Whenever this Doctor turns up, all hell breaks loose. Doctor Who – Battlefield

battlefield

After the success of Remembrance of the Daleks it was inevitable that Ben Aaronovitch would be asked to contribute another script.  Battlefield began life as a three-parter which was later expanded to four episodes, although Aaronovitch was to express his dissatisfaction with the story as it appeared on screen – feeling that it too obviously a three-part story with an extra episode bolted on.

But whilst there are script problems, there are also some rather dodgy performances which do drag the story down.  It’s probably (apart from Time and the Rani) Sylvester McCoy’s worst Doctor Who performance.  He’s all over the place and far too many times his line delivery is very poor (“There will be no battle here!”, ” If they’re dead”, etc, etc).  Comparing this and Ghost Light back to back is particularly instructive.  He’s at his best in Ghost Light (restrained and still) and very much at his worst in Battlefield (ranting and over-expressive).

Sophie Aldred has her poor moments as well (“Boom!”) whilst Christopher Bowen’s turn as Mordred is on the ripe side, to put it mildly.  Angela Bruce settles down as the story progresses, but she’s also not especially good to begin with (“Shame!”).

The start of a beautiful friendship?
The start of a beautiful friendship?

It’s not all bad though – Marcus Gilbert has a nice comic touch as Ancelyn and James Ellis is always watchable.  His Tennyson ad-libs (“ Thou rememberest how, in those old days, one summer noon, an arm rose up from out the bosom of the lake clothed in white samite, mystic, wonderful, holding the sword“) work very well and it’s nice that Michael Kerrigan allowed him some space to indulge himself.

The main guest roles were filled by Nicholas Courtney and Jean Marsh.  Marsh manages to bring out the contrary nature of Morgaine, as she’s someone who is more than capable of destruction but also has her own moral code (observing remembrance for the dead and restoring Elizabeth’s sight).

Ben Aaronovitch was quite clear that bringing back Lethbridge-Stewart and UNIT was something of a fannish indulgence.  In many ways this undoes some of the good work from Mawdryn Undead.  It would have been the easy option in 1983 to have the Brigadier back with UNIT and fighting monsters, but instead they went for a more interesting story with a retired and somewhat broken-down figure.

"Ware this man. He is steeped in blood"
“Ware this man. He is steeped in blood”

Here, it’s pure fannish wish-fulfillment to have the Brig back in his old uniform and in charge (albeit temporarily) of UNIT.  It’s hard to believe, to be honest, that any military organisation would reinstate a retired soldier like this, so it may have been more credible to have had him along as a civilian advisor, due to his knowledge of the Doctor.  Courtney’s always good value (especially when facing down the Destroyer in the last episode) but after Mawdryn, this can’t help but feel like a little bit of a let-down.

As with many stories script-edited by Andrew Cartmel, some interesting material never made the screen (although it was restored for a special edition of the story when it was released on DVD).  Chief amongst the cuts was the disdain that Ace has for the Brig, something that is totally absent from the transmitted story.

The story is a little incoherent with various plot devices (a stranded nuclear missile convoy is introduced in the first episode and then forgotten about until the last ten minutes of the final episode) not used particularly well.  And the reason for Morgaine traveling to this universe is never made clear – has some catastrophe affected her own, maybe?  The plot is a little wooly at times, it’s made clear that Morgaine knows she’s traveled to another dimension, but at another point in the story the Doctor maintains that the Earth will be a battleground for a conflict that doesn’t belong here – implying that Morgaine is unaware she’s no longer in her own universe.

The reveal of the Destroyer at the end of the third episode does give the story a little more impetus and it has to be said that the design is wonderful.  Some seven years earlier, the Terileptils in The Visitation were able to curl their lips but that’s nothing compared to the lip-curling that the Destroyer indulges in.  It’s a good indication just how animatronics and technology in general had evolved over the course of seven years or so.

Flawed though Battlefield is, it’s still enjoyable – but it’s very much the weak link in S26.  And a special mention must go out to the closing scene.  Keff McCullough’s comedy tune as the girls leave is perhaps a fitting ending to a real curate’s egg of a story.

A cosmos without the Doctor scarcely bears thinking about. Doctor Who – The Five Doctors

four doctors

For me, The Five Doctors defies critical analysis as to watch it is to be twelve again, when it seemed like the best programme ever.  Time may have slightly tempered that enthusiasm, but I still find it’s impossible to rewatch it without a silly grin appearing on my face from time to time.

