Geekbat Tunes

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Doctor Who: The Faceless Ones

Serial Title: The Faceless Ones
Series: 4
Episodes: 6
Doctor: Patrick Troughton
Companions: Ben Jackson (Michael Craze), Polly Wright (Anneke Wills), Jamie McCrimmon (Frazer Hines)

Gatwick, London, at a top-secret date (it’s the twist at the end, see, and I don’t want to give away that it’s coming! …Oh, rats. Fine, July 20, 1966)- the TARDIS lands in the middle of a runway, and when the police come to investigate, the TARDIS crew choose to scatter like terrified chickens rather than ducking back inside. This is fortuitous(?), as while hiding, Polly witnesses a ray-gun murder. The Doctor and Jamie also see the body, but the authorities in the airport are more concerned with the group's lack of passports and sneaking in through an arrival gate than with such silly science-fiction stories… especially when they return to the scene of the crime, a hanger belonging to private charter Chameleon Tours (a cheap tour service for young adults, ages 18-25), and find no body. (Note From Sarah: I really probably would be wary of any tour service specifically for young people...ESPECIALLY if it's cheap!:))

Meanwhile, Polly has been shanghaied, and when she turns up again, ‘arriving’ on a flight from Geneva just as the Doctor and Jamie sneak in, she claims a different name, a different identity, a different accent, no recognition of the Doctor or Jamie… and has the documents and passport to prove it! The airport Commandant, customs officer Jenkins, and the rest of the staff are not amused, not convinced- but the Doctor, with no evidence save an unused Spanish postage stamp, is dogged in his determination, and soon finds an ally in Crossland, a police investigator, and the partner of the vanished murdered man.

The murderers, Spencer and Blade, a pair of pilots for Chameleon, catch Ben investigating and nearly do away with him- but are interrupted by Jean Rock, the comandant’s assistant. They then return to their compatriot- a misshapen, blank-skulled, lumpy being with no face (NFS: Wait wait...are you saying...HE WAS A FACELESS ONE!?!). It is laid in a bed beside Meadows, an unconscious air traffic controller, by an unperturbed and presumably-complicit woman- Nurse Pinto- from the airport first aid station. Bracelets are attached to Meadows and the creature, and in a matter of moments, the creature takes on Meadows’ appearance and leaves to assume his role in the airport.

Ben spots the woman who looks like Polly manning the Chameleon Tours kiosk in the airport. She is approached by an agitated young woman, Samantha Briggs, whose brother was on a Chameleon tour to Rome- despite receiving a postcard from him, she became concerned after a long absence, and in independent inquiries, discovered that her brother never arrived at the hotel he was supposed to have stayed at. Jamie, on assignment to observe the kiosk, meets and offers to help Samantha. The kiosk reopens with another woman, who hands out pre-stamped foreign post-cards for the outgoing tour group to fill out, on the notion that they’ll be too busy sight-seeing to fill them out upon arrival. Samantha and Jamie make the connection to both her brother’s postcards and the Doctor’s evidence- and begin to suspect that no one actually arrives at their destination on a Chameleon tour.

Ben, poking around the Chameleon hangar, find the real Polly, concealed, wearing a bracelet, and in a trance- but before he is able to notify anyone, he is taken by Spencer. The Doctor witnesses this on a communications monitor, having snuck into the back room of the Chameleon Kiosk (NFS: Any relation to the Chameleon Arch? I mean....okay someone had to do it.), but arrives too late to find him- instead, he is trapped in a room with a freezing gas. He fakes being frozen long enough to bring Spencer in, turning the tables on him, and stealing his freeze-ray weapon.

With the Commandant as an unwilling ally (at inspector Crossland’s insistence), the Doctor begins to map out the happenings with Chameleon- outing Meadows (though only to his own satisfaction- the airport staff remain unconvinced) and gaining credibility by demonstrating the captured pen-weapon. Crossland forces his way onto a Chameleon Tours plane, and into the cockpit- discovering that it is in fact an alien spaceship, just in time to be captured, to witness all of the passengers disappear from their seats, and to see the beginning of another, even more fantastical process…

The Doctor, Samantha, and Jamie are captured and nearly killed by a laser-beam death-trap (not dissimilar to the famous Goldfinger laser scene), but manage to escape via a mirror in Samantha’s handbag. Back with the Chameleon staff, Jenkins becomes a ‘Chameleon,’ as does Crossland- host to the alien leader himself.

The Doctor and Jamie try to enter the first aid center, and become suspicious of the ‘forbidden’ X-ray room. He gets Jean Rock, the comandant’s assistant, to divert Nurse Pinto (NFS: Beans.) and get her out of the medical center, so that he can investigate. He retrieves a pair of the arm-bands and begins to investigate. Meanwhile, Samatha buys a ticket aboard Chameleon tours, hoping to discover where its passengers are taken for herself… concerned for her safety, Jamie steals the ticket and goes instead. The Commandant puts a fighter-jet tail on the plane- but it is destroyed as the plane transforms into a vertical-liftoff spacecraft mid-flight, and rendezvous with an orbiting space station. A hidden Jamie, the only passenger not miniaturized in his seat, tries to sneak aboard, but is captured, and becomes a Chameleon as well.

