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Posts Tagged ‘Terrance Dicks’

We find ourselves back in the orbit of Venus for Roger Marshall and Jeremy Scott’s The Removal Men, which is a bit less pedestrian than it sounds. Marshall has said he was not initially interested in writing for what he believed to be a rotten programme, but agreed after he decided that sharing the credit would mean he only got half the blame. Once again this is a very uncharacteristic and occasionally quite slow episode, but one with some entertaining moments that go a long way to redeeming it.

We open in a nightclub where two men are apparently discussing a very important business deal – they finally agree on terms, but the twist is that they are actually working out the contract for an assassination (the ‘Removal Men’ of the title are actually hired killers). The scene then shifts to an apartment, where the lady of the house (alone in the place) is awoken by a burglar in the dead of night. This turns out to be a gun-toting Steed, who relieves her of her jewellry before locking her in the bathroom (she opts to take a bottle of wine in with her).

It turns out that Dragna (Reed de Rouen), the husband of Steed’s victim, is the leader of the assassination gang, and following reports around town (we are somewhere non-specific in the south of France this week, although naturally the episode is filmed almost entirely in the studio) of an Englishman – ‘dark, snazzy dresser, acts like life’s a big joke’ – trying to sell his wife’s jewels, the head man tracks him down to the nightclub run by his henchman Siegel (Edwin Richfield doing an interesting Australian accent). He is here visiting Venus, who is in the area quite by chance, it would seem. Steed claims to be on holiday too and contemplating retirement, and Venus actually buys this obvious load of old nonsense.

Dragna and Siegel turn up and they prove to be just as credulous as Venus, as Steed professes to have heard of their operation and has been actively trying to attract their attention so he can apply to join them. Once Steed arranges for a vacancy to open up, they take him on for their next job – a young film starlet (a 19-year-old Edina Ronay, exceedingly well-cast as the Bardot type) has been making some unwise political interventions and is now to depart the scene – and Steed is to arrange her final exit…

(Why Edina Ronay never became a much bigger star mystifies me (if you will forgive a brief digression). Could it just have been down to the slightly dodgy roles she ended up taking? Oh. Well – British film and TV’s loss was knitwear’s gain, I suppose.)

So, a slightly mixed bag, but much more positive than negative in the end. The plot is rather reliant on multiple coincidences to function, while the episode also contains some very obvious filler scenes: there are not one but three musical interludes, one of which is an instrumental, and the director eventually resorts to just pointing the camera at Julie Stevens’ shimmying midriff to pass the time. This isn’t a dreadful episode for Venus, I suppose, but her role in the show basically seems to be Steed’s stooge – he occasionally wanders into her life and creates complete havoc, for which he smoothly evades any responsibility: the final scene depicts Steed, relaxing on a studio-set beach in his bermuda shorts, while Venus (suitcases in hand) complains that she can’t get home as Steed shot her boss before she got paid. It’s amusing, but a bit cruel.

Patrick Macnee is in his element as Steed goes undercover with the assassins, and gets another particularly droll scene where he meets up with his boss One-Ten, once again on the beach. Both men are in their swimsuits and all the procedural exposition is mixed up with Steed being asked to put sun-tan lotion on One-Ten’s back – the follow-up to this comes at the end, where One-Ten is looking after Ronay’s character in the same location, and possibly enjoying himself just a bit too much. This is an uneven episode, but still probably the best non-Cathy episode of the season so far.

Something much more like ‘classic’ Avengers comes along next, in the shape of The Mauritius Penny, the first contribution to the series by writers Malcolm Hulke and Terrance Dicks (both of whom are far better remembered for their work on a different Sydney Newman-created fantasy series). This was in fact Dicks’ first TV writing credit, and the beginning of an immensely distinguished career that was only brought to an end by his recent death (like many of my generation, I feel I owe Terrance Dicks an enormous debt as both a reader and a writer, and I make no apologies for being so fulsome in my praise of him).

The episode is set in the unexpectedly cut-throat world of stamp collecting, and opens with a stamp dealer being interrupted in the middle of a phone call and shot dead by his own assistant (you can’t get the staff any more), the subject of the call being the apparent discovery of a Mauritius Penny, an immensely rare and valuable stamp. As it happens, the victim had a tangential connection to a recent murder on the continent, which is why Steed happens to be having his phone tapped. Rather surprisingly, it turns out that philately is one of Mrs Gale’s areas of expertise, but she finds the reference to the rare stamp in this context baffling.