Is it perfect?  Of course not.  The Five Doctors was a party where many invitations were handed out, but several people (and one very important guest) were unable to attend.  Possibly in a parallel universe they had a story where the 2nd Doctor was partnered with Jamie and Zoe, the 3rd teamed up with Jo and the Brig and the 4th and Sarah were reunited.  Also in that parallel universe, maybe Roger Delgado decided not to travel to Turkey in 1973 to film Bell of Tibet so that he was able to return to the role of the Master for the first time in a decade.  It’s a nice dream.

But what we have is still very decent fare.  Richard Hurndall isn’t attempting to impersonate William Hartnell, Hurndall is playing the first Doctor, which is an important distinction.  The only Hartnell story to be repeated in the UK was An Unearthly Child in 1981, so for many of us Hurndall’s was a perfectly acceptable performance.  And it still is.  He captures the essence of the Hartnell Doctor, there’s certainly the hard edge Hartnell could show from time to time, for example.

Troughton’s back! He may look older, but he’s the major highlight of this story and it’s hardly surprising that they offered him another one shortly after.  He has a wonderful partnership with Courtney and all of their scenes fizzle with memorable dialogue.  Frankly, I could have watched a story with just these two and been very content.

Pertwee’s back! Although his hair’s a little whiter, he’s still recognisably the same Doctor that we last saw nine years previously.  But his sequences don’t quite have the same appeal as the Troughton ones and it’s difficult to put my finger on why this is.  Terrance Dicks had, of course, been script editor for the whole of the Pertwee era so he should have had no problem in recreating the 3rd Doctor’s characterisation.  But he does has some nice moments whilst traversing the Death Zone though, insulting the Master and finding an appropriately heroic way to enter the Tower, for example.

Pertwee benefits from being matched up again with Elisabath Sladen.  We’d seen Sarah two years previously in K9 and Company which was lovely, but to see her back with Pertwee’s Doctor is something else altogether.  Like everyone else, her lines are rationed so she has to make the most of everything she’s given, and this she certainly does.  The fact that her mittens are sewn onto her jacket is incredibly adorable as well.

"Jehosaphat!"
“Jehoshaphat!”

Tom’s not back! The reason for his non-appearance is well known and it does leave a hole, but we still have a very good story without him.  For many people, Tom Baker was the series, so it’s possibly not a bad thing that he wasn’t here – that way it’s possible to see that there can be a decent tale told without him.

Davison’s still here!  Terrance Dicks said that he was keen to ensure that Davison got the best of the action and he does have some good scenes, although the Gallifrey section is a bit limp and it’s a pity that he wasn’t teamed up with Troughton and Pertwee a little earlier on.  The Doctors were kept apart since there were concerns that egos would clash.  I don’t think that Davision would have been a problem, but Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker certainly would have been an explosive combination.

One slight problem I have with The Three Doctors is the way that Troughton is sometimes written down in order to make Pertwee the dominant figure.  Since Pertwee was the current incumbent it’s sort of understandable, but I doubt that Pertwee would have been happy to play second fiddle to Davison.  And the prospect of Pertwee and Baker together is even harder to imagine.  Pertwee never made any secret of his dislike of the way the series progressed after he left (those cynical souls put this down to the fact that Tom Baker was more popular with both the fans and the general audience than Pertwee ever was) so Tom’s non-appearance was possibly a blessing in that respect.

As for the monsters, we have a rather tatty looking Dalek but we finally get to see that the Pertwee Doctor was right when he said that: “inside each of those shells is a living, bubbling lump of hate”.  Given that it stays in the shadows, presumably the Yeti was rather shabby, but it gives Troughton another lovely comedy moment when he’s rummaging through his pockets in a desperate search for something to sort it out with.

Since they only appeared eighteen months previously, it’s a little disappointing that the Cybermen are so prominent here but it makes both economic sense (the costumes were in stock) and also practical sense (it’s difficult to imagine the likes of the Daleks trundling through the Death Zone).

Mention of the Death Zone brings us to one of the major plus points of this story – the locations.  NuWho has exhaustively mined Wales for locations but as the original series was based in London, trips to Wales were much rarer.  Various locations in Gwynedd were used in March 1983 and they help to give The Five Doctors an expansive, epic feeling.

If Leonard Sachs in Arc of Infinity wasn’t the best Borusa ever, then neither is Philip Latham here. It’s hard to understand how the Borusa of The Deadly Assassin and The Invasion of Time could have ended up as the lunatic obsessed with ruling forever that we see here.  So that makes his corruption (which should be shocking) something of a damp squib.

