Doctor Who reviews: Day of the Daleks

Recently I’ve been enjoying fellow WordPress blogger Chance November’s ongoing look at the entirety of Jon Pertwee’s five year run as the Third Doctor on Doctor Who.  She’s been doing an excellent job at it.  After Chance penned a write-up on “Day of the Daleks” I was inspired to take my own look at it, since it is one of my favorite Pertwee serials.

“Day of the Daleks” was one of the earliest Doctor Who stories to be released on VHS, back in 1989.  In a turnaround, it became one of the last DVDs, coming out in 2011, ten years after the BBC began re-releasing the series on disk.  However, it was worth that decade-long wait.  The two disk set of “Day of the Daleks,” in addition to the original broadcast show, has a Special Edition with new visual & sound effects, as well as an assortment of extras.

Day of the Daleks DVD

Examinations of the complications and paradoxes inherent in time travel are rather common in the revived Doctor Who series.  “Father’s Day,” “Blink,” “The Big Bang,” “The Girl Who Waited,” and practically every episode to feature the character River Song have all touched upon the notion of just how strange, convoluted, and dangerous time travel can be.  The excellent 1998 novel Vanderdeken’s Children by Christopher Bulis also dealt with time paradoxes in a very eerie manner.  But back during the show’s original run from 1963 to 1989 this was very seldom addressed.  Ninety-nine percent of the time, time travel was simply a device to get the Doctor and his companions to the particular place in the past or future where they needed to be for the story.

The first Doctor Who serial to address the possible complexities of time travel was the underrated, thought-provoking 1965 story “The Space Museum” written by Glyn Jones.  It would not be for another seven years, in 1972, that the series would dive headlong into the same waters, when Louis Marks penned “Day of the Daleks.”

Most long-time fans of the series will already know the plot of “Day of the Daleks.”  The premise revolves around a group of guerilla resistance fighters traveling back in time 200 years to the late 20th Century in order to alter history.  By assassinating the politician Sir Reginald Styles, they hope to prevent the outbreak of World War III and, in its aftermath, the total subjugation of the Earth by the alien Daleks.  The dramatic twist of the story is the revelation that the guerillas are caught in a predestination paradox: by attempting to alter history they have actually caused those events to take place.  The first time I saw “Day of the Daleks” this curveball blew my mind.  It was both clever and frightening.

It’s worth noting that the Daleks are implied to be the original instigators of history being altered.  They inform the Doctor “We have changed the pattern of history,” and later on explicitly travel back to the 20th Century to destroy Styles’ peace conference, thereby causing nuclear war to occur, ensuring their future domination of Earth.  It appears that the guerillas, unaware of the Daleks’ own manipulations of time, then went back in time themselves to alter history, but instead became trapped in a paradox.

If “Day of the Daleks” was made today by the Doctor Who production team, I wouldn’t be surprised if they removed the Daleks as the initial cause of Earth’s apocalyptic future.  In keeping with the notion of history as “a big ball of wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey stuff” (to quote “Blink”), the guerillas’ actions would probably be part of what is commonly referred to in sci-fi as a stable time loop with no actual involvement by the Daleks in the initial alteration of the time stream.  That said, for a Doctor Who serial filmed four decades ago, the time travel concepts Louis Marks introduced in “Day of the Daleks” were very though provoking and revolutionary at that time in the show’s history.

There are a number of fine actors on hand who do a superb job of bringing to life Marks’ brilliant script.  Foremost among them is Pertwee himself, turning in one of his best performances as the Doctor.  The moment when he deduces the cause of history being altered, he gravely proclaims to the guerillas:

“You’re trapped in a temporal paradox. Styles didn’t cause that explosion and start the wars. You did it yourselves!”

It’s a powerful scene made even more so by Pertwee’s forceful delivery, one that all of these years later gives me chills.

Another instance where Pertwee shines is in the Doctor’s verbal fencing with the Controller, the Daleks chief human lackey in the 22nd Century.  Pertwee delivers stinging condemnations raining down on the Controller.  And on a lighter note I’ve always enjoyed the scenes where the Doctor is, to quote Jo Grant, “carrying on rather like a one man food and wine society.”

