RogerBW's Blog

Doctor Who Re-Watch, series 20 04 April 2015

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

The Doctor - Peter Davison
Nyssa - Sarah Sutton
Tegan Jovanka - Janet Fielding
Vislor Turlough - Mark Strickson
Kamelion - Gerald Flood

The big theme for this twentieth series was "the return of old adversaries", obviously easier on the writers than the demands of a consistent story arc like the Key to Time. The Tuesday-and-Wednesday broadcast schedule continued, though these four-parters don't seem to put any greater emphasis on the "wait for next week" second part cliffhanger than on the other two.

Arc of Infinity

Return of the Time Lords! And the fanwank that inevitably seems to follow. Yeah, the fans complained that the Temporal Grace introduced in The Hand of Fear was no longer working in Earthshock. But there are two ways of dealing with that: you can just ignore it, or you can make a fuss about it. The problem with making a fuss about it is the same as when we have talk about Romana and Leela: that while it's a bone tossed to the long-term fans, it's boring or annoying for the newcomers, because people are talking and taking up screen time but not about anything that seems to be important. (Note how we don't get a scene here explaining who Omega is, or why he's important – the long-time fans can be relied on to go "ooh" merely at the name, and the newcomers, well, why are the newcomers watching anyway? And even for the long-term fans, this isn't the Omega who is the dark secret at the heart of the Time Lords's civilisation; this is just yet another cosmic menace.) In fact it's fair to argue that what the long-term fans want is not an official answer to questions like that, but the opportunity to argue about them.

John Nathan-Turner attempted to replicate the success of City of Death by filming on location again, this time in Amsterdam. (The BBC was using Amsterdam as one of the locations for Triangle), a soap opera set aboard a cross-channel ferry – its other connection to Who is that Kate O'Mara was a lead in it – and was able to get things somewhat on the cheap.) Quite apart from the usual outdoor film-look, it doesn't seem to add anything; Amsterdam isn't full of instantly-recognisable landmarks the way Paris has the Eiffel Tower, and a barrow of tulips somehow feels more like a cliché than anything in that earlier story. And for political reasons at the BBC there couldn't be any drug smuggling, Dutch Old Masters, or anything else that might actually justify the location in narrative terms.

In fact Johnny Byrne's second script for the show got loaded down with all sorts of outside requirements: Amsterdam, Tegan's reintroduction, and the return of Omega. Yet again he didn't get the chance to tell his own story. Sure, the core plot makes no sense, but I'm not even getting annoyed by that any more. Why does Omega have to bond with a Time Lord? Why, if he's prevented from getting the Doctor, can't he just do the same thing to another one, faster than they can be executed? Who told Johnny Byrne how antimatter worked, and was he playing a trick on him? (Being fair, that's keeping up a tradition from The Three Doctors.)

I know it's hard to find young actors, but our two hitch-hikers here are particularly gawmless even before one of them gets turned into a hypnotised zombie. I suppose they're meant to be. They can't even scream convincingly. And then there's that bird thing. Why is there that bird thing? All right, the "Ergon". The show's had naff monsters before, goodness knows, but usually the crew know they're naff and don't make a big thing out of them.

While I've been a fan of introductory stories that show the life of people before the monster turns up, this time the split persists all the way through the first three episodes. All right, there's clearly a connection visible to the viewer, from Colin to Omega to the treacherous Time Lord, but it's pretty bloody tenuous. The only real anchor we have in the Amsterdam segments is Entirely Coincidental Tegan, which I suppose is a neat narrative trick (if I have to care about somebody in this scene I suppose I'll care about her rather than bug-eyed whatshisname)… but only if it works. The Gallifrey story is dragged-out enough as it is without cutting away to monsters in the mausoleum; by the time the traitor's revealed in part 3, I suspect only a very slow child would have been in any doubt at all as to which of the candidates it would be.