And if the Old-King-Cole Rassilon is another odd move, we do get to see the Doctors together at the end of the story, which is something to be treasured.  The rarity is why it’s so special, if it had happened more often then the shine would have been taken off it.

"I know what it says, but what does it mean?"
“I know what it says, but what does it mean?”

As it was, it’s Pertwee’s final bow as the Doctor (sorry, Dimensions in Time isn’t canon, and isn’t even a story) whilst Troughton was to have one more appearance to come.  Therefore, while The Five Doctors is a celebration of the first twenty years, it also marks something of an end as over the following years we would start to bid farewell to some of the actors who had done so much to ensure that the series had reached 20 not out.  And while they may be gone, thanks to the magic of DVD their adventures live on forever.  So for me, that’s the best way to approach this story, as an appreciation and celebration of some of the people that made this programme so special.

Splendid fellow, both of him. Doctor Who – Mawdryn Undead

brig doctor

There’s several notable things about Mawdryn Undead (such as the return of the Black Guardian and the introduction of Turlough) but let’s be honest – for most of us it’s all about The Brig.

Nicholas Courtney holds a unique place in Doctor Who history.  No other actor played the same character opposite six of the first seven television Doctors and there would be several post-Battlefield appearances as well.  Such as Dimensions in Time (oh dear), Downtime (quite good really) and a last hurrah opposite Elisabeth Sladen in The Sarah Jane Adventures.

Before we move on to look at Mawdryn Undead, I would heartily recommend the audiobook of his memoirs, A Soldier In Time, produced by Big Finish. There’s plenty of time spent discussing Doctor Who of course, but by far the most interesting section is devoted to his childhood and his early years as a struggling actor.  Courtney’s familiar Doctor Who stories (“five rounds rapid”, “they were all wearing eyepatches”) are part of Doctor Who folklore, but where A Soldier In Time really excels is in showing us something of the real man.  Let’s take a quick look at Babelcolour’s lovely tribute (which I can never watch without getting a little misty-eyed) then we’ll turn our attention to Peter Grimwade’s second script for the series.

It seems that Mawdryn Undead was originally planned with Ian Chesterton in mind, which makes sense, as it’s possible to imagine Chesterton in later years teaching at a boys school.  But for whatever reason it was redrafted for Lethbridge-Stewart.  It had been eight years since the Brigadier had appeared in Doctor Who, with only one of his stories repeated during this time (The Three Doctors in 1981) and for many, including myself, this would only be our second opportunity to see him in action.  But we all knew how important he was to the series (both through DWM and also by reading about his earlier stories in Target Books’ series of novelisations).

Initially, we’re presented with a somewhat broken-down and dispirited Brigadier which is a far cry from the resolute, man of action of the Pertwee era.  Like much of the story, there’s something of a NuWho feel about this, as it’s impossible to imagine any regular character during the 1960’s or 1970’s being put under the microscope in such a way, whereas it’s much more likely to happen today.

Lethbridge-Stewart seems to be suffering from some deep-rooted trauma, as he doesn’t remember either the Doctor or the TARDIS.  Eventually the Doctor manages to break through, which leads us into a gloriously nostalgic clip-fest.  This was a regular feature of the early JNT years (there were similar examples in Logopolis and Earthshock).  You had to be there, but at the time this was so incredibly exciting.  The notion of being able to even see, let alone own, every Doctor Who story in existence was almost beyond imagining so these brief clips were tantalising glimpses into an unknowable, magical past.

Courtney’s wonderful in these scenes, they give him so much more to work with than he’s ever had before.  And just as we’ve grown used to this Brigadier, we’re introduced to another (from six years earlier).  This is a pre-breakdown Brig, much closer to the character we saw in, say, Terror of the Zygons.  The two Brigs (one from 1977 and the other from 1983) become central to the story, and the consequences of time travel is another element of the story which is NuWho flavoured.

The original series rarely used time travel as part of the story.  The TARDIS mainly existed to drop the Doctor and his friends off somewhere and would take them away at the end of the story, although there were exceptions of course.  In The Time Meddler, Steven and Vikki discuss what would happen if the Monk succeeded in changing history – would their memories of events just change and would they even realise that they had?  In The Ark we see the results of the Doctor’s actions, when the TARDIS returns to the Ark several hundred years after his last visit.  Dodo’s cold triggered a chain of events that led to the Monoids taking control and subjugating the humans.

