Genesis of the DaleksBookmark and Share

Wednesday, 13 December 2006 - Reviewed by Adam Leslie

Along with Remembrance Of The Daleks, this is a story I find inexplicably popular among die-hard fans of the series. It is admittedly nice to see the origins of the Daleks, and it is a story which lingers on in the memory, but so many of the elements fall flat that I can’t help but feel that it could have been done so much better.

I have to admit, I’m not a Terry Nation fan, and nowhere more clearly are his limitations demonstrated as in Genesis. His dialogue is functional and characterisation for the most part non-existent. There were genuine opportunities for warmth and camaraderie – Sarah and her fellow rocket escapees, for example – but were wasted by characters saying what had to be said and nothing more. In short, Genesis Of The Daleks is six episodes of relentless exposition. So many of the characters are stony-faced militarists that there is little for most of the actors to do other than state things, making it a rather shouty episode.

And that all makes it rather hard to care about any of it. Neither side in the war shows much in the way of humanity; even obligatory girl-solider Bettan could have been anyone, and the poor actress doesn’t get much to do with the lines she’s given. The fey Star Trek blondies of the original Dalek story have gone to be replaced by just more bog-standard soldiers. The Kaleds dress up like Nazis and talk in a clipped way, but don’t particularly distinguish themselves other than that.

There’s too much padding – the rocket climb is one of the most pointless subplots in the history of Doctor Who. Everyone is far too gullible in episodes five and six. The Nazi symbolism is way too obvious… it would be far more effective in my opinion to have allowed the apparent ‘evil’ of the Kaleds to speak for itself rather than rely on lazy shorthand, particularly Himmler-a-like Nyder.

That said, Davros is a good new character and the leads are as marvelous as ever – particularly Tom Baker, who has to inject Doctoriness into the flattest and most functional of Terry Nation’s dialogue.

A couple more points: from reading reviews of the story on this and other sites, it seems there are a couple of commonly-held fallacies floating about. Firstly that the Doctor chickens out of destroying the embryonic Daleks himself and leaves the wires on the floor for the Daleks to trigger the explosion. From watching it again, it’s pretty clear that the Doctor just get spooked by the Daleks and drops the wires (silly boy). Secondly, it’s often pointed out that a thousand years is rather a long time to dig out a blocked tunnel. Actually, the Doctor is referring to the evolution of the Daleks in the destroyed incubators. In the event, he’s proven wrong anyway as Davros isn’t quite as exterminated as we are led to believe…





The Sontaran ExperimenBookmark and Share

Monday, 11 December 2006 - Reviewed by Ed Martin

I’ll not write off Barry Letts completely, because he did give us some good episodes, but in choosing the wack-a-thon of Robot to introduce Tom Baker he does create a sense that his production style, five years old now, is well past its prime. As for season twelve in general though, it’s cleanout time! With the chilling The Ark In Space, the surprisingly brutal The Sontaran Experiment and Genesis Of The Daleks back to back (like Genesis or not, it’s the most ambitious story since Inferno) you know there’s a new kid on the block. It’s testament to Philip Hinchcliffe shooting out the traps at ninety miles per hour that a quickie like this – commissioned by Letts, written by the often-mediocre Bob Baker and Dave Martin and featuring a middling monster that probably didn’t deserve a sequel – could turn out such a snappy little number.

To get it over with, yes, this is the only story to feature no interior scenes of any kind and yes, it’s all shot on videotape. This does make for an atmospheric story, as much due to the overcast Dartmoor landscape than anything else, although the videotape might have looked more eerily incongruous for location shots if it hadn’t been used for Robot the previous month. And I reckon it would have looked better on film anyway. Cheer up, Ed!

The opening scene is slightly twee as the TARDIS crew arrive, sans TARDIS, in a variety of amusing places: Sarah even lands on her bottom, haw haw haw! It does belie what’s to come later though, and it does seem rather unsettling on a second viewing. While the first episode isn’t the quickest-paced instalment you’re likely to see there is a lot to enjoy in it, a particular highlight being the excellent stunt fall as Harry tumbles down the pit. However, this does show up the slightly stiff direction from Rodney Bennett, whose slow and clinical pans and sweeps worked wonders in the claustrophobic corridors of The Ark In Space but are less well suited to the rolling expanse of Dartmoor.

This particularly hurts whenever the robot wobbles into view, looking like what an 18th Century servant might draw if you asked them what a clothes-line might look like in the year 2000.

