Doctor Who – The Invasion of Time

Doctor Who Story 097 – The Invasion of Time

Who Wrote It?

David Agnew (Anthony Read and Graham Williams)

What’s It About?

The Doctor, allied with the mysterious Vardons, establishes himself as the President of Gallifrey and opens the door to invasion.

One grows tired of Jelly Babies, Castellan.

The Doctor speaks with K9
Source: The Doctor Who Site

Season fifteen saw Doctor Who opening in familiar territory: dark, atmospheric, and scary. Along the way, however, the season has had some significant growing pains as new producer Graham Williams and new script editor Anthony Read attempted to find their footing. The show was under intense political pressure to tone down the horror and violence and to stay on budget. Thus, this is a season of redefinition and rebirth. It is a season that attempted to redefine a show that was an undeniable success, and it had to move away from many of the elements that made the show successful. But rather than impress the audience with this new direction, season fifteen stumbled and fumbled its way to a resolution. There wasn’t the time and money to go with Williams’s Plan A (which we will get in season sixteen). Instead, this season was hindered by a desire to put something, anything, on the air. As a result, the season is weak, uncertain, and—at times—appalling. Viewers were left to wonder exactly what was happening to this show, and many viewers gave up on it.

The Invasion of Time closed out the season. Ironically, this story captures the uncertainty and fear a viewer has for Doctor Who as a show. We have a story in which the Doctor, like the show, is vaguely familiar but seems very different, and, in the case of the Doctor, possibly evil. We want to trust him, being the loyal viewers as Leela is the loyal companion, but it is hard to make sense of the decisions the he is making. In fact, the overall theme, using this analogy, is to wait and trust. Trust that the Doctor has not sold out Gallifrey; trust that Doctor Who is still a show worth watching.

As this season ends, Leela stays on Gallifrey, written out in an unsatisfying way. With her departure, the final remnant of the Hinchcliffe/Holmes era is gone. Symbolically, the show is now free to find its new voice and move into this new era. But at the same time, Leela had become such an endearing character. Louise Jameson was a great actress that truly rose above the material she was given. She fashioned Leela into a compelling character, not because of the demeaning outfits, but because of her performance. Being written out at the last minute was a horrible end to the character (although, she DID get an exit, unlike Dodo). The character, throughout her portrayal, has never shown romantic inclination; this is no less true in this story. Leela leaving the Doctor to stay with Andred was not set up at all. I remember hearing on a podcast (I think it may have been Fantragic/MMM) that when Leela held out her hand in part six, anyone could have grabbed it and it would have made about as much sense. In fact, Leela and Rodan had more screen time together and suffered more together, but I doubt that implying a lesbian relationship would have been any more acceptable to Mary Whitehouse and others criticizing the show than the violence.

And yet, I enjoyed this story. I felt it suffered a bit in parts five and six, but I found the first four episodes to be engaging, witty, and clever. The scenes between the Doctor and Borusa are magnificent. Tom Baker successfully keeps the viewer uncertain. And I appreciate that the writers had the audacity to make us question the Doctor. Sure, we knew there was some point to the deception, but it was withheld long enough to make us uncomfortable. This was a daring move but extremely effective.

How does this story relate to The Deadly Assassin in its portrayal of the Time Lords? I was critical of the previous Time Lord story because I prefer the mysterious, mythic, godlike Time Lords to the academic, bureaucratic Time Lords. And while The Deadly Assassin rooted the Time Lords in a structured and defined civilization, they maintained a sense of power and scope that is lacking in The Invasion of Time. With this story, they are just an advanced society with all the same strengths and weaknesses of any other. The Time Lords are at their most human. Any vestiges of mystery have been removed from the Time Lords themselves and shifted to Rassilon. From this point on, the mysterious and mythic and godlike portrayal will exist in Time Lord history, the era of Rassilon and Omega, not in the relative present. Thus, Doctor Who is tipping an unconscious, symbolic hat to the idea that the magic is gone; it is in the past. Doctor Who has become nostalgic. It longs for an ethos that existed long, long ago.

