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The Edge of DestructionBookmark and Share

Thursday, 18 March 2004 - Reviewed by Bill Albert

For many years when references are made to the Hartnell story "The Edge of Destruction" it has always been a part of the negative criticism of the early years of the show. It is generally looked down upon as a bad example despite that fact that this story was the highest rated story of the first season according to "Doctor Who: The Sixties" by Howe and Stramers. "It's so cheap" or "There's no plot" are the most common remarks yet when Warner Video released the story with the "Missing Years" video many of those comments started to change as the story was finally being viewed in a different light. Not only did the new release have a cleaner picture and sound quality but it included the original ending that was cut from the US broadcasts.

To address the first complaint about how cheep the story was I'd like to introduce you to a television term called a "Ship in a bottle" show. This term refers to episodes that are produced using only the already existing sets. These stories are very popular with producers because they allow them to work inside the budget constraints by saving time and money with the designing and building aspects. It is a commonly used practice in all television genres but is most prevalent in the science fiction field. You would be hard pressed to find a series that's never done it at some point. "Star Trek-TOS" used it in several episodes including "Doomsday Machine," "Immunity Syndrome," Tholian Web," and "The Changeling." All in all the fact that only one story was a bottle show in a twenty-six year run is a very impressive accomplishment.

As for the second complaint of "There's no plot" this will depend on your approach. If you look at this as a high event driven story like "Talon's of Weng-Chiang" then there is no plot. But if you look at it as a high powered character driven story then there are many things happening.

The Doctor is presented in most of this story as a villain. Since kidnapping Ian and Barbara there has been a growing animosity for him but he has come across as a stubborn man with an insatiable curiosity that gets him, and them, in to trouble. In this story he goes beyond that to where he is not only directly lying to his companions but he also purposefully drugs them to put them out of commission while he works on the TARDIS.

Many fans have commented on how the 7th Doctor becomes such a chess player in the series and the Virgin novels. Many of the elements that made the darker Doctor so popular are in the 1st Doctor's persona and are present in this story. Susan is one who is also expanded to darker levels bordering on violence. For a good part of her time on the show she is used as a buffer between the Doctor and Ian and Barbara. Here her paranoia and suspicions manifest themselves as she turns on the Earthlings she has previously admired by threatening them with scissors. Even by today's standard that is a very strong depth of character that shouldn't be faulted.

The audience also gets to see different sides of Ian and Barbara. Until this point Chesterton had withstood all the fantastic things going on around them. He has taken everything easily and has worked hard to be a sturdy pillar for the group. But here he shows that, like everyone else, he is vulnerable. He takes to the sidelines and tries to act as a peacekeeper while Barbara's much stronger character is featured. She burst out at the Doctor for being ungrateful for all they have done for him. This story succeeds in making them stronger and deeper characters for the audience to relate to.

This episode also strongly changes the way the characters relate to each other from this point on. It is obvious by the end that the Doctor realizes he has badly underestimated his companions and they have, grudgingly, earned his respect. Even to the point where he apologizes to Barbara for the cruel things he has said and admits his mistakes. "As we learn about each other we learn about ourselves."

One of the other aspects of this story that makes it stand out are the atmosphere and music. The usual bright areas of the console room are sunk in to shadows. The entire presentation is much darker than usual for the series with haunting sounds and music. As the characters become more aware of their situation and try to investigate there is discussion of the threat that something else may have entered the TARDIS when they were unconscious. This is heightened when we see the Doctor checking the others, as they appear to be sleeping. Then, as he works on the console, a pair of hands suddenly grabs him by the shoulder, swing him around, and then clasp very tightly on his throat. The result is very shocking and successful, perhaps even frightening, cliffhanger for the first episode.

Looking back on these two underrated episodes it is clear that this is a quality story on it's own as well as being important to the future of the characters. From the next story, "Marco Polo," on the four main characters are much deeper and more interesting than they were at the beginning. As viewers we are made aware of just how far these characters can be go and the suspense of what lies underneath their cool exteriors makes them much more exciting to watch. Watch this story again for the sheer excitement and drama of a character driven story and you'll soon see how this is an example of the series at it's best.





The Keys of MarinusBookmark and Share

Thursday, 18 March 2004 - Reviewed by Robert L. Torres

We all know how successful the Daleks are and how interesting they can be storywise under the pen of their creator Terry Nation, but in 'The Keys of Marinus' we are presented with an interesting six-part sci-fi yarn that doesn't feature the Daleks at all. The question is, does it succeed?

The answer to that is really up to the personal opinions of those that watch it. It is noted that people are of a divided opinion about this story, some love it, others don't. I happen to be one of those people that love this adventure. Although there are sufficient reasons why it can be viewed as a failure or a disappointment, I disagree. I'll admit that there are some flaws, but it is still enjoyable nonetheless. There are some reviews from critics that complain and nitpick this adventure till the cows come home, sometimes to the point of ad nauseum. That is not my intention. 

The premise of the story reminds me of the quest/adventure type adventures found in most fantasy novels and are even used in scenarios for most role-playing games like 'Dungeons and Dragons'. Our heroes are forced to travel to various parts of the planet to retrieve four micro-key circuits from elaborate traps and obstacles (some physical some mental), meet some interesting characters & creatures along the way, in order to return the keys to a master computer that is essentially a brainwashing machine. 

The story is interesting in that it would stand as a prototype to the more expanded and flesh out quest story 'The Key to Time'.

Terry Nation (God rest his soul) must be commended for his creativity. He creates intriguing concepts for each location and that in itself is a marvelous thing to behold. The fact is, in science fiction you rarely see alien worlds with a diversified population, actually going to different locations, each with a different culture and a society all existing on the same planet. 

