TV Comic – The First Doctor. On The Web Planet

The Doctor returns to Vortis – only to tangle once again with the Zarbi. Thanks to TV Comic’s usual brisk efficiency we only have to wait until the fourth panel on the first page before Doctor Who confronts his old enemies.

But wait! Now they can fly … and that’s not all. “LOOK! The Zarbi have a new weapon – A STING THAT CAN DESTROY A ROCK!” Easy Doctor, no need to shout ….

But there are familiar allies on Vortis as well.  The friendly Menoptera (who unlike their television counterparts don’t have names) quickly befriend Doctor Who and explain to him that all the trouble seems to emanate from a mountain area. It’s from there that the Zarbi have somehow learnt to fly ….

That the Menoptera aren’t the most proactive of races is made clear after the Doctor discovers a spaceship on top of the mountain. “We did not know this was here” exclaims the Menoptera.  That’s a little hard to believe, just how long have the Zarbi been flying about and blasting them to atoms? Surely after a while someone would have thought it might just be worthwhile to explore the mountain?

A mysterious mushroom-like object suddenly rains down a hail of gunfire on our heroes.  But Doctor Who is beginning to see the light (after ducking for cover).  Picking up a piece of rock, he declares that it’s Glavinium X – the rarest mineral in the universe.  It just looks a mouldy old piece of rock to me, but I’ll bow down to the Doctor’s greater scientific knowledge.  He then explains that the mineral could be used to build bombs of terrifying power.

Gillian, who so far has done precisely nothing (at present we’ve reached the final panel of the second instalment, so we’re four pages in), is given a close-up as part two ends on the cliffhanger of a Zarbi menacing her.  But John quickly bops it on the nose with a rock at the start of part three, so this mild crisis is averted.

We then see the Doctor casually handling a spacegun as he amuses himself by picking off the Zarbi. “Got it! That’s one less to deal with!” Possibly it’s the Doctor’s trigger-happy nature which makes him a target – as shortly afterwards a passing Zarbi drops a rock on his head (“grandfather has been struck by a flying rock” says John, stating the patently obvious) and swoops down to carry him away.  The sight of the Doctor in the clutches of the Zarbi is a striking image.

If the story wasn’t strange enough, then things then get a little stranger.  John discovers that the Zarbi are nothing but hollow shells, operated by a warlike race called the Skirkons who don’t believe in small talk. “Soon we will be masters of the universe”. It’s always good to think big.

Quite why the Skirkons (who piloted the mysterious mountain ship to Vortis of course) elected to masquerade as the Zarbi is a puzzle that’s never answered.

The concept of a hollowed out Zarbi seems to have been a popular one, since it also featured in a story in the first Doctor Who annual. What’s interesting is the fact that this TV Comic strip was published during March and April 1965 whilst the annual wasn’t released until September 1965.  Was David Whitaker, who wrote all the stories in the first annual, inspired by this story? It might have been so ….

Zarka, leader of the Skirkons, taunts Doctor Who and then straps him to a table. Unless the Menoptera surrender, the Doctor will be neatly sliced in two by the venom ray.  This is so reminiscent of a scene from Goldfinger that it’s a great shame that the Doctor doesn’t ask Zarka if he expects him to talk. 

But John and Gillian, disguised in a Zarbi suit, are on hand to rescue the Doctor. John keeps the Skirkons covered with a gun, although Zarka remains confident.  “You won’t get away with this. No one can stop my plans, no one”. He’s not the most interesting of conversationalists, that’s for sure.

How does the story end? With a rather large explosion of course, as once again Doctor Who delights in blowing his enemies to pieces. Not quite in the spirit of the television series, but there you are.  The Menoptera are chuffed though and as the TARDIS goes spinning off into space, they have the last word. “They have gone – into the mysterious depths of time and space again!”

Blakes 40. Blakes 7 40th Anniversary Rewatch – Power

The omens for Power aren’t good. Firstly you have two little words which strike fear into the hearts of many (‘Ben Steed’) and secondly, within the first few seconds a group of hairy tribesmen lurch into view (hairy tribesmen are always one of my least favourite B7 sights). And yet ….

Dicken Ashworth’s Gunn-Sar might appear at first glance to be a typically stereotyped tribal leader (“I am Gunn-Sar, chief of the Hommiks. I rule by right of challenge, which means I’m the biggest, toughest, meanest son of a Seska on this planet”) but there’s much more to him than meets the eye. Ashworth mines the script for comic material and surprisingly for a Ben Steed episode there are some gems to be found.

