Long considered one of the finest seasons of Doctor Who, season fourteen is a slick looking and confident year of the programme that saw Hinchcliffe and Holmes go out on a real high. Sarah departs and Leela joins and between them face a deadly supernatural evil, a galactic war criminal, a decrepit Master trying to take down Gallifrey, a schizophrenic computer, homicidal robots and another war criminal roaming about in Victorian London!
The regulars -
The Masque of Mandragora written by Louis Marks and directed by Rodney Bennett
This story in a nutshell: The Doctor inadvertently brings a devastating power to Italy in the time of the renaissance…
Teeth and Curls: This is actually one of the more responsible takes on the fourth Doctor’s character, portraying him as both an intelligent scientist and a dazzling action hero. No wonder the fourth Doctor becomes such a nutter, he gets so many knocks to the head it probably bashed all the sense out of him (here he gets bashed really hard with a massive stone!). He proves pretty good with his hands though (like in The Seeds of Doom) when he flips one Monk over and exercises his skill at swordplay. Who can fail to laugh when the Doctor sticks an orange on the end of a sword that is being pointed at his throat, produces a rattle toy to scare the guards and then nicks a horse and goes riding off? He’s just brilliant! Later he trips over his executioner with his scarf, nabs another horse and rides off through the countryside before evading the rest of the guards in the marketplace! He takes on three men at once during the sword fight and his huge grin shows that he is enjoying himself immensely. I love how the Doctor says ‘the Count is dead’ with such relish, he feels truly alien at that moment.
Best Friend: Only K.9 can say that he is in the opening story of four consecutive seasons and by this stage Sarah and the Doctor are so madly in love with travelling with each they are finishing each others sentences and jokingly wildly with each other. It is an effortlessly easy relationship to watch and enjoy. Can you imagine a more glorious image than Sarah wandering from the TARDIS into a forest glade and picking oranges? It still makes me smile that my two favourite companions (Sarah and Donna, with emphasis on the former) both have to suffer the indignity of being sacrificed by a sacred blade (the two scenes look very similar despite being filmed decades apart). Her very casual ‘I was almost sacrificed to the great God Demnos’ is very cute. You can see how far Sarah has developed since season eleven where she was a fairly uptight career girl (and definitely dressed the part) but travel has broadened her mind and she is dressed in very casual clothes now and relishing the atmosphere and excitement of her travels. Not many companions stick around long enough for this amount of development and I’m glad Sarah was one of the ones who was and as we know this is still only the begin of her character arc. Elisabeth Sladen is so good at playing the baddie its almost a shame that she was always the Doctor’s ally. Here Sarah is Hieronymous’ tool and she stares at the murder weapon with unrestrained glee and then pursues the Doctor silently through the cloisters to strike him down in some memorable scenes. ‘I speaka the pretty good English’ she says mock-Italian! The last episode has some wonderful scenes between the Doctor and Sarah where he chatises her for mocking astrology and she has a go at him for treating her like an idiot and they have great fun with ‘he’s only thinking’ scene. For Sarah waiting and not knowing what is happening to the Doctor is worse than being with him! Sarah awkwardly accepts a dance from a suitor at the masque and thoroughly enjoys herself.
Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Maybe the stars don’t move at all. Maybe its we who move.’
‘(It depends) On whether the moon is made of cheese, on whether the cock crows three times before dawn or whether twelve hens lay addled eggs! I can easily teach him all it requires is a colourful imagination and a glib tongue.’
‘You can’t count, Count!’
‘Lets say Hieronymous gave him a blank look.’
‘Save me a costume…I love a knees up!’
‘Keep open mind, that’s the secret!’
