RogerBW's Blog

Doctor Who Re-Watch, series 6 04 February 2014

(First written in December 2013)

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

Doctor Who - Patrick Troughton
Jamie McCrimmon - Frazer Hines
Zoe Heriot - Wendy Padbury

The Dominators

A strange start, with UFO footage only slightly more convincing than the "real" material of the time, followed by our party of tourist-victims -- this starts to remind me of a Fifties monster film. (The Dominators' amazing jackets, almost parodying the shoulder-pads that wouldn't come into fashion for another decade and a half, help reinforce this impression, as do the toga-like costumes of the tourists.)

The Quarks' voices are suitably creepy, but their design is more baroque than practical, particularly with those strange folding arms. One could say the same for the design of the ship, really, though the outside of it is gorgeous. Episode two settles into marking time, without much in the way of plot development; extended travel sequences are always a giveaway here, and it's odd how readily Zoe agrees to be separated from her missing companions.

Things do pick up a bit later on, with the final episode being particularly fast-moving (in part because the producers felt the serial was moving too slowly, and rewrote what would have been part five of six to be a concluding episode).

The sonic screwdriver was already becoming a universal plot token, here on its second appearance where it becomes a magical tunnel-digger (though not a particularly effective one, leading one to wonder why it was not either omitted or used exclusively).

It's altogether an odd little story, a welcome break from the bases under siege that made up most of the last series, but not much good otherwise; Zoe and Jamie are interesting, but the Doctor grates, everyone else is a nonentity, and the plot is very much by the numbers -- something of a heavy-handed attempt at a "ineffectual pacifists fail to resist warmongers" allegory, something that had been done rather better with The Daleks. (One of the writers later abandoned screenwriting to make up lies about Rennes-le-Chateau and the Merovingians.)

(Yes, yes, all right, Wendy Padbury in a translucent microdress over a bikini.)

The Mind Robber

An interesting, if heavy-handed, start to this one, starting as a successor of sorts to the better parts of The Edge of Destruction. This story was stretched (or more specifically a first episode was cobbled on) when the previous serial ran short, it seems, but unlike the scraped-thin feeling that some of the previous series' seven-parters had, this one feels as though it's about the right length (though some reviewers disagree). The first episode is the strongest, for me, but even the antics of the middle episodes couldn't readily be shuffled about like the corresponding parts of The Celestial Toymaker (another story that this one very much recalls); they integrate gradual discovery of what's going on rather than being time-filling action. Some of the actual detail is a bit shaky, particularly the Karkus -- probably inspired by the famously campy Batman TV series -- but if one buys into the basic premise it all fits together. (And the Medusa design is excellent.)

(Yes, yes, all right, Wendy Padbury in a form-fitting spangled catsuit.)

The Invasion

Another story where the production team tried to keep the monster secret, but it was spoiled by the Radio Times. It feels very much like a successor to The Web of Fear from last series, though Zoe has more that she can do than Victoria did. Jamie mostly hangs around with the Doctor and doesn't have much of a role.

It's a little slow-moving at first, probably inevitable given the eight-part story, and I started to groan each time Vaughn spent another few seconds opening the world's noisiest secret door. The budget shows from time to time, particularly with Vaughn's "duplicate" office that's clearly just the same set, but all in all it ends up working reasonably well.

The revelation of the Cybermen is saved until the mid-point of the story, in the closing seconds of episode 4, and does I think work better there than if it had been at the end of part 1. To my mind many of the most effective Cybermen stories are the ones where they have to work by subversion (here, The Wheel in Space, and The Moonbase) rather than blatant force (The Tenth Planet, and, all right, Tomb of the Cybermen). It's that fear of being changed, hypnotised, suborned, which makes them effectively creepy, and more than just plain old killer robots. Yet another costume change, with the "earmuffs" appearing for the first time.

I read the Controller's arguments with him as carefully playing him along so that he thinks he's gaining small victories. And Vaughn in turn claims not to believe a word from them, though quite how he expects to stop the Cybermen from simply bombarding the planet from orbit (or throwing millions of mind-controlled zombies against the IE security forces) until effective resistance stops is unclear. I know, he's a megalomaniac... slightly more seriously, while having villains working at cross-purposes is hardly original, it does lend some interest.