The Controller is effectively portrayed by Aubrey Woods (fans of Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory will remember him as Bill the candy shop owner).  Although at times Woods’ performance is, to quote producer Barry Letts, “far too theatrical,” it is nevertheless very compelling.  At first the Controller appears to be a willing agent of the Daleks.  However, as the story progresses, we see he is not genuinely evil, but rather weak.  He is terrified of the Daleks, believing them unbeatable.  The Controller rationalizes his collaboration by regarding himself as someone who can reason with the Daleks, gain concessions, and make the occupation of Earth slightly less brutal.  His interactions with the Doctor, who labels him a traitor and a quisling, slowly begin to reawaken his buried conscience.

In the fourth episode, Woods delivers a haunting recitation of the Earth’s nightmarish future to the Doctor and Jo, relating how after decades of war decimated the globe, the planet was crushed by alien invasion, humanity’s survivors turned into a slave labor force to mine resources for the expanding Dalek Empire.  Woods’ monologue vividly illustrates what would have been impossible for Doctor Who to actually visualize on-screen with a shoestring budget and early 1970s special effects, painting a grim picture of a shattered world under the domination of the Daleks.

Day of the Daleks Aubrey Woods

The actors portraying the guerillas are also very good.  Just as the Controller is nowhere near as clear-cut as he first appears, neither is the anti-Dalek underground.  The guerillas straddle the fine line that can exist between freedom fighter and terrorist.  Though their goal is a noble one, to free Earth from Dalek rule, they are seen utilizing such morally ambiguous tactics as assassinations and suicide bombings to achieve their aims.  The actors really bring across the desperation and fanaticism that the guerillas have become gripped by as a result of their gargantuan struggle against the Daleks.

Dudley Simpson composed the incidental music for nearly all of the Doctor Who serials produced between 1970 and 1979, including this one.  His work on the series has a definite consistency and, in retrospect, there is this “sameness” to a lot of his scores.  I think certain serials might have benefitted from another composer to shake things up.  The music for “Day of the Daleks” falls within the earlier period of Simpson’s work, before his signature became quite so uniform.  He was more experimental at this time.  In other words, he goes a bit crazy with the synthesizer from time to time on this serial, although it’s not as insane as what he did for “The Claws of Axos” the previous season!  The music on “Day of the Daleks” may be quite odd in places, but mostly it is effective.

While the writing and acting is almost consistently top-notch, the serial does have a couple of striking deficiencies.  Much has been made over the years of the fact that the Daleks actually have very little screen time.  This is probably at least partially due to the fact that Marks’ initial story did not even contain the Daleks!  His original conception was to have a fascist human government ruling the 22nd Century.  However, both Barry Letts and script editor Terrance Dicks felt the story would make a stronger season opener if the Daleks were in it, and so instructed Marks to insert them into his scripts.

In Marks’ defense, he did this in a rather seamless fashion.  True, the Daleks aren’t actually seen very much.  But the other characters talk about them throughout the story, making them a sort of unseen menace looming above the proceedings.  In a way, this is more effective than having scene after scene of them crashing onto the screen, guns blazing, shouting “Exterminate” over and over.

However, a much more tangible reason for the Daleks’ limited appearances is that there were only had three Dalek props on hand.  True, with some creative editing, a director could make a trio of Daleks appear to be a much bigger force (something David Maloney would achieve in “Genesis of the Daleks” a few years later).  Unfortunately, someone had the none-too-bright idea to have the lead Dalek in “Day of the Daleks” painted gold.  This made it much more difficult for director Paul Bernard to have it appear there was an entire army of Daleks, especially at the end of the fourth episode.

Day of the Daleks trio

Due to the story’s less-than-spectacular final battle, some have faulted Bernard’s direction.  However, throughout the majority of the serial, he does strong work.  He frames his shots in a dramatic fashion.  I like how he filmed the Daleks’ apelike henchmen, the Ogrons, often shooting them from a low angle, so that they appeared as towering monstrosities. And the editing, the cutting from one scene to the next, is very good, heightening the drama.

Really, one cannot place too much blame on Bernard for the final sequence.  In addition to only having three Dalek props, he had to film them on location.  It wasn’t even easy to get the Daleks to maneuver around the studio back in those days, so I can only imagine the difficulties in the Dalek prop operators had in trying to move about outside on an uneven field.  It’s no wonder that final battle was underwhelming.

