32 – Planet of Evil

This adventure caused me no small amount of confusion when my dad first bought the video. At that stage in my young life, the only Tom Baker adventure I had seen was the 1993 repeat of Genesis of the Daleks. So when I saw the good Doctor and Sarah Jane on my parents’ TV screen, I mistakenly concluded that this was the same adventure I had seen before – an impression that did not take long to be corrected!

Planet of Evil is an exceedingly clever story, which does not really feature a monster in the traditional sense. It is definitely of the same ilk as historic base-under-seige stories, as first a planetary expedition, and then the rescue ship come under the attack of an unknown and malevolent force. When the Doctor and Sarah respond to a distress signal on Zeta Minor, they are initially blamed for the death of the expedition by the lone survivor, Professor Sorenson. As the story plays out, it is revealed that Zeta Minor is on the very edge of two universes – the universe of matter, and the universe of anti-matter. As Sorenson becomes infected by the anti-matter, the Doctor has to find a way to return all of the anti-matter specimens to Zeta Minor before the rescue team are pulled into the anti-matter universe.

While I admit this largely went over my head as a child, I adored the plot when I was old enough to appreciate it! As with many Doctor Who adventures that I best love, it combines a straightforward plot with clever twists, great characters, and of course the indomitable presence of the Doctor! Season 13 is quite rightly held in very high regard by fans, with the on-screen chemistry between Baker and Sladen exceptional, paired with exceedingly strong stories. Planet of Evil is a fine example of this at work.

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Planet of Evil is available to download on the BBC Store for £6.99

Next time: A lost classic set in the London Underground, incredibly rescued in 2013 …

33 – Death to the Daleks

This adventure was a childhood favourite, and remains a delight to this day. Falling in Pertwee’s final season, this was the third and final time he would face the evil intergalactic pepperpots before regeneration at the close of the season. The story sees the TARDIS crash land on an unknown planet, suffering from a mysterious power loss. They quickly find an Earth survey ship suffering from a similar loss of power, and are soon joined by a spaceship full of Daleks, also mysteriously deprived of power.

The loss of power makes for a wonderful dynamic, with the Daleks initially deprived of their ray guns, and forced to develop conventional rifle style guns. Until they regain their weaponry, they display much the same sort of villainous cunning they displayed in Power of the Daleks – perhaps this is what Pertwee’s Doctor has in mind when he urges the earth taskforce “don’t trust them – not even for a minute!”

Both crews are ostensibly there for the same reason – needing a rare mineral that is the only known cure to a great space plague that is decimating the galaxy. They unite behind this purpose, and also to discover whatever it is that is causing the power drain. It transpires that the inhabitants of the planet, known as Exxilons, worship an incredible self-sustaining city, and this is the source of the power drain. After saving Sarah from being sacrificed for the crime of approaching the forbidden city, the Doctor allies himself with a fugitive Exxilon known as Bellal, the leader of a group determined to destroy the city. While the Daleks enslave the Exxilons to mine the planet, the Doctor has to find a way through a series of traps within the city to destroy its deepest workings, and enable the travellers to escape.

There are occasions when one must overlook the production values of this story; it is certainly not the most complicated or sinister Dalek adventure ever produced, and the episode 3 cliffhanger has to go down as the most pointlessly dramatic ever – as the Doctor urges Ballal not to step upon a patterned floor! If one overlooks these small details however, one finds a highly enjoyable a straightforward adventure, made all the better for a superb supporting cast and the involvement of the Daleks. That it is not the best Dalek story available says rather less about this adventure, and rather more about the quality of Dalek stories in general! It is also the last Dalek adventure of the classic era not to feature their villainous creator, Davros, although it did feature the actor who would portray Davros in his debut adventure, Michael Wisher, here providing the voices of the Daleks.