From Sarah’s point of view there’s some very good mystery here, with the Doctor and Harry vanishing in succession; in that sense it’s a real shame that the viewer has to see what happens to them in advance, because it’d be a corker of a scene if we were as much in the dark as her. Instead it has to settle for being merely quite good, as we still get the benefit of the always-engaging Elizabeth Sladen creating a palpable sense of mounting panic. Roth’s panicky warning about “the thing in the rocks” is another attempt at creating atmosphere and mystery, but while worthy in itself it’s similarly abortive because the story pulls a Planet Of The Daleks on the viewer, in that it names the monster in the title and then expects us to be surprised when it turns up at the cliffhanger.

I can see the point of giving the characters accents, but in practice it’s very strange as it relies on the viewer sharing the attitude of the writers (that there should be accents in the first place), as well as being able to overlook the fact that other episodes set in a similar time period never bothered with this sort of thing and that their accents in practice are absolutely ridiculous – and some of the mannerisms aren’t much better, with the Doctor being called a freak (“fleak”) about three times. The immense charisma of Tom Baker helps a great deal though – and this only his second story – and all the characters are given consistently good dialogue by the writers. There’s an interesting theme of neo-Colonialism set up, where the colonists are so proud of what they’ve achieved that instead of working for the glory of the empire they seem to want to jettison their roots and establish their own; it’s a nice idea that deserves more time than it gets. On a slightly more lowbrow note, it’s funny watching Liz Sladen fight against the instinct to swear like a sergeant major when she slips over.

While we already know that the villain is going to turn out to be a Sontaran, and although I've criticised Rodney Bennett, the shot of him first emerging from his ship is very well done; rather than cheesily having him stride from his ship in a tight close up, he emerges out of the background without fanfare and is all the more dramatic for it. Styre’s redesign is an unfortunate necessity, as Kevin Lindsay was very ill and couldn't use the original one from The Time Warrior. I can let go the sacrifice of aesthetics for an undeniable practical reason; the only problem is Sarah’s insistence that he’s “identical,” which is a mile away. They could have recast the part but since the masks were specifically designed they still wouldn't be identical – but what counts is that the definitive Sontaran actor is still the one inside the costume and delivering the lines. The Sontarans are no longer the semi-ironic race that Robert Holmes invented, as represented by Linx; Styre is a brutal killer, and while there’s very little real violence in this episode parts of it are genuinely horrifying, which is not something that can normally be said about traditionally-lightweight two-parters.

The big flaw in this episode is that the entire plot makes no sense – if the Earth is uninhabited, surely Styre’s plan is self-defeating as the only resistance the invasion fleet are going to face is what they bring with them. This flaw is well-observed, appearing in virtually every review of The Sontaran Experiment, so I was pondering whether to mention it in all honesty; on the other hand, when it’s so glaring, how could I not? And to delay the entire plan because of four knackered old spacemen, too!

The big fight sequence is undermined by the necessary stunt-double for the injured Tom Baker, which leads to several scenes of the Doctor inexplicably holding his hand to his face and which really shows up the limits in Bennett’s direction again although, like I said, it would have looked better on film. Styre deflating is a rather peculiar effect, although very serviceable in its way – so all that’s left is for the Doctor to tell the invasion fleet to go away. And they do! If only it was always that simple, every story could be a two-parter. That’s it really – The Sontaran Experiment is the narrative equivalent of a jam in the conveyor belt, resulting in a slight delay between the two big stories of the season, Ark and Genesis.

But while it’s small and rather shallow, I quite like it. It’s misconceived, to the extent that its flaws can’t be overlooked, but it’s still well written, well made and an atmospheric and evocative episode. It speaks volumes for Philip Hinchcliffe that this story, low grade by his standards, would stand up as being among many other producers’ best work.





Revenge of the CybermenBookmark and Share

Tuesday, 15 November 2005 - Reviewed by Ed Martin

Revenge Of The Cybermen is a story that fandom just can’t seem to make its mind up about. People slate it to the high heavens, but it has enough supporters to keep it from the depths of turkeydom wherein lurks The Twin Dilemma and suchlike. Coming after the programme’s definitive episode (not best, mind) it’s bound to come across as a bit of a comedown, but I wouldn’t say it was terrible. In fact, the only thing in it really worthy of sustained criticism is the portrayal of the Cybermen themselves.

