The Hand Of FearBookmark and Share

Sunday, 14 March 2004 - Reviewed by Alex Boyd

The Hand of Fear is something of a roller coaster ride for fans, as we dip fairly frequently between good and bad writing, decent and below average production values. Ultimately, it’s worth seeing for some of the ideas, and some of the character moments. 

We begin with some guys in parkas on a planet talking about an “obliteration module,” some barriers, and a traitor. Having seen the story and gone back and watched this prologue, it makes a certain amount of sense, but the first time it was nearly incomprehensible. A very cheap looking ship blows up, and then we’re away to earth for the story to really begin. Given that a mysterious severed hand appears, and the first two episodes begin to gather some suspense, one wonders why the prologue (which, though incoherent, threatens to give away that the hand is the fragment of an alien, perhaps even “the traitor Eldrad”) was included at all. As it turns out, this is indeed a fragment of Eldrad, an alien who brought down barriers that allowed for the destruction of his own world, centuries ago. 

Now we dip back to some positive points: Sarah Jane Smith as a possessed villain is interesting to watch, and given that Eldrad eventually takes two forms (one far more alien, subtle and fascinating to watch than the other) it’s interesting that there are two Sarah’s as well. There is a small moment when Sarah walks up to a guard looking like a confused, innocent woman, and then zaps him. I’m not sure if it’s meant as a metaphor, or statement about different sides to the same personality (or possibly male and female tendencies – the female Eldrad is far more reasonable) but it has potential. Most of that potential is thrown away at the end with Stephen Thorne (as the second, male Eldrad) apparently encouraged to do some stereotypical ranting. We say goodbye to any possibility of a subtle story about an Eldrad who destroyed the barriers that protected her world and now regrets it. Apparently, the writers felt that either Eldrad was good and trying to help her people, or was evil and destroyed the barriers. Finally, they voted for the evil Eldrad, and the best you can say about it is that it’s a twist. 

Some more good points: good effects for the severed hand, and some great moments with the Doctor and Sarah, such as when they admit to worrying about each other. Sarah is undoubtedly the best screaming companion ever, and she has a few opportunities here to let loose. When I was growing up my friend had a TV where you could fiddle with the channels, and get the sound from one channel with the picture from another – so you’d put on a newscaster and listen to Sarah Jane Smith screaming and blubbering, something both funny and surreal. Of course, this story has Sarah’s famous departure scene, which is wonderfully written and acted. And I laughed out loud at one previous exchange between the Doctor and Sarah, after some famous Sarah Jane Smith blubbering:

“Stop making a fuss Sarah, you’re from South Croydon!”

“Eh?”

“You’re a carbon based life-form. The gas is only effective against silicon structures.”

“Oh.”

Unfortunately, while the scenes between the Doctor and Sarah are injected with real warmth and feeling, the same writers fall into deadening patters with Eldrad and company, so that repeats of “Eldrad must live!” give way to repeats of “They thought they could destroy me, but they were wrong!” Certainly, not long after Judith Paris no longer plays Eldrad, I found myself not really caring about this planet or these people at all. And unfortunately, due to budget restrictions, it feels like the planet had a population of about six anyway. Finally it comes down to a brief, pointless chase. Despite the potential that bleeds away there, the story is worth watching through to the end for Sarah’s farewell.





MeglosBookmark and Share

Sunday, 14 March 2004 - Reviewed by Paul Clarke

After the thoroughly impressive ‘The Leisure Hive’, ‘Meglos’ is a considerable disappointment. In keeping with the glossy new look of Season Eighteen, it looks great, but it is let down by an unimaginative plot, some dubious acting, and poor characterisation.

