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Saturday, 4 September 2004 - Reviewed by Joe Ford

One of the most frustrating things about being a Doctor Who (aside from looking at your feet in shame as the cashier glares at you for being so sad) is the quality of the stories on offer. 60% of the show is solid, dependable, damn right watchable. It has flaws certainly but overcomes them on the strength of imaginative ideas, engaging performances and good writing. Unfortunately 20% of the show is also utter garbage, the downtrodden stories that leave a bad taste in the mouth because they are so embarrassingly awful (c’mon you all know which stories you HATE). And finally there is the last 20%, the stories that are so beautifully crafted, so well told, terrifically made and acted television, let alone Doctor Who.

Frontios without a shadow of a doubt falls under that last category. It is only frustrating because it highlights so many of the faults of the Davison era by being so utterly wonderful. 

I have to be honest with you, season 21 needed Frontios. The last four stories had been absolute turkeys (in my eyes) and I was seriously considering dumping the Davison videos and ignoring the new ones that came out. But good ol’ Frontios changed all that, it redefined what 80’s Doctor Who could achieve, what Davison could achieve and reminded me that JNT actually did understand what a fan like me wanted.

I’ll start with the most awkward appraisal; Peter Davison is perfect in the role during this story. Every aspect of his performance glows with class; you can see just how much he is enjoying the stronger writing Chris Bidmead gives him. There is an undercurrent of all the other Doctors in his performance here, Hartnell’s gruff authority (“Well jolly good now you can rip them down again!”), Troughton’s mischievous plotting (when he defeats the Gravis with his childish sulk “Oh no Gravis please spare me the TARDIS!”), Pertwee’s man of action (rushing to the aid of the sick) and Tom Baker’s intense curiosity. And yet he manages to wrap all these personas around his own boyish, vulnerable Doctor and turn it into something special. The excellent dialogue and characterisation points him in the right direction but mostly the good work is Davison’s, he is a breathlessly heroic man, sharp, intelligent and suitably harsh on his companions. I love his half moon spectacles, they add years to the guy and make you forget he is just a 30-odd guy pretending to be centuries older. And I love how he keeps telling people not to tell the Time Lords they have been there, a touching reminder of days gone by when the Doctor was in constant fear of his people. It is certainly his best ever performance (although Caves with its desperate portrayal of a man on the run comes startlingly close) and wins out on the sheer strength he imbues him with, not physically but just pure, solid screen presence. Like Colin Baker, he demands you watch him as well as the story. Very, very impressive.

Next up for re-evaluation are despicable companions Tegan and Turlough. As soon as Frontios was completed and aired JNT should have sacked Eric Saward and tried, no begged Christopher Bidmead to come back. He understands how to write for difficult characters, he has a good grasp on how to use them effectively in his dramas. My major gripe with this pair is how useless they were. The Kings Demons, Warriors of the Deep, The Awakening, The Five Doctors, Ressurection of the Daleks…they don’t do anything! It just isn’t a joke, I know the companions are supposed to be peripheral, to be an opportunity to branch out the story but Christ, don’t just have them parading corridors, screaming and slipping into the background in favour of blander supporting characters. 

Go listen to the Earthshock DVD commentary and see how witty and fun Janet Fielding is. What a revelation that was for me! This is a woman with natural charisma and she rarely got a chance to show it on screen. In Frontios Tegan is quiet, controlled and wonderful to watch. The opening scene where she is intrigued, no desperate to find out what happens to her people (nudged on by Turlough’s sarcastic snippets of information) is remarkable, Tegan isn’t griping or moaning, she is finally a audience friendly character because she is as curious as we are. A good sign. As the story continues she remains resourceful, obeying the Doctor when he sends her to the TARDIS for supplies, risking herself by stealing the battery from the Colony Ship, running after the Doctor when he is surround by the Gravis. It is a real eye opener for me every time I watch this story; she is genuinely wonderful, her investigating into ‘deaths unaccountable’, her stunned reaction to Plantagenant being ‘eaten by the Earth’ and her (for once) amazing chemistry with Davison. Plus with no TARDIS anymore we are spared any “Can’t we go back to the TARDIS?”

Turlough is even luckier though and his character undergoes a MAJOR face-lift. No longer is he the dutiful houseboy, the role forced on him after his ‘decision’ to stay with the Doctor at the end of Enlightenment, nope here he is how he should have always been, loud, cowardly, mouthy and really sarcastic. Mark Strickston is an odd actor for sure, sometimes I am really in the mood for his melodramatic antics and others I find it a terrible bore. He gets the mood just right in Frontios, managing to get across the horror of his race memory without going too far over the top. A few moments (“An infffeccction!”) cross the line but Turlough is terrified and Mark plays it as such, panting furiously and with gob flying from his mouth. Slower, more reflective moments for the guy work better (“Eaten by the Earth…”, “Of course not…I’m Turlough”) and his fantastic straightening of his tie before they leave in the TARDIS as if to say our work is done here, is marvellous. It is always nice to get a bit of history about the companions, it worked with Ace but is just as haunting with Turlough especially as it enhances the drama, making us more scared of the Tractators.

