Monday, 23 December 2013

The Mysterious Planet written by Robert Holmes and directed by Nicholas Mallet

This story in a nutshell: Why has the Earth been blown two light years of course and renamed Ravalox?

Aristocratic Adventurer: My favourite story for Colin Baker’s sixth Doctor. It’s a brilliant re-invention of the character by Robert Holmes, practically a rendition of the comic strip Doctor who was far more cute and approachable than the acidic example of season 22. People say that the Trial idea was ill judged but as a chance to examine the sixth Doctor and make judgement it was ideal and the irony is that although the fans had fallen in love with him by the end of the season (or by the end of this story probably), it was he who was blamed for the shows deficiencies. A real shame. But I refuse to wrap up this introduction to the best characterisation my favourite Doctor on a negative note. He is travelling alone at the beginning of the story, dragged off course and totally wrong footed by events. He’s scathing about the Time Lords which is always good for a laugh. He’s impatient, petulant (‘NOT GUILTY!’) and arrogant (‘I AM LORD PRESIDENT OF GALLIFREY!’) which should make him thoroughly unlikeable but it is played in such a childish, innocent manner you can't help but love him as he throws his toys out of the pram on public display. I love the scene where he tries to comfort Peri, heartbroken at the loss of her planet but he does it in exactly the kind of serene alien way that Baker wanted to play the role from the beginning. The Doctor cannot walk away from a mystery and he has to have answers. His scenes with Balazar sparkle with wit and humour. Always likes to do the unexpected because it keeps people on their toes. ‘Never believe what is said, only what you know’ is just one of his pearls of wisdom this season. I loved his affronted reaction to having his teddy bear taken from his pocket, stuffing away petulantly. He taunts Drathro hilariously (‘You’re obviously a robot used to getting his own way!’) and never misses a chance to have a dig. Does the Doctor corrupt events wherever he goes? Look at the childish look he gives the Valeyard when he gets one up on him; I bet the kids loved that. ‘That’s where the money is!’‘How do you put up with him?’ – its one winning line after another. He does a pantomime ‘whoops!’ once he is caught escaping which is pure Troughton. The Doctor finds physical violence distressing…especially when he is on the receiving end of it. ‘These are not my friends!’ he says of Glitz and Dibber and then grabs Peri. He softly calls out for Sarah Jane and as soon as he realises it is Peri he starts barking orders. He cannot let people die if there is a chance of saving them. The Doctor’s furious, childish rant in the courtroom is one of Colin Baker’s finest scenes in his televised adventures; full of moral outrage, butting heads against bureaucracy and criticising Time Lord impotence – he’s radiantly good. Wow, the Doctor trying to convince Drathro to save his slaves at the cost of his life reaffirms his morals and beliefs in a beautiful way. Holmes has tapped into a softer side of the sixth Doctor and it's gorgeous. Good with intelligent reasoning and bad with low cunning. ‘I did my best, I only hope its enough’ sums up the Doctor perfectly. Rather than shouting at Peri he cuddles her. Not many people can claim that they have saved the entire universe. Although I am willing to bet he will mention it a few times.

Busty Babe: Another great use of Peri, I am starting to wonder if I underestimated the writers of her time as, apart from the occasional moment of outrageous sexism, I have enjoyed her character and her rapport with both Doctors greatly. She goes on an astonishing journey in her first three stories alone; introduced to the Doctor's insane lifestyle, having him sacrifice his life for her and then finding herself trapped with an unstable and unlikable replacement. Nicola Bryant is always served the best material but she does her best with it and there are several moments in every story where she shines (the only story where you would be hard pressed to find anything of worth for her is Timelash). Peri holds the Doctor’s arm as they enter the story, their gentle affection is wonderful and long overdue and it makes perfect sense to have had these two travelling for years and getting along famously now. Peri’s reaction to the devastated Earth is probably her most natural material, real effort has gone into making this as poignant as possible. ‘Such women as we have must be shared’ – poor Peri blanches at the idea of being supplied to many husbands. She makes a great gag about infidelity. It's nice to see Peri branching off and having her own adventures, both here and in Mindwarp, and she forms good chemistry with Glitz and condemns him for his mass murdering schemes. ‘Now they’ve killed the Immortal she’s planning a takeover’ – there’s a really blatant accent slip there. It's great how the Doctor and Peri practically talk in short hand when the chips are down and how Peri asks the very natural question ‘oh great so that’s why we’re going in, is it?’ about walking into danger. She convinces Merdeen to leave Drathro’s slaves alive. Confident and funny, she's great fun to be around these days.

Sparkling Dialogue: One of my most quoted stories…it's one humdinger of a line after another.
‘Amazing the effect a long bang can have on a primitive mind.’
‘Planets come and go, stars perish, matter coalesces, reforms into other patterns, other worlds. Nothing can be eternal.’
‘I’m sure my conscience will prick a little but where money is concerned it doesn’t usually last long.’
‘Be silent, fat one!’
‘I have read it in the flames many times! We go…forward!
‘We should be free…’
‘Immature? I was on Ravalox trying to avert a catastrophe! The Deaths of several hundred innocent people. Surely not even in the eyes of Time Lords can that be deemed either immature or a crime!’
‘Don’t try and think about it Dibber, you’ll give yourself a hernia.’
‘Everything in life has its purpose Drathro. Every creature plays its part. But the purpose of life is too big to knowable, a million computers couldn’t solve that one.’

