The Ribos OperationBookmark and Share

Monday, 21 February 2005 - Reviewed by Keith Mandement

The Ribos Operation was the opening story of the sixteenth season and saw very much a final break in style and tone with the previous Tom Baker years. There has been plenty of comment about the humorous style of the latter Baker years, most of it misplaced. The humour here is as subtle and as clever as the gothic content of the Hinchcliffe years. The addition of the humour works. Season 16 as a whole works as does, for that matter, season 17.

The season was given a running theme, a story arc, which has since been replicated but never equalled. Namely the search for the Key To Time. 

The main drivers for this story are the relationships between the six main characters. Firstly there is the Graff Vynda-K and his trusty sidekick, Sholakh. These are two battle hardened veterans. From the looks of Sholakh he spent all the battles in the front line and from the looks of the Graff he spent those battles as far removed from the front line as Melchett in Blackadder Goes Forth. The Graff is a man who is bitter and has been deposed, he is driven by revenge and the desire to reclaim the Levithian crown. Sholakh, being a career soldier knows little else. His loyalty is wholehearted to the Graff. Theirs is a relationship borne in adversity. 

Another relationship borne in adversity, albeit of a different kind, is that of Garron and Unstoffe. Garron is played with a larger than life panache by veteran screen actor Iain Cuthbertson, best remembered by me in the wonderful Children of the Stones. His put upon sidekick is played by Nigel Plaskitt and actor whose two main claims to fame are being the voice of a hare on a childrens TV show and being "Malcolm" in the Vicks adverts for blocked noses in the seventies. Chosen career criminals, and portrayed as lovable rogues (Gawd bless em, they never armed anyone apart from their own) they have gone from planet to planet conning people out of their hard earned (or otherwise) goods and money. Constantly with an eye over their shoulder for the Police being on the run has forged a bond between them although I doubt either trusts each other. 

The final key relationship is the Doctor and Romana. Romana is a very different companion to any we have seen before. An equal to the Doctor, not in awe of him and very very aloof. A Time Lady version of Margot from the Good Life with The Doctor playing Tom to her Margot. 

Romana will lose, as the series evolves, she lost her aloof edge as she realised what was out there in the big old universe. However in this story Romana is at her most superior and there is some sparkling dialogue between her and the Doctor throughout the story. The Doctors annoyance at her putting a hole in the console to fit the tracer was wonderful, as was her smug superiority at the Doctor getting caught in one of the nets on the outskirts of the city.

In fact the dialogue is the best thing about this whole story. It fairly sparkles. Next to the dialogue is the superb characterisation of the main characters. The characterisation, and the motivation, of the characters is very well defined.

So the basic premise of the story, Garron and Unstoffe are trying to sell the planet Ribos to the Graff Vynda-K. They plant some documents to make it look like there are valuable mineral reserves on Ribos. The Doctor and Romana turn up and throw a spanner in the works. The story keeps going at a fairly reasonable pace, there are some interesting natives especially the seeker and, of course, Binro the Heretic played by Timothy Bateson, a man who has made his name in sitcoms as "middle class neighbour" or "Bank Manager" gives a truly sympathetic performance as a man who thinks the world is not flat and the planet revolves around its own sun in contravention of the thinking of the day. The interchanges between him and Unstoffe, hiding in the Catacombs, where Unstoffe reveals to him that he is right all along and one day people on Ribos will know he was right were truly moving. Worth a life !

Thank You Robert Holmes, for yet another superb story.





The Armageddon FactorBookmark and Share

Tuesday, 4 May 2004 - Reviewed by Paul Clarke

There was an unfortunate tendency during the Barry Letts era to end each season with a six-part story (or in the case of 'The Dæmons', a five part story) that is in my opinion dire. The only exception to this trend is 'The Green Death' and even that story is not the strongest of its season. Phillip Hinchcliffe reversed this trend by producing two classic six parts stories in the shapes of 'The Seeds of Doom' and the sublime 'The Talons of Weng-Chiang', and whilst 'The Invasion of Time' is by no means perfect, it is considerably better than at least two other stories from Graham Williams' first season of Doctor Who. It is unfortunate then that Williams inadvertently (I hope) resurrects this unfortunate trend of Lett's tenure for the finale of Season Sixteen. For the finale of a generally strong season with a story arc that runs from beginning to end, it is crucial to produce a satisfying denouncement; instead, we are forced to endure 'The Armageddon Factor', a story that remains my least favourite story of Tom Baker's entire run. It is also disappointing that this story is so dire since it is the last broadcast six-part Doctor Who story, given that 'Shada' would have an unfortunate rendezvous with fate (I don't count 'The Two Doctors', since it is structured and broadcast as three fifty minutes episodes). 

'The Armageddon Factor' starts badly and gets progressively worse. I noted when I reviewed 'The Ribos Operation' and prior to that 'Carnival of Monsters' that it is difficult to portray a convincing alien world given the time and budgetary limitations of a typical Doctor Who story, and Bob Baker and Dave Martin utterly fail in this task. Atrios and Zeos are, we are told, two neighbouring planets at war, but as far as the viewer is concerned they might as well be two small rooms at war. There are no references to cities, let alone continents, and when characters do mention other areas of Atrios they refer, ludicrously, to levels and blocks, which conjure up images of large buildings at best. The social set up on Atrios is equally facile, with complete power resting in the hands of a single nutter, with Princess Astra, who is clearly only a figurehead, being the only other important person in evidence. The situation on Zeos is even worse, with the uninteresting computer Mentalis the sole representative of the planet on display. There are very vague implications that the other Zeons are extinct and that everything, including presumably the fleet, is computer controlled, but this is never fully explored and again contributes to the feeling of neighbouring buildings at war. 