Much more of a sticking point for me were the Daleks’ voices.  The two actors who spoke the dialogue in “Day of the Daleks” had not done any other Dalek stories before or since, so the tones sound unfamiliar.  Additionally, a lot of the dialogue is spoken in a drawn out, stilted monotone, with each syllable pronounced almost as if it is a separate word.  These are probably the least effective Dalek voices ever heard on the series.

Since “Day of the Daleks” was an otherwise well done story, in the past it was easy to overlook these few problems.  Nevertheless, many Doctor Who DVDs have featured updated effects, so I thought it would be cool if, when “Day of the Daleks” came out, the producers could change the Dalek voices.  Specifically, I was hoping they’d bring in Nicholas Briggs, who has very effectively voiced the Daleks on both the revived television series and on numerous audio adventures produced by Big Finish.  And if they could also add some extra Daleks to the battle sequence, that would be the icing on the cake.

It turned out the DVD producer Steve Broster felt exactly the same way. With the help of a small group of talented individuals, he created the Special Edition of “Day of the Daleks,” adding new visual effects, extra Daleks, and having the Dalek voices re-recorded by Nicholas Briggs.  As the DVD extra on the making of the Special Edition explains, these were not simple tasks.  I really have to compliment Broster and his crew on creating a new, more visually exciting version of the serial with effects that nevertheless manage to mostly remain in synch with the original 1972 footage.

As for the new vocals by Briggs, well, until I heard them in this story, I don’t think I truly appreciated just how much of the Daleks’ effectiveness as monsters is due to their voices.  Yes, Raymond Cusick’s iconic design is a crucial aspect of their appeal, but their vocalization is equally important.  Re-doing the Dalek voices makes them so much more menacing.  At the same time, Briggs knows when to inject arrogance, panic, and incredulity into his delivery of their dialogue, so that they are not just screaming non-stop, instead possessing a certain amount of nuance.

Of course, if Special Editions are not your cup of tea, the original 1972 broadcast version is still available for viewing on the first disk of this set.  So you can choose which you prefer.

There are a number of other excellent extras included.  One of these, “The UNIT Dating Conundrum,” humorously addresses one of those contentious issues that keep hardcore fans arguing endlessly among themselves, namely when did the UNIT stories take place.  Were they set in the years they were broadcast, or a decade in the future?  The quick answer is that there is no answer, because there’s just too much contradictory information in the stories.  Or, as they say on Mystery Science Theater 3000, repeat to yourself “It’s just a show, I should really just relax!”

Another interesting extra was “The Cheating Memory,” which examines how the brains of children process information, and how our memories from when we were young are often not reliable.  This is looked at in the oft-common context of very young fans who watched the stories in the 1960s and 70s when they were first broadcast, and remembered them as being incredible.  This being before the era of television repeats on the BBC, video recorders, or DVDs, it might often be years, even decades until fans might have an opportunity to re-watch those same shows.

I remember that when I first began watching Doctor Who in the 1980s, I would always hear fans complaining that the current stories were nowhere near as good as the old ones.  In response, then-producer John Nathan-Turner would often respond “the memory cheats.”  A good example of this is when the long-missing 1967 story “Tomb of the Cybermen” was re-discovered in 1992 and a number of fans had to admit that, while still very good, it was nevertheless not nearly as brilliant as what they remembered seeing when they were little kids.

Even I’ve experienced a bit of this myself with several stories when I watched them on PBS in the mid-1980s and then didn’t have an opportunity to see them again until they came out on VHS or DVD a decade or more later.  So I certainly identify with “The Cheating Memory.”

Day of the Daleks novelization

By the way, if you want an alternative to the DVD Special Edition, there is always the novelization written in 1974 by Terrance Dicks.  Unrestrained by a limited budget or primitive special effects, Dicks gives an expanded view of the post-apocalyptic dystopian future via a prologue entitled “Terror in the Twenty-Second Century.”  Dicks also includes scenes featuring dozens of Daleks, gives background information on the guerillas, and he even makes the rather goofy motorized tricycle chase from episode three seem exciting & suspenseful.  Dicks concludes his adaptation with an introspective final chapter, “All Kinds of Futures,” that bookends an earlier scene from the televised story where the Doctor and Jo briefly encounter versions of themselves from elsewhere in the timeline.

