Doctor Who – Shadow of Death (Destiny of the Doctor)

Where Can I Find It?

Big Finish

Written by

Simon Guerrier

Directed by

John Ainsworth

What’s It About?

Ad copy: Following an emergency landing, the TARDIS arrives on a remote world orbiting a peculiar star – a pulsar which exerts an enormous gravitational force, strong enough to warp time.

On further exploration the Doctor and his friends, Jamie and Zoe, discover a human outpost on the planet surface, inhabited by scientists who are there to study an ancient city. The city is apparently abandoned, but the scientists are at a loss to explain what happened to its sophisticated alien architects.

The Doctor discovers that something dark, silent and deadly is also present on the world – and it is slowly closing in on the human intruders…

Shadow of Death cover
Size Isn’t Everything, Zoe

Shadow of Death is set in the sixth season of Doctor Who. Frazer Hines is always a great narrator of Second Doctor stories. His Patrick Troughton impersonation is astounding. The story is a nice mixture of Second Doctor tropes, from a base under siege (somewhat), to white foam, to mild innuendo, to space-age adventure. Honestly, the latter is one of my favorite things about the Troughton Era: the space age. In a way, the Troughton Era is a type historical preservation of what writer in the 1960s thought space travel would be like. It captures a perspective that has changed significantly, and yet the attitude and charm still exist. I love these details in old Doctor Who. I love mining stories for contextual meaning. And it is fascinating how current writers attempt to reproduce those types of stories, but filtered through a contemporary context. Hence, in Shadow of Death we get parallel time streams due to a pulsar. But at its core, Shadows of Death is straight out of a space-age, Second Doctor playbook.

I love how this story reproduces its Doctor’s era (something I felt Hunters of Earth didn’t quite accomplish), but at the same time, I never quite engaged with it. Sure, there was an interesting core concept. The appearance of the Eleventh Doctor encouraged the Second Doctor to solve the problem, but he didn’t provide the answer. I think my main disconnect was with the aliens in the story. They didn’t quite become real to me. I think this is due, in part, to not having anything from their perspective. Sure, the Doctor relayed a message from them, but they never really became an autonomous entity in their own right. This is admittedly difficult to portray due to the core concept, but I still want to know more about them. They never rose above generic alien threat to me.

That said, it’s not a bad story by any means. It is enjoyable and Frazer Hines is always a treat to listen to. But in the end, this second entry into Destiny of the Doctor is still somewhat forgettable.

Doctor Who – The Five Doctors

Doctor Who Story 129 – The Five Doctors

Written by

Terrance Dicks

What’s It About?

Someone has reactivated the Time Scoop, an ancient Gallifreyan device which pulls creatures out of time and deposits them in the Death Zone, where they fight for the amusement of the Time Lords. The targets of the Time Scoop are the Doctor’s previous incarnations. The goal: to play the Game of Rassilon.

No! Not the mind probe!

Art from the Five Doctors DVD coverDoctor Who is just weeks away from its 50th anniversary. In the meantime, I’m celebrating the 20th anniversary with “The Five Doctors.” More so than “The Three Doctors,” which celebrated the 10th anniversary, “The Five Doctors” is the general model for how Doctor Who anniversary stories tend to go. They feature the return of Doctors and companions. Much of the beginning sets up how the Doctors and companions are brought out of their own continuity or time stream and placed in this new story. They face a challenge that can only be overcome by combining their efforts. As a result, anniversary stories have a tendency to drag in the “getting the team together” act because there are only so many ways you can make this act interesting from a storytelling perspective. Instead, act one becomes more of a reunion, driven by the return of previous Doctors. Thus, this act succeeds or fails based on the actors and the excitement created in the viewer by reconnecting with old favorites. Anniversary stories, then, can be difficult for fans who are not familiar with previous Doctors or who (shudder) do not like previous Doctors.

But while “The Three Doctors” began the multi-Doctor story, “The Five Doctors” became the model, which is interesting because “Five” is really a conglomeration of Doctor Who tropes, many of which were defined directly or indirectly by Terrance Dicks. There is a “Death to the Daleks” style dungeon crawl. The entire premise of the Death Zone is a reproduction of the premise of “The War Games.” And the Time Lords are very . . . well, they deserve their own paragraph.

