RogerBW's Blog

Doctor Who Re-Watch, series 26 11 January 2016

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

The Doctor - Sylvester McCoy
Ace - Sophie Aldred

The show stayed on Wednesday evenings against Coronation Street, and the first episode of this series got the lowest ratings of any Who episode ever.

Battlefield

Why is it dark in the TARDIS? Because the console room walls had accidentally been destroyed after The Greatest Show in the Galaxy, and since this was the only interior scene for the whole of series 26 it was cheaper to mock something up with wallpaper than to build a proper set.

Another Ben Aaronovitch story to open the series, and another pretty decent one, though it does rely on a certain science-fictional mindset: if you are the sort of person who asks "but why are King Arthur's knights apparently aliens, who nonetheless wear mediæval armour while acting out a story from the Dark Ages" then this story won't work for you.

Well, usually I am that sort of person, but as I get closer to the end of classic Who I'm taking my pleasures where I can find them. You do simply have to roll with the strangeness and not let it spoil your enjoyment. This story got bashed around a lot during development: in various early versions it was to feature the death of Lethbridge-Stewart, knights in futuristic equipment which only looked like mediæval armour, an explicitly named demon, and zombie men-at-arms as its servants. All these were dropped for various reasons before production started. What plot there is comes out looking a lot like Remembrance, but there are enough changes to keep me happy.

Setting the story in the near future is done with a pleasingly light hand: a mention of the king, a road sign in kilometres, and a comment on the price of beer, rather than everyone wearing shiny jumpsuits and driving hovercars. Maybe that was a budgetary limitation, but it works.

Call me small-minded, but I prefer the idea here of the Doctor still having his actual UNIT credentials to the later idea of a "get me past any security guard" piece of paper. Or maybe it's just me. The continuity callbacks are generally light here: yes, all right, there was a Doris mentioned in Planet of the Spiders, but if you don't know that it doesn't matter. The Doctor's sudden ability to hypnotise minor NPCs is more of a lazy plot short-cut.

It's good to see some non-English people working for the UN at long last, even if Zbrigniew (sic) is a little overblown.

The idea of the Brig being called back from domestic life is a great one – but it's also a missed opportunity for him to point out that it's only because he put his life on the line back in the day that the current domestic tranquility is possible. Ah well, can't have everything.

And thinking of not having everything, Keff McCulloch is back on the music, and it really doesn't work. There's a rumour that a rough cut, without any music, was shown at a Who convention and appreciated more than the final version; I find that entirely believable.

The start of part two is another of those "the Doctor is really cool" moments, something we've seen a lot of recently; it stands out here because otherwise there's a remarkable lot of runaround in between the dribs and drabs of plot, such as the way the scabbard ends up being completely irrelevant.

Sometimes the script is a little too consciously dramatic – like the opening of part three, thuddingly setting up Ace's appearance in the lake. Direction by Michael Kerrigan (a television veteran but new to Who) is often lacking in what I call a sense of place: a trip from A to B should always leave from the same side of A and arrive on the same side of B, and feel as though it takes about the same time, or there's no sense of the various sets being connected to each other.

Shou Yuing is only there to give Ace someone to talk to, and this is rather a failure: she's basically an Ace clone, which means they mostly just have furious agreements, and she takes no actions herself. What a waste. Why not pair Ace with that UNIT pilot (rather than casually killing her off to show how evil Morgaine is), so that they might have something to argue about as well as a shared love of things that go bang? At the same time you could drop that archaeologist…

It's good to see Jean Marsh again as Morgaine, with her excellent flaring nostrils, but she chews the scenery in a way that even the superbly ineffectual Mordred can't match. Still, the script offers her some complexity, killing when she feels like it but being generous at her whim too. Everybody on screen gets the job done without any horrid performances, though there do seem to be rather too many of them at times.

In spite of all the joking about special bullets, it's pleasing to see UNIT's ground forces doing some good - and some decent battle sequences in parts three and four, if somewhat heavy on the standard stunt-man moves.

I thought the tendency to see nuclear warfare as uniquely horrible was a bit out of place; it would be fair enough if somewhat clichéd from an Earth-human, but the Doctor has seen, and indeed used, far more destructive technologies in his time. Fortunately it isn't a major plot element.

Last series I complained about all the "I set this up" moments, and there's a little of that here, with Excalibur and the assumption that Ace will appear on time with the silver bullets. But again it's not hugely important, and unlike the constant reminders of the Puppeteer Doctor in series 25, here the people who aren't the Doctor also have something important to do.

