Inferno

Throughout this season, there’s been a sense that the show has been finding its feet again. After a huge amount of upheaval, everyone has been slowly settling in, and there’s been something not quite right. But with Inferno, they absolutely nailed it.

The main thing is that UNIT now feels like much more of a family all of a sudden. Benton has actual characteristics for the first time – he’s boyish and cheeky, and has become the Brig’s right hand man. Simply having that one extra regular character does so much towards building a consistent world, and I now feel that much more invested in the new format of the show, because it’s provided a group of people that we care about.

Of course, all this softening up was necessary to provide a suitable juxtaposition with everyone’s evil counterparts. The parallel universe stuff was absolutely inspired, and the cast are all on top form. I love how Nicholas Courtney uses so much ham for the Brigade Leader, when he’s always the epitome of suave and nonchalance as the Brigadier. Evil Benton was a complete shit, and Evil Liz was great. So much so that it’s a shame that this is her last serial – despite my reservations about Liz’s relationship with the Doctor, who knows what could have developed with more time.

The best thing about the parallel universe is how genuinely grim and disturbing their situation is. The impending apocalypse is fantastically realised, to the extent that it’s horrifying to watch it unfold. The scenes leading up to the Doctor heading home are amongst the most tense and dramatic in the show’s history, especially Liz shooting the Brigade Leader.

It’s a special type of horrifying too, because while you watch The Doctor fixing our universe, it dawns on you that the parallel universe is still doomed, and all those people are in the process of dying painfully. Despite their evilness, they did all come round to The Doctor’s side in the end, and they each showed great courage to rally round and help save our universe while theirs was already beyond saving.

This inherent grimness is counterbalanced by the optimism on The Doctor’s face when he realises that free will isn’t an illusion after all, and that the pattern can be changed. It’s powerful stuff, and it feels like a defining moment for the ongoing development of The Doctor’s character. His little speech subtly carries the spirit of joy and wonderment that so many subsequent actors and writers would bring to The Doctor. There’s also a certain ruggedness and air of defiance throughout Pertwee’s performance, which is what is setting him apart from his predecessors the most, thus far.

RATING: 10

After just four serials, albeit mostly really long ones, it’s milestone time again.

SEASON AVERAGE RATING: 8.5

  • Seasons/Series watched: 7 of 34
  • Stories watched: 54 of 253
  • Individual episodes watched: 278 of 813

Wikipedia reliably informs me that Inferno was the last seven parter, meaning nothing will be this long again until Trial of a Time Lord. While Inferno was certainly well worth its running time, it’s rare that long serials don’t slightly outstay their welcome, even by a little bit. After only seeing four different stories in an entire season, I’m looking forward to seeing a greater number of adventures for this newly-gelled UNIT posse, and I’m also looking forward to seeing Jo Grant, cause she is well fit. But above all else, I hear there’s a new villain on the way…

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The Ambassadors of Death

Or as it’s emphasised in the funky new title sequence variant, The Ambassadors… OF DEATH! I quite like having the titles interrupted by the cliffhanger resolution – it seems quite forward-thinking, considering pre-title sequences are now the norm for pretty much every type of TV show. This is a mid-title sequence, though, so let’s call it a lukewarm open. Also used for the first time: the scream into the end credits! Lovely stuff – a lot of cliffhangers have fallen flat over the first few seasons due to a lack of punctuation going into the titles.

Anyway, I really enjoyed this one. It nips along at a fair old pace, and I always like a story where it’s not clear who the villain is until late doors, especially when the baddies are more misguided than evil. General Carrington is a xenophobe and a maniac, but he thought he was doing what was right. His complete iron grip on the situation was impressive, and it’s a great performance from Rimmer’s dad.

The rest of the guest cast was strong, particularly the ultra-suave and cool-tempered Cornish, played by one of the Dominators. I also liked Reegan, who made for quite a likeable cold-blooded murderer, and of course the sudden return of Benton! He just pops up out of nowhere in episode five, like the production had only just remembered that he exists.

