SJA: Enemy of the Bane

The extraordinary thing about this show is how it’s forever expanding its own little world, while also maintaining such strong links to the past. The SJA-specific mythology continues to grow apace, with Mrs Wormwood and the Bane becoming the latest recurring enemies. Her asking for help and vowing that she’d turned good is not dissimilar to the current Missy storyline in the main show, with the added element of giving poor old Luke some mummy issues to deal with.

And this was all fine and dandy, but let’s face it, what I’m really interested in is the other big guest star. It was such a warm, comforting feeling to see Sir Brigadier one last time. Nicholas Courtney may have been moving a little slower than he was in the old days, but he’s still just as sharp, smooth and charming as ever. Imagine being told when the show came back in 2005 that within four years, we’d be seeing Sarah Jane and the Brigadier breaking into UNIT and stealing alien artifacts. Such a joy.

I wasn’t aware that this story was the origin of UNIT’s Black Archive, which seems to have been moved between this story and the 50th, because that warehouse looked nothing like the Tower of London. I share the Brig’s slight distaste for the RTD-era portrayal of UNIT, and it brought home just how much they’ve softened since the likes of Kate and Osgood took over. Oddly, the Major we meet is very much modeled after the old-school 70s UNIT – he’s like an even creepier Mike Yates.

It was no real surprise that he turned out to be a Bane, and it wasn’t the type of the story where there’s much complexity to the plot – every trap is obvious, every double-cross predictable, every story beat linear and logical – but, a) it’s a kid’s show, and b) it’s really well executed and loads of fun. It sets out to do a straight-forward job, but it does it with a great deal of success.

That said, it did provide me with one all too rare moment of genuine surprise – a plot twist that I didn’t already know about in advance from a next time trailer or a DVD cover. The Sontarans are back as well! Specifically, it’s Kaagh from earlier in the series, who was always likely to show up again having been allowed to leave Earth, but I wasn’t expecting it so soon. He’s not quite as strong as he was in his first appearance, as he’s playing second fiddle to Wormwood a lot of the time, and so unable to assert his dominance.

But even if this story – and indeed this entire series – did nothing else, it gave us Sarah Jane and The Brigadier being reunited and facing off against Sontarans, on actual telly in the 21st century. Quite extraordinary.

RATING: 8

SERIES AVERAGE RATING: 7.67

  • SJA series watched: 2 of 5
  • SJA stories watched: 12 of 27
  • Individual SJA episodes watched: 23 of 53

I’ll be back to Bannerman Road before I know it, but first, it’ll be Christmas again…

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Death Comes to Time

Fucking hell, merry Christmas everyone. That was the grimmest thing I’ve ever witnessed in the name of Doctor Who, and I watched The After Party Live. I found watching this a really difficult task, for so many reasons. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but I think I had unrealistic memories about what kind of animation could be achieved on Real Player in the early 00s. I knew it would be basic, but this was just an audio drama with a handful of illustrations to look at.

That would have been fine were it not for the awful technical quality distorting a lot of the dialogue, and the large number of important plot-driving events that they tried to portray visually. It was a bit like watching a recon – constantly seeing the same handful of portrait shots pasted on to different backgrounds, and ending up completely perplexed every time there was an action sequence. It was also reminiscent of really cheap anime, the kind you used to get on Channel 4 in the middle of the night before it took off in the West. And Tannis’s army reminded me of All Your Base Are Belong To Us.

It made each and every episode drag, and it didn’t help that they got progressively longer. The structure was unusual and complex, with the running time split between at least three or four concurrent storylines, which only converged right at the end, and even then not all of them intersected. The Doctor was barely in it, especially in the third and fourth parts, which felt like a bunch of characters that I didn’t care about talking about stuff that had very little to do with Doctor Who.

Because this wasn’t Doctor Who. It was dark and twisted and unpleasant. I’m all for shade, but there was barely a speck of light; the balance was all wrong. It took the names and icons from Doctor Who and told a completely different, unrelated story with them. So the Time Lords all have magic powers now, and they can kill or heal people just by making everything go red, and Ace can be trained to become one by an old man who’s a cross between Mr Miyagi and a Jehovah’s Witness? It’s made up and it’s boring and I’m not interested.

