The Two DoctorsBookmark and Share

Sunday, 28 August 2005 - Reviewed by Matthew Carr

Disclaimer..."This review was originally to be written in Hong Kong, but sadly American funding has failed me and I am forced to relocate to County Durham. This location work was entirely integral to the plot, oh yes indeedy, but don't worry as I'm sure the change will have no effect on the finished product".

Ahem.

I am very fond of 80s Doctor Who, certainly more so than others. These are the years which first sparked my interest in the show after all. However, if anyone were to try and defend the shows' twilight years, the most advisable thing to do would be to erase 'The Two Doctors' forever.

The Second Doctor and Jamie are sent to the scientific research station Camera by the Time Lords to put a stop to some worrying Time Travel experiments. The station is attacked by Sontarans, and the Doctor is kidnapped. The Sixth Doctor and Peri arrive at the station shortly afterwards, and teaming up with Jamie they follow the Sontarans to Earth.

Easily the biggest problem with 'The Two Doctors' is the sloppy, lazy direction and editing. Revealing the returning monsters via a computer voice identifying their ships is almost forgivable, but then why do we not see them during their invasion of the station? It seems as though the Sontarans were intended as a surprise for later in the episode, but that this was forgotten at some stage. Eventually introducing the Sontarans in long-shot is another unforgivable lapse. Worst of all, Moffatt misses the chance to recreate the monsters' defining moment from their first appearance in 'The Time Warrior', by actually cutting away from a Sontaran just as he reaches up to remove his helmet! I mean, can you believe it?! The cliffhanger to episode one is particularly dire, and coupled with the direction and editing here becomes entirely bereft of drama. There are gaping holes in the script and far too much padding, and a committed director would certainly have demanded further re-writes to tighten things up (the same could also be said of the script editor, but more of that later). I always feel that there is a steady decline in quality of Peter Moffatt's work on Doctor Who - his first directorial effort in 'State of Decay' is easily his best, and his final in 'The Two Doctors' is easily his worst. There are a few moments of inspiration to be found - the shot of Shockeye stalking Peri at the close of episode two, for instance, is particularly effective and sinister. On the whole though, this story demonstrates a director tired, bored and apathetic towards their work, and the fact that this was Moffatt's final work on Doctor Who can only be met with relief.

Let's not pile all our disappointments on the director though. The script is wildly inconsistent and a huge let down. Episode one in particular is hopelessly padded, resulting in poor Colin Baker spending most of his scenes going "Hmmm...um...ah..." and gurning like an idiot in a desperate attempt to use up the time. Throughout the story, the dialogue ranges from inspired and witty to banal and clunky at the drop of a hat. It is public knowledge that Robert Holmes was less than impressed to be given a 'shopping list' - Sontarans, two Doctors, foreign location - but this is exactly what he and Phillip Hinchcliffe used to do - Renaissance, Portmeirion, cults - and nobody criticises them for it. I think the difference here is that the elements chosen by JNT are rather arbitrary. The second Doctor and Sontarans are used purely for the sake of bringing back old favourites. Seville is used not because it would be an interesting and attractive location in which to set a story, but because they want to film overseas, apparently just for the sake of it (some might say, purely to give the cast and crew a cushy foreign holiday, but I couldn't possibly comment). It seems as though no one gave any thought to whether these elements would actually make a good story. Holmes writes the Sontarans on autopilot, and is obviously having much more fun with his new ideas - Shockeye is a delight, and the Androgums are a very interesting race. Oscar is another rather camp and theatrical pleasure. Indeed, both these characters are classic Holmes creations. It seems to me that the script editor should have picked up on a lot of these faults and demanded re-writes, or done them himself, and yet again nothing was done. I don't pretend to know whether Eric Saward was in awe of Robert Holmes and blinded to the scripts' faults, or simply didn't care, or if the entire team genuinely believed that they were making a quality programme, but something somewhere went badly wrong here.

The variation between performances in 'The Two Doctors' is dramatic. Patrick Troughton is on his usual superb form as the second Doctor, however Colin Baker seems lost for most of the first episode (pehaps due to the obvious faults of the script) and his performance only really slips into gear in episode two. Frazer Hines phones in his performance, and Nicola Bryant is utterly dire (though with a cleavage like that, who cares?). Of the guest players, John Stratton is excellent as Shockeye (once you get used to him), Jacqueline Pearce is...well, Jacqueline Pearce, and James Saxon gives a fine performance as Oscar. Laurence Payne is just about adequate as Dastari, and Tim Raynham and Clinton Greyn do a good job of stomping around and shouting.

The overseas location work might be very pretty and can be of great benefit to some stories, but it is unnecessary and completely irrelevant here. Inevitably it leads to a lot of pointless padding in episode three as the Doctor and friends run around Seville for no very obvious reason and stand around fountains for the sake of showing off the local sights. Any story would suffer under these circumstances, but mid-way through the final instalment of a story the length of 'The Two Doctors' is unforgivable.

