Posts Tagged With: elisabeth sladen

The Doctor Who Public Information Films: Quarries

So here’s what I was doing last night.

If you’re of the wrong generation for Public Information Films, let’s just say you had a comparatively sheltered childhood. I have a deep envy for anyone who didn’t spend their youth exposed to horrible videos that showcased the dangers of wandering along railway tracks, or fetching frisbees from electrical substations, or playing near dangerous farm equipment. You probably managed to hold on to a sense of innocence that the rest of us lost the first time we saw little Katie get run over by that Volvo Estate, or the moment Julie had a close encounter with a firework. Bonfire night is somehow never quite the same after something like that.

I’ve written about Public Information Films before, and if you require any sort of education you’re welcome to go and have a look (if only to watch ‘Apaches’ again, or at the very least judge for yourselves as to whether or not I got the style right). It’s not the first foray into the sinister realms of 1970s PIFs I’ve attempted, but it’s also fair to say that ‘Don’t Splink‘ is more of a silly thing (Gareth’s silly thing, actually, minus the tacked-on ending), whereas this is a full-on pastiche.

When it came to selecting relevant stories, there was only one choice. ‘The Hand of Fear‘ is never going to be my favourite Fourth Doctor story (that honour goes to ‘Pyramids of Mars’ or ‘The Ribos Operation’, depending on what mood I’m in), but it is just about the only time I can remember the TARDIS landing in a quarry that was actually supposed to be a quarry, rather than a quarry that was supposed to be an alien planet, with varying degrees of effectiveness depending on where they managed to film it. (I have blanked the bad ones from my memory, but see ‘Colony in Space’ for an example of how to do this particularly well.)

But if ‘Hand of Fear’ features a slightly damp squib of a plot, a thoroughly ridiculous fight in a power plant and the silliest costume Elisabeth Sladen ever wore, it does at least have a convincing explosion in that first episode. In the story the Doctor manages to dig Sarah Jane out of the rubble only to find her clutching Eldrad’s hand, and then he takes her to the hospital before all hell breaks loose. In this, things don’t end so well, but that’s all part of the fun.

The voiceover was done by an old friend and former work colleague who we’ll call David, largely because that’s his name. Three facts about David: he hails from the same Kentish town as my mother; he is the only person I’ve ever met who managed to quote the theme from ‘The Littlest Hobo‘ in his leaving speech; he is, at times, in possession of a smashing beard. David and I would often while away the hours at the office talking about this or that, in between dealing with disgruntled authors and laughing at unusual article titles, and when it came to recalling those unpleasant Public Information Films, it must be said that both his memory and his impressions were particularly good. He did a superb job at this as well.

Once I’d got David’s narration, it was simply a question of condensing the narrative – events happen in this more or less in the same order they appear on screen, but a fair bit of editing was needed in order to maintain a decent pace. I had to work with the limitations of the source material, including an occasionally intrusive score, but all things considered it’s fairly punchy. And that slogan at the end? I wrote that. I’m claiming copyright. Don’t even try stealing it.

There will, I hope, be more of these. Keep a look out for Jon Pertwee in the dangers of working with dangerous chemicals, coming soon to a TV screen near you. In the meantime, be careful crossing the road, don’t tamper with electrical connections, don’t wander off, and if a strange man wearing a mac approaches you in the street and asks you to get into a police box with him, for God’s sake, tell a grown-up.

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Eldrad must live

When Rose Tyler left Doctor Who, it was announced with a three-month build-up, a flurry of trumpets, a blitzkrieg of press releases, a cacophony of  strings (scored by Murray Gold) and a bucketful of mournful looks from The Doctor, along with assorted sobbing from Billie Piper. There was a reference to Face/Off as both characters stand on opposite sides of a wall that’s a universe thick. Then there is a scene on a beach (Southerndown, passing for Norway) that makes me retch. Then there is a lot of mourning and anguish and then a period of denial, and then an inexplicable return (with incredible teeth) which basically undermines the pathos of the entire departure.

When Sarah Jane left Doctor Who, thirty years earlier, there was a thirty second monologue and then the Doctor drops her off in Aberdeen. And that’s it. In the next story (which I’ll explore another day) he’s on his own. Things were simpler in those days and we were allowed to move on, a luxury that is seemingly missing from much of New Who (at least until Moffat’s mini-reboot, which required that we move on quickly from the Davies era but simultaneously memorise absolutely everything that the new chief writer chose to tell us, because even the presence or absence of the Doctor’s jacket was important). These days, we are forced to acknowledge, with an undercurrent of tinkling piano, that these departures are A BIG DEAL FOR THE DOCTOR AND THEY HURT HIM. AND IF HE IS UPSET, WE SHOULD BE. ARE YOU SAD YET? ARE YOU? I SAID ARE YOU?

(I was about to write “For a departure story, especially one that features the loss of such an established character, ‘The Hand of Fear’ is surprisingly low key”. Then I thought better of it, simply because in those days, things generally were. Heavy sigh.)

