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.

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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

Fury From The Deep

Once again, a companion exit completely takes me by surprise. I had no idea it was happening before I started watching, but at least this time it was built up to within the story, rather than coming completely out of the blue at the end. Victoria had spent a few episodes questioning the value and morality of being a TARDIS traveller, and was being worn down by the constant peril. I don’t quite buy her new foster parents being so enthusiastic to take her on, but at least her desire to leave made sense.

The Victoria coda is probably the strongest part of the story, particularly her and Jamie’s poignant farewell chat – it felt very modern. I’m a bit sad to see her go, as it feels like she only just got here. I don’t feel like I completely know her, but I did like her. I’m glad that her final episode featured her penchant for sudden and ear-piercing screaming being used as a plot point.

The rest of the story took a while to get going, and seemed to tread water for the first four episodes or so. I get the feeling it would be one of those that would be vastly improved by actually existing. I’m especially curious to see how exactly they realised The Doctor as a stunt helicopter pilot in episode six.

On the plus side, there was yet another strong guest cast, with Mr Oak and Mr Quill being the highlights. They’re wonderfully creepy and strange, and the infamously scary open mouthed gas attack bit is indeed scary. Oh, and it would be remiss of me not to point out that Rimmer’s Dad is in it.

But this story’s greatest legacy will undoubtedly be the little device The Doctor uses to unscrew something in the opening scenes. Another piece of the jigsaw falls in to place – I think we’ve only got Time Lords, Gallifrey and the proper introduction of UNIT to go before all the mythology is ticked off.

RATING: 7

The Web of Fear

Remember when I said this story would have to go a hell of a long way to top The Enemy of the World? Well, it did. And then some. Technically I’d seen this story before, but that was in all in one go, in a big group of people, with us all talking through it – hardly the ideal circumstances to appreciate what is an absolute masterpiece. What a fantastic time in the show’s life this is.

It works so well to have a sequel so quickly after the original, not least because it’s instantly apparent just how much the returning foes have improved in such a short space of time. Last time, the Yeti were a little too slow and lumbering, but the tweaks in the design make a real difference, and the addition of their web-gun weaponry adds an extra dimension. This story also does a much better job of clarifying what The Great Intelligence is and why it’s being such a dick than in any of its other appearances, including in the new series.

It’s also great to have Professor Travers back, with his aged appearance and new mannerisms instantly giving so much context and back-story from the off. And he’s just one of an interesting ensemble of characters, most notably the slimy reporter, the freakish Welsh one and the slightly ropey Staff Sergeant.

The former two are the main suspects in the ongoing subplot regarding the possibility of a traitor in the camp. That layer of intrigue makes the story so gripping – all week I’ve found myself thinking about it all day, longing to be home in front of my DVD. In the end, the traitor turned out to be the other one, and – like last time – it’s a twist that I didn’t see coming, but that made perfect sense as soon as I knew. The slight ropiness was intentional!

Of course, there was supposed to be an extra suspect, but for some reason I never truly believed that this Lethbridge-Stewart chap would turn out to be a wrongun. That’s not to say I didn’t appreciate how well he was written – all the qualities we’d come to love, but under a veil of caution and fear. He didn’t yet trust The Doctor, and so acted in a way that made The Doctor distrust him.

You can tell just from this that The Brigadier Colonel was always destined to become a regular fixture. A few villains aside, he’s by far the most well-rounded, memorable and watchable guest character in the show to date – more so than a number of companions, in fact.

You can also see the seeds of UNIT being sown, and again it’s so easy to see why the producers latched on to the concept, even in this primitive form. It must have been so joyful in the production office when they realised they could take the show in yet another brilliant new direction, because even 47 years later, it’s utterly joyful to watch.

I’m going to have to take another short break, as my sister is selfishly getting married. But I will come back, oh yes I will come back, and dive into the last really big block of missing episodes…

RATING: 10

The Enemy of the World

Well, that was bloody brilliant. Maybe it was because it was all fresh to me, or because it’s such a novelty to see a complete story, but that’s even surpassed Tomb to become my favourite Troughton story so far.

