Doctor Who Rewatch: 13

As with quite a number of the Pertwee stories, I found myself enjoying Planet of the Spiders much more than I had expected. Seen in sequence, it is a decided uptick in quality after the last couple of stories; also one appreciates the homage to the Pertwee years now ending – bringing back Mike Yates for a last UNIT reunion, reference to Jo off-screen (the first time I think that an ex-companion has done anything other than appear in reminiscence), the gadgetty chase sequence of Episode 2, even the human colonists of mixed acting ability. The idea that the Third Doctor’s death is in some way an atonement for his arrogance is almost pleasing, and the death scene with Sarah (and the Brigadier less so) rather moving. After the triumphs of Season 10, it is a rather more subdued end to Season 11 and to the entire Pertwee era, but not actually bad. And Dudley Simpson is on good form with the music.

We also have another variation on the encounter between Doctor Who and religion. Back in The Abominable Snowmen I remarked that there seemed to be four approaches to religion in Who: squabbling sectarians, deluded cultists, religious buildings used for nefarious purposes, and true believers. Like The Dæmons, Planet of the Spiders combines the second and third elements; indeed, like both The Dæmons and The Time Meddler, it turns out that the religious building in question is actually being run by a Time Lord in disguise. And as with The Abominable Snowmen, we are left with the impression that Buddhist meditation actually works in the Whoniverse as a method of travel between the dimensions and across space. Saves on Tardis maintenance I suppose.

So the Third Doctor era ends. I don’t think Pertwee will ever again be my favourite Doctor, as he was until I was seven, but he has grown on me – in particular, he happens to have been the incumbent when Who finally hit its most successful dynamic of Doctor plus viewpoint female companion character combined with a background ensemble. The first of his five seasons stands out in a bad way, a show that is uncertain and a bit rambling, but it finds its feet from Terror of the Autons on, helped in particular by Delgado’s Master.

Pertwee’s Doctor is a return to the acerbic Hartnell performance without the sense of alienness (which is why it doesn’t appeal to me as much). He also snarls at people he likes, especially the Brigadier and Jo, which is a personality trait I recognise as realistic but hate when I see it in real people. More than any other Doctor he is part of a particular setting – UNIT, Jo, Master – and when this starts to dissolve he seems a bit unmoored. But in a sense this is a completely new show in its fifth or sixth year, rather than the original Doctor Who eleven years on.

It’s also farewell here to Mike Yates, the last of the UNIT regulars of the Pertwee era to be introduced and the first to be written out. His best story is probably The DæmonsVerdigris he is cruelly turned to cardboard, a nice touch.

By a fortunate coincidence, I was watching Robot at the same time as reading Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, where the gifted technical folks, feeling that the world does not value them enough, withdraw from it until everyone else has starved to death. The story clearly has roots in Mrs Thatcher and fascism as well as King Kong and Frankenstein; there is a brilliant scene with Timothy Craven playing a character called Short (his only lines in the entire story) who is a real nerds-will-rule-the-world type.

The main delight of course is watching Tom Baker, fresh and new, but walking into the part as if it was what he was meant to do all his life (which perhaps it was); his line about the Titanic, his experiments with costume, his tricks with the scarf, his combination of gritty moral determination with bonkers humour, all make me wish I had seen all of this first time round rather than just the fourth episode.

I’ve often remarked in the course of this rewatch that I’ve revised my view of a story from mediocre to decent (or more rarely vice versa) when watching it in sequence. For the first time, with The Ark in Space, I’m revising my rating from “excellent” to “really superb”. In particular, the first episode, establishing the new Team Tardis (particularly the Harry-Doctor relationship, Sarah already being a known quantity) with no other characters seen, is a great stroke – I think the last time we had a new companion treated in anything like this much introductory detail was Zoe.

The rest of the story is good too, with a great deal made of very little physical material – green bubble-wrap and about three sets in total. And Kenton Moore’s agonised performance of Noah is excellent. (I had missed on previous watchings, but ‘Noah’ is his nickname, his real name being ‘Lazar’, i.e. Lazarus, so in fact a character with two Biblical references.) Slightly let down by the adult Wirrn but they are far from the worst monsters ever (or even this season).

