The Twin Dilemma

Haha. Hahaha. Oh dear. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. I snorted with derision several times over the course of this story, but inside I’m weeping for the demise of classic Doctor Who. It now seems extraordinarily likely that I’ve already experienced the highest highs on offer, and now my only hope is that this does indeed represent the lowest of the low. The Twin Dilemma is the worst serial so far by a huge margin – no matter how dull or irritating things have been in the past, at least The Doctor has been in it.

A bad impression was created by the tweaked opening titles, which are now far too busy for my liking. I like having two Doctor faces dissolving into each other, but the rainbow effects are overbearing and detract from everything else. I was never a fan of the neon logo in the first place, but the slightly modified version is worse. The basic rule for this serial is that if they changed something, they made it worse.

I was obviously aware of its reputation, so I did my best to give it a fair chance. I kept trying to tell myself it wasn’t so bad. Okay, he’s picked the worst possible outfit from a wardrobe where literally anything else would have been better, but it’s not so bad. Okay, he’s being a complete arsehole, but it’s not so bad. Okay, those creepy twins are annoying and they can’t even talk properly, but it’s not so bad. Maybe this could be… oh wait, now he’s strangling Peri.

From that point on, I had no tolerance for the Sixth Doctor – he was just a completely irredeemable prick throughout. He is both cruel and cowardly from start to finish, and he’s just not The Doctor. By the time he has a gun pointed at him for the first cliffhanger, you’re willing the guy to shoot him, so that we can have another regeneration and start again from scratch. Oh, and by the way: ending almost every episode with a crash zoom in on The Doctor doing a shocked face is laughably bad.

I mean, I can see what they were trying to do, by having him cycle through as many personality types as possible post-regeneration, but the effect is that I now think that the Sixth Doctor is crap. It’s not fair on Colin Baker (and I don’t even like him, thanks to his attitude to DWM and the European Union), nor is it fair on Nicola Bryant that her character, who’s only been around for five minutes, is now part of this weird, unsettling dynamic.

Again, I can see the appeal of trying to do everything as differently as possible from what’s gone before – there’s nothing wrong in that at all, it’s just that they do everything badly. Your average regeneration story sees The Doctor take a backseat during his instability, but that’s not the case here, perhaps due to Peri not being a strong enough character to carry a story like the Brig, Sarah Jane and, later, Rose can.

Instead, Peri is much more explicitly the voice of the audience, hanging a lampshade on things like his awful costume, his abrasive nature, and just how out-of-character this new incarnation is behaving. But the thing is, she’s right. At the end, when she’s pretty much saying that the new Doctor is shit compared to the last one, based on the evidence of his first four episodes I’m compelled to agree. Why should Peri have to teach him compassion? Companions should help the Doctor to understand how humans/lesser mortals tick, but saving lives and lending a hand should be his raison d’être.

The closing line – “I am the Doctor, whether you like it or not” – sounds like a threat. I don’t like it. I liked the old Doctor, and the way to endear me to the new guy is not to have him slag the old one off. I really hope he gets better as his tenure goes on, but regardless of that, this serial was the worst possible way of introducing him. I’ve not always agreed with everything JNT has done so far, but it seems like every decision he made here was beyond stupid. This was the end of a season, and if I was a viewer at the time, I would have no incentive whatsoever to come back for the new one. This is definitely the beginning of the end.

If I’m being extremely generous, I might say that aside from the catastrophic portrayal of the new Doctor, there might be the nubbin on a decent story lurking somewhere within, but I’m not sure that’s true. There were a handful of intriguing moments when The Doctor was beginning to figure out the big plan, but they were few and far between. Mostly we were faced with a rubbish guest cast – the majority of whom were difficult to tell apart because they were painted entirely grey – a rubbish monster, and a plot that barely stretched to four parts, even with the added regeneration shenanigans.

And yes, it’s completely baffling as to how it’s possible to produce Caves and this piece of shit back-to-back. Congratulations, JNT.

RATING: 2

A shame that this is appended to Davison’s final season, as it brings the average down considerably. Take out the first and last serials and this would have been one of the better, more solid seasons of recent years. But as it stands…

SEASON AVERAGE RATING: 7.29

  • Seasons/Series watched: 21 of 35
  • Stories watched: 136 of 263
  • Individual episodes watched: 626 of 826

Next up, a combination of longer episodes, the requirement for more frequent blogs and the impending arrival of Red Dwarf XI may cause me to slow down somewhat over the next month or so. On the other hand, it may not, as I have some time off work, but I’ll have to play it by ear. Bear with me, as on the plus side, it’s a lot easier to write about something that’s a bit shit than it is about something that’s consistently good…

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The Caves of Androzani

That was, quite simply, the best serial of Doctor Who that I’ve seen so far, and I didn’t expect to have that reaction. It was one of the first Who DVDs I bought, but despite its reputation, I don’t think I’ve got through it before without nodding off along the way. That was entirely down to me, as my attention span as a student was not what it is now, plus it isn’t your average serial, and as such it wasn’t what I was expecting back then; I wanted to see something which fitted the tropes I was used to.

