Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Doctor Who Review Three

The Sontaran Experiment is the one which comes in between Ark in Space and Genesis of the Daleks. It was two episodes long.

*

The Sontaran Experiment is a Boy Scout Wide Game; or possibly an installment of the Famous Five, only with space suits. When Sarah-Jane encounters Roth for the first time, she absolutely charmingly says that he is wearing "space clothes".

The Doctor's team lands in a rough patch of English countryside; Harry and Sarah go for a walk while the Doctor does science; Harry falls down a hole. Sarah goes to get help from the Doctor, but Harry gets out of the hole by himself. Two spacemen with guns capture the Doctor; a more friendly spaceman without a gun meets up with Sarah-Jane. Sarah-Jane cleverly frees the Doctor; the Doctor falls down a hole. It's a grand old game of space-chase, with space-clothes, space-ray-guns and space-robots

And also, of course a really nasty space-alien. Although the story is only half as long as usual, the cardinal rule that we aren't allowed to see the monster until the end of Episode 1 is adhered to. While the Doctor, Harry and Sarah-Jane run around Dartmoor, sinister hints are dropped about "the thing in the rocks" and "the alien". For the third story running we get scenes filmed from the monster's point of view: we see a nasty claw like hand operating a futuristic control panel, and are left wondering who or what the hand could possibly belong to. The music reminds us to be quite surprised at the end of Episode 1 when the antagonist of The Sontaran Experiment turns out to be... a Sontaran!

It is traditional at this point to say that Sontarans look rather silly. Reviewer's generally say that Field Marshall Styre looks like 

a: A baked potato, 
b: Humpty Dumpty or 
c: A poo. 

In fact he has aged a lot better than many of the monsters in the old series. He blinks. His mouth moves. His face looks human, but huge, distorted, ugly: very much what a being from a high gravity world might be expected to look like. There was a character from the planet Jupiter in the Guardians of the Galaxy (not to be confused with the Guardians of the Galaxy) with a rather similar physique.

The man under the mask was called Kevin Lindsay. He played an amusing cockney milkman in a series of adverts for the Milk Marketing Board on the Other Side. We really did have a chirpy cockney milkman in those days with an electric van who put milk on our step every day. Kevin Lindsay the actor died very soon after making the Sontaran Experiment. It was one of the first deaths I can remember. It did not make me sad but somehow rather embarrassed. It was strange to think that the funny cockney milkman and the Sontaran were not there any more.

*

The Sontaran Experiment is a cosmic space opera sweeping across three empires and ten thousand years, yet observing the Aristotelian Unities. In this corner—in this galaxy—the militaristic cloned Sontaran Empire, eternally at war with the not-yet-glimpsed Rutans. In this galaxy, an earth rendered uninhabitable by solar flares, and a human diaspora. Season 12 is well-known for its theatrical rhetoric. Vural's expository ditty may not reach the heights of "a capsule which contains such power" but it evokes a cosmic tapestry with some dramatic flair. 

"Listen: if you are one of the Old People we are not taking orders from you lot. While you were dozing away, our people kept going and they made it. We've got bases all across the galaxy now. You've done nothing for ten thousand years while we made an Empire. So we're not taking any of that Mother Earth rubbish." 

"That Mother Earth Rubbish" is not further developed or explained; but we instantly get the idea. There are two classes of humans. The long-sleepers in the Ark will regard themselves as purer and more human than the returning colonials. The colonials are not having it. Nothing comes of the idea; but it hangs there, making time seem awfully long and space awfully big. 

Just at the exact moment when the Ark is ready to defrost the Sontarans have decided to use the Earth as a beach head to invade our "Galaxy" as part of their endless war. But before they start, they need to figure out the human race's weaknesses. So they send out a fake distress signal and start experimenting on the humans who respond to it. Nasty experiments; leaving humans chained up in caves to see how long it takes them to die of thirst; holding them underwater to see how long it takes them to asphyxiate. Nothing is shown graphically, but it's a disturbing, cruel idea to put into kids' heads on a Saturday evening. 

It makes absolutely no sense at all. It never does. One Sontaran? Holding up the invasion of the galaxy until he has finished scientifically torturing half a dozen humans? 

