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 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

Inferno

Throughout this season, there’s been a sense that the show has been finding its feet again. After a huge amount of upheaval, everyone has been slowly settling in, and there’s been something not quite right. But with Inferno, they absolutely nailed it.

The main thing is that UNIT now feels like much more of a family all of a sudden. Benton has actual characteristics for the first time – he’s boyish and cheeky, and has become the Brig’s right hand man. Simply having that one extra regular character does so much towards building a consistent world, and I now feel that much more invested in the new format of the show, because it’s provided a group of people that we care about.

Of course, all this softening up was necessary to provide a suitable juxtaposition with everyone’s evil counterparts. The parallel universe stuff was absolutely inspired, and the cast are all on top form. I love how Nicholas Courtney uses so much ham for the Brigade Leader, when he’s always the epitome of suave and nonchalance as the Brigadier. Evil Benton was a complete shit, and Evil Liz was great. So much so that it’s a shame that this is her last serial – despite my reservations about Liz’s relationship with the Doctor, who knows what could have developed with more time.

The best thing about the parallel universe is how genuinely grim and disturbing their situation is. The impending apocalypse is fantastically realised, to the extent that it’s horrifying to watch it unfold. The scenes leading up to the Doctor heading home are amongst the most tense and dramatic in the show’s history, especially Liz shooting the Brigade Leader.

It’s a special type of horrifying too, because while you watch The Doctor fixing our universe, it dawns on you that the parallel universe is still doomed, and all those people are in the process of dying painfully. Despite their evilness, they did all come round to The Doctor’s side in the end, and they each showed great courage to rally round and help save our universe while theirs was already beyond saving.

This inherent grimness is counterbalanced by the optimism on The Doctor’s face when he realises that free will isn’t an illusion after all, and that the pattern can be changed. It’s powerful stuff, and it feels like a defining moment for the ongoing development of The Doctor’s character. His little speech subtly carries the spirit of joy and wonderment that so many subsequent actors and writers would bring to The Doctor. There’s also a certain ruggedness and air of defiance throughout Pertwee’s performance, which is what is setting him apart from his predecessors the most, thus far.

RATING: 10

After just four serials, albeit mostly really long ones, it’s milestone time again.

SEASON AVERAGE RATING: 8.5

  • Seasons/Series watched: 7 of 34
  • Stories watched: 54 of 253
  • Individual episodes watched: 278 of 813

Wikipedia reliably informs me that Inferno was the last seven parter, meaning nothing will be this long again until Trial of a Time Lord. While Inferno was certainly well worth its running time, it’s rare that long serials don’t slightly outstay their welcome, even by a little bit. After only seeing four different stories in an entire season, I’m looking forward to seeing a greater number of adventures for this newly-gelled UNIT posse, and I’m also looking forward to seeing Jo Grant, cause she is well fit. But above all else, I hear there’s a new villain on the way…

The Ambassadors of Death

Or as it’s emphasised in the funky new title sequence variant, The Ambassadors… OF DEATH! I quite like having the titles interrupted by the cliffhanger resolution – it seems quite forward-thinking, considering pre-title sequences are now the norm for pretty much every type of TV show. This is a mid-title sequence, though, so let’s call it a lukewarm open. Also used for the first time: the scream into the end credits! Lovely stuff – a lot of cliffhangers have fallen flat over the first few seasons due to a lack of punctuation going into the titles.

Anyway, I really enjoyed this one. It nips along at a fair old pace, and I always like a story where it’s not clear who the villain is until late doors, especially when the baddies are more misguided than evil. General Carrington is a xenophobe and a maniac, but he thought he was doing what was right. His complete iron grip on the situation was impressive, and it’s a great performance from Rimmer’s dad.

The rest of the guest cast was strong, particularly the ultra-suave and cool-tempered Cornish, played by one of the Dominators. I also liked Reegan, who made for quite a likeable cold-blooded murderer, and of course the sudden return of Benton! He just pops up out of nowhere in episode five, like the production had only just remembered that he exists.

