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 – Mawdryn Undead (The Black Guardian Trilogy Part 1)

Doctor Who Story 125 – Mawdryn Undead

Written by

Peter Grimwade

What’s It About?

A young school boy named Turlough becomes the target of the Black Guardian, who wishes to use him as a pawn in his attempt to kill the Doctor. Nyssa, Tegan, and the Doctor materialize on a mysterious ship that appears uninhabited. And for some reason, this ship’s transport is set to coordinates on Earth . . . to the edge of the property of Brendon Public School where the Brigadier now teaches math.

Fools who tried to become Time Lords

Mawdryn poses as the DoctorOne theme that I have noticed running through The Black Guardian Trilogy is one of mortality and death. These elements are first introduced in this story with a group of scientist/thieves who had stolen Time Lord technology in an attempt to become immortal just as the Time Lords are immortal. While they achieved some degree of success with regeneration, they learned quickly that they had not mastered the technology. So, instead of regenerating completely, they are unable to die. They are flesh animated for eternity, a consciousness trapped in unending existence—an existence where pain and decay is still possible and felt every second of every moment. The theological implications are compelling in that their attempt to be gods bound them to unending torment, unable to become free through death. They are self-condemned.

And so “Mawdryn Undead” is a brilliant beginning to this trio of stories, linked in part by the Black-Guardian-using-Turlough plot explicitly and explorations of mortality implicitly. By comparing “Mawdryn Undead” and “Enlightenment” directly, both seem to indicate eternal existence as more of a curse than a blessing, eternal pain according to the former, eternal boredom according to the latter. Not to reveal my hand too soon, but I enjoyed all three of these serials immensely.

But perhaps one of the most controversial elements of “Mawdryn Undead” is the use of the Brigadier. It is well-known that the original choice for the returning-past-companion in this story was Ian Chesterton, which would have been wonderful. In the end, Nicholas Courtney was the available actor, so we are now given a post-UNIT Brigadier and all kinds of issues in dating the UNIT stories. My thoughts on these, in reverse order, are “Who cares?” and “Intriguing.” Yes, I am familiar with the issues surrounding the UNIT dating controversy. I heard voices in the back of my head as I watched this story. I remembered what Sarah Jane said about when she was from. I’m quite happy to dismiss this as a production gaffe. Besides, a series like Doctor Who, in which the rules of reality are not entirely systematized, is open for interpretation. If we can move through time and space, is it any more of a leap to say we can move in reality? How many potential continuities have come into existence, ever-so briefly, only to die out soon after. Potentiality, to me, is written and re-written around regeneration. It is too late, at this point in the game, to insist too strongly on any given “fact” of the Doctor Who universe.

While I would have loved to see Ian once more, I think there is a rich idea behind the Brigadier leaving UNIT because it all became too much. War and combat destroy the psyche. Add to the mix the reality-shattering experiences of a Cybermen invasion, alien visitations, and astral entities trying to control the consciousness of humanity, and I think anyone will crack under the pressure. There is nothing wrong with the Brigadier leaving UNIT nor is there anything wrong with showing him capable of weakness. Too often in the West we celebrate success, ignoring stories of failure and struggle. (Unless, of course, those stories end in success. Then we contextualize it as paying our dues.) As Doctor Who fans, we don’t even like seeing the Doctor fail, hence some of the dislike of the Tennant Doctor’s stories. But failure is a part of life, and stories of failure help us to navigate our own struggles. Seeing the Brigadier in weakness makes him a more fully realized character, even if the role was not initially intended for him.

My Rating

4/5

Doctor Who – Time-Flight

Doctor Who Story 122 – Time-Flight

Written by

Peter Grimwade

What’s It About?

On its final descent to Heathrow Airport, a Concord vanishes. The Doctor, Nyssa, and Teagan investigate by trying to recreate the conditions under which the plane vanished. The Doctor’s theory: the plane flew through a time warp.

This Thing Is Smaller on the Inside Than on the Outside
The Doctor and the Master do an equipment hand-off.
Source: Wikipedia

What did I just watch?

Like most of this season, this was my first viewing of “Time-Flight.” In general, I try to avoid fan opinion going in to stories. I want to decide for myself, especially after watching a few stories that are not well-regarded by fans that I actually enjoyed. More and more my interests in Doctor Who are rooted in the 1960s, and while I like pockets of Doctor Who from the 1970s – present, I can’t say that I love ALL Doctor Who. This is probably why I divide the show in to producer-defined or script editor-defined eras rather than Doctor-defined eras. I can’t say that I love the Tom Baker era, but I can say that I largely enjoyed the Hinchcliff era. I like Bidmead’s era, but not so much the Douglas Adams era.

But seasons like this one are hard. From story to story my opinion has varied widely. After Christopher H. Bidmead successfully redefined Doctor Who in the previous season, this season failed to really take that definition and build on it. In fact, once Eric Saward fully stepped in to script editing the show, he and JNT started looking backward, reversing course. This isn’t inherently a bad thing, but what we had just seen was so interesting, so compelling. And so season nineteen has tripped, stumbled, occasionally danced, and now it staggers across the finish line with “Time-Flight,” a story that really isn’t very good. Not. At. All.

This is a huge disappointment because I like Peter Grimwade. But apparently I only like him as a director. Granted, it isn’t fair to judge him on a single story. In television and film, the name attributed to the script can be misleading. Changes could have been made by script editors, producers, or directors. The script could have been commissioned to include specific elements, giving the writer a list of elements to include, thus putting restrictions on the story that may be absurd.

“Time-Flight” has absurdity in spades: the Master’s plan, the Master’s disguise, the exceedingly dull final episode, the attempt to re-fit the Concord with parts from the other plane in a matter of hours. But “Time-Flight” does have some things that work. Captain Stapley and his crew are a joy. I get the impression that Stapley had the time of his life on this adventure. His enthusiasm made him a compelling character, and I would have loved to see him join the TARDIS crew. Similarly, the Arabian mystic idea is interesting (so long at the racist undertones are removed). A compelling story was set up, but then abandoned for a far less interesting story. And, of course, I love how the Doctor gets involved in this story. Who needs psychic paper when you can just say, “Call UNIT. Tell them the Doctor is here.”

At the end, all I can really say in defense of “Time-Flight” is that it has a lot of interesting ideas thrown in to it. They never really go anywhere, which makes them deeply unsatisfying, but they are creative.

My Rating

.5/5