56 – Remembrance of the Daleks

Okay – I think it is vitally important I start with one clear statement: I really like this story.

It’s important to begin there, because every Seventh Doctor fan and apologist will be apoplectic with disbelief that this story does not feature in my top 50 stories. Indeed, they will notice some of the stories not yet reviewed (thinking for example of Terror of the Vervoids or The Three Doctors) and wonder how I could think these stories better than Remembrance of the Daleks. So, let me repeat again, I don’t think this is a bad story – it is an excellent story, and a fine example of what the McCoy era should have been like. I have no hesitation in saying that if McCoy had been given a full 26 episode season with stories like this (and the budget of the 1996 TV Movie) I would have thoroughly enjoyed it. This story is fantastic Doctor Who.

Why then is it not in my top 50? For no other reason than personal taste – I hugely enjoy the stories in my top 100, and even have a soft spot for patently rubbish stories like Four to Doomsday (absolutely NOTHING however, will make me ever like Paradise Towers). Remembrance of the Daleks suffers from no great flaw other than being slightly less enjoyed than the stories above it. But that is no shame at all – rather a testament to 26 superb seasons of drama.

This story could have come directly from the classic era of Pertwee and the UNIT family, even featuring characters pretty much in the style of the Brigadier (Group Captain Gilmore), Mike Yates (Sgt. Mike Smith) and Liz Shaw (Dr Rachel Jensen). It features not one but two Dalek factions, each fighting to gain control of a Timelord artefact known as the Hand of Omega – a device that engineers stars to enable time travel. In a plot device later revisited to less good effect in Silver Nemesis the Doctor intends that the Imperial Daleks (under the control of the ‘Dalek Emperor’) should gain control of the device rather than the rebel Daleks.

A superb combination of well paced action and intrigue, the story features several memorable moments – not least that cliffhanger showing a Dalek hovering up a flight of stairs, debunking the myth of Destiny of the Daleks that Daleks are foiled by elevation changes. Also memorable is the revelation that the rebel Daleks are not controlled by Davros (as the TV angle suggests) but by a child conditioned to be a battle computer for the Daleks, and the the Dalek Emperor is in fact Davros. Ace famously takes on a Dalek with a souped-up baseball bat, and Sylvester McCoy gives his most memorable speech, in which the phrase ‘unlimited rice pudding’ features to describe Davros’ insane and insatiable desire for universal domination.

I cannot enthuse enough – this is a great story, and a great way to introduce anybody to classic Doctor Who. It’s only a pity that there are 55 stories I like better …

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78 – The Curse of Fenric

As I typed the story title in for this review, I had a vivid sense of fans of the Seventh Doctor reaching for their cutlasses and crying for my blood – evidence (if need more be presented) that I have it in for poor Sylvester McCoy! So let me unashamedly begin by saying that I really enjoy The Curse of Fenric, and as with all stories I am currently reviewing the problem is not that it is a poor story, but simply that I get more enjoyment from the stories above it! And that, really, comes down to personal taste as much as anything else – you will have already noted by the absence of large numbers of Troughton, Pertwee and Tom Baker stories, that their eras are the ones I hold in the highest esteem.

You have probably heard of the anecdote that Peter Davison would have stayed for a fourth season as the Doctor if he’d been given more scripts like The Caves of Androzani in Season 20. In much the same way that I earlier argued for a full length Season 23 (in which Colin Baker would have received the send-off he deserved), I think Doctor Who would have survived beyond 1989 if Season 25 if it had contained more stories like The Curse of Fenric. I confess that it took me a while to warm to – partially because my mum, noting the vampirish elements of the story, strongly encouraged my dad not to let me watch it until I was a little older, and even then I found the VHS hard to follow. Even though it is a slow burner, once you get your head around the narrative it doesn’t disappoint – the Doctor is at his literal chess playing best in facing the baddy of the piece, an ancient being known as Fenric.