The story is notable for its vast use of CSO – this show has only been in colour for a few weeks, and already it’s separating and overlaying it. It doesn’t always work, but you simply have to applaud the ambition in making such extensive use of a technology that’s completely in its infancy – again, they were way ahead of their time. The dodgy bits are made up for by some lovely model work and of course the numerous action sequences.

But best of all, the Third Doctor’s character has now very much been established. He’s a product of his environment – no longer free to roam through time and space as he likes, plus he’s got roots for the first time since leaving Gallifrey, so he’s not quite as flighty and impulsive as his predecessors. His natural curiosity is still there though, and he’s channeling that into investigation and research. He’s still a rebel underneath, but he’s prepared to collaborate with others and form part of a team, albeit only on his own terms.

He’s working extremely well in conjunction with the Brigadier, with their deep respect for one another smoothing over their numerous differences in style and philosophy. In many ways, their relationship is similar to that of Bond and M, but they share the roles between them. The Doc reports the results of his field work to the Brig, and tries to influence his approach wherever possible. But it’s the Brig that plunges head-first into conflict, with the Doc hanging back and being more tactical.

The relationship with Liz, however, isn’t quite there, and it’s a shame. I really like her – both character and actress – but she just doesn’t have the bond with the Doctor that previous companions have had. It’s probably because they’re rarely alone together – when you travel in the TARDIS, The Doctor is the only constant in your life, but Liz gets to go home whenever the danger subsides, and presumably gets on with some light admin until the next crisis. It’s also why I’m not keen on the dynamic between the Twelfth Doctor and Clara – life with The Doctor should be the only life that companions know.

RATING: 8

The Silurians

I’ve just spent a good ten minutes staring at that title, and pondering whether to add “Doctor Who and” to the start. This is clearly more consideration than was ever given when they fucked up the title cards 45 years ago, so let’s move on.

Despite the disappointing step down from crisp, high definition film to murky, recolourised off-airs, this was a superb story of moral ambiguity and obfuscated intentions from both sides of a tricky conflict. Even when they’re at their most murderous, it’s hard to not empathise with the Silurians to some extent – it was their planet first, to be fair to the reptilian lads. The fact that they have the capacity to be reasonable and open-minded means Madame Vastra makes a lot more sense.

The power struggle within the Silurian ranks worked incredibly well, as did the clear parallels between the main players on each side. The Elder Silurian was kind and fair, willing to find a peaceful solution and doing his best to prevent unnecessary violence. Conversely, the younger one was trigger-happy and ruthless in the defence of his species, and it was a bold move to establish that the Brigadier can be just as bad.

Prior to now, he and The Doctor have only ever had small, easily-forgotten disagreements, but The Brig effectively committing genocide, and breaking promises in the process, will surely add a lasting layer of tension to their relationship. An act such as the one that closes this serial could so easily have been a defining moment to condemn a character to baddy status – such as Adam in The Long Game or Harriet Jones in The Christmas Invasion. But with The Brig it’s different – like his Silurian counterpart, he’s more misguided than malicious, and there’s clearly scope for redemption.

Elsewhere, there was a Scientist Silurian, whose main job was just to be told what to do and get on with it. Unfortunately, this mirrored Liz’s role in the story. Every time she showed a bit of gumption and stood up to either The Brig or The Doc, the other man would tell her to fall in line, and she would. The non-travelling companion is clearly a tricky role to define, and they’re not quite there yet. It’s odd that Liz and the Brig are the only recurring members of UNIT at this stage – I was expecting to have seen Benton by now – and it feels like they need a slightly bigger core cast in order for everyone to find their place.

But still, the guest cast of this serial were superb, the highlight being the appearance of two absolute comedy heroes – Fulton Mackay and Geoffrey Palmer – in straight roles. Both of them get great deaths too, Palmer’s in particular. Other things to note include the first use of CSO – which surprised me, as I assumed it came much later in colour videotape’s life time – the first appearance of Bessie, and the first use of the phrase “neutron flow”. It was made in reference to a nuclear reactor, so it seemed to make sense.

