Doctor Who – The Masque of Mandragora

Doctor Who Story 086 – The Masque of Mandragora

Duke Giuliano totally looks like the Tenth Doctor
Duke Giuliano totally looks like the Tenth Doctor

Who Wrote It: Louis Marks

What’s It About: The Doctor and Sarah accidentally transport Helix Energy to 15th century energy. While there, they become embroiled in court intrigue, but soon discover that the Helix Energy has deadly plans that could change the course of human history.

In the past I have enjoyed this story a great deal. And while there is still much to appreciate, the pace of the story was slower than I preferred. Perhaps this was due to watching it so soon after The Seeds of Doom.

But the story does strengths. The setting looks great (Portmerion has such a wonderful look to it), the costumes are amazing, and Heironymous is an interesting villain. The Helix Energy is an interesting concept, but I feel like it was nothing more than a poor-man’s Great Intelligence. I was never invested enough in the story to care about the threat. I guess I would say that the Helix Energy concept wasn’t fleshed out enough to make it feel threatening. I think I would have found the story far more interesting if Heironymous was merely the leader of a secret society of a lost pagan cult that hoped to undermine the power of the church or destabilize Giuliano’s duchy. I think there are so many fascinating ways this story could have been straight historical; the monster sort of lets it down.

But all these thoughts aside, Masque of Mandragora is a well-produced story. The performances are good, the story looks great, and everyone involved seems to be having fun. At various times in the past, I have enjoyed this story, but it didn’t do much for me this time.

My Rating: 3/5

Doctor Who: A Big Hand for the Doctor

Cover image for A Big Hand for The Doctor.
Source: Eoin Colfer web site. Copyright 2013 by Puffin.

Who Wrote It: Eoin Colfer

Official Blurb (from Amazon): Eleven Doctors, eleven stories: a year-long celebration of Doctor Who! The most exciting names in children’s fiction each create their own unique adventure about the time-travelling Time Lord.

London, 1900. The First Doctor is missing both his hand and his granddaughter, Susan. Faced with the search for Susan, a strange beam of soporific light, and a host of marauding Soul Pirates intent on harvesting human limbs, the Doctor is promised a dangerous journey into a land he may never forget . . . .

First Line: “The Doctor was not happy with his new bio-hybrid hand.”

A Big Hand for The Doctor isn’t so much a book as a short story with chapters. It draws heavily from Peter Pan and even drives that point home in the epilogue. And while I don’t know that I would say Colfer captured the feel and tone of the First Doctor era, I do think he captured a quasi-Target novelization feel. In fact, Colfer admits that he came to Doctor Who through the Target books. So it is actually quite fitting that he write a Doctor Who book for younger readers.

The Hartnell Doctor is one of my favorites. I’m actually quite critical of portrayals. I don’t know that Colfer completely nails it, but at the same time, I can just about imagine the Doctor of this story hasn’t yet become the darker, more suspicious figure that we meet in An Unearthly Child. Colfer’s Doctor is one who is safer for the kids—maybe The Doctor from the third season rather than the first–but still a bit grumpy.

Typically, I don’t enjoy stories that are set prior to An Unearthly Child. These stories tend to have too much awareness that they are pre-series. The only one I have enjoyed is Quinnis, but then Marc Platt writes the First Doctor and Susan quite well. But with A Big Hand for The Doctor, I’m actually willing to cut Colfer some slack because he isn’t making a big deal about the pre-series setting. We aren’t in 1960s England, tied to Foreman’s Yard and Coal Hill. We are in the early 1900s, and The Doctor is fighting space pirates who steal the souls of children. And I can just about see the First Doctor risking his neck to protect children from evil creatures such as these because I think William Hartnell would improve.

And that’s the bottom line for me. A Big Hand for the Doctor may not reflect the 1960s stories as they aired, but it reflects something I think William Hartnell would have liked: a protective, time-travelling grandfather. Isn’t that kinda what the First Doctor is, after all?

Final Verdict: Unpretentious and not weighed down with gravitas. A Big Hand for the Doctor is a quick read and a nice little tribute to Doctor Who as seen through the Target books. At just under $3, it is well worth the price.

