TV EYE: Flashback – Classic Who Overload (Part 1)

There are certain bargains that I can ignore, and then there are the ones that I can’t. Wandering into budget music/DVD shop Fopp a few weeks back, I was flirting with the idea of maybe being naughty and picking myself up something on DVD – but then what I saw told me that yes, I was in trouble, because they had a fairly significant pile of classic Doctor Who DVDs, and virtually all of them were £3. Within minutes I had a frighteningly large pile of discs, and I did end up being strategic and not simply getting every single one that I didn’t have (I’m not a Who completist – there are stories are love, and there are stories I’ll be happy to never ever see again (Hello, Resurrection of the Daleks…), but I did end up emerging with a pile of ten new Who DVDs (one box set, and six seperate releases). Some of them were the chance to replace stories I previously had on VHS, while others gave me the chance to see stories I hadn’t seen for an absurdly long time, and there were even a couple that I’d never actually seen at all. And naturally, they set off lots of thoughts about storytelling, what the show means to me, and the constantly evolving relationship between classic Who and New Who. And as usual, fear the spoilers…

Doctor Who: Planet of Evil

Proof that the much-loved Phillip Hinchcliffe era was perfectly capable of producing stories that were…. okay. A saga of the Fourth Doctor and Sarah landing on a planet at the edge of the universe, and running afoul of a mysterious Anti-Matter creature connected to the single survivor of an alien survey team, the one thing that raises Planet of Evil above the realms of just being a pretty good SF horror romp is the stunning jungle set – one of the best realised alien environments ever seen on Who (and this was 1976, lest we forget), it’s a colourful and lurid B-movie nightmare that looks pretty good on video, and absolutely brilliant in the film sequences (shot at Ealing Studios, if my obscure Who trivia memory serves me correctly). It’s all so good that you end up wishing they’d known that when they were writing it and made the most of it, instead of letting it devolve into a spooky pick-em-off one-by-one runaround set on a typically sparse seventies Brit TV SF spaceship. To be honest, it’s one of those stories that I loved as a Target novelisation, and the reality doesn’t quite live up to my far-spookier imagination, while the mix-and-match plot mash-up of Forbidden Planet and Jekyll and Hyde is a bit too much of a hodge-podge (the Hinchcliffe era horror pastiches work best when they’re even more shameless than this). There’s also Preston Lockwood playing basically the same unstable gurning maniac role he played in Planet of the Daleks (although he does later show some range in The Ribos Operation, and is great), and both Tom Baker and Lis Sladen are as wonderful as ever, but there’s a lack of the gloriously sparky energy and humour between them that’s far more prevalent in Pyramids of Mars and Brain of Morbius. Not bad, but certainly not a classic – and the “Hyde” version of Professor Stahlman is so unfortunate that you end up wishing they’d done an even better job of keeping him offscreeen…

Doctor Who: New Beginnings (The Keeper of Traken, Logopolis, Castrovalva)

The Master doesn’t work. I understand the whole principle – the “every hero needs his adversary”, and basically giving the Doctor his own version of Professor Moriarty – but the advantage of Moriarty is that he only appears once. He doesn’t have to keep turning up, continually trying to rule the world and continually trying to kill the Doctor and continually failing… and yet the Master does. It’s arguable that the Master hasn’t really been truly effective as a character since Roger Delgado died back in the Seventies, and yet even in the Master’s first appearences, it’s often only Delgado’s sheer satanic charisma that turns what’s essentially a very flat bad guy into something truly memorable (There’s a brilliant showcase Delgado sequence in The Sea Devils – it’s his first appearence, where he attempts to hypnotise a guard, and while the idea of hypnoisis by staring and someone saying “I am the Master, and you will obey me!!” is kind of ridiculous at heart, damn me if Delgado doesn’t actually sell it…). There are only a couple of outstanding Master appearences in the whole history of the show – and while I am unyielding in my severe dislike of S3’s remix of The Master into a cackling mirror-image of all the Tenth Doctor’s least charming attributes, frankly I can’t blame them for not looking at the stories in the ‘New Beginnings’ set which introduce Anthony Ainley’s version of the Master and going “Hey! Let’s do that!”, because the minute the Master stops manipulating behind the scenes and moves to the foreground in these three stories, things do come unstuck rather quickly…

