Doctor Who

Doctor Who Review: The Curse of the Fugue

Paul McGann’s Eighth Doctor has had a marvelous existence in Big Finish’s audio adventures. Through them, we’ve been able to see how this eccentric, passionate, and occasionally dour Doctor lived between his birth in the 1996 TV movie and death in “The Night of the Doctor.” Adding greatly to the popularity of these adventures was companion Lucie Miller, played by the superb Sheridan Smith. Outspoken, indomitable, and even caustic at times, Lucie was the perfect foil to the Eighth Doctor, balancing his melancholy as much as Sarah Jane Smith’s tenacity redeemed the Fourth Doctor’s recklessness. What really stood out, though, was that the character felt real.

Last heard in 2011’s “To the Death,” Sheridan Smith and Lucie Miller have returned in “The Curse of the Fugue” – and it’s like they never left. The 30-minute tale is part of Big Finish’s Short Trips range, where one actor reads an original story (as opposed to Big Finish’s full-cast audio plays).

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Alice Cavender’s story drops us into 1974 London, during an energy crisis, and where we find Lucie working in a nursing home. But why? Where is the Doctor? And is resident Cecille’s invisible friend a figment – or a messenger from the past with a dire warning?

The story takes a little while to develop, but that’s fine because it does an admirable job of creating a true 1970’s feel and establishing key characters like Cecille. It’s also fun to hear Lucie – who’s not at all happy about her apparent abandonment by the Doctor – casually sharing future news tidbits with the ’70s residents. An added treat is Sheridan’s interpretation of the Eighth Doctor. She handles both roles extremely well.

One thing I feel compelled to mention is that when Sheridan goes “Full Lucie,” it can sometimes be difficult for American ears to pick up everything she’s saying. But hey, that’s the character! Ultimately, “The Curse of the Fugue” is cause for celebration for all Lucie Miller fans. (And if you’re not familiar with Lucie Miller or the Eighth Doctor, I recommend listening to, say, “Human Resources” first.)

Additional: Big Finish is hosting a Short Trips writing competition this month! Fancy a chance at writing your own Doctor Who tale for the Big Finish website? Check out the details here.

Rating: 4/5 Braaaaaaaaaains.

–Ken

Doctor Who DVD Review: Invasion of the Dinosaurs (Great Story, Lousy F@#&ing Puppets)

Jon Pertwee’s fifth and final season as the Third Doctor is something that’s quite enjoyable to watch, if a bit melancholy. The tone of the season still has the same sense of swashbuckling, Steed-and-Peel Avengers-influenced derring-do of the rest of Pertwee’s time as the Doctor, but there’s also a sense of somberness to it. In many ways, it feels similar to David Tennant’s final run of specials and the four knocks – the blue crystal of Metebelis Three seems to be beckoning to the Third Doctor throughout his last season, letting him know that his time is indeed running out. And while it’s not the best of his seasons – the three middle seasons with Jo Grant were certainly his heyday of classics – with the introduction of Sarah Jane Smith to the TARDIS, it’s still an exceptionally good one.

Perhaps the best story of this season is “Invasion of the Dinosaurs,” a story than many classic Doctor Who fans have derided as a low point in the show’s long history … but that criticism is, in hindsight, unfair. Yes, if you ever wanted a poster child for why the special effects of the classic series were utterly atrocious, “Invasion” is the most obvious and easy story to point to. But if, as a viewer, you can get past that – and, admittedly, that’s a Very Big If for some – it’s one of the most surprisingly good stories broadcast during Pertwee’s time as the Third Doctor.

Why? Glad you asked. Let’s take a look, shall we?

Also, spoilers ahead – as much as a 43-year-old story can have spoilers, anyway!

“Invasion” opens with the Doctor and Sarah Jane Smith returning to modern-day Earth, where they find London virtually abandoned and under martial law. Mistaken by military patrols as looters (because OF COURSE THEY ARE), they learn that the city’s been cleared out because dinosaurs keep randomly appearing and disappearing on the streets. Why? And who’s responsible? That’s the mystery that the Doctor and Sarah Jane need to figure out, and it’s a mystery that eventually requires the full assistance of U.N.I.T. to solve.

dinoIt’s a story that’s kind of hard to neatly classify, despite the bonkers premise of time-traveling dinosaur invaders attacking London. In reality, “Invasion” is much more of a sci-fi espionage thriller/mystery – yes, really! – and it’s a surprisingly good one. “Invasion” is  a  complex, well-thought-out story, and unlike many of the typical six-parters of Jon Pertwee’s era, it doesn’t feel like it’s being stretched too thin. Much of the story involves the investigation into the cause of the dinosaur appearances, as well as the reason – and not everybody agrees on what’s most important to figure out first. Not even the Doctor and Sarah Jane are always on the same page, and while things invariably go the way the Doctor expects they will, it’s interesting to see the characters try to puzzle everything out.

Even once the basic mystery’s solved, it leads to further questions, and further problems, all of which are logical and fit the story . In this way, it stands out from many of the other six-part stories of this time frame, which typically resemble two separate stories stitched together with some plothole-ridden excuses of ideas. “Invasion” is  cohesive from beginning to end, and always manages to stay engaging and interesting throughout each of its episodes.

One of the big surprises in “Invasion” is how well-nuanced the so-called “bad guys” are in this story. Most Who villains of the Pertwee stories – and, for that matter, in “classic” Who, period – are pure evil, out to take over the world or destroy the universe, and the stakes of these stories are very clearly delineated into good/evil consequences. Here? Well, the main antagonists come in the form of Project Golden Age, a scientific group that has an agenda that seems oddly prescient: Humanity’s busy screwing up the world, possibly dooming it to extinction, and they want to set things right. That, all told, isn’t such a horrible mission. How they plan on accomplishing their goals isn’t exactly great – they want to send an elite group back in time and basically start humanity over, which would wipe out just about everyone in the modern world as we know it – but their basic premise of “making things right” is at least well-intentioned.

Also, most people in Project Golden Age aren’t even aware of the “wipe out humanity” aspect of the plan. So instead of a simple good/evil conflict, you have the Doctor and Sarah Jane finding themselves at odds with plenty of characters who are basically good people with inadvertently bad intentions. And it takes a bit more than a bit of Venusian Aikido to stop those good people.

It’s an interesting – and modern – twist. Fast forward the story thirty-some-odd years to another show in another country, and you could see pretty easily how “Invasion of the Dinosaurs” might be an episode of Fringe or the X-Files, without needing to edit much at all. Having Walter Bishop spout lines like “I posit that these dinosaurs are not being bred in modern times, but instead being brought here through a time corridor” … yeah. It’d work just as well now (and better with modern CGI effects, obviously!).

Most surprising in “Invasion,” though, is the twist of Mike Yates’ betrayal of U.N.I.T. – and of the Doctor! While Seventies Doctor Who really didn’t have much going on in terms of overreaching, season-long story arcs – at least not like it does in the modern era of the show – the recurring appearances of the U.N.I.T. regulars gave at least some backstory to the characters, and made them feel to regular viewers more friendly and familiar. You’d occasionally have the Brigadier grumbling about his wife, Doris, for example, or have a casual mention of Jo Grant and Captain Yates going out on a date, even though said date would never be shown on-screen. In the “classic” Who era, it’s probably as close as you get to character development like the Ponds, or Rose Tyler’s family. And U.N.I.T. certainly was a family.

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So to see Mike Yates take sides with Operation Golden Age, and essentially sell out the Doctor, Sarah Jane, and the rest of U.N.I.T. – it’s both shocking and sad. Especially since Mike is like many of the other “villains” of “Invasion” – he thinks he’s doing the right thing, just for the wrong reasons. And when he finally realizes that he’s not only wrong and will have to resign from U.N.I.T., but that he’s also deeply disappointed his friends, and especially the Brigadier … man, it’s heartbreaking. This is watching it with modern television sensibilities, too – one can only imagine how shocking this must’ve been for first-time viewers in 1973!