In his analysis of “State of Decay,” Philip Sandifer brings up the idea that in the classic series the Time Lords had three distinct portrayals: the Terrance Dicks version (“The War Games” – Pertwee era), the Robert Holmes’ version (“Genesis of the Daleks” – “The Deadly Assassin”) and the Andrew Cartmel version (the McCoy era). I’ll briefly focus on the first two since I haven’t made it to the McCoy era yet. The Terrance Dicks Time Lords are somewhat godlike, but the godlike qualities are based in elevated technology. They possess the technology that is indistinguishable from magic. They are separate from the lower races like a deist god, but at one time they were more active and that activity led to legend, hence Omega vs. Rassilon, the vampires, and the Game of Rassilon. However, they are not gods, they are godlike (Cartmel will weigh in on this with his third view). The Robert Holmes version of the Time Lords is far more cynical, and it turns the Time Lords into bureaucrats. These Time Lords are not gods, nor are they godlike. They are merely an advanced civilization, but they are a dying civilization. They are dying because the no longer truly remember who they are; they do not understand themselves. But because they are so far advanced, they do not look like they are on the decline.

With “The Five Doctors,” Dicks straddles these views. President Borusa, a character created by Robert Holmes, is representative of the bureaucrat Time Lords. He is, then, a stand in for the Holmes version. Dicks subjects Borusa to the Time Lords of legend, and Borusa is defeated. Symbolically, it seems Terrance Dicks is suppressing the Robert Holmes version of the Time Lords; he is weighing it and showing it to be wanting. (This analysis is even more interesting, I think, when you learn that Robert Holmes was originally commissioned to write “The Five Doctors.” He gave it a shot, gave up, and Terrance Dicks was hired.) Looked at another way, Borusa represents political secularization and Rassilon represents myth (or magic or religion). Borusa is allowed to live forever, although in the way many heads of state live forever—in sculpture. But the Brand of Rassilon will outlive Borusa because myth is better at branding since it captures the imagination. It provides narrative.

This idea of immortality derived from winning the Game of Rassilon is fascinating because in a pre-“Deadly Assassin” mythos it would be meaningless. “The Deadly Assassin” asserted a regeneration limit (thus symbolically assassinating Doctor Who, according to Sandifer) thus condemning Time Lords to mortality on a different scale. The JNT era has reinforced this in dialogue more than once. Doctor Who has offered multiple ways around this Holmes-imposed limit, but none of them have stuck. “The Five Doctors” can only work with this regeneration limit. The Doctor himself is offered immortality, and he refuses, stating immortality is a curse (which, again, The Black Guardian trilogy reinforced). In a story celebrating 20 years of the show and knowing there are only six season left for the classic series, I almost wonder if this can be read as a recognition the even Doctor Who as a show has a shelf life. Or perhaps, instead, Doctor Who needs periods where it is away from our screens so it can renew itself in other ways. Being on continually, year after year, may cause too strong a bond of continuity and pressure to do more of the same. Certainly the Fifth Doctor era has waffled between looking forward and looking backward, the former view creating some fascinating stories, the latter creating a mixed bag. But by being off the air for a time, it can allow new writers and producers to come up with a new approach, one that could be controversial to fans of what came before but appeal to people who join this new approach. In its current Cymru incarnation, Doctor Who has yet to grow stale, so the new series hasn’t reached that point yet. (I say this despite occasionally being really annoyed with what Steven Moffat does with the show, but credit where it is due, it is still moving forward with unprecedented quality. It works for many new fans, just not always for this old, curmudgeonly fan.)

Ultimately, though, “The Five Doctors” really isn’t a new or groundbreaking story. It is Terrance Dicks by the numbers, but Terrance Dicks by the numbers can still be fun. And truly, that’s what “The Five Doctors” is—fun. It is great to see Troughton and Pertwee again. It is great to see Sarah Jane and Susan again. I’d say it was good to see the Brigadier again, but that is a given; besides, his appearance is somewhat undermined by having seen him recently in “Mawdryn Undead.” But in all, “The Five Doctors” is a fun nostalgia fest, but divorced from the nostalgia, I’m not sure it is very effective.

My Rating

3.5/5; for the Peter Davison/Terrance Dicks commentary, however 4/5

The Three Doctors (Doctor Who)

A photo of the three actors who have played The Doctor
Image copyright by BBC.