Downsides? As much as I loved the subplot of the deadly plague sweeping London, The Doctor being stuck in a lab conducting repetitive experiments for a whole episode somewhat hampered the pace, which prior to that had been building nicely. Also, the sound design was a tad irritating in places – the music was largely shite, and I could have done without the constant ridiculously high-pitched noises emitting from the Silurians’ bonces.

Overall though, a fantastic story – not sure it was quite seven episodes’ worth, but it got away with it thanks to Malcolm Hulke’s thought-provoking and well-crafted plotting. The big communist. Next up, a serial I know little about, but thanks to the contemporary trailer being appended to the final episode on the DVD, I now know to contain LOTS OF FIGHTING.

RATING: 8

Spearhead From Space

I settled down to watch this serial exactly how it was intended to be seen – in full 1080p HD on a 50 inch LCD screen. It was apt in many ways – seeing this beautiful Bluray version blew me away. It was like watching a film, although admittedly a really cheap film. It’s how I imagine the step up from monochrome to colour must have felt for those lucky/rich enough to have colour sets when this serial first aired.

It certainly emphasised just how much of a difference there is between this serial and everything that came before it. I must admit, I approached my viewing with a little trepidation. I’ve loved the first six seasons, but the very premise of the show is being
shifted. It’s a coincidence that this occurred at the start of a new decade and with the first use of colour technology, but it’s a very handy separation for eras of the show – the version of Doctor Who I’ve been watching for the last nine months is dead. I’ll miss it, but long live the new direction.

Because it has to be said that this is a very strong start for Jon Pertwee. His post-regeneration scenes are a tour de force, showcasing every component of his repertoire as a performer, and setting the template for the majority of all future regeneration stories. Any sadness at the loss of Troughton was placated by the demonstration that the role is still in an expert pair of hands.

And of course, it’s great to have the Brigadier back. I loved him coming to terms with the fact that his friend has a completely different face now, having thoroughly reviewed the evidence. I’m really looking forward to seeing how their relationship develops as they become full time colleagues – I hope we get to see a bit of them interacting between crises.

It’s a promising start by Liz Shaw too. She’s certainly quite cold compared to past companions, and not a great deal of use as an entry point for the audience. But I like the new dynamic of having someone who’s fulfilling all the usually companion-esque duties in a surly, reluctant and almost sarcastic manner.

Now, this is a story I had seen before, although not in HD, and not since moving to Ealing several years ago. I was really looking forward to seeing the location footage from 45 years ago, but it’s so different now that it’s virtually unrecognisable. I figured out that the main department store the Autons break out of is now M&S, due to the parade of shops opposite still being present today. But the rest of it could have been absolutely anywhere for all I know. I’ll have to stick to Men Behaving Badly and A Bit of Fry & Laurie for my spotting-locations-near-my-house needs.

But anyway. It was interesting to note that the Autons were used in a very similar way here to how they would be in Rose – a constant threat in the background, but by no means the main feature in the story. This was all about introducing the new Doctor and his role at UNIT, but I was a little disappointed that we didn’t get huge pitched battles of soldiers fighting Autons, like they did with the Yeti and Cybermen. The iconic shop dummy scene isn’t until towards the end of episode four, and the whole threat is dealt with unsatisfyingly quickly, the second that The Doctor starts being proactive.

But still, that serial was such a good introduction to the new era, thanks largely to the constantly creepy atmosphere. The vivid colour and unusual direction necessary for this particular story brought the threat closer to home than ever before. So many unsettling aspects, not least the plasticy faces of the Nestene’s henchmen, Channing’s death stare and the cliffhanger to episode three with General Scobie opening the door to his own doppelganger.

And finally, the graphics and aesthetics. The closing credits are now on cards, rather than a scroll, and consequently it takes twice as long. There are a couple of noticeable edits to the theme tune as a result, in order to extend it. Lovely font though, and the sheer number of different colours in the new patterns seems like they’re (justifiably) showing off. And I adore the new logo – it’s my favourite of all time, and it’s clear to see why they kept going back to it when the show was off air.

Next up, this blog goes weekly for a while, as the rest of this season consists of seven-parters. Unless it’s for special occasions, I tend to prefer a tight four-parter, so we’ll see how this goes…

RATING: 8