But who cares. A diaspora; a return; earth destroyed but reborn; two alien empires in endless war; colonial resentment towards the Mother world—the stuff of multi-volume Asimov space sagas, squeezed into two twenty five minute tooth paste tubes. And make no mistake: a multi-volume Asimov saga based around this material would be as tedious as—well, as tedious as Isaac Asimov. It is hearing the Big Ideas alluded to, in passing, during a romp through woods and quarries, which is so magical. 

I think that is why we took it for real history. When we heard about the lost colonies and the Sontarans and the Rutans, we didn't think—we never thought—"this is corroborative detail which Bob Baker and Dave Martin are pulling out of their collective hats to lend artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative." We honestly believe that it was exposition of a long established back story. We thought that if we were proper Doctor Who fans—the kind who preferred William Hartnell and owned the Dalek Outer Space Book —we would know this stuff already. And I think this is part of the intended effect. This kind of back story means something, in a way that "I was with the Philipino Army during the siege of Reykjavik" doesn't. The Sontaran Experiment and the Ark in Space take place in the same universe, obviously, but so in a way does the Revenge of the Cybermen and the Invasion of the Zygons and that universe is different from Star Trek or Blake's Seven even though you would be insane to try to draw a map of it. 

See, over there? That's the universe, that is. 

*

Tom Baker is still establishing himself as the serious one. And the sad one: the sad serious one who grins a lot. He spends much of the episode sciencing; but when the moment comes, our jaw drops slightly and he announces that he is going to challenge the Sontaran to single combat. Our benevolent wandering alien versus the ugly space Nazi on a post-holocaust earth (that looks oddly like Dorset) with the fate of the galaxy resting on the outcome. This is a new thing in Doctor Who. 

Sarah-Jane is crucial. We cannot imagine the Very Early Fourth Doctor without Sarah any more than we can imagine the Second Doctor without Jamie. She grounds him; humanizes him; without her he would be a scary out of control alien ego, as indeed he subsequently became. Of course, the Fourth Doctor is Harry and Sarah-Jane's space Dad, and they are to him as small children. 

"What you are trying to say is that you're busy and you'd like us to push off" says Sarah 

"I'd phrase it more elegantly myself, of course" says the Doctor, and off they push.

But The Fourth Doctor is also a nasty, cheeky, brilliant child (which is why he is still so adored by nasty, cheeky, brilliant children of all ages). Look at the infuriating grin when Krans orders him to talk "Certainly, what would you like me to talk about?" or the studied sneer when he is recaptured "Can't say I'm delighted. No use pretending." Do you want to applaud him, or give him a good slap? It falls on Sarah-Jane to manage this man-baby. At 26, she seems to be intuitively maternal (look how sensitively she deals with torture victim Roth). When Harry is patronising and sexist, she allows herself to be annoyed; but with the Doctor she is gentle and indulgent while steering him in the right direction, narrowly avoiding a sulk when he thinks he has lost his favourite toy. 

"Doctor, I've found your sonic screwdriver..." 

*

The Sontaran Experiment is Doctor Who at its purist, at its silliest, the quintessence of Saturday Evening Teatime. Doctor Who was a children's programme. Doctor Who was a game we played in the playground, space men and Daleks, cops and robbers, colonists and Sontarans.  It felt like Doctor Who had always been like this; and there was no reason for it ever to be anything else. But in truth, we were looking at a version of the show which would be consigned to history by the end of next season.



Friday, October 26, 2018

I thought this would be a good moment to let everyone know that I have been officially Not Very Well but am now feeling Much Better.

Two weeks ago I went out to do some shopping and get a cup of coffee and found I couldn't get to the bottom of my road because of a sudden and very nasty pain my leg. I managed to get to the doctor's with the help of passing driver and it turned out that I had a fairly impressive blood clot. After a lot of tests, pills, injections and a stay in Southmead General Hospital, I now don't have a blood clot any more, and my left leg is very nearly the same size as my right leg, which is the way I prefer it.

I am probably going to have to be off work for another three weeks; currently have to give myself injections twice a day but will shift back to pills in a couple of weeks time. I feel pretty much okay again. Like Winnie the Pooh I just completed my walk, did my shopping and got my cup of coffee.