The Good Stuff: Funny that entering the TARDIS corridors should be considered and event these days whereas this story opens up in them in a time when it positively passé. The secondary control room could have been a dreadful idea but thanks to some lovely design (the wooden panels are so stylish) and more subdued lighting it kicks the ass of the old control room and then some. Nice to see the third Doctor was rattling around inside it – the Doctor picks up a dusty, frilly shirt to clean the console with! Whilst the effects aren’t great, I love the delirious effect of the Doctor and Sarah’s echoing voices inside the Helix. This story is so expensive it stages an attack on local peasants a little local colour (in any other story you would cheaply hear the report of such actions relayed through some lackey). The story in San Martino is staged as an adult drama with politics just as important as the supernatural elements and the sensuality of the production (expensive looking costumes and sets) is immediate. The sequence of the Mandragora energy leaving the TARDIS, bashing into rocks, stirring bushes and gliding across water should have been horrendous but somehow they pull it off with real style. Its only in stories like Masque where the characters are all so distinctive and well portrayed that you realise how bland some guest casts in Doctor Who can be. Here you have the scientific and curious Giuliano, his partner and loyal servant Marco, his wicked Uncle and power hungry Frederico and the devious and manipulative Astronomer Hieronymous. Whilst having a ring of the Intalian Rennaisance itself, they dress up Portmerion beautifully to convince of the period and the gloriously sunny weather adds to the illusion that this is an extremely exotic locale. I find all the masks used by the cult pretty frightening whether they are screaming mouths or smiling faces. Even the catacombs and temple sets look surprisingly expensive and moodily lit. Whilst the Doctor, Giuliano and Frederico all mock the power of the astrology the simple fact of the matter is that the villain in this story is a power from the stars. I love the pause in the action for the Doctor and Sarah to take lunch with Giuliano and discuss the nature of the threat, it reminds me very storngly of the Hartnell historicals. Hieronymous’ blank face beneath his mask is a disturbing image and a great cliffhanger. There is some excellent choreography in the last episode, not only during the exqusite ball sequences but also amongst the cult members as Mandragora’s plans come to fruition. The masque scenes at the end of the story are some of my favourites from the Hinchcliffe era and rival anything you would have seen in a big budget period piece at the time – the costumes are gorgeous (Sarah looks radiant in her gown) and with candles flickering as the dancers assemble it is a memorably visual treat.
The Bad Stuff: Fortunately all the useless material is confined to the beginning of the first episode with some dodgy effects of the TARDIS being sucked into the Helix, Sarah saying the alphabet backwards like a numpty and some very poor CSO in the Helix itself. The rock wall that Sarah is chained to wobbles precariously. Cockney guards? The Doctor says that he doesn’t know how the Mandragora Helix got into the TARDIS forgetting that he left the door wide open when they were inside it. The painted on facades of the roman temple is a lovely idea in theory but I’m not sure how well it comes off in practice. The Doctor figures that Sarah has been hypnotises because she asks the sort of question that Sarah would always ask which makes no sense. After all the build up the defeat of Mandragora is really underwhelming.
The Sarah Jane Adventures story features the return invasion of the Mandragora Helix in all but name and the decision to keep the intelligence anonymous in that story baffles me.
The Shallow Bit: Whoever said Russell T Davies introduced the concept of homosexuality to Doctor Who obviously hasn’t since this little tale since Giuliano and Marco are clearly raging gayers and blissfully in love. It is hinted at beautifully (‘my companion Marco’, their violent concern for each other, Marco’s betrayal of Giuliano being the worse thing his Uncle could have done to him) and the performances suggest a warm and gentle relationship.
Stuntman: Poor Stuart Fell has died in so many varied and spectacular ways in Doctor I like to think of a long line of characters from one family who at some point in ancient history were cursed to all come to a horrible end and throughout all time and space wherever this family has spread the same looking guy snuffs it horrible in all manner of creative ways!
