Review [DW]: “Survival”

26×4. Survival
Writer: Rona Munro
Director: Alan Wareing
Script Editor: Andrew Cartmel
Producer: John Nathan-Turner

Synopsis: The Doctor brings Ace to her home town of Perivale to catch up with old friends, only to discover that it has become the hunting ground of the “Cheetah People,” who capture prey and bring them back to their home planet – which is experiencing an increasing instability driven by the aggression of its inhabitants, and where the Master is now trapped. The two Time Lords square off again, as it emerges that humans who remain too long on the planet risk becoming transformed by it into a more “wild” state of being.

Review: After a run of serials that experimented with unconventional narratives and styles and introduced new questions about the Doctor’s character and history, “Survival” finds us back in slightly more traditional territory, with the Doctor’s investigation of some mysterious disappearances leading him to another planet with strange properties where the Master holds sway over a group of potentially dangerous aliens. What emerges is a serial that functions well as a series finale even though it may not have been conceived and designed as such. While Doctor Who has a “mythology” surrounding the Doctor and Gallifrey and draws upon its own continuity, it remains at heart an episodic series centered around individual adventures in space and time, and it feels right for the show to sign off with another individual adventure rather than with some sort of big revelation about the Doctor and the Time Lords.

The trend of strong character development for Ace continues with “Survival.” Even after her reunion with some of her old friends from Perivale, it’s clear at the end that she now considers the TARDIS her home, and it’s not hard to see why when we catch a glimpse of what exactly she’s leaving behind. I mentioned that “The Happiness Patrol” didn’t really do much for me as a supposed satire of Thatcherism, but the social commentary is a little clearer in “Survival,” where we get the sense of a modern-day Britain that has become a somewhat callous and ungenerous place. Retired Sergeant Paterson preaches a philosophy of “survival of the fittest,” chiding a student in his self-defense class who doesn’t want to slam his already-defeated opponent to the ground and viewing the dangers on the planet of the Cheetah People as a test of strength and willingness to fight. Meanwhile, the local grocers in Perivale are lamenting having to stay open on Sundays to compete with the larger chains and sharing a disturbing joke about the man who does not need to outrun a hungry lion to survive as long as he can outrun his friend. Just as a hungry lion might devour a slow-footed human, the lions of modern capitalism threaten to devour the small store, while its proprietors find themselves unwittingly embracing its values.

The way in which Ace is affected by the planet – and initially likes it – not only makes for a compelling turn in her character, but it also works as a metaphor for the more atavistic, primal urges that still exist in human nature and which underlie an uncaring attitude towards anyone who can be written off as weak, unimportant, or somehow deserving of misfortune. Several of Ace’s friends have disappeared along with some other local youth, and Paterson seems only mildly concerned about their welfare, instead assuming them to be runaways and condemning them for supposedly leaving their parents to worry. To take the metaphor further, just as some of the bonds of human society seem to be fraying, the planet of the Cheetah People is literally falling apart as a result of its inhabitants’ aggression. It’s to the credit of Ace’s own character and values that she refuses to let these urges gain control over her even though something of the Cheetah planet remains within her. When Karra, the human-turned-Cheetah Person with whom she had formed a bond, lies dying at the Master’s hand, it’s Ace’s human side, not the eyes-glowing-yellow Cheetah side, that leads her to comfort Karra and try to save her.

The Doctor, of course, has never subscribed to the idea of pure survival of the fittest, on practical or moral grounds. After overhearing the “joke” between the grocers, he poses the question – to which they have no answer – of what the survivor would do when encountering the next lion. More to the point, his humanitarian values preclude it. When Ace begins to change under the planet’s influence, and thus acquires the ability to teleport them back to Earth, he does not coerce or deceive her into using her newfound powers even though she might represent the only path of escape. Instead, he warns her that she could lose control of herself and leaves the decision to up to her. The Master, meanwhile, adapts all too easily to the mindset of a hunter, and there’s little truly separating his “rule or serve” philosophy (as expressed all the way back in “Colony in Space”) from the social Darwinism on display here. In contrast to the Doctor’s concern for Ace, the Master is more than willing to use her friend Midge (who has also begun to transform) for his own purposes. And when he and the Doctor square off on the Cheetah People’s planet, he gives himself over completely to the killer instinct, whereas the Doctor refuses to kill him and famously declares that “if we fight like animals, we’ll die like animals!”

