The rumour that will not die – more classic Doctor Who to come?

About a month or so ago I decommissioned the twitter feed for this blog, realising that it was pretty silly trying to run two seaprate twitter accounts. I may need to review that decision as it meant I missed this very intriguing tweet from BBC Worldwide:

Tweet by BBC Worldwide

As readers of this blog will know, I’ve been pestering the BBC for news on future releases, and speculating on the lack of movement. Only this week, news broke that the Underwater Menace DVD had been cancelled – and now this is announced.

I think it is fair to say that even those who most passionately believed that the omnirumour was true are approaching this news with caution – not so much a case of “Once bitten, twice shy” as “Scarred for life” as it were! But it does provoke thought. In an earlier post I speculated on some options for the classic range assuming that there were no further episodes to be found.

What do we reckon readers? Are the BBC preparing to fleece gullible fans (like me!) with shiny re-releases of existing DVDs? Is this the prelude to launching the entire catalogue online through iPlayer? Or maybe (just maybe) is it possible that the number 97 has the potential to drop even lower.

I think it’s a case of “watch this space” …

69 – The Mark of the Rani

It has occurred to me that poor Colin Baker is rather harshly judged on his first season. Yes, it did contain such travesties as Timelash, and such ill-executed ideas as Attack of the Cybermen, The Two Doctors and Revelation of the Daleks Рbut it also contained two perfectly decent and well executed stories, that would have worked well in any other era of the show. While Vengeance on Varos tends to steal the plaudits, I think it is a little unfair to dismiss The Mark of the Rani with the rest of the season.

This story is actually a good example of what Doctor Who would become when Russell T. Davies revived the show in 2005 – the combination of a historic setting with an alien menace – in this case a newly introduced renegade Timelord (Time Lady! I’m a traditional girl!) scientist known as the Rani, played with aplomb by Kate O’Mara. Having eliminated the capacity for the natives on her experimental planet of Miasimia Goria to rest, she is stealing from humans the chemical that promotes sleep, hiding her trail by doing so during times of uprest in earth’s history – in this case, the Luddite riots.

Her plan is then complicated by the arrival of two other renegade Timelords – the Doctor (with Peri) investigating localised time distortion, and the Master (with no explanation as to how he escaped in Planet of Fire) looking to hijack a conference of the period’s greatest intellectuals to accelerate Earth’s development and turn the planet into a personal powerbase. A great deal of confused adventuring takes place, before the Doctor succeeds in trapped the Master and the Rani inside the Rani’s TARDIS with a growing Tyrannosaurus embryo.

The Rani suffers from much the same fate as Colin Baker’s era – judged harshly because of how terrible Time and the Rani was. But this story shows that it need not have been so. O’Mara’s portrayal is not in the least overdone, and her depiction of complete amorality in the pursuit of scientific knowledge is a refreshing contrast to the Master’s blinkered pursuit of universal dominance. In this story she is utterly believable, and more than an even match to the Doctor. Baker and Bryant too give a refreshing glimpse of what their partnership could have been like but for some of the production values chosen at the time – Baker’s character achieving that difficult to manage balance between irascibility and a strong sense of justice.

The Mark of the Rani isn’t remarkable enough to merit being mentioned in the same breath as true classics of Doctor Who’s classic era, but it still remains a great example of classic Doctor Who.

70 – The War Machines

Strictly speaking, this is not the last episode of Hartnell’s final full season as the Doctor. Season 4 opener The Smugglers was the last to be filmed in the Season 3 production bloc, but was carried over to begin the next season while the producers were taking the momentous decision to replace the show’s main actor. But it is striking as the last fully surviving Hartnell adventure, the last adventure to feature Dodo (I don’t believe anyone is the least bit sorry about that) and the only fully surviving adventure to feature Ben and Polly.

I didn’t remember it as being that good when I watched the VHS, so had dialed down my expectations when I finally got around to buying the DVD – in actual fact, this was the final Hartnell adventure I purchased (not counting the incomplete¬†Tenth Planet and Reign of Terror). My memory of the adventure was evidently unfairly tainted, for The War Machines is a well paced and intriguing adventure, that would not have been at all out of place in the UNIT era.

