Doctor Who S15E95 – The Sun Makers

And so, some fifteen short seasons in, we reach The Sun Makers.

Tom Baker is the Doctor again here, resplendent in practical tweed rather than the signature greatcoat ensemble.  On damsel in distress duty is Louise Jameson’s Leela, and it’s not hard to see why.  Looking like she’s just fallen out of One Million Years BC, The BBC were evidently targeting the ‘dads’ demographic when they dreamt up this character.  Except, she’s not just a pair of inordinately long legs in a leather bikini, and come to think of it she ain’t in distress all that much either.  Whilst elsewhere in the Empire in 1977 the Queen was busy having a Jubilee, Auntie Beeb were giving us girl power in the shape of a primitive savage with a beltful of knives.  Oh, and she’s intelligent too.  Progressive stuff!

The Doctor and Leela land on the roof of an office block on Pluto.  The premise, we later discover, is that The Company have manufactured artificial suns in order to sustain life after, uh, something handwavy happens with the Earth.  Then as you do when you’ve built a few stars, you tax the everloving crap out of everyone who wants to use it for self-indulgent luxuries like, oh I don’t know, staying alive, for instance.

Turns out, what we’ve got here is a system where the rich get richer, the poor get poorer, and there’s a revolting underclass outside the system indulging in half-hearted acts of rebellion.  It’s a lot like Dune.  Or 21st Century England.

The supporting cast are a reasonably entertaining bunch.  The bureaucrats are pure Douglas Adams: the self-satisfied Gatherer’s mannerisms perhaps inspiration for the Thermians in Galaxy Quest, and his boss the Collector is the amalgamation of every obsessed bean-counter stereotype ever.  Unfortunately the leader of the underclass is instantly forgettable, but I suppose you can’t have everything.

We’ve also got the first appearence (in my rewatch list) of K9.  First impressions, he’s a lot bigger than I remember!  It’s a bit of a strange character, part intellectual genius and part ‘good dog, sit, stay, sic him, back to your kennel, have a biscuit.’ It feels a bit like having a precocious child savant on the team.

On the whole a reasonable tale, but a bit of a bureaucratic-monster-of-the-week anticlimax after the stellar Genesis of the Daleks.

Doctor Who S12E78 – Genesis of the Daleks

On to the first Fourth Doctor story we’re watching.  Moreover, the first of “my” Doctor’s stories.

I say “my”, as though this is the Doctor I’ve grown up with.  And it kind of is, in the literal sense, but in truth I was very young when it was aired and I spent most of my viewing time stereotypically hiding behind various soft furnishings.  So whilst through Rose-tinted specs I remember the Tom Baker era as being the ‘best’ Doctor, in truth I barely remember any it.


The opening premise is simple enough.  The Time Lords hijack the Doctor in order to get him to intervene with goings-on on Skaro, to avoid a future Dalek-molested universe.  Slight problem, they’ve landed in the middle of a warzone.

I’ve always “remembered” Tom Baker as having a degree of menace about him which was missing from other Doctors.  I see now that perhaps I’ve done him a disservice all these years.  What he really brings to the table is gravitas and otherworldliness; he’s the first Doctor that you can actually believe is from another planet.  Indeed, it’s actually quite hard to believe that Tom Baker isn’t an alien.

Companions present here are a startlingly young-looking Sarah-Jane Smith, and an immediately forgettable Harry Somethingorother.  Sarah-Jane actually makes a comparatively decent companion, striking a healthy balance between being a readily rescuable plot device and reasonably capable support crew.  And Harry is, uh, a Harry.

Story wise, the clue is in the title; what we’ve got here is the Daleks’ origin story.  Like most people perhaps, I already knew the basic tale; two planetary races at war, Davros creates the Dalek superficially as a life support / transport system for his people, but secretly designs them to be a survivalistic Master Race primed to take over the universe.  As you do.

“Master race,” it seems, is a wholly appropriate description.  The pre-mutation Kaleds are Gestapo in all but name, though I can’t help but see them less ‘Third Reich’ and more ‘Allo ‘Allo, complete with leads in the form of Lieutenant Gruber and Herr Flick.  This association meant that perhaps they were a tad less menacing to me now than they might’ve been in the mid-70s.

Nevertheless, there’s malevolence aplenty to be had elsewhere.  Davros is absolutely brilliant in design and execution, Michael Wisher putting in a stellar performance despite the obvious restrictions imposed on his acting.  Smooth-talking politician one minute, passing through obsessed scientist into out-and-out psychotic nutcase the next.  When he’s in full-on rant mode, it’s suddenly quite clear that the Dalek acorns didn’t fall so far from the tree.

