My Favorite and Least Favorite Televised Sixth Doctor Stories

The Sixth Doctor sitting on a bridgeAfter completing a Doctor’s era I like to go back and review my thoughts and compile a list of favorites and least favorites. In the case of some long-running Doctors, it is hard to remember or even parse nuances between what makes two great stories (or horrible stories) just a little better or a little worse. Oddly, I have a new problem with the Sixth Doctor stories, namely that there are so few of them. A typical top five and bottom five list would encompass the entire era (depending on how you counted Trial of a Time Lord. So I have limited myself to standouts on either side of the favorite/least favorite divide.

For the era as a whole, it was a disappointment. There are some instances in art where antagonism sparked creativity. One such example is the band The Police. The members of this band were in a constant struggle for artistic dominance. This led to an amazing alchemy of post-punk energy and angst. Unfortunately, Doctor Who did not capitalize on its own alchemical antagonism. The conflict between BBC oversight, Jonathan Nathan-Turner (producer), and Eric Saward (script editor) did not lead to great art; it led to inconsistency and lack of vision. This almost served to enhance Saward’s bleak vision of science fiction, causing a tone of hopelessness and oppression to flow subtly through the Sixth Doctor era.

The Sixth Doctor era was also the closest complete vision of a Sawardian interpretation of Doctor Who. (I say “closest” because, again, there was a LOT of creative conflict during this era.) Where the Fifth Doctor years were a struggle between a Bidmeadian re-creation of Doctor Who and a Sawardian reproduction of Holmesian Doctor Who, the Sixth Doctor years was firmly Sawardian. Every script was filtered through his lens, and given his singular vision for the show (and his assertion that JNT hired inexperienced writers as much as possible), his fingerprints are on every episode, his voice in every scene. If a viewer appreciates Saward’s vision, this can be a lot of fun. Unfortunately, I didn’t. I have no particular dislike of Colin Baker’s Doctor or of Peri or Mel; I have enjoyed many of the Sixth Doctor audios from Big Finish. But I do not care for Saward’s vision of Doctor Who . . . or at the very least, the vision he crafted under intense artistic conflict.

For me, the Sixth Doctor era has a few gems, but far more mediocre or outright dull stories. As a result, I find far more satisfaction reading the era as a text about Doctor Who rather than a series of entertaining stories. That said, from a pure entertainment standpoint, here are my lists of favorites and least favorites.

Favorite

  • Revelation of the Daleks. Despite being critical of Saward, I think Revelation is wonderful as his ultimate expression of Doctor Who, which is ironic since the Doctor is largely ineffective in it. The story is dark and bleak but it also manages to be funny and downright interesting. It has so many elements that should not work, and yet it does.
  • Vengeance on Varos. In addition to being a thought-provoking story on entertainment, Varos also signposts one of the recurring motifs of the Sixth Doctor era: Doctor Who as television. This is the first of many stories which show characters watching the Doctor on television screens and commenting on his actions. Thus, it provides many interesting meta moments.
  • The Two Doctors. My personal theory is that The Two Doctors is the most-complete Robert Holmes script under Saward’s script editorship. Caves of Androzani had Holmesian moments, but it felt more like a Saward script in tone. The Two Doctors is far more indicative of Robert Holmes’s style and voice. It is funny, vicious in its social commentary, and it reunites us with the Second Doctor and Jamie.

Least Favorite

  • Timelash. Perhaps the main crime of this story is that it is so bland and by-the-numbers as to be uninteresting. In another era, under another script editor, Timelash would not have stood out as bad. Here, it is glaring.
  • The Twin Dilemma. Another story that could have been something more than it was (the pieces are there), but I can’t overlook the implicit undertones of domestic violence in this story.

What do you think? What are your favorites of the era?

The Doctor and Peri

Doctor Who – Trial of a Time Lord

Doctor Who Story 144, 145, 146, 147 – Trial of a Time Lord

Written by

Robert Holmes, Philip Martin, Pip and Jane Baker

What’s It About?

The Doctor is pulled out of time and space by a jury of Time Lords. A Time Lord called The Valeyard is acting as prosecutor trying the Doctor for transgressing the First Law of Time: non-interference. At stake: the Doctor’s life. Citing evidence from the Doctor’s past, present, and future, the Doctor must prove his innocence, all the while determining who the Valeyard is and why he has targeted the Doctor.

Great Cosmic Protector of Grifters and Dissemblers, save me!

The courtroom as the Doctor faces the ValyardAs a story, I do not enjoy Trial of a Time Lord. As a historical document, I am fascinated by Trial of a Time Lord. During their time on the show, Jonathan Nathan Turner and Eric Saward shifted the primary focus of Doctor Who away from telling interesting, fun stories and toward telling self-referential stories about Doctor Who as a phenomenon. Or, put another way, Doctor Who became about Doctor Who. The show was about itself, about referencing the past, about exploring the question of what made Doctor Who great. But it was rarely about telling good stories. Good stories did get told during the Colin Baker era, but I think, on the whole, this era was too focused on itself as a part of Doctor Who rather than focusing on finding its own voice, its own drive, its own storytelling agenda. By focusing on itself, it did eventually find all these things, but more by accident rather than intentionally.

