Classic Who

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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Stomachturn

Mar
22

Review of Mindwarp (#143b)
DVD Release Date: 10 Oct 08
Original Air Date: 04 - 25 Oct 1986
Doctor/Companion: Six, Perpugilliam "Peri" Brown
Stars: Colin Baker, Nicola Bryant
Preceding Story: The Mysterious Planet (Six, Peri)
Succeeding Story: Terror of the Vervoids (Six, Mel)

I will admit, dear readers, that I cringed at the thought of needing to rewatch Mindwarp for this review. Parts Five through Eight of The Trial of a Time Lord (TToaTL) have always ranked high in my personal list of regrettable Doctor Who stories, and I'm afraid nothing changed this time around.

There are a few things that stand out in my memory about Mindwarp, no matter how long it's been since my last viewing: the way Peri gets so thoroughly screwed over; Brian Blessed's sheer, scenery-chewing volume; and the return of Sil, perhaps my most hated antagonist ever. None of these key traits serve to recommend the adventure, nor are they improved on repeated viewing.

While I've never particularly cared for Peri, no one deserves the shitty treatment—especially in a farewell appearance—that she gets here*. Even before the Doctor goes off the deep end (and he does, though neither we nor the Doctor himself, as evidenced by his reactions back in the courtroom on Gallifrey, really know why), he is truly horrible to his Companion. The prime example ties into another of my dislikes about Mindwarp: Sil.

Given the way Sil made my skin crawl (and not in a "love to hate" way) in his first appearance, I—like poor Peri—have no desire to be anywhere near him, even narratively. When she discovers Sil is on Thoros Beta with them, and that it is in fact his home planet (a detail the Doctor neglected to mention), she tells the Doctor outright that she wants to leave. Sil tortured her the last time they met, and she has been understandably traumatized by the experience.

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Feel the Power

Feb
22

Review of Power of the Daleks (#30)
DVD Release Date: 24 Jan 17 [Region 1]
Original Air Date: 05 Nov - 10 Dec 1966
Doctor/Companion: Two, Ben Jackson, and Polly Wright
Stars: Patrick Troughton, Michael Craze, Anneke Wills
Preceding Story: The Tenth Planet (Two, Ben, Polly)
Succeeding Story: The Highlanders (Two, Ben, Polly, Jamie)

Although we've had some brilliant windfalls in recent years in terms of recovered "lost" episodes of Doctor Who, there are plenty that are still missing in their entirety. Perhaps the most famous/famously sought-after is Marco Polo, but Patrick Troughton's first serial Power of the Daleks is also high on many peoples' lists.

Perhaps that is the reason that BBC Worldwide took the unusual step of animating all six episodes of Power. While they have previously commissioned animations for missing episodes of stories that are incomplete in the archives, this is (correct me if I'm wrong) the first story to be reconstructed in its entirety with no surviving visual material but a few minutes of clips and stills.

Although the animated reconstruction was released on the BBC Store last November (fifty years to the minute from the original broadcast of its opening episode), a physical version (DVD, rather than digital download or BBC America broadcast) was not made available in the US until late January. Being the obsessive collector I am (and refusing to pay for it twice), I therefore didn't get to see it until just recently.

The story begins with the first-ever regeneration. As a fan fifty years out, it feels oddly portentous watching that moment, even animated (though I still find the original surviving footage more moving). Troughton's skill and the lampshading of the wildly radical concept of the lead character's complete change of not only body but personality through the Companions' reactions to him paved the way for everything that followed.

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A Mysterious Plan

Jan
25

Review of The Mysterious Planet (#143a)
DVD Release Date: 10 Oct 08
Original Air Date: 06 - 27 Sep 1986
Doctor/Companion: Six, Perpugilliam "Peri" Brown
Stars: Colin Baker, Nicola Bryant
Preceding Story: Revelation of the Daleks (Six, Peri)
Succeeding Story: Mindwarp (Six, Peri)

Today I start a new review series, with an arc I've long avoided here. The Trial of a Time Lord (ToaTL) is, depending on who you ask, either a season-long, fourteen-part story or four, two- or four-part stories connected into a season arc. It comprises approximately half of the Sixth Doctors televised tenure in the role, and thus looms larger in my mental landscape than perhaps it should.

So because my reviews over the years have been particularly shy of Sixth Doctor adventures (at least the televised ones), I decided I'd finally tackle ToaTL for the first part of 2017 (with a Dalek breakaway—see what I did there?—for Power in February) before Series Ten begins.

As we begin this season, then, we see the TARDIS being pulled into a large structure in space, and the Doctor steps out—alone—into a darkened hallway. The room he enters is also darkened until, with some vaguely ominous words, someone eventually identified as "the Valeyard"—the person who is to become his major adversary over the coming episodes—reveals that they are in a Time Lord courtroom.

The Doctor is the subject of a hearing to determine whether or not he is truly guilty of "conduct unbecoming of a Time Lord." As part of his protest, the Doctor claims he can't be put on trial because he's Lord President of Gallifrey (Oh, Doctor... You sound unpleasantly like the new POTUS...), but is told that as a result of his neglect for his duties, he's been deposed.

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