This opens on stage, and having established it, never shakes a sense of theatricality, melodrama and grand guignol. I think this strong stylistic sense is a massive strength of the story: one of the reasons why it remains in most top tens of Classic Doctor Who. The script is gleefully over the top, packed with florid dialogue, and David Maloney’s direction brilliantly exploits this. The scenes set on the theatre stage are shot exactly like you’d expect from a teal televised stage show: lots of wide shots to show the audience or whole stage, with some close ups of specific action. As soon as the camera goes backstage though it’s suddenly cramped, up close and handheld, verité rather than deliberate artifice of the stage scenes.
This even manages to largely avoid the persistent failing of the Hinchliffe era: half-baked endings. Partly that’s because after the steady pace of the first three episodes, this is pretty much non-stop action and peril. While Uvanov and Toos hold the bridge, the Doctor, Leela and D84 go to confront Taren Capel, and in a fairly relentless series of lashed-up bombs, laser probes and robot deactivation devices the robot revolution is defeated. It’s not the tidiest climax, and it abandons the conventions of the detective novel (which would have seen the Doctor gather the survivors in the lounge to unmask Taren Capel). However, everyone gets to play a part, Uvanov is revealed not to be the heartless manslaughterer Poul led us to believe, Toos gets to deduce that SV7 has been “turned”, and D84 becomes a hero.
The Agatha Christie allusions continue to be obvious: the scenes of Poul telling Uvanov, ‘We’ve all got something to hide’, and Zilda discovering something incriminating in Uvanov’s quarters just before she’s strangled are pure murder mystery. But again, this is all surface gloss. The real story Boucher wants to tell is quite hard SF: in a civilisation that has become dependent on robots, but failed to escape the uncanny valley (Uvanov’s ‘tin brains’ insult nods to the idea that these people aren’t as comfortable with the robots as they pretend), the revelation that the First Law of Robotics can be bypassed is liable to cause society to collapse.
Is it just me or does the Sandminer look like the Thundercats’ Lair? This is a design masterpiece, an entire world imagined around the same aesthetic, from costumes through the the robot masks and the furnishings. Even the corridors, which could easily have been bog standard white moulded flats, look like a high-end, sterile spa. Everything from the witty script out speaks to a decadent civilisation built around a dependence on robots, where beauty and prosperity and one’s position in the social hierarchy are all that anyone really has to think about.
This is a rare story that gets more interesting as it goes along. The Tribe of the Sevateem stuff was fine, but I felt like it ran out of puff well before the end of the second episode. Whereas this, although it probably includes one corridor scene too many (and Leela getting possessed twice, which is weak as water), is filled with great character moments and wit, and ends up as the most compelling Hinchcliffe finale since Genesis of the Daleks.
There’s something very new series in the idea of the Doctor having in some way to pay for his carefree youth, and I really enjoy the fourth Doctor getting a moment of self-reflection and a pang of cosmic angst as he’s forced to admit that Xoanon and the Mordee have become victims of his own egotism. Baker always plays these well (most famously in Genesis of the Daleks), and it’s a pity there aren’t a few more moments like these scattered through his seven-year run. In general, the Doctor is more interestingly characterised in these episodes than he has been for ages, and Baker rises to the material, looking gutted at the way he has to manipulate Neeva – and then surprised when he realises the high priest isn’t as daft as he looks.
There’s something very Star Trek about a culture built entirely around the remains of a survey expedition from Earth, with sacred artefacts, rituals and names drawn from corrupted memories. ‘Are we their captors or their children?’ Calib asks shrewdly. And the idea of the Doctor’s past coming back to haunt him feels quite in keeping with the theme of the previous story: the moment when he has to talk to himself (or at least, Xoanon speaking with his voice), and his nagging unease about what he might have once done is great. It’s a shame Boucher left the show after Season 15, as I feel his approach would have absolutely synced with Christopher Bidmead’s: credible SF but with a good dose of horror too.
Back after a five-week Christmas break for what could very much be called “Season 14B”, there’s a shift in tone for this serial. It’s not just that Sarah Jane, our last link to the Barry Letts era, has gone, it’s something more fundamental than that. When he arrived, Tom was the weird, unpredictable, alien Doctor grounded by Sarah Jane, who has to remind him of the little niceties when he’s moodily musing about eternity. Now, he’s the one talking directly to the audience (though he stops short of wishing a happy new year to all of us at home), our familiar touchstone and voice of moral authority, while Sarah Jane’s replacement is a savage woman from the future who goes round killing people with crossbows and poisonous thorns.
There’s something that just doesn’t click for me about this. It’s very well made, and the script is immensely witty. Borusa deservedly gets multiple return appearances because he’s such a glorious Sir Humphrey character, glibly rewriting history like the consummate slippery politician. ‘We must adjust the truth to maintain public confidence in the Time Lords and their leadership,’ he smoothly declares, as he turns Establishment fixer to whitewash Chancellor Goth’s treachery and present him as a fallen hero. Big Finish have spun entire series out of this approach.