Which brings me to the titular Daleks themselves.  They’re early in their evolution sure, but even with 70s production values they’re still absolutely terrifying, badass psychopaths.  And I say that with no degree of hyperbole. Having recently been watching the modern shows and some of the very earliest shows, it was hard to understand how Doctor Who ever gave generations of kids the willies; this, right here, is how.  It’s dark, it’s tense, and it’s genuinely scary.  With other Doctors at the helm it might’ve all been a bit too much, but the counterpoint to all this is the Fourth Doctor’s sometimes childlike irreverence and mischievous sense of humour, which prevents the whole thing from taking itself too seriously.

As we’ve seen before, all this would fall flat with a weak story, but thankfully it’s well scripted.  There’s quite a lot of to-ing and fro-ing as befits a story of political intrigue, and being Who there’s never any shortage of people in peril requiring rescuing from one faction only to then need rescuing from their rescuers, which makes for a dynamic plot.  In terms of padding it’s still not perfect but it’s considerably less bloated than some of its predecessors, and as a result it’s highly enjoyable viewing. Good stuff.

Doctor Who S10E65 – The Three Doctors

Or, to give it its proper title, The Two Point One Doctors.  Hartnell’s ill health meant that the First Doctor’s role was reduced to a couple of cameo slots where he imparts advice “trapped in time” on a viewscreen.

The standout feature of this story is the interplay between the Doctors, alternately bickering, helping each other, and generally gently winding each other up.  It’s pretty much what you’d expect, and that’s no bad thing.  Pertwee’s costume has evolved into something less silly and the character generally seems a lot more mature, and Troughton’s performance is as much of a joy to watch as I’d expected.  The whole thing is played for laughs, which is a long-overdue shot in the arm for the show.

Downsides are Jo Grant being as pointless as ever, and an otherwise robust plot is marred with far too much running and SHOUTING.  Which is a shame, cos there’s a lot going on. We’ve got Omega, an old Time Lord who created the power source which made time travel possible; the Time Lords in some sort of mission control back at Gallifey; and a game-changer ending.  Omega in particular, driven spare by being stuck in a black hole on his own for yonks, is full of RAGE and SHOUTS a lot.  He wants the Doctors to keep him company, a prospect not akin to spending an eternity in a cupboard with Brian Blessed.  “WOULD YOU LIKE A CUP OF TEA?” he’d ask, probably.

So yeah.  A Third Doctor story that’s well worth watching, largely because it’s got the Second Doctor in it.

Doctor Who S07E54 – Inferno

Ok, technical hitch resolved, we’re back to Inferno.  Straight off the bat I’d like to say, this is more like it.

Inferno fixes many of the problems present in Claws of Axos.  Or rather, I suppose, Claws breaks a lot of things that were present in Inferno.  Apart from one particularly poor scene we’ve dodged the ‘acid trip FX’ bullet, meaning that it’s actually watchable.

It’s a cracking little story, with a pretty exceptional “parallel universe” sub-plot that Star Trek owes a large debt of gratitude towards, and Nick Courtney is clearly having a lot of fun as “Brigade Leader.”  It’s a bit creaky in places, but from what I’ve watched so far this seems to be a bit of a theme of Classic Who generally; there’s a fair bit of padding in places where presumably they’re making the story fit the time slot.  But anyway.

Pertwee’s Doctor gets to stretch his legs a bit here, and it turns out he’s a bit more of a man of action; rooftop chases, fisticuffs, and all.  He’s also a smug, sarcastic, arrogant git, walking a fine line between cheeky and abnoxious.

Companion Liz Shaw is out of a different mould from Jo Grant, being that she’s actually vaguely useful and everything.  I’m told that she was pretty short lived as a companion; presumably, in the 70s having a female character with a brain was stretching the bounds of fiction too far even for Doctor Who.

Other than that, yeah, not a lot to add.  I suspect that these reviews are going to start getting shorter. (-:  Fun episode.

Doctor Who S08E57 – The Claws of Axos

For long and boring reasons, I watched Claws of Axos next instead of Inferno. And I’ll be honest, it was a struggle.

I came into this little project knowing that I’m not going to see 21st Century production values on 1960s televsion, but so far I’ve been pleasantly surprised.  Claws of Axos, however, has aged badly.

Where to start.  I think a fundemental problem is that, whilst broadcast quality had come on leaps and bounds since William Hartnell’s days, everything else hadn’t.  Grainy black and white footage hides a multitude of sins which are painfully apparent in glorious technicolour, and I can’t shake the feeling that the production team were still mentally in B&W.

