As we approach the 60th Anniversary of Doctor Who, 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

Resurrection of the DaleksBookmark and Share

Monday, 23 April 2007 - Reviewed by Adam Leslie

Wow! What a piece of work! Watching this on a Monday evening or two in 1984 aged 9 was akin to being bludgeoned. It was like the scene in American Werewolf In London where the Nazi monsters burst in on the family watching The Muppet Show and massacre them, only stretched over the course of 100 minutes.

This is proper nightmare television. Sudden death lurks around every corner, often meted out with - presumably unintentional - agonizingly clumsy slowness (Mercer’s death is oddly effective in its fumbled confusion: no one is sure who to shoot). Faces melt off! People scream and judder grotesquely when exterminated! The woman from Play School is machine-gunned to death! British bobbies shoot innocent passers by!

And like all the best nightmares – or perhaps Tegan is imagining all this whilst lying in bed with a high fever – nothing makes any sense. The Daleks wield a kaleidoscope of nonsensical plans that manage to cancel each other out. No one is who they seem; and if they were it wouldn’t matter anyway. The whole thing is one big frightening scattershot bloodbath that appears potentially quite logical to the casual viewer but is in fact all happening completely at random, as if generated by a computer or a madman.

It is, of course, all baloney of the highest order. It appears to have been written by a man with severe sleep deprivation in a single sitting, just typing the first thing that comes into his head, wired on coffee and amphetamines. It has its detractors – and rightly so – but would you really swap it for another Power Of Kroll, for example? It’s nice that the more thoughtful or mysterious or comic adventures can be off-set against this kind of macho nonsense; you wouldn’t get an episode like this in Quantum Leap after all, would you?

And you wouldn’t laugh at a Dalek trooper’s hat in real life either.

FILTER: - Series 21 - Fifth Doctor - Television

The Caves of AndrozaniBookmark and Share

Monday, 23 April 2007 - Reviewed by Daniel Pugh

Naturally 'Caves of Androzani' has got an awesomely high reputation as being one of the, if not THE, best story of the Eighties, rivalled perhaps only by the likes of 'The Curse of Fenric' or 'The Greatest Show In The Galaxy' or, in my opinion but not everybody else's, 'Remembrance of the Daleks' (It's good fun if nothing else isn't it). So when, a few months ago, I purchase 'The Caves of Androzani' on DVD I was expecting to be blown away by this 'awesome story', and the fact that it was the only regeneration story currently on DVD from the programme's 26-year-run, I was itching to view. 

What I got was a perfectly sound story, and I certainly can see why its reputation is so high, but it was still an anti-climax.

I suppose if I delve deep into the characterisation of Holmes, and the detailed society and culture of Androzani Major/Minor I can indeed agree that it scores top marks on that level. I will first present my annoyances with the story. These are minor glitches overall and they are beside the notorious television remotes of Morgus and the unconvincing Magma creature (and somehow Graham Harper thought that it was terrifying, and even asked Peter Davison at the end of Episode 2 on the DVD commentary if he and Nicola thought it terrifying too!). But there are other things - mostly the fact that it is so much more of an 'adult' programme rather than a 'children/family' programme because there is very little action till up to the final episode and I found that, although I enjoyed it, my younger cousins tended to switch off a lot when watching it. Another thing is the incidental score - which IS effective in some places, but in others it can be very tedious. And I have to say that the mercenaries chasing the Doctor at the start of Episode 4 are terrible shots, and Cralper looks ridiculous as he runs stiffly with his tiny gun held at his waist, firing randomly.

