Sunday, 25 September 2011

Season Sixteen

One of my personal favourites of the shows run, the heart of the Graeme Williams era is a linked season of adventures that focussed on fun and imagination and delivered entertainment in spades. On his quest for the Key to Time the Doctor, Romana and K.9 face conmen and a war lord on Ribos, the sinister pirate Captain on Calufrax, blood sacrifice on modern day Earth, the moustache twirling Count Grendel on Tara, a giant squid on Delta Magna and the Shadow manipulating a war between Atrios and Deos!

The regulars -

The Ribos Operation written by Robert Holmes and directed by George Spenton-Foster


The Pirate Planet written by Douglas Adams and directed by Pennant Roberts

This story in a nutshell: I wouldn’t even attempt to sum this one up!

Teeth and Curls: The Doctor takes great exception to the TARDIS being described as a veteran and vintage vehicle and he doesn’t understand what rubbish they are teaching at the Academy these days that Romana cannot recognise what a superior vessel he travels in. Rather than be told how to pilot the TARDIS by some rank Academy amateur he rips the page of technobabble out of the manual with a riposte of ‘absolute rubbish.’ He is perfectly capable of admitting when he is wrong – only this time he isn’t. It's clever how the script plays on the Doctor’s frequent piloting errors because in this instance, the rarest of occasions, he really is right. Making contact with a new civilisation requires tact and experience but the only trouble is the Doctor is dreadful at it (well he does look like a complete fruitcake). Besides as K.9 so rightly points out Romana is prettier than he is. Looks like the old liquorice allsorts trick works on all guards around the universe. He saves planets mostly but this time he has arrived far, far too late. Whilst Romana is acting as the Captain’s scientific advisor she suggests that he should seek the Doctor’s advice...but only if he has the stamina. You suddenly see the wisdom in Tom Baker’s frivolous performance as the madcap mid Williams era Doctor because suddenly all that irreverence drops away as he informs Romana that they have stumbled on one of the greatest crimes of all time and you really believe him. The horror he expresses has all the more impact because of his previous frippery. He has a great little rant at the Mentiads - ‘His name’s the Captain and you know that! Why haven’t you kicked him out?’ He’s known hundreds of people that have lived for hundreds of years and it doesn’t automatically make them evil. Being an expert at regeneration and at winding up evil tyrants there seems to be a bigger glint in the Doctor’s eye than ever when pulling apart Xanxia’s eternal life scheme in the last episode. And it earns a belt around the face. This is the furthest the Doctor has pushed the TARDIS in his life, to the point where the old girl almost explodes with the pressure she is under to co-exist at the same time as the pirate planet. It seems that even the Doctor doesn’t feel that a story has ended unless there is a big bang and he punches the air with delight as the Bridge goes up in flames!

Snooty Fox: The fabulously posh Mary Tamm (if you watch interviews with her that is actually about as far from the truth as you can get...but she sure gives that impression good enough) is well in her stride now and Romana is turning her nose up every suggestion that Doctor makes. Romana has been studying the manual of the Doctor’s capsule and has a far better understanding of how the machine works and proves it by providing a perfectly smooth landing. She has an air of casual arrogance that runs throughout the entire tale; taking the piss out if the guards, smiling in the face of their guns and mouthing off to the Captain about her heritage. However even Romana has to admit that the Doctor’s solution to obtaining Calufrax (and thus the second segment of the Key to Time) is fantastic.

