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Doctor Who: Time-Flight (parts one and two)

The bubble had to burst eventually. It’s just a shame that two very, very solid and entertaining seasons of Doctor Who had to crashland with one of the all-time misfires. “Time-Flight,” written by Peter Grimwade, had been in development for so long and rewritten so many times that the author had asked “Look, do you mind if I direct a few stories while you’re waiting?”

There’s a school of thought that says that Grimwade’s original idea about two “tribes” of mental aliens who exist only as energy – a concept we won’t even encounter until part three of the story – might have been pretty interesting before the producer started shoehorning two missing airplanes and the return of the Master into the narrative. Part one at least begins promisingly, with the Doctor, Tegan, and Nyssa discussing Adric’s death, and then there’s some nice location filming at Heathrow Airport while the Doctor just tries to read the sports page, a moment that I’m pretty sure is unique in the program.

After a reasonably promising beginning, it all falls apart. “Meglos” in the previous season certainly wasn’t very good, but at least it felt coherent. This is just scene after scene of the Doctor reciting technobabble in a succession of stunningly fake and very small environments. We’re back to character actors again this time: Nigel Stock, who had been so very entertaining in the late sixties as Watson to Peter Cushing’s Sherlock Holmes, is so very tedious as a professor who thinks they’ve been hijacked to the Soviet Union instead of the Jurassic period. Michael Cashman, who had been one of The Sandbaggers and is today The Rt Hon. The Lord Cashman CBE – now there’s an interesting career arc – is a British Airways co-pilot.

And there’s the Master. When he’s revealed at the cliffhanger of part two, our son’s response was as follows: “Oh, come on! Come on! Not the Master! He’s so annoying!” Perhaps because the villain of the piece had possibly originally been a villain in the style of the Arabian Knights, everybody decided to just let the Master disguise himself as an overweight grey-skinned magician with packs of green slime under his mask. He must have figured the Doctor would show up… although I believe there’s genuinely no part of his plan that requires him pretending to be anybody else in the first place. Let’s see what happens tomorrow night in the second half and see whether I’m wrong!

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Doctor Who: Castrovalva (parts three and four)

So here we see Anthony Ainley made up as “the Portreeve,” an old, learned man in the strange city of Castrovalva. The disguise worked. I paused in the end credits for part three, where Ainley is credited as “Neil Toynay,” and asked Marie whether she recognized the actor, and she didn’t. “So who is he?” our son asked. “Mom and I saw him the other night in Out of the Unknown,” I said, attempting one more clue. Unknown was a BBC anthology series that started as adaptations of proper, pipe-smoking sci-fi that evolved into original works of psychological horror and the supernatural by the end. What survived the BBC’s wiping is incredibly uneven and occasionally terrible, but almost always interesting to watch. My favorite is the 1966 adaptation of Frederik Pohl’s “Tunnel Under the World,” which is just eye-poppingly amazing. Ainley was the star of a 1971 story called “Welcome Home” which she and I watched Wednesday night. It is almost oppressively creepy, and he’s excellent in it.

So bravo to Ainley, the makeup team, and director Fiona Cumming for pulling it off. When he reveals himself to be the Master in part four, only one of the three people in this audience saw it coming. I honestly don’t remember whether I saw through the disguise when I first saw this in late 1984. I probably didn’t.

Castrovalva is a city on the top of a steep, rocky hill on a quiet and calm wooded planet that made us all want to hike and climb the rocks there. The city is populated by incredibly likable and kind people, one of them played by the fine character actor Michael Sheard, and the Doctor evidently hasn’t paid enough attention to 20th Century popular culture, because he doesn’t spot that the city is built like an MC Escher print, with all the staircases leading to the same place and sometimes upside down.

