130 – Battlefield

“Shame!”

This was Doctor Who’s concession to the fact that military types often use post-watershed language when stressed. The main military figure in this episode, Brigadier Winifred Banbera, uses this motif on a number of occasions to express, in a typically British manner, that she’s just a little bit cross – quite possibly because the pre-9pm showtime forced her to restrain her preferred expletive!

Battlefield is a curious crossover between older seasons and the new direction the show was going in. By bringing back Nicholas Courtney as the popular Brigadier Leighbridge-Stewart, reintroducing UNIT, with whom the Doctor had enjoyed (or endured depending on your viewpoint!) a long relationship in the 1970s, and of course John Pertwee’s classic yellow car “Bessie”, the show unashamedly looked back. By replacing the Bridgadier with the strong female lead of Banbera however, there was a distinct sense of easing continuity – very much like Russell T Davies was to do by referencing UNIT in the Christopher Eccleston story Aliens of London. Credit where it is due – if one leaves aside the embarrassment of watching Banbera look like she’s forgotten how to swear, UNIT work very well in the story alongside the Doctor.

This was the first serial of Season 26 – the last season of the classic run. By now Sylvester McCoy and Sophie Aldred were in prime form as the Doctor and Ace, and the stories now reflected Ace’s own growing self confidence, and the emergence of McCoy as a dark and manipulative character playing a much larger game. This was played out rather well in The Curse of Fenric … but rather less well here.

This story was penned by Ben Aaronovitch, who did a stellar job on Remembrance of the Daleks. Unfortunately in this serial, whether due to the briefing given by Script Editor Andrew Cartmel, or just pure mistake, he manages to achieve a degree of weirdness not seen since … well, Rings of Akhaten to be fair! The theory is that a group of medieval(ish) knights have fallen through from another dimension, loosely based on the Arthurian legends. Adding to the mystique of the Seventh Doctor, he is recognised as “Merlin” – implying a future adventure that McCoy was yet to have. Their King Arthur is trapped beneath a nearby lake with his sword emitting a distress signal – attracting both his loyal knights, and the attentions of his enemy Morgaine. And the rest of the story consists of them fighting each other (and UNIT – caught in the middle) for the sword.

Confused? Yes, I still am, having watched the serial twice! And that’s rather the problem – Aaronovitch manages to be too clever by half and you’re not really sure who’s fighting whom, or why (or at some stages, even how).

This was the final Doctor Who serial repeated in 1993, and I remembering wondering why it hadn’t been as good as the stories that had preceded it. Sadly, despite a big jump in production values and acting quality, the serial is badly let down by a convoluted and at times nonsensical story. The Doctor and the Brigadier deserved a much better farewell than this.

I did draw two positives from the DVD however. The first was succeeding to buy it new for £3 in Sainsburys (no idea why it was so low – easily the cheapest I ever bought a Doctor Who DVD). The second is the rather excellent DVD extra, “Tank.” At the end of episode two, the cliffhanger has the Doctor knocked unconscious, seemingly unable to save Ace, who is trapped in an alcove that is filling us with water. The geniuses at the BBC had not thought to test the glass to see if it could cope with the pressure of the water, and it had started to crack. The DVD presentation includes the camera footage of McCoy quite literally saving Aldred’s live, crying loud and clear “GET HER OUT OF THERE!” Moments after Aldred being lifted out with only a few cuts, the glass broke and flooded the studio – which had a huge number of live electrical wires on the floor.

I may find the serial difficult to enjoy, but I can see very clearly why the footage is now used in risk assessment videos!

131 – The Greatest Show in the Galaxy

This story is certainly a prime candidate for referral to the Advertising Standards Authority – if ever there was a misleading (and far too long!) title for a Doctor Who story, this is the one!

I begin however by praising the direction that the show was beginning to take by this point – not least of which is that when a studio workers’ strike put the serial in jeopardy, the producers circumnavigated the issue by filming the interior shots under tents. Full marks not only for persistence, but for subsequently producing a story that is more claustrophobic and atmospheric than might otherwise have been the case.

By this stage too, the Seventh Doctor and Ace are in their element and very neatly play off against each other. By now, McCoy has definitely shrugged off any pretensions of being Boris Johnson, and is now every inch Peter Mandelson – even when clowning there is a distinct sense he’s only doing it for an ulterior motive. Ace continues to grow in a very fascinating role – one where she displays a tough exterior and a great deal of bravado, but the audience gets glimpses of the vulnerability that the exterior masks. Played over a modern style 13 episode series, the seventh Doctor and Ace would have made compelling and interesting viewing.

