Doctor Who – The Ark in Space

Doctor Who Story 076 – The Ark in Space

Noah becomes a Wirrn.
Source: Wikipedia.org. Copyright 1975 by BBC.

Who Wrote It: Robert Holmes

What’s It About: The TARDIS accidentally materializes on the Nerva Space Station which is an ark for the survivors of a solar storm that devastated Earth. They soon discover something is lurking in the halls of the station, and it wants to absorb the human survivors to strengthen its own species.

From the perspective of theme and tone, you probably won’t find a stronger contrast between Robot and The Ark in Space. Where Robot is a fun romp, The Ark in Space is a claustrophobic story with some truly disturbing subtext. Welcome to the Philip Hinchcliffe era.

I know I saw this story as a child. I can distinctly remember wrapping my arm in bubble wrap and pretending I was being attacked. This places The Ark in Space firmly in the realm of formative influences. And it proved no less compelling on this viewing. Similar to Warren from Radio Free Skaro, I tend to judge my enjoyment of Doctor Who based on how distracted I get while watching it (either making lists or surfing the internet). With The Ark in Space, I was riveted from beginning to end. I know in the past I have found the story slow (often due to over-watching it), but this time the story seemed very short (due in part to watching so many six-parters in the Pertwee era, I think).

The only real complaint I have about the story is the underuse of Harry Sullivan. If I understand the behind-the-scenes lore, Harry Sullivan was created to be an action-oriented male figure, someone like Ian Chesterton, who would engage in fights or dangerous situations while The Doctor, who was originally going to be cast older, took a more intellectual approach. But Tom Baker was cast and, since he was young enough to do his own fighting, the action-male character was made redundant. This is a shame. Ian Marter did a great job with the character he was given, and I would have enjoyed seeing a return to a more Hartnell-esque dynamic.

The world-building in The Ark in Space is wonderful, if bleak. We are given a future where Earth has been abandoned (not the first time, however) but vengeful forces are eager to take advantage of a group of survivors while they are at a disadvantage. The Wirrn are a great creation—insects capable of interstellar travel without the aid of technology—and they are creepy because they are cold and unsympathetic. They are parasites, which is even more frightening. The design works well enough for the story, but I would love to see the Wirrn return with a big enough budget to do them justice. That said, the Wirrn may be too dark and gruesome for new Who.

My Rating: 4/5

Doctor Who – Robot

Doctor Who Story 075 – Robot

DVD cover
(Source: Amazon.com. Copyright 2007 by BBC.)

Who Wrote It?: Terrance Dicks

What’s It About: The Brigadier and UNIT must learn to work with a regenerated Doctor. It seems a series of break-ins have been committed by someone who can break through electrical fences, locked doors, and underground bunkers. The stolen items: parts for a disintegrator gun.

I have quite a few friends who love new Doctor Who. I would love to share the old series with them, but many of them have no interest due to the dated effects and slower pace. But another problem is deciding which stories to introduce them to. For years, we fans have lived in a world of Doctor Who a la carte. If we want a little horror, we go with the 4th Doctor. If we want some heavy sci-fi elements, we may choose the 5th Doctor. If we want a historical with minimal sci-fi, the 1st Doctor provides that. In this particular case, knowing the desires of the audience is essential.

But fans of new Who are used to watching entire seasons. They almost expect that any season has an arc, whether plot or thematic. I think some fans like to see context. I have been fascinated, as I have gone through the classic series in order, at how much character development is in the Doctor Who. The very first season had the TARDIS crew (composed of The Doctor, Ian, Barbara, and Susan) learn how to work together and respect on another. It wasn’t until the thirteenth episode that we saw the antagonism between the characters settle into mutual respect. And even then, the situation almost erupted again at the beginning of The Reign of Terror. There is something to be said for watching the classic series in order, to see it not as a collection of serials, but as an on-going, evolving series.

Which brings me to the 4th Doctor and Robot, the natural starting point for the Tom Baker era. The 4th Doctor has massive appeal to viewers, and he is probably one of the closest Doctors in personality to Matt Smith’s version of the character. A transition from 11th Doctor to 4th Doctor wouldn’t be a hard one. But when you look at Robot, you are confronted with a story that doesn’t match the tone and themes of the larger Baker era.