Pacing is strange. While the first half doesn't exactly drag, there's a lot of running around. But after the invasion's started (particularly with that famous shot of Cybermen marching down from St Paul's) -- though not round other London landmarks in a way that might have echoed the splendid rush across London in The Dalek Invasion of Earth, and there's rather less excuse here for London to be empty of people -- there are lots of scenes that are only described or alluded to rather than filmed: such as UNIT's recapture of Watkins, the party including Turner, the Doctor, Jamie, Zoe, both Watkinses and a random soldier evading IE security goons across London and getting helicopter-lifted back to the headquarters C-130, or the final shutting off of the radio beacon.

What sort of space warship is vulnerable to a 1960s -- all right, perhaps 1970s -- moon rocket, using V2 launch footage at that, with a nuclear warhead on board? Can't it, you know, dodge? But the anti-missile footage (of Thunderbird test launches, I think) is pleasing, even if a Bloodhound would have been more appropriate. (And a modern viewer may be more prone than an original to spot that each time the missiles are seen on the ground -- when they're not Thunderbirds at all -- it's the same three shots of stock footage, in the exact same order.) The final battle scenes are very much improved by the availability of 2Bn Coldstream Guards, who (as one might hope) are rather more convincing at playing soldier than the usual lot of extras.

The death of Vaughn is immediately followed by some of Troughton's most blatant clowning, both leaping about like a cartoon cat on fire and primping for the photographer; if I were looking for Deep Meaning I'd read something into that.

And of course the whole plot with the hidden circuits can be regarded as a dire warning against closed-source hardware (and indeed software).

Direction, as usual from Camfield, is solid, and the music by Don Harper is effective -- except for the distractingly twiddly military theme.

But on balance, this is a very good story. It was Kit Pedler's last contribution to the programme (possibly why the Cybermen lay fallow for several years), and the enthusiastic audience response set things up for the earthbound Doctor of series 7.

(Yes, yes, all right, Wendy Padbury in a groovy mini-dress plus feather boa. Until she changes back into the spangled catsuit for no obvious reason.)

The Krotons

A shift in opening style from the previous few stories, with what would later become the very standard establishing scene of non-regular cast doing something to generate a sense of unease. This was the first of Robert Holmes' many scripts for the show, and many of the concepts he'd use later are clearly present here. As are plenty from earlier episodes by other people, particularly The Space Museum and The Savages, and even The Daleks.

I remember well the basic premise (I first saw this one during the 1981 repeat sequence, when it was the only surviving four-part Troughton story); I'd forgotten, though, how quickly it was set up, being basically clear by the end of part 1. To be honest, it does start to fall apart a bit in part 2, with the Krotons themselves being strangely unconvincing as crystalline entities (though the idea of the spacecraft working to rebuild them is a very fine one, and if you wince at the idea of using "mental energy" as a power source, remember The Matrix). As for their voices, I can't work out whether they're meant to be Cockney geezers or Serth Efrikan; odd, since they were both done by regular voice actors on the show who should have known better.

But for the most part this isn't so much a story about the Krotons as a chance for the Doctor and Zoe to show off. This really shows up why Jamie's been kept with the Doctor so much: on his own, he can look stupid and hit things, but that's about it. When the whole team is together, the chemistry between the actors really shows, and it's not surprising that Frazer Hines deferred his leaving the show at Troughton's request.

The political manoeuvres of the Gonds seem superfluous, but give Philip Madoc a chance to chew the scenery as the chief nasty. (And, it appears, his plan would have worked: the Krotons don't have any reason to destroy the Gonds once they've got away.)

Model shots are poorly integrated, particularly what I only realised after the fact was meant to be the exterior of the Dynatrope -- since the people looking at it are indoors at the time, it didn't seem to make sense as a huge structure. It would have worked better, I think, if we'd had a model shot distant enough to show the whole thing but close enough to allow an external hatch to be visible. The design in general is quite lacking, though the standard hexagonal hatchway has some appeal. There's not much here that I'd call a "crystalline" theme, though; The Hand of Fear did that rather better.

Not the best story, not really up there with the previous two, but still a rewarding and solid entry in this series. And the original outline was submitted for the original TARDIS crew, back in series two!

(Yes, yes, all right, Wendy Padbury in a very groovy assembly of shiny scalloped bolero jacket and skirt plus go-go boots, blouse and neckerchief.)

The Seeds of Death

More "normal life" set-up of the style I often favour, and Miss Kelly is of course calculated to appeal to me (the only person who actually knows how the system works is this woman, and she continues to try to do her job while her supposed superiors shout at her). The blustering Commander is an unfortunate hearkening back to the base-under-siege template that's been so mercifully absent from this series so far, which makes me think of Brian Hayles' previous story... with the same monsters... and that starts to seem worryingly similar. (Terrance Dicks rewrote episodes 3-6, though, and they're rather better, complete with the Commander's sudden personality change into someone who actually makes sense at that rank.)