The Doctor discovers an armband on Meadows’ sleeve, and blackmails him with threat of removing it (a potentially lethal process for the Chameleons) to take him to the first-aid center when Nurse Pinto is revealed to be in charge of the transferals. There, Pinto (NFS: Beans....okay I'll stop now.) almost kills Meadows for betraying the Chameleons, but is killed herself when Meadows rips the armband off of the real concealed-and-slumbering Nurse Pinto. The Doctor hatches a desperate gamble- aware that the Chameleons have completed their mission, and are about to pull out on a last flight away- after which they, and their nearly 50,000 abductees from around the world will never be seen again- the Doctor fakes being Meadows- claiming that the Doctor was on to him, and Meadows had to swap bodies to a new host- and, along with Nurse Pinto (faking being the Chameleon-Nurse Pinto) sneak onto the final flight, arriving on the orbiting station… where they are captured. (NFS: Got that? Good.)

The Doctor has only one ace up his sleeve- as he and Pinto are taken into custody, Samantha and Jean Park conduct a desperate search for the original bodies. As the Doctor is taken by an accent-less Jamie Chameleon to be converted himself, he sows seeds of dissent in the Chameleons still dependent on the original airport-staff bodies remaining on Earth; the leader has his body, Crossland, safe aboard the station but is content to let them remain at risk with the bodies down below. He also sabotages the transformation machine, buying himself a few minutes’ time. (NFS: Were they really smart enough to have Jamie not talk in an accent? That's pretty impressive as most current sci fi tv shows and movies would probably overlook that.)

Finally, Sam and Jean locate the bodies inside of parked cars outside the airport- surviving an attack by the Chameleon Meadows- and remove one of the bracelets, killing its corresponding Chameleon aboard the station. The Doctor convinces Chameleon-Blade to take command and surrender, and the Chameleons are allowed to safely switch-back before the originals are woken… in exchange for returning their abductees aboard the station unharmed. The Chameleons are revealed to be a race mutated into identity-less, formless, dying creatures by a natural disaster- who had hoped to use the body-copying process to survive. The Doctor promises to come by their planet and help them with their problem.

As the Doctor and the restored Jamie, Ben, and Polly prepare to depart, saying their goodbyes to a now grateful and believing Commandant, Ben and Polly realize the date- July 20, 1966- is the same on which they left (The War Machines), and thus they can resume their lives without interruption. Seizing on this opportunity, they bid the Doctor and Jamie a fond farewell and return to their lives in London together.

The Doctor notes to Jamie that it’s just as well they made that decision BEFORE they reached the TARDIS, so that they wouldn’t be needlessly worried… for, despite the seized Police Box being returned by the airport staff, it has now vanished…

Strap in, folks- this is gonna be a long one!

The Faceless Ones is a good, suspenseful story- if slightly overlong- but only slightly, as very little of the stories (save maybe around the episode 4-5 mark) is really extraneous. It’s tight, pretty compelling, exciting, mysterious, and while it is somewhat aggravating (even the Doctor stomps his foot in irritation, a hilariously child-like moment)- it is, as mentioned before, the ‘good kind’ of aggravation- the kind felt with the characters. And while it seems to take a lot of work to get to each point in the story, the effort invested into it makes each achievement (such as the Doctor’s fakeout of being frozen and capture of a weapon/pen- his much-needed proof) all the more cathartic and satisfying. (NFS: Agreed. This was definitely one of the better serials, really enjoyed it..and REMEMBERED it which usually means a good thing.)

We have here the typical authority-skeptics, and at first it seems as though our heroes (seriously, why DIDN’T they just run right back into the TARDIS? I suppose it’s playing into the Second Doctor’s soon to be established catch-phrase and overall theme, “When I say run… run!”) are going to spend the whole serial- and mystery- on the run, dodging authorities… but instead, they slowly find an ally (who lasts long enough to make a difference and is listened to by the authorities- an extreme rarity in this kind of story, as the typical ally is a maverick no one will listen to, or is killed off very quickly after accepting the truth, so as not to gain the protagonist any ground in their struggle against skepticism), and eventually, sufficient proof to win over the authority (also an incredible rarity- typically the skeptical authorities in these kinds of stories remain disbelieving up to the very end, their only evidence being the sight of the alien craft lifting off in the very finale, the situation resolved, realizing with an open-mouthed stare of awe that the protagonist had been right all along…) from an irritated skeptic to a forced-cooperator to a grudging ally to an enthusiastic partner- an arc that was enjoyable and realistic, very different from the pig-headed refusal to see reason typically embodied in the authority archetype of these kinds of tales. And the Doctor’s insistence on presenting the actual non-terrestrial facts instead of spinning a tale that earth-bound authorities would buy was a bold gambit- but a successful one. Also a refreshing change! (NFS: I have to say once again, this episode reminded me of an Avengers story...totally could see Steed and Peel working their way through this one.)