On a more positive note, though, watching Sarah Jane in this story is awesome. I think most Who viewers associate the character primarily with Tom Baker’s Fourth Doctor, but it’s easy to forget how well Elisabeth Sladen worked with Jon Pertwee’s Third Doctor as well. “Invasion of the Dinosaurs” is a solid reminder of the terrific chemistry that they had together – it’s only their second story, but they work with each other with a great, natural ease. The Doctor’s still more than a bit patronizing to Sarah Jane, but that comes with affection, and you can see her understanding that he’s mostly trying to be protective of her (not that she always wants his protection!). It’s also great to see Sarah Jane still in full-on journalist mode – hey, dinosaurs overrunning London just might be a front-page story! So seeing her trying to help the Doctor out while still getting the scoop, and while trying to navigate security clearances, both from bad guy General Finch and from good guy Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart … she’s got a lot to do in these six episodes besides say, “What is it, Doctor?”!

dino13Everyone else in the story is pretty good as well. Pertwee’s in fine form here – even though it’s his last season (and he knew it at this point), on-screen, he’s still radiating the same flamboyant confidence as always. (Particularly when he finally gets to unveil the Whomobile in episode four!) And Mike Yates’ betrayal gives the U.N.I.T. regulars meatier dialogue than “five rounds rapid,” which is great to see. In particular, the Brigadier’s staunch but sad disappointment in finding out Yates is a traitor is terrific. Meanwhile, the guest cast reads like an all-star cast of other great classic Who episodes – hey, the evil scientist is Nyder from Genesis of the Daleks! And General Finch is Li H’sen Chang from Talons of Weng-Chiang! They give the excellent performances that you’d expect, so between the script and the actors, everything’s firing on all cylinders …

… except the dinosaurs.

The goddamn puppet dinosaurs.

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Yes, the proverbial elephant in the room with “Invasion of the Dinosaurs,” unfortunately, are the dinosaurs … and yes, they’re every bit as bad as their reputation. Not only are they obviously puppets, they’re bad puppets, with primitive CSO overlay trying – and failing – to integrate them into the story. Every scene they appear in is utterly cringeworthy and laughably awful. There’s no way to take this seriously. Usually this era of Doctor Who was pretty good about knowing the limits of its next-to-nothing budget, but the dinosaurs show that the production team was clearly overreaching themselves this time – which is a shame, because if the story had been done with any sort of more conventional Who monster, I think it would’ve been a home run. I give them top marks for ambition, but in terms of execution, it’s one of the biggest failures in the show’s history. (I would love it if this could somehow get the “Day of the Daleks” modernized CGI effects options, which would probably allow viewers to see this story in a different light!)

Sigh.

Finally, “Invasion” represents a swan song of sorts for the classic U.N.I.T. era, which is both wonderful and bittersweet to watch. Already missing Katy Manning and the late Roger Delgado, U.N.I.T. was on the wane in its place in the Doctor Who universe, and “Invasion” is probably the last time we get to see the rest of its regulars – and the Third Doctor – operating at their finest. Yes, there would be more stories featuring U.N.I.T. over the next few years, but their impact in those stories isn’t nearly as strong. They’re basically off to the side of the main action in Pertwee’s final tale (“Planet of the Spiders”), and during their first few appearances in Tom Baker’s early season, it’s obvious that U.N.I.T.’s been relegated to an afterthought. “Invasion” is the story where you can see the curtain really begin to close, and it’s a good one to say a fond farewell to Brigadier Alastair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart and his team, who meant so much to the stories of the Third Doctor’s era.

So, despite the dubious reputation of “Invasion of the Dinosaurs,” I highly recommend it as one of the best stories of the Third Doctor. And if you’re watching it on DVD, some of the extras are great – the Doctor Who Stories: Elisabeth Sladen Part One feature has the late Lis Sladen talking about her auditions for Sarah Jane, and working with Jon Pertwee. Some of the stories she tells are familiar ones, but it’s still nice to have them all in one place, being told by Lis herself. Also, People, Power, and Puppetry is a great “making of” featurette where both Terrance Dicks and Barry Letts talk at length about the behind-the-scenes work that went into making “Invasion” … and that, yes, even during the making of this story, they were acutely aware of how bad the dinosaurs were going to be.

At any rate, if you’ve never seen a Third Doctor/Sarah Jane story … I’d seriously recommend “Invasion of the Dinosaurs” as the one to watch, even with the terrible puppets. Even despite them, it’s outstanding.

Rating: 4/5 Braaaaaaaaaains.

–Mike

Hey, Master, You’re So Fine: Ranking the Incarnations of the Master in “Doctor Who”

In a season that proved to be brilliant in so many ways, one of the highlights of Doctor Who this past year was the return of Missy – or, as the character’s usually been called through many, many appearances on the show, the Master. Fighting the Doctor (and saving him, when she’s not busy trying to kill him), fighting Daleks, simultaneously helping and tormenting Clara – Missy reminds the audience with mad style why she and her previous incarnations have always been the Doctor’s best frenemy. (Even if Davros might have something to say about that.)

But is Missy the best incarnation of the Master? Come find out! Here, we take a look at all of the regenerations of the evil Time Lord to grace the televised episodes of Doctor Who, ranking them from worst to best.

7. Eric Roberts

I always dress for the occasion!

Yes, the star of such classic films like Best of the Best, Part 2, Sorority Slaughterhouse, and High Heels, Low Standards once was cast as the Master. And yes, it was a trainwreck. The sad thing is, everything starts out okay – he’s originally Bruce, the EMT driver, who the Master’s ‘essence’ possesses, and that’s not too bad. But then, he becomes Terminator Master.

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Um, okay.

And then, Camp Megalomaniac Master, by way of the School of David Caruso Overacting.

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Riiiiiiiiggggghhht.

He’s not menacing. He’s not evil. He’s a joke. And given how good Paul McGann is as the Eighth Doctor in this wretched abomination of a story, it’s a shame.

SimmMaster6. John Simm

Anyway, why don’t we stop and have a nice little chat where I tell you all my plans and you can work out a way to stop me, I don’t think!

More of a shame is John Simm’s wasted run as the Master during David Tennant’s tenure as the Tenth Doctor. A brilliant actor – one need look no further than his brilliance on Life on Mars to see that – his performance as the Master starts out ridiculously well, right from the aftermath of his regeneration. The look of malevolent glee on his face as he wakes up, and realizes that he’s got the Doctor’s hand, and the TARDIS, and he’s won …

… it’s brilliant. And the gloating is well-deserved.

From there, though, it goes downhill. As he becomes Prime Minister Saxon (a storyline that honestly makes no sense), he goes from sinister to this weird, smug, frenetic “I’M EVIL!!!” mentality – it’s like he’s trying to out-manic the Tenth Doctor, and it doesn’t work. And that super-hyper “I’M EVIL!!!” portrayal carries right on over into his later appearances in “The End of Time.” I think if he’d gotten the chance to be cold and calculating – the yang to Tennant’s yin – he could’ve been great as the Master. As it is, he unfortunately just chewed a lot of scenery.

AinleyMaster5. Anthony Ainley

Peoples of the Universe, please attend carefully. The message that follows is vital to the future of you all. The choice for you all is simple; a continued existence under my guidance or total annihilation.

