Pyramids of MarsBookmark and Share

Wednesday, 31 December 2003 - Reviewed by Paul Clarke

'Pyramids of Mars' is often accused of having plot holes. In fact, I can think of three potential plot holes, but only one of them actually bothers me, and that only slightly. The first of these is that the Osirans entombed Sutekh with everything he needs to escape, but this is obliquely addressed in the script, the Doctor firstly explaining that the Osirans' moral code forbade them from executing Sutekh and later telling Sarah that they had "cerebrums like spiral staircases" and were known for their guile and cunning. The implication is that leaving Sutekh with a chance of regaining his freedom is part of their moral code, and this is further implied by the fact that the traps in the Pyramid of Mars are dangerous but passable; certainly, this is the assumption made by Justin Richards in 'The Sands of Time'. The second supposed plot hole is that having Scarman build the Osiran war missile in England is pointless, since he could have constructed it outside Sutekh's tomb, but again this isn't really a plot hole, given that it makes sense for Sutekh to exploit the fact that Scarman owns a large and secluded estate. The third plot hole is that the Doctor is rather fortunate that Sutekh decides to travel to England to start his revenge, thus allowing the Doctor to destroy him, and it is this slight flaw that bothers me, since he could easily have destroyed the world from Egypt. On the other hand, he may have wanted to collect his remaining Servitors before launching his reign of death. But even if this is construed as a plot hole (it is undoubtedly a plot contrivance to allow the Doctor to triumph), it doesn't matter; 'Pyramids of Mars' is a story that confidently papers over its limitations with a great deal of style and atmosphere.

'Pyramids of Mars' is unusual (although not unique) in that every supporting character except for the briefly glimpsed Egyptians at the beginning is killed off during the course of the story. This is significant, because it demonstrates on a small scale the horror represented by Sutekh, as one after another characters are casually slaughtered at his behest. This works particularly well because Holmes and Griefer create characters that are uniformly well characterised, regardless of importance to the plot, so that every death has an impact. The first example is Collins, the old and weary butler who has remained in the service of the mysteriously absent Professor Scarman partly because he doubts that he could find a new appointment at his age, but probably also out of a sense of loyalty. He appears only briefly, but is rather likeable and Michael Bilton gives him a plaintive air that makes his death at the hands of the Servitors all the more traumatic. Warlock is an even better example, forcing his way into Scarman's house out of concern for his friend and paying the ultimate price, and his death also feels tragic, partly because he has survived being shot by Namin, but also because it is ultimately Scarman who orders his death, whilst under the control of Sutekh. The best example of this principle is Lawrence Scarman. Lawrence is superbly portrayed by the ever-reliable Michael Sheard, and lasts for nearly three episodes, during which time we see his almost childlike fascination with the Doctor's alien knowledge (the scene in which he bounds enthusiastically around the TARDIS is charming), and also his gnawing anguish over his brother's ghastly fate. His interference with the Doctor's attempt to block Sutekh's control of Marcus and the Servitors literally endangers the entire universe, but it is painfully understandable and it is hard not to feel sympathetic as guilt is added to Lawrence's emotional burden. His death at the smoldering hands of his brother is heart-rending, and because of this the Doctor's subsequent dismissal of Lawrence's death works so well in reminding us of the true scale of the threat posed by Sutekh. The usually compassionate Doctor is so focused on stopping Sutekh that he can't waste time with individual deaths, and this more than anything else in the story is the true measure of Sutekh's power. Even Ibrahim Namin's death is powerful, as this faithful servant of Sutekh is casual dispatched by Sutekh's puppet as a reward for his service, and the same is true of Marcus Scarman, as he briefly regains his freedom from Sutekh in Episode Four, only to disintegrate into a charred husk. 

Sutekh is vital to the success of 'Pyramids of Mars'. I praised 'Genesis of the Daleks' for its portrayal of Davros as one of Doctor Who's greatest villains by presenting him as a villain whose sense of morality is totally opposed to the Doctor's. With Sutekh, that principle is taken far, far further. He is perhaps the ultimate villain, a being of immeasurable power entirely devoted not to death or the subjugation of others, but to the total extermination of all life, everywhere, forever. His instruction to Scarman that after the missile is completed all life within the deflection barrier right down to birds, fish and reptiles must be destroyed because all life is his enemy is disturbing; no other villain in Doctor Who is so nihilistic. And whereas Davros is ultimately a man in a wheelchair whom the Doctor can physically overpower and in other respects face on an equal footing, Sutekh is effectively a God. The scene in which the Doctor confronts Sutekh in Episode Four is extremely powerful, Sutekh casually torturing him for every minor insult and explaining that all life must end under his reign. Gabriel Woolf's chilling tones drip with evil, helping to emphasize Sutekh's total malevolence, and mention must also be made of the rather sinister, but only briefly seen, jackal-like face beneath the impassive blue mask. 

