The Happiness PatrolBookmark and Share

Monday, 30 June 2003 - Reviewed by Gareth Jelley

Following on from the excellent 'Remembrance of the Daleks', 'The Happiness Patrol' features Sylvester McCoy still on top form, and the Doctor here has too many good lines to list. One glorious moment sees him turning the questions back on the questioner, Trevor Sigma, while another is his confrontation with two guards (a classic Who moment). There are many more good moments, and only two lapses into bad-McCoy territory: the first, at the end of episode one, where McCoy really doesn't manage to pull off a plausible reaction to the Kandy Man's threat; and the second, a moment where he tries to sing the blues, and just looks silly. The latter, however, is saved by the context of the scene, where atmospheric and subtle support is given by Richard D. Sharp, playing Earl Sigma, a wandering medical student, who happens to be an ace player of the blues harmonica.

The score of 'The Happiness Patrol' is, of course, one its very best traits. Layered on top of the usual incidental music is a carefully judged combination of blues guitar and harmonica playing. In tune with the score is the set design, mixing together (with no lack of irony) the hard-edged industrial paintings of Fernand Leger, imagery from Lang's 'Metropolis', and the colour pallete of a children's sweet packet. Of course, as we know, good set design in 1980s Doctor Who stories was often ruined by boring, flat lighting. Pleasingly, that is not the case here. Moody and atmospheric film-noir (albeit full-colour-film-noir) lighting of the street and pipe scenes makes for one of the best looking Doctor Who stories ever made. One of the scenes to benefit vastly is the cliff-hanger to episode two. From a shot of a member of the happiness painting 'RIP' (in pink) onto an execution poster, the camera slowly pans to focus on the Doctor, eyes in shadow, looking part-anxious, part-highly-dangerous toppler of evil regimes; the shot is held for a second or two, and then the music surges in. A cliff-hanger to beat all cliff-hangers. 

Watching 'The Happiness Patrol' now, almost 15 years after it was originally broadcast, what stands out is the cleverness of it all. The evidence indicates that a lot of work, on several levels, went into constructing a story often accused of being poorly made and tacky. It may have had a low budget, but it doesn't suffer from it; and any 'tackiness' is clearly ironic, working within the context of the narrative. There are occasional moments when a detail of the production makes you wonder if they couldn't have thought things through a bit more, and occasionally the editing is over-zealous, cutting a scene a little too short, and lessening the effect of a punchline or a dramatic speech. But these are minor problems, and they do little to spoil the enjoyment of a thoroughly ambitious and engaging Doctor Who serial.

FILTER: - Television - Seventh Doctor - Series 25

Ghost LightBookmark and Share

Monday, 30 June 2003 - Reviewed by Martin Harmer

The story's opening is beautifully dark, with a suitably disturbing introduction to one of the Doctor's boldest stories. The period of the story is set efficiently, and the introduction of the Doctor and Ace shows off the wonderful rapport that has developed between both the characters and the actors. The Doctor's line, 'It's a surprise,' in reference to the reason for their visit, seems almost cruel on a repeated viewing, evidence of the Doctor's evolution, an overall theme of the story, into someone, or something, darker; less predictable.

The Doctor and Ace seem to 'slide' into the story, and are almost too readily accepted with no question from the players, but this ultimately only reinforces the themes developed later in the story and is typical of the show's era. The introduction of Nimrod is our first true sign that all is not as it should be, besides the glowing purple eyes which merely softened the impact without ever being adequately explained. Despite events spiralling dangerously, the Doctor now takes an admirable degree of control over the situation. It is perhaps of no coincidence that a character by that very name appears later in the story. The character of Josiah Smith,though, is a truly wonderful creation of style, with his shades, dust and white gloves, combined with substance, in his references to the moth's need to evolve due to industrial influence, again introducing the theme of evolution.

The story feels as if a great debt is owed to 'Sapphire and Steel' in as much as it feels wonderfully claustrophobic, and not least for the shots of Redvers strapped into a straightjacket whilst light pours from the snuffbox. The scripting also shines, as shown in the exchange between Ace and the Doctor as the girl realises that her protector has deceived her; but it is the Doctor's revelation that he loathes bus stations, unrequited love, cruelty and tyranny that simply explains the Doctor for who he is.