All of the ideas, concepts and situations our heroes are thrust into I feel are some of the finest examples of speculative fiction to be used on television. It is the sort of thing that most people weren't prepared for in the 60's. I like that in some of the places that are visited not all of the answers are given, because it actually gives the viewers the chance to maek their own conclusions or develop their own theories about things. 

There are many examples throughout each part. Take the Voord, who are they precisely? Are they a race of men who've banded together as a terrorist/rebel group? Why do they wear skintight scuba suits on dryland? Are they a separate race that also developed on the planet? Or are they in fact the original inhabitants of the planet, trying to take back control from the race of men they see as their oppressors? Are the Voord sea-dwelling creatures originally, and wear the suits to survive on land the way we would wear scuba gear to survive underwater? And the city of Morphoton, how exactly did the individuals controlling everything evolve into such a state to which they survive as beings of pure thought? Was it through genetic manipulation or a mutation caused by radiation? And why is the new culture of the city modelled after the Roman civilization? Could the super brains have once been men from Earth, who were transformed through cosmic radiation? Since their mental abilities gave them power, perhaps they became 'Gods' to the city of Morphoton, and they wished to model the society to reflect their new status, with the the technology of the mesmeron perhaps allowing for greater control over a vast populace. And the soldiers encased in ice? How did they get that way, were the chosen to be key guardians did they volunteer? Were they followers of Arbitan? What process of cryogenics was used to preserve them? Why are they wearing suits of armor that make them look like medieval knights? 

Some people complain that what Arbitan does is essentially blackmail/entrap our heroes and force them to help him retrieve the micro-keys. I don't see it that way. When Arbitan places the forcefield around the TARDIS, it is more out of desperation than from any malicious intent. You can clearly see that he is someone that did not take any pleasure in forcing the Doctor, Ian, Barbara, and Susan to help him. My take on the reasons Arbitan didn't simple use the travel dial himself to get the keys and return with reinforcements to fight off the Voord are simple. Arbitan could've been too old to survive the journey, he could've been reluctant to leave his pyramidal fortress/home because of the Voord, but the main reason is simply this: if Arbitan did use the travel dials to get the micro-keys himself, then there wouldn't be much of a story now would there?

What is also intriguing are the trademark Nation touches that make a planet truly alien, the little things that differentiate the planet from what we Earthlings are used to: the beach of glass crystals instead of sand, a sea of acid instead of regular water, is the acid natural or is it indeed a deliberate defense barrier? 

Still, the creative ambition of Terry Nation's script is a bit bogged down by the production values. Some of the effects work and some of them don't. The sets are impressive and do adequately showcase a different area of the planet Marinus, from a sandy beach, to a Romanesque city of Morphoton, to a jungle, to snow covered plains and mountains, to a 'somewhat' highly civilized city in Millenius. 

'The Velvet Web' is an impressive episode even though a bit cliched considering the overly content atmosphere that is given off. It is a sure sign that if something seems too good to be true, it usually is. Still, this episode clearly belongs to Barbara once she inadvertently breaks free of the effects of the mesmeron and sees that Morphoton is not as beautiful as she once thought. Jacqueline Hill beautifully portrays a sense of knowing a truth her friends cannot see. Her disgust, confusion and outrage over the deception and lies she and her friends are subjected to is well conveyed. There is a nice bit of camera work in which we see things as Barbara sees them that is most effective in conveying that something is terribly, terribly wrong. She proves very adept at being the heroine as she eludes capture and even finds Arbitan's daughter Sabetha, with the missing micro-key, and proves vital in helping Sabetha to break free of the hypnotic conditioning and to remember her initial purpose in travelling to Morphoton, as is indicated by the micro-key she wears around her neck. She also proves vital in ending the reign of the super brain trio by destroying the machinery that acts as both their life support and power amplifier for their mental abilities. The resulting revolution that comes about after their death indicates a sign of hope. The episode is a great parable and allegory when thinking about the price of pure pleasurable indulgences result in a decayed and corrupt culture, being run by equally corrupt individuals. 

In the two episodes that follow with the Doctor's absence (a plot device used to provide William Hartnell some time off), Ian and Barbara are given more of the spotlight. This is especially true of Ian when Barbara goes missing and his realization of Varos' malicious nature, his concern for Barbara is evident and very well displayed as he is willing to do just about anything to ensure her safety. This includes facing the various booby traps put in place, trudging through an icy blizzard, or dealing with jungle plantlife run amok. 

Therein lies another unanswered question, what caused the jungle plants to reach a state that a collective screaming could be emanated and that the plants would achieve a form of sentience that would permit them to attack all humanoid life? Was it an experiment gone wrong? Perhaps, something involving a vegetation growth formula, something that would be beneficial to the reclamation of lands ravaged by deforestation? Who knows? 

I remember Darrius' dying words to Ian and Barbara was a series of letters and numbers that would help them locate the micro-key, it was actually my girlfriend that pointed out that it might stand for a chemical compound. 

'Snows of Terror' is a pretty good episode for several reasons; chief among them is Vasor, the large loner of the mountains that helps out the others, only to serve his own purposes. The attempted rape scene between him and Barbara is very well played (along with daring for its time) and his behavior/attitude is so despicable that you are glad that he gets what he deserves by episode's end. Another reason would have to be the 'ice warriors' (no not the Martian ones you fool) that guard the micro-key encased in ice. 

In 'Sentence of Death', Ian shows great courage and determination in the face of adversity and his justifiable outrage at the legal system of Millenius can also be something attributed to the unfairness of our legal procedures. It is a delight to see the twists and turns in the story unfold.

