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

BattlefieldBookmark and Share

Tuesday, 14 December 2004 - Reviewed by Kathryn Young

Through the wonders of the local council a copy of the "extended version no true Doctor Who fan would want to miss" of Battlefield fell into my sticky little grubby Doctor Who obsessed paddy paws. Well first off let me put that one straight: extended version? What extended version? Thirty seconds of the Doc and Ace climbing a spiral staircase covered in fairy lights (the staircase, not the actors)? Well whoops se do (but not in a good way).

Everyone says this story is total and utter...

And yes I began to believe the hype: Bad direction, too rushed, someone even complained that the countryside was too green and nice looking! But then I thought about it. Actually this story is rather clever. Concept wise: OK, so all the plot really consists of is a bunch of other dimensional knights poncing around an over green bit of English country side trying to recover a sword for some reason that is never actually explained, but at least they aren't your usual "oh, let's take over the Earth for the sheer hell of it" type aliens.

I think Aaronovitch had been watching Star Trek: The Next Generation. The bad guys in Battlefield are a sort of cross between the Klingons and the "Knights of Ni" from Monty Python and the Holy Grail (but without the shrubberies). On the one side there is the honour code stuff and on the other there is the cod awful overacting, complete with maniacal laughter.

However by giving them a pseudo medieval background this also gives them a bit of depth and grounds them in a culture that the viewer can relate to. The upshot of the idea that "it may be more exciting to actually think about your villain and perhaps create a bit of backstory about them rather than just write in some malevolent green slime that shimmies around the air conditioning ducts" is the wonderful scene with the head bad lady (who has the most impractical fingernails I have ever seen) and the Brigadier where they take some time out from the mindless slaughter of universe domination and universe saving to have a bit of a chat and honour Earth soldiers who have fallen in battle. And this, along with a lot of other stuff makes Battlefield INTERESTING. Not really scary I admit, but definitely interesting.

Are You Short?

I am. I am very short. Do you know how difficult it is to dominate when you can barely see over the table? This is probably why I will cut Sylvester some slack for Battlefield. Not only does he have to stop some alternately dimensional knights from unleashing bloody and unstoppable destruction on Earth, but he has to cope with being a shortass (and admittedly sort of weird looking) to boot. Perhaps six foot tall Sean Connery could have done it and still found time for a few rounds of golf, but Sylvester had to go the extra gurn just to get people to look at him.

So this is my theory. People criticize his performance in Battlefield all the time. But it is not the gurning, the question mark jumper or the hat. It is because he is short and silly looking. Well so was bloody Napoleon. And look what he did (not that I am saying starting wars and general conquering is a good thing mind you).

As a "vertically challenged individual" I know how tricky it is to make tall people take you seriously - "seven degrees, worked with Mother Teresa, ran the UN, and found the holy grail.. well that's nice dear, but you can't see over the top of the steering wheel without a cushion can you now?"

So what do you think Sylvester (a bloke who, until Doctor Who, was most famous for stuffing ferrets down his trousers and pretending to be a car) did when he was asked to stop a war?

He did everything he could.

And do you know sometimes it works. Short, silly looking and Scottish he may be, but sometimes his performance as the Doctor gives me the chills. Sometimes he totally freaks me out (god help his kids if they ever misbehave). It's the eyes. Sometimes, when Sylvester isn't wiggling around like a man with a ferret down his trousers he comes across all dead spooky and serious. Sylvester may be a clown, but he knew who the Doctor was. And he knew that the Doctor was scary.

Winifred and Ancelyn

Drawn together by a love of hitting people and gratuitous violence Brigadier Bambera and Knight Commander Ancelyn fall in love. They are like a very dangerous and violent version of the Moonlighting couple. He is a spunky blond-haired knight from another dimension (with a healthy respect for the fairer sex) and she is a spunky gun obsessed UNIT Brigadier (with a cute little beret). If you ask me this is a match made in heaven.

Very rarely do we have a love story on Doctor Who, and while I think this one was handled with about as much subtlety as Tom Baker after a late at night down the pub, it is sweet. And INTERESTING. Sometimes I get so sick of your generic scientist/soldier supporting characters who get no character at all and then usually snuff it horribly.

Here we have something different. Instead of putative dead people standing around going "Oh my god we are going to die/the Doctor is a spy and we must kill him" we actually to seem to have characters who aren't just waiting around in suspended animation for the entrance of the Doctor (Maybe the writer had been watching The City of Death?).

I have actually read later books/fiction of some kind where the two characters pop up and they have actually got married and settled down to have little psychopaths, er sorry - kids. And, call me an old softie, but I think that's lovely.

And just think of the sex? Phoaarrrr!

FILTER: - Series 26 - Seventh Doctor - Television

BattlefieldBookmark and Share

Saturday, 4 September 2004 - Reviewed by Paul Clarke

I like the plot of ‘Battlefield’. I know this because I have read Marc Platt’s novelisation of the story, and I like the blend of science fiction and fantasy and the idea of other-dimensional knights and sorceresses who inspired the legend of King Arthur, equipped with pneumatic armour. I also like the idea of the Doctor running into trouble caused by his future self, the first time the series ever really explored the idea, which seems perfectly in keeping with a series concerned with time travel. Unfortunately, what we get on screen is nowhere near as interesting, due to a combination of bad acting, bad direction and generally poor production values, which at times becomes so dire that it makes it easy to understand why Season Twenty-Six would be the final season of Doctor Who. 

