RogerBW's Blog

Doctor Who Re-Watch, series 13 30 April 2014

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

Doctor Who - Tom Baker
Sarah Jane Smith - Elisabeth Sladen

Terror of the Zygons

The initial attack on the oil rig is surprisingly well done; obviously a metal leg doesn't crumble like that, and generally a helicopter would fall off rather than stay nailed to its perch as the thing fell over, but still.

After that things slow down remarkably as we establish that we're in the Scotlandland theme park with bagpipes playing and animal heads on the walls, until just before the end of part one. For a four-parter to have padding is unusual in itself; to put it up front like this is a... courageous... move. The atmosphere is always good (Douglas Camfield returning to the director's chair), particularly when Harry's duplicate attacks Sarah in the barn, but there's a bit too much runaround for comfort.

There are problems. I'm not much of one for pointing out this sort of thing, but Angus the landlord comes over as remarkably fey. If you are a sniper taking care of inconvenient witnesses in the middle of nowhere, you generally make sure of your kill rather than assuming that the guy who's fallen over is dead. (Mind you, if you are a bunch of squaddies told by your civilian liaison that you've "got to stop" the Navy doctor who's your current medical officer, most of your difficulty is probably in restraining your grins.) And if you are leaving someone alone in the library which conceals the door to your secret lair, and she asks for a book that's right next to the lever for said door, you don't hand her the steps and leave; you get the book down for her. The huge (breech-loading!) mortar used to fire depth charges looks nothing like any mortar that has served with British forces. But this shouldn't really be surprising any more. Everything gets a bit rushed towards the end in London, but the world domination plan would never really have convinced if it had been entirely restricted to Scotland.

The spaceship coming out of the water is surprisingly effectively matted against the location-shot background, and it works even better when it's on the ground in the quarry; this is the sort of scene where the effects ball has been seriously dropped before now, or the difficult-to-mount shots have simply been avoided (Colony in Space), so it's nice to see it got right. The Skarasen is less impressive, moving around much too jerkily, but in general the organic technology of the spacecraft is excellently realised, even down to such minor details as the rising columns of fluid for the self-destruct timer.

UNIT does a little better this time than in its last few appearances, but it's clearly on the way out. In the end, this is in many ways a rerun of The Claws of Axos, except this time it's styled as a horror film rather than an episode of The Avengers. And so we have the Doctor not even trying to make peace with the aliens.

Not a classic story, for me, but there are some excellent moments and it doesn't offend.

(The first season of Space: 1999 started broadcast in the UK while this story was being shown. Indeed, that's why this obvious continuation of series 12's ongoing plot was kept back to series 13: so that the new series could begin in the autumn rather than early winter, and be programmed against Space from its inception. "Against" in the sense of the era, of course; Space was shown at various times on a Saturday in different ITV regions, while Who was on a Saturday evening. But it was still felt that giving the newcomer a couple of months to establish an audience while Who was off the air might be giving hostages to fortune.)

Planet of Evil

An invisible monster. Not a promising start. And the blatant echoes of Star Trek in the design of the approaching spaceship don't help. If you're going to rip off Forbidden Planet, shouldn't you at least do it with a bit more style?

I must admit, I found this a surprisingly tough story to get through, with several weeks' pause after I'd watched part 1. It's not, I suppose, a terrible story, but after the best bits of series 12 and even after Zygons it's an awful let-down. It mostly doesn't get things horribly wrong, but nor does it ever manage to get anything more than very basically right.

Effects are distinctly more dodgy than we've been used to lately; the shimmering outline of the monster is good, but the tracker is too obviously supported on an arm that's out of shot, the jungle (while surprisingly good) is very clearly studio-bound, the moving ladder on the side of the ship is obviously only there in order to have a moving part, the "force-field barrier" is an embarrassing sketch, and so on. The partly-transformed Sorenson in part 3 isn't bad though, and bits of background detail aboard the ship work quite well. (Mainstream opinion disagrees with me, and finds the jungle much more impressive than the ship.)