The BBC re-screened ‘The Hand of Fear’ last spring, in the wake of Elisabeth Sladen’s death. Given that it’s her final Classic Who story (until ‘The Five Doctors’, which doesn’t really count) it was, I suppose, an obvious choice, but it’s a strange and slightly uneven four-part narrative that jumps about from place to place and never quite finds its footing – ‘The Time Warrior’ or ‘Pyramids of Mars’ are better tales (and both are trumped, of course, by ‘Genesis of the Daleks’, but that’s really more about Michael Wisher). ‘The Hand of Fear’ does, however, feature some of the most outlandish Sarah Jane moments in the original canon, which we’ll get to later, so whatever its flaws it’s never less than interesting.

We open with a shot of a paperweight sitting in a Blue Peter volcano.

The arctic base on Kastria (as it is known) is inhabited by a couple of mysterious hooded figures facilitating the execution of treacherous war criminal Eldrad. Eldrad has been blasted into space and his rocket is due to be detonated, but conditions on the planet are getting worse, and the hooded figures are forced to do this before they’re ready. The looks on their faces say it all.

I’m Bobbin. Are you my mother?

There is a risk that a part of Eldrad may survive. You’ll never guess which part.

Cut to Earth, some time later, and the Doctor and Sarah Jane emerging from the TARDIS.

It’s traditional for classic Doctor Who to be set on rocky alien surfaces that happen to look like quarries, but this time – believe it or not – they’ve landed in an actual quarry, as Baker takes great delight in telling Sarah Jane (with more than a slight wink to the audience). The pair haven’t much time to sightsee, however, before they’re caught up in an explosion. The Doctor escapes with minor injuries, but they have to dig poor Sarah out of the rubble. When they recover her, she’s clutching Thing from The Addams Family.

Creepy. Kooky. Altogether ooky.

Unfortunately, possession of the hand has some dastardly side effects, and when Sarah wakes up, she’s turned into Andy Pandy.

Seriously, woman, what the hell are you wearing?

In her autobiography, Sladen notes that the increasingly ridiculous costumes were her way of putting a stamp on the character: Sarah Jane starts out relatively straight, but travelling with the Doctor has made her dress sense almost as erratic as his own. This is known throughout the Whoniverse and fan base in general as ‘The Andy Pandy outfit’, and indeed that’s how one of the scientists refers to her, just after she’s knocked him out and legged it out of the hospital with the hand.

“Back up a minute”, I can hear you saying. “Did you say ‘knocked him out’? Has she let herself get hypnotised again?” To which I’d respond “Well, yes. It’s Sarah Jane. What did you expect?”. I make this the fourteenth, at last count. What’s special about this one, of course (aside from the fact that it’s her last) is the oft-quoted “Eldrad must live”, which became the line Sladen was most frequently asked to repeat over the years. If the internet had been around in those days, it would have become a meme. These days – well, actually, it’s a meme. Presumably there’s a t-shirt somewhere on Ebay.

The hypnotised Sarah’s destination of choice is a local nuclear power station, which she enters with frightening ease, despite her newfound ability to knock people out by raising her hand.

The Abba ‘You Can Dance’ Wii marathon wasn’t going Sarah’s way.

Yes, I know it’s silly, but bear in mind that nearly three decades later the Doctor fixed a nano-virus by raising his hands and waving them around a bit. Recurring themes are important.

The Doctor has been busy in the lab, but sets off in hot pursuit as soon as he finds out about Sarah. Unfortunately he doesn’t get there in time to stop her hiding in the reactor, and he’s forced to try and negotiate over the intercom. This is unsuccessful, because Sarah’s preoccupied with a colour wheel.

Presumably it’s another side effect of the Andy Pandy thing.

While all this is going on, the plant has entered meltdown, and it’s left to Professor Watson – who runs the place – to try and keep order. He chiefly does this by addressing the workers over the PA in the manner of a union boss.

Glyn Houston. He stayed at his post when the trainees ran.

I’ve not yet mentioned any of the story’s guest performers, so now would be a good time. Houston himself is probably the most watchable, taking the mandatory role of human-who-thinks-guns-would-be-a-good-idea, but for all his reliance on nuclear technology he’s rational, measured and brave, assisting the Doctor as much as he can and remaining in the complex even when it’s seemingly about to explode. He is assisted in his endeavours by Miss Jackson (Frances Pidgeon, who’d previously played a handmaiden in ‘The Monster of Peladon’). A romantic relationship is implied, but never really confirmed, and we like it that way.

The other main human of note is Dr Carter, who initially works with the Doctor to find out the secrets of Eldrad’s hand, but who – like Sarah – winds up possessed by it. This gives the writers an excuse to screen what is possibly the most unconvincing fake spanner in living history.

It’s cardboard, I tell you. It’s bloody cardboard.

This, in turn, is followed by a fall from a metal staircase that actually looks more like an acrobatic flip.

News of the local hosepipe ban brought the Olympic diving event to a premature end, but it was too late to inform the first of the competitors.

Despite such setbacks the Doctor manages to get to the reactor, but Sarah isn’t coming out to play.

Ooh, look at that face. It’s a face of pure deviousness.

Suffice to say that Sarah is restored to normal, but not before events are set in motion to also bring back Eldrad. The military men outside take the conventional step of ordering a nuclear strike (which allows Baker the opportunity to swagger on the back of a truck, completely unconcerned about the radiation in one of those “You humans!” moments he did so well). Radiation, of course, is exactly what Eldrad needs to regenerate, although when he appears from his chamber, he’s apparently turned into Mystique.

