Perfectly ripping. Doctor Who – Black Orchid

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Black Orchid is a fairly simple tale, but there are some plot flaws, particularly in episode two, which impact the story.

It was the first two-parter since The Sontaran Experiment in 1975 and there are times when it’s easy to see why this wasn’t a regular format for the show.  On occassions a little more time would have worked to the benefit of the story such as in the opening sequence, when we see in quick succession a man being murdered, somebody who looks like Nyssa sleeping whilst a mysterious man spies upon her and then we see someone tied up on a bed.

It’s the same person – George Cranleigh – who killed the man, spied upon the girl and is tied up on the bed, but although there’s a cross-fade between the second and third sequence this isn’t particularly obvious.  A little more time spent on the opening could have made this much clearer.

The TARDIS has landed in the 1920’s where, thanks to a case of mistaken identity, the Doctor takes part in a local charity cricket match (he is, of course, an expert at the game) and is later invited, along with his companions, to a party at Cranleigh Hall.

Another one goes for four
Another one goes for four

Sarah Sutton gets the chance to play two parts, as well as Nyssa she’s also Ann Talbot (who is engaged to Lord Cranleigh).  The split-screen shots work very well, although some of the sequences when her double is also in the frame are less convincing.

The party is quite a sight.  It was recorded in October and as might be expected the weather wasn’t terribly kind.  There’s strong wind in virtually every scene and they clearly had some rain as well, but they do their best to convince us it’s a glorious summers day.

The mysterious man in the attic Is a very tidy chap.  After taking the Doctor’s fancy dress costume, killing a servant and carrying off Ann, he then returns the costume to the Doctor’s room.  This is so the Doctor can then put it on and be misidentified by Ann as the murderer.

Tegan is quite the botany expert
Tegan is quite the botany expert

With the Doctor suspected of murder and taken off to the police station, things look bleak.  Ideally it would have been good for the Doctor to prove his innocence by uncovering some clues, but instead he shows the TARDIS to the police, which does the trick.  This is a rather lazy piece of writing and indeed the whole trip to the police station is a little unnecessary, it would have been better if everyone had stayed at Cranleigh Hall until the truth was uncovered.

Eventually the identity of the mysterious man in the attic is revealed to be George, the elder brother of Lord Cranleigh.  George Cranleigh had been engaged to Ann before his disappearance some years previously and he carries off Nyssa in a case of mistaken identity.  There then follows a rather odd sequence.  George Cranleigh has started a fire and has taken Nyssa to the roof.  The Doctor and Adric run up the stairs but decide it’s too hot to follow them.

Everybody goes outside, then the Doctor goes back inside and does follow them this time (what had changed?).  He also makes the point that Nyssa’s life would be in danger if George realised the girl wasn’t Ann.  So what’s the first thing he does when he confronts George?  Tells him that the girl isn’t Ann!  Poor George, who didn’t seem to have had much of a life, then plummets to his death, so that this particular family secret is brought to a conclusion.

Black Orchid has some very decent guest actors (Barbara Murray, Moray Watson, Michael Cochrane) and it chugs along nicely, but the flaws in the plot are a bit of a problem.  If you want an expanded take on the story then Terence Dudley’s novelisation (available as an audiobook read by Michael Cochrane) does help to fill in the background and make the story feel more coherent.

Excellent? Doctor Who – Earthshock

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Time has maybe not been too kind to Earthshock.  In 1982 it was a clear fan favourite, voted as the best of the year in every story poll.  But over the years its popularity has dipped a little, possibly because when you take away the impact of the Cybermen’s return the rest of the story does seem to be a little hollow.

The Cybermen’s last appearance was in Revenge of the Cybermen some seven years earlier.  In 1981, Cyber co-creator Gerry Davis submitted a story outline on spec entitled Genesis of the Cybermen.  There isn’t any evidence to suggest that the story was ever seriously considered for production, or that the submission was even acknowledged, which upset Davis.

Speaking a few years later, he expressed dismay at his treatment: “I’ve had one in mind for a long time which is a Genesis of the Cybermen story and I’d love to do it. But every time I turn around and go back to America I find Nathan-Turner’s commissioned another Cyber-script and I’m not even invited to do it. It wasn’t very pleasant to be snubbed like that.”

When Christopher Priest’s script The Enemy Within proved to be unworkable, this left a hole in the S19 schedule that was ultimately filled with a new Cybermen adventure. Eric Saward was keen to write the story and although the script-editor wasn’t generally allowed to commission themselves, a solution was found.  Anthony Root, who had briefly worked as script editor earlier in the season, was credited as Earthshock’s script editor although there’s no evidence that he actually did any work on it.

