Warriors of the DeepBookmark and Share

Friday, 14 May 2004 - Reviewed by Paul Clarke

'Warriors of the Deep' is not an especially popular story, and this is often attributed to a decent script let down by poor production values. But personally, I'm not even that enamoured of the script, and whilst I do quite enjoy 'Warriors of the Deep', it is deeply flawed in many aspects. 

Firstly, I'll discuss the Silurians and the Sea Devils. The nature of the Silurians is such that any story in which they feature potentially offers a moral dilemma for the Doctor; the Silurians, after all, have a legitimate claim to Earth, and they want it back. Humanity also has a legitimate claim to Earth and they don't want to give it back. Whilst some humans and some Silurians might be willing to share the planet, others would not; given the racial intolerance between different races of humans, the possibility that the world's human population would accept another species is sadly unlikely. The consequence of which is inevitably bloodshed; this was the case in 'Doctor Who and the Silurians' and 'The Sea Devils', and it's the case here. The result of which means that the Doctor can almost certainly never achieve the peaceful solution he'd prefer, meaning that he inevitably has to take sides with one of two species neither of which he is a member. Since the Silurians (or in their debut, some Silurians) keep attempting genocide, he usually of course sides with the humans. This moral quandary is central to the story potential of the Silurians, but the only reason I know that is because I've seen 'Doctor Who and the Silurians' and 'The Sea Devils'; the much-vaunted script of 'Warriors of the Deep' does bugger all with the concept.

This is my main criticism of 'Warriors of the Deep'; there is no dissenting voice amongst the Silurians or Sea Devils, they are all committed to genocide. A new viewer has no real reason to sympathize with their plight, since Byrne's only acknowledgement of it is in a mere handful of lines. The Doctor talks of the honourable nature of the two reptile races, but we see little of it on screen. Ichtar's talk of offering the hand of friendship twice before is not elaborated on and therefore has little impact and his actions unfortunately speak far louder than words. By the end, with everyone dead save for the Doctor and his companions, the Doctor's quiet assertion that "there should have been another way" is presumably an attempt to inspire regret at the lack of a peaceful solution, but the hostility of the Silurians and Sea Devils throughout has been such that it might more reasonably provoke the response "Yes, you should have bloody well flooded the base with hexachromite gas two episodes earlier Doctor!". Incidentally, whilst this is irrelevant to the success or lack therefore of 'Warriors of the Deep', I also find it quite amusing that the continuity on display is clearly aimed at long term fans, but only long term fans would realize that the continuity is crap; allegedly, Ichtar is meant to be the Silurian Scientist from 'Doctor Who and the Silurians', but this doesn't really work and neither does his description of past encounters with humanity. The most sensible assumption for anyone who feels worried by this is that Ichtar is describing an untelevised adventure, and indeed Gary Russell's 'The Scales of Injustice' plugs this gap nicely! But anyway, back to the matter in hand… 

Criticisms of the script bring me to hexachromite, an obvious plot contrivance introduced far too early on and almost embarrassingly convenient (Lethal to all reptile and marine life you say? Lucky you had some lying around then…). And whilst I'm on the subject, the equally convenient realization that there are ventilation shafts big enough to crawl through running throughout the base seems equally contrived; it's a cliché common to other Doctor Who stories, including the superb 'The Ark in Space', but with such a weak script as the one here, it strikes me as more of a cheap plot device than usual. 

The remainder of the plot concerns the function of the Sea Base and its role in Earth's political situation in the year 2084, and it is a bit better handled than the Silurian plot. The idea of two opposing power blocs was very topical at the time, but the handling of it here renders it slightly moronic; the decision to keep these two power blocs unspecified results in some clumsy dialogue as Nilsen claims that he works for the power bloc opposed to the Sea Base as though he's forgotten what it's called. Still, the world poised on the brink of nuclear Armageddon makes for a suitably morose backdrop to the story and this comes over reasonably well. It is quite well known that Byrne wanted gloomy, cramped sets to evoke the feeling of a submarine and to convey the fact the Sea Base and its personnel are operating under desperate conditions, but instead he gets brightly lit gleaming sets. Despite this, the air of tension on board the Sea Base is well handled due to the characterisation, especially of Maddox, a student forced prematurely into the role of Synch Op for which is he is patently unsuited. Martin Neil's twitchy, sweaty performance is superb, effectively creating the impression of a man in a vital role who is unable to cope with his newfound responsibilities. The desperate situation is made plain throughout, the need for radio silence to be maintained meaning the Sea Base personnel are forced to fight an enemy that totally outclasses them, and also forcing Vorshak to release Maddox's conditioning disc. 

But whilst the script does reasonably well at depicting the difficult conditions under which the Sea Base has to operate, certain members of the guest cast do not help. Ian McCulloch's Nilsen is quite effective, since he seems to be genuinely driven by duty and ruthless rather than sadistic. His co-conspirator unfortunately is less impressive; Ingrid Pitt hams it up in the role of Solow, culminating in a deeply embarrassing karate attack on the Myrka. Nigel Humphreys' down-to-earth Bulic is rather good and as the pragmatic Vorshak, Tom Adams brings a certain authority to the role, but as the story progresses it becomes clear that his performance is a bit too laid back. By the time Vorshak tells Ichtar that he won't be responsible for the destruction of his own kind, he sounds like he's complaining about the weather. 