As with most McCoy stories, there are several stories going on at once – notionally set at a naval base during the Second World War, the base commander is trying to achieve three things at once – intercept German communications using their decoding machine; deceive their Soviet allies into stealing a booby-trapped decoder that will devastate Moscow when used; and to discover the power of Fenric that is alluded to at a nearby Viking encampment. Of course, as with all humans who dabble in higher powers that they do not actually understand, Fenric overpowers the base scientist to reanimate himself, and possesses many of the base population to be his slave army.

Rather than explain the convoluted resolution of the tale, I would simply advise watching the DVD – then watching it again a day or two later when you have had time to digest it! Half of the enjoyment comes from not understanding what the Doctor is up to, but also the resolution of certain aspects of Ace’s backstory – there is the very poignant moment where Ace helps a young mother on the base to escape with her baby – to realise later that the baby is in fact her much hated mother. The story undoubtedly paves the way for the exploration of companion backstory that would become a staple of Nu Who – it is a fine example of what the show could have done with the budget and opportunity to evolve from the 80s into the 90s. In that regard, Curse of Fenric is also a rather tragic piece – a lump-in-the-throat inducing ‘What if?’ in the history of Doctor Who

120 – Silver Nemesis

Rule number one of plagiarism – don’t make it glaringly obvious where you have stolen the idea from.

So when Ace remarks at the end of Silver Nemesis that the Doctor tricked the Cybermen “Just like the Daleks” (in earlier season story Remembrance of the Daleks) the script writers inadvertently drew attention to the fact that both stories are essentially the same – specifically:

1. Several groups fighting for an ancient artefact of immense power.
2. A famous enemy from the show’s past (Daleks and Cybermen respectively).
3. One of the groups competing for the artefact are neo-Nazis.
4. The Doctor wins by tricking the famous enemy into using the artefact, which destroys their battlefleet.

And that’s where Silver Nemesis is on a hiding to nothing – because Remembrance of the Daleks was a much better execution of the plot idea. In the latter, it is kept simple – the battle is between two competing factions of Daleks, with the human involvement either as lackeys to the renegade Daleks, or the poor military caught in the crossfire. Simple – but effective. Silver Nemesis on the other hand, features a witch who time travels from Tudor days and kills Cybermen with gold plated arrows, and neo-Nazis – and just for good measure, the Cybermen were included as silver-skinned enemies for a story in the show’s silver anniversary year. In a three-part episode that’s ever so slightly overkill.

Which brings me to why Silver Nemesis has plummeted in my estimation. The serial was first released in 1993 as part of the 30th anniversary celebrations – not only was the cover fantastic, but it was released as a ‘director’s cut’ – effectively three 30 minute episodes. For 18 years, this was the only version of the story I had seen, and I rather enjoyed it – I may even have ranked it somewhat higher than Remembrance. Then I bought the DVD version, and I was horrified to see just how poorly edited the broadcast version was. The plot was far too busy and clunky – it really was a shock to see the qualitative difference the missing ten minutes made.

If the showrunners had taken an episode from the truly awful The Greatest Show in the Galaxy and given it to Silver Nemesis, this would have been a much better executed and very enjoyable serial. As it is, I am intensely frustrated that the BBC did not include the extended version as a bonus disc in the DVD release.

As a final thought – this is the lowest rated Cybermen story in these rankings, but it may not remain so. I am now resolved to buy The Moonbase sooner rather than later – although I am not expecting it to be worse than Silver Nemesis – on the contrary I think it may be strong contender for the top 20! It is possible however, if The Wheel in Space is either recovered or animated, that it may suffer from the opposite problem to Silver Nemesis – not enough plot in too many episodes. That being so, then there may well be competition for the dubious honour of being my least liked story to feature the Cybermen.

125 – Ghost Light

We return to the adventures of the Seventh Doctor, but in contrast to Black Orchid, this is a serial that went from being very badly regarded by myself to being rather enjoyed when I bought the DVD. It therefore also marks a new stage in my reviews – until now the stories were to fault ones that I did not enjoy, or had very little to commend them. From this point on, we are dealing not with stories that I did not enjoy, but rather stories that I enjoyed less than those that come later.