Ghost Light

Then it all goes terribly gothic, in a way that the show had rarely done before but has been entirely happy to do in the revival. While I wouldn't want this in every story, as an occasional thing it works quite well. This was the last story actually to be filmed, and McCoy and Aldred play off each other very effectively, not so much in big dramatic scenes but in little things like the synchronised side-to-side looks as they sneak down a corridor.

Playing off Ace as the "noble savage" to explain her costume is an interesting counterpoint to Talons of Weng-Chiang, but for me it falls a little flat by reminding me of one of the real greats. On the other hand, this is probably the most effective horror story in this show since the glorious series 14, and I'm inclined to skate over its faults because at least there's some effort being made again.

Even so, there's an awful lot happening in part one, maybe just a little too much – especially considering how much part two turns into a runaround. The Reverend Matthews seems basically superfluous, and John Nettleton overplays so badly that he resembles Stephen Fry; Inspector Mackenzie also has little to do apart from being a heavy-handed racist. Even Smith isn't missed when he pretty much vanishes from the final part. The literary references are dumped in wholesale, and sometimes it feels as though the story was stitched together round them. Really, having an explanation of the plot as a DVD special feature just reveals how badly the story was edited: yes, they left in all the pretties, but back in those days you needed more then pretties, you needed some sort of actual workable plot too, rather than just running around and looking cool. (Not so much in the latter parts of the new series.) I suspect that this story's reputation as a "difficult" one that doesn't answer many of the questions it raises is part of why it's so loved by the sort of fan who wants this children's show to be Significant and Complex. When the cast didn't know what was meant to be going on or what their motivations were in Mindwarp, that was taken as an example of how terrible the script was; when they didn't know it in this story, it was taken as an example of how thoroughly clever everything is.

Or maybe it's the attitude, very edgy around that time, that the Victorians were all about domination and repression (just like the Thatcherites, har har), and that anything they may have achieved is entirely worthless because of that.

Still, I think it's worth bearing in mind that Marc Platt had set out to write another Deadly Assassin, a story that would give lots and lots of detail about the Doctor's history before the stories began; given how prone the show had been to wallow in its fans' nostalgia for it, I'm very glad that Nathan-Turner vetoed this and insisted on something a bit more stand-alone.

Direction is generally pretty effective, though the cellar/spaceship is a bit underlit and over-miked, and one can't help noticing just how few sets there are when they're generally used from the same camera angles each time. Incidental music is excellent.

And then Light and Control show up, and it's yet another sort of story. It's already been a gothic (Talons of Weng-Chiang) and an alien-in-the-basement (Horror of Fang Rock), and now it's the Doctor talking down a God (Face of Evil). Always steal from the best, sure, but it throws away all the lovely horror-tension from the first two parts.

Light's objection to change feels like another comment on the fans, as we saw in The Greatest Show In the Galaxy. Do you want a new show, or do you want to re-watch all the old stuff again and again? It certainly doesn't make any diegetic sense as a piece of information that Light wouldn't previously have come across.

Curse of Fenric

Ian Briggs had previously written Dragonfire, and came back to tell more of the story of Ace. It's a bit heavy on the foreshadowing as well as on recent continuity, but neither of these seriously breaks the immediate narrative.

It's little things that niggle, here. A coastal Bletchley Park (there's a reason it wasn't coastal, guys) with just one researcher and one officer. Ace going suddenly baby-struck, and falling in love, for no particular reason in either case. The exploding chess set, where the sound happens well before the light. Main Character Immunity, where Ace and the Doctor survive exposure to the Deadliest Toxin Ever, and the monsters can't kill pre-superfaith Ace outside the church in spite of having plenty of time to try it.

But other things work well: this is one of the rare occasions on which costume is actually regarded as important, and it's good to see what to me is the right amount of effort in getting the Doctor suddenly accepted by everyone. It's not instantly glossed over or ignored, but it's dealt with in a few lines so that we can get on with the rest of the plot.

There's an awful lot going on here, with the Russian covert mission, the poison-in-the-rotor plot, the hæmovores, Millington's world-conquest plan (presumably involving Fenric), and then Fenric itself. And then there are the side plots with the vicar, the Vampire Girls, and Kathleen's baby. It sometimes feels as though several scripts have been smooshed together and the interfaces between them roughly sanded down.

(At least the rotor-bomb set to be triggered by the plaintext "LOVE" is a Chekov's Gun that is put back on the mantelpiece unfired. Even if I'm slightly surprised that Ace didn't recognise her mother's maiden name. Or was she supposed to, because her insistence on saving Kathleen rather than anybody else makes much more sense that way? But then it isn't a dramatic revelation for That Scene later on.)