I’ve noted this little hole in the Doctor’s knowledge before, back when we learned that the Master is a King Crimson fan. I’ll tell you what was going on during the Third Doctor’s exile. He was taking Jo to the National Gallery, name-dropping all the artists he’s known, and telling ribald stories about Titian. Meanwhile, the Master was hanging out in record stores and head shops, seeing what pipe-smoking sci-fi readers were framing on their living room walls, and sneering about snobs who use words like “ribald.”

Our son was very pleased with this story, which was nice, because he’s been more patient than engaged with the last few things we’ve watched together. “I really liked this one,” he told us, singling out the part where one of the Castrovalvan people saves the day by swinging from a chandelier into the Master’s infernal machine. The Master shouts “My web!” when it happens, which is slightly comical. Then he tries to escape in his TARDIS, finds that he can’t use it to get out of the collapsing, recursive geography of Castrovalva, steps outside and bellows “My web!” again, which is more than just “slightly” comical.

So that’s it for Peter Davison’s first adventure. He makes a great team with Matthew Waterhouse, Sarah Sutton, and Janet Fielding. The story is original, and certainly unlike anything we’ve seen on the show before. The dialogue’s sometimes clumsy, and Tegan must have grown up in a household full of pipe-smoking sci-fi readers, because she has accepted all of this with no confusion or complaint, but this is another very good example of what I was talking about with “The Leisure Hive” when I said that the program is trying to look and sound interesting and different. You really get the sense that everybody involved wants to make this show work.

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Doctor Who: Castrovalva (parts one and two)

Back to January 1982 and Peter Davison’s first story in Doctor Who. Davison gets to spend the first half hour stumbling around the corridors of the TARDIS, and the second half hour asleep and being carried around in a coffin. Nobody hates “Castrovalva,” but that’s because episodes three and four are incredibly clever and fun. If the entire thing was like the first two parts, things would have been different.

Season nineteen was recorded way out of order, first so that Davison would have a chance to get a handle on his character before going back and acting all erratic and weird in this one, and second so that the people behind the scenes could nail down exactly what this story was going to be. The story that was planned for Davison’s debut wasn’t working, so the producer commissioned Christopher H. Bidmead, who had been his script editor the previous year, to come up with this. As with Bidmead’s previous story, “Logopolis”, there’s too much technobabble in the script, and poor Sarah Sutton is forced to try and make something called “telebiogenesis” sound important. The quirky concept this time around is recursion, which, again, gets fun in the second half of the story.

Still, even though these first two parts are incredibly slow, they’re just so likable. It’s actually kind of refreshing to spend a full half hour episode letting the Doctor be weird and absent-minded and spend time on the strangeness of his regeneration crisis. Later on, the indulgence of “the Doctor gets to be WACKY when he regenerates” would grate, but I like it here. And the simple, slow pace was perfect for our son, who really enjoyed this. The pacing is perfect for younger viewers, with one problem at a time and a detailed, engaging solution to each new issue. That said, he did complain that the obstacles were ensuring that absolutely nobody was getting what they wanted. He even felt sorry for the Master after his traps were foiled, because surely if the heroes were miserable, then at least the villain could have a good day!

One point of bother, pointing the way toward future irritations, though: the Doctor has three companions all of a sudden, and they all apparently read a book about the show or something, because they all know what regeneration is. It’s an ugly case of the people making the program choosing to believe that everybody watching the program is well-versed in the lore and reads the preview articles in the TV section. And while it’s incredibly laudable that Tegan has decided to stay and help this strange man through his regeneration crisis instead of waving everybody off back into outer space, the script treats her as though she’d somehow taken the Doctor Who Companion Orientation and has signed on for a season or more. Later stories would remember that Tegan’s goal was to get back to Earth in the spring of 1981 and get to her stewardess job at Heathrow Airport. It’s not mentioned even once here!

