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Doctor Who Rewatch: 23

Frontios is fairly standard stuff, with four memorable but mild demerits: 1) Norna's very Eighties haircut; 2) the apparent destruction of the Tardis at the end of episode 1, which we know can't be permanent when there are a bunch more stories to go this season; 3) Turlough's race memories, which are a well-intentioned but clumsy attempt to inject background into his character; and 4) the trick played on the Gravis by the Doctor at the end, which was written better by Aesop and the unknown originator of Br'er Rabbit.

As it happens I watched this the same week I was listening to the new Big Finish audio, Kiss of Death, which does a lot of the same things (including Turlough's background and subterranean monsters) and does them better, also with added Nyssa.

Resurrection of the Daleks is the first time we have seen the malignant pepperpots since Romana regenerated, four and a half years ago. It looks fantastic - tremendous moody shots of Docklands and studio sets, action scenes with much mayhem (the highest on-screen death toll of any Who story, I believe, making Tegan's desire to get the hell out entirely comprehensible), and decent performances from an extraordinary array of guest stars, Rodney Bewes, Rula Lenska, Chloe Ashcroft, the glowering Leslie Grantham in his first TV role, Terry Molloy doing Davros for the first time.

It's a shame therefore that the story doesn't make a lot of sense. Every time I think I understand what the various factions (human and Dalek) are up to, there is another twist and I lose track. Viruses? Assassinating the Time Lords? I give up. There are some good set-pieces - Rodney Bewes' character's redemption, the confrontation between two sets of Daleks in the middle of episode 2 - but some weak bits as well, including in particular the Doctor's rather contrived decision to execute Davros and his failure to then carry through this decision.

So, farewell to Tegan. I am surprised to report that I found her a much more attractive and sexy character than I remembered - obviously most of all when possessed by the Mara in Kinda and Snakedance, but also when dressed up in Black Orchid, Enlightenment and The Awakening. and even a little when trapped in a duct with Turlough in Terminus. It's a while since the Doctor has had a companion who is so much defined by her emotions - possibly even as far back as Victoria - and Tegan adds to that a willingness to sass the Doctor back that we have not really seen since Jamie, Steven and Barbara. Having said that, she probably stays a season too long, but there's more to her than I remembered. Very glad to hear Janet Fielding as a current companion along with Mark Strickson and Sarah Sutton in this quarter's Big Finish mini-series.

And for the second time in two stories, we get some more of Turlough's background, as he returns to his roots in Planet of Fire. I found that the micro-politics of the story, the interactions between the members of a politically traumatised society, actually worked rather well for me. Had Kamelion actually been a regular Tardis fixture, rather than sitting around in a cupboard for the last year, it could have worked a bit better. Poor Anthony Ainley gets little else to do than cackle maniacally (though the end of episode 3 is a great reveal). But somehow the bits don't gel together into an actual plot, and the point of the story seems to be to write out two regulars and write in another. (And the Doctor's euthanasia of Kamelion is utterly out of character.)

The Doctor's decision to add Turlough to the Tardis crew in the first place, after several attempts by Turlough to bump him off, is baffling, the pinnacle of the Tardis-as-taxi syndrome of the Nathan-Turner era, and particularly of the Fifth Doctor stories. However, the fact that the new guy is given a back-story which runs through his first few adventures, and that we then pick up more bits and pieces of his background, does make him watchable, if not necessarily likeable; he's not heroic by nature but he sometimes does heroic things due to circumstances. Indeed, he's the first companion whose full background is only revealed as he leaves (though I still think last month's Big Finish story was an improvement on that theme); and it's actually fully in character for him not to have given more away at an earlier stage. As I said above, I don't like Turlough as a character but I think he is done reasonably well.

As did Harry Sullivan, Turlough featured in one of the earliest spinoff novels, a rather dire effort featuring a villain called Rehctaht. Mark Strickson has done well for himself since, making documentaries on the other side of the planet (where apparently he discovered Steve Irwin). As with Janet Fielding, it's been good to hear his voice again on recent BFs.

