Or 'the year that Doctor Who got cancelled when it was starting to get its act together' as it is also known. I still see quite a lot of problems but Andrew Cartmel brought a gift for memorable imagery even if the plotting of the stories is probably the shows worst. Here the Doctor and Ace face knights from another dimension and their leader Morgaine, Josiah Samuel Smith & Light, faith sucking vampires and Cheetah People being manipulated by the Master!
The regulars -
Battlefield written by Ben Aaronovitch and directed by Michael Kerrigan
This story in a nutshell: The Earth is dragged into a war that doesn’t even belong to this dimension!
Master Manipulator: When people declare that the 7th Doctor’s era is the nadir of televised Doctor Who they have probably just watched McCoy’s performance in Battlefield. It hurts me to say this because I never like to admit that the central character is ever an embarrassment but this really is about as bad as it gets. This is not just McCoy bashing, I will cite examples and explain myself but he cannot play anger or fear convincingly and he spends quite a bit of this story doing ridiculous pratfalls. Trying to suggest this gurning fool is Merlin is an insult to the Arthurian legend. The one thing that really shines through well (despite some painful dialogue) is his unspoken affection for Ace, I’ll give him that.
He gets very excited about going to an archaeological dig (he and Benny will get on fine!). He pulls out his UNIT pass to try and force his way in despite the fact that it still has Pertwee’s mug on it! I really liked the talk about the Doctor changing his appearance being a disguise; the story could have done with more of that kind of innovation. McCoy doesn’t have the talent to convince when he is threatening Mordred, he spits and struggles with the dialogue. McCoy is extremely adept at popping crisp packets whereas he completely fudges his agonising attack when Morgaine first appears and that’s because he is a good children’s entertainer and not a terribly good actor. The Doctor can hypnotise people to his will, I can only think of a hundred other times where that might have come in handy. It’s a typical Cartmel innovation, super powers that are used and then forgotten (one finger can be a deadly weapon). At one point he actually turns to the camera and says ‘Ace, what have I done?’ which I thought was as low as his character would sink but then he growls unconvincingly ‘Morgaine! If there dead…!’ We get our once a story ‘Haaaaaaaccceee!’ which Simon always cites when he wants to remind me how much he hates this era. Leaving notes for himself to explain the plot – lazy! The Doctor’s final heartrending speech to McCoy is scuppered by McCoy’s hideous, gabbled delivery.
Oh Wicked: And I thought the characterisation for the Doctor was bad enough…Ace’s is ten times worse! Whilst it is nice to see Ace pairing up with a young contemporary character their relationship isn’t even slightly believable and the dialogue for both characters beggars belief. Thinking about it plausibly for a moment who on Earth would go about with explosives in a rucksack and call themselves Ace? I can make some pretty big leaps but that’s quite a hurdle you have to make before you reach the appalling slang and embarrassing attempts at cool. She is such a twat, boasting about her explosives at school – any sane person would politely retire and get as far away from her as possible but fellow pyrotechnic junkie Shou Yuing seems to love it! Besides which Ace would be in a remand prison if she really let off explosives at school. When she’s under pressure her racism slips out. ‘Looks like Colonel Blimp has a fancy taste in hardware’ – Ace’s dialogue is frequently painful and chokes Sophie Aldred of any credibility. It’s a shame because both the character and the actress (especially the actress) can be very good (go and watch Ghost Light) but this is the norm with Ace, hideous hip language and false bravado. As much as I complain about Tegan (and even Peri in her whinier moments) neither of those two characters can touch Ace in the embarrassment stakes at her worst. And this is her worst.
Colonel Blimp: Finally I can say something nice! Whilst the Brigadier does have some questionable moments Nicholas Courtney is such a seasoned pro at this by now he can make pretty much anything sound good. The Brigadier has done alright for himself, bagging the fabulous Doris (who sounds like a charming woman) and a gorgeous house in the country. I would have no complaints if I am his position at his age! He has retired and he has decided to fade away, the only think that can tempt him to put on the (ill fitting) uniform is mention of the Doctor. Bureaucracy according to the Brig is ‘inch thick forms and half a pint of blood’. Once his helicopter is shot down and destroyed he begins to enjoy himself. It’s really nice that he recognises the Doctor: ‘Who else would it be?’ The Brigadier is a bit rubbish with the ladies, it’s not really his thing but at least people will be shooting at him soon. UNIT looks after its own, alive or dead, a lovely touch excised from the transmitted version. He is steeped in blood. Such a brainless thug at times, he pumps bullets into the Destroyer without even saying hello! He thinks he is too old for this malarkey and wants to go home to Doris and leave the action to young kids like Ace from now on. What is really highlighted in Battlefield is that the Brig is the Earth’s protector: ‘Get off my world!’
Sparkling Dialogue: Yeah, that’s a good one.
