Planet of FireBookmark and Share

Sunday, 14 March 2004 - Reviewed by Paul Clarke

'Planet of Fire' is decidedly odd. Writer Peter Grimwade is given numerous ingredients to incorporate into his scripts, and as in 'Mawdryn Undead' he does this rather well; whereas in that story he had to cope with the Brigadier, the Black Guardian and a new companion, here he has to write out Turlough, tie up the dangling plot thread that it Kamelion, introduce new companion Peri, and include the Master. Given these criteria, it is impressive that he manages to create a coherent plot at all; that he manages to give Turlough a decent back story and provide the Master with his best story in some time is a minor miracle. 

Turlough's final story sees his past revealed, as we discover that he is a political prisoner from Trion, exiled to Earth following a civil war. The story serves him well, and Mark Strickson puts in a fine last performance as Turlough comes to terms with his past. Initially, he's shifty and deceitful, as the TARDIS intercepts a signal from a Trion beacon; he sabotages the TARDIS, misleads the Doctor, and is more than willing to "finish" Kamelion to prevent his people from finding him. As the story progresses though, his more heroic side emerges, as he realises that Malkon is his brother and places the safety of the people of Sarn above his own continued freedom. Strickson conveys throughout the fact that Turlough is wrestling with his conscience, and it works very well; his eventually discovery that his exile has been rescinded nicely finishes off his story, as he returns home whilst, as the Doctor puts it, he's a "bit of a hero". And he is indeed, a bit of hero; after the TARDIS arrives on Sarn, he gradually accepts responsibility for the safety of its people, whose fiery planet was tamed by the Trions so that they could use it as a prison colony, and it is Turlough's understanding of the remaining Trion technology that allows him to save Malkon's life, and save the people of the settlement. His final scene, as he parts company with the Doctor, is a great moment; the quiet friendship and mutual respect between them is perfectly summed up by Turlough's reluctance to leave the Doctor, and the Doctor's quiet declaration that he'll miss him. And given that he describes Brendan School as "the worst place in the universe" it's nice to see him finally change out of that bloody uniform!

The other departing TARDIS crewmember is of course Kamelion. Having been introduced as plot contrivance in 'The King's Demons', behind the scenes difficulties with the prop meant that Kamelion did nothing except lurk unseen in the TARDIS until 'Planet of Fire'. Craig Hinton and Christopher Bulis may have made use of him since (in 'The Crystal Bucephalus' and 'Imperial Moon' respectively), but he did nothing whatsoever on screen during that time. Following on from his introduction, Kamelion is once more used as a tool of the Master, who reestablishes contact with his puppet and uses him to lure the TARDIS to Sarn. As such, Kamelion is once more used as little more than an instrument by the Doctor's old enemy, and spends most of the time played by Anthony Ainley or Dallas Adams. Kamelion gets a rough time throughout the story; it was established in 'The King's Demons' that he can't resist the Master, but circumstances on Sarn mean that he doesn't even get sympathy from the Doctor, who refers to him as a puppet and generally belittles him in an attempt to overthrow the Master's control. Eventually, the Doctor is forced to induce the equivalent of a heart attack in Kamelion in order to stop his old enemy. But to his credit, Grimwade does at least give Kamelion some characterisation of his own; the scene in Episode Two in which he desperately shakes off the Master's influence just long enough to allow Peri to escape and try to reach the Doctor shows that he is not a willing servant of the Master. His final scene is also rather tragic, as he pitifully apologizes to the Doctor and begs to be destroyed. 

With Turlough departing and Kamelion destroyed, the Doctor is provided with a new companion in the form of Peri. The lingering shot of Nicola Bryant in a bikini in Episode One leaves little doubt as to what John Nathan-Turner was looking for in the role, obviously hoping to appeal to the heterosexual male audience, but fortunately the character comes across as more than just a pair of assets. Her decision to swim ashore when her stepfather Howard leaves her trapped on the boat in Episode One is foolhardy but brave, but where she really shines is in her scenes with the Master (or rather, Kamelion as the Master), to whom she causes considerable inconvenience. Her response to the Master's "I am the Master!" is, rather amusingly, "So what? I'm Perpugilliam Brown and I can shot just as loud as you can!" and later on she interferes with his attempts to harness the numismaton gas of Sarn both by interfering with his control of Kamelion and by attempting to swat him with her shoe. The character also works well with Peter Davison's Doctor, and her decision to travel voluntarily with him at the end promises a keen and enthusiastic traveler on board the TARDIS. Which doesn't last of course, but that's another story… And Bryant's accent, famously convincing enough to fool John Nathan-Turner, is pretty good. 

The other recurring character who plays a role in 'Planet of Fire' is of course the Master. His reduced circumstances mean that here is motivation is once more survival rather than a sudden desire to tinker with the boring bits of Earth history, and it is very welcome. Without the need for ludicrous survival, his appearance (via Kamelion) at the end of Episode One, is for once very effective, since he isn't revealed to have been posing as somebody else for no apparent reason. I addition, Anthony Ainley reigns in his performance to considerable effect; bereft of constant gloating and chuckling, he's far more sinister and intimidating than he is in his usual pantomime mode. He looks utterly mad when he says to Peri "allow me to introduce the tissue compression eliminator", for once seeming like a real lunatic rather than some moustache twirling stereotype. Best of all, the relationship between the Doctor and the Master here is handled far better than usual; the Doctor's tolerance for the Master is at an all time low, as demonstrated when he tells Turlough that if he is withholding anything that will aid the Master then their friendship is at an end. Davison's performance reflects this, as he puts in a far more testy performance than usual once he discovers the Master's involvement, and as noted he takes out his dislike for the Master on poor old Kamelion. Grimwade deserves a medal for the final confrontation between the two Time Lords, as the Doctor stands and watches his old enemy seemingly burnt to a crisp without lifting a finger to help him even when he starts begging. It is exactly how the Doctor should react after the carnage unleashed during 'Logopolis' and works far better than his concern for his enemy in 'The King's Demons'. 

As for the rest of the story and characters, they are all window dressing. The background to the settlement on Sarn is adequate, if vaguely reminiscent of 'The Face of Evil', but the actual characters are largely forgettable. Malkon is only worthy of note because he's Turlough's brother. Timanov is an utter cliché, a stock religious fundamentalist who is more than happy to burn heretics; however, near-legendary Peter Wyngarde brings a certain dignity to the role, and Timanov's decision to die with his settlement seems strangely noble rather than futile. Dallas Adams switches from jovial but parental America scientist Professor Howard Foster to slightly creepy silver skinned android quite well and it's so unusually to see an actual American inDoctor Who that it deserves mentioning. 

The production is competent, if unmemorable. The Lanzarote location work looks nice, although it only really benefits episode one; Sarn quite frankly could have been filmed in a gravel pit in Surrey. There are some good sets, especially the control room in the volcano, although the Great Hall of Fire and secondary control centre for the cave look very artificial. Mind you, director Fiona Cumming performs minor wonders; a miniature Master is a potential recipe for CSO flavoured disaster, but she makes it work very well in Episode Four. And as usual, Peter Howell provides a very good incidental score. Overall, the unusual nature of 'Planet of Fire' means that it could never be a classic, but is a reasonably successful story, albeit one that feels more like an attempt by the production team to tidy up the series before Peter Davison's impending departure than a story in its own right.