The story is notable for its vast use of CSO – this show has only been in colour for a few weeks, and already it’s separating and overlaying it. It doesn’t always work, but you simply have to applaud the ambition in making such extensive use of a technology that’s completely in its infancy – again, they were way ahead of their time. The dodgy bits are made up for by some lovely model work and of course the numerous action sequences.

But best of all, the Third Doctor’s character has now very much been established. He’s a product of his environment – no longer free to roam through time and space as he likes, plus he’s got roots for the first time since leaving Gallifrey, so he’s not quite as flighty and impulsive as his predecessors. His natural curiosity is still there though, and he’s channeling that into investigation and research. He’s still a rebel underneath, but he’s prepared to collaborate with others and form part of a team, albeit only on his own terms.

He’s working extremely well in conjunction with the Brigadier, with their deep respect for one another smoothing over their numerous differences in style and philosophy. In many ways, their relationship is similar to that of Bond and M, but they share the roles between them. The Doc reports the results of his field work to the Brig, and tries to influence his approach wherever possible. But it’s the Brig that plunges head-first into conflict, with the Doc hanging back and being more tactical.

The relationship with Liz, however, isn’t quite there, and it’s a shame. I really like her – both character and actress – but she just doesn’t have the bond with the Doctor that previous companions have had. It’s probably because they’re rarely alone together – when you travel in the TARDIS, The Doctor is the only constant in your life, but Liz gets to go home whenever the danger subsides, and presumably gets on with some light admin until the next crisis. It’s also why I’m not keen on the dynamic between the Twelfth Doctor and Clara – life with The Doctor should be the only life that companions know.

RATING: 8

The Silurians

I’ve just spent a good ten minutes staring at that title, and pondering whether to add “Doctor Who and” to the start. This is clearly more consideration than was ever given when they fucked up the title cards 45 years ago, so let’s move on.

Despite the disappointing step down from crisp, high definition film to murky, recolourised off-airs, this was a superb story of moral ambiguity and obfuscated intentions from both sides of a tricky conflict. Even when they’re at their most murderous, it’s hard to not empathise with the Silurians to some extent – it was their planet first, to be fair to the reptilian lads. The fact that they have the capacity to be reasonable and open-minded means Madame Vastra makes a lot more sense.

The power struggle within the Silurian ranks worked incredibly well, as did the clear parallels between the main players on each side. The Elder Silurian was kind and fair, willing to find a peaceful solution and doing his best to prevent unnecessary violence. Conversely, the younger one was trigger-happy and ruthless in the defence of his species, and it was a bold move to establish that the Brigadier can be just as bad.

Prior to now, he and The Doctor have only ever had small, easily-forgotten disagreements, but The Brig effectively committing genocide, and breaking promises in the process, will surely add a lasting layer of tension to their relationship. An act such as the one that closes this serial could so easily have been a defining moment to condemn a character to baddy status – such as Adam in The Long Game or Harriet Jones in The Christmas Invasion. But with The Brig it’s different – like his Silurian counterpart, he’s more misguided than malicious, and there’s clearly scope for redemption.

Elsewhere, there was a Scientist Silurian, whose main job was just to be told what to do and get on with it. Unfortunately, this mirrored Liz’s role in the story. Every time she showed a bit of gumption and stood up to either The Brig or The Doc, the other man would tell her to fall in line, and she would. The non-travelling companion is clearly a tricky role to define, and they’re not quite there yet. It’s odd that Liz and the Brig are the only recurring members of UNIT at this stage – I was expecting to have seen Benton by now – and it feels like they need a slightly bigger core cast in order for everyone to find their place.

But still, the guest cast of this serial were superb, the highlight being the appearance of two absolute comedy heroes – Fulton Mackay and Geoffrey Palmer – in straight roles. Both of them get great deaths too, Palmer’s in particular. Other things to note include the first use of CSO – which surprised me, as I assumed it came much later in colour videotape’s life time – the first appearance of Bessie, and the first use of the phrase “neutron flow”. It was made in reference to a nuclear reactor, so it seemed to make sense.