The script is one of my favourites in the shows twenty-six year run. It has a perfectly crafted first episode, a compelling mystery that is presented in the most vivid of ways. Frontios, the dying world, its colony falling to pieces, battered by the unknown aggressors. What a lovely, simple idea for a story. As you reach the end of episode two Bidmead slips in some detail about the colony and gives us glimpses of the horrors underground. Episode three doesn’t waste any time, Turlough is put on trial, the fight is taken to the Tractators and the Doctor and Tegan see just what the monsters are capable of in a hideously perfect cliff-hanger. Get inside the Gravis’ head in episode four in time for the Doctor to defeat him in a spectacularly embarrassing way for the creature. Perfect. The story has a good pace, never forgetting that we want some action to balance all the exposition. 

I really appreciate how much work Bidmead puts into the worlds he creates. So many Doctor Who worlds are just generic Star trek rip offs and loaded with cheesy SF clichés but the Bidmead penned planets seem to take on a personality of their own. Frontios is harsh, uncompromising, angry and bitter. Stay there for any length of time and you will be caught in a shower of deadly bombardments, attacked by a ravaging horde of retrogrades, have your motives questioned by the locals and sucked in the ground and slaved to a driving machine that turns the planet into spaceship of sorts. There is a threat of death on Frontios, the planet with dark, rippling undercurrents that will gobble you up if you let it consume you. 

Details are important and Bidmead ensures the planet isn’t just conspiracies and monsters; there is a very human element to the show that makes survival on this planet all-important. The sight of people bleeding to death as soon as the crew leave the TARDIS is telling and the bodies draped in the shadowy laboratory one of the most vivid in the shows history. It is great the way Bidmead shows us how everybody is coping with the situation, Brazen with his hard-nosed authority, Plantagenant sulking in his fathers’ shadow, Range desperate to help the sick, Norna staying close to her Dad, Cockerel bored to death and eager for a chance to join the retrogrades…like Paradise Towers later this has that palpable feeling of lost hope which makes the last, uplifting few minutes all the better.

It is an extremely adult drama with some strong scenes. Cockerel being attacked by the ‘Rets’ and screaming out for help as he is sucked into the Earth, blood pouring from his nose is extremely discomforting. The Rets attacking the colony ship, advancing on the unknowing Norna and later her pained response to their raid “This isn’t the way to do it!” is very powerful. And the sight of Captain Revere implanted into the mining machine will stay with me forever, his sightless glare at the camera gives me the willies even now. 

Production values are good and for once the right story has had the right amount of money poured into it. One shot, the matte painting for the wreck of the colony ship is gorgeous, girders collapsing in shocking blue moonlight, it is an awesome sight and provides the show with some real scope. The surface of the planet is obviously a studio but the blood red lighting, the rock spitting from the earth and the split level shots all help to make it as discomforting as possible. People have difficulties with the Tractators and it is true that they aren’t very nimble, lacking in believable movement but they look horrible. Horribly veiny eyes and with pulsating antennae, they must rank as one of the most icky baddies ever standing head and shoulders with the Zygons and the Haemovores. And the ideas behind them are so nasty, attacking like cowards, using natural resources to bombard the planet, stealing corpses to drive their machines, locking people up in those metal balls…eugh. Horrible.

One of the most important aspects of a Doctor Who story is the music and this story has a near perfect score. It truly compliments the drama, especially the soft wind pipe music that is played over shots of the wounded in episode one, the subtle melody contrasting wildly to the horror on display. As the fight against the Tractators begins the music gets more bombastic and the end of episode two and three delight with really exciting ‘see ya next week!’ music. 

Is there anything bad about Frontios? Peter Gilmore is bit wooden as Brazen but he’s mostly fine. Anyway most of these butch military types do and to be a bit stiff and bland don’t they? Certain lines “this information about the status quo!” are bafflingly pronounced.

But the wealth of marvellous performances elsewhere swamp the one poor one. The delectable Lesley Dunlop shows up and is as gorgeous as ever. Oh and she gives a good performance too, she imbues Norna with some curiosity and sensibilities which would have made her a good companion (why not JNT?). Plantagenant is played with the right degree of hopelessness, all about politics (“No I must stay here with my people!”). No wonder nothing ever gets solved! And you love Range from the word go, he is helpful and charming in the way that way only doddery scientists can be.

Recently I had the nerve to score Revenge of the Cybermen zero out of ten and felt perfectly justified in doing so. I also feel perfectly justified in scoring Frontios, the best Davison story by a square mile, ten out of ten. On its strength of acting, writing, music and set design (oh and of course direction) it is a shockingly good piece of television that holds up superbly even today.

It is so good it makes me weep to wonder what delights we could have had (and what horrors we could have been spared of) had Bidmead stayed on.

FILTER: - Television - Series 21 - Fifth Doctor

FrontiosBookmark and Share

Saturday, 4 September 2004 - Reviewed by Paul Clarke

Having previously scripted the dire 'Logopolis' and the variable 'Castrovalva', former script editor Christopher H. Bidmead comes up trumps for his third Doctor Who script, with a superbly crafted tale of colonists facing attack by aliens. The plot of 'Frontios' is relatively straightforward, but benefits from a sparkling script, great monsters, and an unusual climax that successfully exploits the Doctor's keen intelligence. 

