Geekbat Tunes

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.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Doctor Who: Inferno

Serial Title: Inferno
Series: 7
Episodes: 7
Doctor: Jon Pertwee
Companions: Liz Shaw (Caroline John), Brigadier Alistair Lethbridge-Stewart (Nicholas Courtney)

Crazy Professor Stahlman has this nutty dream to drill down to the core of the Earth to mine pockets of gas he suspects there to create a new energy source. He also has government funding, a bevy of experts he ignores, a UNIT presence he resents, and an abrasive personality and tendency to ignore all reason in the pursuit of his dreams. Lovely.

Still, the Doctor is onboard as one of those ignored advisers in order to get him access to the base’s nuclear generator, which he is using to experiment with re-activating the TARDIS console which he has removed from the ship. Liz is there to assist him. The Brigadier is there in an official liaison capacity. Sir Keith Gold, Executive Director, is there to provide oversight that Stahlman ignores. Petra Williams is there as Stahlman’s personal assistant. And newcomer Greg Sutton, an oil drilling expert, is there to provide practical experience in case of emergency… which Stahlman ignores. Suffice it to say, of the above list, only Petra is happy to be there… though, once he lays eyes on her, Sutton doesn’t seem to mind sticking around too much.

Problems (beyond the personal ones) arise when a toxic green slime begins spewing from the drilling pipe- one of the workers touches it and begins to mutate into a feral creature, radiating incredible heat, and going entirely and murderously berserk. While the Brigadier and returning character Sergeant Benton investigate (he was in Ambassadors of Death as the nitwit who let Lennox die on his watch…), the Doctor is testing the TARDIS console- and an unexpected surge of power due to a struggle between the mutated man and a technician in the reactor control room sends the Doctor and the console hurtling through a strange dimensional void, which he barely escapes from thanks to Liz. The Doctor is certain that he had almost reached somewhere, possibly somewhere important…

The mutated creature is killed by a UNIT soldier in self-defense when the group goes to investigate the reactor room, and the Doctor recognizes its eerie sound from something he heard once… in 1883 at the explosion of Krakatoa. Outside, the Doctor encounters another mutated creature (the technician attacked by the first man) which falls to its death from a catwalk- but doesn’t see a third creature, lurking in the shadows.

In the shadow of multiple murders and the strange green goo, Stahlman… refuses to listen or halt the drilling. (The nuclear station must be restored! The Wheel must run smoothly! The gas-flow will NOT be shut down!!!) Instead, he manhandles a canister of the stuff and almost-bravely gets it inside a containment box as the container begins to fracture from the heat- his hand is briefly exposed, and he begins to mutate very slowly, hiding his condition. He also sabotages the project computer, which was reading unsafe conditions and recommending a shutdown. He also throws the Doctor out of the project, cutting off the power, and then orders the drilling ACCELERATED. Then, a baby seal shows up with a warning to slow down the project, and he axe-murders it, followed by a message from God written in the clouds that says “STIOP YOUR DRILLING,” which he responds to by ordering a dome be built over the drill-site so that no one can see the sky.

Okay, maybe those last two didn’t happen, but it wouldn’t surprise me if they did, just off screen.

The Doctor surreptitiously restores power when no one is looking and flees to his lab; Liz arrives just in time to see him and the TARDIS console vanish from reality. The Doctor, obsessed with finding out where his trip was leading, has ditched this dead-end world for… the same place? No, as he explores the area with Bessie (pulled along for the ride with him for some reason), he comes under fire, battles one of the mutated creatures atop a water tower, and finally finds Liz- a brunette Liz who pulls a gun on him- the Doctor comes to realize that he’s side-slipped onto a parallel Earth. Here, the Brigadier is the cruel and thuggish Brigade Leader, clean-shaven and wearing an eyepatch (and a large scar to prove that it’s not just for show- see, this guy I could believe committing the Silurian Genocide- okay, okay, I’ll let it go…), Liz is a fascist officer under his command, Sutton is a rebel against the totalitarian government given one last chance to be useful by aiding the slave-labor-manned drill project, Petra is a doctor with a severe dress sense, Sir Keith Gold is dead (killed in a staged car accident to prevent his attempts to shut down the project), and Stahlman… really isn’t any different. (No, that’s not just dry wit condemning his character- he really isn’t different!)

The same shenanigans have been going on in this alternate universe, but now the danger readings, mysterious murders, strange creatures, and broken computer are blamed on a saboteur- the Doctor. He is repeatedly interrogated, and even though he saves the day during a crisis with pipeline pressure, he is still thrown in a cell. His cellmate is a green, feral, beast-like creature; a Primord (so named only in the credits- like the Ewoks of Star Wars, the name is official and canonical but never spoken or known by anyone onscreen), the full result of the green slime mutation- an animalistic savage radiating incredible heat. When it kills one of the guards, the Doctor is able to escape- too late, as penetration of the crust is achieved. The Earth rocks and the bore-hole screams in howling fury; tremors and eruptions wrack the globe. In short, the Earth retaliates with a fiery fury unrivaled in all of human history. Stahlman (already infected as in our universe) enters the heated, boiling drill chamber and is sealed in… he, and the others trapped within, soon emerge as Primords and begin to attack the survivors, as the Doctor calculates that this world is doomed, and will soon tear itself apart from the crust-breaching. However, the survivors latch on to the Doctor’s plan to restore power to the TARDIS console and return him, at least warning the other Earth to prevent its following in their footsteps.

