Geekbat Tunes

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.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Doctor Who and the Silurians

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

A strange power drain has been plaguing the new subterranean nuclear power research center (errrr… centre) in Wenley Moor, drawing the Brigadier, the Doctor (in Bessie, his new custom yellow jalopy, and his pride and joy), and Liz to the network of caves that connect to it. One of the workers has recently been killed there, and his partner reports something large and saurian… could one of the dinosaurs have survived all these years?

Director Lawrence doesn’t care one fig- he wants the problem resolved and his power station running smoothly! He even resents UNIT’s presence, though Heaven knows he isn’t fixing the problem on his own, so who knows what he’s really looking for! Regardless, it is safe to say that the Wheel WILL run smoothly, and the gas-flow will NOT be shut off! Meanwhile, Dr. Quinn (Medicine Wo- okay, okay, sorry, couldn’t resist…) and his assistant, Miss Dawson, know EXACTLY what’s going on, but they have no intention of sharing that knowledge- Quinn has great ambitions that he can only achieve with help from his mysterious benefactors… Major Baker, paranoid security chief, believes that there is a saboteur loose, and he will shoot anyone or anything that might be it until the malfunctions stop.

Our thoroughly likable dramatis personae established, the Doctor heads down to explore the caves, and is attacked by the dinosaur- but it is suddenly called off by a shadowy figure. Baker, following him, takes a shot at it, wounding the shadowy figure. Examining blood left at the scene, the Doctor discovers reptilian characteristics…

The wounded creature, meanwhile, has stumbled out of the caves, and takes shelter in a barn, where the owners, a farmer and their wife, discover it- the farmer dies of a heart attack, and the wife goes into shock… but is able to describe the reptilian attacker. Liz, investigating, also has a close encounter with the creature, but is only knocked unconscious by it. Quinn, however, has a leg up on everyone- he has been given a device to summon the creature by its compatriots down in the caves, whom he’s been in cahoots with the whole time. He wishes to know their advanced scientific secrets, and has been trading knowledge of the above-ground world to get it. He is dissatisfied with the progress, however- and while the beings promise that they will reveal all if he can recover the wounded creature, he instead decides to abduct it to his house and hold it there until it gives him the secrets he desires. In retaliation, it kills him. The Doctor stumbles onto it- a Silurian, so named for the geological period from which it is thought to originate. He greets the Silurian and offers to help it, but it flees before he can open a dialogue.

Meanwhile, Baker, determined to go down into the caves and track down his saboteur, sets off for blood- but is soon captured by the Silurians. The Doctor and Liz follow, and find him caged in a high-tech underground installation. They also observe Silurians being awakened from hibernation chambers, using power siphoned off of the nuclear reactor- each power drain has been a Silurian waking from suspended animation which has spanned eons. Slipping back out, the Doctor and Liz meet Masters, Lawrence’s superior, to whom he is complaining about UNIT interference (you know, the UNIT interference that’s actually getting things done). The Doctor reveals the existence of the Silurians, hoping to begin a peaceful negotiation (as the Brigadier is already planning to lead an armed expedition down into the caves), but his concealing of Quinn’s death backfires when Miss Dawson stumbles in with the news of his death- this confirmed Silurian-killing puts the entire base up in arms, and preparations continue to enter the caves in force. The Doctor decides to surreptitiously slip away before the expedition can leave and contact the Silurians beforehand.

In the caves, the Doctor warns of the coming human invasion in hopes of getting the Silurians to negotiate. The angry second-in-command tries to kill him, but the leader intervenes at the last moment. (If Lawrence is a retread of Robson and Bennet, then the Silurians are a retread of the Dominators- “Second wants to kill him, but first overrides him” repeated ad nauseum). The Silurians trap the UNIT party with a controlled cave-in, sealing them off from entering the caves further or retreating.

The Doctor negotiates the leader into releasing them, and learns the Silurian history- the Silurians were once the dominant species on the planet, but when the moon was drawn to Earth, the Silurians believed it would impact the surface and went into stasis to survive the calamity. However, there was a malfunction and they never revived. Now, they find their Earth overrun by a species alien to them, one that had not yet evolved at the time of their slumber. (Those who know me well know that I consider the preceding paragraph to be the biggest ‘fiction’ of this entire science fiction episode- but in the Doctor Who universe, unlike our own, evolution is a reality).

While the Doctor convinces the Silurian leader that negotiation and peaceful coexistence is possible, the headstrong second has already infected Baker with a deadly virus and released him. He ends up taken to a local hospital, and dies by the time that the Doctor can reach him- Masters returns to London whilst also (unknowingly) infected, and the plague starts to spread. Lawrence dies of it, so at least there is that. But mostly, the plague is a bad thing.

Knowledge that the Silurians are wiping out the human race with bacterial warfare does not foster better relations with them. That’s okay, though- the angry and absurdly rebellious second slays his leader and takes command of the Silurians, and is determined to wipe out all of humanity and reclaim the planet.