There’s a pattern here. Namely, first performances of a new Master that start out great, with things only getting worse from there. And for the most part, that’s true of Anthony Ainley’s turn as the Master. Taking on Consul Tremas’ body in “The Keeper of Traken,” his Master is absolutely superb in his next two stories – the Fourth Doctor’s swan song in “Logopolis,” and the Fifth Doctor’s debut in “Castrovalva.” He manages to combine the panache and the charisma of Delgado’s Master with the at-times unhinged insanity of Peter Pratt and Geoffrey Beavers … and it works. He’s more dangerous than his original incarnation.

After that, though? It’s a mess. When the Rani says in “Mark of the Rani” that “he’d get dizzy if he tried to walk in a straight line,” it’s a fairly accurate description of most of Ainley’s appearances as the Master. Lots of over-complicated, usually pointless evil plots that don’t make any sense, lots of metaphorical mustache twirling, gloating, and monologuing that would make Syndrome from The Incredibles proud. The dangerous Master we glimpsed in “Castrovalva” turns up all the dials to 11, and shoots straight into over-the-top bombast for the rest of his appearances with the Fifth and Sixth Doctors. He’s not menacing or dangerous, but just kind of an evil buffoon with delusions of grandeur … and it’s disappointing, to say the least.

Oddly enough, though, in Ainley’s last televised appearance as the Master in “Survival,” he dials back the Snidely Whiplash Overdrive Mode long enough to give what’s probably his best – and most chilling – performance. Infected by the Cheetah People, the Master’s no longer interested in crazy schemes and chewing scenery – he’s instead stripped down to something primal, and it’s fascinating to watch.

If he’d only been more like this throughout his time as the Master, I think Ainley would be remembered as one of the character’s best incarnations. Instead, we only have some glimpses and moments of a great villain – and, unfortunately, far more moments of a “meh” one.

JacobiMaster4. Derek Jacobi

Oh! Now I can say I was provoked!

For a Master who realistically only appears in two scenes of one episode, man, does Derek Jacobi own the role. He spends most of the episode “Utopia” in the chameleon arc-created persona of kindly, doddering Professor Yana, trying to help the remnants of humanity escape the clutches of the Futurekind. Upon switching off the chameleon arc, though, he reverts to his true form – the Master – and watching him so effortlessly switch from to “meek and mild” to “badass ruthless” in the blink of an eye is nothing short of amazing. For less than ten minutes, Jacobi’s Master takes control of the situation in “Utopia” and just utterly owns the Tenth Doctor.

It’s terrific to watch, and it’s a shame that this incarnation of the Master was so brief. (One can only hope that Big Finish somehow manages to work him in as the Doctor’s nemesis in their stories someday!)

PrattMaster3. Peter Pratt/Geoffrey Beavers

Predictable as ever, Doctor.

When the Master disappeared at the end of “Frontier in Space,” most regular Who viewers must’ve believed that would be the last they’d see of the evil renegade Time Lord. (Roger Delgado’s tragic death at this time certainly would’ve made this an understandable notion.) So it must’ve come as some surprise several years later during Tom Baker’s tenure as the Fourth Doctor that the Master reappeared.

But the Master certainly didn’t look as he did before, appearing instead as a hideous, rotting husk of a person. And gone was the suave, confident charm of Roger Delgado’s Master, replaced instead by pure, vicious rage. “Only hate keeps me alive,” he tells the Doctor at one point … and the words are spit with such venom, it’s chilling to hear them spoken. It’s a far cry from what the Master had been during Delgado’s time in the part, but it works perfectly, and Peter Pratt’s voice alone makes the character incredible to watch – and to listen to.

This version of the Master appears again a few years later as a foil for the Fourth Doctor in “The Keeper of Traken,” with Geoffrey Beavers replacing Peter Pratt in this incarnation of the role. He doesn’t quite have the menace of Peter Pratt in “The Deadly Assassin,” but honestly, that’s mostly because his makeup in “The Keeper of Traken” is a pale shadow of what was seen in that earlier story. But he’s still creepy and menacing, and his insane desperation to survive – and make the Fourth Doctor suffer – is still brilliantly nasty. (His more recent appearances in the Big Finish audio productions have been equally wonderful and nasty as well.)

2. Michelle GomezMissy-970x545

Say something nice.

Even though many avid Who viewers assumed that “Missy” might be the Master from the moment she appeared at the end of the Twelfth Doctor’s first episode, “Deep Breath,” it’s unlikely that anyone could’ve predicted just how great she’d be. She manages to take the unhinged, unpredictable insanity often seen in Ainley’s and Simm’s Masters, but keeps it from turning into camp, as they seemed to do all too often. If anything, she flips the “bananas” trope on its head at times – you get the feeling that her homicidally wacky behavior is often an act, and she’s far more calculating and devious – and in control – than she’s letting on.

Make no mistake, though – she’s definitely bananas.

However, one subtle nuance that Missy’s brought back to the ongoing Doctor/Master relationship is the friendship – such as it is – that she has with the Doctor. This comes across loud and clear in “The Magician’s Apprentice/The Witch’s Familiar,” where it’s evident that they have a deep, rich past together, and however strange that history may be, they have great respect for one another. It’s a reminder of why the Doctor’s always seeking to redeem his mortal enemy, rather than defeat him, and why – while Missy/the Master always wants to eventually kill the Doctor – there’s a certain admiration that keeps her from, well, popping him like a balloon. Missy’s a terrific addition to the modern Who pantheon of villains, and I hope we keep seeing her in seasons to come.

DelgadoMaster1. Roger Delgado

I am the Master … and you will obey me.

Sometimes first appearances are indeed the best. So it should really be no surprise that the reason all of the other various Masters throughout the history of Doctor Who are held to such a high standard is because of how utterly brilliant the originator of the role actually was. Roger Delgado – cast to be the Moriarty to Jon Pertwee’s Third Doctor – is nothing short of outstanding in just about every appearance he made on Doctor Who. (And there were quite a lot of them – Delgado’s Master is in every single episode of Jon Pertwee’s second season as the Doctor, and frequently in the two seasons after that!)

Charming, suave, and brilliant, Delgado’s Master was much the equal of the Third Doctor in every way. His schemes were grand and his ambition boundless, and it’s always entertaining to watch his character execute those mad plans with style. He also got the upper hand against the Doctor many, many times, and while he never ultimately succeeded in his schemes, he certainly scored plenty of smaller victories against the Third Doctor and U.N.I.T. along the way. And some of his failures were the result of his own ego and arrogance, rather than the Doctor outwitting him.

One of the big differences between Delgado’s Master and all of his other successors was his pragmatism. He wasn’t always out to conquer the universe, or kill the Doctor (although he certainly wasn’t adverse to those goals!). Sometimes, his goals were smaller. And much like the Rani would be in later years, there were many times he really didn’t care about the Doctor at all – it would only be when the Doctor would show up and interfere with his own Machiavellian schemes that the Master would try to kill the Doctor.

But there were plenty of times that he cooperated with the Doctor (sometimes willingly, sometimes not), and even with U.N.I.T., if it served his own interests. His Master wasn’t so much insanely evil so much as simply lacking a conscience, and that’s perhaps a distinction that elevates his Master above all the others. He had an immense amount of respect for the Doctor, though he was loathe to admit it. And even Jo Grant, the Brigadier, and yes, even Captain Yates and Sergeant Benton – they all got a nod of admiration from the Master here and there.

Make no mistake, though. Of all the Masters, his was the most ruthless. And he most certainly wanted the Doctor dead.

Roger Delgado’s Master is a joy to watch. The most insanely evil? No. The most villainous? Possibly. The most fun? Probably.

The best?

Absolutely.

