Thursday 1 February 2024

Saturday 1st February 1964 - The Rescue

 

"This senseless, evil killing!"

So ends the 7-part adventure which began just before Christmas. After the slow preceding episodes, this is fast-paced and ends with an exhausting - if poorly edited - climax. Obviously, the small production budget makes the battle between Thals and Daleks something quite limited and undermines the attempts by the creative team to infuse some moralising about the futility of war. Noting anti-nuclear sentiments is hardly surprising considering the Daleks intend to spread radiation across Skaro.

Action is split between Ian's group seemingly trapped in the caves below the Dalek city and the Dalek control room where the Doctor and Susan are held captive. We're supposed to consider this in terms of the waste of life in conflict (Antodus sacrifices himself at the start and dead Thals and Daleks are scattered across the Control Room at the end).

After two months and the grip that Doctor Who made on the British imagination, there's still the question of who The Doctor actually is. It's left to the Thal, Alydon, to ask this on behalf of us viewers:

ALYDON: Doctor? You know, there never seems to have been time to ask, but we don't really know where you come from, or why.

Which the Doctor obviously avoids answering and we only get the enigmatic comment:

DOCTOR: I'm afraid I'm much too old to be a pioneer. Although I was once amongst my own people.


And adds:

DOCTOR: You wanted advice you said. I never give it. Never. But I might just say this to you. Always search for truth. My truth is in the stars and yours is here.

I get the impression that this adventure has changed the Doctor. He's encountered a senseless evil - in the form of the Daleks - and, I suspect, been galvanised by the heroics of Ian, Barbara and the Thals. He's not the same Doctor we met in Totter's Lane. While he still isn't prepared to roll up his sleeves and get involved with rebuilding Skaro, he is now able to give advice.

Before the travellers depart, there's a brief scene between Barbara and Ganatus. He kisses her hand and she kisses him on the lips. It's a shame that this romance wasn't flagged clearly enough in earlier episodes. Their parting seems awkward and stiff (though, perhaps, that is what Barbara is like). No wonder Ian seemed to be pretty grumpy in the last few episodes.

Alas, the Daleks are all destroyed. The fight sequence in the Control Room suggested that the short-circuit that causes the power drain is caused by an unknown Thal who, despite being shot, manages to struggle with a Dalek and pushes it into a vulnerable console. There's something unfulfilling in the way that it's not anyone we know who does this. Just a random Thal. Shame we won't ever see the Daleks again. Right?

The final scene shows the TARDIS console room with the Doctor skipping around adjusting controls. The others stand about. There seems to be some sort of explosion and everyone falls to the floor.

Next week: The Edge of Destruction.

Thursday 25 January 2024

Saturday 25th January 1964 - The Ordeal

 

"We'll show them a thing or two."

Ten episodes in and it seems to me that we're finally witnessing the Doctor's engagement with what's going on around him. Previously, his adventures, first with the prehistoric Tribe of Gum and now the Thals and Daleks have forcibly shaken him out of the aloof and disinterested pose he'd assumed while at Totter's Lane which, no doubt, included a tendency to nip off in the TARDIS when he'd had enough. He's still talking to himself abstractedly and rolling his eyes but he's now happily getting involved. He's stuck on Skaro because Ian lost the "fluid link" and now leads a group of Thals in an attack on the Dalek city. The Doctor relishes being a military leader.

Unfortunately, this episode strikes me as not much more than plodding filler: it's another episode of travelling to the Dalek city. The Ordeal suggests something far more dramatic than what we actually see: Ian, Barbara and a group of Thals climbing about in underground tunnels (only we don't get to see much more than three or four tunnels close up which really diminishes the "ordeal" factor).

Hot on the tails of last week's episode, we have the remains of Elyon, the Thal, gurgling and swirling round in the lake. Just to make it clear, one of the other Thals asks "Did he fall in?" Obviously not. They have to get to the cliffs by night. I'm actually having a hard time telling the Thals apart and remembering their names. I'm sure one of these is Antodus, who turns out to be traumatised by the whole journey (so maybe "ordeal" refers to Antodus' ordeal).

Meanwhile Susan and the Doctor reconnoitre the Dalek city from behind a large rock with the aid of a pair of glasses . They are with two Thal's around a large rock where they are making a map.Foolishly, the Doctor stands up to get a better look (through glasses with telescopic lenses) and has to be reminded to get down by Susan. The Doctor advises that they must preven

Inside the Dalek city the Daleks prepare a neutron bomb with a 500 mile radius. It will take 23 days which is far too long for the impatient Daleks in charge and they decide to work out another way of spreading radiation. Other than fear of an attack by the peaceful Thals or the Doctor and his companions, I'm not sure why the Daleks need to act so quickly. These Daleks are a hypervigilant, frightened lot.

Next we have Barbara and a Thal called Ganatus inside a cave, searching it for a way through. It would have been helpful to have an establishing shot of the group going into the mouth of a cave (presumably somewhere on the cliffs) but perhaps the budget didn't stretch that far. Barbara hears the sound of water and they discover a small passageway. For some reason the Thal says he knows the Earth custom of Ladies first (maybe heard it through the journey) and climbs into the passage. Before he goes, the Thal playfully asks if Barbara always does what Ian says and she replies no. This is odd in the sense that we've already seen that Thal society is patriarchal and assume Ganatus would approve of Barbara following Ian's instructions. Unless he's subtly checking out the nature of Barbara and Ian's relationship.