The script is similarly dodgy; this is clearly a new and special sort of anti-matter which doesn't act anything like the substance of that name that you might have heard of before. (All right, The Three Doctors did that too.) Where did Sorenson get his anti-lycanthropy potion? The Morestrans' main job is to be obtuse. Nobody seems terribly interested in acting.

Indeed, the genesis of this story was the willingness of Roger Murray-Leach to attempt a studio-bound jungle set; the actual plot was worked in round that. The script was also hacked about a bit quite late on; originally, Sorenson did not reappear at the end. Louis Marks was usually a decent writer (Day of the Daleks, but also Planet of Giants), and David Maloney was always a decent director (most recently in Genesis of the Daleks).

There's a new angle, literally, on the TARDIS set; I don't think we've ever seen the tops of those rondel walls before. This was actually first used in Pyramids of Mars, which was filmed before this story. But it was too expensive to rig up this set for just a few scenes in each story; after this, the only interior shots we'll see are the famous (and faster, hence cheaper, to assemble) "backup control room" until The Invisible Enemy in series 15.

(The week after this story had ended, the Space: 1999 episode Dragon's Domain was broadcast; in that, an alien creature chews up the background cast and reduces them to mummies. And a background character is called, at least in the original draft of the script, Vishenskaya. Hmm. Something in the narrative air?)

The Pyramids of Mars

A fine opening scene in the Hammer style, complete with the closest thing to Peter Cushing the BBC could find. This is something the Holmes-Hinchcliffe era is starting to do quite a bit: shamelessly rip off other films that might not be well known to the primary audience. They certainly weren't known to me at the time of broadcast. But the organ-playing, the mummies, the Sinister Egyptian: they're all out of the stock lexicon.

But after the Doctor has seen the walking mummy, he uncharacteristically pooh-poohs Sarah's report of it. That's a very Pertwee-Doctor sort of thing to do. And… my goodness, a comic relief poacher! That's very Pertwee! (Or perhaps very Robert Holmes: he wrote Spearhead from Space, after all, if not The Claws of Axos, and rewrote the unusable first draft of this story.) At the same time, Sarah effectively extricates herself from Lawrence Scarman's attempts to stop the jammer, she's handy with a rifle, and generally she gets to be much more part of the story than poor Jo Grant usually was.

"You can't rewrite history", eh? No, that idea's completely dead now, isn't it? Of course, all those stories of modern Earth in peril were set in the history of someone like Zoe.

The alienness of the Doctor is one of the main things people talk about from this story, and it's one of the better bits of writing here; it's also a bold move for a show that's in the process of removing itself from the earthbound setting that's defined it for several years.

There are some lovely visuals: for me, particularly, the trippy space-time tunnel, the costume of Sutekh's servant, and the shifting bars of light over Sutekh's image when he commands remotely. Sutekh's actual mask is not bad, though rather reminscent of Omega's.

The final puzzle section is remarkably like the Exxilon city in Death to the Daleks; even Sarah Jane calls it out (though she wasn't there, for all that she should have been and there was no reason to exclude her). The whole episode is a bit of a re-hash of that story, really, and we'll see this used again in The Five Doctors.

As for the light-speed delay that forms the final plot point: Sutekh was remotely operating the Scarman puppet in real time. Therefore Osiran communications systems are quite capable of operating in real time over interplanetary distances. So why should the collapse of the restraint field be any less instantaneous?

The production quality is generally very high, and the acting is impressive especially from Baker and Sladen who have worked out how to play off each other, but the script doesn't do either justice, especially in its deus ex machina ending. Yet another super-powerful alien menace we've never heard of before, done in the style of other, better films. Perhaps after series 12 anything would feel like a let-down. But at least this story's not as weak as its two immediate neighbours.

The Android Invasion

Right from the start, Sarah's getting into trouble, stabbing herself on nettles, almost falling off a cliff, and knocking a vase off a table. Yup, Terry Nation is back, and this time for a change writing a story without the Daleks (his only one apart from The Keys of Marinus).

Well, mostly. Actually this would pretty much work as a Dalek story with only minimal modification; Styggron and the other Kraals could nearly as easily have been Daleks with android slaves. Nation did set out to write a non-Dalek story; he just didn't have all that much range.