The regulars are reasonably well used, save for Tegan who does little except follow the Doctor around so that he can explain things to her. The Doctor himself comes over very well, Davison putting in a frantic performance as the Doctor strives in vain for a peaceful solution. His near drowning at the end of Episode One is well realised although his surrendering of his gun in order to gain Vorshak's trust is hardly original, the same trick having been used several times before in the series. Turlough is very well used; his innate cowardice is explained here as pragmatism, as he twice abandons the Doctor because he genuinely believes that his friend is dead and he doesn't fancy throwing his own life away for the sake of a futile gesture. When he believes that he can help however, he does; when he pulls a gun on Nilsen to force him to open the airlock door and thus save the Doctor and Tegan he puts his own life at risk because he knows it might work. 

And what of the often-criticized production? The extensive sets are actually very good they just aren't what Byrne wanted. The costumes of the Sea Base personnel have aged very badly, and the big hair and eye shadow firmly place this story in the midst of the nineteen eighties. The Silurian and Sea Devil costumes are rather poor; the redesigned Silurians look the worst, appearing cross-eyed; the controversial decision to have their third eyes flash when they speak merely highlights the fact that the actors are unable to make it clear that they are speaking in the inflexible costumes, whereas this wasn't a problem in 'Doctor Who and the Silurians'. Their new voices are also poor, making them sound like Cybermen (especially since Ichtar keeps saying "Excellent!"). The Samurai Sea Devils are truer to their originals as are their voices, but the costumes fit poorly and the actors waddle about in a cumbersome fashion, which makes them look more comedic than they did in 'The Sea Devils'. The much-derided Myrka does indeed look quite bad, although no worse than many other large monsters in Doctor Who. In fact the overly flexible airlock door is far more irritating; surely the designer could have used something that wobbled less? On the other hand the model work is excellent, especially that used for the Sea Base. Jonathon Gibbs' incidental score is also very good, and helps to salvage the atmosphere somewhat, but it isn't enough. 'Warriors of the Deep' is strangely enjoyable, but it is also deeply flawed and overall proves to be a weak start to Season Twenty-One.





Planet of EvilBookmark and Share

Tuesday, 4 May 2004 - Reviewed by Alex Boyd

Positive: even now that I’m older it still manages to be somewhat creepy, with a great jungle set and sound effects (still find the peculiar tinkle that accompanies the anti-matter monsters effective). Considering the Dalek voices and many other great sound effects in Doctor Who, I’m beginning to think it was one of the BBC’s best strengths at the time, and perhaps still is. 

Negative: the effects (certainly all the spaceship shots) don’t hold up, and take away from the overall effectiveness. In fact, they’re laughable, and could easily be replaced. 

Positive: it’s interesting for being the Doctor Who tribute to Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. 

Negative: the whole scientists-shouldn’t-meddle-where-they-don’t -belong theme is a little tired. 

Positive: the acting by the leads/regulars is solid, Frederick Jaeger is excellent at portraying Sorensen’s clouded mind, and Ewan Solon is good as Vishinski. I’d have to say that as a youth, Vishinski pretty much stands out in my mind as a great example of good, listening leadership. 

Negative: Prentis Hancock as Salamaar, ouch. To try and be fair, he isn’t given much good dialogue. 

Positive: the idea of a planet that is something of a lynchpin between universes, containing elements of both, that are not to be disturbed, is a good one. Are the anti-matter creatures on the planet appointed guardians? Are there no matter guardians to stop them from taking matter through into a universe where it doesn’t belong? Perhaps this never happens in the anti-matter universe because they have less flawed system, something better than a corrupt power structure and its struggles?

Negative: all the characters know nothing except what the Doctor tells them – Salamaar accepts that the Doctor is correct in assuming that the anti-matter is holding the ship back (despite later mistrusting and shooting the Doctor), and later Vishinski simply accepts that Sorensen was infected by something on the planet. Why isn’t there a scientist on board, other than Sorensen, who could inform the crew of some of these things? Seems odd to send out a ship with a captain, (oh, sorry “controller”), a second in command and a bunch of grunts. And the uniforms make them look more like superheroes than military. The weapons are also a little inconsistent – Salamaar appears to kill a guard with his pistol, but the Doctor is shot point blank in the head and recovers. 

Positive: it was a great and atmospheric set of episodes when I was young. 

Negative: it’s far less creepy, and closer to overly dramatic space opera now that I’m older, though to end of a positive note…

Positive: it was fun to revisit.





The Robots of DeathBookmark and Share

Tuesday, 4 May 2004 - Reviewed by Paul Clarke

What can I say about 'The Robots of Death' that hasn't been said before? Very little, actually. It is entirely deserving of its impressive reputation, and not only continues but also arguably elevates the high quality of the season since 'The Deadly Assassin'. In virtually every aspect, this story is a triumph.