-Mike

Review: Mistfall

One of the major appeals for Big Finish’s Doctor Who audio release is the line’s ability to revisit lesser-known parts of the show’s past. Much as long-time Who viewers would love to see an appearance by the Rani, for example, or perhaps even Sil, it’s unlikely to happen. And it’s unlikely that the TARDIS would ever land on Metebelis Three so that the Twelfth Doctor could face off with the Queen of Spiders once more. However, with the Big Finish releases, such scenarios are not only possible, they’re likely. Nostalgia is one of the driving forces of the Doctor Who line, particularly for the “classic” Doctors appearing in them.

The real test for these nostalgic stories, though, is if they simply wallow in the past, or if they also manage to bring something new to the table as well. Is there a more modern take on a past character? Is there a new angle for an old storyline? If there isn’t something new, then that nostalgic element can get boring fairly quickly, as it becomes an old friend who’s good to see, but unfortunately doesn’t have much to say.

Fortunately, that’s not the case with Mistfall, the opening adventure of a trilogy of Fifth Doctor adventures set in E-Space – the same place where a trio of televised Doctor Who adventures (“Full Circle”, “State of Decay”, and “Warrior’s Gate”) featuring the Fourth Doctor took place. And not only does Mistfall rely on that bit of nostalgia, it’s also a sequel to “Full Circle”. Written by Andrew Smith, who also penned “Circle”, Mistfall hits a lot of the same themes and beats as its predecessor. But there’s enough new ideas injected into the story – and, in particular, one new character – that keeps it feeling fresh, and not just a retread of an old but good televised adventure.

Mistfall begins with the crew of the TARDIS – the Fifth Doctor, Tegan, Turlough, and an older Nyssa (brought onboard once more after twenty-odd years on Terminus) – rediscovering some of Adric’s old calculations for negative E-Space coordinates. Adric had stated before his untimely demise in “Earthshock” that he’d been able to figure out a way back to E-Space … and, as it turns out, he was correct, as the calculations lead the TARDIS back through a CVE to that other universe, and lead the Doctor and his companions to a new set of adventures there.

Much like the original “Full Circle”, the first planet that the TARDIS lands on is the planet Alzarius, home to the Sleestak Marshmen. There, the Doctor and his companions encounter explorers from the world of New Alzarius – the descendants of the original inhabitants who left in the Starliner, many generations before – who are there ostensibly to study the homeworld of their ancestors, and to learn more about the Marshmen. Of course, nothing’s that simple, and it’s up to the Doctor and the rest of the TARDIS crew to figure out exactly what’s going on, and to put a stop to some rather nefarious activities before it’s too late.

In terms of story, Mistfall follows the outline of its source material from “Full Circle” closely – perhaps a bit too closely at times. The titular mist appears conveniently just when the TARDIS arrives. Evil experiments on the Marshmen. Yet more mistaken beliefs that the Marshmen are evil and must be destroyed. But what makes things interesting is that unlike “Full Circle”, Mistfall gets to explore some of these ideas in depth. There’s real debate about the good that comes from the Marshmen experiments, for example, and the downside of stopping them – it’s not just a five-second good/evil debate. Mistfall gets the luxury of taking “Full Circle” and looking at the source material with a more nuanced eye, and that’s a very good thing.

Mistfall also follows some of the ideas first presented in “Full Circle” to some logical extensions. For example, in that original story, the Alzarians are revealed to be the descendants of the Marshmen. But were there any evolutionary steps in between? What were they like? The answer to that comes in Mistfall in the form of the character Fem … and it’s interesting to see which characters treat her as Alzarian, while others give her the disdain they give a Marshman. Again, it’s a level of complexity rarely seen in the original story, and it’s wonderful to see here.

In terms of performance, there’s some marvelous ones in this story. Peter Davison is great as the Fifth Doctor, professing his indignation and outrage at what’s happening on Alzarius as only he can. I particularly enjoyed Janet Fielding as Tegan in Mistfall as well – the Big Finish adventures (such as this one) do a great job of showing that she’s more than a “mouth with legs”, but clever, compassionate … and yes, easily outraged. Also of particular note is the appearance of Jemma Redgrave (U.N.I.T.’s Kate Stewart, in the modern Who series) as Decider Merrion. She gets a great role in this story as someone who trying’s to balance what’s best for the New Alzarians versus what’s best for the planet Alzarius – and that’s no simple task. She gives a great performance of someone who’s often conflicted, but still trying to do the right thing.

In fairness, if you’ve never seen “Full Circle”, I do wonder how much you might enjoy this story. There is a certain amount of assumption that the listener is familiar with that original televised story, enough so that I could understand how someone who’d never seen it might be a little lost listening to Mistfall at times. But for such a listener, I still think this would be an enjoyable story … and for Who fans familiar with “Full Circle”, this one would definitely be a treat. The story’s available now on the Big Finish website.

-Mike

“What is it, Doctor?” The 10 Best Companions in Doctor Who

With a long wait ahead of us until new Doctor Who arrives (next Christmas? Aaaargh!!!), and while waiting for the announcement of a new Companion for the Doctor’s upcoming episodes, we thought it’d be a good time to look back at the best of the previous Companions on Who. Rather than drive ourselves completely crazy, we’ve limited our choices of Companions to those who actually traveled in the TARDIS with the Doctor at some point, and those who only appeared on TV series (both “Classic” and “New” iterations).

So, without further adieu …

10. Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart (Nicholas Courtney) recurring, 1968-1989

“Chap with wings – five rounds rapid!”

drwho_brigadier

The superb, never-ruffled Brigadier has traveled with the Doctor on several occasions, so yeah, he counts as a Companion! Classically British in the best sense of the word, the Brig would often pooh-pooh the Doctor’s scientific solutions to a crisis and look for something to shoot. This eventually became something of an in-joke, but it paid off in the 7th Doctor story, “Battlefield,” when the Brigadier returned to the show after a long absence and pretty much saved the day by firing silver bullets into a demon. It was the last Who appearance for the Brig, but he returned in The Sarah Jane Adventures in 2008. It’s a sign of the character’s strength (and the actor’s talent) that the Brig’s influence continues into New Who, with his daughter Kate now appearing in tales with the 11th and 12th Doctors.

9. Leela (Louise Jameson), 1977-1978

“These ‘taxes’… they are like sacrifices to tribal gods?”

Leela_close-upDon’t mess with the fierce warrior of the Sevateem and her skimpy leather hunting outfit. She certainly was unlike any previous Companion up to that point, having little compunction about killing enemies, although the Eliza Doolittle-Henry Higgins relationship between her and the Doctor created enough comedy to brighten up the dark spots. Her clash with Victorian England dining habits in the excellent “Talons of Weng-Chiang” is a moment of sheer joy. The fact that “Weng-Chiang,” like most of Leela’s stories, occurred during the great, dark, gothic Philip Hinchcliffe era didn’t hurt. Also, while Leela is best known for her savagery and fighting, she was surprisingly good at inspiring others to find bravery inside themselves.

8. Jo Grant, 1971-1973, 2010

JoGrant“One minute you’re condemning the Doctor to death, and the next minute you’re proposing to me!”

Television in the Seventies (and Eighties and Nineties…) wasn’t renowned for character development. And yet here’s Jo Grant! In the course of three years, she goes from being an earnest but vapid assistant to the Doctor to being a bold, spirited adventurer who could face down the Master one on one, armed with nothing but good, old-fashioned pluck. Her departure in 1973’s “The Green Death” was deservedly treated as a big moment. She wouldn’t meet the Doctor again until the “Death of the Doctor” episode of The Sarah Jane Adventures.

7. Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright (William Russell and Jacqueline Hill), 1963-1965

“I’m lending her a book on the French Revolution.” “What’s she going to do? Re-write it?”

