Neglected Gems Part 2

Continuing my “one under-rated story per Doctor” list.

The Invasion of Time

There are tons of Williams-era stories that I could argue are neglected, and I was tempted by The Armageddon Factor in particular, but I’m going with The Invasion of Time because it has a lot of nice bits, even if it doesn’t completely cohere.  There is some padding and the ending (the Doctor gets a Space Gun and shoots the Sontarans) is awful, but the journey to get there is interesting.

Many Doctor Who stories have suggested that the Doctor’s morality isn’t entirely clear-cut and on several occasions he has cooperated with an enemy as part of a plan to defeat them, but here we spend over two episodes with a Doctor apparently gone completely to the bad.  The scene when he admits his ploy to Borusa is one of the most touching in the series, their relationship being completely believable in a way that it failed to be with later Borusas while providing a rationale for Tom Baker’s increasingly eccentric performance.  A similar scene two episodes later has the Doctor round on his mentor, searching for the Great Key and asserting that he wants to care about the deaths of innocent Time Lords, not to practise detachment like Borusa.

Rodan is an excellent character, really a prototype Romana, and while I like Mary Tamm’s performance, it is hard to see why Hilary Ryan was not asked back.  The Outsiders are fairly uninteresting, but at least they give Leela something to do.  Castellan Kelner makes for a more interesting villain than the Vardans or Sontarans and I like the surreal TARDIS interiors in the final episode.

Terminus

Terminus is an odd, subdued story and not particular good for list posts like this; it’s not full of “Do you remember the one where… ?” moments or memorable jokes or monsters.  It’s a curiously low-key story about character and mood, rooted in the memory of the programme’s earliest years, but more constructive about revisiting the past than stories like Arc of Infinity or Warriors of Deep, mirroring story style rather than continuity points and old monsters.

It’s bleak in places, a story of people stigmatised by society and the drug-addicted criminals tasked with helping them in a form of slavery.  Yet it ends on a note of optimism, with Nyssa staying behind to build a new future for the Vanir and the Lazars and the Garm being granted his freedom.  The sets are cheap, but the skull motif works and Turlough’s character continues to develop in a unique way.  Sadly he would be largely neglected after the next story.

The Trial of a Time Lord Parts 9-12 aka Terror of the Vervoids

In many ways Terror of the Vervoids is the most traditional Colin Baker era story, despite being one of the few not to feature an old villain or monster.  It’s not a million miles from The Robots of Death, a cross between a murder mystery and a base under siege.  It’s easy to mock some less than realistic dialogue, but the story itself is fairly strong and the Doctor is recognisably Doctorish, after the bullying of season twenty-two and the confusion of the previous Trial instalment.  Mel has never been a popular companion, but I appreciate the way that she actually wants to travel in time and space with the Doctor after Peri and Tegan always seemed to want to be elsewhere.

Part three coming soon…

Neglected Gems Part 1

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.

 

The Mutants

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

Regeneration: The Changing Style of Doctor Who – Out Now!

I’ve been away from here for too long.  The reason (part of the reason, anyway), is that I’ve been working on a book!  Regeneration: The Changing Style of Doctor Who by D. G. Saunders looks at all of television Doctor Who from An Unearthly Child to Resolution (sadly, there wasn’t enough time to add this year’s episodes), examining the way the series has changed with the changing priorities of different production teams.

From the back cover blurb:

For over fifty years, the BBC’s Doctor Who has taken viewers on adventures across time and space.  At the same time, the programme has crossed genres and styles.  From science fiction to action, horror to comedy and back again.

Regeneration: The Changing Style of Doctor Who offers a penetrating look at the way different showrunners, producers and script editors shaped the Time Lord’s adventures.  Analysing each era in sequence, it looks at story styles, the character of the Doctor and his intrepid companions, and the nature of the villains and monsters they faced, as well as the portrayal of the Time Lords.

An essential guide both for new fans wanting a primer on the programme’s history and for long-standing enthusiasts seeking a fresh perspective on eras they thought they knew.

Available NOW from Lulu.com, Blackwell’s, BarnesandNoble.com, Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com!

The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos/End of Series

The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos

As with the rest of this series, The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos was a fairly low-key affair.  Under Russell T Davies or Steven Moffat, an episode with this title would doubtless have been an epic with vast CGI battlefleets and cameo appearances of half a dozen old monsters.  What we got instead felt like it belonged to the days before CGI, with a number of similarities to The Pirate Planet (telepaths, shrunken planets and a ranting megalomaniac…  The ‘only ever two’ Ux felt like a steal from Star Wars‘ Sith too).  The Earth was threatened, but we didn’t really see any sign of damage.  Under Davies or Moffat we’d have had at least a couple of shots of people running screaming through the streets and damage to famous monuments.  Fan expectations were disappointed, judging from the criticism from the Fan Twitterati (as JNT would doubtless be calling them, were he still alive).  There hasn’t been a season finale this low-key since… Dragonfire?  The Horns of NimonThe Wheel in Space?  But the original series didn’t generally do epic season finales (with a few exceptions).  But that’s the thing, really: The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos isn’t failing to be an epic, it’s not really trying to be one in the first place.  (Some reviewers have suggested that the new year’s special is the real season finale, which may be the case.)