The Good Stuff: Bambera makes a fine new Brigadier for the next generation and Angela Bruce is perfectly cast, it’s a shame we never got to see more of her. I instantly fell in love with her when she drives straight past the hitchhiking Doctor and Ace! The TARDIS looks gorgeous in the English countryside, glowing in the morning sunshine. Ancelyn and Bambera’s blossoming romance works entirely because of the performances and I love how violent she is towards him. Jean Marsh might be typecast but by God she’s good, utterly convincing as an avenging heartbroken war queen. Marsh’s icy blue eyes give me the shivers. She gives the story a degree of credibility. Ace being spat from the airlock and emerging from the sea holding the sword like the lady of the lake sees Aaronovitch finally do something interesting with the Arthurian myth. The scene where Morgaine takes information from Lavell’s mind is chillingly played and I love Morgaine’s benevolence at restoring Elisabeth’s sight. It makes her far more interesting than a cut-price villainess. The Destroyer is one of the most impressive Doctor Who monsters, truly demonic and frightening. Morgaine makes me howl with laughter, her ‘die well my son’ had me giggling! The pan across the corpse-strewn battlefield manages to poignant thanks to Bambera’s reaction to Ancelyn’s comment. Morgaine even manages to exit on a high point where she discovers that her love is dead and Marsh plays this sensitively. The last scene is lovely and precisely the sort of thing this story needed more of, moments of genuine charm.
The Bad Stuff: Prepare yourselves people. Season 26 of Doctor Who begins with two old dears walking around a garden centre – cancel! The music is so tacky and detrimental to the story’s atmosphere; go listen to the lift music as they reach the hotel. The spark guns are lame beyond words and I would say it would have been better to just have armed the knights with swords by the fight sequences are stagy and unconvincing as well. The direction is so slow in places, reaction shots take forever and the scenes don’t flow well (compare with Greatest Show and its fluid storytelling). Like plenty of the Cartmel scripted stories the opening episode is a number of unconnected scenes fighting for attention. ‘If my hunch is right the Earth is at the centre of a war that doesn’t even belong to this dimension!’ – what the fuck? Is the Doctor in another story? Where have we seen anything to indicate a statement like that? Get a new script editor quick! The Special Edition gets it right but the televised version failed to include any establishing location shots of the helicopter arriving at London. Mordred’s laughter – cancel! The attack on the helicopter is clearly beyond the shows resources and it really shows (the cardboard helicopter that they blow up). There’s some really dreadful pacing issues…it really slows down – then suddenly an action set piece…before crawling to a halt again! ‘What manner of man are you?’ – what is this nonsense about Morgaine and the Brigadier having a little gossip for no reason whatsoever but to slow things down and make them both look stupid? ‘When we meet again, I shall kill you’ – why don’t they just get it over with now? The fairy light staircase…cancel! The exterior spaceship looks like a model in a fish tank and the interior feels like a studio set. The end of episode two might be the nadir of the era, the camera rushes at McCoy and mock hits him as he does pratfalls all over the place whilst Ace runs into a passageway that clearly isn’t a passageway and waits whilst the glass slides down and a dodgy effect swoops around the room. There are too many extraneous (and clearly unnecessary as they are shipped out of the story in episode three never to be heard of again) taking up space. The stupid knights hide in plain sight (you would have to be blind not to see them!) and why don’t they shoot out the tyres or the engine and send them all up? Plus they miss Bambera when she is a standing target out the sunroof! Plus they fail to hit the deckchair when it ambles around a corner right next to them! Worst army ever! There is a scene in the special edition version where the Doctor, Ace and the Brigadier discuss and explain important plot points about Arthur, the spaceship and the sword which was excised in the transmitted version – cancel this show! The argument between Ace and Shou Yuing is the perfect example of the banality of the dialogue (‘I bet even your parents hated your guts!’). Bring back HAVOC – this battle is all implausible somersaults and poor swordfights! I cannot believe they gave Bessie fire tracks – cancel. The green sparks and smoke wafting from the castle are hardly the apocalypse we were promised by the Destroyer. To top it all off the final explosion looks exactly like what it is…a model going phut.
The Shallow Bit: When Ancelyn turned up I perked up for a little while.
Result: Battlefield is exactly the sort of thing they needed to be doing in 26th season, a contemporary thriller but it exactly the way they shouldn’t be doing it. The production is plagued by poor direction and a script that should have come with a career destroying warning. There are so many attempts to be hip that fall flat on their face I fling myself at the remote when I am watching it when Simon walks in the room with Ace in particular is mishandled atrociously. The material is beyond McCoy’s ability to bring to life with any kind of realism so he ends up throwing himself all over the sets to get some attention. Too many characters, too much filler, too little coherence and too many scenes that make you want the ground to swallow you whole, Battlefield fails on practically every level. The best thing on offer is Morgaine who deserved a far better vehicle. Why was the show cancelled in its 26th year? The execs watched Battlefield is why and I have to agree with their decision: 2/10
Ghost Light written by Marc Platt and directed by Alan Wareing
This story in a nutshell: In the words of Andrew Cartmel ‘There’s an alien spaceship and it has a crew of three people. The entity in charge is called Light and he is on a galactic expedition to survey and catalogue life like an intergalactic Charles Darwin. He’s got two crewmembers and one of them is Josiah who is the survey agent. When Light lands on a planet he sends the survey agent out both to gather details and to become an exemplar of the dominant lifeform on the planet. He literally evolves into a specimen of life on that planet. There’s another crewmember who stays on board and controls the experiment, that’s Control. Her role is to sit on the spaceship and do nothing which drives her loopy. She turns the tables by escaping in Ghost Light and she too starts to evolve. Light and his crew had already visited the Earth a lot earlier and picked up a specimen of Neanderthal man, Nimrod. When they returned to Earth there had been a mutiny on board the ship and Light had lost control of his crewmembers. The came back to Earth because Josiah, the survey agent liked Earth and wanted to return to it. They take control of the household, bump off the head of the household and take control of Gwendoline and Mrs Pritchard. The Husks are remnants of Josiah that he has left behind since returning to Earth in his attempts to become a Victorian gentleman. When Josiah evolves he casts off his husks the same way that some form of reptiles do.’ Doesn’t that make perfect sense? What do you mean they didn’t explain any of that in the transmitted story?