It is of course a matter of political dogma that NHS staff are wonderful, but this is (thankfully) the first time I've seen it close up; in the whole process I didn't come across anyone, from consultants to cleaners being anything other than cheerful, patient and helpful, even for a second. Although the nice Jamaican man who kept bring me cups of tea was convinced my name was "Rustone" and kept calling me "Rusty."


Total cost to me so far: £16 prescription charge and whatever I paid for taxis to the hospital. I hate to think what a ride in an ambulance, four nights in hospital, radiographers, surgeons, ultrasound and MRI tests and a home visit from a nurse to make sure I knew how to do the injections would have set me back if I lived in Abroad. No forms to fill out, no conversations with insurers, no proof of eligibility: I just staggered into Montpelier Health Center and said "I don't feel very well" and the doctor did some basic checks and said "We'd better to get you to the hospital and get you checked out": I was seeing a specialist within an hour of presenting.

No fuss, by request. Will take seriously all lifestyle advise from my physicians. 

Friday, October 19, 2018

Doctor Who: Another Review


Episode 3

A man pulls his hand from the pocket of his uniform jacket. Tuneless music thumps in the background. He looks, shocked, at the hand. It has been completely consumed by a green, alien parasite. 

As we see his shocked face, the music cuts out, and a surreal female voice cuts in. "Halloooo....Space Station Nova!" It starts as a portentous sing-song chant; but gradually turns into generic political rhetoric. "And now, across the chasm of years, I send the prayers and hopes of the entire world."

As the voice speaks, we cut away from the man: first to an external view of a space station, then to an empty corridor, and then to an impressively large interior chamber. As the voice says "You have slept longer than the recorded history of mankind!" we see row after row of plastic, human shaped caskets.

Sarah-Jane, Harry and a uniformed woman listen: the Doctor walks slowly across the scene.

As the speech reaches its climax, we cut back to the guy with the possessed green hand. "You have been entrusted with a sacred duty, to see that human culture, human knowledge, human love and faith, shall never perish from the universe" says the speaker, invoking the ghost of Abraham Lincoln. The possessed man starts to cry, and then smashes the hand against a control console. As it finally comes to an end, the uniformed woman catches the Doctor's eye. (She is Vira, first of the humans to be defrosted.) We finish on a long close up of Tom Baker's face.

This is the opening scene of Episode 3 of The Ark in Space. It is like something out of an opera: the whole story shrunk down to one little scene. Even if we missed Episodes 1 and 2 — even if we are not sci-fi fans and have never heard the word "cryogenic" before — we understand perfectly what is going on. It is the very far future. A small number of humans have been frozen and sent into space to keep the species going. And they have been infected by an alien parasite.

It is so good — proper Mythic Level good — that I think it is the only thing most of us remember about the story. The last humans. On a spaceship. Being turned into aliens. I suppose the Doctor must have saved them in some way.

Remember C.S Lewis's comment about the ending of King Solomon's Mines? "The trap I remember forever. How they got out I have long since forgotten."

Episode 1 – 2

But we are not watching an opera. We are watching a hundred studio-bound minutes of Doctor Who, stretched out over four cold February Saturdays more than forty years ago. And this is not Episode 1 one, but Episode 3: it has taken us a fortnight to get anywhere near the beginning of the story.

Episode 1 was another initiation, an enforced wait until we get to the good stuff. The Doctor and Harry and Sarah-Jane wander around the space station trying to work out what is going on. Harry accidentally locks Sarah-Jane in an airtight room; Sarah-Jane manages to teleport herself into a cryogenic unit. The Doctor gets increasingly impatient with Harry: Ian Marter, bless him, has nothing to give and poor dear Tom has to carry the episode on his own.

"Have you pushed any buttons, Harry?"
"What, me?"
"Well, there are only two of us here, and your name is Harry."

In Very Old Who, this was a fairly standard way of starting a story: everyone would walk around the set and Ian would say "Hey, Doctor, what do you make of this?" until someone worked out what was going on. But the initial set up of, say Planet of the Giants or the Space Museum were at least a little bit puzzling. We all worked out pretty much what was going on on Space Station Nova as soon as we found out that the story was called The Ark In Space.

Episode 1 ends, right on schedule, with Harry opening another one of those Mysterious Doors and a GIANT ALIEN CRUSTACEAN emerging. It turns out, fortunately, to be a dead alien crustacean, and we get right on with the exposition. It's only at the end of the second episode that the station commander, known as Noah ("a name from myth") gets his hand scratched by a green alien caterpillar, and the story proper gets under way.