Fighting off Primords with fire extinguishers (cold is more effective against them due to their heightened heat), Petra and Greg- blossoming in a doomed romance- manage to get the power restored- but the Brigade Leader pulls a gun on the Doctor, demanding safe evacuation for the group back to his universe. The Doctor dearly wishes to save them, but can’t, as bridging the dimensional barrier with them could prove catastrophic (even though it wasn’t when he crossed over…)- when his arguments fall on the deaf ears of the desperate thug, Parallel Liz, whom he has reached, shoots him down and gives the Doctor the time he needs to escape. The Doctor begins the crossover as flowing magma roars through the complex and the end of the world accelerates…

But it may be too late- in our universe, a few hours behind its counterpart (and thus drilling has not yet reached the critical point), Sir Keith Gold has also gone to his superiors to lobby for shutting the drilling down, and after his driver’s bribe and orders from Stahlman to delay him are discovered, the car gets into a crash- perhaps the events the Doctor has seen ahead in the other universe are inevitable! And even if it isn’t, the Doctor arrives in our universe, comatose from the traumatic crossing… with only three hours left to go on the drilling, the time is ticking down.

Murmurings in his sleep get the attending Liz thinking about concerns to the drilling project, especially as things he half-coherently warns of begin to happen. When the Doctor awakens in a half-manic state, he spurs into action, and begins smashing equipment in the drilling control room. Judged to be still delirious, he is restrained by UNIT soldiers and removed from the buildings- but Liz finds evidence to confirm his ravings, an realizes that the Doctor is right on the money. Repairing the computer, she is able to confirm the Doctor’s dire warnings- as outside, the Doctor uses his Vensuian Karate to escape his escort and return to the drill shaft, as Sir Keith shows up- alive, but with a broken arm, showing the Doctor that events CAN be changed.

One thing is destined to happen, though- Stahlman reaches a critical point in his mutation, and instinct takes over- smearing himself with more of the goo, he completely hulks out into a full Primord. He emerges to attack as the drill reaches critical and warnings sound all over the complex…

The Earth is then destroyed.

Not buying it? Okay, no, actually Stahlman is subdued with a fire extinguisher and Greg Sutton manages an emergency shutdown of the generator. The Doctor announces that, with the console functional again, he is leaving. He and the Brig exchange harsh words when the latter objects to his departure, and the Doctor vanishes… only to reappear, bedraggled, moments later, having made a jump directly into the nearby garbage dump and breaking down. Chagrined, he mends fences and grovels a bit to get the Brigadier’s help in retrieving the console, as an amused Liz looks on.

The season-ending Inferno is quite an interesting story which at first seems to be shaping up as something quite different than what it turns out to be. We dip into the Star Trek Mirror Universe conceptual spring for this parallel-Earth tale about a brunette Liz and a clean-shaven, eye-patched Brigadier on an alternate, totalitarian and oppressive Earth, the manically obsessed professor drilling through the Earth’s crust to reach the mantle in both worlds, and to a lesser extent, a mysterious green possibly-sentient goo that mutates humans into green-skinned versions of Lon Chaney’s Wolfman makeup. Yikes! Let’s get into it…

The story does a good job of bait-and-switch, setting up what seems to be a standard-beyond-standard by-the-numbers alien invasion/zombie plot- and then throwing things in a totally different direction, doing enough establishing work to get you good and familiar with the scenario so as to recognize it in the parallel world, and then cutting loose with, essentially, a cautionary tale- not only a disaster story in the alternate world, but a picture of what the Doctor must return in time to PREVENT in our own world. They even throw in another twist, as the story in the parallel world lasts long past the drilling and into an Armageddon-survivor post-apocalyptic scenario, trying to get the Doctor home while under siege by monsters overrunning the base.

The Brigadier has another unfortunate serial in which he is sometimes on the Doctor’s side but sometimes not, though certainly far more positive than the Silurian madness. He is firm and authoritative (as much as his position allows) in dealing with the mad professor, but he’s still in Ms. Marple Mode (MMM), doubting or mistrusting the Doctor who has yet to be wrong (unless you count the Silurian incident, which the Brig might- but since the Doctor doesn’t show any evidence of acting or being motivated based on those events, why should we assume the Brig is?)- which the Doctor calls him on at the end, and rightly so. Does their reconciliation mean a change in the Brig’s character for next series? We shall see. Meanwhile, Nicholas Courtney gets a chance to stretch his acting legs with a turn as the nasty, cruel, thuggish, and selfish Brigade Leader, who becomes the piece’s secondary villain by the end- a nice evil mirror universe character to have fun with.

Liz – in her swan song, after a very brief 4-serial run- gets a bit more to do as the sinister-but-smart evil counterpart of herself, who, just like the real article, is the first to give the Doctor a chance and believe in the possibilities. In the end, she’s the one that takes charge and acts as the voice of reason (shooting the Brigade Leader), allowing the Doctor to escape and warn our Earth. (In fact, the actress said she had more fun playing her evil doppelganger than she did her regular role!)

In the real world, she only has the first and last episodes and a few cutaways, but manages to be both supportive and stern in warning the Doctor off of another ‘test run,’ and has a great scene in which she realizes what he’s up to. So… still fairly background in her this-universe incarnation, but in her alternate persona, the actress finally gets a chance to break out of the background. I think Liz may end up going down as one of the meekest and mildest companions in Doctor Who history (save for her initial appearance). She hasn’t given me a strong character impression to counteract her initial noxiousness, but while I still don’t have a strong positive impression of her character, her gently supporting and sympathizing nature, and tendency not to call much attention to behavior negative or positive, has managed to soothe away the initial feelings. To put it more simply, she hasn’t done anything to make me ‘love’ her the way Jamie, Zoe, Steven, Ian, Barbara, etc. have… but I don’t dislike her, either. She’s on my good side in general, but more towards the middle neutral ‘I don’t mind them one way or another’ median than towards any extreme of like or dislike.

