Planet of the SpidersBookmark and Share

Tuesday, 15 November 2005 - Reviewed by Adam Kintopf

People’s impressions of ‘Planet of the Spiders’ seem largely to be dominated by the chase scene in Episode Two, universally (and perhaps somewhat kindly) described as ‘indulgent.’ So, I might as well start with that. There’s no two ways about it, the chase is truly absurd – I mean, Bessie/mini-copter following Whomobile, then Whomobile following mini-copter, then *hovercraft* following *speedboat*? It’s harmless enough, it’s true - even fun if you’ve had a drink or two beforehand. But its sheer goofiness *does* damage the obvious work the production team put into the quiet, rather ominous setup in Episode One.

However, if the story as a whole is undeniably uneven, there’s still much to like about it. The setup, with its mysterious cult operating out of a country house in rural England, is the stuff of classic Pertwee Who. The Tibetan commune is by turns both appealing and eerie, with Lupton’s leading of the chants authentically hypnotic and rather frightening. When the action moves to Metebelis Three, it does look a bit cheap, it’s true, but the planet’s fakey blue skies have a lovely, very ‘seventies fantasy’ quality to them. (The look of the planet reminds me a bit of a Boston album cover.) Some Doctor Who fans, even old ones, complain about the studio-bound limitation of the classic series, and yet I’ve said before that, to me, the theatricality of these productions adds an enjoyable aesthetic that mere realism can’t match. 

And the planet’s ‘Eight Legs’-dominated culture is extremely well defined. A knowledge of Barry Letts’s interest in Buddhism, and his use of it in the earthbound parts of this story, help us to understand his vision of the spiders as the antithesis of the Buddhists’ ‘pure’ Eastern philosophy. The spiders are power-hungry, petty, and obsessed with social rank – and by allying with them, Lupton shows himself to be not just a villain, but a bad *Buddhist* (which is probably worse, in Letts’s book). The individual spider characters are memorable and distinctive – quite a feat, considering they’re identical, expressionless puppets. Of course most of the credit for that must go to the actresses who provide their voices – their vocal timbres are all similar enough to suggest the same species, and yet all three capture their different characters remarkably well.

The ‘Two Legs,’ as many have pointed out, don’t work as well, but they’re more functional than embarrassing. They serve mainly to illustrate the horror of the spider regime, and they actually do that quite effectively. One writer has said that the only thing that makes the Daleks scary is how frightened Doctor Who’s *characters* are of them, and the same principle applies here – when the villagers scramble in fear at the approach of the Queen, we believe in the spiders’ power, simple as that. Many U.K. fans, including ‘The Discontinuity Guide,’ have also criticized the production team for its use of regional accents with these humans. I can understand this annoyance, but as an American, I hear *all* accents on Doctor Who as ‘regional,’ so it didn’t trouble me tremendously. I would even go so far as to say that it annoys me how British fans seem perfectly willing to overlook the English accents in French and Italian locations for ‘City of Death,’ for example, while whining about West-Country ones here. (A much bigger problem is the UNIT haircuts - belief in the ‘militariness’ of this organization has never been so suspended – but that’s another story.)

As for the other characters, Tommy is of course a bit of an embarrassment – an ‘Of Mice and Men’ cliché who doesn’t really seem to fit all that well into this fictional world – but to be fair John Kane plays him with good taste, for the most part. John Dearth sinks his teeth into the ambitious Lupton with much success, and he really sells the scenes with ‘his’ spider, not an easy task for any actor. And the hapless Professor Clegg is used rather cruelly by the script, but he remains probably the most touching figure of the entire story. (Shades of Pigbin Josh.)

When we come to the ‘good’ Buddhists, George Cormack is thoroughly charming as K’Anpo – and yet, the character doesn’t quite work. He’s so obviously there just to set up the Doctor’s regeneration that he never quite engages with the story, or resonates as a full-blooded character of his own. A knowledge of Barry Letts’s personal obsession with Buddhism doesn’t necessarily help our appreciation of Cho-Je, who seems to be scripted entirely from fortune cookies, and Kevin Lindsay’s rather twee performance (speaking of accents, just what exactly is *that* supposed to be?) doesn’t either. Furthermore, it seems odd that a Time Lord would use a projected regeneration for such banal purposes – what does Cho-je actually *do* around the compound anyway? Answer the phone? Catch up on the paperwork? 

Sarah and Yates, on the other hand, are rather well used in this story. I know that Mike Yates is one of the less popular Doctor Who companions, and yet I must say that Richard Franklin’s performance grew on me as I revisited these stories, and I actually quite liked him in this one (flares and all). 