Seeing as how it took me a month or so to watch this story, I’ll go ahead and review it by itself. Besides, it was an anniversary special, so it was rather important.

The Three Doctors

Who Wrote It: Bob Baker and Dave Martin

What’s It About: Mysterious antimatter creatures appear on Earth and start abducting whatever they touch. The Time Lords realize this is connected to a power drain in their own systems. Left with no other Time Lord to solve the mystery, they call on The Doctor—ALL of them!

The Three Doctors is a great story for two reasons. First, it involves all three of the actors who had played The Doctor up to this point, and second, the TARDIS is finally repaired and The Doctor has his memory of time/space travel restored. The Doctor finishes this episode a free man. He is no longer imprisoned on Earth.

It was wonderful to see Patrick Troughton and William Hartnell again. Sadly, the latter was in ill health, so his involvement was somewhat minimal. Troughton, however, was on top of his game. Watching this story made me realize how much I missed both actors. It also reminded me why I enjoy the character that the Seventh Doctor (skipping ahead a bit) became: a wise and manipulative figure who often disguised himself as a fool. The moments where the Second Doctor began prattling on about his recorder just to test the limits of Omega’s emotional control were classic misdirection. I was reminded of Tomb of the Cybermen, when The Doctor followed Klieg along the control panel and covertly fixed his miscalculations.

This is also the heaviest Time Lord mythology episode so far. We learn that the power used by the Time Lords is from a black hole, and this black hole was created at the expense of Omega’s life (Omega being one of the great Time Lords of the past). The mythology is being filled in, and the Time Lords are becoming less mysterious. They are becoming beings that can be quantified and known, which can serve to strip away their mysterious and godlike qualities. Of course, we have yet to see the story in which Robert Holmes deals the final deathblow to the enigmatic Time Lords.

By the end of the story, we learn that Omega doesn’t quite exist any longer. For centuries he was kept alive by sheer will, and it was this will that allowed him to survive in a universe of antimatter. His will kept him sustained as he ached for revenge against the Time Lords. By the time the Doctors met him, Omega’s physical body had been so destroyed by the technology he developed to bridge the matter and antimatter universes that his will was all that remained. This actually reminded me of C.S. Lewis’s book The Great Divorce. This book takes on the concept of the afterlife and posits that the actions and attitudes we take in life make us into who we are. The Christian concept of sin, therefore, becomes the impulses we give in to which change us, making us less human and more impulse. If we allow our anger to rule us, we eventually become anger. If we allow our addictions to rule us, we become that addiction. In the case of The Three Doctors, Omega ceased being a physical creature and became a disembodied spirit of the will for revenge.

With the end of this story comes the end of The Doctor’s exile. Jon Pertwee’s tenth season has begun, and I’m excited to see where we go from here.

My Rating: 3.5/5

The Second Doctor in Review

Patrick Troughton did something amazing with Doctor Who:  he replaced the former lead actor, and sold viewers on the replacement.  This is absolutely astounding, yet I think we (Doctor Who fans) often take this for granted.  How many shows have successfully replaced the lead actor?  Watching Patrick Troughton, however, I never once doubted that he was The Doctor.  Granted, some of the clowning around in later episodes (splashing in the water in The Enemy of the World, for example) seemed decidedly un-Hartnell, but for the most part, I accepted Troughton.  He was a good follow-up to William Hartnell and I shall miss them both.

Prior to starting the Second Doctor era I would have listed Jamie McCrimmon as my favorite companion every time I was asked.  Having viewed this era sequentially, I’m not uncertain.  I enjoyed Jamie early in his run, particularly in Evil of the Daleks, where he would question and challenge The Doctor.  By the sixth season, however, I felt he was more of a joke and less of a character.  Jamie seemed to have stayed with The Doctor too long.  Honestly, appearing opposite Zoe and The Doctor, the juxtaposition leant itself easily to comedy.  But this seemed the easy option.  I would have preferred to see Jamie struggle with insecurity beside these two geniuses, or perhaps help make Zoe more human and less computer-like.  In this final year, however, character development seems to have been less important.