The Doctor has a number of moments, from his Karate bits to several good action and chase scenes in both worlds to his taking charge and smashing the controls at the end to his TARDIS trip and surreptitious theft of power to complete the TARDS-console trip midway through, a very clever gambit. He has an excellent farewell/exit scene at the end that we, as the audience, know won’t pan out, and indeed his situation gets reset seconds later, denying him time/space travel once again- and he has yet another great scene to end with. He also has a wonderful moment describing himself as feeling like a ‘shipwrecked man’ without the TARDIS and his ability to travel in time and space- a lovely and moving picture of the Doctor’s torment in exile. He is take-charge in this serial in a way not seen since Troughton in Seeds of Death, active and in-charge, even as a prisoner. He has great moments in his interrogation and escape, as well. He also has a number of great quotes- about computers “I don’t care for them myself, but they are tools, and if you have a tool, it’s stupid not to use it,” about the console’s humble appearance “You were expecting a rocket ship with Batman in it?”, and about the professor himself… when he announces to the professor that “You, sir, are a nitwit!” you want to cheer and give him a high-five, because you’ve been wanting to say the same thing to him for the last hour! (In addition, the radio announcement scene near the end in the mirror universe is clearly Pertwee’s voice- and was indeed cut from the original British broadcast for being too recognizable).

Yes, Professor Stahlman is a pain in the neck, another stock RPGP character in the Robson/Lawrence/Carrington mode, driven by Hollywobsession, the kind of obsession that presumably occurs only in TV shows and movies, and involves a completely unreasonable degree of insane, unyielding, driving obsession which not only cannot stop, but cannot slow down long enough to take measures that will ensure its own success in the long run until you begin to suspect that the character is not so interested in their end goal (drilling through to penetration) as they are to the action that they seem to be contributing more to (running the drill as fast as they can without stopping EVER) since their choice to repeatedly endorse the latter action is actually endangering the success of the former goal! And he does so to a dangerous degree, actually smashing safety equipment and the like! Strangely, in the parallel universe of evil counterparts and fascist, totalitarian doppelgangers… he doesn’t really seem any different.

Stahlman is among the more annoying of the specimens of this already-annoying archetype, as he is in active denial whereas others like Lawrence and Robson seem to simply gloss over the valid points that others make instead of acknowledging them and then refuting them based on total illogic. His insistence on doing so, however, is his downfall- when he picks up the canister the Doctor warned him to avoid (a very cool scene with the fracturing container, by the way) for apparently no other reason than to SPITE THE DOCTOR who was telling him not to touch it for his own safety. It’s the only explanation for his not grabbing a glove, some cloth, simply turning the box upside-down on top of it, etc.- the infection that turns him into a monster and kills him (I think? Or paralyzes him? The monsters of this serial, their nature, and their fate, are really not well elaborated-upon) comes from his own insistence on doing a completely illogical thing contrary to his long-term goals simply for the express purpose of NOT doing the smart thing that someone else just told him to do, very much like a pouting, petulant child.

The monster concept was pretty cool, as is the notion of intense heat radiating from them, which I don’t think was always consistently portrayed, but was very neat whenever it was. Funnily enough, the Primords were an addition to the script to help pad out the 7-episode length.

As for his staff, though, I have to ask, just as I did for Robson, Charles, and Carrington (and many others)- just how loyal are his staff? At point do you just say “This guy is nuts and clearly very ill, staring off into space and groaning, doubled-over, while racked with pain- I am going to have to say that this guy is not in his right mind and I am not going to listen to him anymore, I’m going to follow established safety procedures.”? Loyalty is great and all, but- what have these RPGPs, these ranting, obsessed, insulting, belittling, decidedly-non-people-person, non-confidence-inspiring, selfish, introverted, demanding, impatient, short-tempered cruel bosses done to inspire their workers to follow them into the very gates of Hell? I mean, leaders like Washington, Patton, and Macarthur likely had trouble inspiring such loyalty in their troops; what the heck would these people- hired employees in all cases but General Carrington- have POSSIBLY done to inspire such loyalty and unwavering, unquestioning obedience in the men whose lives are being actively endangered by their ignoring every safety protocol and scrap of prudence?

Then there’s Greg Sutton, the oil rig driller. (Whose actor is a Who veteran, having first appeared as Za in An Unearthly Child) Not exactly Mr. Congeniality (at least to the prof. he’s nice to everyone else, and it’s only after he’s snubbed that he gets caustic), he says things like they are, and seems intent on the roughest, most drag-her-out-of-the-cave-by-the-hair, least tender, most-aggression-based romance ever seen on the face of the Earth (or as we Trek fans call it, a Kahn/McGuyvers romance) with the prof’s assistant, who he lumps into his aggressions for being a meek sheep to the crazy boss.

In the alternate universe, he is quite right in pointing out everyone’s futility in continuing on with their actions in the face of Armageddon, and at first seemed like the bloke to root for, bucking the tiresome totalitarian authority, beyond caring about the consequences… but he became quite obsessed in his own way with a completely and equally illogical need to escape. Considering that everywhere was equally doomed, is there any reason that his last days couldn’t be more fulfilling NOT risking his life in escape attempts to nowhere? Perhaps pursuing the potential romance he had right where he was? So, he became a bit annoying in his hypocrisy, challenging the illogical adherence to orders in the face of death to advocate his own illogical need to escape the compound in the face of death.

Sir Keith Gold was a nice and likable fellow who didn’t get much focus- save for the bizarre driving/chauffeur scene, but he was polite, considerate, concerned for others, safety-conscious, and acted as the voice of reason- not quite an everyman, but one that the everyman can easily identify with emotionally, if not in terms of position. It’s little surprise that such a reasonable fellow was killed off in the alternate universe, but it was nice when they threw us a curve in our world and spared his life. I liked him.

And lastly, the professor’s assistant, a passive-aggressive woman with a strangely vulnerable side in the alternate universe. Too much of a minor character in our own world to really review, she was a heroic and brave character- like alternate-Liz, a far more open and reasonable (for some reason, all of the parallel-males are just thick and obstinate- I suppose some might say that it’s a trait not reserved solely for the parallel Earth…) character who saw what needed to be done and risked her life to do it.