The Tin Dog: K.9 is at his best in this story; witty as hell and he even gets a fight scene with another robot animal! The Doctor is being flippant but K.9 realises that a piece of cake has no relevance to the Key of Time at all. He makes four attempts to tell the Doctor that Romana has been arrested but he is so busy getting involved he doesn’t have the time to notice. It might be a bit naff looking but I love the fact that K.9 gets to fight off another electronic animal to save the Doctor. He’s a good dog.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘How paralysingly dull, boring and tedious!’ – a line that could sink any other show (imagine if it was spoken in Underworld?) but the last accusation you could level at The Pirate Planet!
‘All I know is that this planet wasn’t here when I tried to land.’
‘Has anybody seen a planet called Calufrax?’
‘Wrong? It's an economic miracle! Of course it's wrong!’
‘Calufrax buried inside Zanak, the Pirate Planet, and having the goodness sucked out of it.’
‘And leave them defenceless! As weak as ordinary men! Obliterable!’ – go on say that line out loud, its great fun.
‘It's not scale that counts but skill’ – the Doctor Who motto.
‘Appreciate it? Appreciate it? You commit mass destruction and murder on a scale that’s almost inconceivable and you ask me to appreciate it? Just because you happened to have made a brilliantly conceived toy out of the mummified remains of planets!’ ‘Devil storms, Doctor, it is not a toy!’ ‘Then what’s it for? What are you doing? What could possibly be worth all this?’
‘The inertia neutraliser. You know I think the conservation of momentum is a very important law in physics, don’t you?’ ‘Yes!’ ‘I don’t think anybody should tamper with, do you?’ ‘No!’ ‘No nor do I’ ‘Newton’s revenge…’
‘All guards on the alert! Someone is using a counter jamming frequency projector! Find it and destroy it immediately!’ ‘Captain do you suppose any of the guards know what a counter jamming frequency projector looks like?’ ‘DESTROY EVERYTHING!’
‘Who’s Newton?’ ‘Old Issac. A friend of mine on Earth. Discovered gravity. Well I say he discovered gravity I had to give him a bit of a prod’ ‘What did you do?’ ‘Climbed up a tree’ ‘And?’ ‘Dropped an apple on his head’ ‘Ah, and so he discovered gravity!’ ‘No no, he told me to clear off out of his tree. I explained it to him afterwards at dinner.’ 

There are so many more lines I could quote to expose the genius of Douglas Adams but we'll be here all day...

The Good:
· I remember I gave this story to a friend of mine to watch because he had read some Douglas Adams and he was quite keen on Doctor Who but had only dipped into certain eras of the classic series and hadn’t seen any of Williams stuff. Once he had watched half of episode one he phoned me and left an answer phone message practically screaming about how truly dreadful and cheap this story was and he wasn’t sure how he was going to persevere. Once he had watched all four episodes I had another answer phone message that simply said ‘THAT WAS BRILLIANT!’ Something happened in those three and half episodes that completely won him over.
· After that disastrous model shot we jump to the Bridge which is a genuinely phenomenal set built during the stage of the season where there was still money in the kitty. The multi leveled, detailed, colourful and authentic set immediately plants you in the story – bravo.
· I have heard people criticize Bruce Purchase’s performance as the Pirate Captain but I think it is absolutely spellbinding. The whole point of the character is that he hides his genuine depth underneath all that bluster and aggression and had Purchase toned down the performance it would have completely blunted his gentler turn in the last episode, which is loaded with pathos. Plus his lines are gorgeous and he spits them with venomous glee. No I’ll take the Pirate Captain exactly as he is thank you very much: ‘My soul is imprisoned, bound to this ugly lump of blighted rock beset by zombie Mentiads and interfering Doctors.’ His relationship with Andrew Robertson’s toadying Mr Fibuli is one of the great double acts in Doctor Who; full of threats of violence until he dies and then his true feelings are revealed. We see his human side try and murder Xanxia whilst his robot side (controlled by her) disarm him. It’s the perfect way to show the struggle that must be going on inside him visually. His bluster to cover the fact that he is working out a way to kill Xanxia is a lesson to all of us to never take things on their face value. The Captain’s smoking, sparking death is horrible.
· It is obscured by intelligent ideas but the first episode of this story is actually a typical example of the Doctor Who formula. A duped civilisation, an underground menace, a dictator…these staples appear in many an adventure. As the story progresses and things get more complicated as Adams beautifully subverts the traditional Doctor Who adventure. If this were a Terrance Dicks script edited adventure those tropes would be exactly what they seem.
· I always chuckle when the Captain sends his guards out to capture the Doctor and as the door opens for them he ducks under it and says hello. Small things please small minds.
· The location work in the power station and the abandoned mine are extremely good at suggesting the scale of the operation and gives the story and its ideas a lot more gravitas than it would otherwise have. The Doctor and Romana are dwarfed by giant engines that genuinely look as though they have the stamina to push a planet through space and mine the life out of its chosen victim. They head down in a real mineshaft and then stand in a massive, ice swept cave. It looks fantastic and the scene where the Doctor spells out the nature of the Pirate Planet standing on the wet surface of a dead world is one of the finest shock moments in Doctor Who. It is brain burstingly imaginative and backed up by great visuals.
* Episode three begins with about ten minutes worth of exposition but because it is infused with humour, the characters are so enjoyable and the dialogue flows from the actors mouths like a fine wine filling a glass you barely notice.
· When I realised that the final resting place of Zanak will be the heavily populated planet of Earth it quite took my breath away. I never once considered the Earth being involved in a story as far out as this one and it has to be said that it is the most ingenious threats to the planet that the series ever attempted. Considering how many times it has faced the axe that is quite a statement. The last episode becomes a race against time to save the planet from being obliterated. Great stuff.
· The scene where the Doctor and the Captain argue over the ethics of this operation surrounded by the dead husks of the worlds he has destroyed is one of my favourites. The enormity of the concept is hard to get your head around and when the Doctor suddenly, sickeningly throws all of his venom at the Captain it brings home the lives that have been lost in this obscene scheme. Astoundingly good science fiction, ideas filling your head with imagination and with a real emotional bite.
· Watch as the dialogue skips along so intelligently as the Doctor tells Kimus that the Captain has no defence against the Mentiads but then points out a psychic interference transmitter…but don’t worry because he doesn’t have the minerals to operate it…oh wait those happen to be among the planets he has eaten. Just sublime.
· The sight of Xanxia caught between the time dams is an arresting image and leads us into the final, gob smacking twist that the evil Queen is still alive and her consciousness is currently in the form of the Captain Nurse. Whole planets have been sacrificed to keep this shrivelled thing alive.
· The solution to the cliffhanger is shown to the audience before it takes place but we don’t realise until afterwards. Its revelation leads into the exposure of the Nurse as a hologram. Nicely done.
· How could it be a pirate story without the Doctor walking the plank?