But lets move on to the much better things - and these are (apart from what I mentioned at the start) Davison's performance. The acting is excellent throughout - and I do agree that the performance of Davison at the end of Episode 3 is exceptionally good and hits the exact amount of anger and desperation without going outside of the Fifth Doctor's character, which I found was not the case when I recently watched 'The Visitation' where a lot of the Doctor's actions and manner of talking were not unlike Colin Baker's performance. It wasn't until I read Paul Clarke's review of this story that it suddenly hit home that the caves are actually sets and not really caves - I honestly never realised they were studio sets - obviously deep down I knew they were because of the picture quality, but I hadn't though about it till now. So excellent cave sets are evident - however Morgus' office is terribly bland, but the 'hologram' effects of Morgus talking to Chellak or Stotz are exceptional for the series.

The main thing I love about Caves is the ending. Harper's direction coupled with Davison's performance is immense as he trudges on towards the TARDIS carrying Peri in his arms as is his performance in the TARDIS in what is a spectacular regeneration scene as you all will agree - but they do cheat slightly by flooding the camera with light effects so that they just switch clips from Davison to Baker in between but this doesn't detract.

Overall then - Caves is a perfectly good story, and in comparison to 'The Three Doctors' which I'm watching now it excels miles. It's just that the heaps of praise was raising expectations a little too high.

FILTER: - Series 21 - Fifth Doctor - Television

Ghost LightBookmark and Share

Sunday, 22 April 2007 - Reviewed by Robert Tymec

As sad as it was that our favourite T.V. series was about to go off the air, it is re-assuring to see that it went out with tremendous style and sophistication. That, rather than attempt to make all kinds of pathetic attempts at grabbing ratings, the show just focussed on a very specific vision of how to make quality television and did all it could in its last two seasons to bring that vision to life. Many of the stories in these last two seasons are imbued with, what I feel, is a tremendous spirit of excellence. 

"Ghost Light" is one of the finest examples of that spirit of excellence. 

Yes, like everyone else, I watched this tale for the first time and was pretty sure I had little or no clue as to what exactly had happened. But that, in my opinion, is what impressed me the most about this story. This was not your average "just explain everything in the last episode" formulae that we'd been accustomed to for the last 25 years or so (with a few notable exceptions, such as "Warrior's Gate"). This was a different kind of storytelling. All the elements of a complete story are there - it's just up to you to link them together and make your own decisions about some of the more vital aspects of the plot. Which is an extremely mature method of stoytelling. Probably too mature for most television audiences, of course. But that doesn't mean this story should be dismissed as too high-handed. To me, that would be the equivalent of dismissing Picasso's work cause it "looks too wierd". Just because the style doesn't make sense to everyone - doesn't mean the art is bad. 

One of the greatest appeals about this particular style of storytelling is that, with every viewing, you can get something "new" out of it. For instance, when I just re-watched this a few days previously, I made a new conclusion about Light. I had often wondered why he was so disturbed by the whole concept of evolution and change. If he was surveying planets, wouldn't he have seen this on other worlds too? I noticed that the Doctor makes several references to Light being extremely ancient. Perhaps, then, Light is from one of the "higher" races that populate the Whoniverse. And it seems that many of these higher races are like the Time Lords. Very stagnant. Very resistant to any kind of real change. So when Light surveyed them, there would be no real sense of evolution there. Those races had done all the evolving they ever intended to. Could it be that the Earth was the first world Light went to that wasn't a populated by a higher race? Or is it merely the fact that in all his other surveys, Light just came down, did his census and moved on whereas he became stranded on Earth for a time? 

Who knows for sure exactly why. And that's what makes this form of plotting so beautiful. I can spend endless paragraphs just theorising over this one little point. Because, again, Platt doesn't explain more than he needs to. He, instead, just lets use our imaginations. And this, to me, is a great why to appreciate a storyline.

The other strongpoint in the writing is its tremendous sense of style. From beginning to end, we almost feel like where listening to poetry rather than dialogue. With tonnes of litterary references seeping through the script (my favourite being the least cultured of them all where the Doctor paraphrases Douglas Adams!) and a fantastic sense of wordplay which manages to resist becoming tedious. For example, mutliple puns are made using the word "Light" but it never quite gets shoved down our throats. To me, this shows that Platt never wanted to be completely pretentious with his writing. But he did want to show off just how good he is with words. 