On top of this, the feel of the show is very much of its time.  We’ve got late 60s / early 70s zoomy imagery and trippy visual ‘effects’ which at best look bloody awful and at worst mean that you can’t actually see what’s going on (though this might not actually be a bad thing at times).  Similarly, the score is 1970 “futuristic,” all 8-bit computer game synths and horror movie “it’s behind you” strings.

But of course, we should look beyond this.  It’s not why we’re here and we expected it to be ropey in places.  What’s important is how the story and characterisation stacks up.  And, well, it doesn’t.

Some of the ingredients are there. Pertwee’s Doctor seems to be an interesting take on the role, but he never quite gets going and isn’t on screen enough for me to really form an opinion one way or another.  We’ve got arch-villain The Master who I was really looking forward to seeing in action; he looks the part certainly, a proper Victorian mustache-twirling nutcase fresh out of a Hammer movie, but sadly the performance just isn’t there.  He spends most of his time being captured by various factions when he should be out there tying companions to railway lines and practicing his cackle.  Far from being the universe’s master villan, he’s about as evil as Ready Brek.

We’ve also got the fondly regarded Brigadier present and correct.  In what seems to be a recurring theme here now though is, I just wanted him to be better, though to be fair I don’t think one show is enough to see his range.  I can see why the character is popular but the performance felt stilted, like he’s standing around not knowing what to do with himself until he has to deliver his lines, at which point he sparks into life, does his bit with aplomb, then goes back into being scenery until he hits the next direction in the script.  I feel I’m doing him a disservice here though, and I’ll reserve judgement for now because I don’t actually think it’s his fault, which I’ll get to in a moment.

Companions, well, this is 1971, so a tick was put in the box marked “pretty blonde in a short skirt, continually requires rescuing, screams a lot.”  Add a pompous ass with a fondness for cake who’s in charge of Being Aggressively British at people, and that’s about your lot.

Pardon?  Oh, if I must.  There’s also the Axos.  Stereotypical ‘bad FX’ monster of the week, they initially show up as benevolent life-size Oscar awards, but… can you guess the twist?  Yes, they’re really all tentacles and gloop intent of sucking all the life out of the planet in a contrived manner.  Or, they would be, if they hadn’t been built by High School class 4B out of sticky-backed plastic (for speed) and bits of old carpet.

All of this would be forgivable with a good plot.  But this is where it all falls down, it’s simply badly scripted.  This is why we can’t lay the blame on the shoulders of Roger Delgado, Jo Grant et al; they’re doing the best with what they’ve got.  It’s slow, clunky, and feels like they’re making it up as they go along.  Which, I can’t help but think, is a real shame.  It could have been good; it *should* have been good.

And with that in mind, next up is The Three Doctors.

Doctor Who S05E37 – The Tomb of the Cybermen

Step two in my Great Classic Who (Re)Watch.  Patrick Troughton’s opener.

Immediately apparent here is that this story is a paradigm shift from Hartnell’s first appearance; though, we are four unseen seasons (and four years) on.

One of the first things that hit me was just how *good* Troughton is.  In comparison to WH, he is immediately recognisably “The Doctor” as we know him today.  He’s got a lovely mix of intelligence and fun going on, and one of the most expressive faces I’ve ever seen on the small screen.  He’s just so very watchable, and I’m gutted that most of his shows are now sadly lost.

As for the other main characters: We have a female Companion who’s a walking stereotype but, again, this was aired five years before I was born so was it even a cliché back then?  Who knows.  The other Companion is Jamie, one very young Frazer Hines resplendent with kilt and pish-poor Scottish drawl.  He’s actually pretty entertaining, but I just couldn’t get part watching an early 20’s Joe Sugden with a bad accent and a skirt.

Plot wise, I’ve struggled with this.  I think a big problem is that it’s very difficult to judge a show on the back of one ‘episode’ and know whether it’s intentional plotting or bad scripting.  The thrust of the story is that the Doctor happens across an archaeological dig party researching the long-dead civilisation of the Cybermen.  They quickly run into difficulties, and the Doctor spends most of the story helping them whilst telling them that what they’re doing is a really bad idea.  As a story arc this could be him battling his desperate curiosity which is at odds with wanting to do the right thing; it could be him trying not to meddle by getting in the way; he could be trying to keep control to stop things getting out of hand; or it could be downright bad writing.  In isolation, it’s hard to tell.

Similarly, there’s some jarring attitudes.  The RP-speaking men have an air of “well, you’re only women” about them, and a large black man plays a “bodyguard” who’s ostensibly a slave.  How much of this is scripted (ie, are they sexist characters intentionally?) and how much is just a reflection of prevalent 1960’s attitudes, I don’t know.