Doctor Who – The Seeds of Doom

Doctor Who Story 085 – The Seeds of Doom

A scientist infected by the Krynoid.
Source: Wikipedia. Copyright 1976 by BBC

Who Wrote It: Robert Banks Stewart

What’s It About: A mysterious plant pod is found in the Antarctic. The Doctor fears it could be a Krynoid pod—a seed for a carnivorous plant. Krynoids have devastated planets across the galaxy, and he fears Earth could be in danger. Unfortunately, an eccentric plant collector also wants the pod and will do anything to acquire it.

After a long search, I think I finally found it: The Seeds of Doom may be the entry-point to Doctor Who. I think I could show this story to my New Who friends, and they would be intrigued. Seeds gets so much right: it has a great human villain in Mr. Chase; it has a great henchman in Scorby; it has great performances from everyone involved—not a bad performance in any episode; it has some of the best direction and pace, yet more evidence that Douglas Camfield was amazing; it has a truly chilling atmosphere in the first two episodes.

The Seeds of Doom takes its inspiration from a few sources. It draws heavily from The Quatermass Experiment, revisiting the idea of a plant-like alien infecting a human with the intention of unleashing its spores on the Earth—leading to the death of all life. It also has elements of Day of the Triffids, especially as the characters become trapped and hunted by the Krynoid on the Chase Estate. The story also begins with an Antarctic expedition which has shades of Lovecraft and The Thing from Another World. By drawing from so many sources, Seeds casts it’s trope net wide. I think modern audiences can connect with it as it moves from base under siege to gothic horror to house under siege. Even if the Krynoid effects don’t connect (despite being fairly well realized) viewers are invested in the story because the opening episodes were so compelling. From my perspective, this story is almost flawless.

Harrison Chase is a great villain. Indeed, he achieves a villainy that puts him on the same list as Tobias Vaughan. He is the human face of evil that we can connect with over the monster. His second-in-command, Scorby, is a great mercenary who gets more characterization than typical henchmen.

Despite being a great story, and a well-realized one at that, Seeds of Doom shows just how far Doctor Who has come as a family show. This is a dark story; it is gruesome—which is all the more shocking in that we hardly see anything truly gruesome (apart from some plant make-up on a couple of characters). The gore is conceptual, as Camfield leaves us to imagine Chase’s final fate in the industrial mulching machine. This is Doctor Who that requires parents to know the horror-tolerance of their children. And we haven’t even seen how dark this show is about to get.

We haven’t yet met the Peking Homunculus.

My Rating: 5/5

Doctor Who – The Brain of Morbius

Doctor Who Story 084 – The Brain of Morbius

Solon speaks with The Brain of Morbius
Source: The AV Club. Copyright 1976 by BBC.

Who Wrote It: Robin Bland (well, Robert Holmes)

What’s It About: The Doctor and Sarah arrive on the planet Karn—against their will. The Doctor believes The Time Lords have placed him there to do their bidding once again. But he soon becomes the object of two antagonistic forces: the Sisterhood of Karn, which believes he is a Time Lord agent sent to steal their Elixir of Life, and Solon, a brilliant surgeon whose secret agenda involves the resurrection of a Time Lord war criminal which can only be accomplished if he can claim The Doctor’s head.

On its surface, The Brain of Morbius is a retelling of Frankenstein—owing more to the movie versions rather than Mary Shelley’s classic novel. In this capacity, The Brain of Morbius works magnificently. It gives us the mad scientist and his less-than-intelligent assistant; it gives us a creature stitched together from different bodies (and in Doctor Who fashion, these are different alien bodies); and it even gives us a torch-bearing mob that chases the creature to his death. It is a clever retelling, all things considered.

But deeper in the story is a brilliant tension between gothic horror and morbidly dark comedy. This tension is balance perfectly by Philip Madoc, who played Solon the Victor Frankenstein homage. Solon is devoted to resurrecting Morbius in bodily form, but he is also devoted to his work. Pardon the language, but I really can’t think of a better way to convey how I feel: Despite being a brilliant surgeon, Solon is truly bat-shit insane. And I absolutely love this! It would be easy to see plot holes in this story: Why doesn’t Solon use Condo’s body? Why not use The Doctor’s body instead of the patchwork body Solon has been creating for years? Because the man is insane. Because he genuinely believes this is a good plan. Personally, I love viewing Solon this way. He is a brilliant surgeon, but he is completely and totally cracked. He has spent years piecing together this mongrel body, and he isn’t going to be swayed away from it just because a better specimen has turned up.