If the human cost of Sutekh's evil is well conveyed by the deaths of the supporting characters, then the large scale consequences of his escape are served by the scene in Episode Three in which the Doctor takes Sarah to a 1988 in which Sutekh was not stopped. The brief sight of the blasted, lifeless Earth is highly effective, further demonstrating Sutekh's power without blowing the budget, and also implying interesting things about time travel, given that it suggests that the Doctor's defeat of Sutekh has always happened and is already a part of history even before he succeeds. 

The characterisation of the Doctor here also stresses the danger posed by Sutekh. Early on in the story, as Collins discovers the Doctor and Sarah, we get a fairly typical example of the Doctor's wit, as the butler demands to know how he got into the building; the Doctor cheerfully responds "Through the window. I understood the property was for sale?" However, as soon as the Doctor discovers the nature of his enemy, he is unusually grim throughout, and Tom Baker puts in one of his most intense performances. When the Doctor travels to Egypt to distract Sutekh, he fully expects to die in the process, but throughout the story he gives the impression that he isn't sure that can prevail here. Tellingly, once Sutekh is aged to death in the time corridor, he reverts briefly to his usually cheerful self, just before he and Sarah flee from the burning Priory. 

The acting in 'Pyramids of Mars' is very fine throughout. I've already mentioned Micheal Sheard and Gabriel Woolf, but Bernard Archard's performance as the living dead Scarman is very effective, and both Tom Baker and Elizabeth Sladen are on top of their form. Baker is convincingly agonized when Sutekh tortures him and as mentioned puts in a tense performance throughout. Because of this it falls to Sladen to lighten to the atmosphere slightly, which works because it suggests she can't fully comprehend the true danger posed by Sutekh whereas the Doctor can. She also gets to shoot at the gelignite on the ramp of the missile, thus contributing significantly to the Doctor's desperate (and as it happens, failed) gambit to stop Sutekh from destroying the Eye of Horus on Mars. 

The Mummies are another highly successful aspect of 'Pyramids of Mars', combining the unstoppable air of the Cybermen in their better outings with a distinctive and creepy appearance; in addition, the weird howling noise made by the Servitor that gets its foot caught in one of Clements' traps is rather spine-tingling. The whole production is very well made, with superb location footage, great sets (I especially like the strange swirling backdrops in the Pyramid of Mars, which creates an alien feel), and evocative incidental music. Overall, 'Pyramids of Mars' is a high point of the generally strong Season Thirteen and a real classic.

The Android InvasionBookmark and Share

Wednesday, 31 December 2003 - Reviewed by Paul Clarke

Terry Nation is possibly Doctor Who's most erratic writer. On the one hand he is capable of writing classics such as 'The Mutants', 'The Dalek Invasion of Earth', 'The Daleks' Master Plan' and 'Genesis of the Daleks', whilst on the other hand he is capable of writing such balderdash as 'The Keys of Marinus', 'The Chase', 'Planet of the Daleks', and, unfortunately, 'The Android Invasion'. Apologists for this story might argue that it seems worse than it is alongside the other stories of Season Thirteen, but personally I think there's so much wrong with it that placing it next to any other story, no matter how dire, is going to amount to little more than trying to polish a turd. 

'The Android Invasion' suffers from more plot holes than any other Doctor Who story I can think of. First of all, we have the replica of Devesham on Oseidon. This is immensely detailed and extremely elaborate, which raises the question, what exactly is the point of it? To explain what I mean, allow me to recap Styggron's plan. The Kraals intend to invade Earth and wipe out mankind using a virus. The virus isn't airborne and it kills its victims within seconds or minutes, which would limit its spread immediately, since anyone infected with it wouldn't have time to travel very far before dying. Metres, if they are lucky. Therefore, Styggron's androids are intended to "disseminate" the virus. In addition, note that Styggron insists that the extermination of mankind will take place within three weeks. Therefore, the androids will have to transport the virus to all parts of the planet within that time and physically expose everyone on Earth to it. This is, clearly bollocks; firstly, there are only a handful of androids, and secondly as soon as whole areas started dying in one go, quarantines would be enforced. Since there is no evidence that Styggron has facilitates on Earth to make new androids, this means that a group of androids who resemble the inhabitants of one small village are expected to evade quarantines without being noticed, which is also bollocks, and in case anyone is thinking of pointing out that they are allegedly indestructible, allow me to point out that this is twaddle, since Sarah electrocutes one (and their faces fall off very easily if they trip up). Even if we assume that this is possible, the androids would still have to spread out from Devesham on arrival, which raises the question of why Styggron establishes an elaborate program of training that involves the androids spending an afternoon in the local pub. The point is, the only possible reason for the needlessly elaborate Devesham mock-up would be if the Kraal androids were intended to infiltrate Devesham by replacing the inhabitants and then spend some time there gathering information. Which they aren't. Indeed, not only that, but they successfully replace the entire personnel of the Space Defence Station within minutes of arriving. The only remotely plausible explanation that is actually consistent with the witless plot is that the training ground allows them to become familiar with the layout of Devesham and the Space Defence Station, which in any case is provided to Styggron by Crayford. Some kind of map might have been easier…