For one thing, the special effects are generally very good and miles better than those of The Ark In Space; I know everything was fine with Ark in part four once it shifted to film-recorded models, but there was a load of rubbish to put up with before that. Here it’s 16mm all the way and it looks really good. However, the studio scenes are considerably less atmospheric, possibly because of the different director or possibly because the thought of a space station acting as a giant refrigeration unit for the lat survivors of humanity is a slightly more enigmatic than a space station warning ships about flying into a tiny moon that’s been around for half a century anyway. However, the scenes set in the main corridor are amazingly spooky with dead bodies lying scattered disregarded - although the stars outside are behaving rather oddly, swinging around and winking on and off.

I wouldn’t say any of the acting is particularly bad in this story, although Ronald Leigh-Hunt seems to be capable of nothing more than cloning the role he played in The Seeds Of Death. William Marlowe is likeable as Lester and Jeremy Wilkin is suitably (initially, anyway) smarmy and evil as the ostensible villain. However, as is a problem with a lot of stories, the writing of the opening scenes seems forced and a bit artificial and the exposition between Kellman and Warner is very simplistic.

There is some slapstick on display with the Doctor’s arm trapped in the door, but the scene is rescued for me by Tom Baker’s sullen glaring. After this we head down to the planet’s surface and meet the locals: Michael Wisher is wasted a bit in a minor role (then again he had just done a major role that would see him remembered forever so I’ll not be churlish), but Kevin Stoney and particularly David Collings perform wonderfully. Collings is especially good as Vorus when you think how different his other roles were, as the genial Poul in The Robots Of Death and of course the melancholy Mawdryn. However, while Kellman’s status as double agent turned triple agent is interesting and clever the twist is undermined by the Vogans mentioning their agent and the presence of gold in Kellman’s quarters, which could clue in an attentive viewer. On the subject of gold this story is of course the beginning of the end of the Cybermen’s credibility; even though they’d been given one weakness per story up to now none had been as utterly stupid as this – and which one did they stick with? Right. At least here a bit of thought has gone into how it works – it has to be gold dust ground into the chest unit, easier said than done – whereas by Silver Nemesis we were seeing truly appalling scenes with gold coins being pinged off their helmets with a catapult. We only get a few bits of silliness such as gold affecting radars, although since this isn’t a great leap from being underground affecting radars it’s not a big problem.

The Cybermat, however, is utterly pathetic and while I might be able to forgive the whole hold-it-to-your-neck-and-pretend-it’s-attacking-you routine once to see it done I think four times is asking a lot of the audience. This leads to a naffer-than-naff first cliffhanger. The lines on the face, a mark of the Cyberman virus, show how derivative of each other the Gerry Davis-written Cybermen stories were, but I suppose you can’t fault the continuity. However, the audience is expected to believe that nobody at all noticed the snakebite effects, or the scratched metal, or anything – now that I think about it Davis’s stories contain gaping plot holes actually quite often. Kellman communicating with the Cybermen through Morse Code is seriously stretching it and is the wrong kind of amusing, but the model work of the Cyberman ship is excellent and the score (featuring contributions from Peter Howell, one of the better composers of the 1980s) is wonderful.

Sarah’s infection is a good dramatic sequence simply through the intense performances of all the cast, foremost of course being Elisabeth Sladen. They beam down to Voga leading to some excellent location work at Wookey Hole caves (I visited them as a child, and was bloomin’ scared). The scenes with Harry and Sarah together show the rapport between Sladen and Ian Marter, and how underrated Harry was as a companion.

The Doctor states that Voga is “hated and feared” by the Cybermen, so scratch my earlier comment about faultless continuity. However, the scene where the Doctor threatens Kellman with a Cybermat is amazingly cool as are the (Robert Holmes-penned) politics of Voga, even if the latter does smack of padding.

Really now, the Cybermen are no worse than they were in the 1980s. Christopher Robbie is supposed to have some sort of accent but I can’t hear it, and while some of their dialogue does come across as somewhat emotional, there’s always the “he [the Doctor] must suffer for our past defeats” line from Earthshock. Robbie struts around hand-on-hips; David Banks shakes his fists and rants like a lunatic. It’s all the same really.

Sarah refusing to let Harry introduce her is a nicely subtle example of her feminism (the words “subtle” and “feminist” so rarely appear in a sentence together without a prefix of “un”), and is far superior characterisation to her “if you think I’m the sort of girl who makes the coffee…” jive when she first appeared in The Time Warrior.

The studio sets of Voga are pretty poor, and let down even further by a ridiculous photographed backdrop (it’s not even in focus for crying out loud), but when we get the genuine location filming there is more very good material and the silent Cyber-drones do look effective in them.

