Review [DW]: “Attack of the Cybermen”

22×1. Attack of the Cybermen
Writer: Paula Moore
Director: Matthew Robinson
Script Editor: Eric Saward
Producer: John Nathan-Turner

Synopsis: The Doctor and Peri travel to 1985 London, where they discover a former adversary, the mercenary leader Lytton who was last seen working with the Daleks, entangled in a plan by time-traveling Cybermen to prevent their defeat at the Doctor’s hands the following year.

Review: While I offered some mild praise for the introduction of a tense new dynamic between the Doctor and Peri in “The Twin Dilemma,” I’m not feeling so generous towards “Attack of the Cybermen” even though it continues down a similar path. By leaving it ambiguous as to whether the Doctor is still suffering from post-regenerative instability, the serial risks making him simply unlikeable as opposed to unpredictable at times. A scene in which he orders Peri to shoot an uncooperative police officer does neither of them any favors, as it’s not entirely clear if he’s bluffing and Peri responds somewhat anemically when I’d have preferred to see her stand up to him. He’s also noticeably more comfortable being surrounded by, and sometimes participating in, lethal violence than his predecessor. By the end of the serial, “Attack of the Cybermen” has come to resemble “Resurrection of the Daleks,” and not in a good way, namely by running up the body count and the general level of mayhem as most of the guest characters come to an unpleasant end. Still, there’s something to be said for the way the script ties into past Cybermen serials and for the notion that the Time Lords actually want the Doctor to get involved to prevent the Cybermen from changing history, and I might have rated it **1/2 if not for two significant missteps towards the end. The first is the introduction of the Cryons, who could have been interesting for their stoic acceptance of their unhappy fate, but whose singsong voices and exaggerated hand motions demonstrate that there can be a fine line between appealingly strange and distractingly goofy when it comes to the portrayal of aliens. The second is the Doctor’s lament that he supposedly never misjudged anyone as badly as Lytton, which it seems we’re meant to take at face value despite Lytton’s ruthless behavior in the first episode and the fact that he’s presumably still picking up a paycheck from the Cryons. I don’t mean to judge the serial negatively simply for being bleak – I loved “The Caves of Androzani,” after all – but while “Caves” drew out its bleakness through solid characterization for both leads and guest characters, “Attack” just throws a lot of action and gunplay at us and overreaches with its approach to Lytton and the Doctor’s reaction to him.

Rating: ** (out of four)

Review [DW]: “The Twin Dilemma”

21×7. The Twin Dilemma
Writer: Anthony Steven
Director: Peter Moffatt
Script Editor: Eric Saward
Producer: John Nathan-Turner

Synopsis: A newly regenerated and unstable Doctor is reunited with his friend Azmael, who labors under the thumb of the tyrannical Mestor on the planet Jaconda and has kidnapped the human math prodigies Romulus and Remus as part of a plan to revitalize Jaconda’s future, only to discover that Mestor has more sinister plans in the works to distribute his species’ eggs across the galaxy by causing Jaconda’s star to explode.

Review: I’m pleased to report that I did not actively dislike “The Twin Dilemma,” which seems to have a poor reputation among Doctor Who fans, but I can’t say that I was especially impressed with it either. As the introduction to a new and controversial Doctor, it mostly gets the job done. It’s not always clear (and perhaps isn’t meant to be) when his behavior is attributable to post-regenerative instability and when he’s simply being a more petulant, rude, and bombastic person than we’re used to from previous incarnations – notably, he seems well aware of his immediate predecessor’s fallibility and even somewhat contemptuous of it. In any case, Colin Baker handles the role ably, keeping us guessing as to what he’s thinking or how he’s likely to react, and he and Nicola Bryant portray his newly problematic relationship with Peri with considerable hostility but enough of a sliver of friendship that it doesn’t become outright unpleasant to watch (though it comes close a few times, and I was surprised that Peri never simply asked to be taken back to Earth). I can’t help but think, however, that the creative team might have earned a little more viewer sympathy if we’d gotten a better sense of the terror that the Doctor must feel at realizing that he doesn’t have complete control of his own mind. On the other hand, introspection is a difficult thing to portray in a character who’s supposed to be a hyperintelligent alien, and perhaps it’s understandable that they shy away from it here as they typically have in other serials.