Dicks wrote several dozen Doctor Who novelizations over the years.  Some of the later ones he penned were rather by-the-numbers, and it almost seemed that Target / W.H. Allen had the poor guy chained to a typewriter with orders to churn out a book a month.  But if you look back on the earlier books he penned in the 1970s, Dicks did an excellent job developing many of the serials beyond the confines of the television screen.  In the 1980s, before the VHS and DVD releases, those books were often the best way to experience the early stories.

*Whew!* That was a long post. I certainly had a lot to say. Thanks for reading.

Doctor Who reviews: Timelash

Recently, Michele was working on a paper for school that examined how H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine influenced Doctor Who.  It was an excellent piece of writing.  I cannot believe that I’d never before noticed how significantly Terry Nation had borrowed from Wells when writing the first Dalek storyline, i.e. the Daleks equal the Morlocks, the Thals equal the Eloi, etc.

So, as she’s working on this paper, I happen to casually mention to Michele that on one occasion the Doctor actually met H.G. Wells.  Oops!!!  Suddenly she wants to see this story.  I tried to explain to her that “Timelash” is not a well regarded Doctor Who serial.  In fact, one commentator went so far as to point out that the title is an anagram for “lame shit.”  Michele was amused by this, but undeterred.  So I popped “Timelash” into the DVD player, and we watched it.  She ended up laughing at most of what came up on the television screen.

As I’ve written before, I am a big fan of Colin Baker’s Sixth Doctor, and on the whole I find his brief tenure on the series to be very enjoyable.  Even so, I will readily admit that “Timelash” is not an especially good story.  That said, I will argue that it is rather underrated… which basically translates to my saying that is nowhere near as awful as most other people claim!  Certainly Baker himself is in fine form, bringing his brash, argumentative, authoritative Doctor right to the forefront.  It definitely suits this story, given that he is handed a pair of larger than life adversaries to verbally fence with in the forms of the Borad and Maylin Tekker.

Doctor Who: Timelash DVD
Doctor Who: Timelash DVD

The plot by Glen McCoy definitely has potential, exploring what happens when the Doctor returns to a planet several decades after he had a prior (untelevised) adventure.  We very rarely see the lasting consequences of the Doctor’s actions anywhere, so this trip to Karfel offers us a chance to examine how a previous encounter with the Time Lord can affect a civilization for good or bad.

The main villain, the mutant Borad, is actually a novel, intriguing foe, one who is well played by actor Robert Ashby, with an excellent make-up job realizing the character.  Considering the Borad survives the events of “Timelash,” albeit as a deposed despot left to spend the next several centuries swimming about Loch Ness, I’ve always hoped that one day he would turn up again in another story.  Given the generally poor perception of “Timelash,” I doubt that Steven Moffat will be dusting off this vintage baddie any time soon, but there are still the Doctor Who audio plays and novels.

I think the main area where “Timelash” fails is in the budget.  It definitely had a very cheap, shoddy look about it, with plain sets and very drab costumes.  One of the worst offenses has to be the inside of the Timelash tunnel itself, which looks horribly tacky and is so obviously a glittery Styrofoam wall.

I really cannot fault McCoy for any of this, though.  He was a relatively new writer who had never worked on Doctor Who before.  In this case, I think the lion’s share of the blame should be laid at the feet of script editor Eric Saward.  It is all well and good for Saward to bemoan the fact that producer John Nathan-Turner forced him to work with a succession of inexperienced writers.  But it was Saward’s job to look at McCoy’s script, point out to him what was not achievable on the limited money allocated to the show, and suggest other alternatives.  Saward seems to have abdicated his responsibilities, though, content to let McCoy’s ambitious vision be poorly realized on a shoestring budget, all the while blaming JNT for the substandard end result.

