The War Games

I’ve just witnessed the most depressing conclusion to a season of Doctor Who since Rose Tyler was trapped in a parallel dimension. (I know that came 40-odd years later, but time is relative.) Depressing, but utterly, utterly brilliant.

I’d always been aware of the notion that The Doctor’s punishment seems a lot harsher in hindsight. The specifics of regeneration had yet to be nailed down, and the intention at this stage wasn’t that it was a traumatic and tragic event. With the knowledge of what’s to come, an enforced “change of appearance” is tantamount to an execution. But what I wasn’t prepared for was the manner in which it was realised, with The Doctor yelling out in pain, begging for the Time Lords to stop, kicking and screaming to cling on to life. That in itself is horrifying – the poor sod is being tortured to death. It’s barbaric, terrifying and heartbreaking.

I can’t figure out what’s more upsetting – the murder of my favourite Doctor, or the fate of the two best companions the show has ever had by this point. Plonked willy-nilly back in their own times, with no memory of having travelled with The Doctor, mere moments after promising never to forget him. They can’t bear to leave, and he can’t bear to see them go. The Time Lords are easily the worst, most vicious and heartless enemies the Doctor has faced so far.

Zoe will be hugely missed – I feel like I’ve done very little but bang on about how brilliant she is for the last month or so. But Jamie’s departure is something else. He’s been around for so long that he feels like so much more than a normal companion – hell, he lasted longer than a fair few Doctors did. He’s been as much a part of the Troughton era as the man himself, and it will be very strange to not have him around.

But concentrating on the huge changes that this serial heralded, and the incredible amount of backstory and mythology introduced, is to do a disservice to the rest of the story. It’s a fantastic concept, and there’s so much going on even before the term “Time Lord” starts being bandied about willy-nilly. It’s obviously extremely long, but aside from a few rather contrived cliffhangers, it doesn’t really suffer from its length. Some bits are better than others, but when it’s good, it’s excellent.

The 1917 Zone is by far the best setting. It’s startling to think that when they made this serial, they were closer to the First World War than we are to them. Such a great conceit to slowly introduce the anachronisms and the mind control elements, and General Smythe is an absolutely superb baddie, played by the Cat Priest from Red Dwarf.

The idea of using time travel to jumble up different bits of Earth’s history reminded me of The Time Meddler, and The War Chief – a renegade Time Lord, manipulating other races for his own gain – certainly owes a lot to The Meddling Monk. I’d like to amend an earlier theory of mine: Peter Butterworth regenerated into Edward Brayshaw, who then regenerated (having somehow delayed the process to avoid further trouble from the War Lord) into Roger Delgado.

It was such a successful character that it’s easy to see why they came up with The Master so soon afterwards. Less successful was the Security Chief, who seemed to think he was a Dalek, barking his weirdly-enunciated proclamations at nobody in particular. The stuff in the alien complex wasn’t generally as strong as the bits in the historical war zones, but it was all necessary for the brilliant unraveling of The Doctor’s past, and the desperation that led to him reaching out to the Time Lords.

Much like the even-more-epic Daleks’ Master Plan, I come to the end of this serial after what seems like an age since it started, but this time that’s not a bad thing. I kind of didn’t want it to end, because as excited as I am about seeing Jon Pertwee take on the role, I’m absolutely gutted that I’ve reached the end of Troughton. Unlike Hartnell, I don’t feel satisfied that I’ve seen enough of him – it seemed like he had years left in him.

Before I’d seen his entire run, I knew that Troughton was one of the best Doctors ever, from the bits that I had seen. And now? He’s not just *one of* the best. At this stage, I’m comfortable with saying he’s my all-time favourite Doctor, new series or old. Although I reserve the right to change that opinion when I’ve seen complete runs of the others.

RATING: 10

And so it’s with some degree of sadness that I reach another milestone:

SEASON AVERAGE RATING: 8

  • Seasons/Series watched: 6 of 34
  • Stories watched: 50 of 253
  • Individual episodes watched: 253 of 813

And what a milestone it is. Season 6 was the last of its kind in so many ways – the length, the number of stories and the format are all about to change, not to mention the most obvious difference. Bring on that glorious colour…

Advertisements

The Space Pirates

I’VE DONE IT! I’VE DONE ALL THE MISSING EPISODES!

