The Sea DevilsBookmark and Share

Friday, 24 March 2006 - Reviewed by Robert Tymec

Yet another classic example of fan nostalgia versus actual story content. 

Don't get me wrong, here, "Sea Devils" is not completely awful. It's more so a case of not being half as good (in my view, at least) as the fanboys who grew up in that era try to make it out to be. I am frequently amused by the complaints levelled at 80s Who (the era I grew up with) since so much of the problems that fans had with stories in this time period exist in equal or oftentimes greater abundance in 70s stories like the "Sea Devils". But these problems seem, for the most part, to go unnoticed by most of fandom because this is the great "uncriticizable" golden era of Doctor Who. 

First off, we'll start with what I notice most in any form of entertainment I watch: the actual story. Next to big bad Robby Holmes himself, Malcolm Hulke is my second-favourite writer for the original series. His scripts were, oftentimes, the most maturely-written three-dimensional stories the show ever produced. But here, Malcolm falls a bit short. He really gives us a pretty threadbare plotline that could barely stand up to a four episode format - forget that he's been given a six-parter! So, to try to fill the gaps, he gives us lots of captures and escapes (not something that is entirely new to the series, of course, but boy does he lay it on heavy here) and attempts at cheap thrills that look even cheaper, these days, because the story is now 30 years old. This makes my disappointment in the story all the more poignant. I expected so much more from the pen of such a great author. 

He also delivers a few really big wallops of super-shaky plotting. The most obvious one being his apparent hope that we will forget basic geography as the episodes progress. The Master is supposed to be imprisoned out on an island that seems to only be accessible by boat. Yet, everyone, by episode three, seems to be zipping back and forth to the prison via land rovers. How exactly did this happen? Did a bridge get built somewhere between episodes? Yes, bad plotting is something that can happen in Who-scripts sometimes - particularly since it is an episode-based series. But this error, to me, borders on the unforgivable. Didn't someone in production pick up on this problem? Obviously not, since there are some other wobbly plot elements littering the script - (another one being just how long the Master is able to sit around not unplugging a highly disruptive machine that is totally screwing over the Sea-Devils in episode six!) - this whole "island that is not" issue is just one of the bigger ones! 

Equally shaky are some of his characterisations. Trenchard's alliance with the Master seems completely unbelievable - even if he is supposed to be something of a fool (which gets me to wonder, right there, why the British government would put such a bumbler in charge of keeping an eye on a criminal mastermind who is so dangerous that he got his own special prison). It's barely stated as to why he is even letting the Master do what he's doing. We get some vague sense that the Master has appealed to his sense of patriotism and perhaps his desire for glory. But it almost seems more like it was just Malcolm going along with that notorious "Pertwee-era formulae". The Master always recruits someone from Earth to help him execute his plans so, this time, it's Trenchard. And we're just supposed to accept that cause that's the way the formula works. Quit looking too hard at the plot, little fanboy, just enjoy the formulae. Which is still my biggest qualm with much of what was done in the Pertwee era. 

This problem persists through most of this story. Even the Master's motivation to re-awaken the Sea Devils seems kind of inconsistent and even somewhat preposterous. If this were the more mean and twisted Ainley Master, I might be able to accept what he was up to. Because the Ainley Master had, pretty well, gone insane in his attempts to artificially extend his life. Therefore, strange, warped motivations could be somewhat acceptable. But the Master, at this stage of his life (or, more appropriately, lives), is supposed to be much more calculating and interested in supremacy rather than just "making bad things happen". Yet, suddenly, for no real reason that seems to benefit him directly, he wants to release the former masters of Earth and bring down humanity. Just doesn't seem to make sense in my view of the character's progression. If, perhaps, Hulke had taken a moment to give the Master some sort of dialogue to explain that maybe his prison term had given him a thirst for revenge on Earth or something similar to that - I might have accepted it. But we get none of that. So, instead, we're just supposed to accept the stereotypical "the Master is up to something really bad" formulae and not question things too hard. Again, very typical of this era. 

Now, I'll slow down a bit on my criticism and try to formulate some good points about this tale. 

The story is off to a very promising start. Hulke - as well as the performances of Delgado and Pertwee - all do a great job of deepening the relationship between Master and Doctor. I really liked how this played out. Except that, as I pointed out earlier, all this deliberate attempt to display the isolation the Master is facing causes the story's geography to fall apart later! 

