Mindwarp is the story which suffers most for being part of the Trial format. Like The Mysterious Planet the action stops periodically whilst not terribly interesting points are debated in the Trialroom. For example, in episode five, there are six courtroom scenes, several of which don’t serve any particular purpose (apart from providing some exposure for guest stars Michael Jayston and Lynda Bellingham).
But more serious than this is the Doctor’s growing realisation that what he’s watching on the screen varies significantly from his own memories. Story-wise, this is interesting – but it does damage the narrative, how can we care about what we’re watching if it might not be true?
This concerned Colin Baker, who in rehearsals queried whether certain scenes were real or created by the Matrix. Eric Saward was unable to clarify, so this leaves sections of the story feeling a little unsatisfactory. We can say that the Doctor’s interrogation of Peri on the Rock of Sorrows in episode six and the end of episode eight are at least two examples of faked pictures.
On the original transmission, the end of episode eight was a shock (even allowing for the crash-zoom into the pouting face of Colin Baker). That this ending is negated later in the season is a fatal flaw. It would have been far better to have it revealed that the Time Lords were responsible for Peri’s death – since they took the Doctor out of time before he could save her. Instead, we have the fudge that it never really happened.
If we put aside the problems with the Trial format, then Mindwarp is still a solid, if unspectacular, Doctor Who story. Brian Blessed is the main guest star and he produces a typical Brian Blessed performance. Even by the mid 1980’s, he was (in)famous for his larger than life performances and he delivers a typical one here. He has a greater range than this though (at times he’s quietly menacing in I Claudius) so it’s a pity he couldn’t have had a more subtle character to play.
Nabil Shaban returns as Sil, much more of a comic relief than he was in Vengeance on Varos. Christopher Ryan (clearly an actor who can’t appear in Doctor Who unless he’s encased in latex) is very good as Kiv, Sil’s boss. Patrick Ryecart gives a typically smooth performance as the unscrupulous Crozier whilst Thomas Branch is able to overcome the difficulties of restricting make-up to deliver a touching turn as Dorff. It’s not all good news though, as Gordon Warnecke is monumentally wooden as Tuza, but his bad performance is an exception.
This is Nicola Bryant’s last story and, as has become a familiar story trope, she spends the majority of it fighting off somebody’s unwelcome attentions. It surely can’t be unintentional that Yrcanos shares a number of character traits with the Doctor (they both shout a lot, for example). The Peri/Yrcanos romance must be the least convincing since Leela/Andred and it’s interesting to ponder exactly how much of a say Peri had in matters. After the Doctor was removed from Thoros Beta she clearly had few other options than to stay with Yrcanos, but after the Doctor realises she’s still alive he never seems particularity interested in visiting to see how she is. Poor Peri!
Nicola Bryant does have some good material though (her final scene is stunning) and there’s some nice exchanges between Peri and Yrcanos.
PERI: Why do they want Tuza?
YRCANOS: Execution one at a time, that’s how it will be.
PERI: Oh. Oh, it’s strange. Ever since we came to Thoros Beta I’ve been homesick. Not so much for a place, but a time. I just want to be back in my own time with people I love.
YRCANOS: What is that? Love?
PERI: Well, it’s when you care for someone or something more than yourself, I guess.
DORF: More than yourself?
PERI: Well, I know it sounds crazy, but, sometimes more than life.
YRCANOS: I care nothing for mine.
PERI: How can you say that, Yrcanos?
YRCANOS: Well, on my planet of Krontep, when we die, our spirit is returned to life, to be born in a more noble warrior.
PERI: Until what? Where do you end after all your brave deaths?
YRCANOS: You become a king! Me, after my next death, I join the other kings on Verduna, the home of the gods.
PERI: To do what?
YRCANOS: Why, to fight! What else?
PERI: Well, that figures
If the Trial sequences don’t help the story, then the decision to have the Doctor act out of character for several episodes is also not a great move. Colin Baker’s abrasive performance during parts of S22 hadn’t found favour with some, so S23 (particularly with its reduced running time) should have concentrated on making him a more accessible character. Of course, at the time nobody knew that Baker would shortly be sacked by BBC management – if he had stayed on then this wouldn’t have mattered so much.
Mindwarp seems to be a slightly less focused story than Vengeance on Varos. Varos had a clear satirical point to make, whilst Mindwarp doesn’t – and at times feels much more like generic Doctor Who. It’s also saddled with some pretty poor dialogue – “Nobody likes brain alteration” – which suggests that Eric Saward’s attention was elsewhere. Indeed, he’d soon be gone and his eleventh hour walkout would be another blow to an already beleaguered season.
Doctor Who’s fall from grace in the mid 1980’s was dramatic and sudden. In 1983 the series celebrated its 20th Anniversary and still seemed to be regarded as one of the nation’s favourties. But by 1985 the series was tagged as old fashioned, violent and dropping in popularity.