The plot of 'The Robots of Death' combines a classical "whodunit" plot with an unstoppable group of killers, to produce a tense and claustrophobic story that never lets up. From the moment Chub is killed in Episode One, the tension mounts, as the human crew of the Sandminer desperately strive to find out whom the murderer is, only to be presented with the appearance of two highly suspicious stowaways in the form of the Doctor and Leela. The Doctor rapidly deduces that the robots on the Storm Mine are the real killers, but although the viewer already knows this, the emphasis then shifts to the mystery of exactly who is controlling them. It becomes clear in Episode Three, when Dask's distorted but recognizable face is seen on a monitor as he seizes control of SV7 (although admittedly I've watched this story with non-fans and they haven't recognized David Bailey's face behind that swirling red effect, so perhaps it is more obvious with foreknowledge), but by this point the pace of the story is such that it no longer matters. The pacing of the story is superb, as the death-toll mounts and more and more robots become killers, before reaching a suitably dramatic climax as the Doctor faces off against Taren Capel in his lair. To top it all off, the idea of using helium to defeat Taren Capel by altering the pitch of his voice so that the robots no longer recognise him is nicely ingenious. I have two minor criticisms of the plot, and in fact the entire story; the first is that the Doctor tells Uvanov and Toos not to let anyone onto the control deck, but doesn't bother to tell them that Dask is Taren Capel. This is obviously to maintain the surprise for any viewers who didn't recognise his face in Episode Three and haven't deduced that Dask is the villain by process of elimination, but in story terms it makes it seem as though the Doctor just can't be bothered to warn them, which nearly results in Uvanov opening the door and letting in both Dask and an army of robot killers. The second is the near-destruction of the Sandminer at the climax to Episode Two; this makes for a memorably dramatic cliffhanger, but raises the question of who is responsible. Initially, I thought that the damage to the motive units was caused accidental by Borg's death, but then one of the Vocs states that the drive linkages have been sabotaged. It seems that without the Doctor's intervention, the Sandminer would have been destroyed as a result, which is unlikely to have benefited either Taren Capel or his robots. Nevertheless, these minor flaws do not significantly detract from the story.

The script is superb, filled with great characters and excellent lines. The Doctor gets some of the best, my favourite being "You're a classic example of the inverse ratio between the size of the mouth and the size of the brain". D84 also gets his fair share, including "Would you like to use it? I cannot speak", and of course "Please do not throw hands at me". The characterisation is uniformly impressive, with both regulars coming across especially well. The Doctor is at his most authoritative and resourceful, starting out as a murder suspect but quickly gaining the trust of first Poul and then Toos and eventually Uvanov. His flippant attitude to personal danger is highlighted when he casually explains to Uvanov at the end of Episode Three that the advancing Voc has either followed Uvanov or homed in on the Doctor's communicator, cheerfully noting "It depends which one of us it's going to kill first". On the other hand, his concern for others is also strongly in evidence, as he instructs Leela to help Toos, carries Uvanov to safety whilst being chased by a homicidal machine, and befriends D84. Leela's character builds on the promise shown by 'The Face of Evil', as she is taken out of her natural environment and is thrust into an alien world that she doesn't understand; taking it in her stride, she seems to delight in learning from the Doctor and from her experiences and when threatened with danger she tackles it with the same resolution and fearlessness that she showed in her debut story. As in 'The Face of Evil', her desire to learn and the Doctor's willingness to teach, mean that aspects of the plot are explained to the audience in a way that doesn't seem contrived. And I love their first scene together in the TARDIS, as the Doctor tries to explain transdimensional engineering to her, before dismissing it as a very boring subject. 

The supporting characters are also impressive, and the guest cast shines. Gregory de Polnay's D84 almost steals the show, as he (ironically) shows very human character development under the Doctor's influence, and with a robot companion not far in the series' future, I can't help wishing that he'd survived and joined the Doctor and Leela in the TARDIS. Nevertheless, he makes an impression, and is final line as he sacrifices himself ("Goodbye… my friend") is touching. Uvanov, brilliantly portrayed by Russell Hunter, is another great character, starting off as a seemingly self-centered and rather mercenary character that values money over people, but proving under duress to be rather brave and heroic. In fact his attitude towards the robots in Episode Four amusingly smacks of indignation that they've had the cheek to become killers, more than anything else. David Collings, freed from the limitations of the execrable 'Revenge of the Cybermen', puts in a great performance as under-cover agent Poul, who pays the price for deciding to listen to the Doctor by having his greatest fears confirmed and losing his sanity as a result, and Pamela Salem is also impressive as Toos. All of the cast are very good, even those with relatively minor roles. Tania Rogers' Zilda could have just been another murder victim, but thanks to Boucher providing the subplot of her brother's death, she serves a greater purpose as she casts suspicion on Uvanov, inadvertently helping Taren Capel to maintain his secrecy for longer. Brain Croucher's Borg, Tariq Yunis' Cass, and Rob Edwards' Chub, despite all being killed relatively swiftly, are characters in their own right, and contribute significantly to the very human bickering in Episode One, firstly as Chub winds up Borg and argues with the icy Dask, and secondly after Chub's death as suspicion and doubt bring all the tensions in the group to the surface. 

David Bailey does a very good job as Taren Capel, and his performance as "Dask" in the first three episodes nicely highlights the "verbal and physical precision" that enables the Doctor to work out that he is Capel without being obvious. Once he stands revealed as Capel, he convincingly portrays the suppressed anger and ultimately, confusion, of the character without going over the top, and of course it is suitably ironic that it is only at this stage, when his obsession with robots becomes clear, that he allows himself to show emotion. Taren Capel is a lunatic, but a lunatic with an interesting background and motivation, as it is revealed that he was raised by robots and believes himself to be one of them. Unusually for Doctor Who, he also seems to be genuinely self-delusional, rather than just a stock megalomaniac; for all that he wants to free the robots from human control, they simply come under his control instead, and it is rather ironic that he rams a laserson probe into the brain of the only robot on the Sandminer who genuinely seems to display independent thought. His death at the hands of SV7 is thoroughly appropriate; for all that he has offered it freedom, it is still a slave to its programming, and unable to recognise its voice it cannot distinguish him from any other human. 

