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A season-long epic: Doctor Who and the Key to Time

For season 17 of Doctor Who, the series went big. All six serials are part of one composite story, involving the Doctor and his new companion’s quest for the Key to Time.

In the first episode, the Doctor gets yanked out of time to meet the White Guardian, one of two entities representing order and chaos (that’s the Black Guardian).  The Guardian explains that while the two opposing forces normally keep the flow of time and existence in perfect balance, once in a while, it needs a reset. That requires the Key to Time, an artifact capable of giving one of the Guardians absolute control of reality. Because of the potential for abuse, the key is scattered across the universe in six separate, indestructible segments. The White Guardian explains that it’s necessary for him so he’s recruiting the Doctor to collect the pieces. Doctor: “What happens if I refuse?” “Nothing will happen, Doctor … ever again.”

He’s also provided the Doctor with a new companion, Romana (Mary Tamm), a Gallifreyan Time Lady. It proves to be one of the classic odd couple pairings: Romana has better education and technical skills, the Doctor has better education in the school of hard knocks. While Tamm is stiff as an actor, her knowledge enables her to hold her own with the Doctor in a way most companions can’t.

The first story, The Ribos Operation, has them hunting for a segment on the eponymous planet. On this medieval-level world, the overcast sky has left them unaware of the rest of the universe; a would be galactic conqueror, the Graf Vinda-K, seeks a priceless chunk of a rare mineral to finance his coming wars. Guess what the Key-detector the Guardian gave the Doctor shows to be the first segment? This one is well thought-of, but I’ve never really liked it; the acting is good but like Curse of Peladon it’s close to pure costume drama only not as much fun. And K9, as he often does, makes things a little too easy for the Doctor. “You can’t be a successful crook with a dishonest face, can you?”

Douglas Adams’ The Pirate Planet, by contrast, is a delight, even though I’d remembered it as over-the-top silly. Seeking the second segment, the Doctor arrives on a planet ruled by a cyborg pirate captain (with a cyborg parrot, no less); as we eventually learn, the planet sustains itself by jumping through space, engulfing other worlds, then strip-mining their resources. It turns out the captain isn’t as crazy or silly (“By the beard of the sky demon, the jaws of death were around your throat!”)
as he seems and there are multiple other players in the game … This one’s first-rate. “Use your tongue, Doctor — it’s the only weapon you have left.”

I also really like the third serial, The Stones of Blood, for its effective use of British stone-circle folklore. The Doctor and Romana arrive in present day England, where something’s going on involving an old circle of stones that supposedly move around so that nobody can count them accurately. And hmm, something seems to be crushing people in the area to death … Does it have anything to do with the mysterious Vivian Fay whose family have held the land for centuries (if I were watching cold, that folklore-laded name would have been a big Warning). While this takes a too-comical twist near the end with the Megaera, alien judge/executioners, it still works. “I think of modern Druidism as a joke perpetrated by John Aubrey.”The Androids of Tara is less successful. Arriving on a planet where despite a generally 18th century lifestyle, the technology allows for android servants, the Doctor and Romana get caught up in a Prisoner of Zenda remake: Romana’s the exact double of the local ruler, kidnapped by the scheming Count Grendel, so can the Time Lady fill in for an important ceremony? I like this one more than it deserves: while Grendel’s a good villain, the androids seem more like a plot device than anything integral to the planet’s culture (in contrast to, say, The Robots of Death). And once again, K9 is a little too handy. “I don’t think I’ll refuse the crown a second time — it might create the wrong impression.”

Power of the Kroll involves an offworld chemical refinery in conflict with the local alien tribes, so the Doctor’s arrival is obviously some scheme by the activist Sons of Earth to side with the “swampies,” right? That conflict proves secondary when it turns out the fifth segment has turned a local squidlike creature into the Swampie’s giant god, Kroll; the creature is impressive as a shadowy outline or when it’s just ginormous tentacles, much less so when we see more of it. Overall, this one’s so-so. “Somehow this lake is producing enough protein to make this operation possible.”

The season wraps up with The Armageddon Factor, taking place on war-ravaged Atrios, which is locked in a losing battle with another world. Here the Black Guardian makes his play, manipulating the power-mad Marshal who leads the war for Princess Astra (Lala Ward, who became Romana’s next regeneration), but the Shadow, his hand-picked agent to obtain the Key of Time. On top of the imminent destruction of Atrios in the war, the Doctor discovers Astra is the final segment: assembling the key will destroy her.

Ultimately the Doctor and Romana do assemble the key, but when the White Guardian asks for it, the Doctor decides it’s too powerful to trust to anyone and wills the segments to disassemble (Astra will live!). Smart move: the White Guardian has been the Black Guardian all along (at least that appears to be the case) and him with the Key would be Very Bad. However the two Time Lords are now on the Black Guardian’s shit list: to prevent him following them, they completely randomize the TARDIS time jumps (the Doctor’s been able to control it perfectly this season, unlike usual). Overall, this didn’t quite work: the Marshal’s a nicely fanatical villain, the Shadow much more stock, and Lala Ward has zero screen presence as Astra. There’s also another Time Lord character who’s too much comic relief. So overall a decent season, but not as stellar as the previous few. “Well of course I’m all right… but supposing I wasn’t all right?”