Doctor Who needed friends in high places, but it was sadly out of luck. Previously, executives and programme controllers had both enjoyed the series as well as recognising its importance in the BBC1 schedules. But by the mid 1980’s a new breed was in place – Michael Grade and Jonathan Powell disliked the show and their dislike became public knowledge.
Therefore, in 1986 it was clear that the series was in trouble. Initial omens for S23 weren’t good. The episode count was slashed to fourteen 25 minute episodes, film was replaced by VT for exterior shots and there was a general feeling that the budget was much tighter than before. If the reduced episode count had ensured that more money was spent on each story then that would have been understandable, but apart from the odd impressive FX shot the series looked as cheap as it had for a long time. Foreign filming (a regular occurrence during the previous three seasons) now seemed to be a thing of the past.
With only fourteen episodes, the programme needed to make an instant impact, but it’s fair to say that the most calamitous decision was to have an overall umbrella theme of the Doctor on trial. Given that the series was fighting for its life with the BBC executives, it clearly struck JNT and Eric Saward as a witty idea to have the Doctor do the same.
As it stands, the Trial sequences slow each story down, as periodically the action is paused for the Doctor, the Valeyard (Michael Jayston) and the Inquisitor (the late Lynda Bellingham) to debate what we’ve all been watching. The Trial only really comes into its own in the last two episodes, but at the start of the series that’s three months away. How many people would stick with it throughout all fourteen episodes and remember the plot threads from this first story which are only answered three months later? The ratings tell their story on that one.
The Trial starts with The Mysterious Planet which was Robert Holmes’ final complete script for the series. Holmes died whilst writing the first of the two episodes designed to wrap the season up and it’s long been regarded that his illness played a factor in the slightly underwhelming nature of this story.
The Mysterious Planet feels like a first draft and although there are familiar Holmesian traits (such as the roguish Sabalom Glitz) there’s a certain lack of sparkle. It’s a perfectly serviceable story (although it draws heavily on Holmes’ own back-catalogue) but after being off-air for 18 months, Doctor Who needed to come back with a bang and this was a little disappointing, It’s certainly no Caves of Androzani, that’s for sure.
Whilst looking for inspiration, Holmes seems to have drawn upon his debut Doctor Who script, The Krotons. Drathro, like the Krotons, remains unseen by the population and regularly takes the two most intelligent work-units to live with him. Although Drathro actually puts their genius to some use, unlike the Krotons.
While the story is a little underpowered, there’s still plenty of good moments. The relationship between the Doctor and Peri has noticeably softened since S22 and therefore it’s a shame that Nicola Bryant’s days were numbered, particularly since this is the last story where she has decent interaction with the Doctor. And as with The Two Doctors Colin Baker benefits from having Robert Holmes write his dialogue.
DOCTOR: I know how you feel.
PERI: Do you?
DOCTOR: Of course I do. You’ve been traveling with me long enough to know that none of this really matters. Not to you. Your world is safe.
PERI: This is still my world, whatever the period, and I care about it. And all you do is talk about it as though we’re in a planetarium.
DOCTOR: I’m sorry. But look at it this way. Planets come and go, stars perish. Matter disperses, coalesces, reforms into other patterns, other worlds. Nothing can be eternal.
Tony Selby seems to be enjoying himself as Sabalom Glitz. Glitz is derived from other Holmes creations, such as Garron, but there’s a slightly harder edge to Glitz (at least in this story).
GLITZ: You know, Dibber, I’m the product of a broken home.
DIBBER: You have mentioned it on occasions, Mister Glitz.
GLITZ: Which sort of unbalanced me. Made me selfish to the point where I cannot stand competition.
DIBBER: Know the feeling only too well, Mister Glitz.
GLITZ: Where as yours is a simple case of sociopathy, Dibber, my malaise is much more complex. A deep-rooted maladjustment, my psychiatrist said. Brought on by an infantile inability to come to terms with the more pertinent, concrete aspects of life.
DIBBER: That sounds more like an insult than a diagnosis, Mister Glitz.
GLITZ: You’re right there, my lad. Mind you, I had just attempted to kill him. Oh, I do hate prison psychiatrists, don’t you? I mean, they do nothing for you. I must have seen dozens of them, and I still hate competition.
The core of the story (a group of primitives who treat various technological devices as items for worship) is a very familiar one and Joan Sims is, at best, merely acceptable as Katryca. We’ve seen far too many similar civilizations in previous Doctor Who stories for the Tribe of the Free to make any particular impression, sadly.
But although The Mysterious Planet is uninspired, it’s not particularly bad. On it’s own merits it’s perfectly watchable and would have slotted in very comfortably mid-season to many a series of Doctor Who. As a season-opener for what looked like a make-or-break year, it falls somewhat short though.
Saward hadn’t been particularly happy with the way Resurrection had turned out (as he felt he’d been strait-jacketed into adhering to previous Dalek continuity). Revelation is very much his own story and is all the better for it. Although, in fact, it’s not really a Dalek story as they only appear briefly throughout. Llike Genesis, it’s very much Davros’ story.