Finally, there is the matter of the Doctor’s regeneration, which is much praised by fans, but which actually seemed a little abrupt to me. To his credit, Jon Pertwee doesn’t ham it up in the least, but his ultimate change seems a little rushed, especially coming on the heels of such much ‘big’ adventure and exposition. But I suppose a fan could read this as a semi-conscious tribute to Third Doctor endings on the whole, which so often had the UNIT family suddenly having a nice laugh about it all. The Pertwee era always had a fundamental safety and innocence to it; in fact, ‘Planet of the Spiders’ is in many ways representative of the age. It’s overstuffed, slightly clunky, a little too loud, a little too long, but pretty watchable nevertheless. Jon Pertwee gets a gadgety chase, a staged fight, and yet somehow keeps his dignity anyway – he is the Doctor. And while these things sometimes make his stories seem a bit shallow compared to others, there’s much to be said for a ‘pure fun’ approach to Doctor Who . . . and I suppose anyone who fell in love with the show as a child would admit that this not always such a bad thing. 

Is it?





The Time WarriorBookmark and Share

Sunday, 30 October 2005 - Reviewed by Adam Kintopf

I love the Sontarans and Rutans. The idea of two alien cultures locked in unending conflict across millennia certainly resonates with many political dichotomies in our real world; those real-life dichotomies are usually sad ones, and yet an allegorical reading of the Sontaran/Rutan war is not without its humor too. Sontarans, especially, view everything they encounter *only* as it relates to their holy war – it’s a rather funny way to look at the universe, and how often in life do we see political parties going to extraordinary lengths to tie even the most neutral topics in to their agendas, and fighting as hard as they can *not* to see the other side? This becomes even funnier when we realize that never in classic ‘Doctor Who’ history did the Sontarans and Rutans actually appear onscreen together: we only ever got one side of the story, and we can’t help wondering, considering their insulated approaches to warfare, how often the two races actually met in battle at all. (Some fans have suggested that Russell T. Davies should finally have them meet in his new series, but I hope he doesn’t – I don’t want to see this amusing tradition spoiled.)

‘The Time Warrior’ introduced the Sontarans, and in the context of a refreshingly small-stakes story: Linx isn’t trying to destroy the Earth, or even to take it over – he just wants to fix his spaceship and get back to the front lines. The Sontarans’ fixation on their own private conflict makes them interesting villains in ‘Doctor Who’ history. After all, they couldn’t be further from the megalomaniacal individuals who make up the rank and file of ‘Who’ baddies – their encounters with humans in the series are usually irritating distractions, and here Linx’s annoyance with his situation is amusingly palpable throughout. Linx is humorless and impatient, and as macho as a sexless clone can be, but he is not a megalomaniac – he is simply focused on his mission. And if he can have a little sadistic fun in the process, well, where’s the harm in that? (Personally, I prefer the mask from ‘The Sontaran Experiment,’ but Kevin Lindsay is still marvelous as Linx – even if it is sometimes difficult to hear him as he shouts through his helmet!)

As for the story itself, its plot makes wonderful sense (for once), and events progress very naturally from one scene to another. Robert Holmes’s script may not be as funny as some of his others (specifically, his other [mock-] medieval story, ‘The Ribos Operation’), but it is vividly characterized, and this ‘primitive’ setting inspires the writer to great inventive heights: Irongron’s much-quoted metaphors are just a few examples of his colorful creations here. Some of the ‘medieval’ moments do tend to go a bit Renaissance Faire-y (you certainly wouldn’t accuse the cast of not having fun), but for the most part it doesn’t get in the way of our taking it all seriously. David Daker chews the scenery as Irongron, but likeably so – Holmes always had affection for small people with delusions of grandeur, and despite how hard the writer works to establish the character as a barbaric warlord, we can’t help liking him. (His repeated description of Linx as “Toad Face” gets funnier and funnier too.) Ultimately, Irongron is more like Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirate King than a real villain, and it’s almost a shame Holmes decided to kill him. Donald Pelmear’s take as Rubeish is extremely amusing too, and yet the character isn’t a mere buffoon – he is an absent-minded professor, yes, and yet he accepts the fact that he has traveled in time with a (wonderfully scientific) open mind, and of course it is he who bravely creeps up on the Sontaran and stuns him. And smaller parts like Sheila Fay’s cynical wench Meg and June Brown’s ambitious Lady Eleanor are made just as memorable as the principals.

And then, of course, there’s Sarah. For a generation of ‘Doctor Who’ viewers, Sarah Jane Smith will always be *the* companion, and her meeting with Jon Pertwee’s Doctor here can only be described as historic. The treatment of Sarah would vary from script to script over the years, but here she is everything one could want from a companion. In many ways, Sarah really steals this show – it’s isn’t hard to see why the Doctor is impressed with her, especially when she single-handedly leads a raid on Irongron’s castle! The introduction of a new assistant always presented ‘Doctor Who’s’ writers with an opportunity to reinvent the series, and here, briefly, we certainly get to see the Doctor and the TARDIS with fresh eyes – a rare treat.

A very strong story.





