Reviews

The Beauty Beneath the Masque

Aug
24

Review of The Masque of Mandragora (#85)
DVD Release Date: 04 May 10
Original Air Date: 04 - 25 Sep 1976
Doctor/Companion: Four, Sarah Jane Smith
Stars: Tom Baker, Elisabeth Sladen
Preceding Story: The Seeds of Doom (Four, Sarah Jane)
Succeeding Story: The Hand of Fear (Four, Sarah Jane)

Last month I started my new series of reviews of Tom Baker's season openers with his inaugural adventure Robot. His second season started with Terror of the Zygons, but as mentioned last month, I've already reviewed it. Therefore, I'm moving on to the Fourth Doctor's third season, which begins with The Masque of Mandragora.

By this point, Lis Sladen had been in the role of Sarah Jane Smith (SJS) for three years, and Baker had been portraying the Doctor for two. They are so wonderfully comfortable with both their own characters and each other, they make for fabulous, cozy watching.

It was also the third and final season of the Hinchcliffe-Holmes era, so often touted as the "golden age" of Doctor Who. Sladen would leave at the end of the following story and the second half of the season would see Baker unwillingly paired with another Companion (it's well known that he was rather horrible to Louise Jameson during her time as Leela, though by all accounts they are fast friends now). As Season 14 opens, though, Baker is clearly at the height of his powers and happy as a clam.

The story opens with SJS and the Doctor wandering the halls of the TARDIS, apparently just for kicks. They happen across a secondary control room, wood-paneled and covered with dust after long disuse. (It was used as the primary for most stories in the following year-and-a-bit.) From here they discover they are being drawn to a strange place by the Mandragora Helix before escaping and ending up in 15th-century Italy.

Helix energy (alternatively "Mandragora energy"—they don't seem to have been overly concerned with consistency there) has hitched a ride in the TARDIS, and now adds to the political havoc in process in the principality of San Martino, in which the Doctor and SJS find themselves (surprise!) embroiled.

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Changing of the Guard

Jul
27

Review of Robot (#75)
DVD Release Date: 14 Aug 07 (Out of Print)
Original Air Date: 28 Dec 1974 - 18 Jan 1975
Doctor/Companion: Four, Sarah Jane Smith, Harry Sullivan
Stars: Tom Baker, Elisabeth Sladen, Ian Marter
Preceding Story: Planet of the Spiders (Three, Sarah Jane)
Succeeding Story: The Ark in Space (Four, Sarah Jane, Harry)

Having completed an overview of Cybermen stories in the last few months, I felt it was time to switch to another theme. The question, of course, was what theme to pursue? By percentage of (extant) stories, the Fourth Doctor is still my least-reviewed incarnation. Therefore I thought something focusing on his tenure would be appropriate.

I had two ideas of how to cover Four's time in the TARDIS: deep or broad. I could delve into one particular season (The Key to Time, which was the first season-long story arc) or I could find a way to choose stories distributed across the entire seven-year run.

Eventually I settled on the latter, with the idea that the first story of each season would provide a simple selection criterion. Four of those seven season openers have never been reviewed either directly or with Nu-/Retro-Views. Two (Robot and The Ribos Operation) were the subject of a Retro-View several years ago (Nov 2012 and Apr 2013, respectively), so are due another look-in. The final story in question (Terror of the Zygons) has already been reviewed in full when the DVD came out in Oct 2013. Further, the story that immediately preceded it, Revenge of the Cybermen, was reviewed just three months ago as part of my Cyber-series. Therefore, I've decided to skip that period (end of Season 12/beginning of Season 13) in my retrospective.

So we're kicking it off with T. Baker's first ever on-screen adventure Robot. Because Baker is able to jump in with both metaphorical feet and make the role his own right from the get-go (his famous quote that "I was the Doctor and the Doctor was me" seems to have been true nearly immediately), it's easy to forget that this story was written before Baker had been cast. Occasionally there is a line that sounds ever so slightly "off" for the person we know this Doctor would become, but for the most part it's as if he has sprung from the head of Zeus Terrance Dicks fully formed.

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The Monsters Behind the Curtain

Jun
22

Review of The Invasion (#46)
DVD Release Date: 06 Mar 07 (Out of Print)
Original Air Date: 02 Nov - 21 Dec 1968
Doctor/Companion: Two, Jamie McCrimmon, Zoë Heriot
Stars: Patrick Troughton, Fraser Hines, Wendy Padbury
Preceding Story: The Mind Robber (Two, Jamie, Zoë)
Succeeding Story: The Krotons (Two, Jamie, Zoë)

My decision to review The Underwater Menace last time was not in the original plan for the year, but it turns out to have made for a nice segue into this month's installment in my continuing series. Having just refamiliarized ourselves with the Second Doctor, we can now watch him in action against the Cybermen.