Anyhow, Ganatus climbs into the passage and goes down a shaft on the end of a rope which Barbara is left to hold. Unfortunately, she lets go and Ganatus falls. Of course, manly Ian is on hand to take over and make sure all is well.

Back in the city, the Daleks realise that the surveillance cameras and microphones (which they call rangerscopes and vibrascopes) are being deliberately disrupted. Quick shot of three Thals holding large mirrors which reflect light at a faraway camera (?) on the top of a building in the Dalek city.

As the Doctor enters the Dalek city with Susan and another Thal, he stops and seems to speak to the camera, "We'll show them a thing or two." He's clearly enjoying what's happening.

Antodus wants to go back. He fears that they will die. Struggles but a rockfall forces them to go on. Antodus - the largest of the Thals - seems the youngest. He's got a large baby-face, two, which contrasts with the sharp, pointed faces of the other Thals.

The Daleks' vibrascope reveals that the Doctor, Susan and Thal have entered Section 15 at the city wall.

Doctor sabotages a videoscope. He enjoys breaking things. Uses Susan's key to TARDIS and says he can always make another one. Causes a short circuit that delights him - but also summons Daleks who surround him and Susan. Inexplicably, the Daleks don't kill them and a little later Doctor and Susan sat in the middle of a group of Daleks in the control room. Helpfully, Dalek 1 explains:

DALEK 1: The only interest we have in the Thals is their total extermination.  
SUSAN: What do you mean?  
DALEK 1: Tomorrow the atmosphere will be bombarded by the radiation from our nuclear reactors.  
SUSAN: Why are you doing this?  
DOCTOR: That's sheer murder.  
DALEK 1: No, extermination.  
DOCTOR: But you must listen to reason. Please, you must.  
DALEK 1: Without radiation, the Dalek race is ended. We need it as you and the Thals need air.


Daleks go full-Nazi and take up the rallying cry of "Tomorrow we will be the masters of Skaro." I'm hoping that the Doctor allowed himself to be captured and this is why he was so excited when he told the camera earlier in the episode that he would show the Daleks a thing or two. The Doctor's altered from wanting to kill a wounded cave man with a rock in the first adventure to being outraged at the genocidal actions of the Daleks.

Back in the tunnels, the other Thal group are prevented from continuing by a cleft in the floor. Ian and the others jump across to a small ledge. It's an overly-long scene. Antodus is last and fearful of jumping. Build-up of thumping percussion. Of course, he falls and the cliffhanger shows Antodus hanging on the end of a rope connected to Ian who is losing his grip...

Next week: The Rescue

Hmmm... I've just noticed that all the episodes - except the first all start with the definite article - The Ambush, The Ordeal, The Rescue... it'll be interesting to note when this changes.

Thursday 18 January 2024

Saturday 18th January 1964 - The Expedition

 

"Get my name right. It's Chesterton."

It's an episode where our space-and-time travellers aren't the focus. Instead, scenes alternate between the Daleks, who realise that the drugs won't work on them as the require radiation as a condition of existence and the Thals, who are nagged by Ian into considering violent. Susan, once again, disappears into the background only popping up to agree with Ian that the Thals shouldn't be manipulated into taking actions just to help the travellers retrieve the TARDIS' fluid link.

The Doctor, on the other hand, seems more engaged and energised by what's happening. He takes more interest in things and seems less distracted. Perhaps this is because he sees an opportunity to lead the Thals in an attack on the Daleks and this makes him purposive. He seems less grumpy when he has something to do.

Despite the way the episode switches back and forth between Dalek city and the dead forest, it's a slow episode. Despite being called The Expedition, the long journey only begins towards the end of the episode.

The Daleks steal the show as far as I'm concerned, particularly:

  • reactions of the Daleks to the Thal drug, especially the way that one of the Daleks squeals "Help me!"
  • all Daleks in Sections Two and  Three are affected (though it would have been great to see this happen)
  • cardboard Daleks in the background to suggest there are more than four of them
  • we get a shot from a Dalek's point of view, through the eyestalk
  • the Daleks use tickertape readouts, cutting-edge 1960s Earth technology and totally suitable for a creature that interacts with a plunger and laser gun
  • Daleks don't mess about when some of them are affected by the Thal drug, they send the affected ones to the "sonic chamber" (which sounds ominous).

By the end of this episode the Doctor and Susan go with one group of Thals while Ian and Barbara go with another. It looks like next week they'll battle the Daleks.

Next week: The Ordeal.



Thursday 11 January 2024

Saturday 11th January 1964 - The Ambush

 

"Can pacificism become a human instinct?"

asks Barbara with a sense of distaste after Ian has called on the Thals to provide a show of strength towards the Daleks. Once again, we're seeing 1960s anxities about the atomic bomb played out on the screen. Ian, still wearing his tie and middle-class teacher's jumper, speaks for the political consensus for the UK then (and now) speaks of pacifism as a utopian desire only achieved in a world where everyone is a pacifist. (For me, Ian's argument is undermined in the way he delayed warning the Thals about the ambush in order to see what happened - even though he knew the ruthless nature of the Daleks. I'm actually a little fed up with Ian at this point.)