“That’s remarkable, Mr. Henderson. You died at six o’clock this morning and you’ve changed sex.”

I am loathe, to be honest, to tell you any more. Suffice to say there are a couple of interesting twists, a drastic change in setting, and an innovative use of Baker’s scarf. Oh, and Roy Skelton, who’s always great. Perhaps part of the problem of the story is that you never really feel the world is under threat, because comparatively few of the characters take it seriously – Sladen, for example, is aware it’s her final role and hams it up mercilessly at every opportunity, never more so than when she’s under hypnosis. Baker, meanwhile, is laid-back and good-humoured – “Stop making a fuss, Sarah. You’re from South Croydon” – dashing to and fro round the power station and watching Eldrad melt through the door of the reactor before remarking “This is intensely interesting, don’t you think?”.

But if the finale is somewhat low-key, the resolution is worth waiting for. It all ends well, and the Earth is saved once again, but it’s been too much for Sarah. “I must be mad,” she says, slumped on the floor of the TARDIS as the Doctor – busy with his work – completely ignores her. “I’m sick of being cold and wet, and hypnotised left right and centre. I’m sick of being shot at, savaged by bug-eyed monsters, never knowing if I’m coming or going or been. I want a bath. I want my hair washed. I just want to feel human again.”

Simultaneously the Doctor gets a summons to Gallifrey, and he can’t take Sarah with him, so he has no choice but to return her to London. And Sarah tells us she’s bluffing – she doesn’t really want to go, she says. And at the same time somehow we know she’s had enough. And it’s this ambivalence which makes for the best scene in the story, touching in its brevity and in what it doesn’t say, as much as what it does. There is no tinkling piano, no mournful alto, no close-up of soulful eyes, no rain. There is, instead, a strained, slightly anxious parting in the TARDIS control room. Suitcase in hand, Sarah lingers near the door, knowing she has to face the inevitable, with the Doctor half turned away, and it is at this point that you realise both leads are no longer acting. There is a silence, with neither willing to actually make the jump, until Sladen remarks “Don’t forget me”, to which Baker responds “Oh, Sarah. Don’t you forget me.” And, of course, she never did.

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One year on

We miss you, Lis. The Whoniverse is just that little bit less colourful without you.

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Go figure

There are many, many reasons why I love my wife. The one I’m going to talk about tonight is her ability to spot a bargain. We live about ten minutes’ walk from the town centre (our immediate neighbours are a funeral director and a curry house, which I’ve always found slightly bizarre) and she’ll often stroll down the high street with Daniel after the school run. The town in which we live is peppered with charity shops, of varying degrees of interest and friendliness: the ones I like seem to be constantly closed, while our nearest Shaw Trust will say it’s open until five and then lock the doors at quarter to so they can vacuum. Conversely the nearby Cancer Research is open until half past and sometimes beyond. The chap who used to be in Action For Children on a Saturday looked and behaved like a nightclub bouncer, but the elderly ladies in Oxfam are a delight.I am in these places quite a lot, because the joy behind charity shops – besides picking up the odd slightly guilty bargain when you get something that you know should have been priced higher, because you know it’s more valuable than the person who priced it thought it was – is that you never know what you’re going to find in there. The contents of the shelves morph and shift on a daily basis as stock comes in and out. I can see piles of cluttered donations in the back rooms whenever I’m in there, as two or three middle-aged W.I. stalwarts go through the boxes and bags of mugs and books and old clothes, occasionally nipping out to the front to serve the person who’s buying a barely-thumbed copy of The Lost Symbol and a freezer bag full of Lego. Sometimes things stay out on the racks for weeks: Peculiar Adventures of Hector DVDs (God there are a lot of those), Spice Girl albums and Michael Palin books are the chief offenders, although you would be amazed at how many copies of Dina Carroll’s So Close I’ve found on the shelves next to whatever X-Factor runner-up has been dumped there recently.

My charity shop browsing usually involves a look round the toy racks, a quick examination of the trinkets shelves in search of kitsch mugs (it’s a long story, and you would find it dull) and a look through whatever CDs / DVDs / games they have that I’d not spotted weeks before. I am always on the lookout for Doctor Who items, but they usually manifest in the form of those tedious Tenth Doctor novels (typically the ones with Martha, which were a low point) or jigsaws that I won’t do and that Joshua has no patience for, or the DVDs I happen to own anyway. I’d love to come across a few of the Classic Who two-disc sets, or perhaps a vintage annual, but the people who own such things have, I suspect, sensibly realised that these items are worth a few bob and that they’d be much better off trying to shift them on Ebay or Amazon.

Then one day, a couple of weeks ago, Emily found the figures.

There were a lot. A box of Daleks and Cybermen sat by the shop door, and a whole load more festooned the shelves. Such items are never there for long, because other people grab them quickly, so my wife got in quick. At this point she was very sensible and bought only the ones that she thought we’d really want. Then she brought them back and showed them to me.

This is the first lot.

And I asked her if there were any more, and she cocked her head and then said “Yes…oh, I suppose it’s for a good cause”, which is the nearest you get to actual permission to go out and spend half your month’s paycheque on a bunch of (very reasonably priced) plastic.

So anyway, on my way back to work…

The second batch. (If this looks like a rather creepy wedding photo, that was deliberate.)