The serial also employed some excellent cliffhangers, like the empty plane- an almost LOST-like mysterious happening, that… (though it does raise the notion that EVERY young adult on this flight filled out a false postcard and ate some of the food just after takeoff in the past? I think not!)

It has some great characters (like the Chameleon Meadows, who was a nervous prisoner and then ‘executed’ the nurse to save his own skin- but was hardly reformed, as he slipped away to attack the ground-based companions.) It also introduces us to Sam, who could not be more obvious if “Being set up as a future companion” was tattooed on her forehead next to a picture of Dodo (whose personality she really reminded me of)- but who didn’t join the TARDIS crew because the actress wasn’t interested. Still, she does provide Jamie with a sweet romance. (NFS: The actress wasn't INTERESTED!? Wow. Well.)

We also have the skeptical-but-converted airport Commandant, the helpful secretary, the spooky nurse (and her brave real-human counterpart)(NFS: All nurses in Doctor Who are spooky....or most.), the assured but creepily-staring head of Chameleon tours, Blade (who eventually makes a very realistically selfish choice- foil his people’s plans for the sake of his own skin), and… Dang, if this wasn’t one of the best-written and characterized serials in Doctor Who yet- everyone felt very real, made very real choices, reacted realistically to whatever evidence (or lack thereof) they were presented with… excepting the Doctor’s oblivious behavior at the very start (obviously missing the authorities' skepticism to his claims, ignoring the importance of a passport in a very ignorant way, and his behavior during the investigation…), all of which simmered down to a far more realistic and grounded attitude in the rest of the episodes… all of the characters felt like people, instead of instruments of a writer, tools to move his story to the place it needed to get by acting a certain way, whether it was a part of their typical behavior/character or not. It was very refreshing after serials like The Smugglers or Galaxy 4, where the characters seemed to act like morons, ignoring the obvious at times, simply to get the story where the writer wanted it to go next. Good storytelling will always be an outgrowth of the characters acting naturally, forming a story around them- instead of forming their actions around the story, which always feels forced and false. (Note From Sarah: In other words...we no likey contrivey. And when in doubt ALWAYS favor the characters; in the end it's more realistic and even if the story ended up being simple they will be able to give it depth-there is no story so deep that it can give depth to phony characters.)

Speaking of characters…
The Doctor is a solid investigator here. Aside from some eccentric obliviousness, and the aforementioned foot-stomp, he doesn’t do much clowning. That’s okay, though- unlike the previous serials in which comic relief was a lifeline, here it isn’t needed. Though there isn’t much to say about him here that isn’t discussed elsewhere in this review, he is a strong, competent, indomitable presence, transitioning from hapless to in-charge in a hard-earned, long-delayed, but VERY satisfying manner. 

Ben… uh, was he in this serial? Oh, right, yes- I remember him. He showed up at the start, and the very end. Just like Hartnell before him, Ben is oddly absent for a large chunk of his farewell story- like the actor just couldn’t WAIT to get out of the role and had to knock off early, only grudgingly returning to film a farewell scene.

Polly (funny side note on that- did you know that the actress had a daughter named Polly, born three years before?) barely has more screen time, but leaves a much stronger impression due to her eerie (due to the sincerity, and no hint of robotic zombiness that usually indicates control or a double- simply genuine puzzlement at the situation, as if she is not Polly at all- which of course she isn’t- which is somehow far more disturbing than simply Polly acting like she’s under outside influence) doppelganger, politely questioning if something is wrong, getting appropriately upset at the Doctor (a stranger)’s prying questions, etc. It the kind of sanity-questioning, reality- confusing mystery that really makes you batty. So, even though she’s hardly there, her relatively cool (considering) handling of witnessing a murder, and her doppleganger’s spooky scene- make it feel like she was in this serial more than Ben was, even though she was in it for significantly shorter before returning for the final farewell scene. (As another aside, the actress eventually married Michael Gough, the Celestial Toymaker!)