Result: Even more than celebrated stories such as Talons and Robots, Masque of Mandragora shows the exquisite visual splendour that Philip Hinchcliffe brought to the show. The sets look very expensive and lush, the location convinces that they did pop over the Italy for a shoot and the costumes and props never once let the side down. Appropriately Dudley Simpson provides one of his most stylish and impressive scores to accompany the sumptuous production. Until Big Finish came along this is the closest the series ever came to mimicking the Hartnell historicals with a strong emphasis on period detail and an extremely lavish production. Even the threat is far more intellectual than usual, the danger of bypassing the renaissance and falling back into superstition if the Mandragora Helix succeeds. Add to all of these strengths a gorgeous affirmation of the dazzling Doctor/Sarah partnership and strong performances across the board and you have an extremely striking historical adventure that can hold its head high amongst the best trips back in time for the show. Some people find this show boring but I am not one of them, it impressed me when I first saw it years ago and it still impresses me today: 9/10
The Hand of Fear written by Bob Baker & Dave Martin and directed by Lennie Mayne
What’s it about: A disembodied hand sucks up all the power of a nuclear reactor and then throws a massive paddy! Oh…and Sarah leaves (sniff…sniff…).
Teeth and Curls: It doesn’t seem to matter what season I happen to be reviewing for Tom Baker the reviews all seem to start: ‘this season saw Tom Baker at the height of his powers! For the record I think he shines most brightly in season 13, 14, 16 and 17 but there isn’t really a weak performance in his run. He might have bee a right pain to arse to work with (something the actor would happily acknowledge these days) but he sure produced some timeless results. The Hand of Fear is not one of his best remembered stories but he marches through the narrative without breaking a sweat. His quiet despair when he thinks Sarah has been buried alive is palpable and I really enjoyed all the funny business at the hospital (is this the first time Gallifrey has been mistaken for somewhere in Ireland?). The Doctor spends most of the first two episodes without his trusty companion and as such this could be considered a dry run for The Deadly Assassin. I love how he marches into the power station control room with no excuses or apologies and pretty much takes over. He tells Eldrad the TARDIS armaments are inside his head and he tells Sarah he is not helping Eldrad, he is helping the Earth by getting rid of her. Typical Doctor – when he takes her home he doesn’t even get her back to the right place! People have commented that the Doctor doesn’t seem to show any emotion at having force Sarah out of the TARDIS but sometimes there is far more said in restrained emotion than in going gooey eyed (Matt Smith is similarly quiet during the mushy moments and again it creates a far more poignant atmosphere than laying on the tears).
Sumptuous Sarah: You have got to give Sarah some credit to come out of the TARDIS dressed up like Andy Pandy. Two explanations spring to mind; either she has completely lost her mind or she is so used to visiting extravagant alien locations where this sort of attire wouldn’t even raise an eyebrow she feels extremely comfortable with her own daftness! Isn’t it wonderful that she thinks the regular quarry is an alien planet! You have to hide your head when she starts waving at the guy who is clearly trying to warn them of danger – well it couldn’t be Sarah’s last story unless she did something a bit silly! I bet Lis Sladen had an awesome time playing the villain, she aces her role as the drunken, almost childish Eldrad-possessed-Sarah (she is especially good a tapping into that eerie childishness when she approaches that guard biting her nails like a nervous little girl before knocking him unconscious). Sarah is sick of being putting under hypnosis by the Doctor (‘Oh no! That’s not fair!’) but she does get her revenge on him by pretending to be under Eldrad’s spell once again when he brings her around. Her sneaky nose wipe when she breaks free of the Doctor’s influence is lovely. Sarah always gets the maddest lines and Sladen somehow manages to bring them to life credibly, I loved her suggestion that they communicate with Eldrad via hand signals! She’s such fun – look at her acting like a twat and holding her nose during the missile strike. Sarah knows she should do as she’s told and stay out of trouble but she’s not going to because she worries about the Doctor. Sarah has a right strop when the Doctor agrees to help Eldrad and sulks off to chomp on a banana. Her reaction to walking on the dead Kastrians is fabulous. ‘I must be mad! I’m sick of being cold and wet and hypnotised left right and centre! I’m sick of being shot at, savaged by bug eyed monsters and never knowing if I’m coming, going or being! I want a bath! I want my hair washed! I just want to feel human again! I’m going to pack my goodies and I’m going home!’ – Sarah is so utterly, wonderfully normal it is heartbreaking to see her go.