Robot is the final story of Barry Lett’s tenure (although we will see him return later). Philip Hinchcliffe will take over with The Ark in Space. The difference in tone between these two stories is almost jarring. The Ark in Space (to be reviewed soon), is dark, paranoid, and creepy. Robot is lighthearted, silly, and moderately thought-provoking. In fact, this story has more in common with the era that preceded it than the episodes that follow. Throughout most of the story, The Doctor seems uninterested. His previous incarnation would have enjoyed this adventure, but the current one is somewhat bored. He has most of it sussed out within the first episode, and he seems to merely be sticking around to hold The Brigadier’s hand. The story itself reuses elements from Invasion of the Dinosaurs (an elite group wanting to rule the world, which was also an element of Tomb of the Cybermen). The execution is uneven. And let’s face it, the robot itself is impractical. I both love the design and hate it. The effects really let this story down, and there wasn’t a lot to work with to begin with.

In many ways, Robot seems more a farewell to UNIT than an introduction of the new Doctor. Planet of the Spiders was more about The Doctor and Mike Yates, so perhaps it was felt that UNIT needed a farewell. Fair enough, but it makes a clumsy place to start a new Doctor and a new era.

I think what frustrates me the most about Robot is that it is the ideal starting point to the classic series. It has a familiar Doctor; it has stories that are moderately recognizable to viewing audiences (especially since many of them are derived from horror movies and tropes); it has Sarah Jane Smith who is a great companion. But the era begins on such uneven footing. It is almost painful to have to start with Robot, but it is necessary because it introduced Harry Sullivan (another great character). But it is also sad, to me, to have Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks go out on such a mediocre story. I thought Season 10 was quite good (with the exception of the Peladon story), and I’m sorry that their last stamp on the show (until Season 18, at least) was Robot.

My Rating: 2/5

The Pertwee Era in Review

The UNIT Family. Barry Letts. Terrance Dicks. Bessie. Benton. Yates. The Brigadier. Liz Shaw. Jo Grant. Sarah Jane Smith. Autons. The Master! The Silurians. Peladon. Exile. Color. The Three Doctors. These are all associated with the Pertwee Era. Doctor Who was practically a new show. The Doctor was exiled to Earth for half the era. He worked with UNIT, often reluctantly, but in the end, as he stumbled from the TARDIS—dying from exposure to the crystal web—he whispered that the TARDIS had brought him home. Where before, Earth was a place to visit, now it is home. We have come a long way from that junkyard.

I mentioned in my previous post that I mourned The First Doctor; I mourned The Second Doctor. I don’t know that I will mourn The Third Doctor. For some reason, despite liking Jon Pertwee, I never fell in love with the era like I did with the Hartnell and Troughton eras. I think Jo Grant was the first companion that I actually disliked, which is odd given the lack of characterization of Dodo Chaplet in the Hartnell era. For me, Jo’s high point was her final story, due in part to the character development in that story. It was necessary and it was late. Similarly, I didn’t like the changes to The Brigadier. I loved The Brigadier and UNIT in season seven, but season eight saw him significantly dumbed down. He started out as a successful military leader, one who had to balance keeping his men safe with encountering a new species in The Silurians. He ended up as a slightly thick but lovable comic relief character. The Doctor went from butting heads with him to patronizing him.

So I didn’t like all of the changes. Regardless, there were some great stories along the way. Season seven will stand out as one of my favorite seasons of Doctor Who. Season eleven, so long as I can excise The Monster of Peladon, is also great. And it is only now that I realize that these are the two seasons that didn’t have Jo Grant, which is probably somewhat telling.

It is hard to give a top five because so much time has passed while viewing this era. Rather than put them in a particular order, I’ll just list a handful of favorites and a handful of least favorites.

Favorite Stories

  • The Silurians – Moral dilemmas permeate this story. The Doctor wants to negotiate peace with a new race. The Brigadier has the government and the safety of his men to consider. Malcolm Hulke did an amazing job of making all sides sympathetic and believable in this story.
  • Inferno – This story throws you through a loop. It starts out as a story of scientific hubris, and suddenly becomes a story of survival as The Doctor finds himself in an alternate, fascist version of England. The performances are amazing.
  • The Green Death – I love The X-Files and Fringe. In some ways, The Green Death is the blueprint for both shows. The pace is great, the story is dark, the monsters are absurd (but look good until they metamorphose), and Jo Grant finally gets some good material to work with. This story made me a fan of Robert Sloman.
  • The Invasion of the Dinosaurs – I like this story for many of the same reasons I like The Green Death: it is slightly absurd but a lot of fun. The theme, however, is somewhat dark. And Mike Yates is the one who gets good material. I think this story is unfairly judged by its special effects.

