Sometimes when you’re writing about an episode of long-running TV show, there’s a lot to include: maybe it’s a particularly excellent example of the show in question, or perhaps it does something new and original. Or possibly it’s a particularly poor example of the series in question which gets the blood boiling. But by and large, and almost by definition, most instalments of a show are actually bound to be more or less average: solid, predictable, quite entertaining but nothing to get all that excited about.
When it comes to Doctor Who, the 1973 story “Planet of the Daleks” is one of those that is largely and literally unremarkable – and therefore hard to say all that much about. In fact if you look in Doctor Who Magazine’s 2013 reader poll of the first 50 years of stories, then you’ll find it almost precisely at the midway point of the 241 entries included in the survey. Read the rest of this entry »
Of the 97 episodes of 1960s Doctor Who that no longer exist thanks to a cost-saving policy of wiping and reusing master video recordings, perhaps the ones whose loss are most acutely felt by fans of the show are the six comprising “The Power of the Daleks”, Patrick Troughton’s first outing in the role. Not only was it the story that established the act of regeneration in series lore (without which Doctor Who would never have lasted 53 years), it’s also one of the very best stories featuring the Doctor’s arch-nemeses the Daleks. Sadly, although fandom rejoiced when two long-lost stories (“Enemy of the World” and “Web of Fear“) were rediscovered a couple of years back, there’s no hope that any such miraculous resurrection will be possible for “The Power of the Daleks” and so instead we’ve had to make do with a novelisation and an off-air sound recording made by a fan at the time of the story’s single airing on BBC television.
That changed this month with the BBC’s release of a specially commissioned animated reconstruction of the serial. It’s not the first time that the BBC has used animation to cover for a lost episode, but in the past this has been limited to when just one or two episodes of a longer serial are missing (“The Reign of Terror”, “The Tenth Planet”, “The Moonbase”, “The Ice Warriors”, “The Invasion”.) It appeared that the BBC had gone off this idea and the part-completed animation of missing episodes of “The Underwater Menace” was abandoned, while the one still-missing episode of “Web of Fear” was replaced by a series of static stills made up of telesnaps (photographs of a television screen taken during broadcast.)
It’s therefore quite a surprise to see the BBC return to the idea of animation, and moreover for a serial where no episodes at all survive save for a few short clips that had been re-used in other programmes. It’s a mark of how highly regarded the serial is, and how keenly fans of the show have wanted a chance to see it in some form or another. The question is, does it work? Read the rest of this entry »
Spoilers. Big Ones. Right from the start.
As feared, I’ve been too inundated with work to sit down and tap out any thoughts about the second episode of Doctor Who on Saturday, although I did at least get to watch it live at the time which was rather more than I’d hoped for. There seems little point in going into too much detail this long after the fact – I’m sure you’ve already read dozens of review pieces about “The Witch’s Familiar” by now and are hardly slathering over the prospect of another – so I’ll keep this relatively short. And when I say ‘relatively’, long-time Taking The Short View readers can feel free to smirk.
If you cast your mind back, you’ll recall that my main churlish complaints about the season opener were that for all its fan-pleasing treats, the episode was overly reliant on several old tropes and in particular lacked substance under all the tricks. Given that the follow-up episode was completely the reverse of that – taking risks and doing things the show has never done before, and overall stuffed to the gills with genuine substance with remarkably few mere ‘frills’ – you’d think I’d come away from this one feeling really happy and praising it to the skies as one of the best episodes of recent years.
Actually I’m going to praise it not just as one of the greatest episodes of Doctor Who of all time, but as one of the most superlative pieces of TV drama I think I’ve ever seen. Full stop. Read the rest of this entry »
Spoilers. Big Ones. Right from the start.
It’s strange, but I knew exactly where “The Magician’s Apprentice” was going less than 30 seconds after it began. And I mean exactly.
As soon as I saw soldiers fleeing over the smoke-wreathed battlefield and the eclectic mix of technologies (WW1 biplanes, bows and arrows, laser blasters) I thought ‘Skaro’. And the minute the young boy came into focus I knew what his name was before he gave it. And I was also pretty certain that we were heading for an exploration of a seminal bit of dialogue from the classic “Genesis of the Daleks”, the one in which Tom Baker’s Doctor asks Sarah Jane (Elizabeth Sladen) what she would do if she travelled back in time and met an evil dictator – Hitler, say – when he was just a small boy. Would she be justified in killing him before he could commit his heinous crimes, even though he’s just an innocent, blameless child? Sure enough the exchange was not only implicitly evoked but eventually explicitly shown.
I don’t know how or why I was able to instantly jump to this revelation. I had stayed absolutely clear of spoilers, save for the fact that the Daleks themselves were back – and that was hard to avoid given that they were out and about, doing station announcements on the London Underground as part of the PR blitz leading up to the first episode of season 9 of Doctor Who. While you could argue that Daleks immediately suggest Skaro, in fact the Daleks’ home world has only featured once – and just briefly – in the rebooted TV series to date. Similarly. while Davros might appear to be an easy leap to make, the creator of the Daleks actually hasn’t been in the show for seven years, not since he encountered the Tenth Doctor in “Journey’s End” during the Russell T Davies era. In the circumstances therefore, I don’t think my sudden flashforward leap was quite as obvious as it might have initially appeared. But it was made, and that’s all there is to is, and with it comes a bit of a problem. Read the rest of this entry »
Contains some spoilers for the aired episode
Regeneration stories are always atypical Doctor Who outings, so it’s not really until the second or third episode of a run that the audience really starts to get a proper sense of how a new Doctor is going to play the role and what the shape of the series around him is going to be. Last week’s “Deep Breath” was a nice feature-length treat, but this week’s “Into the Dalek” is where series 8 really starts to take shape.