Sparkling Dialogue: ‘I salute you from the dead. Hail Eldrad…King of nothing!’
The Good Stuff: There’s a real seriousness to the opening scenes on Kastria with some wonderfully alien voices, a convincing snowy planet and the dramatic execution of a traitor. The quarry scenes are beautifully shot, the immense explosion, which buries the camera makes me, flinch every time the rubble consume the television and Sarah’s burial is traumatically claustrophobic. A stone hand buried in a quarry is a great hook into the story. I bet the kids were freaked out by the shots of Sarah staring blank eyed straight at the audience. What an impressive location the nuclear power plant is, affording vertiginous high shots through pipes to show off its enormous scale. The Hinchcliffe era turned the cliffhangers into genuine moments of peril but the twitching, disembodied hand coming to life is a really effective, unusual example. Glyn Houston’s Watson gets off on exactly the right foot with me, screaming ‘WILL YOU SHUT UP!’ at all the racket going on around him. Some real effort has gone into making the power station control room feel like a working environment with real people working. These scenes could so easily be forgettable (look at the Devesham control centre scenes in The Android Invasion that lack any believability) but instead they are some of the best scenes of the story. The CSO is effortlessly good, that genuinely looks like a moving disembodied hand! Surely Professor Carter falling to his death is one of the best ever stunts seen in the programme? What a height! I really liked Watson’s casual ‘did you?’ to his daughter as he phones home for what could be the last time – Houston takes what should be a clichéd scene and makes it something special. The unmoving hand suddenly grabbing Driscoll is a great shock moment. The sounds effects of Eldrad regenerating are really something, that and the melting door really wets the appetite for Eldrad’s reveal. Judith Paris gives a cold, gripping performance and her costume is incredible, the crystals actually growing from her face. The backstory is really quite interesting – Eldrad’s gift to Kastria was the protect them from the solar winds, building the spatial barriers and devising a crystalline silicon form for their physical needs – the story is built on very sturdy foundations. I love the shot of the TARDIS being battered by the solar winds on Kastria’s surface because it was exactly the sort of image that would have opened my mind to huge storytelling possibilities when I was younger. Eldrad is hoisted by his own petard, the arrow full of poison is another great moment and I love the idea of an acid that shatters the crystal matrix. Turns out Eldrad turned on his own people and let the solar winds in to batter the planet. After the premature detonation of the obliteration capsule the Kastrians committed suicide and destroyed the race banks so if there was even the remotest chance of Eldrad returning he would have nothing to control but a barren world. Sarah’s goodbye is enough to make a grown man cry, she plays about pretending that she’s leaving but as soon as she realises that she really has to go she is devastated. She tries to cover her emotion with bluster but she is holding back some very powerful emotions that she wouldn’t get to release until School Reunion way in the future!
The Bad Stuff: The Professor discovers the most comically huge wrench to attack the Doctor that I have ever seen! Taking cover from a nuclear explosion behind a jeep? I’m not a fan of the paint on the eyes effect (see also Planet of Evil and Image of the Fendhal for other duff attempts) although I really liked the fuzzy colourful aura Eldrad attacks Watson with! Suddenly in episode four the whole story turns remarkably cheap! You’ve got polystyrene rocks, unconvincing caverns, plastic looking gold walls and really rubbish bridge over an abyss that belongs in the ice caves of The Keys of Marinus! Eldrad the geezer lacks the subtlety of his female persona and the costume is far less convincing. Such a shame that the Kastrian plot should end on such a moment of panto given what has come before – tripping up Eldrad with the scarf on a cheap set!
The Shallow Bit: It doesn’t matter what they put Elisabeth Sladen in – she’s simply a divine looking woman!