It saddens me to say that this is also the last adventure of the Pertwee era that I find myself able to enjoy. Even in this adventure you find the sparkle beginning to diminish, and for his final two adventures The Monster of Peladon and Planet of the Spiders the spark is completely gone. There have definitely been occasions when I have felt that either this story or The Green Death would have been more fitting swan songs for a truly great Doctor …

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Death to the Daleks is available to download on the BBC Store for £4.99

Next time: A classic Tom Baker adventure which takes him to the edge of the known universe …

34 – The Pirate Planet

The second episode of the Key to Time season is very much a marmite taste to Doctor Who fans – but whether you love it or hate it, you are in agreement that the reason why is that it’s a comical performance that verges on pantomime. While the preceding story The Ribos Operation is very much hit and miss (and more miss than hit), by The Pirate Planet you can very evidently see the fingerprints of Douglas Adams at work in Doctor Who, with his humour and narrative style much more evident. I personally greatly enjoy Adam’s offbeat and sardonic humour, which perhaps explains why I enjoy this story, one of only three Doctor Who stories penned by Adams himself.

Seeking the second segment of the Key to Time, the Doctor and Romana land seeking the planet Calufrax, instead landing on Zanak – which for whatever reason is occupying the exact point in space and time that Calufrax ought to be. The planet is under the rule of the tyrannical Captain, a cyborg who is every inch a blustering pirate captain, waited upon by the fastidious Mr Fibuli. As the TARDIS crew seek to discover where Calufrax has gone, they realise that the Captain is nothing more than a puppet for the planet’s presumed dead former Queen, Xanxia. Xanxia established Zanak as able to transfer instantly across space to engulf whole planets, robbing them of their mineral wealth, and enabling her to hold back death and attempt to create a new corporeal form. The Doctor and Romana find themselves in a race to stop the demented Queen before Zanak cannibalises their next target: Earth!

While there are many outstanding performances, it is Bruce Purchase as the Captain who either makes or breaks this story for the viewer. Loud, bombastic and every inch a pirate stereotype, you will either rebel at the caricature, or else embrace it warmly as you realise that the Captain himself is putting on a front, hoping to usurp Xanxia. Baker and Tamm make good use of the humour provided by Adams – indeed I would say this is one of Tamm’s strongest performances in the role, getting a better balance between helpless damsel (The Power of Kroll) and overbearing know-it-all (The Ribos Operation).

This story may not be universally loved, but I principally enjoy it for a good straightforward story, and plenty of simple laughs. I cannot think of an occasion when I have watched this story, and not been cheered up by the end of it; which I think is just about the best compliment you can pay to any television material!

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The Pirate Planet
is available to download from the BBC Store for £4.99

Next time: Before Sarah Jane Smith met Davros, she met his villanous creations …

35 – The Mind of Evil

By 2014 I was tantalisingly close to completing my Doctor Who DVD collection. Notwithstanding the agonising over whether to buy the DVDs with currently missing material (The Moonbase for example) a few stories remained, not least this one. And while it was kept until last, it was certainly one of the best!

First of all, let me share why such an excellent adventure was off the shelves for so long. Not only did the BBC get rid of the original broadcast tapes for the Hartnell and Troughton eras, Jon Pertwee’s era was also badly affected. While his entire era survives, certain of his stories only survived in broadcast quality in black and white – examples including Terror of the Autons, The Daemons, and The Ambassadors of Death. For most, they were able to procure low grade colour versions, which could be combined with the high resolution black and white prints to produce something approximating the original broadcast tape – the Destruction of Time website has a good account of this process.

The Mind of Evil is somewhat unique however, in that no colour footage at all survives of the story. To recover the original colour, the BBC had to use an ingenious process called “Chroma Dot Recovery.” In short – when the BBC converted the original broadcast tapes to black and white film to sell overseas, little dots (the aforementioned chroma dots) were included, indicating what the original colour had been. Using this information, the producers were able (at length and great expense) to recreate the original colour, as they had done for the Ambassadors of Death – a video showing how this process was used for Dad’s Army can be watched here.

So far so good. Except episode one doesn’t have any chroma dots! As Richard Molesworth would explain in Wiped! the dots were due to a mistake in the process of creating the film, and for the first episode the BBC technicians had processed the film properly – leaving no dots! For us in the 21st century, the only way we are now able to enjoy this episode in colour is thanks to the reconstruction team who painstakingly coloured in EVERY SINGLE FRAME of the 25 minute episode. With that in view, the greatest miracle is that they were able to produce the DVD at all!