The first episode or so is set in some very nicely lit studio caves and concerns what we later learn to be a bomb, guarded by two androids, who have been programmed to kill anybody who gets too close.

The bomb has been planted by the Cybermen who intend to use it to destroy the Earth.  They aren’t too disappointed when the Doctor deactivates it though, as they have a back-up plan (a rather impressive back-up plan it has to be said, almost as if they knew the bomb wouldn’t work).

"This one calls himself the Doctor, and he does nothing but interfere."
“This one calls himself the Doctor, and he does nothing but interfere.”

This transports the Doctor and his friends to a deep space freighter where they encounter a rum bunch of characters.  Ringway (Alec Sabin) is a traitor who has sold out to the Cybermen and is cursed with poor dialogue, such as: “I’m tired of your snide remarks and bullying ways”. Given this, it’s not surprising that the character never comes alive, but he’s not the only one.

Scott (James Warwick) is a bluff, gruff soldier who is drawn pretty broadly.  Warwick chooses to intone each line with such deadly earnest that the performance often teeters on the edge of parody.

And then there’s Beryl Reid as Briggs.  Doctor Who has often cast against type, many times with great success (Russell Hunter in Robots of Death and Nicholas Parsons in The Curse of Fenric, for example).  Reid is a little more of a stretch but she’s not too bad, even if she sometimes seems to be a little lost.

There’s no denying the impact that the return of the Cybermen had in 1982, but this is about all the story has going for it.  The plot is a little wooly at times (something Saward could often be guilty of).  Perhaps the best example of this is when the freighter starts to travel backwards in time in episode four.  How is this possible?  Anything’s possible, says Adric, when you have an alien machine overriding your computer. Hmm, okay.

There’s certainly a place for this type of story in Doctor Who.  The Caves of Androzani managed to combine a high level of action/adventure but also had rich chacterisation.  Earthshock has the action, but the characters simply don’t engage.

Matt Finish
Matt Finish

The story did make the brave move of killing off a companion, as Adric dies in a futile attempt to stop the freighter crashing into the Earth.  This is another shock in the story, but like a whodunnit when you know the identity of the murderer, the shocks lessen when the story is watched again, so that ultimately Earthshock feels somewhat less than the sum of its parts.

Happy Landings. Doctor Who – Time-Flight

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Time-Flight is a bit of a mess.  What it lacks in terms of budget and visuals it also lacks script-wise, so that we’re left with a pretty disappointing season finale.

It starts promisingly enough with episode one, which features Doctor Who’s most expensive ever product placement – Concorde.  The location filming at Heathrow and the use of a real Concorde certainly adds a certain something.

I may be wrong, but I don't think this is a real Concorde
I may be wrong, but I don’t think this is a real Concorde

The wheels fall off in episode two though.  The prehistoric location doesn’t look great, mainly because it features incredibly obvious painted backdrops.

And just when you think things couldn’t get any worse, Kalid is revealed to be …. the Master!  I’ve already written about the Ainley Master’s propensity for dressing up, in my post on Castrovalva but at least there was some logic to his cosplay in that story, since he was expecting the Doctor to turn up.

The Master?  Well, I didn't see that coming
The Master? Well, I didn’t see that coming

Here, there’s no such excuse, so why on earth did the Master decide to dress as an Oriental magician? Wisely, the script doesn’t dwell on this, presumably hoping that the audience won’t dwell on it either.

After escaping from Castrovalva, the Master found himself trapped on prehistoric Earth.  By a remarkable coincidence, at exactly the same time the Xeraphin also become stranded in exactly the same place.  The Master attempts to tap the power of the Xeraphin, but finds them difficult to control since they’re a gestalt intelligence whose good and evil sides balance each other out.

The Xeraphin are the most interesting part of the story, but they’re rather underdeveloped.  Dropping the Master from the story would have allowed more time to feature them, but as it is we don’t really care about them since they’re painted so sketchily.

This is probably the least involving of all the stories featuring Ainley’s Master, but much better was to come over the next few years.  For all its faults, The King’s Demons has a good explanation for the Master’s “small time villainy” and Planet of Fire is a story that is certainly lifted by Ainley’s performance.

If the visuals are sometimes disappointing and the script doesn’t really engage, then it’s just as well that the actors manage to make something out of pretty much nothing.  By now the regulars are working well together and the loss of Adric has only served to give both Tegan and Nyssa more to do.  After some dodgy performances earlier in the season, Fielding and Sutton have established a good partnership and they both have a good rapport with Davison’s Doctor.

