27 – Castrovalva

Peter Davison’s debut as the Fifth Doctor owes much to Season 18 Script Editor Christopher H. Bidmead’s love of mathematics. When invited to replace the original Season 19 debut story with a new script, Bidmead would revisit certain ideas he had used in Tom Baker’s swan song Logopolis – in particular the concept of recursion, which in that story had manifested itself as a TARDIS within a TARDIS. For Castrovalva, Bidmead would put this concept on steroids.

Peter Davison’s first broadcast adventure was not actually his first recorded adventure – by this stage they had recorded Four to Doomsday, The Visitation, and Kinda. In practice this works extremely well, providing a TARDIS crew already well settled with one another, allowing them to pull off an ambitious regeneration story. Picking up directly from Logopolis (including a rare pre-title sequence film section reprising the regeneration) the TARDIS crew escape from the Pharos Project on earth to find the Doctor highly unstable – the first time in the show’s history it is overtly suggested that a regeneration can go wrong. The Doctor spends most of the adventure trying to find a peaceful space in which to recover while his regeneration completes – initially a room in the TARDIS known as the Zero Room, then latterly a dwelling of simplicity, the titular town of Castrovalva. Behind this story, very much in the theme of recursion, are layers of traps within traps, all set by the Master.

Kindapping and then releasing Adric at the very start of the adventure, the Master impels Adric to send the TARDIS directly into a supernova. In the truest style of the Hooded Claw, the Master then lays a trap within a trap – the town of Castrovalva itself. Leaving information about the fictional town in the TARDIS databanks, the Master uses Adric’s mathematical genius to use a skill revealed in the previous adventure of Logopolis – the capacity to build matter through pure mathematics. Adric constructs the entire town as a trap for the remaining TARDIS crew, and the Master lies in wait (disguised, obviously!) for the right moment to strike.

The more thoughtful reader might conclude with some justification that the entire plot is needlessly complicated – but to write off the story on these grounds would be to miss the enjoyment of the story. In rather the same way that The Edge of Destruction was crucial for building the relationship of the initial TARDIS crew of Season 1, Castrovalva really allows the viewer to get a better flavour for how Nyssa and Tegan would relate to the new Doctor; unfortunately for Adric, he spends most of the episode imprisoned by the Master, perhaps foretelling the rather grim destiny the producers had in mind for him. While the inspiration for the story is undoubtedly mathematical (making this story one of my dad’s favourites) it is not so overtly mathematical that it is impossible for the less mathematically minded (viz. me!) to follow!

Davison himself plays his role superbly – there is a wonderful moment in episode 1 in which he appears to regress to the mannerisms of the First and Second Doctors – very well acted, and an utterly charming nod to the show’s heritage. As debut stories go, Castrovalva is one of the very best, and a very pleasing conclusion to the ‘New Beginnings’ trilogy. Perhaps because it borrows so heavily from themes in Logopolis, it is harder to imagine this story working so well as a standalone adventure. The fact that it nevertheless does, is very much to its credit!

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Want to watch Castrovalva? You can buy it today on BBC Store for £4.99

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.

Enjoying the #missingepisodes: The Power of the Daleks

Back in the summer, in the heady days before the now infamous leak of the Power of the Daleks animation footage, there was only ever one candidate when I decided I wanted to sample a Loose Cannon reconstruction, and that was Patrick Troughton’s first adventure. Right from the very start of this blog I made no secret that, like most fans, I really wanted to experience the disconcerting sensation of watching Patrick Troughton make his mark on a role that, until that point, had been solely defined by William Hartnell.

So that was my plan. Until we had some confirmation I would watch the Loose Cannon reconstruction of The Power of the Daleks. Then this showed up:

That put me in a bit of quandary. Should I press ahead with my commentary on the Power of the Daleks given that we were about to experience a much fuller reconstruction of the lost episodes? In the end, as evidenced by your reading of these words, I thought it gave even more reason to write the blog. There are some fans out there that prefer Loose Cannon recons to the official animations. This post gives the chance to share my impressions of these reconstructions, and then (in just over a week – how exciting!) to compare it to the new animation.

So let me begin with an explanatory note for those unfamiliar with what Loose Cannon recons are. As noted in previous posts, and especially my post on The Macra Terror, there are two principal ways that missing footage has nevertheless survived – off air fan recordings of the audio, and tele-snaps taken of the live footage. A company known as Loose Cannon (for more details, read here) took it upon themselves to combine audio and tele-snaps to produce a rough approximation of what the on screen action would have been like. While their website is now sadly missing, their videos are still available on sites like youtube and daily motion.