We see more of the Thals who come across as proto-hippies venturing down from their commune up on the plateau. When they arrive at the city, Alydon still has his "instinct" not to trust the Daleks.

Once again, the eerie ambient sound effects work effectively in conveying a sense of the alien-ness of the Dalek city. The sequences in the lift seem quaint sixty years on but I'm sure they would have seemed tense at the time. The pressure of time running out as the Daleks burn their way through the door is always a good device to increase the stakes.

The scene of the actual ambush of the Thals by the Daleks is well-paced and finally - if we needed it - exposes how sinister and murderous the Daleks are. The Daleks set out food in a central area and then hide, guns twitching until the Thals have entered. Temmosus, the Thal leader offers peace and there's a pause with Dalek guns still twitching. Then, slowly, the Daleks appear one-by-one. For me, it's the way that Daleks glide silentlt in great lines where they are most menacing. Ian warns about it being a trap and the Temmosus and other Thals are shot dead. Fortunately for Ian, Alydon and other Thals, the Daleks aren't clever enough to prevent their escape. It's a great scene nevertheless.

The Doctor still plays a secondary character in his own show - treated very much as a doddery old grandfather - and it's Ian who remains the hero: sending the others away to safety twice. At the end of this episode, while the Doctor is getting information from a Thal starmap in order to escape Skaro, it's left to Ian to make it clear to the Thals and the audience of the motivations of the Daleks: "dislike for the unlike". Despite the plight of the Thals, what keeps the Doctor, Ian, Barbara and Susan on the planet isn't anything noble; it's the loss of the "fluid link" needed to pilot the TARDIS.



Thursday 4 January 2024

Saturday 4th January 1964 - The Escape

"It does not matter. We have the message now."

At last we get to see more of Susan. She encounters Alydon (yes, he was the threatening character who's been lurking about) and learns about the Thals. Susan is manipulated by the Daleks into writing a letter which sets a trap for the Thals. (What language does Susan use to write to the Thals?) I'm starting to lose any idea that Susan merely looks like a teenager and is much older than she seems - especially when she does something like snigger at the way that the Daleks pronounce her name ("Su-san"). Once Susan has produced the letter she - and the other prisoners - are no longer needed.

We see that the Daleks are quite capable of dissembling: appearing to be gracious and generous, while harbouring nasty genocidal ambitions. They pretend to offer the Thals freedom from starvation. Thinking about it, even the design of the visual appearance of the Daleks is one that - yes, it's certainly protective and a weaponised casing - is used to give the impression of a highly-advanced technological being while containing a grotesque mutation. Both Ian and the Doctor are repulsed by the sight of the Dalek inside the casing (and there's a quite dated response where Susan and Barbara are protected from seeing the true form of the creature). The Daleks fear what isn't them and the connections with Nazism are more than apparent (though interesting in the sense that the Thals, the object of their hatred, are quite aryan in their appearance). The Daleks' use of surveillance is prominent - and, when Susan reveals that the travellers know about it - unashamed. We also have the first mention of extermination by the Daleks, too.

Much of the time spent with the Thals involves their philosophical discussions about inevitability. They seem to have a passive, stoic acceptance of things which is only lifted when they receive the letter from Susan.  "So there is a future for us," says Temmosus, the leader of the Thals. While both Alydon and Temmosus are prepared to accept the Dalek's offer of food at fac value, the Thal, Ganatus, is cautious and considers that the Daleks, former philosophers, have transformed over time into warriors. The Thals name the metal creature discovered by Barbara in The Dead Planet as a magneton. Thal society seems to be patriarchal going by the comment Dyoni makes about giving the drugs to Susan ("It would have been better if you had given it to a man instead of a girl."). The Thals - much like the prehistoric Tribe of Gum - are on the brink of starvation and are desperate for a source of food.

Even though the Doctor, Ian and Barbara are restricted to one cell, they engage in debate, planning and action which is thoroughly engaging for the viewer. It wouldn't happen in modern Doctor Who and hundreds of thousands of pounds would be spent on sets and cgi. With Doctor Who, simpler and restricted is often best. The Doctor, Ian and Barbara begin to work together as a team in this episode: realising the Daleks run off electricity and the plan to sabotage a Dalek so they can escape. The sequence where they overcome the Dalek guard is especially good. Though I'm surprised that someone as large as Ian can get inside a Dalek casing.

The episode breaks quite neatly into three: the efforts of the Doctor and his companions to escape from their cell, the machinations of the Daleks and the discussions of the Thals.

Next week: The Ambush.



Thursday 28 December 2023

Saturday 28th December - The Survivors

 

Daleks.

With that single word, the show becomes something more than a science fiction adventure about a small group travelling haphazardly in space and time. The show introduces the now infamous mechanical, ever-twitching, ever-moving aliens who are thoroughly chilling and - from today's standpoint - seem to embody the fears of inhuman, totalitarian control many in British society suffered at the height of the cold war. Emotionless, robotic creatures who control a futuristic, soulless city who have the technology to conduct surveillance at all times. Atomic fears - no doubt encouraged by the recent Cuban missile crisis - feature, too: radiation sickness, nucleonic war and mutations. Daleks seem to capture post-war societal fears. They're something more than just alien monsters. No doubt the cold, grating voices of the Daleks had a tremendous impact and contributed to their popularity.