Result: For once the script editor has managed to shape Baker and Martin’s insane quota of imaginative ideas into a simple engaging narrative, The Hand of Fear has three fantastic episodes and a truly disappointing concluding episode. It is the ultimate expression of the Hinchcliffe/Holmes obsession with possession and it is wonderful casting Sarah in the role of the villain in her last story. Its Lennie Mayne’s best direction as well, he paces the story superbly and the exterior filing is extraordinarily good with some imaginative camera work and full exposure of the stories incredible locations. Its such a shame that the money runs out in the last episode because the story still has some great surprises in its climax and the Doctor/Sarah split is as emotional as everybody says it is but the story does look like a tacky kids show in part four. If I was reviewing the first three quarters it would get a 9 for its realism and conviction but as a whole it deserves: 7/10
The Deadly Assassin written by Robert Holmes and directed by David Maloney
This story in a nutshell: ‘I warn you now, if there’s some private feud between the two of you do not try and settle it on Gallifrey…’
Teeth and Curls: Maybe, just maybe Tom Baker had a point when he cited that he did not need a companion. He works beautifully well on his own here, more confident and rebellious than ever. Finally we get to see the Doctor return home and the series answers some pretty important questions about the Time Lords. I really loved how the Time Lords call the Doctor’s trial a Malfeasants Tribunal! He uses the old dummy smoking a pipe routine that might seems like an obvious ploy to you and I but we have the imagination to see through such an obvious ploy whereas he runs rings around the Chancellery Guard! His nerve knows no bounds – he infiltrates the Panopticon in Gold Usher! He looks resplendent in his huge orange collar, it should be a ridiculous fashion accessory but somehow he manages to pull it off. Wasn’t he expelled for leading a rackety life? Has he had a face-lift? The Doctor is considered an embarrassment by the Time Lords. He cuts such a romantic figure in his huge collared, winged shirt. His cheek is unrivalled as he offers himself as a candidate as President during his trail! The Doctor realises the Master is involved once he discovers his greetings card. I love how he so casually mocks the Gallifreyan technology (‘there are worlds out there where this sort of technology is considered prehistoric junk!’) and his people’s lethargic attitude to everything except politics. Watching the Doctor bleed in the Matrix is a novelty, to see him so weakened is a rare event. The Doctor is never more dangerous than when the odds are against him. He is ingenious, using Goth’s own poison against him cobbling together bamboo and thorns to create a weapon. His cold reaction to Goth’s death goes unnoticed by fans (‘No answer to a straight question, typical politician’) whereas the sixth Doctor is criticised regularly for that sort of James Bondian quip. The Master wanted the Doctor to die in ignominy and disgrace. Borusa admits that the Time Lords owe him a debt of gratitude and he literally tells him to leave. The Doctor hopes that the master didn’t survive and there’s no one else in the universe he would say that about.
Sparkling Dialogue: ‘We must adjust the truth!’
‘A violent reaction is having an equally violent reaction.’
‘Chancellor, all President’s are faced with difficult decisions. It is by their that they are judged.’
‘If heroes don’t exist it is necessary to invent them. Good for public morale.’
‘As I believe I told you long ago Doctor, you will never amount to anything in the galaxy while you retain your propensity for vulgar facetiousness.’
‘Doctor…nine out of ten.’
