Reviews

No Need to Gild the Orchid

Oct
25

Review of Black Orchid (#120)
DVD Release Date: 05 Aug 08
Original Air Date: 01 - 02 Mar 1982
Doctor/Companion: Five, Tegan Jovanka, Nyssa, Adric
Stars: Peter Davison, Janet Fielding, Sarah Sutton, Matthew Waterhouse
Preceding Story: The Visitation (Five, Tegan, Nyssa, Adric)
Succeeding Story: Earthshock (Five, Tegan, Nyssa, Adric)

It's time to throw a little love the Fifth Doctor's way, as he is currently the most under-represented (percentage-wise) in my reviews. And, since I was short on time, why not start with a nice, quick two-parter?

Besides its length, the other advantage of delving into Black Orchid is the fact that it is a "pure historical," one in which there are no science-fictional plot elements (aside from our heroes' presence outside their own time, and the brief use of the TARDIS to hop between locations). It is, in fact, the first pure historical since the Second Doctor's second outing in The Highlanders (more than fifteen years prior), and the last to be broadcast on TV to date.

However, some have suggested that new showrunner Chris Chibnall might bring back the pure historical (an idea I wholeheartedly support). Reviewing how such a story can work—and work well—is thus a fine exercise.

Our story begins when the TARDIS brings her crew back to Earth in June of 1925, where strange things are afoot at the Cranleigh family manor. As has often happened, the TARDIS crew walk in at just the right time for a case of mistaken identity to take hold, though this time there's a twist—not only is the Doctor taken to be the anticipated replacement cricketer, but Nyssa is the spitting image of Charles Cranleigh's fiancée Ann.

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A Series of Unfortunate Events

Sep
27

Review of The Ultimate Foe (#143d)
DVD Release Date: 10 Oct 08
Original Air Date: 29 Nov - 06 Dec 1986
Doctor/Companion: Six, Melanie "Mel" Bush
Stars: Colin Baker, Bonnie Langford
Preceding Story: Terror of the Vervoids (Six, Mel)
Succeeding Story: Time and the Rani (Seven, Mel)

The final (one might even say "ultimate") story of the Sixth Doctor's tenure was riddled with unfortunate circumstances. Perhaps most blatantly, writer Robert Holmes—widely considered one of the best of the Classic era, and the one who penned Episodes 1-4 of The Trial of a Time Lord (TToaTL)—took ill and died before completing Episode 13, forcing Script Editor Eric Saward to finish it off.

Making matters worse, BBC executives still weren't seeing eye-to-eye with the Doctor Who team. The show had been put "on hiatus" between Season 22 and TToaTL (Season 23), and things were not really looking up despite the renewal. With producer John Nathan-Turner (JNT) also at odds with his script editor, it's amazing anything ended up on screen at all.

Saward had agreed to write Episode 14 as well as finishing its predecessor, but things with JNT deteriorated enough that Saward eventually walked out, leaving JNT to do Saward's script editing job while Pip and Jane Baker, who had written Episodes 9-12, stepped in to complete the season. No matter how many notes a writer leaves, no other writer can produce something that looks just like what the original creator had in their head. And to be blunt, Pip and Jane Baker are no Robert Holmes. The resulting episode is uninspiring at best.

When one adds in all this context regarding the production to the retrospective knowledge that Colin Baker would be forced out of the lead role before the next season, the overall effect while watching The Ultimate Foe is like of standing outside Pompeii with the TARDIS on Volcano Day. One feels pity for the poor souls trapped in this hopeless situation, knowing just how it ends and that you can do nothing to save them—and that doesn't make it any prettier to watch.

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The Confusion of a Time Line

Aug
23

Review of Terror of the Vervoids (#143c)
DVD Release Date: 10 Oct 08
Original Air Date: 01 - 22 Nov 1986
Doctor/Companion: Six, Melanie "Mel" Bush
Stars: Colin Baker, Bonnie Langford
Preceding Story: Mindwarp (Six, Peri)
Succeeding Story: The Ultimate Foe (Six, Mel)

Let me begin by acknowledging what a ridiculously suggestive (nigh pornographic) creature design this serial has. Wowzers. How that got past the censors/BBC high muckety-mucks/whoever screens this stuff, I'll never understand. And now that that's out of the way, we can talk about the rest of it.

While Terror of the Vervoids has never ranked high in my personal preference list of Doctor Who stories, it does have one particularly intriguing aspect that sets it apart from most other pre-Hiatus serials: it's wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey.

Sadly this aspect isn't pervasive; it only shows up when we cut back to the courtroom for the scenes that remind us the Doctor is on trial for his life. In order to find evidence to defend himself, though, the Doctor has had to dip into his own future, as recorded by the Matrix. Thus we get a bigger hiccup in his timeline than usual, which has an interesting and slightly maddening side effect: we never get a formal introduction to his next Companion.

We join the Doctor and Mel with their travels already in progress. There's a distinct sense of familiarity between them that comes of a prolonged association with each other. In one way, I'm delighted by the cheekiness of this writing decision. We have just learned (along with the Doctor, because (a) his memory's messed up and (b) he got pulled out of time before the events reputedly happened) that his previous Companion Peri has died due to his actions/inaction. Normally we'd expect an adventure where he meets a new friend and invites (in this case) her to travel with him.

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The Doctor Stands

Jul
05

Review of The Doctor Falls
Warning: This review contains episode-specific spoilers and wild speculation about future episodes.

The fact that I came out of this episode without a bad taste in my mouth pretty much makes it the best Moffat finale ever, as far as I'm concerned. Not to say that it was an over-the-top awesome episode—it was very good, though not great—but it didn't have the characteristic "tripped at the finish line" feeling I usually get from a Moffat two-part finale.

Coming off last week's gut-punch, I was truly worried about how Bill's story would be resolved. I honestly expected either full-on tragedy (as implied by the end of World Enough and Time) or something out of left field that left me squinting in puzzlement at the screen.

Frankly, I found a combination thereof most likely, e.g., a Frankenstein's monster replacement body in the same style that Nardole seems to have accumulated parts over his adventures (h/t to Verity! podcast for that thought). You can imagine my unease, then, when the first character we follow in the pre-credits sequence is a young Black girl; my first, disturbing thought was that she would end up providing the body that Bill's mind would eventually occupy. I cannot fully express my relief that such was not the case.

Given how focused I initially was on Bill, it's a testament to the execution of this plot that I didn't feel that everything else—and there was so much else!—was a mere distraction. With five main cast members, there was a lot to cover to keep them all relevant, and damned if Moffat didn't manage it.

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Science Enough and Horror

Jun
28

Review of World Enough and Time
Warning: This review contains episode-specific spoilers and wild speculation about future episodes.

I have got to learn to stop watching the "Next Time" trailers.

I don't know who is in charge of deciding what parts of any given episode get put into those trailers, but they come across as if the party responsible has become drunk with power. "Look at all the cool shit that happens this time 'round," I imagine this person crowing. "Put a little of THAT in there, and watch them come running!"

The trouble is, all that cool shit is the stuff that brings tension to the story—specifically, not knowing that it's coming is the source of tension. So despite having had publicity about both appearances well before the series started, reminding us in that trailer that we had yet to see either the promised Mondasian Cybermen or Simm Master really ruined the mystery of the episode.

That said, there was a different, truly horrifying sense of tension if one remembered even only the former was involved. And, to be fair, the script telegraphed it pretty hard for anyone with even a passing familiarity with the Cybermen of any era. (I'll be interested to see what my daughters make of it, when they see it. I refuse to subject them to this without its conclusion at the ready, though.)

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