Friday, July 15, 2011

The Androids of Tara

13/07/11 “The Androids of Tara”
[to K9 as he cuts through a wall] Come on, a hamster with a penknife could do it faster!
--The Doctor

It’s hard not to like “The Androids of Tara” (unless, I guess, you want very Saward-esque Doctor Who with lots of grunge, death, and darkness). I have never read nor seen nor did I know anything about The Prisoner of Zenda, so I really had no idea what to expect. I have decided that I am a fan of David Fisher, though, if he can produce two such good scripts in conjunction to each other that stylistically don’t feel slavishly copied from one another. The Doctor seems to ride on the coattails of the action here, which is refreshing and amusing, whereas Romana—though she does a lot of escaping and being recaptured—seems to have much more to do. The whole planet of Tara has the feel of fairy tales where something is slightly wrong—I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s one of the 10 Kingdoms in The 10th Kingdom.

However, I doubt anything I will have to say on it will be new. To fit with his rather lackadaisical attitude throughout the story, the Doctor spends the first episode in leisurely pursuits. First, he plays chess on the floor of the console room with K9. The Doctor seems to forget that K9 has been “programmed with all the championship games since 1861.” Romana is much more interested than the Doctor in recovering the fourth segment of the Key to Time (the Doctor seems to have gotten bored of the quest at this point). She even makes a point of landing the TARDIS—“was that smooth enough for you?”—but he doesn’t seem to care. When they do exit the TARDIS (K9 stays behind for some reason), the planet is described as “Earth type” and the Doctor doesn’t think it should give Romana “any trouble.” “Me?” The Doctor seems a bit more obsessed than normal with clothes, and by this I don’t mean his own—he’s been surprisingly pragmatic about Romana’s clothes in the last two stories. In any case, he tells her she should go get dressed. There’s a cute his-and-hers wardrobe scene where Romana bypasses “Tahiti” and goes for “Tara” and even the Doctor tries to select the appropriate attire.

Romana is startled by the fishing rod the Doctor retrieves, and all reference to Izaak Walton (author of the great treatise on angling) is lost on her. She has, meanwhile, changed into “it’s what everyone on Tara is wearing this year, right, K9?” I don’t care if it is, we’ve gone from great costumes in the last story to this cross between an Oompa Loompa and Sergeant Pepper. The only thing of which I can approve is the hat. Nevertheless, out into the forest they go, the Doctor with his fishing rod (“it’s an art”) which eventually he will discard after deciding to let the gumblejacks go. “I’m taking a day off,” he announces to a bewildered Romana. Romana is nonetheless confident in her own abilities to find the fourth segment—“I’ll be back here in under an hour”—and leaves the Doctor to his fishing. At first all things seem hunky dory as she manages to pick up the segment in a few minutes, wandering around the woods to the sound of dour and somewhat mysterious cellos and violins. She transforms the segment from part of a statue and is just about to pocket it, when she starts hearing weird noises in the bushes. I admire the audacity to make the story about something other than finding the Key to Time and rather about getting it back once taken!

Romana is then “attacked” by the Taran wood beast, which kind of looks like a nicer version of the trolls in Willow. The knight errant who comes to her rescue is not who he appears to be and despite Romana’s protests (after all, she’s only got a twisted ankle) carries her and then has her riddling side-saddle across the horse’s pommel. It’s all very dashing and romantic, and the costume is wonderful—it’s rather Don Quixote, in that as I said before, it looks the part and yet something isn’t quite right. The knight convinces her that as a stranger she doesn’t know the rules about registering a stone now that she’s in the kingdom (which is complete poppycock of course), and rule-abiding Romana just can’t say no. He introduces himself to Count Grendel, which should have alarmed her from get-go as the monster of Beowulf cannot be expected, in such a romanza, to be trusted. Grendel is a bit distressed that part of the his family statue has disappeared (Romana doesn’t volunteer what has happened to it). There’s a wonderful conversation about the horse, which apparently Romana has never seen before. “What makes it work?” “Good heavens, I don’t know.” While they’re riding, we get an extended harpsichord solo from Dudley Simpson.