The story is filmed with a certain flair including some beautiful juxtaposition of imagery, such as the Reverend being drugged whilst Josiah's niece plays the piano, for example; the song predicting the Reverend's final fate.

There follows an example of one this era's laudable 'reality slaps', where Ace reveals how her friend's flat was firebombed, causing Ace to no longer care. Beside being dramatic and anchoring the fantastic in a harsh reality, these references served the writers of Virgin's 'New Adventures' extraordinarily well. 

Of pure joy is the knowing line, 'Oh don't worry, I always leave things to the last moment.' It serves not only as a reference to the way the Doctor always appeared to deal with the problem in 'the nick of time', but also emphasises the way the Doctor has again taken control of the situation. This becomes a recurring theme in this era, introducing the concept of the Doctor as a controller, rather than simply being caught up in a chain of events. It is something of a shame that McCoy's earlier stories put so many viewers off 'Doctor Who' , resulting in many people not witnessing the show's gradual transformation into something darker, more adult; a show beginning to show itself more than worthy of tackling the concerns of the final part of the millennium.

The introduction of the Policeman quietly emphasises the Doctor's power and also carries an echo of characters from earlier Victorian stories in his true old-fashioned perspective, along with the racist attitudes.

The Doctor reminds us of two things with his line, 'You must excuse me, things are getting out of control'; that he does exert some form of control over the proceedings but that his control is not perfect. This has the effect of disquieting the viewer and adds to the reinvented mysterious nature the Doctor has been acquiring, as events spiral out of control once more. The disturbing concept of the Doctor directly meddling and then losing control is never more emphasised than when Light casually destroys the maid under Josiah's control.

We learn more of Ace's past as her character is fleshed out further, just before a delightfully creepy yet somewhat kitsch sequence which leads to an equally delightful mid-episode cliffhanger as the now darkened Gwen takes advantage of Ace's momentary weakness. The following action sequences admittedly let the story down, but to err is to leave one wanting more. There is a wonderful nod to the now late Douglas Adams, as the Doctor, and the script, regain control, culminating in the excising of Ace's ghosts.

FILTER: - Television - Series 26 - Seventh Doctor

Marco PoloBookmark and Share

Saturday, 14 June 2003 - Reviewed by Paul Clarke

I've just watched ‘Marco Polo’ as part of my Who marathon, thanks entirely to Loose Cannon, who have provided a superb recon. I should just note that there are some fans who will insist that a story cannot be judged based on its soundtrack alone, or even a recon – I don’t agree, since the heavy dependence on dialogue of Doctor Who at the time easily allows most of the missing stories to transfer fairly easily to audio, especially with narration or captions to cover the action sequences. However, if anyone out there does stridently insist that I can’t judge an incomplete story without having seen it as first broadcast, then read no further and wait until I get to ‘The Keys of Marinus’.

Anyway, ‘Marco Polo’ is an interesting story for several reasons. Firstly of course, it is the earliest missing story and is completely missing (not even clips survive), which have given it a near-legendary status. This is helped by the fact that the soundtrack has not yet been released on CD and is (at least my experience) harder to get bootleg copies of than the other missing episodes. Secondly, it is the first historical, and also the longest. Finally, as I have noted previously, the relationship between the TARDIS crew members has now been established by the previous three stories, and this allows individual supporting characters to really shine in Doctor Who for the first time. 