One of the bizarre elements of much of Eighties Who is simply the fact that so many people behind the scenes really didn’t seem to understand exactly how the show worked – yes, they were prepared to experiment and take the show in new directions, but very often they did that by losing a little too much of what made the show work in the first place. It’s certainly fascinating looking at the eras of the Script Editors – and while Eric Saward mistakenly tried to turn the show into a grim and gritty corpse-strewn action thriller with an increasingly marginalised central character (In Revelation of the Daleks, the Doctor might as well not even be there…), Christopher H. Bidmead tried to throw something vaguely resembling genuine science into Who (even though much of it was technobabble), but very often mistook interesting concepts for decent stories. I have a real soft-spot for the Bidmead era, partly because he later wrote Frontios, one of my favourite Who stories, and also because his era of Who was the first to introduce me to the idea of conceptual cool in SF (I can remember reading the Target novelisation of Logopolis, and finally getting the idea of Block Transfer Computation – basically, a form of mathematics that can actually alter the physical world – and having a very Keanu-style “Whoah…” moment), but watching them all these years later does require a certain amount of patience.

Although, generally speaking The Keeper of Traken is actually one of the best Bidmead stories; the first of the ‘Master’ trilogy, it’s a story where the Doctor is summonned to the supposedly peaceful planet of Traken, where a time of transition is about to begin with the death of the seemingly all-powerful Keeper, and there’s a mysterious enemy waiting to exploit that fact… As Eighties Who goes, this is actually rather fine – great design, some excellent dialogue, a mostly excellent cast (aside from a couple of worrying exceptions) and a real sense of place. There’s some pretty good worldbuilding here, and while episode 3 falls prey to some of the usual corridor/capture/escape shenanigans needed to keep this sort of thing going, it does feature some fine stuff.

What’s most surprising – particularly for anyone who’s used to Anthony Ainley’s various performances as the Master – is exactly how good he is here as Tremas, the kindly Traken consul who’s destined to eventually have his body hi-jacked by the evil Time Lord. Ainley is quite fantastic, really selling Tremas as an honest and honorable man, making his eventual fate all the more disturbing (especially for my seven-year-old self when I first watched it). There are a couple of truly dreadful effects shots – most notably, the horribly extended shot of Kassia (Sheila Ruskin, the only major weak link in the cast) with glowing eyes, where they’ve attempted to paint normal-looking eyes onto her eyelids so that the CSO will work, and it looks… absolutely bloody awful (and it doesn’t help that it’s monstrously overlit and they stay on it for such a long time) – but overall, it’s a pretty fine story that holds together and entertains, even if, like much of Season 18, it’s just a bit too serious for its own good.

The same can be levelled at Logopolis, a story that’s been much critcised over the years – if only because of the fact that it is (like Castrovalva) two two-parters bolted unceremoniusly together. Certainly, much of the criticism can be justified, but there’s actually a lot of good stuff here that comes close to making up for it, as the Doctor finally gets around to trying to fix the Chameleon Circuit on the TARDIS only to find the Master waiting for him and ready to exploit the secrets of the planet Logopolis. For a start, there’s the brilliantly doomy, funereal atmosphere, and the fact that here (for one of the last times, to be honest), the Master feels truly dangerous rather than simply being a panto villain. There’s the conceptual cool of Logopolis itself – again, some impressive worldbuilding, and some excellent design considering the ridiculously small scale – and the whole bravery of trying to set the stakes so high that the entire Universe is in jeopardy.

