Classic Who

Setting the Standard

Nov
22

Review of The Five Doctors (#129)
DVD Release Date: 05 Aug 08
Original Air Date: 25 Nov 1983
Doctors/Companions: Five, One, Two, Three, Four (cameo), Tegan, Turlough, Susan, the Brigadier, Sarah Jane, Romana II (cameo)
Stars: Peter Davison, Richard Hurndall, Patrick Troughton, Jon Pertwee, (Tom Baker), Janet Fielding, Mark Strickson, Carole Ann Ford, Nicholas Courtney, Elisabeth Sladen, (Lalla Ward)
Preceding Story: The King's Demons (Five, Tegan, Turlough, Kamelion)
Succeeding Story: Warriors of the Deep (Five, Tegan, Turlough)

With tomorrow's anniversary of the show's beginnings, I felt now would be an appropriate time to look back at a different celebration of its history. Though this year we mark fifty-four years since the show's inception, 1983 was merely twenty, and the Powers That Beeb decided they couldn't let such a large, round number go unnoticed.

Here in the post-fiftieth-anniversary era, we think of that celebration as having pulled out all the stops, but really, it was The Five Doctors that set the standard. And while, like Moffat, JNT didn't get everyone he wanted to participate, he nonetheless pulled together a remarkable cast, including—in a way—all five incarnations of the Doctor who had appeared up to that point.

While First Doctor William Hartnell had (just barely) managed perform a part in the tenth anniversary story The Three Doctors, he was already eight years dead by the time this next milestone rolled around. Rather than exclude his Doctor entirely, though, JNT simply recast Richard Hurndall in the role, much like David Bradley has taken over the same in the modern era. But much like Eccleston for the fiftieth, Tom Baker could not be convinced to reprise his own Fourth Doctor (reportedly because he thought it was too soon).

Undeterred, JNT simply used footage from the unaired story Shada (new release pending in January '18—watch this space for a review), and trapped Four and Companion Romana II in the time vortex, preventing them from joining the others in the adventure proper, without excluding them outright.

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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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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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