Wednesday, 31 August 2016

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

This story in a nutshell: Romance, swashbuckling, dopplegangers and a castle siege...Doctor Who as a seductive sunny fantasy!

Teeth and Curls: There's an argument to be made that Tom Baker might have been drunk throughout the entirety of the Key to Time season. There's also an argument to be made that it is the zenith of his time in the role, an addictively insane turn as the knockabout Time Lord. Weirdly he's on a mission for the first time and more irreverent than ever, genuinely getting high on his adventures and yet still completely on point when he has jolt you into reality. Some of my favourite Tom Baker scenes take place this season (his moments with Garron in Ribos, his scenes with the Pirate Captain, domestic insanity with Amelia Rumpford) and The Androids of Tara is packed with glorious moments. He's at his loosest and Tom feels as though he has just turned up for a giggle. That works wonderfully well within the confines of a story that is essentially a giggle. 'I'm taking the day off!' he exclaims proudly at the start of the story, never mind that the universe is hanging in the balance. He'd rather fish than construct a whopping great McGuffin that can bring the universe to its knees. 'If you don't stop burning my scarf you're going to have to kill me!' he cries as Farrow chops off another inch of his trusty garment. 'It's funny how they always want you to go alone when you're walking into a trap!' he muses, obviously having learnt a thing or two from his previous adventures but still sticking his neck into the noose to rescue his beautiful damsel. The moment that makes me howl with laughter is when he realises he has been tricked by a dishonourable Grendel and rather than simply exclaim curses he risks being cut apart by laser bolts by opening the door and screaming 'Liar!' defiantly. He's one of a kind. NuWho thrives on those moments where the Doctor turns up at the climax and you want to applaud his timing and heroism...but the classic series wasn't quite as obsessed with that kind of hero worship. However the moment when the Doctor turns up to disrupt the wedding between Romana and the Count ('Hello everyone sorry I'm late, I do so love a good wedding!') I always punch the air. He is every inch the hero, brandishing a sword and indulging in one on one combat with the Count. Watch his glee as his little tin friend floats away on a boat at the end of the story, he watches him spin away into the darkness with a rowdy laugh. It's a gorgeous comment on the fact that this story has been one great belly laugh. Despite these priceless moments there is one that stands out above all the others; after he conspires with Grendel the Doctor storms over to Zadek and bursts 'the Count's just offered me the throne!' Makes me burst with laughter every time. God bless Tom Baker.

Aristocratic Adventurer: I've always been of the school that Mary Tamm is a decent enough actress but wasn't at all challenged by Doctor Who. At times she steps up and commands but often she walks through her stories as though an unpleasant smell is following her. But I have to give Mary Tamm her due, she rocks in this story. The script allows Romana to be ballsy and helpless and for the first episode and not for the first time she takes on the Doctor's role, wandering off, facing the monster, finding the key, seeking out the bad guy... of course she's soon twisting her ankle and laid out on an operating table about to have her neck cut off. You can stray too far from the traditional companion role in Doctor Who but I appreciate the effort, for 20 minutes. Instead of leaving her in a pathetic and useless position, Fisher makes her character pivotal to the story. You might need to rub your eyes by the end of the story, having to identify Romana, Princess Strella and the android copy of Romana. We've seen the doppleganger trope play out countless times in Doctor Who but this is the wittiest example by miles and Tamm makes each one distinguishable and still imbues her Romana with some pluck and resourcefulness. I love the moment where she escapes the castle on the horse she simply doesn't know how to ride. It's the sort of charming moment that Lalla Ward enjoyed a handful of in each story but Tamm was shortchanged of. The first Romana is something of an aristocrat and whilst Tamm in real life couldn't have been further from that it is still a characteristic she plays extremely well, so Strella is a convincing character in her own right. When Tamm is clearly enjoying herself she delivers terrfic goods and by all accounts she thoroughly enjoyed this story. She's as drunk on the atmosphere of the piece as much as the rest of us.

Sparkling Dialogue: 'Next time I will not be so lenient!'

