Geekbat Tunes

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Doctor Who: The Claws of Axos

Serial Title: The Claws of Axos
Series: 8
Episodes: 4
Doctor: Jon Pertwee
Companions: Jo Grant (Katy Manning), Brigadier Alistair Lethbridge-Stewart (Nicholas Courtney)

An alien spacecraft appears, heading for Earth, and blowhard government official Chinn (why do they give all these pompous idiots the authority to take control of UNIT? Do you think they'd just let "Senator Sturmwell from Nebraska" (picking a state at random, here, so no offense intended, Nebraskites!) just take control of the US Military? Isn't that what you have trained, experienced military commanders for?) steps in and orders it shot out of the sky.

The attack fails and the spacecraft lands- and devours a homeless man, grabbing him with a giant claw and sucking him inside the spacecraft. It causes all sorts of freak weather activities as well. Off to a promising start in Earth/Alien relations, the Brigadier, the Doctor, Jo, and American agent Bill Filer, dispatched to coordinate with UNIT on the worldwide manhunt for the at-large Master (whom the Doctor continues to insist has left Earth now that he has a dematerialization circuit handy, but on whom the Earth is taking no chances), unaware of the spacecraft's hobo-appetite, head out to meet the alien spacecraft firsthand.

Inside, they are met by the Axons, gold-skinned, faux-beautiful humanoids that have come to offer humanity a gift: Axonite, a miracle substance that can replicate and duplicate any material (including replicating food and power, ending all material needs). The material is taken to the nearby Nuton power plant for testing as Chinn starts getting delusions of Earth-revolutionizing grandeur.

Meanwhile, Bill Filer arrives separately from the group and is captured and held next to the Axon's other prisoner... the Master, captured soon after leaving Earth, who has led them back to this world as an easily-conquerable prize in return for his freedom (not yet granted). Filer has fulfilled his mission to find the Master, but is hardly in any position to do anything about it.

However, the Doctor suspects foul play, getting on Chinn's bad side, and insisting that he be allowed to join the team examining Axonite. Chinn, suspecting that UNIT and the Doctor will interfere in his becoming a global hero, retaliates by having the Doctor and UNIT placed... UNDER MILITARY ARREST...?!?!?! (SERIOUSLY, WHERE DOES HE GET THE AUTHORITY TO DO THIS?!??! I Did they elect a king of the entire planet, and this is his cousin or something?!?!) The Doctor, allowed to continue the examination under 'house arrest,' runs samples through an enormous 'light accelerator' machine.

The Axons create a false Bill Filer and send him to assassinate the Doctor, leading to a colossal battle around the light accelerator- but the real Bill Filer escapes and arrives just in time to destroy his duplicate by hurling them into the accelerator. The Axons are revealed to be horrific spaghetti-pile creatures, part of a collective intelligence, with the golden-beauties as false avatars... and, their evil plot revealed, they attack en masse, bulletproof, and armed with grappling claw-tipped tentacles that can explode a man simply by touching him. With UNIT under arrest, the standard military attempts to deal with them... and is slaughtered.

The Doctor and Jo are captured- the Axons know that the Doctor is a Time Lord, and want the secret of time travel (having captured the Master's TARDIS). They claim that they can restore the Doctor's knowledge of TARDIS operations, blocked by the Time Lords. Meanwhile, the Master escapes, and heads straight for the Doctor's TARDIS, intending to flee... but in the process of trying to make it operational, he is captured by the Brigadier! The Master bargains for his freedom in return for helping to defeat the Axons. He and the Brigadier make an excellent team, turning the power of the reactor and light accelerator, captured by the Axons to draw power form, back upon the Axon ship before they can activate the Axonite, a Trojan Horse that will envelop and devour the Earth.

The plan fails, but in the chaos, the Doctor and Jo escape... and the Doctor realizes that the avarice of the Axons could be used to trap them. In a ruse that even the audience almost believes, the Doctor convinces the Master that he is willing to team up to repair the TARDIS and escape the 'doomed' Earth, valuing a regained mobility over any loyalty to Earth. With the Master's help, the TARDIS is repaired, and the Doctor takes the two of them to the Axon ship.

The Doctor then offers his own deal to the Axons, double-crossing the Master: to link the power of his own TARDIS with the Master's captured unit and to give the Axons the power of time travel. However, he instead uses the power of the linked TARDISes to generate a time loop, trapping the Axons inside- because of their linked, interconnected nature, every bit of the Axons, including their foot-soldier avatars and the Axonite molecules throughout the world, is pulled in. The Doctor uses his TARDIS to escape the loop as it closes up, as the again-betrayed Master (seriously, for two serials in a row, he's been the honorable one that is double-crossed by a treacherous, lying, dishonorable Doctor!) escapes to his own TARDIS and likewise flees.

Oh, and that jerk Chinn...? No repercussions. He escapes the Axon attack, and is last seen alive and well with no repercussions for his absurdly heavy-handed, idiotic tactics. Talk about a flippin' loose thread...!

The Doctor returns to Earth, though not out of any loyalty to UNIT or Jo... instead, his TARDIS has been reprogrammed to rematerialize on Earth whenever it dematerializes. Even though, with the Master's help, the ship is functional again, the Doctor still lacks the knowledge to pilot it, and even if he could, it is irrevocably tethered to Earth- like, as the Doctor puts it, "a galactic yo-yo."

The Claws of Axos (also known as the far more generic ‘The Vampire From Space,’ which the first two episodes were produced as, animated titles and all, before they changed it; other candidates included ‘Doctor Who and the Gift’ and ‘The Friendly Invasion’) starts off with a blithering barrage of irritating illogic, and quickly (and unexpectedly) transforms into one of the best Third Doctor serials yet!

The beginning unquestionably starts off on the wrong foot- the alien spacecraft incoming, and UNIT ascertains a firing solution, which the (anti-military) Doctor (seriously, I wanted to punch his smug face in again for the first couple of episodes- thank goodness the likability meter was cranked again in the second half!) snipes at. "Just a precaution, Doctor," notes the Brig, reasonably. "Shoot first, ask questions later, eh, Brigadier?" asks the Doctor testily. Uhhhh... no. That is the exact OPPOSITE of what a precaution is, and exactly 180 from what the Brigadier just said!!! The Doctor's again just being hostile to prudence for no good reason, and demonstrating a complete lack of understanding of what a precaution is! To which Chinn responds by... immediately firing missiles at the as-yet-unidentified craft! Demonstrating that HE doesn't understand what a precaution is, either- proving the Doctor right by way of clumsy writing, despite having just given the Brig a line entirely contradicting this course of action! In fact, the whole first episode and part of the second is like this- characters behaving illogically, acting as if the last scene they were in or the last line given to them never happened, and generally doing things for no GOOD reason, only because plot contrivance told them to. It's all very ham-fisted and quite obnoxious.

And yet... somehow... at some point you don't even recognize, it begins to turn itself around. The Doctor and his obnoxious attitudes are taken out of center-stage, and Bill Filer and the Master- both entertaining and enjoyable characters, take his place. The narrative keeps up a brisk pace. The effects astound. The plot keeps interest. And when the Doctor does return, he's had a seeming personality transplant that's sanded down the prickles. And suddenly you find yourself saying "Hey, I LIKE this Third Doctor adventure! And not like Inferno or Ambassadors or Spearhead, where I can accentuate the positive because I'm loyal to the show... but like Terror of the Autons, where I genuinely ENJOY watching it! Except... more so!!" Before you know it, the Doctor is voyaging in the TARDIS again, the bad guys are being routed, explosions and plot twists galore, and all of a sudden, you LIKE this story!! The past transgressions are forgiven, and you can fully invest in the thrill of the serial. How did this happen? Well, let's explore some of the elements of the story and see if we can find out...

