Doctor Who Series 10 - Episode 2 - SmileBookmark and Share

Saturday, 22 April 2017 - Reviewed by Matthew Kilburn
Doctor Who: Smile (Credit: BBC / Simon Ridgway)
Doctor Who Series 10 Episode 2: Smile

Starring Peter Capaldi, Pearl Mackie, Matt Lucas
With Kiran L. Dadlani, Mina Anwar, Ralf Little,
Kiran Shah, Craig Garner,
Kaizer Akhtar, Kalungi Ssebndeke

Written by Frank Cottrell Boyce
Directed by Lawrence Gough
Produced by Peter Bennett
Executive Producers: Steven Moffatt, Brian Minchin

This review contains spoilers.

 

The tenth twenty-first century series of Doctor Who has been keenly promoted as a new start, but it’s enthusiastic about showing it’s taken old lessons to heart. Smile follows the precedent of The End of the World by taking Bill to the far future, to have (recalling one of the promotional lines of 2005) an adventure in the human race. However, where The End of the World was a celebration of diversity within and beyond humanity, giving the Doctor and Rose a range of different beings to interact with in separate story branches, and a villain who did not appreciate the parable within her own narrative, Smile concentrates much more on how the Doctor and Bill react to each other in an environment where humanity is absent, memorialized by an environment intended to cater to human needs, the murderous machines built to help the last humans, and by the fertilizer made from the skeletons of the slaughtered.

Bill’s hope when setting off is to find that the future is a happy one. This is a change from her present, where study with the Doctor provides hope in a background of low aspiration and petty betrayals. The Doctor takes her somewhere which has supposedly discovered the secret of human happiness – and there’s an irony in that the colony building screams its optimism to the Doctor when there are no living (or at least awake) humans present. Bill doesn’t seem to be addicted to crisis and peril in the way that some of her predecessors have been, and Pearl Mackie conveys well her evolving assessments of the situation. Where Rose in The End of the World could phone her Mum when she needed reassurance that her world was still there, it’s the smell of rosemary in the nursery which reminds Bill of home, and that home is the student union rather than her foster mother’s. Steven Moffat’s Doctor Who heroines tend to be detached from family much more than Russell T Davies’s earthly lead characters, and have a corresponding need to build alternative networks.

Bill’s search for belonging is not buried so far down as it was for Amy or Clara. Her distress at realizing that the colonists might be the last remnants of humanity bubbles up from Pearl Mackie like an unexpected hot spring on downland. Doctor Who has form for seeing companions bond with abandoned children, which arguably include since Listen the Doctor himself. Here it’s Praiseworthy whose awakening, soon after Bill’s discovery of (I presume) his dead grandmother, gives Bill someone to hope for, and whose protection is the catalyst for the story’s resolution. In the final TARDIS scene Bill has moved on from the abstract ideal of happiness to the more practical question ‘Is it going to work?’ before going on to tentatively accept responsibility with the Doctor for the ‘jump-start(ing of) a civilization’. Given that the Doctor knew the colony by its positive reputation. perhaps she already had her answer, but Bill is still the student working out these questions for herself, perhaps like the young audience at home. The episode sees another accessible, believable performance from Pearl Mackie, immediately well-established in Doctor Who’s soil without obvious need of ground skeletons.

Bill’s idealism is balanced by suspicion of deep-rooted prejudice. Her reaction to seeing that the Doctor has been served two algae cubes to her one is to ask whether this is ‘a bloke’s utopia’. However, her sense of the epic survives; even after the cryogenic units have been revealed and the Doctor has acknowledged that he was mistakenly going to blow up the human colonists, he calls the ‘shepherds’ who awoke first ‘those with (relevant) skills’. For Bill they are ‘the brave… the best’. Epic is important, with many of the colonists having names whose meanings are obvious to the listener. Like the warrior classes (at least) of early European cultures, their name patterns claim ownership of their own story. It’s a neat irony, and one which offsets any romanticization of colonization, that to survive the colonists end up having to pay rent to their servant caste. Back in 2003, Russell T Davies’s ‘pitch document’ for Doctor Who emphasized that it should be ‘pioneers’ who take viewers into space in the series, rather than alien creatures. It might be a leap too far to emphasise here the associations of Frank Cottrell Boyce and Steven Moffat with Liverpool and Glasgow, two of Britain’s biggest slave-trading ports, but the case is there for making that connection when considering the story’s shaping of the colonist narrative. Such stories inevitably express debts towards tales of settlement in the American West or in this case, with its intensive agriculture, the American South or European colonies in the Caribbean.  Admittedly, as transposed into Doctor Who, these tropes are rarely left uncriticized. Here the enslaved evolve into an indigenous people before the colonists can properly revive, leaving the claims of the colonizing culture hollow. The Vardy robot murders, however, fit less comfortably into a ‘slave revolt’ parallel, but instead suggest the futility of trying to second guess and avoid unhappiness. Perhaps everyone is on better terms with human folly by the end of the story.

So much of the episode is a two-hander between Bill and the Doctor, who gradually reveals more of his personality to her. Peter Capaldi continues in a much more relaxed portrayal of the Doctor which is much easier to watch than his disgruntled, tortured Time Lord of series eight or the most midlife crisis-ridden moments of series nine. He’s someone who enjoys his travels again, which have been cast in a new context now he is sworn to stay on Earth to protect the Vault. Capaldi enjoys or makes us enjoy the multiple levels of denial: the evasiveness, the childlike naughtiness – referring to Nardole as ‘Mum’ – and his insistence that he doesn’t set out to save the day, but just passes by and mucks in, delivered in a tone which suggests the Doctor barely convinces himself more than he fails to convince Bill. As Bill says, he’s a great tutor, but the Doctor’s lessons are often in what he does (or does not) rather than what he says. He’s careful not to betray his suspicions about the absence of people in the colony to Bill, who is too curious and too excited to look at the Doctor’s mood badge and see that he is considerably less happy than she is. At the same time, the Doctor wants to protect her from the horror of the situation, leading to a powerful variant of the ‘Let’s get back in the TARDIS and go’ trope. Here the Doctor pretends to himself that Bill will be happy watching movies in the TARDIS while he dodges the robots again to blow up the city, but at the same time he’s not disappointed that she rebels and comes with him. A tidy parallel is drawn between the mood badges and the sign on the TARDIS door. The Doctor denies that he travels the universe putting it to rights, but the TARDIS seeks out ‘urgent calls’ anyway where the Doctor can usefully provide advice and assistance. Smile provides a restatement of the Doctor-companion relationship – Bill’s sigh as she leaves the TARDIS reminds me of Sarah Jane Smith’s resigned plodding after the fourth Doctor as he sets off towards problems, or Turlough’s transfer of the Doctor to Peri’s care in Planet of Fire – ‘Look after him. He gets into the most terrible trouble’ – but nowadays the Doctor’s methods and assumptions are questioned much more, and rightly so.

I didn’t find the emojibots as ‘cute’ as I felt it was hoped the audience would. There was an innocence about them – they (and the Vardy robots they represented) wanted to smile, they were unhappy without people but unhappiest when people were incomprehensibly sad. They were more compelling when being sinister, staring out of windows balefully like figures in the 1980s Miss Marple television title sequence. Given that the entire city was made of Vardy robots I expected to feel it brooding a little more, but the light and architecture didn’t lend itself in that direction. Instead much matter-of-fact internal photography was broken into by slightly jarring shots, such as the view of the sun through the latticework of the glass roof, as if we’re looking up through a skeleton’s rib cage. The use of the City of Arts and Sciences in Smile plays with both architectural intention and alternative meanings derived from other angles. The Hemisfèric, according to its website, is intended to suggest a huge human eye but we never see it from an angle which would encourage that interpretation. Instead, it sometimes appears like a sunken, skeletized beast. Soaring optimism lives alongside inevitable decline; that the Wheel Turns (to recall Kinda) is a recurring part of Doctor Who. The robots’ loss of innocence, as they reveal they understand the concept of rent (and the pound sign has survived to Doctor Who’s far future) is the basis for a better society than one based on robot servitude.

There’s a contrast in the portrayal of the colonists themselves which could have been better managed. The introductory scenes featuring Kezzia and the Vardys outside in their pastoral idyll, celebrating the pollination of crops in a golden field under a blue sky, impress: one warms immediately to Kiran L. Dadlani, and once inside the city, Mina Anwar is a familiar and reliable television face who does not disappoint here. The costumes, with their suggestions of wings and gauze, suggest holiness but are only introduced when we know everything is going wrong: a tragedy in heaven. One could comfortably spend forty-five minutes with Kezzia and Goodthing, and the ease of their introduction and sudden dispatching is a greatly effective piece of misdirection. However, Ralf Little’s Steadfast and his fellow gun-toting revivees could come from an entirely different society. Their outfits aren’t co-ordinated and one doesn’t have the sense the production has the same grip on these characters than it did on the two Shepherds met and lost before the credits.

As with The Pilot, the script is dotted with odd nods back to earlier Doctor Who stories, particularly twenty-first century ones. These deliberate references seem to suggest that a phase of the series including both Russell T Davies’s era and that of Steven Moffat is coming to an end. The Doctor’s mention that an algae emperor ‘fancied me’ recalls the tenth Doctor’s memory of Martha in Partners in Crime, and we learn that yes, lots of planets have Scottish people claiming independence from everywhere they land. These are ironic takes but they suggest that the Doctor’s life and the programme’s is a little more complicated now than it once was: glibness has consequences. The Doctor’s method of winning at chess – knocking over the board – is dishearteningly similar to the gameplay of a neoliberal financier of which I’ve read, though The Curse of Fenric’s change of the rules so that the pawns join forces would have seemed as contrived as it did then and even more out of place. The references to The Ark in Space, indirectly through the Doctor’s expository dialogue, and directly through Steadfast’s self-identification as ‘Medtech One’, are nice in a vague sense of suggesting Doctor Who has a long-term scheme for human future history (though one would be hard-pressed to get anyone to agree on what it is) but it must jar for several long-term fans in that although there is an element of specialization depicted, Smile doesn’t quite portray the same kind of stratified society as that depicted on Space Station Nerva.

The most disconcerting features, though, were a couple of lines of dialogue. I’m not sure that the Doctor should be rubbishing a society which communicates through emojis as one for ‘vacuous teens’ – he’s more open-minded than that, surely? Towards the end, as the Vardy robots prepare to strike down the survivors of humanity, Bill has a redundant ‘What’s happening, Doctor?’ which doesn’t serve her previous character development well. This review is based on an advance viewing copy, watermarked as a work in progress, and I wouldn’t mourn those lines if it turned out they had not made it to the broadcast cut.

A more pleasing recall was the device of linking the second and third episodes together with a cliffhanger, as the TARDIS fails to return to the Doctor’s study and Nardole’s kettle but lands on the frozen Thames in Regency London and the Doctor and Bill are approached by a curious but not that threatening elephant through the presumably freezing fog. We go from a clinical and almost sterile environment to a cluttered one which pre-dates modern hygiene and where exotic animals replace robots. The Doctor’s magic haddock of fable (and the final, ‘face on’ view of the city as giant fish) is about to be realized as a more intentionally threatening undersea beast – or is the season catchphrase of ‘not evil, just different’ to be repeated?

Overall, Smile is a welcome addition to the series. It’s by no means as slow as I feared after reading the Radio Times preview, it uses its locations well, and cements the partnership between the Doctor and Bill, both adventurers in contrast with the cautious, rule-keeping Nardole, and where Bill’s wide-eyed enthusiasm reignites the Doctor’s interventionist wanderlust. It doesn’t always quite come together, but there are strong performances and ideas and design ideas which should keep an audience intrigued and entertained until the end of the episode, together with a not-heavily carried sense of myth, as might be expected from Frank Cottrell Boyce on the strength of In the Forest of the Night. The horror is depicted in a pre-watershed friendly way with enough grim humour to amuse enough of the audience while the youngest have the joke ‘skeleton crew’ explained to them. Perhaps it could all have been a little more buoyant, but on the whole Smile is dramatically convincing and sets the audience up well for next week.





The Three DoctorsBookmark and Share

Wednesday, 1 January 2014 - Reviewed by Remy Hagedorn

Last November, Doctor Who aired with its 50th of David Tennant as the Tenth Doctor, starring alongside his successor Matt Smith, and a previously unheard version of the doctor, played by John Hurt. However, this anniversary special was not the first time multiple versions of the doctor were seen together. 

The year was 1973, and to celebrate the 10th William Hartnell (The First Doctor) and Patrick Troughton (The Second Doctor) joined forces with the Third Doctor, and helped defeat a foe known only as “Omega” (Insert picture of the 3 Doctor’s around this point in the review)The special was a smashing success, and considering the budget that the show had to work with back in the day, nobody could have made a better way to celebrate 10 fabulous years of Doctor Who!

When you watch the special, the way the Second Doctor and the Third Doctor clash is incredible! The two characters have very different personalities, and the way they argue with each other is amazing! In one instance, instead of teaming up to save the universe, the second and third doctor keep on arguing with each other inside the  TARDIS about the importance of finding the Second Doctor’s recorder. The Third  Doctor wants to save the universe, but the Second Doctor refuses to co-operate  until his recorder has been found. The two characters are complete opposites, and  Terrance Dicks couldn’t have made a better script to depict the hatred they feel  towards each other! 

On the other hand though, The Three Doctor’s could have been a lot better if it actually HAD three doctors in it. William Hartnell was very ill at the time, and his  role was reduced considerably down to just a few short cameo appearances. His  absence is definitely noticeable during the duration of the special, and it is a shame we did not get to see more of him. 

On another note, Omega, the main antagonist, was a great villain. Stephen Thorn's performance  was remarkable! So remarkable, that the writers of Doctor Who brought back the  character in the 1980’s story “Ark of Infinity”. The character has a terrible temper,  and wants revenge on the Timelords. His anger is what motivates him, and is what  causes him his near death at the end of the special. 

However, there were definitely some dull moments in the story, and the special  effects were terrible. For example, the anti-matter organism that Omega uses as a  bridge between the two universes, just looks like a giant blob made up of different  colours. It looks like they made this effect by taking the storyboard frames one by  one, and spilling some tropical juice over them.

But despite the minor flaws this story may have, it is definitely worth seeing. For  those fans that have never watched the original series, but want to try, this is for  sure a story you want to start with. Unlike “The Trial of a Timelord” which has 14  parts to it, this is a nice small serial that is made up of only 4. Not too long, not too  short, and is something that the whole family can enjoy, no matter what your age may be!  





The Three DoctorsBookmark and Share

Monday, 11 December 2006 - Reviewed by Finn Clark

The Three Doctors is a load of old tat, according to conventional wisdom. However some people say the same about The Five Doctors and the entire Pertwee era. Personally I think it's a genuinely strong story. It has great characters and some of Doctor Who's best comedy... in all seriousness, I laughed more at The Three Doctors than I did at City of Death. Gellguards aside, what's not to like? Admittedly it looks silly, but we're Doctor Who fans. We should be able to see past that.

The reason to watch episodes 1-3 is the comedy between the regulars, who are fantastic. Dr Tyler and Sam Whatsit don't add much (although I loved Sam's last line at the end of episode four), but they don't matter. The Three Doctors knows who its stars are and cuts back everything else to maximise their screen time.

Troughton doesn't exactly underplay his role, but that wasn't his specialty in the 1960s either. The always-impressive Nicholas Courtney makes good lines look fantastic... this is famously the Brigadier's "I'm pretty sure that's Cromer" story, but somehow he actually avoids looking like an idiot. He's wrong, but for character-based reasons rather than plain stupidity. Nick Courtney gives us a man who's always found the Doctor trying but is now discovering that Troughton could give even Pertwee lessons in stretching your patience. The Doctors work together wonderfully, of course. Troughton and Pertwee were both masters of comic acting, while there's a freshness to their scenes since their Doctors had never previously had to operate in anything like this kind of relationship.

William Hartnell is okay. Sadly the poor man's condition meant that he had to read his lines off a cue card and only appear on a monitor, which simplified the plot but means that his Doctor has none of the force and power of which Hartnell was perfectly capable. He also looks strange on the TARDIS scanner. He's orange. He gets a good line or two, but as a performance it's pretty sad compared to his usual standards.

Benton makes a good companion, incidentally. Like Jo Grant, the character has an endearing "I may not be very bright but I'm doing my best" earnestness about him. I'm also glad that Richard Franklin took time off to direct a play, because Captain Yates was the one UNIT regular who hadn't met Troughton and he might have diluted the byplay.

The story's other big plus is Omega, who's a wonderful creation. I'm tempted to call him Doctor Who's finest villain, a Shakespearian figure of tragedy and complexity. The Master and often even Davros are simply evil. They appear in better stories than poor Omega, but they're rent-a-baddies who can be inserted into a random script and left to get on with their latest Plan For World Domination. However I wasn't kidding when I called Omega Shakespearian. He's like Prospero's deranged twin, if he'd been stranded on his island for ten million years. We feel his tragedy. He earns our sympathy even when we realise that he's become a ranting monster intent on destroying everything.

Omega's story is the most iconic in Doctor Who's mythology, but he's not just an eye-catching high concept. The character has depth and complexity too. Stephen Thorne manages to fit a surprising amount of naturalism into a performance that's necessarily full of declamation, theatricality and over-the-top ranting. Compare with Season Sixteen's godawful Pirate Captain for instance. You never doubt the power, grandeur and insanity of the man, but at the same time he feels real. His childishness extends beyond those temper tantrums. When he's thwarted, he almost cries! I love the way Stephen Thorne puts a crack in his voice at that point. I now want to rewatch Arc of Infinity, especially Davison's performance as Omega in its final episode, and those aren't words you'll hear too often. He even has a personification of the dark side of his mind! On top of that part four's revelation is a great SF twist, giving Omega yet another black irony.

The obvious comparison with The Three Doctors is The Wizard of Oz (but this time there really isn't a man behind the curtain, ho ho), but I'm going to suggest The Tempest. Both stories are about an exiled king-in-waiting who becomes a wizard and creates a magical storm to summon his usurpers to his island. Both are full of magic, or at least the Doctor Who technobabble equivalent. Both are more interested in character and theatricality than plot.

The Gallifrey scenes are okay. In episode one they're ghastly, pissing away any grandeur the story might have had with horrible technobabbly dialogue and po-faced uncomprehending delivery, but things improve in later episodes when we can see how much trouble they're in. Incidentally two of the three actors credited here as Time Lords had also played such parts previously. Clyde Pollitt was in The War Games and Graham Leaman was in Colony in Space. The better-known example of The Deadly Assassin's Chancellor Goth also being in The War Games was just a coincidence, Bernard Horsfall being one of David Maloney's favourite actors. All four of his Doctor Who roles were in Maloney-directed stories! However it seems clear that here Lennie Mayne was deliberately casting former Time Lords.

We see some minor traditions of multi-Doctor stories.

1 - Bessie will get teleported along with the 3rd Doctor.

2 - One of the Doctors will get trapped on a TV screen, thus freeing up story space for the others.

3 - It's always the latest incarnation who does the actual investigation. He's still the hero. His predecessors are just colourful guest stars.

I adore the Gellguards. The weird multicoloured blob is freaky enough to look effective, but the Gellguards are hilarious. You'd think you were watching a Graham Williams story. For a man who so obviously loves theatricality and impressive costumes, Omega has a mysterious tendency to make goofy monsters. Scarily the Ergon was an improvement! Admittedly the Gellguards look pretty in close-up, with the colours on that bubbly oil slick surface, but in motion... oh my. It's the way they bounce as they wobble forwards.

However on the plus side, the singularity technobabble makes sense! The laws of physics really do go peculiar at the heart of a black hole, so it's not unreasonable for Omega to be exploiting those peculiar properties... especially since those are the exact forces he'd harnessed aeons ago to create the Time Lords.

I also love part one's cliffhanger. The Doctors know what they have to do as soon as Hartnell tells them about the bridge, but they mess around with comedy coin-tossing and we think it's just a bit of fun... until Pertwee walks outside and LETS THE MONSTER EAT HIM.

The Doctor's exile being rescinded is a nice touch, but it would have been more meaningful if by then he hadn't had full control over the TARDIS anyway. Season Seven's production team played fair with the Doctor's exile, but by the time of The Time Monster the TARDIS was seemingly as free as a bird. Had they still been taking that seriously, the production team might have realised that they missed an opportunity in this story. Troughton presumably didn't have Pertwee's memory blocks. They could have had comedy with one Doctor being reliant on the other to fly his own TARDIS, or possibly even stealing back his knowledge of temporal physics through telepathic contact with his previous self.

Like The Five Doctors, this story is underrated. It looks and feels like glittery nonsense, but it has Omega, a great cast and some of Doctor Who's best comedy. Admittedly the story doesn't move quickly, but that was the format under Terrance Dicks and Barry Letts. Even the good Pertwee-era stories can be tortoise-like. Seriously, I was impressed.





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.





Frontier In SpaceBookmark and Share

Tuesday, 15 November 2005 - Reviewed by Ed Martin

Frontier In Space has the dubious distinction of being the only serial of Doctor Who that my sister has watched all the way through, and that was only because she was too ill to move. She passionately hated it, finding it boring, but it's actually a pretty decent story and probably second only to The Green Death in the programme's tenth season. However, it does tend to go round in circles a bit: I can tell you that over the course of the six episodes one or more characters gets incarcerated in a prison cell no less than seventeen times, including the lunar penal colony. Still, over-the-top lazy writer's devices are what the Jon Pertwee era is all about (more on that when we get to Planet Of The Spiders).

The first thing notable about this episode is the superb quality of the special effects, which is not something you can say very often about a Barry Letts production. This is particularly evident in the model shots of spacecraft flying about which, although looking slightly Thunderbirds-esque at times, certainly pass muster. As well as this though there is very little CSO present in this episode, being used only to create the television footage in the President's office. This is good, as the quality of the CSO is one of the most consistently poor aspects of Letts's time as producer. This may sound like I'm setting Letts up for a rough ride during the course of my reviews (for future reference, this is my first Pertwee review). Wait and see.

The opening scene with the freighter crew is obviously designed to set the story, but even though it lays on the exposition very thick it gets by by following the first rule of plot development: the characters actually have a reason to be talking to each other. There they are, two crewmembers of an unarmed ship that as far as they know could be attacked at any moment - why shouldn't they discuss the threat? The first scene with the Doctor and Jo shows Pertwee arguably not trying, stroking his lip and scratching his neck less than a minute after emerging from the TARDIS. However, Jo's characterisation improved considerably over her tenure (in inverse proportion to UNIT's) and so she's much less annoying here than she used to be, although the thought of a Katy Manning DVD commentary still fills me with horror. The pulsing spacecraft fills the episode with a sense of mystery - something common then but rare now in these days when everything has to be jammed into a forty-five minute space - which is always a good start.

Dudley Simpson's electronic score is very intrusive; Simpson often produced good work when using conventional instruments (which do feature in this story), but his output when using squeaky early-1970s synthesisers was rarely up to much. Still, there have been worse scores for the show, both by him and others.

The story is set in the 26th century, but I could have sworn it was 1973. More to the point, 1973's idea of what the 26th century would look like, viz, the fashions of 1973 but in spandex, perspex and a lot of other things ending in ex (I've watched Dalek a lot recently). The location work is well shot but the buildings they chose look so 1970s that the effect is spoiled, with what looks like a concrete leisure centre doubling as Earth control. It's like watching Doctor Who done on the set of Get Carter. Pertwee was right though when he said that the Draconians were great looking aliens, even though their 'honourable foe' characterisation seems slightly dated now having been done a billion times in Star Trek. It has to be said that Peter Birrel looks like he's struggling under his make up and his acting is very stagy; he is eclipsed in his scenes by Karol Hagar, playing his secretary. Louis Mahoney as the newscaster presents a largely successful attempt to show a wider universe (half 1984 and half The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy) beyond the confines of the serial's sets and locations, once you get over the shock of seeing a non-Caucasian in 1970s Doctor Who.

Back in space, the Doctor and Jo are locked up (a state in which they spend most of the episode). The mystery of the attacking Draconians is explained early on, which is rare, but done to set up a conspiracy storyline rather than a mystery. However, showing the Ogrons before the dramatic reveal as they burst through the airlock door does spoil the effect a bit, as well as making it fairly predicable that the Daleks are going to turn up at some point (it was stated by Vorg in only the previous story Carnival Of Monsters that the Ogrons worked for the Daleks). That said it is a nice twist to see them again and they are excellently designed monsters, looking like a cross between an ape and Little Red Riding Hood's gran. Also, their mercenary status and idiot characterisation make them more original than the usual "resistance is useless" job.

Episode two has a long reprise which is followed by the Doctor and Jo getting locked up; an appropriate beginning for an episode that goes nowhere. However, there is some funny dialogue to introduce the concept of a mind probe, although the "pink horse with yellow spots on" sounds like an insult from Arnold Rimmer. The argument between the Draconians and the humans ends as it began, with stalemate, and their refusal to believe the Doctor means that the third party storyline takes ages to get going. By the time of episode three not much has changed, but the dialogue is well written and just about hold sup across the serials' six episodes, saving the story from feeling overlong.

The mind probe looks like a little pork pie on a dish, but it's a great scene and it showcases the excellently characterised General Williams, who completely blots out what he doesn't want to hear even in the face of overwhelming evidence. Pertwee's face is a picture as the probe blows up, although shouldn't it take his brain with it?

The Doctor's relocation to the lunar penal colony is a good trick for preventing the story faltering along its length; changing the setting keeps the story fresh. Events are moved on further by the introduction of the Master, supposedly revealing himself to be the aforementioned third party. Having these plot points paced gradually over the story helps the plot no end as it means that we don't get one or two scenes of "what's happening Doctor?" hackery, and it also means that viewers at the time weren't required to remember everything that had happened six weeks previously. Having said that, the "only politicals get the moon" scene is not exactly subtle.

Professor Dale is very well acted by Harold Goldblatt. He reminds me sometimes of a less irritable version of William Hartnell's Doctor; in fact, he even performs a tribute to Hartnell by fluffing a line. On the subject of acting I should say that Roger Delgado is terrific in what turned out tragically to be his last appearance, especially as he had ended his last performance in The Time Monster hamming it up in a manner worthy of Anthony Ainley: the scenes where he confronts Jo for the first time and later when he blackmails the prison governor into relinquishing the Doctor are a joy to watch.

Episode four ties with episode two in seeing someone locked up the most times, with five counts of a character being shut in a cell. I should note that a boom mike shadow appears in the first cell-scene in this episode, and doesn't the Doctor say that he lost his sonic screwdriver in the penal colony? This would explain the new-look screwdriver from season eleven onwards. Glaring stock footage of the moon landing is used for when the Master's ship takes off but the model work generally is, as always in this story, excellent. Also, the Master reading War Of The Worlds is a nice touch, the kind of subtle self-referentiality that Russell T. Davies can never get the hang of. The spacewalk scene shows some very dodgy science but is visually impressive, although the Doctor does appear to swing about when supposed to be floating in the void - almost as if he's suspended on wires. He pulls out his oxygen pipe, but conveniently it only starts to propel him when he's pointing it in the right direction.

On my video episode five has the alternative Delaware arrangement of the theme music, so this seems an appropriate time to talk about it: it's awful, and it shows Barry Lett's thoughtlessness that he ever truly believed anything would ever top the original version - a mistake made by John Nathan-Turner ten years later, who when trying to make the show as modern as possible failed to realise that modern doesn't stay modern forever. It's hard to believe that the two versions of the music were actually made by the same person, which just goes to show what can happen when too much equipment is available; Delia Derbyshire really had to work to make the original, and that makes it what it is. The first time I heard the Delaware version, I thought I'd been slipped something.

The Draconian court is seen for the first time this episode, and obvious parallels are drawn up between the two camps: Draconia has the warmongering prince and the moderate emperor, while Earth has the aggressive General Williams and the rational president. The legend of the Doctor is a very Terry Nation style piece of work, and in fact one that would be repeated by Nation in the very next story. The raid by the Ogrons on the stolen ship is simple but effective, although the Doctor fires a gun without any qualm at all which is something very hard to equate with his character. I suppose something about the Ogrons brings out his violent side.

The Ogron planet is revealed, and it's a quarry. There are many clichés about Doctor Who, and the one hardest to defend against is that quarries were used left, right and centre to provide alien planets. It has to be said though that most of the time (like now) the script did call for a barren wasteland, with the exception of The Three Doctors which just showed the production team not trying in the locations department. The final episode is largely set here, and there is some nice continuity as monsters from the last season are paraded before Jo. Back on Earth, the American calling for war when the audience knows it is unjustified may be a commentary on Vietnam, or maybe that's just me getting too analytical.

Typical of an episode set in a quarry, the visuals pall slightly in this episode: there are obvious wires in the spacewalk scene, and the Ogron eater looks like a soiled mattress. Is it me, or is the Doctor's scanner the same prop that was later used in The Mark Of The Rani? There is a well staged action scene though, that leads to the big reveal the Daleks are the masterminds behind the whole plot (in deference to this I have hidden a "bad wolf" reference in this review. Try and find it, conspiracy lovers!). Pertwee seems very unconcerned that his least favourite monsters have returned, and like I said earlier the presence of the Ogrons makes it less of a surprise than it could and should have been. Their voices are excellent: very smooth, but also totally electronic and tinny (although I prefer the harshness of the early Daleks and now the new series too). Also, Michael Wisher is an excellent voice artist, falling behind only Nicholas Briggs and the grand daddy of them all, Peter Hawkins; he's leagues ahead of Roy Skelton. However, the actors have trouble moving the props even on the smooth studio floors.

This all leads to an unusual cliffhanger ending leading directly into the next story, Planet Of The Daleks, but due to the tacky production and Terry Nation's derivative script the season's twelve-part centrepiece was less effective than it deserved to be: it's certainly nowhere near the quality of The Daleks' Master Plan, for which Frontier In Space and Planet Of The Daleks were conceived to rival. Still, this first half is sprawling, slow paced but also intelligent, mature and enjoyable and stands up as one of the better stories of Pertwee's last two seasons.








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