Oddly, one of the recurring motifs in the Colin Baker era is the image of people watching TV: Vengeance on Varos, Revelation of the Daleks, and now Trial of a Time Lord. Each of these stories features characters watching other characters in stories, watching the Doctor. Trial goes to the unfettered end of this meta-imagery by giving us a Doctor watching episodes of Doctor Who.

Now, in many ways, Trial is a brilliant piece of post-modern conceptualization. It works as a metaphor for the behind-the-scenes turmoil going on at the time. The ultimate question in this case is whether or not Doctor Who deserves to continue being made. This commentary is not so subtle. And through this commentary, the show is able to evaluate and criticize itself. The only problem is that it is handled so sloppily, almost making the critique on its own. “The Mysterious Planet” segment is so effectively by-the-numbers old-school Doctor Who that it is incredibly dull. The banter between Glitz and Dibbler are yet another example of the Robert Holmes double-act, but the story is unbearably dull at times. Thankfully, it is punctuated by Glitz and trial scenes.

“Mindwarp” gets more interesting with each episode, but I just can’t bring myself to get past Brian Blessed’s over-the-top portrayal of Yrcanos. The story never quite reaches the amount of self-parody needed to contextualize such a performance. The ideas are what save this story, but even then it is almost not enough.

Oddly, “Terror of the Vervoids” was the most watchable segment for me. I enjoyed the idea of killer plant life, and Pip and Jane Baker did a good job of subverting expectations (even when the dialogue was atrocious). And despite knowing that “The Ultimate Foe” was incomplete when Robert Holmes died, it seemed better paced than much of what we were given throughout the season.

But overall, even Trial was not spared from the inability of JNT and Saward to create good stories. All the potential in this season was wasted by not taking advantage of the 18-month hiatus to start from square one. There was no real attempt to rebuild the show; instead it seems they merely take a clever idea and did the same old thing. It is full of flaws and grossly illustrates the deficiencies of the current form of Doctor Who. Thankfully, change is coming, but it is disappointing that Colin Baker’s era would remain unredeemed until Big Finish began producing stories. And I also hate that Michael Jayston was so interesting and turned in a great performance as the Valeyard. This makes the conclusion even more unsatisfactory. I want to know more about the Valeyard. I just want other people writing it.

My Rating

2.5/5

 

Doctor Who – Revelation of the Daleks

Doctor Who Story 143 – Revelation of the Daleks

Written by

Eric Saward

What’s It About?

The Doctor and Peri arrive on Necros to visit Professor Stengos, an old friend of the Doctor. Necros is also the home of the Great Healer, a savior who found a solution to a galaxy-wide food shortage. But what the Doctor doesn’t know is that the Great Healer is Davros, and this old enemy has been recreating Daleks in secret.

Consumer Resistance

The Doctor and Davros share a moment.By all accounts, I’m not sure “Revelation of the Daleks” should work. But after three or so seasons of watching Eric Saward attempt to capture that Robert Holmes magic, he has done it and put his own spin on it. And all he had to do was write a story in which the Doctor and Peri were largely irrelevant. Most of the story involves the leads wandering around, failing to do anything of importance while other people progress the plot and reveal the secrets. In a way, it is fascinating. And while the Doctor and Peri are hardly significant to the plot, the story is actually compelling and darkly entertaining.

It is the irrelevance that interests me about this story. It is somewhat subversive in that it sidelines the Doctor and Peri, but I almost think it reflects the attitude at the time, namely that Saward and JNT are not entirely sure what this show is about anymore. I read much of the Davison era as a conflict between Bidmead’s vision and Saward’s vision. In the end Saward won out. His vision looked at past successes of the show with particular emphasis on the Robert Holmes approach (specifically a Fourth Doctor approach). With “Revelation” he has nailed it with the dark humor (almost out doing Holmes in this area); the story is overflowing with double acts. Saward and Graeme Harper (who brilliantly directed this story) even play with meta-commentary via the DJ, who flips back and forth between the different plotlines, which are almost different genres in themselves. In this story, the TARDIS doesn’t take us anywhere in time and space, it is the DJ and his cameras that do this. In some ways the central conceit of Doctor Who is laid bare, the idea that Doctor Who is entirely about television. (A box that is bigger on the inside which takes you anywhere in time and space . . . if you substitute TARDIS for television, the metaphor becomes obvious.) We are watching the DJ watching the Doctor. The show has been increasingly self-referential in recent stories, but now it handles this brilliantly and does something interesting with this rather than just patting itself on the back.

“Revelation of the Daleks” is, for me, the story where Saward finally got it all right. He finally wove his voice and ideas into a compelling story. It would have been the perfect story to go out on. But somewhat troubling about this story, and it has been growing throughout this era, is the realization that the best moments of Doctor Who have become less and less about the Doctor. The Doctor and Peri are the least interesting things to watch in this and many other stories of the era. And so the question must be asked, especially given what the next season holds, just how important is Doctor Who to television if the most compelling story we have had in a while sidelines him? And given that this story takes place on a planet of the dead, a planet of corpses, a place where the Doctor has a monument representing his death, I can’t help but wonder if the death of Doctor Who was an unconscious theme of this season.

My Rating

4.5/5

Doctor Who – Timelash

Doctor Who Story 142- Timelash

Written by

Glen McCoy

What’s It About

While investigating a time corridor, the Doctor and Peri arrive on Karfel, a world the Doctor has visited before. But it seems things did not improve after his interference.