It has to be said that despite the effects being to a fairly high standard, the serial suffers because of its' gaudy, mid-80s production values. The costumes particularly are dire, with the unbearably awful Sontarans (their collars don't meet their bodies!), Chessene's wig, and Dastari's outfit all being memorably crap. Peter Howell's incidental score is typical 80s fare and particularly bad in places, though I think the 'war march' that accompanies the Sontarans is quite effective. As with most early to mid-80s episodes, the lighting for all of the studio scenes is far too bright, and they would have done well to follow the examples set by the previous years' 'The Caves of Androzani'.

A common complaint about the Colin Baker years is the level of violence on display, and whilst I've never really understood what the fuss is about I certainly think that 'The Two Doctors' crosses the line in places. Oscar's death is often commented on, and I can see why. Far more alarming is The sixth Doctor's murder of Shockeye - thoroughly unpleasant, alarmingly out of character and followed by a god-awful Bond-style quip, it should never have been allowed.

There are so many moments in 'The Two Doctors' where you think "Ah yes, here we go, now it's getting itself together", but it never happens. With a bit more editing during scripting, and a half-decent director, this could have been something really special. Sadly, it is an opportunity wasted. Troughton is superb and seeing the two Doctors together on screen is a delight (and honestly, I cannot imagine any other combination of Doctors being so perfectly matched), but this could have - and should have - been so much more. 3/10





Vengeance on VarosBookmark and Share

Saturday, 4 September 2004 - Reviewed by Joe Ford

When I watch this story I feel I am watching the very best Doctor Who has to offer, a textured, well paced and intelligent piece, peppered with shockingly good dialogue, boosted by outstanding performances and some damn convincing production values. It’s completely unique, unlike anything that has come before or will come after. I love it because it ignores every rule of Doctor Who and forges its own identity in the maligned season twenty-two, shining bright compared to real generic run-arounds like Attack of the Cybermen and Mark of the Rani. 

What is frightening is that this is a terrifying window into the future, the way things are going we will have a punishment dome up and running by the end of the decade. Did you see the pictures of the Iraqi’s being tortured splattered all over the front pages of the papers? I know people like the repulsive Sil who were delighting in the savagery of those being abused because of all the troubled politics over the past few years. I mean how sick is that? Admiring the broadcasted images of people being dragged around the floor like dogs…Vengeance on Varos captures that feeling of a society out of control superbly. I will never listen to Sil’s excited laugh when he is watching the Doctor dehydrate in the same way again. 

Plus what with society’s obsession with fly on the wall shows the cameras are EVERYWHERE just as they are in this story. The limit of what I can stand is How Clean is Your House…sending in the cameras into people’s homes who live in pure filth and exposing them…its just sick isn’t it and hardly what I would call entertainment. How long before we have a public lavatory expose so we can see what people get up to in them? Or a glimpse into life of an electric chair operator? Considering what real life crap we put on the telly the torture in Vengeance on Varos seems relatively tame! My point is how long before we are totally monitored like the people on this planet, forced to endure life or death trials before the salivating crowds? I’m sure it would be a ratings winner. 

Doctor Who is supposed to be a teatime treat for kiddies but Vengeance subverts that valuable role with glee, pumping for something a bit more intelligent for adults to get their teeth into. The first ten minutes are shockingly slow, the Doctor only getting a token scene and the story far more concerned with setting up Varos. But these early moments are some of the best, for once creating a society that we can believe in, bored, witless workers slumped in front of their screens, a governor desperately trying to make the books balance and a capitalist presence sucking the life out of the planet. The opening shot in the punishment, the camera swooping down on Jondar chained to the wall, a camera greedily recording his torture is one of the best opening scenes to any Doctor Who story. In these early scenes there is no attempt to sensationalise the material, Arak and Etta are totally uncharismatic, the Governor is trapped in an impossible situation and shown on the brink of a nervous collapse. Its mature stuff for a show that was exploding Cybermen like fireworks just one story earlier. 

But it goes even further than that. Rarely was the Doctor as sulky and violent as he is in this story, apparently as pacifistic as the pope in every single story before this one (which I refute) which has led to a gang of sixth Doctor haters who feel his emotional characteristics go against the core of the character. To be perfectly frank this violent shake up was NEEDED, as ‘popular’ as Peter Davison’s portrayal of the fifth Doctor was (I refute that too) after three years of being terribly nice to everybody it was a joy to have the Doctor rubbing people up the wrong way again. Yes the sixth Doctor is undeniably flawed, just like you and me he is sensitive and passionate and oh yes, he wants stay alive too so he is sometimes called upon to jump into action to make sure that he achieves that. He gives up when the situation seems impossible (the TARDIS malfunctioning) and gives rousing speeches when there is a society to whip into shape. And I refuse to believe that he achieves nothing in the story, he saves Jondar’s life, Areta and Peri’s too later on, if he hadn’t proved to the Governor there was somebody else who wanted to fight the system he might not have convinced Maldak to save his life. Oh and he helps to kill the Chief and Quillam, two of the most repulsive creatures he has ever met. In every way the Doctor is responsible for the uprising on Varos, Sil’s pathetic attempt is just a side issue compared to troubles the planet is having. 