Ian-and-BarbaraDWHow can you separate these two? The schoolteachers introduced us to the Doctor in the series’ very first episode, “An Unearthly Child,” and they left together two years later. Not only did they give us, the viewers, a reference point in those early days, Ian and Barbara helped to “humanize” the Doctor, forcing him to confront his own stubborn beliefs and eventually compelling him to view the people around him as more than just pieces of history data. They also set the bar high for all the Companions to come. Barbara, in particular, was remarkably feisty for an early Sixties woman on TV, a credit to both Hill and producer Verity Lambert. Barbara’s argument with William Hartnell’s Doctor in “The Aztecs,” where she attempts to violate history and persuade the Aztecs to follow a more peaceful path over his near-panicked objections, remains a favorite Who moment. And for a skinny science teacher, Ian could kick ass.

6. Ace (Sophie Aldred), 1987-1989

“Do you feel like arguing with a can of deodorant that registers 9 on the Richter scale?”

ace doctor whoSpeaking of kicking ass, there’s Ace. A juvenile delinquent with a knack for explosives, Ace was bold, reckless, completely devoted to “the Professor,” emotionally damaged, and fearless. She could shoot anti-tank missiles at Daleks and take on Cybermen with only a slingshot and a bag of gold coins — and she could fall to pieces if anybody dredged up memories of her mother. She was the culmination of then-producer John Nathan-Turner’s desire to feature “interesting” Companions, and while her backstory – such as it is – seems weak compared to what’s happening in the series now, Ace did blow up a path for these current Companions to follow.

5. Clara Oswald (Jenna Coleman), 2012-2015

“Run. Run, you clever boy … and remember.”

clara strong 1From the Impossible Girl’s first appearance in “Asylum of the Daleks,” Clara’s tenure aboard the TARDIS has certainly been anything but dull. Although the mystery surrounding her arrival often overshadowed her actual character at first – somewhat understandable, since she died twice in her first two appearances! – she began coming into her own during “The Name of the Doctor” … and by the time “The Day of the Doctor” rolled around, she was more than holding her own with three Doctors! It was with Peter Capaldi’s 12th Doctor, though, that Clara really found her voice, and could often take charge of a, well, impossible situation as well as the Doctor. Could she be bossy? Sure. Abrasive? Yes. But much like the Doctor himself, everything she did was in the name of finding adventure – and more importantly, helping others.

4. Amy Pond (Karen Gillan), 2010-2012

“Raggedy Man, I remember you, and you are late for my wedding!”

amy pond

An attractive Scottish redhead with an attitude? What’s not to like? But even beyond the looks and the sass, there’s a lot about Amy Pond that makes her such a great Companion. Amy possesses a determination and confidence that rarely has been seen in the series. In her own way, she’s more intimidating than Leela, more tenacious than Donna, more resilient than Rose and Ace, and sexier than the whole lot of them. And it’s her fierce, passionate love for her friends – her love for Rory, and especially her love for the Doctor – that drives her to often do the impossible.

3. Donna Noble (Catherine Tate), 2006, 2008

“Oi! Watch it, spaceman!”

Donna-2From her beginnings as a bad-tempered, about-to-be married ‘temp from Chiswick’, Donna Noble arguably had the most complete evolution as a Companion in the whole of the series. A departure from her predecessors, Donna had no romantic interest in the Doctor – she simply wanted adventure. And as she found adventure with the Time Lord, she managed to discover so, so many good things about herself as well. She also helped keep the Doctor grounded, such as in “The Fires of Pompeii,” when the Doctor horrifically realizes that HE is responsible for triggering Mount Vesuvius and killing thousands of people in ancient Pompeii. In that moment, she stands beside him and won’t let him face that decision alone.

Sniff. Oi, you were brilliant, Donna. And Bonus points for the epic tragedy of her departure. Double sniff.

2. Romana II (Lalla Ward), 1979-1981

“Do you know what I don’t understand, Romana?” “I expect so.”

RomanaLallaWardRomana’s second incarnation went from being a novice Time Lord who often was unsure about herself (and played wonderfully by the late Mary Tamm) to being one of the few Companions ever to stand on equal ground with the Doctor himself. Smart, funny, and extremely charismatic, Lalla Ward as Romana was a genuine joy to watch. At times, she was a powerful force to be reckoned with – watch her performance in the otherwise forgettable “Horns of Nimon,” it’s outstanding – and by the time Romana leaves the Doctor’s side in “Warriors’ Gate,” it’s quite clear that the character is more than ready to face the universe (or E-Space) on her own. (It also didn’t hurt that the evident off-screen chemistry between her and Tom Baker carried over to their televised stories, and brought a smile to every viewer’s face.)

1. Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen), 1973-1976, recurring and ongoing through 2011

“Some things are worth getting your heart broken for.”

sarah jane

It’s more than nostalgia – and longevity – that makes Sarah Jane the best companion of all.  But that would be excluding the fact that she’s returned to Who in recent years — even starring in her own series — and is just as awesome! Originally cast as a nod to the changing times in the Seventies (“women’s lib”!), Sarah is smart, inquisitive, feisty, and a whole lot of fun. Sarah was always ready to stand up for herself – and her friends – in trying to do the right thing, but with Sarah, you could also see that, underneath, what was happening terrified the ever-loving crap out of her at times. But nonetheless, she always stood her ground. Marvelous acting by the late Liz Sladen, always – both during her classic appearances with Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker, and during her most recent stints on the modern iteration of the show with David Tennant. (Not to mention how terrific she was on her own spinoff show, The Sarah Jane Adventures!) For longtime followers of the show, she’s still quite deservedly the most popular Companion. And the best.

So … who’d we leave out? Who should’ve been ranked higher or lower? Or who did we include that you can’t stand? Give us a shout in the comments!

-Ken & Mike

Ninth Season, Twelfth Doctor, One Prologue, Four Quick Thoughts

The latest season of Doctor Who is nearly here. I haven’t had time to reflect upon the first incarnation of the Twelfth Doctor’s first season as much as I’d like, at least not in blog post form … suffice it to say that I found Peter Capaldi brilliant as the Doctor, and I truly enjoyed Clara coming into her own as a character, and not just as “The Impossible Girl” plot device. I thought the dynamic between the Doctor and Clara was wonderful as well – they had some truly terrific character moments throughout the season. As for the stories, I found them to be hit or miss. A few were great (Listen), a few were outright terrible (Kill the Moon), and most were … okay. But considering how experimental I found the season to be at times, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I give Steven Moffat and the production team much credit for trying new ideas rather than sticking to a safe formula.

I hope to expand on those thoughts some more. But right now, it’s time to anticipate the future, rather than reflect on the past. Which leads to:

The Prologue to the new season of Who is jam-packed with a lot of goodness. Here’s my quick take on it all:

  1. The Sisterhood of Karn is back. (Still protecting the Flame of Utter Boredom!) Which suggests either a regeneration is upon us – perhaps the Doctor’s, or perhaps the Master’s/Missy’s? Unless another Time Lord is being introduced, which seems unlikely. It certainly seems like the Doctor’s referring to the Master, although the fact that he’s referring to his mysterious friend/enemy as “him” throws a wrinkle on that idea. Still, regardless of pending regenerations or not, the Sisterhood represents one of the last remaining vestiges of Gallifrey, which means …
  2. The Seal of Rassilon? Twelve hands over a metal disk to The High Priestess Ohila, and says “You know who to give this to”. (Clara, presumably?) However, the disk looks suspiciously like the Seal of Rassilon, which the Eleventh Doctor used to contact the Time Lords in “Time of the Doctor”. Given the presence of the Sisterhood of Karn, I think it’s safe to say that regardless of regeneration possibilities, Gallifrey’s going to be part of this season, and the search for Gallifrey at the end of “Day of the Doctor” may be resuming in earnest.
  3. Where’s Clara? When Ohila tells the Doctor that “Everyone can hide from an enemy, no one from a friend”, I think it’s fairly obvious she’s referring to Clara. Why is the Doctor hiding, though? To protect her from something? Or because he doesn’t want her to know something? At this point, I’d be surprised about the latter, if only because last season was a lot about Twelve and Clara learning to trust each other. I’ll be curious to see why the Doctor wouldn’t want Clara’s help at this point.
  4. “That’s different, I don’t like you.” And Twelve’s still a grumpy bastard. Some things don’t change, and that’s marvelous to see.