It's another episode where the Doctor and his companions are captured and spend the episode bewildered. Radiation sickness affects them and the Daleks believe that they can retrieve the drugs that were left back in the TARDIS which will enable the Daleks to leave the city for the first time. We hear about the Thals, a grossly-mutated race who live on the planet and, presumably, left the drugs outside the TARDIS. Susan, the least affected by radiation, travels alone through the forest at night during a storm to retrieve the drugs.

The best scene of this episode (certainly visually) has to be the Dalek's interrogation of the Doctor. It's the first time we get to see the Doctor separately from the others and, even though he's unwell, he manages to confront the Daleks in a way we haven't seen so far. Under spotlight, he stands up to his captors (notice the defiant way he fearlessly points at them) and gets them to divulge knowledge of the Thals. As always, his eyes flit this way giving the impression he's analysing every detail of what the Daleks tell him.

It was good to see the show's acton hero, Ian, incapacitated by a Dalek weapon. He's become the physical defender of the group and he is frustrated that he's unable to fulfil that role. It enables Susan something to do in returning to the TARDIS through the dead forest during a storm.

The cliff-hanger is low-key: Susan opens the TARDIS doors to return to the Dalek city.

A couple of behind-the-scenes pieces of trivia about this episode. It's the second episode that had to be re-recorded (this time due to background noise picked up on the microphones) and that the Daleks were initially going to be designed by Ridley Scott but, owing to scheduling, the task was passed to Raymond Cusick, who created the familiar pepperpot design. With a budget of £700 (about £18,000 today), Cuisick was able to build 4 complete Daleks.


Thursday 21 December 2023

Saturday 21st December - The Dead Planet

 

Fascinating. It's the word the Doctor repeatedly uses this episode. His burning curiosity not only encourages him to explore the dead planet but also to sabotage the TARDIS in order to prevent the others from forcing him to leave. Rather like his actions in the very first episode, An Unearthly Child, he acts impetuously and selfishly. You get the impression that Susan is used to following her grandfather about and putting up with his decisions.

After watching The Dead Planet, I'm convinced of a couple of things. First is that the Doctor is an adolescent in the form of a grumpy old man. Second is that the preoccupation of the writers seems to be presenting death in different aspects. Last time is was the threat of extinction caused by environmental change and now we have (what appears to be) the destructive threat of nuclear weapons.

In this episode we have Ian and Barbara's first experience of an alien world (if you believe that the Tribe of Gum took place on Earth), domestic life aboard the TARDIS, tensions between Ian and the Doctor and the exploration of a mysterious deserted city.

The production team take us from the ancient past, caves and forests full of dangerous creatures to radioactive world of petrified forests, metal creatures and retro-futuristic cities. The scope of the show - from pre-history to the far-future and from Earth to other worlds - is now established for the audience. Our point-of-view characters, Ian and Barbara, are used to acknowledge this is indeed the case.

The scene in which the travellers view the alien city from a distance and the Doctor uses his binoculars for a closer look creates a n impressive sense of awe. Of course, the models look naive with today's eyes - but are effective in establishing a sense of wonder. Same for the petrified forest and the metal dog-like creature with magnetic powers. (I'm less sure what the writers were trying to do with Susan's discovery of the tiny flower. Narratively, it's used to separate Susan from the others to set up the plot point of being touched by a hand but seems to hint at something else - perhaps the presence of life in remains of the dead world.)

We see a little more of the TARDIS. Barbara and Susan have a conversation that seems to be in another room, presumably in the living quarters of the ship. The Doctor takes readings from the fault locator, a wall of dials in a section of the console room behind a perspex screen. There's also a food machine which dispenses meals in the form of small foil-wrapped bars. Underneath the console is the fluid link, a tiny instrument containing mercury and without which the TARDIS can't travel. The Doctor uses codes for everything: J62L6 for food and K7 for a fault (it's almost as if the use of alphanumerical codes are used by the writers to signify advance technology in the 1960s).

More is learned about the mysterious Doctor: there's a "gulf" of age between him and Susan, he has problems with his memory and is solitary (Susan tells Ian: "I don't say that Grandfather doesn't know how to work the ship, but he's so forgetful, and then he will go off and. Well, he likes to work on his own."), he enjoys showing off TARDIS technology and condescendingly explaining things ("Food has component parts, dear boy. Flavours are rather like primary colours, you know, you blend two to achieve a third, a fourth, etc, etc."). The Doctor's also supercilious and completely self-centred ("I will not be questioned. Uninvited passengers. I didn't invite them to the ship. I shall do what I want to do.") and even sabotages the TARDIS to get his own way. He smirks like a naughty boy when he convinces the others that they need to travel to the alien city in order to find mercury in order to repair the TARDIS' fluid link.  Once again, the Doctor finds physical travel tiring and has to rely on Susan for support.

Barbara and Ian dislike the Doctor (mainly for his arrogance) and notice that  he has “a knack for getting himself in trouble”. In one exchange early in the episode, they joke:

            BARBARA: Well, I suppose we'd better make sure he doesn't fall down and break a leg. 
            Don't you ever think he deserves something to happen to him?             
            IAN: Yes.

