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Posts Tagged ‘Season 8’

It is, I suppose, possible that some people reading this may come away with the idea that I am some sort of obsessive Season 8 fan: there are a couple of Pertwee seasons I’ve barely scratched the surface of, and yet here we are talking about Terror of the Autons, meaning that more than 80% of this particular run is done.

This is a story with which I have a slightly odd relationship. It was one of the very last stories from the 20th century run of Doctor Who that I saw – I bought it on VHS in the Spring of 2004, and probably only watched it once before, well, the series came back, and DVD became my preferred format, and all that sort of thing.

And yet this was one of the first Pertwee stories I – well, not watched, but certainly experienced, outside of the novelisation format, certainly. In the early summer of 1986 I came across someone at school who had the story on audio tape. Younger readers will probably find this impossible to comprehend, but audio tapes of old Doctor Who stories remained a big deal into the 1990s: the complete availability of the existing series on any format seemed like an impossible dream, and swapping audio tapes could go on under the radar of the BBC’s legal team. So it was that my first time through Terror of the Autons with actors and so on happened not in front of a TV but next to a hi-fi.

Hey ho. This is not, I would say, a story best suited to the audio-only experience, consisting – in very characteristic Robert Holmes style – of not much more than a string of bravura set pieces strung together by a somewhat perfunctory plot.

The Doctor (Jon Pertwee) is still exiled on Earth in the 1970s (or possibly the 1980s). To be perfectly honest, the Time Lords could have exiled him to one small English county in the 1970s (etc) and it would have made no difference as far as this story is concerned, because every key location seems to be remarkably close to all the others.

Anyway, the Doctor’s old enemy the Master (Roger Delgado) turns up to cause trouble, quickly forging an alliance with the Nestene Consciousness and its polymer-based servitors, the Autons. What follows is, basically, a series of plastic-themed death-traps with the odd action sequence thrown in for good measure.

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The obvious thing to say about Terror of the Autons is that this is the story where Barry Letts took a firm grip on the series he had inherited, slightly less than a season earlier, and thoroughly reworked it into the style he wanted. This is where the Pertwee style of popular conception really gels. Henceforth, none of those sprawling seven-part stories; none of that quasi-grittiness and adult restraint. Season Seven often looks like it wants to be The Avengers or Department S: Season Eight is the one you can imagine inspiring The Tomorrow People. It is brash, it is colourful (often to the point of garishness), and given the remarkable body-count it is often strangely cosy.

Strangely enough, though, none of these things are really what you would want to remember Barry Letts for – none of them are tied up with his greatest contributions to the series. Quite what those are – well, different people will have different ideas, I shouldn’t wonder, but for me they are the creation of a Doctor Who which took itself and its own mythology a little more seriously, and also a considerable elevation in the sophistication of the series’ storytelling, both morally and narratively.

As I say, not much of that is visible here: Terror of the Autons is largely just razzle-dazzle, but entertainingly done. I suppose you could argue it partly constitutes a commentary on early 70s Britain’s love for plastic consumer tat, but this is hardly a profound message. To be honest, the story really only functions as an introduction to another of Barry Letts’ great innovations (though here Terrance Dicks should take his fair share of the credit), the Master.

The Master is the first of the regular characters to appear and for most of the story he has the most pro-active role, even if it is basically just to kill lots of disposable guest characters and make various doomed attempts at killing the other regulars. Delgado, of course, ensures that the character is always great fun to watch, even if he is always a cartoony villain in a cartoony story. Not just cartoony but also quite as cosy as any other element of the format – you know he’s never going to kill anyone important, or murder a woman or a child.

This isn’t close to being the greatest Master story, or even the greatest Master story of the Pertween years. But it is one of the very few occasions where the Master is as utterly central to the narrative as the Doctor, if not moreso – it’s interesting to note the number of parallels between this story as The Sound of Drums, which is arguably its 21st century counterpart. And the story fits him like a tight leather glove: he may be quietly ridiculous, cartoony, and not stand up to serious consideration for more than a few seconds, but then neither does Terror of the Autons. It doesn’t stop either of them from being a lot of fun to watch.

 

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How are you supposed to find something new to say about The Daemons? This is surely one of the most dissected, remembranced, and praised Doctor Who stories of all time: they were making nostalgic DVD extra features about this story long before DVDs were actually invented. At one point it was voted the greatest Doctor Who story of all time (nothing lasts forever: the last time anyone checked it came in at #38, not even as the highest-placed Pertwee story). Nevertheless I suppose I shall have to try.