I am already familiar with what it is like to watch such a reconstruction as part of a largely complete episode. When The Tenth Planet was released on VHS it featured a recon of the missing episode 4 that was a combination of telesnaps and audio, and a similar recon was used for The Web of Fear episode 3, and (rather less successfully) for episodes 1 and 4 of The Underwater Menace. I did wonder however what it would be like to watch a completely missing story made up of just tele-snaps.

I have to say, I absolutely loved it, and it was a joy to experience The Power of the Daleks in this way. Undoubtedly the strength of the story itself contributed to that, being a gripping and clever tale that built the tension wonderfully across the six episodes. Even more than that though, I felt the presentation was a reasonable substitute given the absence of the original episodes, never once feeling like I couldn’t understand what was going on. In contrast to just listening to The Macra Terror I found it significantly easier to picture what was happening, and fill in the gaps between the different shots.

The recon also, tantalisingly, includes such surviving footage as exists, including a few pitifully brief shots of Troughton in episode 1, filmed by an amateur viewer pointing a cine camera at his television during the broadcast. It makes watching Doctor Who in his way arguably even more painful, as you are able to get a glimpse of what it would have been like, piquing one’s desire for the original prints to somehow, miraculously, be found. It also pointed out all of the little quirks and mannerisms in Troughton’s portrayal of the Doctor, sadly lost when his episodes were wiped. If the animations truly mean that Phil Morris will never find the original prints of The Power of the Daleks, then it is a huge loss for British TV heritage.

The bottom line is that I could very easily see myself dipping into the Loose Cannon range in future for other missing stories. Alongside novelisations, they are an excellent way to reimagine lost classics. As we are about to discover on Saturday however, I still suspect that the very best way to enjoy currently missing Doctor Who is through animations.

But all that will come in my forthcoming review of the Power of the Daleks animation!

Don’t forget – Power of the Daleks is set to be released at 5:50pm GMT on Saturday 5th November, 50 years to the day after the original broadcast on BBC One.

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47 – The War Games

We proceed briskly from the first regeneration story to the second, and to a story that deservedly is described as ‘epic.’ Much like Hartnell’s final adventure was also significant for the first appearance of the Cybermen, Patrick Troughton’s swansong is not only significant for his departure, but also for the first ever appearance of the Doctor’s home planet of Gallifrey (albeit unnamed in this story). While we had met another of the Doctor’s race before in The Time Meddler (and also in The Daleks’ Master Plan – but we can only speculate on this appearance), this was the first time they were named as Timelords, and the first time we were brought to the Doctor’s home.

The story itself is gargantuan – at ten episodes long it is certainly not fit for consuming in one go. I did so the first time I watched the story (on DVD) and learned very quickly this is not how one should watch it!

It is however a very clever and engaging drama – until episode 2 you are convinced that the Doctor has landed in World War One, and it is not until later it is revealed that they are on an alien world, where a number of different conflicts are played out in different war zones. Behind the scenes, a renegade Timelord known as the War Chief is aiding the native race to kidnap soldiers from earth’s historic conflicts, using them to build the ultimate warrior race.

The first nine episodes largely involve the Doctor resolving the crisis on the planet – and while he defeats the War Chief, it is at the cost of summoning the Timelords to help return the captured humans to their rightful time and place. Episode ten almost stands alone to focus on the dramatic moment that the Doctor is placed on trial for breaking the Timelord code to never interfere. At this stage, Patrick Troughton had decided that three years was enough, and had tendered his resignation to avoid becoming typecast. With Fraser Hines and Wendy Padbury also electing to leave, the producers took the opportunity to return Jamie and Zoe to their own times, having forgotten all but their first adventure with the Doctor. The Doctor meanwhile, would be sent into a permanent exile on earth, unable to travel through time, and with his appearance changed.

It is quite interesting to see how production decisions to completely recast the TARDIS team and to keep costs down by having adventures on earth, were worked out so well in the script. But to focus just on episode 10 is to do a massive disservice to the other nine episodes. The War Games is very much to be enjoyed at leisure rather than in haste, but is a fitting end to the Patrick Troughton era. In contrast to Planet of the Spiders, you feel more like one does at the end of Logopolis – rather sorry that the Doctor is saying goodbye …

48 – The Tenth Planet

This review really needs no introduction. To long-time fans of Doctor Who, this is quite possibly the most important surviving story, even surpassing An Unearthly Child or The Daleks. While these first two stories ensured that Doctor Who even became the hit that it did, The Tenth Planet was the means by which Doctor Who ensured it could continue to be a family favourite for decades to come.

