Horror of Fang RockBookmark and Share

Wednesday, 31 December 2003 - Reviewed by Paul Clarke

There are Doctor Who fans who feel that, after Philip Hinchcliffe left, the series took a downturn, with a greater emphasis on comedy and family viewing, partly due to the criticisms about the programme's violent content from the National Viewers and Listeners Association. Whilst the change in emphasis is demonstrably present in the series once Graham Williams took over, the downturn in quality is debatable, and whilst I do think that the Hinchcliffe era has a greater number of good stories than the Williams era, the actual change in style is not in itself detrimental. Given Tom Baker's mammoth seven-year stint in the role, I feel that his era is large enough to accommodate such a change in tone. For those fans who do bemoan this transition however, 'Horror of Fang Rock' must be welcome indeed; the first story to be produced by Williams it may be, with Holmes still script-editing it is far closer to the gothic stories of the previous two seasons than what would come later.

'Horror of Fang Rock' is in my opinion the best story that Terrance Dicks has written for Doctor Who in any format, without the extensive rewrites from Robert Holmes that elevated 'The Brain of Morbius' to classic status. The story is economical, and perfectly tailored to its format, boasting minimal sets, a memorable monster, and a cast of adequate supporting characters whom Dicks kills off one by one to maintain the tension. The setting is inspired; in many ways a basic "base under siege" story, 'Horror of Fang Rock' could have easily been set in a remote outpost in outer space, but by setting it in a Victorian lighthouse on a fog-shrouded island, he allows the story to benefit from the BBC's famous skill at creating period settings. There are very few sets on display, but they all look authentic, and a lighthouse proves to be an ideal choice as the "base" in question. With supporting characters in period costumes and suitably Victorian dialect, the story is lifted above its simplistic origins in an impressive example of style over content. Add to this a dark sky, a stormy sea, and thick fog, and the scene is set for a simple horror story as a shape-shifting monster kills off the humans on the island one by one. Claustrophobic and tense, 'Horror of Fang Rock' thus manages to be impressively creepy. 

Helping to create a feeling of tension, the story is light on wit, most of the best lines going to Leela and the Doctor and most of these working largely due to the acting of Baker and Jameson. The Doctor's retort to Leela after she has told him not to be afraid is hardly quotable ("What do you mean, do not be afraid?"), but Baker says it with such indignation and shortly after that the fact that it works very well. Indeed, 'Horror of Fang Rock' is almost entirely carried by the regulars, both of whom benefit enormously from the script. Unusually, the Doctor arrives shortly after a suspicious death, but is not suspected; Reuben is vaguely suspicious of him on principle because he suspects that he is foreign (which technically of course, is extremely true), but by the end of Episode One as the ship crashes on the rocks, he seems to have more-or-less accepted him. With no need to prove his innocence, the Doctor instead launches himself straight into the problem of finding out what is at large on the island and stopping it; interestingly, Baker's performance here is so terse that the Doctor's usual dedication to fighting evil wherever he finds it is portrayed almost as an obsession. As noted, the script is grim and almost humourless, and so indeed is the Doctor. He takes command easily throughout, ignoring any complaints from the newcomers about his abrasive attitude and showing obvious contempt for Adelaide. When Leela tells Palmerdale, "Do as the Doctor says or I will cut out your heart!", he doesn't berate her, because he needs Palmerdale to stop arguing. Leela too benefits from uncompromising characterisation, pragmatically dealing with the prospect of death and seemingly relishing the chance of facing a powerful and devious enemy. Her disgust at Adelaide's hysterical reaction to death is memorable and a stark reminder of her savage origins, as is her gloating over the dying Rutan. Equally, the changes that she has undergone under the Doctor's tutelage are also on display, as she dismisses superstition and tells Adelaide that "It is better to believe in science", continuing to show her developing character. As an aside, I find Leela's "pigmentation dispersal" highly amusing; I'm dubious that anyone would have noticed her change in eye colour had Jameson simply stopped wearing her contact lenses without using what is basically technobabble to explain it. 

The supporting characters on display here are so vaguely sketched that they are more caricatures than actual characters, every one of them a walking cliché. Reuben and Vince are prime examples, one an old and superstitious yokel with a distrust of new-fangled technology, the other young, wide-eyed and naïve. Once the ship crashes at the end of Episode One, this trend becomes even more obvious, with the four newcomers each distinguished by the most basic characteristics; Adelaide is pampered and hysterical; Palmerdale is a greedy business man, Skinsale is a corrupt politician, and Harker is a plain spoken, honest sailor. I have mixed feelings about this; on the one hand, all the members of the guest cast put in solid performances which makes their dialogue work, and they are in essence only present to act as "cannon fodder". In this respect they fulfill their function adequately enough, as the rising body count drives the tension of the story. On the other hand, their characterisation is so sketchy that individually their deaths have very little impact; their motivations and backgrounds are conveyed so simplistically that the I failed to develop any real emotional investment in them (a failing incidentally, that renders most of Dicks' original Doctor Who novels barely readable in my opinion). Ultimately however, I do nonetheless find 'Horror of Fang Rock' to be both gripping and creepy, which suggests that all the supporting characters are fulfilling their basic function. 

The Rutan is well used, and as the principle antagonist is crucial to the success of 'Horror of Fang Rock'. It is perhaps remembered more than it deserves to be, for the simple reason that the Rutan have been mentioned in both 'The Time Warrior' and 'the Sontaran Experiment', and this story thus gives us a glimpse of the ever-popular Sontarans' perennial foe. For the most part, the Rutan is not seen, and works very well as an unseen killer lurking out of sight and killing stealthily. The fish-eye view of the Rutan scout is effective, and its ability to change shape and kill on contact makes it a suitably formidable foe. Colin Douglas also contributes to the story's success as "Reuben the Rutan", proving to be capable of a very unsettling smile just before the disguised alien kills anyone. Unfortunately, the realization of the Rutan as an enormous green testicle is far less impressive, and rather deflates the tension thus far created, but by this point the emphasis of the story changes; with virtually everybody dead, the story suddenly concerns itself with a last minute race against time, as the Doctor struggles to convert a lighthouse and a small diamond into a laser beam capable of destroying the Rutan mother ship. It remains for me a rather contrived ending, but works well enough and does provide an explosive climax.

