Review [DW]: “Battlefield”

26×1. Battlefield
Writer: Ben Aaronovitch
Director: Michael Kerrigan
Script Editor: Andrew Cartmel
Producer: John Nathan-Turner

Synopsis: A strange signal draws the Doctor and Ace to near-future Earth, where a UNIT convoy guarding a nuclear weapon become caught between the forces of Morgaine of the Fey and those of Ancelyn, both seeking control of the legendary Excalibur – and both of whom believe the Doctor to be Merlin.

Review: I get the feeling that I might have appreciated “Battlefield” more fully if I knew the ins and outs of Arthurian legend in more detail. Unfortunately, my familiarity with that particular mythology is limited to having read The Sword in the Stone nearly thirty years ago and seeing it sent up in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and in watching “Battlefield” I sometimes felt like I was just watching a bunch of strange characters fighting and chasing each other around for reasons left frustratingly vague. Is Excalibur literally supernatural or just very advanced technology, for example? Why does Morgaine want it and what power would she gain by capturing it? I’ll grant for the sake of argument that the average British viewer might understand the references better than I did, and perhaps this is best considered not so much a traditional Doctor Who serial as a “crossover,” in this case with the Arthurian mythos in general rather than with another television program. On the other hand, it was written and filmed to air as a Who serial, and as such I’d argue that it still has *some* obligation to explain itself to us Arthurian-illiterates in the audience as well. Fortunately, there’s still enough here to mark this as a clever and entertaining serial if not an entirely satisfying one from my perspective. The idea that the Doctor will one day become Merlin is an imaginative one, and he responds adeptly to this revelation about his future, memorably bluffing Mordred by threatening to “unleash a terrible something” and correctly guessing that the underwater spaceship will comply with his voice commands. His disdain for armed conflict also shows through, as he remarks at the “graveyard stench” surrounding the missile convoy and manages to talk Morgaine down (with an assist from a note from his future self!) from detonating the nuclear weapon and delivers her alive into UNIT custody. Speaking of UNIT, “Battlefield” also boasts a strong guest cast between the welcome return of Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart, the introduction of his successor Winifred Bambera, a friend for Ace who shares her skill with explosives in Shou Yuing, and of course Morgaine, Mordred, and Ancelyn, all of whom are fishes out of water in 20th-century Britain and whose archaic manners of speaking feel appropriate and authentic. And at some level, I can’t help but admire a script with the nerve to take the premise of “Arthurian knights from another dimension cross paths with UNIT soldiers and the Doctor discovers that he’s Merlin” and run with it, whatever its shortcomings. Like several other entries in the McCoy era, this is an experiment that doesn’t fully succeed, but I certainly respect its intentions.

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

Review [DW]: “The Greatest Show in the Galaxy”

25×4. The Greatest Show in the Galaxy
Writer: Stephen Wyatt
Director: Alan Wareing
Script Editor: Andrew Cartmel
Producer: John Nathan-Turner

Synopsis: The Doctor and Ace travel to the planet Segonax after viewing an intriguing ad for the Psychic Circus, only to discover that what began as the brainchild of a group of hippies has turned into something far more sinister – a trap for would-be fans and visitors who are forced into the ring to entertain the gods of Ragnarok and pay with their lives if they disappoint their patrons.

