In 2019 I’ve embarked on a fool’s quest to watch, listen to or read all of the eighth Doctor’s many adventures released between the broadcasts of the TV Movie in May 1996 and The Night of the Doctor in November 2013.
- The drama of the cliffhanger is let down by a talky stalemate broken when the Daleks are attacked by the Visians. Invisible monsters. in a jungle will crop up in Planet of the Daleks, which reinforces the idea that it was consciously modelled on this epic.
- The Doctor’s confrontation with the Dalek – ‘ Oh, my tin friend’ – is completely like the ‘poor pathetic creatures’ bit of The Dalek Invasion of Earth, right down to Hartnell’s delivery
- Chen continues to be a gloriously slippery politician, dressing up his failures as tactical masterstrokes. ‘You make your incompetence sound like an achievement,’ says the Black Dalek perceptively. His continual interruption of the increasingly angry Dalek is brilliant
- I love that Chen is uniquely able to fluster the Daleks, reminding them of the need to secure the Taranium before exterminating the Doctor. ‘Of course, of course,’ snaps the Black Dalek in a tizz
- I also love that Sara mocks the futuristic technology of Steven’s time – ‘the Romans still used treadmills’ – but his crude lash-ups tend to be more successful than Sara and the Doctor’s efforts. Steven’s quietly a really useful character
- The TARDIS force-field is name-checked. RTD used a similar idea in The Parting of the Ways
- Steven and the Doctor’s final squabbling is very funny. I bet Spooner was chuckling to himself when he gave Hartnell the line ‘I happen to be the leader of this expedition and I don’t want to keep repeating myself’
- Overall, this does feel like a cheap middle episode – small cast, invisible monsters, existing sets, lots of faffing about on board the stolen Dalek spaceship. Spooner makes up for it with the Chen / Black Dalek bickering and some good comedy and commanding material for Hartnell
Next episode: The Feast of Steven
After last week’s grim horror, this is a marked change in tone. The Doctor and Steven don’t even realise Vyon has been killed until Sara tells them much later in the episode. Instead, they – and Sara – are caught up in a matter transmission experiment that beams them and some mice halfway across the galaxy courtesy of a rather horrible solarising effect that turns Hartnell’s face into a gurning skull. Sadly, though, we’re denied him trampolining through space on the way to the distant destination.
The beginning of this episode is pretty much the grimmest Doctor Who ever got. ‘You animal,’ screams Steven as Kirksen drags Katarina into an airlock and demands that the Spar is diverted to Kembel to seek the help of the Daleks. Faced with this, even Vyon dithers, while the Doctor demands they go back to Kembel. The argument, the chaos, clear in the short surviving clips – Steven rushing desperately back and forth, a furious Doctor slapping the controls, Vyon hunched over, hatchet faced – show that the audience is thrown straight into the drama. But Katarina saves all their skins by sacrificing herself. It’s the most dramatic companion exit so far – although Katarina’s really only been a background character – and it sets the tone for an episode that raises the stakes both for this story, and for what Doctor Who can do. It’s also amusing that the Doctor mourns Katarina – who’s been with him for about a day – almost exactly as much as he later does Adric.
The planet in the title is Desperus, and I think ‘Desperation’ might have been a better title for this episode. Not because it lacks incident – more because right from the off there’s a real sense of mounting hysteria right across the board.
The best thing about this episode is Kevin Stoney’s brilliant performance. Mavic Chen – a virtual anagram of Machiavellian – is brilliantly manipulative, pushing Zephon’s buttons, and winding the Daleks up with his emphasis on ‘eventually’. The way he flits about the sets, a corridor conversation here, a scribbled note there, is fabulous. And Stoney makes the most of the dialogue, relishing stuff like ‘the Embodiment Gris’ with a wry smile. It’s the first time the Daleks have been paired with a human ally – but from now on that’s the norm, probably because it works so well here.
Although Doctor Who has been serialised since the beginning, the last few episodes have really pushed the idea that this is a continuing adventure. Mission to the Unknown established the Dalek threat to invade the Solar System. Then the previous week had Steven stabbed and Katarina stumble on board the TARDIS. The Nightmare Begins follows on from both these events.