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Doctor Who Rewatch: 27

It's the end! But the moment has been prepared for...

In my last post I recanted my previous disdain for Remembrance of the Daleks, and uneasily anticipated that I might have to do the same for Battlefield. And so it proved to be; I take it all back, or almost all. Even if the precise background to the intrusion into our world of the Arthurian mythos as interplanetary battle is not really spelled out, it is generally pleasing, and especially pleasing to see the Doctor made to play the role of Merlin in someone else's drama. (He is definitely more of a Merlin than a Prospero.) The many effects all work to enhance the story, and we have the excellent Bambera / Ancelyn subplot (it was nice to be watching this so soon after Bambera's return in Tony Lee's play Rat Trap for Big Finish) and the Ace / Shou Yuing spark too.

Most importantly for us longterm fans, we also have the final return (for Old Who) of Nicholas Courtney as the Brigadier. It allows him to return to military heroism as he did when we first saw him stalking Yeti in the Underground, rather than the blimpish buffoon of the later Pertwee years; even better, we have Courtney sparking against Jean Marsh as they did, briefly, in 1965 in The Daleks' Master Plan. The moment when the Brigadier chops the Doctor in order to take the final confrontation himself is fantastic, as is the Doctor's reaction when he thinks the Brigadier is dead (as had been the original intention of the script). It's a strong enough start to a strong season.

I was amazed, rewatching Ghost Light, by just how good it is. Densely packed with literary and cultural and scientific references, transformations, and bizarre imagery, it is a real feast for the viewer. Even if I am still not totally certain I know what it was all about, I find it utterly fascinating; the cast seem to be reasonably surefooted in the peculiarity of what is going on, and the music and sets all add up as well. Having had my view of the worst Seventh Doctor story confounded on this rewatch, I felt confirmed in my view that Ghost Light is the best; and as it was the last story actually filmed, we can say that Old Who ended on a real high.

I watched the original version of The Curse of Fenric this time rather than the director's cut, and noticed only one significant difference - we cannot hear what the Doctor is saying when he makes his profession of faith to ward off the Haemovores, whereas the director's cut makes it clear that he is reciting the names of all his companions in a litany. It's another excellent story, with the plot of human conflict being exploited by non-human forces which has a venerable pedigree in Who, and the continuing accumulation of details about what the Doctor may really be up to - and, almost two years after her arrival, more about what Ace is there for - I think only Turlough acquires a comparable amount of back-story in the course of his time in the Tardis, and Ace's tale works much better. My only quibble about The Curse of Fenric is that I have never been impressed by the Haemovores, whose costumes are a bit cheap-looking to the point that we have to be told to be scared of them by scary music.

It has to be said that the season ends on a slightly flatter note; Survival is the weakest story of the final four. I still liked it more than last time: after Nicholas Parsons as a vicar, Hale and Pace as sinister grocers actually make sense; the continued exploration of Ace's past makes sense (in Old Who it was very rare for a companion to be brought back by the Doctor to have an adventure in their native time, whereas under RTD it became a fairly standard storyline); the Cheetah People / Master plot very nearly makes sense; and for us Big Finish fans, it's great to see Lisa Bowerman (who is actually the very last person to be killed by the Master in Old Who). But there are a few too many scenes of people standing around with their hands by their sides watching other actors say their lines, always a visible sign of under-rehearsal, and some of the interior sets (thinking especially of Midge's bedroom) don't really fit; and poor Anthony Ainley looks very ill. (Interesting coincidence - Ainley, Sylvester McCoy and Sophie Aldred all have the same birthday, 20 August.) However, it just about comes together, and the Doctor's final monologue never fails to leave a moistness in the eye.

McCoy is really good as the Doctor - from the very first moment when he leaps up in the Rani's laboratory, we know this guy is going to be fun, rather than painful, to watch. Even the early stories are always watchable, and in the later series as his character becomes darker and deeper, with his past activities hinted at rather than explained in detail, he has really got into it, and one senses a synergy which hasn't really been there since the Baker/Hinchcliffe/Holmes years. Even in his rather underscripted return in the TV movie he remains very watchable. Of all the Doctors, McCoy is the one of whom my opinion has most altered (and for the better) as a result of this rewatch. I've continued to enjoy him in Big Finish audios - the most recent, Robophobia, being an excellent sequel to Robots of Death - and of course the Seventh Doctor was at the heart of the first huge range of spinoff books, the Virgin New Adventures, which I am gradually working through (my favourite is Andy Lane's Cthulhu crossover All-Consuming Fire).

As with McCoy's Doctor, I have drastically revised my views on Ace for the better as a result of the rewatch. Sophie Aldred was not the first actress in her mid-20s asked to play a teenager on Who, nor was she the last, but she does a great job of capturing youthful resentment, angst, energy and vulnerability. It helps also that the scripts start to examine not only the Doctor but also Ace as personalities whose backgrounds are unknown to us but can be further explored. She wobbles a bit - I think she slightly loses concentration in Battlefield, for instance - but when she is on form, as in both Curse of Fenric and Survival she is powerful and moving.