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Doctor Who: Jodie Whittaker has lived before!

Fair warning, this post on the 2020 season of Doctor Who contains massive spoilers for the main story arc of Jodie Whittaker’s second season. It has a great twist midway through but culminates in a reveal that fails to satisfy.The series opens with the two-part story Skyfall, in which Prime Minister Stephen Frye and spymaster O (Sacha Dawan) ask the Doctor and her companions to stop an alien threat involving a tech entrepreneur and his search engine. With UNIT and Torchwood gone, they’ve got nobody else; the British government has also stopped believing alien invasions are even real, which makes no sense (even in the new series, we’ve had several). Fighting the uninspired threat (we’re way past the point where Big Tech violating our privacy is a shcoking reveal), the Doctor discovers O is the latest regeneration of the Master, a smirking, mocking psycho reminiscent of John Simms’s Master from a few seasons back. The Master reveals everything the Doctor knows about Gallifrey is wrong (never a good sign for me) and that their world is built on the lie of … the Timeless Child! What does that mean? Stay tuned.

Orphan 55 has the TARDIS gang relax on the eponymous paradise planet, which like all SF resorts turns out to be more dangerous than it appears. The real secret here worked for me even though it’s corny as hell, and this was an enjoyable, fast-moving run-from-the-monsters story, though the character arcs for the guest cast were lacking. Next came Nikolai Tesla’s Night of Terror in which the cast become embroiled in a struggle between Tesla and alien invaders, with Edison kibbitzing, This one was competent, but very heavy on the Tesla-idolatry.

Then comes the twist. In Fugitive of the Judoon, the alien rhino-men show up in Gloucester hunting for someone. Local tour-guide Ruth (Jo Martin) has a husband who looks a little suspicious but it turns out she’s the target for some reason. The Doctor figures it out when they travel to Ruth’s family home and in her parents’ grave find … a Tardis. Not just a Tardis, but the Tardis. The Doctor’s target. Yet neither Ruth nor the Doctor remembers an incarnation as the other, so how is that possible? We end the episode without an answer. Oh, it also includes the return of John Barrowman as Captain Jack Harkness, warning the Doctor that the Lone Cyberman is coming. Under no circumstances should he get what he wants!

Then comes another competent one, Praxeus; heavy on the environmental preaching but I like the supporting cast. Can You Hear Me? was very good, with some good backstory on Yaz and an entity from the same race as the First Doctor’s Celestial Toymaker. The Haunting of Villa Diodati has the Tardis team crash the night in Italy Mary Shelley came up with Frankenstein, only to discover the night is not proceeding as it’s supposed to. Then the Lone Cyberman shows up, seeking the cyberium, a liquid metal supercomputer hidden in one of the bodies there. It embodies all the strategic knowledge of the Cybermen; in his time they’re defeated but now, things will turn around. I enjoyed this one but the Lone Cyberman’s visuals — he’s only partially converted — make him less intimidating despite his ruthlessness. And the Doctor’s Vulcan mind-meld powers here annoy me, though previous incarnations have shown equally implausible powers.

As the Doctor gives up the cyberium, she then has to travel to the future to stop The Ascension of the Cybermen, though the cyberium doesn’t really make much difference — it’s not as if the Lone Cybermen becomes a better strategist than previous iterations of his kind. Interspersed with this is a strange story about an Irish police officer who discovers he’s unkillable, then has his superiors wipe his memory (““Thank you for your service — a shame you won’t remember it.”). The Master shows up again, striking a deal with the Cybermen, even while mocking them (“You’re driven by hate and loathing for everything that you are — talk about your internal conflicts!”). His pitch: take the floating battleship stuffed with Cybermen to now-dead Gallifrey where they can rebuild themselves with immortal Time Lord bodies and conquer the universe. Quite aside from technical issues (the Cybermen accomplish the changeover impossibly fast) this doesn’t work anywhere near as well as it might, partly because the Master apparently has no agenda other than trolling the Doctor (Roger Delgado’s Master would be embarrassed).

And then there’s the reveal. It turns out that long before the era of the Time Lords, a Gallifreyan woman adopted an alien child, then discovered he regenerated every time he died. Studying him, she discovered how this worked and incorporated it into Gallifreyan DNA, though limiting the potentially infinite regenerations to twelve. The “timeless child” (why the episode is called Timeless Children I know not) then goes into service for Gallifrey’s intelligence division; upon retirement he gets a mindwipe to conceal some of the secrets he’s learned. And years later, he becomes William Hartnell, steals a Type 40 Tardis and a legend is born. Yep. The Doctor herself is the source of Gallifreyan immortality. And she has god knows how many incarnations she no longer remembers.