Like I said, at first I was somewhat bemused by this serial – it seemed somewhat confusing and glaringly anti-religious (mind – in contrast to modern Doctor Who this is relatively tame by comparison) – and one thing that hasn’t improved from VHS to DVD was the poor quality of the video, due to attempts by the producers to shoot the serial in low level lighting. But with a more sympathetic viewing I rather enjoyed the story – it was a clever concept and had tension that nicely built up over the three episodes.

I grant you that some of the acting is rather hammed up – not least of the character ‘Control’ – and as with most 80s serials there is the problem of the production looking somewhat tired. The serial also requires a sympathetic view, and probably a second viewing to make sense of what is going on – it doesn’t make it easy on the viewer. But you do reach the end of it thinking “Oh goodness! That’s clever!”

The story in essence explores two distinct themes – Ace confronting her own fears, and the relentless pace of change. The Doctor brings Ace to the Victorian house of Gabriel Chase, a house in Perivale that Ace would later burn down in the 1980s, sensing an evil presence there. As part of the Doctor’s refinement of Ace’s character he helps her to face her own fear – but in so doing also reveals what gave Ace the nervous feeling. It turns out the mansion was built atop the buried spaceship of an all-powerful being known as Light, who had determined to catalogue the entire world. Light’s lieutenant Smith is evolving into the dominant species of the day, a Victorian gentleman (I told you the story was weird!) and attempting to leave Light in hibernation.

Light goes on a massive rampage when awoken from his slumber, jolly cross at how much the world has changed compared to when he went into hibernation, and it is only stopped when the Doctor persuades him that change and evolution are unstoppable – the remnants of Light’s crew fly off to explore the galaxy, including a fine example of a Neanderthal picked up in the Stone Age. Confused? Yes – that’s rather the issue! Ghost Light is a rather interesting story idea shot in a creative style, and I rather enjoyed it when rewatched. But even after a number of viewings I still find the plot difficult to follow – and it sadly spoils the enjoyment a bit!

The Season 24 that should have been

Having now consigned Season 24 almost exclusively to the bottom ten, I would now like to conjecture on what could have been done to salvage the show – because in reviewing the four serials that made up Sylvester McCoy’s first season I was struck that none of the stories were irredeemable, merely badly executed.

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127 – Time and the Rani

It’s Season 24 … again … the least we can say for Time and the Rani is that it at least escaped the bottom ten.

Lots of things didn’t go well for this serial, beginning with the decision not to invite Colin Baker to return for his regeneration scene. It meant that the Sixth Doctor’s apparent end was due to the TARDIS being shot down by the baddy of the piece, a renegade Timelord known as the Rani. It also meant that Sylvester McCoy ended up donning a blond curly wig to impersonate Baker’s prone form lying on the TARDIS floor. It was all somewhat undignified, and made worse by McCoy not being able to ditch Baker’s wholly unsuitable and garish outfit until episode two.

But if we are going to talk about costumes, we must talk of the Rani. Played by the late Kate O’Mara, she was actually rather good in her first serial The Mark of the Rani – her unique take being that she was a scientist without conscience – seeking knowledge at all costs in the same way the Master seeks power at all costs. In this serial however, she spends the first two episodes mainly impersonating Mel, not even that convincingly. To ask an actress of O’Mara’s calibre to effect such an awful bit of drama is even worse viewed 30 years later.

So to recap. The old Doctor does not get the send-off he deserves. Kate O’Mara’s quite good character is reduced to rather poor acting. We can add to this infamy the same issues that we have already raised for this season – Bonnie Langford’s Mel at her ‘stand stock still and scream at danger’ worst; dubious production values; and a plot that is decidedly weak. It’s also hard to imagine what the BBC had in mind for this serial. Their original intent was that Baker should return for this serial, and then would regenerate at the end. But it’s hard to imagine Baker at his bombastic best clowning around as McCoy did in this serial – the role doesn’t especially suit McCoy either. One my friends very neatly summed up the problem McCoy faced – he was being asked to act to scripts written with Baker in mind.

