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Tuesday, 16 January 2007 - Reviewed by Nick Mellish

You know you’re in trouble when you have to take thirty minute breaks between Episodes in order to watch a story without gnawing your ankles off. At least, I’d say that this is a reasonable argument, and it’s certainly one that sums up ‘The Web Planet’ for me. I apologise to fans of the story, but in my opinion it really is not very good at all.

The basic story is nothing too terrible- rival alien factions fight for control of a planet- but the execution of said plot is slow, tedious, plodding and padded out, something that would not be too bad in most stories, but when this one lasts for six whole Episodes, then you quite clearly have a problem. It saddens me to write this as deep down I know there is an okay-ish story waiting to be seen, but here no such story is available for public consumption. Bill Strutton has some good ideas, but his script does not do them justice in any way, shape or form.

Of the six Episodes, it’s arguably the first one- simply entitled ‘The Web Planet’- that impresses the most. The title of the Episode sets up the next twenty-five minutes well: mystery, alien worlds, excitement. Well, maybe not the latter but the first two are fulfilled nicely. The cleverest thing about this Episode is the way that it centres pretty much solely around the four regular cast members (i.e. the current TARDIS crew) and every so often throws in an alien to create a bit of horror. However, such moments sometimes fall flat on their faces. The appearance of a Zarbi in the TARDIS scanner works well, largely due to Vicki’s understated reaction, but they are handled less well earlier on- namely when one of them pops its head up over a rock briefly to take a look at Ian before ducking down again like a naughty schoolboy; whilst the sequence should prompt mystery and maybe a small fright, instead it just looks really, really silly and never fails to make me laugh a little.

The use of Vaseline to make Vortis’ surface look more alien works really well, and is one of the best things about the entire story as it really does give the alien atmosphere that the story is desperate to create.

The best thing about Episode One for me is the ending- and I mean that in a way that is not offensive towards said Episode. By making Vortis seem very alien and not including any other human characters, the cliffhangers that are witnessed as the Episode ends work well: Vicki is alone in the TARDIS as it rolls around, Barbara is about to walk into an Acid Bath (what is it about Acid Baths and stories with Martin Jarvis in them?), Ian is, err, trapped in a net, and the Doctor discovers that the TARDIS has vanished. As viewers, you genuinely care about the protagonists, so the fact that they are all in danger is a rather thrilling end to the Episode, and is easily the highest point that Strutton reaches in his script.

Alas, despite its good points, even this Episode suffers from having parts that simply feel like padding out- a rather look piece about Aspirins here, the Doctor and Ian wandering around in near-silence there. The whole sequence with Barbara’s arm is interesting but again goes on for a little too long, whilst earlier on we have a most painful moment as William Hartnell forgets his lines whilst trying to explain how the TARDIS doors can be opened despite there being no power- full credit to him for slogging through it rather than demanding a re-take, but there is no denying that it is still an awkward moment and a rather painful one to watch.

After the first Episode, things really hit rock bottom; we have moments that are just embarrassingly funny (“I have a shock for you. The ship’s gone- vanished!” says the Doctor. Cue shot of Ina looking shocked), moments that ruin the illusions being created (namely the many times cast members cast shadows upon Vortis’ backdrop, thus making it obvious that it is a set), moments that just make you cringe (the first time you see an Optera in full view), and moments that are just plain dull (yes, I’m looking at the Optera again). Maybe it’s wrong of me to give the Optera such a hard time, but when they first appeared I actually let out a cry of “Oh… oh boy…” such was the shock at seeing them for the first time. For a story that was so expensive to make, they don’t half look incredibly cheap. Now, poor effects in ‘Doctor Who’ are normally in my eyes forgivable, but here they really look the pits and the way they speak… well, put it like this: it didn’t exactly sell the effect to me. Maybe I’m just being too harsh on them, or perhaps I just see them for what they are- more than a little crap.

As well as the excess padding, the story also feels extremely lazy. In every single Episode there are numerous moments when you scream “I can see a boom shadow!” or “That’s a Stage Light creating that shine!”, and there are often moments where silence passes for a few moments so that the Episode can be just that little bit closer to filling up its running time.

As well as this, there are moments that really stand out as being quite horrific, and such moments are more than a little at odds with the relatively fluffy atmosphere elsewhere. Parts such as a Menoptra having its wings ripped off by a couple of Zarbi, or when an Optera shoves her head in a rock to stop a flow of Acid, stick out as being very, very vicious and are truly shocking compared to everything that is going. Perhaps that is the point- that among everything, something nasty is happening. However, I think it would have been better to stick to just one ambience; despite parts like the lingering close-up of Hrostar’s dead body being some of the most powerful images in the story, as it stands such moments seem jarring and work against the story rather than for it.