Least Favorite Stories

  • The Curse of Peladon – There were some good turns in this story: The Ice Warriors were not the villains and Aggedor was interesting. But ultimately, this story bored me. This story, combined with its sequel, was the first story that I have considered not buying when completing my Doctor Who collection.
  • The Monster of Peladon – See above. The death of Aggedor was sad, though. And I really liked Eckersley. He was a good villain.
  • Terror of the Autons – I think I rank this one so low because I watched it after The Inferno, which was a great story. The Master was good, and I like the Autons. But Jo Grant was a poor replacement for Liz Shaw. The Brigadier was disappointing in this story because he seemed to have been turned into an imbecile. I didn’t immediately warm to Mike Yates (although he got better). The Master is the best thing about this story.

Thus ends the Pertwee Era. Time for the Tom Baker era, which is the only era of classic Doctor Who I have already seen in its entirety. I wonder how it will hold up now that I have greater context.

Doctor Who – Planet of the Spiders

Doctor Who Story 074 – Planet of the Spiders

The Doctor faces The Great One
The Doctor faces The Great One. (Source: Tardis Index File. Copyright 1974 by BBC.)

Written By: Robert Sloman

What’s It About: Mike Yates has joined a Buddhist retreat in an attempt to come to terms with his betrayal of UNIT. While there, he discovers a group of men who have allied themselves with beings from another planet who want the crystal The Doctor took from Metebelis Three.

What constitutes a good finale for a Doctor? While I wasn’t a fan of The End of Time, where we saw David Tennant’s departure from the show, I think it did a good job of bringing themes from the Tenth Doctor’s era to the forefront. The dominant theme: The Doctor is the last of his race, and he is haunted by this fact. The End of Time made manifest that angst. Thematically, this makes sense and is incredibly satisfying. Storywise . . . well, we’ll get to my thoughts on that in a year or so.

Sadly, Planet of the Spiders doesn’t really seem to capitalize on any particular long-running themes of the Pertwee era. Roger Delgado had died in a car accident, so The Master couldn’t return. His absence from this final story is conspicuous. UNIT has only a small role to play. Their involvement is almost incidental. So as an ending, Planet of the Spiders doesn’t quite work to wrap up the era.

As a story, however, it does quite well. There is some clever foreshadowing that sets up the regeneration (Cho-je’s line about the old man dying so the new man may be born). The discovery of a Time Lord at the retreat lends a good deal of gravitas to this story (much as the appearance of the Time Lords in The War Games changed the tone of that story). Planet of the Spiders has a good pace to it, and it is surprisingly epic and metaphysical. Buddhist philosophy permeates this story (attributed to Barry Letts who had become a Buddhist at this point), and it doesn’t really feel out of place. It works as a redemption for Mike Yates and gives the character some good development. It works to shine a little more light on the Time Lord culture, with a fellow Time Lord rejecting his people, but pursuing a route more peaceful than The Master and less chaotic than The Doctor.

Before this year, I had never watched a story by Robert Sloman. I have enjoyed his stories a great deal. They have been some of my favorites of the Pertwee era. This story is no different. As much as I love Robert Holmes, for me, the top write of the Pertwee era is Sloman. I’m glad he wrote this final story.

With Hartnell and Troughton, I was very aware that their final story was the finale; I was constantly aware that this would be the last time I saw them (anniversary episodes aside). With Pertwee, I never quite felt it until the last episode. There was gravity to the story, but not as much. I think there were fewer stories from this era that I enjoyed, so the departure of the Third Doctor may not have been as big of a deal to me. Perhaps anticipation for Tom Baker was too great. After Hartnell and Troughton, I felt the need to mourn afterward, but I don’t with Pertwee. But I will say that Planet of the Spiders is a great ending to a really good season. Pertwee’s era began strong, and I think it ended strong.

My Rating: 4/5

Up next: Pertwee Era in Review.

The Narrative of Gun Control

“. . . an idea can still change the world.”

—Evey, V for Vendetta

The United States was formed as a shining beacon of the Enlightenment. It was formed on the principle that reason could be used to run a nation. Each group would have its voice and no one group would have total dominion over another. The only flaw with this goal is that reason is influenced by perception. Sure, during the Enlightenment it was believed that people would come to their beliefs by using logic and reason, setting aside perception for higher thinking. But we no longer live in the Enlightenment. We live in a post-modern world (or by some accounts, a post-post-modern world). And while we still prize reason and logic, we are swayed far more often by narrative.