The Real McCoy: Sylvester McCoy’s greatest turn as the Doctor bar none. He walks out of the TARDIS with an air of mystery, playfully trying to make Ace figure out where they are knowing that she will be horrified when she finds out. He cuts a playful figure on the rocking horse, eyeing her furtively. He even asks if she has told him about Gabriel Chase, knowing that he has brought her here on purpose. He has definitely become a Doctor of mind games. When he says it is time to emerge I’m not sure if he is talking about his role within the unfolding events or to reveal his deception to Ace. Either way he is very aware that he has a part to play. The scenes between McCoy and Aldred after she realises where she is are the best acted moments either of them ever gave to Doctor Who. Ace can barely contained her rage but manages to speak with a restrained fury and the Doctor is purring with sympathy as he shows new dimensions to his character. Together they discuss something that is worth discussing, facing your fears and the horrors of racism. Its totally unlike anything that has come before and refreshingly takes both characters to new depths. The way he purrs ‘the nature of the horror that you sense here…’ is so menacing you might think that the Doctor is the villain for a second. I love the way he compliments Ace on her dress. He’s like the puppet master orchestrating his own live theatre in the way he gets everybody in position in time for the second cliffhanger and the reveal of Light. McCoy almost threatens to undo all of his good work in this story when he attempts to snarl at Light and even Sophie Aldred is astonished at how his performance suddenly plummets – look at her in the background fearing that he might spontaneously combust with anger. The Doctor growls that even he can’t play this many games at once, for the first time admitting that he finds all this horror a game. He has great fun sending Light into a spiral of confusion by mentioning a menagerie of fictional creatures he has failed to catalogue. As Light says he is unceasingly mischievous and loving every second of it.
Oh Wicked: ‘Perhaps she’ll evolve into a young lady…’ Ace and I have been on such a journey together I feel as if we were once great mates but somewhere along the line the friendship has drifted and come to its natural end as friendships have a habit of doing. One of my first memories of Doctor Who was the end of episode two of Battlefield where Ace is drowning in the airlock of the ship as the credit strike. At the age of nine I was distraught and burst into tears and wanted to know if ‘the girl’ would live much to my sisters derision. Moving on a few years and Doctor Who was over but I was finding out much about the classic series but none of the companions could measure up to cocky, baseball bat wielding Ace. I remember trying to draw her face from the Target novel of Dragonfire for a school project. I’m not sure I could pinpoint where it all started to go wrong but the further we moved on from the eighties the more dated her character seemed to become with her cod ‘wicked’ dialogue and massive ghetto blaster. She seemed an embarrassing reminder of the past in a way that the other companions like Liz and Sarah never did. Then Big Finish came along and Sophie Aldred started taking part in the audios and I couldn’t believe that they were trying to pull off a seventeen year old girl being played by a forty plus year old woman. It didn’t help that Aldred was stiff and unconvincing on audio compared to her youthful, charismatic performances on the telly. I met Simon eleven years ago and over time he has caught snippets and episodes of most companions and declared that Ace was his least favourite – it was everything about her from her lack of a cockney accent, her hideous dialogue, the angst and melodrama and the fact that she was saddled with McCoy. Over 20 years Ace went from being the best female character to grace the television in my eyes to a embarrassing outdated youth stereotype that refused to go away. My point for this little exercise is that whilst the majority of my opinion of her character veers towards the latter (especially in stories like Dragonfire, The Happiness Patrol and Battlefield) Ghost Light was the final recorded story and throughout the three episode the writers, script editor and Aldred herself have all started to come together and the character was starting to really work. It’s a shame that they were cut off in their prime but in this story especially there is a glimpse of an Ace that I really like – feisty, thoughtful, frightened and brave. And Aldred underplays most of the story to her credit. For one story she feels like a real person and that is some trick to pull considering everything that is going against her.
Poor Ace wanders from the TARDIS with childish enthusiasm, excited that the Doctor has trusted her to figure out where they have landed and completely unaware that he has tricked her into facing her past. There is a lovely moment where the Doctor calls Ace ‘Eliza’ but I think Professor Higgins would have given up on this one. She talks about getting a job at Sellafields (a nuclear waste decommissioning plant) because she thinks it might be safer. Despite visuals that tell you so I was only convinced that the events had taken place overnight when Ace fell asleep in the chair. Platt enjoys taking the mickey out of her retro dialogue and the ‘Cholesterol City!’ ‘Oh no dear, Perivale village’ made me chuckle. Alan Wareing captures the horror of Ace burning down the house with the simple touch of a flashing fire engine light as she is attacked by the house that she destroyed. Its genuinely nightmarish. There is nothing like a good bitch fight and Ace and Gwendoline go hell for leather, rolling around on the floor and tearing at each others dresses. If I was otherwise persuaded it might get me hot under the collar! Like Battlefield it helps when Ace is highlighted against another female character and her relationship with Control (Sharon Duce emerges in a triumphant performance in part three) is all the funnier for her taking on the Professor Higgins role and teaching her how to speak proper like. Its lovely that Ace has one secret that the Doctor doesn’t know about and the revelation that she burnt down Gabriel Chase in 1983 is the big revelation that third episode needed.
Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Let me guess; my theories appal you, my heresies outrage you, I never answer letters and you don’t like my tie!’
‘I can’t stand burnt toast. I loathe bus stations. Terrible places. Full of lost luggage and lost souls. And then there’s unrequited love. And tyranny. And cruelty. We all have a universe of our own terrors to face’ – this is the 1989 version of the ‘evils must be fought’ Troughton speech in The Moonbase with much more poetry.
‘I perceive you are a sick man, sir. Divine retribution for your blasphemy perhaps?’
‘Scratch the Victorian veneer and something nasty will come crawling out!’
‘The Cream of Scotland Yard’ – along with Reverend ‘Monkey Boy’ Matthew this is one of the sickest, most ingenious gags in the shows history. Turning the good Inspector into primordial soup from which humanity evolved out of. Black humour doesn’t cover it.
‘File under: Imagination, lack of.’
‘Take off? They’ve gone, like a passing thought. As long as their minds don’t wander.’
· Many people have reflected on the design of this story and I have to join the crowd because it is a magical recreation of a Victorian house with some ghoulish gothic touches. The hallway in particular looks majestic with the wood panelled staircase dominating the set. The clock chimes and there is a freaky sequence as the house seems to come to life, maids sliding balletically from the wall panels and Gwendoline, hypnotised by the fire, rising to greet her guests. The designs really are stunning with each set bursting with things of interest to look at – a cabinet full of treasures, deer/boar/zebra mounted on the wall, swords, lizard skeletons, organs in jars, birds stuffed on perches, an imposing portrait of Queen Victoria, butterflies in cases, beetles and bluebottles in the draw (a policeman in the draw, that’s bloody funny!). The stress on dead things allows the director a chance to give the impression that the house is coming to life as the bugs start crawling from the furniture. I can remember being very excited about the crypt like spaceship sets too with the giant pulsing light in the middle as thought it were alive.
· When Ace asks if this is an asylum with the patients in charge she may well have a point but there are gloriously oddball characters such as Redvers Fenn-Cooper wandering the house, his mind broken, trying to find himself. Scenes of him bound in a straight jacket as lightning screams through the window and a snuff box comes to life are as inexplicable as they are chilling.
· Sylvia Simms really makes the most of a part that could have been completely forgettable, making Mrs Pritchard one of the most violent and disturbing characters in the show. She almost breaks Fenn-Coopers arm, drags Ace away by her pony tail, chloroforms Matthews as though she is swatting a fly and abusing her daughter. Even when she runs off with the grief of realising what she has happened to her family she still has an air of menace as she tells Gwendoline they are both lost.
· You couldn’t with all good conscience call Mark Ayres music for Ghost Light incidental but that doesn’t stop it from being one of the finest scores the show was graced with (and with the soundtracks to the McCoy stories now available this is one of my most listened to of the era). One of my favourite tracks is the exotic excitement drummed up as the Doctor faces Redvers and his gun.
· I love all the illusions to Darwin. Doctor Who has often explored some very intellectual ideas, be they scientific or historical, in a very fun way and this is a really quirky way of exploring the theories of evolution. Touches such as Josiah suggesting that Gwendoline has undergone a metamorphosis because she and Ace are wearing gents clothes are very creative. Intelligent, creepy conversation around a Victorian dining table is not what I have come to expect from an action adventure show like Doctor Who but that just makes it all the more welcome. Matthews dismissing the theory that we evolved from apes and then being transformed into a hideous parody of one is the sickest joke ever played on a Doctor Who character, very dark and very funny. Then you have Light having something of a nervous breakdown because he is trying to catalogue a planet that is continually changing and evolving.
· I can think of very few Doctor Who villains that creep me out more than Ian Hogg as Josiah Smith. The very image of him is disturbing with his dark glasses, grotesquely peeling face and dirty suit but Hogg chooses to play the role in a drunken, unbalanced way which left me uneasy when he was on screen. Watch as he caresses Gwendoline and draws his scabby face close to hers, seducing her into killing Ernest Matthews and gurgling with laughter as she does so (Alan Wareing having the cloth approach the camera to block out his face is a gorgeous moment of direction). He’s just horrible. The rungs in his evolutionary ladder are snapped when his husks heads explode – if there was ever a visual metaphor for the mind breaking I haven’t seen it.
· Reading the John Nathan-Turner Memoirs it would appear that the monsters were included because by all accounts this would be the last Doctor Who story ever made and he always associated monsters with the programme. It might have been brave to have left our screens with some of the most loathsome human monsters we have ever seen (the Matthews chimp, Josiah and his flaky face) but there is no doubting that these two hastily cobbled together monsters look very striking.
· Nice shades of Phantom of the Opera with Control trapped underground with her visage hidden.
· I might be the only person to think this but I find Light quite creepy because of his overt campness and delicacy. There is something discomforting about an angel that removes a woman’s arm because he wanted to see how she worked, turn a man into soup because he wanted to know where he came from and wants to destroy the world simply to keep his catalogue up to date.
· Again I might be the only person to appreciate it but I love how this story builds to the biggest anti-climax in Doctor Who history. The way the Doctor so causally says ‘explode or fly’ makes me howl with laughter. We expect a climactic ending so Ghost Light pretends it is leading somewhere terribly exciting but it is all smoke and mirrors to cover the fact that all that is happening is the equivalent of a car leaving a garage. One last joke that works a treat.
