Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Stones of Blood

24/06/11 “The Stones of Blood”
Romana: Is Earth always like that?
The Doctor: Yes, sometimes it’s even exciting.

I love “Stones of Blood,” and I’ve been trying to figure out why. Certainly it’s a good example of Gothic horror (despite the largely female cast, you cannot call it a female Gothic because the threats are real and do kill people, they do not just exist in the mind)—I am not really familiar with Hammer Horror so I can’t comment on that. It also has a surprisingly small principal cast and the last episode would arguably work better on radio than on TV—so it must appeal to that part of my brain that likes radio plays so much. While I do not deny that at least twenty minutes could have been shaved off to combine episodes three and four into one, episode one is practically flawless. I stand by that opinion.

At the beginning, the Doctor and Romana are tracking down the third segment of the Key to Time. The Doctor starts out being quite patronizing, but much of that melts away throughout the story. He is genuinely excited when they find out the segment is on Earth. “Have I got a treat in store for you!” Romana says it’s his favorite planet. “How do you know that?” “Everyone knows that.” Meanwhile, on Earth, in England, the 1970s obsession with black magic and rites continues on apace; yawn. Yet, I would say that this and “The Daemons” are the best examples of this and the rest rather hide in their shadows (aside from Spectre of Lanyon Moor which borrows liberally and effectively from both). The rite, I should say, involves neo-Druids of some sort making a blood sacrifice to a Celtic goddess named the Cailleach (though it does sound like the chanters are chanting, “Carry on!”). The blood is slaked on some rather freaky standing stones. Plus some wonderfully moody cello music from Dudley Simpson; this and “Ribos Operation” are his best work so far, in my opinion.

Romana is quite hopelessly naïve, but at least her dress sense has recovered from that detour it took in “Pirate Planet”: she’s got a flashy but bold orange ensemble with a plaid hat and “those shoes”—1970s high heels that even the Doctor disapproves of. “I’m not a fashion expert . . .” “No.” (Companions tend to have similar quips throughout his life. It’s amusing.) There’s quite a strange scene (inserted, it is true, because the first episode under-ran) where the Doctor explains to Romana quite what is going on. “What would I do if something happened to you?” The Doctor quite sensibly takes an umbrella out onto the moor, which in fact he doesn’t need. Romana attempts to decipher his remark about tennis, but K9’s response is too literal, and when she tells him to forget it, he “erases memory banks concerning tennis.”

They have landed in what looks like Avebury (stone circle). It’s a wonderful setting, and despite the inability to coordinate studio lighting for the night scenes with the outdoor (video!) recording, it’s still rather impressive. It was perhaps wise that “The Pandorica Opens” dispensed with what ground was covered here. Romana looks like a freak holding out the tracer like a divining rod as she searches for the segment. They are interrupted in their search by Professor Amelia Rumford, an absolutely fabulous character who should have been a companion (and in a way was, for Dr Evelyn Smythe is at least partially inspired by her; surely the bit about the foogoos is a giveaway?). Amelia mistakes the Doctor for an expert in the field. “You read that paper on them [the foogoos].” The Doctor plays along and recognizes her as eminent in stone circle archaeology—“you’re too kind,” she says, “but perfectly right.” The Doctor recognizes blood on the stones just as Amelia’s assistant Miss Vivian Fay arrives, looking dashingly late ‘70s in her pink pant suit. “Just another sacrifice.” “I think you dismiss them too easily,” says Amelia. They refer to Mr De Vries’ cult. “He doesn’t like scientists.”

The Doctor wants to go talk to De Vries who lives in a nearby mansion, but Romana can’t keep up because of her shoes. David Fisher’s handling of Amelia’s feminism is a bit heavy-handed—“typical male”—but her actions speak louder than her words. Romana, meanwhile, stays behind with the women at the circle and ruminates on the “evil-looking” crows/ravens (an odd thing for Romana to say, but she is quite inexperienced—strange she didn’t think the Schrivenzale looked evil when she first saw it!). Romana is offered a “mug of tea.” A wonderful location is De Vries’ house; what a fantastic (and convincing) Tudor mansion. De Vries himself looks like a bank teller; I really want to know why he’s been drawn into this Druidic fascination. Since the cult of the Cailleach is so overwhelmingly female, what’s his interest? What does he do? How can he afford the upkeep of such a house? He tells the Doctor that the last visiting archaeologist died when a stone fell on him. The Doctor notices the missing paintings on the walls (very Gothic) and De Vries says it was the previous owners of the estate, Lady Morgana Montcalm, Mrs Trefussis, Señora Camara (very Gothic and Arthurian names). The Doctor has a wonderful monologue about Druids, which is quite erudite and yet moves at a breathtaking pace: “there’s so little of it that’s historically accurate.” He says John Aubrey the antiquarian made it up as a joke. De Vries is not in a joking mood. “The stones are sacred.” “To whom?” The Doctor is startled by the “appearance” of the Cailleach, and De Vries knocks him out. Romana’s been lured away in the dark toward the cliff edge; it’s almost as if it’s that moment in Jane Eyre when Rochester and Jane can hear each other even though physically they’re apart. Anyway, although it is very much a literal cliffhanger, with Romana falling down the side of the mountain, it’s not that satisfying.

Romana has to hang there for quite a long time as De Vries and his wife?/lover? Martha is trying to persuade him not to kill the Doctor for a blood sacrifice at the stones. They are interrupted by the return of Amelia who unties the Doctor. Amelia wishes they had a dog so they could find where Romana has disappeared to. That’s when the Doctor summons K9; “I am not programmed to bark.” They do find Romana on the cliff edge and eventually help her back up; however, she believes the Doctor is evil and they determine that someone has been using transformative powers to trick Romana. The Doctor goes back to confront De Vries in a further attempt to figure out what’s going on; Romana goes to Vivien Fay’s cottage to look over Amelia’s notes. The Doctor finds the corpses of De Vries and Martha buried under rubble, which we saw was caused by moving, animate stones. Now, the moving stones are a wonderful idea and a great Gothic Horror device; I had to think of the story “Man-Sized Marble” where two stone villains come out of their tombs to kill people. When the stones return, K9 is able to fend them off but is ripped to shreds in the process. Romana and the Doctor have to take five to repair him and for Romana to get some decent shoes (she’s been climbing up the cliff face barefoot!).

She in fact changes her entire outfit, into a nice red broom skirt in the second wardrobe triumph of the story. When Amelia meets K9 for the first time, the Doctor says, “He’s mechanical. They’re all the rage in Trenton, NJ.” WTF? Much has been made of Professor Rumford and Vivien sharing the cottage, and fans for some reason have worked themselves into a lather on whether they’re a lesbian couple. If so, it’s not exactly liberating, when you consider the fate of Vivien and the (unseen) emotional impact it must have on Amelia! The feminine/feminist angle continues when Romana notices that all the landholders of the moor and the stones have been women for 4,000 years. Vivien oh-so-charmingly tries to put her off the scent. With Evelyn Smythe’s determination, Amelia decides to go after the Doctor as he has not returned from De Vries’. She is quite proudly carrying a truncheon with her, which Vivien wittily notes got Amelia arrested in New York. When there, the Doctor notes that there must be a hidden passage and correctly links the raven symbol of the Cailleach. “A priest hole!” “Well, it is old enough.”

Thus follows a wonderfully Gothic scene (Dorian Gray but doubles are a hugely Gothic theme) where the Doctor and Amelia find all the missing paintings of the previous owners, who of course are all Vivien Fay. The Doctor puts it all together, and it’s wonderfully dripping with atmosphere. However, here and many other times down the line, I think about Amelia’s position and how strange and hurtful the story must be from this point on. Her friend (and probably lover) is older than 4,000 years? She’s impersonating a Celtic goddess? She presumably has a hidden agenda and bad intentions? What did Amelia and Vivien discuss if they were lovers? How strong was the bond between them? I doubt they considered themselves soulmates—maybe it was just a fling?

In any case, Romana takes it upon herself to go visit the stone circle. She doesn’t twig that Vivien is dressed rather strangely and allows herself to be thrown into the circle and spirited away to unknown climes. I should mention at this point that the Cailleach costume is amazing. It’s so eerie and weird but also wonderfully simple.

In the next episode, the Doctor and Amelia are interrupted by the arrival of the traveling stone. The Doctor tells her to “Run!” Amelia tries to get her head around this situation. “I think it our duty to capture that creature!” she says fearlessly. They are able to get rid of one of the stones by making it fall off the cliff (how stupid is a stone?). They then reach the stone circle where Vivien tells them that Romana will be safe (and far away) as long as the Doctor desists in his meddling. The Doctor can’t, however, for the obvious reasons, and also because “You’ve got something I need.” She, however, disappears. The Doctor realizes the stones are Ogri from the planet Ogros. He also says that as silicon-based lifeforms that survive on amino acids, they have to get them from blood. An understandably distraught Amelia cries, “What about Vivien? What about Romana?” As ever, I am interested in the particularly psychologically damaging situations that Who glosses over. Steven Taylor being on Mechanus all by himself (with just the panda)? Vicki under the control of Bennett? And Amelia—she can’t really process during the story what this betrayal from Vivien means, but think of after the Doctor and Romana leave.

The Doctor, perhaps mercifully, directs Amelia’s mind toward hyperspace, a theoretical impossibility but one where he expects Romana and Vivien are hidden. There’s a wonderfully erudite and fast-moving scene between the Doctor and Amelia in the cottage with K9 being smug; some of my favorite lines from Doctor Who come from this scene. The Doctor, rather Pertwee-esque, constructs a machine that he hopes will beam him onto the hyperspace ship. However, it has a very small range. He and Amelia set it up in the stone circle but at first it doesn’t seem to work. Amelia is again overworked and apologizes. “There is an error in the circuitry—you are not to blame.” “We’re not all programmed for perfection, you know!” says the Doctor. However, he fixes the machine, and Amelia and K9 beam him up. They have decided to keep operating the machine at regular intervals so the Doctor can return. However, they are hampered in their attempts by attacking Ogri, who K9 manages to fend off. Next follows an infamous, rather “Image of Fendahl” scene where two campers are killed by one of the Ogri (how efficient at feeding can they possibly be if they have to cause their prey to touch them?). It’s a vivid, suspenseful scene. Rather new Who-esque. There is some great music.