There are nevertheless aspects of ‘Battlefield’ that I like. The final television appearance to date of Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart is handled well, with a more dignified portrayal of the character that is a million miles away from the buffoon of ‘The Three Doctors’ and ‘Planet of the Spiders’. Nicholas Courtney returns to the role with his usual ease, helped in large part by some well-scripted scenes such as his early scenes with Doris, during which he discusses his reasons for returning to duty one more time once he learns that the Doctor is involved. Despite Doris’ pleading with him, he remains adamant that he must do his duty, and bids her a fond farewell, promising to return later. His defeat of the Destroyer is also well handled; he knocks the Doctor out once he knows how to dispatch the demon, telling him, “Sorry Doctor, but I think I’m rather more expendable than you are”, and just before he pulls the trigger in the subsequent scene, when the Destroyer asks him if he is the best champion that his world can muster, he coolly replies “I just do the best I can”, which in many ways sums up all of the best aspects of the character. Writer Ben Aaronovitch also includes some friction between the Brigadier and Ace, largely in additional scenes added to the video release, as she bristles at being describes as the latest companion and generally gets rather jealous that the Doctor and the Brigadier are old friends. Unfortunately however, it is obvious that Aaronovitch originally intended to kill the Brigadier off in this story, and the change of mind that prevented this has a result on the dramatic impetus of the Brigadier’s scenes. Much as I like the character and don’t especially want to see him dead, the aforementioned scenes with Doris are clearly structured to facilitate a more tragic ending, which never materialises, rendering much of the dialogue rather redundant. 

I also quite like Morgaine. Former companion Jean Marsh seems to relish her role, and although villains with a sense of honour are now thoroughly clichéd, they can be used effectively. Morgaine has such a sense of honour, evident from her first scene with the Brigadier as she recognizes him as an enemy warrior, but suggests a ceasefire whilst she and her men hold a remembrance ceremony to honour the dead, having been accidentally misled into defiling a graveyard by Mordred. Morgaine also tells the Brigadier, “I wish you know that I bear you no malice… but when next we meet I shall kill you” and later asks, “What is victory without honour?” She also pays for Mordred’s drinks at the local pub by restoring Elizabeth’s sight. But despite this sense of honour, Morgaine is also terribly dangerous; she can knock helicopters out of the sky, she wipes the mind of Lavel and then reduces her to ashes, and is so obsessed with defeating “Merlin” and Arthur that she unleashes the Destroyer, which we are told is capable of destroying the world. This gives the character an unpredictable edge that makes her an effective villain, one striking example of her ruthlessness being when the Brigadier threatens to kill Mordred unless she releases Ace and Shou Yuing; her response is, “Die well, my son”. Nevertheless, her concern for honour is crucial to the story’s finale, as she prepares to detonate a nuclear missile but is talked out of it by the Doctor, who rapidly reveals the truth about nuclear weapons with a terse speech about their effects, including the line “A child looks up at the sky – his eyes turn to cinders”. Morgaine relents, and lets him abort the missile, and her subsequent grief over Arthur’s death also shows her human side, as her real motivation is revealed. Except that this scene, which I superficially enjoy, is utter bollocks. I can buy the fact that Morgaine thinks a weapon that rains down fire from the sky indiscriminately is dishonourable, but only a short time before, she released a being capable of consuming the whole world. 

And this is the problem with ‘Battlefield’; the script and production promise much, but then end up buggering up the delivery. Having previously written ‘Remembrance of the Daleks’ and later writing the controversial but impressive ‘Transit’ and what is, to date, my favourite Doctor Who novel in the majestic form of ‘The Also People’, I find it extremely disappointing that so much of Aaronovitch’s script here feels like the scribbling of a sixth form student with pretensions that exceed his talent. The cod-Shakespearean dialogue is awful, although this is partly because with the exception of Jean Marsh, none of the relevant actors can deliver it remotely convincingly; this is especially obvious with Ancelyn, actor Marcus Gilbert struggling throughout. He gets a number of lines that are clearly meant to provide comic relief, but which actually don’t; his banter with Bambera is merely irritating, and lines like “I am the best knight in the world” merely detract from the potential drama of the piece. Another shortcoming of Aaronovitch’s script is the characterisation of Bambera, who he seems to have tried to write as a strong female role, but he has apparently confused strong and capable with stroppy and bad-tempered. Her dialogue is dreadful, from her pointless catchphrase of “Shame” to lines like “You’re under arrest, you and the rest of your freaky friends”. As for her relationship with Ancelyn, the argumentative odd couple that fall in love is such a hoary old cliché that can work, but doesn’t here due to its sheer tokenism. Aaronovitch also includes a scene half-way through Episode Three in which the Doctor hypnotizes the locals to make them cooperate with the UNIT evacuation; it is considerably more impressive than the hypnotism scene in ‘Silver Nemesis’, but it is still a blatant plot device for disposing of extraneous characters mid-way through the story. 

These problems with the script however pale into insignificance compared to some of the failings of the production. For one thing, there is some awful acting on display. Despite decent performances from veteran actors James Ellis, Noel Collins and June Bland as Peter Warmsly, and Pat and Elizabeth Rowlinson, the story is rather hamstrung by awkward and stilted performances from Angela Bruce as Bambera and Marcus Gilbert as Ancelyn, and most painfully of all by an excruciatingly bad performance from Christopher Bowen as Mordred. Bowen is embarrassingly bad at various points throughout, but the absolute nadir comes as he summons Morgaine and laughs maniacally for almost thirty seconds. And by laughs maniacally, I mean that he shouts “Aha-ha-ha-ha-ha!” in a way that would make Stephen Thorne proud. This I quite bad, but what is far worse is the performances that we get from the regulars. I’ve discussed the limitations of McCoy’s acting in previous reviews, but here he seems to be exceeding these limitations at every turn, in a performance that makes me fully understand his detractors. He gurns almost constantly, as he tries to convey anger or strong emotion, and especial low-points include “If they’re dead…”, “Stop! There will be no battle here!”, and “Go, before I unleash a terrible something on you!” He’s also excruciatingly unconvincing during the scene in which he threatens to kill Mordred if Morgaine doesn’t release Ace and Shou Yuing, which is particularly disappointing as I rather like the fact that the script turns the “Look me in the eye… end my life” scene from ‘The Happiness Patrol’ back on him and makes the Brigadier rather grim and menacing. There is also a scene in Episode Two in which Morgaine contacts the Doctor via sorcery and commands, “Merlin! Hear me!” The Doctor responds with “I hear you”, a straightforward piece of dialogue the delivery of which somehow makes McCoy look and sound constipated. 