My Rating

3/5

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Doctor Who – Underworld

Doctor Who Story 096 – Underworld

Who Wrote It?

Bob Baker and Dave Martin

What’s It About?

In order to avoid a spiral nebula on the edge of known space, the Doctor materializes the TARDIS onto a ship that has been traveling ten thousand years in search of its sister ship, the P7E.

The quest is the quest

Orfe is captured by The SeersIn so many ways, this story should have been amazing. Conceptually, it is quite clever. Underworld is a retelling of the story of Jason and the Argonauts but as a sci-fi story. The script is quite clever with how it plays with these themes. And the idea of mining Greek myths for science fiction plots is a very good one (sadly, Doctor Who has not made this work, but the idea is sound). Underworld makes good use of this initially, as part one is actually quite intriguing. The myth elements are established. There is even a fascinating revelation that the Minyan society, from which the heroes are descended, was destroyed after Time Lord interference. The Time Lords had shared their technology with the Minyans, who eventually destroyed themselves. This led to the Time Lord non-intervention policies. Part one leaves the viewer with the idea that something epic is about to unfold.

Unfortunately, the story falls apart soon after. Apart from the sets for the R1 and the P7E, the entire story is shot with CSO. In theory, this should have allowed the production to save money on sets by using models. However, the models were cheaply produced. The models used were merely reproducing caves, which seems a bit odd since Doctor Who has filmed in caves from time to time. Was the budget so tapped out that they couldn’t go on location? (The answer seems to be yes.) In the end, the CSO looks rather poor. Tom Baker seemed to lose interest in the story. Much of the guest cast doesn’t put forth the effort. Plot holes abounded. The Time Lord angle is dropped completely. In other words, a wonderful concept died a horrible, horrible death. Maybe the novelization, whenever I get around to reading it, will redeem this story in some way. I still think mining stories from antiquity could work, but maybe not on a television budget. I certainly applaud the show for trying, but clever ideas are not, in themselves, good stories for the same reason that many people have an idea for a novel, but few people have written novels. Underworld was a great concept, but after the development of the ships’ set, it seems everyone stopped trying. And when the show gives up, what are the viewers supposed to do?

My Rating

1.5/5

Doctor Who – The Sun Makers

Doctor Who Story 095 – The Sun Makers

Who Wrote It?

Robert Holmes

What’s It About?

The Doctor and Leela arrive on Pluto in time to prevent a man from committing suicide. As they try to discern his distress, they discover a dystopian society controlled by The Company, which uses economic oppression to keep humanity subdued.

It’s just a knack. You’ve either got it or you don’t

The Gatherer and the Collector
Source: Tardis Data Core

And this is what you get when Robert Holmes attempts to make a point. Irritated by the British tax system, Holmes penned this thinly-veiled critique (and “thinly-veiled” seems to be overstating it). Holmes portrays The Company as a bureaucratic entity that keeps humanity working to pay taxes, never allowing them to get ahead. And in the end, the Collector is portrayed as a fungus that slithers down a toilet-like seat. Holmes leaves little room for mercy in this story. Subtlety is not part of his agenda.

On the whole, I enjoyed this story. The script, while heavy-handed, is extremely witty; it is full of the types of characters that Robert Holmes excels at. The dialogue between the Doctor and the Collector (and the Doctor and Gatherer Hade) is sharp and sparkling. The greatest fault in the script is the lack of subtlety, and even that can be dismissed as person preference. Unfortunately, the story is let down by the action sequences, which are poorly executed. The sense of danger is severely lacking.

I do, however, appreciate the idea of economic imperialism rather than conquest through war. It is something that is still relevant today. Likewise, some of the critique of mindless bureaucracy is still relevant; how often we still turn over our lives and money to support systems that we don’t understand. And where does that money go? It is a shame that this story, whose themes are still quite relevant, is damaged by areas of poor execution. If not for that, this story would still pack a satirical punch.

