Review [DW]: “Timelash”

22×5. Timelash
Writer: Glen McCoy
Director: Pennant Roberts
Script Editor: Eric Saward
Producer: John Nathan-Turner

Synopsis: The Doctor and Peri are drawn to the planet Karfel through a time anomaly, where the reclusive Borad rules as a dictator through a subservient “Maylin” and plans to depopulate the world by provoking a war with a species known as the Bandrils.

Review: You know that a Doctor Who serial has a bad reputation when an online commenter suggests – as one recently did regarding “Timelash” – forcing British politicians to watch it on a loop until they come up with a solution for Brexit. While I’m not sure if even that would manage to break the Brexit impasse, I’m obliged to report that, yes, “Timelash” is a pretty poor effort. In terms of worldbuilding, there is no context supplied for how the Borad came to power, why the population is so subservient to his dictates, or the history between Karfel and the Bandrils. The characters are a similarly thinly drawn bunch: Maylin Tekker (played by Paul Darrow of Blakes 7 fame) is just a run-of-the-mill sadistic autocrat whose about-face when he learns of the Borad’s real plans does not register as anything but writer fiat, the rebels are stock caricatures, and the involvement of a young H.G. Wells feels like the script trying too hard to to be clever. The serial’s conclusion is especially weak: first the Doctor appears to sacrifice himself by materializing the TARDIS in the path of an incoming missile, but survives through what he describes only as a “neat trick” that he promises to explain to Peri later, and then the apparently dead Borad is revealed to have cloned himself and tries to abduct Peri, at which point the Doctor literally resorts to taunting him about his physical appearance. There just isn’t much here that functions at any but the most superficial and perfunctory level, and in the context of an already mediocre season, “Timelash” is a misstep that the program really couldn’t afford at the time.

Rating: *1/2 (out of four)

Review: [DW] “The Two Doctors”

22×4. The Two Doctors
Writer: Robert Holmes
Director: Peter Moffatt
Script Editor: Eric Saward
Producer: John Nathan-Turner

Synopsis: The Second Doctor and Jamie travel at the Time Lords’ behest to the scientific research station Camera, where the corrupt scientist Dastari, the augmented androgum Chessene, and the murderous Shockeye are collaborating with Sontarans to unlock the secrets of time travel technology. The Second Doctor is kidnapped and brought to Seville, with his Sixth incarnation and Peri, having rescued Jamie from Camera, in pursuit, while Chessene and Dastari prepare to harvest the symbiotic nuclei from the Second Doctor that make time travel possible.

Review: Unlike in the first two multi-Doctor serials, the Second and Sixth incarnations encounter each other mostly by chance rather than because someone is purposely trying to bring them together (as did the Time Lords in “The Three Doctors” and Borusa in “The Five Doctors”). I’d like to praise the script for finding a new way to involve more than one Doctor in the same story, but unfortunately it doesn’t hold up as a whole.

The Sixth Doctor is drawn into the story because he senses telepathically that the Second Doctor has been executed, passing out in the TARDIS and then heading to Camera to consult Dastari for medical advice. At first, it seems that perhaps a time paradox is in play as a result of the time travel experiments on board Camera, and that the logical contradiction of the Doctor being alive despite a previous incarnation’s death represents the beginning of the universe’s unraveling. Unfortunately, the script does not continue down this path (though I’ll admit I have no idea how it could have done that and still gotten back to business-as-usual by the end), instead explaining that the Second Doctor was just stunned and kidnapped and relying on a series of contrivances to move the narrative along. For example, is the Second Doctor being stunned really enough to make the Sixth Doctor think that he’s been killed and then pass out in the TARDIS? Isn’t it a little too convenient that he happens to go seeking medical advice from the same scientist that the Second Doctor was visiting when all this started? Is there any point to making Jamie so panicked and disoriented that he literally acts like a growling monster and assaults Peri, other than that the first episode needed a cliffhanger? And finally, since when does the Second Doctor run errands for the Time Lords? When he sent for them in “The War Games,” I got the distinct impression that he’d been entirely out of contact with them since the beginning of the series.

The behavior of the villains also doesn’t withstand much scrutiny. Dastari  passes out when the Sontaran attack begins, apparently because Shockeye had drugged all the scientists’ food in order to subdue them – but why drug Dastari if he’s in on the plot with Chessene and Shockeye all along? At first I actually thought he might have changed sides off-screen, perhaps after awakening to find Chessene and Shockeye in control, and I’m still wondering if that might be the case, given that he does have an off-screen about-face near the end when he seems to have reconciled with the Second Doctor by the time Chessene returns to the hacienda basement. Chessene also has an abrupt change of mind when she gives up on the plan to harvest the symbiotic nuclei from the Second Doctor, instead resolving to turn him into an Androgum. Why? Apparently because the Time Lords may intervene before the harvesting operation can be completed, but are we supposed to believe that changing someone into a different species is somehow quick and efficient by comparison? This strikes me as a case of what at least one Star Trek reviewer derisively described as “Fun with DNA,” and it’s no more plausible here than the time that most of the Enterprise crew turned into deranged animals and Picard and Data managed to “cure” them with some technobabble.

