Archive for Baker Era

Doctor Who: The Seeds Of Doom

Format: DVD

Warts & All: Polystyrene permafrost

Quote: Hmm? Scorby, bullets and bombs aren’t the answer to everything.

Review: There are plenty of better quotes to pick from for this story – it’s absolutely blooming with colourful dialogue and witty repartee – but really if you’re going to solve the entire thing in the end with bombs, you should take care not to include such statements from the Doctor in your script. It just looks hypocritical. That said, the Doctor does take a proactive role in bringing the bomb run about – he’s under siege and frantically patching together the radio before ordering in the airstrike. So, if you can forgive the resolution – as I appear to have done there – what you’re left with is a great six-parter and a cracking end to a mostly terrific season. Now, it’s often said that six-parters are basically a two-part story plus a four-parter, and this is no exception.

It essentially begins as The Thing From Another World, (the 1950s Howard Hawks movie) (John Carpenter’s The Thing from the 80s plays on identity in the way the original source story, Who Goes There? by John Campbell intended but in that 50s Hawks movie the alien was essentially a humanoid plant.) And that is bolted onto the front end of an Avengers adventure. By which I mean a specific Avengers adventure, The Man-Eater Of Surrey Green. Well, a plant anyway. Robert Banks Stewart penned a couple of Avengers episodes himself, but it’s remarkable how freely he uproots elements from a Philip Levene script for replanting here. What a tea leaf. And he doesn’t stop there. The story has the Quatermass-meets-The Avengers feel of a Pertwee era tale and Banks Stewart further riffs off (and I pick my words with care here) The Quatermass Experiment, with a man taken over by alien DNA and mutating and growing into a giant betentacled monster. He misses a trick by having the Doctor deliver a severe warning that the Krynoid will turn into something ‘the size of Saint Pauls Cathedral’. What he should have said was Westminster Abbey, which is where the creature that was once British Rocket Group astronaut, Victor Caroon, sets up shop for the big Quatermass finale. But in a season of heavy – and successful – borrowing, it’s tough to make any charges stick when the results are this enjoyable. And it is that Quatermass-Avengers mix that makes it so.

We get a fourth Doctor who’s as much the action hero as the third. At times it nudges the Doctor a bit out of character, with him pointing guns and punching chauffeurs – somehow Venusian Aikido strikes as a more acceptable and dignified manner of fisticuffs – but when you consider that Harry Sullivan was dropped because Tom Baker’s Doctor could handle the action, it’s also mildly surprising that this is the first real time we see this Doctor in this much the action hero role. He’s also utterly ferocious at times, absolutely biting Scorby’s head off at one point when he insists ‘there is no chance.’ Sarah Jane never goes full Emma Peel – phew, because that just wouldn’t be right at all – but she gets plenty of plucky girlpower moments, is powerfully persuasive and pragmatic when urging Moberley to amputate poor Winlet’s arm and – among my favourites – wages a brief but brilliant battle of the sexes versus Scorby.

Scorby who is, by the way, one of the best Who henchmen, brought to life by John (Boycie) Challis and handed one half of a nice double act with poor, whimpering, worry-wort, Keeler (Mark Jones). I always find it a bit of a shame that Scorby is too easily reduced to whimpering himself towards the end, but it’s more of a pity that he gets killed by a bunch of weeds, as he’s a character I would’ve loved to see return at some point. Ah well, maybe in a prequel. Maniacal vegophile, Harrison Chase (Tony Beckley), and the wonderful Amelia Ducat (Sylvia Coleridge), have character analogues in Surrey Green who are like peas in a pod, but they are very much a part of the magic blend that helps fertilize this borrowed plot. Chase’s music – Hymn For The Plants, especially, is the worse kind of earworm – ie. you do not want that burrowing in your ears – and I will not be seeking it out on a soundtrack album, but it’s just the kind of mad eccentricity you’d expect from his particularly English breed of maniac. We also have Sir Colin Thackeray, who is very much what you’d expect of a civil servant of the Pertwee-era stripe, one of the more amenable sorts.

And we have UNIT, without any of the UNIT family. That, really, is the aspect that disappoints most. But in a way, even though this is ultimately solved with bombs, the UNIT troops aren’t really given enough of a role to justify the return of the Brigadier and Co. So while they are missed, I wonder if featuring them would have been a nice touch or perhaps come with its own element of sadness that it was, in effect, just a farewell cameo. But in the light of the tragedy that was Android Invasion, I also wonder if a Brig and Benton cameo might have been some consolation. Who knows? Overall, the story boasts a nice set of characters – even the very minor role of Hargreaves, the butler, still doing his stalwart British butlering in the face of all the odd and horrific things going on around him on his master’s estate.