In summary then, 'Horror of Fang Rock' is a story that works well within its limitations, managing to work as an effective horror story on a small budget with shallow supporting characters. Despite its shortcomings, it makes an great start to the new season, and shows considerable promise for the new producer's era. A promise on which the following story utterly fails to deliver…

FILTER: - Television - Series 15 - Fourth Doctor

The Sun MakersBookmark and Share

Wednesday, 31 December 2003 - Reviewed by Paul Clarke

With 'Horror of Fang Rock' and 'Image of the Fendahl' feeling like children of the Hinchcliffe era and 'The Invisible Enemy' feeling like a particularly bad case of gastrointestinitis, 'The Sun Makers' is for me the first successful attempt by Graham Williams to make his mark on Doctor Who. This being the case, it is perhaps ironic that outgoing script editor Robert Holmes scripts it, but this isn't a bad idea as he is not my favourite Doctor Who writer for nothing. Casting off the gothic horror of the previous seasons, Holmes delivers a blistering attack on taxation and pens a unique story for the program. 

'The Sun Makers' is not a subtle satire on taxation; it is a blatant parody that takes pot shots at the subject. This isn't a criticism however, as the approach works very well, delivering a witty and engaging story that is highly distinctive. From the line "perhaps everybody runs from the taxman" in Episode One, the stage is set, as the Doctor, Leela and K9 face an enemy obsessed not with military conquest but with bureaucracy, as the Collector and his cronies hold sway over an oppressed people taxed virtually to death and totally enslaved by the company via financial exploitation. The means by which the Doctor defeats the Collector is both novel and entirely appropriate to the story; whereas in previous stories his enemies have been power-crazed megalomaniacs or ancient and powerful entities, the Collector is motivated entirely by profit, and his literal liquidation after the Doctor introduces a two percent growth tax to the system is both witty and relevant. The story is also notable for the way in which the Doctor becomes involved. In prior adventures he has been confronted with an imminent and deadly threat to the world, or to humanity, or even to the entire universe. In 'The Sun Makers', he discovers a corrupt but well-established government and having been drawn into events he decides to topple it. During the last two episodes, having chosen to become involved, he quickly devises a means of fermenting rebellion, and this is quickly and efficiently implemented. Indeed, the only real obstacle in his way is Leela's impending execution, and this is dealt with relatively easily after first providing a handy cliffhanger to Episode Three. Fans of 'The Happiness Patrol' take note - that is not the only story in which the Doctor instigates large-scale societal changes in the space of less than two days. 

The script of 'The Sun Makers' is crucial to its success and is very witty. The Doctor gets some great lines, from his deadpan "I can see we're going to get along famously" remark to Mandrel as he holds a knife to the Doctor's throat, to his scene with the Collector in Episode Four. However, it is Richard Leech's pompous Gatherer Hade who gets all the best lines, from silly but topical oaths such as "By my ledger!", to his various forms of obsequious address for the Collector, including "Your enormity" and "Your sagacity". His colossal self-importance is also lampooned as he shows off his knowledge of old Earth but repeatedly gets it wrong, happily munching on raspberry leaves rather than actual raspberries and proclaiming that "There's one rotten acorn in every barrel" is an old Earth saying. The Collector is also well scripted, combining sadism with red tape; the only time he shows interest in anything other than profit is when he is gleefully anticipating Leela's steaming, with the line "This is the moment when I get a feeling of real job satisfaction". Despite the copious wit, the script also addresses the real horror of the society created and maintained by the company; mind-control through PCM, the euphemistically titled "Correction centres" (Hade tells Marn of an executive grade who survived for three years in such a centre, explaining to his astonished assistant that "He was very strong"), and public executions are disturbing concepts in themselves, and they sit side by side with the consequences of the Company's need for profit on the law-abiding citizens as represented by Cordo. Unable to pay his father's death taxes, he is driven to the point of suicide until the arrival of the Doctor changes things on Pluto. 'The Sun Makers' is occasionally criticized for its cheap sets, but these suit the mood of the story. Treating the population as a commodity, the Company minimizes expenditure on aesthetics, with even Hade's supposedly luxurious office suite looking cheap and nasty save for his mahogany desk. The Collector's abode, which is referred to as a palace, is a spartan affair, furnished solely with the computer banks that he needs to monitor his profits and set taxation levels. The drab concrete locations fit in perfectly with these barren sets.

As usual for a story penned by Robert Holmes, 'The Sun Makers' boasts excellent characterisation and the guest cast generally rises to the challenge. As noted, Richard Leech's Gatherer Hade virtually steals the show (and his ludicrous costumes works well to show him as a pompous buffoon keen to show off his wealth and status but lacking any real taste or intelligence), but Henry Woolf's gleefully sadistic Collector is also worthy of note. His diminutive stature and slightly pallid make-up make him a visually distinctive villain, and his money-orientated pattern of speech adds to this effect. His assessment of the Doctor and the Time Lords is nicely done, the Doctor described as having a history of economic subversion. Mandrel also works well; initially thoroughly unlikable, his belligerence and hard-bitten attitude are turned around half way through the story. Mandrel is clearly a product of an oppressive regime, worn down and embittered by the toll of working for the company. His initial dislike and distrust of the Doctor gives way to respect as he finally sees an opportunity to actually do something about his grievances rather than simply hiding in an old cellar. By Episode Three, he's almost likeable, fiercely insisting on giving the Doctor his full two minutes to rescue Leela, and William Simons portrays the character's rough edges very well. Blake's 7 stalwart Michael Keating gets little to do as Goudry, but Vila fans will of course know that he can play shifty characters in his sleep. Cordo is a great character; nicely played by Roy Macready, he represents the honest, law-abiding citizen finally pushed too far by the system, and his gradual transformation into revolutionary as the Doctor and Leela inspire him is an effective indicator of the changes wrought by the Doctor on Pluto. On the other hand, Adrienne Burgess puts in a cringe-worthy performance as Veet, and David Rowlands' Bisham is utterly wooden. 