Basically everything that Borusa says…
The Good Stuff: The scrolling portent of doom that opens the story and re-introduces Gallifrey suggests this is going to be something a bit special. The Doctor sweaty and terrified, assassinating the President is a superb, must continue opening. As soon as we realise it is a Presidential Resignation Day the tension ups – what could possibly happen to cause the Doctor to gun down the President? George Pravda is such an odd choice to play the Castellan, he is both officious and likable, his delivery is unusual but it’s extremely effective. Bernard Horsfall is even better, giving the politics some real gravitas. The scale and splendour of the Panopticon sets is very impressive – some real effort has gone into making Gallifrey look as rich and dominating as possible on a Doctor Who budget. Borusa is hilarious and deserves his own spin off show; I love how he cuts down Runcible with such acidic barbs (‘You had plenty of time to ask questions during your misspent youth and it is too late now’). During the first episode you have no idea that the villain is the Master and those horrible fried egg eyes and glistening burnt flesh really makes an impact. The plotting is brutally efficient, the cameraman is murdered, the gun is set up…and we know precisely where this is all leading. One of the best cliffhangers ever, painting the Doctor is the President’s assassin. This is the pilot for CSI Gallifrey and you can see why they commissioned a series on the strength of the Doctor’s scenes investigating the assassin in the Panopticon. The lighting is wonderfully moody, almost moonlit, in these scenes. How deep is that knife plunged into Runcible’s back? The sudden twist to all location work is inspired, very unusual. The Deadly Assassin features one of the few scenes that forces me into a cold sweat, the screaming Samurai forcing him off the cliff (its those mad staring eyes in the mask). That giant hypodermic needle – what are they trying to do to me? The clown in the mirror under the sand is totally destabilising for children. Mist swathed forest location looks very exotic, like nowhere in England I have ever visited. I really like the image of Goth silhouetted holding up his rifle on the cliff top, very potent. The two moments I feel push the horror too far for the kiddos is when Goth bursts into flames screaming madly and the Doctor being held under the water – that is incredibly strong material for children but as an adult I think its wonderful. When the Doctor lifts up the Master’s hood you can see the full extent of the excellent monster mask, it is truly frightening. Hildred creeping into the mortuary to staser the Master is deliciously macabre. Peter Pratt’s Master is something totally unique, consumed by hate and completely psychotic, willing to bring the Time lords down.
The Bad Stuff: Goth is so always the villain I am surprised that they bothered to hide it! The dolly in the camera is unintentionally hilarious! The much-celebrated cliffhanger to episode two is actually pretty lame if you forget how dynamically it is filmed and give it a second’s thought. The final confrontation between the Doctor and the Master with crappy rubble bouncing about and the cameraman wobbling his apparatus like mad really lacks the splendour of Robert Holmes’ script. The Master looks like a past-it drag queen fighting in his very bling Sash of Rassilon.
Result: Politics, world building, wit and frights combine to make The Deadly Assassin not just another Doctor Who story but a genuine event. It has one of the best first episodes in Doctor Who history; it’s a mini drama in its own right leading up to the inevitable but unforgettable cliffhanger. The third episode is justly famed for its montage of phobias that would leave any adult a gibbering wreck, let alone the children who are watching! It’s a uniquely horrific experience. Its such a shame that the budget cannot do justice to the epic conclusion, it’s the only point where this story feels cheap and tatty. Robert Holmes subversive script and David Maloney’s stylish direction combine to make this another Hinchcliffe masterpiece: 9/10
The Face of Chris Boucher and directed by Pennant Roberts
TO BE REVIEWED...
The Robots of Death written by Chris Boucher and directed by Michael E Briant
This story in a nutshell: A robot revolution on a Sandminer…
Teeth and Curls: Of course he can control the TARDIS. Nine times out of ten…well seven times – fives times! I honestly didn’t think that anything could top the interaction between the Doctor and Sarah (and in terms of the chemistry between the actors I don’t think anybody ever did until Tennant and Tate) and Holmes and Hinchcliffe smartly went for something completely different, throwing the Doctor into the role of a teacher to Leela’s pupil. Things get a little strained at points in the next season when Tom Baker starts throwing his weight around but at this point it might just be the most interesting Doctor/companion set up ever. Sometimes he talks like a Tesh (and it was not well meant!) and he’s rather fond of bumblebees. The way the Doctor simply restages Chub’s death and makes Poul realise that it could have been a robot is sublime to watch. The relationship between the Doctor and D84 is delightful to watch; initially suspicious, then intelligently reasoning the situation and before long the Doctor is trying to make him feel better about his mistakes. Whilst I wouldn’t change the relationship between the Doctor and K.9 for anything it might have been interesting to have had D84 on board because he is just so damn cute! He looks genuinely mortified when D84 is stabbed in the head…mirroring the audiences reaction!