Brilliant Ideas: This is Douglas Adams’ debut Doctor Who script and it is spilling with imagination, almost too much to be contained within four episodes of a science fiction adventure serial. I love the idea of the Pirate Captain with half of his body made up of spare parts after his ship crashed (including a giant crushing metal arm) and whoever decided to stick the mechanical parrot on his shoulder deserves congratulations and not just because it probably pissed Tom Baker right off (who was still waiting for his shoulder hugging cabbage to feature). The script is patient enough to show us the effect of the TARDIS and the Zanak attempt to materialise on Calufrax at the same time two episode before we even learn the planet can consume other worlds. Adams treats his audience with intelligence and trusts that they can remember details. The effect of the two vessels materialising at the same point is the entire fabric of the space time continuum being ripped apart. It seems that the Doctor has made a mistake in his assessment of Calufrax but we soon learn he was right and something sinister is afoot. The most expensive gemstones in the universe strewn about like litter exactly where you wouldn’t expect to find them – more clues as to the nature of the planet. I think it's rather wonderful that a man who has diamonds and rubies can be enchanted by a jelly baby. You have a secret underground cult that seek out rogue telepaths. The Nurse slips into the story invisibly in the second episode, you’ll barely notice that she is there and have no idea that she is the savage Queen Xanxia behind this whole nasty business. The lights in the sky, the engines, the gemstones – there has been a wealth of hints but upon first viewing I don’t think anybody could have imagined the scale of the operation with Zanak claiming entire worlds. Zanak wraps itself around other, smaller worlds, smothers it, crushes it and mines all the mineral wealth out of it. The Mentiads are a telepathic gestalt, many minds combining to make a far more powerful whole. Every time that Zanak crushes a planet it releases its enormous quantity of energy and there is a psychic blast which attacks the Mentiads and makes them stronger. The energy needs of the time dams keeping Xanxia alive increase exponentially, eventually she will have burn up suns, galaxies, universes even to keep herself alive. In the end though, she will die. Or destroy the multiverse. And to top it all of the second segment to the Key to Time is an entire planet. That man Adams is a genius.

The Bad: This is one of those stories that hits you with a dreadful special effect in the first few seconds that makes you think that its going to be an awful story when it actually it is hoodwinking you completely. I know this didn’t happen but I could almost imagine Douglas Adams writing OPEN ON SHODDY MODEL EFFECT TO FOOL AUDIENCE because I credit him with so much panache in his storytelling. The population of the pirate planet seems to consist of about four people going ‘HOORAY!’ Mula sings the why song in her garishly decorated house (it goes something like ‘Why why why why why…’) and you might be forgiven for thinking that you have switched over to CBBC thanks to some of the kiddie friendly performances of the natives. Is the end of episode one the cheapest looking cliffhanger of all time? I think so. Episode four features Pralix’s new single ‘The Power Has Gone’ – keep and ear cocked for it. It goes ‘The Power…has gone! (pause) Thepowerhasgone!’

