RogerBW's Blog

Doctor Who Re-Watch, series 8 15 February 2014

As always, spoilers abound. See Wikipedia for production details

Doctor Who - Jon Pertwee
Jo Grant - Katy Manning

Terror of the Autons

New lab! New UNIT uniforms! Benton as a regular! One might be inclined to regard the Doctor singing "I Don't Want To Set The World On Fire" as being in slightly poor taste after the events of the previous story...

We get two major character introductions in short order, and alas the Master comes off as rather more interesting, what with his fascinating looks, his endless supply of Mission: Impossible masks, his power to dominate the weak-minded, and his tissue compression eliminator (though not yet named as such), than the dim and lip-biting Jo Grant, Komedy Secret Agent. (I first met her in the books, where she was rather more... well... everything.) Mike Yates, the other pseudo-companion, is really a non-entity at this point.

And here we get the nearly literal deus ex machina of Time Lord interference. In a narrative sense, all it achieves is to tell us that the Master is present, and another Time Lord; but the overall damage that it does, by pointing out that Time Lords can mess about with the story whenever they want to, is much greater. I can't but regard this as something of a mis-step, a flagstone paving the way to the eventual narrative dominance of Gallifrey. (On the other hand, it does cut short what would surely have been an episode of flailing about trying to work out who might be working with the Nestenes.)

There are some excellent set-pieces here, the armchair being one of the classics. The killer doll is less convincing, with CSO fringes blatantly visible. And the telephone flex sadly panders to Pertwee's inclination towards gurning. More CSO elsewhere, clearly something the BBC was excited about since it could effectively reduce location shooting costs, but it's not always successful; it's particularly obvious in the scenes on the radio telescope, in car interiors, and in a very brief clip of a kitchen which one would have thought could have been trivially mounted as a studio shot.

On the other hand, when I was watching television as a child I didn't notice the clever tricks cutting between cameras that mean two halves of a scene can be filmed entirely separately, with the dangerous bit in the middle (like someone being hit by a car) cut out. I don't know how sophisticated the general television audience was at this point.

In the final episode, the show suddenly seems to remember that there's meant to be a tension between the Doctor and the military and gets on with the air strike plan. And then suddenly the Master is able to waltz into UNIT HQ and capture the Doctor and Jo, just so that they can be taken to the quarry where everything is happening. It's all a bit rushed, especially the Master's last-minute change of heart.

The overall plot is the sort of baroque nonsense that one comes to expect from a capital-V Villain: all sorts of obvious flailing around to attract attention, and then a terribly inefficient scheme to distribute the weapon of genocide. Still, that sort of giveaway did occasionally happen in the late 1960s. The whole thing feels rather contrived, in fact; the individual action sequences are not bad, but the plot seems mostly to exist as an excuse to string them together. The Autons are mostly here as a force of heavies for the Master to use, and the story is primarily about him. It's all a bit lurid even compared with the previous series, never mind Troughton's era.

The Mind of Evil

This is that rare thing, a story that's new to me: I've never seen it before, nor have I read its novelisation, though I'm familiar with the broad outline. It's all a bit barking, this idea of "storing" negative impulses extracted from criminals; what is being stored? Why can't it be disposed of? That this particular barkingness turns out to be complete nonsense even in the context of the show is just the topping on the confection.

Pertwee's still playing the Doctor as extra-arrogant here, interrupting the lecture simply because he's taken a dislike to the lecturer. It's the same problem we've seen in some previous stories, where the Doctor expects people to listen to him purely because he's the Doctor, and we as the audience are expected to agree that he's right simply because of his position in the narrative. He's needlessly brusque to the prison governor for the horrible crime of not doing everything the Doctor wants. However, the way the script makes the Doctor vulnerable shifts this self-importance and arrogance into something rather more like bluster in the face of fear. It at least makes him understandable, if not pleasant.

The people dying from more-than-psychosomatic manifestations of their worst fears make for an interesting setup, reminiscent of the B-movies that were so influential on series 7 (further reinforced by the talk of the machine that "won't harm me -- I created it"). Alas, it's an excuse for more silly faces from Pertwee... even if it's also a good excuse for a reference back to Inferno. (And I do believe I spotted a War Machine at the end of episode 3. Though that's pretty much the first real suggestion of continuity with the black-and-white era that the colour programmes have given us.)

UNIT has now expanded to several staff -- the Brig, Yates, Benton, Jo Grant, a secretary/receptionist who only shows up here and in the next story, and a comic-relief Major Cosworth who only shows up in two episodes. It's still a bit odd that we have all these high rankers and none of the private soldiers they'd be expected to command.

