Dragonfire

It’s nice to end the season with a raft of changes. There’s been much improvement since McCoy and Cartmel took their respective reins, and this feels like a statement that the transition period is now over – goodbye to the last vestiges of the old, hello to the new companion.

I’m expecting big things from Ace; she’s practically worshiped by everyone Who fan I know who’s a couple of years older than me, and so was just old enough to watch some of this era go out. So it’s with some trepidation that I say that while the first impression is a promising one, I wasn’t immediately blown away. I’m impressed by how different she is from the last few wet lettuces, and she’s clearly an improvement on Langford already, but some of the dialogue seems a bit off. Obviously the contemporary slang is going to sound outdated to my millennial ears, but I can easily ignore that. It’s more that it feels slightly jarring and unnatural – I think it’s that she’s slightly too posh to pull it off convincingly. Even in the late 80s, companions have to speak either RP or foreign, nothing in between.

These complaints are minor, however, and they’re nothing that can’t be solved over the course of the next two seasons. Ace certainly intrigues me; all I really knew about her is that she’s from Perivale in the 80s, so it was certainly a surprise to see her turn up on a distant ice world. The explanation was vague, seemingly deliberately; I believe I’m beginning to encounter the Cartmel Masterplan. I know that the show is about to get increasingly dark and mysterious, but thankfully I’m largely unaware of the details. I just hope enough of it was fitted in before the whole shebang was cancelled.

Meanwhile, as well as the introduction of Ace, this story also saw the return of Glitz, who was back in the slightly-pathetic-but-lovable-rogue role from last time. The antics of our intrepid foursome provided a bit of bulk to a slightly thin plot – it all boiled down to The Doctor stopping the bad guy from getting the treasure, and the rest was just running around, albeit mostly enjoyable running around.

I liked the friendly dragon – it’s such a Doctor Who thing to make the monster a good guy. The design was a blatant rip-off of the Xenomorph from Alien, however, and the bits where the soldiers were tracking it down through corridors was pure Aliens. Plus, I kept getting the words Nosferatu and Nostromo mixed up, so I thought it was a complete rip-off at times. I should have been looking out for Raiders of the Lost Ark rip-offs instead. How was that for darker and edgier? Along with the humongous body count from an exploding space vehicle, for the second serial in a row.

I was relieved to read afterwards that it wasn’t just me who was massively confused by the ending of Part One. My notes were: “What’s the Doctor doing climbing over that conspicuous handrail anyway?” It becomes clear in Part Two, but at the time it just looks like The Doctor has decided to dangle himself over a chasm for no reason whatsoever, other than to contrive a literal cliffhanger.

Oh, and Mel left. Yeah, bye then. I know I’m being terribly unfair, but I just can’t get over my in-built aversion to Bonnie Langford. She wasn’t as bad as I expected, but she was never particularly good either, and that bloody scream just cut through me every time. It’s not you, Mel, it’s me, and Ace seems to be much more my cup of tea. Give me someone who responds to danger by lobbing a nitro bomb at it any day of the week. I live about five minutes’ drive away from Perivale too. I wonder if Ace shops at the big Tesco?

RATING: 7

SEASON AVERAGE RATING: 6.75

  • Seasons/Series watched: 24 of 35
  • Stories watched: 147 of 263
  • Individual episodes watched: 667 of 826

Delta and the Bannermen

Ah, now this is more like it. Three-parters are not something that the show’s really done before, and the two-parters from earlier in the decade yielded mixed results. Mind you, so have most of the recent four-parters, and it turns out that, on this evidence at least, three is a happy medium. Enough room to tell a meaty story, but a necessity to keep things moving and not waste any time getting to the exciting stuff.

Doctor Who meets Hi-De-Hi is clearly an excellent idea, and it’s strange to think that a time just four years before the series started is now classified as an historical setting. Having a serial shot almost entirely on location is also a rare thing, and it looks great – lovely scenery and some smashing practical effects. The Bannermen looked good too, as did the toy-soldier-esque Chimerons and the little model hatchling, although the later iterations of the princess weren’t so convincing. The little green-faced baby in her alien babygrow was a bit daft.