The Shallow Bit: Kimus rather fancies himself as a bit of a stud and walks into Mula’s house as though she is about to put out for him. Once she hugs him he swishes his hair back as though he is in a shampoo commercial and I could have sworn he looked at the camera and said ‘because I’m worth it!’ Those are some of the kinkiest and yet most elaborately beautiful guard costumes ever. In fact all the costumes are made from rich, colourful fabrics that are a feast on the eyes.

Result: An inspiring piece of writing that justifies Graeme Williams’s approach to Doctor Who and then some. A lot of people come down hard on The Pirate Planet for its weak production values and tepid direction but that is doing a disservice to the sheer entertainment this story offers. Once you get past episode one I think the majority of the story looks pretty good but what really matters is that Douglas Adams fires up the imagination like no other writer. Adams is a perfect fit for Doctor Who where his creativity can be let off the leash and the result is one of the smartest, funniest and best structured scripts (with the longest Sparkling Dialogue section by some margin) in the shows entire run. The twists are genuinely monumental and the final episode is packed full of wonderful scenes and subversions. Tom Baker is on fire and his confrontation with the Pirate Captain is one of the fourth Doctor’s best ever moments. With a parrot, a plank and a Pirate Captain that plunders other peoples goods even manages to be a damn a good pirate story! It was completely insane for them to even attempt making something as ambitious as The Pirate Planet on a Doctor Who’s budget but that is one of the reasons that this is my favourite show. It flourishes on this kind of giddy imagination and doesn’t hold back and as a result there are many moments in this story where Doctor Who approaches absolute genius: 9/10

The Stones of Blood written by David Fisher and directed by Darrol Blake

Teeth and Curls: Season sixteen is something rather wonderful nestled in the middle of Tom Baker’s reign as the Doctor. It’s after his first three seasons where he was still engaged and really trying to impress and before his last two where his fatigue starts to become apparent. It is the point where he is having the most fun with the role and it comes off him in waves and infects the audience. I love his huge grin when he realises they are going to Earth and whispers the name excitedly in her ear; it is really cute how he wants to show off his favourite planet to Romana. The Doctor and Romana are starting to enjoy each others company (‘How do I look?’ ‘Ravishing!’). I roared with laughter at the pained expression on Baker’s face when Beatrix Leahman discusses her academic credentials, wondering if she will manage to get the entire line out (it mirrors the worried glances Jackie Hill and William Russell used to share when Billy Hartnell had a long speech and is just as agonizing to endure). Watch how the Doctor practically trips after DeFries when he offers him a sherry (perhaps Baker hadn't indulged on that days filming). I love the insane, unpredictable nature of his lunacy and his sudden exclaim of ‘BRILLIANT!’ is something I have tried on several occasions and left a number of minor heart conditions in my wake. The fourth Doctor is at his height when combining action with his own inimitable insanity and the scene where he tempts the Ogri over the cliff with his jacket like a bull to red cloth is absolute genius. Baker shares great chemistry with John Leeson and the Doctor and K.9’s hissy fits leave me giggling like a loon (‘You’ve always wanted to be a bloodhound’ ‘Negative, Master’ ‘YES YOU HAVE!’ ‘negative…’ and even funnier is ‘I still don’t understand about hyperspace’ ‘Well who does?’ ‘I do!’ ‘Oh shut up K.9!’). Only the madly verbose fourth Doctor could make those crazy courtroom scenes work and he proves what a clever sod he is by playing on his innocence to uncover the truth about Cessair of Diplos and involves her in his execution to expose her identity. Surrounded by gorgeous and accomplished actresses, Baker is clearly having a whale of time with this witty script and it is a joy to be in his company. Even my mother, the staunchest critic of classic Doctor Who, found this story a delight because of Baker's energetic and quick-witted performance.

Snooty Fox: She’s an odd one, Mary Tamm’s Romana. My preference is to Lalla Ward’s bossy matriarch and yet I find the first incarnation has a far more rewarding season. In certain stories however the writers gave Tamm some terrific material to work with (for the record I think the stories that serve her best are Ribos, Stones and Tara), concentrating on Romana's comic clashes with the Doctor and pushing Tamm into the role of the straight man to the Doctor's idiot abroad. She is also treated like a useless old screamer far more than I would like too. The Stones of Blood is the quintessential Romana I experience, because she gets toshow off her intelligence and enjoy some warm and wonderful scenes with the other ladies in the tale but in the next breath she is tripping over cliffs and hanging over a vertiginous drop screaming for help.  Is she honestly so stupid that she thinks the Doctor finds her so irritating that he pushed her off a cliff? Because she has been put in a situation of mortal peril her reaction is believable but because of who she is blaming it isn't remotely plausible. She’s rather good at puzzles and even better at bossing the Doctor about. Romana is so much more convincing when she is doing research at Vivien’s house. When Mary Tamm is strapped to the wall next to the robot skeleton her expression screams ‘has my career come to this?’ I really like how she gives Amelia a peck on the cheek at the end; it’s a sign of affection of the sort that we’ve not seen from this character before and a gesture that she might be thawing out.