In which case, I’m more than delighted with the way things are going. This episode delivered pretty much everything that I had on my pre-season ‘wish list’ for the show, being a fast-paced action-orientated thriller with real characters, peril and jeopardy for everyone involved. Jenna Coleman continued to get some strong material as Clara, and Peter Capaldi’s journey into the darkness of the Doctor’s psyche continued with compelling and at times genuinely surprising results.
What really struck me was the first pre-titles scene, when young rebel soldier Journey Blue (an excellent performance from Zawe Ashton) is saved from her exploding spaceship and finds herself in the Tardis console room with the Doctor. This is no longer the regeneration-scrambled version of the character but the Time Lord completely in control of himself and the situation, and Capaldi is riveting as he shows how he intends to play the part going forward. He’s calm and still but utterly remorseless as he breaks down Journey’s defensive antagonism, and you can’t take your eyes off him. Second episode in to his tenure in the part and already Capaldi owns it; not since Tom Baker has an actor so quickly settled into the role (David Tennant came close, but it still took until “School Reunion” before he really nailed it; Matt Smith, brilliant through he was later on, look the better part of a season to settle in and arrange the furniture as he wanted it; and for me at least Christopher Eccleston never quite managed to iron out the rough edges before he moved on.) Read the rest of this entry »
Short Takes: Doctor Who And The Daleks (1965), Capricorn One (1976), Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) [Blu-ray]
It’s a typical British summertime, which is to say that the weather has rather broken down and it’s turned cool, windy and showery – all of which creates ideal conditions for watching some old favourites on DVD and Blu-ray. I don’t have a huge amount to write about them, so I’ve made a triple-play combo post to cover what needs to be said …
Doctor Who And The Daleks (1965) [Blu-ray]
Not an episode of the television series, but rather a spin-off theatrical movie starring Peter Cushing and Roy Castle which adapts the show’s first seven-part Dalek serial by Terry Nation into a 79-minute feature – and to be honest, the story benefits from the compression. To simplify things for the overseas audience, the main character isn’t a mysterious alien Time Lord but an eccentric English inventor who actually goes by the name of ‘Doctor Who’, a tweak which tends to send die hard Who fans into apoplexy. For all that, Cushing is very engaging in the role and Castle is a great comedy sidekick; the part of Barbara (Jennie Linden) is rather watered down but 12-year-old Roberta Tovey is a very sound child performer giving the character of Susan a beyond-her-years maturity. Of course it’s the Daleks who are the true stars of the show and this is the first time they were ever seen in colour on the screen – and they look absolutely terrific. In fact the whole thing looks wonderfully expensive, especially the huge petrified forest set. The Blu-ray restoration does a lovely job in these scenes but can look a little beige and washed out in other areas and isn’t quite as good as I’d hoped for from the high definition upgrade; the sound is inevitably a rather limited mono affair. Extras from the old DVD release (an audio commentary by Linden and Tovey, an hour-long documentary on ‘Dalekmania’, a trailer and a few other odds and ends) are joined by a too-brief feature on the restoration process.
Capricorn One (1976) [Blu-ray]
Post-Watergate films in the 70s were understandably obsessed with paranoid conspiracy thrillers, and the writers of Capricorn One found perfect inspiration from the contemporaneous crackpot accusations that the 1969 Moon landings had been faked in a TV studio by NASA. Here they apply just that scenario to a fictional mission to Mars, with astronauts James Brolin, Sam Waterston and OJ Simpson pulled out of their Saturn rocket launch capsule at the last second and forced to go along with a hoax by their desperate boss played by Hal Holbrook. For the first half of the film it looks like they’re going to get away with it, despite a too-curious mission control technician blabbing about certain inconsistencies to a journalist friend (Elliott Gould, playing a cross between Philip Marlowe and Woodward & Bernstein) but then a devastating development transforms the second half into a nail-biting chase thriller across the arid vistas of the US south-west that includes some spectacular aerial photography by director Peter Hyams. Surprisingly given the film is almost four decades old it doesn’t feel anywhere near as dated as you might fear, and it’s still very effective in both slow-burn suspense and flat-out action modes with some great supporting and cameo performances from the likes of Brenda Vaccaro, David Huddleston, Barbara Bosson, David Doyle, Karen Black and Telly Savalas. Unfortunately the new Blu-ray high definition transfer from Network is a major disappointment: despite a clean image and some nicely vibrant and detailed outdoors desert sequences, so much of this looks flat and dull that it’s only a marginal improvement on previous standard definition DVD issues. You’ll need to have your remote control handy as the sound varies all over the the place, and there’s a prominent video encoding error two minutes in which while brief is still annoying. Extras-wise there’s nothing new on previous releases that consists of contemporary trailers and featurettes lacking any significant interest.