I don’t know whether to be impressed or disgusted

The Doctor joyfully enters the timelashWhat can be said about “Timelash” that is worth saying or is in any way redemptive?

There are two really good ideas at the core of “Timelash”: (1) The Doctor revisiting a location he had once helped, only to find said location wasn’t helped at all by his intervention, and (2) a Doctor Who tribute to H.G. Wells. Neither of these, however, are handled well.

A story of a return, while done a couple of times in the past (“The Ark,” “The Face of Evil”) would have been most effective if it had been a return to a location we have already seen. How fascinating to see a later Doctor arrive somewhere a previous regeneration had helped, but to see unintended consequences! The Doctor might question himself. He may question his previous self and feel the need to right wrongs that he never saw at the time. This could have been so much better. Instead, we have a planet we have never seen and are given the story in exposition. This feels like a story with a returning villain or setting (and in the last few years we have seen a lot of returning villains and characters), but it never quite pays off because it is new. The trajectory of the era up to this point has been deceptive and actually hurts this story. Again, every episode has seen a reference to the past, but here, where a reference to the past is explicit in the story, there is none. Instead, we get a couple of references to Jo Grant and the Pertwee Doctor, but no actual return to a Pertwee-era story.

As for H.G. Wells, Doctor Who owes much to him. His approach to sci-fi has been extremely influential to Doctor Who. In fact, there is a good documentary on “The Ark” DVD about the influence of Wells. But in this story, the tribute to Wells is incidental. There are a few references through character names or monster names. Wells appears as a character halfway through, but his identity is left unknown until the end of the story. There doesn’t seem to be anything distinctly Wells in his portrayal. Worst of all, he is entirely forgettable, which is not what you want in a tribute. At least new Who makes their historical tributes memorable. They distill the historical figure into identifiable traits and struggles. They humanize them. In “Timelash,” Wells is just a plucky male assistant. His identity doesn’t matter. There is nothing in the story that prompts the viewer to want to pick up a Wells novel, nothing to compel the viewer to go deeper. What use is a tribute, then, if it doesn’t inspire the viewer?

So, on both counts that I have looked at, “Timelash” is a failure. But all Doctor Who stories have a fan or two somewhere. Let me know if you like “Timelash.” And even if you don’t care for it, how can we look at this story differently so as to redeem it? What interpretive lens improves this story?

Doctor Who – The Two Doctors

Doctor Who Story 141 – The Two Doctors

Written by

Robert Holmes

What’s It About?

The Second Doctor and Jamie are sent by the Time Lords to Space Station Chimera to investigate time experiments. The Doctor is captured because the masterminds behind the experiments need a Time Lord so they can unlock the secrets of TARDIS technology. Meanwhile, the Sixth Doctor develops a sensitivity to his past self’s abduction and realizes that if he is not able to save his past self, his present may be irrevocably changed.

Primitive Creatures Don’t Feel Pain in the Way We Would

Shockeye and The Doctor out on the town.It is always a joy to see Patrick Troughton and Frazer Hines reprise their roles in Doctor Who. For me, however, this story is less about Troughton and Hines’ return and more about Robert Holmes. Yes, he was back a year earlier with “Caves of Androzani,” but “Caves” was somewhat atypical for Holmes. It lacked his humor and witticisms. It was Holmes as dark cynic; “The Two Doctors” is Holmes as biting, witty cynic.

Like “The Sun Makers,” “The Two Doctors” is harsh in its commentary, but instead of focusing on the British tax system, Holmes unleashes his disdain on people who eat meat. Holmes was a vegetarian, and his use of Androgums as a stand-in for carnivores leads to some wonderful dark comedy. The only problem is that by making Androgums a stand-in for a group, a viewer could choose to try other readings instead of the vegetarian reading. In such a case, statements referring to Androgum nature being savage, lesser, debased, and primitive can take a decidedly racist tone. Attempts to modify Cessini to a more civilized existence have certain Imperial overtones. But it is clear that the author’s true intent was to excoriate meat eaters. This is probably the best lens to read “The Two Doctors” through.

Some criticism has been levelled at this story due to the cruelty exhibited in the story: the Doctor delivering a one-liner after killing Shockeye, the death of Oscar, cannibalism. Some of this serves the social commentary, but with Oscar’s death I think the story veers too far toward the grim. Oscar was played as a thoroughly ridiculous character up to this point. He was absurd. His death is filmed as tragic, but I almost wonder if it was meant to be in the absurd, comic vein in which he was written. Indeed at times, as Oscar waxed of Shakespeare, I anticipated his death was being deliberately over-played, melodramatic, his injuries a mere superficial wound and revealed as such with great embarrassment. But no, he died. The bleakness of this moment threatens to distance the viewer from the story.

In spite of this, “The Two Doctors” is a very good story. There are things to be critical about, but the storytelling is quite good and the directing creates effective mood, even when I disagree with the mood chosen.

My Rating

4/5

 

Doctor Who – Mark of the Rani

Doctor Who Story 140 – Mark of the Rani

Written by

Pip and Jane Baker

What’s It About?

The TARDIS materializes near a coal mine in the 1800s as the Luddite rebellion is breaking out. But the Doctor and Peri soon discover that the Luddites bear an odd mark on their necks. And it is soon revealed that the Doctor isn’t the only Time Lord on the scene.

