108 – The Android Invasion

This Tom Baker story is a prime candidate for the strangest story ever attempted. Strange because it contains some interesting aspects that could have worked quite well – androids impersonating real life people, an astronaut tricked into betraying his own kind, and an alien race committed to destroying the earth through a hideous virus. It’s pretty standard fare for Doctor Who.

So it begs the question – why did the aliens in question (the Kraals) need to create a replica town on a barren planet? Why does it never occur to Astronaut Guy Crayford (who you would assume to be a bright chap being an astronaut) to look under his eyepatch and discover his eye is still there? Why does Sarah’s android double vanish in episode four for no readily apparent reason? More to the point – why does the Kraal invasion force disappear for no apparent reason? And if the virus the Kraals plan to use is so deadly, why is it contained in such a flimsy container as to put their own lives at risk?

The Android Invasion is in fact the prime example of classic Doctor Who being too clever for it’s own good, and adopting the Top Gear motto: “Ambitious but rubbish!” The production values cannot be blamed – the revelation of Sarah Jane’s android double is surprisingly chilling and effective. Baker and Sladen are as excellent as you would expect them to be, and the rest of the cast are perfectly respectable. You could in fact, disengage your brain and any critical analysis, and thoroughly enjoy this story. Up until the (frequent) points where the plot jars against any kind of common sense.

Furthermore, this story merits a dishonorable mention for how it treats the characters of Harry Sullivan and Sergeant Benton. They deserved their final appearance to be in the much more impressive Terror of the Zygons – where they played a full and active role in a persuasively gripping drama. As bit part players in a rather comical story, this was not the send-off either of these two heroes deserved.

What do you think so far?

Dear readers – we are almost 30 posts into my countdown through 137 Doctor Who Serials!

I hope you have been enjoying the journey so far – I am sure there have been shocks and eyebrows raised, whether it is my brutal dislike of Sylvester McCoy’s era (or anything from the 80s for that matter) to the fact that no Patrick Troughton serial has made an appearance yet. Such disagreement is fantastic, because it shows what a varied fanbase the show enjoys.

Ahead of continuing my countdown, here is a quick reminder of the serials we have counted through so far – do tweet me at @dantalksdrwho with your comments on where I have placed each story – agree, disagree or just plain baffled!

108         The Android Invasion (Coming Today)
109         The Sensorites
110         The Web Planet
111         The Time Monster
112         The Power of Kroll
113         The Ribos Operation
114         The Creature from the Pit
115         The Claws of Axos
116         Planet of the Spiders
117         Revelation of the Daleks
118         The Awakening
119         The Two Doctors
120         Silver Nemesis
121         Terminus
122         Time-Flight
123         Warriors of the Deep
124         The King’s Demons
125         Ghost Light
126         Black Orchid
127         Time and the Rani
128         Dragonfire
129         Survival
130         Battlefield
131         The Greatest Show In the Galaxy
132         The Twin Dilemma
133         The Happiness Patrol
134         Four To Doomsday
135         Timelash
136         Delta And the Bannermen
137         Paradise Towers

109 – The Sensorites

Rather uniquely among the episodes reviewed so far, I had no real prior expectations when it came to watching this adventure from William Hartnell’s first season. Obviously The Daleks had left a lasting impression upon me, but I had been less impressed by The Keys of Marinus and The Aztecs – so really wasn’t sure what to expect.

Suffice to say, I wasn’t really that wowed by this story. The first episode is suitably mysterious, but it does drag somewhat thereafter. As a faster paced four parter I think this serial could have worked quite well, and there are some genuinely interesting themes in terms of distrust of outsiders and the hindrance that telepathy can bring. And it has to be said that for its time, the serial holds up well in its production values, and it is easy to see why it appealed to TV audiences of the time.

Against that are two problems. The first is that the Sensorites themselves do not make for a terribly impressive alien species – not least in the fact that it is apparently very easy to impersonate another Sensorite – you just steal their sash! The second and more pressing problem is the TARDIS crew themselves. Although Susan is given the opportunity to branch out in this episode, and explore the gift of telepathy that the production crew promised would be hers, I’ve never really warmed to the first ever TARDIS crew, and to Susan in particular. I don’t know if watching Season One in order would correct that and allow me to perhaps judge the crew for who they are, rather than in the light of later TARDIS crews … but certainly in The Sensorites I found a distinct lack of empathy for the plight of the crew.