This is certainly a shocker in terms of the Doctor’s personal history, but in terms of a Dark Gallifrey Secret it’s not actually as Dark as the buildup indicated. It’s also confusing — is Ruth an incarnation post-Hartnell or did he have the Tardis all along and his memories are fake? For a lot of people, the reveal the Doctor has undisclosed incarnations wasn’t the problem but the reveal she is not just a Time Lord but the most special, most remarkable of all Time Lords. I have some sympathy for that view; I didn’t hate it that much but I didn’t care for it much either. The hook with Ruth intrigued me; the reveal fell flat.

But of course, I’ll be back whenever the pandemic lets us have more.

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A doctor, a pirate: this week’s movies

Reading Amicus Horrors prompted me to rewatch Amicus’ contribution to the Whoniverse, DOCTOR WHO AND THE DALEKS (1965) . This reworking of TV’s The Daleks — on the big screen! In color! — starred Peter Cushing as “Doctor Who,” with Who apparently his real name (I’m equally curious why he’s reading an issue of the Eagle weekly comic; you’d think TV Comic, which had the actual Doctor Who strip would be the choice). Still it’s a nice character bit: while his granddaughters Barbara (Jennie Linden) and Susan (Roberta Tovey) read physics for fun, old Who is reading SF comic strips like Dan Dare.

In this story, Who has invented TARDIS (no “the”). When Barbara’s boyfriend Ian (Roy Castle) shows up, Who shows off his machine, Ian accidentally activates it and they land on an alien planet where radiation has left everything dead. As in the TV show, the Doctor fakes a TARDIS breakdown to give him an excuse to explore a nearby city. Unfortunately the city is inhabited by the Daleks, just as malevolent on TV. Can the time/space travelers and the pacifist Thals stop the Daleks from killing them all?

I was very tired when I watched it so the amount of running back and forth from the city to the dead forest got pretty tedious. And the Thals drop their pacifism way too easily when the Doctor pushes them. That said the sets look decent, the Daleks are menacing and Cushing makes an enjoyably grandfatherly Doctor, much more affable than Hartnell’s rather toplofty First Doctor. And while TARDIS’ interior is a mess, it certainly looks like something the Who family could have cobbled together in the back yard. “If the Daleks consider us to be monsters, what must they look like?”THE CRIMSON PIRATE (1952) starts Burt Lancaster in the title role as one of the most acrobatic swashbucklers ever, which may have something to do with having actual circus acrobat experience (Douglas Fairbanks in The Black Pirate is the only one to match Lancaster).  Captain Vallo (Lancaster) captures a British envoy (Leslie Bradley) out to crush revolution in the Caribbean. Vallo strikes a deal to sell the envoy’s cargo of guns and gunpowder to one of the rebel movements, then capture the leader and sell him back, all of which horrifies a traditionalist pirate (Torin Thatcher) who declares “this isn’t piracy — it’s business!” Like so many cynical opportunist heroes, Vallo and his sidekick Ojo (Nick Cravat, Lancaster’s trapeze partner, who stays silent to hide his thick Brooklyn accent) are out for themselves, but when Vallo gets a look at Eva Bartok as the rebel leader’s daughter, things start to change.

This is a terrific, fun movie, and quite unusual in swashbucklers. Despite all the evil tyrants who get overthrown in these films, the genre is actually pro-monarchy — once you remove the usurper or the corrupt vizier or awake the king to his true duties, it’s a great system of government. In The Crimson Pirate and The Flame and the Arrow Lancaster overthrows colonial governments in favor of independence, rather than resolving things by having the king appoint a better governor.

A second departure from the usual is the climax. One of the revolutionaries is a scientist and when the revolution takes on the British troops they’re equipped with steampunk versions of tanks and machine guns. It adds fun to what’s already a delightful film. The only flaw is that Bradley isn’t quite strong enough as the villain. “If you know it was bolted you must have tried it — and if you tried it, you know why it was bolted.”

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Doctor Who, S15: A change in tone and a little tin dog

Season 15 of DOCTOR WHO starts out with the same dark tone as the previous season. By the end, as the production team changed, we’re in lighter, more comical territory, Leela has gone (I’d remembered her being around a lot longer) and instead K9, the robot dog, has entered the TARDIS.The season kicks off with a very dark one, HORROR OF FANG ROCK (which I wrote about a while back). Instead of landing at Brighton, the TARDIS materializes near a Victorian lighthouse. A Rutan space ship has also landed nearby and is now scouting out the area to decide how easy it will be to attack and wipe out the humans. An energy-based shapeshifter, the Rutan is able to replace any member of the supporting cast — but which ones? It’s a grim, effective story in which nobody but the Doctor and Leela make it out alive. “I thought I’d locked the enemy out. Instead I’ve locked it in… with us!'”