The Twin DilemmaBookmark and Share

Sunday, 14 March 2004 - Reviewed by Paul Clarke

The disappointment that I feel when watching 'The Twin Dilemma' straight after 'The Caves of Androzani' must be similar to that which one would feel on having finally had sex with someone you have fancied for ages, only to discover that they have infected you with syphilis. Except that embarrassing venereal diseases are probably more fun than watching 'The Twin Dilemma'.

Before I unleash the floodgates of bile, I'll start with what I do like about 'The Twin Dilemma', which surprising as some might find it is Colin Baker's performance as the Doctor, and also Nicola Bryant's performance as Peri. Whilst I consider Colin Baker to be a decent actor, his portrayal of the Doctor on television is incredibly hammy, but it is a brand of ham that I find highly entertaining. After Peter Davison's serious, earnest portrayal of the Fifth Doctor, Baker's bombastic approach to the Sixth came as a bit of a shock to many fans at the time, and for many of those fans an unwelcome one. Personally, at the age of six-and-a-half years old, I watched in stunned disbelief as the Doctor attempted to throttle his companion, as I suddenly realised that the ever-reliable Doctor was no longer as reliable as he had once seemed. And I found the idea rather exciting. As I've grown older, this feeling has lingered to the point where I now find the Doctor's post-regenerative trauma in 'The Twin Dilemma' fascinating. The Sixth Doctor is arrogant, egotistical, bad-tempered, impatient, selfish, indignant, patronizing, and incredibly erratic. As he recovers from his regeneration, this is especially obvious; whereas previous incarnations have considered their new features with a certain lack of enthusiasm, the Sixth smugly describes his "clear brow" and "noble" gaze to Peri. He wanders about Titan 3 extravagantly bellowing poetry, cackles madly in the wardrobe, and veers between outright cowardice (such as when he cowers behind Peri when Noma and Drak threaten the pair with guns) and reckless bravado ("what's a little radiation when we have a purpose?"). 

What is particularly interesting about this manic characterisation is the effect that it has on Peri. Having nearly died during 'The Caves of Androzani' (and lest we forget, the Doctor sacrificed an incarnation to save her, although it goes unmentioned here!), she continues to suffer considerable emotional turmoil throughout the first three episodes of 'The Twin Dilemma'. Confused and frightened by the Doctor's transformation, she suddenly finds herself confronted with a travelling companion who on occasions actively bullies her, and of course briefly tries to kill her. She becomes increasingly angry and frightened as the story progresses; she is horrified by the Doctor's insistence that he become a hermit and she becomes his disciple, and she is clearly at her wits end when the Doctor drags her across Titan 3 only to cower behind her when they are threatened with guns. He belittles her constantly, uttering contemptuous comments such as "Stay behind - this is work for heroes, not faint-hearted girls!" and "Poor pusillanimous Peri! What a pitiful performance". He also nastily points out when they find the injured Hugo that had they gone back to the TARDIS as she wanted to, he would have died, accusingly telling her that "You would have left one of your own kind to die". But the point of all this is not that I take a malicious glee in seeing Peri suffer, but rather that the character benefits from it for one simple reason; she continuously tries to appeal to the better nature that she believes the Doctor still possesses, and by trying again and again she eventually succeeds. Moreover, she does not simply roll over and accept his constant verbal abuse; at the end of Episode One, she snaps, and gives as good as she gets just before Hugo wakes up. As his new persona stabilizes, she acts as a stabilizing influence; he seems to genuinely intend to let Hugo die after he threatens the Doctor in a moment of delirium, but she convinces the Doctor to help him. She also reminds him that his lack of compassion is a difference that remains between them. Above all, she remains his companion, and under pressure their previously close, or at least friendly, relationship begins to resurface; when the dome is about to explode, he stops sniping at her and explains how he plans to save them. By the end of Episode Three, his new persona has, for better or for worse, settled down, and his concern for Peri at the cliffhanger (in a horribly directed breakage of the fourth wall incidentally) is undoubtedly genuine. Two brief scenes, one in Episode One, and one in Episode Four ultimately typify their new relationship; the first is Peri's "yuck" on seeing the Doctor's new outfit, which he promptly reciprocates when given the opportunity, and the second is the final "I am the Doctor - whether you like it or not". Peri glowers in response, but as their eyes meet they both break into smiles, and it sets the new status quo; they bicker incessantly, but they are once more friends and travelling companions. And for the record, I love that coat; the horrendous clash of colours is superbly suited to the personality of the Sixth Doctor, which remains volatile and unpredictable even after he's recovered from his regeneration. And by Episode Four, he has indeed recovered; he takes charge of the situation on Jaconda and is determined to stop Mestor, whatever the cost to himself. It is also worth noting that Nicola Bryant puts in an excellent performance; as Peri is subjected to more and more abuse from the Doctor, she conveys Peri's anger and distress extremely well, proving that the emotion she showed in 'The Caves of Androzani' was no mere fluke.

Unfortunately, almost everything else about 'The Twin Dilemma' is utter codswallop. Firstly, let us examine the plot. This basically concerns Mestor's plan to kidnap the twins and use their mathematical genius to create a supernova, thus scattering his eggs throughout the universe and also providing them with the heat energy that they require in order to hatch. This plot is, in essence, bollocks. For one thing, even if causing the other planets of Jaconda's to crash into their sun would actually create a supernova it certainly would not "blow a hole in the universe". For another thing, if Gastropod eggs require such enormous heat to hatch, where did Mestor and his brood come from? They are supposedly creatures from Jacondan mythology, the Doctor hypothesizing that some dormant eggs survived. Fine, but in that case, where did they get the heat energy necessary to hatch? When Hugo tries on a jacket in the TARDIS wardrobe, he just happens to try the one in which Peri has hidden the power pack to his gun. Which also begs the question, why didn't she just hide his gun? In all fairness, this is not the most scientific implausible plot in Doctor Who, nor does it boast the most plot holes. Unfortunately however, it is one of the most tedious. The entire subplot of the safe house on Titan 3 is an exercise in prevarication, presumably to give Colin Baker time to establish himself as the Doctor, but Baker's hammy performance aside, it is all immensely dull. Even by Episode Four, with Mestor's plan revealed in its entirety, there is little sense of danger. The impression is given, presumably unintentionally, that Mestor's plan is something that he will get around to actually acting on sometime in the future, when he can be bothered; I assume his intention is actually to begin as soon as the twins' equations are completed, but there is a distinct lack of suspense or urgency to the proceedings. It doesn't help that, in Episode Four, writer Anthony Steven suddenly decides that Mestor can switch bodies and has decided that he is tired of his own, since this gives the impression that he wanted an interesting climax between the Doctor and his opponent and ended up clutching at straws. We are also presented with some of the worst filler in the series' history, in the shape of the ghastly scenes at the twins' home and in the Space Police headquarters, more on which later. 

