85 – Full Circle

Before story-arcs became the norm when Doctor Who returned in 2005, they were something of a rarity in the classic series. One such example was the so-called ‘E-Space’ trilogy of Season 18 – where the Doctor and Romana find themselves sucked out of the normal universe (N-Space) and into Exo-Space (E-Space) – a smaller pocket universe. Full Circle is the first in the loose trilogy, explaining how the TARDIS crew pass through a gateway to E-Space while meaning to get to Gallifrey.

All three stories are very good, and deal with very serious themes – though Full Circle probably involves the greatest amount of mental gymnastics to untangle. Arriving on the planet Alzarius the Doctor spends most of the first episode trying to fathom why the instruments tell them that they are Gallifrey but they are quite clearly not actually on Gallifrey! Then it takes some considerable time to figure out who the bad guys of the piece are meant to be – the dwellers in a spacecraft pledged to return to Terradon; the marshmen; or the army of spiders. Instead it unfolds that there is no enemy – that in fact all three species are one and the same, but the spiders mutated into marshmen, and the marshmen into the colonists. The current dwellers in the spacecraf are not the original crew, who were killed when they first arrived on Alzarius.

Ignoring the dubious science, it makes for a very engaging story – the colonists are unable to return to Terradon because they never left in the first place and feel unable to leave their true home; the marshmen are unable to progress because of the ongoing presence of the colonists, and likewise the spiders. For the Doctor to save the day, he simply has to persuade the colonists to leave in their spaceship and trust that they can make a better life elsewhere. Meanwhile he and Romana leave, hoping to somehow escape E-Space, but not knowing for sure if they can, and blissfully unaware that they have a stowaway on board the TARDIS …

Which leads neatly to Adric and the gang of outlaw ne’erdowells he aspires to join. Intended to join the TARDIS crew as a sort of ‘Artful Dodger’ figure he suffers from a similar issue to companions such as Zoe and Liz – being too clever for his own good – but without the likeability and charm that endears fans to the former. He sadly gets off on entirely the wrong footing in this story, coming across as petulant and sulky – if we judged him instead on The Keeper of Traken and Earthshock he’d get a much better press. But given his start in Full Circle he was probably doomed from the start.

It has to be said that the E-Space trilogy is an excellent mini-story arc, and Full Circle is a very worthy first entrant to that trilogy. Rather surprisingly, every story in this arc stands well on their own feet – you will want to watch the Trilogy in one go, but you could very easily watch each in isolation and enjoy them – just perhaps not as much!

Christmas Special – Doctor Bill

Tis the season to be jolly! So I am bringing some artwork to brighten up the blog in this festive season! The drawing below was part of a series of 12 I did for a Christmas calendar for my sister. We have been known to do a series of comics based on comedian Bill Bailey portraying the Doctor, so I amused myself by portraying that most important of scenes – choosing the Doctor’s outfit …

Month001More artwork to follow in the run-up to Christmas!

86 – The Dominators

I cannot tell whether this post will please or sadden fans of the Second Doctor – undoubtedly they will be pleased that until this point I have not had a bad word to say about any of his stories, but I have noticed that Troughton fans in particular have a reverence for his era that makes all other eras pale in comparison – so I may well bring down their judgement upon myself by daring to imply some of the blessed Pat’s stories were less than good!

So let me begin with a brief acknowledgement – we can only judge the Troughton era on the material that has survived – and sadly most of it has not. It says a lot that none of the surviving material is outside of the top 100, but it does not necessarily mean that Seasons 4 to 6 were a golden era for Doctor Who with not a single poor story to disgrace it – the fact is, we simply do not know how good or bad many of the lost stories are. The Enemy of the World is a perfect example of this – it would not have featured highly on stories fans wanted to see returned, but when re-discovered became an instant fan favourite.

That said, I still think it reflects well on Troughton that the story I have least enjoyed featuring him (not counting the travesty of The Two Doctors) is so high on our countdown. I think it is fair to say that this serial, the first in Season 6, is judged rather harshly precisely because the standard of surviving Troughton stories is so high. By any acceptable Doctor Who standards The Dominators is a good entertaining tale. The titular Dominators are nasty pieces of work, if somewhat incompetent in their nastiness, and despite poor reviews I rather enjoyed their box-like servants the Quarks. Their attempts to destroy the planet of the pacifist Dulicans for use as fuel make for a story that could have been faster paced, but does not suffer unduly for it. Indeed the bigger distraction is taht both male and female Dulcians wear rather short skirts …

As with all Troughton adventures, it is his performance that stands out as exceptional – although he is somewhat subdued in this serial – it is easy to presume that he already knew that this would be his last season, and that the two years’ of grueling schedule had caught up with him. For all that, he remains the wonderful spontaneous enigma he ever was, and the chemistry between he and his companions Jamie and Zoe is thoroughly enjoyable. While Jamie’s reputation stands for itself, and easily makes him one of the best loved companions to feature on the show, Zoe is much harder to deal with. One suspects she suffers from a similar problem to Liz Shaw, Romana and Nyssa – being too near to the Doctor on an intellectual level to help the viewer to emphasise with her. For all that, she does demonstrate traces of initiative and independence that would later be taken on by the likes of Jo and Sarah-Jane – so perhaps we should embrace the change for the better!

I can think of no better way to summarise The Dominators than this – if this is an example of a poor Troughton, it says a lot for the quality of his other stories!

Colourisation of Black & White Doctor Who

I am a huge fan of black and white footage and firmly believe it should be used more as a medium in its own right. I’m also persuaded that certain stories would lose certain of their potency and fear factor if they were in colour – Tomb of the Cybermen being the first example that springs to mind. So to date I have not been persuaded that reproducing any of the first six seasons of Doctor Who in colour would be a good idea.