I’ll be recapping each episode this season. See you for “The Magician’s Apprentice”!

-Mike

Top 10 Moments in Doctor Who

Series 8 of Doctor Who was arguably the most brilliant — and the most controversial — since the new era began with Christopher Eccleston. As we approach the Christmas Special and the end of 2014, let’s take a look back across five decades and 12 Doctors (or maybe 13 — damn you, Steven Moffat!) and admire the show’s many great moments: some sad, some frightening, and nearly all surprising.

Here, in chronological order, are 10 classic Doctor Who moments:

  1. Barbara steps into the TARDIS (An Unearthly Child, November 1963). In that first episode of that first story, schoolteachers Barbara and Ian investigate the mystery of their student Susan. After an argument with Susan’s mysterious grandfather in a junkyard, Barbara pushes her way into the tiny British police call ball and … discovers that it’s bigger on the inside. MUCH bigger. We’re jaded now, but for the early ’60s audience, this was wild stuff.
  2. The Doctor and Barbara argue over the fate of the Aztecs (The Aztecs, May 1964). We miss the series’ purely occasional forays into the purely historical dramas, because of moments like this. After the TARDIS lands in ancient Aztec times, Barbara is mistaken for the avatar of the sun god. She decides to use that leverage to turn the Aztecs away from their bloody religious rituals and make them a strong, enduring, progressive force in history. The Doctor is horrified. “You CAN’T!” he angrily pleads. He tries to make her understand that history cannot be altered like this without devastating consequences. Wonderful acting by both William Hartnell and Jacqueline Hill.
  3. The Dalek emerges from the Thames (The Dalek Invasion of Earth, November 1964). The first time we saw the Daleks a year earlier, they were on a far-off world, oppressing their historical foes, the Thaals. Here, the TARDIS lands in 22nd century London to find it devastated and policed by ruthless, cybernetic “Robomen.” At the end of the first episode, they see a Dalek rolling imperiously out of the Thames River. The Daleks are on Earth, and they’ve already won.
  4. “All these evils I have fought, while you have done nothing but observe! True, I am guilty of interference. Just as you are guilty of failing to use your great powers to help those in need!” (The War Games, April-June 1969). The Second Doctor’s farewell, and the viewers’ introduction to his people — the Time Lords. And during the Doctor’s trial (the first of many!), he makes it quite clear why he’s on the run from them in a rackety old TARDIS.
  5. “Have I the right?” (Genesis of the Daleks, April 1975). Doctor Who usually hasn’t shied away from exploring the grayer areas of morality. In Terry Nation’s epic, most of the characters aren’t heroes and villains as much as they are people arguing over principles. The Doctor, at the birth of his archenemies, has a golden opportunity to destroy a Dalek nursery and ensure that the Daleks never threaten the galaxy. But he can’t bring himself to connect those two wires and commit genocide. It’s Tom Baker at his best.
  6. “Nice to meet you, Rose — run for your life!” (Rose, March 2005). After a decade’s absence from the TV screens, the Doctor (Christopher Eccleston) had returned. An engrossing start to the series’ revival, as producer Russell T. Davies wisely chose to let us see things through the eyes of Rose (Billie Tyler) and not the Doctor.
  7. “Everybody lives!” (The Empty Child / The Doctor Dances, May 2005). In a creepy two-part story set in 1940s Britain, the Doctor is determined to end the death that constantly follows in his wake. He’s a man who is desperate to find a happy ending … and he does. “Just this once, Rose… everybody lives!” (Thinking about these scenes again makes me newly sad that Eccleston called it quits after just one year.)
  8. Oswin Oswald (Asylum of the Daleks, September 2012). Doctor Who fans had known for some time that Jenna-Louise Coleman would become the new companion for Matt Smith’s Doctor in the Christmas special that year, once Amy and Rory were gone. So, Whovians around the globe were shocked to watch the start of the new series’ seventh season and see… Jenna-Louise Coleman?! Acting all companion-like?! But how…? She’s not starting for months! How did showrunner Steven Moffat keep this a secret, and how… what, now she’s DEAD?! But how… MOFFAT!! Overall, just a brilliant bit of misdirection by Moffatt, and even though he dropped the ball on resolving the mystery of Clara Oswin Oswald several times during the season, there’s no doubt that he stuck the landing in the season finale, The Name of the Doctor.
  9. “I’m a Doctor… but probably not the one you expected.” (The Night of the Doctor, November 2013). In another surprise that’s stunning for its secrecy, Paul McGann appears onscreen as the Eighth Doctor for the first time since the 1996 TV movie — and he is magnificent. In less than 7 minutes in this prequel to the 50th anniversary special, McGann leaves a legion of old and new viewers wondering about what could have been. And Moffat’s script gives fans everything we needed, including a few items we didn’t even realize we needed.
  10. No, sir! All THIRTEEN!” (The Day of the Doctor, November 2013). The 50th anniversary episode had many wonderful moments that made you sit up with surprise and glee, but the one that made you jump out of your chair was the shocking sight of Peter Capaldi and his baleful stare, weeks before he would actually assume the role of the Twelfth Doctor, joining the other Doctors in the salvation of Gallifrey. Just when you didn’t think that scene could get any better, it did.

Thoughts? Disagreements? Let us know — and Happy Holidays!

–Ken & Mike

Review: The Widow’s Assassin

Big Finish’s new audio release sets the bar pretty high: How do you address one of the most nagging and least-liked outcomes in Doctor Who history? Quick refresher: At the end of Mindwarp (part of the knotty Trial of a Time Lord), the Sixth Doctor’s first companion, Peri, is either – take your pick – abandoned, mindwiped, and killed OR rescued by a barbarian warlord and becomes his queen.

As Bugs Bunny would say, “Would you like to shoot me now or wait until you get home?”

The pleasant surprise is that The Widow’s Assassin wildly succeeds, doing for Mindwarp what X-Men: Days of Future Past did for X-Men: The Last Stand – cutting the original tale’s Gordian knot and spinning gold out of the pieces. Writer Nev Fountain waded into Mindwarp’s mess once before, in the clever Peri and the Piscon Paradox. Here he tackles the problem head on, coming up with an answer that not only maintains continuity but clears the path for a new, refreshing wave of post-Trial Sixth Doctor and Peri adventures.

The tale kicks off with the Doctor traveling to Krontep, seeking forgiveness for betraying and abandoning Peri. But the bride-to-be is not in a forgiving mood. The fairy-tale/murder-mystery mashup that follows is full of drama, sadness, marvelous timey-wimey, and lots of humor. (I really did laugh out loud in spots.) There are a couple of jaw-dropping shocks, plus moments of giddy revelation, as we see the Sixth Doctor playing the Long Game in shrewd, scheming ways we’d associate with the Seventh and Eleventh Doctors.

Excelling throughout are Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant. While their TV relationship was sometimes maligned as one of the most unpleasant Doctor/Companion pairings, The Widow’s Assassin shows us where their relationship could have – and should have – gone. The Doctor’s abrasive personality has been mellowed by years of traveling, and dire circumstances have forced Peri to adopt a more mature outlook on life. Baker wonderfully conveys the Doctor’s earnestness and confusion when he first approaches Peri. (He also contributes to the story more than you think.) Bryant gives us a confident yet sad Peri who reveals new layers to her personality – in more ways than one.