Narrative tells us who we are. It tells us what to value and who to trust. It will sometimes offer statistics or studies, but we often come to the narrative first then find evidence to support it. And why not, since it is easier to know what to look for once we have decided on how to perceive.

After grieving over the divisiveness in our nation, a divisiveness that seems to prevent people from talking to one another about politics, after watching a horrible election and living through a year with multiple mass shootings, I have come to the conclusion that we do not argue facts; we argue narratives. The Right has a narrative of individual freedom and fiscal conservatism, of protecting the interests of the wealthy so that jobs will trickle down to the middle and lower class, of self-empowerment through drive, ambition, and motivation. The Left has a narrative of social justice, of looking out for the interests of the downtrodden, of ensuring equality for all groups. That is, ultimately, what political issues are: narratives expressing group ideals.

And after watching arguments on Facebook and reading articles online in the wake of the election and the Newtown shooting, it seems that we use narratives to rally our personal beliefs and reason to try to convince others. But the problem is that reason, in the face of narrative, will often lose. It doesn’t matter how many statistics are cited about mass shootings, the narrative of fear and protection is stronger. The narrative of gun control is that we need guns to protect ourselves from rampant crime. We need guns to protect ourselves in case the government attempts to oppress us. We need guns because the Founding Fathers say we can have them. We need guns because armed citizens can stop mass shootings. It doesn’t matter that serious doubt can be thrown on each and every one of these beliefs. As long as people believe the narrative, statistics and studies probably will not work. The narrative is more powerful because it humanizes the issue. It frames the argument in terms of our family, our friends, our children, not in the terms of numbers or percentages. In my editing classes, we were taught to always talk about people, not about things. Readers like reading about people, and narratives specialize in people.

As tragic as it is, a school shooting makes a compelling narrative. Our media will cover the event for days. But what our media does is attempt to portray the event in as objective way as possible. Then pundits come in to weave a narrative around the event. Faces of victims become what we could protect with a gun. Faces of victims become who we could save by stronger gun control. The same event is interpreted in two different ways depending on the narrative of the pundit, depending on the narrative of the viewer. And after a few days of vicious, heated arguments, we end up back where we started: two sides mad at each other, convinced the other side is wrong, and no change.

Stricter gun control would probably make a difference. (What real purpose does an assault rifle play in civilian hands?) But it is an incomplete solution. In order to institute real change, we have to create a better narrative. If we believe everyone is only one bullet away from being a victim; if we believe we are only one gun away from the government oppressing us; if we believe that an armed citizenry will stamp out crime; if we believe that the only way to feel control over our lives is to have a gun; then nothing will change.

Ultimately, we need to decide what narrative we really want to tell: one of fear or one of hope. Are mass shootings just the consequence of the status quo, or are we willing to ask the truly hard questions about guns, violence, and the American culture? What kind of narrative do we want to tell?

Doctor Who – The Monster of Peladon

Doctor Who Story 073 – The Monster of Peladon

screen capture from The Monster of Peladon
Source: Wikipedia. Copyright 1974 by BBC.

Written By: Brian Hayles

What’s It About: Because everyone was itching to see it, The Doctor returns to Peladon, with Sarah in tow. They find a planet on the verge of revolt as miners are convinced that the ghost of Aggedor is stalking the mines and killing workers.

I didn’t care for the first Peladon story. I don’t think this one is much better, although I will give the Hayles credit for trying to be topical, and the production gets credit for recreating Peladon. It looks and feels like the same planet. But this also works against the story because it doesn’t seem to add much. We have a plotting Chancellor, we have dealings with the Federation, and we have Alpha Centauri squealing. Apart from the Ice Warriors being the villains and the mining plot, this would seem to be the same story. I just can’t really bring myself to care. Maybe I could have enjoyed this as a three part story, but anything more—especially six parts—is just too much. And I was enjoying this season so much. Peladon is certainly the low point of the season for me. I have no desire to revisit either Peladon stories if I ever watch the show all the way through again.

Sadly, writing about it only seems to prolong the irritation.

My Rating: 1/5

Here’s An Idea: Zombies!