All this comes across, meanwhile, with a distinctly cynical and pessimistic tone, though the relatively small cast does at least preclude a bloodbath along the lines of, say, “Resurrection of the Daleks” or “Attack of the Cybermen.” Another contrivance brings most of the characters to the restaurant run by Oscar and Anita, the couple who initially put the TARDIS crew onto the villains’ trail, leading to a bad-tempered Shockeye assaulting Oscar, who then dies while lamenting the Hamlet performance that he’ll never give – in a scene that nearly becomes farcical for how the other patrons just go on with their meals as if they hadn’t just witnessed a murder. The Sixth Doctor brutally kills Shockeye with cyanide at the end, delivering a mean-spirited quip over his dead body, and both Doctors seem to embrace a sort of biological determinism in the way they talk about Androgums, discounting the idea that any member of the species could rise above their baser urges. This also undercuts the script’s apparent support for vegetarianism (something I’d like to get behind, as a vegetarian myself) – the only one who’s consistent in showing concern for animal suffering is Peri, and the Doctor doesn’t seem to be learning much of a “lesson” given his attitude to Androgums and his sarcastic humor about Shockeye’s death.

(On a related note, I think I’ve officially reached the point of finding the bickering between the Sixth Doctor and Peri annoying, even though I agreed with her distaste for the Doctor’s fishing expedition at the start. At times, it feels like the script is reaching for any possible reason for them to disagree, and not for the first time, I found myself questioning why she stays with him. As far as I can tell, “The Two Doctors” is set in the present day once they get to Earth, so why doesn’t she just go home?)

There is nothing wrong with bleak or violent content per se in science fiction – as I mentioned before, I’m a Blakes 7 fan too, and I consider “The Caves of Androzani” a high point of Doctor Who. But I’m not so sure it’s a good idea to undermine the Doctor’s own moral probity, which is something we’ve seen more of than usual in the past two seasons. Part of what makes the Doctor such a unique character is his relative distance from the audience (and from his companions) – in fact, I’m not sure I can even talk about his “character development” in the way I would for, say, the Blakes 7 cast, because his mind sometimes seems to function on an entirely different level. Part of what keeps him likeable and relatable, then, is the idea that however alien he may be, he will stand up for the “good guys” and refrain from resorting to violence too quickly. Take that away, and Doctor Who becomes a different kind of show – perhaps a sci-fi canvass that mostly rises or falls with the concepts and guest characters of each individual story. But even if that’s the intent, “The Two Doctors” would have to count as a fall.

Rating: ** (out of four)

Review [DW]: “The Mark of the Rani”

22×3. The Mark of the Rani
Writers: Pip and Jane Baker
Director: Sarah Hellings
Script Editor: Eric Saward
Producer: John Nathan-Turner

Synopsis: Seeking revenge against the Doctor, the Master hijacks the TARDIS to 19th-century England where the exiled Time Lady known as the Rani has been extracting brain fluid from humans, turning mine workers violent and threatening to inflame an already tense situation against the backdrop of the emerging Industrial Revolution.

Review: The main merits of “The Mark of the Rani” are the portrayals of its Time Lord characters and the historical setting. After the sometimes disturbing violence in the previous two installments, “The Mark of the Rani” finds the Doctor operating with a more familiar moral center, expressing outrage at the behavior of the Master and the Rani and resolving the situation without resorting to physical violence. The Master is sometimes slightly campy, but in a way that’s consistent with his character, while the more practical but equally ruthless Rani gets to poke fun at his Bond-villain-esque tendencies. The concept behind the plot is clever, with the Rani choosing a location and era where the violence exhibited by her victims would draw less suspicion, and the pseudoscience underlying her scheme is portrayed plausibly enough. I’m less comfortable with the sociopolitical implications, however – while the miners only turn violent under the influence of the Rani’s interference, their understandable concern for their jobs never receives a particularly deep examination, and I can’t help but wonder what the British miners who had been involved in the then-recent industrial disputes of the ’70s and ’80s would have thought of this (though the scripts were reportedly commissioned before the pivotal 1984-85 Miners’ Strike). I was also less than impressed with the way the serial ends. The Doctor corrals the Master and the Rani into the Rani’s TARDIS, which he has programmed to take them into exile outside the galaxy, only for them to find themselves menaced by an escaped baby dinosaur (of which the Rani has several in her control room for no reason that’s ever stated) that’s growing rapidly due to some temporal thingamajiggy. Meanwhile, in what’s easily the serial’s lowest moment, three men have run afoul of traps that the Rani placed in the woods and been transformed into trees – yes, trees – and nothing is ever said about trying to restore them to human form or even disarming the rest of the traps.

