Well, that was bloody brilliant. Maybe it was because it was all fresh to me, or because it’s such a novelty to see a complete story, but that’s even surpassed Tomb to become my favourite Troughton story so far.
Key to that is Troughton himself, who is utterly, breathtakingly superb in both of his roles here. Salamander is so much more than a dodgy accent and an even dodgier choice of make-up – he’s fully fleshed out, with his own distinct mannerisms, and so much depth. He shits on the Abbot of Amboise and no mistake.
The guest cast are great too. Astrid is up there with Ping Cho and Bret Vyon as one of the greatest non-companion companions I’ve seen. Bill Kerr does such a good job as Giles Kent that, while the twist revelation about his character comes as genuine surprise, his characterisation throughout the serial is such that it instantly makes perfect sense. But for me, the stand out (other than the manically depressive chef in episode three) is Milton Johns as Benik – deliciously camp and creepy. I could watch his face all day.
It was such an ambitious and unusual story, which really stands out amongst the (perfectly decent in themselves) base-under-siege / monster-of-the-month stories from this era. It’s full of twists and turns, and plenty of moments that actually made my jaw drop. The reveal of Salamander’s secret underground society is astonishing, and there’s also a pleasing amount of violence and menace throughout. And the climax to episode six is just superb. It’s only a shame that The Doctor and Salamander didn’t meet a little sooner.
Add to that the genuinely impressive action sequences (most notably the helicopter stuff in episode one), The Doctor taking another leap forward in establishing his pacifism and positive morality, the fact that it was the first serial that Barry Letts worked on, plus Jamie and Victoria’s matching arran jumper/tartan skirt combo, and you’ve got yourself an absolute classic. When the missing episodes were discovered, I recall being far more excited about the iconic Yeti-in-the-Underground story, but it’s got a hell of a long way to go to top this.
Incidentally – weird thing I’ve noticed. You can break this season so far down into a set of thematically linked pairs. Tomb and Snowmen deal with mind control, the latter and The Ice Warriors are both set in icy tundras, while that one and this one both have plots that stem from advanced technology being used for food production, leading to unexpected natural disasters. I can’t tell whether this was intentional, or if I’m just reading too much into it.