The Talons of Weng-Chiang

That was amazing. It felt like a six-day break from Doctor Who to watch the most opium-riddled Sherlock Holmes adaptation ever. Tom makes a fantastically good Holmes, and the production values are incredible. The dark, misty, grubby Victorian imagery is so evocative, setting the scene immediately so that the script doesn’t have to, allowing a gripping plot to be played out relentlessly.

On the other hand… yeah, it’s a bit racist. Sometimes it’s comical, but a lot of the time it’s cringeworthy. It’s not so much when the characters say racist things about “Orientals” that’s problematic – these are fictional creations with Victorian attitudes, behaving entirely realistically – it’s just that the depiction of the Chinese characters themselves is so wrong. It was easier to brush off black or yellow face in the black and white days, but when everything else about the production feels so fresh and timeless, it’s a stark reminder that this programme is a relic from the past.

It took a couple of episodes, but I did see past it in the end, and appreciated a quite brilliant performance from John Bennett, regardless of the rights and wrongs of his casting. He was the best of the triumvirate of brilliant baddies, closely followed by the haunting Mr Sin. Weng-Chiang himself is great, but loses marks for being so obsessed by a cabinet and Mary Poppins’s carpet bag.

But none of them could compete with the brilliance of Jago & Litefoot. I’d obviously heard of them, but was skeptical as to whether they’d live up to the hype of being the subject of approximately four hundred series of spin-off audio. But they’re simply the best guest characters we’ve had for at least a couple of seasons, and possibly the best ever pseudo-companions outside of UNIT. A perfect double act, despite only actually meeting towards the end. I’m probably still not going to listen to the audios, mind.

I see that this is Phillip Hinchcliffe’s last serial as producer, and it’s a typically dark and violent send-off. The Doctor seems to have a rather casual attitude towards death these days, and it will be interesting to see whether that disappears with Hinchcliffe. I don’t think anyone else would have introduced a companion like Leela, who’d sooner kill someone than scream at them. Nor for that matter would many other producers of a family show sanction scenes of the baddie straight up smoking opium.

It’s probably the right time for him to go, as this was the ultimate gothic horror tale, and would have been hard to top. Another all time classic for the Fourth Doctor – he’s probably had more than any other Doctor so far, and we’re less than halfway through his tenure…

RATING: 10

So the end of a mini-era perhaps, but most definitely the end of a season:

SEASON AVERAGE RATING: 8.5

  • Seasons/Series watched: 14 of 35
  • Stories watched: 91 of 263
  • Individual episodes watched: 453 of 826

Glancing at the all-powerful spreadsheet, I see a long-ish run of stories where the titles mean little to me, for the first time in a while. Pretty sure that I’ve not previously seen anything now until Tom’s last season. Excellent.

The Robots of Death

Those are some good robots. Rivalling the early Cybermen in terms of creepiness, thanks to their blank faces and calm voices, and completely overshadowing more recent Cybermen in terms of fear factor. They were an incredibly effective threat, and the vision of them quickly and efficiently hunting down humans, with eyes aglow, is very powerful. It’s only a shame that the scenes of all out robot war were so brief.

The design work was superb, not only on the robots, who RTD later completely recycled in Voyage of the Damned, but with the weird ceremonial clothing of the humans. It was a neat little world they created, with a detailed and intriguing society fuelled by greed. The whodunnit elements to the story were entertaining – at first I assumed it’d be a bit of a waste of time, considering the title contains a pretty big clue as to the identity of the killers, but the element of there being a human conspirator helped maintain the sense that nobody could be trusted.

Ultimately though, I wasn’t completely satisfied – I was waiting for the chaos to begin, and when it did it was quite late on, and over rather quickly. A proper base-under-siege would be the best way to utilise such a scary baddy, but when those elements came in during the last episode, the threat never seemed too immediate – our heroes were able to make their way around the craft quite easily, with very little action in between.

Elsewhere, Leela continues to be strong and promising – like a lot of former companions, she has a tendency to ask a lot of questions rather than figure things out for herself like Sarah did, but that’s balanced out by how quickly she takes action, and her ability to look after herself and others. Her sixth sense for danger is interesting; it veers a little towards the supernatural, which I’m not keen on, but it at least makes sense considering the mind-bending nature of her origin story.

