purplecat: The  First Doctor (Who:One)
It occurred to me, as I was watching this, that we have a surprising number of Dalek stories left to view. I went and counted and a full quarter of the remaining stories (including this one) are Dalek stories. I guess we'll see if they get spread out or cluster.

At any rate, when viewing The Daleks' Masterplan there was a certain amount of confusion about which Dalek-Chase-Story-Starring-Peter-Purves Tame layman had already seen. I thought it was probably this one. He remembered some of this (so I think I was correct) but he also got confused on several occasions while watching with the other Dalek-Chase-Story-Starring-Peter-Purves.

Famously (for a value of famously that means "among certain Doctor Who fans") Peter Purves, who has a comedy role in one episode of The Chase, so impressed the production team that they brought him back two weeks later to become a companion. I can only think that it was his personality not his performance that impressed them because Morton Dill (from Alabama) is really not a great performance, even if you forgive the fake American accent. Steven Taylor, on the other hand, is pretty watchable from the get go. It is a shame that after the first 5 minutes of the next story his toy panda mascot is never mentioned again, because we became quite attached to it.

The Chase does not have a great reputation and its easy to see why. The format, in which The Daleks pursue the Tardis through time and space encountering the crew in a variety of locations, feels like an attempt to get out of any kind of detailed plotting in favour of a few set pieces. The Daleks, while not as reduced to comedy villains as some fan commentary had led me to expect, are a bit on the comical (utilising several different chants the effect of which is not to make them seem more chilling) and useless side (getting beaten up by a robot Frankenstein at one point). However having gone into this with low expectations I found it perfectly watchable. I'm not as big a fan of Ian and Barbara as many people are, but I do like Vicki, who has a number of nice moments here and who's relationship with the first Doctor is charming and so I was quite happy to watch this Tardis team just having vaguely random short adventures in time and space. Some of the sequences were more forgettable than others but the chase format, while hackneyed, at least kept things moving along.

There is a sequence where the Daleks construct a robot version of the Doctor in order to "infiltrate and kill". We were very interested by the places in which the duplicate was played by William Hartnell and where he was played by Edmund Warwick. This was obviously not determined only by when both characters had to be in shot at the same time, so presumably also depended upon some of the almost "as live" production which meant Hartnell was somewhere else in the studio at that point.

The final two episodes introduce the Mechanoids who, allegedly, were at one point intended as a recurring monster. It was interesting to contrast them with The Daleks. They are clearly more unwieldy, seeming to move more awkwardly around the set. One of the paradoxes of the Daleks is that they work in spite of (or perhaps because of) the sink plunger. The Mechanoids had little arm like things that while less ridiculous in principle, looked a lot sillier in practice. Mostly the Mechanoids served to highlight the mysterious genius of the Dalek design - they did have a very pretty city though.

This is definitely not a story I would recommend trying to view in one sitting, but as a series of 25 minute episodes spread out over a period of time, it is surprisingly entertaining. You have to let it roll over you as slightly mindless entertainment, but it manages not to be dull, has its moments of charm, and is saved by its variety of setting and plot.
purplecat: The second Doctor reading his 500 year diary. (Who:Two)
From The Web Planet to The Web of Fear: two stories which have remarkably little in common beyond the word "Web" in the title.

One thing the do have in common though (as well as the word "Web" in the title) is having been novelised early and well. To be honest, the novelisation of The Web of Fear is one of Terrance Dicks' 120 page jobs, but it is gripping and terrifying (at least if you are 9 years old). When, in 2013, all but one of the episodes of The Web of Fear were found, along with all of The Enemy of the World, it (of the two) was most anticipated and there was something of an air of disappointment once it was actually available. The memory, people felt, had in this case cheated.

For my birthday in 2013 I had a party on the 23rd November. The original plan had been to watch about three Doctor Who stories including the anniversary special, but when The Web of Fear was found I extended it earlier in order to watch this as well. To be honest, like many people, I think I was a little underwhelmed.

This time was very different. Oddly, tame layman recalled nothing of the earlier viewing (maybe he was in the kitchen making supper?) and he was genuinely gripped in the early episodes, and genuinely surprised and pleased when the Brigadier put in an appearance. Frankly the first two episodes are as gripping as my memories of the book suggest. It is difficult to tell with the third episode which consists only of telesnaps. The fourth is basically padding. There is a lot of running around shooting at yeti and a lot of the characters the story has been successfully building up are rather summarily bumped off, leaving a much smaller core group to carry the final two episodes. I suspect it is this fourth episode that is at the heart of the diappointment. It is ambitious for the 1960s but I suspect the collective imagination had built up the running fights through the streets of London into something impossible to realise at the time.

This feels eerily like a UNIT episode. I'm not sure if the producers already had UNIT in mind when creating it, but it has that feel of The Invasion and some of the early Pertwee stories, where the military have a much larger and more obvious presence. On the whole I think the story benefits from this. There is more excitement and more of a feel of realism (give or take Yeti in the London Underground, obviously) than in many Doctor Who stories.

The character work is often excellent. Anne Travers is a stand out - not only one of the show's first female scientists (a character type it was to lean into heavily for the next five years or so) but one of the better examples of the genre - able to stand up for herself, level headed, and equipped to help the Doctor. However the Brigadier, the unfortunate "Staff" (Sergeant Arnold in the novel but referred to by everyone as "Staff" here), Evans the cowardly but clever (professionally Welsh) Private, even Blake and Weams (two largely red-shirt characters) have a distinctiveness and life to them that mean you don't get the various soldiers confused with each other.

Rewatching this felt a bit like rediscovering the story. I'm not sure what went wrong in 2013. Maybe watching it all in one go was a mistake. But this took me back strongly to reading The Web of Fear at age 9 and experiencing the thrill of the Yeti in the London Underground.
purplecat: The  First Doctor (Who:One)
I was pretty wary going into The Web Planet. I was fond of the novelisation as a child, as were many people, but since its release on video it has not enjoyed a good reputation. 1960s Doctor Who's most ambitious attempt at creating an alien world seems to have been generally viewed as slow and marred by costumes that illustrate clearly what happens when ambition is greater than ability.

I actually thought it was fascinating in lots of ways though there are definitely places where it is both incoherent and/or slow.