By the time I got round to photographing this lot (before the boys got to play with them and the inevitable scratches and breakages started happening) an impromptu convention was in the works, on the plastic dining table out on the patio.

“Are you my – no, forget it.”

By this time I was on a roll.

“Yeah, I’m down to do the shipping forecast next Sunday.”

“All right, ‘Evolution of the Daleks’ was shit. But did you see ‘Waters of Mars’?”

It was, at this point, essential to get a group shot before this lot got completely out of control. So I grabbed the stuff we already owned and put it all together. Note the positioning of the couples.

The whole gang, minus the Sycorax, who was out of the office, and it was too much of a faff to set it all up again.

Unfortunately, the table is flimsy and wobbly, and five seconds after I snapped the above, this happened.

I was mortified, and called proceedings to a swift halt. Fun while it lasted, anyway.

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The weighted companion, cubed

“Have you seen Men in Black?”

Emily stretched, yawned, reached for her tea mug and downed another sip. “I think so. Years ago. Not with you.”
“How about Men in Black II?”
“Probably not.”
“They’ve made a third film. It looks dire.”
Men in Black was, I seem to remember, not bad, if silly.”
“The sequel has some inspired set pieces, and it stars Lara Flynn Boyle, who played Donna Noble in Twin Peaks.”
“Oh, I see.”
“No, wait. Did I say Donna Noble? I meant Donna Hayward.”
“I know you did.”
“Although. Thinking about it. In Twin Peaks Donna’s father was Doc Hayward. So you had the Doctor-Donna. Coincidence???”
“Yes dear,” said Emily, “it is.”

This afternoon I had a meeting with Sarah Jane Smith. Honestly. And then on the way to said meeting, I found this on the table.

It’s been one of those days.

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Alas, poor Yorick

In which the Doctor and Sarah encounter the Mandragora Helix, but sadly not Patrick McGoohan. Spoilers below.

One of the things I love about classic Doctor Who is the way it rips off the classics without ever actually saying it’s ripping off the classics. ‘The Brain of Morbius’ is an obvious example: it’s Frankenstein, and all the trademarks are there, but they never really talk about it on camera. The viewer is allowed to draw their own conclusions. The same may be said of ‘Planet of Evil’, which has obvious Jekyll / Hyde parallels that are never overtly dealt with or even mentioned. There’s a quiet sense of self-assurance about this, as if they weren’t afraid to dip in and out of great stories, and didn’t feel the need to point it out or justify themselves.

Post-2005, such literary comparisons must be signposted and pointed out with painstaking obviousness, typically by a companion. For example, look at this scene from ‘The Unicorn and the Wasp’:

Donna: Yeah but think about it. There’s a murder, a mystery, and Agatha Christie.

The Doctor: So? Happens to me all the time.

Donna: No, but isn’t that a bit weird? Agatha Christie didn’t walk around surrounded by murders, not really. I mean that’s like meeting Charles Dickens, and he’s surrounded by ghosts, at Christmas.

The Doctor: Well…

Donna: Oh come on! It’s not like we could drive across country and find Enid Blyton having tea with Noddy. Could we? Noddy’s not real. Is he? Tell me there’s no Noddy!

The Doctor: [leans in close to her] There’s no Noddy.

You see what I mean. It’s a decent episode, and the Noddy gag (primarily thanks to Tennant’s delivery) is one of the highlights, but the whole scene jars. It’s the sort of self-conscious idiocy that is paramount these days, where the fourth wall is not so much broken as made momentarily transparent, in one of those shimmering, flickering effects. Followed by a few comments in a Confidential, and a paragraph of blurb in the ‘making of’ pages on the BBC website.

Back to Baker. ‘The Masque of Mandragora’ is Hamlet. With aliens. It’s not much of a spoiler to note that come the end of the story, the Doctor has acquired an enormous salami.

I know for a fact that Tom Baker's not a vegetarian. Don't ask me how I know. It's a boring story.

I mean look at it. Magnificent, isn’t it? It’s not even remotely phallic. I will, henceforth, be disappointed with all subsequent Doctor Who adaptations I watch that do not see him clutching oversized food. (That’s probably most of them.)

The story opens with Sarah and the Doctor exploring the TARDIS’s secondary control room (including a lovely moment where Sarah picks up Troughton’s recorder). After a gratuitous blue screen interlude, and a ‘psychic attack’  – psychic attacks are easy to do, you just have the afflicted characters put their hands to their heads, shut their eyes and grimace in agony, and then zoom in and out repeatedly – the narrative begins proper when the two travellers land in fifteenth century Italy, which looks suspiciously like Portmerion (known, of course, as the principal shooting location for The Prisoner). It all looks very pretty, but the peasants are revolting. Literally. Fortunately, the local military man, the violent Count Federico, is on hand with his iron fist and bad temper. We don’t get to see that much of him, of course, before the first spooky sci-fi thing happens, resulting in a mutilated corpse.

All things considered, the Blue Man gig could've gone better.

Besides the no-it’s-not-the-plague death, Federico has another reason to be grumpy: his brother’s the local Duke, and he’s not. Thankfully, the Duke is just about to suffer an untimely death, which was spookily predicted by Hieronymous, an astrologer who is revealed to be in league with Federico. Having disposed of his brother, Federico plans to seize the throne from its rightful heir, his nephew Giuliano. Is all this starting to sound familiar yet?