The regulars are well handled by Holmes. Tom Baker seems to be enjoying himself with the script, and his increasingly comic performance comes to the fore here, hinting at things to come. I love the scene in which he fiddles with the lock on the Collector's safe before admitting that he has no idea how to crack the safe and resorts to his sonic screwdriver. It's quietly amusing without being over the top and is an example of why 'The Sun Makers' moves along at a cracking pace. Leela, a warrior from a tribal background faces perhaps her most alien situation to date in the programme, confronted not with robots, homicidal midgets, or alien viruses, but with the creaking weight of bureaucratic oppression. A natural fighter, she approaches the situation in her usual way and impresses both Mandrel and Cordo with her willingness to fight those who wrong her. Her stoic silence in the steamer is testament to the character's usually bravery, but perhaps her finest moment in the story is her realization that she is afraid for no apparent reason; once K9 explains the PCM to her, she realises that she has nothing to fear except fear itself and pragmatically ignores the sensation. Jameson also acts convincingly confused by the Collector's defeat, as the concept of a being who is defeated by loss of profit must be rather baffling for the survival-motivated Leela. Finally, there is K9. Having been sidelined for 'Image of the Fendahl', K9 finally gets a great story here, and Holmes' treatment of him as a character rather than a machine benefits the little fellow enormously. His plaintive "I'll be good" pleading with the Doctor when he wants to go for a walk is, ultimately, utterly silly, but its also so endearing that it never fails to make me smile. From this point on, K9 shines, drooping his tail antennae when chided, wagging it when he gets his own way, offering suggestions to the Doctor, and generally acting as a useful member of the TARDIS crew. John Leeson's enthusiasm helps to make the character work, and K9's frequent smugness nicely balances out the Doctor's increasing egocentricity from this point in the series. 

Overall, 'The Sun Makers' is woefully underrated and a real gem. As an example of what Graham Williams could do with the series' format, it is excellent and promises much for the future. Unfortunately, the potential shown here quickly drains away with the following story and fails to return fully until the following season...

FILTER: - Television - Fourth Doctor - Series 15

The Invisible EnemyBookmark and Share

Wednesday, 31 December 2003 - Reviewed by Paul Clarke

Apologists for 'The Invisible Enemy' like to affectionately describe it as "grand folly". I like to define it as "utter cobblers". Saddled with a stupid plot, very cheap-looking production values, an extremely silly monster, and bad acting, it comes as a massive disappointment after 'Horror of Fang Rock' and has also aged very badly.

'The Invisible Enemy' suffers from arguably the worst script Bob Baker and Dave Martin ever contributed to the series, and they wrote 'The Three Doctors'. The plot is laden with unconvincing and silly technobabble, three points of which I shall address. The first is the Swarm; frequently described as a virus, the Swarm bears no resemblance to anything actually approaching a virus in real life. Viruses are small stretches of nucleic acid wrapped in a protein coat and sometimes a lipid envelope. The Swarm is a megalomaniac seafood platter with the ability to infect robots, survive outside of a host after having been increased in size by an enormous factor, and give its hosts big silver eyebrows. Slightly hypocritically, I probably wouldn't mind so much if some pseudoscientific description of a micro-dimensional organism had been provided, but by calling it a virus, the writers drive me to distraction throughout. The second item of unconvincing technobabble concerns the clones. It was apparently noted by a viewer at the time that if the clones in Episodes Two and Three were real clones, they would be stark-bollock naked. The process of cloning described bears about as much resemblance to any real basis of cloning as a haddock bears to Peru, with the process seemingly producing telepathic clones with a psychic connection to their originals, and also managing to clone knives and guns. Which is impressive. In fact, the "clones" are more akin to the transmat duplicates described in 'Down', 'The Slow Empire', Barry Letts' execrable Blake's 7 audio 'The SevenFold Crown', and (I am informed) Star Trek. Mention of the clones brings us to the third point of technobabble and by the far the most ludicrous: The Doctor's brain. The Doctor is not human; he is a Time Lord. This being the case, I can be convinced that his physiology is different to that of a human, but depicting the inside of his brain as a series of garish dry tunnels with foam rubber décor stretches credibility to new limits. Whereas in 'The Brain of Morbius' we had a Time Lord brain that looked more or less like a human's, here we see the Brain of Tawdriness, a farcical journey through one of the least convincing sets in the entire history of the series. The script of course is paying homage to Fantastic Voyage, but both that film and its thematic sequel Inner Space, sensibly showed the body to be full of fluid. Here, budgetary concerns could not possibly allow this, so instead of doing the humane thing and setting fire to the script, the production team create the interior of a brain out of some reddish paint and old drapes. 

'The Invisible Enemy' look awful throughout. The sets on the Titan base look, basically, like cheap studio sets, rather than a futuristic metal walled outpost. The costumes are immensely silly, especially the massive-headed spacesuits in Episode One, which look like they have been drawn for a Warner Bros cartoon, and the green PVC overalls and skull-caps worn by the personnel of the Bi-Al Foundation. The model shot of the shuttle crashing into the Bi-Al Foundation amusingly reminds me of the space battle from Monty Pythons' The Life of Brian, as the shuttle careers widely from side to side as it plummets towards its target. The worst aspect of the entire production is the Nucleus, looking, as it does, like a giant prawn. The scenes of its human slaves rolling it along corridors are unintentionally hilarious, and this makes the Doctor's concerned proclamation that the Swarm could overrun the solar system like a plague of giant locusts highly entertaining, since the things can barely move and the Nuclues does little except wobble menacingly. And on the subject of the Bi-Al Foundation, I don't care how advanced medical science and hygiene techniques have become by the year five thousand, the sight of a man about to perform surgery whilst wearing an old jacket will always be ludicrous. 

With dodgy script and dodgy production values, we might hope to look to good acting for solace, but sadly it is not to be. Everyone in the cast seems thoroughly bored, except for Frederick Jaeger, who seems to be taking the piss to keep himself amused. After his excellent performance as Jano in 'The Savages' and as Sorenson in 'Planet of Evil', his outrageous accent here comes as something of a shock. As do his facial hair and spectacles. Michael Sheard, normally so reliable, here seems slightly stunned by the paucity of the programme he's been tricked into making, and puts in a performance as Lowe that makes him look constipated. Tom Baker seems particularly bored and lacks all of the intensity he brought to 'Horror of Fang Rock'. Louise Jameson comes across the best, especially when her instincts are warning her of danger in Episode One, but the end of the story she too seems bored. Leela also gets to use her knife on people for the first time, which ends up looking very unconvincing due to the lack of blood, which the production team of course could not have got away with. 

