RogerBW's Blog

Doctor Who Re-Watch, series 14 13 May 2014

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

Doctor Who - Tom Baker
Sarah Jane Smith - Elisabeth Sladen
Leela - Louise Jameson

The Masque of Mandragora

New title typeface. Yeah, I notice these things.

I've always been rather fond of the wood-panelled control room, especially those stained-glass roundels; but there were also practical benefits, with the central column (an endless source of technical problems as it stuck with no provocation) completely removed, and the exterior doors (ditto) remodelled. This was also the first outing for the new TARDIS exterior, as the original prop had finally collapsed during filming of The Seeds of Doom last series.

This story's inspiration is of course Masque of the Red Death, but it's a pretty loose connection, and that's no bad thing.

There's some lovely architecture for the outside filming, even if it is actually in Portmeirion rather than Italy. A good compromise between budget and authenticity, I think. The costumes were largely recycled from the 1954 Castellani production of Romeo and Juliet, with one from the 1968 Zeffirelli, which probably saved some money. Combining the location and costumes leads to a visually gorgeous story even on a BBC budget, and one can ignore the unconvincing red glow that's all that's used to portray the blob of "Helix energy".

Sarah Jane's somewhat weakened here, a pity in her penultimate appearance. She somehow becomes the "chosen" sacrifice, giving us one and a half of the three cliffhangers (I think that this is the first time all the TARDIS travellers have been at immediate risk of death in a cliffhanger, separately), and apart from that mostly runs around and screams. And then, when she actually does show some curiosity and interest, it's only because she's been hypnotised!

The story as a whole feels quite a like a fantasied-up version of The Romans, with people turning up randomly as the plot needs them to. The thing I particularly like, though, is the idea of the fifteenth century as an inflection point between pre-science and science (not, as Marks wrote, between superstition and science, and given that he'd studied the Renaissance quite a bit he really should have known better). Pity all the smartest people in Europe (at the ball) have still been killed!

It's a better show than Louis Marks' last outing (Planet of Evil) but it's very patchy. Talking about scientific progress works better if you're not combining it in the show with pseudoscientific nonsense about astrology having real power, there's lots of time-wasting running around and getting captured, and the ending falls apart completely with a sudden six-minute wrap-up. On the other hand I do like the gradual shift in the focus of villainy from the evil Count to Hieronymous, the latter starting effectively as a comic figure. The Helix itself is more of a disappointment; it might just as well be a fire demon for all the difference it makes to the story.

(Space: 1999 started its second season broadcast on the same day as this story began. It carried on, with huge multi-month gaps between episodes which can't have done its viewership any good, until Image of the Fendahl in series 15.)

The Hand Of Fear

Ah, Bob Baker and Dave Martin. A polarising team, who up to this point have given us The Claws of Axos, The Mutants, The Three Doctors and The Sontaran Experiment. Some of them were a bit patchy, some were outright dire, but all had their moments. There's a certain amount of riffing on killer-hand films, but as with Masque the writers manage mostly to be fairly original.

And sometimes they're downright contrived, as here where the Doctor and Sarah (in her thoroughly-unflattering childish outfit) completely ignore the siren so as to get themselves into trouble, because that's what the story requires.

The script editor's job is being done rather half-heartedly here: two stories in a row where Sarah's mind being subverted is a major plot point? And her last two, at that? Oh dear. On the other hand, Lis Sladen is on great form, playing off Tom Baker better than ever, at least when the script gives her something to do (not so much towards the end). And Holmes had had to bounce the script back for a fair few rewrites already; the original version involved the "Omegans" (yes, Bob and Dave, we get that you like the name Omega), the death of the Brigadier, and the first appearance of Drax (see The Armageddon Factor when I get that far in the re-watch). It was originally planned for the end of series 13, but was pushed back because Holmes continued to be unhappy with it.