Meanwhile Nyssa's suddenly got more interesting, probably because Sarah Sutton was known to be going to leave, so Byrne and other scriptwriters for this series got asked to make her more mature as a preparatory move. (Because obviously that couldn't be done to a character who'd be around for a while.) She doesn't use any of her particular abilities, but she does at least have stuff to do (helped by being the only companion much of the time), and makes a fair fist of it; she's definitely one of the brighter spots here. Davison's decent as Omega, less good as the Doctor, and several of the guest Time Lords are solid.

I worry slightly that I can trace the chain of reasoning: nuclear fusion needs high temperatures and pressures, so a location with high pressures gets you a head start, and Amsterdam being largely below sea level has higher pressures than many cities. Well, ye-e-e-es, but.

And once everybody gets together and there's a chance for some real action, what do we have? Running down corridors! All right, the corridors are Dutch streets with trams and so on, but the number of times our heroes lose track of Omega, only to be put back on his path by a scream or other noise, gets quite silly; the double role for Davison means we can't have a conventional chase scene with both parties in the same shot. The childlike Omega distracted by a portable organ is clearly meant to be a moment of pathos, but it's so utterly out of kilter with his grand ambitions that for me it falls flat. Yeah, I have no soul. Nice squibs, though!

Overall I find that this story has some lovely parts but they never really mesh together to make for good television. Gallifrey's been redecorated again, for even less of the collegiate feel and more of a once-trendy café, and nobody except the High Council and the guards seems to live there any more – but at last there's a Time Lady on the High Council. The Matrix is now just a set of wibbly lines a bit like the back-end of Castrovalva. Fixing this story would need a major re-write, but removing Amsterdam completely would be a good start. In the end it's just bland, extruded Who product, which offends not by being terrible (that can be fun in itself) but by being inoffensive. Still, it's not Time-Flight.

A side note is Colin Baker's first appearance on the show, as Commander Maxil, in a high camp style that needs no assistance from his ridiculous helmet plume.

Snakedance

After that brief glow of interest, Tegan's right back to being annoying (though fortunately she gets possessed almost at once, and once more Janet Fielding is vastly better in that mode), and Nyssa's mostly back to being a nonentity. And of course we have a Brat. Brats never go well on this show, at least as far as I'm concerned.

Kinda had been popular, and Christopher Bailey came back to write a sequel (along with his mishmash of religious terms used as character names).

The initial perils seem so trivial. Tegan is scared. She runs away from a toy snake, and Nyssa can't manage to follow her. Someone takes off her headphones. It's all tiny, and meanwhile the Doctor's ranting about the end of the world (again). And then in part two Tegan's playing silly games with the mirrors (and then the same again with Lon); it feels like Omega and the organ again, a drawn-out sequence that takes a long time to make a simple point. (And what on earth is going on with the Punch and Judy show? Part four overran horribly, contributing to its choppiness, but it never seems rushed, just confused; couldn't some of the cut content have been put into part three?)

There's obvious plot influence from Planet of the Spiders, particularly the quick mystical training sequence. This is trying to be a thoughtful story rather than an action fest, welcome enough in principle, but the hastily-built sets and horrible guest acting rather overshadow the direction that's very good but never quite energetic. Brian Miller as Dugdale is a pale imitation of the dodgy carnies and conmen we've seen before on the show.

It's interesting to see the really blatantly fake snake prop used in the procession, after the unfortunate rubber job in Kinda; maybe it's meant to make the "real" Mara look better by comparison.

It's still a bright spot in an otherwise disappointing series. Just pretend the plot is too clever for you, rather than incoherently written.

Mawdryn Undead

Apparently JN-T felt there was an annoying-young-brat-shaped hole in the scripts after the departure of Adric: the liar and thief and traitor were the things he found interesting about the character. Just what we wanted.

His introduction was going to be in Space-Whale or Song of the Space Whale, by Pat Mills and John Wagner, who were regular comics writers (creators of 2000AD, and writers of the Doctor Who Monthly comic strip). But Eric Saward as script editor raised enough objections that it would clearly not be ready in time, and so Peter Grimwade (an experienced director who'd written Time-Flight for series 19) was asked to bring forward the unrelated story he was developing for later in this series and work it into Turlough's introduction.