In terms of production, 'The Robots of Death' is famously rather magnificent. The actual robots, gorgeously designed in parody of the humans they serve, work very well, their polite voices as they kill people making them more sinister than for example the overtly threatening Cybermen. The set design is also excellent, providing a futuristic technological environment that is not, as is often the case in Doctor Who, sterile and functional, but designed with aesthetics in mind. The costumes (and make-up) of the human characters mesh perfectly with the sets, creating an air of decadence and indulgence. Michael E. Briant's direction is first-rate, making great use of special effects (which have aged astonishingly well) as well as inventive camera angles and scene cuts. The model work, which has probably aged the least well of any aspect of the story, nevertheless works well enough, and also meshes well with the sets. Finally, I have to mention Dudley Simpson's incidental score, one of the finest of his career on the series, which adds to the tension and drama considerably.

After three such strong Doctor Who stories in a row, and particularly one as near-flawless as 'The Robots of Death' it is almost unfeasible to think that the production team could maintain this level of quality, let alone top it. Nevertheless, the story that follows is not only my highlight of the season, but also my favourite Doctor Who television story of all time…





The Talons of Weng-ChiangBookmark and Share

Tuesday, 4 May 2004 - Reviewed by Paul Clarke

The Discontinuity Guide sums up 'The Talons of Weng-Chiang' with the quotation, "I may have had a bash on the head, but this is a dashed queer story". It is entirely fitting; 'The Talons of Weng-Chiang' combines giant rats, a killer ventriloquist doll with the brain of a pig, a disfigured madman from the future, and a villainous oriental magician, in a Victorian period setting. The first time I ever saw 'The Talons of Weng-Chiang' it became my favourite Doctor Who story of all time, and after many, many repeated viewings it has remained so. With a great villain, superb supporting characters and Tom Baker on top of his game, it summarizes everything that is great about the Hinchcliffe era. 

'The Talons of Weng-Chiang' is often compared to the adventures of Sherlock Holmes, but as Andy Lane pointed out, the Doctor's costume aside it owes far more to Sax Rohmer's Fu Manchu novels. As anyone who has read any of these will know, Rohmer's novels feature an evil oriental genius who uses his Elixir vitae to extend his lifespan and is served by the Si-fan, essentially a Triad. In some respects, Magnus Greel resembles Fu Manchu, since he is an evil scientist who uses his organic distillation plant for the same ends as the Elixir vitae, and is served by his own equivalent of the Si-fan, the Tong of the Black Scorpion. But Li H'sen Chang shares some of the attributes of Fu Manchu, most notably in the way that he is portrayed; Chang is played by English actor John Bennett (who puts in a highly impressive performance), and whilst it is rather unusual from a twenty-first century perspective to see an English actor made up to look Chinese, this acts (intentionally or otherwise) as a visual nod to Christopher Lee's portrayal of Fu Manchu in several films. In addition, there are thematic links to Rohmer's work; the Fu Manchu novels are very much a product of their time and are typified by their "yellow peril" mentality, with Rohmer's oriental anti-hero on one hand thoroughly evil, whilst on the other treated with a strangely contrasting air of grudging respect and almost awe. This is perhaps a literal example of xenophobia, as the Chinese in Rohmer's novels are portrayed as an alien but honourable culture with strange and exotic customs. There are nods to this dichotomy in 'The Talons of Weng-Chiang'; Litefoot describes the Chinese as inscrutable and uses politically incorrect terms such as "Chinks" and "Wongs", whilst also fondly remembering his upbringing in Peking, treasuring the gifts from the Emperor to his family, and marveling at the use of fireworks at his father's funeral. In addition, Holmes seems to be knowingly poking fun at the stereotyping that he himself incorporates into his script, with Chang dryly remarking, "I understand we all look the same", and "The bird has flown - one of us is yellow". 

Chang is an effective villain, and unusually for a secondary villain is very well characterised; few villains in Doctor Who repent their sins before they die, but Chang is one such example. Having blindly served Greel for many years, his master's betrayal cuts deep, as he humiliates Chang publicly by introducing Casey's corpse into his stage show. Chang's realization that he has long served a monster is completed when one of the rats drags him to his lair and he finds himself in a "charnel house" full of human remains. Chang's repentance in no way excuses the fact that he has led many a young woman to a grisly death, but it stands as an interesting and effective piece of characterisation. Bennett's performance makes it doubly successful, and he excels in his many scenes, particularly the stage show in Episode Four, as he plays a game of cat and mouse with the Doctor; not only does Bennett make a great villain, he also makes a convincing stage magician! 