THE INVISIBLE ENEMY is a good concept badly undercut by crappy effects — the boss monster is on a par with the infamous rubber snake of Kinda and the mind-controlled humans look silly too. A shame because I like the concept. An intelligent viral swarm takes over a space station with an eye to spreading and dominating all human life. With the Doctor infected the fight against the Purpose looks hopeless, but fortunately the space station scientist is able to clone the Doctor and Leela and shrink them to confront the virus on its own level.

What makes this episode really memorable is K9, the scientist’s AI robot dog (voiced to perfection by John Leeson). At the end of the episode, the Doctor winds up taking K9 along in the TARDIS. While the producers weren’t sure if they wanted to keep him around, he stayed a companion until late in S18, and has cropped up in spinoffs Sarah Jane Adventures and his own show to boot. K9 has an undeniable charm to him (and occasionally some sarcasm) but as some fans have complained, his built in ray-weapons makes it a lot easier for the Doctor to take down the bad guys. “Some of my best friends are humans. When they get together in great numbers other lifeforms sometimes suffer.” 

IMAGE OF THE FENDAHL is another grim one. The Doctor arrives near an anthropological research site where the crew are baffled by what appears to be an impossibly old human skull. The Doctor realizes the skull is the Fendahl, a monstrous entity supposedly destroyed by the Time Lords. Instead it reached Earth and has been manipulating humanity — most of what we think of as magic is the result of the Fendahl’s powers — with an eye to reconstituting itself. And it’s very close to its goal. While the gold face makeup on the Fendahl’s final form is underwhelming, this is a good one, strongly reminiscent of Quatermass and the Pit. “I have been used! My family has been used! All mankind has been used!”

THE SUN MAKERS is much more comic in tone, and not quite to my taste, though it does boast some memorable performances. The TARDIS arrives on Pluto, long after humanity has relocated there from a polluted Earth. Unfortunately the company that arranged the move and maintains the artificial suns that provide light has kept humanity in indentured servitude for generations. That, of course, is about to change … Not the series’ best satire, but not a bad one either. “I sense the vicious doctrine of egalitarianism!”

UNDERWORLD would suffer even if it was awesome because it’s another oppressed underground planetary civilization right after the one in Sun Makers. In a riff on the legend of Jason, the TARDIS lands on a Minyan ship seeking a legendary lost colony. This is important to the Doctor because millennia earlier, the Time Lords had tried advancing Minyan technology only to watch the planet destroy itself, leading to their vow of non-intervention. So naturally, the Doctor and Leela come along with Jaxson, Herik, Orph and their crewmates. What follows never really gels, though and as the Doctor points out the enemy they ultimately face is too cliched. “You’re just a machine with delusions of grandeur — another insane object, another self-aggrandizing artifact.”

The season wraps up with the six-episode INVASION OF TIME, one where my opinion is way lower than it was on first viewing. The Doctor strikes a pact with the sinister, unseen Vardans to conquer Gallifrey, then returns and uses his authority as President (from the previous season’s The Deadly Assassin) to make it happen. Unsurprisingly it turns out the Doctor is running a scam to take down the Vardans — but then it turns out they’re just a stalking horse to get the Sontarans inside Gallifrey’s defenses.

Part of what goes wrong is that all the added areas we see in the TARDIS — corridors, swimming pool — don’t really work. For one thing it’s still a lot of time spent running through corridor;  for another everything looks like they shot it at the nearest school. The TARDIS should look more colorful than that. Another problem is that the Vardans, when we finally see them, are really, really uninteresting. And Leela’s departure is awful, leaving to marry/pair off with Andred, a Time Lord guard. While an early couple of scenes show them finding each other obnoxious and irritating (we know what that means) they hardly have any interaction after that; Leela has more chemistry with the Time Lady Rodan. It’s a hamfisted farewell and way out of character for Leela. Despite some good performances (Baker playing evil is always fun), this one’s ultimately a loser. “Where do you hide a tree? In a forest — you taught me that, Borussa.”

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Two great companions and the Master’s return: Doctor Who, Season 14

Wow, S14 of the original series was amazing. First rate stories, Sarah Jane’s last episodes, the return of the Master and the intro of Leela, the companion who kills people.

In a media world where formidable women protagonists are a lot more common, I’m not sure anyone can appreciate how totally novel Leela looked when she debuted. A barbarian warrior, she fights well, doesn’t lose her cool (faced with unkillable adversaries in Robots of Death and Talons of Weng-Chiang, she retreats but it’s strategic, not terrified) and has no qualms about killing people. Within the world of Doctor Who she stands out even now: there’s never been a companion as tough and deadly as she was.

