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Doctor Who Rewatch: 02

In fact The Sensorites isn't a bad place to start phase 2 of this project - it begins with the Tardis crew reminiscing about the Story So Far (and includes reference to several unseen adventures, one of which inspired my only foray into fanfic to date), and has some promising character development for Susan as she stands up to the Doctor, reveals her telepathic abilities and reminisces about her home planet. Unfortunately, it also features the first spaceship on Doctor Who, which can't have looked terribly convincing even by the standards of 1964, and, worse still, the first really poor performance from a guest actor, Lorne Cossette as Maitland. The Sensorites themselves have never considered investigating the mysterious noises in their water supply, or the imaginative possibilities of dressing up as each other. By the last episode everyone is fluffing their lines, which is a shame as the denouement is otherwise competently done. There is potentially a good sf story in here, of the Doctor and chums resolving conflict between the clueless earth folks and the paranoid isolated alien society, but it would need a lot of rewriting to bring it out.

But then we are back on track with The Reign of Terror. Actually even knowing the title of the story is a bit of a spoiler; we don't find out when the story is set until halfway through the first episode, "The Land of Fear". The incidental music, though it occasionally misfires in terms of mood, is really the best we have had so far (and it's by that same bloke what wrote Cavatina as in The Deer Hunter). The story is history as entertainment rather than education, with the situation shown rather than told. Poor Carole Ann Ford, having just had some good character development in an otherwise lousy story, is back to screaming and whining here. William Russell's holiday for eps 2 and 3 is well concealed. Barbara gets another romance, with a treacherous future renegade Time Lord. Hartnell is in his element, and must have particularly enjoyed the fabulous costume he got to wear as a revolutionary official.

Planet of Giants is rather underappreciated, I think. The plot is admittedly basic; although this is the first return to contemporary Earth since the very first episode, it is almost 50s rather than 60s in style. What really makes it is the model work: the sets for the miniaturised Tardis crew are totally convincing. All too often we Old Who fans have to excuse the special effects as being acceptable to the standards of the day, but no such excuse is needed here (though it is fortunate that the plot requires all the on-screen invertebrates to be dead). Barbara fans object to her getting poisoned but actually it's only in the third and last episode that she is incapacitated. And this is a great Hartnell story - he really seems to be in his element, very much in command of his material and of the team as a whole.

After a couple of frankly ropey sf stories (The Keys of Marinus and The Sensorites) we have a very marked improvement with The Dalek Invasion of Earth. As with Planet of Giants, we are on familiar English territory, but this time warped by the passage of time rather than perspectives of scale. There are lots of brilliant moments here, and the whole is for once equal to the sum of its parts. The impact of the Dalek emerging from the Thames at the end of the first episode is slightly lost if we know what the name of the whole story is, but several people who saw it first time round in 1964 have picked this as the most memorable moment in all of Old Who. Myself, I just love the sequence of Barbara, Jenny and Dortmun dodging Daleks across London to Chagrin's haunting tortured incidental music in the middle of episode 3; I could watch that again and again. And at long last, as she leaves, Carole Ann Ford is called upon to do some acting, and rises to the challenge. Susan's departure scene is really rather moving, especially watching it (as I now have done, and as original viewers had to do) as the 51st episode in sequence rather than the last of a vintage 6-part DVD. One point lost on 1964's viewers that strikes one forcibly today is Peter Fraser's eerie resemblance, as David Campbell, to David Tennant (who of course was not born until 1971).

I was originally planning this as a set of reviews just of the stories, but it's impossible to resist the temptation to reassess each of the regular characters as they depart. (Which is going to make the write-up after next rather fun...) Since her ancestry is so integral to the show's mythology, it's a shame that Susan on the whole gets rather little of interest during her time on the show. She is the original screamy girl character, getting decent material in less than half of her stories (her friendship with Ping-Cho in Marco Polo, her weird spacegirl vibe in The Sensorites, and her romance in The Dalek Invasion of Earth). Ford's own favourite memory of the show was running amok with scissors in The Edge of Destruction. Her later TV appearance in The Five Doctors feels curiously unmoored, but she's done some excellent work for Big Finish - a couple of alternate mythos plays where she is President of Gallifrey and her grandfather is played by Geoffrey "Catweazle" Bayldon. She returns as Susan later this year with her son being played by Jake McGann, whose father is Paul. The best written spinoff book with Susan which I have read is Kim Newman's Telos novella, Time and Relative.

I had rewatched The Rescue quite recently. There's not much to it. I think Vicki gets a very good introduction, just as Susan got a very good departure, in both cases because it was the first time this had happened. The two monsters - Koquillion and the Sand Beast - look pretty unconvincing (though in Koquillion's case he actually does turn out to be a man in a suit), and Maureen O'Brien is clearly not as young as the character she is portraying. But Barbara gets to shoot a monster, and I think the appearance of the sinister surviving Didonians at the end lifts it a bit. One of the few stories where the novelisation (completed shortly before his death by Ian Marter) is far superior to the original.

