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)

Review [DW]: “Planet of Fire”

21×5. Planet of Fire
Writer: Peter Grimwade
Director: Fiona Cumming
Script Editor: Eric Saward
Producer: John Nathan-Turner

Synopsis: In pursuing a strange signal and dealing with an erratically functioning Kamelion, the Doctor and Turlough are drawn first to Earth and then to the planet Sarn, where the Master – who has accidentally shrunken himself – is exploiting the local religion in order to gain access to the volcanic gases that he believes can heal his condition.

Review: In (mini-)reviewing “Planet of Fire,” I am reminded of just how strange a show Doctor Who is compared to most other television sci-fi dramas. After the violent outcomes of “Warriors of the Deep” and “Resurrection of the Daleks,” the latter of which concluded with the Doctor pledging to “mend his ways,” what are we to make of the fact that he still destroys Kamelion (at the android’s request) and declines to save the Master’s life in this serial when his enemy (and perhaps something else?) is trapped in a beam of fire? Well…I’m not sure. If this were almost any other show, I’d probably interpret it as the story of a man trying to avoid the use of violence but finding himself once again unable to resolve a crisis without participating in destruction and death, then go on to comment about the overproliferation of anti-heroes in modern culture. But this is Doctor Who, and the protagonist is a hyperintelligent centuries-old alien whose portrayal hasn’t always followed the traditional rules of character development and who isn’t given to voicing his inner thoughts very often. As a result, just what is going on inside the mind of this generally idealistic but fallible Fifth Doctor is left somewhat unclear, and the hint that the Doctor and the Master share something more than just shared enmity doesn’t do much for me given that I know that the original series, at least, never folllowed up on it. Fortunately, there’s enough other material to chew on to make this a worthwhile serial: Turlough, arguably the most amoral and deceptive of companions, redeems his past behavior (including his callousness towards Kamelion earlier) by contacting the Trionians who had once banished him, Peri makes for a promising addition to the TARDIS crew, and the background of a religion arising from the Sarn natives’ observation of the Trionian science experiments is strong sci-fi worldbuilding.

Rating: *** (out of four)

Review [DW]: “Resurrection of the Daleks”

21×4. Resurrection of the Daleks
Writer: Eric Saward
Director: Matthew Robinson
Script Editor: Eric Saward
Producer: John Nathan-Turner

Synopsis: A time corridor draws the TARDIS back to present-day Britain, where a Dalek incursion leads to the discovery of a plan to attack Gallifrey while reviving Davros from stasis on a prison ship following their defeat in the war with the Movellans.

Review: “Resurrection of the Daleks” could be thought of as a sort of companion piece to “Warriors of the Deep,” and like its predecessor, it raises some compelling and disturbing questions while failing at the more basic task of solid storytelling. Just as when he ended up using lethal force against the Silurians and Sea Devils, the Doctor is here forced to confront the issue of the violence and death that frequently surrounds him. At one point, he considers murdering Davros, and though he eventually decides against it, he does end up using the Movellan virus to wipe out the Daleks present on Earth. The brutal nature of the situation is reinforced not only by the fact that almost all the guest characters are dead by the end, but through the contrasting reactions of his companions. Turlough, arguably the least morally grounded companion ever to join the Doctor, adapts quickly to the chaotic situation on the prison ship as his ruthless side shows through. The more humanistic and empathetic Tegan, on the other hand, finally decides she can’t stay with the Doctor any longer because she simply can’t tolerate the violence, leaving the Doctor to conclude that perhaps he needs to “mend his ways.”

