RogerBW's Blog

Doctor Who Re-Watch, series 7 11 February 2014

(First written in January 2014)

As always, spoilers abound. See Wikipedia for production details)

Doctor Who - Jon Pertwee
Liz Shaw - Caroline John

Spearhead from Space

New title sequence! New face! Colour! (OK, the title effects were shot in black and white then tinted later.)

The odd thing about this particular serial is that there are two nearly separate stories going on for the first couple of episodes -- one is the pilot for The UNIT Show, in which Liz Shaw reluctantly comes to work for the Brigadier, and the other is a Doctor Who story. Is it unworthy of me to think that I'd quite like to have seen The UNIT Show without the Doctor? (Yeah, I know, be careful what you ask for. Instead of the show I might have enjoyed, I got Torchwood.) In any case, he forces himself into the middle of what would have been the lead partnership, taking on both some of the action-man aspects of the Brigadier and some of the scientist aspects of Shaw.

The footage of the doll factory is appropriately creepy, but for a little while seems to be introducing a third story. That starts to feel like the sort of thing one might have met in a colour episode of The Avengers (no comment on The Cybernauts), which will be a recurrent theme in this quartet of stories -- indeed, with only some minor changes, this could easily have been a two-parter in that series.

Unlike last time and the lost The Power of the Daleks, we can see a new actor working his way into the role. Without anyone really knowing how he'd choose to play it, there's clearly plenty of room in the script for him to make up his own mind how to go along. There's some Troughton-esque gurning that seems unfortunately comic, but mostly Pertwee (known as a comic actor and sensibly playing against expectations) is fairly restrained. Except for the whole bulging eyeballs bit when he's wrestling the Nestene monster at the end (which had earlier been a superb use of plastic bags).

The whole "two hearts" thing is inconsistent with the medical examination in The Wheel in Space, and the Doctor is now very much an alien rather than an example of what humanity might one day become.

What surprises me on re-watching is that the business with Madame Tussaud's doesn't even appear until the final episode, which also has the famous shop-window dummy scenes. It's a packed 25 minutes, in a story that's rarely dragged even during the running about in the woods. It's a pretty straightforward plot as such things go, with no doubt about good guys and bad guys or what has to be done; it's mostly there to cue in the audience to the sort of thing they can now expect from the show. Though Channing's quiet menace is always excellent.

On a metaplot level, it's interesting to note that the climax is prolonged because the Doctor pauses to monologue -- if he'd just zapped Channing when he first saw him, things might have gone rather more smoothly.

Doctor Who and the Silurians

This is where the tension between Doctor and Brigadier starts up, something of a change of pace from the previous story. This is the post-1960s distrust of the Establishment cutting in: the Summer of Love is over, and the Manson murders have happened. Liz Shaw has gone downhill too; she's mostly here to complain about being left out, and to change costumes.

Failure to spot the significance of Liz's sudden headache seems to me unforgivable, considering the context. Still, we don't know whether she might not have had them at other times.

The covert argument between Quinn and Dawson in the control room is very effective, and underscores the falseness of Quinn's facade. The control room set is unergonomic but attractive, especially the red whatever-it-is. The repurposed office with its orange walls is less successful, looking like a studio filled with random rubbish.

The dinosaur in the cave shows up just how much more one can see with a colour image, and alas it's not good. (Spearhead mostly did better by virtue of not using its creature effect until the end; here it's twice in the first episode.)

On the other hand the mind-blasting effects of the Silurians themselves are curiously inconsistent: the first victims are reduced to gibbering and wall scrawling, but Liz is only briefly terrified, and everyone who sees them later seems entirely unaffected.

Sound effects are good, but Carey Blyton's music is intrusive, particularly the crumhorns used for the Silurians' themes. The Silurian costumes are not as bad as rumour would have it, though the actors' tendency to shake back and forth detracts from their effectiveness. The mouths do move, so one can see who's talking; being able to tell them apart by sight a bit more readily would be better...