Sadly, as I try to get through several other good points of this story - they oftentimes have a "shadow of flaw" following them too. Another great example of this would be the swordfight between the Master and the Doctor. Easily one of the best swordfights in the show's history. I get a real impression here that both Delgado and Pertwee have a considerable background in swordfighting (which most of classically-trained actors of the time would) and they really perform the duel masterfully. But, once more, if we look past the window-dressing plot element, we see a fundamental flaw. Who, in God's name, arranges several sets of sharpened swords directly outside the cell of a prisoner in a maximum security prison?! Once again, something that is set up for the execution of formulae rather than genuine plot. 

The same can also be said of one of the other famous traits of this story. That of the huge cast that it had. It was neat to see so many characters in one story but it does almost seem like, rather than develop storyline properly, the author chose to just keep introducing as many new characters as he could in hopes that getting to know them would keep us distracted from the underlying flaws of the plot. 

Okay, okay, I'll look for some genuine strengths to this story! I certainly like that we got a Pertwee story taking place during his exile where UNIT wasn't actually used to fight the menace. Yes, there was still millitairy involvement but it was nice to see that other factions of the millitairy exist in the Whoniverse besides UNIT. And how the Doctor must deal with things differently because he doesn't have the familiarity with this millitairy organisation that he does with the Brig and the boys. A neat direction to take the story in.

I also liked the concept of the Sea Devils and the way they return us to the idea Hulke first explored so beautifully in "The Silurians" of how we would all react if we suddenly realised we might have to share our planet with someone else as sentient as us. I even think he made a good choice by not getting too much into this idea again (since it had been explored quite adequately in Silurians) and focussing more on action and battle rather than debate and pontification. It sort of even gives us the sense that the Sea Devils are more of a war-like or even subservient culture and that the Silurians are the real leaders. Something we see fleshed out many years later when both species return in "Warriors of the Deep". 

I also think this is a spectacularly well-directed story, in many ways. It has some excellent battle sequences that exceeded the limitations of low-budget 70s T.V. (yes, I remember noting earlier how "cheap" the story looks in places - but now I'm trying to get validly contextual in my analysis rather than contradicting myself!). I'm even willing to admit that a couple of those action shots look pretty gosh-darned good by even modern-day standards. As well, there are some really memorable shots, in general, that I thought were highly effective. The creepy close-up of the bureaucrat's mouth as he explains that "war is hell -what's for breakfast?" being one of the best examples. 

Even the music, believe it or not, didn't annoy me much. The show was trying a different approach with the incidental music and - although it was wildly intrusive in most places - it was neat to, at least, see them try something new and different. How's that for a massively differing opinion from general fandom?! 

But then, I rather get the impression that this review, in general, is differing from the opinion of general fandomn! Sorry, worshippers of the holy Petwee, but I really don't think there's much here. Again, not completely awful - but not the "shining piece of glory" most of you claim it to be. This is made even more glaringly obvious by the fact that someone as magnificent as Malcolm Hulke should not have cranked out such a flimsy, formulae-driven piece. I almost have to wonder if some radical changes occurred after Hulke passed it on to the production team. The whole story seems to be a watered-down version of his story-telling skills with various "chills, spills and action" elements turned up intentionally. 

"Below-par" Who, in my opinion. But I get the impression I'm pretty alone in it!





The Three DoctorsBookmark and Share

Friday, 24 March 2006 - Reviewed by Jordan Wilson

When perusing my reviews of “classic” Who, – if you remotely care; I’m just covering myself, here - you may chance to observe a recurring theme: repetitive criticism. Generally, I find 1963-89 serials (1996 aside, for convenience) to be characterized by at least (1) precarious screenwriting, (2) the sacrifice of character over all-consuming plot constraints, (3) a poor performance by the respective supporting casts, and (4) no pay-off – anticlimax. I’ll allow an exception for tremulous cardboard sets, as these can be attributed to oft-alluded budgetary limitations. Ergo, scripting figures particularly largely in my value system – something else that may become explicit and/or implicitly salient given time.

The Three Doctors, alas, adheres to these proposed criteria. Fortunately, it isn’t a prototypical example. Unfortunately, this is one instance where I’ll have to condone the scenery outright – the antagonist’s anti-matter world is just another quarry. Squandered opportunity.

Whilst not a classic, per se, this entry’s fun – a rarity, I’ve sometimes found. The Doctor (Jon Pertwee) is abetted by The Doctor (Patrick Troughton), with somewhat handicapped input from The [other] Doctor (William Hartnell). Their mission: to tackle the lamented, but very much ‘alive’ Time Lord Omega (Stephen Thorne) – whose Will inhabits the aforementioned idyllic landscape.

So, let’s review. The script is okay – although I wish characters wouldn’t whisperingly refer to Omega’s ‘blob’ extensions as “organism-things”. *Pedantic gripe over.* Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart (Nicholas Courtney) is frustratingly treated as an imbecile – refusing to believe Doctor #2’s periodic revelations. Yes, he’s a layperson to The Doctor’s interstellar lifestyle, but by now he should exhibit more faith.

