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Doctor Who Rewatch: 09

It's not so long since I last rewatched The War Games, but it still strikes me as one of the greatest ever Who stories (see also Neil Gaiman's take). I wrote last time of why I appreciated most of the other stories of this season rather more in context, but The War Games stands on its own, with the threats gradually escalating from the war zones to the control centre to the ultimate destruction of Team Tardis by the Time Lords. Those two glorious moments - at the end of episode 4 when the War Chief and the Doctor recognise each other, and at the end of the story when the Doctor is forced to change his appearance by the Time Lords - still thrill, and in between there are two recurring actors from earlier in the season, Eelek of the Gonds now pretending to be Philip Madoc with a different hairstyle and beard playing the War Lord, and Lemuel Gulliver, that well-known trandimensional traveller, pretending to be Bernard Horsfall playing the lead Time Lord (I'd watch out for him next time you're on Gallifrey, Doctor). The various other cast members (apart from the over-the-top Mexican) are all convincing too. The music is good, the sets look convincing (the Bridget Riley-style wallpaper being particularly memorable), Zoe is cute as ever (if Jamie perhaps just a little bored with it) and Troughton gives it his all right to the end. In six years, it is the first time that Doctor Who has ended a season with something like a grand finale (unthinkable not to do so today), and it works out incredibly well.

Three regular cast members leave Doctor Who at the end of The War Games, the most recently acquired being Wendy Padbury's Zoe, who is for my money the best of the black and white era companions. She is the first companion to consciously stow away on the Tardis in search of adventure, rather than stumble in without realising (as did the majority of Hartnell's companions) or because she had no alternative (as with Jamie and Victoria [and Vicki]). It's travel with the Doctor as a positive choice, and New Who has done well to have Nine, Ten and Eleven extend the invitation to their companions, as to the audience, to participate. Once on the team, she challenges the Doctor intellectually, and is very effervescent with it; plus there's an innocent but very strong sensuality about her - her first conversation with Jamie has him offering to spank her (to which she responds "This is going to be fun! I shall learn a lot from you!"), and of course those moments clinging to the Tardis console in The Mid Robber, and playing dressing-up games with Isobel Watkins in The Invasion.

Zoe features in a couple of the better novelisations, Doctor Who - The Mind Robber and Doctor Who - The Invasion, by Peter Ling and Ian Marter respectively. She has been less well-served by spinoff literature, and I felt that Wendy Padbury's sole Companion Chronicle so far was one of the weakest of that sequence, though appreciated much more her return in this month's Big Finish, Legend of the Cybermen. On TV she gets to reappear briefly in The Five Doctors, filmed from in front so as to hide her pregnancy!

I'm generally not as big a fan of the male companions, but it's difficult to separate Fraser Hines' Jamie from the Troughton era in general, since he was there for all but the first story (and appears in more episodes than anyone bar the first four Doctors). There are moments in the early days, when he seems to be a spare wheel, but the relationship he and Troughton develop is lovely; one always wondered a bit if the First Doctor regarded his male companions as pets, but the Second Doctor clearly sees Jamie as his best friend (and more, if you read the fanfic). Jamie's dogged loyalty does get exploited a couple of times when the Doctor's own needs take precedence, but he gets his revenge by constantly slagging off the Tardis navigation system.

As I write, Jamie is practically a current companion, in that he features in the most recent three Big Finish plays, this time teamed up with Colin Baker's Sixth Doctor (who he of course meets in The Two Doctors, fifteen years after leaving the show), in what turns out to be a neatly intertwined set of stories. In addition to the spinoff fiction mentioned under Zoe, I would add Terrance Dicks' novelisation of The Web of Fear and David McIntee's The Dark Path, both of which also feature Victoria, as worthy of note. He has done three Companion Chronicles so far, none spectacular.

Which brings us to the amazing performance of Patrick Troughton, certainly the most versatile actor to take the lead role in Old Who, the first to take it over from another, the most human of the first four, the most affectionate towards his companions of any bar Tennant, and sadly the guy who lost the majority of his episodes in the great burnination. The three Troughton seasons are actually very different from each other: Season Four is a somewhat uncertain toning down of the Hartnell era, Season Five is a run of bases under siege, and Season Six is more classic science fiction (apart from the two standout stories, The Mind Robber and The War Games. The clownish hero is always watchable - he is the only Doctor who screams in fear (though Eleven may come close); he sometimes loses his companions' trust (this is true right from the start, when Ben doubts his identity); but we know he usually has a plan.