My Rating

3/5

Doctor Who – Image of the Fendahl

Doctor Who Story 094 – Image of the Fendahl

Who Wrote It?

Chris Boucher

What’s It About?

A sonic time scan lures The Doctor and Leela to Earth. They discover a group of scientists investigating an eight million year old skull. How is it possible that a skull was discovered long before human life had evolved on the planet? And what is the mysterious force that is killing people in the local forest?

Mankind has been used!

A fendahleenAt one time, I loved Chris Boucher’s work on Doctor Who. This time around, however, I have not enjoyed his work as much. I still enjoy Robots of Death, but both Face of Evil and now Image of the Fendahl have been underwhelming.

To start with, Fendahl is packed with some interesting ideas:

  • A human skull that dates to before humanity existed
  • Creatures that have a non-corporeal existence that, once certain energy has been provided, they manifest visibly (this had shades of Lovecraft’s From Beyond)
  • An ancient alien race that manipulated the development of mankind so that humans would be in an optimal position to resurrect them
  • An elderly woman versed in the “old ways” and her loyal, but disbelieving, grandson

There’s a lot to love in this story, conceptually, but the script is a bit of a mess and we move from idea to idea without exploring anything deeply. When I first watched Fendahl, a few years ago, I loved it. This time, it seemed a disjointed mess. I kept rooting for it, but it never quite came together. I think the story’s greatest strength, however, is the direction. The night shots are excellent, and when the Fendahleen appears in the cliffhanger to episode three, it is lit wonderfully. There were some genuine attempts to make this story work, but the failures fall squarely on the script. It needed to find a core theme and work from that. I would love to see these ideas revisited, perhaps with a full-on Lovecraftian treatment. Although, I doubt we’d see that with Doctor Who in its current form.

Oh, one final thing: Leela looks horrible in this story. I actually felt embarrassed for Louise Jameson.

My Rating

2.5/5

Doctor Who – The Invisible Enemy

Doctor Who Story 093 – The Invisible Enemy

Who Wrote It?

Bob Baker and Dave Martin

What’s It About?

A group of astronauts bound for Titan becomes infected by a virus that is looking for a host suitable to germinate a swarm. The ideal candidate is The Doctor.

Contact Has Been Made

The Nucleus being altered in size.
Source: Tardis Data Core

The problem with The Invisible Enemy is that it follows some great stories. After the high production values and wonderful atmosphere of both Talons of Weng-Chiang and Horror of Fang Rock, The Invisible Enemy really stands out—in a bad way. There are some decent effects when the astronauts first get infected. And let’s face it, when you study parasites, the behavior of the Nucleus really isn’t that unbelievable. Parasites can alter the behavior of the infected organism, even causing erratic and deadly behavior. I appreciate this angle of the story. But everything really falls apart in the end. An interesting resolution is cast aside for an explosion. The Nucleus fails to be effectively realized, more in the practicality of the costume than the design.

It is interesting, however, that in the first episode, the Doctor compared the human race to a disease. Leela questioned him on this, and the Doctor clarified that when humans “get together in great numbers, other life forms sometimes suffer.” First, this line signposts the monster, which turns out to be a virus. Second, it draws an interesting parallel between the actions of the Nucleus and humanity as a colonizing force. Are the actions of the Nucleus really any worse than the actions of humanity? Sure, the Nucleus erodes the free will of the beings it infects, causing the corruption to spread from within, but socio-political conquest works similarly, only with ideas that infect and spread. The Nucleus is correct that it has every right to exist and perpetuate that existence; it is just attempting this biological mandate on a grander scale. The Doctor, however, chooses to fight the Nucleus because it should only exist on the microscopic level. Attempting to conquer the galaxy and time itself are unacceptable. But is this not how evolution works, a sudden, drastic mutation that alters the destiny of a species? In this particular instance, the Doctor is playing God, choosing who lives and who dies. Leela asks why the Doctor does not contact the Time Lords during this crisis. He doesn’t need to; he is doing their work for them. Viewers recoil because the Nucleus threatens humanity and free will; the Doctor recoils because the Nucleus threatens his Time Lord sensibilities.