Terry Molloy is spellbinding throughout. Despite being stuck in a perspex tube for most of the two episodes, he’s a constant, malevolent presence. Graeme Harper tends to shoot him largely in close-up and this helps to create a sense of claustrophobia. Harper is also skillful in dealing with the Daleks. Seen head-on, they’re never that impressive – so Harper elects to shoot them close-up (so we only see a part of them gliding through the frame) or from low-angles (which makes them loom over people). Another interesting shot is when Davros offers Tasambeker immortality as a Dalek – and a Dalek eye-stalk comes into view on the right-hand side of the screen.
Although Harper’s direction isn’t as immediately impressive as The Caves of Androzani, there’s still more than enough interesting visual touches to mark this as something above the norm. And like Androzani, he’s assembled a first-rate cast.
As a devotee of Robert Holmes, Saward seems to have inherited one of Holmes’ familiar story traits – namely that of the double act. Indeed, Revelation is full of them (Kara/Vogel, Tasambeker/Jobel, Takis/Lilt, Orcini/Bostock, Grigory/Natasha as well as, of course, The Doctor/Peri).
Saward obviously enjoyed writing for these combinations and the only drawback is that the Doctor is pretty much superfluous to the first episode. He and Peri arrive, get attacked by a mutant, climb over a wall and then a statue appears to collapse on top of the Doctor – that’s the end of part one and we’re half-way through the story. In fact, the Doctor could have turned up a minute before the episode finished and it probably wouldn’t have impacted the story at all.
He has slightly more to do in the second episode, but it’s the likes of Orcini that Saward seems to be much more interested in. As is probably well known, Eric Saward never really cared for the Sixth Doctor and Revelation (either consciously or unconsciously) has virtually written him out of the narrative. His infamous Starburst interview from 1986 was the first time it became public knowledge that he didn’t consider Colin to be Doctor material and this was enough to sever their relationship forever. So for example, you knew that if Eric Saward was present for a Sixth Doctor DVD commentary, then Colin Baker wouldn’t be.
But if the Doctor struggles to make an impact, the rest of the characters fare much better. William Gaunt is lovely as the world-weary assassin Orcini, wishing for one final, honourable kill, accompanied by John Ogwen as his grimy squire, Bostock. They are hired by Kara (Eleanor Bron) and her fawning, obsequious secretary, Vogel (Hugh Walters) to assassinate the Great Healer (aka Davros). The initial meeting between Kara and Orcini is a good example of Saward’s new-found comic touch.
VOGEL: Be seated, gentlemen.
ORCINI: We prefer to stand.
KARA: Of course. How foolish. As men of action, you must be like coiled springs, alert, ready to pounce.
ORCINI: Nothing so romantic. I have an artificial leg with a faulty hydraulic valve. When seated, the valve is inclined to jam.
VOGEL: Perhaps you would like one of our engineers to repair it for you.
ORCINI: I prefer the inconvenience. Constant reminder of my mortality. It helps me to keep my mind alert.
KARA: Oh, Vogel, we have a master craftsman here. I feel humbled in his presence. Oh, no wonder your reputation’s like a fanfare through the galaxy.
ORCINI: I take little joy from my work. That I leave to Bostock. I prefer the contemplative life. It isn’t always easy to find, so, to cleanse my conscience I give what fee I receive to charity.
KARA: Such commitment. Oh, you are indeed the man for our cause.
Davros has been busy since we’ve seen him last, and when he and the Doctor finally meet he (like all villains down the ages) is more than happy to explain his evil scheme in great detail.
DAVROS: I am known as the Great Healer. A somewhat flippant title, perhaps, but not without foundation. I have conquered the diseases that brought their victims here. In every way, I have complied with the wishes of those who came in anticipation of one day being returned to life.
DOCTOR: But never, in their worst nightmares, did any of them expect to come back as Daleks.
DAVROS: All the resting ones I have used were people of status, ambition. They would understand, especially as I have given them the opportunity to become masters of the universe!
DOCTOR: With you as their emperor. But what of the lesser intellects? Or will they be left to rot?
DAVROS: You should know me better than that, Doctor.I never waste a valuable commodity . The humanoid form makes an excellent concentrated protein. This part of the galaxy is developing quickly. Famine was one of its major problems.
DOCTOR: You’ve turned them into food?
DAVROS: A scheme that has earned me great acclaim.
DOCTOR: But did you bother to tell anyone they might be eating their own relatives?
DAVROS: Certainly not. That would have created what I believe is termed consumer resistance. They were grateful for the food. It allowed them to go on living.
DOCTOR: Until you take over their planets.
If some of the plot doesn’t really hang together (it’s hard to believe Davros would have rigged up the collapsing statue that pretended to crush the Doctor, it’s really not his style. And why was Tasambeker exterminated after killing Jobel? That’s what Davros told her to do) the overall experience is certainly a rich one and something tonally very different from the norm.