The Doctor and Dodo arrive in 1966 to discover that the new smart computer in the Post Office tower, WOTAN, has become fully sentient, gained the capacity to hypnotise humankind, and has cultivated a scheme to take over the world through a combination of mass hypnosis, and construction of the titular War Machines to seize the planet by force. In perhaps the clearest example of BBC Production Values influencing the plot, Dodo is hypnotised by WOTAN, then sent off in episode 2 to recover, never to be seen again – reflecting the BBC’s decision that the character simply hadn’t worked. Ben and Polly were the solution – both bring swinging sixties glamour, but also (in Ben) a necessary action man given Hartnell’s increasing frailty.

The success of this episode only makes one thirst to see more adventures featuring Ben and Polly – though the pertinent question can be asked as to whether they were better suited alongside the grandfatherly Hartnell rather than the more comic figure of Troughton. But unless the recent acceptance that there are no further missing episodes to be found is wrong, we can sadly only suppose.

I rather enjoyed The War Machines in the end, and think that alongside The Faceless Ones, The Web of Fear and The Invasion would be a prime candidate for a colourised pre-UNIT boxset of UNIT style stories, updated to match the later Pertwee era. Was well worth the wait in the end, and a worthy conclusion to the Hartnell era … for now?

71 – The Curse of Peladon

I’ll be honest – when I bought the Peladon Tales boxset I didn’t have high hopes for either story. Where that was perhaps justified with the relatively lacklustre Monster of Peladon, this four-part adventure from Pertwee’s third season isn’t actually that bad. By now the production team had become the world experts in getting around the Doctor’s exile to Earth – simply sending him off on missions for the Timelords any time they wanted to hold an adventure elsewhere in time and space. This particular story begins with the Doctor believing he’s finally got the TARDIS working again, taking Jo Grant (who is meant to be enjoying a romantic evening with Captain Yates!) for a test flight. It is not until the final episode that the Doctor realises he’d been duped by the Timelords to solve the problem faced on Peladon. Thankfully for the viewers, by the start of Season 10 both the BBC and the Timelords decided to give the Doctor back his travelling privileges!

The story itself is a thinly-veiled commentary on the negotiations by Ted Heath’s government to take the UK into the (then) European Economic Community – rather timely given the present government’s referendum on whether to remain in that community, and making one wonder if the BBC might have a thinly veiled reference in Nu Who! In the story, the planet of Peladon led by merry King Peladon are negotiating entrance to the Galactic Federation, with native naysayer High Priest Hepesh conniving in the background to try to prevent the planet successfully joining, pledging that continuing would bring the curse of the royal beast, Aggador.

The Doctor and Jo land in the middle of this mess, posing as the ambassadors from earth and suspecting (as would most of the viewing public) that returning foes the Ice Warriors are behind the attempts to derail the accession conference. It is one of the greatest twists in Doctor Who for the Ice Warriors to be revealed as on the Doctor’s side, having disavowed warfare and adopted peaceful diplomacy. The affair is happily resolved with the true foes exposed, and only the minimum of embarrassment caused by the delegate from Alpha Centuri, who aside of their extreme cowardice also bears an unfortunate resemblance to an area of human anatomy.

This is a decently paced four parter, and it is the combination of a fast pace and good depth that makes the serial surprisingly watchable. Patrick Troughton’s son David is superb as King Peladon, as is Geoffrey Toone as the Machiavellian Hepesh. Sadly however, there are just a few too many silly scenes and characters to make this a true classic – not least as Aggedor, the supposed titular ‘curse’ transpires to be a rather lovable furry creature! Could have been better – but certainly not as bad as it could have been!