And, speaking of that pachyderm in the living room, the farewell scene… does it fare well? Well, it certainly has more resolution than Dodo’s (though so would sneezing and falling off a bridge to your death in the process), and it has a somewhat more tender, heartfelt goodbye than, say, Steven’s. Unfortunately, it’s just as abrupt. While I can accept that not everyone has a loving tribute, like Ian and Barbara, a touching speech, like Susan, or a beautiful epilogue scene, like Vicki… it would be nice to see some desire to leave evident beforehand in any departures that aren’t forced by the situation. Oh, sure, Ben and Polly have offhandedly mentioned hoping their next destination is London a few times before, in passing… but it’s hardly setup for a grand farewell, is it? It just felt tacked-on at the last moment, more artificially so than even Steven’s departure, for some reason- while it was handled with greater warmth after it did happen than Steven’s, it seemed even more forcefully done. It’s like Vicki was the bank-breaker… after her, companions couldn’t be gracefully transitioned-off anymore. Every departure since has felt especially clumsy and rushed, a quick little cartoon after the feature, rather than a component of the plot or thematic epilogue. Well… except for the ones they killed off. (Which, to harp on it one more time, makes the ending of Massacre even MORE aggravating- because that was a MASTERFUL companion farewell scene, with an excellent setup, real character motivation, true conflict stemming from character and good writing, a companion-centric serial to serve as a fitting goodbye, and real drama and emotion… but it wasn’t used as a farewell!!!! The companion just stepped right back into the TARDIS a few minutes later to hang around for a few more adventures and then get a tacked on ending. We’ve seen that writers can do a good farewell from this… so why aren’t they now? Still, while I don’t know what happens with upcoming companion Victoria Waterfield yet, I do have it on good authority that Jamie and soon-to-be-companion Zoe will get a fitting and touching send-off as we move into the Pertwee era… but thankfully, as I’m greatly enjoying the Second Doctor’s adventures, that time is a long way off.)

Additionally, this tacked-on ending hinges on an incredible coincidence- the TARDIS landing on the exact same day that it had left previously- the day on which The War Machines had occurred. While this almost-unfathomable coincidence in the whole of time and space isn’t completely unprecedented (see The Ark for the spatial equivalent), it feels INCREDIBLY unlikely, and makes the whole thing feel impossibly clumsy and tacked on (NFS: Although since seeing the new series episode "The Doctor's Wife" it can be retro-explained. Kindof.). And it didn’t need to be… a few background mentions of strange news reports, an outside glimpse of a War Machine on the streets, or a live broadcast of the military confrontation that Hartnell ended by standing in the middle of the street… even a replaying of one of the same news broadcast from The War Machine as a far more subtle sign for fans- could have turned this into a fun, sublime, self-referential, truly time-travel-feeling story.  Elements could have and should have been woven subtly into the background- clues as to when and where they are- and the whole thing could have felt magical. Instead, it feels like a tire that went flat on an electric griddle, not only going flat, but also becoming irredeemably and irreparably limp, useless, and unwieldy- no longer fit for conveying us from where we were to where we’re supposed to have gotten to- but instead a lumpy, misshapen mess that doesn’t transport us as it should. And yes, I think that’s stretching it for the sake of a double-meaning metaphor more than has ever been stretched in the history of ever.

(Speaking of which, I will take Ben and Polly’s we-can’t-get-home arc, like Ian and Barbara’s more pronounced one, as an indication that the Fast Return Switch broke permanently in The Edge of Destruction- otherwise their home angst- not to mention a prominent cliffhanger near the end of The Dalek Masterplan- would have been irrelevant.) (NFS: Yeah I was wondering about that...suddenly the show seems to be like Sliders in that you have to JUMP at the chance when you actually land at home at the right time because it will never come again. And that would also explain why the Doctor has a harder and harder time with actually getting people back at the right times...or more often himself back. That's nailed it...the Fast Return Switch broke for all time.)

Of course, while the Who expanded universe suggested that Ben and Polly grew apart, married other people, and only saw each other again once, gathering in ’86, during the events of The Tenth Planet to hold vigil, looking for Mondas and remembering the events that their younger selves were currently experiencing elsewhere on the planet… the recent (week old, at the time of my writing, several years old at the time of this posting) Sarah Jane Adventures episode ‘Death of the Doctor’ reveals that they did indeed end up together, and, as of 2010, were running an orphanage in India together- an odd, but sweet ending for the two- together, and helping people, just as the Doctor teaches his companions- not reuniting a planet, like Steven, patching up a war-torn world, like Susan, or serving in UNIT or Torchwood like New Series companions… but simply making a difference in a small, every-day way- touching the lives of a few children who have no one else. Sometimes, that’s the most important kind of helping others. The kind that ‘isn’t important’ in the eyes of the world. (Also, just like Ian and Barbara, and, hopefully, current companions Amy and Rory, any couple that comes together through the Doctor deserves to stay together and have a happy future, leading a quiet life together.)

Au revoir, Ben and Polly. We can bid you well more peacefully in 2010 (in a perfect bit of timing for our viewing) knowing that a happy future awaits you.

This was Jamie’s spotlight serial, though- while not a Jamie-only focus in the way that the Tenth Planet was practically Ben’s story, while sharing equal time with the Doctor, Jamie comes off the strongest- a romance (including an onscreen kiss! A companion first?), a clever bit of pickpocketing, a very proactive investigation, a good acceptance and adaptation of this strange future world- plus a nice creepy turn for the actor as an accent-less copy, Jamie took center stage. The vibes given off here (handsome young kid, budding romance, action moments, plus that hair) remind me very much of Pavel Checkov, who was being introduced in the original Star Trek around the same time. (NFS: It's the Davy Jones Effect. Blame The Monkees. :-D)

The Chameleons themselves (Really? I’m gonna have to hope that was a nickname they didn’t object to, and not their species name- that’s just too hokey, otherwise…(NFS: You wouldn't be able to pronounce their real name...)...) were very real, realistically motivated, and are just begging for a follow-up to reveal their fate, or a New Series revisit (NFS: I think a new series revisit would be SOOO cool! But I think they might have done the "It's not me but it looks like me" storyline a little too much probably.). Their seemingly almost-omniscient ability to always be a step ahead, observing our heroes on camera, occasionally challenged belief, but always increased the tension positively.