Sophie Aldred is even worse. The script doesn’t help; returning to a less pleasant character aspect from ‘Dragonfire’, we once more get to hear Ace boasting about how she vandalized her local school with explosives and destroyed the pottery pigs of some small children as though this is a big and clever thing to do. Ace is also paired with Shou Yuing, which causes two problems; firstly she is almost as irritating as Ace, and secondly actress Ling Tai plays her which is a problem in that she turns out to be visibly more talented than Sophie Aldred. This is particularly noticeable when they start fighting in the chalk circle in Episode Three, and Tai conveys convincing emotion whilst Aldred just scowls and shouts “Toe-face!” (which I’ll concede is the fault of the script, as is the line “Geronimo!” later on). Having said that, Tai fares just as badly as Aldred during the infamous “Boom!” scene, which brings me neatly on to the direction.

Michael Kerrigan’s direction is simply dire. A story with the title ‘Battlefield’ might be reasonably expected to have some fight scenes in it, but although I suspect that they are present in the script, they seem to have been replaced in the broadcast story with scenes of incompetent extras in cardboard “armour” pissing about in the mud whilst cheap fireworks are set off at random around them. Except in the case of the badly choreographed fight between Bambera and Ancelyn in Episode Two, which instead consists of a sequence of extravagant pratfalls instead. The gun/sword fight in Episode One is particularly badly staged and tacky, especially when two knights run into each other. Basically, everything is either cack-handed or badly misjudged; the script calls for an ancient lake surrounded by a forest, so the production team visit an obviously man-made lake with a few recently planted saplings nearby. And the incidental score is utter shite; guess who composed it? The BBC may have canceled my favourite television series at the end of this season, but every cloud has a silver lining and in this case it’s the fact that Deaf McCulloch never got to work on it again. Did I type Deaf? I meant Keff. 

I’ve been rather harsh, I know; there are one or two other things about ‘Battlefield’ that I enjoy, such as the attempt to show a multi-national UNIT force. It’s also interesting to see the increasingly manipulative Doctor trying to second-guess his future self, and although it is enormously self-indulgent, the scene with Bessie raises a smile. But whereas some stories are simply bad, I can’t help feeling that ‘Battlefield’ had the potential to be really good, instead of a tacky runaround with a twee ending. It’s a terrible start to the final season; fortunately, things would get much better before the end…

FILTER: - Series 26 - Seventh Doctor - Television

Ghost LightBookmark and Share

Saturday, 4 September 2004 - Reviewed by Paul Clarke

‘Ghost Light’ is an especially controversial, dismissed by some fans as convoluted at best, nonsensical at worst. Personally, I feel that not only does ‘Ghost Light’ make sense, but after the dire ‘Battlefield’ the acting, direction, set design and incidental score come together to considerably lift the quality of Season Twenty-Six and the result is a magnificent piece of television and a very fine story.

‘Ghost Light’ is basically about evolution, but it isn’t as straightforward as that. Writer Marc Platt crafts a script that is concerned not with the fact of evolution but about Victorian attitudes towards it and misconceptions about it. Josiah Samuel Smith typifies this; part of Light’s crew, or as the Doctor more accurately puts it, cargo, Josiah has escaped whilst his master sleeps and has gained delusions of grandeur as he tries to evolve into the dominant life form. Which in this case isn’t a human, but a Victorian gentleman and, he hopes, ruler of the British Empire. The problem is, Josiah gets it wrong; his plan to assassinate Queen Victoria is ludicrous, because he simply wouldn’t become King in her place, he’d be executed instead. The point of which is that Josiah doesn’t realize this, because he sees society as an evolutionary ladder; his misconceptions are driven by trying to apply the idea of ecological niches to Victorian London, which is logical from his perspective but essentially flawed in practice. And he’s obsessed with evolution; he spends the first two episodes trying to evolve into a Victorian gentleman but failing to realize that wearing a suit, owning property and throwing dinner parties is not enough. He gets everything wrong; he has his guests murdered, he employs a Neanderthal as a butler, and he preserves Inspector Mackenzie like an insect specimen in a draw. He’s also terrified of Control evolving into a “ladylike”, seemingly because he thinks that she will thus be competing for the same ecological niche that he currently occupies and that this threatens his position. In a story with uniformly excellent acting, Ian Hogg is outstanding as Josiah, a vicious and ruthless being who is nevertheless one of the most intentionally incompetent villains in the series history. 

Of course when the Doctor awakens Light at the end of Episode Two, the threat poses by Josiah pales into insignificance, as a being with far greater concerns about evolution is unleashed. Light is a fascinating creation, an obsessive cataloguer of life forms whose need to complete his lists is threatened by the unceasing change and evolution of life on Earth (amusingly, he puts me mind of a psychotic Doctor Who fan, obsessed with completing his or her collection and bleating about the amount of new merchandise constantly being released). My initial reaction to the appearance of John Hallam’s Light is usually one of unease; the definition of the word “camp” seems to vary depending on who you ask, but Hallam’s performance is at first the epitome of camp, which does rather threaten to spoil the gothic mood of ‘Ghost Light’; as Episode Three progresses towards its conclusion however, Hallam’s fey performance is increasingly juxtaposed with the character’s increasing insanity and the result is unnerving, as Light goes from being an “angel” to a monster that dismembers maids, reduces Mackenzie to primordial soup, and threatens to destroy all life on Earth to stop further change. The means of his defeat is magnificent, as the Doctor talks Light into self-destruction by pointing out that he, too, is constantly changing; the demented being is utterly frustrated by this and eventually stops himself from changing in much the same way that he intended to end evolution on Earth once and for all. 

The great strength of ‘Ghost Light’ is Platt’s script, full of wit and with, as has been noted by fans of the story, barely a single line that doesn’t in some way either advance the plot or significantly contribute to characterisation. Java is used as a metaphor for death, but it also ties in nicely with the evolutionary theme due to the large number of fossils that have been found there over the years and even Gwendoline’s rendition of “That’s the Way To the Zoo” is significant in that it prefigures the fate of Reverend Matthews, cruelly transformed into a parody of an ape. Matthews is a highly significant character in terms of the evolutionary theme; intentionally or not, the model of evolution used by Platt here bears only passing resemblance to the scientific theory (his suggestion that the insects in the house will one day evolve into more advanced beings is a case in point), but it bears a great deal of resemblance to the common misconceptions about evolution often displayed by members of the public. Matthews represents this ignorance, not because he is religious, but because he is angrily refuting Josiah’s (and Darwin’s) claims that man was descended from a primitive ape ancestor without displaying any real understanding of the theory. Thus, although Matthews does not drive the main plot, he does play a role in the development of the underlying themes of the script. 