Moving beyond the script, we see that gorgeous sense of style flowing into the production too. By keeping it all restrained to just a single location, fantastic work was done to make that location look absolutely authentic. Including, of course, an actual fully-functional lift built into the set. And production value is crucial in this tale. With a very moody and atmospheric script, you needed moody and atmospheric direction. And the blend here is seamless. 

Acting in this tale, as well as most of the stories in the last two seasons, is second-to-none. All the characters, as strange and absurd as some of them are, are portrayed with conviction and realism. Redvers Fenn Cooper being easilly the most enjoyable of the characters. But then, how can you resist a completely insane character who still ends up being a really nice guy who is pivotal in stopping the machinations of the chief villain? I mean, that's just great characterisation. But of equal importance, was the need to get an actor that would portray him with the subtlety and sensitivity that the part requires. And this was done perfectly. How horrible Redvers might have been in another actor's hands. 

Also, the characterisation being done with the two leads continues to work beautifully in Ghost Light. As much as we all love to go on about Rose and the Doctor, all that evolving (if you'll pardon the pun) interplay was also at work between the Doctor and Ace. The Doctor, by this point, had become more mysterious again - and this was a great move on behalf of the producer and script editor. But in developping that mysteriousness, it meant giving much greater attention to the background of the companion. And another layer of Ace is explored quite beautifully in the manor of Gabriel Chase. "Curse of Fenric" will still always be the best Ace story. But "Ghost Light" comes a close second. And it is sad that this whole mentorship between Doctor and companion was never allowed to reach its full conclusion. One hopes that, with the current development going on in Rose, this dynamic of a developing relationship (be it platonic or romantic) that we saw first with Doctor Seven and Ace will, at last, be explored to its fullest. Both Ace and the Doctor were very different from what they were like when they first met. And character growth in the leads of a T.V. series is a rare and precious gem. Glad we're getting more of it these days. But let it go on record that we saw it in Ace and the Doctor first. And several important elements of that growth are explored with great depth and sensitivity in Ghost Light. Making it just one more of the many strongpoints of this story.

There is much else to praise but I'll try restrain myself here and just go on about one more really good strongpoint: those gorgeous monologues. There's quite a few, of course. With Sly McCoy getting all the best ones. His abhorrence of burnt toast and the speech he gives to the cockroach are both written and delivered magnificiently. But the final speech that destroys Light is, quite naturally, the best. And though we see several examples with McCoy's Doctor "talking a villain to death" - this is one is my favourite. It is great the way the series used the very strength of the Doctor's words as a means of plot resolution. Making him the ultimate non-violent hero. Again, absolutely great stuff that, for me, brought the series out on a high note. 

Any actual complaints? Perhaps two very minor ones. Though I love the incidental music, I would also consider a bit more than just intrusive in places. It's downright oppressive! Making some lines of this beautiful dialogue completely indistinguishable. Even after multiple viewings. 

The other complaint being the McCoy gurn during the "I didn't get caught napping!" line. It's odd though, I'll watch the story and hate the gurn. But then, the next time I watch it - I think the gurn is perfect for that line. I'm not sure if that makes any sense, really. But the damned Sylvester McCoy gurn isn't so much a sore point for me as it is a point of mixed opinion! 

Aside from those two very slight quibbles, this story is magnificent. Still not quite in what I would label the "classic" category. But then, I have very few stories that I slot in that space. Still, "Ghost Light" comes pretty damned close. One can only hope that the series tries something this bold again someday. It needs another few seasons to really get some solid feet, of course. But once those roots are there - let's see another story like this come out that will both astound and confound its audience!