Paul Darrow Timelash
Paul Darrow takes it to eleven as Maylin Tekker

I was also extremely underwhelmed by how the Doctor’s companion Peri was portrayed.  Nicola Bryant, as I’ve observed in past blog posts, was often handed subpar material to work with.  But this has to be one of the character’s all time worst stories.  Except for a few scenes where she’s squabbling with the Doctor, poor Peri spends nearly the entire serial running from trouble, getting captured, being left tied up, and screaming for her life.  Makes me appreciate how the character has been handled on the Big Finish audio plays all the more.

As I mentioned earlier, the Doctor meets H.G. Wells in  “Timelash,” although for almost the entire story he is just a young man named Herbert.  It’s only in the very last scene that the Doctor discovers his full name, and realizes that he’s probably had a huge impact on the future author.  There was definitely — and again I use the word — potential to a fictional encounter between the Doctor and Wells, the real-life writer whose influence on the series cannot be denied.

Regrettably, the meeting between the two does not come off especially well.  For most of the story, Herbert is written as a naïve bumbler who is in way over his head, as well as a bit of a wet blanket.  I think David Chandler gives it his all, though.  I had always hoped, as with the Borad, that we would see another meeting between the Doctor and Wells, hopefully when the later was an older, more seasoned individual.  I think Chandler expressed interest in reprising the role.  Even though that never did occur on television, Wells does meet both the Tenth Doctor and the Victorian incarnation of Torchwood in the comic book special The Time Machination by Tony Lee and Paul Grist which was published by IDW in 2009.

H.G. Wells meets Torchwood in Doctor Who: The Time Machination
H.G. Wells meets Torchwood in Doctor Who: The Time Machination

Before closing out any look at “Timelash,” I would be extremely remiss if I did not mention Paul Darrow in the role of Maylin Tekker.  To say that it is a broad performance would be a vast understatement.  Reputedly this was inspired by Colin Baker’s appearance as a larger-than-life space pirate, Bayban the Butcher, on Darrow’s series Blake’s 7 a few years previously.  When Darrow was then cast in “Timelash,” he apparently wanted to see if he could out-ham Baker’s earlier performance.

I honestly do not know if Darrow’s over-the-top villainy should be considered one of the most risible aspects of the serial or if it takes a mediocre production and rockets it into high melodrama.  I will tell you this, though: I half-suspect the reason that that there’s so little scenery in “Timelash” is not the result of budget problems but due to Paul Darrow chewing it up.

Doctor Who reviews: Kinda

Since I met Peter Davison, who starred in Doctor Who from 1982 to 1984, at the New York Comic Con last weekend, I thought it would be appropriate to do a blog entry on one of his stories.

I first happened to start watching Doctor Who regularly at the tail end of Tom Baker’s era, and soon after the Doctor regenerated into his Fifth incarnation, played by Davison.  So, really, for me some of the earliest episodes that I had the opportunity to see were from Davison’s time on the series.  Because of this, I’m rather fond of his era.  Even if Davison didn’t always get the best stories, I enjoyed his portrayal of the Doctor.

The story I’m taking a look at today, “Kinda,” is, I think, one of Davison’s better ones.  I actually wrote a review of it on Associated Content a couple of years ago, and this is a revised version.  But, hey, if the giant Mara snake can get a CGI makeover on the DVD, then I think I’m entitled to do a special edition of one of my old columns!

The serial “Kinda,” written by Christopher Bailey, was originally broadcast by the BBC in February 1982.  The first time I saw it was a couple of years later when it aired on PBS here in the States.  I was eight years old, and, to be honest, it left me totally confused.  About a decade later, I saw “Kinda” on PBS again, and this time I taped it on the VCR.  So over the years, I had the opportunity to re-watch it several more times.  As I got older, and my knowledge of world cultures and spirituality broadened, I gradually came to have a better understanding of “Kinda” with each subsequent viewing.  The course I took in Comparative Religions in college helped.  More recently, I’ve had discussions with my girlfriend, who is very well read on religion & spirituality, and I’ve learned a lot from her.  So it is an interesting, and different, experience watching “Kinda” again as an adult now that it is out on DVD.

