- Image of the Fendahl
This is another one that, on paper, should be at least in my top 20. It’s got everything that appeals to me: spooky skulls; slithering monsters; an M.R. Jamesian buried evil; a whiff of the BBC ghost story strand; Wanda Ventham painted gold. It’s better made than almost anything else in Season 15. But, don’t you think it looks tired? There’s nothing wrong with it as such, it’s just so much like what we’ve seen several times before, not done quite so well. I struggle to find any enthusiasm for it.
- The Tomb of the Cybermen
I really like the first episode, and the Cybermats are a nice addition to the CyberFamily. There’s some great design work, both the costumes (including the cool-looking CyberController) and the sets (the tombs themselves, but also the control room and the huge power-up sarcophagus). It’s got a good cast, including Hammer’s favourite ‘shifty foreigner’ George Pastell. There isn’t much of a story though: lots of going up and down ladders between the control room and the tombs. It isn’t even really a base under siege, unless you count the Cybermen being holed up in their tombs by the goodies. Nice but dim.
- The War Machines
Much more interesting than The Tomb of the Cybermen, with the added fun of seeing Hartnell in very different surroundings, hob-nobbing with the elite and battling a supercomputer on the streets of London. It certainly suggests a slightly different take on An Unearthly Child: was Dr Who helping the British develop computers for some reason? Is that why he was so desperate to escape the 1960s when it looked like his cover was blown? After the previous story distils all of the clichés of pretty much every ‘alien planet’ story into the template for bog-standard Doctor Who, The War Machines is a (grits teeth) soft relaunch for the series, dumping Dodo and inserting a hip, new Ian and Barbara pairing. Like Season 18, there’s a feel of the production team reshaping the programme around the leading man until he’s the last relic of the old approach and can be safely dropped.
- Planet of the Daleks
I don’t care what anyone says, this is fantastic. Every 1960s’ Terry Nation story crammed into six episodes: the jungles of Kembel, the icy caves of Marinus, the invisible monsters of Master Plan, the Thals back from the very first Dalek story. And all IN COLOR!. It’s the TV equivalent of the Peter Cushing films (which I guess must have started showing up on TV themselves about this time). As a 10th anniversary celebration featuring the Daleks, it’s just enormous fun. The novelisation is great as well.
I think this one was a pretty remarkable vote of confidence in Tom Baker. This time, no-one questions whether this is actually the Doctor, or whether he’s up to the job. The post-regeneration business is got over in a couple of nice, concise scenes in the first episode, then it’s down to the business of showing how the fourth Doctor differs from the third. Dicks also gives Lis Sladen some decent scenes, although Ian Marter is a bit less well served (aside from a lovely New Avengers bit when he breaks into Think Tank). But this is, immediately, Tom Baker’s show, and he rises to the occasion, brilliantly. Robot is the opposite of his exit season, which was all about changing the series around an established Doctor. This time, the Doctor’s changed, and the whole regular ensemble and UNIT format suddenly looks out of place.
- The Enemy of the World
A nice one to have turned up, because so much of it hangs off Troughton’s excellent dual performance. Well directed, with some memorable touches (like the assault on Benik’s office). It turns into a kind of bonkers Play for Today in episode four, with the reveal of Salamander’s secret underground version of Surbiton, where suburban couples like Colin and Mary wait to repopulate a post-apocalyptic Earth. Sadly, Whitaker doesn’t find anything for Jamie and Victoria to do.
For all I’m sniffily disapproving of Eric Saward in a way only a fan who was a teenager during the New Adventures years can be, he wasn’t all bad. He is very good at building tension: from the off, all the characters are (or appear to be) in jeopardy, from the troopers being picked off by the slinky and menacing androids to the TARDIS crew at risk from a spooked, itchy-fingered soldier. Though his opening argument with the Doctor is slightly wearisome, Adric’s decision to depart adds another layer of urgency to a story that starts tense and doesn’t really ease off through the four episodes. Sadly, some of the acting isn’t on the same page as the script and direction: Clare Clifford plays Professor Kyle more like a galactic housewife than the holder of a university chair. And Beryl Reid… That said, there’s a possible hint that Saward is more self aware than I give him credit for when he has Briggs critique Ringway’s dialogue – ‘Apprehended? Why can’t he say caught?’
- Doctor Who
A bit of a disaster at the time, because so much seemed to ride on getting the big return to TV right. With the benefit of hindsight and RTD’s revival, I think this one holds up very solidly. Paul McGann is strong, likeable and eccentric enough that no-one ever really expected the 2005 series to claim that he didn’t count. I love his screwball comedy double act with Daphne Ashbrook: possibly my biggest regret about the TV Movie is that for some complicated reason this was never developed in the books or Big Finish audios (although the eighth Doctor and Lucie is basically the same relationship reformatted for a post-Rose Tyler show). The script is very funny in parts, and generally gets more right than it does wrong, especially in the motorbike and ambulance chase, and the scenes at the institute. Doctor Who’s biggest failing is it didn’t lead to a series.
- Vengeance on Varos
The much-cited “video nasty” theme is clearly subordinate to the wider critique of Sil’s aggressive capitalism. Sil is a truly memorable, fantastically loathsome creation – a triumph of acting, design and writing. His admiration for the Governor’s scheme to sell videotapes of the executions – “That is enterprising”, and his treatment of them as “product” make this an obvious mid-1980s anti-Thatcher polemic. Whether you agree with Martin’s politics or not, to treat this as being about video nasties in any meaningful way is to misread the script. Martin also criticises the Araks and Ettas of Great Britain, content to sit at home and complain about the government (In Arak’s case) or even to tolerate it (Etta), rather than rising up and taking a stand. The problems begin with the Governor, who has bought into Varos’s dysfunctional society and, for all he occasionally winces at the extremes of violence, explicitly sanctions murder and torture. To ask us to sympathise with him, as Martin does, based on the fact he’s obviously as much a prisoner of the system as anyone else, gives out a somewhat mixed message. And neither does it help that the heroes – Jondar and Areta – are both bland and unconvincing performances, while the Doctor and Peri bicker and argue when they should be bringing a different dynamic to the planet. Even so, this deserves some slack for apparently being ‘about’ something other than continuity. With just a bit more effort, this could have worked as a Sylvester McCoy story.
- The Claws of Axos
It’s the third time they’d done the alien invasion story in the Pertwee years. This is the weakest example, but I think it makes up for it by being weirder than Doctor Who has been since the first half of the 1960s. Largely that’s down to the Axon design work, which is absolutely fantastic. But I think it’s also because Bob Baker and Dave Martin don’t really have a sense of what the show can and can’t do. Through the Troughton years I think there was often an underlying sense of restraint to the stories: very long, limited locations, re-using monster costumes wherever possible. Even Season Seven suffers from it a bit. Then you get to Season Eight, which is a real breath of fresh air: fizzing with ambition, and it looks like it was meant to be seen in colour (as opposed to just being made in it). This one is probably the most Season Eight-ish story of all. I also really like the return of the TARDIS as a tease for the forthcoming Colony in Space, and the great scenes between Delgado and Pertwee.
Next time: 80-71