Review: In watching “The Greatest Show in the Galaxy,” I got a sense of the Sylvester McCoy era finding its footing and successfully telling the kind of story that was attempted but not quite pulled off in previous installments. We have another distinct and imaginative setting – you would not easily mistake the costumes and set design of the Psychic Circus for anything out of a different Doctor Who serial – but this time it’s supported by a more fully developed premise and one of the strongest casts of guest characters that the show has given us in quite a while. We learn that the Psychic Circus was once the creative outlet of a group of idealists who genuinely loved to entertain people, then became corrupted when Kingpin, one of their number, discovered a portal to the realm of the gods of Ragnarok. There is a genuine air of tragedy surrounding Bellboy, who created many of the robotic clowns and detests what his creations have become, and Kingpin, who was driven nearly insane by his encounter with the gods. Meanwhile, the friendship between the Doctor and Ace finds a distorted mirror image in the more cynical relationship between the explorer Captain Cook and his companion Mags. Unlike the Doctor, who also loves to explore but who doesn’t hesitate to intervene wherever he finds evil and injustice, Cook is a believer in “survival of the fittest” who readily sacrifices others to the Circus’s blood-stained performances and openly refers to Mags (whose werewolf nature he exploits to try to gain favor with the denizens of the Circus) as a “specimen.” He’s an explorer in the most amoral sense imaginable, accumulating knowledge and experience with no ethical investment in the fates of those around him, while the Doctor believes that Mags can rise above her nature and disdains the notion of viewing others as specimens. This also helps balance the latest hint that the Doctor’s past is more complicated than we previously thought – he’s apparently clashed with the gods of Ragnarok before – by emphasizing that his altruistic nature is still there underneath the more mysterious veneer that we’ve lately seen him assume. Finally, “Greatest Show” works as a sort of metaphor for show business and for Doctor Who itself. If the “Whizzkid” who meets his end on the circus stage is a caricature of a somewhat irritating type of fan and Captain Cook is the Doctor’s distorted mirror image, then the gods of Ragnarok can only represent the most pernicious influences on the creative process, with their incessant demands for “more” and their taste for pointless violence and death. The only real shortcoming here is the ending, in which the Doctor deflects the gods’ power back at them using some sort of magic with a medallion – it’s not really explained how this works, and I’m still iffy on the idea of Doctor Who crossing the line from science fiction into fantasy – but overall this is a successful and memorable entry in the Who canon.

Rating: *** (out of four)

Review [DW]: “Silver Nemesis”

25×3. Silver Nemesis
Writer: Kevin Clarke
Director: Chris Clough
Script Editor: Andrew Cartmel
Producer: John Nathan-Turner

Synopsis: The Doctor and Ace become involved in a battle for control of the Nemesis statue, a piece of “living metal” originally designed by the Time Lords which has crash-landed near Windsor Castle, between the Cybermen, the powerful Lady Peinforte from the 17th century, and a group of South American Neo-Nazis. The Doctor schemes to keep the Nemesis away from all three factions and destroy the Cyber Fleet, while Lady Peinforte threatens to reveal his true identity.

Review: One could be forgiven, so soon after “Remembrance of the Daleks,” for viewing “Silver Nemesis” and thinking, “Wait a minute, didn’t I just see this story?” Once again, multiple factions are competing to get their hands on a Gallifreyan relic; once again, the Doctor comes off as a more mysterious and scheming figure with hints that he’s played a larger role in Time Lord history than he’s previously let on, while setting a trap for a returning enemy; and once again, human right-wing extremists are in the picture. These are all potentially worthwhile concepts, as “Remembrance” proved, but the script doesn’t really elaborate on them or make any point that hadn’t already been made in “Remembrance.”

Instead, it feels second-rate and lacking in subtletly: we’re told outright that the Doctor is guarding a secret about his past instead of having it implied through conversation with Ace, we get literal Nazis instead of British fascists, and the action scenes often lack an effective sense of space while both the Cybermen and the Nazis appear unable to hit the broad side of a barn. The Nazis in particular seem like an unnecessary and irrelevant addition for a Cybermen story. While the Daleks and their creator are driven by a sort of eugenicist ideology and by xenophobic hate in general, the Cybermen are more a symbol of mechanistic logic taken to inhuman extremes – their purpose and modus operandi really have little in common with the impulses and ideology behind Nazism. Of course, the original concept behind the Cybermen itself seems to have been watered down over the course of the series. There are occasional references to “logic,” and they seem to have taken preliminary steps towards turning two captured humans into Cybermen, but for much of the proceedings, they just function as generic baddies in silver suits. Unlike after “Remembrance,” which breathed some new life into the Daleks, I think I’d be fine with not seeing the Cybermen again after this even if I didn’t know that the original series was nearly over.

The character with the most potential is probably Lady Peinforte, who hails from the pre-modern era and yet seems to know something about the Doctor and the Time Lords and uses what the Doctor himself characterizes as “black magic” to travel through time. (Normally Doctor Who steers clear of the supernatural, but if “Snakedance” can have its borderline-magic rituals, then I suppose “Silver Nemesis” can have its magical time travel.) Unfortunately, her dialogue isn’t always the best: one of her lines is literally “I am evil,” and the way she spends a car ride indulging in “it will all be mine!”-style cackling to a perplexed fellow passenger is amusing but logically dubious – she ought to be keeping quiet so as not to call attention to herself. As for the Doctor’s role, I’ll admit to being intrigued by Peinforte’s threat to reveal his true identity and her allusions to “the Old Time…the Time of Chaos,” but I wonder if they’re taking this darker turn in his character too far by having him respond somewhat coolly when the Nemesis statue – which is apparently sentient – asks if it will be free, as he is determined to use it to destroy the Cyber Fleet. I can buy the idea that Rassilon and Omega might have once created a living creature to use as a weapon for the Time Lords – Doctor Who has never idealized Gallifrey or the way the Time Lords use their power – but why doesn’t the Doctor try to free the Nemesis from its destructive purpose altogether? That would have still kept the three competing factions from harnessing its capabilities and been more in keeping with his character, while still preserving the mystery of his identity and his involvement with Time Lord history.