The Time WarriorBookmark and Share

Sunday, 30 October 2005 - Reviewed by Ed Martin

The Time Warrior is remarkably inauspicious given that it’s actually quite important, introducing as it does Sarah Jane Smith and the Sontarans. While Sarah in retrospect came out as probably the best companion ever (once the 1970s were out she hardly faced much competition), I sometimes wonder if the Sontarans deserved to become such comparatively big monsters. I know that the only reason they did was because Barry Letts was playing it safe and brought them back for the following season, thereby opening the floodgates, but even so: they’re not bad monsters, by any means, but I can think of better monsters that deserved more appearances (Zygons anyone?). That said, this is their best story, as all but one of the others didn’t have Robert Holmes (also known by his nickname, Lord and Master) at the helm.

Immediately noticeable with this story is the new title sequence, which is fantastic; in fact, for my money it’s the best after the Hartnell original. I prefer it to the Tom Baker version that followed it closely – it’s aesthetically more daring with its broken lines and swirls, and the way the picture of Jon Pertwee zooms out only to rush forward again and become a vortex is a killer. There are no cheesy two-dimensional TARDISes here, either.

David Daker cannot fail to make an impression early on: he is over-the-top to be sure, but not in a way that disrespects the audience like Anthony Ainley’s master would do. Here his performance is loud and vibrant, but carefully and caringly matched up with the tone of the rest of the production. John J. Carney as Bloodaxe, by contrast, is completely swamped. He does his best and so I won’t tear into him, but he simply doesn’t have the energy of Daker’s manic Irongron. However, his patronising and extremely obvious and clichéd characterisation as a West Country simpleton is very annoying, arr, so it be. The set of Irongron’s castle is poor, which is a shame as when it came to period settings Doctor Who was usually on solid ground: its plastic props and painted-backdrop brickwork perhaps explaining why Sarah initially believes it to be a fairground mock-up. Still, barring comparatively short interludes in the past in Carnival Of Monsters and The Time Monster, this is the first story to really make an effort to create a period setting since The War Games in 1969 so I suppose I can forgive them being a bit rusty.

A small globe is a nice idea for a spaceship, especially two decades before Star Trek gave us the Borg Sphere (and the Borg had ripped off the Cybermen anyway). However, the design of their ships – which have since passed into canonicity – were initially conceived so that Irongron could believe it to be a star, while the only reason this monster is called a Sontaran is so that Holmes can make a cheap pun on ‘Saracen’. Bear that in mind when watching the deadly-serious The Two Doctors, which Holmes also wrote but under the thumb of Eric Saward (oh so easy an excuse for a Holmes fan, but there you are). One thing that annoys me though is fans who moan about subsequent plots involving Sontarans attempting to discover time-travel, “when they had it all the way back in the 12th Century. The answer, I’d have thought, is obvious: Linx is from the future, jackasses! I have to say that Linx is brilliant, with Kevin Lindsay’s brooding sadist portrayal stealing the acting crown from Daker; it is hard to believe that this is the same man who played the affable and somewhat effeminate Cho-je in Planet Of The Spiders. As I said, this is the Sontarans’ best story, with Holmes doing what David Whitaker did so successfully with the Daleks: keeping his monsters in the background, as part of a story rather than the be-all-and-end-all of it. Linx is so much more menacing through not being rubbed in our faces all the time.

Jumping to the future, and the Brigadier’s line of “most of their work's so secret, they don't know what they're doing themselves” is a cunning way to avoid having to give a proper explanation why all these scientists are all bundled together for kidnapping. It’s interesting to see that Pertwee is mucking about like Tom Baker did in his last few seasons, but he may be taking advantage of Holmes’s shamelessly boisterous dialogue.

Although Sarah would be brilliant, a lot of this would be down to the relationship she had with her co-stars. This has yet to develop at this point, and her one-dimensional crusading feminist characterisation sees Barry Letts’s drive to be socially responsible misfire. I was going to do the old “DON’T ASK ME TO MAKE THE COFFEE!” bit, but then she actually said that line or thereabouts (I’d forgotten), which had me lost for words. Thankfully she became much more of a realistic character under Philip Hinchcliffe. Rubeish is also a very irritating character, Holmes tastelessly mocking his lack of vision and creating a character straight out of a dated 70s sitcom. He even mentions a scientist called Dingle, for crying out loud. It surprises me as well why he and the Doctor talk abut Sarah with raised voices even though she’s only in one of those temporary cubicles.

The drama of Rubeish’s disappearance is spoiled since we have already seen what happens to the kidnapped humans, but there is a great effect as the Doctor projects an image of Linx on the stairs (look closely and you can see his feet waiting on the landing beforehand). However, as with much of the season the characterisation of UNIT is dreadful, with the grunts living up to their nicknames and shooting at passing insects and the Brigadier uttering out-of-character lines like “oh my giddy aunt!”. 

It’s actually quite effective not letting us see Sarah’s reaction to the TARDIS (doesn’t the prop look tatty here?), instead just showing her wandering around. Her acting as she is captured is excellent, and it is easy to see why she would be so popular once the writers had got the hang of her.