Whenever straw polls on fans' least favourite companion are done, Kamelion is usually forgotten. Unjustly so: he is by far the worst regular character ever to appear on the show. One story - two episodes which could have been used to better purpose - was devoted to introducing him, and then he is removed in a mercy killing by the Doctor (for which the latter shows roughly three seconds of remorse) after a story which again revolved around the need to get rid of him. Yes, yes, I know about the production problems and the tragic aquatic accident, but even making allowances for those circumstances it is badly handled. Kamelion's brief career is a classic example of it-seemed-like-a-good-idea-at-the-time but it wasn't. It really wasn't.

What a relief to have one standout excellent story in this run. It was only a few months since I had last watched The Caves of Androzani, but it's a tremendous bit of storytelling - I love it all, and I get a bit more out of it every time. Morgus and Sharaz Jek, with their utterly different yet intertwined motivations, are two of the greatest supporting characters in the history of the show, and everyone else is good too. Somehow Graeme Harper manages to make you believe that the internal sets are fairly intimately related to the location scenes; the music is good, two of the cliff-hangers out of three are excellent (the first and third) and we see the Fifth Doctor sacrificing himself for his friend as perhaps no other Doctor would do. So often one sees a story crippled by a failure of script, or of performance, or of design, or of camerawork; let's be glad that this one worked.

(Though let's just not talk about the magma beast.)

Peter Davison started with a huge disadvantage for me of being Not Tom Baker. Given that this was a time in my life when I was growing up a bit anyway, and the bloke who had been the Doctor for half my life no longer was (and the jarring shift to midweek rather than Saturday broadcasts), it just didn't feel the same.

I realise now that this was quite unfair. Particularly once you have got to know what's left of the Troughton stories, it becomes clear that Davison was aiming for a more youthful, energetic and idealistic version of Troughton's compassionate and sympathetic Doctor. It ended up less funny, but otherwise it is a success. Even faced with poor scripts and anæmic directing, Davison is able to inject credibility to the role.

And of course he is still doing it - he is the only Doctor from Old Who to have appeared in New Who, and he continues to generate the old magic for Big Finish. Most of my favourite BF audios are Fifth Doctor stories (Spare Parts, The Kingmaker, etc) and at first I thought this was just coincidence. But maybe not.

(And his daughter hooked up with David Tennant. But that is irrelevant.)

Not everyone agrees that The Caves of Androzani is the best Who story ever, though respondents to the DWM poll a few years ago voted for it on aggregate. (There are a number of Tom Baker stories that I'd put ahead of it, also Blink and a couple of others from New Who.) There are also some who dispute whether or not The Twin Dilemma deserved its place at the bottom of the same poll. (I am not one of them.) I believe that Eric Saward, or possibly even JNT, defended it as the best Who story made on their watch. Few even of their harshest critics would disagree.

The worst bit, of course, is the introduction of the new Doctor, who assaults and tries to kill Peri - the only continuing character in a show which has yet again been reinvented - without any serious adverse consequences in terms of plot. This is so wrong on so many levels that I find it difficult to engage with the rest of the story. The production team took for granted our willingness to accept the Doctor as hero - three of the four episodes end with close-ups of Colin Baker gripped by emotion - and did not realise that the new Doctor needed to earn our affection as all his predecessors did. It's actually worse than Kamelion, who was just a wasted narrative gimmick: here, the central character is stripped of virtue for no good reason.

The awfulness of the new Doctor's introduction distracts from the rest of the story, but it is pretty bad too. Maurice Denham as Azmael, and the titular twins, appear to be acting under anæsthetic. Several other characters are played by future big names but fail to come to life. As Tat Wood and Laurence Miles point out, there isn't in fact a dilemma. The rearranging planets story is done better in one of the less impressive Ninth Doctor books. The "bird-like Jocondans" don't look like birds. Mestor The Gastropod's means and motivation make little sense. The back-story of Azmael and the Doctor is not explained. It is everything that Who can do badly combined in one story.

After the crushing disappointment of The Twin Dilemma, it is a huge relief to see something that looks and sounds a bit like Doctor Who. Attack of the Cybermen features, well, Cybermen, Litton from four stories ago, and even a junkyard in Totter's Lane owned by I.M. Foreman. There is some annoying playing round with the Tardis's external appearance, but unlike The Twin Dilemma this at least appears to be a variation of the same show.