I've watched The Romans a couple of times, which may be once or twice too many. There are a lot of good things about it - the costumes, sets and background sound are totally convincing; the Ian/Barbara relationship is at its sweetest and snuggliest; Maureen O'Brien is carving out a quite different Vicki persona to Carole Ann Ford's Susan, less frightened and more curious. The plot of course takes in all the cliches - lecherous emperor, slavers, the threat of the arena, and even culminating in the Great Fire. The two interlocking plot strands are deftly contrived. The problem is, unusually, with Hartnell himself who is way over the top, smirking, chortling and giggling manically; it matches quite well with Derek Francis' portrayal of Nero but is otherwise a bit much.

So, a rather weak start and end to this run (The Sensorites being the worst Hartnell story so far) but a sequence of decent efforts in the middle, in particular The Dalek Invasion of Earth.

< An Unearthly Child - The Aztecs | The Sensorites - The Romans | The Web Planet - Galaxy 4 | Mission To The Unknown - The Gunfighters | The Savages - The Highlanders | The Underwater Menace - Tomb of the Cybermen | The Abominable Snowmen - The Wheel In Space | The Dominators - The Space Pirates | The War Games - Terror of the Autons | The Mind of Evil - The Curse of Peladon | The Sea Devils - Frontier in Space | Planet of the Daleks - The Monster of Peladon | Planet of the Spiders - Revenge of the Cybermen | Terror of the Zygons - The Seeds of Doom | The Masque of Mandragora - The Talons of Weng-Chiang | Horror of Fang Rock - The Invasion of Time | The Ribos Operation - The Armageddon Factor | Destiny of the Daleks - Shada | The Leisure Hive - The Keeper of Traken | Logopolis - The Visitation | Black Orchid - Mawdryn Undead | Terminus - The Awakening | Frontios - Attack of the Cybermen | Vengeance on Varos - In A Fix With Sontarans | The Mysterious Planet - Paradise Towers | Delta and the Bannermen - The Greatest Show in the Galaxy | Battlefield - The TV Movie >

Comments

( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
strange_complex
Nov. 4th, 2009 10:37 am (UTC)
Speaking as a fervent Barbara fan, it isn't so much the fact that she gets poisoned in Planet of Giants per se that annoys me, but the fact that she is portrayed throughout the story as passive, vulnerable and a bit silly, in stark contrast to her more normal confidence, maturity and intelligence. Well before she gets poisoned, she has already sprained her ankle, while her rather bizarre strategy of trying to hide the fact that she has been poisoned from the others does not really seem to me to sit well with her normal character. She also doesn't contribute much to the situation in terms of interpretations, ideas or solutions - which again is out of keeping with her usual role.

On The Reign of Terror, I'm interested by your comment that "The story is history as entertainment rather than education, with the situation shown rather than told." Do you see this as a new characteristic of this story, which contrasts with the earlier historicals, or are you simply noting it here without implying that it hadn't been the case before?
nwhyte
Nov. 5th, 2009 06:28 am (UTC)
I think that the historical stories on the whole must be either funny or didactic to be successful. Marco Polo and The Aztecs are clearly didactic; The Romans is clearly funny. The Reign of Terror is not very funny and not terribly didactic either. It still works fairly well (unlike, say, The King's Demons which is neither), but it's the first time that Who has gone for a historical period of which its audience would have had a lot of preconceptions, and it plays to the cliches rather than challenging them.
strange_complex
Nov. 5th, 2009 09:58 am (UTC)
Ah, I see what you mean. I don't think I see as marked a change here as you do: The Reign of Terror does still include carefully-staged debates about who is in the right or the wrong, while the didacticism in Marco Polo and The Aztecs is quite carefully balanced by other elements (including humour). But then again I did have quite a long viewing gap between The Aztecs and The Reign of Terror, so maybe it is more obvious if you see them closely together.
xipuloxx
Nov. 4th, 2009 07:46 pm (UTC)
"She returns as Susan later this year with her son being played by Jake McGann"

Um...are you talking about an audio drama or have you just massively spoiled one of the upcoming specials for me?

On second thoughts, I'm not sure I want an answer to that question.
nwhyte
Nov. 5th, 2009 05:51 am (UTC)
As JNT used to say, keep watching! (Or perhaps listening!)
xipuloxx
Nov. 5th, 2009 02:08 pm (UTC)
Phew! I've checked about the upcoming audios now, and that's a relief. I thought at first that you'd inadvertently given away a massive plot point in an upcoming TV special. I'm relieved that's not the case!
( 6 comments — Leave a comment )

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