Friday, 9 March 2018

Zaltys written by Matthew J. Elliot and directed by Ken Bentley

What’s it about: In the Vortex, the TARDIS comes under a form of psychic attack – resulting in the abductions of first Adric, then Tegan. Following their trail, the Doctor and Nyssa arrive under the lurid skies of the planet Zaltys, whose entire population has vanished in strange circumstances. Soon, they discover that Zaltys is now the target of treasure seekers, come to scavenge this so-called Planet of the Dead… Meanwhile, deep below the planet’s surface, Adric learns the earth-shattering reason why the people of Zaltys disappeared... and why they were wise to do so. And Tegan is, quite literally, in the dark – enduring interrogation by the mysterious Clarimonde. Any friend of the Doctor’s is Clarimonde’s enemy... because theirs is a blood feud!

An English Gentleman:
It’s terrible how Gallifreyan deal with their old pensioners, the Doctor wasn’t going to let the TARDIS get consigned to the scrapheap because there’s plenty of life in the old girl yet. He tries so hard to keep Adric honest but thinks he might be losing a fighting battle. More of a traveller these days but not much of one without his companions. Like a library or a bank balance, the Gallifreyan lifespan is more a question of what you do with it than how much you have.

Alien Orphan: Gifted in any subject bar telebiogenesis, which the Doctor finds quite irritating. Really, is this all these is that is interesting to say about Nyssa these days?

Maths Nerd: He’s read all the maths books in the TARDUS library and so now he’s reading the Doctor’s collection of horror books about vampires instead. After meeting some in the flesh and being told they exist on practically every civilised world, he considers this research. He’s given up on people, they are just too unreliable.

Oh Rabbits: Adric cannot understand why Tegan is so keen to get back to vessels that only go up and down when she is currently travelling in a machine that can travel the length and breadth of the space/time continuum. She sneakily tries to get Adric to try piloting the TARDIS, to see if he can get her home. There will be plenty of questions about her Aunt, but she’s prepared to deal with that.

Dreadful Dialogue: ‘I don’t have the ion bonder! You said that you needed it when you wanted to repair the chrono-compensator!’ – exactly the sort of nonsensical dialogue that non-fans of SF expect to bump into if they give it a shot.
‘I guess I should have left the TARDIS with garlic and a crucifix and not just an ion bonder!’
‘I met a talking frog once, I guess there’s no reason I should have a problem with a talking fish.’
‘Let go hairy or I’ll fire!’

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘Tegan I need absolute silence!’ ‘Why, to concentrate?’ ‘No, I just always appreciate it when you’re quiet.’

 Great Ideas: If this were Red Dwarf then when Adric vanished from the console room then somebody would state ‘quick, let’s got out of here before they bring him back!’ But instead the Doctor, Tegan and Nyssa all react to the situation with grave seriousness. Why did the people of Zaltys go into stasis on such a grand scale? A meteor is approaching and the devastation will be planet wide, so the entire planets population was placed in suspended animation underground in the hope that they will sleep through the entire catastrophe (with a handful of volunteers remaining awake to monitor the equipment). The crew of the Exemplar are vampires and they are heading to Zaltys to feed on the sleeping population. The reported catastrophe was never going to happen, the sleepers were duped so the vampires would have a dozing larder upon their arrival.

Isn’t it Odd: Elliot is like the continuity master, he cannot help but ground the stories he writes in Doctor Who lore. Within minutes there are references to the Zero Room, the Master, Castrovalvla, Vampires, Aunty Vanessa, the ion bonder, rooms being jettisoned…Nyssa even almost squeezes out the line ‘I know so little about tele…’ It feels as though Elliot has been rummaging through one of those guides by Stammers/James/Walker and has assembled their dialogue out of the facts he unearthed within. A deluge of continuity doesn’t replace original character dialogue. What is it about these 80s Who stories that deal with the consequences of third Doctor and Jo stories? I’m starting to wonder if the lisping Time Lord and dizzy UNIT agent caused all kinds of mischief in time and space and that future regenerations will have to mop up their mess. ‘You seem to think you’re his arch enemy! Not called Zodin are you?’ Groan. The big twist that Tegan is being hunted by vampires is somewhat blunted by the conversation between her and Adric in episode one. Around episode three I felt as though there were some big explanations that I had been missing out on to make each other narrative threads work. The Doctor and Nyssa, Adric and Tegan all have their own story threads where they have met other characters but there is an overfamiliarity and an assumption that everything is happening for a reason, but I was completely in the dark as to what that was. I always question whether a Doctor Who story should be told when the inclusion of the Doctor and his friends makes no impact on the story whatsoever. Had they never got caught up in the machinations on Zaltys nothing would really be altered. The wormhole technology would be used for the vampires to reach Zaltys and feed regardless. So why are they there?

Standout Scene: Barnaby Edwards makes the third cliffhanger count for something. Despite the fact that we have been given no reason to care about the fate of the people of Zaltys, the idea of the vampires having access to a bunch of helpless sleepers is presented with appropriate gravity.

Result: I want to start with the positives, because there are some and it would be churlish of me to tear into another weak Matthew J. Elliot script without mentioning the blood and sweat of everybody else involved who is trying to make this work. Like the actors; especially the guest actors, who give polished, memorable performances. Like the director; who makes the first episode extremely palatable and ensures there are moments of uncertainty and suspense. Like the musician, Steve Foxon, who provides a deliciously tense score throughout. It just goes to show that Barry Letts was right that you can make a production as polished as you like but if the story itself is lacking then the foundations of what you are trying to build are uncertain and the whole thing will collapse anyway. I’m not sure if I’ve listened to a Doctor Who story that is quite as aimless and purposeless as this, one that purports to be full of important incident and characters reacting as though significant things are happening but ultimately comes to nothing significant whatsoever. I can see why they released the first episode as a freebie because it is the best of the four but once the four regulars have all reached their destination, the story stalls. You would think that splitting up the regulars in disparate locations would be for the purpose of bringing together what they learn and unifying the story but no, instead they are shunted off into dead end narrative threads and then the story just ends. Whilst the performances are fine, the regulars are written like a collection of facts gleamed from other stories and I never got the sense that Elliot understood who Tegan, Adric and Nyssa were or that they were learning anything from this experience. Tegan’s sub plot, in particular, is pointless and repetitive, wandering around a darkened spaceship and being hunted by a vampire but with no progression of the plot it just feels like we are going round in circles. There’s a narrow-minded society in suspended animation. There’s vampires. There’s a meteor about to hit the planet. And there’s an old enemy of the Doctor’s awaiting revenge. None of these things really amount to anything, especially the last, where the entire story seems to be built around their reunion that never happens. The titular planet is painfully dull, and I wonder if it was a positive thing that they bugger off underground and hide away from the rest of the universe. Or they should just be sacrificed to the vampires and we can get on with something more interesting. Ultimately the story is a lot of waffle but very little substance, with the regulars turning up in the story to react to the events rather than have an impact on them. Much like Elliot’s other scripts. This is a pretty disappointing trilogy overall, two reasonable adventures and one stinker. Fortunately, things have been repaired in the recent 5/Adric/Tegan/Nyssa trilogy. Again, kudos to Barnaby Edwards and the cast for, on occasion, convincing me that something relevant is happening: 4/10

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