The story behind The Tenth Planet is best represented in the 50th Anniversary docu-drama An Adventure in Space and Time. It shows how Doctor Who had become a massive success, but the health of lead actor William Hartnell was growing increasingly frail. At this point, the producers had a dilemma – while they had successfully replaced the supporting cast twice over (with new companions Ben and Polly replacing the Season 3 pairing of Steven and Vikki/Dodo) could they really replace the lead actor?

It came to a head in Season 4. While the season began with (currently missing) The Smugglers, this had in fact been recorded in the Season 3 block, and held over until the new season, making The Tenth Planet the effective first story in Season 4. The producers meanwhile took the bold decision not only to recast the role of the Doctor, but to completely change his character. Hartnell, to his infinite credit, consented to appear in one more recorded story before passing the baton on to Patrick Troughton, an actor who would interpret the role completely differently to Hartnell before him.

All of this would have been for naught but for a great story – and The Tenth Planet is indeed a great story. Fans of the Troughton era will recognise the genesis of the ‘Base-Under-Seige’ style stories that would typify Seasons 4 and 5, but at the time this was a relatively new development. The story also benefits from the introduction of a foe who would go on to rival the Daleks for popularity – the eerie and unnerving Cybermen. While appearing in a guise that would not be resurrected for their return in The Moonbase, the Cybermen very quickly establish themselves as a significant menace, and many fans deem these Cybermen most scary for their distinct similarity to mankind.

The story sees the Doctor, Ben and Polly arrive at Snow Cap Base at the South Pole just as a new planet appears in Earth’s orbit, that bears a striking resemblance to earth. The inhabitants of the titular Tenth Planet (back in the days when Pluto was still a planet …) are the Cybermen, who explain that their planet of Mondas went on a journey into space and has returned. In the interim, they sacrificed their humanity by replacing all of their essential body parts with plastic and metallic alternatives, and have now returned to make Earth like Mondas.

The story is superbly paced and a crescendo of suspense and tension with neat flourishes of action. It all builds to a head in the final (sadly missing) episode, in which the Cybermen are defeated when Mondas absorbs too much energy and explodes, depriving the Cybermen of the power sources they rely upon for survival. The most significant moment however, is when the increasingly frail Doctor collapses upon the floor of the TARDIS at the end of episode 4, and his features transform into those of a younger man. It is this scene, more than anything else, that makes The Tenth Planet so crucial for Doctor Who. This first regeneration paved the way for an actor to serve as the Doctor, and then pass the torch on to the next Doctor. It paved the way for the show to be continuously re-imagined, re-thought, and re-created. Put simply – without The Tenth Planet, Doctor Who would not be around today.

The Tenth Planet is not just a crucial story in Doctor Who’s history, but also a personal favourite – one I was very glad to watch on VHS when it first came out, even if I was somewhat confused when it changed to tele-snaps for the final episode! Indeed, that is my only regret for this story – that we are not able to see the original part four, nor able to see Pat Troughton take his first steps in the following serial, The Power of the Daleks.

Talking about my (re)generation

Do forgive my shameless use of the most overused pun in Doctor Who, as I take a break from my reviews to ponder a hypothetical question – albeit one that I hope should not have to arise for some years yet! In time the fateful day will come when Peter Capaldi decides to retire his attack eyebrows and surrender the TARDIS console to someone new – and I would give my eye teeth to avoid the dreadful show the BBC put on to reveal the new Doctor.

So I would like to propose an idea that Steven Moffat is almost certainly not going to read, but I shall feel better for having said it. I do not believe that we could have an unscheduled regeneration where the Doctor is not revealed in advance – the potential for spoilers and leaks is simply too great. But I do believe we could produce a shock of the first order with the following scene.

The background – Peter Capaldi confirms that his last appearance in Doctor Who will be the Christmas special of a given year. The series ends with some sort of peril taking place elsewhere … which knowing the BBC will almost certainly involve some sort of Mexican standoff between the Doctor and the Inter-planetary pepperpots. The Doctor leaves his companion (hopefully before then the BBC will have found some way to irreversibly strand Clara in E-Space or something …) on earth, promising to come back soon. In earth time, several months pass, and no sign of the Doctor – and no indication of the resolution of the Mexican standoff. Finally the companion receives a note: “25th December – be ready” – which of course is an obvious reference to the Christmas episode. As the companion ponders why the Doctor did not deliver it in person, the camera pans to a pair of boots walking – which arrive at a familiar bright blue box. The door opens, and the camera pans up to a new face, and the text appears:

INTRODUCING ROWAN ATKINSON
as THE DOCTOR

Now for Rowan Atkinson you could of course have any other actor (personally I’d love to see Sean Pertwee given a go!) – but I think this would be a much better way to unveil the new Doctor than the rubbish announcement programmes the BBC have done before now, and would be sensational for the shock value – unlike Ms Kardishan I suspect it probably WOULD break the internet! Suffice to say, Capaldi would get his farewell at Christmas, but with the tension of when the regeneration was going to happen and Atkinson would first appear as the Doctor.