It's good to see a quarry actually being a quarry, and for that matter the distinctive cylindrical buildings of Oldbury power station being a nuclear power station rather than any of a variety of high-tech bases (as they would be quite a bit later in Blake's 7). (The "Nunton Complex" was originally going to be the same "Nuton Complex" seen in The Claws of Axos, but again Holmes decided that this should be changed.) In a sense this is the "real" last UNIT story, even though UNIT isn't in it: it's the final farewell to the recent mode of the show, that around half the stories will involve a threat to contemporary Britain. At times it feels quite old-fashioned, in fact. Perhaps more significantly, there's no sense there there's much of contemporary Britain out there; in The Mind of Evil the Master could lurk outside UNIT HQ in a Post Office Telephones workman's tent, but now there's just The Quarry and The Power Station. No crowd scenes, no sense that there are lots more people out there. Contrast, oh, Terror of the Zygons where there's at least a whole village to be subverted, then at the end London is attacked. If you're not going to engage with contemporary Britain, you might as well not use the setting, and hereafter that's what the show largely does.

For all the sometimes-simplistic writing, there are some good moments, like the brief shots in part 2 where Professor Watson is telephoning his family. (Anyone remember the music video for Dancing With Tears In My Eyes? That was eight years later, and I strongly suspect that this was an influence on it.) Direction is by Lennie Mayne, who likes to be arty when there's nothing else to do (those floor-level shots in the car in episode 1) but can put stuff competently on the screen when there's something to put.

The first, female, Eldrad played by Judith Paris is rather more impressively acted than the Stephen Thorne version; she's something like a real and complex person, where he is a sort of cut-rate Brian Blessed stereotype (or indeed shouty Omega/Azal all over again). The costume is also rather splendid. The narrative wants us to feel sympathy for her, giving her harpooning the final cliffhanger.

And it's after that, in episode four, that it really falls apart. It's another crash through static obstacles just as we've seen in Death to the Daleks or The Pyramids of Mars, the brief scenes with Shouty Eldrad wanting to conquer the galaxy, and a casual trip over the Doctor's scarf. How much more fun if it had still been Original Eldrad; even more so if she had been violently inclined but genuinely trying to save her people, as one of those misunderstood rebels put down by The Man that Who does so well (the commando team in Day of the Daleks for example), and then Sarah's farewell scene.

Which last does work pretty well — but it wasn't written by Baker and Martin. Rather it was put together by Tom Baker and Lis Sladen from notes by Robert Holmes. It's a good scene, and if only the TARDIS weren't a time machine it would be most effective. As it is, there's no in-universe reason why the Doctor shouldn't come straight back to the same set of coordinates on Earth twenty seconds later, after he's done whatever needs to be done on Gallifrey; the scene only works at all because the audience, at a meta level, knows that Lis Sladen is leaving the show. In other words we can either be annoyed by the writers messing up a basic premise of the story, or be complicit in moving our appreciation to that of an audience of a TV show, rather than having immersion in the world. (After all, apart from Susan, this is the first time a companion's left involuntarily; and in Susan's case it was the Doctor's own decision.) (Yes, I'm ignoring the deaths in The Daleks' Master Plan, but I don't think they destroy my thesis.)

And this is where the revived series really lost me, by having Sarah thirty years later being bitter about not being picked up again. Because of the way this tale was told, we were already made complicit in agreeing that she should go permanently even though there was no in-universe reason for her to do so; and then the episode School Reunion tried to make us feel guilty for not having felt bad that she had to go. I'm not a narrative theorist, but that feels like cheating.

Still, the original plan (The Lost Legion) had her killed off in a pseudohistorical story about aliens and the French Foreign Legion, but Douglas Camfield wasn't available to write it. So I suppose we should be grateful for what we got.

The final scene was actually filmed in Stokefield Close, Thornbury, South Gloucestershire. (It was quite close to Tytherington quarry and the Oldbury power station.)

The Deadly Assassin

Yes, all right, it's a tautological title: an assassin who is not deadly is a "failed assassin". But this was also an era when people were called "you stupid idiot".

Robert Holmes had been script-doctoring a lot, but he hadn't had a script truly of his own to write since The Ark in Space. It's interesting that in this case (apart from the obvious Manchurian Candidate setup) he should spend such a lot of time rubbishing the earlier tropes of the show: the TARDIS is not a miracle machine, just an obsolete model; the Time Lords are still terribly powerful, but they're also ineffectual stuffed shirts and doddering fools who are at the mercy of anyone with a cunning plan; there's the Celestial Intervention Agency, ho ho… and perhaps worst of all, the Doctor, who makes such a point of being the unpredictable wild card, is at first being played, set up by someone who knows his reactions better than he does. It's a very brave scriptwriting move, and perhaps not a terribly smart one.