Doctor Who: Kinda DVD
Doctor Who: Kinda DVD

“Kinda” is set on Deva Loka, a tranquil tropical forest world that is described as a literal paradise.  An expeditionary force of humans has arrived to determine if the planet is suitable for colonization.  The occupants of Deva Loka, the Kinda, appear to be a very primitive people, but the expedition’s scientist Doctor Todd is convinced there is much more to the natives than meets the eye.  And then three of the six expedition members vanish under mysterious circumstances.

By the time the Doctor and his companions arrive on Deva Loka, tensions are beginning to fray in the expedition Dome.  Security officer Hindle, due to the disappearances of half the team, as well as the aggressive attitude of the expedition’s commander Sanders towards him, is becoming unhinged.  The Doctor and Adric are taken into custody at the Dome.  After Sanders departs to search for the missing members of the team, Hindle snaps, threatening the Doctor, Adric, and Todd at gunpoint.

Meanwhile, Tegan has been left behind by a set of mysterious giant wind chimes.  Falling into a trance-like dream state, her consciousness is projected into a strange black void populated by a trio of sinister-looking pale figures with snake tattoos on their forearms.  One of them, a sneering young man, attempts to coerce Tegan into allowing him to take control of her physical form, utilizing a variety of mental tortures.  Under this psychic assault, Tegan finally relents.  She awakens back on Deva Loka, the snake symbol now on her arm, possessed by an evil entity known as the Mara.

As I learned in the years subsequent to my early viewings of “Kinda,” Christopher Bailey invested his scripts with a number of Buddhist symbols and concepts.  For example, “Deva Loka” in the Sanskrit language means heaven or paradise.  In Hinduism (which has certain parallel beliefs to Buddhism) there are three paths that the human soul can take after death, and one of these is a path of light into a heavenly plane of existence known as Deva Loka.  Buddhism itself regards a Deva Loka as the habitat of Devas, or divine beings.  Likewise, “Mara” is Sanskrit for death or evil.  Buddhism regards the Mara as an entity of temptation that draws individuals away from spiritual enlightenment.

Of course, there is also Judeo-Christian imagery present in “Kinda.”  The Mara’s true form is a giant snake, making it the serpent in paradise.  When the Mara possesses Tegan, she takes on the mannerisms of an aggressive seductress.  To ensnare Aris, one of the Kinda tribe whose brother is being held captive in the Dome, Tegan first gets his attention by sitting in a tree and dropping apples on him, an allusion to the temptation in the Garden of Eden.  There is also an almost sexual connotation to the moment when Tegan and Aris’ hands entwine, and the Mara transfers over to his body.

One of the primary strengths of “Kinda” is the high quality of performances by the actors.  First of all, Peter Davison turns a great performance as the Doctor.  Davison grew up watching Doctor Who in the late 1960s, and has said that he drew a certain amount of inspiration from the Second Doctor, played by Patrick Troughton.  Some of the cadence, mannerisms, and personality that Davison invests in his Doctor in “Kinda” are reminiscent of Troughton’s incarnation.  Obviously this is something that I did not pick up on when I was younger, but subsequently having seen many of Troughton’s surviving Doctor Who episodes, I can now see how he influenced Davison.  I think that quality works very well in this story.  At the same time, Davison also gives the Doctor his own individual spin, making it much more than just an imitation of Troughton.

Janet Fielding, who plays Tegan, is given a chance to shine in “Kinda.”  Instead of just being the bossy, argumentative “mouth on legs” that many of the writers pigeonholed the character as, here we see a very frightened, bewildered, vulnerable individual suffering at the hands of the Mara in the black void.  During the brief period when Tegan is possessed by the Mara, she is a genuinely creepy, unsettling figure.  At the end of the serial, when the Mara’s true form is revealed, and she realizes that thing was in her head, you can see hints of what might be post-traumatic stress disorder.

(I was usually not very keen that Doctor Who producer John Nathan-Turner had a lot of his serials flow from one into another.  But it was a good decision on his part to have “The Visitation,” the story immediately following “Kinda” in broadcast order, contain a scene early on where Tegan is shown to be still unsettled by her possession a short while before.  I think it has become easy for fans of the revived Doctor Who series to take it for granted that the Doctor’s companions will grow & develop as a season progresses.  The majority of the time on the original series, this was not the case, and this was one of the rare instances it demonstrated that events could have lasting effects on a regular character.)