The Thunderbolt, as a "nuclear-powered missile with a warhead full of nerve gas", seems a particularly perverse weapon -- like a version of PLUTO, but with only a tiny fraction of the destructive power of which it's capable. The actual missile we see (CSO-ed in presumably from stock footage the first time, which is strange since they got one to play with in later episodes) is an English Electric Thunderbird, a perversely close name. (Later: "It's a gas missile, nuclear-powered -- British, of course." "Of course.")

Chin-Lee is problematic: good in that the writers regarded China as a future world power (it was in the throes of the Cultural Revolution and Sino-Soviet split at the time, but the Soviets aren't mentioned here at all -- and this was broadcast a year before Nixon went to China), bad in that she's stuck with an artificially poor English accent, and her role is essentially to be a proxy for the Master; once she's been found out and delivered her dose of exposition she vanishes from the story. Still, unlike the Master's black chauffeur, she does at least get some lines, and her acting is decent.

Contrast Jo, though: not only is Katy Manning starting to look comfortable in her role, Jo manages to stop a prison riot single-handed until the Master shows up. It's a shame her lock-picking ability is forgotten, though. (This was apparently Manning's favourite story of her entire run.)

The machine, or the parasite as one might think of it, seems to develop new abilities whenever it needs them; the teleportation in part 4 (using an effect not entirely unlike the one that would serve a few years later in Blake's 7) is particularly egregious. Still, it's good to see a monster that doesn't simply shoot people or claw them to death, and it's a shame that it goes over to direct attacks in the later stages of the story.

The story does drag a bit, particularly with the repeated escapes and captures in parts 3-4; it's a six-parter, after all. There's also a repeat of the "Master and Doctor cooperate" from Terror of the Autons, which is already getting to be a bit of a cliché even though it's less forced here than it was there.

Once again (in part 5), the stuntmen do a remarkably poor job of small-unit tactics. I realise the programme couldn't bring back the real Army every week, but I do think they could have got an advisor or two who'd seen the real thing (either during the war or on national service afterwards) and could tell them what to do. (The Master's "mercenaries" were real soldiers, borrowed from the 36th Heavy Air Defence Regiment along with the Thunderbird.)

The ending segment at the hangar seems rather poorly organised, as though someone had failed to work out what would be needed to resolve the story until the last moment. Overall it feels like two separate stories rammed together (the prison and mind-control one and the peace conference and missile one) and they never quite gel. The Master's plan here is baroque even by his own standards; the Master's already shown himself quite capable of controlling people's minds without the use of alien enhancers, and what if the missile hadn't been transported at exactly the same time the peace conference was happening? And why assassinate people at the conference, potentially getting it shut down, if you're planning to hold it to ransom, or nerve-gas it, later? (Indeed, Don Houghton had originally planned to write his homage to A Clockwork Orange, and worrying that it might come up a bit short for six episodes was persuaded by his wife -- the actress cast as Chin-Lee -- to add on the other plot.)

This story apparently ran wildly over budget, to the point that its director was barred from future work on the show; the heavy use of a helicopter in the final episode surely didn't help, and apparently an extra day at Dover Castle was needed to finish off the battle scenes. It's a well-set-up story, though, keeping a sense of place as it moves around the inside and outside of the prison.

Still, surely the second World Peace Conference would go more smoothly.

The Claws of Axos

Ah, the great sea-cucumber! (Though I think that the brief early shot of the howling tentacular beasties is a bit of a shame; I'd prefer the story not to show its hand quite so soon.)

The initial tracking sequence is the sort of thing I like, but is a bit reminiscent of Spearhead from Space last season -- complete with the comic-relief rural, now muttering nonsense like someone out of Monty Python. It's interesting to see that someone's now in a position to do something about invading aliens, if not anything very effective. The location work was in and near the Dungeness A power station, and the "freak weather conditions" apparently genuinely happened during filming.

It's interesting to see the Brigadier happy to play with Chinn... right up to the point where the Doctor comes in and starts throwing his ego around. Chinn takes up the narrative role that the Brigadier used to fill, the one who wants to attack immediately (and then the leader of the "must grab alien technology" faction), while the Doctor's being the peacemaker at any price, leaving the Brig somewhere in the middle.

It's reminiscent especially of films with aliens from the fifties and sixties. In both eras the generals wanted to blow 'em up and the scientists wanted to make peace with them: but in the fifties the generals were usually right, while in the sixties it was more likely to be the scientists. Here the answer is a bit more sophisticated, with the addition of the civil service faction: blowing 'em up is something of a challenge, and the alien tech is worth exploiting at, apparently, pretty much any human cost. I'm very fond of the concept of Axos, and as I mentioned I think it's a pity it couldn't be kept ambiguous for longer.

