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 …

72 – Warriors’ Gate

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!

75 – The Nightmare of Eden

We resume my countdown through the classic episodes (painfully aware that now I have bought The Moonbase, The Reign of Terror and The Ice Warriors I may have to re-number everything) with this curious story from Tom Baker’s sixth season as the Doctor. By now, the Baker/Ward love-in is in full swing, and while not the best story in Season 17 by any stretch of the imagination, it is certainly better than The Creature From The Pit and The Horns of Nimon.

I confess that I arrived at this story extremely judgmental. The name sounded rubbish, I had not heard rave reviews from other fans about the story, and I was forewarned by the DVD case insert (cheers BBC …) that the monsters of the piece, the Mandrels, were rather too fluffy to be taken seriously as threats. So I was perhaps not the most enthusiastic when I heard the prim and proper voice on the DVD announce “Doctor Who: The Nightmare of Eden.”

I have to say however – I was pleasantly surprised. Yes one must skate over some of the rough edges, not least the fluffy edge that the Mandrels would be a better fit on the Muppets than in scary sci-fi. But the storyline is actually quite good and engaging despite that. If you lifted this story and put it in any other era (except perhaps the irascible Hartnell) it would stand up quite well. The theme in short is that someone on a doomed space ship is running drugs – and they cunningly conceal them by reconstituting the drugs as the Mandrel creatures. Add into the mix a supposedly dead man hiding in a projector slide, ignore the dubious science, and add a good measure of confusion, backstabbing, and the Baker/Ward/Adams comic insanity, and 4 episodes peel away at an enjoyable gallop.

It’s not vintage by any means, and pales by being in the same season as the stellar City of Death – but The Nightmare of Eden is a serial I am very much looking forward to re-watching!

76 – The Five Doctors

I really don’t know where to begin in describing this simply extraordinary story. Back in the days of yore the BBC would include other videos for sale on the inside of their VHS covers. From this I learned there was a story with all five doctors (I think in my vibrant youth Six and Seven didn’t count …), the Daleks, the Cybermen, and the Master! I had to get my hands on it! In fact, so desperate was I for the serial that I had a proper huff with my dad when he joked that he hadn’t bought it, when in actual fact he had.

So … I was actually somewhat underwhelmed by the story as a youth. Because my Doctor wasn’t in it! Not really – he got gobbled up in some reused footage from the unfinished serial Shada. And it wasn’t the real first Doctor, Bill Hartnell having sadly passed away several years before. As for the Daleks, the story features exactly one (very easily confused) Dalek, and a host of easily betrayed Cybermen. The young man was not impressed.

The older me however could not help but enjoy the story. Yes they had to account for Tom Baker refusing to show up. Yes Richard Hurndall isn’t quite the same as William Hartnell. But the story is still jolly good fun! It was always going to be a thankless task to try to incorporate that many doctors, companions and foes into one coherent storyline – and the fact is that John Nathan Turner deserves credit for doing a more than respectable job of it. Credit also to Terrance Dicks for introducing an enemy well worth bringing back – the Raston Warrior Robot. Utterly deadly in taking out a troop of Cybermen, it would be a more than worthy adversary to bring into modern Doctor Who.

I would hesitate to recommend the story as an introduction to Doctor Who – compared to his outing in The Three Doctors, Patrick Troughton does not get quite the same space to shine in this story, and the same applies to Jon Pertwee. I also admit that my impression of the First Doctor was rather ruined by Hurndall – the opportunity lost here was to persuade Baker to come back and to find some way of using archive footage of Hartnell. Now that would have been a worthy anniversary story! As it is – I’m thankful for what we have got, and it makes for a very enjoyable hour of television.

79 – Destiny of the Daleks

“If you’re the supreme beings of all the universe, then why don’t you come up after us? Bye bye!”

Thus the seeds are sown in this adventure for the producers to demonstrate (ineffectually in Revelation of the Daleks, and with much better effect in Remembrance of the Daleks and Rose) that stairs need not be an obstacle to Dalek domination. For now however, under the stewardship of Douglas Adams, Baker’s fourth Doctor takes a fiendish delight in taunting the inability of his ancient foes to climb up after him and his escaping party of friends.