I think it is the ant-like Zarbi whose costumes I have most often seen derided, but I thought they were actually the best of the four alien races on show. They look a lot less like men in ant suits than I was expecting. The butterfly-like Menoptera do look like men in suits but are no worse than a lot of Doctor Who aliens. I liked the attempt that had gone into giving them distinctive body language and the wire-work as they flew around (albeit in relatively few scenes) was impressive. The Larva Guns do look a bit like a stage costume but are quite cute - Tame Layman wanted one at any rate. The underground Optera are the weakest of the four and look as if they are made out foam. This is not helped by the fact they jump rather than walk - frankly the story would probably have benefitted from excision of the whole Optera sub-plot. Maybe Ian could have banged his head for a couple of episodes and William Russell gone on holiday.

So the costumes are a range from poor to surprisingly effective. But the sets and sound design are astounding. It is still very theatrical in feel but the whole thing is genuinely successful at creating a strange and alien feel. I'm not sure about the effect created by smearing vaseline on the camera lenses for the outdoor sequences. Tame Layman was very impressed when I explained it to him. Sometimes it definitely added to the eery feeling of the story but at other times, frankly, it did just look as if someone had smeared vaseline on the lenses. But really, apart from that, I thought there was a sense of the alien here that I'm not sure exists anywhere else in Doctor Who.

While the story is quite slow, I'm not sure that's a huge problem initially. It needs to be fairly slow in order to show off the alien world, but by episode 6 it is beginning to outstay its welcome - tame layman suddenly lost interest about 5 minutes into the final episode. It is also oddly incoherent in places seeming to jump forward in the narrative where you might expect some kind of linking scene. The final scene, in particular, where all the disparate groups meet at the Animus and fall under its sway is difficult to follow. From the book I recall that the sudden appearance of Ian and the Optera is supposed to tip the balance (I think they distract the Animus long enough for Barbara to use the Menoptera weapon) but in reality people seemed to be stumbling around, Ian appears and then everything is resolved.

It's not a perfect story by a long shot. But there is nothing else quite like this in the whole of the Doctor Who canon. It is part stage play and part science fiction of the weird alien society kind and is a sumptuous as Doctor Who at the time could afford to be. On its own terms I would say it mostly works.
purplecat: The second Doctor reading his 500 year diary. (Who:Two)
The Mind Robber occupies a story-telling space with The Celestial Toymaker that is somewhat unique in Doctor Who. While there have been many "oddball" episodes since, there is something about these two stories with their overt invocation of other fictional characters/children's games as real within the story that makes them seem far more like each other than like anything else in Doctor Who canon. The Celestial Toymaker is frankly rather dull (although I reserve the right to change my opinion should the missing episodes ever be found), The Mind Robber on the other hand is quite highly regarded in Who fandom.

I'm sure I've seen The Mind Robber before and I've certainly read the novelisation but not a great deal of it rang any bells on this rewatch. The things I'd particularly recalled - that Gulliver uses only dialogue from Swift, that the trees in the forest are made out of words - didn't somehow seem as clever in situ as they were in my memory, though like all clever details the effect is undeniably reduced when you encounter it a second time.

The story was beset by production problems. Most notably the first episode had to be invented from whole cloth with no sets very late in the day. The result, while undeniably impressive under the circumstances, doesn't actually make a lot of sense and in retrospect feels very much like the filler that it is. Then Frazer Hines came down with chickenpox and had to be replaced for an episode (something that would have been difficult in most other stories but works in this context where the Doctor is set the task of assembling Jamie's face and gets it wrong).

All in all you've got a clever and inventive script with yet further inventiveness being used to offset the last minute problems. It is easy to see why fandom likes this.

On the other hand I felt it failed to really come to life. I'm not sure if this was over-high expectations or the very theatrical nature of a lot of the sets or just one of those things where some days, some stories don't particularly do it for you.

After all it has a truly impressive animated medusa, Zoe (rather improbably) demonstrating her martial arts skills, and the companions getting trapped in a giant book - really what more could you want from a Doctor Who story?
purplecat: The  First Doctor (Who:One)
I first saw The Gunfighters at a WhoSoc meeting in the early 90s. Back then it was still renowned as the Doctor Who story with the lowest ratings (though Wikipedia tells me this is a myth, though it is apparently the Doctor Who story with the lowest audience appreciation score). Since then its been through a bit of a re-assessment where people seemed to like it, and then gone back to being, if not widely derided, at least generally considered a bit sub-standard.

I rather liked it back then, and was somewhat anxious that I would like it less this time around.

To be honest, I mostly like the song - which itself seems to have been re-evaluated and then re-evaluated again. The song, The Last Chance Saloon appears both within the story, various characters sing it in the saloon, and at various moments in the soundtrack acting as a chorus to the action. I think it is a great conceit, though in the first episode - where the Song mostly reprises the refrain "There'll be blood upon the sawdust in the Last Chance Saloon" - it edges towards becoming tedious. However later episodes change up the words a bit and I found I wasn't getting tired of it at all.

The Gunfighters is a Donald Cotton script which means, more or less, that it's a comedy with an alarmingly high body count. It isn't as out-and-out funny as bits of the The Myth Makers, and that may be part of its problem. It's comedy is at the level of "makes you smile from time to time". The cast seem to be having fun, but that's not quite translating itself to the screen. There's some nice stuff with Steven and Dodo acting as if they are in a theme park Wild West rather than the real place - which admittedly makes them both seem pretty stupid but I don't think that's a problem just with this episode, they are both very child-like in the preceding story as well. The sympathetic characters: broadly speaking Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, Kate and (to a lesser extent) Doc Holliday all have slightly divergent but understandable motivations - and again, there are nice bits where Earp demonstrates that he's the person who is the expert in managing the situation and the Doctor had better do as he's told.

That said, it's also quite confusing: neither Tame Layman, nor I, know much about the Wild West, and the story assumes a familiarity with the characters and background to the O.K.Corral that we didn't really have. We'd more or less sorted out who everyone was by the end (I think) but there were moments in the middle where we were quite confused... and of course, its a Donald Cotton story so its relationship to historical accuracy is probably tenuous at best.

