9 – The Stones of Blood

What do you get when you combine the gothic horror of that typified the era when Philip Hinchliffe was producer (Seasons 13 and 14) with the humour that that typified the era when Douglas Adams was most involved with the series? Well, my humble opinion is that you would get The Stones of Blood – and that is what makes it such a masterpiece!

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11 – Shada

In what I am confident will be a surprise to some readers, this week we are reviewing an incomplete story! Unlike stories like The Invasion we are not talking about an adventure which is missing some of its televised episodes, but instead an adventure that was cancelled mid production, leaving only some studio and location footage as a tantilising glimpse of what might have been …

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30 – The Androids of Tara

This charming adventure is the one adventure during the Key to Time season that has the least to do with the Key to Time, and could most easily be used in any other season. Arriving on the planet of Tara, the Doctor decides to let Romana press ahead with finding the fourth segment of the Key to Time, while he takes a break to do some fishing. The duo become unwillingly pulled into the political machinations of the court of Tara; Romana is captured by the devious Count Grendel, who confuses Romana for the Taran noblelady, Princess Strella. The Doctor meanwhile is accosted by the bodyguard of Prince Reynart, rightful heir to the throne of Tara, who asks him to repair a perfect android copy of himself, intended to be a diversion to distract Grendel.

As you can tell, with a story featuring lookalikes and androids, this story contains more cases of mistaken identity than a Shakespeare farce. Episode two concludes with the Doctor appearing to strike down Romana, when in fact he is striking down an android duplicate of Princess Strella – meaning that the viewer needs to be sharp witted to follow exactly what is happening at any given moment!

It is certainly not the most complicated Doctor Who story in the world, and definitely not the most clever. But it’s enormously good fun, and highly enjoyable to watch! There is something delightfully delicious about Grendel’s ill-disguised political opportunism and Machiavellian plotting, and Peter Jeffrey (who previously appeared in the missing Troughton adventure The Macra Terror as the Pilot) realises the role superbly. Cyril Shaps also breaks with past tradition of his previous Doctor Who appearances, by managing to keep his character alive until the end of the adventure! The rest of the guest cast, while one-dimensional to a certain degree, don’t really need many layers to be enjoyed; although it is amusing that Reynart’s android has slightly more character than Reynart himself, a point referenced in the script!

Baker is just as peerless as you’d expect, and seems to revel in a slightly devil-may-care attitude for this adventure. While K9 also enjoys a starring role and plenty of comic laughs, poor Mary Tamm is slightly reduced to the damsel-in-distress for this adventure. While by no means completely helpless, her role in the story is pretty much get captured, escape, and repeat. Given that so much of the story revolves around pretending to be someone you are not (Tamm played four roles: Romana, Strella, and their respective android doubles) it was perhaps inevitable that they couldn’t give Romana anything other than the role the story demanded.

What can I say? The Androids of Tara is a straightforward story, with a slightly hammed up cast and script, using very familiar themes and motifs. Some fans detest it for all of those reasons. I adore this story for all of those reasons!

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You can buy The Androids of Tara on the BBC Store for £4.99

Next Time: There’s something underhand in Loch Ness …

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!

53 – The Invasion of Time

I was horrified to see that it’s been more than two months since my last review in the episode countdown! And so I resume with a story that is definitely going to raise eyebrows. For a variety of reasons this story is not well perceived in Doctor Who fandom. Several factors are given, whether it’s the low-grade special effects, the buffoonery of the Timelords, the evident sense that the budget had run out, or indeed the sneaking suspicion that there wasn’t quite enough material to stretch across six episodes.

I think that the criticism is a tad unfair, and really enjoyed discovering the serial on VHS. In truth, this adventure is best understood as a two part story, in which the Doctor faces off against one alien threat in the first four episodes, and a second alien threat in the final two. Tom Baker is simply sensational throughout, as he gives the appearance of co-operating with a race known as the Vardans to effect an invasion of his home planet, Gallifrey. He begins by seizing the role of Lord President of the High Council of Timelords – having conveniently put himself up for election last time he was on Gallifrey in The Deadly Assassin.

It is not until after part 3, by which time the Vardans have invaded Gallifrey, that we discover that the Doctor is secretly trying to identify their home planet and put it into a time loop. As the Vardans are capable of travelling on any wavelength, including thought, they are able to read people’s minds, and appear next to people instantly – hence the Doctor is required to resort to subterfuge to achieve his aims. Thwarting the Vardans is only the beginning however – to win their trust, he is forced to lower the shields of Gallifrey, which allows a Sontaran battle fleet to enter the Capitol. The Doctor then spends the last two episodes ensuring that the Sontarans do not get their hands on the Timelords’ ultimate weapon – the Demat gun.

It has to be said – I think The Invasion of Time is a thoroughly enjoyable and non-demanding adventure. Yes, one must look past the occasionally laughable special effects (especially the cellophane Vardans), and it does stretch a little at six episodes – but it never feels pedestrian, and even the minor roles of Andred, captain of the Chancellery Guards, and Rodan the technician add distinct flavour to the story. We also get to see more of Gallifrey than at any point until then in the show’s history – including the wilderness outside the Capitol. And the episode four cliffhanger, the dramatic revelation of the Sontarans after you believe the Doctor has won the day, has to go down as one of the greatest and best executed cliffhangers in Doctor Who history.

The story also marks the farewell for Leela, and the original K9 prop. While I enjoyed Leela as a companion, she never really had the opportunity to develop as a character as the producers had originally intended. When the Doctor says fondly “I’ll miss you too, savage,” it rather captures the contrast between Leela, still instinctive and violent by the end of her travels, and Jamie MacCrimmon, who had changed substantively by the time of The War Games. I’m sorry to say I don’t feel sad when Leela stays behind on Gallifrey; although that could be because the lovely Mary Tamm is only five minutes away in the next episode …

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!