Once complete and colourised however, the story is far from a disappointment, and is a real highlight of the U.N.I.T. Era of Doctor Who. The Doctor and Jo travel to Stangmoor Prison to watch a ruthless criminal be processed by the ‘Keller Machine’, a device supposedly able to deprive individuals of their most evil impulses. The Doctor suspects all is not well, and he is right to do so – for his old enemy the Master is at work in the background. The machine is in fact an alien creature that targets the worst impulses of those who come into contact with it and imbibes them. The Master proposes using the device to seize control of the prison, then to use the inmates to steal a highly destructive weapon from U.N.I.T (it must be acknowledged that this story is not Captain Yates or Sergeant Benton’s finest hour …)

Convoluted though the plot perhaps is, as ever it is the principle stars that make the story a joy. Delgado and Pertwee shine in every scene, especially where they face one another, and Katy Manning very quickly shakes off the damsel in distress stereotype of Terror of the Autons, being active and assertive. And of course, who can forget the wonderful moment in episode five where the Brigadier infiltrates the prison, dressed in civvies and affecting a Cockney accent …

You may reach the end and ask one pertinent questions: why is the Master trying to start World War 3? Why seize control of the prison in such a convoluted manner? How come Benton and Yates are the only people not murdered by the convicts? To pick on these quibbles however is to rob yourself of the enjoyment of an excellent, gripping, and entertaining drama. It may have been the Pertwee story I waited longest for, but the wait was certainly worth it!

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The Mind of Evil is available to download on the BBC Store for £9.99

Next Time: Set your multi-loop stabiliser for Douglas Adams’ first Doctor Who adventure

#MissingEpisodesMonday: How Rogue One points to the future of classic Doctor Who

2017 has not started well for those fans hoping that Philip Morris and/or A.N.Other missing episode collector would be backing up a massive truck to BBC HQ with 97 cannisters of 16mm film cans. The animation of Power of the Daleks, combined with certain acerbic assertions made by Paul Vanezis (a reliable if untrusted source) on GallifreyBase, have persuaded those following the omnirumour that it was just that – a rumour.

More on that to come in due course – but for this week’s post I have decided to revisit a post I wrote two years ago, when Doctor Who fandom had lost all of the pent up optimism that followed the release of The Enemy of the World and The Web of Fear. I decided that it was time to stop waiting for Philip Morris to bring the rumoured shipping container filled with cans of missing episodes to the BBC, and to instead press on with recreating what was lost; I wrote a letter to this effect in October 2015, launching the #MissingEpisodesMonday hashtag (not, I confess, one of my more successful ideas!) and hoping to pester BBC Worldwide into keeping the classic DVD range alive. We have already had the first fruits of that, with the wildly successful release of The Power of the Daleks fully animated.

I think there is a pointer to where the BBC can go next provided by another creation that looked to recreate something lost. I delayed this post for a month, giving readers plenty of time to watch Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (should they be that way inclined) without spoiling anything. I’m assuming a full month after release that if you have not watched it by now, you will not be troubled by a minor spoiler – but if you would be, this is your last chance to look away!

Rogue One, which is set just before the events of the very first Star Wars movie, caused a great deal of debate and discussion – not just for the storyline (good but grim) but also for a brave and contentious decision to recreate Peter Cushing’s character of Grand Moff Tarkin, and to create a Princess Leia who looked as the late Carrie Fisher did in 1977. The video below shows what sort of process was involved to do this – essentially, it required near lookalikes to portay and speak the roles, and then for CGI to be overlaid over the actor.

Of course the first question that has been raised in all of this relates to the ethics of recreating long deceased actors. This article by the Guardian focuses specifically on the ethics of it, and includes the following helpful remarks:

“This was done in consultation and cooperation with his estate. So we wouldn’t do this if the estate had objected or didn’t feel comfortable with this idea.