And yet despite these flaws – I used to rather enjoy Time and the Rani. I think because I enjoyed the Rani’s first story I was more sympathetic to her second outing, despite the poor story quality and the rather lacklustre villains she is working alongside. And while McCoy deserved a much better entry story, it is nowhere near as catastrophic as The Twin Dilemma. This reason alone puts the serial above Dragonfire, even though the latter was a more pleasant surprise when reviewed on DVD.

I have promised (and will deliver soon!) my own take on what Season 24 could and should have looked like. But my teaser remark … Time and the Rani is the serial I will be making the most alterations to!

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If you want to watch Time and the Rani, you can download it today on BBC Store

128 – Dragonfire

As readers who have followed this blog from the beginning will have already grasped, Season 24 of the classic series is easily my most disliked season of the original series run. I have mentioned five other series in the bottom ten (granted, all produced in the 1980s) but the point is that each series has had at least one decent story to redeem it. Rather tragically this is not the case for Season 24, which is why Dragonfire rounds off our bottom ten.

I grant you that it was a close run thing between Dragonfire and Time and the Rani (and yes, that one will be at 127 …) – neither are especially classic serials and both have moments that make one blush to be a Doctor Who fan. So I must confess to my shame that it is sheer personal preference that makes me mark down Dragonfire.

For a long time this was my most disliked serial, for the simple reason that I had not seen any of the other serials in the bottom ten. My dad bought the serial on VHS for reasons that neither of can remember or understand, and it subsequently spent most of its time hidden at the back of the video shelf. It was also one of the final Sylvester McCoy serials released on DVD, making it one of the last ones that I bought and re-watched.

With such low expectations it was therefore relatively easy to be pleasantly surprised by the serial – it could only improve on my poor memory of the story. By now Sylvester McCoy is endeavouring to play Machiavelli rather than Bozo the Clown, and Mel is almost placid. And of course the serial introduces the excellent Sophie Aldred as Ace – though as I remembered from watching the VHS, Ace is far from the likeable rough-diamond she becomes from Season 25 onwards. She comes across as shouty, needlessly angry and petulant. As of Remembrance of the Daleks the brash character remains, but is much less jarring. Sadly for Dragonfire, it is hard to enjoy any scene featuring Ace given her angry reaction to practically everything – including the Doctor’s old friend Sabalom Glitz (as an aside – part of Ace’s anger towards Glitz was meant to reflect an intimate relationship that had subsequently ended. Aldred was so blissfully unaware of this background that she laughed in the face of the interviewer who asked her about it)

The story itself is straightforward enough – the Doctor senses some evil at work on planetoid Iceworld (which actually turns out to be a disguised spaceship covered in … surprise, surprise … ice) and comes to investigate. Several parties on Iceworld are hunting for the titular ‘Dragonfire’ – nothing more or less than the power source for the spacecraft. Chief of the hunters is a chap called Kane, who aspires to build a merciless army, then use his newly powered spacecraft to return to his home planet and conquer it. And the Doctor foils the scheme, not by stealing the Dragonfire first, but by pointing out that eons of time have passed, and Kane’s planet no longer exists.

So I have to be fair – on a rewatch it held up better than I expected. Mel has a very dignified send-off (though it is tragically true that the most popular thing she ever did was to leave the TARDIS crew), the story has plenty of intrigue and Kane is masterful as a villain. It also however suffers from every problem of the late 1980s – not least the horrendously glittery costumes and appalling sets. It’s also hard to escape the truly awful episode one cliffhanger (where the Doctor climbs over the side of a barrier with a long drop for no obvious reason whatsoever, and the major plothole of why Kane didn’t simply hire someone to steal the Dragonfire for him sooner. The one plus of the serial being three episodes long is that the embarrassment by association does not last for long.

That said, I was pleasantly surprised by my second viewing. Where Time and the Rani carries the awful feeling that worse was still to come, Dragonfire has the major credit that the rot had stopped. While Ace was not yet likeable, the groundwork was in place for the strong partnership that would emerge in Seasons 25 and 26. You therefore finish the serial feeling that the BBC had stopped playing the show for laughs, and they were attempting to arrest the decline. If the story had only been better produced and less 1980s … which is a refrain I fear I have used a lot!