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Doctor Who Rewatch: 19

I was pleasantly surprised by how good The Leisure Hive looks. Two lots of aliens, who both look convincingly alien. The legacy of a terrible war, combined with organised crime (which I now know is a standard combination in real life, but I don't think that was as widely appreciated in the 1980s). Lots of technobabble and decent special effects. Apparently the budget was way overspent, but the money is visible on the screen.

It also of course is a new show. The title sequence is new. K9 is blown up in the first scene. The first episode ends with the Doctor being pulled apart, the second with him being aged almost beyond recognition, and at the end of the story the Randomiser is removed. JNT is making his mark.

And the new shoow has a new sound - I was tremendously impressed by Peter Howell's incidental music, and this made me seek out his amazing Greenwich Chorus. Fantastic, and setting a standard which is usually kept by the incidental music in the other stories of the season.

Meglos is, however, as mediocre as I remembered. It does have some good points - the Brotadac/Grugger relationship, the music (Peter Howell again), Tom Baker enjoying being his own evil double (in particular, enjoying being the Doctor confronting Meglos in the last episode), and most of all Jacqueline Hill who is actually taking her rather two-dimensional role seriously and delivers with passion.

But one senses a certain slackness. Edward Underdown is very unimpressive as Zaster, which drags the Tigella scenes down, and the Zeons are rather dire (once again, too many scenes of them standing around aimlessly); the fact that the Earthling is never named also indicates a lack of depth. The chronic hysteresis is just silly. Though the script has some nice lines, the plot has some serious holes. It will be a long time before I watch this again.

I think this may be a recurring theme in this post, but Full Circle was also much better than I remembered. This month's DWM ran an interview with author Andrew Smith, who was only 18 at the time the story was made, and thus a cause of immense envy to all Who-watching teenagers such as myself (both then and also now, though I am no longer a teenager). Smith admits that the story underwent considerable massage by script editor Christopher Bidmead, but of course that actually helps to give it a certain unity of style with the rest of the season.

It is a decent and original sfnal yarn, with Lalla Ward getting some good moments as Romana, reluctant to return to Gallifrey, and even Matthew Waterhouse not yet awful (Baker's Doctor takes to him rather uncharacteristically swiftly). On the downside, we have the first of many cases in the Nathan-Turner years of the Tardis as both taxi and conflict zone as the Outlers hijack it; I rather regret the loss of the Doctor's ship as a place of refuge and comfortable magic. It had been occasionally penetrated by the bad guys before (The Invasion of Time, Death to the Daleks) but from here on in it seems to be a regular occurrence.

State of Decay is a solid Terrance Dicks story, with lots of elements familiar from Who and vampire lore, all put together competently enough. The two weak moments are quite late on, the rather crappy rocket turning round in space, and Matthew Waterhouse's awful delivery of Adric's line about not really being under the vampires' influence. (It is a little incomprehensible that the vampires, after thousands of years as a trio, take to Adric so suddenly as a potential fourth partner; but the Doctor took to him the same way in the previous story after all.)

Warrior's Gate is truly weird and wonderful. The slavery of the Tharils is pretty horrifying, but we understand that there's an element of cosmic karma in that they were once the enslavers (and Rorvik in turn gets his cosmic come-uppance at the end). For a story which is mostly filmed in a blank studio, there is an amazing sense of place about it. I still don't completely understand the plot but I somehow feel confident that the author did, and wasn't just making it up as he went along. K9 and Adric get reduced to mere observers here - again, it's a strong story for Romana, but of course it is her last.

Lalla Ward picks up the part of Romana in Destiny of the Daleks and runs away with it. Somehow she has more of a comedic spark with Baker right from the word go, perfectly fitting the Williams/Adams season 17, combining the roles of junior clown and girl genius. She is then very well served by JNT's decision to get rid of her, with by far the most protracted departure narrative of any companion in the history of the show, summoned back to Gallifrey fully three stories before she actually leaves, and thus knowing long in advance that her time with the Doctor is coming to an end.

I've just been listening to the new Gallifrey audios starring Ward, Louise Jameson and John Leeson, the first of which has a guest appearance from Mary Tamm as our heroes visit an alternative timeline where Romana neither left Gallifrey nor regenerated and it was Leela who helped find the Key to Time. Ward has done well out of Big Finish, getting elected president of Gallifrey and even in one audio reprising Princess Astra as well.

There is a view (articulated most clearly by Kim Newman) that the introduction of K9 was when Old Who 'jumped the shark'; once the tin dog arrived, it was all downhill. I don't share that view; I loved him when I was a child, and I still quite like him. (There's an argument that Who never again reached the heights of quality of the Hinchcliffe/Holmes years, which ended just as K9 arrived, with which I have more sympathy.) I can see that he creates difficulties in story terms - Tom Baker has made the point that the Doctor can't really change or develop as the show goes on, and this is even more true of a robot character; also if the Doctor is not really a weapons user it's a bit odd to go round with a machine which can stun or even kill with its laser. But K9 gets lots of good character moments with the Doctor, mainly due to Leeson's deadpan chirpy delivery. (I wasn't in the UK when the stories where David Brierley did the voice were first broadcast, and I can never quite believe in him; just as Tom Baker is my Doctor, John Leeson is my K9.)

Who would have thought that K9 would get not one but two spinoff series? OK, the first only lasted one episode, but the new Australian one still seems to be going strong. I have only seen the first episode, but quite enjoyed it, and will watch the rest some day. (Also, like Romana, he returns in the Big Finish Gallifrey series.)