The script is full of such details, some more subtle than others, with lines such as “There go the rungs on his evolutionary ladder” in Episode Three when Josiah unwillingly switches places with Control. There is also a great deal of wit on display here, such as when Josiah describes the primordial soup that was once Mackenzie as “the cream of Scotland Yard”. Word play is evident throughout, especially in Redvers’ dialogue; he refers to Queen Victoria as “the crowned Saxe Coburg” for example and generally acts as though he believes that he is still exploring the darkest jungles of Africa, which on one level is clearly intended to convey the fact that he is unbalanced, but also imparts a great deal of information about what is going on, especially when he talks of light burning bright in the heart of the interior, which of course reveals that he has at some point found his way down to the “lower observatory” and seen the hibernating Light, which is what drove him insane in the first place. 

The characterisation is superb, and is complemented by some fine acting; Michael Cochrane is perfectly cast as Redvers Fenn-Cooper, conveying all the eccentricity of a stereotypical British explorer with confidence. He isn’t the only stereotype on display here; Mackenzie is clearly a pastiche of the archetypal traditional British police officer as seen in fiction, a bumbling plod utterly out of his depth who spends much of his time eating or sleeping (Platt of course deliberately exaggerates both of these clichés, with Mackenize having been in a period of enforced hibernation for two years and ravenous as a result; he eats several large meals after the Doctor awakens him!) and plays second fiddle to the eccentric amateur sleuth, i.e. the Doctor. Veteran actor Frank Windsor is superb in the role, and he is in good company; Sylvia Sims is suitably terrifying as the typical stern Victorian housekeeper, also exaggerated by the script into the head of a gaggle of gun-toting maids. Rather less typical at first glance is Nimrod, a Neanderthal employed as a butler, but when we consider that Redvers is a stereotypical explorer whose response to meeting tribal cultures is to offer brightly coloured beads, he too stands revealed as an amusing pastiche of another cliché, as he spouts Earthly wisdom and respects the Doctor’s shaman-like traits as though he is some kind of witch-doctor. Carl Forgione provides an understated and quite performance which is perfectly in keeping with the “noble savage” character type that he is playing. Thus we are presented not only with Victorian attitudes to evolution, but also with characters that are a clear nod to Victorian fiction, or at least common perception of what Victorian fiction is like. 

Crucially, in addition to creating all of these memorable supporting characters, Platt also provides a script that serves both Doctor and Ace beautifully. The Doctor’s manipulative streak becomes readily apparent here, as he brings Ace back to a house that terrified her as a child, largely to satisfy his own curiosity. Ace works better here than in any of pervious stories, and this largely down to the script, which reveals some of the darker secrets of her past but also shows that she feels guilty about them, hints at the reasons for her rather troubled past (the attack on her friend Manisha) and really starts to suggest that she is finding some kind of redemption by travelling with the Doctor whether she is seeking it or not. Happily, Sophie Aldred puts in her best performance as Ace here, and whilst I’ll never find her convincing, she is far more natural in the role than on most prior occasions. Sylvester McCoy meanwhile positively shines here; he gives his most austere and mysterious performance so far, and is very well served by Platt’s script. He is melancholy when the Doctor tells Ace, “I can’t stand burnt toast. I loathe bus stations. Terrible places, full of lost luggage and lost souls… And then there’s unrequited love. And tyranny. And cruelty.” And he even conveys anger convincingly when he tells Light to leave Control alone in Episode Three. The Doctor gets some fine scenes here; he demolishes Josiah’s plans with ease at the dinner table in Episode Three, as he breaks his hold over Mrs. Pritchard, and convinces Redvers to turn on his benefactor and throw his invitation to Buckingham Palace into the fire. Finally, there is his defeat of Light; as though to compensate for the rather iconic but ultimately nonsensical (on screen, at least) scene in ‘Remembrance of the Daleks’ wherein he talks the Dalek Supreme to death, here his similar defeat of Light is far more smoothly achieved. He keeps talking to the increasingly frustrated Light, pointing out that he too is constantly changing; as he does so, Light’s aura fades as he becomes more and more distraught (which is presumably why he doesn’t obliterate the Doctor with a thought) and almost piteously cries, “You are endlessly agitating, unceasingly mischievous, will you never stop?” The Doctor’s reply is, of course, “I suppose I could, it would make a change”.

The script and the acting are instrumental to the success of ‘Ghost Light’, but everything else comes together here too; Alan Wareing’s direction is superb, exploiting the gothic feel of the detailed period sets beautifully, and is greatly helped by the flawless costumes and sets, not to mention Mark Ayers’ impressive incidental score which enhances the sinister atmosphere with great accomplishment. ‘Ghost Light’ is Doctor Who as I like it; it brims with outlandish ideas, it looks gorgeous, and the acting is great. It clearly isn’t to everyone’s tastes, but for me it is an example of Andrew Cartmel’s Doctor Who at its best.

FILTER: - Television - Series 26 - Seventh Doctor

SurvivalBookmark and Share

Saturday, 4 September 2004 - Reviewed by Paul Clarke

And so, after over two years of watching every Doctor Who story in order from ‘100,000BC’ onwards, I finally reach ‘Survival’. Despite it’s status as the very last broadcast story of the original series, ‘Survival’ if often overlooked in favour of Season Twenty-Six stable-mates ‘Ghost Light’ and ‘The Curse of Fenric’; nevertheless, it is a well-written and largely well directed story that forms a fitting end to a mammoth twenty-six year run.