The guest cast have their moments too. Richard Easton (Captain Stapley), Keith Drinkel (Flight Engineer Scobie) and Michael Cashman (First Officer Bilton) all seem to be enjoying themselves.  None of the parts are that interesting, but all three actors help to give the story a much needed lift.

The main guest star was Nigel Stock as Professor Hayter.  Stock had been a familiar face on British television and film for several decades (he was probably best known for playing Dr Watson alongside Douglas Wilmer and Peter Cushing in the BBC’s 1960’s adaptations of the Sherlock Holmes stories) and he brings a touch of class to the story.  Professor Hayter, like the rest of the parts in the story, wasn’t a very rounded character but Stock does his best with what he’s been given.

Awwwwww
Awwwwww

Time-Flight ends on a cliff-hanger as Tegan’s left behind at Heathrow.  Will she ever see the Doctor again?  I guess we’ll have to wait until the next story to find out.

If you don’t fancy watching Time-Flight (or if you have and need cheering up) then this fab video by Farmageddon (aka Michael J. Dinsdale) should be just what, ahem, the Doctor ordered.

 

I’ve found it unwise to predict what the Doctor can or cannot do. Doctor Who – Arc of Infinity

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Doctor Who celebrated its 20th anniversary in 1983, so it’s quite understandable that it would have been dipping heavily into past continuity. Arc of Infinity is a case in point – we return to Gallifrey and the Doctor is menaced again by Omega, who last encountered the Doctor ten years earlier.

Quite how many people had been eagerly awaiting a rematch between the Doctor and Omega for all those years is debatable. True, The Three Doctors had been repeated in 1981, so Omega wouldn’t have been totally unfamiliar to its current audience, but he’s maybe not the most obvious baddy to bring back.

The return to Gallifrey promised much, but alas it’s not very impressive. I think their over-reliance on soft furnishings is the problem.  Obviously, Time Lords need to sit down (although it’s difficult to imagine the Time Lords from The War Games ever relaxing in a comfy chair) but Gallifrey should be a little more imposing.

We meet another Borusa, but Leonard Sachs doesn’t match the performances of either Angus Mackay or John Arnatt.  It’s not Sachs’ fault – he was a fine actor, but his timing and delivery (due to age) was just a little off.

Much better was Michael Gough as Hedin. The story tries to halfheartedly hide the identity of the traitor helping Omega, but it’s so obviously Hedin that you wonder why they bothered. Perhaps Gough would have made a better Borusa and Sachs could have played Hedin?

Colin Baker (and his impressive helmet) makes his Doctor Who debut here. You’d be hard pressed, watching this story, to predict that he’d be playing the Doctor in a year or so, obviously he must have been much more entertaining off-screen, since Maxil is a fairly thankless role.

With Tegan apparently absent, this leaves more of a chance to develop the relationship between the Doctor and Nyssa. Peter Davison has never made any secret of the fact that he would have been happy with Nyssa as his sole companion – and in the early part of this story you can see how that would have worked.

Tegan’s about though, and she follows her cousin by getting nobbled by Omega’s pet Ergon. The Ergon looks silly in the publicity stills and even sillier when moving. The fight between the Doctor and the Ergon in episode four is fairly jaw-dropping.

The Ergon.  Oh dear.
The Ergon. Oh dear.

Stephen Thorne didn’t return to play Omega, instead it was Ian Collier.  Although I have a lot of respect for Thorne (and his audiobook reading of The Myth Makers should be in everyone’s collection) his Doctor Who villains did tend to SHOUT a lot, so I’ve got no problem with Collier’s more restrained performance.

That’s once you’ve got over the mental Image that it’s Stuart Hyde inside Omega’s costume.

Simmer down Omega
Simmer down Omega

So we have the return of an old enemy and we’re back on Gallifrey, but the story just feels rather dull and uninteresting. It’s not really bad, just a little bland. As I’ve said, there’s no mystery about the identity of the traitor and although the Doctor’s been sentenced to death, it’s very hard to make this work in story terms. It’s incredibly obvious that the Doctor isn’t going to die, so even when he’s apparently executed we know he’s alright really.

There’s the prospect of overseas location filming to give the story a lift though and I love the initial shot, mainly for the fact that we hear an organ playing “Tulips from Amsterdam” in the background, just in case we didn’t twig where we were!

Amsterdam is heavily featured in the final episode when the Doctor and his friends pursue Omega through the streets. There’s some nice touches here, particularly when Omega is seen enjoying the sights and sounds of the city.

Hedin was certain that Omega only wanted to return to our universe so he could live in peace. The Doctor believes that Omega is mad and would threaten Gallifrey, but who is right? As the Doctor destroys Omega it’s hard not to feel sorry for him. There should have been another way.