Well, Steed goes to a stamp auction where the sound of someone being shot is masked by the bang of the gavel, Mrs Gale gets a job working in the shop, it turns out that the stamp collecting world has been heavily infiltrated by a neo-Fascist group looking to stage a coup, there’s a bit with two evil female dentists, and it’s all rather ridiculous and delightful. Honor Blackman gets to have a fight with Alfred Burke (this was still a few years before Public Eye got going), we see Freckles the dalmatian again, and there’s a very witty scene where Steed, after being knocked out, wakes up on the floor of his flat to find his cleaning lady hoovering around him.

In short, there’s not much wrong with this at all, as it is smartly scripted, giving both Steed and Cathy some great moments, and well-directed too. Of particular interest to some viewers may be a sequence where Mrs Gale infiltrates a rally of the neo-Fascists, where various rousing speeches are being made in what’s basically a function room – but she is rumbled and taken captive: an almost identical scene features in another Terrance Dicks script from the mid-1970s, and the similarity was apparently a great surprise to the writer when it was pointed out to him many years later. But as the great man said, to be a successful writer you just need a good strong original idea, but it doesn’t necessarily need to be yours. In this case it turns out he was stealing from himself, and I’m sure that would have amused him. A great episode from two great writers.

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I think there are a couple of little phrases I shall have to prohibit myself from using when I write about vintage TV from now on, first and foremost ‘nothing like this would ever be shown for the same audience today’ – that probably goes without saying, on reflection, in that it’s true that every programme, from the news downward, is operating to a different set of values and priorities than it was even twenty years ago. Things change; such is life.

But even so, sometimes you are smacked in the face by just how different things were in years go by. Watching The Brain of Morbius again, nearly 40 years on from its original broadcast, one is almost instantly struck by a crunching one-two of things that would be inconceivable on modern TV.

The first one is how inescapably shoddy the production looks, by modern standards. Proceedings open in a studio-bound mountainside set, which appears to be made of finest polystyrene, and crawling about is a man in a second-hand rubber insect costume. The cheapest of cheap shows for very tiny children looks more polished than this, today. But then, within a handful of minutes, it is made clear that this story is going to deal with subject matter so ghastly and unpleasant it would only appear post-watershed these days, and even then probably only with a prefatory warning [Apparently not: subsequently shown on the Horror Channel during daytime with barely a disclaimer in sight – A]: the poor old insect gets his head chopped off, and we later see his severed bonce being experimented on by the story’s resident mad scientist, Solon (Philip Madoc). (It suddenly occurs to me that Solon’s first name, Mehendri, doesn’t seem to appear on screen, so I wonder where it came from. Is it in the novelisation? Hmmm. [Wrong again – I think I heard it in Episode One – A])

brain

I don’t mention these things because I think The Brain of Morbius is an embarrassingly primitive or outrageously depraved story, but simply because one of the over-riding impressions one gets watching these great old Doctor Who stories nowadays is the sense of how they are products of an utterly different culture. Perhaps that’s why I love them so much, and am so indifferent to virtually everything made for TV today.

This isn’t even a particular favourite of mine, nor indeed a story held in the highest of regards. It was originally transmitted in 1976, and behind the innocuous writer’s credit of Robin Bland lies the closest the series ever came to a collaboration between two of its greatest writers, Terrance Dicks and Robert Holmes.

The TARDIS lands on the devastated planet Karn, perhaps better known these days as the place of the eighth Doctor’s demise, apparently sent there by the Time Lords. Living on Karn are the Sisterhood of the Flame, a quasi-religious order dedicated to protecting a mysterious flame which produces an elixir of everlasting life, and Solon and his servant, who are dedicated to a rather darker pursuit. The Sisters have got into the habit of telekinetically shooting down any passing spacecraft just to be on the safe side, which dovetails rather well with Solon’s need for a constant supply of fresh body parts. But what does all this have to do with Morbius, a now-deceased Time Lord despot who was executed on Karn, and whose little grey cells feature so prominently in the title of the tale?

It would be fascinating to get one’s hands on the original Dicks scripts for The Brain of Morbius and see just how significant Holmes’ redrafting was. The story certainly has the rock-solid underpinning of structure that one would expect from Dicks, not to mention the fascination with Time Lord mythology and history (he’s allowed this, he did co-create them, after all), and he displays the sort of casual, total¬†understanding of the Doctor’s character you would expect. But on the other hand, the story also sticks very closely to the narrative template Holmes deployed numerous times during his tenure as script-editor: the story is occurring in the aftermath of a cataclysmic conflict, the instigator of which is trapped somewhere underground in a debilitated form. Various servants are trying to release him, which generally happens towards the end of the final episode: that’s Morbius in this story, but also Sutekh, the Master, and Magnus Greel elsewhere – give or take the odd detail. The character of Solon also feels authentically Holmesian and is one of the things that makes the story sing: there aren’t many performers who can match Tom Baker in terms of sheer presence, but Madoc manages it here.