Giuliano is a self-assured, likeable hero – one whom you dearly hope will make it to the end of episode four. Open-minded to a fault, he welcomes the Doctor and the scientific field of enquiry that he represents, but he’s grounded and harbours no delusions about the danger he is in. He clearly has an unreciprocated crush on Sarah (along with most of the TV-watching public, I’d suspect), but he never allows that to get in the way of the work he has to do. Giuliano is assisted in his endeavours by Marco (Tim Pigott-Smith, looking here like the lovechild of Phil Davis and Chris Evans).

Giuliani. Something very wistful about that faraway look.

Marco. You see what I mean.

It’s nice to have a supporting character to root for, but as is customary, it’s the villains who are the most fun. Foremost amongst these is Hieronymous, who assumes the mantle of principal antagonist once he’s possessed by the invading Helix. He also has the most incredible beard in the history of the Fourth Doctor (and no, ‘The Leisure Hive’ doesn’t count).

Oh, facial hair of loveliness.

Hieronymous is scheming and gloating, while Claudius Federico takes the role of Brash Villain Whose Overconfidence Will Be His Undoing. He stomps and swaggers, and grabs all the best lines: he scoffs to Hieronymous that “You can no more tell the stars than you can tell my chamber pot,” announces that “before sunrise, I want to see Giuliano’s liver fed to the dogs”, and positively wallows in metaphors when giving orders to his second-in-command:

[Int. Federico’s chamber. A servant is putting Federico’s boots on him.]

Federico: Well?

Rossini: Nothing, sire.

Federico: Inept clod. What were my orders?

Rossini: We have searched everywhere.

Federico: Get out. [He kicks the servant.] I warn you, Rossini, fail me and you will breakfast on burning coals.

Rossini: Sire, we can only think that he has taken to the catacombs.

Federico: Catacombs.

Rossini: A thousand men might search those galleries for a month, sire, and still find nothing. They say there are places where the bat droppings are twice the height of a man.

Federico: They say. They say! The truth of the matter, Rossini, is that you have no stomach for the task.

Rossini: If it is your wish, sire, I will take the entire guard down there and begin the search immediately.

Federico: No. No, it is true. If he’s gone down into the warren, he’ll be harder to find than a flea in a beggar’s robes. But he must come out or die like a sewer rat.

Rossini: And when he does, we must be ready for him.

Federico: Of course you will, dung head.

They just don’t write Who like this anymore. They really should.

Federico, flanked by his flunky.

Elsewhere: Sarah gets hypnotised. Again. It’s no wonder that ‘The Hand of Fear’ was the straw that broke the camel’s back. In this instance, she’s instructed to kill the Doctor, who is one step ahead of her – he guesses she’s not herself when, prior to the attempted assassination, she asks why she can understand 15th century Italian, something she’s never asked before. (Never mind that; I’d like to know why the TARDIS translation circuits make the local guards sound like London cockneys. The scene where two of them have a conversation is like something out of Mary Poppins. It’s hysterical.)

Having rescued his best friend from the jaws of the eternal blank-eyed stare, the Doctor sets about putting things right. It’s not the first time he’s had to rescue Sarah; there is an earlier, mildly ludicrous scene in which he sneaks up to a sacrificial altar and grabs her just before the knife goes in, and NOT ONE OF THE MONKS IN THE CHAMBER NOTICES HE’S THERE. I’m all for suspension of disbelief, but seriously. It’s beyond stupid. I don’t care how deep your meditative trances go, you’d notice a six foot two man with wild hair and an enormous scarf. Particularly if he looked like Tom Baker, which the Fourth Doctor does. It is superseded in recent silliness only by the rescue sequence from ‘The Brain of Morbius’, which I have mentioned before.

Stupidest. Cult. Ever.

The monks are part of the Brotherhood of Demnos, a robe-wearing cult who absorb the power of the Helix, thus gaining the ability to shoot force lightning. Mostly off-camera. (Which is fair enough; they had no money, and there’s a nice big lot of it come the finale.) There’s double-dealing and double-crossing in the palace, various scenes in a dungeon, and the eponymous masque, which Giuliani debates cancelling, only to have the Doctor insist that it goes ahead – “Save me a costume; I love a knees-up!”. Meanwhile, down in the cave, Hieronymous quite literally loses face.

I'm Bobbin. Are you my mother?

It doesn’t all work. The ending is mildly confusing and slightly anti-climactic – it’s all over very quickly, with a quick denouement and no particularly concrete explanation, largely because most of the Doctor’s exposition takes the form of barely-heard mutterings to himself. The twist was effective, but the science behind it was initially impenetrable. Emily and I had no idea what was going on. I had to look it up. Perhaps we’re just thick. To save me having to try and explain it now, here’s a distracting picture of Stuart Fell dancing.

Apparently, Stuart Fell has a coat he borrowed from James Dean.

Despite structural flaws, it’s a fun, light-hearted story with a refreshingly low body count – one that can be watched in an evening and leave you wanting more. Good triumphs with minimal fuss, and the wicked are appropriately punished. Sladen doesn’t have much to do except sit around and wait to be rescued, but Baker is clearly having fun leaping on and off horses, laughing at the quaintness of fifteenth century astrophysics and wandering round Portmerion. And waving his sausage about, of course.

