For the 60th Anniversary of Doctor Who we revisit the story of Doctor Who, the occasional series written for the 50th Anniversary, explaining the origins of the programme.

Episode 31 - An Unearthly Series - The Origins of a TV Legend: First published 23 Nov 2013

The Face of EvilBookmark and Share

Wednesday, 1 September 2004 - Reviewed by Joe Ford

There is a very interesting premise at the core of The Face of Evil, more interesting than a computer with a split personality that split up a colony ship into two separate tribes. The Doctor has often been portrayed as a flawed hero but we never really get to see evidence of this (later we would get some definitive evidence in Warriors of the Deep, Terror of the Vervoids…) so to hear him admit that on his last visit he tried to help and misjudged his tinkering (and his ego) is quite a shock. Much like The Ark it is fascinating to set the story long after the Doctor’s first visit and to explore the consequences. Whilst hardly apologetic the Doctor is clearly horrified to see the far-reaching results of his handiwork, you realise just how much of an impact, how much change he has caused when he doesn’t even recognise the planet or the people until the end of the second episode! I love this idea of the Doctor failing, its one of the reason I will take him over James Bond (actually my dream James Bond film would see him fail miserably and be forced to face the consequences just to subvert expectations) anyday because the Doctor can lose and lose spectacularly. A lot of people die in this story and none of it would have happened had the Doctor never visited. Or at least it would not have happened in this way. 

The Face of Evil is an often-ignored story from the treasured season fourteen although it is one that is having something of a renaissance in the twilight years of the series. It is a very clever story from fresh writer Chris Boucher that takes big ideas like God-worship and split personality and applies them thoughtfully to a tale that is low on heart thumping action but scores well with the intellectuals. Hinchcliffe is still taking risks three stories from his departure, most producers would keep it safe and just use writers they can rely on but Hinchcliffe is still drawing fresh talent to the show. A bold but successful step, the script is lively and bursting with hysterical dialogue and clever quips (but then with Robert Holmes lurking in the background this is practically a given). The story is beautifully structured, the first two episodes introduce the main concepts; the mystery of the Doctor’s influence on the planet, the scientific equipment scattered about a primitive colony. After exploring the Sevateem camp the story switches location for the last two episodes into the Tesh ship and introduces the heart of the problem in the memorable third cliffhanger. Because it is a more considerate story than usual it demands more time to deal with its climax, which unusually takes place halfway through the last episode with plenty of time to deal with explanations and the future of the colonists. It’s not a perfect story but you cannot fault the effort that has gone into the writing. 

How bizarre is it to see a companion less Doctor. I am glad they quickly introduced Leela because I don’t think I could have managed a whole story with the Doctor addressing the camera as he does at the beginning of this story (although it is rather fun imagining that you are the companion, that he is addressing you personally!). If the production team had been even braver they would have roughened Leela up even more, had her dirty and dishevelled, like she really lived in the wild. As it is the Dads need some incentive to tune in so Louise Jameson debuts in clean skins looking as thought she has just taken a bath. I can understand the decision to keep her squeaky clean but at least her behaviour and instincts are appropriately feral. 

There is immediate potential with Leela that isn’t apparent with so many companions and you can see instantly what the producer was trying to achieve. Much like Jaime and Victoria there is a lot of scope for having ignorant companions (and I don’t mean that in a derogatory fashion, Jaime and Victoria were companions from the past and Leela is a savage warrior) who require a lot of explanations for the scientific side of things. It allows the writer to feed information to the viewer without the companion looking stupid. But its more than that, I firmly believe the key to good comedy/drama is healthy culture clashing and to pair up an eccentric scientist with a homicidal savage then you have character gold. Maybe Leela wasn’t exploited to the full next year but there were enough wonderful moments where their ideals clash to validate this experimental companion. 

Indeed Louise Jameson’s compelling performance as the naïve savage is one of the highpoints of this story, you can see already the Eliza Doolittle/Proffesor Higgins relationship flowering just how Philip Hinchcliffe wanted. I adore the Doctor and Leela’s first scene together where he offers her a jelly baby and she recoils saying “Its true then! They say the Evil One eats babies!” And they stick close throughout the story, learning the facts of the story together and how Leela learns that her entire belief system is twisted and false is sensitively but firmly handled by the Doctor who refuses to molly-coddle her with the truth. By the end of the story Leela is talking about concepts she didn’t even understand at the beginning and even looking at her own people exactly the same way we saw her at the beginning, thus begins her education. 