I find myself judging “Survival” as a series finale even though I know that it probably wasn’t written as one – aside from the last line of dialogue, which was added in post-production and perfectly captures the Doctor’s enthusiasm for exploration and for righting wrongs – and in a way I think it actually holds up better as a finale than it does simply as a self-contained serial. (In fact, I might have rated it *** if taken in isolation, but this is the last serial and I’m allowed to be sentimental.) As has been the case in numerous McCoy serials, we’re presented with a somewhat bizarre situation as a fait accompli, with little to no explanation of how the planet’s physical instability is linked to the Cheetah People’s behavior or how their teleportation powers work, and there’s a scene at the end where the other self-defense students seem almost zombie-like in the way they are following the Master and Midge. Meanwhile, the Cheetah People themselves never manage to look like anything other than people dressed as giant cats. But then I find myself thinking, would an extra minute of technobabble and pseudoscience have really added that much to the proceedings? And aren’t subpar special effects and cheesy monster costumes part and parcel of classic Doctor Who? And so perhaps it’s appropriate that the final serial is not only inventive, thematically relevant, and true to the series’ values, but also a little bit contrived and silly in places.

This Doctor Who reviewing project began nearly twenty years ago, and what I thought at the time would only take a few years instead ended up lasting almost as long as the original run of Doctor Who itself. I also used to think that, when I’d finished with the original series, perhaps I’d continue on by reviewing the 1996 Fox TV movie and subsequently the new series currently airing on the BBC. For better or worse, however, I simply don’t think I have the time or energy to do that, and I still hope that some day I might be able to start watching the new episodes as they air along with the rest of fandom. The extra obligation of writing reviews would only make it more difficult to play catch-up, so it’s at this juncture that I’m closing the book on the reviews over at, though it’s possible that I’ll still occasionally write about matters Doctor Who-related on this blog in the future. Many thanks to everyone who has tuned in at one time or another, and I hope you got as much out of reading these reviews as I did out of writing them.

As for final words on the series, I think I’ll let the Doctor take it from here with his own closing line: “There are worlds out there where the sky is burning, where the sea’s asleep and the rivers dream, people made of smoke and cities made of song. Somewhere there’s danger, somewhere there’s injustice. Somewhere else the tea is getting cold. Come on, Ace, we’ve got work to do.”

Good job, Doctor.

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

Review [DW]: “The Curse of Fenric”

26×3. The Curse of Fenric
Writer: Ian Briggs
Director: Nicholas Mallett
Script Editor: Andrew Cartmel
Producer: John Nathan-Turner

Synopsis: The Doctor and Ace travel to a secret World War II military camp, where Dr. Judson’s Ultima machine is being put to use to decrypt German U-Boat cyphers as well as some locally preserved Viking runes, while the sinister Commander Millington plans to create nerve gas weapons and a team of Russian infiltrators prepares to steal the Ultima technology. The decryption of the runes serves to unleash Fenric, an evil force as old as the universe itself and a former rival of the Doctor, while Haemovores – mutated future humans who resemble vampires and are deterred by the power of unwavering belief – begin to attack.

Review: “The Curse of Fenric” is an uncommonly ambitious serial, and it just might qualify as a sort of flawed masterpiece. I can certainly identify some problems with it, most notably: the script occasionally shuffles the characters between locations for contrived reasons; it’s left unexplained why Fenric – who is capable of jumping between bodies – doesn’t just do so again after his host body succumbs to the nerve gas; the origin and nature of Commander Millington’s knowledge of Fenric is unclear; and in general, “evil from the dawn of time” seems like a concept that really shouldn’t work and would be better suited to, say, Buffy the Vampire Slayer than Doctor Who. But it somehow makes it work, and it does so many things right that I’m inclined to excuse the few things it does wrong.

For starters, it follows upon “Ghost Light” with some more strong character development for Ace, who befriends Kathleen, one of the base’s WRNS members, and her newborn baby Audrey and later helps them escape the Haemovores’ attacks – only to discover that the baby will grow up to be her estranged mother. Although Fenric taunts her over this and refers to Audrey as “the mother you hate,” we sense that it’s more complicated than that. Ace, despite her brash exterior, is a compassionate person who clearly regrets what has become of her relationship with her mother, and when she believes that she’s about to be executed, her would-be last words are, “Mum, I’m sorry!” This is just one way in which she’s put through the wringer in this serial. At the end, when the power of her belief in the Doctor is blocking the Haemovore known as the Ancient One from attacking Fenric, he pretends to betray her and belittles her as an “emotional cripple,” for which she understandably tells him off even though she eventually forgives him when he explains the purpose of the deception. And yet she is not broken by this turn of events: the serial concludes with her taking a swim in the previously cursed waters, no longer afraid of the “dangerous undercurrents” of which a nearby sign had warned would-be swimmers.