My Rating

2/5

Doctor Who – The Talons of Weng Chiang

Doctor Who Story 091 – The Talons of Weng Chiang

Written By

Robert Holmes

What’s It About

The Doctor and Leela intend to take in a show while visiting Victorian London, but they become embroiled in an investigation of disappearing women, a Chinese magician, and an ancient Chinese God.

Never trust a man with dirty fingernails

Mr. Sin holds a knife menacingly.
Source: Comic Related

By nature, I am a contrarian. I often take an opposing view, not because I always agree, but because I believe civil dialogue promotes understanding and refines convictions. I have encountered many people who seem to believe things, occasionally quite passionately, but cannot explain why or have a healthy, respectful conversation about their beliefs. Too often, I think we believe out of habit. But if we can be challenged and defend our position, we can grow stronger and more confident in that position. Perhaps we can even change minds. Thus, if you read this review and disagree with something, please consider what you disagree with, why you disagree with it, and give a thoughtful response. Please don’t respond in rage or attack—regardless of your opinion.

On we go, and perhaps we should get the main problem of this story out of the way first: is this story racist? Yeah, probably. But I’m far more interested in looking at why it is racist. Doctor Who has the image of being above such things, and it really galls a lot of people when one of the best-executed stories in the oeuvre has racist undertone. There are two things I want to explore (albeit briefly) in looking at the racism in this story: First, the context; second, the genre.

Context is something that modern consumers of media seem to miss. All texts, whether the written word or moving pictures, cannot escape the world in which they were created, and Doctor Who is as prone to this as others. Yes, over the years Doctor Who has become a type of icon for moral, enlightened liberalism, but it is clear that the show has not always had this flavor. One only has to look back at Tomb of the Cybermen and The Celestial Toymaker to see this. But it is easy to sweep both of those stories under the rug because a) Tomb is in black and white, and most modern viewers probably won’t bother with it, and b) Toymaker is partially lost and it isn’t very good. But Talons is at that unfortunate crossroads of having racist undertones and being very, very good (much like H.P. Lovecraft, although with Lovecraft they aren’t exactly “undertones,” but clearly stated opinion).

The genre of Talons is clearly Victorian fantastic literature (or “gaslight” for short). Robert Holmes perfectly captures this style that he obviously loves. But was Holmes was letting personal ideas slip through or was he just was being true to the genre? Make no mistake, there was quite a bit of anti-Chinese sentiment in gaslight stories, Fu Manchu being a prime example. Holmes probably gave no thought whatsoever to the undertones in Talons. (Is casual, unintentional racism a valid defense?) We only have to look at The Two Doctors and The Sunmakers to see what Holmes did when he wanted to make pointed social/political commentary. He was quite ruthless when he did this, and his writing gives little to no room for argument. No, Holmes’s concern in Talons was writing a Doctor Who story—on short notice, according to some sources—and he chose to imitate a beloved genre; in this he succeeded spectacularly. But by being faithful to the genre, he perpetuated some grievous stereotypes. He produced extremely well-crafted art, and he probably wouldn’t have cared if it the undertones had been pointed out to him (although I have very little to base this assertion on).

And let’s be honest—many fans would say that the Doctor Who is about monsters; the Hinchcliffe/Holmes era certainly is. Monsters are not nuanced; they are black and white. They are an evil to be despised and defeated. It is easy to accept this when we have stories about Daleks, Cybermen, Zygons, or Sontarans. It is not as easy to accept this when the monsters are humans. I enjoy Doctor Who more when it portrays nuanced and sympathetic villains rather than black and white monsters. That is why I love The Silurians so much. It would have been interesting to see Holmes subvert gaslight racism in Talons, but he didn’t. He wrote a story of heroes vs. monsters.