The plot runs thusly: still trapped on Earth at some point in the 1970s (or possibly the 1980s), the Doctor is passing the time by making various modifications to Bessie likely to invalidate her MOT, not to mention patronising his co-workers. His despair at Jo’s credulity (falling for a load of southern Californian Age of Aquarius stuff) is abruptly dispelled when an archaeological dig due to take place in the country village of Devil’s End is mentioned. The local white witch is auguring dread tidings if the local barrow is penetrated, and for once the Doctor tends to agree with her. Meanwhile the new village clergyman (the old one having disappeared in obscure circumstances) has a well-trimmed goatee beard and clicks his fingers a lot. Clearly something rum is afoot – or possibly ahoof.

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In a sense it’s stories like The Daemons that really give the lie to this suggestion that the UNIT stories are really set in some vague near-future world: never mind the fashions, the elements of this story are thoroughly early 70s. Quite apart from the references to hippy counterculture, this is one of the first Doctor Who stories to draw upon the ancient astronaut theories of the Swiss hotelier and fraudster Erich von Daniken, whose works were at the peak of their popularity in 1971. However, one should not fixate too much on this, as some of the influences on The Daemons obviously come from rather closer to home.

When we talk about gothic horror-influenced Doctor Who, it’s a no-brainer that the place to start the discussion is with the Hinchcliffe-Holmes stories from the mid 70s. That doesn’t mean there aren’t other examples elsewhere, of course, and it’s equally obvious that The Daemons was playing the classic-horror reference game long before Hinchcliffe and Holmes were in post. The location with an odd history and the name Devil’s End, the ancient spacecraft buried under an archaeological site, the image of the horned beast as a misunderstood recollection of alien contact: all of these things are central to The Daemons, and all of them seem quite plainly to have been pinched from Quatermass and the Pit. (I reiterate that I’m aware I am not offering bold new insights here.) The question is really why the later horror-influenced stories like Pyramids of Mars and Image of the Fendahl (another tale cannibalising Kneale) feel like just that, genuine horror lurking behind a SF rationale, while The Daemons has much more the sense of a jolly runaround with some startling imagery but no real sense of darkness about it.

Partly I suppose we must thank the sensible, thoughtful philosophy of Barry Letts for this: here was a man ever aware of his responsibilities to the family audience. I suspect he would have been pathologically incapable of pushing a story beyond the boundaries of decency and good taste, even one like The Daemons. Imagine a version of this tale scripted by Robert Holmes, on the other hand: it might well have caused Mrs Mary Whitehouse to spontaneously combust. I think the difference is that Holmes was interested in telling horror stories, and for him the SF rationale wasn’t much more than an enabling device to be established as rapidly as possible as a plot device, while Letts (together with co-writer Robert Sloman) does seem genuinely interested in exploring the ramifications of Clarke’s Law (which is what The Daemons is largely about). There are numerous lengthy philosophical discussions about the difference between magic and science, and the Doctor is given numerous opportunities to express his ultimately rationalistic world-view. As I say, this is what the story is about, at least as much as it is about enjoying and playing with its satanic imagery.

So The Daemons isn’t as suffused with darkness as you might expect – the Doctor even makes the point that the Daemons themselves are amoral rather than actually evil, compare and contrast with the distinctly malevolent but otherwise highly similar Sutekh from Pyramids of Mars – but it does work as a spiffing adventure in the countryside for all the regular characters. Everyone gets something to do – Mike gets to ride a motorbike and be heroic, Benton gets his hero moment rescuing the Doctor from the evil morris dancers, Jo gets to be daffy and unwisely intrepid, the Brig gets to be dry and understatedly heroic, and the Doctor gets to be very sagacious (and also a breathtaking hypocrite). There’s such a lot of fun stuff going on that it probably takes two or three viewings before you notice that not a huge amount happens to advance the plot in the middle episodes of the story – the Doctor and his team spend most of it ensconced in the pub, occasionally venturing out for a car chase or what-have-you, while the Master is equally confined to the crypt, from whence he occasionally emerges to glower and issue various evil directives you just know his staff are not going to be able to carry out.

At least some of the success of the story must therefore be attributed to Christopher Barry’s direction, which works with a polished and ambitious script to achieve a level of stylishness not often seen in the series around this time – the show-within-the-show sequence in episode one is just a single example of this, but so is the serial’s fondness for high-angle and helicopter shots (it must be said that the enormous amount of location shooting benefits The Daemons enormously).