FILTER: - Series 26 - Seventh Doctor - Television

Planet of GiantsBookmark and Share

Tuesday, 16 January 2007 - Reviewed by Eddy Wolverson

Originally recorded as the penultimate serial of the first season, Planet of Giants was held over to open the show's second season, beginning a tradition that would run throughout the sixties. This story had been in the pipeline ever since the series inception a year earlier, but due to the extensive visual effects requirement the serial  originally penned by C.E. Webber  was shelved. Louis Marks ended up reworking Webber's miniscule idea into the three-part ecological thriller that eventually aired in October and November 1964, and I have to say it is one of my favourite William Hartnell stories. Whether its long incubation contributed to the story's brilliance or not I don't know, but it seems that a year's hands on experience producing Doctor Who certainly imbued Verity Lambert and her production team with the confidence they needed to attempt such an ambitious project.

For a low-budget TV serial that aired in 1964, the production quality of Planet of Giants is out of this world. Monochrome may be forgiving, but even so director Richard Martin has managed to pull off some wonderful visual effects here - the clever use of scale models and camera trickery really helps to convey the difference in size between the real world and our miniaturised travellers, and best of all it doesn't look cheap and nasty like the C.S.O. catastrophes that would plague seventies Who!

Even more important than the visuals though is the story. Louis Marks' first Doctor Who script manages to find just the right balance between drama, spectacle and that ol chestnut, education. Ian and Barbara are at their schoolteacher best, educating the audience about pesticides and such like. The �baddie�, Forester, is the first real twentieth century villain that the Doctor and his companions ever come up against. He�s just a man; someone who is out to make a buck and damn the environment. In a sense, he is a much more disturbing protagonist than a Dalek or a Voord because he�s closer to home. This element of familiarity is one of �Planet of Giants� greatest strengths, and is something that would become a staple of Doctor Who in later years, particularly in the mostly-Earthbound Jon Pertwee era and also in the next serial, �The Dalek Invasion of Earth.� This story takes everyday things like a man in a suit, an insect, a cat and a plughole and turns them into the stuff of nightmares.

However, �Planet of Giants� does have one rather major flaw, although it isn�t one that can be blamed on the writer, cast or crew. For some reason, Donald Wilson, then Head of the BBC Script Department, decided to cut the serial down from four episodes to three two weeks before it aired. Obviously this resulted in the hasty editing of the final two episodes into the aptly named single episode, �Crisis,� and sadly a lot of the remaining material is a bit nonsensical, especially at the beginning of the third episode. How do the Doctor and Susan escape the water coming down the plughole, ey?

Regardless of its problems, �Planet of Giants� remains to this day one of my favourite first Doctor serials. The performances are all top-drawer to match an inspired production, and its brevity aside I can�t think of a bad word to say about it. Think Honey I Shrunk The Kids� but in black and white� and good.

FILTER: - Television - Series 2 - First Doctor

The RescueBookmark and Share

Tuesday, 16 January 2007 - Reviewed by Eddy Wolverson

Following a five-week holiday after “The Dalek Invasion of Earth” wrapped, Doctor Who’s second production block made an unpromising start with this strange little story, “The Rescue.” Normally I have a strong opinion either way about a Doctor Who story, but this two-parter really has me stumped. I’ve seen it two or three times now and I’ve gone from absolutely hating it, to finding it quite charming… and then all the way back again!

“The Rescue” has quite a bit going for it. To begin with, it has the brand new gimmick of introducing a new companion. The trouble is, she isn’t new. When Carole Ann Ford left at the end of the first recording block, Maureen O’Brien was contracted to play ‘Susan.’ Although her name may have changed, her character is so similar to her predecessor’s that it’s hard to get excited about her arrival. To be fair, in “The Rescue” Vicki is portrayed as quite a damaged young woman beset with grief, but she recovers from her ordeal surprisingly quickly and soon becomes the ‘teenage girl from the future’ that Susan was. However, I feel that David Whitaker should have explored the effects of Susan’s departure on the TARDIS crew more fully rather than focus so much on the new girl. Obviously a TV show has to look forwards, but even so Susan’s departure is barely mentioned let alone dealt with. Thankfully, Paul Leonard would later write the Missing Adventure “Venusian Lullaby” which would explore Susan’s sudden departure in a much more satisfying manner.