As per my quandary in the last serial, the Master returns- in quite an unexpected way- captured on his way off Earth. At the end, he departs again in a working TARDIS. In addition, the Doctor's dematerialization circuit is repaired, only for him to discover a new problem; his TARDIS is programmed to re-route to Earth. Still, now it is fully functional again, and potentially capable of travel across the globe. Both of these are extremely surprising developments- the expected status quo is being kept up (Doctor stuck on Earth, Master as recurring villain)- but without stagnating the story. The situations for both of them are continuing to develop, along paths that bring them back to the expected place through natural and well-thought-out plots instead of Gilligan's Island-style contrivances to keep everything from developing and resetting at the end of each episode. This is a good sign for the series- the writers are putting some effort into things! Still, is that it? The entire reason why things are so good...? Despite the detractions? I mean, everyone was acting pretty obnoxious at the beginning- All right, let's run down the characters, and see whether they helped or hindered.

Chinn... hindered. A lot. Here was General Carrington, Mark II- only this time, instead of an obsessed madman in charge, it's a greedy fool with bureaucratic power. Was there anything more satisfying than seeing his home office strip him of it, and offer his resignation for him to sign? Or when the soldiers turned on him? That the Brigadier didn't arrest HIM is a testament to his patience. This character was obnoxious, though more of a comic foil than a true antagonist. Again, once he was sidelined, the story got much better.

Bill Filer... helped. A great deal. He served more or less as the protagonist, taking some heroic actions, having a great (well-staged and well-realized) double-fight, and generally acting heroic- I was glad for his survival at the end, and wouldn't mind seeing him again.

The Master... was at his best here. He had some great sequences- his bridge-jump stunt sequence, his mulling over the TARDIS repairs, his taking a Doctor-like role in the first confrontation between the Master and the Brig, his working with UNIT and the Doctor, his disbelief that the Doctor would actually betray his friends- he had a lot to do, and carried much of the middle of the story on his own. The real surprise came when he actually fed the power to overload the Axons as promised- he had taken every previous opportunity to try and weasel his way into escape, it was the one bit of honesty that proved shocking! Again, with the Axons as the true villains, the master becomes more of a foil and a grudging ally- a role in which he does quite well.

Jo... must be really cold. Those location shots looked downright frigid (courtesy of an overnight snowstorm- out of continuity with the vagrant shots shot a few weeks before, necessitating an added line about ‘freak weather conditions’ resulting from the Axos ship’s arrival), and as short as that skirt was...! Jo continues the trend-reversal from Mind of Evil in this serial; though she is not as useful or active here as she was in that serial, she makes positive contributions (whilst not-understanding a lot in order to give the Doctor exposition opportunities). While certainly not the powerhouse that she was in the last serial- and rather reduced in role to accommodate the larger cast- her overall role was very positive- heaven help me, I think I'm actually beginning to like her as a companion!

The Brigadier... was likewise not the powerhouse of the last serial... but he is no-nonsense in his dealings, not over-reactive militarily, and you have to cheer when he gets the upper hand over that git, Chinn. And with both Chinn and the Master, he forgoes any kind of grudge, acting honestly, honorably, and practically to resolve the crises at hand. Again, a very positive portrayal.

And, the Doctor... oh, Doctor. So irritating in the beginning; why must you always begrudge the military prudent precautions against potential threats, especially those that turn out to be right every time? It was about the scene in the particle accelerator, facing off against that obnoxious and grating scientist, that I came to a realization about this Doctor- he is a jerk to everyone he comes in contact to, abrasive and rude. We like him when he is being a jerk to people we don't like (like Stahlman in Inferno), and get annoyed with him when he's a jerk to people we do (like the Brigadier, of late). Either way, he never stops being a jerk... he just re-directs it to targets we approve of sometimes. Well, the first half of the serial did him no favors, but the second half- starting with his escape with Jo (and use of number recitation to keep her conscious and rational), to his apparent-betrayal, and last-minute heroics, re-earned the good graces that he had in series 7. Overall, the second half fares much better for him than the first, and he ends the serial more likable than unlikeable... please, Doctor- keep up the trend!

Alright, More good than bad- and most of the bad centered in the first half. That could certainly account for things... but aren't we forgetting the two stars of the show?

The first, the Axons, are excellently realized- the pile-of-spaghetti true forms are a little clumsy, perhaps (reminding me of an unholy union between the Krotons and the Excalibans from the original Star Trek's "The Savage Curtain"), but the humanoid forms- with their golden skin, sculpted-looking hair, and strange golden bug-eyes, were quite effective (if goofily clad in flower-child hippie attire) and very alien- with excellent mannerisms and voices. Little alienesque touches abound- the biological technology and protruding claws, the use of tentacles primarily (resulting in a number of shocking moments, from the hauling in of the vagrant- WHY did they have to keep cutting to him so often? It got obnoxious- and Bill, to the stabbing of Bill with a tentacle in episode 3, to the explosive effects during the outdoor battle... all of which were superbly realized, creepy, alien, and disturbing), the wonderfully funny moment in which the Axons assume that frogs are one of our primary food animals, and embarrassingly continue with "Well, pretending that they were..." after finding out otherwise, the hanging alien eye (again, like an unholy crossbreed between a Star Wars dianoga and Max the computer from Fligth of the Navigator) with it's weird, biological, pulsing background, the round, mushroom-like protrusions making up much of the floor and the oddly-configured chair, and most excellently, the view screen!

A humanoid-Axon's head appears, slowly rotating left as it talks, then fading seamlessly to a straight-on gaze which slowly rotates to the right... then back to the center, rotating left, and so on... all done in one take with no rotation of the head, change in tone, or break in continuity- it is all one continuous take (probably accomplished with dual cameras)- it most definitely ISN'T the actor reciting part of the line, then going back to the middle and trying to mimic his own performance- it's one seamless, unbroken take that is marvelously alien and astoundingly creative; I have seen something this innovative and unique, yet simple and effective, since... well, since Matt Smith and new Doctor Who, actually. It's crackling full of Doctor Who brilliance- a little moment of conversation on a view screen that cold have easily been just a head talking, and no one would have thought twice about it- but instead, this little extra touch, just to make things more ALIEN, calls attention (in a good way) to the truly unfathomable weirdness of this species, to great effect. Everything involved with the Axons is brilliantly realized and tremendously creative; this is a totally alien culture and technology branch, and ti shows... and it WORKS. I cannot give high enough kudos to this effort- I haven't been this impressed with innovation in film-making technique and overall method to set a mood in Doctor Who (or anywhere else!) since The Mind Robber! And the effects (which we'll get to shortly) only add to the effect! (Ironically, the legacy of this serial, brand new as of 2011, goes completely WITHOUT any visual components- The Feast of Axos, a sixth-Doctor (why does he get all the legacy stories, seriously?!? Jamie, Zoe, Axons…) audio drama which features Bernard Holley reprising his role as the voice of the Axons.)

But, what of the other star of the series... the TARDIS. My jaw hit the floor when the Master entered into the TARDIS... and the camera followed him in! I was not expecting to see a TARDIS interior until The Three Doctors in series 10; the Earth-exile is not ended, but here we have the new console room, a new console... the first TARDIS interior we've seen since the War Games, and the VERY FIRST TARDIS interior in the color era! What a milestone- and it looks great! The cannibalized, under-repair TARDIS as the Doctor left it, the repaired and function version- the old girl actually FLYNG again!- one of the roundels functioning as a view screen just like the end of The Wheel In Space... and oh, OH, OH!!! did it feel good to be flying in the TARDIS again!!! This is the way it was always meant to be, and the thrill of the Doctor escaping in the TARDIS at the end was truly tangible! It was familiar and wonderful, and I think we shall be rushing through the remainder of Series 8 and all of Series 9 in order to get to the return of that era; it's truly been missed. This, then, supercharged the already exciting atmosphere and perhaps pushed the serial over the top- this is what the audience wanted, and it feels GOOD.