Key to that is Troughton himself, who is utterly, breathtakingly superb in both of his roles here. Salamander is so much more than a dodgy accent and an even dodgier choice of make-up – he’s fully fleshed out, with his own distinct mannerisms, and so much depth. He shits on the Abbot of Amboise and no mistake.

The guest cast are great too. Astrid is up there with Ping Cho and Bret Vyon as one of the greatest non-companion companions I’ve seen. Bill Kerr does such a good job as Giles Kent that, while the twist revelation about his character comes as genuine surprise, his characterisation throughout the serial is such that it instantly makes perfect sense. But for me, the stand out (other than the manically depressive chef in episode three) is Milton Johns as Benik – deliciously camp and creepy. I could watch his face all day.

It was such an ambitious and unusual story, which really stands out amongst the (perfectly decent in themselves) base-under-siege / monster-of-the-month stories from this era. It’s full of twists and turns, and plenty of moments that actually made my jaw drop. The reveal of Salamander’s secret underground society is astonishing, and there’s also a pleasing amount of violence and menace throughout. And the climax to episode six is just superb. It’s only a shame that The Doctor and Salamander didn’t meet a little sooner.

Add to that the genuinely impressive action sequences (most notably the helicopter stuff in episode one), The Doctor taking another leap forward in establishing his pacifism and positive morality, the fact that it was the first serial that Barry Letts worked on, plus Jamie and Victoria’s matching arran jumper/tartan skirt combo, and you’ve got yourself an absolute classic. When the missing episodes were discovered, I recall being far more excited about the iconic Yeti-in-the-Underground story, but it’s got a hell of a long way to go to top this.

Incidentally – weird thing I’ve noticed. You can break this season so far down into a set of thematically linked pairs. Tomb and Snowmen deal with mind control, the latter and The Ice Warriors are both set in icy tundras, while that one and this one both have plots that stem from advanced technology being used for food production, leading to unexpected natural disasters. I can’t tell whether this was intentional, or if I’m just reading too much into it.

RATING: 10

The Ice Warriors

Aaaand I’m back, with the rare sight of a custom title sequence, suggesting that this should be approached as being a very special episode. So is it?

Well, the premise and setting are brilliantly compelling. Human race develops artificial food, has no need for vegetation, destroys plantlife just for the extra space, and unwittingly triggers an ice age. Scientifically questionable, but it does the job of keeping your interest. Less successful is the anti-computer moral weaved throughout – similar ground to The War Machines, but because the message is over-egged, it feels more dated as a result.

Getting on board with the concept wasn’t an issue, but after a while I found my attention waning. Admittedly, this could be entirely down to me – between a  Red Dwarf convention, being busy at work and staying up for 27 hours straight to watch the election coverage, it’s not been the ideal environment to follow a 1960s-paced story. But even so, it definitely could have been tighter – there are a couple of episodes where all parties just stand around speculating about what the others might do, rather than doing anything useful themselves.

Another issue I had was that the main three characters are mostly kept separate throughout most of the story. It allows for some good moments – particularly the various traumas that Jamie goes through – but I really like the three of them as a team. We got a good glimpse of some flirty bantz between Jamie and Victoria at the start, and I want more of that kind of thing.

As for the eponymous Ice Warriors themselves, I liked them, but I wasn’t particularly blown away. They look good and imposing, but they need a little something extra – much was made of how ruthless they are, but this was largely told to us rather than shown to us. Plus, their whispery, hissing voices were a little bit annoying. (As was the computer voice by the usually excellent Zippy.) But I’m looking forward to seeing them again, to see if they can improve in their second outing as much as the Cybermen did.

On the plus side – and it’s a very big plus – Peter Motherfucking Sallis. Those warm, reassuring tones are instantly recognisable, and instantly create the impression of a likeable and trustworthy character. I recognised the voice before the face – I think I was thrown because despite the fact that this was nearly fifty years ago, he is still by no means a young man here!

Coming up next, I become incredibly grateful that I didn’t start this project a couple of years earlier…

RATING: 7

The Abominable Snowmen

You know I was saying last time about how I knew the big headlines of what was coming next but didn’t know about the specifics? Well, I knew that this story would introduce the Yeti (the clue was in the name, really), but not that it would also see the debut of The Great Intelligence!