In addition to these gaping plot holes, if Styggron wants to use the androids to wipe out mankind, why doesn't he just drop androids all across the planet from orbit, instead of bringing them all to Devesham? If he's so clever, why doesn't he just create an airborne virus? If he can't, why doesn't he just fill a couple of pods with the virus and dump it in the ocean, since Nation appears in any case to have misunderstood the difference between the words "virus" and "poison". The number of unanswered questions in this story are astounding; if the brain patterns taken by Styggron from humans are as detailed as he implies, why does the android Sarah not know that the real Sarah dislikes ginger pop and that she left her scarf with the Doctor? Are the dogs used to chase the Doctor and Sarah real dogs, and if so how did they get to Oseidon? If not, what are they for? If they are androids but are capable of following the tracks of the Doctor and Sarah, then why can't the other androids do the same? Waste of time making robot dogs, frankly. Why does the otherwise insanely detailed fake Devesham have stupid mistakes like the calendar with only one date in it? Why don't the androids in the pub grab Sarah in Episode One? If they're intelligent enough to realize that she could be part of some test, surely they're intelligent enough to bother to just hold on to her whilst they check with Styggron? Why, if most of the androids arrive at the pub in a truck before being properly activated, are some androids inside pods dotted around the village? Did they get bored and decided to play hide and seek? In Episode One, when Styggron tells Crayford that there might be rogue unit on the loose, does he catch a flicker of movement at the end of the corridor and immediately dive through a door to get at a gun? He can't possibly see that it is a stranger, and the androids are bulletproof. Well, probably: Styggron's claim that they are invincible is, as noted above, twaddle. To top it all off, the story ends with yet another notorious gaping hole as the Doctor uses a powerful electromagnetic field to jam the circuits of every android in the area, but then somehow manages to use his own android against Styggron. Apologists for this story might argue that this makes the Doctor look very clever, but given that he ahs only a few minutes in which to equip the android with a formidable array of shielding and reprogram it as well, I would argue that it makes Terry Nation look like a bit of an arse. 

Amongst all this rubbish, is there anything good about 'The Android Invasion'? Not really, no. The Kraals look quite good, but Styggron is basically a standard ranting megalomaniac with a mad plan, a line in gloating, and stupid dialogue ("Resistance is inadvisable!" Come back Professor Zaroff, all is forgiven…). Chedaki is voiced by Roy Skelton, who seems to have forgotten which of his roles he's in, as Chedaki sounds like bloody Zippy from Rainbow. Milton Johns is a fine actor, but Crayford is a ludicrous character; how on Earth he got the job of an astronaut if he's so paranoid that he assumes he's been deliberately abandoned when something goes wrong, and then agrees to help space Rhinos invade is a mystery, and then of course there is the notoriously stupid plot device of him never having looked under his eye-patch - does the man never wash?

The direction is adequate, the design uninspiring; the interiors of the Kraal base are forgettable and the spiky-bottomed doors just look daft. The whole set up in Episode One of the quite village with its inhabitants acting strangely is promisingly sinister, but delivers manure. Even the title is rubbish, suffering from the same basic weakness of 'Revenge of the Cybermen' in that its title undermines the mystery behind the first episode from the start. The regulars are fine; Tom Baker and Elizabeth Sladen are capable by this point in the series of playing their respective roles with consummate ease, and both tackle the feeble script well. John Levene and Ian Marter are also both their usual reliable selves, but they get little to do and it is therefore a shame that their last appearance in Doctor Who is in this story rather than the marvellous 'Terror of the Zygons'. Nicholas Courtney gets a particularly lucky escape in that respect, with the character of Colonel Faraday created as a stand in; Patrick Newell does well with what he's given, but the script paints him as a buffoon and the Brigadier had quite enough of that in 'The Three Doctors'. 