Worthwhile themes notwithstanding, however, the script is really kind of a mess. For example, the Daleks have gone to an enormous amount of trouble to rescue and revive Davros, only to turn against him at the end because they’ve decided he’s too unpredictable and now needs to be killed as well, not to mention that they’re also planning to invade Gallifrey, all while still trying to recover from having lost the war with the Movellans. I suppose you could argue that the script means to paint them as mercurial megalomaniacs, but that also serves to undercut their credibility as a threat. And while Mercer and Stien are drawn well enough to hold the audience’s interest, too many of the guest characters seem to be there just to run around, fire guns, and eventually get killed. I’ll credit Eric Saward for at least trying to make a point about all the violence, but it only barely comes across amidst all the mayhem, sound, and fury.

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

Review [DW]: “Frontios”

21×3. Frontios
Writer: Christopher Bidmead
Director: Ron Jones
Script Editor: Eric Saward
Producer: John Nathan-Turner

Synopsis: The TARDIS crew encounter a small group of humans in the far future who are marooned on a planet called Frontios, where frequent meteor storms and a series of mysterious deaths threaten the colony’s survival. With the TARDIS itself apparently destroyed, the Doctor discovers that the Tractators – an insectoid race that once plagued Turlough’s home planet – are responsible for the disappearances and intend to take over the planet.

Review: “Frontios” doesn’t quite dot all its Is and cross all its Ts, but I would nevertheless name it the best serial to date of the Peter Davison era. Former script editor Christopher Bidmead returns to Doctor Who with a story that works on the basic level of keeping the audience entertained while painting a compelling picture of a struggling colony and supplying Turlough with some solid characterization.

For starters, Frontios itself is probably the best example of world-building that we’ve seen since Davison took on the role. Not only do the TARDIS crew find a valuable ally in Chief Science Officer Range, who stands out for being both intelligent and mostly selfless, but the most antagonistic character – Chief Orderly Brazen – is refreshingly complex. A less sophisticated script would likely have made him simply a scowling autocrat; instead, “Frontios” portrays him and the leaders he has served, Captain Revere and his successor Plantagenet, as having resorted to harsh rule as a way of keeping order in a precarious situation. At the same time, the script does not ask us to agree with their decisions. Brazen eventually admits that he was wrong, and the secrecy probably enabled the Tractators to advance their plans further than if the colonists had been allowed to investigate and discovered their presence earlier. In addition to the overt conflict betewen the Frontios Orderlies and the “Retrogrades,” there’s a nice small touch where one of the Orderlies is seen swiping a piece of food, reinforcing the sense of a society teetering on the verge of chaos. While the execution doesn’t quite transcend the low production values (the surface scenes never really feel like they’re taking place outdoors), it does at least impart a sense of realism to the characterizations.

Turlough hasn’t played a particularly notable role in any of the serials after “Enlightenment,” in which he finally broke decisively from the Black Guardian, but “Frontios” gives him a central role in the plot. We learn that his home planet was once plagued by the Tractators as well, a revelation that arrives in the form of a hereditary memory that induces what seems like a trance state as he recalls that his home was once considered an “infection” thanks to their machinations. I’ve always found this trope of inherited memory an intriguing (if implausible) one, and it’s a clever way to let Turlough deliver the key exposition while keeping him (and the audience) in the dark as to what exactly is happening at first. The script also tackles his image as one of the more self-serving companions in the show’s history – the Doctor remarks early on that he’s unlikely to risk traveling through an unstable tunnel, and when Range’s daughter Norna tells him that nobody expects him to face the Tractators directly, he remarks bitterly, “No, of course they don’t. I’m Turlough.” He then does in fact re-enter the underground tunnels, the implication being that he is not entirely proud of how he’s conducted himself in the past and is trying to change.

“Frontios” does fall short in a couple of aspects. First – and somewhat surprisingly, given Bidmead’s efforts to impart a stronger scientific background to the series when he served as script editor – there’s never much explanation of how the TARDIS is destroyed with the control room and other “pieces” of it later recovered underground. I realize that the TARDIS is fictional technology and that explaining such things can easily result in just arbitrary technobabble, and if the writers want to decide that the TARDIS can be shattered into pieces and then reconstructed so that the Doctor is back to time-traveling in the next episode, there’s nothing stopping them. But one the strengths of the “Bidmead era” (Season 18 plus “Castrovalva) was to make the pseudoscience sound believable even if it really isn’t. Here, the TARDIS’s destruction and reassembly is just presented matter-of-factly and a little too conveniently for the plot.

