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 – 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

 

Doctor Who – Caves of Androzani

Doctor Who Story 135 – Caves of Androzani

Written by

Robert Holmes

What’s It About?

The Doctor and Peri materialize on Androzani minor, a planet with an intricate network of caves where the immensely valuable Spectrox is mined. But they soon get trapped in a power struggle between the rebel Sharaz Jek, gunrunners, military soldiers, and corporate interests.

Is This Death?

Sharaz Jek, The Doctor, and PeriWhat makes this story work so well?

Is it Robert Holmes? This is the first Robert Holmes script for Doctor Who since “The Power of Kroll,” an admittedly uninspired story. But some elements of “Kroll” reappear here, namely gunrunners. But “Caves of Androzani” is in a whole other league when compared to “Kroll.” This is a tragedy. Some of the Holmes tropes are there. Sharaz Jek is a play on Phantom of the Opera, referring back to the horror stories which inspired Hinchcliffe and Holmes when they ran Doctor Who. Many of Holmes’s scripts would target sectors of society that Holmes had little patience for: stuffy bureaucrats (The Deadly Assassin), tax codes and tax collectors (The Sun Makers). Here, the target is aimed at corporations who play two sides against one another for profit, immoral economics. And, of course, there is the lava monster. Holmes was from the era when Doctor Who had to have monsters. Excise this monster from the story, and you don’t lose much. But as I watched the story, I began to question how much of this was by Robert Holmes and how much was by Eric Saward. This is a tragic story. It is bleak. Once more, we have no survivors. More than any story so far, the Doctor is virtually useless here. He is in way over his head and the only thing he manages to accomplish is to save Peri’s life. Apart from this, he does not solve the problems in the story. He does not call people to a higher calling or morality. This is another story where everyone kills each other, and the Doctor and companion get away—only this time, the Doctor is killed as well.

But most striking is the lack of humor. Humor is a Robert Holmes staple, and there is none here. Now, it isn’t unheard of for writers to try different things or to occasionally break type, but the lack of humor stands out in this story. It is dark, ominous, and tragic. So I return to my question, what makes this story work so well? Is it Saward’s script editing?

Is it Graeme Harper? Hands down, this is one of the best-directed stories in classic Who, and most-certainly the best of the Davison era, which is quite a statement because Peter Grimwade and Fiona Cumming set the bar pretty high. That Harper was able to surpass them speaks volumes to his talent and to why he was invited to direct for new Who. This is a visceral story. It is an emotional story. The scene where Jek is first unmasked (and the viewer doesn’t see it) is probably the most emotionally and viscerally intense scene in Doctor Who since Vasor threatened to prey upon Barbara in The Keys of Marinus (the subtext in that story was rape but it was never actually stated). Even the power struggle between the gun runners is framed perfectly with the positioning of the actors conveying strength and authority. “Caves of Androzani” is a masterpiece of direction.

Is it Peter Davison? I had never warmed to Davison’s era before, but this time through (my first time through in sequence) I got it. He was always a great Doctor, but he was a different Doctor. He was more down-to-earth, more polite and sweet. He was a human Doctor. And because of that portrayal, this story kills him. This story breaks him. From the moment the Doctor gets involved, he is in a position of weakness and he never recovers. And yet he struggles on in an attempt to save Peri. Even Sharaz Jek helps him in the end, showing his humanity rather than playing the villain completely.

Honestly, no one person is responsible for the success of this story. Everything came together to send Peter Davison off. For me, this was the most emotional regeneration story since The Tenth Planet. I’m rather sad to see him go because for the next couple seasons I will be witnessing more Saward bleakness, but now with a Doctor who isn’t afraid to do the hard things to stay in control. I don’t have a problem with a Machiavellian Doctor, but I’m a little concerned about the darkness of Saward’s vision of the show.

My Rating

5/5

Doctor Who – Planet of Fire

Doctor Who Story 134 – Planet of Fire

Written by

Peter Grimwade

What’s It About?

A strange artifact discovered on Earth has ties to Turlough’s past.

Would You Show No Mercy to Your Own

The Master accuses the Doctor of being dangerous to the people of SarnOf the four companions to get a send-off during the Davison era, I think Turlough comes off the best. Peter Grimwade, more than Saward (who was responsible for writing two of these send-offs) is able to handle the character drama better than most. Even though we had been toyed with where Turlough’s past is concerned, Grimwade provides a moderately satisfying conclusion and a believable exit to the character. This makes me happy since Turlough was probably the best-realized companion of the era.