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Doctor Who: Logopolis (parts three and four)

If you scroll way, way back in this Doctor Who story, you’ll see that I once showed all of the original series to my two older kids. It took a while, because we took breaks and had “repeat seasons” and all sorts of delays. The three of us moved to our old house in the spring of 2003 and I guess that summer, my son and I watched the final few Pertwee serials while my daughter shouted at us from the staircase, interrupting as much as she dared with updates about how she’s not watching it. We “shouldn’t watch that show because it’s too scary.” Every time she did come downstairs and give it a try, an Exillon or an Ice Warrior or a giant Spider would show up and she’d run screaming.

So we took a break of a few weeks and I actually showed her a picture of Professor Kettlewell’s robot and she agreed that it wasn’t scary. So she consented to watch, or at least not interrupt us with bellowed reports about how we could watch that scary show if we wanted, but she wasn’t going to. For the most part, there was peace in the valley. As I reported in these pages, the mummies in “Pyramids of Mars” had both kids screaming and crying and sleeping in my bed, but I think that was a one-off. Tom Baker became our Doctor, just like he became everybody’s Doctor for such a long time.

We took breaks, as I say, including the big one to enjoy Christopher Eccleston’s run, and we had the repeats and other shows, and I see that it was September of 2005 that we finally got to “Logopolis.” And it devastated my children. Again, from my old journal:

The end of this serial was absolutely amazing for us to watch together, because I didn’t give the kids any warning or suggestion that this was the end for our Doctor. I think my son realized just before the end, as he took in a deep breath during a flashback scene when the Doctor remembers his last several travelling companions, and his eyes widened. That made me tear up, and when the regeneration began, we were all shocked and weeping. “He DIED?!” my daughter bellowed as the end credits started. That a new Doctor sat up wasn’t important. For a few minutes, nothing was, because our Doctor was gone.

In time, she’d get older enough to start fangirling over Tennant and Smith, and eventually join the rest of the squee brigade in turning her back on grouchy old Capaldi, which is fair, you’re supposed to grow out of Doctor Who for a while and maybe return one day down the line. Part of me thinks that’s a big reason why Capaldi’s ratings in Britain were lower anyway – all the kids whose parents plopped them in front of the TV in the spring of 2005 were nine years older. When you’ve got high school parties or records to collect or people to smooch or college entrance exams, especially the smooching part, you put away the childish things, and it was just a natural time for the audience to turn over and age out.

But Tennant and Smith were in the future. In fact, back in time, we hammered down and watched the next eight seasons and McGann’s movie in a prolonged marathon so that other than “The Christmas Invasion,” we weren’t interrupted by the past or the future in following the narrative. No, that night in September 2005, my daughter bawled her eyes out because our Doctor had died, and she spent the better part of an hour utterly inconsolable. She took it out on Peter Davison. She never warmed to him, the interloper, the usurper. She liked Colin, though. Colin yelled a lot. Nobody ever told Colin Baker to take out the trash.

There was no repeat of those tears tonight. Our son said “Huh, that’s cool,” and wanted to know what that second-to-the-last monster from the flashback was. He wasn’t even a little bit sad. He’s been wondering how many other Doctors there are and when we’re going to get to them. Time marches on.

By the way, though we will be watching, I’m not going to write about Jodie Whittaker’s run at this time, simply because I just don’t want to be tied down to this silly blog and will enjoy having a break on Sundays! But the night after Jodie’s debut, we’ll look in on some old friends, and then start watching Peter Davison’s run later in October. Stay tuned!

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Doctor Who: Logopolis (parts one and two)

“Logopolis” is a story that probably shouldn’t work as well as it does. I mean, the first two parts are just the Doctor and Adric spouting technobabble and gobbledygook at each other. The introduction of Janet Fielding as the new character Tegan Jovanka gives it a little more life, but it’s the direction that makes it. It’s the first story written for the series by the season’s script editor, Christopher H. Bidmead, and it’s directed by Peter Grimwade. He brings an almost unbearable feeling of doom to the production.