(For additional debate, you also may want to read this article by Max Farrow and this article by Dave Ehrlich)

While I know some readers will want to debate the ethics involved, I’m purposefully side-stepping the debate for this post as it merits an entire post to itself, and is being explored much more thoroughly and knowledgeably elsewhere on the internet! Instead, I’d like to focus on what this develop does mean – for better or for worse, we are rapidly approaching the point at which CGI renderings will be comparable to real life actors. We absolutely need to land on a humane and sensible agreement in terms of what is acceptable and what is unethical – but we also won’t be able to avoid for long the question of how this applies to missing episodes of Doctor Who.

This idea is not exactly new – I speculated in May 2015 that the BBC could recreate Marco Polo using an entirely new cast as a reference point for the animators, the driving factor there being the proliferation of motion capture in computer games. Rogue One has demonstrated that movies are quickly catching up, and that television or on-demand viewing cannot be far behind. Yes, in 2017 it is probably prohibitively expensive to map William Hartnell’s CGI created expression on to David Bradley. But it is not impossible – and it was not that long ago that we were warned that animating a completely missing episode of Doctor Who was financially impossible.

This being the case, then suddenly the BBC have a lot of questions in front of them, in terms of productions, values and ethics – never mind the business decisions! Even if BBC Worldwide could bring together a cast to re-make Marco Polo, and wanted to do so, how far should their creative freedom go? The animators of The Power of the Daleks have already faced questions on the decisions they took when animating the adventure. Imagine having to decide whether Marco Polo: Reimagined should be recorded in widescreen colour HD, or instead as close to the orginal as possible? Should all of the original cast be faithfully recreated, or only the recurring cast? Should the original soundtrack be used? And especially given contemporary debates about cultural appropriation, would the BBC have to ensure that Chinese actors portrayed Chinese roles?

Against all of these challenges however, I would like to present a positive case. Unless the episodes show up (and optimism is at an all time low) we have 97 gaps in the classic catalogue, of which only fifteen have been satisfactorily plugged. The Power of the Daleks animation was great, but also lacked fluidity – you had to get past the realisation of the human characters. There is definitely a case for using motion capture to improve the quality of future animations – the question seems not to be if we should use motion capture, but rather the extent to which we should use motion capture and CGI.

It is not just missing episodes at stake here. If a convincing William Hartnell or Patrick Troughton could be re-created, why not a convincing Peter Davison or Colin Baker? Take Big Finish’s excellent audio drama Spare Parts (available to buy online here) – the clip below shows a test animation attempted by a fan (there are four on youtube in total):

While Cybermen (like Daleks) are easy to animate, humans are unsurprisingly somewhat more difficult. Given the pace at which technology is advancing however, we may not be far from the point that we can produce so much more than missing episodes – we would be able to turn audio dramas into reasonably realistic animations. Of course – this would instantly put fandom into a schism inducing uproar – certain fans would refuse to accept ‘non-canon’ stories, while even those who accepted it would be divided in terms of whether these new adventures would be welcomed into the ‘classic’ DVD range, or should be a stand alone range.

Plainly there remains a lot to debate, and absolutely no easy answers. But the future for classic Doctor Who is nevertheless extremely exciting, and persuades me that regardless of whether further material is found, Doctor Who fans can eventually look forward to a day when the missing episodes have been recreated in some form, and we can enjoy the classic era in its entirety.

36 – The Three Doctors

Back in 1973, a bright spark at the BBC suddenly realised that Doctor Who had reached a significant milestone – its tenth season. To mark the occasion, the producers took the bold step to write a story featuring every one of the Doctor’s incarnations, and the resulting story was entitled exactly what it was: The Three Doctors.

Of all the ‘multi-doctor’ stories, I believe that this one is the best. Unlike The Five Doctors it is not overly self-referential, instead telling quite a good story; unlike The Two Doctors it is clear and cohesive, and reasonably well told! It has to be said that, in my view, it is the participation of the Doctor’s first three incarnations in one story that makes what might have been a quite ordinary U.N.I.T. adventure into a truly great one, and one that is a pleasure to enjoy.