Sparkling Dialogue: Season sixteen is where Doctor Who discovered how wit could be used as a weapon to provide gorgeous entertainment...

'I'm no fashion expert' 'No...'
'I hope that knife's been properly sterilised!'
'Does your Cailleach ride a bicycle?'
'Nothing like sausage sandwiches when you're working something out' - never a truer word spoken!
'Jumping Joshua!'
'It's closing on us fast!' 'But its impossible!' 'No it isn't we're standing still.'
'In the cause of science I think it's our duty to capture that creature!' 'How? Have you any plans?' 'We could track it to its lair...' 'COME ON!'
'If they should break through run as if something very nasty were coming after you because something very nasty will be coming after you' 'But what about you?' 'Don't worry about me I'll be doing plenty of that in any case.'
'What does it matter? You know what they say about hyperspace' 'No?' 'They say its a theoretical absurdity and that's something I've always wanted to be lost in.'
'Aren't you supposed to offer me a last toffee apple or hearty breakfast or something? A free pardon!'
'Time, rust, dust, pieces of fluff! How would you like it if you condemned an inncent humanoid to death just because you got a a bit of fluff stuck in your sprocket wheel or whatever you have in there!'
'Too late I've just been executed.'

The Good Stuff: The mist sliding over the moon, blood pouring onto stone, pulsating evil…the opening scenes have a nostalgic taste of Hinchcliffe horror. The dialogue is quick, witty and wonderful, Fisher and Read marry to create a piece of writing that is simply a delight to listen to consummate actors bring to life. The model shots where Romana first points out the nine travelers is very atmospherically shot and scored, a solid move on the part of Darrol Blake. Amelia Rumpford is a legend; the companion that the fourth Doctor never had. Their chemistry is loaded with warmth, gentle humour and mutual respect which reminds me greatly of the sixth Doctor and Evelyn over in the Big Finish universe. The Doctor really should have had an elderly companion because it is on record that Baker was on his best behaviour when paired up with older actresses that he admired and simply because it's such a fun idea. Why he should always have to hang around with young, pretty slips of girls baffles me. Failing a permanent booking the BBC should have green lit a new gentle Sunday evening detective show titled Amelia Rumpford Investigates. There's plenty of stone circles in England for her to poke around and sniff out all the Druids lurking at each site. Amelia is hilarious, insulting, intelligent and utterly magnificent exquisitely played by Beatrix Leahman in the twilight of her career. Perhaps this isn't the most luxurious piece of drama that she has appeared in (as Baker points out in his autobiography, her tales from the past were much more interesting than the script they were acting out) but it is lovely that she should remembered by such a wider audience for a short appearance in one four-part Doctor Who tale. David Fisher steeps the story in mythology and history and rather than using the premise as an excuse simply to scare he gives it a real backbone (we learn much about stone circles and Druids, establishing for one story only some of that educationthat originally motivated the series). I have something of a problem with crows anyway so the lingering shots of the beasts, beedy eyes like droplets of black blood glinting in fire are enough to give me the willies.
The beautifully scored first appearance of the Cailleach is unexpected and creepy. And you can't say that too often about the Williams era. I love the cosiness of the settings; the vast English countryside, Vivien’s cottage, DeFries’ manor. It is a splash of ordinariness in the otherwise space age William’s era. Those set designers go to town smashing up the manor, suggesting a greater level of destruction from the Ogri than their cumbersome design allows for. Actually that isn't very fair, the Ogri are actually pretty well designed and look pretty nasty when they are pulsing with hunger, it's only when they move that there are problems (the castors are barely disguised). The crows on the TARDIS are very well done - was that just a lucky shot? Sometimes Doctor Who's limitations are its salvation and it is amazing how something as a swinging light in the cellar can produce a scene that is so effortlessly atmospheric. One of my favourite scenes in Doctor Who’s history comes when the Ogri pursues the Doctor and Amelia to the cliff top. Dudley Simpson’s music is priceless in those scenes, mocking the Doctor's attempt at baiting a bull (sorry stone) and the interplay between the two characters is addictive (it has stuffed my 'Sparkling Dialogue' to bursting). I could sit around and watch the Doctor and Amelia chatting in the cottage for the entire four episodes, those scenes are gorgeously played. The mix of domesticity (the setting) and imagination (the conversation they are having about outer space/inner time) is Doctor Who in a nutshell. The ‘SWITCH OFF!’ scene had me in stitches, all that build only for the machine to go phut. The nighttime camping scene is justly praised; it’s a sudden moment of underplayed horror which allows Blake to suggest far more horror than we ever see (I love the how the scream dissolves into red…). I understand this is the point where some fans want to turn off but I adore the sparkly, squeaky voiced Megara…they remind me of brutally anal and earnest Doctor Who fans (perhaps they are the ones that want to turn off). People mock the farcical courtroom scenes (often saying that the horror bleeds out of the story because of them) but I would rather watch a pleasing blend of comedy and drama that has some wit to it than a dozen screamingly sincere Hinchcliffe atmosphere pieces. The show is trying something new and committing to it totally (besides you've already had your love letter to Hinchcliffe in the first two episodes). Rather wonderfully, the Megara conferring amongst themselves has all the pitch and speed of a drunken gay bitch fight. Trust me, I've been involved with a few of those. The last episode is plotted very satisfactorily; the Doctor exposing Vivian Fey as Cessair of Diplos and Romana and Amelia proving her alien blood type coming together like a beautiful thing. Turning the Cessair into one of the stones has a delicious ring of justice to it.