Here’s something I wrote in September 2005: There’s a scene in part one when the Doctor looks across the highway and sees a spectral white figure by a fence staring at him and he almost collapses in shock. It works as well as it does because nobody in either the story or in the audience knows who the figure is, except the Doctor. Watching the story as a repeat from that angle reveals so much about the Doctor’s character and his actions over the next hour or so.

This is especially true in the second episode, where the Doctor confronts the figure, but too far away for Adric, or the audience, to know what they’re saying. But Tom Baker’s body language on that bridge… “I don’t want to go” never broke my heart the way that Baker’s silent, distant, slumped shoulders do.

That white figure really drives what’s going on in this story. (Well, the figure and the music, which is probably from start to finish the most memorable soundtrack ever performed for any Doctor Who adventure.) Nyssa, who we met in the previous story, shows up on an alien planet where the Doctor has gone, and tells Adric that “a friend of the Doctor’s” brought her. Then we see the strange all-white man slip slowly across the screen. Our son thinks that he’s another Time Lord. Good guess. I probably like the answer more than some people do.

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Doctor Who: The Keeper of Traken (parts three and four)

Memory’s a tricky thing. Every once in a while, our son will just toss a random Doctor Who fact my way, suggesting that he thinks about some old episodes from time to time. But he doesn’t recall the Master’s last appearance, in “The Deadly Assassin”, at all. We only watched it in April. But it’s also true that he didn’t actually enjoy that story even a little bit.

So part three of “The Keeper of Traken” ends with the not-completely-surprising revelation that the Master is behind the plot, and that his TARDIS – he has two! – has been standing in place as the Melkur statue for something like a decade. Inside, he’s evidently been healing somewhat, because he doesn’t have the hideous skeleton eyes that Peter Pratt wore as the Master in “Assassin.” Geoffrey Beevers plays the Master this time out. Fanon suggests that Pratt and Beevers are each playing the thirteenth and final incarnation of the Master… which is where Anthony Ainley comes in.

Whatever you think of “Traken,” you can’t deny it has a very unique finale. The Doctor and Adric have saved the day, with the assistance of their friends Tremas, played by Ainley, and his daughter Nyssa, and make their customary hasty exit. But the story doesn’t end like we think it should. In a devilishly mean-spirited epilogue, we see that the Master had a second TARDIS parked inside the Melkur-TARDIS, and, using the power he’d somehow absorbed from the Traken Source, he takes over and steals Tremas’s body, clicks his heels and leaves to go cause some chaos dressed in black and with the customary Master mustache and beard. Nyssa’s left to wonder where her father went.

Ainley seems like he was an incredibly interesting fellow. By 1981, he was about ready to retire from acting and just play cricket at leisure, because he’d inherited what many people report was a very, very large amount of money. Who‘s producer, John Nathan-Turner, remembered Ainley from a BBC series he’d worked on in 1974 called The Pallisers and thought he’d be a perfect Master, and then, far too frequently, didn’t commission any decent scripts for him. Ainley had also co-starred in a downright odd ATV spy series called Spyder’s Web which I probably enjoy more than you do, although John at the Cult TV Blog has also celebrated its prickly strangeness, and he was in The Land That Time Forgot and The Blood on Satan’s Claw, a fine character actor finally landing a role everybody would remember.

I’m reasonably certain our son won’t forget Ainley’s version of the Master. Reasonably. We’ll see him again very, very soon. But I was really surprised by how thoroughly he had forgotten the Pratt incarnation. During the closing credits of part three, I asked him whether he was surprised to see the Master again. After all, he did just freeze, give a shocked face, and tumble to the floor when Beevers turns to the camera chuckling. But at the end of the story, he told us he really liked this one, but didn’t understand “just one thing… when that showed us that it was the Master, how’d you know it was the Master?”

