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

The Invasion of Time

Oh. Bye then, Leela. I knew she’d be leaving at the end of this season, but I’d kind of forgotten about it by the time I was watching Part 6. Normally when a companion leaves, there’s some sort of build up to it during the serial, whether that’s through them indicating that they’re unhappy, the building of a new relationship, or a subtler sense of change being in the air. Here? Nah. See that bloke in the uniform that she’s barely spoken to or spent time with? She’s going to abandon her life of adventure and freedom for him.

And The Doctor barely gave a solitary shit. I know that Tom Baker didn’t always get on with Louise Jameson, but he could have made a bit of an effort to mask his delight. Not that he was given much to work with. K-9 suddenly departing was also weird, which is obviously negated seconds later by the reveal of the Mark II box, but The Doctor’s reaction (which, incidentally, will forever remind me of a rude internet meme) just infuriated me, as it emphasised his complete lack of response to the departure of a damned fine companion. I’ll miss that savage more than he does.

It’s a shame that this, along with the reveal that The Doctor’s masterplan was to build a big fuck-off gun and not hesitate to use it, rather overshadows a serial which had been somewhat inconsistent and confusing, but always tremendous fun. I loved the relationship and implied history between The Doctor and Borusa, and it’s always a delight to have Milton Johns back to play yet another sniveling little shit.

I wasn’t sure what to make of The Doctor in the first couple of episodes – I obviously knew that he was up to something rather than him actually being evil, but I didn’t enjoy how much of a bastard he was being to his friends. It was unnerving. But then, as soon as he and Borusa became gr8 m8s again, it all made a lot more sense, and looking back it was definitely a bold and worthwhile thing to do.

As was the structure of having everything wrapped up by the end of part four, as if it were a normal-sized story, then the rug pull of there being another little mini-story tacked on to the end. Once again, I find myself wishing that the DVD packaging hadn’t given away the surprise, as that the reveal of the Sontarans would have been mind-blowing if I hadn’t been expecting them. As it happened, they were a bit of a let down – their voices have gone very whispery and lispy, the make-up is inferior and in the shots where their helmets are on, you can see normal, human eyes behind the visor.

Great to see the interior of the TARDIS explored – I loved the swimming pool and art gallery in particular, plus the concept of them walking through an identical set of rooms forever. Lovely also to hear the middle eight for the first time in absolutely ages. But overall, while it’s a lot better in places than it has any rights to be considering it was written in two weeks, only had one studio session and a budget of pence, it doesn’t quite hold together and it doesn’t amount to much.

RATING: 7

It’s certainly not an epic season finale, but perhaps that’s fitting for this troubled run. Let’s look at the scores…

SEASON AVERAGE RATING: 7.67

  • Seasons/Series watched: 15 of 35
  • Stories watched: 97 of 263
  • Individual episodes watched: 479 of 826

Nearly a hundred stories down, and not too far off 500 episodes. But blimey, that average rating, while decent in itself, is a big drop – the lowest since the days when half the episodes were missing. The consistency seems to have gone, which brings us to a question that I’ve been pondering for a while – has the show peaked by this stage? I know that there are plenty of classics to come, but is there now going to be a steady decline in quality between now and the show being cancelled?

I mean, I don’t care – I’m still going to watch it, and it’s sure as hell still going to be entertaining, one way or another. And I’m already looking forward to the big pink boxset that’s staring at me…

Underworld

Every now and then, you can tell from reading the blurbs in the DVD booklets that a particular serial is generally considered to be a bit shit. I try not to let this colour my judgement, but given the frequency with which I disagree with the consensus, the lowered expectations must surely be a factor.

This serial was absolutely fine. It wasn’t particularly brilliant by Doctor Who‘s high standards, but it was by no means bad TV, which is more than can be said for the likes of The Celestial Toymaker or Fear Her. It was a perfectly entertaining set of episodes, and in fact the first part was really good. I loved the concept of the Time Lords having a dirty little secret, and seeing the way that other races view them helps to expand their legend.

It was another strong showing from K-9, with him pulling off such diverse tasks as flying the spaceship, printing out maps, and rescuing the Doctor by blowing up rocks. I’ve figured out what he is now – he’s the handy plot-advancing fix-all that the sonic screwdriver would later become, but so much cooler. Like a Swiss army knife with a personality.

The rest of the serial never quite lived up to the heights of the opener, and it began to feel like it was covering old ground once they started exploring the planet. It was an odd decision to do the suppressed workforce plot two serials in a row, and it also owed a lot to The Face of Evil, with both an egomaniac super-computer playing god, and the primitive society being baffled by technology. On the latter point, it was nice that Leela was the one to help guide them through it, and it shows how far she’s come throughout her travels.