Destiny of the Daleks is an intriguing idea, but perhaps not best executed – so we should begin by explaining the plot in brief. The Daleks are engaged in a long standoff between another race, the Movellans. It transpires that both races are essentially robotic and utterly logical, and neither side dares strike first because their respective battle computers can never find the optimum moment. Both races return to Skaro – the Movellans because they sense the Daleks hunting for some secret weapon; the Daleks because they are seeking a secret weapon – their creator Davros! Their intent is that Davros would improve their instincts in order to help them beat the Movellans. Into the midst of this stumble the Doctor and the newly regenerated Romana – not initially planning to get involved, but inevitably left with no choice in the matter.

Let’s acknowledge some of the problems. The late and wonderful Mary Tamm deserved a much better sendoff as Romana, but it is understandable that with the role regressing to ‘get into trouble, scream, and be rescued’ she wasn’t keen to continue. The regeneration scene, with Romana appearing to try on different bodies is of course a little silly – but is also rather charming in its own way. While I loved Tamm as Romana, there is an undeniable chemistry between Baker and Lalla Ward, which reflected well on screen and resulted in a brief off-screen marriage in the early eighties. Having already filmed The Creature from the Pit, Ward is much more comfortable as Romana, which means that for all of the other flaws, the regular cast do not let us down.

But now we come to the biggest question. Davros was supposedly exterminated by his own creations at the end of Genesis of the Daleks. Certain factions of fandom still insist that Davros should have stayed dead. I do not quite incline to that view, but I do think it would have been kinder to David Gooderson to have had a new mask made for him, as the BBC would do for Terry Molloy and Julian Bleach. Michael Wisher’s mask quite clearly not fitting him at all. As it is, you don’t quite get the same sense of continuity that Molloy would later bring.

For all of that – Destiny of the Daleks ticks over at an enjoyable pace and leaves the viewer suitably pleased by journey’s end. As the writers acknowledge, there is something very intriguing about the Daleks returning to Genesis and looking to find their way anew, and equally intriguing in them facing an equally robotic race – even if it doesn’t quite live up to the showdown between the Daleks and the Cybermen in Doomsday. My view on this story had fluctuated from loving it, to resenting it, to being uncertain. On the whole, I’m now inclined to appreciate it for what it is, and enjoy it for what it aspired to be, rather than pick holes in what it failed to be!

84 – The Leisure Hive

We kick off 2015 with another Tom Baker adventure … well, there are rather a lot of them! The Leisure Hive has the distinct advantage that I hated my first viewing on VHS and therefore (in the recurring theme I am sure you are spotting) I could only enjoy it better than I expected when I bought the DVD. As with other DVDs that fall into this category, I was pleasantly surprised by how well the story held up when I had the chance to watch it again – I imagine in part because by this stage I had watched the entirety of the preceding Season 17 and had a better appreciation of how the show had got to this point – I think when I first viewed this story, I was judging it through the prism of classics such as Pyramids of Mars and had predictably unrealistic expectations!

The Leisure Hive is a relatively straightforward and familiar tale, insomuch as the Doctor and his companions (in this case the lovely Romana and the irrepressible k9) end up on an alien planet to discover skullduggery at work. In this case, they arrive at the titular Leisure Hive run by the Agrolin – a species devastated by a short but lethal war with the Formasi. With the planet no longer turning a profit, there is an offer to buy the planet – but it is from the hated Formasi! The Doctor and Romana arrive looking for a holiday (rule 1 – the Doctor never gets a holiday) unaware that there are two diffferent games on the go – the youngest Agrolin, who is determined to overcome the impotency affecting his race by duplicating himself to create a new warrior race – and a faction of Formasi disguised as humans aiming to sabotage the sale and cause a war – nice and simple eh?

It is therefore a serial that benefits from the slightly more relaxed attitude Baker shows to playing the Doctor in Season 18 – when the character ages considerably at the end of episode 2 it very much plays into the lack of interest Baker was showing by this stage – but the story is so busy, and Lalla Ward so excellent as Romana, that a more diminished role for the Doctor doesn’t impact the story as much as one would expect. There is also plenty of misdirection and uncertainty, without the plot being too complicated – which makes for an enjoyable if unspectacular episode. I did not think 12 months ago that I would ever say this, but The Leisure Hive is a worthy first story for Tom Baker’s final season, setting the scene for the melancholy build to the E-Space Trilogy, and the ‘Return of the Master’ trilogy.