I'll end by pointing out one last plot hole; the Kraal fleet is poised to attack, but is never mentioned again after Styggron's death. In Episode Two, Chedaki tries to convince Styggron to abandon the androids, arguing that they are dangerous and that the Kraals can conquer Earth without them. Why then, do they not invade? The answer, and indeed the answer to all the plot holes in 'The Android Invasion' is actually quite simple: Chedaki and Styggron are lovers, but Chedaki is rather submissive; keen to please his completely loopy boyfriend, Chedaki humours his occasional plan to invade other planets even though they are ill thought out and obviously won't work. Once Styggron dies, Chedaki breathes a sigh of release and decides to quit whilst he's ahead, and/or goes home to Oseidon because he's too distraught to lead an invasion. Makes more sense than what we see on screen, anyway…

The Seeds of DoomBookmark and Share

Wednesday, 31 December 2003 - Reviewed by Paul Clarke

It is often said that Doctor Who is at its most successful when its roots are showing, which perhaps explains the success of 'The Seeds of Doom'. The most obvious influences on this story are The Thing, to which the first two episodes have notable similarities, and The Quatermass Experiment, in which an alien influence infects an astronaut and transforms him into a giant tentacled mass that threatens to germinate and eradicate all human life on the planet. In addition to these other influences, 'The Seeds of Doom' is heavily based on Phillip Levene's earlier Avengers script Man-Eater of Surrey Green, in which an alien seed pod lands on Earth and is nurtured by a wealthy botanist, over whom it exerts telepathic control. In addition to this, an eccentric female botanist, of whom Amelia Ducat is rather reminiscent, aids Steed and Mrs. Peel. With so many obvious influences, 'The Seeds of Doom' could have been something of a mixed bag, but with six episodes and two major locations it manages to combine its multiple ingredients with considerable success. 

With the danger of padding always a problem with six part Doctor Who stories, 'The Seeds of Doom' successfully avoids this problem by essentially taking the structure of a two-part story followed by a four-part story, one of only two such six parters in the series history. Thus, the first two episodes concern the discovery of the two Krynoid pods in Antarctica, whilst the four remaining episodes focus on Harrison Chase's insane attempt to unleash a Krynoid on Earth. It is these first two episodes that are obviously influenced by The Thing, as scientists in the Antarctic uncover a buried alien lifeform, but in this case the lifeform is of course the first pod and it infects Winlett. The first two episodes are very atmospheric, managing to overcome budgetary limitations with a confident swagger; brooding incidental music accompanies the scientists' discovery of the pod and manages to make a throbbing cabbage look sinister, and the threat represented by the pod is emphasised further by the Doctor's doom-laden warnings about the nature of the Krynoid. The actual transformation of Winlett is realised using make-up that resembles green foam rubber, but as with the bubble-plastic Wirrn Larvae in 'The Ark in Space', it works because both script and actors take it so very seriously. The Doctor's suggestion of amputating Winlett's arm adds an additional detail of reality, as the occupants of the base struggle to deal with a wholly unexpected situation with minimal resources and no outside help. In theory, setting a story in Antarctica should be a very bad idea in budget and effects terms, and inevitably there is much use made of CSO, polystyrene snow, and stock footage, resulting in a recreation of Antarctica which looks cheaper and less effective than that used on 'The Tenth Planet'. Mercifully, exterior scenes are kept to a minimum, and once again the script and acting paper over these potentially dodgy scenes. 

It has been suggested that Robert Banks Stewart's unfamiliarity with Doctor Who results in a story more reminiscent of The Avengers, with a great deal more gritty realism than usual. I agree with this to an extent, in that there are certainly similarities with The Avengers on display; the Doctor and Sarah are sent to Antarctica in Episode One in a helicopter and by a ministry to, in effect, act as troubleshooters. In addition, there is an unusual amount of gun usage, and Chase is very much in the mold of a diabolical mastermind straight out of The Avengers. On the other hand, The Avengers (or to be precise, the Emma Peel era) is also known for its wit and whimsy, with eccentricity as important as plot; 'The Seeds of Doom' boasts an eccentric villain and indeed another eccentric in the form of Amelia Ducat, and also has moments of wit, but I wouldn't say that it feels much like The Avengers. Whilst unlike Doctor Who, The Avengers was always aimed at an older audience, its more adult feel lies in directions other than violence, especially by the Emma Peel era, during which highly stylized and choreographed fights were the norm, not Molotov cocktails and machine guns. Instead, 'The Seeds of Doom' feels more like what it is; grittier than usual Doctor Who. Thus we have the Doctor resorting to physical violence with his fists, and also memorably pulling a gun on Chase. In return, Scorby throws him around in the compost room and he is visibly rattled as a result. It is also perhaps worth noting that whilst Steed (and of course, often the Doctor himself) usually faces danger without losing his composure, here the Doctor clearly suffers, as summed up neatly by Chase's final scene, as he tries to drag the Doctor into the crusher, even as the Doctor is trying to save Chase's life; the Doctor doesn't follow Chase's death with a quip, he just looks genuinely shaken. 