As for the notorious CSO? Come on, it’s not that bad, at least not on a technical level. Out of dozens of shots, there are a few that are misaligned or have too much of a blue halo around everyone, but it’s honestly not as bad as people make out. The biggest snag is that the backgrounds are so repetitive, which makes the geography a little confusing. I was grateful whenever they returned to the lovely spaceship set, and there was also some great model work in the first and last parts.

The episodes each seemed to run a little short, and the cliffhanger recaps were particularly long. Several shots of The Doctor unscrewing a hatch, removing a grate, etc seemed to go on for far longer than necessary. The sense of padding contributes to a slight feeling that there isn’t quite enough plot to fill four episodes. I must admit that the Jason and the Argonauts parallels were completely lost on me until I read about them afterwards, because I am an ignoramus, so perhaps I was missing something. I just thought that “Underworld” was a nice pun on how they were under a world.

RATING: 7

The Sun Makers

It’s good that I can view these old storylines as pieces of history. It must have been terrible to live through a period where the most vulnerable members of society were brought to their knees by an economic policy that favours an elite few. I mean come on – the main baddy even looks like Iain Duncan Smith.

The satire on display here was even less toothy than that opening paragraph – it’s all done in very broad strokes, and really it amounts to little more than just naming things after other things, like a particularly dull Radio 4 sketch show. But sod it, I don’t care, because this story was just a big ball of fun. And after a few seasons of solid bleak and gloomy settings, it’s refreshing to change it up a bit, despite how obviously brilliant the majority of it has been.

Leela was back on form, with her tribal instincts and warrior-like ways taking centre stage as she stands up to her many captors and begins the rebellion. The Doctor is also particularly Doctory – forever tinkering and sabotaging, talking his way out of his problems and thoroughly charming just about everyone in the process. But best of all, we got the K-9 integration we were so cruelly denied last time.

He’s still far from a protagonist, and there are always going to be stretches where he’s arbitrarily kept away from the main action, just to minimise the time he’s on-screen causing production headaches. At this stage, he amounts to little more than an over-sized stun gun, but an over-sized stun gun that comes out with adorable and amusing little quips every now and then. It’s always a highlight when he’s in a scene, and The Doctor gradually warming to him is simply lovely too.

It was another strong guest cast, with Henry Woolf’s Collector a particular highlight. A bit 70s to cast a Jewish actor in this role? Possibly, but the campness took it away from dodgy territory and into pure entertainment. Hammier still was The Gatherer, and the interaction between the two was a hoot. I did feel slightly bad for him when he was joyfully thrown off a tall building. Power to the people and all that, but did they have to be so amused by their cold blooded murder?

I’m still trying to figure out what Graham Williams’s vision is, and to be honest, I’m probably overthinking it. I barely used to notice when producers or script editors changed during the 60s portion of the marathon, and it was only when the show was completely reformatted for the UNIT years that I started to look out for era-defining trends and objectives. I know this is all very meta, but I’m beginning to think that the existence of this blog is beginning to affect how I’m experiencing the episodes, as I’m looking for things to write about, rather than just enjoying the show.

But enjoying it I am, to the extent that I barely made any notes during those four episodes. I’m taking that as a good sign, and from now on I’ll try to drag this blog back to its original purpose – a tale of my journey through this marathon, and a log of my personal reactions, rather than any sort of insightful analysis of the stories themselves.

To that end, and for the record, my notes were:

  • Is that your man from Heartbeat? Yes, it is.
  • The Doctor has forgotten what a jelly baby is.
  • They straight up murdered The Gatherer.

RATING: 8

Image of the Fendahl

Yes, sorry, it’s been a while. Due to real life intervening, and some poor planning, it took me eleven days to watch these four episodes, with a week long gap between the first and the second. I just about followed it, and enjoyed it, but I probably did it a bit of a disservice by spreading it out in this way. I know it was designed to be watched weekly, but I have neither the attention span nor the memory of your average 70s child.

I do remember my first impression being disappointment at seeing K-9 arbitrarily sidelined during his first TARDIS trip – I’m expecting it to happen every now and then during his stay, but not so quickly. Momentum well and truly lost. Additionally, due to a combination of a different outfit, subtler make-up, a completely different hairstyle, still not being used to her blue eyes, and a slight dampening down of her usual trouble-making tendencies, Leela didn’t seem herself during this.

But still, the guest cast is incredible, with an amazing hit rate for actors who’d go on to be more famous: Denis Lill, Benedict Cumberbatch’s mum, Charlie Slater and Don Brennan. The first one is a particular highlight as the mad foreign scientist, while the evil cult scientist is superbly OTT.

It’s got an unusual structure, with the monster not actually turning up til the cliffhanger of Part Three, which has the effect of making the story feel like three quarters set-up to one quarter of action. I quite liked this, with the slow, unnerving buildup and steady escalation. It dealt with some really heavy themes, with the pentagram imagery, the concept of man’s evolution being manipulated, and The Doctor handing someone a gun so that they could commit suicide.