There are plenty of highlights, for example Alexei Sayle as the DJ broadcasting to the dead and Alec Linstead as Stengos, encased within a glass Dalek and slowly turning into a monster. It’s a pity that just as the series had hit imaginative new heights it was taken off-air for eighteen months. But the style that S22 had pushed all year had clearly gone too far for some at the BBC, so that when Doctor Who returned in 1986 it would be a radically different series.
Whatever else Timelash is, it certainly isn’t dull. But although it’s difficult (if not impossible) to argue that it’s an overlooked classic, it does have some decent elements and the bad ones are, very often, good for a laugh.
The first problem comes directly after the opening credits. It should have started with the escape of Aram, Tyheer and Gazak. This short scene manages to info-dump some important information quite well (the planet has a Citadel, a rebel encapment and the planet is ruled by the Borad) and it has a sense of urgency. Instead, we open with a bickering TARDIS scene between the Doctor and Peri.
Whilst the Doctor and Peri remain stuck in the TARDIS, arguing about the Time Corridor and waiting to enter the main plot, events are happening on Karfel. Timelash has a real range of performances, which travel the scale from Denis Carey (excellent and menacing in a small role) right down to Paul Darrow. The opening scene in the inner sanctum allows us to observe some good examples of this.
It’s probably a relief that the rebel Gazak (Steven Mackintosh) is cast into the Timelash so early on. His delivery of the lines “I’m no rebel. I love this planet. My crime is merely a concern for our world, our people, our loss of freedom, and the growing danger of an interplanetary war. ” is delivered in such a flat, lifeless way that his death is really a mercy killing.
Much better is Neil Hallett as Maylin Renis. He also departs from the story quite quickly, which is a little bit of shame. Hallett was a decent actor with decades of experience (a familiar face from series such as Ghost Squad) and his early demise allows Paul Darrow to step into the breach as the new Maylin.
Much has been written about Paul Darrow’s performance. Arch, would be a good way to describe it (other less polite words are also available). Like many parts in the story, it’s rather underwritten, so Darrow seems to to be doing his best to make it memorable, which he undeniably does. But for a true masterclass in good-bad acting, you can’t beat Graham Crowden in The Horns of Nimon. Darrow’s not in the same league.
Tracy Louise Ward is appealing as Katz. There’s nothing particularly interesting about her character, but she still manages to be very watchable. Easily the best from the guest cast is David Chandler as Herbert. He’s got the sharpest-written character (with some nice humourous moments) and he forms a good rapport with both Vena (Jeananne Crowley) and Colin Baker.
And if there’s one person holding this together, then it’s Colin Baker. Although he may have realised that the story wasn’t working, there’s no sense of that in his performance – he still gives 100% and his energy and enthusiasm help to lift proceedings immensely. But it’s not a good vehicle for Nicola Bryant as she spends the majority of the story chained up and menaced by an unconvincing rubber monster. The Board is the latest in a long line of aliens who has taken a shine to her, and sadly that’s about the extent of her involvement in the plot.
Speaking of rubber monsters, there’s the glorious appearance of the Bandril ambassador pleading for more grain, which is another highlight. There’s also some fun to be had from the gratuitous info-dumping that happens from time to time, a sure sign that the script needed at least a few more redrafts (for example, “all five hundred of us?” which very clumsily establishes how many people are present in the Citadel). The visual realisation of the Timelash, seen at the photo at the top of this post is breathtaking (for all the wrong reasons). The sight of Colin Baker dangling on a rope whilst struggling to get back to safety is something that’s not easily forgotten.
The Borad is quite an impressive villian (at least visually) and he sounds suitably menacing, thanks to Robert Ashby. His “shock” return after apparantly being killed (it was a clone that died) doesn’t really work though – as it feels like another ending tagged on to bolster an underruning episode. And as the lengthy TARDIS scene in the second episode was recorded because the episode was short, so like The Mark of the Rani there’s a sense of the story running out of steam mid-way through episode two.
But having said all this, I can’t find it in my heart to actually dislike Timelash. It’s not slapdash and shoddy like The Invasion of Time, dull like Underworld or just plain irritating like The Web Planet. It’s never going to win any popularity contests, but it’s not all bad either. Like the majority of S22 it remains fairly unloved by fandom, which is a shame, but whilst it has many faults, the commitment of the leading man certainly isn’t one of them.
The Two Doctors is, to put it mildly, a real mixed bag. Robert Holmes was asked to include a number of elements – a foreign setting (originally New Orleans, later Seville), the Second Doctor and Jamie and the Sontarans. We’ve previously discussed how Holmes disliked “shopping list” stories – this was the reason he didn’t complete his draft script for The Five Doctors for example – so placing so many restrictions on him was possibly asking for trouble. Another problem was that it was effectively the same running time as a six-parter (which was a length of story Holmes loathed).