However, here’s where it starts to get really B-movie, with Sarah learning of plot developments by eavesdropping on the monsters. With this, and talk of climbing through cross-shafts to intercept bombs, it’s all getting a bit Dalek Invasion Of Earth. That story wasn’t bad, but such simplistic plot elements barely work once let alone twice.

The rock fall is a mixture of the good (location) and bad (studio). It makes an appropriate death for Kellman – how do you kill someone who has to die to justify the narrative but who kind of is and kind of isn’t a villain? Answer: natural causes, although here that means getting whacked by a piece of painted polystyrene. And since we see the Doctor take a couple in the gut himself, how come he gets off without a scratch? The cliffhanger is still quite fun though.

The attack on the Cybermen with gold is quite well directed and edited, and Lester’s death is poignant and noble: the story’s mortality rate of 70%, while high, is totally appropriate to the story. Back on Nerva however the silliness is increasing exponentially with a plan to crash the station into Voga. That said, it isn’t bad silliness and it’s a great laugh. While the stock footage of Saturn V launching is just plain lazy, it is a fun scene where the rocket is redirected away from the station (in the nick of time, no less). The destruction of the Cyberman ship is a good special effect even though the debris has a definite downward vibe to it; I’d have hung the model upside-down myself and shot it that way. “The biggest bang in history” could have come from Douglas Adams although he probably would have realised how it could be interpreted; however, stupid as it is, I could watch that rolling-drum effect of Voga on the scanner all day. Call me mad, but I love the effects in this story.

And with that, it’s over. Answering an emergency call from the Brigadier is a good way of keeping tension over the season break, but the “space-time telegraph” is whimsy worthy of Russell T. Davies. Still, it’s nice to see the TARDIS again for the first time since The Ark In Space.

Revenge Of The Cybermen is a deeply silly story that is still a long way from being a true dud, possibly because Robert Holmes’s witty script-editing prevents it from being too serious for its naff moments to be forgiven, like Warriors Of The Deep. Season 12 is a short season with two classic stories; even a hit rate like that doesn’t mean that basic fun like this is bad.





Genesis of the DaleksBookmark and Share

Wednesday, 31 December 2003 - Reviewed by Paul Clarke

I've been dreading reviewing 'Genesis of the Daleks'. It is a story generally regarded as a classic, but for me it long suffered from the principle that familiarity breeds contempt. Once it was released on video, I watched it regularly until I became sick of it, and just as I decided that I didn't want to see it again for a very long time, BBC2 announced what the next story would be following the repeat of 'Doctor Who and the Silurians'… As it turned out however, that was the last time I saw it prior to this occasion, and after a lengthy absence, my enthusiasm for the story was entirely rekindled. 

'Genesis of the Daleks' is not perfect. I'll get my criticisms out of the way first, and the first is that it is rather padded during the first three episodes. Sarah's abortive escape attempt up the rocket scaffolding makes for an exciting cliffhanger but is a narrative dead-end, and the dystronic toxæmia from which she was so determined to escape is conveniently forgotten after the first five minutes of Episode Three. In addition, the scenes in the cave leading out of the Kaled bunker add little to the plot, rendering the shots of Davros' giant clam mutants pointless. Given that they are woefully unimpressive, this is unfortunate, since they need not really have been there. My other, criticism of 'Genesis of the Daleks' is that the meagre distance between the Thal and Kaled cities stretches credibility somewhat; we are expected to believe that a lengthy war has been fought on the doorsteps of these cities, each housing the last remnants of their respective races. I can think of an explanation, which is that the cities, both of them extremely spartan in décor, are an equivalent of the trenches used in world war one, built relatively recently on either side of the no-man's land in between (the wasteland), and that they represent the last bastions of civilization on the benighted Skaro, both races nearly extinct after a millennium of warfare. That said, it is always a bad sign when the viewer has to contrive explanations for threadbare areas of the plot, and given the many, many excellent aspects of this story, it is a shame. 