‘Marco Polo’ has four major guest characters of note: Marco Polo, Tegana, Ping-Cho, and Kublai Khan. Polo himself is a superb character, essential noble and seemingly keen to gain the friendship of the travelers, for whom he develops respect, but unable to fully do this due to his theft of the TARDIS. Desperate to return home to Venice, he insists on presenting the ship to the Khan to try and negotiate his freedom from service, but in doing so he denies it to the Doctor and his friends. His resolve prevents him from relenting and indeed he does present the TARDIS to the Khan, but he struggles with his conscience throughout, knowing that he has acted unjustly. The problem lies partly with the fact that he doesn’t understand the TARDIS – he believes it is a caravan that flies, but doesn’t understand just how advanced it is, assuming that the Doctor can build a new one and offering to grant the travelers safe passage home. It is this plot device that keeps the Doctor and friends on Cathay, since Polo manages to separate them from the TARDIS as effectively as any lost fluid link, and it makes their troubles greater in many ways – unable to convey their urgency to Polo, they make frequent attempts to regain the ship, refusing to give Polo, who is otherwise well-disposed towards them, their word that they will not make further such attempts. This places them in a quandary when it becomes clear that Tegana is not all he seems, since Polo cannot fully trust them and is more inclined to believe Tegana’s accounts whenever they accuse him of mischief. Ultimately though, Polo returns the TARDIS key to the Doctor in the court of Kublai Khan, during the confusion after Tegana’s defeat. Ian has by this point tried to tell him the whole truth about the TARDIS, to which Polo replies that he if believed Ian he would give them the key back, realizing that the travelers could find no other way home. After the travelers are instrumental in Tegana’s defeat, Polo finally realises that Ian was telling the truth, and gives the Doctor the key beneath the Khan’s very nose; in a story concerned with the theme of going home (the Doctor and his companions, Polo, and Ping-Cho are all motivated by a desire to do so) Polo realises that, even if the Khan will not let him return home to Venice, then at least the travelers can go home. 

Tegana is the first real single villain in Doctor Who – the Daleks are a race of monsters, and Kal and Za’s struggle for leadership and survival is hardly the same as the sort of scheming villain that will recur in Doctor Who. The Warlord Tegana is an excellent villain, cold and ruthless, but cunning enough to hide his true intent (to kill the Khan in the name of his own Lord, Noghai) from Polo at least. Even before we learn of this, he is established as a threat – when the travelers first encounter Polo’s party, it is Tegana that they meet and his is keen to kill these supposed “evil spirits”. Polo saves them, but Tegana threatens them at every turn, responsible as he is for all the various ills that befall Polo’s caravan. Derren Nesbitt brings great presence to Tegana, who is a softly spoken, commanding character; he easily convinces Polo that he, and not the travelers, is lying when they try to accuse him of villainy on several occasions, and he convinces Polo to let him ride back for Ian and Ping-Cho, both of whom he intends to kill, despite the TARDIS crew’s and Ping-Cho’s warnings that he is up to something. Tegana is also quick to improvise to cover his actions, casually explaining that he was delayed at the oasis by bandits and easily fending off any suspicions. He is ruthless too, prepared to kill even Ping-Cho, since she is in his way. He also unhesitatingly dispatches his allies, including Acomat, when the need to maintain secrecy arises. Presumably he is also very dedicated, given that he could not reasonably expect to stay alive for long after completing his mission. His penultimate encounter with Polo, when he casually and easily ruins Polo’s hopes of the Khan letting him return to Venice, shows him swiftly discarding his façade in order to get the Khan alone, at which point he tries his assassination attempt. When Polo out-fights and disarms him, rather than answer to the Khan, he almost definitely commits suicide, impaling himself on a sword – a fitting end for one of Doctor Who’s earliest villains.

Ping-Cho’s importance stems mainly from her friendship with Susan, which draws her to aid the travelers, partly due to their sympathy at her plight – she is being forced to marry a man old enough to be her grandfather. Like the TARDIS crew and Polo, she is keen to return home, but simply to afford marriage – once her husband to be dies, she happily remains in the Khan’s court. It is interesting to speculate that this is also in part due to the influence of Susan’s tales of her travels, which might well have encouraged Ping-Cho to experience the thrills on offer at the court of Kublai Khan. The Khan himself is the fourth guest character of particular note, due largely to his relationship with the Doctor. The two old men, one crippled by gout and the other with a bad back, riding to Peking in the Khan’s state caravan and playing backgammon provide one of the most memorable parts of ‘Marco Polo’ and also demonstrate the first stirrings of comedy in Doctor Who, something which Hartnell had extensive experience of in his previous career and which he is capable of excelling at later in Doctor Who. The Doctor’s first meeting with the Khan, as he reluctantly attempts to kow-tow and his howls of pain prompt the equally-pained Khan to question whether he is being mocked, are played purely for laughs. The later backgammon scenes are also witty, with the Doctor winning an absurdity of prizes but failing to win back the TARDIS – the Khan however tells Polo after the travelers have escaped Peking that he would have won it back at some point anyway. The details make the Khan’s character – he’s the most powerful man in Cathay, but he’s a gout-ridden old man who is henpecked by his wife and is a self-proclaimed bureaucrat. Nevertheless, when facing death at the hands of Tegana, he seems to face it defiantly (as far as I can tell from the recon) and once saved by Polo he coldly informs Tegana that those who oppose him must be humbled and that Tegana must be put to death; interestingly though, he says this in the same way that he says Noglai must be humbled for rising against him, by enforcing harsh conditions of peace. On neither occasion does he seem motivated by revenge as such, but rather by a need to maintain order, suggesting perhaps why he is so well-respected by even the Venetian Polo.