‘Meglos’ contains many of the ingredients of classic Doctor Who, including a megalomaniac villain, an ancient and powerful super weapon, a subterranean city, and an alien jungle. One of its several problems is that, having selected these rather unoriginal ingredients, it fails to combine them in an appealing way, resulting in a collection of tedious clichés. For one thing, we have Meglos himself, a stock megalomaniac who wants to rule the universe, but who is given no background or motivation whatsoever. We learn almost nothing of his past or of Zolfa-Thura, his planet of origin which is now dead, except that his fellow Zolfa-Thurans destroyed their entire civilization in an attempt to stop him using the Dodecahedron’s destructive might to achieve his dreams of conquest. This might be such a problem if it were not for the fact that Meglos is a cactus. Who lives in a plant pot. This rather raises the question of how his people built a civilization in the first place, or indeed how he managed to build the screens and his laboratory (let alone the Dodecahedron). The obvious answer lies in Meglos’ ability to possess humanoids, and I would hypothesize that the Zolfa-Thurans at one time used to inhabit such humanoids who also lived on their planet, but this raises even more questions and I feel I shouldn’t have to waste time coming up with such spurious explanations. Leaving all of this aside, we are still left with the fact that Meglos is very poorly characterised. The fact that he has waited for thousands of years in his (presumably well irrigated) tub of compost before bothering to go and retrieve the Dodecahedron is rather strange, and a possible reason for this is given only the briefest of nods as he explains to the Gaztacs that the newly developed fluctuations in the Dodecahedron’s power output are part of its programming. Even if viewers are happy to accept that he’s been sitting around twiddling his spines for millennia, his lust for power is still crushingly clichéd; whereas Skagra’s motivation was explored in ‘Shada’ and whereas Pangol’s was understandable in ‘The Leisure Hive’, Meglos just seems to fancy a bit of a lark. Indeed, he even tells the Doctor that his reasons for wanting to blow up planets are “beyond your comprehension”; presumably, they are also beyond the comprehension of writers John Flanagan and Andrew McCulloch. Power-crazed megalomaniacs are relatively common in Doctor Who, but some justification for their behaviour is appreciated; even the Master has the fact that he wants to best the Doctor motivating him. Meglos doesn’t even seem particularly insane, the usual resort of a writer who can’t think of a more interesting reason for his villain being a nutter. 

As if Meglos’ poor characterisation were not bad enough, Tigella, one of the story’s main settings, is just as poorly thought out. Apparently, the idea of a society divided along religious and scientific lines appealed to Flanagan and McCulloch. Strange then that they don’t bother to do anything interesting with it. Potentially, Tigella could be very interesting, exploring the roles of science and religion in society to the small degree that might be possible in a four-part Doctor Who story broadcast at teatime on a Saturday, but instead it has the stereotypical assumption that science equals rationality and religion equals fanaticism thrust upon it and is left at that. Even these stereotypes, so basic as to be crass, might have been used in some interesting fashion, but they are just used to provide the supporting characters to bicker amongst themselves in a way that makes me wonder how the Deons and the Savants manage to co-exist at all. Like Meglos, the Tigellans themselves are poorly characterised, the only slight exception being Zastor who gets some nice dialogue but is acted with a distinct lack of enthusiasm by Edward Underdown who was unwell during filming. The only other Tigellan of any real note is Lexa, and she is only remembered as much as she is because Jacqueline Hill, returning to Doctor Who for the first time since Barbara Wright left the original TARDIS crew at the end of ‘The Chase’, plays her. Hill makes a reasonable effort in the role, but can’t rise above the fact that Lexa is just a clichéd zealot. Lexa’s sacrifice in Episode Four to save Romana seems to be some feeble attempt on the part of the writers to give the character some depth by allowing her to gain redemption for nearly sacrificing the Doctor, but it is a trivial effort if this is indeed the case. 

The poor characterisation of the Tigellans highlights even more the pitiful lack of background detail in the story. Whereas in ‘The Leisure Hive’, we were provided with a wealth of background information on both the Argolin and the Foamasi, here the lack of background about Meglos is compounded by the lack of background on Tigella. This only serves to highlight the fact that, as is often the case in Doctor Who, Tigella is supposedly an entire world but is clearly just a few rooms and some extras. As I have discussed in the past, some writers find ways around this problem, and others manage to get away with it through sheer style, but when the overall story is so bland, I’m more easily annoyed by things like Grugger stating that the Tigellans use the Dodecahedron to power their entire planet in Episode One, followed by references to one city with (seemingly) a single entrance throughout the rest of the story. And in order to sustain my interest throughout, I also like to ponder such questions as how, if the foliage of Tigella is so lethal that the Tigellans cannot survive on the surface with their level of technology, did they ever manage to survive for long enough to develop such an advanced society? And therein lies the problem with ‘Meglos’; it really doesn’t seem to have very well thought out. Which is probably why the Doctor and Romana’s means of escaping from the chronic hysteresis is so utterly unconvincing. 