As with The Web Planet, I have to say again that I didn’t think the episode was especially poor or notably comical – the costumes and acting are certainly much less comical than was the case in that story! But it certainly didn’t wow me, or leave me thinking afterwards that I was in a rush to watch it again.

110 – The Web Planet

This story carries novelty value as the one and only time I’ve actually felt embarrassed while watching Doctor Who. On the whole I was quite looking forward to watching The Web Planet – I had vague hopes that it might be similar to Planet of Evil in terms of feel and menace. So when I bought a big stack of DVDs as a Christmas present to myself in late 2010, this was one of the first I popped on. Rather unfortunately I chose to watch the 6 part serial in the living room of my shared accommodation, and didn’t really have a ready made defence when my housemates began ridiculing the costumes and the acting.

In terms of storyline it isn’t actually anything unusual or bad – and I would be intrigued to watch the story in proper sequence having watched all the prior episodes to this one (which, with the exception of Marco Polo, is entirely feasible). For me, one of the biggest challenges in watching William Hartnell as the Doctor was the failure to see his character or relationship with the TARDIS crew develop over time – it’s harder to have the same attachment to the Doctor, Ian, Barbara and Vikki, as one would to the Doctor with Sarah-Jane Smith. I think this is certainly true here – when I watched The Web Planet I certainly had less affection for the characters, and especially for Vikki, who is often borderline annoying!

But even allowing for all of this, it is very difficult to get past the costumes, props, and sets. Yes, I know it was 1965 and they hadn’t much budget or the means of spectacular special effects – but The Web Planet takes the deficiencies of the era to a whole new level of cringeworthiness. Particular favourites are the Zarbi – oversized ants with two human legs to compliment the four fake plastic ones; the fuzzy suits of the Menoptera; and the impression that their cousins the Optera are basically gigantic sleeping bags. When two Menoptera appeared in the background of An Adventure in Space and Time I’m not sure whether the fan reaction was fond reminiscence or shame by association. And the less that is said about their voices, frankly, is for the better.

So sadly this story is deservedly the worst Hartnell. But it is certainly a story that may gain better enjoyment when watching Season Two as a whole, as I may well do someday. I think it says a lot that I have greater patience for the known limitations of Hartnell’s second season, than for the obvious failings of Doctor Who in the 1980s.

111 – The Time Monster

I have only the haziest memories of first catching glimpse of this serial – my dad was watching it on UK Gold, who very helpfully liked to insert ad breaks into the middle of 25 minute episodes. Being quite young I was greatly amused by the sight of what I thought then was a filing cabinet (now know was a massive computer) materialising into the middle of what I took to be Ancient Greece. Later researches of course revealed that the serial was none other than The Time Monster and I felt suitably intrigued.

So when the Myths and Legends DVD boxset finally came down in price I was rather glad to have the opportunity to watch it – indeed of the three serials, I was hoping it would be the best. As evidenced by the fact we have not yet reached Underworld or The Horns of Nimon I was distinctly mistaken in my assumption.

I observed in my Survival review that it really didn’t merit the mantle of worst Master story. I stand by that purely in terms of the storyline – The Time Monster is almost laughable, and it was a travesty to pull an actor of such excellence as Roger Delgado to deliver such a lacklustre story. As with quite a few Pertwee six-part stories (The Sea Devils springs to mind as an obvious example) they seem to follow an odd narrative style of setting the final two episodes with different cast or setting – in this case, moving from a science laboratory in the other place (otherwise known as ‘Cambridge University’ to non-Oxonians) to Atlantis. Yes, as if blowing up Atlantis once in The Underwater Menace was not quite enough, the producers decide to finish it off properly!

At the end of the day, you do have to suspend disbelief and laugh at how silly it is – the Master exhibiting his strange vampire-like inability to choose an alias that isn’t based on his own name (Professor Thascalos – this being the Greek for ‘Master’); Sergeant Benton turned into a child, then reappearing fully-grown in a nappy; the dubious sets and acting of the scientists and Atlanteans alike; the rather unfortunate acronym of T.O.M.T.I.T. for the Transmission of Matter Through Interstitial Time (one imagines Mary Whitehouse choking on her tea when she heard that one) … well I guess all one can do is laugh. It’s certainly not possible to take the serial seriously!