So what do you think readers – would this work?

(Incidently, if they are looking for a new Doctor soon, I have no acting ability whatsoever but do a mean regional accent!)

116 – Planet of the Spiders

I begin tangentially with a fact: I love regeneration stories. I didn’t fully appreciate the first one I saw (The Caves of Androzani) at the time, but I didn’t grasp the significance of the Doctor renewing himself. Probably though, it was Logopolis that fully converted me to enjoying regeneration stories. I think it is for the simple reason that Tom Baker is my Doctor – to borrow the lovely expression used by Matt Smith: “The first face this face saw.” The whole of that episode is brooding, melancholy and dramatic, building to the climax of the Fourth Doctor falling to his death – to regenerate. Stirring stuff!

So from that point on, I made a point of wanting to watch as many regeneration stories as I could (as an aside, I also thoroughly enjoy newly regenerated stories – though more inspired by Spearhead from Space than by Robot!) – I think aside of Caves of Androzani, the next one I had the chance to enjoy was The Tenth Planet. Arguably I had watched the end of The Trial of a Timelord and also The TV Movie – but these aren’t really regeneration stories within the definition of the act! So then that left two – The War Games and Planet of the Spiders.

So I was suitably delighted when youtube kindly made Planet of the Spiders available to stream, several years before the DVD was released. As I recall, my friend foolishly mentioned the fact one evening, and I stayed awake until 2am to watch Jon Pertwee’s final adventure. Most unfortunately, my delight did not last very long.

To revisit a theme I have mentioned – expectations shape how I enjoy Doctor Who stories. With dire fan warnings (not least from my dad) I should have been prepared for disappointment – but I think as with Paradise Towers I tried to persuade myself it wasn’t going to be as bad as the naysayers were foretelling. Up until the end of Episode One, you might just get away with it, provided you skate over such cringeworthy moments as the Brigadier enjoying an (off camera) belly dancer. The setting is mysterious, and there is suitable intrigue at the reintroduction of Mike Yates, last spotted threatening to shoot his former U.N.I.T. colleagues in Invasion of the Dinosaurs.

But from there it all goes downhill somewhat. As a four parter this might have worked quite well – everyone’s frightened of spiders, so there’s the fear factor. The concept of mental energy being magnified by the blue crystal of Metebelis III makes for a plausible threat, as does the notion of a human colony living in servitude to the spiders. But the execution is rather more ghastly than the execution the spiders themselves threaten during the story. To begin with, there is acting that would make a primary school nativity play look Oscar winning standard. The sets of Metebelis III are so obviously studio based that one almost has to resist the urge to join in with the pantomime and shout “He’s behind you!” And there begs the huge question – was it really so necessary to indulge Jon Pertwee in his final story by giving an entire episode to a heavily protracted car-chase?

But the greatest tragedy is that Pertwee deserved better, and had Roger Delgado lived, would have received better. The intention was always that the last serial of Season 11 would feature a story where the Master and the Doctor would face each other in a final conflict, appropriately called ‘The Final Game.’ The Master would appear to give up his life to save the Doctor, and Jon Pertwee would go out with a bow. When one considers John Simm’s performance in The End of Time and the story Steve Moffat told in the Sherlock episode The Final Game, one ends up feeling that Planet of the Spiders is a poor substitute for the story we could have enjoyed.

But as Delagdo’s untimely death meant we would never enjoy that story, can we still appreciate Planet of the Spiders? In some ways yes. If you disengage your credulity, ignore the excessive padding and the atrocious acting in places, there is plenty to enjoy. Lis Sladen is excellent as Sarah-Jane Smith, the redemption of Mike Yates’ character is very well handled, as is the sensitive handling of Tommy, a character who has a learning disability that is healed by the power of the blue crystal. In fact, the whole thing would be more enjoyable but for the fact it is not abundantly clear why the Doctor had to go back to Metebelis III, or what caused his regeneration inducing injuries – it’s just as dissatisfying as Colin Baker regenerating because the Rani shot down his TARDIS.

Of all the regeneration stories, I think Planet of the Spider deserves its mantle as the worst. It also is deservedly the worst Jon Pertwee story – although a pretender to that claim is not so vary far ahead …