The plot of ‘Survival’ is adequately described by the story’s title; it’s about survival on the planet of the Cheetah People as the humans transported there struggle initially to stay alive and later to remain human, whilst the Master also strives to survive without giving in to his bestial side. It’s also about survival in the urban wilderness of Perivale, a depressing concrete suburb where Ace’s friends and contemporaries have little to do except learn to fight in Sergeant Patterson’s testosterone crazed self-defense classes. There is also an element of the repulsive concept of social Darwinism, illustrated by the joke about a man trying to outrun his friend when they are chased by a lion shared by Harvey and Len; the Master epitomizes this, as he uses and discards Midge to facilitate his own escape, and later literally makes use of the concept to encourage the self-defense group to kill Patterson. Ironically of course, Patterson is himself a proponent of social Darwinism, and it comes back to haunt him with terminal consequences. And ‘Survival’ is perhaps also about other aspects of human nature; Ace and Midge both start to transform into Cheetah People, but for different reasons. Ace’s is attracted to the savage beauty of the creatures and begins to change after she saves Karra, whereas Midge gives in to his darker, animalistic side, needlessly killing a Cheetah Person in fear and anger. The Doctor’s cry of “If we fight like animals, we die like animals” is an attempt to appeal to the Master’s reason and to the better qualities of humanity, as he seeks an alternative to combat. Of course, neither life nor the plot of ‘Survival’ is ever that simple; despite the Doctor’s best efforts, sometimes there is no alternative, and it is Ace’s transformation that allows her friends and her to return home. When she refuses to fight in Episode Three, knowing that doing so will change her forever, she faces death until Karra intervenes. 

In addition to this engaging and fairly thought-proving plot, ‘Survival’ also benefits from some great scripting, which includes some rather witty lines and scenes, including “That’s what they said, either you were dead or gone to Birmingham” and the Doctor being caught in Ace’s noose trap, prompting the deadpan response “How many times have I told you about playing with fire?” as she runs screaming towards him with a burning branch in her hand. Impressively, this is the only story from this era that contains absolutely no lines that make me cringe; Ace usually gets saddled with at least one, but writer Rona Munro avoids this recurring problem here. The story is well structured from the opening scenes, as something hunts people on the streets of Perivale and people vanish, and although we have often seen the Doctor in a contemporary setting, this is the first time he has ever been placed into the tedious banality of such a suburban setting, which is both effective and rather comical. A man who has toppled empires, overthrown tyrants and defeated monsters is suddenly inconvenienced by an irritated homeowner who glowers at him as he hides in her garden trying to trap cats. Munro also scores well with both the Cheetah People and their planet; the Cheetah People are animals, but they are lethal predators, not domestic cats. Ace tries to unhorse one of them and the Doctor juggles in an attempt to distract them from Patterson, but both fail, having underestimated the creatures. Later, Ace befriends Karra after a fashion, but the Cheetah Person retains her lethal edge, making it clear that she would kill Ace if there were no other food available. Finally, in a story in which humanity’s relationship to nature is important, the planet of the Cheetah People is not just another alien planet, but rather a living force of nature inextricably linked to its inhabitants.

‘Survival’ benefits from some great acting. It is often said that Anthony Ainley gives his best performance as the Master here, and it is easy to see why; bereft of ham, he reigns in his usual over-the-top tendencies and gives a subtle, restrained and weary performance appropriate to the fact that here, the Master isn’t engaged in yet another bid for power, but is simply trying to survive. Stripped of the usual bickering, his relationship with the Doctor is far darker than usual; he seeks the Doctor’s help early on, but later, as he comes to believe that he will never be free of the Cheetah planet, he becomes more obsessed with killing his old foe than he does with surviving. Aldred is also rather good here, proving that she plays the character much better when Ace is allowed to be more adult, which is probably understandable as she was always hopelessly miscast as a sulky teenager. She sounds genuinely terrified when Ace screams for help in Episode Three, for example. McCoy is not quite on his best form however; his anguished cries of “If we fight like animals, we die like animals” don’t quite ring true, and he becomes very stilted on occasion, especially during the “Don’t run!” scene in Episode Two. For the most part though, he’s very good; he conveys the Doctor’s contempt for the Master just as well as his predecessors, and he gets small moments of brilliance, such as when he dismisses Patterson with the simple “Oh do shut up”, a quietly delivered line which nevertheless sounds surprisingly forceful. 

The guest cast also performs well; none of them especially stand out, but this is largely because none of them are noticeably bad. Julian Holloway’s performance as opinionated buffoon Sergeant Patterson, a man who obviously thinks that he can cope with anything but copes less well than Ace’s “dropout” friends, is alarmingly convincing, as is William Barton’s as Midge, a seemingly once cocky young man who is lead astray first by his own nature and then by the Master. Sakuntala Ramanee’s Shreela and David John’s Derek also provide reliable support, both representing likeable innocents caught up in a battle for survival. Then of course there’s Lisa Bowerman who is fine as Karra, giving a largely vocal performance due to the limitations of her mask, which hides any facial expressions. She has of course spent a good part of the last few years endearing Doctor Who fans by giving a more prominent vocal performance as one of my favourite companions, but more on that in later reviews. I should also mention Hale and Pace, arguably the least funny comedy double act since records began, who’s long and relatively successful career is both baffling and distressing. Nevertheless, credit where credit is due; they are perfectly cast as a pair of utterly banal shopkeepers who share an unfunny joke. 