He returned to his theme of using two time periods as the setting, but was persuaded to put them closer together, so that at least one minor character could be present in both times. The school setting comes from the original plan to have the returning secondary character be Ian Chesterton – but William Russell wasn't available, and nor was Ian Marter, so Courtney was brought in. (Thus causing part of the UNIT dating problem: this is merely sloppy script editing, presumably spurred by a desire to use some red-and-blue bunting that was hanging around from the Silver Jubilee.)

And the Black Guardian is supposed to be a master of evil, but shows all his cards up front. Oh dear. Still, Valentine Dyall is always good value even if his dialogue is crap. So's Mark Strickson, ditto, though he's a bit too prone to bug-eyed mania.

All of a sudden the ladies are showing lots of cleavage. There's a desperation measure if ever I saw one. Important design tip, though: long skirts make for small mincing steps, which does not make your alien menace look any more imposing. (And if you were clothed out of the TARDIS's slop chest, why do your fellow aliens wear the same garb?)

Just what is Turlough supposed to do to the Doctor? I mean, really, a big rock to the head? A hugely powerful cosmic being, and that's the best plan you can come up with? The Doctor's taken big rocks to the head from better men than you.

Why do Tegan and Nyssa automatically assume that the person they've found, who looks very little like the Doctor, is the Doctor?

I suppose someone wanted to respond to the complaint that when he was a regular on the show the Brigadier never got to travel in the TARDIS.

Incidental music (by Paddy Kingsland as usual) is surprisingly intrusive, wandering between a generic eighties action score and wibbly synth themes. On the other hand, the set design for the alien ship is baroque and lovely, except for the depressingly generic laboratory.

This is a continuity-fan-pleaser all through: the Brig of course, reversing the polarity of the neutron flow, the flashback sequence. The main audience didn't consist of continuity fans as such; we cared more about the quality of the story. What works for me is the lack of a major villain: Mawdryn just wants to die (though one does wonder why he couldn't simply crash his ship into a star), and the Black Guardian is clearly pasted on and takes up most of the first half of the story. Even so, once we get away from the prolonged introduction, this one's surprisingly enjoyable.

Nothing even slightly undead, though.

Terminus

Squabble, squabble, bloody squabble. It almost makes me nostalgic for Adric. Almost. (And the show's apparently trying to make me feel that way too.) Stephen Gallagher had previously written Warrior's Gate and his pitch for another story got lost in the shuffle of producers and script editors until this point. Like another story set aboard a spaceship, The Nightmare of Eden, filming was apparently fraught: one of the six studio days was lost to industrial disputes, sets were misplaced and under-lit, costumes may have been the wrong colour for the chromakey (there's disagreement even now), and neither of the robots had been tested before it was brought to the studio.

Oh no! It's a Paintbox effect! And Nyssa in a scoop-necked vest, and later in her slip, which is all very well but not really very science-fictional. (It seems she was originally meant to take off her jacket because she was having trouble breathing, so that it would be a clue for the Doctor, but the costume designer hadn't read the script and so the only thing she could take off while remaining decent was the skirt) The Garm is probably meant to be intimidating, but it's shown too clearly in too much light and its voice is even sillier. Roger Limb gives us Vangelis-style music this time, faintly reminiscent of Peter Howell's score for The Leisure Hive.

I had completely forgotten the World's Least Practical Space Helmets. No wonder they're in such a hurry to take them off (also they hadn't been designed to be worn, and they fogged up something chronic). I suppose they had to fit the Eighties Big Hair in somehow, but the eye makeup is perhaps a bit much. It's a shame, after an effective introduction, that Kari's primary job is to be a sounding-board for the Doctor. (Especially when Tegan and Turlough are off in their own story. Why not use them instead of the space pirates?)

Why doesn't Valgard, going into the "forbidden zone" where the radiation is too strong, wear his radiation armour? Why, given two paths back to the TARDIS, is it necessary to split up? Why doesn't the useless pretty boy Olvir shoot Nyssa's manacles rather than trying to pull them off by hand? (In the continuity in my head, he was only brought along to be Kari's bit of fluff.) How does not jettisoning the unstable fuel prevent the engine from exploding?