So this is another glorious example of why this is the best possible way to enjoy classic Who. I’ve now seen enough of it that an unusual story is something to be savoured rather than feared, and while this one can be hard going if you watch all four parts back to back, it’s absolutely perfect when you watch an episode at a time, as each episode in itself is perfect.

Watching the serials in sequence also shows up how much a giant step forward Graeme Harper’s direction is. Were it not for the fact that it’s 4:3 and interlaced, the composition of the shots and the way they’re put together would not look out of place today. So many ambitious and ground-breaking choices combine to lift otherwise conventional sequences to new heights.

There’s a scene early on where Jek is just going about his business, to show the audience how his set-up works. Any serial prior to this would have seen this play out in real time, but Harper moves the story along by turning it into a montage. Chase sequences are peppered with unusual angles and frantic pacing, which brilliantly enhance the well-choreographed action. The one thing that was a bit weird was Morgus occasionally delivering theatrical asides, but even that seemed to work in the context of such an epic and intriguing tale.

The world that Robert Holmes creates here is so complex and fascinating that it’s a shame it was only used for four episodes – it could have made for a series in itself. I didn’t want each episode to end – I wanted to stay in this world forever, exploring more and watching all the machinations play out. Each scene was the equivalent of a page turner – by the time Morgus pushed the President down a lift shaft, I couldn’t take my eyes off it.

The tension is unbearable, especially towards the end. It’s The Doctor’s desperation in hijacking the ship in order to find the antidote; his need to save Peri, because it’s his fault she got infected. It’s a bleak, bleak story. We’re literally watching The Doctor and Peri die a slow and painful death, right before our eyes. By the time that even Jek was desperately trying to keep her alive, I found myself crying out of sheer emotional exhaustion.

Jek is the highlight of the world Holmes created. He’s clearly a sex offender, and his treatment of Peri is deeply distressing, but you somehow ended up feeling sorry for him. The same is true, to varying extents, of all the guest characters. With the possible exception of Morgus, who reminded me a lot of Iago, nobody is fundamentally good or evil. They’re all real, complicated people, with motivations that are clear and relatable.

Like I say, there’s enough material there for a whole raft of stories, and it kind of felt like The Doctor and Peri were just dropping in to this world. Their presence is somewhat of a MacGuffin – they affect the outcome of events just by being there, rather than directly playing a part. Morgus brings about his own downfall because he’s paranoid about The Doctor being a spy, while Jek takes huge risks due to his infatuation with Peri, and these two factors combine to bring a bloody and vicious end to the war.

But meanwhile, The Doctor’s having his own separate story against this backdrop, which is as straightforward as it can get. They’ve got a disease, they need the antidote, so he goes on a dangerous quest. But this is Robert Holmes, and this is a rare example of the classic series doing something the new one does so well – having The Doctor lose. In the vast majority of stories, Doctor Who or otherwise, the hero does what he or she sets out to do, but not here. By only having enough antidote to save one person, the Fifth Doctor gets to go out by making the ultimate sacrifice.

It’s a great way to say goodbye to an incarnation that has unexpectedly become one of my favourites. Davison’s task was arguably the hardest it’s been for any Doctor – to follow on from Tom Baker, widely regarded as the greatest of all time, whilst coping with the quality of writing and production values wildly fluctuating from one story to the next. Like my other favourite, Troughton, Davison’s screen presence was enough to boost any scene he was in, and he’s a huge loss after what feels like a ridiculously short tenure by previous standards.

It’s sad, and it’s probably exacerbated by the knowledge of what’s to come. I’m obviously going to give Colin a fair chance, and I really hope that he’s better than his reputation suggests. I’m not particularly optimistic, but perversely I’m really looking forward to his debut, just so I can see whether they really did manage to make the absolute best and absolute worst serials of the classic era back-to-back…

RATING: 10

Planet of Fire

Ah, this is one of those periods where absolutely everything is changing, bit by bit. This story is little more than a backdrop for a succession of significant events, but it’s at least a very pretty backdrop. The location filming in Lanzarote doubles up to portray both itself and an extremely dramatic volcanic surface, which makes the visuals very impressive throughout.