As if this wasn't bad enough, the Atrian military on display consists of the Marshall and Major Shapp. John Woodvine is a fine actor, but the lines provided for the Marshall are diabolical and the character is totally one-dimensional. Cast as a puppet for the Shadow, he lacks any motivation or personality beyond that and the only hint we get of his character is that he is a bully and a coward, as suggested by his escape ship and his visible baulking at the announcement that handing him over will result in peace. Even this is inconsistent, since once relatively free from the Shadow's control (he is invited to make what he will of the lack of further attacks from Zeos), he personally launches a devastating nuclear attack on Zeos with supposedly enough ordnance to blow up the entire planet. This must surely be a risky venture, but he seems more than happy to undertake it. As for Shapp, I can barely bring myself to contemplate the heinous slapstick buffoonery of Davyd Harris, who sends up his role in unsubtle style throughout despite the would-be seriousness of the story's premise. The only other time I've ever had the misfortune to witness Harris' "acting" is in the Blake's 7 episode 'Moloch', in which he is equally as bad as Doran, leading me to conclude that he somehow ended up in the wrong profession, possibly for a bet. 

Even if I were prepared to excuse the paucity of the plot, the fact remains that it is intensely uninteresting. The lack of decent characters means that I simply don't give a toss whether or not the fires of war engulf Atrios and Zeos. Having said that, the Shadow at one point claims that if he gets the Key to Time, the situation on Atrios and Zeos will be but a preview of the fate of the entire universe, suggesting that the Black Guardian intends to use it to spread bad acting and tedium throughout the cosmos, which is a genuinely scary concept. Even Lalla Ward, who I generally like a great deal, struggles with the character of Princess Astra, again due to leaden scripting and bland expository dialogue. How Romana fails to realize that the Princess is under the control of the Shadow in Episode Five is beyond me, given that she is virtually rolling her eyes and cackling in an evil way throughout, which explains why the Doctor just assumes that Romana has guessed. Other than that, all Astra does is wring her hands a lot and look anguished, until Episode Six where she goes all glassy eyed as she realises that she is in fact a lump of Perspex. Mind you, if I had a boyfriend as pathetic as Merak, I'd be a miserable bastard too. 

With all of this in mind, it is astounding that the characterisation could sink to new depths, but the unpleasant introduction of irritating cockney gobshite Drax proves that it can. Presumably intended as comic relief, he instead just makes me want to cry with unhappiness at how bad the story is getting, although he does at least make Shapp seem amusing by comparison. Robert Holmes is often credited with demystifying the Time Lords, but Baker and Martin are far guiltier, both here and in 'The Three Doctors'. And speaking of old Baker and Martin plots, they are also sufficiently lacking in good ideas that they recycle the dimensional stabilizer subplot from 'The Invisible Enemy'; I should perhaps be grateful that when the Doctor and Drax restore themselves to normal size in Episode Six, the Shadow doesn't suddenly find himself beset by unexpected giant prawns as well. 

The villains of the piece slightly redeem matters. The Shadow is literally a personification of evil, and as such as shallow as a bedpan, but William Squire delivers his "bwa-ha-ha!" dialogue rather well and the Shadow's weird half-mask looks quite good, even if it is slightly undermined by his polo neck knitwear. The cliffhanger ending to Episode Four, as the Shadow sits and gloats to himself, would have been a lot stupider than it already is were it not for the sinister tones Squire employs and the fact that he seems to take his role seriously, thus becoming the Anti-Harris. Valantine Dyall's performance as the Black Guardian just tops Squire's, but I'll discuss the story's denouement - and the Guardian - below.

The regulars struggle bravely with the script. Baker alternates between gravitas and wit, and manages to bring some weight to the doom-laden plot. Were the story written better, this might have been one of the Fourth Doctor's finest hours, as he saves two planets in the nick of time and outwits the ultimate manifestation of evil in the Doctor Who universe, but as the story is bobbins this is a moot point. What the story does manage is some nice character moments between the Doctor, Romana and K9, for example when Romana desperately tells the Doctor "It doesn't matter what happens to me" as the Shadow blackmails him, and the appalled Doctor replies "Well of course it does!" showing just how close they've become since 'The Ribos Operation'. His affection for K9 is also in evidence; his risky rescue trip into a furnace shows more than just concern for a computer and he's clearly saddened when K9 falls under the Shadow's control. I also like the fact that he realises this because K9 calls him "Doctor" instead of "Master" (incidentally, would anyone else like to see a Past Doctor Adventure set around this era in which the Master builds himself an evil robot dog that calls him "Doctor"? No? Oh well, just me then). Having said all that, the scene in which K9 is told to lie to the Shadow and clears his throat before doing so is immensely annoying and undermines the already flimsy tension surrounding the Shadow's near victory. Some finds apparently find this amusing, but by the time I've sat through five and half episodes of this drivel my sense of humour is badly eroded. It is also a fairly low-key departure for Mary Tamm, whose off-camera regeneration into Lalla Ward at the start of 'Destiny of the Daleks' means that this is the last we see of her. Sadly, she again spends much of the time either standing around whilst the Doctor explains the plot, or alternately explaining the plot to Merak and Princess Astra.

