“What has happened to the magic of Doctor Who?”

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I’ve recently been re-reading Licence Denied, Paul Cornell’s 1997 anthology of Doctor Who fanzine articles. The first entry in the book was Jan Vincent-Rudzki’s 1976 demolition of The Deadly Assassin.  Reproduced in full below, it’s an absolutely fascinating read.

Few Who stories go very much against what has been done before, but recently this has changed. First, there was “Genesis of The Daleks,” then “Revenge,” “Morbius,” and now “Deadly Assassin,” or rather “Deadly Continuity.” But first let us look at the programme as someone who hardly ever watches. The costumes and sets are quite effective, but a little too Flash Gordon. It has a good cast and was well acted. The story was fair but did not hold together too well.

Now let’s look at the story as Doctor Who viewers. The following is not only my view, but that of many people (including people who aren’t avid fans). First, congratulations to Dudley Simpson for using Organ Music for the Time Lords, but thumbs down for not using his excellent Master theme. Then there’s the more than usually daft title. Have you ever heard of an assassin that isn’t deadly?

On to the ‘story’. Before we even started we heard the same boring cliche: ‘the Time Lords face their most dangerous crisis’. I suppose Omega was a minor nuisance! The next blunder was the guards. Why were there any? The Time Lords were supposed to be very powerful, so much so that anyone strong enough to invade would swat the guards with ease, and Time Lord technology should be able to deal with minor intrusions. Then came the TARDIS. Before, it was MK 1 and the Master’s and Monk’s were very different marks of type 40 TT capsule, but why only one missing? As for such and advanced race being unable to find someone in 52 (sometimes 53) storey building. Ridiculous! I’ve always thought Time Lords names were secret and unpronounceable, so why do we suddenly know their names? ‘C.I.A’ was certainly not appreciated, nor Time Lords with bad hips. There is a time and place for humour and this wasn’t it. Particularly Runcible whose demise I was certainly not sad about. This story really showed up the infatuation for Earth people in Doctor Who. It could have been set on Earth and no one would have known the difference. Doesn’t R. Holmes realise that Time Lords are aliens and do not need to conform to human motivations whatsoever? This fact was well brought out in ‘War Games’, but ignored here.

Elgin said that premonition does not exist. Yet the Doctor had them in ‘Time Monster’, ‘Frontier In Space’, ‘Evil of The Daleks’ and ‘War Machines’. I was surprised by the Doctor saying that Time Lord machinery was ‘prehistoric’. Mr Holmes seems to have forgotten that the whole Time Lord way of life is to ‘observe and gather knowledge’. So apart from the fact that they are supposed to be one of the most advanced civilisations (brought out so well in ‘War Games’ and ‘Genesis’) they could have easily copied more advanced races. For instance in ‘The Three Doctors’ the Time Lords were amazed that there was a force more powerful than themselves. They were pretty powerful pre- ‘Deadly Assassin’.

In ‘Deadly Assassin’ the Time Lords seem to have forgotten the Doctor yet we’ve always been led to believe it’s very rare for a Time Lord to leave Gallifrey. So he should be remembered, particularly as in ‘Three Doctors’ he saved Gallifrey (and the universe of course!) from destruction, and Borusa said they needed heroes. The trial of the Doctor was another R. Holmes farce. The ‘War Games’ trial was so excellent, but of course this had to be in Earth norms, and was pathetic. Then later the Doctor and co. go to look at the public register system to see that really happened at the ceremony. Now we were, I believe, dealing with Time Lords, so why couldn’t they and look at a time scanner and see the truth? Also, why need the brain machine to predict the future? Another fact forgotten is that Time Lords are immortal. In ‘War Games’ the Doctor said they could ‘live forever barring accidents’. This had never been changed until ‘ Morbius’ where we learnt that the Time Lords used the Elixir if they had trouble regenerating. So why didn’t the Master use the Elixir? We also saw in ‘Morbius’ eleven incarnations of the Doctor (‘though in ‘Three Doctors’ Hartnell was rightly the first) so now we’re left with one more Doctor, according to ‘Deadly Assassin’.

Then there wasn’t Part 3 which must be the biggest waste of time ever in ‘Doctor Who’. A ten-minute trip into the matrix would have sufficed, but 25!

One minute Elgin was saying there’s no way to tap the machine, the next he was taking the Doctor down the other ‘old part of the city’ which looked just like all the other parts. When Goth was discovered we heard the daft reason for him helping the Master, for an exchange of knowledge. Again ignorance of the Time Lord way of life is shown by R. Holmes. Goth should have been quite able to go to the extensive library and sit at a Time Scanner for a few decades or so, and find out everything himself. He could even have followed the Master’s travels on the scanners! Borusa recognised the Doctor, but since the Doctor and the Master were at school together wouldn’t Borusa remember the Master? Also what’s this rubbish about the Doctor being expelled? We know he has a Time Lord degree in ‘Cosmic Science’ (and that was revealed in R. Holmes story!)