One point of fact that I must make is in regards to the outfits worn by the judicial tribunal, although impressive they still looked like three Jewish Rabbis. 

William Hartnell's Doctor continues to excel as he has completed the transformation of a cantankerous & grumpy old man, to a lovable and doddering grandfather. He also continues to show his keen interest and curiosity of the alien wonders of the universe. Even when the Doctor is absent for two episodes, his reappearance in 'Sentence of Death' to help defend Ian and investigate his frame up in the city of Millenius is very much appreciated, not just by the companions but the viewers as well. To see him use his experience and intelligence in gathering facts and information is truly a delight as we can see the pleasure he gets from solving a mystery as well as demonstrating his skills in the courtroom, long before Leo McKern would similarly do so as 'Rumpole of the Bailey'. He is quite at home using his mental capacities to manipulate circumstances to uncover the truth. It is also entertaining to see the Doctor re-enact the crime scene in true forensic fashion long before 'Crossing Jordan' or even 'CSI'. 

Altos & Sabetha, the young couple are not as well-defined as individuals, but they go have some good moments as they are both eager and willing to assist the Doctor and his friends in the quest to retrieve the micro-keys. Altos proves himself to be an enthusiastic adventurer and protector, not just of Sabetha but of Susan as well. 

It all reaches a satisfying conclusion as the phony micro-key is put to good use in destroying the Conscience Computer. Despite some flaws in the execution of effects and some rushed plotting, it is an overall enjoyable story. Terry Nation proves adept at creating obstacles and scenarios for our heroes to solve as well as providing imaginatively creative ideas and concepts. It definitely proves that he is adept at spinning a satisfying sci-fi yarn of Doctor Who without using the Daleks.





The Brain of MorbiusBookmark and Share

Sunday, 14 March 2004 - Reviewed by Paul Clarke

I noted when I reviewed 'Robot' that Terrance Dicks is not my favourite Doctor Who writer. Whilst I stand by this comment in general, I regard 'The Brain of Morbius' as the highlight of his Doctor Who career, and the success of this story is perhaps therefore due to the fact that Robin Bland is not, in fact, Terrance Dicks, but Terrance Dicks heavily script-edited by Robert Holmes. 

'The Brain of Morbius' is of course heavily influenced by Frankenstein, and in many respects feels like a homage to Hammer Horror. This results in a distinctly gothic feel to the story, which is unusually horrific even for this period in the series' history. The opening scene of Kriz the Mutt being beheaded by Condo sets the tone, and this is followed by Kriz's twitching head being wired up by Solon, the discover of the headless but obviously living Morbius monster at the end of Episode Two, the revelation of Morbius's brain floating in a tank, Condo's bloody and graphic shooting at the hands of Solon, and the grotesque sight of Solon gingerly cradling Morbius's brain in Episode Three. In addition to which we have the Sisterhood carrying out human sacrifice. This macabre atmosphere typifies 'The Brain of Morbius' and is crucial to its success; the entire story is set on an alien planet, but it could just as easily be set in a Hammer Horror version of Transylvania, with a gothic castle atop a bleak and rocky mountain, a mad scientist, a hunchbacked manservant, and a local coven of witches in the form of Sisterhood. 

The actual plot of 'The Brain of Morbius' is very simple; Solon wants the Doctor's head in order to house Morbius's brain and the Doctor is understandably reluctant to surrender it. Solon thus spends most of the first three episodes chasing after the Doctor, whilst he is alternately hindered and helped by the Sisterhood of Karn. By Episode Four, Morbius once more has a body and the emphasis changes as the Doctor, Sarah and the Sisterhood strive to destroy him. Whilst this plot is sound enough in its own right, what really makes it work is the exemplary characterisation and acting. Philip Madoc almost steals the show as Solon, playing a mad scientist without succumbing to the temptation to go over the top. Whilst Solon is undoubtedly insane, Madoc plays him with such pathos that we see numerous different aspects of his personality. Most overwhelming of course is his obsession with Morbius, and obsession, which has, as he himself notes in Episode Three, forced him to spend years in desperately lonely isolation. His absolute devotion to Morbius drives him completely, everything he does motivated purely by his need to complete his work. As played by Madoc he is nervous and twitchy, impatient to find a head for Morbius's brain, and this results in an air of wild eyed but restrained of mania. But Solon displays other attributes too; he's short-tempered, most notably with Condo, and when enraged he resorts to physical violence, cuffing his servant around the head and eventually shooting him. But he's also largely a coward, and it is thus his obsession with Morbius alone that drives him to desperate measures. When Solon realsies that the Sisterhood have "rescued" the Doctor, he rants and raves, describing them as "a squalid brood of harpies", and when he reaches their temple and discovers that they intend to sacrifice the Doctor, his desperation to obtain the Doctor's head drives him to dare to interrupt the ceremony. However, once his adrenaline rush wears off, he realises his folly and panics; when he pleads with Maren for the Doctor's head he babbles in obvious fear, offering Condo instead out of shear desperation. Indeed, his desperation is such that in addition to endangering himself by risking the wrath of the Sisterhood he comes close to blurting out his reasons for wanting the Doctor's head, thus also endangering Morbius. In addition to his humiliating failure, he also pushes Condo too far, resulting in his near death back at his castle, as Condo angrily pulls a knife on him. With little other option, he is then forced to offer Condo his other arm back, a promise he has no intention of keeping; this further complicates matters for him, as he needs to find a way of stalling Condo as a result. 