This four-parter may be “fun” due to its falsification of my second criterion. For once, the concept of character is given free rein – mounted on equal footing to plot. The rivalry and repartee between the bickering second and third Doctors is a delight. First inspired idea: have The Doctor meet his past ‘selves’. Second idea: have him fall out with himself. It’s a shame Hartnell was unable to contribute more and in person.

The supporting cast disappoints. The ever-eagle-eyed Katy Manning (Jo Grant), John Levene (Sgt. Benton), Denys Palmer (Cpl. Palmer) et al. can’t act. ‘Nuff said. Thorne is excellent in his role at first, utilizing his voice and behaviour, unlike most villains, who typically and unimaginatively rely on costumed appearance – surely a series landmark? Sadly, he gradually metamorphosizes into a pantomime villain… Dr. Tyler (Rex Robinson) strikes me as an oddity. The Time Lords are sufficiently bland; Clyde Pollit is amiable as the Chancellor, easily outshining stiff-lipped Roy Purcell (President of the Council) and the distractingly-bearded Graham Leaman. Why not portray them as seemingly-omnipotent and mysterious shadowy figures? Laurie Webb exudes a larger-than-life personality and suave charisma as the esteemed Mr. Ollis. His forename is shrouded in secrecy, and only revealed in the final scene by Mrs. Ollis (Patricia Prior). Unfortunately, I can’t remember it just now. 

The Final Confrontation isn’t that anticlimactic.

Overall, The Three Doctors is a joy on first viewing. It’s burdened with traditional Who flaws (I could go on and on…), but the impish second Doctor’s return and Omega’s introduction (watch this space) make this entry entertaining and more accessible than most. ***[/5]





The Green DeathBookmark and Share

Friday, 24 March 2006 - Reviewed by Shane Anderson

The Green Death' is a genuine Doctor Who classic. Aliens tend to invade Earth far too often to be believed in the Doctor Who universe (why would so many different races want to invade our one little planet?), but 'The Green Death' thankfully avoids this cliche by telling the story of the fairly mundane and earthbound problem of pollution, and then makes it interesting by adding the Doctor Who staple ingredient of monsters in the form of the giant maggots. The anti-capitalist sermonizing is heavy-handed, but the story manages to transcend that and remain a solid and entertaining chapter in the Doctor's adventures. 

The plot is sound, though I'm not sure we ever learn exactly who built BOSS (he does mention his creators without going into much detail). Global Chemicals, a presumably multinational corporation headquartered in Wales, has developed a new process for producing greater quantities of gasoline from crude oil. While more efficient, this process also creates a dangerous by-product in the form of a toxic green sludge which can't be broken down or destroyed, so it must be stored. Global's solution is to pump the sludge down into a recently disused coal mine, where it will supposedly remain buried. Out of sight, out of mind. It's never that simple of course, and in true Doctor Who fashion, there are monstrous results. The sludge mutates maggots, causing them to grow to giant proportions and evidently grow fangs and learn to jump. The sludge also begins to kill people on contact, hence the "green death™ of the title. All of this happens before the story proper begins, and then UNIT is drawn into events, initially to provide security for Global Chemicals but also to investigate the death of the miner. The bulk of the televised story is spent exploring the mystery of the mines, and then spent trying to deal with the threat from the maggots, and deal with Global Chemicals and BOSS. The story works well over six episodes, revealing first one layer of the mystery and then another. We get plenty of good material and character moments for the Doctor, the Brigadier, Benton and Yates. The trip to Metebelis 3 that has been attempted all season is finally taken by the Doctor, with both useful and funny results. Oh, and Jo Grant falls in love in a remarkably short amount of time and leaves to get married at the end of the story. 

I often discuss the characters first when I'm reviewing, but in this case I'd like to address the philosophy behind the tale, since unlike most other Doctor Who stories, here the moral not only takes center stage, but is the reason behind the story's creation. Like most sane people in the world I'm certainly pro-environment, but I get very tired of corporation-bashers who insist that large, international corporate entities do nothing but pollute the planet, use up resources and trample the little guy. It's a blatant and lazy stereotype, and we are presented with just such an unbalanced picture in this story. The approach taken is a cowardly one though, since real issues are ducked by presenting us an evil polluting corporation run not by humans, but by a megalomaniac computer, the BOSS. The only employees we see are a few upper echelon executives and about a dozen security guards, and sooner or later they all come under the mental subjugation of BOSS, leaving little room to cast the moral blame for Global Chemical's pollution at their feet. The good ones like Elgin and Fell are eventually brainwashed when they rebel against profit at all costs, and Stevens, who is the main antagonist for UNIT and the chief legman for BOSS, even he repents when his mind is cleared by the Doctor. The story seems to indict the corporate system and the capitalism that drives it as irredeemable, and sends the message that even good people like Elgin can't help but be destroyed by it. Which is of course, utter nonsense. 