The Bad Stuff: The Doctor handily recaps the Key to Time premise for those of us who haven't watched the first two stories. It's one of the frequent dangers of serialised arc storytelling over an extended period and I have seen it time and again in shows like Buffy, DS9 and Battlestar Galactica where plot points are awkwardly repeated so people can catch up. Doctor Who's unique formula means that it usually avoids this pitfall but with an umbrella themed season it is practically inevitable. The first cliffhanger is genuinely awful, the direction is so uncharacteristically bad that it is difficult to see what is actually going on (and it puts Romana in a very poor light). Poor K.9, has a companion ever been so mistreated? In his time he is abused, decapitated, blown up, Wolfweeded, turned evil, suffers a loss of power over and over and here he is the victim of the titular silicon based beasties. Vivien Fey is so obviously the villain since she is the only character who has been standing in the background with sly grins. Her useless wand can't even draw a circle in fizzing electric. The Doctor does the hyperspace jig when he lands on the ship, probably the only moment in this story when Tom Baker looks trips over into absurdity. Some real effort has gone into making the hyperspace ship look convincing, especially the swirling maelstrom visible in the windows so it is such a shame that the model work is so unconvincing (especially considering the Williams era has some of the most accomplished model work that the series has to offer). Dippy Diplos is such a duff villain; she stares at the screen hypnotically and growls 'Oooogriii!' Her look of pantomime horror as her sentence is read out belongs to a children’s studio bound entertainment show. They should have just called in Grotbags!

The Shallow Bit: Mary Tamm is elegance personified in that gorgeous red wine dress.

Result: The Stones of Blood pretty much sums up Doctor Who perfectly; two parts creepy horror, one part glowing domestic drama and one part science fiction madness, lots of quality performances and even the odd duff bit. David Fisher bursts onto the scene with potentially the wittiest script in Doctor Who, crammed full of sparkling, imminently quotable dialogue that the actors savour. I can still remember one evening my mum came home after having a really bad day and she watched this story with me and laughed herself silly and went to bed singing its praises - and I can't imagine a harsher critic of Doctor Who! It’s ridiculously entertaining throughout with some notable direction and effortless changes of tone. Matching the quality of the first two stories of the Key to Time season, this fun thriller isn't even my favourite story of the year: 9/10

The Androids of Tara written by David Fisher and directed by Michael Hayes


The Power of Kroll written by Robert Holmes and directed by Norman Stewart

The story in a nutshell: The Doctor lands on a swamp and meets some primitives and fights a giant squid. No, really!