I don’t think the story ever oversteps the mark in its portrayal of media controlled violence. There are distressing scenes, the Doctor gasping for breath in a fake desert, the acid bath sequence with the guy yanking his friend inside with blood and ooze dribbling down his face…but if you’re going to make a programme that deals with a serious issue you have to show what you’re exposing, in many ways Vengeance on Varos is as bad those voyeuristic papers, similarly condemning the material and revelling in it. Maybe I am naïve but I can accept one as entertainment and can be sickened by another because it is real life but that’s my prerogative. I love how the story refuses to take the easy way out and suggest that everything is peaches and roses at the end, the violence has subsided yes but the ambiguous final scene that sees Arak and Etta staring at their blank screens with no idea what to do now that the threat of death has gone brilliantly makes the point that there are no simple solutions. It is the sort of intelligent reasoning the story deploys throughout. 

Lots of lovely touches remind us of our own media controlled society. The much-celebrated cliffhanger that sees the Doctor ‘dying’ in a cliffhanger on the Varosian screens cleverly mocks all those melodramatic Doctor cliffhangers that I am certain directors’ were just as careful to cut off at the right point for optimum suspense. Dialogue such as “We’ve received very good punch-in appreciation figures” and “I’m certain the video of his death will sell” prove it is all about the money. And who can see themselves in Arak and Etta? Moaning about repeats, sitting on the edge of their seats, commenting on inconsistencies, who they like and whinging about government officials for their poor decisions…Geez it could be Simon and I! 

If Vengeance on Varos was just politics and parodies it would get dull very quickly so it’s also an archetypal runaround with lots of running, shooting, escaping and getting captured again. It even works on this level because the story is filmed with a real sense of energy and style; the lighting is appropriately moody to increase the tension, the traps are fairly ingenious (love the giant fly…brrr) and rarely have a heard a musical score so in tune with its material (it is playfully surreal in places which makes you feel even more uncomfortable watching). Plus it helps that Jason Connery is flashing a hairy chest for half an episode, very nice. 

What is especially astonishing is how well the story uses Peri. I do mind at all that it takes her and the Doctor half the first episode to arrive because at this point we are still getting used to this unusual couple and their domestic bliss (I think not) still makes for engaging viewing. She is the Doctor’s rock, trying to lift his spirits, making helpful suggestions, sticking to his side whilst they dash about the prison trying to reassure their new allies. Peri is so underrated as a companion; she stands up to Sil, the Governor and the Chief in an interrogation scene heavy with great performances and later she shares a moment of disquiet intimacy with the Governor that is dramatic gold. So, so underrated…

Nabil Shaban and Martin Jarvis deserve to be commended for their superb performances as Sil and the Governor, two very difficult roles to play and yet they carry their scenes with total conviction. Sil is so loathsome you have to love him; his gurgling laugh and excitable tail add an extra dimension of alieness to this funny creature and his hard on for torture, both men and women gives him a perverse edge. By the time he had reached the end of his first scene he had already earned a second appearance. The Governor remains sympathetic throughout, no matter what instructions he is ordering Jarvis plays the role with a resigned disgust that never lets you forget he is trapped inside a job he loathes. 

And the icing on the cake is Colin Baker’s star turn as the Doctor already giving the quality of performance it took some Doctor’s (McCoy, Davison, Troughton) a season to master. When he promises a better future for the Varosians from the scaffold you listen, such is the intensity of his words. He leads his little band of rebels through the punishment dome with supreme confidence, I love it when he guides them through the flytrap, absolute conviction sees him through. He just glitters on screen, a blur of emotions and impossible to take your eyes away from. I love him, rigged lasers and all. I’d do the same thing in the acid bath sequences. 

Quality of a sort I am not used in the JNT era, this beacon of a story inspires fascinating debate and that might be its biggest strength yet. Even today people are still talking about its message, be it condemning or praising it. It makes people think and for that alone I cannot praise it highly enough.





The Two DoctorsBookmark and Share

Saturday, 4 September 2004 - Reviewed by Brian DiPaolo

There are many advantages to being an American Doctor Who fan, and one of them is that I can show “The Two Doctors” to fresh-eyed viewers who are unaware of its controversial--and rather lowly--place in the series’ canon. Strangely, this often-panned episode has been a hit with my friends, who are invariably mystified when I tell them that it’s generally loathed. Maybe there’s something fundamentally American about the gratuitous violence and sexuality in “The Two Doctors”; it’s just tacky enough to be one of our own productions, isn’t it? Or maybe “The Two Doctors” is secretly rather good, and like “Duck Soup” or “Gojira,” it’s begging to be reassessed by the same critics who have been gleefully bombing it for years.