Aboard the hyperspace ship, the Doctor finds a chained up Romana without much difficulty, sets her free, and they discuss the implications. Interesting model design of the ship, though the actual set is a bit duller. “How do you decelerate infinite mass?” It’s the Bidmead era that wanted to be so hard science-driven, but I’m finding a lot more (purported/theoretical) science in this season. The Doctor and Romana go around opening vaults, finding skeletons, and the Doctor speculates they’re on a convict ship. When they open an apparently empty room, releasing the “invisible” occupants, it makes me think of the nanogenes in “The Empty Child” / “The Doctor Dances.” With the Megara , the justice machines, I think visual and vocal performance match up really well, and the actors do pretty well acting to thin air. This whole bit is interesting but quite a radical shift from the rest of the action and could be, as I said before, twenty minutes shorter. But, as I said, this is the part that could have worked really well on radio. As you can probably guess, they defend “the letter but not the spirit” of the law and want to execute the Doctor for having broken the seals on their container.

Vivien has found the opportunity to change into a stunning, silvery, scanty, somewhat Boudiccca-esque dress and is a bit Eldrad-glam with silvery skin. She beams down to Earth to destroy the machine; Amelia can neither stop her nor does Vivien take the opportunity to kill Amelia. However, the episode ends as the Doctor and Romana are apparently trapped in hyperspace forever, with the Doctor’s execution imminent.

The Doctor’s trial takes place on the hyperspace ship, and he is allowed to defend himself (randomly he seems to carry a judge’s wig in his pocket). He does a masterful job, as you can expect, calling Romana to be a witness as well as trying to involve “Vivien” in an attempt to discover her true identity. A drained K9 awakens Amelia’s sympathies—“are you better, dear?” K9 is determined to build a new machine. “You will work under my direction,” he tells Amelia. And in fact Amelia rises to the challenge. I have always liked K9 in the abstract but found his contribution to stories to be mixed at best, annoying at worst. However, in the past two stories at least he has proven himself to be quite useful, amusing, and vital.

With the machine now working, Romana is able to beam back where she and Amelia try hard to discover Vivien’s identity. An interesting thread that doesn’t go far is that she has an allergy to citric acid. Independently the Doctor is discovering aboard the ship that she is Cessair of Diplos, a wanted criminal who, among other crimes, took the Seal of Diplos which has many snazzy powers. His attempts to get her to confess this are foiled, but (in a somewhat weak plot point after his rather dashing defense) he grabs Vivien and drags her into the beam that was supposed to kill him. The Megara are forced to read her mind to see if she is injured, and thus realize that she is actually the criminal. She is sentenced to perpetual imprisonment. The Doctor grabs the necklace off her neck before she is changed into a stone (Paul Cornell surely took inspiration here!) in the circle and left there. The Doctor has also cleverly gotten away from the insatiable Megara (ungrateful swine). As he, Romana, and K9 go on their way with the third segment to the Key to Time in their possession, Amelia says, “Poor Vivien—I can’t help feeling sorry for her.”

This was great fun.

Monday, June 20, 2011

The Pirate Planet

19/06/11 “The Pirate Planet”
“People often overlook the obvious.” --The Doctor

This is the first time I’ve ever seen this story, and the impression overall is of writing that is literally taking an air car over the rest of the production. This means, in real terms, that the first two episodes were quite dull and that the final revelations in the second half made the action pick up quite a lot. The story is one that works wonderfully in a format like Doctor Who and is something the latter-day two-parters are built on: a story arc that rewards you for continuing to watch and see how deep the corruption and plotting goes. However, I just wonder how it will fare in repeated viewings, given there was so much else in the production that I didn’t like at all.

I shouldn’t be so unfair as to allow the story to be dragged down by peripherals like the limitations of special effects, costumes, sets, and supporting actors (this is Doctor Who, after all!) but it’s so painful in comparison to “The Ribos Operation” that came just before it. The idea of a pirate planet hopping around the universe and pillaging the mineral wealth of planets while crushing the life out of them is inventive and works well in the Doctor Who universe, and ingeniously helps out the special effects team by making the population of Zanak unaware of its fate other than “the lights changing.” However, that unfortunately reduces Zanac visually to an extremely dull and bland cityscape populated with terribly irritating costumes, the mountain/bridge to an unconvincing organic-looking model, and the location shots don’t integrate well at all. And I haven’t even gotten to the acting. Or the heavy-handed music.

Hmm, I’m not even sure where to start. The outfits on the bridge are studded with metal and immediately make me think of Blake’s 7, as do the hairstyles. Mr Fibuli, on the other hand, seems to be wearing something straight out of Star Wars. The Captain is a blustering bully with overblown phrases (“I’ll have your bones bleached!”, etc), and despite the nuancing we learn of him later, I still lose patience with him and his acting. Something flies off his shoulder and for a long time I try to figure out what it is. Turns out it’s a cybernetic parrot with only one function: to kill. Now, I am rather amused by the idea of our idea of the Golden Age of piracy being transferred to the future in far outer space, but the Captain’s costume and his pathetic bird really make the imagination droop rather than cause it to soar. Once again the idea is great but the execution less so.

The Mentiads, besides being dressed in God-knows-what, are quite an unmotivated bunch of extras (even for zombies/a gestalt of telepaths) which demonstrate their proclivity for this over and over. Meanwhile, in the TARDIS, the Doctor, Romana and K9 are homing in on the second segment of the Key to Time, and I have to wonder if some time (and other adventures) have passed between this and “Ribos Operation,” simply because the relationship between the Doctor and Romana has really improved. They seem to have won each other over. Romana has definitely gotten over acting childish, though the same cannot entirely be said of the Doctor. I like the heroic role K9 takes in this story, but his facetious sides are a bit trying. The Doctor declares that finding the next segment will be a “piece of cake.” Romana is unable to operate the TARDIS because she didn’t take the module on “veteran and vintage vehicles.” “Now you’re being frivolous.” They’re looking for a planet called Calufrax and Romana wants to try to land. “By the book?” And like Martha later, she is all about going by the book (of course—it is Romana after all!). Unfortunately, even Romana can’t get out of this story unscathed as her costume is absolutely terrible. The only thing I can say in its defense is at least it’s practical. Unfortunately, and not due to any fault of her own, Romana doesn’t manage to land the TARDIS on Calufrax correctly, which causes K9 to start tripping the light fantastic.

On the bridge, as well, the Captain wonders whether Mr Fibuli is trying to “scuttle this planet?!” Some poor guy named Pralix is having a nervous fit while his father, sister Mula, and brother (or brother-in-law? I was never clear on this) Kemis look on. His father just wrings his hands and hopes the Mentiads won’t come. “It is a mistake to ask any questions.” They all have absolutely revolting costumes, though the wall murals inside their dwellings are the one redeeming feature. When the Doctor, Romana, and K9 venture outside the TARDIS, they find “this planet wasn’t there when I tried to land.” What has become of Calufrax? Romana is achieving more success talking to the locals than the Doctor. “What would SHE know about it?” the Doctor pettishly asks K9. “She is prettier than you are, Master,” replies K9. Which may be true, and is quite an amusing and quotable line, but really defeats the point—Romana’s physical attractiveness may have something to do with it, but surely it’s her charming manner that is really making the difference? She even offers jelly babies. They make the acquaintance of Kemis, a rebel-in-the-making, who gives her some jewels as if they were baubles—a nice nod to Candide. Kemis and Mula explain that the Captain announces a new age of prosperity and life is good. The Doctor follows them home, but Romana is separated and picked up by some guards.
Guard : [Taking a telescope from Romana] “This is a forbidden object.”
Romana : “Why?”
Guard : “That is a forbidden question. You are a stranger?”
Romana : “Well, yes.”
Guard : “Strangers are forbidden.”
Romana : “I did come with the Doctor.”
Guard : “Who is the . . .?”
Romana : “Ah, now don't tell me. Doctors are forbidden as well.”
All of this isn’t actually so hard to believe (which I suppose is the point, and the point of the satire). If people are kept in a reasonable state of comfortable living, they tend not to ask many questions and when forbidden from doing so, don’t make too much of a fuss. At least, Pralix’s father’s generation is this way.

The episode ending comes when the Mentiads burst in on Pralix, apparently intent on kidnapping him for climes unknown, and when the Doctor tries to intervene (in a friendly enough manner) they pin him to the wall with their psychic powers. The Mentiads leave with Pralix, and the Doctor and Kemis are determined to find out more. Mula prefers to go search out the Mentiads herself, with K9 in tow. Romana is breezy and blasé about air car travel, partially because she received one for her 70th birthday (presumably a trendy teenage gift idea on Gallifrey?). Kemis and the Doctor lure a guard away from his air car, this time by using liquorice all sorts to jelly babies (which personally I prefer anyway). Next is a wishy washy special effect, but the idea of the Doctor flying around in such a vehicle is as lovely and carefree as he and Romana II later careening through the streets of 1979 Paris. “It’s an economic miracle, of course it’s wrong,” says the doubting Doctor of Zanac’s prosperity.

Meanwhile, Romana remains calm under the questioning of the Captain, who calls her a “common space urchin.” However, the Captain’s “nurse” is more shrewd and thinks Romana’s claims about space and time travel are “interesting.” She makes a curious example of the only female role besides Romana and Mula—Mula is meant to be heroic but just spends the story tramping around in her weird outfit. Once we find out the nurse’s true identity her powerful asides in this scene become much less noteworthy (and again her costume is terrible) but they are all ideas worth considering. When the Doctor and Kemis reach the entrance to the bridge, the Doctor gives the disappointed Kemis the job of standing on guard, while the Doctor takes the short cut (“I’ll never be cruel to an electron in a particle accelerator again”). This is one of the coolest parts in the story and lo and behold, an effect that actually works!

Because the bridge is having trouble with some of the components in their big space-hopping venture, they allow Romana to live in order to examine the faulty pieces. She says that the Doctor will know more than her; a disingenuous, “I’m only his assistant.” The Doctor then obligingly shows up. The Captain allows them to take a look at the engine, only the Doctor knows that he suspects them. The Doctor lies and says that the TARDIS needs both Romana and him to open it. They manage to escape into the mine, which makes the Captain none too happy. This is the only filming that is at all interesting; it’s the showcaves in southeast Wales and look quite good, better than your average quarry. It’s here that the Doctor, Romana, and Kemis make the fatal discovery, that Zanac is hollow (though how exactly they realize that from it being “cold” I can’t recall). “Whole other worlds have died to make us rich!” However, they are then intercepted by the Mentiads in something of a recycling of the last episode’s cliffhanger. (Don’t you hate when they do that?)