As the Doctor works on- and locates- a cure, the Silurians abduct him to prevent his saving humanity. So Liz does it with the Doctor's notes. The Silurains retaliate by planning to destroy the Van Allen Belt and irradiate the Earth. They think this won’t kill them, for some reason. Maybe they’re radiation-hardened? They already have glowing red third eyes that operate controls telekinetically and melt through solid rock, so maybe it’s not beyond their plethora of Dues Ex Mechanisms. Regardless, they need power from the humans to do it once again, dependant on the now-inactive reactor (was this some sort of weird social metaphor for welfare and state-dependency?), and take the Doctor back into the control center to active the reactor.

Along with Liz, the Doctor conspires to put the reactor into meltdown. The Silurians flee to re-hibernate in order to survive the radiation (so they’re NOT radiation proof? Make up your mind, story…) and the Doctor and Liz manage to shut down the runaway reactor. The Doctor goes down to investigate the Silurian chamber, and the second/leader, realizing he’s been duped (having stayed out of hibernation to activate the controls) attacks him. The Brigadier had followed, however, and shoots the Silurian dead. (That’s hardly the proper gratitude. He DID get rid of Baker and Lawrence, after all. That deserves some thanks.)

Afterwards, all is well- the plague is cured, and the Silurians are back in stasis. The Doctor plans to revive them one at a time, reasoning with them and negotiating a peaceful settlement in a controlled environment. He is practically giddy as he returns to his UNIT lab in Bessie to get some needed equipment- imagine all we’ll be able to learn from their science and technology!

But the Brigadier dynamites the caves, killing them all in their sleep. (Or sealing them in forever, as he states- it’s not clear, though the Doctor at least thinks they’re dead). The paranoia of humanity has won out, and the Doctor drives off in disgust.

Doctor Who and the Silurians is badly written. Sorry, but it is.

The story comes in two parts- the cave-intrigue/wounded Silurian story, and the plague/destroying the Silurians bit. Both are garbage. Some more than others. But mostly all of them. The plot is by-the-numbers, filled with out-of-character characters doing annoying things. Who are these packs of imbeciles? Well…

Liz, while getting attacked and having little to do otherwise, carries herself in such a manner as to avoid being lumped in with the typical companion damsel-in-distress mode; for that, at least, I must give her kudos. Otherwise… too much of a non-entity this serial for me to really review.

Professor Quinn is really quite a fool, or perhaps too paranoid for his own good- mayhaps the stress got to him, but his suspicious behavior and eventual decision to blackmail the allies who were cooperating with him got him killed. Not a very smart man, and not a very clever villain. Likewise for his assistant, Miss Dawson (given the motivation in the novelization of being a desperate spinster with prospects of making Quinn her husband, willing to go along with his insane scheme to get in his good graces… charming.)

Likewise, so is Lawrence, an obnoxious obsessed madman in the vein of Robson from Fury in the Deep, a man obsessed with his facility’s operation beyond all reason or safety considerations, who just got more shrill and irritating throughout the course of the serial until you were practically BEGGING for the Brigadier to have to shoot him in self-defense. Like the villains upcoming in the next few serials, and Robson before him in Fury from the Deep, he is a completely obsessed villain-in-authority who has a single-minded-to-the-point-of-insanity obsession with a specific goal no matter what extenuating circumstances surround it, expecting the world to revolve around his pet project and remove obstacles from his path- and considering anyone who expects him to factor in or deal with these obstacles to be a fool attempting to obstruct him. One can only assume that they each had childhoods in video game RPGs as peasants, who only had one or two pre-programmed stock responses to any and ALL stimuli, a behavior pattern they kept in adulthood. *SIGH*  In fact, from here on out, I will refer to them as RPGPs (Role Playing Game Peasants) for their single-minded, one-note, stock responses to any and all situations in total defiance of logic.

As is Charles, the man who gets captured by the Silurians and WON’T SHUT UP. Seriously, you spend 80% of this serial wishing that the character on-screen at that moment would DIE. I cannot over-emphasize this; it is hard to describe accurately how irritatingly noxious and grating these characters are!

The Brigadier is unfortunately rendered a bit of a two-dimensional cardboard cutout in this one, almost an antagonist- a gun-happy fool who only thinks of the violent solution (Though, ironically, the only good moment in which I truly appreciated him during this serial… was when he shot the sniveling idiot of a Silurian second-in-command-turned-leader-by-assassination), setting up one of the first of Who’s recurring “Guns are bad, soldiers are bad, foolish humans fear and destroy whatever they don’t know” …morality lessons? Parables? Tropes? Whatever they are, I dislike them- and I practically detest the use of the Brig in this role for the duration of this serial. Even when he’s not being stubborn and pigheaded, he seems to be designed to get on the audience’s bad side (poor writing, or intentional ‘propaganda’ to make him- and the side he represents in this serial- seem less favorable, I don’t know), barging in on the Doctor and interrupting his heart-to-heart just as a suspicious woman was about to reveal the whole plot, disbelieving the Doctor’s assertions, not listening to his reasoning, and rushing off to war. This is not the open-minded, possibility-aware Brig that we saw in Spearhead, nor the level-headed and friendly man from The Invasion.
Nor is the Doctor much better. He keeps vital secrets, plays his cards very close to the vest, hides important details, conceals deaths- all of which act to escalate the tension that leads the Brig to take strong actions so that the Doctor can detest them. Then, he goes and betrays the Brig and the humans by warning the ungrateful Silurians. A very Doctorish thing to do as per the New Series, but relatively unprecedented here, and potentially fatal to the Brig and his men. It is a shame that both the Doctor and the Brig must be written so badly in order for the story’s central premise to work- it’s sloppy and shoddy.  In addition, the Doctor keeps up a perfect track record of being WAY too honest when it comes to dealing with the Silurians, and working to increase the tensions he’s going to defuse. He comes back to bring a Silurian offer of peace, and makes sure to give full disclosure that the Silurians were behind the plague intentionally. Just like the New Series episode in which the Doctor flat out states “I met Silurians before; two different colonies. The humans killed them all.” In both cases, he is practically pointing a finger and using the most inflammatory phrasing possible. Is it so hard to say “He became infected; the Silurians have a sample of the virus with which we can develop a cure.” Or “They’re both dead now, I’m sorry/They were killed in a conflict that they began.” I mean, seriously! In both serials, a peaceful Silurian leader is betrayed by a war-mongering second-in-command, and the humans are obsessed one-note ranting idiot RPGPs, and in both serials the Doctor claims to be trying to negotiate a peace, but saying all of the things that either side could most easily and angrily misconstrue- as if he’s trying to sabotage his own efforts.