You’re unbalanced

The Rani is disgustedPip and Jane Baker are, as I understand it, a hated writing team among Doctor Who fans. This was the first story I have watched by them. While I don’t think “Mark of the Rani” is the worst Doctor Who story I’ve ever seen, I do see why some fans may not like it. I think the worst thing I can really say about the story is that the two 45 minute episode format is a huge stumbling block for this era of Doctor Who. “Mark of the Rani” would probably be fine if it was just 45 minutes and no more. There seems to be a lot of padding or at least a large amount of unevenness. But are those due to the script or the directing. I don’t really care, however. For some reason “Mark of the Rani” was fun. I really enjoyed it, and I think that was largely due to Kate O’Mara. The Rani is a fascinating concept. She is a Time Lord who rejected Time Lord society and set herself up as ruler of some other planet. But her people need chemicals to help them sleep, and humans have those chemicals, so she uses her scientific knowledge to extract what she needs from humanity. She doesn’t care about the consequences.

Since I am at the end of the semester (which is why this post is later than I have usually been scheduling them), I want to briefly reflect on actors who brought to life poorly written or otherwise uninteresting roles.

  • Kate O’Mara as the Rani. For some reason, this performance me. She is a Time Lord villain with a decently plausible motive for her nefarious deeds. O’Mara’s performance is wonderful and really stands out against Ainley’s Master and Colin Baker’s Doctor. She’s caught in the middle, but just wants to be left alone.
  • Roger Delgado as the Master. With as much reverence as Delgado is held in by fandom, I expected his Master to be amazing and brilliant. Unfortunately, he had incomprehensible plans, made all sorts of unusual decisions, and had no consistently discernable motive. But Delgado’s Master is still fascinating to watch because Roger Delgado brought class and villainy to this role. It could have been played camp (and by Ainley it was), but you would never know it because of Delgado.
  • Philip Madoc as anything, really. Madoc was brilliant because he managed to balance absurdity with believability. His masterwork in this regard is Dr. Solon in “The Brain of Morbius.” This character was extremely strange and morbid and could have failed miserably. Philip Madoc turned this role into something you couldn’t stop watching, and he threatened to upstage even Tom Baker.

I’m sure

I’m sure I could name many more. What are some of your favorite roles? What actors really made something memorable when they could have easily not bothered?

My Rating

3.5/5

 

Doctor Who – Day of the Doctor as Seen Through the Lens of Vengeance on Varos

Doctor Who Story 139 – Vengeance on Varos

Written by

Philip Martin

What’s It About?

The Doctor needs Zeiton-7 to repair the TARDIS and the only planet where it is mined is Varos, a planet under strict corporate control. The Doctor and Peri suddenly find themselves running for their lives in a torture dome which broadcasts death and dismemberment as entertainment.

When did they last show something worth watching?

vengeanceonvarosLawrence Miles has said that Steven Moffat has the best job in the world, by which he means show runner for Doctor Who. At the same time, I sometimes wonder if Steven Moffat has the most thankless job in Doctor Who, by which I also mean show runner.

The current position of show runner embodies a role that was divided between two people in the classic series: producer and script editor. The former oversaw the production aspect and acted as a liaison to the BBC, the latter commissioned stories and set the path for each season. In modern Who, the show runner does both by varying degrees. Thus, when Doctor Who is a success, one individual gets a good amount of credit; when it is not successful, one individual gets the blame. And since 2009 that individual has been Steven Moffat.

But Steven Moffat is not alone in the history of Doctor Who production. He is the latest in a long line of men (and one woman) who oversaw the show. He knows that there were people before him and there will very likely be people after him. Fans of the show are also quite aware of this, each having his or her own preferred production team: Lambert/Whitaker, Hinchcliffe/Holmes, Russell T. Davies, JNT/Saward, and so on and so on. But increasingly in this show that has a large fan following, a show that gave a strong voice to fans in the 1980s and still depends on the devotion and evangelism of fans, balancing the needs of show production, market viability, and fan service has to be a thankless job. I’ll put my cards on the table (as a preview of sorts to when I finally get to the New Who era): I loved Moffat stories from RTD’s run, I enjoyed series five, but everything since then has been inconsistent for me. I think Steven Moffat has certain personal tropes he relies upon, some which work very well and some which are annoying and don’t. And so in his current position as a show runner, I sometimes wonder if these tropes become his way of staying on schedule while dealing with the myriad other duties his job requires. Sometimes his stories annoy me greatly (every appearance of River Song since season six), but I love it when I can give him full credit for stories that stretch him beyond his tendencies, in this case, Day of the Doctor. The 50th Anniversary special out-and-out worked for me. I loved 98% of the thing and I can’t wait to watch it again. But Day of the Doctor aired after a year of hype and expectation, after a season which has seen the greatest criticism of Steven Moffat and his approach to Doctor Who, storytelling, and gender. And while there is genuine criticism to be had, there is also hatred for the sake of hatred. For some segments of fandom, Steven Moffat can do no good. Make no mistake, there is an opposite segment of fandom for whom Steven Moffat can do no wrong. And, as with all things, many people fall in the middle, acknowledging highs and lows and just hoping for a good story week after week.