Based on how I feel at the moment, I would say that, despite enjoying The Second Doctor, I preferred the Hartnell Era.  The previous era was unpredictable and innovative, even when it failed to realize its ambition.  The Troughton era, however, was often too formulaic, especially in season five.  It became a struggle to finish the fifth season.  I may revisit the occasional stories from that season, but I doubt I will watch it sequentially any time soon.

Favorite Story:  This is actually quite hard, but in the end I will choose The War Games.  I had never seen this story prior to this experiment, but upon finishing it I feel it was one of the most amazing episodes of Doctor Who thus far.  The introduction of the Time Lords fired my imagination in ways that the show hasn’t done since The Hartnell years.  Yet, the awe I felt in this story is probably due to having spent six seasons with the Time Lords never seen, never named.  In a season of episodes that I didn’t always feel engaged by, The War Games left me wanting another year of The Second Doctor.

Least Favorite Story:  This one is also hard as I feel so many episodes were of comparable quality.  In the end, I may just go with The Ice Warriors, although I still love the world-building and acting in this story.  It just lacked in engaging plot.

Favorite Companion Enemy:  I’ll mention The War Chief and The War Lord in passing, but I feel that I must give full credit to The Cybermen.  As far as I am concerned, The Cybermen were best in the Troughton era.  They have never been as chilling and disconcerting as they were in The Moonbase or Tomb of the Cybermen.  I will miss this portrayal.

Doctor Who Story Number 050 – The War Games

Written by Terrance Dicks and Malcolm Hulke
Directed by David Malone

From the Back: The TARDIS has materialized in a world of trench warfare, barbed wire and poison gas: the Western Front, 1917. In the chaos and paranoia of the First World War, the Doctor and his companions are separated from their ship, captured and court-martialed. The death sentence is swiftly pronounced. But all is not as it seems. As the Doctor finds himself increasingly out of his depth and facing impossible odds, the only solution is the truly unthinkable. He must seek help from those he most fears—his own people, the Time Lords.

It is an unusual feeling to be ready for a regeneration one week, only to miss The Doctor when it actually happens. While I haven’t found myself loathing The Krotons, The Dominators, or The Space Pirates as some fans have, I was beginning to desire change. Perhaps this was due to season five being repetitive. Regardless, over the past month I have found myself eager to start the Pertwee Era.

Now that I have closed out the Troughton Years, I don’t feel nearly so eager. I already miss the cosmic hobo much like I missed William Hartnell as his face morphed into that of Troughton. What accounts for this change of heart? I attribute it directly to The War Games, which may be my favorite episode of the series thus far.

The War Games is fast-paced, well-acted, and very compelling. Early on we are given the implication that The War Chief is from the same race as The Doctor, only this time The Doctor’s fellow isn’t a bumbler or trickster. He is cruel. He is chilling. The only character more sinister than The War Chief is The War Lord (yes, these names can get confusing if one doesn’t pay attention), only the latter is marked not by being a Time Lord, but by being a brilliant strategist and manipulator. His ultimate goal is to conquer the universe and unify it under his leadership. Given his skill in dealing with The War Chief, The Doctor, and various other characters in this story, his goal seems just plausible. Philip Madoc brings this character to life extremely well.

For the previous six seasons, The Time Lords (unnamed until now) have remained a mysterious presence, characterized only by The Doctor’s insistence that he cannot go home. They seem dangerous only because of his refusal to return to them. Their presence in this story is not disappointing. They seem an intriguing blend of high technology and supernatural ability. Indeed, perhaps that line is blurred. Once they have gotten a bead on The Doctor, he is unable to escape. I have seen some of the later portrayals of The Time Lords, and at the moment, this one is my favorite. These Time Lords are not stuffy bureaucrats, they are distant observers, the kind of gods a diest could live with; they maintain the balance and function of the universe. The Doctor, on the other hand, is an intervening god, one who sees the power (or technology) of The Time Lords as a responsibility. The mythology established in this story is quite fascinating.

If Kylie Minogue counts as a companion, then I posit Lt. Carstairs is a companion.

But not to overshadow the other nine episodes, the eponymous War Games give us a fun concept of different historical armies fighting in sectioned-off regions of a planet. The aliens seem to be conducting an experiment to determine which era of human warriors is the strongest. The Doctor, Jamie, and Zoe, aided by Lady Jennifer and Lt. Carstairs, must stay one step ahead of the aliens. This story hardly ever slows down. For a ten part story, there really isn’t much padding.

