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…

SJA: The Last Sontaran

We’re back to spend another couple of weeks in the delightful company of Sarah Jane Smith, who in this installment is facing a threat that’s all too familiar to her. As with her recent reunion with The Doctor, it always works well when Sarah knows what she’s up against, and is suitably scared. It’s only a shame that she didn’t follow up on her urge to call in UNIT, otherwise Martha could have completed her hat-trick.

There are parallels to be made with The Sontaran Experiment, what with the lone Sontaran operating in a sparsely-populated area, the presence of Sarah Jane, and the format being 2x 25ish-minute episodes. It was also one of those stories I always enjoy, where they explore the aftermath of a previous adventure. By fixing one problem, The Doctor has inadvertently caused another, and the world is threatened once more in his absence.

Furthermore, it was also a damn fine Sontaran episode, with Kaagh behaving exactly how a good Sontaran should, motivated purely by bloodthirsty glory and the promise of honour. Of course, with this being a kids’ show, he unfortunately had to be slightly incompetent with it, otherwise he’d have just slaughtered them all with ease. Liberties were also taken with geography and timing – Sarah Jane always seemed to turn up just in the nick of time to save someone from trouble, even if she was miles away just seconds ago. Nevertheless, a great start to the series.

Meanwhile, I’d forgotten that the break-up of the original gang started so soon. Maria is off to live in America, which is not as good as living opposite Sarah Jane and fighting aliens, so it’s odd that she seems keener than her dad. I’ll probably miss him more than I’ll miss her, but I’m glad to see the back of her annoying mum. How can she still be skeptical about the presence of aliens after seeing massed ranks of Daleks in the streets?

Maria’s departure struggled for screen time against the exciting alien story, and it was odd when she suddenly decided to chat to Luke about it while he was rushing to concoct a knock-out gas with Kaagh en route. Maria is one of those characters where it’s hard to have a strong opinion either way – she’s just sort of there – but I did get slightly choked when Sarah Jane described her as “the daughter she’s always wanted”. My only emotional response to her departure is due to its effect on another character, which isn’t a good thing.

And finally, the rebooted Mr Smith seems to have gained a sassy sense of humour, which makes him even more like a non-portable K-9. He’s also incorporated the release of a solitary balloon as part of his startup fanfare, and I swear that he’s got a new sound effect that was also a sound The Book makes in Hitchhikers. Excellent.

RATING: 8

The Sontaran Stratagem / The Poison Sky

* Selling an episode around the concept of “sat-nav gone bad” feels deeply rooted to the time when the technology was relatively new, and therefore still being greeted with suspicion. It was less than ten years ago, but it was still before we all started carrying around Google Maps in our pockets. However, the sat-nav thing is just window dressing in this story; the main selling point of Atmos is as a means of reducing carbon emissions, which seems more relevant today, with hybrid and electric vehicles becoming more and more mainstream. It wouldn’t require a huge rewrite if this episode was being made today – just replace the contemporary sat-nav fear with stuff about driverless cars, and you can still have people being driven into rivers.

* You can’t help but grin as Martha is reintroduced, despite the fact that it was only a week or so ago that I last saw her. I like the idea of having roving ex-companions in the field; people who are doing The Doctor’s work in his absence, and who are there if he needs them when he’s in the area. I also like the decision to make Martha and Donna get along, thus avoiding a retread of School Reunion but with a more annoying incumbent. It ties in with the conscious effort to make current companion relationship more platonic and grown-up than the last one, which I applaud, but then again I didn’t dislike the old way of doing things. It’s good to do something different just to keep it varied, it’s not that the the previous dynamic was a problem that needed fixing.

* I’m still not entirely comfortable with UNIT being repositioned as the bad guys that Torchwood used to be, but I guess that even in the Pertwee days, there was always the suggestion that they were too eager to resort to combat. The idea of Martha working from within to improve the organisation ties in with this – I suppose UNIT can be a force for either good or bad, and their moral stance changes depending on the personnel. They need someone like the Brigadier, or Martha, or later Kate Stewart, to keep them on the straight and narrow. The Doctor has been away for so long that they’ve forgotten the principles he taught them in the 70s (or was it the 80s, etc). But at least they’re still using “greyhound” and “trap” as their call signs.

* Around half way through the first episode, I wrote in my notes: “Donna wants to go home again, wah wah wah. Goodbye speech and everything.” And then seconds later: “Ah, it was a gag.” Does the fact that I took it at face value say more about me, or about how Donna has been written so far as being so self-centered and flighty? It’s me, isn’t it? But still, I don’t care about her having sad flashbacks to things that happened a maximum of three episodes ago. Literally the only good thing about Donna in this episode is getting to see Cribbins again. Sylvia’s shtick of being the nagging, Doctor-hating mother has been done to death by now, but Wilf being so excited for Donna, urging her to continue adventuring despite his fears and worries, is something new, and it’s lovely.