Trying to work out what it is trying to do is harder, though.  There’s some mystery, but the Doctor is soon back to solving things through having prior knowledge rather than deduction, in this case of both the Ux (privileging the her over the viewers) and Tim Shaw (rewarding viewers who have stuck with the whole season).  The Doctor’s moral flexibility, particularly regarding firearms, is briefly brought to the fore, but soon ignored.  The real focus is probably Graham’s desire to kill the villain, but, perhaps thankfully, this isn’t really dwelt on long enough.  Thankfully because you would either have to make Graham more vengeful than a family series would be comfortable with or show him so conflicted as to make it obvious that he wouldn’t go through with it.  That said, I was genuinely worried that he would either kill Tim Shaw or get killed himself, so on that level the innovations of the series so far have worked.   This does still feel like a programme willing to take risks.

Overall, this was diverting, but nothing more.  It lacked a proper emotional core, despite Graham’s subplot and was somehow lacking in ‘edge’ and menace.  The continuity-lite finale was refreshing, inasmuch as previous seasons have binged on old monsters and artificial stake-raising exercises, but this needed more weight than Tim Shaw could give it and while Daleks or Cybermen would have been artificial, part of me thinks they might have done something to raise this to a more satisfying conclusion.

 

Series 11/Season 37/The 2018 Episodes

This year’s episodes have given us a new, vulnerable, less eccentric and above all female Doctor, three companions (two non-white), low-key stories and a focus on history.  All these things are to my liking.  As I’ve said before, Davies and Moffat grew up watching Doctor Who in the seventies, but Chibnall is of an age to have been impressed by the moral earnestness, experimentation and crowded TARDIS of seasons eighteen and nineteen and this is reflected in the stories, although this makes the lack of overt continuity more surprising.

This has been a year of bold experiments and often successful ones, but it is not clear yet how the audience has reacted.  My uncle was complaining the other day about stories that are preachy “history lessons” rather than exciting science fiction stories and while I think this does a grave injustice to Rosa and Demons of the Punjab, I wonder if he is onto something.  At the very least, I wonder how many other people agree with him.

The programme has taken some big risks this year, including several that paid off: a more diverse cast, obviously, but also historicals set outside of Europe (not really seen since the Hartnell era) as well as set in living memory and a low-key and continuity-lite style that often felt like a refreshing break from the twisted timelines and crowded stories of Moffat’s time.

However, far too many stories have felt like filler episodes, the type of budget-saving story that previous producers would schedule to balance some epics.  I like small-scale, experimental stories, but even I think this went too far.  There is a need in 2020 for larger, crazier stories.  Only Arachnids in the UKThe Witchfinders and maybe Kerblam! really felt like the Doctor Who of recent years and while this was in many ways positive, I think it may have left too many people wondering whether they were actually watching Doctor Who.

It Takes You Away

It Takes You Away was a strange story in many ways.  The first half or so was an excellent example of Doctor Who as horror, something this series has largely shied away from.  It’s coolly excellent as if trying to prove that it has avoided horror deliberately rather than through not being able to do it by calmly acing the genre.

And then, suddenly, the story changes and contracts, becoming a very personal story of grief and loss.  It’s not bad at all, it’s not even jarring exactly, because each plot twist flows naturally from what came before.  It’s just surprising that so many episodes this year have seen this type of contraction back from a typical big Doctor Who story to something quieter, more small scale and more emotional and contemplative.  Doctor Who stories usually grow, both across the length of the story and from year to year, but this series has produced a series of miniatures.  As I’ve mentioned before, it feels more like Star Trek, particularly Trek’s less successful episodes and series, the contraction from the epic down to the personal, whereas Doctor Who’s skill, particularly in the twenty-first century, has usually been making the epic feel personal.

This has happened so many times (in almost every episode this year, to be honest) that it is clearly a deliberate narrative strategy on Chris Chibnall’s part and I wouldn’t call it unsuccessful, although it does feel surprising for long-term viewers (as with many aspects of this season, Chibnall seems to be resetting our expectations of the programme almost back to November 1963).  What is unclear to me is why he wants to do this, and that may not be obvious for some time, perhaps not until another Chibnall-overseen series has aired.

I don’t want to sound negative, as I really enjoyed this episode.  It was second only to Rosa this year in the enjoyment stakes, which is saying something.  It probably needs a second viewing to be fully appreciated, and it’s probably not the only episode this year where that applies.  But it leaves me wondering where Chris Chibnall is taking us, what does he have planned for the season finale and new year’s special?  I can’t wait to find out…