13 – The Ark in Space

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.

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49 – Robot

I think this one may surprise some readers. While Tom Baker’s first adventure is certainly enjoyable, is it really more of a classic compared to stories like Remembrance of the Daleks or The Seeds of Doom?

It was certainly a bolt from the blue when first broadcast. Jon Pertwee had been Doctor for five seasons – at that point the longest any actor had portrayed the Timelord. After a lengthy period the BBC elected on the then unknown Baker to become the fourth Doctor. A shot in the dark perhaps, but Baker establishes himself as a tour de force within seconds of the episode beginning. It’s Baker’s debut more than anything else that makes a good story a great story. Whether the comic moments (including a memorable scene in which it takes the Doctor four goes to choose an appropriate outfit) to the sublime, it is an utter joy to see Baker establish himself in the role.

The story itself is relatively straightforward fare, and bears strong continuity marks to the Pertwee era – in this instance it’s a technocratic think tank with strong fascist tendencies that is using the titular Robot (or, as in the TARGET Novelisation, the ‘Giant Robot’) to perpetrate the crimes required to sieze control of the world. It’s not a very complicated plot by any means – in any other season it wouldn’t be a disappointing story, but nor would it be noteworthy.

Which brings us back to a simple premise – enjoyment. I thoroughly enjoyed Matt Smith’s debut story The Eleventh Hour – a combination of an enjoyable story with a likeable; crazy … yet brilliant Doctor. And Robot is very similar in my estimation. While Genesis of the Daleks will always be my first Baker adventure, and Logopolis will be forever tinged with the sadness of Baker leaving the role, Robot has all of the fun of a new beginning. Add into the mix Harry and Sarah as one of the best TARDIS crews ever, and you can see why this understated four parter is such an enjoyable and appreciated adventure!

67 – Revenge of the Cybermen

Tom Baker’s first season as the Doctor was simply stellar. Not merely a breath of fresh air after Jon Pertwee had spent five years in the role, Baker was blessed with excellent companions in Sarah-Jane and Harry, and a strong set of stories.

The season concluded with this four-part story, which revisited the sets used for the second story from that Season, Ark in Space – mostly as a BBC cost-saving measure. This is a rare instance of the practice working well, as the TARDIS team arrive fresh from their adventures in Genesis of the Daleks to participate in a story that harks back to the base-under-seige style stories of the Troughton era.

Space Station Nerva is apparently afflicted with a plague, leaving only four crew surviving. In actual fact, there is a subtle game going on whereby the villianous Professor Kellman has the appearance of helping the Cybermen to destroy the Planet Volga – the fabled ‘planet of gold.’ In actual fact, Kellman is working for a faction of the Volgans, under the superbly aloof David Collings as Vorus, who aim to lure the last surviving Cybermen to the beacon and then destroy them with a rocket.

Into this predictably chaotic situation step the Doctor, Harry and Sarah – who as with much of the season become victims of circumstance and are involved because they have no choice – having arrived by Time Ring (a necessary plot device for the preceding story) they have to wait for the TARDIS to show up so that they can escape. Which turns out not to be so easy when Kellman tries to use a Cybermat to kill Sarah. Or when the Cybermen show up and attach a bomb of substantive power to the Doctor’s back.

Often this is not the best loved serial of Season 12 – indeed it is felt to be the weakest in the season, not least as the Cybermen don’t quite carry the same cold calculating menace that they had in previous serials (it certainly ruined it for me to learn that the Cyber Leader was portrated by Christopher Robbie, the chap who played the Karkus in The Mind Robber). I disagree on the whole, not just because I don’t really rate The Sontaran Experiment, but also because I think Revenge of the Cybermen is a largely fun and harmless jaunt, provided one overlooks the obvious plot-holes. It ticks along at a steady pace, with good incidental music, and a cast you have great empathy for.

This was a story I adored watching as a child on VHS, and still enjoy on DVD as a grown up. It may not be the greatest story in the world, but on the whole I think it deserves a better reputation than fans have credited it with!

The best ever TARDIS crew? It’s almost too close to call …

In my previous post I began to consider what makes for a good TARDIS crew (by which I mean the Doctor traveling with at least two companions) and reduced it down to two candidates for best – the Season 5 crew of the Second Doctor with Victoria and Jamie, and the Season 12 crew of the Fourth Doctor with Sarah-Jane and Harry. So far, we had learned that three was too many for a TARDIS crew, and there was something too unlikeable about the Tegan/Turlough combination to make them endearing to the viewer.

So why do I think the Season 5 and 12 crews are candidates for the best? Well, let’s clear away some pertinent commonalities to begin with – both seasons feature largely excellent stories, so the crew are given strong content to work with. In this regard, the recovery of The Enemy of the World and The Web of Fear are hugely significant, as they have allowed a new generation of fans to appreciate the excellence of Season 5’s stories. Without them, Sarah-Jane and Harry would be the runaway winners of best TARDIS crew.

It’s also abundantly clear that the chemistry between the main actors is excellent. The friendship between Pat, Frazer and Deborah is evident in the way they conduct themselves on set, and the same is true for Tom, Elisabeth and Ian – they make a natural team and it increased the empathy the viewer has for the crew. I would go so far as to say, with each there is the sense that you would want to join as the fourth member of the crew, such is the bonhomie. It could be argued that a similar feelgood factor existed within the U.N.I.T. family – oh for a story that featured the Doctor taking Jo, the Brigadier, Captain Yates and Sergeant Benton on a TARDIS adventure …

A curious commonality is between Jamie and Harry. They’re both quick witted, keen to learn, brave, and immensely likeable  – but also just a little bit daft! I think this helps facilitate good story telling – they’re just silly enough not to be on the same level as the Doctor, but not so silly that you spend all your time rolling your eyes at their stupidity (not thinking of any particular companions …) They play the perfect foil in fact to the Doctor being suitably different, and being apt to get themselves into trouble. Their likeability also cannot be overstated – it’s easy to imagine being friends with both of them and their role as occasional comic relief is equally important for adding fun to their stories.

