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.