Mr. Sin is another memorable Holmes' creation, fulfilling the traditional role of murderous henchman, but with a considerable twist. The Peking Homunculus is an exercise in grotesquerie, a homicidal robot dwarf with the brain of a pig and the appearance of a large, if rather repulsive, doll. It's technological origin fits in perfectly with the era from which it supposedly hails, whilst its appearance is somehow appropriate to its Victorian surroundings in the story. As the token monster, it excels, snorting and cackling horribly as it kills or anticipates death, and the Doctor's grave warning as to the danger it represents are realized in Episode Six, as its bloodlust finally builds to a crescendo and it slaughters Greel's men when they enter the room. To a lesser extent, this is also shown by the fact that it turns on Greel, although this is also motivated by self-preservation, since unlike Greel it listens to the Doctor's insistence that the Zygma experiment is appalling dangerous. With two such memorable villains, 'The Talons of Weng-Chiang' is already ahead of its game, but it is Michael Spice as Magnus Greel, alias Weng-Chiang, who really steals the show. 

Magnus Greel is a truly loathsome villain. Like Morbius in 'The Brain of Morbius' (voiced of course, by Michael Spice), and the Master in 'The Deadly Assassin', Greel is motivated not by power and conquest, but by an overwhelming need to survive. To this end, he will stop at nothing; he thinks nothing of murder of the abducted girls for the sake of his well being, dismissing them as "slatterns" and treating them as mindless cattle; in Episode Five he literally compares them to food. In addition, his desperation is such that he frantically denies the Doctor's warnings about the failure of the Zygma experiments, and this denial threatens to destroy a large area of London. Throughout the first five episodes, he is portrayed as a malingering ghoul, hiding in the shadows in a dank subterranean lair, where he feeds on the life energy of helpless victims. The entire script is geared to emphasize that Greel is utterly depraved; the Doctor and Leela refer to him as a "blackguard", "a gangrenous vampire" and "an underground crab". To add an extra dimension of degeneracy to his character, his chosen victims are all young women; there seems to be no particular reason for this, save that he prefers preying on young women to young men. Significantly, he strips his victims, including Leela, to their underwear before placing them in his machine. Everything about Greel reeks of evil; like the Master in 'The Deadly Assassin', he is physically as well as morally twisted. He is quick to dismiss Chang, who it is suggested nursed him back to health and has served him loyally for many months, with great rapidity when Chang makes mistakes, but not satisfied with dismissing him for his failure, he also gleefully decides to publicly humiliate his faithful servant, seemingly on the spur of the moment. He's unrelentingly sadistic, and Holmes' script allows him to be a rare example of a villain who can choose not to kill his enemies so that he can make them suffer instead, without it seeming contrived. The fact that he begs piteously when faced with death almost adds insult to injury. And then, as if all this wasn't enough, we get the revelations about his past in Episode Six. 

Throughout 'The Talons of Weng-Chiang', the Doctor discusses his enemy with an air of utter contempt, but in Episode Six when he finally learns exactly who his enemy is, Baker manages to convey whole new levels of disgust. It is testament to Holmes' talents as a writer that in one short scene, he uses a few lines to imply so much about Greel that his atrocities in the story up until that point almost pale in comparison. References to "the infamous minister of justice" and "the butcher of Brisbane" paint a picture of a monster, evoking images of the worst crimes of the Third Reich. Thousands of "enemies of the state" were, we are told, slaughtered in his organic distillation plant. By the end of Episode Six, Greel stands as one of the series' most memorable, and most despicable, villains; his final scenes, as he desperately tries to bargain with the Doctor, and is betrayed by Mr. Sin, are wholly fitting. Greel doesn't die spectacularly or dramatically; already near to death, he dies pleading and is hoist by his own petard as the Doctor throws him into the machine that he has used to kill so many others. Spice is perfect in the role, playing the part with melodrama, but never quite going over the top, even when he utters the immortal line "Let the talons of Weng-Chiang shred your fleeeeesh!" Visually, he's also striking, leather-masked and silver-robed, (with an obvious homage to The Phantom of the Opera in Episode Two) limping painfully about with filthy, scabrous hands. 

In addition to these memorable villains, 'The Talons of Weng-Chiang' boasts two of the most celebrated supporting characters in the series' history, which form perhaps the finest example of the so-called "Robert Holmes double act". Professor George Litefoot and Henry Gordon Jago, played to perfection by Trevor Baxter and Christopher Benjamin, respectively. Litefoot is the perfect Victorian gentlemen, dignified and distinguished, and with impeccable manners. The scene in which he gnaws on a leg of meat so as to avoid embarrassing the similarly-feasting Leela is charming, and shows that his air of chivalry is no act; indeed, despite initial astonishment at Leela's talk of knife-blows, he seems genuinely charmed by her throughout. He also provides reliable support for the Doctor, proving resolutely courageous throughout as he tries his best to tackle murderous Tong members and Greel himself. Jago is more the ostensibly comic figure, characterised by bluster and pompous, flamboyant verbiage. Despite his enormous ego in the early episodes (he refers to his great character several times, most amusingly during the scene in which he compares his supposedly implacable will to "the Rock of Gibraltar", just before the Doctor hypnotizes him), Jago is easily terrified, and is forced to admit that he is not so "bally brave" as he likes to pretend whilst imprisoned with Litefoot. To his enormous credit however, he proves correct Litefoot's faith in him, playing a key role in the climax, as he distracts Mr. Sin with a terrified squawk of "I say! I say! I say!" so that Leela can go for the gun, which she eventually uses to destroy the Eye of the Dragon. Jago is thus that bravest of people, someone who is afraid but overcomes it to act bravely when he needs to. 