Given all this, it’s a little surprising that The Two Doctors turned out as good as it did. Its tone is uncertain at times (Holmes always had a dark sense of humour and was probably delighted to find his whims indulged by Eric Saward) and it’s surprising to see that Troughton is somewhat wasted, but there’s plenty to enjoy here, so let’s dive in
The opening fifteen minutes or so are pure bliss. Back in 1985, the sum total of my exposure to Patrick Troughton’s Doctor comprised of The Krotons and The Three Doctors from the Five Faces repeats in 1981 and The Five Doctors from 1983. They were enough to convince me that Troughton was a brilliant Doctor and this story only cemented my appreciation of him. Although Troughton looks much older and greyer than before, there’s still a spark there and his byplay with Shockeye and Dastari is lovely. Frazer Hines, somewhat remarkably, didn’t look much older than when he bade the Doctor farewell in The War Games, some sixteen years earlier. Whilst Hines works well later on with Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant, it’s a pity he’s separated from Troughton for the majority of the story.
Given the length of the story, it’s odd that Troughton is absent for such a long period (he vanishes fifteen minutes into the first episode and doesn’t re-appear until fifteen minutes into episode two – some forty five minutes). And after such a strong start, he’s a somewhat impotent character for the remainder of the story. He spends episode two tied up (although he has a few good scenes) and suffers the indignity of being turned into an Androgum in episode three, something of a lowlight of the story. But back to episode two, there’s a delightful scene between Troughton and Stike (Clinton Greyn).
DOCTOR: Tea time already, nurse?
STIKE: I do not understand.
DOCTOR: Just as well. A face like yours wasn’t made for laughing.
STIKE: The operation must begin at once. I am needed at the front.
DOCTOR: Yes, I heard you. What was it, a vital strike in the Madillon Cluster? Oh, dear me. Nothing changes, does it? You and the Rutans have become petrified in your attitudes.
STIKE: Nothing can change till victory is achieved. But, but I fear I might have made a tactical error.
DOCTOR: Oh? I thought the Sontarans never made mistakes.
STIKE: It is not easy being commander. The loneliness of supreme responsibility.
DOCTOR: Why don’t you resign, Stike? Take a pension.
STIKE: When I die, it will be alongside my comrades at the front. Doctor, you have a chance, in death, to help the Sontaran cause.
DOCTOR: How can I do that?
STIKE: Tell Dastari where your symbiotic nuclei is located in your cell structure. Vital time will be saved and I can be on my way.
DOCTOR: Is that what Chessene’s offered you, the knowledge of unlimited time travel? In that case, you should watch your back, Stike.
DOCTOR: She’s an Androgum! A race to whom treachery is as natural as breathing. They’re a bit like you Sontarans in that respect!
(Stike slaps the Doctor.)
STIKE: That is for the slur on my people!
DOCTOR: And for that I demand satisfaction!
STIKE: You know that is impossible.
DOCTOR: I am challenging you to a duel, Stike. That is traditional among Sontarans, is it not?
STIKE: Oh, I would dearly love to kill you, but unfortunately you are needed alive.
DOCTOR: Release me, Stike. You are not only without honour, you’re a coward as well.
STIKE: As you are not a Sontaran, Doctor, you cannot impugn my honour.
DOCTOR: Well, that didn’t work, did it?
It does worry some people that Troughton’s Doctor is working for the Time Lords (and that Jamie knows all about them). This has given rise to the Season 6b theory, but the basic truth is that this was the latest attempt by Robert Holmes to demystify the Time Lords. Holmes disliked the way they had been portrayed in The War Games (aloof, august, etc) and instead he took every opportunity to portray them as out of touch and basically corrupt. The Deadly Assassin (which so upset a vocal minority of fandom at the time) was the clearest demonstration of this and The Two Doctors, more subtly, carries this on. Holmes would, of course, continue this theme the following year in his episodes of The Trial of a Time Lord. This interview excerpt with Holmes sheds some light on exactly what he was attempting to achieve.
When I wrote The Two Doctors, it was no mistake that the Troughton Doctor knew he was being controlled by the Time Lords. The theory which myself and others who worked on Doctor Who began to conceive was that the Time Lords were in dual control of the TARDIS all the time. The first trial was a mockery, a public relations exercise, because the Doctor had become involved too close to home and something had to be done about him. That’s why he is almost half-hearted about attempting to escape, which normally he never was. He knew that they were in complete control and had been all along. To operate as sneakily as this, you would have to be corrupt, and that’s what came later, when I was the script editor. Did they not condemn the Doctor to exile for interfering in the affairs of other planets? And yet who had sent him on these missions? They had!
Episode one has some rather strange plot holes (although it’s possible to argue these away). What was reason for displaying the image of the Second Doctor apparently being put to death? If nobody was left alive then who would have seen it? And it’s incredibly sloppy to leave the equipment in place, so that when someone came to investigate they would instantly see that the Doctor’s death was a fake.
