The King’s Demons

I was fully expecting this to be utter dogshit, due to its low placing in the last massive DWM poll, and the fact that this season routinely oscillates between brilliance and garbage. So, as I’ve said countless times before, I’m not sure whether my response is a reaction to that, but I found it to be perfectly fine, even teetering towards being actively good.

I also knew that this was a Master story, but even without that knowledge, you know it’s him right from the start. Just from the tiny glimpse from behind before he puts his mask on at the joust, I wrote in my notes: “is that Anthony Ainley in a ginger wig?”. Despite the accompanying Radio Times trickery, it’s got to be intentionally obvious, hasn’t it? The big sword fight is positively improved with the realisation that it’s The Doctor vs The Master; it’s Pertwee vs Delgado all over again.

The criticism that his scheme is both daft and too piffling for The Master is probably fair enough, although it didn’t really bother me. Well, that is until afterwards, when I read someone point out that it fits much more closely with the modus operandi of a different renegade Time Lord. If you’re going to bring back old villains every week, then man, this should totally have been The Monk.

But still, Davison and Ainley have developed into a great adversarial double act. The Master is always a reflection of the particular Doctor he’s up against; not only does Ainley match Davison’s recent penchant for more minimalist nonchalance here, but the pair seem to have gained confidence in their roles at the same rate.

Gerald Flood’s depiction of King John is arguably the highlight though, even with his silly lute playing. This brings me on to the thorny subject of Kamelion, who I know is already doomed to failure, and as such I won’t bother putting him in the header. It’s a shame it didn’t come off, because this serial – which would surely rank as the all-time weirdest way to introduce a companion, were it for the preceding trilogy – did enough to make me intrigued.

The possibilities are quite obviously endless, and there’s an interesting thread to be followed in the dichotomy of a sentient being voluntarily succumbing to the will of another, regardless of their intention. Couldn’t they just have shot the prop from a distance at the start of each serial, and have him instantly morph into some plot-relevant guest character?

But like I say, this one’s perfectly fine, and it certainly doesn’t outstay its welcome. It’s not a season finale by any means, but perhaps that’s appropriate considering how weirdly inconsistent this season has been. They needed to end with the Daleks or something, so it wasn’t a surprise to read that this was the original intention; I’d always assumed that this season was a few episodes short due to them being allocated to The Five Doctors. But anyway…

RATING: 8

SEASON AVERAGE RATING: 7.5

  • Seasons/Series watched: 20 of 35
  • Stories watched: 128 of 263
  • Individual episodes watched: 601 of 826

Wow, over 600 episodes done! Things are definitely winding down; the spectacularly bumpy ride has resulted in the lowest average rating of the colour era so far, despite containing two serials that are now among my all time faves.

And now it’s over, I’ve concluded that the recurring-villains-every-serial thing didn’t really come off. I’m not sure if I’d have even clocked if it wasn’t so well documented. Three of the six serials are taken up by just the one baddy, and of the three remaining villains, one is only from the last season, and another shows up all the time anyway.

Oh well, the proper anniversary celebration is still to come. See you tomorrow.

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Enlightenment

Wow. This series is so inconsistent right now. It seems to be lurching wildly between all-time-greats and absolute stinkers, with very little in the way of middle ground. This serial was firmly in the former camp, and consequently this trilogy is a shit sandwich, but made with some absolutely world-class bread.

I was gripped from the start, with a first episode that contained all the best elements from both Carnival of Monsters (the creepy sailing ship where everything’s slightly off but you can’t figure out why) and The War Games (the oblivious humans plucked from their own time to be used as playthings for powerful aliens). It’s not derivative, it’s just tapping into the same themes, and it’s a very rich source.

It’s a gripping plot that unfurls, and the Eternals are superb baddies. They literally do not give a fuck about anything, with the exception of Marriner, who’s a creepy old perv towards Tegan. But right towards the end, I really felt for him following his reaction to Tegan’s reaction to thinking The Doctor was dead; it nearly brought a tear to my eye. There seems to be a running theme of immortality and how it’s not what it’s cracked up to be, which I’m aware will pay off in the forthcoming special.

Marriner and his fellow Eternal, Striker, were the highlights of a brilliant and star-studded guest cast, which included Roy Evans from off of Eastenders, Nurse Gladys Emmanuel (thankfully not singing this time), and Leee John, bizarrely. Not entirely sure why Nurse Gladys spoke directly to camera at the end of Part Three. This isn’t Come Outside.

Much like with Mawdryn Undead, the main plot would have easily been enough for a classic story, but you’ve also got the culmination of all the Turlough/Black Guardian stuff, and it’s great. Mark Strickson’s performance is utterly insane at times here, but it’s compelling. He seems to share Tom Baker’s knack of making an alien character feel alien, although that could be down to the thinness of his eyebrows.