One of the problems with that point of view is its one-sidedness. It's not universally true by any stretch of the imagination. Now I had initially hoped that having both moral and immoral executives in Global Chemicals was an attempt at balance, but it doesn't seem to be. We are presented with another myth: the 'back to nature = golden age' myth, embodied by our unbelievably well-educated and Nobel prize winning hippies at the Wholeweal community. The contrast between the well-groomed, well-spoken, affluent corporate executives who are nonetheless either immoral or caught up in the immoral system, and the educated but happy dropouts working for the betterment of mankind couldn't be more pronounced. It's also far removed from reality since the hippy movement was generally selfish, and based on abandoning society rather than bettering it. The reason I say that this group of hippies destroys any attempt at balance is that while there are moral and immoral characters at Global, there are no correspondingly equal immoral Wholewealers. They're all idealistic and on the right track. While lovely characters, they're just too good to be true. 

So we have evil corporation vs. good societal dropouts. This is the story setup, and it comes from a philosophical point of view I profoundly disagree with, and yet I've given the story high praise at the beginning of this review. I've gone so far as to call it a classic, and I hold to that. Despite the philosophy behind much of the story, the idea that we must take care of our environment is as true today as it was in 1973. That alone isn't enough to elevate The Green Death to the status of a classic, but add to that the fact that the story itself is solid, with plenty of scope for all the regulars, and a good amount of drama, and that goes a long way to making this story stand out from many of its peers. The plot is multi-layered. It sets up the mystery of what killed the miner, then solves that by showing us the pollutants in the mine and the maggots, which raises the question of where those came from. That question is answered, but then we are left with the question of who it is that has been talking to Stevens and compelling him to 'process' people. That question is then answered, and still we are left with the mystery of just what the computer plans and how it can be stopped. Add to that the subplot about Jo growing up and striking out on her own, and how the Doctor reacts to her imminent departure, and you have a story full of progression, questions, and twists, with some excellent character drama that fits well into the Doctor Who format. The Green Death is well-written and structured, and for that the author and production team deserve credit. 

The story makes good use of all the characters, with the UNIT regulars all receiving good roles. The Brigadier is the most prominent, and he gets the usual mixed characterization that you find at this point in the series. He's straightforward and sceptical when dealing with Stevens, yet seemingly unable to start his investigation of the mine without the Doctor. It may well be that experience has taught him that he won't find the answers on his own, but the Brigadier of 'The Invasion' and 'Spearhead from Space' is proactive, and very much his own man. The way he often dithers while waiting on the Doctor weakens his character considerably. Still, in this story Lethbridge-Stewart stands up to Stevens and a cabinet minister with dignity and diplomacy, and takes his dressing-down from the Prime Minister without looking like an idiot. He also benefits from a chance to let his hair down so to speak and get out of uniform for much of the story. The dinner at Wholeweal where he's enjoying his meal and cigar and laughing at the dinner table is a great character moment to be sure. We rarely get to see the Brigadier off-duty and enjoying himself, but it's nice to see a different side to him. And despite being duty-bound to obey orders, he inserts Mike Yates into Global Chemicals for a little corporate espionage, which is an eminently sensible action to take. This is a reasonably good story for the Brigadier. The Time Monster and The Three Doctors are perhaps his low points, and here he's on his way back up towards respectability. 

Benton doesn't play much of a role in events, but he's his usual affable self here. From his always-polite approach to Jo, to his good humor while flinging fungus to the maggots, to his rather brave leap over the maggots to rescue Cliff and Jo, he's always likeable. Captain Yates gets to remind us of UNITs occasional use of undercover surveillance by infiltrating Global Chemicals as an ersatz member of the ministry. He's very animated and cheerful here, and shows himself to be fairly capable as well. He gathers enough information to direct the Doctor to the executive elevator, and has enough courage to go back into Global for more information even when his cover is blown. 

This is of course Jo Grant's final story, and her departure is handled well in the sense that it doesn't come from nowhere during the last five minutes of the final episode. If you look back over Katy Manning's three years on the show, her character certainly grew and changed over time to be far more capable, so Jo's desire to strike out on her own is believable and well-handled. What isn't as believable is the rapid attachment to and engagement to Cliff Jones. This story can hardly take more than a few days, and yet the two of them decide to get married in such a short time? I suppose it can happen, but still... probably got divorced about that fast too. Time issues aside, her pulling away from the Doctor is well handled by both Manning and Jon Pertwee, who put in great performances in all respects. 