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) [Blu-ray]
For some bizarre reason I didn’t get to see Raiders of the Lost Ark when it came out at the cinema, and I then carried on missing it for another 20 years thereafter, so the first Indiana Jones film I saw was Temple of Doom. Lacking its predecesor to compare it to I thought it was rather fantastic at the time and could never understand why it was always referred to as the least of the original trilogy of films. However, last week I watched it again for the first time in over a decade (and the first time in high definition) and was genuinely surprised to find myself deeply disappointed in it. Ironically my downwards reevalulation of the film goes in completely the opposite direction to that of everyone else, with Temple now being seen much more favourably today than it ever was during its original release. The action sequences are brilliantly staged and photographed of course, Spielberg not putting a foot wrong in that department from the opening set-piece in a Shanghai night club through to the climax in an underground mine; and Harrison Ford is very much on form and at his most charismatic as Dr Jones. Unfortunately the attempts to make his relationship with leading lady Kate Capshaw into a classic 1930s screwball affair never really came off, and Willie is such a weak ‘comedy female’ character screaming at everything and making a mess of anything she does that it even starts to feel worryingly misogynistic (don’t worry, Spielberg made it up to the actress – they’re married now.) The rest of the mainly ethnic cast are left saddled with playing racist caricatures as virtually everyone ends up as wide-eyed cultists (while the stiff upper lip British end up being the cavalry that saves the day) all of which means there’s none of the sense of developed supporting characters that make Raiders and Last Crusade such a rich and enduring delight. Away from the action and the screwball romance moments there’s also a jet black darkness running through the movie that’s quite remarkably inappropriate for a ‘family’ entertainment, with the film lingering far too long on some disturbing gross-out sequences than is good for it. As a result it loses its sense of fun and for all its spectacle I think these days I’d rather prefer the much-maligned Kingdom of the Crystal Skull over Temple of Doom. At least the Blu-ray can’t be faulted, with a top of the line video and audio presentation although you’ll need to get the four-film boxet for the full serving of copious extras other than the couple of trailers you get on the stand-alone release.
This is not a review as such, but more a rare foray into public service announcements for anyone who is a fan of the classic Doctor Who era of stories and who has access to CBS Studio’s Horror Channel digital satellite and cable station in the UK.
In case you missed the recent announcements, the Horror Channel recently just completed a deal with BBC Worldwide to show a number of Doctor Who stories from the original run between 1963 and 1989 and starring William Hartnell, Patrick Troughton, Jon Pertwee, Peter Davison, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy – and of course the iconic Tom Baker, who has been also lending his voice to a number of on-air promotional trailers that have been running in the past week. Read the rest of this entry »
Even when this four-part story originally aired back in September 1979 it was a distinctly pedestrian outing for Doctor Who. Time hasn’t really done all that much to improve things – 35 years on it remains thoroughly mediocre. But nonetheless there’s a reason why I wanted to revisit this story in particular, as it holds a quite important pivotal role in my relationship with the series as a whole. Allow me to explain…
By the time “Destiny of the Daleks” made it to air, it had been more than four years since I’d watched the programme. I simply hadn’t been able to reconcile myself to Tom Baker taking over from Jon Pertwee, and as a result my childish petulance meant I missed out on seeing the original transmissions of some of the greatest classic Who stories of all time. I’d been oblivious to the delights of such stories as “Terror of the Zygons”, “Pyramids of Mars”, “The Robots of Death” and “The Talons of Weng-Chiang”, and what I saw when I finally climbed off my high horse to give the series another go didn’t exactly fill me with confidence or lead me to suspect the series had been any good in my absence.
What finally did draw me back, of course, was the Daleks. Just knowing that they would return for the first story of the new season gave me an impetus to check out the show again. It felt appropriate, because almost the last serial I’d watched before my self-imposed exile had been the brilliant “Genesis of the Daleks”. If only this new story could be half as good as that, I thought to myself … Read the rest of this entry »
My apologies, it’s been a bit quiet on the review front – for the simple reason that I haven’t been watching, reading or otherwise partaking of anything that warrants a review. It’s just been that sort of start to the year. Hopefully things will pick up as we approach Easter.
In the meantime, to keep the blog ticking over, a little diversion in content. Regular readers will know that I’m rather partial to the series Doctor Who (it’s also pretty obvious from one glance at the site tag cloud!) so I thought I’d do a short-ish piece on my personal history watching the show. Anyone not interested in Doctor Who should probably look away … now. Read the rest of this entry »
Contains spoilers for the two aired shows.
Doctor Who has been back on TV for nearly two weeks now, and I’m a little tardy in getting around to writing any reviews of the latest episodes. Does this mean I’ve fallen out of love with it? No, not at all; but the first episode of the new series aired on a particularly busy weekend for me, and while I watched it I was aware that I was preoccupied and distracted by real life events. The second episode was better timed, but was very much aimed at the younger audience demographic and I was wary about wading in too critically on an instalment not aimed at someone of my advanced years in the first place.
But finally it seems that a few words on the first two episodes are overdue, and I should prevaricate no longer. Be warned, there lie spoilers ahead…
Read the rest of this entry »
This article previously appeared in the Who fan blog Cloister Bell as a guest post. Since that blog is no longer active, I’ve reproduced it here for completeness.
Season 17 of Doctor Who has to be one of the oddest, most split-personality seasons in the classic show’s history. On the one hand it contains one of the best and most beloved serials of all time, which itself also boasts the show’s largest-ever episode audience viewing figure (over 16m). And on the other hand, the series contains some of the series worst and laziest disappointments.
By the latter half of 1979, Doctor Who was frankly running on empty and looking tired. Tom Baker was bored and not taking it seriously anymore; producer Graham Williams had done his best in a job that had been foisted upon him against his will two years before, but his heart was no longer in it either. The show had the same theme music, title sequence, star, costume and incidental music that it had used for the last five years: it felt stuck in a time loop. Anyone coming back to test the waters of the show post-Star Wars after five years of not watching – which was pretty much my situation – would have been forgiven for thinking they were watching a period drama rather than a science-fiction show.
That year, the show was also fighting a losing battle against slashed budgets and increasing industrial unrest with the unions. Against this background Williams came up with a cunning plan to try and do the best he could with his shrinking resources: he would split the season into two, with one half being big, impressive tentpole productions and the other half being dross assembled out of whatever sticky-back plastic he could scrape together. It was a genuinely smart plan, and if it had worked then we might be hailing season 17 as one of the best. Unfortunately for Williams, circumstances conspired against him.