Some of the criticism of Day of the Doctor is baffling to me as it seems Steven Moffat played to his strengths, stretched himself as a writer, and turned in a story that, pacing issues near the beginning aside, worked as a celebration of old and new and managed to fit quite well in the trajectory of all Doctor Who, from Lambert to Davies. I was seriously impressed.

Which brings me to Vengeance on Varos, which I can only read (during this viewing) as a metaphor for Doctor Who production. The Governor is the show runner, whether JNT from the era in which this show was produced, or Steven Moffat in our current era. The citizens are the two extremes of fandom, the critic for whom the show runner can do no good and the optimistic fan for whom the show runner can do no bad. (Statements such as “I like the one in the funny costume” elevate this reading as the superficial becomes substance.) I think it is telling that the two citizens spend all their time watching television, watching the Doctor and his companion go from one danger to another, enjoying different aspects and cringing at the ones they don’t. Sil and the Chief Officer represent the business concerns of Doctor Who (production cost, overseas marketing), recognizing the value of what they have but not wanting to give credit to it. Quillam, as the program manager who oversees the tortures, is the script editor from the classic Who model, and his love of the gruesome and violent leads me to see him primarily as an avatar for Eric Saward.

And so, Vengeance on Varos becomes a meta-textual criticism of Doctor Who itself in which the Doctor materializes inside his own show and attempts to redeem it. The Sixth Doctor is not as harsh as he was in the previous two stories; he is actually Doctor-like—unique but still of the traditional mold. In this story more than The Twin Dilemma and Attack of the Cybermen we see what the Sixth Doctor can be, rather than how he was written at the time. And the final moments of the story are a strong critique of the blind-fan mentality, emphasizing that while Doctor Who as an entity will not cease to exist (as Zeiton-7 is still in production, but more valuable than ever), it must go away for a while and redefine itself. (A prescient observation if ever there was one. What more compelling image in this era of the show than two fans sitting in disbelief as the screen goes blank?)

JNT and Steven Moffat are, in many ways, in the same struggle. Both must balance business and production interests with storytelling and fan criticism. Both were also fans of the show, and each has his own view of what Doctor Who should be. And both enjoy baiting the fans. But Vengeance on Varos as with The Day of the Doctor is Doctor Who at its most self-aware. It recognizes its place not just as a story, but as a production. And where Day of the Doctor celebrates the show, Vengeance on Varos criticizes it. It proposes a different attitude and approach. It asks fans to find a middle ground.

And, bottom line, Vengeance on Varos is a great story with a lot of depth and the story in which Colin Baker finally became the Doctor.

My Rating

4/5

 

Doctor Who – Attack of the Cybermen

Doctor Who Story 137 – Attack of the Cybermen

Written by

Paula Moore

What’s It About?

Cybermen and Telos and Litton and a lot of walking around.

Attack of the Cybermen DVD cover
It’s all there, but in a pile of unrelated bits and pieces

My wife has been reading this blog off and on since I started it. But about a year ago she got behind. A month ago, she committed to get caught up. (And no, I didn’t pressure her in to this; it was her own decision.) Despite not being caught up on the blog, she still gets to hear my occasional comments about whatever episode I am watching or theoretic lenses I want to try out on a story. I’ve been complaining about Eric Saward to her quite a bit. This past week, she said it was interesting and sad that she was currently reading my posts on season 18 and the vision of Christopher H. Bidmead. These posts are hopeful and filled with excitement about what is to come. But when I talk to her, it has been from a late/post-Peter Davison perspective, and that hope and excitement have been dashed against the Sawardian approach to Doctor Who.

Sadly, things have not gotten much better. But I want to turn away from nursing the annoyance at Saward and focus instead on what is now called “fan service.” There has been a lot of criticism leveled at Steven Moffat for inserting things into Doctor Who just for the sake of exciting the old fans of the show. Russell T. Davies got similar complaints. But in a way, what these two men have done is quite different from what was done in “Attack of the Cybermen,” which isn’t merely make reference to the past, but try to comment upon it and continue it. Under Jonathan Nathan Turner and Eric Saward, Doctor Who became self-aware in a very different way. It developed an in-universe continuity across the spectrum of Doctors rather than just with the current Doctor. And this continuity wasn’t based only around the Doctor’s character, but around other races and plotlines. This was developing in the Davison era and is revealed most obviously in “Resurrection of the Daleks,” but in the Sixth Doctor era it hits the ground running with “Attack of the Cybermen” in which numerous plot elements from other stories and eras are revisited. Litton from “Resurrection of the Daleks” has returned. The tomb of the Cybermen from Telos is revisited. The incident with the Doctor and Mondas is implied to have a major impact on why the Cybermen are on Telos to begin with. It is quite possible that “Attack of the Cybermen” is the most continuity-heavy episode of Doctor Who thus far, and it refers to stories that hardly anyone watching the show would have seen or remembered since this was an era before DVD.

Although, I must point out that Doctor Who started to be released on VHS in 1983. “Attack of the Cybermen” aired in 1985. And, according to a bit of research, the fan-favorite desired release for the first story on VHS was “Tomb of the Cybermen,” which was not in the archives at that point. Is it possible that “Attack of the Cybermen is so continuity heavy and so referent to “Tomb” because of the perception that fans wanted more of that story? It would go a long way toward explaining aspects of this story. But it also illustrates something that must always be held in tension with Doctor Who: the tension between long-term fans and newer fans, and the impact these segments of fandom have on the final product. Or, to put it another way, how much do you appeal to your audience and how much do you try to tell a compelling story. Naturally, the latter is always the first goal, but with any long-running storyline there is a pressure to pay attention/tribute to people who have been following you for a very long time. Add to that the sci-fi stereotype of detail-oriented continuity analysis, and there is a huge amount of pressure on the writer. In general, Doctor Who seems to do best when it ignores the continuity adherence, in large part because most of the show’s history never bothered with it to begin with. But sci-fi television has evolved since then, and in-universe continuity is the name of the game at the moment. How does Doctor Who navigate this?