You were never sure what side Turlough was on throughout the story, and I’m not sure he was either. I loved The Doctor silently judging him every time he flip-flopped in an increasingly desperate attempt to save his own skin. He keeps his cards close to his chest throughout, with Davison playing it extremely subtly as he makes his feelings known in a quiet yet firm manner.

Turlough’s torment ramped up and up until holy fuck he actually tried to kill himself. Man, this is dark, and I love it. There was a high death count in this story, with whole crews being wiped out at a time. But I liked how – perhaps due to the need to contrast the ephemerals’ reactions with the Eternals’ – the TARDIS crew aren’t so blase about death as they have been at times. This was all about pointing out the consequences when those in power play their games.

This continued into the final Guardian-off, which acted as a satisfying conclusion to both the story and the trilogy. With Turlough free of his tormentor, I’m looking forward to seeing what he’s like as a normal companion. I hope there’s still some moral ambiguity, because I’m enjoying the change in dynamic, but his enlightenment experience does give the production a clean slate if they choose to use it.

I still can’t get over how much the quality is varying these days. It makes the failures more frustrating when you know how good the show can be, but it does make me feel better about heading further and further into the murky depths of JNT’s 80s era to know that every now and then he struck gold.

RATING: 10

Terminus

Oh. Bye then, Nyssa. I still don’t feel like I really know who she is, so I can’t say I’m devastated to see her go. She was never annoying or unlikeable, it’s just that she’s a bit of a blank canvas, designed to fill whatever function the writer needs for each particular plot. She’s like plain rice; perfectly nice to have, but not something you’d want on its own, and not as good as chips.

Sarah Sutton always did her best to inject some sort of life into the character, and she puts in a good final performance here. It was nice that they tried to give her more to do than normal, and the parting scene was as emotional as it could be for a character you don’t really care about. Quite baffling and distracting for her to spend most of the adventure running around in just her undies, though.

This serial had a really promising first part, and Turlough continued to impress. You can’t help but be on his side, even when he’s sabotaging the TARDIS and plotting to kill The Doctor. After a good supporting role in his debut, he’s the best thing about this one, along with the Black Guardian’s continued campaign of terror. You don’t know what either of them are going to do next, and I’m very much looking forward to seeing how it all concludes.

Unfortunately, this intriguing first part was then followed by three episodes of people wandering around and getting up to not very much. As soon as our heroes get separated into smaller groups, there’s no coherency and no emotional attachment; it feels like they’re all taking part in separate small stories, none of which are weighty enough to make you care. And how’s Turlough supposed to carry out his mission when he spends three episodes mostly hiding under the floor, while The Doctor’s busy swanning around with Liza Goddard?

The lack of coherency spreads to the storytelling, as a series of seemingly random events take place with little to no sense of how they’re supposed to be relevant. When Nyssa’s been rounded up and sent to a leper colony, why should I care about a tedious power struggle within the people who sent her there? Then all of a sudden a giant robot dog turns up, and nobody seems to bat an eyelid. I didn’t know whether to admire it for being ambitious and out there, or deride it for being incongruous nonsense. I’m leaning towards the latter.

Then all of a sudden the entire universe is at stake, but it doesn’t seem earned, or particularly convincing. The journey to get me to this point bored me so much that there was no tension – I just wanted them to solve it asap so that we could move on to the next story. It’s a shame. There’s a good Doctor Who story to be told about a corrupt leper colony at the centre of the universe, but this wasn’t it.

At least Nyssa was given a good reason to leave, and her departure won’t cause too many ripples. And it’s encouraging that the most successful bits were the glimpses at the relationship between the two remaining companions. Putting newbie Turlough in opposition to faithful Tegan is supposed to turn you off him, but actually she can be pretty brash and slightly annoying, so it makes you empathise with him more. I just hope he’s more central to the plot in the conclusion to the trilogy – it should be a story about The Black Guardian and Turlough, not just featuring them.

RATING: 5

Mawdryn Undead

Oh my God. That was incredible, for so many reasons. Right from the very first establishing shot of the school, I was utterly amazed. THAT’S MY OLD UNIVERSITY! Trent Park, Enfield, Middlesex. Absolutely unmistakably the place where I spent three of the happiest years I’ll ever spend. I became a Doctor Who fan while I was at a place where Doctor Who was filmed… and this is literally the first I’ve ever heard of it. I often go on about how difficult it is to avoid spoilers, but this was a very personal headfuck that I had no idea was coming.

I was fully aware, however, of who’d be returning in this serial, but that the lack of surprise didn’t matter in the slightest. God, I love the Brigadier so much. His greatest hits flashback put the biggest grin on my face, and the long list of names The Doctor reels off made me realise just how much affection I’ve got for the UNIT era. It was a product of a unique set of circumstances and it had its downsides, but you can’t help but feel a warm, nostalgic glow whenever it’s invoked.