We've had a Doctor-free adventure before now, though probably most of the audience hadn't seen it. But this is the first companion-free adventure. It's all about how the Doctor is awesome, all the time. (This was actually by Tom Baker's request; he didn't want another regular companion at all after Sarah Jane, and there was some thought of at least finishing the season with one-shot companions.)

Combine all those things with a fakeout at the end of the first episode that makes it look as though the Doctor is the assassin, and there's something of a feeling of contempt here. It's the writing of someone who wants to bring the old stuff crashing down to make room for own ideas in its place. Holmes has always liked to bring major new mythology in casually (the mention of Gallifrey in The Time Warrior, for example), but here he's outdone himself (Rassilon, the APC net, the Eye of Harmony, the Chapter system, the regeneration limit). (Why Rassilon, and not Omega? As far as I can see, Holmes never even thought of making things consistent with that four-year-old story.) The story's not bad in itself, but it tears away the curtain from a whole lot of established mystery; later writers and editors felt a need to stick with the backstory that was thrown in randomly here, and that ended up doing the show a whole power of no good, as we shall eventually see. A bit of mystery is good for a universe, and hereafter the Time Lords are no longer mysterious, so when a mysterious force is needed… ah, but I get two years ahead of myself.

The Episode 3 cliffhanger (the attempted drowning) was what got Philip Hinchcliffe thrown out as producer, or rather the reactions to it orchestrated by Mary Whitehouse. One might more legitimately wonder why none of the Time Lords who die here is seen to regenerate. As for the idea of bringing back the Master in the first place, both Hinchcliffe and Holmes were thinking about leaving the show anyway, so they deliberately put him in a transitional state so that future editors wouldn't be stuck with a version they didn't like. At the time I first saw this, the Master was just another name; I'd never seen Delgado, and didn't know what all the fuss was about. Now I definitely regard this resurrection as a mistake; it would have been more fitting to allow the character to rest in peace.

Several guest actors return: Bernard Horsfall was in The War Games, The Mind Robber and Planet of the Daleks before returning here as Goth; George Pravda was in The Enemy of the World and The Mutants before playing here as Spandrell. Peter Pratt makes the best of an impossible job as the Master, though his voice is a bit lost through the mask during the shouty final sequences. For me at least, Baker fails to sparkle here in the way that he has been so far.

For all the effort that's often gone into making the Doctor seem alien, these Time Lords are depressingly human in their drives and ambitions. There's nothing here that couldn't be done if the Doctor were from a far-future Earth, as originally hypothesised. This ancient society turns out to be just a bunch of politicians. However did they last this long?

Apart from the Time Lord connection, the scripts are excellent, and production design is quite effective, particularly the sloping dais that turns out to conceal the Eye of Harmony; in general the economical layout of the Gallifreyan sets is perhaps a bit too sparse compared with some of the lushness we see elsewhere in this series.

(This is the first Who story I remember deliberately watching on first broadcast. I don't believe the Episode 3 cliffhanger did me any harm, but I dare say that if Whitehouse had known me she wouldn't have agreed.)

The Face Of Evil

After a break over December, caused by script-writing problems on The Talons of Weng-Chiang, the show returned on New Year's Day 1977.

This was Chris Boucher's first script for the show; he wrote two more, then quite a lot for Blake's 7 (where he was also script editor), as well as working on several comedy and police shows. Finally he got to design his own series with Star Cops — of which more after Series 23.

Tom Baker was still agitating to have no permanent companion, but the production team felt that some support character was necessary (particularly after Robert Holmes had experienced the alternative while writing The Deadly Assassin). Leela was originally conceived as a one-shot character; the new companion was meant to be a cockney girl from Victorian London (in the adventure that would become The Talons of Weng-Chiang), who'd be gradually educated by the Doctor over the course of series 15. As Leela emerged from Boucher's writing process, Hinchcliffe and Holmes decided that she'd be kept on at least into the next story; and then, if they'd be leaving at the end of the season anyway, the new production team might not like their cockney sparrow, and they'd have introduced two new companions for nothing, so they might as well keep Leela for a bit longer.