That said, this isn’t quite a story from the first rank, as it relies a little too much on plot devices appearing out of thin air for it to function – the convenient gun Solon whips out to blow a hole in Condo’s guts, for one thing, but more importantly the mindbending machine which features so prominently in the climax – Chekhov’s Gun dictates this should have been set up in the previous episode, at least.

(One of the incidental sadnesses of the recent Moffatisation of Doctor Who is the ironclad declaration that the Hartnell incarnation was definitively the first, which does render the procession of pre-Hartnell Doctors displayed here rather baffling. Even my own inclination to disregard everything from The Time of the Doctor onwards doesn’t help, given there’s that ‘all twelve of them’ moment in the fiftieth anniversary… Never mind.)

More importantly, perhaps, there’s the fact that the story’s nature as a pastiche (primarily of Frankenstein, obviously, but not without a dash of Haggard) is essential to it working. This isn’t always the case with the Holmes-Hinchcliffe pastiche stories – you don’t need to be aware of Forbidden Planet to enjoy Planet of Evil or Face of Evil – but unless you understand that Holmes (and we can be pretty sure it is Holmes, rather than Dicks) is playing games with Mary Shelley, the whole thing unravels into a heap of niggling plot holes, despite the writer’s valiant efforts – why doesn’t Solon plan to just transplant the brain directly into the Doctor, rather than all that messing about with head-swapping which seems to be on the cards? Why bother building the composite body at all? (One can also engagingly speculate on how removing the brain of a Time Lord interacts with the regenerative process, and exactly how much damage it would take to stop the process working.)

So this is a story which functions first and foremost as a gothic pastiche, containing many of the most prominent tropes of this period of the programme (there’s even a knowing gag about how many times Sarah finds herself believing the Doctor is dead, which does happen rather a lot). You could probably make a decent case that The Brain of Morbius is the most representative story of all the things this particular production team are famous for, even if the studio-bound nature of proceedings inevitably make it less effective than it could be. I will be honest and admit that this story isn’t a particular favourite of mine, but – given its conception and the circumstances in which it was made – there’s not very much wrong with it at all.

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The Semi-Obligatory When’s-It-Set Bit

The Brain of Morbius is one of those stories which offers virtually no clues as to its setting, spatially or historically, and the few clues we are given are either heroically unhelpful or invite more questions than they answer. Solon is apparently Terran in origin, which at least seems to suggest a setting some time after the 22nd century, but this would seem to indicate Earth was involved in – or at least aware of – Morbius’ rebellion, which is curious.

It’s one of those slightly odd facts that Earth in the late 20th and early 21st centuries had at least some knowledge of the existence of Time Lords as individuals, but there is no suggestion of any formal relationship between any of the later Earth Empires and Gallifrey (and Gallifrey does seem to maintain a form of diplomatic relation with other powers – the Third Zone government, for instance, disregards requests from the Time Lords to discontinue their time experiments in The Two Doctors).

This is all doubtless a result of the fact that the Morbius rebellion is one of those apparently-major events which is only referred to in one TV story. Not being familiar with any of the spin-off stories dealing with it in more detail, I can’t help but wonder at Terrance Dicks’ original idea – is Morbius another figure out of legend for the Doctor? Or did his reign happen during the Doctor’s own lifetime? What effect did it have in shaping his own outlook? It’s irresistibly tempting to draw the conclusion that the Doctor’s unique reference to the circumstances of his own birth is in some way significant… but, as I say, there are many more questions than answers here.

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Not all that long ago, having a spare half hour or so on my hands, I broke out my copy of Lost in Time and sat down to enjoy the first episode of The Web of Fear. Possibly because ‘orphan’ episodes have been in circulation for rather less time than most complete stories, I find many of them have a greater capacity to surprise, whether that be with their invention, atmosphere, or simple quality. I distinctly recall thinking ‘this looks like it could be a really good story… what a shame we’ll never see the rest of it again.’

Well, here we are, fifteen or sixteen months on, and who would have guessed? The Web of Fear, back with us again (well, about 84% of it, anyway). Although, on the other hand, there’s a sense in which The Web of Fear has been with us for many years in one version or another, and it’s curious to note the ways in which these different manifestations of the story have perhaps influenced our view of the original.