Episode three is where things at last start to pick up. The definitely Federation-looking guard says, “Kill them all” as he comes upon the Doctor, Kemis, Romana, and the Mentiads, but the guards are repulsed by the Mentiads’ mental strength. Among them is the zombified Pralix; all of them escape to where K9 and Mula are waiting. (A strange Mentiad dance mix plays.) The Doctor talks to the enlightened Mentiads. “Why haven’t you kicked him [the Captain] out?” It transpires that the power-mad Queen Xanxia who apparently lived for hundreds of years (“Come on, I’ve known hundreds of people who lived for hundreds of years,” the Doctor mutters) ravaged and exploited the planet and then after her disappearance not much but roving bands of tribesmen were left. Then the Captain crashlanded and was rebuilt from scratch by someone with worryingly specialist skills.

On the bridge, the Captain and Mr Fibuli confer regarding when they will be able to achieve their next planet jump and whether or not they can find the minerals they need. They are able to find them, on Terra in the system of Sol, “a pretty planet,” whose population does not concern the Captain. However, he is abruptly starting to show some shading, especially regarding his own engineering skills. “It is not scale that counts but skill.” He is also annoyed to be “bound to this rock” and wants freedom. The Doctor and Kemis have meanwhile split up with Romana, Mula, and the Mentiads. The Doctor and Kemis are captured and bound to a pillar. In his delirium the Doctor talks about Janus thorns, which is quite sweet actually. He mocks and goads the Captain’s selfish, cruel actions—“where’s the derring do in that?”

The Captain takes the Doctor to look at his “trophy room” which shows the compressed remains of the taken planets. “Pointless but staggering,” announces the Doctor. It also shows “exquisite gravitational geometry” which prevents Zanac from becoming a big black hole. Tom Baker turns in an unexpected and quite stunning performance here: “Appreciate it . . . appreciate it! You commit mass destruction and murder on a scale that’s almost inconceivable and you ask me to appreciate it! Just because you happen to have made a brilliantly-conceived toy out of the mummified remains of planets.” Captain: “Devilstorms, Doctor . . . It is not a toy!” The Doctor: “Then what's it FOR?! What are you doing? What could possibly be worth all this?”

K9 brilliantly comes to the rescue, flying his own air car, to the astonishment of the native Zanacs. The Doctor and Kemis are able to escape, finding themselves face-to-face with the preserved death-in-life corpse of Queen Xanxia, kept alive in the last few moments before her body ceases to exist. The time dams, that which have been crushing the planets, are what’s keeping her alive. The parrot then attacks, but wonderfully K9 shoots the bugger and brings it back to the Doctor who returns it to a crushed and angry Captain. “It was becoming a great nuisance.” He then makes the Doctor walk the plank.

This, by contrast, is a very good cliffhanger, one that gets recycled in such far-flung sources as Legacy. For the Doctor has not only figured out that someone’s using a projection rather than a physical form, but he’s been able to duplicate the effect himself to a very successful degree! This is a wonderful coup for the Doctor. Romana, too, gains the upper hand when she picks up a blaster Mula has been rather inefficiently carrying around and shoots a guard with superb aim (rather like Sarah Jane in “Pyramids of Mars”), seeing as how the Mentiads’ powers have conveniently been jammed by a mechanism built for that express purpose by the Captain/the nurse. For the nurse, as the Doctor rightly deduced and I rather suspected, is actually the almost-fully-formed projection of Queen Xanxia (who has a lot of problems, let’s not mince words—and a rather surprising number of villains in Key to Time turn out to be women). The Doctor carries on goading her as he did the Captain, enraging her with his superior knowledge of why her plan won’t work, carried out as it is under a false premise. She has of course been controlling the Captain, who is unable to intervene. However, a blaster shot at the right moment disintegrates her image.

The Doctor explains to Romana that he helped Isaac Newton discover gravity and also comes up with his plan to stop the destruction of Earth by materializing the TARDIS at the same time and special coordinates as Zanac. This is done in the moving corridor, and there’s a wonderfully funny gag as the pursuing guards get slammed against the wall because they haven’t stopped in time. Romana is skeptical that this can be achieved without exploding the TARDIS. “It’s been nice knowing you,” she says to the Doctor.” “You, too.” The bridge explodes, killing most of the guards and Mr Fibuli, which saddens the Captain. The Mentiads and native Zanacs remain outside the bridge in order to do some more exploding, while the Doctor further extemporizes on his brilliant plan, which Romana agrees, “all right, it’s fantastic.” I personally don’t really understand it, though the Doctor has by then decided that Calufrax, the planet itself, is the segment of the Key to Time. “It’s not a normal planet.” There are further explosions, the Doctor is happy because he feels “very satisfied” having blown Xanxia up, and that’s the end. While I feel a bit satisfied he blew her up as well, I don’t think it’s a very good sentiment for the Doctor to espouse!

With some reservations I did end up enjoying this, but it hadn’t quite lived up to expectations considering what Douglas Adams was later able to achieve.

The Ribos Operation

11/06/11 “The Ribos Operation”
“Sarcasm’s an adjusted stress reaction.” --Romana

I wasn’t a fan growing up in the ‘70s so I wasn’t there to feel ownership toward Doctor Who and the much-slated shift from cinematic horror to a more light-hearted approach. I really like the idea of the Key to Time—to me it most presages our idea of story arcs—and links well to precedents like “Keys of Marinus.” I like quest stories. At four episodes, “The Ribos Operation” is perhaps half an episode too long, but that is probably the only criticism I can level against it. The story looks dazzling and is held together mostly by character rather than plot.

The mood of the Doctor is quite off-the-wall here, perhaps not as much as “Horns of Nimon”; his chat to K9 is interrupted by a spate of demonstrative organ music and the TARDIS being flooded with white light. Even though I knew who it was, and apparently the Doctor did, too—“do you really need to ask, Doctor?”—it was almost like an annunciation. The White Guardian is very detached, stylish—he’s out on safari somewhere, a bit like a less sinister version of Captain Cook from “Greatest Show in the Galaxy,” and the music is like that from Aggedor’s Temple. Why he has chosen the Doctor for this quest, or indeed why White and Black Guardians should exist, is not really clear from a plot point of view (from a moral point of view it makes more sense). Yet the irreverent Doctor is suitably awestruck, though he thinks things are going a bit far when the White Guardian gives him a companion in his quest for the six segments of the Key to Time. “I have to protect them and teach them . . .” It cramps his style.

Nevertheless, when he goes back to the TARDIS, young (age: 140) Time Lady Romanadventuralundar is waiting for him. The Doctor is as irritated with her as he was the first time he met Jo Grant (one suspects, rather resignedly, that it has as much to do with her gender as with her youth and inexperience). She doesn’t make things better by bragging about her “triple first” and the Doctor “scraping by with a 51% on the second attempt.” I’m with the Doctor on this one—such information should be confidential, and how childish is Romana to use it as ammunition? Still, he proves to have brought the game right down to her level by saying, “I don’t suppose you can make tea.” Really, with this inauspicious a start, I’m amazed I can have as high a good opinion of the two protagonists as I do.

Romana has been equipped with a tracer to make finding, identifying, and grabbing the segments easier. Also the coordinates of the segments get automatically punched into the TARDIS console. They are also making absolutely no bones about Romana’s identity as archetypal ice queen by giving her a rather impractical costume (though unlike Barbara’s in “Keys of Marinus” it does at least include a long coat which comes in handy as they land on Ribos, which is in the midst of a wintry period—though those sandals won’t be too useful!). However, I’ll unashamedly admit I love ALL the costumes and design work on this story, it’s a huge part of the appeal. June Hudson, you’re my hero. Do an interview with TTZ, won’t you?

Ribos is apparently medieval and backward, and from the first moments we set eyes on it, it’s a civilization modeled on Russia in the 16th century. This means gorgeous fur-trimmed costumes for the Shrieves (guards of a holy relic room) and beautiful and mysterious music from that most unlikely of sources, Dick Mills. The fact that Doctor Who at the time was lacking in budget is not apparent in the rich, Gothic and Slavic designs for this set, which I applaud wholeheartedly.

Not only that, there are some fairly convincing “outdoors” sets as well. A very Holmesian pair, con artists and thieves Garron and Unstoffe, have arrived on the roof of the Citadel with a cunning plan of some sort, which involves drugging the Schrivenzale (a sort of reptilian/puppet guard dog) and Unstoffe climbing down the air hatch into the relic room. The Doctor and Romana walk straight into this scam—“I love danger,” the Doctor declares, and Romana chides him for not acting his age (756). She gets a return volley from the Doctor. “Doctor, you’re not giving me a chance.”

Garron has gone to intercept the offworlders, the Graff Vynda-K and his comrade-in-arms, Sholakh (which sounds so much like “Chellak” that I kept expecting to see Sharaz Jek). Interestingly, for someone who disdains the culture of primitive planets, the Graff is regally dressed in a costume Peter the Great would have found himself at home in. It’s this, combined with Paul Seed’s forceful and enraged (if edging toward OTT) performance, that drives the Graff’s story forward and makes him more than a dime-a-dozen psychotic maniac. Sholakh, however, is not dressed for Russian court and instead is somewhere between the ancient Greeks and barbarian furs. (Unstoffe is similarly attired, while Garron is again closer to the Russian paradigm—and check out his fur muff on a string !) In any case, Garron apparently wants to sell the Graff the planet Ribos, convincing him to leave his guards on his ship—“primitive people, easily panicked.” Garron tells them and us that Ribos’ “climates are ones of extremes,” which the natives attribute to warring gods. Having planted a bug, Garron hears the Graff examine the contract in more detail, coming to the inevitable conclusion that the planet is rich in jethryk, an extremely rare and precious mineral.

The Doctor and Romana manage to get themselves locked in the relic room, and the cliffhanger is sadly all down to unobservant and inexperienced Romana, who wouldn’t know a Schivenzale if it sat on her (which it practically did). The idea behind this monster does seem quite Wizard of Oz (the Shrieves look like Winkies) but its execution is not really up to close ups. Romana and the Doctor manage to escape by the unknowing intervention of the Shrieves in the morning. Incredibly, they manage to avoid detection and even are there to stand around as Unstoffe gives his performance de résistance. Garron has convinced the Shrieve captain to allow a deposit of a very large amount of money within the relic room when he hasn’t even got it from the Graff yet (Garron’s confidence betrays the frequency with which he has pulled off this scam). We get a tour of the regions, with Unstoffe doing Irish and then Somerset accents (a fanciful story about his dad and the “scringe stone,” basically to convince the Graff that jethryk is indeed plentiful on Ribos) and Garron putting on a tremendous toff accent in addition to his native Hackney Wick (no, really).