Added to that, of course, is an unflagging pace. (Which is ironically only an after-effect of the over-budget preceding Mind of Evil; its expense caused the original seven-episode serial- already whittled down to 6 by the producers who were starting to realize that 7 parts was too long- to be whittled down to 4, the action relocated from the originally-planned later-Doctor Who cliché of Battersea power station, and overall tightened up). The plot keeps along at a fair clip in this shorter, 4-part serial... and it takes numerous twists and turns; first an alien-visitor story in which it is UNIT vs. Chinn, the foolish bureaucrat- then, just as that is getting resolved, we discover that the aliens aren't what they seem, and the Master is involved, having sold out Earth... and our characters are prevented from finding out about it, as Chinn takes over and unlawfully imprisons our heroes- now, it's a race to escape and a tense journey of exploration, to see if they can discover the plans of the Axons before it's too late, with a 72-hour ticking clock... then, a brief plot about doubles and the Doctor's abduction segues us into a marvelously clever Master and UNIT vs. the Axon invasion- a standard army-vs-aliens plot enlivened by fantastic effects and an uneasy alliance- then, the Doctor escapes (and you have to love that moment where he strides in the door just as the Master reaches it, foiling the latter's escape; it was a bit of a cheer-out-loud, "I am that man!" moment)... and it becomes an apparent conspiracy, the Doctor and the Master working together to escape a doomed Earth- you know that each is playing the other, but you don't know HOW- (between this and the Mind-of-Evil-climax exchange betrayal, the two can never have any trust between them; or, I'd suspect, work together ever again!)- and then, it becomes a traditional, and much-appreciated, Doctor Who ending- the Doctor in the TARDIS, pulling a last minute trick to defeat the bad guys and escape... with a fine little comedy ending in which the Doctor finds he can't explain the concept of a time loop to the Brig, and that he's stuck on Earth due to TARDIS programming (another great moment that, like his entrance above, probably should've gone into the Doctor's paragraph as examples of some of his positive moments). It goes all over the place, offering us so many different KINDS of stories within its short run- so much variety and fun, it never fails to keep interest.

And, of course, all of this is aided by fantastic effects. They blew the budget on this one, I imagine- not only is it bluescreen-crazy, but we have the opening (okay, a little cheap-looking) model shot of the ship, that fantastic entrance with its irised-portal, a magnificent matte-painting establishing-shot for the particle accelerator, and best of all, some fantastic practical effects in battle. The moment in which an Axon tentacle stabs a man, who instantly explodes, is incredible- one of the most seamless effects I've ever seen- with no jump or awkward cut; it's very smooth, and very effective. Shots of the Axons outside- including one strange, dream-like shot of an Axon marching down a tunnel from far off, and with a strange frame-rate- compliment the action well, and the practical-effect work of the deflating heads sucking into themselves is gruesome and appropriately creepy. There was only one major effects failure, and that was the scene of the Axons taking over a jeep (which was excellently staged, with great stunts and pyrotechnics)- the blue background behind the truck (either supposed to be a dark sky-blue background, or an unkeyed bluescreen that hadn’t been replaced with anything- accounts differ) doesn’t even REMOTELY match the overcast gray/white sky of the exterior scenes; the effect is quite jarring and confusing, even after one realizes what one is looking at. It’s a severe and disorienting mismatch. Of course, it's all accompanied by the same awful music; this lot is better than Mind of Evil, with some actual melodies and tone-appropriate-ness, but my long-desired GOOD score to a Pertwee serial, it ain't.

All in all, Claws of Axos blew me away with its great story, excellent pace, amazing effects, aura of excitement, and incredibly creative Axon effects. It's a winner for sure, and exactly the kind of serial that the Third Doctor needed to inject the sense of adventure back into the show.

Great Moments:
The fight in the particle accelerator. The Doctor and Jo’s recitation-escape through the disorienting vessel. The Axon on the catwalk.

I want to subtract some points for the obnoxious opening and annoying Doctor characterization in the first half... but I can't. I honestly can't justify taking a single point off for this serial, and though the opening isn't perfect, the overall serial more than makes up for it's flaws. 5 out of 5 Tumbling Autons- the second perfect score, and the first true classic on the level of Marinus and Mind Robber, for the Third Doctor's era.

With its high-tech accelerator, international manhunt for the Master, and general high technology throughout, I think I'm going to have to give this one a near-future-80s vote by a narrow margin.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Doctor Who: The Mind of Evil-

Serial Title: The Mind of Evil
Series: 8
Episodes: 6
Doctor: Jon Pertwee 
Companions: Jo Grant (Katy Manning), Brigadier Alistair Lethbridge-Stewart (Nicholas Courtney)

The Doctor takes a jaunty trip to a maximum security prison, and decides that it would be a wise idea to bring a naïve young girl along with him. In Stangmoor Prison, the Doctor and Jo are attending a demonstration of the Keller Machine, a miracle device that removes ‘evil impulses’ from the criminal brain, curing them. The test subject in the demonstration, Barnham, is nearly fried, rendered comatose when the machine overloads, and the Doctor’s skepticism (and the audience's) seems to be well justified.

In the mean time, UNIT is handling security at the First World Peace Conference- and doing a bang-up job of it, as the Chinese delegation is complaining first that sensitive documents have been stolen (well, maybe you shouldn't have brought top secret documents to a foreign gathering of rival nations…) and then that one of their delegates is dead. Things are looking better for the Keller Machine’s FDA approval than they are for world peace.

Concurrent to this, Mike Yates is leading a bomb disposal team in dismantling and destroying the Thunderbolt, a deadly nerve gas missile seized from terrorists. One can only hope that all of the competent UNIT staff were assigned here instead of the peace conference, because otherwise, judging from their overall success rates so far…

At the prison, a man is found dead next to the Keller machine, one of the demonstration audience, covered in rat bites and scratches… a vermin that his file shows he was terrified of. The professor in charge of the demonstration, a hydrophobic, soon dies too, of the apparent symptoms of drowning, next to the machine. The prisoners are growing restless and agitated, and the Doctor fears that a revolt may be in the works. His investigation of the machine is halted by the apparition of the world in flames, a haunting reminder of the terrifying fate of Earth he witnessed in ‘The Inferno.’ Fortunately, the attack is halted by Jo’s intervention before it can prove as fatal to the Doctor as it has for others.

When Mike Yates comes to fetch the Doctor for assistance at the conference, the Doctor decides the best approach is to leave the young woman that accompanied him at a maximum security prison by herself and return to the conference, leaving Jo with the agitated prisoners on the verge of revolt and the certified fear-killing machine.

At the conference the multi-lingual Doctor charms the Chinese delegates, while their security minister incapacitates Yates with her mental powers and turns into a dragon. She makes a move to assassinate the American delegate, but is thwarted… and a telepathic amplifier, both controlling her, and allowing her to project illusions relayed by the Keller Machine, clue the Doctor in to the culprit behind this dastardly scheme… ‘Professor Keller of Switzerland’ is none other than the Master, who is hiding nearby, observing the conference! In fact, he’s already overheard the UNIT plans to dispose of the Thunderbolt missile…

At the prison, Barnham wakes up- once a violent and loathsome criminal, he now like an innocent child… but he is the only one, as the other prisoners, led by the next-in-line for the Keller Machine, terrified of suffering the same fate, riot- taking Jo and the prison physician, Summers, hostage. The Master, aware that he’s been found out, arrives at the prison and supplies weapons to the rioting prisoners! The Doctor arrives shortly and is captured by the armed and dangerous prisoners, who now run the prison.

The Doctor is chained to the Keller Machine for execution-by-fear, as the Master gloats about his plans to steal the Thunderbolt missile with the aid of the armed prisoners, and destroy the peace conference with it, plunging the world into a state of war! For some reason! Unfortunately for the Master, the Keller Machine has been growing in power- and when activated, nearly destroys the entire prison. (The Doctor is menaced by visions of his enemies, including the Daleks, the Cybermen (one of only two appearances in a Pertwee serial, and never actually in person with this Doctor) and… the Zarbi…? Well, the Web Planet was horrifyingly bad, but… are the ‘Zaarrrrrr-beeeeee!’ really one of the Doctor’s greatest fears? …While the Master is menaced by visions of an all-powerful, indifferent, mocking Doctor that is clearly his superior.)

The Master barely manages to shut the machine off and revives the Doctor from the brink of death (something that, come Pertwee’s last season, will become rather a theme for him… this is the beginning of a trend!), enlisting his help (something that, in this season, has already become something of a theme for the Master, biting off more than he can chew and requiring the Doctor to bail him out of it).