Many fans may be more familiar with Troughton's clash with this enemy on their native Telos in The Tomb of the Cybermen, but that doesn't mean this final encounter (of his four) is unworthy of fans' time. Although it runs twice as long as Tomb, at eight episodes rather than four, there are qualities of the story that, for me at least, make the investment worthwhile.

To be clear, two episodes of The Invasion are still missing from the archives. However, in this release those missing episodes (numbers One and Four) have been animated by Cosgrove Hall, the same studio responsible for Scream of the Shalka. As someone who struggles with audio-only versions (as with the missing episodes of Menace, discussed last time), I really loved these animations. While I don't know whether director Douglas Camfield left any camera notes nor whether any such notes were consulted in the animated reconstructions, these episodes don't feel (to my untrained eye) out of place.

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The Stinker Swims

Jun
08

Review of The Underwater Menace (#32)
DVD Release Date: 24 May 16 (Region 1/N.America)
Original Air Date: 14 Jan - 04 Feb 1967
Doctor/Companion: Two, Polly Wright, Ben Jackson, Jamie McCrimmon
Stars: Patrick Troughton, Anneke Wills, Frazer Hines
Preceding Story: The Highlanders (Two, Ben, Polly, Jamie)
Succeeding Story: The Moonbase (Two, Ben, Polly, Jamie)

This past weekend I had the pleasure of attending the third iteration of CONsole Room, my local Doctor Who convention. I won't be posting a full recap on it this year, as I was only there for a few hours each day for the panels I was on, but among the guests were three early Companions: Anneke Wills (Polly Wright), Frazer Hines (Jamie McCrimmon), and Wendy Padbury (Zoë Heriot). All three worked with Patrick Troughton (though Anneke started with William Hartnell), so there are plenty of each of their episodes that are missing.

Interestingly enough, one of the more recently recovered episodes (found in December 2011) was from early in Season Four (Troughton's first), including Anneke as Polly and Frazer's second outing as Jamie. It was finally released on DVD here in North America about two weeks ago, a week and a half before CONsole Room. I didn't manage to find time to watch it until after the con, which is a shame, because then I might have been able to (a) ask the guests some semi-intelligent questions about the story when I saw them on their main stage panel on Saturday and (b) fully appreciate the cosplay of the (highly embarrassed) young lady who got called out to show off her Polly-as-an-Atlanean costume during said panel. Alas, I did not have that much forethought. With mild regret for missed opportunities, then, I sat down to watch the last release of the home video line (barring any further lost episode recoveries).

The Underwater Menace has a reputation as one of the big stinkers. Until now, it's only been possible to watch one of its four filmed episodes, which in my opinion makes it ridiculously difficult to judge. Even with this release, Episodes One and Four (those still absent from the archives) are terribly difficult to follow, as all we have to go on are the soundtrack and production stills. Thank Prime for closed captioning.

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More "Meh" Than Nemesis

May
25

Review of Silver Nemesis (#151)
DVD Release Date: 02 Nov 10
Original Air Date: 23 Nov - 07 Dec 1988
Doctor/Companion: Seven, Ace McShane
Stars: Sylvester McCoy, Sophie Aldred
Preceding Story: The Happiness Patrol (Seven, Ace)
Succeeding Story: The Greatest Show in the Galaxy (Seven, Ace)

Marching through our list of under-represented Doctors (in terms of the percentage of their stories I have reviewed in one form or another), we come now to the Seventh Doctor, whose lone encounter with the Cybermen happened to fall on Doctor Who's twenty-fifth anniversary.

While the production team—writer Kevin Clarke in particular—made a valiant effort to add a sense of significance to the passage of that particular twenty-five years (1963-1988), the result was perhaps not as compelling as they might have hoped. Making that span the orbital period of an eccentric object (launched, it turns out, by the Doctor himself some 350 years prior) was not altogether a bad idea (presuming it's orbiting the sun, that would put it beyond Jupiter, but not as far as Saturn, were it in a nearly circular orbit—which admittedly seems unlikely). However, the logical contortions they have to employ in order to make that quarter-century seem consistently historically significant are awkward at best (1913 is called out as "the eve of the First World War"; 1938 "Hitler annexes Austria"; 1963 "Kennedy assassinated").

As for the Cybermen, they're not even the eponymous Nemesis; that name actually belongs to a mysterious statue made of validium—"living metal." Frankly, I found the title to be more about misdirection than double meaning. While one could argue that both statue and Cybermen are silver nemeses, the Cybermen are relegated to a secondary or even tertiary role.

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