RogerBW's Blog

Doctor Who Re-Watch, series 16 28 June 2014

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

Doctor Who - Tom Baker
Romana I - Mary Tamm
K-9 (voice) - John Leeson

The Ribos Operation

And this is what happens when the Time Lords are no longer an external, super-powerful plot effect; you need a new external, super-powerful plot effect. You invent the Guardians.

Graham Williams had been determined to tell a story that spread over more than one set of episodes, in particular disliking the coincidence that each TARDIS arrival should happen to be when an adventure's happening, and for his second series he had time to commission scripts with a story arc in mind.

For this first story, he sensibly brought back Robert Holmes, who pulls it off quite nicely; for a story that introduces the Most Epic Quest EVAR, he sensibly scales everything right down. Starting with one of his trademark double acts, and going on with a second, this is a caper story of the sort we haven't often seen on the show: tranquilising the beast, cutting the glass, hiding behind pillars, and so on, while also running a real-estate scam. The Giordano-Bruno-clone seems a bit like padding, but it's a nice character moment for Unstoffe. This is what you do when you don't have a big budget: you don't scrape the money thinly over a huge story, you spread it thickly on a small one.

This is definitely a return to form for the show; George Spenton-Forster, who'd previously directed Image of the Fendahl making the best of a poor script, did a fine job with a better one here. Graham Williams was allowed by the Head of Drama to tone down the jokiness that he felt had been forced on him in series 15. The Shrivenzales aren't ideal, and the Seeker is a bit of a misstep, but overall this story not only is visually impressive but makes some degree of sense.

These days it's hard to see Garron as being played by anyone other than Stephen Fry, but Iain Cuthbertson's rather better at the whole acting thing. Paul Seed as the Graff does a fine if stagey job of showing a gradual descent into raving madness. Apart from Binro and the Seeker, and some moments from the Graff, everyone keeps things underplayed here (even Baker!), and the story's much better for it.

The organ music is distracting, as it was in The Invasion of Time, but fortunately we don't get too much of it, and Dudley Simpson otherwise does a good job.

Mary Tamm's eyebrows are also rather distracting, but she comes off very well apart from that. Tom Baker objected to her white dress, probably for lack of anything else to object to. I note with interest that this was the last time in the original show that a new companion came in with a new series.

Meanwhile we see yet again that K-9 can't fit through the TARDIS door, and all it really gets used for is a mobile weapon. Ah well. At least it's got a bit quieter with the new prop.

The Pirate Planet

Ah, yes, "the Douglas Adams story". Adams had contracted to write it after selling the first series of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, but got bogged down in writing the unexpected second series and so delivered this script in a very late and confused state. (He was pretty good at failing to keep his commitments even when he didn't have something else more fun to do.) Anthony Read had to perform a very heavy editing job, in particular trying to tone down the original plot's complexity (there's still enough stuff going on here for at least two normal Who stories, maybe three) and its humorous content.

But at first there are jokes everywhere, so much so that even Tom Baker chooses to play it seriously in episode one (though not for a moment afterwards). The story does seem a bit too pleased with itself, and takes a fair old while to get going; most of the first episode seems to mark time.

It also a remarkably cheap story in places; when a crowd of cheering citizens is just eight people, even the best-dressed studio has a tendency to look a bit empty. Berkeley Nuclear Power Station does a decent job as the engine room; other sets and locations get the job done without impressing. The air-car is all too obviously a lightly hacked-about boat, while the infamous Avitron is fine when we don't see what it does but entirely silly as it craps yellow VFX clouds around the room during the "climactic" fight with K-9. (And the red VFX smears for the gunfights just don't work at all. Having no effect would have been much better.)

The cast, too, mostly seems to be here to get the job done rather than to impress; Mary Tamm's grown into the part though she's in the background a lot of the time, and her scenes with Baker are excellent, but otherwise everyone's pretty much doing what they always do (Baker after part one, except for a little ragey monologue to the Captain which for me doesn't convince even at all) or playing a monotype that hopes one day to grow up and become a stereotype (everyone else). Shouty captain, cringing mate, bland then evil nurse, blander natives, ho hum. The idea that the shouty captain role is a deliberate attempt to deceive the Queen is all very well, but we're only told about this, never shown it. (And there's only one Brian Blessed.)