Amidst all this rubbish however, there are two things I like about 'The Invisible Enemy'. The first, trivial though it is, is the "Finglish" used for the signs in the Titan base and the Bi-Al Foundation; as an attempt to show that languages evolve and change over time, it is a rather nice idea. The second is K9. For fans who bemoan the change in direction after Graham Williams took over from Phillip Hinchcliffe, K9 is probably an object of some hatred, clearly designed as he is to appeal to a younger audience and emphasizing the change away from more horror-orientated and arguably more adult stories. In addition, I hadn't noticed until now how badly he's aged; the white cleaning robot in the Fosters lager advert looks more state-of-the-art than K9 does, and the initial problems with the actual prop are in evidence here, with K9 making a considerable racket whenever he moves. Despite this however, I can't help but like him. There's something about the concept of the Doctor owning a robot dog that makes it seem perfectly at home in the series, and John Leeson's enthusiastic vocal performance helps to make K9 endearing. 'The Invisible Enemy' is hardly his best story, but he nevertheless manages to make an immediate impression. 

Overall, 'The Invisible Enemy' is televisual diarrhoea, and it is unfortunate that Graham Williams' first real chance to put his stamp on the programme after the Hinchcliffe-like 'Horror of Fang Rock' should go so badly wrong. It doesn't help that it is followed by a much more impressive story which, like 'Horror of Fang Rock', also feels like a leftover from the previous producer's era…

FILTER: - Television - Fourth Doctor - Series 15

Image of the FendahlBookmark and Share

Wednesday, 31 December 2003 - Reviewed by Paul Clarke

Much like 'Horror of Fang Rock', 'Image of the Fendahl' feels very much like a product of the Hinchcliffe era, encapsulating the same feel of gothic horror that permeated many of the stories from the previous two seasons. In many ways, it bears similarities to 'Pyramids of Mars', with an ancient and powerful evil that even the Doctor is afraid of seeking release after millennia of inactivity, with revelations about the origins and evolution of humanity, and set as it is in an old priory with wooded grounds. Whilst it doesn't achieve quite the same reputation as its Egyptian-themed predecessor, it nevertheless repeats this same basic formula with impressive results. 

A large part of the success of 'Image of the Fendahl' is due to the brooding horror of the Fendahl itself, despite the fact that it doesn't actually get the opportunity to do much. From the moment the hitchhiker is killed by an unseen, slurping, thing in Episode One, the tone of the story is set; mist-shrouded woods, glowing skulls, and rapidly decaying corpses all create a sinister atmosphere. Once the Doctor starts to realize what he is facing in Episode Two, Baker's delivery of the Doctor's lines is as crucial to the suspense as it was in 'Pyramids of Mars', as he describes an ancient evil that has passed into even Gallifreyan legend. The revelation that the Doctor is frightened by the Fendahl is delivered in a subdued, quiet fashion, in Episode Three, but plays a significant role in emphasizing the danger of the Fendahl, as does the Doctor's grim assertion that if it isn't stopped there will be only one human left alive on Earth within a year. It is in this way that the danger posed by the Fendahl is conveyed; never quite complete during the story, and with no lines, the actual creature does little, but is carried by its reputation. The Doctor and Leela's abortive trip to the Fifth Planet in Episode Three is often described as padding, which isn't entirely unfair but benefits the story by revealing that the Fendahl is considered to be so lethal that the normally non-interventionist Time Lords took the precaution of time-looping its home world. 

The gulf between the Fendahl's actions and its reputation is nicely bridged by the ingenious concept of making it a gestalt entity. By ensuring that it never manages to complete itself, Boucher is able to write about a monster of enormous power, without necessitating a contrived means of defeating it, as was unfortunately the case with Azal in 'The Dæmons' and to a lesser extent with Sutekh in 'Pyramids of Mars'. With the gestalt incomplete, the Fendahl is vulnerable, the Fendahleen susceptible to the effects of salt. On the other hand, the story shows the Fendahl to be powerful enough even whilst it is recreating itself, having influenced mankind's evolution over millions of years in order to orchestrate its resurrection, able to create Fendahleen out of pure energy, and able to transform humans into other Fendahleen and of course the Core. The production generally rises to the challenge of making the Fendahl a foreboding menace; the Fendahleen look reasonably good (although the full sized model is far better than the model embryos), and although the director foolishly adopted the tactic of painting obviously false eyes on Wanda Ventham's eyelids, the Fendahl Core still manages to look chillingly austere, an effect aided by its eerie silence throughout. 

The tension and overall effectiveness of 'Image of the Fendahl' are also greatly aided by some great characterisation and acting. Although Edward Arthur's Colby is both obnoxious and irritating, the other characters are all engaging. Denis Lill is superb as the intense Fendelman, who misdirection initially casts as a villain, given his ruthless dedication to his work (his calculating attitude to the discovery of the hitchhiker's corpse does not create a favourable impression). His eventual realization of just what has underlain his work is well written, and his final appeal to Stael as he tries to convince him that "mankind has been used!" is delivered with an impressive air of desperation. Wanda Ventham is also quietly impressive as the doomed Thea Ransome, increasingly overwhelmed by terror as she finds herself being affected by the skull. Scott Fredericks' Maximillian Stael is a ranting madman, who veers over the top at times, but Fredericks' manages an enjoyable performance nevertheless, and Stael's eventual suicide is very well handled, as he achieves a kind of redemption after nearly unleashing a force that could have destroyed all life on Earth. However, my favourite guest cast member is Daphne Heard as Mrs. Tyler. Unusually for Doctor Who at this time, Mrs. Tyler is portrayed as somebody with a long interest in and knowledge of the occult, without being patronized by the Doctor. He quietly explains the scientific basis underlying her "gifts", but also accords her respect and doesn't make announcements such as "superstitious rubbish". I've never had any reason to believe in magic, but even so the Third Doctor's arrogant and patronizing dismissals of Miss Hawthorne in 'The Dæmons' left an unpleasant taste in my mouth, so I'm glad it isn't repeated here. Heard's performance is spot-on, mixing eccentricity and common sense in just the right amounts to create a likeable if slightly cantankerous character, and her delivery of the line "it were 'ungry for my soul" further adds to the implied menace of the Fendahl. She also gets some other great scenes, such as when she illogically argues with Geoffrey Hinsliff's Jack Tyler about distrusting men who wear hats. 