The Doctor and Romana avoid detection by claiming “we’re from the north” (“lots of planets have a north”); endearing but foolish Romana is taken completely in by Unstoffe’s tale. The Doctor, much shrewder even than the viewer, has realized that the conmen planted the jethryk in the relic room for the Graff’s benefit—and that it’s the first segment of the Key to Time. They realize that they may have “competition” in getting the jethryk. The Graff has handed over his deposit, Garron is going to make a trip to his ship to settle the offer with his “clients,” and the Shrieves are closing up for the night. The Doctor temporarily forestalls being captured for being out after curfew by hypnotizing a Shrieve (is that really any different from what the Master does??) and goes back in to the relic room in time to interrupt Unstoffe in the act of stealing the Graff’s money. Unstoffe gets away, the Doctor gets captured, and the Graff realizes that the Shrieves have no idea about the jethryk (and that it certainly isn’t called “scringe stone”). Romana and the Doctor intercept Garron on the roof and are in the process of “arresting” him when the Graff’s guards take them all as one big band of blackguards. The Doctor gives a strange look.

Romana tries very hard to be polite to Garron while they’re all incarcerated in the Citadel; Garron gives more background into himself and his plans with Unstoffe. A bit like Captain Jack in the first few minutes of “The Doctor Dances,” Garron reveals his plans to “sell the planet.” The Doctor is able to call K9 with his dog whistle. Unstoffe, meanwhile, is waiting for Garron at the rendez-vous point. As guards search for him, his life is saved by Binro the Heretic, aka Pigbin Ira. Binro is a sad case, but I’m not really sure what his function in the story is, other than to provide a bit of local color and an ally to Unstoffe (thus eating up more time in this episode and the next one). Binro has been reduced to his present state of friendlessness and squalor by maintaining that the stars in the sky are not ice crystals and that there might be other worlds out there. Somewhat touched, Unstoffe confirms his theory, to Binro’s delight. Certainly we are meant to be disgusted with Ribos’ draconian regime based on superstition and religion rather than science (and by extension, Earth’s), but is all this just meant to show that things on Ribos will get better in the future? Because so much time is devoted to offworlders in this story (the only native Ribosians we see are Binro, the Shrieves, and the Seeker), so we have no idea about the actual lives of the people, we only have the prejudiced views of people like the Graff Vynda-K, whose only interest is himself anyway. As this is a Grade 2 planet we are led to believe that, like in “The Aztecs,” where the Doctor discouraged Barbara from making Aztecs’ lives “better” based on future knowledge, the Doctor and Romana are not going to go around offering to lead a rebellion of the people, with Binro as their figurehead, against the Shrieves, though in another context and perhaps with another Doctor, that might indeed by the story. A similarly “feudal” planet perhaps was Peladon, which was still at least on the verge of being accepted into the Galactic Federation, despite the limited views held by those like Hepesh.

The Shrieves and the Graff enlist the help of the Seeker—an old woman with a very far-out costume, both Scandinavian and Hopi in design, it seems to me, and copied in “The End of Time”—to find Unstoffe, and fair play to her, despite the absolute faith in science, she never errs. Because of her, Unstoffe and Binro flee to the catacombs, perhaps not Binro’s best idea. The opening set to this area is wonderfully Gothic. Binro and Unstoffe are soon joined by Romana, K9, the Doctor, and Garron, though they don’t meet up; everyone wanders around in the catacombs until the Graff sends his men in, at the instruction of the Seeker. The Doctor and co. quickly hide, and strangely, although Romana is getting ignobly groped by Garron, it’s the Doctor who gives their position away. The Doctor also comes to the rescue, however, by using his dog whistle to summon the Schivenzale (how he got it trained like that I don’t know).

In the ensuing confusion, Garron, Romana, and K9 wander off together, only for Garron to steal the tracer and leave them. Binro needlessly dies at the Graff’s hand, Unstoffe gets shot though not fatally, and the Graff forces the Seeker to go with them into the catacombs. From the outside, the rather rash Shrieves decide to blow up the entrance to the catacombs. The explosion claims most of the guards’ lives, including faithful Sholakh (the closest thing, it seems, that the murderous Graff had to a friend). The Doctor has managed to disguise himself as one of the (Templar-esque) guards and gets the Graff to explode himself (off screen) instead of the Doctor. K9’s miraculous laser helps him and Romana escape, and a thoroughly ungrateful Garron and Unstoffe are able to part with the Doctor and Romana like acquaintances if not friends. Romana is really having to bite her tongue, I think, to maintain her politesse with the thieves. Garron makes a very transparent attempt to steal back the jethryk, but the Doctor (fortunately) outwits him. At least Garron and Unstoffe will make a clean getaway with the Graff’s ship. In the TARDIS, Romana uses the tracer to transform the jethryk into the first segment.

The first episode was practically perfect, in my view, and throughout the story, the atmosphere conjured up by the costumes and the design work was second-to-none. Holmes’ thieves were likeable curs, and hopefully Romana has learned a thing or two she wouldn’t have been taught from the Academy. I sincerely hope she stops with the pseudo-Freudian analysis at every turn.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Romans

31/10/10 “The Romans”
The adventures come without us looking for them.–Ian

Quite a strange story to watch on Halloween, but there you go. For some reason, like “The Rescue,” I was under the impression “The Romans” was a two-parter. I wasn’t prepared for the sprawling historical adventure even though I knew the basic plot, nor was I prepared for the darkness countered by farce. I understood, both from its reputation and from acquaintance with Dennis Spooner’s other writing, that “The Romans” was a rare Doctor Who comedy—not that most Doctor Who isn’t comic—but I didn’t find it hilarious. Parts of it were funny, no doubt, but much of it was serious—much of it farcical. Parts of it seemed very “Love and Monsters” to me, which isn’t a good comparison!

It’s quite interesting to watch it after having just seen “The Keys of Marinus”—both stories feature classical elements and give Barbara a chance to lounge around on a low couch voluptuously. (It’s possibly Jacqueline Hill’s best look, the classical Greek/Roman one.) However, in Morphiton, Ian was at first the one who wanted to know “the price” of the riches and luxury surrounding them. Here, he comes off immediately sensuous, in Roman costume and gorging on grapes. The Doctor, by contrast, who was really enjoying himself in Morphiton and indulging in his (apparent) love of fruit, is a bit more chastising here. “There’s a difference between resting and being bone-idle.” There’s a somewhat labored historical-fact insertion when the Doctor talks about the Romans having difficulty with plumbing, though he does say the amusing, “The answer is pipes, my dear Chesterton, pipes!” All of the characters are, as can be expected, well-costumed in what (appears to me) to be correct attire. The Doctor’s rich robes show that by the 1960s historians were aware of the colors and textures available to the ancient Romans, even if they couldn’t show them in color yet (contrast this with Gladiator and Rome, which get everything right except start a weird craze for Roman characters with cravats). I will say that while I commented on the shortness of the son’s toga in “Fires of Pompeii,” Ian’s is at least as short.

I had kind of forgotten that this was Vicki’s second story, her first trip after being rescued in, er, “The Rescue.” I was thus a bit surprised to see her. “You’re getting as bad as Ian,” she complains to Barbara. Vicki’s youth and yearning for adventure is highlighted. “I thought we were going to have adventures.” On one hand, I can understand her viewpoint. She was a virtual prisoner of that sicko Bennett for so long, it’s no wonder she’d want to get out and about. However, I can also see the point of view of Ian and Barbara, who have been traveling through danger much longer. It’s a contrast, even at this early stage, to see the companions and Doctor in a state of relaxation and while this would get dull after awhile (the audience would find themselves agreeing with Vicki), it’s a nice change of pace to see it for now—à la “Black Orchid.”

Barbara takes Vicki to the marketplace where they are known by sight not by name (which is a good thing since they have shacked up at a vacant villa for the season). The representation of this rural Romanized area is good; not as showy as in “Fires of Pompeii,” but its verisimilitude is richer than a lot of what we’ve seen from 1964. While Barbara and Vicki are shopping, some shady-looking characters take an interest. They’re “suitable” is the sinister conclusion. As much as I like Vicki, I can’t say she comes off very well in this story. She’s written extremely close to Susan here. As in Morphiton, where Susan wanted a new dress made of fine material, Vicki is a bit obsessed with getting some material for a dress. Barbara lets slip that they are from Londinium (the kind of remark that would get heard as “Celtic” in “Fires of Pompeii”) which leads the dastardly men to suspect no one will miss these “Britons” if they are kidnapped. “They must be fools,” says the stall-holder when she sells information—the first of many demonstrations that almost without exception, the people of Spooner’s Rome are not very nice. This is a departure from the “nuclear family” of “Fires of Pompeii.” If we needed more evidence, another rough-looking character murders a toothless old lyre-player by the side of the road—even if done “off screen,” it’s pretty brutal.

There’s an interlude back at the villa as the Doctor enjoys the honeyed ants—I hadn’t realized before that this scene is referenced in “Fires of Pompeii” (why are we fascinated by Roman cuisine? Because it’s so familiar yet filled with weird things like peacock and dormouse? It was the same even in Fires of Vulcan). Vicki once again asserts her wish to go exploring with the Doctor (it had seemed rather uncharacteristic of him to be content staying in one place for so long—the First Doctor especially). “It’s boring,” Vicki complains. “No wonder he gets irritable.” The decision is made that the Doctor is going to Rome and Vicki’s going with him, while Barbara and Ian are staying behind. The Doctor has manipulated them into accepting this situation, and Vicki doesn’t know any better. There’s a scene between Ian and Barbara that can only be described as flirtatious and involves her combing his hair (!) into a more accepted Roman style (I guess she should know since she’s the history teacher). Ian spouts some Shakespeare and “o tempora, o mores” before they get ambushed by the slave traders. They almost fight them off but Barbara, who is usually so capable, hits Ian over the head with a vase. One up for the comedy, but one down for Barbara’s abilities.

