58 – The Movie

No review of the classic series can be complete without referencing the Doctor who deserves his time in the sun, and a story that is only second in his era to a story that is jaw droppingly brilliant. Which is unusual, because I hated the TV Movie when it was first shown!

This in fact was the first Doctor Who story I watched that was not a repeat or on VHS – and from the moment I heard they were bringing it back I simply could not wait to watch it. Until this point, my Doctor Who enthusiasm was enjoyed through the medium of VHS, and the occasional reminisces of my dad. Now it was back (and as the BBC said, it’s about time!) through a special one-off television movie featuring Paul McGann as the new 8th Doctor.

Let’s begin by acknowledging the elephant in the room. It was produced by an American television company, and therefore is much closer to Macgyver in production values than spaceship-suspended-from-a-string courtesy of Auntie Beeb. It contains that kiss between the Doctor and his companion, Dr. Grace Holloway, which prompted the following reaction (inspired by classic murder-mystery spoof Murder by Death) from me:

Kissing

All that said – if you suspend disbelief and ignore some of the obvious plot holes and continuity errors, this is a thoroughly enjoyable story. McGann is superb as the Doctor, beginning a reputation that would grow through Big Finish audio stories, and finally flourish through a stellar six minutes in Night of the Doctor. The supporting cast play their roles with aplomb, even if Eric Roberts does grate somewhat as the Master. And while the production values are undoubtedly American (big, loud and dramatic) you cannot fault their professional edge. Poor Sylvester McCoy, who was brought back pretty much to be shot, suffer a botched heart operation and then regenerate, surely would have given his eye teeth to have the production budget this story had during his era.

The story itself is straightforward (ish …) – while transporting the Master’s remains back to Gallifrey, the TARDIS is knocked off course and lands in San Francisco on the eve of the new millennium. The doctor is shot in a gang shooting, and regenerates after surgeons attempt to correct his anomaly of two hearts. The Master meanwhile escapes, takes over the body of a hospital worker, and enlists a gang member who has stolen the key to the TARDIS to help find the Doctor. The Master’s aim is simple – to use the power of the TARDIS to steal the Doctor’s remaining lives. The Doctor meanwhile, rescued by Dr. Holloway, is trying to remember who he is, and fix the TARDIS before the Master’s abuse of it ends the world.

Compared to the hormone fest of the Eleventh Doctor and River Song, this is comparatively tame fare – I have grown to love this story with time and appreciate it for what it is – in no small part as the novelisation embellishes many of the details and explains the plot far more satisfactorily. I remember once watching it on a big screen projector and thinking that it would have been spectacular in the cinema – while Day of the Doctor was undoubtedly the better story, I think the BBC could take a better queue from Paul McGann’s first outing as the Doctor if they were to ever produce another adventure for the big screen.

If I have come to appreciate the story even more with age, the other thing that has increased over time is my regret that Paul McGann did not get at least one full season as the Eighth Doctor – a regret that has only increased after Night of the Doctor. What adventures we would have enjoyed … this story therefore belongs in the same category as as tales like The Time Meddler and The War Machines – a thrilling glimpse of what could have been … an allusion to an era of the story that we fans can only imagine.

Nevertheless, I am thankful not just that this story was made, but that the BBC have woven it into the history of the show so well. It deserves its place in the classic era of the show.

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59 – The Sun Makers

We return to Season 15 today, to another story that I didn’t fully appreciate in my youth and grew to love when I bought the DVD. At the outset I should observe that this story is definitely not for kids – not because of ‘orrible monsters (which, as we all know, is a sure fire way to children’s hearts and attention) but because the story is a thinly veiled critique of the strongly socialist taxation that Britain was living under at that point – hence one corridor being referred to as ‘P45.’ While the references were toned done, and the colonists subject to a corporation rather than a government, the inference would not have been missed by the viewer.