Solid, but unspectacular, there’s nothing particularly wrong with this story but nothing that noteworthy either. Much better was just around the corner though.

The dance goes on. It is all the dance, everywhere and always. Doctor Who – Snakedance

tegan doctor

Although Kinda had somewhat bemused Doctor Who fandom in 1982, it was popular with both the general audience and the Doctor Who production team, so a sequel always seemed likely.

Script Editor Eric Saward was also keen for another story featuring the Mara, as it would provide Janet Fielding with another meaty role.  Saward had quickly grown to appreciate Fielding’s performance as Tegan and when interviewed by DWB in the mid 1980’s he felt that the series would have been stronger if Davison’s Doctor had only had Tegan as a single travelling companion: “If we’d just had Janet and Peter the contrast would have been excellent — critical, curious, tenacious — all the element I think make a strong and insightful companion against a weaker, much more vulnerable Doctor. Tegan was the best companion not just because of good writing, but because of Janet Fielding’s skill as an actress. Her performances in Christopher Bailey’s scripts confirmed that.”

Whilst Snakedance resembles a traditional Doctor Who story much more than Kinda did, it’s still quite unusual.  Unless you count the Mara at the end of episode four, nobody dies and whilst the plot does develop in a linear way there’s still a considerable amount of time to debate the nature of evil.  As with Kinda, Bailey’s Buddhist beliefs are very much to the fore.

And like Kinda, Bailey would select the names of several characters from various languages.  For example, Tanha is a Buddhist term that means “thirst” and Chela is derived from a Hindu word meaning “slave” or “servant”.

Snakedance is also quite similar to Kinda in that whilst Janet Fielding does get the chance to shine, she’s also off-screen for quite some time (particularly in episode three).  This gives a welcome chance for Sarah Sutton to enjoy more of the limelight.  As with Arc of Infinity, Nyssa spends the majority of the story with the Doctor and there’s a very interesting, slightly bickering relationship, that develops.  Nyssa was the most underwritten companion of S19 and it’s only a pity that finally she’s beginning to show more promise just when her days are numbered.

Working well together - The Doctor and Nyssa
Working well together – The Doctor and Nyssa

Peter Davision is wonderful in this story.  For me it’s one of his three best performances as the Doctor, along with Frontios and The Caves of Androzani.  From the opening scene, he seems to have much more of a sense of urgency than in recent stories, as he pushes Tegan hard (too hard for Nyssa’s liking) to remember her dreams.  Later, he spends much of episode three locked up, firstly by himself and later with Nyssa.  And whilst some of the other Doctors would be pacing up and down and desperately trying to find a way out, there’s a lovely sense of calm about Davison in these scenes – he doesn’t seem to be doing much, but that’s the mark of a good actor.

It’s also noteworthy that he spends most of the story unable to make people believe that he’s anything but a raving madman, since in most Doctor Who stories the Doctor tends to get welcomed into the fold fairly quickly (Kinda is a good example of this, whilst Frontier In Space is, like Snakedance, a relative rarity where we see the Doctor as an outsider for the majority of the yarn).

A key man that the Doctor needs to convince is Ambril (John Carson).  But although Ambril is an expert in antiquities, he has little time for the Doctor’s doom-mongering, but the Doctor probably doesn’t help his cause in the following, wonderful, scene –

(A ceremonial helmet with a crest of five faces is on a display stand.)
AMBRIL: Now take this, for example. It dates from the middle Sumaran era and unusually is mentioned quite specifically in the Legend. Oh, there can be no doubt. The reference is to the Six Faces of Delusion. Now count. One, two, three, four, five. You will observe there are five faces, not six as the Legend would have it. Now, my point is this. I do find it quite extraordinarily difficult to take seriously a Legend that cannot even count accurately. Of course, artistically speaking, it’s an entirely different matter. The piece is exquisite. An undoubted masterpiece.
DOCTOR: What is it?
AMBRIL: Hmm? Head-dress.
DOCTOR: Try it on.
AMBRIL: What?
DOCTOR: Try it on.
AMBRIL: Certainly not. Whatever for?
DOCTOR: Please. I want to show you something, then I’ll go and leave you in peace.
AMBRIL: Very well.
(Ambril puts on the headdress.)
AMBRIL: Well?
DOCTOR: Now, count the faces again.
AMBRIL: Do as he says.
CHELA: One, two, three, four, five.
DOCTOR: And one makes six. The sixth Face of Delusion is the wearer’s own. That was probably the idea, don’t you think?
AMBRIL: Get out! Go on, get out!