Meanwhile, the Doctor utters the immortal line about not stepping on his chest when his hat’s on fire, though that has no effect on stern warrior Farrah, whose electric rapier seems to take delight in burning up the Doctor’s accessories. Farrah and his master Zadek warn the Doctor he has stumbled onto Prince Reynart’s lands. I don’t quite know what era they’re trying to reproduce, if any, but Farrah and Zadek’s costumes are wonderful (even if the actors weren’t keen on them). The semi-Lawrence of Arabia feel produced by the head gear is at wonderful odds with the gold lamé boots and the Hessian-type medals at the collar. It all looks wildly incongruous with the setting, which is a lot of fun. The Doctor is spared when he is asked, “Can you mend an android?”

Back at Count Grendel’s castle of Grock, which is the splendid Leeds Castle in Kent, Pigbin Tarquin comes limping up to meet his master. Grendel introduces Romana to his “doctor,” Madame Lamia. Again, of course, Romana should have twigged with the names—Lamia was a Greek monster with serpentine attributes (perhaps that explains Madame Lamia’s interesting hairstyle?), and for Gothic horror buffs will be remembered more as a type of succubus/vampire-like creature, to be linked with the demon Lilith. However evil Madame Lamia may be, she isn’t a monster in the sense vampiric, only driven to foul deeds by a misguided affection for her master, Grendel. Her laboratory with data banks is something between a torture chamber and a Gothic hideout. However, despite all this, Lamia is the most interesting character in the story and reminds me of Tazambeker and her twisted obsession with Mr Jobel in “Revelation of the Daleks.” She obeys Grendel despite seeing through all this plans, “I’m a peasant, I leave politics to my betters.” The fact that peasants on Tara are the only ones who can repair androids makes me think this society is on the verge of a revolution—surely if the peasants are skilled enough to do that kind of work, they’re not going to stay subjugated for much longer? Unless they benefit in unseen ways from this society’s hierarchy? Grendel, for reasons that will become clear later, thinks Romana is an android and though impressed by the skill of constructing her, wants Lamia to “disassemble her.” Lamia is cleverer than Grendel, though, and notices that Romana’s ankle is swollen, proving she’s human.

At Reynhart’s hunting lodge (I guess?), Reynart, a Beau Geste-type hero, thinks the Doctor clearly must be a gentleman, yet may still be able to help them with their android problem. Indeed, the Doctor is able to, and he repairs the Reynhart lookalike android (George). There’s some surprisingly good split screen work as the two Reynharts are in the scene together. “It’s quite eerie, seeing one’s self.” The thing is, Reynhart fears assassination as he goes to claim the throne, but if he doesn’t show up then the throne gets forfeited. So he has gone one better than a human double—all of this interesting in light of “gangers” in series 6, but we’ll get to that. However, Grendel who of course wants the throne himself (why he is power-obsessed is not clear) beats him to the chase, causing a cliffhanger.

This must have been taken from a Victorian story as Grendel doesn’t kill all his helpless prisoners, he just kidnaps the Prince, leaving the Doctor, Zadek and Farrah to figure out how to proceed. The Doctor can just about make the android, which was not kidnapped, capable to getting to the coronation and acting appropriately. The Doctor’s attitude in this is odd; he is amused by the whole thing but rather subdued in action if not in his playful performance. Zadek and Farrah decide to follow the Doctor’s plan to establish the android on the throne until they can rescue Reynart.

In Grendel’s castle, Romana sees the Princess Strella, weaving in captivity like a good medieval woman should, who of course is Romana’s double (which is never explained). However, this gives wonderful clarity as to why she should want to regenerate in “Destiny of the Daleks” into Princess Astra—both names refer to stars, and of course having seen her own in double in this story, it seems her vanity was piqued. At least I’d like to believe that as otherwise it makes no sense. In any case, Strella, who isn’t given much of a personality until later, is oblivious to all the plotting and only refuses to be married off. We find out that Grendel “once showed [Lamia] a certain courtesy,” which suggests sexual favors, and sadly Lamia’s regard is quite one-sided.