The Doctor is at his best here, and Pertwee seems to me to be at his most enthusiastic. He is so full of energy and life in this story, and is very enjoyable to watch. Whether gleefully organizing the diversion protest march while he breaks onto the grounds of Global Chemicals, to angrily demanding that the sealing of the mine be stopped, to his shocked _expression as he realizes that he's walked in on Cliff and Jo's romantic encounter, Pertwee gets to show a wide range of acting skills here. Of particular note is his jovial and exuberant banter with BOSS and Stevens when the useless attempt is made to brainwash him. He claims to be having a 'whale of a time' and Pertwee's acting conveys that well. His turn as both the milkman and the cleaning lady are fun as well. On the whole, this is one of his better performances. 

As an aside, I note there are complaints about the depiction of the Welsh in this story. As an American, I don't really know a lot about the apparent stereotypes that are being portrayed, so I can't really address those. Perhaps the Welsh get similar treatment to Southerners in American entertainment, who are often portrayed in popular entertainment as simpletons with exaggerated accents. In any case, from my point of view the Welsh characters in this story seem to be solid, admirable people for the short time we get to see them. The miners all seem down to earth and concerned about their fellows, and none strike me as particularly exaggerated. From my point of view, the milkman is the only one who stands out from his fellows with his accent and speech patterns. 

Special effects are pretty poor in some spots, but reasonably good everywhere else. It's hard to find fault with most Doctor Who, a low-budget show that did so well with what they had. Generally a solid effort all around, even if the CSO isn't always successful. 

A note about the DVD: as always, the picture and sound are much improved over my old VHS copy. The commentary that I've listened to so far with Barry Letts, Terrance Dicks and Katy Manning is fun and lively. Mr. Letts is surely one of the most pleasant people who ever worked on the show, and Katy Manning is quite bubbly. It's a pity Jon Pertwee isn't still with us to participate (you know he would have). The extras are interesting, particularly the special effects feature. However, the standout extra has to be the 'Global Conspiracy' feature, with a hilarious 'documentary' about the effect of the Global Chemicals debacle on the town. It's funny and it's also a far more creative way to reassemble some of the cast members than an interview would have been. 

To sum everything up: good solid story and plot, good character moments all around for the regular cast, but with a half-baked philosophy behind it. Not flawless, but yes, a classic Doctor Who adventure that has a little of everything. Well worth watching.





UnderworldBookmark and Share

Friday, 24 March 2006 - Reviewed by Ed Martin

Maybe I just have a strong constitution, but there are very few Doctor Who stories that I find really boring. I'd even give The Monster Of Peladon an average rating, and that's usually seen as one of the show's biggest turkeys. Underworld though, like The Leisure Hive, is one of the few stories to really make me want to drop off: so much so that I had to review it in two parts, and the only other occasion I've had to do that is with The War Games which is four hours long [for posterity I should note that at this stage I haven't done The Invasion, The Daleks' Master Plan or anything else like that].

Possibly because I'm just really badly disposed to this story, Tom Baker in his art gear really gets on my nerves. This quirkiness of character is far from rare in the Williams era, but it's so devoid of any relation to anything that happens at any point in the story that you have to wonder what the point was: it's as if Bob Baker wrote the scene while Dave Martin crossed "be Doctorish" off his list with his pencil. Very quickly though we get to see the story's one selling point: its superb model work, also a common feature of the Williams era. The nebula is pretty enough and the R1C is a good model but it's the set design that lets the show down, all flat mud browns and blank spaces. You'd think that with so much of the story set in dank caves they'd have put a bit of colour in where they could, but no. The acting is poor too, with only Alan Lake as Herrick making any effort. When we first meet them they are going over what the TARDIS materialisation sound could have been which is fine up to a point, because it's what they conceivably would be talking about, but since the audience knows the answer to their questions there's really no need to dwell on the subject as much as the episode does.

Baker immediately explains why the Time Lords are thought by the Minyans to be gods, so that any sense of mystery that could be generated fizzles out. The Minyans' catch phrase of "the quest is the quest" isn't exactly spine tingling either, as well as not making much sense.

All is not a total loss on the design front as the shield guns are a nice idea, although Leela fires one without even knowing what it is. The happy guns, a sort of valium in energy form, are another nice idea but let down by Louise Jameson's poor acting (although she has improved since season fourteen). The initial set up of the plot is then given to the audience: it's a good one (hey, those ancient Greeks knew how to tell a story) but poorly delivered by the maudlin James Maxwell as Jackson. I'm annoyed as well to see K9 yet again being used to solve a plot point.