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

Review [DW]: “Vengeance on Varos”

22×2. Vengeance on Varos
Writer: Phillip Martin
Director: Ron Jones
Script Editor: Eric Saward
Producer: John Nathan-Turner

Synopsis: The Doctor and Peri become involved in political turmoil on Varos, a planet where citizens languish in poverty and are force-fed sadistic entertainment, in the midst of a dispute between the planet’s compromised Governor and Sil, a representative of the predatory Galatron Mining Corporation looking to obtain Varos’s supply of the mineral Zeiton-7.

Review: Stop me if you’ve heard any of this before – the Doctor and Peri find themselves in a dystopian society where cynical corporate maneuverings have relegated the value of human life almost to an afterthought, while numerous violent confrontations ensue and the new Doctor seems unsettlingly at ease amidst all the mayhem and bloodshed. If that sounds to you like “The Caves of Androzani” meets “Attack of the Cybermen,” you’re not far off. If you think that sounds like something of a mixed bag, you’re not far off either.

Varos may not be quite as compelling a setup as Androzani, but I’d say it comes close, both in the way it humanizes a character who could have easily come across as one-dimensionally villainous (Sharaz Jek in “Caves” and the Governor in “Varos”) and in its portrayal of a situation where corruption and cold-heartedness have simply become second nature. The Governor can sound just as callous and opportunistic as his counterparts when he discusses the profits to be made in selling videos of prisoners suffering in the “Punishment Dome” or plays the role of a film director, ordering close-ups on what he believes to be the Doctor’s death throes. But he also genuinely tries his best to improve his people’s standing and doesn’t take sadistic pleasure in the atrocities the way someone like Sil or Quillam would, and we learn towards the end that he did not assume his position by choice and is perhaps simply the product of a brutal society. When Peri, awaiting execution alongside him, exclaims that the situation is horrible, he glumly replies, “it’s Varos,” with the resignation of a man who must have known that this was how his time in office – and his life – would eventually come to an end. If he’s not exactly sympathetic, he does seem likely to take a more humane approach in the future once Sil’s position is undercut and the planet is able to obtain a fairer price for the Zeiton-7.

The most inventive aspect of the serial, and what makes it more than just a remix of “Caves” and “Attack,” is the ubiquity of the cameras and the way the live broadcasts have become an integral part of Varosian society and a reinforcement of the populace’s hopelessnes and cynicism. The script frequently cuts away to Arak and Etta, a couple who seem to have only slightly more regard for each other than for those whose whom they witness being tortured or killed on their viewscreen, which is to say not a lot. They are the Everyman and Everywoman of a morally bankrupt world, where the travails of the Punishment Dome and the sufferings of the Governor (who is subjected to live broadcast torture whenever the voters reject one of his proposals) have been reduced to what we’d think of as a particularly depraved and cruel reality television show. Neither of them seem to care much about the outcome of the conflicts set in motion by the Doctor’s arrival – Etta views his involvement and collaboration with the rebel Jondar primarily as great entertainment, and when the broadcasts stop after the Governor’s announcement of a new era of peace, they mostly just react to the fact that there’s nothing to watch any more. The Doctor quickly catches onto the dynamic at work, cleverly deducing that his own apparent impending execution is a hoax because the cameras aren’t running.

This is Colin Baker’s third serial as the Doctor, and I can’t say I’m finding this incarnation much more agreeable to my tastes than when he first arrived on the TARDIS floor and promptly insulted Peri (though I certainly don’t fault Baker himself – he’s doing what is asked of him by the scripts). There’s some implication that he’s still suffering post-regenerative instability when Peri recounts the various fiascoes he’s recently caused in the TARDIS, but past that, there isn’t much to make him a very appealing protagonist or one that I’d be eager to keep following if I knew nothing of the show’s history. In fact, his actions serve to undercut the point that the script seeks to make about desensitization to violence. The first thing he does after arriving on Varos is to run away and redirect a lethal laser beam to block pursuit, with a hapless guard walking right into it shortly afterwards, and when he’s trapped by Quillam and the corrupt Chief Officer, he directs Jondar to kill them (and two more nameless guards) with a poison vine. You can argue that he didn’t actually mean for the guard to die in the first instance and/or that his hand was forced in the second instance, but either way, it’s disappointing to see him resort so quickly to brute force rather than trying to talk or think his way out. And while I can comfortably acquit him of responsibility for the “acid bath” deaths, his quip at the end of the scene is unnecessary and the whole thing is almost staged like “Three Stooges”-style slapstick.

Doctor Who is by nature a stylistically malleable show, and there’s a certain built-in distance between the audience and its primary protagonist that’s somewhat atypical for a dramatic science fiction series. Could the show work in the absence of a likeable Doctor? I don’t know, possibly – “Vengeance on Varos” would be evidence for the argument that it could – but I’m not sure I really want to see the attempt made in the first place.

Rating: *** (out of four)

Review [DW]: “Attack of the Cybermen”

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

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

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

Rating: ** (out of four)

Review [DW]: “The Twin Dilemma”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review [DW]: “The Caves of Androzani”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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