Part of the problem is that “The Two Doctors” will forever be associated with Doctor Who’s hiatus and eventual cancellation. Fans, eager to prove that they have mature and sophisticated viewpoints, have stopped blaming various BBC executives for the series’ downfall and have turned their venom upon the series itself, blaming episodes like “The Two Doctors” for turning Doctor Who into a violent and gaudy shadow of its past success. No member of the production team is above criticism--Colin Baker is blasted for his ham acting, John Nathan-Turner is accused of “camping up” the series (though I sometimes wonder if fans aren’t attacking his sexual orientation instead of his actual work), and even the mighty Robert Holmes is generally regarded to have burnt out by this disastrous point. To most fans, there’s a stink about this production that’s attached to all involved. You’ll even hear people say that Doctor Who deserved to be canceled after producing this turkey. 

What short memories we seem to have developed; “The Caves of Androzani,” which is often cited as the best Doctor Who story of all time, had been made only the season before, and with the same man in the writers’ chair. Did the series really beg to be cancelled so soon after hitting that peak? I’d argue--and I know how alone I am here, believe me--that much of Androzani’s brilliance still shines in this episode. 

But before I get to the positives, I’d like to rebuff some common criticisms of “The Two Doctors.” Let me sum them up--the Spanish locations are superfluous, the violence is over-the-top, the storyline is padded and muddled, and Peter Moffatt’s direction is flat. Have I got it covered? Indulge me while I address these issues one-by-one.

I think that too much knowledge of the series’ production history might be a bad thing. Fans know that “The Two Doctors” was originally supposed to be shot in New Orleans (or one of several other locations), and consequently they’re hyper-aware that the Seville setting is largely arbitrary. Yet the settings of most Doctor Who stories are equally arbitrary. The authors of “The Complete Useless Doctor Who Encyclopedia” had lots of fun lampooning the series because episode after episode takes place in London. There is, of course, no particular reason why aliens should so often elect to invade England’s capital, just as there is no particular reason why the Sontarans base themselves in a hacienda near Seville. With all brutal honesty, the Spanish location was chosen because it’s pretty. One might say that such reasoning is rather shallow but, since television is a visual medium, I’d argue that such reasoning actually fits perfectly. I would certainly rather look at Seville (and its surroundings) than yet another mud flat at the bottom of a slate quarry.

The violence issue is rather more prickly. The same fans who rush to defend the Hinchcliffe era against accusations of excessive violence are the ones who feel that, in the case of “The Two Doctors,” the production team really did go too far. For whatever reason, Condo’s stomach exploding in “The Brain of Morbius” is perfectly acceptable, but Shockeye eating a rat is not (needless to say, I don’t think Mary Whitehouse would have drawn such a fine distinction here). In today’s post-Tarantino climate, however, “The Two Doctors” seems rather tame. In fact, it was pretty tame at the time, seeing as how violent spectacles like “The Wild Bunch” and any one of a dozen slasher movies had preceded it. The violence itself is clearly not the problem, but somehow its execution in this particular episode has come to be criticized as flawed and in poor taste. I simply don’t share that judgment. In Doctor Who tradition, the gratuitously violent acts are all perpetrated by the villains, and serve to build up suspense and tension. Never is the violence depicted in a humorous light; Oscar’s death is obviously supposed to be horrible, just like the Dona Arana’s (and Oscar’s sense of humor makes his death more tragic, not less). The Doctor does kill Shockeye, but only in self-defense, and can you really blame him? The only dubious moment is his “just desserts” pun, but again, this all seems rather PG compared to the gore fests and callous anti-heroes we get today. “The Two Doctors” still has its moral compass correctly aligned; the good guys are generally pacifists, and the bad guys are the bloodthirsty ones. Robert Holmes has pushed the violence envelope a little further here, but he’s operating in the same vein as he did during the Hinchcliffe era, which had itself pushed the boundaries established by Barry Letts.

Criticisms of the storyline hold slightly more weight, but not much. Chessene switches plans and has the Second Doctor turned into an Androgum because she believes that the Time Lords are closing in, and she doesn’t have time to deconstruct his genetic code piece by piece. Killing just the two Sontarans is sufficient because the other Sontarans have no interest in Earth; they’re fighting the Rutans elsewhere, and have no intention of invading (the planet is “conveniently situated” for Stike to stop over before the battle, not for him to occupy it). The “padding” in the third part is, in my view, some of the best comedy that the series ever featured. I don’t know what to say if you didn’t laugh at Troughton as an Androgum; I think his performance is priceless, and I’m glad he got one last showcase for his comic talents before bowing out. Ultimately, the much vaunted plot holes in “The Two Doctors” seem to be either nit-picking or totally inaccurate myths based on sloppy viewings instead of sloppy scripting.

I’ll surprise you now and say that I agree, to an extent, with the common assessment that Peter Moffatt is a sub-par director. However, there is really only one terrible shot in this episode; that much maligned first appearance of the Sontarans outside the hacienda. Bizarrely, the earlier shot of a Sontaran raising its gun at the Second Doctor is wonderful, and I can’t quite account for the contrast between the subtle directing there and the artless directing that comes later on. Generally speaking, though, I don’t have much of a problem with Moffatt’s work; it’s standard TV directing, not adventurous, but not rubbish either.