On the road to Rome, Vicki and the Doctor find the body of the dead lyre-player and realize it wasn’t a robber who killed him. “There’s nothing we can do for him now,” says the ever-pragmatic Doctor. They meet with a Centurion who the Doctor, by dint of holding the lyre and looking kind of like the musician, Maximus Pettulian, gets roped into saying that he is him, so he’s expected at court and dragged into a new adventure. The centurion is very expositional. So off they go; Barbara and Ian are suffering a much worse fate, to be sold into slavery, separated, and unlikely to get near Rome.

On the way, the Doctor and Vicki are put in lodgings. The Doctor has already deduced that the centurion was looking for Pettulian’s body and is on guard for further attacks. He astounds Vicki and the audience by superbly dispatching the assassin, tossing him out the window, never to be seen again. It’s quite a feat for a Doctor who will, later, die of old age before Ben and Polly’s disbelieving eyes. After this, the Doctor witters on for awhile, confusion reigns, and one wonders if this is all a gentle nudge from Spooner over Hartnell’s ability to fluff, which he has done quite a bit so far.

Barbara and Ian have been separated; after 34 days (!) Barbara and her fellow female slaves (Gallic if I heard rightly) reach Rome. Barbara will fetch a price because of her good state (after all, she kept her hair in remarkable condition after 34 days of bad treatment) but her companion is so weakened she will go to entertain in the circus. The next scene is quite important from a number perspectives. Barbara is compassionate toward the woman, coaxing her to eat. Compassion has always been part of her nature, and as we quickly see in the scene, it makes a difference between life and death. At first I thought it was a bit of shorthand writing, to introduce that trait so quickly, but then once it had been revealed they had been traveling for 34 days, it seemed only natural that the two women should have become friends. After a month of miserable conditions, you can imagine the sort of camaraderie that would have had to exist for them to keep sane. In any case, Barbara told the woman about Ian. Barbara’s act of kindness is witnessed by Tavius, a sort of steward to Nero’s household, and although his attentions seem sincere, the only help he can provide Barbara is as a slave. It all hints at something darker.

Ian, meanwhile, is suffering physically and mentally in probably the worst of slave environments, the galley. Remarkably, after 34 days Ian hasn’t grown a beard (well, it’s not necessarily true that they’ve been at sea for 34 days, but I can’t imagine for what reason Ian would have been allowed to shave), and Doctor Who isn’t ready at this point for its hero to go shirtless like many of the other galley slaves. Ian’s attempted coup against the overseers is futile, and it seems grimly cynical of Spooner to suggest that the only way Ian and his friend Delos survive is due to the whims of nature. I’ve read enough Sabatini and Sutcliff novels to know what fate the galley slaves were going to get had the storm not intervened. In any case, Ian and Delos survive the shipwreck (rather like Titus Pullo). “I have to find her,” Ian says. Whatever else “The Romans” is, it strengthens the idea of a strong but unsaid love affair between Barbara and Ian.

A slave auction is going on in Rome while the Doctor and Vicki are wandering around, but in the first of many near-misses, the Doctor shoos Vicki away. “Don’t let’s see that.” It’s interesting to me that white slavery is culturally acceptable (ie, we can see the degradations of slave life when it happens to white characters but never in Doctor Who, to my knowledge, have we seen anything showing the conditions of black slavery. “Planet of the Ood” may well have been speaking to that in an allegorical sense, but it still seems surprising by its absence). Certainly Barbara is treated like a piece of meat and knows this; Ian suffers but Barbara is demeaned. Certainly in ancient Rome it could have gone that way for Ian, if someone had decided they wanted some kind of pederast, but this being 1960s Doctor Who, that wasn’t going to be suggested. Nevertheless, I find it all a bit close to the bone. Barbara is fortunately bought by Tavius who brings her to Nero’s palace. Despite possible ambiguous hints—“I’ll instruct you in your duties later”—Tavius has seen and valued Barbara’s kindness (we’ll find out why later).

In the same complex, the Doctor and Vicki meet Nero at last. I don’t know much about Nero or the Carry On films, but for much of the story, they seemed to coincide in the one person. The Doctor’s silver-tongued flattery saves him from trying to impress Nero by actually playing the lyre, with a little help from Vicki. They live to see another day, all the while anticipating the evening banquet in the Doctor’s honor. Ian and Delos get to Rome, all right, but they get recaptured and are going to be fed to the lions later. A popular theme and an unfortunate cliffhanger as it relies on stock images of lions. It would have been better just to hear the roaring!
Part three really becomes more slapstick than anything; I don’t know why I wasn’t expecting it. I guess I know from previous experience that Spooner’s writing can be terribly witty, so why did it need to resort to this kind of repetitious silliness? Oh well. The Doctor just gets through telling Vicki, “We must not interfere in progress” before she disobeys him with no real care for the consequences (but I’ll get to that). “Progress is a very flexible word. It can mean whatever you want it to mean”—that’s what the Fourth Doctor said in “The Power of Kroll,” and I found it a very interesting choice of words for Hartnell to use (unless it was a fluff) instead of history. As Nero is chasing the new slave Barbara (angering his ambitious and cold-hearted wife Poppaea) around the palace, the Doctor is meandering about and Vicki is having a conversation with the court-sanctioned poisoner. This part was interesting—it certainly made yet another disturbing comment about Roman society but I can’t decide if that was the point or the humor was.

Poppaea gets to the point she wants to poison Barbara. If Vicki somehow knew this and switched the goblets around, then it would make sense. Instead, she seems to do it from caprice, without seeming to care that she’s sent poisoner Locusta to her death at Poppaea’s command. Locusta’s trade may have been one that didn’t jive with Vicki’s morals—are we meant to think she got her just desserts?—but she didn’t do Vicki any harm. In any case, it did give Maureen O’Brien a real comedy moment—it would have been nice to have more for her in this story, rather than being merely peripheral, holding the Doctor’s props, so to speak.

The Doctor has gotten very chummy with Nero, and they appear in a sauna (for some reason it made me think of the old granddads in diapers in “Vengeance on Varos”). Since the Doctor has inadvertently saved Nero’s life by warning him about the poison, he briefly receives the Emperor’s favor. He plays the scene at the banquet beautifully, and I thought it was one of the best moments of the serial: the Emperor’s new tune. It was a one-shot deal and sort of backfired in the end as it enraged Nero into wanting to dispose of the Doctor, but on the surface it was a masterstroke. Nero takes Barbara to the circus to see some gladiators, and coincidentally Ian and Delos have been pitted against each other. It says a lot about Ian that even this far in he won’t abandon his high principles for anything—Delos tells him he will kill him if he gets the upper hand, if it means he gets a pardon. It’s actually a good cliffhanger as Delos is about to make good his assertion.

Fortunately the honorable slave does an about-face and attacks Nero instead! In the confusion Delos and Ian get away but Nero associates Barbara with Ian and decides to use her as bait in a trap. Ian plans to collect Barbara from the complex and wants to find the Doctor. “I’ve got a friend who specializes in trouble.” It has since transpired that the Doctor is in the middle of an assassination attempt on Nero, which Tavius makes plain to the Doctor. From Barbara, Tavius learns Ian’s plight, who in turn tells the Doctor. The Doctor can thus show up Nero in one of, if not the, funniest scene in “The Romans.”
Nero : “I have a little surprise for you. Guess what it is.”
The Doctor : “Now, let me think. You want me to play in the arena?”
Nero : “You guessed.”
The Doctor : “It's no problem at all. After all, you want to do your very best for your fellow artists: why not the arena?”
Nero : “Yes, yes, of course. That is exactly right.”
The Doctor : “Well, I promise you, I will try to make it a roaring success.”
Nero : “You'll have to play something special, you know.”
The Doctor : “Of course, of course. Something serious, yes. Something they can really get their teeth into.”
Nero : [Muttering] “You can't know, you can't. I've told no one.”
The Doctor : “Caesar Nero, I've always wanted to put on a good show; to give a great performance. After all, who knows, if I go down well, I might even make it my farewell performance. You see, I've always wanted to be considered as an artist of some taste, generally considered as palatable, hmm?”

The Doctor has meanwhile been peering at Nero’s maps of his new design of Rome with spectacles. I was really skeptical as to where he had gotten them from and why he needed them exactly, but I think he did have them before now. In any case, in a rather astonishing re-writing of historical facts (well, it’s no “Visitation” but still) the Doctor’s glasses start the fire—not literally in the sense the palace starts burning down, but he puts the idea into Nero’s head. This, for me, is the only part where the characterization of Nero seems right. He even goes babbling off to Poppaea who accepts it with the same weird calm that Lucy Saxon displayed.

Nero brings in some random guys to start the fire as per his bidding, letting them in at the same time Ian and Delos are able to slip into the palace with Tavius’ blessing, and collect Barbara. The Doctor and Vicki are meanwhile slipping out. Tavius watches as he brings out his secret cruficix. So he was a Christian all along, which actually makes a lot of sense. It’s interesting that amid the decadence and cruelty of the Romans, the only moral character (aside from Delos) is a Christian. I suppose it all balances later stories like “Curse of Fenric” which really don’t show Christianity in a very good light. Nero plays his lyre as Rome burns, and the Doctor is quite amused about the whole thing!

Back at the villa, Barbara and Ian are just settling back after their month of suffering. They indulge in some of the weirdest foreplay you could possibly imagine before the Doctor and Vicki arrive and interrupt. From their perspective, Ian and Barbara have never left the villa and so when the Doctor and Vicki want to return to the TARDIS, only the audience can share in their angst.

I had expected this to be somehow different than it was, and while I thought it was interesting, all the elements didn’t quite come together. The way Back2theWhoture works, we can see the different tonal degrees of stories set in roughly the same time periods (this will all unravel once we get to the “future” but for now it’s quite instructive).

Silver Nemesis

09/10/10 “Silver Nemesis”
Have you never wondered—where he came from? Who he is? –Lady Peinforte

It may surprise you to note that I have never seen this story before, though I must have caught bits and pieces of it on an old, taped-off-PBS VHS as the concept rings true but I couldn’t really remember a single scene. For some reason, I had always gotten the impression that people regarded it as a little bit of fan wank gone awry, with the same kind of amused cynicism which most people seem to regard “Battlefield.” I don’t know if that’s actually the case, but I really don’t care. I like both of these stories very much. As writer Kevin Clarke said, you don’t often have the opportunity to view a story where Nazis, Windsor Castle, 17th century time travelers, jazz concerts, and the Cybermen all come together. It might, in fact, prove as less than the sum of its parts, but in my opinion, the level of cohesion is good, and the whole thing comes off quite charmingly.

