Only in Doctor Who could the format-breaker of the season also be the most straight-forward, traditional story for years. UNIT get six weeks off, as the Time Lords decide to temporarily free The Doctor so that he can defeat The Master for them. Although, they never actually tell him that this is what they’re doing, which is a bit weird. That whole prologue with the Time Lords is strange in general, in that the rest of the serial seems to be written as if that scene never existed. The Master’s sudden appearance midway through the serial and the slow reveal of his plan are played as if they’re supposed to be a surprise to the audience, whereas it had all been spelled out to us in the very first scene.
This is a rare misstep for a serial which holds together a huge number of plot threads surprisingly well. There really is so much going on here, with so many different factions to keep an eye on. There’s the colonists and their internal power struggles, as well as the threat from the evil mining corporation, and the three different sub-species of the indigenous Primitives. You can tell this is a Malcolm Hulke story – the plucky, unassuming commune-dwellers vs the greedy, underhanded, bullying establishment thugs. There are strong characters on both sides of this divide – Captain Dent is a excellently sadistic shit, and the goodies have got Gail Platt (pictured above in 2015).
The Primitives end up playing a relatively minor role in the sprawling storyline, with them and their doomsday weapon being little more than a MacGuffin, but they’re certainly an intriguing and complex alien. Silent, spear-yielding green mind-readers are creepy enough, but the variations in the species get weirder and weirder, until you end up with the tiny, deformed, wrinkly… thing that’s somehow at the top of the food chain. I wonder if they inspired both the mini-Doctor and the Toclafane in Last of the Time Lords?
And then eventually, all of the above become mere pawns in the ongoing chess game between two renegade Time Lords. That doesn’t come until halfway through the story, and it’s arguably slightly stronger before the focus shifts to The Master. It certainly wouldn’t have carried the full six episodes, and any sequences with Pertwee and Delgado together can only improve a serial, but it was nice to see the typical non-UNIT formula once more.
That said, the Brig was missed throughout, and there’s clearly plenty of mileage in the current format yet. I presume that the device of the Time Lords recruiting The Doctor for missions will crop up again occasionally, and in conjunction with The Master not having to appear in absolutely every story, it’ll be nice to have more of a variation of settings for the remainder of The Doctor’s exile. I love TARDIS-based travels, and I love the UNIT family, so my preference would be a little bit of each… Please don’t tell me either way, but I’m really hoping that the Doctor will get to take UNIT along with him on a future excursion.
Oh, and also, if you’ve not already been sent here from there, you may be interested to read this piece I wrote for Unlimited Rice Pudding: Ten Things I’ve Learned Watching Doctor Who From The Beginning.