* I do like me a Sontaran, and Mike Thecoolperson makes a great commander. It was fun to see massed ranks of them in battle, and amusing that they still have the same old problem that you can only have one or two of them without their helmets on at once. The one that wasn’t Christopher Ryan was Dan Starkey, and it was a little bit odd so see him playing a Sontaran who wasn’t Strax, but then again, clones obvs. It was mostly a faithful and successful revival of an old villain, with the exception of the added “Sontar-ha!” chant, which was just annoying. It seemed mandatory at this stage that every monster needed a repetitive catchphrase for the kids to copy in the playground, but after four series, it’s starting to feel contrived.

* I have no particularly strong opinions on the episode as a whole – it’s one of those that just kind of exists. I’d remembered Rattigan as being absolutely awful, but he’s mostly fine until near the end when he starts throwing a strop about how clever he is. He’s a villain with no particular motivation other than entitlement and attention-seeking, and is probably the worst thing about the story, which is otherwise a perfectly serviceable mid-weight two-parter.

RATING: 7

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.

A Fix With Sontarans

It’s a short one today, as I go from Seville to Savile. It’s not a pleasant journey. I loved Jim’ll Fix It as a child, and I wrote in a handful of times, asking to either read out the football scores or fly Starbug. These days it’s difficult to look back on footage of Savile without feeling slightly sick (although his 2006 cameo on Celebrity Big Brother is worth revisiting, to see just how highly he was regarded before the truth came out). Today, seeing footage of him in the same room as a child, was a whole new level of uncomfortable.

But this probably isn’t the best place to deal with such subject matter, so instead I’ll move on to: what the hell is that on Tegan’s head? She looked bloody ridiculous, but it was nice to see her back. Even this tiny cameo was enough to remind me of how much better she is than Peri.

This is a decent enough stab at a Doctor Who comedy skit, and with the brief that it had to fulfill it was never going to be a masterpiece. The death of the Sontarans struck me as being particularly gruesome for a sketch in a kids’ show, but hey, not the biggest issue on display. You can’t help but laugh when that fucking face appears on the scanner, especially as the Doctor and Tegan yell “It’s monstrous! It’s revolting!”.

I was feeling charitable towards the endeavour until that point, but when the cunt came on board and slobbered over Janet Fielding’s hand, to the obvious discomfort of her and Colin Baker, that was it for me. Overall, the performances are fine, the script does its job, and there’s a modicum of fun to be had… but it does feature one of the worst serial child rapists that ever existed, so…

RATING: 0

The Two Doctors

Yes, sorry, it’s taken me a week to watch this. I’ve been busy. Naturally, this enhanced the sense that this is the longest story for some time, although I feel that by watching an episode every few days, I’ve done it a favour – if it have been consecutive days as normal, I’ve a feeling I’d have got bored with the story quite easily. Although, it’s hard to be bored when Patrick Troughton’s face is on screen.

I was worried that by doing a multi-Doctor story so soon after the last one, and without the excuse of having a milestone to mark, it would devalue the premise somewhat. But I then released what JNT did – you don’t need an excuse for having the likes of Troughton and Frazer Hines around. It was just like old times and so much fun to see them together.

With the dialogue about The Doctor working for the Time Lords, having “fallen out of favour”, the show seemed happy to casually set up the Season 6B theory without much fuss or fanfare. I’d read about it, and assumed it was just the fans clutching at straws to explain away the Doctor and Jamie looking older in this serial. But no, I’m pretty sure that the production’s actual intention was to set this after The War Games and before Spearhead in the Doctor’s timeline. I find this stuff fascinating.

So we’re all set for an exciting Troughton and Jamie adventure, when Colin Baker and Peri come along and ruin it. Honestly, it’s such a marked step down in quality whenever it cuts back to them. There’s an arrogant streak to the Sixth Doctor, and he’s still incredibly nasty to Peri on occasion. The sad thing is that you can’t feel too sorry for her, because she’s bloody useless anyway. I don’t want these two dolts, I want the Second Doctor adventure advertised at the start!

But what we got instead was distinctly average. Luckily there was enough going on across the three parts (that’s what you get with Robert Holmes), but not all of it worked (that’s what you get with mid-80s Doctor Who, it seems). For example, Jamie teaming up with the Sixth Doctor and Peri was quite nice, but it seems so wasteful to separate him and the Second Doctor for so long. Jamie says to Peri at one point “I think your Doctor’s worse than mine”. Yes, Jamie, you don’t know how right you are.

The Sontarans were on good form, particularly when they started to get sulky and sarcastic. I like it when they’re played for laughs, and you can see the link between these ones and Strax. The other baddies – Servalan, her dad and an orange-eyebrowed sex offender – were not so good. The first two were generic, one-dimensional and unremarkable. Shockeye had his moments, and again the comedy was the highlight, especially when paired with Troughton, who was clearly having fun as the Doctor-Androgum hybrid. But his lecherous pursuit of a scantily-clad Peri made me very uncomfortable, as did his cold-blooded murder of Oscar later on.