And if the Second Doctor’s death was phony, why should the Sixth Doctor be affected? It’s also a remarkable co-incidence that when the Sixth Doctor decides to seek medical advice he not only chooses Dastari (out of all the medical men and women in the Universe) but lands the TARDIS at exactly the point in time immediately after the Sontarans have attacked the space station. The only possible explanation for these whacking great plot holes is that the Time Lords were aware the Second Doctor had been kidnapped and subtly influenced the Sixth Doctor in order to get him to investigate.
Robert Holmes always had a gift for language, which is very much present in this story. True, it sometimes edges towards the macabre (there were plenty of examples of this in the 1970’s and it does seem that Saward was keen to exploit this). Colin Baker benefits from Holmes’ writing – he’s impressed me in his stories so far, but here (thanks to Holmes) he goes up another couple of notches. This is a good example of morbid Holmes.
PERI: Ugh! Oh, Doctor, it’s foul. Are you sure it’s safe?
DOCTOR: Plenty of oxygen.
PERI: Yeah, but that awful smell.
DOCTOR: Mainly decaying food (sniffs) and corpses.
DOCTOR: That is the smell of death, Peri. Ancient musk, heavy in the air. Fruit-soft flesh, peeling from white bones. The unholy, unburiable smell of Armageddon. Nothing quite so evocative as one’s sense of smell, is there?
PERI: I feel sick.
DOCTOR: I think you’ll feel a good deal sicker before we’re finished here.
And this is lyrical Holmes.
DOCTOR: She can’t comprehend the scale of it all. Eternal blackness. No more sunsets. No more gumblejacks. Never more a butterfly.
There are problems with The Two Doctors, and the major one is the Sontarans. Although they have the reputation of being a classic Doctor Who monster, they were remarkably ill used, particularly in the original series. Linx was great, thanks to a wonderful performance by Kevin Lindsey and an impressive mask. Styre was comprimised by only appearing in one episode and a slightly less impressive mask (made to ease the strain on Kevin Lindsey). Stor was pretty rubbish and the Sontarans were generally pretty ineffectual anyway in The Invasion of Time.
Which leads us on to their next appearance, in this story, and it does seem to be a case of diminishing returns. The masks here are the worst yet seen – they look far too obviously like masks (just compare them to Linx from a decade earlier). Both Stike and Varl are very tall as well, which looks a little odd – nasty, brutish and short should be how the Sontarans look. Holmes writes them quite well, and Stike has a nice military swagger, but it’s clear they’re not the focus of the story and it probably would have worked just as well with just the Androgums.
The debate about violence during S22 was a fairly hot topic and there are two main talking points here – the death of Oscar and the death of Shockeye. Oscar (James Saxon) seems to be an archetypal Holmes figure (think Vorg in Carnival of Monsters or Jago in Talons of Weng Chiang). They exist to bring a little light relief to the story with their cowardly antics, but they come good in the end – by showing unexpected reserves of courage. Holmes was never afraid to kill off sympathetic characters (Lawrence Scarman in Pyramids of Mars, for example) but the death of Oscar is a jolt.
Although he wasn’t used as much as Jago, there would have been a similar shock if Greel had knifed Jago to death in the last episode of Talons. His death is supremely pointless too – although maybe that’s Holmes’ point. Throughout the story we’ve seen how groups of characters treat the species’ they consider to be lesser than them. The Doctor and Dastari consider the Androgums to be a lower form of life, just as the Androgums regard humans as little more than animals whilst Oscar has no compunction in killing moths, which he does simply for the pleasure their mounted displays brings him.
The Doctor’s killing of Shockeye isn’t a problem – it’s obviously self defence as Shockeye was out for blood. It’s just unfortunate that we have a few shots of the Doctor smiling whilst preparing the cyanide. The sight of the Doctor apparently relishing what was about to happen is more than a little disturbing – although this may not have been the intention and simply how it was cut together.
So whilst the story flags somewhat in the last episode (like City of Death and Arc of Infinity they can’t resist a run-around so they can show off the foreign location) it’s never less than entertaining across all three episodes. It’s a pity that Troughton wasn’t used better and also that the two Doctors were kept apart for the majority of the story, but apart from these niggles it’s a very decent script from Robert Holmes and in many ways it was the last one he wrote where he was fully on top of his game.
A scheduling quirk meant it was allocated double the amount of location filming a story of this length would normally have had, which is certainly a great benefit. Ironbridge Gorge Museum (where the bulk of the filming took place) is a lovely location and director Sarah Hellings certainly made the best use of it.
This is best demonstrated in the opening scene of the story. Hellings elected to use all the available extras in a n expansive tracking shot showing the miners leaving work for the day and proceeding down the main street. She knew that she wouldn’t be able to have so many extras available for the remainder of the shoot, but by creating an impressive opening it allows the viewer to fill in the blanks later on when there are fewer actual people about.
Although the story features the return of the Master (so he didn’t die in Planet of Fire, no surprise really!) it’s much more concerned with the machinations of the Rani (Kate O’Mara). Originally it was scripted that the Rani acted as, effectively, the Master’s assistant (ala the Doctor and Peri) but once Kate O’Mara was cast the plans changed and she became the dominant character.