There are some obvious Adams lines, such as Baker's monologue to the guards towards the end of part two, and it's pleasing to see a real cave again after the failure of Underworld. But all too much of this story is spent wandering around the landscape, or chatting in aircars (inserted specifically so that Adams could avoid scenes of walking down corridors), or being captured and escaping again; things only really pick up in the last episode and a half. Even there there are flaws: at first interfering with the time dams would destroy the entire planet, but then a little later simply blowing them up is just fine. The technobabble "solution" to the problem of the balanced planets brings my frustration with the "throw nonsense words at it" approach to everything to a climax.

This feels like a story that was too heavily edited, then not read through for consistency afterwards. If that couldn't be done, it should at least have had a director who could see what worked well on screen and what didn't, and who could get good performances out of the actors. If it had had both, it could have been brilliant; as it is, everything here has been painted in a thick coat of meh. There are occasional good bits, but as a story I have to call it a failure.

It's disappointing because this is one I very much enjoyed first time round, aged about nine. Good thing I've grown up a bit, really.

The Stones of Blood

David Fisher was an experienced screenwriter, but new to Doctor Who. His first outing works really rather well, as everything fits together: ploy, narrative, acting, direction (by Darrol Blake, who'd worked mostly for ITV and whose sole connection with the show this was). The only real difficulty is in working out what Cessair of Diplos' actual plan was. What would she have done if the Doctor hadn't come along and caused confusion?

There's something of a Hammer feel to the first parts, giving me at least lots of flashbacks to The Daemons, The Masque of Mandragora and Image of the Fendahl; it's a plot that would work better with the Master in it, really. Or if Vivien Fay's name were just a bit more subtle, perhaps. The second half is a wrenching change of pace, but for me it works quite well, reminding us that this is after all a science fiction show even if some of the humour gets a bit broad.

Blake often has to resort to tricky camera-work; it's clear that K9 really can't manage any sort of rough ground (planks were laid for the low shots of it crossing open country), and that the Ogri costumes are difficulty to fit through doors and archways (though I'm sure the original conception, as humanoid rock-creatures, would have been worse). Visual effects are patchy; there's some very bad CSO wobble when Romana's hanging on the cliff, there are very primitive computer graphics (done on a PET, perhaps?), but the Megara are rather pleasing.

Vivien Fay could have been played by Honor Blackman, but she turned down the part because it wasn't interesting enough. Shame. Susan Engel does all right, but her underplaying in the early episodes is better than her overplaying towards the end. Beatrix Lehmann as Professor Rutherford is very fine, though there's something off about the timing of her line delivery in her first scenes; she did die only a few months after filming, and may not have been on top form.

Baker and Tamm are on the ball and having fun, even if Romana does get a bit screamy at times. Still, having two other strong female characters helps the story along.

This was the hundredth story.

The Androids of Tara

David Fisher's second story (it would have been the fifth of the series, but production concerns pushed The Power of Kroll back), and another decent production overall, even if Fisher does blatantly steal from The Prisoner of Zenda. It's good to come to a smaller scale from some of the huge events we've been seeing until now; the only thing at stake here is the rulership of a single planet (and this story's segment of the Key to Time is found in the first half-episode). Still, for all the story could have been told in sterile corridors, there's a gorgeous visual texture here; clearly someone had lots of fun raiding the vaguely-historical costumes cupboard.

Romana's really rather excellent first outfit was designed by Mary Tamm herself, after the original proved impractical. Alas, Romana is desperately damselled here, being carried off multiple times by the Count at the drop of a sword-point. Meanwhile the Doctor starts and ends this story being stubborn and, frankly, stupid (it's not as though any of the previous three segments had been lying around unguarded). The rest of the time he's in full comedy mode, and it works well enough to take us along for the ride, though it does mean that the Good Prince has very little to do (though not as little as the real princess).

There's more good production in Madame Lamia's workshop, a pleasing combination of various ages of technology. The other interior scenes are more period, and less interesting.

Really, the Count ought to kill the Prince at the end of part one (then take the throne when it's offered to him, when the Prince doesn't turn up). It's only later that the Prince's continued life is at all useful to him. But it's that sort of story, and he's that sort of villain. Indeed, I rather suspect that Alan Rickman in Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves may have based his performance on Peter Jeffrey as the Count here.

Alas, while there's lots of fun here, there's also lots of runaround, and the last episode in particular tends to drag; when the King explains the Count's plan to Romana right before the Count explains it much more amusingly to the Archimandrite, the whole business feels like padding, and the very slow start to the climactic sword-fight doesn't help. (Yeah, we've seen The Sea Devils.) It's up to the Count to salvage things whenever Baker and Tamm are off screen, and mostly he does.