The padding problems really become evident in the later Episodes. How many times can Vicki be put under control of the golden collar before it becomes tedious? Several times apparently, or so this story would have you believe as it doesn’t stop shoving it on her when something needs to happen to plug the gaps. It is the ending that really stands out as being overlong though. The actual death of the Animus is decidedly naff, and following this we have some very overlong and drawn out moments with the TARDIS crew milling around on the planet surface. Look over there as Barbara plays with a scrubbing brush… sorry, I meant a Venom Grub (or are they Larvae Guns? Or Zarbi Larvae? Somebody tell me for certain because as it stands I don’t have a clue!), and now we see Ian and the Doctor talk about Ian’s Coal Hill tie, a sequence where I can never tell if it’s meant to be serious, funny, or, well, anything really- it just confuses me and seems to be as pointless as it is confusing. The actual ending once the TARDIS crew have left is not too bad, but its power is somewhat marred again by moments where it could quite easily have been shortened with no loss to coherence.

It’s not all bad in ‘The Web Planet’. The film sequences in ‘Crater Of Needles’ when the Menoptra land and fight the Zarbi are entertaining and nicely shot, whilst Ian’s fight with a Zarbi in the previous Episode is entertaining too but in an entirely different way. Elsewhere, Zombo the Zarbi deserves his own spin-off series and there are some nice touches in the script: the fact that the Menoptra cannot correctly pronounce the TARDIS crew’s names for instance (calling Ian ‘Heron’ for example) is rather nice, as are all the scenes set inside the Crater of Needles, which show a real visual flair on director Richard Martin’s behalf. What a pity then the rest of the story swamps such moments as these.

Acting wise, ‘The Web Planet’ is again hit and miss. The regular cast are on top form, despite line flubs here and there, and the rather patronising treatment of Vicki throughout (the Doctor giving her chocolate to clam her down is one moment that springs to mind). Of the guest cast, Catherine Fleming as the Animus voice is rather impressive and the Optera… well, the Optera are perhaps better best forgotten. The Menoptra are universally good, with Martin Jarvis as Hilio really impressing. Only the odd hissing noise they make to one another when they are arguing lets things down, as does the famous sequence where they taunt the Zarbi by, err, shouting out “Zaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaarrrrrrrrrrrrrrbiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii!” in a very high pitched voice. No, I don’t know why they do this either. Later on, there’s a brief reprise of such behaviour- a Menoptra shouting “Barbara Barbara Barbara!” as if she is about to break into a Cheerleading sequence. It’s a pity she doesn’t, as that would have lightened things up a bit I suppose.

In all then, ‘The Web Planet’, in my opinion, deserves its reputation for being ambitious, creative, and more than little rubbish. Full points to the Production Team for attempting something so other-worldly, minus several points for how dire the actual story is.

“I’ve never experience anything like this in my life before!” cries the Doctor at one point, which is rather like how I felt whilst watching it- thank goodness that I won’t have to do so again.

FILTER: - Television - Series 2 - First Doctor

The Web PlanetBookmark and Share

Tuesday, 16 January 2007 - Reviewed by Paul Clarke

'The Web Planet' is of course notorious. When, as a kid during the largely pre-video eighties, I started to learn about past Doctor Who stories from Target novelisations and Peter Haining's Doctor Who – A Celebration, the latter of which led me to believe that 'The Web Planet' was a classic, with pioneering special effects and superb monsters that was utterly convincing in its portrayal of a truly alien world and was years ahead of its time. Then it was released on video. 

That basically seems to sum up fandom's opinion of 'The Web Planet', which The Discontinuity Guide notes is "slow and silly looking by modern standards". However, if anyone is expecting me to savage it, they are in for a disappointment. The main reason for is that I don't judge Doctor Who by its special effects, and never have; I judge it by plot, script, and acting. My stock pretentious argument for non-Who fans who ask me how I can take Doctor Who's effects seriously is that it is all to do with suspension of disbelief, and that Shakespeare's plays are traditionally performed on an empty stage with minimal props, but that doesn't detract from the plays themselves. My more honest answer is simply that I watch Doctor Who through metaphorical rose-tinted glasses. That said, I'm not blind to crap effects, and so since I mentioned the Slyther when I was rambling on about 'The Dalek Invasion of Earth', I'll get the discussion of the effects out of the way. Vortis itself doesn't look bad – it's at least as credible attempt to create an alien landscape as Skaro was in 'The Mutants'. True, there are often shadows cast over painted backdrops by the actors, but on the whole the sets are pretty good, and convey a sense of space quite convincingly. This is probably helped by the oft-criticized use of lenses to blur images set outside on Vortis' surface, which prevent the viewer from focusing too closely on backgrounds, but these aren't used in all the "outdoor" scenes. The rocks and craters really look rather good, as do the occasional pools of acid, and for a series that will later resort to the use of quarries to portray alien planets, it's a laudable attempt. The other sets are also well done, although parts of the Carsenome (mainly the corridors) do look painfully like flimsy plastic. The room in which the Doctor and Vicki spend most of the story however looks reasonable enough, as does the Animus' centre. The Menoptra Temple of Light also looks good, as do the caves of the Optera. Ultimately, I realized that I'd got to the end of episode six without feeling that the action was taking place within a studio. The other big demand on the effects is of course the various aliens present on Vortis. 