It was also interesting to have D84 function as a one-story companion towards the end – a lovable and loyal robotic chum for the Doctor, who can help him out with his plans whilst gladly putting himself in danger to protect him. The power of hindsight, or is this the very beginnings of K-9’s development?

RATING: 8

The Face of Evil

I was initially worried that after Jo and Sarah Jane, two of the best companions of all time, in a run that’s stretched over the last six and a half seasons, that maybe we’ve hit a peak. I’m not expecting to run into companions that are as dud as a Dodo until Adric at the earliest, but the luck’s got to run out some time. I’m pretty sure I’ve never seen any of Leela’s serials before, so I had no idea what to expect.

She’s brilliant. The Doctor sometimes needs someone around that can not just look after themselves if trouble comes along, but who will actively seek out trouble and put a stop to it. She’s inevitably going to soften and civilise over the course of her stay, but I’ll cope with that providing it’s not done in a “women should be seen and not heard” way. This is the 70s. But for now, I liked her throughout the serial, but the way she took companion status by force sealed it for me – effectively a self-kidnapping.

This was a cracking story too. I always like seeing the aftermath of The Doctor’s previous exploits, even though here, unlike in The Ark and the Peladon couplet, the initial adventure was unseen. That doesn’t harm this story though, thanks to the strong imagery of a tribal society worshipping space junk and literally demonising The Doctor. He revels in being “The Evil One”, even if the giant Mount Rushmore-style effigy was a bit Lionel Richie.

I loved the slow release of information, and the eventual reveal that both factions were once merely different teams from the same spacecraft. I wasn’t entirely clear as to whether these were the original crew that had been brainwashed, or the descendants of the originals, but as everything was all just part of Xoanon’s experiment, I think you’re free to believe what you like. I choose the latter – I love the idea that the reality had become myth over the course of generations and centuries, if for no other reason that to make the religious analogy more pointed.

Elsewhere there was a strong guest cast, with a couple of welcome returning faces from The War Games. I’m also enamoured with the recent tendancy for the trippy and the batshit mental –  a schizophrenic computer shrieking nonsense from giant projections of Tom Baker’s big face would have easily been at home in the last serial.

There are very few faults with this serial overall, although I’m not sure about The Doctor’s little soliloquy at the start. He really does need a full-time companion, regardless of how brilliant this little experiment has been.

RATING: 9

The Deadly Assassin

I’ve watched this one once before, years ago, and all I could remember was there was a lot of violence and some stunning cliffhangers. And that it was very good indeed. I was not disappointed.

It’s a very, very special serial, for many reasons. In one fell swoop, almost everything we know about Gallifrey and the Time Lords is introduced all at once, and it’s a vision that has endured ever since. I feel like from this point on, I’m now seeing the “finished” version of Doctor Who – every single recognisable element has been introduced, all the wrinkles have long since been ironed out, and there’s still an infinite amount of possibilities to explore.

Even without the heavy levels of mythology, The Deadly Assassin is truly unique in its own right. The unusual scrolling text opening is the perfect lead-in to the shocking and frightening assassination premonition. This sets the tone for a headfuck of an opening episode, with the pomp and circumstance of the Time Lords’ ceremony adding even more dissonance to the Doctor’s trippy mental anguish, leading up to the pure shock of him (seemingly) actually assassinating the President.

And it doesn’t let up. The Matrix sequences are even more batshit, with some incredibly inventive and impressive direction. It’s properly dream-like, with each scene fading into the next, recurring imagery and of course relentless peril. These are simply some of the best scenes in the show’s history – brilliantly directed, expertly choreographed, and the writing is a stream of pure, unadulterated imagination.

Bringing The Master back was another stroke of genius – the perfect person to be at the centre of all this chaos. It did feel a little weird to have not witnessed the events that turned Roger Delgado’s incarnation into this… thing, which causes a bit of a disconnect early on. But by the end of the fourth episode, when The Doctor and The Master have had their suitably epic showdown, there’s no denying that the same brilliant bastard of a character is back.

I think it may have been my favourite serial so far. There are a lot of contenders for that particular title, but this one is right up there. It reminded me in many ways of a much more recent adventure – a companionless Doctor, fighting aspects of his imagination in a dreamscape designed by the Time Lords. Heaven Sent is also one of my favourite episodes of all time, and this is just as incredible.