Second, we get an intriguing but problematic bit of background when the Doctor says that the events of this serial are taking place so far in the future that he’s reached the limits of Gallifreyan knowledge, and accordingly he is far more hesitant than usual about getting involved. On one hand, this would seem to provide an answer to a question that I’ve wondered about going all the way back to when I first reviewed “The Aztecs” – namely, how does the Doctor distinguish between established history which is not to be altered and open-ended future in which he feels free to play a role? “Frontios” suggests that he uses his repository of Time Lord knowledge to determine either that his actions will not play a major role in history or that the goal he is pursuing is the one aligned with established history anyway. But while I could see the appeal of a show about a time traveler struggling with his own sense of responsibility to act out what amounts to pre-scripted roles, I’m not sure Doctor Who is or should be that show. And if we were to attempt to reinterpret his behavior across twenty-one seasons of television along these lines, I suspect that it would be difficult to make such an interpretation work and that it would diminish, rather than enhance, the appeal of the show and its central character.

Peter Davison is one of the Doctors that I most enjoy watching, but the scripts he’s been given haven’t always been up to par with his performance. Some have just been mediocre and uninspired, while others have suffered from a mix of subpar execution, uneven pacing, and plot contrivances that prevents even the stronger serials from attaining classic status. “Frontios,” for better or worse, is an example of the latter.

Rating: *** (out of four)

Review [DW]: “The Awakening”

21×2. The Awakening
Writer: Eric Pringle
Director: Michael Owen Morris
Script Editor: Eric Saward
Producer: John Nathan-Turner

Synopsis: The TARDIS arrives in a small English village to visit Tegan’s grandfather, only to find the residents obsessed with a re-enactment of a battle from the English Civil War, which in turn feeds the energy of an alien creature known as the Malus.

Review: I commented in my review of “The King’s Demons” that the original Doctor Who series’ two-parters suffered from maintaining the slower pace typical of the longer serials. “The Awakening” at least avoids that pitfall, but unfortunately I still can’t give it a full recommendation. It’s been about two weeks since I actually watched it, and it’s so relentlessly pedestrian in plot and characterization that I again find myself struggling to find much to say. The script relies a bit too much on “psychic energy” to explain all the goings-on, and none of the characters, aside from maybe the 17th century transplant Will Chandler, emerge as particularly memorable. I will, however, give the serial credit for one particularly clever line, in which the Doctor, in response to the accusation, “You speak treason,” replies, “Fluently!”

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

Review [DW]: “Warriors of the Deep”

21×1. Warriors of the Deep
Writer: Johnny Byrne
Director: Pennant Roberts
Script Editor: Eric Saward
Producer: John Nathan-Turner

Synopsis: The TARDIS is forced to materialize on an underwater sea base, charged with maintaining deadly weapons for potential use in a global conflict, that comes under attack by a joint force of Silurians and Sea Devils planning to trigger a war that will eradicate humanity and allow them to reclaim Earth.

Review: I can respect “Warriors of the Deep” for what it tries to do – create an analogy to Cold War brinksmanship while posing a dilemma to the Doctor in which peaceful resolution might not be possible – but there are too many problems with how it goes about its business for me to recommend it. For starters, despite his later attempts to resolve the situation without violence, the Doctor is strangely hostile and careless towards the Sea Base crew at first. In an attempt to avoid capture, he sets the station’s reactor to overload as a diversion, which seems like a very selfish risk to take even though he expects that the crew will disarm it, and he then tries to fight off the guards rather than explain himself. Frankly, it’s not surprising that they’re suspicious of him and the TARDIS crew given their intial behavior.