The regulars also do well here, as usual. K9 is sidelined due to his last-minute inclusion in the TARDIS crew (at least from Boucher's point of view), effectively giving the Doctor/Leela duo one last outing. Baker is still on fine form here, treating the story with great seriousness whenever necessary and convincingly suggesting that the Doctor is in great pain at the end of Episode Two. Jameson is as a good as ever, and Leela's character shines under the pen of her creator once more; her warrior instincts are on full display, and despite being unsettled by the Doctor's fear of the Fendahl, she demonstrates her usual approach to death, which is to face it head on with knife in hand. The rest of the production matches the high quality of the acting and scripting; the location filming meshes perfectly with the sets, and Dudley Simpson's incidental score works well without being intrusive. Overall, 'Image of the Fendahl' feels like the triumphant last gasp of the Hinchcliffe era and as one of Doctor Who's last real stabs at gothic horror it is a fine end to the era.

FILTER: - Television - Series 15 - Fourth Doctor

UnderworldBookmark and Share

Wednesday, 31 December 2003 - Reviewed by Paul Clarke

'Underworld' has a very bad reputation. Indeed, there are fans who consider this to be the nadir of the Tom Baker era, although personally I'd much rather watch this than 'Revenge of the Cybermen', 'The Android Invasion' of 'The Invisible Enemy'. In fact, in my opinion 'Underworld' is nowhere near as bad as some fans claim, but this is damning with faint praise; the fact remains that it still isn't very good. 

The basic premise of 'Underworld' - ancient travellers on a quest for a lost artefact - is basically sound, but then once you start plagiarizing Greek mythology you're probably in pretty safe territory. Unfortunately, 'Underworld' plays it too safely and rather than drawing on mythology for its inspiration, it simply embarks on a straight retelling of Jason and the Argonauts, which results in a story that feels mind-numbingly unoriginal. I suppose Baker and Martin deserve credit for at least acknowledging their sources, but the final scene in which the Doctor tells Leela about Jason and hypothesizes that legends of the past are actually prophesizes of the future is so glib as to be thoroughly irritating. Frustratingly, many Tom Baker era Doctor Who stories actually work best when their roots are showing, but 'Underworld' is an exception to this. This is particularly disappointing considering that Episode One does have some promise; the revelations about Time Lord intervention in Minyan history are potentially interesting, but this aspect of the story is swept under the carpet very speedily, after the Doctor cheerfully announces that he is a Time Lord and offers to help Jackson and his crew. There is some minor disgruntlement initially, but soon the Doctor is pitching in to the Quest with enthusiasm. 

The unoriginality of 'Underworld' is compounded by the fact that it seems to plagiarize not only Greek mythology, but also recent Doctor Who. On a minor note, 'Underworld' is the second story in a row in which the Doctor arrives in an established society and engineers its complete upheaval (and in this case actual disintegration) within mere hours. This is a trivial and probably coincidental issue, but is rather noticeable when watching the series (or even just the season) in order. More significantly, a large part of the story contains a race of people that is descended from a spaceship full of colonists, has degenerated into specific antagonistic groups, has forgotten its origins, and worships the insane and megalomaniac ship's computer. And only a year after 'The Face of Evil', too. I'd like to think that this too is mere coincidence, but unintentional or not, it makes 'Underworld' seem even more derivative. To add insult to injury, having plagiarized the generally very good 'The Face of Evil', 'Underoworld' doesn't even manage to repeat its success. The Doctor has virtually no difficulty in helping the Minyans to obtain the race banks, outwitting the Oracle and its Seers with ease and failing to get into any memorably danger along the way. This is arguably also true of 'The Sun Makers', but that was carried along by a witty script and decent characterisation. 'Underworld' is just boring. There is considerable padding throughout, as demonstrated by the cliffhangers to Episodes Two and Three; the Episode Two cliffhanger is pathetic, since the Doctor spends about five minutes wandering around in the gas-filled tunnels whilst tinkering with the fumigation apparatus, announcing that he intends to reverse the flow of gas. Consequently, when this is what happens at the start of Episode Three, it scarcely comes as a surprise. The Episode Three cliffhanger is not as dull, but is very contrived; the idea of entering the P7E via the crusher is briefly introduced just long enough to provide the cliffhanger, before being instantly aborted at the start of Episode Four when a convenient ventilation duct is located instead. 

Part of the reason that 'Underworld' is so boring is that totally lacks any kind of memorable villain. Back when I reviewed 'The War Machines' I claimed that I do not like megalomaniac computers as villains. I was later forced to back-pedal when I reviewed 'The Green Death' and 'The Face of Evil', but my argument regains lost ground with 'Underworld', since the Oracle (and its attendant Seers) are thoroughly uninteresting. Even the script seems to admit this, with the Doctor dismissing it as "another insane object, another self-aggrandising artefact!" Well-acted and interesting supporting characters might break such colossal tedium, but this is alas not the case. Alan Lake's bombastic Herrack is rather entertaining, and James Maxwell manages to convey the conflicting weariness and dedication of Jackson very well, but Jonathon Newth and Imogen Bickford-Smith get very little to do as Orfe and Tala, respectively. The Trogs are so apathetic and boring that it is difficult to care about them and the Guards are stock thugs. So given all this criticism, why do I think that 'Underworld' is better than its reputation?

There are several reasons. Firstly, the plot of 'Underworld' is dull, but solid. There are no real plot-holes, although as usual for a Baker and Martin script there is some very bad science on display, most notably the lack of gravity at the centre of the planet and the idea that the Trogs and Guards can survive on processed rock (although they probably don't suffer from any iron or mineral deficiencies…). In addition, the concept of transporting large numbers of people for several centuries in a small spacecraft is so ludicrous that it falls apart under any amount of scrutiny. Nevertheless, the story largely progresses from start to finish in a logical fashion. Secondly, amidst everything else, the regulars put in good performances. This might come as no surprise, but bear in mind that Tom Baker seemed very bored with Baker and Martin's last script for the series, whereas here he puts in a rather manic and enthusiastic performance. Louise Jameson also gets plenty to do as Leela pitches in to the various battles with her usual relish, and I also like her pacification and subsequent recovery in Episode One. K9 also plays a significant role, as he takes control of the Minyan spaceship, guiding it through the last stages of its quest to find the P7E. 