It is this deeply flawed persona that makes Solon work so well as a character, and there are other examples throughout. In Episode One, when the Doctor and Sarah first arrive, Solon is at his most charming as he grasps the opportunity presenting itself, but despite the effort he makes, his desperate obsession means that his charm barely covers his grotesque intentions for the Doctor's head and he comes across as decidedly creepy, as Sarah very obviously notices. Ironically, it seems that despite Solon's total devotion to Morbius, Morbius himself has little regard for Solon; Morbius's paranoia and rage whilst trapped in his tank is understandable, but it is worth noting than when he is finally properly installed in his new body, he casually discards the corpse of the newly deceased Solon, despite the fact that he has Solon to thank for his resurrection. It is perhaps fitting that Solon dies just as he completes his life's work. 

Morbius too is well characterised. Whilst trapped in his tank, he sounds desperate and paranoid, and Michael Spice's voice conveys some of the horror of his situation very well. Once Morbius is released however, he changes, becoming both confident and arrogant as he confronts the Doctor in Episode Four. For all that the Doctor and Maren describe the threat posed by Morbius, most of 'The Brain of Morbius' essentially revolves around a very localized threat to the Doctor and Sarah; nevertheless during the brief period in which Morbius is housed in his new body and is lucid, Spice manages to create sufficient charisma for Morbius to make it believable that he could rouse an army to threaten the entire galaxy. Appropriately, Morbius's confidence proves his undoing, as he accepts the Doctor's challenge of a mindbending contest, and pays the price. And the sight of Morbius's brain almost literally blowing a fuse is strangely disturbing as his brain case fills with smoke. 

Contributing to the atmosphere of 'The Brain of Morbius' is the Sisterhood of Karn, who despite ending up on the same side as the Doctor in the fight against Morbius is by no means particularly friendly. Whereas Solon is motivated by his obsession with Morbius to commit murder, the Sisterhood are motivated by their jealous possession of the Elixir of Life to commit atrocities that are at least as bad. So paranoid are they about guarding the Elixir and their Sacred Flame that they drag ship after ship to its doom, regardless of whether those ships are headed for Karn or of what their occupants intend. On first discovering the Doctor's presence on Karn, Maren assumes the worst and decides to burn him alive; in short, the Doctor's only allies on Karn are not nice people, and this adds to the general sense of danger in 'The Brain of Morbius'. As with Michael Spice as Morbius and Philip Madoc as Solon, Cynthia Grenville as Maren puts in a great performance, alternating between imperious and unforgiving in the first two episodes, and later showing a more vulnerable side, as the Doctor's criticisms of the unchanging Sisterhood hit home and she shows the weariness one might expect after centuries of stagnation. The Doctor's effect on the Sisterhood is quite profound, as his constant gentle mockery gradually has an impact not only on Maren but also on Ohica. By the end of the story there is a suggestion that the long-unchanged Sisterhood has been affected not only by Morbius's brief return, but also by the Doctor, and that there is hope that they will, if nothing else, at least stop hijacking passing space travellers and killing strangers without discrimination.

By this point in the season, it almost goes without saying that Tom Baker and Elizabeth Sladen are excellent, but it is worth noting that 'The Brain of Morbius' is a particularly good story for Sarah. Unusually, all three cliffhangers revolve around Sarah instead of the Doctor, and of course she also gets blinded, a situation with allows Sladen to shine as she conveys a sense of barely restrained panic. Sarah is also frequently terrified here, encountering headless monsters and being forced to assist Solon in his brain transplant operation in Episode Four, unable to see and under threat of death. When Condo grabs her by her hair in Episode Three she is again clearly terrified, this giving way to revulsion as Condo shyly tells he likes her. When he saves her from the monster in Episode Four but is killed in the process, she sounds suitably guilty, as she struggles with the fact that Solon's hulking manservant has saved her life at the cost of his own. Of all the supporting characters in 'The Brain of Morbius', Colin Fay's Condo is arguably the most sympathetic; whereas Solon commits atrocities out of obsession and the Sisterhood commit murder out of jealous possessiveness, Condo kills (at least as far as the audience knows) because of Solon's hold over him; Condo wants his arm back. This doesn't excuse him, but in a story filled with characters who are on very dubious moral ground, Condo's actions are marginally more justifiable. His attraction to Sarah also adds to his character, in an amusing nod to The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The Doctor also shines, on the one hand at his wittiest when dealing with the Sisterhood (to Maren's obvious annoyance), on the other at his most intense when dealing with Morbius and Solon; his decision to resort to using cyanide gas to try and stop Solon is testament to how dangerous he considers Morbius and shows him at his most committed.

Production wise, 'The Brain of Morbius' is exemplary. It's very well directed, the score is marvelously evocative, and the sets are superb, especially Solon's castle. Also worth mentioning is the rocky landscape of Karn, which is one of the series better rocky landscape sets. The costumes are also very effective, from the elaborate flame-decorated robes of the Sisterhood to Solon's understated tweedy suit. The Morbius monster is particularly impressive, managing to look like it is made of alien body parts whilst still successfully looking like a piecemeal abomination rather than an actual alien creature. Overall, 'The Brain of Morbius' is a highly effective if unusual story, and after the dreadful 'The Android Invasion' it marks a return to the generally high quality of the season as a whole. A level of quality that will be maintained for the season finale…





MeglosBookmark and Share

Sunday, 14 March 2004 - Reviewed by Paul Clarke

After the thoroughly impressive ‘The Leisure Hive’, ‘Meglos’ is a considerable disappointment. In keeping with the glossy new look of Season Eighteen, it looks great, but it is let down by an unimaginative plot, some dubious acting, and poor characterisation.

