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

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Dragonfire

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

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 Obviously the contemporary slang is going to sound outdated to my millennial ears, but I can easily ignore that.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

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

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

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

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

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

RATING: 7

SEASON AVERAGE RATING: 6.75

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

Delta and the Bannermen

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

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

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

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

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

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

RATING: 8

Paradise Towers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RATING: 6

Time and the Rani

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RATING: 6

Trial: The Ultimate Foe

Well, that was absolutely insane. The story of how it came to be is just as shocking as anything that’s in the show, with poor old Robert Holmes passing away, Eric Saward throwing a wobbley, and Pip & Jane Baker having to cobble together the final episode in no time at all, without being allowed any knowledge of the plan for how everything was supposed to tie up.

The result is obviously a complete mess, but I was impressed by how quickly the first part got on with revealing who The Valeyard was and that the trial is a complete sham, in order to create a whole new mini-adventure. This was achieved by the sudden reappearance of The Master, which I suppose is to be expected whenever there’s a desire to throw everything at the script just to see what sticks.

I was surprised to see Glitz again so soon – I was aware that he’s turning up in a future story, but his appearance here was part of a pleasing attempt to incorporate elements from all the component parts of the season into its conclusion. As well as taking Glitz from The Mysterious Planet, you also had the same one-inch-VT-shaped Macguffin, while the shadow of the Terror of the Vervoids conclusion was present throughout.

And of course Mindwarp is represented by the retconning of Peri’s fate, which didn’t bother me because I knew it was coming, but does detract from the boldness of her original exit. What I didn’t know was the detail that she’d been married off to Brian Blessed, which is absolutely hilarious. I’m sure they’ll be very happy together. I was a little disappointed at first that not many other questions about the reliability of the evidence were cleared up, but the more I think about the more I appreciate the opportunity to make my own mind up about what’s real and what isn’t.

Besides, there wasn’t really much time to go over too many specifics, as the last episode ended up with more things to wrap up than it could comfortably accommodate. Even so, they made things even more complicated by including so many intricate twists to the narrative. The depiction of the Matrix was certainly in keeping with The Deadly Assassin, although obviously not as good, despite the best efforts of the excellent Geoffrey Hughes. Multiple Geoffrey Hugheses, in fact. It felt like there were a few too many layers to the illusion, and so it ended up feeling a little disjointed.

This was partly due to a surfeit of potential villains – Glitz, The Master and The Valeyard – all with their own weirdly ill-defined and suspiciously flexible motives, and each double crossing the others at every opportunity. It was fun to be kept guessing as to just whose side Glitz and The Master were on – both in relation to The Doctor vs The Valeyard and to each other – but in the end I felt like I needed a diagram.

“Fun but complicated” seems like a good summary of both this segment and the season in general, but I want to emphasise that I did enjoy it a hell of a lot more than I thought I would. Colin has improved to the point where I think it was a mistake to sack him at this stage – you feel like one more season of developing in the same direction might have ironed out the remaining issues. That said, the improvements to this point haven’t gone far enough to stop him being my least favourite Doctor to date, so I can’t say I’m sad to see him go. It’s just weird that a Doctor’s tenure should end like that. Those are not brilliant last words.

RATING: 7

SEASON AVERAGE RATING: 7.25

  • Seasons/Series watched: 23 of 35
  • Stories watched: 143 of 263
  • Individual episodes watched: 653 of 826

Which I guess means that the serial The Trial of a Time Lord gets a 7 out of 10 overall. That seems fair. It also means that Season 23 is better than Season 22, but still well below the expected standard, which is also fair. But with the sad realisation that I’m hurtling towards the end of the classic era, I have but one classic Doctor to go, and it’s one that I’ve seen very, very little of before. I’m not sure what to expect, but I’m looking forward to it, even though it’ll be all over in as little as six weeks…

Trial: Terror of the Vervoids

The trial of the century continues, and it does kind of feel like it’s been going on for a century. We’re now in to The Doctor’s defence – how come the prosecution got eight episodes and he only gets six? – and taking a glimpse into the future. I’m quite enamoured with the idea of skipping past the introduction story and seeing the new companion for the first time in situ, but in practice it’s a bit disorientating. It’s not helped by that opening TARDIS scene being a mess of chaos and noise. Just horrible.

But as time wore on, something happened which totally shocked me. I found myself not hating Bonnie Langford. Somewhat confounding expectations, Mel seems to be made of much sterner stuff than Peri. She matches The Doctor for bravery most of the time and there’s already more of a rapport between them; she’s smart enough to hold a plot-advancing conversation with him, but inexperienced enough so that he can explain certain things to her, and therefore us. That scream, though. Are all episodes from now on going to end with Mel screaming, and wherever possible a crash zoom into The Doctor’s astonished face?

Other than a less irritating scream, the one thing Mel’s really lacking so far is a reason to care about her. The lack of introduction means that we don’t know a great deal about her or her background, and we skipped all the stages where the audience become emotionally invested in her welfare. I applaud the desire to try something new, but there’s a reason why 90-odd% of companion introductions are done in a certain way.

However, where the future setting really comes into its own is with the trial sequences. As the season has gone on, the writing has been less pre-occupied with allegory about the show itself being on trial, and is instead concentrating on making the events within the courtroom more exciting, and increasingly more central to the story being told. This serial marks a slow transition from the trial being the framing material to being the main action, and it’s better for it.

The reason being that as the evidence becomes less and less reliable, the show is doing interesting things with the narrative that are actually quite far ahead of their time, in Doctor Who terms. Thus far, unless specifically informed otherwise, we’ve accepted that everything we’ve seen happened as depicted, but now we can’t take anything for granted. As the Matrix-tampering ramps up, we’re challenged to reconsider everything that’s happened so far. How much of the last section actually happened, considering The Doctor’s amnesia? With this one, is it just the bits The Doctor mentions that have been tampered with, or everything? Did The Valeyard get there even earlier than The Doctor did, and planted the whole thing?

Because if he did make the whole thing up, then he probably could have done a better job of it. I quite enjoyed the slower pace and the more light-hearted touches, but the murder mystery aspect didn’t live up to its promise. Oh, what a surprise, it was one of the three shady scientists, and the shadiest of the three at that. To be fair, I spent most of the first part distracted, trying to work out what I recognised the old passenger from. He was the old archbishop in The Black Adder!

As for the Vervoids, I liked the concept, and it gave The Doctor a chance to talk about morality and the importance of empathising with the enemy. It all boiled down to a Genesis-esque dilemma, and I can’t decide whether he made the right choice this time. But let’s face it, there’s only one thing they’re particularly memorable for. They’re a bunch of six foot fannies dressed in suits made of leaves.

Overall, don’t say this too loudly, but I’m starting to think The Trial of a Time Lord is actually pretty good. Obviously, a lot rides on the final two parts, and I have no doubt whatsoever that this production team will find some jaw-dropping way of fucking everything up. But regardless, up until this point at least, this is way better than the previous season. Still far from the show at its best, but it appears to have started the climb back up from the nadir.

RATING: 7