116 – Planet of the Spiders

I begin tangentially with a fact: I love regeneration stories. I didn’t fully appreciate the first one I saw (The Caves of Androzani) at the time, but I didn’t grasp the significance of the Doctor renewing himself. Probably though, it was Logopolis that fully converted me to enjoying regeneration stories. I think it is for the simple reason that Tom Baker is my Doctor – to borrow the lovely expression used by Matt Smith: “The first face this face saw.” The whole of that episode is brooding, melancholy and dramatic, building to the climax of the Fourth Doctor falling to his death – to regenerate. Stirring stuff!

So from that point on, I made a point of wanting to watch as many regeneration stories as I could (as an aside, I also thoroughly enjoy newly regenerated stories – though more inspired by Spearhead from Space than by Robot!) – I think aside of Caves of Androzani, the next one I had the chance to enjoy was The Tenth Planet. Arguably I had watched the end of The Trial of a Timelord and also The TV Movie – but these aren’t really regeneration stories within the definition of the act! So then that left two – The War Games and Planet of the Spiders.

So I was suitably delighted when youtube kindly made Planet of the Spiders available to stream, several years before the DVD was released. As I recall, my friend foolishly mentioned the fact one evening, and I stayed awake until 2am to watch Jon Pertwee’s final adventure. Most unfortunately, my delight did not last very long.

To revisit a theme I have mentioned – expectations shape how I enjoy Doctor Who stories. With dire fan warnings (not least from my dad) I should have been prepared for disappointment – but I think as with Paradise Towers I tried to persuade myself it wasn’t going to be as bad as the naysayers were foretelling. Up until the end of Episode One, you might just get away with it, provided you skate over such cringeworthy moments as the Brigadier enjoying an (off camera) belly dancer. The setting is mysterious, and there is suitable intrigue at the reintroduction of Mike Yates, last spotted threatening to shoot his former U.N.I.T. colleagues in Invasion of the Dinosaurs.

But from there it all goes downhill somewhat. As a four parter this might have worked quite well – everyone’s frightened of spiders, so there’s the fear factor. The concept of mental energy being magnified by the blue crystal of Metebelis III makes for a plausible threat, as does the notion of a human colony living in servitude to the spiders. But the execution is rather more ghastly than the execution the spiders themselves threaten during the story. To begin with, there is acting that would make a primary school nativity play look Oscar winning standard. The sets of Metebelis III are so obviously studio based that one almost has to resist the urge to join in with the pantomime and shout “He’s behind you!” And there begs the huge question – was it really so necessary to indulge Jon Pertwee in his final story by giving an entire episode to a heavily protracted car-chase?

But the greatest tragedy is that Pertwee deserved better, and had Roger Delgado lived, would have received better. The intention was always that the last serial of Season 11 would feature a story where the Master and the Doctor would face each other in a final conflict, appropriately called ‘The Final Game.’ The Master would appear to give up his life to save the Doctor, and Jon Pertwee would go out with a bow. When one considers John Simm’s performance in The End of Time and the story Steve Moffat told in the Sherlock episode The Final Game, one ends up feeling that Planet of the Spiders is a poor substitute for the story we could have enjoyed.

But as Delagdo’s untimely death meant we would never enjoy that story, can we still appreciate Planet of the Spiders? In some ways yes. If you disengage your credulity, ignore the excessive padding and the atrocious acting in places, there is plenty to enjoy. Lis Sladen is excellent as Sarah-Jane Smith, the redemption of Mike Yates’ character is very well handled, as is the sensitive handling of Tommy, a character who has a learning disability that is healed by the power of the blue crystal. In fact, the whole thing would be more enjoyable but for the fact it is not abundantly clear why the Doctor had to go back to Metebelis III, or what caused his regeneration inducing injuries – it’s just as dissatisfying as Colin Baker regenerating because the Rani shot down his TARDIS.

Of all the regeneration stories, I think Planet of the Spider deserves its mantle as the worst. It also is deservedly the worst Jon Pertwee story – although a pretender to that claim is not so vary far ahead …

117 – Revelation of the Daleks

This serial really confused me when I first saw it. The BBC did repeats of one serial for each Doctor – and I started watching from Genesis of the Daleks. I accepted the change to Peter Davison with confusion but reasonably equally, but was confused when Colin Baker appeared in Revelation of the Daleks, with no explanation to his change. Of course, I very soon figured out that the BBC had not shown the serials in order!

