RogerBW's Blog

Doctor Who Re-Watch, series 12 01 April 2014

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

Doctor Who - Tom Baker
Sarah Jane Smith - Elisabeth Sladen

Tom Baker was cast largely on the basis of his performance as the principal villain in The Golden Voyage of Sinbad; he had a few other minor roles behind him, but didn't have a burden of audience expectation as Hartnell, Troughton or Pertwee had had.

Robot

Slightly revised title sequence. I quite liked the dot halo that led off the old the old one, but this is the "classic" one for me. As is Tom Baker's costume with hat and scarf.

Terrance Dicks, retiring as script editor, wrote this script to help out Robert Holmes, coming into the job. The story was shot to some extent in parallel with Planet of the Spiders, but has a very different feel.

For a start, it has a really incompetently guarded military base, being menaced by a clank-clank-argh menace (the title of the story may also be considered a clue) and a glass-wall visual filter. As a counterpart, we have the Doctor in full idiot mode, Baker perhaps trying to distinguish himself from Pertwee's permanently ruffled dignity. He doesn't make much of a positive impression at first, shifting from Pertwee's no-nonsense to an all-nonsense all the time approach, but as the clowning fades slightly he starts to gain a functional gravitas.

And the robot itself really is clank-clank-argh. A few low-angle shots and a lot of rivets can't do much to conceal the basic man in a suit. On the other hand, at least it is a man in a suit rather than a CSO creation (until right at the end), so when it's lumbering past the UNIT soldiers it looks at least plausible. Kettlewell is straight out of the absent-minded professor bin at Central Casting, but Miss Winters is the one real point of originality here.

Harry Sullivan was brought in before Tom Baker was cast, when it wasn't clear how old the new actor would be: in fact, he was to be available as an action man in the Ian Chesterton or Jamie McCrimmon mould. In fact, at age 40, Baker was the youngest actor to have taken up the part (and would be the second-youngest in the classic show's whole run, after Peter Davison at 29). He's clearly up to the physical stuff, leaping around during his fight with the robot at the end of part 2, so Harry ends up being fairly redundant. (That Ian Marter was one of the choices to play the similarly-redundant Captain Mike Yates is indicative, if unfortunate.)

The Scientific Reform people are remarkably un-subtle; not only does their front desk bloke make himself look like a loonie (and presumably not compatible with Miss Winters's views on female attire), the meeting itself is rather more British Union of Fascists than Fabian Society. All those uniforms and shouty speeches. Wouldn't at least some scientists, anyone over forty for example, find those a tiny bit familiar? There are distinct shades here of Invasion of the Dinosaurs, with the small group of self-proclaimed smart guys trying to take over the world.

But of course it ends up as King Kong really. 'Twas not the metal virus, 'twas Beauty killed the Robot. It's all a bit of a runaround, typified by Sarah bursting in with the news of the robot just on the Doctor's cue, but as an introduction to the new Doctor it's… well, OK, I guess. It's Sarah and WO Benton who carry this one, in the end. That this is Benton's last appearance as a regular seems rather a shame; John Levene may have a limited range, but he gets the job done.

The Ark in Space

This was Philip Hinchcliffe's first story as producer, and thus the first story with the full new production team. It's clear that there's a new game in town.

Considering this came out four years before Alien, I think there's a remarkable degree of common narrative, starting from the basic idea of using haunted-house tropes (like the sliding door that separates our heroes from each other) in a nominally science-fictional story. Or course Hinchcliffe was very much a fan of gothic horror ideas, and would encourage them extensively during his time as producer. There was even a scene in which the infected Noah begs Vira to kill him; it was cut because it was thought to be too scary, though the editing to achieve this – in the scene where the Doctor and Vira are escaping from Noah in the corridor – is quite clunky. But it was in Ian Marter's 1977 novelisation, so it was certainly available to the screenwriters of Alien

The cryogenic chamber here is far more visually effective than the one in Tomb of the Cybermen; one wonders how much more budget it took. (I think that one of the episodes of this was probably the first Who I was aware of watching, though it may have been a repeat. I certainly remember the effective creepiness of the translucent lids of the body pods.) Indeed, the sets are beautiful, generous (in part because their expense could be shared between this and Revenge of the Cybermen) and well-used. Yes, all right, there could be said to be a certain amount of running down corridors. But it's a really nice corridor.

Noah is surprisingly effective in his effectively dual role, as he's gradually converted by the Wirrn; it's a shame such screen prominence is given to his green bubble-wrap prosthetic, which doesn't gain anything by close viewing (though bubble-wrap was still very new when this story was first broadcast, so it wouldn't have been as familiar as it is to us now). The Wirrn costumes also don't benefit from being seen in the harsh light of the main rooms of the station, really. But the actors sell it by their reactions; all the cast are on their games, and there's none of that feeling of stuffy paralysis or doing things by the numbers that perfuses the late Pertwee era. One barely notices that most of part one only has the core cast in it, though it's a pity Holmes chooses to build the relationship between the Doctor and Harry by stuffing Sarah in the fridge.

