29 – Terror of the Zygons

Doctor Who meets the Loch Ness Monster. I mean, what nine year old boy wouldn’t want to see that? So you can imagine my frustration that it was a further ten or so years before my dad finally found a VHS copy of Terror of the Zygons in a second-hand bookstore. (Should you ever find yourself in Northern Ireland I highly recommend popping in for a visit!)

What was extraordinary is that despite the excitement of seeing the exciting shape-shifting Zygons, and wanting to see Harry’s last adventure as a Doctor Who regular, it took about three watches for me to appreciate the story. Perhaps it was due to the video itself being extremely worn out, and being an omnibus presentation – I certainly know that I enjoyed the adventure much more when the episode breaks were reintroduced.

The story itself is a wonderful straightforward adventure that Jon Pertwee himself could have played with aplomb. The Doctor is summoned back from his preceding adventure by the Brigadier, who is investigating mysterious attacks on Scottish oil rigs. While the story was originally constructed around the mythology surrounding the Loch Ness Monster, the genius of the story was to have the monster be the cyborg servant of an invading alien force – the titular Zygons. Shape-shifting beings who are able to take on the appearance of others, these aliens would prove so popular they would be brought back, largely at David Tennant’s request, to feature in the fiftieth anniversary special The Day of the Doctor, before earning their own double-part story in Season 9. The revelation of the Zygon menace at the end of episode one, surely has to rank as one of the greatest cliffhangers in Doctor Who history.

The story features many other pleasing touches – whether it is the Doctor and Brigadier donning Scottish attire, to the performances by the Zygons and their duplicates. The duplicity of the Zygon doubles enables the production team to deliver a combination of pace, suspence, and atmosphere, with an ease that belies its difficulty. At no point does the adventure feel pedestrian, with the only slight drawback being the realisation of the monster; although remembering the production budget of 1970s Doctor Who, the Skarensen is really not that badly presented!

A final note relates to where this story sits within the Tom Baker era. Although filmed and produced with the other stories from Season 12, the story was held back to lead Season 13, enabling the production crew to shift the series’ start from the traditional January slot to September. The story undoubtedly has an uneasy feel as a result; while it feels more akin to Baker’s debut adventure Robot it is also true that Harry plays a much less prominent role compared to other season 12 adventures. I think I prefer to think of Terror of the Zygons as the last story of Season 12; and also that Harry deserved a much better send off than telling the Doctor he preferred to take the train to London!

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Terror of the Zygons
is available to buy on DVD on Amazon

Next time: I introduce a three-part special of reviews …

30 – The Androids of Tara

This charming adventure is the one adventure during the Key to Time season that has the least to do with the Key to Time, and could most easily be used in any other season. Arriving on the planet of Tara, the Doctor decides to let Romana press ahead with finding the fourth segment of the Key to Time, while he takes a break to do some fishing. The duo become unwillingly pulled into the political machinations of the court of Tara; Romana is captured by the devious Count Grendel, who confuses Romana for the Taran noblelady, Princess Strella. The Doctor meanwhile is accosted by the bodyguard of Prince Reynart, rightful heir to the throne of Tara, who asks him to repair a perfect android copy of himself, intended to be a diversion to distract Grendel.

As you can tell, with a story featuring lookalikes and androids, this story contains more cases of mistaken identity than a Shakespeare farce. Episode two concludes with the Doctor appearing to strike down Romana, when in fact he is striking down an android duplicate of Princess Strella – meaning that the viewer needs to be sharp witted to follow exactly what is happening at any given moment!

It is certainly not the most complicated Doctor Who story in the world, and definitely not the most clever. But it’s enormously good fun, and highly enjoyable to watch! There is something delightfully delicious about Grendel’s ill-disguised political opportunism and Machiavellian plotting, and Peter Jeffrey (who previously appeared in the missing Troughton adventure The Macra Terror as the Pilot) realises the role superbly. Cyril Shaps also breaks with past tradition of his previous Doctor Who appearances, by managing to keep his character alive until the end of the adventure! The rest of the guest cast, while one-dimensional to a certain degree, don’t really need many layers to be enjoyed; although it is amusing that Reynart’s android has slightly more character than Reynart himself, a point referenced in the script!

Baker is just as peerless as you’d expect, and seems to revel in a slightly devil-may-care attitude for this adventure. While K9 also enjoys a starring role and plenty of comic laughs, poor Mary Tamm is slightly reduced to the damsel-in-distress for this adventure. While by no means completely helpless, her role in the story is pretty much get captured, escape, and repeat. Given that so much of the story revolves around pretending to be someone you are not (Tamm played four roles: Romana, Strella, and their respective android doubles) it was perhaps inevitable that they couldn’t give Romana anything other than the role the story demanded.