Troughton of course returns in The Three Doctors, The Five Doctors and finally The Two Doctors, before he died while attending a Doctor Who convention in 1987. He had asked to see The Dominators again on the day he died, which shows a peculiar sense of priorities. Obviously most of the spinoff literature featuring him also features Jamie and is covered above, but I just want to give a shout-out to two others, John Peel's novelisation of The Power of the Daleks and Stephen Lyons' The Murder Game, both featuring Ben and Polly and both rather good.

Gosh, it's all different: Spearhead from Space is in colour, set entirely in England, it's in colour, it features the return of the Brigadier chap from The Invasion, it's in colour, there's a new Doctor and new companion, and it's also in colour. And did I mention that it is in colour? It really feels only barely related to what has gone before, the sole links being the Brigadier and the outside shell of the Tardis. This time it's the Brigadier who plays the role of sceptical companion as Ben did in The Power of the Daleks; but the payoff of the story is the Doctor being accepted and integrated into the Brigadier's outfit, rather than Ben's acceptace of the new captain of his ship. We are now moored in a new stream of earthbound adventures (and as noted previously, this is the start of the longest run of consecutive earthbound stories in Old Who).

It is of course a Robert Holmes story, and here we start to see him reaching the level of quality for which he is remembered. The dynamic between Hugh Burden's inhuman Channing and John Woodnutt's increasingly desperate Hibbert is very watchable. NB that like Holmes' last story, The Space Pirates, the Doctor doesn't actually get any lines until more than half way through the first episode (and then is absent again for much of the second episode). But the basic point of the story is to establish our confidence in the new lead, and it does so entirely satisfactorily.

There are some good bits in Doctor Who and the Silurians, but they are an awful long way apart; this would have been an undisputed classic if it were a four-parter. The length of the story may not have been the choice of director Timothy Combe (who also did Evil of the Daleks and The Mind of Evil, after which he was apparently barred from future Who work), but it has other problems that clearly are his fault: too many static scenes of the Brigadier sitting talking to someone in an office, several of which are interrupted by the Doctor arriving just as his whereabouts are beng discussed. This all made me wonder about the distance between the research centre and the caves; I didn't get a good sense of that (and Malcolm Hulke's map in the novelisation is actually a bit confusing).

The story falls quite naturally into two halves - the "something nasty in the woodshed" bit before we actually meet the Silurians properly, and the "clash of civilisations" bit when we do. The two halves are not linked well (what's the story with the dinosaur, for instance? or the Silurians' relationship with Quinn?) but the second half is better, and for once we get monsters with decent characterisation, balanced by the Brigadier's monstrous behaviour at the end - the first time we have seen a regular character defy the Doctor so wilfully, and as a result we viewers are asked to sympathise with the alien agenda rather than the forces of the British state.

It's also a great story for spotting guest stars: Avon is the Brigadier's second-in-command, Khrisong / Hieronymous is also there, Nyder is running the research centre, and Geoffrey Palmer, who dies horribly every time he is on Doctor Who, is the Permanent Under-Secretary. (If you haven't heard the super two-hander audio between Paul Darrow and Peter Miles set in Kaldor City, I do recommend it.) Finally, of course, by pure chance I was watching it immediately after the New Who two-part Silurian story was broadcast, but my thoughts on that will have to wait.

wwhyte was eager to hear my views of The Ambassadors of Death, and I guess the first point is how little of the story is actually about the eponymous aliens. The first five episodes focus on UNIT trying to battle bad guys who have stolen an alien weapon and are using it for crime, and have also infiltrated UNIT's own chain of command; each episode has a mandatory action sequence pitting good guys vs thugs. Only in ep 6 does the Doctor transmigrate to the alien spaceship where astronauts are in an altered state of consciousness, which could be symbolic of something. We take a long time to get close to the action; it's actually rather reminiscent of The Invasion, with seedier human opponents and less willing aliens.