On top of all that, Solon has the best lines in the story:

  • “What a magnificent head!”
  • “You chicken brained biological disaster.”
  • “Don’t lie to me, Condo! You’ve been looking for that arm again, haven’t you?”
  • “I’ll see that palsied harridan scream for death!”

Until I can write insults as well as Robert Holmes, I won’t consider myself a successful writer.

In the midst of all the horror and dark comedy, The Brain of Morbius gives us a surprising amount of Time Lord mythology. We learn that the Time Lords rely on The Sisterhood’s elixir from time to time. We learn about yet another evil Time Lord, one who sat on the High Council and attempted to lead the Time Lords in conquest of the galaxy. And in The Doctor’s mental battle with Morbius, we see incarnations of The Doctor which predate the Hartnell incarnation. (Yes, I understand this is a point of contention among fans. This was the original intent, however, and the order of the sequence actually supports this. While I prefer to view the other portraits possible incarnations of Morbius, I cannot deny the intention of writers of this story. Doctor Who is an endless list of earlier concepts being superseded: earlier incarnations of The Doctor; history cannot be written, not one line; Time Lords live forever, barring accidents; Time Lords as godlike beings rather than bureaucrats; and so on.) In some ways, The Brain of Morbius is a foreshadowing of things to come; it is an indication that Hinchcliffe and Holmes are not afraid to play around with Time Lord society where earlier producers and script editors had been cautious how far into Time Lord society we looked.

But enough of that for now. What we have in The Brain of Morbius is a great example of dark comedy and horror homage. This story could have easily been a disaster (and the ending does start to feel rushed and chaotic), but thanks to brilliant acting by the lead and guest actors, as well as excellent set design, this story succeeds.

My Rating: 4/5

Doctor Who – The Android Invasion

Doctor Who Story 083 – The Android Invasion

The android Sarah attacks The Doctor.
Source: The Tardis Index File. Copyright 1975 by BBC.

Who Wrote It: Terry Nation

What’s It About: The Doctor and Sarah arrive on what they initially believe in Devesham, but they soon discover it is actually a replica filled with androids. Why has a replica of a sleepy British village been created on an alien planet?

In some ways, this is an unsurprising story from Terry Nation. Many of his stories have a 1940s-1950s science fiction feel. And when I think about this story, it reminds me of an old radio show X Minus One, which was a sci-fi anthology. In one episode, astronauts arrived on a planet that had a replica of an American town, and each astronaut found family members living in the town. In both that story and this on, the replicants had malicious intentions. But the point is that Nation’s stories are from an earlier era of sci-fi, an era that has faded away by the time the Fourth Doctor comes around. So The Android Invasion is a bit of an odd story, being places smack in the middle of a series that has increasingly been focused on horror. This story plays with an Invasion of the Body Snatchers vibe which gives it a bit of a horror feel, but for Nation, the pulpy sci-fi bits are always more important. This holds true in part four, when Nation’s roots begin to show in earnest.

The Android Invasion isn’t a bad story. In fact, the first three episodes are atmospheric, chilling, and they keep you guessing. Sure the androids are a given, but how Sarah and The Doctor are going to find their way out of the village and back to the TARDIS, which has left them, is a mystery. It is part four that hurts this story, although not as badly as some would say. It moves from atmosphere to action, then rushes toward a resolution. I almost wonder if concluding episodes were Terry Nation’s weak point. They all seem to be a bit rushed, now that I think about it.

I think the biggest strike against The Android Invasion that it appears in the same season as Terror of the Zygons. Zygons is the superior story; it did many of the same things The Android Invasion did, and it did them better. Sadly, this makes Terry Nation’s story seem rather silly. If it had been in an earlier era—say the Hartnell or Troughton eras—then it probably would have been received better. As it stands, it doesn’t quite fit the Tom Baker era. I like the B-movie sci-fi feel, but I just can’t help but feel this story could have been better than it is.

