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Doctor Who Rewatch: 20

My practice in this rewatch has been to take Old Who six stories at a time. This then is a particularly brief, but significant, run.

Taken on its own merits, Logopolis is a bit unsatisfactory. The first couple of episodes have way too much exposition and info-dumping, and the last two episodes are basically about establishing the Master and the new Tardis team, and getting rid of the Fourth Doctor.

But actually, watched in context, I can see why it gripped me at the time; the revival of the Master, the role of the Time Lords, and the CVE's all link back rather satisfactorily to the earlier stories in the season, and the episode and a half actually set in Logopolis, and then the final battle between the Master and the Doctor, ending in his regeneration, are effective. And it does make sense to have the departing Doctor bid farewell to all of his companions, as the Fifth and Tenth were also able to do; this is a story about goodbyes and it's appropriate.

And the music is particularly good.

Incidentally, when we reach the police box on Earth in the first episode, this is after a run of 23 episodes set elsewhere - the last time we saw Earth was at the very beginning of The Leisure Hive. It is the longest sequence of non-terrestrial episodes in the show's history.

I've written up my views on the Fourth Doctor and Tom Baker many times before (here, here and here, for instance); so I'll just note the points that occurred to me while watching this time.

First off, although the peak in terms of story quality is very definitely the end of the Hinchcliffe-Holmes era, Baker's own peak, in terms of how much fun he himself is having, is a couple of seasons later, with Douglas Adams as script editor and his relationship with Lalla Ward blossoming. When it's under control, most particularly in City of Death, the result is amazing. Unfortunately Graham Williams was normally unable to keep things under control.

Second, though the Fourth Doctor is something of a clown, he has a dark, gloomy, unknowable side which we did not see in the previously funniest doctor (Troughton), drawing on Baker's own personality as revealed in his memoirs and interviews. His speech about parting company with UNIT is rather odd in story context but delivered with great passion. When he leaves Leela on Gallifrey, she asks K9 if the Doctor will be lonely, and K9 replies, "insufficient data". In a sense it's the wrong question; the Fourth Doctor often seems lonely and alienated.

Third, a point I haven't really had a chance to make elsewhere: Matt Smith is doing pretty well by Fourth Doctor fans like me. He has that alien quality which I particularly value in the role, and which the Fourth Doctor (and also the First and Ninth) particularly excelled at. I hope he'll keep it up. And I hope that the new Fourth Doctor stories that Big Finish are producing with Tom Baker, Louise Jameson and Mary Tamm live up to my expectations (and particularly that they are better than the two series of audios done by the BBC with Baker as the Doctor and Richard Franklin as Mike Yates). Smith is not yet my favourite Doctor, but I can't rule out that he may be some day (as I could with any of Baker's successors after their first year, usually after their first story).

So, at the end of the year, waiting for the next season and the new Doctor, we had the first ever spinoff story: K9 and Company: A Girl's Best Friend. Even the greatest fans of Sarah Jane and K9 must admit that it is a little disappointing. This starts with the opening titles, which feature Sarah dynamically reading a newspaper and drinking a glass of wine, and K9 even more dynamically perched on top of a wall. The key to the mystery (itself disappointingly banal) is then revealed to the sharp-eyed in the first couple of scenes, as Juno Baker's rings are visible even though she is wearing her high priestessly robes and mask. (Though later on Sarah is at the Bakers' apparently at the same time as the ceremony of human sacrifice is taking place, which is a bit confusing.) And the subplot about Aunt Lavinia's whereabouts goes nowhere, after absorbing much emotional energy.

Elisabeth Sladen is sensibly not trying too hard, and Sarah comes across as a return to form as the independent and intelligent journalist we first met. But to give her a posh young male sidekick, as was done here and in the Pertwee audios of the 1990s, was a mistake. She works much better as the leader of an ensemble, as Big Finish and Russell T Davies proved; and RTD's great insight was to make the young male sidekick her adopted son.

Getting back to the real stuff, Castrovalva is certainly the weirdest introductory story for any Doctor. Davison's vulnerability and weakness is very unsettling for those of us used to the idea that the new Doctor gets up and goes after passing Autons, Daleks or giant robots. The story works reasonably well as a device to introduce us to Nyssa and Tegan as characters, Adric being detained elsewhere.

I do love the concept of Castrovalva itself. I am a big fan of Escher (misspelt 'Esher', like the London suburb, on the DVD extras), and I love the way that Doctor Who brings his vision to life here, with some very good misdirection (hunters turn out to be friendly; Shardovan not the villain; Portreeve is the Master). It is a shame we don't get there a bit earlier.

My two biggest complaints about the story both relate to the Tardis: the cringeworthy animation of the Doctor levitating, and the extent to which the Master, with Adric's help, is able to penetrate it just enough for plot purposes and no further.

Again, the music is good.