The main plot – a bunch of confused survivors accidentally worship technology,  thinking it’s the work of a god – has most certainly been done, but it’s not important because that’s not the crux of the story. It’s really all an elaborate origin and departure story for Turlough, as the gaps in his backstory are slowly filled in, ready for him to finally say goodbye and head home.

It all unfolds very entertainingly, even though I did predict “he’s an escaped prisoner” very early on. He was especially shifty throughout the story, even by his standards, and it was interesting to see just how strained his relationship with The Doctor became as a result. Between Turlough acting up and Kamelion being taken over (more on that later), The Doctor seems completely isolated at times, which is especially unusual for this Doctor. His mood has definitely been altered by recent events, which is a very New Who thing. There are consequences to his actions.

I will miss Turlough. A lot of the time he was fairly generic, but every now and then he was so alien that he was unlike any companion before or since, and that takes some doing. His departure marks the end of an unusual period in Who history – of having multiple companions and not all of them human – so I’m looking forward to seeing how they adapt to going back to basics.

First impression of Peri? “Christ, that American accent is bad”. To be fair, Howard’s was by far the worse, and I think his was highlighting her imperfections in those early scenes, as it started to sound more natural later on. She seems a little bit over-screamy for my liking, but she did at least display some strength in resisting mind control, and she seems more than willing to roll her sleeves up and get stuck in.

Plus, her scream is nowhere near as horrifying as Kamelion’s. Christ almighty, that will haunt my dreams. It was totally incongruous to have him suddenly reappear as if he’s never been away. The Doctor treats him like he’s part of the furniture, but for the audience, we haven’t even heard him mentioned since the end of the previous season, and even after this serial, he spent far longer on-screen as a baddy than a goodie.

See that thing where they had him morph into the guise of random guest actors in order to avoid using the dodgy prop too much? They did realise that they could have done that all the time, right? Because if we’d have seen more of him, maybe I’d care a lot more about his departure, and also his death. It was clearly supposed to be a touching moment, but I was mostly concerned about how nonchalant The Doctor was about ending a sentient life, no matter what the circumstances. I’d have preferred Kamelion to have turned on The Master and sacrificed himself in some way, leaving The Doctor out of the equation.

Speaking of whom, there was a decent Master story bubbling under the surface. He’s often at his best when he’s motivated by self-preservation rather than just domination; the desperation heightening his powers. My impression was helped by that rarest of occurrences – a decent cliffhanger that I didn’t already know was coming. The reveal of the tiny Master, in a box, is brilliant!

But then, there was another weird bit. I had to check afterwards if I interpreted his last scene correctly, but yep – he’s fucking burnt to death. It’s pretty grim, and The Doctor just lets it happen. Sure, he’s really cut up about it, but because it happens so soon after he’s mercy-killed Kamelion, I’m not sure how I feel about him having quite so much blood on his hands.

If this was most other periods of the show’s history, I’d assume all this dark subject matter was part of a wider plan, but given what I know about the next couple of seasons, I’m not confident that’s the case here. But regardless, I know that the next serial is going to be bitter-sweet, but that I’m in for a treat…

RATING: 8

Resurrection of the Daleks

I’m back, and so are they, and therefore so is he. I’m committed to watching the episodes as originally broadcast where possible, so I had to wait until I had enough spare time for 45 minute episodes (which thankfully won’t too much a problem for Colin’s first year), and this serial was well worth the wait. The extended running time, combined with brilliant production values, made this feel very special.

It would indeed have made a superb conclusion to the anniversary season, which was the original intention – it even had a montage of (almost) all the old companions, including Katarina and Sara. The story was suitably epic; in a similar way to Earthshock, it took an iconic baddy from the 60s and put them into an action setting. And it did that very well, which is to be expected when you see the name “Peter Wragg” in the credits. As well as the effects, the locations and sets were also top-notch.

The Daleks are used a lot more effectively than they have been for a long time, anniversary cameo aside. For the first time, the mutant itself is dangerous outside of its travel machine, which allows them to add a tense, Alien-style section to break up the standard Dalek stuff. We also see the first seeds of the Daleks breaking off into factions, thus providing further new avenues to explore next time.

Your man Davros is played a hell of a lot better than he was last time, but – having already seen Revelation and Remembrance – it’s now confirmed that they never came close to bettering his first appearance until Julian Bleach came along. Here, he could do with calming down a bit; his long sleep having seemingly made him very grumpy and shouty. Terry Molloy’s incarnation was definitely Davros’s Curious Orange phase.