There is some great location shooting (always a strength of the programme), which in part makes up for the tackiness of the studio sets. We see the Sontaran make-up for the first time, and it’s fantastic, much better than it would be in later years. I know it was uncomfortable and severely restricted Lindsay’s breathing, but even so I was sad to see it go in subsequent stories. However, my copy of The Time Warrior is the extremely old BBC video release from 1989 9still in good nick, mind) where the episodes are all edited together into one feature, and it becomes very obvious that Linx only removes his helmet to set up the cliffhanger. It’s slightly strange and not very dramatically satisfying to see him take off his helmet, pose dramatically for a second, then replace his helmet and walk off.

You only get lines like “narrow-hipped vixen!” with Robert Holmes. Sarah’s comment that the castle contains “no lights or cameras” could possibly be metafiction, but really it’s just Holmes having a massive laugh at everyone else’s expense, taking his revenge when Terrance Dicks made him write a period piece against his will (in fairness he turned the tables later with Horror Of Fang Rock). Linx’s comment about human reproduction is very funny, although his genuine interest in the more violent aspects of medieval society turns him into far more than just an average ‘evil’ monster. The robot knight is quite creepy, with its zombie-like gait and distended, out-of-proportion features. The Doctor knocks Irongron’s control unit out of his hand with a crack shot from a crossbow; Russell T. Davies wants a return to the non-gun bearing Doctor. All I can say is, he has a lot of contrary evidence to make up for.

Rubeish takes the idea of time-travel in his stride, babbling like an idiot; is he Holmes’s most annoying character ever? The music here is so rare that there isn’t really a place to discuss it, so I’ll just say quickly that Dudley Simpson, having passed his near-unlistenable electronic phase, is on good form.

Amazingly, Gallifrey is casually namedropped for the first time here as if its name had been known already (another important contribution Holmes (presumably) made to the show). Pertwee’s constant fighting with extras is getting tiresome at this stage, especially as it drives his character into the ground, although it’s not as annoying as him yelling “hai!” with every stuntman that goes down.

Linx’s description of Pertwee as “a longshanked rascal with a mighty nose” is hilarious, but in fairness Holmes chose a description that could equally apply to himself. The plot here is simple without being patronising, allowing for Holmes to avoid clumsy exposition while still keeping the story going. There is a bit of padding, I should say, in part one where the Doctor doesn’t arrive in medieval England until the very end.

The siege scene is fun, being nice and simple (which is not how Holmes had wanted it; his revenge again). The location scenes are very well directed by Alan Bromly, and even in the studio the very mobile cameras are nice to see. However, his handling of action scenes does tend to fall a bit flat. The castle sentry, I should add, is appalling. 

The cliffhanger is spoiled by my clumsily-edited tape, which just shows Linx shooting the Doctor and his subsequent fall to be possibly the slowest action scene outside The Aztecs. In the fourth episode, the Doctor masquerading as Linx to fool Bloodaxe is silly and pantomimic, but by contrast Sarah’s terrified bluff to the serving woman is excellently played. However, her feminist tirade is so clumsily written that I feel the need to point it out even though I went on about it earlier. There is a poor, shaky piece of action as the Doctor swings on a chandelier, and there is a horrible boom mike shadow on Linx at the end.

Holmes’s real weakness was his penchant for anticlimaxes; his endings range from deus ex machina overload (Spearhead From Space, Pyramids Of Mars) to the too lame for words (Terror Of The Autons). This isn’t one of his worst, but writing his monsters to have inbuilt weaknesses like Power Rangers’ enemies makes me cringe a bit. The final explosion is also a bit too simple, although no one can claim it’s not within the show’s limits.

Despite not being the best-realised period piece the show ever did, this is still a great fun story. It’s no classic, but given how most non-classic Holmes scripts get unfairly ripped apart (The Krotons, The Power Of Kroll), this is a story that actually tends to get quite fairly treated – maybe because Holmes’s unwillingness to write to specifications provides his advocates with a scapegoat. I’m only giving this an average rating, which spells bad things as it’s probably the best story of the season, which wasn’t Pertwee’s best. Taken story by story though, The Time Warrior is fairly representative: it has few pretensions (OK so it’s not representative of Planet Of The Spiders), but it’s just good clean fun.





Death to the DaleksBookmark and Share

Saturday, 29 October 2005 - Reviewed by Adam Kintopf

‘Death to the Daleks’ hasn’t got the best reputation. ‘The Discontinuity Guide’ pans it outright, and in ‘Pocket Essentials’ Mark Campbell damns it with faint praise, saying, “There really is little to say about this story, except that it is rather dull.” Add to these ominous opinions the knowledge that the Daleks were shoehorned into this story at the last minute, in a blatant ratings ploy, and we really can’t approach it with much hope.