It's a bit of a runaround, even in the first part. Lots of back and forth, capture and escape. The actual story might even have worked as a three-parter; of course Terry got into his script-writing habits in the era of the show when padding was absolutely required.

Crayford's explanation of the brilliance of Styggron's plan seems faintly absurd, something one might hear from a raving fanboy. (Milton Johns did a much better job as Benik the secret policeman back in The Enemy of the World.) And it does seem kind of silly, in the end; if you have the virus that can wipe out all of humanity, why muck about with infiltrating the space defences? Just load it into those re-entry shells, dump it all over the planet, and wait. And it's stated that the Kraals could take Earth by force if they wanted to, so when the plan fails why don't they do just that? Yeah, it's a Terry Nation plot all right. (Whatever happened to Android Sarah anyway?) The TARDIS' "pause control" is only the most egregious example here; the "robot detector" in part four is utter scriptwriter laziness.

This is one of the few stories where the small effects budget is a problem; the shots where the re-entry shells land are so clearly done by suggestion and without any ability to show anything moving fast or hitting the ground that it quite distracts one from the story. Similarly with Crayford's ship landing. The show's done this before, of course, but rarely so blatantly.

Much of the setup is familiar from the Avengers episode The Hour that Never Was, which was at least not written by Nation… but it ends up going in a slightly different direction. (Having Colonel Faraday played by Patrick Newell, who was Mother in quite a few of the Avengers episodes, doesn't help.) There's obviously some Invasion of the Body Snatchers here too, especially with those pods, but twisted around enough that it's not completely a copy. Even so, the story never really seems to develop any zing.

As the swan song of the UNIT regulars, it's a bit of a disappointment, with a generic office-style environment indoors rather than any of the recognisable UNIT sets. The Brigadier should of course have been here, but Nicholas Courtney wasn't available. As a farewell to Harry Sullivan, Terror of the Zygons did it rather better. And as for the unfortunate Benton, who's been a fine steady rock for the other regulars to glitter around, he really deserved at least some acknowledgement that we wouldn't be seeing him again.

The Brain of Morbius

Another script clearly inspired by classic films, obviously the various iterations of Frankenstein for the most part ("Don't you recognise me? I made you! Argh!"), but this one manages to get a bit more away from its roots.

The initial script was inspired by Philip Hinchcliffe's interest in robots and the relationship between man and machine; it was written by Terrance Dicks (who'd most recently written Robot for the show), involving a space criminal who'd crash landed and was being built a new body by his robot servant. Dicks borrowed ideas from his stage play Seven Keys to Doomsday, mostly the costumes for the Clawrantulars (generic fighting slaves for the Daleks). The planet Karn came from the play too, while the Sisterhood and the Sacred Flame were adapted from She. As with several other stories, Robert Holmes ended up doing a complete rewrite, in this case because the robot servant would clearly be too expensive to create, and because the script was overall too far from the horror feel that was wanted; hence the Robin Bland pseudonym on the final work.

The Sisterhood, as one of the ideas not in the core plot, is inevitably one of the shakier parts of the story, delving further into magic (all right, "mind power", but the style and chanting is all about magic) than is generally good for the programme. (Yes, yes, sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology.) As a group of women supposedly as capable as the Time Lords, all they do until the Doctor turns up is sit around, wreck spaceships, and whinge about their flame going out. Why didn't they turn Solon's mind inside out, realise what he was up to, and deal with him years ago?

It's quite amusing to have each faction utterly convinced that the Doctor is in league with the other one, but sadly this doesn't last long; after Solon breaks in on the sacrifice and gets away scott-free, neither he nor the Doctor is in any doubt as to everyone's positions.

The best performance here is clearly Philip Madoc as Solon, who manages to put over even the silliest of lines with a convincing intensity. Cynthia Grenville as Maren, the senior Sister, is pretty good, though Gilly Brown as Ohica just seems to strike all the wrong notes, with misplaced wide-eyed glares every time she reads a line. Sarah's a bit of a victim this time round with only occasional effectiveness, but makes up for it with some excellent acting, while the Doctor himself seems to be absent for extended periods and somehow subdued when he is about. Mary Whitehouse complained about the violence, of course, but that was what she did.