In the end there is perhaps less going on in The Daemons than meets the eye, and the climax of the story finds the series once again falling back on sub-Star Trek deus ex machina plotting (I’m sure there’s a gag to made here along the lines of this story having a daemon sine machina climax, but my Latin’s just not up to it), but most of the story still stands up and entertains extremely well: this is surely the best story of its season. Given that it was relatively rare for 20th century Doctor Who to manage to pull off a truly effective season opener or finale, this is one more thing that makes the story noteworthy: but even so, it’s probably the only aspect of the story to put you mind of the current series. The rest of it is defiantly and magnificently of its period.

 

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It occurred to me the other day that if anyone in Doctor Who had the right to feel they’d been unfairly sidelined in the anniversary year, it would be Jon Pertwee. All the living Doctors prepared to be associated with the show were up there on screen (even if it was only via the Internet or Red Button), nine whole Patrick Troughton episodes were reclaimed, and William Hartnell had a flippin’ biopic made of him.

And yet of Pertwee there was nary a sign – even in the big anniversary trailer, the third Doctor was portrayed by a slightly dodgy lookalike. I expect some people will say that with Peter Capaldi looking set to channel Pertwee in a very big way in the coming season, we should be grateful for the respite, but beyond the costume we have no evidence that this is actually how he’s approaching the part.

I would be surprised if he did, given the show is still currently under Steven Moffat’s curatorship, because Moffat seems to have got it into his head as some sort of principle that the Doctor is, at least in part, a comedy character: I imagine Moffat’s notes on the depiction of the Doctor most often run ‘More cute. More zany’. Looking at a Pertwee story now one of the striking things about Jon is just how non-cute and non-zany his Doctor is. The costume is by a very long way the most whimsical thing about him, and even then I would say it was stylish and distinctive rather than full-on eccentric.

And to be honest, even though for a long while I’ve been less than enchanted with Pertwee’s bullying, egomaniac, Tory hippy of a Doctor, at the moment I’m finding it very refreshing to see the character played quite so straight and seriously. Even stories which are historically not well regarded sometimes have a straightforwardness and sincerity which comes as rather a remedy for the worst excesses of Moffat plotti-wottiness.

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Take Colony in Space, from 1971, written by Malcolm Hulke. Like The Moonbase this is one of those stories with a basic-nominative title (it strikes me as significant that both tales had their titles significantly sexed up for their novelisation releases – Colony in Space is retitled The Doomsday Weapon, despite the fact that said McGuffin isn’t mentioned on screen until the climax is in progress), indicating it is part of a culture only accustomed to SF of a relatively limited level of sophistication.

The story opens with a very brief prologue in which the Time Lords, who are attempting to hang on to their War Games gravitas and mystique and not really managing it, discover the Master is up to no good as usual and decide to pack the Doctor off to stop him (thus providing a pretext for the show to do a non-contemporary-setting story for the first time in two years).

The Doctor and Jo thus find themselves in the year 2472 on Uxareius, a planet long ostracised because its name is so bloody difficult to spell right, but as it will be another three episodes before the Master arrives they occupy themselves by getting involved in the affairs of a struggling human colony. The colonists are occasionally threatened by the degenerate natives and more chronically troubled by the continued failure of their crops. Sudden attacks by what seem to be giant lizards and the news that another colony has been wiped out by the same creatures only add to their problems, but then the arrival of a shipload of miners from the Interplanetary Mining Corporation intent on exploiting the planet makes things even worse. Can these things be connected somehow…?

You can sense a certain narrative tension at the centre of Colony in Space, with the result that it is ultimately another of those slightly broken-backed six-parters which never really settles down to tell one story all the way through. Malcolm Hulke famously had a very good working relationship with Terrance Dicks and Barry Letts – he contributed more stories to the Pertwee years than anyone else, after all – but it’s fairly clear here that while Terry and Barry were keen on a sort of Forbidden Planet-filtered-through-Star Trek pulp space opera sort of story, Mac was rather more interested in an allegorical space western which neatly doubles up as a piece of anticapitalist agitprop.