I quite liked that character in the earlier scenes, and his death seemed gratuitous. It was so arbritary – there were no consequences for any of the main characters, and it served no story-related purpose whatsoever. There’s also a strange moment soon after where Servalan starts smearing The Doctor’s warm blood all over her face, which is never explained. Then the Sixth Doctor deliberately kills Shockeye, and you can’t escape the feeling that this show has really lost its way.

It wasn’t an awful story, it just had a handful of awful bits in it. Colin gradually improved as the serial went on, as he has been doing since that disastrous introduction. I liked the scenes of the two Doctors together, and the whole thing was worth it to see my favourite Doctor back for what sadly turned out to be the final time. What a terrific Doctor he was.

RATING: 6

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…

The Sontaran Experiment

Hello again. That was a short one. Like the Sontarans, ahaha. I quite liked having this as a little palate-cleanser before the mouthwatering main course of the next serial. I think I prefer a season to have a nice mix of serial lengths, although I’m also looking forward to seeing how the regimented consistency works out for the rest of the Tom Baker era.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. This was a very entertaining little story in its own right. The slow-building mystery first half is better than the action-packed second, despite another strong showing from a Sontaran. I love how uncomplicated their philosophy is – they simply do not give a fuck about any other species. They’re not killing people for the sake of being evil, it’s just that they see no reason why they shouldn’t.

I was on board right from the start when, knowing that this would be entirely shot on location, I saw that they’d plumped for video tape instead of film. One of the things I love about watching classic Who, and a lot of archive television in general, is the intimacy that analogue interlaced video implies, and I find that film sequences detract from this, adding a certain distance between the viewer and the actors. The vibrant colours (well, mostly Sarah’s coat) and crystal clear details really added to the appeal of this story.

That said, the direction is a bit off at times, particularly in the second episode, with a confusing sense of geography, and a lot of important-seeming things happening off-camera. There’s a lot of gaps that are left to the viewer to fill. This is probably partially down to the limitations of early portable video cameras, and can’t have been helped by Tom Baker breaking his collarbone halfway through filming, to be fair.

But when he’s not in agonising pain, he’s once again on top form here. His cheery playfulness when confronted by the South African buggers is a brilliant choice, and his rage against Styre after he discovered Sarah had been tortured was just superb. Even at this early stage, it’s easy to see why he became the definitive Doctor. I want to see all his serials RIGHT NOW.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, for the second year in a row (I watched ep 6 of Dalek Invasion of Earth on 25th December 2014), I’m going to spend my Christmas with a Dalek. Well, a few Daleks. And their dad.

RATING: 8

The Time Warrior

First of all, NEW TITLES! I very much approve, even if Jon Pertwee looks rather bored in his photo at the beginning. The effects look great, and I like the chunky, bold new font – it immediately feels much more recent than the previous style. I’ve never been mad keen on the diamond logo, and it’s replacing my all time favourite, but it does look much better than I imagined when coupled with the slit-scan effect.

This was very much a story of many firsts – a new title sequence, a new name for The Doctor’s home planet, and most importantly a new companion. It was an interesting variant on the usual introduction to have the newbie meet The Doctor and mistakenly identify him as the villain of the piece. Her coming round to his side was a way to establish her intelligence and ability to get to the bottom of a story. She’s not quite as loveable as Jo just yet, but it’s a strong start nonetheless, and you can see an instant chemistry between the lovely Lis Sladen and Pertwee.

The new villain was very decent too. I’m only really familiar with the Sontarans from the new series, and due to the shitness of their two-parter, I haven’t previously taken them seriously as a threat. This is a much better introduction; establishing the same core traits of their warlike ways and contempt for anything that can’t better their cause, but in a way that’s actually entertaining.

The flipside of this is that I love the comedic side of the Sontarans in New Who, and while Linx had his moments, he just reminded me of a less funny version of Strax. Not that that’s the fault of this serial of course, but it didn’t help that I found Irongron a bit too shouty to be an effective villain. He didn’t seem like a real person, which is sometimes fine in an alien or futuristic setting, but not in an Earth-bound historical.

And that was often a problem with the serial in general – we’re back in a real historical setting for the first time since the black and white days, but it feels like it’s been done in a really half-arsed way. The historicals of old were always nuanced and sympathetic in their portrayal of the olden days, whereas this was done in broad brush strokes, which made it hard to empathise with anyone. Sarah Jane was right – it was like being in a re-enactment rather than being in the past. Even Dot Cotton was putting on a posh voice.

All of the above left me feeling slightly disconnected from what I was watching, despite the obvious strengths of the main cast and Linx. Perhaps it would have been better if the subplot with Irongron’s attempts to expand his empire hadn’t been so prominent – I wanted more time-travelling Sontaran hijinks instead. As it is, a slightly disappointing start to the series, but that’s outweighed by the huge promise of the new companion. It was smart to end the last episode with The Doctor and Sarah Jane just stepping into the TARDIS – they’re such a natural pairing that it would seem a formality for him to officially invite her. She just belongs there.

RATING: 7