By far the worst aspect of 'The Twin Dilemma' is the script, which contains some of the most diabolical lines in the series history. Baker's extravagant performance means that he can just about get away with lines such as "Thou craggy knob!" and "We all know the fate of alien spies", but nobody else in the story is so lucky. Lines such as "If those twins have fallen into alien hands… this is something I've always feared!", "He's right commander, it wasn't built for warp drive", and most of all "And may my bones rot for obeying it" litter the script like turds on a beach. At the end of Episode One, Hugo kindly explains why he was going to kill the Doctor with a quick run down of what he's thinking at the time. Mestor says of the twins "Take care not to blow their hearts or minds!" and he later orders Azmael to give the twins artificial respiration when he tells him that they are tired. Draw your own conclusions. 

Then there is the characterisation and acting. Maurice Denham brings a certain dignity to the role of Azmael, which is a considerable bonus given that the script portrays him as a silly old fart. Exactly why the Jacondans accepted him as leader is unclear, since for all that that the Doctor proclaims him to the finest teacher that he ever had, he misses the flaw in Mestor's plan that is almost immediately obvious to the Doctor. Having said that, the final scene between the Doctor and Azmael is quite touching, as the old man dies in his former student's arms, telling him that the time they got drunk sitting on the edge of a fountain was one of the best moments of his life. Probably didn't get out much then. Joking aside, it is a great character moment and Denham and Baker do it justice. On the subject of Azmael however, I'd be fascinated to know what he was thinking when he adopted the alias Edgeworth for no apparent reason; presumably this alias, like the safe house on Titan 3, is intended to ensure that there is no trail to Jaconda, but it seems entirely unnecessary, with even Mestor calling him Edgeworth until the Doctor reveals his true name in Episode Two. 

Kevin McNally puts in a reasonable performance as Hugo Lang, but despite the praise his performance gets from fans of 'The Twin Dilemma', the character is a bit of a nonentity. Seymour Green's performance as the Chamberlain is also often praised, but the actual character is an ill timed and poorly scripted attempt to introduce comic relief into the proceedings. It is typical of 'The Twin Dilemma' in fact that it is the several really bad performances that are the most memorable. Everyone mentions the twins, and I'm not going to prove the exception to the rule; they are really, really bad actors. They are so bad in fact that I have a horrible suspicion that John Nathan-Turner said to Eric Saward one day "Hey, I've found a pair of twins we can cast! I don't know if they can act, but let's cobble together a story around them!". Mind you, in fairness to the Conrad brothers, if I was given those costumes and those hairstyles and put in front of a camera, I wouldn't exactly be trying my best. They too are cursed with atrocious dialogue, most notably during the horribly stilted "Mother's a fool!" scene with their father. Worse perhaps than the twins however are the space police, represented here by the vastly untalented Helen Blatch's Fabian, and her timid assistant Elena, played by Dione Inman. Elena is an astonishingly vacuous character, piping up with occasional lines of tripe in support of Hugo or in mild and slightly worried looking objection to Fabian's orders to leave the twins to their fate. Edwin Richfield, returning to Doctor Who after his impressive performance as Captain Hart back in 'The Sea Devils', here gets presented with a costume that makes him look both cross-eyed and constipated simultaneously. In a voice that makes him sound like he has a mouthful of food, he bellows crap dialogue and tries to sound menacing, but the odds are frankly against him. 

So much else is wrong with 'The Twin Dilemma'. The Jacondans look stupid; avian humanoids should not be realised by giving them a beak for a nose above an obviously mammalian mouth. Orville would have made a more convincing alien. The sets are awful, horribly tacky affairs littered with day-glow plastic, and in the case of Mestor's throne room a big frog. Peter Moffatt's direction is flat an uninspired, as signposted early on by lingering shots on the twins' equations, possibly a misguided attempt to show that the designer had come up with a funky alternative to numbers. Malcolm Clarke's incidental score isn't bad in places, but it is often both too strident and thoroughly intrusive. I could go on, but frankly I've had enough; 'The Twin Dilemma' is a poor end to Season Twenty-One, and a very poor debut for Colin Baker. Unfortunately, things don't improve much with the first story of the next season…

The Mysterious PlanetBookmark and Share

Sunday, 14 March 2004 - Reviewed by Paul Clarke

'The Trial of a Time Lord' Episodes One to Four, which I'm going to refer to by the novelisation title of 'The Mysterious Planet' for ease of reference, immediately grabs the attention for several reasons. For one thing, it has a memorably impressive opening shot of the TARDIS being plucked out of time and dragged to a Time Lord space station where the Doctor is subjected to an inquiry into his activities, which soon becomes a fully-fledged trial. This opening effects sequence is often accused of using up far more than its fair share of the season's budget, which is possibly true, but it does have the benefit of immediately grabbing the viewer's attention. Unfortunately, it is preceded by Dominic Glynn's neutered arrangement of the theme tune, which is so utterly irritating that it probably persuaded some viewers to change channels before they even got to see the TARDIS being captured.

The actual idea of the trial appeals to me a great deal, and the tactic of using complete stories as evidence should theoretically prevent it from getting boring. It has been argued that the length of 'The Trial of a Time Lord' might have put off casual viewers, but this would also be true of the twelve part 'The Daleks' Master Plan', a story which is rarely subjected to the same criticism. Besides, this is not a criterion upon which I'm judging the story. The initial set-up of the trial therefore works rather well and acts as a hook; it quickly becomes clear that the Valeyard has an agenda of his own, thanks to Michael Jayston's excellent portrayal. The Valeyard positively seethes with repressed hatred throughout whenever he speaks to the Doctor, and foreknowledge of what is revealed in Episode Thirteen adds interesting significance to the sheer contempt in his voice when he tells the Doctor "smugness does not become you". The fact that the Doctor's trial is motivated by something more than spurious Time Lord justice is hinted at several times throughout 'The Mysterious Planet'; the excision of data from the evidence, something the Valeyard is expecting but that the Inquisitor is not, makes it clear that there is an underlying mystery here, and for anyone who doesn't pick up on this, the Doctor lists unanswered questions for Peri in a rather unsubtle piece of dialogue at the end of the segment. There is also the Doctor's thoughtful "so, you want me dead, do you?" to the Valeyard at the beginning of Episode Two, which is the first real suggestion that the Valeyard has personal reasons for wanting to see the Doctor prosecuted. It's all rather intriguing at this point, and sets the scene for the remainder of the trial. 

The trial scenes also work reasonable well at this stage because they are used sparingly; when the evidence is interrupted, the dynamic between the three main characters succeeds in keeping things interesting. The growing animosity between the Doctor and the Valeyard works well, thanks largely to the juxtaposition of Baker's bombastic Doctor and Jayston's icy Valeyard. The pair manages to suggest real emotion, as the two characters increasingly come to despise one another as events progress. Having said which, the Doctor's various acerbic "yard" puns on the Valeyard's title quickly grow tiresome. Linda Bellingham's aloof Inquisitor is effective enough at keeping order, although the stupid lace trimmed collar she is given to wear is a horrible piece of costume design. Which leads me neatly into 'The Mysterious Planet' proper…

Whilst I generally rather enjoyed 'The Mysterious Planet' on this viewing, I do have several criticisms of it, a few of which I'll get out of the way in one fell swoop. Firstly, it looks cheap. The location footage, something from which the series always benefits, helps to compensate, but the interiors of the huts and the corridors of Marb station look dreadful. Money clearly hasn't been spent on the costumes either; aside from Glitz and Dibber everyone is dressed in wardrobe cast-offs. The underground dwellers look especially stupid, with everyone wearing spray-painted BMX helmets, except for Balazar who wears an incredibly silly balaclava. Possibly the Immortal knitted it for him for Christmas, and he doesn't want to upset him. 