The machine is blockaded in a lecture hall, to be starved by lack of victims. It overcomes this limitation by developing a teleportation ability (necessity is the mother of spontaneously developing superpowers, as they say) and attacks the Doctor and Jo as the Master departs with his Convict Army, taking the missile convoy with ease. A defeated Mike Yates pursues the Master to a nearby airbase, but is captured before he can report the stolen missile’s location.

The Doctor manages to escape the machine, which is drawn to the greater evil of the convicts. The Master and the Doctor construct a machine to subdue it, but with its growing power, it will not be contained for long.

Meanwhile, the Brigadier makes a raid on the prison, sneaking in with soldiers disguised as a repair crew while a second team tunnels from underground. The raid is a spectacular success, with the Brigadier himself stepping in to save the Doctor from an inmate with a gun and murderous intent at the last minute. The Doctor responds by chastising him as a fool and revealing that the missile is not at the prison. (This was the moment, I think, when I decided I didn't like Pertwee… the ungrateful git.) The Master has escaped and goes to ready the missile… but so has Yates, who calls in and informs the Brigadier of the missile’s location.

The Keller Machine overcomes the Time Lord-inspired jammer and attacks Jo and the Doctor again… but the arrival of Barnham, the childlike victim of the demonstration, shuts it down. The Doctor realizes that the complete lack of evil impulse in Barnham counteracts the machine, neutralizing it- and that with this control, they can use what is revealed to be an alien organism within the machine, the true power of the supposed ‘Keller Machine,’ against the Master.

The Doctor makes a deal with the Master via phone- in exchange for the Thunderbolt missile, he will return the Master's de-materialization circuit, absconded with during the end of the Auton business. The Master agrees, but this is a ruse- while the Doctor brings the circuit, he also brings the Keller Machine organism and Barnham. When he and Barnham step back from the ‘trade,’ away from the Master and the Machine, the Keller Machine reactivates, attacking the Master. However, the innocent, good-hearted Barnham charges in to help the Master- his presence deactivates the Machine, and the Master repays his kindness by running Barnham down with his escape van, killing the ex-con, and escaping with his de-materialization circuit. UNIT detonates the Thunderbird missile, ending its threat and taking out the Keller Machine and the organism within in the blast.

Though war has been averted and the prison riot halted, the Master has escaped, regained TARDIS functionality (which the Doctor is still denied), and a good man has been killed. It seems, as the Master calls the Doctor to gloat before leaving to resume roaming the cosmos, that the bad guys have truly won this round.

Though I could hardly know it at the time, this serial is more or less the prototype for all of the Pertwee clichés: The Doctor being a jerk to UNIT but then needing their ‘thuggish firearms’ to be his rescue at the end, The Doctor appearing dead and being revived miraculously at the last minute (this iteration is without the optional ‘Weeping Companion’ attachment), the Master grabbing hold of the ultimately powerful alien creature, then finding it far too powerful for him to control… it’s all here, laying the pattern for everything to come.

The Mind of Evil (or The Pandora Machine, as it was almost known… which sounds a lot more like an original Star Trek or Trek Animated title) is... not exactly what I'd call slow-paced (it certainly moves along at a brisker clip than Ambassadors of Death), but it does take its time in developing- as six-parters are wont to do- perhaps a little too much time to properly build the suspense it's trying to. The last third, however, is practically a different story- far better paced, and more attention-grabbing; it rescues the overall product.

This six-part throwback is also entirely in Black and White, the original color prints having been destroyed along with all of the lost Hartnell and Troughton classics. (Note from Andrew, 2013: They just put a color version out on DVD). The change in pigmentation helps this to feel a little more classic, and helps one to realize that the film and production values may not have changed so much for the Pertwee era as they originally appeared to- the addition of color just made it seem that way. Viewed in monochrome, they still look fairly similar to Troughton's era.

The central tenant- a creature that feeds on evil- seems almost more spiritual or theological than scientific, (and like the Keys of Marinus, treats evil as a set of specific impulses that can be skimmed off the top off the mind like dross- as opposed to a part of human nature, or a series of choices- if only evil was a tangible thing that could be removed from man, instead of something generated by specific choices and nurtured by our sin nature- life might be quite a bit easier...) and the methodology of death- bodies spontaneously generating H2O to fill up lungs or skin spontaneously splitting to mimic rat bites- is likewise more supernatural than plausible physics. (As the hero, the Doctor did NOT spontaneously develop first-degree burns after his first nightmare, I notice…)

Still, the overall story does build the mystery (a little bit- though it's pretty obvious from the start) and the developing plot nicely. And the action-packed finale, with the creature assaulting people in the halls, the UNIT invasion (featuring some more impressive sharp-shooting by the Brigadier), and the end confrontation, is a fun and exciting ride.

The Master returns here- I suspected I'd soon stop noting that in these serials, as I suspected it would be a common occurrence- and then, the elegantly set-up co-exile, courtesy of the stolen de-materialization circuit, leaving the master as a permanent nemesis for the Doctor, was suddenly broken at the end almost as an afterthought! I was quite surprised and dismayed- we shall see how this turns out. The Master does return here, though, with a great entrance. His involvement in the story is a bit more suspect, though- I'd considered, and rejected, the Master as the secret identity of the machine's 'inventor'- as the warden references it as being installed a year ago (perhaps I misunderstood and it was 'last year?')- surely it hasn't been THAT long since Terror of the Autons? A year-long time-skip between serials is somewhat abrupt...!

The Master's nightmare is cleverly and effectively shown to be an all-powerful Doctor, hovering above him in absolute triumph... a nightmare cleverly fulfilled in the New Series' Third finale, Last of the Time Lords. He is oddly subservient, obedient, and friendly with the Doctor towards the end, while they are working to contain the creature- it felt a bit off. However, he is smugly confident in the final confrontation, as befits him well.

I feel sorry for poor, child-like Barnum, who was simply trying to do his best- defending the Doctor in an almost zombie-like manner after he and Jo were hauled inside (and the poignant moment where the Doctor paralyzes him with his Venusian karate to prevent him being hurt by the villains), overcoming his fear to help with the device, and in the end, allowing the Master to escape and getting killed all because he instinctively went to help whoever was in need. Just like the last serial, a poor dupe with a good heart caught up in the Master’s machinations and dying because of it. Poor fellow… Barnham, to me, felt like a trial run (in retrospect) for Tommy in Planet of the Spiders. Same character type, but much better executed the second time with the benefit of experience- and seeing in Tommy what they were TRYING to do here gives the character a bit more poignancy, if only imagined.

(Meanwhile, his task-master, the harsh Dr. Summers is in fact Michael Sheard- Admiral Ozzel to Star Wars fans, and a well-known thespian of the time making a cameo).

One thing I didn't understand at all in this story was WHY in the world Jo continued to hang about the prison
for the entire serial (and why in the world did pairs of guards keep playing chess in a condemned man's cell with their back to him???)- after the second prison break in 10 minutes, one would think they'd start evacuating the civilians... Still, Jo was a fair sight better in this serial than the last- coming up with ideas, being useful (and considerate), staging a couple of nice prison breaks, being surprisingly aggressive in breaking the hostage situations twice in this serial, instead of being a passive prisoner… even beating the Doctor at checkers. She’s on the ball, putting up a very good showing; she even has a very sweet scene sharing a late ‘breakfast’ with the Doctor and bonding with him, reminiscent of the conversation with Victoria in Tomb of the Cybermen or the heart-to-heart with Vicki in the Crusades- a first real acceptance, and a very sweet bond.

The Doctor... well, it's no fault of Mind of Evil's, but this serial is really where I realized the Jon Pertwee just doesn't do it for me as the Doctor. It's not that I dislike him, he's a nice fellow, but as the Doctor, he doesn't have anything to 'look forward to,' as my wife noted- not Hartnell's gruff or giddy statements, not Troughton's manic comedy or elastic face- no quirk or routine to sit there saying "I can't wait for the part of the episode when he does his shtick," nor any real standard comedic moment- his humor is minimalist and fairly dry, and his character rather even and by-rote; he's not unpleasant, but thus far, he seems rather... bland. A bit dull. Not unlikeable, but, like Liz, not very able to stand out in the crowd. Perhaps that's why I find myself looking more forward to scenes with the Master than with him. It's unfortunate, but I think he's my least favorite Doctor to date. Plus, he’s a real jerk to anyone in the military, and I don’t like that. Not at all.