It is quite surprising, then, that ‘Death to the Daleks’ turns out to be one of the best ever Dalek stories, and also one of the most entertaining stories from the Pertwee years. Terry Nation’s script, while unambitious, is straightforward and economical, and its various character groupings (space marines, Daleks, Exxilons, mutants) are well-characterized and effectively played off each other. But the real star of the show, unusually for ‘Doctor Who,’ is the direction. Michael Briant keeps this story moving at a brisk pace, and keeps the CSO, so often overused in the Pertwee days, to a merciful minimum. (I’ll take a 1970s wobbly-set story over a 1970s psychedelic-FX one any day.) Of course there are still inventive visual ideas – the ‘Dalek’s-eye view’ camera angle, while obviously thrown together on the cheap, is still effective, especially when the Daleks are under attack – and Briant may be the *only* ‘Doctor Who’ director to successfully elicit a kind of sly comedy from the Daleks. I love the black humor when the Daleks test out their new pellet guns on the Exxilons; the Exxilons may die instantly, and in hideous pain, but it’s still not quite good enough for the Daleks, who coldly comment, “PRIMITIVE WEAPONS, MODERATELY EFFICIENT.” And when the Dalek is destroyed by the ‘root’ at the lake, the reactions of the Daleks on the beach may be wordless, but they are as expressive as any depiction of the creatures in series history. (The thought expressed seems to be something along the lines of “HOLY SHIT!!! DID YOU SEE THAT???” A masterful accomplishment!)

Of this story, ‘The Discontinuity Guide’ says that “there really doesn’t seem any reason to have the Daleks in it at all.” I must respectfully but forcefully disagree; in fact, I would argue the success of the story absolutely hinges on their inclusion. Certainly, the Doctor would still have been able to destroy the ancient Exxilon city without them, but it should be pointed out that the Daleks are actually the ones who overcome the mysterious power drain, well before he makes it out of the city (albeit through brute force rather than intelligence). And not only do they make the Doctor’s adventures in the mazelike city somewhat redundant, they also *rescue* him on several occasions, however accidentally! Indeed, the Daleks here are (unusually) shown to be masters of their environment; despite having no weapons or bargaining power, they immediately take control of their situation, conning the humans, negotiating with the Exxilons to ensure exclusive rights to the parrinium, and of course developing new guns in extremely short order. They are presented as scheming and intelligent, scientific in their methods and ruthless in the extreme. And they are even made almost, *almost* sympathetic – there’s a kind of horrifying pathos when the unarmed Dalek charges the group of Exxilons shrieking “EXTERMINATE!”; it’s pitifully obvious that it’s the only thing the big bully knows how to do. And the ‘I HAVE FAILED! – SELF-DESTRUCT!” scene, while often ridiculed by fans, seems completely in character here – the Daleks, despite their reputation for rational behavior in the program’s later years, are extremely emotional creatures, psychotic and driven by a totally *irrational* hatred for the world and sense of their own superiority. Is it any wonder that one should have a nervous breakdown upon failure?

Aesthetically, the physical Dalek machines are good here too. The new paint job looks nice, and they seem to move faster and more fluidly here than they do in many later stories. The unusual decision to keep them in near-constant motion – moving back and forth as if to generate electricity through friction, and swiveling their eyestalks restlessly – makes them seem dangerous and alive, and not nearly as static and tank-like as they have so often appeared in the series. (If only the production team didn’t have to use that damned dummy casing in Episode One . . . but I suppose you can’t have everything.) They speak faster, too, and Michael Wisher’s voice characterizations, while they may not match the rawness and sheer power of Roy Skelton’s, project a cold intelligence and impatience that Skelton usually cannot match. (I remember reading someone describe the Dalek voices in this story as ‘bitchy,’ and they really are – Wisher’s “YOUR ADVICE IS NOT REQUIRED!” and the five-times-repeated “YOU WILL OBEY!” make it easy to see how frustrating and exhausting cooperating with Daleks would be.)

Some of the major faults pointed out by this story’s detractors also seem to me to be severely exaggerated. The Earth marines are frequently targeted for bad acting, but I fail to see how they’re much worse than the bulk of DW supporting casts over the series’ history, and I would go so far as to say Duncan Lamont is excellent, completely believable as the amoral (rather than evil) Galloway. And I’ll even go out on a limb and say that I think Carey Blyton’s saxophone score works beautifully. I’ll say up front that I’m not a huge fan of typical ‘Doctor Who’ music; Dudley Simpson’s scores are sometimes very effective, true, but they’re also sometimes so understated and tuneless that there might as well not be any music at all. Blyton’s ‘Death to the Daleks’ score is different – the music almost takes on the role of the storyteller. Yes, the tootling ‘Dalek March’ is a (major) misstep, but overall the music does everything an incidental score should – building tension in the suspense scenes, and setting the ethereal tone in the ones involving the giant city. (And the muttering, howling Exxilon chorus in the sacrifice scenes is simply terrifying.)