Doctor Who and religion are sticky subjects, sometimes a story tackles the subject head on such as in the gripping The Massacre but more often they are background elements (look at the recent Halflife that has a fascinating religious background but is not the centre of the story at all). I was reading a brilliant piece of writing by Douglas Adams recently from his article anthology in The Salmon of Doubt about the existence of an Artificial God. One point he makes wonderfully well is that there are certain ideas you are not allowed to say anything bad about. ‘In the case of an idea’ he says ‘if we think, “Here’s an idea that is protected by holiness” what does it mean?’ It is very brave of him to make this move; to actively critisize religion by comparing it other much debated issues (politics) and reaching the conclusion that the validity of debating about religion is as important as any other. My point is The Face of Evil deals with a heavy religious theme and has the balls to be less than positive about it

It is almost a deconstruction of the God myth, Xoanon is simply a diseased computer with delusions of grandeur but the myth behind this ‘God’ is an extremely powerful and destructive force. It shows how propaganda can lead to a belief system of its own, through Neeva (tricked by Xoanon) the Sevateem are manipulated into fighting and killing on behalf of their ‘God’. And Leela who actively speaks out against Xoanon is threatened with execution and banished from the settlement! It exposes some of the dangers that come with intense religious beliefs and shows you how far people are willing to go in the name of their icon. Even more interestingly the story opens out into religious War, with the two fractured halves of Xoanon’s personality externalised in the Sevateem and the Tesh we see two homicidal factions that dismiss the others beliefs and wish to see their ‘false’ religion stamped out. All very interesting, I suppose the question is how far into exploring religion can a four part SF serial from the 70’s go? Much of what I have discussed here is background information and there to be picked up by those who choose but they will be others who should dismiss my claims and read something else into the story, or even that it has no comments at all to make and is only a rather witty adventure tale. I have no opinion on God one way or the other but I find it fascinating that the story throws religion in such an unforgiving light. I certainly find the religious angle far more interesting than the ‘brains vs brawn’ angle people usually apply to this story. 

What is bloody brilliant is the idea (and realisation) of a savage community with technological equipment scattered around their settlement. The way in which the Sevateem has compartmentalised these objects into their society is very creative. Neeva’s glove headgear is great fun and the close up on the survey ship alloy gong a phenomenal moment.

One huge fault with the story and one that the Hinchcliffe era is so keen to avoid usually is the design. It is a very drab looking story which starts with the sets; the bare and unconvincing jungle set, the sterile corridors of the survey ship, simple hut like dwellings, and reaches through to the costumes; savages in simple leathers (realistic but hardly eye catching), the Tesh in bizarrely camp make up and green quilted uniforms. Even the direction is lacking on occasions, occasionally there is a moment of genius (like the test of the Horda) but sometimes Pennant Roberts sticks to dull perpendicular angles for his fight sequences. It does not please the eye and I find myself bored and wanting some vibrancy (no trouble of that in the next too stories). 

Another massive problem is the third episode; this is another season fourteen story that suffers from the Curse of the third episodes. This instalment seems to comprise of some embarrassingly inefficient laser fights, both is the jungle and in the Tesh ship and a bunch of Manuel-inspired Tesh being civilised and camp with each other. It is not until the unsettling cliffhanger the things pick up where we are finally privy to some explanations. There is nothing wrong with the writing that the direction couldn’t have livened up.

One thing the story gets VERY right is the performances. The Sevateem are played with relish by a bunch of experienced actors and as such come across as a believable and rowdy group. Brendan Price’s Tomas is the token ‘nice guy’ but there is nothing stomach churning about his sensitive performance. David Garfield plays Neeva with the right amount of hypnotic naiveté; I love it when he interrogates the Doctor by waving scientific equipment in his face screaming religious propaganda. But best of the bunch (apart from Louise Jameson of course who flashes some leg and kills a handful at the same time!) is that slimey rattlesnake Calib, in Leslie Schofield’s enigmatic performance you can see a character who is watching every plot twist and seeing how they can twist it to their advantage. 

It is a story that takes the psychological and religious angle over straightforward action adventure but still manages to tell an entertaining story. It is far from flawless (its not exactly the first story you would show a non fan) but there is intelligence to the story that is hard to ignore. Personally I find it a little too dry in places, the direction freezing up too often but I would still bill it as a strong story in its own right and one that manages to push the boundaries far better than the acknowledged and overrated stories that make similar claims (Kinda). 