Intriguingly, the biggest difference is between Sarah-Jane and Victoria. As we well know, Deborah Watling left the series largely because she tired (justifiably) of being asked to look pretty and scream into the camera. In contrast, Elisabeth Sladen built upon the culture change that had been slowly taking place since Deborah left of allowing for a more assertive companion – and was arguably the first to truly break free of the ‘get into trouble and scream’ genre of female companion. Despite this significant difference however, there is the similarity that they are both fond of the Doctor, believe him incapable of looking after himself, and apt to be the voice of reason in the TARDIS trio. It is perhaps fair to say that if we leave background production values (and social attitudes) to one side, each is the product of their background – Victoria had a very comfortable background as a Victorian lady whereas Sarah-Jane is a modern day journalist, used to having to make her own way.

Despite that, both work in a way that Wendy Padbury just didn’t as Zoe. It’s worth considering the Season 6 crew, which is the nearest in common to these two crews across the original 26 seasons. Yes, it is a pertinent fact that Pat and Fraser knew they were leaving the show, which undoubtedly had an impact.  But it seems that the TARDIS crew works best when none of the companions are on the same level as the Doctor – I think largely because we are meant to identify with the companion and experience the show through them. We have greater empathy when Victoria ventures into the Underground tunnels alone to find the Doctor despite her evident fear and reluctance … with Sarah-Jane when she encourages her fellow prisoners to escape. When Zoe uses her mathematical skill to prevent the Cyber-invasion on the other hand … there’s a slight air (rightly or wrongly) of ‘too-clever-by-half.’

There is another TARDIS crew (disputedly given how few stories it featured in) that could have come close to matching the crews above – the short-lived combination of the Fifth Doctor, Nyssa and Tegan. Again, one senses the right combination of good chemistry between the actors, a sensible companion and a brave companion, and not too many companions. Interestingly, Nyssa is definitely a very intelligent companion, but she doesn’t quite jar on the viewer to the same extent that Zoe did, while Tegan (devoid of Adric winding her up) works well as the more brash companion. This combination is let down hugely by two factors – at two and a half stories, they didn’t really have a meaningful run as a TARDIS crew; and (more crucially) the stories involved aren’t the strongest.

But which is the best crew ever? I pondered this as I watched both Season 5 (as much of it as survives) and Season 12, and found it tricky to assess. Every story is exceptionally crafted, and I have huge fondness for both crews – it is very sad that we cannot see what the combination of Jamie and Victoria was like in Evil of the Daleks, The Abominable Snowmen, or Fury from the Deep. I’m tempted to say that even if they were found it would not influence my choice, as we have a pretty good impression of what both crews were like. On balance, at the moment, the Season 12 crew edge it – simply because the chemistry between the three is so good. But it is so close, that if more Season 5 material was recovered, I might just change my mind. It really is that close …

74 – The Sontaran Experiment

One of the first things I did after ranking the classic episodes of Doctor Who was to sweep through for the obvious shocks – stories that other fans would feel were definitely over-rated or definitely under-rated. Alongside The Aztecs at 107 and An Unearthly Child at 98 (neither of which, it must be said, earned a massive uproar …) it was the low placement of this serial that I felt sure would enrage fans. The Sontaran Experiment is widely viewed as a classic, and yet it doesn’t make my top 50 – how is such sacrilege possible? (Discerning readers may also wonder why it is ranked lower than the likes of Terror of the Vervoids, but we shall skip past such supposing!)

It is worth repeating what I have said in several previous reviews – at this stage of the countdown there are very few serials that I actually dislike. The problem instead is that I enjoy other serials more than I enjoy the ones lower down! The Sontaran Experiment very much fits into this category – suffering only from not being high on the list of stories I would automatically turn to.

It also suffers in part from high anticipation. As fans of a certain age will recall, it was originally released as a VHS double set with the excellent Genesis of the Daleks. I loved (and still love!) the latter serial, and bitterly resented that my dad would not buy the video! As the mystique of the first serial grew, not least with rumours that it was a classic, I was keen to see this second Sontaran story – a desire heightened after enjoying the equally excellent The Time Warrior.

As it was – I wasn’t wowed. I should however be very positive – it is one of the few 2 part stories were one senses the story matches the length – it would make an excellent 45 minute story in the current era of the show. It was pulled together somewhat last minute to fill a production gap, but doesn’t look unpolished – quite the reverse indeed, as the rough outdoor production creates a sense of the rough state of the abandoned earth the serial is set on. And the overall concept of a lone Sontaran experimenting upon humanity to learn of their weaknesses is very clever, with Commander Styre excellently released by Kevin Lindsay.

So the downside? Well, it isn’t that exciting … it’s clever, and doesn’t exactly drag, and explores interesting concepts … but it is a bit pedestrian. It is redeemed of course by the excellence of the cast – I think the Baker/Sladen/Marter era was perhaps the best of the show, it only being a pity it did not continue into the Holmes/Hinchliffe gothic horror era – and in this serial they are very much continuing in the fine form of the preceding Ark in Space. But even their performances don’t incline me to dust off the DVD of The Sontaran Experiment that often …