As for the other elements, both the regulars come off well (especially Lis Sladen), and Arnold Yarrow’s Bellal is a truly wonderful little figure, kind of a better fleshed out take on Wester, the friendly alien from the previous Dalek story. The gravel-pit locations for once work perfectly, giving the impression of a blasted landscape perfectly matched with the ruined civilization described in the script. Perhaps the weakest element is the ‘intelligence’ tests the Doctor and Bellal face in the city, which really are so elementary as to be obnoxious. But all in all ‘Death to the Daleks’ is a fine story, much better than is commonly thought.





Invasion of the DinosaursBookmark and Share

Sunday, 12 December 2004 - Reviewed by Steve Cassidy

Can someone please explain to me WHY 'Invasion of the Dinosaurs' has a poor reputation?

Granted, the dinosaurs fail miserably in 2004. When we are used to the living breathing cgi of Jurassic Park or the Star Wars prequels the hand puppets of 1974 fall by the wayside. But how else in this time before pixel orientated SFX were they mean't to realise them? I remember the seventies quite clearly and their ambitions were always high. There were hand puppets in 'The Land that Time Forgot' and stop motion monsters in the 'Sinbad' films but such things were way above Doctor Who's budget. A state funded television channel that had always prided itself on its prudence isn't going to go splashing money around for stop motion photography - even if it did have the luxury of time. To be frank this was a childrens show which ran for almost six months a year. Its shooting schedule was tight and it had to turn out a good story each week - and in this 'Invasion of the Dinosaurs' succeeds admirably.

'Invasion of the Dinosaurs' is good. Damn good.

All the anachronisms of the Pertwee era are here - the Unit family, the earthbound threat, the Barry Letts preachiness. But it is held together by a superb script by Malcolm Hulke that is rich in characterisation, plot and surprises. When the novelty of the dinosaurs wears off then the story takes another turn that catches the audience by surprise. And all is held together by the tight script-editing of Terence Dicks. Not a scene is wasted, not a piece of dialogue is superfluous. Its a tight exciting piece of television take actually builds to an effective climax. And that in itself is a rare thing in the WHO cannon.

And the dinosaurs? To be frank they are not as effective, and certainly not as scary as the Drashigs in the fabulous 'Carnival of Monsters' and aren't really as well realised. The thing is the canvas was probably a bit too ambitious for such a production so 95% of the adventure is drama with the UNIT regulars. But they have too appear and when they do the entire thing has the feel of a comic strip or B-Movie. I expected little bubbles to appear out of Pertwee's mouth saying " A triceratops! Just keep it busy Brigadier while I finish doing this!" OK, the Tyrannosaurus Rex looks like a rubber doll, the kind you can win at a fairground and the fight with the Brontosaurus in front of Moorgate tube was unbelievable (I shall never look at that station in the same way ever again). The pterodactyl was as scary as the mop the Doctor used to fight it off. Only the Stegosaurus and possibly the Triceratops emerge with any credibility.

And yet it all seems eerily possible. Due to superb acting and directing the premise of giant sauropods roaming all over central London (surely the most hackneyed B-movie plot ever devised) it all actually works. And this is because, in short, the dinosaurs are superfluous. The adventure could have been called 'Invasion of the Mongol Horsemen' or 'Invasion of the Hairy Vikings' as the story is really about idealistic people endangering the rest of the population by scaring the bejesus out of them so they can formulate their plans. But I suppose the title 'Invasion of the Dinosaurs' looked better in the Radio Times. The scale is bigger then a few dinosaurs - the whole of human history is in jeopardy. And that is what is so good about this adventure, which is rapidly moving up the scale to become one of my favourite Pertwees, that there are layer upon layer of story here. There is stuff here which is incredibly adult - idealism, ecology, self-deception, the ends not justifying the means. One of the most chilling threads was the removal of 'disruptive influences' and the measures used to ensure cohesity amongst a group.

Three people should share the credit - Malcolm Hulke the scriptwriter, Barry Letts the producer and director Paddy Russell. First of all Hulke comes up with a reason for their being dinosaurs roaming around Oxford Circus. And from this he builds a very interesting story. The villains aren't villains, at least in their own minds. They think they are doing great good returning mankind to a simpler less polluted age. Mankind has destroyed the planet and they want it returned to a more pristine time where their guiding hand will ensure the abuse never happens again. To them, they are doing great good. The road to hell is paved with good intentions. Grafted onto this is almost a 'cold-war' type story of cross and double cross where it becomes apparent that anyone left inside the central zone is working for the idealists. And then we have the big shocker at the end of episode three where the audience is just as stunned as Sarah. A spaceship! She's been on a space ship for three months! With the stroke of a pen Hulke turns the story upside down in one of the best story twists of the entire series. Watching this part again I couldn't help thinking of 'Capricorn One', a Hollywood film where they fake the moon landings and the astronauts eventually twig and rebel. 'Invasion of the Dinosaurs' predates this by about five years.