As far as production values, there were some great clearly-a-real-person fall stunts (in fact, the shot of a Primord falling off of a tank/catwalk near the end was, at the time, the highest fall ever performed by a British stuntman- not exactly the traditional perception of Doctor Who as a show made on-the-cheap), some nice combat, and a great chase sequence with the Doctor and Bessie. The introduction of Venusian Karate, giving the Doctor a chance to finally have something other than fast-talking to aid him in various confrontations, was a welcome change, a cool concept, and made for several fun moments- “Have you ever seen anything like THIS?” Sets and locations were good.

Music was minimalist, but good when used. Sound effects were pretty good- especially compared to the recent ear-piercing Silurian hogwash. I had hoped that we were seeing the Third Doctor Sonic Screwdriver with the ‘door handle device,’ but since there were two, I’m guessing it was a separate device.

Effects were generally positive- though the first travel sequence made use of some fairly stock camera/mirror tricks, it used them to generally good effect- reminiscent of the travel sequence from The Daleks’ Master Plan, actually. The curtain-of-bubbles transition was a simple but effective way of identify transitions between universes, and the parallel narrative, while it surprised me, was good at building the suspense. The volcano footage was put to good effect, and the lava-flow-through-the-doorway was rather impressive- technically simple but visually striking, a very iconic and effective image. Even the camera shake for the earthquake long shots was far more natural than such shots normally look, a very smooth execution for an often slipshod camera technique. And the man responsible for it all, VFX supervisor Jack Kine, is forever immortalized… as the face of the totalitarian regime leader on the posters.

The cliffhangers on this one felt a little sloppier, not quite as effective as the Ambassadors of Death, and the makeup- though it looked pretty good in patches or partial-mutants, was pretty hokey in its final form. Still, that lava/doorway shot… man, was that cool!!! And of course, we’re left with a deep-Earth menace never explored or explained, a menace bubbling deep beneath the surface that may return some day…

And speaking of returning someday, as per the novels, the Doctor’s estimates of mirror Earth’s destruction were a bit exaggerated… and though it was rendered nearly uninhabitable, a group of survivors managed to steal the TARDIS of the alternate-Master (a good guy in that universe) and bridge the gap to our universe- where they were (understandably) enraged that their crossing over did no harm, thus meaning that the Doctor could have saved them, and went on a campaign to destroy the Doctor, eventually being thwarted by UNIT, in conjunction with a 20-years more aged Ian and Barbara. Of course, as with all novels, this is not canon. Still, an interesting notion (that makes the ending here a bit bitter).

Great moments:
Venusian karate, the Doctor calling Stahlman a nitwit, and the lava through the doorway.

This story ends the series on a high point, garnering 4 out of 5 “Shoes!”, marred only by slightly slow pacing at first and a patently obnoxious stock villain. Still, this is a very good showing for the Third Doctor’s era, and a recommendation to watch. Most significantly, this is the final appearance of the original TARDIS console, which has been in use since An Unearthly Child all the way back in the pilot- it is fitting, then, that the console become a centerpiece of this particular story. Farewell, TARDIS v1.0- it shall be a long time until we see your like again. Or even the TARDIS again. Rats.

Nothing in particular implies a date. Slightly futuristic drilling technology and computer capabilities are offset by the fact that the computer technology is decidedly contemporary. Sure, there’s nuclear power, a drill that can reach the Earth’s core, etc., but nothing to suggest these aren’t meant to be contemporary. Still... the Doctor does end it by referencing the years he’s known the Brigadier, so I’m going to have to give this one the future-1980s nod.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Doctor Who: The Ambassadors of Death

Serial Title: Ambassadors of Death
Series: 7
Episodes: 7
Doctor: Jon Pertwee
Companions: Liz Shaw (Caroline John), Brigadier Alistair Lethbridge-Stewart (Nicholas Courtney)

Britain’s space program’s third ship to Mars (you remember when that happened, right?) is nearing its intended target- Britain’s second ship to Mars, which has been in trouble and communicating erratically. In mission control, that genocidal maniac the Brigadier (okay, henceforth, how about we pretend that abomination never happened so that I don’t have to hate the Brig for life?) watches as the rendezvous goes horribly wrong, and the capsules are cut off by a terrible noise. The Doctor soon arrives with Liz, having heard the sound on the live TV broadcast- when it comes again, he identifies it as a message of some sort, of non-terrestrial origin. And what’s more- it’s being answered. The signal is triangulated to a nearby warehouse- and when UNIT investigates, they find themselves engaged in a running firefight with plainclothes military troops. Meanwhile, in the space center, technician Taltalian pulls a gun on the Doctor and attempts to steal the recording of the message the Doctor has. He’s thwarted, and runs off.

The capsule, Recovery 7, returns to Earth, and UNIT escorts it back to the center when they discover that it’s locked from the inside and they cannot get in. However, a military raid by more of the plainclothes troops steals the capsule away. The Doctor gives chase to the truck (lorry) in Bessie and manages to get the capsule back. However, when the capsule is opened, it is revealed to be empty, save for a tape recorder playing back faked recordings of the astronaut’s voices over the radio. The interior is also highly irradiated…

Army General Carrington has the three space-suited figures, removed during the raid (he’s been responsible for the military actions thus far) and are irradiating them further; as per him, they need radiation to survive. Sir James Quinlan, Minister for Technology (FOR Technology, mind you, not ‘of’- clearly his job is to represent the province of ‘Technology’ in parliament and govern it wisely) introduces the Doctor to Carrington, who feeds him a false story about a contagious form of radiation that the astronauts had been infected with, necessitating their enforced quarantine.

However, the three suited figures are abducted by a violent criminal that kills the scientists attending them- and he himself is found, dead and irradiated, in a gravel pit sometime later. Someone has abducted the astronauts without a trace and killed all the witnesses! In fact, this man is Lennox, a disgraced Cambridge professor (I sense Liz back story coming up!), who maintains them with high radiation. His partner, a thug named Reegan, abducts Liz to assist Lennox. Taltalian also works for him, and sets a bomb to kill the Doctor- but is himself killed by it, the timer having been set to ‘0,’ despite what he’d been told- another witness eliminated.