The Menoptra look like men in costumes, but then so do most Doctor Who monsters and overall they look quite good, probably faring the best of all the creatures present. The bands of hair around their bodies allow them to be flexible without the need for over-ambitious insect like joints, which adds considerably to their success. That said, my mate caught the end of episode four, fell about laughing and exclaimed, "It's just a load of blokes in crappy moth costumes". As I said, rose tinted glasses… The Zarbi look much better in black and white photographs than they do on screen, due largely to the fact that their back legs are painfully obviously those of the actor, whereas both sets of forelegs are much more spindly and are clearly just stuck on the costume. The rest of the costume is obviously sat on the actor's back, but in spite of this, they still look quite effective running about. Honest. The Optera are a different matter, since they basically look like cheap polystyrene and the extra arms are utterly absurd, being unconnected to the actor and just dangling unconvincingly. The Larvae guns are even worse, and look like ironing boards with fronds on either wheels or the backs of actors at differing parts of the story. Finally there is the Animus, which vaguely resembles a Dutch Cap with fronds, but on the whole doesn't look too bad. So that's the effects out of the way…

On the whole, I think that 'The Web Planet' is to be applauded as an attempt to portray an alien world. Vortis is at least as intriguing as Skaro, with its ancient ruins, acid pools, starry sky and weird lighting. Whilst the Zarbi are basically ants and the Menoptra moths, the actors and director try hard to make them work as aliens, and on the whole they succeed; the chirruping of the Zarbi as they run mindlessly about is striking, as is the weird body language of the Menoptra, which is clearly the result of careful attention to detail – notice Hrostar and Hilio squaring off in episode five, by bobbing and hissing at one another. The dance-inspired movement of the Menoptra, including their distinctive arm hand waving, might look like amateur dramatics in retrospect, but shows a real attempt to make them stand out as alien. The real triumph in the alien stakes however is with the Optera, who get some great scripting, referring to blank walls as "silent" ("we must make mouths in it with our weapons, then it will speak more light"), to stalactites as teeth of stone, and to acid vapour "sleeping" at their feet. These are all attempts to show that Optera do not think in human terms, and it's an excellent idea. The Menoptra too are made to feel more alien simply by altering their pronunciation of Ian and Barbara to Heron and Arbara, showing that to them, human names are just as strange as theirs are to us. It has often been noted that 'The Web Planet' is the only Doctor Who television story in which none of the supporting characters are humanoid and however daft people might think the costumes are, it is still highly effective as an idea. 

As a villain, the Animus is a first for Doctor Who, since it is unseen for most of the story, but its presence is felt throughout. It's rather more effective as a disembodied voice than it is in the flesh, thanks largely to its dispassionate tones as its sits converses with the Doctor. From the first time that the Doctor talks to it, it gives an impression of being utterly evil, due largely to its obvious disregard for any life other than itself. The Animus is central to the plot of 'The Web Planet', more so than any other single villain seen so far in Doctor Who; it is responsible for the arrival of the TARDIS, the desperate plight of the Menoptra, and the barren state of Vortis, which we are told was once cocooned in flower forests. It is an utterly malignant thing, and this feeling is emphasized by its method of take-over – it has slowly extended its web over Vortis, absorbing everything in its path, and the fact that the Menoptra refer to this web as the Carsenome (an obvious corruption of carcinoma) only serves to reinforce this malignant feeling. At no point in this story do the Doctor or his companions get a reprieve until the Animus is destroyed – from the moment the TARDIS is forced down, they are forced to split up after which they are all, in one way or another, either enslaved and/or forced to fight for their survival. The feeling of desperation is due largely to reminders that they have landed on Vortis just in time for the Menoptra's last ditch attempt to regain their world – they are dying on Pictos, and, unused to conflict, they have been forced into battle with guns that turn out to be useless, and pinning all their hopes on a weapon that they cannot be sure will work. Their plight seems all the more grim due to their physical mutilation – the Menoptra captured by the Zarbi have their wings torn off. For a species that is used to flight, this is presumably akin to having ones legs broken or amputated to prevent escape, which is a disturbing thought and one which occurred to me when Hrostar was rendered permanently flightless. 

Episode one of 'The Web Planet' is one of my favourite opening episodes of any Doctor Who story up to this point, along with 'The Mutants' and 'The Dalek Invasion of Earth'. As on Skaro, the TARDIS crew find a mysterious and unearthly landscape, rife with strange phenomenon, from the high-pitched chittering of the Zarbi early on which only Vicki can hear inside the TARDIS, to the pools of acid, the Menoptra edifice, and the strange web that ensnares Ian. The success of this episode is due partly to the direction; unusual camera angles make the sudden assault on the TARDIS intriguingly macabre, especially when combined with the bizarre effect of the rotating TARDIS console. Plus, we have the mysterious effect on gold items (which also allows Vicki to find out about Ian and Barbara's visit to Rome in 'The Romans' – a nice touch) and the half-glimpsed Zarbi scuttling amongst the crags; I'm not entirely blind to the short-comings of their costumes and the decision to keep them only briefly seen in the first episode is a wise one. The ADJs are also a nice touch, reminding us that not all planets are like Earth, even if they have to be reasonably similar to the constraints of dramatic requirement and budgetary restrictions. Overall, the episode is effective and memorably creepy, and the look of utter loss on Hartnell's face at the end when the Doctor realises that the TARDIS is missing is amazingly convincing. Which brings me to the characterisation.