Secondly, bearing in mind that Robert Holmes is my favourite Doctor Who writer, there are several touches in 'The Mysterious Planet' that are very disappointing. The most obvious of these are Humker and Tandrell, who are presumably meant to provide comic relief, but are actually not remotely amusing (nor for that matter are the Doctor's facile puns on their names, as he calls them Handrail and Humbug amongst other things). Partly this is because Billy McColl and Sion Tudor Owen are rather wooden in their roles, but mostly it's because their scripted dialogue is weak. The only interesting aspect to the characters is that they have passed a selection process to find the brightest students from amongst a population controlled by an unseen being worshipped as a god, whom they are then sent to. It is widely believed amongst the underground dwellers that the Immortal intended to eat them, whereas in fact they effectively become his students. The point of all of this is of course that it takes the central premise of Holmes' 'The Krotons' and twists it round. 

The other rather crap aspect of the script that I find disappointing is the subject of Black Light. Holmes used technobabble throughout his Doctor Who career, but never does it feel less convincing than it does here. The only purpose that the Black Light gibberish serves is that it ups the stakes from the deaths of everyone on Ravalox to possibly the destruction of the whole universe, and it just feels forced, since all it really does is facilitate the Doctor's smug gloating to the court that his supposed interference actually saved the universe. 

Despite all of this, there is much to enjoy in 'The Mysterious Planet'. Holmes brings some nice touches to the post-apocalypse society of Ravalox, such as Balazar's pride in the Books of Knowledge, which turn out to be Moby Dick, The Water Babies, and UK Habitats of the Canadian Goose. The alternately naïve and pompous Balazar is also rather well characterised, and Adam Blackwood plays the part very well, successfully conveying Balazar's mixture of confusion and wonderment as the Doctor turns his world upside down. On the subject of characterisation, Glitz and Dibber are arguably the last real Holmesian double act, and they too are well characterised. Glitz has a real edge here; despite his considerable flamboyance, he is has no qualms about killing and is prepared to gas the underground in his pursuit of profit. He also has a string of prison sentences behind him and claims to be wanted on a dozen worlds. But the script also uses him and Dibber as comic relief, and unlike Tandrell and Humker they work well in this respect, such as when Glitz is cheerfully discussing his own social maladjustment. Unfortunately, whilst the script works well, the acting doesn't. It came as a huge disappointment to me watching 'The Mysterious Planet' again to see just how terribly stilted Tony Selby's delivery of his lines is; he sounds throughout as though he's just reading his lines throughout rather than actually acting and given my fond memories of the character this comes as quite a blow. 

Unfortunately, Selby isn't alone in the dodgy acting stakes. Joan Simms is not as bad as Katryca as her reputation would suggest, but she gets very hammy once the Tribe of the Free enter the underground, although considering that she gets lines such as "Am I to be surrounded by fools?" I suppose she isn't entirely to blame. In addition, the eighteen-month hiatus seems to have taken its toll on Nicola Bryant; she seems tired with the roll of Peri during this segment of the trial, and her accent fluctuates alarmingly in Episode One. It doesn't help that she gets very little to do here except run around in search of the Doctor. Baker's performance too has suffered; the lack of bickering between the Doctor and Peri is presumably a deliberate attempt to mellow the Sixth Doctor, but the void that is left by the lack of antagonism in his character is often filled with buffoonery. I still like him in the role, but he's a lot less commanding here than he was in Season Twenty-Two. He is, as noted, better during the actual trial scenes, although when the Doctor tells the court that he always likes to do the expected, he comes across as such an imbecile that I find myself siding with the Valeyard. 

The other major character of 'The Mysterious Planet' is of course Drathro, and although he's basically just another megalomaniac computer but on legs, I quite like him. His design is very striking, partly because of his sheer size and because of his huge sickle-shaped head, although in a certain light parts of his torso look suspiciously like cardboard. But he also works as a character, Holmes' compensating for his direct characterisation of the Immortal's assistants by making Drathro himself far more interesting. Despite his talk of logic, he's bad tempered and egotistical and it seems to me that after the destruction of his power source, he becomes increasingly desperate to justify the need for his own survival with ever-more spurious logic The Doctor's attempt to persuade Drathro to sacrifice himself so that the Doctor can save the "work units" is one of Baker's few really great scenes outside of the courtroom during these four episodes, and Drathro's stubbornness to accept the Doctor's arguments about the sanctity of organic life seems more like fear of dying without a struggle than any sort of logic. 

Nicholas Mallett competently directs 'The Mysterious Planet', and there are some nice point of view shots from the perspective of the service robot. Incidentally, although the service robot looks like the bastard love child of a Dalek and a JCB, I find it quite impressive that the production team makes it look as though its caterpillar tracks actually work, simply because it's not something I've ever seen in Doctor Who before. On the other hand, Mallett starts the trend of ending episodes with a close-up of Colin Baker's face, which increasingly seems like self-parody as the trial continues. And whilst I'm still moaning, Dominic Glynn's incidental music is very intrusive. Overall, 'The Mysterious Planet' is a promising start to the season, albeit one that is not as strong as it could, or indeed should have been.

The Mysterious PlanetBookmark and Share

Sunday, 14 March 2004 - Reviewed by Sarah Tarrant

Although there was much to enjoy principally for the fans like myself, Colin Baker’s first full season was not well received generally. As well as being unfairly deemed excessively violent (e.g. certain scenes in ‘Attack of the Cybermen’ and‘Vengeance on Varos’) the forty-five minute episodic format seemed unpopular. A rest and rethink was implanted leading to a much longer than usual eighteen month gap between seasons.

Returning in September 1986, a group of four separate adventure segments, linked by an overall fourteen episode single story entitled ‘The Trial of A Time Lord’ showed a season that certainly reflected a change of style. The opening adventure with the working title ‘The Mysterious Planet’ was the last complete four parter from highly regarded writer Robert Holmes. Having given the series such classics as ‘Caves of Androzani’, ‘The Ark In Space’ and ‘Talons of Weng-Chiang’ there are signs of his writing prowess in this segment of the Trial.

Walking through a fairly sparse leafy forest the colourfully attired sixth Doctor holds onto his trusty multicoloured umbrella, his companion, Peri, unlike previous seasons seems content to hold on his arm whilst sheltering under the umbrella. The more grown up, tasteful and stylish clothes (silver-grey slacks, gold coloured silk blouse and diagonally striped yellow blazer) and longer hair conveys a companion who has certainly developed since the previous ‘Revelation of the Daleks’ story. The interaction between her and the Doctor, as typified during their initial scenes, has also evolved which albeit being quite natural is certainly most welcome. The character of Peri has indeed developed since first appearing as virtually a screaming spoilt brat in ‘Planet of Fire’ (e.g. her scenes in that story with Professor Howard Foster).