There's a clear attempt to make the Silurians moral counterparts to the humans, but this isn't as convincing as it might be when the Silurians' procedure for transfer of power consists of announcing "The leader is dead. I killed him. I am the leader now."

The plot is otherwise a decent one, but seven episodes was always going to be pushing it a bit, and it does get a bit flabby at times. On the other hand some of the acting in the early episodes, particularly from the principals, is excellent in helping to build a sense of menace. Even the show itself admits it's gone for padding with the episode 6 montage of the plague spreading while the Doctor looks for a cure. (Thoguh, perversely, those London scenes are some of the most effective in the whole show.) And then the ending falls into the trough the story's been skating around since the beginning, an invaded base straight out of series 5!

Pertwee is starting to make the role his own: he's fascinated and happy to meet the Silurians in a way that the previous Doctors rarely were. (And the only previous example I can think of where the ugly aliens weren't the blatant bad guys is Galaxy 4. It may seem obvious now, but clearly it wasn't then.)

The Ambassadors of Death

I quite enjoyed this first time round, when I had no idea what was going to happen, but this time it left me cold. I love the control room set, though; which is a good thing, since we'll be spending a lot of time here.

The mucking about with the TARDIS console seems to be showing off the chromakey that was fairly new to the BBC more than anything else, and maybe to reassure a sceptical audience that yes, this really was a show about time travel, at least sometimes.

This story was originally written by David Whitaker for series 6 (in the far future, with Jamie and Zoe), and he didn't do a great job of hacking it about to fit the new UNIT format; the new production team, mostly Malcolm Hulke, did it themselves, leaving Whitaker with his final Doctor Who credit.

The Hammond organ and guitar during the link-up sequence is most bizarre, but not unpleasant. On the other hand, when you've got just one guy in a spacecraft gone up to rendezvous with another of completely unknown status, you'd think he'd keep his helmet on! (Not that it would have helped in this case.)

The obligatory action scene each episode is sadly poorly handled, considering some of the military scenes we've had lately: bad blocking and poor tactics change them from potentially exciting to merely silly.

Who's the female space centre tech? She's a remarkably poor line-reader. General Carrington is well-played; Reegan, by contrast, I found one-note and tedious. The Doctor gets a certain amount to do, but after Liz is captured she's just doing the standard sneaky prisoner routine.

An awful lot of this story seems as though it had been lifted from The Avengers, then stretched; criminals with a weird power were that show's bread and butter, after all. But the Doctor and Liz are no Steed and Peel. Then it tries to do conspiracy thriller; then streight thriller, with the rocket sabotage taking up most of part 5 (and being undone in a couple of minutes). But really the story proper doesn't start until part 6, and all the running around before then is basically irrelevant. Combine that with the Doctor's irritating "magic" (making the computer tape disappear) and this is a story that wears away at my liking for this series. To salvage it, I'd have put it in the previous series as originally planned (though maybe not too close to The Seeds of Death, what with the Doctor taking the one available spacecraft again), cut out the action sequences, and brought the whole thing down to about four episodes. There's the skeleton of a good story here; it's a shame it's so swamped in flab.

Inferno

Oh, hey, welcome back generic volcano and lava stock footage! Haven't seen you for a while. And I'll be seeing you again in episode 6.

We get an early introduction to the control and drill-head set where we'll be spending a lot of time in this story, and to most of the principals: Sir Keith, Stahlman the mad scientist, his assistant Petra (who was nearly played by Kate O'Mara, fifteen years early), and Greg Sutton. The latter's interesting; if this weren't a Doctor Who story, he'd end up being the hero, but as it is he ends up taking the narrative role of an Ian or a Steven, a punchy action man for when the Doctor isn't around. Mostly his job in the early episodes is to fight over Petra, who's pleasantly uninterested in being fought over.

And the Doctor is now very punchy, dashing about like Jason King, getting into a fight with someone he knows he can't allow to touch him, and driving like a maniac. Meanwhile, Stahlman as principal antagonist has a very Freudian attitude towards the "penetration" of the Earth's crust as quickly as possible... indeed, it's never explained just why he's in such a tearing hurry, indeed why he doesn't seem to care about anything else (like his future career or reputation).