But there is a contrast here with Peri, who I’m tempted to see as a scathing portrayal as an American but in reality just see as a poorly developed character. This isn’t down to Nicola Bryant, per se. It is hard to judge her acting chops with this character because the character seems so ill-conceived. From episode one it seems clear that Peri’s main role is titillation. The blocking of certain shots make this painfully clear. Once more, I’m grateful for Big Finish’s redemption of certain characters in Doctor Who.

But impressive is Grimwade’s handling of a checklist of ideas. No, “Planet of Fire” isn’t a bona fide classic, but Grimwade does seem adept at taking the checklist and doing his best with it. Much like Terrance Dicks with “The Five Doctors,” although I think “Planet of Fire” has more satisfying character moments. Grimwade’s challenge here is to reveal Turlough’s past and subsequently write him out of the show, introduce the Peri, and resolve the Kamelion (non)arc. It isn’t a long list, but each item on its own would be enough emotional and plot drama for an entire story. That Grimwade is able to put all of these in while at the same time scripting a passable main plot is admirable. And that this script actually feels more like an end of an era is fascinating, especially as Davison has one more story left. “Planet of Fire” shakes off everything that had been a part of Doctor Who since “Castrovalva.” On some level, you can make a case that the Davison era ended here because “Caves of Androzani” (the final Fifth Doctor story) is a different beast entirely. This is the final story where the Fifth Doctor can be the Fifth Doctor. This is the final story where the Fifth Doctor faces the Master. This is the final story with a Fifth Doctor companion. And while Davison is still there in the end, you can tell that the Doctor is not quite sure where things are going to go from here. He almost seems to sense that the end is around the corner, and Peri is an indication that his time is over.

And given its tone, “Planet of Fire” is a wonderful break from the darkness that Saward has been spreading over his vision of Doctor Who.

My Rating

3/5

Doctor Who – Resurrection of the Daleks

Doctor Who Story 133 – Resurrection of the Daleks

Written by

Eric Saward

What’s It About?

An army from another time is gunned down by police on an abandoned industrial block in London. When the TARDIS crew arrives, they discover the British military has set up a camp in one of the buildings—a building where Daleks occasionally appear via time portal.

You Are Soft

The Doctor aims a gun at DavrosTo me, the most important development in “Resurrection of the Daleks” is not the establishment of Davros vs. Daleks factions but the toll this story takes on Tegan and, thus, on the Doctor. This story is a turning point in the Fifth Doctor’s development, one that sees him shifting to a darker personality. I’m stealing a bit from Ben Herman here, but I really like his theory, which (as I adopt it) goes like this:

During this past season, the Doctor has increasingly been exposed to a bleak and cruel universe. “Warriors of the Deep ended in a massacre. “Resurrection” sees the Doctor trying to decide if he should assassinate Davros. The moral choices he faces are becoming more difficult, and the Fifth Doctor, who started energetic and more domestic (he took part in an Edwardian costume party after all, something other Doctors would have found uninteresting) cannot handle these situations. He is the wrong Doctor for these stories, the wrong Doctor for a Saward universe. That’s not to say Davison is a bad Doctor or that the stories are all bad. But the Doctor increasingly realizes that he is taking emotional blow after emotional blow. He lacks the elitism or sense of superiority of earlier Doctors. He has been around humans for a long time and is become one of them in temperament. The Sixth Doctor, who is only two stories away now, is a darker, more brutally realist Doctor. He is the hard heartedness that the Fifth Doctor needs but can’t manifest. “Resurrection of the Daleks,” to my reading, is Fifth’s first realization that he cannot handle this universe. Tegan, the last remnant of a simpler time, has abandons him for a normal, quiet life. As she said, “It’s not fun anymore.” (Something Saward didn’t observe about his own conception of Doctor Who.) This comes as a blow to the Doctor, and this dynamic will play out over the next two stories as he tries to adopt a harsher attitude, fails, and is forced to regenerate into a Doctor who can handle the Saward universe. (This is quite similar, I think, to the recently released mini-episode Night of the Doctor.) So, essentially, thank you, Mr. Herman, for your fascinating perspective.