Having got all that off my chest, I must admit that ‘Meglos’ does have its good points. It looks pretty good, save for some rubbery foliage on Tigella (primarily the Bell Plants), with nice model work and decent direction, which manages to squeeze some drama from the proceedings. A combination of Terrance Dudley’s rapidly switching camera angles and a dramatic score from Paddy Kingsland (at least for Episode One) makes the cliffhanger to Episode One almost exciting, as Meglos turns around looking like the Doctor, which I wouldn’t have been expecting if I didn’t already know the story. The Gaztacs also provide a welcome diversion; they’re generally as poorly characterised as the other characters, and their costumes are almost as silly as those of the Savants (dodgy blond wigs are apparently mandatory for scientists on Tigella), but Grugger and Brotodac’s dialogue provides some much needed comic relief. The two characters seem to be united by a genuine friendship, which is unusual amongst Doctor Who villains, and Brotodac’s obsession with the Doctor’s coat is rather entertaining. They are both buffoons, and whilst Bill Fraser doesn’t make much of an effort as Grugger, Frederick Treves seems to be enjoying himself as Brotodac, leading me to wonder if ‘Meglos’ would have fared better in Season Seventeen, script-edited by Douglas Adams and played for laughs. In all honesty, I can’t claim that ‘The Horns of Nimon’ is written that much better than ‘Meglos’ is, but ‘The Horns of Nimon’ is so much more fun that I can’t help but love it. ‘Meglos’, with little humour and wedged as it is between the sombre and much more clever stories ‘The Leisure Hive’ and ‘Full Circle’, just feels awkward. 

Of the regulars, K9 gets more to do than he did in ‘The Leisure Hive’, but the production teams’ intention of phasing him out again means that he suffers, as his power pack runs out for no good reason. At least he gets to provide expository dialogue in a reasonably convincing way (something he is always useful for) and advise the Doctor and Romana, but I do find the various ways used to incapacitate him in Season Eighteen rather sad. Although I suppose I should be glad that when he does leave the series, he isn’t actually put down. Lalla Ward is her usual reliable self here, especially in the first two episodes, when she acts panic-stricken very convincingly whilst the TARDIS is trapped in the chronic hysteresis. But it is Tom Baker who really excels here. However poorly characterised Meglos may actually be he is kept interesting by the performances of Tom Baker and Christopher Owen. Owen switches well between baffled Earthling and gloating villain in Episode One, but Baker really excels at playing the villain, proving for the second story in a row that he can act. There are points during ‘Meglos’ during which, thanks to a combination of impressive cactus make-up and Baker’s chilling performance, the character is thoroughly sinister, and Baker succeeds in keeping his performances as Meglos and the Doctor distinct, even when Meglos is actually impersonating the Doctor. It isn’t really enough to rescue ‘Meglos’ from its shortcomings, but it does at least make it worth watching at least once. 

Ultimately, ‘Meglos’ is disappointing, especially after ‘The Leisure Hive’. Fortunately, the following story succeeds in restoring Season Eighteen’s initial high quality…





State of DecayBookmark and Share

Sunday, 14 March 2004 - Reviewed by Paul Clarke

There are, in my opinion, two basic types of vampire story. The first is the traditional type, based almost exclusively on the Bram Stoker’s Dracula, eventually reduced to the status of cliché by a long tradition of films in which aristocratic middle-aged men with widow’s peaks and red lined cloaks pray on visitors to their castles, especially buxom ones. The other type concern attempts to update the vampire mythos by bringing them into a modern setting, and examples include the Blade films, From Dusk till Dawn, and obscure British science fiction series Ultra-violet. Personally, I’m not hugely enthusiastic about either approach; I find it hard to take the former seriously due to over-exposure, and the latter inevitably brings to mind Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a series adored by many Doctor Who fans but despised by me for its “hip” wisecracking approach. For this reason I’ve never found ‘State of Decay’ that appealing, since it takes the traditional style of vampire stories but adds a new, more radical twist to it by cementing vampires firmly in the Doctor Who mythology. On this viewing however, I was forced to reassess my unenthusiastic attitude towards it, as it proved to be far better than I remembered.

