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Doctor Who: The Horns of Nimon (parts three and four)

I owe “Death to the Daleks” an apology. This one’s worse.

The kid really enjoyed it, though. He got a little frustrated during episode three, because he couldn’t understand what the Nimon was planning. I think it’s more that he thought the show had explained all the details and he missed them. Reassured that none of us knew what the silly minotaur-dude was planning, he settled back in and had a ball. He thought it was very exciting and loved the gunfights in episode four. Of course, it ends with a big explosion, and those are always satisfying for him. And there, I think, is where I will leave it. I’ll let you know in 2038 whether it’s improved any.

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Doctor Who: The Horns of Nimon (parts one and two)

Hoo, boy. “The Horns of Nimon” really is a mess. The story goes that with Douglas Adams working hard on writing the final six episodes of the season himself, he turned to his predecessor as script editor, Anthony Read, to give him four workable episodes which wouldn’t require very much of his attention. Apparently, Adams had less involvement with “Nimon” than any of the other serials that year, although I’ve always thought that the character of the co-pilot, with his catchphrase “Weakling scum!”, is a close cousin of that Vogon guard in Hitch-Hiker’s Guide who enjoys shouting “Resistance is useless!”

The co-pilot also gets to shout “Don’t play the fool with me!” That’s the second time in two stories. Somebody should really pay attention to letting the bad guys speak in those silly cliches.

Honestly, it’s bad, but it’s not as bad as either its reputation or as bad as I remember it. The stars are having fun, and so’s the famous actor playing the main villain, Graham Crowden. As with the other “middle” shows of this season, they’re having fun at the expense of the drama, but it’s the sort of fun that kids eat up. This one has a monster so ridiculous that it didn’t give Mr. Timid here even a hint of a fright. He thinks all these villains are being “too mean,” but he says it’s entertaining.

Plus, Lalla Ward just plain looks amazing in that fox hunt outfit. I know you can barely notice her in that picture above, what with that extra behind her stealing the frame by looking hypnotized, but it really is a terrific costume.

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Doctor Who: Nightmare of Eden (parts three and four)

It’s not often that the climax of a Doctor Who undermines everything to quite the degree this one does. On the one hand, it’s kind of nice to have a Bob Baker script that doesn’t fall apart after episode one. This one waits until the fourth. But even before we get there, we have to contend with the Mandrels, who don’t rank on anybody’s list of favorite Who beasts. Some newspaper critic back in ’79 called them refugees from The Muppet Show, and he’s right. Tom Baker could have played this scene with Sweetums and Doglion, plus a laugh track, and it wouldn’t have looked any sillier.

Then there’s one of Tom’s most ill-advised ad-libs. You get used to Tom overacting and doing whatever he wants for a laugh in this period of the show, because it usually works at least a little. And so we get to the infamous incident where, offscreen, he’s being attacked by a Mandrel and bellows “My fingers, my arms… my everything!” and emerges with his clothes in tatters. It did get a big smile from our seven year-old son, who enjoyed the mayhem, but it completely undermined the simple moment just ninety-some seconds later when he just quietly says “Go away” to the villain. You can’t play the same page as both a pantomime and as a serious drama. The bigger will always overpower the smaller, which helps to explain why this story is so poorly regarded.

The villain doesn’t help matters much. I’m not sure whether it’s Lewis Fiander’s silly attempt at a German accent or his silly Roger McGuinn granny glasses that undermines the character more.

I think you can see a little more of Douglas Adams in this serial than in the previous one. The concept of two spaceships warping into each other and occupying the same space is a pleasantly high-SF idea, and the two customs officers who start complicating the story at the end of part two are bureaucracy-obsessed cousins of Shooty and Bang-Bang from Hitch-Hiker’s Guide. (They’re also the spiritual ancestors of the Caretakers in the 1987 serial “Paradise Towers,” I think.)

But credit where it’s due: this was Bob Baker’s last contribution to Doctor Who after writing or co-writing eight serials over ten seasons. Among other credits after this, he co-created Into the Labyrinth for HTV and wrote a few episodes of the long-running cop show Bergerac before finding his biggest success as writer for the Wallace & Gromit films.