It is hard for me to not read the new series Time War into this story. There is a Doctor Who confidential episode in which Russell T. Davies marks “Genesis of the Daleks” as the origin of the Time War. To review, a member of the Celestial Intervention Agency (according to one fan retcon, a generic Time Lord otherwise) forces the Doctor to go to Skaro during the Davros’s creation of the Daleks. The Doctor is supposed to stop the Daleks from ever being created. He fails, but he does (depending on your perspective) alter Dalek history (maybe). But the key piece of information here is that the Time Lords chose to interfere in history by preventing a race from existing. Said race would, understandably, hold a grudge. (Not that the Daleks needed the excuse.) Along the way, the Daleks got involved in many other wars (specifically the Movellan War), but by the time of “Resurrection,” their focus was on the Time Lords. They had suffered great losses during the Movellan War, but that didn’t stop them from wanting to take on the Time Lords by creating a duplicate of the Doctor who could assassinate the Time Lord high council. By this point, formal declarations of war are only a matter of time.

“Resurrection of the Daleks,” then, fits into to broader narratives: one developing the Doctor into a darker personality and one which sees the escalation of Time Lord/Dalek conflict. This escalation can be seen in many early Big Finish audios. (Which, interestingly, were made prior to the new series, leading me to wonder if the Time Lord/ Dalek war was floating in the collective consciousness of Doctor Who fans, or was a strong theory at the time that Davies wove into the new series. I was not a part of fandom in those late 90s/early 00s years [arguably, I’m in my own corner of fandom right now, but not a part of larger fandom movements], so I’m not sure what ideas were floating in the ether. Also, I live in America, which is a slight insulator from larger DW movements.)

All this said, “Resurrection of the Daleks” is an interesting approach to the Daleks. It is a pivotal piece of Doctor Who’s on-going mythology. Despite all this, however, I am somewhat indifferent toward it.

My Rating

3/5

Doctor Who – Frontios

Doctor Who Story 132 – Frontios

Written by

Christopher H. Bidmead

What’s It About?

The TARDIS has travelled beyond the point where Time Lords are allowed to travel. Humanity is looking for a new home, and the Doctor must not get involved. Unfortunately, the TARDIS is forced to materialize on Frontios. A colony of humans is dying out due to mysterious vanishings. But the Doctor must not get involved. The colony is being bombarded by asteroids. But the Doctor must not get involved.

You Can Tell Them I Came And Went Like A Summer Cloud

The Doctor tempts Gravis with the TARDISHooray for Bidmead’s return to Doctor Who! And even though there are Sawardian fingerprints on “Frontios” (lots of military and the horror is elevated), Bidmead still turns in an interesting and satisfying story. This is particularly intriguing to me because I had trouble engaging with this story in the first two episodes, but was hooked in the final two. This was based in part on Bidmead’s name being in the credits, forcing me to pay attention because I knew it had to be good even if I wasn’t enjoying it, but also because Bidmead starts from the Saward view of the universe and moves beyond it. “Frontios” starts with a military group begin preyed upon. The imagery of people being sucked through the earth is horrifying. Humans are being used as batteries to fuel machinery. Turlough spends most of the story in horrific shock as he builds up the threat of the Tractators. But in the end, the Doctor wins over the soldiers (making them thoughtful and human rather than Machiavellian) and outwits the monsters. He lets them destroy themselves. Bidmead starts with Saward view, dismantles, and refutes it.

At the same time, Bidmead always plays with mythology in fascinating ways. The planet Frontios is a new beginning for humanity, an Eden in the sense of origin, but not in a garden sense. Asteroids regularly bombard the planet, heavenly bodies falling from the sky like angels cast out of Heaven. People are consumed by the earth; they are pulled into caverns and enslaved by Tractators, the bug-like demons of the earth. This is death and burial; this is descent into hell. Only by entering hell and defeating the demons can the colonists survive. But ultimately, only a god (or a Time Lord) can defeat the devil by tricking him using his own desires to escape from hell against him, a war between creatures from a higher sphere of existence than humans. “Frontios” is Paradise Lost; it is a story of the salvation of humanity from the enslavement to death. But it is also a refutation of the Saward approach to Doctor Who. And, sadly, it is Christopher H. Bidmead’s last contribution to classic Doctor Who.

My Rating

4/5