Web-of-Fear-Yeti

Anyway, the story runs thusly: London in the mid 1970s (anyone seriously attempting to argue otherwise is on an extremely sticky wicket, given it’s stated on screen that 1935 was ‘forty years ago’), and… Well, you see, here’s the thing about The Web of Fear, one of the things that makes it one of those very distinctive and perhaps even definitive pieces of Doctor Who. It’s very easy to tell a story about killer Yeti in Tibet. Robot killer Yeti in Tibet is perhaps a more challenging brief. With the idea of robot killer Yeti roaming the London underground, we are perhaps departing from the realms of the advisable. Robot killer Yeti roaming a London underground which is slowly filling with lethal, luminous fungus, under the command of a disembodied presence? Come on, be serious.

This story has that weird juxtaposition of wildly disparate ideas and images one only finds in certain pieces of Doctor Who, and it has it in spades. As a result, the story when viewed has a surreal, almost phantasmagorical quality to it, which may explain why it apparently spawned so many nightmares back in 1968: it’s almost like a waking dream to begin with.

And yet none of this is really captured by the version of the story which I and many others grew up on, Terrance Dicks’ novelisation. Terrance is a master of telling a straightforward narrative, and there’s no story so experimental or outre that he can’t knock it into a reassuring 126-page shape, usually opening with chapter 1, ‘The Terror Begins’, and concluding with chapter 12, ‘The Final Battle’.

I know I may sound a little snide, but I really don’t mean to: this is Terrance Dicks, after all. I can’t imagine how you could capture the fractured essence of The Web of Fear in a satisfying prose narrative, and Terrance doesn’t even try. He smooths over some of the cracks in the story, provides a satisfying backstory for key characters and events, and helpfully provides information to the reader that’s held back from the TV viewer for several episodes – it’s not until the middle of the TV story, after all, that we’re told what exactly has been happening in London, but Terrance explains it all at the end of the first chapter.

Of course, the fact that Terrance was writing in the mid 70s himself gave him a certain amount of information not available at the time the story was broadcast. High on the list of things which make The Web of Fear notable is the fact that it features Nicholas Courtney’s debut as the Brigadier-to-be, one of the longest-lasting and most beloved characters in the entire series – but, of course, none of this was planned at the time and Lethbridge-Stewart doesn’t get the big entrance you might expect, nor do we really see his first meeting with the Doctor. Terrance fixes this, adding an appropriate scene and laying on the significance with a trowel (he also adds some dialogue at the end with the Colonel announcing the whole affair has given him the idea for a sort of Intelligence Taskforce…).

Even so, this overlooks an element of the story which probably eludes modern viewers entirely, familiar as we are: the fact that this is an enemy-within story as much as a base-under-siege adventure. One of the big questions throughout the later stages of the story is that of who the Great Intelligence’s puppet might be, and the story has a good go at throwing red herrings at the audience. What’s potentially curious is the fact that one potential candidate for the secret villain is Colonel Lethbridge-Stewart himself.

The temptation when watching The Web of Fear is to curl up in the warm glow of this earliest Brig-Courtney performance and marvel that the characterisation was absolutely spot on right from the very start. And, in a way it is: the elements of humour that later appeared aren’t there, but in every other respect this is clearly the same man who later becomes such a fixture of the series: honest, loyal, brave, intelligent, and dedicated. but what we’re perhaps in danger of overlooking is that the Colonel may only be presented that way to make him a more plausible candidate as the Intelligence’s vessel (on the basis of this-guy’s-just-a-bit-too-good-to-be-true).

You have to judge any Doctor Who story in context if you want to come to a fair assessment of it – and of course, the context of Patrick Troughton’s first two series is such a devastated wasteland that it’s hard to say anything with a great degree of certainty. However, The Web of Fear provides more confirmation, as if any were needed, of the brilliance of Patrick Troughton’s central performance (and here, as in The Enemy of the World, he seems much more inclined to flirt with the female guest cast than our traditional ideas of his characterisation might suggest), and the consistently strong direction of Douglas Camfield. It’s certainly a more engaging and memorable tale than The Enemy of the World; it certainly mounts a strong challenge to The Invasion and The War Games as the best (mostly) surviving Troughton story, not least because it is so much darker and stranger than either of them. It almost goes without saying that we needed the actual episodes to see this for certain, but I’ll say it again anyway – novelisations and recons are, in their own way, wonderful things. But there’s no substitute for the original episodes themselves.

 

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