I’m sad to say though that I didn’t enjoy it then, didn’t enjoy the VHS, and only warmed up slightly when I bought the DVD. It’s not really due to the fault of the story as there are a number of intriguing threads – Davros creating Daleks from humans (a theme revisited in The Parting of the Ways); the revelation that the ‘real’ Daleks were hunting after Daleks; and of course the machinations of the inhabitants of the planet of Necros who are attempting to depose Davros – who is masquerading under the alias “The Great Healer.” His duplicitous scheme – he tells griecing relations that their departed loved ones are in cryogenic freezing pending eventual awakening and cure of their ailment. In practice? The rich ones are frozen, the rest are turned into food to meet the galaxy’s major food crisis.

All very macabre and in theory set up for a good story. But there are some distinct problems – top of the list being that it takes the Doctor and Peri all of the first 45 minute episode just to reach the site of the main action. In the meantime, we have a veritable overdose of story lines and characters, and a cringeworthiness of over-acting. One senses that story teller Eric Saward was simply trying to cram too much into a usual length story – in actual fact, it may have been a better candidate for the three-parter than The Two Doctors. And then there is the DJ – the utterly pointless DJ who kills Daleks with ‘rock’n’roll’ and then does the stupidest of stupid things and doesn’t stay with his gun. I suspect many viewers cheered when the Daleks exterminated him.

The DVD was much better than I was expecting it to be, which I think is once more an indication that enjoyment correlates with expectations. But it is with justification that this is the worst Dalek story – it really didn’t need the Daleks! They were not hugely integral to the story, didn’t add any additional menace or gravitas to the story, and both they and Davros would not have been missed if there had instead been a generic villain. While I can see what John Nathan Turner was trying to do, sadly he didn’t manage it. The only thing that will save this from being the worst Dalek adventure is if one of the three lost serials transpires to be worst than fans recall it to be.

On a different note – this is a very noteworthy review as until this point, each serial reviewed has come from the 1980s. The story ranked at 116 features one of the first four doctors, and is my first step to acknowledging that you couldn’t just blame the 1980s for any particularly bad stories!

118 – The Awakening

My first experience of The Awakening was when my dad bought it in a VHS double set paired with Frontios. I think it is fair to say that I hated both.

Ten years later or so I got my hands on the DVDs. I had bought Frontios and been more than pleasantly surprised – I thoroughly enjoyed it. Whereas The Awakening came in a boxset with Hartnell serial The Gunfighters – a serial widely lampooned in fandom. I had therefore not been in a massive rush to buy the boxset, and slightly dreading what I might discover when I finally settled down to watch.

I will comment on The Gunfighters in due course, but begin by saying that my memory of the serial did not match to my experience of watching the DVD. Okay, the story is short at two parts, and almost overly simplistic. It attempts to harken back to The Daemons but falls short of the magisterial (sorry – forgive the pun!) excellence of that story. But it is not actually unenjoyable – merely underwhelming.

It says a lot about the story that I don’t have a huge amount to say about it. The story can be summarised as: there’s a malevolent power buried in a sleepy English village, and the local Squire is hoping to take advantage of it – but instead the power overcomes him. When the Squire is killed, the creature has no means of escape and explodes – and the Doctor saves everyone by escaping in the TARDIS. And … that’s pretty much it. Of all the stories I have reviewed so far, it is shockingly the most neutral and unmemorable of the lot. It’s not bad for poor acting, or poor production values, or a convoluted story. You don’t sit watching it and think: “Will this never end? It’s torture!” But it leaves no firm impression on the viewer afterwards.

To those who have never watched the story – do watch it! Peter Davison is fully in his stride as the Fifth Doctor, and Tegan and Turlough both get to be proactive in this story – so you feel fully involved with the entire TARDIS crew for once. You will enjoy the story, but I don’t expect you will remember it. But that’s perfectly okay!

119 – The Two Doctors

This was a story that severely disappointed me when I got my hands on the DVD. As a youngster I had rather enjoyed the other multi-doctor stories (The Three Doctors and The Five Doctors) – I think mainly for the sheer novelty of having more than one doctor in the story. This story is rather different to the other multi-doctor stories in that the others were written to celebrate the 10th and 20th anniversaries of the show respectively. The Two Doctors was sparked by producer John Nathan Turner’s desire to write a multi-doctor story that was not a celebration story, but genuinely an attempt to ask what happens when two doctors get involved in the adventure. The window of opportunity arose after Patrick Troughton enjoyed his return for The Five Doctors and mentioned he would love another opportunity to return.

So in principle, there were some excellent ingredients in the mix. The excellent combination of Patrick Troughton and Fraser Hines returned to the TARDIS. The plot was to involve the Sontarans, and illicit experimentation in Time-Travel, and it was to be set overseas. It would also be a landmark story in Colin Baker’s debut season – the only 3 part story (for Season 22 only the episodes were 45 minutes long rather than 25) in the season – so the first time since The Armageddon Factor that the producers aimed to produce a story this long.

