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Doctor Who Rewatch: 16

My rewatching of Old Who has now brought me to Season 15, the first season with no native earthlings on the Tardis.

Horror of Fang Rock is a strong start to Season 15, with Terrance Dicks proving once again that he can actually write. Sure, it's a base-under-siege story; but it's one of the better ones, with everyone being killed off except our crew in the end.

It is a particularly good story for Leela, who is utterly exasperated by the screamy Adelaide (she does a brilliant eye-roll when Adelaide faints) and stuns the other Edwardians with her relaxed attitude to death; it makes her horror when Reuben-the-Rutan is unharmed by her knife all the more striking. It's a bit un-Doctorish to wipe out the entire Rutan mothership as they land, but gives a satisfying bang at the end of the story.

The Invisible Enemy is three excellent episodes of space opera story - the Doctor possessed by an evil virus that feeds on sophisticated intelligence, andd therefore leaves Leela alone! - whose quality is then killed with the signal visual catastrophe of the giant prawn virus. Until then it's been excellent - the closest we've been to standard space opera since Frontier in Space, and fairly successful at that; with extra spookiness of the cloned Doctor and Leela exploring the real Doctor's brain, while the real Leela holds off the attackers (and betrays some body-image insecurity).

But the giant prawn is a striking example of an ill-designed effect wrecking viewer enjoyment of the story (and this after several episodes of excellent model work). It's not quite as catastrophic as the dinosaurs in Invasion of the Dinosaurs, but that's only because it's in just one episode out of four rather than six out of six. Kim Newman has opined that this is the story where Doctor Who starts going downhill because of the introduction of K9; I disagree, but the moment when the giant prawn emerges at the end of the third episode is a low point in a season which doesn't have a lot of high points.

(Also I'm a bit troubled by Leela and the infected Lowe driving the Tardis to get the unconscious Doctor to the Bi-Al asteroid. It's out of character for the infected Lowe not to clobber Leela, it's out of character for Leela to know how to pilot the Tardis, and it's out of character for the Doctor to let anyone else do it. A sad precursor of the Tardis-as-taxi syndrome of the Fifth Doctor's era.)

This is, so far, a season of re-trying tested formats. After the base-under-siege story and the space opera story, we have a new take on the Hinchcliffe-era horror story in Image of the Fendahl. It mostly works, and if it weren't for the fact that it comes so soon after the even more successful horror stories done in the Hinchcliffe era this would have a better rep among fans. But I think it does a lot of things better than, say, The Masque of Mandragora or the Pertwee stories which used similar themes, and the Fendahleen themselves are memorably icky. The tension between and among the scientists and the Tyler family keeps us guessing as well.

It's also yet another brilliant story for Leela, by her creator Chris Boucher, who wrote three of the six stories featuring her and the Doctor without K9. She is great at challenging and teasing the Doctor, efficiently violent but also pragmatic, also just a little vain about her new dress. More on this later, but Jameson's performance is tremendously enjoyable here as elsewhere.

I have a feeling that last time I watched The Sun Makers, for some reason it was immediately after watching Underworld so it looked rather good in comparison. However, in sequence after the brilliance of Season 14 and the more modest successes of Horror of Fang Rock and Image of the Fendahl, it is pretty awful. I think I can establish several specific reasons for the awfulness, one of which was not really anyone's fault, but the remainder of which could have been corrected.

The unchangeable factor is that the weather for the location filming was dull, so the story gets off to a tremendously dull start; it's difficult to make the roof of a cigarette factory in Bristol look much like the top of a kilometer-high apartment block on Pluto, but it helps if the weather cooperates. I wonder if there's also a bit of an unconscious assumption on my part that cuddly blurry film should represent contemporary Earth settings, and sharp-edged videotape the future; so the setting looks even more like Bristol than Pluto.

But the other factors were simply mistakes made by Holmes in the script and not sufficiently rounded off in the editing process. The story is simply very nasty. The rebels are really very unpleasant people, threatening to kill him and Leela; we don't really see why the Doctor should choose to help such unlikeable (and otherwise unmemorable) individuals. The Company of course are even worse, which is OK since they are the baddies, but the attempted steaming of Leela is a really horrific prospect, much worse actually than any of the supposedly extreme violence of the previous season.