The effects were very nice in the few videos we were given- the crossfade transition as the faceless aliens (themselves a very nice makeup effect) was especially effective. The transforming plane looked very cool in stills, though the space version and orbiting station looked as if they may not have fared as well. Even so, what we saw looked good. (Interestingly, problems with Shawcraft, the FX contractors, came to a head in this serial, per an external site- as they recount it, the Satellite didn’t work and the bulb at its base blew- and no replacement for the custom unit was available. Also, Shawcraft hadn’t considered how the model would actually be mounted or suspended, and suggested suspending it from piano wire- which couldn’t hold the weight, snapping, dropping the model to the floor, and breaking it. Needless to say, after the Macra debacle, this serial spelled the end of Doctor Who’s involment with Shawcraft- future serials would now have FX done by BBC’s in-house department.)

The Reconstruction- a Loose Canon affair- was quite good- while there were no moving pieces, and a couple of missed “you-could-have-used-some-footage-from-the-next-episode-for-the-ending-there” moments, it does quite nicely overall, maintaining the excellent cross-fade Chameleon appearance effects and doing a quite excellent job of conveying things, save for the Chameleon-Meadows attack on Sam.

I feel like I could go on for pages with this one, but having covered all of the major sections, I shall stop here, and move on to a rating…

Great moments:
The whole thing. The first appearance of a Chameleon’s true form, for one. The Doctor’s capturing of a freezing pen and triumphant presentation. The transforming plane/vanished passengers.

The Faceless Ones, a serial I wasn’t looking forward to because it sounded bland, earns a record-setting (for the Second Doctor) perfect 5 out of 5 Deadman’s Keys, surprising even myself! Despite the clunky goodbye, I really can’t think of anything in the story sufficient to tarnish a perfect rating, even through the stills- with a solid 3.5 out of 5 for the recreation- which could have had a little more effort put in, say with those footage bits at the beginning/end I mentioned- but which is still a cut above the rest. This is a highly recommended serial that I can honestly say hasn’t been equaled since The Keys of Marinus for enjoyment uninterrupted- beating out even favorites like the Space Museum, The Rescue, and the Daleks Master Plan… in that this one simply didn’t have any significant hitches to lower its score. It’s fantastic- go check it out!

And take heart, good friends… not only does this serial end on a cliffhanger (the TARDIS stolen), leading directly into the next serial (which the title, having learned nothing from The Moonbase, indicates will be a Daleks story), but, near as I can tell, from here out there are more intact episodes than there are reconstructions for the Second Doctor- whom in some ways I feel like we’ve hardly seen onscreen at all yet.(NFS: So it kind of speaks to his talent that he is our favorite...probably said that before, but it's true! He conveys his character so well!) So stay tuned!

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Doctor Who: The Macra Terror

Serial Title: The Macra Terror

Series: 4

Episodes: 4

Doctor: Patrick Troughton
Companions: Ben Jackson (Michael Craze), Polly Wright (Anneke Wills), Jamie McCrimmon (Frazer Hines)

On ‘an Earth colony’ on ‘an earth-like planet’ in ‘the future’ (bloody vague settings!), the TARDIS lands just in time to run into Medok, a crazed fugitive who attacks the crew and is subdued by Ben and Jamie. Guards hot on his trail arrive and take him away, and their leader, Ola, welcomes the TARDIS crew and takes them back to the Utopian colony. (Which must be either evil, or disaster-bound, as no Utopian place can survive long in sci-fi…)

The group are introduced to the Pilot, the colony’s leader. They are given a whirlwind tour of the colony’s luxuries- its happy workers and musical jingles... they also find out that Medok was considered mentally ill, having claimed to see “Macra,” giant crab-like aliens- in the colony at night. The Doctor and the group, rightly recognizing that any fugitive encountered by a traveling sci-fi or fantasy group as they first enter a new area is correct and destined to become an ally in overthrowing the status quo of his or her pursuers, are somewhat suspicious, and begin to investigate- the Doctor going down to speak with Medok… and accidentally releasing Medok from his cell in the process.

The Doctor pursues him, as the others learn about the colony's chief labor project- mining a gas which is poisonous to humans down in the pits. Though they insist that the gas is vital to the colony, no one will elaborate on what it is used for.