Amidst all these fine performances, Tom Baker and Louise Jameson still manage to shine. Baker puts in one of his finest performance, and one of the last of his more balanced performances as the Doctor prior to the series' shift in emphasis towards humour. He displays his usual talent for wit throughout, with his deadpan humour making the best of hugely entertaining scenes such as his insistence that Litefoot's Chinese fowling piece is made in Birmingham. In addition to wit, he has some of his most commanding scenes in this story; the Doctor's utter contempt for Greel is almost tangible in Episode Six, and I also love his psychological duel with Chang in Episode Four, as he participates in his stage show. The look on his face as he moves the pack of cards towards his face positively dares Chang to shoot him. He's also at his most commanding, effortlessly gaining the trust of Litefoot and Jago, and also easily taking command in the police station after the Tong member commits suicide, despite having been treated with great suspicion by the "flat-footed imbecile" of a policeman only moments before. As in 'Pyramids of Mars', he also bristles with nervous tension as he desperately races to stop Greel from using the Zygma cabinet. And his costume, which really is a nod to Sherlock Holmes, is great. Leela too is superb here; thrust into an environment almost as alien to her as the Sandminer, she struggles to make sense of it, and this allows Holmes to poke fun at Victorian etiquette with glee, especially in her scenes with Litefoot. As usual, her warrior nature also comes to the fore, and she briefly clashes with the Doctor after killing his would-be assassin with a Janis thorn in Episode One; I love the way he sheepishly stops lecturing her about killing after she points out that her victim was trying to kill him. In addition, her hatred of Greel is very convincing, as she constantly swears to avenge the victims of "bent-face", and her defiance in the face of death in Episode Six is rather impressive. Her softer side is also on display here too though, she seems fascinated by the theatre and by Litefoot's sense of chivalry, and the scene in which she shyly displays her new Victorian dress to the Doctor and Litefoot (leaving them both briefly speechless) is charming. She also screams for the first time worth mentioning, revealing that it takes being attacked by a ten-foot long giant rat to really rattle her. Which is fair enough, really. 

The production is superb; the mist-shrouded location footage meshes perfectly with the splendid sets, to really evoke the desired period costume. It's also authentically seedy, with on screen use of opium, and Teresa obviously a prostitute. Dudley Simpson's incidental score is just as impressive as that for the previous story. Admittedly the rat looks too cuddly, but it's only briefly seen and David Maloney makes a sterling effort to hide the limitations of the prop. To be honest though, it's offset by so much that is good here that I can entirely forgive it! The last story of the Phillip Hinchcliffe era, 'The Talons of Weng-Chiang' is for many fans the xenith of his tenure on the show. For me, it's more than that; it's the jewel in the crown of the entire television series. It also heralds a change; with Graham Williams taking over as producer, a more light-hearted, less gothic horror oriented direction lay just round the corner. The change would be dramatic, but fortunately not too abrupt; Season Fifteen would prove to feature stories typical of both producers' styles, serving as a transitional stage between the two…





The Talons of Weng-ChiangBookmark and Share

Tuesday, 4 May 2004 - Reviewed by Alex Boyd

The Talons of Weng-Chiang is long and tedious, but worse, it’s racist nonsense. 

It has style, but that’s all – aside from that, it’s full of cliché and devoid of meaning. I watched this recently after many years, and while I probably considered it a “classic,” or at least decent Doctor Who when I was younger, seeing it again as an adult lowers it in my estimation quite a bit. 

Episode One: the Doctor is attacked, and describes the Chinese attacker as a “little man.” The crafty, villainous Li H’sen Chang is portrayed by John Bennett in makeup because, of course, English men play Chinese men better than Chinese men do. 

Episode Two: the charming, harmless Professor Litefoot describes the Chinese as an “odd sort of people,” and interstellar traveller the Doctor fails to point out that another culture is only odd from an English perspective – that to the Chinese, the English are probably “odd.” Robert Holmes, in his interest to give the Doctor a role that pays tribute to Sherlock Holmes, seems to have forgotten that the Doctor would have something other than an English perspective. He even has the Doctor somewhat coldly hope that “that girl Leela” (as though he hasn’t known her for long) is unharmed. It’s as through the Doctor is replaced with another Doctor, just for this one story (until of course he starts babbling in episode five about World War Six and “double nexus particles,” then suddenly he’s a Timelord again). The villain, Magnus Greel, also has a character that jerks wildly around, as he’s incapable of walking in one scene, then leaping like a mountain goat to escape the Doctor at the theatre in the scenes that pay tribute to Phantom of the Opera. 

Episode Three: Litefoot wonders what the world is coming to when ruffians will attack a man in his own home. “Well, they were Chinese ruffians,” the Doctor replies. We’re constantly told about “those Chinese,” and the “devils.” And along the way, treated to multiple, long, pointless scenes where Greel dismisses and demeans Chang, or when a supporting character like Jago tries again to be charming. At the end of episode four, given how little we’d learned and how long it had taken to learn it, I felt disappointed to know I’d have to sit through another two episodes. The end picks up a little, when we (finally) get to some bullets and laser beams and an appropriately exciting finale, but all the Chinese henchmen are slaughtered like so much cattle, and any excitement is too little too late anyway. 