'Frontios' is a story filled with horror, which makes for a bleak setting; from the beginning of Episode One, we discover that the dead and wounded on Frontios are mysteriously sucked into the Earth, and that the colony as a whole is slowly dying. As the story progresses the dire state of the colony is further revealed as the meteor showers rain down inflicting injuries and then seemingly destroying the TARDIS; later, when left on her own Norna is attacked, and although it is not explicitly stated, the most obvious intention of her attacker is disturbingly obvious. But it is with the technology of the Tractators that most of the horror lies; Bidmead's script calls for a technology that utilizes the bodies of the dead, and it is interesting to note that in his novelisation the excavating machine is a ghastly fusion of meat and metal, ranks of severed rotting hands wired into the machine and furiously polishing the stone walls left in its wake. Also in the novelisation, the Gravis is accompanied by a translator device, a floating human head with an attached arm wired into a mass of electronics. Budgetary constraints and the audience demographic mean that this grisly aspect of Tractator technology is considerably toned down on screen, but it remains in evidence in the cadaverous form of Captain Revere slaved to the machine until his mind and body burn out. It is a ghastly concept, and it contributes significantly to the creepy atmosphere of the story. 

The Tractators are an interesting race of monsters. The idea of intelligent burrowing insects that effectively feed on the colonists above is a sound one, and benefits further from the background created for them by Bidmead. The Tractators' gravitational powers makes them a formidable threat, and it is clear that they have caused carnage and suffering in the past in their quest to breed and propagate themselves throughout the universe. The revelation that Turlough's home planet was once infested with the creatures adds depth to them and makes them more memorable than just a monster of the week, and the intriguing hint that the Time Lords have had cause to pay attention to them in the past adds further depth. The eventual development that they are harmless without the Gravis could be seen as a hasty contrivance to allow the Doctor a means of defeating them, but Bidmead handles it so well that it becomes far more than this, and is instead another interesting facet to the creatures. And the threat they pose extends not just to the colonists on Frontios but beyond, as they excavate the tunnels required for their gravity drive and plan to pilot Frontios around the universe. The Gravis itself is doubly interesting, providing as it does a malignant focus for the threat posed by the Tractators; intelligent and ruthless, it makes for a great villain and the greed for the freedom of travel which proves to be its undoing seems entirely in character. 

But 'Frontios' is not solely about the Tractators, it is also about the colonists, and Bidmead's script features some excellent characterisation which is realised on screen thanks to some great acting. Peter Gilmore's Brazen is a superb character; initially intimidating and unlikable it becomes clear that he is genuinely motivated by loyalty to Plantagenet and devotion to his duty. He retains a ruthless edge throughout, and often seems like something of a bully, but he's also often likeable such as when he and Tegan are watching over the injured Plantagenet. His eventual sacrifice is fittingly noble, as he pulls the confused Turlough away from the excavating machine, gets caught in its clutches, and bellows his final order, which is for everyone to get to safety. Jeff Rawle's Plantagenet is equally successful, at first coming across as a bit of a ruthless megalomaniac, until he becomes clear that he's been thrust into a position he isn't ready for and is trying to hold Frontios together in the face of overwhelming odds. The thoroughly likeable Mr. Range is another great character, played perfectly by William Lucas, and acting as the voice of reason in the paranoid colony, along with his daughter Norna (Lesley Dunlop). 

Peter Davison puts in an incredible performance as the Doctor here, playing the character at his most erratic. This is evident from his eccentric preoccupation with hat stands in Episode One, and continues throughout. More than in any other story, the Fifth Doctor speaks his mind in 'Frontios', with mixed consequences; he's very short-tempered with Plantagenet in Episode One during his "What I think, and you did ask what I think…" speech, because he's more interested in helping the wounded than explaining who he is, but this nearly gets him killed at the start of Episode Two. Continuing to snap at the colony leader, he challenges Plantagenet with the line "If you're going to kill me you'd better get on with it", which immediately backfires as Plantagenet orders him to be shot. It is only Turlough's bluff with the hat stand that saves his life. The Doctor also gets great lines throughout, including "A risk shared is a risk doubled" and "Nothing that quite fits the gravity of the situation", and his unflattering description of Tegan as a budget priced android to save her from the attention of the Gravis is hilarious. But his finest moment comes towards the end, as he tricks the Gravis into repairing his TARDIS for him whilst isolating itself in the process; his obsequious fawning to the Gravis plays perfectly on the creature's ego, and his false pleading with the Gravis to spare the TARDIS springs the final trap. The only slight problem I have with the Doctor in 'Frontios' is that he doesn't seem bothered by the destruction of the TARDIS, but perhaps his previously established telepathic link with it (at least as far back as 'The Time Monster') means that he knows it isn't irretrievably lost. Although if that is the case, it's rather cruel of him to tell Tegan that she might as well forget it. 

'Frontios' is also a good story for Mark Strickson's Turlough, as he is haunted by ancestral memories of the Tractators and gets to foam at the mouth in terror quite convincingly. 'Frontios' shows Turlough at his best; despite his habitual caution, which often borders on cowardice, his trick with the two corpera pieces demonstrates his unwillingness to leave his friends to the Tractators. His bluff with the hat stand is also a great moment, since he's taking a enormous risk by threatening armed guards with a piece of wood, and it also serves to lighten the mood. Tegan doesn't fare quite as well, but she still gets some great moments, for example when challenging Mr. Range about the "Deaths Unaccountable". Janet Fielding is very good throughout, and her silent fuming when the Doctor describes her as an android is extremely entertaining. 