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Doctor Who: Nightmare of Eden (parts one and two)

Sometime in the second half of 1984, I convinced my parents to drop my younger brother and me in downtown Atlanta for my first con, one of those Creation shows that were common at the time. We spent a few hours drooling over comic books that we couldn’t afford and several more hours in one of the video rooms. They showed “Nightmare of Eden” to a packed house. It had aired on WGTV locally a few months previously, so I’d seen it before. It was my first Doctor Who repeat. And the audience loved it. They treated the monsters seriously and they laughed at the Doctor’s jokes. When David Daker’s character tells the Doctor that the company that the Doctor claims to represent went bankrupt twenty years ago, the Doctor instantly says “Well, I wondered why I hadn’t been paid,” and the room just exploded with laughter.

Our son also really likes it, apart from the scary monsters, which are only briefly glimpsed in the first two episodes. There’s a lot to like so far. The down sides are pretty minor. I think the worst offense is that, not content with letting a “Have a care, Doctor!” slip through in the last story, our beloved script editor allowed a “Don’t play the fool with me” this time, but we’ll live.

Behind the scenes, “Nightmare of Eden” was written by Bob Baker. It’s his only solo Who script after co-writing eight serials with Dave Martin. It was partially directed by Alan Bromly, an older BBC veteran who was approaching the end of a long career, but he actually quit midway through one of the recording sessions and the producer, Graham Williams, had to actually step in and finish it himself, probably growling that what he really wanted to do three years previously was produce a nice, safe cop show without one crisis after another like he was forced to manage on Doctor Who. Apparently he was already thinking of quitting, and this troubled production was the final straw. More on those troubles next time.

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Doctor Who: The Creature From the Pit (parts three and four)

Last night, before we learned that the gigantic green blob in the pit was an imprisoned alien ambassador and thought it was a hideous monster, our son suggested that once K9 zapped the creature they could use its body for a bouncy house. His mother had a simpler observation: “They thought a scrotum monster was a good idea?”

It’s certainly true that when Doctor Who‘s special effects hit this kind of rock bottom, they overwhelm any and all possible other topics of conversation. But I will say that if you can either ignore or just laugh about this amazing lapse of judgement, taste, and common sense, this story really has lots of very funny moments as well as Geoffrey Bayldon being incredibly entertaining. I laughed out loud several times, at the right moments. I spent most of the eighties pretending that 74,384,338 was my lucky number as well. Our son enjoyed this one, too. It was neither creepy nor scary, he confirms. It’s just a simple, straightforward adventure with nothing truly horrifying. Perhaps one day he’ll revisit the earlier Tom Baker adventures that frightened the life out of him, but he’s clearly much happier with this end of the shock scale.

The story also has Myra Frances going deep in search of the most ridiculous pantomime villain trophy and she’s kind of awful to watch as she sneers and snarls, but in fairness to the actress, when the script includes such bad guy chestnuts as “Have a care, Doctor!” then it’s kind of hard for any performer to be subtle. Francis is about to have some real competition in this category. Lewis Fiander and Graham Crowden are right around the corner. Stay tuned!

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Doctor Who: The Creature From the Pit (parts one and two)

I’ll tell you how to make sure the seven year-olds in the audience boo and hiss your villainy. Slap Romana in the face and order your guards to break K9 down into scrap. We’re watching the much-maligned “The Creature From the Pit,” written by David Fisher and directed by Christopher Barry, and the main bad guy is a Snidely Whiplash type called Lady Adrasta, played by Myra Frances. She’s a pure pantomime villain, one of many reasons this story isn’t very highly regarded, and our son just loathes her. Team her up with Count Grendel from “The Androids of Tara” and I’m not sure which of them will nya-ha-ha-ha! the loudest.

No, among the DR WHO IS SRS BSNSS crowd, “Creature” is one of those stories that makes people spit fire because they hate it so much. A big problem is the creature itself – more about that next time – but Adrasta’s comedy villainy doesn’t help, and a gang of very stupid bandits really is the limit. I’ve read people grumble that the bandits are played for laughs but they aren’t funny. No, they’re played for laughs among seven year-olds, which makes them very funny to that audience, although not really anybody older than that. Add in Tom Baker looking like he’s having a great time being silly and having fun at the expense of the drama, and some very Douglas Adams comedy about the Doctor reading Beatrix Potter and teaching himself Tibetan and you’ve got a story that isn’t serious in the slightest, but it’s mostly very fun to watch.

Helping matters: down in the pit eking out a meager existence while hiding from the mysterious creature, it’s our old pal Geoffrey Bayldon in the role of an astrologer who got on the villain’s bad side some time previously. It took a gentle prod, but our son did recognize who Bayldon was. “…Catweazle?” he asked, and I cheered inside. Marie’s pretty lousy recognizing actors as well. “Even I knew who that was,” she smiled.