The novelisation chooses to place the Doctor himself in the action at the O.K. Corral - having him press-ganged by the Earps into walking up the street with them (and makes a point of how dangerous his rather erratic control of the shotgun they've given him is). It came as a surprise, therefore, that he is actually completely absent from the denouement; as is Steven, while Dodo appears randomly from nowhere to get in Doc Holliday's way. One of the problems Doctor Who often has in depicting history is figuring out how to actually involve the Tardis crew in the action. It looks like Cotton just gave up trying when he got to the final episode.

All that said, The Gunfighters is an interesting beast. The attempt at a comedy historical, with the deliberate framing of the song, and the attempt to nevertheless ground out some of the humour in the tragedy of the deaths of people's loved ones may not quite work but, insofar as its a failure, it's an interesting and well-intentioned one. Given I went into it with some trepidation and a fear that the memory had cheated, I was pleasantly surprised.
purplecat: Peter Davison as the Fifth Doctor (Who:Five)
Warriors of the Deep is an oddly schizophrenic Doctor Who story remembered chiefly for one disastrous special effect and its closing line: "There should have been another way". Which in a way simply highlights its tendency to lurch from the sublime to the ridiculous.

Well, sublime may be stretching things a little, the nuts and bolts of the narrative have all the ingredients necessary for a gripping base under siege style tale, and some of the production looks competent to good. It is well documented that studio filming on the story was drastically curtailed due the announcement of a General Election and the Myrka monster is the most obvious casualty of this. Before it appeared I was hoping it was going to prove not quite as bad as fan memory would have it.

"Oh look!" said Tame Layman within seconds of its appearance. "It's a pantomime Myrka."

So, yes, the Myrka is that bad. It's impossible to know, as I believe the puppeteers inside it have claimed, that if they had had a little rehearsal time it would have looked much better. Certainly as a static costume there isn't much wrong with it. It's just every time the dratted thing moves it looks deeply ridiculous.

However the rest of the sets and the costumes are pretty decent, if a little 1980s. Tame Layman even commented on the effectiveness of the white scaffolding like frameworks for creating levels in the sets, though he also laughed at the bubble wrap bed sheets.

It's not documented that the script was written in a hurry, though writer Johnny Byrne (so Wikipedia tells me) complained about Saward's rewrites - including increasing the body count (so much, so Eric Saward). However it feels like a script in need of another draft. A major sub-plot revolves around the human antagonists gaining mind control over the base's sync-operator Maddox - only for them to use it entirely to get him to trash stuff, rather than actually operate the base's missiles which, presumably was the reason why he, as the only person with access to the system, was targeted. Meanwhile the Silurians and Sea Devils slowing invade the base. It was quite nice to have a base-under-siege story that didn't involve endless capture and re-capture of the base instead focusing on the invaders' remorseless advance. I'm sure this was, in part, a side-effect of only needing to fill four episodes where Troughton base-under-siege tales generally had to fill six or more. On the other hand the Myrka as well as being a terrible costume seemed to have little purpose. The Sea Devils were clearly far more effective at taking the place over than the Myrka.

It's a shame in lots of ways. I think Warriors of the Deep could have been a solid, gripping story that would been held in high regard. It's let down by a script that has all the right elements but hasn't quite assembled them together neatly enough and, well, by one truly appalling special effect.
purplecat: The Fourth Doctor (Who:Four)
The Power of Kroll is not generally considered highly and certainly tends to be compared unfavourably with the rest of the Key to Time season that surrounds it. However, I had a feeling going in that it might not be that terrible and so didn't mention its reputation to Tame Layman, though I did say "All Hail Kroll!" to which he responded "Oh, it's one of those stories is it?"

And it honestly isn't that bad. On the other hand, it's not really that good either.

The biggest problem is the swampies (or, I suppose, the bad CSO of a giant squid attacking the swampie camp, but mostly I feel one is missing the point if you complain about the effects in 1970s Doctor Who). The swampies are clearly intended as an analogue for Native Americans and the story clearly wants to say something about the displacement of native peoples and the need to respect their cultures, unfortunately the swampies contrive to look faintly ridiculous and we are never invited to actually respect their culture (what little we see of it), nor does anyone ever really seek to present a point of view on what is worthwhile about their culture (beyond a little bit of random Earth people all live in metal boxes stuff which doesn't even really reach as far as suggesting that they have lost touch with nature). Their worship of Kroll (which is about all we know about them) is mostly held up for ridicule, particularly by the Doctor. Robert Holmes, of course, is neither the first nor the last author to attempt to address an injustice and contrive to be rather offensive about the victim of the injustice in the process, but he normally had a defter hand than this.

Swampies aside, the story has several decent characters, with a spectrum from narrow-minded ideology to pragmatism and compassion on display in the debates both within the refinery and in the swampy camp. The location filming is actually rather impressive and makes a change from quarries. One feels that series 11 NuWho with its anamorphic lenses and love of scenery would have made much of the flat landscape of marsh and reeds. The nuts and bolts of the plotting is perfectly coherent and has several clever bits, including the story behind Kroll's great size. We get to see the actor who played K9, which excited tame layman no end.

I suspect The Power of Kroll suffers both from comparison to the first stories in the Key to Time sequence, which are much better than this, and from a few key production points that let it down but it is mostly a perfectly solid Tom Baker story.
purplecat: The second Doctor reading his 500 year diary. (Who:Two)
The Abominable Snowmen was one of the very first Doctor Who novelisations I ever had, so I'm very familiar with the story. I'd never actually watched it all the way through, however, though I had seen the second episode (the only one remaining) a couple of times.

Superficially, its another Troughton base-under-siege story and yet it feels very different from the stories that surround it. Possibly this is because Troughton's bases tend to be full of scientists with a clearly defined external threat. The Abominable Snowmen is mostly about understanding what the real threat is, and instead of a base full of scientists, we have a Tibetan monastery full of monks and moreover, we have an antagonist who is working much of the time to minimise loss of life and is fundamentally sympathetic to the Doctor and his companions. It is also, of course, one of Doctor Who's few forays into non-Western history though it isn't very obvious that it is supposed to be set in the 1920s.