It is a mistake to judge the past by the standards of the present. We can tell that the alien caterpillar and the parasite taking over Noah's arm is made of green bubble wrap, but people in Olden Time couldn't. Most people were watching in black and white, so it was less green and more, well, bubble wrap coloured.

Episode 3

There is a limit to how long you can stand around saying "Gosh, this is incredibly mythic".  Contemplate the last humans stuck in the compromised base all you like: but sooner or later Stuff has to start happening.

Harry Sullivan is on hand to provide the bathos. His first reaction to hearing the Prime Minister of Earth address the last, best hope of the human race is "I say, it's a bit like a pre match pep talk." And his second reaction is that Sarah-Jane must be pleased that in the Far Future, the Prime Minister of Earth will be a woman. One of the things written on Sarah-Jane's character sheet is "Journalist"; the other is "Feminist" — what was in those days still called "women's lib". We are meant to find this a little bit funny: but primarily we are meant to think that Harry Sullivan is being an idiot. "Fancy a member of the fair sex being top of the totem pole" he says. That's what Harry's own character sheet says, unfortunately: Navy Man; Physician; Idiot.

(Episode 3 of Ark in Space went out on Feb 7th 1975. On the previous Tuesday, Conservative MPs had voted to select a new leader. The former Prime Minister Edward Heath only received the support of 119 members, and withdrew from the contest. On the 11th, one Margaret Thatcher became leader of the Conservative party.)

And so stuff starts happening again. The next two humans out of deep freeze start moaning about there having been a "snitch up" and wishing they'd been wiped out along with everybody else. The Doctor starts rigging up silly science equipment. Actors point toy guns at caterpillars without very much conviction. Some have said that it is darker and grimmer and scarier than anything which went before, and others have wondered if Ridley Scott was a fan. But from this vantage point it feels like corridors and monsters and a clever scheme to save the day: if not what Doctor Who had always been, then definitely what Doctor Who was going to become.

Some years ago the BBC repeated the classic historical drama, Elizabeth R, starring Glenda Jackson and the entire British acting profession. It was quite brilliant and impossible to take seriously, because, of course, it was the exact thing which the equally classic and much more familiar Black Adder The Second was sending up. Speech at Tilbury all you want, Glenda, we will all hear Queenie pouting that she has the heart and stomach of a concrete elephant. I feel that Douglas Adams and the Golgafrinchans may have done similar irreparable damage to the Ark In Space.

Episode 4

It's a very clever, tight little story. Bigger and more epic than the format allows for. The last act of a millennia long space-opera epic played out between basically just five people: the Doctor, the two companions, Vira and Noah.

The Ark was sent into space because the Earth was due to be wiped out by solar flares. But other human explorers had set out before the days of the Ark, and while the last humans slept, they made enemies of the Wirrrn. Robert Holmes is good at alluding to stuff outside his tale. "Andromeda - then our star pioneers succeeded!" says Vira, and that's as much as we are allowed to know. The Wirrrn have got a complicated life cycle; they take over the bodies of warm blooded mammals, turn them into green caterpillars; and finally emerge as giant talking insects. But here is the fiendish bit: they normally incubate themselves in mindless cattle; but they have discovered that if they lay their eggs in humans the adult creepy crawlie will have all the knowledge and memories of its host.

So the Doctor defeats the Wirrrn through the power of exposition, which is infinitely preferable to a Big Red Button. Their Achilles Heal turns out to be electricity; and so he runs a cable from the space shuttle to the cryogenic hall to keep them out.

This leads to the most genuinely scary scene in the entire story; because Sarah-Jane, being small and thin as well as feminist, has to crawl along an incredibly narrow access tunnel to bring the cable through. It is when he is acting against someone like Elisabeth Sladen with whom he has a genuine rapport — and who can give as good as she gets but is under no illusions about who the star of the show is — that we discover just what a fabulous actor Tom Baker is. Sarah-Jane gets stuck in the access shaft, a few feet away from saving the human race. And after trying to encourage her, the Doctor goes into full-on comp school P.E Teacher mode. Oh, you are useless! I never should have trusted you! You're a silly girl! Stop blubbing! Which makes Sarah-Jane so cross that she forces her way through the tunnel, and out into the Doctor's arms and he immediately tells her how very proud he is. Elisabeth Sladen's face brilliantly shifts between genuinely upset to cross to sharing the joke. It's a sexist scene, arguably: or at any rate, it shows the Doctor at his most patronizing, prepared to be cruel to be kind. But it is as close to Drama as this episode comes, and it is brilliant.