Now we echo Terror of the Autons too, with the Master assisting the invaders and not getting what he wants from them. In isolation, this isn't a bad story, but it does start to look awfully samey in context. I suppose the Master does have a different weapon now. Well, yay.

The doubling of Filer is something that we've seen from time to time in the show, but it seems like a lot of effort for very little gain. Filer himself seems like an odd intrusion; most of his narrative job could be done by Jo, really -- or even a regular like Captain Yates, who barely appears here. It doesn't help that Filer comes across as unconvincing and drab.

This is perversely obvious when he's doing things against the beautiful and lurid background of Axos. I don't know what the penetration of colour TV sets was like in 1971, but this story was very definitely shot with colour in mind.

It is pleasant to see the TARDIS control room again -- the first time it's been shown since The War Games, nearly two years ago by the original broadcast schedule. It's a one-off setup (though the first outing of the TARDIS Console Mk II, designed for colour filming) that would be replaced by a more permanent set in the next story.

For the third story in a row, the Master changes sides to help out the good guys. Here, it's a reasonable thing for him to do. But in the context of those other stories it's less convincing. Fortunately, when the Doctor and the Master are isolated in the TARDIS, Pertwee's and Delgado's acting chops kick in and they get a couple of really excellent scenes together.

As always the CSO's not all it might be, but the practical effect of the exploding jeep is worth any number of implausible blue "skies". Cross-mixing within Axos itself is rather better handled, both when the proxy head is swivelling back and forth and especially during the Doctor's and Jo's escape at the start of part four.

This story had a long and troubled genesis: it was originally planned as a generic alien invasion seven-parter in the late Troughton era, and set in central London. After multiple rejections and redraftings, Baker and Martin (whose first work for the show this was, though they'd write more for it over the next few years) came up with the idea of the invaders offering apparent gifts. The organic technology was a Terrance Dicks addition, and at the last moment the Master had to be squeezed in too -- though while he's not necessary to the primary thrust of the story, I think he fits in reasonably well.

I'm glad this was a four-parter. I'd hate it if it had been stretched out to six.

Colony in Space

A slow start to this one: it's a six-parter, after all, and while I'm an admirer of Malcolm Hulke's writing in general he wasn't immune to the urge to padding. The Time Lords have clearly had a revolution in interior decor since the last time we saw them, not the last in what passes for their history. But more to the point, this is a throwback to the pre-Pertwee era of adventures on other planets, wedged into the earthbound format.

The new console room is an oddity, with the console itself decidedly off-centre. One of the roundel panels is distinctively off, though; in some shots it's easy to make out that it's just a piece of flat artwork rather than the full 3-D item. Budget, I suppose. The dematerialisation and rematerialisation sequences are new too, with a sudden disappearance rather than the gradual fade that had been used before and would be used again; this was caused simply by the director not knowing that there was meant to be a fade involved.

The moment we see the robot, I think "Ray Cusick". He was so very fond of those impractical skirted chassis. They take up an untoward amount of space in the ship's corridors, too. The brief shot of the attacking lizard is, at least, a decent use of CSO -- against a black background it works quite well. The various sorts of indigene are less impressive, but their clothes mostly do a decent job of hiding any seams in the rubber heads and gloves.

Jo is oddly timorous: it's reasonable enough given that she's just been unexpectedly moved through space, but it's not generally a trait one's tended to associate with her so far.

The basic plot is pretty much established in part 2, both the nasty miners and their terribly unsubtle Trojan Horse agent. Unfortunately there's a certain amount of flailing about between bits of plot progression... yes, six-parter syndrome again. The fact that the end of part two is nearly identical to the end of part one certainly doesn't help matters, and all those gun battles and reversals in the second half get quite tedious. As has become obligatory, I point out that this would have made a nice tight four-parter.

The most interesting character here, as the only one who changes sides, is Caldwell. Even his change of loyalty is painted in pretty broad strokes, though it's interestingly half-hearted. Apart from him, it's basically goodies and baddies, the latter painted carefully to be sufficiently evil that we're all in favour of whatever ends up happening to them. They're playing out a Western plot in space, much as in The Space Pirates from two series back, complete with Indians, though the colonists themselves act more like townsfolk or even Puritans, banded together as a community, than like rugged individualist cowboys. There's a bit of factionalism on both sides, which is fair enough; using human nasties gives that flexibility. The aliens are simpler, but they're not innocent primitives either; nobody comes out of this looking particularly good.