I was stunned to discover that the Doctor doesn’t know his own people’s history! The Time Lords would have their own history completely documented. After all, they can look back at time, so what’s all this nonsense about myths? And surely somebody would have wondered what that lump and two holes in the Panopticon floor were.

Of course, part 4 saw the return of the same old story. It couldn’t just be Gallifrey in danger, it had to be a hundred other planets in danger.

You’d have thought that not much else could be wrong with the story, but there was more to come. Time Lord power sources are well known to be novae etc., as Omega produced, not some silly black box with tubes. I would also like to know how the Doctor managed to climb up a 100′ shaft with smooth side and with plastic ricks falling on him. Also, even if the Master was protected by the sash when everything was to be swallowed up, what point would there be to floating around in space – not much! Things get even more ridiculous when the Master falls down the deep hole (his yell lasted a long time) and he’s back very soon, regenerating (due to absorbing energy). If all he needed was energy why didn’t he use his TARDIS, like anybody else, to regenerate?

For some of these blunders you could argue that the story was set far into the future eat a time when the Time Lord race is degenerating. but it can’t be as the Doctor was recognised. No, the new rule for Doctor Who seems to be the reason, which is ‘anything pre-Holmes needn’t exist’, which can’t be good for a script editor.

What must have happened was that at the end of ‘Hand of Fear’ the Doctor was knocked out when the TARDIS took off, and had a crazy mixed-up nightmare about Gallifrey. As a Doctor Who story, ‘Deadly Assassin’ is just not worth considering . I’ve spoken to many people, meany of whom were not members, and they all said how this story shattered their illusions of the Time Lords, and lowered them to ordinary people.

Once, Time Lords were all-powerful, awe-inspiring beings, capable of imprisoning planets forever in force fields, defenders of truth and good (when called in). Now, they are petty, squabbling, feeble-minded, doddering old fools.

WHAT HAS HAPPENED TO THE MAGIC OF DOCTOR WHO?

 

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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!”

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.

Doctor Who – The Web Planet. Part Four – Crater of Needles

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Uh oh, it’s the Optera. Underground cousins of the Menoptera, they look and sound ridiculous. During this story they’re hardly alone in that, but it was their hopping movements which proved to be the final straw for me. This is a pity, as their dialogue has promise. Here, Hetra (Ian Thompson) outlines the Optera’s philosophy. “We know that from the roof comes hate! The liquid death! Creeping destroyer of we Optera. Yet you stand upright. We will consult the chasm of lights and if you come from above, you will die!”

Last episode was quite Menoptera light, but they’re back in force in this one. That means plenty of dialogue delivered in a sing-song manner and excessive hand movements. And as the majority of the episode is set on the planet’s surface, it’s back to the vaseline-smeared camera shots, which continue to be somewhat distracting. This is undoubtedly the point of the story where you know it’s going to be a long, hard slog to the finish line.

There are a few amusing moments though, such the continuing question as to why the Zarbi are frightened of a tiny (and very dead) spider. Barbara and the Menoptera’s attack on one of the venom guns is another notable incident – the high camera angle enables the actor under the costume to crawl away, which allows one of the Menoptera to pick up the empty shell and squish it against the wall, rather like one would deal with a bug.

You have to respect William Russell – an actor who never gave less than 100%. Even when surrounded by the Optera he ensures that Ian doesn’t for a moment give the audience the impression that this is all faintly ridiculous. It’s a difficult balancing act – with a less skilled actor, Ian would simply become po-faced and unbelievable – but Russell manages to ensure that Ian keeps his credibility at all times.

By far the most notable new arrival is that of Hilio (Martin Jarvis). Over the last fifty years or so he’s become one of Britain’s most distinctive actors, thanks to numerous film, stage, television and radio appearances. It’s hardly surprising that he’s not so recognisable here, but his familiar vocal tones are present and correct.

This wasn’t the easiest of episodes to navigate, but at least we’re four down with two to go.

Doctor Who – The Web Planet. Part Three – Escape to Danger

Ah, Escape to Danger.  I wonder if Terrance Dicks tuned into this episode and mentally filed away the title for later use, as it often turned up as a chapter heading in his Target Doctor Who novelisations.  Indeed, just to read those three words transports me back to the 1970’s and that strange world where old Doctor Who was only accessible via the Target book range.  But that’s a blog post (or series of posts) for another time.

Back to this Escape to Danger, the Doctor finds himself quizzed by the Animus who is convinced that the Doctor and his friends are the Menoptra.  This instantly begs the question, does the Animus not know what the Menoptra look like?  Is the Animus blind or might the script implying that all humanoid shapes look the same to it?  In another story it may be reasonable to assume that this was just a case of sloppy scripting, but on the bizarre world of Vortis nothing can ever be taken for granted.