The Widow’s Assassin jumps straight into the Top 5 releases of Big Finish’s Doctor Who line. After listening to this, you’ll finally be able to rewatch parts of Trial of a Time Lord with a smile on your face, which is probably the highest praise that a Doctor Who fan can give. It’s available on the Big Finish website.

–Ken

Davros: His Greatest Schemes and Grating Screams

“The graveyards are full of the ‘indispensable,’ Mrs. Baynes.”

Big Finish DavrosRecently, while listening to an older Big Finish audio, called simply Davros, I said, “Good god, this is spectacular.” Right away, it blasted into the top tier of my Doctor Who/Big Finish list. Terry Molloy, who portrayed the creator of the Daleks in Davros’ last Classic Who appearances, is terrific, and his stabbing banter with Colin Baker’s Doctor is a dream. More important, though, is the story, which explores Davros’ origin and showcases his brilliant, twisted intellect in a way not seen since waaaaaay back in his introduction, Genesis of the Daleks (which cracked the Top 5 list on this very site).

Two things came to mind: 1) It’s not a surprise that the story is great, as it was written by Lance Parkin, author of the best of the Missing Adventures novels, Cold Fusion. 2) Why isn’t Davros written like this ALL THE TIME?

Let’s face it. Davros is as well known for his hysterical shrieks as he is for creating the Daleks. And considering that he’s also the galaxy’s foremost geneticist with an intellect that rivals the Doctor’s… well, that’s a Dalekanium-encrusted shame. Is it that hard to write a obsessed fascist scientist with visions of galactic conquest? Let’s take a look through his TV appearances.

genesis-of-the-daleks-5Genesis of the Daleks (1975)
We’ve praised this great tale already on the blog, but let’s call out the chilling performance of Michael Wisher. He makes you not merely loathe Davros… he makes you understand him. Davros is a megalomaniacal scientist, sure, but whoop dee doo; Whovian history is full of those. What makes Davros stand out is that he’s also, oddly enough, a patriot. He does what he does because, in his mind, it’s the only way for his nation to “win.” Anyone who stands in his way is a traitor who must be exterminated. Yet, when he seems to secure his victory over the Doctor, he wants to talk to his foe — not as enemies, but “as men of science.” The resulting scene is iconic. Forget the makeup. Marvel at what Wisher does using only one hand and the inflections of his voice.

Destiny of the Daleks (1979)
Unfortunately, Wisher wasn’t available for Davros’ return and was replaced by David Gooderson. Davros’ makeup, though, was already designed for Wisher. The result, like just about everything else in this episode, is off. The Daleks are mercilessly mocked within the show (blame Douglas Adams’ rewrites more than Terry Nation’s script), they’re treated like unfeeling robots, they’re powerless to defeat the Derek Zoolanders of Space, and both Davros and his creations lack the menace that made the previous story so powerful.

Resurrection of the Daleks (1984)
Davros, portrayed for the first time by Terry Molloy, gets a little bit of his necrotic mojo back in this relentlessly grim tale (a staple of Eric Saward’s scripts). Not content to be a mere tool of his creations, Davros plots to regain power with help from an extremely handy mind-control needle that’s in his chair. (In fact, it’s SO handy that one can’t help but wonder why he didn’t use it in his previous stories!) But that’s about it for Davros’ character. He does do something that would appear again in the series: He calls out the Doctor on his convenient morality. The Doctor refuses to do the dirty deed of assassinating Davros, although he’d probably find a way to indirectly assign that task to someone else.

Revelation of the Daleks (1985)
Davros (Terry Molloy) pops back in the very next season, and this time he has — brace yourself — an actual plan! He pulls a Soylent Green in order to amass funds and create more loyal Daleks to support him, now that the Dalek Civil War is underway. He gets to make a couple of funny business/marketing comments, but otherwise, there isn’t much depth to his character until the climax, where he and the Doctor have it out. Before that, it’s more of the usual “I will make the Daleks the Supreme Power in the Universe” stuff.

Remembrance of the Daleks (1988)
Without a doubt, one of the best Dalek stories ever. Alas, it’s also the worse use of Davros (a blameless Terry Molloy). He doesn’t pop up until the final minutes, where we discover that he is actually the Emperor Dalek. His ranting is now so over the top that Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor rightfully mocks him. Davros’ final words to the Doctor: a cowardly, pleading “Have pity!” By the roving eye of Rassilon, this is NOT the way the creator of the Daleks should behave!

We wouldn’t see Davros on screen again for 20 years, not until…

The Stolen Earth / Journey’s End (2008)
Journey's End (8)Russell T. Davies pulled out all the stops for the Series 4 two-part finale, bringing back a slew of plot threads, companions, supporting characters, and classic baddies. “New Who,” now firmly a success, could comfortably dive headlong into its history without worrying about viewers saying “WTF?” and changing channels. And dive it did. Julian Bleach portrayed Davros here, and it’s a stellar performance! The actor said in an interview that he saw Davros as part Hitler, part Stephen Hawking, and that impression comes through solidly here. Even though Davros isn’t quite the top dog among the Daleks, it’s his body — literally — that is responsible for these new Daleks’ dominance. And with the Reality Bomb, he’ll finally be able to ensure that his creations are the masters of the universe… because no one else will be left. Mixing Machiavellian tactics, insanity, and scientific fascination, it’s the best portrayal of Davros since Wisher’s original. Davros and the Daleks are genuinely scary again in this story, for the first time in a very long time. It all ties up near the end, when Davros completely NAILS the Doctor on the Time Lord’s “true self”:

“The man who abhors violence, never carrying a gun, but this is the truth, Doctor: You take ordinary people and you fashion them into weapons… behold your Children of Time, transformed into murderers. I made the Daleks, Doctor — you made this.

“The Doctor, the man who keeps running, never looking back because he dare not, out of shame. This is my final victory, Doctor. I have shown you yourself.”

That description sounds a lot like Peter Capaldi’s Doctor in Series 8, doesn’t it?

Also worth noting is the Doctor’s initial shock at seeing Davros. He says that Davros died in the first year of the Time War, when his command ship was seemingly destroyed at the Gates of Elysium after flying into the jaws of the Nightmare Child. With that, Russell T. Davies successfully caused millions of Who fans to jump at their screens and yell, “What the hell is that?! It sounds great! We need to see that story NOW!!!”

Your move, Big Finish.

After hearing Lance Parkin’s Davros, I’m eager to sample to rest of Big Finish’s Davros tales. The guy deserves to be treated well… preferably with a dermatologist on call.

–Ken

Doctor Who DVD Review: Planet of Evil (Welcome to the Jungle!)

planet-of-evil2

The thirteenth season of Doctor Who is also arguably its best of all time. Certainly, it’s got a lot going for it. In this season, you get arguably one of the best (and certainly the most iconic) actors to take the role of the Doctor in Tom Baker, and perhaps the best companion with Elisabeth Sladen’s portrayal of Sarah Jane Smith … and it’s in this particular season where the wonderful chemistry between the two really begins to shine. You also have Phillip Hinchcliffe at the helm as producer, finally steering the show away from its action-adventure period with the Third Doctor towards a more horror-inspired era heavily influenced by the Hammer films of the 1950s and 1960s … and the brilliant Robert Holmes as script editor. The show hit a creative peak during this season that’s been largely unmatched, before or since – imagine the possibilities if only this amazing creative team had been given the budgets and the special effects technology of the modern show!