There’s an incredibly high death toll, which they wouldn’t have got away with if it was live action, webcast or otherwise. Ace is pushed to her limit by her training, and it’s deeply unpleasant at times, as is Tannis casually killing Antimony, which to The Doctor is like losing his son. Then bam – The Doctor is dead forever, blowing himself up in order to take out the baddy. It’s just harrowing, and this isn’t how I want to remember the Seventh Doctor. The darker, more mysterious tone of the last few seasons has been taken way too far.

On the plus side, the cast is outstanding, my aversion to Jon Culshaw notwithstanding. Sessions was the highlight as Tannis, who’s perhaps the only character that really fulfilled their potential. Getting Stephen Fry was a real coup, and The Minister was a good surrogate Doctor for a while, but his development got cut short when he went a bit insane for plot reasons. I enjoyed Kevin Eldon as a companion, but we barely got to know him before he was gunned down. And why the hell would you only have The Doctor and Ace together for a total of about three minutes? What a waste.

There were small bits that I enjoyed. The episode with the vampires in London was the most successful overall. There was a point in the final episode where things seemed to be picking up, thanks to the story becoming even more mental when George W Bush and Tony Blair turned up, closely followed by the bloody Brigadier in space. That was a joy, but it was all somewhat undercut by the aforementioned absolute and final death of the greatest character in the history of television, so y’know.

But hey, if the aim was to make me desperate to get on to the new series, mission accomplished. It’s just a shame I’ve got three more of these webcasts to get through first. I’m not holding out much hope for the next one, but at least the episodes are shorter, so I won’t ruin my Christmas too much.

RATING: 1

More than 30 Years in the TARDIS

This is what I meant about this blog becoming both more frequent and less regular. I’m forging my way through the wilderness years, but I had to wait until I had a spare 90 minutes set aside to watch this. Technically speaking, this is one I could have skipped, as I’m primarily concerned with fictional things, but they’re my rules and I can break them if I want to.

Plus of course there are some fictional elements to this, but we’ll come to those in a minute. The main purpose is a documentary to celebrate 30 years of Doctor Who, and it manages to pack a hell of a lot in, even considering the luxurious running time of this home video edition. It whooshes its way through the show’s history in a largely linear fashion, but with a few pauses to explore the bigger issues. It’s constructed well, with each topic dovetailing into the next, and lots of lovely archive footage to glue it together.

My favourite was the clip of a particularly pedantic Pertwee on Anne and Nick, utterly undermining their competition, to Nick Owen’s barely disguised distaste. It was their own fault for picking such an ambiguous question. The ad breaks were lovely too – I’d forgotten how much the Prime adverts conflated The Doctor and Romana with Tom and Lalla. The clips from the episodes were always well-picked, and my only complaint is that they were a little stingy with the rushes, but then we’re used to a much more generous portion in the DVD age.

As with the other, much less successful 30th anniversary celebration, it was good to see representatives from so many eras of the show as interviewees, and their family members too in some cases. With the exception of Gerry Anderson, who’s welcome on my television any time, I could have done without the random celebrities. Give me more Lambert, Dicks, Letts and Hinchcliffe, and less Mike Gatting bollocking on about cricket, or Toyah Wilcox remembering her inappropriate sexual awakenings.

I recognised the Douglas Adams interview set-up from Don’t Panic, the equivalent Hitchhikers documentary from a very similar time. That too mixed in the occasional sketch using old monster costumes and actors reprising their roles, but here they were much more ambitious. The classic scenes of Cybermen at St Paul’s and Daleks on Westminster Bridge were recreated beautifully, and Pertwee pissing about with the Whomobile was marvellous.

It all climaxed with the little boy walking through a police box prop and into the TARDIS, which is something we all take for granted these days, but was achieved for the very first time here. This is slightly overshadowed by the truly bizarre and sinister turn that the rest of the narrative takes, where Nick Courtney/The Brig (the lines are deliberately blurred) is driven off by an Auton, and Elisabeth Sladen/Sarah Jane turns into some sort of Sontaran agent and attempts to kill said little boy.