As much as some key points are a tad contrived – the writer has clearly decided well in advance that Chase is ending up in that grinder, come hell or high pollen count – it’s generally neatly plotted and structured to deliver six individual slices of action and adventure. What’s more, other than some too obviously fake snow and perhaps a couple of the CSO shots of the shambling Krynoid beast – it looks great. Not just in the lovely use of location, but some of the more ambitious fx shots of the beast towering over the mansion are pretty damned convincing for the money. Colour me impressed. And the Axons look better in green. Thackeray’s office looks cheap, with the corridor outside more suggestive of a cupboard, and I’m not a hundred percent sure the choices of stock footage of the RAF planes match up, but I’m not going to quibble that.

It’s not perfect and that ending does have to catch me in charitable mood. But the story itself does a lot to get me in that frame of mind. It’s as English as country gardens and cucumber sandwiches for afternoon tea, laced with fantastically grisly Hammer-level horror to chill you to the marrow.

These are a few of my favourite things, as Julie Andrews once expressed it, and they’ve all been blended into this hearty six-part vegetable stew.

Doctor Who: Android Invasion

Format: DVD

Warts & All: Mega Facepalm

Quote: The best laid plans of men and Kraals aft gang aglae.

Review: This opens well, with a soldier striding along all twitchy and jerky before crashing headlong off a cliff. Seriously, if you didn’t know the story had ‘android’ in the title, you’d be thoroughly drawn in by the mystery of what was wrong with him. And the idyllic (actually really picturesque) English village with the locals delivered by truck to start acting really strangely, it all has the surrealist intrigue of an Avengers episode – which makes Patrick (Mother) Newell’s later appearance as the Brigadier’s replacement, Colonel Faraday, a nice touch. The real mystery here though is what have they done to this season’s Doctor Who? They’ve replaced it with a malfunctioning duplicate that, to be honest, marches jerkily along before crashing headlong off a cliff. Probably why I prefer to think of Terror Of The Zygons as the farewell UNIT story, because this is much less a swan song, more of a swan dive. Without the grace.

The Doctor’s got a new coat, but Tom’s performance seems lazy at times, half-hearted as though he knows this is a bit rubbish and not worth the time and effort. He’s not wrong, but it’s a shame when he’s part of the problem. There are occasions when the proper Tom shines through, but he’s given precious little to work with or act against. And he’s not alone there. Lis Sladen is frankly the best thing in the entire escapade, showing some true Sarah Jane spirit (thanks to some of those rusty plot mechanics she gets to rescue the Doctor from restraints twice in one episode) and investing her android self with some nicely nuanced difference. The best bit is (obviously) the Face Off! Moment, Sarah toppling over and having her face fall off to expose her android inner workings – despite her androidness being so heavily telegraphed and confirmed beforehand – is one of the all-time great cliffhanger endings. Never mind that it’s not a very hard fall to dislodge a visage and yet when Max Faulkner’s UNIT soldier he took that tumble into the quarry at the beginning he landed pretty much intact. So intact, in fact, that neither Sarah nor the Doctor manages to detect a hint of artificiality about him, even though surely the basics you’d check for signs of life – pulse, heartbeat, breathing – ought to reveal something a bit amiss.

But that’s entirely illustrative of how this story lurches mechanically along. It’s much more like Sarah’s android, with the face fallen off an and all the machinery exposed, clunking away very hard to make pre-conceived moments happen. Terry Nation appears to have had a jumbled collection of ideas in his head and the writing is like badly oiled clockwork, grinding its gears to contrive assorted moments like that. Few of those moments can match that cliffhanger’s impact, however, and ultimately the overall effect is of pieces of a jigsaw that don’t fit. They’re botched and hammered into place. And he’s clearly obsessed with capsules containing deadly viruses at this point. There’s a small helping of dodgy CSO with the rocket and a particularly poor shot of the android container pods landing behind a hill, but any ropey visuals are secondary to one of the biggest levels of dumb to grace the classic series, as Milton Johns (in a portrayal pitched somewhere in the vicinity of his camp Nazi from Enemy Of The World) realises that he had a perfectly good eye behind his eyepatch all the time. Whatever conditioning the Kraals have subjected him to, this is brain-bogglingly stupid. No matter how far Doctor Who stories might stretch credibility, I can’t believe no-one – like, say, the script editor? – caught this and fixed it.