It means that while most of the references go over the head of a child, who will appropriately ask why there are no monsters, it makes it huge fun for a grown-up. The Doctor and Leela arrive on Pluto to discover that the construction of artificial suns has enabled colonisation of the planet (as it then was) – the people however have been subjected to the company that owns the planet through extraordinarily heavy taxation, and by the company secretly using PCM gas to cause depression in the planet’s inhabitants. As is often the case, the independently minded Doctor encourages the colonists to overthrow the Collector (again – a thinly veiled reference to tax collectors) and free the planet from the company.

Not only does The Sun Makers explore serious themes and deliver a compelling storyline, but the regular cast of Baker and Jameson shine in their roles, and after being sidelined in the preceding Image of the Fendahl, K9 makes his first proper appearance after his debut in The Invisible Enemy with considerable aplomb. Combined to a stellar supporting cast, and this has all the hallmarks of a vintage Tom Baker adventure. Perhaps one however that you wouldn’t want to start the kids on …

60 – The Invisible Enemy

If ever there was an instance of a reversal in fortunes, this story from Season 15 surely qualifies. I couldn’t enjoy the VHS release at all as a teenager (though it is perhaps fairer to say that I wasn’t willing to give it a chance), and when the BBC in their wisdom decided to release the adventure on DVD alongside the sole episode of 1980s spin-off K9 and Company I spent as long as I could deferring buying the story.

That turned out to be a mistake. Not only was K9 and Company surprisingly enjoyable (while obviously nowhere near as good as Doctor Who!) but The Invisible Enemy itself is a gem of a story. The story explores an inter-spatial virus that travels through energy exchange (basically, lightning) who has planted the host virus inside the Doctor, and infected a number of human researchers on a outpost in the solar system, intending in due course to take advantage of human colonists spreading throughout space to in turn spread itself through the universe.

The story introduced a number of novelties, of which the greatest is K9, the dog-shaped computer belonging to the character of Professor Marius (“He knows everything I do!” “Yes master … and more.”) – so popular would the character be with the viewing audience, that the final scene was rewritten so that the robotic canine could join the TARDIS crew. He certainly gets off to a lightning start, and is justifiably the brightest spark in a very good story. While it is perhaps true that the producers came to rely on him too much in future, I rather enjoyed K9 being part of the TARDIS crew.

The show also features some excellent touches – Leela’s natural immunity to the virus gives her a chance to shine; while the Doctor’s ingenious suggestion to create temporary minaturised clones of himself and Leela to investigate his own neural pathways (dodgy science aside) make for unusual but excellent television. Yes … there is the elephant in the room of the akwardly imagined virus (accidentally increased to human size by the end of episode 3) – but the story is nevertheless a superb and creative imagining, not least as the Doctor changes his approach between a virus that has the right to live, and the monster that plans cosmic destruction.

While you undoubtedly need to suspend your disbelief, The Invisible Enemy is a fine example of this period of Doctor Who, and worth watching just for the scenes featuring K9. I was glad to have the chance to reappraise it!

61 – The Mutants

Readers of the last two episode reviews will notice a recurring theme – that they are six part adventures set during the Pertwee era that all involve some sort of adventure on another world. Today’s review continues that trend – recognising that there are quite a few of these adventures from Pertwee’s time as the Doctor that I find perfectly enjoyable, but aren’t necessarily standout classics in the same way that some of the later reviews are.

The Mutants sees the BBC producers dust off a mechanism last used in Colony in Space – the Timelords explicitly send the Doctor and Jo on a quest, in this instance to deliver a message that can only be opened by the person it is intended for, and they arrive on the planet Solos, which is seeking independence from the empire of Earth – witness again how the BBC didn’t shy from social commentary on real life events, in this instance the granting of independence to former British colonial territories. The Marshal of the planet is determined that the planet should not be returned, but rather should be terraformed, regardless of the cost to the native Solonians. He is equally determined to wipe out the titular Mutants (called Mutts) – a mutated race that have appeared on the planet.