I liked a lot of the lighter moments in “The Rescue”; there is one scene I found particularly amusing where Barbara kills a horrific creature that turns out to be Vicki’s pet! Best of all though, I found it hilarious that the villain of the piece - Koquillion - is revealed to be Bennett, a human criminal in disguise. The production team actually have an excuse for providing a fake-looking monster as it’s supposed to be fake! 

At the end of the day, “The Rescue” does its job well in introducing Vicki to the series, but under modern scrutiny, the way Susan’s departure is (not) dealt with is unforgivable. My advice would be either to enjoy this serial for what it is, a quaint little two-parter, or if you’re after the heavy stuff check out “Venusian Lullaby” instead.

FILTER: - Television - Series 2 - First Doctor

The Rescue - DVD ReleaseBookmark and Share

Tuesday, 16 January 2007 - Reviewed by Ed Martin

In the old, old days when seasons were long and stories could be made in thirty seconds flat, when there was a certain requirement in the narrative such as the introduction of a new companion it was possible to throw away a couple of episodes and dedicate them to that cause. Whether this is good or bad is debateable as while it means the episodes don’t get bogged down trying to do too much in too short a time (such as Rose and The Long Game of the new series have), it means that they’re completely inconsequential in their own right apart from that one function to the overall programme that they perform. The Rescue is such a story, being far more important to Doctor Who in general than it is to its place in the canon of individual serials. “Inconsequential”, however, doesn’t necessarily mean “bad”.

It gets going pretty sharpish though, as it presents immediately the situation of the crashed spacecraft as opposed to a TARDIS scene linking back to the previous story, as was the norm at the time. The model work of the crashed spacecraft is wonderful (courtesy of that old miracle worker Raymond P. Cusick) and might have been one of the season’s most iconic images if this story was more memorable. The interior set of the spaceship is also good, being decorated enough to be interesting without being cluttered. It is harder to tell about the caves though as they are very darkly lit and it has to be said that the picture quality isn’t great (for future reference, at the time of writing this story has yet to be remastered for a DVD release).

Maureen O’Brien makes an excellent first impression as Vicki, elevating some lines which seem to be written for a clone of Susan, and as I said in my recent review of The Keeper Of Traken it’s high time her status was upgraded to “good” rather than “underrated”. Ray Barrett playing the laconic Bennett is also good. I know it’s no fault of the episode’s, but the planet Dido does get a laugh these days due to the singer of the same name, although it’s not as funny as the misprint in the episode guide in Adrian Rigelsford’s book The Doctors: Thirty Years Of Time Travel that reads “On the planet Dildo, the TARDIS crew split up…”

The TARDIS scene, when it comes, is very good due to some excellent lines (what do you expect from a David Whitaker script) being delivered by three immensely talented actors who all have an obvious respect and regard for each other. There are some funny moments, such as the sitcom-style cross-purposes when Barbara tells the Doctor that “the shaking’s stopped” which shows how much lighter the characterisation of the first Doctor became in the second season, possibly because Dennis Spooner took over as script editor from this story on. What is good is the moment where the Doctor forgets that Susan has left him; the ensuing uncomfortable silence tactfully broken by Barbara is a deeply poignant scene.

Koquillion is a good looking monster in the long shots; up close however, it does look very much like a costume. While this can be forgiven in other monsters like the Voord the fact that it eventually turns out to be a costume means that its obvious falseness undermines the twist ending somewhat. His voice is funny, as the sound of people yelling from behind masks often is, but the scene where he first meets Ian and Barbara comes in a scene showcasing some excellent special effects, with flawless split-screen showing the companions looking down upon the ship.