The Doctor catches up with Medok at a construction site- where Medok tells him that others have seen the Macra, too- but all who do are sent to a mental hospital for 'correction.' The Doctor sees one, too- the monstrous crustacean/insect emerging to roam the colony at night- but both are found by Ola's guards. Medok sacrifices his chance at corroboration (more likely to have the Doctor committed alongside him) by claiming that the Doctor was searching for him and trying to convince him to return to correct the earlier mistake of freeing him. The Controller, the ever-present Orwellian big-brother picture-with-a-voice projected on colony view-screens, urgently- almost fanatically- insists that "There are no such things as Macra!"

The Doctor is released to his sleeping chamber... where hypnotic brainwashing fields attempt to turn his companions into willing colony-members and Macra denialists. The Doctor frees Jamie and Polly in time... but Ben is turned, becoming one of 'them'- and reporting the Doctor for sabotaging the other hypnosis machines. Polly runs, and Ben gives chase- both stumbling into another Macra, which they barely escape from in the dark. After fighting it off, Ben denies having seen anything.

The Doctor demands to see the Controller himself, not just a picture of the man- and after a moment, a frail version of the man in the picture, decade older, appears live onscreen, captive in his own office. He begins to shout a warning, but is strangled by a Macra claw from off-screen... the Macra are the mind-controlling masters of the colony. The Pilot is ordered to forget, and the group is sent to the pit to mine. (What is it with Jamie and co. being sent to the mines?)

The pit is the source of the poisonous gas production, and a dangerous place. The group is assigned under Medok, who was deemed a hopeless mental case and banished to the pit as well. He arranges for the Doctor to stay behind as 'shift supervisor' as the others descend to mine. Ben, the traitor, monitors them distrustfully.

Jamie manages to slip away into a new, reinforced door by stealing the keys, but the others are unable to join him- as they labor away in the dangerous gas-filled mines, Jamie enters a strange tunnel leading gradually downward. Medok manages to slip away after him... and is attacked and killed by a Macra in the tunnel. Jamie finds his body, and the Macra- strangely motionless and inert. Under orders from the Controller, stored gas is pumped into the tunnel- suffocating Jamie and reviving the Macra. Jamie, choking, conceals himself, but won't be able to hide- or breathe- for long.

The Doctor tricks and outwits the Pit overseer, locking him in his office, and reverses the gas flow, pumping in oxygen which causes the Macra to slump listlessly and gives Jamie the advantage again. He escapes back into the colony via a vent grating- but is betrayed and given up by turncoat Ben, who is coming out of his trance, but not nearly enough yet.

The Doctor and Polly flee from the alerted guards and find themselves outside the Controller's chamber- in which an albino Macra controls the colony; the Doctor intuits that the Macra breathe the gas, and are using the humans as mind-controlled labor to prepare a takeover of their own colony. The Doctor and Polly risk going to the Pilot, rejoining the captured Jamie- but rather than taking them into custody, the Pilot, having witnessed the Macra killing the real Controller, and beginning to question 'Big Brother,' decides to aid them... while Ben is finally coming out of his temporary brainwashing. Confused and disoriented, he wanders off.

The pilot is led to see the Albino Macra for himself, as the Albino directs all guards in the colony, under the more obedient party-line Ola, to stop them. The guards, under orders, lock them in a pipe room just outside the Controller's room, and leave- while the Doctor, Jamie, Polly, and the Pilot, in full view of the Albino, begin to suffocate as it floods their room with the gas- intent on coming out and finishing them itself once levels are breathable.

However, rescue comes in the form of Ben, still outside, who is able, under the Doctor's verbal instructions, to reverse the flow, flooding the Macra with 'lethal' oxygen all throughout their tunnels and chambers in a terrific explosion.

In the aftermath, the Colony celebrates, the Pilot officially and publicly thanks the heroes, and announces their intention to make the Doctor the next Pilot... to which the Doctor and companions wave goodbye and close out a running gag of the serial by dancing their way through the crowd and out the door.

Did you know that the first ‘Big Brother/Mind Control’ sci-fi story was written by famed author Joel Ben-Micah- who decided to take up writing shortly after his corpse was tossed into Elisha’s tomb and re-animated by his bones- in 790 B.C.? True story. And the ‘Big Brother/brainwashing’ storyline has been an integral part of sci-fi ever since.

Yes, once again, Doctor Who tackles on a sci-fi cliché nearly as old as writing itself. So, how does it fair?

Pretty well, actually- owing in part to the fact that the Big-Brother/Mind-Control element is only half the story. That’s something that Old Who does best- taking a sci-fi cliché and turning it into a setting in which to play out a story rather than a story itself (the same thing, post-Highlanders, that they do with history, unfortunately- still, a worthwhile trade-off.)

This episode had some good humor, yet again- the Second Doctor’s reputation as a clown is not ill-deserved- as represented in the opening Emerald-City-esque montage of the group being treated to the amenities of the Colony- the Doctor is cleaned up too much for his liking, and ‘accidentally’ enters a muscle-toning machine to get himself properly re-rumpled. Even in stills (this is another reconstruction, folks- blah!) the humor comes through.