Four to Doomsday is the first story since Underworld, shown four years before, in which the Doctor is the only Time Lord. After the high weirdness of Logopolis and Castrovalva, this starts out looking like it will be an equally strange story, but unfortunately resolves into a standard alien invasion plot by insane aliens who have a rather dull obsession with human cultures. The camera work in the 'entertainment' scenes is notably unadventurous, showing the other characters sitting around watching something they obviously don't understand and raising the question in the viewer's mind as to why they are doing the same thing themselves.

And it is a dismal story for Adric, who starts off with a sexist outburst against Tegan and Nyssa, and then makes an unconvincing job both of siding with the Urbankans and then of seeing the error of his ways. Of the regulars only Janet Fielding turns in much of a performance. (She appears to be, er, having fun as she operates the Tardis.) Davison, in his first filmed story, is also unsure of himself. (Worst line: "The devils!" uttered almost conversationally.)

I had forgotten quite how fantastic Kinda is. Even the snake at the end is not as bad as I remembered. But it's a brilliant tour de force of explorations of reality, possession by spiritual forces, possession by colonial agents, about speaking and not speaking. Again, Janet Fielding is the best of the regular cast, but everyone is good, especially of course Simon Rouse as the increasingly deranged Hindle, and Mary Morris - only in two of the four episodes, but bloody hell, what a performance - as Panna. But nobody is actually bad; Nerys Hughes and Richard Todd, big name actors hired to perform auxiliary parts, lift it; even Matthew Waterhouse, delivered with yet another Adric-as-potential-traitor script, more or less rises to the occasion; and though I see some fan criticism of Sarah Prince as Karuna I must say I find her performance pretty luminous and interesting.

It does show the value of watching Who in sequence. Taken as an attempt at a serious big-picture SF story, it would probably fail because of the limited means available. But when one bears in mind the production constraints, and considers the story as a televised theatrical piece, it really ought to blow you away. I don't have time or energy to wax more lyrical on the subject, so just let me refer you to a brilliant write-up of the story here.

The weirdest thing about The Visitation is that Richard Mace almost seems the central character, the Tardis crew appearing out of nowhere to disrupt his world. Of course, this makes perfect sense if you know the history behind Eric Saward and Richard Mace, but it seems almost a  throwback to, say, The Space Pirates, of the Doctor and companions being more acted upon than actors in the story.

The story itself, alas, is pretty poor, with far too much hanging around in woods and dungeons and the Tardis until everyone can be got in place to cause the Great Fire of London. As I've said before, I really hate the idea of the Tardis becoming a taxi for alien predators; here we get the Terileptils' android rather gratuitously forcing its way into the Ship, and then Nyssa able to pilot it to the precise point required by the plot. But once again, the music is very good and helps distract from the inadequacies of the rest of the story.

These six stories have seen Tom Baker's envoi, the first and unsuccessful spinoff, and four stories of Peter Davison trying to establish himself - two successful, two less so. Also for the first time since 1965, we have had three regular companions travelling with the Doctor in the Tardis. It is, frankly, too many; but I know that it won't last for much longer...

< 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
Apr. 13th, 2011 08:06 pm (UTC)
I remain convinced that, had it been promoted as Sarah Jane Investigates, "A Girl's Best Friend" might, just might, have done a bit better, though with the atmosphere in the BBC Drama department already turning against Who, the odds were against it. (Plus JNT hadn't realised what RTD did, that something needed to be done to bring her a bit more onto the Doctor's level.)

It is, frankly, too many

Yes. I've always assumed that JNT did this out of nostalgia for the Hartnell and Troughton years, when there were better dramatic reasons for larger TARDIS crews.
wwhyte
Apr. 14th, 2011 01:40 am (UTC)
I've said it elsewhere, but I continue to believe that the snake in Kinda is just right. It's a storybook snake, a carnival-dragon snake, a snake created out of the consciousness of the Kinda in the same way as Hindle's paper dolls are people. It's not "My god, it's the Mara!". It's "this is how we convince ourselves that the Mara is something that can be defeated."
djm4
Apr. 14th, 2011 06:07 am (UTC)
Yes, this! Thought so at the time, and was surprised to find everyone saying what a poor effect it was. To me, to have it look like a real snake would have been far less effective.

Also, on Kinda, one of my favourite moments is the Doctor's goodbye to Todd. Mostly for what doesn't happen. He doesn't hug her, or give her a peck on the cheek, or even (as might happen now) get grabbed by her for a full-on snog. He shakes her hand; a symbol of respect between two people who ask a lot of questions of the universe. That dynamic between a male and female character is a rare and precious thing in TV land - hell, in stories of any kind - and I appreciated it.
wwhyte
Apr. 14th, 2011 01:40 am (UTC)
Separate question: what is the story behind Saward and Richard Mace? I must have missed that.
nwhyte
Apr. 14th, 2011 04:16 am (UTC)
Richard Mace, a Victorian actor-manager cum amateur detective, is the central character in three radio plays written by Saward and broadcast in the mid-1970s. I haven't heard them (though at least one is available from the usual sources) but apparently it's basically the same character as in The Visitation, though played by a different actor and set two centuries away.
( 5 comments — Leave a comment )

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