The Wirrrn swarm over the space station and steal the space shuttle and fly off. But their leader used to be Noah the leader of the humans and there is just enough of his memory left that he scuttles the ship, wipes out the Wirrrn and gives the human race its chance to survive. So that's all sorted out.

Which made me wonder: couldn't this have been a story about interspecies compromise? Why, after all, would anyone go to all that trouble to preserve the human race? So that somewhere in some corner of a foreign planet there could be a species which happens to have some of the same DNA which emerged a zillion years ago on earth? Or so that human culture, human knowledge, human love and human faith — everything which is unique and irreplaceable about the species — can survive? In which case, wouldn't uploading homo sapiens minds into the minds of incredibly resilient space fleas be the best possible outcome for everybody?

Episode 1

It isn't quite true to say that the Ark in Space owes its retrospective celebrity entirely to the opening of its third act. It owes some of it to a little speech in the middle of Episode 1. The Doctor walks solemnly into the cryogenic chamber for the first time. Harry entirely fails to understand what is going on ("funny sort of place for a mortuary") but the Doctor breaks out in a full scale aria:

Homo sapiens. What an inventive, invincible species. It's only a few million years since they've crawled up out of the mud and learned to walk. Puny, defenseless bipeds. They've survived flood, famine and plague. They've survived cosmic wars and holocausts, and now here they are among the stars, waiting to begin a new life, ready to outsit eternity. They're indomitable. Indomitable!

And indeed, this is the moment where Tom Baker first becomes Tom Baker. You can perfectly well imagine Jon Pertwee speaking the same words. You can imagine him half sneering them out, surprised and patronising but with a twinkle in his eye. "Homo sapiens. What an inventive, invincible species you are, Jo..." Or you could imagine him coming over all paternal and giving us a little lecture, like the one on courage in Planet of the Daleks. "Homo sapiens, my old chap? Why, what an inventive, invincible species!"

But Baker declaims it to himself or to the universe. Harry is pointedly in the other room, so this is a private moment shared between the Doctor and us. The camera is looking down on him from a height. Pertwee gained a certain cachet from occasionally reminding us that he is not really human, but his character never ceased to be that of an upper crust boffin with a funny car and retro dress sense. Baker is obviously an outsider, looking down on the earth from a cosmic perspective."Just Tom being a benevolent alien" was how he later summed up the part. He is very far from being the fetishized Lonely God of later retroactive continuity. He is only a traveler, an ancient traveler whose path happens to have crossed with ours.

Holmes pulls off a similar effect in Episode 3 when the Doctor plugs his brain into the dead alien to try to discover its Achilles heel. Any space hero from Dan Dare onward might have said "It's not just our existence that's at stake, Sarah. It's the entire human race." But only the Fourth Doctor could have grinned and said "It may be irrational of me, but human beings are quite my favourite species".

Robot established that Tom Baker's ego was big enough to fill an entire story; but Ark in Space defines him as the visitor from outside. There are some jelly babies and a yo-yo. There are some good put-downs. But if we had been asked to describe this new Doctor, after two stories, we would have said "He is going to be the serious one, the alien one, the Shakespearian one." And for a few weeks yet, we would have been right.









Monday, October 08, 2018

Doctor Who: A Review


This story introduces a new Doctor. It also represents the death — the gentle putting to sleep — of a remarkable TV series called Doctor Who. It's over. It's gone. It will never come back. And that’s okay.

Last season went out on a more than usually allegorical note. New life grows out of death. You have to accept change and move on. But this is hard, particularly for those of us who have been watching the show for — can it really be?— more than ten years now. We had got used to the Doctor being an older, grey-haired man, sometimes so school-teachery, sometimes so silly. We'd forgotten he could be anything else.

Some of us will get used to this colourful new version. Some of us never will. But that's okay. We can move on. It's only a children's programme. We're grown-ups. It's okay for grown ups to stop watching children's TV.