The way that Gunn-Sar becomes increasingly exasperated at having to repeat his leadership mantra, his duelling (both verbally and physically) with Avon and the revelation that he’d much sooner put his feet up and embroider a nice rug are all nice little character touches. Frankly, I was sorry to see him meet a sticky end.

Gunn-Sar’s relationship with Nina (Jenny Oulton) is something which seems like it’s been dropped into the script specifically to wrong-foot viewers who were aware of Steed’s style. In public Gunn-Sar treats Nina with contempt, but in private there’s a tender bond between them. Gunn-Sar’s public/private facades are an interesting part of the story.

Isolated from the others for most of the script, Avon swans around as if he’s in a Western (which maybe he is). Avon’s easily able to get the better of Gunn-Sar but he meets his match when tangling with Pella (Juliet Hammond-Hill). 

There’s something a little uncomfortable about the way Avon forces her to submit and – as so often with post S2 Avon – then grabs her for a quick snog. Just in case we aren’t following, Steed gives our hero a short speech which reinforces why men are best. “You see, Pella, it’s your strength, and however you use it, a man’s will always be greater. Unfair, perhaps, but biologically unavoidable.”

Slightly icky, but since Pella then levitates a computer keyboard to knock Avon out (Paul Darrow’s shocked expression and his slow descent to the floor are the funniest thing in the episode) it suggests that honours are pretty much even between them at this point. This is another moment where Steed seems to be subverting the male stereotypes from his previous stories (unless I’m just being too generous).

Dayna gets to challenge Gunn-Sar, Tarrant stands around a lot whist Vila becomes increasingly hysterical. All three do their best with what they’re given, but this one is really Paul Darrow’s episode. And what of Soolin? The way she turns up a minute before the end is unforgivable (just what has she been doing for the previous 48 minutes?). It would have been nice had Chris Boucher rewritten the script to give her at least a little something to do.

The Western theme is seen again in the closing minutes as Avon proves to be quicker on the draw than Pella. It’s a shocking moment, which Avon sums up thus. “You can have war between races, war between cultures, war between planets. But once you have war between the sexes, you eventually run out of people”.

If that’s the case, then he shouldn’t have killed her. Oh well. 

Overall Power‘s not as bad as it might have been (even if the ease at which they gain a teleport system beggars belief). It’s never going to be a favourite, but the series did far worse.

The British Home Front At War – Simply Media DVD Review

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The British Home Front At War is an engrossing five disc set, collecting over 60 short films which are all linked in one way or another to the travails of the British home front during WW2.

Discs one and two are subtitled The Home Guard and Britain’s Citizen Army. One of the earliest films, Citizen’s Army, is in many ways pure Dad’s Army. Its portrait of a plucky groups of individuals, armed with rudimentary and improvised weapons, could have easily fitted into one of Perry and Croft’s scripts.

Rubbing shoulders with these real-life shorts are dramatised pieces which utilise an impressive roster of talent. For example, Dangerous Comment is an Ealing Studios production, directed by John Paddy Carstairs and starring the likes of Frank Lawton, Ronald Culver and Alec Clunes.  This one has a slightly odd tone it must be said – designed to demonstrate that careless talk costs lives, it features a jokey coda in which one young man (after breathlessly listening to the story recounted in the film) seems not to have learnt any lessons at all ….

Possibly my favourite from the first few discs is Miss Grant Goes to the Door.  Played out like a miniature version of Went The Day Well?, it focuses on two genteel English ladies who are forced to take decisive action against a German paratrooper, disguised as an English officer, who has dropped from the skies.  Luckily the Hun gives himself away (due to his inability to pronounce ‘Jarvis Cross’) and after a tense stand-off, harmony is restored to their quiet English village.

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The Home Guard and Britain’s Citizen Army would be worth the price of admission alone – it features over thirty films, averaging ten minutes duration each – but this set is bolstered by another three discs.  Disc three – London Can Take It! – features that celebrated short film as its centrepiece.

Made by the GPO film unit in 1940 and co-directed by Humphrey Jennings (a documentary film-maker of distinction) it’s a pure slice of propaganda. Narrated by US War correspondent Quentin Reynolds, it serves a duel purpose. Firstly it presents a positive picture of the chirpy and phlegmatic Londoner (keeping calm and carrying on as the Blitz does its worst) whilst also attempting to bring home the plight of Britain to an American audience who at the time seemed to have little interest in the conflict taking place far away from their shores.

