RogerBW's Blog

Doctor Who Re-Watch, series 5 31 January 2014

(First written in June 2013)

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

Doctor Who (sic) - Patrick Troughton
Jamie McCrimmon - Frazer Hines
Victoria Waterfield - Deborah Watling
Zoe Heriot - Wendy Padbury

The Tomb of the Cybermen

We're back out of recon territory for this one, at least briefly, and at much better video quality than any of the other Troughton material I've seen so far; this was one of the first rediscovered serials to get a good restoration job. Also, I'm a sucker for stories about people who aren't the Doctor, living their lives, like our space archaeologists here (so much more interesting than their pale shadows in Silence in the Library). Sure, they're mostly stereotypes, but they're well-played stereotypes (particularly the Kaftan/Klieg double act) and they get their jobs done.

The sets are lovely, particularly the entrance hall of the Tomb, though perversely the E-13B MICR typeface used on the central dial is one of the most dated things about it. The black/white control levers are a pleasant piece of ergonomic design, and there's always a sense of place, of who's where and moving in which direction.

The "honeycomb" tomb of the Cybermen itself is less impressive, though I'm not sure why -- possibly because it feels as though there ought to be thousands of them, not just the dozen or so we see here, though obviously that wouldn't have been possible with the budgets and technology of the day. The Cyber Leader is similarly a disappointment, seeming more primitive and less detailed than the mass of the Cybermen. But his voice, ah! It's a lovely call-back to the original Cybermen voices from The Tenth Planet...

The whole thing bowls along, and keeps things moving through its four episodes (this would have been terrible stretched out to seven like the previous series's later stories).

I had not previously noticeed that there were two sorts of cybermat: the small model that ends up in Victoria's bag, and the larger sort (with its swivelling eyes and tentacle fringe) that's used in greater numbers later on.

"Nobody in the universe can do what we're doing"... yup, still no sign of Time Lords here! The Cybermen's plot is a bit shaky, particularly in that they don't seem to have kept a revitalisation chamber down in their tomb, not to mention an override control for the hatch, but I suppose they expected to take over the humans more quickly than they did... and really there's no reason why they shouldn't have. So really the whole story starts to fall apart when you look at it too closely.

Even so, this is close to being, for me, the canonical Doctor Who story; it has many of the elements I appreciate, even if fandom has tended to condemn it since its rediscovery. Even Victoria gets a little to do apart from screaming.

It's certainly the best Cyberman story I've seen so far, much as The Power of the Daleks is the best Dalek story, and I think it's for similar reasons: rather than just being about the Doctor fighting monsters, it treats the monsters as a reliable source of motivation but allows the humans to split up along their own lines.

Or maybe I just don't like reconstructions.

The Abominable Snowmen

Well, I don't like this recon at least.

All that comic-relief nonsense in the TARDIS at the beginning quite gets in the way of having some story, and things get off to a disappointingly slow start. (Three separate shots of the Doctor knocking on a door. Riveting stuff.) I suppose it may have been subversive to have Victoria wanting to explore and Jamie being more cautious, but sadly they both tend to come off as petulant and stubborn.

"Why don't you listen to me?" Because you haven't said anything worth listening to, as it might be "I have come to return your special bell". But then things might get resolved more quickly, and this has to be stretched out to six episodes...

In the surviving (and well-restored) episode 2, the "snowy" terrain is clearly revealed to be temperate grassy hills. Ah well. Alas, the remaining four reconstructed episodes are pretty well unwatchable in the version I have; if I come across a better one, I'll revisit. The story's OK, but the pace is downright glacial. This is being a regular problem with the longer stories in particular; budgetary constraints on set construction meant each one had to be used in a longer story, and quite a few of these stories have been outstaying their welcome. I'd rather have seen more inventive reuse and re-dressing of the same sets for different stories, the way The Ark did -- or as we'll see much later in season 12.

Since Terry Nation was still at this point shopping around the Daleks to anyone who might pay, the Yeti were intended to be a new signature menace. Unfortunately they're a bit generic -- big menacing furry things -- and easily captured; in their second appearance there was an attempt to make them a bit more menacing and less lovable. But we'll get to that soon enough. As it is, it might have made more sense for the Great Intelligence to co-opt local fauna: where did it get these robots from? Did it build them to match the real yeti? In that case, why did it use them again in London? And so on...

The Ice Warriors

What lovely sets! And costumes! And Miss Garrett! They pushed the boat out on this, it would seem. Pity about the script, which too often devolves into blatant exposition or generic bickering; it could come out of the standard Doctor Who playbook, splitting up the TARDIS crew and throwing them around on a tour of the bits of the world that have been created. It is pleasing to see the classic Doctor, the one who doesn't know about everything, and can therefore learn about the Ice Warriors just as the audience does -- though he's also happy to slaughter them without a qualm.