Regardless of whether or not 'The Seeds of Doom' more closely resembles The Avengers than Doctor Who, it remains a highly effective story. Part of this success is down to the Krynoids. Massive, tentacled, intelligent, carnivorous plants from outer space are not common even in Doctor Who, and on paper the Krynoids look like a bad idea; animated plants are always at risk of looking silly, and tentacles are notoriously difficult to realize effectively. Nevertheless, the Krynoid - both of them - generally works very well. The use of a recycled, repainted Axon monster costume from 'The Claws of Axos' works well, as does the model work of the giant Krynoid squatting over Chase's Mansion in Episode Six; even the tentacle that bursts into the building in the final episode looks good. The eight-foot high Krynoid is rather less impressive, and during the Episode Four cliffhanger it is amusingly reminiscent of the Slyther. Another unfortunate decision is to let it speak, given that the chosen vocal effect makes it sound like the Wonderful Krynoid of Oz. These are however, minor shortcomings and in fact the execution is essential to the success of 'The Seeds of Doom', given that the concept can't help but sound vaguely silly; killer vegetation is not an idea that I personally find especially scary. Nevertheless, it works because of the approach taken. The Krynoid itself works because big tentacled aliens tend to make an impression, but far more impressive an achievement is the realisation of the hostile native plant life as the Krynoid begins to exert its influence over the plants of Chase's estate. Wisely director Douglas Camfield avoids the use of stop-motion animation or vines on wires, and resorts to the simple approach of waving plants about. This sounds daft, but it works surprisingly well thanks again to the acting and direction, not to mention the incidental score. Scorby's death is a good example; dragged under water by animated pondweeds, John Challis's acting convinces that Scorby is genuinely fighting for his life, the scene is starkly shot and the foreboding incidental music completes the effect, making it a powerful scene. The Krynoid also works because of what it does; a human being infected by and transformed into an alien monster is not an original idea in science fiction (or Doctor Who), but it seldom fails to work. Winlett's transformation is given added effect by the Doctor's grim warnings of what will ultimately happen to him and the fact that he suggests amputation simply because he's running out of ideas, but it is Keeler's transformation which is by far the most horrific. Here, the effect is heightened by Chase's inhuman attitude to Keeler's inhuman transform, as his zealous fascination with the Krynoid deafens him to Keeler's pitiful pleas for medical aid. Even more disturbing is the scene of Hargreaves bringing him a plate of raw meat; on seeing it, Keeler's look of helpless anger gives way to an expression of ravenous hunger. 

Speaking of Scorby and Keeler, with the first Krynoid stranded in the middle of icy tundra with very little to eat and no plant life to control, the most immediate threat to the Doctor and Sarah is Chase's henchmen. Keeler is basically along as a botanist whom Chase owns "body and soul", and who objects to Scorby's brutal tactics but is too weak to actually stand up to him. His indecisive character works well as a contrast to Scorby and Mark Jones' tortured portrayal works particularly well when the second pod infects him. In many ways however, Scorby is by far the most interesting character. It is established early on that he is, as to use the Doctor's vernacular, a "stooge" for Chase, but unusually for Doctor Who he gets a very meaty role for a mere stooge. Despite acting under orders from a far more dangerous nutter, he remains a significant enough threat on his own to cause problems for the Doctor. The reason being of course that he is utterly ruthless and highly professional. Although the Doctor later overpowers him, Scorby gives as good as he gets as he throws the Doctor around in the compost room, and generally fares well against a being that has destroyed near-omnipotent demigods. His later alliance with the Doctor and Sarah to save his own skin works well, demonstrating his overwhelming drive to survive, something he addresses in Episode Five, as he tells Sarah that he has always relied entirely on himself, and nobody else, during a lengthy and probably bloody career. This utter selfishness immediately explains his character perfectly, a ruthless mercenary who will do anything for money, unless it threatens his own survival. Interestingly, and refreshingly, during the final two episodes, he shows absolutely no interest in revenge on the Doctor or Sarah for previous indignities aside from a couple of guarded threats, which seem more like a show of strength than anything else. Appropriately, Challis portrays Scorby as an efficient thug, and it is impressive that a character who is neither of the main villains can be so interesting without being acted with the charisma of psychopaths such as Reegan from 'The Ambassadors of Death'. 