There are lots of people, too: most of those plots have their own unique cast who don't do anything during the other strands, with mostly the Doctor, Ace, and sometimes Judson and Millington linking them.

Performances are pretty good, with only McCoy disappointing; he falls back a little to hard on what's become his standard "I am mysterious" style. Aldred is excellent here, getting her teeth into Ace's role as the real driver of the story. The infamous seduction scene goes awry for me mostly because the soldier's reactions are a bit off, rather than because of anything she does wrong. Nicholas Parsons, the Gratuitous Light Entertainment Casting, does remarkably well as the vicar.

For me it all comes apart a bit once it's revealed that the answer is basically "vampires" rather than mysterious nasties. If they'd been some new sort of nasty that could possess people and act basically as they do here, but without the vampire connection, that would have detracted less from some pretty dramatic moments.

The contrast between the believing communist and the unbelieving vicar is a good one, but it's unfortunate that one of the few pleasant religious people we ever see in Who should still in the end be a fraud who dies because of it, just like all those evil high priests.

Why does Fenric's control of the Ancient One depend on Ace's faith in the Doctor? All Fenric is trying to get the Ancient One to do is to kill Ace and the Doctor: OK, so it can't get past Ace's psychic barrier to do that, so why doesn't it just go after Fenric immediately? Answer, because we need to have That Scene of the Doctor breaking down Ace's faith in him. I'm not saying it's not a powerful scene: it is, extremely so. But the narrative has to be bent out of shape to make it happen, and the joins show in a big way. (Even more so when considered in context: yes, I know the broadcast order isn't the production order, but by this point and after the previous two series Ace really should be noticing that the Doctor is constantly trying to provoke her in various ways!)

I think that in the quest for having good individual scenes the overall story tends to suffer. Clearly for some viewers that doesn't matter as much as it does to me, and the new series has traded on that.

Survival

This is another story which got heavily mangled from its original idea, but the first flaw was probably in the original script: it's really hard to make a domestic animal come over as menacing. One crane shot does not a terrifying monster make.

Doctor Who and the Stereotyped Gym Teacher is all a bit dull, and the only real question about the "Sarge" is what's going to kill him off in the end. (Something that could trivially have been got right if Rona Munro had ever talked to any person who'd been in the Army: "Sarge" is for Americans and policemen. In the British Army the rank is always "Sergeant" or "Sar'nt". It doesn't break the story but it does show how heavily she was relying on stereotypes.)

Ace has a perfectly good place to shelter from the cheetah-person until the Doctor arrives, and runs away from it, because…? It's In The Script.

There are some very odd choices of episode endings; I assume this is because, as in previous stories, Cartmel failed to cut scripts to a point where they'd fit in the available broadcast time, and the footage got edited down after filming instead. And yet it often seems padded, with things like the "comedy" sequence in the shop (got to have our Light Entertainment guest stars) that don't connect to the rest of the story.

The Master leaves the series as he entered nearly nineteen years earlier, getting in over his head with an alien ally that he can't control as well as he thought he could. This time though we come into the story fairly late, after he's inevitably messed up, which is an interesting twist. Anthony Ainley finally plays the Master as someone who's genuinely a bit menacing; he's no Delgado but at least he doesn't use his unfortunate imitation of Delgado's style any more. The rest of the guest cast is pretty forgettable, and the script gives them nothing more than stereotypes to work with anyway, drowning everything in a mass of theme and Author's Message.

I defy anyone not to laugh at the scene of slow-motion Ace running through the quarry as if it were fields of flowers. It's an attempt at emotional manipulation which fails utterly and leaves smouldering wreckage behind. And then we're onto generic bad boy adolescent Midge and the motorcycle joust. Really? That's what you came up with as a proxy fight between some of the smartest people in the universe? (After all that foreshadowing of Ace making friends with her wounded Cheetah Person, as against Midge killing his?)

Direction is over-kinetic for my taste but basically works. The background music is a bit intrusive, heavy on the guitars, but mostly gets the job done. The Cheetah People masks are of course ghastly, and prevent any significant acting by the poor buggers wearing them.

This certainly ends up being the weakest of the stories of this series, and it seems a shame to end on such a flabbity note. (And that it was such a heavily-imitated model in the revival.)

Overall impressions

And after that it just sort of petered out. Officially it wasn't cancelled; it was just going on an extended break. But it gradually became clear that it wasn't coming back.

What killed it? Michael Grade, clearly. John Nathan-Turner did all right at the politicking but had a tin ear for the actual content of the show, and the script editors he employed didn't help: Christopher Bidmead with his computer obsession, Antony Root (very briefly) and especially Eric Saward and "make it all nasty" versus Nathan-Turner's pressure for comedy. Andrew Cartmel began a recovery in a new direction, but too late.