Speaking of sloppy scripting, a moment later Vicki stumbles on a control panel which, according to the Doctor, realigns the fluid link and thereby restores the TARDIS’ power.  Eh?  This is obviously a nod back to The Daleks – although had the fluid link been removed from the ship this would have made more sense (although the image of the Zarbi, with their flapping arms, burrowing under the TARDIS console doesn’t bear thinking about!).

We have to assume that the Animus is so powerful that it can disable a vital function of the ship from a distance.  It’s very convenient that Vicki’s blundering reverses this action, but that’s hardly the worst flaw in the story.

The Doctor’s pleased as punch about this and moves to the front of shot to deliver the following short speech.  “Trying to destroy my ship, you will achieve nothing. Nothing! I have great secrets in my ship. We could help you.”  After more than a few wobbles earlier in the story Hartnell is on much firmer ground here and – with his hands clasped – shows the Doctor at his imperious best.  With Vicki and Ian framed in the background it’s a nice, still, moment.

We then see the first flying Menoptra and also witness the Zarbi’s puzzlement as to where they might have gone.  They look at the ground rather than up in the sky, but due to their restrictive fibreglass costumes that’s hardly surprising!  This episode also has the immortal moment where one of the Zarbi rushes headlong into a camera, making an audible thump (although the noise was sadly toned down a little for the DVD release).

Whilst Ian nips off to look for Barbara, the Doctor and Vicki remain behind at Zarbi HQ.  Ian’s fight with a Zarbi has to be seen to be believed – and although brief it was obviously uncomfortable for poor Robert Jewell, stuck within the unforgiving Zarbi costume.

According to contemporary reports, after the scene was completed he was left in considerable pain following the moment when Ian knocks the Zarbi to the floor.  Ian’s escape is also the cue for the remaining Zarbi to rush about like headless chickens, beeping all the time.  As I’ve said before, a little of this goes a long way, but unfortunately  we’re only about halfway through the story.

Ian makes the acquaintance of Vrestin (who refers to him as Heron for the rest of the story).  Vrestin is able to fill in the backstory for the audience. “The Zarbi are not an intelligent species, but they were essential to the life pattern here. We lived at peace with them, until they were made militant by the dark power. The Animus. At that time, the Carsinome appeared. Grew like a fungus. We had no weapons. We had not had the need. And by the time we sensed the danger, the Zarbi were too strong.”

Had The Web Planet been a four-parter it might possibly be better regarded as I’m still just about hanging on in there.  But things might get rougher over the next few episodes …..

Doctor Who – The Web Planet. Part Two – The Zarbi

The Doctor’s being rather dense at the start of The Zarbi.  He spends several minutes totally perplexed at the disappearance of the TARDIS before Ian points out the rather obvious marks on the planet’s surface, which indicate that it’s been dragged away.  Let’s be kind and surmise that the lack of atmosphere has slightly affected his usually sharp intellect.

The model shot of the TARDIS moving over the surface of Vortis is rather sweet whilst inside the ship Maureen O’Brien does some sterling staggering-about acting.

The appearance of a Zarbi on the TARDIS’ monitor is an unsettling one.  Vicki’s expression conveys a nice air of silent dread (although it was scripted that she should scream).  If I’d been Richard Martin I would have chosen this as the moment to reveal the Zarbi for the first time.  This brief close-up would have been an intriguing moment – what does the rest of the creature look like? – before the full reveal of several of the creatures surrounding the Doctor and Ian a little later.

Barbara is rescued by the Menoptra.  Unlike the Zarbi they can speak and have personalities, although their strange hand movements and voices do get a little wearing after a while.  Roslyn De Winter, who played Vrestin, was responsible for their choreography, earning her the oddest credit on any Doctor Who episode (“Insect movement by Roslyn De Winter”).

When Ian and the Doctor are surrounded by the Zarbi, there’s a high shot which give a decent sense of scale to proceedings.  Such camerawork wasn’t often seen in the series at the time, no doubt because it would take too long to set up, so it’s welcome to see it here. A small recompense for many of the other, more clumsy, moments.

Hartnell’s been more settled in this episode, although his bizarre hand gestures when he attempts to communicate with the Zarbi is yet another oddity in this most odd of stories.

One of the obvious problems with the Menoptra all looking so similar is that when there’s several of them in a scene it’s hard to tell who’s who.  This was certainly the case earlier on when Barbara was surrounded by Hrhoonda, Hrostar and Vrestin.

But towards the end of this installment Barbara and Hrostar are captured by the Zarbi and although they don’t appear in episode three, they do share some decent two-handed scenes in episode four which allows time for Arne Gordon to give Hrostar a very definite personality.

There’s another strong cliffhanger as the Doctor, Ian and Vicki find themselves at Zarbi HQ.  A tube descends over the Doctor’s head and the voice of what we later learn to be the Animus (Catherine Fleming) asks “why do you come now?”

Two episodes down and I’m hanging on in there.