Teeth and Curls: Season sixteen was a special time for Tom Baker’s fourth Doctor, where in even the lesser of adventures he was still having a whale of a time. Kroll has a higher than usual amount of location filming and Baker always said he preferred doing the location work where he  could hang out in pubs and live away from home for a few days so its no wonder he seems in such jubilant mood here. You can just see Baker, Madoc and McCarthy throwing down the pints and regaling each other with tales of past exploits. I’m not sure if they only appeared in this story but I really loved the birds on the Doctor’s lapels. The Doctor just looks right breaking through the reeds and hopping through the swamps and I adore the way he plays the flute with a piece of bamboo. Eccentricity comes naturally to Baker, I don't think he can ever switch it off.
Watch the scene where he is offered a drink at the refinery…he puts it straight into his pocket! Fancy mistaking him for Rhom Dhutt! He scoffs at the methane catalysing plant since he has seen hundreds before (despite the fact that this is the prototype). He is described as too glib by half and when his sympathies for the underdog are revealed Thawn thinks he is a Swampie lover from the Suns of Earth. Baker continues to have nice chemistry with Tamm (I especially liked the ‘this is the…’ ‘I told you not to exaggerate’). It's great how the Doctor keeps babbling on about the window to Romana’s annoyance because she thinks he isn't taking their situation seriously when that turns out to be their salvation. Holmes knows how to write the Doctor as an intelligent idiosyncratic. If in doubt, cut everything - that's perhaps not the best advice if you are trying to disarm a bomb (thank goodness the fifth Doctor had become slightly less calamitous around the time of Earthshock). The Doctor can tell when people are putting two and two together and leading to a conclusion that blames him. He’s had a happy life, he’s 760 and he can’t complain! Baker is a great action hero whether he is beating up Swampie’s, rowing his way to safety or taking on a mile long squid. It is easy to see why there was never any need to partner up Baker with another male companion after Harry.

Snooty Fox: Mary Tamm walks around this story with her nose in the air as if it is all a bit beneath her and to be fair it probably is. After writing her into the series with such aplomb, Holmes should be ashamed of himself for falling into the bad habits of the chauvinist writer, treating the character as a victim nine times out of ten in Kroll. Romana is kidnapped in record time and finds the sacrifice business all a bit tedious until she is confronted with a real-life monster and screams until her lungs threaten to burst from her mouth. That’ll learn yer!  She hates underground passages, that’s about the extent of what we learn about her here. No wonder Tamm (who does sound especially bored in parts) decided to leave at the end of the year. It was probably on the strength of this script, although to be fair when she is given the chance to interact with Baker the dialogue begins to sparkle. Whether that is the script or their chemistry I couldn't tell you.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Progress is a very flexible word. It can mean just about anything you want it to mean.’
‘Some sort of holy writ?’ ‘Its atrociously writ!’
‘Now you know what its like to be within an inch of death.’

The Good Stuff: Like The Invisible Enemy, I don’t mind this much-maligned story at all and can see some merits even when it is excruciatingly embarrassing in parts. Delta Magna is very nicely realised through some well chosen locations and the shot of the TARDIS landing amongst the reeds is one of the most memorable of its kind. I always love seeing the ship in such incongruous locations. As with all of he lesser directors on Doctor Who (Richard Martin, Pennant Roberts), it is the location work where all the energy and style resides. Almost as if the studio work is a bit beneath them. It is a pleasant change to land somewhere that looks genuinely exotic and alien without it having to be built in a studio. If you are going to do a story about primitives (and I’m not saying that you should, mind) you have to throw everything at it and the awesome location, canoes, huts and green skinned natives they conjour up is as good an attempt as we ever saw in the series. ‘He’s a Swampie!’ ‘Doesn’t he count?’ ‘No’ – Holmes doesn’t shy away from the racist element of the story proving that even the lesser Doctor Who stories can have a very good point to make. When I am alone at night and there is nothing to do (a rare occurrence, admittedly) I sometimes green up, grab my spear from the cupboard and  indulge in the Swampie ‘Kroll! Kroll!’ dance (or I could yanking your chain). Rhom Dhutt is a fabulously cynical old rogue, selling the Swampies defective weapons and trying to get out of the line of fire before they start using them. ‘He’s obviously one of those creatures who’s not always about the place!’ – The Doctor talks about mythological creatures that might swallow you whole with comical indifference. Perhaps I'm indulging in a bit of casual racism myself, but I always choke with laughter when that gun blows up in the Swampie’s face. It's like watching a caveman trying to build a house with a rock. The Kroll model is actually very accomplished and shot on film he glistens and gleams with frondy strength. It is when he placed against the action in some awkward split screen action when it all goes a bit wrong. I especially love his flapping mouth bits. To be fair to Kroll (I can't believe I just started a sentence with those words) if somebody was poking at my tentacles with giant rod I would burst from the pipe and drag the miscreant away. The moment when his tentacle bursts from the pipe suddenly is rather a good shock moment (it is when he wraps himself around a Swampie and drags him away that it becomes cringe-worthy). Something had to happen to make the ratings double from 6 to 12 million between episodes two and three. Perhaps the kids lapped it up. The chase through the swamps makes a refreshing change from the usual old corridors. I know it's pretty bad but I can’t help but love the end of episode three where the Doctor and Romana head straight towards Kroll in their little rowboat! To even attempt such a visual on Doctor Who's budget shows some balls. Thawn is stabbed in the gut by a spear and a whole lot of blood erupts from the wound, the bloodiest moment since Condo was shot in the gut in The Brain of Morbius. It is tentacle mayhem during the race against time conclusion. Stewart manages to make this sequence rather dynamic (Baker is doing most of the work admittedly) and I love the look on the Doctor’s face when he emerges holding the fifth segment. Episode four as written is one exciting set piece after another; mutiny, shootings, stabbings, the refinery under siege and the orbital shot detonation. Holmes hasn't lost his touch. Doctor Who is not one for an ambiguous ending and so Fenenr being surrounded by some mithily pissed off Swampies is unusual. 