The Power of Kroll

Every series has to have a weakest story. It's a bit surprising when it's written by Robert Holmes, though. It's not that it's offensive, for the most part; it's just that there's nothing much to it, a succession of captures and escapes and set-pieces. Not even a standard Holmes comic banter sequence between a couple of minor characters (by request of the script editor, who also asked for the biggest monster ever). To be fair to him, Holmes realised that there were problems; he left the show after this with the intention of not returning.

The "natives" really are a very blunt narrative instrument — as indeed are the "colonists". Both are practically the same people as in The Mutants (only without the clever ideas), similarly there to show that the Noble Savages are Right (if not in their religion, at least in their wish to be left in peace) but simple, and the others are Wrong. (This was pretty much the tenor of standard history in the UK in the late 1970s as far as I could tell.)

It's odd that the wig for Ranquin, the leader of the swampies, should so very obviously have been made by a process different from that used on all the others. It's a darker green woollen cap sort of affair with a distinctly different texture. His face is shinier and darker too. Also, if you can't afford proper water effects, putting a model in a tank really doesn't cut it; water ripples don't scale smoothly. Kroll itself is not as bad as it might be, but never gives the impression of being a quarter of a mile across; the size of a house, at most. Sets are either basic (the swampies' village and temple) or boring (the refinery).

John Leeson appears on screen, for once, as the most techie of the colonists. (The original actor dropped out, and Leeson was available.) The only really memorable performances are from Philip Madoc and John Abineri, both of whom were old hands on the programme; apart from that, we have lots of Baker clowning, and yet again Romana's relegated to a passive role.

Better actors might have compensated for the story, which always feels stretched a bit thin; the long repeated sections at the starts of episodes don't help, and the extra peril of the automatic launch at the end of the final episode seems even more pasted on than most padding. Nothing ever quite fits together. Direction by Norman Stewart is lifeless at best (he'd also made the previous series' Underworld). At least, unlike the previous story, the segment is a key (sorry) part of the plot.

There were all sorts of ructions during production: Graham Williams was ill and unable to work, Anthony Read was leaving to pursue a career as a novelist, and Mary Tamm was havering because she was dissatisfied with the way Romana had after a promising start become just another screamer; meanwhile Tom Baker demanded vastly more creative control, and threatened to resign just as the Head of Drama was considering firing him.

(Blake's 7 began its second series. It continued to run after the end of this series of Doctor Who. Battlestar Galactica began its run in the USA; I don't know when it was first shown in the UK.)

The Armageddon Factor

Tom Baker was eventually called on his bluff and signed up for series 17, without any of his demands being met. John Leeson left. Mary Tamm committed to leaving, and suggested to Lalla Ward that she apply for the part; since Ward and Tom Baker were already striking sparks on the set by this point, she agreed.

Written by Bob Baker and Dave Martin again. Hmm; not perhaps the team I'd choose to end a series-long story arc. Though actually there's some pretty good stuff here; it's individual episodes that sag (particularly three, which is just a general runaround, five, the same but introducing Drax, and the first half or so of six, which carries on in the same vein). The end of part six was mostly put together by Graham Williams and incoming script editor Douglas Adams (and the change in authorship shows, as we see the casual attitude to absolute power of the earlier story turn into a practically Genesis-esque rejection of it).

Originally the Black Guardian wasn't to appear at all, which would have been a bit of a let-down after all the foreshadowing we've had during this series. The original ending had the Doctor simply deciding that nobody could be trusted with all that power, and scattering the segments, thus rendering the entire plot arc pointless. As it is, it's still a fair old anticlimax; it was left to Terrance Dicks in the novelisation to point out that the White Guardian would have had time to complete the required adjustments to the universe while the Key was sitting in the TARDIS. (Does it count as fanwank when the script hole is being fixed in an official novelisation?) It certainly doesn't help that Cyril Luckham wasn't available to play the White Guardian this time.

Tone is all over the place; in the end, some of the highest peril we get is when the helpless K9's on its way to be recycled. That's much more nightmarish than any scene of torture, mind control or collapsing ceilings. On the other hand, the time loop is well presented (even if it's not clear quite how the boundary works), rather better than in B&M's first Who script The Claws of Axos. There's sloppiness elsewhere: Romana forgets that she has already been briefed on the Guardians, while Merak knows far too much about both the TARDIS and the Key.