Victoria has been one of my companion disappointments with the randomiser, but she's not too bad here and given the novelisation is probably the first time I came across the character, that might explain why, as a child, she was always one of my favourite companions. I think quite a lot of the book is written from her point-of-view and she is given more inner strength than often came across on the show. That said, she is more inconsistent, than uniformly strong here. Her characterisation veers wildly almost from scene to scene, at one moment she will be your typical companion: curious, a bit reckless, determined to investigate and moments later she is the Victoria we saw more often: timid and anxious to be somewhere safe.

Somewhat to our surprise it was quite difficult to find a reconstruction of the missing episodes on YouTube. Our normal source - Loose Cannons - didn't seem to have one. Our options appeared to be two different animated versions, we picked the one that looked to have been made from telesnaps/screenshots and were, after a while, quite taken with the effect of animated still pictures against CGI backdrops. We thought it was something that with a little more time and money could have been very effective. However that gave out after episode 4 and the final two episodes were full CGI affairs made, we were fairly certain, using machinima techniques (i.e., moving the characters around inside a game engine). This was quite odd in places since much depended upon the models available in the engine. Mostly it was OK, but the final confrontation was rendered almost incomprehensible - Jamie and the monk, Thonmi, disappear behind a screen from where smashing noises are heard, the search for the right thing to smash takes place entirely unseen, meanwhile the Doctor, Victoria and Padmasabhava stand around doing nothing (presumably in reality there was much acting of struggling against mind control going on, but the 3D models weren't really up to that).

As the story which introduced both the Yeti and the Great Intelligence to Doctor Who, you would expect The Abominable Snowmen to have been an obvious choice for an attempt at animation. Instead it seems strangely neglected. I wonder if there is a concern that it will fare no better than The Talons of Weng-Chiang if exposed to 21st century fan attention - certainly the Tibetan monks are all played by people with names like Norman Jones and one has a nasty suspicion that the writers did not know a great deal about Tibetan buddhism.

That said, I nevertheless wish more of this story existed. I remain very fond of it and think it is an interesting and different take on the base-under-siege format. More than many, I think it is a story that would have benefitted from being able to see what the actors were doing.
purplecat: The  First Doctor (Who:One)
The Tardis doors open during flight and as a result of "space pressure" the Tardis crew are all shrunk to the size of an inch. Planet of Giants is one of those Doctor Who "might-have-beens". The idea of a minaturised crew was mentioned in the original outline for the series but seems like an outlandish idea now, one that, as presented here, doesn't quite fit in with the show's internal logic (even given the show has a massively inconsistent internal logic). The result is a story that is quite strong on visuals, particularly set design, but a little weak in terms of story - even more so given that episode 3 was originally intended to be two episodes, and this shows in places. Dudley Simpson's first score for the program is oddly intrusive.

Episode 1 is probably the best. The reveal of the problem takes up a lot of the episode and the secondary plot - of the development of a deadly insecticide that will eventually wipe out life on Earth, and the attempt to cover up its effects - is interestingly topical (particularly for 1964). However, as is so often the case, its easy to set up a situation in an engaging fashion, but less easy to resolve it. The result is a lot of the Tardis team climbing up things or down things. There is some really pointless stupidity on the part of Barbara (and weirdly not even stupidity that is needed to move the plot along). Barbara gets her hands contaminated by some of the deadly insecticide. Initially she doesn't mention this because events keep interrupting, but then it moves on to a point where she is just wilfully not telling people she is ill, until the Doctor works it out. At this point Barbara persuades the rest of the crew that nevertheless they need to stay to expose the creators of the insecticide and everything continues. That said, the plot about the insecticide is actually mostly resolved through the intervention of a nosey telephone switchboard operator and the Tardis crew have relatively little to do with it. Meanwhile, a lot of the discussion about how Barbara will recover if bought back to her original size, just rather highlights some inconsistencies about what does and does not shrink (or grow) under "space pressure" so that Tame Layman started worrying about how everyone's miniature lungs were coping with Oxygen.

At the end of the day Planet of Giants is an interesting curiosity. At only three episodes, at least it doesn't really have the time to get too dull, and it definitely looks good (better than I suspect it would have done if made 10 years later when CSO would probably have been used extensively) but the plot doesn't really work and its not clear the writer knew what to do with the concept beyond showing off some nifty ideas about how miniature people would interact with everyday objects. It's kind of Doctor Who does The Borrowers and fun for that, but there isn't much else there.
purplecat: The Third Doctor (Who:Three)
Insofar as there are unloved Pertwee stories, Planet of the Spiders, is unloved. I think The Time Monster has worse rep in fandom, but Planet of the Spiders is often discussed as too long and derided for devoting an entire episode to a chase scene.

Tame Layman loved the chase episode. This may have been because it gave him an opportunity to debate the merits of hovercraft as a mode of transport, with particular reference to 1970s attitudes to the same, but frankly one of the advantages of a chase it that events at least keep happening.

Personally, I think the story slows down mostly with events on Metebelis 3. The buddhist retreat in the UK is more relatable, as well as being something of a period curiosity, while society on Metebelis 3 is one of Doctor Who's more generic attempts consisting primarily of evil overlords/spiders, oppressed peasants (complete with Mumerset accents), and reckless young men. It doesn't help that a lot of the scenery is CSO. The spiders, a brave attempt at puppet work by the production team, are the most interesting thing there. There is a genuine attempt to differentiate them and give them some politics. The puppets themselves occasionally veer on the edge of ludicrous (especially during the several scenes where the spiders debate among themselves) but mostly, I think, the production gets away with them.

I'm inclined to agree that the story could use a trim, but its the Metebelis sections that really need the attention, not those set on Earth.
purplecat: The  First Doctor (Who:One)
I was really, really, not looking forward to the moment the randomiser would throw up The Aztecs. As a story it is generally highly regarded in fandom, in part because it has the structure of a tragedy and in part because it is the show's first attempt to address the question of whether history can be changed and possibly because it is one of the few times the show has ventured outside of European history. I've read the novelisation and watched the third episode as part of the original randomiser, plus of course reading a lot of fan commentary down the years and the whole concept has always made me curl up with secondhand embarrassment in the way some sitcom plots do.

I don't think I've ever met anyone else, even people who dislike the comedy of social embarrassment trope, who it takes the same way. When I discussed episode 3 in the original randomiser the other mailing list members were rather fascinated by my reaction, though I don't think we ever came to a real conclusion about it.