The script is also less than seamless in its portrayal of the Silurians and Sea Devils themselves. The Doctor Who creative team seem to have zeroed in on their potential as tragic villains based on their appearances during the Pertwee era, but they also seem to be inventing new backstory rather than building on what was already established. None of the Silurians ever identified themselves by name in their first appearance, and yet the Doctor recognizes “Icthar” as someone he knows and previously assumed dead – if this character is supposed to be one of the original Silurians, it’s unclear which one, or why. The fact that the two species have a valid claim to Earth prevents “Warriors of the Deep” from being a simple “innocent humans vs. aggressive alien invaders” conflict, hence the Doctor’s lament that “there should have been another way” after killing them, but the script is a little too on-the-nose in having them literally echo the Nazis in calling for a genocidal “Final Solution.” The situation at the end is also a bit contrived – the station happens to have a supply of hexachromite gas (which is lethal to reptilian life) on hand, but nothing that could be used to stun and imprison the Silurians and Sea Devils, and the normally inventive Doctor is unable to come up with an alternative in time to stop the missile launch.

The first episode, which focuses more on the Cold War analogy, is probably the best of the four, featuring the TARDIS running afoul of a hair-trigger automated defense satellite, a compelling character who believes he might be unable to “press the button,” and a drill designed so that the base crew can’t tell whether or not it’s the actual beginning of a global war. But after that, there’s just too much dubious characterization, contrived plotting, and subpar action. The Myrka, a monster that the Silurians and Sea Devils unleash on the base, is particularly embarrassing, and the tactics – if one can even call them that – employed in the gun battles between the humans and their attackers reminded me of nothing so much as an infamous zero-budget horror movie called The Creeping Terror, in which the army fought against an “alien” that was clearly a barely-mobile piece of carpet and still somehow managed to lose. Overall, the script might have done better to dispense with the Silurians and Sea Devils and simply do a story about Cold War-style mutually assured destruction with the Doctor attempting to play peacemaker between humans.

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

Review [DW]: “The Five Doctors”

20×7. The Five Doctors
Writer: Terrance Dicks
Director: Peter Moffatt
Script Editor: Eric Saward
Producer: John Nathan-Turner

Synopsis: The Doctor’s past selves, along with several companions and enemies, are captured with the “Time Scoop” and brought to the Death Zone on Gallifrey, where President Borusa hopes to force them to play the Game of Rassilon and unlock the secret of immortality.

Review: Let’s just get this out of the way – the actual plot of “The Five Doctors” is relatively weak, and the potential for a reunion of Doctors and companions is underrealized. In particular, it seems questionable for Borusa to have brought Daleks, Cybermen, Yeti, and the Master into the Death Zone if his objective was to manipulate the Doctors into solving the mystery of immortality – what if one or more Doctors had been killed along the way? The only possible explanation supplied by the script is that perhaps some element of danger was necessary for the Doctors’ travails to meet the requirements of Rassilon’s “game,” and that’s me doing guesswork rather than anything that the episiode itself makes clear. (The real explanation may simply be that this was the 20th anniversary special and therefore the creative team wanted to bring back some of the more popular villains as well as former Doctors and companions.) And while it was nice to have the familiar faces on-hand, the Fifth Doctor doesn’t have any particularly strong reaction to seeing Sarah Jane Smith, the Brigadier, or even his own granddaughter again.