That's the message, isn't it? Embrace change. That's more important than just going on living.

But still. I wonder if the production team got the memo about what an important story this was? Or did they make a conscious decision to treat regeneration — referred to simply as changing — as just another day at the office? Sarah-Jane is a little sad, and the Brigadier is a little irritated, but Benton just takes it for granted ("You mean he's done it again?") Maybe they were just acknowledging the reality of the situation. The viewers all know by now that the Doctor sometimes changes. They have all seen pictures of the new guy in his parka jacket in the papers. So there would have been no point in making us watch Nicholas Courtney wondering at great length whether this really was still the Doctor. We all know darn well it is.

The New Doctor quotes some of the old Doctor's lines. He grins a lot. He runs down the corridor in a nightshirt and tries on a harlequin costume. He skips. And then he gets right on with just being the Doctor.

So: what is this New Doctor like? No-one knows. For this first Tom Baker story, Terrance Dicks, bless his little novelisations, turned in a Jon Pertwee script. There is hardly a scene, hardly a line, which you could not perfectly well imagine being performed by the Third Doctor. We get the Doctor as Sherlock Holmes, brilliantly deducing what attacked the Ministry of Defense building by examining a crushed dandelion. ("And according to my estimation of the resistance to pressure of vegetable fiber, it was stepped on by something that weighed a quarter of a ton.") We get the The Doctor as James Bond, leaping into his posh yellow car and rushing off to help a boffin in distress. We get The Doctor as Man Of Science, rushing off in the middle of Episode 4 to brew up some Evil Robot Disintegrating Goo in the lab. And of course, we get the Doctor as School Teacher, gently drawing out the life-lesson in the final scene ."It was a wonderful creature, capable of great good, and great evil. Yes, I think you could say it was human. "

Tom Baker has been contracted to play Doctor Who, and he has been given a Doctor Who script. And Doctor Who, at this point, means Jon Pertwee. The posh, patronizing science guy who likes fast cars and bickering with soldiers. It's going to take Tom Baker a few weeks to figure out who the Doctor is going to be from now on. And we are going to watch him figure it out.


Did Terrance Dicks ever think of himself as an artist? Did he set out to wittily rework the classics, a Frankenstein tale in which a shiny robotic tin-man turns out to have a heart? Was he cleverly satirizing the environmentalist movement, warning us that if the science nerds ever get into power, they'll start an atomic war and ban ladies from wearing trousers? Did he even have any sense that Doctor Who was a big deal, and that the debut of a new Doctor was a very big deal indeed?

Of course not. He was a hack, sorry, a craftsman, hammering out a job of work. Take a bit of this and a bit of that and a bit of the other and you'll end up with 25 minutes of early evening TV which will keep people watching and maybe even make them come back a week later. He wrote nearly 150 children's books, not including his Doctor Who novelizations.

How does he do it? Story. Structure. Construction. Four episodes with a pattern and a shape and a form and admittedly an enormous cheating plot hole. It had me grinning all over my face with joyous, innocent recognition. Oh, for the days when Doctor Who was made of stories. 

Almost the first thing we see is the Mysterious Monster breaking into the M.O.D base. We are looking through the Monster's own eyes: we can see what is being done, but we can't see the Creature that is doing it. Of course, now we instantly think of first person computer games. But this was 1974. There were no first person computer games. There were no computer games. There were one or two computers, but they looked like dishwashers.  

We see that the Whatever It Is has claws. We see that they are metal. We see the shadow of the Whatever It Is as it breaks into the base. We see it pick up the secret plans. We know that they are secret plans, because  they have TOP SECRET PLANS written on them. 

We flash back to the UNIT base. The Brigadier is fretting. Something has broken into an M.O.D base and stolen the Top Secret Plans for a Top Secret Disintegrator gun.

What can it be? Whatever can it be? And could their possibly be any clue in the fact that the title of the story is ROBOT?

Those, as Nicholas Parsons would say, are the rules of the game. You start in the drab, real world, 1970s; military bases which look like dentists' waiting rooms; science Think Tanks which look like comprehensive schools. A Mysterious Something steals the plans to a secret weapon; and then it steals the components of the secret weapon; and then is steals secret nuclear codes from the Man from the Ministry. The Doctor does a Science and works out that the Mysterious Something must weigh half a ton and not need to breathe and be made of metal. And quite separately and for no particular reason Sarah-Jane goes to investigate a secret science Think Tank and sees a mysterious door that you are not allowed to open under any circumstances marked "VERY SECRET ROBOTICS SECTION". But only at the end of the episode does the Mysterious Something emerge from behind the Mysterious Door and -- bless my soul -- it's a Robot! 