The fact that it is also the last time a story the length of a traditional 6 parter was run speaks volumes. It did have to overcome a number of problems – many of them I have already covered before, which focus on the production values and the garish costumes – this story was the 1980s at its decided worst. And then there were the villains of the piece – the Androgums, and not least Shockeye, whom my dad rather accurately compared to Hannibal Lecter. As the main baddies of the piece they’re not terribly exciting, and they commit the cardinal crime of reducing the Sontarans to unnecessary heavies whose main role is to shoot people and then die horribly.

And the greatest crime of all? Patrick Troughton is a very fine actor, and his partnership with Fraser Hines one of the finest eras in the show – as evidenced by the few scenes they get to enjoy in this serial. But that’s the problem – for most of the serial the poor Second Doctor is reduced to impotency – capturing a problem that was even evident in The Day of the Doctor – providing enough for each doctor to do in a multi-doctor story. Then there are some glaring production issues – choosing to shoot in Spain means lots of scenes need to be outside – which is a bit strange when a significant proportion of scenes are studio based. And they mess up the Second Doctor’s timeline so badly (according to his last serial The War the Doctor was trying not to let the Timelords know where he is – by this episode he’s working for them) that they actually had to propose an imaginary Season 6b to deal with the discrepancy.

Now to be fair – it is actually quite high up my less liked episodes. The main reason is that it is a quite interesting concept, and possible to watch and enjoy. But you do end up somewhat disappointed by the flawed execution, and wondering what it might have been like if it had been produced today.

On a final note – I do not count this as the Second Doctor’s worst serial. This is partly the arbitrary decision that any multi-doctor stories fall under the lead actor at the time (Jon Pertwee, Peter Davison and Colin Baker respectively) – but also because it would not be fair at all to judge Patrick Troughton based on this serial. Fans of the Second Doctor will be delighted to hear that the lowest serial to feature Troughton as the lead actor will not appear until we reach the top 100 …

120 – Silver Nemesis

Rule number one of plagiarism – don’t make it glaringly obvious where you have stolen the idea from.

So when Ace remarks at the end of Silver Nemesis that the Doctor tricked the Cybermen “Just like the Daleks” (in earlier season story Remembrance of the Daleks) the script writers inadvertently drew attention to the fact that both stories are essentially the same – specifically:

1. Several groups fighting for an ancient artefact of immense power.
2. A famous enemy from the show’s past (Daleks and Cybermen respectively).
3. One of the groups competing for the artefact are neo-Nazis.
4. The Doctor wins by tricking the famous enemy into using the artefact, which destroys their battlefleet.

And that’s where Silver Nemesis is on a hiding to nothing – because Remembrance of the Daleks was a much better execution of the plot idea. In the latter, it is kept simple – the battle is between two competing factions of Daleks, with the human involvement either as lackeys to the renegade Daleks, or the poor military caught in the crossfire. Simple – but effective. Silver Nemesis on the other hand, features a witch who time travels from Tudor days and kills Cybermen with gold plated arrows, and neo-Nazis – and just for good measure, the Cybermen were included as silver-skinned enemies for a story in the show’s silver anniversary year. In a three-part episode that’s ever so slightly overkill.

Which brings me to why Silver Nemesis has plummeted in my estimation. The serial was first released in 1993 as part of the 30th anniversary celebrations – not only was the cover fantastic, but it was released as a ‘director’s cut’ – effectively three 30 minute episodes. For 18 years, this was the only version of the story I had seen, and I rather enjoyed it – I may even have ranked it somewhat higher than Remembrance. Then I bought the DVD version, and I was horrified to see just how poorly edited the broadcast version was. The plot was far too busy and clunky – it really was a shock to see the qualitative difference the missing ten minutes made.

If the showrunners had taken an episode from the truly awful The Greatest Show in the Galaxy and given it to Silver Nemesis, this would have been a much better executed and very enjoyable serial. As it is, I am intensely frustrated that the BBC did not include the extended version as a bonus disc in the DVD release.

As a final thought – this is the lowest rated Cybermen story in these rankings, but it may not remain so. I am now resolved to buy The Moonbase sooner rather than later – although I am not expecting it to be worse than Silver Nemesis – on the contrary I think it may be strong contender for the top 20! It is possible however, if The Wheel in Space is either recovered or animated, that it may suffer from the opposite problem to Silver Nemesis – not enough plot in too many episodes. That being so, then there may well be competition for the dubious honour of being my least liked story to feature the Cybermen.