‘Meglos’ contains many of the ingredients of classic Doctor Who, including a megalomaniac villain, an ancient and powerful super weapon, a subterranean city, and an alien jungle. One of its several problems is that, having selected these rather unoriginal ingredients, it fails to combine them in an appealing way, resulting in a collection of tedious clichés. For one thing, we have Meglos himself, a stock megalomaniac who wants to rule the universe, but who is given no background or motivation whatsoever. We learn almost nothing of his past or of Zolfa-Thura, his planet of origin which is now dead, except that his fellow Zolfa-Thurans destroyed their entire civilization in an attempt to stop him using the Dodecahedron’s destructive might to achieve his dreams of conquest. This might be such a problem if it were not for the fact that Meglos is a cactus. Who lives in a plant pot. This rather raises the question of how his people built a civilization in the first place, or indeed how he managed to build the screens and his laboratory (let alone the Dodecahedron). The obvious answer lies in Meglos’ ability to possess humanoids, and I would hypothesize that the Zolfa-Thurans at one time used to inhabit such humanoids who also lived on their planet, but this raises even more questions and I feel I shouldn’t have to waste time coming up with such spurious explanations. Leaving all of this aside, we are still left with the fact that Meglos is very poorly characterised. The fact that he has waited for thousands of years in his (presumably well irrigated) tub of compost before bothering to go and retrieve the Dodecahedron is rather strange, and a possible reason for this is given only the briefest of nods as he explains to the Gaztacs that the newly developed fluctuations in the Dodecahedron’s power output are part of its programming. Even if viewers are happy to accept that he’s been sitting around twiddling his spines for millennia, his lust for power is still crushingly clichéd; whereas Skagra’s motivation was explored in ‘Shada’ and whereas Pangol’s was understandable in ‘The Leisure Hive’, Meglos just seems to fancy a bit of a lark. Indeed, he even tells the Doctor that his reasons for wanting to blow up planets are “beyond your comprehension”; presumably, they are also beyond the comprehension of writers John Flanagan and Andrew McCulloch. Power-crazed megalomaniacs are relatively common in Doctor Who, but some justification for their behaviour is appreciated; even the Master has the fact that he wants to best the Doctor motivating him. Meglos doesn’t even seem particularly insane, the usual resort of a writer who can’t think of a more interesting reason for his villain being a nutter. 

As if Meglos’ poor characterisation were not bad enough, Tigella, one of the story’s main settings, is just as poorly thought out. Apparently, the idea of a society divided along religious and scientific lines appealed to Flanagan and McCulloch. Strange then that they don’t bother to do anything interesting with it. Potentially, Tigella could be very interesting, exploring the roles of science and religion in society to the small degree that might be possible in a four-part Doctor Who story broadcast at teatime on a Saturday, but instead it has the stereotypical assumption that science equals rationality and religion equals fanaticism thrust upon it and is left at that. Even these stereotypes, so basic as to be crass, might have been used in some interesting fashion, but they are just used to provide the supporting characters to bicker amongst themselves in a way that makes me wonder how the Deons and the Savants manage to co-exist at all. Like Meglos, the Tigellans themselves are poorly characterised, the only slight exception being Zastor who gets some nice dialogue but is acted with a distinct lack of enthusiasm by Edward Underdown who was unwell during filming. The only other Tigellan of any real note is Lexa, and she is only remembered as much as she is because Jacqueline Hill, returning to Doctor Who for the first time since Barbara Wright left the original TARDIS crew at the end of ‘The Chase’, plays her. Hill makes a reasonable effort in the role, but can’t rise above the fact that Lexa is just a clichéd zealot. Lexa’s sacrifice in Episode Four to save Romana seems to be some feeble attempt on the part of the writers to give the character some depth by allowing her to gain redemption for nearly sacrificing the Doctor, but it is a trivial effort if this is indeed the case. 

The poor characterisation of the Tigellans highlights even more the pitiful lack of background detail in the story. Whereas in ‘The Leisure Hive’, we were provided with a wealth of background information on both the Argolin and the Foamasi, here the lack of background about Meglos is compounded by the lack of background on Tigella. This only serves to highlight the fact that, as is often the case in Doctor Who, Tigella is supposedly an entire world but is clearly just a few rooms and some extras. As I have discussed in the past, some writers find ways around this problem, and others manage to get away with it through sheer style, but when the overall story is so bland, I’m more easily annoyed by things like Grugger stating that the Tigellans use the Dodecahedron to power their entire planet in Episode One, followed by references to one city with (seemingly) a single entrance throughout the rest of the story. And in order to sustain my interest throughout, I also like to ponder such questions as how, if the foliage of Tigella is so lethal that the Tigellans cannot survive on the surface with their level of technology, did they ever manage to survive for long enough to develop such an advanced society? And therein lies the problem with ‘Meglos’; it really doesn’t seem to have very well thought out. Which is probably why the Doctor and Romana’s means of escaping from the chronic hysteresis is so utterly unconvincing. 