One of the astronauts appears at the space center, demonstrating a deadly and lethal explosive touch. Quinlan is killed, and when the Brigadier tries to intervene, the astronaut is proved to be bulletproof. It escapes… and so does Lennox, back at the secret holding cell. These astronauts are not astronauts, but alien beings who have taken their place. Liz and Lennox have built a device capable of communicating with them (though not understanding them) and forced one of them into this raid under threat of cutting off the radiation… they themselves under threat from Reegan to accomplish this. Now, Lennox’s conscience has got the better of him, and he defects to UNIT for protective custody… but there are agents on the inside, and one slips a radioactive canister into Lennox’s cell, killing him in a fit of poetic justice before he can testify.

The Doctor decides that the answer to all of this madness must lie with the other capsule (the one Recovery 7 was initially sent to rendezvous with) still up in orbit, having been towed there by the recovered capsule. Recovery 7 is fitted to a new rocket, and the Doctor decides to take it up using the new M3 variant fuel, a powerful accelerator. Reegan attempts to sabotage the launch by flooding the tanks with M3 variant (instead of a small additive amount as planned), making the launch far more powerful than anticipated and killing the Doctor with the increased G-forces. The Brigadier manages to drive Reegan off before he can finish (though he gets away); the launch is rough, but the Doctor survives.

As he maneuvers to investigate the other capsule, however, both ships are dwarfed by a gigantic alien craft that takes him aboard. There, he finds the three missing astronauts, in hypnosis to believe that they’re simply in post-mission quarantine back on Earth. The aliens of the craft demand the return of their ambassadors on Earth within one day, or they will destroy the planet. These ambassadors (the three in the suits) were sent to Earth to broker a treaty between this unnamed race and mankind, but their abduction has seriously jeopardized this agreement.

Immediately upon landing, the Doctor is abducted by Reegan (WHAT NINCOMPOOP IS OVERSEEING SECURITY FOR UNIT?!?!?!) and taken to Liz, and to his employer- Reegan is working for Carrington. As it turns out, Carrington was an astronaut on the first Mars mission, where they met this alien race- not native to Mars, but likewise exploring the planet. (Lucky for him he didn’t run into any Ice Warriors…). In what was meant to be a peaceful contact, one of the aliens returned the handshake of Carrington’s partner, Jim Daniels- and the unexpected explosive touch killed Daniels instantly and gruesomely. The traumatized Carrignton, convinced that these beings were of the purest evil, then falsely accepted their sincere apologies and made arrangements for them to travel to Earth and sign a treaty (the second capsule’s mission all along, which only seemed to go haywire because only Carrington knew about the planned loss of communication and astronaut-swap) all under false pretense; believing this treaty to only be a prelude to invasion, Carrington laid these plans to capture the ambassadors and coerce them into violence (what he believes to be their true nature anyway), revealing their ‘hostile intentions’ to the world at large and allowing him to wage war against the aliens, rather than letting the world be ‘duped’ by their peaceful intentions.

Carrington takes one of the Ambassadors to wreak havoc at mission control on live television, planning to unmask their hideous appearance and galvanize the world against them. The Doctor and Liz (kept on as replacements for Lennox) are put to work on an improved communications device- the Doctor instead rigs up a morse code transmitter and sends an SOS to UNIT under the guise of testing the alien translation device. The Brigadier- arrested by Carrington for opposing his insane agenda- pulls off an impressive escape, and frees a handful of his UNIT men. Short on transport, they ride to the rescue in Bessie and shoot their way in, arresting Reegan and freeing the Doctor and Liz. The entire group races to mission control with the Ambassadors, where the Doctor uses their impervious nature to smash through Carrington’s troops and demolish his defenses. Carrington is forced to stand down, and is taken under arrest. The last ambassador is rescued, and the three are returned to their people in exchange for the astronauts- the Doctor remembering NOT to shake their hands as they depart.

The Ambassadors of Death was, perhaps, slower than it ought to be. Don’t get me wrong; it was a good conspiracy/spy/mystery story, with plenty of espionage, and the space program junkie in me simultaneously laughed and lauded the portrayal of a British Mars Landing program in the 1980s. The Doctor as an astronaut? Awesome. The Brigadier rocking some battle scenes? Right on, man! Mysterious signal triangulation? I’m down with that! 2-3 episodes shorter? Absolutely warranted. A little more abbreviated, and this one would have been spot on. As it is, its spy-thriller, government-conspiracy-you-can’t-trust-anyone, and ethereal ET-like strange alien visitors flavoring (complete with great ethereal music for the latter) are very strong and have a lot going for them; it’s just not as excellent as it could’ve been with some flab trimmed. And UNIT doesn’t look terribly competent between ignoring a prisoner with information and then letting him be killed while in custody (but hey, look, major Benton! He will grow in importance in the series as time progresses, I’m told), and the warehouse battle in which they make the defenders of the Chateau in The War Games look like a mash-up of the A-team and the Expendables being led by Rambo and executing a plan co-authored by general Patton and Grand Admiral Thrawn.