Survival is also the last appearance for Ainley's Master, who was also in the last stories of the Fourth and Sixth Doctors and the second-last story of the Fifth. As noted above, Ainley looks physically ill so it's not a great outing for him. Ainley is in general badly served; he never quite has a chance to develop the rapport with any of the Doctors that Delgado did with Pertwee (comes closest with Davison, perhaps); and the Master's means and motivation are hopelessly jumbled. Ainley normally manages to play it with gusto even if the role is increasingly pantomime villain. Almost every story he is in seems to end with him doomed to certain death from which he inexplicably escapes, apart from the very last, ironically. It was a good idea of Nathan-Turner's to revive the Master in the first place, just somewhat flawed in the execution.

To round out my final rewatch entry to my standard half-dozen stories, I have included Dimensions in Time and The Movie. Dimensions in Time is, alas, rubbish. It has some good moments - the warm rapport of the two Doctor/companion pairings from the original series which make it onto the screen here (Seven/Ace and Three/Sarah - Five/Peri/Nyssa doesn't count); the march of the costumed monsters just before and after the cliffhanger; Richard Franklin's insane cameo as Mike Yates; the Brigadier in his helicopter. But some of the invocation of nostalgia might have been better left imagined than realised - thinking especially of the awful costumes and lines given to Victoria and Leela, the terrible lines given to Carole Ann Ford as Susan, the Rani's out-of-place companion, and the bizarre and otherwise unconnected introductory monologue of Tom Baker's Doctor. (Notes for canon-fodder: which K9 is it that appears with the Seventh Doctor? And this is the one televised encounter between the Brigadier and the Sixth Doctor.) It's almost fun - that's a bit harsh, it is fun in places - but I think others attempting a rewatch of the whole of Who can skip this in good conscience.

And last but not quite least, forward another three years to The TV Movie. It actually has a lot of good points - the repeated motif of eyes, a lot of the business of the Doctor explaining himself to himself as well as to the rest of the world, the comedy moments mixed with SFnal horror. Daphne Ashbrook is channelling all of the female Classic Who companions, with added snogging (and in fairness a much more complicated love life than most companions arrive with); Eric Roberts is I think rather good with the somewhat two-dimensional character he is given, though of course it's difficult for Old Who fans to accept a Master without either a beard or poached-egg eyes. The script tears big holes in continuity about the Doctor's genetic heritage and the location of the Eye of Harmony, but I think it does make sense in its own terms (apart from the reset button that allows the dead companions to be resurrected); however, it just doesn't lead on to great things in the way that An Unearthly Child did thirty-three years before.

Knowing what we do now about Who since 2005, The TV Movie feels like a dead end in continuity, though I was surprised by the number of elements have been first properly seen here and carried through to New Who - including some of the musical themes, which are very close to some of Murray Gold's work. But of course that is the narrow TV viewer's perspective; the Eighth Doctor continuity goes on in comics, books and audios, in three separate streams, all rooted in these 85 minutes of movie.

McGann, once he has regained his memory and before he gets tied up, is a rather good Doctor; he combines a wizardly young fogey with a bit of an air of surprise and almost annoyance that the world is not quite as he would wish it to be. He is at his best with Daphne Ashbrook, and fans of McGann's audio performances will remember that the high points there tend to come with interaction with India Fisher's Charley Pollard and Sheridan Smith's Lucie Miller. Whereas the more alien Doctors of Old Who were alien because they were hiding their nature from us, the Eighth Doctor doesn't even fully know himself. It would have been nice to have had more of him.

These six stories obviously break into two groups. The final season of Old Who is rather an uptick after years of flailing; the conventional defence that it was just getting into its stride has a lot of merit. The two other stories considered here are perhaps reflections on old Who, one as a misconceived nostalgia-fest, the other an attempt to reframe it as an American TV show, neither of which really works as Who (though as I said I think The TV Movie largely succeeds on its own terms).

The last four stories of Old Who are 14 episodes, almost the same length as the 13 episodes originally commissioned in 1963 which make up the first three stories. The biggest change is the character of the Doctor, who arrives as possibly dangerous and alien, but ends as the heroic wizard-scientist - a transition that actually is more or less complete by the end of The Edge of Destruction, rather than any later. We're down from three companions to one, but with a more physically active Doctor that makes less difference to the pacing than one might think and of course makes it easier to bring in recurring characters like the Brigadier and the Master. And the Tardis is still the Tardis, and the theme tune still recognisable.

I'm doing a separate wrap-up post for the whole rewatch. Meanwhile, all together now:

Diggerdydum, diggerdydum, diggerdydum, diggerdydum
Diggerdydum, diggerdydum, diggerdydum, diggerdydum
Wooo-oooo! Wooo! Oooo!

For those of you who have been, thank you for accompanying me on this journey through time and space.

< 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

( 3 comments — Leave a comment )
bookzombie
Aug. 25th, 2011 07:04 pm (UTC)
Um, Bambera isn't in Rat Trap (I just finished listening to it yesterday!) Checking the Big Finish website, I think you mean the Lost Story 'Animal'.
wwhyte
Aug. 26th, 2011 04:55 pm (UTC)
Ghost Light really is fantastic. And you are too charitable to The TV Movie.

I think the heroic wizard-scientist transformation only really kicks in at the start of the Dalek Masterplan. It's the first story where he steps up immediately and takes responsibility for beating the bad guys, and moves from being the giggling grandfather to the guy at the centre of the story.
andrewducker
Aug. 27th, 2011 03:02 pm (UTC)
Congratulations on finishing your epic quest!

Planning on following it up with the RTD years?

And I agree on the quality of the later McCoy years. I have fond memories.
( 3 comments — Leave a comment )

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