The rest of 'Genesis of the Daleks' however, is outstanding. This is the bleakest and most powerful illustration of the horrors of war ever seen in Doctor Who on television, presenting us with an unrelentingly grim atmosphere from the very first shot of Thal soldiers mown down in slow motion. There are many familiar images of war used here, from the trenches to the mine-riddled wasteland between them, the terrible sense of waste and weariness and the atrocities committed by both sides. This latter issue illustrates the effect of the war on the people involved in it; the Kaleds are represented by blatant Nazi imagery from the start, which never fails to convey a sense of evil. The Mutos represent the human cost of war, victims scarred by weapons and abandoned by the Kaleds out of their desire to keep their race pure, reflecting the eugenics beloved of Hitler when he spoke of the Aryan race. Jack-booted and goose-stepping, the Kaleds, or at least the military elite, are clearly based on the Third Reich, and in the midst sits Davros, representing not only Hitler, but also people like Mengele, an utterly immoral scientist taking advantage of the war to further his own ghastly interests. Perhaps more unexpectedly however, the Thals, previously cast in the role of heroes due to their long enmity with the Daleks, are just as bad, happy to use "disposal labour" to prepare their rocket, and normally killing the Mutos on sight. Their wholesale slaughter at the hands of the Daleks, and the shock displayed by Bettan, later changes their role as they become the lesser of two evils, but lest we forget only a short time before they effectively commit genocide, wiping out nearly all of the Kaleds. The production reflects this general sense of horror too, not just in the gloomy trenches and wasteland, but throughout the bunker and both cities; in any other story the drab sets might be a disappointment, but here they are wholly appropriate, since the functional, utilitarian décor suits the mood, suggesting that after centuries of conflict neither race have either the resources nor the inclination to consider aesthetics. 

One of the most famous, and indeed most interesting, scenes in 'Genesis of the Daleks' occurs at the beginning of Episode Six, as the Doctor agonizes over the decision as to whether or not he can destroy the Daleks utterly. The reason I find it so interesting is that I disagree with his argument, but nevertheless find it to be a fascinating character moment. The Doctor's indecision rests on his reluctance to commit genocide, explaining to Sarah that he doesn't have the right to destroy an entire intelligent species; his excuse is that future worlds might become allies because of their fear of the Daleks. My personal opinion is that for all that the Daleks are an intelligent species, they are more a force representative of a force of nature; twice during the story, they are compared to a virus, once by the Doctor himself when he is trying to convince Davros to change their nature, and later by Sarah as she tries to convince the Doctor to complete his mission for the Time Lords. I've argued before that the Doctor's stance is akin to refusing to prevent an outbreak of smallpox, on the grounds that the survivors might be brought closer together as a result; other fans disagree, but I maintain that the Daleks are essentially an intelligent plague, utterly destructive, ruthless and completely beyond redemption, and devoted to exterminating or subjugating all other forms of life in the cosmos. Ultimately, I feel that the Doctor's dilemma boils down not a reluctance to destroy the Daleks per se, but rather to a refusal to accept for responsibility for such an action, which would have far reaching consequences for the entire universe. However you interpret the scene however, it remains very dramatic and compelling. 

Then we have Davros, played brilliantly by Michael Wisher. Davros is undoubtedly one of the series' greatest villains, and is one of the most potent symbols of evil ever to appear in Doctor Who. Much as I like the Master, he is motivated largely by his rivalry with the Doctor and on occasion will switch sides; for all that he is ruthless and has committed unspeakable crimes, he can still on a certain level be reasoned with. Davros however, is a different matter entirely. He is entirely focused on the development of the Daleks and will stop at nothing to achieve his aims. Initially, he is a villain by association; not only is he responsible or the creation of the Daleks, he is visually associated to them by the fact that his wheelchair resembles a Dalek base. However, his characterisation is such that it is quickly established that he is a villain in his own right, and one whose sense of morality is diametrically opposed to the Doctor's. The first real glimpse of his true nature is in Episode Two, when Ronson saves the Doctro's life by deactivating the newly armed Dalek; an astonished and furious Davros questions how Ronson can possibly consider a single worthless life to be of more value than his Dalek's instinct to destroy, and this is the first clear indication that Davros is way beyond the Doctor's ability to reason. The more the story progresses, the more terrible Davros is seen to be, one of the key moments being his decision to exterminate "the whole of the Kaled people", a statement which briefly shocks even Nyder. The fact that he is prepared to sacrifice his own race to ensure that his work can continue is utterly chilling, and is compounded shortly afterwards by his "retaliation" against the Thals, as he gives his Daleks their first ever taste of mass slaughter. 

By far my favourite scenes in 'Genesis of the Daleks', and indeed one of my favourite scenes from the whole of the series, is the Doctor's attempt to reason with Davros in Episode Five. He asks Davros if he would unleash a virus that would wipe out all forms of life in the universe; Davros, rather than coming round to the Doctor's way of thinking, is fascinated by this concept, and considers it carefully before deciding that he would, since that power would make him a God, a power which the Daleks will grant him. The scene is supremely effective in summing Davros up and is wonderfully directed; as Davros considers, the incidental score grows louder and more impressive in the background, rising to a climax as Davros screeches about power and the Daleks. Most disturbing of all, is the moment when, as he considers, his finger and thumb crush an imaginary vial of virus confirming in an instant that the Doctor has absolutely no hope of ever reasoning with him. 