Though, to be fair, it wasn’t bad UNIT tactics, just bad scriptwriting and filming. UNIT soldiers were behind cover, with machine guns, and military training- losing against a mongrel mutt squad comprised of street-clothes soldier and petty crooks, firing hand guns from behind… nothing. They were standing right out in the open. Yet half a dozen UNIT men fall- mostly from suddenly standing up and running straight at the enemy, chest thrust forward and gun pointed at the ground, until they were killed, in the standard movie nonsensical soldier-death move- before a single one of their enemies is brought down. If they’d just staged things in the reverse- UNIT with no cover, the mongrel-mix behind boxes with superior weapons, it might’ve been believable. Likewise, the ridiculous bungling of the Mexican standoff between the Brigadier and an enemy leader- in which a soldier sneaks up behind him with a heavy swinging weight, and somehow in the ensuing scuffle manages to hit and knock over the Brigadier, disarming him of his pistol, while the barely winged enemy holds onto his with ease, putting both of them at his mercy, is just plain SAD. Yes, it’s necessary for the surprise moment where he drops his gun and surrenders to them despite having both of them unarmed and at his mercy, but this surprise turnabout could’ve been set up with much better staging that doesn’t make UNIT look like the squad drilled out of the Three Stooges for being too clumsy. All that said- and the major complaint (other than the pacing) for the serial now aside, the Brigadier almost singlehandedly makes up for this with an awesome stalwart display of fighting machismo and skill (if I used the term Bada… errr… Bad-bum, then it would most certainly apply here)- firing his pistol thrice- straight out to his left, forward, and out to his right, and apparently felling one man with each shot, sending the first tumbling down the stairs in-frame behind him. Likewise, his escape from armed guards and fighting prowess in the final episode’s combat really suggests that the rest of UNIT is just slowing him down. So, a bad episode for UNIT’s competency, but a great one for the Brig.

There are a lot of little bits and notes, so forgive me if I jump around a bit more than usual. Let’s start with the visuals…
The models are all very good. Nicely detailed, Apollo-mission looking (not sure if they’re originals, kit-bashes, or just straight-up builds of an off-the-shelf-but-somewhat-inaccurate Apollo command/service module model), which is a major plus to me.

That said… the capsule wobble visibly on their strings in space, something that there’s no excuse for in 1970. The rocket liftoff has a terrible animated flame and really stiff, fake-looking 70s bluescreening that was roughly on par with the Star Wars Holiday Special- it somehow manages not just to be fake, but ultra-fake. (Though it’s an awesome sequence and they did a great job with the Doctor in G-forces) The main screen in mission control, though nicely done, suffers from major blue screen fringing and breaking up around the railings, giving it away rather plainly. On the plus side, the mini pop-up screen with a venetian blind transition on is executed flawlessly. Also excellent is the alien spaceraft model (if a bit 2D-cutout-moving-around-the-screen looking, it’s still a very cool design that reminds me of a cousin of the later Sycorax ship in the New Series Christmas Invasion) and the model of the interior was very, very well realized. The bluescreening of the Doctor walking along the corridor was flawlessly done for the time, and while obvious as bluescreening to modern eyes, it holds up incredibly well for a period effect, and the angle of plane-matching up to the floor is spot-on. This is easily the best effect I’ve seen in Classic Who thus far, and creates a fantastic, expansive alien environment. 

Not so fantastic? The alien’s killer touch, which is just a flash-frame of red using that paintbrush from MS Paint that has pixelly starburst coming off the sides, like it’s supposed to be a spray or something. Except, you know… done long before MS Paint was around. Still, it looks cheap. Practical effects for the aliens are FAR better- excellent (only occasionally glimpsed, heightening the alien feeling) makeup, practical explosions well-timed and well-filmed, a seamless telekinetically-lifting-the-gate effect at the end… these are all pulled off fantastically, and really sell the alien ambassadors. And one last practical effect, the James-Bond-ish cargo truck (errr… Lorry) that changes it’s plates and then it’s sidewalls… doesn’t come off quite so well, as the jump-cut transition tricks also have significant background changes that ruin the effect. (Plus, it’s never explained in the end… is this army technology…? Alien…? How did they change the appearance of the truck instantaneously? Do they have holograms in this world, and we’re never told about it?)  Much better jump-cut effects accompany the Liz/Doctor time displacement scene, and the near-perfect ‘displacement’ scene with the tape recording, which looks FANTASTIC- a testament to Pertwee’s miming ability, it really creates a believable effect of Pertwee simply pulling the disc out of the air. Major kudos. Likewise, good miming work for Bessie’s ‘Anti-theft device’ (a fun and very whimsical Doctor scene, as detailed below).

And lastly, on a visual note of another kind… this is the first of Third Doctor lost episodes. However, unlike the Hartnell and Troughton missing episodes in which all video is lost, only the color prints were lost for some Third Doctor stories. This means that the serial fluctuates back and forth from black and white to color, sometimes fading mid-scene, often cutting disorientingly along with a change of location- we just pop from a black and white scene in a field to a sudden color interior; it makes for a very odd viewing experience. It doesn’t affect the watchability, just makes things slightly surreal. (And just this month, the new colorized version is being released on DVD at long last!)

This was also a strong episode for the audio… sort of. It premieres the ‘rising whine’ sound that any viewers of the New Series will know always leads into the opening credits and ending credits, a high-pitch piercing… I don’t know, it’s too sharp a sound to call a whine. Let’s call it a… ‘Pirr.’ You know, like Christopher Eccleston regenerates into David Tennant, and he says a great line about new teeth, and then: “Where were we? Ah, yes… Barcelona.” Pirrrrrrrrr… bad-dur-um-dum, Dun-dun-duh-duh-duh, dun-dun-duh-duh-duh, dun-dun-duh-duh-duh, DUN-dun-duh-duh-duh… whooooo-eeeee-ooooooo, weeee-ooooo-oooo… dum dum dum, DUMMMMMM-dum dum… you know, the ending credits music? Yeah, it’s that sound. That totally starts here. (Who fans call it 'the scream.') Unless they changed it for the DVD or something. The next serial will tell. As does the clever practice of cutting straight to the credits, no fade (We’ve gone from ‘Hold awkwardly on a long shot while next episode’s title is superimposed over the actors holding position for way too long’ to ‘hold the shot for too long and fade out on it’ to ‘run end credits over the last shot and fade it out pretty quickly’ to ‘awkward half-second fade to black, then fade in the credits’, and now ‘jump cut from cliffhanger moment directly to credit title card’, which is very effective at increasing the cliffhanger tension.) And the practice of doing the opening credits, showing the cliffhanger recap, then cutting to the serial title, and finally to the resolution- a nice solution for the format. (Sadly, retrospect has demonstrated that this was a one-time experiment in this serial- a pity, as I like this format best of all! Still, the next serial will go right back to the ‘opening sequence followed by a long title card and credits showing the serial title and then finally cut back into the cliffhanger from last week and its resolution’ format. Rats!)