The Doctor's deliberate insulting and infuriation of Sarah in part four is a sign of just how quickly the show's changed and the new team has settled in: Pertwee's Doctor couldn't have done that because he would have meant it.

This is how to turn a show grimmer and darker and do it right.

The Sontaran Experiment

This was the second Tom Baker story actually to be shot, and it's a step back from The Ark in Space; you can see him being a little less sure in the role, though he's still doing a decent job (and the pain from a broken collar-bone probably didn't help).

I think the yellow plastic raincoat and trousers may be the worst outfit for a companion ever.

The terrifying roving capture-bot doesn't seem terribly, well, terrifying. Yes, everyone else reacts to it as though it were the scariest thing ever, but it's perversely un-menacing in itself.

The overall plot is a bit thin. Why do the Sontarans care about the exact resistances of humans anyway? Why not just shoot them all? But at least the short length of the story means things never have time to sag, and puts the padding of some other stories to shame.

I do like the way Harry operates the sonic screwdriver as though it were about to explode.

It's a fairly slight story, a palate-cleanser between Ark and Genesis, but the heavy emphasis on pointless torture was more shocking then than now when most shows' heroes are happy to indulge in it. Not a favourite, but considering that the alternative would have been to stretch Ark out to make another six-parter, I'll take it.

Genesis of the Daleks

Terry Nation again. Rarely a good sign. But this time he nailed it, after a fair amount of rewriting; this was commissioned under Letts and Dicks, but by all accounts the first draft was yet another entirely generic Dalek story, so they insisted on an origin story to try to get Nation to up his game a bit. Even after that, Hinchcliffe and director David Maloney made substantial changes, such as introducing the lone female character, and shifting the initial meeting from a pretty garden to the surface of Skaro.

This one's also helped by Tom Baker, who continues on excellent form; he's acting rings round Ian Marter, though with such infectious enthusiasm that one supposes nobody really minded -- and Harry gets some decent lines himself, particularly when the time ring's being taken off the Doctor. (As far as special agents go, the Doctor's pretty incompetent, really.)

The blending of periods is interesting, but the overall feel on the outside is very First World War, reminiscent of The War Games (not a bad thing). Inside it's much more generic corridors.

What's particularly effective here is that Nation resists the temptation to make the Thals the eternal good guys; they may not be the cod-Nazi Kaleds, and we don't see much of their high commanders, but they're just as unpleasant at the bottom layer of the power structure.

The sets are surprisingly well-dressed given some of the cost-cutting we've sometimes seen; small details like cracks in the walls are most atmospheric. Other parts of the production are pleasingly recycled: some of the high-tech Thal guns were previously used by the Drahvins in Galaxy 4, the thing in the cave near the end of part two is clearly an ice Warrior costume, and we've seen the Thal rocket before in The Ambassadors of Death. The Clam of Doom works rather less well.

Among the guest actors, Peter Miles as Nyder is the real stand-out, doing an even better job here than in his previous outing as Whitaker in Invasion of the Dinosaurs. He's rather better without his blatant Iron Cross, mind; yes, yes, Himmler, we get it. Michael Wisher does a remarkably good job as Davros, considering that his main form of expression is his voice.

All right, it is a six-parter, and it sags a little in the middle. And the Time Ring is a bit of an obvious MacGuffin. And if you start counting, it's clear that there are still only three working Daleks in the BBC inventory. But, even so.

Of course, the big thing about this one, the one that everyone who remembers this story thinks of first, is the "have I that right" scene at the start of part 6. It may not be much, and it may be philosophically illiterate, but compared with the way previous Doctors have happily committed genocide it's a real change for the show, and a welcome step away from whiz-bang-zap stories.

This was one of the shows that Mary Whitehouse and the National Viewers and Listeners' Association picked up on and complained about; they'd continue for some time, and eventually would be causative in getting Hinchcliffe removed from the programme. It's been suggested that they misunderstood Doctor Who as a programme intended for very small children; given their record elsewhere I think it would be more accurate to say that they understood all of television as a medium for very small children.

Revenge of the Cybermen

Another story that's new to me. And this was the one that got to re-use the Ark in Space sets, though with a bit of a re-dress; I don't know how noticeable that would have been to original viewers, two months after Ark had ended. There does seem to have been some effort not to repeat camera angles, and several of the rooms aren't readily recognisable.

It's the first Cybermen story for seven years (since The Invasion), and the last for another seven (until Earthshock). Also the last time Gerry Davis wrote for the programme; this version was planned originally by Barry Letts before he stepped down as producer, and in the original draft the space station was a casino; the Cybermen were to be spreading a plague, as in The Moonbase, but would be killed by the casino's stock of gold. Without any knowledge of Tom Baker (or indeed of the programme since he'd last written for it), Davis wrote a Second Doctor story pitched at a fairly young audience. Though Robert Holmes did a lot of re-writing (adding all the Vogan material), it was in multiple stages, and this story doesn't have the flair that one associates with a Holmes script; even Tom Baker's acting can't save this one.