Having located a hidden entrance the duo’s subsequent exploration inside and below ground are well handled, complemented with suitable lighting and incidental music. Of particular note is the conversation Peri has with the Doctor, following the discovery of the Marble Arch underground sign, where Peri conveys her emotions about realising that Ravolox is infact Earth. This leads to Peri’s initial reticence to explore further leading to the pair temporarily separating. For the most part I find the incidental music for this story to be mostly gloom and boom however there are a few instances where it is particularly noteworthy and memorable. One such example is the piece used whilst the Doctor initially explores the Marb station facility.

Now Robert Holmes is well known for character double acts throughout the scripts he has produced for the series and ‘The Mysterious Planet’ has certainly a few of note. First up, observing the Doctor and Peri, considering whether to kill them or not are the mercenary pair of Sabalon Glitz and his junior assistant Dibber. Tony Selby is certainly well cast as the shady trader and popular rouge, so much so that it is most welcome that he gains repeat appearances both later in the ‘Trial’ season and then again in the fairly forgettable ‘Dragonfire’ story from the following year. His assistant the fairly slow witted Dibber is less memorable although his questionable past seems to indicate that Glitz possibly freed him from a remand home for some minor criminal infringement that he perpetrated. Amongst their dialogue I was surprised to note the familiar ‘Brigadier’ phrase ‘five rounds rapid’ cropping up in the fourth episode as they clasped blasters which looked suspiciously as if they had been lifted from the ‘Red Dwarf’ series.

Assisting Drathro, the impressive looking robot controlling Marb station, are Humker and Tandrell, two prattling servants who engage in light hearted banter whilst going about their duties. Similarly dressed in scientist whites together with yellow shirts these almost identical twins seem to delight in attempting to put down each others attempts to serve Drathro and it is only the towering robotic figure that seems to keep them focused on their task. On encountering them it’s interesting to mention how the Doctor takes great pleasure throughout the story in mis-naming them (e.g. ‘Handrail and Tonker’ or ‘Humbug and Toenail’) whenever they meet. In fact the Doctor’s naturally upbeat humorous interaction with, in particular the inhabitants of Marb station is most enjoyable.

There is also a less subtle pairing between Marb Station’s patrol Chief Guard, Merdeen (marking the welcome return of Tom Chadbon (formerly seen in Tom Baker’s ‘City of Death’ story) and his deputy Grell. We are presented with a memorable scene between these two when Grell questions Merdeen’s motives and loyalty to Drathro. This eventually leads to the death of the young deputy and as Merdeen kneels over his fallen comrade he emotionally expresses his regrets in being forced to kill him and how he had originally helped him to join the guards. Whilst Timothy Walker’s Grell is decked out in the usual red and yellow guard’s uniform topped off with the often used helmets (e.g. cropping up in ‘Earthshock’ and ‘Delta and the Bannermen’) Merdeen, dressed in scaly black with a close fitting closefitting skull cap really conveys the appearance of an cold emotionless character in the service of Drathro which is largely confirmed during the story.

Living up on the surface we encounter ‘The Tribe of the Free’, a primitive but proud people apparently eking out an existence from the land around them, or so we are led to believe. I’m sorry but judging by the spotless nature of their albeit authentic looking clothes I find it difficult to grasp that these people are struggling to survive. Maybe if they had been a little bit more dirty with mud splattered costumes and faces I might have been convinced. We then come to the leader, Queen Katryca as portrayed by noted comedy actress, the late Joan Sims. Now I know it’s great to get big name stars to play parts they would not normally be associated with but despite Joan’s best efforts I remain unconvinced that she is the great ruler that she claims. The costume and the regal way in which she carries herself whether it be in her initial open air meeting with Sabalon Glitz or inside the great hall of their settlement certainly help but in the final analysis I remain, ultimately, unconvinced. As a final word on the Tribe’s Queen her ultimate demise, together with one of her closest advisers, Broken Tooth, at the hands of Drathro is, I feel is, despite being fairly brief, well handled.

As I’ve said before I am most impressed with the costume for Drathro, a marvellous creation which allows great flexibility of movement, however his wide horn shaped head is frankly a bit of a disappointing letdown. Drathro, clearly unwilling to venture out from his surveillance fortress, despatches an L3 robot in his attempt to recapture the Doctor. The L3, an obelisk shaped object mounted on twin caterpillar tracks equipped with top mounted video relay equipment seemed to present limited offensive capability (namely running into things). However I was pleasantly surprised when having located the Doctor, locked up in one of Katrica’s primitive cell buildings, unleashed electrically charged cables from it’s sides to incapacitate and then secure him ready for return to Drathro. 

The subsequent rescue leads to another pleasing nod to the past, whether it be merely for fans or general viewers it is most welcome. With just the right amount of nasal inflection Colin Baker gives a fair interpretation of Jon Pertwee when, regaining consciousness at the base of the inert L3 robot, he says to Peri ‘My head hurts abominably Sarah Jane’. This follows nicely on from the previous season’s ‘Timelash’ stories appearance of a painting of the former Doctor. I also felt that the interaction between Drathro and the Doctor in the fourth episode was slightly reminiscent of Sarah Jane Smith’s persuasive conversation with the Giant Robot in Tom Baker’s debut.

Now with this particular adventure being part of the overall Trial story I should make some comment on those linking scenes. Well, yes the first scene where the TARDIS is dragged down to the space station and into the docking port is indeed impressive, certainly for the time it was made. I particularly like the slightly revised theme tune which I am delighted to say is currently being used by Big Finish in their Sixth Doctor releases. I feel Colin Baker did show potential in the television series and it is certainly heartening to find this vindicated in their releases. The way he stumbles out of the TARDIS, uncertain, how he got there, where here was and why Peri was missing does give way to a familiar sense of irritation on his first entering the Trial room and encountering the people he meets there. His interaction with the Valeyard (Michael Jayston) and the Inquisitor (Lynda Bellingham playing it very posh and upmarket) is typical of his character. I counted five mispronunciations of the Valeyard’s title spread throughout the story (episode two gave us ‘boatyard’ and ‘graveyard’, episode three weighed in with ‘farmyard’ and ‘scrapyard’ whilst episode four featured ‘knackersyard’). The final mispronunciation, that of ‘knackersyard’ was in amongst a particularly memorable blustering outburst directed mainly towards the Valeyard. This was entirely typical of this incarnation of the Time Lord but of course there was much more to come to raise his emotions higher in the subsequent segments of the trial…

In summing up ‘The Mysterious Planet’ whilst not obviously reaching the classic status of some of Robert Holmes’ previous stories does stand up fairly well on repeat viewings. Although obviously conveying a distinct change in style from the preceding years stories it is an enjoyable and welcome opening four episodes of what was, at the time, an important season for the series.

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Sunday, 14 March 2004 - Reviewed by Paul Clarke

After the ghastly 'Mindwarp, 'The Trial of a Time Lord' continues with a story commonly known as 'Terror of the Vervoids', by 'The Mark of the Rani' scribes Pip and Jane Baker. I must confess that, my mood considerably soured by the preceding four episodes, I was expecting to vent further spleen on 'Terror of the Vervoids', but although it is somewhat flawed, I nevertheless found it hugely entertaining on this occasion; for all of its faults, 'Terror of the Vervoids' is essentially fun.

