City of Death is perhaps the finest example in the entire classic series run of how a simple science-fiction concept can be elevated to superb drama with the right author and the right cast. The story was developed from its initial concept by Douglas Adams, aided by producer Graham Williams, and the result is an adventure that was a wonderful blend of Adams’ esoteric style of humour, and good old fashioned British storytelling. Which is ironic given that the story is set in Paris, and features the theft of a famous Italian painting …
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!
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 …
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!
Next Time: There’s something underhand in Loch Ness …
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!
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 …
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 …
Ten minutes to explain Warriors’ Gate? That might prove tricky …
This four-part adventure is the last of the E-Space trilogy that began with Full Circle. The Doctor and Romana are still trapped in e-Space together with e-Space native/TARDIS stowaway Adric. Arriving at ‘zero-point’ (perfectly zero co-ordinates) they discover a slave ship filled with a Time Sensitive race, the Tharils. Their human captors plan to sell them at huge profit, but owing to the material used to trap the enslaved Tharils (Dwarf-star alloy, which would make a return in Nu Who adventure Day of the Moon) they are enable to escape – in actual fact the gateway to other universes is collapsing. By the story’s end, Romana remains with K9 to help free the Tharils, and the Doctor escapes with Adric back into N-Space.
Alas, if only the story were so simple! I first watched this adventure aged 13, looking forward to it having seen the Gundan Robots mentioned in Tom Baker’s preview to Shada. And I could not follow it at all. It would be around 15 years later when I bought the E-Space trilogy boxset that the story finally made some sense – but even then I suspect that was largely due to having watched the story before and having a rough idea of the plot direction. As it is – the Doctor jumps around the timeline of the Tharils with very poor narrative explanation as to what is going on – it isn’t hard to get lost.
With grown up eyes however, it is a very clever story with three different narratives beautifully interwoven. We see the Doctor follow the path of the Tharils to discover how they were once masters who enslaved other peoples; Romana become trapped by the slavers and strive to break free; and Adric teaming up with K9 to rescue Romana and reunite the TARDIS team. The suspense builds up magnificently to the destruction of the slavers’ ship and the escape of the Tharils and the TARDIS crew.
All in all, Warriors Gate is a very satisfactory end to the E-Space trilogy, and a more than pleasing story in its own right. I can only really mark it down on two points. The first, as I mention, is that the plot is so convoluted it takes a PhD in Ingenuity to follow it. The second is that it brought an end to Romana and K9 travelling in the TARDIS. While I fully understand the production reasons for doing so (K9 being a menace to operate and a get-out-of-jail free card for any scenario; Romana not being able to talk at the viewers level or get herself into trouble) I very much enjoyed the combination of the Fourth Doctor, Romana (both of them!) and K9 – so much so that when as I teenager I wrote a new series of adventures to feature the Eighth Doctor, they featured the return of Romana and K9. But then we can’t blame the producers for looking forward, not back!