Just think, the entire universe could just be the manufactured handiwork of a computer with a mental breakdown! Makes you think, doesn’t it…?

FILTER: - Television - Fourth Doctor - Series 14

The Robots of DeathBookmark and Share

Wednesday, 1 September 2004 - Reviewed by Joe Ford

It strikes me as odd that director Michael Briant should criticize the script for this story and praise the incidentals that he added to explain its overwhelming success. There are very few Robots-bashers and I am not one of them but there are some flaws in the story that should be addressed to give a more balanced view of the story and alas, poor Michael it is the direction that is most at fault. Don’t get me wrong most of his work is great and he achieves a level of terror and claustrophobia that makes you realise how much to learn some of those early base under siege stories had. 

The story is a terrific Agatha Christie homage and one that shares her love for concealing the villain behind clever dialogue and plotting. So it baffles me when Briant chooses to reveal that Dask is the villain very early on. What should be a harmless suggestion that the killer wears a certain pair of stripey trousers is blunted by the fact that Dask is the only person wearing those trousers! Okay, so this could be a clever cheat (could be, but isn’t) and the killer could have dressed up in his clothes as a disguise but then Dask appears on a screen programming a Robot to kill, there is some distortion to hide who this could be but not enough. It is obvious and unfortunate because my love of murder mysteries stems from the plotting which conceals the killer, I often go back and watch programmes like Jonathon Creek to see how cleverly the writer has concealed his twist villain whilst handing out enough clues to make it easy enough if you’ve been paying attention. Fortunately there is enough class in the story already and frightening incident to blind you to the fact that the climax where Dask is revealed in all his green and silver robot make up glory as the murderer is an insult and anyone shocked by this revelation should hang their head in shame. 

There are more moments of poor direction that admittedly don’t come close to sabotaging the production in any serious way but shock considering the effort that has gone into the rest. The Robot who eaves drops on the Doctor and Leela supposed to be D84 and yet he is entirely the wrong colour. Robots aren’t supposed to have necks beneath their face plates. And a cameraman is shockingly whack bang in the middle of a shot. Oh and the end of episode three is a mess, the Robot attacking the Doctor drawls his monotonous threats whilst Tom Baker calmly states “It’ll either be you or me!” like this is just a game of homicidal automatons. Oh and you can see Toos clearly breathing after the Robot strangles her to death (or this at least is what the script and direction are leading you to believe). These might seem like pathetic nick picks but there are some who will try and convince this is a perfect story and although it scores high on practically every level the direction slips enough to rough up its edges a bit. 

World building. Not easy to do in four twenty five minute episodes but the ever reliable Chris Boucher, continuing his run of luck after the imaginative Face of Evil, manages to paint a rather depressing picture of the future in his script. The power of money is frightening, causing rich sorts to spend months (even years) out in a barren desert with only a handful of humans to mine their wealth. Decadence drips from walls, Robot slaves are on hand to fetch and carry so these so-called miners can do as little work as possible that can actually be called work. There is talk of Kaldor City and the Founding Families, proving its not what you know but who you know as Unvanov points out to Zilda. The crew of the Sandminer are an opinionated bunch used to getting their own way and their very appearance, make up dripping from their faces and glittering clothes, and attitudes proves the luxury they are afforded is a corrupting element. They even have the Robots built in the humanoid image, smiling faces and stylish ‘hair cuts’, nobody wants to be reminded that these are in fact slaves. Just watch as the crew laze around and play games and how they suddenly become alert and professional the second a potentially wealthy storm hits the ship. It is rare to meet such an arrogant bunch, they point the finger at each other when there is a murder but are fully prepared to accept the Doctor and Leela are responsible simply because they are there. Tarren Capel might be one circuit short of a positronic brain but maybe he was the one who could see how damning the human race had become. You could almost see it as poetic judgement as the humans are slaughtered by grinning versions of themselves, instruments of their own self-indulgence. 