Before I start on the story proper, I'll again consider the actual courtroom scenes. Here, they are once more rather less intrusive than in Episodes Five to Eight, and despite the Doctor's continued grief at Peri's apparent death, the mood is lightened somewhat as the ball enters the Doctor's court. It is often argued that the idea of the Doctor presenting evidence from his own future is nonsensical, although this is not strictly true; it is established back in 'Genesis of the Daleks' that the Time Lord's can make predictions of possible future timelines, and in retrospect the Matrix seems to be the most obvious tool for them to use. Thus, it is consistent with what we know about Time Lord technology that the Doctor could present evidence from his own possible future, even if he were to be executed at the end of his trial. Speaking of which, foreknowledge of what is to come adds rather deeper meaning to the Valeyard's line, "The future? Is it going to be the Doctor's defense that he improves? This I must see!"

In terms of the overall subplots seeded throughout 'The Trial of a Time Lord', 'Terror of the Vervoids' contributes rather less than its predecessors, although the fact that the evidence has been altered since the Doctor reviewed it whilst preparing his defense makes it even clearer that the Matrix has been tampered with. Ultimately of course, the greatest contribution of 'Terror of the Vervoids' to the trial is the fact that it causes the charge against the Doctor to be changed. I find it rather amusing that the Doctor is ham-fisted enough to provide evidence of himself committing genocide to an opponent as obviously keen to see him dead as the Valeyard is, although this bit really is nonsensical; since these events haven't happened yet, why doesn't he just promise to find an alternative solution to the Vervoid problem when he eventually encounters them?

And so on to the story itself. 'Terror of the Vervoids' suffers from several faults. For one thing, the direction by Chris Clough is competent for the most part, but let down by a few really poor moments, such as when the trainers worn by the actors playing the Vervoids become visible twice in Episode Twelve. The effects sequences used to depict the Black Hole of Tartarus are really bad, showing as they do a black hole picked out in bright red triangles; these sequences look even worse when the model of the Hyperion III is placed in them, as neither the shot nor the script provides a sense of perspective. Anyone with even the most basic knowledge of physics must surely realize how far away from the black hole the Hyperion III must actually be in order to pass near it in safety, but here it looks as though as it is literally missing it by a few feet. And yes, I know this probably wouldn't bother me if I weren't a scientist, but I am and it does. Whilst I'm on the subject of poor direction, the close-up of the Doctor's face at the end of Episode Ten is taking the piss even in the midst of Season Twenty-Three; provided with the more sensible option of keeping the camera on Ruth Baxter's face, Clough instead directs the camera straight up Baker's nose. 

In addition to these minor niggles with the direction, 'Terror of the Vervoids' has what might be generously termed eccentric scripting. The Bakers are notorious for overblown dialogue, and here it is evident throughout. The most memorable examples of appalling dialogue are delivered by Commodore Travers and include "On the previous occasion that the Doctor's path crossed mine, I found myself involved in a web of mayhem and intrigue" and of course the immortal "Whoever's been dumped in there has been pulverized into fragments and sent floating into space, and in my book that's murder!", as well as the less celebrated "Fire alarms are not playthings for irresponsible buffoons". Whilst I'm on the subject of eccentric scripting, there is a scene in Episode Nine which seems intended purely to establish that Professor Lasky is a bit of a battle axe, as she grills Janet the stewardess about her lost luggage. It transpires that she entered cabin six by mistake, when she should have entered cabin nine, because she was looking at her key ring upside down. The scene demonstrates that Lasky is short-tempered and quick to place blame on others, but more than this it ends up raising the question of why the Hyperion III has lockable cabin doors if the keys are interchangeable…

But despite these flaws, 'Terror of the Vervoids' is very entertaining. It is hugely derivative, inviting comparisons with the base-under-siege stories beloved of the Troughton era and of course 'The Robots of Death' to which it bears several similarities in terms of plot, and of course it is a blatant homage to Agatha Christie's Murder On the Orient Express, a copy of which Lasky reads at one point. This scene in fact typifies the slightly tongue-in-cheek approach that the Bakers take in their script, although this is far less obvious than in 'The Mark of the Rani'. As in their earlier stories, the Bakers seem to enjoy making use of the Doctor Who format, combining the elements of a traditional monster story with the cliché of a scheming megalomaniac (albeit one who is more banal than many in the series), all wrapped up in a fairly effective whodunit subplot. There is a certain knowing humour inherent in the story; the boots left by Hallet are clearly planted to suggest that the missing passenger has been thrown into the pulveriser, and it's so blindingly obvious that the Bakers have to be poking fun at the format of murder mystery stories. By the end of Episode Eleven and throughout Episode Twelve, numerous plot threads mature and within the space of about twenty-five minutes we are presented with two hijack attempts with entirely different motivations, the unmasking of a murderer, and the defeat of the obligatory monsters. It borders on the ludicrous, but it works because the script has a certain verve that belies its pompous and overblown dialogue. 

As for the murder mystery itself, it is effectively handled; Malcolm Tierney's Doland is motivated by a desire to achieve financial glory by exploiting the Vervoids, which despite the science fiction trappings is a believably petty motivation. He shows no remorse whatsoever and keeps on killing victim after victim to protect his own interests, but whilst he's a clearly a psychopath, Tierney's quiet, banal performance makes Doland far more realistic than many of the raving lunatics seen inDoctor Who. In the style of such writers as Agatha Christie and Ruth Rendell, all of the clues as to the identity of the killer are available to the viewer, making it easier and easier to work out who the murderer is as the story progresses. Indeed, the death of Hallet deliberately makes an example of the fact that clues are on screen for the attentive viewer to spot, as the Doctor smugly points out to the Valeyard; as a story point it is a nice detail which shows off the Doctor's deductive abilities (I confess I don't recall spotting the translator clue when this story was first broadcast, although I was only nine years old at the time…), but it also gently plays with the whodunit format. 

'Terror of the Vervoids' also benefits from decent characterisation. In part, this is a requirement of the format, as characters are given enough background to provide a number of suspects; David Allister's highly strung Bruchner is one such character, and eventually turns out not to be the murderer, but to be sufficiently horrified by the thought of the Vervoids reaching Earth to not only attempt suicide but to take everyone on board the Hyperion III with him. Of the other two scientists, I've already discussed Doland, but Honor Blackman is perfectly cast as the grouchy Professor Lasky, her initially foul tempered demeanor making her growing respect for the Doctor all the more effective. Meanwhile, Denys Hawthorne also puts in a good performance as Rudge, yet another potential suspect who turns out to have (or rather, develops) his own agenda, as the put-upon security guard decides to get some pay back for years of humiliation at the hands of his superiors. Both the script and Hawthorne effectively suggest that this perceived poor treatment is largely in Rudge's own insecure mind, and the Doctor's final dismissal of him as "just a little man" is cruelly ironic. The Mogarians, Rudge's fellow hijackers, are also potential murder suspects, as they continuously object to the exploitation of their planet's resources by humanity. And whilst I'm on the subject of the Mogarians, it is nice to see an alien race that doesn't speak English for once. 