Rather famously (or infamously), Hartnell has a fluff nightmare in episode one, which at its worst moment results in an obvious prompt from Russell ("What galaxy is that in, Doctor?"). After this however, he is on top form during 'The Web Planet'. When dealing with the Animus and playing for time, the Doctor is at his imperious best, urgently asserting himself to protect him and Vicki. This alternates with his familiar air of bright-eyed fascination as he strives to answer the question of what is happening on Vortis, what the Animus wants, and how it controls the Zarbi. Later, his bickering with Prapillus is a delight, as is the way he effortlessly takes charge during the meeting in the Temple of Light. But he is also vulnerable, as witnessed by his sudden reversion to frightened old man when he loses the advantage of having knowledge that the Animus wants about the Menoptra and is thus placed under its control, and later on when he and Vicki are sprayed with webbing and taken before the Animus. Vicki also comes across well, as in 'The Romans' demonstrating that she is more useful than Susan – although obviously frightened at some points, she keeps her wits about her throughout, and is able to defy the Animus even after the Doctor has collapsed before it. Ian and Barbara are the usual excellent selves, Barbara single-handedly rallying her dispirited Menoptra allies to fight their Zarbi oppressors, and ultimately destroying the Animus with the Isop-tope when its light overwhelms them. Ian does similar things with the Optera, helped considerably by Vrestin, and the look on Russell's face when Nemini dies in the acid stream speaks volumes about the hardship faced by the oppressed inhabitants of Vortis, again testament to his acting skills. Of the guest cast, Hrostar and Hlynia are fairly forgettable, but the other Menoptra fare better. The imperious Vrestin maintains her dignity even when she and Ian the Optera imprison them, which stands out because on the whole the spirit of the peace-loving Menoptra is easily broken. Prapillus is another well-defined character, an old man who despite the loss of his wings and a lengthy period of enslavement has kept both hope and curiosity alive. His fascination with the Doctor's mysterious ring is quite endearing, as is his determination to fight the Zarbi and Animus even though he knows that the attack on the Carsenome could prove fatal. His knowledge of the Zarbi and the Larvae guns is crucial to the success of this mission. Finally there is the aggressive (for a Menoptra) and distrusting Hilio, who despite his paranoia about trusting the aliens and losing the only weapon that even gives them a chance, ultimately is forced to turn to Barbara for aid in the Centre when the presence of the Animus proves too powerful for him. Nemini and Hetra represent the Optera, both of who are initially afraid of Ian and Vrestin and want to kill them to protect their people, but who are eventually persuaded to face their fear of Pwadaruk and the surface to aid them in their struggle. Nemini dies in the tunnels, but Hetra accompanies Ian and Vrestin into the Carsenome and eventually leads his people in their first faltering steps onto the surface of Vortis and into the light. Part of the reason that I think 'The Web Planet' has so much to offer is that the actors give it their all, even those inside the Zarbi.

Despite all this praise I'm heaping on 'The Web Planet', it is still flawed even if we look beyond the costumes – nobody seems to realize how heavy those gold collars would actually be, there are some strange accents from some of the guest-cast, and the story suffers from padding. And of course there is the infamous moment in episode three when a Zarbi runs straight into the camera – one of those cursed moments in Doctor Who when a non-fan mate always walks into the room. Nevertheless, if you can look beyond the budgetary and technical limitations of the time, 'The Web Planet' has much to offer and is at the very least an admirable attempt at creating a truly alien world, even if it isn't quite a success. I'm glad that the attempt was made and that this story survived in the archives. 

Now why do I think nobody is going to agree with me…

FILTER: - Television - Series 2 - First Doctor

The ChaseBookmark and Share

Tuesday, 16 January 2007 - Reviewed by Paul Clarke

After the post-nuclear holocaust horror of 'The Mutants' and the Nazi imagery of 'The Dalek Invasion of Earth', viewers at the time might have been expecting further apocalyptic horror from the third Dalek story after the dramatic cliffhanger appearance of a Dalek at the end of 'The Space Museum'. That brief appearance reveals that the Daleks, who had perfectly adapted their environment to suit their needs in 'The Mutants' and then demonstrated their ability to reach beyond their city and conquer other worlds in 'The Dalek Invasion of Earth', have made a further technological leap in conquering the fourth dimension. We are told that the Daleks are preparing to follow "the enemy time machine" and track down and exterminate their old foes. This promises the viewer a thrilling and terrifying ride in which there is no escape from the Dalek for the TARDIS crew. What the viewer gets however is nothing of the sort. 

