Doctor Who Rewatch: 15

It’s Season 14, and my 15th write-up of my rewatching of Who. I usually try and note my thoughts on these as I am watching them, but the system doesn’t always work, so I’m afraid these are a bit late (I’m already on episode three of Horror of Fang Rock) and a bit more disjointed than usual.

I had forgotten the rather spooky start of The Masque of Mandragora in outer space – it’s been a while since we had any scenes set in the featureless void – and the somewhat unnerving switch to the new control room, though we get used to it. Apart from that, it’s a decent enough story – looks good rather than gorgeous, with Sarah actually getting a hint of romance with Giuliano, which I think is the first time she gets any such thing and the last before Nigel Havers in 2009. The plot has an awful lot of running around and getting captured though.

The Hand of Fear is two decent but not terribly memorable stories joined together – the first two episodes being the Nunton nuclear plant invaded by an alien, and the second two being the Destiny of Kastria once Eldrad arises. I remember first time around being really shocked by the moment the female Eldrad is apparently crushed to death. Most of the story is however fairly unremarkable; what makes it linger in the memory is of course Sarah Jane’s farewell, scripted on the spot by Baker and Sladen – I found I had something in my eye while watching it.

So, Sarah Jane Smith leaves two stories into her fourth season – as did the First Doctor; only the Third Doctor at this point had lasted longer. (And only the Fourth and Tenth Doctors exceeded that record in later years. I’m not really counting the Brigadier for these purposes, since he is not in consecutive stories. And NB that Tegan Jovanka lasted a net story short of three full seasons, even if chronologicaally she was on screen longer than Sarah.) It’s also worth noting that of all companions who experienced a change of Doctor, only she and Rose Tyler (and of course the Brigadier, second time round) had an entire season to establish themselves before their Doctor changed (Adric, not that it matters, had four stories, Ben and Polly had three, Nyssa, Peri and Mel had two, and Tegan had one).

Having rewatched all of her stories now, I am even more firmly of the opinion I formed at the age of eight or nine, that Sarah Jane Smith is the best companion of Old Who. It seems amazing in retrospect that it took until 1971 for the production team to realise that the companion’s role is really to be the audience identification figure in the story, to say to the Doctor what we wish we could say to him if we were there with him, and to be the person we imagine we might be like if we could travel with him too. Previous male companions were generally too mature to quite fill that role, though Jamie came closest; previous female companions tended to be either too brainy or too screamy. Jo Grant establishes a new and intense relationship between companion and Doctor; Sarah is more interesting than Jo Grant because she is an independent person who has chosen to travel with him rather than having been assigned to him by her uncle’s patronage.

And it also works because Sladen’s chemistry with first Pertwee and then Baker is totally convincing. More demands are put on her than on any previous companion – though she gets Harry as a full-time fellow traveller in her second season, and has a few UNIT stories, she is otherwise dealing with the Doctor single-handed. But she rises to it brilliantly, and we should not be at all surprised that New Who has basically copied the dynamic of the Sarah/Doctor relationship.

It’s also not at all surprising that she’s had much the best afterlife of any Who companion – central character in the first ever spinoff, one of many who come back in The Five Doctors, gets a Big Finish audio series and then comes back in School Reunion before not one, not two, not three but four series of her own show in the new century. What is interesting is that K9 and Company, and the 1990s Pertwee audios gave her a gormless young male companion, which I don’t think really worked; both the Big Finish audios and the more recent TV series made her the centre of a larger entourage of younger followers, which somehow resonates much better.

Having said that, I always loved The [companionless] Deadly Assassin, and rewatching it made me realise once again how brilliant it is. It is as if Sarah Jane Smith’s departure liberated Robert Holmes from the constraints of the show’s previous history, to go back to the Doctor’s own origins and rewrite them completely. We’ve been gradually moving towards Gallifrey as not so much a place of magical, ineffable power, as we saw in The War Games, but as the fading bureaucracy glimpsed in Colony in Space and The Three Doctors, subject to the political corruption that could give rise to a Morbius. Now it all comes together. I suspect that my own professional fascination with politics may be partly rooted in watching this at the age of nine; the reality that the most powerful people are none the less fallible individuals, operating to their own private agendas as much as to public perceptions, is well portrayed here.

There are so many delights in this: the nightmarish world of the Matrix, the Engin/Spandrell [Pravda/Chitty] double act, Runcible the Fatuous, the final battle amidst crumbling architecture (so dismally copied by the TV Movie). It seems almost churlish to mention two flaws. First off, the re-introduction of the Master worked much better for me at the age of nine, when I barely remembered his existence in the Pertwee era, than it does in sequence – apart from anything else the Time Lords have forgotten him now, having specifically warned the Doctor about him in Terror of the AutonsWarriors’ Gate, The Power of Kroll, The Pyramids of Mars, Planet of Evil, Revenge of the Cybermen, The Mutants, The Abominable Snowmen, The Moonbase, The Smugglers and The Rescue – but this is the only one with no visible speaking female character at all (the voice of the Matrix is played by Helen Blatch. It’s a sad lacuna in what is otherwise one of the greatest stories.