My Rating: 2.5/5

Doctor Who – Pyramids of Mars

Doctor Who Story 082 – Pyramids of Mars

Sutekh enjoying his new, and temporary, freedom.
Source: Tardis Index File. Copyright 1975 by BBC.

Who Wrote It: Steven Harris (well, Robert Holmes)

What’s It About: The Doctor and Sarah arrive in 1911 and find a Victorian manor with walking mummies, a malicious Egyptian, and the corpse of an archaeology professor working together to free an ancient evil that has been imprisoned on Mars.

I have watched Pyramids of Mars more than any other Doctor Who story. In the past, this has been the serial used to introduce curious friends to the classic series. It is a good mixture of the gothic horror of the Hinchcliff era and the occasionally cheesiness of classic Doctor Who. Plus, it has some really good Tom Baker moments. Because I have seen this story so many times, I have learned the hard way that Pyramids of Mars works best in small doses (well, for me). It is a fairly straight-forward adventure but little else.

Pyramids has a lot of things going for it. It is written in the style of a Victorian adventure, thus putting Doctor Who in a position to be included in the Wold Newton Family alongside Sherlock Holmes, John Carter, The Scarlet Pimpernel, and so on. In fact, it seems that Robert Holmes occasionally defaults to Victorian adventure when he is in a time crunch. Pyramids also gives us a godlike villain in the form of Sutekh, an ancient alien who is stronger than any living being—stronger even than the Time Lords. This puts Sutekh in the company of the Animus and The Great Intelligence, both villains that are stronger than The Doctor. There is just something fascinating, to me, about The Doctor fighting Lovecraftian beings, aliens that are practically gods from a human perspective. And at its core, this story is very dark and bleak. The very concept that Professor Scarman is a corpse that has been animated by Sutekh’s will is wonderfully creepy. This entire story is a fun adventure that, if thought about deeply, is actually quite conceptually disturbing.

Unfortunately, it isn’t perfect. A large part of the final act is lifted from Death to the Daleks—a fact that the script actually points to. And while the final method of dispatching Sutekh works, it isn’t really satisfying. I think this is a case of creating a villain that was too powerful to defeat with the story elements that were given. In the end, this is a story with good atmosphere, acting, and production values; it is a story that has good amounts of horror and adventure and some interesting concepts. It just doesn’t resolve them in a completely satisfying way.

My Rating: 3.5/5

Doctor Who – Planet of Evil

Doctor Who Story 081 – Planet of Evil

Sorenson begins to transform.
Plotting evil. (Source: TARDIS Index File. Copyright 1975 by BBC.)

Who Wrote It: Louis Marks

What’s It About: The Doctor and Sarah respond to a distress call on the planet Zeta Minor—a planet that is on the edge of the known universe. Uniquely, the planet has a portal to the anti-matter universe, which makes it valued as Professor Sorenson feels anti-matter could be a viable alternative resource. Unfortunately, forces exist that prevent the extraction of anti-matter from the planet, and these forces are killing members of the research team.

During my viewing of Doctor Who, I have occasionally re-evaluated stories I have already seen. For example, I’ve fallen completely in love with the Hartnell era. The Tom Baker story Robot seems to be less interesting each time I watch it. But occasionally, I come across a story that seems no better or worse than my original viewing. Planet of Evil is such a story. I’ve seen it four times now, and each time I feel about the same. I think there are interesting ideas, but they are explored in a slow, dull way.

Starting with the positives, I like the idea of alternative energy resources. This is a theme that comes up again and again in Doctor Who, and it is an interesting reminded that as much as humanity progresses, we still have the same old problems. Tom Baker is still at the top of his game. This is part of the success of the Hinchliffe era; Baker and Hinchcliffe worked well together. The set designs on this story are great. The jungle looks magnificent. The ship, while not as impressive as the jungle, is still visually interesting. Many parts of the ship have multiple levels. This allows interesting camera placement as characters move up and down stairs.