The Doctor and Ace take a long time to actually show up. Jamie has just speculated to me that “Silver Nemesis” might be the Vast Toffee’s favorite story, for a number of reasons we’ll highlight as we go along, but the way it deals with parallel time streams 350 years apart brings to mind, at least superficially, stories like “Girl in the Fireplace” and “The Big Bang.” For example, it opens in “South America on November 22nd 1988.” Tossed unceremoniously into a Neo-Nazi villa, complete with Wagner playing on stereo, portraits of Hitler, and a variety of Nazi props obviously left over from Raiders of the Lost Ark, we are pretty well beaten over the head with the characteristics of our first villain, De Flores. Nevertheless, when De Flores decides he has nothing better to do than shoot a macaw with a high-powered crossbow, we move seamlessly into “Windsor, 1638,” where Lady Peinforte is also rather needlessly using a bow to shoot some pigeons. Though this is handled a bit gauchely, the idea is fun. We already know much—and yet always too little—about our second villain. Peinforte’s dungeon/alchemist’s chamber gives Ace the willies later, and its murky atmosphere is great. I kind of think the makers of Les Visiteurs (which we’ll get to in a moment) had it in mind, as did “The Eternity Trap” episodes of Sarah Jane Adventures.

Lady Peinforte and her servant Richard are perfectly dressed for 1638, and while the humorous tone at points stretched credulity, I could tell that the writer’s fondness for the 17th century had guaranteed a fairly high proportion at authenticity. Among Milady’s arsenal in her witch’s chamber were poison-tipped arrows and a silver-tipped one; she also had a mathematician sitting in their doing sums à la William Hartnell. He’s been calculating the “decaying” orbit of a giant custard-filled donut in space (or, if you prefer, Jamie’s version was a “flying turd”) whose trajectory will return it to Earth at the exact point from where it originated, the field outside in Windsor. Though at the time I thought, “hold on, that’s not possible,” the whole thing did explain itself. It’s interesting, though not that surprising when you think about it, that a similar fascination with comets was central to the story in “The Visitation”; however, the hapless squire and his family were killed by the visiting Tereleptils from their “comet” while Peinforte is eagerly awaiting the (future) arrival of hers.

Meanwhile, back (?) in 1988, on the 25th anniversary of Doctor Who, the Doctor and Ace are sitting in suspicious sunshine listening to Courtney Pine play saxophone outdoors. Ace is reading the Daily Mirror and humorously misses the news story calculating the forthcoming return of the Nemesis comet. The Doctor, who is apparently God according to Kevin Clarke, likes jazz, though he asks Ace why she’s not embarrassed to be getting Pine’s autograph on her cassette tape. Their enjoyment of the day is ruined when the Doctor’s “alarm” goes off, reminding him to do something he’s forgotten. On the way back to the TARDIS, Ace and the Doctor are shot at by what we assume are Cyber-converted human slaves, but are never really given full explanation. They fall amazingly in synch into the river, foiling the Cyber-slaves long enough for the two to swim to the bank where, rather surprisingly, they resume their unhurried investigation into what they’re supposed to be preventing.

Milady has gotten from the unlucky mathematician the formula she needed, as well as the blood required for the time travel “potion” to work. Richard, who we understand to have been a jack-of-all-trades tough guy before Milady employed him, is scared to death at the prospect of time travel. “Have the courage of your convictions!” shouts the unflappable Peinforte in the face of the traveling “aura” that will take them to 1988. This all seems to presage Les Visiteurs, where Jean Reno’s knight has to go back in time to stop himself from shooting his father-in-law-to-be. He has to visit a wizard in order to drink a potion to reach c. 1990, and he drags his bumbling serf along with him. Arriving intact, Milady and Richard land in the restaurant surviving on the floorplan of her old dungeon, and the bolshy sorceress breaks a window with a chair in order to pursue the landing Nemesis comet.

Ace and the Doctor materialize in a basement collection, I began to ponder where they had arrived. Was it the British Museum? Gabriel Chase? In fact, I’m still not sure, though in their wanderings they are attempting to find a silver bow, which we know already is in the possession of the Nazis, who are on their way to the site of the Nemesis landing. The Doctor characterizes the collection as “presents,” and it’s certainly a motley bunch of items with stories behind them all, I’d wager. It’s at this moment that the Doctor dons a fez and carries a mop (briefly), which many people will have already realized was being sent up when the Eleventh Doctor did the same thing in “The Big Bang.” (Ace is no fez-hater, though, and goes around wearing it for much of the scene.) Influenced by the Nemesis’ aura, the electricity is drained in the basement; I for one wouldn’t want to get stranded there with no lights! The Nemesis lands in a silly fashion but with a great explosion.

The Nazis are closing just as the Doctor takes a somewhat perplexed Ace back in time in the TARDIS to 1638, shortly after Milady and Richard left (we know this because the mathematician’s body is still there). There’s some cool “period” music from Keff McCullough (overall, the music is all ‘80s bombast) as the Doctor examines the alchemist’s den and observes, “This [chess] game is going rather badly.” He tells Ace that the Nemesis is living metal which he sent off from Windsor in 1638 himself. He alludes to Peinforte’s evil, her time travel accomplished by “black magic mostly.” The living metal had landed and Peinforte had made a statue in her own image as well as constructing a bow and arrow out of the metal. Once they get back to 1988 they find themselves in Windsor Castle, have a near-miss with the Queen and her corgis—to be honest, I found this and the other scenes of rather slapstick humor quite funny, really—and then are unable to convince her government to lend a hand. (Though he does manage to re-ally himself with UNIT in “Battlefield.”) (There’s a cut scene here of an untelevised adventure when the Doctor and Ace find a portrait of Ace in 18th century clothes—presumably 1788 when the bow went missing?)

The Windsor police have made an effort to deal with the Nemesis but are gassed by its defenses; stuck out somewhere behind an abandoned gasworks (though actually in Greenwich), it proves a relatively secluded spot. The Doctor, Ace, Peinforte, Richard, De Flores and the Nazis converge on the Nemesis landing site, just as the Cybermen make an appearance. There are many choice moments for a cliffhanger, but this is the preferred one. Though made a good many years after Excalibur, the super-shiny Cybermen put me in mind of the glittering armor from that movie.

The Nazi/Cybermen shoot out continues in the time-honored tradition, with much firepower and explosions in a way that was established in “Remembrance of the Daleks.” I got the impression that Milady had met the Cybermen before because she was prepared with gold-tipped arrows that proved surprisingly effective, but perhaps she had been prepared by something the Doctor had told her or the Nemesis had said? In any case, she’s much better at protecting herself and Richard with coolness than the Nazis are, and she leaves them to it. (Not before shooting a gold-tipped arrow into the outer shell of the TARDIS, which Ace and the Doctor leave embedded for the time being.) The Doctor and Ace, caught up in the crossfire, have managed to pick up the bow from the Nazis; Peinforte and the Cybermen have registered this, but the Nazis haven’t and prefer to believe they have the upper hand, escaping with nearly 100% casualties. The Cybermen, left alone, move the Nemesis into the gasworks; Peinforte decides to look for her tomb in Windsor (er, I think). So everyone is going after what they don’t have in order to bring the three elements together and have their dominance over the universe, time, “past, present and the future.” Except the Doctor, who seems to have his own agenda. Peinforte has also recognized the Doctor and seems to know a lot more about him than anybody else. I assumed from the way she reacted that she had seen this incarnation earlier in 1638, but I suppose nowhere does it explicitly state that—I assumed it was a future Seventh Doctor who could have come back from a time after he and Ace had parted ways, but perhaps it makes more sense to assume it was a previous or future Doctor incarnation, possibly the Second since Peinforte mentions him being “little.” I’m not sure I buy that, though.

The Doctor takes Ace back to the site of the alchemist’s den, again for his own purposes it appears; the mathematician’s body has been moved and the chess pieces moved, by person or persons unknown (a different incarnation of the Doctor? The Doctor in the future? Fenric?). He reveals that the Nemesis is from Gallifrey from ancient times, a weapon that “should never have left, and as always with these things, they did.” The Doctor is able to remove a piece of incriminating calculations (presumably left by himself?) that was given to the mathematician to assist. Meanwhile, in downtown Windsor, Peinforte and Richard are turning heads as they travel by foot; for some reason, two “skinheads” decide that they’re “social workers”!?! Why they come to this conclusion is probably the biggest mystery of the entire story (and that’s saying something); there was no need for this; skinheads need no motivation for attacking people who they think they might be able to rob. There was a grim sort of satisfaction that Richard seemed to take in giving these two the comeuppance they deserved. However, I really had to wonder why they didn’t kill them. They may have enjoyed humiliating them by leaving them with their clothes burning on the ground as they were tied up in a tree, but . . . ?

The skinheads don’t prevent the two 17th-century adventurers from reaching their final destination, Milady’s tomb; first they take a detour to the lawn, where Richard is buried. This reminded me of the giant fake tomb in “Revelation of the Daleks” with the Sixth Doctor getting killed by his own effigy. I rather liked this whole section; “Richard, you are standing on your own grave.” It’s timey wimey freaky deaky! In any case, the Cybermen have moved the Nemesis to Peinforte’s tomb (exactly why?) anticipating that she would go there and reunite the arrow with the statue. This is exactly what she does; she goes around the tomb for awhile wondering where the statue can be since the arrow is glowing, which means its other component is nearby. Richard warily picks off Cybermen from below the tower, though they reason that they have a limited number of gold-tipped arrows and so retreat long enough for Peinforte to wake the Nemesis up. “Death is but a door” says the inscription around Peinforte’s magnificent tomb, something I think that sums up the Cartmel era quite well! Richard is frightened that there are no bones in the tomb. In any case, Richard allows the Cybermen to seize both arrow and effigy in order to save Milady’s life. “Return without the Nemesis? Never!”

Peinforte is rather touched at Richard’s selfless act—though she has been cold to him and treated him unkindly, he still saved her life. She, however, won’t return without the Nemesis and as he cannot without her help, he will “attend me in the next world as well as this.” They’ve got to get back to the gasworks, which the Cybermen are doing by dint of their ship; the 17th-century adventurers must walk. In any case, between jaunts back and forth to 1638, the Doctor and Ace have been jamming the signal to the Cyberfleet using the Courtney Pine jazz (a very funny scene where the Cybermen react with bewilderment to jazz). Watching the Cyber ship, guarded only by the Cyber-slaves, the Doctor asks Ace if she’s been secretly making Nitro-9 even though he’s told her not to. “I’m a good girl, I do what I’m told.” But, yes, she has, and she’s got it on her. “Excellent. Destroy that vehicle.” The Doctor lures away the Cyber-slaves and Ace blows stuff up. It’s rather effective!