And, even if Sarah Jane is the greatest of Old Who companions, we then hit Leela’s introduction in The Face of Evil. This is the first time we have had a new companion who does not arrive in the the first story in the season since The Wheel In SpaceThe Highlanders, so it’s a disruption to the normal cycle of these things, just as Leela herself is a disruption – primitive, instinctual, sexy and violent. Just watch the clash of characters between Jameson the professional method actor and Baker the accidental instinctive actor, as the relationship develops. Last month’s Doctor Who Magazine ran an interview with Louise Jameson, where she reflected that she hadn’t quite realised that Leela was a sexy character at the time. We’ll hold over discussion of that point until next month.

The other thing to notice about The Face of Evil, viewed in the sequence of fourteen years of Old Who, is that it seems rather a riposte to The Savages from elevent years before (a story which was incidentally also followed by a story written by the same author about homicidal machines). I haven’t seen any serious questioning of Chris Boucher on this point, but it seems to me that the parallels of Elders/Savages vs Tesh/Sevateem, the playing around with absorption of the Doctor’s personality, and even the use of a hand-held mirror to reflect a death ray at a critical plot moment are a set of references to the older story. They are both jolly good scripts, and both repay the casual viewer (or, sadly, listener in the case of The Savages) even now.

I am ambivalent about references to unseen adventures; Terrance Dicks dealt with this in the novelisation by explaining that the Doctor went for a spin during the events of Robot and ended up dealing with Xoanon, which isn’t perfectly satisfactory but is better than we get from the screen version. My other reflection, more personally, is that as it happens my wife’s maiden name was Tesh, so certain lines from this story have extra entertainment value in our household. At least for me.

The Robots of Death is another jewel of a story – Baker and Jameson on top form, a stellar guest cast, a claustrophobic and believable scenario, understated but convincing special effects. Gregory de Polnay’s heroic D84 stands out as a particularly great character – “Please do not throw hands at me!” – but everyone is good; Davids Baillie and Collings as baddie Dask and good guy Poul, and Russell Hunter as the besieged commander Uvanov, Pamela Salem as loosely-dressed Toos. And Louise Jameson, now playing Leela in a high-tech envornment, is just fantastic. I really found it something of a struggle to keep to my one-episode-a-day discipline while watching this.

It’s also interesting that The Robots of Death has a substantial aftertrail. Chris Boucher’s novel Corpse Marker takes up the story of the Doctor and Leela returning to Kaldor City to see what happened to the Sandminer crew, and there are then a series of excellent audios set in Kaldor City by Alan Stevens, Jim Smith, Fiona Moore, Daniel O’Mahony and Chris Boucher, including not only Uvanov but also Paul Darrow playing a sinister character who is obviously Avon under a pseudonym (Boucher was of course script editor for Blake’s 7). Strongly recommended.

I always loved The Talons of Weng-Chiang, and rewatching it made me realise once again how brilliant it is. (I know, I said this about The Deadly Assassin too, but it’s true in both cases.) There are two big problems with the story: the fairly useless and unterrifying giant rat, and the racism including having the lead Chinese role played by a non-Chinese actor. However, the settings are beautifully done, the plotting is tight enough, Magnus Greel’s distorted face is truly horrible, and everyone takes it seriously and does it well. The script has some particular delights: “I can play the ‘Trumpet Voluntary’ in a bowl of live goldfish”; “sleep is for tortoises”; etc.

It is fantastic that Big Finish have manged to take the Jago and Litefoot partnership and turn it into a thumping success, starting with last year’s Companion Chronicle, The Mahogany Murderers, and then on to this year’s mini-series with another one promised for next year. I’ll be buying it.

One thing that really strikes me over this season is the extent to which Robert Holmes had become the equivalent of the New Who ‘Chief Writer’, be that RTD or Moffatt; and how successsful the show turned out to be. Hinchcliffe was obviously exerting a fair bit of creative influence from behind the scenes too, but unlike some of his predecessors he doesn’t seem to have done much scripting himself (Barry Letts and Derrick Sherwin wrote stories, Peter Bryant was script editor as well as producer). Between them they had got rid of UNIT, said farewell to Sarah Jane Smith, and returned the Doctor to where he had first started, as an alien cosmic vagabond and hero travelling with a mysterious young woman. (After Sarah, the next contemporary earth human to travel in the Tardis is Tegan, four years later.) But really this is the time of Robert Holmes, with the last four stories here being a superb run of quality barely matched in any other era. Sadly, it ends halfway through the next season (and Hinchcliffe left with Talons).

< 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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