Tom objected strongly, as he probably would have to anyone who wasn't Lis Sladen at this point; both Leela's brief costume and her violent tendencies were things he felt didn't belong in the show. After Sladen's departure he seems to have started to throw his weight around a lot more.

After the initial setup of Leela and her situation, we get an odd moment as Baker pontificates directly to camera; he seems entirely too pleased to be doing so, which rather swamps the mad-play.

Invisible monsters always seem a bit lazy, especially so soon after Planet of Evil, though the effects here (the footprint, and the crushing of the alarm clock) come out pretty well. Sets are generally good, particularly in the Sevateem camp, though the jungle is less convincing, and the "outside" shots from the cave are particularly poor. The sets within the ship are a bit too sparse for my taste; I like pipework and conduits and things, and the various action sequences in the corridors just don't work terribly well, because the walls are so bare and there's no sense of who's moving where. The actual rooms are rather more effective.

The Sevateem are generally well-acted; the Tesh are deliberately bland, so it's hard to blame them for this, but they don't leave much of an impression. Combine that with the dull sets, and the latter two episodes don't generate quite as much momentum as the former two.

One can't help noticing that Leela seems to be the only female on the planet. (Not quite true: a single shot shows a Sevateem woman in pigtails during the march through the jungle on the way to the attack in episode 2. But she's unspeaking and uncredited.)

It's pleasing to see the Doctor putting together the various high-tech clues he's presented with in the first episode, and jumping to a conclusion as he always does… and, for once, getting it wrong, speculating that the Sevateem have been visited by space travellers. It's a shame we have to have amnesia explaining his actions, and indeed that we have to call back to a story that never got made.

The better parts of this story are the double act between Baker and Jameson, who are together on screen most of the time, and it's fascinating to see their divergent acting styles: Baker who more or less made it up as he went along, and Jameson who was fairly serious about the method approach. Direction isn't ideal, but it's a hard story to get wrong.

I rather like it. It's a big step down in Significance after The Deadly Assassin, but it's distinctly enjoyable in spite of, perhaps even as a result of, that.

The Robots of Death

Chris Boucher's second script; this had originally been the slot where The Hand of Fear would have gone, until that was pulled forward to paste over the hole left by the absence of The Lost Legion. Since Boucher had just defined Leela, he seemed like a good choice to write her second gap-filling appearance before the "real" companion turned up in Talons.

It's an interesting subversion of the usual locked-room mystery plot: nine humans with nobody able to get in or out (except the Doctor and Leela, but they're obviously a distraction), one of whom must be the murderer. Except that here of course that's not the case, as we've been clued in by the title (I think "The Storm-Mine Murders", one of the working titles, would have been better) and the first murder sequence; it's Chesterton's Invisible Man. It's a shame that the audience isn't allowed to share in the mystery experienced by the crew; it makes the latter look unfortunately dim.

Baker and Jameson continue to be a bit on edge with each other, going by body language and line readings, and this is effective at maintaining a sense of tension. Leela's at a high point here, clearly unfamiliar with the technological setting but nonetheless working out what's going on because of her understanding of human beings. Pamela Salem, as Toos, had been in consideration for the role of Leela (among with a lot of other actresses), and it's interesting to see her limited interactions with Baker; alas, she falls apart towards the end.

As with The Face of Evil, sets for specific rooms are generally excellent, with plenty of decorative touches, but the corridors are a bit on the bland side. The design of the robots is also very good, a suitable level of gothic creepiness about the faces, though they become rather less impressive at their silver-taped feet and it's unfortunate that the servitor class should be black. The only real visual mis-step here as far as I'm concerned is the (CSO-ed, I assume) red haze in the eyes when the robots are in murderbot mode. Costumes in general are very good, and I particularly like the depiction of the decadent society aboard the sandminer.

Just don't poke too hard at the gorgeous trappings to dig out the plot. If you're an evil genius with the ability to subvert the command robot, why not just do that and kick off the uprising straight away, rather than mucking about with strangling individual miners? Why do it on an isolated vehicle rather than in a big city? The Asimov stories that were obviously one of Boucher's inspirations were logic puzzles about how a robot incapable of killing should nonetheless have seemed to kill; here the cleverness is gone, and they dunnit because a nasty human reprogrammed them.

This is the final appearance of the TARDIS's secondary control room. It's not clear why; maybe it warped in storage between this and the filming of series 15, or maybe the new producer didn't like it.