Hurrah, frankly. No more hunting down recons that have been copyright-blocked for containing tiny censor clips. No more pondering how accurate a reconstruction I’m watching, given how little reference material exists for some episodes. No more having to concentrate really hard after a long day’s work because it’s really bloody hard to follow an action sequence via the medium of stills and scrolling text. Such a relief to know that I’ll always be coming home to a proper episode, and indeed such a relief to find that I didn’t give up.

Seriously, I always knew from the start that missing episodes would the biggest challenge in the quest to make it through 50+ years of Who. Seasons 3 and 4 just looked so daunting on the spreadsheet. I’ve got to give a huge amount of credit to Loose Cannon Productions for the sheer quality of their recons. Their commitment to both authenticity and incorporating as many sources as possible has made it a lot more tolerable than I thought. Not half glad to see the back of them though.

As for the serial itself… it’s not brilliant. I see what they were going for, with a deep space version of a western, but it doesn’t quite come together. The Space Corps crew are all very plummy – and hammy in several cases, although I’ll forgive Igor from Count Duckula because he’s Igor from Count Duckula – but then you’ve got this crazy old prospector who sounds like the Cowardly Lion.

The main problem is that The Doctor and his companions are barely in it, and when they are, it’s barely anything to do with the main plot. He doesn’t even meet the Space Corps, so it’s hard to care about them – a problem when around half the action is from their point of view. A huge chunk of this serial is just a bunch of scenes between people we don’t know, so there’s no emotional impact to their exploits.

It’s not helped by some terribly clunky expositional dialogue to establish the backstory. “Milo Clancy? But he’s the man I blame for my father going missing. You know, my father – the one who established this mining company that I run.” I’m exaggerating, but not by much. And by the way, her secretly working for the pirates is the least surprising twist ever. If you’ve not seen this story before, I promise you that’s not a spoiler – you’ll know it the second she turns up. I assume Robert Holmes gets much better at some point, considering that so far he’s only done this and the ultimately unremarkable Krotons.

It gets a bit better towards the end, as The Doctor finally starts doing things that actually impact on the plot, and aren’t just him stumbling around while a story happens around him. Even if the last episode does end like an episode of Police Squad. But overall, it’s not exactly near the top of my wishlist for when they next discover a lost story. (For the record, the top of that list, on reflection, would be The Evil of the Daleks).

Of course, the only downside of getting to the end of the missing episodes is how perilously close I am to the end of Troughton. But at least his final story is ridiculously huge. I’ll see you in a week and a half…

RATING: 5

The Seeds of Death

Sometimes, I get to a serial title that I recognise as being iconic, but with very little prior knowledge of what to expect. I therefore assume that it’s either notoriously good or notoriously shit. The last time that happened was The Celestial Toymaker, and that turned out to be bobbins. So what would I make of this one?

I bloody loved it. So much fun, with a bonkers plot that proved to be absolutely gripping – I found myself wanting to watch the whole lot back to back, but I stayed strong. There’s so much to enjoy here. The TARDIS lands in a space museum (not *The* Space Museum), then the Doctor flies a bloody big rocket to a moon base (not *The* Moonbase). This is a joy – to see him flapping about trying to do “proper” space travel. Later on, he spends a good fifteen minutes having a one-man foam party. It’s a good serial for Troughton faces.

The Ice Warriors are so much better than their slightly underwhelming first appearance. Not that they were rubbish before, it was just that I didn’t feel the execution matched the description. Here, though, they’re a lot tougher – seemingly unstoppable at times, despite only being able to shoot straight when they were aiming at guest characters. Having different ranks of Ice Warrior worked really well, as it gave their actions more structure, and allowed for their complicated plan to be communicated properly.

I enjoyed the slow reveal of this plan, with all the various measures they had to take in order to make Earth hospitable for them, and our heroes thwarting them one-by-one. One thing I didn’t quite buy was how T-Mat (another bit of the mythology making its debut) had eradicated all forms of transport despite there only being machines in a handful of world capitals. Did the whole of the UK just relocate to London?

That’s a nitpick, though – I happily accepted it whilst watching, largely because I was engrossed by the quality of the directing. It’s so easy to lump all the black and white stuff together, but by this stage we’re really seeing work that wouldn’t look out of place later on in the original run, were it not for its lack of colour. Michael Ferguson’s work is stylish and pacey, and – combined with some great music – creates a menacing and gripping atmosphere.

The supporting characters are good too, particularly the doddery old rocket scientist and Fewsham, who really is a brilliant example of a slimy, cowardly shit. It seems like a lot of elements came together for this one, but really I think what’s setting this season apart is the fantastic combination of lead characters. I’ve banged on about Zoe endlessly, but her presence is also bringing out the best in Jamie – while she’s close to being The Doctor’s intellectual equal, that’s pushed Jamie to be his equal in terms of nous, bravery and moral fibre.