It’s a shame that I’ve had to write such a defensive review of this episode; now that I’ve trawled through all of the establish criticisms, I feel obliged to keep my positive comments short. Suffice to say that the Androgums are a more interesting race than they might at first appear to be. Their obsession with blood and lineage lends weight to their characterization that balances out their very stereotypical (but very amusing) obsession with food and other carnal pleasures. Like all satirical figures, they’re half serious and half joke, and over-the-top in the best way. Fans balk at the comical treatment of the Sontarans in this episode, but they’re being used for satirical purposes as well; and remember, the first Sontaran episode is a comedy, too. Holmes clearly conceived them as a humorous attack on narrow military minds, and attempts to make them more menacing during the Tom Baker era, whether you judge them as successful or not, deviate far more from this concept than does “The Two Doctors.”

The villains are so memorable that they detract somewhat from the novelty value of the episode, which is of course seeing two Doctors together. But that’s what I love most about Holmes’ script; it tells a proper story, and doesn’t rely on the same silly gimmick that barely held “The Three Doctors” and “The Five Doctors” together. Big Finish should’ve learned their lesson from here when they made “Zagreus.” That story was so keen to escape the gimmick of multiple Doctors that it cheated and didn’t deliver the goods, and the result was pretty much widespread disappointment. Yet “The Two Doctors” proves that multiple incarnations of the same Time Lord can appear in the same story, without that story stinking (ironically enough, “Zagreus” ended up being more bogged down in continuity than any episode of the series. While fans tend to condemn episodes like “The Two Doctors” for being continuity-driven, violent, and overly complex, their own writing often possesses all three of these qualities in spades).

There are interesting political undertones in the script, and it’s surprising to see Holmes serve up a liberal message (the vegetarian not-so-sub-text) right alongside a conservative one (is the notion that Androgums can’t evolve beyond barbarism a criticism of failed attempts to reform criminals?). The Gallifreyans are again depicted as manipulative and menacing after too many bad episodes had turned them into the Doctor’s buddies, and it’s possible for viewers to agree with Dastari that their interference is selfishly motivated. Holmes doesn’t tell us exactly how to feel about the issues involved, and that’s what makes this good drama instead of irksome soapboxing, a storytelling style that has infested way too many Doctor Who stories of late.

While I don’t think that “The Two Doctors” will ever storm the Top Ten (honestly, it’s not even in mine), it does deserve better treatment, especially if even a handful of the arguments that I've presented here hold any weight. The recent DVD release was coldly received, but I couldn't tell if fans were reviewing the actual episode, or the politics and history behind it, which still seem to be distracting even after all this time. I honestly think that this tiresome baggage needs to be shelved. There’s a Robert Holmes gem here, waiting to be discovered, just beneath a very thin layer of dust (or perhaps I should say, more in keeping with the episode’s gruesome content, a very thin sheen of blood?)





The Two DoctorsBookmark and Share

Saturday, 4 September 2004 - Reviewed by Joe Ford

There are so many reasons why I love the Two Doctors I could chat about it ad nauseum. One of the best things about it is its utter uniqueness in Doctor Who history. There is quite literally no story like this one (whereas there are quite a few Caves of Androzani's and Talons of Weng Chiang's), a story which doesn't play by the rules of normal Doctor Who, that contains very little action and adventures but instead explores the plot ideas and characters so vividly. That abandons any sense of coherence for a slice of non stop indulgent fun. That uses dialogue so accurately that the script itself is worth gold. The Two Doctors doesn't want to be a safe runaround (but alas in places it touches upon this fabulous Doctor Who mini-genre), it wants to throw unpleasant images and concepts at you and expects you to accept them and move on.

One of the reasons I feel people moan about this story (and yet admittedly it had received critical acclaim in recent years) is the awkwardness behind some of the more 'adult' scenes on display. Shockeye's blatant cravings to eat a human is a uncomfortable reminder of our own obsessions and taking the metaphor one step further we see him lust after such a "fine, fleshy beast" laying her out on the kitchen table to have his wicked way. It becomes even more disturbing when we realise he craves a "jack" even more (and Jaime is then laid out on that exact same table whilst Shockeye tortures him horribly. This from the same man who bit into a live rat earlier in the show and held it up with a huge bite mark in it...very disturbing. The character of Shockeye is little more than a caricature but he is written (and played) with such utter conviction that the story takes on darker, less Doctor Who-ey shades than we are used to. 

Then there is the lack of plot. What? Lack of? I think not. It's actually a lovely plot and enjoyably complex. The only problem as far as I can see is the complete diverge from the plot as Doc 2 and Shockeye go into to town for some food. People bemoan that this story is too long but I must digress, yes it feels padded in places but if we started chopping unnecessary scenes we would be deprived of so many priceless scenes. I couldn't cut anything from this story justifiably. Doc 2 baiting Stike is totally pointless in the scheme of things but then we would miss Troughton's astonishing ability to switch from comedy to drama and back to comedy again in the blink of an eye. A few TARDIS scenes could be snipped but then we wouldn't be able to laugh as Colin abuses the machine in exactly the same way Troughton did earlier. And as for taking away the restaurant scenes....never! Some gorgeously placed black comedy in amongst the horror elsewhere and the death of Oscar, a scene I now celebrate because of its ability to get saddo fan boys so worked up. Even the obvious blood pouch in his shirt is just perfect. 