The Good Stuff: A jaw dropping opening sequence; a dizzying, detailed, atmospheric and vertiginous piece of model work of the sort of quality we are simply not used to on Doctor Who (and the score that accompanies it is wonderfully funereal). I like it when we head off to an unusual location and the autumnal, foggy, barren woodland carpeted with leaves very much looks the part or a devasted Earth making a fine recovery. Glitz and Dibber go down like a fine wine, it’s a witty Holmesian double act that comment on the action abusively. The truth of where the Doctor and Peri is is brought home suddenly with the authentic looking escalator set, a genuinely impressive piece of design work. The Earth has been devastated, blown off course, a war of primitives against technology – Holmes sure knows how to dream up a potent scenario. Micheal Jayston, Lynda Bellingham, Tony Selby, Joan Simms and Tom Chadbon…the Trial stories boast the most incredible casts, as many big names as you would find in a Poirot drama now. Drathro is a towering, multi limbed and jointed robot and is every bit as menacing as the Giant Robot wasn’t, he’s a fearsome piece of design. Look at how much effort has gone into making the primitive settlement work (the design, costumes, the mixture of elderly citizens and children and scenes of them cultivating the land…that’s a lot of background effort that we don’t always see in Doctor Who stories). The books of knowledge are a great running gag, especially the Doctor’s reaction to UK Habitats of the Canadian Goose by HM Stationary Office. Glitz’s scenes just get better and better (‘D’you think an old hag like you can bring me down?’). The L1 can be laughed at but it is far better than the last attempt at this sort of thing in Terminus (plus I love it's mock Jaws theme). I love the hunt through the leaf blown woods, it's such an awesome location to choose, lots of ducking in and out of the trees – when I first watched this story I just wanted to head out into the woods and get chased about. The gentle rivalry between Merdeen and Grell is nicely played, especially the latters death and the formers grief stricken reaction. Bleeping the evidence and setting up mysteries and revelations for later on is much more accepted in the arc driven seasons of today and the unsolved mysteries are nicely mentioned by the Doctor at the end of the story. If people think waiting a handful of stories for answers is stretching it, I guess they never imagined the patience straining plotting of Moffat era that introduced elements in The Eleventh Hour that still haven't been solved. The last episode is one priceless moment after another for the sixth Doctor. I love Dibbers style; when the going the going gets tough, he blasts a buggering great hole in the wall! The sizzling, smoking Drathro looks excellent, a molten metal man. I’m glad Holmes lets Glitz and Dibber get to clean up on this job and have a tasty little kitty for the next venture…lets hope it's soon. At first you might think the Valeyard might be taking the wrong approach by showing a story that boasts a heroic Doctor but this is just softening up material, lulling him into a false sense of security before condemning him with Mindwarp!

The Bad Stuff: The subway sets are over lit and plastic, a sharp contrast to the shadowy, foggy locations elsewhere. It’s easy to mock the yellow boiler suits. I am still uncertain about the Trial season version of theme tune. When I hear it now it reminds me of his Big Finish adventures because they have rather monopolised the theme (and as such it does get me excited because Sixie's audio adventures are by far my favourite). However as a piece of music it is perhaps a little to subtle for me. Can a trial transform into a witch hunt that easily? Humker and Tandrell are wittily scripted but should have been brought to life by a less wooden pair of actors. The Doctor has faced far more impressive dangers than that at the end of episode two and hasn't felt the need to make such grand statements. One thing that often gets me cross about the ratings is how people use them to defend stories they like and damn stories they don’t. The Mysterious Planet has one of the lowest ratings of the entire series but then so does The War Games and Ghost Light are yet they are praised on their own merits. Whereas stories such as Underworld and The Power of Kroll are blessed with individual episodes that reach 11/12 million and we all know how thrilling they are. It’s all nonsense of course, the show would always recover (as it does this season into something a lot more respectable) but there is no doubting that the hiatus has had a huge impact on the reputation of the show, the overall average this season down by about two million viewers. It’s fortunate that the dialogue sparkles so brightly because the story runs on the spot in episode three before rallying for a great final episode.

The Shallow Bit: The thoughts I used to have about Dibber when I was younger were obscene. It's not often you get a cute bit of rough like this in Doctor Who.  How embarrassing, the Doctor looks as though he is humping the L1 at one point. Drathro holds up the secrets like a dainty new handbag!

Result: Another seriously underrated eighties story, The Mysterious Planet features some of Robert Holmes wittiest dialogue and he gives all his characters some wonderful moments. A lot of people use this story as a example of how ill Holmes was and how his work suffered as a result but I just cannot see that there is a noticable drop between this and the majority of his other work on the show. The script is imaginative, fun, adventurous and packed with lively characters and set pieces. Nick Mallet’s direction is lighter than anything we have seen since Black Orchid but it lets the actors and the design work charm us throughout. Give the man a hand, Colin Baker has never been better in televised Who and the sixth Doctor as seen here is the Doctor at his peak. With an incredible cast, some lovely autumnal location work and lots of lovely ideas zipping about it's another story I find a joy to re-watch. The Trial of a Time Lord is regularly knocked because it's fashionable to do so but when you break it down there is far more here to enjoy than there is to dislike. Give it another chance and let the great gags and warm script wash over you: 8/10

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