The serial’s plot, meanwhile, is fairly weak material. For one thing, it’s never explained exactly how Azmael – himself a Time Lord – became so involved in Jaconda’s affairs or how Mestor managed to gain the upper hand over him. There could have been an interesting parallel to the Doctor’s own investment in Earth’s well-being – is Azmael similarly estranged from Gallifrey and has he ever been sanctioned for it the way the Doctor has? – but this angle is never explored, and Mestor is just your textbook blustering villain. And while nitpicking the science on Doctor Who is probably a fool’s errand, the concepts in play here feel especially half-baked and not entirely consistent with the rest of the series. Normally I’m intrigued when time travel actually becomes part of the story rather than just the pretext for the Doctor’s involvement, but the idea that you could maneuver two small planets into Jaconda’s orbit but avoid the negative side effects by displacing them into a different timestream seems at odds with everything we know about how time travel on Doctor Who works, and the idea that the two small planets being sucked into Jaconda’s sun would cause some sort of supernova also seems dubious. This whole scenario also makes something of a fool of Azmael by suggesting that he was too distracted by other issues to realize what would actually happen to the two planets – unless he’s undergoing his own post-regenerative disorientation, a Time Lord shouldn’t just “overlook” something like that.

I can give “The Twin Dilemma” some credit for being willing to challenge the audience with this abrasive and unpredictable new Doctor, even risking making him unlikeable at times, but as a story it’s rather mediocre and wouldn’t pass muster on its own without the draw of upending the status quo for the two lead characters.

Rating: **1/2 (out of four)

Review [DW]: “The Caves of Androzani”

21×6. The Caves of Androzani
Writer: Robert Holmes
Director: Graeme Harper
Script Editor: Eric Saward
Producer: John Nathan-Turner

Synopsis: The Doctor and Peri are caught amidst a power struggle on Androzani Minor between the corrupt business executive Morgus and his unstable partner-turned-enemy Sharaz Jek, while trying to find the cure to the lethal disease of Spectrox toxemia that they have both accidentally contracted, culminating in the Doctor’s regeneration when only enough of the antidote can be found to save Peri’s life.

Review: I’m not sure whether it’s appropriate or ironic (or perhaps appropriately ironic?) that Peter Davison’s final serial as the Doctor is both his best in terms of writing quality and one of the most bleakly downbeat offerings that Doctor Who has ever produced. There are scenes here that, viewed in isolation, I would probably have guessed were from Blake’s 7 if I didn’t know otherwise, so matter-of-fact in their cold-hearted opportunism are some of the characters. It is perhaps not surprising that celebrated Who scribe Robert Holmes, returning to the series for the first time since Season 16’s “The Power of Kroll,” contributed to its darker and more cynical sister series in the meantime, given the tone and content of his work in this script.

The business executive Morgus and the gun-runner Stotz are probably the two nastiest pieces of work, both untroubled by committing acts of betrayal and murder to improve their own position. Morgus in particular seems to have no redeeming qualities at all, manipulating the local economy so as to force workers into indentured servitude and maintaining ties to both sides of a bloody local war. But the society that produced him is not much better: the President whom he eventually murders rules over what appears to be a deeply corrupt and plutocratic system that places profit above all, and while Morgus’s assistant eventually turns on him and exposes his crimes, she seems to do so primarily to usurp his power rather than out of any moral objection to his behavior. The local army, meanwhile, is led by General Chellak, about whom the best I can say is that he isn’t openly sadistic or treacherous, as he still carries out executions without much regret and seems driven at least partly by concern for his own political standing with the powers that be. (Though in this society, he might well fear something worse than simple demotion if he loses his standing.) In any case, it’s saying something when Sharaz Jek, who is driven by a desire for revenge against Morgus and who has a twisted obsession with Peri’s physical beauty, might come closest to being a tragic villain, if not exactly a sympathetic one.

Rarely has the Doctor seemed so powerless as he is in “The Caves of Androzani.” There are no noble resistance fighters with whom to ally, no idealistic reformers to be maneuvered into power, no day to be saved – just one desperate Time Lord determined not to let his companion pay with her life for having traveled with him to Androzani Minor. There has been something of a theme to Season 21, in that a generally idealistic and empathetic Doctor has found himself repeatedly confronted by grim situations and unable to find solutions that do not involve some form of violence. “Caves” could well be interpreted as the culmination of this theme, insofar as the Doctor declines to try to gain control over the larger situation at all, perhaps sensing that to do so would be futile, and instead carries out a simpler act of heroism by helping Peri escape back to the TARDIS and potentially sacrificing his own life. Indeed, he is unsure that he will regenerate, commenting that “it feels different this time” and expending his possible final breaths calling the name of Adric, whose death the Doctor must count as one of his greatest regrets. The regeneration scene itself, while lacking in the Gallifreyan otherworldliness that made its counterparts in “Planet of the Spiders” and “Logopolis” so memorable, is nevertheless well-executed, as he imagines the Master taunting him as well as Adric and other recent companions pleading with him to survive. Colin Baker ably makes an impression in what can’t be more than a minute of screen time, his first utterances being to chide Peri in a way that makes it clear that this new Doctor will be a very different kind of person.