This post is inspired by the PBS YouTube show, The Idea Channel. In this show, pop culture is analyzed from a philosophical view. Here are a few questions asked by The Idea Channel: What Do Santa and Wrestling Have in Common; Is Nostalgia the Reason for Adventure Time’s Amazing Awesomeness; and, relevant to this blog, Is Doctor Who a religion. If you like philosophical debate about pop culture phenomena, you should check out the show.

For a few years I worked at a book store that sold primarily used Christian books and music. Sure, we carried a few non-Christian genres such as classic fiction and history books (both of which are popular in the homeschool market), but if you were to ask any of our customers what kind of book store we were, the answer would be “a Christian book store.” We had a large Christian fiction section, and without a doubt, the best-selling sub-genre of Christian fiction had to be Amish romance.

Cover of Beverly Lewis's The Parting.
If I have learned one thing from looking at the covers of Amish romances, it is that Amish women are super attractive. (Source: Goodreads. Copyright 2008 by Bethany House.)

It seems weird to say it, but the Amish are quite popular–in fiction. Beverly Lewis seems to have paved the way, but other authors such as Wanda Brunstetter and Mindy Starns Clark have taken up the Amish romance banner. I have often wondered why these books are so popular. Pretty much all Christian romances take up similar themes of saving sex until marriage, thus these aren’t the traditional bodice rippers that most of us think of when we think of romance novels. Prior to Amish romance, the Christian market was dominated by romances set in the American West. I’m starting to think the main draw of the Western romances before and the Amish romances now is that these stories reflect idealized versions of a simple life, of an easy life. In both cases, we are presented with a life that is free from the perceived corrupting influences of technology (the internet, smartphones, television) and modern life. In both genres, the culture war that we insist on waging in the U.S. are unimportant (if present at all) because life is focused on farming, building, and survival. Financial crashes are not so important because people are busy living off the land; people don’t debate gender issues or evolution because it is not important to an agrarian way of life. These genres allow the Christian reader to check out of the perceived chaos of modern life. And finally, both genres focus on the importance of family and community, something that I believe the church often struggles with. We are busy people with frantic lives, and we sometimes forget the importance of spending time with family and friends. What better way than to live vicariously, to read about people with strong families and friendships as they rely on one another for everyday life and survival.

So here’s my idea: Zombie stories scratch the same itch for a different audience. Let’s think about this for a minute. Zombie stories have been around for a long time, but the interest always subsides. In the 1960s, the stories worked well as Cold War allegories, but what exactly are these stories fulfilling today? We seem to be getting new zombie stories every year. There is no end in sight, especially with The Walking Dead continuing to be a hit on AMC (and yes, I have become a fan). Why have zombies become main stream?

First of all, zombie stories, unlike the Amish romances, do not have the white-washed, squeaky clean characters. There is sex, there is gore, and there is violence. Zombie stories, where once they commented about paranoia about Communist spies, now attempt to analyze human nature. The stories serve to show how some people act nobly, rising above their personal prejudices, while others entrench themselves further into their own destructive ideas or behaviors. Sometimes, you have characters like The Governor (from The Walking Dead) who go from nobody in the pre-outbreak world to power mongers in the post-outbreak world. So in a way, zombie stories provide some excellent philosophical material about human nature.

cover of Pride and Prejudice and zombies
Evidence that zombie stories are now main stream. (Source: Goodreads. Copyright 2009 by Quirk Classics.)

But second, zombie stories also give us a world where technology has fallen away. All the trappings of modern life have ceased. There is no internet, no smartphones, and no television. People are busy trying to survive, whether living off the land or just trying to find shelter. Gender issues and evolution are no longer important because survival is. Who has time to stand on gender issues in the post-outbreak world? Why does origin of species matter when a group of walkers is chasing you down? Who has time for this culture war that just seems to go on and on and on? Suddenly family and friends are your most-important resource because you live or die by the community. In the post-outbreak world, tribalism flourishes because you need the community in order to survive. We find a common goal in survival. We put up with on another because we need one another. As odd as it sounds, the zombie outbreak creates a an easier life, not because surviving zombies is simple per se, but because it is so unlike our modern, stressful world, that it seems simple by comparison. Our concerns are much more focused, because there are less of them. And since the existence of zombies creates a huge question as to the existence of God, zombie stories can be seen as a secular manifestation of the same desires that make the Amish romances so popular.

So, where evangelicals read about the Amish; perhaps Non-Christians watch zombie movies.