head look like, and now he just needs to see the body and legs!


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What We’re Not Watching: Moonbase 3

We’re not watching Moonbase 3 for the blog, because it is a boring, boring program. Even I couldn’t sit through it without finding something else to do, so a six year-old certainly couldn’t be expected to tackle it. But because it’s an interesting footnote in this period of Doctor Who, and because we’ll be taking a short blog break while we have family in town, I thought I’d write a small post about it.

After four years on Doctor Who, producer Barry Letts and script editor Terrance Dicks were keen to continue working together but knew that they needed to find some new projects. Working a little fiscal magic, they were able to get the first story of Who‘s next season into production at the tail end of the 1973 block. Moonbase 3 was commissioned for a six-part introductory series and was taping almost at the same time as that story. Managing a massive, resource-demanding program like Who alone was a huge undertaking; I can’t imagine doing two series at once. Unfortunately for Letts and Dicks, this series was a ratings flop. They taped it in the summer of 1973, and it was shown in September and October to general disinterest, and the BBC didn’t ask for anymore.

As an ongoing series, Moonbase 3 is full of problems, but the casting is the major one. The leads, left to right in the photo above, are played by Ralph Bates, Fiona Gaunt, Donald Houston and Barry Lowe, and Bates, whom genre fans may recall as the lead in some Hammer horror films from the early seventies, is the only one with any real charisma. They’re outshined in every episode by the guest stars. If you enjoy BBC or ITC dramas from the early seventies, you’ll see all kinds of familiar faces in Moonbase 3, including Anthony Chinn, Michael Gough, Peter Miles, and Michael Wisher. And you’ll wonder why the guest stars aren’t the leads. It’s that lopsided.

But I’m a huge fan of Peter Miles and not even he could save this program by leading it. This is a show about budgets and breakdowns. In going for realism, Letts and Dicks encouraged a format where imagination was sacrificed for the banal. There’s neither any worry nor any curiosity about the future, it’s just a bland place with bland people having arguments about money and weather satellites. Twice, science experiments are conducted by jealous physicists. At no point are any of the five moonbases threatened by Cybermen, or staffed by Gabrielle Drake in a purple wig, or invaded by the Bringers of Wonder, but the one we’re watching is going to have its budget cut in the next fiscal year to put more Eurodollars into a Venus probe. Staffing cuts! Now that’s what I want from science fiction!

So anyway, the show was a flop, losing two-thirds of its audience in a month, and then, in that 1970s BBC way, it didn’t exist anymore. As the corporation so often did, they wiped the tapes and forgot about it. The episodes were lost forever… except for a weird quirk of fate. The BBC got some co-production money from 20th Century Fox, who suggested that they might be able to sell it in America. I’ve read that they were hoping to get it on ABC, but it’s also possible that Fox was looking at PBS stations or even the same first-run syndication market where Fox was selling the Canadian videotape sci-fi show The Starlost that same September. Whatever, there’s been no indication that any station in North America purchased Moonbase 3 in the 1970s, and so it was completely forgotten.

Fast forward to 1993 and something very weird happened. When the Sci-Fi Channel launched, their most interesting program was an anthology called Sci-Fi Series Collection, which ran all sorts of quickly-cancelled flops without enough episodes for a proper Monday through Friday airing, things like Gemini Man, Otherworld, or Planet of the Apes. In many cases, they couldn’t even get all the episodes: four of the 20 installments of Kolchak: The Night Stalker weren’t available to Sci-Fi because Universal offered those as a pair of sausage-link TV movies instead. And the episodes were all edited by a couple of minutes to accommodate segments of interviews with these shows’ creators or stars.

A few months into the run, Moonbase 3 joined the rotation, and it was kind of funny to see how they had the background animation for the interview segments but no actual interviews. Bates and Houston had already passed away by the time this aired, and I suppose the channel didn’t have the budget to go to the UK to interview Gaunt or Lowe… or Letts or Dicks. At the time, some people in British sci-fi teevee fandom were very interested in the Sci-Fi Channel – there were frenzied updates each month in the fanzine DWB about what it was showing – and people in the UK were incredibly surprised to see that the channel had “found” this lost show. Fox had simply never wiped its tapes. It remained available for any station to buy for twenty years – much like those unidentified thirteen episodes of Ace of Wands from DL Taffner – and the show just sat on a shelf in some vault for two decades waiting for a buyer.

Happily, new copies made their way to the BBC promptly, and the show was released on VHS in 1994, and on DVD some years later. It’s a program for completists only, but I am glad that it survives, because everything should!

Photo credit: Archive TV Musings


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Doctor Who: The Claws of Axos (part one)

Among fans of my age, there used to be a common point of commiseration: when we got to see the Jon Pertwee serials, they usually didn’t measure up to the book versions we’d already enjoyed. Target had a line of novelizations, many of the best of which were written by Terrance Dicks or Malcolm Hulke, and at least the earliest titles in the line were pretty darn good for 144-page juvenile SF stories. Eventually, Target seemed to adopt a policy of never minding the quality and feeling the width, and the writers did the best they could with a three-week window to hammer out the darn things, but the first ones were usually really readable.

I sought out the book Doctor Who and the Claws of Axos because there was a photo of the huge, hundred-tentacled Axon monster in the pages of the Radio Times 20th Anniversary special magazine. This was published in America by Starlog and was our Rosetta Stone for a while. The monster looked amazing, and Terrance Dicks’s book, based on the 1971 serial by Bob Baker and Dave Martin, turned out to be hugely entertaining. I couldn’t wait to see the original TV version.