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The Seeds of Doom

Sitting in the café at the local leisure centre. One eye is on the uploader, another on this screen, a third on the Americano that’s cooling to my upper left, and a fourth on Joshua’s swimming lesson. And they say men can’t multitask.

‘The Seeds of Doom’ – not to be confused with ‘The Seeds of Death’, an as yet unwatched Second Doctor story – caught us rather off-guard. It contains a nice little two / four split, moving from an Antarctic base, all fake snow and great big furry muffs (you – yes, you at the back – you can stop sniggering, and then come up here and explain the joke to the whole class), in the first two episodes, through to a posh English mansion, with an impressive garden and amazing greenhouse, both of which carry weighted significance in the story. Only I’d failed to realise our stay in said mansion would be extended over a hundred minutes rather than fifty. It wasn’t until the end of episode four, and the realisation that in the remaining few minutes they had an awful lot to wrap up, that I realised there was much more of the story left to be told.

As a parenthesis, I remember experiencing similar feelings of bewilderment at the end of Attack of the Clones and The Matrix Reloaded – both of which, I thought, were fairly muddled and both of which left an awful lot to unpack in their respective sequels in order to bring the story arc to a satisfying and rounded conclusion. The unfortunate truth – the astute among you will have seen this coming – was that neither Revenge of the Sith nor Matrix Revolutions manage anything of the sort, leaving instead a sort of shell-shocked emptiness trailing in their wake. There’s no real sense of closure or satisfaction, very little emotional connection, and you carry a begrudging sense of admiration for the visual spectacle but feel, perhaps, that the whole appearance of both films, if anything, simply gets in the way. You’re left empty, hollow and unsatisfied. It’s sort of how I imagine sex with Katie Price. In any event you can imagine I was pleasantly surprised to see ‘The Seeds of Doom’ stretch to a very comfortable six-episode narrative with plenty of cliffhangers – the good, old-fashioned sort – and a reasonably terrifying monster. Again, how I imagine Katie Price.

We open in an Antarctic base with a superimposed snow effect. (The base itself looks like matchboxes but it is admittedly quite impressive when it later goes up in flames.)

"Camelot!" / "Camelot!" / "Camelot!" / "It's only a model."


The seeds themselves refer to a couple of pods that are found buried in the Antarctic, unearthed by some researchers sporting ludicrous facial hair.

Worst. Fake. Beard. Ever.


I mean you can practically see the glue. The best thing to do in such circumstances, of course, is to pair him with another scientist similarly garbed, in the hope that two fake beards will sort of cancel each other out.

Oh, look. ZZ Top.

While all this is going on, Doctor and Companion are wandering around investigating and generally making a nuisance of themselves. The beards were bad enough, but award for fashion disaster of the week goes once more to Sladen. (And I don’t care that it was the seventies. It’s bloody awful.)

Sarah Jane was running late for her audition for Rainbow.

Back at the lab, one of the pods germinates and latches on to the unfortunate Winlett, who is rapidly transformed into Swamp Thing.

I mean it’s fair enough, really, because if you’re going to turn a man into a plant there’s only so many ways you can do it, so some overlap – whether intended or not – was inevitable. Anyway, stomping around the Antarctic for a while, killing several people in his wake, Winlett is eventually destroyed when the base is destroyed by two saboteurs. The Doctor and Sarah Jane – who have come to investigate – escape with their lives, just barely, and regroup back in London. Here the focus shifts onto millionaire Harrison Chase, who is constantly looking out for rare and valuable specimens with which to embellish his collection.

Part of the joy of ‘The Seeds of Doom’ comes from its casting. Classic Who boasts a wealth of fine character actors in all manner of roles, back in the days when you didn’t need to cast pop stars or comedians to get a big draw. (It should also be noted that this particular bugbear of mine took root before the show’s resurrection – as tempting as it is to blame this on Julie Gardner, it really started in the 80s with Hale and Pace, not to mention the whole Ken Dodd thing.) ‘Pyramids of Mars’, in particular, has a substantial number of established performers (including Village of the Damned’s Bernard Archard, and Michael Bilton, who played Old Ned in To The Manor Born), most of whom don’t live beyond the first episode. Typically these supporting characters carry dignity and weight, irrespective of what side they’re on, and they’re always fun to watch.

‘The Seeds of Doom’ has Boycie. Who is, in this, an utter bastard. He carries the accent he’d later adopt in Only Fools and Horses, more or less, but a little less London. He is still an utter bastard, even though you expect him to mutter “All right, Rodney?” every time Baker walks onto the screen. It’s nonetheless a chilling performance, and we’re left devoid of any real sympathy for what is, as Sarah Jane points out, really a very lonely character.

John Challis, wearing an amazing polo neck.


There is a hint at redemption for the man, in his closing scenes, as the monster closes in. A frustrated and angry Scorby rants at the Doctor and Sarah Jane, as he frets about their imminent destruction:

SCORBY: So what are we supposed to do? Wait here until the Krynoid reduces this place to rubble?

SARAH: Don’t be so negative. Major Beresford’s going to come up with something.

SCORBY: Oh yeah. That laser gun was useless, wasn’t it. Look, I’ve never relied on anybody, just myself. I’ve always got myself out of trouble. Africa, the Middle East, you name it. I’ve not been a mercenary for nothing. I’m a survivor, right?