And then there's Harrison Chase. In a season featuring such villains as Broton, Sutekh and Morbius, it is easy to overlook Chase, who isn't even technically the main protagonist of the story. Yet with only the villainy of a giant vegetable to upstage, Tony Beckley steals the show. Chase is a superb villain; a complete lunatic played perfectly without being over the top. Initially, Chase seems almost comical, a neatly suited leather gloved and arguably slightly camp maniac millionaire whose obsession with plants is so great that it places him amongst Doctor Who's highest echelons of utter madmen. When he plays a symphony to the plants in the greenhouse it treads a fine line between ludicrous and sinister, but Beckley pulls it off perfectly. As the end of Episode Three approaches however, he becomes much scarier; Keeler's protestation that what he intends to do to Sarah is inhuman meeting with the chilling response "I don't care. I must see what happens when the Krynoid touches human flesh". As he "nurtures" the terrified Keeler he becomes even more disturbing and by the time he makes contact with the Krynoid in Episode Five he's already so overwhelmed by his fascination with the creature that it's hard to tell whether he's really possessed or not. A villain with a giant crushing machine just sounds silly, but Beckley's acting and Camfield's direction mean that when the Doctor is tied up in the crusher, its just tense, especially with Baker at the height of his powers and yelling at Sarah to turn it off. Chase's death, as he is dragged into the crusher and pumped into his gardens, is entirely appropriate; it's also chilling, as he determinedly attempts to take the Doctor with him, whilst the Doctor is trying desperately to save him. 

The rest of the guest cast is, at worst, adequate; Kenneth Gilbert as Dunbar and Michael Barrington as Sir Colin are unmemorable but competent, but Sylvia Coleridge is hugely entertaining as the eccentric and rather endearing Amelia Ducat. I also feel the need to mention Seymour Green, but only because of his amusingly appropriate name. The direction, mentioned briefly above, is very good, particularly during the last four episodes once the CSO Antarctic is out of the way; the location filming is stunning, and meshes perfectly with the impressive interior sets of Chase's mansion.

Finally, I should just mention UNIT. This is the organization's last semi-regular appearance, and boasts none of the regulars, with Major Beresford standing in for the Brigadier and neither Mike Yates nor Sergeant Benton anywhere to be seen. It has been suggested that this is rather a downbeat farewell for UNIT, and indeed John Acheson's Major Beresford is forgettable, but it's also worth noting that after descending into cosy incompetence later on during the Pertwee era, UNIT does literally get to save the world here, as they are responsible for blowing the Krynoid to pieces. It isn't the most ingenious means of defeating the monster, but it works, and as UNIT's last act in Doctor Who for a very long time, it isn't a bad way to sign off.

The Masque of MandragoraBookmark and Share

Wednesday, 31 December 2003 - Reviewed by Paul Clarke

'The Masque of Mandragora' is very well made and contains almost all the right ingredients for a successful Doctor Who story. Despite this it remains rather overlooked, perhaps because, for all that it should be a classic, there is a slight impression of something that is less than the sum of its parts. 

The plot of 'The Masque of Mandragora' perfectly fills the story's four-episode length, and contains a number of subplots. The main threat is that of the Mandragora Helix, a mysterious and powerful alien entity that seeks to subjugate humanity because it believes that mankind will one day reach out into space and encroach on its territory. It therefore hijacks the TARDIS and uses it to travel to fifteenth century Italy, intending to destroy leading thinkers of the time and keep mankind in the dark ages. Tying in with this is the Cult of Demnos, a sect that practices human sacrifice and which is secretly headed by Hieronymous, court astrologer to Count Federico, the local tyrant. Finally, we have the power struggle between Federico and his nephew Giuliano, heir to the thrown of San Martino; Federico is a butcher who brutally rules the people and who killed his own brother for power, whereas Guiliano is a quiet, thoughtful and intelligent young man who wants the best for his people and who also has a thirst for knowledge that makes him eager to meet leading Renaissance thinkers and artists. These three plot threads mesh perfectly, making for a well-paced and interesting story. My only criticism of the plot is the Doctor realizing that Sarah has been hypnotized because she asks how she can understand Italian; the implication is that having been given this "Time Lord gift", she automatically understands how it works and should take it for granted, but it doesn't seem that odd that she should bring it up in conversation. This is, nevertheless, a minor criticism.

The production looks great, with superb location work prominent throughout (as a trivial aside, it's quite strange recognizing bits of San Martino from The Prisoner, both having been filmed in Portmeirion). The sets are generally very impressive; the stone walls of the catacombs are obviously fake, but unconvincing stone walls are a common problem of nineteen-seventies Doctor Who and easily forgivable. The palace interiors and the temple however are well realized. On the subject of sets, I'd also like to mention the debut of the TARDIS' wood-paneled secondary control room, which remains my favourite TARDIS control room set to date; dusty mahogany décor rather suits the Doctor's vaguely Edwardian wardrobe. The period costumes on display here also look very good (they were apparently recycled from a 1954 movie version of Romeo and Juliet) and contribute significantly to the story's rather convincing fifteenth century feel. 