Producer Barry Letts knows exactly how to create such a story. Going from his DVD commentaries Mr Letts winces along with the rest of us watching subpar effects so it would be interesting to know his opinion on the dinosaurs thirty years on. The production company at Pinewood certainly let him down in that respect. But on the whole the production is top-notch. The first episode is incredibly atmospheric. Certainly it benefits from being in black and white, and the whole episode has something of sixties WHO about it. But director Paddy Russell certainly evokes a deserted and abandoned London with ease. The audience shares the disquiet of the Doctor and Sarah as they roam around trying to find out what has happened. Their arrest as looters works wonderfully and Pertwee pulling his face funny faces as their mugshots are taken was very funny. But it is evoking atmosphere and getting good performances from the cast that Russell excels. There is not a duff performance amongst them.

The three "villains" are well handled. Instead of the usual ranting megalomaniac with have a couple of faceless bureaucrats who want to change the world. Each one is well-drawn, Whitaker is the scientist who has finally cracked the secret of time travel and thinks he is using it for something good. John Bennett, a long way from his sympathetic portrayal of Chang in the 'The Talons of Weng Chiang' plays General Finch. Finch is played so unsympathetically by Bennett that if Finch were one of the good guys we still wouldn't like him. And then there is Grover, the government minister who is behind all of it. Politicians always claim they go into politics wanting the change the world - well, Grover does, back hundreds of years in fact. It is a very good performance and for the first three episodes we like him immensely, such a kindly gentleman - his scenes helping Sarah in his office, making the tea, are very gently done lulling the audience into a false sense of security - then WHAM! He betrays her! Noel Johnson brings the right kind of gentle charisma to the role. I've seen him play government ministers before, I'm sure that was him in the pre titles of 'For Your Eyes Only' as First Sea Lord.

And Captain Mike Yates? His betrayal is one of the best things in the adventure. The character was pretty faceless before, just a public school ladder-climber. We learn't more about the real Mike Yates then we have over the two/three years he has been with us. That at heart there was an idealist who was willing to sacrifice himself and all about him for a better world. He did, however, have a weakness - he would not kill his friends. Time and again he stops the idealists from killing the Doctor. Its a good way for a character to depart and interesting to watch the character develop over the six episodes. Top stuff.

Finally we have the Doctor and Sarah. It has been claimed that Pertwee was running on autopilot for most of season 11. I can see no evidence of it here. In fact his portrayal in this one is one of my favourite EVER Pertwee performances. Swinging from that spiky no-nonsense boffin we know and love, to a warm humanity and someone who can actually sympathise with what the idealists are trying to achieve but not the way they are going about it. And no one can look more interested and engrossed in some silly bit of machinery then Jon Pertwee - he does it so well. And Lis Sladen? Adventure number two for her and the production team must have been rubbing their hands with glee with what they could do with Sarah Jane Smith. In this adventure she is superb - leading a rebellion, chasing off on her own leads, getting frustrated at her treatment at UNIT, showing scepticism and good humour at every opportunity. They could use her much more in the story then they ever could Jo Grant. Can you imagine Jo Grant opening an airlock to prove a point? Or standing up to the Elders so much that they talk about destroying her? Lis Sladen is a natural actress, she emotes easily and no one does fear quite like she does. Also, I love the seventies black leather jacket.

So there you have it. If my review hasn't convinced you to get a copy then shame on you. As I said before, it is fast moving up the list to become one of my favourite Pertwees and certainly is one of the more enjoyable UNIT adventures. Naff dinosaurs aside, it is a well constructed scripted tale with lots of special moments. Why has it had such a bad reputation for so long? I can think of worse effects (Erato, the green mattress in the pit for example) and what are you watching WHO for SFX for anyway?

To me it is the best of WHO, a little gem hiding away in season 11. Actually, keep quiet - it will be our little secret. A hidden treasure...





Death to the DaleksBookmark and Share

Wednesday, 31 December 2003 - Reviewed by Paul Clarke

Death to the Daleks' has a fairly poor reputation, but I've never quite understood why. It may not be a classic, and indeed has several flaws, but it's still an entertaining, fast paced little story that generally works rather well on several fronts. 

Firstly, I said when I reviewed 'Colony in Space' that I'm a sucker for ancient races, super weapons and mysterious powerful alien races. Whilst the City isn't a super-weapon as such, the principle remains the same, and like the Uxariens, the fruits of their once mighty technology have slowly destroyed the Exxilons. I'm also a sucker for B-movie plots involving quests through labyrinths riddled with traps, so all in all 'Death to the Daleks' has a certain appeal for me thanks to the Exxilons and their City alone. The City works very well; it looks effective, and lives up to the threat that Bellal insists it poses; not only is it capable of draining power from the TARDIS in addition to the other ships on Exxilon, it also proves able to defend itself and has regenerative capabilities. The roots are surprisingly effective, despite the occasional glimpse of a wire holding them up, and the screeching noise they make as they attack is suitably chilling. The seeming ease (relatively speaking) with which the Doctor and Bellal reach the heart (or rather, the brain) of the City seems suspicious until they actually get there, when the Doctor realizes that the traps are designed to let intelligent visitors through so that it can add their knowledge to its own; having proved a threat to it, the City responds with the Antibodies, which are fairly creepy, especially as they are seemingly indestructible. The Exxilons themselves are a fairly basic primitive tribal society, which are rife throughout science fiction in general and Doctor Who in particular, but they look quite good and Bellal makes for a pleasing pseudo-companion (he doesn't actually do much besides allow the Doctor to explain the plot to the viewers, but he's quite likeable). The notion of the two Exxilon factions isn't really exploited, but then again there isn't really time to show them at odds; in plot terms, Bellal's breakaway group exists to explain the origins of the City and they do little else. The religious divide between the groups is plausible enough, although personally I suspect that Bellal's group is persecuted because they insist on walking around stark bollock naked. 