As we see, the person who actually ends up with something happening to them is Barbara when she becomes trapped in the maze-like metal corridors of the alien city. The cliff-hanger is our first sight... of a dalek!

An annoyance with this episode is the way that the glass phials left outside the TARDIS are taken aboard and left behind while the travellers go on their journey to the city. And that no one checked the radioactivity meter more than once. When they arrive at the city they also decide to split up; I'm not sure I'd do that. Pairs, maybe.

As a final thought, I'm starting to appreciate the problem that many fans have with these early episodes is a consequence of trying to binge their way through stories. I'm enjoying watching them once a week for 25 minutes and the show holds my attention completely. I'm not sure this would be the case if I tried to watch the show for two or three hours at a time. 
 
Next week: The Survivors.
 

Thursday 14 December 2023

Saturday 14th December 1963 - The Firemaker

 

There's an odd parallelism at work in this episode. It opens with the Doctor and companions ambushed by the Tribe of Gum and a shadowy close-up of Ian shouting "Get back!" immediately followed by a shadowy close up of caveman Horg saying "They are coming". After their attempt to escape from the Cave of Skulls last episode, the time travellers are captured once more. This parallel, back-and-forth is the narrative rhythm of the episode.

Most impressive about this final episode of the story is the pacing: as soon as the Doctor and his companions are brought back to the cave then the Doctor leads the Tribe into driving out Kal, who murdered the Old Woman. They are imprisoned in the Cave of Skulls. Ian makes fire. Za and Kal fight. Ian gives Za the fire - but Za refuses to let them go. They set fire to skulls and engineer an escape. They run through the Forest of Fear chased by the fire-wielding tribe back to the safety of the TARDIS.

Somewhere in this is political commentary of a sort. Last episode, the Doctor was jealous of the way that Ian assumed leadership of their group, but in this episode, wisely, Ian insists that the Doctor is their leader. It's also Ian that tries to plant the idea of collectivism in Za's mind when he explains, "Remember, Kal is not stronger than the whole tribe." I'm not actually sure if this is something that Za doesn't already understand. The tribe already work collectively when they chase after the Doctor and companions. It seems that they only seem to send the leader out to hunt (and, perhaps, this is associated with the way that the leader is the only one who has knowledge of fire and of cooking meat). Although Za shares the fire (Ian made) with the tribe, there's no indication that Za has any inclination of sharing the technology of making fire with anyone else. Power is conferred on the leader by the tribe and is determined by carefully guarded knowledge of the technology of fire.

These ideas about individual leadership and collectivism as well as authority and the control of technology must reflect Sixties anxieties about nuclear weapons. No doubt in the next adventure, The Daleks, we'll see these concerns developed.

There are moments when the Doctor acts more as we expect of his today. He uses his wits to trick Kal into showing a blood-covered knife and admitting the murder of the Old Woman. Then leads the tribe in throwing stones and driving Kal out the caves. On the other hand, the Doctor's instincts in this episode are poor. He's convinced that they can bargain with Za for their freedom and tells Ian: "Give him [Za] a chance. Let him show the tribe fire, establish himself as leader, then he'll let us go." Za doesn't.

The burning skulls are a gruesome, macabre touch. As is the violence of the fight between Za and Kal which ends with Za ferociously crushing Kal's head with a rock and then grunting like a beast as he drags Kal's corpse across the cave to a pile of skeletal remains. The editing of the fight scene is tight: close-ups of the Doctor and his companions are intercut with more filmic fight action between the two cave men. There's even a point where it looks like Kal bites Za. Brutal.

I have to admit I've enjoyed this first Doctor Who story. It's hard for the Tribe of Gum episodes to follow the excellent opening, An Unearthly Child - but they do so solidly. And convincing. Rather than send Ian and Barbara off on a technologically advanced adventure on another planet involving aliens, the production team rightly followed our first experience of the brightly-lit TARDIS' futuristic interior with a dark, prehistoric, primitive setting. (Although it makes the ancient past of humanity - if, indeed, this is Earth - look very alien.)

What I also enjoy is the seriousness of the show at this point. We are a long way from the cartoonish tone of the current (2023) series. There's a palpable sense of dread and threat that doesn't ever go away.

While Ian's character as the hero of the show emerges and the Doctor's cryptic, equivocal character helps drive off Kal, the female characters contribute little. Barbara has a few lines to reassure Ian after he regrets giving Za fire. Susan plays with a skull which enables Ian to conceive of a plan to escape (there's certainly no reason why Susan, as an intelligent alien, couldn't come up with the idea of setting the skulls alight). Neither female is a Cathy Gale (that's over on ITV) and I wonder whether we'll see any of the female companions acting with agency until the mid-1970s?

One thing we learn is that the Doctor doesn't have complete control of the TARDIS: "You see, this isn't operating properly. Or rather, the code is still a secret. When you put the right data, precise information to a second of the beginning of a journey, then we can fix a destination, but I had no data at my disposal." At this point, in 1963, viewers must have wondered why he doesn't have access to the code to control the time machine. Later we'll find out, of course, that the TARDIS doesn't technically even belong to the Doctor. Also. both the Doctor and Susan are terrible at reading instrument displays on the TARDIS console. As soon as they look away... the radiation gauge moves into DANGER.