A strange ending, but a very solid documentary, which tells you everything you need to know about how Who was perceived at the time. Having been off the air for a few years, the problems of the later seasons were being forgotten about, and the nostalgia factor allowed the fond memories of yesteryear to become the thing that defined the brand. That was certainly the impression I got as a youngster who was just starting to become a TV obsessive.

RATING: 8

P.S. I’ve only tagged the people/monsters who appear in the sketches, not everyone that was interviewed, or who featured in clips. That would be pretty much all the tags.

Dimensions in Time

Technically, the 1992 VHS version of Shada should come next, but I’ve already watched that, knowing that the animated version is coming up shortly. So instead, today’s treat is a rewatch of what would have been the first Doctor Who I ever saw. I was seven, and distinctly remember sitting down with those 3D glasses from the Radio Times. The version I watched today thankfully included the Noel’s House Party links, in which Jon Pertwee accurately predicts the success of Deal Or No Deal.

We all know that this is awful, but it was slightly more coherent than I remembered (not from when I was 7 – I last watched it at a gathering for the 50th in 2013). The Rani’s plan is not dissimilar to Borusa’s in The Five Doctors, and it seemed like the special was an attempt to do similar things to that story, but in ten minutes, which would have been a tall order even without the added element of the EastEnders crossover. The problem of certain Doctors being unavailable/dead is not handled nearly as well. I could see what they were going for with trapping the first two Doctors in time, but representing Hartnell and Troughton as floating, lifeless, disembodied heads was ill-advised.

Meanwhile Tom Baker phones it in, with his eyes never breaking contact with the page of script that’s clearly just out of shot, and the worst title sequence in the show’s history is sped up and accompanied by a “updated” (read: “shit”) theme tune remix. But once it gets going, it’s actually rather lovely to see just so many familiar faces taking part. It seems harsh to criticise the endeavour when all these people gave up their time for free, purely to celebrate Doctor Who whilst raising money for charity.

However, it’s obviously not very good. It’s impossible to disguise the fact that the story is cobbled together based on who and what was available, and almost every actor is playing a generic catch-all character, with no time to display any of their own traits. They whizz by so fast it’s hard to clock them all on first viewing, although obviously the fact that they’ve all aged by up to 30 years is a hindrance to instant recognition. It’s the same problem with the menagerie of random monsters that turn up halfway through – it was just a bunch of moving costumes, and none of them got a chance to do… anything, really.

I’m not particularly familiar with EastEnders, so I can’t judge how successful it would have been for fans of the soap, but Mike Reid chewing the scenery was a highlight. Obviously there are troubling continuity questions surrounding the likes of Mel and Leela turning up in Albert Square when they look so similar to people who’d live there in the future. And wasn’t Pauline Fowler dead by 2013? I think Kathy Beale was too, but she got better…

Inevitably, the flimsy conceit completely fell apart by the end. The Rani is suddenly back in her TARDIS after she was defeated by Mandy bumping into her (should’ve been Big Ron), and an attempt to clear up the nature of the time-slips ends up making the story much more confusing. When Leela tells The Doctor that she was in the form of Romana, that implies that all of this is happening to the Seventh Doctor and Ace, but that they’re reverting to previous incarnations at times. Aside from the fact that that doesn’t really make sense for the companion, what about when there’s more than one companion on screen? Or when Romana is on her own, hiding in the Mitchells’ lock-up? They even had K-9 turn up out of nowhere seconds after the explanation!

If this was an attempt at a full-on revival of Doctor Who for the 30th anniversary, then it was a fucking disgrace. But it wasn’t – it was a daft little comedy sketch for charity, and seeing such a huge number of characters from throughout the show’s long history all at once is obviously a joy. It’s just indicative of the show’s standing at the time – in an ideal world, a big anniversary would be marked by a blockbuster episode of a current series, but that simply wasn’t the case for the 30th or 40th. Sadly, Dimensions in Time suffers simply because it’s an emblem of the darkest time in the show’s history.

RATING: 3

Battlefield

All of a sudden it’s the seventies again, and all is right with the world. We’re pelted straight into a good old-fashioned UNIT story, and it’s so wonderfully familiar, even down to the occasional sword fights. The little continuity nods are much appreciated, although it’s best not to speculate on the off-screen fate that befell Liz Shaw if The Doctor ended up holding on to her pass for so long.