What can I say? The Androids of Tara is a straightforward story, with a slightly hammed up cast and script, using very familiar themes and motifs. Some fans detest it for all of those reasons. I adore this story for all of those reasons!

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You can buy The Androids of Tara on the BBC Store for £4.99

Next Time: There’s something underhand in Loch Ness …

31 – The Web of Fear

A confession dear readers. When I first compiled my classic Doctor Who countdown list, The Web of Fear was not even on it. It was the summer of 2013, I had almost finished collecting the entire Doctor Who DVD collection, and I ranked only those stories that had I had watched on VHS or DVD (hence The Invasion and The Tenth Planet were included, but The Moonbase was not). That all got knocked for six in October of that year, when we got what was probably the best present to the fans of all in the 50th anniversary year: the return and release of The Enemy of the World and The Web of Fear. Even then, I confess I restrained myself for a while – rumours abounded that the still missing episode 3 of Web had been recovered and would be released with the DVD. We have of course now learned that episode 3 was originally found with the other episodes and taken, but long before then I decided there was no sense in depriving myself of a mostly complete adventure.

This story took a little while to grow on me, but has now become a very firm favourite. Following directly after the preceding The Enemy of the World, it finds the Doctor, Jamie and Victoria drawn to the London Undergound in the 1960s, which is mysteriously deserted save for a military taskforce. It is soon discovered that the city of London is being overrun by two forces – a lethal and impenetrable web that is expanding relentlessly, and an old and familiar foe – the Yeti! It becomes clear that the protagonist of The Abominable Snowmen, the Great Intelligence, has established himself once more on planet Earth, and it falls to the Doctor and his companions to find out what his purpose is, before the city of London is wiped out.

This is a noteworthy tale, even before the remarkable story of its loss and unlikely recovery from Nigeria. Following the popularity of the Yeti in their debut story, the BBC quickly arranged for a follow up adventure to maximise their appeal. While their debut story is still sadly officially missing (though I am hopeful of its return!) we are still able to enjoy their return. The story has a particular significance however for the debut of a character who would become a firm fixture for seasons 7 to 11 – Colonel Alastair Gordon Leighbridge-Stewart. Here only a Colonel, this story would pave the way for the U.N.I.T era, and indeed features the hallmarks that would characterise the Pertwee era – an adventure set on earth, against an invading alien force, with the Doctor working alongside military and scientific groups to repel the invasion. It is a huge pity that Leighbridge-Stewart’s debut episode is the one that was appropriated by the unknown collector, and we can only hope it is not lost beyond all hope.

Even aside of this significance, The Web of Fear is a genuinely good story in its own right. Patrick Troughton is at the height of his powers as the Doctor, ably assisted by Fraser Hines and Deborah Watling. The supporting cast are also superb; a special mention is due to Jack Woolgar portraying the irascible Staff-Sergeant Arnold, but every single actor puts in a first class turn. The production team also manage to deliver a wonderfully claustrophobic and atmospheric story – they reproduced the London Underground so well that the BBC were accused of illegally using the actual Underground lines without permission! As base-under-siege stories go, this one is easily one of the best.

I know several fans were surprised to not enjoy this adventure as much as The Enemy of the World, in part because a mythology had developed around The Web of Fear that simply had not around the preceding adventure. As you will soon read, there are reasons that I still prefer Enemy to Web, but that is no disservice to Web. This is an outstanding adventure from the Troughton era, and a joy to watch even partially incomplete. I can only imagine fans enjoying it even more if episode 3, and indeed The Abominable Snowmen are ever recovered.

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The Web of Fear
is available to buy on DVD on Amazon

Next time: “Grendel? You’ve forgotten your hat!”

Debate: When did the UNIT era begin?

Recently I enjoyed rewatching one of Patrick Troughton’s very best adventures, The Invasion. An veritable saga of a story ,spanning eight thrilling episodes, the adventure also featured the return of Colonel Leighbridge-Stewart, previously seen in The Web of Fear, and now promoted to the rank he’d be best known for – Brigadier. The adventure also features the first on-screen appearance of U.N.I.T. – the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce; a military grouping set up to investigate (as the Brigadier would say in Spearhead from Space) “the odd; the unexplained; anything on this world … or even beyond it.”

And that got me to pondering a question that I then put to my followers on Twitter:

Intrigued? Allow me to put the case to you for each, not just in my words, but according to those who responded …

Spearhead from Space

For many people, U.N.I.T may have first appeared in The Invasion, but the U.N.I.T. era refers specifically to the time in the show’s history where the Third Doctor served as their scientific advisor, and spent a disproportionate amount of time helping the Brigadier out of scrapes. Through this lens, the U.N.I.T. era began when Jon Pertwee tumbled out of the TARDIS in 1970.