I’m missing the point, you say. It’s all in good fun, you say. You’re not supposed to pick apart a story as fantastic as this – it’s the Doctor Who tribute to Saturday morning serials combined with Sherlock Holmes and Phantom, and whatever else. And yes, Chang has a few knowing winks to the camera, where he jokes “one of us is yellow,” or “I understand we all look the same.” Trouble is, these aren’t actually coming from a Chinese actor, but an English one, written by an English writer, and so again the perspective in wholly English. 

In fact, the English are the best at everything: it’s “impossible” for the professor’s gun to fail, when it was “made in Birmingham.” In any other story, and amusing throwaway line, but here it’s English superiority in a story that strikes these notes constantly, intentionally or not. A dying Chang reveals that he was to perform for the Queen at Buckingham palace, something that he clearly saw as a penultimate achievement. And while Jago and Litefoot represent the two English classes, fighting side by side against the “alien” threat, the Chinese characters are unsophisticated cannon fodder, or in the case of Chang, someone who appeared more sophisticated, but finally wasn’t. Jago and Litefoot and also written in a way that attempts to sell them off as charming, while Chang is dry and humourless, and ultimately gullible. 

Doctor Who fans, apparently thrilled to actually see a little style in the show, are keen to overlook its glaring faults. But when you add the racist elements to the Muppet rat, and the little dummy the Doctor throws around at the end, and all you have is an embarrassment. It’s time fans admitted it. Or at least, for goodness sakes, acknowledged it.





The Armageddon FactorBookmark and Share

Tuesday, 4 May 2004 - Reviewed by Paul Clarke

There was an unfortunate tendency during the Barry Letts era to end each season with a six-part story (or in the case of 'The Dæmons', a five part story) that is in my opinion dire. The only exception to this trend is 'The Green Death' and even that story is not the strongest of its season. Phillip Hinchcliffe reversed this trend by producing two classic six parts stories in the shapes of 'The Seeds of Doom' and the sublime 'The Talons of Weng-Chiang', and whilst 'The Invasion of Time' is by no means perfect, it is considerably better than at least two other stories from Graham Williams' first season of Doctor Who. It is unfortunate then that Williams inadvertently (I hope) resurrects this unfortunate trend of Lett's tenure for the finale of Season Sixteen. For the finale of a generally strong season with a story arc that runs from beginning to end, it is crucial to produce a satisfying denouncement; instead, we are forced to endure 'The Armageddon Factor', a story that remains my least favourite story of Tom Baker's entire run. It is also disappointing that this story is so dire since it is the last broadcast six-part Doctor Who story, given that 'Shada' would have an unfortunate rendezvous with fate (I don't count 'The Two Doctors', since it is structured and broadcast as three fifty minutes episodes). 

'The Armageddon Factor' starts badly and gets progressively worse. I noted when I reviewed 'The Ribos Operation' and prior to that 'Carnival of Monsters' that it is difficult to portray a convincing alien world given the time and budgetary limitations of a typical Doctor Who story, and Bob Baker and Dave Martin utterly fail in this task. Atrios and Zeos are, we are told, two neighbouring planets at war, but as far as the viewer is concerned they might as well be two small rooms at war. There are no references to cities, let alone continents, and when characters do mention other areas of Atrios they refer, ludicrously, to levels and blocks, which conjure up images of large buildings at best. The social set up on Atrios is equally facile, with complete power resting in the hands of a single nutter, with Princess Astra, who is clearly only a figurehead, being the only other important person in evidence. The situation on Zeos is even worse, with the uninteresting computer Mentalis the sole representative of the planet on display. There are very vague implications that the other Zeons are extinct and that everything, including presumably the fleet, is computer controlled, but this is never fully explored and again contributes to the feeling of neighbouring buildings at war. 

As if this wasn't bad enough, the Atrian military on display consists of the Marshall and Major Shapp. John Woodvine is a fine actor, but the lines provided for the Marshall are diabolical and the character is totally one-dimensional. Cast as a puppet for the Shadow, he lacks any motivation or personality beyond that and the only hint we get of his character is that he is a bully and a coward, as suggested by his escape ship and his visible baulking at the announcement that handing him over will result in peace. Even this is inconsistent, since once relatively free from the Shadow's control (he is invited to make what he will of the lack of further attacks from Zeos), he personally launches a devastating nuclear attack on Zeos with supposedly enough ordnance to blow up the entire planet. This must surely be a risky venture, but he seems more than happy to undertake it. As for Shapp, I can barely bring myself to contemplate the heinous slapstick buffoonery of Davyd Harris, who sends up his role in unsubtle style throughout despite the would-be seriousness of the story's premise. The only other time I've ever had the misfortune to witness Harris' "acting" is in the Blake's 7 episode 'Moloch', in which he is equally as bad as Doran, leading me to conclude that he somehow ended up in the wrong profession, possibly for a bet. 