I have heard Hinchcliffe say time and again in interviews that he did not like SF clichés or relying on monsters (especially when the budget so often failed to realise the writers ideas convincingly) and Robots of Death sees him ignoring both these rules. This was a man who was attuned with the series he was producing and knew how to break the rules but still make it work. Because for one story only we have a terrifying threat for the Doctor to face and one that sits comfortably in the series’ SF genre and still manage to be a man in a suit. I think it was my pal Rob Matthews who said it was more like watching a zombie movie (of which I am not the greatest fan)…then again perhaps it was Poul (“Not Robots! The walking dead!”), well wherever the source came was it is a potent statement because these walking, talking cadavers fulfil the zombie role perfectly. Just without the melodramatic (argh that word! Its catching Mike!) moaning and groaning. They kill. They are grotesque parodies of humans. They cannot be killed. They are relentless. And oh boy are they scary. 

I can remember when I first watched this on video and my Pops telling me the garbage men made killer robots out of the refuse they took away. What a bastard, I still get a pang of terror every time they pull up outside. Mind you he said the same thing about the Daleks so perhaps I should have noticed a pattern. 

When I think of September the 11th all I can think about is the crushing fear the passengers on board those planes must have felt. It was an awful tragedy and the pain of those needless deaths freezes my heart to this day but I cannot imagine anything scarier than knowing you are about to die. My heart goes out to every victim of that despicable act but it makes me sick to think of the terror those poor passengers must have experienced in that wait. 

The only reason I mention this is because Robots of Death shares a similar terror, characters who know they are going to die soon and the feeling of throat clenching horror is dizzying. When Chub is mouthing off to the Robot in the storage room he is blissfully unaware that his executioner has entered the room. The scene is almost funny until the event snaps into place and Chub relises the Robot is not being stupid by ignoring the weather balloon and approaching him with his hands ready to strangle but deadly serious. 

There are plenty of similar scenes that play on that one fear we cannot rid ourselves of, the fear of death. The scenes in Toos’ quarters are nail biting, this is a defenceless, snobby cow and a Robot is waiting outside her door to wring her neck. The loss of control is frightening; Toos rather pathetically tries to assert herself (“Attend to your duties!”) but is presented with a corpse marker so she slams the door and tries to convince the murderer of its implausibility (“It is forbidden for Robots to harm humans!”) and she suddenly realises, snapping her eyes shut, that she is not going to escape this one. The wait is unbearable so she opens the door to see if it has gone and her worst fears are confirmed when it is standing there, frozen, blood red eyes and advances into her personal space and grips her neck. This is adult stuff; Pamela Salem is almost too good at portraying Toos’ hysteria and with the Robot hand jammed in the door and the attack on her bed, it cannot fail to have some similarity with the idea of rape. It is tapping into a psychological horror that the show usually steers clear of because it is far more frightening than body horror. 

Poul is the most fascinating character in the story because he has so many layers. As the story continues his character is peeled away from smart arse miner, to private investigator, to robophobically unstable. You can almost feel the barriers of his mind coming down as he is confronted with the Robot hand dripping with blood, David Collins plays the anguish at just the right level to truly disturb. When Leela finds him cowering in a corner dribbling on about the walking dead he such a contrast to the confident examiner of the early episodes, Boucher knowing well enough that for the audience to be afraid his characters have to be too. 

Dropped into this story are the Doctor and Leela and at this point in their relationship the most interesting we would see of them. I had a chat with my mate Matt recently about how effective the story would be had Sarah Jane stayed on after Hand of Fear. He as very much in the different but still great wheras I think it is Leela that makes this story. In a story full of hunters (Poul is hunting Capel, the Robots are hunting everybody, Unvanov hunts the Doctor) she fits in perfectly, her senses are so attuned to her surroundings she makes an invaluable companion to have. It is interesting to note that her ‘feelings’ are spot on; Poul moves like a hunter, the Robots are creepy; the sabotage to the miner and it is the Doctor who seems naïve ignoring her warnings. I love her feistiness, she kicks at Unvanov, throws her knife in a Robots gut, rushes to save Toos, don’t listen to the rumours about the new series being revolutionary because of a capable, pro-active companion because Leela got there first (comment courtesy of Rob Matthews). The Eliza parallel has already begun and the Doctor’s conversation with her about body language is fascinating. Her dialogue (“If you’re bleeding look for a man with scars”) is terrific throughout. 

The Doctor is still in his moody years, very much the alien and Tom Baker plays the part so effectively. He can be funny (“Would you like a jelly baby?” “SHUT UP!” “A simple no thank you would have sufficed”), he can be intense (“We’ll all blow to pieces if you don’t cut the power!”), he can also be sarcastic (“Are you going to tell me your plan for running the universe?). What’s more he manages to convince you that the death of a Robot is a tragedy (his face when D84 is killed). Its one of his last totally straight performances and is one the best because he lets the script and the guest actors impress and simply provides some background gravitas. 