Imogen Bickford-Smith as Tala doesn't liven up for her regeneration, but it's nice to see that Tom Baker is still capable of serious moments among the clowning. The meteors outside the ship look fantastic, leading to the story's best cliffhanger. The fact that they escape only to crash again shows how much of a lazy excuse for an episode ending, but the crash itself looks great.

Now we see the caves of the P7E planet. The models, while well made, don't exactly hold the viewer after three episodes of nothing but brown and, while the CSO is much better than average, the lack of shadow or any interaction with the environment means that it never looks really real. However, I am pleased to hear that they at least made an effort with the sound effects, and the echoes work well.

The guards look ridiculous in their KKK / '70s bell bottom uniforms, but at least they tried here (veiled reference to The Long Game? Surely not!). However, no thought has gone into what separates them from the miners: it's as if the Oracle simply arbitrarily made some of the Minyan descendants slavers and others slaves. That, frankly, is not a wholly satisfying explanation.

It shows how uninspired the story is when something as pedestrian as poison gas is held off for ages to make a cliffhanger (how many times has Doctor Who featured poison gas? As many times as laser guns, okay, but how many people would put "Klieg pulls laser gun on Doctor" in their top ten cliffhangers? Right then). The moment becomes even worse when you consider that the Doctor explains how he's going to get out of it before the credits roll. Halfway through and I'm struck with how hopeless and pointless it all feels: the references to Jason And The Argonauts, potentially a good idea, now feel like a way of avoiding coming up with a proper plot.

Why does it take the guard leaders so long to notice there's gas pumping into the control room, when everyone around them has collapsed and they can't see their hands in front of their faces? Their threats to Idas's (another plank) father (and another) are delivered with a similar lack of enthusiasm, which undermines their menace ("I'd kill you now, but I'm on my lunch").

The 'centre of gravity' scenes make no sense at all. I'm not going into the physics of it, but shouldn't there be some sort of gradual decline rather than just walking through a door and finding yourself floating about? Dudley Simpson doesn't help either; I can't work out if putting lift music into the scene where the Doctor, Leela and Idas float downwards is a really good joke or just really stupid: either way, it lets down an OK special effects scene. The sword of Damocles scene is just about interesting, maybe because the colour scheme of the room it takes place in is something other than mud brown.

Herrick's sacrifice is stupid and pointless: he does it to set up the narrative for later rather than for any reason appropriate to the time. The fact that Norman Stewart's handling of action scenes is so inept doesn't help either. However, the idea that the Oracle is using "sky-falls" to systematically cull the population of the planet is a very unsettling one, and injects a bit of life into the story for an all-too-brief period.

The Seers look utterly ridiculous, possibly the most unintentionally funny monsters of all time. There are just so many jokes…the jumping bean analogy isn't a new one, but if you combine that description with a cross between the ghosts from Pac Man and a whack-a-mole game you could be getting close. The cliffhanger is another useless one, as the direction is so poor that it's unclear what's going on. Don't they want to get tipped into the machine? Why else are they in the cart?

The fourth episode is more of the same really. The Oracle sounds good (a bit like the baddie from Ghostbusters actually) and isn't exactly original, but if it ain't broke…

Why doesn't K9 spot that the race banks are really grenades sooner? The planet escape sequence is well done, with more excellent model work, particularly the destruction of the planet. The Oracle states that it deserves death, which is an original twist on the megalomaniac idea, but the fact that she is consigning all her people to death makes this seems slightly less magnanimous. Even when they are facing destruction though, the Seers just don't give a monkeys. The exploding planet kills every single baddie, pushing up the story's mortality rate to just over 46%.

The final mistake is for the Doctor to directly talk about Jason And The Argonauts, as what starts out as a (relatively) subtle reference now becomes part of the plot itself leading to questions such as "why?" and "how?". I don't even want to think about it to be honest; I'm just glad it's over.

Underworld is a poor, poor story but I wouldn't put it as low as some: the 2003 Outpost Gallifrey poll puts it in the bottom three episodes of all time, but for me it's too lifeless and dull to reach the levels of obnoxiousness needed to get a bottom of the barrel rating. It comes to something when an episode's mediocrity works in its favour like this, but that about sums up Underworld: it is a hard story to sit through and is a low point of Tom Baker's tenure.





The Ribos OperationBookmark and Share

Friday, 24 March 2006 - Reviewed by Robert Tymec

The Quest for the Key to Time begins. Although there have been many longer "sagaesque" stories (Dalek Masterplan) or stories with sequels (Frontier In Space/Planet of the Daleks) or stories with significant through-themes ("The Guardian Trilogy" of Season 20) throughout the series, the Key to Time umbrella theme is still one of the most ambitious undertakings the show would ever indulged in. And, though there were some issues with how the whole season played out, it's definitely off to a good start in The Ribos Operation. 