The Bad: I’m clutching at straws to find something bad to say about Ghost Light but I wasn’t convince by the POV shot of Control where she bashes Nimrod over the head in part one. Ace’s ‘white kids firebombed it!’ comes dangerously close to her previous annoying dialogue – talking about racism is a very worthy thing for Doctor Who but this coming dangerously close to being racist but on the other side. When in doubt, be subtle. I found Inspector Mackenzie’s racist comments to be far more believable because they were rooted in solid, period dialogue (‘Gypsy blood I can see it in him!’).
I had a stage in my life when I tried to get my friends to watch Doctor Who with me. The sad truth of the matter is that I was never going to get them to fall in love with it the way I do and so the exercise was fairly redundant. In the end we wound up watching the stories that are considered disasters in fan lore (The Chase, Time and the Rani) and having a wonderful time sending them up. The closest I got to convincing somebody that this show really was brilliant was my friend Luke who watched the first two episodes of Ghost Light with some enthusiasm. However it all fell to pieces in part three when Light was revealed and he stepped from the lift as camp as Christmas. Luke fell about laughing and never recovered from his mirth. To this day he still opens every text conversation, email and Facebook message with ‘look at these microbes…’ Now the only person who has to put up with my Who obsession is Simon but he was stupid enough to marry me.
The Shallow Bit: It doesn’t matter whether Sophie Aldred is wearing a strapless top, squeezed into a gentleman’s suit or walking Gabriel Chase in a white silk dress – she looks gorgeous at every stage.
Result: The first episode of Ghost Light is one of the best of the classic series and has plenty of atmosphere, evocative design, intelligent discussion, strong performances and a great monster reveal. Not bad for the final classic story ever made. Doctor Who has often boasted a stunning cast of well known actors but Ghost Light is the crème de la crème and they have great fun bringing to life a household of sinister grotesques and enjoy the delicious dialogue. I find it astonishing that Battlefield and Ghost Light could be transmitted back to back because the gulf in quality between them is about as cavernous as you can get. In taking an oddball approach to telling a story and running with it Ghost Light really isn’t that different to Paradise Towers but what puts this into a whole different league is a director who is absolutely in tune with the script and designers who are turned on by the possibilities the location offers them. It perhaps needed one more episode to make the explanations sharper but this is one instance where I wont underscore through lack of clarity because the finished result is too polished and enjoyable with great directional touches by Alan Wareing. This should have been transmitted last because it would have been an electrifying finale for the season and a brilliant two finger salute to all those fans that had slagged of JNT so mercilessly: 10/10
The Curse of Fenric written by Ian Briggs and directed by Nicholas Mallet
This story in a nutshell: The Doctor finally defeats an evil from before the dawn of time…
Master Manipulator: Since The Curse of Fenric is Sylvester McCoy’s penultimate adventure it is a good chance to see how he has progressed since Delta and the Bannerman, which I reviewed a short while ago. In some ways he has evolved out of all recognition becoming a much darker, brooding, melancholic sort of man, one with a plan up his sleeve for every occasion and has everything sorted before the story has even begun. Its something of a backhanded compliment to say that the Doctor might be a lot more in this mould but Sylvester McCoy isn’t. McCoy is much of a convincing performer than he is an actor and from listening to him on commentaries it is clear that he is a genuinely funny, entertaining sort of guy. But forcing him into the deadly serious role of the Oncoming Storm plays against his strengths and whilst there is the odd moment of dark intensity for the most part we get McCoy gurning, spitting and growling his way through a histrionic script. So perhaps the Doctor has grown into a more responsible character but I feel that the material pushes McCoy too far and the result is an unbalanced, cumbersome performance. I genuinely believe the most natural performance we ever had from McCoy was in Delta, dancing, running around the countryside and being sweet and gentle. The Doctor strolls into a top-secret military base and starts barking orders, he’s certainly come a long way since pratfalling around in Time and the Rani. Is the Doctor the Prime Minister and Head of Secret Service at some point or is he just an excellent forger. He walks around the base at nighttime, quietly brooding and keeping secrets. His ‘eyes watching’ moment appears as though he is trying to be deliberately creepy. I love the gentler moments between the Doctor and Ace (such as when they wrinkle their noses at each other), McCoy and Aldred’s love for each other bleeding on screen. He gently ruminates over his family in a dark moment and proves that McCoy was at his best when kept quiet in the shadows rather than screaming his head off. The Doctor spitting ‘go!’ to the vampire girls comes across as exactly what it was, a children’s presenter trying to be scary. Its great to see that the Doctor draws his strength from his previous companions. It’s such a shame but McCoy completely fails to convince during his ‘evil since the dawn of time’ – its exactly the sort of speech that Colin Baker would have excelled at. It makes me worried that Ace should so readily be fooled by the Doctor’s condemnation of her character because it’s so sudden, improbable and preposterous.