In production terms, ‘Survival’ is variable. Dominic Glynn’s incidental score is superb, and always makes me wish guitars had seen wider use in the scores written for the series. Alan Wareing also does a great job of directing ‘Survival’, proving that he can handle location work just as well as he did studio sets in ‘Ghost Light’. The logical step of shooting the scenes set in Perivale actually in Perivale works very well, and although the Planet of the Cheetah people is obviously a quarry, gravel pit or similar locale, this retrospectively seems highly appropriate for the series’ final story. Wareing also handles his actors well; the “Don’t run!” scene in Episode Two that I mentioned above treads precariously close to embarrassing, but he pulls it off thanks to fast cuts and shots from above the actors’ heads, which keeps a certain momentum going. Despite all this praise however, ‘Survival’ does suffer in places; the oft criticized motorcycle crash is truly appalling, as the subsequent shot of the Doctor face down in a rubbish tip (surprisingly, McCoy refrains from his occasional tendency to clown around, and actually claws back some dignity here by sounding genuinely angry as he dusts himself off and fumes about the Master). The biggest problem however, is the cats. I’m veering into hypocrisy here, given my prior defense of ‘The Web Planet’ on the grounds that special effects aren’t important, but the animatronic kitlings look awful and the Cheetah People infamously look like Puss in Boots. I don’t really mind this, but I can’t help thinking the animatronic cats aren’t really necessary (all they do is snarl as their eyes glow red), and there must surely have been a better way to realize the Cheetah People than by using inexpressive masks and fake fur leggings. Fake teeth, contact lenses, half-masks and leather garments might have been more effective and within budget; to the production team’s credit however, the decision to mount them on horseback was inspired, as they look far more impressive when they are on the horses than they do off of them. It doesn’t really matter though; the script works and for the most part ‘Survival’ papers over its less impressive aspects with ease. 

And that’s it; suddenly, and to my horror at the time, my favourite television series came to an abrupt end. A slightly cheesy voice-over tacked onto the final scene of ‘Survival’ suggests that, whilst the series might be ending, the Doctor’s adventures would continue, somewhere, somehow, but the television series died. The corpse however, wouldn’t stop twitching. Some two years later, Virgin Books began publishing a new range of full-length original Doctor Who novels entitled the New Adventures. After a fairly pedestrian start, Paul Cornell’s ‘Timewyrm: Revelation’ suddenly opened my eyes to a new world of stories and what followed quickly became (and has remained) one of my favourite eras of Doctor Who and one of the most controversial. Soon, the Missing Adventures joined the New Adventures; with Virgin publishing two novels a month and Doctor Who Magazine (and of course it’s popular comic strip) keeping the flame alive, my appetite for the Time Lord’s adventures continued to be satisfied. Despite this, my desire for a new television series remained undiminished but it wouldn’t be until nineteen ninety-six that Doctor Who next returned to our screens…

FILTER: - Television - Seventh Doctor - Series 26

The Curse of FenricBookmark and Share

Saturday, 4 September 2004 - Reviewed by Steve Oliver

Season twenty-six of Doctor Who threw up some great stories. ‘Survival’ and ‘Ghostlight’ are widely recognised as beingDoctor Who of the highest order, and rightly so. OK, so ‘Battlefield’ was pants, but every season contains at least one shocker. Out of the four stories broadcast that season was a Doctor Who story that I consider to be the best of the best, ‘The Curse of Fenric’. 

It can be difficult to review this story as there are really three different versions floating around. There is of course the 1989 original broadcast, which is also included on the DVD release. Then there is the early nineties video release, which contains new material not originally broadcast, and finally the special edition DVD release, including even more new footage, a new 5.1 Dolby soundtrack and new CG special effects. Scenes are also rearranged so that the whole thing plays much more smoothly, as the director Nicholas Mallet originally intended. In my opinion, all of the things that make this story so great were already in the original broadcast, so that is what gets reviewed here. The special edition is just icing to the already delicious cake underneath. Also, it is probably unfair to review the special edition alongside episodic televised stories, as the thing has had a lot of extra care taken with it (outlined above). 

In fact reviewing ‘The Curse of Fenric’ isn’t only made difficult by the various versions of it that exist. It’s made more difficult by the fact that it’s a near impossible task trying to nail down just what the story is all about. Is it a), an anti-war story, b), a vampire story, c), a character study of Ace as she grows into a woman, d), a story about ecological disaster or e), a WW2 war story. It’s all of these things and more.

Set during WW2 Ace and the Doctor travel to a secret military intelligence installation on the English coast, where base Commander Millington and Dr Judson are cracking Nazi codes. They also appear slightly preoccupied with Viking rune stones, for reasons that are made more apparent later. Thrown into this mix are Russian Spetznatz commandoes who arrive to steal the computer that is cracking the codes. Unknown to them, the computer contains a chemical bomb that will detonate when a certain word is decoded back in Russia. As if all this wasn’t enough, vampire hordes (Haemovores) rise from the sea and summon the ‘ancient one’. As the story unfolds we learn that this is all a backdrop to an ancient game played out between Fenric and the Doctor.

All of these elements could have made ‘The Curse of Fenric’ an unfocused mess, but I feel the chaotic narrative structure (which is more apparent in the broadcast version) is suited to one of the themes that Ian Briggs was writing about; Chaos. The story is essentially an anti-war piece, with Fenric representing war and chaos. As the story unfolds more and more people die senselessly either at the hands of the Haemovores or the soldiers, who spend the final episode dying in their droves. The Reverend Wainwright is actually one of the more important characters in this regard, as he has lost his faith because of the horrors of war and ends up losing his life as a result. On the DVD, Briggs talks about sex being an important part of the story also, but this is alluded to far less in his scripts, (it is primarily a children’s show after all!).

Moving away from the plot and themes, it has to be said that ‘The Curse of Fenric’ looks superb. Entirely shot on location, the story contains an atmosphere that very few late eighties Doctor Who stories ever did. Mallet directs superbly, especially considering the time constraints. As Briggs points out on the DVD, ‘The Curse of Fenric’ was recorded on a fourteen day shoot, which is very little time when what they filmed was essentially a feature film. 

Mark Ayres’ score is haunting, creepy and a pleasant move away from the horrible Keff McCulloch synth-rock music we got during the majority of the McCoy era. 

Performance wise, ‘The Curse of Fenric’ can’t really be faulted. McCoy gives one of his best performances as a much darker Doctor. Now, many people have a problem with the idea of a ‘dark Doctor’. I’ve never really understood this, as in my opinion it makes the character of the Doctor far more interesting. He doesn’t just wander into situations, bumbling around finding solutions by accident. Now he has a plan, he often knows what is going to happen and doesn’t mind using the people around him like pawns. Ace, at the end of episode four, has to broken down in order for the Doctor to defeat Fenric, and to do this he has to destroy her faith in him.