Finally, there are some attempts at lighter moments that just don’t sit quite right in the context of an otherwise dark and mysterious narrative. The entire notion of the action taking place in and around Windsor Castle feels like the script trying too hard to be clever, especially when it’s made to appear that the Queen has just walked by with her dogs and the Doctor then tries to catch up with her to ask for the assistance of the police and military. For one thing, he has to know that the Prime Minister would be the one who would actually make such a decision, and the sort of visual trickery employed here accomplishes little other than to call attention to itself. A later scene in which two muggers try to accost Peinforte and her servant Richard, only to be discovered hung upside-down from trees in their underwear shortly afterwards, similarly comes off as an artless distraction rather than an effective piece of comic relief.

To its credit, “Silver Nemesis” does seem to know that it’s a retread – Ace remarks at the end on how the Doctor had set a similar trap for the Daleks, and a couple of references to “unfinished business” suggest that the Doctor is also aware of the parallels – but acknowledging that we’ve already been here and done this can’t make up for the fact that, well, we’ve been here and done this.

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

Review [DW]: “The Happiness Patrol”

25×2. The Happiness Patrol
Writer: Graeme Curry
Director: Chris Clough
Script Editor: Andrew Cartmel
Producer: John Nathan-Turner

Synopsis: The Doctor and Ace arrive on Terra Alpha, a futuristic human colony where the tyrannical Helen A. and her “Happiness Patrol” ruthlessly suppress any expression of sadness or melancholy, aided by the sinister robotic Kandyman. The Doctor and Ace team up with blues musician Earl Sigma, a group of discontented workers, and a native alien race to overthrown Helen A.’s regime.

Review: I have to praise the creative team behind “The Happiness Patrol” to some extent simply for having the nerve to put something this unabashedly weird on television. The design is first-rate, between the overly gaudy hairstyles and costumes of Helen A. and the Happiness Patrol to the darker look of the streets that put the lie to Terra Alpha’s pretensions of universal happiness, and the Kandyman in particular – a robot with a body made of sweets whose marshmallow feet get stuck in place due to a lemonade spill – is a memorably odd creation. We also see the Seventh Doctor emerging as a more enigmatic figure again, having traveled to Terra Alpha because he’d heard of “something evil” happening there and even purposely getting arrested as part of a plan to engineer Helen A.’s downfall. Where the serial doesn’t hold up so well is where many of the previous season’s entries tripped up: the premise is somewhat strained and underdeveloped. In particular, Helen A’s obsession with “happiness” and failure to understand the role that sadness and melancholy play in everyone’s life is borderline delusional, and I have trouble imagining how someone with her predilections would have risen to power in the first place. We learn that Terra Alpha is one of several colonies in a common system when a census agent turns up, and yet the only time she’s cited for breaking any sort of rule is when she tries to implement the same execution method for the same prisoner more than once (apparently killing people for being unhappy is A-OK in this system as long as you do it the right way?!). As for the notion that this is a satire of Thatcherism, I’m not British and didn’t live in Britain under Thatcher, but it strikes me as satire of the broadest possible brush – maybe there’s some vague parallel to superficial materialism here, but Thatcher’s own persona always seemed rather austere to me and quite unlike that of Helen A. Still, it’s refreshing to see the series experimenting with its stylistic palette and with a unique cast of characters even if the experiment isn’t an entirely successful one.

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

Review [DW]: “Remembrance of the Daleks”

25×1. Remembrance of the Daleks
Writer: Ben Aaronovitch
Director: Andrew Morgan
Script Editor: Andrew Cartmel
Producer: John Nathan-Turner

Synopsis: The Doctor and Ace return to Coal Hill School in 1963 London – where Susan was once enrolled in school – as two Dalek factions are competing to gain possession of the Hand of Omega, a Gallifreyan device that the Doctor left behind and that could enable them to rival the Time Lords’ power.