Of course, then you’ve got rampant silliness like the infamous “flushing out the TARDIS” idea, or that the Master’s plan for blackmailing the universe seems to involve him announcing his intentions to a bunch of security guards who aren’t even listening, but about the biggest mistake the story makes is that it never actually manages to emotionally sell the idea of the universe ending. It’s all too abstract, and while I may frequently disagree with RTD’s methods over the last few years, the emotion-centric pitch of New Who is obviously far wiser than attempting something like this, which throws massive concepts at the audience but can only dramatise them with lots of sets crumbling to bits and vague talk about entropy (which, let’s face it, is not a particularly easy concept to dramatise).

But above everything, it’s Tom Baker’s final appearence as the Fourth Doctor (and please, nobody even think about mentioning the bloody awful 1993 Children in Need episode Dimensions of Time), and it’s here that Baker’s slightly haggard, more downbeat Season 18 version of the Doctor really works – he’s still giving it his all, even though it’s clear that this is an actor who’s more than ready to move on, and the sight of the Fourth Doctor battling the oncoming destruction of the Universe and being haunted by the ghost of his future self is more than strong enough to see the story through most of its weaker moments. And by the time we get to the Regeneration sequence itself, it’s (at least, for me) a genuinely moving moment that burnt itself into my mind when I was only seven (and which sells the cosmic weirdness of Regeneration much better than New Who’s somewhat flashy “torrent of fire”. I mean, Regenerations while standing up? For shame!)

Unfortunately, it doesn’t last. I’m pretty sure I hadn’t actually seen Peter Davison’s first story Castrovalva since its broadcast back in 1982 – and being polite, it hasn’t aged very well. Being honest, it’s one of those stories that again makes me wonder what the hell they thought they were doing, and does at least hint at the creative cul-de-sac that would pull the show into a much more narrow and fan-based direction for much of the Eighties. The story essentially picks up immediately after the end of Logopolis (although let’s ignore Davison’s abruptly blond hair, and the fact that Tom Baker’s big clomping boots have morphed into comfortable shoes), with the Doctor’s regeneration in crisis, and the Master attempting to trap the TARDIS in the Big Bang, before the crew decide to shelter at the mysterious civilisation of Castrovalva – but the fact that this is a story that revolves around the concept of recursion and making some major M.C. Esher references should make it clear that this isn’t an attempt to kick off Davison’s realm with a dose of big populist fun. One of the most shocking things about Castrovalva (aside from the gigantic lapses in storytelling) is simply that for a TV show made in the pre-video age, it makes virtually no concessions to anyone who might not remember exactly what happened in Logopolis nearly ten months previously (okay, there was a repeat on BBC2 in the Autum of 81, but that’s hardly the point…).

Added to this, the whole plot of Castrovalva revolves around the concept of Block Transfer Computation – first introduced in Logopolis – and yet it never actually comes out and tells us this except for a very brief reference five minutes before the end, leaving much of the storytelling utterly perplexing for those not in the know. And again, it tries to pull off some major conceptual stuff, but it can’t find an interesting dramatic way of making it work leaving much of the threat feeling hopelessly abstract – the idea of a civilisation that doesn’t realise it’s fictional and that the world it lives in doesn’t actually spatially work is an interesting one, but Castrovalva just leaves it hanging onscreen, and it’s only the performances of old stalwarts like Michael Sheard and some good (if overlit) design that makes any of it feel relevant. Added to this, you’ve got Davison’s Doctor being marginalised for about 3/4s of the whole story – he does some great work (especially in the second episode) but it’s really not a particularly good story to kick off a Doctor’s reign with (Okay, it’s better than Sylvester McCoy’s debut in Time and the Rani, but what isn’t?).