His first idea for a ‘tentpole’ production was the return of the Daleks after a five year absence following the acknowledged classic “Genesis of the Daleks.” What could possibly go wrong? It was a sure-fire winner with which to start the season. Unfortunately Dalek creator/writer Terry Nation was just as much in the grip of malaise as the rest of the show and indeed the rest of the country. He turned in a clichéd, charmless script for “Destiny of the Daleks” that lacked any creative imagination but simply fell back on the same tried old tropes that had looked dated even back in the 1960s. Add to that battered Daleks that looked as though they’d been brutalised in five years in a locked props cupboard, charmless new ‘arch-rivals” the Movellans, and an actor playing Davros saddled with an ill-fitting mask not even made for him, and you have some idea of how tired and disappointing this sure-fire ‘winner’ ended up being. In many ways, it perfectly personified the current state of the show as a whole and displayed all the problems facing the production team.
When production on a second ‘tentpole’ collapsed because of union strike action – “Shada” being perhaps the most mythologised story in all of Who fandom, and well worth getting Gareth Robert’s just-released novelisation of Douglas Adams’ scripts for this, or better yet getting the audiobook version narrated by series star Lalla Ward – it left “City of Death” as the season’s only successful aired prestige serial. And it really is excellent. A star cast (Julian Glover, Catherine Schell, even a cameo from John Cleese) and a truly innovative sci-fi idea (probably Douglas Adams’ best TV work of all time) coupled with the show’s first foreign location shooting and some great production values and FX. If “Destiny of the Daleks” and “Shada” had been anywhere near this level then series 17 would indeed have been a classic year.
But they weren’t, and instead “City of Death” finds itself the sole stand-out in a year otherwise populated by the sacrificial budget-saving time-filling dross of “The Creature from the Pit” and “The Horns of Nimon”. Between them, those two stories don’t have two decent original science fiction ideas to rub together; but the scripts manage to contain more gaps in logic than there are holes in a string vest. The production values are lamentable (although “Pit” does at least use number 1 tropical forest studio set from the prop store, which at least makes it look better than the dull corridor sets of “Nimon”) and the acting is extraordinarily bad from people who should know better (such as veterans Bill Fraser and Graham Crowden, the latter of whom provides one of the most spectacularly dreadful performances of a major guest star of all time. And to think, he was apparently offered the chance to play the fourth Doctor!)
And then there is “Nightmare of Eden”, which finally comes to DVD this week – one of the last Tom Baker-era serials to come to the format.
Now it’s a funny thing about “Eden”, because by rights it falls firmly in the “dross” category. It has the same faults as “Pit” and “Nimon”: some dreadfully overcooked acting (Lewis Flander’s Tryst would have been too absurd even for ‘Allo ‘Allo, Geoffrey Hinsliff looks like he’s auditioning for his later role in soap spoof Brass, while David Daker still thinks he’s playing Irongron from season 11’s medieval serial “The Time Warrior”); some laughably bad overlit generic-SF corridor sets; a monster that looks exactly like a man in a fur-lined rubber suit that comes complete with built-in 70s flares; FX that show a total lack of time and budget; sets that literally collapse underfoot but for which there is no time to mount reshoots.
But here’s the thing: I can’t help rather liking “Nightmare of Eden” for all that. Almost admire it, in fact. It’s clearly not one of the production team’s favourite sons of 1979, but it at least has the spirit and wits to try and fight on regardless.
For one thing, it presents an unusually overt tale of drug abuse at a time when television (let alone BBC family time TV) was very squeamish about even hinting at such things. There are some interesting science fiction concepts: the CET (Continual Event Transmuter) machine used for recording and transporting samples from explorations; the two ships stuck together phasing in and out of warp drive at the same spot; the secret of the origins of the drug in question. For the only time in series 17 in a non-Adams story, this is a show with more than one creative idea in its head at any given time, and not just that but ideas which actually weave together coherently without leaving vast gaps in the story logic. Despite Baker hamming it up dreadfully to keep his own spirits from flagging, the serial even manages to produce a half-decent sense of pace and danger at times.
I shouldn’t like “Nightmare of Eden”, then – but I do. I’d go so far as to say that if it hadn’t had a spark of life in it, some glimmer that the show didn’t have more to offer than the two stories that bookended it to either side, I might not have come back to watch series 18 at all and I would have dropped out of Who fandom for good this time.
Even so, it was clear to everyone involved that something – indeed, pretty much everything – had to change in Doctor Who for 1980. Williams finally got his parole and moved on, and the BBC hierarchy looked for anyone dumb enough or hungry enough to take on the poisoned chalice of one of the Corporation’s longest-running shows. They didn’t have to look far, and found the man they wanted in the Doctor Who office: production manager John Nathan-Turner. And it turned out he had a few ideas that meant that season 18 would be very different indeed, and season 17 soon became just a distant nightmare tucked away in a CET machine. Or DVD player, as we call it these days.
Out this week on DVD is the 1972 classic Doctor Who episode “Day of the Daleks”. It’s a particular favourite of mine, and not just because it stars my favourite Doctor (Jon Pertwee) going head to head with my favourite monsters (the Daleks, obviously!) for the first time.
It’s been frustrating that it’s taken so very long for this one to come out on DVD, when you’d have thought that anything Dalek-related would have been high on the list of titles to issue. It’s a great story, too: a band of guerrillas time-travel back from the future where the world is enslaved by horrible machine monsters, in order to rewrite history to stop the takeover from ever happening. Honestly, you have to wonder whether James Cameron ever saw this story before writing The Terminator! (Oh, okay then, credit where it’s due: both Cameron and Who are actually ripping off La Jetée. Happy now?)