Despite the grey hair and the green jumper being stretched to the limit around the belly, it was like The Brigadier had never been away. He was just as suave and smooth as ever, but now finally at the age where you feel he’s at his most comfortable. Time has not withered his bravery or intuition, and it was a fittingly heroic farewell to one of the all-time greatest Doctor Who characters, perhaps the greatest barring The Doctor himself. I’m glad that he survived the encounter; for starters, I’d have blubbed like a tiny child, but it honestly didn’t need a heroic sacrifice in order to match the hype.

For this was a top-notch story, that easily stands alongside the majority of the original UNIT yarns. It was great to see them back at full strength, with a whole new generation of consciously multi-national recruits. They were of course led by Debs Lister, and it was a good decision to have her play it with the same officer-class mannerisms as “our” Brig. Her little barely-expressed love story with the good knight was quite touching, and it’s a shame she never got the chance to fulfill a similar recurring role to that of either century’s Lethbridge-Stewart.

My one complaint is that the Brig spent an episode hovering around in a helicopter rather than joining the action, but when he finally arrived he was straight into the thick of it. His calming presence allowed the story to explore a darker Doctor than we’ve perhaps ever seen before. There was a moment, however brief, when you thought that yes, he might well be capable of decapitating Mordred. I love the notion that The Doctor is the man behind all these ancient myths; it’s a theme that’s cropped up numerous times throughout the show’s history, but here it’s combined with some Bill & Ted style time-travel trickery that’s right up my street.

Nice to see Jean Marsh too, providing the gravitas needed to create a memorable villain. And of course Bessie’s back too, which an updated number plate but somehow less convincing super-speed effects than they managed in the 70s. One throwback I wasn’t expecting, though, was casual racism. In fact, I assumed I must have misheard Ace’s slur towards Shou Yuing, as I couldn’t believe anyone would use those terms on TV as late as 1989, especially not an otherwise utterly perfect companion. Baffling, and sad.

One more weird thing – I realised towards the end of Part Two that I’d seen this cliffhanger before. It’s one of the standard clips you see on every TV industry health and safety course, alongside a door falling on someone on The Brittas Empire, and Anthea Turner being blown up. I was slightly taken aback to see footage of the glass cracking in the episode itself, as I’d been conditioned to hear McCoy shouting for help immediately afterwards.

But yeah, an absolutely cracking story that left me with a warm, fuzzy feeling. And hey, Big Finish – where’s my spin-off series with the adventures of the Brigadier, Doris, Bambera, Ancelyn and Shou Yuing, driving around in Bessie, getting into gardening-based scrapes and having cosy suppers by the fire?

RATING: 9

The Five Doctors

That was a load of silly nonsense that barely held together to form any kind of coherent plot. It was just an excuse to line up as many old faces as possible, for little to no reason other than to create a cheap thrill for hardcore fans. Basically, it was absolutely perfect.

I’ve probably seen it more times than any other classic story; I’d often turn to it as a way to get a quick fix of virtually all of Doctor Who‘s best bits. Placing it into context made the Borusa stuff work better; when you know that he’s one of The Doctor’s oldest friends, it means a lot more, plus his descent into full-on villainy makes sense when you see how he’s become a bit of a shit since becoming Lord President. I could buy it a lot more here than in Arc of Infinity.

It’s interesting that Borusa’s plan essentially has him doing the same thing as JNT, Saward and Terrence Dicks (surely the ideal candidate for this particular job) – creating a narrative by picking up a bunch of characters from the toybox and chucking them together in various combinations. Maybe the whole thing was an elaborate marketing ploy for a range of action figures.

It’s undeniably a shame that it’s actually only really three Doctors at best, with one refusing to play ball and another refusing to remain alive. In the end, they got around these unavoidable obstacles well; the Shada footage works fine alongside the specially-shot abductions, and Hurndall does a passable impression of Hartnell. I mean, it’s definitely jarring to have someone pretending to be the First Doctor, but there’s not much they could have done differently.