It's a very padded story, especially in the early episodes; there's only really one plot thread where things are happening, and Tegan and Turlough are stuck crawling along ducts as a substitute for running along corridors. The final look on the Doctor's face, as he realises Nyssa is really gone and he's stuck with the other two, seems to mirror Davison's own feelings (he'd lobbied for the character to be kept on). Nyssa's own exit is somewhat devalued when you remember that it's pretty much the same "woman leaves to do a caring job" as Romana's; was that all Gallagher had in him?

Enlightenment

"The Enlighteners" was originally pitched as a stand-alone story; the Black and White Guardians were inserted when the story's place in the series was decided. Barbara Clegg was the first female scriptwriter in the programme's history.

Production was another nightmare (and another story set aboard a ship, what coincidence) with EETPU strikes meaning that a choice had to be made between this and the planned series finale, The Return; since this concluded the "Black Guardian" arc, it got priority. Was it worth it?

Cyril Luckham seems to have gone downhill since his cane chair and flask of Green Stuff in The Ribos Operation. (And now he has a dead bird on his head just like the Black Guardian. What is it with the birds?) The first-episode revelation is fair enough, but it's not as though being on a spaceship is particularly unusual for this series. The brightly-coloured spacesuits are at least more practical than the ones from Terminus, even if they are entirely pointless except for the episode two cliffhanger (there's breathable atmosphere everywhere on the ship, and anyone who went overboard would only be an ephemeral).

The covert threat from Striker and especially Marriner is effectively creepy (even if the Doctor utterly ignores any suggestion that Tegan might have a problem with her mind-reading stalker), but the pantomime Captain Wrack, while not appearing until part three, seems to have come out of a completely different genre. And she's having far more fun than anyone else in the entire story. (Which is wrong because the whole point of the Eternals is that they don't have much fun, but I'm glad somebody is enjoying the thing.)

How come it's perfectly OK to have the "vacuum shield" off when the chamber door is open, but when it's closed the chamber is suddenly (if protractedly) deadly? Except when it isn't?

I suppose Turlough's pleas for help from the Black Guardian, then finally from the Doctor, are supposed to represent his ultimate change of mind… except that he sticks firmly to his instant betrayal strategy every time there's a slight setback. There's clearly meant to have been a character arc here, but he was a liar and a thief before he ever met the Black Guardian and we have no reason to suppose he won't be afterwards (and the hammy acting doesn't help; Valentine Dyall is seriously overdoing it too). Conversely, Janet Fielding's doing a surprisingly good job here as Tegan comes to terms with her stalker; there's a subtlety she hasn't often displayed on the show.

In the end the trilogy ends on a flat note, with the ultimate battle between light and darkness reduced to a trite piece of moralising. This story isn't offensively bad like Terminus, but there's very little to it.

The King's Demons

Terence Dudley had written Four to Doomsday, Black Orchid and A Girl's Best Friend. In spite of this he was brought back to wrap a story over two metaplot constraints: the return of the Master (at Nathan-Turner's insistence), and the introduction of Kamelion (ditto). (Dudley brought in the shape-shifting idea, and the name, when the promised ability of the robot frame to walk unsupported didn't seem to be materialising.)

The Doctor is bizarrely unconcerned by what's happened to Turlough, because if he made a fuss he'd short-circuit the plot. And the plot is very tightly stretched even over these two episodes, given the dual purposes it has to answer; I don't remember a story this dedicated to things outside itself since The Rescue back in series 3.

It would have been nice if the Doctor had recognised the Master by his swordplay (they duelled in The Sea Devils, after all). But this is a very un-Master-like plot: it's much more in tune with the sort of thing the Meddling Monk used to do. The Master was all about conquest, not wrecking a minor historical event the importance of which was blown out of proportion in later centuries. Ainley himself seems bored with this small beer. (And nobody can be bothered actually to fix the plot; they just run away. So the Master's still there, with his TARDIS, and free to mess things up as much as he likes.)