The season kicked off with its weakest storyline, THE MASQUE OF MANDRAGORA. Sarah and the Doctor arrive in Renaissance Italy, dragging along a piece of the star-entity called the Mandragora Helix. They’re all embroiled in a local power struggle between Giulano, an enlightened young noble, and his power hungry uncle, Federico (“Only corpses fail to stand in my presence.”), allied with the scheming astrologer Hieronymous and a local cult. The Mandragora, which dislikes human free will and reason, sides with the bad guys; the Doctor and Sarah are on the other side.  I remember liking this one when I first saw it, but rewatching it’s too much mundane swashbuckler intrigues, not enough of the Helix. This does give the reveal that the reason Sarah can speak Italian (or anything else) is a “Time Lord gift” the Doctor shares with her. “It depends on whether the moon is made of cheese and whether thirteen roosters cluck at midnight.”

Sarah Jane bows out with THE HAND OF FEAR, which begins when a literal hand is turned up in a quarry, buried in rock (there are some jokes about the series’  long history of using quarries as barren alien planets). It possesses Sarah Jane (Elisabeth Sladen does an excellent turn) and takes drastic steps to regenerate (“Eldrad must live again!”). With the Doctor and Sarah in tow, Eldrad (much less memorable than Eldrad-possessed Sarah Jane)heads back to its homeworld, but it’s fudged some of the backstory — and there are surprises waiting even beyond that. It’s a good story, ending with Sarah Jane deciding enough’s enough (amusingly, she walks off humming the song My Daddy Wouldn’t Buy Me a Bow-Wow, little realizing the Doctor would some day gift her with a robot dog). “The Atomic Energy Commission is not going to believe this.”

At the end of that serial, the Doctor gets a summons to Gallifrey. They’re in the middle of a presidential election, but somewhere among the crowds lurks THE DEADLY ASSASSIN … and it appears to be the Doctor. Can he clear his name before he’s executed? This marks the return of the Master after several years absence, though here he’s a physical wreck from running out of regenerations (it would be another four seasons before he returned and got a new face). This one is intense, twisty and effective, though at the time it upset a lot of fans: showing the Time Lords riven by internal politics and coming off almost like humans didn’t fit most people’s ideas of what Gallifrey was like. With time, more people have recognized how good this one is. “You’d delay an execution to pull the wings off a fly.”

THE FACE OF EVIL has a familiar set-up — Earth-settled planet that’s forgotten its origins, devolving into two hostile cultures, one technological, one savage. It’s well-executed though, and it turns out the Doctor has a surprising role in the planet’s history. The best thing about this one, though, is the debut of Leela. “You know the very powerful and the very stupid have one thing in common. They don’t alter their views to fit the facts.”

THE ROBOTS OF DEATH would be a standout in any other season but it’s almost minor in S14. The TARDIS deposits the Doctor and Leela inside a giant mechanical miner whose crew are scouring a desert world for potentially valuable minerals. Unfortunately, some of the robot workers have decided to ignore the First Law of Robots and begin killing people. Oh, and look, these two strangers showing up must obviously be the guilty parties! The result is a mix of old-school murder mystery and SF. “I see, you’re one of those boring maniacs who likes to gloat.”

Last, but definitely not least we have the singularly frustrating THE TALONS OF WENG-CHIANG. The frustrating part is that it leans very heavily on Sinister Oriental stereotypes including tongs, opium, Fu Manchu-type villains and the general Othering of the Chinese. Not to mention that the sinister Chinese stage magician Chang is a British guy in yellowface. I’m sure for some fans these details will ruin what’s otherwise a fantastic story.

The Doctor takes Leela to Victorian London to see how her Earth ancestors lived. They land, wouldn’t you know, just as Chang is mysteriously kidnapping local women using his hypnotic powers, with his not-so-inanimate ventriloquist dummy and the Scorpion Tong eliminating anyone who gets in the way. The Doctor and Leela find themselves working alongside the flamboyant showman Jago (Christopher Benjamin) and Professor Litefoot (Trevor Baxter) to learn what’s behind it all (it turns out to involve a rival time traveler whose scientific theories have some flaws). Despite running six parts, it never feels padded: it’s well-acted, tense, well-performed and cleverly done. Scriptwriter Robert Holmes actually hoped to give Jago and Litefoot a spinoff series, but it never came to pass.  “Unfortunately the night vapors are very bad for my chest.”

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Doctor Who again: the (first female) Doctor is in!

I’m delighted the thirteenth Doctor on Doctor Who is a woman, and I’m also impressed the showrunners took a gamble that guaranteed lots of blowback. I’ve seen plenty of articles arguing this is just plain wrong (some good discussion of that here); if the new Doctor hadn’t gone over well (and not everyone likes every Doctor), the blowback would have gotten worse.

Happily, we got Jodie Whittaker, and she’s terrific. I wasn’t sure during the first episode, in which see seemed to be imitating Capaldi, but the first episode after regeneration is not a good guide what they’ll be like. She soon firmed up into her own Doctor, talking like a scatterbrained but thinking like well, the Doctor.

