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)

Review [DW]: “Paradise Towers”

24×2. Paradise Towers
Writer: Stephen Wyatt
Script Editor: Andrew Cartmel
Director: Nicholas Mallett
Producer: John Nathan-Turner

Synopsis: The Doctor and Melanie arrive at Paradise Towers, a would-be luxury apartment building that has fallen into disrepair, and find themselves under threat from the bureaucratic “Caretakers,” cannibalistic “Rezzies,” and a mysterious presence in the tower basement that turns out to be Kroagnon, the Towers’ misanthropic designer.

Review: The creative team behind “Paradise Towers” certainly deserve credit for creating a unique setting – there are few scenes in this serial that could be mistaken for another Doctor Who installment. The Kangs, Pex, the Caretakers, and the Rezzies form an effective ensemble cast, and even if most of them aren’t the most complex characters ever to have graced the screen, their idiosyncratic slang and differing agendas add up to a compelling picture of a decaying society that has long since stopped playing by what most of us would consider sensible or civilized rules. The Doctor’s role, as the one who sorts out the various conflicts and rallies the inhabitants together to stop Kroagnon’s murders, is perhaps predictable but nonetheless effective: a relatively conventional narrative isn’t necessarily a bad thing when we’re still getting to know this new incarnation, and the script thankfully dispenses with the misquoted aphorisms that quickly wore out their welcome in “Time and the Rani.” Where the serial isn’t so successful is in explaining exactly how this bizarre situation arose in the first place; all we learn that the children and elderly were sent to the Towers when a war broke out and that Pex fled there to avoid the hostilities. But why did the Chief Caretaker continue “feeding” people to Kroagnon for so long, and what made him think that Kroagnon was some sort of “pet” who needed to be appeased? Couldn’t he and the other Caretakers – or anyone else – just walk out the door, or are they somehow trapped in the Towers? For that matter, just who or what *is* Kroagnon? He’s presumably at least somewhat intelligent, and yet he’s portrayed as a dehumanized monster, at first appearing as a voice that only bellows “hungry!” before taking over the Chief Caretaker’s body, and the Doctor never seems to consider trying to reason with him before deciding to lure him into a death trap. This is an imaginative serial, but its slim backstory and underdeveloped character motivations prevent it from being an entirely successful one.

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

Review [DW]: “Time and the Rani”

24×1. Time and the Rani
Writers: Pip and Jane Baker
Script Editor: Andrew Cartmel
Director: Andrew Morgan
Producer: John Nathan-Turner

Synopsis: The Rani diverts the TARDIS to Lakertya, where she has kidnapped prominent scientists to force them to collaborate in creating a time manipulator that would give her universal power. The Doctor, who has regenerated during the attack on the TARDIS, and Mel collaborate with members of the local population to end her control over the planet.

Review: The Sylvester McCoy era gets off to a disappointingly mediocre start with “Time and the Rani.” This isn’t as bad as, say, “Timelash,” nor is it as frustrating as “The Ultimate Foe” or “The Two Doctors,” and the return of the Rani as an enemy who can hold her own with the Doctor intellectually is a plus, but otherwise it just seems to be going through the motions. There’s some mild interest in the character of Beyus, a prominent Lakertyan who seems to have concluded that collaborating with the Rani is the best option for his people, but it’s undercut by the fact that we never learn how the Rani arrived on Lakertya or gained the upper hand over its native population in the first place. I also have to take issue with the scene at the end when, after the Doctor has devised an antidote to the venom of some killer insects that have plagued the Lakertyans, another Lakertyan named Ikona promptly pours it on the ground in the name of self-reliance – the implied message here seems bizarrely short-sighted and at odds with almost every other serial in which the Doctor somehow aids a beleaguered population. As for the new Doctor, we see some typical post-regenerative confusion for the first couple of episodes, and McCoy’s performance is competent enough, but his habit of misquoting famous aphorisms quickly grows tiresome, and I certainly hope that we’ll see less of it in the coming serials.

Rating: ** (out of four)

Review [DW]: “The Ultimate Foe”

23×4. The Ultimate Foe
Writers: Robert Holmes, Pip and Jane Baker
Script Editor: Eric Saward
Director: Chris Clough
Producer: John Nathan-Turner

Synopsis: The Doctor’s trial concludes with the revelation of a conspiracy within the High Council of the Time Lords and the unmasking of the Valeyard as the Doctor’s evil side, leading to a confrontation within the Time Lord Matrix while the Master, Melanie, and Sabalom Glitz join the fray.

