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Doctor Who: Destiny of the Daleks (parts three and four)

Yesterday, I said there was a third thing about the otherwise boring “Destiny of the Daleks” that’s worth a hoot, and here they are: the space age disco robots, the Movellans. Apart from a few mentions and about a two second cameo in the 2017 story “The Pilot,” the Movellans retreat into obscurity after this, but I like them for some dumb reason. They’re so wonderfully seventies. Over in Hollywood, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (which we’ll be watching quite soon) was in production at the same time as this serial. It’s the stupid crossover that totally should have happened: Ardala teamed up with the Movellans to boogie on down with Buck in New Chicago. The soundtrack, because it was an American show, might have been “A Fifth of Beethoven.”

Several chapters ago, I gave the About Time series an unusual-for-me sneer because Miles and Wood’s analysis just started digging up garbage as they coughed up some downright dumb material for season sixteen. True, Lawrence Miles has always obsessed over questions nobody else cares about – he once spent six hundred pages across two novels because he wanted to know who owned the junkyard where the TARDIS was first parked – but there’s some genuine pablum midway through volume four. Anyway, they redeemed themselves with a little gem talking about “Destiny of the Daleks.”

In 2003, I bought Placebo’s album Sleeping With Ghosts, which came with a bonus CD of ten cover versions. One of the tunes they did was something I’d never heard of called “Daddy Cool.” I thought it was pretty good, filed it, and mostly forgot about it. Years later, About Time drew a line between the Movellans and Boney M., a based-in-West-Germany disco act with about four dozen members, sometimes all on stage at once, who originally performed that song. Sometimes I go off on musical tangents – this paragraph is proof of that – but friends, I have watched the absolute hell out of Boney M. on YouTube for the last two months. My friends and I were so busy being punks in the late eighties hating disco for whatever its sins were that I never looked back and missed out on how gloriously ridiculous and fun some of it was. Emphasis on some.

Look. Here’s Boney M. at the Sopot International Song Festival, literally the weekend before “Destiny of the Daleks” first aired in the UK. Watch this and you’ll have disco-dancing Movellan fever for good.

Back in our living room, meanwhile, our son came around and really enjoyed this story’s climax. The Doctor flings his hat onto one Dalek’s eyestalk and it goes completely nuts and starts shooting everything and he was in heaven. Then all the suicide-vest Daleks blow up in a series of detonations and he darn near melted that was so wonderful. Once again, a Who adventure starts out weird for him, gets creepy and unpleasant, and ends triumphantly. I’m sure he’ll dream of exploding Daleks tonight.

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Doctor Who: Destiny of the Daleks (parts one and two)

And so back to Doctor Who for six stories that fandom has always found pretty divisive. Conventional wisdom: It’s the two that Douglas Adams wrote and four wastes of time. Revisionist thought: This is Doctor Who at its most charming, effervescent, and downright fun.

I confess that I was in the conventional camp for a long, long time. These were the days when list-creating so-called fans, for whom Doctor Who was SRS BSNSS, kept looking back to their program’s glory days instead of looking forward. It took a lot of time, and the help of writer Gareth Roberts, to get me seeing straight. Roberts defended the season – and the Graham Williams era generally – in an excellent essay for the fanzine DWB in 1993, and then wrote a trio of downright fantastic Who novels set among these six serials. I liked all of his Who books that I’ve read, but The Romance of Crime, The English Way of Death, and The Well-Mannered War are all completely superb and I love them all. They sparkle with so much energy and possibility, and are witty, dramatic, and incredibly unpredictable.

Onscreen, things don’t quite look as full of energy as those books suggest. Douglas Adams took over the job of script editor and apparently wanted very badly to really shake up the format and introduce lots of new writers. He failed with both goals; the format of four-part serials was too much work for the new-to-television novelists and short story writers that he approached for pitches, but the format was critical to the show’s budget working out the way that it did. In the end, Adams had to rely on people who already knew Who, and even one of them, David Fisher, submitted a story that wasn’t working and so Adams and producer Graham Williams had to rewrite it from the ground up.