The Doctor’s comment that he didn’t get a medical degree turns out to be another contradiction, which is funny; over time, the Doctor claims to have gained a degree, failed a degree and had every variation between which suggests a shifty and mysterious character far more effectively than any self-conscious “Cartmel Masterplan” ever did. His musing of what could have happened to apparently change the Didonians into an aggressive race is a very dramatic moment.

Barbara’s meeting with Vicki is another pleasant enough scene (although it is never explained how Barbara survived what from the sound effect appeared to be a very long fall without any injury and keeping her hairdo in place); the emphasis on Vicki’s name not being a contraction of Victoria shows a series trying a bit too hard to be hip and modern, but Vicki’s monologue explaining the killing of the crew is absolutely fantastic and why it isn’t reproduced in all the various quotation compilations that are about I’ll never know.

Considering that this is such a short story the Doctor and Ian do spend a long time trapped behind a rock wall, although this does allow the Doctor to fill in details about the planet Dido that some much longer and more complex stories fail to include; The Rescue, it has to be said, is more narratively rounded than it’s given credit for even if that can’t be said in terms of the plot. The ledge-traversing scene shows the B-movie roots that the first few seasons had, even if nobody who was involved in the creation of the Daleks would admit it and even if it does show off some more excellent split-screen effects. The sand monster is utterly lame though: although to an extent I can forgive how fake it looks the inclusion of glowing pen-torch eyes shows that, unusually, Cusick is falling back on stock monster clichés of old. True to the spirit of the scene the cliffhanger is silly and its resolution the following episode is accordingly simplistic.

The death of “Sandy” is a curious mixture of the surprisingly sad and the completely ridiculous, and if it wasn’t interrupted by the arrival of the Doctor and Ian I’m not sure how it would have panned out. As it is it just about gets away with it, although Ian’s intentional mispronunciation of Koquillion as “cocky-lickin’” had my eyebrows raised so high I had to stand on a chair to get them back. This is the kind of thing that threatens to throw the whole thing into the realm of absurdity and is just about saved by the very sweet scene where the Doctor comforts the untrusting Vicki.

The resolution is on the horizon now and this is where the story comes apart at the seams a little bit. The Doctor knocks on Bennett’s door and is told that “you can’t come in”; his reaction? He grabs the heaviest metal object he can find and proceeds to batter the door in. Am I the only one who thinks that’s a trifle impolite? It’s such an unrealistic moment from a character point of view that it makes all subsequent plot developments that derive from it (which are all the important ones) hard to swallow, and in fact on the subject of illogical plot devices the story has some corkers left to come. The magnetic tape recorder is another moment that is retrospectively funny, and is a problem common to the era.

However, the confrontation scene between the Doctor and Bennett is very cool, as most scenes featuring William Hartnell are. The hall of judgement set is excellent and is heightened further by the use of Tristram Cary’s score from The Daleks; the story was too minor to have its own score presumably, so they made the right decision to use the programme’s best piece of music until The Invasion. Bennett is a great villain, of the old dastardly boo-hiss type, and is much underrated. That said, he doesn’t exactly require much persuasion to explain the whole plot and if it wasn’t for the fact that the plot was so simple I’d be criticising the exposition now. However, the appearance of the Didonians makes for a famously naff final resolution (featuring the story’s only death; the consequently surprisingly high mortality rate of 25% comes from the fact that the guest cast is so small) which in a larger story would be deeply disappointing. Also, why do the natives smash up the radio equipment? What is the rescue ship supposed to think now? This is a lazy attempt at tying up a loose end that only makes the problem worse.

The reason I love Verity Lambert’s time as producer is that it was a time where immense effort was being put into the show; there was no cynicism at all, simply an effort by all concerned to make a good, original programme. This means that even stories that don’t work so well command respect to a greater or lesser extent, and even stories as minor and essentially unambitious as this are entertaining and well-written. While because of that aforementioned inconsequentiality I can’t give this story more than an average rating, I feel that if the attitudes behind it had been carried over into all subsequent eras of the show then the final product would have been even better.

FILTER: - DVD - Series 2 - First Doctor