Noble Savage: ‘My Tribe has a saying: If you’re belleding look for a man with scars’ This is the first time we get a chance to see Leela since she leapt until the TARDIS at the end of The Face of Evil and it looks like the Doctor and her have been travelling for a little while. She is playing with a yo-yo which she feels is some kind of shaman magic so whilst the Doctor has been trying to explain the truth about himself she can’t quite ditch all her beliefs so suddenly. Leela’s reaction to the Doctor explaining about the TARDIS (‘that’s silly’) is deadpan and hilarious. Isn’t it great that whilst the Doctor is going on about some boring mineral extraction technique Leela spies a leather sofa and bounces up and down on it like a kid! I’m sure if they were using a tanning lotion on Louise Jameson when she began in the role because she does look awfully exotic in this story, watch as she argues with Uvanov – I don’t think Leela has ever looked more like a feral creature than in that scene. I don’t think we have ever seen the Doctor send a female companion of to protect somebody and it is such a refreshing role reversal. Her instincts are sharper than ever in this alien environment, she can sense danger approaching and whilst she doesn’t quite have the words to describe it she can read body language far more intuitively than anybody else present.
Sparkling Dialogue: ‘What are you doing here?’ ‘Just standing here talking to you.’
‘You know you’re a classic example of the inverse ratio between the size of the mouth and the size of the brain.’
‘So what happens if the strangler is a robot?’ ‘Oh I should imagine the end of this civilisation.’
‘Fighting sabotage with sabotage!’
‘I like a man who stays calm Dask but this isn’t the Titanic.’
‘Even for a dum that’s dim!’
‘Please do not throw hands at me…’
‘Its rather like being surrounded by walking talking dead men…’
Scares: This story frightened the life out of me when I first saw it and even subsequent rewatchings give me that same chill of despair as I watch the robots slaughter their way through the crew. It touches on both physical and psychological horror in some unusually adult ways for Doctor Who. Chub’s sudden realisation that he is trapped at the mercy of a robot is chilling enough but what really gives me the shivers is the way the robot so dispassionately says ‘yes sir, I heard what you said’ – its almost mocking but it is said without any emotion. Brrr… The torchlight picking out his corpse on the dirty floor of the scoop is pretty horrible. Almost as chilling as Zilda’s dying confession screamed out over the Bridge intercom before she is murdered. I remember the crippling fear I had of the scene where Leela is locked in the room at the mercy of whichever robot would turn up to kill her – at the age of 9 that made me freeze up with fear, the powerlessness of it because it reminded me of my father before he went to prison. Toos being trapped in her bedroom with a menace outside brought those real life fears home even more. Now that I have grown up (that’s debatable) it is the psychological instability at the sight of the blood on the robots hand that gets me where it didn’t register when I was a kid. Poul’s fear is locked in his head manageably because such a thing as a psychotic robot is not possible but then his mind snaps at the sight of the blood - it is destabilising to watch let alone for him to experience. David Collings aces these moments because it could have been so easy to go over the top but his portrayal of a man that has succumbed to insanity is unusually sensitive and adult for the show. Then there is the sight of the emotionless robot on the operating table with its hands twitching anxiously as a giant needle is stabbed into the workings of its brain – this is some seriously upsetting imagery. What about the fear of somebody watching you when you are at your most helpless – asleep as SV7 does to Toos here? The POV shots of Toos being strangled are about as graphic as Doctor Who horror ever gets – thank God! Given that a probe is the equivalent of a large needle it is very disturbing to see them being stabbed into the robots heads.