Even in the company of a long list of elements that don’t make sense, as is the case here, it stands out like a huge facepalm or a Homer Simpson ‘D’oh!’ of epic proportions. The Kraals are among the more rubbish alien villains, which is probably why one ended up running a coffee shop in a comedy short story of mine, with actors Martin Friend and Roy Skelton having to do their best behind rather rigid rubbery masks with no facility for expression and mouths that might as well be in Spaghetti Westerns for all that their movements match the dialogue. Styggron’s great plan is slightly less convincing than the Kraals themselves, with no clear basis for such an elaborate staged re-enactment that I can see. But then, as a Kraal scientist, Styggron does appear partial to orchestrating the odd unnecessary experiment or demonstration. Like when he goes to the trouble of scanning Crayford to construct a new android specifically programmed to be hostile towards Kraals, just to show off his new gun and prove that the androids are not indestructible. Something we already knew when the fake Sarah’s face fell off because she hit a soft tuft of grass slightly awkwardly.

Honestly, I could pick holes in this all day long. It’s a shame that I can’t even find consolation in the guest appearances of Benton and Harry Sullivan, because it’s actually kind of sad to see such favourite characters reduced as they are here. The space-suited androids with the loaded fingers, I guess, make for a striking presence early on, adding to that general strangeness which plays to episode one’s strengths, such as they are, but it really is downhill from there.

A badly engineered robotic story best with limps, tics and a dodgy eye.

Doctor Who: Terror Of The Zygons

Format: DVD

Warts & All: Nessie

Quote: I underestimated his intelligence, but he underestimated the power of organic crystallography.

Review: Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, that’s the definition of insanity. So when Doctor Who fields what is essentially another dinosaur, you either have to question the show’s mental health or admire its tenacity to give giant monsters another go. But… Doctor Who pretty much needed to do a Loch Ness Monster story at some point. It was going to happen, irrespective of fx capabilities. And I’m actually partial to the way it turned out.

The Skarasen is the major letdown of this tale, but it’s better than the Dinosaur Invasion dinos and in some shots (slightly murky underwater side-view, plus brief snippets of Poundstretcher Harryhausen animation up on Tulloch Moor) it doesn’t even look all that bad. The director goes to laudable trouble not to show us much, resorting to close-ups and glimpses – in some ways reflecting the ‘evidence’ of reported ‘sightings’ of the Monster over the years. It’s only really on Nessie’s brief visit to London, peering over the banks of the Thames, that she looks properly terrible. But she’s had a long swim down from Scotland, so it’s understandable and in any case by that stage the story has done such a good job of winning us over with its blended malts of mystery, action and adventure.

There’s a sense of familiarity to it, like coming home to the UNIT years – the landlord’s lament for the dead might equally be a farewell to those years, since this is really the last UNIT story – but also there are distinct whiffs of Glenfury, Glenseadevils and Glensilurians in the mix. Rigs being attacked, lone wounded aliens hunted on the moors, figures wading in on haunting shorelines, companions getting shot at on beaches. Okay, the Fury connections are more tenuous, but such are the elements called to mind when I watched. It’s always quite a gift, I think, to concoct something that feels so familiar and new at the same time and Robert Banks Stewart has a clear knack for the game. The story, fairly standard alien invasion stuff, nevertheless has a flavour all its own. It’s a hybrid of organic and machine, like the Skarasen, at times the mechanisms are highly visible and a bit clunky – Sarah and Harry popping back to the castle to ‘see if they might find a clue’ just so Sarah can learn that the Duke is on the Scottish Energy Commission – but there’s also a natural flair to the dialogue and some aspects of the way the mystery unfolds. The local colour is a tad stereotypical, giving the Highlands the Green Death treatment, as it were, but the radio operator asking if the supply chopper can send over some haggis is probably the only bit that induced a slight cringe – and to some extent the ‘character’ of the Caber. It’s great to see Tom arrive in Highlandised regalia (Tom O’Shanter, anyone?) and the Brigadier embracing his clan Stewart heritage.

Having the fabulous Angus Lennie (you’ll know him as the sad wee fella who gets strung up on barb-wire in The Great Escape) and the brilliant semi-regular John Woodnutt as the Duke and his alien counterfeiter, Broton, lend a degree of class and quality to proceedings. Another key quality is in the visuals – the Zygons themselves are exceptionally well realised, one of the best man-in-a-suit alien costumes in the show’s extensive repertoire, the actors do well to add more to the overall effect with movements and voices. The organic design of the ship interior is highly effective, with all those nobbly nodules to twist and turn and I can even sing the praises of the exterior, because the Zygon spacecraft, for my money, represents some of the best model work you’ll see in the Classic series. Tom is having the time of his life and is even given a couple of Pertwee moments, racing around in a Land Rover and practicing tricks picked up from a Tibetan monk. Sarah, Harry and the Brigadier are all written wonderfully and playing their parts to the full – special mention for the chilling fake Harry and his pitch-fork attack on Sarah in the barn, followed later by that lovely moment of doubt when Sarah finds the real Harry – is it really him? and his use of the term ‘old girl’ is the only confirmation she needs. Lovely use of location – and I’ve visited that pub we see from the outside, went there with a very dear friend of mine, seen the photos of the cast hanging on the wall inside. So yes, memories probably add to the affections for the story here. And for no reason whatsoever it appoints a woman to the office of Prime Minister a woman before Thatcher came along and demolished that milestone. All of which amounts to this: there’s more to recommend this adventure than I can possibly include in one mini-review here and more than can be undone by one dodgy dino.