He’s learned all of this from the man himself, and we’ve been there every step of the way. I’ve spent so long thinking about how I’m going to miss Troughton, I’ve only just realised that I’m *really* going to miss Jamie too. He’s like no other companion – the sheer length of his tenure has made him feel so integral to the show.

But still, I won’t have to worry about that for another couple of weeks. Next up – the last of the recons…

Oh, one last thing. I had no idea that this was an Ice Warrior episode until I took the DVD out of the Revisitations slipcase and saw one on the cover. (Lovely cover as well, if you’re reading, Clay.) It’s completely and utterly unavoidable, but it’s a shame that it’s not possible to be completely spoiler-free for this journey. I’d love to know how long it would have taken me to figure out the surprise. Now I’ll never know if I was wrong.

RATING: 8

The Krotons

Much like The Underwater Menace before it, I watched through this one with the unshakable sense that it wasn’t a particularly brilliant serial, but once again I bloody well enjoyed it anyway. I’m pretty sure you can put that down to the power of Troughton – with only three to go, there haven’t been any Second Doctor stories that weren’t worth watching. He’s just got this compelling presence that elevates every scene he’s in.

As has Wendy Padbury, and Zoe is well within the vicinity of “favourite ever companion” territory. The best bits of the story were the pair of them working as double act, whether for drama or comedy. Jamie was flying solo more often than not, but this worked well too – he’s more than capable of sustaining a scene or a plot thread single-handedly. That really is the strength of this era – such strong, well defined and well acted central characters.

Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for all of the guest characters. The Gonds were all very samey, and each and every one of them a stock archetype. The Krotons themselves were little better – why did one of them have a South African accent? It’s quite hard to take them seriously whun thuy taulk like thus, especially in the wide shots when it was revealed that the Krotons wore long shiny skirts. Poor production values all round, especially coming after what we saw last time.

The fact that it was such a step down from The Invasion, and with the knowledge that there’s some huge mythology-defining stuff to come by the end of this season, made it abundantly clear that this was something of a filler episode. But hey, even this hastily-cobbled-together-late-replacement still represents a significant milestone – it was Robert Holmes’s first script. As much as I’m dreading reaching the end of Troughton, I can’t wait to get stuck in to more stuff from him and Terrance Dicks…

RATING: 6

The Invasion

Well, that was awesome. I’d seen it once before, back when the DVD with the animated episodes first came out, but seeing it in context really emphasised the scale of this story’s ambition, in terms of plot and production values.

The stakes have never been higher, because not only is this contemporary Earth, but a version of contemporary Earth that we really care about – it’s a very well-established and consistent world at this stage. It stretches back to Ben and Polly’s introduction, and this is a direct follow-up to The Abominable Snowmen and The Web of Fear – the final stepping stone towards the Pertwee Era.

Following this line of continuity works fantastically, as does the return of the newly-promoted Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart. He’s kicking more arse than ever before, with a newfound confidence and a touching level of faith in and devotion to The Doctor. With this strengthening of an easily lovable character, and the establishment of UNIT, it’s clear that the trial run of a potential new format was a huge success.

The plot builds very slowly – the Cybermen aren’t even revealed until the cliffhanger of Episode 4. (How amazing would it have been to watch that for the first time and be surprised?) But while the information is trickled out gently, the pace never drops, thanks to some impressive action sequences and sparkling dialogue. It’s well worth eight episodes – it didn’t feel stretched at all.

Tobias Vaughn stands out as one of the most memorable villains to date. Early on in this story I’d identified him as being rather similar to Mavic Chen, long before I suddenly realised that it was the same sodding actor. The eyes should have given it away, but in my defence, he was blacked up last time. He’s just as hammy in places here, but all the better for it. A magnificent portrayal of a complete and utter bastard.

Meanwhile, Zoe continues to be amazing, especially when destroying an entire Cyberman invasion fleet single-handedly. There were a few strange 60s attitudes towards her and Isobel at times, but at least there’s a fantastically strong female role model to counteract it. Another inconsistency within the story is that while it had plenty of brilliant action sequences, it also skimmed over several – quite a few scenes ended with someone saying “right, we need do this thing” and then cut to someone saying “well, we did that thing”.

Maybe it was a case of sacrificing certain sequences in order to make others better. It was perhaps all worth it for the scenes of the full invasion starting – dozens of Cybermen in the streets of London, emerging from St Paul’s. Lots of lovely model shots too; so many things got blown up over the course of eight episodes.