John Abineri does put in a good turn as Carrington - even if his means and motivation are not well explained, he is conveys the deceptively psychotic general rather well. I am, however, mystified and distracted by the cameras' concentration on Ronald Allen as Cornish; perhaps the director was obsessed by Allen's good looks. Come to that, I am still a little mystified as to what the story was really about. Nice to see Michael Wisher for the first time. Dudley Simpson, always reliable, utterly excels here with a Jethro Tull-like soundtrack which conveys a slightly weird yet rather English atmosphere.

Inferno is a good story at the end of the season, rather than a good climax to the season. Bound to late twentieth-century England in space and time, we escape sideways rather than backwards, forwards or outwards. It's fairly obvious from the beginning that the actual plot of Inferno can be expressed in one line - "the Doctor shuts down the drilling project" - but the seven episode ride is brilliant, starting with the office politics of the drillhead (with added green monsters) and then bringing in the parallel world where the drilling is more advanced and doom therefore nigher. I've written previously about the politics of Warp Two; the dramatic effect is that we identify, much more than usual, with the Doctor, thrust alone into an alien environment, with a sense of approaching doom. (The coincidence that I was watching this story while reading the Bloody Sunday report added an extra shudder to the scenes of the militarised other world.)

Inferno works far far better than The Ambassadors of Death. It's helped by the excellent supporting cast - Derek Newark, last seen as a caveman in An Unearthly Child; Olaf Pooley as Stahlman(n); Sheila Dunn as Petra; Christopher Benjamin, who I've just been listening to in his later role as Jago, as Sir Keith; and more than usual demanded of Nicholas Courtney and Caroline John (and even John Levene gets to put on a monster costume again). Note however that nuclear power has strange properties; it's explicitly the source of the electricity that makes it useful for the Doctor.

And after four stories, the least of any companion since Sara Kingdom and Katarina, that's it for Liz Shaw, who we last see giggling at the childish banter of the Doctor and Brigadier. I'm afraid I'm in the minority of Who fans who don't rate her all that highly. I don't think Caroline John is at ease playing an ostensibly brainy character; and her dynamic with Pertwee and Courtney never quite settles down. It's a shame because on the whole I like the brainy companions (Zoe, Romana, Barbara to an extent, Martha also) but Liz doesn't quite work for me. I do agree that it's a pity she did not get a decent farewell scene, unless we count her cameo in The Five Doctors.

Of the novelisations of her four stories, my favourite is Malcolm Hulke's Doctor Who and the Cave Monsters. Gary Russell's Missing Adventure, Scales of Injustice, and Simon Guerrier's Companion Chronicle, Shadow of the Past, are also worth hunting down. I must say that I was also relatively impressed with the 1971 Doctor Who Annual, which comes as an extra on the Inferno DVD. I have the P.R.O.B.E. videos ready to watch some time, and also several other novels in which Liz appears - The Devil Goblins from Neptune, Blood Heat and Eternity Weeps - are on the 'to read' shelf.

So, it's 1971 and we are rebooting the show again with Terror of the Autons. The familiar - the Doctor, the Tardis exterior, his relationship with the Brigadier, the Autons, Benton as part of the furniture the colour format - is thrown into a new light by the arrival of Jo as audience identification figure and the Master as the first convincing villain not played by Kevin Stoney (and Yates as part of the furniture). I don't think of myself as a Jo fan, but I warmed to Victoria when watching her stories a couple of months back and I may find the same happening again; I think she works much better dramatically as a foil to the Doctor, as a childlike interpreter of what is going on. Holmes is sometimes accused of cutting and pasting from Spearhead in Space here, but that's not fair at all; the comic yokels are replaced by a sinister circus, and the dynamic between the Master and the Farrels (and poor old McDermott) is utterly different from, but just as good as, the Channing/Hibbert relationship in the previous story.

We immediately feel on firmer ground than last season, somehow, with the setup of UNIT more embedded and elaborated, the new companion and villain very watchable, and stuff actually happening in each episode (my favourite being the creepy strangly doll - the effects are not too awful by today's standards and the drama excellent). Perhaps it's just that it comes after the slow pace of Season 7, but I have raised my opinion of Terror of the Autons considerably.