Having got all that off my chest, I must admit that ‘Meglos’ does have its good points. It looks pretty good, save for some rubbery foliage on Tigella (primarily the Bell Plants), with nice model work and decent direction, which manages to squeeze some drama from the proceedings. A combination of Terrance Dudley’s rapidly switching camera angles and a dramatic score from Paddy Kingsland (at least for Episode One) makes the cliffhanger to Episode One almost exciting, as Meglos turns around looking like the Doctor, which I wouldn’t have been expecting if I didn’t already know the story. The Gaztacs also provide a welcome diversion; they’re generally as poorly characterised as the other characters, and their costumes are almost as silly as those of the Savants (dodgy blond wigs are apparently mandatory for scientists on Tigella), but Grugger and Brotodac’s dialogue provides some much needed comic relief. The two characters seem to be united by a genuine friendship, which is unusual amongst Doctor Who villains, and Brotodac’s obsession with the Doctor’s coat is rather entertaining. They are both buffoons, and whilst Bill Fraser doesn’t make much of an effort as Grugger, Frederick Treves seems to be enjoying himself as Brotodac, leading me to wonder if ‘Meglos’ would have fared better in Season Seventeen, script-edited by Douglas Adams and played for laughs. In all honesty, I can’t claim that ‘The Horns of Nimon’ is written that much better than ‘Meglos’ is, but ‘The Horns of Nimon’ is so much more fun that I can’t help but love it. ‘Meglos’, with little humour and wedged as it is between the sombre and much more clever stories ‘The Leisure Hive’ and ‘Full Circle’, just feels awkward. 

Of the regulars, K9 gets more to do than he did in ‘The Leisure Hive’, but the production teams’ intention of phasing him out again means that he suffers, as his power pack runs out for no good reason. At least he gets to provide expository dialogue in a reasonably convincing way (something he is always useful for) and advise the Doctor and Romana, but I do find the various ways used to incapacitate him in Season Eighteen rather sad. Although I suppose I should be glad that when he does leave the series, he isn’t actually put down. Lalla Ward is her usual reliable self here, especially in the first two episodes, when she acts panic-stricken very convincingly whilst the TARDIS is trapped in the chronic hysteresis. But it is Tom Baker who really excels here. However poorly characterised Meglos may actually be he is kept interesting by the performances of Tom Baker and Christopher Owen. Owen switches well between baffled Earthling and gloating villain in Episode One, but Baker really excels at playing the villain, proving for the second story in a row that he can act. There are points during ‘Meglos’ during which, thanks to a combination of impressive cactus make-up and Baker’s chilling performance, the character is thoroughly sinister, and Baker succeeds in keeping his performances as Meglos and the Doctor distinct, even when Meglos is actually impersonating the Doctor. It isn’t really enough to rescue ‘Meglos’ from its shortcomings, but it does at least make it worth watching at least once. 

Ultimately, ‘Meglos’ is disappointing, especially after ‘The Leisure Hive’. Fortunately, the following story succeeds in restoring Season Eighteen’s initial high quality…





State of DecayBookmark and Share

Sunday, 14 March 2004 - Reviewed by Paul Clarke

There are, in my opinion, two basic types of vampire story. The first is the traditional type, based almost exclusively on the Bram Stoker’s Dracula, eventually reduced to the status of cliché by a long tradition of films in which aristocratic middle-aged men with widow’s peaks and red lined cloaks pray on visitors to their castles, especially buxom ones. The other type concern attempts to update the vampire mythos by bringing them into a modern setting, and examples include the Blade films, From Dusk till Dawn, and obscure British science fiction series Ultra-violet. Personally, I’m not hugely enthusiastic about either approach; I find it hard to take the former seriously due to over-exposure, and the latter inevitably brings to mind Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a series adored by many Doctor Who fans but despised by me for its “hip” wisecracking approach. For this reason I’ve never found ‘State of Decay’ that appealing, since it takes the traditional style of vampire stories but adds a new, more radical twist to it by cementing vampires firmly in the Doctor Who mythology. On this viewing however, I was forced to reassess my unenthusiastic attitude towards it, as it proved to be far better than I remembered.

‘State of Decay’ is, like most of the stories in Season Eighteen, very atmospheric, and it is this that makes it work. A sense of doom and gloom pervades the story throughout, as soon as the oppressive and depressing plight of the villagers is made clear early on. The background to the story is horrible; entire generations of Earth colonists trapped in a literal state of societal decay, forbidden to read or learn, and treated as little more than cattle by the Three Who Rule. The fact that there is nowhere else on the planet save for the village or the tower creates a claustrophobic feel to the story, and from the moment Ivo’s son Karl is chosen during the Selection, a relentlessly grim atmosphere prevails. It is to the credit of director Peter Moffatt that this is the case, since throughout Episode One, the poor characterisation I unfortunately tend to associate with Terrance Dicks’ writing is in evidence. The villagers are utterly forgettable, as are the rebels and the guards, and they are lumbered with dialogue that, whilst not exactly dreadful, fails to be particularly realistic (at one point, Ivo notes that “resistance would be useless”). It doesn’t help the production that there is also some bad acting on display; Clinton Greyn is unenthusiastic as Ivo and Iain Rattray is positively wooden as Habris. Fortunately, the unusual plot structure and the trio of villains compensate for both poor characterisation and ropey dialogue. 

The Three Who Rule work extremely well as the villains of ‘State of Decay’. Ranting megalomaniacs are commonplace in Doctor Who, and as literal monsters vampires can be excused for falling into this category, but Dicks manages to make them genuinely interesting by creating minor tensions within the group as Zargo and Camilla exhibit resentment for Aukon’s greater power and Zargo confesses to Camilla at one point that he is plagued by fears. These are minor touches, but they add depth to the characters. Aukon is particularly well realized as a religious fanatic with absolute faith in the Great One and dripping with zeal throughout. The three actors play their roles very well, making Zargo, Aukon and Camilla seem menacing without going over the top, which must have been tempting especially for William Lindsay who has to cope with one of the stupidest beards ever to appear in the series. In addition, all three vampires benefit from the great back-story; having decided to cast his vampires in the traditional mould as aristocrats living in what is essentially a castle, Dicks comes up with one of his more interesting plots by revealing that the tower is in fact a stranded spacecraft from Earth brought into E-Space by the power of the Great Vampire. He then plugs the entire concept of vampires seamlessly into the Doctor Who format by revealing that the Great Vampire is an ancient and awesomely powerful alien menace that has inspired myths and legends on a dozen planets throughout the universe, thus following in the largely successful tradition of stories such as ‘The Dæmons’ (disliked by me but popular with many fans), ‘Pyramids of Mars’, and ‘Image of the Fendahl’. Thanks to this rich fictional backdrop, ‘State of Decay’ manages to become more than it at first seems, which is basically a story in which a group of rebels from an oppressed population strive to overthrow the tyrants who are oppressing them. 