It was arguably even weirder to see Susan as an adult; her character was almost entirely based on being a childish liability, so she couldn’t really do the same thing here. Instead, it was interesting to see some unusual pairings of Doctor and companion; obviously you have the First going off with Tegan, but also the Second and Third are not the Doctors you’d most associate with the Brig and Sarah Jane respectively.

I could have done with more scenes of the various Doctors together, but what we had was so much fun. I loved that the Second still thinks the Third is a bit of a dick, after last time. It was also interesting to see the Fifth Doctor acknowledge the First’s attitude towards women, it the same way people react awkwardly to a racist grandparent. It was apt and pleasing that the Fifth should remain the protagonist; all the others were resolutely guests in his story, and he outshines them all.

There were so many returning companions and villains that it’s hard for any of them to stand out; I just enjoyed them as players in a series of vignettes. It was a celebration of all things Who, and not of any particular character or era over any other. My only gripe would be that Sarah Jane was written as fairly slow-witted, which she just isn’t. The Brig was reliably excellent and I enjoyed seeing glimpses of some less obvious returnees, such as Yates, Liz and Zoe.

As for the villains, the little Dalek cameo was more than welcome, and The Master was on pretty good form. It’s the first time since perhaps Logopolis that he’s been written with any particularly grey shades; he’s always much more effective when you’re not quite sure of his motives. The new addition – the Raston Robot – threatened to steal the show, with a great design and a formidable style. The way it dispatched all those Cybermen was like a version of Robot Wars where it’s men in costumes fighting with explosives. Weird that platoons of Cybermen got their asses kicked on two separate occasions, but to be fair it’s probably the best way to use 80s Cybermen.

Elsewhere, the Hartnell clip at the start was a lovely touch, as was the slightly modified opening theme. The amalgamated closing theme was less successful to my ears, but their heart was in the right place. Also exciting to see a glimpse of a brand new TARDIS console. I was mightily impressed by how new and different it looked in the opening shots, but I went off it a bit the more I saw it. I’ll reserve judgement for now.

All these touches combine to make this feel like a real special occasion. Me and a big group of friends watched it as part of our 50th anniversary celebrations, and even tonight, my girlfriend and her brother couldn’t help watching along with me. It feels like a film, with its extensive and sumptuous location work, and the picture quality is superb.

I loved it so much that it took me until half an hour after it finish to notice that Kamelion wasn’t even referenced, despite having watched his introduction just yesterday. I’m aware that I’m about to delve into a very difficult period in Who‘s history, and I’m hurtling ever closer to the end of the original run. But whatever happens next, this stands out as a near perfect celebration of the first twenty years, and indeed the journey I’ve been on for nearly two years. I love Doctor Who so much.

RATING: 10

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…

Terror of the Zygons

I love Zygons, but prior to now have only ever seen them in the new series. Considering that The Day of the Doctor and The Zygon Inv[a/er]sion are two of my favourite stories of all time, the original had a lot to live up to.

And it’s probably a bit of a shame that I’ve seen it this way round, because while all the ingredients that have made their recent appearances so successful are present and correct, this serial doesn’t quite use them as effectively. There’s a hell of a lot going on – “UNIT vs Nessie” and “invading alien doppelgangers” are both stories that I want to see, but they could, and perhaps should, have been done separately. Both ideas seem slightly wasted when they’re completing for screentime in a four parter. Just let Zygons be Zygons.

I loved Evil Harry, which was played brilliantly by Ian Marter, but I just wish there was more of it. But the thing is, I’m probably only thinking along those lines because it worked so well with Clara, and I was hoping for more of the same. I feel ever so slightly underwhelmed, especially as I know this one’s considered an all time great, but it shouldn’t detract from what is a brilliantly gripping story, and a hugely impressive production, in itself.

The design of the Zygons is fantastic – instantly iconic and unforgettable. Nessie, not so much, but you can see what they were trying to do. There’s never a dull moment, and the Highland setting – though clearly shot several hundred miles to the south – was well realised, even if some of the accents weren’t. Intentionally or otherwise, the stereotypical Scottish bits are hilarious – the serial opens with a bloke asking for haggis, and ends with a gag about Scotch people being tight-fisted. No wonder they want independence.

