Doctor Who Rewatch: 21

Having had four entire years without a story set in Earth’s past (other than a few scenes in City of Death), we now have two in a row, with Black Orchid taking us forward to the 1920s. There’s not a lot to comment on here; nice characterisation of the regulars, but regrettably the Tardis becomes a taxi again to transport some policemen, appropriately enough given its external appearance, for a distance of only a few miles. The behaviour of the Cranleighs is actually rather reprehensible, and while I hope that the inquest attributed some blame to them, it probably didn’t, since the dead people were only two servants and a disabled person and they had the Chief Constable’s ear.

Earthshock is a different matter. It has brilliant bits and terrible bits. The bits I don’t like: the adolescent spat between Adric and the Doctor, a bolted on bit of inconsistent characterisation to make us feel more interested in Adric before he dies; the androids, which make no sense; the Cybermen’s plan, which makes no sense at all (though that at least is traditional for Cyber-stories); the Cyber-Controller’s emotional glee; the Tardis becoming not only a taxi but a battleground, which runs against all the history of pre-JNT Who. (I’m glad that New Who has kept it as a place of refuge on the whole.)

But there are a couple of brilliant bits as well. The Cybermen’s watching of clips from The Tenth PlanetThe Wheel in Space and Revenge of the Cybermen; is actually rather reassuring that this is still Doctor Who, despite the full turnover of cast in the last year or so and the new style of the JNT era, and equally reassuring that these Cybermen (despite the personal peculiarities of the Cyber-Controller) are the same as the ones we saw before – this is the first returning villain who actually looks the same as last time they appeared since Destiny of the Daleks two years ago (the Master doesn’t count). It may be a new-look show but it is still our show.

The other brilliant bit is the killing off of Adric. Purely in dramatic and strategic terms, it’s a masterstroke; this may still be our show, but we shouldn’t think it is safe any more. One of the weaknesses of the end of the first (but not the second or third) series of Torchwood was that we rather felt that the regular characters who were killed would probably come back, and to be honest I feel that way a bit about the current Who season; but from this day on one could never feel that about Old Who. Yes, of course we’d been there before in The Daleks’ Master Plan; but one can’t really call Sara Kingdom or Katarina (and I’d argue for Bret Vyon to be in the same category) long-established characters, and anyway that story had been broadcast before many first-time watchers of Earthshock (myself included) were even born. One can forgive Earthshock a lot for its dramatic success of killing Adric.

Poor old Adric, anyway. At the time I didn’t deeply dislike him, but there was certainly a feeling that the Tardis was too full – I had never seen the older stories with more than two companions, and the dynamics were unfamiliar to me, and frankly not all that well worked out. It got a bit tedious that in a majority of his stories, Adric appears to defect to the bad guys, particularly since Waterhouse’s acting abilities really weren’t up to it, but with three companions there’s not a lot else for them to do. He does have one or two good moments – his awe of Tom Baker in Logopolis (definitely not reciprocated) and his final words (which only on this time of watching did I realise referred to his inability to return home). But he will be well down most people’s list of memorable companions, apart from the manner of his passing. (I do recommend the Big Finish audio, The Boy That Time Forgot,  where Andrew Sachs plays an older insane Adric who is taking over the Earth with mutant scorpions. Peter Davsion comments, “So imagine my surprise when I saw that they had brought Adric back, only this time he is being played by … an actor!”)

The relative success of Earthshock makes Time-Flight a particularly disappointing story. This has to be one of the worst directed in the whole of Old Who, with many many scenes of actors standing around, their hands limply by their sides, and numerous occasions of crucial lines being delivered off-camera, or with just the wrong intonation. Peter Davison comments in one of the DVD extras on Castrovalva that one of his stories was so under-rehearsed that they were practically performing it live as it was recorded; I wonder if this is the one he was thinking of.