One element that, at least for me, shows where the storytelling was going wrong is where we see Tegan and Nyssa getting to grips with flying the TARDIS in order to get the Doctor to Castrovalva – and all these sequences in episode 2 do have some nice character touches, giving a genuine sense of acheivement (especially considering the Doctor is out of action at this point). And then, at the end of the story, it turns out that the co-ordinates had already been set by the (not very well explained) evil duplicate version of Adric, and nothing they did made the slightest bit of difference – which completely takes away any sense of acheivement. Considering how pro-active a companion Romana was, it’s a sign of the way things would go, and it certainly isn’t the kind of thing you could ever imagine New Who doing. There are so many clunky moments in Castrovalva that it actually gets kind of embarassing in places, from the “Hey kids – this week we’re going to be talking about recursion!” conversation between Nyssa and Tegan, to the episode 1 cliffhanger of Ainley waving at the camera, to the frankly hilarious sequences towards the end, with Ainley bounding around dressed in a sheet cranking the melodrama to the max and bellowing things like “MY WEBBBBB!!!!!” After the relatively good (if inconsistent) use the Master was put to in Logopolis, he’s in full-on panto villain mode here, to the extent that it’s hard to believe it’s the same writer, and he basically stayed in this mode for most of his remaining appearences – although he is actually pretty good in his brief Trial of a Time Lord appearence in Season 23, and is one of the best things about the otherwise rather flawed final Classic Who story Survival. Essentially, Castrovalva sums up so much that didn’t work about Eighties Who – it’s definitely the least effective of the box set, and one of the few Who stories I’ve got on DVD that I really won’t be watching that often…

Doctor Who: Four to Doomsday

And then, you get a surprise like this. A disc I’d never have picked up if it wasn’t for £3, I went into Four to Doomsday with very low expectations, and was actually pleasently surprised – it’s a long way from brilliant, but there’s a surprising amount of decent stuff in here, as well as some exceptionally clever and impressive design. For Eighties Who, this does actually look very good – it’s also Davison’s first recorded story (Castrovalva being recorded fourth), meaning hair continuity is completely messed up, and he’s obviously finding his feet as the Doctor in a story that pitches the TARDIS crew onto a massive spacecraft four days from Earth, manned by an alien with delusions of grandeur who’s determined to repopulate Earth with his own race. There are plenty of moments that are just bizarre in the extreme, and the extended “entertainment” sequences that basically consist of lots of tribal dances performed by the various factions of Earth’s history represented as androids on the ship do go on for a ridiculous amount of time, but the dialogue is actually rather good, there’s some fun and inventive moments, and it’s also one of the few stories that comes close to making the whole “three companions” idea actually work.

A couple of words about Adric – he’s a character loathed by many, and yet while Matthew Waterhouse is never a particularly good actor and rarely qualifies as ‘natural’, there are certain stories where he’s actually pretty good (especially in Keeper of Traken and Logopolis) – he is, admittedly, kind of dreadful here, but the use Adric is put to here (temporarily being persuaded over to the side of the bad guys) does work fairly well, and is certainly a much better example of a companion who really isn’t cut out for this kind of thing than RTD’s The Long Game in season 1 of New Who (which was originally thought up as a Davison story, with Adric filling the role of Adam). It also at least slightly justifies the endless arguments – series producer John Nathan-Turner wanted the companions to be more ‘combative’, in an attempt to shake things up a bit, but what we get are just scenes and scenes of characters arguing and sometimes being startlingly rude to each other. It’s no surprise that on the extras, Davison says how his favourite companion of that era was Nyssa, simply because it’s the closest to the proper Doctor/Companion friendship that we get at this stage of the show, and it’s another sign of how JNT may have been a great publicist and good at keeping the show on the air, he didn’t always have the best ideas about what dramatically worked onscreen.

So, it’s not quite brilliant, and there are moments of staggering camp (especially thanks to Bert Kwouk turning up as a Chinese warlord), and yet there’s also conceptual stuff that works, great sets, Stratford Johns hamming it up for all he’s worth as the main bad guy, and a sense of the anything-can-happen vibe that i always love about Who.

More soon…

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