However, the Doctor does have several good moments- trying to make peace (based on a conceptually brilliant desert-colonization plan) between the humans and Silurians (heralding the era of a less destroy-the-monsters Doctor and a more negotiation-based, compromise-finding Doctor- a paradigm shift that, like the giving enemies a last chance before their destruction from the last serial, is likely to stick); and a crowning moment of Doctor-ness, a great character establishment, and one of my favorite bits so far- his immediate greeting of the monstrous-looking Silurian with a warm smile and proffered handshake. In amongst the shaky decisions and poor writing, these moments serve the Doctor well. And of course, here we are properly introduced to Bessie, the Doctor’s beloved yellow jalopy (with license plate Who 1), which I continue to believe is a TARDIS surrogate, an emotional replacement and receptacle of attention and affection which can no longer be poured into the police box; for as long as he is denied Time and Space travel, Bessie is his TARDIS, and is treated as such.

We learn less about the Silurians, and for the purposes of this serial’s story, they are far less sympathetic than they ought to be. We get some standard EP&S (Enemy Politics & Strife, for those of you that don’t remember), but that’s about it. This is a severe miscalculation. The position of the Silurians make sense.

If we went into stasis, as a race, in 2012 AD, and then woke up in 502,012 AD to find a race of Cockroach people claiming the Earth as their own, we’d probably feel entitled to take back our planet, too. After all, five minutes ago (to us), the Earth was ours- and now these Cockroaches are building a dunghill dwelling in the remnants of New York City! (Well, okay, they can keep New York City, but you know what I mean). And from their perspective, they’ve never heard of us; we’ve been absent for the entire dawn of their civilization. They tamed the planet, built cities, established cultures, created wonders, fought wars, created art, made memories, created lineages, farmed the land- for hundreds of thousands of years, and suddenly some race of underground beings, ugly and inhuman (or incockroach, in this case) show up plotting to take over the world because they claim that 500,000 years ago, it was theirs? Well heck with that- TO WAR! 

It’s a good dramatic conflict- but it would work so much better with sympathy for both sides. The inhuman appearance of the Silurians works to heighten the different-than-us-we-must-fight-them conflict, but it’s also an obstacle to be overcome in audience opinion, which can only be done with sympathetic characters we get to know. We don’t, and it weakens the story, the conflict, and the dilemma- rendering the reasonable Silurians into evil monsters-of-the-week instead of reasonably, realistically-motivated antagonists with a valid point. (A problem carried through in the New Series revival that makes 3 of the 4 Silurians: A grating irritant spiteful hateful racist pain-in-the-neck, a psychopathic genocidal out-of-control loose-cannon warrior, and a supposedly sympathetic scientist… that vivissects living humans un-anesthetized.) Will middle appearances get this Silurian factor right? We'll see as they come around...

Speaking of appearances, the inhuman ‘Creature from the Black Lagoon’ look is nicely executed- strange and inhuman for story purposes, and nicely different from anything we’ve seen. (This is another area where the New Series bungled them, making them humanoids with snake-skin, with a head shaped like tree-lady Jabe’s and a human, more expressive face. This could have worked to engender much need sympathy through expressiveness for the story purposes explained above… if they hadn’t been such a bunch of obnoxious jerks. As it is, the design simply serves to render moot the unique non-human-ness of the Silurians, ignore a great design, make them too much like spike-less Vinvoci or snakeskin Tree people, and rob them of their unique third-eye powers- which can drive men insane, operate equipment, and BURN THROUGH SOLID ROCK. Why would you deprive a major Doctor Who monster race of this unique and powerful ability? It’s the equivalent of re-designing Daleks for the New Series as sleek cones without guns; a pointless ruining of a good design. Or, to put it another way… like re-designing the Daleks the way they did in Victory of the Daleks.) Likewise, the dinosaur-beast, while a bit fake-looking, is ambitious and huge, and I was fairly impressed with the execution; a cool effect and story point, with the attacks repeatedly averted by its Silurian masters forming a good mystery.