The Doctor receives a nicely balanced portrayal in “The Curse of Fenric.” This turn of events deepens the mystery surrounding the character that was introduced in “Remembrance of the Daleks” and has been building ever since. Not only have we learned that his history on Gallifrey may be more complicated than he’d previously let on, but we now know that he and Fenric – who comes off as almost a sort of elemental force of evil – have squared off before, that Fenric’s manipulations were behind Ace’s initial arrival on Iceworld, and that Lady Peinforte’s chess set in “Silver Nemesis” somehow related to his ongoing contest with the Doctor and banishment to the “Shadow Dimensions.” At one point, the Doctor speaks of *two* such elemental forces – one good and the other evil – locked in opposition since the beginning of time, raising the question: if Fenric is the evil force, could the Doctor himself be the otherwise unidentified good force? The script is probably wise in not attempting to answer this question and instead leaving the possibility out there for audience speculation. And while we as viewers are inclined to be angry with the way he manipulates Ace at the end and to share her impatience with his secrecy, he hasn’t completely lost his moral compass or his connection to others. When he needs to summon his own psychic power of belief against the Haemovores, he recites names of past companions, and he clearly disapproves of Millington’s plans for nerve gas attacks.

Indeed, one prominent theme in “The Curse of Fenric” is that the Allies’ hands were not entirely clean in World War II. Millington, who has perhaps found his goal of understanding the Nazi mindset a little too easily achieved, argues that using gas against German cities might save lives by ending the war sooner, echoing the sorts of rationalizations often deployed to justify, for example, the firebombing of Dresden or the use of the atomic bomb against Japan. In fact, Millington is prepared to go even further – guessing that the alliance with the Soviet Union will not survive the postwar world order, he plans to allow Captain Sorin’s team to steal the Ultima machine and booby-trap it with a canister of the gas, to be released when the Soviets attempt to decode the word “love” – and while the choice of code word might reflect Millington’s twisted psychology, he is apparently acting under orders from the government in setting this trap. This theme is also reflected in Reverend Wainwright, a memorable and well-acted guest character, who finds himself disturbed less by the possibility of Axis attacks than by the tactics used against German cities by the British. And the Soviet troops also have their share of blood on their hands by the end, killing several British soldiers in order to conceal their operation and rationalizing that such things “had to be done.” It’s only when Millington has become visibly unhinged that the one survivor from each group (British and Soviet) team up against him.

All of this is pretty dark and challenging material, even by 1980s Doctor Who standards, and I haven’t even mentioned that the Haemovores are a product of a future Earth where toxic pollution has reached extreme levels, or that the Ancient One only turns against Fenric when the Doctor points out that Fenric’s schemes, if realized, would preclude his future from ever occurring. Both physical and psychological horror abound, perhaps no more so than when Fenric takes control of Judson’s body, turns to the Doctor, and announces, “We play the contest again, Time Lord.” If this were my first Doctor Who serial and I didn’t know the show’s history, I’d have probably felt genuinely frightened for the Doctor and Ace. And yet, this isn’t disturbing and grim just for the sake of being disturbing and grim. The payoff is in the reconciliation between the Doctor and Ace at the end and in the way Ace gains a new perspective on her mother and discovers that she no longer fears the previously dangerous waters. There’s a sense that the two of them have been through an ordeal and have truly earned this moment of respite and relief, and that some measure of hope survives even when the ugliest aspects of human nature are on display.

You will not find me claiming that “The Curse of Fenric” is perfect. A fellow fan once suggested that “perfect” is not something that Doctor Who does, and as much as I enjoy the show, he’s probably right. But it is certainly the most successful thus far of the many ambitious and unique experiments of the McCoy era, and I am firmly in the camp that considers it a classic.