I was really looking forward to this one due to New Series 3’s “Gridlock,” in which the Macra return (40 years later- how cool is that?) ; I was looking forward to seeing their original story. Sadly, due to the dark, smudgy, non-Loose-Canon reconstruction… I couldn’t make out a single Macra clearly on-screen… half the time (like the apparently white Macra in the control room?) I couldn’t even tell what I was supposed to be seeing.

Interestingly, the Macra themselves were large, ungainly things, developed by Shawcraft, an outside contractor that had been doing Doctor Who effects work since The Daleks- and had been doing unacceptably poor work since the original city miniature for The Daleks. They delivered a single Macra prop, which was large, heavy, ponderous, and took a flatbed pickup truck to actually move- rendering them mostly immobile, and a pain to reposition for new shots- severely limiting what could be done with them (despite being extremely expensive). So perhaps there wasn’t much to see…

The Doctor is not particularly subtle in this one- as is the Doctor’s way- even though playing along for a bit could save him a good deal of trouble. Rather, Medok is surprisingly the clever one, thinking up the obvious and helpful explanation for the Doctor’s actions and leaving him in a position where he can do something good- something the Doctor himself doesn’t seem to have thought of. Meanwhile, the Doctor is a good deal more blood-thirsty than usual, seemingly having no problem annihilating the Macra- far from the “Come with me, I’ll take you to another planet where you can live in peace… No? Okay, NOW I’ll annihilate you!” attitude of the New series.

Polly is a screamer here, but also pretty proactive for the small story role she’s given. Not much to say either way.

Likewise for Jamie, who shows a great moral fortitude in resisting the brainwashing on his own, and gets a nice creepy showdown with in-the-flesh Macra, but not much else. His irritation at Ben mirrors the audience’s.

It’s also an aggravating episode due to this factor. Even though Ben is suffering from brainwashing, turncoat-Ben becomes of paramount annoyance very quickly, and only manages to redeem himself by saving the day in the oddly-truncated (but stylistically acceptable) ending. Too bad this was only in stills- it would have been funny to see everyone dance themselves out at the end.

Still, there are some nice creepy moments- the real controller, a puppet of an old man, being killed by the Macra claw, for instance. There are also some funny ones, such as the Doctor’s ‘equation’ bits, and his clever outmaneuvering of the pressure-pipes caretaker.

Also of note is the fact that, after the Celestial Toymaker, this serial is the second time in which the TARDIS crew dances themselves to safety.

This serial has some disappointments that keep it from its true potential- but I suspect it would reach much closer to it if the video were intact. This serial also debuted the new opening title sequence, incorporating the Doctor’s face (which would become a tradition for the remainder of the classic series).

The reconstruction was not Loose Canon, which, as this blog has ably demonstrated, means it sucks. This one was worse than usually- dark, muddy, exceedingly unclear, worse so than any before it… I wish we’d seen it as LC the first time, as I’m sure that would have been a far superior presentation that would have improved its standing immensely.

Great moments:
The ending with the explosion is nicely done. The dance-related humor. The Doctor disabling the mind-control for each companion… but reaching Ben too late.

The Macra Terror registers a solid 3 out of 5 Deadman’s Keys, with the belief that a video version might have scored an additional .5 or even 1 on the scale. The recreation gets 0 out of 5 for fail-Fail-FAILING miserably!!!

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Doctor Who: The Moonbase

Serial Title: The Moonbase
Series: 4
Episodes: 4
Doctor: Patrick Troughton
Companions: Ben Jackson (Michael Craze), Polly Wright (Anneke Wills), Jamie McCrimmon (Frazer Hines)

It’s one small step for the Doctor as he lands on Earth’s moon in 2070. The group fools about in spacesuits for a bit- and Jamie gets hurt. Fortuitously, there’s a nearby moonbase, a weather-control station beaming gravity rays, the Graviton, to climate control and condition Earth. However, Jamie is not the only under-the-weather man on the moon… the moonbase crew have been collapsing by a spreading virus- several members are already quarantined in the sickbay.

Suspicion falls on the Doctor as the first victims succumb to death, but it turns out that it is poison in the food supply- a location where a hole has been cut into the wall for something to get in… and that something is-


(But…! BUT…!!!! This story isn’t called “Moonbase of the Cybermen!” They can’t use them unless they do that. …Can they? Are they allowed to do this? I don’t think they’re allowed to do this!)

After several “Oh, you’re only a woman, Polly- anything you saw must be a hysterical hallucination” ignored sightings, the Cybermen invade in force- their fleet on the way, and the dead-of-virus crewmen resurrected as cyber-slaves. The Cybermen- thought by the people of Earth as an extinct menace after the failed Mondas invasion of 1986 ("The Tenth Planet"), are back to take Earth- beginning by seizing the moonbase and sabotaging Earth’s weather.