Considering how utterly ghastly their last outing was the Daleks are used well here. In many respects, they benefit from the plot, which sees them landing on Exxilon after the humans have been dithering and getting nowhere for some time, and quickly taking charge of the situation. After briefly panicking when they discover that their guns don't work, they make a bargain with the Exxilons to secure the parrineum, and to buy them time whilst they devise alternative weaponry, which is a least a nod in the direction of their old cunning and intelligence. It also speaks volumes about the Daleks that they quickly come up with a substitute weapon; this is understandable considering their helplessness when unarmed (note the Dalek that glides at the attacking Exxilons in Episode Two screeching "Exterminate!" almost instinctively and thus gets destroyed), but it also showcases their technical brilliance. Incidentally, their ability to move about on Exxilon is interesting; the script explains it away by stating that they move by psychokinesis, which is a rather startling new development, and one which suggests that Terry Nation suddenly noticed a plot-hole whilst he was writing and decided to hurriedly gloss over it. However, an upshot of this is that it also makes the Daleks look good, since however they do it, the fact remains that they retain motive power when even the TARDIS has been incapacitated. The irony of the Dalek involvement in 'Death to the Daleks' is that it is crucial to the success of the Earth mission; it is the Daleks who organize the mining (admittedly through their usual unpleasant tactics), and it is the Daleks who provide the explosives to destroy the beacon and end the power-drain. In addition, whilst we only see the two Daleks in the City tackling two of the five tests faced by the Doctor and Bellal, they don't seem to have much trouble with any them. In short, 'Death to the Daleks' makes the Daleks look pretty good. Having said that, the self-destructing Dalek in Episode Four is just annoying; it may be standard Dalek policy not to allow failure, but on an important mission to a dangerous planet on which three Daleks have already been destroyed it would surely make more sense for it to try and recapture its prisoner! 

The human characters are less effective, with only the unpleasant Galloway (Duncan Lamont, who played doomed astronaut Victor Caroon in The Quatermass Experiment) standing out. John Abineri is wasted as Railton, and Julian Fox is rather dreadful as Hamilton. Joy Harrison has to suffer with being the token female, which is one of my main criticisms of 'Death to the Daleks'; Jill Tarrant is a member of a military expedition, and yet she spends a great deal of time panicking, or on the verge of tears, or asking a journalist with no military training what to do. It's utterly ridiculous; she's like the embodiment of passive sexism. 

The Doctor and Sarah are there usual reliable selves. Sarah gets sidelined for much of the story, but Liz Sladen does what she can with her limited scenes; her clobbering of the Exxilon in the TARDIS is a great scene, in part because it's rather claustrophobic, Sarah frantically trying to open the door of what should be a safe haven whilst her attacker starts to recover on the floor behind her. Pertwee isn't at his best or worst here, he simply puts in an average performance, although I do like his "a hit Sir, a palpable hit!" routine when the root attacks the Dalek. 

Production wise, the story is mixed. The model work of the city looks good, as does its final destruction. There are moments of impressive direction, including shots of the expedition's photographs of the City superimposed over Sarah approaching the edifice, and the surreal final test in the City. Showing us the attacking Exxilons from the point of view of a Dalek in Episode Two also works well, conveying the unarmed Dalek's panic at being unable to defend itself. Serves it right. However, as in 'Planet of the Daleks', the contrast between location footage and studio footage is rather jarring, especially as the extensive rocky sets look decidedly plastic. This is doubly unfortunate, since the location work is very atmospheric. I also wish that they hadn't used the static Dalek to bulk up numbers; I'm not sure why, but I actually find it far more distracting than photographic cardboard cut-outs used in the black and white Dalek stories. There is unfortunately some crap editing; it is obvious before the end credits role in Episode One that the Dalek guns don't work, and the cliff-hanger to Episode Three is beyond belief, consisting as it does of a shot of a tiled floor. There's also a pointless frame of Galloway screaming after he detonates the bomb at the end, which isn't remotely convincing. My strongest criticism of the story however, is the stupid incidental music, which robs several scenes of any dramatic tension that they might have had. A very silly musical sting for example, accompanies the first sight of the Daleks as they glide from their ship.

Despite these criticisms however, 'Death to the Daleks' is well paced and entertaining, and makes effective use of its eponymous villains.