Meanwhile the Doctor et al are proceeding through the “plague tunnels” (touch of Boccaccio and/or “Masque of the Red Death”) under the court so as to get there in time for the coronation. The interiors in the coronation scenes are absolutely stunning. The costumes are a great hodge-podge and are none the worse for their charivari quality. The Archimandrite, who eventually will pass his dress sense on to the Portreeve of Castrovalva (while, I think, imitating the Venetian doges), is a rather Gormenghast-ian character who apparently doesn’t see or doesn’t care about Grendel’s treachery. With the help of the Doctor and friends, the android is crowned though not without arousing suspicion. The episode ends as the Doctor beats the crap out of Princess Strella (though we know it can’t be her).

Strella’s head then falls off as she is obviously revealed to be an android. The Doctor apparently “heard it spark.” All the pomp and circumstance is postpone for the next day; Lamia is intrigued by the Key to Time which she eventually asks Romana about. “I’ve blunted two diamond drills on it.” Poor Romana can’t tell a lie and is not allowed to have her stone back. Lamia has somehow managed to construct a Romana android that is very accurate, if a bit lifeless—“the Doctor will spot it immediately.” The original FemmBot, it conceals a not-very-subtle assassination device. One wonders what exactly they mean by, “The android is programmed to kill in other ways.” However, Romana takes advantage of a moment’s distraction to take what I assumed was a syringe to stab Lamia with, but is actually a lock-pick which she conveniently uses to set herself free from the dungeon. She wants to help Reynart escape as well, but he is too weak to try. She bolts off to escape and can’t get the horse started. :-D “Go, charger, start!”

The Doctor has taken the opportunity to repair back to the hunting lodge to improve the android’s circuitry—“a trifle more intelligent than the real one.” Pigbin Tarquin comes with a message for the Doctor to meet Lamia so they can make an exchange—Romana for safe passage for Grendel (or something like that; it’s so obviously a trap it makes no difference). They meet in a wonderful pavilion building, 12 hours early as it happens, and then Grendel surrounds the place, bombards it (why it doesn’t ignite when it’s apparently wood I don’t know), accidentally kills Lamia (for which he feels a sliver of remorse), and eventually the Doctor and K9 get away.

Grendel brings the white flag of truce to the hunting lodge and honorable Zardek agrees to let him in. He discusses “kingmaking” with the Doctor—“you would make an excellent king,” though that’s interesting in comparison to what the Ninth Doctor says later, “I make a very bad god.” Foiled, Grendel runs off, somehow having grabbed Romana (WTF?) and having thrown a spear into the android, effectively harpooning it. I’m not the only one to think of Grendel’s ambition like that of Richard III, and frankly I would have enjoyed if his character was more Richard III-like. With the fake Reynard destroyed and Princess Strella refusing to take any part in Grendel’s plans, he blackmails Reynard and Romana into doing what he wants so that Strella’s life is saved. Romana, not knowing Strella, could have called Grendel’s bluff, I think, but Reynart of course knows her personally. So they consent to dress up and have a fake marriage (much like Richard III talked Anne into marrying him, and Grendel’s plan is to discard Romana as soon as he gotten to the throne, as Richard let Anne waste away). Strella’s costume appears to have been recycled from “Monster of Peladon.”

The Doctor and K9 are doing the rescuing, enjoying a fun boat ride across the Grock castle moat in the darkness to later unlock the front door. The Doctor relishes breaking up the wedding and even more so, in a boldly and hilariously Pertwee-like move, the duel between himself and Grendel. This is highly unusual in Doctor Who, brings to mind both Hamlet and the later duel between the Dread Pirate Roberts and Inigo Montoya. In the meantime, Romana follows Grendel’s majordomo and prevents him from killing the unsuspecting Strella; they have an amusing and cute conversation between the two of them. Grendel leaves to fight another day, the Doctor has to rescue K9 from the boat, and no one dies except poor unhappy Lamia. The Doctor cruelly teases Romana about the whereabouts of the Key to Time, which he has thoughtfully saved from Lamia’s workshop.

Like the sunny but uncomplicated “Black Orchid,” it’s difficult to bear a grudge against “Androids of Tara.”

No comments: