The Visitation SE (DVD)Bookmark and Share

Sunday, 5 May 2013 - Reviewed by Chuck Foster

The Visitation SE
Written by Eric Saward
Directed by Peter Moffatt
Broadcast on BBC1: 15 - 23 Feb 1982
DVD release: 6 May(R2), 14 May (R1)
This review is based on the UK Region 2 DVD release.

The Visitation falls just a couple of stories before the return of the Cybermen turned me into a fully-fledged fan (as opposed to a regular watcher), but it was certainly a strong enough tale to keep my attention from its opening moments in a cosy Manor House to the destruction of central London at its denouement. Coupled with a striking monster, android, and the flamboyant Richard Mace, it remains one of my favourite stories from that era!

"Well they've certainly let the grass grow since I was last there!"

It's time to take Tegan home, but with the reliability of the TARDIS being what it is, they arrive some 300+ years too early much to the air hostess's irritation. Once everybody's calmed down, a little exploration is called for, but unsurprisingly leads them into trouble with locals, and it is only their meeting with thespian turned highwayman Richard Mace that gets them out of the tricky situation. Mace explains about plague fears, but then the description of a comet seen some months previously and also of alien artefacts found in a barn engages the Doctor's interest ... and as curiousity draws in the cat, the time travellers become embroiled with the desperate attempts by a group of escaped Terileptil prisoners to seize control of the planet through genocide via their own enhanced plague ...

Though fourth broadcast, The Visitation was Peter Davison's second story to be produced. At the time it was reported that the recording order was to enable the new Doctor to settle into his role, but as the production notes point out it was a rather more mundane reason in that the opening story simply wasn't ready! As a result, watching the credits can be a confusing affair with who is responsible for what, with this story seeing the actual first contribution to the series by Eric Saward as a writer before assuming the shackles of script editor even though he's credited as such earlier in the season - I tend to feel that this story is actually one of his greatest triumphs, perhaps because he had yet to be encumbered with overall responsibility for scripts. Here we get a simple, progressive tale that takes us from the initial encounters above through to the eventual besting of the Terileptils and the accidental start of a Great Fire ...

In later years there was to be a lot of criticism over the apparent rampant continuity (and associated errors) within the JNT era, and the first 'biggie' rears its head with the above Fire - though as this clash is with a throwaway line from the Doctor at the tail end of Pyramids of Mars I think it is forgiveable at this stage! However, producer John Nathan-Turner was already attempting to establish a sense of narrative continuity in the series in a way vaguely reminiscent of the early adventures of the First Doctor, though it did have a tendency to feel shoe-horned in rather than natural (something Saward complained about for this story, though he was just as guilty later on!). So here we have the Doctor remonstrating Adric over the TSS machine, and Tegan trying to explain her violation by the Mara in their previous adventure on Deva Loka - though with the out-of-sequence filming of Davison's early stories, Kinda was filmed afterwards (and leading to Janet Fielding pronouncing Mara differently here!). Later, we have the Doctor exclaiming "Not again!" when he's about to have his head chopped off at the end of episode two, a reference to it almost happening to him in Four To Doomsday (though this was added by Davison himself!).

The story introduces the aforementioned Terileptils, and though we only meet a nefarious section of their society they come across as an interesting race, and its a shame they never returned to the show (except via a reference in The Awakening. Also making an appearance is one of their androids, which is a great design (highlighting the Terileptils' eye for beauty), but was revealed way too early in the story in my view. I've always enjoyed plots that seem to start off in one direction and then suddenly take off in another, unexpected one - here, I felt that the story would have been better served had the android not been seen breaking into the Manor at the start and thus revealing the sci-fi origins so quickly (this still annoys me about the film Predator with the spaceship at the start - without that introduction the film would have so much more surprising as the true enemy was revealed). Still, with Doctor Who being well-established as a science-fiction show it isn't so surprising that this element plays its hand so early on - doesn't mean I have to like it though!

Of the main cast members, Michael Robbins brings the flamboyant Richard Mace wonderfully to life, and in a parallel series could have made a fine foil for the Doctor in his travels in much the same way as Jamie complimented the Second Doctor. Mind you, we'd have had to thin out the TARDIS crew quite a bit, though Saward did a reasonable job in giving all of the principals something to do and something to say during The Visitation. Michael Melia does a fair job in bringing the Terileptil leader to life considering being stuck underneath the prosthetics - though Peter van Dissell had even more of a job in the android suit! The rest of the cast is okay, though they didn't really get that much to do, and the accents seem to meander a bit, especially considering the story was set in 17th Century Heathrow!

Other observations:
  • The almost throwaway opening with the family passing time together is quite poignant, and it's shame we lose them after just that single scene.
  • Tegan gets some of the best lines during the early scenes, with her comments over the Doctor's "incomprehensible answers", and how "a broken clock keeps better time than you do!"
  • There are good cliffhangers and bad cliffhangers, and then there are some that almost seem to be just 'cut here' - episode one certainly feels like that!
  • when Adric asks what nectar tastes like, Mace sounds like he's about to turn into Corporal Jones, cut off just as he was going to say "you stupid boy!".
  • It seems quite strange for Nyssa to operate the machine in her bedroom - but then in theory the console room exists in a state of temporal grace and so perhaps it needed to be away from there ... though Earthshock indicated it wasn't working any more - did Nyssa bugger it up, here?!!!
  • Another TARDIS feature to have been 'lost in the continuity 'fog' is the isomorphic control of the TARDIS as mentioned in Pyramids - all of the Doctor's newest companions have had a bash at it by this point - maybe this can be blamed on K9 after The Invasion of Time?

Overall, I found the story to be a straightforward, enjoyable tale, and one of the better stories from the Fifth Doctor's era. It was also quite a memorable story for me back when it was first broadcast, though it wasn't the realisation of the Terileptils or the android so much as the demise of the sonic screwdriver. As with the departure of K9 a year earlier, I can fully understand now the reasoning of removing it from the plot resolution portfolio (and that is ably demonstrated by its over-reliance in the modern series), but at the time I was just as sad to see the departure of "an old friend" as the Doctor was!

The DVD

As a Special Edition, it's the improvement to the sound and picture quality that would attract those who have bought the DVD release, and again it doesn't disappoint in that regard. It's the film sequences that really shine through, as the Restoration Team went back to the original 16mm film negatives and re-scanned the sequences, though the studio sequences also seem much crisper this time around too, as evidenced in these comparisons from the beginning of episode one:

2004/2013 DVD picture comparison: studio footage (Credit: BBC Worldwide) 2004/2013 DVD picture comparison: location footage (Credit: BBC Worldwide)

With regard to the film sequences, there had been some controversy over apparent loss of "sharpness", such as the brickwork in the above shot; Steve Roberts noted, however, that: "it looks like the neg is naturally sharp and the older print has had a bit of artificial sharpening added into it, that's all. Also, the presence of grain makes pictures appear to be sharper than they actually are, and the old sequences are definitely grainier!". Personally, I think its only with freeze-frames that the rendering might throw up such a discrepancy, it certainly isn't apparent when watching the action unfold normally!

As with other special editions, the production notes have been completely revised and brought up to date, with Nicholas Pegg guiding us through the production of the story. All the usual intricate details are present, such as the changes from script to screen, character notes, casting, etc., so if you want to know about the historical accuracies within the plot, or what magazine Nyssa happens to be reading in the TARDIS, here's the place to go!

The rest of Disc One contains the features that were included with the original release. In brief, there's the Film Trims, which show some of the retakes and cut bits from the story (and being the original unrestored footage acts as a good comparison against the sterling work on the episodes themselves). Directing Who sees director Peter Moffatt discuss his six engagements on the series from Full Circle through to The Two Doctors. Writing a Final Visitation features Eric Saward chatting about how he went about creating his television debut. Scoring The Visitation delves into the incidental music of The Visitation by Paddy Kingsland (for me, the best composer of this era of the show). Also included are the isolated music track and original highly amusing commentary by Peter Davison, Janet Fielding, Matthew Waterhouse, Sarah Sutton, with Peter Moffatt, plus the ubiquitous Photo Gallery.

Disc Two contains the new features of this release, with pride of place going to Grim Tales, the behind-the-scenes documentary for The Visitation. This takes the innovative approach of taking Peter, Janet and Sarah back to the locations of the story to reflect on the production of the show - Matthew was unavailable for the shoot, unfortunately, but as with the commentary those present made sure his "memorable moments" were remembered! The trio are instead joined by the anachronous Mark Strickson, who acts as steward as they try to navigate their way around the rather large Black Park - though fortunately also having a rather handy guide from yours truly (grin).

After the forest antics the group then travel by handy TARDIS to the location of the manor house (Tithe Barn), whose current owners discovered they had inherited the Doctor Who legacy when they purchased the property thanks to a copy of The Visitation being left behind. Along with the anecdotes of filming was a rather nice "Visitation Cake" which almost seemed a shame to eat ... not that it stopped them!

The relaxed, informal recollections were interspersed with illustrative clips, plus some more traditional interviews with production team members Eric Saward (writer), Ken Starkey (designer) and Carolyn Perry (make-up), talking about the more technical aspects of making the show. Plus. Michael Melia (the Terileptil leader) added his own anecdotes of being under layers of prosthetics!

All-in-all, this was a very enjoyable approach to the making of the show, ably abetted by the utilisation of the locations which played quite a substantial role in the story. Producer Russell Minton did a superb job in the presentation, and this this easy-going way of presentation is carried on into the producer's next feature on this disc, The Television Centre of the Universe. Here, Peter, Janet and Mark (no Sarah this time) reminisce over what made up a typical day filming Doctor Who at the 'heart' of the BBC as-was, 'supervised' by Blue Peter presenter Yvette Fielding.

The trio continue to regale with their anecdotes over their time recording the series, which for this feature loosely relate to the area of the BBC they have reached. So, at the car park there are tales of the excitement of watching Ronnie Corbett's attempts to park, how hit-and-miss it could be to actually get into TVC's car park in the first place, and how Mark shamelessly used Blue Peter as his excuse to get his dog Bramble in with him! Then, into Main Reception and the symbolic "handing of the key to the dressing room", followed by actually attempting to find it in the 'maze' of TVC and of course confronting the condition of the room once in! As with Grim Tales, there are anecdotes from others inserted along the way, with people such as AFM Sue Heddon talking about the dressing room 'dungeons' where there could be 30 artistes getting ready!

Next up is make-up, a place to hang-out it seems to get all the latest gossip. The quartet are joined by Carolyn Perry and discussed the happy atmosphere that existed back then - and how some of the senior make-up supervisors were to be avoided where possible! Inserts included fellow make-up artist Joan Stribling talking about the 'uniforms' they had to wear, and costume designer Odile Dicks-Mireaux on how Peter could be naughty with the polaroid camera. Other contributors included production assistant Jane Ashford on the TVC 'industry' and former DWM editor Richard Marson chatting about how you couldn't miss DW when 'in town'; plus, special mention to film traffic supervisor Neville Withers and his Jon Pertwee anecdote.

This was a wonderful feature, and continues the warm feeling about TVC that we've had of late with the 'last night' programming back in March and Marson's wonderful Tales of Television Centre last year. This is very much how I hope TVC will be remembered, and not marred by some of the recent incidents that have come to light and the press gleefully seized upon. Roll on, part two!

Also included on the disc is the next instalment of Doctor Who Forever!, The Apocalypse Element, explores Doctor Who's thriving adventures on audio. Kicking off with the vinyl releases of the original series, Nicholas Briggs unsurprisingly champions Genesis of the Daleks whilst Gary Rusell and Steve Cole discuss their fond memories of original adventure The Pescatons. There's also an honourable mention of that quintessential disco favourite, Doctor Who Sound Effects (injoke for convention-goers of many years ago!) - though from a completist point of view, where's the mention of the original TV Century 21 David Graham narrated release of the end of The Chase!

Of course, the primary focus of the documentary is on how Big Finish has gone from strength to strength over its humble beginnings in 1998 with adaptions of adventures starring Lisa Bowerman as Bernice Summerfield, the arrival of Doctor Who proper the following year with Colin Baker, Sylvester McCoy and Peter Davison, then Paul McGann in 2001, and their successes with Dalek Empire, The Lost Stories and finally the arrival of the fourth Doctor himself, Tom Baker in 2012. As usual, a variety of contributors chat about the range, including future series writers like Paul Cornell, Mark Gatiss, Joseph Lidster, and Rob Shearman. plus the producers Gary Russell, David Richardson and not least the overall 'guardian' Jason Haigh-Ellery. Plus Russell T Davies chats about how the range kept the flame alight in the 'wilderness years' and how he then reciprocated in keeping that BF flame going in the turmoil of the series returning to television.

On the AudioGo side of the fence, Michael Stevens commented on how the narrated soundtracks and then the narrated Target novelisation have also proved popular, and on how they tempted Tom Baker back to Doctor Who with Hornets' Nest.

Overall, the feature is a little more serious than the previous instalments, but still very interesting to watch and a good overview of how the Doctor Who world is enhanced outside of the television series itself.

The disc is rounded off with the PDF files for Radio Times listings and the BBC Enterprises Sales Sheet, plus the Coming Soon which unlike with The Aztecs does introduces the next scheduled release!

Just to round of, I don't usually think about the menus themselves, but one thing I noticed about the clips used was that they seemed to be focussed on some of Matthew Waterhouse's lesser moments in the story ... pure coincidence I'm sure!

Conclusion

This is a fun story, as much of Season Nineteen turned out to be, and for those who aren't familiar with the Davison era is one of the stories that I'd recommend to get stuck in with, as there is little continuity baggage to worry about as the following years started to suffer from. For those who purchased it before, I'd certainly recommend the documentary as a great additional feature, and the enhanced clarity of the film sequences give the story a new lease of life.

Coming Soon...

The Doctor's attempts to regain his mastery over time and space go awry as he instead travels into a parallel universe, where friends become enemies in a world counting down to disaster in Inferno Special Edition




Four To DoomsdayBookmark and Share

Monday, 11 December 2006 - Reviewed by Robert Tymec

A highly unusual story. I remember "The Discontinuity Guide" stating that it almost seems like Terrence Dudley doesn't seem to know what it's like to write for Doctor Who. And, as I watched this story with this premise in mind, I found this notion not only plausible but highly effective. 

In the hands of a lot of other authors, "Four To Doomsday" would have resorted to many of the cliches an invasion story in Doctor Who uses. In fact, if we go back a few years to the early Tom Baker days, we have a story called "The Android Invasion" that runs along some somewhat similar lines. Except that, of course, "Four To Doomsday" is highly intelligent sci-fi and "Android Invasion" is a pretty big load of bunk! 

The greatest pitfall it assails that much of "cliche Who" has failed at is the characterisation of its main villain. Since JNT took the helm as producer in the previous season, we have seen many of the more megalomaniacal characters becoming more subdued and layered in stories like "Warriors Gate" and "Leisure Hive". This tradition continues in the characterisation of Monarch. He's very "plummy" both in dialogue and portrayal. And though, like all the maniacs in Who that are trying to take over the universe, his eventual true colours show in a complete disintegration of his personality - even this is handled with a great sense of finesse. Rather than subjecting us the OTT stuff we saw in the pre-JNT days - we get a very convincing and even three-dimensional character. And thanks to this characterisation, Monarch easilly rests in my memory as one of the better villains of the Davison era.

Counterpointing the very excellent Monarch is an equally-strong portrayal in the stereotypical "rebellious character that the Doctor allies himself with in order to take down the bad guy". Bigon is also very well-executed both on paper and in performance. He is ironically tragic as the atheist greek philosopher who has more soul than anyone else on the ship. His relationship with Monarch is also quite fascinating as the dictator allows him his existence because he sees him as a "moral galvaniser". Again, another convention we have seen in countless other stories, but Terrence Dudley gives us a whole new slant on the premise and makes this story thoroughly refreshing because of it.

Now we come to the TARDIS crew. This, in many ways, is their first "proper" story even though the current line-up has been around for two stories. Both those stories were spent dealing with the Doctor's regeneration and we really don't get much of a sense of what their relationships will be like since all the focus is on dealing with a crisis rather than genuinely inter-relating with each other. But, in this story, we definitely see what things will be like with Doctor Five at the helm. It's an awkward sort of muddle, really. Which isn't an entirely bad thing. We've only got one 20th-century human in the mix - the rest are all aliens. Thus creating a nice breeding ground for misinterpretation and even some hostility now and again. And with this new Doctor being a bit more meek like Troughton rather than assertive like Tom or Pertwee, we get even more soap opera drama between the crewmembers because he doesn't tend to "put the companions in their place" when they appear to be getting out of hand. Although this isn't always done quite so effectively in other stories of this season - I quite like how it's done here. And all the companions get fairly equal attention - something that, again, doesn't always go so well in future stories. 

I also enjoyed how, for once, Adric really did join the bad guy for a bit rather than just pretend to like he has in other stories. And the scene where the Doctor "strips him down" in episode four is well-realised. Showing that this latest incarnation can lack assertiveness sometimes, but still knows when to truly take a stand and not back down. And even though Davison is a bit "shaky" in places because this is his first story in filming order, much of what would become "definitive fifth Doctor" is in strong evidence here and he shows that the character is going to move in some wonderful new directions now that old Tom has been laid to rest once and for all. 

Accompanied with all this are some extremely gorgeous sets, a neat form of scanning equipment (the Monopticons) and some really well-choreographed dance sequences (did I just use "well-choreographed dance sequences" in a review of a Doctor Who story? Yes, yes I did). And, of course, the wonderful space walk sequence in episode four. Again, very cheap-looking by the North American standards I'm used to when watching T.V. - but still, a very exciting little moment. Especially with the way the Doctor uses the basic laws of inertia and a cricket ball to save the day! A very "Who-esque" moment if I ever saw one! 

However, along with this, we do get some plot loopholes and things do "sag" ever-so-slightly now and again cause there just doesn't seem quite an adequate amount of story to fill the four episodes. But these problems only weigh down the story so much. "Four To Doomsday", for its flaws, is also a triumph of style and sophistication. I might even go so far to say that it is a shining example of all that is good in 80s-style sci-fi. Not just in context of the series, but the genre in general. A bit of a hidden gem that is oftentimes overlooked just because the monsters aren't quite bug-eyed enough! 

Watch this one again and see just how well it has stood the test of time. It's outstanding stuff!





EarthshockBookmark and Share

Saturday, 9 December 2006 - Reviewed by Ed Martin

Earthshock is one of the most dramatic and exciting stories the original series ever put out, and yet it makes a fatal mistake: where The Caves Of Androzani tempered its thrills with fleshed-out characters and an engaging story, this seems to think that action and dramatic tension are all that are needed for a good story. While they certainly don’t hurt when done right (and they are, with Peter Grimwade at the helm), they just aren’t enough by themselves.

For the first episode though it’s possible to enjoy the story simply on its own terms and in that sense it’s a corker, all about atmosphere and dramatic tension; the caves are well lit – although they never escape the studio-set feel – and the shots of the androids slinking around in the darkness are some of the most iconic visuals of the Davison era, and rightly so. They look so good that at this stage it’s easy to dismiss how little sense they make to the plot (more on that later).

The opening TARDIS scene isn’t great, but they rarely were in this period anyway. This time, as well as the usual charmless “performance” from Matthew Waterhouse we have to contend with an explosion of continuity, with I think six previous stories alluded to either visually or by word within a few minutes. In faint mitigation none of them would have been overly obscure to viewers of the time, but that isn’t really the problem: the scene, with the Doctor and Adric having a blazing row, is a rather heavy-handed attempt at foreshadowing the future events of the story. This would have passed unnoticed with viewers at the time, which is very telling: this story relies on surprise and tension for the entirety of its power, and is therefore held back by the simple fact that it’s no longer March 1982. Buying the story on DVD, with its cover art of a Cyberman and a wistful-looking Adric, sucks the wind right out of its sails. However, it is refreshing to see Davison unusually authoritative here.

Back in the caves, and another spadeload of atmosphere arrives with the flaring scanner. Critical of the TARDIS scenes I may be, but it’s difficult not to like the rest of the first episode. The androids’ killings are all the more affecting for happening off-screen, and melting the humans down is a good scary touch – it’s only the way the androids manage to leave their victims’ name badges intact that detract from their believability. Unfortunately we also have to put up with the fossil scene, where the knowledge of the story’s ending makes it seem like very unsophisticated storytelling and a throwback to the Hartnell years’ preoccupation with teaching people basic facts.

The confrontation between Scott and the Doctor is tense and exciting, even though it shows up how basic the characterisation is with the butch soldier shoving round the vulnerable Doctor. It’s followed though by an amazingly shot action sequence, with only the barber’s-pole laser beam special effects failing the test of time. The cliffhanger is another example of Grimwade’s directorial mastery (how can someone so knowledgeable about how to construct the show have such a stupid idea as Time-Flight?) but also serves to represent how the story sabotages itself. Why, for example, do the Cybermen use the androids to guard their hatch if they’re “too valuable to waste”? Since there are apparently 15,000 Cybermen on board the freighter, why not send two of them? There isn’t really a satisfactory answer to that since the androids have no plot function at all; they are simply a narrative device to delay revealing the Cybermen and to construct the cliffhanger. The first time round the sheer shock of the sight of the Cybermen would have been enough, the story’s failure to hold water makes it hard to believe it in the cold light of subsequent viewings.

On the subject of the Cybermen, these new ones are fairly impressive; although they were never as good as they were in the Troughton era, these certainly beat the pretenders from Revenge Of The Cybermen. Unfortunately, they are rather misconceived as characters and while David Banks undoubtedly gives a good performance the impassioned dialogue he is given misses the point of the Cybermen – especially since their lack of emotions is something that will later be afforded some prominence in the script.

The Doctor manages to defeat the androids with logic, which shows some real and convincing thought put into how to resolve this problem; sadly, as far as Earthshock goes this is an exception rather than a rule.

One thing I’ve noticed is that this story, for much of its duration, allows the viewer to be streets ahead of the Doctor, who doesn’t find out about the Cybermen until the end of part three. This is something of a double-edged sword as while it adds to the tension of waiting for the Doctor to work out the problem for himself it also takes away any sense of mystery that might have remained beyond the first episode. However, this criticism pales when compared to the masterpiece of suspense that is the Doctor’s attempt to deactivate the bomb, and it isn’t until the action transfers to the freighter that the story’s limitations begin to detract from it in a really meaningful way.

The replay of clips from previous episodes is fannish; unlike the similar (and longer) one in Mawdryn Undead this doesn’t have the excuse of being necessary to the characters experiencing it, as the Cyberleader knows about it already and its lieutenant doesn’t particularly need to know.

The crew of the freighter are, like most of the guest cast, well acted. However, they are also an equally clichéd bunch of characters in writing terms: grizzled, blue-collar space-bums, just like 90% of all spaceship crews since Alien came out three years earlier. The exception to that is Beryl Reid as the captain, one of the weirdest pieces of casting the programme has ever had (and yes, I’ll repeat the age-old assertion that she is indeed brilliant). This helps though, as the science-fiction dialogue is so po-faced in these sequences that without Reid it would quickly sound silly. In this context, Berger sounds ironic telling Ringway not to be so earnest. However, it is this seriousness that lends the second cliffhanger its impact, even if Alec Sabin plays the campest security guard who ever lived.

The third episode features the Cyberleader’s order that the Doctor “must suffer for our past defeats”, the line that almost single-handedly removes all the credibility that the Cybermen ever had, going completely against the whole idea of the Cybermen; this wouldn’t be so bad if elsewhere Saward didn’t try to engage with this concept. Their mass activation is a brilliant sequence though helped immensely by the music, which is unusual as elsewhere in the series Malcolm Clarke wrote a whole lot of rubbish.

It’s dispiriting to see the Cybermen’s weakness to gold, one of the programme’s very worst ideas, wheeled out again; and to add insult to injury there’s the contrivance of having Adric’s badge made of the stuff. Also, there’s the inconsistency of the Doctor explaining how gold kills Cybermen by suffocating them, and then two minutes later telling Berger that they don’t need air.

The Cyberman becoming stuck in the door is a great scene in visual terms but overly technobabbly; it seems that every great moment of production has some shaky piece of writing to cancel it out. There’s an unusual lapse in production when the Cybermen blow the door in one of the least spectacular explosions ever recorded, and this also highlights yet another deficiency in the writing: why didn’t the Cybermen just blow the doors in in the first place? The story is so light on proper storytelling that moments like this – and also the way the bomb has to be deactivated by the Doctor twice – really feel like ways of procrastinating and killing time until the hundred minutes are up.

The Cyberleader’s comment that “it [“fondness”] is a word like any other – and so is “destruction”, which is what we are going to do to that planet” is of the show’s clunkiest lines, and the cliffhanger is no more exciting or dramatic than anything else that’s happened in the preceding twenty-five minutes. This is turning out to be such a negative review that I should point out that the story is never really bad, but just massively flawed, and it’s a crying shame that something that initially had so much promise can have fallen so far by the third episode.

The killing of Kyle is an early sign of the violence that Eric Saward became notorious for; Nyssa acts all upset, but the scene isn’t really about emotions – it’s a cheap way of writing out a character who’s ceased to have any real function since part one and has spent the intervening time stuck in the TARDIS whining about things. It is this cynical attitude to violence that, scaled up, would make Resurrection Of The Daleks one of the most depressing episodes of all time, but since in this story it happens in isolation it’s not so bad and on the whole the story’s high mortality rate (not including Adric, who is a special case) of over 71% seems fairly appropriate to it.

The “emotions” debate is unusually preachy but helped by being a genuine exchange between the Doctor and the Cyberleader rather than being one big speech. What completely ruins it though is how blatantly emotional the Cyberleader is: when it claims that “these things are irrelevant” it sounds, paradoxically, genuinely disgusted.

The Cybermen’s machinery sending the freighter back in time is a contrivance of monumental proportions, and Adric’s death – while another superbly made sequence, as Peter Grimwade can do no wrong as a director – is let down by advance knowledge of it since the foreshadowing of it, including the “goodbye” scene, feels inconsistent with the idea of a shock twist. The Cyberleader’s death though is satisfyingly brutal, although I can’t help but wonder if a theoretically emotionless creature should evoke such a response in the viewer. This is followed finally by the silent credits, television’s equivalent of removing its hat. Many have criticised it; in principal I can live with it, although Adric is such an unpopular character that it sometimes feels like a mickeytake.

Despite being the best colour Cyberman story, Earthshock is a major disappointment – not because it’s bad, but because it had so much potential which it squandered. I can see why it was so successful the first time around, but equally – despite remaining the traditionally popular episode of season nineteen – it’s right and proper that in the years to come it would take a severe blow from Kinda. While it’s thrills and tension dazzle the viewer on first viewing, it cuts too many corners to really hold up afterwards. I would compare this to Rose in that, when taken out of the context of its original broadcast, it’s enjoyment value is severely limited.





EarthshockBookmark and Share

Saturday, 9 December 2006 - Reviewed by Robert Tymec

Not quite my favourite Davison story, but pretty damned close...

The strongest impact this story has is not-so-much its atmosphere, but its pace. One would not even necessarily describe that pace as breakneck. It has its moments of respite and rest (particularly as locations change from caves to spaceship) but the way in which this plot moves implies that something really big and really bad is going to happen by the time we reach the conclusion. And though the atmosphere of the plot also implies this, the pace or flow of the story conveys this just as, if not more, effectively. Which, to me, indicates some very gifted writing and direction on the part of the people who made this adventure. And yes, even with some of these "plot holes" that fans go on endlessly about, I'll still compliment the writer! This is some very solid storytelling. I may even be bold enough to say some of the best I've seen in the series. 

Earthshock certainly stands out in my memory as being exceptional in many ways. Its first episode, to me, is an excellent example of how to create some genuinely spine-tingling suspense with a shoe-string budget. Dress up a couple of extras in some black bodysuits, get the rest of the cast to wear some nice helmets with lights on them and then set up a "scanner device" that's just a screen with some cheap-looking blips on them. This should, to all intents, get some laughs from any discerning audience. But, again, the direction makes it all very creepy and downright disturbing (that shot where one of the soldiers finds a fizzled pile of goo with the name tag on it being exceptionally memorable). Only near the end of the episode, where the soldiers start firing and we must contend with some somewhat bad-looking post-editing effects, does the low budget seem evident. Otherwise, my suspension of disbelief during that entire episode is complete. 

But it's not entirely uncommon for a Doctor Who story to have an excellent first episode and then fall apart. So how does the rest of the story fare? Again, the pacing in this tale is magnificient. The bomb defusion sequence - which could have come across as blatant padding - instead maintains some excellent suspense. Whilst, at the same time, we get a brief Cybermen re-cap since we haven't seen these particular baddies in quite some time. And, by the way, if you think real hard, it's not hard to get the whole flashback sequence to fit in chronologically. I just assume that these neomorphic Cybermen are time travellers from after "Attack of the Cybermen" who are now going back in time to deliberately meddle with history. So, they can see a sequence from "Revenge of the Cybermen" because they are from a time that takes place afterwards and are deliberately going back in time to stop the events of that particular story from actually happening (it also gets the whole time travelling/decoder paradox to work a bit better at the end of the story).

And then, we move to the spaceship. Again, great work with using so little. A few symetrically-stacked cylinders, some nice model-work interspersed within the sequences and now we have another great creepy sequence where we know most of the humans involved are doomed to die at the hands of these merciless silver giants. Great stuff.

Next, we have episode three. The pace really starts to pick up now. The Cyber-army is unleashed. The battle sequences, though still a bit cheap-looking in spots, are magnificently created. The Cybermen seem truly mighty as most weapons seem entirely useless against them. Even Adric's gold badge will only do so much damage. The bridge-defending sequence creates another highly memorable image as the Cyberman breaking through gets frozen into the door. Gorgeous stuff. Done so effectively by just having a camera pan back really hard and fast! There's still so little to genuinely complain about here. And, upon my first viewing of this tale, I was so completely caught up in it. Even as episode three closes with a somewhat lack-lustre cliff-hanger, it seems impossible for Episode Four to go wrong.

And it doesn't. A great debate between Doctor and Cyberleader regarding emotions (a fantastic performance, in general, from both Banks and Davison in this story - they are both at their best here). Some super-creepy claustrophobic stuff where the Cybermen seem to be swarming about like a colony of ants aboard the spaceship (love that bit where Tegan keeps trying to avoid them in the halls and then finally gets grabbed from behind as she fiddles with her gun). And, finally, an absolutely stunning climax. Some of the most intense drama I've ever seen on the show. I had to pick my jaw off the floor as the absolutely bone-chillingly silent credits ran across the screen with Adric's mathematical badge lying in shards. This was not just 80s Who at its best. It was Who at it's best, period. There was nothing that could get me to hate this story. Even a few plotholes that were almost inconsequential anyway! 

I was a somewhat new fan as I watched this particular adventure. And this worked greatly to my advantage. For one thing, I had no idea that companions could die in the series. So my shock was two-fold as Adric crashed into the Earth at the end. And my emotional attachment to the story was almost self-contradictory by this point. I want Adric to be saved, of course. But I don't want Earth history to change either. And it was great to find myself so betwixt myself at the climax of the story. 

I also didn't know who the Cybermen were yet. This was my first experience with them. And, for my money, they couldn't have made a better first impression. Yes, it does not seem to make sense that they claim to be emotionless and then display sadism and pride in abundancy. But, to me, this somehow seems to work in this story. Though such a formula didn't work so well in other stories both before and after Earthshock and I can also see how wonderful the portrayal of the old Hartnell/Troughton Cybermen is, the way the Cybermen are treated in this particular tale agrees with me. I can't even necessarily say why it does, but it was this story that actually put the Cybermen down as my personal all-time favourite monsters. That's right, I even like them better than Daleks. If nothing else, they can climb stairs a whole lot more easily! 

But the strongest point of this story, for me, is that it still gives me nightmares now and again. I started watching Who when I was about fourteen (I'm Canadian, so it's not asserted into our culture like it is in Britain. We have to almost discover this series and we oftentimes don't do that til our teens) By that age, I was pretty familiar with the differences between big-budget and low-budget productions. And when something looked low-budget - it could do nothing to scare me. But this story, due to its clever use of doing so much with so little, effectively disturbed me. So much so, that it has crept into my Id and I still find myself, now and again, caught up in a dream sequence where I am trying to take flight through these dark metalic hallways with nasty Cybermen lurking around every corner waiting to grab me. That, to me, is the strongest testament to this story. Not only is it highly engaging to watch, it could also genuinely creeped me out to the point of having nightmares.

"Kinda" is still my all-time favourite Davison story. But this one comes a very close second!





The VisitationBookmark and Share

Friday, 24 March 2006 - Reviewed by Brian C Williams

The Visitation was a story I missed when I watched the series when I was younger and did not get the chance to watch it until it received its release on DVD. From that first DVD viewing though I enjoyed the story right off but that viewing was during a very busy day so I did not get to do my usual ready to enjoy a story ritual of something to eat, something to drink, and sit down with the lights down to enjoy. But even when my attention was elsewhere I could see that I was sorry to not have caught the story when broadcast on my local PBS station in Virginia. I revisited the story on a whim after reading a few comments on the web about how much of a dislike a few people had for the Davidson era of Doctor Who television stories. I totally disagreed with this but thought I should give those stories a look over again. Not having all the stories in my library at home I picked out The Visitation since I only viewed it that one rushed day and sat down with food, drink, and turned down lights and watched the story. 

There are several things, lots to be honest that I enjoy about this story. Even the android with artistic style was cool as pasted in hints at the shades of crashed aliens to Earth who are not just war mongers but have different sides to their culture. The outdoor filming and the sets I thought where very well done. The famed word thrown at Doctor Who all the time I do not see in this story, that word being low budget. Even the other person in my life who came home while I was watching and laughed out loud at the enlarged rat in The Talons Of Weng-Chiang did not make her normal comments about those type of aspects with this story. I think that had more to do with the quality and creativity put into the film and design work of the story than even the story itself. Visually and with atmosphere it can appeal to viewers new and old to the series.

The actors all I think performed well to their characters. The Tardis crew at this time is packed yes by one too many members as just about everyone has said but I thought all put in little touches that worked for theirs characters. Three very young actors is not in my view the way to go in this type of series for many reasons and add another strong character and acting performance in this story in the form of a highwayman and you have companion overload reducing Nyssa to being in the Tardis to build a weapon just in case the android shows up there? And the others left being captured. Adric is the pain I have always argued the character is meant to be but with him just as with Tegan you have to wonder sometimes how anyone could put up with being around them for long periods of time, especially anyone as interesting as the characters of The Doctor and Nyssa. I never did not like the performances or the characters when it comes to Adric and Tegan I more than anything else hated the fact that such an optionally great companion like Nyssa never got to be used properly because of the companion overload.

The story in its basics is very simple and that is why I believe it works more than some other stories because it really lets you enjoy the atmosphere set up for you and gives Davidson as The Doctor moments to really work with. Beings from another world crash land on Earth and chaos comes from that which The Doctor must stop. Simple is not always wrong. My only real problem with the story of Visitation is why must we always have mind-controlled humans or primitives as they often end up being called? I think that is one of those easy outs my professors’ use to red ink me for in college. Plus am I the only one tired of them in science fiction? Besides giving extras work, and I’m all for giving extras work having more than a few friends working within the business at around that level, but I just think the plot could have been raised out from the normal into the best effort from the writer if this connivance would not have been used to travel a story from different points of story to other points. And if you are going to have a big Tardis crew I say why not just make them the brain washed slaves?

I have to single out some thoughts on the 5th Doctor in The Visitation. The 5th Doctor has always been my favorite. Though I grew up enjoying and loving the stories of Tom Baker it was the 5th Doctor and Peter Davidson’s performances which really got me into enjoying the character to the point of wishing to view stories from Doctor’s 1-3. I think in this story he shows that edge that The First Doctor had but mixed with the kindness that I think was within The 2nd Doctor. The 5th Doctor was limited in ways of not being able to delve as much into comedy as his 4th incarnation and with too many companions for most of his run and a lot of stories with loads of promise from which they failed to reach. I think many have looked past his contribution in ways I think are a misjudgment. If anything I look actually at the era of the 5th Doctor on TV as the one which had the most chances at being great but for whatever reasons seems to have fallen short a lot. But when I look back at all the Doctor Who stories it is The 5th Doctor who reminds me that this being is not another character calling himself The Doctor but the same man traveling the universe and inducing rage from lots of people along the way. That point I think is very important to the character to do that without throwing out two much canon facts or being dark and mysterious just to be dark and mysterious.

To end up I say I would give The Visitation a 7 out of 10 for Doctor Who fans and 4 out of 10 for new to the series viewers. Older fans I think will enjoy it if they get past some of the flows with the companion structure and the writer trying to figure out what to do with them. New viewers will maybe get cross eyed at references to Kinda and Tegan’s situation of trying to get home but I think everyone could enjoy this story for what it is and that is one of the best 5th Doctor television stories. If you like Peter Davidson’s acting as The Doctor or are a fan of the way The First Doctor was on screen for that matter give The Visitation a try.





EarthshockBookmark and Share

Sunday, 5 March 2006 - Reviewed by Adam Kintopf

People often complain about the contrivances and plot holes in ‘Earthshock,’ and first off I’ll acknowledge that they’re there. The suggestion that the Cybermen’s computer can be ‘code-cracked’ to make another vehicle travel in time is particularly bothersome, and I’m always troubled by the implication that the Doctor’s (and Adric’s) interference caused the extinction of the dinosaurs and set Earth’s history on a radically different evolutionary track. I’m reassured by fans that this is not actually a paradox, but it still seems to me to create a circular timeline (Adric crashes freighter, which causes Earth to evolve differently, which [presumably] causes the Doctor to become fond of it, which causes the Doctor to become involved in Cyberman gambit in the first place, which causes the freighter to travel in time and crash in the first place, etc.) that, if not technically impossible or ‘rule-breaking,’ is still more annoying than clever. In my view, anyway.

But I won’t say anything more about that, and truly, it’s not the plot holes that bother me so much about this story. Generally speaking, I’m much happier with a Doctor Who plot that *seems* to make sense when it doesn’t, as opposed to one that works the other way round, and ‘Earthshock’s’ storyline is definitely the former. But even with a tolerant attitude towards sloppy plotting, ‘Earthshock’ isn’t really all that good. Eric Saward’s writing is a big part of the problem here – his unrelenting ‘badass’ dialogue wants desperately to be serious and adult, but instead comes off as just macho and dull and comic-book-ish. Saward’s story is obviously influenced by ‘Alien,’ but in its scripting it actually more anticipates James Cameron’s (much-overrated, in my view) sequel ‘Aliens’ – like that film, ‘Earthshock’ is also dominated by mock-American war-movie clichés, and they’re not even well fleshed out or entertaining ones at that. It doesn’t help that the supporting cast is uniformly uncharismatic, with the obvious exception of Beryl Reid, who makes a surprisingly sporting attempt, despite being impossibly miscast. (It’s not really a successful attempt, but it’s appreciated for its sheer oddity, if nothing else.) And of course there’s David Banks’s booming portrayal of the Cyber Leader – how funny that this character turns out to be one of the script’s most human characters!

But even all this might not be such a problem, if Saward’s tough-as-nails style didn’t also extend to his characterization of the Doctor, both in terms of dialogue and concept. To be fair, Peter Davison, bless his heart, acts himself into a frenzy here – scowling, snickering, squeaking, and displaying all the little tics that make his Doctor unique – but it still can’t save a writing approach that seems so false to the character. For instance, when Adric asks the Doctor how much damage will be inflicted by the bomb, and he responds “Enough to make life intolerable for the few who survived,” it’s an odd moment: this is evidently Saward’s stab at Doctorish wit, but it almost makes the Doctor sound impressed, as if he’s bragging about the weapon’s capacity for destruction. Similarly, when he casually describes the victims not as dead but rather “finished,” he sounds more like a war-hardened general than an appalled humanist. And the sight of the Fifth Doctor pressing a gun into someone’s chest, even a Cyberman’s, and repeatedly firing, is extremely unpleasant, and justly criticized by some critics of this story. There really is no other way to put it, except to say that, at moments like these, one really does feel that the series is going horribly wrong.

That’s not to say that everything is bad here. Peter Grimwade’s direction is actually very good throughout, with the android scenes in Episode One being especially well handled – when those dark shapes approach from the shadows, we can’t be sure if they’re friendly troopers or something else, and it’s genuinely scary. Later on, things become more routine, but it’s all still well done enough, and there are occasional nice touches throughout (e.g. when the Cybermen’s shadows appear around the corner before they do). Matthew Waterhouse is a controversial figure, of course, but personally I don’t find his acting all that bad – I actually think a lot of fans project their dislike of Adric’s *character* onto the performer, and that’s never entirely fair. At any rate, I find him pretty convincing here, with his final moment as he breathes heavily while gripping the belt suitably underplayed. (What would people rather he did, start screaming for help, or banging wildly on the controls?) Tegan and Nyssa aren’t given much to do, but that’s appropriate enough given the story is Adric’s swan song, and at least Tegan provides the inspiration for that fine exchange between the Doctor and the Cyber Leader – it’s one of the few points in this story where the Doctor really seems like himself. 

And I suppose I must also mention that world events since this story have added a truly frightening resonance to the terrorist tactics attempted by the Cybermen here, and this fact, while accidental, undeniably contributes to the overall effect of ‘Earthshock.’ Unfortunately, it’s not enough to save the story.