The Brain itself is a splendid practical effect (or does it count as a prop?); the combination of lighting and bubbles screams "mad science" in a very effective way. The scorched door of the Chamber of the Flame is also rather fine. The staging in general looks lush and effective; it's quite theatrical, with a limited number of sets carefully re-used. This is how to use a small budget right: instead of trying to cut down an epic story to fit, start with a small theatrical production and expand it by suggestion to epic scale.

The cyanogen idea is a bit of a poor one; for a start, I think it's heavier than air. But even if the hydrogen cyanide could be sent up the duct, and killed everybody above, what good would it do? The door would still be locked! Similarly, why doesn't Solon stick the brain in the Doctor's head and body combined? Or Condo's, for that matter?

But while one can poke fun at individual moments, the overall effect is a surprisingly positive one. I don't think this story will end up as a favourite of mine, as it seems to be of many fans, but it leaves a good impression.

(Space: 1999 ended its first season's run during this story's broadcast. I hold a slight soft spot for it even now, probably because I met it at the right age; I can accept that it's even more scientifically illiterate than most TV SF, the scripts vary between patchy and inept, and the acting's often plain, but the visual effects are splendid.)

The Seeds of Doom

The first six-parter since Genesis of the Daleks, and it gets away with it by being in effect two related stories, the two-parter in Antarctica (The Thing From Another World) and the four-part final UNIT story back in England (The Quatermass Experiment, or at least Man-Eater of Surrey Green). Again, as with The Brain of Morbius, the story quickly manages to get away from slavish imitation of its source materials. It does get a bit Avengers at times, but that's no bad thing.

Robert Banks Stewart did a much better job here than he had on Terror of the Zygons; there's lots of nonsense, of course, but it's nonsense with a sense of style. Considering how quickly this was whipped up, when an early version of The Hand of Fear proved unready for filming, it's not bad at all. This was also the great Douglas Camfield's last work for the show, and he went out on a visual and dramatic high note, with more action and violence but also more fine character moments than in many previous stories.

While the return of the BBC snow machine and video overlay are pretty obvious, the Antarctic base is otherwise remarkably well-realised with studio sets. Things have to get off to the bit of a slow start to allow the Doctor to get to Antarctica (it's a little odd that he doesn't take the TARDIS, and that may even have been an earlier plan considering the ending sequence).

As the final UNIT story (at least until the very last series), this is completely free of all the regulars, and that seems like a great shame. Major Beresford and Sergeant Henderson obviously should be the Brigadier and Benton, and it's disconcerting when they aren't.

Chase is the first truly cinematic thing we get in this story, set up as a classic film villain turning away from a pipe-organ (all right, his wall of plants) and holding up his black-gloved hands. And, sadly, showing his incompetence, by sending a murderous minion with something that can be readily traced back to him (never mind the plant painting, what about the car?). On the other hand, the first scene between the Doctor and Chase is utterly splendid, with Chase going into his villain schtick and the Doctor, expecting it, playing perfectly up to it. (And there's plenty of "Why am I surrounded by idiots".)

Scorby is played by a far better actor than is deserved by his stock role of Chief Thug. John Challis, in his one Who role, gives lines like "I shouldn't worry, Doctor, it's strictly a one-way journey" and "spread out, you idiots" the ironic intonation they deserve. It's only at the end that he shows his true depressive nature. Scorby's sadism is repeatedly self-defeating of course, first when he fails to shoot the survivors at the Antarctic base, and again when he puts the Doctor in the composter rather than shooting him (admittedly that's partly Chase's fault). For a man who "likes guns" he's strangely reluctant to kill people with them.

Sarah varies between wimp and competent, but even when threatened by Chase never quite becomes a damsel in distress. It was during filming of this story that Lis Sladen announced her decision to leave the show, though she was persuaded to stay on for two more stories.

And at the top of them all, Baker can deliver a line like "What you have done could result in the total destruction of all life on this planet" and sound as if he means it, by being casual rather than intense. It's a fascinating style of counter-signalling.