Last but not least, we have the Silurian second in command, an upstart moron in the mold of Zentos/Tor/Dominator Toba- it seems to me that second-in-commands in Doctor Who only exist to question orders, rebel, and kill their commanders; they have no other function. Just another random war-monger. It is to Doctor Who’s woe that these two archetypes cannot be banished, for they’re as annoying as heck: the second-in-command who disagrees with the leader’s peaceful notions, then usurps and kills them during negotiations and takes his people to war (still present in the New Series, from the cult of Skarro to the New Silurians), and the obsessed project leader who has complete authority and will not listen to any form of reason to halt or even slow his project down despite all signs pointing to imminent disaster (a relative newcomer that hopefully will die out soon). Sadly, these two seem to be becoming Who Stock Character #1 and Who Stock Character #2 for this Third Doctor era… much to its detriment! And after all of this hatred… the super-contrived reason everyone isn’t slaughtered at the end… is because this zealot-bigot spares them because he wants them to die in a nuclear meltdown instead? Really? Still, this is hardly the only Silurian absurdity… we also learn that apes used to raid their crops. So, they developed a viral pathogen that killed millions. …Over-react much?!? It seems the Silurians skipped “Scarecrow” on the technology tree and went straight to “Massive globe-spanning biological attack?!?” No wonder they were a trifle unreasonable in this serial- overreacting seems to be part of their nature!!! 

And speaking of said plague, on the human side- they give everyone full-spectrum antibiotics (I’m sure they were considered a newly-discovered miracle cure back in the day… like radiation in the 50s, or stem-cells in the 2000s) which, as you know, simply kill all bacteria, the good and the bad equally. After distributing this to all of the personnel, they refer to everyone on-base having received an inoculation. Ummm… while by a dictionary definition this might theoretically be true (I’m not medically-versed enough to know), I don’t think a broad-spectrum antibiotic counts as an inoculation against the plague. It’s more of a preventative measure. Just a minor quibble.

Meanwhile, the music for this entire serial is… hmmm… let’s see. I think I’m in danger of over-using ‘rubbish’ ‘tripe’ and ‘garbage’ in the finale… let me check my thesaurus… the music is pure codswallop! Atonal, blaring, meandering without a tune… and what was WITH that theme for Charles that sounded like the military funeral ‘TAPS,’ except the trumpet player got bored and wandered off for the second half of the tune… played on kazoo???? WHAT IS THIS FOLDEROL??? Worthless trash, the whole score.

And the sound design…! Every sound is loud, screeching, piercing, grating… as my wife pointed out, the phone sounds were clearly dubbed in later, and not heard on set, because no one was wincing- and the irritating tonal pulsing of the Silurian third eye was compounded by the fact that they did EVERYTHING with it to the point that it didn't seem like they needed hands, as they never USED them for anything! The sound design was pure trumpery, utterly designed to scrape one’s nerves raw- I am pretty sure that this serial was the actual Silurian attack on humanity, an audible assault on the ear drums through and through. In the last serial, the pulsing reactor actualy drowns out all dialogue- we can barely even HEAR the first mention of the Doctor’s famous ‘Neutron flow’ (though reversing its polarity has yet to be invented), or anything else, for that matter!

The effects are decent- the dinosaur and Silurian designs are good (albeit the execution is a bit clunky). The burn-through effect the first time, on the cave wall, is an amazingly well-executed effect of molten rock, rivaling, say, Star Wars: The Phantom Menace or the far-ahead-of-its-time Forbidden Planet in accomplishing the effect. Future usages are a lot more hokey, a very simplistic and fake looking animated effect. (And how can they re-seal the material behind them? That’s a whole different power to superheating- that’s, like, telekenesis plus molecular re-distribution! At least the wall still looks scorched afterwards and they can’t just reverse the burning as if it never happened- that was a good touch). And seriously, the leader operates the control panel with his third-eye power… and this is portrayed by a camera shot of the control panel repeatedly going out of focus and back into focus?!?!? That’s your control panel effect??? A series of RACK FOCUSES?? (Focus’? Focci?) I will say this for them- the plague makeup looked very, very good. Quite effective. Likewise, the cave sets were quite good, as was the Slurian stasis chamber. The plague makeup is very good looking (well, you know, good at being horrid-looking… horrid… it’s… effective, let’s put it that way). And the pyrotechnics at the end are excellent.

Overall, this serial has a good concept- but it serves as an exercise in frustration because of the out-of-character and unlikeable ways that known and familiar characters must be twisted to accomplish it. Like Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, everyone seems to be working against everyone else, keeping secrets, double-crossing… and it’s hard to find someone to root for. The Doctor and the Brigadier spend the entire serial lying to and betraying each other, completely out of character, until…

Worst of all is the ending- an unreasonable, predictable little cliché about ‘fear of the unknown.’ It’s hard to tell whether the Brigadier really just sealed off the caves as he claimed (paranoid, ignorant, and foolish, but not evil) and the Doctor was mistaken, or whether he actually did destroy dozens of hibernating Silurians as the Doctor claims (making him a mass-murderer of innocent, helpless sentient beings and probably a war criminal)- either way, it seemed incredibly contrived and unrealistic- was this government-approved, despite the fact that these were helpless captives? See, THIS would be the time for a Harriet-Jones-style government toppling and “Here comes Britain, the true monsters” speech- this is potentially (and the Doctor believes it to be) an act of GENOCIDE. And in the next serial…? IT’S IGNORED AS IF IT NEVER HAPPENED. No love lost between the Doctor and the Brig, no resignation from UNIT, no resentment… he just acts as if it never happened. It isn’t even brought up, the Doctor just cheerfully accepts the man who LIED to him and COMMITTED GENOCIDE with a cheery ‘good morning!’ THAT IS BAD WRITING!!! No, that is SO BAD that whatever it is, it doesn’t deserve to be called 'writing!' And they totally forget the dinosaur in the last few episodes! Bah, this thing is rubbish.