Perhaps the story with the closest link to Mawdryn Undead is Day of the Daleks.  In Day, two separate times become connected, which means that the events of the present are inexorably linked with the future.  Something similar happens here, with the crux of the story resting on the connection of the two Brigadiers.

In retrospect, it’s not difficult to understand why time travel didn’t feature in more stories during the original series.  Once you’ve uncorked that particular genie, it’s impossible to get it back into the bottle.  For example, at the start of Time-Flight, Tegan asked the Doctor why they couldn’t land the TARDIS on the freighter and rescue Adric before it crashed into the Earth.  The real reason was that Matthew Waterhouse’s contract was up and it wasn’t renewed – but the moment you introduce the idea that all the Doctor has to do to solve matters is to nip back in the TARDIS, you’re on very shaky ground.

The Paul McGann TV Movie (or as I prefer to call it, Grace 1999) has a particularly bad example of this, when Grace is brought back to life.  When life and death are not absolute (and the new series has often been guilty of this – how many times have the dead been resurrected?) the narrative has to suffer.

As I said earlier, there are a few other notable things about Mawdryn Undead.  Firstly, Mark Strickson is introduced as Turlough.  It’s interesting that JNT decided to introduce another male companion so soon after Adric.  The heyday of the male companion was in the 1960’s where they generally performed the strong-arm stuff that the Doctor was either unable (Hartnell) or unwilling (Troughton) to do.  Later on, as Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker were able to handle their own action, the likes of Harry ended up as something of a third wheel.

The Brig's a little out of his depth (again)
The Brig’s a little out of his depth (again)

During his first three stories, Turlough has an interesting story arc – he’s an agent of the Black Guardian and has been ordered to kill the Doctor.  Even before he’s recruited we can clearly see he’s a bit of a wrong ‘un, so his presence in the TARDIS will certainly shake things up.  Strickson’s very good here as he would be during his brief run on the programme.  After the Black Guardian trilogy he’s very often sidelined, but whenever he’s given something to do (Frontios, for example) he delivers the goods.

The next item of interest is the return the Black Guardian.  I love Valentine Dyall and could listen to his voice forever – but the Black Guardian is a really rubbish villain.  Although the threat of the Black Guardian had hung over The Key To Time season, he only appeared in one short scene.  And a problem with the Black Guardian trilogy is that after we’ve seen him pop up once and threaten Turlough with dire consequences if he doesn’t kill the Doctor, then we’ve seen everything he can do.

The Black Guardian makes Turlough an offer he can't refuse
The Black Guardian makes Turlough an offer he can’t refuse

You’ve also got to wonder why the Black Guardian, charged with creating universal chaos, should be concerned with destroying the Doctor.  And why he couldn’t recruit somebody better than Turlough.  Surely there must be more efficient killers out there?

Whilst the Doctor, Nyssa and Tegan are busily interacting with the Brigadier and Turlough the main plot is taking shape.  Unusually, there’s a very low level of threat for the Doctor and his friends.  Mawdryn and his friends are criminals (they stole regenerative equipment from Gallifrey, although how they got past the Transduction Barriers is anyone’s guess) but they don’t actively wish anybody any harm – they just want to die.  The debate about assisted suicide carries on today and it’s surprising to see it addressed some thirty years ago in Doctor Who.

The Doctor, Nyssa and Tegan explore the strange ship
Nyssa, Tegan and the Doctor explore the strange ship

The Doctor could help (but this would mean surrendering his remaining regenerations).  He declines, although changes his mind later on when he discovers Nyssa and Tegan have been infected.  Luckily for everyone, the two Brigadiers chance to meet at just the right moment with the result that Mawdryn and his friends are able to die, Nyssa and Tegan are cured and the Doctor remains a Time Lord.

A quick mention for David Collings as Mawdryn.  He’s sometimes hampered by the make-up and costume but he’s very compelling as the weary, resigned scientist locked into an eternal life of torment.  It’s easy to see why so many people would have liked to see him play the Doctor (check out his appearances in Sapphire and Steel, where he plays Silver in a very Doctorish way).

Mawdryn (undead)
Mawdryn (undead)

Season 20 could have just loaded each story with classic monsters and it probably would have worked quite well.  But I’m glad that they didn’t and instead there’s a wider range of stories and themes of which Mawdryn Undead is a fine example.