(Speaking of the aforementioned cliffhangers, they have these down pat- the Third Doctor serials have had some of the best cliffhangers I’ve seen. The end of Episode Two, as the Doctor spouts nonsense phrases into the radio and receives the same static replies from the astronauts, the camera dollying in on his face, his expression growing more tense, the music building in a slow, low rumble, until his head snaps up and he tersely announces “All right, cut it open!” in almost a cold fury, is a sight to behold- magnificent in that it’s not a cliffhanger from danger or a sudden revelation, but simply from the tension of the situation and fantastic acting. A description is guaranteed not to do it justice- do yourself a favor and go see it in-context! I literally exclaimed out loud when I saw it. (Note from Future Andrew: And essentially a cliffhanger unrivaled until Colin Baker almost 20 seasons later- and even then, more or less a tie! This is one of the best cliffhangers of all time!))

Also, this serial is notable for its music. Sometimes good… and sometimes utterly horrible. What’s with the jaunty organ music for all of the space capsule shots during a tense rendezvous? Seriously, what is UP with that? Tonally inept, to say the least, but unintentionally hilarious in its juxtaposition. Most of the score falls into this so-good-it’s-bad category; it’s not bad music, just bad music for the scene it’s attached to.  Still, parts of it are quite good, such as the aforementioned ethereal ET/Mac and Me/etc. theme for the aliens, which is otherworldly and slightly magical- the perfect ‘aliens with incredible powers walk among us’ wonderment for this story.

Then, there are stunts and performances:
During the bizarre assault on UNIT, we are treated to a truly cool helicopter sequence (the Jihad has ended! Hoorah!) in which a UNIT man tries to break inside, riding on the strut before being thrown off- something I can’t see BWW accomplishing on its budget!

The Time Displacement bit at the beginning, though a little silly, is a fun little bit to remind us that Time/Space travel haven’t left us for good, just taken a little vacation. Nice touch!

The Liz chase in a water treatment plant… or park… or something… was well done, if a little clumsily choreographed. It was fun. Likewise, while there’s nothing especially standout about the assault on the fuel depot, it was nicely executed with some good stunts and a solid ending chase/finale.

Whether intentional ironic humor or unintentional bad writing humor, I liked the running gag that the order to shut the gates always comes to the checkpoint seconds after they’ve waved the vehicle-to-be-stopped through.

And the best bits were definitely in the last episode- the Doctor’s gambit of pretending to build an alien comm. device and building an SOS telegraph instead (a signal my lovely wife recognized immediately) was intelligent and funny, a deftly written twist subtly conveyed and brimming with humor; major kudos. And in the much less subtle, brazenly comedic vein, the notion of having all of the transport seized, followed by the suggestion “Well, sir, there’s always the Doctor’s car…” The expression on Lethbridge-Stewart’s face, followed by the immediate jump cut to armed UNIT cavalry riding to the rescue in Bessie, was absolutely and utterly priceless. (Secondary kudos to acknowledging the fact that having your car all shot up in the escape might adversely affect its performance!)

And last in the potpourri, a few conceptual complaints…
So, this is UK Mission Control. Because England has always had such great space ambitions. Now, I know we find out this is hardly their first launch- 3rd at least heading to Mars- but, really? Three people in one room is their mission control? If you watch Apollo 13 or From the Earth To The Moon, you see row after row of technicians at computer stations- 3-4 banks of them, each with a different section to monitor… and what you don’t see is the entire rooms of people receiving the same telemetry, working for each of those men and communicating by radio. Each of the dozens of controllers at Houston is like the Electoral College member for a US state- one person representing many, many more. It takes hundreds to man a rocket flight, and here they have… like, 3? Then again, perhaps that’s how it works when it’s modeled after a Parliamentary system?

And they’re even more short-staffed, because one of the three is a certified IDIOT- he continues to insist that the SPECIFIC SIGNAL WITH PICTOGRAPHIC DATA ENCODED IN IT THAT REPEATS EXACTLY AT SPECIFIC INTERVALS is random static. So, not exactly a rocket scientist, then… which is precisely whom you would want to have staffing mission control.

Oh, and they only have one computer? A singular one, so that sabotaging it will put a serious dent in the investigation? I know at the time computers were rare, but this is MISSION CONTROL FOR A MARS MISSION. Surely there must be more than one computer? It’s certainly too technologically early for a virus to be on the network…

They also decided to go Russian-style and have the capsule land on land, out in the middle of a field. Not really a complaint, just an interesting note. And they did remember the Service module/capsule difference, showing a Service module in orbit, but just a capsule on land, implying an orbital jettison. So, points for that. That the hatch was sealed and couldn’t be opened without cutting through with a welding torch? And they just had to put it on a truck (tumbling around the astronauts inside who-knows-how-badly) and haul it back to base (Mission control, the launch facility, forensics, and astronaut training seem to be all combined into one facility- they weren’t in real life) to do anything with it? This is almost as poor design as the controls (see below); in real life, capsule hatches were sealed from the outside, and I’m pretty sure designed to be opened from the outside in case of emergency. You know, in case the astronauts are incapacitated, you’d kind of want help to be able to get to them? Unless they’re saying the aliens sealed it in a way it wasn’t designed to be?