As with The Leisure Hive, I was also pleasantly surprised by The Keeper of Traken. A point I found unconvincing when I was 13, Kassia's psychotic obsession with preventing her husband from becoming Keeper, to the point where she allows herself to take on the role with fatal consequences, seems more realistic to me now that I'm older and have seen people unhinged by their relationships. The story looks good; uniforms, costumes, scenery, the odd ugliness of the Melkor jarring with the refinement of Traken. The tragedy of the dwindling number of Consuls, part murder mystery and part power struggle, is moderately compelling. And the last scene is one of the great shock endings in the whole of Who (I'm noting that this often happens in the second last story of the season in the JNT years); we could be reasonably sure that the Master would probably survive, but his brutal erasure of Tremas's life is a defining moment - the old Master was rarely seen to be cruel (when he actually does shoot the Doctor, it's in his very last scene). It's a shame - and the story's only real visual weakness - that the Peter Pratt Master's poached-egg eyes were not retained for this story, as we lose an element of visual continuity.

The DVD commentary track notes that Johnny Byrne got inspiration for the dying Keeper from a news story about a country which was anticipating chaos as its ruler's life slowly ebbed away, and speculates that this may have been Yugoslavia, given that Tito died around then after a long and horrible illness. There are one or two other countries which were in this situation in 1980 (Wikipedia reveals that Botswana, for instance, survived a similar transition rather better than Yugoslavia). However, I happen to know that Byrne had a real obsession with Yugoslavia; during the wars of the 1990s, he was to be found on Usenet (if anyone remembers that) castigating the Croats and anyone who did not support the Serbs against them; a far cry from the world of All Creatures Great And Small which is his more deservedly remembered legacy.

Looking back, these stories were shown when I was roughly the age when I started to grow out of Who, and my disenchantment with what was happening to the show was only partially quelled by the wonderful wealth of information that was becoming available to us all through Doctor Who Magazine (as it now is). Re-watching these stories I found them all (except Meglos) better than I remembered, The Leisure Hive and The Keeper of Traken very much so. They usually look good, in a welcome reversal of the awful sets and shoddy design that afflicted the Graham Williams era (not all his fault); they sound fantastic, with JNT bringing in new talent and somehow inspiring previous contributors to better work; and the fairly subtle groundwork of the story arc building to Logopolis is an impressive bit of subtle yet coherent planning by script editor Bidmead - we haven't ever had anything quite like this, the Key to Time being not exactly subtle and the Master sequence of Season 8 not terribly coherent. It is almost laying the groundwork for New Who.

< 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 >


( 8 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 25th, 2011 11:30 am (UTC)
This is, without a doubt, one of my favorite seasons of Doctor Who. When you look past Bidmead's rhetoric about the show and at what he actually does, he manages to take the show seriously in a way that's rather effective, with moments of fun mixed with moments of strangeness and big sfnal concepts. And the style of the whole thing is great; I remember going straight from the last part of The Horns of Nimon to the first of The Leisure Hive and being amazed.
Mar. 25th, 2011 11:31 am (UTC)
Oh, and I doubt that David Brierly is anyone's K-9.
Mar. 25th, 2011 12:18 pm (UTC)
I think the budget overwpending on The Leisure Hive was all on hairspray :)
Mar. 25th, 2011 03:32 pm (UTC)
One misses the tone and pace of the previous season; I find The Leisure Hive very languid, despite its visual impressiveness and splendid sound design (building on Doctor Who and 1970s BBC drama's already strong record). Meglos I really must revisit, just because...

JN-T seemed keen to develop Doctor Who in the direction of an ensemble programme, and (as I have said before) I'm sure that he envisaged the TARDIS becoming the equivalent of the vet's house at Darrowby in All Creatures Great and Small, where characters gather to discuss the progress of the episode.

Bidmead had several misapprehensions about the programme, but the drive for more science and for new writers was shared and perhaps instigated by the head of serials, Graeme MacDonald, so the refreshing of the programme's creative team wasn't just a production office whim. He has odd ideas about story structure (too much exposition gets pushed into part four) but once he is gone the series is weaker for his not being there.
Mar. 25th, 2011 03:49 pm (UTC)
I looked up last night some of the writers from whom Bidmead commissioned storylines, who didn't reach script stage - the names are well-recorded in Doctor Who reference sources, but not their backgrounds. There is a Terence Greer described as an Australian playwright, but was he the same person as the book illustrator? Malcolm Edwards and Leroy Kettle were commissioned for a storyline - both of whom seem to be well-known SF fans and writers, Edwards being latterly managing director of Gollancz. Andrew Stephenson, commissioned for Farer Nohan, is a published SF novelist and short story writer. This really was getting back to basics, recalling the exercise, made before David Whitaker arrived as story editor in 1963, to get SF writers to draft storylines for Doctor Who which could then be written up by script department staff.
Mar. 25th, 2011 07:50 pm (UTC)
>>Warrior's Gate is truly weird and wonderful. ... there is an amazing sense of place about it.<< I think you've hit the nail on the head there. Warrior's Gate was wonderfully odd, in a good way. I really must get round to watching the Keeper of Traken.
Mar. 26th, 2011 05:29 pm (UTC)
I remember either on the DVD or in a print source that Edward Underdown was already suffering from his final illness at the time "Meglos" was recorded, which may explain the lack of energy :-(
Mar. 26th, 2011 05:43 pm (UTC)
Keeper of Traken has always been my favourite Who. Given I saw the original when I was a not terribly big human, I blame this solely on the costuming and Nyssa.
( 8 comments — Leave a comment )

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