That’s the last Troughton story that I’ve seen before – the rest of this season will all be fresh to me. God, I’m going to miss him afterwards.

RATING: 10

The Mind Robber

Oh yes. That was superb. I’ve seen it before, having owned the DVD for a while, but it still blew me away, thanks to the context provided by having seen all that came before it. It’s like a not-rubbish version of The Celestial Toymaker, and it’s the most batshit mental thing I’ve seen since The Feast of Steven.

Episode One in particular is just insane, and that cliffhanger – with the TARDIS exploding and Zoe’s beglittered arse as she clings to the floating console – is one of the finest that the show’s ever done. They’re all fantastic cliffhangers, thinking about it – a charging unicorn being properly threatening, a claymation Medusa coming to life and the companions being trapped in a comically massive book. Trust me on that last one – it works in context.

As does the quite disturbing thing that happens to Jamie in Episode Two. I’m glad they did something interesting to deal with Frazer Hines’s illness, when they could have just had him go missing for a week. Hamish Wilson has a good stab at mimicking Frazer’s speech patterns and mannerisms, but is let down by having a genuine Scottish accent, rather than the usual slightly-inaccurate-but-incredibly-endearing one.

I’ve seen some people say that the serial goes downhill after that amazing first episode, but I strongly disagree. The Land of Fiction is such a compelling and unpredictable setting that you’re hooked throughout. I loved the riddles and the traps, and the cavalcade of fictional characters who popped up throughout. The final battle of wits between The Doctor and The Master (not that one… man, that would have been interesting) plays out like a pair of eight year-old boys trying to outdo each other, which tells you so much about The Doctor’s character, in this incarnation in particular.

The only downside is that the episodes are all a good five minutes shorter than normal, which is particularly noticeable when you’re watching them one at a time. There’s only slightly more than four episodes’ worth of material here, which shouldn’t be the case given that a whole extra episode was written when the serial was extended from four to five. But still, at least having short chapters helped to make this story such a page-turner.

RATING: 10

The Dominators

44 dominatorsDo you feel the power of The Dominators? Do you have the will and the skill?

Sorry, that’s been in my head for five days. Anyway, I went into this one with extremely low expectations, as I’d spotted that in the latest Doctor Who Magazine poll, it was ranked one place below The Rings of Akhaten. And I can’t imagine how it’s even possible for an episode to be worse than The Rings of Akhaten.

Fortunately, this isn’t. It’s certainly not a standout, but considering that the Troughton era is almost entirely composed of all-time classics, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s rubbish. There’s plenty of good stuff here – it’s pretty pacey, the location work looks great, and there’s some entertaining, if a little scenery-chewing, performances to keep you interested.

I really like the Quarks, the cute little buggers with their child-like voices and ability to fling people at walls. They’re not very good at actually killing, though – great when blowing up buildings (thanks to some impressive pyro work), but their aim is atrocious when they’re chasing a Scotsman and a fat bloke wrapped in a curtain.

The Dulcians being fanatical pacifists was a good concept, but it didn’t really go anywhere – it looked at one stage like the council were about to snap and take action following the murder of Brian Cant, but they never showed up in the end. Fortunately, the necessity for the youngsters to rebel in order to save themselves allowed Zoe to continue to kick arse, when she rallied them to stand up and fight. It’s so refreshing to have a companion who’s intelligent enough to talk to The Doctor at somewhere near his level, and also to have a young woman on board who’s equally as brave as the male companions.

Overall though, the implication that pacifism is an inherently bad thing, and that violence is a necessary feature of a civilised society, makes me a little uneasy. The Doctor always believes in peace, but the show’s authorial voice doesn’t always agree.

I found the power struggle and in-fighting between The Dominators much more interesting – they’re both ruthless in the pursuit of their goals, but the smarter one realises that it’s counter productive to be evil for the sake of it. It’s fitting that they were literally hoist with their own petard.

So Season 6 starts with a solid if unspectacular episode, but looking back on past season openers, that’s surprisingly common so far – Tomb being the only exception. I know for a fact that this season gets much better, having seen a couple of them before, but it’s also the last of its kind. The last in black and white, the last ridiculously long run, the last where there’s episodes missing, and unfortunately the last of the Troughtons. Not looking forward to that particular change, so while I’ll be excited when I enter a whole new era, I’ll be making the most of Season 6 while I wait.

RATING: 7