I mean, I should have remembered that the two are intrinsically linked (I watched The Web of Fear shortly after it was released), but it had completely slipped my mind, so it rather blew me away when it was revealed in episode three. It’s a weirdly appropriate sign of the timey-wimey nature of this project. Most of the time, I’m getting the same experience as viewers would have done when the episodes first aired, but my knowledge of what’s to come sometimes gives certain things an extra significance and alters the experience. Nobody would have gasped at the name “The Great Intelligence” in 1967, because they hadn’t seen The Name of the Doctor. I feel privileged to find even more to enjoy in those episodes than those feckless 60s idiots did.

The notorious TGI himself was suitably mysterious and intimidating, even if it was all a little Wizard of Oz (we had the same thing not long ago in The Macra Terror). His presence as the overall big bad kind of undermined the Yeti, as they were never quite as threatening once they were revealed to be merely remote-controlled henchmen. But they were great for what they were, the big cuddly lumbering murderers.

Victoria finally managed to announce herself after a couple of false starts. There seems to be a trend for companions to only show a personality on their second or third outing – Vicki, Polly and Jamie were the same. But she’s on good form here, establishing herself as inquisitive, crafty and clever when she insisted on investigating the inner sanctum. There was a hefty deal of high-pitching screaming too, but that’s to be expected and mostly tolerated in this era.

While all the ingredients to this story were good, it did perhaps go on a little too long – it felt like an excellent four-parter stretched to become a pretty decent six-parter. The ending was a tad disappointing too – it basically boiled down to smashing a load of shit up and hoping for the best, when you’d hope that The Great Intelligence would be defeated by The Doctor’s greater intelligence. But still, I know they’re all coming back in just a few serials’ time, so that’s a chance to right that small wrong.

Finally, a small notice to say that the next entry will take place in slightly longer than six days’ time. I’m going to have to hit pause for four days due to my other sci-fi passion. Four days without Who is going to feel like the gap between Survival and Rose.

RATING: 7

The Tomb of the Cybermen

Oh, what a joyous couple of weeks it’s been. Every episode has made me want to watch the next one immediately after. Only the fact that I’d seen this serial a couple of times before allowed me to keep my discipline here. For me, the gold standard for Cybermen has always been the “we-a will-a survive-a” versions from this story, and seeing it in context has made me appreciate what a significant step up in their mythology these episodes represent. It’s certainly a smart move to beef up the show’s second biggest villains, having just portrayed “the final end” of its first biggest villains.

It has a similar type of ensemble cast to The Tenth Planet and The Moonbase, even sharing many of the same stock tropes. It’s weird that all the Cyberman stories so far are all so similar. Where this one differs, however, is by replacing the base-under-siege set-up of the previous stories with a plot that’s all together more pacey and thrilling, with ever-increasing stakes.

The guest cast themselves are a mixed bunch. The hamminess worked for the villainous Krieg, but less so for Captain Wow, or whatever the American rocket ship pilot was called. I’d always remembered Toberman as being a godawful racial stereotype, but after Kemel last time, well… at least they let him talk occasionally. It’s worth pointing out that the overall portrayal of both of these characters is broadly positive – they’re heroic and noble, particularly with Toberman’s eventual supreme sacrifice here. It’s just that their mannerisms and the way they’re treated by the other characters only served to reinforce the contemporary audience’s prejudices, and that’s regrettable.

Back to the numerous plus points. Tomb’s reputation as a classic hangs on several stand-out moments, all of which are utterly fantastic. It starts with the very first scene, as The Doctor gives Victoria a brief intro to himself and the TARDIS. The most famous is the cliffhanger to episode two, which has the Cybermen heroically yet tentatively breaking out of their cling-film tombs. The downbeat ending to the overall story is another highlight – very bold and affecting. There are real consequences to the events we’ve just witnessed.

But my absolute favourite moment is a scene in episode three, which took me by surprise with its tenderness and emotional edge. The Doctor talks to Victoria about her recently deceased father, and shares his feelings regarding his own family. We learn so much about his outlook on life, and it’s quite frankly one of the best Doctor speeches of all time.