Sarah's camo outfit (hurriedly written into the closing scenes of Genesis, which was shot after this) is unwontedly practical gear for going about exploring the universe. She does all right here, though Harry's more into buffoon mode than is really ideal – accidentally killing the double agent Kellmann and knocking out the Doctor in a bathetic and trivial incident.

I think that part of the problem here is that there's both too much and too little mystery. Lots of talk in part one about cybermen, and an obvious human traitor to hiss at, but the squabbles of the mysterious rubber-faced aliens on Voga give us no point of entry. Apparently they're having a civil war, but they all look the same, and we have no real reason to care about any of them. As for the rocket: yes, they really went there, they used Saturn V liftoff footage that would have been familiar to any fan of the space programme, meaning the vast majority of science fiction fans.

(And, for completists, here we see the first appearance of the design, used here as decoration on Voga, that would later be used as a Time Lord emblem. I'm sure the fans have come up with an explanation more pointlessly complex than "the designer Roger Murray-Leach re-used a symbol he found pleasing".)

The Cybermen are really just a generic menace at this point; there's no threat of cyber conversion, just yet another new vulnerability. Consider how the story could have worked exactly the same way if they'd been Ice Warriors or even Daleks. They're even emotional, for which I think we have to blame Holmes; Davis may have been uninspired at times, but he could at least remember which alien menace he'd invented had which distinctive feature.

All that messing about with the bombs is just silly. What would they have done if they hadn't had prisoners to carry the bombs? Surely that other plan, whatever it was, would have been better than this one? And then the countdown that "cannot be stopped" is, well, stopped by pressing a single button.

And while I can appreciate the ambition of trying to show the station flying low over the surface of Voga, I can't help but notice that when the TARDIS arrives and everyone bails out... nobody's done anything about all the ticking bombs.

In what I can only regard as a call-back to The Invasion, a lampshade is hung on set recycling (this is the forward control room, just like the aft control room). And tape makes a squealing sound even when it isn't touching the playback heads. And the Vogans, living on an asteroid made of gold and terrified of the Cybermen, haven't thought to equip themselves with the gold-firing weapons that won the war against the Cybermen. And three bombs are enough to blow up an asteroid, but one of them is barely more than a hand grenade's worth of bang…

This one's sloppy and lifeless all through, and a disappointing end to what's otherwise been an excellent series (though admittedly it wasn't supposed to be the last; that was Terror of the Zygons, coming next). It wasn't even filmed last in the production season when the cast and crew were tired. No excuses.

Overall impressions

Wow. The shift from tired and bored Pertwee to hypermanic and enthusiastic Baker is amazing. It's not quite accompanied by an instant reinvention of the show the way series 7 was, but it's clear now that UNIT's days are very much numbered, and if the next story had been broadcast at the end of this series as intended that would have been even more the case. (And Revenge might not have looked so dire.)

One of the big changes Holmes and Hinchcliffe were able to make was to get one of the six-part stories changed to four plus two (in this case The Ark in Space plus The Sontaran Experiment, which is why one is entirely studio-bound while the other is completely on location), and later to four plus four. One of my repeated themes has been how the six-parters have tended to drag, and it appears I wasn't alone in this feeling.

Favourite story of this series: The Ark in Space, with Genesis of the Daleks a very close second.

Next: the Hinchcliffe/Holmes team hits its stride.


  1. Posted by Michael Cule at 01:37pm on 02 April 2014

    Actually, the line I remember first from GENESIS OF THE DALEKS is Davros' monologue about 'would I snap the vial and destroy the world? Why, yes! I would!'

    The Doctor's last minute wimping out really didn't impress me. I have a bit of fanfic rattling around my head in which the Meddling Monk has Words with the Doctor about that.

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 01:48pm on 02 April 2014

    Yes, that Davros monologue is the other Really Good Bit. And while Wisher does a good job acting it, I am inclined to think that the writing is better; he manages it from behind a mask, after all, while "have I the right" has to be carried on pure Tom Baker Charisma.

  3. Posted by Michael Cule at 04:27pm on 02 April 2014

    And it needs every drop of it.

  4. Posted by Owen Smith at 01:18pm on 03 April 2014

    Genesis of the Daleks is the first Dr. Who story I remember watching, and I was electrified. I vaguely knew of Pertwee but didn't watch regularly. If I watched Genesis on the original airing I would have been 9 at the time. I might even have watched it in colour, my parents rented a colour TV for a few years in the house we moved to when I was 7 (before they bought a black and white to save money).

    And yes, the part I remember is "have I the right" with Tom Baker holding two rather dodgy and mangled wires in his hands. I was getting into electronics at the time and I remember thinking my Tandy morse code key would be much better than just bare wires.

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