We passed the threshold between the mundane and the fantastic, and now, anything goes. (This was before Star Wars. No-one had heard about Joseph Campbell.)


It is a truth universally acknowledge that Old Who was slow and ponderous whereas New Who is fast moving and dynamic. Or, put another way, that Old Who took the time to tell a proper story but New Who is rushed, gasping for breath and directed at people with no attention span. Like all truisms, it is just close enough to the truth to be almost completely misleading.

It is true that it takes 100 minutes for Terrance Dicks to get us from the point at which a Mysterious Something is stealing TOP SECRET plans to the point where UNIT and the Science Fascists are having a pitched battle outside a bunker. Modern Forty Five Minute Who would have dumped us in media res just after the shooting started. It is also true that the groundwork for the final resolution is foreshadowed in unnecessarily ponderous detail. In Episode 2 Dr Kettlewell, the robot-creating boffin, just happens to mention that he has also invented a microbe that eats metal. In Episode 4, it just happens to occur to Sgt Benton that this might be worth mentioning. So we watch the Doctor drive back to Kettlewell's lab; wait with him for three whole scenes as he brews up some fresh Microbes, and then watch him drive all the way back. The Forty-Five-Minute Doctor would have had a test tube of the stuff in his pocket. Or else just made the Robot eat itself by projecting the Power of Love at it.

But in fact, the story feels incredibly pacey. Breathless even. Almost every scene reveals a new piece of information which changes our understanding of what is going on. 

Sarah is threatened by the Mysterious Something from behind the Mysterious Door. It's a Robot! Jellicoe and Winters, who run the Think Tank, arrive in the nick of time and deactivate the Robot. Sarah was never in any danger: they just intended to give her a scare so she wouldn't come snooping around their secret headquarters again. Sarah says the Robot is dangerous — so they order it to kill her. But it can't kill her — because it has been programmed with the Prime Directive and The First Law of Robotics. Sarah feels sorry for the Robot, because it was obviously distressed when it was given orders which conflict with its artificial conscience. She leaves. Winters reveal that she has been trying to remove the Robots anti-killing inhibitor, that it might very well have killed Sarah, but that she wouldn't have cared.

Twist, twist, twist, and all in one five minute scene. Twist: the Robot was only meant to scare Sarah. Twist: they are ordering it to kill her. Twist:  it is incapable of killing anyone. Twist: but maybe it isn't.

And wrapped around it all, a rather less predictable twist: the lumbering cuboid wind-up tin Robot is capable of feelings, and Sarah feels sorry for it. Not the most radical piece of science fiction originality, of course, but it pushes us into different narrative territory from the one we thought we were inhabiting.


It is a cliche to say that the special effects of Doctor Who in the 1970s were amateurish. It is entirely true that computer generated animation was a decade away. Colour separation overlay — blue screen — was a new and cutting edge technology and they haven't quite got the hang of it yet. If a bit of blue background gets reflected in the Robot's chrome body, its leg had an annoying habit of disappearing. (Back then I honestly thought this was intentional. I honestly thought the Living Metal was being attacked by the Metal Eating Microbes before the Doctor had arrived. It made the Giant Robot somehow more unearthly. There is no production flaw which the eye of faith cannot perceive as a virtue.)

The final episode is all about UNIT soldiers firing guns at a monster they already know is bullet proof, while the monster disintegrates tanks and stomps on buildings. Very obviously there is an actor inside the Robot and very obviously the tanks and the buildings are only models. Models you could buy in a toy shop: tanks that richer kids had in their Action Man collections. But the visual effects team is clearly having great fun playing with their toys, and they are using some ingenuity to make everything look as exciting as it plausibly can on a budget of ten shillings and a free cup of tea. We get a long shot of the Giant Robot blue screened against an English town. A shot of a row of cabins or outbuildings of some kind. A closer shot of a single cabin. And then a Giant Robotic Leg comes down and crushes it. We cut away before we have quite had time to realise that the crushed cabin was made of cardboard. 