However, for a story with this good a reputation, I was surprised to note that it’s not without its production problems. At one point a Cyberman hoists Toberman up with the aid of a large wire, and later Toberman throws a hollow, lifeless dummy of the Cyber Controller through the air. Not quite sure what to make of the Cybermats – love the concept, but the execution varied. Overall, there was an off-putting lack of cohesion between the pre-filmed inserts and the studio footage, resulting in a slightly disjointed and confusing sense of geography – not ideal when a large chunk of the plot concerns the navigation and exploration of the setting.

These are quibbles, though. The script, the performances of the regulars and the continuing brilliance of the Cybermen make this serial one of the all-time greatest. I note that this was the first story helmed by a new producer, Peter Bryant, so perhaps the issues were just teething troubles. I’ve very little notion of the specific details of stories from the rest of this season, but I do know that I’ll be seeing Ice Warriors, Yetis and UNIT before it’s out. Bring it on.

RATING: 10

The Evil of the Daleks

Hi. Hope you had a good week. I bloody well did, watching this. That can be safely categorised as an “epic”, and also one of the most successful “long” serials (over four parts) since Dalek Invasion of Earth. Okay, there’s a bit of a lull in the middle few episodes, but as soon as the action transfers to Skaro… fuck me.

It’s a tour de force for The Doctor, and the success of the story hinges on playing with the audience’s expectations of him. He’s incredibly morally dubious throughout – he tricks Jamie in order to collaborate with the Daleks, and it’s not clear why until around episode six. This brings The Doctor and Jamie into quite a visceral and disconcerting level of conflict, just as the two of them were being established as BFFs. We’ve seen companions call The Doctor out on his shit before (such as Steven in The Massacre), but never this viciously. Utterly compelling – two fantastic actors at the top of their game.

It’s not just The Doctor who’s behaving against established conventions. The Human-Factor-infused Daleks are a joyful way to “break” a villain that the viewer thinks they can predict. The child-like mannerisms are equal parts disturbing and hilarious, and the overall effect can only be described as “fucking awesome”. Roy Skelton – at his all time peak Zippy-ness – is outstanding in his delivery of lines such as “I will not obey”.

And then there’s the Dalek Emperor, and the Dalek civil war, and the ultimate destruction of the Dalek City… there’s just so much amazing mythology built in to those last couple of episodes. The Doctor states that this could be “the final end” for the Daleks. It wasn’t, of course, but if it had have been, it would have been a fitting end for them. The fact that I can’t see another “of the Daleks” in my spreadsheet until mid-Pertwee suggests that it served as a “last ever Dalek episode” for some considerable time.

Regardless of that, it’s hard to think of a better way to end a season. While previous finales have been exciting because of the potential they open up (The Time Meddler being the first to blend history and sci-fi; The War Machines being the first to be set on contemporary Earth), this one was an epic finale in its own right and on its own terms. They went out on a bang, with a story that had seeds stretching back throughout the preceding weeks. Russel T who?

There had to be a downside though. It’s the return of 1960s Attitude Watch! Maxtible introduces a henchman, who he describes as being “dumb”, “simple” and “underdeveloped”. Enter: one of only a handful of non-white people we’ve seen in the show so far. Fair enough, Maxtible is a Victorian, but it seems like the production was also using Kemel’s ethnicity as a shorthand for his lack of intelligence and savage nature.

Luckily, it transpires that Kemel is a more nuanced character than anyone gives him credit for. Elsewhere in the guest cast, it was nice to see Windsor Davies pop up, and Waterfield was great in the “good man doing bad things because kidnapped daughter” role. As for Victoria, well, she didn’t have much to do beyond being locked up, rescued and being told she’s an orphan now, but I’m looking forward to seeing her in action as a companion.

RATING: 10

So yes, it’s another milestone reached.

SEASON AVERAGE RATING: 7.56

  • Seasons/Series watched: 4 of 34
  • Stories watched: 36 of 253
  • Individual episodes watched: 169 of 813

Ah, I like that. I often feel like I’m hurtling through this thing, but looking at those stats reconfirms just how much longer I’ve still got to go. This is a very good thing – I currently feel like I never want this journey to end.