This leads me to a fingers crossed moment. “The Creature From the Pit” was taped shortly after the first series of Worzel Gummidge was made. Bayldon co-starred with Jon Pertwee in this completely wonderful and anarchic comedy. The show has been released on DVD, but I’ve never read a good word about the quality of the film prints, so I decided against buying it, hoping against hope that the show might be restored and rereleased before our son gets too old to care. (The beat-up old VHS boots I had in the mid-nineties were bad enough!) Well, last week, we got a hesitant step toward that pipe dream: a complete set of negatives for all thirty of the British-made episodes was discovered. We’re hoping for more information soon!

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Doctor Who: City of Death (parts three and four)

The great big question, of course, is not whether the Doctor, Romana, and Duggan will save all of human history by defeating Scaroth on the shores of primeval Earth four hundred million years ago, but whether our son would come to his senses and enjoy this story. Happily, he did, and even conceded that the first half was also pretty exciting. Of course he enjoyed Duggan. Heroes in Doctor Who who just want to punch and thump their way through the narrative are pretty rare, so Duggan’s fists-first approach resulted in a few giggles. When Duggan observes “That’s a spaceship!” in part four, how could you not just love the guy?

But our son is also very clear that Scaroth is, somehow, one of the creepiest and scariest of all Who monsters. “He’s just got one eye, and no nose, and no mouth,” he told me with some urgency. He also loved/hated the part where Catherine Schell unrolls an old parchment to see that one of the green-skinned, one-eyed splinters of Scaroth was hanging out in ancient Egypt with Thoth and Horus and, presumably, Sutekh, and I could feel our son’s skin crawl across the sofa.

Part four also has the delightful cameo appearance of Eleanor Bron and John Cleese as a pair of art snobs critiquing the TARDIS, as they’ve mistaken it for an installation in a gallery. When it dematerializes, Bron, without a note of passion in her quiet voice, calls the installation “exquisite,” having no real idea what she’s seen. I love this bit. It certainly takes you out of the story to see John Cleese making a cameo, but it’s so funny that it’s impossible to object. The whole production’s like this. If there’s a flaw anywhere, who cares.

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Doctor Who: City of Death (parts one and two)

If there’s a person on the planet who doesn’t think that “City of Death” is one of the all-time best Doctor Who stories, then naturally, that little contrarian would be sitting on the sofa with us, complaining that Julian Glover is too evil a villain, and that his alien other-self is too creepy and scary. I’ve shown several people this story over the years. Trust our seven year-old to be the first and certainly the only one to grumble about it being creepy.

Never mind him. “City of Death” is a magically witty, silly, and clever story with hilarious characters and some of the most consistently funny dialogue in the history of the program. The serial has an unusual origin. It started life as “The Gamble With Time,” a four-parter written by David Fisher and set in Monte Carlo, where the Doctor and Romana teamed up with a detective meant to be a pastiche of Bulldog Drummond to investigate a mysterious count using alien technology to manipulate casinos. At the eleventh hour, with most of the serial actually cast and rehearsals set to begin, “Gamble” was finally abandoned, in part probably because nobody in 1979 still cared about Bulldog Drummond, and, over four frantic days, Douglas Adams and Graham Williams rebuilt it into “City of Death.” They rushed off to France to film everybody jogging around Paris, and everything just clicked completely.

The rest is history. Accompanied by a publicity blitz surrounding Doctor Who‘s first overseas filming, “City of Death” hit the hugest ratings in the program’s history. In part that’s because ITV was actually on strike for the first three Saturdays this aired, but part four still had an audience of more than 16 million people. It’s one of the most amazingly quotable Who stories, although our son was baffled why I burst out laughing when the Doctor tells the countess “Well, you’re a beautiful woman, probably.”

Joining Julian Glover for this wonderful romp, there’s David Graham – still the voice of Parker from Thunderbirds – along with Catherine Schell, Tom Chadbon, and Peter Halliday in a small role. You’ve got seven Mona Lisas, timeslips, Louis XV chairs, alien technology, running through Paris, and a detective who’s very anxious to “thump” anybody. Even if this was creepy and scary, which it most certainly is not, I can’t imagine not loving this completely. Ah, well, our son does tend to enjoy the second half of Who adventures more than the first, so we’ll see what tomorrow night brings!

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