Even if I were prepared to excuse the paucity of the plot, the fact remains that it is intensely uninteresting. The lack of decent characters means that I simply don't give a toss whether or not the fires of war engulf Atrios and Zeos. Having said that, the Shadow at one point claims that if he gets the Key to Time, the situation on Atrios and Zeos will be but a preview of the fate of the entire universe, suggesting that the Black Guardian intends to use it to spread bad acting and tedium throughout the cosmos, which is a genuinely scary concept. Even Lalla Ward, who I generally like a great deal, struggles with the character of Princess Astra, again due to leaden scripting and bland expository dialogue. How Romana fails to realize that the Princess is under the control of the Shadow in Episode Five is beyond me, given that she is virtually rolling her eyes and cackling in an evil way throughout, which explains why the Doctor just assumes that Romana has guessed. Other than that, all Astra does is wring her hands a lot and look anguished, until Episode Six where she goes all glassy eyed as she realises that she is in fact a lump of Perspex. Mind you, if I had a boyfriend as pathetic as Merak, I'd be a miserable bastard too. 

With all of this in mind, it is astounding that the characterisation could sink to new depths, but the unpleasant introduction of irritating cockney gobshite Drax proves that it can. Presumably intended as comic relief, he instead just makes me want to cry with unhappiness at how bad the story is getting, although he does at least make Shapp seem amusing by comparison. Robert Holmes is often credited with demystifying the Time Lords, but Baker and Martin are far guiltier, both here and in 'The Three Doctors'. And speaking of old Baker and Martin plots, they are also sufficiently lacking in good ideas that they recycle the dimensional stabilizer subplot from 'The Invisible Enemy'; I should perhaps be grateful that when the Doctor and Drax restore themselves to normal size in Episode Six, the Shadow doesn't suddenly find himself beset by unexpected giant prawns as well. 

The villains of the piece slightly redeem matters. The Shadow is literally a personification of evil, and as such as shallow as a bedpan, but William Squire delivers his "bwa-ha-ha!" dialogue rather well and the Shadow's weird half-mask looks quite good, even if it is slightly undermined by his polo neck knitwear. The cliffhanger ending to Episode Four, as the Shadow sits and gloats to himself, would have been a lot stupider than it already is were it not for the sinister tones Squire employs and the fact that he seems to take his role seriously, thus becoming the Anti-Harris. Valantine Dyall's performance as the Black Guardian just tops Squire's, but I'll discuss the story's denouement - and the Guardian - below.

The regulars struggle bravely with the script. Baker alternates between gravitas and wit, and manages to bring some weight to the doom-laden plot. Were the story written better, this might have been one of the Fourth Doctor's finest hours, as he saves two planets in the nick of time and outwits the ultimate manifestation of evil in the Doctor Who universe, but as the story is bobbins this is a moot point. What the story does manage is some nice character moments between the Doctor, Romana and K9, for example when Romana desperately tells the Doctor "It doesn't matter what happens to me" as the Shadow blackmails him, and the appalled Doctor replies "Well of course it does!" showing just how close they've become since 'The Ribos Operation'. His affection for K9 is also in evidence; his risky rescue trip into a furnace shows more than just concern for a computer and he's clearly saddened when K9 falls under the Shadow's control. I also like the fact that he realises this because K9 calls him "Doctor" instead of "Master" (incidentally, would anyone else like to see a Past Doctor Adventure set around this era in which the Master builds himself an evil robot dog that calls him "Doctor"? No? Oh well, just me then). Having said all that, the scene in which K9 is told to lie to the Shadow and clears his throat before doing so is immensely annoying and undermines the already flimsy tension surrounding the Shadow's near victory. Some finds apparently find this amusing, but by the time I've sat through five and half episodes of this drivel my sense of humour is badly eroded. It is also a fairly low-key departure for Mary Tamm, whose off-camera regeneration into Lalla Ward at the start of 'Destiny of the Daleks' means that this is the last we see of her. Sadly, she again spends much of the time either standing around whilst the Doctor explains the plot, or alternately explaining the plot to Merak and Princess Astra.

Which brings us to the climax of both 'The Armageddon Factor' and also the Key to Time storyline. Having paced their story so badly that they have to resort to Shapp and Merak knowledgably discussing both the Key to Time and the TARDIS for the sake of exposition and hoping that nobody will notice, Baker and Martin hand over the finale to Douglas Adams for a notorious final scene in the TARDIS as the Doctor prepares to hand the Key over to the Guardian. I'm probably going to surprise some people at this point by saying that I actually like this scene. The reason for this boils down to the simple fact that Adams' sense of humour just happens to appeal to me and the sight of Baker's eye-rolling and gurning as he deliberately alarms Romana amuses me far more than anything else seen in this story. The actual ending is often described as anti-climatic, but since handing over the Key to Time to the White Guardian would probably be equally anti-climatic, I'm happy to defend it. The confrontation between the Doctor and the Black Guardian is another example in the series of the Doctor standing up to a god-like being for the sake of the universe at large, and I personally think it works quite well, thanks in part to Dyall's expertise at portraying the Guardian's impotent fury. The question of whether the White Guardian is actually able to restore the balance of the universe as discussed in 'The Ribos Operation' goes largely unanswered, although the Doctor does tell Romana that he should have had time to do this whilst the Key is assembled. Which in turn raises the question of why the Black Guardian couldn't also have used it to cause trouble whilst it was assembled. And then there's the question of why the White Guardian can hijack the TARDIS in 'The Ribos Operation', but the Black Guardian can't do the same thing here. But by this point, I'm just glad that I don't have to watch anymore of 'The Armageddon Factor' and therefore I don't care.








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