It has its problems. The first episode has the bizarre fake policemen, whose behaviour is never explained, and also some scenes where the lighting is so bad that the actors are effectively invisible. The nasty and brutal violence is unpleasant and unfortunately a harbinger of things to come this season. And it is never a wise idea to lock the Doctor in a room full of explosives.

But I actually found the Cryons' story rather effective - I had forgotten that they don't even appear until well into the second of the two episodes - and rather wished the story had just been about them and left the Cybermen and 1980s London out of it.

This has been a rather grim run, with only Caves of Androzani really good, though some allowance can be made for Attack of the Cybermen. On the plus side, the stories are now so short that I will zip through them fairly quickly, and will report back on the next six by the end of this month.

< 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 >


( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
Jun. 15th, 2011 11:34 am (UTC)
I actually like Frontios the best out of this season - Caves is good but overrated (it is, after, a drier remake of Power Of Kroll!)

Still can't believe the space pilot dude from Twin Dilemma is Mr Gibbs in Pirates of the Caribbean...
Jun. 15th, 2011 12:15 pm (UTC)
I'm sure it was JN-T who supposedly defended The Twin Dilemma until his dying day (the quotation is in Gareth Roberts's 'Strange Love' article in DWM 351). Eric Saward was a bit less enthusiastic about the episode, having performed an emergency rewrite on Anthony Steven's script (and been commended for it by Steven in a letter to Jonathan Powell, IIRC).
Jun. 15th, 2011 12:23 pm (UTC)
Sharaz Jek is one of my all-time favorite classic Who antagonists, right up there with Sutekh and the Chief Clown. His costume and mask are so singular... there are so many times when DW's costume designs are inexplicable visual noise, it's quite startling when something so eerie and iconic comes along. The mask really does seem like the work of a beauty-loving perfectionist who's become a twisted exile.

Weirdly enough, The Twin Dilemma is one of my earliest memories of Who... I caught a few moments of it on my local PBS station when I was eight or nine. A line like "Giant gastropods!" sticks in the memory.
Jun. 15th, 2011 03:09 pm (UTC)
I had similar feelings to yours when the 5th Doctor was introduced and indeed the 6th Doctor, although as a small child I approved of attempted Peri murdering, which looking back on it is probably a bad thing but I really didn't like Peri.
Jun. 16th, 2011 07:29 pm (UTC)
Not everyone agrees that The Caves of Androzani is the best Who story ever

I'm one of those who still thinks it's the best, even after everything that 'new' Who has produced (although there are a few stories, such as Midnight, which would probably come close for me)

And you've summed up The Twin Dilemma perfectly. It was appalling on every level (I rewatched it several years ago just to find out if it really was that bad. And it was worse!). My parents would watch Doctor Who with me when I was a kid (strange fact, I was born on the same night that the last episode of The Keeper of Traken was shown), and I do remember bits of Davison's stories and remember liking him as the Doctor. But what was an even more distinct memory for me was that I not only really disliked Colin Baker in the role, but was actually afraid to watch him. I'm almost convinced that this is because of the events of The Twin Dilemma!
Jun. 21st, 2011 01:50 am (UTC)
Is The King's Demons to Planet of Fire the longest run of stories you haven't particularly liked?

(don't worry, there's probably a longer one coming up...)

I always wish I could like Frontios more, because it's got so much Bidmeady goodness, and it's like Pertwee but more videotapey. But I get hung up on the exact things you identified: Turlough's unconvincing race memories and the TARDIS. Not only is it implausible that the TARDIS has been destroyed simply because it's not the last story of the season, as you say; also, there's the idea that it gets destroyed by having a meteorite smash into it but the meteorite doesn't leave a giant crater; that somehow the outside gets destroyed but the inside, which is in another dimension, is brought through to this dimension; that it's then embedded in the earth in pieces large enough to be recognised (and how big is the TARDIS inside? How far would it have to be spread?); and that the whole thing can be reassembled in not that much time, considering how big the inside is. Unlike with a lot of stories, I can't see how it could be rewritten to make it better; the fundamental gimmick with the TARDIS is just so misconceived, and so much a part of the plot, that the only way to improve it would be to simply write a better story.

But it was definitely better than Warriors of the Deep.
( 6 comments — Leave a comment )

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