Next week: The Dead Planet
.



Saturday 9 December 2023

Saturday 9th December 2023 - The Giggle

  

There's a point about half-way through The Giggle that the episode runs out of steam. The Doctor tracks the villanous Toymaker back to 1925 and  challenges him to a game. Up until this point, the episode is thoroughly engaging. It's set up some creepy elements - the malign Toymaker who dances like Fred Astaire through the chaos of London or pretends to be an unsettling German shop-keeper, the weird ventriloquist's dummy head on Logie Baird's first tv signal, the personality-altering giggle, the labyrinth of corridors behind the Toymaker's shop and the various puppets that the Doctor and Donna encounter. The first half of the episode reintroduces UNIT, Kate Stewart, scientific advisor Shirley Anne Bingham and former companion, Mel. The pace is frenetic, perfectly captured by the shots of chinook helicopters transporting the Doctor, Donna and the TARDIS hurriedly to the Avengers-like UNIT HQ in London. 
 
Then, with the stakes set high, we return to 2023 where the Toymaker makes a stunning entrance to the tune of Spice Up Your Life in which he reveals the extent of both his platfulness but also his powers. And, for some reason, the episode seems to then grind to a narrative halt. The Toymaker shoots the Doctor with UNIT's galvanic beam forcing him to biregenerate. The resulting Doctors play a game of catch, beating the Toymaker and banishing him out of existence (well, in a box that the Toymaker has thoughtfully provided).The fourteenth Doctor settles down with Donna's family and the Fifteenth flies away in his TARDIS.

It's frustrating as Neil Patrick Harris plays his role as the scenery-chewing Toymaster perfectly. I'm at a loss why the 2023 special wasn't a three-parter with the Toymaster as foe. (We're led to believe that there's an even bigger foe to be revealed in time - perhaps the "boss" that the Meep mentions in The Star Beast.) Let's hope we don't have to wait another 57 years to see him again.

There are so many details that enhance the episode that it's such a shame RTD couldn't plot something better. The weird puppet show featuring the deaths of former companions (though oddly not featuring the one companion who did die, Adric), the gruesome doll family of Stooky Bill, the Master trapped inside the Toymaker's gold tooth (and the Flash Gordon hand picking up the tooth from the floor).

Two things stand out. The first is that RTD emphasises that the Doctor is worn out and tired. The implication is that Fourteen looks like Ten as a warning. Since his first incrnation, the Doctor has simply kept on without pause, leaving companions behind with barely an afterthought, and pushing himself ever onward, afraid what would happen if he stopped. Maybe this is RTD signalling that, going forward, the new series will rely little on continuity and start fresh. (I understand that on Disney+ the show will be renumbered which gives the impression that it's a clean reboot. Doctor Who: TNG, perhaps?)
 
The second is the idea of biregeneration: having Fifteen splitting from Fourteen so that both can co-exist. By this point in the show's history, anything can happen - and we also know that the Doctor is more than just an ordinary time lord. It doesn't actually matter either as this is a show about time travel and there are at least fifteen other versions of the Doctor running about space and time. Big Finish have alread established that time lords can suffer abnormal regenerations - so it makes sense that this can happen to the Doctor.

I'm not sure that the use of a magic hammer to create a second TARDIS - like something out of a Tex Avery animation - does anything to allay my dislike of the cartoonishness of current Doctor Who. Plus the Power Rangers-style Vilinx at the heart of UNIT HQ. Who thought that was a good idea?

The final scenes of the episode are undoubtedly crowd-pleasers. Fans of Ten (and the 2005-2023 show, really) will enjoy seeing the Doctor idyllically happy with the Noble family. Fans will also enjoy the freshness of sheer joy and energy of Fifteen on his first journey in the TARDIS. We see enough of Fifteen to get the impression that this Doctor is going to have a sense of authority, purpose and control that more recent incarnations lacked. There is a palpable sense of renewal and revivification at the end.

Next episode (on Christmas Day 2023): The Church on Ruby Road.
 

Thursday 7 December 2023

Saturday 7th December 1963 - The Forest of Fear

 

So. This is it. This is the infamous episode in which the First Doctor tries to kill someone with a rock.

We're still in the palaeolithic period, attempting to escape from a tribe of desperate cave-dwelling primitives and get back to the TARDIS. It's the first episode where the pattern of the show - capture, escape, recapture - which subsequently acts as a narrative template for 60 years is introduced. Here we have the Doctor, Susan, Ian and Barbara escape from imprisonment in the Cave of Skulls and travel through the dangerous Forest of Fear only to face ambush by cavemen. Ian shows off his heroism, Barbara her kindness and the Doctor how stubborn and self-serving he can be. (Susan is, of course, Susan.)

I'm regarding these early episodes as showing the Doctor as a work-in-progress: learning compassion, hope and a sense of moral duty from his first human companions. So far, the Doctor isn’t the heroic, generous “I’m the Doctor; I’m here to help!” or the “Aren’t humans brilliant!” incarnation. He’s an alien who - as we know from An Unearthly Child - has little regard for what he considers lesser intelligent beings and treats Earth as a curiosity). He's also presented as old, quickly tired and conscious of wanting to be viewed as authoritative and in control. Last episode we saw how the Doctor responded to imprisonment and threat of death. He was terrified.