121 – Terminus

This story is infamously remembered for the moment when Nyssa decided to take her clothes off for no readily apparent reason. For those wondering how this escaped the watershed, I should perhaps point out that she was still wearing an underlayer that by present standards is moderately modest, but it says a lot about the rest of the serial that this is the talking point most fans take away. (For the record, as Sarah Sutton knew it was her last story and had heard of complaints from fans that she’d been too well covered up, this was her response. Misogyny is sadly timeless)

Which is a pity – because episode one sets up the story fantastically well. Turlough, having joined the TARDIS crew in the previous serial Mawdryn Undead is urged by the Black Guardian to sabotage the TARDIS and bring about the death of the Doctor.  Instead of which, the ship ends up attaching itself to a space freighter travelling to Terminus, a space station at the very centre of the universe. The sets and music for Terminus are eerily unsettling, and knowing that you cannot be sure of Turlough’s character or intentions adds to the unfolding drama. You then discover that the shop is transporting humans infected with Lazars’ disease – a kind of plague if you will, with the name making an obvious play-on-words of Leprosy.

I didn’t enjoy it when I watched the VHS, but warmed to it a little when watching the DVD. What changed? Well, I think the second time around I resolved to enjoy the story for what it was, and rather liked what they were trying to do. The execution was indeed somewhat flawed – not least because Tegan and Turlough spend most of the story trapped in an airduct making no contribution to proceedings. There is also sufficient padding that one suspects this would have been a much better story in the modern series, running at a fast paced 45 minutes rather than the slow run of four 25 minute episodes. Nyssa’s farewell is also genuinely poignant and one of the best executed character farewells in the show’s history.

Terminus isn’t bad, but you might well fall asleep during it! It ought to have been gripping from start to finish; Turlough deserved more than one opportunity to kill the Doctor, and a much better wrestling with his conscience than chatting to Tegan in an airduct; there didn’t appear to be any need for the space pirates who serve no other purpose than to replace Tegan and Turlough and explain what Lazar’s disease is; and Valentine Dyall is shamefully underused as the Black Guardian. That is the difference between the Terminus being ranked 121, and the higher rank it otherwise would have richly deserved.

122 – Time-Flight

We continue our theme of not-terribly-good Fifth Doctor serials with the story that concluded Peter Davison’s first season as the Doctor. This story is similar to Delta and the Bannermen insomuch that it was a serial I partially caught on UK Gold (never whole episodes – only snippets of each) and therefore wanted to see at some point. I was also very intrigued to see the very beginning of the story. As long-term fans of the show know well, the previous serial Earthshock ended with a massive departure for the series – the death of a companion. For a long while I could only imagine how the TARDIS team dealt with this death, and of course the challenge of time-travel that Tegan expresses so passionately: “You have a time machine! You can change the past!”

I had also though been warned that the serial had any number of flaws – chief of which is that the Master spends the first two episodes in disguise for no immediately obvious reason other than to provide the episode two cliffhanger – and to reprise the precedent set in Castrovalva of giving the character the Master is impersonating a false actor’s name based on an anagram of “Anthony Ainley.” Having watched it for myself, the reveal still seems entirely unnecessary to plot or narrative.

But I did get the DVD, and braced myself both to be unimpressed and to satisfy my curiosity. To be fair – Episode One is really quite interesting in terms of engaging the viewer with the story – flights are going missing from Heathrow, and nobody is quite sure why. The Doctor is co-opted in, and discovers his old enemy the Master is using human slave labour, captured via a time corridor, to help him escape from entrapment on planet Earth, many millions of years in the past. Along the way, it is discovered that there is a hidden species known as the Xeraphin who had crashed on Earth and possess powers that can help the Master restore his TARDIS.

All of these are good ingredients – in that regard it is a well constructed serial. But the execution falls a little flat. For all of the fanfare of using Concorde, both it and Heathrow feel chronically underused (as an aside – it’s amusing how little Heathrow has changed since then if you don’t count Terminal 5!) – the presence of Earth authorities and reference to UNIT feel wholly unneeded. And it is really hard to get beyond the pointless and rather silly disguise of the Master.

It was a sound idea, but the execution let it down somewhat. Interestingly, while I have rated Survival and The King’s Demons lower than this serial, I would say this is probably the least satisfying serial to watch that features the Master, in terms of the contribution that the Master brings. He’s actually rather dangerous in Survival portrayed in a more understated style, while playing a surprisingly enjoyable Medieval rogue in The King’s Demons. But the relatively poor role the Master plays is offset by the attempt at a reasonable story, and the genuine mystery set up in Episode One.