But a lot of the energy came from the stars of the show. Since Mary Tamm had decided to leave the program, they could have just had the Doctor return her character, Romana, to Gallifrey offscreen and meet a new character. Instead, they decided – and it’s kind of weird, when you think about it – to have Romana just up and regenerate and have her new body look just like the character of Astra from the previous story, played by Lalla Ward. And then Baker and Ward fell crazy stupid in love with each other, and you know what? They’re kind of wonderfully fun to watch together. Until a bit in the next season when they started fighting, anyway.

Things got started with “Destiny of the Daleks,” and you can be revisionist until you’re blue in the face, but Tom Baker and Lalla Ward are two of the only three elements of this story worth a hoot. I’ll get to the third one tomorrow. Adams found working on Who to be incredibly dispiriting and disappointing, and here’s four episodes that proved his point. He really wanted to do lots of short, zippy, intricate adventures with weird scientific concepts, a totally fresh outlook, and a fun, frantic pace, but ended up with four installments of Terry Nation phoning in his stock action-adventure cliches and filmed, again, in a rock quarry. The only things that Adams could do for this boring serial was spend extra time in the TARDIS at the beginning with Romana’s fun played-for-laughs regeneration instead of lumbering through an extra set piece on the planet, and insert a gag about a very minor Hitch-Hiker’s Guide character, Oolon Colluphid. He’s the author of a book that the Doctor is reading at one point.

But there are Daleks in it! Not that it matters much, because the story is slow and turgid and done without any urgency at all. There’s even a subplot about our heroes needing anti-radiation pills which is completely forgotten by the time part two begins. There’s no visual continuity between this and the previous Dalek adventure, which is allegedly set in the same place. But there are Daleks in it! And our son strangely didn’t seem to care too much. He grumbled that this was too creepy, again, although he was fascinated by the cliffhanger ending to part two, and the unfortunate revelation that Davros is still alive. Nothing has ever persuaded me that this was a good idea, but he’s curious about what will happen next.

The high point, though, was a fun moment where he speculated about what is going on in this ruined city. In the background of the main “entry level” set, there’s one of those old reel-to-reel computer tape decks. Our son remembered seeing similar props in the 1973 story “The Time Warrior”, although he couldn’t remember details about the adventure. He said “The Doctor HAS been here before, in the one with the alien in the medieval city!” He’d forgotten that “Warrior” was actually set on Earth, but he remembered a prop. I adore that even more than I adore Roberts’ incredibly fun novels.

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The Avengers 6.10 – Invasion of the Earthmen

Recap: If you’ve missed earlier posts and are baffled by the numbering, in a break with the accepted style of talking about The Avengers, I consider the program’s sixth season to be those fifteen episodes shown in America from January through May 1968. I bet at least three people get aggravated about this.

Further recap: John Bryce had briefly taken over production duties for the program, and asked adventure teevee veteran Terry Nation to contribute. “Invasion of the Earthmen” was the second of three that Bryce worked on. It was made while Linda Thorson’s hair had been bleached blonde for the role. Since cooler heads decided that her natural color would be just fine, this required Thorson to wear a brown wig, pretending that’s her real hair, in some new scenes added in which she decides to wear a blonde wig, which is actually her real hair, for this mission.

Brian Clemens had more than just a curiosity about the hair to deal with. This story is a complete turkey. It looks just fine, and our heroes engage in a couple of impressive fights, but there’s barely a plot to this adventure, and what plot we get is not necessarily a villainous one. Steed and Miss King are investigating Alpha Academy because one of their colleagues, a Mr. Grant, has gone missing while investigating the school. But we’re never told why he was looking into them. There’s a weird sense that we’re supposed to be alarmed or appalled that the villain is training young astronaut soldiers, but… is that a problem? Is that illegal? Mr. Grant gets killed by a hilariously fake boa constrictor, and they cover it up, but they never tell us why they’ve covered it up.