It does have its good points. The interplay between Gatherer Hade and the Collector is great fun (though again Holmes is usually smarter than to give all the good dialogue to the villains) and K9 gets to be very useful in his first proper story after joining the Tardis. Though even then, the framing narrative of the chess match in the console room doesn't quite gel. I don't think I'll watch this one again, unless the DVD commentary is particularly good.

My previous memory of Underworld placed it as by some way the worst Tom Baker story, bolstered by both the Doctor Who Dynamic Rankings site and the DWM Mighty 200 survey (which both put it fourth from the bottom, ahead of only Time and the Rani, Timelash and The Twin Dilemma in that order). It's not quite as bad as I remembered. There are some fairly serious holes (like, the length of time the Minyans have been on the quest, to the point that one wonders how useful the race banks would be to them once they brought them home), but it's decently set up and resolved. The first two episodes in particular hang together rather well, the first being set-up on the Minyans' ship and the second the initial exploration of the P7E world. It's also the first serious expansion of the history of the Time Lords since Leela arrived. (Of course we get more of that in the next story; incidentally, this is the last story before Four to Doomsday in which the Doctor is the only Time Lord to appear.)

There are two problems with Underworld, both of which really manifest much more in the second half than the first. One is the persistent use of CSO to show the cast exploring the P7E world's caves. Seen out of context, this is jarring and distracting; in the context of mid-70s Who, it is not quite as bad, apart from the awful scene at the start of the third episode where Leela, Idas and the Doctor float to the centre of the asteroid by vaguely waving their hands, which is the moment when the story was killed for me on first watching when I was ten and which has destroyed my suspension of disbelief every time I've rewatched it since. The second is that some of the cast are not very good. In particular, the Seers and their minions (as opposed to the Minyans) are very lack-lustre in their delivery, and Tom Baker stops pretending to take it seriously. It's all rather reminiscent of The Sensorites, and not in a good way.

Once again, I found that The Invasion of Time was not quite as bad as I remembered. In particular, Tom Baker, who always loved a chance to be evil!Doctor, is very watchable in the first few episodes as he invites and then destroys the Vardan invaders. The rationale for his behaviour even makes sense, given the Vardans' powers. Indeed, there's a recognisable theme in the story of being drawn into a situation that then turns out very different. John Arnatt actually makes a better Brush than his predecessor, more confident, suspicious and cunning, and Milton Johns and Chris Tranchell are at least adequate as Castellan Kelner and Commander Andred. The special effects for the pre-materialisation Vardans are poor but just on the edge of acceptable; the anticlimax when they just turn out to be blokes in cheap helmets could have been worked rather better though.

Then we have one of the best episode endings in the whole of Who when the Sontarans show up - and older viewers will recall the discussion of Gallifrey as a Sontaran military target back in The Time Warrior. This promising setup for the last two episodes is then completely wasted in 25 minutes of running around outside the Tardis followed by another 25 running around inside the Tardis. Nothing interesting is done by anyone, the Shobogans in particular turning out to be completely superfluous.

In addition, the stakes of the overall narrative of the Whoniverse are raised unfeasibly high - the key hidden from every President by every Chancellor (so no Chancellor ever became President? Did anyone tell Goth?) and the Weapon Too Terrible To Use (which, of course, is used) followed by Leela's abrupt departure which at least reasonably well performed though it comes out of the blue. But I think I would recommend first-time viewers to stop at the fourth episode, and make up their own ending.

There are two ways you can cut the Doctor Who companion: either have them as someone pretty 'normal', a contemporary earthling with whom viewers can identify (as with Ben and Polly, and throughout the whole Third Doctor / Sarah Jane, Sixth and Seventh Doctor, and New Who eras) or else as someone who is different to us, who has to explain themselves to us in the same way that the Doctor does. For much of Old Who, the companions were actually a mixture of the two; the only periods when the Tardis has absolutely no contemporary Earthlings on board are the early run from The Time Meddler to The Massacre, the two seasons and one story with Jamie and Victoria/Zoe, and the four and a bit seasons from The Deadly Assassin to The Keeper of Traken. This last phase is not only the longest, but the most alien: at least Steven, Vicki, Katarina, Sara Kingdom, Jamie, Victoria and Zoe are all putatively born on Earth (three in the past and four in the future), while this is true of none of Leela, K9, Romana, Adric or Nyssa.