On the other hand the guest cast is solid here, being made up of Real Actors for a change, and they do their best to rescue a story that's a bit of a mess. The costumes seem plausible, and the sets are mostly decent (though a staircase that spirals the wrong way is unfortunate).

Kamelion's history is a bit of an embarrassment, but I'll come back to that next series after its other story.

Like The Horns of Nimon, this was an unintended series-ender; The Return was lost to industrial action and ended up being rewritten for the next year as Resurrection of the Daleks. Instead, the filmed ending leads very loosely into The Five Doctors. (And yes, I know people often include it in series 20, but chronologically it was broadcast much closer to 21 so I'll talk about it next time.)

Overall impressions

As last time, I've had a long break in between posts. I do still plan to make it to the end, but the bright spots are getting increasingly rare now. For the last series, once I got started, I was able to get through about a story a day; this time I've been watching one story and been unable to get up interest to start the next one.

Which more or less matches my recollection of the original broadcasts. I was still watching because watching Doctor Who was a thing I did, but I wasn't enjoying it; I may have missed some episodes here and there, and not really cared about it.

I think I'd probably stopped reading Doctor Who Monthly by this point. If I'd stuck with it I might have become a Big Name Fan, written novels for Virgin, and been involved in the revival. Fates escaped…

I wonder whether the apparent aimlessness of the series might have been salvaged had The Return actually been brought in here, with the Daleks in the ultimate "return of an old enemy" story. Probably not, after this lot.

Davison, Fielding and Strickson all made it clear that they intended to leave the programme during the next series. Yet again, it was time for a complete cast change.

Nyssa

Nyssa should have been the perfect companion from my point of view, a competent successor to Zoe and Romana, but she very rarely had anything to do, and Sarah Sutton didn't give her much sparkle or vim.

It seems as though the progress of Nyssa has been all about stripping her down, not just from her original mulberry velvet and tiara to the vest and slip, but from a smart scientist to an interchangeable peril monkey. It's only in some of the stories of this series, when she was known to be leaving, that she was allowed to be a bit more interesting again. But it's in the ones that were supposed to be dedicated to her, Black Orchid and Terminus, that she's worst served; apparently the production crew couldn't think of anything to do with a female character other than put her in peril and make her scream.

And so the last pre-Davison character is gone. And everyone who'd joined since her would be gone by next year. (And the console room that had been in use since series 15 and The Invisible Enemy was last seen in The King's Demons. In fact this series reminds me a lot of the often-ghastly series 15.)

Favourite story of this series: Mawdryn Undead, I think. But my word, it's not being much fun any more.

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

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

  1. Posted by Owen Smith at 08:38am on 07 April 2015

    I barely recall this series except I remember Nyssa leaving. I never read Doctor Who monthly, was it worth it?

    If it doubt, ignore a character's gender when writing a script. It worked great for The Avengers after all.

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 09:17am on 07 April 2015

    I don't think DWW/DWM/DWB was ever really worth it. The thing is, it turned from something which celebrated the programme in general and particularly its history (back when that was hard to know about if you hadn't been there) to a booster specifically of the new stuff (Nathan-Turner was coordinating publicity with it to build up enthusiasm, and in his style that meant knocking older material that might have been seen as competition) and a creator of fannish orthodoxy: once a particular story had come bottom of a poll, it was a Bad Story and you should laugh at it (even if you hadn't actually seen it). Back when I was reading it they didn't even have polls like that.

    I think that it's possible to do better than simply ignoring gender (I'm very bored with the Stone Cold Combat Chick stereotype, who's basically a generic grunty male hero who happens to have breasts), but if one is working in a medium that's already very prone to stereotyping it's probably worth doing as a first step.

  3. Posted by Owen Smith at 03:00pm on 07 April 2015

    I'd also completely forgotten about Turlough as a companion. I can't have been paying much attention during this series, because I've remembered all the other companions from when I was watching. Or maybe he was just so forgettable?

  4. Posted by RogerBW at 03:07pm on 07 April 2015

    I'll talk more about him next time. So far, he's in contention to knock Adric off the bottom of my list.

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