Since I discussed the positive aspects of 'The Space Museum' first, here I'll discuss the drawbacks of 'The Chase' first instead. Firstly, the direction is sloppy. There is a BBC camera in the jungle on Mechanus, there is a Dalek in the House of Horror before the Daleks arrive there, an Aridian sneaks around I the background during episode two, and the Frankenstein monster changes its clothes between scenes. In addition, Richard Martin makes some strange directorial choices; during the final battle between the Daleks and the Mechanoids, there are three horrible Batman-style cartoon flashes super-imposed over the action, which look incredibly cheap and nasty. In addition, since Edmund Warwick looks nothing like William Hartnell from the front, the decision to use him in scenes when the Doctor is absent is an interesting one, especially since these scenes often then involve a close-up of Hartnell completing the robot's lines. This jars considerably, and is unnecessary, since during the actual duel between the Doctor and his doppelganger, Warwick is filmed from behind and is reasonably convincing, leading to the obvious conclusion that the entire duplicate plot could have been carried off much better than it is. The shots of the TARDIS and the Dalek time machine traveling through space also look terrible, due to the obvious use of cardboard cutouts of the two craft, and are entirely unnecessary. The ground on Mechanus is shrouded in dry ice in the model shots, but bare and obviously a Dalek-friendly set floor in the studio. And 'The Chase' has Doctor Who's stupidest incidental score to date, which totally destroys any tension that might otherwise have been created. 

Initially, the Daleks themselves are impressive, with a new streamlined look that is a massive improvement on the large-bumpered satellite-dish supporting model from 'The Dalek Invasion of Earth'. That they have become the first beings in Doctor Who other than the Doctor himself to travel in time is also undoubtedly impressive and suggests that their technology can overcome any obstacle in their path. Unfortunately, this is all undermined by Nation's apparent decision to pen 'The Chase' as a comedy. Instead of the intimidating and unstoppable monsters of the first two Dalek stories, here we have a Dalek that clears its throat as it emerges form a sand-dune (thus destroying the tension of the first episode cliffhanger), a Dalek that goes "erm" repeatedly when asked to perform mathematics, and Daleks panicked by indestructible fairground exhibits. The segment located atop the Empire State Building is an outright attempt at comedy, but falls flat, like most of the bits in 'The Chase' that seem to want to be funny but aren't (why on Earth, for example, doesn't the Dalek exterminate Dill? I certainly wanted to…). It is almost as though Nation (a former script-writer for Tony Hancock) suddenly realized that homicidal psychotic monsters are not the best comedy fodder and ended up writing a half-hearted semi-comedy. Since these prevent 'The Chase' from becoming as dramatic as it could be, it falls between two stools. What results is more of a parody than anything else – the Daleks chanting "retreat" in high-panicky voices in episode four are hugely reminiscent of King Arthur's cry of "run away!" in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Similarly, their frantic chanting of "Attack! Attack! Attack!" brings to mind the Knights who say "Ni". They are easily dispatched too – a fairground android breaks one into pieces (they would have been useful during the Dalek invasion), another roles sedately into the sea, and one is easily lured into a cardigan-based pitfall trap. 

Like Nation's earlier 'The Keys of Marinus', 'The Chase' has a multi-location narrative, as the action moves from place to place throughout time and space. Whereas I criticized 'The Keys of Marinus' for failing to live up to its potential, 'The Chase' overcomes this flaw by three separate tactics. One of these is to have a planet with no intelligent indigenous species, inhabited only by robots, about which we are told everything we need to know, and who have a Spartan, mechanized civilization with consequently no hints of a larger culture to entice and frustrate the viewer – this works quite well. Another is to have sequences set on Earth, and thus familiar. The third unfortunately, is to have two episodes set on a planet inhabited by a race so tedious that the viewer (or at least, this viewer) has no interest in learning more about it. Aridius is deadly dull. The sets are OK, but the Aridians themselves are pathetic to the point of contempt, without any accompanying feelings of sympathy (I suspect that this rather harsh view on my part is due largely to their silly appearance and some dreadful overacting). Even the name is ridiculous – the planet is called Aridius and it used to be wet, but became Arid. Serves them right. Perhaps they changed the name after the seas dried up? In a series that will later demonstrate the difficulties of creating convincing tentacles, the mire beasts are quite effective, until at least we see one in full, and learn that it resembles an enormous scrotum. And why do the Daleks tell the Aridians to hand the time travelers over at high suns, instead of immediately, thus giving them time to escape? The entire planet is presented as a soul-destroying combination of tedium and ludicrousness. Admittedly, the Daleks are quite nasty here – their extermination of the two Aridians who dig the TARDIS out of the sand is a reminder of their ruthlessness. Sadly, it is the next episode, which destroys their credibility. In addition, the gimmicky scene with the Time-Space Visualiser is too long and just feels like padding. The Shakespeare bit is particularly unmemorable. 