I guess we’re meant to be worried by the menace of the little fascists-in-training, and impressed by Nation’s reuse of some go-to plot elements from his sixties episodes of Doctor Who and The Saint, but there’s no meat in this story at all. Our son liked the fights and the creepy tunnel, and thought it was pretty exciting. As long as you don’t look closely, sure.

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Doctor Who: The Android Invasion (parts three and four)

Good grief, what a mess. The only reasons to watch the second half of this story are to see Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen rising way above the material with wit and charm and sparkles in their eyes, and to say goodbye to Ian Marter and John Levene, who make their final appearances here. It’s the last UNIT story of the seventies – and no, it’s not an “epilogue,” it’s got precisely the same number of regular UNIT characters as “The Invasion” or “The Silurians,” even if Nicholas Courtney isn’t in it – but because nobody making the program had definitively decided that, we didn’t get a proper goodbye to any of the characters. The Fourth Doctor says many times that he hates goodbyes, but audiences kind of like them. It would have been nice to let the Doctor actually tell his old friends that he isn’t going to be their scientific adviser anymore, shake hands, and wave farewell.

Subbing for Courtney in part four is Patrick Newell as Colonel Faraday. I’m predisposed to like Newell, a fine character actor best known for the recurring role of Mother in the Tara King years of The Avengers, but the script doesn’t give him anything interesting to do and the only idea anybody had for him seems to be “don’t imitate Courtney.” When some anonymous soldiers turn up at the end of the season with UNIT badges – now that really is the epilogue, not this – Colonel Faraday isn’t with them. Corporal Bell had more screen time than Faraday.

As for the rest of it, it’s all just bad guys talking tough and not staying around to see the trapped hero’s doom, unbelievably gullible patsies who believe the best, that sort of thing. Mission Control is a blue chromakey screen hung in front of a black curtain while four technicians act like they’re in a Gerry Anderson show and spend about a full minute counting things down instead of showing us anything interesting. That’s because the visual effects are either more stock footage of American rockets, or director Barry Letts returning to his weird old trick of blue-screening actors in front of a photograph. Doctor Who was a low budget program, true, but this is one of the most egregious examples in the 1970s of just plain looking cheap.

And then there’s the eyepatch. I did warn my wife that one of the all-time “oh, baloney” moments is in part four. I think that somewhere, something went awry in rehearsals and they didn’t have time to do this right. Twice, the Doctor tells Milton Johns’ character “You’ve been brainwashed,” and I am perfectly willing to accept that part of that brainwashing was making the man think he lost an eye in a rocket crash. That would have been just fine. Except what we see on screen is Johns removing his eyepatch, and, instead of forcing himself to fight the brainwashing and the illusion and realize, dramatically, that his eye really is there, he just takes off the patch and boom! There’s his eye! Styggron has been lying all this time!

And except for there was no reason whatsoever for Styggron to make him think he was missing an eye. It is utterly irrelevant to the drama except to give the character a chance to realize the Kraals are evil, and to make him look like Scott McCloud, Space Angel, when he’s in his astronaut suit and helmet.

Our son wasn’t wowed by this deeply dumb moment, but he did enjoy this story much more than he was willing to admit yesterday. This is definitely Doctor Who for six year-olds. He confessed that he really wasn’t scared by the first half (we knew) and gave this a mostly thumbs-up. He didn’t like that there was an android duplicate of the Doctor, but he loved our hero having a brawl with it.

With that in mind, as I mentioned, this is the final appearance in the show for John Levene and Ian Marter. Levene largely left the acting business after this and has lived in California since the early 1990s. I was surprised to see that he made an appearance in Beetleborgs, one of those Haim Saban programs that repurpose Japanese sci-fi teevee footage into an otherwise American show. Marter appeared frequently on television and in movies in the 1970s and early 1980s and also became a writer. He specialized in both Who books for Target and, under the pen name Ian Don, other novelizations of feature films like Splash and the dinosaur movie Baby: Secret of the Lost Legend. He passed away of a heart attack on his 42nd birthday in 1986.