(And it isn’t just Doctor Who that is dealing with this. Both Marvel and DC have been taking this challenge on in recent years. Star Trek has been rebooted for a new audience. Even James Bond has been reconfigured for a new era.)

The answer given by “Attack of the Cybermen” is to embrace the perceived past. (“The memory cheats,” as JNT is quoted as saying, meaning we never remember things as accurately as we think we do.) The problem, however, is that “Attack of the Cybermen” quickly becomes evidence that embracing the past is the wrong way to go. A story which embraces the continuity is then required to get it right, else it undermines its case. And given the lack of a primary source at the time (“Tomb of the Cybermen”), this was probably a bad idea. On top of that “Attack” is a fairly dull story. It is the first of the 45-minute stories of the Colin Baker era, and the pacing was still being worked out. Part one is uninteresting and more of a runaround with occasional moments of Cybermen pontificating. Part two develops an interesting plot with the Cryons, but by this point it is too late. This type of pacing may have worked with the old 25-minut format, but it fails here. Granted, they were trying something new, but there were plenty of examples of 45-minute sci-fi drama that worked by this point. Rather than using Star Wars as the model, JNT should have been watching Star Trek, The Twilight Zone, or The Outer Limits. At its core, classic Doctor Who is much closer to an anthology series. Rather than a linking narration, though, it has a linking main cast.

The Doctor showing his library card.

In many ways, the new series by RTD and Moffat improve upon what “Attack of the Cybermen” was trying to do. It jettisons far more plot-continuity in favor of character-continuity. But it is unfair to say that RTD and Moffat and JNT and Saward are working from a level playing field. They aren’t. RTD and Moffat have decades of sci-fi television examples to draw from. RTD is very Buffy inspired. Moffat is a little more Lost/continuity-heavy American sci-fi inspired. (Although, in fairness, Moffat’s influences are a little harder to pin down than RTD. Moffat has a little bit of Lost and a little bit of RTD Who. I’m still trying to get a good reading of his basic approach. Feel free to chime in in the comments.) But I believe both were/are doing the best with the pieces they had. But where “Attack of the Cybermen” attempted to concretely engage with and continue the stories of the past, RTD/Moffat Who tends to reference them with a wink and a nod. Is this wink and nod enough? Or should Doctor Who even bother?

My Rating

1.5/5

Doctor Who – The Twin Dilemma

Doctor Who Story 136 – The Twin Dilemma

Written by

Anthony Stevens

What’s It About?

The Doctor has regenerated. And a couple of kids have been kidnapped. And a mollusk wants to take over the universe or something.

I Am The Doctor Whether You Like It Or Not.
The Doctor lounges. Peri looks on in confusion.
This Doctor doesn’t give a tinker’s damn what you think. And neither does Eric Saward.

In my writing class this semester we were told that it is best to not antagonize your readers from the outset. Essentially, do not tell your readers “This is what it is and just deal with it if you don’t like it.” Or something along those lines. While there may be instances where this is used to establish tone, it must be used very strategically and wisely or else it will turn readers off to your work.

It seems that Anthony Stevens or Eric Saward or JNT should have followed this advice. While I understand the desire to create a darker Doctor to contrast with the previous Doctor, while I understand the desire to get back to a Hartnell-esque Doctor, “The Twin Dilemma” does not present such a Doctor. There does not seem to be any consistency in the opening episodes to convey a Doctor who truly has an alien outlook and morality (as the Doctor claims in episode four). To enact egregious violence against a female companion is troubling and claiming that the regeneration-went-wrong-and-anyway-I’m-an-alien-and-I-do-my-own-thing is no way to truly explain this. In order to convey an alien worldview and morality there needs to be deliberate planning and consistent portrayal. What we have in “The Twin Dilemma” is shock as pseudo-character contrast. Five would never assault a companion, therefore Six will. And given that most of this story (and subsequent stories) portrays Peri and the Doctor bickering like a hateful married couple (lacking the charm and humor of Basil and Sybil Fawlty), the assault feels more like domestic abuse than bad regeneration. To cap the story with “I am an alien” and “I am the Doctor whether you like it or not” is truly disturbing and antithetical to what the show has developed as its core outlook. Even the Hartnell era never put the Doctor in position of domestic abuser. Quite the contrary, he was overprotective to a fault.

This is a shocking and horrifying first step in the Colin Baker era.

My Rating

0/5

 

Intermission #2 – The World Shapers: A Comic by Grant Morrison

“I think a few million years of evil and bloodshed are well worth the ultimate salvation of sentient life, don’t you?”

The Doctor, a Highlander, and a Penguin. What more do you need?