It’s a shame that there’s only one scene between Davros and The Doctor, but it’s a belter. It’s neat that the Genesis dilemma is referenced, and interesting that The Doctor now believes his decision to be wrong. I don’t necessarily agree with him, but it makes for a compellingly tense scene between the two old adversaries, where you’re genuinely not sure whether the Doctor will pull the trigger or not, and in the end, the decision is taken out of his hands.

Davison’s Doctor is getting slightly darker as he nears regeneration, and this is probably the most grimly violent serial we’ve seen since the days of Hinchcliffe and Holmes. It’s not just the high body count – although it is pretty damn high – it’s the casual manner of many of the deaths. It was getting to the point where I was grimacing with (enjoyable) discomfort with each new killing, particularly that poor metal detecting man near the end.

It’s good that the show acknowledges all of this, which brings me on to the other big part of this story. It’s incredibly effective to have a companion wanting to leave out of disgust at what they’ve witnessed, especially as it’s partly The Doctor himself that’s caused it. It’s a wake-up call for him – people usually leave because he’s made them a better person and they’ve got a new calling, not because he’s actually making their life worse.

I hadn’t really thought about it, but Tegan has been around for bloody ages at this stage – her episode count is up there with Jamie, Jo and Sarah Jane, but I don’t feel like she’s anywhere near as iconic as those three. I’ve never really been sure whether or not I like her, but I must admit that her lonely utterance of “brave heart, Tegan” got me right in the heart. I’ll miss having her around, as from what little I’ve seen of the rest of the classic run, we’re not going to have a strong female companion now until the very last one.

I can’t let this one pass without mentioning the absolutely stellar guest cast. Rodney Bewes! Rula Lenska! Dirty Den! The guy who conned Del Boy by faking a heart attack! All of the above are great, particularly Bewes with his varied and conflicted performance. Some of the prison ship staff were not so good, but I did like Lytton – I’ve since learned that he’s coming back pretty soon, which is an unexpected addition to my recurring enemies list.

Do you know what? Fuck it, I was going to give this an 8 or a 9, but I’ve talked it up to a 10. It’s got pretty much everything I want from a Doctor Who story, and on-form Daleks are always worth a bonus point or two. As is an on-form Davison, and I’m sad that his tenure will be over so soon…

RATING: 10

Frontios

Ah, now this season has got going. That was an unexpected hit for me – one of those rare serials at this stage where the title means nothing to me, and so I can go into it without any preconceptions. I was immediately impressed by the truly dangerous and hellish world portrayed, and the cliffhanger of the TARDIS seemingly destroyed is great.

The hatstand being left behind was a very neat touch. Turlough subsequently using it as a pretend weapon was even better. It was a great story for him; he’s been a little less interesting since his enlightenment, acting like any other companion, so this was a timely reminder that he’s actually an alien, and a particularly freaky one at that. It was good to see him get the opportunity to completely lose his shit again; this serial really made the most of Mark Strickson’s extraordinary face.

I like the Tractators, who sound like a race of extremely authoritarian farmers. Not the most convincing of costumes, and not quite as effective when they started talking, but their powers were impressive and interesting. I also liked that they had a separate leader whose character was fairly well fleshed out, with his own motives and weaknesses for The Doctor to latch on to. Davison struck me as being on particularly good form, actually – he’s got that kind of default brilliance that Tom and Troughton had, where regardless of the rest of the episode, you know you can rely on them.

The plot was intriguing and never seemed like it slowed down, thanks to the constant drip feeding of new information, as everything slowly begins to make sense. I wasn’t completely sure what was going on with the TARDIS towards the end – it looked like it had somehow merged with the underground tunnels, but the explanation that it had been pulled apart into lots of fragments didn’t quite marry with the visuals.

It’s not quite clear how the pulling apart happened either, but I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt because I enjoyed the serial so much. My only other criticism is that Tegan was a bit thick at times towards the end; blabbing secrets to the enemy and failing to cotton on to The Doctor’s plan, much like Adric used to do at times. And as for the other “companion”, what the hell happened to Kamelion when the TARDIS was in a million pieces?

Oh, and naturally, the mentions of “the hungry earth” reminded me of The Hungry Earth, a story that I don’t remember particularly well, other than it being crap, but that I’m sure had similar sequences of people being pulled through soil. Plus, of course, the excavation machine thing looked very similar to Max Thingy from Voyage of the Damned. It’s like the new series mined Frontios but turned everything to shit, much like the Tractators did.

RATING: 9

I’ll be taking a very short break for the next few days, as other commitments mean it’s going to be near impossible for me to spare 45 minutes at a time. Oh well, at least the sad day when I have no new Old Who to watch will be postponed, even for a little while.