This week, The Forest of Fear opens with the Doctor expressing his fear of death and mortality. He sees the skulls of murdered cave people and this distresses him. He becomes despondent and despairing, initially expressing his fears about failing to escape: "Oh, it's hopeless, hopeless. Even if we do get free, we shall never move that stone." It's Ian's stoicism, however, insisting that "Any hope is better than none. Don't just lie there criticising us. Do something. Help us all to get out of here." that revivifies the Doctor for a short time.

After that, the Doctor directs the activities of the group in breaking free of their bonds: pointing out that sharper bones make better tools to cut bonds. He also - importantly - assigns Ian a role in the group: "You're the strongest, and you may have to defend us." Later in the episode he feels intimidated by Ian's youth and strength and challenges Ian's leadership ("You seem to have elected yourself leader of this little party.") before telling Ian that he doesn't follow orders blindly. Moreso, the Doctor behaves quite childishly, as if he is emotionally undeveloped. Later in the episode, Susan tells the humans that "He [the Doctor]'s always like this if he doesn't get his own way."

This lack of emotional maturity is also shown in one exchange with Barbara where it's almost as if the Doctor is experiencing emotions (what he refers to as "sensations") for the first time:

BARBARA: You're trying to help me.  
DOCTOR: Fear makes companions of all of us. That's right.  
BARBARA: I never thought once you were afraid.  
DOCTOR: Fear is with all of us, and always will be. Just like that other sensation that lives with it.  
BARBARA: What's that?  
DOCTOR: Your companion referred to it. Hope. Hope, that's right.
(It makes me wonder if the reason that Susan was attending Coal Hill School was in order to acquire human "sensations". Perhaps juvenile time lords are parasitical empaths, developing through experience.) It's the way that the Doctor seems to remember the "sensation" he's now feeling ("Hope, that's right") that creates the impression that this is something he intellectually knows but doesn't understand.

This is evident during the scene where the travellers help the wounded caveman leader, Za, and we see the alien, quite distant and logical Doctor who doesn't understand Ian and Barbara's benevolent actions:

BARBARA: You treat everybody and everything as something less important than yourself.
DOCTOR: You're trying to say that everything you do is reasonable, and everything I do is inhuman. Well, I'm afraid your judgement's at fault, Miss Wright, not mine.

What motivates the Doctor's attitude is fear of capture and death. He'd prefer to leave Za behind - or even kill him like an injured animal - rather than risk his own life. Much is made in Doctor Who fandom about the scene where Ian prevents the Doctor from using a rock to kill Za. Things happen quickly and Ian doesn't think much of the Doctor's claim that "I was going to get him to draw our way back to the Tardis." Personally, I think the jury's still out about this but it's at best this early First incarnation of the Doctor is pretty selfish and at worst, a psychopath.

Barbara's character in this episode is interesting. The assured investagative teacher of An Unearthly Child has become a quivering wreck who is terrified of the forest into which they escape:

BARBARA: The bushes moved. I saw them. I saw them! Oh, we're never going to get out of this awful place! Never! Never! Never!
Shortly after, she discovers the body of a boar-like creature and screams. She does, however, insist that the injured Za isn't left to die. Even Ian is surprised by how vehemently Barbara demands they help the caveman, making the point that "Your flat must be littered with stray cats and dogs." Barbara's innate sense of moral duty stands so clearly in contrast to the Doctor's selfishness. She's afraid but willing to risk her life for the caveman who imprisoned and chased her. I'm looking forward to seeing how Barbara affects the Doctor from this point on.

The other striking character in this episode is the Old Mother. She's the elderly caveperson driven by fear who wants the status quo, regardless of how awful life is for the tribe, to remain. She doesn't want to see the return of fire and is willing to free the Doctor and his companions in order to prevent Za or Kal from acquiring the knowledge of how to make fire. She tells them: "I will set you free if you will go away and not make fire. Fire will bring trouble and death to the tribe." Her actions lead to her death and next episode the Doctor should learn about this sacrifice.

Plus, we learn that the Doctor isn't a medical doctor at all.

Next week: The Firemaker.



Saturday 2 December 2023

Saturday 2nd December 2023 - Wild Blue Yonder

 

"Boundless souls dreaming of skies to conquer"

Last week's special, The Star Beast, was based on a 1980s Doctor Who Weekly comic and this week's, Wild Blue Yonder seems to me to show the influence of the Doctor Who Monthly comic strips of the Interregnum with, perhaps, a little Virgin New Adventures added for good measure. These specials appear to act as a creative manifesto for RTD's return to the series and he’s explicitly drawing attention to his vision for the show going forward. Without looking too hard it's possible to additionally see the influence of Robert Holmes (The Ark in Space?). What could have been quite a frightening and morbid episode - the villains are more or less cosmic horrors from beyond space - is executed cartoonishly: from the spinning TARDIS that lands comically in Newton's tree, through the Doctor-Donna bickering and banter to the grotesque humour of the physical and intellectual distortions of the doppelgänger Not-Things monsters.