72 – Warriors’ Gate

Ten minutes to explain Warriors’ Gate? That might prove tricky …

This four-part adventure is the last of the E-Space trilogy that began with Full Circle. The Doctor and Romana are still trapped in e-Space together with e-Space native/TARDIS stowaway Adric. Arriving at ‘zero-point’ (perfectly zero co-ordinates) they discover a slave ship filled with a Time Sensitive race, the Tharils. Their human captors plan to sell them at huge profit, but owing to the material used to trap the enslaved Tharils (Dwarf-star alloy, which would make a return in Nu Who adventure Day of the Moon) they are enable to escape – in actual fact the gateway to other universes is collapsing. By the story’s end, Romana remains with K9 to help free the Tharils, and the Doctor escapes with Adric back into N-Space.

Alas, if only the story were so simple! I first watched this adventure aged 13, looking forward to it having seen the Gundan Robots mentioned in Tom Baker’s preview to Shada. And I could not follow it at all. It would be around 15 years later when I bought the E-Space trilogy boxset that the story finally made some sense – but even then I suspect that was largely due to having watched the story before and having a rough idea of the plot direction. As it is – the Doctor jumps around the timeline of the Tharils with very poor narrative explanation as to what is going on – it isn’t hard to get lost.

With grown up eyes however, it is a very clever story with three different narratives beautifully interwoven. We see the Doctor follow the path of the Tharils to discover how they were once masters who enslaved other peoples; Romana become trapped by the slavers and strive to break free; and Adric teaming up with K9 to rescue Romana and reunite the TARDIS team. The suspense builds up magnificently to the destruction of the slavers’ ship and the escape of the Tharils and the TARDIS crew.

All in all, Warriors Gate is a very satisfactory end to the E-Space trilogy, and a more than pleasing story in its own right. I can only really mark it down on two points. The first, as I mention, is that the plot is so convoluted it takes a PhD in Ingenuity to follow it. The second is that it brought an end to Romana and K9 travelling in the TARDIS. While I fully understand the production reasons for doing so (K9 being a menace to operate and a get-out-of-jail free card for any scenario; Romana not being able to talk at the viewers level or get herself into trouble) I very much enjoyed the combination of the Fourth Doctor, Romana (both of them!) and K9 – so much so that when as I teenager I wrote a new series of adventures to feature the Eighth Doctor, they featured the return of Romana and K9. But then we can’t blame the producers for looking forward, not back!

73 – The Seeds of Death

After a short break I am back to my episode countdown – and returning to the original (forgotten) principle of bashing out a post in ten minutes – so … GO!

For a long time this was only the second Patrick Troughton serial I had watched (after Tomb of the Cybermen) – and a prime contributor to my then perception that the era wasn’t particularly good. The story revolves around returning foes the Ice Warriors, who seize control of Earth’s primary transport means (named T-Mat, years before it was pointed out that ‘Transmat’ is a better name) and plot to use it to devastate earth with a deadly fungus – transported through the eponymous ‘seeds.’ Into this scenario steps the second Doctor with Jamie and Zoe – all three actors perhaps painfully aware that they were on their way out by the season’s end.

I have to say, viewing the serial on DVD made me reappraise the story more favourably. It stands up moderately well as an alien invasion story, and the Ice Warriors themselves are superb – the episode one cliffhanger is absolutely sensational in its reveal of the enemy. The main trouble is that the series looks and feels rather tired by this stage. In this regard The Invasion was good proof that the UNIT era was the right direction to take as the show moved to colour – it injected fresh life and impetus to the show. It seemed just a little too easy to disengage while watching this particular adventure, and one cannot help but wonder to what extent the decision by the main cast to leave had upon the production team. One forgets that the show was heading towards completely unchartered territory – while the cast had been refreshed many times over, there had always been some degree of continuity. Starting in Season 7, the TARDIS team would be entirely new (unless you count Nicholas Courtney becoming a regular cast member).

For all of these provisos, The Seeds of Death is still a thoroughly watchable adventure, if a shade long at six episodes. One has the distinct suspicion that a faster paced four part adventure in the colour era would have transformed a merely good adventure, into an absolutely fantastic one.

Eleven minutes … dangit!