On his merits in this episode, though... well, he still doesn’t fare so well. He’s at his most interesting in the action scenes against the machine (and I’d have liked to see the barrage of his former enemies in color!), but he’s rather bland and uninspired, and most of all… a grumpy ingrate. The Brigadier saves his life with a nick-of-time entrance and sharp-shooting victory, and the Doctor gives a grumpy “Can you, for once, show up BEFORE the last moment?” Okay, begrudging witty banter between friends, no problem… the Brigadier is surprised (with a great expression) to find out that the stolen missile isn’t there as he surmised- “Except for missing the Master and the missile, you’re doing quite well, Brigadier…” the Doctor dourly quips. The one whose life the Brig saved less than a minute before. And he continues like this for the rest of the serial- yelling at the Brigadier for not realizing that he has an alternate plan for the exchange for the Master (despite having given no indication whatsoever that he did, and not having had one until a minute or so before, given to him by Jo, no less…) He’s just kind of a jerk. Not very likable, not very funny- and unfortunately, no out-of-character writing ala ‘Doctor Who And The Silurains’ to blame it on this time. Which is a pity- I wanted to like him. I’m hoping he’ll find a better niche, because right now… he’s not doing so well. Still, kudos to his reactions to the various fear images, and for the continuity of the parallel Earth’s fiery demise from ‘Inferno’ being the source of his initial fire-based nightmare. (In addition, based on his performance in the first few serials, I genuinely believe that he’d have blamed a parking ticket for Bessie, a flat tire, or a bad economy on the Keller Machine, too.) Okay, it’s not all bad- he had a nice escape from the Master, at least…

It’s the Brigadier, along with Jo, that fare the best in this serial. The Brig here is competent, clever, cool, confident, no-nonsense, skilled, and funny. He deduces the lie in the Chinese Delegate’s story easily, (apparently, the entire Chinese delegate subplot was written to pad out the episodes, which were too short for a 6-parter, and designed to showcase the writer’s wife, Pik-Sen Lim, who is the dragon-woman in this serial) with no prompting, instigates a great raid on the prison with more of his signature sharp-shooting and 45-degree instant-turn-and-shoot maneuvers, saves the Doctor’s life with a last-minute shot- all standard Brigadier-type functions. Plus, he plays the delivery driver in the ‘Trojan Horse’ operation, struts around like a peacock proud of his cleverness, and has a great comic double-take and deflated little “oh…” when he discovers that his guess had been wrong, great little comedic touches and fun scenes all, with the Brig acting out of character (or, more accurately, pretending to be another character)… all very UNexpected, and a major treat! We also have great scenes just after Yates’ escape and when Benton is assigned to the prison where the Brigadier bonds with and shows concern for his men- wonderful, humanizing moments shared with our recurring-but-minor UNIT characters. His plans work out (minus finding the missile), he’s level-headed and helpful, and gets a chance to stretch his character muscles in a way that he hasn’t been able to since Inferno.

Speaking of which, Yates gets a great turn here, escaping with gusto, breaking out cleverly, demonstrating great fighting skills, and even verbally sparring with the Master- I LIKE this kid! Sergeant Benton, the one actually ON payroll, doesn’t have much to do- a brief, slightly-comedic (but not all that funny) segment, but really, a minor presence this time around.

Effects were a mixed bag. The device dispatched victims in the latter serials with a unique overexposed/static effect that I am curious as to the look of in color. There was a wavy transition- rather overused- that was fairly stock (though I am curious how it was accomplished non-digitally), a scene in which the machine was breaking out with a VERY odd skewing, point-of-view, dancing-cameraman movement, and a lot of superimpositions. All fairly stock stuff, nothing groundbreaking, save perhaps for the unique look of the static.

But none of that matters because we got a HELICOPTER!!! Moving! In video! And, by a quirk of fate, in Black and White! Hooray for another surviving copter clip! In addition, the Dragon-suit was impressive, though odd, and while it felt a little surreal, it was nicely constructed- and it’s unexpected full-body appearance to the Doctor and Co. (whom you would expect to see through the illusion instead of sharing in it) adds to the shock value of the scene. Oh, and kudos on the ‘artful’ transition in Episode 4, fading from the Doctor’s face to the Master’s.

That said, the budget for this episode went so far over budget (partially due to the aforementioned copter sequence) that the director, Timothy Combe, was actually forbidden from consideration for directing any future Doctor Who work- he was, in essence, blacklisted for being too spendy. One place that said budget was NOT lavished on, however, was the music- which was, in a word, AWFUL. Not grating, like in the Silurians, but it sounded like a synthesizer on demo mode, and various bits- like the anthem played as UNIT storms the prison, are wildly inappropriate. Someday, perhaps we’ll find a Pertwee serial with a decent score…?

And lastly, as usual, the disassociated story notes that don’t fit anywhere else…

-In irony, this episode mocks the foolish scientists who claims that modern science has made capital punishment outdated. Though I’m certain the Doctor would agree with the sentiment, just not the Keller machine method, I find it a good illustration of the foolhardiness of this movement- a rare accidental conservative message in a science fiction show.
-The American ambassador had another strange accent, which sounded like a slightly-mellowed version of Milo Clancy from The Space Pirates- less pronounced, but from the same branch of slightly-texan-british-attempting-amercian. It’s been long enough that I must poke through the archives to remember if Peter Purves fell prey to this same odd hybrid accent in The Chase…
-The use of the prisoners making noise every time the device activated, even when they didn’t know it was being used, was a nice, creepy plot device that added to the eerie atmosphere and the strange, almost omnipresent-seeming power of the Keller Machine.
-Why, oh why, does the Doctor actually bring the real de-materialization circuit to a fake exchange, opening the door for the Master to somehow abscond with it? Why not a fake, or why not disable the circuit first…?
-We have a nice little comic roll in the form of Major Cosworth, who is so enthusiastic and prone to stating the obvious that one can tell that the Brig is slightly unnerved by him. It’s a very subtle humor, and very well-played; the kind of layering we’ve rarely received from performances in Doctor Who, and an excellent bit of comic business precisely BECAUSE it isn’t overplayed or oversold. Another nice subtle moment belongs to the Doctor (who does deserve some due)- being cast into his cell for the second time in Epsiode 5, one harkens back to the first incarceration, where he struggled, paused on the threshold, and was pistol-whipped into submission, clubbed on the back of the head. This second time around, as he enters willingly, the same guard raises his pistol to repeat the gesture- and the Doctor glares him into lowering his hand without incident. It’s a small moment, not lingered-on or emphasized, without a closeup or musical cue to highlight it- but it’s an excellent character moment and detail to watch for.

Great Moments:
The Brigadier’s last-minute rescue!

Overall, Mind of Evil would have rated as an average, middling serial- but the fun and action-packed last two episodes bump it up to a final total of 3.75 out of 5 Tumbling Autons; not quite highly-recommended (save for that last third), but still highly enjoyable overall. The Doctor, however, had better find a way to become more likeable and more interesting whilst dodging the Claws of Axos; we can always hope that this serial was simply a Silurian-style bad-characterization story, and that all will be well next serial… this one is clearly a headliner for The Brig, Jo, and Yates, however- if they were all a bit lukewarm last serial, this is the one that really makes me like them! But the Master gone…? Just when I thought I had the direction for this ‘gentle reboot’ worked out, they pull the rug out from under me! Where will they go next…?