At its heart, however, Planet of Evil is a Jekyll and Hyde homage—one of many horror homages we will see in this era. This aspect of the story doesn’t really arrive until episode three as Sorenson begins to transform due to exposure to anti-matter. Prior to this, duality existed in the discussion of the collision between matter and anti-matter. Unfortunately, these themes are not adequately explored, and the eventual transformation of Sorenson lacks the thematic depth of Robert Louis Stevenson’s original tale. In the end, this story is just horror for the sake of horror, which isn’t bad in itself. I just wanted something more. The pace of the story wasn’t exciting, so I was hoping for more thematic meat. And following the conceptual heights of the preceding story, Planet of Evil merely feels run-of-the-mill.

My Rating: 2/5

Doctor Who – Terror of the Zygons

Doctor Who Story 080 – Terror of the Zygons

A Zygon looking menacing. But that's what you would expect from a Zygon.
Plotting terror. (Source: Copyright 1975 by BBC.)

Who Wrote It: Robert Banks Stewart

What’s It About: Answering a summons by the Brigadier, The Doctor, Sarah, and Harry return to Earth to find UNIT investigating the destruction of oil rigs in Scotland—destruction caused by something with gigantic teeth.

The first time I saw Terror of the Zygons it was with a roommate who thought the Zygons looked ridiculous. And while I see where he is coming from, the concept behind the Zygons is truly alien. Why shouldn’t they look the way they do? Granted, most American sci-fi on television portrays humanoid aliens. They have ridges on their foreheads or have strange markings on the skin. This is often done for budgetary reasons or because portraying something that looks less human would be difficult from a technical aspect. When aliens don’t look like humans, they tend to be balls of light or some simple visual effect. But Doctor Who has never been concerned with such things. The show will attempt to imagine the alien, even if it is an utter failure. The Zygons aren’t a failure, but I think they look like one due to the human-centric conditioning of other science fiction shows. The Zygons are truly other; their ship is virtually incomprehensible. Even The Doctor has difficulty evaluating the ship’s interior. Truly, we haven’t seen anything this alien since The Claws of Axos.

This story is a masterwork in tone. While the stories in season 12 were thematically darker, Terror of the Zygons adds darkness to the tone. This is probably the first, full-on gothic story of the Hinchcliffe era. It takes place on the moors of Scotland. It has quite a bit of fog. We even get to visit an old manor with secret passages hidden behind bookcases. Add to this shape-shifting aliens, the Loch Ness monster, and the excellent direction of Douglas Camfield, and you have one of the strongest stories of the Tom Baker era.

My Rating: 4.5/5

Doctor Who – Revenge of the Cybermen

Doctor Who Story 079 – Revenge of the Cybermen

Cybermen with the Cyberleader.
Plotting revenge. (Source: Wikipedia. Copyright 1976 by BBC.)

Who Wrote It?: Gerry Davis

What’s It About?: The Doctor, Harry, and Sarah return to Nerva, only at a different time. While they wait for the TARDIS to catch up to them, they discover the station is quarantined due to a virus. A skeleton crew is keeping the station operational to help ships navigate around a newly-discovered satellite orbiting Jupiter, a satellite which turns out to be the planet Voga, the Planet of Gold.

The long fall of The Cybermen begins here. They go from being frightening, emotionless cyphers to blundering robots. And why is gold suddenly lethal to the Cybermen? While I am willing to suspend some amount of disbelief—due to an oversight of design, one incarnation of The Cybermen left their breathing apparatus susceptible to gold dust—I refuse to believe that the Cybermen would see the destruction of a planet as a more expedient solution than redesigning to eliminate the gold weakness. Cybermen are about adaptation and improvement. Refusing to fix this weakness is somewhat out of character. While Gerry Davis wrote the original script for Revenge, I know that Robert Holmes did an extensive re-write. I’m curious which of them introduced this weakness. (Although, having now consulted Shannon Sullivan’s excellent website A Brief History of Time (Travel), it seems Gerry Davis was responsible for the gold weakness. Perhaps the absence of Kit Pedler is the problem. Again, as a one-off, this wouldn’t bother me, but we will see this exploited again and again.)