The Daleks themselves are used sparingly in 'Genesis of the Daleks' as they take a back seat to Davros, but when they do appear they are highly impressive. Their casual destruction of the Thals is a great visual image, as the newborn creatures glide unstoppably around the Thal dome, exterminating without hesitation anyone they find. The fact that Davros is so utterly evil also benefits the Daleks, as they turn on him in Episode Six. Having just added to his other crimes during the story by trapping and disposing of those scientists who are no longer loyal to him, even Davros is horrified when his creations turn on those who have remained loyal, the ever-faithful Nyder among them. In his last few moments, as he tries desperately to reason with the Daleks, he comes to the horrified realization that they are so much a product of himself that they will let nothing and nobody stand in their way, not even him. It is a fitting irony that just as the Doctor tried in vain to reason with Davros, so Davros now tries in vain to reason with the Daleks, and is ultimately so shocked by the results that he reaches for the button that will destroy them utterly before he is gunned down. In many ways, the Daleks are once again the living embodiment of the horrors of war, born out of it and representing all that is terrifying about it. 

There are many minor aspects of 'Genesis of the Daleks' that work so well. The fact that the Daleks are mutations of the Kaleds is brilliantly ironic, given that the Kaleds are so obsessed with racial purity that they exiled the Mutos (even more ironically, it is Nyder who tells us this, despite his total devotion to Davros's project). The gimmick of the Time Ring works well too, since it is far easier to lose than the TARDIS, and creates an additional level of tension by increasing the chances of the Doctor, Sarah and Harry becoming trapped on the nightmare that is Skaro. David Maloney's direction is superb, especially during Episode Six, as the tension builds and builds to a climax that, unusually, sees the Doctor departing without having achieved a great deal. And lastly, whilst Michael Wisher steals the show, mention must be made of Peter Miles' Davros, a character as thoroughly unpleasant and ruthless as his superior. Overall, 'Genesis of the Daleks' stands as one of Doctor Who's greatest stories, and maintains the adult feeling of 'The Ark in Space' and 'The Sontaran Experiment' whilst taking it to another level entirely. What a shame it couldn't last…





The Sontaran ExperimentBookmark and Share

Tuesday, 30 September 2003 - Reviewed by Paul Clarke

As the first - and last - two-part Doctor Who story for some considerable time, 'The Sontaran Experiment' works well. Despite one or two tenuous plot points, the story generally holds together well, and with its themes of torture and sadism it continues in the adult theme established by 'The Ark in Space'. 

Firstly, I'll just address the aforementioned tenuous plot points. The only real one is the ease with which the Sontarans back down when the Doctor tells the General that humanity is ready for their invasion fleet and will destroy it; this is undoubtedly due to time constraints however, and the script does address it by noting that the Sontarans are extremely methodical (and they're undoubtedly fighting the Rutans on another front, so perhaps it does make sense that they dare not risk it). The other weak plot point isn't actually an issue in my opinion, but is mentioned in The Discontinuity Guide, so I thought I'd address it. This point is simply that if Earth is abandoned, then there is no need for Styre to test humans anyway. In fact, I disagree; the script informs us that human colonies control "half the galaxy" and the Sontarans are planning a widespread invasion of the entire galaxy, not just Earth. Since this would obviously bring them into conflict with humanity, it makes sense of Styre's ghastly project and since Earth is abandoned it is makes a sensibly secluded location for his experiments.

These debatable issues aside, 'The Sontaran Experiment' is a well-plotted, well-placed and effective little story. The return of the Sontarans is more than welcome and Styre is an excellent villain, Kevin Lindsay once more donning a Sontaran costume to great effect. Whilst I prefer Linx's more closely fitting mask, Styre's is nonetheless impressive and Lindsay is superb as the Field-Major in every aspect. Although he is another Sontaran, Styre is a very different character from Linx; whereas Linx was ruthless and callous, he was an angel compared with the utterly sadistic Styre, whose pleasure in his work seems to extend beyond mere professionalism (from his point of view, he should probably have killed Sarah immediately, but decides to torture her to death instead). Lindsay very well conveys Styre's casual cruelty and also his brutality; the fight scene between Styre and the Doctor is rather good, despite Terry Walsh standing in for the injured Baker, with Styre lashing out with a machete with vicious rage. 