One other interesting thing I realized about watching ‘Marco Polo’ stems from foreknowledge of ‘The Aztecs’ – despite being in a period of history that Ian and Barbara know of from history books, the Doctor at no point that we see warns them not to interfere. Despite this, the TARDIS crew is directly responsible for saving Polo’s caravan on two separate occasions, suggesting that had they not been present Kublai Khan would have died at Tegana’s hand. It is possible that the Doctor does not mention this because he does not consider it interference if the course of history as he knows it is maintained, however accidentally; on the other hand, it is interesting to speculate that if history originally ran differently and Noglai came to power, but the Doctor and his companions inadvertently changed its course. Probably not, but the idea did intrigue me. 

Finally, ‘Marco Polo’ owes its legendary reputation in large part to its sets and costumes. Thanks to the recon, we can at least see these even though no clips survive and they are certainly impressive. Although nearly all of the action on screen takes place at way stations and camps due to the lack of location filming which would have perhaps allowed conversations on horseback, the use of Polo’s voice-over and illustrated maps of the journey manage to convey the sense that the Doctor and his companions have been traveling for weeks, which of course is the intention. It works well in creating the illusion of a journey despite the fact that really ‘Marco Polo’ is filmed on only a few sets with no actual traveling on screen. Overall, ‘Marco Polo’ is well deserving of its classic status.

FILTER: - Series 1 - First Doctor - Television

The Keys of MarinusBookmark and Share

Saturday, 14 June 2003 - Reviewed by Daniel Spotswood

Speaking in terms of production, The Keys of Marinus is quite a weak effort compared with those stories around it. In terms of ideas it is interesting, claustrophobic in parts and thought provoking in others. This is a story with potential, but as sporting commentators tell us potential can sometimes be an excuse for poor performance - and this is the case with The Keys of Marinus.

The story itself is broken into five parts - each part a story within a story. The first part (Episode 1), concerning how the Doctor and friends end up on the quest for the Keys of Marinus, is the worst episode I have viewed so far (sequentially speaking). However, the pace picks up as the travellers head to Morphoton to recover the first key. Interesting concept here - a device (the mesmeron) is used by the cities elders to subjugate their population by showing them their world, and their lives, as it really isn't. These elders have themselves been reduced to brains living in tanks and are sustained by a complex life support system. On television, this sequence almost works and is, in certain aspects, frighteningly convincing - until Barbara kills the elders and destroys the mesmeron with a few weak swings of a wooden rod.

The next two sequences are well structured and, in spite of the absence of the Doctor, hang together well on television. The Screaming Jungle concept is good science fiction, despite some over-acting from Jacqueline Hill. The 'lost on the mountain' sequence still makes strong, claustrophobic television, particularly the latent sexuality of Vasor the trapper's heel turn and stalking of Barbara.

The City of Millenius (called Millenium in the novelisation) episodes again provoke some thought - a legal system in complete opposition to those used by Western Nations today. The onus of proof is on the defendant, rather than the prosecutor - in other words, guilty until proven innocent. Another almost convincing idea - let down by a basic 'murder-mystery' plot a child could solve before its obvious conclusion is played out.

The acting of William Russell is, once again, a pleasure to watch in this story. He tries as best as he can to make the cringeful unconvincing look as convincing as it can in these early stories.

In terms of history, this was only the second story to be set on an alien planet - and the second to introduce alien races. Terry Nation tries valiantly to make Marinus very alien - seas of acid, beaches of glass - and give his world a history in the same way he did for Skaro. The 'Conscience Machine' idea is also great science fiction. But the visual delivery does little justice to these ideas - it suffers from a symptom of its time, there was only so much that could be done in a technological sense in 1963-64 - some of the sets look great - other not so great.