The middle episodes of Colony in Space, prior to the Master’s eventual arrival, are as sustained an attack on Big Business as Doctor Who ever mustered. If anything as openly partial to socialism was broadcast in the series today, it would probably lead to the privatisation of the BBC and the Daily Mail-masterminded lynching of all the creative people involved. Hulke is too good a writer not to include a sympathetic IMC man (capably played by Bernard Kay) but the rest of them are thorough-going ruthless, callous, murderous bastards. Meanwhile, all of the colonists are decent, committed, homespun types, of course. It would be disingenuous to suggest that this is particularly deep or subtle writing, but it moves along smartly enough and you can sense the writer’s commitment.

Eventually it does just devolve into a series of back-and-forth reversals between the colonists and their persecutors, but by this point the Master has (finally) turned up and the Doomsday Weapon plot is coming to more prominence. You can sense Hulke isn’t quite as interested in this particular storyline, not least from the climax in which the Alien Guardian cheerfully agrees to blow up both himself and his entire civilisation for no especially convincing reason, while allowing the Doctor and Master to nip off smartly prior to the unhappy event (at least the Doctor pauses to say thanks before running out of the door). However, the fact the Master isn’t in league with IMC (they eventually turn on him as well as the Doctor) makes for an unusual and appealing story dynamic.

So it’s not especially subtle and it does seem to run out of steam in its closing stages, but I did enjoy Colony in Space on my most recent viewing of it (this in another of those rare stories I’ve only seen a bare handful of times). This is not least because of the self-evident fact that the writer really understands how to write for both the Doctor and the Master – this is a fairly mid-table Pertwee story, after all, yet it contains some dialogue which everyone writing the Doctor should have pinned up above their desk: ‘Are you some kind of a scientist?’ someone asks our hero. ‘I’m every kind of scientist!’ the Doctor snaps back, while later on we get the definitive ‘I want to see the universe, not rule it!’ The Master doesn’t get anything quite as good, but he at least has a plan which makes a vague kind of sense, and he’s quite capable of causing the Doctor serious problems without even resorting to brute force.

Recently I have found myself prone to imagining how current Doctor Who might handle some of the story material treated upon by the 20th century version of the show. By modern standards, Colony in Space would be a fairly significant story on a couple of counts – not only is there a companion’s first entry into and journey to another time and place in the TARDIS, there’s also a threat of universal domination by the Master. And yet this is the stuff of a routine mid-season 1971 adventure, not particularly dwelt upon – even so, care has been taken to provide a solid, coherent plot and numerous accessible characters. They made less of a fuss about some things back in those days, that’s for sure, but they knew how to get the important stuff right.

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With the bunting taken down and the celebrations a fond but fading memory, life in Who-world is showing signs of returning to normal (for a given value of normal, at least). It is with some relief that I can free myself from the self-imposed straitjacket of watching the various older Doctors’ episodes in chronological order and resume my usual pick’n’mix approach to the series. But where to start?

Something which is – to me, at least – fairly obscure, I think. The obvious choice would be The Enemy of the World, the majority of which – duh! – I have never seen at all. But the DVD wasn’t in the shops when I first looked for it, so I plumped for The Mind of Evil instead. Not, you may be thinking, a terribly obscure choice as 1971-vintage pieces of cult TV go, but it’s a story I’ve only ever seen once before, when I was doing my pilgrimage in 2001. Back then, obviously, it was in black and white – technology has managed to resurrect the colour, which is clearly a brilliant technical achievement. Nevertheless my memory of this story is not a vivid nor particularly positive one, so a revisitation seemed in order.

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Britain, in the year 1971/1975/1982, and the Doctor and his assistant Jo are attending a demonstration of a new prisoner rehabilitation project at Stangmoor Prison: the Keller Process, whereby all the evil impulses are extracted from a prisoner’s brain. The Doctor is alarmed at the nature of the technology involved, and a number of unexplained deaths in the vicinity of the Keller Machine would seem to suggest he is (as usual) right.

However, the Brigadier and UNIT are too busy elsewhere to worry too much about the goings-on in Stangmoor, as they are providing security for the first World Peace Conference. (Not to mention overseeing the disposal of a highly-dangerous nuclear-powered nerve-gas missile.) When attempts are made on the lives of several conference delegates, the fate of the world is thrown into peril. Can there possibly be a connection between the deaths at the prison and the threat to the conference?

Can there possibly be a connection? Yes, of course, especially when that all-purpose plot contrivance known as the Master is on the scene. Can there plausibly be a connection? Well, that’s where we run into somewhat choppy waters, to be honest. But more on this later.