De Flores approaches the Cybermen and says he will eliminate Peinforte from the action if they will give him part of the power of the Nemesis; both are planning on double-crossing each other. Cyber-human alliance ad naseum. The episode ends, however, when the Doctor and Ace realize that the Cyber-fleet has been disguising itself and that the entire Earth is surrounded.

Ace is mortified to see that the Cybermen kill the hapless Cyber-slaves for allowing the ship to be destroyed; the Doctor tries to make her feel better (?) by telling her that they are no longer human in the strictest sense anyway. They make one more journey back to the Peinforte tomb. The Doctor has noticed Ace’s hesitancy. “I’ve never bottled out of anything before, have I?” When the Doctor apologizes and tells her she can go back to the TARDIS where she’ll be safe, she scoffs at the idea and courageously continues on. She has lots of questions, though, which the Doctor only answers with more riddles. De Flores, captured by the Cybermen, scolds them for expecting the Doctor to come hand the bow over, which he does . . . sort of. “Illegal move, but check!” he shouts as he hands the bow briefly to the Nemesis, who, now awakened, will be forced to follow the bow. Lots of explosions ensue. Ace voices the question we all have: “What’s really going on?” They head back to the gasworks where the comet is and where the Doctor is luring the Nemesis.

Peinforte and Richard are going there, too, but are walking, until they realize how to hitch a ride. I find this sequence quite funny, and again something that I think Les Visiteurs stole. Then comes on the scene the richly random character of the wealthy American bimbo of a certain age who looks like she walked out of Dallas. The conversation in her limo is quite hilarious. (Brings to mind the amusing but random Americans with their UFO detector in the woods in “Delta and the Bannermen.”) Back at the gasworks, the Doctor and Ace are battling off the Cybermen as the Doctor puts Nemesis (I almost wrote the Mesmerist!) in her comet/rocket. There is a very curious exchange of dialogue between them that opens the floodgates for all kinds of hocus pocus speculation, and mirrors the Doctor’s otherworldly mysticism as seen in “Remembrance.” “You will need me in the future,” she says. When he scoffs, she says, “You said that before.” “Enough.” “Will I have my freedom?” “You know when.” I haven’t til now mentioned the eerie quality of the Nemesis, a simulacra of a human being whose unearthly beauty even touches Ace’s sensibilities. The sort of super-polarized, inverted white of her design is really effective—“immaculate beauty covered in perfect evil” as Peinforte describes her. Brings to mind the world of the Mara in “Kinda.” (“We fade to grey . . .”)

When Milady and Richard arrive at last, Ace has really been bolting up and down stairs accomplishing great chase scenes with the Cybermen where she kills them by shooting gold coins into their chest units as they agonizingly die (without the shaving cream, though). I have read Chris Clough’s direction derided in this, but I’ve found it surprisingly effective and quite pacey. Being still possessed with the bow, the Doctor has destroyed Cybermen in the wake of the rocket and now faces handing it over to Peinforte or else the Cyberleader. It happens that Peinforte has the secret to the Doctor’s identity and much more—the statue told her. This has been her true bargaining chip throughout the whole story, though she has been (apparently) going slowly mad ever since (according to the Cybermen) her confrontation with her own tomb. The Doctor, however, gives the bow over to the Cyberleader. The Cybermen, apparently, are not interested in the secrets of Gallifrey so don’t really care about who the Doctor is. Peinforte, driven slightly over the edge by this, jumps into the tomb with her effigy and is sort of absorbed into it—hence why there were no bones in her tomb in the first place. “You had the right game, but the wrong pawn,” the Doctor says with some pathos.

The Cyberleader wants the Earth turned into the new Mondas, so he orders the Nemesis to . . . er, not blow up the Cyberfleet? What he wants it to do after that I’m not sure. The Doctor says the statue has heard and understand, but for some reason it willfully chooses not to do what it was ordered to and blows up the Cybermen anyway. The Cyberleader wants to kill the Doctor after this (naturally), but Richard prevents it by taking the arrow from the TARDIS and using it to kill the Cyberleader. Don’t shoot an arrow into the TARDIS if you’re not going to use it!

For all this, there’s a rather restrained ending as the Doctor and Ace return Richard to 1638 where he plays some music for them with his friend (?). Ace wants to know what Lady Peinefort was going to reveal, but the Doctor is, as ever, being pathologically vague.

The story was cram-packed with things that really almost flooded the three-part structure. Perhaps, as has been suggested, the Nazis really didn’t belong seeing as how they were featured in “Remembrance of the Daleks,” but their base in South America gave them enough of a different back story, in my opinion. I really liked Lady Peinfort and Richard. Richard and Mace from “The Visitation” should team up. If I had known about Richard beforehand I would have included him in my “I Shoulda Been a Companion” article in TTZ. There were so many questions unanswered about Milady. First of all, it was hinted that she was a witch, but in what sense? One of the people on the DVD documentary mentioned she was a “Devil worshipper,” but that was never made apparent and was usurped by the Destroyer character in “Battlefield.” All we seem to know about her, besides her uncharacteristic (for the early 17th century) iron will and limitless ambition to take over the universe, was that she had been well-educated (with “some Latin and a little Greek,” as Richard says), resisted marriage because it would confine her, is wealthy and powerful enough to have a statue erected in her likeness, regularly poisoned those who she didn’t like, and that she was an excellent archer. Her cynicism and lack of fear were deeply ingrained, much contrasted with Richard’s more plausible reactions to things like cars and pollution. So the question may not be so much, “Who is he?” but “Who is she?” The Doctor mentioned that he had the help of “some Roundheads” to get the Nemesis back from Peinforte, but obviously the English Civil War was some time away so I see a few possibilities. A) he misremembered; b) they were literal Roundheads, aka some kind of alien species with round heads; c) something to do with time brought Roundheads back in time to 1638—à la “The Awakening.” Peinforte is a definite anomaly, and her stating that the Nemesis told her about the Doctor’s true identity made me wonder if River Song will (or could be) somehow related. Did the Nemesis tell River who the Doctor was?

There are a lot of amusing and colorful touches in this as well, and the Doctor and Ace relationship is well-played. I quite enjoyed it.

Black Orchid

13/09/10 “Black Orchid”
Tegan : It's fancy dress, isn't it?
Lord Cranleigh : Yes.
Tegan : Well, we haven't got any costumes.
Sir Robert Muir : Oh. I was just thinking how charming yours was.

I was quite looking forward to watching this story, and at the same time not because I was worried the thinness of the story would detract from what I knew would be my enjoyment of the production values. While the story certainly wasn’t complicated (which is just what a two-parter warrants!) it had a refreshing and fun quality to it. Companions always reflect on the fun and adventure of being in the TARDIS, but most of the time, all we see is death, destruction, and despair. Rarely do we ever see companions enjoying themselves and letting their hair down a bit; this is particularly relevant when discussing the TARDIS-full of Tegan, Adric, and Nyssa. After all, as so many people have noted, Tegan spends most of her time in the TARDIS complaining, and she and Adric snipe at each other, leaving Nyssa to be calm and yet a bit boring. Tegan was clearly having a wonderful time in this story, and Adric and Nyssa were enjoying it too, even though for them it was all new. It gives “Earthshock” even more of a poignancy.

As Vanessa Bishop noted, part of what makes this more Doctor Who and less Dorothy L. Sayers is the lack of mystery throughout! The opening, where one man seems to kill another with horrible squelchy noises (or, as Jamie said, we’ve been witness to a strange sex act!), is arresting and provides enough tension through the rest of the proceedings that at least we aren’t bored but likewise aren’t too worried about the murders not to enjoy the costume ball along with the Doctor and the companions. It’s an interesting juxtaposition with the (much) later “Unicorn and the Wasp,” which I also liked, but that was intrinsically much more involved with solving the whodunit. That story also seemed a lot more cynical; in “Black Orchid,” though there were mysterious and sinister undercurrents, none of the characters were really sordid or villainous (at least, that we could tell). The poor man in the attic was no more evil than Mrs. Rochester, and like her, he perished on the roof of the house.

As you will no doubt have guessed, I was enchanted with the costumes, particularly Tegan’s which was similar to a ballet costume. I was impressed at how Ann’s costuming was able to make her and Nyssa unrecognizable (though how she managed to have exactly similar costumes with only a few hours’ notice doesn’t make much sense—wasn’t the second wife in Rebecca planning that costume ball for weeks?). The Pierrot was a bit too glam—“Ashes to Ashes” anyone?—but then this was right after the glam robot of “The Visitation.” I thought there was maybe a bit too much dancing, but Tegan’s unabashed delight in doing the Charleston brought out a nice side of her. Similarly, I thought Sarah Sutton was given a lot more leeway to act when she played Ann, and though the double act has been done to death, it was a wonderfully Gothic idea. The great big house with its extended “priest’s hole” was also quite Gothic, and as I remarked to Jamie, Doctor Who is always burning poor wretches with acid in some weird homage to Phantom. (Alas George Cranleigh could never be the Phantom as his tongue was cut out! What’s up with that? What South American tribes go around deforming and mutilating Westerners as a matter of course? I think that was the most weakly researched bit of the plot. Though, to be sure, it was an element that in a way was recycled in “Unicorn and the Wasp” with the Indian ayah.)

I thought there was also maybe a bit too much cricket, as well. This was very well-filmed and at last gave the Fifth Doctor some justification for Edwardian cricketing gear. The idea of the Doctor wandering around a subterranean lair in a dressing gown was an amusing, if completely unrealized, riff on the Phantom-y theme. The poor Doctor’s disbelief at Lady Cranleigh’s betrayal really did epitomize poor misused Fifth Doctor. It would have been funny if, as Jamie suggested, the “strike me pink” officer and the others all became companions so that the TARDIS was full of silly humans and a Trakenite and an Alazarian (the quips about Esher were lightly amusing). And Adric, when not stuffing his face, had some moments of kindness toward everyone.

Of course, no one would suggest such light fare for every story in the Doctor Who repertoire, but as someone rightly pointed out, it was the first and last “pure” historical since 1966. They should make more!

