A very firm favourite in the Stafford VHS collection, The Ark in Space set the tone and the standard for the Tom Baker era, with an utterly superb four episodes of story telling. Written by Robert Holmes, one of the finest story tellers to grace the classic era of Doctor Who, the story is a triumph of using a limited set and cast to tell a compelling science fiction adventure. The fact that episode one only features the three main cast members, and nevertheless is among the finest 25 minutes of television ever produced, speaks volumes for how superb this adventure is.
Quite often in Doctor Who’s history, episodes were used as a launchpad for a new audience; a refresher to what has gone before and an introduction to what is new: typically a new companion – a good example being The Time Meddler. These stories are a fantastic launchpad for fans new to the series – rather than going all the way back to An Unearthly Child (sensational though episode one is) there are several other brilliant entry points. The Time Warrior, the debut story in Jon Pertwee’s final season as the Doctor, very much fits into that mould.
Doctor Who meets the Loch Ness Monster. I mean, what nine year old boy wouldn’t want to see that? So you can imagine my frustration that it was a further ten or so years before my dad finally found a VHS copy of Terror of the Zygons in a second-hand bookstore. (Should you ever find yourself in Northern Ireland I highly recommend popping in for a visit!)
What was extraordinary is that despite the excitement of seeing the exciting shape-shifting Zygons, and wanting to see Harry’s last adventure as a Doctor Who regular, it took about three watches for me to appreciate the story. Perhaps it was due to the video itself being extremely worn out, and being an omnibus presentation – I certainly know that I enjoyed the adventure much more when the episode breaks were reintroduced.
The story itself is a wonderful straightforward adventure that Jon Pertwee himself could have played with aplomb. The Doctor is summoned back from his preceding adventure by the Brigadier, who is investigating mysterious attacks on Scottish oil rigs. While the story was originally constructed around the mythology surrounding the Loch Ness Monster, the genius of the story was to have the monster be the cyborg servant of an invading alien force – the titular Zygons. Shape-shifting beings who are able to take on the appearance of others, these aliens would prove so popular they would be brought back, largely at David Tennant’s request, to feature in the fiftieth anniversary special The Day of the Doctor, before earning their own double-part story in Season 9. The revelation of the Zygon menace at the end of episode one, surely has to rank as one of the greatest cliffhangers in Doctor Who history.
The story features many other pleasing touches – whether it is the Doctor and Brigadier donning Scottish attire, to the performances by the Zygons and their duplicates. The duplicity of the Zygon doubles enables the production team to deliver a combination of pace, suspence, and atmosphere, with an ease that belies its difficulty. At no point does the adventure feel pedestrian, with the only slight drawback being the realisation of the monster; although remembering the production budget of 1970s Doctor Who, the Skarensen is really not that badly presented!
A final note relates to where this story sits within the Tom Baker era. Although filmed and produced with the other stories from Season 12, the story was held back to lead Season 13, enabling the production crew to shift the series’ start from the traditional January slot to September. The story undoubtedly has an uneasy feel as a result; while it feels more akin to Baker’s debut adventure Robot it is also true that Harry plays a much less prominent role compared to other season 12 adventures. I think I prefer to think of Terror of the Zygons as the last story of Season 12; and also that Harry deserved a much better send off than telling the Doctor he preferred to take the train to London!
Next time: I introduce a three-part special of reviews …
This adventure caused me no small amount of confusion when my dad first bought the video. At that stage in my young life, the only Tom Baker adventure I had seen was the 1993 repeat of Genesis of the Daleks. So when I saw the good Doctor and Sarah Jane on my parents’ TV screen, I mistakenly concluded that this was the same adventure I had seen before – an impression that did not take long to be corrected!
Planet of Evil is an exceedingly clever story, which does not really feature a monster in the traditional sense. It is definitely of the same ilk as historic base-under-seige stories, as first a planetary expedition, and then the rescue ship come under the attack of an unknown and malevolent force. When the Doctor and Sarah respond to a distress signal on Zeta Minor, they are initially blamed for the death of the expedition by the lone survivor, Professor Sorenson. As the story plays out, it is revealed that Zeta Minor is on the very edge of two universes – the universe of matter, and the universe of anti-matter. As Sorenson becomes infected by the anti-matter, the Doctor has to find a way to return all of the anti-matter specimens to Zeta Minor before the rescue team are pulled into the anti-matter universe.
While I admit this largely went over my head as a child, I adored the plot when I was old enough to appreciate it! As with many Doctor Who adventures that I best love, it combines a straightforward plot with clever twists, great characters, and of course the indomitable presence of the Doctor! Season 13 is quite rightly held in very high regard by fans, with the on-screen chemistry between Baker and Sladen exceptional, paired with exceedingly strong stories. Planet of Evil is a fine example of this at work.
Next time: A lost classic set in the London Underground, incredibly rescued in 2013 …
This adventure was a childhood favourite, and remains a delight to this day. Falling in Pertwee’s final season, this was the third and final time he would face the evil intergalactic pepperpots before regeneration at the close of the season. The story sees the TARDIS crash land on an unknown planet, suffering from a mysterious power loss. They quickly find an Earth survey ship suffering from a similar loss of power, and are soon joined by a spaceship full of Daleks, also mysteriously deprived of power.
The loss of power makes for a wonderful dynamic, with the Daleks initially deprived of their ray guns, and forced to develop conventional rifle style guns. Until they regain their weaponry, they display much the same sort of villainous cunning they displayed in Power of the Daleks – perhaps this is what Pertwee’s Doctor has in mind when he urges the earth taskforce “don’t trust them – not even for a minute!”
Both crews are ostensibly there for the same reason – needing a rare mineral that is the only known cure to a great space plague that is decimating the galaxy. They unite behind this purpose, and also to discover whatever it is that is causing the power drain. It transpires that the inhabitants of the planet, known as Exxilons, worship an incredible self-sustaining city, and this is the source of the power drain. After saving Sarah from being sacrificed for the crime of approaching the forbidden city, the Doctor allies himself with a fugitive Exxilon known as Bellal, the leader of a group determined to destroy the city. While the Daleks enslave the Exxilons to mine the planet, the Doctor has to find a way through a series of traps within the city to destroy its deepest workings, and enable the travellers to escape.
There are occasions when one must overlook the production values of this story; it is certainly not the most complicated or sinister Dalek adventure ever produced, and the episode 3 cliffhanger has to go down as the most pointlessly dramatic ever – as the Doctor urges Ballal not to step upon a patterned floor! If one overlooks these small details however, one finds a highly enjoyable a straightforward adventure, made all the better for a superb supporting cast and the involvement of the Daleks. That it is not the best Dalek story available says rather less about this adventure, and rather more about the quality of Dalek stories in general! It is also the last Dalek adventure of the classic era not to feature their villainous creator, Davros, although it did feature the actor who would portray Davros in his debut adventure, Michael Wisher, here providing the voices of the Daleks.
It saddens me to say that this is also the last adventure of the Pertwee era that I find myself able to enjoy. Even in this adventure you find the sparkle beginning to diminish, and for his final two adventures The Monster of Peladon and Planet of the Spiders the spark is completely gone. There have definitely been occasions when I have felt that either this story or The Green Death would have been more fitting swan songs for a truly great Doctor …
Next time: A classic Tom Baker adventure which takes him to the edge of the known universe …
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.
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.