Watching the whole thing was, well, it wasn't as bad as I had expected. As Tame Layman said, towards the end, the story touches on a lot of quite meaty subjects (which are less well discussed in fandom, to be frank, than the can't change history thing). One of the moments I was most dreading was Barbara's decision early on to use her status as a god-like figure* to prevent a human sacrifice - a lot of commentary has focused on how this derives from her desire to change history and "save" the Aztecs which, even allowing for the fact she is new on the Tardis, is really something she needed to talk through with the Doctor before embarking upon - however in context it is clearer that this is, if not exactly a spur of a moment thing, a straightforward matter of the fact that she is not prepared to be complicit in allowing human sacrifice**. Ian, who has to hold the victim down, prefigures this with his own reaction to being given the task. The Doctor manages to convince Ian that, for the safety of all of them, he must go through with it but Ian is generally much more likely to sacrifice ideals for brute pragmatism and is in a position of less notional power than Barbara. I still think the way it is presented involves Barbara being a bit stupid, but it wasn't the total idiocy it has always been in my imagination.

That said, The Aztecs does seem to involve the Tardis crew taking turns to hold the stupid ball as they blunder through Aztec life making only minimal attempts to understand it and fit in, and apparently unaware of quite how precarious their position is. Weirdly, Ian who volunteers to become a warrior, more or less gets away with his stupidity even though, best will in the world and accounting for the fact he has done national service, I would not frankly rate the chances of a schoolteacher from the 1960s against the Aztec warrior elite. The Doctor, the only one who really appreciates the situation, gets away more lightly. He is aware of the risks he takes and even though he is out-maneuvered occasionally he's not obviously being stupid about it. He does manage to get accidentally engaged to be married, but frankly he doesn't seem too put out by the idea - just going to show really that the Doctor has always been a flirt. Susan gets to carry the stupid ball big time however, particularly in episode three which was the episode I had previously watched in isolation. I'm not really prepared to give her a pass for being a teenager. She and the Doctor are supposed to be experienced travellers and one feels she ought to have known to keep her head down and hope they could get away quickly, rather than loudly railing about how she wouldn't conform to Aztec marriage customs.

So, yes, there is a lot of stupid going on and, in particular, a lot of stupid that is driven by a lack of a nuanced appreciation of a society and culture. Obviously, that is partly the point. Writer John Lucarotti wants to explore cultural misunderstandings; the West's dogmatic assumptions about its own superiority and mission to "save" other people; he wants to have the debate about the tensions between cultural respect and morality; the fact that if a god orders you to do something you don't agree with you are as likely to decide the god is false as to change your beliefs; and it wants to explore how far people are prepared to go to preserve their own safety and that of those close to them or, alternatively, to promote their ideals. I can see why the people who hold the story in high regard do so, but I would still have enjoyed it more if there had been a bit less stupid on display and perhaps if it had been prepared to explore the moral dilemmas inherent in the situation a bit more, and focus a bit less on the fact that you can't change history "not one line".

I'm not sure I'll watch it again. The Aztecs still pings badly on my personal embarrassment meter, but I'm glad I saw it once.

* As a result of a frankly bizarre bit of tomb robbing. I really doubt Barbara is the kind of person who, on finding a mummified body, would just casually strip it of jewellery.
** In more recent years some of the commentary has centred around whether Barbara is more fundamentally in the wrong here for not respecting Aztec culture. There is obviously a hugely complex debate about moral relativism but, broadly speaking, its an over simplistic position to assume a culture gets to do whatever it likes just because it has a different set of ethical norms. I do not actually think it was wrong, per se, for Barbara to take the position that she can not stand by and do nothing while a human sacrifice takes place ostensibly with her blessing.
purplecat: The Sixth Doctor (Who:Six)
"You thought The Woman who fell to Earth was a bad regeneration story!" says I. "Wait 'til you see this!"

Strangely enough, the Teenager, was not motivated by this statement to watch The Twin Dilemma with us.

Actually way back when, in 1984, The Twin Dilemma was the story from the previous season that I chose to keep on video tape while over-writing the others with different programmes (Betamax tapes were quite expensive (at least on my pocket money) so space on them had to be rationed). This, in retrospect, seems like an odd choice but just because fan wisdom has consigned The Twin Dilemma to the very bottom of the polls doesn't actually mean its bad, does it?

Well, there are moments, particularly when Maurice Denham is on screen, that The Twin Dilemma shows signs of being good. It is not unusual for a Dr Who guest star to appear to think they are in an entirely different show from the rest of the cast. However normally this manifests as scenery chewing, while everyone else vainly tries to take things more seriously. In The Twin Dilemma we have the reverse. Denham's Azmael is restrained and dignified while everything else is over the top and garish. But then the eponymous twins will put in an appearance, or a particularly clunky piece of dialogue will go down, or the "super genius" villainous Mestor will do something pointless and/or idiotic and you'll realise that yes, it really is bad.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, of course. I think there is lots that is rubbish about The Twin Dilemma which has nothing to do with the Sixth Doctor himself, however the introduction of the Sixth Doctor at his most unpleasant does not, in retrospect, help the story. At the time, in so far as I remember, one of the things I liked about the story was Colin Baker's performance. This was in turn fuelled by some of the pre-publicity. I think in particular an appearance of Colin on Blue Peter where he was enthusiastic and entertaining in person, and the clips selected as previews (the "noble brow" speech, I think) seemed equally funny and entertaining out of context. In context, well, the attempted strangulation of Peri is uncomfortable to watch and the resolution awkward. Since the show is unwilling to really examine what it would be like to be stuck in a time and space machine with a dangerously unstable Time Lord who might attempt to murder you at any moment, it falls back on making Peri whiny and petulant. Thus is a Doctor and companion dynamic established that it would take the show far too long to overcome. A better script/better direction might have redeemed this presentation of the Doctor, but what we get is heavy-handed and clunky, lurching as awkwardly as the Doctor from peril, to comedy, to exposition.

Weirdly, large sections of the plot seem to have been lifted from Frontios earlier in the season. I'm not sure if that's pure coincidence, or a sign that The Twin Dilemma had to be written and produced in a hurry. However, given Frontios is pretty decent despite its dodgy monster costumes and story of giant woodlice trying to take over the universe via planetary mechanics (woodlice that turn back into harmless creatures when cut off from their leader), there is no reason The Twin Dilemma could not have been pretty decent with its dodgy master costumes and story of giant slugs trying to take over the universe via planetary mechanics (slugs that turn back into harmless creatures when cut off from their leader).