One of the things I love about Tom Baker as the Doctor is that he is so alien; there seems to have been a definite decision by Holmes and Hinchcliffe, followed by Graham Williams and his script editors, to make the companions alien as well. It's a risk, of course; Leela could easily have been a one-joke character - think of Katarina, way back in 1965, who was rescued from the ruins of burning Troy and then killed off four episodes later during the Daleks' Master Plan. Originally she was supposed to be only in The Face of Evil, and then only for a couple more stories, and of course Leela's character is a bit limited in that the more she develops, the less she becomes like Leela, so she had a rather finite lifetime.

But Louise Jameson is superb - it's not surprising that of the Old Who companions not already established professionally, she had much the best subsequent career. She lifts the one-joke savage to a fascinating human being - rather like Tom Baker's Doctor, we keep watching because we really want to know what she will do next.

Fellow Leela fans will want to track down her six spinoff novels and even more so the fantastic Gallifrey audio from Big Finish which bring her together with Romana II, both K9s, and various others (including Romana I and the Prosecutor from Trial of a Time Lord). I have been less convinced by her appearances in the Companion Chronicles.

So, a season where Hinchcliffe has gone and Holmes is going; where several stories simply lose their way after decent starts, for a combination of script and technical reasons. I hate to be harsh, but the last season with similar difficulties was the last Letts/Dicks season in 1973-74, just before Hinchcliffe and Holmes took over. My memory of the Key to Time season is that it was mostly better; at an episode a day, I should be reporting on it in the first week of February.

< 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

( 7 comments — Leave a comment )
londonkds
Jan. 7th, 2011 01:31 pm (UTC)
If I remember correctly "Horror of Fang Rock" is still the only TV story with a 100% guest cast fatality rate. "The Vampires of Venice" came very close (with problematic implications given the prominent ethnic minority characters) but had two speaking walk-on roles survive.
iainjcoleman
Jan. 7th, 2011 04:01 pm (UTC)
Do any of the guest cast survive in "Warriors of the Deep"? (I'm certainly not watching it again just to find out.)
londonkds
Jan. 7th, 2011 04:31 pm (UTC)
One definitely does - I think Bulic.
wwhyte
Jan. 7th, 2011 04:39 pm (UTC)
I think Pyramids of Mars kills off everyone except the Egyptians who flee the tomb at the start. Of course, everyone we see in Keeper of Traken dies... but in Logopolis.

I wouldn't really count Vampires of Venice as Venice of full of people at the start and stays full of people at the end.

Edited at 2011-01-07 04:41 pm (UTC)
londonkds
Jan. 9th, 2011 10:55 am (UTC)
Another possibility I remembered yesterday is "Attack of the Cybermen": all the credited human and Cyber guest characters die, and it seemed implied when I was watching it last that the surviving Cylon characters would not survive the big explosion at the end.
wwhyte
Jan. 7th, 2011 05:10 pm (UTC)
As you say, a lot of these start well. The first episode of Underworld has a very strong central idea: the Minyans as a crew of the undead on a quest that no longer means anything, doomed to stay alive until they succeed. But then it just gets thrown away. It's a real shame. The first episode of The Invisible Enemy not only is stuffed with great details, I think it's the first time the Doctor himself gets clearly possessed by something and isn't pretending (you can obviously confirm this).

The Sun Makers, on the other hand, was the first Doctor Who story I hated and was bored by when I first saw it. I hadn't realised my show could be so dull. I'm glad to see you endorse my correct opinion -- it seems that the story gets a pass from fandom for being "satirical" even though it's boring, nasty and unfunny.
redfiona99
Jan. 7th, 2011 07:28 pm (UTC)
Re: Sunmakers
I like the way "Pluto" doesn't look alien, it adds to the sort of everydayness of the situation.
( 7 comments — Leave a comment )

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