‘State of Decay’ is, like most of the stories in Season Eighteen, very atmospheric, and it is this that makes it work. A sense of doom and gloom pervades the story throughout, as soon as the oppressive and depressing plight of the villagers is made clear early on. The background to the story is horrible; entire generations of Earth colonists trapped in a literal state of societal decay, forbidden to read or learn, and treated as little more than cattle by the Three Who Rule. The fact that there is nowhere else on the planet save for the village or the tower creates a claustrophobic feel to the story, and from the moment Ivo’s son Karl is chosen during the Selection, a relentlessly grim atmosphere prevails. It is to the credit of director Peter Moffatt that this is the case, since throughout Episode One, the poor characterisation I unfortunately tend to associate with Terrance Dicks’ writing is in evidence. The villagers are utterly forgettable, as are the rebels and the guards, and they are lumbered with dialogue that, whilst not exactly dreadful, fails to be particularly realistic (at one point, Ivo notes that “resistance would be useless”). It doesn’t help the production that there is also some bad acting on display; Clinton Greyn is unenthusiastic as Ivo and Iain Rattray is positively wooden as Habris. Fortunately, the unusual plot structure and the trio of villains compensate for both poor characterisation and ropey dialogue. 

The Three Who Rule work extremely well as the villains of ‘State of Decay’. Ranting megalomaniacs are commonplace in Doctor Who, and as literal monsters vampires can be excused for falling into this category, but Dicks manages to make them genuinely interesting by creating minor tensions within the group as Zargo and Camilla exhibit resentment for Aukon’s greater power and Zargo confesses to Camilla at one point that he is plagued by fears. These are minor touches, but they add depth to the characters. Aukon is particularly well realized as a religious fanatic with absolute faith in the Great One and dripping with zeal throughout. The three actors play their roles very well, making Zargo, Aukon and Camilla seem menacing without going over the top, which must have been tempting especially for William Lindsay who has to cope with one of the stupidest beards ever to appear in the series. In addition, all three vampires benefit from the great back-story; having decided to cast his vampires in the traditional mould as aristocrats living in what is essentially a castle, Dicks comes up with one of his more interesting plots by revealing that the tower is in fact a stranded spacecraft from Earth brought into E-Space by the power of the Great Vampire. He then plugs the entire concept of vampires seamlessly into the Doctor Who format by revealing that the Great Vampire is an ancient and awesomely powerful alien menace that has inspired myths and legends on a dozen planets throughout the universe, thus following in the largely successful tradition of stories such as ‘The Dæmons’ (disliked by me but popular with many fans), ‘Pyramids of Mars’, and ‘Image of the Fendahl’. Thanks to this rich fictional backdrop, ‘State of Decay’ manages to become more than it at first seems, which is basically a story in which a group of rebels from an oppressed population strive to overthrow the tyrants who are oppressing them. 

In addition to this, the story structure is rather interesting; the Doctor and Romana spend almost the entire story being captured or detained by various groups and then immediately provided with bucket loads of plot exposition. Examples include their detention by the rebels, who explain the poor state of their way of life, and their audience with first Zargo and Camilla and later Aukon, all of whom reveal interesting bits of plot detail. Even when the Doctor and Romana are alone in their cell, they sit and reveal more of the plot to the audience, as do the Doctor and K9 in the TARDIS in Episode Three. This smacks somewhat of lazy writing, but is dealt with so well by the actors involved and carried along so well by the general air of foreboding that instead it just seems novel and interesting. Indeed, the production is largely impressive; the sets and the location filming gel very well, and both look great. Even more impressively, the model shots of the village and tower fit very well with both. Stock footage of bats is used surprisingly well, although the briefly glimpsed model bats are horribly rubbery and unconvincing. Unfortunately, this is not the only dodgy aspect as the model work used to show the scout ship taking off, flipping over, and crashing down into the Great Vampire is diabolical, as is the mercifully brief glimpse of the Great Vampire itself on Calmar’s screen in Episode Four. On the other hand, the special effects sequence of the deaths of the Three Who Rule is very impressive. So two are Paddy Kingsland’s eerie and ominous incidental score, and Amy Roberts’ costumes, although Calmar’s headgear is almost as silly as Zargo’s beard. In addition, the three vampires get some extremely daft looking eye makeup, but overall the production’s good points out way the bad. And the superimposed shot of a bat appearing in front of Aukon in Episode One is great. 