Review: With “The Ultimate Foe,” the whole “Trial of a Time Lord” saga ends in a bit of a muddle. There are a few promising ideas here – the Valeyard as the distillation of the Doctor’s darker side could work in theory, the corruption of the High Council dovetails with some of the fragility and venality that we’ve seen from the Gallifreyan political establishment in previous serials, and the Doctor gets a chance to deliver a memorable denunciation of the Time Lords in court. But too much of the logic just doesn’t hold up. Take, for example, the notion that the whole trial was an attempt to scapegoat the Doctor and cover up the Time Lords’ interference in Earth’s history – as far as I could tell, nobody was aware of their interference in the first place, so why risk calling attention to it through a bogus trial? Why exactly does the Master see the Valeyard as such a threat to his interests that he sides temporarily with the Doctor? Why does the Doctor ask the thoroughly untrustworthy Glitz to follow him into the Matrix? Speaking of which, the problem with settings like the Matrix, i.e. alternate realities where illusions abound and anything can happen, is that, well, anything can happen, such that the circumstances can change simply by writer fiat and the characters’ choices don’t really mean much.

In addition to these lapses in logic, many of the more compelling ideas are left underdeveloped. The Valeyard is explained as having emerged from the Doctor’s final regeneration, but nothing about his behavior really marks him as the Doctor’s dark side in particular rather than just a generic scheming villain – while the Doctor’s character doesn’t lend itself to the same kind of analysis and exploration as a more conventional dramatic protagonist, this still seems like something of a missed opportunity. And even if you put aside the questionable nature of the Time Lords’ conspiracy, something as dramatic as the collapse of the High Council feels like the sort of thing we should actually see on-screen rather than having it reported via expository dialogue in the trial chamber. And while I was somewhat pleased to learn that Peri had survived the events of “Mindwarp,” I can’t muster much to say about the idea that she’s now a “warrior queen” alongside Yrcanos other than “uh…no.” It was implied at least once that she intended to return to her life on Earth eventually, and nothing in her personality suggested that she’d be especially happy alongisde Yrcanos.

“The Trial of a Time Lord” is at least an improvement over the frequently cynical and disjointed efforts of Season 22, but it needed a better ending than the rushed, confusing, and underdeveloped effort that is “The Ultimate Foe.”

Rating: ** (out of four)

Review [DW]: “Terror of the Vervoids”

23×3. Terror of the Vervoids
Writers: Pip and Jane Baker
Director: Chris Clough
Producer: John Nathan-Turner

Synopsis: The Doctor mounts his defense by displaying an adventure from the future, in which he and new companion Mel Bush arrive on board the space liner Hyperion, only to become involved in a murder mystery as they discover that the scientist Doland is scheming to sell a plant-race known as Vervoids into slavery.

Review: At the level of a whodunit in space, “Terror of the Vervoids” mostly works, though it does get a bit overcomplicated in the final episode. The writers assemble a worthwhile cast of characters and slowly increase the stakes as the body count rises and the Doctor and Mel discover that some of the passengers are keeping secrets. The Vervoids don’t have much personality, but they are still portrayed with something of a tragic air, attacking based on their instinctively hostile view of animal life, and the Doctor clearly regrets that he wasn’t able to find a nonlethal way to stop their attacks. This is also Mel’s first serial, and while her fixation on physical fitness can feel gimmicky, she’s also appealingly proactive, even entering the fray without the Doctor on occasion. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work as well in the context of the trial setup. For starters, I have to object to the entire notion of the Doctor using evidence from the future. Do the Time Lords normally access information on their own futures using the Matrix, and shouldn’t that have some pretty major effects on their civilization if they do? Wouldn’t the fact that the Doctor *has* a future point towards an acquittal or at least a more lenient sentence, given that the Valeyard has been pressing for execution? Will the Doctor remember having seen this when it actually happens in the future, and wouldn’t that potentially alter the course of events? In general, this seems like a misguided “wouldn’t it be cool if…” idea that should have been nixed before the script even got off the ground. Second, the Doctor suggests that the evidence will show that he “improves” and makes a point of the fact that he was explicitly asked for help by the Hyperion’s crew. The implication here would seem to be (though I suspect it won’t be borne out in future serials) that the Doctor will actually be taking a more reticent and conservative approach in the future, whereas I’d have preferred to see him defend a more proactive approach and argue that the Time Lords’ standards are too restrictive. As a “defense” to the metatextual trial taking place, this is actually a pretty weak and uninspiring argument.

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