Everything about this episode screams ‘contemporary,’ with the only high-technology provided by the Master based on an alien life-form. Contemporary 1971, for sure.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Doctor Who: Terror of the Autons

Serial Title: Terror of the Autons
Series: 8
Episodes: 4
Doctor: Jon Pertwee
Companions: Jo Grant (Katy Manning), Brigadier Alistair Lethbridge-Stewart (Nicholas Courtney)

We open to a circus, and a familiar groaning and wheezing sound, as something fades into view. Could it be…?! But no, the sound is slightly different… and this is no policebox, but a horse-trailer. And the man who emerges is definitely not the Doctor. A dark-clothed, goateed, sinister-looking man immediately compels the circus owner to do his bidding- stealing the remaining Nestene meteorite (from Spearhead from Space) from display at a local museum. This is the Master, a rogue Time Lord who is perhaps even more brilliant than the Doctor, a thorn in his side, and a familiar foe. After commandeering a radio telescope, he connects the meteorite to it and transmits a signal…

Back at UNIT HQ, bad news reaches the Doctor in spades- the theft of the meteorite, the ruination of his newly-constructed dematerialization circuit, and most of all, the woman responsible for it- Jo Grant, an intended replacement for the recently-departed Liz, a nepotism-hired ditz who ruins the delicate microcircutry with a fire extinguisher (Doctor Who is doing its part to raise public awareness of all of the dangerous applications of fire extinguishers lately…) due to assuming that the smoke from the Doctor’s micro-welding was in fact a fire of some sort. And later that day, the news just gets worse, as a Time Lord from Gallifrey appears (incognito) to warn the Doctor about the Master’s arrival, and about a bomb planted within the radio telescope center that he’s investigating. (Awwwww, they really DO care…) Disarming the bomb with some heroic acrobatics (don’t ask), the Doctor ponders the arrival of his old nemesis… and finds his calling card, the shrunken corpse of one of the telescope technicians.

At a local plastics factory, owner Rex Farrel has fallen under the sway of “Colonel Masters,” fully hypnotized into doing his bidding. His production manager, James McDermott, confronts him about his erratic behavior, and is soon killed by an invention of the Master’s, a lethal self-expanding plastic couch. (Don’t ask). When Rex’s father, summoned by McDermott before his death, comes to investigate (and proves mind-control resistant due to his strong will), the Master plants a hideous troll-like doll, about two feet tall, (no rhyme intended) in his backseat as a ‘new product sample’ and turns up the heat… the doll starts to animate with murderous intent, but Farrel, Sr. turns down the heat, and the doll becomes inert.

Meanwhile, as the Doctor surmises the connection between the Master and the Nestenes, Jo goes off to investigate and prove her worth to the Doctor- and is captured and hypnotized to take the crate that used to contain the meteorite back to UNIT HQ… with a bomb inside! The Doctor recognizes her hypnotized condition and the potential trap, and throws the bomb out the window just in time; fortunately the window overlooks a small cliff over the sea. But the Master still gains a victory, as the heat is high enough in Farrel, Sr.’s house that the doll animates again, and completes its murderous mission.

Investigating the sighting of the other radio telescope technician (who is missing) at a local circus, the Doctor is captured and threatened by the strong man, but escapes with the help of Jo. He slips inside the Master’s TARDIS (which he’s identified on the circus grounds), but emerges to find a group of angry, hypnotized circus performers on the attack. The mob surrounds him and begins to mercilessly beat him, but the Doctor and Jo are rescued by the timely arrival of the police’s protective custody, with the Brigadier and Captain Yates (a new young officer who has an eye for Jo) moments behind, following in another car.

However, it’s out of the frying pan and into the fire, as the policemen are disguised Autons! As the Doctor reveals their true appearance, they enter a quarry (for once a quarry on Doctor Who actually represents a quarry!), and crash during a struggle for control of the car. The Brigadier and Yates arrive to engage the Autons, who are trying to kill the Doctor- but while small-arms fire fails, Yates takes the initiative and rams the Autons with his car, sending them tumbling (in a truly impressive display) down a steep bluff. By the time they climb back up, the group has escaped.

The Doctor takes the dematerialization circuit that he’s absconded with from the Master’s TARDIS and tries to repair his own, but the unit is still incompatible (keeping up the theme, as with the Monk’s TARDIS, that the Doctor’s is an older, out-of-date model)- still, as long as he has it, the Master is as stuck on this planet as he is. Meanwhile, the Master has fashioned a plastic daffodil replica that Farrel and a number of carnival-masked Autons begin to hand out on the streets, working from a large bus base-of-operations.

Investigating the death of Farrel, Sr. (whose name triggered something in Jo’s hypnosis-repressed memory), the Doctor discovers the doll and takes it for study due to its plastic nature. They also discover a leftover daffodil at the now-abandoned plastics factory. While trying to decipher the meaning of the gadgets, the Doctor receives a phone call from the Master- who uses Auton technology over the line to get the plastic phone cord to strangle the Doctor. The Brigadier cuts the phone line, disabling the signal, and saving the Doctor- while the Doctor’s Bunsen burner, used by Yates to make him and Jo some hot cocoa (that always seems to lead towards engagements in Doctor Who… could we be looking at a future couple? A book I recently read noted that Doctor Who was relatively absent of married couples, having none between Celestial Toymaker (Hartnell, Steven, and Dodo) and Fury from the Deep (Troughton, Jamie, and Victoria’s last serial together). While the New Series is finally premiering a married couple aboard the TARDIS (Note From Future Andrew: Yes, that was referring to Amy and Rory at the start of Series 6... I write these just a little while before I post them...) and Ian and Barbara were certainly implied, could we be looking at the first companions (sorta- the term is a little looser here in the non-TARDIS years) to actually get married in-series? That may be a lot to read into a cup of cocoa, but we shall see…), re-activates the murderous doll, which Yates is forced to shoot to pieces. Since good things and plastic trying to kill you always come in threes, a radio signal over the walkie-talkie activates the daffodil, which sprays a deadly shield of plastic over Jo’s mouth and nose, suffocating her- and accounting for a recent rash of suffocation deaths in the area. Fortunately, the Doctor manages to pry it off in time to save her life, and the two are able to intuit that the radio telescope will be used to activate them en masse… the deaths in the area were premature triggers from portable radio sources like theirs.

The Brigadier plans an aerial strike on the located Auton bus, but before this can be carried out, the Master breaks into the Doctor’s lab, demanding the dematerialization circuit- and when Jo blurts out the plan, takes the Doctor and Jo as hostages to his bus, in order to force the Brig to call off the air strike- which he does. The bound and captive Doctor uses his feet to manipulate the brake pedal, spelling out a Morse Code message to UNIT with the brake lights. Jo manages to escape her bonds and free the Doctor after the Master has left.

UNIT engages the Autons (led by Benton and Yates- they’re straddling the line between ‘Companion’ and ‘Jackie Tyler/Wilfred Mott/Mickey-the-Idiot’), while the Brig, Jo, and the Doctor ascend the radio tower. Once there, the Doctor convinces the Master that the Nestenes will turn on him and kill him, too, once they invade- and with his TARDIS in need of repair before it can leave, he can’t afford to be stuck on Earth during their invasion. The Master agrees, and he and the Doctor work together to reverse the signal, expelling the Nestenes into deep space, Moonbase-style.

The Master flees to the bus, but is cornered there by UNIT. He emerges, hands-up, but quickly draws a gun, and is shot down by UNIT. (I seem to be having to describe a lot of people getting shot dead in the last few serials- if this persists, I’ll have to come up with a few more colorful ways of saying it, lest it get repetitive!) However, as the Doctor fears, this was not the Master, but a mind-controlled Farrel in a plastic mask- an innocent pawn slain in the Master’s cruel game as he escapes in the bus. However, the Doctor has the last laugh- the dematerialization circuit he gave the Master at gunpoint was his own unit- the one Joe ruined with a fire-extinguisher. The Doctor still has the real circuit, and the Master is stranded on Earth- he can hide out with his working chameleon circuit, but he can’t leave. The Doctor is sure that they will match wits again, and he looks forward to the contest…

Terror of the Autons starts off Series 8 by throwing a series of milestones at us: a new companion, a new recurring villain, a new supporting character (Yates), a recurring supporting character (Benton) becoming an actual contracted-regular instead of an occasional guest, the first appearance of the Time Lords and a functioning TARDIS in color, and the last appearance of the Autons in the classic series. In fact, this serial is regarded as what's called a "gentle reboot." Not an out-and-out restart of the Pertwee era that says everything proceeding it didn't happen, but a restarting of nearly all elements to bring things to a new paradigm, a resetting of all elements to zero and a starting over, without denying the past that preceeded it. Just as Star Trek II doesn't deny the existence of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, but still resets Kirk to a desk job, the Enterprise to someone else's hands, etc. and starts over as if from the beginning, so the new paradigm of the Doctor and Jo vs. the Master resets the Doctor, working for UNIT (and introducing new uniforms for them, the design that eventually became their classic look), to what could easily be the start, and then sets him off in this new direction.