Which brings us to the climax of both 'The Armageddon Factor' and also the Key to Time storyline. Having paced their story so badly that they have to resort to Shapp and Merak knowledgably discussing both the Key to Time and the TARDIS for the sake of exposition and hoping that nobody will notice, Baker and Martin hand over the finale to Douglas Adams for a notorious final scene in the TARDIS as the Doctor prepares to hand the Key over to the Guardian. I'm probably going to surprise some people at this point by saying that I actually like this scene. The reason for this boils down to the simple fact that Adams' sense of humour just happens to appeal to me and the sight of Baker's eye-rolling and gurning as he deliberately alarms Romana amuses me far more than anything else seen in this story. The actual ending is often described as anti-climatic, but since handing over the Key to Time to the White Guardian would probably be equally anti-climatic, I'm happy to defend it. The confrontation between the Doctor and the Black Guardian is another example in the series of the Doctor standing up to a god-like being for the sake of the universe at large, and I personally think it works quite well, thanks in part to Dyall's expertise at portraying the Guardian's impotent fury. The question of whether the White Guardian is actually able to restore the balance of the universe as discussed in 'The Ribos Operation' goes largely unanswered, although the Doctor does tell Romana that he should have had time to do this whilst the Key is assembled. Which in turn raises the question of why the Black Guardian couldn't also have used it to cause trouble whilst it was assembled. And then there's the question of why the White Guardian can hijack the TARDIS in 'The Ribos Operation', but the Black Guardian can't do the same thing here. But by this point, I'm just glad that I don't have to watch anymore of 'The Armageddon Factor' and therefore I don't care.





The Ribos OperationBookmark and Share

Wednesday, 31 December 2003 - Reviewed by Paul Clarke

After the rather uneven Season Fifteen, 'The Ribos Operation' signals the beginning of Graham Williams successful attempt to imbue Doctor Who with his own distinctive style. This is perhaps most obvious in the fact that the story introduces the quest for the Key to Time, a story arc encompassing the entire season, and an idea hitherto unexplored in the series. In addition, it signifies the move towards more humorous stories tenuously explored in 'The Sun Makers' and to a lesser extent in 'The Invasion of Time'. 'The Ribos Operation' works very well in this respect, combining a witty and engaging script, an increasingly eccentric performance from Tom Baker, and some superb supporting characters. 

The opening scene of 'The Ribos Operation' introduces the Key to Time storyline, and immediately sets the tone of the rest of the story and much of the remainder of the Season. Depicting near-omnipotent beings in science fiction presents difficulties, for two simple reasons. Firstly, any really powerful being should be able to do anything it wants and attempts to limit this in a plausible manner can be woefully unconvincing. Secondly, actually depicting a being of enormous power can often be challenging, especially if there are budgetary constraints, which of course there always are in Doctor Who; Kronos is a perfect example of how cheap and nasty demigods can look if poorly handled by the production team. Here, these problems are overcome by having the White Guardian simply decide to recruit the Doctor to locate the six segments of the Key to Time on his behalf, and the second is overcome by presenting the Guardian as an elderly gentleman in a wicker chair sipping from a wine glass. The Guardian's power is hinted at in subtle but effective ways; firstly, he seemingly stops the TARDIS in mid-flight with consummate ease, and perhaps more impressively, the Doctor is obviously slightly overawed by him. We have seen the Doctor sent on missions before, usually by the Time Lords; the Third Doctor was prone to indignation, whereas the Fourth has previously been shown to sulk automatically. Here, the Doctor carefully explores the possibility of refusing, before quietly agreeing, and it is rather unusual to here him call anybody "sir" without sounding sarcastic. It is a whimsical scene which nicely sets up the linking theme of Season Sixteen, and also starts to introduce the humour that will characterize the remainder of the story, as the Doctor asks what will happen to him if he refuses and the White Guardian happily replies "Nothing… nothing at all. Ever". Cyril Luckham is perfectly cast in the role of what could be argued is Doctor Who's nearest equivalent to God, radiating quite dignity and authority. 

Once the Doctor returns to the TARDIS, the humour really starts to escalate with the introduction of new companion Romanadvoratrelundar. For the first time in a considerable while, the Doctor is suddenly saddled with a new companion whom he neither invites to join him nor has time to get to know first, and his open resentment is highly entertaining. Of course, it wouldn't be anywhere near as effective if it were not for the fact that the haughty Romana, played with the perfect amount of aloofness by Mary Tamm, is also obviously distinctly unimpressed with the notorious Doctor. From the moment they meet they bicker constantly, the Doctor patronizingly announcing to the inexperienced and somewhat naïve Romana that "I'd like you to stay out of my way as much as possible and try not to get into trouble… I don't suppose you can make tea?" in addition to which, he pokes fun at her convoluted name ("I'm sorry about that, is there anything we can do?") and insists on abbreviating it whether she likes it or not. In return, Romana belittles the Doctor, smugly reminding him of his unimpressive grades at the Academy and psychoanalyzing him in the most casually insulting manner possible after first telling him that before she met him she was willing to be impressed. This mutual antagonism reaches a climax early on with the Doctor furiously telling her "You aren't going back to Gallifrey, not for a very long time I regret to say", after which the two settle down into mutual bickering. The Doctor generally scores better, deriding her lack of experience of nearly getting killed for example, but Romana gets plenty of opportunities to rib him return, especially when he condescendingly sets rules for their relationship before blundering embarrassingly into a net. 