The Doctor comes into contact with the person for whom the message is intended – a native Solonian named Ky, and discovers that the planet’s year lasts the equivalent of 2000 earth years, with seasonal changes occuring every 500 years. The Mutts are in fact mutated Solonians, and the mutation is a natural change that they go through, which has been disturbed by their colonisation by the Earth Empire. It therefore falls to the Doctor and Jo, aided by research scientist Sondergaard, to help Ky to reveal the villainous intent of the Marshal to the Earth authorities, and persuade them to allow Solos’ independence.

Quite a lot happens across the six episodes, which makes a ten minute review difficult! But it shows why I rather enjoyed discovering this era of the show’s history. Over six parts you grow to know and enjoy the characters and the subplots, and are absolutely delighted when the Marshall gets his final comeuppance. The story also illustrates that Pertwee didn’t need the Master present for a good story – it runs along at a goodly rate, carried by the momentum of continuous peril, discovery and reaction to adversity.

In fact, of the three Pertwee reviews I have just undertaken, I would say The Mutants is a better introduction to this kind of story compared to Frontier in Space or Colony in Space. I was pleasantly surprised when I watched the DVD as to just how enjoyable the story was – while recognising that fans who felt six-episode stories dragged or hated the Pertwee era might struggle to enjoy it as much as I did!


Enjoy this review? Why not tweet your appreciation, or check out my other reviews for the Third Doctor?

62 – Frontier in Space

The producers of Doctor Who really decided to push the boat out in the show’s 10th season. After featuring all three doctors in the eponymous serial, and giving the Doctor back complete control of his TARDIS, they commissioned what effectively comprised a twelve part space epic to rival The Daleks’ Master Plan. The second six episodes would form the next serial, Planet of the Daleks, while the first six formed Frontier in Space.

Depending upon your viewpoint, this was either a bold and courageous move, or lunacy. The problem it leaves for viewers like myself, born a decade after the original airdate, is that it is (just) possible to enjoy Planet of the Daleks as a standalone episode. Frontier in Space however does not end satisfactorily without then moving on to the next serial – making it a very long stretch to commit to!

That said, this story has all of the charm that I most enjoy and appreciate in the Pertwee era. Six episodes gives you the time to learn to appreciate the characters and to immerse yourself in the story. In this case, the Doctor arrives in the future to discover that someone is trying to manipulate two galactic empires, those of Earth and Draconia, into commencing a war. Strong parallels of course to the mistrust at that time caused by the Cold War, all of which are evident in the production values, and Pertwee’s Doctor does a marvellous job of acting as the would-be peacemaker between the two factions to highlight their true enemies.

And ‘enemies’ is indeed the appropriate word – because although the Doctor’s best enemy the Master is directly responsible for using Ogrons (returning after their previous appearance in Day of the Daleks, and a brief cameo in Carnival of Monsters) to impersonate attacks by humans and Draconians, he is in fact in league with the Ogrons’ true masters – the Daleks. Their reveal in episode 6 is indeed one of the stellar reveals in the whole of the classic series.

Along the way, there is all of the action, confusion, and general mayhem you come to expect from a six-part Pertwee adventure, and as ever it is impossible not to enjoy any scene featuring Roger Delgado and Jon Pertwee. It is therefore the greatest pity that the last we see of Delgado as the Master before his untimely death, is for him to shoot the Doctor with a stun bolt and disappear into the background. As I lamented in my review for Planet of the Spiders, Delgado deserved a much more appropriate swansong to his time in the role.

Frontier in Space is a great story, with plenty of action, and lots of ambiguous moral choices for the discerning viewer to chew over. It is only a pity that to properly enjoy it you need to set aside the time to watch the following serial soon afterwards.

#MissingEpisodesMonday

Long-term readers of this blog will know that I have a thing about the missing episodes of Doctor Who. I fully accept that despite the wonderful recovery of The Enemy of the World and The Web of Fear in 2013, we may never recover any further episodes – while obviously continuing to hope with great hope that we may yet see more episodes recovered.