Also, simply by virtue of its age, by the late 1980s the show was out of place at the BBC (or anywhere else). They no longer broadcast half-hour dramas, or much in the way of science fiction, or shows that were meant to appeal to children and to adults. Series 22's experiment with 45-minute episodes had been a failure (certainly not just because of the episode lengths, but that's another story). Increasingly, the BBC wasn't even producing its own programmes any more, preferring to hire production companies (and various rumours through the early 1990s kept fans' hopes alive).

For many people this final series was "when it got good again". I think it's more subtle than that, because there were a lot of different changes happening at the same time, some positive and some negative. There's a feeling that the crew are making an effort again, which always helps, but there's also plenty of the Big Story stuff, the Doctor as the most important person in the universe rather than just another renegade time lord, which for me becomes wearing (not to mention making the show increasingly ineffective as a programme for children). A new theme, also gone into at much greater length in the revived show, is the effect of being a companion on that companion, and on those who are left behind; it's not bad here (particularly in Survival), but got very wearing when it came back again and again in the revival.

Favourite story of this series: another one that's hard to pick, but I think the one I enjoyed most was Battlefield.

Favourite story of them all: I'm split between The Ark in Space, The Robots of Death, and City of Death. In the end I will be drearily conventional and go for the last of those, and 17 remains my favourite series as a whole.

For what I expect will be my last post in this series I'll go on to some artefacts of the Long Wait until the revival: Dimensions in Time, the TV Movie, and The Curse of Fatal Death.

Sylvester McCoy

McCoy's Doctor started, for me, a bit too heavy on the physical comedy, went on to begin to develop an interesting personality, but then turned into the Most Important Man Ever which took over everything else. On the other hand, McCoy did a better acting job in those later stories when he had something to get his teeth into.

Oh, and this Doctor drinks something really obscure that the barman isn't sure if he carries – but there turns out to be a bottle in the back of a cupboard, marked with today's date.

Ace

Sophie Aldred is all over the place, not only in script quality but in her own performances. When she's on form, she's excellent; when not, she comes over as just another twentysomething "teenager" who's been told to project moodiness.

And Ace the character is all over the place too, taking on different roles as the scripts demand (as the show sometimes did with earlier regulars, like Susan, Steven and the Brigadier); the shuffling of stories out of intended order means that what few attempts are made at continuity end up looking ineffective. How much does Ace trust the Doctor? As much as the script needs her to this week.

Still, she's a companion who gets to do things, unlike Peri or Mel, and that alone puts her in a high position on my final list.

Companions, ranked by how much I like them:

  1. Zoe
  2. Barbara
  3. Liz Shaw
  4. Leela
  5. Romana II
  6. Romana I
  7. Sarah Jane Smith
  8. Ace
  9. Susan
  10. Ian
  11. K-9
  12. Steven
  13. Sara Kingdom
  14. Jo Grant
  15. Jamie
  16. Nyssa
  17. Ben
  18. Polly
  19. Vicki
  20. Victoria
  21. Peri
  22. Tegan
  23. Turlough
  24. Mel
  25. Dodo
  26. Katarina
  27. Kamelion
  28. Adric

John Nathan-Turner

It's surely not a coincidence that for me the sense of decline began when Nathan-Turner was put in charge of the show (both in my original viewing and in the re-watch). Blame the script editors as much as you like, and many of the specific problems are clearly their fault, but he's the one who hired them, and the guy in charge is the guy in charge. And blame the superiors at the BBC, but if he didn't think the job could be done properly under the prevailing conditions there was always the option of resigning and letting the show end. And indeed blame Tom Baker, who couldn't go on for ever, but could have been written out rather better.

But these are errors of administration more than of content. It's never been quite clear just which bits of content were his anyway, since everyone who's talked about it seems to have a different opinion. So I can't call Nathan-Turner the Great Satan that much of fandom did; I do think he dragged out the show when it should have been quietly put to sleep after just a few years under his control. The core problem may well have been that he was a fan, and he'd rather have had rubbish Who than no Who at all – and that's what he got.

(I also don't think that one should get forgiven for being sexually predatory just because one's doing it to one's own sex rather than the opposite one. Even if it is the late 1980s and nobody in the world has ever been gay before.)

The Cartmel Masterplan

A contentious topic, since nobody seems to agree on whether it existed at all or to what extent it had been developed before cancellatiion. But insofar as we have any idea about what was going to happen next, it seems fairly clear that Ace was going to leave part-way through series 27 to go off and be trained as a Time Lord. The new companion, a cat burglar (rumoured, probably incorrectly, to have been played by Julia Sawalha), was going to have a father who turned up as a recurring character. McCoy's doctor would get even darker and more all-knowing and manipulative, and probably regenerate at the end of the series.