First off, the whole introductory scene with the Doctor meeting the White Guardian was certainly dramatically poignant. Whilst, at the same time, not being overblown. Having seen "Enlightenment" first, it kind of threw me off to see him in such casual wear. Mind you, he does look a bit less silly in this outfit! Still, the TARDIS opening its door of its own accord while organ music piped away and white light blared in was very effective. Juxtaposing that with the Doctor speaking to an old man in a wicker chair was some great imagery. A well-directed sequence. 

The introduction of Romana was also great fun. She is certainly a very interesting and innovative companion (at least, at the beginning of the season. Mary Tamm's allegations about her just becoming "a screamer" after a while, is not entirely unfounded!). The bickering between them is quite amusing (mind you, I also liked the Sixth Doctor and Peri fighting so what do I know?!) and we get to learn some interesting things about the Doctor's past through their confrontation. The most interesting one being, of course, the fact that he only scraped by on his "Time Lord exams"!

So, everything is off to a crackling start. The foundations for the season are laid. Now it's time to embark on the quest for the first segment. How does the actual story stand up? 

Well, in the case of both "umbrella seasons" in Doctor Who, Robert Holmes was in charge of writing the first story. And that was a very sound decision. He shows excellent foresight in his plotting. Understanding that a sense of intensity needs to build up as the season progresses so he keeps the scale of his stories, for the most part, relatively small. Even the action is kept to a bare minimum. This is especially the case with Ribos. 

For the first two episodes of the story - we are, essentially, enjoying a sci-fi "caper" story. Almost a bit like watching a "Pink Panther" movie (City of Death would, of course, play this theme up even more). Which, to me, gives this yarn a great little "spin" to it. I hadn't really seen this sort of thing done in a sci-fi story before so I found it highly innovative. The sequences toward the end of episode two with Unstoffe and the Doctor dodging around each other were extremely entertaining. And it was highly creative on Holmes' part to work this sort of action into his tale. This is very memorable stuff, in my opinion. So much so, that it probably qualifies as one of my more favourite moments in this season.

I do have some mild complaints about the beginning of episode three. The Doctor goofing with the Graff is one of the few moments in this era where I do feel he's taking the farce element too far. He's hamming the goofiness up a bit too much here and it seems a tad unnecessary. 

My only other real complaint about this story is that the whole sequence where Binro explains how he was labelled a heretic tends to run on a bit. It might have been better if they had done a cutaway scene or two and gone back to it so that we heard his anecdotes in installments. Just to remove a bit of the "sag" that moment has. 

Other than those two bits, I have no real complaints about The Ribos Operation.

But I certainly have plenty of praise. I know lots of references have been made to the "Holmesian Double Act" formulae and that many feel the most endearing example of this is in Talons Of Weng-Chiang. But, personally, Garron and Unstoffe are my favourite double act. Not just because of some remarkably well-crafted dialogue, but also because of some great performances on the part of both the actors. Both together and apart - this duo shines magnificently. Particularly as Unstoffe's experiences with Binro cause him to develop a bit of a conscience. Again, fantastic characterisation on both the part of the writer and the performers (and, more than likely, the director too, while we're at it). 

The other thing that really "sticks out" in a positive way in this story is the use of K-9. To the best of my recollection, in any other story up until this one, he is either written out at the beginning, or adventures with the rest of the TARDIS crew throughout the story. It was neat to see him used this way. Only coming into the story halfway through it, when he's absolutely needed. It makes his rescue of the Doctor, Romana and Garron all the more poignant because of it. 

Altogether, Robert Holmes delivers a great little tale (as usual). By no means could we ever give it that "classic" label, of course. Mostly because, as I mentioned before, he seems to be purposely keeping the scale of the story small. But this an extremely solidly-written story, nonetheless, and it is followed up by some very solid production work. Even the outdoor shots with all the fake snow actually look pretty-gosh-darned decent!





Destiny of the DaleksBookmark and Share

Friday, 24 March 2006 - Reviewed by Robert Tymec

Okay, this one will be tainted ever-so-slightly with a sense of nostalgia.

This was, to the best of my recollection, the first complete Doctor Who story I ever saw. I had caught a few isolated episodes here and there (I do think the very first image I ever saw of "Who" was those crazy green Swampies in "Power of Kroll") but this was the first story I saw from beginning to end. And now, with some hindsight in place and a much more discerning opinion, I can see that this story does have an obvious flaw or two in it. But, in my opinion, it still holds up quite well. 