The first episode, The Woman Who Fell to Earth, introduces her new set of companions: Graham (fiftysomething bus driver), his step son Ryan, a young black man with dyspraxia (I gather it’s like dyslexia but physical), and Yaz, a Pakistani police woman who’s an old friend of Ryan’s. Ryan’s mum appears, but dies at the end of the first episode. All of them come from Sheffield, which has a bigger role in the background than most real-world settings — the Doctor loses her sonic screwdriver, so she cobbles together a new one out of Sheffield steel, for instance.

The season doesn’t have an overall story arc or a season long big bad, though the same alien killer shows up in the first and last episodes (I am not impressed with him, so I’m glad he wasn’t the archfoe of the season). However, some of the discussion at Camestros Felapton’s blog suggested that the running theme is humanity as the real monster. A white supremacist in Rosa (about Rosa Parks); a politically ambitious millionaire in Arachnids in the UK; the designers who set a doomsday bomb as a failsafe in The Tsurunga Conundrum; the religious hostilities during the India/Pakistan partition (Demons of the Punjab); and the anti-tech activist in Kerblam!

The stories were uneven. Arachnids was the weakest, a classic monster story with too many mixed elements that never gelled together. I think I’m in a minority, but I didn’t much fancy The Witchfinders, partly just because I know too much about the subject (the “witchfinder general” did not outrank other witchfinders). Kerblam! was much better, but suffered from a muddled moral and an AI I was supposed to sympathize with but didn’t (it kills one character just to make a point).

Demons of the Punjab was a good look at a conflict that looms large in Yaz’s family history; It Takes You Away was an interesting story about a strange parallel universe; and the New Year’s (rather than Christmas) special Resolution was really great. I suspect it’s broadening the background cast for next season, which annoyingly won’t be until 2020.

As far as I’m concerned, the thirteenth Doctor (please note I am not taking the number thirteen as set up for a joke) is a solid success.

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Doctor Who’s Horror Era: Fourth Doctor, Second Season

One of the reasons so many Doctor Who fans remember the Fourth Doctor’s era fondly is seasons like this one. S13 was quite unlike anything I’d seen before, borrowing plot elements from classic SF and even more from horror, a trend that runs through Image of the Fendahl a couple of seasons later. It’s surprisingly grim at times: A character in Seeds of Doom dies in a giant composting machine (not as funny as it sounds). In Pyramids of Mars the Doctor shows Sarah what the present will look like if they give up fighting the alien Sutekh and just go home: a dead, lifeless Earth of ash and dust (one of the series’ best scenes).

The series kicks off with Terror of the Zygons, a well-exected Invasion of the Bodysnatchers thriller. The alien Zygons are scheming in the vicinity of Loch Ness; said scheme involves replacing humans with Zygon infiltrators. That’s a stock set-up (it could as easily have been The Faceless Ones from the Hartnell era) but it’s effectively executed, and the Zygons are bizarre-looking enough to be memorable.

Planet of Evil surprised me because I’d confused it with Leela’s debut (coming up next season), Face of Evil. The Doctor and Sarah (and having them off on their own away from UNIT and Harry shows what a good team they were) arrive on Zeta Minor, the planet at the far edge of the universe (the jungle sets are surprisingly effective). Unfortunately it’s actually on the border of this universe and an anti-matter one; a mining expedition tampering with anti-matter rocks is unleashing very unpleasant consequences and a lot of deaths. Where Zygons was an alien invasion story, this one is pure SF horror, much of it taking place in small spaces.

Pyramids of Mars is a classic. Returning from Zeta Minor, the TARDIS lands at UNIT HQ back when it was a mansion. Scarman, the Egyptologist who owns it is now under the spell of Sutekh, the alien Osirian who provided the Egyptians with the model for Set. Scarman is working to free his master (an army of robot mummies helps), at which point Sutekh will destroy Earth and as much of the rest of the universe as he can find ( “Where I tread, I leave nothing but dust and darkness — I find that good.”). As noted above, we get to see what happens if the Doctor doesn’t win, and it looks very much as if he won’t.

The Android Invasion is another alien infiltrator story, though that doesn’t become obvious immediately. The Doctor and Sarah return to Earth but the village they arrive seems a little off, and a little sinister. It turns out to be a mock-up rehearsing alien androids to pass as human, with the real invasion to follow.  This one works better than it could have, but it has some big flaws (why does the deadly virus intended to wipe out humanity only kill one person?).

Back to horror with The Brain of Morbius; the Doctor and Sarah land on a creepy planet, seek shelter from a storm in an isolated mansion and discover Solon (Philip Madoc), a mad scientist cast out from the scientific community for his transplant experiments. What they’ve also found, though they don’t know it yet, is the Time Lord Morbius, now reduced to a brain in a life-support tank as the Frankensteinian Solon prepares him a body from the planet’s occasional visitors. It’s effective and spooky but suffers badly from disability cliches, and peters out at the end (it’s a classic horror finish, but it didn’t quite work for me).