Over the course of the story, they do begin to develop a certain mutual respect, especially after Romana's reassessment of him when he can pinpoint the coordinates indicated by the tracer off the top of his head, but nobody need fear that their budding friendship becomes too cozy too early on; at the end of Episode Four, Romana grudgingly confesses that the Doctor's switching of the Graff's thermite pack for the jethrik is "quite clever", to which the Doctor blisteringly responds "I do so hate faint praise… it was astoundingly clever". It could be argued that this move towards self-aggrandising egocentricity on the Doctor's part does not show the character at his best, but the fact remains that I find it enormously entertaining. As a consequence of Romana's introduction, K9 gets relatively little to do here, but he gets to make up for this in subsequent stories and he does make himself useful in the last two episodes. His recasting as K9 Mark II has very little impact in story terms, but does have the advantage that he's a lot less bloody noisy when he's on the move…

Inevitably, with Tom Baker playing the Doctor in an increasingly eccentric, bombastic fashion, the character starts to dominate the series even more than usual. Consequently, it is important to have supporting characters who can compete with the Doctor and a guest cast that can realize this. Holmes is a master of characterisation, and provides another memorable "double act" in the shape of Unstoffe and Garron. Nigel Plaskitt's Unstoffe works well as a foil for his companion, and also acts to a degree as the conscience of the pair, genuinely touched by the effect he has on Binro and also berating Garron for stealing the tracer from Romana, thus leaving her lost in the catacombs. He also gets an amusing scene in which he adopts and outrageous west country accent and blathers on at length about "scringe stone", to Garron's obvious alarm. However, it is Iain Cuthbertson's Garron who nearly steals the show, competing with the Doctor for the story's best lines, including "who wants everything? I'll settle for ninety percent" and, in reference to dying, "I've always said it's the last thing I want to do". Cuthbertson plays the part with relish, effortlessly switching between Garron's normal gruff tones and his far plumier vernacular when trying to con the Graff. In addition, they're both thoroughly likeable despite their criminal tendencies, and its interesting watching the Doctor and Garron together, as they seem to get on so well. 

With Garron and Unstoffe both cast as loveable rogues, it falls to Paul Seed's Graff Vynda-K to provide the story's villain. Whereas Holmes creations such as Magnus Greel, Sharaz Jek and of course, the Master, are well remembered, the Graff seems to be overlooked, which is a shame as he's another well thought out character. The Graff is utterly unlikable, a ruthless, cruel tyrant deposed by his people and brimming with murderous rage, and Seed plays the part with impressive emotion, the Graff seeming always on the verge of erupting into explosive anger. The Graff is also well motivated, his deposed status and overwhelming desire to reclaim his throne an entirely credible background. Further depth is added to his character by his loyalty to devoted henchman Sholakh (played with casual menace by Robert Keegan), an unusual trait for a Holmes villain. So great is the Graff's grief when Sholakh is killed that in his last scenes before his own death, the sounds of battles long past echo through his head to reflect his anguish. It is an memorable moment and one which Seed again plays very convincingly. 

I pointed out back when I reviewed 'Carnival of Monsters' that it is very difficult to create any sense of depth in a fictional society in Doctor Who, where time is always a constraint. Holmes rises well to this challenge in 'The Ribos Operation', creating a broader sense of Riban and galactic history through throwaway references to settlements in the North, Riban traditions, the Cyrrhenic Alliance, and some of the Graff's past campaigns. By far the most impressive example of this however, is represented by Binro, who is both a marvellous character in his own right and also a means of exploring Riban society by drawing parallels with human history. Branded a heretic and scorned by his people for suggesting that the stars in the Riban sky are not ice crystals but other suns, and that Ribos moves around its own sun, Binro is clearly inspired by Galileo, whose revolutionary ideas led to his persecution by the Catholic Church. This immediately tells the viewer about Riban culture, which is still rooted in superstition, and Garron, who tells the Graff that the Ribans have not yet developed the telescope and that they believe their world to be flat, further elaborates on this. This therefore provides background to Riban society in a simple but effective way. On a more character driven level, Binro is an engaging character persecuted and ridiculed by his own people who eventually gives his life trying to save Unstoffe, the man who revealed to him that he was right all the time. Having lived a harsh and tragic life, Binro is thus able to find peace before he dies, and it makes for a touching subplot. 

In terms of its production, 'The Ribos Operation' looks rather good. It is entirely studio bound but looks far more impressive than the last three stories of the previous season, which regardless of their other merits or lack thereof, looked decidedly cheap. The costumes and sets all look rather lavish and the only weak point is the Shrivenzale, which director George Spenton-Foster manages to keep largely off camera. My only other criticism of 'The Ribos Operation' is the Seeker, a character that looks thoroughly ridiculous and is played in a cringe-worthy fashion by Ann Tirard. Having said that, her character adds an interesting twist to Binro's subplot; with Binro's "heresy" a nod to the dichotomy between science and superstition, it is interesting that Holmes includes a character whose ability to track fugitives is given no scientific basis and seems to rely purely on some kind of divining with old bones. This isn't explored any further, but it's an odd juxtaposition. 

In summary then, 'The Ribos Operation' is an excellent, if underrated, story and a fine start to the Key to Time season.





The Pirate PlanetBookmark and Share

Wednesday, 31 December 2003 - Reviewed by Paul Clarke

And so on to the late lamented Douglas Adams' first stab at Doctor Who. 'The Pirate Planet' is composed of a recipe for disaster, combining a thoroughly over the top villain with an unprecedented amount of technobabble, either of which are capable of ruining an otherwise decent story. Astonishingly then, 'The Pirate Planet' is not only largely successful, but is also my favourite story of Season Sixteen. 