Other films – such as Neighbours Under Fire – also reinforce the notion that the whole country was pulling together, keen to help one another during the dark days of the German attacks. It’s another skilfully put together piece – and whilst it may not be telling us the whole truth, there’s no denying the impact that it makes.

Women and Children At War is the theme of disc four. There’s plenty of interest here – such as Jane Brown Changes Her Job, in which Anne Firth (a familiar actress during the 1940’s) plays Jane, a woman keen to do her bit.  So she decides to leave her job as a typist and instead goes to work at an aircraft factory.  As with a number of the other films it might look a little stilted today, but it’s still easy to appreciate just how potent these shorts would have been during wartime.

Whilst factory work is central to a number of films on this disc, there were other vital wartime occupations for women as well and Ladies Only (produced by the Southern Railways Film Unit) makes the case for working on the railways.  Given how British society seemed to reset its gender patterns very quickly following the conclusion of WW2, it’s always slightly eye-opening to see – as here – the cheerful gusto shown by groups of women tackling the sort of manual labour which for decades afterwards was seen as a male-only preserve.

The final disc – Words For Battle, Writers At War – features some big names, pressed into service to help the war effort. The opening film Words For Battle is stirring stuff – Laurence Olivier intones the likes of Jerusalem over carefully selected pieces of footage.

Many notable British writers of the era are also included. J.B. Priestley wrote and narrated Britain At Bay, an inspirational piece which has a similar tone to his BBC wartime broadcasts.  Also of interest is A Diary For Timothy, written by E.M. Forster and narrated by Michael Redgrave.

The only negative with this release is that it doesn’t feature a list of the films included (a booklet would have been nice as well, but a basic listing on the back of the sleeve would have been very useful). That niggle apart, this is an absolute treasure trove of material and comes highly recommended.

The British Home Front At War was released by Simply Media, RRP £29.99.  It can be ordered here (quoting ARCHIVE10 will apply a 10% discount).

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Blakes 40. Blakes 7 40th Anniversary Rewatch – Rescue 

The first ten minutes or so are fascinating. Dayna and Tarrant – two people who you’d assume would both be good in a crisis – somewhat go to pieces. Dayna has to be rescued several times (first by Avon and then Dorian) whilst Tarrant seems to have turned into a drunk, wallowing face down in the snow. I might be doing him a disservice though, possibly the canister contained nothing stronger than water and he’s simply feeling the side-effects from their Terminal adventures.

Even more unexpected (although welcome) is the way that Vila’s temporarily recast as the hero – not only rescuing Tarrant (“If I’ve broken my back hauling a corpse about, I’ll never forgive you”) but also saving the day at the end of the episode.

As for Avon, well he’s still Avon, although given their reduced circumstances it’s maybe not surprising that he’s even more ruthless than usual. Although Dorian is later revealed to have unfriendly plans for them all, Avon wasn’t to know that at first – so the casual way he cheerfully hijacks Dorian’s ship is a reminder that he isn’t a very nice person at all ….

There’s not a great deal of plot in the episode, but I don’t have too much of a problem with this. Since there’s only six speaking parts everyone is given a good share of the action (although it’s ironic that Soolin – later to become a regular – comes off the worst). Geoffrey Burridge is more than memorable as Dorian, although things do go slightly awry around the thirty minute mark (when he starts to age). It’s then that all pretence at subtlety goes out of the window.

When Dorian tells Avon that “you really are most welcome here, my friend” it’s possible to read considerable subtext into those simple words. An acting choice or as scripted? I wonder.

I do like the way that once Dorian reveals the truth about his secret room he suddenly starts speaking like a character in a florid 19th century melodrama (“all the madness and rotting corruption which would have been mine”). There’s an obvious reason for that, but it’s nice that the script doesn’t feel the need to hammer the point home. Had this been a contemporary Doctor Who story it’s easy to imagine the Doctor muttering something about Oscar Wilde just before the TARDIS left the scene.

The plot isn’t exactly watertight. How fortunate that Dorian – who has been searching for Avon and the others for a while – happens to find them immediately after the Liberator has been destroyed (and therefore at a point when they’re at their most vulnerable. The reason why he needs them, rather than any other group, is a little puzzling too. Dorian requires people who are close to each other (“You care for each other. After what you’ve been through together, you couldn’t fail to care for each other. Even you, Avon”.). Only Avon and co fit this bill? Hmm, okay.

The cut price monster at the end is a bit of a disappointment and it’s a pity that Soolin isn’t given more to do, but all in all this is a solid season opener.