As for the production overall, it's surprisingly well directed by Ron Jones, the man previously responsible for the appalling 'Arc of Infinity', and it benefits from some decent sets. Astonishingly for the era, it's even quite well lit. The ever-reliable Paddy Kingsland's ominous score is perfectly attuned to the mood of the story. The costumes worn by the colonists work rather well, since instead of taking the often-risky option of designing outlandish fashions for humans of the future, Anushia Nieradzik opts for functional working uniforms, with coloured flashes denoting rank, which proves to be a sound idea. Admittedly, one of the Retrogrades looks like a member of the Village People, but this is largely due to his moustache. The Tractators are well realised too, although they look far better in close up, when their unwieldy bases cannot be seen. The nose added to the Gravis is a dreadful mistake however leading me to suspect that the designer has never seen an arthropod… 

Overall, 'Frontios' is a very successful story and maintains the high standard of writing and production set by the previous story. Sadly, the next televised story sees this standard take a dive, as Eric Saward delivers a script that epitomizes all that is wrong about his approach to Doctor Who. But before I get to that, I have an unusual audio interlude to attend to, as Big Finish take the opportunity to crowbar a story into the Doctor and Tegan's off screen trip to Kolkokron with the Gravis…

FILTER: - Television - Series 21 - Fifth Doctor

The Caves of AndrozaniBookmark and Share

Saturday, 4 September 2004 - Reviewed by Paul Clarke

What can I possibly say about 'The Caves of Androzani' that hasn't been said before? Very little, actually; it is a superb finale for Davison, and possibly my favourite story of the entire John Nathan-Turner era.

I've repeatedly declared that Robert Holmes is my favourite writer for the Doctor Who television series, and 'The Caves of Androzani' is another example of why. The characterisation is superb, even for the minor characters, and the attention to detail makes this story another example of why he was so good at portraying other societies and worlds. As in 'Carnival of Monsters' and 'The Ribos Operation', Holmes' skill at hinting at wider cultures is in evidence, with numerous references to the wider social background of Androzani Major. There are references to the planet's industry, with the copper mines controlled by the Sirius Conglomerate, and the planet's penal system. Several references make it clear that capital punishment is in use on Major (Morgus' order to Krau Timmin that the lift maintenance engineer be shot doesn't raise an eyebrow), and there is also a reference to a chawcaw picking, apparently a penalty for crimes not serious enough to warrant execution. There are also references to military customs, with death under the red cloth being a prime example. In addition, it is made clear that Androzani Major, despite the benefits that some of its people reap from Spectrox, is no utopia; businessman Morgus has considerable influence over the Presidium, in an effective demonstration of capitalism gone mad. His gift of Spectrox to the President is little more than a bribe to maintain his standing with the people who supposedly run the planet, and although the President clear doesn't like him it is implied that he often follows Morgus' suggestions. The use of labour camps as a solution to the problem of unemployment, with Morgus proposing that anyone who doesn't have a valid work permit could be shipped off for what is effectively a life of unpaid slavery, is disturbing; the President's acceptance of the suggestion is even more so, especially since he clearly realises that Morgus is exploiting the system for his own benefit. As the President points out, Morgus has been closing plants in the west, causing increased unemployment; by shipping the unemployed off to camps in the east, those citizens who he has sacked will be working for him again, but without being paid. Such corruption is clearly rife on Androzani Major, a world driven by greed and profit. And there is corruption too within the military; Morgus can effectively give orders to the military because of the power he wields behind the scenes, and in a lesser example Chellack feels unable to reveal that he ordered the execution of two androids because if he does so it will ruin his career. Had Jek really been using androids as gunrunners, the General's decision to keep quiet about it would have been criminal to say the least.

The plot of 'The Caves of Androzani' works superbly well, and although it is very similar to that of Holmes' previous (and rather poor) 'The Power of Kroll', it works far better. The reason for this is due largely to the characterisation. Even the relatively minor characters are well characterised; Krelper's attempts to rival Stotz's leadership are an example, and lead to two great character moments. One of these is their confrontation on the cliff top as Stotz humiliates Krelper, who is left pleading for his life, and the other is Stotz's casual murder of Krelper and his other surviving subordinate in Episode Four. Roy Holder plays Krelper with just the right amount of load mouthed swagger to successfully convey that for all his criticism of Stotz he is merely a thug who is totally outclassed by his psychopathic leader. Another well-characterised minor character (again, relatively speaking) is David Neal's President. He clearly dislikes Morgus but needs his support; his contempt when he points out the advantages to Morgus in shipping the unemployed to labour camps is barely concealed, as is his revelation that Morgus' funding of the campaign on Androzani Minor ought to be generous, since he owns the planet. Holmes also provides a nice detail by hinting at a past military career for the character, as he watches the apparent execution of the Doctor and Peri with disgust and declares that "In my day we'd have had filthy little swine like that shot in the back. The red cloth was for soldiers".