It’s fairly well-known, not to mention obvious, that the original run of Star Trek was a big influence on the production team of Doctor Who during this period – in particular, the American series’ ability to use SF as a medium for exploring moral and philosophical issues. Bearing this in mind, it’s striking how morally inert The Mind of Evil is. The Keller Process, as depicted here at least, isn’t a million miles away from the death-of-personality quasi-executions in Babylon 5: in what way is it better to kill someone’s personality than to kill their body? Barnham is left clearly incompetent to look after himself by his exposure to the process, so the implication is that at least some ‘evil’ is necessary for a person to function adequately (shades of Trek‘s The Enemy Within, which I was writing about just the other day). There’s some interesting stuff here, but the story always trots briskly past it in pursuit of another big location sequence.

What’s especially striking is how indifferent the Doctor seems to be to the fate of those being processed – he seems more interested in crowing about his own cleverness than raising the issue that the British authorities are carrying out dangerous experiments on their own citizens (which they basically are). It’s very hard to shake the sense that the political outlook of this story is, in a half-formed sort of way, very Tory, if not actually authoritarian: prisoners deserve whatever they get seems to be the message.

It’s become almost a cliche to comment on how oddly charmless the third Doctor frequently comes over as, but it remains a fact – and this may be his nadir. He grumps his way through the story, either in a strop with everyone around him or gently patronising them. The only exception is in his scenes with the Chinese delegate, where we make the startling discovery that the Doctor is a close personal buddy of Chairman Mao, architect of the Cultural Revolution and leader of China during the annexation of Tibet (was noted Buddhist Barry Letts really on-side with this dialogue?). In any story this would be awkward; in this particular one it’s especially troubling.

Verity Lambert, in particular, criticised the Pertwee series for making the Doctor too much of an establishment figure. There’s probably a discussion to be had here, but in general I think she was right. The Doctor admittedly gives short shrift to the Brigadier and various Home Office bods, but this isn’t because he’s particularly rebellious, he just thinks they’re stupid for not listening to him. (He’s fairly crabby with everyone, as mentioned above.) And he does everything asked of him by his establishment superiors, including putting the Keller Machine plotline on hold for a bit so he can go off and investigate the murders at the Peace Conference. The absence of a likeable Doctor really makes it hard for me to warm to the story.

The absence of a good monster doesn’t help things much either. The Keller Machine barely qualifies, being just a slightly-suspect-looking box with some jelly inside. It is a box full of jelly with remarkable qualities, nevertheless: not only can it extract the evil from mens’ minds (hence the Mind of Evil), but it can kill people via their phobias (perhaps the Mind of Fear was also a possible title), and zap itself around the place (also the Mind of Wibbly-Wobbly Teleportation). Not bad going for a jelly.

It’s a blatant plot-device, of course, but one entirely in keeping with the general tenor of the script. Even putting the issue of the timeframe of the whole season to one side (either a year or so has passed since the previous story, or the Master was doing the groundwork for this caper even prior to helping the Nestenes invade), the Master’s plan is frankly mind-boggling. Why does he install the Keller Machine in Stangmoor Prison? Is it because, even at that point, he was planning to use the place as a base from which to hijack the missile? Is his plan focussed on using the missile to wipe out the conference? If so, why bother using the Keller Machine at all? Or is the missile a last-minute piece of improv? (In which case, he’s phenomenally lucky the missile convoy drives right past the prison.)

This isn’t a plan in any accepted sense of the word. The Master is blatantly just freestyling, doing terribly evil things for the fun of it and coming up with a pretext to stitch them together he goes along. (He still comes across as more likeable than the Doctor.) The same could really be said of the script, if you replace ‘evil’ with ‘exciting and visual’. Director Tim Combe loves his set-pieces and generally does a good job with them, from the missile hijacking to the final confrontation.

I’m afraid this second viewing of the story hasn’t done much to change my opinion of The Mind of Evil (it occurs to me that there are bits of Day of the Doctor, which is only about two weeks old, which I’ve watched more than a Pertwee story from 1971). There are lots of good things in this story – I haven’t even mentioned another solid Nicholas Courtney performance, or Michael Sheard as the prison doctor, or any of the other supporting turns -but they just happen one after the other in front of the camera with only the flimsiest of narratives to support them. I’d be a lot more willing to sit back and enjoy the ride if the story had a little more warmth and soul to it, but this is not the case, as displayed in the figure of the strangely charmless third Doctor. I wouldn’t be so harsh as to call this bad story, but anything more than average really would be stretching a point.

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