Doctor Who – The Web Planet. Part Six – The Centre

Picking the silliest moment from The Centre is difficult, mainly because there’s so many to chose from.  But Hilio, Hrostar and Hylina screeching “Zaaarrrrbbiiiii” whilst flapping their arms about in an attempt to distract the Zarbi does take some beating.  It’s a little over three minutes into this episode if you want to check it out for yourself.

Whilst the Menoptera and Barbara are fooling about with the Zarbi, the Doctor and Vicki are taken to the Centre.  The Animus is revealed in all its glory – a mass of writhing tentacles.  There’s an uncharacteristic spot of overacting from Hartnell, when he delivers the line “this infernal light is too bright for my eyes”.

The Doctor then collapses, which leaves Vicki to resist the power of the Animus by herself.  The set is quite moodily lit, which helps to sell the illusion that the numerous rubber tentacles are actually part of a controlling intelligence (and not just being pulled off-camera by the crew!)

A major disappointment is that revelation the Animus’ ultimate aim concerns the invasion of Earth.  “What I take from you will enable me to reach beyond this galaxy, into the solar system, to pluck from Earth its myriad techniques and take from man his mastery of space.”

Since this has been such a strange, other-worldly adventure it’s incredibly jarring to find that the Animus seems to be fascinated with the totally unremarkable planet Earth.  Although if it believes the Doctor to be human that might explain its assumption that human beings have mastery over space.

The defeat of the Animus is a bit of a damp squib (Barbara waves the Isotope around for a few seconds).  After six episodes you’d have hoped for something more impressive than that.  But at least it allows Barbara to save the day.

And then it was over.  I’ve developed a little more appreciation for the story thanks to this rewatch, but it still proved to be something of a trial (especially over the last few episodes).

Doctor Who – The Web Planet. Part Five – Invasion

Whilst the ratings for The Web Planet were high, the Reaction Index went on a decreasing slide week after week.  Things started brightly enough, with a rating of 56% for episode one (an improvement over The Romans, although a few points lower than most of the Doctor’s space adventures to date) but by episode six the figure had tumbled to 42% (the lowest RI rating the series had received so far).

It’s not hard to understand why the general reaction was so unfavourable.  As I said earlier, had it been a four-parter they might have just got away with it, but by Invasion there’s a real sense of treading water.  Watching Hartnell turn a Zarbi into his compliant pet does have a certain comedy value, but these moments only stretch so far.  Vicki’s quite taken with the friendly Zarbi though, nicknaming him Zombo.

But although parts of the story are painful and/or dull, there are still some occasional lyrical moments of scripting which almost makes it all worthwhile. In this scene, Prapillus (Jolyon Booth) and Barbara enter the temple of light.

BARBARA: It’s beautiful, Prapillus. Oh, it’s absolutely beautiful!
PRAPILLUS: It must be a Temple of Light. The ancient song-spinners of our race sang of their beauty, but I thought they could never be found again.
BARBARA: There are others?
PRAPILLUS: So the legends say. Sewn into the craters and plateaus of Vortis, been slowly un-woven by the silence of time and their entrances long forgotten by our species. But our Gods have not forgotten us, Barbara. This was indeed deliverance.

Another positive part of the serial is that Barbara, thanks to her association with the Menoptera, is probably the most proactive of all the TARDIS crew.  Although visibly frightened by the events of episode one, she quickly recovers and teams up with her new friends in order to find a solution to beat the Zarbi and the Animus.  The downside is, of course, that she spends most of her time surrounded by the ridiculously overacting Menoptera, but then you can’t have everything.

Something that’s noticeable about Invasion is how little ambient noise there is.  A slight echo effect is given to the cave and tunnel sets, but that’s about all.  Combined with very minimal incidental music it does create a rather “dead” atmosphere.  One plus point is that there’s very little Zarbi chirping in this one – although when that’s removed they do seem even less convincing than before.

The Optera make another appearance.  Pity anybody who happens to be watching these scenes when a non-fan enters the room.  How would you be able to explain them?  Not easily, that’s for sure.  But even though they still look very silly, as with Prapillus there’s the odd inspirational moment of dialogue.  “A silent wall. We must make mouths in it with our weapons. Then it speak more light.”

Whilst Barbara’s raised several possibilities about how the Menoptera could fight the power of the Carsinome, it’s only when she’s reunited with the Doctor and Vicki that the planning can begin in earnest.  The Doctor takes instant control in a very characteristic way.  He and Vicki then elect to return to the Animus, which provides us with a very unsettling cliffhanger – the pair of them are frozen into solidity, surrounded by gently bobbing Zarbi.