Krau Timmin is another particularly good example; she is initially portrayed as Morgus' confidant and possibly secretary, but by the end it is revealed that she is just as ruthless as her employer, selling him out to the presidium in order to take over as chairman of the Sirius Conglomerate. Barbara Kinghorn plays the role with a calm efficiency; she is not remotely unsettled by the explosion at the North Caul Copper Mine, even though Morgus later implies that she isn't supposed to know that he organized it, and her reaction to the death of the President is only slightly more emotional. Then there is Martin Cochrane's Chellack, a professional soldier clearly embittered by the fact that he has to obey orders to a civilian he understandably despises, and sufficiently aware of how his society works that he accepts the need to execute the Doctor and Peri despite believing them to be innocent. His aforementioned refusal to tell the presidium that he has ordered the execution of androids evokes no sense that this is a man who is happily dishonest, rather one of impotent frustration that his world requires such deception if he is to maintain his career. Indeed, he has succumbed to the pressures of Androzani society to the extent that he decides to send Ensign Cass, the only other witness aside from Salateen to the discovery that the bodies are androids, on a deep penetration mission, knowing full well that he won't return. He doesn't seem happy with the decision, but knows that if he doesn't ensure Cass's silence, his own future will suffer. Salateen contrasts nicely with Chellack; far less experienced than the General, the real Salateen has an enthusiasm about him even after months spent as Jek's prisoner. He also, once he escapes, exhibits a brash confidence that is unwarranted; his plan to trick Jek with misinformation is optimistic at best. His incautious approach to an android in Episode Four is a great example of this confidence; he doesn't even contemplate the fact that his belt plate will fail him and dies as a result. Ironically, Jek's facsimile of Salateen would never have made such a reckless mistake. Robert Glenister impressively distinguishes between the two in his performance, the android seeming far more efficient and emotionless than its original. 

But for all the great supporting characters in 'The Caves of Androzani', it is the two main villains who dominate. Morgus and Sharaz Jek are very much opposites; Jek is emotional and unstable, whereas Morgus is cold, and calculating. Sharaz Jek is a superb character, played deadly straight by Christopher Gable, in an astonishing performance. Jek is frighteningly mad; in the blink of an eye he changes from gloating genius to a deeply embittered and damaged individual shaking with uncontrollable fury. Jek's volatility is evident throughout, and it brings an edge to his scenes with the Doctor and Peri that make him utterly unpredictable; Gable acts with both his voice and his body, becoming a physical threat in an instant as he towers over Peri and demands whether she wants to see his face beneath the mask with sheer rage in his voice. His motivation is perfectly devised, a once handsome and popular man betrayed and abandoned and turned into a monster as a result. So bitter is he and so desperate for revenge that he will stop at nothing to get at Morgus, denying Spectrox to everyone on Androzani Major and orchestrating the deaths of hundreds of Chellack's troops as they fight to regain control of Androzani Minor. His desperate loneliness and need for beauty is pathetic, and almost sympathetic, but he's also brutal and dangerous; he thinks nothing of having the Doctor's arms torn out to gain the information he requires. His desire for Peri is interesting, because the impression is given that he really won't hurt her, despite the predatory sexual overtones. 

Morgus meanwhile is very different to Jek; whereas Jek is motivated by a desire for revenge, Morgus is motivated by power and profit. Wheras Jek is passionate and unstable, Morgus is icy cold; his destruction of his own copper mine and his murder of the President are the actions of a man determined to control his profit margin and his power base whatever the cost. He orders sabotage and executions with casual calmness and never loses his composure. When he believes that the President has discovered that he has been secretly providing Jek with weapons to prolong the war and drive up the price of Spectrox, he is forced to think quickly, but he doesn't panic. His murder of the President is carefully calculated; he swiftly plans to leave Major taking with him financial resources sequestered on the outer planets. Even when Timmin usurps him and reveals that he is wanted on seventeen counts and that his assets on the outer planets have been frozen, only a tight lipped expression and a widening of his eyes hints at the emotions this engenders. And he remains calm even then, quickly proposing to Stotz that they attempt to secure Jek's store of Spectrox. John Normington's portrayal of Morgus is superb, with even his breaking of the fourth wall, which could have been horribly tacky in the hands of a lesser actor and a lesser director, providing a chilling glimpse into the character's thoughts. The final scene between Jek and Morgus is astounding; Morgus, motivated purely by profit, pulls a gun on Jek and demands the Spectrox, with no apparent interest in their past history. Jek on the other hand is finally faced with the man for whom hatred has motivated his every waking moment for long months; with revenge consuming him, he has the strength to strangle Morgus and fight off Stotz even with bullets pumped into his body. With Morgus dead and his reason for living gone, he slumps, finally, into the arms of his greatest creation. Both Gable and Normington are superb in this scene, Gable embodying loathing whilst Normington shows Morgus, his icy calm finally punctured by the iron grip around his throat, unable to do anything but struggle weakly in Jek's death grip. 

Two great villains - Jek is passionate and unstable, embittered by betrayal and motivated solely by a desire for revenge. Morgus is cold and calculating, motivated by power and profit. His destruction of his own copper mine, plus his murder of the President, are both carried out with calm, ruthless efficiency. Jek's obsession with Peri has disturbing sexual undertones. He's sympathetic and pitiful, but utterly mad. By the end, Morgus has lost everything but remains calm and calculating. Jek's final scene is superb, as he finally confronts Morgus and kills him, his hatred allowing him to fight off Stotz and withstand bullets until his task is complete. 

There is another villain worthy of mention in 'The Caves of Androzani'; Maurice Roeves plays Stotz as a charismatic psychopath with great effect. Stotz is brutal, but not stupid; his ill-fated attempt to follow Jek to the Spectrox storehouse is logical, but foiled by the presence of the Magma Creature, and his threatening of the rebellious Krelper at various points leave the viewer in little doubt that anyone who crosses Stotz is likely to end up dead very quickly. He accompanies Morgus back into the caves at the end partly because he wants to settle his score with Jek, and his murderous anger towards the Doctor at the end of Episode Three is utterly convincing. Roeves also brings a laid-back attitude to the role when appropriate; he has not particular axe to grind with the Doctor until Morgus orders him to remain in geo-stationary orbit, and as a result he chats casually to his prisoner even as he chains him up. His finest moment however is his murder of Krelper, an utterly casual final lesson to a subordinate who dared to cross him. 