The Ice Warriors' voices are rather reminiscent of the unusual stress patterns used in Tomb of the Cybermen, though here they don't work as well for me.

The fourth episode, when everyone's flailing back and forth in the ice caves, suffers from poor direction; in part because of the limited size of the studio sets, there's rarely any sense of place, or of how things are related to each other. Morris Barry's excellent direction from Tomb of the Cybermen is very much missed here.

Leader Clent is oddly and inconsistently drawn -- he gets a little speech in episode 5 about how the computer can't be asked to commit suicide, but before and after it he's just a martinet slave to the machine, the usual Who military man. I wonder if that was originally meant to be given to someone else who wasn't available for filming...

Ultimately, while Jamie and Victoria are mostly out of action, the guest cast manage to do a game job, and mostly skate over the silliness. It's not the best story by any means, but it's still fun to watch as the cast and production crew overcome the by-the-numbers script and reskinned-Cybermen villains. This has become a show that's mostly stopped taking chances and is churning out consistent product - never impressively bad, never impressively good.

(I wonder if the design of the computer inspired Greg Costikyan. That line, "we trust the computer"...)

The Enemy of the World

(This review was written before the rediscovery, and I may at some point update it.)

Sadly, only one surviving episode to this one. But it's a change from the bases under siege we've been seeing since the beginning of this series. The lack of a monster, for the first time this series and I think for the first time since The Highlanders was broadcast a year earlier, makes this a welcome change from the template that we've seen rather too much of late.

What really does bring things together, though, is Astrid Ferrier; not always superbly acted -- though Mary Peach isn't at all bad, particularly in later episodes -- but a strong female character who doesn't come from the standard Strong Female Character mould, in part because there's no Action Hero for her to fall in love with. There are times when it feels as though the TARDIS crew are simply intruders into the Astrid Ferrier Secret Agent Show. Which I wouldn't mind watching some more of.

Things do slow down a bit in later episodes, as usual for these six-parters, but Troughton is thoroughly solid in his double role, making up for the lack of things for Jamie and Victoria to do; after their actual absence from episode 4, they're really only there as punctuation for the rest of the story. Reg Lye has a short but show-stealing turn as Griffin the pessimistic chef, and Milton Johns is plausibly nasty as the secret policeman Benik. For a change, we're not always rattling around the same sets, either, though some of the effect is lost by the reconstruction.

Really, the only thing that I find wrong with this is the rushed conclusion to the final episode, as though David Whitaker was enjoying writing this future world too much to want to give it up, then had to stuff in the double-fight scene at the last moment.

The Web of Fear

(This review was written before the rediscovery, and I may at some point update it.)

The (surviving) first few minutes of this seem remarkably like what might have been intended to be the conclusion to the previous story. At this point one probably can't know whether this actually happened, though. This story gets off to a good start, but soon slows down substantially as other recent serials have -- with the Doctor completely missing from episode two, and most of the middle episodes consisting of running back and forth, with background deaths by the expendable soldiers. It's only in the last two episodes that much of significance happens, and the actual plot feels crammed into the last fifteen minutes or so.

This is an action-heavy story, so it suffers a lot from static telesnap reconstruction; this is one that I'd push up the list for animation. Because of the way the Doctor is split up from Jamie and Victoria early on, Anne Travers gets a fair bit to do, though she never really comes through as a real character with her own goals in life. (Tina Packer didn't do a great deal of acting -- a bit-part in The Avengers being the only real piece of interest -- but did go on to found a theatre company in the USA.) Jamie and Victoria, lacking any useful skills, are often relegated to the background. For myself, I could have done with more of the treachery plot, a welcome change to the base-under-siege approach.

This is famously the story where the BBC was denied permission to film in the Underground (or at least was asked for high fees and short hours), built its own very fine studio sets instead, and supposedly was then accused of having sneaked in. The Yeti from The Abominable Snowmen were redesigned to make them more menacing and less cuddly, and from what survives this appears to have been a success. It makes no particular sense for them to be invading London, of course, but never mind...

Fury from the Deep

A story that's completely missing, alas; the last such, which is encouraging, and at least it's a rather better quality reconstruction than the last one. The plot wires are clearly visible even in part one: Victoria is sent back purely so that she can get into trouble, and the boss of this particular base under siege is peculiarly pig-headed even by the usual standards of such.

The pacing is a lot better than of late, though, even with the thugs curiously played as comic relief (especially considering their soundtrack, a riff on the usual accompaniment to rude mechanicals in television of this era); there may be a lot of running back and forth, but the plot is still developing in each episode, with new things happening and new characters arriving. Contrasting this with The Web of Fear the difference in quality is obvious. The story may well be arrant nonsense, but it flows, and for a change I don't feel it's been stretched too thin. Yes, yes, this is yet another base under siege, a plotline clearly followed by an awful lot of recent stories; but it's a good one!

