TV EYE: Classic Who Overload (Part 4)

And it just keeps on going. Thanks to my visits to Fopp, my Doctor Who DVD collection has already undergone an unexpected growth burst – and then, I unexpectedly got an entire heap of Who DVDs for my birthday. So this collection of reminscences ain’t going anywhere anytime soon. We continue onwards, with…


THE BRAIN OF MORBIUS

Possibly the most gothic of all producer Phillip Hinchcliffe’s stories to embrace the genre (and pilfer from horror classics while they’re at it), The Brain of Morbius is one of the many stone-cold classics Hinchcliffe notched up in his three years on the show, and it’s impressive that it manages this considering how theatrical the presentation is. From the nicely designed but very obvious set of the planet’s surface to the lengthy dialogue sequences, Morbius is all about atmosphere, style, and Robert Holmes’ fantastic dialogue (written under the well-documented psuedonym of Robin Bland, from a script that was originally by Terrance Dicks). Holmes knew how to make Classic Who work, and while the story might not feature his trademark double-acts, he was an absolute master at creating universes just with dialogue – there are plenty of lines from New Who where I can hear RTD directly aping Holmes’ style of throwing the most lush, absurd detail in as throwaway lines, and it adds a tremendous amount of colour to a story that really only takes place across about five not-particularly-gigantic sets. The story may be a gloriously nutty Frankenstein rip-off, as a mad scientist attempts to assemble a body to house the brain of a legendary Time Lord criminal and all he needs to finish is the Doctor’s head, but It’s also a good example of Tom Baker once again firing on all cylinders – and for all the times when Baker could be undisciplined in the role, it’s still an absolute delight to watch him pull of scenes like the sequence between the Doctor and High Priestess Maren in episode 2, where he flips between comedy and seriousness at the drop of a hat. The support cast is also largely excellent, especially with Phillip Madoc in full determined lunacy mode as Solon, and while there are occasional moments where the effects really don’t work, the story and the performances keep it on track. Hell, it even manages to have the completely daft ‘mental duel’ sequence which shows us dozens of previous incarnations of the Doctor (causing all continuity-obsessed fans to emit mumbles of “Yes, well, we’ll just forget about that…”) and still be brilliant.

It also got me thinking about the relationship between the Fourth Doctor and Sarah Jane, and why it’s been so popular over the years; and it’s struck me that it’s really the first point when the Doctor/Companion relationship hasn’t been parental. Yes, there have been exceptions to this rule – most especially Liz Shaw in Jon Pertwee’s first year as the Third Doctor – but they never really worked, and the series always seemed to default to a point where the Doctor/Companion relationship was very much a father/daughter structure (particularly with the Third Doctor and Jo Grant). That’s even true of Sarah Jane’s first season – touted as a more ‘liberated’ companion, Sarah Jane does essentially come across as a fun but stroppy teenager in her first year, more capable and confidant than Jo perhaps, but more often she ends up simply getting herself into trouble so that Pertwee’s Doctor can come and rescue her. There’s a very noticable shift in this when we get to the Hinchcliffe era, and I think it’s got a lot to do with Hinchcliffe wanting to expand the show’s reach to a slightly older audience. It’s not revolutionary – Sarah is still very much there to ask questions and get into trouble – but there is much more of a sense of the Doctor and companion being on a slightly more equal footing, and that these people are voyaging around the galaxy because they enjoy each other’s company. A lot of that’s to do with the obvious rapport between Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen, and I think that’s why the Fourth Doctor and Sarah Jane have ended up almost as the ideal Doctor/Companion team from the classic show – not only do they have a really impressive run of stories with almost no outright clunkers, but they’re the sort of people you’d genuinely look forward to travelling the universe with. Later we got super-smart characters like Romana and K-9, while the Eighties experimented with more combative companions to ever-diminishing effect before settling back into the parental mode (even Ace, however much extra effort was put into his characterisation, is just a troubled teenager with the Doctor as a surrogate dad) – really, the Baker/Sladen partnership is the gold standard for Who, and it’s stories like The Brain of Morbius that make that crystal clear.