Sorry, some may feel this is a little premature, but I’m calling it- this is the Third Doctor’s ‘Galaxy 4.’ This pile of garbage is poorly characterized, badly written, stupid, and an assault on these ears, filled with noxious, grating characters and noxious, grating sounds. I am relatively convinced that it is impossible to make a GOOD, non-irritating, non-cliched, non-predictable story with the Silurians. Perhaps the Sea Devils and Warriors of the Deep will prove me wrong…  though from what I’ve heard about the latter, at least… that seems unlikely.

Great moments:
The Doctor’s enthusiastic greeting of the horrific-looking Silurian, and the big reveal of the ability to burn through rock. Oh, and when Lawrence and Baker die at last.

No “Shoes!” out of 5 for this abomination! I was going to give it 1 for production designs, costuming, and effects- but the last chapter’s stupidity and utter discontinuity tripe, adding a MAJORLY IMPACTFUL GENOCIDE needlessly into Doctor Who canon and then completely ignoring the consequences as if they never happened, sealed this ‘rubbish tip’s fate! THIS! IS! GARBAGE!!!!

Money is referenced in pre-decimal currency (I dunno what that means, either- ask a Brit!), suggesting that this is pre-1976- supporting a congruent-with-air date 1970s setting. That’s 2 now that suggest the modern day… when will this controversy enter? Stay tuned, faithful reader…

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Doctor Who: Spearhead from Space

Serial Title: Spearhead from Space
Series: 7
Episodes: 4
Doctor: Jon Pertwee
Companions: Liz Shaw (Caroline John), Brigadier Alistair Lethbridge-Stewart (Nicholas Courtney)

England, “Modern Day” (which either means 1970, the year it was made, or the ‘near future’- the 1980s, in which it was intended to be set. As this blog will chronicle, the various writers are quite inconsistent about which it is… though ironically, most of it is retroactive from the Fourth Doctor’s era). A group of strange, purple, glowing meteorites land in the woods, and a nearby poacher takes one of them. And not far off, something else lands, too… a bright blue Police Box, materializing out of thin air. The door opens, and a strange man, tottering on his last legs, staggers out and collapses.

Elsewhere, Brigadier Alastair Lethbridge-Stewart, head of UNIT (the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce), is briefing Cambridge alumni Liz Shaw (Does this mean she is a spy? In the movies, all spies and villains explain their knowledge of the culture/fluent English as having studied at Cambridge…), the new UNIT scientific adviser on the classified nature of her work. Of course, UNIT has only had 3 brushes with alien life thus far, but one suspects that number is about to increase exponentially…

The Brigadier is summoned to the hospital to see the mysterious man found near the TARDIS, who is semi-lucid and obsessed with “Shoes!” In a brief moment of clarity, he recognizes Lethbridge-Stewart before lapsing back into the trauma-induced craziness, and the Brigadier is left to wonder… could this somehow BE the Doctor?

Someone thinks he is, as the Doctor is kidnapped by a pair of ruffians, his mouth duct-taped shut (with a TARDIS key extracted from his shoes inside), straight-jacketed and in a wheelchair- and yet he escapes, fleeing by wheelchair into the woods… where he is shot by an overzealous UNIT guard while approaching the TARDIS. Thankfully, it’s only a graze, and seems to snap him out of his mania… when he awakes several hours later, he is lucid- sneaking into the hospital locker room for a shower, and stealing a fancy set of clothes and a car to escape, as questions about his alien blood work and apparent 2 hearts mount with the hospital staff. However, Lethbridge-Stewart has the TARDIS key found in his possession, as well as the TARDIS, and so the man steers his commandeered jalopy towards UNIT HQ…

Meanwhile, the poacher conceals the glowing orb of a meteorite from his wife, locking it into a box in his shed… while in the Auto Plastics factory, a man named Ransome sneaks into his old workshop (having just been suddenly and mysteriously laid off) and is shocked to see a plastic mannequin move of its own accord… even more so when its hand pops open and it fires an explosive shot at him! Ransome flees in terror, headed for UNIT…

Already there, tracking his TARDIS with a locator watch, the Doctor encounters Lethbirdge-Stewart and claims that he is the Doctor, albeit with a changed appearance. The Brigadier is skeptical (Liz Shaw even more so about the claims that the TARDIS is a spaceship), but both cautiously invite the Doctor to look at the broken casing of a meteorite found near the TARDIS. The remains are intriguing to the Doctor, and he agrees to investigate in return for the TARDIS key being returned to him afterwards. However, the Doctor soon dupes Liz into stealing the key for him, ostensibly to access more advanced equipment in the TARDIS, and tries to flee. However, the only result is a loud bang, a great cloud of smoke, and a loss of the Brigadier and Liz’s trust. The Doctor has suffered memory loss, and among it, the Time Lords have removed the knowledge of how to correctly operate the TARDIS from his mind, changed the dematerialization codes… and now, parts of the ship are damaged, too (either from the abortive attempt, or the generally poor state of repair that the Doctor keeps it in, in general). Facing the depressing reality of being stuck on Earth, the Doctor agrees to help UNIT, as the Brigadier, not entirely trustful, begins to believe that he may be the Doctor after all.