Jo Grant has possibly the worst introduction a companion could ever ask for unless their name is Dodo. Her fire-extinguisher mistake is perhaps understandable, but having her ruin the Doctor's work through incompetence does not endear her to the audience, her absolute stupidity does nothing to further it, and the fact that she is outright declared to be here solely as the result of nepotism doesn't help, either. And then, she decends into the greatest stupidity on record for any companion ever by pointlessly blurting out to the Master about the airstrike... as some sort of tactical advantage...? Not sure at all why she did that, but it was utterly idiotic and very annoying. So, all-in-all, airhead Jo may be a good character- her heart seems to be in the right place- but her introductory serial seems to be doing everything it possibly can to bias the audience against her from the start; an odd creative choice. She can certainly fill the 'be dumb and require exposition/need rescuing' role that Liz failed in quite well. The one ray of light for her character comes in a later scene in which she is very upset, whining and carrying on- and someone tells her that she's acting like a child. She responds with incredible maturity- stopping short, considering, agreeing, and apologizing; a far better reaction than I would have were I upset and someone told me the same thing! This gave me hope for the future of her character beyond this rocky start.

Meanwhile, the Doctor sulks and defends being childish- but then, he has lots of great quotes in this serial. He’s also a clever investigator and a bit of an action hero with the bomb defusal. The brake light Morse Code was a thing of beauty, a very creatively written and extremely clever ploy- my compliments to the writers. Most significantly, he first suggests “Reversing the polarity” here, the other half of his famous catchphrase- but this time without the “Neutron flow” bit pioneered in the Silurian serial. Hopefully, soon, we shall hear the entire piece joined together…

Otherwise, the Doctor does rather annoy me a bit in his continued opposition of the millitary simply in order to oppose the military. His objections to the airstrike are completely unfounded- the plastic-animate Autons have distributed hundreds of deadly weapons and are capable of triggering them at any minute- there is no reason whatsoever that their destruction before they can act would be a bad thing; in fact, the only thing that makes the strike a bad plan at the last minute is the Doctor and Jo getting captured and placed into harm's way. The Doctor's earlier objections have no grounding and no merrit, and are thrown in just so that the Doctor can disparige violence once again. Like simillar counterpart in the New Series (David Tennant's insulting, shortsighted, and hypocrticial "You carry a gun- that makes you a bad guy in my book" to another UNIT soldier, for instance (funny how he never complains thus when visiting WWI, WWII, or being the coolest Doctors- Hartnell weilded a gun (while showing distaste for it), Matt Smith has used one, and Troughton was practically Rambo in Seeds of Death!)), this really irritates me, especially when done in such a clumsy, propaganda-style manner for no good reason other than to spread a self-important message. When it's organic to the story (say... *SHUDDER* Doctor Who and the Sillurians), fine. But when it's shoehorned into a story even when the military thing is also the logical and propper thing to do in order to save lives, then it just looks foolish and ticks me off. The knee-jerk response to the military actually being PRUDENT is getting annoying. Likewise, I can’t decide if the Doctor boiling away the contents of the defused bomb to keep UNIT from getting to it is wise, or his inner jerkish Time Lord showing through. Who is he to keep technology out of Earth’s hands? He didn’t seem to object to Earth getting new, advanced technology if it came from the frickin’ Silurians… Basically, though it is true that Earth doesn’t need another kind of bomb… that’s not really his call to make, it’s Earth’s. Perhaps it could have replaced nukes as a non-irradiating equivalent that would have ended nuclear waste, or been harnessed as a new and powerful energy source. It’s a little insulting (and continuing with the pointless anti-military diatribe new to this Doctor) to imply that he has to make that decision for us.

New (recurring) villain The Master is introduced here, played by Robert Delgado (born Roger Caesar Marius Bernard de Delgado Torres Castillo Roberto, who left a job at the bank to take up acting- and thank goodness he did!). He is an interesting villain, with a flair for hypnotism, a fatal shrinking gun, and as high (or higher) affinity for science as the Doctor. He is also stranded on Earth in a very logical way within the story, ensuring his presence as an ongoing villain. He has good dialogue and a strong presence, and I look forward to seeing more of him.

And then we have the Master's poor henchman in this serial. Poor fellow. He was just a pawn- we only saw a few seconds of him as himself, if that- and even when his colleague tried to snap him out of it, you got the sense that he could get no more than halfway there- the Master's brainwashing was that strong. (And apparently blinds both parties, if they didn't see Jo Grant's head sticking out a foot above those barrels until after they passed her...!) Still, one robotic scene aside, he was very interesting- passionately committed to his indoctrinated cause- not just a blank automotaun (Autonmoton?) carrying out orders, but a man not only whose mind and will were bent to the Master's use, but his personality and his passion, as well. This is new- typical hypnotism victims act unimaginatively and under duress in these kind of stories- but here, we see a kind of hypnotism that retains the ingenuity and willpower of the individual, just re-directing it to a new goal- dangerous indeed! While I predicted his decoy-mask end, I really pitied this man- he was a complete innocent in all of this. (As a side note, the carnival strong man under the Master's control was described as incredibly strong, but not talking much, and I sarcastically quipped while viewing “Oh, another Toberman.” Turns out it actually WAS Toberman- the same actor from Tomb of the Cybermen, typecast in a similar Earth-bound role that I am choosing to believe is Toberman’s distant ancestor).

Talking of villains, the Autons themselves are relegated to a bit more of a background presence because of the Master. We do hear a non-human-form Auton speak for the only time, get a really effective reveal of the false policemen (it made two of my three viewing companions gasp out loud in unison), and a great fight scene that includes a truly impressive (unintentionally so, as it got out of control) pel-mel tumble down a steep embankment that was truly a highlight of the episode.

Other effects of note were largely blue-screened in this serial, which seems to be turning into a Doctor Who staple. While a few of the effects demonstrate some terrible fringing and bleeding again, they overall work to create an effective sense of scale- you really believe that there is a tiny two-foot doll running around the set and interacting with people (pretty creepy in its own right), the standout effect of the episode. For the radio telescope (the Doctor and the Master have a final climactic confrontation on a radio telescope. Oh, the irony... such confrontations will not always work out well for you, Doctor!), while the locations on top of the catwalk never look real, the bluescreening provides a believable locale that doesn't feel studio bound (though the cartoon lightning is another story, triggering off an ending one part Seeds of Death and ALL PARTS the Moonbase, only cheaper, as we don't get to see the invading fleet repulsed into space this time). Even the scene in which a nervous henchman waits in the bus is noteworthy, as a bluescreened background is visible over his shoulder. Again, it didn't look real, but it impressed me with the work ethic, as it is a tiny, tiny patch- barely noticeable- that could easily have been covered up with framing or cheaped out with a false wall behind it- that the team went to all the effort of matting in a background in such a tiny window to try and sell the location is an impressive testament to the focus and commitment of the FX team.

As usual, we do still have a few moments of oddity. We get another Time Lord (an insufferable prig that cements my previous War Games impression that the Tme Lords are JERKS), followed by a bomb-dilema with probably the least well-thought-out solution ever presented to us on Doctor Who. Nearly any option would have been preferable, and just because the Doctor had nothing on-hand... contrived as it was, though, it featured a nice stunt (a truly impressive dive)- though it was outshadowed by the later, more-impressive Auton stunt. 