Speaking of Ace, this has to be one of Aldreds finest hours in the show. She plays the part with a maturity not often seen before. This story, like other season twenty-six stories sees Ace being a pivotal feature of the action, so it was important she performed well.

The supporting cast are all excellent, especially Nicholas Parsons as Wainwright, even if he didn’t have a clue what was going on (on the DVD commentary he sound absolutely bewildered and completely confused!). Perhaps the only criticisms of the performances that could be made would be of the two young evacuees, Phyllis and Jean. They act as if they are appearing in a dodgy sixth-form production, and actually have quite substantial roles in the story.

If you haven’t seen ‘The Curse of Fenric’, then you really ought to. Any preconceived notion about the McCoy era ‘all being a silly pantomime’ will be blown away by the best Doctor Who story ever.

FILTER: - Television - Seventh Doctor - Series 26

The Curse of FenricBookmark and Share

Tuesday, 13 July 2004 - Reviewed by Paul Clarke

‘The Curse of Fenric’ is an unusual story in that the version most widely accepted by Doctor Who fans is not the version originally broadcast. Whereas extended versions of both ‘Silver Nemesis’ and ‘Battlefield’ have been released on video, neither really gained anything that was missing from the original broadcast version; ‘The Curse of Fenric’ however benefited enormously from the few extra minutes of material incorporated into the video release. More recently, the original televised version has been released on DVD, but with an impressive extra in the form of an even longer cut that has been fully reedited and includes even more footage than the previous video release. The actual story isn’t significantly altered, but both extended versions flow more smoothly than the comparatively truncated original, with the extended DVD version apparently closest to the vision of director Nicholas Mallett. None of which is massively important here, except in that it is the extended DVD release that I have watched on this occasion, which doesn’t significantly affect this review but might be of interest to the more curious reader.

Anyway, turning to ‘The Curse of Fenric’ itself, it is a story that is more difficult for me to review than might be expected. As with any Doctor Who story often described by fans of the series as a classic, there is very little that hasn’t been said about ‘The Curse of Fenric’. Partly this is because it can retrospectively be seen as the archetypal Cartmel story, the culmination of all the finest qualities that he strove to bring to the series during his tenure as script-editor and because it arguably had a far greater impact on the New Adventures than more obvious candidates such as ‘Remembrance of the Daleks’. My reasoning for this is that here we see the Doctor at his most manipulative, as he uses Ace as a pawn in a game that started long ago with an ancient evil from the dawn of time. It also sees Ace starting to grow up and develop as a character, more so than any previous story, as she confronts her feelings for her Mother, has her faith in the Doctor shattered and also starts to obviously become aware of her sexuality. ‘The Curse of Fenric’ also seems to be aimed at an older audience than that which Doctor Whois traditionally perceived to have aimed for, with doses of horror including vampires, corpses, and chemical warfare. ‘The Curse of Fenric’ is a grim and gritty story in which almost every supporting character dies and puts Ace through emotional hell. Finally, ‘The Curse of Fenric’ is also riddled with subtext, much of which writer Ian Briggs discusses in the DVD extra Shattering the Chains, and which generally concerns sex and faith. Most of this is obvious, such as the “seductive” appeal of Jean and Phyllis and Ace’s later distraction of the guard, Wainwright’s wrestling with his faith, Sorin’s faith in the Russian Revolution, and Ace’s faith in the Doctor, some less so; I’d never made the connection for example between Doctor Judson’s physical disability and Alan Turing’s homosexuality. For fans who dislike such blatant subtext in Doctor Who, ‘The Curse of Fenric’ is probably an especially bad example of all that was wrong with the Cartmel era, but for better or for worse, it signposts the direction in which Doctor Who would go in the New Adventures more clearly than any other story from the period, as a whole new generation of young writers would bring their politics and opinions to the good Doctor’s adventures. 

An exploration of the subtext within ‘The Curse of Fenric’ should not detract from appreciation of the story at its most basic level however; it is a very good slice of Doctor Who, which for the most part has aged extremely well. The plot is well structured so that suspense builds throughout the first half of the story, as questions are raised about the mission of the Russian commandoes, Commander Millington’s agenda, and the significance of the Viking curse. Once what was originally the cliffhanger to Episode Two is reached, the story shifts gear; once the Haemovores emerge onto land the remainder of the story is a fast-paced thriller, with explanations coming thick and fast as both Fenric’s and the Doctor’s plans become clear. This structure works highly effectively; there are no reprieves once the Haemovores attack as the Doctor and Ace find themselves facing threat after threat as the endgame draws near and bystanders die one by one. 

Crucial to the success of this plot is the characterisation, which allows the actions of the supporting characters, the dangers they face, and their deaths, carry real impact. The Rev. Mr. Wainwright is a case in point; he’s a tortured soul desperate to believe in the essential goodness of humanity but increasingly unable to do so against the backdrop of World War II. The scene in which he reads from the Bible is crucial to his character as it illustrates his crumbling faith far more effectively than the taunts of Jean and Phyllis, but all of this would just be so much subtext were it not for the fact that Wainwright is thoroughly likeable. The massively underrated Nicholas Parsons conveys Wainwright’s uncertainty and fear very convincingly; his bravery in facing his terror is admirable and it makes the fact that his faith ultimately proves too weak to save his life all the more poignant. Basically, all of Briggs’ characters are human; Mrs. Hardaker is an old battleaxe whose strict attitude towards her charges automatically predisposes any young (or just liberal!) members of the audience to dislike her. She throws words like sin around very easily, and shows an unshakable faith in the “good book” whilst Wainwright expresses doubt about the morality of war, which is the blind faith of somebody who unthinkingly follows doctrine rather than attempting to understand what it is they actually believe in. Janet Henfrey captures all of this perfectly, looking and sounding every inch the strict governess, and yet when Jean and Phyllis actually kill her, we briefly get to see her smiling and relaxing as she listens to music rather than the severe and apparently cold person that she has been portrayed at up until that point. Which is important, because it means she isn’t just another corpse to boost the story’s body count in a way that possibly appeals to fans that think that ‘Resurrection of the Daleks’ is “adult”, it means that she is a human victim whose death feels like a loss. 