After the last serial‘s more light-hearted approach, this was definitely gothic horror business as usual. I guess that makes sense, as this was Robert Holmes’s last story before following Hinchcliffe out the door, but this season is all over the place so far. It’s been noticeable every time the producer has changed, in the 70s at least, that the new guy never gets a chance to stamp his mark for quite a while – they’re just following the groundwork laid by their predecessor for the first season or so.

So it remains to be seen whether I like Graham Williams’s approach, as he’s only just approaching the approach at the moment, but what I’m hoping for is a bit of a break from the dark and gloomy stuff, and writers facing up to the challenge of properly incorporating K-9. But hey, anything that contains Tom Baker’s face is entertaining by default, so I’m just happy to be back on a regular schedule.

RATING: 8

The Invisible Enemy

The fuck did I just watch? This certainly felt like at least two or three stories welded together. It all started off so promisingly, with lots of beautiful model work and yet another appearance from Bronson off of Grange Hill. I loved that opening episode, with The Doctor fighting the infection, and Leela having to fight single-handedly against the ever-expanding ranks of virus carriers. They seemed like a proper scary threat, that looked impossible to beat.

This carried on into the next episode, but then all of a sudden the notion of cloning was haphazardly introduced, and the next thing you know it’s a Fantastic Voyage knock off. I got completely lost for a while. I mean, the plot isn’t very complex or anything, but it’s not terribly well executed, and information is presented in a deeply confusing way. The trip through the Doctor’s brain was nowhere near as fun as it could have been, and when they met the nucleus, the visual effects failed to get across what was happening – I had to look it up afterwards to figure out who had died and how.

So then the virus turned into a giant prawn and started hobbling about like a little old lady, so I just tried to go with the flow. It was all just about fine – nothing groundbreaking, but nothing too terrible. And then there’s K-9. I’ve been really looking forward to this. I’ve seen plenty of him in the modern series and the spin-offs, but I’ve never really been clear on how he’d work as a regular companion. If I’m honest I’m still none the wiser, but hey, this was his introductory story, so he’s not part of the furniture just yet.

He did feel a bit tacked on in places, but they did a fantastic job of making him both formidable and likable right from the start. It’s clear that the tone of the show is lightening, and the scariness turned down a notch. If that manifests itself as a surreal dream-like episode turning out like this rather than The Deadly Assassin, then that’s a big shame. But if it means we’ve got a silly little robot dog whizzing around solving problems and being adorable, bring it on.

And yes, the contrast in production design from last time is striking, as I sort of semi-predicted/hoped. We’re back in the bright space stations that I associate with both latter day Pertwee, and the various bits I’ve seen on the show in the 80s, which is fine by me. What we lose in atmosphere, we make up for with little touches like all the signs being written in a futuristic simplified version of English – never referenced by any of the characters, but there for all to see thanks to lovely bright studio lights. And yes, I am very glad that the proper console room is back. I didn’t hate the wooden one, but it wasn’t the console room, was it?

Oh, and for the second serial in a row, I found myself thinking of Father Ted. God, they’re very hairy hands all together, aren’t they? I think this could be a stage six.

RATING: 7

Horror of Fang Rock

That was Doctor Who as a 70s bank holiday movie, and it was bloody great. Making it run pretty much in real time made it feel like one ninety-ish minute story chopped up in to chunks, but not in a bad way. It did lead to some pretty naff cliffhangers, but it felt like one of the few stories that would actually benefit from watching all in one go, or as an anthology.

Leela was on absolute top form, and she’s already become a great companion. Just having someone around whose first instinct is to fight, and who’s pretty good at it, is a brand new dynamic for the show, and it makes the TARDIS crew a pretty formidable team. Louise Jameson is great, and I hope her increased happiness without the contact lenses was worth that rather odd coda.

The guest cast were mostly brilliant, with the possible exception of the woman whose only job it was to scream any time anything happened. I couldn’t take my eyes of Skinsale and his hair, while Vince and Reuben are wonderful creations, so enthralling to watch and easy to get invested in. Up to the point where The Doctor realises it’s a Rutan, it feels like he’s is a guest in their story – before it’s a battle with an alien, it’s all about keeping that lighthouse working. Plus, their tales of the mythical beast really reminded me of Father Ted. They say it’s as big as four cats…

It’s a pretty dark story, in every sense – the design and lighting have been so dark and dingy lately that I’m starting to pine for a nice brightly lit studio. Most notably though, the tone is deeply grim; everyone bar The Doctor and Leela are dead by the end. This is most definitely a Hinchcliffe thing, so I’m wondering whether things will start to lighten up when Graham Williams starts to do things his way. Say, for example, with the introduction of a little robot dog…

RATING: 9

The Talons of Weng-Chiang

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

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

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

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

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

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

RATING: 10

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

SEASON AVERAGE RATING: 8.5

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

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

The Robots of Death

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

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

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

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

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

RATING: 8

The Face of Evil

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

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

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

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

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

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

RATING: 9