This does mean that the Master (a second-rate villain at the best of times) is made to look even less impressive as the Rani slings a series of insults his way, for example referring to him as an “asinine cretin” and she also offers a good summation of his, frankly, often bonkers schemes, “It’ll be something devious and overcomplicated. He’d get dizzy if he tried to walk in a straight line.”
Why the Master was dressed as a scarecrow at the start of the story is a mystery that’s never solved, as is the reason he chooses to divert the Doctor’s TARDIS (it’s almost as if he wants to make his evil plans as difficult as possible to achieve). His scheme here is a little undercooked it has to be said, as he plans to harness the brainpower of Telford/Davy/Faraday/Stevenson and make the Earth an unbeatable superpower. Yes, they were all geniuses – but could they really have raised the technological level of the planet to the degree the Master wants?
Episode One is great fun – plenty of location filming and nice scenes with O’Mara, Ainley and Baker all facing off. Episode Two does sag a little though – so maybe this would have worked better as just a single 45 minute story. We’ve already seen the Doctor attacked by the augmented locals in Episode One, so when we see it again in Episode Two there’s a sense of deja vu.
There’s also the business with Luke Ward turning into a tree which could possibly be the silliest thing ever in Doctor Who. There’s plenty of competition, I know, but it’s difficult to watch the scene where the bendy tree stops Peri from venturing any further, without smiling.
Cast-wise, this is very strong. Terence Alexander (at the time a familiar face from Bergerac) is good fun as the crusty Lord Ravensworth. Gawn Grainger’s accent does wander from time to time, but he gives a nice turn as the somewhat bemused, but always obliging, George Stephenson.
Although Pip and Jane Baker’s use of the English language would sometimes find disfavour with some sections of fandom, they were also able to craft some entertaining dialogue, such as this –
RANI: Who’s this brat?
MASTER: My dear Rani, quite unwittingly you’ve made my triumph utterly complete. Allow me to introduce the Doctor’s latest traveling companion, Miss Perpugilliam Brown, although her traveling days will soon be over.
PERI: I thought he was dead.
MASTER: As you observe, I’m very much alive. Your erstwhile mentor, on the other hand, is about to, I believe your modern expression is, snuff the candle.
DOCTOR: Snuff the candle? You always did lack style.
MASTER: Style is hardly the prime characteristic of your new regeneration.
RANI: Oh, do stop squabbling and get on with it.
Another plus-point is Johathan Gibbs’ score. He stepped into the breach quite late in the day after John Lewis was unable to complete the score due to illness (sadly Lewis died shortly afterwards). Gibbs’ music is quite low-key and pastoral and fits very well with the rich visuals from the location shooting. Lewis’ score for Episode One is available on the DVD as an extra and is worth a listen – although I do prefer Gibbs’ effort.
So whilst there may not be quite enough story to last 90 minutes, The Mark of the Rani, thanks to the location work, music and strong guest cast is a very enjoyable watch. And Pip and Jane Baker certainly seemed to have nailed the 6th Doctor’s character – he still has the odd tantrum, but they also bring out his scientific curiosity as well as his sense of justice. By this point in the season, Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant have formed a very effective team and they’re a pleasure to watch.
Vengeance on Varos is a story that seems even more in tune with current trends than when it was originally broadcast, nearly thirty years ago. The rise and rise of reality television over the last few decades chimes perfectly with the similarly obsessed viewers of Varos. It’s only a short step from Arak and Etta to the viewers seen each week on Gogglebox.
The ruling elite of Varos seek to pacify the population with a daily broadcast of torture and execution, in some ways similar to the entertainments offered to the Roman people – “bread and circuses”. They also have a lucrative sideline in selling videos across the galaxy of the events seen inside the Punishment Dome – as they say, they literally have to “export or die”.
Interactive television is something we take for granted now (and Doctor Who also has had its brush with it, who could forget the difficult decision about whether to choose Mandy or Big Ron to assist the Doctors in Dimensions in Time? Not me, and believe me, I’ve tried) and it made it’s first faltering steps in the late 1970’s.
In America, Warner Amex Cable Communications pioneered a system called Qube. It offered a variety of interactive services, including home shopping and quiz shows. Each user was provided with a handset which had a number of buttons, so that when, for example, questions were asked, the viewers could instantly give their opinion – and it’s clearly this type of technology that influenced Varos (witness the Varosians ability to vote on key matters, which has the side-effect of deciding whether the Governor lives or dies).
Television violence was in 1985, as it remains now, a hot topic – so a story that satirises violence was always going to be controversial. As might be expected, there were complaints – not only from casual viewers and media watchdogs, but also from some fans who were concerned about the Doctor’s actions. Personally, I don’t have a problem with the acid bath scene, as the Doctor doesn’t actually push anybody in – the one guard pulls in the other. I do have an issue with the scene towards the end of episode one, where the Doctor leaves the machine that was about to obliterate Jondar pointing towards the pursuing guards, and we see one unfortunate guard killed.