It was expected that the Doctor would turn out to be literally the most important person in the universe. And get more superpowers. Yay.


  1. Posted by Owen Smith at 01:41pm on 11 January 2016

    Do you regard the film as part of old Who or new Who? If you want to review it, I gave a copy on DVD to Bob Dowling (who knows whether he can find it).

    To me the film felt like old Who, it was clearly not part of the later reboot and it felt like old Who. Plus McCoy did a superb job up the point he regenerated, great fun being operated on with two hearts.

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 01:51pm on 11 January 2016

    That will be in my next post.

  3. Posted by Owen Smith at 09:30pm on 11 January 2016

    I didn't watch any of this series, I have no recollection of these stories. I was working in my first job and not watching TV as I recall.

    I agree with a number of your conclusions. The best Who era was somewhere around Sarah-Jane, Leela and Romana. A sequence of cool scenes do indeed not make a good story, and New Who makes this mistake ad nauseum.

    The New Who obsession with the impact of being a Companion is becoming really wearing. Surely that kind of angst is for Eastenders, not Dr. Who? And anyway, they're missing the most important consequences which Who can do and Eastenders can't: much of modern Theory of Everything physics is wrong, since it makes time travel pretty much impossible, then there are aliens and artificial gravity and a machine that can locally bend the general relativistic space-time (the TARDIS). Surely these revelations are much more important than a bit of angst and PTSD? If I were a departing companion the thing that would drive me nuts would be my inability to understand physics and maths enough to sort these issues out.

  4. Posted by RogerBW at 09:47pm on 11 January 2016

    I think there has often been a terror of being too smart for the audience: after all, smart people can follow simple stuff, while stupid people can't follow clever stuff, and when the production costs are high you want a mass audience. Thus, television.

    Even here, where there's some relatively complex storytelling, there's nothing in the way of actual clever people beyond a stereotyped boffin and the Doctor himself.

    Of course it's also hard for a writer to come up with dialogue for a character who's cleverer than he is. They should have talked to some role-players, who have answers for this problem: mostly "take some time to think things over and come up with the best possible answer, then let your character do that in a matter of seconds".

    (I now find myself tempted to run a Doctor Who RPG. Hmm.)

  5. Posted by Owen Smith at 09:35am on 12 January 2016

    Dr. Who does't naturally fit a role playig group, since it's default model is Dr. plus one or two companions. And having the doctor around would be awkward if he's an NPC and awkward if he's one of the PCs (since they're not all equal ish).

  6. Posted by RogerBW at 09:44am on 12 January 2016

    You might think that, but there have been three published games that take different approaches. I reckon two of them are pretty good, though to work at all they have to be very different from the sort of game I usually run. Mike and I talked about this in last July's podcast.

  7. Posted by Owen Smith at 09:23pm on 12 January 2016

    I have a partial solution to some of the TARDIS issues. It contains enough Dark Matter to bend space-time to create all that extra space inside. And then to avoid creating a gravitational field from all this Dark Matter (things would stick to the side of the TARDIS) it contains exactly enough Dark Energy to counteract that and have the same gravitational pull as a police box. Of course when the chameloen circuit is working, we've seen the TARDIS take on smaller or larger forms (and be put in someone's bag), so it's apparent mass has to be able to change, so it must be able to manipulate at least one of Dark Matter or Dark Energy to make those changes.

  8. Posted by Owen Smith at 09:26pm on 12 January 2016

    I was aware of the Dr. Who RPGs before your podcast. I just don't see how it can work given the power disparity between the Dr. and anyone else including the PCs. And a group of 4 or 5 PCs in the TARDIS hasn't fitted the mould of the TV series for a very long time.

  9. Posted by RogerBW at 10:51pm on 12 January 2016

    The thing is, power in a Doctor Who story isn't about who has the blaster, or even about who knows more: it's about how you can influence the narrative.

    So in my conception of a good Doctor Who game, to take an extreme example, Victoria Waterfield doesn't have Sonic Attack, costed out as an attack power based on how much damage it does to different sorts of alien; she has Screaming skill, and it's up to the player and GM to come up with ways in which screaming can advance the adventure. And Screaming would probably be worth about as much as "endless supply of Janis thorns".

    That's pretty much what Timelord and DWAITAS do, and it's very alien to the sort of simulationist gaming that I usually go in for but I think it's the only way to produce a Who RPG that feels like Who.

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