Nostalgia aside, Nicholas Courtney is absolutely fantastic here, even after a seven year break from playing the character. The Brigadier looks equally at home alongside Davison’s Doctor as he did against any of his predecessors, and it was tremendous fun to see him transposed into the current set-up. All the same characteristics of loyalty and bravery are still there, with an added vulnerability thanks to the disconcerting hints of his suppressed memories. The humourous streak was still there too – I laughed both times I heard the line “I know all about regeneration, I’ve seen it twice before”.

Also in the mix is the return of the Black Guardian, which I initially greeted with an element of “meh”. Prior to this project, I’d always assumed that he was a huge figure in the mythology of Who, but in fact he gets his own tasty little trilogy based on nothing more than one prior appearance and some long since abandoned foreshadowing. Then he turns up here with a dead crow on his head, on the set of Bad Influence.

But actually, he was great. He instantly seems more powerful and impressive than he did at the conclusion of The Key To Time, and he’s unashamedly evil. It’s always that little bit scarier when the villain is specifically targetting The Doctor, rather than him turning up to a pre-existing situation by chance. His utter control of Turlough was terrifying, as indeed was Turlough himself. He’s fantastic – we’ve got a companion who’s completely bonkers, both in terms of their mannerisms and being actually mentally ill.

It’s a brilliant performance so far; one which takes care to leave the audience unsure of the degree to which he’s under the Black Guardian’s influence, and how much of it is down to him just being a bit of a shit anyway. If I hadn’t have known he was to become a companion, I would never have seen it coming, and it’s an incredibly interesting twist to the normal dynamic to have a companion that fundamentally can’t be trusted. Easily the most memorable debut for a long time.

And as well as all that going on, you’ve got a third antagonist in the eponymous Mawdryn, who’s part of a whole separate-but-parallel story. Him posing as The Doctor and successfully tricking his companions – including one of his longest serving friends – was deeply disturbing. Yet you can’t help feel sorry for him and his people in the end, despite what they put everyone through, because all they want is to find peace. These moral grey areas are what the show does best.

As is timey-wimey stuff, and this serial has some of the best timey-wimey stuff the show ever managed. It’s not just the two Brigadiers wandering around, or the fact that the same place is visited in two different time periods. It’s the way the story is told, whereby events that are taking place simultaneously unfold in parallel for the audience, thanks to The Brigadier slowly regaining his memory and filling in the story for The Doctor. It’s just so much fun.

There is an incredible amount of stuff packed in to this story. It’s an absolute whirlwind of immense satisfaction. I adored it.

RATING: 10

PS. I am aware that the new banner is shit. I’m guessing the lack of high-res publicity shots – or even half-decent screengrabs – of this particular combination of people means they won’t be together for very long…

Snakedance

Due to work commitments, I had to pretty much switch to watching every other day this week, which was annoying. I don’t feel like I’ve given this one a fair crack of the whip as a result – I’ve also been rather drained whenever I’ve found time to sit and watch, so the serial never had a chance to flow smoothly.

Despite this, it’s clearly pretty decent, although not quite what I expected as a sequel to Kinda, which featured some of the most surreal sequences in the show’s history. Instead, this one was firmly set in the real world, with Tegan’s surroundings being less nightmare and more Knightmare. They also added pseudo-scientific explanations for The Mara that had been left deliberately vague the first time round.

That was one of the things I felt worked well with Kinda, but actually, this is good too. Why not have your cake and eat it? The two stories back-to-back would almost feel like a modern two-parter: the first full of intrigue and mystery, the second clarifies everything before setting about tackling the problem. Every now and then in the modern series, the second part will be the lesser of the two due to the lack of mystery – that’s the case here too, but not by much.

It was an interesting choice to provide a sequel so close to the original – there’s only five stories in between. Happened all the time in the 60s, but not for ages. Considering the plan for the twentieth series to have returning enemies for every story, it might have been better to wait until later in the run. It’s also a stark contrast to the previous adventure bringing back a character who appeared once ten years ago. I guess you want a carefully-controlled ramping up towards The Five Doctors, which I’m hoping we’ll get. But then again, with Tegan having only just returned to the TARDIS, it did feel odd that she was separated from The Doctor again so quickly.

But anyway, these four episodes as a collective are pretty much your archetypal Classic Who formula: the first part is exploration, the second escalation, a slight slowing down to explain everything during part three, then action and drama in the fourth. The first two parts did their jobs perfectly adequately, if not spectacularly.

Then the third was a particularly bad example of the archetype. It was really noticeably slow – Tegan/The Mara was barely in it, when she’d been the best bit thus far. It’s understandable, given the amount of exposition that needed to be done, but if it had been more evenly spread, it could have been done without resorting to locking The Doctor up and explaining the plot to him. Then the story pauses for a Punch and Judy show. It’s odd.