Downsides? As much as I loved the subplot of the deadly plague sweeping London, The Doctor being stuck in a lab conducting repetitive experiments for a whole episode somewhat hampered the pace, which prior to that had been building nicely. Also, the sound design was a tad irritating in places – the music was largely shite, and I could have done without the constant ridiculously high-pitched noises emitting from the Silurians’ bonces.

Overall though, a fantastic story – not sure it was quite seven episodes’ worth, but it got away with it thanks to Malcolm Hulke’s thought-provoking and well-crafted plotting. The big communist. Next up, a serial I know little about, but thanks to the contemporary trailer being appended to the final episode on the DVD, I now know to contain LOTS OF FIGHTING.

RATING: 8

Spearhead From Space

I settled down to watch this serial exactly how it was intended to be seen – in full 1080p HD on a 50 inch LCD screen. It was apt in many ways – seeing this beautiful Bluray version blew me away. It was like watching a film, although admittedly a really cheap film. It’s how I imagine the step up from monochrome to colour must have felt for those lucky/rich enough to have colour sets when this serial first aired.

It certainly emphasised just how much of a difference there is between this serial and everything that came before it. I must admit, I approached my viewing with a little trepidation. I’ve loved the first six seasons, but the very premise of the show is being
shifted. It’s a coincidence that this occurred at the start of a new decade and with the first use of colour technology, but it’s a very handy separation for eras of the show – the version of Doctor Who I’ve been watching for the last nine months is dead. I’ll miss it, but long live the new direction.

Because it has to be said that this is a very strong start for Jon Pertwee. His post-regeneration scenes are a tour de force, showcasing every component of his repertoire as a performer, and setting the template for the majority of all future regeneration stories. Any sadness at the loss of Troughton was placated by the demonstration that the role is still in an expert pair of hands.

And of course, it’s great to have the Brigadier back. I loved him coming to terms with the fact that his friend has a completely different face now, having thoroughly reviewed the evidence. I’m really looking forward to seeing how their relationship develops as they become full time colleagues – I hope we get to see a bit of them interacting between crises.

It’s a promising start by Liz Shaw too. She’s certainly quite cold compared to past companions, and not a great deal of use as an entry point for the audience. But I like the new dynamic of having someone who’s fulfilling all the usually companion-esque duties in a surly, reluctant and almost sarcastic manner.

Now, this is a story I had seen before, although not in HD, and not since moving to Ealing several years ago. I was really looking forward to seeing the location footage from 45 years ago, but it’s so different now that it’s virtually unrecognisable. I figured out that the main department store the Autons break out of is now M&S, due to the parade of shops opposite still being present today. But the rest of it could have been absolutely anywhere for all I know. I’ll have to stick to Men Behaving Badly and A Bit of Fry & Laurie for my spotting-locations-near-my-house needs.

But anyway. It was interesting to note that the Autons were used in a very similar way here to how they would be in Rose – a constant threat in the background, but by no means the main feature in the story. This was all about introducing the new Doctor and his role at UNIT, but I was a little disappointed that we didn’t get huge pitched battles of soldiers fighting Autons, like they did with the Yeti and Cybermen. The iconic shop dummy scene isn’t until towards the end of episode four, and the whole threat is dealt with unsatisfyingly quickly, the second that The Doctor starts being proactive.

But still, that serial was such a good introduction to the new era, thanks largely to the constantly creepy atmosphere. The vivid colour and unusual direction necessary for this particular story brought the threat closer to home than ever before. So many unsettling aspects, not least the plasticy faces of the Nestene’s henchmen, Channing’s death stare and the cliffhanger to episode three with General Scobie opening the door to his own doppelganger.

And finally, the graphics and aesthetics. The closing credits are now on cards, rather than a scroll, and consequently it takes twice as long. There are a couple of noticeable edits to the theme tune as a result, in order to extend it. Lovely font though, and the sheer number of different colours in the new patterns seems like they’re (justifiably) showing off. And I adore the new logo – it’s my favourite of all time, and it’s clear to see why they kept going back to it when the show was off air.

Next up, this blog goes weekly for a while, as the rest of this season consists of seven-parters. Unless it’s for special occasions, I tend to prefer a tight four-parter, so we’ll see how this goes…

RATING: 8