The Good: What do The Androids of Tara and The Unicorn and the Wasp have in common? They are both wonderful fun to watch...but they are also delightfully low key stories in seasons that contain big hitters. Season seventeen features an off planet heist tale, an adventure that dares to run with the idea of mining planets, a story that juggles gothic horror and light entertainment, the biggest monster ever seen on the show and a finale that assaults the viewer with everything from a psychological war that is driving a planet to dust to a degrading time loop that could end the universe. In comparison, Tara features the political escapades of a rougish Count and his romantic entanglements with the local gentry. Doctor Who (especially classic Who but it has become increasingly popular in Nu Who too) has always had a penchant for operatic storytelling but Tara literally revels in it's irrelevance. The direction is wonderful, the best this year. Mike Hayes has a keen eye for memorable location filming and shot on one of the hottest summers on record in the UK, it's dazzlingly rich and warm looking story. The story positively glows with colour, the woodland and fields make a superb location for all the running about and fighting and add a nice touch of realism to a story that deals with the extraordinary.The scenes that feature the pavilion are the best and it is rare for Doctor Who to venture out into night time filming.  Leeds Castle lit up from below in all its glory is a sight to behold. The story is filmed with the same lightness of touch as the script so they compliment each other well and the sense of enjoyment from all involved is all up on screen. There are a good few Doctor Who stories (Paradise Towers is an obvious example) where the tone of the script and the tone of the direction fight each other. In Tara they are married in perfect unison. The secondary characters work very well without ever threatening to become the best ensemble of guest characters the show has assembled, Farrah and Zadek aren't half as bland as people would lead you to believe ('funny, some androids say that about people' works well on both of them) and the Archimandrite is played wonderfully by Cyril Shaps, a far cry from Viner from Tomb of the Cybermen or Clegg in Planet of the Spiders. Shaps is always good value. Lamia is the best character though, icy cold and desperate for some love from Grendel. She looks and acts extremely dangerous. An astonishingly straight performance from Lois Baxter, but a chilling one. it stands out because of it. The biggest thumbs up however must go to Doreen James for her outrageously colourful costumes, some of the most striking ever seen in the series. Romana's purple and green blouse! The Archimandrite's huge multi coloured hat! Grendel's suave scarlet tunic. Colour, colour, colour...Tara is like an assault on the senses.

The Bad: It is one of those seventies stories where there is so much location work that the cut back to video in the studios is very jarring. The outside filming looks so expensive that the studio work cannot help but look cheaper by comparison.

Result: Watching this story is like enjoying a glorious afternoon with friends blissed out on wine and basking in golden sunshine. I always finish it with a smile on my face. If you're in Doctor Who for space battles or UNIT adventures then this might not be your glass of vino but if you're willing to go on a fairytale adventure in outer space then this just about the zenith of what Graeme Williams tried to achieve with Doctor Who. It's unique in of itself and deliberately small scale, highlighting atmosphere, gentle plot twists and memorable characters. It uses Romana better than any other story to feature Mary Tamm and features the Doctor at the top of his game; swashbuckler, king-maker and master of witty repartee. The episodes revel in the escape-capture-escape-capture routine, trying to make them more and more elaborate and entertaining and the plot is explained throughout most charismatically by the insanly lovable Grendel. It even has time for a five minute sword-fight and a spot of fishing. We Doctor Who fans are a right fickle bunch, we claim we always want something new interesting and yet when it is delivered we moan and groan about how what we are getting now isn't as good as how things used to be. There are a selective bunch who object to Doctor Who pushing its boundaries too far, who like to claim that a show that features Marco Polo, The Daleks' Masterplan, The Ice Warriors, The Mind Robber, Inferno, Carnival of Monsters, The Sontaran Experiment, The Invisible Enemy, The Pirate Planet, Black Orchid, Enlightenment, Revelation of the Daleks and Ghost Light a formula. I think this is might be why The Androids of Tara has only received a mild reception in the past, recent years have shown some moderate praise in its direction but on the whole fandom seems to want to forget about it. Why? Because it dares to be different. There is no other Doctor Who story like this one and for me that is its ultimate strength, it encapsulates the show during a creative peak, trying out outrageous new ideas to see if they could fit into the shows scope. I wouldn't really try and pin a genre on this story... is it a SF story, a romance, an action piece or a comedy? All of these and more and with more than a twist of The Prisoner of Zenda, it's a touch literary too. It dares to be uncynical and magical and I really love it for that: 9/10


Anonymous said...

hi Joe
I have seen you are reviewing the Classic episodes. Will you continue with the audios when fnished?

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David Pirtle said...

How could the 'sparkling dialogue' be anything else? It's a delightful story.