And I guess he had a point. Even for viewers with longer memories, it had been four years since the Master’s previous appearance…

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Doctor Who: The Deadly Assassin (parts three and four)

“The Deadly Assassin” aims for a really big ending, but it’s always felt hollow to me. I get what they were trying to do. The idea is that after hundreds of thousands of years, maybe millions, the actual scientific basis for the Time Lords’ power, and their ability to regenerate, has been lost to time and passed into legend, and the present day Time Lords are so lackadaisical and incurious that nobody really cares about anything other than the legend. The only person who knows the actual technical stuff would either be the Time Lords’ president (and that’s a maybe), and various renegades like the Doctor and the Master, who figure it out. So far so good.

The problem is that the execution is rushed and ridiculous, even for Doctor Who. The Doctor hears this legend once, related by a computer recording, and instantly figures everything out, and then we see that the mythical Eye of Harmony is a real thing – the nucleus of a black hole – located directly underneath the Time Lords’ capital building, accessible by a twelve-foot tall obsidian monolith that serves as some kind of dampening rod for the power of a collapsed star. And nobody knows about this.

(Even more ridiculous, the Doctor and the characters played by George Pravda and Erik Chitty are trapped in a vault a hundred feet underneath the level where the Master pulls up the great big control rod. You’re telling me there’s not a blueprint of this building? Nobody ever looked at it and asked what’s between the main level and the vault? Only a black hole, it’s not important…)

Actually, what annoys me more is that this story makes some very specific statements about the Time Lords that just about every subsequent story gets completely wrong. It’s not just the “special occasions only” bit of their iconic costumes, this story is really clear all the way through it that Time Lords are certain people on Gallifrey, a specific ruling class, and not the entire population. Later on, we’d start hearing that TARDISes not only get their power from the Eye of Harmony, there are Eyes of Harmony actually onboard every vehicle. It’s almost like subsequent writers and producers just read a recap of this story and never understood the implications and the specifics.

But before it all falls apart, it’s very entertaining. I loved episode three’s very long chase and fight in the hallucinatory world of the Matrix, which was shot entirely on film. We’ve never seen the Doctor so desperate, dirty, and bloody before. He and Bernard Horsfall have a really excellent brawl. It was Horsfall’s last appearance in Who, and he went down fighting.

Our son, who was more frightened by the desperation and the urgency of the story than usual, grumbled that this wasn’t exciting because there were not enough explosions in Horsfall and Tom Baker’s fight. I think that sometimes when he gets frightened, he pretends that he’s not having a good time. Earlier today, out of the blue, he started asking me about the Autons. It’s neat that the show leaves such an impact and keeps him wondering and thinking about it, even when actually watching it often leaves him feigning dissatisfaction.

About which, it’s established in part four of this story for the very first time that Time Lords get twelve regenerations, and after that, nothing can cheat death. They’ll change that in time, too. We talked about how this means that, at this stage anyway, there can be thirteen Doctors. As I was writing this, our son proved that he is still wondering and thinking about the show. He came downstairs to suggest that there should be fourteen Doctors, because the second-into-third regeneration in his mind didn’t count. He didn’t think that was a real regeneration because “the Time Lords just used a machine to change his face.” I said that no, that was the second actual regeneration.

Although maybe somebody should have told Steven Moffat this idea in 2013. I’m sure that while he was messing up the numbering between the two Tennants and John Hurt, he could have found room for my son’s idea. It’ll only make Whittaker number 16 instead of 15 when her actual number is 13… no biggie!

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Doctor Who: The Deadly Assassin (parts one and two)

For many people who participate in fandom, the past is always preferable to the present. It’s not unique to Doctor Who, you see it in many long-running franchise fandoms, especially Star Wars. 1977’s “The Deadly Assassin,” written by Robert Holmes and directed by David Maloney (who, again, cast Bernard Horsfall in a key supporting role), is a funny case study. The fandom that existed in 1977 was of the typewriter-and-mimeograph school. Zines and newsletters from that year show that fans hated this story.