The regulars are up to their usual standards, with highpoints including Harry's utter Fury at Styre's cruelty towards both the dehydrated Galsec colonist and the seemingly dead Sarah; until the Doctor stops him he is determined to go after Styre regardless of the danger. Another great moment is the first meeting between Styre and the Doctor, when Tom Baker delivers the line "you unspeakable abomination" with such conviction that he seems to genuinely loathe his opponent. It is perhaps not the easiest of insults to make sound convincing, but he manages it with ease. 

Completing the ensemble, we have the Galsec colonists, and there isn't a bad performance amongst them. The decision to play them with South African accents is a good one, making a nice change from humans of the future speaking with an English accent. Their costumes are impressive as well, since they look convincingly worn and tatty, as they should do after days spent rough in the wilderness. Pete Rutherford is convincingly tormented as Roth, and Glyn Jones' performance is almost good enough to compensate the fact that he penned the dire 'The Space Museum'! Peter Walshe is impressively twitchy as the nervous Erak, and Donald Douglas completes the group as the treacherous Vural, playing the character like a natural. 

Basically 'The Sontaran Experiment' is a brief but enjoyable story, and benefits from superb location work and solid direction (even Styre's robot, whilst suspiciously flimsy-looking, works adequately). It maintains the high quality of 'The Ark in Space' and nicely bridges the gap between that 





RobotBookmark and Share

Tuesday, 2 September 2003 - Reviewed by Paul Clarke

All things considered, I am not a fan of Terrance Dicks. Before the advent of video, when my only knowledge of old Doctor Who stories came from Target novelisations, I always preferred those written by Malcolm Hulke or (especially) Ian Marter, finding Dicks' to be overly simplistic and lacking in depth. His television stories are variable, the better ones being those on which he collaborated with another writer ('The War Games') or was heavily script edited ('The Brain of Morbius'). 'Robot' in some ways demonstrates his shortcomings as a writer, but on the other hand it succeeds rather well in introducing both a new Doctor and a new companion. 

Conceptually, 'Robot' makes a great deal of sense, in that it introduces the new Doctor by surrounding him with the trappings of the old; UNIT plays a significant role in 'Robot' and this highlights the differences between the performances of Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker. There is a tendency amongst Doctor Who fans to favour the Doctor they grew up with, which in my case is Peter Davison, but from the moment I started buying Doctor Who videos Tom Baker became, and remains, my favourite. He makes an immediate impression. Although I dislike things about the Pertwee era, Jon Pertwee's performance isn't one of them; after his dignified, almost establishment figure, Baker needed to establish himself as a distinct character, and he does so magnificently; he's incredibly eccentric from the start, with his brick-chopping, running on the spot, and ludicrous costumes, but he's also commanding and fiercely intelligent. Recovering from his regeneration far more quickly than his predecessor he is able to establish his character by the end of Episode One and the scene in which he examines the pulverized dandelion showcases his intellectual prowess. He deduces far more quickly than anybody else the nature of the threat facing them from only a handful of clues (the Brigadier suspects foreign powers or alien invaders) and is quick to realize Kettlewell's involvement. His clowning, rather like Troughton's, hides a lightening fast mind, but unlike Troughton he is possessed by a manic energy, as demonstrated by his entry into the Scientific Reform Society meeting (he creates the impression that he is a buffoon, only to quickly overcome the off-guard, erm, guard) and his brief clowning on stage during the meeting even wins over members of the audience despite the fact that he threatens their plans. His line "There's no point in being grown-up if you can't be childish sometimes?" perhaps best sums up this new Doctor, and of course his offering of a jelly baby to the distraught Sarah. 

The other new regular is Harry Sullivan, also making an immediate impression. Initially, he demonstrates his usefulness as a comic foil to Baker's Doctor, most notably during the scene in which the Doctor presses Harry's stethoscope to his chest and he hears two heartbeats; the expression on his face speaks volumes. Despite his initial buffoonery however, he also proves to be more than just an imbecile; he quickly accepts that the Doctor's eccentricity is going to leave him baffled, as he wry smile as he later presses the stethoscope to both sides of his own chest indicates. By the end of the story, he gets a great moment as he and the Doctor drive towards the robot in Bessie, and they joke about the fact that their problem seems to have grown. It suggests an easy friendship and establishes Harry and the Doctor almost as a double act. In general, Harry is hugely likeable; he's old fashioned almost to the point of chauvinism, but big-hearted and well meaning with it, and Ian Marter plays the part to perfection. He also gets to play James Bond, which he clearly relishes, even if he does get caught. 