In 1974 we stamped our feet and sulked and said this was all NOT REALISTIC. But in 2018 we can smile and say "Toy soldiers fighting toy robots! Cool!" 


But in the end, it's not about the script or the special effects; it's all about the cast. Tom Baker was a protege of Lord Olivier and Passolini. Nicholas Courtney had a great future behind him playing sergeant majors and policemen in any rep company of his choice. And Elisabeth Sladen has a way of squeezing her words out like toothpaste as if she isn't quite sure if she is back in the provinces playing Desdemona or has landed a job teaching Primary School. They are Actors. They take the words some writer has given them to say, and they make them come alive. If a line comes from nowhere then they make sure the audience sees it forming on their lips before a sound comes out of their mouth. Elisabeth Sladen is particularly good at mouthing the words before she says them. If it isn't clear what their motivation is then they show it, by gesture and body language. It's what being a thespian is all about. The character of the New Doctor emerges, not from the script, but from stage business. 

Everyone knows that Tom Baker's first line as the Doctor is "Don't worry Brigadier. The Brontosaurus is large, placid and stupid." But Tom Baker pauses after the word "placid" and adds the word "stupid" as the new medical officer, Harry, walks in. So the line becomes "Don't worry Brigadier, the Brontosaurus is large, placid.....And stupid?" The line is Dicks'. The delivery is all Baker's. He turns a back-reference to Invasion of the Dinosaurs into a foreshadowing of his relationship with Harry. 

Or look at the feeble joke about the Titanic.

--Never liked the word impregnable. Sounds too much like unsinkable.
--What's wrong with unsinkable.
--Nothing, as the iceberg said to the Titanic.

The Third Doctor could have said that and it could have got a perfectly good laugh. But it's not the "as the iceberg said to the Titanic" which we remember; it's Baker's "glug glug glug" as he sinks down below the windscreen of the Landrover. And then he sticks his feet on the dash board as if he (the Doctor) is incredibly bored with the whole thing. So when the Brigadier tells him that the building is secure on all sides and from the sky, he has to wave his finger in the air to indicate that the Robot could tunnel up through the ground.

And so on. Improvising card tricks, building towers out of lab junk, delivering exposition lying on his back with his face covered by this hat. This is not an actor delivering lines. This a clown skipping merrily around what is written on the page, adding a squiggle hear and a flourish there, while the rest of the cast stand back and watch in mounting bemusement.


"I think just for once, we're not going to need the Doctor" announces the Brigadier as he very sensibly zaps the robot with its own disintegrator gun, which Benton had very sensibly picked up. This very plausibly makes the Robot grow to about 40 feet tall and start stomping on the local scenery, until the Doctor turns up and chucks the big bucket of microbes at it.

But what is perfectly clear by the end of the episode is that the Doctor isn't going to need the Brigadier ever again. Jon Pertwee was impressive and charismatic but needed a foil. (Three foils, in fact: Courtney, Manning and Delgado.) Baker barely needs the rest of the cast at all. Everyone is looking at him all the time, and boy, does he know it.

I was taking my first tentative steps into Doctor Who fandom in Tom Baker's first year. The New Doctor mesmerized me. He turned me from a person who watches Doctor Who on Saturday nights along with ten million other people, into a person who memorizes the plots of stories which were made  before I was born and spends his pocket money on inky duplicated fanzines. Of course, those early fanzines were written by people who grew up with Troughton and Hartnell and Pertwee and they were mostly horrified. Their serious ensemble show was mutating into a garish vehicle for a manically charismatic leading man. This was not their Doctor Who. This was not their Doctor. And in a sense they were not wrong. When the Doctor offers Sarah a jelly baby and steps into the TARDIS, and shuts the door, he was shutting the door on the UNIT era, and on all the previous years as well. We were now in the Tom Baker era and you either liked it or you left.


Sarah says that the Doctor is childish. "Well of course I am" says the Doctor "There is no point in being grown up if you can't be childish." Sarah also says that Harry is a bit old fashioned "There is nothing wrong with being old fashioned" says the Brigadier "I am a bit old fashioned myself."

This story is a bit childish and very old fashioned. There is nothing wrong with that.



If you link to this review, please don't give away my little joke.