Amazingly, the direction isn’t the worst thing about the story: the worst thing about Time Flight is the plot. There are resonances here with the previous story featuring contemporary commercial air flights being kidnapped by alien forces, which also made no sense (The Faceless Ones, from 1967); but there seems to be actually no narrative point to stealing Concordes at all, not even the excuse of the Master losing his memory in an explosion. The sequence of Nyssa and Tegan being confronted by illusions of Adric, the Melkur and a Teripleptil is an interesting echo of the Cybermen flashback of four episodes earlier, but this time to stories of the JNT era only. (And how does the Master know about the Terileptils anyway?)

And now the Tardis is not only infiltrated by the guest cast but actually piloted by them! Blasphemy!

It’s a real shame about Arc of Infinity, which has some good bits but is less than the sum of them. The music is good, and the guest cast very high-powered, and Davison as the transitioned Omega in the final scenes very moving, but it somehow fails to catch fire. I remember my disappointment first time round that Gallifrey on TV was much less glamorous than the version we had seen in the comic strips of DWM; from here on in, it’s a place where people wearing uncomfortable costumes sit around arguing. (Compare The Deadly Assassin and The Invasion of Time, where there is lots of movement; and of course The War Games where they stand around menacingly; and on the other hand we will soon have The Five Doctors which has more of the same.)

And maybe it’s my faulty powers of observation, but I have never understood either why the Doctor is condemned to death by the Time Lords, or why Omega chooses Amsterdam to rematerialise, or why he chooses to enslave passing Australians. In the face of those plot difficulties, the coincidence that Tegan’s cousin is the aforementioned passer-by is almost a welcome connection of the plot with previous series of Who, which the Omega connection doesn’t really provide.

Snakedance is another matter. It starts with Martin Clunes holding a stiff snake to his groin, in a foretaste of Men Behaving Badly, and continues with a brilliant exploration of a society on the edge between ancient fears and modern threats, with considerable uncertainty as to which is better. Clunes is clearly destined for great things here; in light of recent sad events I also watched Elisabeth Sladen’s husband Brian Miller as Dugdale the showman with great sympathy. But it’s all good – particularly impressed by Fiona Cumming’s work on the crowd scenes, which are often a bit risky in Who but here give a real impression of a vibrant society with a lot more going on than just our own story.

You couldn’t make it like this today, of course – the crystals are too obviously props (even the ones that are meant to be props), the snakes wouldn’t pass today’s CGI-fed viewers, and there’s also not a lot of action for the Doctor himself (and still less for Nyssa). But it’s a bravura performance from Janet Fielding as Tegan; as I rewatch these stories, I find myself more and more impressed by her and she can expect a decent write-up from me when she leaves (which I’m glad to see isn’t for a while yet). And the Kinda / Snakedance sequence are far and away the best Davison stories yet.

I should say also that these three stories are the only Old Who stories with two well-established female companions and no extra bloke. (Dragonfire has two female companions, but one is new and the other on her way out.) The dynamics are much more interesting, and I’m not surprised that both School Reunion and the Ten/Donna/Martha stories worked well in that regard as well.

Watching Mawdryn Undead is a slightly wistful experience so soon after the loss of Nicholas Courtney; but it is a real delight to see him back again, playing two slightly different Brigadiers, and again we have the flashbacks which always gratify the heart of us old school fans. The other returning character is the Black Guardian, who for some reason is unable to manifest physically, even to equip his chosen agent with anything other than a prop crystal, but again it is nice to feel a re-connection with the Tom Baker era.

I was a little startled on rewatching it to realise that the plot only starts towards the end of the second episode, but until then we have had quite a lot of decent groundwork, and the actual explanation for what is going on is one of the better sfnal ideas in the whole of Who. Presumably the Doctor is exaggerating when he says that a millisecond either way would have been critical. And perhaps he has some comprehensible but private reason, never explained, for inviting Turlough along as a companion rather than just behaving like an idiot who opens the Tardis up to all comers. (I know that there are fanfic writers who have an answer to that.) Apart from that, it’s another reasonably satisfying tale.

Though my memories of this era of Who are not especially positive, the only real turkey among these stories is Time Flight, with Black Orchid and Arc of Infinity rather average but the other three actually pretty good.

< 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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