And yet I am not contented to simply say that with the soon release of The Underwater Menace that the Classic DVD line is defunct. A few months ago, while reconciling myself to the (seeming) death of the omnirumour, I set out a number of ways that the BBC could continue to invest in the classic DVD range, not least to plug the gaps left by the missing episodes. The post, available on this link, set out how the BBC could release further DVDs to expand the classic DVD collection, and enable fans to appreciate their favourite show even more.

To that end, I have written to BBC Worldwide the following letter, raising these ideas with them, and asking them to set out their hopes and plans for the classic Doctor Who DVD range:

Letter

In addition to this, from now on I will be complementing my semi-regular blogs on the classic series countdown with a new Monday Twitter campaign: #MissingEpisodesMonday

The aim of the campaign is to use the power of the internet (and social media in particular) to gather a cohort of fans of classic Doctor Who who would welcome some or all of the ideas set out in the letter, both for the DVD collection, and also to see further TARGET novelisations released in eBook formats.

If you’re with me, and you’d like to support the campaign, click HERE to tweet your support and raise awareness for #MissingEpisodesMonday!
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As I said from the start, this blog is a tribute to a show that has given me more than twenty years of unalloyed pleasure and enjoyment, and sparked my imagination in wondrous ways. I feel all of us can identify with that – and certainly would love to enjoy even more of our favourite show!

63 – Colony in Space

This, I confess, was a story for which I had no prior assumptions when I bought the DVD. Rather like The Enemy of the World, I thought I’d just watch it and see how it went. As you are about to discover, there are rather a lot of Jon Pertwee’s adventures high up my ranking, because I thoroughly enjoyed his time in the TARDIS. Colony in Space is one such example – a story for which a significant amount of its charm is derived from the recurring cast of Pertwee, Manning and Delgado.

Script Editor Terrance Dicks had very quickly worked out that the end of Season 6 solution to strand the Doctor on earth with a broken TARDIS simply wasn’t going to work – it restricted the producers to stories featuring either alien invasions or mad scientists. Having successfully ditched the requirement for fewer stories with more episodes, in Season 8 he came up with the ingenious solution of sending the Doctor off on missions for the Timelords any time he wanted him to escape from earth – a trick he would later re-use in Season 9 episodes The Curse of Peladon, The Mutants and The Time Monster. Colony in Space was therefore a crucial test case to persuade the BBC longer-term to end the Doctor’s (budget imposed) exile on earth.

Sent by the Timelords to the colony planet of Uxarieus in the year 2472 (leaving the Brigadier to make the briefest of brief cameos in episodes 1 and 6) the Doctor and Jo discover the earth colonists living peacefully, if distrustfully, with the natives of the planet – 1970s social commentary in full swing! Proceedings are then interupted, firstly by a mining corporation determined to ruin the colony so that the planet can be mined, and then by the appearance of season-long adversary the Master. It makes entertaining viewing for us to watch the Doctor try to work out why he’s been sent to the planet, and to negotiate his way through the different interested parties – as ever trying his usual combination of charm, bombast and Venusian karate. It transpires that the Master’s agenda is to seize a doomsday weapon of great power hidden on the planet – a planet that used to host a great civilization until the power of the weapon caused their race to decay.

This is a typical example of a six part adventure from the Pertwee era. In the Baker era one suspects the Master would have appeared much earlier, perhaps at the end of Part 2 rather than in Part 4 as in this adventure. While it does make for a longer viewing experience I really don’t mind in the least – the performances of the cast, and especially from Pertwee and Manning, are such a delight to behold that you don’t mind watching the story unfold slowly. Yes, there are some glaring plot-holes, and it could be debated whether the story needed the Master to feature at all (see also The Claws of Axos) but Colony in Space is a fascinating and highly enjoyable adventure.