Of the regulars, Tom Baker maintains his high form of the season thus far. He continues to bring out the Doctor’s grimmer, more serious side, adding weight to the dark feel of the story overall, but he also restores rather more of his Doctor’s characteristic humour than in the last three stories, which he uses to bring some much needed light relief to this gloomy story but controls sufficiently so that he doesn’t undermine the atmosphere. Lalla Ward is also on fine form here; of especial note is her convincingly acted terror in Episode Two as the Doctor drops hints to Romana about a monster beneath the tower, but the scene that really shines out is when Romana and the Doctor are talking in their cell. As she casually explains that all Type Forty TARDISes contain the Record of Rassilon and the Doctor tells her that she’s wonderful, the unusual closeness of this Doctor/companion team is emphasized; this is partly the reason why the combination of the Doctor, Romana and K9 is one of my favourite TARDIS crews and the scene carries extra poignancy with foreknowledge of the following story. K9 also gets his best story of the season; whilst he spends most of his time in the TARDIS, he remains useful throughout and also avoids the increasingly common indignities heaped upon him since ‘The Leisure Hive’. Even better, he gets to lead the assault on the tower, culminating in an amusing scene in which Ivo apologizes for underestimating him. On the other hand, it is with ‘State of Decay’ that Adric really starts to great on me. For one thing, he’s thoroughly annoying; his cheeky attitude towards both villagers and Aukon in Episode Two is possibly how a cocky teenager would actually behave, but this just serves to remind me why I don’t like teenagers. I’m reasonably confident that I was an obstreperous little bastard at Adric’s age, and would have been largely despised had I been inflected on the viewing millions. An even better example of how irritating he can be is in Episode Four, during his crap attempt to trick Aukon and this rescue Romana. That Aukon falls for it must mean that he’s stupider than he looks, and with that makeup he often looks pretty stupid. More vexingly, Matthew Waterhouse’s lack of acting experience and/or ability starts to become obvious here as he fails even to walk across the TARDIS console room without looking stilted when Adric emerges from hiding. This fusion of vile character and bad acting does not a winning combination make.

Overall, ‘State of Decay’ manages to maintain the quality of Season Eighteen and is much, much better than I remembered. It doesn’t help it though that it is sandwiched between the impressive ‘Full Circle’ and what is by far my favourite story of the entire season…





The Keeper of TrakenBookmark and Share

Sunday, 14 March 2004 - Reviewed by Paul Clarke

Two things strike me about ‘The Keeper of Traken’. The first is that has a dark fairytale quality and the second is that it has a distinctly theatrical feel. Either of these could be seen as an advantage under the right circumstances, but the problem is, both of these qualities seem to arise out of a combination of bad writing and poor production values, the result of which is that ‘The Keeper of Traken is a story that never fails to leave me cold. 

The basic underlying concept of the Traken Union is fascinating, in that it is a society held together “by people just being terribly nice to each other”, a society so pure that it literally makes evil shrivel up and die. This simplistic polarization of the concepts of good and evil is what makes ‘The Keeper of Traken’ feel so much like a fairytale to me, but it is ultimately facile. The main problem is the definition of evil; ultimately, the definition of evil is subjective. Whilst there are things that most people believe to be evil, there is no clearly drawn line on one side of which things are “good” and on the other of which they are “evil”, which rather raises the question of what the minimum is that one needs to do to be turned into a polystyrene statue. To further compound this issue, Traken seems to a be a society bordering on fascism, with the ruling Consuls discussing summary executions based on the most spurious of evidence. Most obviously, they are quick to condemn the Doctor and Adric based (from their point of view) on the Keeper’s say so, but this does raise the question, if the Doctor and Adric were evil and evil is immobilized by the power of the Source when arriving on Traken, why don’t the Consuls query their ability to walk around quite happily? By Episode Three, Kassia is able to convince Katura and Luvic of the need to execute their prisoners remarkably easily, Katura’s only comment being a sort of vague reluctance that such things are necessary. In addition, the Fosters, with their easily bribable and corrupt superior Neman, seem to have rather more power top enforce the word of the law than ordinary policemen do. 

In addition to this flawed premise, ‘The Keeper of Traken’ suffers from feeling almost like an amateur theatre production. For one thing, the dialogue, which most certainly is not anywhere near Shakespearean, is rather stilted and fails to sound natural throughout, something which is even more obvious having just watched ‘Warrior’s Gate’, in which the dialogue of Rorvik’s crew is much more realistic. In addition, the entire story is studio bound and the sets look somewhat drab, creating a claustrophobic air that always makes Traken seem more like a collection of rooms than a planet. As I’ve stated many times, this is a common failing of both Doctor Who and television science fiction in general, but here it seems more pronounced than in any story since ‘The Armageddon Factor’. In the case of this particular story, this doesn’t actually bother me specifically, but it does add to the impression that the entire story could be very easily performed on stage. 