RATING: 10

The Hand of Fear

I cried. I wasn’t expecting to, because obviously I’ve still got a lot more Sarah Jane to watch once I hit the modern era and the spin-offs. But seeing her leave made me realise how much I’ll miss her until then – I rarely mention her in these write-ups, because her consistent brilliance comes as standard. The central performances have just been perfection in these last couple of seasons, and I can’t quite imagine the Fourth Doctor without her at this stage.

Another reason for my tears was undoubtedly the fact that Elisabeth is no longer with us. Seeing this young, beautiful girl saying goodbye when I know that she’s going to die young… yeah, life’s just not fair, is it? But on its own merits, the departure was the right level of bittersweet. Her throwing a strop and threatening to go home, then them both being devastated to discover that she really did have to go home. I hope the next serial addresses exactly why Sarah couldn’t go to Gallifrey, so that it makes a tiny bit more sense, but I’m not holding my breath.

Still, they parted with a typical snappy but happy exchange, and she headed out into the world with a smile on her face. Beautifully done, plus Lis had been centre stage for a lot of the preceding serial. She played the catatonic stuff brilliantly – most actors would have gone down the robotic zombie route, but she moved so elegantly and sassily, with that hint of mischief in her eyes. God, I love Sarah Jane Smith.

The rest of the serial was decent enough – there wasn’t much depth to the plot, and even less originality, but at least it moved along at a fair rate, with a nice variety of settings. I liked the woman version of Eldrad; there was never any question that she’d turn out to be the baddy once she got back home, but that was OK, because my brain was distracted by the question of whether or not it’s acceptable to find a big grey rock thing sexy.

The final part suffered from a bit of padding – lengthy sequences of our heroes avoiding booby traps and crossing ravines are time-filling techniques almost as old as the show itself – and the resolution turns out to be one of those frustrating ones where The Doctor is largely a spectator. Apart from tripping the baddy up with his scarf.

But sod it, they did well to get the pesky plot out of the way in order to spend a bit longer on the goodbye scene. I’d have been perfectly happy for Sarah Jane’s last story to just be a four-episode two-hander in the TARDIS, to be fair. Still not a fan of the new console room, but so glad the ship is once more being used as a setting, rather than just as a means to an end.

RATING: 8

The Masque of Mandragora

It’s a new season, and the first thing I notice, just from the episode selection menu on the DVD: NEW FONT! I’m not that keen. The serifs in the title cards don’t go with the sans serif logo, and besides, the previous big chunky font was pretty hard to beat, and didn’t need replacing.

Still, more importantly: NEW CONSOLE ROOM. I’m not terribly keen on that either. I applaud the intention to make it as different to the old one as possible, which is something the new series has done well with each new iteration. But I’m not a huge fan of the wooden panelling, and it feels really tight and cramped – not the vibe you want in a ship that transcends dimensions. Still, at least we’re seeing a console room, which makes a change from last season, and the introductory scene was great, recorder and all.

As for the serial itself… I’m sorry to say I wasn’t massively keen on this either. It was interesting to have a proper historical adventure for the first time in ages – we’ve had some that are set in the past, but this felt like the type of historical that we haven’t had since the sixties. And I think that’s the crux of why I didn’t get on with it. The show has changed so much since then, and developed in new and exciting ways recently. This felt like an abrupt halt in that development, trying to do something that the programme is no longer equipped to do.

By god, it was slow. Lovely location work, great production values, but it was just three and a half episodes’ worth of tedious political machinations, intercut with lengthy sequences of cult rituals, before it finally all kicked off towards the end. A lot of it was enjoyable in itself, and it was another great performance by Tom Baker, but I spent most of the running time waiting for everything to kick off, growing increasingly impatient.

And when it did kick off, it left me feeling a little uneasy. I liked the switcheroo with The Doctor taking Hieronymous’s place, even though it was fairly obvious something like that would happen during a masquerade ball. But the thing is, people died at that ball, killed by the Brethren in order for The Doctor’s plan to work. I wasn’t so much bothered by the fact that this happened – death follows The Doctor everywhere – but more by the fact that it wasn’t acknowledged. He was too busy bollocking on about salami.

I dunno. It wasn’t bad television, by any stretch, but it was perhaps bad Doctor Who. A temporary stumble, I’m sure. On the plus side, I’m pretty sure Giuliano and Marco are a couple. Pretty progressive for 1976, not to mention the 15th Century.

RATING: 6