In addition to all this lush production of the scenes set in Florence, the story also opens with some decent model work. When I first started buying old Doctor Who stories on video, I absolutely hated the spinning-model-police-box-against-a-backdrop-of-space effect, but nowadays I find it rather quaint and endearing. The surreal appearance of the TARDIS in the heart of the crystalline helix also looks rather effective, and although on first sight the red sparkler effect of the Helix energy approaching the TARDIS just looks cheap and nasty, once the story shifts to San Martino it somehow seems to fit in well. 

So why exactly do I find 'The Masque of Mandragora' vaguely unsatisfactory? The first clue lies in the acting. Gareth Armstrong is slightly wooden as Guiliano, but the rest of the guest cast is very good, especially Tim Piggott-Smith as Marco, Norman Jones as Hieronymous, and John Laurimore as Count Federico. Part of the reason these three are so good is that they seem to take the script very seriously, and that is part of my problem with 'The Masque of Mandragora'; ironically, it's taken too seriously. The principle human villains seem very earnest; Norman Jones portrays Hieronymous as seething with anger and resentment after years of ridicule and waiting to serve his dark god, and John Laurimore plays Federico as a humorless, vicious thug. They are both convincing performances and are unusually realistic in a series with more than its fair share of over-the-top ranting lunatics, but compared to villains such as for example Harrison Chase, they aren't quite mad enough to be memorable. I really wish I wasn't criticizing a Doctor Who story for having villains who are acted with conviction and restraint, but I am. Remind me about this when I review the next story…

Having recklessly criticized 'The Masque of Mandragora' for having good acting, I should point out that the real root of my problem with the story is actually the script. The fact is, the actors are quite right to take their roles seriously, because the script is rather serious. There is very little wit in this story, even from the Doctor; there are characteristic flashes of humour, such as when the Doctor casually slides an orange onto the point of a sword being waved next to his face in Episode One, but they are few and far between. With the Doctor and Sarah separated for quite a lot of the story, their usual light hearted banter is interrupted; even in 'Pyramids of Mars', when faced with Sutekh, the tension exhibited by the Doctor was occasional diffused by Sarah making half-hearted jokes, but there is little of that here. Again, I feel slightly churlish for making such a criticism, and in fairness I should point out that we do instead get some moments of very convincing concern for each other from the Doctor and Sarah. 

I have to conclude that anyone who hasn't seen 'The Masque of Mandragora' should not feel put off by my opinion of it; it may not be the most memorable story of the Hinchcliffe era, it may not boast an eccentric and charismatic villain, and it may not be the series' wittiest script, but it is a well-made and polished Doctor Who story with much to recommend it. It just doesn't quite work for me as well as I think it should.

The Hand Of FearBookmark and Share

Wednesday, 31 December 2003 - Reviewed by Paul Clarke

'The Hand of Fear' is a story made memorable only by Sarah's departure and in a season boasting 'The Deadly Assassin', 'The Robots of Death', and 'The Talons of Weng-Chiang' it would probably be completely overlooked were it not for this fact. In fact, it is rather entertaining and possibly deserves slightly more recognition than it gets, but despite that it also suffers from some serious flaws. 

'The Hand of Fear' starts off badly. The early model sequence of Eldrad's obliteration module looks unpleasantly cheap and an irritating scene in which the Doctor and Sarah completely fail to become alarmed by a screeching siren and men gesticulating at them in obvious agitation quickly follows this. After this slightly rocky start however, the first two episodes are actually very good, and I can't help but be amused that when Sarah asks the Doctor where the TARDIS has landed he tells her that it is obviously a quarry. Irony on that scale cannot be accidental. The first two episodes quickly gather momentum and benefit from generally decent special effects work of the disembodied hand moving about, as well as some interesting direction. When shooting people who are under Eldrad's control, Lennie Mayne uses close-up shots of the actors walking towards camera, and this is highly distinctive. In addition, the nicely sinister incidental score adds to the effect, and on top of this there is some rather effective filmed location work for the interior of the Nunton complex. 

'The Hand of Fear' also benefits from some nice bits of characterisation. Renu Setna's Intern, who cheerfully lectures the bruised and battered Doctor on the subject of pain, is quite wonderful. Later, we get Glyn Houston's Professor Watson realizing that he could be facing a nuclear meltdown, telephoning his family for what could be the last time. This could have been a cloyingly sentimental moment, but is acted so well that it just seems quietly touching instead. 

By Episode Three however, things start to fall apart. For starters, Watson is very easily able to arrange a tactical nuclear strike on his own nuclear power plant on the coast of Britain, which frankly beggars belief. Amusingly, this is made even sillier by the fact that he and his remaining staff take shelter from the impending nuclear blast by crouching behind land rovers parked a few hundred yards away. Just when you think it can't get more moronic, Watson tells Sarah to hold her nose and open her mouth to protect herself from the blast. It seems that Bob Baker and Dave Martin haven't learnt anything more about nuclear physics since 'The Claws of Axos'. And then there's Eldrad.