The Morton C. Dill sequence is also crap, although it is to Peter Purves' credit that when he reappears as Steven in episode six, the characters are completely different. With a cod American dialogue, unfunny idiot Southern American tourist routine, and silly hat, Dill is just irritating. As is the tourist guide with the over-the-top Brooklyn accent. Aside from that, the sequences set on Earth are OK – the Mary Celeste sequence is pure filler, and has a couple of moments of half-hearted humour, but the Haunted House sequence is quite good fun. Although the Doctor's sudden conclusion as to where they actually are is absurd and rather out of character for a man who thus far has always favoured scientific explanations. 

Despite these considerable flaws however, 'The Chase' is rather enjoyable. This is largely due to the last two episodes. Peter Purves immediately grabs the attention as the slightly manic Steven, who is immediately distinct from the ever-sensible Ian from the moment he enthusiastically greets the travelers. Although he has been a prisoner for two years, he clearly hasn't been sitting idle, as the wooden construction in his cell attests. He has also clearly given some thought to his escape, knowledgably nodding when Ian mentions the cable, but has pragmatically realized that he was better off where he was until he actually stood a chance of getting off Mechanus as well as outside of the Mechanoid city. Admittedly, his decision to rush back into a burning room for his stuffed toy and thus almost cause Vicki and Barbara to plummet fifteen-thousand feet to their death is not his finest moment, but it tells us that he is headstrong and also brave, if foolish. Since he doesn't appear until the last episode, he doesn't get the same sort of character development that Vicki got in her debut story, but his basic personality is immediately established. 

The Mechanoids themselves, despite being an obvious attempt to cash in the success of the Daleks, are visually effective, although their strange speech patterns doom them from true Dalek rivalry. 

Nevertheless, their battle with the Daleks at the end, cartoon flashes aside, is impressively shot and is the highlight of the story for me. The final destruction of the city is also impressive. The sub-plot with the robot double of the Doctor is obvious padding, but quite effective and leads to much more dramatic scenes than we saw earlier in the story. Barbara at its mercy in the jungle is particularly creepy. 

The regulars continue to impress, with Hartnell, unlike the script, effortlessly switching between comedy and drama (witness his TARDIS scenes in episode one and the "Yoohoo! Auntie!" bit in episode two). Most of the time, the Doctor is at his most intense, as he commits himself to battling and defeating the Daleks. Whether he's working on his bomb or vowing to defeat his foes, he wears a permanent frown of concentration and is at full force when he lets rip with one of his typical First Doctor impassioned rants. Admittedly, there is a classic Hartnell fluff ("you'll end up as a couple of cinders floating around in Spain!"), but this is a solitary slip in an otherwise well-acted story. Vicki too continues to impress – she follows up her newfound independence from the Doctor during 'The Space Museum' by sneaking on board the Dalek time machine (which, lets face it, would be a terrifying experience) after being accidentally abandoned by the Doctor, Ian and Barbara, which allows her to learn about the robot, which might otherwise have killed Barbara. This contrasts nicely with her fear of heights, revealed in the final episode as the travelers climb down from the Mechanoid city. And then there are Ian and Barbara…

Having never watched this era of Doctor Who in order from the start before, I've never fully appreciated the impact of Ian and Barbara's departure, but this time it came as a bit of a shock. They've been the backbone of the TARDIS crew since '100,000 BC' and suddenly, at the end of episode six, without any build-up, they seize the chance to return home. The impact of this is powerful – we've seen them both develop during their travels with the Doctor from reluctant abductees to hugely resourceful and vital members of the TARDIS crew, and they've been in the series from the start, providing the viewers with someone to identify with in the various alien surroundings that the Doctor introduces them to, and suddenly they've gone. This is made doubly effective by Hartnell's acting, as the Doctor is obviously deeply hurt at their decision to leave him after all their adventures together, and covers this up with angry bluster. Only as the Doctor and Vicki watch Ian and Barbara returned to London on the Time-Space Visualiser at the end does the Doctor show his more vulnerable side, reminding us how close he and the two teachers had become. Ian and Barbara's final scene in London, complete with photo-captions of the pair of them revisiting London's landmarks, is a bit twee, but provides a nice sense of closure and also hints at a doubly happy ending – we've seen how close the two have become since they first entered the TARDIS and we're reminded of this during 'The Chase' both on Aridius and Mechanus as Barbara fears that Ian is dead and as Ian then realises that Barbara has left the cave with the robot. The final scene on the bus shows them acting very much like a couple, and it is easy to believe that they will end up together (as indeed they do, in 'The Face of the Enemy'). For the first time in the series, not just the TARDIS crew has changed, but its actual dynamic; whereas Vicki essentially filled Susan's role and Steven takes over from Ian as man of action, Barbara's role – sensible, older female companion – is lost, and doesn't return. We also now for the first time have no companions from the viewer's own era, with both Steven and Vicki hailing from the future – admittedly, they still provide identification for the viewer if no other reason than that they provide somebody for the Doctor to explain things to, but the feel of the show is nevertheless in someway different after 'The Chase'. Then again, Ian and Barbara have become two of my favourite companions from the show, so perhaps I'm just missing them J. 