The final reason that 'Underworld' is not as bad as some claim is the production. The model work is very good, as are the sets of the Minyan spaceship and the P7E. Most notably however, the notoriously bad CSO actually works quite well. The main drawback it displays is the lack of the depth of field, but the fuzzy line that plagued the technique during the Pertwee era is mercifully absent. Nevertheless, whilst I can find positive aspects in 'Underworld', these are not enough to salvage it. It isn't the worst Tom Baker story, it isn't even the worst story of Season Fifteen, but as a cure for insomnia it is unrivalled.

FILTER: - Television - Fourth Doctor - Series 15

The Invasion of TimeBookmark and Share

Monday, 14 July 2003 - Reviewed by Alex Wilcock

“At last, the future of Gallifrey is assured.”

I have a confession to make. The Deadly Assassin has been my favourite story from the moment it was broadcast, and when I was younger, the Sontarans were my favourite monsters. I thought The Invasion of Time was fantastic, and played the big gun battles at school. I’d been waiting for such a long time for a decent copy on tape, and was terribly excited when they finally released it. 


Watching it recently episode by episode, I realised the gulf from how I loved it as a kid to it scraping about five out of ten for me now. It seems to have suddenly fallen in my Who story ‘likes’ from about number 50 to, ooh, past number 100. Why? The story is much more traditional than The Deadly Assassin, and blatantly trying both to pull back from it and to be an epic to outmatch it. It ends up as a glittery and hollow pile of padding which doesn't have the force to carry off the 'Doctor turning bad' plot with which it begins, alternately entertaining and infuriating, then at the end dull – except for the Doctor *really* turning bad in a lazy way they don’t even notice. In short, it suffers from the curse of the sequel, and helps make Gallifrey dull for ever after.

OK, so that’s the short review. Now come with me, and I’ll take you through each episode, the highs and the lows, and spoilers abound… To start with the context, Season 15 is perhaps the most disappointing year Doctor Who ever produced, with nosediving production values not yet being salvaged by the Williams wit finding its feet. Almost every story ends with something being blown up; almost every set and costume looks cheap. You might call it ‘Boom and Bust’, or ‘The Year They Got Lazy’. There are worse seasons, certainly, but never have expectations built up by steadily rising standards of brilliance over the preceding three years been so cruelly dashed. Scripts and acting are falling back into familiar, obvious patterns; Leela is going downhill faster than any other companion. It just looks so flat, so dull, so slipshod – and Tom has gone off the rails in a way that he will avoid for most of the following, far superior year. 

Unfortunately, in many more ways than being the climax of the steadily increasing mentions of the Time Lords in every story, The Invasion of Time is an appropriate summation of Season 15. From the beginning of episode One, you can see the problems. K9 has now settled into his forever-after mix of C3PO and R2D2 (bitchy pedant meets cute little robot), with a big gun added on, and the Doctor is now relying on him to shoot things altogether too much. Added to this laziness, he gains every fan’s undying hatred when he demands the TARDIS speak, then retorts, “You are a very stupid machine.” Die, tin can, die! ;-)

The Vardans start well, with cool high-backed chairs and froody multi-squared computer screens. Unusually, it’s very clear that a fair while has gone by between Underworld and this story, for the Doctor to have laid all his Vardan plans. Oh, and for Leela to have got herself a giant frog to play with in the exploitation shots in the pool. Landing on Gallifrey is an immense relief – for the first time in the entire season, we have a set that looks grand and impressive, the more so when the Panopticon has clearly been redesigned (a bit) rather than broken out of storage. The ghastly plastic floor level blue and green chairs are a let-down, but generally it’s interesting and believable again.

Tom Baker is arrestingly abrupt as the Doctor declares himself – and rather worryingly, Andred immediately sides with him and starts ordering around the most senior Time Lords at gunpoint! I mean, it seems a rather gun-ready society, doesn’t it? Shame that Borusa’s best comeback line now is “Then let him rot in a black star,” or trying to lock him up – John Arnatt gives a great performance to disguise it, but, really, Borusa’s character is already suffering from poorer scripting and much poorer lines.

The ceremony at the end isn’t badly done, but suffers from having far fewer Time Lords milling around than last time… At least Borusa doesn’t put on his frock until it’s playtime, even if he does then utter the grisly error “Their *elected* President.” Call me a Deadly Assassin pedant, but the whole point of that story is that Goth, who would blatantly have won an election, wasn’t going to get the job because the President makes the choice instead of a popular vote – hence the need for a *deadly assassin* to trigger the unprecedented step of an election. Sigh. With this, the ‘Rod’ blatantly being the ‘Great Key’ from last time, albeit presented on a hideous inflatable cushion, the Supreme Council rather than the High Council, and the Great Key business with the Chancellor’s secret (so why did everyone think Goth would be President, if it’s an alternate career summit and they can’t become President? Admittedly, the ‘balance of power’ is quite nice, and perhaps the Matrix wipes the knowledge from Chancellors-turned-President, but couldn’t they write it down?) you wonder if only the designers watched Assassin, and the authors didn’t listen at all. Still, episode one has considerable style, and blessed relief in the production values department. Gomer and Savar even have a nice bit of banter in much the same way as the two old coves in the Assassin dressing room.

Part Two is much less interesting, and with so much padding on view, it’s clear that this story has nothing like the ideas of Assassin. Rather entertainingly, a very similar cliffhanger (white-clad President collapses on Panopticon dais) is followed by a similar resolution, with guards milling around and escorting the Doctor away, though this time it’s the cruder Borusa who’s trying to have him locked up, while the clever one complained about the crude Chancellor. Mind you, it’s still just about working as a character piece for the Doctor, and Tom is still remembering to act just enough to pull it off. It’s a nice touch that Leela is ordered to the enquiry by Borusa – having failed with the Doctor, he’s still looking for public scapegoats, and the alien’s a prime target (though he blatantly knows she didn’t do it, having switched his story from “The Matrix rejects the candidate!” to “She attacked him”). 