In addition to this, the story structure is rather interesting; the Doctor and Romana spend almost the entire story being captured or detained by various groups and then immediately provided with bucket loads of plot exposition. Examples include their detention by the rebels, who explain the poor state of their way of life, and their audience with first Zargo and Camilla and later Aukon, all of whom reveal interesting bits of plot detail. Even when the Doctor and Romana are alone in their cell, they sit and reveal more of the plot to the audience, as do the Doctor and K9 in the TARDIS in Episode Three. This smacks somewhat of lazy writing, but is dealt with so well by the actors involved and carried along so well by the general air of foreboding that instead it just seems novel and interesting. Indeed, the production is largely impressive; the sets and the location filming gel very well, and both look great. Even more impressively, the model shots of the village and tower fit very well with both. Stock footage of bats is used surprisingly well, although the briefly glimpsed model bats are horribly rubbery and unconvincing. Unfortunately, this is not the only dodgy aspect as the model work used to show the scout ship taking off, flipping over, and crashing down into the Great Vampire is diabolical, as is the mercifully brief glimpse of the Great Vampire itself on Calmar’s screen in Episode Four. On the other hand, the special effects sequence of the deaths of the Three Who Rule is very impressive. So two are Paddy Kingsland’s eerie and ominous incidental score, and Amy Roberts’ costumes, although Calmar’s headgear is almost as silly as Zargo’s beard. In addition, the three vampires get some extremely daft looking eye makeup, but overall the production’s good points out way the bad. And the superimposed shot of a bat appearing in front of Aukon in Episode One is great. 

Of the regulars, Tom Baker maintains his high form of the season thus far. He continues to bring out the Doctor’s grimmer, more serious side, adding weight to the dark feel of the story overall, but he also restores rather more of his Doctor’s characteristic humour than in the last three stories, which he uses to bring some much needed light relief to this gloomy story but controls sufficiently so that he doesn’t undermine the atmosphere. Lalla Ward is also on fine form here; of especial note is her convincingly acted terror in Episode Two as the Doctor drops hints to Romana about a monster beneath the tower, but the scene that really shines out is when Romana and the Doctor are talking in their cell. As she casually explains that all Type Forty TARDISes contain the Record of Rassilon and the Doctor tells her that she’s wonderful, the unusual closeness of this Doctor/companion team is emphasized; this is partly the reason why the combination of the Doctor, Romana and K9 is one of my favourite TARDIS crews and the scene carries extra poignancy with foreknowledge of the following story. K9 also gets his best story of the season; whilst he spends most of his time in the TARDIS, he remains useful throughout and also avoids the increasingly common indignities heaped upon him since ‘The Leisure Hive’. Even better, he gets to lead the assault on the tower, culminating in an amusing scene in which Ivo apologizes for underestimating him. On the other hand, it is with ‘State of Decay’ that Adric really starts to great on me. For one thing, he’s thoroughly annoying; his cheeky attitude towards both villagers and Aukon in Episode Two is possibly how a cocky teenager would actually behave, but this just serves to remind me why I don’t like teenagers. I’m reasonably confident that I was an obstreperous little bastard at Adric’s age, and would have been largely despised had I been inflected on the viewing millions. An even better example of how irritating he can be is in Episode Four, during his crap attempt to trick Aukon and this rescue Romana. That Aukon falls for it must mean that he’s stupider than he looks, and with that makeup he often looks pretty stupid. More vexingly, Matthew Waterhouse’s lack of acting experience and/or ability starts to become obvious here as he fails even to walk across the TARDIS console room without looking stilted when Adric emerges from hiding. This fusion of vile character and bad acting does not a winning combination make.

Overall, ‘State of Decay’ manages to maintain the quality of Season Eighteen and is much, much better than I remembered. It doesn’t help it though that it is sandwiched between the impressive ‘Full Circle’ and what is by far my favourite story of the entire season…





The Keeper of TrakenBookmark and Share

Sunday, 14 March 2004 - Reviewed by Paul Clarke

Two things strike me about ‘The Keeper of Traken’. The first is that has a dark fairytale quality and the second is that it has a distinctly theatrical feel. Either of these could be seen as an advantage under the right circumstances, but the problem is, both of these qualities seem to arise out of a combination of bad writing and poor production values, the result of which is that ‘The Keeper of Traken is a story that never fails to leave me cold. 

The basic underlying concept of the Traken Union is fascinating, in that it is a society held together “by people just being terribly nice to each other”, a society so pure that it literally makes evil shrivel up and die. This simplistic polarization of the concepts of good and evil is what makes ‘The Keeper of Traken’ feel so much like a fairytale to me, but it is ultimately facile. The main problem is the definition of evil; ultimately, the definition of evil is subjective. Whilst there are things that most people believe to be evil, there is no clearly drawn line on one side of which things are “good” and on the other of which they are “evil”, which rather raises the question of what the minimum is that one needs to do to be turned into a polystyrene statue. To further compound this issue, Traken seems to a be a society bordering on fascism, with the ruling Consuls discussing summary executions based on the most spurious of evidence. Most obviously, they are quick to condemn the Doctor and Adric based (from their point of view) on the Keeper’s say so, but this does raise the question, if the Doctor and Adric were evil and evil is immobilized by the power of the Source when arriving on Traken, why don’t the Consuls query their ability to walk around quite happily? By Episode Three, Kassia is able to convince Katura and Luvic of the need to execute their prisoners remarkably easily, Katura’s only comment being a sort of vague reluctance that such things are necessary. In addition, the Fosters, with their easily bribable and corrupt superior Neman, seem to have rather more power top enforce the word of the law than ordinary policemen do. 