I could go on all day about the stylish art deco sets and costumes and the totally convincing model work for the Sandminer but that’s been done to death. Dudley Simpson’s intense, throbbing score is the icing on the cake of what is one of the best productions Doctor Who has to offer. 

There are so few Doctor Who stories that genuinely manage to make you afraid to sit in the dark alone and watch them. I am pleased to count Robots of Death amongst their number. Even my Ma thought this was creepy. What more can I say?

FILTER: - Television - Fourth Doctor - Series 14

The Robots of DeathBookmark and Share

Tuesday, 4 May 2004 - Reviewed by Paul Clarke

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FILTER: - Television - Fourth Doctor - Series 14

The Talons of Weng-ChiangBookmark and Share

Tuesday, 4 May 2004 - Reviewed by Paul Clarke

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FILTER: - Television - Fourth Doctor - Series 14

The Talons of Weng-ChiangBookmark and Share

Tuesday, 4 May 2004 - Reviewed by Alex Boyd

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FILTER: - Television - Fourth Doctor - Series 14

The Masque of MandragoraBookmark and Share

Sunday, 14 March 2004 - Reviewed by Alex Boyd

This is a somewhat overlooked, though well produced and entertaining story. 

Paul Clarke has written an excellent review that details the plot – that an alien energy wants to subjugate the earth in the fifteenth century, and that this power struggle is mirrored by power struggles on earth. Ultimately, the struggle for power is shown as futile here, and the thoughtful and empathetic Giuliano is (naturally and appropriately, I think) portrayed as an ideal ruler. Spoilers follow. 

As Mr. Clarke mentions, the story is, despite good supporting acting, the usually strong regulars, and a decent production, somehow unsatisfying. I think perhaps it comes down to the conclusion, and a little too much going unexplained. First, we aren’t allowed to see the conclusion of the battle between the Doctor and this alien force. While the reasons for this are clear – that the Doctor later appears in the guise of that same alien force and leads it to its own destruction – we still want a little more there. The attempt to create suspense is admirable, but undermined by the fact that we don’t really believe the alien force has destroyed the Doctor and won the day. In other words, the climax we’ve been building to is cut short in favour of another climax, where the disguised Doctor leads all the brethren (or, what remains of this alien energy helix) back to the same ruins they came from. From there, it’s the same glowing energy effect we’ve seen before, and all of them dropping to the ground. 

That said, it’s still a pleasure to watch these regulars, and the Doctor and Sarah have some nice moments, in particular a scene in episode four where the Doctor is doing some calculations and Sarah tiptoes to a chair to read and wait. It’s perhaps a tad sexist, but also has to be remembered we’re talking about a Timelord and a human, here. The conversation that follows is an interesting example of Doctor Who:

“Mandragora doesn’t conquer in the physical sense, it dominates and controls by helix energy – astral force. It takes away from man the only thing worth having.”

“Which is?”

“Well, a sense of purpose, what else? The ability granted to every intelligent species to shape its own destiny.” 

Here we see the typical vagueness of a Doctor Who plot device (“astral force”) put up against some solid themes and ideas, in the same breath, as the Doctor continues on about a sense of purpose. A sense of purpose is further illustrated in the plot: there are power struggles between the Mandragora energy alien and the Doctor (who wants humanity to have a sense of purpose) and the potential human rulers Count Federica and Guliano (Guliano would allow his people a sense of purpose). 

In a sense, this makes the entire fourth episode anti-climactic, as Count Federico is blasted to dust at the end of episode three. And we know the Doctor will go on to defeat the Mandragora energy. It’s possible that the best Doctor Who stories combine these kinds of themes and ideas without leaving the viewers scratching their heads about surface details and plot devices (we’re told at the end simply that the Mandragora has been sent “back to square one”). That said, this is an entertaining story with some worthwhile moments, such as the Doctor telling Guliano at the end that knowledge will come in time, and that keeping an open mind is the secret. And surely allowing others to create their own purpose, and explore their own pathways, is a part of keeping an open mind? As Sarah says, “Poor Guliano, he looks so wistful,” but Guliano is actually a brave character – he has the courage to be uncertain.

FILTER: - Television - Fourth Doctor - Series 14