If some of the visuals and dialogue are (intentionally) unpleasant, then no doubt Philip Martin and Eric Saward would say that that was the point. Exactly how far the programme could (or should) go during Saturday tea-time viewing is another interesting debating point.
Moving on, it’s clear right from the start that this story is going to be something unusual. Arak and Etta never interact with any of the other characters, they remain isolated from the action and only view the events on their screen and then pass comment on what they see. For example, Etta remarks that she likes the Doctor, “the one in the funny clothes”. And, like many viewers, they are also quite clear about what they like and don’t like.
ARAK: Why have they stopped? Oh, it’s pathetic. When did they last show something worth watching, eh? When did we last see a decent execution.
ETTA: Last week.
ETTA: The blind man.
ARAK: That was a repeat.
ETTA: It wasn’t. You’re thinking of that infiltrator. He wasn’t blind. Not at the beginning, anyway.
The opening fifteen minutes or so manage to set up the basics of the story very effectively. We know that Varos is a military dictatorship which appeases the working population with violent broadcasts, whilst the Governer (Martin Jarvis) negotiates with Sil (Nabil Shaban) concerning the mining rights for Zeiton-7 ore. This is, though, one of the major plot flaws in the story. Zeiton-7 is one of the most precious substances in the Universe, so it beggars belief that nobody on Varos is aware of this or that Sil and his company have been offering them a pittance for it for centuries.
One problem with this elaborate world-building is that, like Attack of the Cybermen, the Doctor and Peri take a long time to actually connect to the plot. If you treat Varos as a four-parter, then for the majority of episode one they’re stuck inside the TARDIS.
Once they arrive on Varos though, things do begin to happen. They team up with the rebel Jondar (Jason Connery) and his wife Areta (Geraldine Alexander). Both give rather stagey, unnatural performances, but there are stronger actors on Varos (particularly Martin Jarvis) so this isn’t too much of a problem. And they’re certainly better than Rondel (Keith Skinner) who is mercifully killed off very quickly.
If the rebels on Varos are a bit wet, then the baddies are much better. Forbes Collins (Chief Officer) gives a gloating performance as the power behind the throne. Nicholas Chagrin isn’t subtle as the scarred, deranged Quillam – but it’s not a part that really demands subtlety. Nabil Shaban as Sil has the showiest part and he clearly made enough of an impact to have a swift return to the series the following year. Best of all though, is Martin Jarvis as the Governor.
The Governor isn’t an evil man – he just seems to be trapped in the system and has very little room for manouvere. So he’s like many politicians then, although he – unlike them – is in constant danger of death from his people if he announces too many unpopular policies. Something that has yet to be introduced here, popular though it undoubtedly would be!
As the Doctor and Peri proceed through the Punishment Dome, they become an instant hit with the viewers of Varos (something that JNT obviously hoped would also be reflected in real life) but they find rather less favour with some of the ruling elite. Quillam, especially, seems keen to arrange a painful death for the Doctor.
QUILLAM: I see you have a keen interest in the flora of Varos, Doctor.
DOCTOR: Just a passing fancy.
CHIEF: It’ll pass faster than you think. Kill them!
QUILLAM: Wait. This man has insulted me. He must suffer for my humiliation.
CHIEF: This is no time for revenge. Kill them quickly!
QUILLAM: And deprive Varos of an example of how traitors are dealt with? The cameras are still functioning. Let the show begin. I want to hear them scream till I am deaf with pleasure. To see their limbs twist in excruciating agony. Ultimately their blood must gush and flow along the gutters of Varos. The whole planet must delight in their torture and death.
DOCTOR: An excellent scenario. Not mad about the part.
Vengeance on Varos was Ron Jones’ final Doctor Who story as director. Out of the all regular Doctor Who directors from the 1980’s he seems the most anonymous. He was no Graeme Harper, but Varos, like his previous story, Frontios, is shot quite effectively. Both were studio-bound, but Jones managed to couch good performances from the majority of the cast and whilst the camerawork is not particularly elaborate, he was able to lower the lighting and produce a decent atmosphere. Music, from Jonathan Gibbs, is sparse, but it’s quite striking. Today, it seems impossible to have a story without wall-to-wall music, so this is a trip back to a time when silence could be very effective.
Although it was originally planned to end the story with the Doctor and Peri inside the TARDIS, common sense prevailed, as the final scene, like the rest of the story, is deeply ironic.
GOVERNOR [on the viewscreen]: And that, fellow citizens of Varos, is my vowed intention. For without justice and peace and tolerance, we have no future. I know you will all work as hard as I shall for a glorious tomorrow. Thank you for allowing me into your homes. Thank you.
ARAK: No more exeutions, torture, nothing.
ETTA: It’s all changed. We’re free.
ARAK: Are we?
ARAK: What shall we do?
(Static on the viewscreen.)