Actually the wait for it to be released has turned out to be a blessing, because with so few classic serials now remaining to be released, the production team behind the DVD releases is able to look at the ones left and go “How do we actually make this really stand out, sparkle and shine?” – even if it takes a bit of extra cash to do it in the process – whereas before it would just have been a case of cleaning it up, slapping on the usual (terrific) set of extras and getting it out the door so they can move on to the next one.
In the case of “Day of the Daleks” it’s meant the opportunity to go back and produce a ‘special edition’ to spruce up the original. Anyone fearing any George Lucas-style heresies can rest assured that the restored original is presented right alongside this special edition, so the digital makeover hasn’t muscled out the gloriously flawed 1972 version, warts and all. Some of those warts are bigger and more grotesque than others and sparked the retro-fitting, but once they started … Well, you know how it is. Once you start painting one wall in the house, everything else looks drab and you just have to keep on going.
The biggest complaint about the original was the Dalek voices which were startlingly poor (it had been five years since they last appeared on the show – it seems they couldn’t get any of the old voice actors who remembered how to do it properly.) The special edition brings in current Mr Voice of the Daleks from the TV show, Nicholas Briggs, to redub them – and ironically it’s the change you notice the least because they simply sound exactly right, how they should have been all along. It makes going back to the aired version even more excruciating.
The production also had a major problem with budget – and with available Daleks. Basically it had three viable units left, and with this the director was asked to mount a full scale Dalek assault on a country house. Erm – never going to happen, was it? The shortcomings are clear and it’s a damp squib of an ending to the original. But the special edition uses new footage of contemporary-built Daleks (even shot on the same model of camera used at the time) to add legions into the scene by CGI and editing, which enables faster paced cutting. Add some wonderful laser gun effects and you have a spectacular finish to the serial now.
One of the gun effects is a chillingly believable disintegrator effect that I genuinely found a little disturbing and wondered how the disc had kept its PG rating as a result; I’m not sure that’s a criticism so much as a high compliment! Added to this are some nice new digitally rendered computer screens which allow some of the original too-long turgid scenes to be broken up with pacier cutting and to clarify the transition from talking head to viewscreen image that was awkwardly presented in the original. There’s an enhanced interior explosion as the country house is attacked, and a CGI effect for the time-travel units which is nice when used as a restrained ‘accent’ in a scene but rather too much when it suddenly expands over the whole screen – although I suspect that’s done intentionally to hide some blatantly bad cross-fade alignment issues in the original footage. Ultimately only the attempt to do a CGI futuristic Dalek city really doesn’t come off, but high profile feature films with millions of dollars have failed far less honourably at such endeavours.
Added to the phenomenal restoration work (studio scenes have such impressive detail, depth and colour that they look like they were shot yesterday), there’s a huge bundle of extras which I’ve still to get through including one on the single biggest question vexing Classic Who fandom – the dating of the stories featuring the Doctor’s Earth-bound UNIT friends. You would not believe the time lost in heated discussion and academic research and dissembling that this one slip-up in series continuity has caused!
Sometimes the extras are the only reason for actually buying some of the worst, shoddiest, most execrable classic Who serials. Happily one doesn’t have to look to the extras to buy this one: the core story is fine as it is, and the rest is just gravy and trimmings. But what a glorious dish it makes of it all as a result.
[Postscript: this was always a day 1 must-buy for me. It came out the same day that HMV was decked out in posters for the release of the Star Wars saga on Blu-ray. When I went to pay at the counter, the member of staff looked at my selection and was clearly startled: “We’ve sold a lot of these today!” he said in wonder. And Amazon.co.uk and Play.com listed the title as “temporarily out of stock” the day after release. It seems that even on a day of Star Wars, the “Day of the Daleks” was more than holding its own.]
This article previously appeared in the Who fan blog Cloister Bell as a guest post. Since that blog is no longer active, I’ve reproduced it here for completeness.
When Peter Davison took over the role of Doctor Who in 1981, he was following the tenure (reign might be a better word) of Tom Baker, who had starred in the series longer than anyone else before or since. By contrast, Davison stayed for just under three seasons (at a time when a season was half the length it was under William Hartnell or Patrick Troughton) and became one of the shortest tenants of the famous police box.
Davison made his decision to leave at the end of his second season, disenchanted with the quality of the scripts and increasingly at odds with the producer John Nathan-Turner (JNT to one and all.) But it’s often reported that Davison took one look at the script and production of his final story, “The Caves of Androzani”, and declared that if he’d had more stories of this calibre then he would have had no hesitation in signing up for a third season. That’s understandable: “Androzani” was indeed one of the finest classic Doctor Who stories, not just of Davison’s era but of all time. But in the Davison retrospective documentary “Come In Number Five” provided as an extra to the special edition DVD of Resurrection of the Daleks in the Revisitations 2 boxset, Davison goes further than this and suggests that as a whole, his second season was a muddled disappointment and his third season saw the show back in top form – and it was this overall trend that made him eventually disappointed to have opted to leave when he did.
This … surprised me. Or to put it another way, I fundamentally disagree with his assessments of the relative strengths of his three seasons.