The Bad Stuff: John Leeson should stick to being K.9, he provides an unconvincing Dugeen, a squeaky voiced sympathiser with a distressing line in emphatic gesturing. You have some very obvious gas pipes masquerading as torches. Why employ the services of actors like Philip Madoc and Neil McCarthy for the refinery scenes and waste them on countless scenes where they lounge about staring at monitors? ‘Oh my ankles are breaking!’ Romana complains when they clearly aren’t. The Refinery model work is dreadful, looking for all the world like a miniature oil rig standing up in a puddle. Shining a blue light and shaking the camera does not make a convincing storm. I laughed my head off when the tentacles came limply through the Swampie wall with Kroll’s bulbous head badly superimposed over the top – I realise these things are expensive whether they go right or not probably would have scrapped that effects shot. The Refinery mutiny should probably be a bit more exciting than ‘all life began on Mother Earth!’ and it probably wasn’t what they were aiming for for me to be cheering when Dugeen was shot in the back just to shut him up. The infamous wobbly walls (often mentioned in classic Who but rarely seen) make an appearance as the Doctor attempts to scale the silo. I’m not sure if I can point to a more atrocious effects shot than of the Kroll model emerging from the quagmire next to the Refinery model – the scale  of the two objects has been ill judged and it completely fails to convince. Romana heads out in to the corridor because she ‘just wants to see!’ which is a sign of a desperate writer attempting to add false jeopardy. Ranquin fawning before the floppy tentacled Kroll is one of the most toe curlingly awful Doctor Who sequences ever and guess whose mother in law was around the last time this story had an airing? 'Doctor Who is good I tell you!' I could be heard objecting to her mirth.

The Shallow Bit: Is it wrong to find naked green men sexy? Some of them have fabulous legs! Yeah alright, I'll move on.

Result: Oddly serious for a Robert Holmes script in the Graeme Williams era, this is another much criticised story that I don’t have much of a problem with. There are some moments in there that would turn up on any fans ‘most cringe-worthy scenes’ but to balance that there is some of the best location work we have ever had, a reasonably accomplished gargantuan monster (Kroll would kick the shit out of dodgy Dinos and the Skarasen who came from far more accomplished eras visually) and Tom Baker who is clearly having a whale of a time. It is a slow story for sure but Holmes writes his racism angle well (it's as well handled here as it is in Remembrance of the Daleks) and the last episode winds up being one of the most gripping of the year with one action set piece after another. Norman Stewart clearly wasn’t a Doctor Who director (his other credit is Underworld) but he at least manages to add a bit of polish to the story with the atmospheric OB work in the marshes and even attempts some ambitious physical effects. When you are talking about wasting actors like Philip Madoc and John Abineri on underwritten roles then you cannot laud a story too much, but there are few witty moments and on the whole it is a flawed but generally enjoyable romp around a swampy alien world. Considering it presents the biggest stereotype in fantasy television (the primitive culture) and doesn't suck is something to be proud of. A silly bit of nonsense but elevated by it's inclusion in the surprisingly consistent season sixteen: 6.5/10


Anonymous said...

My favorite season of Doctor Who.

I think PoK gets a bad rap for being a "pointless" adventure. Really, I don't mind adventures that are simply just that, adventures on alien planets, no saving the universe, just being good stories.

Anonymous said...

No review of The Armageddon Factor planned?