I want to re-start my blog now that I’ve finished my Doctor Who book (Regeneration: The Changing Style of Doctor Who, available from Lulu.com, Amazon UK, Amazon US, Blackwells and Barnes and Noble). I thought I would start with a lockdown-friendly list post.
Are you fed up with watching the same old classic stories again and again in lockdown? Here are thirteen neglected gems, one for each (main) Doctor!
The Space Museum
The Space Museum is a story that no one seems to like very much, at least not beyond the first episode or so, but I feel it has a lot going for it, even once you get past the excellent, unsettling first episode. Although it’s usually dismissed as clichéd, as Tat Wood and Lawrence Miles pointed out in About Time 1, this is really the first time we see some of Doctor Who’s standards, like the scene where the Doctor resists interrogation by some kind of “mind probe” or the villains being a bunch of bored bureaucrats rather than Space Nazis or the Lovecraftian horror of The Animus. There’s an early bit of postmodern “meta” humour in episode two where the Doctor hides in the Dalek casing, and I’ve always been fond of Vicki telling the armoury computer that the Xerons want arms for “Revolution!” – Vicki was a far more spunky character than Susan, and sadly ignored by fans. The music, although all from stock, is fairly atmospheric too.
The story has some downsides: a “rebels vs. tyrants” set-up that had already been seen twice this season, wet rebels (although one went on to play Boba Fett, seen as the ultimate in SF cool) and drab sets, but it has enough going for it to be worth a look, particularly if you haven’t seen a Hartnell for a while.
The Underwater Menace
I feel rather sorry for The Underwater Menace, a story remembered for one line (“Nothing in the world can stop me now!”), and not in a good way. Even when episode two was suddenly rediscovered, it was soon overshadowed by the return of The Enemy of the World and most of The Web of Fear, both of which made it to DVD long before The Underwater Menace episode two, an episode which for some months seemed to be in the unenviable position of being the only classic Doctor Who episode that the BBC was too ashamed to release commercially. Even when it did appear on DVD, the reconstructions of the two missing episodes were cursory and not really intelligible without another guide, like the narrated audio CD.
Fandom seems to have discovered season four lately with the animated releases of The Macra Terror and The Faceless Ones and while The Underwater Menace is undoubtedly the runt of that litter, it is still a lot of fun in a similar vein. Zaroff is an over-the-top villain, but that has never really stopped anyone in Doctor Who before (just ask Missy) and, like a true Bond villain, he has a pet octopus to feed his enemies to, while asserting that he has a sense of humour. Zaroff’s plan to destroy the world is nonsense, but at least the characters in the story dismiss it as such, unlike Davros’ similar plan to destroy the multiverse in The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End, which was presented as a sensible thing to try to do. Troughton is, as ever, on form in his earliest surviving episodes, cheerfully blowing pepper through his recorder and wearing outrageous headgear (as does Polly). The Fish People are less than terrifying on screen, but conceptually they are the type of body horror that would come to be associated with the programme, plus I can’t help but like a story where the Doctor and friends defeat the villain by persuading the monsters to form a trade union and go on strike.
I found the novelisation of The Mutants to be the most boring thing ever, but when I finally got around to watching the original episodes, I was pleasantly surprised to find them a very different proposition. It’s a Pertwee era “political” story, so it wears its heart on its sleeve, but no one is really going to argue with its anti-racism-and-imperialism narrative. The acting is mostly solid, with one or two unfortunate exceptions, and it’s always nice to see Geoffrey Palmer die horribly again.
The story has an intriguing “hard science fiction” premise of a kind that Doctor Who did not always attempt and the Solonians’ lifecycle fits with the early seventies atmosphere of New Age renewal and homo sapiens making way for homo superior. Bob Baker and Dave Martin were noted for sprawling, out of control storylines that had too much happening and would be too expensive to make, but The Mutants is arguably more comfortable with its length than their previous The Claws of Axos, with the big ideas of terraforming Solos and the Solonian’s evolution fitting together fairly neatly. Jim Acheson’s Mutant costumes are some of the most impressive seen in Doctor Who, leaving viewers wondering how the actors had to contort themselves to get inside the non-human form.
Part two coming soon…