When I reviewed 'The Invisible Enemy', I heavily criticized it for its abundance of ludicrous pseudo-scientific concepts that failed miserably and contributed to the story's diabolical farcical nature. 'The Pirate Planet' should in theory be just as guilty of this failing, concerning as it does a hollow, space-hopping planet capable of materializing around another planet and draining it of its resources, after which the crushed remains of these planets are placed in a trophy room by a cybernetic pirate. In truth, I'm not sure I can pinpoint why Adams' approach works for me far better than that of Baker and Martin, but my best guess is this: when lesser writers use technobabble to explain their ideas, it often feels like lazy writing; when Adams does it, it feels as though science hasn't yet discovered enough to accommodate his imagination. I absolutely love the plot of 'The Pirate Planet', not just because I like the idea of Zanak, but because of the way that Adams milks the pirate concept for all its worth. We don't just get a planet capable of plundering by force other worlds, we get a Captain on the bridge with a technological equivalent of an eye patch and a hook, we get a lethal robot parrot on his shoulder, and we even get a plank for the Doctor to walk. Adams' witty dialogue reflects this, with the Captain demanding of Mr. Fibuli at one point "Are you trying to scuttle this planet?" In addition to this, we have further concepts on display, such as the Mentiads' psychic awakening by the life force released by Zanak's target planets, and Queen Xanxia, an ancient tyrant attempting to extend her natural lifespan by keeping her body alive between two time dams whilst she uses the energy from the crushed planets to stabilize a cellular projection of herself as a new body. 

With so many absurd concepts on display, Adams unleashes some of the most ludicrous technobabble ever heard in Doctor Who, with references to macromac field integrators, synchronic feedback circuits, and magnifactoid eccentricolometers. Fortunately, 'The Pirate Planet' features two actors who rise to the challenge of delivering such gibberish in a convincing way, one of whom is Tom Baker, and the other of whom is Bruce Purchase. The Pirate Captain is a superb villain, because Purchase combines excellent delivery with comic timing, but above all brings considerable emotion to the part. It would have been so easy for to act the part of the Captain poorly, but Purchase portrays him to perfection by conveying a feeling of barely suppressed emotion throughout. The Captain is not a calm man, he is a frustrated warrior trapped in a situation he dislikes and this is reflected by his hair-trigger temper throughout. His characteristic vernacular includes such phrases as "Moons of madness!", "By the beard of the Sky-Demon!", and "Devilstorms!", all of which look silly on paper, but all of which Purchase delivers in such angry tones that they sound like entirely respectable oaths. It is suggested that much of the Captain's frequent bellowing is an act to lull Xanxia into a false sense of security so that she doesn't learn that he is planning to free himself from her clutches, but when he is in a rage it does nevertheless seem impressively authentic. The Captain displays other emotions however, and again Purchase rises to the challenge with ease. Occasionally, the Captain is wistful, such as when he is reminiscing about the Vantiliaris with Mr. Fibuli, and after Fibuli's death he seems genuinely distraught by the lost of his faithful lieutenant. There is also a moment after this when he quietly says "Yes Xanxia, finally I am ready" just before he dies when again we see another dimension to him, as long years of quiet plotting finally come to an end and he throws off his blustering persona. And then bellows, "I shall be free of you, you hag!" just before she kills him… 

The Captain is also used as a source of comedy on occasion, for example when he orders his guards to find and destroy the Doctor's counter-jamming frequency projector, only for Mr. Fibuli to quietly enquire as to whether any of the guards will actually know what a counter-jamming frequency projector looks like. Mr. Fibuli is a perfect foil for the Captain, and is played in an appropriately nervous manner by Andrew Robertson. Fibuli is the frequent targets of the Captain's casual death threats from "I'll have your bones bleached" to the comparatively friendly "Your death will be postponed". Mr. Fibuli is also used for comic effect in his scenes with the Doctor and Romana, his bumbling, absent-mindedness meaning that he's even more easily confused by the Fourth Doctor than most people are. His aforementioned death, and the effect it has on the Captain, also works well by serving to allow the audience a glimpse of his real hatred for Xanxia. The other overwhelming impression of the Captain that I get is one of an enormous, if psychotic, intellect. Mr. Fibuli again helps to demonstrate this, acting in much the same way as the traditional Doctor Who companion; whereas the Doctor explains the plot to the audience via Romana and Kimus, the Captain's explanations and instructions to Mr. Fibuli serve much the same purpose. The Captain's intelligence is thus well conveyed, as we learn that he not only rebuilt Zanak and created the Bridge, but also of his scientific achievement in creating his Trophy Room. Even the Doctor, appalled though he is by the Captain's enormous crimes, describes it as the most impressive feat of astro-gravitational engineering that he's even seen. 

With the Captain such a bombastic, memorable character, there is a danger that he might entirely steal the show, but Tom Baker proves more than capable of holding his own. The increased humour that marked his performance in 'The Ribos Operation' here continues apace, and even gets more pronounced. Fans who dislike silliness in Doctor Who probably loathe this story, but I've said before that I think the Tom Baker era is long enough to accommodate this change in style and I do rather like it. Baker's performance here is massively eccentric, but in such an all-pervasive way that it's actually quite difficulty to isolate specific examples. It's all the little touches that he brings to the role, such as when he suddenly throws his arms around Mula and Kimus and talks to them like old friends, or his double take when he realises that he has successfully picked the lock to the Bridge in Episode Two. I suspect that this approach works for me not just because it is rather amusing, but also because, much like Troughton's performance as the Second Doctor, it creates a sense of a genius hidden beneath the veneer of a clown. Admittedly, Baker is far less subtle in his clowning than Troughton was, but he has enough charisma to carry it off. Occasionally however, he shows the Doctor's more serious side; he's visibly appalled on learning that Zanak's next target is Earth, and more famously, he gets an excellent scene with the Captain in the Trophy Room, when the Captain announces that he is gratified that the Doctor appreciates his technological achievements. The classic moment of course is after the Doctor's furious "Appreciate it? Appreciate it?! You commit mass destruction and murder on a scale that's almost inconceivable and you ask me to appreciate it? Just because you happen to have made a brilliantly conceived toy out of the mummified remains of planets…", which draws the Captain's equally angry "Devilstorms, Doctor, it is not a toy!" And this in turn provokes the Doctor's "Then what's it for?!", a line into which Baker crams so much feeling that it is almost palpable, and remains one of my favourite moments from the entire run of Doctor Who on television. 