What that struck me while watching Wild Blue Yonder was that the Doctor was dealing with issues of boundaries and transformations. RTD likes to take the Doctor to the extremes: the end of the Earth in The End of the World, the end of (time in) the Universe in Utopia and now the end of the physical universe itself. During RTD’s absence, the show has also pushed the Doctor to the boundaries of his own identity (which was also addressed in this episode in the distress the Doctor feels about not knowing his origin). Again, allusion to a mysterious aspect of the Doctor’s identity is very New Adventures. Much of this episode involves things transforming into their other things: primarily the Not-Things into Doctor and Donna and the space ship into a bomb.

Visually, the episode was a treat. Other than the awkwardly cartoonish spinning TARDIS, everything else looked wonderful. I thought Jimbo, rusty three-eyed robot had a great design and would love to see it return (as a character? A Kamelion for Fifteen?)

You have to be careful criticising the sillier aspects of a RTD script as it’s entirely likely that what could be considered a throwaway joke could return later in the series as an important plot point. The opening scene of this episode featuring the TARDIS perching in the branches of a particularly hunky Isaac Newton’s apple tree causes Newton to mishear gravity as “mavity” and later Donna casually refers to mavity suggesting they’ve changed history. (This seems to contradict the Fourth Doctor’s account given in The Pirate Planet.) I also had the sense that there were other things in this episode that might be drawn on later in the series: the nameless demonic creatures from beyond the universe, the Doctor’s use of superstition to cause confusion (he even mentions that it gave him a bad feeling) - even the skeleton of the space ship’s captain could prove to be important later on. Why doesn’t the Doctor question WHY a spaceship is travelling into the nothingness beyond the universe?

Something that I had trouble with was the way in which both the Doctor and Donna so easily emotionally pivot. One moment Donna is grieving the potential prospect of never seeing her family again and the next she’s shouting “We go and kick its arse!” Maudlin exchanges cause parts of the episode to drag and contribute nothing to character development or plot (though you could argue that the conversations work well when the Not-Thing doppelgängers are first introduced). For instance:

    DONNA: You ok?
    DOCTOR: I will be.
    DONNA: When?
    DOCTOR: A million years.

Exchanges like this aren't necessary (we already know that the Doctor is unsettled by thinking about the Timeless Child). I wouldn’t mind so much if characters maintained their emotional states for even five minutes, but both of them seem to flit about emotionally. Again, this could be an aspect of RTD’s interest in boundaries and extremes and I wonder if he’s addressing the fiery, chaotic way that the Doctor (and Donna) thinks. “If we’re slow, they can’t read us” the Doctor understands that the Not-Things become doppelgängers through observation of thought (and emotion) and he realises he needs to stop his mind flitting about - which he can’t do. This theme of not thinking is evident when the Doctor and Donna first arrive on the ship and consider that it is in some “neutral” state. Ultimately, the Not-Things are defeated by racing to prevent Jimbo from destroying the ship (so it’s actually the space captain who saves the day).

I DID like the Doctor’s imagining of the TARDIS being discovered and then having a civilisation built about it. There's a poignant bottle episode in the future.

Despite me moaning about the cartoonishness, there is a grim nihilism underneath all the spectacle. I wonder if one of the touchstones of the episode is Event Horizon (again, some of the most successful classic episodes drew from very obvious cultural SF and horror references). The Doctor and Donna arrive on an immense empty spacecraft consisting of one long central bay, a bridge and some corridors behind the rearranging walls. That the ship is s-l-o-w-l-y reconfiguring itself as a bomb using poor Jimbo the three-eyed rusty robot as the trigger. When the Doctor looks out into the void they are in he is both fascinated and horrified (“Nothing at the edge of creation. Absolute nothing.”). The skeleton of the ship’s captain - with it’s horse-like skull - floating in the void and intermittently clanging against the hull is pretty creepy. Other moments of horror: the strange words that announce the ship’s transformations, the Exorcist-y contortions of the Not-Thing Doctor, the dissolving Not-Thing Donna, even the the Not-Things body distortions. Things are all too well-lit to become horrific and, instead, end up being funny. Only one scene, where Donna is in a claustrophobic darkening corridor, was for me the only point I thought the production managed to be scary. Perhaps, at the end when the Doctor has time to reflect on what happens, he realises the actual nature of the Not-Things and this is what unsettles him (“We came from the Nothing” the doppelgängers informed him). The title of the episode, drawn from an old US airforce song, gets played in a sinister, subversive fashion as the TARDIS dumps the Doctor and Donna on the spaceship and then spews flames before dematerialsing and leaving them stranded.

Unless the next episode shows that the Doctor’s old face and everything we’ve seen in The Star Beast and Wild Blue Yonder turns out to be manipulated by the Celestial Toymaker (or some worse "boss"), I found the deus ex machina of the TARDIS arriving at exactly the right moment to rescue the Doctor and Donna disappointing. Let’s hope the show-makers don’t abuse this plot device in the way of the sonic screwdriver. Nothing beats the Doctor getting himself out of life-or-death situations narratively.

This episode’s cliffhanger is the return to Camden Lock, reuniting with Wilf, explosions, brawling and a aircraft falling from the sky.

Next week: The Giggle.