The Good: From the first second this story looks phenomenal with some of the best model filming we will ever see in the classic series. The camera glides along a rock face as boulders break free and crumble and the awesome sight of the Sandminer emerges through a swirling mist of minerals. Then you have the robot design which as far as the faces are concerned are second to none, beautiful faces that mimic the affluence of the wealthy and a little too close to home to those who like to be reminded that they are automatons. The prosperity of these miners even in their working lives is clear; their rest areas are draped with gold works of art and the leather sofas covered with luxurious animal skins. They are all decked out in luxurious fabrics and jewellery. No doubt about it – these guys have it good even when they are forced to work for their wonga. Whether it was Boucher or Holmes who wrote the one box inside another scene to explain the TARDISes dimensional transcendentalism it made absolute sense to me when I was a child – I was mesmerised by such a simple and yet impossible concept and it still thrills me today. All of the sets are impressive from the multi level Bridge, Toos’ seductively lit quarters, the minimalist scoops…there has been some real effort to make sure that this world which the Doctor and Leela step into looks real. There is a glorious CSO shot of the Doctor and Leela looking out across the horizon of the desert with the sand storm approaching, which goes to show what can be achieved when they have this kind of ambition. Uvanov has a very Captain Mainwaring feel from Dad’s Army, surrounded by people that society consider his betters on the social scale, and he is not afraid to tell them what he thinks of the Founding Families (‘Its sickening!’). I love the sequence where the crew assembles to discuss Chub’s death, there is a feeling that these are real people with grudges and history and their differing reactions creates some good drama (I love the way that Uvanov mocks Zilda in such a nasty way). I find it amazing that through their masks and with the use of the voice alone Miles Forthergill and Gregory de Polnay manage to create such memorable robotic characters. This is something utterly chilling about SV7’s calm arrogance that sets me teeth on edge and who couldn’t help but fall in love with sweet old D84. The fact that the crew doesn’t even consider the possibility that it could have been a robot killer shows how reliant on these things they are and how rare they must go wrong. I’ve heard people complain about the deviation in the murder plot when the Sandminer is sabotaged but I think that it shows precisely what a dangerous business it is and the end of episode two (‘she’s going!’) is awesomely dramatic. Cleverly the story doesn’t rely on the murder mystery plot to keep your attention, expertly hidden beneath that is a second story about the death of young man on a previous Sandminer expedition, the involvement of Uvanov and the revelation that Zilda was his brother and Poul and D84 are there to investigate. Taren Capel in his full robot make up might look rather like a bad drag artist but it services his character well, this is man who was brought up by robots and wants to be one of them. The slow motion robot heads exploding are awesome eye candy. What a delicious fate for Taren Capel, being strangled by one of his own killer robots and tossed away like rubbish.
The Bad: Shame about the tin foil feet for the robots. Considering the attention to detail in this story it’s a shame that SV7 has to change colour to eavesdrop on the Doctor. It’s a real shame about Dask’s trousers being in shot; especially since the camera only needed to be an inch or so lower to maintain the surprise. And as for the sight of his face on the screen barely disguised in episode three...tut tut.
The Shallow Bit: He might be a little skinny but it’s so nice to see a bit of male flesh on Doctor Who I applaud the introduction of Brian Croucher’s character with his top off.
Result: A masterpiece of suspense and horror, The Robots of Death is one of those classic Doctor Who stories that doesn’t put a foot out of place. As a drama it is expertly constructed and the world in which the Doctor and Leela drop in on is packed full of detail to make it one of the most convincing future environments. Micheal E Briant has realised that it is the cast that is going to bring this to life so vividly and assembles one of the strongest guest casts with Russell Hunter, David Ballie, David Collings and Pamela Salem in particular standing out. The design and effects are perfectly in tune and on his way out the door Hinchcliffe overspends outrageously and makes this as visually stunning a piece as possible. It’s a story that haunted me when I was younger and still gives me the chills when I watch it now, it sees the Doctor and Leela at their finest, continues to fire great lines and frightens right until the end and unusually for Doctor Who climaxes with its best episode. I want every classic Doctor Who story to be as good as this but if that was the case we wouldn’t realise just what a classic The Robots of Death is. Terrifying stuff and a top five story for me: 10/10
The Talons of Weng-Chiang written by Robert Holmes and directed by David Maloney
TO BE REVIEWED...