TV EYE: Classic Who Overload (Part 2)

In which the writer hereby continues his batch of Classic Doctor Who DVD nostalgia. (He’d be finishing it if it wasn’t so bloody hot). Part one is here. For part two, read on…

ROBOT

It’s rather odd watching Tom Baker’s last story (Logopolis) in close proximity with his very first story – the transformation from the spritely lunatic in Robot to the slightly haggard and world-weary figure in Logopolis probably says quite a lot about Baker’s journey with the show. By the climax of his reign, it’s very obvious this was an actor who’d done just about all he could do with the role, had gotten rather over-proprietorial and really needed to move on. And yet, in Robot all that’s in the future, and it’s essentially the last story of the Pertwee Era (Phillip Hinchcliffe didn’t officially start producing until the following story, The Ark in Space) – featuring the kind of tale which would have fitted quite snugly into Season 11 of Who. With a gang of scientific fascists out to blackmail their way into power, and using an intelligent Giant Robot (which of course turns out to have feelings) to acheive their aims, it’s as shameless a rip-off of King Kong as you could wish (with Sarah Jane in the Fay Wray role), even using a hilarious bit of dodgy science to take the already over-sized robot and turn it into a Godzilla-sized titan. There are a couple of nicely played twists (particularly with Professor Kettlewell, who at first seems an embarrassing mad scientist caricature, and yet the reveal that he’s one of the villains is very effective and actually kind of unsettling) and some fun moments, but what makes the story work is Baker, blowing the doors off and stamping his identity on the role. It helps massively that writer (and outgoing Script Editor) Terrance Dicks had actually met Baker and was writing specifically for him (not all Doctors have been that lucky), but it must have been a serious culture-shock after five years of Jon Pertwee in regal gentleman mode to suddenly get this anarchic, goggle-eyed lunatic turn up as the Doctor. And while Baker’s version of the Doctor would change over time (acquiring some serious gravitas before going to epic levels of daftness during the Graham Williams era), it’s impressive how much of the Fourth Doctor is there onscreen, fully formed and ready for action. It’s no classic, but Robot is tremendous fun, and while the UNIT years would have a couple of callbacks (with the full UNIT team’s final appearence being Terror of the Zygons, and a brief Brigadier-less outing in The Android Invasion), this makes a fun and affectionate swan song.

DESTINY OF THE DALEKS

And then we zoom forward six years in time, to only the second (and final) meeting of Baker’s Doctor and the Daleks… and it’s safe to say that it’s far from the finest hour for either of them. Destiny is one of the first stories I can actually remember watching the entirety of – it isn’t just a sequence of odd, hazy images (like The Invisible Enemy, Image of the Fendahl, or much of the Key to Time saga), it’s there clearly, and obviously this was my first experience of the Daleks so my five-year-old self was completely entrances. Along with that, there was the Movellan’s crazy self-burying spacecraft, lots of action, weird design, and the second coming of Davros – but after a rather impressive and almost completely music-free first episode (Who is almost always really good at first episodes), it all starts falling apart rather quickly. I’m a long-time Douglas Adams fan, but it does have to be said that the man was not the greatest Script Editor in the world – Destiny is Terry Nation’s final script, and while it’s certainly not a classic, there are some half-decent ideas in there, and Adams’ decision to spruce up a fairly dark story with gags (including the infamous one about the Daleks’ inability to climb stairs) really doesn’t work. Adding flip humour just derails the drama, and it isn’t helped by some flat direction – the film sequences are inventive, but almost all the studio sequences are flat and lifeless. On top of that, there are the seriously weak special effects (even by Who standards), the poor treatment of the Daleks, and the fact that Davros’ return is seriously underwhelming. David Gooderson tries his best with the original Michael Wisher-fitting mask (and a very badly executed new mouthpiece), but he simply can’t get anywhere near the class of Wisher’s original performance in Genesis (and it doesn’t help that he’s very bad at hiding the fact that he’s pushing his Dalek-style chair along with his legs). There are still some fun moments, and I have to admit to a bizarre liking for the Boney M-style design for the Movellans (plus the Movellan ship’s set design is excellent), but in the end it doesn’t quite work. I’ve got a lot of fondness for the Williams era of Doctor Who, but while Season 17 does have the fantastic City of Death, it’s very hard not to watch it and feel like the mix really isn’t working, and that it’s all gotten a little too ramshackle and silly. Baker is even bigger and more OTT than he was in Season 16, and while Lala Ward makes the leap to companion as Romana Mk 2 very well, it’s the kind of story that lives much more comfortably in the memory than up on screen.

To be continued. When life feels a little less like being constantly wrapped in warm cotton wool…

2 thoughts on “TV EYE: Classic Who Overload (Part 2)

  1. Couldn’t agree more about Robot. I don’t think I ever saw this one as a kid, or if I did I have no memory of it, but I was very pleasantly surprised by it on DVD.
    On the other hand I do remember Destiny of the Daleks from its original airing (vaguely) but I don’t have great memories of seeing it on VHS many years back, and just can’t face watching it again. Davros is utterly lacking Michael Wisher’s gravitas, and the whole thing feels cheap and lacklustre.

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    • Robot is Seventies Who at its cuddliest, but it’s the bits of the latter Pertwee era that actually worked. And there are few actors who’ve grabbed the role of the Doctor with the level of confidence that Baker manages here – okay, he doesn’t start getting the gravitas and seriousness until Ark in Space episode 1 (with the classic ‘Homo Sapiens’ monologue, which RTD keeps riffing on unsuccessfully (most noticably in Utopia)), but this is an actor who’s having huge fun and isn’t afraid to show it.
      And, to be honest, you ain’t missing much with Destiny. It’s one I wouldn’t have gotten if it hadn’t been so cheap – budgets were thin all over in late Seventies TV, but it really does show quite awkwardly in Season 17, and while the balance of daftness was relatively healthy in Season 16’s Key to Time stories, once you get here, it really does get a bit out of hand. And you’re right about Davros – Gooderson is really weak, and it’s all a bit embarrassing when compared to the stunning (if somewhat over-bleak) Genesis of the Daleks.

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