By the early eighties, it was considered a modern classic. Some of my first fan purchases were things like Peter Haining’s 1983 book Doctor Who: A Celebration and some 1982-84 issues of Doctor Who Magazine and they all praised the show. But in ’77, the fan press was howling for blood. They got Gallifrey wrong, apparently. It’s a funny complaint. We’d seen three Time Lords in 1969 being all old and boring and putting the second Doctor on trial, and we’d seen three other Time Lords in 1973, also old, arguing in a garish control room. What’s new in 1977 is they have different clothes – the script specifies that they’re “seldom-worn,” for special occasions, and every costume designer since has reused them as casualwear – and, instead of being a unified mass of TV aliens who groupthink as one, these Time Lords have individual characters, and they squabble, plot, and stab each other in the back. The fans of ’77 were so silly.

Another complaint was that they brought back the Master after Roger Delgado’s death, but why shouldn’t they? Although I should point out that somebody suggested that in a parallel universe, they cast Peter Wyngarde as the Master opposite Tom Baker, and I want a dimension-hopping travel machine RIGHT NOW to see those episodes. Wow! Just imagine that for a minute. The Master in our less amazing universe is played by Peter Pratt in this story, wearing a grotesque, skeletal costume. When I first saw this at age 12 in 1984, he also reminded me of the Incredible Melting Man.

(Sidenote: Around the same time that my three best pals in seventh grade were refusing to watch Doctor Who, we were all devoted fans of Elvira’s Movie Macabre, which I think was shown Saturday or Sunday afternoon in Atlanta on WATL-36. The first episode that I caught was The Incredible Melting Man, which fueled my tweenage love and obsession with skeletal people. Other favorites, which we recounted and replayed in class as loudly as possible, were Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, the based-on-a-true-story (suuuuuure) Monstroid, and the Gamera: Super Monster compilation movie. Wikipedia tells me these all aired during our seventh grade year. Because the four of us were spectacular troublemakers, we were separated into different “pods” in the eighth grade. Whenever we’d manage to pass each other in the halls the next year, we’d shout “So Sad About Gloria!” at each other. As Manos is to MST3K, So Sad About Gloria was to Elvira.)

Now, a year ahead of me in the eighth grade was another best pal, Blake, who wanted to watch the show, but couldn’t. “The Deadly Assassin” seems to have first aired in Atlanta on April 7, 1984, by which time, in the UK, Colin Baker’s first story had just finished airing. I spent the rest of that spring raving about the skeletal Master and how cool he was, and hoped that I would see his earlier appearances one day. I drew him all the time.

So I wasn’t all that pleased when, in the first week of July – I’ll explain how I can date that so precisely later – Blake phoned me, having found a copy of Starlog‘s American release of the Radio Times Doctor Who 20th Anniversary Special, as related in this post, and proceeded to rubbish two claims I’d made. First, as related earlier, he called hogwash on my claim that the anti-matter monster looked cool because the magazine printed a production photo of it, proving it looked pretty dopey before they finished the visual effects trickery. Second, as Blake put it, “the Master’s not a skeleton man, he’s some normal guy with a beard!”

I didn’t just run down to Blake’s house to see this magazine, I stormed down there.

I got some relief from a single sentence on page 25: “Peter Pratt played the Master in emaciated form in The Deadly Assassin.” But while grown-up me appreciates the great work by all the actors who have played the Master, particularly Roger Delgado, twelve year-old me could only snarl and complain “Well, he looked a lot cooler when he was 'emaciated'!”

Tonight, though, our son thought the new-look Master was astonishingly creepy, although he’d forgotten the Master’s old calling card of shrinking people to death and wasn’t entirely clear on how there’s a “to death” part of the equation. It took me quite a few minutes to realize that he didn’t understand that the Master’s “matter condenser” isn’t a “shrink ray” in the traditional sci-fi sense – and which we’ll see in a story next month – it’s a death-ray that leaves your corpse shrunken. He gets it now, but I’m afraid he probably wishes he hadn’t asked. Nasty way to die.

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