And yet, I can’t help but like it anyway. Maybe it’s partly nostalgia value – I’m pretty sure that it was the first installment of Doctor Who that I ever saw even in part, and it was also all I knew of Hartnell, Troughton, and Pertwee for a period of time before my PBS station picked up the pre-Tom Baker serials. And whatever its lapses in logic, the script does have an effective pace and a sense of adventure that will keep most Who fans’ interest. The Doctor/companion pairings aren’t all the most natural – I suspect that the Brigadier was put with Troughton and Sarah Jane with Pertwee after it became clear that Tom Baker would not be participating – but they work well enough for the obligatory expositional dialogue. The use of the scene from “The Dalek Invasion of Earth” as a pre-credits teaser was an appropriate way to incorporate the late William Hartnell (whose version of the Doctor is otherwise well-captured by the recast Richard Hurndall) into the proceedings, and Patrick Troughton and Jon Pertwee ably assume the personas that we know and love. Peter Davison, who is often at his best when the Doctor is staring off in contemplation of some mysterious happening, gets plenty of opportunity to do that here, ably reflecting the character’s unusual wisdom and intellect. Perhaps the best moment of “The Five Doctors” is its last, when Tegan asks him if he’s really going “on the run…in a rackety old TARDIS,” and he responds, with a youthful breeziness that I’m not sure any of his precedessors could have managed, “Why not? After all, that’s how it all started.”

Once again, Gallifrey is portrayed as a somewhat corrupt and declining society – the fact that anyone (even the President) is able to access and abuse the time scoop and cause widespread energy drains across the planet does not speak well for their leadership structure, and the other Time Lords appear unable to do much to bring the situation under control. Neither do they question Borusa’s decision to recruit the Master to try to rescue the Doctor, even though they all know him to be a man of evil and deception. A less generous interpretation, of course, would be that this is simply the script’s excuse for bringing the Master into the story, but the grudging acceptance of the Chancellor and Castellan might reflect a certain desperation on their part. Rassilon himself is spoken of with trepidation, and he projects a somewhat sinister presence even before we learn the fate he has in store for Borusa. It’s not hard to see why the Doctor eventually chose a life of independent exploration over what might have been a comfortable but stifling life among his own kind, and I can certainly understand why he wants as little to do with Time Lord politics as possible.

This brings me to the one thing that doesn’t quite fit about this explanation: the comparatively aloof (and sometimes selfish) First Doctor is the one that I sometimes *could* imagine being relatively content on Gallifrey, or at least less inclined to rebel out of disappointment at the Time Lords’ refusal to use their powers to help other species. The First Doctor’s personality is also key to one of the more unsettling (and underplayed) elements in the script here. Namely, I don’t think that Borusa – corrupt though he may be – truly deserved his eventual fate of obtaining “immortality” by being trapped in stone in Rassilon’s tomb. The other Doctors seem caught off-guard when the First Doctor manipulates him into this by urging Rassilon to grant Borusa what he wants, but none of them exactly take issue with it, even though Borusa had been a teacher and mentor to the Doctor on Gallifrey. The Master also desired immortality and gets let off relatively easily by comparison (the Brigadier knocks him out before he can obtain an audience with Rassilon), and he’s probably caused considerably more suffering and death than Borusa ever has. In all, I’m not sure whether the script intends for this to be controversial or if the question arises more by accident.

Still, none of that prevents “The Five Doctors” from succeeding as an entertaining, nostalgic romp that brings many of the program’s most beloved elements together for a distinctly Whovian adventure. While it doesn’t live up to all of its potential, it’s successful enough for me to enjoy it for what it is rather than lamenting what it could have been.

Other notes:

– The Second Doctor realizes that the illusions of Jamie and Zoe aren’t real because their memories were erased back in “The War Games” – but first of all, they did retain the memories of their initial encounters with him, and second of all, this happened shortly before the Time Lords forced him to regenerate, so how would he be out and about visiting the Brigadier when captured by the Time Scoop? Unless I’m missing something, the chronology here doesn’t really add up.

– In the Special Edition DVD, Terrance Dicks is amusingly forthright about his dislike of certain elements of the story. When Sarah Jane falls down a not-at-all-steep hill, he exclaims, “It’s just a gentle declivity!” He also is apparently none too fond of the Cybermen, calling them “stupid silver lummoxes” and attributing their prominence to the influence of Script Editor Eric Saward.

Rating: *** (out of four)