Season Thirteen has a number of outstanding episodes – the fantastic “Seeds of Doom”, the delightful Frankenstein-inspired “Brain of Morbius” (a story that Ken and I like so much we named this site after it!), and the chilling “Pyramids of Mars”, which made our Top 5 Classic Who Episodes list. But pretty much all of the stories in this season are exceptionally good, with the possible exception of “The Android Invasion”, which mostly suffers by unfortunate comparison – put it in virtually any of Tom Baker’s other seasons as the Doctor, and it’d be closer to the top, rather than the bottom. Compare that to almost every other season, even including the modern iteration of the show. There’s almost always at least one clunker in there, if not two or three! So to have a season of solidly “good” stories, with half of them being standouts, if not classics … well, it’s impressive indeed.

One of my favorite Fourth Doctor stories – and another that I think gets overlooked from Season Thirteen, lost in the shuffle of so many good episodes to watch – is “Planet of Evil”. It’s the first real story where the Fourth Doctor and Sarah Jane Smith step away on their own, away from Harry Sullivan and the last vestiges of UNIT, and forge their way through the universe in a bold new direction. Like many of the Hinchcliffe/Holmes stories of this time, “Planet of Evil” cribs liberally from gothic horror stories – in this case, “The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”, with a more modern splash of “Forbidden Planet” thrown in for good measure – and puts its own Who-laden spin on the tale.

“Planet of Evil” opens up in the year 37,166, at the edge of the known universe, where a scientific team is studying anti-matter on the lonely planet of Zeta Minor. Professor Sorenson – the leader of the scientific team – is slowly going crazy, and while the rest of his crew is still sane (good!) they’re also being murdered by sinister invisible monsters (bad!). One of the last members of this crew manages to activate a distress call before shuffling off this mortal coil, though, so the signal is picked up by both the Doctor and Sarah Jane in the TARDIS, and by a military exploration ship. The Doctor and Sarah Jane arrive first, and are immediately blamed for all the deaths by the crew of the exploration ship that arrives later. Wacky hijinks ensue as the Doctor tries to convince everyone that what’s really killing everyone is an anti-matter creature, except no one’s listening except Sarah Jane (as usual) – and the anti-matter creature’s taking physical form through Sorenson, who’s apparently been busy drinking enough anti-matter soy espresso venti lattes to become an anti-matter monster himself!

Though “Planet of Evil” is a fairly straightforward story, it’s a good one … and it’s dark. The story really doesn’t pull any punches. The desiccated corpses of the science crew visible early on in the first episode make it clear that this is going to be a bleak, somber story. (You can see how those who still viewed Doctor Who as solely a children’s program, like Mary Whitehouse, would clearly be dismayed by Philip Hitchcliffe’s reign as producer!) The character’s lives are in constant danger, whether from each other, or from the anti-matter creatures lurking on Zeta Minor … or from the horrors exotic alien jungle, which is worth its own special mention.

Designer Roger Murray-Leach created a beautiful set for the jungle scenes that still looks terrific even when watching the story today – it’s a far cry from the typical “spray-painted styrofoam and tinfoil tied together with a bit of twine” cheap sets that unfortunately were all too common in the stories from this time. Done properly, with proper dim lighting to set the mood, rather than the constant over-bright lighting common to everything recorded in the BBC’s Television Centre … anything featuring the jungle sets is a treasure to watch. It makes you wonder what might’ve been possible production-wise in the stories of this time if only the BBC had been a bit more flexible!

“Are you pondering what I’m pondering, Doctor?”
“I think so, Sarah Jane, but where would we get a coconut at this time of night?”

Another of the main reasons that the story works so well is because of the Doctor and Sarah Jane. Tom Baker, in his second season in the role of the Doctor, is starting taking the opportunity to truly make the role his own … and he’s paired with Elisabeth Sladen, starting her third year as Sarah Jane. Top this amount of time they’ve spent in their respective roles with the clear chemistry between the two actors – it’s quite evident that Tom and Lis have a great deal of affection for each other – and you’re seeing a Doctor/companion pairing that isn’t trying to figure out exactly what that relationship really is, as it does in so many other seasons. They’re best friends, and they trust each other implicitly. And this trust comes across not just in the acting, but in the writing as well – when Sarah Jane heads back alone to the TARDIS through the jungles of Zeta Minor, there’s a moment where it’s clear the Doctor doesn’t want her to go … but he also knows she’s resourceful, and she’ll do the right thing, so he doesn’t try to stop her. There’s several scenes where Sarah Jane gets to do far, far more than just ask “What is it, Doctor?” in “Planet of Evil”, and it’s lovely to see the many nuances Elisabeth Sladen gives to the character.

The other characters (with one major exception, noted below) bring a lot to “Planet of Evil” as well. Frederick Jaegar’s unhinged Professor Sorenson can get a little over the top at times, but he plays the part of obsessed scientist very well, and as he starts transforming into the “Anti-Man” – the Hyde-like villain of the story – you can’t help but feel a little sorry for the deluded fool. Also worth mentioning is Ewen Solon, who plays Vishinsky, the second-in-command of the military ship. Vishinsky’s an interesting character in that he realizes fairly early on that what the Doctor is saying about the dangers on Zeta Minor is correct … but he’s not always in a position to do anything about it. There’s a nice balance between military duty and pragmatic realism with the character, and the conflict he finds in reconciling the two, and he’s both fun and believable to watch.

Not that everything about “Planet of Evil” is always brilliant, of course. For as wonderful as the filmed studio jungle sets are for the story, things get decidedly less impressive when the story returns to the video cameras and sets of BBC Television Centre Studio 6. Apparently military spacecraft in the year 37,166 are quite minimalist, utilizing cheap glass-and-chrome furnishings from some IKEA knockoff store to represent a supposedly high-tech control room. (Sharp-eyed viewers will notice that this set gets a terrific makeover the next season, though, when it’s transformed into the control room of the Sandminer in “The Robots of Death”.) Also, the electronic effects for the anti-matter monster – the in-theory scary “Big Bad” of the story – while reasonably good for the time back when “Planet of Evil” originally aired in 1975, don’t hold up well at all some forty years after the show originally aired.

“You know what they say, Frank … black holes really suck.” (puts on sunglasses)
YEEEEEEAAAAAAAHHHHHH!!!

And then there’s Salamar, the commander of the military ship. Bless Prentis Hancock, who played the character, but he’s straight out of the William Shatner/David Caruso School of Overacting. (When he arrives at Zeta Minor to survey Professor Sorenson’s abandoned outpost, I kept waiting for him to put on a pair of sunglasses while The Who’s ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’ started blaring in the background.) He’s just ridiculous in the part, and it doesn’t help that he’s been handed a ridiculously-written part in the first place – he’s all blustery pompousness, doing virtually nothing that’s helpful to find out what’s actually happening on the planet, and often doing incredibly stupid things simply because it’s the opposite of whatever Sarah Jane or the Doctor has just helpfully suggested. Salamar’s just a bad fit all around for an otherwise exceptionally good story, which is a shame (although he does add a certain amount of unintentional comedy to his scenes that’s worth something, I guess).

If you can find “Planet of Evil” on DVD, it’s definitely worth picking up – apart from getting to watch a terrific story, the extras on the DVD are certainly worth a view as well. The “making-of” feature called “A Darker Side” covers the production aspects of the story, such as the making of the aforementioned brilliant jungle set at Ealing Studios, as well as the evolution of the script from its initial concept to its final draft. Meanwhile, the feature called “Planetary Performance” focuses on the acting side of the story, including a lot of interesting insights from both Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen about their acting relationship, and what their respective takes on their roles where during this time period. If – like me – you’re an absolute junkie for exactly how the show was made during these times, these features are must-watches for you.

Is “Planet of Evil” the best story of Season 13? No. But it’s damn fun, and it’s damn good … and if it can be said that there’s a hidden gem in this outstanding season of “Doctor Who”, this would be it. “Planet of Evil” is definitely worth watching.

Agree? Disagree? Think that Salamar has been viciously slighted in this review? Post your comments below!

-Mike