Even those characters that never seem like potential suspects are well acted and characterised; Arthur Hewlett's Kimber serves primarily to necessitate Hallet changing his plans and adopting the guise of Enzu, but the few scenes that he is in are enough to render him sufficiently likeable that his death has some impact. As for the Commodore, Michael Craig does a frankly astonishing job of maintaining the character's dignity in light of the mouthfuls of awful dialogue that he is given, and the character's previous experience of the Doctor makes for an often amusing relationship between the two, that also showcases some painful insights into how the Doctor is often perceived, Travers noting that people tend to start to die whenever the Doctor is present. 

Such characterisation adds significantly to the air of intrigue that permeates Episode Nine, as questions are raised for the viewer about the pods, the Isolation Room, and Grenville's suspicious behaviour. Mention of the pods brings me to the Vervoids themselves. Whilst they are often derided for having heads that resemble female genitalia, as an attempt to create a hostile plant they really aren't bad. Whilst 'The Seeds of Doom' is rightly acclaimed as a classic by many fans, even the Krynoid looks dodgy at times, highlighting the fact that creating monstrous vegetation is no easy task. The Vervoids are well designed if a little rubbery in execution, and in terms of the story their instinctive antipathy towards all animal life makes a peaceful solution possible; the result is a rare attempt for the Sixth Doctor's era at a real monster story, and it is more than welcome. In addition, the means by which the Vervoids are defeated is rather ingenious, even if it is dependent on technobabble. 

Finally, there are the regulars. In keeping with his desire to prove to the court that he improves, the Sixth Doctor of the future is far more playful and whimsical than usual, and it works very well. Lines such as "More of a clown actually. Would you like to hear my rendering of "On With the Motley?" ", "This is a situation that requires tact and finesse. Fortunately, I am blessed with both" and "Wish I could get rid of my waste so easily" shows a more self-deprecating side to often arrogant Sixth Doctor, in part due to Baker's warmer delivery. In addition to this, his relationship with new companion Mel contrasts nicely with his often-spiky relationship with Peri, the pair indulging in much light-hearted banter and seeming genuinely close. It is hard to imagine Peri managing to persuade the Sixth Doctor to use an exercise bike for example, but it seems perfectly natural that Mel can do so. As for Mel herself, she is one of the least popular companions to appear in the series, but personally I rather like her. Both Bonnie Langford and Mel the character exude tremendous enthusiasm, and it's refreshing to see the Doctor accompanied by someone who is obviously enjoying the ride. True, Langford (and by extension Mel) can be too chirpy to he point that she becomes annoying, but the character's essential bravery and resourcefulness, coupled with an inquiring mind and tremendous curiosity, mean that she's ideal companion material. 

In summary then, 'Terror of the Vervoids' sees an improvement in the fortunes of 'The Trial of a Time Lord', and if nothing else is very entertaining. It also serves as a well-timed rest from the courtroom proceedings, which are less intrusive here, after the various issues that were raised during 'Mindwarp' and before all is revealed in the story's denouement…

Greatest Show in the GalaxyBookmark and Share

Sunday, 14 March 2004 - Reviewed by Sarah Tarrant

With a new series about a 1940’s circus entitled ‘Carnivale’ currently airing in America at present, consistently gaining favourable ratings and reviews now seemed like a good opportunity prior to this series eventual arrival here in the UK some time in 2004 to re-evaluate a story possibly similar to a slight degree in style that was used to close out the twenty-fifth anniversary season.

After all these years this modestly titled story still has the same magical atmosphere conveyed by the characters, costumes, plot and incidental music that captivated me when it was originally transmitted. This might be surprising that it succeeds so well in its objective to entertain when you remember that the recording of this story was disrupted due to an asbestos scare at the BBC TV Centre resulting in the use of tents being erected in the Centre’s car park. Despite this, rather than detract from the production, I felt that the use of tents further added to the magic of the Circus interior.

It stars off harmlessly enough with the invitation to visit the Psychic Circus on the planet Segonax. The light hearted appeal of this tourist attraction conveyed by the ‘junk mail advertisement’ transmitted onto the TARDIS console screen by the little robotic device clearly wins over the Doctor. In particular he expresses an interest in entering the Circus talent contest though thankfully we are not treated, once again, to his spoon playing as featured in the largely forgettable (apart from enjoyable establishing seventh Doctor persona and costume change scenes) ‘Time and the Rani’. However, as is so often the case the reality is quite unlike the glossy advertising, something similar to the enjoyable ‘Paradise Towers’ story. Instead of lush green countryside they find on arrival that Segonax is an arid dustbowl.

Although, as we later discover there is a malevolent entity at work deep below where the Psychic Circus has pitched its tents I find that the stories characters can effectively be broken down into three distinct groups. The first group of three characters are clearly under the control of the entity of which appears to be, from what we learn during the story, the remaining members of the original eight people who initially ran the Circus presumably prior to their arrival on Segonax.

The towering figure of Ian Riddington’s Chief Clown decked out in silver fabriced clowns outfit, neck and wrist frills topped off with pointed hat is clearly the main protagonist of the story. Even in the early scenes with his clown finery covered by undertakers coat and hat, riding in the old fashioned hearse (equipped with the latest scanning equipment) the prevalent ghostly white face flecked with the occasional black brush strokes and traditional clown’s red lips convey a sense of cruel intent. It is therefore understandable that Ace finds clowns creepy if they are all like this person! Although this Chief Clown character conveys a public friendly, laughing persona, his real evil personality and objectives are never far from the surface. This is never more evident when he later temporarily halts Ace’s attempt to leave the Circus arena, hungry to know where she found the circular spiral patterned earring pinned to her jacket.

Ricco Ross’s Ringmaster character is a streetwise American (possibly with a New York accent) who puts in an entertaining rap act into his introducing acts. The third key member of the Circus team, Morgana (played by Deborah Manship) is clothed as a typical circus gypsy, telling fortunes through crystal ball readings and tarot cards in addition to supposedly selling tickets. Although they seem to have fairly equal status in the running of the circus it is clear that the Chief Clown sees himself superior to the these other two, especially bearing in mind that he is in charge of the Circus’s contingent of robot Clowns.

Our second group includes the rebellious young couple whom we see at the start of the story, frantically running across the barren sandy landscape of Segonax. Bellboy and Flowerchild are heading towards an ancient disused bus located some distance from the Psychic Circus. With it decked out in hippy graffiti it is puzzling to wonder about the history of this vehicle and why it is so far away from the site of the Circus. We later hear about former colleagues Peacepipe and Juniper Berry who had some connection to the Circus but had died under mysterious circumstances presumably in the Circus ring. As to why both Bellboy and Flowerchild had discovered what was going on and made the decision to escape that is something we can only guess at. It also becomes clear that each member of the Circus staff has a specific skill, for Bellboy this is being a skilled robotic engineer. Clearly his absence from the Circus cannot be tolerated hence the pursuit instigated by the Chief Clown utilising Flowerchild’s yellow and blue coloured kites which all bear a menacing eye motif in the centre. This symbol crops up throughout the story, in Morgana’s crystal ball, the artefact guarded by the robotic conductor at the bus and at the bottom of a deep well located under the site of the Circus.