Bryant and Baker seem so much more comfortable with Homes' knowing hand to guide them. Those early TARDIS scenes are priceless with some the most rewarding dialogue they were ever given. I just love the Chris Columbus gag but the whole sequence about pin galaxies is also a treat. It's quite incredible how much Baker compares favourably to Troughton actually...all the tense scenes on the station are enhanced by his haunted reactions to everything. And all that talk about how brutal he is is just nonsense...look how he rushes to rescue Peri at the end of episode one or the scene that opens with him caressing her face to see if she's okay. Doctor nasty isn't making house calls today. 

Another thing this story manages that almost no other in the last four years has is its ability to have FUN. Its almost like a Doctor Who summer holiday with the amounts of running around in glorious Spain. With lots and lots of well scripted and acted comedy scenes and the gorgeous sun spilled landscape the fun just keeps coming. The last episode is a particular delight as things move back to the hacienda with lots of bluffs and double bluffs as characters are bumped off horribly (but memorably). The whole story is a bit of an indulgence in the end, not absolutely needed in the grand scale of Doctor Who but without it that infectious, enjoyable side to the show would be a sorrier place. The show is stuffed full of those little character bits, scenes like the celebrated one in Remembrance that 80's Who severely sacrificed in favour of action set pieces. Oscar's lovely speech about moths, the Doctor's reaction to the end of the universe, Jaime's attempt to get a kiss from anyone...lovely, lovely moments.

And lets not forget all the comedy that actually works. How funny is the scene where the Doctor keeps babbling and Peri is trying to listen to the horrible moanings that are echoing through the service duct. Scary but very funny. And only Robert Holmes could drive so much comedy from his own race, the Sontarans, they take themselves so bloody seriously (and nobody else does!!!) it makes Stike's eventual, horribly embarassing quadruple barreled death (stabbed, covered with acid, electrified by the time machine and blown up in his ship!) all the more wonderful. Shockeye's discovery of his bloody leg is the last straw, so funny it hurts. But the script is littered with well placed witty lines..."Centuries!!...if gonna take that long i'll see if Jaime's okay" is Peri's reaction to the end of the universe, Doc 2 and Shockeye discuss the delights of "Shepherd's Pie"...an apparently cannibal dish!, even better is how Troughton grates on about "monkeys" and later we see Peri chomping on a banana!!! Its long past time Doctor Who let its hair down after three years of serious (lets say dull) SF. 

This is probably the most entertaining story of Doctor Who's last ten years. Watching today we can critisize the amount of violence, the 45 minute episodes, the gratuitous location work but why bother. A story filled with so many rewarding moments, so much humour and horror, that deliberately flouts accepted Doctor Who law (continuity, realistic violence, genuine laughs!) to tell a great story should be celebrated. So I shall.

And I can't go without mentioning two of my favourite Who sequences...Cheseneye reverting back into an Androgum and lapping the Doctor's blood off the floor and the Doctor being chased through the hills of Seville by a knife weilding mainiac who uses the otherwise arbitary moth storyline to superb effect as he cyanides his victim to death. Doctor Who was never this totally brave again and thank god...the fans would probably have a heart attack.





TimelashBookmark and Share

Wednesday, 1 September 2004 - Reviewed by Tim Dawson

Let me begin by saying that I have never understood why so many fans dislike ‘Timelash’. Personally, I really like it. Sure, it is undoubtedly the worst story of the otherwise excellent Season 22, but who cares’

Boasting a superb Doctor, an easily followed plot, a wonderfully hammy performance from Paul Darrow, an android that’s sucked in too much helium, and a quite ridiculous script, it is, in short, ninety minutes of great fun. Not a morbid classic like ‘Revelation of the Daleks’, nor a breathtaking epic like ‘The Two Doctors’, ‘Timelash’ is a disposable little story with a fair amount going for it.

Before I go any further though, I shall briefly outline the plot:

The TARDIS lands on Karfel, a planet ruled by an evil tyrant called the Borad. Now, although a hideously deformed mutant (half Karfelon/half Morlox), he’s also a bit of a randy nirk and soon decides to take Peri for his mate. Not only that, but the Borad also plans to destroy all Karfelons by provoking a war with their neighbours, the Bandrils. The Doctor, however, foils these plans, saves Peri and makes peace. 

Colin Baker (my favourite Doctor) is, as always, absolutely excellent. By the time of ‘Timelash’ (the fifth story of Season 22), the Doctor’s personality is fully stabilised and he really does come across as an articulate, exuberant, slightly bombastic, if rather fallible, eccentrically endearing character, roaming the galaxy doing good and righting wrongs. His performance is faultless, and you certainly get the impression that Baker is an actor whom relishes his role. Nicola Bryant is also quite good as Peri. Although she’s the sort of actress that one can always tell is acting, she imbues Peri with a bubbly enthusiasm which constantly entertains. Not only that, but her little jibes at the Doctor are also amusing - usually serving to prick the characters pomposity and bring him back to reality. Overall, the Doctor and companion team operating in ‘Timelash’ are never less than a pleasure to watch, blending perfectly into the story.