(I remember this story on rebroadcast, as a 2×50 minute package.)

The Talons of Weng-Chiang

Ah, Jack the Ripper meets Fu Manchu, the Phantom of the Opera, Pygmalion, and Sherlock Holmes plus the Giant Rat of Sumatra. (Complete with a Caucasian actor in the main Chinese role. All the dodgiest lines are put in the mouths of pompous Victorians who are just as much stereotypes as the Heathen Chinee, but the Doctor and Leela happily fall into contemporary British attitudes.)

The outline was composed by a returning Robert Banks Stewart, but he turned out not to have time to write The Foe from the Future as it was then called; Holmes ended up writing it himself, in some haste. It was clear by this point that Hinchcliffe would be leaving the show, so Holmes had a pretty free hand; so did David Maloney, in his last directing gig for Who, meaning that there was budget for night filming and plenty of different locations. Meanwhile, the incoming producer Graham Williams shadowed Hinchcliffe on this story, asking Louise Jameson to stay on as Leela, and allowing her to get rid of the brown contact lenses that had been irritating her on-set. (Tom Baker still wasn't happy with her, though, and again there's a palpable tension whenever he and Jameson share a scene. He threatened to leave at the end of the next series. This is true of pretty much every subsequent series until he actually did leave.)

This is the first "true" six-part story, not counting the 2+4 of The Seeds of Doom, since Genesis of the Daleks, which (say what one might about Terry Nation) never lagged. This one doesn't do quite as well in terms of keeping the plot developments rolling, but it's not at all a bad effort and there is at least always something happening, rather than the padding of running around and capture-and-escape that bedevil the show when its scriptwriters are feeling uninspired.

The plot has its shaky points, but I think it makes more sense to look at this as a mélange of all those Victorian melodramas I mentioned than as a "really happened" story; Greel wants pretty young girls because, well, the villain in these things always wants pretty young girls, rather than for any reason adequately explored in the actual script.

Jago and Litefoot [sic] are a classic Robert Holmes double act, though it's a shame that they don't actually meet until the last two episodes; they spend rather too much time before that as comic relief (though Litefoot's imitation of Leela's table manners, so as not to make her feel out of place, is perfect). The rest of the supporting cast is more forgettable, though Chang has his moments; Greel is one-note and Mr Sin is non-verbal. The Doctor is starting to feel smug in his invulnerability, and while Leela gets a few good moments she does end up as a bit of a peril magnet at times (and her knife attack on Greel really should have succeeded).

The different costuming for the Doctor and Leela is enjoyable; for Leela this was intended to be a permanent change, but the new producer went back to her earlier outfit. In general, the BBC of this era was good at producing costume drama, and this story (and Masque) were probably welcome changes from something like The Robots of Death as far as the set dressers and wardrobe department were concerned.

The sets are sadly dimly lit; they're evidently beautifully constructed, particularly the theatre itself (some of it shot on location, apparently), and it would be good to be able to see more of them. As for the infamous giant rat, well, it's not as bad as the monsters in Night of the Lepus, and it's certainly not on screen for as long. I think that when watching any programme of this era what matters is that the practical effects not mislead and distract; one doesn't expect them to be realistic, just to give the impression of what's meant to be happening. But then, I'm one of those readers.

This story is a collection of most of the things that make the programme good: a reasonable plot, good acting and script, workable sets and props, a good level of tension if not much originality, and references to a bigger universe ("I was with the Filipino Army at the final advance on Reykjavík") without feeling the need to go and dig into them in detail.

(The first episode was broadcast on the same day that 2000 AD was first published.)

Overall impressions

To a lot of people, Sarah Jane Smith is the classic-era companion. I think that approaching her by watching prior series, rather than from a cold start, has made it clearer to me how the solo-companion model was really started by Liz Shaw and developed into a workable system by Jo Grant; Sarah Jane then took on that approach and made it much better. That said, Sladen was more impressive as an actress than any of her predessors, and like the better moments of Katy Manning with Jon Pertwee managed to make a very effective double act with Tom Baker.