Let’s start on reasonably safe ground: the 1982 season that started with “Castrovalva”, Davison’s first full story in the title role, was a very strong season, carrying on from what had proved to be an even stronger final season for Tom Baker the previous year. The show seemed to have a renewed sense of purpose and confidence, and was making efforts to take itself seriously again after several years of lampooning around (“Horns of Nimon”) and dealing with sets so shoddily constructed that they collapsed underfoot (“Nightmare of Eden”). There were strong scripts with real science fiction (and science) ideas – where else could you find a show with an entire story constructed around the concept of entropy and the second law of thermodynamics and actually have it work?
Davison’s first series started with a visit to the Big Bang and a cheeky appropriation of MC Escher’s work for “Castrovalva”, while at the same time Davison wowed us with his takes on all the Doctor’s former personalities; then there was the somewhat average but solidly turned-out and enjoyable “Four to Doomsday” before one of the season’s highlights in “Kinda” – not well understood or received at the time but now regarded as one of the finest serials the show ever did. This was followed by a crowd-pleasing historical adventure with “The Visitation” taking the crew back to 1666 Pudding Lane and some brilliantly constructed new alien monsters called Terileptils. The show’s confidence showed through in the next story, a two-parter for the first time in nearly a decade and one that landed the Tardis crew back in 1925, doing away with any science fiction or alien monsters whatsoever. It proved to be the calm before the storm, before one of the show’s most stylish and effective serials – “Earthshock”. The shock return of the Cybermen and the death of a companion: anyone who was a fan of the show back then will have the final, music-less credit roll over a background picture of a crushed and broken gold star for mathematical excellence seared into their memories. It had been a fantastic run of episodes, and if the season finale “Time Flight” was a huge disappointment then it was a shame – but a one-off exception to the rule.
So was Davison’s second season (more accurately, season 20 of the show) such a decline and disappointment, so bad that it resulted in Davison deciding to quit? It certainly had one major problem in hindsight – the fact that it was the twentieth anniversary of the show’s launch in 1963, which led JNT to decide that every single story must have some sort of callback to the show’s past.
It started with “Arc of Infinity” – not perhaps the greatest of stories, but far better than “Time Flight”. Fans got excited about seeing renegade Time Lord Omega back again (he’d last been seen in the tenth anniversary special, “The Three Doctors”); the overseas location shooting in Amsterdam was a first and looked rather good, making even routine runaround chase scenes something special; and Peter Davison himself put in a fantastically haunting performance as a dying “fake” version of himself. Then there was “Snakedance”, a sequel to “Kinda” and the source of all those clips of a young Martin Clunes in funny costumes that they like to embarrass him with on clip shows. It’s not as strikingly original as “Kinda” but in many ways is a better fit for the Doctor Who universe, and better written. This was followed by “Mawdryn Undead”, which certainly suffered from a director who didn’t seem to know how to dim the studio floodlighting to create atmosphere, but on the other hand did feature the return of the wonderful Nicholas Courtney in his signature role of Brigadier Alistair Lethbridge-Stewart, and also the delicious Valentine Dyall as the most evil being in the universe (the Black Guardian, returning in a trilogy of connected stories.) It had a clever time-stream jumping script, and while it rather lost its way and fell into mediocrity it certainly had its moments. “Terminus” showed ambition both in story and in set design (finally, a dark and dirty set with an atmosphere); and, erm, the lovely Sarah Sutton suddenly wearing a very short skirt and low cut top, but that’s not important right now. Next up there was “Enlightenment”, a show of such strikingly original ideas (eternals and ephemerals) and visuals (classic cutters using the solar system planets as marker buoys in a grand sailing race!) and superb cast (Keith Barron, Tony Caunter, Lynda Baron – just don’t mention Leee John) that the spirit of this serial seems to be making a comeback in the 2011 Matt Smith season with the third story “Curse of the Black Spot”. The script may sometimes have exceeded the reach of achievable FX at the time but this was still a magical story of the type only Doctor Who could ever do.
The season once again stumbled at the end with “The King’s Demons”, and sadly lost the story that was meant to be the big finish (featuring the Daleks – more of which in a minute) due to a BBC strike, but then there was the official 20th anniversary celebration “The Five Doctors” which went ahead despite having to recast the first Doctor (Richard Hurndall surprisingly good standing in for the late Hartnell) and having to work around a sulky Tom Baker who refused to return and had to be replaced with archive footage from the abandoned season 17 story “Shada”. (“Tom Baker, you should be ashamed of yourself!” says current series runner Steven Moffat in a recent interview about Baker’s refusal to appear. “”Every day of your life, you should regret the decision you took that day!” Of course, Moffat has his own reasons for looking back – he’s already planning the 50th anniversary special for 2013.)
Despite those compromises, and trying to fit in a galaxy of former Doctors and companions (most not able to be confirmed until the last minute) into a coherent plot was a small miracle of television production, and it’s hard not to look back at that second Davison season as overall being a success, if admittedly not of the same order as the first year. Why Davison should look back upon this group of stories and conclude despairingly that it was time to move on is difficult to fathom.
Now, let’s look at the third season, the one that Davison liked so much that it would have changed his mind about departing if it had come first.
It starts with “Warriors of the Deep”. It’s another show that badly needs some dark, moody, atmospheric direction to succeed – but instead gets some of the flattest floodlighting we’ve seen in the show. As a result, the show’s ‘monster moment’ features the series’ most derided creature, the Myrka. It looks like a two-man pantomime horse painted green and with some frills sown on: it’s utterly derisible. The story angered dedicated fans by riding roughshod over established series mythologies pertaining to the Silurians and the Sea Devils, and to the casual viewer is just dull and boring. Then there’s “The Awakening”, which isn’t bad and certainly looks good, allowing the BBC to play to its traditional strength of historical drama serials: but the story is rather confused, seemingly wanting to be some mishmash of Quatermass and Sapphire and Steel. It’s not bad, but it’s not particularly good either. After this the season moves on to “Frontios”, which has some very striking ideas and visuals – the shattered Tardis remnants littered around the place are truly unsettling. It’s let down somewhat by being very artificially studio-bound, and the story of the human colonists doesn’t really gell, but this week’s monsters – gravity slugs the Tractators – are remarkably effective and creepy. It’s not a story that will appeal to everyone, but on the whole this is one of the season’s hits, albeit flawed and “difficult”.