It's nice to see the Astral Map (from the Web Planet) again, but the TARDIS prop is looking distinctly ratty, bashed about, wonky, and barely fitting together any more.

The Ice Warrior leader (not actually named as Ice Lord here) seems to me an error: he is somehow less convincing than the baseline Ice Warriors, and it's mostly in that silly helmet (though the tight plastic trousers don't help matters, and the Grand Marshal is simply fabulous). When all we had were Ice Warriors, we could write off their odd morphology and flaring thighs as in some way their natural state; now we know it's armour that someone actually built, well, it's less convincing. So is a complete failure to notice that two Warriors of the advance party have vanished! The Ice Warriors themselves are now interchangeable minions of the boss, rather than the individual threats they were in the original story. (Except for the one who comes to earth and prances about the room rather than, say, shooting the named guest cast.)

The direction is very odd, with several of the cast delivering their lines while obscured by other actors (Miss Kelly practically has to jump to be visible behind some of the others at one point), from behind glass walls, or while facing away from the camera; sometimes actors look directly at each other and supposedly can't see each other. Michael Ferguson had previously directed The War Machines, which didn't seem to have the same problems. (Or are they attempts at artiness?) Similarly, the Ice Warrior's attack on the fungus defence teams would have worked perfectly well without focusing on the Warrior's feet most of the time. Even the scene with the first activation of the trap set in the Solar Power room is so badly blocked that we don't see the Ice Warrior entering the room.

Music is by Dudley Simpson as usual, but has a distressing tendency to drift into comical music-hall or vaguely silent-film style. When it's the usual twangs and bongs it's quite effective.

The effects work for the rocket -- and its total lack of anything like staging, even though it's clearly a direct derivation of a Saturn V or similar -- is horribly reminiscent of Thunderbirds, but I suppose it's not bad for the budget of the day (and at least it's not the V-2 footage again... oh, spoke too soon, there it is in episode 6). What's rather worse is the "rocket homing beam operative" indicator... in the solar power room, admittedly where its power source is, rather than anywhere that people might be expected to want to know that a rocket is arriving.

There's a certain amount of pointless running around corridors and sneaking across rooms, particularly in the traditionally-slack middle episodes, but apart from that the story keeps bowling along. The interior designs are generally good, and I'm very fond of the case for the seeds -- properly alien. But where do all those tastefully baroque seed stands come from? Ah, but the foam machine from Fury from the Deep gets another outing; that can't be a bad thing.

Only the one really gaping plothole -- when the Ice Warriors on the base are all presumed unconscious or dead, why evacuate it? Why not clean it up, get the T-Mat fully operational again, get a new maintenance crew out there, and so on? Isn't that rather the point of the expedition? Well, all right, sending three strangers to crew the rocket is a bit daft; and the Ice Warriors should probably have noticed how much water was on Earth before trying to invade it, but they're hardly the only ones not to have noticed that, and the fungus seemed to do all right as long as the rain could be held off.

Missing, though, is any treatment of the Ice Warriors' motivation: their world is dying, they need somewhere else to live! That doesn't seem to occur to the Doctor as he runs gaily around with his portable toaster; the casual genocide of the early stories has now become a casual murderer too.

All that stuff about having to follow a radio beacon, particularly following The Invasion, puts this story very much in the early days of manned space exploration -- it's the sort of thing that was talked about in public at some length around 1968-1969, but never became relevant in the real world. (The actual moon shots and similar vehicles were operating very much under ground control when they weren't ballistic.)

Overall, nothing very new, but some very good individual moments, and as usual Troughton, Padbury and Hines at the top of their game, even if Jamie's role is unfortunately weak (as it has tended to be in future-set stories).

(Yes, yes, all right, Wendy Padbury in a rather fetching lace-up leather jacket-and-trousers ensemble, and Louise Pajo in a sort of quilted catsuit affair plus a Space Scrunchie.)

The Space Pirates

Last story with missing episodes! (Though some of the Pertwees I have are black-and-white only.) And again it's a shame; the model work is lovely here, especially in the well-restored surviving episode (the Minnow is simply charming), and while I can't believe the BBC could have done space-suited figures in zero-G well it would have been nice to see them try. Pity it then all comes to a crashing halt with Hermack's as-you-know-men speech.