The Awakening

It’s the last of this particular type of two-parter; the next ones I see will be 45 minutes apiece, starting pretty damn soon. It’s strange to see one deployed so early in a season; they often act as little breathers in amongst the bigger stories, but given that the opening story was so crap, a two-parter here just makes it feel like this season hasn’t got going yet, which is irritating as I know that a damn fine Doctor will be gone before it’s even over.

But this was perfectly fine for what it was, if unspectacular. The location work was absolutely lovely; reminiscent of The Daemons, as was a significant chunk of the plot. The nature of the war games could have done with being explored more; the ringleader, Sir Denis Lill-in-a-wig, was under alien influence, but we didn’t see much of the other villagers’ perspective on the whole thing, perhaps due to the lack of time for more than one dissenting voice to be heard. It was odd that this insanely out of control roleplay was just accepted, with everyone happy to arrest, lock up and/or kill innocent bystanders.

The giant face poking through the wall was incredibly effective, and certainly both original and memorable, which is no mean feat at this stage of JNT’s reign. This was the first serial for ages to not feature a returning villain or two, and it made a nice change. Again, it could have benefited from a bit more time to explore, but it did the job nicely.

Having read that they were considering making Will a companion, I can see why everyone found him so loveable, and the actor is strangely fascinating, but I can also see why they didn’t bother. They’ve already tried and failed to do that sort of thing with Katarina, and the TARDIS is already crowded enough, as evidenced by the fact that Kamelion remains nowhere to be seen. I watched the deleted scene with him afterwards. It was crap.

There’s very little else to say, other than “ooh, a purple border on the text in the closing credits”. Like I say, it was fine, but no more than that. At least it’s halted the run of stories either being amazing or shit.

RATING: 7

Warriors of the Deep

Something in the back of my mind was telling that this had a reputation for being one of the better stories of the Davison era. After the first episode, I had to double check. As suspected, it does in fact have a reputation for being one of the shitter stories of the Davison era, which is entirely deserved.

That first episode is extraordinarily slow, taking its full duration to establish a setting that’s extraordinarily simple – it’s a sea base with nuclear bombs, it’s the Cold War, and meanwhile the Silurians and Sea Devils are waking up. That can be put across in five minutes; we didn’t need quite so much procedural detail before the first sign of conflict. The cliffhanger is completely unearned. “Face it, Tegan, he’s drowned!” What, because he fell into the water from the height of an average diving board? Turlough was annoyingly defeatist throughout, when he wasn’t happily charging round with a gun.

The human characters are tediously one-note, although there is a comfy familiarity in a good old-fashioned base under siege tale. It would have been so much better but for the minor detail that both the Silurians and Sea Devils are utter shit. They all move incredibly slowly, and there’s no nuance to them whatsoever. The whole point of the Silurians is that they’re just reptile versions of us – there’s good ones and bad ones. Here, there’s no telling them apart; they’ve become cookie-cutter generic monsters.

The Doctor goes on about them being a noble race in the dialogue, but that simply doesn’t carry over to the characterisation. There’s a big old chat between the Doctor and their leader in episode four, which is great, but this kind of moral consideration should have come way earlier. It makes sense that they’d be changed by their previous encounters with humanity, but until this is clarified it comes across like the show has forgotten what made them interesting in the first place.

And then there’s the Myrka. What even is the Myrka? Some sort of hybrid of Silurians and Sea Devils, but massive? Either way it looks utter dogshit. I’m struggling to think of a monster so far that’s been quite so embarrassingly awful. I’m aware of the huge production problems they faced – thanks, Thatcher – but I’d rather they shot it in a different way so you only saw glimpses of it, or got rid of it entirely in favour of dialogue to inject some sense of moral ambiguity into the Silurians.

Meanwhile, there’s a subplot going on with the sync operator being conditioned by undercover Soviet saboteurs. It’s intriguing, but it moves incredibly slowly, and then just as it begins to ramp up, everyone involved is killed. It’s all just set up for a situation where The Doctor has to sync his mind with a computer, but nothing really happens there either, so the whole thing could have been excised with absolutely zero impact on the story. What a time-consuming waste.

The final episode isn’t terrible, and it’s just about enough to save it from getting my lowest score ever, but it’s too little too late. The ending is impressively bleak, with absolutely every guest character of any species wiped out, but The Doctor’s right: there should have been another way. If the only way to add excitement is The Doctor failing to come up with a peaceful solution, and companions firing guns at point blank range, then the show is in a pretty bad state.

And this is the first serial since the jubilation of The Five Doctors. What the hell is going on with this inconsistency? At least there’s some excitement in not knowing what to expect next, but I can’t deny that I preferred the days when the only variation was between “great” and “excellent”.

RATING: 5