Final Verdict: I think this is my favorite story thus far. And yet, I can’t help but feel that the impact is due, in part, to having watched everything up to this point. Having spent six seasons with The Time Lords only present as a threat, to finally see them is a huge deal. This story is probably best watched after a period of watching nothing but Hartnell and Troughton.

Coming up: The Troughton Era in review.

Doctor Who Story Number 049 – The Space Pirates

Written by Robert Holmes
Directed by Michael Hart

“Jamie, I think you don’t appreciate all I do for you.”

From The Reference GuideFar into the future and far out into the black depth of the galaxy, the TARDIS materializes. The Doctor, Jamie, and Zoe discover the space pioneers of the future, the adventurers and guardians of planets. But lurking also in the emptiness of space is the evil—the evil of The Space Pirates!”

There are many ways to portray space adventures.  Often we get stories of wonder as our protagonists visit one alien location after another. In this type of story, we are exposed to landscapes and creatures we can never see on Earth. Another type of space story is to show how frightening and dangerous the cosmos can be. In these stories, space is cold, distant, and lonely; the only life which exists is that which cares nothing for you and would kill you with little thought or reason. Then there is space as frontier, not for scientific exploration, but for gathering resources or founding new settlements. In this type of story we find outlaws, miners, sheriffs, and claim-jumpers—even pirates!

Yes, The Space Pirates is a space-frontier story, having more in common, thematically, with Firefly than Star Trek. The Doctor, Jamie, and Zoe materialize on a space beacon that has been targeted by pirates who wish to blow it apart to salvage the scrap for argonite—one of the most precious materials in the galaxy and whatnot. Along the way, they encounter a space miner by the name of Milo Clancey. Clancey is eccentric, due to spending many years alone as he travelled through space, and a bit over-the-top due to Robert Holmes still developing his style for Doctor Who characters. But Clancey proves to be a valuable ally as The Doctor, Jamie, and Zoe attempt to find the mastermind who is funding the pirate operation. While I found this particular revelation to be predictable, I did appreciate the nuanced motivations of the individual who funded the pirates.

Essentially, this story was a romp. A slow romp, admittedly, but a romp nonetheless.

Unfortunately, I cannot comment much on the look of the story. Episode two still exists, but I don’t have access to it. However, this will no longer be a problem as I have finally completed all the missing stories. From this point on, every episode exists! Likewise, from this point on the endeavor becomes more expensive as I will now have to buy DVDs rather than audiobook downloads. And there is a new Doctor just around the corner. . . .

Final Verdict: The Space Pirates is a decent entry by Robert Holmes. It is a bit slow in places, but is an enjoyable story if you don’t mind audio adventures and one over-the-top performance. Besides, it is interesting to see Robert Holmes before he hits his stride.

Coming Up Next on Doctor Who: The ten part Patrick Troughton finale The War Games! This one may take a bit of time to watch. After that, a Second Doctor wrap-up, then a much-needed update to the site’s look.  Thanks for reading.

The Space Pirates Conquer My Computer

It started rather inauspiciously Monday evening as my computer’s responsiveness began to mirror mine if you addressed me prior to my first cup of coffee. Any task just seemed too much for its poor processor and by Tuesday morning it was shot. I have yet to figure out what is wrong with it, but my untrained mind fears the problem is related to the hard drive which Windows 7 refuses to communicate with any longer.  I am beyond my computer-repair knowledge.  For the immediate future my computer access will be restricted to my wife’s computer–which she uses for her work–and the computer labs at Missouri State University.  I am not sure what affect this will have on the blog.

As for The Space Pirates, I am half-way through the story and it has picked up quite a bit from the first episode. I actually think the introduction of Milo Clancey has helped my enjoyment.  Robert Holmes is really playing up the idea of space being a frontier (not unlike Joss Whedon in Firefly) and Clancey is a crazy prospector straight out of the stock character box. I love that you can see, in Clancey, an early version of later larger-than-life Holmes characters such as Henry Gordon Jago and Unstoffe. While it seems many fans dislike Clancey, I find him amusing. He reminds me of my first boss:  a bit goofy, largely comic relief, but competent in his own way.

Any fans of Clancey?