As in 'The Ribos Operation', the Doctor's interaction with new companion Romana continues to entertain. The early scenes in the TARDIS demonstrate that their relationship is still rather antagonist, as Romana teaches herself to pilot the Doctor's "capsule" and the two then engage in a brief routine of one-upmanship. Once they arrive on Zanak however, their relationship proves to be increasingly friendly, partly because they are developing a certain mutual respect, and partly because Romana increasingly seems to be enjoying herself (and likewise, Mary Tamm). Adams also makes good use of K9, who tracks the Mentiads and acts as the Doctor's anti-jamming frequency projector. He even gives him his own foe, in the shape of Polyphase Avatron, which results in a amusingly conceived but poorly executed duel between the two robot animals. 

Where 'The Pirate Planet' falls down is in some of its supporting characters. David Warwick's Kimus is passable, although he doesn't get much to do except serve as a target of expository dialogue from the Doctor. The Mentiads, whilst an interesting concept, also aren't very memorable, Pralix being the only one of note; matters are complicated by the fact that the script seems to call for the Mentiads to be fairly wooden characters, in order to tie in with the "zombie" tag that they are labeled with by the Captain. Bernard Finch tackles his few lines with some enthusiasm, but he's still fairly forgettable. Rosalind Lloyd' icy performance as the Nurse has been criticized by some, but I personally think that she serves her purpose well enough, and makes Xanxia seem suitably unpleasant. Xanxia's real significance to the story is that she is the key to the Captain's motivation both in plundering other worlds and also in creating the Trophy Room; a more memorable performance from Lloyd is scarcely necessary alongside Bruce Purchase and Tom Baker. My least favourite guest cast performances come from Ralph Michael as Balaton and Prima Townsend as Mula, a pair of performances so stilted that they always puts me in mind of the scene between "Bob" and her father from the beginning of the Blackadder II episode Bells ("Yes… I want to you become a prostitute"). Mula's "Why? Why? Why?", a bad line poorly delivered, really doesn't help. 

In production terms, 'The Pirate Planet' generally maintains the high standard of 'The Ribos Operation', although the model footage of the city is dreadful and there's some dodgy CSO on display with the Polyphase Avatron, the air cars, and worst of all, the spanner in Episode Four. This is compensated for by the excellent sets used for the interiors of the Bridge, and also the model work used to show its exterior. The Bridge's destruction at the end of Episode Four is also particularly worthy of note. The location footage, especially in the caves at the end of Episode Two, is also impressive and is used to great effect. Overall, 'The Pirate Planet' is a hugely entertaining debut from Adams and one of my favourite stories of Graham Williams' entire stint as producer.





The Stones of BloodBookmark and Share

Wednesday, 31 December 2003 - Reviewed by Paul Clarke

After the outrageous lunacy of 'The Pirate Planet', 'The Stones of Blood' is something of a comedown. Initially, it almost harkens back to the Hinchcliffe era in terms of style, with a distinct gothic horror feel, but as it progresses it totally shifts its emphasis and becomes more comical, with a fairly unremarkable ending. Sadly, this results in the story feeling oddly disjointed, which is a shame since it boasts a great supporting character, unusual monsters, and one of Doctor Who's rare female villains. 

'The Stones of Blood' starts promisingly, featuring in its first two episodes human sacrifice, sinister ravens, a Celtic goddess, Hammer-esque druids, and a gothic mansion. This dark approach, a distinct change from that of the previous story is rather effective, and the script exploits these trappings by creating an air of mystery, as the Doctor and Romana investigate the stone circle and learn of the Cailleach, a mysterious woman who has owned the area for centuries. The entire production contributes to the sinister feel created, with night filming, stark location work, and of course an old mansion owned by a villain, a recurrent phenomenon in Doctor Who. The monsters of the piece, the Ogri, fit perfectly into this story, and work rather well considering that they are artificial glowing boulders on trolleys. Whilst there are far more memorable Doctor Who monsters in the series' history, the Ogri are conceptually striking, since they are in effect vampiric rocks that can neither speak nor show any kind of physical expression; all they can do is rumble remorselessly after people. This sounds daft on paper, but it is made to work on screen thanks to some nice camera work and one noteworthy scene in which two Ogri kill a couple who are camping, sucking them dry until mere skeletons remain. With an ancient goddess controlling these creatures, all of the ingredients necessary for classic Doctor Who are present; then, during Episode Three, everything changes. 

As soon as the action switches to hyperspace in Episode Three, the whole tone of 'The Stones of Blood' changes irrevocably. The introduction of the Megara amidst a brightly lit spaceship set heralds the beginning of the explanations as to why the Ogri and their mistress are on Earth, but sees all of the sinister atmosphere of the first half of the story evaporate. There is no reason why the approach adopted by the latter two episodes shouldn't work and indeed it does have a certain appeal, but it clashes horribly with what precedes it. Suddenly, the story becomes more comedic, as the script pokes fun at the rigidity of the law via the Megara and the Doctor finds himself on trial. Baker handles this material well, and the Doctor's increasingly desperate attempts to outwit the Megara are rather entertaining, but they completely lack suspense, with the previously ominous Ogri suddenly seeming very vulnerable (the Megara reduce one to a pile of sand with consummate ease) and the Cailleach, now identified as Cessair of Diplos, standing on the sidelines and becoming increasingly shrill as she tries to convince the Megara to execute the Doctor before he can prove to them who she really is. It doesn't help that Cessair appears to lack any sort of motivation whatsoever, since having stolen the Great Seal of Diplos and escaped from the Megara's ship, she has spent five millennia hanging around the area doing very little except enjoying the scenery. Given the implied power of the Great Seal (secretly the third segment of the Key to Time), it seems rather strange that she doesn't seem to exploit its power to any great extent. There are very subtle hints that she is an agent of the Black Guardian, but even so he must have promised great rewards indeed if she is prepared to hang around in one place for so long. In fact, Cessair of Diplos is a rather disappointing villain overall; her lack of motivation is doubly disappointing given the rarity of female Doctor Who villains, and the decision to paint Susan Engel silver is unfortunate, since it just makes her look like an actress painted silver rather than an alien criminal (see also 'The Power of Kroll'). Engel's performance also gets increasingly over the top as the story progresses, with the worst example being her melodramatic cackling at the end of Episode Three. 