When the Doctor comes round and startles us by turning on Leela, the story is still firing on all cylinders (which is more than the guards’ stasers do. Half the time they have no effect at all, but occasionally they have a white ‘diamond’, as last time. It’s, er, almost as if they did it in a hurry and didn’t finish putting all the effects). However, the lead is already becoming erratic. “This is rather more than a student prank,” says Borusa, calling our attention to Tom’s increasingly studenty performance of late. He ranges from the sudden roars (“Get out! Get out! Get out!” he cries near the end) to the hammy overplayed scene where he’s trying to find Borusa’s voice print, and he’s no longer entirely convincing. The episode ending has a considerable power, though, despite the Vardans already looking like a bit of scrunched-up plastic…

Episode Three is full of political intrigue and the threat of the Vardans – but unfortunately it doesn’t come off. Kelner is too silly, Andred is too callow, and the Vardans simply don’t work. They move very badly and are too blatant a matte, even ignoring their unspectacular appearance. Kelner plots with his pet guard to take over as President *later*, but protect the Doctor until then; so when did the Castellan bump up, illegally and unratified by a president, to become a High – er, Supreme – Councillor? And a really high-ranking one at that? While Kelner plots risibly, last week’s instant fascist Andred now goes for instant, insipid resistance, and unfortunately enthuses no-one. 

Leela deciding to banish herself because the Doctor wanted her banished, and he always has a plan, is rather a nice touch – the faithless one from her first story has found a faith she can believe in. At least she’s given a bit more to do than her comedy part in the last episode, where lines like the stage-whispered “I’m with him,” or the ‘posh’ echo “One does,” made it almost impossible to believe she’s not an average Twentieth Century woman. “I can survive anywhere,” she declares, and runs smack into Nesbin and the Outsiders, a last chance for her character to reassert itself.

Meanwhile, Tom gets very smug (K9 suggested lots of people call him that an episode ago – but this is the first time he’s really looked it) when Borusa learns from him. For this alone, you could forgive Andred for planning his assassination, but as for appointing Kelner ‘acting Vice President’ (since when did the Time Lords have them? It’s a different structure entirely, surely, with the Chancellor as deputy)… Borusa is locked up (for the next episode!) after rather a great scene where he faces down the Vardans and is zapped by one. Again, you’re almost persuaded that this story could be great. Unfortunately, Andred’s assassination plot is a bit crap. His plotters are unconvincing, and seem more human than Time Lord - Gomer is an old Time Lord (claiming his 10th regeneration makes him less vigorous), played by an old man; Andred’s callow youths are played by young men. Old actors playing ‘young’ Time Lords would have shown more thought. Then Andred’s rallying cry of ‘In the name of liberty and honour’ is just so limply delivered that you want to scream.

Into the fourth episode, and as with all undramatic ‘Doctor about to be shot’ cliffhangers, we’re amazed that, um, he isn’t. The excuse this time is especially weedy - the Doctor has apparently set up K9’s Earth blaster so it fires inside TARDISes, while Gallifreyan stasers don’t. Convinced? The Doctor has some relatively good barbs to Andred about his ineffectual palace revolution (“What can you pull off?” indeed), but it’s getting more and more stretched, and constant balancing acts of Gallifrey’s ‘crown jewels’ on K9 were probably funny in the studio. Andred using a calculator so K9 can show off and do the sums faster looks, ah, rather dated now. And probably then.

On the other hand, the Vardans have a much better episode, even though they suddenly laugh unconvincingly and tell Kelner they’ve suspected the Doctor all along (just as their voiceovers at the beginning – er – disprove). The life-size Vardan talking to Kelner, with a minimum of movement, doesn’t look too bad – and the one sitting at Kelner’s chair is mildly entertaining. Of course, once they appear in their little soldier suits, they make the cardinal dramatic error of having the leader being by far the smallest and slightest of the three, and not much of an actor to boot, which rather undermines his authority as he stands there shouting. As the Doctor observes, “Disappointing, aren’t they?” At least one of the others is fairly cute…

The Doctor enters the Matrix to get some ideas on dismantling the Quantum Forcefield (doesn’t sound as cool as the Transduction Barriers, so we never hear of that again from anyone, huh?). He gets some nice shots on location with lots of mechanics and a Vardan, which is different padding from usual. The Outsiders run through the sandpit several times to build up tension for their approach, rather less successfully. Oh well, Leela had fun hamming it up with her target practice before her band of six go off to conquer New York (at least, we assume it’s a city of similar density, and a similarly implausible idea). Shame that she just gets to be the butt of the stupid “What does proficient mean?” joke instead, and that K9 is also reduced to ‘nodding dog’ comic relief. At this point, the episode seems to have been a bit of a letdown, without even an appearance from Borusa to cheer it.

But then there’s the gorgeously blobby electronic music underscoring *that* cliffhanger…

Yes, Episode Five starts with fantastic oomph, and it’s a pleasant surprise to find that it keeps moves along at a fair old lick, largely helped by the mix of waspish Chancellor Borusa and some cool fx gunfights for the kids. Yes, it’s more running around, but it’s less tedious with it. Borusa is certainly a big pull this time, talking to himself as he listens to the Doctor, then forming a great double act that pulls some acting out of Tom (and even Tom’s ‘alliteration’ quip to Stor is done with his old grimness). His placing of the Great Key *not* in a forest of them, but in his desk drawer, is fabulous – even if the whole Chancellor / Key thing is a bit silly. For some reason never specified we get the idea that the Sontarans cannot ‘conquer time’ “Not while I -“ – er, why? What does the Chancellor do with the Key that would stop them? And if it’s not been used for 10 million years…? At least we don’t get Terrance Dicks’ ‘a lesser Key was stolen by the Master’ line (yeah, right, like the Eye of Harmony’s not important). Perhaps the Chancellor must use it to ‘switch all the TARDISes on’ as part of his duties, but it’s not something the script bothers to justify.