We wrap up with Seeds of Doom, in which scientists discover the eponymous pods of the alien Krynoid, a sentient plant that devours animal life. And wouldn’t you know it, the pods fall into the hands of Chase, a millionaire botanist who’s way more interested in studying the ET plant than worrying about whether it will end all animal life on Earth. Tony Beckley as Chase is a delight, managing to make even his rants about bonsai (the sadistic practice of mutilating innocent plants for human pleasure!) sound natural; when he sides with the Krynoid against humanity, it’s not at all surprising. The rest of the guest cast works just as well. The only drawback is that again, the ending is flat, with UNIT defeating the Krynoid through brute force rather than any sort of cleverness (a Doctor Who story needs a better end than blowing shit up real good).

It was a real pleasure to watch this season again. #SFWApro, all rights to image remain with current holder.

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Enter Tom Baker, Davros and Harry Sullivan; Fourth Doctor, First Season

They say your first Doctor is your favorite, but I think I like Tom Baker in DOCTOR WHO even more than William Hartnell.

None of the Doctors have much use for the powers that be. William Hartnell sneered at them, Patrick Troughton shrugged them off, John Pertwee snarked at them. Baker meets them with a mocking smile, like a michievious kid who can’t wait to pull a trick on some stuck-up twit. All the Doctors stir up trouble, but the Fourth Doctor relishes the opportunity.

Baker’s stories are probably the episodes I’ve seen most, because they ran in constant daily rotation on PBS in the 1970s. The first season holds up well, though the special effects get pretty bad — worse than most past seasons, I think, because they’re a little more ambitious.

The first serial, Robot, is a Pertwee UNIT story, reminiscent of Invasion of the Dinosaurs: a cabal of technocrats plots to build a perfect world, and steals an unstoppable super-robot to do it. It adds Harry Sullivan (Ian Marter) as a new companion, so that if Baker wasn’t suited to action scenes, they’d have someone to handle them. Baker was perfectly suited, so Harry wound up being superfluous, often little more than a buffoon, particularly as Elisabeth Sladen (Sarah Jane) and Baker played off each other well. Most significantly, this serial establishes that regeneration is a normal Time Lord ability in contrast to a freak power of the TARDIS (Hartnell to Troughton) or compelled by the Time Lords (Troughton to Pertwee).

THE ARK IN SPACE is a much stronger story, the first to use the horror elements that would be a recurring part of the next few seasons. The Doctor, Sarah and Harry arrive on an orbiting space ark holding humans in suspended animation against the day when polluted Earth becomes livable again. The day has arrived, but so have the Wirrn, insectoid parasite s laying their eggs on the Ark and whose larva have taken over Noah, the ark’s leader.

That leads directly into THE SONTARAN EXPERIMENT, a two-part serial. On behalf of the space station survivors, the Doctor, Sarah and Harry check out Earth to see if it’s really livable. Wouldn’t you know, a Sontaran has captured some of the few surviving Earthlings as a run-up to taking over the planet. This one is competent, but effective.

 

And then came THE GENESIS OF THE DALEKS, one of the all-time classics. The Time Lords tell the Doctor that the Daleks will inevitably conquer the universe unless someone aborts their creation. The Doctor, Harry and Sarah arrive on Skaro when it’s riven by a thousand year war between the Thals and the Kaleds that’s reduced the planet to an irradiated wasteland. Davros, a Kaled scientist has a solution: forced evolution of his people into a form that can thrive in the radiation, even though it will require a mechanical transport to move around and kill … and while he’s at it, why not eliminate all those inconvenient emotions?

A solid, six-episode arc anchored by the grim tone (the Thals are no longer unambiguously good guys) and by two performances. Michael Wisher as Davros manages a voice that sounds just like a human Dalek, intense yet monotone. As his coldblooded aide Nyder, Peter Miles is equally memorable.

Unfortunately the season doesn’t do as well by the Cybermen in the final segment, REVENGE OF THE CYBERMEN. Arriving at the space ark back when it’s just a minor space station, the good guys become embroiled in a struggle between the human crew, the Cybermen and the Vogans, inhabitants of a planet of gold. Gold, you see, can be used to clog up Cyberman respirators, choking them, which is an unconvincing weakness. The Cyber-actors use their own voices, and the Cybermen come off way too emotional. A disappointing finish to a solid season.

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Is There a Doctor In the House? Lots!

The past week reminded me of when I’d be watching nothing but time travel material for Now and Then We Time Travel. I started subscribing to BritBox, a streaming service for British shows. The main reason was the access to Doctor Who, which is surprisingly spotty on Netflix. I’d Netflixed the first two Tom Baker serials a while back, but I started on Britbox by going back further …

THE POWER OF THE DALEKS was the first Second Doctor serial; Patrick Troughton here is so dotty and so unlike William Hartnell’s cantankerous senior that companions Ben and Polly and even the Doctor himself aren’t sure he’s really who he says he is. To make matters worse the TARDIS has dropped them on a colony planet riven by rival factions, one of which is convinced these mechanical creatures they found in a spaceship will make wonderful robot servants … Although the video was lost the soundtrack wasn’t, so the Beeb animated it as they did with Hartnell’s The Reign of Terror. Not a classic story, but a landmark for proving the show could survive the loss of its star. The emphasis that the Doctor survived through the power of the TARDIS shows they still hadn’t established regeneration as normal — even when Troughton left at the end of War Games, it was the Time Lords forcing him to change (it wouldn’t be until the Fourth Doctor that regeneration became a normal Time Lord thing). “The law of the Daleks is in effect.”