And the flower-masks... dissolved by carbon-dioxide from the lungs, almost instantly???? That is so completely illogical and stupid- the trapped breath in the wearer's mouth would immediately cause the mask to dissolve within seconds, making suffocation impossible! What were they thinking? That's like trying to drown a man by holding him under with paper-mache hands that instantly dissolve in water! It was very poorly explained and executed, and makes the whole premise completely absurd. And doesn’t the conjecture of the Nestene Consciousness’ natural form as an octopus-like creature, while consistent with Spearhead From Space, mean that the New Series’ premiere “Rose” got it totally wrong, and wasn’t even trying? If so, it’s really rather disappointing that show-runner Russel T. Davies didn’t at least TRY to match the descriptions given here.

And is there any reason that the inflatible chair seemed so cool when it was clearly just a blowup chair being inflated? Because it wasn't supposed to be, I suppose? For whatever reason... it was pretty cool.

Overall, despite a few odd complaints of stupid plot points or anti-millitary stances, and an extremely un-promising companion introduction, this was a fun serial. It kept a good pace and held my attention, had a fun and memorable villain, and lots of witty dialogue.

Great moments:
The animate doll, the first appearance of the Master, the quarry fight, the opening, the bomb dive, and the finale.

I give this one 5 out of 5 Tumbling Autons; I wouldn't necessarily call it a classic like Keys of Marinus or The Aztecs, but definitely a milestone, extremely entertaining, great characters, good writing, and a pace that didn't flag.

Nothing noteworthy, though the technology demonstrated seemed to be distinctly contemporary and not futuristic. I’m arbitrarily calling this one a 1971 vote.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Series 7 Overview

Series 7

Clocking in at only 4 serials long, Series 7 introduces the Third Doctor, begins the UNIT/Earth exile era, is the first in color, without TARDIS travel, with companion Liz Shaw, and a whole host of other changes- including introducing recurring villains the Autons and the Silurians (both of who only show up once or twice more in the classic series, I believe, plus two episodes in the New Series (though if you count Auton Rory it’s three, and the brief cameo in Love and Monsters would make it four, but for simplicity’s sake, and because I’ve worked so hard to try and FORGET Love and Monsters, let’s just count it as two.)) So, how did it go down?

Companion Liz Shaw started out a bit grating to me, but soon mellowed into a sympathetic (not just sympathetic to the audience, but her character was sympathetic toward other people), supportive, strong-yet-silent companion- she isn't outspoken or loud, and often more of a background presence, but she is competent, confident, and quietly supportive- so overall, I'd call her a positive- if slightly forgettable at the time due to her tendency not to be as outspoken as everyone else on the show- companion. This was her only season, so we’ll see how Jo Grant stacks up against Liz next series... Liz was written out for being entirely too competent- not needing exposition to explain things to her, and seldom needing rescue- seen as the two primary tasks of a companion. So, she was 'let go' (and, being pregnant, might have left that season anyhow). In-universe, Liz felt that she was redundant and not really needed around the Doctor, and returned to Cambridge from whence she’d been recruited. Liz did eventually get one ride in the repaired TARDIS, later in the Third Doctor’s tenure, and eventually went to work for P.R.O.B.E., another UNIT and Torchwood-like organization (as seen in the Doctor Who spinoff P.R.O.B.E.). It didn’t take long for her to return to UNIT, however, and like Ben and Polly, Sarah Jane, and the Brigadier, she is one of the few companions with an onscreen canon future to be established- as of the modern day, she is still with UNIT, and at the time of the 11th Doctor’s first visit to Sarah Jane Smith, was working a shift at the UNIT moonbase.

Meantime, the Brigadier seems to be having a little bit of an image problem- unlike his appearances in Web of Fear, Invasion, and the first serial of this series, in which he was open-minded, friendly, and competent, in the latter 3 serials he seems to be suspicious, antagonistic, doubtful, and especially possessed of that ineffable quality usually reserved for Miss Marple, Brother Cadfael, Mr. Monk, and other famous quirky detectives... in which the fellow that's never been wrong before and saved the day (and the lives of his associates) MULTIPLE times is doubted and derided as being out of his mind or overexagerating every time that he comes forward with a new theory, as if all of his past successes count for nothing. This same skepticism-without-reason is applied to the Doctor, sadly putting the Brig, who I want to like (and sometimes do) closer to the villainous madmen (see below), who also go forth in belief and action completely unswayed by logic, reason, evidence, experience, or history, when it's really unrealistic for anyone without a major mental problem to not factor in the experiences and sound advice that ought to be changing their position. The culmination of all of this is the unfortunate effect of rendering the Brigadier rather a different character than his first three appearances, and intermittently rather unlikeable; headstrong and willing to challenge the Doctor is one thing, but outright doubting him, ignoring him, disbelieving him, acting as if he doesn't have a track record of success but is some new, unknown, unproven quantity EVERY time- that's not doing the character ANY favors; and in the closing minutes of the series, the Doctor calls him on it, unsuccessfully leaving in a huff... whether this will result in a change for the next series, we shall see.

I must admit to surprise- they tease us with the TARDIS and time/space stories more often than I thought they would!

The theme of Series 7 seems to be "Madmen in charge"- obsessed, single-minded-to-the-point-of-absurdity villains who have gone slightly insane (Spearhead From Space being the exception unless you consider the Doctor or the Brig to fit that description...) This makes the season, unfortunately, more than a little annoying- "The generator must be reactivated/aliens must be killed/drilling must continue, no matter what!" can only be thrown in the face of reason so many times before it gets grating (usually... about once). 

Everyone is stuck in a position of no authority over this obsessed madman, and while it makes an effective story trait for a villain (absolute power), it makes for an obnoxious watch.
"Sir, your infant son seems to be sleeping under the drill..."
"Stop bothering me with your foolish excuses! Double the rate of drilling! We will NOT slow down!"
"Sir, your hair is on fire!"
"Stop trying to distract me! The reactor MUST be kept online! We have no room in this operation for hair fires!!!"
These guys are in defiance of all reality, and unfortunately, the character type of an obsessed despot project leader that won't listen to reason or act reasonably is becoming a stock Doctor Who character. The RPGP, as I coined it in the Silurian review, MUST be stopped.

On the plus side, we're in color. The stories are generally more good than bad (with the Silurians being the only truly-unlikeable one), and while some effects production values seem to have decreased, most of them- especially in terms of physical effects, seem to have increased dramatically. It seems that they're now doing more than one take and filming this in a more traditional style- meaning less flubs in the final product, more closeups, better editing, more practical effects and stunts... it's more professional and a lot smoother, no longer like a live theater production on TV with every gaffe noticeable and only basic editing available. The trade-off...? Fewer serials per season- 4 for this one, 5 for the next few, as opposed to the typical 8 or 10. In addition, they’re long ones; there are so many 7-parters this series simply because longer stories can keep using the same sets, writers, and cast- so we have deliberately long, slow stories to save money!

(Also, there only seems to be 1-2 special effects of note per serial, as a trade-off for all of the stunts. Being primarily Earth-based, they only have 1 or 2 showcase effects sequences per episode, whereas many BWWs had a dozen or more to comment on. Here it’s “The explosions and the alien” or “The dinosaur and the burning tunnels” or “The travel effect and the lava at the door”. Just two, and only two. Very odd.) I don't know, though... not necessarily a bad thing. Less stories is sad, but... ideally, higher production values will mean less BAD stories to make up for it.

This series was nearly the end of the program- due to low ratings, the unproven new format nearly spelled the end of the series... and thus, Doctor Who will, next series, reinvent itself yet again- retaining the Earthbound/UNIT setting, but switching companions and shifting tones... As we move on to the Third Doctor's second year, and serials begin to gradually get shorter in length (a GOOD thing!), we shall see how all of these new trends pan out...!

As for the date, serials seem split down the middle: 2 for 1970, 2 for the ‘near future’ 1980s. We’ll keep a running tally as the series progresses and see if we can’t pin down which time period we consider the era take place in...

Overall, I found one story to be horrifically bad, and the other three to be fairly good. While I can’t say that this particular series has grabbed me as much as the Hartnell/Troughton era yet, there is a definite and appreciable upturn in quality- if the upturn in writing can match and the serial length come down just a bit, then this era could truly be something to behold. It has promise, and while not my favorite of the series thus far, I enjoyed it.