My main problem with the stagy feel of ‘The Keeper of Traken’ is that it extends to the acting. Anthony Ainley, on the verge of taking on a more familiar role in the series, is actually rather good here, putting in a gentle, restrained performance that in retrospect does wonders for his reputation as an actor. Tremas is a likeable character from the start, and quickly forms a strong mutual respect with the Doctor, with Baker and Ainley working well together. Considering Tremas’ fate, this is appropriate, since it adds weight to the tragedy that befalls him, which would be far less pronounced if the Master stole somebody else’s body. Denis Carey, in his first role in Doctor Who to actually be broadcast, is perfectly adequate as the wizened Keeper, as is the ever-reliable John Woodnutt as Seron. Unfortunately, the other actors are less impressive; Margot van der Burgh’s Katura and Robin Soams’ Luvic are both utterly forgettable, although in all fairness this is largely due to the way the characters are scripted. Roland Oliver’s Neman is a pantomime stooge, taking so much delight in being ordered to push people around in later episodes that I half expect him to start twirling the ends of his large moustache. Most cringe-worthy of all however is Sheila Ruskin is dreadful as Kassia, over-acting to a horrible degree, especially whenever she is required to faint. Lurid hand-gestures and flared nostrils only emphasize the fact that her performance is hammy.

Then there is Geoffrey Beevers. It must be said that his performance is just as over the top as the Master as Anthony Ainley’s would shortly become, but I find it more enjoyable because it fits the tone of the story. Given that ‘The Keeper of Traken’ attempts to separate the concepts of good and evil so simplistically, and given that characters such as Kassia so obviously blur the line, Beever’s largely vocal performance as the real villain fits perfectly; his voice drips with malicious glee, which makes the Melkur really seem like the personification of evil that it is supposed to be. So thoroughly evil does he seem, that it is easy to believe that the immobilizing web of harmony that enshrouds Traken would ensnare the Master even if not corrupt public servants and traitors. In addition, I must admit that I do rather like stories in which old enemies are revealed to be lurking “behind the curtain”. Once the Doctor enters the Melkur and confronts his old enemy, my tolerance for Beevers’ performance diminishes somewhat, as he lurches about in a way that brings to mind Scooby Doo villains and tips the balance of ‘The Keeper of Traken’ from “theatrical” to “pantomimesque”. Nevertheless, the final scene, in which the Doctor’s old archenemy is restored to his former glory promises a great deal; the rivalry between the Third Doctor and the Master, despite being occasionally wrapped in some dreadful stories, was always enjoyable. Whether or not this promise is delivered on however, is a subject for another time…

Finally, the regulars put in decent performances here, even Matthew Waterhouse. The opening TARDIS scene lends credence to the fact that the combination of the Fourth Doctor and Adric showed great promise, once more casting the Doctor in the role of teacher to Adric’s keen student. In fact the opening scene is worth watching simply because it’s the last glimpse we see of Baker’s old humour in the role (except for the “this type’s not really my forte” line at the end of Episode Four), as the Doctor demonstrates his old ego, defends his handwriting, champions the cause of talking nonsense, and cracks jokes (Doctor: “I thought so!” Adric: “Thought what?” Doctor: “I thought you might appreciate it if gave you the impression I knew what was happening”). Adric is well written here, proving resourceful if hotheaded, and seeming to appreciate meeting Nyssa, somebody of his own age. This particularly makes sense given that Adric seems to have been something of an outsider amongst his own people (Varsh treated him as a little brother more than anything else) and has since been in the company of the Doctor and Romana. Sarah Sutton seems to provoke a rather harsh response from many fans, who describe her as wooden. I don’t think this is entirely fair; Nyssa’s overwhelming characteristics here are gentleness and a rather pampered upbringing; given that she could have been portrayed as a spoilt brat, the fact that the character is realized as somebody well rounded and intelligent is most welcome. Sutton’s performance seems to me to fit perfectly Nyssa’s quiet and gentle reserve, and she nicely conveys the character’s closeness to her father. This is important; Nyssa actually gets very little to do in her debut, but the gradually erosion of her family life, which although she doesn’t know it is utterly destroyed by the end of Episode Four, thus sets the tone for Baker’s swansong…





The VisitationBookmark and Share

Sunday, 14 March 2004 - Reviewed by Paul Clarke

After the multi-layered and rewarding 'Kinda', 'The Visitation' is a far more straightforward Doctor Who story and by comparison with its predecessor seems almost shallow. Nevertheless, it contains much to enjoy. 