Perception of death is very important in ‘The Curse of Fenric’. The Russian commandoes, Sorin included, are prepared to kill to succeed in their mission, but again Briggs and director Nicholas Mallett make sure that the deaths that they cause are not lightly forgotten. The home guard soldiers killed on the beach are laughing and joking as they go out on patrol and Prozorov is deeply troubled at having killed them; it doesn’t make it any easier to excuse the actions of him and his fellows, but it does explore the horrors of war in a quiet way that is rare in Doctor Who on television. Sorin is a particularly interesting character in this respect, because of what he believes in and what he does, and the way Ace responds to him. Some fans have expressed a serious misgiving about the fact that Ace is attracted to a man that embraces a regime that killed millions of people; I think this misses the point however. It’s very easy to think of Stalin and forget that originally, the Russian Revolution succeeded because Lenin had the support of many of the ordinary people. It is easy, but foolish I think to dismiss such people as “evil” out of hand; we don’t know why Sorin has such faith in the Revolution and we don’t know whether or not he is aware of the atrocities that Stalin was committing at this time. Because we don’t know these things, and because Sorin is portrayed as a man prepared to kill for what he sees as the greater good, the character becomes more powerful because the script encourages us, largely via Ace, to see him as a person and grow to like him. He is portrayed as a man of conviction and courage and Tomek Bork brings a warmth and charisma to the role, all of which helps to create conflict in the viewer. In a story in which the principle villain is “pure evil”, such muddying of moral waters makes for fascinating characterisation.

A rather less likeable character is Alfred Lynch’s Commander Millington. Like Sorin, Millington is a man prepared to kill for what he thinks is the greater good, but unlike Sorin these actions are harder to justify. Juxtaposed with Wainwright’s angst at the thought of British bombs falling on German cities and killing German children is Millington’s willingness to use a chemical weapon on a Russian city at such time as they cease to be Britain’s allies, a stance that he explains by telling the Doctor, “It could end the war”. Millington is a man who has stared too long into the abyss, whose obsession with tapping into the Nazi psyche has made him a monster; his speech about the men trapped behind a bulkhead on a burning ship is terrifying, not because it is impossible to understand, but because he uses it to excuse the deaths of the two Russians sealed in the mine shaft with the haemovores. The men who died on board the ship might well have been sacrificed to save the rest of the crew, but there is plenty of time to save let the Russians out before the haemovores reach the end of the tunnel. The deaths of the crewmen on board his old ship is uncomfortable too; there may be logic behind it but it is given an all too human perspective shortly afterwards in the shape of Kathleen Dudman’s grief over the news of her husband Frank’s death. 

‘The Curse of Fenric’ is also notable for the characterisation of the regulars; this is Ace’s best story, as she grows up noticeably, and Aldred puts in her first real decent performance. Her concern for the baby is convincing, and she manages to convey fury at the Doctor when she realises that he knows what is going on. Ace thus works as somebody to whom the audience can relate for the first time, and she gets some nice scenes; critics of the Cartmel era often dismiss her faux pasover the fact that Kathleen is married as a just another piece of the social commentary that they argue unnecessarily clutters the era, but whatever else it may be it is also a nice reminder of the period in which ‘The Curse of Fenric’ is set. I wouldn’t give a second thought to the possibility that Kathleen might be single mother any more than Ace does, but it is a reminder that this is set in an era when it was a real stigma that people were ashamed of. Having said of all this in praise of both actress and character, the scene in which Ace distracts the guard is woefully overrated; it is a self-conscious and self-satisfied piece of dialogue that doesn’t really convince and is delivered in a horribly unnatural manner by Aldred. Nevertheless, considering how bad Ace’s dialogue was in Briggs’ previous ‘Dragonfire’, her only truly appalling line here is “Who do you think you are, armpit?”

And finally there is the Doctor. ‘The Curse of Fenric’ shows the Doctor at his most manipulative, as he plays a game of chess (both literally and metaphorically) with an ancient and powerful foe, in which people die. It is often suggested that his actions here are less damning than those in ‘Remembrance of the Daleks’; certainly he doesn’t destroy any planets here, but many people fall along the wayside and whilst it can be argued that he tries to save as many people as possible as he battles Fenric, I should like to point out that there is no reason given why after their last encounter he couldn’t simply have taken the flask that he trapped Fenric in and dumped it in a black hole like he did with the Fendahl skull. In addition to which, the Doctor’s psychological abuse of Ace reaches its peak here, as he destroys her faith in him to defeat Fenric, reducing her to tears; he clearly regrets his actions afterwards as he tries to reassure her that he didn’t mean it when he called her an emotional cripple and told Fenric to kill her, but personally I’d never trust him again. None of which is a problem however, since I like this darker aspect of the Doctor, one that would reach new heights in the New Adventures. I also find it rather amusing that the chess move with which he confuses Fenric is utterly illegal, which means that he won last time by cheating… McCoy’s acting is very good here, even during his “evil from the dawn of time” speech, when he has to convey anger, something that he often has trouble with. McCoy’s Doctor broods throughout, creating the impression that he is weighed down by the choices he hasmade and is forced to make, and it works beautifully. 

Overall, ‘The Curse of Fenric’ is a story in which everything comes together. Mark Ayers’ atmospheric score is crucial to the mood of the piece and has aged very well. Nicholas Mallett does a superb job of directing, and he manages to get the best from his actors, all of whom give excellent performances, with the exceptions of Joann Kenny as Jean and Joanne Bell as Phyllis, both of whom are fine until their characters turn into vampires after which they become a bit hammy, albeit not enough to seriously compromise the production. The sets mesh perfectly with some stunning location work. The special edition benefits ‘The Curse of Fenric’ even more, as it is given a spit and polish and little details like the stakes carried by Sorin can be seen in context for the same time. Andrew Cartmel’s approach to Doctor Who reached its zenith here; ironically, only one story later, it would all come to an end…

FILTER: - Television - Seventh Doctor - Series 26