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 …

38 – State of Decay

This was an adventure that really had to grow on me, but really has grown on me. Easily the best adventure of the E-Space trilogy in Tom Baker’s final season, it is also quite possibly the darkest and most sinister adventure to ever feature in the entire classic run. Perhaps that is why I enjoyed it better with age than as a young teenager – easily impressionable, there was something very unsettling about the Gothic horror of the villains of the story.

As readers of the Full Circle review will recall, the Doctor and Romana have managed to get trapped in an alternative universe, and are striving to work out how to return to N-Space. In this adventure they land on an earth like world, where the servile population live in a world were technology is forbidden, and three lords rule over them with an awe inspiring terror. The Doctor soon discovers that the planet is the resting place of the last great Vampire, a fearsome race that the Time Lords only just succeeded in defeating in a Great war. The three lords ruling over the planet, Zargo, Aukon and Camilla are in fact the original commanders of an earth colonist ship, sucked through a CVE like the TARDIS crew themselves, and transformed into vampires through the influence of the dormant Great Vampire. The population meanwhile are the descendants of the original colonists, shaped by generations of fear into cowed obedience.

That one paragraph gives you a pretty full flavour of how dark the story is. The incidental score and production decisions belie the shoestring budget the programme was on, and create a constantly unsettling feeling of tension and dread. In a demonstration of just how great his acting powers are, Tom Baker holds the audience enthralled as he searches the TARDIS databanks for records of the Great Vampire, and reads that any Time Lord finding the surviving vampire should do everything in their power to stop it, even forsaking their life. Shudder at your leisure …

State of Decay is a superb adventure in the best legacy of science fiction. Like all good Doctor Who it is well paced and engaging, even if some of the acting by the supporting cast occasionally veers towards Planet of the Spiders levels. Even the usually challenging Adric makes a worthwhile contribution to the story, albeit already beginning to display signs of the petulance that would make his character difficult to love. There is really only one qualification to this story, which is the dark and horrific themes throughout. Suitably prepared, you will definitely enjoy the story, but it’s not one for the kids (much like Image of the Fendahl) and perhaps best watched with the lights on …

39 – The Face of Evil

This was a story I was itching to get my hands on for a very long time, not least due to the very positive recommendations of others who rated the story very highly. When I eventually did get my hands on the DVD it certainly did not disappoint, and deservedly took a very high slot in my most enjoyed episodes of Doctor Who.

The adventure is noteworthy as the debut episode for Louise Jameson as Leela, and she immediately impresses as the bold and fearless warrior of the Sevateem. Having seen almost all of Leela’s adventures before this one it felt exceedingly strange to finish by watching her first story. It is a testament to how well Jameson played the part that her debut doesn’t disappoint even to one used to Leela’s performances in Doctor Who. It is also a potent reminder that, magisterial though Tom Baker was in many other ways, he definitely needed a wingman to complement him. We can be thankful that the producers won that particular argument and ensured the long term replacement of Liz Sladen with Louise Jameson.

The story itself is wonderfully layered and intriguing, and at no point over the four episodes feels pedestrian. Rather uniquely in the annals of Doctor Who, it doesn’t really have a villain of the piece. While a mad computer called Xoanon has manipulated two sections of colonists (The ‘Sevateem’, originally ‘Survey Team’ and the ‘Tesh’, originally ‘Technicians’) into a constant conflict, the computer is not like the evil BOSS from The Green Death, instead acting as it is because its programme had been unintentionally corrupted – of all people, by the Doctor! The story therefore feels much more like a ‘Howdunnit’ than a ‘Whodunnit’ and is extremely satisfying to watch unfold.

Season 14 is one of the real high points of the history of Doctor Who, with not a single bad story in it. Philip Hinchcliffe was yet to receive his marching orders for the strong Gothic Horror feel of the programme, which means that stories like The Face of Evil were given free reign to tell good robust stories. This adventure combines all of the elements that make for an excellent Doctor Who – great story, great cast, great Doctor and companion, and great little moments to cherish in the dialogue. In that regard, The Face of Evil is definitely a story that fans of the series should strongly consider when choosing a starting point for new fans to discover Doctor Who for the first time!

40 – The Brain of Morbius

While the missing episodes trail continues to give no hints of what may be to come, we resume the episode countdown with a tale full of Gothic Horror. Arriving on the planet Karn (which would later gain fame for the Eighth Doctor 50th anniversary prequel The Night of the Doctor) the Doctor and Sarah happen upon the lair of mad scientist Solon. It transpires that the Time Lords have sent the Doctor to this planet having discovered that Morbius, a Time Lord of extraordinary evil, had survived his execution at the hands of the Time Lords, and hired Solon to place his brain into a new body. Owing to the isolated location of Karn, Solon is reduced to forcing spaceships to crash land on the planet, and cannibalising the survivors to create a body in the style of Frankenstein’s monster.