Rating: **** (out of four)

Review [DW]: “Ghost Light”

26×2. Ghost Light
Writer: Marc Platt
Director: Alan Wareing
Script Editor: Andrew Cartmel
Producer: John Nathan-Turner

Synopsis: The Doctor brings Ace to Gabriel Chase, a then-abandoned house that she burned down in her youth, in late 19th century Perivale, where the denizens of an alien ship – Light, a surveyor who has long been asleep, Josiah Smith, who is plotting against the throne and has attracted controversy over his embrace of the theory of evolution, and Control, who escapes and seeks to become a “ladylike” – are engaged in a bizarre power struggle.

Review: Let’s get one thing out of the way: “Ghost Light” is a deeply weird piece of work. If I had to pick two scenes that sum up the entire serial, it would probably be Gwendoline’s piano performance of “That’s The Way To The Zoo,” which is appropriate for both the script’s theme of evolution and the general level of chaos at Gabriel Chase, and the Doctor’s exclamation, in response to the latest episode of bizarre behavior, of, “Even I can’t play this many games at once!” It’s the sort of effort that earns a certain respect just for having the courage of its strange convictions even if it hadn’t entirely succeeded.

Fortunately, “Ghost Light'” is mostly a success. The Seventh Doctor again strikes a somewhat enigmatic pose, and our sympathies probably lie more with Ace when she discovers that he’s brought her back to a place where she had a disturbing experience when she was young. But he’s also trying to enable her to face her fears, and he does his best to prevent the denizens of Gabriel Chase from being victimized further by Josiah and helps Control to escape her imprisonment. In an echo of “The Greatest Show in the Galaxy,” there’s an illuminating contrast between the Doctor as an explorer with a keen scientific mind and a moral compass and both Light and Josiah. Light is an explorer as well, but he cares only for the accuracy of his “survey” and is prepared to destroy Earth rather than allow the process of evolution to render it out of date (also proving himself to be a terrible scientist with his willingness to fudge the data). Josiah possesses more imagination but uses his power in self-serving ways, plotting to take over the British Empire, keeping several people in states of hypnosis or mind control for his own ends, and arranging a “trip to Java” for Reverend Matthews by turning him into an ape when he continues to argue against the validity of evolutionary science. The theme of evolution and change is also reflected in the characters of Nimrod, who, ironically, was chosen as a representative of a species that stopped evolving (Neanderthals) but who eventually realizes that Light is not worthy of his people’s worship as “the Burning One,” and Control, whose original nature was that of a largely unchanging being but becomes a “ladylike” (as she puts it) after escaping.

It would be fair to say that “Ghost Light” might have benefited from being four episodes long instead of three. At least one critical turning point, in which the Doctor apparently makes contact with Control and agrees to help her, is left off-screen, and while I thought I had understood the nature of the relationship between Josiah and Control, the DVD extra with writer Marc Platt reveals that I was wrong. Based on the Doctor’s comment that “Josiah is the survey” (emphasis mine), my interpretation had been that the two were personified representations of the very concepts of the survey and control in a general sense, with Control’s imprisonment reflecting the fact that the survey had gotten out of control. Instead, according to Platt, Josiah was apparently meant to be a survey agent who metamorphoses into the dominant species of every planet they visit, with Control playing the role of an unchanging experimental control. But this is far from clear, and I know I’m not alone among Who fans in finding the serial’s plot to be somewhat obscure. I also have to question just what kind of survey Light has been running, and where, such that he’s so thoroughly flummoxed by the concepts of evolution and adaptation. We’ve seen plenty of other planets on Doctor Who, after all, and even when the series plays fast and loose with science, it has never implied that a biological process like evolution is somehow unique to Earth.

As has been the case for a number of serials in this era of Doctor Who, “Ghost Light” suffers somewhat from an underdeveloped premise – we’re never told where exactly Josiah gets his powers or how characters like Mrs. Pritchard, Gwendoline, or Redvers Fenn-Cooper became trapped at Gabriel Chase – and at times it teeters on the verge of simply becoming an incoherent mess. But what it does well, it does very well: there’s a uniquely sinister atmosphere that nicely ties into Ace having perceived the house as “haunted” when she encountered it in 1983, there’s some solid character work for Ace (we also learn that she set the fire out of frustration over a friend’s house being destroyed by racist whites),  and the Doctor is again suitably mysterious without quite crossing the line into being off-putting or unpleasant. Whatever one might say about the Sylvester McCoy era, it’s certainly not marked by playing it safe, and I for one am enjoying the ride even when it hits bumps in the road.

Rating: *** (out of four)