There are some things the story does well: the atmosphere of the scenes on Nerva during the first episode is good; the cliffhangers are very good; the location work is effective (is it truly praise to say something is “effective”); I like that Kellman was a double-agent. It was a nice twist; and I like the idea of returning to a location we have already seen, only in a different time (which was also done in The Ark and will be done again in The Long Game and Bad Wolf/Parting of the Ways). But overall, the story is slow, a bit dull, doesn’t make a lot of sense, and introduces elements that will hinder the effectiveness of the Cybermen (gold weakness, emotional Cyberleaders) for decades to come. In all, it was a poor ending to an inconsistent season. But this isn’t too surprising since the stories were commissioned by a one producer (Barry Letts) and managed by another (Philip Hinchcliff). We’ll see if next season has a more consistent feel.

My Rating: 2/5

Doctor Who – Genesis of the Daleks

Doctor Who Story 078 – Genesis of the Daleks

Davros demonstrates his new creation: A Dalek.
Source: Tardis Index File. Copyright 1976 by BBC.

Who Wrote It: Terry Nation

What’s It About: The transmat beam that was supposed to take The Doctor, Sarah, and Harry back to Nerva is intercepted by the Time Lords. They want The Doctor to undertake a mission to prevent the creation of The Daleks.

Few stories in the classic era inspire as much adoration as Genesis of the Daleks. And, after watching this show in context, it is hard to disagree. This is a story that is quite unlike anything that came before. It is dark and moody; it has a tight plot; the performances are spectacular, with Michael Wisher and Peter Miles dominating the story; and the story brings up an interesting theme about the good that can be derived from hardship. The moral core of this story is summed up when The Doctor is confronted with the reality of destroying The Daleks at such an early state. If you know the future, is it ethical to commit murder (or genocide) to prevent future bloodshed? Or, in preventing this reality, do you create another, as yet unknown reality? Maybe a galaxy without The Daleks would be a better place. Or maybe it would be worse. The Doctor raises a very good point: that the civilizations that found unity in a common goal (survival against The Daleks) would now lack that unifying force. Maybe war would still exist, only now with different sides.

But ultimately, David Whitaker’s version of time travel wins. The Daleks, despite a last-minute attempt to destroy them, continue to survive. The revision of history cannot exist. But now it may be altered. Fan convention states that history was changed so that the early Dalek stories either didn’t happen, or happened differently. I don’t think it is entirely necessary to retcon all the early Dalek stories, but it is an interesting idea. I am especially intrigued by the new series retcon which suggests that Genesis of the Daleks is part of the Time War (perhaps the first shot fired in the Time War). This creates an interesting bit of symmetry as The Doctor was supposed to be the first weapon used in that war. He failed, but ultimately, he did end the war, thus becoming the final weapon.

But all this revisionism is incidental to the story itself. The Daleks are scary again, something they haven’t really been since the Troughton era. But center stage in this story is Davros, the creator of The Daleks. Casting Michael Wisher as Davros was a stroke of genius. Prior to this story, Wisher had been a Dalek voice actor, and he brings that background to this performance. We hear the fanaticism and anger in The Daleks, and we now know it comes from Davros. But even more chilling is the mind that rests in his scarred, devastated body. Davros is cold and calculating. He is hungry for power, but his main expression of power is his scientific supremacy. Davros is not so interested in ruling people; he is interested in proving his scientific theories, even if those theories lead to total destruction. As villains go, this is a completely impractical goal, but it is the strength of Wisher’s performance that, for the duration of the story, you believe it.

Peter Miles also shines as Nyder, Davros’s second-in-command. Why Nyder shows such unwavering devotion to Davros is never stated, but again, the performance never wavers. You never question Nyder’s devotion.

I suppose the question left to ask is: Did we really need an origin story for The Daleks? In truth, not really. I would say that the quality of the story justifies its own existence, but if Genesis had failed, we would lament the very attempt at an origin story. Since it succeeded (spectacularly), it has opened the door to all sorts of other origin stories: Spare Parts, The First Sontarans, countless stories that speculate on the origin of The Master and The Doctor, and the occasional new series episode that fans theorize being the “Genesis of the X” (I remember Waters of Mars being theorized as Genesis of the Ice Warriors; Some thought The Almost People could be the creation of the Autons; and I’ll throw my own hat in the ring with The Snowmen having an almost Genesis of the Great Intelligence vibe). But more than an origin story, we needed a Dalek story that really re-emphasized why we like the little pepper pots. We needed a story to make them scary again, even if we had to visit their creator to do it.

My Rating: 4.5/5