At the beginning of this story the Doctor is still trapped on earth; but having found a variety of different ways to circumvent the BBC’s restriction (or rather, dressing up in different ways sending the Doctor off on missions for the Timelords) the BBC finally gave up and decided it was time to let the Doctor off his leash. The narrative device to restore the Doctor’s freedom was for Gallifrey itself to come under attack from an unknown source, requiring the help of the Doctor to overcome it. When it transpires he requires the assistance of another Timelord, the High Council decide there is only one other person they can spare – the Doctor’s past self!

The villain of the piece is one of the original Timelords – a chap called Omega who harnessed the power of a star near Gallifrey, creating the conditions in which the Timelords would be able to travel in time. He himself was thought lost in the resultant supernova, but had in fact been sucked into a parallel anti-matter universe. The force of his will enables the world to exist, but he cannot escape it without someone else willing it to exist. He is therefore seized of two purposes – to destroy the Timelords (who he felt abandoned him) and to bring to himself another Timelord to take his place and enable him to return to the matter universe.

The Three Doctors does require you to shrug your shoulders and go along for the ride – but it is an extremely enjoyable ride! The scenes between Pertwee and Troughton are genuinely funny rather than forced, leaving it only a pity that Hartnell was so unwell that he could not participate as fully as one otherwise would have hoped, appearing instead in pre-recorded scenes from the TARDIS monitor. It also feels like the beginning of the end for the U.N.I.T. family – at the end of this story the Doctor is given his freedom by the Timelords in gratitude for defeating Omega. As The Brigadier and Benton depart to ‘mop things up’ while the Doctor prepares the TARDIS for take-off, one rather senses that the dismemberment of the U.N.I.T. family, which would start in the season finale The Green Death was already taking place.

The Three Doctors is by no means the most complicated Doctor Who you will ever watch – but it is good fun, easy to follow, and features some extremely enjoyable acting – not least from the three leading men. As the Brigadier famously remarks: “Wonderful chaps. All of them.”

Next time: A savage introduction to a new companion, facing against a schizophrenic computer

Probably the best Doctor Who EVER: My review of The Power of the Daleks

Merry Christmas readers! I’ve been sitting on a review of The Power of the Daleks for a while, and so I have decided to use the Christmas break to pen my thoughts on the wonderful animation provided by BBC Worldwide.

As long term readers of the blog will recall, Power was one of the three stories I was most keen to see recovered, for the reasons I set out in this blog post. Indeed, so curious was I to sample Patrick Troughton’s sadly missing first adventure that I eventually gave in and watched the Loose Cannon recon – and it only increased my excitement for the animated release when BBC Store confirmed the animation project.

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Now I have watched the animated reconstruction … several times. In such a short space of time, I think that is probably the highest complement I can pay The Power of the Daleks – one watch (even two!) simply has not been enough to enjoy a high quality adventure. I was nervous what standard the animation would be, with the quality varying substantially between previous BBC releases (The Moonbase was excellent, The Ice Warriors less so). In the end, I need not waste any words commenting on the quality of the animation – it is excellent, and a worthy alternative in the absence of the original prints. Sure there is the odd niggle here and there, but one is not only able to follow the story, crucially one is able to enjoy the story and establish some degree of empathy with the characters.

Which comes to the crux of this review: Power of the Daleks is an excellent piece of Doctor Who. The very best stories combine a good story, good characters and a good cast – and the most excellent stories have that extra edge that leaves you hooked. Power of the Daleks excels on all of these counts and then some. Even before you add the unique variable that this is the first regeneration story, it is already a fine example of Doctor Who well done, and would stand up well if it were any other Doctor, and indeed not even a regeneration story. As it is, Patrick Troughton’s first foray into the role of the Doctor is the cherry on the icing that makes this story exceptional.