The draining away of suspense in Episode Three (slightly halted by the deaths of the campers) is compensated for to an extent by the witty script, although unfortunately for David Fisher his story follows both 'The Ribos Operation' and 'The Pirate Planet' and so the humour inherent in 'The Stones of Blood' seems rather diluted in comparison. Nevertheless, there are some great lines, most notably from the Doctor who gets to utter the sentence "They say hyperspace is a theoretical absurdity and I've always wanted to be trapped in one of those" and generally takes the piss out of both druids and physicists in the same script. Probably the silliest the story gets is when the Doctor produces a barristers wig from his pocket during his trial, which seems to enrage some critics, but as far as I'm concerned is entirely in keeping with the increasingly humorous nature of the era. Most of the humour in 'The Stones of Blood' is less blatant, and revolves around Amelia Rumford, a marvellous character played magnificently by Beatrix Lehmann. As an eccentric academic scientist Professor Rumford is not exactly an original character, but she is so well scripted that she comes alive and makes an excellent foil for the Doctor, since she is possibly even more eccentric than he is. I particularly like her snide asides about fellow academics, especially when she alternately praises and dismisses various papers as she tries to remember who wrote them. Refreshingly for Doctor Who, she is also a scientist who is open minded from the start and is constantly fascinated by what she learns from her encounter with the Doctor, an attitude best summarized by her suggestion to an incredulous Doctor that they attempt to capture an Ogri in the name of science. 

The only other supporting characters of note are the Megara, since both Nicholas McArdle's De Vries and Elaine Ives-Cameron's Martha are adequate but forgettable. The Megara are silly but entertaining, and the special effect used to create them works rather well, looking a lot more convincing than actual models would have done. Their stuffy, prim voices are well suited to their characterisation as the personification of legal proceedings and I like the fact that the Doctor neither convinces them of his innocence nor is forgiven, forcing him to use the third segment to get rid of them at the end.

The regulars are on their usual form, with K9 in particular getting plenty to do, as he battles Ogri, instructs Professor Rumford on how to rebuild the Doctor's machine, and also gets trashed for the first time (something that K9 Mark II is increasingly prone to from this point on). This unfortunately results in a cringe worthy scene as the Doctor and Romana fret over him, and spout pseudo-scientific twaddle about circuit regeneration; it is obviously intended to demonstrate how fond of him they are, but it comes across as being far sillier than the Doctor's wig could ever be. Romana also does well out of the story, Fisher's script reminding the viewer of her relative lack of experience, as she ventures out into the English countryside in high heeled shoes, sparking off a chain of events that result in her being pushed off a cliff. Her conviction that the Doctor was responsibly given Cessair's use of illusion nicely demonstrates that she hasn't been travelling with him long enough to develop the faith in him displayed by Sarah or Leela (both of whom would have assumed that if the Doctor had tried to kill them, he would either have been under someone else's control or an imposter). This is balanced out by the fact that in general, their initially antagonistic relationship has clearly settled down by now, and that the Doctor trusts her enough to tell her about the Guardians. 

The production of 'The Stones of Blood' looks great, with the detailed sets of De Vries' house and Vivian Fay's cottage meshing perfectly with the superb location footage. Even more impressive is the fact that the stone circle, which looks highly authentic, is actually made largely out of fake boulders, since the real stones where deemed too small. The model work of the Megara's ship also looks good and nicely matches up with the sets used for the interior. These production values are valuable in a story which I feel doesn't quite work in story terms; 'The Stones of Blood' ultimately feels rather disjointed and is saddled with a mediocre villain, but nevertheless boasts many features that on the whole make it worth watching. As a debut for David Fisher it shows promise, and fortunately he gets to deliver on this promise very, very quickly…





The Androids of TaraBookmark and Share

Wednesday, 31 December 2003 - Reviewed by Paul Clarke

Let me make this clear from the start; I love 'The Androids of Tara'. It exemplifies how well Williams' approach to Doctor Who can work, and whilst it is by no means typical of the series, it is a highly entertaining and witty story, with a great villain and Tom Baker on top of his form. 

Before I start lavishing praise on 'The Androids of Tara', let me first discuss its shortcomings. These are entirely down to the production, and more specifically to the costume design. Whilst many of the costumes on display are suitably evocative of the romantic medieval feel of the story as a whole, they are so mismatched that they seem to have been purloined more or less at random from the BBC costume department, since they consist largely of any old items of brightly coloured period clothing hastily thrown together. This is most obvious in the fact that Romana's outfit, chosen from the TARDIS wardrobe and supposedly in keeping with fashions on Tara during the era in question, bears little resemblance to the costumes worn by the Tarans, but it is by no means the only example since everyone else seems to have picked cloaks and helmets at random. As for the Archimandrite, his costume seemingly addresses the age-old rhetorical question; does the Pope wear a silly hat? This is a minor criticism at best, but it does make the production seem rather cheap. On the other hand, my friends all wear fairly different clothes, so it is perhaps a more realistic approach. The other main point of contention is the Taran beast, surely one of the most unconvincing monsters ever to appear in the series, and the fact that it is very much a token monster means that it could easily have been dispensed with. So unconvincing is it that if I wasn't already familiar with the story I might have assumed that it is intended to be a man in a costume, rather like the Cailleach in the previous story. And that is pretty much the full extent of my dissatisfaction with 'The Androids of Tara'.