Enough of THE WHEEL IN SPACE survives that rather than use animation, the BBC used stills from the show to accompany the voice track (two episodes remain intact). The Second Doctor and Jamie land on a drifting rocket from which they wind up on the eponymous space station. Here they meet Zoey, a brilliant, petite young woman who begins to realize her life has trained her to prepare for emergencies but only carefully predicted ones. Which does not include an attack on the Wheel by the Cybermen … Zoe’s one of my favorite companions (cute, small, brainy brunette — it’s like I have a type!) and the serial is overall good, but loses steam at the finish (the purpose of all the Cyber-scheming to seize the Wheel is quite underwhelming). And it’s depressing to think of the Time Lords just wiping Zoe’s memory at the end of War Games and dropping her back on the Wheel; I do hope she found some other way to break out of the box her society put her in. “Logic, my dear Zoe, only allows one to be wrong with authority.”

Last year’s Christmas special TWICE UPON A TIME (on Amazon Prime, not BritBox) has Capaldi contemplating not regenerating when he winds up meeting the First Doctor (David Bradley) who’s contemplating doing the same thing, which would, of course unmake the entire series. Can they survive and work together long enough to stop the seemingly sinister schemes of …. Testimony? A fun concept, though a bit heavy-handed on First Doctor Sexism; the ending gives us the new female Doctor, though not for very long. “By any analysis evil should always win. Good is not a practical survival strategy.”

THE FIVE (ISH) DOCTORS REBOOT was a spoof special tied to the 50th anniversary of the show in which Peter Davison, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy (Doctors Five Through Seven) desperately try to convince current showrunner Stephen Moffat that they’re a vital part of the history and need to make an appearance — oh, did you know McCoy was in The Hobbit, a major blockbuster theatrical release? Fluffy but very funny. “Instead of a sonic screwdriver I could have sonic beams come out my eyes!”

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Sixties spies and families, teen runaways and the Doctor: TV seasons viewed

Due to attending Illogicon, I didn’t watch any movies last weekend, but I’ve wrapped up a few TV seasons recently, so—

GET SMART was easily the best of the many Bond parodies that appeared in film and TV during the 1960s (the first season launched in 1965). Don Adams (left) plays Maxwell Smart, agent for CONTROL working to defeat KAOS, “the international organization of evil” (neither name is an acronym) with the help of Barbara Feldon (right) as Agent 99. The biggest challenge, though, is that Max is an utter and complete idiot. Funny scripts and deft performances (including Ed Platt as CONTROL’s Chief) makes this one a winner, though like a lot of 1960s material it sometimes shows its age (like one involving stereotypical comic Native Americans going on the warpath again). Amusingly the very first gag in the show involves Smart’s shoephone (seen above) going off in the middle of a concert audience — as co-creators Mel Brooks and Buck Henry note in the commentary track, what’s now routine was outrageously ridiculous at the time. “What you’re saying is that there could have been 50 people in this room with the victim, but only two of them smoked!”

The second season of THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW improves on the first: it’s funnier, and there are fewer variety-show episodes where everyone’s doing a musical number. As always the cast is top notch, like one episode in which a game of charades turns extremely personal. And like Anatomy of a Murder, it’s a hand visual guide for writers, in this case what an upper-middle class suburban lifestyle was supposed to look like in the mid-1960s (within limits: most couples didn’t sleep in twin beds). “How did you get On The Street Where You Live from that?”

RUNAWAYS‘ first season makes a number changes to the Marvel comic, some of them typical (much the same way Asgardians are ETs in the MCU, the Minoru Staff of One is explained as nanotech), some of them presumably because the characters are people rather than drawing — the parents get more screen time and they’re not as openly evil. That said, I thoroughly enjoyed the story of a group of LA teens who discover their wealthy parents are actually members of a sinister cult known as the Pride, organized around sinister Julian McMahon. The only change that really didn’t work for me was that Molly’s not old enough to really stand out from the other kids. “After twenty years, your cheese jokes still never fail to amuse me.”

The latest season of DOCTOR WHO (tenth season of the new era) as y’all may know, is Peter Capaldi’s last, and I think he went out on a win. He has a new companion (black lesbian Bill), another new companion (the ET Nardol) and finds himself dealing with Ice Warriors, the original Cybermen, Missy and the Master’s previous incarnation in various stories. One or two yarns were weak (Eaters of the Light didn’t do much for me) but overall a solid season. “You can’t possibly set a trap without painting a self-portrait of your own weaknesses.”

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