Like most of the recent six-parters (this was in fact the last six-part story broadcast, though it wasn't planned that way), this one's broken up into sub-stories, this time three of them: the war on Atrios and the Marshal; then Zeos, Mentalis (an excellent piece of design) and the introduction of the Shadow; then the conclusion. That breakdown shows how readily this could have been squashed down to fewer parts, though, and the two filler episodes really do drag. There are excellent bits (the telecast/hospital opener), and great ideas (the final segment as a living person), but also some terrible ones (K9 making modem noises at a door; Drax; the huge signal-blocking "third planet" that's actually a small space station), and generally the execution is poor.

While some might feel that the lack of model spaceships flying about is a budgetary failure, I actually prefer the blips-on-a-scanner approach that we get in the early episodes. The Marshal's ship is not bad, but doesn't impress.

This is the first time we've seen anyone else who actually knows about the Key to Time since the first episode of this series. The Shadow's a fairly generic villain, in the end; his plots change shape as needed (why didn't he keep Astra controlled from the beginning?) and he's mostly there to cackle evilly, but William Squire does a decent job from behind the mask with what he's been given. How much more interesting if it had been the Master.

Mary Tamm spends this story in a deep-cut white dress that would have done credit to Leela; on the rare occasions she has something to do, she's excellent as always. John Woodvine plays The Marshal as a sort of macho American war-film general, then shifts personality as he gets new orders, and has an effective double act with Shapp (Davyd Harries), though most of the humour's on Shapp's side. Merak is a bit of a wimp, and to be honest the Princess Astra doesn't come over very well either (even before she spends a lot of time manacled to a wall).

(It was during broadcast of this series that The Tomorrow People came to an end, after six years. That wasn't bad going for TV SF, not bad at all.)

Bob Baker and Dave Martin

In all, they wrote ten stories together, The Armageddon Factor being their last (Bob Baker returned solo for The Nightmare of Eden in series 17). Some were dire; some were decent; none was really exceptionally good. They had a tendency, like Robert Holmes, to introduce great big chunks of continuity which would then be forgotten by the next writer (I'm thinking particularly of Omega). In general, I think they were competent at coming up with good ideas, but poor at actually writing the scripts to fit them together; and this may well explain why some fans, raised on novelisations or memories of the shows rather than videotape or DVD, remember them fondly. The ideas are often great. It's the wallpaper-paste that's all they can come up with to glue them together that fails when one watches the actual show rather than remembering the highlights of it.

Romana I

In retrospect I've found Mary Tamm excellent as Romana, but for her this is a series of two halves: in the first three stories she has decently meaty roles, while in the second half she is far too often just a damsel in distress, her rescue being one more plot coupon that has to be clipped out to complete the set and let things move on. I can quite understand why she decided to leave.

Overall impressions

This was the series when I became a committed fan of the show as opposed to the novelisations. Watching it now, I cannot help but think that the Key to Time sequence was a marginal failure: a good idea, an interesting linkage that kept some coherence between the stories, but let down by the resolution. And of course I'm rather less uncritical than I was at age nine; Tom Baker can still carry me over gaps with his mugging and playing the fool, but I notice the gaps much more than I used to. Still, it's been a vast improvement on series 15.

Next series: Douglas Adams, Script Editor.

Favourite story of this series: The Ribos Operation, though Stones or even Androids might have beaten it if I'd been in a different mood.

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

  1. Zoe
  2. Barbara
  3. Liz Shaw
  4. Leela
  5. Romana I
  6. Sarah Jane Smith
  7. Susan
  8. Ian
  9. Steven
  10. Sara Kingdom
  11. Jo Grant
  12. Jamie
  13. Ben
  14. Polly
  15. Vicki
  16. Victoria
  17. Dodo
  18. Katarina

  1. Posted by Owen Smith at 02:58pm on 28 June 2014

    I was definitely a committed viewer when this series broadcast, I remember the key to time fondly. I also quite liked Romana and was a bit annoyed when they had her regenerate, it seemed so unecessary and I liked her as she was. Of course at the age I was then you don't realise it's because the acrtess wants to do more than just scream and be captured.

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 05:47pm on 28 June 2014

    I liked Romana I more this time round than last. The only other thing in which I've seen Mary Tamm is an episode of Jonathan Creek from 2001, in which she was playing the Ageing Actress. She seems to have had a lot of short-running parts, and if I'd been watching more TV in the 1970s and 1980s I'd probably have come to recognise her.

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