As you can tell from this short summary, the story does not make for cheerful viewing! It is a magisterial story, with sufficient extra interest brought from the surrounding cast – Solon’s servant Condo, and the Sisterhood of Karn – a secret society of women who worship the ‘Eternal Flame’ – a flame that creates an elixir delivering eternal life. It also creates an interesting look into the Doctor’s back story – at the end we see the Doctor challenge Morbius to a ‘mind-bending’ contest, in which we see each of the Doctor’s past incarnations appear one after another. After William Hartnell, eight more faces appear. Opinion is divided as to whether these are past incarnations of the Doctor (which subsequent episodes, especially The Deadly Assassin and The Time of the Doctor would seem to refute) or of Morbius. Suffice to say that considerable discussion and speculation was aroused when this was first shown!

In contrast to The Seeds of Doom I actually don’t find the grimness of The Brain of Morbius too much to bear. Perhaps it is because of the light relief from Condo; or that Baker himself is more devil-may-care than his more serious mindset in Seeds; it could even be that Seeds suffers from having six episodes of unrelenting grim, whereas this adventure is somewhat more contained. In any event, I have always enjoyed this adventure from the moment dad bought in on VHS, and it is a definite highlight in a season of exceptional stories.

41 – The Masque of Mandragora

While we await the thrilling results of my missing episodes fan survey, I return to my count-down through the classic run of Doctor Who. I have to remind myself after recent longish posts that this was originally meant to be 10 minutes of writing every day … (ooops!)

The Masque of Mandragora was rather high on my list of stories I wanted to watch, mostly as the story in which the wooden ‘secondary’ TARDIS console room was introduced. Maybe it’s just me … but I quite liked this console, which only appeared in Tom Baker’s third season after the wood warped in storage between seasons, leading Leela to observe in The Invisible Enemy that ‘it had changed.’

The story therefore begins with the Doctor and Sarah discovering the second console room while having an explore around the TARDIS, only to be pulled off course by a mysterious energy source known as the Mandragora Helix, which draws them to Renaissance Italy. Mandragora purposes to use a local black magic coven to dominate the Earth as a new religion, using its power to overcome opposition. All of which leaves some wonderful ingredients for a classic Doctor Who adventure – the wonderful juxtaposition of what appears to be magic, which is in fact superior science; and some wonderful period drama in that evocative and dangerous transition era between the Dark Ages and the Enlightenment.

I confess to being a little downhearted when I first watched the serial on youtube (note the recurring theme of enjoyment being shaped by expectations!), but was pleasantly surprised when I came fresh to the serial on DVD. I think the highest compliment I can pay The Masque of Mandragora is that my wife enjoyed watching it – and she famously does not enjoy classic Doctor Who! All of which shows that this story enjoys both complexity of detail and engagement, and also a simple narrative that draws the viewer in. The characters are also extremely enjoyable to watch – Baker and Sladen are deservedly one of the best TARDIS teams ever, and fully on song in this adventure, but the supporting cast are an equal delight – whether the villainous and Machiavellian Count Federico; his double-crossing astrologer Hieronymous, to the scientifically minded Giuliano and his friend Marco.

This adventure would not be at all out of place in the modern era, and strongly influenced stories like The Vampires of Venice. It would be an excellent starting point for any fan of Nu Who seeking to acquaint themselves with the classic era.

45 – Image of the Fendahl

This is a very unusual story in terms of my appreciation of it. I had very good memories of watching the VHS (in part I think because my mum wouldn’t let dad show me it, so we had to watch it covertly!) but then re-watched it years later and was a little disappointed. I then bought the DVD not expecting much, and thoroughly enjoyed it. So I will linger a little to explore why I have had such a hot and cold relationship to the story.

As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, while producer Graham Williams was certainly cleaning up the show’s act in Season 15, Image of the Fendahl would not have been the least out of place during the Philip Hinchcliffe era, and in many ways is just as horrifying as the season opener Horror of Fang Rock. The story centres around a skull that dates back many years before mankind could have existed, with scientists exploring how it could be so old. The skull in fact belongs to a being known as the Fendahl, a  life force draining malevolent being of power rather undermined by manifesting itself later as a rather attractive young lady! The Fendahl is a gestalt entity that influenced the evolution of man to create the carriers (ie. human beings) required to manifest. The chief scientist is in fact being manipulated by his deputy, who heads up a coven believing they can harness the power of the Fendahl to their own ends.

The story is in some ways a darker version (quite literally – most of it is at night-time) than the Pertwee adventure The Daemons – exploring how what appears to be the occult is in fact a form of alien science. It makes for quite a good adventure, and as with many other adventures in this season, it is Baker and Jameson as the TARDIS crew that make the difference – although it has to be said that the supporting cast in this story also acquit themselves very well, not least old Ma Tyler. It is a good watch and a clever story – but perhaps not one you should watch in the middle of the night!