As for the monster itself, it's decently realised in all its incarnations (one of them a resprayed Axon costume that was still in the BBC warehouse), and the model work is solid even if we very rarely get to see the monster and the humans at the same time. The laser weapon bodged out of an industrial lamp and a bazooka is rather splendid too.

The thing fairly bowls along, and it's only afterwards that one notices how it could have gone more or less the same way without the Doctor or Sarah being involved at all. All it would take is someone making the connection with Chase soon enough to get to the Krynoid before it started seeding. The setup of the Doctor working for some human organisation is a very Pertwee-era one, and something the show's generally been trying to get away from this series, though doing it badly doesn't seem like an ideal approach.

I would quite like to watch the Amelia Ducat Show. Defeating evil with cigarettes and good manners! (And I can easily picture a surviving Scorby working for her, as long as she had the money. Now there's a double act that could be great fun to see.)

Overall impressions

Farewell, in a piecemeal sort of way, to the Brigadier, Sullivan, Benton, and indeed all of UNIT. It was a conscious decision to try to get further away from the Earthbound pattern of the Pertwee era, but as it turned out four out of the six stories here were basically set in the British countryside. One gets the feeling that there was no particular plan to give farewell scenes to the regulars (supporting the idea that they're not "really" companions in the classic sense); it was just a matter of making a normal story, then not bringing them back.

The Brigadier has been all over the place, from an uncomplicated leader in The Web of Fear, via the military and establishment man opposing the scientific Liz Shaw in series 7, to the buffoon of Planet of the Spiders. Scheduling stopped Courtney returning for The Android Invasion, so Zygons is his send-off, and it's not a bad showing.

Harry Sullivan was brought in when it wasn't clear who would play the Doctor after Pertwee; an older actor might not have been as willing to do action scenes. As it turned out, Baker made him effectively redundant, so he was removed at the end of the series 12 writing block (Zygons). I thought he worked best as a straight man to the Doctor's comedian; when he's in silly mode himself he's as boring as comic relief usually is. The Android Invasion is far too weak a story to be a good showcase for his final appearance.

Benton is more of an enigma. By his own admission John Levene was never a particularly flexible actor, but he used the skill he had to play the simple part very well. He managed to stay consistent when other characters were being blown by the whims of scriptwriters (is the Brig a buffoon, or not?). He definitely deserved better than a casual farewell and then never being seen again; well, they all did.

This is a series that many people seem to regard as their favourite, but for me the show has often fallen short of the heights it reached in series 12 (where Hinchcliffe and Holmes had benefited from stories commissioned by their predecessors), and it's had two real failures (Planet of Evil and The Android Invasion). I have more fond memories of (some of) series 14 (when everything changed again, but nobody noticed at the time), so it'll be interesting to see how well it lives up to them.

Favourite story of this series: The Seeds of Doom

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

  1. Zoe
  2. Barbara
  3. Liz Shaw
  4. Susan
  5. Sergeant Benton
  6. Ian
  7. Steven
  8. Sara Kingdom
  9. The Brigadier
  10. Jo Grant
  11. Jamie
  12. Ben
  13. Polly
  14. Harry Sullivan
  15. Vicki
  16. Victoria
  17. Dodo
  18. Katarina

  1. Posted by Owen Smith at 01:44pm on 01 May 2014

    I liked Space 1999 as a child. It always really annoyed me when it and Doctor Who clashed, there was very little else on TV that I really liked and I told my parents how unfair it was. And back then we didn't have a VCR, there were no PVRs or iPlayer so it really was a choice of watching one or the other.

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 01:53pm on 01 May 2014

    My memories are of Space being on a Saturday morning while Who was on a Saturday evening. But I may well be remembering Space in repeats, and I'm assuming you weren't in the London ITV region anyway. Thanks for confirming that in some places they really were programmed directly against each other.

  3. Posted by Owen Smith at 11:50am on 04 May 2014

    I was in the Yorkshire TV region. I think they clashed, but as you say there were so many repeats it's hard to be sure. And it was all a long time ago. I went to a Saturday morning music school for many years so it's unlikely I watched either on Saturday mornings.

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