Graeme Harper's direction of 'The Caves of Androzani' is of course crucial to its success, and rightly so. Harper brings a variety of techniques to the production that is responsible for creating the highly dramatic atmosphere throughout. His use of camera angles and slow fades is masterful; in particular, the slow fade from Jek in Episode Two after he explains that he wants Morgus' head to Morgus just as he learns that his sabotage of the copper mine has been successful and back again, nicely juxtaposes the two very different enemies. Virtually every aspect of the production is a triumph here, from model work to costumes, and with highly impressive cave sets. Roger Limb's score also adds greatly to the atmosphere. The costumes also work very well (obviously including Jek's highly distinctive leather suit), and the use of machine guns rather than ray guns adds considerably to the gritty realism of the story. The main shortcoming is of course the Magma Creature, which looks awful; it is doubly unfortunate that it is virtually extraneous to the plot, since it does little except provide a cliffhanger to Episode Two. This is however, a very minor criticism. 

Finally, there are the regulars. After Peri's happy and enthusiastic characterisation in 'Planet of Fire' (and the intervening Big Finish audios), here she undergoes a significant change. Her obvious enjoyment of her travels with the Doctor is evident at the start, but is soon knocked out of her as she is gets Spectrox Toxaemia and becomes increasingly ill, nearly gets executed, and then suffers the attentions of a obsessive lunatic. It is quite natural therefore that she spends most of 'The Caves of Androzani' increasingly traumatized and unhappy, a trend that will continue into the following story. Nicola Bryant is great in the role, conveying the impression that Peri is genuinely frightened throughout, especially when faced with the overpowering Jek. 

But it is Peter Davison who really steals the show, in what is for me his finest performance in the role. Having got himself and Peri into trouble through his own curiosity, he spends the rest of the story desperate to save his companion's life. The Doctor is at his most heroic, as he increasingly frantically struggles to rescue Peri and find a cure for the Spectrox Toxaemia; the cliffhanger ending to Episode Three is one of the series' finest and this is largely because of Davison. He is like a man possessed as he disregards Stotz's threats with a manic cheeriness, shouting that he owes it to Peri to try and find a cure. Indeed, it is concern for Peri's life rather than his own that seems to drive him, culminating in his final sacrifice as he gives the bat's milk to Peri and, effectively, dies. Throughout Episode Four, as nearly all of the supporting characters die around him and the mud burst begins, the Doctor fights his way through chaos to reach the Queen Bat, and then get back to Peri. As the Doctor struggles with his own increasingly ill health and carries Peri in his arms, Davison's ability to combine the impression of illness with one of manic desperation is incredibly good. Interestingly, whilst the Doctor unknowingly catalyses events throughout 'The Caves of Androzani' and is thus crucial to the denouement, his need to save Peri means that he spends most of his time in single-minded pursuit of this goal, raising the question of how differently events on Androzani Minor might have played out had the Doctor focused his full attention on the conflict. The final scene is beautifully directed. Graeme Harper provides my favourite regeneration in the series to date, with a rising crescendo and light and noise accompanying the transformation. The appearance of all of the Fifth Doctor's television companions seems fitting rather than a gratuitous nostalgia trip, mainly because it results in "Adric" being the last word that the Fifth Doctor speaks; final recognition of the companion that this incarnation couldn't save, and whose death has undoubtedly contributed to his increasingly serious attitude throughout the Fifth Doctor's era. It is a fitting end. 

The decision to give the new Doctor lines at the end of final story of the old is an effective one; the Sixth Doctor's caustic comments speaks volumes about the character of the new incarnation, and tantalizes with a glimpse of a Doctor who is obviously going to very distinct from his predecessor. In summary, 'The Caves of Androzani' is not just one of Doctor Who's finest stories, it is also a stunning swansong for Peter Davison and offers an intriguing hint of what is to come. Which means that the following story comes as a bit of a shock…

FILTER: - Television - Fifth Doctor - Series 21

Vengeance on VarosBookmark and Share

Saturday, 4 September 2004 - Reviewed by Joe Ford

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FILTER: - Television - Series 22 - Sixth Doctor

The Two DoctorsBookmark and Share

Saturday, 4 September 2004 - Reviewed by Brian DiPaolo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FILTER: - Television - Sixth Doctor - Series 22

DragonfireBookmark and Share

Saturday, 4 September 2004 - Reviewed by Paul Clarke

Much like ‘Paradise Towers’, ‘Dragonfire’ is a story with a promising script let down by the production. These production problems are nowhere near as bad as those that marred ‘Paradise Towers’ however, and the story works rather better as a result. More importantly to the Doctor Who mythos, ‘Dragonfire’ paves the way for the last two seasons of the classic BBC series, as Mel departs and a new companion is introduced whose impact on the series, for better or for worse, remains to this day…

I’m going to get this out of the way without further ado and make it clear that I can’t stand Ace. Firstly, it has often been noted that she is a ghastly hybrid of a character, a supposedly streetwise rebellious London teenager played by a slightly posh woman in her twenties with dialogue written by largely middle class men who are over thirty. The result is abominable; apparently aiming for angst, scriptwriter Ian Briggs offers us such gems as the fact that Ace is sure that her parents aren’t her real parents because they gave her a crap name (Dorothy). She doesn’t suggest that her parents lacked judgement or hampered her with a name designed for bullies to have fun with in the playground, she actually tells Mel that they can’t be her real parents and she sounds very much like she means it. The result, along with her pyromaniac tendencies and complaints about the teachers at school who took a dim view to her blowing up a classroom with, lest we forget, real explosives, is that the impression created is not that of a troubled teenager but instead one of an emotionally retarded psychopath.