The plot of 'The Visitation' is very simple; an alien spacecraft lands in an historical period of Earth, and its small number of occupants decides to exterminate the population so that they can have the planet for themselves. Rather like a cross between 'The Time Warrior' and 'Terror of the Zygons' in fact. Add to this one android, only a single supporting character of any real note, and some mind-controlled locals, and it all adds up to pretty standard fair. Nevertheless, this standard fair immediately evokes a feeling of traditional Doctor Who, and setting any kind of story produced by the BBC in a period setting virtually guarantees decent sets and costumes. 'The Visitation' is no exception, and whilst it lacks the depth of 'Kinda', it benefits from looking far more impressive, with an authentic looking mansion house, convincingly scruffy peasants, and some fine location filming. 

With very little characterisation of the various villages on display, the only real character of note aside from the principle villain is Richard Mace, a thespian come highwayman who almost steals the show. If I was feeling uncharitable, I might suggest that writer and new script-editor Eric Saward should have found the character easy enough to write for, as he apparently appeared in three BBC Radio 4 plays also penned by Saward, but the fact remains that he is a hugely entertaining character. Michael Robbins plays Mace with aplomb, bringing out the characters various characteristics (an amusing combination of alternating cowardice and courage, wit and bemusement) to great effect. In particular, Mace almost forms a double act with the Doctor which is great fun to watch, the former a man out of his depth and struggling to cope, the latter increasingly impatient with his new friend's struggle to grasp concepts new to him, including aliens, androids, and spaceships. The problem with Mace however, is that Saward seems so interested in writing for him that this has obvious repercussions for three of the regulars…

'The Visitation' is the first Davison story in which, for me, the excess of companions is painfully obvious. In 'Castrovalva', Adric's abduction by the Master sidelined him and allowed the story to focus more on Tegan and Nyssa, whereas in 'Four to Doomsday' and especially 'Kinda' Nyssa was to a greater or lesser extent kept in the background to allow the story focus on Adric and Tegan. Here, with Mace effectively acting as an additional companion and stealing some of the limelight, Saward juggles Tegan, Nyssa and Adric more or less equally, which actually makes it more obvious that he doesn't really know what to do with them than actually having one of them sleeping in the TARDIS for the duration of the story would. Nyssa admittedly gets to show off her scientific background by assembling the TARDIS' sonic booster and destroying the android, but for the most part the three of them take it in turns to either run around in search of each other and the Doctor, get captured, or follow the Doctor around so that he can explain the plot. On the other hand, whilst none of them get the chance to shine, none of them especially annoy; Adric inevitably comes close, but it goes without saying by this point that his character is childish, petulant, and obnoxious. Waterhouse is at least better here than in 'Kinda', although points are deducted for his unconvincing stumble when Adric sprains his ankle. In addition to all of this, the more irritating aspects of Saward's writing are on display here, although perhaps because Anthony Root is script-editor on this story, they are kept to a minimum; nevertheless, the early scenes in the TARDIS in which the Doctor and his companions recap plot elements from 'Kinda' for no good reason create a horrible soap-opera feel that will become increasingly evident during Saward's tenure as script editor. 

The main villain of 'The Visitation' is the Terileptil leader who is reasonably well scripted and who is convincingly acted by Michael Melia. The Terileptil leader is pretty aggressive, bad tempered character, and Melia conveys his short temper very effectively. Unfortunately, he's also a bit one-dimensional; Saward attempts to flesh out Terileptil culture by scripting lines about their dual obsession with art and war (the Terileptil leader objects to the idea of a life without grace and beauty) and he also makes it clear that the leader is an escaped convict who probably doesn't fairly represent all Terileptils, but it all feels like a bit of a token gesture. Having said that, the Terileptils' appreciation for art is reflected in the design of the android, which makes for a nice touch. It probably doesn't help that nowadays any alien race that it is ruthless but obsessed with honour automatically reminds me of a certain race from a popular American science fiction franchise that I'm none too fond of, but that is hardly Saward's fault… Despite all of this however, the Terileptil leader makes for a suitably nasty and ruthless villain, and he also benefits from a great costume, which makes early and effective use of animatronics in the series. Since I've mentioned the android, it also works well as a silent and impassive enforcer and its costume is impressive, save for the cricket gloves, which always look like exactly what they are. 