Finally, the interior design of the capsule as the Doctor is preparing to go is simply atrocious; the astronaut cannot physically reach the controls without unbuckling, getting up, and walking over to them- they are far out of arm’s reach, and impossible to get to while on their back. This is the equivalent of making your airline cockpit out of a stretch limo cabin, with the pilot seated at the back, and the control stick on the front wall, so that while seated, the pilot cannot actually fly the plane. It’s so absurd that words fail me on how absurd it is. Oh, wait… as absurd as UNIT’s combat skills in the first few episodes. Yep, that about describes it.

Anyhow, gripes aside, we did have a wide cast of memorable characters.
They range from the minor (the three hypnotized astronauts who can’t see their true surroundings are effectively creepy just for how normal they’re acting in bizarre surroundings), to small (the crazy bearded guy who sabotages the computer and threatens the Doctor at gunpoint- and then meets a pretty impressive explosive end, and the poor incompetently-handled defecting scientist who knew Liz, who more or less dies from UNIT neglect) to major… like our crazy general.

While a bit of a cliché, he works as a character- someone who saw a best friend killed instantly and brutally by a single touch of an alien being, who now wants to defend Earth from them. His methods get a little over-the-top and start to fly in the face of all logic, but that’s what obsession does, and his motivation for that obsession seems reasonable (I think this is what the Doctor says he ‘understands’ at the end). What makes him so unhingedly-disturbing toward the end is just how normal he can act sometimes; there’s no clue to his madness until he completely wigs out. He makes a good villain, feeling only slightly stale in ‘stock character’ terms, but having fairly good presence for the series. His thugs are a little more bland and unremarkable, antagonistic enough that you’re glad to see them get their comeuppance, but not terribly memorable.

The Brigadier has little to do until the last chapter or two, bungling things pretty badly near the start (okay, he was up against a conspiracy, but he shouldn’t have neglected a defecting prisoner with valuable information so long, especially when potential informants have been getting assassinated so commonly in the last day or two). Still, he proves to be the ONLY competent UNIT soldier in the first battle, saves the Doctor’s rocket (partially), and really takes charge, putting on an impressive one-man show of a daring escape and strong combat in the final chapter. Not so much character development in this one, unfortunately- something badly needed after his character was run into the ground in the Silurian serial. Hopefully some needed character development will come his way soon. Regardless, he seems mostly back to his Spearhead-self; if a little less open-minded yet again, he is at least fully behind the Doctor.

Liz is likewise well-served in ‘moments,’ but not as much in character; however, her dynamic varies by having about 1/5 character development, 2/5 action, and 2/5… absence. In other words, a greater proportion of character-moments-to-memorable-scenes, but at the cost of having less time in the serial overall. Regardless, in addition to a good chase, some decent ‘convict the bad guy you used to know who has a conscience and just needs a little nudge to return to the side of good so play on his conscience with repeated pleas while you’re both captured and working under the nose of the bad guys’ scenes (a cinematic convention first designed by a Sir Lawrence Wicktenshire in 1653 whilst out pheasant hunting, passed on to his heirs in the hope that cinema would one day be invented to employ his idea to proper usage, and imported to the Americas from the Wicketnshire estate by Charlie Chaplain in 1909, for the sum of $32.97, the modern equivalent of 1.7 Billion dollars.), Liz also has a number of good moments with the Doctor. Aside from the slightly silly slapstick time-displacement bit, there’s a really sweet moment near the beginning, when the Doctor is glued to the TV despite himself, watching the Martian-orbit rendezvous, when Liz brings him over something to drink and joins him, very much like a parent or sibling looking out for his health. It’s a little thing, but implies a great depth of relationship (that we haven’t really seen evidenced or warranted based on only 2 previous serials, but let’s not let that quibble stand in the way of sentiment) that really nuances this Doctor-companion (or, in this case, Doctor-assistant) relationship.

And, of course, the Doctor himself. He is a jack-of-all-trades in this one; brave, confident, gallant, diplomatic, authoritative, clever- a well-rounded action hero. He is in-control (with a fantastic scene involving Bessie’s anti-theft device in which he single-handedly thwarts the bad guys, leaves them helpless, rescues the space capsule, and saves the day- when an entire UNIT battalion couldn’t accomplish the same), canny (with his disappearing tape trick, for instance, as well as his masterful SOS gambit), funny (zooming in with Bessie right under a closing security gate, and arriving into the control room insisting to someone off-screen “Well, I simply don’t HAVE a pass, my good man- I don’t believe in them!”), brave (action-hero-ing it up by becoming an astronaut), investigative, cautious, and friendly (in his investigation of the alien craft and handling of its passengers), compassionate (not only to the captured ambassadors, but also to the soldiers he warns out of their way during the ending siege, and even to the poor, deluded villain at the end), and has several powerful acting moments- especially the intensity of the aforementioned tour-de-force cliffhanger “Cut it open!”

Overall, Ambassadors of Death (a great title) is a lot of fun and good moments stretched out just a little too long. I can’t point to any particular elements as extraneous- perhaps all of the cuts back to the villains before Liz joins them?- it just felt a little padded. Not to War Games levels, certainly; I just felt the pacing could be a bit tighter. That said, it has a number of great set pieces, and plenty of elements that make it worth watching.

Great moments:
The launch and alien spacecraft, the improvised SOS, the Brig’s escape, Bessie to the rescue, the Brig’s pistol-prowess, the ending assault on mission control, and UNIT to the rescue… in Bessie.

3.75 (or three and three-quarters) out of 5 “Shoes!” for this serial (I am fairly sure that most of my shoes for the last decade have been worn to the point of being ‘three-quarter shoes’ before I replaced them), which contains a number of 4-star pieces, it’s just a little… slow. Even so, the cliffhangers alone make it well worth checking out.

No concrete numbers for this serial, but the presence of a UK space program and the antiquity of Morse Code suggests a more futuristic ‘1980s’ time period far more than it does a contemporary 1970 setting. So, this is the first that really supports a ‘near future’ date in tone- though perhaps it simply takes place a decade after the last one, explaining why the events of the wretched Silurians serial have so little impact in this story.