Having been reading up on the reminiscences of Derrick Sherwin and Terrance Dicks, I was rather expecting to find the boundary between the monochrome and colour eras a little fuzzier than the conventional wisdom has it. But I was instead impressed by how very different a show Jon Pertwee's adventures are. As mentioned above, they are in colour, which seems to require a shift of mood from magical realism to gritty realism. More important, though, is the sense of our hero being tied to a single planet from now on, his services being called on to deal with the monster of the month. It's simply not the same show as we have been watching so far. Having said that, there is a feeling of a shift of gear and finally getting things together with Season 8.

Speaking of colour, everyone in Season Seven is white except for a non-speaking technician in Inferno (played I think by Allister Baine, who appears almost four decades later as Wilf's friend Winston in The End of Time). Roy Strong, last seen as Toberman in Tomb of the Cybermen, is the first non-white character to get a named part in the colour era as Tony, the circus strongman in Terror of the Autons. Five stories into the colour era and we have only heard white actors speak; though this changes with the next story.

This run includes four of the five surviving stories with more than six episodes (the other being The Daleks, way back in the beginning). Seven episodes is too long for the average story (and Doctor Who and the Silurians and The Ambassadors of Death are pretty average). I'll cut a bit more slack for The War Games because it is the end of the original version of Doctor Who, and a certain excess is appropriate.

My running tally: 55 out of 160 Old Who stories (including Shada and K9 and Company and counting four stories rather than one in Season 23), so just over a third of the way through (33.9%). Just under 40% of the way through in terms of minutes watched. Just over 40% of the way through in terms of number of episodes watched. 28% of calendar time elapsed from 23 November 1963 to 6 December 1989.

< 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

( 5 comments — Leave a comment )
swisstone
Jun. 22nd, 2010 12:52 pm (UTC)
it is the first time that Doctor Who has ended a season with something like a grand finale

Of course, it's also the first time the viewers had to wait for more than a couple of months for new episodes.

I agree that there's a radical difference between Season Six and Season Seven, though a lot of what was planned go trialled in The Invasion (and Holmes is still writing for Troughton in Spearhead). But it's a full-on engagement with the Quatermass tradition of British SF, a tradition that Who had mostly eschewed up to this point. (Indeed, Spearhead brazenly steals its basic concept, and indeed, it's opening scene, from Quatermass II.) And the Doctor's power relationship with the male companion is wholly changed from that with Jamie (with hindsight, the Brigadier looks less of a companion than Jamie, but the audience at the time will have seen him as Jamie's replacement, and it's only with Colony In Space that it becomes clear the the UNIT personnel have been reduced to the level of supporting character subsequently occupied by Jackie Tyler).

There wouldn't be anything more radical done with the show until 2005.
parrot_knight
Jun. 23rd, 2010 08:24 am (UTC)
Back in 2005/06 I would try to assuage those furious with the presence of the Tylers in Doctor Who by trying to get critics to think of them as fulfilling a similar function to UNIT.
yea_mon
Jun. 22nd, 2010 01:56 pm (UTC)
Inferno is also rather nice in the fact that the props people got some Soviet rifles for the Republican Security Forces rather than the more familiar SLRs of UNIT. Lots of shows would not have bothered their asses over that.
redfiona99
Jun. 22nd, 2010 01:57 pm (UTC)
>> I don't think of myself as a Jo fan, but I warmed to Victoria when watching her stories a couple of months back and I may find the same happening again; I think she works much better dramatically as a foil to the Doctor, as a childlike interpreter of what is going on. <<

I think that's the thing, a "clever" companion doesn't seem to work with 3, because mostly he needs to be molly-coddled and treated like he's special. And Jo does that, while Liz was more likely to argue with him, which didn't work for the character, kind of the reverse of why Peri works better with 6 than with 5.

One of the things I liked about Silurians is that they and the humans have the same weaknesses and strengths, and that they have the non-humans not being evil. I think, especially with the better SFX they can afford now, the new series could do with more non-evil aliens.
lostcarpark
Jun. 22nd, 2010 11:07 pm (UTC)
I have to agree wholeheartedly about The War Games. It is still one of the finest stories of any doctor. Throughout the ten episodes there isn't a dull moment, avoiding the trap many later episodes fell into of leaving all the characters wandering identical corridors for most of an episode.
( 5 comments — Leave a comment )

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