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Doctor Who: The Android Invasion (parts one and two)

Do you remember the Choose Your Own Adventure books? Well, when I was in middle school, several of us were making our own sort-of versions of these. They were called Gamebooks, and my mate Blake, who you may recall from previous chapters about Doctor Who, developed them alongside his classmates Nathan Mize and Mark Hester. In a Gamebook, the front of a sheet of notebook paper was a densely-packed chapter of an adventure, with three options about what you would do next on the bottom of the page. You turned it over to see what would happen: usually, two options would have you dying, and only one left you able to proceed to the next chapter.

They started making these in early 1983, about a year before WGTV started showing Who, and some of the rest of us started copying them and eventually began writing our own stories. Probably close to a dozen of us kids made these over a three year period. They passed the time in class when we were bored and weren’t in the mood to draw comics. Over time, we’d change the rules and the format a little, incorporating coin tosses, die rolls, hit points, and alternating storylines, like the end of chapter one’s options might resolve to death, proceeding to chapter two, or proceeding to chapter three.

I mention all this because, inevitably, I made a sprawling Doctor Who Gamebook from my memories of the first seven stories that I saw, starting the Gamebook the morning after I first saw this in 1984. Sadly, this no longer exists – even more sadly, literally hundreds of pages of Who comics that I made between the ages of 13 and 15 do exist, and no, you can’t see them – but I mention it today because I clearly remember two key points about it.

One, I could not draw a Kraal to save my life. Granted, I was 12, and couldn’t draw much of anything to save my life, but I redid that dumb drawing of Styggron six or seven times and just could not do it.

Two, this Gamebook went on forever, with seven alternating storylines. Chapter 19 might have been a “Pyramids of Mars” chapter, with the results taking you to chapter 27 or 32, and chapter 20 might have continued the “Genesis of the Daleks” story, with results taking you to chapter 23 (where you’d reach the same grisly end that a wrong decision in chapter 15 might have sent you), 24, or 31. We didn’t write these things “by story,” we wrote them literally one chapter after the next, so there wasn’t any advance planning. And somehow or another, the Doctor Who Gamebook concluded after ninety-some or a hundred-odd chapters, and I hadn’t included a way out of the “Android Invasion” storyline. Every single option the Doctor had eventually led him to his death, because I didn’t include a chapter where he could win. It wasn’t the Daleks or Sutekh who finally killed our hero, it was the silly old Kraals!

Well, if you’ve been following along linearly instead of just reading the Doctor Who chapters, you may recall that our son needed a little light adventure after the horrors of the last couple of Who stories. “The Android Invasion” is perfectly placed for that. It sticks out like a sore thumb in season thirteen because it’s comparatively light and tame, and because the Kraals really aren’t much of a threat. The adventure was written by Terry Nation, and it was directed, for the last time, by former producer Barry Letts.

And, because our son has decided to be contrary, he’s telling us that this story is even scarier than “Pyramids.” We don’t believe him, because he isn’t reacting the same way that he does to real frights, but he’s chosen to insist that the situation is unbearably creepy and the Kraals are terrifying. The story is the sort of thing that Steed and Mrs. Peel might have investigated, before it takes an extraterrestrial turn, anyway, and he’s seen them tackle something similar twice already, so it isn’t that creepy. Deserted English village, weird clues about what’s going on, like brand new currency and telephones that only work sporadically… yes, this is very much like what Terry Nation concocted for programs like The Avengers or The Persuaders!, but bent into the Doctor Who shape.

One thing that I will give our son, though, is that he really didn’t enjoy most of the classic story from season seven, “Inferno,” because of the scenes where the Doctor confronts villainous duplicates of his friends. There’s a little echo of that here, as RSM Benton and Lt. Harry Sullivan appear to be working for the bad guys, but the Doctor figures it out at the end of part two. He and Sarah aren’t on Earth. It’s not just the white-suited “mechanics” that are robots. Everybody is, including Benton and Harry, and this village is a simulation, a testing site for the Kraals’ invasion of Earth.

It’s going to get a little bogged down and really silly in the second half, but I enjoyed these two parts quite a lot, despite some dopey plot holes. It’s a good example of the atmosphere being so entertaining that you can overlook the story’s minor deficiencies. Unless you just want to absolutely insist that you’re scared, anyway.