The Invasion

It is beyond dispute that Spearhead from Space is part of the U.N.I.T era; but the majority of fans believe that the era started the previous season when Patrick Troughton helped the Brigadier and the nascent taskforce to repel an invading force of Cybermen. It is well known that The Invasion was in part a trial run for the concepts planned for Season 7 – a longer adventure, set on earth, and with a regular supporting cast across the whole season. While the Doctor may have arrived and escaped in the TARDIS, in many respects it is not that different to many of the stories from the Pertwee era – indeed I theorised that a colourised version would fit in very nicely with the Pertwee era!

The Web of Fear

 

While The Web of Fear is very much a U.N.I.T. style adventure, and also is the first to feature Nicholas Courtney as Leighbridge-Stewart, the majority of fans who responded to the poll did not regard this as the start of the U.N.I.T era, because the Brigadier is heading up the regular army rather than the specialist taskforce. It is arguable that the seeds of The Invasion were first planted in the Web of Fear however, which may be why some fans do feel that this adventure marks the beginning of the Doctor’s association with U.N.I.T.

Other candidates

Nobody who replied felt that The Faceless Ones merited inclusion in the poll, which I had included as a representative for the pre Web of Fear adventures that were clearly set on contemporary earth, rather than a historical or future setting.While The Faceless Ones (as best as we can judge from surviving material) has the hallmarks of a U.N.I.T. adventure, it was correctly pointed out that the first adventure to really embody these criteria was in fact The War Machines. Although definitely not a U.N.I.T adventure, you can certainly spot a common thread running through The War Machines, The Faceless Ones, and The Web of Fear, all leading up to the establishing of U.N.I.T in the Invasion.

The more fascinating response (which I had not anticipated!) was to take a much narrower interpretation of the U.N.I.T era – which would embody the ‘U.N.I.T family’ of the Third Doctor, Jo Grant, The Brigadier, Captain Yates, Sergeant Benton, and Delgado’s Master. This definition would limit the U.N.I.T era to Seasons 8 to 10, and begin with Terror of the Autons. Personally, I think that’s a little on the late side!

Conclusions

Fans clearly seem to agree that an adventure merely being ‘in the style of’ a U.N.I.T adventure is not sufficient grounds to qualify their inclusion in the U.N.I.T era. The Invasion seems to be the compromise point that most fans land on -few dispute that the era is definitely underway by the time Patrick Troughton has regenerated in Jon Pertwee, but are more reticent to allow for the appearance of Alastair Gordon Leighbridge-Stewart as the watershed moment. As one commentator said above, the adventures prior to The Invasion were the groundwork for the U.N.I.T era; The Invasion would then become the foundation stone for the era that began in Season 7.

As usually seems to be the case in Doctor Who fan debates, nobody is either 100 per cent right, nor 100% wrong! And perhaps after all, it’s okay to say that it doesn’t matter exactly where the U.N.I.T era began …

32 – Planet of Evil

This adventure caused me no small amount of confusion when my dad first bought the video. At that stage in my young life, the only Tom Baker adventure I had seen was the 1993 repeat of Genesis of the Daleks. So when I saw the good Doctor and Sarah Jane on my parents’ TV screen, I mistakenly concluded that this was the same adventure I had seen before – an impression that did not take long to be corrected!

Planet of Evil is an exceedingly clever story, which does not really feature a monster in the traditional sense. It is definitely of the same ilk as historic base-under-seige stories, as first a planetary expedition, and then the rescue ship come under the attack of an unknown and malevolent force. When the Doctor and Sarah respond to a distress signal on Zeta Minor, they are initially blamed for the death of the expedition by the lone survivor, Professor Sorenson. As the story plays out, it is revealed that Zeta Minor is on the very edge of two universes – the universe of matter, and the universe of anti-matter. As Sorenson becomes infected by the anti-matter, the Doctor has to find a way to return all of the anti-matter specimens to Zeta Minor before the rescue team are pulled into the anti-matter universe.

While I admit this largely went over my head as a child, I adored the plot when I was old enough to appreciate it! As with many Doctor Who adventures that I best love, it combines a straightforward plot with clever twists, great characters, and of course the indomitable presence of the Doctor! Season 13 is quite rightly held in very high regard by fans, with the on-screen chemistry between Baker and Sladen exceptional, paired with exceedingly strong stories. Planet of Evil is a fine example of this at work.

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Planet of Evil is available to download on the BBC Store for £6.99

Next time: A lost classic set in the London Underground, incredibly rescued in 2013 …

33 – Death to the Daleks

This adventure was a childhood favourite, and remains a delight to this day. Falling in Pertwee’s final season, this was the third and final time he would face the evil intergalactic pepperpots before regeneration at the close of the season. The story sees the TARDIS crash land on an unknown planet, suffering from a mysterious power loss. They quickly find an Earth survey ship suffering from a similar loss of power, and are soon joined by a spaceship full of Daleks, also mysteriously deprived of power.