Review: Fans might have been forgiven for wondering if the Daleks were a spent force after their last few appearances, but “Remembrance of the Daleks” finds an effective angle by focusing on a still relatively new Doctor and how he responds to the competing Daleks’ attempts to acquire a Gallifreyan relic. While I’ve voiced skepticism of taking the Doctor in a darker direction in the past, particularly during Colin Baker’s tenure, “Remembrance” finds a way to do this that’s less off-putting and feels more of a piece with how we’ve seen him behave before. For starters, instead of simply being an aggressive, overbearing blowhard, the Seventh Doctor emerges as a more mysterious figure, playing the competing Dalek factions against each other and using the hand as a trap to destroy Skaro and the Imperial Dalek mothership. Another fan once commented that the Daleks seem to bring out the worst in the Doctor, and there’s something of that in his calm intention to “finish” things with the final renegade Dalek and the way he dismisses Davros’s plea for pity when the nature of the trap becomes clear – this isn’t the same Doctor who couldn’t help but show mercy to the Master at the end of “The Time Monster.” More importantly, he does seem to realize that he’s crossing a line (something that couldn’t always be said of his prior incarnation). In the final scene, he gently dissuades Ace from following the procession into the church for Mike’s funeral, and when Ace asks him if the two of them “did good,” he replies only that “time will tell.”

Meanwhile, we get a hint that perhaps there is more to the Doctor’s backstory than he’s let on before, as he makes a verbal slip in a conversation with Ace that implies that he was an active participant in the experiments by Rassilon and Omega that first brought time travel to Gallifrey. While there’s plenty that’s been left unclear about the Doctor’s history, we were left to assume, at least from “The War Games” onward, that he grew up in a Time Lord society where time travel was already an established fact of life and that he wasn’t anyone particularly important before he went on the run in the TARDIS. Are we now to believe otherwise? Is it possible that perhaps his current regeneration somehow assimilated aspects of a different Time Lord’s past altogether? We don’t know, and perhaps it’s best that the original series never actually tried to answer these questions, but in the short term, it’s an effective reintroduction of a certain mystery about the Doctor and a way to keep the viewers guessing as to his true nature and intentions.

The script also returns to the theme of the Daleks as a symbol of fascism,which hadn’t been emphasized as much in their other recent appearances. Ratcliffe seems to be a Nazi sympathizer and aspires to become a “strongman” leader of Britain by working with the renegade Daleks, only to discover that fascism is considerably less appealing when you’re at the bottom of the authoritarian ladder: the renegades ultimately dismiss him as a “slave” born to serve their needs. We also see how fascism can hide behind a friendly face in the character of Mike, who at first seems like a reliable soldier and to whom Ace is initially attracted, but turns out to be working with Ratcliffe in a desire to “keep the outsiders out” and whose mother runs a boarding house with a “No Coloureds” sign in the window. The social commentary here is perhaps rather obvious, but it’s nonetheless effective in drawing a parallel between the Daleks’ malevolence and human prejudices. I was less impressed, however, with the notion that the renegade Daleks had to enslave a young girl because they are otherwise too dependent on rationality and logic and therefore need the influence of a more creative mind. This concept also surfaced in “Destiny of the Daleks,” and my objection is the same now as it was then: while the Daleks may not display much in the way of *positive* emotion, I have trouble reconciling their xenophobic malice with any image of rationality and logic, especially in a serial that goes out of its way to compare them to human political extremists.

Finally, while I, like most Doctor Who fans, do not watch the classic series expecting first-rate special effects and technical quality, I should mention that “Remembrance” does have some fairly well-done action scenes, as the Daleks variously square off with each other, with the military, and, perhaps most memorably, with Ace, who takes them on with an electrified baseball bat. Ace certainly earns her “Action Girl” stripes (to borrow a TV Tropes term) and builds on her first appearance to stake out territory as one of the more unique companions, and I’m looking forward to seeing more from her in future serials.

Other notes:

– The Daleks really give new meaning to the cliche of “Let Me Explain My Evil Plan Before I Kill You” in this serial. At the end of the first and second episodes, they have the Doctor and Ace, respectively, trapped, and yet they spend so much time yelling “exterminate!” that their quarry escapes before they can get around to the actual exterminating. The Doctor, in particular, get the benefit of not only several “exterminates” but a full-on, “You are the Doctor. You are the enemy of the Daleks. You will be exterminated….”