That said, I expected this story would provide an excellent opportunity for the novelist to give Terry Nation's script some new life and vision with its wealth of ideas, concepts and aspects to explore and expand. I was sadly disappointed. Philip Hinchliffe passes over the opportunity to write a classic novel (which Nation's ideas present him with) and instead delivers Terrance Dicks style play-by-play account of the television story - and I think even Dicks would have done a better job of novelisation this story. Hinchliffe himself has admitted he did not really want to write this story nor did he enjoy the experience and I think it shows. I have not read a positive review of the novelisation of The Keys of Marinus and I'm not going to be a trendsetter. There is little character development, particularly of the Voord - are they natives to Marinus or aliens? Is there something inside the suit or is that their skin? Ambiguities like this aren't even addressed let alone mentioned. Description is minimal - and the narrative is copied almost word for word from the script. There are a few cringe moments too thrown in for good measure.

This story had definite potential, however I think it is an 'honourable loss' in both visual and print media (to coin another sporting phrase). Perhaps one day new novelisations of the television stories will be produced in the fashion of the EDA/PDA's we know today. If that happens, The Keys of Marinus may finally reach its full potential.

FILTER: - Series 1 - First Doctor - Television

The Invisible EnemyBookmark and Share

Saturday, 14 June 2003 - Reviewed by Gareth Jelley

At a key point in 'The Invisible Enemy' the Doctor discovers that cloning experiments first took place in the year 3922 (or some similarly far-flung date), a gentle reminder that recent advances in genetic science have come at us far quicker than could ever have been expected. That isn't to imply that 'The Invisible Enemy' explores cloning in any serious way: it doesn't. But it does demonstrate the wonderfully throw-away approach to science in Doctor Who stories, or what in Star Trek is called 'techno-babble'. But where Star Trek is quite earnest and serious in its approach to 'science', taking it all 'very seriously', Doctor Who stories often seem to fling 'real' science facts into the mix in the way you might fling chocolate chips into a dough mixture: you don't need to be precise, because all that really matters is that you don't forget to put them in. 

The reason 'The Invisible Enemy' is still entertaining is the combination of witty dialogue and eye-catching design. Tom Baker frequently proves to be the saving grace of Fourth Doctor stories, and here is no exception. Both the Doctor and Leela are served well by a script which is clever, slightly ironic, and full of good dialogue ("You megalomaniacs are all the same"), and save for a few dud lines (usually where the script is desperately trying to cover some distance in a short space of time with exposition from either Leela of the Swarm) Bob Baker and Dave Martin turned out a solid (if not classic) story.

However what stands out in 'The Invisible Enemy' is the time that appears to have gone into giving the story a distinctive look and atmosphere. A high-angle shot of the three infected astronauts in their space-suits, for example, succeeds in stretching the capabilities of a shot-on-video studio-based TV story into the realms of the filmic. 'The Invisible Enemy' isn't cinematic by any stretch of the imagination, but there are certain shots early on that leave a big impression. The cliff-hanger to episode one, the special effects shots at the very beginning of the story, and the model-shots of the eggs before they hatch, are all particularly effective. And other, smaller details shouldn't be ignored: the decals used in the moon base ('Oxygen' and 'Level 4X', etc.) have a pleasing future-retro feel, and Professor Marius' spectacles are wonderful.

There is a lot to like in 'The Invisible Enemy', and even though certain elements would make even the most hardy of viewers wince (the inside of the Doctor's brain, and the virus in it, for example, are far too tacky) overall it is a successful and enjoyable Doctor Who adventure.