Based on Ransome’s testimony, UNIT brings the poacher in for questioning. While he's out at UNIT’s tent-outpost, a mannequin-creature approaches his home, intently tracking the meteorite. When the poacher’s wife attempts to stop it, it bats her aside without a thought. These are the Autons, creatures made of sentient plastic, and they have been collecting the meteorites. UNIT finds and engages the Auton, which flees- called away by its controller at Auto Plastics. It instead runs to the empty UNIT tent and exercises “Total destruction” on Ransome, killing him and destroying his body. The meteorite is found by UNIT and loaded onto a truck- but the Auton steps into the truck's path and causes it to crash, and steals the meteorite from the wreck. The assault continues as, elsewhere, a perfect plastic duplicate accosts and replaces General Scobie, a man in oversight position of UNIT.

From the meteorite examination, the Doctor realizes that there is a living consciousness within each meteorite, which is then fashioned a plastic Auton body on Earth. These creatures, the Nestene, are invading by sending their brains inconspicuously to Earth, and building conquering bodies for them after landing. Visiting a waxwork museum in London on a hunch, the Doctor discovers the real general Scobie, paralyzed and placed in amongst the dummies… all of important contemporary persons, whom the Autons are replacing…

Waiting in the waxworks at night, the Doctor captures Hibbert, one of the men from Auto Plastics, and tries to turn him against his Nestene masters. The Doctor returns to UNIT and fashions a device to destroy the Autons… but at dawn, they strike- shop dummies in store windows throughout the nation come to life, rampaging through the streets and killing indiscriminately.

UNIT makes an assault on Auto Plastics as Hibbert attacks the Nestene’s central consciousness (and is killed for his troubles). The Doctor and Liz make their way up to the central chamber as UNIT and the Autons engage in a firefight below. The Doctor begins disabling Autons (including the fake General Scobies). In the central chamber, the Doctor confronts the Nestene Consciousness and tries to get it to leave, but the creature attacks him in a hideous, tentacled, octopus-like form. Liz fixes a short in the machine and turns it on the Nestene, destroying it- and without its animating energy, all of the Autons as well.

The day is saved, and with nowhere else to go, the Doctor decides to stay on as UNIT’s scientific advisor… negotiating a workship to repair the TARDIS in preparation for the day he can work around the Time Lords’ mental block, and a car like the one he stole, which he’s become rather attached to. Then, properly introducing himself as “Doctor John Smith” (*sniff* …Jamie gave him that alias…), he sets to work on his days with UNIT.

Doctor Who kicks into color high-gear with a refreshing short, fantastically funny, brilliantly written post-regeneration story that introduces the Third Doctor, The UNIT Exile period, and the Autons all in one go. The serial has an unrelentingly alien and unfamiliar feel; it is totally foreign to all that precedes it. It's almost a surreal experience, seeming to have no relationship to the familiar Black and White era serials that one is used to... but what is there, this new tone, is good; engaging, funny, witty, colorful, energetic, and intriguing.

The Third Doctor is not what I expected at all. He's so Troughton-ish initially, it sells completely the regeneration- but he quickly becomes his own man, genial and friendly, and far more down-to-earth than either preceding Doctor. (Note from Sarah: I really liked him from the moment he was asking for his shoes...he did it so funny and to this day is a favorite line for all of us)

The new title sequence is very similar in style to the BWW openings, but features not only a very frightening version of the Doctor’s face, but also the first redshift/blueshift time vortex graphics, even reversing directions for the colors.

Returning actor Nicholas Courtney (sadly, as of just last month per this writing, the late Nicholas Courtney) makes the third appearance of Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, beginning his era on the program as a true TARDIS-less companion. He does a  very nice job of crafting a deep and realistic character- at the same time skeptical and suspicious of this new character that seems to have stepped into the Doctor’s shoes, and grudgingly open to the possibilities due to some of the bizarre things he’s seen in his times with the Doctor. While he is not as likable as he could be, due to his role of almost acting like the Doctor’s jailer (not altogether unreasonable, as the Doctor has yet to prove he really IS the Doctor, simply regenerated, but still…) and in the next serial will prove neither likable nor open-minded (acting as a two-dimensional near-antagonist) and then settling into a likable-but-not-so-open-minded reverse of his role here in the 3rd Third Doctor serial, Ambassadors of Death- but despite a rough opening, I have confidence that the character will find a balance of likability and depth. (NFS: This is a note from your future...yes he does.)