The loss of power makes for a wonderful dynamic, with the Daleks initially deprived of their ray guns, and forced to develop conventional rifle style guns. Until they regain their weaponry, they display much the same sort of villainous cunning they displayed in Power of the Daleks – perhaps this is what Pertwee’s Doctor has in mind when he urges the earth taskforce “don’t trust them – not even for a minute!”

Both crews are ostensibly there for the same reason – needing a rare mineral that is the only known cure to a great space plague that is decimating the galaxy. They unite behind this purpose, and also to discover whatever it is that is causing the power drain. It transpires that the inhabitants of the planet, known as Exxilons, worship an incredible self-sustaining city, and this is the source of the power drain. After saving Sarah from being sacrificed for the crime of approaching the forbidden city, the Doctor allies himself with a fugitive Exxilon known as Bellal, the leader of a group determined to destroy the city. While the Daleks enslave the Exxilons to mine the planet, the Doctor has to find a way through a series of traps within the city to destroy its deepest workings, and enable the travellers to escape.

There are occasions when one must overlook the production values of this story; it is certainly not the most complicated or sinister Dalek adventure ever produced, and the episode 3 cliffhanger has to go down as the most pointlessly dramatic ever – as the Doctor urges Ballal not to step upon a patterned floor! If one overlooks these small details however, one finds a highly enjoyable a straightforward adventure, made all the better for a superb supporting cast and the involvement of the Daleks. That it is not the best Dalek story available says rather less about this adventure, and rather more about the quality of Dalek stories in general! It is also the last Dalek adventure of the classic era not to feature their villainous creator, Davros, although it did feature the actor who would portray Davros in his debut adventure, Michael Wisher, here providing the voices of the Daleks.

It saddens me to say that this is also the last adventure of the Pertwee era that I find myself able to enjoy. Even in this adventure you find the sparkle beginning to diminish, and for his final two adventures The Monster of Peladon and Planet of the Spiders the spark is completely gone. There have definitely been occasions when I have felt that either this story or The Green Death would have been more fitting swan songs for a truly great Doctor …

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Death to the Daleks is available to download on the BBC Store for £4.99

Next time: A classic Tom Baker adventure which takes him to the edge of the known universe …

34 – The Pirate Planet

The second episode of the Key to Time season is very much a marmite taste to Doctor Who fans – but whether you love it or hate it, you are in agreement that the reason why is that it’s a comical performance that verges on pantomime. While the preceding story The Ribos Operation is very much hit and miss (and more miss than hit), by The Pirate Planet you can very evidently see the fingerprints of Douglas Adams at work in Doctor Who, with his humour and narrative style much more evident. I personally greatly enjoy Adam’s offbeat and sardonic humour, which perhaps explains why I enjoy this story, one of only three Doctor Who stories penned by Adams himself.

Seeking the second segment of the Key to Time, the Doctor and Romana land seeking the planet Calufrax, instead landing on Zanak – which for whatever reason is occupying the exact point in space and time that Calufrax ought to be. The planet is under the rule of the tyrannical Captain, a cyborg who is every inch a blustering pirate captain, waited upon by the fastidious Mr Fibuli. As the TARDIS crew seek to discover where Calufrax has gone, they realise that the Captain is nothing more than a puppet for the planet’s presumed dead former Queen, Xanxia. Xanxia established Zanak as able to transfer instantly across space to engulf whole planets, robbing them of their mineral wealth, and enabling her to hold back death and attempt to create a new corporeal form. The Doctor and Romana find themselves in a race to stop the demented Queen before Zanak cannibalises their next target: Earth!

While there are many outstanding performances, it is Bruce Purchase as the Captain who either makes or breaks this story for the viewer. Loud, bombastic and every inch a pirate stereotype, you will either rebel at the caricature, or else embrace it warmly as you realise that the Captain himself is putting on a front, hoping to usurp Xanxia. Baker and Tamm make good use of the humour provided by Adams – indeed I would say this is one of Tamm’s strongest performances in the role, getting a better balance between helpless damsel (The Power of Kroll) and overbearing know-it-all (The Ribos Operation).

This story may not be universally loved, but I principally enjoy it for a good straightforward story, and plenty of simple laughs. I cannot think of an occasion when I have watched this story, and not been cheered up by the end of it; which I think is just about the best compliment you can pay to any television material!

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The Pirate Planet
is available to download from the BBC Store for £4.99

Next time: Before Sarah Jane Smith met Davros, she met his villanous creations …