The Twin Dilemma is better than Time and the Rani. Somewhere in there, there is an at least half-decent story. We get glimpses of it from time to time - from Azmael's quietly despairing dignity, to the hints of politics both on Earth and on Jaconda. But the script feels like a first draft, the sets and direction look like they were thrown together at the last minute, the twins acting ability is functional at best, and stilted at worst. It was an unfortunate start to the Sixth Doctor's era and where Time and the Rani turned out to be very atypical for the Seventh Doctor, The Twin Dilemma functions more as a template for the era. Much of what was wrong with the 1985 season of Doctor Who has its roots here and that probably makes it a worse regeneration story than Time and the Rani, because its effect was far more long-reaching.
purplecat: The Third Doctor (Who:Three)
For some reason I'm constantly surprised by how grounded in reality a lot of the Pertwee era feels. There's obviously something about being embedded within an Earth organisation, but in some ways it's the details: travelling places by car, using locations to represent themselves. It happens in other eras as well of course, but there's something about the style of Pertwee stories that seeks to makes even its more outrageous ideas seem more everyday - at least some of the time (I'm not about to claim Carnival of Monsters feels grounded in reality).

In The Mind of Evil it is particularly the prison sequences (and the storming of the prison by the army) that convey this feeling, similar perhaps to the way I was struck by the high profile presence of the army in Claws of Axos. This may be because Doctor Who often treats even the presence of soldiers by populating the background of a scene with a couple of extras so it is a bit startling when you have lots of people on screen scaling walls with ropes and so on.

The rest of the story doesn't quite work. It's not that its disparate elements: murders at an international peace conference; a new technique for "curing" prisoners; and a nerve gas missile convoy don't fit together but some of the plot connections between them are rather thin and its easy to forget how you reached point B in the story from point A. It is also quite a convoluted plan on the Master's part, but then the Master likes over-convoluted plans so that is probably fair enough.

It's a very good story for Jo, who organises a prison recapture, knocks out the odd rioting prisoner and generally holds the fort at Stangmoor Prison, despite the presence of the Master, his henchfolk and an evil mind parasite. This shouldn't need saying, but it does.

All Pertwee stories are watchable, and nearly all of them are solid from a plot point of view. It's not my favourite era of Doctor Who and this isn't my favourite story from that era, but even so, I'd happily watch it again.
purplecat: Peter Davison as the Fifth Doctor (Who:Five)
I recall from dim and distant Oxford DocSoc days a review of Frontios which described it as an excellent story up to episode three where everything went downhill (literally) to the underground evil weevils. This has stayed in my mind since as my appraisal - nice setup, all goes wrong in episode three, but I actually think that is a little unfair.

It's a grim and militaristic tale, but not in the "unpleasantly violent and fixated on space mercenaries" manner of a lot of Saward Era stories. It sets itself in a military dictatorship, but one which is shown to collapse partway through the story and one in which the dictator is at least benevolent in intention. One wonders if writer, Christopher H. Bidmead and Eric Saward had some discussion in which Saward was pushing for soldiers and military uniforms, and Bidmead went with it but chose to colour in his world in a way which showed the limitations of a military dictatorship, even one that desired to be benevolent.

As the long ago review notes, the set up is tense and atmospheric and, for Doctor Who, we actually get a lot of world building showing us a colony on the point of collapse from bombardment by enemies unknown. As for going downhill underground to the evil weevils? Well there are some problems with the evil weevils. The costumes look great from the knees upwards, but are rather obviously skirts from the knees down (a problem suffered by a number of 1960s aliens but not really seen since) and the Tractators are definitely rather less interesting than the society above ground. I remember Bidmead complaining that budgetary shortcomings had also short-changed the depiction of Tractator technology which he had very much wanted to be constructed entirely from human "spare parts" but even what was shown here was enough to have Tame Layman comment that it was "really rather unpleasant". It's not as good as the rest of the story, but I don't think the evil weevils hugely let it down. It's a little too convenient that the solution turns out to be simply a matter of isolating the chief Tractator from the rest of them, but this will not be the last time 1980s Doctor Who decides to use this get out. However, even while we are getting a certain amount of running around underground tunnels being pursued by evil weevils, we are also seeing the collapse into anarchy of the regime on the surface, so the story doesn't really lose the atmosphere it has built up.

We watched An Adventure in Time and Space shortly after this and it was more than a little odd to see Jeff Rawle in both. In An Adventure in Time and Space, where he plays Mervyn Pinfield, you could argue he's very much playing a straight version of his George Dent character from Drop the Dead Donkey - mild-mannered, a little put-upon, wears cardigans. In Frontios he plays Plantagenet, the slightly useless son and heir of the colony's leader, Captain Revere. While Plantagenet is depicted as, well, slightly useless, the story is clearly reaching towards an idea of him as the dashing hero who comes into his own. Seeing him 30 years later in a cardigan is a bit of a shock.

The performances are generally excellent in keeping with most of the script and, even when faced with the Tractator costume, no one chooses to treat the story as a pantomime (except for, perhaps, some rather awkward dialogue in which Tegan has to pretend to be an android which fails to really be as funny as is necessary to justify its inclusion).

Frontios is an oddly over-looked story. It seems very much in keeping with the Saward era, but avoids many of its excesses. It is quite grim, but not relentlessly so, and not as an end in its own right. The result is tense, atmospheric and thoughtful... and also has evil weevils (but this is Doctor Who).
purplecat: The Fourth Doctor (Who:Four)
I was looking forward to The Ribos Operation. I've seen it at least a couple of times and had a positive memory that it looked good, had pretty solid characterisation and a nice sense of humour. It isn't an especially showy Doctor Who episode but, in some ways is the better for it. It doesn't raise over-high expectations, nor does it try to deliver on special effects beyond its ability. I was also expecting Tame Layman to like it, its a decent fourth Doctor episode with, again, a good sense of humour and I thought he'd be all over Binro the Heretic and the trials of a scientist in a superstitious culture.