OK, Stor’s asthmatic East End sound is a bit peculiar, and the eye-holes don’t look vacuum-safe, but the Sontarans are generally fairly effective (still constantly helmeted so far; strange we didn’t get that as the cliffhanger!). They also have three fingers again - and their gun effects, with blast fields shifting and wobbling around, definitely look much better than K9’s thin red line (which at one stage shoots a Sontarans in the groin, only to see it carry on. It’s difficult not to jump to the conclusion that they have no nadgers). Is this the first ‘K9’s magic blaster has no effect’ scene? Kelner oils over the Sontarans to a ludicrous extent immediately, but when required to do some technical work (largely on film!) for the Sontarans, suddenly becomes more confidently evil and an impressive expert, rather than a weaselly cipher. He says that taking over the defence systems is only possible using the TARDIS – “and the Doctor’s capsule is the only one operational,” oddly (unless the Great Key has switched them all off). Still, Part Five has been something of a success.

Oh dear.

In Episode Six, the wheels come off so fast they fly out of the screen at you.

Like Episode Five, this involves lots of running around and blatant padding, but it stands much less well as an episode on its own, and ends up even worse as a climax. The plot doesn’t have enough to go on for a third of the time, and it makes very little use of what there is. For a start, Part Five was largely enlivened by the Chancellor, but this time it’s ten minutes in before Borusa appears, and he has precious little screen time. Other characters fare worse. Leela is roundly humiliated. It’s really only the last couple of stories that her character has really collapsed, but collapsed it suddenly has. It starts with the “You got lost” / “How do you know?” comedy routine, then her kissing K9 (demob happy), and closes with her staying with Captain Dull of the Guard. Strewth. Kelner is back to cipher again, claiming “I’m not an engineer, sir,” which is a blatant lie considering his accomplishments in these last two episodes, and poor Rodan spends most of her time hypnotised!

The TARDIS interiors must be greeted with some sympathy, given their unfortunate background in industrial disputes, and don’t seem that bad, though occasionally poor (you sort of get used to it). Showing a ‘brick and pipes’ corridor leading straight out of the console room is a good touch, and the lounger area where Borusa relaxes with news of the Titanic and a blue drink through a curly straw with the potplants and giant roundels on the wall works surprisingly well. Going round and round the same large area is very tedious, however, as is Tom constantly ‘stumbling’ on the same point of the ramp in the corridor approaching it – and the jumps between film and video are very obvious. “I’m a Time Lord, not a painter and decorator,” cries the Doctor, “I’m preoccupied with Sontarans, Daleks and Cybermen.” When Tom acts up, we know the script is falling down. At least the ancillary power station is quite pretty.

I feel obliged to note that Stor has his trooper drag in a large gun-like beamer to burn through the blocking bar across the TARDIS internal door… And, wouldn’t you know? It works! It seems Gallifreyans are the only race in the universe who can’t build guns that fire inside their own ships. Stor has much bigger vacuum-unsafe eye holes – all the better to fail to convince you with – and mostly just stalks up and down brick corridors, glowering, taking his helmet off and putting it back on again for want of anything else to do. 

Again, Borusa is cool and entertaining, and manages good acting even in scenes like the ‘Doctor’s lost his memory’ one, with a slight smile, but there’s too little of him to disguise the paucity of everything else. How does he instantly recognise the Demat Gun (or even know to look for it)? It’s just a great big gun! The ultimate weapon (again), eh? “I could rule the Universe with this gun, Chancellor.” Oh, please. “It’ll throw us back to the darkest age,” cries Borusa, desperately trying to make us believe. Some have theorised that, as it’s powered by the Great Key, it’s either a Time Destructor or it erases your timeline (which erases the Doctor’s memory, but people in the TARDIS are shielded from changes in reality). Unfortunately, nothing we see on screen gives us more than ‘It’s a bigger, clumsier Ogron disintegrator.’ It’s just dull, and why on earth has he built it? It doesn’t serve a more interesting plot function than a pistol. Or a club. Or even a net. The Doctor catches up with Stor awfully quickly, then Stor threatens to explode a grenade (very slowly) – “You’ll destroy this entire galaxy,” pleads the Doctor. Er, why? How? Yes, I know a fan might work it out that it's because he's stood on top of the Eye of Harmony, but for 'average' viewers, that was explained briefly 18 months ago! It’s a very confused, very rushed (inexcusable after all the padding) and very poor conclusion. It’s rather sad that the whole thing is, again, resolved by the Doctor and a big gun. Particularly a big gun whose rather nice whiteout effect has no explanation behind it, and which the Doctor has – uniquely for the series so far – designed and planned with lots of alternative equipment to hand, rather than just finding or cobbling together in desperation.

So, by the end of it, the Doctor has built the (albeit unconvincing) ultimate weapon. And he uses it, unhesitatingly. And he doesn’t even resist the temptation not to *keep* using it – that decision is made for him by a handy deus ex machina. Do we ever see the Doctor more out of character until he blows up Skaro? In retrospect, we can perhaps see the whole plot and resolution of the Key to Time as a remake of The Invasion of Time, but getting it right. Yes, the wheels still fall off a bit in the last two stories, but at least the Doctor is recognisably Doctorish and not Rambo at the end!

The Doctor, of course, then handily loses his memory. So how did he know which TARDIS room to look for his friends in? Oh, and we’re to presume that, when Borusa took the Sash off the Doctor and the Doctor let him, that was the Doctor’s resignation as President, too! At least Arnatt is good enough for us to infer Borusa’s wiles when the script fails to fill them in. Incidentally, although the Doctor may have had his own memory wiped, Rodan built the key under unconscious hypnosis and instruction from… K9. So, the dog knows how to build one! And it’s staying with Borusa. Hmm… Then all we’re left with is the worst exit for a companion since Dodo.

So, in the end, The Invasion of Time is a disappointment. There are much worse stories, but most of those have much less promise to go so wrong. I’ve really got back into watching Who stories episodically again rather than all in a lump, but cutting up some stories episode by episode (as they were intended to be watched but with the deadly ability to dwell on the dodgy bits) is clearly a killer. Worse, it’s the end that lets it down most badly, as the Doctor’s behaviour is actually more worrying than at the beginning, but it hasn’t occurred to the production team that he’s other than ‘heroic’. I liked big guns and this story when I was six. It’s difficult to be as enthusiastic about them these days, when I’m not convinced either make very good Doctor Who.

FILTER: - Television - Fourth Doctor - Series 15