In Episode Three, Eldrad works really well. Judith Paris brings an aloof alien feel to the role, and her costume (which I gather she had to be sewn into) looks pretty good. More importantly, the character of Eldrad works very well at this point. She has already caused the deaths of Carter and Driscoll during her attempt to regenerate herself, and she displays obviously violent tendencies throughout, but on the other hand the fact that she is millions of years and millions of light years from home and seemingly rather confused raises the possibility that she is just as scared as, for example, Professor Watson, and is reacting accordingly out a desperation to survive. This being the case, it is easy to believe that when she reaches Kastria she isn't going to prove to be a straightforward villain, since she seems to be a rather more complex being with interesting motivations. She is also forced to trust the Doctor, and seems to gain genuine respect for him as the story progresses. In short, Eldrad is an interesting character whose true motivations are suitably intriguing. Then she turns into Stephen Thorne. 

It has probably become clear by now that I do not like the Doctor Who work of Stephen Thorne. His horrendously melodramatic and unsubtle booming worked reasonable well in goatskin trappings for 'The Dæmons', but he was horribly amateurish as Omega in 'The Three Doctors', and little better as Maximillian in 'The Ghosts of N-Space'. Here, he is astonishingly bad as Eldrad, a character whom the script in any case reduces to the status of a clichéd ranting megalomaniac. Thorne is so ludicrously unsubtle that at one point, when Eldrad indulges in maniacal laughter, he doesn't actually laugh, he shouts "Aha-ha-ha-ha-ha!". After Paris's much more interesting and, crucially, less pantomimesque, performance, it is very disappointing that Eldrad is reduced to this, although fittingly he does have least have a large moustache, which he can possibly twirl when the situation demands. He doesn't even get a decent final scene, since the Doctor just trips him into an abyss with his scarf, but then again he doesn't really deserve one. 

Whatever shortcomings 'The Hand of Fear' has however, they are more than made up for by Sarah's leaving scene. As her final story, 'The Hand of Fear' generally works well; she gets a reasonable amount to do, since it is Sarah who first discovers the hand in the quarry and promptly gets taken over by it. In addition, there are some wonderful character moments between the Doctor and Sarah throughout, from the Doctor's uncharacteristic irritability when he's worried about Sarah in Episode One, to the pair of them admitting that each worries about the other and agreeing to be careful in Episode Three. Sarah's actual departure is probably my favourite companion-leaving scene from the entire series. Her initial tantrum, in which she sums up the various times she's been hypnotized, kidnapped, tied-up, etc, is a great summary of the bad times with the Doctor, but the hurt and disappointed look on her face when she finds out that she really does have to leave because he's been summoned to Gallifrey is a reminder that, however dangerous travelling with the Doctor might be, she also enjoys it enormously. There's a real feel in this scene that these are two best friends who aren't going to see each other again, or at least not for a long time, and that they both find it enormously painful to part company. Tom Baker gets a remarkable amount of emotion into the Doctor's line "Oh, Sarah… don't you forget me." It's a superb farewell, and the final freeze-frame shot of Sarah glancing skyward after the TARDIS dematerializes feels like a fitting tribute to one of the series' finest companions.

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Wednesday, 31 December 2003 - Reviewed by Douglas Westwood

This is a much remembered story that I particularly liked when I first saw it, in 1977. Aged eight. But 'liking' and 'understanding' a story are two different things. Being, at that tender age, somewhat ignorant of the concept of nuclear power, power stations and airplane strikes, so much of the story went over my head that I might as well have been a limbo dancer. But, for what it is worth, here are my recollections forthwith.

Firstly, part three. Parts one and two went over my head in a blur of people and supporting cast. Much of it was incomprehensible, see paragraph above. BUT, part three starts with the Doctor and Sarah in a deserted corridor and then they move to that funny metal room. Great! And then the only supporting character to appear is Professor Watson. Brilliant, even I can cope with just one supporting character! Added to this, there is the increasing drama of Eldrad, who had been wonderfully built up over the first two parts, trying to eat his way through a metal door.

But then! Eldrard turns out to be female! What a cop out, I thought. And she is comparatively friendly in a cool and distant sort of way, to the extent that they actually let her in the Tardis! Plus, episode three ends with Eldrad, the monster, actually being in danger! disaster upon disaster. But things straighten out in part four when Eldrad becomes more the sort of monster that we expected 'him' to be from the first- megalomaniac and power mad.

Then Sarah leaves. Alas! The first DW story I ever saw was Invasion of the Dinosaurs (Sarah's second story, unbeknownst to me) so Sarah had been a constant part of the show. What would happen now, I thought...

I just relealised that I have reviewed the hand of fear without once mentioning the hand! But there's not much one can say about a hand....