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Doctor Who: Genesis of the Daleks (part six)

There are some good Dalek stories after this one. Some very good ones, in fact. But I really don’t think “Genesis of the Daleks” has been surpassed by any of the Dalek adventures that have come since its 1975 broadcast. And it all comes down to the last seven minutes or so.

Honestly, this last part is a little flabby. The Doctor’s debate about blowing up the incubation chamber and killing all the infant mutants inside is rightly remembered as amazing. It’s good that it takes a minute to address the issue: the Doctor is about to commit genocide. The only Daleks that will survive are the ones in the death squad that’s been recalled. It’s left to these eight or nine to spawn all the Daleks of the future.

Interestingly, this story has sparked all sorts of speculation about what, exactly, the Doctor actually accomplished here. Did he change the future in some way? Did he cause a long enough delay to force the Daleks that we see later in the program to be less scheming and less successful?

On a related note, I really like the retcon that Russell T. Davies introduced, that once the Daleks somehow figure out that the Time Lords screwed with their development, this story becomes the first strike in the Time War of his era. I remain disappointed that something that could have been mythic and almost impossible to imagine, let alone visualize, a cosmos-spanning event that rewrites all of galactic history with every campaign, finally made it to the screen as a bunch of silly men and silly robot-things shooting each other with zap guns, but I think that Davies had the right idea. If the Daleks absolutely had to be the Time Lords’ opponent in the War, then making “Genesis” a preemptive strike is a great idea.

Minus that scene, the first two-thirds of this episode is padding and flab, and then the Daleks make their move and it’s incredible. I love how they don’t talk for a few moments. They just murder Nyder. Then they kill all the extras, after letting Davros know that they do not understand the word “pity.” I love this all mainly because they’ve been obedient little killers, agreeably doing whatever Davros tells them, until they all get together and exterminate everybody. It’s a fabulous climax.

But with it goes the greatness of the old Daleks. The scheming and the quiet manipulation of “Master Plan,” “Power,” “Evil,” even “Planet” really gets replaced from this story on, at least until the Time War. The Daleks that we see in the rest of the classic series just aren’t as effective, in a narrative sense, despite a couple more good stories. And Davros, sadly, doesn’t stay dead, again despite a couple more good appearances when Julian Bleach is in the chair. So I guess the Doctor did accomplish something after all. He made the villains so much less entertaining!

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Doctor Who: Genesis of the Daleks (part five)

Bit of a low day around the old pad. It was nice to escape into Davros’s escape-proof bunker for a half-hour. You’d think that this wasn’t a particularly thrilling segment for kids, but our son was pretty riveted, wondering what would happen next. At the end, when the Doctor’s being throttled by one of the organic Dalek mutants, he was reminded of the brief animated appearance of the Dalek creatures in “The Power of the Daleks.” Glad to see his memory banks are working at capacity.

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Doctor Who: Genesis of the Daleks (part four)

Some things our son pays good attention, surprisingly good attention, to… and some things he doesn’t. Tonight, as the first squad of Daleks enters the Thals’ city to avenge the mass murder of the Kaled people, our son wondered whether they would recognize the Doctor. We had to remind him that these are the very first Daleks. They haven’t met any of the Doctors yet. “Oh, yeah…” he said.

But on the other hand, regular readers know that I playfully feign despair over our son’s inability to recognize even the most distinctive actors. Tonight, though, he recognized a voice! When Davros started ranting right before sending this death squad into action, our son said “He sounds like that gold Dalek… the one… their leader.” And later, when Davros has our heroes captured, demanding the Doctor tell him all about the Daleks’ future defeats and failures, he repeated “That is exactly like that gold Dalek!”

He’s referring to the Dalek Supreme, from “Planet of the Daleks,” and he’s right. Michael Wisher, the actor who plays Davros here, did the voice of the Dalek Supreme. Good for him! He was so happy to hear that he was correct that he clapped hands and high-fived his mom. Now let’s see what happens the next time Burgess Meredith turns up somewhere.

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