The Six Faces of Delusion
The Six Faces of Delusion

John Carson’s performance is beautifully judged and must rank as one of the best Doctor Who guest-star performances.  There were plenty of bigger names that guest-starred in Doctor Who, but few were as good as Carson.  He’s a major reason why this story works so well.

The rest of the cast are equally good though.  Snakedance has a fairly small group of characters, which helps to ensure that all of them have room for some decent scenes.  Colette O’Neil is perfect as Tahna, the bored wife of the Federator, forced to listen to endless tedious speeches by Ambril about the history of Manussa.  Although Martin Clunes’ performance does tend to crop up on “before they were famous” type series, he’s fine as Lon, the bored son of the Federator.  Jonathon Morris gives a fresh-faced vigor to the role of Chela and Brian Miller (Mr Elisabeth Sladen) has a lovely turn as the showman, Dugdale.

L-R - Colette O'Neil, John Carson, Martin Clunes and Jonathon Morris
L-R – Colette O’Neil, John Carson, Martin Clunes and Jonathon Morris

Which leaves Preston Lockwood as Dojjen.  He doesn’t have much to say (at least not out loud) but he’s in one of Snakedance’s key scenes as the Doctor submits to a snake bite in order to discover how he can destroy the Mara.  And unlike many Doctor Who stories, the Mara can’t be destroyed with a gun or an explosion, something quite different needs to be done –

DOJJEN: No, look into my eyes. You have come this far. You must not now give in to fear. Look.
DOCTOR: It’s the poison. The effect of the poison.
DOJJEN: Fear is the only poison.
DOCTOR: Fear is.
DOJJEN: Ask your question.
DOCTOR: How, how can, I must save Tegan. It was my fault, so how, how can. Destroyed. How can the Mara? It was my fault.
DOJJEN: Steady your mind. Attach to nothing. Let go of your fear.
DOCTOR: What is the Snake Dance?
DOJJEN: This is, here and now. The dance goes on. It is all the dance, everywhere and always. So, find the still point. Only then can the Mara be defeated.
DOCTOR: The still point? The point of safety? A place in the chamber somewhere. Where?
DOJJEN: No, the still point is within yourself, nowhere else. To destroy the Mara you must find the still point.

This excerpt helps to highlight that Snakedance is something unusual.  For those who prefer monsters and explosions it might seem a little tame, but I’d take this over the empty heroics of Earthshock any day.  If one were being picky, then you could say that Manussa is not the most convincing of planets – it looks incredibly stagey (the entrance to the cave for example, is very artificial).  In the end though, I don’t really think this matters, as it’s the script and characters that are important and not the visuals.

It’s a great shame that Christopher Bailey never wrote for the series again, but at least we have Kinda and Snakedance.  Not only two of the best Doctor Who stories of the 1980’s, but two of the best Doctor Who stories, period.

My letter in DWM#478

I’m giddily excited about having my second letter published in Doctor Who Magazine, a mere 29 years after my first.  Admittedly I’ve only ever written them two letters, so I’ve no-one to blame for such a gap but myself.

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Writing the letter did bring home to me just how different Doctor Who fandom was in the 1980’s and 1990’s.  Although like today, there’s plenty of debate, rumours and liberal helpings of positivity and negativity, it was done at a completely different pace.

There was no internet, so debates tended to be carried out in the pages of the numerous fanzines of the time.  And since many of them had an irregular publication schedule (those that ever returned for a second issue) any discussions tended to last months, a far cry from today when a single internet post can gain numerous replies almost instantly.  There was also DWM of course, published every month, and also DWB (in many ways the anti-DWM, and certainly in its early years a must-read, even if you had to take much of its news content with a pinch of salt).

The phantom Cartmel rumour was only one of a range of strange theories and heated debates that raged in fandom during the late 1980’s and early 1990’s.  In retrospect, this was the golden age of Doctor Who fanzines.  Two things would help to kill the Doctor Who fanzine off – firstly the rise of the internet and secondly Gary Gillatt’s editorship of Doctor Who Magazine.  Gillatt wasn’t the first fan to edit DWM, but by recruiting writers who had cut their teeth on various ‘zines, he helped to make the magazine feel very much connected to fandom and the ‘zine culture.  This didn’t please everyone – some found it too insular and the in-jokes must have been baffling to newcomers – but for me, the Gillatt era of DWM is still my favourite.

There could be mileage in rooting around my old collection of ‘zines and penning a few articles on what I find.  The popularity of eras, Doctors, writers and producers has certainly waxed and waned over the years (the Pertwee era was particularly unloved by a small, but vocal, minority in the early 1990’s for example) and taking a look at how the fans perceived both the series and themselves back then could be of interest.