The Rescue

5/09/10 “The Rescue”
Barbara: The trembling has stopped.
The Doctor: Oh my dear, I’m so glad you’re feeling better.

This is an admittedly strange story that, at two parts, is a rarity. I found myself surprisingly fond of it despite the simplicity of all the elements. I would venture to say it’s almost like a sideways story that was tried out in the Hartnell era, more often than it would be subsequently. First of all, the Doctor is simply bonkers in this story. I can’t remember any other story in which Hartnell seemed about ready to fluff his lines in such an obvious fashion. Nevertheless, the silly Doctor seemed to be enjoying himself and, despite his obvious sadness about the departure of Susan, he was on much better terms with Ian and Barbara than previously. His character took a rather abrupt change of mood in the second part when he began beating down Bennett’s door with a chair. I was really perplexed as to what had inspired such venom in the Doctor. If he’d had a short aside about why he had suspicions, that would have made more sense. Instead, it rather suggested that he was losing his mind!

Dido would, of course, have benefited from today’s budget in terms of depicting a weird and deserted place, but then again, the advantage of black and white is its slightly eerie cast on the whole adventure (and its ability to disguise the limits of the sets). The whole story is just a little preposterous and only barely believable, but as a simple set piece, I think it does okay. The psychological repercussions, however, are staggering. But I’ll come back to that. Ian and the Doctor crossing through booby-trapped caves certainly presaged Indiana Jones (what a notion, to imagine that “The Rescue” could have inspired Indiana Jones!) and gave an exciting cliffhanger, but what was that all about? The Doctor established, and would appear to be more or less proved right by default, that the Dido-ians were peaceful and would seem to have no apparent use for booby trapped caves!

Speaking of strange connections, from the first when I saw Koquillion, I did think of “the beasts” in the M. Night Shaymalan film The Village with their long, sharp claws. I don’t want to spoil that film too much for anyone who hasn’t seen it, but the beasts also turn out to be frauds, objects for enforcing dominant societal power. Bennett and Vicki are this on a much smaller scale, but this is because she’s the victim of one very sick man’s subjugation; in The Village, at least, the fraudsters were performing their cheat for what they saw as humanitarian ideals. I thought the performance of Koquillion, especially at the beginning, was quite convincing; I was a bit dubious about why Doctor Who would fall into the old chestnut of evil beings looking ugly and bizarre, whereas the “good” look “like us.” Fortunately by the end of this, that notion is rejected.

I’ve been a fan of Vicki from pretty much the first story I saw her in, “The Time Meddler” (though I suppose I saw “The Chase” first, but I didn’t remember her much from that). I really enjoyed writing her as one of the main characters in my First Doctor novella (?) fan fiction, as one of the reasons I like her is that I identify with her, from the youthful looks to the wry sense of humor. However, if I had seen her debut story, I would have written her a little differently. I knew that she was an orphan but I hadn’t realized her youth had been so tragic! First, she loses her mother, then she and her father crash-land on Dido, then she falls ill, loses her father and all the other crew members to what she thinks are brutal alien killers, lives in a constant vicious cycle of hope and fear, has her only companion killed (accidentally) by Barbara, and eventually finds out that it’s all been instigated by a murderer who is only keeping her alive to corroborate his story! The psychological ramifications of that are just . . . well, it’s something that fan fic could fill in the blanks for, and since there’s no prequel or sequel to “The Rescue” that I know of, I guess I’ll have to be the one to do it. I also like Vicki’s determination and strength and her not wanting anyone to pity her.

As for Barbara, she had an unsurprisingly companion-like moment of falling down the cliff (though she did manage to stay alive). I thought her motivation for killing Vicki’s pet—she thought it was about to attack Vicki—was believable, and it was quite cool-headed and brave of her to do that. Ian had surprisingly little to do in this story!

One thing I wasn’t happy with was how the Doctor got out of Bennett killing him in the deserted old ceremonial hall. It was clever and entirely fitting that the Doctor figured out his deception but not too bright of him to be alone with the murderer! I thought that the Doctor and/or Bennett were imagining the Dido-ians coming back to life, and their specters (or manifestations of guilt) killed Bennett in the end (rather like Macbeth or Richard III). As written, it seems to have actually been something a lot more mundane yet still inexplicable. I really wish, too, the Dido-ians (such as they were) didn’t come by and destroy radio contact with the rescue ship. I liked to think of the rescuers coming to a deserted planet—or else Benny Summerfield investigating the ruins of the ship in the future . . .

Invaders from Mars

Invaders from Mars is a very good, though perhaps not great, Big Finish Eighth Doctor audio drama. It features what is rapidly becoming one of my favorite Doctor/companion teams, the Eighth Doctor and Charley, and is set around one of my pet interests (and part of my PhD focus!), Orson Welles’ Halloween 1938 broadcast of War of the Worlds. It features Simon Pegg and Jessica Stevenson (Hynes), who would eventually have guest roles in the TV show, in the only Doctor Who that was available to them in 2002, and prove able to hold their own on radio. Interestingly, the aliens in what would otherwise be a pure historical don’t come in until the third act; their presence is amusing and wonderfully ironic given the circumstances, but the plot would have been just as full without them, which you can’t often say.

The only criticism I have of Invaders from Mars, which is by seasoned professional Mark Gatiss, is that it’s got too many characters for audio. Even without the actors doubling, which is by necessity because of the way audio works, it’s very confusing trying to tell all the American characters apart. Listening to it a second time, I realized how much I had missed the first go. Since the mob world is a bit of a pastiche, the actors’ American gangster accents just about cut the mustard; it wouldn’t be genre, too, without various Russians and Nazis running around (and a cutthroat fey businessman—certainly this has Gatiss written all over it!). As the Doctor says, “. . . that’s the trouble with cliché.” Perhaps most ambitiously, War of the Worlds is written very skilfully into the narrative, and in the end the 23-year-old Orson Welles and his colleague John Houseman end up helping the Doctor (Welles’ biggest fan!) and Charley. (Though I wonder if the real Orson Welles would have been willing to play second fiddle even to someone with the charisma of the Doctor!)

On two very minor points I can niggle , but overall, Welles, Houseman, and the entire production are lovingly and accurately represented. I loved all the references that only Welles aficionados would recognize (the Doctor mentioning The Magnificent Ambersons, assigning the breaking-news format to Houseman, the theory that everyone was listening to CBS because they were bored with the other network’s dummy show, and CBS threatening to pull the plug if the Mercury Theater—which is today see as the cream of the crop of US Golden Age radio drama which swims with soaps and thrillers like The Shadow—doesn’t give the public what they want). The actors playing Welles and Houseman are very good at recreating the voices (in all the roles they play as Welles and Houseman), and Gatiss’ use of verbatim lines from War of the Worlds is in particular very effective (as is the constant grounding on Halloween). Gatiss is very good at capturing the ambivalence that must have been present at the time: some people taking the story at face value, others realizing it was just a play.

The audio is ingeniously plotted (which is the hallmark of Gatiss’ fiction in novel form, if not his Doctor Who TV episodes). Aurally the aliens (who would be at home with Captain Jack’s style of conning) sound a lot like those in Spectre of Lanyon Moor, which I must say detracts from my enjoyment of their hilarious feuding. The Doctor himself has some wonderful lines, and I absolutely loved when he “played gumshoe.” His role here, however, is mostly referee. Charley, in true companion style, does a lot of running around, but shows the courage and compassion (as well as some smart-alec remarks) integral to her character.

I don’t know, I think I might even listen to it a third time!

Storm Warning

originally written 14/04/2011

At last, I’ve finally heard the first Eighth Doctor play and the first Charley play. Other than the dawdling opening, I thought it was great. I was listening to it on a coach ride and did not have the cast list with me, so was pleasantly surprised to learn that Gareth Thomas played Lord Tamworth, Barnaby Edwards Rathbone, Nicholas Pegg Frayling, and Helen Goldwyn the Triskele (her CV must be incredible—she plays dozens of aliens in Storm Warning one moment and Christine Daaé in Phantom of the Opera the next!). I’ve never heard of Hylton Collins before, but he was excellent as well.

Alan Barnes is skilled at this audio thing, and he divided this story in quite nicely balanced and paced four parts. (The much-maligned opening with the companion-less Eighth Doctor talking to himself simply because that’s what you have to do on audio made me think for a long time, how would I have done it differently? Everyone knows it’s a faux pas to have audio characters talking to themselves; it’s considered lazy writing. Yet, it can work—here it feels like it’s bolting the stable door and we have to wait until Charley and the Doctor to meet for the stallion to escape!)

Though basing my opinion mostly on this and Chimes of Midnight, I love Charley. India Fisher brings such warmth and character to her voice, she’s already shot up to the top of my favorite companions list. She emerges here as a self-described “Edwardian adventuress,” which has never totally made sense given she’s from 1930. There’s a bit of Amy Pond-storybook-ness to her as she has stolen a steward’s uniform and papers and is in a “trouser role” aboard the R-101 until she’s (quite quickly) unmasked as a girl. I love the way she (like any good companion) immediately develops trust and affection for the Doctor. Fisher and McGann have some of the best companion-Doctor chemistry ever, and it makes it such a delight to listen to their scenes. I can’t wait to hear their ongoing story.

Another reason the first quarter stalls so much, perhaps, is that it’s setting things up and not really defying our expectations. Storm Warning is a story with multiple strands, beautifully interwoven and resolves in the final three parts, but the first section is what you might expect of a Doctor Who pseudo-historical: something odd afoot in the R-101, the British Empire’s pioneering dirigible, which the Doctor has just managed to land upon after an encounter with time-vulture Vortisaurs; the R-101 seems to be inhabited by types, rather than characters: Lord Tamworth is Todd from “Kinda,” and Lieutenant-Colonel Frayling is the somewhat timid self-made man whose ideas are constantly ignored by the “old fool.” However, the story is much more than that, and the characters respond in remarkable and unforeseen ways to the Doctor’s presence and intervention.

I don’t want to spoil too much, but there’s a mysterious passenger in room 43, an equally mysterious South African valet, and Chief Steward Weeks babysitting a Vortisaur. Barnes writes big, which you can afford to do on radio, and thus we get extended debates on the strength of societies, on cultural differences, the pros and cons of war, and a stunning speech by McGann on what we’d say, in the post-RTD universe, “fixed” points in time. Lord Tamworth emerges as a wonderful character, and the Doctor and Charley search for the TARDIS which has landed somewhere in France. The Eighth Doctor has been very well-served on audio.