Originally I hadn’t intended to review comics on this blog for one simple reason:  There’s too many of them.  Within the Doctor Who Media Empire we have television, audio drama, novels, comics and each month adds two or more new stories to the mix.  One would need a small fortune to keep up with just one medium let alone all of them.  And yet, the longevity of Doctor Who is quite fascinating.  It is the only television show that I can think of that has the scope of a comic book.  In his introduction to Saga of the Swamp Thing, Alan Moore makes this fascinating observation about horror comics that I believe also applies to Doctor Who: “Anyone picking up a comic book for the first time is almost certain to find themselves in the middle of a continuum that may have commenced before the reader’s birth, and will quite possibly continue long after his or her demise.”  This is certainly true of Doctor Who, as the majority of viewers had not been born at the time of An Unearthly Child and as the show is rapidly approaching its 50th anniversary, there have been deaths of original cast members as well as original fans.  To be able to collect all the stories is a mammoth task, one that I neither have the time or money to devote to it.

The second reason is that so many of the Doctor Who comics I’ve read haven’t been very interesting.  I do understand that the comic tradition in Britain has evolved in a slightly different way to that of America, but in my defense, many of my favorite comic writers are British.  Grant Morrison, Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Paul Jenkins are all British and all great comic writers in their own unique ways.  In fact, the first three on this list have actually done more to shape the modern American comic than many American writers.  What would comics be like without Neil Gaiman’s Sandman or indeed anything by Alan Moore?  But the Doctor Who comics I have read seem less interesting than some of its superhero counterparts.  However, I fully admit that I am biased.  Right now, I feel that DC Comics is going through what may be a mini-golden age with Geoff Johns and Grant Morrison doing amazing work on two major DC titles.  Grant Morrison in particular is shaping and redefining Batman, and while it hasn’t been to everyone’s liking, it has been groundbreaking, original, and (in my opinion) brilliant.  How could I resist tracking down IDW’s republication of Grant Morrison’s comics for Doctor Who. I say “tracking down”.  What I really mean is that I came across the reprints in a comic shop I decided to drop in to on the spur of the moment while on vacation in California.  There was no intentional pursuit, but I was more than happy to passively acquire them.  The stories were originally published in the 1980s, and since one story involves the return to Marinus, and I have just finished reviewing The Keys of Marinus, I decided this would be a good intermission.

First, what do I like about Grant Morrison?  Morrison has this amazing ability to deconstruct characters in established universes to their core characteristics, then redefine the world around them.  In New X-Men, Magneto was always about the superiority of mutants over homo-sapiens.  Morrison introduced the idea of Magneto losing his powers as he grew older.  How would he react when everything he felt made him superior was gone?  Morrison introduced the idea of narcotics that gave the user mutant powers or heightened already existing powers.  Thus, Magneto would start taking these drugs and even become addicted to them.

In addition to the deconstruction of characters, Morrison doesn’t like to maintain the status quo.  In New X-Men he introduced the idea of another race evolving that would take the place of mutants.  He created the social phenomenon of people wanting to be like mutants as a “scene”, not unlike a goth, emo, or vampire scene.  In his work on Batman, Morrison has introduced a new Robin who is actually Bruce Wayne’s son.  Dick Grayson, the original Robin, is now the Batman of Gotham City, and the concept of Batman is now being franchised under the guidance of Bruce Wayne.  Essentially, Batman is going global and is now a crime-fighting corporation.  The cultural and political ramifications of this new paradigm for The Dark Knight are staggering and I’m sure Morrison will explore these in due time.  But while Morrison moves the material into new and unpredictable directions, he never fully abandons the past.  Bruce’s son Damien is the result of a night shared by Bruce and Talia al Ghul in a comic from the ‘80s.  In this issue, Bruce Wayne was drugged and manipulated by Ra’s al Ghul who saw Bruce Wayne as his natural heir.  Batman also feared a master criminal who was manipulating Bruce Wayne’s life from behind the scenes and this actually traced back to a comic where Batman underwent a psychological experiment where he attempted to understand The Joker.  The doctor who ran the experiment used his findings to attack Batman all these years later.  Morrison even found a way to work in appearances by Bat-Mite and The Batman of Zur-En-Arrh, characters who go as far back as the 1950s.  He weaves these unlikely characters into a mythology where they shouldn’t exist, and he does so in a very believable way, largely positing that The Batman of Zur-En-Arrh isn’t a Batman from another planet but a second personality for Batman should his original personality be compromised due to psychological manipulation or breakdown.  It is a back-up personality.

These are the things I love about Grant Morrison’s writing, the grasp of character while still deconstructing said character to the core, the redefinition of the mythology of the work he is writing, and the complete love of the continuity of the story and finding ways to reincorporate it from different perspectives.  Even though the stories cited above were written in 2000 or later, my question is would these elements be present in Doctor Who: The World Shapers, a story written early in Grant Morrison’s career.  The answer is yes.  While the above elements aren’t as refined, they are still present in some minor ways.