Despite that, I did quite enjoy aspects of the serial. It’s not vintage Pertwee, or anywhere near his best material, but Pertwee and Delgado are such excellent actors that you can almost forgive the farcical material they are asked to work with. As with many of the serials I have ranked so far, one is more disappointed because of prior expectations, and the uneasy sense that with a bit effort it could have been so much better …

112 – The Power of Kroll

If there were a Doctor Who story-writers’ FAQ then one entry might read like this:

Q: I want to write a story featuring the largest monster ever seen in the show. What should I do?
A: Don’t.

Really, the summary of why The Power of Kroll performs so dismally is very easy: the adversary of the piece is a very unconvincing giant squid, the titular Kroll. There is a certain amount of peril and threat, the theatrics of swamp people (that is, actors painted green wondering if their profession is really worth it after all) and the typical Earth crew stationed on another world meddling with forces that they do not understand and suffering for it. But … it’s all a bit lame.

I’m aware I’ve spent a long time lambasting the production values of the 1980s, and imagine certain readers would dispute (perhaps with just cause) that The Power of Kroll is worse than a story like Silver Nemesis in that the production values were pretty bad by the standards of the 1970s, and the story line is fairly weak. It struggles to make four parts not feel like delaying the inevitable. I must also confess that when it came to buying the DVDs, Silver Nemesis was one I rather looked forward to, but The Power of Kroll was faced with closely approximating dread – a necessary stepping stone in the Key to Time season, but one to be stepped on as quickly as possible.

But when it has come to ranking the stories, I found to my surprise that I genuinely couldn’t rate any of the 1980s episodes higher. I suspect it comes down to three factors:

1. Tom Baker and Mary Tamm both put in exceptional performances as the Doctor and Romana – even if by this stage the writers are resorting to type somewhat and casting Romana in the ‘damsel in distress’ role.
2. I rather enjoy the Key to Time as a whole season. I think this makes me more disposed to be sympathetic to episodes that might otherwise have been propping up the list.
3. The story is weak yes, but I found it oddly compelling when I watched the DVD. If you suspend a little disbelief, and of course try not to guess the very obvious fact that the giant squid is of course the fifth segment to the Key to Time … then it’s possible to accept it on its merits and gloss over the ropy production values.

So embracing the positive, I’m pleased to say that this story is no longer viewed as a chore to get past when watching Season 16. Being candid however, it’s never going to be high on my list of stories I would rush to watch!

113 – The Ribos Operation

I return after a busy season with another Tom Baker serial – and one I always suspected was never going to do well.

One of my most enjoyed experiences of watching Doctor Who as a child was the gradual introduction to the ‘Key to Time’ story arc of Season 16. The entire season was given over to the Fourth Doctor tracking down the six segments of the eponymous Key To Time – conveniently one segment per story! The Key was meant to be an extremely powerful artefact that could be used to bring equilibrium to the universe. And thus Tom Baker is dispatched by the White Guardian to assemble the Key so that he can bring order back to the universe.

I loved the concept – and still do. As a child it was a torture to have to wait for each story to be released on VHS, and as a young adult it was a torture to not be able to watch the DVDs back to back because of time constraints! But rather unfortunately the grand concept is undermined by the fact that three of the six stories are decidedly weak – and the starting story is the worst of the lot, only redeemed from a lower rating because it is in such an enjoyable season.

So … where else to begin but with Baker’s Doctor expressing publicly the sentiment he expressed privately: “Do I really have to have a companion? They just end up getting in the way!” I have a lot of time for Mary Tamm’s Romana and rate her on a par with Caroline John as Liz Shaw – a smart confident character who undoubtedly would have thrived in the modern series, but was just a little too smart to work alongside the classic Doctors. In this episode however she’s rather difficult to like – you end up sympathising with the Doctor rather than agreeing with Romana when she berates him.

And the plot. Oh dear goodness the plot. There is no huge mystery about what the segment of the Key to Time is disguised as, and the rest of the plot is largely over-egged and over-acted – in short, a couple of conmen trying to persuade a warlord that the planet they are on contains vast mineral deposits for his battle fleet to take advantage of, before he figures out that they don’t actually own the planet or have the right to sell it – as you quickly work out, the warlord in question is far from the sharpest tool in the box!

I was surprised how sympathetic a viewing this got when I watched the DVD – I was expecting to judge it harshly, but managed to enjoy the almost laughably comic escapades of the conmen, the ridiculous witch doctor figure that appears for no rational reason in episode 3, and the equally comic monster that threatens the Doctor in episode 1. I think the sympathy however has much more to do with enjoyment of this season as a whole. Judged on lone merit, The Ribos Operation is deservedly outside the top 100 by quite some margin.