On Bellboy’s eventual capture and return to the ring we learn that he has some resistance to whatever evil pervades the Circus ring which no doubt must have come as a frustratingly unexpected annoyance to the resident trio. Having remained resilient to the effects of the force in the ring he is taken away and tied up whilst they consider what next to do with the wayward, but clearly essential, robotic engineer.

The scenes where Bellboy (played well by Christopher Guard) is a nervous prisoner interacting with Ace are extremely memorable. The first scene opens with Ace, having been captured by the Chief Clown, being thrown into the darkened environment filled with many inert robotic clown figures in various states of dress. Then, suddenly they slowly start to move threateningly towards her. The tension of the scene is sustained for the sufficient amount of time before finally dissipated just as they are closing in for the kill by Bellboy. This leads to the conversation she has with the nervous robot maker which fills in most of the background to the Circus. Also memorable is the later scene where Bellboy, realising there is no escape and finding he has no alternative, sets his own creations on himself. As he dies by their hands the cruel upward tilt of the hand combined with a sick smile further enforces the Chief Clown’s cold unfeeling personality.

The third member of this rebel group, had however not been as fortunate in his attempts to escape. Now reduced to little more than a gibbering idiot the aptly named Deadbeat conveys the aspect of a drugged 60’s hippy fit only for sweeping up the Circus. We later learn that the malevolent force had, finding him to be the most dangerous of those working at the Circus, wiped his memory, stored it on an eye component and rather than destroy it had elected to store it on the bus, stationing a robotic conductor there to guard it. It is puzzling why they did not simply destroy this and leave him mindless but the reasoning behind this is something more to ponder over. Maybe this component had other latent powers and was constructed of a material impervious to attack. Regaining this persons memory and his real identity (an impressive character transformation for actor Chris Jury), that of Kingpin (possibly once the Circus manager) his role in relationship to the eye component was a key element in defeating the evil entity of the story.

The third group are the visiting tourists and they are certainly an interesting bunch with some having colourful backgrounds. This however cannot be attributed to the loud uncouth figure of ‘Nord the Vandal’. Wearing a helmet with large bat wings sitting astride a noisy three wheel yellow coloured motorbike equipped with Viking horns he portrays the archetypical ‘Hells Angel’ figure. Whilst, as we later discover, possessing great strength, his intelligence does not rate that highly. Gian Sammarco’s inclusion as an annoying fresh faced clean cut ‘Whizkid’ character could possibly be detrimental to the story as most casual viewers seem to, inaccurately, attribute most ardent Doctor Who fans to fit this persona. However in the context of the story it seems suitable as the Psychic Circus had gained quite a favourable reputation up to this point. Additionally his inclusion was fairly brief and there is possibly a sense of satisfaction to viewers when he later meets his end in the circus ring.

The pairing of intergalactic explorer Captain Cook and his travelling companion, the mysterious Mags were the most welcome characters from this story. Noted actor T.P. McKenna makes a welcome appearance as the well travelled figure decked out in pith helmet, khaki shirt and shorts who seems, in my opinion, to have an almost unhealthy addiction to drinking tea. As a ‘crushing bore’, relating tales of his many and varied explorations he also has a keen interest in his own survival over all others. His companion Mags (played by comedy actress Jessica Martin) has a much more checked and mysterious past. Appearing humanoid in appearance, her long black hair contains faint streaks of green and, wearing a black vamp-type outfit, she appears ill at ease, which later we find, is with good reason. Exposure to the moonlight causes her to transform into an uncontrollable snarling beast complete with claws and fangs. Most notably this is used by the Captain as a way of attacking the Doctor later in the story. Apparently, for some reason, the Captain rescued Mags from the planet Volpana where she was about to be shot, with a silver bullet, by the locals.

When the Doctor and Ace do eventually make their way up to the Circus (a classic establishing shot of the large dark blue and red tented structure set against a light coloured empty sky broken only by a large giant ringed planet) they find only three individuals in the stalls sitting around the main circus ring. These figures, masquerading as a typical family group (Mother, Father and Child) are infact manifestations of the evil that is controlling the circus.

Having, as it were, eventually got to the bottom of things in the fourth episode, through an imaginative temporal corridor the Doctor emerges into a sandy covered ring. As he gets to his feet, turning away from the high walled surround, he looks up and proclaims without any sense of surprise ‘The Gods of Ragnarok’ on seeing the three stone figures seated in a raised area similar to that which might be found in a Roman arena to house the ruling classes who watched Gladiatorial combat. It is here that these beings instruct him to entertain them, to which he replies ‘You ain’t seen nothing yet’ which seemed, I felt, rather reminiscent of the slightly overweight American comic W.C. Fields. Now Sylvester McCoy, the consummate entertainer, seems well suited to performing the magic tricks that blend seamlessly from one to the other. It brings to mind his brief crooning in this season’s earlier, fairly average ‘Happiness Patrol’ story. With a casual manner he drifts through seemingly simple rope tricks, rope into circular container, candle lit by second hand, sets light to circular pan, places lid to extinguish fire, opens again to find snake, turns snake into umbrella before using said umbrella to shield himself from the rain instigated by the Ragnarok Gods.

There is one character who does not fit into the three distinct groups whom I haven’t mentioned yet but her brief performance although welcome is not central to the plot. As a wandering native Stallslady well known comedy actress Peggy Mount conveys the locals resentment of the Circus admirably. Her contempt for the Circus people and any tourists planning to visit the attraction is conveyed well. Even the Doctor has a tough challenge on his hands in pacifying her distain towards himself and Ace despite some of the amount of clearly foul produce which she is attempting to sell from the back of her horse pulled stall.

Another classic moment of the story that I recall is when, with the Ragnarok Gods ultimately defeated and the Circus about to blow up, McCoy calmly and resolutely walks away from the explosion. The manner of his measured departure from the scene coupled with his use of his question mark umbrella as a walking stick is certainly reminiscent of William Hartnell which can only be in McCoy and the series’ favour at a time when the shows future was far from certain. Obviously each actor who comes takes the part of the Doctor brings something to the part as well as drawing on previous incarnations. Although I agree with something ‘the Brigadier’ said (‘Splendid fellows, all of them’) with Sylvester you can certainly see a closer similarity to the late, great, Patrick Troughton without whose impressive relaunch of the series in 1966 would have meant the series might have concluded way back then.

It certainly seems that the Circus is gaining a resurgence of interest at the moment. I’ve already made a passing mention to the ‘Carnivale’ series currently airing at the moment, but let us not forget pop/rock group Debbie Harry’s Blonde featured a circus in their rather bizarre video for their recent song ‘Good Boys’. Personally the Circus is not really my entertainment taste, the cruelty to animals aspect I guess but of course there are ‘animal free’ circus but it all seems a rather low tec form of entertainment in this twenty-first century. Having said that ‘The Greatest Show In The Galaxy’ is an entertaining spin on this form of live entertainment with an alien planet/lifeform twist which certainly works in its favour. At the core of this story is an engaging plot told well and I can certainly heartily recommend it for anyone looking for an enjoyable form of escapist cult television entertainment.