FILTER: - Television - Fourth Doctor - Series 15

The Keys of MarinusBookmark and Share

Saturday, 14 June 2003 - Reviewed by Paul Clarke

‘The Keys of Marinus’ is, in my opinion, the first disappointment in Doctor Who. This is largely because it has enormous promise, which it almost completely fails to live up to. Essentially, ‘The Keys of Marinus’ is a quest. It’s been described in The Discontinuity Guide as a B-movie plot and it is, but the thing it most reminds of is those Fighting Fantasy Adventure gamebooks that Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone made popular. ‘The Keys of Marinus’ has a quest for lost keys, during which our heroes must overcome monsters (the Morphos), traps (in Darrius’s ruined fortress), wolves and icy tunnels, and even (after a fashion) the undead. Consequently, there is little time for plot development, as the TARDIS crew is whisked from place to place on an episodic basis. And therein lies the real shame, because Marinus is actually one of the most interesting alien planets featured in Doctor Who. The reason I say this is simple – Marinus has different races of men, different cities, different environments, and different types of flora and fauna. How many planets in science fiction series end up being represented by one city and a stock set? How many, like Earth, are actually shown to be complex societies with different power blocks, races and religions? The answer I think is very few, even in Doctor Who and especially in, for example, Star Trek. This is usually because of time and budgetary constraints, but occasionally, it really grates. Marinus avoids this, but fails to exploit this advantage. We see the city of Morphoton, and its ghastly ruling brains, but we learn almost nothing about how they managed to take over in the first place. We see men frozen in ice reanimated to protect one of the keys, but get no explanation as to how this is achieved – they act like zombies for the most part, but one of them screams horribly when he falls down a crevasse. And then there are the Voords.

We learn almost nothing of the Voords. They are often referred to as “the alien Voord” presumably because of the blurb on the back cover of the Target Novelisation, but as far as I can tell, they are actually another race of the humanoid population of Marinus. All we know about them is that Yartek is well over one thousand years old, but then in episode six it is suggested that Arbitan invented the Conscience, so he’s two thousand years old, which doesn’t support Yartek being a different species. Also in episode six, Stephen Dartnell’s very human eyes and mouth can be seen through Yartek’s mask, which is probably unintentional, but doesn’t lend credence to the alien Voords theory. In fact, the only tenuous evidence is that Yartek at one point refers to the other Voords as his creatures, but that could mean several things. 

The other main issue I take with ‘The Keys of Marinus’ is to do with the Conscience, which is basically a brain washing machine. With his increasing moral stance following the events of the first three Doctor Who stories, much could have been made of this, especially since he only agrees to collect the keys under duress, when he and his companions are denied access to the TARDIS. Instead, we get a warm and fuzzy feeling towards Arbitan as soon as the travelers are ready to return to his island, and a throwaway line from the Doctor about man not being meant to be controlled by machines. 

We also have the first big plot-hole in Doctor Who, in episode two – Barbara, arriving in the City of Morphoton seconds before the others, somehow has time to have a dress made, get to know Altos, and learn about the city. This is a pretty gaping flaw. 

Despite all of this, I can’t totally condemn ‘The Keys of Marinus’ – it has redeeming features. Firstly, the regulars really give it their all, resulting in convincing acting throughout (and thus making up for Arbitan’s gurning in episode one). Susan, who I have always loathed, is actually fairing better during my Who marathon than I would have expected from memory – here she still has bouts of irritating hysteria, but is brave enough to struggle across the ice bridge to save herself and her friends, although she is admittedly galvanized into doing so by the threat of the ice soldiers. Later, when she is held prisoner in Millennius, she looks terrified, but manages not to turn into a complete gibbering wreck. The Doctor comes over very well in ‘The Keys of Marinus’ – we saw the TARDIS crew acting like a team in ‘Marco Polo’, but here he really shows how much he has come to like Ian and Barbara, entrusting Susan to their care without hesitation, and showing real concern when he is trying to overturn the charges against Ian. The scenes in Millennius are generally pretty good, with sound acting from all concerned and a reasonable plot, although the unmasking of the real criminals does depend on stupidity on their behalf, falling for bluffs and giving themselves away through verbal slips – something of a cliché. Ian and Barbara also get yet another chance to shine, due to Hartnell’s absence during episodes three and four – Ian is at his most resourceful, and Barbara also demonstrates courage, especially in light of the rather disturbing hint that Vasor intends to rape her. Interestingly, she notes at one point that Ian treats her like Dresden China and she finds it annoying, but notice how she smiles gently after him as she says this, and contrast it with her genuine annoyance in ‘The Daleks’ when Ganatus asks her if she always does what Ian tells her to. This is a clear sign that they are getting closer. 

Overall, the part of me that used to like Fighting Fantasy books does still quite like ‘The Keys of Marinus’, and I can’t totally condemn it. Sadly, I can’t totally recommend it either, but it passes quite quickly and is, for the most part, an enjoyable if lightweight romp. But the lost potential really frustrates me, and if any authors out there fancy writing a sequel, which revisits Marinus, I for one would buy it.

FILTER: - Series 1 - First Doctor - Television