The letdown has haunted me to this day. I’d like to think I have a pretty good feeling for what early seventies BBC programming looks and feels like, but even with all the hundreds of hours of videotape drama from the period I’ve absorbed, “The Claws of Axos” is still a stunningly poor production. It’s full of horrible actors and godawful line delivery*, ridiculous props, bad lighting, and a musical score that Dudley Simpson probably played solely with his index finger. The location film work isn’t too bad, apart from the utterly bizarre mumbling of the tramp who finds the aliens’ traveling homeworld, but everything in the studio is incredibly sloppy. This doesn’t look like it was directed by Michael Ferguson, the man who did “The Ambassadors of Death” the year before; it looks like a bunch of schoolkids made it without any rehearsal.

Baker and Martin deserved better. This was the first of eight serials they’d co-write for Who in the 1970s, and Baker contributed one additional story on his own in 1979. It’s a good story, with a very interesting alien menace: the “ship” / “traveling home,” Axos, is the same entity as the golden beings who travel in it. They’re all one organism, and they hope to spread samples of their miracle mineral, Axonite, around the planet. The golden beings pretend to be kind travelers with a promising energy source to share, but, as the cliffhanger strongly hints, they’re really cruel multi-tentacled beasts who have captured the Master and come to our planet to prey on the greed of British politicians.

The cliffhanger was a very effective one in our house, even though I think it looks far too sloppy for a director as accomplished as Ferguson. I cheated and started the episode a minute into it, so our son wouldn’t see that bizarre spoiler of the monsters inside the alien ship that opens the story. (That’s another thing I can’t stand.) So it ends with this head-and-shoulders shot of the tentacled creature and our son jumped up and dove for cover.


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Doctor Who: The War Games (part ten)

At last this story ends, with a strange and sad coda that serves as the epilogue to the first six seasons of this series. This was the end of the black and white era of Doctor Who, with the Doctor finally explaining who he is and why he left his home. Because he was bored, really. All three of its stars were leaving, and the modified format, with the Doctor exiled to Earth in the present(ish) day, would see Peter Bryant and Derrick Sherwin’s ideas about a secondary supporting cast become the new norm, as the Doctor would defend our planet from extraterrestrial threats. The new lead actor would be Jon Pertwee, and he was announced to the press the week this episode was first shown in June 1969.

Our son was absolutely riveted by the Doctor’s sad farewells to Jamie and Zoe, returned to their own places with most of their memories cruelly wiped. But their fates aren’t as bleak as the War Lord. After giving Philip Madoc the chance for a downright frightening and bloodcurdling scream, the Time Lords wall off the Aliens’ homeworld with a time barrier, and then “dematerialize” him from time completely, as though he never existed. This depiction of the Time Lords as omniscient and all-powerful would be undone a little with pretty much every successive appearance, which is kind of why some of us think the series has used the Time Lords way, way too often.

Among the Time Lords – we only see three, plus a couple of technicians – are Bernard Horsfall, whom David Maloney had cast as Gulliver earlier in the season, and Clyde Pollitt. Both actors would later return to the show as Time Lords, Pollitt as the Chancellor in 1973’s “The Three Doctors” and Horsfall as Goth in 1976’s “Deadly Assassin.” I figure they’re the same characters in each story, myself. The other Time Lord here is played by Trevor Martin, who would later actually play the Doctor himself in a stage play that was mounted in London for four weeks in 1974.

Our boy piped up quite loudly when the War Lord was revealed, thinking we’d seen the last of him in the previous part, and gave a pleased laugh when he is removed from reality. He also clutched onto Mommy very tightly and was really sad to see Jamie and Zoe leave. Frazer Hines went on to join the initial cast of Emmerdale Farm, a soap drama produced by Yorkshire TV that kept him very busy for the next two decades. We’ll be seeing Wendy Padbury again in one of her next projects next month.

And as for the Doctor, Patrick Troughton remained one of the UK’s most beloved and respected character actors for the next eighteen years, with dozens of great appearances in film and TV, everything from heroes to second bananas to villains to creepy old guys. He died in March 1987 at a con in Columbus GA.



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Doctor Who: The War Games (part nine)

Back in the dawn of time, before the word “binge” was used to describe watching TV, “The War Games” was what we binged. Taking a break from the show after part eight just wasn’t done, never mind part nine, which is a terrific climax and huge fun, but also full of “what comes next” foreboding. I know quite well what comes next, but I’m going to be pacing the floor all day waiting to see it again.

The cliffhanger was a punch in the gut for our son, who thought the story was over – the story of the War Games is, at least – but there’s still more to come. He loved the fighting, and he certainly loved seeing the Security Chief and the War Chief each being shot down. Before he goes, incidentally, the Security Chief gets one of the all time great quotable Doctor Who lines, all together now, “What… a… styoopid… fool… YOU! ARE!”

The War Chief, you’ll note, does not regenerate. That’s because the concept of regeneration wouldn’t be introduced to the series for another five years, but that hasn’t stopped fanfic writers and novelists – including, to be fair, this episode’s co-writer Terrance Dicks – from giving the character another life or two, usually twisting logic to turn him into a previous incarnation of the Master. I love how writers always call him the War Chief as though that was his name before he left the Time Lords, and not a title given him by his Alien employers. Or maybe that was his name, and it was the best job interview ever.

The last of these baddies to go is the War Lord, who is last seen propping up a desk with his body posture suggesting that the arrival of the Time Lords is like the arrival of his luggage. Anybody who isn’t a fan of Philip Madoc’s acting isn’t a fan of acting, period. I’m going to give “The Brain of Morbius” another spin next week because I like him so much.


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