It’s also great to see UNIT back in action for one last hurrah. I believe (please don’t confirm or deny) that this is their last appearance for a very long time. I’m kind of sad about that – mostly because of how brilliant the Brig and Benton are – but the show is clearly moving on. The Doctor is back to travelling the universe with nothing in his way, and he no longer needs anything to ground him. It was a great time for the show, but the show is nothing if it doesn’t change.

It’s also goodbye to Harry, from the looks of things. This is a shame, as character and actor alike are great. The received wisdom that his role was superfluous is nonsense – the three way dynamic in the TARDIS was working really well, and there was a real spark between him and Sarah Jane. He may have been an imbecile, but he was funny, charming and likeable with it. On the plus side, his exit makes sense in story terms – he never wanted to travel with the Doctor in the first place, and he was given the opportunity to make an informed decision. Best of luck to him – he’s off to invent an anti-Zygon gas, apparently.

I liked that Sarah was also given the choice of whether to stay at home or stick with The Doctor, and that she chose the latter. I share her enthusiasm to find out what adventures are to come…

RATING: 9

Robot

Yeah, I couldn’t resist staying away for too long. I might have to miss the odd day here and there for the next few weeks, but I couldn’t even last a full week without starting to miss my fix of new old Who. Well, I say ‘new’. I’ve seen most of Season 12 before, but quite a while ago and only the once, so it’s still more or less fresh to me now.

But anyway. This is one hell of an introduction to one hell of a Doctor. Escaping from the medical bay was very Pertwee, but the way the Fourth Doctor just dives feet first into the action within the first episode, with such innate joy and vigour, could only have been done by Tom. He’s just arrived fully formed, with his big eyes and infectious grin. He’s even offering the jelly babies round in his very first story. Incredible.

This was a time of much upheaval behind the scenes, but having the departing Letts and Dicks deliver this serial as a sort of bridge between the old and new regimes was extremely effective. It’s the tried and trusted technique of UNIT providing reassuring familiarity whenever anything changes, and it was particularly nice to see Benton – in what I assume is one of his last appearances as a semi-regular – promoted to second-in-command behind the Brig. He always was, in my head, even before Yates turned out to be a rotter.

And as with Liz and Jo in the past few seasons, UNIT has provided a ready-made new companion in Harry. He seems an amiable sort of chap, very much in the Chesterton/Steven mould. I know he’s not going to be around for that long (although I don’t know exactly when he’s off), and it’s easy to see that he’s probably going to be bit unnecessary alongside such a brilliant combination as Sarah Jane and #4. I literally forgot that he existed when he spent an episode or so undercover at Think Tank.

As for the story itself, it wasn’t particularly original, but it did what it had to do – provide Tom Baker with lots of opportunities to be daft, whilst also giving him character-defining moments of intelligence and triumph. The secret Nazi-esque society were pretty effective, and I liked Kettlewell (and his hair), but wasn’t hugely surprised when he turned out to be in on it. The big old eponymous robot himself is great – a fantastic design, and the Oedipal element is a nice touch. Some of the effects aren’t brilliant, but as always, I will cut them infinite slack for the sheer audacity required to even attempt such things at that time.

I know that this is probably hindsight, but this genuinely feels like the start of something new, exciting and above all special. The tweaked title sequence works a lot better with the TARDIS in place of the Pertwee cut-out, and the mere image of Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen on screen together is extremely pleasing. I’m also glad that four-episode serials are now the norm, with six-parters being saved for special occasions. Not all of them dragged by any means, but things are a lot more interesting when the setting and storyline change more frequently.

Oh, and I loved the fact that the locations were all shot on VT. I know it’s a very specialist area of interest, but the whole thing is much more immersive when you don’t have that jarring switch between formats whenever anyone goes outside. Another brilliant thing about this project is that I’m seeing a microcosm of “old” television slowly transforming into the form I remember from childhood. As someone who’s always been fascinated by every aspect of television production, Doctor Who is a perfect case study.