Which is an adjective that brings me on to subject of Ken Dodd. I can see why his little cameo would piss po-faced fans off, but I can’t imagine a situation where I’m not happy to see Ken Dodd turn up on my television. And he was only around for a little while, until he died. Did he? No, Doddy. Quite a brutally violent death, but not as shocking as the bus being blown up in Part Two. That’s a hell of a lot of on-screen deaths in one go, and it really takes you aback.

It helps set the Bannermen up as a really effective threat, spearheaded brilliantly by Don Henderson, who follows in the timey-wimey footsteps of John Abineri, Noel Coleman and Denis Lill, if you have a similar mindset to me. There’s a dark undercurrent throughout – we open with scenes of a genocide in progress, after all – but also plenty of fun, thanks to the huge ensemble of quirky guest characters.

Ray is clearly a much better companion than Mel, who was thankfully barely involved here. It seemed to be heading towards being a companion introduction story, but of course I know that we’ll be getting a similarly useful teenager popping along soon. The old camp leader and the beekeeper were fun too, and we even got him off of the Flying Pickets as an inept bounty hunter. I wasn’t so keen on the two Americans, but that was mostly because I was disappointed that neither of them were Mac McDonald – you need a portly, comedic American in a British TV show in the late 80s and you don’t get Mac McDonald?

Best of all though, the script demonstrated that the show still has a heart. OK, the romance between Billy and Delta was corny, and all very sudden to go from furtive glances across a crowded holiday camp to changing species in order to repopulate a dying planet, but it was done with sincerity and warmth. I like where the series is going, for the first time in a long time.

RATING: 8

Paradise Towers

It’s strange to think that I’m over half way through this season already, and a sixth of the way through McCoy’s era. I’ve heard that it gets significantly better as time goes on, which is good, because it’s been distinctly average so far.

Sylvester himself is good, rapidly becoming very good; dropping the weird speech patterns means he’s already improved since his debut. This serial gave him lots of innately Doctorish things to do, such as using the rulebook against the guards, and fixing a society by getting everyone together for a big chat. He’s a lot of fun to be around, and he’s got the unpredictability that we haven’t had since Tom. Well, Colin was unpredictable too, but rarely in a good way.

It was quite an intriguing world that was set up, and pretty quickly too. It’s always a good sign when there’s this much detail poured in to a scenario that only needs to sustain four episodes. The Kangs are daft, but fun. I liked their names and “build high for happiness”, but some of their slang felt a little unnatural when delivered by stage school actresses pretending to be common. Their playground mentality was entertaining at first, but grated a bit as time wore on.

The old biddies were a highlight though, despite being constantly distracted whenever they were on screen by my trying to remember where I know them from. Turns out it’s loads of things. A great move to turn the comic relief into secondary villains, and the way they went for Mel with a pitchfork and a crochet blanket was brilliantly vicious. I couldn’t quite tell if they wanted to kidnap her for company, or if they were planning on eating her. As it’s Bonnie Langford, the latter is preferable.

Then there’s the caretakers, lead by Richard Briers, who’s clearly having an absolutely lovely time. I have a strange fondness for an outrageously pantomime-ish baddy, but the snag is that previously it’s been juxtaposed against a serious backdrop and decent production values, both of which are long since missing in action. By the time he’d turned into The Great Architect, he was just taking the piss a little bit.

The Cleaners were a funny one. It took me a while to figure out what they reminded me of, until I realised it was a slimmer version of the War Machines. They came across as pretty formidable, although the wide shots of them trundling along with a big dustbin in tow made them look daft. A similarly mixed bag was Pex. I felt for him when the Kangs were being mean, but his path to redemption via a heroic sacrifice is so well-trodden that every single beat was entirely predictable, and the funeral scene was terribly mawkish.