Finally, I should mention Peter Davison, whose performance here is one of my favourites in the role. He is increasingly frustrated and irascible throughout, which really gives the impression that all of the authority of most of his previous incarnations, plus a great deal of knowledge and experience, is trapped in too young a body. Unlike the Fourth Doctor, the Fifth seems to find it more difficult to inspire trust in his companions, possibly because he appears to be not that much older than they are. This is especially true in Episode Four, when he obviously grows tired of being constantly questioned by Adric and Tegan and frequently snaps. It is an interesting interpretation, and one that will remain in evidence throughout much of Davison's tenure in the role. Moreover, it is another reason why 'The Visitation', for all that it feels largely inconsequential, remains thoroughly pleasant to watch. And if none of that convinces you, it's worth watching for two other things: the Doctor starting the Great Fire of London, and the destruction of the sonic screwdriver!





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Sunday, 14 March 2004 - Reviewed by Paul Clarke

It is perhaps ironic that having mildly criticized 'The Visitation' for being straightforward and almost inconsequential, I am about to praise 'Black Orchid' for the same reasons. It is one of the finest examples of a the two part format, a charming period tale with just enough of a plot to justify itself but far more to offer besides.

The plot of 'Black Orchid' essential concerns the horribly disfigured, mentally ill and love sick George Cranleigh, discoverer of the eponymous Black Orchid who has been kept secret and safe by his mother in the grandiose Cranleigh residence. He commits several murders, mistakes Nyssa for his lost love Ann Talbot, and then dies tragically. It is as simple as that, and fits the short length of the story without events seeming rushed. It works as a story because of the characters. It is hard not to feel sympathy with George, and the makeup used on Gareth Milne for the role makes him look both pathetic and horrifying. The decision by Lady Cranleigh and her other son Charles to keep George's ghastly predicament is entirely understandable given even the most basic grasp of what asylums at the time were like, and the fact that Ahmed Khalil's Ditoni refers to him as his friend emphasizes the fact that the Cranleigh's actions are motivated by compassion. 

But 'Black Orchid', whilst ultimately about George Cranleigh, manages to be about much more. For the first and only time, we get to see this TARDIS crew really relaxing. The Doctor gets to play cricket and has just taken a bath when the secret door in his room first sidetracks him. His companions get to dance and enjoy a party, which benefits them enormously; having decided to stay with the TARDIS crew for the moment, Tegan is far less bad tempered here than she can be, and seeing her smile as much as she does here and dance the Charleston with delight demonstrates how likeable she can be under the right circumstances. Even Adric is likeable here; with a need for only a limited emotional range, Matthew Waterhouse is adequate, and seeing the character greedily piling food high on his plate is a daft but welcome character moment that reminds us that he is basically a teenager, without resorting to portraying him as an obstreperous tosser. Nyssa, perhaps surprisingly, again gets little to do here, but Sarah Sutton of course gets the chance to show that she can in fact act, by also portraying Ann Talbot, a far more emotional character than the quiet, reserved Nyssa. The doppelganger storyline is an old and tired cliché, but one which Doctor Who invariably does well, not only here but also in 'The Massace of St. Bartholomew's Eve', 'The Enemy of the World', and 'The Androids of Tara'. It is a trivial aspect of this story; when George abducts Ann at the start of Episode Two, he picks the right girl; the only purpose of the doppelganger subplot in this respect is to drive the dramatic climax. But it also serves to show Nyssa relaxing too, as she is carried along by Ann's playful suggestion that they dress alike, and she obviously enjoys the joke. 

For such a short story, 'Black Orchid' is therefore worthy of considerable praise. It is also worth noting the way in which the Doctor convinces Sir Robert that he is telling the truth about who he is, by the simple expedient of showing him the TARDIS. This is something he would perhaps normally not do, but there is a suggestion of gentlemanliness about Robert that makes it seem like the logical thing for the Doctor to do. 'Black Orchid' is also very well made, benefiting like 'The Visitation' from superb location filming and excellent period sets. The acting too is first rate, especially Barbara Murray as Lady Cranleigh, Moray Watson as Sir Robert, and of course Michael Cochrane, a man who plays English aristocrats without peer, as Charles. 'Black Orchid' is indeed inconsequential, but still remains a charming diversion from the norm for the series. And in the overall context of Season Nineteen it gives us a chance to see this TARDIS crew at its best before it is irrevocably changed…