The next story should be a slam-dunk success – it’s the “Resurrection of the Daleks” delayed from the previous season, with added Davros. How could you screw this one up? Very easily it turns out. The direction and production design are all top-notch, but the writing for this story is appalling. The violence and body count is so high that at the end, when companion Tegan declares “It isn’t fun anymore, Doctor” and leaves, you’re with her every step of the way and feel like walking out with her. (A more detailed review of this story is available on the author’s own blog.) Then there’s “Planet of Fire”, which benefits from being this year’s “let’s take the production crew on holiday” story – set in the other-worldly volcanic landscape of Lanzarote in the days before it became an overly familiar top tourist destination. It looks great, but someone forgot to pack a story in their luggage: the script has to write out two companions (Turlough and the best-forgotten Kamelion), introduce another (Peri) and have the Master return. It’s overloaded by all this and implodes into indifference under the sun.
Then finally Peter Davison’s time is over, and we’re finishing up with “The Caves of Androzani” – a truly brilliant serial, one of the very best, no question. If Davison was still saying ‘I’d have stayed if they were all like “Androzani”‘ then we’d have no absolutely argument. But ‘if it had been like the third season’ – really? The dreadful “Warriors”, the confused “Awakening”, the difficult “Frontios”, the awful writing of “Resurrection”, the damp squib of “Planet of Fire” make this for me the start of another major slump in Doctor Who’s long history. Here the exception to the rule is “Androzani”, the jewel in the season’s crown, where before the exceptions have been the duds. The next season would see script writer Eric Saward get a Doctor more to his liking – the abrasive Sixth Doctor as played by Colin Baker – and we all know how disastrous that turned out to be.
I’ll take the second Davison season over the third any day: it might not have been as good as the first, it might have been self-indulgent with all those love notes to the series’ past, and it might have faltered and clung on by its fingertips at times, but it just about pulled it off and maintained the quality. By contrast, the third Davison season dropped the ball on multiple occasions (and Baker’s first season couldn’t even find the ball to start playing the game in the first place.)
It’s to Davison’s immense credit that despite being one of the shorter-serving actors in the title role – and at a time when the series was, to put it diplomatically, “struggling creatively” – both he and his portrayal of the Doctor are still very fondly regarded and seen as one of the best periods of the show. Indeed, in the DVD extra “Come In Number Five”, when documentary presenter David Tennant (who knows a thing or two about being a popular Time Lord) reiterates that for him, Peter Davison “was my Doctor” – not only is it heartfelt, he speaks for many of us when he does.
And as accolades and tributes go, it doesn’t get much better than that.
I was recently knocked offline for a week by a problem with my broadband: one of the upsides about not being distracted by any number of online or social media diversions was that it allowed me to spend some time with my ridiculously oversized DVD collection. After having watched the Doctor Who serial Kinda last month (and reviewed it), I followed it up with another Peter Davison adventure – his sole encounter the infamous Daleks.
Davison has a high opinion of this story and seems to regard it as one of the best of his tenure in the lead role. I honestly can’t understand why. If I was to pick out a script that is an example of an utterly dreadful piece of writing and which fails on just about every level required of it, it would be this story. The writer, Eric Saward (who was also the show’s script editor at the time) seems to have gathered together a few disparite threads – creepy policemen in industrial wastelands; a plot to kill, duplicate and replace key people; lots of deaths; Daleks; and, of course, Davros – and thrown them into the same episode in the presumption that this makes for a coherent story. It doesn’t. What we have is about four totally different storylines that individually barely hold together, but en masse don’t connect with each other and force totally unworkable overlaps and coincidences upon events. It doesn’t so much leave believability and credibility behind, as take them out round the back and shoot them point blank in the face. And then shoot them again ten times over for good measure.
Actually the amount of violence is often used as the main criticism of this story – more people die on screen (and brutally) than in any other Classic Who, and by the end the survivors are struggling to find space on the studio floor to walk on without tripping over all the killed-off extras. It even adds the “duplicates” thread so that the same actors can get killed once, cloned, and then promptly shot again just to add to the numbers. And even the Doctor gets in on the act, picking up guns and shooting things with a bloodlust that these days would never be permitted of the noble hero in NuWho. Personally I don’t actually have a problem with this aspect of the script: a story about the real cost and impact of bloody violence is a valid approach, and Tegan’s final speech about how she’s so sickened by the events – especially when an innocent bystander is killed because of her calling out to him for help – that “it isn’t fun any more” and understandably she wants to leave as a result makes this strand of the show actually effective and coherent.