That’s the theme of this story – pretty good, enjoyable in patches, but undermined by silliness and ultimately slightly annoying. The main thing I’ll remember though is that it’s incredibly high-pitched. The theme tune, the incidental music, the Kangs and Bonnie Langford. The show is hurting my ears at the moment.

RATING: 6

Time and the Rani

It’s a whole new era, once again, but this time it’s the last fully fresh start of the classic run. With the shorter seasons, I’ll most likely reach the end of phase one before Christmas. But between now and then, I’ve got a whole Doctor’s worth of previously unexplored territory ahead of me, and as I’ve barely seen a scrap of McCoy before now, I can mostly approach it with an open mind.

The first impression is that he’s already a big improvement on Colin, certainly in terms of charisma and likeability. Absolutely loved the wardrobe sequence, and the spoon-playing. I find him intriguingly alien, in a Tom Baker kind of way, and he seems to settle in almost immediately. I’m not too sure about the mixed-up maxims, though. They might have been OK if it was only once or twice across the serial, but it was once or twice per scene, and they seemed to get more frequent as it went on. Hopefully it’s not going to be a feature throughout, and as symptoms of post-regeneration trauma go, at least it’s preferable to strangling your companion.

The regeneration itself was of course pitiful, but that was unavoidable in the circumstances. The extraordinarily primitive CGI effects were poor too; you can see why they wanted to try the exciting new thing, and how it would have seemed impressive at the time, but it’s a shame that this happened at a time when the model sequences were better than they’d even been. However, it was moderately exciting that it all happened in a pre-credits sequence, simply because it was unexpected.

And at least it delayed the debut of the new titles, which are not good. There are friends of mine that will defend it to the death, along with the horrible new logo, but they’re a couple of years older than me, and so they have childhood memories of it. Some elements of it do vaguely remind me of CBBC programmes from my own childhood, such as the way the episode title and writing credits are presented, which elicits a warm feeling somewhere in my subconscious. But on the whole it looks shonky. It’s ambitious, but the execution doesn’t quite get there.

Similarly, I can see where they’re going with the music, but I just don’t like it. Totally on board with trying to incorporate the middle eight into the opening, but it doesn’t quite fit in practice. It’s an improvement on the flimsy interpretation from Trial, which is so weak that I’ve already forgotten it, but it’s too busy, and the core elements aren’t prominent enough, which is a criticism I also level at the current theme.

The music was poor throughout the serial, which isn’t surprising as it was done by the same guy who arranged the theme tune. Those dramatic stings were just layered on higgledy-piggedy, and it was a distraction. A shame, because the other production values were pretty good, especially the designs of the two alien races. I mean, neither of them had anything special whatsoever in the writing or acting (other than the return of the Cumbermum), but they looked nice.

And that was the problem with the story in general, it was a bit nothingy. The premise of Earth’s greatest geniuses being kidnapped and hooked up to a giant brain should be more entertaining than this. It seems like they thought the return of The Rani would be enough, but she’s not all that; both of her appearances have spent too much time telling us how brilliant she is, and not enough time actually showing us her brilliance in practice.

I did enjoy the switcheroo between The Rani and Mel, and Kate O’Mara does a pretty good Bonnie Langford impression. But the thing is we don’t even know Mel all that well yet, what with never having actually been introduced properly, so it’s hard to evaluate just what kind of job she did with it. We don’t really know Mel, The Rani or The Doctor, and history shows that it’s preferable to have familiar, relateable elements in a regeneration story.

One thing I do know about Mel is that fucking hell she screams a lot. It’s annoying – most of the time she’s a strong, determined and capable young woman, but then she remembers she’s also a delicate little girly and loses her shit. It’s like the 60s all over again, and I’m already looking forward to her replacement.

Overall, this one’s not quite bad enough to warrant its usual position in polls, but towards the end, when all the Rani/Mel stuff was out the way, it did commit the rare and fatal sin of boring me at times. Doctor Who is almost never boring. Nevertheless, an encouraging start for McCoy, and I’ve heard good things about the new script editor and his masterplan, so I’m primed for one last hurrah before the axe falls.

RATING: 6