RATING: 9

Planet of the Spiders

I’ve seen two hugely climactic season finales this weekend, and enjoyed them both very much indeed. This one was much more of a mixed bag than the other, but it works incredibly well as a fitting end of an era. It was like the whole of Pertwee’s tenure was condensed into six episodes, with Dicks and Letts giving “their” Doctor one last hurrah before seeing him off and ultimately handing over the reins themselves.

Like most good stories this decade so far, it was firmly rooted with the now partially estranged UNIT family, with Benton and Brig the mum and dad holding everything together, while golden child Jo writes home about her travels and black sheep Mike thinks about what he’s done. There’s real links between the events of The Green Death, Invasion of the Dinosaurs and this, which makes everything seem all the more significant – when changes occur in these people’s lives, we see the consequences.

But as well as a little bit of UNIT, every other type of Pertwee story was also included: investigating a creepy supernatural cult; getting involved in a power struggle between colonists and alien natives; dealing with mind control, hypnosis and magic energy beams; repeatedly getting captured and escaping in order to fill a six-parter; and of course a massive multi-vehicle chase sequence across land, air and sea.

This was blatantly included purely for Pertwee’s benefit, and why not? It was part of a sense of fun spread throughout the early parts of the serial, such as the pissing about with the fake-not-fake clairvoyant, and the frequent back-references to the Third Doctor’s greatest hits. The scenes on Metebelis III are not quite on par with the rest of the episode – the two-legs aren’t interesting enough for us to care about them, and the spiders aren’t distinct enough from one another for their in-fighting to make much sense.

But the bits in the monastery were often superior, especially when they involved Tommy. What a lovely, compassionate character, even if some of the patronising attitudes towards him are so very 70s. Meanwhile, the redemption of Mike Yates was a good move – going back to see what happens next after a character’s story is seemingly concluded seems like a very New Who thing, and I totally buy him retreating to the countryside and becoming a bit of a hippy. It’s nice to think that he knows he’s done wrong, and that he’ll carry on investigating danger and having adventures in his spare time.

The redemption theme was very much in play towards the end, with The Doctor having to pay the ultimate price to atone for his greed. To be fair, I don’t think nicking a shiny crystal that a spider needs to take over the universe is quite punishable by regeneration, but the scenes in the final episode with K’anpo are so good that you don’t care if it’s all a bit OTT. Finally we meet a Time Lord who isn’t a complete shit. Is K’anpo the same guy as the hermit up the mountain, I wonder?

All of which leads up to a truly terrific regeneration scene, which manages to be both emotional and comedic, thanks to Sarah Jane and the Brigadier’s differing reactions to the situation. I feel like I’ve hardly mentioned Sarah Jane since she started, and that’s probably because she’s so good that it feels like excellence is par for the course. Just assume she’s kicking arse each and every episode.

So that’s it for the Third Doctor. I don’t feel the same sense of loss as I did when Troughton left, but that’s not to say that Pertwee wasn’t a magnificent Doctor. He was always charming and enthralling, but I think that after five seasons, a bit of change is probably for the best. He’s been a little out of sorts since losing Jo, and it seems harder for him to hit the same heights when he’s sparring against lesser evils than The Master.

Overall, Planet of the Spiders serves as the perfect swansong for this entire Pertwee/UNIT/Letts/Dicks era, while also promising much for the next phase. I know it’s all due to the hindsight of knowing how good the next Doctor is, but I couldn’t help but grin with anticipation at the sight of those curly locks…

RATING: 10

And as it’s the end of the season…

SEASON AVERAGE RATING: 8.2

  • Seasons/Series watched: 11 of 35
  • Stories watched: 74 of 259
  • Individual episodes watched: 381 of 825

And unfortunately, despite how keen I am to see the hair and teeth in action, I’m going to temporarily pause it there. I’ve just had my longest uninterrupted run of exactly one episode a day for seventy straight days, but I’ve got so many work and social commitments coming up that I can’t keep up this pace without either falling behind on the blogs, or dying. It’s annoying, but at least I’m making it last longer.

So rather than squeezing an episode in here and there, this feels like a good place to take a small break until my schedule clears, which should be within a fortnight. Until then, there must be no regrets, no tears, no anxieties. Just go forward in all your beliefs, and prove to me that I am not mistaken in mine by bookmarking or subscribing, so that you know when I’m back.