Sadly however, that is not what is on show (yes I know, forgive me) in this story. This is one of those rare instances where it isn’t the acting or production values that let the serial down – most of the acting is highly credible. The greatest problem is that the story is relentlessly silly. The core premise is that a touring circus mishappens upon the resting site of three beings of immense power, who insist on perpetuation entertainment lest their considerable wrath be made evident. It’s rather akin to the modern day God Complex serial where the reality you see is not real but a projection, and behind the scenes someone is feasting on human emotion.

What ought to be a scary concept is rather ruined by the fact that the hosts of the ‘Greatest Show in the Galaxy’ are somewhat unbelievable – and while it is tense, there isn’t the same sense of dread there ought to be. Take the head of the show – the chief clown. Clowns ought to be scary – it’s practically a law of the land. A clown appears for a three second cameo in The Deadly Assassin and it scares you because it is unnerving. The clown of this serial however, is more of the Hooded Claw pantomime villain variety and with his gang of misfits leaves you cringing rather than cowering.

And then of course there is the greatest fan of the greatest show in the galaxy – a teenage nerd who bicycles great distance so he can see the show himself. Here is a simple message to the showrunners – like Osgood in Day of the Doctor, like Malcolm Taylor in Planet of the Dead – it is not a good idea to have a character in the story who is an obvious representation of Doctor Who fandom. It’s self-referential, cringy, and embarrassing. I suspect I was not the only viewer not to be disappointed when he failed to please the all powerful baddies and ended up roasted by lightning.

Unlike many of the serials below, this is a story that I will watch again. I found it hard to enjoy on DVD but I am prepared to give it a second chance – probably while doing the ironing at the same time! The Greatest Show in the Galaxy in some ways typifies the tragedy of Sylvester McCoy’s era – you can see how they were trying to turn the corner, but the flaws make it painfully obvious how far short they were falling.

133 – The Happiness Patrol

After that brief interlude of acknowledging other Doctors had less celebrated serials, I am afraid we now return to Sylvester McCoy – but not however to Season 24!

One of the greatest assets of Doctor Who is the breadth of its fanbase – it is broad enough to encompass my best friend’s dad, who thinks that it was a mistake to replace William Hartnell with Patrick Troughton, all the way to another friend who loves the seventh Doctor. There really is something for everyone!

But I must be honest … for the most part the 1980s aren’t for me! And The Happiness Patrol is an extravagant celebration of the 1980s in garish colour – even the TARDIS is painted pink because blue is deemed an unhappy colour!

The premise isn’t actually a bad one even if it is somewhat unoriginal – a planet in the iron-like grip of a dictator ruling through a police state, albeit one of women in big hair and bright pink uniforms. The number one rule is: “you must be happy” – with clear definitions of what happiness looks like. The Doctor and Ace land on the planet – as ever with McCoy’s doctor, by this stage it is impossible to tell if he’s bumbling along by accident or actually playing a long and subtle game – rather like Boris Johnson really!

And Boris Johnson links neatly to the elephant in the room – the obvious parodying of Margaret Thatcher in the villain – the dictator “Helen A.” I think it would be fair to assume that the BBC and the Tories have never been the best bedfellows – by Sylvester McCoy’s own testimony, they modeled Helen A on Mrs Thatcher because in their view “she was the greatest and scariest villain around at the time.” In mitigation to the Beeb, they were simply following in a long history of mocking politicians – witness the reference to the Miner’s Strike in the Monster of Peladon, or Harold Wilson’s questionable retirement honours in The Deadly Assassin – of course more recently the ‘sexed-up’ dossier on Iraq was mocked in the very first series of the revived Doctor Who.

In this case though – there’s more than a distinct sense of whinging by the liberal left. Having watched the Peladon stories, with the undercurrents of joining the then ECC and industrial unrest, one appreciates how the topics of the time feed into rather good stories – Doctor Who becomes a different means of understanding the present and thinking about it. By contrast, you sense the producers here were angling for “What a ghastly woman! Don’t you agree?”

Leaving my own blue bias to one side, when I got to watching the serial (which was among the last 20 I purchased) on DVD, I attempted to leave this to one side and enjoy the serial on its own merits. To be fair, there are some merits. Compared to his first season, McCoy makes the part his own and is a much more believable and Machiavellian character than the bungling clown of Season 24.The only flaw, which makes it difficult for me to enjoy his tenure, is that he’s so busy playing a grand game of chess, you’re left not really knowing what’s going on. Ace is also fantastic. Paving the way for every companion since then Sophie Aldred captures both the brave exterior with a believable inner vulnerability – her reaction to the world around her invites the viewer to become involved, which is precisely what the companion should do.