Oh Wicked: On the other hand Sophie Aldred’s Ace has managed to somehow managed to deepen throughout Ghost Light and she seems perfectly comfortable with the more sombre material. She looks gorgeous in her period costume and its wonderful to get her out of that horrid badge strewn bomber jacket. Her relationship with Jean and Phyllis is very sudden, they meet and they are instantly great mates and having a laugh together! If only life was so simple! I don’t like the way they overwrite her emotions, when Ace discovers the baby’s name is Audrey she practically hurls her at Audrey! Once upon a time Ace would have dropped anything for a bit of excitement but now she’s thinking about people. She used to think she would never get married but now she’s not so sure. Finally Ace pulls the Doctor up on his manipulation of her and its great to see somebody finally take him on. The idea of her creating her own future and sending her mother to address she was brought in was lovely, very subtle but its derailed by agonising moments of theatrics (‘I didn’t know she was my muuuummm!’). Ace’s metaphorical baptism in the sea is perhaps a little too deep for Doctor Who but I appreciate the effort.
Sparkling Dialogue: Amongst all the nonsense there are so brutally thoughtful moments and the dialogue has the ability to wind you on the odd occasion.
‘But whose thoughts will they think?’
‘There is a storm coming.’
‘I was hoping for something a little more, well…Aryan.’
‘How English. Everything stops for tea.’
‘Ah the sound of dying. When it comes to death quantity is so much more satisfying than quality.’
‘I feel this is what Dr Judson would have wished…’
The Good Stuff: The opening scenes feel like a movie in their scope and location work, Russian soldiers coming to shore through a mist swathed coastline. After Battlefield’s lousy production and the studio bound Ghost Light this feels like the expensive story of the season. Dinsdale Linden and Anne Reid create a fantastically nasty patient/nurse relationship. The soldier being stalked on the beach at night is some of the creepiest scenes of the era. Nicholas Parson completely aces (haha) his role as Wainright, there’s no hint of a game show host in this impressively intense performance. The vicar’s conflict of faith is the strongest character work. There are some wonderful locations throughout including the sun blistered graveyard and the vertiginous cove. The pull back to reveal Millington in his Nazi surroundings is startlingly dramatic. The effects of the runes writing themselves manages to be both simple but highly effective. A natural source of lethal poisons, chemical warfare is a very nasty business. One of the better ideas is the ULTIMA machine as bait for the Russians with a chemical bomb at its heart that will poison Moscow once the war is over. I’d like to say Ms Hardaker is an overwritten religious zealot but unfortunately I have met a fair few Ms Hardaker’s in my time. We are treated to one of the iconic moments of the eighties when the Haemovores rise from the ocean. Is that really what we are going to evolve into thousand of years into the future, creatures with an insatiable hunger for blood? The Haemovore attack on the church is very well staged, using the location to its full. Kathleen using her husband is real drama, not the hysteria elsewhere. Linden’s Fenric is superb, a silky voiced villain with some wonderful lines. I find the rain lashed firing squad sequence a moment of winding realism. How frightening are those vampire girls advancing on the soldiers in the tunnels after they have been shot in the stomach (and Fenric’s grin is chilling)? Nurse Crane’s death is very nasty because you know Judson/Fenric is enjoying it. Sorin carries the baton from Judson making a terrifying Fenric.
The Bad Stuff: The script for The Curse of Fenric is troublesomely disjointed and cluttered as though Ian Briggs had a million ideas but no clue how to dramatise them. The storytelling really doesn’t flow smoothly, it’s like a needle in a record jumping over the place constantly adding new elements and not dealing with those that have already been written. Joann Kelly and Joanne Bell both give two of the worst performances in the shows history (‘you should ave cum inta the water with us’ and ‘ooh its like electrick!’) both as the common as muck evacuees and the least effective sensual vampires you have ever seen! Nicholas Mallet is an odd choice of director for this piece (considering his last story had been Paradise Towers where he had taken a dark script and turned it into light entertainment) and it would have been far more professionally shot had it been Alan Wareing that brought it to life. The transition of scenes is very odd; there is nothing smooth about how the story leaps from one scene to the next (compare and contrast with Ghost Light) and there are some sudden reaction shots within scenes that you can tell have been filmed aside and inserted in jarringly. As good as the location work is it is such a shame it is shot on video because it looks far more like it has been filmed on a home video camera, imagine how atmospheric this would be on film. We could have done without the excerpts of the parish records, which hold up the action. I might be stupid but I never figured that Audrey was Ace’s mother when I first watched the story but I reliably informed by everybody from my mother, my husband and several friends that its highlighted as to make it obvious. There are too many co-incidences in the script, the Doctor and Ace discovering the body, Millington finding them in the script. Why does the Doctor start talking in cod Norse mythology…who on Earth would start a conversation like that? The vampire girls in the water should have been really scary but winds up looking what it is, two unconvincing actress with stupid overlong nails trying to be sexy. How on Earth did Ace work out that the encryptions are a logic diagram for a computer programme? Characters make the oddest of conclusions to push the plot forwards. Unfortunately after their dramatic reveal the Haemovores stroll along the beach like geriatrics on a day trip to Eastbourne. The references to Judson’s accident are irritatingly vague, why introduce plot elements like this if you aren’t going to follow it up and give us some sort of explanation? Why does Ace pick up the flask and why doesn’t she mention it? There are some dodgy POV shots on the metal ladder. Where does the romance between Sorin and Ace come from – like her friendship with the girls it is taken as a given after their first meeting that these two are deeply in love. Why does the Doctor chastise Ace for carrying explosives when they come in handy in Remembrance (blowing up the Dalek in the junkyard), Silver Nemesis (destroying the Cybership), Battlefield (‘Ace we need a hole’) and here? Faith is such a rubbish weapon, how on Earth does that affect evolved human beings? Ace’s cod existentialist dialogue when flirting really makes me vomit, why doesn’t she just snog him? One of Doctor Who’s ugliest moments comes when Wainright is killed; it’s the death of faith. What the hell is Millington talking about at the end of part three? Its astonishing that they would hire an actress of Anne Reid’s calibre and not give her anything to do after her first few scenes. If Fenric is such an ancient evil why didn’t the Doctor kill him when he defeated him? There is a whole army of vampire girls with stupid nails and red lippy…Simon hates that ridiculous scene. Melodramatic shrieking does not substitute genuine drama and there is plenty of the former in the last episode (‘Haaaaaace!’). As Simon pointed out to me the solution of the pawns working together is shite and makes no sense whatsoever. The Great One is another element added to an already crowded script with complicated and nonsensical explanations of a paradox where he poisons the oceans and creates his own future. How did Fenric manipulate anybody when he was trapped inside the flask? Did he really set all this up just so he could beat the Doctor at chess? Why such a convoluted answer to explain Ace’s embarrassing time storming backstory? What is the point of the chess set in Lady Peinforte’s study? It’s trying to be clever but nothing is explain so it ends up looking stupid. ‘He can’t penetrate Ace’s psychic force!’ – thanks for that Doctor. Surely if the Great Kills Fenric and doesn’t release the chemicals then none of this should have happened and the Haemovores shouldn’t exist? What is Millington’s motivation? Why does he go from investing so much into trying to plan the next fight with Russia and then on a sixpence everybody is fair game?