Doctor Who is not, in fact, Blake’s 7, nor would I want it to be (and I say that as a Blake’s 7 fan myself), and the series would be changing its identity significantly if every serial were as dark as “The Caves of Androzani.” But as a single offering and a swan song for an idealistic but fallible Doctor, who shows the value he places on a single life by choosing to sacrifice his own, this is a remarkably well-crafted and successful piece of science fiction.

Rating: ***1/2 (out of four)

Review [DW]: “Planet of Fire”

21×5. Planet of Fire
Writer: Peter Grimwade
Director: Fiona Cumming
Script Editor: Eric Saward
Producer: John Nathan-Turner

Synopsis: In pursuing a strange signal and dealing with an erratically functioning Kamelion, the Doctor and Turlough are drawn first to Earth and then to the planet Sarn, where the Master – who has accidentally shrunken himself – is exploiting the local religion in order to gain access to the volcanic gases that he believes can heal his condition.

Review: In (mini-)reviewing “Planet of Fire,” I am reminded of just how strange a show Doctor Who is compared to most other television sci-fi dramas. After the violent outcomes of “Warriors of the Deep” and “Resurrection of the Daleks,” the latter of which concluded with the Doctor pledging to “mend his ways,” what are we to make of the fact that he still destroys Kamelion (at the android’s request) and declines to save the Master’s life in this serial when his enemy (and perhaps something else?) is trapped in a beam of fire? Well…I’m not sure. If this were almost any other show, I’d probably interpret it as the story of a man trying to avoid the use of violence but finding himself once again unable to resolve a crisis without participating in destruction and death, then go on to comment about the overproliferation of anti-heroes in modern culture. But this is Doctor Who, and the protagonist is a hyperintelligent centuries-old alien whose portrayal hasn’t always followed the traditional rules of character development and who isn’t given to voicing his inner thoughts very often. As a result, just what is going on inside the mind of this generally idealistic but fallible Fifth Doctor is left somewhat unclear, and the hint that the Doctor and the Master share something more than just shared enmity doesn’t do much for me given that I know that the original series, at least, never folllowed up on it. Fortunately, there’s enough other material to chew on to make this a worthwhile serial: Turlough, arguably the most amoral and deceptive of companions, redeems his past behavior (including his callousness towards Kamelion earlier) by contacting the Trionians who had once banished him, Peri makes for a promising addition to the TARDIS crew, and the background of a religion arising from the Sarn natives’ observation of the Trionian science experiments is strong sci-fi worldbuilding.

Rating: *** (out of four)

Review [DW]: “Resurrection of the Daleks”

21×4. Resurrection of the Daleks
Writer: Eric Saward
Director: Matthew Robinson
Script Editor: Eric Saward
Producer: John Nathan-Turner

Synopsis: A time corridor draws the TARDIS back to present-day Britain, where a Dalek incursion leads to the discovery of a plan to attack Gallifrey while reviving Davros from stasis on a prison ship following their defeat in the war with the Movellans.

Review: “Resurrection of the Daleks” could be thought of as a sort of companion piece to “Warriors of the Deep,” and like its predecessor, it raises some compelling and disturbing questions while failing at the more basic task of solid storytelling. Just as when he ended up using lethal force against the Silurians and Sea Devils, the Doctor is here forced to confront the issue of the violence and death that frequently surrounds him. At one point, he considers murdering Davros, and though he eventually decides against it, he does end up using the Movellan virus to wipe out the Daleks present on Earth. The brutal nature of the situation is reinforced not only by the fact that almost all the guest characters are dead by the end, but through the contrasting reactions of his companions. Turlough, arguably the least morally grounded companion ever to join the Doctor, adapts quickly to the chaotic situation on the prison ship as his ruthless side shows through. The more humanistic and empathetic Tegan, on the other hand, finally decides she can’t stay with the Doctor any longer because she simply can’t tolerate the violence, leaving the Doctor to conclude that perhaps he needs to “mend his ways.”

Worthwhile themes notwithstanding, however, the script is really kind of a mess. For example, the Daleks have gone to an enormous amount of trouble to rescue and revive Davros, only to turn against him at the end because they’ve decided he’s too unpredictable and now needs to be killed as well, not to mention that they’re also planning to invade Gallifrey, all while still trying to recover from having lost the war with the Movellans. I suppose you could argue that the script means to paint them as mercurial megalomaniacs, but that also serves to undercut their credibility as a threat. And while Mercer and Stien are drawn well enough to hold the audience’s interest, too many of the guest characters seem to be there just to run around, fire guns, and eventually get killed. I’ll credit Eric Saward for at least trying to make a point about all the violence, but it only barely comes across amidst all the mayhem, sound, and fury.

Rating: **1/2 (out of four)