Contextually, Talons belongs in 1970s British television and gaslight fantastic literature; creators of these contexts would have given little thought to the undertones. But we, in 2013, do see the undertones. It is a shame that this nearly-perfect story can offend. But much in art does. As long as we contextualize said art, and make sure we don’t recommend Talons to a viewer who will be hurt by it or form negative impressions from it, then it can still be enjoyed for the work that it is. Ideas in art can change the world, for good or for ill, but we need not fear them if we try to understand them and dialogue about them. And I personally believe contextualizing Talons to a specific genre—warts and all—goes a long way toward undermining its racism. And if Talons truly does bother you (for any reason—it is a fairly gruesome story, which can be argued as anti-Doctor Who in itself) or if you think it will bother you, then please don’t feel you have to watch it just because it is so popular. Art has the power to have a profound effect on us, and we should really understand how art makes us better or worse. We should never blindly consume art.

The Talons of Weng-Chiang is very well crafted, and it obviously provokes discussion and dialogue, as all good art does. The discussion, however, is not what Holmes probably would have intended. But that is what is so great about art: it becomes timeless and lives and grows beyond authorial intent. Thematically, Talons holds everything Hinchcliffe and Holmes tried to do with Doctor Who (create sci-fi horror pastiches), and it did them to perfection. It is a prime example of how to do a six part story. It should be enjoyed for what it is:  a faithful imitation of gaslight literature.

My Rating

5/5

Doctor Who – The Face of Evil

Doctor Who Story 089 – The Face of Evil

Neeva shoots Xoanon
Source: The Tardis Data Core.

Who Wrote It: Chris Boucher

What’s It About: The Doctor encounters the Tribe of Sevateem, which accuses him of being The Evil One and master of The Tesh. As he finagles his way in and out of captivity—aided by a young female warrior named Leela—he discovers that the true evil may have sprung from actions he took a long time ago.

The Face of Evil is full of great ideas, but it is let down by its production. The pacing of the story drags quite a bit. The sound effect for the guns is grating. The story itself doesn’t quite come together. But again, the ideas are wonderful.

The basic story is that The Doctor, some time ago, helped an exploration team. In doing so, he hooked himself to the computer. While he saved the expedition, he left a part of his brain pattern in the computer. With two dual personalities housed in the same system, the computer eventually went insane. It performed eugenics experiments on the humans, crafting two societies that reflected its insanity. The Doctor has now arrived on the planet some decades later and finds the two societies at war, evil invisible creatures (in reality, telepathic projections from the computer) stalking the jungle, and the computer worshipped as a god. There are hints of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Zardoz here. These are great ideas, and it is a shame that the story doesn’t quite come together. The Sevateem are interesting, but The Tesh are dull. I would have liked to see the ideas of religion explored more in the story; Neeva (the Sevateem priest) was a strong force in the opening episodes but faded into the background until the climax. I would have liked to see more of his journey and less running through corridors, shooting cringe-worthy guns. The politics of The Sevateem could have been better developed. And again, The Tesh could use a revamp. This story could have been much better than it was, but instead it moves from interesting scenes to boring ones, and it is a struggle to watch. That said, it has a few things it does well, and if you can focus on the concepts without being distracted by the flaws, it can be a lot of fun.

I guess I should talk about Leela. In the past, I never cared for her character. I didn’t dislike her; I was just indifferent. For some reason, I really took to her character this time around. I think I had, in the past, dismissed her character as a cheap attempt at titillation. Her outfit has long been acknowledged as “for the dads.” But this time around I noticed how well Louise Jameson brought the character to life. I’ll be interested to see if my opinion of the character continues to evolve as I re-watch her stories.

My Rating: 2.5/5