The Shallow Bit: Of all the babes of the McCoy era Sorin is the best looking. I never could resist a man in uniform. The soldier that Ace flirts with is another babe.
Result: Doing this marathon by watching stories out of order is a very interesting experience. Watching The Curse of Fenric as a part of the McCoy era and it is a visual, dramatic treat. Watching it after the character building, atmospheric The Daleks which tells a much simpler but much more stylish piece of storytelling it feels like this story is continually throwing things at you until you submit (curses, ancient evil, war, poisons, vampires, mutations, domestic drama…). It’s a remarkably sloppy piece of writing, proof that if complicate things needlessly you tie yourself into knots of illogic, poor motivation and unanswered questions. It’s such a shame because The Curse of Fenric has a fantastic number of resources which it uses well including some stunning action sequences, gorgeous locations, scary moments and some very nice performances. The last episode in particular is the most exciting and slick single piece of Doctor who since the last part of The Caves of Androzani. A flawed piece of horror that provides a thrill ride on a scene by scene basis but doesn’t hold up to serious scrutiny: 7/10
Survival written by Rona Munro and directed by Alan Wareing
This story in a nutshell: Ace almost succumbs to her wilder instincts as the Doctor battles with the Master…
The Real McCoy: I’m unconvinced that this Doctor works within the domestic setting especially when he is off buying cat food and trying tempt evil felines by hiding in old women’s gardens and being chased around the streets. McCoy is pretty average in this story - I never lose the impression that I am watching an entertainer rather than an actor and later scenes on the planet bomb thanks to his hideous overacting. To prove my point the Doctor looks far more convincing juggling silver balls to try and distract the Cheetah People than he does screaming at Ace. Watching McCoy crawling around some old dustbins is as cringeworthy as it sounds. The ‘one finger can be a deadly weapon’ trick is forgivable as a comedy set piece but I can just about think of a million other times when that might have come in handy. His ‘don’t run! Stay still!’ scene is dreadfully embarrassing. There is one moment in this story that really surprised me and that was the look on the Doctor’s face when Ace falls back into his arms after running off with Karra – if looks could kill she would be another corpse for the Cheetah’s to feed on. I very much enjoyed his exchange with Ace about making the choice to send them home and I wish there could have been more of that sort of subtlety for the Doctor in the story. The less said about his enthusiastic yelling at Ace whilst jumping on a motorbike as an action hero the better. His bottom sticking in the air and his face smothered in a dirty old couch pretty much sums up his contribution to this story because he is much more convincing at that than the acting bits.
Oh Wicked: Survival is the last of three adventures to centre around Ace and her turbulent childhood and after experiencing her fears in Ghost Light and dealing with her domestic problems in Curse of Fenric now we get to visit the home town she was so eager to escape from. Before the new series no other companions was treated to development and exploration like this and it makes a very refreshing change to see a female companion giving the series such a boost. When Ace talks about kids hanging around on fields on a Sunday I can completely sympathise – I used to do the very same thing and we seemed to spend a whole lot of time not achieving anything at all. Teaming up with old friends Midge and Shreela fleshes Ace out even more and I like how she takes control of a bad situation and tries to pull them into some kind of fighting force. The quiet scenes of Ace succumbing to the attraction of the planet are the shows best – you don’t need any dialogue to make these work and Sophie Aldred works wonders with her face. The planet makes her feel unafraid and exciting…and really hungry. Its Ace’s sorrow over Karra’s death that gives the finale its potency.