It’s everything else that fails. Basically, things happen in this show because the script requires them to, not because of any internal logic. Where to start? Once a character has finished their purpose in the plot, someone just shoots them for no reason (why then and not half an hour earlier if they were so disposable?) Another character manages to activate a space station’s self-destruct mechanism despite having no idea how and no level of security access, just by poking at buttons at random for five minutes – because anything can be made to work by stabbing buttons long enough, right? The Daleks risk all to retrieve Davros, only to then decide an hour later than it’s rather troublesome and so they’d rather kill him. There’s a time tunnel between the space station and a warehouse in Earth because … because … Well, I couldn’t tell you. There’s some cylinders of a virus lethal to Daleks lying around in the warehouse for some reason, which you’d expect the Daleks to be wary about but instead they seem oblivious and happy to leave them with their enemies. One companion character (Turlough) is allowed to wonder the Dalek base at will: why? Even the Deputy Dalek asks the question, and all his Dalek Supreme can say is “leave him, he’s bait to reel in the Doctor”. Really? At least stick him in a cell if you want him to “act baity” rather than risk him running round and causing problems, surely? Oh – look at what he did. Caused problems and undermined your plans. Davros has some sort of secret weapon that brainwashes humans and Daleks alike to his cause … How? Where did it come from? When the Daleks finally trap the Doctor and take him to be duplicated, they leave him with a single human guard because all the other troopers and Daleks suddenly develop pressing business elsewhere and pile out of the room. Well, it’s not like the Doctor is going to be able to escape LIKE EVERY OTHER TIME THE DALEKS HAVE HAD HIM IN THIS POSITION now is it?!?
Seriously, this is plotting of the laziest and worst kind. It makes absolutely no sense whatsoever and ought to be truly ashamed of itself. And Saward can certainly do much better when he tries – he wrote Earthshock which is regarded as one of Classic Who’s all time best episodes (it’s also criticised by being all surface superficial ‘wow’ and nothing underneath; I disagree and find it eminently rewatchable and well written.) In fact, Resurrection was supposed to be the show that relaunched the Daleks in the same way that Earthshock rebooted the Cybermen – but here it really is all surface action bling and absolutely nothing underneath.
But let’s give the serial its due and admit where it gets things right: that surface bling is really very well done. There’s a high technical level of quality of production that is really hugely impressive, and while they’re rather over-used the scenes of exploding Daleks (and especially one Dalek pushed out of a high warehouse window) give a real thrill. One scene (shamelessly ripped off from the opening of Star Wars where the stormtroopers board the rebel freighter) includes a slight miscalculation in the pyrotechnics that resulted in the biggest explosion ever staged within BBC TV Centre – and a severe reprimand to the production team as a result never, ever to do that again. Looks great on screen, though.
The sets and costumes all look great and are well-lit and well-designed, save for an over-prevalence of ‘Dalek bumps’ everywhere and some lamentably designed trooper helmets with stubby protuberances at the front that can’t help but make it look like they and the Daleks are in some sort of phallic “mine is bigger than yours” contest. The dilapidated locations (in the Shad Thames area next to Tower Bridge that is now fully renovated and the home of the Design Museum) are wonderfully chosen and suitably atmospheric. The guest cast includes some top talent (Maurice Colbourne, Del Henney, Rula Lenska, Philip McGough, Terry Molloy taking over as Davros, a first big role for Leslie Grantham pre-EastEnders stardom, and … err, Rodney Bewes) and is also impressively multi-ethnic for a production of this vintage, something Doctor Who had been very bad about in its recent past. And all that cast is putting in reliable, top-notch performances and believing in what they’re doing, in a way that so many other Doctor Who stories that followed never managed, which is amazing considering what the script gives them to work with (which is nothing.)
And a special word for the direction of Matthew Robinson (who moved on to EastEnders and remembered Grantham from this production.) He provides a kinetic, fast moving style to the show which at times comes close to being confusing and irritating, until you realise that he’s (a) having to chop around so much because that’s what’s in the script, and (b) the style is papering over the gaping cracks in the story by keeping it hustling along and that consequently slowing down simply isn’t an option. I suspect it’s the energy and visual flair of Robinson that so appealed to Davison and made this one of his favourite serials – he also highly rates The Caves of Androzani which was the product of the show’s other auteur director of the 80s, the delightful Graeme Harper.
But really, if you want to see how important and fundamental the script is to a show, then watch this for an example of how it can go catastrophically wrong. That this should be the work of the same person who wrote Earthshock is bad enough, but that he should be the show’s script editor as well for Heaven’s sake explains why the show went so disastrously off the rails soon after, when Saward finally got a Sixth Doctor more to his liking than ‘wet vet’ Davison but found that absolutely no one else liked his vision of the character or stories that he lumbered Colin Baker with. It really wasn’t Colin’s fault: he could only ever play the part and say the words that Saward put in front of him.
As for the DVD: wonderfully restored as ever and with the usual great selection of extras. There’s a great commentary track featuring Davison, Robinson and Janet Fielding (Tegan) well worth a listen, and the ever-interesting information subtitles. A new Special Edition has also just been released as part of the Revisitions 2 boxset which includes a second commentary from Saward, Molloy and FX man Peter Wragg, moderated by NuWho Dalek operator Nicholas Pegg; there’s also an hour-long documentary retrospective on the Davison years presented by David Tennant which heaps a lot of blame for the series’ problems at this time at the door of producer John-Nathan Turner. The documentary ends with a clip from the Children in Need Time Crash special in which Doctors Five and Ten meet, and then back to presenter Tennant donning the distinctive coat of the Fifth Doctor. It’s an odd moment: Who cognoscenti will be wondering whether Davison knew that his successor and de facto son-in-law and father of his granddaughter Olive had been rifling through his wardrobe at home that morning after breakfast before heading out … ! The extras, as ever, make even the weakest classic Doctor Who serials a must-buy on DVD for any reasonably dedicated fan.
The aforementioned documentary also inspired the writing of a related blog post for Doctor Who blog Cloister Bell comparing and contrasting Peter Davison’s time in the Tardis. Since that blog no longer exists, the “Three seasons of the Fifth Doctor” has now been reproduced here on Taking The Short View.