Overall, though I appear to have found more bad points than good, the good points of 'The Chase' nevertheless just about manage to outweigh the bad, resulting in a story that manages to be enjoyable overall, and marks an important change in the series. This is quickly followed up with another significant development for the series, during the final story of season two.

FILTER: - Television - Series 2 - First Doctor

Planet of GiantsBookmark and Share

Tuesday, 16 January 2007 - Reviewed by Shane Anderson

This is a fun little story. The basic plot about a ruthless businessman who commits crimes to protect his profits isn’t terribly engaging, but the twist of having the Doctor, Ian, Barbara and Susan at an inch tall is. It’s fascinating and rather amusing to watch them struggling to survive the perils of a garden walkway and a laboratory sink. Perhaps more than any other Doctor Who story, this one taps into the imagination of childhood, where ordinary objects become extraordinary and perilous.

The production values are excellent. For the tiny budget that was available to the production crew, they turned out some pretty good giant ants and a reasonably convincing giant fly (and the thumping drumbeats that accompany Barbara’s discovery of the fly are the perfect accompaniment to that scene). The briefcase looks good, as does the giant match and pile of seeds. The phone is decent, though the phone cord isn’t too convincing. The lab sink and plunger are the best of the lot. 

The guest characters are not terribly inventive, but they work to keep the story moving. Forrester, the ruthless businessman who will lie and kill to try and avoid financial ruin is a character of pure cliché. But the story needs a villain to drive the plot, and with the size reduction of the crew being the primary focus, there’s really no time to develop more complex characters, so Farrow works in the context of the story. Smithers is a bit more interesting. He’s supposedly driven by concern for humanity, yet he’s fairly blasé about the death of Farrow, the government official sent to oversee the DN6 project. In the end he realizes just how destructive DN6 really is and the indications are that he would ultimately have abandoned the project. He’s not a sympathetic character though, just more realistic about consequences than the driven Forrester. Farrow is little more than a conscientious official doing his job, but he does come across as sympathetic, and his murder is a brutal thing, if creatively handled by the production team as an explosion heard by the tiny TARDIS crew.

The four regulars do their usual excellent acting job. They seem to be having fun with the script and the concept, and it had to be easier to act against giant props than it would have been to act against a bluescreen. Ian impresses as always with his adaptability and resourcefulness, and Barbara’s selflessness in wanting to stay and do something to stop the murderers rather than get back to the TARDIS immediately to cure her condition is admirable. I’m not quite sure why she’s so reluctant to tell Ian that she got insecticide on her hand though. And it’s nice to see the Doctor and Susan get one last outing together before Susan leaves the ship in the next story. She really is a lot more likeable than I’d remembered.

There is something that’s often overlooked about this story. The Doctor actually succeeds in returning Ian and Barbara to 20th century Earth, in the right year! “The War Machines” isn’t the first story set in present day surroundings, “Planet of Giants” is. Not that it does Ian and Barbara much good at an inch tall!

Overall, as I said in the beginning, this is a fun story. Nothing deep or weighty, just pure imagination. A good start to the season.

FILTER: - Television - Series 2 - First Doctor

The RomansBookmark and Share

Tuesday, 16 January 2007 - Reviewed by Eddy Wolverson

“The Romans” is Doctor Who’s first real stab at historical humour. There were hints of it evident in “The Reign of Terror”, but nothing as full-blown as we see in this story. At times it works and at times it doesn’t, but on the whole “The Romans” entertains more than it annoys. The TARDIS crash landing at the start of the serial is superb; even the visual effects don’t look all that bad. After such a promising beginning though, the story slows down enormously as the TARDIS crew rest up in a villa outside Rome.

There is a lot in this story that made me laugh out loud, most memorably the Doctor’s wonderful ‘fisticuffs’ sequence and the trick he plays in front of Nero with the lyre – this story really is the William Hartnell show! Derek Francis’ Nero is also hilarious, although at times things almost descend into a ‘Carry On’ style farce as he chases Barbara around! In terms of the more serious side of the story, Vicki is handled well by Spooner who gives her the old ‘you can’t meddle with history’ treatment. Tavius (Michael Peake) is an interesting character and his affection for Barbara is touching, as is the camaraderie between Ian and the slave he escapes from the shipwreck with, whom he is later forced to fight. The story’s final scenes are particularly memorable, even if they are at odds with the general tone of the story; Rome burns around Nero as she stands alone, playing his lyre.

All things considered, I can’t help but feel that “The Romans” was a something of a wasted opportunity. So many things are lightly skipped over in this story that would have made for a brilliant, serious Doctor Who adventure à la “The Aztecs.” Nevertheless, on Hartnell’s exceptional performance alone Spooner’s story holds up reasonably well even today, forty years on, so I suppose it can’t have been that much of a waste. The verdict? Good, but could have been so much better!