The model budget was clearly somewhat lacking; perhaps after all the set-building for colony, spaceship, and underground base, they may have run short of cash for this production. Not only do we never see the IMC ship take off, land, or even sit on the ground after the first shot, we never see a long shot of the colony, and we barely see the colonists' ship; when the Adjudicator's ship comes in to land, with obvious tricycle landing gear hanging from beneath its nose and wings... it stops and turns upwards to land on its tail. Still, my favourite bit is the check on the Adjudicator's credentials, that arrives via a massive electromechanical teleprinter.

And indeed, when the Master comes in he effortlessly derails the story of good colonists and bad miners; he has his own interests, and they're much more important than any trivia about who gets to live on this backwater planet. Towards the end, that story's left to the guest cast with the barest bit of input from Jo, while the Doctor and the Master get on with the alien superweapon stuff (and, for the first time, the Master doesn't change sides to work with the Doctor). The Master's hypnotic ability appears to have deserted him again, though; since his introduction he's been gradually de-powered, perhaps inevitably given that it would get repetitious if he were dominating people every week.

This is one of the rare occasions when we see the Master's TARDIS; I assume it's a re-dress of the usual console room set with new doors, some depressingly conventional filing cabinets, and whatever else was lying around at the time (I'm sure I've seen those body tubes before). Other sets are realistically, but depressingly, grey and dingy, as is the quarry where the location scenes were filmed.

The primary story is pretty heavy-handed, and has the odd status of being resolved largely by the guest cast: if the Doctor and the Master hadn't turned up, it might well have gone pretty much the same way it does here. One supposes that getting the Doctor to another planet meant Time Lord intervention, and using the Master was obligatory, but it would still have been interesting to see the colony story told without the Master and without the aliens, with the Doctor more directly involved in it.

Morgan, the thuggish security chief, was originally to have been played by Susan Jameson, but apparently the Head of Drama Serials felt the role was inappropriate for a woman as it might bring in fetishistic overtones. Pity; as it is the mining crew are all male, which just makes them even more bland and boring. Yes, yes, banality of evil and all that. The female colonists don't get to do much either, but at least they're present.

It's not a bad story, exactly... it's just there, and doesn't do much. As with much of the classic series, I met it first through the Target novelisation (this one done by the scriptwriter), which vastly expanded on pretty much all aspects of the thing, and of course had much better visual effects. It suffers by comparison to that, but I think any story would.

The Daemons

This story's widely regarded as a classic, which puts me in some trepidation: will it live up to its reputation? Well, yes, actually. It grew out of an audition piece for Jo Grant (the scene with Jo and Mike in the church), and Barry Letts brought in Robert Sloman (a friend of his wife's) to help him expand it to a full script. Letts had been influenced by The Devil Rides Out and had an ongoing interest in black magic; Terrance Dicks persuaded him that this sort of thing could be incorporated into Doctor Who as long as it got a scientific dressing.

The story starts off well, with an unexplained death and other strange goings-on (though it must have been quite easy, and perhaps even amusing, for the location shooting team to play themselves). The magic vs science is a bit sudden and heavy-handed, and perhaps even out of character for Jo, who hasn't shown any previous sign of such tendencies. A key point, though, is in Miss Hawthorne's late line: she may have conceptualised the advanced science of Dæmos as magic, but that's because when treated under that conceptualisation it works. (ObClarke.) It's not that primitive humans saw advanced tech and said "ooh, magic" because they didn't know any better; it's that their preservation of the advanced tech, under the name of magic, is still quite capable of summoning the Alien Devil. (Mind you, references to "PK energy" probably sounded more respectable in 1971.)

Unlike last time, when the Master was held back for a late change of pace, here he's well in evidence in the first episode. His reasons remain obscure for rather longer. Putting him in as a Satanic vicar straight out of Dennis Wheatley – or a Hammer production – is, of course, absolutely perfect for Delgado, who's clearly enjoying every moment of it. But it's entirely out of character for the Master as we've met him over the previous stories, and pleasingly without obvious motivation at first. On a meta-level, one could even regard his attempted sacrifice of Jo as a narrative conceit: it's the sort of thing a Satanic vicar should do, and therefore what he does, whether or not it would actually be helpful. Even when he's captured he goes out standing up in the car like a minor dignitary.

The Doctor himself is less interesting here; Pertwee's being irascible and impatient more than anything else, and particularly having several goes at Jo that seem unjustified. He and Jo sometimes seem almost a side-line in the story of Miss Hawthorne and UNIT versus the Master.