Feral Villain: Anthony Ainley tosses away all his old tricks and gives a concentrated and intense turn as the Master and it is by far this incarnations most effective turn in the series. Alan Wareing is determined to make the Master as scary as possible and I really like the feral eyes glowing out of the darkness. For once it is not a ridiculous disguise or hideous plot convenience that reveals the Master but an expert building up of suspense. I love the impotency of the character when he screams at the Doctor that he controls the Cheetah People and then ducks scared into his tent as they advance hungrily on him. Trapped, infected and unable to escape the planet, the Master suddenly has a fantastic hook to make him really creepy. His speech about the planet bewitching him sends a shiver down the spine. If he is to become an animal then he wants to succumb completely and hunt and kill the Doctor. I love the vicious way the Master stabs Karra to death, it’s the sort of thing you expect to see somebody as evil (or as we are told he is) the Master to do but rarely do.
Sparkling Dialogue: ‘There are worlds out there where the sky is burning, where the seas asleep and the rivers dream. People made of smoke and cities made of song. Somewhere there’s danger, somewhere there’s injustice, somewhere else the tea’s getting cold. Come on Ace, we’ve got work to do.’
The Good Stuff: This might not make me very popular but I think the McCoy theme tune might be my favourite because it is the one that I grew up with. I still get that tingle of excitement when I hear it and it is the version that makes sing allowed whenever it comes on. Shoot me now. Its lovely to see the series straying into suburbia, it is long past time the Earthbound adventures had a more personal touch. The Hale and Pace scenes are amusing but I’m not sure this is a serial that needed a comic touch when the rest of it is so deadly earnest. Alan Wareing’s direction is often stylish and apparent – I love the camera sliding around the shop corner when Ace meets up with Ange. A huge round of applause for Dominic Glynn’s exotic score which is one of the best the classic series ever presented. His use of electric guitar and piano are both sublime and I love the screeching, scratchy theme for the abductions. Low budget as it is I love the scenes of Ace being savaged in the kiddie play park because it feels rather dangerously like a place where anybody could visit and be threatened. The close ups on the horse and Ace’s legs as one pursues the other and the sudden cut to the Cheetah Planet are very dynamically realised. Rona Munro might not have been happy but I find the Cheetah Planet a truly volcanic location and the use of electronic effects and props (skulls and bones) suggest a savage and harsh wilderness (the music again really helps to sell the atmosphere). As the story progresses the skyline effects get better and better, suggesting the anger of the planet building. From Midge turning feral before them right up until Ace’s reveal, the lead up to episode twos cliffhanger is superbly handled by all concerned. Its nice to know that it is one of my heroes, Lisa Bowerman, bring Karra to life so expertly even when the costume lets her down. There’s a particularly grisly looking animal corpse that I am very glad we didn’t get to see Ace feasting on! The final confrontation between the Doctor and Master is really well done and I like how their rivalry is personified on the raging planet.
The Bad Stuff: Dear dear those animatronic cats are terribly unconvincing. I’ve heard all the excuse before…time, money, etc but that doesn’t alter the fact that the potentially gripping opening scene of Survival is hampered by an effect that takes you out of the drama straight away. As presented Perivale really does feel like borderm capital of the universe. The Cheetah People look mighty on their horses but the costumes are far too cuddly to be effective and a more subtle makeup job would probably have driven the point home more directly. Oh bless, the little Kitling is supposed to look as though it is eating the car cleaner but its clearly just licking his face. Poor old David John hardly gets anything to say and then his Doctor Who career is worsened when he turns up in the Big Finish adventure The Rapture as Ace’s super melodramatic brother! Just when the atmosphere on the planet is really hotting up the milkman appears and starts screaming which sets Sylvester McCoy off (‘DON’T MOOOOVE!’) and there is much tossing of polystyrene rocks! Much like Howard Cooke in Paradise Towers I think Will Barton is miscast as Midge when the role demanded somebody of a much beefier figure to pull of the terrifying transformation. I’m not sure how convinced I am about this weedy bloke and his sabre tooth knife. His meowing on the sofa is bloody funny! Wow that is one unconvincing dead cat…and the little girl isn’t much cop either. Midge pushing his way into the circle of guys with his macho posturing doesn’t work at all again thanks to Barton’s slim physique – these blokes could eat him up for breakfast. Patterson was a useful tool for showing how bravado can be a big front but it is disappointing that his character doesn’t really go anywhere and he gets an off screen death. Whose idea was the colliding bikes? It’s so ridiculously camp and unrealistic it destroys any credibility the finale might have had.
The Shallow Bit: A couple of the lads in vests perked my attention up in the last episode.
Result: At this stage of the McCoy era Ace was a far more interesting character than the Doctor and Survival scores big time by pushing him to the sidelines and exploring her sexuality and bestiality. Alan Wareing proves once again why he was responsible for a minor renaissance for the show before its demise and his atmospheric and emotive direction is aided by Dominic Glynn’s terrific score to make this a much more affecting experience than it would have been in lesser hands. To this day this still feel like a contemporary piece given that the new series apes the domestic approach Survival took. The two major faults with this show are the physical effects (the electronic ones are pretty impressive but the Cheetah People and the Kitlings are both really cute and unrealistic) and Sylvester McCoy who is trying his hardest but spends the first half of the story as a comic buffoon and the second half shouting his head off unconvincingly. Thank God Sophie Aldred and Anthony Ainley are there to take your mind off him and the latter in particular gives his strongest performance as a more feral, less pantomime Master. There are loads of great moments scattered about and the pacing is excellent but it shamefully devolves into a bit of a farce in the last episode with some ridiculous stunts. I want to be kinder to a story that takes these sorts of risks and pulls off some real sensuality but the end result lacks some finesse: 7/10