The initial experiment with the TARDIS console (the last time this original prop would be used) is well done, though the effects for the accidental flight are a bit less convincing. I'm also rather fond of the Doctor's fiddling with the power distribution right before Stahlman sabotages the computer: Stahlman is in many ways the dark mirror of the Doctor, absolutely sure he's right when Authority tells him he's wrong.

But really, the basic plot is only window-dressing for the cross-world story. That's the important thing here, occupying the majority of the central four episodes, and the cast are clearly having plenty of fun in their British Republican roles, especially Section Leader Shaw and the Brigade Leader who seems with that eyepatch and supercilious attitude to be a clear inspiration for Travis in Blake's 7. (The dictator on the posters is Jack Kine, Visual Effects Designer, who'd also worked on the 1954 BBC version of Nineteen Eighty-Four where Big Brother was the image of the Head of Television.) There are lots of Leaders in this rank structure, including Platoon Under Leader Benton; I suspect Don Houghton may have been inspired by the SS rank system with all those F??hrers.

It's particularly enjoyable to see the perverse romance between Greg Sutton and Petra Williams, played out against the background of an absolute state that can have either of them shot at any moment (and later against one that's simply coming to an end). But why doesn't the sergeant (what, not Platoon Leader?) who comes to the cell call for help when he's being attacked? Why doesn't Stahlman shoot the Doctor when he has him at gunpoint at the end of episode 4?

Unlike the previous story, this one never drags, even during episodes 5-6 when we know the Earth is doomed and we're really just waiting for the Doctor to get away. This is of course the problem with parallel-universe stories, as often seen on Star Trek: it's hard to make things matter when we know that the story will end up back in its "real" world. It's probably a good thing that the show would rarely go back to this particular well.

The business with the green slime and the Primords (named only in credits, not in dialogue) was never adequately explained, I thought, showing just how relatively unimportant that supposedly major plotline really is to the overall story (indeed, the Primords themselves were apparently added as padding round the original parallel-universe story). The Primords seem to act much more like smart zombies than like generic monsters, particularly in the matter of using intelligence to obtain more victims to infect.

Yes, all right, the actual justification for the parallel-world stuff doesn't entirely work. The Doctor doesn't learn anything in Fascist Britain that helps him save Real Britain; it's just that Real Britain is a saner place, which is therefore better able to recognise a madman (note that the tide is turning against Stahlman before he bursts out in his monster suit, and the Doctor's raving doesn't really help matters). But seeing this cast get their teeth into well-written parts more than makes up for the problems, at least for me.

Overall impressions

This was the series that changed everything. Its Quatermass-styled stories pushed Doctor Who from being a Sixties celebration of the weird into a not quite premature Seventies doom-fest. Yes, even though the Doctor and UNIT are triumphant -- they're just barely successful, and there's always another danger waiting round the corner. This is in part an effect of being stuck on Earth: with a TARDIS that could always take our heroes to where the danger was happening, there could have been nothing changing there for hundreds of years until the Doctor showed up to stick his oar in, but now there's something new happening every few weeks.

This change of format also squashed down the range of possible stories to, as Malcolm Hulke put it, mad scientists and alien invasions. He did his best within those limits.

Compared with the change between Hartnell and Troughton, this is revolutionary; change a couple more things (the Brigadier, the shape of the TARDIS) and it could be a completely new programme. There have been stylistic changes before, generally as production teams came and went, but I certainly regard this as the first great revolution in the show's approach to storytelling.

The use of colour and changes in production techniques just about halved the episode count that could be produced in a year, which made the filming schedule much less punishing. But did the higher resolution of colour mean the producers felt pushed into visual spectacle rather than televised plays with occasional effects? Particularly since most of the audience would have been watching in black and white anyway?

I suppose I ought to touch on the fan-vexing question of dates for these stories. It's been claimed that they're meant to be set a few years into the future from the broadcast date. But apart from the occasional big and non-lasting change (like the British space programme, mentioned once in The Ambassadors of Death and then never again), they are entirely contemporary in style; there's no effort to show their nominally future setting.