The second problem with Ace stems largely from Sophie Aldred. Aldred has been a staunch supporter of the series since it ended and seems like a thoroughly nice person, but as an actress she is appalling, delivering all of her lines in a horrible amateur dramatics fashion. It doesn’t help that the target audience of Doctor Who automatically limits the characterisation of Ace. Rebellious teenagers from London who don’t swear are about as commonplace as rocking horse, and this instantly poses a problem; Ace cannot swear for obvious reasons, and so the character doesn’t ring true. This wouldn’t be quite such a problem were it not for the fact that she is often placed in situations where it would be perfectly natural for her to swear; in these instances, we instead get such verbal diarrhoea as “Male chauvinist bilgebag”, “I bet you’ve never had a milkshake tipped over you head either”, “Gordon Bennett” and “What a bunch of spots!” Having said that, the rest of her dialogue is just as bad, with clunky and unrealistic lines such as “I ain’t got no mum and dad, I ain’t never had no mum and dad!” and “Do you feel like arguing with a can of deodorant that registers nine on the Richter scale?” Ultimately, I have never, during the entire run of the series, felt like I am watching a children’s programme quite as much as I do whenever Ace is on screen. It’s no coincidence that the only stories in which I personally think Ace works are the New Adventures post-‘Love and War’, during which she is almost a different character.

So, already cursed with a badly scripted, badly acted and badly conceived yet strangely popular new companion, does ‘Dragonfire’ have anything to offer? Well, yes but not all that much. The main plot is quite reasonable, featuring as it does an exiled criminal seeking the means to return home and wreak revenge upon his people; this is hardly original, but it is decent, workable stuff, and Kane is a great villain. In a season that began with hammy villains, Edward Peel’s suitably icy performance as Kane is extremely welcome and he positively exudes menace. His initial murder of one of Glitz’s crewmembers is highly effective in setting the tone and establishing the character, as he commits casual slaughter without the slightest hesitation, as though swatting a fly. He is also well motivated; his back-story is simple (he’s basically a gangster arrested and imprisoned by his people), but it is considerably enhanced by his love for Xana, his former accomplice who died escaping arrest. His obsession with Xana is what drives him, and although it is not explicitly stated, the impression is very much given that his much-desired revenge is to avenge his lover far more than it is to avenge his long imprisonment. Kane is scary throughout the story, Peel bringing real menace to lines such as “I demand absolute loyalty now and forever, and I don’t forgive those who betray me”, but his finest scenes are those following Belazs’ and Kracauer’s betrayal. Having been forcibly warmed up by Kracauer’s interference with his refrigeration system, Kane is too weak to stand, until he sees the destruction on the ice statue of Xana by the rising temperature; sheer fury at this desecration, far more than at the attempt to kill him, gives Kane the strength to rise to his feet and kill Kracauer, and he is consumed by hatred during the later scene in which he repays Belazs for her part in it. Because his desire for revenge, both for himself and Xana, is what motivates Kane, his eventual fate is very fitting; confronted by the fact that Proamon has been destroyed during his exile, he realises that his reason for existing is over, and so he commits suicide.

Unfortunately, discussion of Kane highlights one of the problems of ‘Dragonfire’, in that despite some good ideas, not everything seems to have been thought through carefully. Kane, we are told, has been waiting for three thousand years to regain the Dragonfire and return to Proamon, which raises the question of why. Within a short space of time, the Doctor and Glitz and Mel and Ace separately find the Biomechanoid, and it doesn’t take long for Kane’s soldiers to locate and kill it either. The idea seems to be that Iceworld is so massive that finding the creature is impossible but without the map, but three thousand years is such a vast expanse of time that it seems unlikely that Kane could not have found and destroyed the creature much, much earlier. He does, after all, have large numbers of soldiers and cryogenically frozen mercenaries at his disposal. The question is also raised as to why his jailors even left the Dragonfire on Iceworld, guardian or not; since Kane cannot possibly survive on the light side of the planet, it could have been hidden there, or even taken back to Proamon, thus guaranteeing that he could never regain it. Speaking of good ideas badly realised and Kane’s mercenaries, they are another potentially fine idea, effectively unstoppable zombies that are used to massacre the inhabitants of Iceworld or drive them out. They could have been extremely creepy, but ham and glitter spoil the effect; the extras playing them are awful, one of them apparently striking a catalogue model pose in the canteen, and the glitter added to their hair to make them look icy is just plain silly.