Benton and Miss Hawthorne play against each other splendidly, and it's a shame their first scene together is interrupted by an action sequence. At least this time when the show uses a fighter aircraft it's a fighter from the right country! (Erm, not a bomber, but never mind... I suspect in practice they'd have used a Canberra, which had been converted to a low-level aircraft when the Valiant came in ten years earlier and tended to get lumbered with the odd jobs.)

Things do seem to slow down a bit, especially around part 3; pacing is continuing to be one of this show's real problems. But when the team of Benton and Hawthorne gets going again in part 4 it's all much better, and things carry on at a decent pace to the end. (John Levene's grin when Benton's firing a bazooka is utterly splendid.) Azal is kept mostly off-screen until the end of part 4, very wisely given that he's yet another CSO-assisted monster; the actual costume isn't bad, but isn't as impressive as it might be.

The ending is cut curiously short: the idea that an act of self-sacrifice should be so incomprehensible is an oddly old-fashioned one, reminiscent of those computers and robots in fifties and sixties films that can be made to self-destruct by presenting them with a logical paradox. But the whole thing is very Quatermass and the Pit anyway; we're not watching Doctor Who for original ideas at this point, but for how a standard plot reacts when the Doctor is inserted into it. (Though this could also be seen as one of the explicit steps from a science fiction show to a fantasy one, something it tended to do even more in the later years and, to my mind, to an excessive extent in the revival).

There's plenty of location shooting (mostly in Aldbourne), and a rare case of day-for-night in the first part. The ritual area in the crypt (always called "the cavern", and moved from its original planned site inside the church to avoid offending viewers) is particularly well set-up. This is another story that went over-budget, but at least the money's visible on screen, and the cast are clearly having a great time.

Looked at in isolation, it's not the best story; the plot's shaky at best. But everyone's having a good time, and to me that counts for a lot. It's also interesting as part of the ongoing narrative of the programme and its transformation from historical and space adventure into a multi-genre concept.

Overall impressions

First series (since the first) without a companion departure; Jo Grant wouldn't leave until the end of series 10. She is regrettably close to the screamer mould we've sometimes seen before; indeed, in many respects she's the canonical screamer, and after Zoe and Liz, this is a huge let-down for me. She does have her moments, particularly in The Mind of Evil, but much of the time she's set-dressing.

The Master was brought in to be a Moriarty-figure, but using him repeatedly means he has to keep escaping. This rather hurts plausibility, at least for me, as do his baroque and needlessly complex plans. But Delgado does such a fine job of projecting menace, even when he's being pleasant, that I don't really mind. (If he hadn't been so good at it... well, the Master would probably be as despised today as the Rani.)

By contrast to the charming Master, Pertwee's playing the Doctor as much more arrogant and argumentative, particularly at the start of the series. In some ways it's a harking back to Hartnell's Doctor. One gets the idea that Pertwee was being arrogant and argumentative on the set too: he blatantly steals one of Richard Franklin's lines in Terror, then muffs it, though apparently he was always very nice to Katy Manning.

This series had a higher budget than the last, meaning that more and shorter stories could be made. In turn this means a bit less padding, though of course some subtlety has been lost too. The budget also allowed for much heavier editing, not always a good thing.

Next series: the Daleks return! (But we've now caught up with my watching, so there may be a bit of a delay.)

Favourite story of this series: The Daemons

  1. Posted by Owen Smith at 06:45pm on 16 February 2014

    I wonder why they went down to a single companion? It's fairly standard later in Dr. Who but it was a new thing with Pertwee, they'd always had multiple companions before.

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 07:09pm on 16 February 2014

    I haven't heard anything definitive about that decision, but I think it's worth regarding the UNIT people as demi-companions in a narrative sense. It was clear from series 6 that stories in high-tech worlds didn't need a fighter all the time (and Pertwee was clearly up to a fair bit of bashing people himself); by replacing Jamie with the UNIT crew, the bashing-people talent could be kept available, but without the need to squeeze it in when there was no place for it in the story.

    While Liz Shaw wasn't particularly written as a Watson, though she had some moments, Jo Grant definitely is: a lot of the time her job is to be the person who needs stuff explained, as a proxy for the audience, or (worse) who does something stupid and gets into trouble to stretch out the adventure. It's just a pity that she has to be the pretty girl as well; a target for explanation or a narrative prod may well be needed, but to my mind it's better if it's spread around multiple characters. (I suspect this will niggle me even more in the post-UNIT stories. It certainly niggled Louise Jameson.)

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