But while the show was turning the corner, The Happiness Patrol is still a product of its time – garish, overplayed and sadly possessing a plot devoid of substance. If the serial had been based on the exceptional Vengeance on Varos then they might have gotten somewhere. Instead of which, they have a rather comical villain called the Kandy Man (who bore such a strong similarity to a Bassets product that the Beeb had to promise to never use him again) who threatens people with the most horrible death imaginable … drowning in sugary fondant …

One cannot help but wonder if Doctor Who would have stood a better chance of surviving beyond Season 26 if this serial hadn’t been produced …

134 – Four to Doomsday

For a long while this was one of only two serials in Peter Davison’s first season that I hadn’t watched on VHS. For that reason, when my dad arrived home from whichever video outlet (most probably HMV) he had bought the video, I rather looked forward to watching it, having enjoyed rather a lot of the fifth doctor’s other episodes – as you will see later on in this blog!

Before I comment on this episode, it is important to explain that this was the first episode recorded featuring Peter Davison as the Doctor. His first serial Castrovalva was in fact the fourth episode recorded – for the dual reason that the originally planned serial was scrapped and needed replaced, and to enable the new Doctor and his relatively new set of companions the opportunity to settle in before recording the high-pressure first serial that they would be judged on. Unsurprisingly therefore, the cast are very rusty and it shows in their acting.

All this would matter less if they were carried by an especially strong story. Sadly the story fails to deliver on this front, and leaves one feeling somewhat underwhelmed by the end of the story.

A few factors contribute to this. For one thing, it had not been planned that Nyssa would be on the TARDIS team, so the script-editors had to work with an extra person. The solution is somewhat inelegant – Tegan spends most of her time trying to run back to the TARDIS, eventually managing to move it fifty feet (and into outer space) in sheer desperation. Nyssa briefly explores the spaceship the crew have landed on, before being hypnotised by the evil crew of the ship, while Adric … well, he seems taken in by the villain of the piece, an intergalatic frog known as Monarch.

Ah, and Monarch brings us to the crux of the matter. He has used up all of the natural resources of his home planet, and miniaturised the entire population into microchips as a slave workforce – and now he plans to take over earth so that he can use their resources. Forwhy? Why, elementary – he is convinced he can make his ship faster and faster, break the speed of light, and travel back in time. Now, most people want to travel back in time to change the past or some other grand ambition. But Monarch plans to travel back in time because he wants to travel back to the beginning of time and “meet God” – because he is convinced that he is God. As intergalatic ambitions go, it is decidedly ropey!

And that is what makes this episode a disappointment. Davison hasn’t warmed up yet; the plot never really convinces at any stage; and in what would become a recurring problem for Season 19, the showrunners struggle to make three companions work.

On the other hand – it is hugely entertaining to watch the amazing special effects as the production crew ignore the laws of physics (what?! Doctor Who unscientific? Perish the thought!) and have the Doctor reach the TARDIS in outer space by throwing a cricket ball against the side of Monarch’s spaceship, and ricochet back to propel him across the gap. Once you learn that this was achieved by wheeling poor Peter Davison across a bluescreened room in an office chair, you can never really watch it in the same way again.

It was a good effort, but on the whole I’m rather glad that the majority of Davison’s other serials did not take after this one!

The worst episodes: An apologia

I thought after my last review that I should provide a short apologia on behalf of the episodes I am currently working through – not least because I do not want to discourage my readers with wave after wave of excessive negativity!

In choosing to work from the bottom to the top that naturally means dealing with my least liked episodes first – and however much we try to pretend otherwise, every show has it’s duds, especially when it ran for 26 seasons! It would be entirely hypocritical to pretend that I don’t cringe with embarrassment watching Timelash – I honestly make no effort to defend the production values involved!

That said, I was struck by a certain optimism when writing the first two reviews. I have found with Doctor Who that there is almost a certain hope and tolerance – rather like buying an album for the good tracks, you don’t completely write off the rest of the album because it’s all part of the big story. So even when I’m thanking the Lord that Harry Hill didn’t have the opportunity to parody the Red Kangs telling the Blue Kangs that “Red Kangs are best!” (which one is better? There’s only one way to find out – FIGHT!) – I still admire the capacity of the show to continuously reinvent itself over 26 years; to bring different characters, storylines, and settings.

I might despair of the 1980s and be glad I was too young to remember most of it, but it is remarkable to see the story transition from 60s to 70s to 80s, constantly adapting but aiming to keep the core theme of adventure and exploration at heart. It is only a pity that by 1980s the show lacked the investment to keep up with the world around it.

So to my less enjoyed episodes – I still salute you! I only feel sorrow that your stories were not as good as they could have been.

And to my readers – it is going to become even more fun – before we even get to the top 100 I will be enthusing about serials, and apologising for why they are so low down the ranking order!