Nothing in ‘Dragonfire’ comes close to being flawless. Some of the characterisation is superb, with Belazs being another example in addition to Kane; she works for him, but like Kane himself is driven by a desire to escape, leading to an especially dramatic scene on board Glitz’s ship as the Doctor sadly tells her that he doubts she can ever repay her debt to Kane. Her eventual betrayal is well written, as her death scene, as Kane gives her hope before viscously subjecting her to a painful death, and Patricia Quinn is superb in the role, especially when she is plotting with Kracauer. Other characters work less well however. When I reviewed ‘The Mysterious Planet’ I noted that despite being well served by the script, Tony Selby’s portrayal of Glitz was spoiled by his stilted dialogue. He’s far more comfortable in the role here, as he was in ‘The Ultimate Foe’, but unfortunately this comes at a price. Whereas Holmes gave Glitz a hard edge (the first time he ever saw the Doctor he ordered him to be shot), this is largely absent here and the character seems neutered as a result. Suddenly, Glitz goes from being a ruthless (if cowardly) mercenary to being a dodgy dealer in rotten fruit and a third rate gambler who can’t pay his debts off. The fact that he sold his crew to Kane is a step in the right direction, but the effect of this is diluted by the fact that he’s generally become more of a likeable buffoon than a slightly dangerous criminal. To add insult to injury, designer John Asbridge decides to decorate the cockpit of the Nosferatu with furry dice and fake leopard skin seat covers, further transforming Glitz, by association, into a third rate spiv who wouldn’t be out of place in Eastenders.

This is symptomatic of the problems of ‘Dragonfire’; everything is undermined by lapses of judgement in the design and scripting. Stellar’s mother wanders around in a stroppy mood in Episode Three, apparently having missed the massacre of her fellow shoppers, which is blatantly silly. The costumes worn by Kane and his staff create the impression that they should be advertising ice cream. As is so often the case with Doctor Who during the nineteen eighties, the sets are too brightly lit, which at times makes it painfully obvious that they are made of plastic; only slightly less bright and they would have worked so much better, as would the Geiger-esque Biomechanoid, which comes close to being impressive but is lit up like a Christmas tree so that its rubbery appearance becomes obvious. The plot is explained at the end of Episode Two by a high-tech slide show. And of course there is the notorious Episode One cliffhanger, which takes the piss in interesting new ways and which makes no sense whatsoever unless you happen to have read the novelisation.

Nevertheless, ‘Dragonfire’ has moments of brilliance. The scene in which the Doctor distracts a guard with philosophical debate only to find himself out of his depth is priceless (famously, the lines are lifted out of The Unfolding Text), and subverts audience expectations, as well as the Doctor’s. This is followed shortly afterwards by Glitz telling the Doctor that Belazs is going to kill them to which he deadpans, “Ah, an existentialist”. Indeed, McCoy is very good here, even if his unwise decision to act as though walking on ice ends up making him look like a tit, since nobody else bothers. The Doctor’s interest in the Biomechanoid for purely scientific reasons contrasts nicely with everyone else’s obsession with the treasure, and as in ‘Paradise Towers’ and ‘Delta and the Bannermen’ it’s nice to see the Doctor just wander into a situation and work hard to keep as many people as possible alive and well without him having some hidden agenda; regardless of whether or not one likes the so-called “Cartmel masterplan”, it is pleasant to see the Doctor simply wandering the universe lead by his curiosity prior to the more manipulative, proactive characterisation of Seasons Twenty-Five and Twenty-Six.

And then there is Mel. For a brief moment in Episode One, Mel is at her most annoying, as Belazs intimidates Glitz and she leaps to his defense, telling Belacs that she’ll have to kill her and the Doctor to get to him. She has no knowledge whatsoever of the situation and the result is simply embarrassing for the audience. Oh, and later on she suggests a game of “I Spy” to pass the time, which instantly makes me want to reach into the screen and throttle her. But for the remainder of the story, she is at her best; Langford gives one last spirited performance before departing from the television series, and she comes off well. Mel is paired up with Ace here, and she benefits enormously. Partly this is because as irritating as Mel can get, Langford can at least act and therefore shines next to Aldred, but mainly it’s due to the script, which portrays Mel as older and wiser. She gains Ace’s trust before anybody else, including the Doctor, and she continues to stand up for what she believes in, screaming at Ace not to pick up Kane’s sovereign despite the risk to herself, and later reluctant to hand over the Dragonfire to a tyrant again regardless of the danger. Best of all, she gets a superb, if abrupt, leaving scene, in which McCoy shows the Doctor’s melancholy at her departure very well. The dialogue here is great, culminating in “Think about me, when you’re living your life, one day after another, all in a neat pattern. Think about the homeless traveller in his old police box, his days like crazy paving”, which sums up the Doctor beautifully. Those brief moments before he invites Ace to join him suddenly hint at the loneliness of near immortality and offer an explanation of why he surrounds himself with companions on his travels. Pity then that Mel’s reasons for leaving are complete bollocks, as she suddenly decides to go off with Glitz, a decision so preposterous that the best explanation to date is Steve Lyons’ suggestion in ‘Head Games’ that the Doctor brainwashed her to get rid of her and make way for Fenric bait.

In summary, ‘Dragonfire’ is not entirely successful, but has merit. And mercifully, for the only time in Season Twenty-Four, the musical haemorrhoid of Keff McCulloch’s work is soothed by the Anusol of Dominic Glynn, who composes a decent moody score that complements the story nicely. I’d say that he’s more talented than McCulloch, but it’s damning with faint praise.

FILTER: - Television - Series 24 - Seventh Doctor