Rating: *** (out of four)

Review [DW]: “Dragonfire”

24×4. Dragonfire
Writer: Ian Briggs
Director: Chris Clough
Script Editor: Andrew Cartmel
Producer: John Nathan-Turner

Synopsis: The Doctor and Mel visit Iceworld, a seemingly benign trading colony on the planet Svartos where the sinister Kane maintains control, and become involved with the efforts of former adversary Sabalom Glitz and Ace, a teenager from 20th-century Earth, to locate a mysterious dragon in the ice caves and its legendary treasure.

Review: Like “Paradise Towers” and “Delta and the Bannermen,” “Dragonfire” is another example of reasonably good execution of an underdeveloped premise. Iceworld is a nicely designed and memorable location, Kane is an intimidating villain if not exactly a very complex one, and the script boasts two strong characters in Sabalom Glitz, who functions as a not-entirely-trustworthy ally of convenience for the Doctor here, and Ace, who exudes a certain vulnerability under her brash exterior. And as Doctor Who “monsters” go, the dragon stands out for being non-hostile, and its somewhat hokey appearance actually makes sense when we learn that it’s a robot. What doesn’t hold up as well is the reason for all this to be happening in the first place. Namely, Kane’s own people exiled him to Svartos three thousand years ago, with the dragon sent there to act as his jailor. But as others have pointed out, are we supposed to believe that Kane waited three thousand years before deciding on this escape plan, and why would his own people leave him with any means of escape at all? The ending is also rather weak: upon learning that his home planet was destroyed long ago and that he’ll never have his revenge, Kane commits suicide, and Mel decides to stay behind to keep an eye on Glitz, who plans to take charge of Iceworld. But Glitz shows little indication of having mended his ways – he’s sold his crew to Kane when they first encounter him and intends to steal his ship back rather than pay off his debt to Kane – and I can’t see what makes Mel think she’d be able to influence him, or why the Doctor would deem this a good idea. I realize that Bonnie Langford was intent on leaving the series, but why not simply have the Doctor return her to Earth?

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

Review [DW]: “Delta and the Bannermen”

24×3. Delta and the Bannermen
Writer: Malcolm Kohll
Script Editor: Andrew Cartmel
Director: Chris Clough
Producer: John Nathan-Turner

Synopsis: The Doctor and Mel are en route to 1959 Disneyland with an alien tour group when they are diverted to a holiday camp in South Wales, only to find that one of their traveling companions is Delta, the last of a species known as the Chimeron, and that Gavrok and his Bannermen are intent on finding and killing her.

Review: “Delta and the Bannermen,” like its predecessor “Paradise Towers,” is a fairly unique entry into the annals of Doctor Who history. I certainly can’t think of another Who serial where the Doctor’s companion boards an interstellar tour bus and sings along to “Rock Around the Clock,” where the Doctor delays the villains by dousing them with honey so that they get attacked by bees, where a character helps save a species from extinction by transforming into one of their number by consuming alien food, where a troop of soldiers signal all stick out their tongues in unison, or where scenes of characters driving back and forth are scored with the kind of upbeat music that composer Keff McCulloch supplies here. Unfortunately, some of this – however distinctive or unexpected it might be – verges on inappropriate silliness given the stakes involved: Delta’s species is being hunted to the point of genocide, and the bus full of alien tourists is destroyed with no survivors right when it appears they might escape. The script also suffers not only from a slim backstory (another commonality with “Paradise Towers”) but from vague characterizations whose decisions don’t always make sense. Just who exactly is Gavrok, and why are he and the Bannermen so intent on killing the last of the Chimeron? Why does Gavrok kill the mercenary who might otherwise have located Delta for him? Why do two of his men untie their prisoners simply because the Doctor tells them to and waves a white flag of truce, when they seem so unconcerned with any rules of honor or fair play otherwise? Meanwhile, local aspiring singer and mechanic Billy falls in love with Delta in a romantic subplot so arbitrary that I found myself wondering if I’d missed a scene somewhere, and the two of them go for a ride into the hills with no apparent concern that someone might see her newborn green alien baby that they’re carting around. I like Sylvester McCoy as the Doctor, and I’m pleased that the series seems to be moving past the often grim style of the previous few seasons, but unfortunately these latest serials have just proven too contrived and underdeveloped for me to count any of them as a success.

Rating: ** (out of four)