I have a little less confidence in Liz Shaw, who is frankly a bit obnoxious here, and doesn’t really have enough time or presence in the following two sequels to confirm or dispel this impression. Unfortunately, she’s rather snide and disrespectful, mocking, and haughty in this first outing, acting smugly superior to the Brigadier at every turn, and playing the constant naysayer- and while she gets in a few fair cracks (“So your men can shoot him again?”) by far and large she just seems to be backseat driving and wisecracking while not actually helping or contributing, making her an irritant in the first few chapters. That said, some small redemption is earned in the latter two, as the Doctor’s charmer routine works on her, and she demonstrates a sympathy for this new stranger that the Brig doesn’t, and even aids him by stealing a key- and then being rightly angry when she finds out that the Doctor used her. She certainly improves- acting as an able ally and the only one the Doctor trusts by the end of the story- but a rocky beginning and snarky, mean-spirited personality in the beginning have not endeared her to my heart- I’m still waiting for a second strong serial for her that can change my impressions of her one way or another. (NFS: I didn't mind her but also didn't feel like she had a strong enough character for me to feel strongly one way or another about her.)

And of course… the new Doctor. Attached to his new (stolen) car. Trying to run in a panic at being stuck on Earth- and his resigned depression at finding that he can’t. Commanding. Funny. Shoe-obsessed. And finally being credited, no longer as the in-universe inaccurate “Dr. Who,” the name of the program but not the name of the character. No, that’s now been corrected to the much more accurate… “Doctor Who.”

Oh, well.

Aside from the end credits (which also no longer scroll, instead fading in static screens, as part of a much improved title sequence/cliffhangers setup), we have very much to learn about this new Doctor, who is one of the least-known to me, by reputation or video clip. The first thing that hit me was how… Troughton… he was in his deliveries. He didn’t have the voice or manner that I expected, and for those early hospital-bed scenes, you can practically believe that he is still the Second Doctor, simply in a different body. I can’t say that, three serials in, I quite have a feel for his personality, but he does establish a strong character early on, not dwelling in Troughton’s shadow. Actually, at first he seems a bit of a hustler here, stealing whatever he needs or wants, charming Liz with his eyebrow-talk routine, and then conning her into getting him what he wants- heck, he’s practically an aristocratic, grey-haired version of Sawyer from LOST! But somehow I suspect ‘con-man’ is not the term that will be associated with the Doctor is this run. Still, for all of his reputation as a stuffy, aristocratic type, he’s surprisingly personable and jovial, a very friendly sort of Doctor- perhaps even more so than Troughton in some ways- he’s a bit more genuinely warm, while Troughton was friendly in an “I’m harmless” calculated sort of way. The third seems more focused, more like he really cares about befriending you rather than just putting you at ease while he takes your measure.

Which isn’t to say that he isn’t funny! From his petulant “Do I have to?” when the Brigadier (unjustly) demands the TARDIS key back, to his insane and hilarious wheelchair escape (with a mouth duct-taped shut), this Doctor doesn’t shy away from the humor. While he’s not as expressive or physical-comedy oriented as Troughton (it’s only fair I make the unfavorable comparisons if I’m going to make the favorable ones), having more of a dry-wit and ironic-humor based shtick, he’s still fairly funny in his own right- especially the newly-introduced post-regenerative madness scenes. Unlike Troughton, who just sort of wandered around in a daze (well, maybe he was funnier, but it just didn’t come through in stills), this Doctor (like the 11th after him, to grab an example from my own Who-watching past… which is Pertwee’s future… ah, wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey, you know…) establishes himself quickly with some strong humor, obsessing over his shoes, making an aforementioned frantic wheelchair escape, and finally reacting in dismay to his new face (and later becoming quite vain about it). 

Despite his scallywag behavior, he does rather endear himself, giving the Nestene a chance to retreat (an element that continues to influence Doctors all the way up to the 10th and 11th, and a trait his predecessors rarely gave, say, the Macra or the Ice Warriors before blowing them up or chucking them into the sun)- a trait that appears to be an ongoing part of his character, a marked and significant-to the-character-and-mythology change. One can hope that the ongoing kleptomania will not be the same- despite ATM and hospital clothes examples to the contrary in the New Series (Indeed, based on a viewing of this serial, Matt Smith’s 11th Doctor now seems to me more of an amalgam of the 2nd and 3rd Doctors, with more of the mannerisms of the former than the latter). Still, despite the humor, the second-chances, a return of the gung-ho bloodthirsty doctor from Seeds of Death, etc., I think the greatest Doctor moment focus lies on his exile, his panicked attempt to escape in the TARDIS, his sorrowful resignation at the end… it’s a sad moment to see the Doctor’s wings clipped, and a heavily impacting one to throw the new actor straight into- Petrtwee handles it well. (The DVD also features a partially-completed fan film which has a ‘Series 6B’ variation story in which a half-regenerated Doctor escapes the Time Lords before the process is complete- noteworthy, as it contains Jon Pertwee’s final performance, ever.)

For better or worse, UNIT is now also a central focus of the show, meaning a lot more gun battles and a lot more uniforms. Whether this change will be beneficial or not remains to be seen, but it does work well as a plot device to get the Earth-bound Doctor involved in extraterrestrial situations. (A direction the series would have gone in even if Troughton hadn’t announced his intention to make the sixth series his last; the fact that the color/UNIT/Earth transition also happened to be a change of Doctors only aided the clean break).