Warts and all, like the category above says, this is as good a taster as any for someone’s introduction to Doctor Who. Sure, the Zygons are a curious lot, going to all sorts of lengths to conceal their plots while also oddly keen to explain their schemes to anyone that happens along. And the whole thing is wrapped up a wee bit conveniently and quickly, with a nobbly-noduled self-destructor mechanism blowing the lovely ship to smithereens. But overall this makes for a decent flavourful dram of comfort Who from the UNIT distillery.

Doctor Who: Robot

Format: DVD

Warts & All: Action Man Tank and Rag Doll!

Quote: Really, Miss Smith, this is absurd. I think you must be the sort of girl who gives motor cars pet names.

Review: Or Giant Robot, as I always used to know it as a kid, thanks to the Target novelisation. And while that particular sequence doesn’t amount to such a massive stretch of the story, it is the King Kong aspect that’s at the heart of it and what sticks with you long after the rest has faded away at the mercy of a metal-eating virus is Sarah Jane’s empathic relationship with the Robot. More so than the introduction of a brand new Doctor, although I’m sure that wasn’t the case when I first saw it. Indeed, I remember being horrified that this strange bug-eyed grinster had replaced my Doctor. While as a kid I knew there had been other Doctors, this was the first regeneration I witnessed. I can’t remember at what point Tom Baker grew on me and became my Doctor. Maybe it was in this one, because watching it now he does make a huge stamp of personality on the role and arrives immediately, but I suspect back in my childhood I took a few stories to adjust. Wildly wonderful, with a voice born for gravitas and authority, he’s handed plenty of great dialogue and opportunities to shine in a very simplistic mad professor story of the exact sort Terrance Dicks and Barry Letts were worried about being landed with when they inherited the show before. Kettlewell, the mad professor in question, is ably played by Ed Burnham with scatterbrained charm, but is far from breaking any stereotypical moulds. The Robot, before he goes Kong, is borrowed wholesale from Asimov (and is exploited as a burglar and killer by malicious and misguided people, very like the Ambassadors Of Death), but is a masterpiece of design. Beautiful and formidable and Kilgariff’s voice does lend it some measure of personality, while Lis Sladen’s performance cements our own feelings for its cruel misuse and ultimate demise.

Honestly, for standard template fare, it’s deftly done for the larger part, sprinkled liberally with humour and effective menace, from the early scenes from the Robot’s POV and as it calmly tries to smash Tom Baker’s head off in the confines of Kettlewell’s garage. That said, while the Robot may pass for a nice piece of engineering, there’s a sense that the story’s construction is more of a cobbled-together thing, not unlike whatever it is the Doctor is busy building while the Brigadier and Sarah are trying to talk to him at UNIT HQ. His creation comes tumbling down and this story doesn’t quite do that, but it takes some will on the part of the viewer to keep it standing upright. Yes, the Action Man tank is bad – and made worse by the fact that it’s part of the episode cliffhanger and therefore gets repeated – and the Sarah Jane Smith ragdoll is almost as laughable as the gingerbread man dropped into a bucket of milk in Keys Of Marinus, but really such symptoms of budget and technical limitations are not so damaging as the plain unfeasible scenario of the world powers trusting Britain with its nuclear launch codes. The dialogue even makes a knowing joke about it – “naturally Britain is the most trustworthy” or words to that effect. Wouldn’t it have been enough for the Science Nazis (headed by the excellently cold Miss Winters) to launch Britain’s own ‘deterrent’ and thus trigger a nuclear war? My belief’s elasticity could’ve stretched to that.

But as with the Robot’s growth spurt brought on by the disintegrator ray, it’s like a piece of the jigsaw hammered in with some determination to make everything fit. These are the things that jar for me more than an untidy CSO fringe. Harry Sullivan and the UNIT family redux, with the Brigadier and Benton manning the fort, win back some affection for the story (I kind of wish more could’ve been made of Sullivan’s turn as John Steed, but he’s an inspired foil for Baker’s Doctor) and overall it’s what the players bring with their performances that render this fun to watch. Technically malfunctioning, emotionally engaging. It’s like Kettlewell, in fact, cut from a standard template, a bit all over the place, but with a quantity of scatterbrained charm.