The antagonists, well, we all know what the Cybermen become, which is enough to add an air of tension to the tale on its own.  The 60s incarnations are clearly men in suits and are difficult to hear, but nonetheless manage to carry an air of creepy malevolence about them.

But I’m nit-picking.  Illogical character motivations and forty-five year old special effects aside, I really enjoyed this.  Patrick Troughton really defines the character by which another nine actors would be judged by, or at least he would if anyone ever watched it.

Doctor Who S01E01 – An Unearthly Child

I’ve now watched all of An Unearthly Child.

I’m glad I did. It’s very interesting on a number of levels, not least of which being the humble beginnings.

When it first started I was appalled by the production values; even given its age (1963?) it was terrible quality, barely visible as to what was going on. Fortunately this was just a side-effect of trying to film someone creeping around in the dark and was mostly sorted once the episode started proper.

Plot wise it’s actually not all that bad, though pacing is a bit slow in places. The first part is a corker, dealing with the mystery surrounding the eponymous “Child,” Susan Foreman, and her secretive grandfather. Two teachers take a received-pronunciation interest in her contradictory school results, leading to concern when her home address turns out not to exist. At the end of the episode however, the plot takes a sharp left turn as all they TARDIS off into the stone age.

We then spend the next three episodes involved in a tribal power struggle hinging on their inability to make fire. This in and of itself isn’t a bad story, but it would’ve been a lot better if they’d done it over two episodes (or even one) rather than spun out over three. Plus it’s hard to shake the feeling that someone’s changed channels after the first episode, so I never really engaged with the caveman story because I spent most of it thinking “hey, but I was watching that!”

Character wise, Susan makes for an interesting and fairly unique companion in that she already knows The Doctor and who / what he is. Of the two schoolteachers, the bloke makes a good counterpoint to the frail old Doctor, lending some muscle and presence to the group. The woman brings, well, this is the BBC in the early 60s, so she doesn’t bring as much as she could. She’s the empathy in the group perhaps, making sure that they do the Right Thing. (I’m assuming all three become ‘companions’ as we know them rather than just being protagonist-of-the-month, but I don’t know for sure.)

Which leaves us with The Doctor. It’s kinda weird to see the origins of a character which by definition (these days) regenerates with a new personality every few seasons. Nonetheless, this isn’t the Doctor we know; arguably perhaps, this is a Doctor long overdue for regenerating. He’s an old man playing an old man, and whilst he can be charming and enigmatic with idiosyncratic tics mm?, he’s also insular and impatient. Moreover, he’s also pretty useless, and this for me was where the whole thing came crashing down. He makes bad decisions, and spends a good chunk of the story either absent, unconscious, or being rescued.

I think perhaps this wouldn’t be an issue if we didn’t know what the show becomes. Seeing this when it was fresh and new would’ve been mind-blowing, I’m sure. Now it’s obviously dated, but it does still hold up better than you might expect. It’s got its fault but it’s surprising how much has endured some fifty years later. The iconic image of the TARDIS is fully realised and as identical as makes no odds (externally) to its current incarnation, and that sound effect is present and correct from day one, guaranteed to put a smile on your face.

Overall, I’m glad I watched it, and I’d recommend others do too. Even just viewed as a history lesson, it’s pretty interesting stuff.

The Great Classic Doctor Who Rewatch

A little while ago on Mono I posed the following question:

A lot of the ‘classic’ Who passed me by. If I were to go back and watch, say, one episode (or one story) for each Doctor, what would people recommend? I’m thinking of something which sums up the character of each incarnation, or is the ‘best’ story for each one.

I received a number of helpful responses, and compiled the following list (adding the ‘x’ Doctors stories under my own steam, as I vaguely remember them being fun):

s01e01 An Unearthly Child

s05e37 The Tomb of the Cybermen

s07e54 Inferno
s08e57 The Claws of Axos
s10e65 The Three Doctors

s12e78 Genesis of the Daleks
s15e95 The Sun Makers
s17e105 City of Death

s20e126 Mawdryn Undead
s20e130 The Five Doctors
s21e136 Caves of Androzani

s22e140 Mark Of The Rani
s22e141 The Two Doctors
s22e143 Revelation of the Daleks

s23e144 The Mysterious Planet (ToaTL)
s23e145 Mindwarp (ToaTL)
s23e146 Terror of the Vervoids (ToaTL)
s23e147 The Ultimate Foe (ToaTL)

s25e152 Remembrance of the Daleks
s26e158 Curse of Fenric

I know that’s a lot of Colin. I’ll see how much of a will to live I have left
after the first few before embarking on Trial and make a decision then.

I’m going to post reviews here as I go.