But then the fourth part is particularly strong, with a return to some of Kinda‘s surrealism but with a more convincing-looking finale. Plus, of course, snake venom being used as a blatant substitute for LSD. As with the rest of the serial, Janet Fielding was great as both the goody and the baddy, and maybe even slightly better as the latter. It was a strong showing for the companions in general, with Nyssa continuing to be much more of a grown-up now Adric’s gone, and them both finally getting new costumes that make them look like actual people, rather than fancy dress caricatures.

The main thing I’ll remember from this episode, though, is obviously Martin Clunes. After the initial shock, his performance really stands out. He looks bloody ridiculous throughout, of course, but you can totally tell that he’s destined for great things. He bulks out the character to such an extent that you’re never sure how much of his portrayal is The Mara’s influence, and how much of it is Lon himself being a petulant little bastard.

As a bonus, I now know what that Six Faces of Delusion thing on the back page of DWM is in reference to. Slowly but surely, I’m filling in all the blanks.

RATING: 7

Arc of Infinity

Wow, Season 20. We really are hurtling towards the end of the classic era. This is a show that’s celebrating two decades of glory with all manner of nostalgic treats, whilst blissfully unaware that it’s about to career into deep, deep trouble; losing its format before eventually losing its life, which I’m only a few months away from witnessing. Sadly, on the evidence of the last two serials, I think the warning signs are already present.

This was a decent idea, combining various Gallifreyan tropes that have been successful in the past, along with some always-welcome foreign filming and an interesting twist on the companion narrative. But everything was handled so clumsily, and the results varied between dull and annoying. Nothing quite worked the way it should have done.

The action darted wildly between locations and characters throughout the first three parts, never following any one story strand for more than a minute before whizzing through several other elements. It lead to a disjointed, almost schizophrenic feel, which never gives enough time for the plot to become gripping, regardless of what’s involved.

The Amsterdam elements were spoiled by those two teenagers being such bloody awful actors. The Gallifrey bits never really worked because almost everyone was being an intolerable prick, even if they were The Black Adder’s mum. Given The Doctor’s track record, how did nobody believe that there might be a traitor framing him? There’s always a traitor on Gallifrey; they’re all terrible people. Including that Commander Maxil.

Yeah, that was a weird one, seeing Doctor Who talking to Doctor Who, except that one Doctor Who wants to kill the other one. Colin Baker plays it very well, but Maxil is such an pompous little prick, and from what I’ve seen of Colin’s Doctor, it’s not too far off what he brought to that role. Maybe when the regeneration trauma caused the Sixth Doctor to be a bit of a prick, the Fifth subconsciously conjured up the image of this odious twat of a Time Lord as inspiration.

Elsewhere, I admit that I was fooled into thinking Borusa was the traitor – a similar confusion occurred during the last Gallifrey story – but even taking my gullibility into account, he doesn’t come out of it well. He sanctioned the Doctor’s death sentence, and he didn’t even have the excuse of being under the control of Omega. Based on their previous encounters, I simply can’t believe Borusa would do that to his friend, no matter what the circumstances.

And speaking of Omega, hey – Omega’s back! Except, he isn’t really, is he? He was so different to the version from The Three Doctors that it might as well have been anyone. If it was some other ancient Time Lord, they’d have avoided the deeply annoying lack of explanation for how he survived his explicit death in his first appearance. At least with The Master, they always leave him in an escapable position, or give some kind of lip service to it when he shows up out of the blue. Basically, the nostalgia-fest so far consists of dredging up good memories and making them worse.

There are positives, of course, and the regulars are all on good form. Nyssa getting a bit of time as the sole companion gave her a chance to finally establish herself, just a whole season later than most companions manage it. She’s capable, fiercely loyal and has a strange affinity with guns. The bravery shown in trying to save The Doctor from execution demonstrates that she’s clearly devoted to The Doctor in the same way as your Sarah Janes and your Jo Grants, but the TARDIS has always been too crowded for her to display this until now.

It all seemed to be ramping up nicely in Part Three, when Omega was unveiled and Tegan became more involved. But this was completely squandered by a tedious last part in which the action is held up by The Doctor and Nyssa having a casual meander round Amsterdam – the sort of scenes that usually take place before the plot is heading towards a climax.

But then, what’s this? A confrontation between The Doctor and Omega, leading to the creation of a second Peter Davison? Hooray! Double Davison! This’ll be good… oh, no. They’re just going to run around Amsterdam for absolutely ages. Seriously, so much running. Just running and a puppet show. Until The Doctor eventually saves the day by shooting the baddy with a big gun. Brilliant. This serial can do one.

RATING: 5