After that, The Sontaran Experiment is a bit ordinary. It’s refreshing to have more location filming after the claustrophobia of the Ark in Space but I find the plot a bit pointless – why are the Sontarans suddenly interested in torturing? and the battle fleet turns around just because the Doctor tells it to?

Kevin Lindsay is great again – third time in just over a year after The Time Warrior and his unmasked Cho-Je in Planet of the Spiders – and it is sad that he died a month after this story was shown.

However, Genesis of the Daleks will never get old for me. First off, it looks good; an astonishing contrast with the previous year’s Death to the Daleks, which just looked like a few sets draped around a studio, here we really feel that we are on a war-ravaged planet with two different factions at odds. The performances range from solid (eg Harriet Philpin as Bettan) to unforgettable (Michael Wisher as Davros, Peter Miles as Nyder).

But it really works because the basic plot idea is brilliant, to go back to the beginning of the Daleks’ story and try to change it, an idea which turns out to be really a character study of Davros falling in love with his own creations, and then finding that they have outgrown him and will destroy him. Since we lost the Master we haven’t had a decent villain in a Doctor Who story (with the mild exceptions of BOSS and Lynx). It is not surprising that Davros has had such a long afterlife (and I really recommend the Big Finish prequels about his childhood and earlier career).

Finally, Revenge of the Cybermen is decent enough but not at the level of Genesis or Ark. The exploration of the internal politics of Voga, a closed and fearful society wrestling with technical change and contact with the outside world, is the most interesting thing Davis ever wrote, and the lead Vogans (including stalwarts Michael Wisher and Kevin stoney) rise to the challenge. The Cybermen are actually the weakest point of the story; apparently the last of their race, suddenly vulnerable to gold (a new Sekrit Weekniss which we had never heard of before) and reprising the plan which worked so badly for them in The Tenth Planet, The Moonbase and The Wheel in Space.

I see that the Vogans have the Great Seal of Gallifrey on display, so they must have had contact with the Time Lords from way back (he said, desperately retconning). Tom Baker is getting a little out of control here, visibly giggling as he tells Elisabeth Sladen that they are heading for the biggest bang in history and posing with the two astronauts as the Three Royal Monkeys in episode three.

Back when I started this crazy scheme a bit over a year ago I deliberately scheduled my writing up of stories so that from now on, for the next few months, I will be recapitulating the Hinchcliffe / Holmes glory years which had six stories in each season. Of course that fails a bit here because the end of Season 12 was not where originally planned, Terror of the Zygons being held over to next year. But in any case, one can see the new team bedding in, with two palpable hits in Ark in Space and Genesis of the Daleks, and even the misses being less embarassing than some.

I’m away from my statistics right now, but having passed the halfway point in screen minutes and individual episodes of Old Who in my previous write-up, I am more of less at the half-way point in individual stories roughly here. If you follow the standard count of 155 stories, the 78th is Genesis of the DaleksShada and K9 and Company, but tally Mission to the Unknown as a detached part of The Daleks’ Master Plan, the 80th of 159 stories is Planet of Evil.

< An Unearthly Child – The Aztecs | The Sensorites – The Romans | The Web Planet – Galaxy 4 | Mission To The Unknown – The Gunfighters | The Savages – The Highlanders | The Underwater Menace – Tomb of the Cybermen | The Abominable Snowmen – The Wheel In Space | The Dominators – The Space Pirates | The War Games – Terror of the Autons | The Mind of Evil – The Curse of Peladon | The Sea Devils – Frontier in Space | Planet of the Daleks – The Monster of Peladon | Planet of the Spiders – Revenge of the Cybermen | Terror of the Zygons – The Seeds of Doom | The Masque of Mandragora – The Talons of Weng-Chiang | Horror of Fang Rock – The Invasion of Time | The Ribos Operation – The Armageddon Factor | Destiny of the Daleks – Shada | The Leisure Hive – The Keeper of Traken | Logopolis – The Visitation | Black Orchid – Mawdryn Undead | Terminus – The Awakening | Frontios – Attack of the Cybermen | Vengeance on Varos – In A Fix With Sontarans | The Mysterious Planet – Paradise Towers | Delta and the Bannermen – The Greatest Show in the Galaxy | Battlefield – The TV Movie >

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