While the problem of hunting down pirates might be an interesting one, we never really get a feel of the various ships' different capabilities. ("Main boost!" "They're warping, sir!") It all starts to feel like the BBC's answer to Star Trek, though Star Trek wouldn't be broadcast in the UK for another three months after the end of this story. Actually it's much more of a western in space than Star Trek usually managed to be, with the lawman, the old-time miner, the claim-jumpers...

And the Doctor? I haven't mentioned our heroes yet, and that's because they're absent for two-thirds of the first episode. Yes, I know, I asked for this and I got it good and hard -- while I'm still a fan of the "ordinary people doing their jobs" lead-ins (especially before the Bad Stuff starts happening), I really don't need this much. The regular cast appear mostly in their own scenes rather than interacting with the guest cast (especially in episode 6, where they only appear in snippets that had been filmed earlier, since they were all away shooting The War Games); they barely meet the pirates or Madeleine, never actually come into touch with the Space Corps crew at all, and in effect there are two slightly-linked stories going on at once. But unfortunately we spend far too much time with these not terribly interesting outsiders. And my word, those huge and impractical collar insignia...

As usual with non-enthusiasts writing SF, there's no real appreciation of just how big space is or how long it takes to get anywhere if you're using rockets.

Caven's spacesuit looks woefully like something recycled from some pseudo-mediaeval costume; the others do rather better, though Penn has a premature disco 'stache that would have been better elsewhere. Madeleine Issigri's hairstyled helmet (and that of her flunky) have to be seen to be believed; I'm glad they're in the surviving episode.

A continuity error here that's probably inevitable given multiple writers working on scripts at the same time, though it's a shame the editor or producer didn't catch it: Zoe has no idea what candles are, while a few stories back in The Mind Robber she was entirely familiar with them. It's the sloppiness of a production team on its down-slide, not helped by the knowledge that its main cast was all leaving. At six parts this story feels terribly padded, with what feels like an endless sequence of captures and escapes; this might have made a decent three-parter, just about.

The reconstruction is not helped by the lack of telesnaps; the Loose Cannon team did their best, but I think that of all the recons I've seen this is the one that feels most like an actual missing story.

The plot wobbles back and forth, with no real reveals or surprises, until finally it winds down into a predictable resolution -- with a final moment of "suspense" even less effective than the clock-watching of The Invasion. The music is mostly wailing electronica that doesn't make for much of a mood, and what's left of the direction is workmanlike rather than inspired. Really, I think we have to count this one as small loss.

(Yes, yes, all right, Wendy Padbury in a zip-fronted short jacket and matching waistcoat.)

The War Games

The opener's clearly had a lot of budget thrown at it, especially in the sets, but it doesn't quite work for me, possibly because I haven't been brought up on a diet of Great War stories and I'm missing the references. The title's an excellent piece of bluff, though, suggesting it'll be a straight historical story until the strangeness starts. (The explosions on the title card are a bit less welcome, since they're repeated in each later episode.)

But, well, this is a ten-parter, the second-longest story to date, and there are times when it does rather drag. There are many occasions when it seems that every time something's going to happen, our heroes start to rush out of the room only to be captured by yet another bunch of soldiers. Most of Jamie's running around in the American Civil War seems entirely disposable, as well as the Doctor sending off some of the resistance members, then bouncing back to get the conditioner. This could have been a very taut four-parter, or at least a workable six, if they hadn't needed to pad it to ten.

That said, there are some very effective moments, particularly the various Generals' glasses (though those perhaps are a tad overused, and one wonders what the Romans used instead). The core story isn't bad. And the War Lord is a splendid smiling villain: Philip Madoc again, slightly disguised after his appearance in The Krotons.

One does rather wonder why the transporters were needed. Surely a tunnel network with high-speed trucks or rail cars would have been just as effective? Particularly since they have such a limited lifespan? And someone really ought to tell those effectively-costumed guards that they really need something smaller than a rifle if they're going to be shoving prisoners around and engaging in close-up fighting. But the plot seems fairly daft anyway, assuming that humans are so much better at fighting than any other species that they'll make the perfect foot soldiers -- and yet everyone else seems to have no trouble invading Earth!

There are times when the show seems to be deconstructing itself -- the effectiveness of the white headband-masks with shapes cut out as a form of disguise seems like self-conscious parody, and the interrogation helmet is among the more ridiculous props on a show that's sometimes seemed to pride itself on them.