Everything else is pretty good really. 'The Androids of Tara' is Doctor Who's take on The Prisoner of Zenda, right down to the pseudo-medieval setting. Instead of human doppelgangers we have android duplicates, and instead of ordinary swords and crossbows we have swords that deliver electric shocks and crossbows that fire energy bolts, but everything else is pure Hope, with castles, aristocrats and peasants, and a battle for the throne. There is swashbuckling and fencing on display and a thoroughly caddish villain who wants to be crowned king. It's no more original a plot than that of 'Underworld', but it plagiarizes with style. Thrust into this story, the Doctor seems completely at home, and the Baker handles the witty script with panache, saving the day from early on as he first prevents Grendel from seizing the crown by repairing the android double of Prince Reynart and then sets about rescuing Romana (twice), the Prince and Strella. The script is eminently quotable, with lines such as "Would you mind not standing on my chest, my hat's on fire?" and "A hamster with a blunt penknife could do it quicker!", both lines quoted in both The Discontinuity Guide and The Television Companion, but worth repeating here. The wit is not just in the script however; Baker's performance is spot on and features many trivial but amusing moments such as when Farrah threatens the Doctor with a sword, whereupon he smoothly takes it off him, examines it and hands it back. As for his final duel with Grendel, it is a superb climax, as he first hesitantly parries the Count's blows for effect, before gradually demonstrating that he is more than capable of holding his own against the finest swordsman on Tara. 

'The Androids of Tara' does not have subtle subtexts or complicated subplots, but then it doesn't need them. Having nicked ideas from The Prisoner of Zenda, Fisher decides to go one better by having not one doppelganger plot but two, as in addition to the android double of Reynart, we also have Romana's uncanny resemblance to Strella. And an android duplicate of Strella. And of Romana. Good grief. On principle, I'm extremely wary of the plot contrivance of look-alikes, but Doctor Who has a very good record in this field and continues this trend here. Thus, Mary Tamm gets plenty to do by playing four different roles; since both Strella and Romana are slightly aloof aristocratic women, she doesn't get much opportunity to show off any acting skills she may or may not have (I've never seen her in anything except Doctor Who, and for all I know she is very like Romana in real life), but she does fill these similar roles very well. Since the Doctor decides to take a holiday and go fishing at the start of 'The Androids of Tara', it is left to Romana to find the fourth segment of the Key to Time, which serves two purposes. Firstly it demonstrates how much the Doctor has grown to trust her, and secondly it teaches Romana a lesson about smug superiority as she discovers just how difficult it is to avoid becoming involved in local affairs with or without her eccentric companion. 

K9 once more gets a sizeable role, acting variously as hunting dog, scientific advisor, mobile weapon, and (to borrow a pun from the script) sea dog. In addition, I never tire of seeing the Doctor thrashed at chess by his ever-smug computer. The supporting characters are also well realized and also well acted; Cyril Shaps' Archimandrite clearly doesn't trust Grendel one inch, but is has too much respect for his own survival to vocally object to any of the Count's transparently villainous machinations, instead frowning disapprovingly to himself. Neville Jason's noble Prince Reynart is fittingly chivalrous, and although he spends a great deal of time chained to a bed, Jason gets to play the robot Reynart as well, which he does rather convincingly. Reynart is such a noble king that he's a walking cliché, but that is what the script calls for, and on the subject of clichés Till, Grendel's stereotypical hunchbacked servant, is also worth mentioning even though I can't think of anything clever to say about him. Simon Lack's Zadek and Paul Lavers' Farrah are also well portrayed, as is Lois Baxter's Madame Lamia, a rare example of a henchwoman with motivation, since she is hopelessly in love with the callous and somewhat abusive Grendel. And it is of course Peter Jeffrey as the Count who really steals the show.

Good villains are perhaps more important to me in Doctor Who than good monsters (although the two are of course often combined), and Count Grendel is a really great villain. Charming and ruthless, Grendel is quite superb, as he attempts to manoeuvre himself underneath the crown via every underhand tactic at his disposal, whilst maintaining the appearance of legality to satisfy the easily intimidated Archimandrite and the other nobles of Tara. But this is not a warm and fuzzy villain; Grendel is a real cad, fully prepared to murder Strella, Reynart, and Romana, and threatening to flog Lamia if she does obey him. Jeffrey's dignified performance is perfect, deftly capturing the Count's menace and sense of humour at the same time, and even his considerably tarnished nobility, such as when he refuses to kill the Doctor unless he has a sword in his hand. He alternately seethes with frustration when outwitted and oozes smugness when he has the upper hand. He's devious, cunning and evil through and through, and one of the best villains of the season, if not the entire Williams era. His final line, and his dramatic exit, is entirely in keeping with the part, as he gathers the tattered shreds of his dignity around him and makes a strategic withdrawal to fight another day. 

In summary, 'The Androids of Tara' is an impressive little story and continues Season Sixteen in style. Unfortunately, with the next story the season takes a downward turn, and coming as it does from the pen of my favourite Doctor Who writer, what follows is a considerable disappointment...