The other characters are a fairly two dimensional bunch. Paul Darrow delivers an amusing performance as Tekker - wringing every ounce of ham from the cheesy and silly script: ‘Save your breath for the Timelash, Doctor - most people depart with a scream.’ David Chandler is also good as a young H G Wells: he is suitably enthusiastic and jolly, if not a tad irritating. Clearly, the Doctor finds him annoying, and the banter between the two provides many a smile. Robert Ashby is fine as the Borad, although I shouldn’t imagine that sitting in a rubber costume looking angry requires much acting skill anyway.

When it comes to special effects, ‘Timelash’ is a mixed bag. The rapid ageing of Renis in episode 1 is actually rather impressive, and the way his brittle body crumples onto ground is really quite disturbing. On the other hand, the Bandrils and Morlox simply look absurd - pathetic puppet creations that, quite honestly, look like something out of ‘Splitting Image’. Mind you, ‘Doctor Who’ has never been a show brimming with fantastic special effects, and cacky ones should not be allowed to detract from the viewer’s overall enjoyment. If anything, I would suggest that the odd crappy effect adds tremendously to the programmes charm. 

Pennant Roberts’ direction is certainly nothing special - but, thankfully, does not detract from the story. In fact, he brings some of the sequences to life really rather well; for example, there is a very effective (if not slightly grotesque) scene in episode 1 in which an old man that is meant to be the Borad turns around to revel a head crammed with wires. Some of the shots are a bit clumsy, however: do we really need long drawn-out shots on a completely unconvincing looking Morlox’ 

I also like Liz Parker’s incidental music - flippantly eerie, it’s perfectly suited to the story.

In conclusion, ‘Timelash’ has it all: silly plot, ridiculous dialogue, absurd villains, tinsel sets - the lot! However, the central performances of Baker and Bryant are excellent and the story zips along, delivering many an unintentional smirk as it goes. This is not serious ‘Doctor Who’. To watch this story and enjoy it, you do need a sense of humour. And, as long as your humour is on stand-by, the much criticised ‘Timelash’ could well turn out to be a pleasant surprise.





Vengeance on VarosBookmark and Share

Tuesday, 4 May 2004 - Reviewed by Paul Clarke

After the dire 'Attack of the Cybermen', Colin Baker's first full season starts to look up with 'Vengeance on Varos', an intriguing story with generally very high production values and acting. It is often remembered for being grim and gritty, and not unfairly; 'Vengeance on Varos' is a dark story, set on a planet were executions are rife and torture is used as a form of entertainment to keep the population in its place by the corrupt government. And therein lies its enduring appeal…

'Vengeance on Varos' has often been touted as a commentary on "video nasties". If this is true, writer Philip Martin's intention was presumably to demonstrate that watching violence for entertainment is bad because it leads to an acceptance of violence, or possibly to simply make the audience question its own enjoyment of such violence were relevant. However, 'Vengeance on Varos' has never really worked for me in this respect, as it is itself so dark and (by the standards of Doctor Who) violent; the notorious acid bath scene is fairly gruesome, as are the cannibals (in principle if not execution) and the Doctor's dispatch of the Chief Officer and Quillam. But from a twenty-first century perspective, 'Vengeance on Varos' works on a whole new level; the proliferation of "reality TV", a tedious format aimed at the lowest common denominator in the audience and represented by such unimaginative and cheap dross as Big Brother and Survivor, casts the population of Varos in a whole new light. Arak and Etta are obsessed with watching the victims of the Punishment Dome as they struggle through a series of ordeals, in the hope of escaping via the safe exit. Mainly this is because the Varosians are legally required to watch the continuous broadcasts provided by their government whether they like it or not, with death the punishment for failing to do so, but it is amusingly relevant that they have to watch reality TV because there is nothing else on. Equally interesting is the voting system; allegedly, a recent poll showed that the number of young people who voted for a Big Brother final was greater than the number who voted in the general election. This may not be true, but it is alarmingly easy to believe, and the depiction of a society in 'Vengeance on Varos' that is required to vote via television is thus rather amusing. As for the fact that the story depicts a corrupt government motivated entirely by capitalism that controls its population via television, make of that what you will…

Much of the success of 'Vengeance on Varos' stems from a combination of characterisation and acting. Nabil Shaban's Sil is a memorable creation for a number of reasons. For one thing, it is rare to see such an effective non-humanoid alien in Doctor Who, and for another Sil's character, which is equally as grotesque as his appearance, also makes an impression. Sil is not the first Doctor Who villain to be motivated by profit; Morgus is a recent example, but the characters are light years apart. Whereas Morgus was a ruthless businessman, Sil is a sadistic, greedy extortionist whose volatile temper and colossal ego often prove to be his undoing. His temper tantrum in Episode Two for example endangers his plans for Varos, as he releases the Governer from his obligation to accept Sil's offer for Zeiton-7 ore. Sil also fits in perfectly with the tone of the production, since he is on one hand a thoroughly repulsive and unpleasant character, but on the other he provides a certain dark comic relief due his eccentric speech patterns. 