What we can see of the sets is encouraging; they're a bit bare, but they are both sensibly industrial and pleasingly three-dimensional. The complete lack of unconvincing model monsters is most effective: all we have here is foam and weed, with a couple of prosthetics, and all of this can be done very much on the cheap where the show is strongest.

For a change there seems to have been some actual warning of the departure of a companion, in time to work it into the script in more than just the last episode, and Victoria's is moderately well-handled -- though being fed up with constant peril rather risks undercutting the premise of the show. In the end I don't think she really amounted to very much, though she had one or two good moments (particularly in Tomb of the Cybermen). She sits comfortably in my list with Vicki and Dodo. Frankly, this story's conceit that her screaming is the ultimate weapon with which to defeat the nasties seems to deconstruct itself and poke fun at the same stereotyped companion that it's presenting.

The Wheel In Space

An unpromising start here, with pure filler that forces our heroes out of the TARDIS -- when they've always been prepared to go exploring anyway. And the more I think about the removal of a piece of equipment turning the inside of the TARDIS into "an ordinary telephone box", the less sense it makes.

The reconstruction I have is very uninspired; whatever menace might have been being built up in the first episode is largely lost in endless recycling of the same few shots, with no subtitled or narrated explanation of what's meant to be going on. This seems to be another very visual story, like The Web of Fear, and what we see of the set and costume design is excellent.

Unfortunately things rather slow down in part 2, and this isn't helped either by Troughton's absence (and thus the Doctor's unconsciousness) or by "drops in air pressure" being terribly familiar from last season's The Moonbase -- so much so that when the Cybermen appear it's not a surprise at all!

Jamie's sabotage of the laser is unfortunately necessary to the plot: unfortunate, because it doesn't feel in character. Couldn't the story have been about the Cybermen's plan, instead? (All right, that would have required the Cybermen to have a plan that actually made some slight degree of sense.) And, after we've had that nice bit in episode 2 about a spacer never wasting water, in episode 3 we get an experienced spacer treating a new and unknown life form as "cute" rather than as a cause for widespread alarm!

The science is frankly naff -- stars going nova as an immediate cause of meteorites many light years away -- and we'd have been better off without it. This is a story that looks lovely, in the surviving episodes at least, but scratch any part of the surface and you find another idiocy. (Cybermen are part of Earth's history by now -- Mondas and that initial invasion must be in the history books, even if the Moonbase affair was hushed up -- but instead of saying "look them up", the Doctor just rants on with his tired "you must believe me" line like any old loony. And where did that mind control ray and chest-mounted blaster come from anyway?) It all falls apart in episode 5, and episode 6 is a whiz-bang succession of "the enemy are all dead". (The effect for the "space-walking" Cybermen is particularly poor -- strange, since Jamie and Zoe in their space-suits work at least passably well.) Cybermen have another new vulnerability: electricity! (In the Tomb they used it to recharge. Hey-ho.) The direction (by Tristan de Vere Cole, the only time he'd work on the programme) is decent, but the script is so terrible that even that can't save it. David Whitaker was generally better than this; this was his last chief writing credit for the show, with only The Ambassadors of Death still to come, and that was heavily rewritten by Terrance Dicks.

But in spite of all this the story has its moments. One encouraging thing: while the space crew are mostly white (two non-speaking black parts and one horribly unconvincing Asian), at least they're reasonably international and there's more than one woman among them, and more importantly nobody makes a fuss about either nationality or sex. Another good thing: the Cyber Director. Why, after all, should Cybermen stick to their boring and inefficient humanoid form? Zoe starts off promisingly, not only having an enthusiasm for adventure but bringing some actual skills to the group rather than just a talent for screaming.

Overall impressions

Just the one companion departure, of Victoria, and no major changes, though the top slots were traded back and forth a few times. Indeed, after seeming to have found its feet last series with the new team, this series has the show very much stuck in a rut, with four bases under siege among the seven stories. Favourite story of this series: predictably enough, Tomb of the Cybermen.

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

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

  1. Posted by Owen Smith at 02:55pm on 31 January 2014

    Zoe seems to be quite a popular companion online.

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 03:36pm on 31 January 2014

    I was very surprised how much I liked Zoe in the following series. In the books she didn't come over as terribly interesting.

  3. Posted by Owen Smith at 12:50pm on 01 February 2014

    Presumably this is the actress making more of the role than is in the words of the script. Or the novels aren't a good reflection of how she was in the scripts.

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