THE TIME MEDDLER

And then it’s back to the Sixties, and the first example of a genre that’s now written into the show’s DNA. The Psuedo-Historical was an obvious way of melding the show’s original educational style with its more popular sci-fi storytelling, but there’s remarkably few in the show’s first two decades, and The Time Meddler was the first official example, with William Hartnel’s Doctor landing in 1066 on the coast of England, where a suspcious monk is planning a surprise for the approaching Viking invaders as part of a plan to send history in a much more interesting direction. As well as being the first psuedo-historical, The Time Meddler is also the first story where we encounter another Time Lord – although this is several years before the Doctor’s race gets named, it’s the first sign that there are other time travellers with TARDISes of their own out there, and the climax of episode 3, where the Monk’s TARDIS is revealled, must have caused fans of the time a glorious moment of head-expanding wonder. As with all Sixties Doctor Who, you’ve really got to watch The Time Meddler in the knowledge that this is slow, gentle television for another era – but take that into account, and it’s surprising how much fun the story still is. Peter Butterworth shamelessly steals every scene he’s in, making it a pity the character only made one brief return in The Dalek’s Masterplan a year later, while Hartnell is equally fun, playing the lighter, more twinkly side of the First Doctor for all he’s worth. There’s lots of wandering around in forests, but writer Dennis Spooner makes certain that it’s entertaining wandering around, and on top of everything there’s the presence of Douglas Camfield as director, who was responsible for some of the most distinctive and well-executed Classic Who stories (the segments he directed of Inferno are incredible, especially one early sequence which – I swear – basically does Romero’s Dawn of the Dead eight years early). It’s proof that charm and imagination will get you a long way, and that Who didn’t need an awful lot in the Sixties to still pull off some genuinely fun television.

THE WAR MACHINES

Another first from the Sixties – this 1966 William Hartnell adventure is actually the first time the programme had visited the present day since the beginning of the series (aside from a brief ‘sideways’ visit when the TARDIS accidentally miniaturises the crew in Planet of Giants), and it’s particularly strange to watch now in that this is essentially the first proto-version of the New Who format. We get the present day, we get more relatable companions, and we get a threat to the modern world based around an instantly recognisable landmark, in this case the then just-completed Post Office Tower, which is the hub for a supercomputer called WOTAN which (surprise surprise) gets delusions of grandeur and starts indulging in mind control to construct robotic War Machines and take over the world. There’s even a strong military presence that virtually acts as an initial version of UNIT, and it’s surprising that aside from a couple of creakily hilarious moments (especially when a hot young thing at a nightclub tells Hartnell’s Doctor that she digs his ‘fab gear’), it uses the setting pretty well. It also acts as a good introduction for Ben and Polly, who are better companions than I expected – this is their only story that survives in its entirety, and Anneke Wills manages to be a perfect example of Swinging Sixties-dom, and while Michael Craze overdoes the shouting a bit, he’s ideal as the cheerful cockney who bears the brunt of the action sequences thanks to Hartnell’s reduced presence. With the lead actor’s health gradually going downhill, Hartnell was already playing a smaller role in the stories, a habit which continued through the next eight episodes before he bowed out at the end of The Tenth Planet, and The War Machines also sees the very perfunctory departure of Dodo Chaplet, who gets used fairly effectively as a brainwashed turncoat for the first two episodes, but then gets cured, bundled off to the country, and doesn’t even get to come back for a farewell scene (the only companion who’s ever departed off-camera, as far as I remember). There’s plenty in The War Machines to enjoy, and the opening two episodes are surprisingly pacey and exciting – unfortunately, once the lumbering War Machines start moving, things get a lot less exciting, and there’s a lengthy battle sequence in episode 3 that’s so perplexingly edited that it’s more like an obscure piece of Sixties Video Art than an SF adventure. It just about holds together in the last episode, and it does have its fair share of thrilling moments; it’s just a pity that it’s also infamous for being the only time that the Doctor has ever been referred to onscreen as ‘Doctor Who’ – and not just once, at the cliffhanger of episode one, but dozens of times in episode 2. Yet another fact that the continuity-hounds are best off ignoring…

More soon!

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