Tame Layman was mostly rather unmoved by it and his main comment, in episode four, was that it was a bit of a pantomime. Now we had just watched Demons of the Punjab and I think pretty much any Tom Baker episode would look a little pantomimic next to it, but this was the moment in which the Doctor, Romana and Garron all try to hide in an alcove by lying on top of each other so you could see his point. In fact, while fandom has tended to laud Garron and Unstoffe as a classic Holmesian double-act, there is a fair bit of the DNA of pantomime in their interactions, schemes and sleight of hand.

All that said, of all the episodes of Doctor Who to get labelled "pantomime", The Ribos Operation would not be the one that instantly sprang to my mind. Everything I remembered about it still holds true: it does look good (in part because the BBC Costume department, as I've noted before, was much better at costumes with a historical flavour than it was at envisioning futuristic clothing). The characterisation is a little broad brush perhaps but the characters do benefit from being distinct and memorable with (mostly) their own agendas. There is plenty of humour not just from the "Holmesian double act", but also between the Doctor and new companion Romana and the pair of them and Garron. But I can also see why this doesn't make top ten lists, its a little too straightforward, it doesn't quite embrace its atmosphere of a medieval ice planet and the humour is often a little too arch and pleased with itself... and in direct comparison with Demons of the Punjab it does look a bit like a pantomime.

Poor Ribos Operation, I fear that circumstances on this viewing were against you.
purplecat: Peter Davison as the Fifth Doctor (Who:Five)
It's 1980s Who with "Time" in the title. This never bodes well!

Actually, to be fair, there are bits of Time Flight that are quite reasonable. Most of the stuff at Heathrow is actually passable and sufficiently novel in terms of location and style to be quite interesting. One suspects if the story had managed to maintain its air of some kind of airport based procedural story it would have been much better. Both the Concorde crew and Professor Hayter are surprisingly good characters who manage (mostly) to be both interesting and competent, and the idea of a race that has converted itself into some kind of mental gestalt but still has warring "good" and "bad" sides is sufficiently interesting to have potential for good Doctor Who.

To be honest, in lots of ways, Time Flight's biggest sin is that it rather obviously ran out of money halfway through. Pretty much everything on prehistoric Earth looks shoddy and the story lacks the necessary charm or energy to overcome the general cheapness. Obviously there is also the issue of the Master and his entirely pointless disguise, but the Master obviously just likes dressing up so why not? especially since there is always a chance the Doctor will turn up. Tame Layman was genuinely surprised by his appearance so on some kind of basic level it was doing its job. It also provides a rather nice opportunity for Hayter and Captain Stapley's determined rationalism to trump the Doctor's vague assumption of more complex psychic forces, as they investigate "Khalid"'s crystal ball to reveal the electronics beneath.

I honestly think that with one more pass of the script to tighten it up, and enough money to realise its locations, Time Flight would be a much better liked story.
purplecat: The  First Doctor (Who:One)
I had heard The Sensorites both highly praised (particularly for an atmospheric first episode) and high derided (for being deeply boring) so I was kind of interested to see which I would think it was.

Ultimately I thought it was fine but unspectacular, which surprised me a bit for an episode which seems to generate such strong opinions. Like Edge of Destruction there was just a bit too much random and not terribly well explained behaviour in the first episode for me to buy into its spooky atmosphere, meanwhile there was enough event in the later episodes, even if much of it does not bear up to close scrutiny, to keep me happily watching.

The Sensorites is a bit Star Trekky in its presentation of an Earth Space Crew of the future and in its attempt at something vaguely high concept in episode 1. But, to be honest, it pretty much loses interest in this when it moves down to the planet and into its vague tale of mystery and political intrigue. As noted above, enough is happening to keep the attention (at least I thought), but the moment you actually think about any of it an awful lot of questions of the "how did that work/was that supposed to work?" arise. Like much of early Doctor Who, its very serialised plotting, with an assumption that the viewer doesn't have a detailed memory of what happened before the episode began and a happiness for each episode to go off in its own direction without necessarily much strong over-arching plot coherence. Frankly however, there is an awful lot of Doctor Who that contains an awful lot more pointless padding than is on display here.

There are some nice bits with Susan using both her telepathy (for once!) and taking a look at her relationship with her grandfather (insofar as 1963 Doctor Who does relationship development), and some quite fun bits with Ian and the Doctor down in the sewers.

While quite a bit of the world-building is stupid (or at least in need of better development), it is one of early Doctor Who's more serious attempts to present an alien society and that is not without interest as well.

Overall a perfectly serviceable slice of 1963 Doctor Who and I'm mostly mystified that anyone thinks otherwise.
purplecat: The Seventh Doctor (Who:Seven)
Back in the day, Delta and the Bannermen was one of my favourite Doctor Who stories. I think, in part, this came from watching with my parents who had been in their teens and early twenties in the 1950s when it is set. The story makes the most of the time period in its sound track and set dressing, and my parents had a nice trip down memory lane.

Delta and the Bannermen was made during what I tend to think of as the awkward transition year, after Eric Saward had left as script editor but before Andrew Cartmel had really taken control of the show. It has the whimsey/surreality of stories like The Happiness Patrol and The Greatest Show in the Galaxy without having the more serious undercurrents of most of the work Cartmel edited. It also has the random and largely unnecessary massacre of a bus load of a harmless tourists which feels like a hold over from Saward's tenure.

Watching it, many years after the first viewing, with Tame Layman, it still (tourist massacre aside) has plenty of verve and is (tourist massacre aside) a fun and light-hearted tale but, beyond that, it seems a rather insubstantial. Tame Layman commented that it was basically an extended chase scene in its construction and there is some truth in that.

One of the most interesting thing about Delta and the Bannermen is Ray, the companion who never was. At this point in the show the production team knew Bonnie Langford was leaving and considered two replacements - the lovelorn Welsh motorcycle mechanic wannabe Ray from this and Ace from Dragonfire (the next story). I can see why they went for Ace, her characterisation is more immediate from the start and contemporary companions are generally considered easier to write engagingly, and I think Ace was great, but sometimes I regret that we didn't get the rather gentler Ray. She had the capacity to be just independent and capable as Ace was allowed to be while at the same time being less in your face with her attitude and issues.