Today however I came across this archive photograph on Twitter and was astounded. My initial reaction was that it didn’t quite scan to see that generation of Cybermen in colour – but the more I looked at the picture, the more I nodded in approval. It looked good – it looked like what I imagined a Pertwee era serial to feature the Cybermen would have looked like.

And that got me thinking – why not colourise The Invasion? Although the U.N.I.T. era has its root in much earlier stories – The War Machines, The Faceless Ones and The Web of Fear being the obvious instances – there is no doubt that The Invasion was the building block for Season 7 and the creation of the U.N.I.T. family, and has a better claim than any other story from the first six seasons for continuity with the Pertwee era. While the Black & White version must of course remain to be enjoyed ‘as is’, I realised to my surprise that I actually wanted to watch The Invasion in colour – I have joined the lunatic ranks of Doctor Who fans begging the BBC to take my money! But I think that this story has the potential to be awesome in colour, and act as a wonderful bridge between Seasons 6 and 7. Of course, if they wanted to do the same for the other three serials I have mentioned, I would have no objections either!

There are of course two important caveats to this request:

1. It has to be done well to be worth the investment. Otherwise you end up resenting a poorly executed product and contrasting it unfavourably to the original, rather than appreciating a new expression of a classic story. In practice, that probably means improving the colourisation standards on stories such as The Ambassadors of Death or The Mind of Evil first before taking on a story that was never even filmed in colour to begin with.

2. The BBC need to find or animate the currently missing episodes first. I think I speak for all fans when we say that we want to be able to watch all of the classic episodes in some format before they go changing the ones we’ve already got!

87 – The Horns of Nimon

Let’s begin by acknowledging the elephant in the room – when you hear the character of Soldeed calling out “Lord Niiiiiiiiiiiiimon!” you do have to resist the urge to join in the pantomime and yell at your television “He’s behind you!” There is something rather comic about this serial, reflecting perhaps the hand of the Script Editor, some chap called Douglas Adams …

The elephant acknowledged, let’s embrace the many positives of this story. As per usual the Doctor ends up involved in events by the misfortune of stumbling into them, and finds himself caught between the latest subjugated species and imperial overlords, who all turn out to be pawns in the Machiavellian clutches of the titular Nimon – a bull like creature who lives in a maze and more than owes his heritage to the tale of Theseus and the Minotaur. As with much of Season 17, it is really Baker and Ward as the Doctor and Romana who make this serial entertaining, somehow managing to combine both seriousness and humour in equal measure. It is a story best enjoyed with one’s disbelief firmly suspended lest one poke fun at the acting and holes in the plot – it is perfectly enjoyable as a standard monster story, and a sight better than The God Complex – the Nu Who story this serial inspired.

I didn’t actually expect much of this serial on the DVD, but was pleasantly surprised by how well the story bore up under scrutiny. This is very much a strong candidate for a DVD I won’t save for my Season 1 to Season 26 marathon before I watch it again.

88 – The Mysterious Planet (The Trial of a Timelord episodes 1-4)

After the hiatus of 1985, Doctor Who arrived back in 1986 with the distinct threat of doom hanging over the show – so it is appropriate that The Mysterious Planet, the first story within The Trial of a Timelord begins with a bell tolling ominously and little indication as to why the Doctor has arrived without his companion Peri. Whatever misgivings Script Editor Eric Saward may have had about using the trial analogy to compare the idea of Doctor Who being on trial in real life, I thought the concept overall worked rather well.

When considering The Mysterious Planet however, I find on the whole it is best to ignore the overall story-arc, which has the bare minimum of impact upon these episodes, except to introduce trial. As a standalone story the first four episodes bear up remarkably well – it is a striking comparison to Attack of the Cybermen in terms of how to do a season opener, and I would go so far as to say that if Season 22 had begun with this story (less of course the trial) then Colin Baker would have started out on a much stronger foot as the Doctor.

Arriving on a planet supposedly called “Ravalox” the Doctor discovers that it is in fact Earth moved thousands of years across time and space and apparently desolated by a solar storm; although we do not discover until The Ultimate Foe that this was by secret order of the Timelords! The story centres around four distinct groups – a research robot who lives in an underground bunker, aims to return to Andromeda with stolen secrets, and holds a captive human population as his slaves; a rebel leader within this population who releases select members to the surface rather than culling them as requested; the tribe of survivors on the surface led by a rather mad Boudicca-like Queen; and lastly the lovable rogue Sabalom Glitz, who with his accomplice Dibber is planning to steal the stolen secrets from the robot. The secrets we later discover are stolen from Gallifrey, hence why the planet was moved across the universe – but we leave episode 4 with the mystery unresolved.

In short – it’s a typical Doctor Who story but reinvented for the 1980s – conflict and confusion, and the Doctor and his companion caught in the middle. It gives a frustrating glimpse of what might have been – Baker remains bombastic but is much more likable, and the chemistry between himself and Peri is significantly improved on Season 22. Every character is believable and engaging, even if somewhat overacted, and the production values bear up surprisingly well. In contrast to the naysayers, I actually really enjoy the Trial theme – the idea that the Doctor is put on trial to cover up the Timelords own complicity in sacrificing the earth to protect their technology from being stolen. In contrast to some of Steven Moffat’s recent story-arcs, this one is pretty good – and the chemistry between the Doctor, the Valeyard and the Inquisitor in the trial scenes is highly enjoyable. It’s only a pity it took the threat of cancellation before the BBC started to get the best out of Colin Baker …