The World Shapers stars The Sixth Doctor, Peri, and Frobisher.  They answer a distress call on the planet Marinus, which The Doctor claims to be a water planet.  While this claim is never made in The Keys of Marinus, one can certainly see why Morrison would go this route: The first episode takes place on an island surrounded by an acid ocean, the Voord wear wet-suits, adhering to the Terry Nation Naming Convention, Marinus would be a

Marinus must have some really abstract architecture if THIS is what the Chameleon Circuit chose.

perfectly logical name for a water world.  The Doctor finds a Time Lord who is dying.  He has exhausted all his regenerations and his body decomposes.  The Doctor is shocked at the speed of this procedure, saying that it usually takes much longer.  The travelers find the dead Time Lord’s TARDIS and discover that he was investigating violent temporal disturbances.  Indeed, Frobisher has begun molting very badly and Peri’s hair and fingernails are rapidly growing.  Time has been sped up.  The only clue The Doctor has is the dying words of The Time Lord, “Planet 14.”  The last time The Doctor had heard reference to Planet 14 was in his second incarnation but The Doctor can‘t remember anything about the place.  So, The Doctor and his companions leave Marinus, which is dangerous anyway due to the temporal disturbances, and go in search of Jamie McCrimmon who traveled with The Second Doctor.

At the end of The Second Doctor’s era, The Time Lords erased Jamie’s memory of traveling with The Doctor.  It seems this mind wipe wasn’t nearly as successful as The Time Lords hoped.  Jamie remembers everything, but when questioned by The Doctor he has no memory of a Planet 14.  The only thing Jamie can recall is hearing a Cyberman mention Planet 14 when they attempted to invade Earth.  The Doctor reasons that if The Cybermen are involved then the situation must be dire.  The Doctor determines to return to Marinus.  Jamie begs to accompany him.  Ever since he had returned to Scotland he has been an outcast.  His life has been miserable.  The Doctor graciously accepts his friend’s return.  They arrive on Marinus one week after they had left it and find a planet devoid of water and populated by half-Voord/half-Cyber men.

In the end, The Doctor discovers that the temporal disturbances are being caused by a machine called a World Shaper.  These machines were designed to cause rapid environmental change to uninhabited planets to make them more hospitable.  The one on Marinus had malfunctioned and since Marinus wasn’t uninhabited, The Voord began to

If this had been the Seventh Doctor, this would have been part of the plan.

evolve rapidly.  They became The Cybermen.  The Doctor and Jamie confront The Cybermen and Jamie sacrifices his life to destroy The World Shaper and thus inhibit the rapid evolution of The Cybermen.  The Doctor sees his chance to alter the progression of The Cybermen, to prevent them from causing the violence and bloodshed they will be responsible for in the future.  Two Time Lords then appear to stop him.  The Doctor, enraged leaves Marinus, which is now the planet Mondas, homeworld of The Cybermen.  The Time Lords watch The Doctor leave, lamenting his youth and naiveté.  The timeline must be preserved because one day in the far future The Cybermen will complete their evolutionary cycle and become beings of pure thought.  With this final evolution comes a complete embrace of peace, which they use to guide the universe into a new era.   The End.

I’m sure you can already begin to see a few of Grant Morrison’s hallmarks.  Doctor Who continuity is everywhere in this comic, from the return to Marinus and the return of Jamie, to the development of a throwaway line referring to Planet 14.  Morrison provides an origin for The Cybermen, something that hadn’t been done at the time this comic was written. (An origin of the Cybermen was written many years later, and it bears no resemblance to this story.  That doesn’t mean the new story is bad, just different.)  Morrison even does something interesting with The Time Lords, making them more powerful and god-like than the characters we typically see on Doctor Who.  This really pushes the concept of Time Lords, quite possibly bringing more in line with how the original writers of Doctor Who saw them.  In the early years of the show, The Time Lords were a mysterious force and hardly ever seen.  Then, in the 1970s, Robert Holmes wrote a story in which we finally see Time Lord Society and they took on more of an appearance and characterization of bureaucrats.  In The World Changers, Morrison almost presents The Time Lords as a type of galactic Men in Black who protect the Time Line because they can see the ultimate end of many races.  They know where time is going and the present (or past) of any race is irrelevant to the ultimate good.  They are a bit Machiavellian in that the end truly does justify the means.  Who cares if The Cybermen have killed millions when one day they will lead trillions in an era of peace?  This isn’t too far out of line with how The Time Lords are portrayed in Genesis of The Daleks when The Doctor is sent on a mission to prevent the creation of The Daleks because The Time Lords discover there will be no good to ever come from their existence.  In fact the epilogue of The World Changers is almost a mirror of that prologue.  It wouldn’t surprise me if Morrison had that firmly in mind.

The story isn’t without its flaws.  The art is a bit rougher than some styles I’ve seen.  Peri and Frobisher are sidelined most of the time after Jamie joins the crew.  The connection between The Voord and The Cybermen is a bit weak and may be a bit of a joke: the Voord costume was a wet suit, the original Cybermen costume was also a wet suit.  While the connection is amusing and even creative, I’m not sure this really makes for an epic origin story.  The Doctor isn’t quite the same in this story as how he was portrayed on screen (this may actually be an improvement).  But even with these quibbles, the story is very creative and I love the portrayal of The Time Lords.  The story is imaginative and certainly expresses a love for the history of the show.  Really, who would deliberately make a reference back to The Keys of Marinus but someone who had a great passion for the show.  Well, perhaps someone who hadn’t seen it.  Regardless, I thought it was a fascinating story and certainly a fun way to see how one of my favorite writers intersected with one of my favorite series.  I would welcome a return of Grant Morrison to Doctor Who in whichever medium he wished.

Before School Reunion explored an ex-companion's post-Doctor life, The World Changers revisited Jamie.