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)

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)