In addition to this flawed premise, ‘The Keeper of Traken’ suffers from feeling almost like an amateur theatre production. For one thing, the dialogue, which most certainly is not anywhere near Shakespearean, is rather stilted and fails to sound natural throughout, something which is even more obvious having just watched ‘Warrior’s Gate’, in which the dialogue of Rorvik’s crew is much more realistic. In addition, the entire story is studio bound and the sets look somewhat drab, creating a claustrophobic air that always makes Traken seem more like a collection of rooms than a planet. As I’ve stated many times, this is a common failing of both Doctor Who and television science fiction in general, but here it seems more pronounced than in any story since ‘The Armageddon Factor’. In the case of this particular story, this doesn’t actually bother me specifically, but it does add to the impression that the entire story could be very easily performed on stage. 

My main problem with the stagy feel of ‘The Keeper of Traken’ is that it extends to the acting. Anthony Ainley, on the verge of taking on a more familiar role in the series, is actually rather good here, putting in a gentle, restrained performance that in retrospect does wonders for his reputation as an actor. Tremas is a likeable character from the start, and quickly forms a strong mutual respect with the Doctor, with Baker and Ainley working well together. Considering Tremas’ fate, this is appropriate, since it adds weight to the tragedy that befalls him, which would be far less pronounced if the Master stole somebody else’s body. Denis Carey, in his first role in Doctor Who to actually be broadcast, is perfectly adequate as the wizened Keeper, as is the ever-reliable John Woodnutt as Seron. Unfortunately, the other actors are less impressive; Margot van der Burgh’s Katura and Robin Soams’ Luvic are both utterly forgettable, although in all fairness this is largely due to the way the characters are scripted. Roland Oliver’s Neman is a pantomime stooge, taking so much delight in being ordered to push people around in later episodes that I half expect him to start twirling the ends of his large moustache. Most cringe-worthy of all however is Sheila Ruskin is dreadful as Kassia, over-acting to a horrible degree, especially whenever she is required to faint. Lurid hand-gestures and flared nostrils only emphasize the fact that her performance is hammy.

Then there is Geoffrey Beevers. It must be said that his performance is just as over the top as the Master as Anthony Ainley’s would shortly become, but I find it more enjoyable because it fits the tone of the story. Given that ‘The Keeper of Traken’ attempts to separate the concepts of good and evil so simplistically, and given that characters such as Kassia so obviously blur the line, Beever’s largely vocal performance as the real villain fits perfectly; his voice drips with malicious glee, which makes the Melkur really seem like the personification of evil that it is supposed to be. So thoroughly evil does he seem, that it is easy to believe that the immobilizing web of harmony that enshrouds Traken would ensnare the Master even if not corrupt public servants and traitors. In addition, I must admit that I do rather like stories in which old enemies are revealed to be lurking “behind the curtain”. Once the Doctor enters the Melkur and confronts his old enemy, my tolerance for Beevers’ performance diminishes somewhat, as he lurches about in a way that brings to mind Scooby Doo villains and tips the balance of ‘The Keeper of Traken’ from “theatrical” to “pantomimesque”. Nevertheless, the final scene, in which the Doctor’s old archenemy is restored to his former glory promises a great deal; the rivalry between the Third Doctor and the Master, despite being occasionally wrapped in some dreadful stories, was always enjoyable. Whether or not this promise is delivered on however, is a subject for another time…

Finally, the regulars put in decent performances here, even Matthew Waterhouse. The opening TARDIS scene lends credence to the fact that the combination of the Fourth Doctor and Adric showed great promise, once more casting the Doctor in the role of teacher to Adric’s keen student. In fact the opening scene is worth watching simply because it’s the last glimpse we see of Baker’s old humour in the role (except for the “this type’s not really my forte” line at the end of Episode Four), as the Doctor demonstrates his old ego, defends his handwriting, champions the cause of talking nonsense, and cracks jokes (Doctor: “I thought so!” Adric: “Thought what?” Doctor: “I thought you might appreciate it if gave you the impression I knew what was happening”). Adric is well written here, proving resourceful if hotheaded, and seeming to appreciate meeting Nyssa, somebody of his own age. This particularly makes sense given that Adric seems to have been something of an outsider amongst his own people (Varsh treated him as a little brother more than anything else) and has since been in the company of the Doctor and Romana. Sarah Sutton seems to provoke a rather harsh response from many fans, who describe her as wooden. I don’t think this is entirely fair; Nyssa’s overwhelming characteristics here are gentleness and a rather pampered upbringing; given that she could have been portrayed as a spoilt brat, the fact that the character is realized as somebody well rounded and intelligent is most welcome. Sutton’s performance seems to me to fit perfectly Nyssa’s quiet and gentle reserve, and she nicely conveys the character’s closeness to her father. This is important; Nyssa actually gets very little to do in her debut, but the gradually erosion of her family life, which although she doesn’t know it is utterly destroyed by the end of Episode Four, thus sets the tone for Baker’s swansong…