Polly comes up with a chemical cocktail of acidic agents to dissolve the plastic breathing apparatus mounted on the Cybermen’s chest plates- using it, she, Ben, and the now-recovered Jamie are able to begin fighting back. (Note From Sarah: Not so bad for a HALLUCINATING WOMAN EH!?!?!) Meanwhile, the Cyberfleet lands, and an army of Cybermen begins an inexorable march across the moon…

The Cybermen destroy an Earth ship headed to rescue the moonbase crew- but are eliminated by Polly’s acid-spray. The Cybermen outside retaliate by firing on the base- but the gravitron is used to deflect the shots. The Doctor then brings the gravitron to bear on the surface, creating a repelling field that casts the Cybermen and their ships helplessly off into space.

As the TARDIS leaves, the Doctor consults his ‘unreliable’ future viewer and gets an image of a great and terrible claw…

Kinda cool, really! A base with a mysterious illness (and yes, that it was the coffee/sugar was telegraphed so far away, it could probably have been seen from Earth with the naked eye- and yes, it was both starkly similar and as clumsily obvious- so much so that you wonder how stupid the morons falling prey to it had to be to not have figured it out already- as the poisoned water in The Sensorites), the moon, moon-walks on wires with goofy sounds (cursed reconstructions- we can’t see it! Another 2-of-4-are-video story), mounting paranoia among the cast, and-


Wow, I was NOT expecting that! It’s kind of hilarious, actually, the mindset that Doctor Who has put us in- that the appearance of a major villain is kept a shocking and unexpected surprise… merely by leaving their name out of the title. If it isn’t called “X of the Daleks” or “Y of the Cybermen,” we will be utterly and completely shocked if the Daleks or Cybermen appear. (Star Trek: The Next Generation clearly borrowed this concept and ran with it for its super-being Q.)

So, yeah- lots of cool stuff… Cybermen reveals (whipping aside that blanket- how scary/cool was that?!), (NFS: That was one of my most favorite moments! It was pretty amazing!) armies of Cybermen marching across the airless moon to lay siege, Polly coming up with an ingenious solution (albeit one requiring the Cybermen to have been constructed with radically inferior parts- no space-age super plastic? Then again, it apparently becomes traditional for the Cybermen to have an absurd Achilles-heel weakness in future…), the chilling scene in which the Cybermen hurl an approaching rescue ship into the sun… and an utterly absurd and hilarious ending in which the Cybermen are forcibly floated off of the surface of the moon. Talk about camp!

Okay, so… the Doctor. Some nice amusing physical comedy with his trying to unobtrusively obtain ‘samples’ from the crew. Some nice moments in the lab, from his ‘stalling’ to his realization that the Cyberman is present.

Polly is especially and unusually strong here. Yes, the femenists will note, she’s making coffee for the men again (shouldn’t the feminists be too busy with the jobs they’re always on about having instead of being at home, tied to a man, to be constantly on the internet harping about the portrayal of women in 1960s media?) (NFS: Not to sound 'harpy' have to admit they did kind of make them look rather silly in the sixties.)- but that really seems to be her specialty, as, again, she volunteered to in the Tenth Planet, and again since. Having been a secretary, that’s probably a role she’s used to. And likewise, it’s a particularly ‘girly’- yet extremely scientifically-savvy- method that she devises to defeat the Cybermen. But even so, this fits with the character we knew- a secretary and a club-goer with a fancy for dressing up and looking good, so it is consistent (if not terribly feministic). And she does take a fairly center-stage; this is only fair- she was relatively passive and unhelpful in the Cybermen’s first appearance, so here she gets a chance to shine.

And, in fair trade-off, Ben, the action-hero of the previous Cyber-story, pretty much sits around in the background for this one.

Still, Ben fairs better than Jamie, out sick and raving in a fevered delirium for most of the serial- though surprisingly, his rantings are apparently enough to get the Cyberman to reconsider taking him… multiple times! …For some reason. In any event, his newcomer status and script-shoe-horning are still painfully evident. Thankfully, this won’t be in effect much longer, and soon we’ll hit stories written with Jamie in mind so that they don't have to find a gimmick to shunt him out of the way.

The special effects are good- miniatures, lightning bolts (that occasionally miss due to poor placement, but still…) wire-work, matte paintings- this one has it all, practically an extravaganza… with a pretty convincing moon environment!

This one is not as tight a thriller as Who has ever produced, for some reason- though all the elements- claustrophobic, isolated location, implacably marching enemies, mysterious disease- are there. Still, it’s fun, exciting, and has a few nice twists. I enjoyed it. (NFS: I liked this one a lot too, I thought it was definitely transporting and really fun.)

The reconstruction is… well, pretty same-old, same-old. We have far too many non-Loose-Cannons mixed into the 2nd Doctor era, to the point that I’ve lost track… but too many of them are merely mediocre.

Great moments:
The Cybermen reveal and the march across the moon. Plus, you know- landing on the moon for the first time in Doctor Who.

The Moonbase orbits high with 3.5 out of 5 Deadman’s Keys. It’s missing a little something that I can’t put my finger on, which prevents it from quite achieving the rank of the 4-of-5 classics… but it’s very solid and lots of fun! Reconstruction gets the usual (at this point) 2.5 out of 5.