The introductory scene with Romana (which made little or no sense to me when I first saw it but still seemed quite fun and interesting) is a nice start to the new season. We actually see just how skilled of a script editor Douglas Adams is in this moment. Within the span of four minutes he writes out Mary Tamn, brings in Lalla Ward and puts K-9 on hold for the story. And he does all this with some really witty dialogue. I love it when K-9 says "Aah" when he's not supposed to and the Doctor tells him to shut up! Just as funny as the "Oh look! Rocks!" gag! 

Romana the Second is still, as far as I'm concerned, one of the best companions the 'ole Doc ever travelled with. Sure, I've still got a much bigger crush on Peri (what can I say? She's the Doctor's "chestiest" companion and I'll always be "a boob man"). And both Ace and Rose were "fleshed out" beautifully in the scripts. But the chemistry between Baker and Ward is fantastic, right from the get-go (no surprise that they eventually "got hitched" - even if it was just for a bit!). I love that the entire first episode is spent mainly with them wandering around learning about the planet they're on and getting into some trouble. I believe there have been complaints that Nation should have thrown a lot more into that episode in terms of plotting. I love that he didn't. Cause it gave us some nice time to enjoy some characterisation and some very straight-forward story-telling. Considering how overcomplicated the series could get by this time in its run, it's nice to see it go "minimalist" now and again. 

All right, here's where I get in some trouble with a good chunk of you. "Genesis of the Daleks" is a great story and is a classic just by virtue of the fact that it tells the origins of the Doctor's greatest enemy. The "have I got the right?" and "out all evil some good must come" are some of the deepest philosophical moments the show has ever produced. But, you know what? Outside of this context, it really is only so great of a story. And though Destiny doesn't have some of the grandiose window-dressings that Genesis does, by no means is it the crushing disappointment fandomn sometimes makes it to be. At least, not in my book. 

First of all, it is the only story involving Davros that really dresses a good balance between the Dalek creator's presence in the plot and the Daleks themselves. Genesis, Resurrection and Revelation are really more about Davros than they are the Daleks (particularly Genesis - whereas Resurrection does come close to getting the balance right). And though the surprise appearance in Remembrance is utterly fantastic, it does mean that his real presence in this story is considerably small. Not so with Destiny. In this one, the amount of onscreen time between the Kaled megalomaniac and his master-race is almost equal down to the very minute. And this is one of the greater strong points of this tale. We can enjoy lots of really well-written banter between the Doctor and Davros and we can also enjoy lots of menacing moments with the Daleks. 

Okay, now I go out on an even further limb. I really like the actor who played Davros in this particular story - even if the mask looked awful on him! I do feel that in some of the portrayals, Wisher and Malloy got a tad too OTT for my liking. Sometimes it's not even the acting so much as the dialogue (sorry guys, but the whole "if I had virus that could kill everyone" speech in Genesis is more silly than anything else - I mean, can anyone legitimately get that excited over just thinking about a virus?!). Whereas I really do like how the megalomania is a bit more subtle here. And gets downplayed even further by Baker's mockery of it ("You've misquoted Napoleon!"). Davros, to me, is at his best here because he's not just screaming and ranting about Dalek supremacy like he is in so many of his other stories. Or being so blatantly conniving that a blind fish could tell he was up to something. In Destiny, he has a few more dimensions or "shades" to him. And can actually seem restrained in places. Of particularly noteworthiness is his order to the Daleks to obey the Doctor when they think his self-sacrifice is illogical and, therefore, not possible. Other "incarnations" of Davros would've gone totally OTT in that moment. But our man stays cool in the delivery. And it gives such a nice "edge" to Davros because he does. A very nice piece of acting, as far as I'm concerned. I almost wish David Gooderson had reprised the role one or two more times. Yet another opinion I'm sure I'm alone in! 

There are many more great little moments in this story that make it, overall, an above-average runaround. But I think the strongest testament this story has is that it "sold me" as a 14-year-old boy looking for a cult series to become obsessed with. Like all boys of that age - I was looking for someone to be my hero. And this story brought out the real sense of heroism I was looking for in a character. The Doctor, in Destiny of the Daleks, displays incredible wit and eccentricity whilst, at the same time, being brilliant and effective against evil when he needs to be. And the fact that a good chunk of the whole conflict is resolved by a well-placed throw of a hat just left me awe-struck! Seeing a gripping sci-fi tale end with just a neat piece of costume improvisation made me feel I had stumbled upon a really original T.V. show that I needed to learn more about. And that, I feel, speaks greater volumes about this story than anything else. 

This is the one that got me hooked. Glad I saw it.