17 – The Time Warrior

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.

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33 – Death to the Daleks

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 …

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Death to the Daleks is available to download on the BBC Store for £4.99

Next time: A classic Tom Baker adventure which takes him to the edge of the known universe …

96 – Invasion of the Dinosaurs

We continue with Jon Pertwee’s final season with another 6 part story, Invasion of the Dinosaurs. And let us acknowledge the proverbial elephant (or should that be Tyrannosaurus) in the room – the dinosaurs are pretty naff. And unless you allow yourself to see past the dodgy special effects you won’t be able to appreciate the story in any way, shape or form. Do I wish they offered a version with upgraded effects when they released the DVD? Maybe just a little … but then we can’t have everything!

But when you resolve to accept that the effects were probably as good as you would get for the era and budget, and ensure that they do not interfere in your enjoyment of the story, there is quite an entertaining and imaginative story to be told, and it doesn’t suffer quite as much as other Season 11 six-part stories for its length. Having smuggled herself into the TARDIS during the previous adventure, Sarah-Jane is brought back by the Doctor to 20th Century London to discover the city deserted. Unfortunately for the BBC, the big reveal at the end of episode one of the dinosaur threat, meant to be disguised by calling the first episode simply ‘Invasion’ was spoiled by the Radio Times – something they would also do with Peter Davison episode Earthshock.

If I have a regret when watching this episode, it is knowing what the plot was in advance. I hesitate to say that the plot would not have been guessable at the time, but a lot of the shocks like long-term UNIT member Captain Yates betraying his former friends lost a lot of their impact when you knew they were coming. For all that, you still enjoy the Doctor trying to track down the ‘Golden Dawn’ environmental group committed to  returning the Earth back to an earlier ‘unspoiled’ state and the degrees of deception and duplicity involved. The story also manages to address a theme returned to in Season 12 opener Robot – namely, how far one should go to protect planet earth from the impact of environmental harm. Indeed there is something very chilling in the fact that talks by the Golden Dawn about killing off Sarah-Jane simply because she does not share their view of the world pre-empt a similar strangling of free-speech in modern Britain.

I think the biggest credit to Invasion of the Dinosaurs however is that it gave the opportunity for Mike Yates to explore personal redemption in the season closing Planet of the Spiders. As I earlier commented, the story as a whole is largely atrocious, but the journey Mike went on is exactly the kind of character development I would love to see explored in the current series of Doctor Who.

97 – The Monster of Peladon

I have enormous fondness for Jon Pertwee’s Doctor and thoroughly enjoy most stories he features in. Sadly, this adventure suffers not so much from inherent problems as paling in comparison to other great Pertwee classics, and being but a shadow of The Curse of Peladon that preceded this adventure some two seasons previous.

Like the previous Peladon adventure it is very much a political commentary of its time – but where Curse grappled with the weighty issue of the UK joining the (then) European Economic Community, Monster grappled with the equally weighty issue of strikes, as it was around this time that a certain Mr Scargill was making both mischief and a name for himself – rather appropriately it is the miners who are causing the mayhem in this adventure. As with the best political satire and comment, it is not necessarily subtle!

Like many Pertwee adventures, its greatest benefit is also its greatest weakness – six episodes. Plenty of time to allow characters to develop, but also plenty of time for the story to proceed at an almost pedestrian pace. The Monster of Peladon is a definite candidate for a story that would not have suffered for the loss of two episodes – I think one of my main regrets is that it took until Tom Baker became the Doctor for the BBC to land on the optimal format of 5 four-part adventures with a concluding 6 part epic adventure. To my mind, it leaves the Pertwee era with a lot of slightly over-long stories, and the regret that instead we could have had another four part adventure for each of Pertwee’s seasons – but that’s a comment for another time!

Accepting that it is a little pedestrian in places, the story is perfectly enjoyable, and the reveal of the Ice Warriors is (forgive the pun) suitably chilling. I strongly suspect that it was less enjoyable watched in the midst of Season 11 however. I had the benefit of buying the Peladon boxset, and so watching the two serials more or less back-to-back. Watching in real time, I think it would have become obvious to the viewer that Pertwee was feeling somewhat dispirited by the untimely loss of Roger Delgado, and by Katy Manning leaving the show at the end of Season 10. Lis Sladen is of course excellent and feisty as Sarah-Jane Smith, not shrinking from the opportunity to tell Queen Thalira that she ought to stand up for herself … but I think this episode more than any other shows that, mentally at least, Pertwee had already moved on from Doctor Who.

Like many of these middling episodes, it is precisely that – middle of the road. Rather like Planet of the Dead in the modern series, there’s a distinct hint of indulgent self-referral and contentment that isn’t harmful in small doses. I finished watching the DVD feeling it had been pleasant enough to enjoy – but I think also painfully aware that it doesn’t measure up to many serials of this time in the show’s history.

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 …