This serial also introduces the Autons, a living plastic race traditionally used in Doctor introduction stories as a menace strong enough to build a story around, but weak enough not to outshine the Doctor. They are extremely creepy in this serial, and very effective… not only in their plastic forms, but the pulsating-eye-and-tentacle-monster at the end, which is a pretty cool bit of puppeteering. Here too is the famous moment in Who history where shop dummies smash out of their displays and begin wreaking havoc in the streets- which has a very massive feeling of scale to it that similar scenes, like The Invasion, failed in. (It’s also much mocked for not actually showing a single pane of glass breaking, just using sound effects, as they didn’t have the budget to break the glass- an oversight corrected in the New Series opener, Rose, with a re-staging of a similar scene.)

Lastly, we have the effects. Ambitious at times, simple at others- from a fairly laughable shot of meteorites falling in perfect formation (it worked in Space Pirates, but…) to a fairly interesting explosion/explosion played in reverse/vanish effect for disintegration (‘Total destruction,’ as it is dubbed) that looks pretty cool. It seems that Doctor Who is a bit less of an FX show now, being Earth-based… but it’s still not without a few notables per serial. There’s a nice model Earth to start things off, a trend that series openers for the New Series have long continued.

Oh, and the Doctor now has a car, a jalopy, which I think is truly his surrogate TARDIS- he lavishes it with all of the affection and tinkering and protectiveness that he had for his space/time machine while it lies unused in a UNIT store-room. We’ll be seeing much more of it in serials to come, much to everyone but the Doctor’s dismay.

Great moments:
“Shoes!”, the wheelchair chase, and all of the post-regenerative moments. Plus, the Doctor’s attempted escape.

So, this is our introduction to Doctor number Three. A simple story, thankfully short, focusing more on the Doctor than the menace- this works well. It’s funny, establishes the characters and settings well, gives us some good new villains- all in all, not a bad day’s work. 4 out of 5 “Shoes!” for Spearhead From Space, the dawn of a new era… well, actually, about half a dozen separate new eras, some of which persisted for only a few years, and others still in practice today. Either way, not a bad cornerstone for them.

Dating: (Note from Sarah: Warning timey wimey type stuff ahead.)
Dating notation: Arrived at through a chain- Victoria mentions that Abominable Snowmen took place in 1935. In Web of Fear, Travers notes that it has been 40 years. This would place it in 1975. However, Silverstein, the museum owner, says it was 30 years. Assuming that 10 years don’t pass between the Yeti activating and the later siege when the Doctor arrives… this would place it about 1965. This is consistent with the lack of the Victoria line on the subway maps, which was completed in 1968. Regardless, Lethbridge-Stewart references the Invasion as being 4 years later, placing it in 1979 as per Travers statement, and 1969 as per Silverstein’s. We will assume Silverstein’s as additional evidence leans more in favor of this date, and Travers may just be senile. And the brigadier’s age in 2009’s appearance on the Sarah Jane Adventures certainly suggests that these stories either took place in the 1970s, or else he aged 40 years in the course of 30 years.

Supporting this, the not-quite-canon-but-seen-on-screen-in-the-Sarah-Jane-Adventures-so-maybe-partly-canon "official" in-universe UNIT website created in 2005 for the New Series’ revival, notes that “UNIT was formed in 1968 in response to the "London Underground" incident” (The Web of Fear), which would place that story pre-1968, supporting the 1965 date (and The Invasion post-1968, making its 4-year-later date no later than 1972, supporting Silverstein’s statement instead of Travers’ once again). It also calls January 25th, 2005, the “35th anniversary of UNIT's involvement in "Project Waxwork"” (the assault on Auto Plastics from the end of this serial), suggesting that this serial occurred on the airdate of the final part, January 24th, 1970- again, suggesting that Silverstein is right, and these stories take place concurrently to the time they were aired.

Production statements, however, do imply that this story- and those following- take place in the ‘futuristic’ 1980s. Pertwee said so in publicity interviews. In fact, as noted in The Invasion, production statements and on-air announcements indicate that the story, with the formation of UNIT, took place in 1975 or 1976, definitely supporting the 1980s date here. However, all of this was behind the scenes only, and never established onscreen (or was it?), which is what canon derives from.

So, when do these stories take place? Unlike the constant “near-future” stories of Troughton’s era, these stories all take place in the same time! But which time period is it- the ‘modern’ 70s, or the ‘futuristic’ 80s? Fan debate has raged to the point that the UNIT website tongue-in-cheek-ly notes "[UNIT] quickly expanded, making our presence felt in a golden period that spanned the sixties, the seventies, and, some would say, the eighties." And the Tenth Doctor himself notes in ‘The Sontarran Stratagem’ that he worked with UNIT “In the mid-Seventies. Or was it the Eighties?”

So what’s the verdict for the purposes of this blog, which attempts to coherently link all of the Doctor Who events into a coherent timeline? (Itself an exercise in futility, as the actions in any given adventure could theoretically render every story set in a time period afterwards drastically altered). Clearly, it will have to be on a case-by-case basis! Onscreen evidence says to me that, as of this serial, I have to come down in favor of the earlier, contiguous-with-the-air-date dating of 1970. We’ll see how this develops…