DOCTOR: Hmm? Scorby, bullets and bombs aren’t the answer to everything.

(The room shakes and more ceiling plaster comes down.)

SCORBY: What are we going to do?

SARAH: Oh, just shut up, will you? We’re all in the same boat.

It was at this point that Emily turned to me and said “Do you suppose he had an unhappy childhood?”. And I suppose he did, but the lovely thing about this scene is that it’s so underplayed. Challis rants, and the implication that he’s seen and experienced dreadful things is heavily implied, but there’s no resolution, no sudden character development, and no moment of clarity for any of the characters. It’s the sort of scene that Russell T. Davies would have been unable to write. Or, if he had, it would have come out something like this:

SCORBY: What are we supposed to do? Wait here until the Krynoid reduces this place to rubble?

ROSE: Oh come on, now, where’s your sense of optimism? The Doctor’ll get us aaart of it, won’t he? That’s what ‘e does. Doctor?

DOCTOR: [not really listening, apparently fiddling with something on a nearby window ledge] What? Oh, yes, of course. That’s right. Still got…ooh, a good fifteen minutes before the end of all civilisation. Plenty of time.

SCORBY: But you don’t have any ideas! You’re fresh out! You can’t turn to your friends out there, they’ve got nothing! You can’t rely on them! [beat] You can’t rely on anybody.

DOCTOR: [turning, addressing him properly, walking across] You know, you talk a lot about being alone, Scorby. Almost out of necessity. And somehow I think it’s because you’ve had to be. [He is now very close to him.] That’s basically it, isn’t it?

Scorby stares hard, swallows, doesn’t respond.

DOCTOR: There’s nothing wrong with feeling vulnerable and reliant on others. That’s not a sign of weakness, that’s a sign of strength. Shows you’re a team player. But you’ve not been able to do that for a long time, have you?

The piano is starting up.

SCORBY: [after a long pause] I was…twenty-three. We were in the Gulf. Doing a sweep of the eastern outskirts of Kabul. Pinned down in a room by sniper. Seven of us. No way of taking him out, not without him…managed to get coordinates out over the radio. They said they’d come get us.

DOCTOR: But they didn’t.

Piano and strings louder; we can hear faint, echoing sniper fire as background FX.

SCORBY: I lost my entire squad that day. We had to move eventually. Jennings was wounded, had to get him to hospital, couldn’t just…worst thing is it was my call. I was in charge. They died because of me. And I learned something that day, Doctor. Learned you can’t rely on anybody else. And that sometimes it’s best not to have anybody rely on you.

The Doctor stares for a moment. The piano and strings build to a crescendo as Scorby breaks down.

DOCTOR: I know what it’s like. You may not think it to look at me, but believe me I know. And I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.

Aaaaanyway. While Scorby’s been spending all his time threatening the Doctor, the second pod germinates – this time the unfortunate victim is Keeler, scientist and somewhat reluctant villain. Keeler’s basically a decent enough chap, a voice of reason who doesn’t deserve his grisly fate, irrespective of what side he’s on. Both Keeler and Scorby, however, stand in the shadow of Harrison Chase, their eccentric (“Poor people are crazy, Jack. I’m eccentric”) employer who is determined to TAKE OVER THE WORLD using plants. As you do. He does this by playing the organ, conducting ghastly experiments and feeding his victims into a compost machine – “The sergeant’s no longer with us,” he remarks to a cornered Sarah in a typical fit of Bond villain delay tactics that conveniently allows the Doctor to reach her in time. “He’s in the garden. He’s part of the garden”.

The sinister Mr Chase, complete with a lovely pair of gloves.

Would you trust this man to water your plants?

It all comes out in the wash – well, the flames, actually – when the house is destroyed by the RAF, mirroring the earlier destruction of the Antarctic base. The closing episode is suitably frenetic and intense, with menacing plants that sound incredibly like the Triffids in the 1980 TV adaptation of John Wyndham’s masterpiece, which led me to deduce that the production team lifted their sound effects from whatever they’d used here (which is again understandable, seeing as once again there’s probably only a set number of ways you can do menacing plants, and it’s only fair, seeing as ‘The Seeds of Doom’ owes so much to Wyndham as well as Quatermass). There’s a general sense of scalating tension, not least from the Doctor, who it seems spends the entire story permanently grizzly, forever shouting at someone or other. For all that doom and gloom it’s a ripping yarn – compelling from its first minutes to its last – although the serious undercurrent is undermined in the final minutes with an amusing final scene where Sarah Jane and the Doctor head off for another adventure, only to arrive promptly back in Antarctica when the Doctor forgets to reprogram the TARDIS. The snow makes it impossible for them to get their bearings and they can’t figure out whether they’ve already been, or are in fact yet to arrive. The two make a hasty exit before they cause any ontological paradoxes, which is funny, because in my experience that was never something the show really worried about…

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The Brain of Morbius

My other half and I tend to watch these stories together. Emily’s never quite shared my passion for Doctor Who but she has always endured it willingly and without complaint and usually enjoys what she sees (and, when she doesn’t, always finds some way to elegantly take the piss out of it). She’s therefore a necessary ingredient to any Who story I’m experiencing for the first time; it keeps me from pitching over the edge of the fanboy abyss into unequivocal adulation.