Two of the most significant characters in 'Vengeance on Varos' are Arak and Etta, superbly portrayed by Stephen Yardley and Sheila Reid. They are important because they represent the viewing public of Varos, the little people trapped beneath the yoke of power. Their bickering provides considerable entertainment, but their most important function is to illustrate the effect of living on Varos; Arak is ever-so-slightly rebellious, but too afraid of the repercussions of disobedience to actually do anything beyond complain, and on one occasion he even stops complaining when he realises that his partner is likely to report him for sedition in her viewer's report. When he does eventually act on his rebellious streak, voting twice and using somebody else's voting box in an attempt to get rid of the current Governer, Etta's furious response clearly worries him, and Yardley conveys purely through his facial expression that Arak is regretting his spur-of-the-moment action. Arak and Etta also get the final scene of the story, which is quite superb: freed from the shackles of tyranny, they suddenly realize that they have absolutely no idea what to do…

The other two main characters and performances of note are the Governor and the Chief Officer, played by Martin Jarvis and Forbes Collins respectively. The Governor is an interesting character because he is essential well meaning, but has been ground down by Varos to the point that he describes death as his only friend. Forced by the system into the position of Governor, he knows full well that it is a position that he will leave only by dying. His acceptance of the status quo is born out of an inability to change it; by the end of Episode Two, the influence of the Doctor and Peri finally gives him hope and he at last becomes able to rule without the control of the officer elite, and to demand of Sil what he considers to be a fair price for Varos' sole commodity. Jarvis brings an air of quiet dignity to the role, making the Governor likeable even from the start. In contrast, the Chief Officer is a brutal psychopath who enjoys the executions and tortures that take place on Varos and who is thoroughly corrupt, having made secret deals with Sil to maintain his own power. He is not remotely likeable, and Collins portrays this very well, with a quiet but convincingly cold performance.

Unfortunately, the rest of the cast is rather more variable. As young rebel Jondar Jason Connery proves that looks might run in his family but acting skills do not, and Geraldine Alexander as Areta is just as bad, both delivering their lines in a very unconvincing fashion. Owen Teale is also rather wooden as Maldak. Nicholas Chagrin hams it up as Quillam, a third-rate megalomaniac who is fairly superfluous to the plot, but the worst actor on display here is Graham Cull, who's weird performance as Bax is utterly dreadful - fortunately, the character gets little to do. 

As for the regulars, both are excellent here, with Colin Baker really having found his feet in the role. At the start of the story, when the TARDIS runs out of Zeiton-7, the erratic and moody Doctor of the past two stories remains evident, sinking into a depressed sulk and rather callously telling Peri that if they are stranded for eternity, it won't be as bad for her, because she'll grow old and die. It's the kind of selfish disregard for her feelings that characterised 'The Twin Dilemma', and as such feels perfectly in character, but it also gives way as the story progresses to a far more stable, concerned characterisation, who becomes quickly appalled by the situation on Varos and sets out to change it. After blundering about in 'Attack of the Cybermen', this thus feels like the first time that the Sixth Doctor actually settles down. What is interesting however is the hard edge that remains with him; he makes a quip when two attendants fall into the acid bath, and later rigs a lethal trap to dispatch the Chief Officer and Quillam, making an intriguing contrast to the Fifth Doctor's characterisation. I don't have a problem with this, although I do object to the fact that on arriving on Varos he is responsible for the death of a guard without any idea what is going on - an uncompromising Doctor is interesting, a Doctor with an utterly reckless disregard for life is merely alarming. Nevertheless, by the end of 'Vengeance on Varos', it is worth noting that the volatile relationship between the Doctor and Peri has settled down, and he greets her with a hug at the end; they will continue to bicker, but after the traumatic treatment she received in 'The Twin Dilemma', their friendship seems to have genuinely recovered. 

The production of 'Vengeance on Varos' is outstanding. The sets are superb, capturing perfectly the grim and gritty atmosphere of the story, and are, happily, appropriately lit. Ron Jones' direction is excellent, especially as the Doctor and his friends find themselves facing the various tricks and traps of the Punishment Dome. Most notably, the cliffhanger to Episode One is excellent, as events on screen nicely reflect the need for an episode ending, the Governor's "And cut it… now" a knowing wink to the series format. Jonathon Gibbs' excellent incidental score also benefits the story, perfectly capturing the mood. My only real criticism is the use of black actors to portray Sil's slaves; it is rare to see non-Caucasian actors in the series and as such their employment of slaves makes me rather uncomfortable. Fans often mention Toberman in 'The Tomb of the Cybermen', but he at least was a paid servant; here we get scantily clad muscular men in bondage gear that never speak, and I get no sense that they are serving Sil for the sake of money or loyalty. Nevertheless, despite this niggling criticism and few dodgy performances, 'Vengeance on Varos' is an impressive story that has aged very well, and for me is the first real high point of the Sixth Doctor's era.