Of course, this is also the story in which the Time Lords were finally named, and indeed introduced. What surprises me, knowing the outline in advance, is that the last of the ten episodes, and really half of the previous one as well, are given over to the attempt to flee from them and its result -- I'd have expected it would be a much shorter segment. (All right, a chunk of that is padding with stock footage and running around over the carbon dioxide pits.)

Fans tend to love the background information that's given out here. I'm not as impressed; I think the show's been working perfectly well without it, and given what a poor job it's generally done of continuity (probably inevitable with all the various scriptwriters and editors) it's an error to introduce this extra material which has to be taken into account. Perhaps more to the point, there's not really all that much here, looked at in the context of the post-Deadly Assassin Gallifrey.

Much like my reaction to The Tenth Planet, I'm more interested in the main story, and I tend to see the coda as an ill-fitting addition rather than a natural ending to the story.

(Yes, yes, all right, Wendy Padbury in a raincoat, then an officer's greatcoat and cap.)

Overall, and reflection on Troughton

This has been one of the most consistently good seasons of the show so far, after a rocky start with The Dominators. The team of Troughton, Hines and Padbury is solid, playing off each other well and always anchoring the story in the face of the most ridiculous plot twists.

As I've been pointing out not entirely seriously, the show isn't afraid of exploiting Wendy Padbury's appearance -- it's not just me, as she's the only one of the regulars to have got costume changes. Fortunately Zoe's often been well-written, by writers who aren't afraid of showing an intelligent woman rather than a generic screamer like Victoria. She's also one of the rare companions who's deliberately gone along in search of adventure.

Jamie's been weakened by his primitive background: in future-set stories he's often had little more to do than bash people. This becomes particularly clear when he's separated from the Doctor, since Troughton and Hines play off each other so well that the lack of role for Jamie hardly seems relevant -- indeed, I don't think it's sensible to try to evaluate Jamie other than as part of that particular double-act.

Overall, I think Troughton has brought some serious acting chops to the role. Hartnell certainly had his moments and managed the arc of observer to meddler well, but Troughton's been stuck with a fairly static character and still managed to make something interesting of it.

Troughton's stories have definitely gone in batches: series 4 where he was finding his feet, reinventing the character, and going off in odd directions; series 5 where the scripts mostly settled down with bases under siege; and series 6 where they got more interesting and divergent again.

And in series 7 the whole nature of the show changed.

Favourite story of this series: The Invasion

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

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

  1. Posted by Owen Smith at 05:29pm on 04 February 2014

    I wonder if they gave Zoe lots of costume changes because they suddenly realised the swinging sixties were over and Doctor Who had missed it, so they'd better get in some grooviness quickly. As you say, at least they gave her decent scripts as well as making her a clothes horse.

    I think the Time Lords were introduced specifically to strand the Doctor on earth. Fair enough. But why they thought that was a good idea defeats me. Perhaps it was meant to save money? (whether it did or not is a seperate matter).

  2. Posted by Owen Smith at 05:31pm on 04 February 2014

    I forget when colour came in for Dr. Who. Were Zoe's many costumes meant to show off how great colour TV looked? Even if ultimately they had to film in black and white for cost reasons, the costumes may already have been made.

  3. Posted by RogerBW at 05:50pm on 04 February 2014

    Yes, I think they were trying to make up for opportunities missed with Ben and Polly. I've had mixed feelings on the contemporary companions; I think they do badly as audience identification figures, but well as targets for explanation (the Watson to the Doctor's Holmes).

    The reformatting was basically done by Peter Bryant and then Derrick Sherwin, as successive producers. The exact reasoning isn't known to me, but part of it at least seems to have been that The Invasion and The Web of Fear had been much greater successes than the off-world or non-contemporary material, so it seemed like a good idea to make every story like that. Troughton had already decided to leave even before this started to happen, and Hines and Padbury were only staying on as long as they did at his personal request, which is why the complete change of cast (not something the show had done before).

    Colour came in with the next series too (BBC1 started transmitting in colour in November 1969, and it was felt that the show ought to make use of it), and the extra expense and faff of using it cut the episode count per season hugely.

  4. Posted by Owen Smith at 09:47pm on 05 February 2014

    Just because a couple of stories have been well received doesn't mean it's a good idea to switch the entire show to that type of story. People get bored of the same thing all the time.

    I agree that comtemporary companions are problematic. Sadly that's pretty much all New Who has gone for, with the glorious exceptions of Captain Jack and what River Song could and should have been. Sigh.

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