The plot itself is relatively straightforward: the newly regenerated Doctor arrives with his startled companions Polly and Ben on the planet Vulcan. The earth colony on the planet has three resident challenges: a group of discontented colonists planning a rebellion against the governor; a discontented member of the administration plotting to use the rebels to usurp the governor, and an obsessed scientist who has discovered a space capsule containing what he takes to be three machines – but that the Doctor has no hesitation in identifying as dormant Daleks! When the Doctor witnesses the murder of an Examiner sent from Earth, he steps into the shoes of the Examiner to investigate the mysterious circumstances of the colony. As the wonderful extras explain, much of the tension in the episode stems from the Doctor (and the viewer) knowing that the Daleks are evil and not to be trusted, while the earth colonists are deceived by the Daleks’ pledge of servitude. The viewer knows full well that sooner or later the Daleks will betray their human ‘masters’, and the tension ramps up as the schemes of the rebels, the discontented administator, and the Daleks themselves reach a dramatic and violent climax.

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In fact, if one had to identify one reason why this story is a triumph, it is precisely that word: tension. Power of the Daleks is a glorious lesson that modern television writers could heed well – sometimes the best way to develop a drama is to allow the tension to ramp up slowly, carefully, and deliciously much more slowly than the viewer finds comfortable. Undoubtedly one could argue that without the regeneration and some of the background scenes, this could easily be a four part adventure. I think that would be a shame however – the slower pace allows you to enjoy the excellent characters – and while we can only judge by the voices of the original cast how good their performances were, it seems the cast were all on top form; most importantly, at no stage is there any sense of a cast member being superfluous – each plays their role and plays it well. You find yourself draw in and emphasising with the characters, and hoping that somehow the Doctor can help the colonists to defeat the Daleks.

That said, there are two outstanding stars in the performance who deserve particular praise. Top of the list has to be the incomparable Patrick Troughton – right from “It’s over!” he absolutely nails the part of the Doctor. The BBC took a bold decision to completely recast the role of the Doctor, and if it had backfired they could well have pulled the plug after this adventure. Right from the start Troughton puts his own inimitable charm upon the role, and this is certainly a much better introduction to Troughton than the more comic persona he adopts in his earliest surviving episodes in The Underwater Menace. The animators deserve a lot of credit for taking the soundtrack with all of Troughton’s character, and managing to convey something of that in their animations – it is a simple fact that Patrick Troughton not only made this story a success, he also saved Doctor Who for future generations.

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As a brief aside, it is worth saying that the regeneration (referred to in the story simply as a ‘renewal’) is both better explored and less explored than in future stories. The first ten minutes are entirely focused on the TARDIS, where Ben and Polly try to work out who this ‘new’ man is. Their suspicion and incredulity is well played, and essential for helping the viewer to weigh up the ‘new’ Doctor for themselves. In the end, the Doctor throws himself straight into the action, almost akin to Matt Smith in The Eleventh Hour, and demonstrating the fundamental continuity to the departing William Hartnell by doing what the Doctor does best – getting involved! I think for the first ever regeneration it was very well handled, and it was a delight to experience it.

The other stars are the Daleks themselves, in what is perhaps their most clever and nuanced appearance in the show. Most often we are used to the Daleks adopting their standard method of Dalek Diplomacy (“Seek, locate, exterminate!”) – so it comes to a shock to the senses when the episode two cliffhanger has the Dalek professing “I am your ser-vant!” The craftiness of the Daleks is a joy to behold, and especially the moments when the Daleks momentarily forget that they are meant to be concealing their true natures: witness the Dalek correcting himself from “Daleks are b- are different to humans!” in episode three; or the delicious moment when a Dalek, exhulting in the prospect of their own power supply, says: “With static power, THE DALEKS WILL BE TWICE AS … *pause* … useful.” There is something scarily human in the way the Daleks reason and plot; a potent reminder that their appeal was not least due to a sober reminder of what humanity can become when it gives in to its own worst instincts.

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Even without the original footage I am ready to make the controversial statement that I think Power of the Daleks is the best Doctor Who story ever. It certainly runs my top three very very close, and the only doubt remaining is precisely because we are not able to see the original footage. I feel confident however, that were Philip Morris to work a miracle and recover Power of the Daleks against all of the odds, this story would justifiably take its place as one of the best regarded stories in Doctor Who fandom. It is that good.