And what's more, each one starts from a baseline Earth apart from the UNIT crew. When the Brigadier is initially trying to convince Liz of the existence of an alien threat to Earth, he doesn't say "do you remember last year when the Cybermen nearly took over the world", or even "do you remember the year before last when London was evacuated". The scale of the events of those stories, and indeed of this series (the senior civil servants who knew they'd been doubled, the plague in London and Paris), go a little bit beyond "we didn't inform the public"! (Then again, how else could one do it? The revived series tries to show an Earth that's getting used to being invaded, but it comes off as shallow and unconvincing.)

Bizarrely, the UNIT stories come pre-parodied -- a few weeks earlier, episode 7 of Monty Python's Flying Circus had shown the Science Fiction sketch, the one about alien blancmanges turning people into Scotsmen. Just look at those laboratory scenes! It shows just how far into debt this series had suddenly gone to the British SF tradition of the sixties, and the American B-movie tradition of the fifties, which hadn't previously been part of Doctor Who.

Quite apart from the Earthbound nature of the stories, the series had taken a distinct turn for the dark, which may have contributed to the huge ratings drop it experienced. Had it really been The UNIT Show, it probably wouldn't have been renewed.

Liz Shaw should have been the perfect companion for my taste, but several of the writers weren't much good at writing a smart woman as sole companion (they preferred someone who needed to have the basics explained) -- and Caroline John wasn't invited back, not even for a farewell scene. When she gets a chance to play intelligent, she's superb, but much of the time she's made boring by the writing. She's always introduced as "Miss Shaw", rather than "Dr Shaw" -- though I suppose "this is Dr Shaw, and the Doctor" would have sounded rather odd. She gets her high rank here largely by virtue of what she might have been, and a small boost from Section Leader Shaw.

Next series: a recurring villain!

Favourite story of this series: Inferno

Departed companions to date, ranked by how much I like them:

  1. Zoe
  2. Barbara
  3. Liz
  4. Susan
  5. Ian
  6. Steven
  7. Sara Kingdom
  8. Jamie
  9. Ben
  10. Polly
  11. Vicki
  12. Victoria
  13. Dodo
  14. Katarina

  1. Posted by Owen Smith at 12:20pm on 11 February 2014

    When I've seen some of these UNIT Pertwee shows on TV, I've generally not been impressed. I'm a Baker/Davison man, and this is a very different show.

    As for recurring villains, I remember as a child an entire Davison series where suddenly the villain in every story was The Master. When I realised this in the third story I yelled "Oh not the bloody Master again!" and then I was told off for swearing by my parents. It doesn't work well when the audience expects a different villain every story.

  2. Posted by Ms Ashley R Pollard at 01:22pm on 11 February 2014

    Inferno gave me the heebie-jeebies when I first watched it all those years ago, and remains one of my favourite stories. I think it is too easy to deconstruct the stories using hindsight aforethought to analyse the story deficiencies, which were never meant to be more than light entertainment.

  3. Posted by RogerBW at 01:51pm on 11 February 2014

    Owen: my own watching began quite late in Baker's era. I'd seen this particular series before, in isolation, but in the context of my full watch I was mostly disorientated by what a wrench this was from the Hartnell/Troughton "style".

    Given that the next series was written in the usual way by commissioning individual scripts, and then the Master was wedged in to most of the stories afterwards, it's not surprising that he sometimes feels a bit superfluous there.

    Ashley (welcome!): I'm a great believer in the fridge logic principle. If the story can carry me over the rough bits while I'm watching, but I spot holes in it later, I'll give it a bit of a pass. It's not as though it were a proper story in a book, after all; those are held to higher standards. For these reviews I'm deliberately writing either as I watch or soon afterwards, because the vast majority of television really doesn't stand up to serious analysis and I'm not pretending to give it that.

    There seem to be fashions in Who fandom; for a long time they loved the Pertwee era (and particularly this first series), now they generally look down on it. I may well be out of tune. Don't care.

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