The other regular also gets plenty to do in a story, which exploits her investigative skills very well. She infiltrates Think Tank and quickly deduces the significance of the patch of oil on the floor, and she stands up bravely to the icy Hilda Winters when Winters nastily offers a further demonstration of K1; Sarah is clearly terrified by the idea but accepts the invitation nonetheless. Most significantly of course, Sarah's compassion brings the robot to trust her, which allows her to save the Doctor's life at the start of Episode Three. Sladen quickly establishes a rapport with both Baker and Marter, establishing the dynamic of the new team. 

UNIT, returning for one of its final appearances, also does rather well out of the story. Although not back to the heights he reached during Season Seven, the Brigadier is nevertheless back on form to a degree, regaining some of the authority of his early appearances. As in his later appearances with Pertwee, the script makes him look slightly dim in order to allow the Doctor to explain the plot, but he's impressively commanding when in action in Episodes Three and Four, especially when dealing with Miss Winters; Courtney seems genuinely horrified by the situation in Episode Four as he pulls a gun on Winters whilst the countdown to nuclear war ticks away. And the newly promoted Mr. Benton also gets some great moments, most notably when he gives the Doctor the idea to use Kettlewell's metal virus and thus finally destroy the robot. 

Then we have the robot itself. The actual costume is very effective, ingeniously designed so that it manages to avoid looking like a man in a costume. The actual characterisation of the robot also works, largely due to its interaction with Sarah and its tortured persona. Artificial intelligences have become rather clichéd, and in Doctor Who we have already had a least two, in the megalomaniac forms of WOTAN and BOSS, but the emphasis here is rather different. Unfortunately, it is also here that the story starts to fall down; firstly after Kettlewell's death, the robot becomes just another ranting madman, albeit a rather novel one, and the final episode degenerates into a typical runaround after Hilda Winters is arrested by UNIT. Secondly, and most annoyingly, it astonishes that Terrance Dicks, a man who was part of the Doctor Who for the previous several years, would be so stupid as to incorporate into his script the Attack of the Fifty-Foot Robot, an idea that could only realistically be achieved by the dreaded CSO. This immediately results in an effects nightmare, as first parts of the CSO robot vanish as it grows larger, and then we are presented with a rag-doll Sarah. The toy tank at the end of Episode Three is bad enough, but the toy companion is unforgivable. I don't usually judge Doctor Who by its special effects, but the whole concept is unnecessary here, adding little to the plot since the robot is already virtually indestructible. Since Christopher Barry's direction elsewhere in the story is rather good (especially the scene in Episode One as the camera moves through the security system as the Brigadier describes it in voice-over), this hamstringing of the production is especially disappointing. 

The villains are rather mixed. Patricia Maynard's icy Miss Winters is very good, but her assistant Jellicoe is utterly forgettable. Moreover, the motives of the Scientific Reform Society are rather dubious; given that they want to make a better world, their obvious willingness to plunge it into nuclear holocaust beggars belief. In addition, that food store in the bunker must be well stocked; a global nuclear catastrophe would render the planet largely uninhabitable for decades at least. Kettlewell's motivation is even more ill conceived; leaving aside Edward Burnham's performance of a ludicrously stereotypical mad Professor, his attitude to the robot doesn't make much sense. Even when he is alone with the robot, he frets over the treatment inflicted by Winters and seems genuinely horrified by it, despite having provided the necessary technical know-how required to reprogram it and being party to his allies' actions. His eventually revelation as a villain seems to have crow-barred into the story simply to provide a plot twist, and most unbelievably of all, despite his apparently long association with Hilda Winters and his full knowledge of their intentions, he seems not to have considered the potential consequences of helping her to obtain the nuclear launch codes. The plot also falls down in regards to the disintegrator gun; as The Discontinuity Guide points out, the Scientific Reform Society goes to great lengths to obtain the gun, just to use it to open a safe. Whilst the script tries to compensate for this with the unlikely revelation that the safe is otherwise indestructible, the plot would have been better served had they simply had the robot force it open. 

Despite these drawbacks, 'Robot' succeeds as a introduction for Tom Baker and at four action-packed episodes is rather refreshing after Pertwee's last two bloated stories. More to the point, 'Robot' establishes the new TARDIS team and paves the way for arguable Season Twelve's finest story, as Doctor Who's greatest script-writer makes a welcome return…