Anyway –

My friend Gareth refers to this one as ‘Solon, and thanks for all the flesh’, which is both pithy and accurate. There’s the usual structure – layered antagonists, with henchman-works-for-boss-who-is-assisting-incapacitated-mastermind – and the Doctor and his companion held prisoner on suspicion of murder (in this case, before the fact). ‘The Brain of Morbius’ doesn’t pretend to be anything other than Frankenstein in space, and it doesn’t suffer for it. We have:

  • Gothic castle on rocky outcrop
  • Mad scientist who dreams of creating life
  • Deformed, thick-as-shit henchman
  • Ghastly hybrid monster created during lightning storm (was waiting for Solon to shout “IT’S ALLIIIIIIIIVVVVEEEE!” and was somewhat disappointed when he didn’t)
  • Rampaging villagers carrying burning torches

‘The Brain of Morbius’ opens with a mysterious death on an alien planet. The TARDIS materialises nearby, the Doctor berating the Time Lords for, apparently, pulling them off course. This ambiguity is curiously unresolved come the end of the story: we are led to believe that the Sisterhood of Karn has pulled in passing ships to protect the elixir, but engaging the Doctor in a covert operation to depose the nearly-resurrected Morbius is exactly the sort of thing that the Time Lords would get him to do, and we still don’t know for certain that they didn’t.

It was Emily who suggested that the Sisterhood resembled a futuristic W.I. This theory was vindicated when Maren (or Ohica) remarked “nothing changes!”. They’re perhaps a little more hostile than the cast of Calendar Girls but there are definite parallels. “And it would explain,” said Emily, “why she’s wearing a cake on her head.”

Sisterhood of Karn

Over in the aforementioned Gothic castle, pioneering surgeon Solon is trying to stitch together a new body for Morbius, a renegade Time Lord now reduced to a brain-in-a-jar cliché. Solon’s played by Philip Madoc, a recurring Doctor Who actor but one whom I knew primarily for his turn as the U-boat captain in Dad’s Army. Solon epitomises the nasty genius – cruel, devious, manipulative and self-obsessed, while Condo is the obedient sidekick, who you know will eventually try and do the right thing and come to a bad end.

Solon

Solon. Would you trust this man?

Condo

Condo. Mostly armless.


While Solon and Condo are trying to create life, the Sisterhood have summoned the TARDIS, and are about to kill the Doctor. There’s a bit more writhing around and hissing, and some interpretative dance. Nonetheless, the WI parallels are still prominent.

sisterhood of karn

“Now, you’re a tiny, tiny acorn, growing into a GREAT BIG TREE….”

“You watch,” says Emily as they tie the Doctor to a post. “In a minute they’ll sing ‘Jerusalem’.”
“Probably. ‘Bring me my spear! O, clouds unfold / Bring me my chariot of SA…CRED…FIRE….’”

The Doctor is rescued, thanks to the intervention of Sarah Jane, who has sneaked in wearing a disguise that frankly wouldn’t fool a six-year-old. Luckily the Sisterhood, who are completely wrapped up in their sacrificial ritual, don’t appear to notice.

sisterhood of karn

Spot the odd one out.


The pair escape, but Sarah Jane’s apparently lost her sight. Fortunately this is only temporary, because I don’t think I could stomach much more of Elizabeth Sladen stumbling around the castle like PJ in Byker Grove. And we’re just in time, the operation to jump-start Morbius’ body has, it seems, been a success.

morbius

Hell of a time to get your sight back.


The story concludes with a battle of minds between Doctor and Morbius, which is sadly more famous for its controversial continuity than it is for the Time Lord wrestling itself: we see images of the first three Doctors and then a further eight (played by the crew), which I always took to be Morbius’ previous regenerations. There’s a lot of online speculation about whether Hartnell’s Doctor is in fact the first, or whether it ties in with the ‘Lungbarrow’ continuity of the Doctor being the Other, but ultimately all the fuss gets you nowhere. There’s no way to be sure, there’s no certainty about how many regenerations a Time Lord has anyway, and those who labour this point would do well to remember that over the years, Doctor Who has always contradicted itself.

The Brain of Morbius

One of the Morbius Doctors. Whose identity is ambiguous. AND I REALLY COULDN’T GIVE A SHIT.


Despite such notoriety, ‘Morbius’ is a cracking adventure, and the horror theme follows neatly on from the Jekyll and Hyde slant taken by ‘Planet of Evil’, its predecessor. Like many Who stories it’s difficult to take the supporting characters seriously, purely because there is the usual overacting and theatrical nonsense – still, this is all part of the fun. The tension is maintained nicely over the four episodes, and Baker and Sladen are as watchable as ever – there are some enjoyable fourth wall breaking moments, such as when the Doctor tells Solon that he’s owned several heads, adding “I used to have an old grey model before this. Some people liked it”. Similarly, when Baker wakes up on the floor of the lab to find a distraught Sladen grieving his apparent expiration, he’s pleased to put her right:

The Doctor: [Opens eyes] Hello, Sarah! Nice to be seen again!
Sarah: Oh, Doctor!
The Doctor: You thought I was dead, didn’t you?
Sarah: Mmm!
The Doctor: You’re always making that mistake.

And you’d think that by now, she’d have learned…

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