FILTER: - Television - Series 2 - First Doctor

Planet of GiantsBookmark and Share

Tuesday, 16 January 2007 - Reviewed by Paul Clarke

'Planet of Giants' is a fairly forgotten story, this imbalance only redressed by its recent video release. Prior to seeing it for the first time some months ago, my only knowledge of it came from the Target Novelisation, which IMO is one of Dicks' two worst novelisations (the other being 'The Space Pirates'). Consequently, I'd decided it was crap – actually seeing it forced me to re-evaluate it. 

The most obvious feature of 'Planet of Giants' is of course the miniaturization of the TARDIS crew. In essence, this is pure gimmick, for which the rest of the story is thus tailored. Nevertheless, it is an effective gimmick, well realized thanks to the superb "giant" sets, especially the sink in Smithers' lab and the telephone, both of which are realistic and convincing. The fly is especially impressive for 1964, particularly when compared to the feeble realization of another giant fly years later in 'The Green Death'. The challenges presented by their diminutive size thus preoccupies the Doctor and his companions throughout, making for an interesting story, as they face danger not from Voords and Sensorites or historical villains, but from cats, flies, and insecticide. Not only the TARDIS crew, but also the actors themselves, rises to these challenges, convincing the viewer that the characters really have been shrunk. To add an extra dimension to this plot, we have the DN6 subplot, with the inch-tall travelers struggling to bring to justice Forrester and Smithers for the murder of Farrow. One of the main criticisms often leveled against 'Planet of Giants' is that it has a sparse plot, and whilst this is certainly true, it is I think entirely justifiably; coupling a miniscule story with a Dalek invasion or a complex historical plot would have been a logistical nightmare for the production team and certainly outside the confines of a mere three-parter. The DN6 subplot is basic, but effective – it presents a threat to the Doctor and his companions and gives them a goal, whilst limiting the story to (more or less) a single house and garden. Forrester, Smithers and Farrow are played with conviction, despite not really having much to do. Of the three, Smithers is the most interesting, as he is at least motivated by a overall desire to do benefit mankind, forcing him to struggle with is conscience in the wake of Farrow's death, and eventually accept that DN6 is too deadly to ever be marketed. The obviously conscientious Farrow is quickly dispatched, but again a three dimensional character based on what little we see of him. Forrester is the least successful, coming across as little more than a stereotypical ruthless businessman, but it is this ruthlessness that drives the plot due to his murder of Farrow and he thus fills an important role. The other two characters, Burt and Hilda Rowse, are again well acted during their brief appearances and again their brief scenes are crucial to the plot. Hilda is particularly annoying for me, since I loathe the kind of curtain-twitching busybody neighbour that she represents, but it is her nosiness that leads to Forrester being brought to well-deserved justice. The fact that a character only present in two scenes can still manage to frustrate me in this way is a sign of effective, if functional, characterisation. 

The main problem with 'Planet of Giants' is that it lacks a sense of any real danger. Despite being small enough to be at considerable risk from virtually everything that they encounter, the story fails to really convey a sense that the Doctor, Susan, Ian and Barbara are in real peril, the Doctor in particular seeming to enjoy himself rather too much throughout. Even when climbing the drainpipe and almost being drowned in the sink, he gives the impression that he is merely out on a stroll, which robs the miniscule sub-plot of momentum – after the initial impact of the gimmick, the story is a bit too leisurely to be truly involving. Even when Barbara is poisoned by DN6, there is little sense of danger, despite the decent acting from both Russell and Hill. Her illness is established and gets progressively worse, but is suddenly sidelined in episode three, with both Barbara and the Doctor insisting that they have to bring Farrow's murder to the attention of the authorities, despite the enormous risks inherent in delaying their return to the TARDIS and whilst Barbara just flutters a hand now and again and looks vaguely tired. In short, the TARDIS crew should feel and seem more vulnerable. I've already mentioned that the difficulties inherent in the realization of the regulars' diminished circumstances dictate the limitations of the overall plot, but the story could still have been made more gripping within that plot. Had Ian and Barbara been, for example, been found and trapped by Smithers, it would have fitted easily into the overall story and added an extra dimension of excitement, as their rescue would have presented greater challenges to the Doctor. Instead, the impression is given that the Doctor and friends could have defeated Forrester and Smithers in their sleep, and this is not helped by the swift and (so far as we know) easy return to the TARDIS in episode three. And Susan, who I've barely mentioned here, gets nothing whatsoever to do, except stand around for the Doctor to explain things to, and bury her face pathetically in Barbara's shoulder when asked to give her opinion on a moral dilemma. 

Overall, 'Planet of Giants' is slim pickings, but not an entirely unsuccessful experiment. The gimmick works, and just about keeps the attention despite the increasingly flagging drama as the story progresses. It isn't the strongest season opener, but it isn't the weakest either (stand up 'Time and the Rani') and is basically a whimsical and (for Doctor Who at least) original chapter in the series.

FILTER: - Television - Series 2 - First Doctor