I remain fond of Delta and the Bannermen. It has a rather poor reputation and fandom circles. Its characters are a collection of bizarre and somewhat random folk (including a cameo from Ken Dodd) and if you don't buy into the bizarre randomness of it as, essentially, part of its charm, then its lack of budget and weird set of characters makes it look like a reject from a children's show such as Rentaghost. I love its joy in its 1950sness and its madcap and random heart, but Tame Layman is right that it really is just a long chase scene with screwball comedy aspirations and it is marred by the unnecessary massacre of the bus load of innocent and charming tourists.
purplecat: The Third Doctor (Who:Three)
The Green Death is one of those stories that suceeds, one rather feels, in spite of itself. On paper it is a bit of a disparate mess of elements that don't quite fit together, it suffers from the standard six parter's malaise of not really having enough material to fill its length (there is a lot of wandering around the mine), and its special effects have not benefitted from the translation to HD. However it has a great deal of charm, and is carried to no small extent by Katy Manning's energetic performance as Jo Grant in this her last story. There is plenty of event and a fair bit of mystery in the plot, so much so, that Tame Layman compared it favourably (at least at the plot level) to The Woman who Fell to Earth.

It is a little bit gloriously 1970s. The matter-of-factness of there being a community of hippy cutting-edge scientists just down the road from Global Chemicals, with their pyschedelic whimsy of big signs denoting spaces "The Room for Living". Not to mention the Brigadier's clear preference for the company of hippy scientists to the businessmen at Global Chemicals.

It has been noted that Jo Grant's final season is one of the few explicit attempts by the classic show to provide a companion with some character development. Even at the start of The Green Death, it is clear that Jo is ready to move on, identifying battles she wants to fight irrespective of the Doctor's own priorities. It is a shame that the rest of the story mostly isn't one of her finest hours, emphasising as it does her portrayal as well-meaning but scatter-brained and a bit clumsy. Katy Manning manages to make it all work, but this is a story in which Jo is often side-lined and generally the cause of rather than the solution to problems. The romance between her and Cliff Jones is charming enough but, in making him clearly a lot like the Doctor, one rather wishes the production team had not chosen to have him exhibit the Doctor's condescenscion towards Jo along with his brilliance and drive.

The story has two almost entirely separate causes of peril. The eponymous Green Death and its maggots is almost unrelated to the mad computer, a side-effect of the computer's plans but of no actual interest to it. You can see the conceptual thread that joins it all together, the drive for profit and ultimate efficiency has caused both the elimination of the human from the decision-making process and the reckless generation of pollution whose side-effects are little understood, but somehow the two halves never really seem to come together in the story. Perhaps this is because the mad computer plot gets a bit sidelined into the ideas of computers programming people, not to mention the idea that BOSS is somehow linked to Stevens' brain in order to become event more efficient by introducing an element of human inefficiency into the mix. This, incidentally, was an aspect of BOSS of which I was unaware (or at least had forgotten, since I had read the novelisation at some point) when I discussed AI in Doctor Who with [personal profile] sir_guinglain for his DWM Bookazine article a while back and it has some interesting links to current thoughts about the role of emotions and their implementation in computational systems. The idea that BOSS is somehow part human, allows him/it to be given rather more character and personality than is allowed to most AIs in the classic series, which is nice but a bit distracting from the central message.

I can see why The Green Death is often spoken of highly, but rarely makes it into recommendation lists. There is a lot to like here but it is all nice bits and pieces that fails to make a strong coherent whole.
purplecat: The second Doctor reading his 500 year diary. (Who:Two)
I was very much looking forward to the Randomizer getting around to The War Games. It is spoken of highly in current fan circles (though I don't recall it getting a great deal of attention back in the day). I also had fond memories of the Target novelisation but given said novelisation packs 10 episodes worth of story into 120 pages (so I figured giving approximately 12 pages to each episode) I was interested to see what else was there in televised story.

Somewhat to my surprise Tame Layman clearly had absolutely no idea about anything to do with anything to do with this story. He was by turns intrigued, surprised and then more intrigued. Perhaps the greatest triumph of this story is that it manages genuine progression across its ten episodes with a plot that unfolds slowly through a series of reveals. Almost nothing feels like padding because while the story takes its own sweet time in places, it is always heading somewhere rather than running on the spot.

The first episode is almost a pure historical, indeed Tame Layman's first reaction to the story was to express some doubts about the wisdom of a setting so much in living memory (particularly at the time) and the risk of over-simplifying issues that were potenitally very real to the audience. However the few hints at strangeness in the episode had him commenting that it was all a little Sapphire and Steel.

By episode three, he was commenting on the similarity of the SIDRATs to Tardis's without apparently any idea at all that this was going somewhere. In fact, he was genuinely suprised at the appearance of the Time Lords in episodes 9 and 10 despite the fact that, by that point, it was abundantly obvious that the War Chief was a renegade time lord.

If the story has a weak section, I would say it is the sequences in the middle set in the command centre of the "aliens" (never referred to as anything else) where the War Chief and the Security Chief bicker and manuever for position. It is watchable enough and their very manuevering drives events. However it all picks up immensely when the War Lord appears who is, I think, one of the genuinely most impressive villains the show has put on screen. He looks like an administrator but conveys a sense of total competence and self-assurance. You have no doubt that he is absolutely in charge of the situation and completely efficiently ruthless in the pursuit of his aims. There is no bluster or grandiosity. It's a truly impressive performance.

The rag tag resistance (including surprise appearance by David Troughton) were not quite as I expected. I had no real memory of Captain Russell who is probably the most clearly drawn resistance leader here (though I was interested in the way he instantly started deferring to Lieutenant Carstairs once they meet up - rank in the British Army, it would seem, transcends temporal constraints). I did clearly remember the Mexican Civil War leader from the books, though I approached his appearance with some trepidation, fearing a terrible stereotype. And yes, he is basically a one-dimensional stereotype but lacked the scenery-chewing gusto of my mental image so that he was ultimately one of the more forgettable parts of the story.

I wrote, when we viewed both The Invasion and Ambassadors of Death, that they were much better than they had any right to be given their length. This is something else entirely. It fits its length seemingly effortlessly and is, I think genuinely as good as current fan wisdom would suggest.


Who against Guns made a series of podcast commentaries for these episodes, of which I have copies. I will probably listen to these at some point.

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