People who started watching the show between series 7 and The Hand of Fear, i.e. with Liz, Jo or Sarah as the sole companion, are very prone to favour the model of the companion as audience-identification figure. As I've said before, I'm unconvinced by this; my memories of Leela and Romana (both of them), who are really of "my era" of the show more than Sarah Jane is, are of the team, not of the Doctor who does everything plus the observer who points out how clever he's being. (Those memories may play me false where Leela is concerned; see above re Talons.) Even so, I have enjoyed watching Sarah, and I'm glad she wasn't blatantly sexualised the way Zoe sometimes was or Leela would be.

Where series 13 tended to say "let's remake a classic film, and then drop the Doctor into it", series 14 has said "let's tell a Doctor Who story that's heavily influenced by a classic film". In Talons this reaches its acme: the Doctor's new costume shows that he is himself treating this as a film-Holmesian romp. But this approach has the unfortunate side effect of restricting the series to scripts that can be considered "a Doctor Who story"; everything has to have a Who-element neatly fitted into the centre, rather than grafted onto the side ("this is happening, then the Doctor turns up") as in Seeds of Doom or Pyramids of Mars. All the same, I think this is probably the best series to date, certainly the most consistent; apart from the minor missteps in Masque and the last episode of Hand, these have all been good solid enjoyable stories. No Revenge of the Cybermen, The Android Invasion or Planet of Evil here.

I probably ought to talk about Mary Whitehouse. This series is one argument against her: some of the best Who to date, and it couldn't be carried on into the next series because she got the producer sacked. Her view of the show, indeed of everything that wasn't both explicitly Christian and so defanged as to be safe for the tinies, was stuck at the level of a particularly dim child who can't tell that what's on the box in the corner isn't a real thing. I have some sympathy with the position that there were people who didn't want to have sex and violence everywhere, all the time, in all mass media; I feel somewhat that way myself. But Whitehouse took this to an extreme and critically illiterate level; she didn't apparently want any sex or violence anywhere, at any time, even for consenting adults in private. (Though presumably scary stories from the Bible would have been just fine.)

And while I would personally put it three years later, it's certainly possible to argue that this series was the high point of Who, that everything after Talons was a step along the road towards cancellation. Graham Williams tried not to be Philip Hinchcliffe, and made the show fluffier; John Nathan-Turner tried not to be Graham Williams, and made it darker; both of then were defined by negatives, by what they wanted to avoid, rather than by things to which they actively aspired.

Favourite story of this series: The Robots of Death

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

  1. Zoe
  2. Barbara
  3. Liz Shaw
  4. Sarah Jane Smith
  5. Susan
  6. Ian
  7. Steven
  8. Sara Kingdom
  9. Jo Grant
  10. Jamie
  11. Ben
  12. Polly
  13. Vicki
  14. Victoria
  15. Dodo
  16. Katarina

  1. Posted by Owen Smith at 01:14pm on 13 May 2014

    I found the Sarah Jane re-introduction in New Who annoying too. It was a good story, but there was no need for her to be upset. It was quite clear in her original departure that there was no intention for the Doctor to come back for her.

    Anyway, this series I definitely watched when it was originally broadcast, earlier ones I may have been watching repeats.

    Leela had quite an effect on me as an 11 year old boy, which was probably the intent given the skimpy costume. Why she was never cold I have no idea, the actress probably was.

    I particularly remember the Janus thorns and the Doctor saying many times "No more Janus thorns!" as Leela went around killing various people. It had a lot in common with "No more nitro-nine!" from McCoy's doctor to Ace (a pairing I've always liked).

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 01:31pm on 13 May 2014

    The departure of companions (and indeed the idea of regeneration) are obvious meta-level devices: this actor isn't going to do the job any more. One has to accept a certain level of plot machinery in order to keep the story moving; in some respects that's like the TARDIS, which is usually a magic boat for taking the protagonists to the place where the adventure's going to happen. It's a thin tissue of plausibility over an obvious narrative technique, and when the show breaks though that veil it's always a big risk.

    I'll talk about Leela more in the series 15 post, but I think it's worth mentioning that Louise Jameson claims that she wasn't told that the character was meant to be be sexy, and so didn't attempt to play her as such.

  3. Posted by Owen Smith at 11:48pm on 13 May 2014

    I remember Leela as quite stern and fierce, though I could be completely mis-remembering her. I don't recall her behaving sexily, it was just the costume.

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