Tegan in the black void
Tegan in the black void

The most outstanding performance in “Kinda” is Simon Rouse as Hindle, an emotionally unstable individual experiencing a mental breakdown.  It would have been easy and tempting to turn in a totally over-the-top performance, making Hindle a figure of melodrama.  Instead, Rouse plays it totally straight, giving an utterly convincing depiction of a man unhinged, vacillating across the emotional spectrum, going from violent and threatening to paranoid and neurotic to childlike and innocent.  Hindle is a pitiable figure, but at the same time he is very scary, because you have absolutely no idea what he is going to do next.  The cliffhanger ending to episode one has Hindle leveling a gun at the Doctor, Adric, and Todd, declaring to them “I have the power of life and death over all of you!”  It’s a riveting moment because Rouse delivers what could have been a daft line with such conviction, and you can just hear the insanity in his taut voice.  And, at the story’s end, after Hindle has been exposed to the Kinda’s Box of Jhana, and his insanity banished, we see him in a quiet, contemplative state.  Rouse really gives a three-dimensional performance.

Also noteworthy is Nerys Hughes as Doctor Todd.  A noted actress, Hughes turns in a solid performance, and for much of the story she fulfills the role of a temporary companion.  A scientist, Todd has both the intelligence and wit to match the Doctor.  Hughes and Davison have very good chemistry.  At the end of the story, when the Doctor and his companions depart, I was left wishing that Todd could have gone with them, because she could have made a great regular cast member.

The music for “Kinda” was composed by Peter Howell, who did excellent work on a number of Doctor Who stories in the 1980s.  His incidental music on the surreal “Warriors’ Gate” the previous season was an especially effective and memorable.  For “Kinda,” Howell turns in another eerie, ethereal score that suits the serial perfectly.

This serial was directed by Peter Grimwade, and he does a superb job at translating a very dreamlike, cerebral script into a television program.  Grimwade was one of the best directors Doctor Who had during this time period.  An extra feature on the DVD is a retrospective on Grimwade, who unfortunately passed away at a relatively young age in 1990.  Present-day reminiscences and commentary by former colleagues are interspersed with clips from a 1987 interview of Grimwade.

Speaking of DVD features, “Kinda” has an Optional CGI Effects Sequence.  In other words, the giant cardboard snake at the end of the story that is supposed to be the Mara in its true form can be substituted by a computer generated replacement.  When I first saw “Kinda” in the mid-1980s, I honestly didn’t think the giant snake looked too bad.  That was probably because A) I was an eight-year-old kid in an era before realistic CGI was possible and B) after four confusing episodes that went totally over my head, I was probably just relieved to see a monster, any monster, even if it didn’t appear completely realistic!  Of course, when I re-watched “Kinda” a decade or so later, yeah, by that point the giant snake was beginning to look rather less believable to my older, more cynical eyes.  In any case, on the DVD that rather goofy-looking serpent has been seamlessly substituted for a CGI depiction of the Mara.  And it looks great.  Seriously, you might almost think there really was a malevolently hissing twenty-foot-tall snake with razor-sharp fangs writhing and coiling about on the BBC studio floor.

The Mara revisited
The Mara revisited

As I mentioned earlier, when I was eight years old, I found “Kinda” to be almost impenetrable.  Now, at age 36, what is my reaction?  Well, while I have a much better comprehension of Christopher Bailey’s serial, there are still elements of the story that are somewhat befuddling.

My main query deals with whether or not the “A Plot” of Hindle going insane actually even connects with the “B Plot” of the Mara possessing Tegan and then Aris.  I can only see one possible point of intersection.  We are told by the Kinda priestess Panna that “Our suffering is the Mara’s delight, our madness the Mara’s meat & drink.”  Perhaps the Mara, which is telepathic, learned that Hindle had wired the Dome with enough explosives to destroy everything in a thirty-mile radius.  The Mara, controlling Aris, might have been leading the Kinda to attack the Dome in order to provoke Hindle into detonating the bombs, causing widespread death and destruction.  Then again, it could all have been a huge coincidence.

I’ve heard theories by other people that the three figures in the black void are based upon Tegan’s memories of the story’s opening scene, stolen from her mind by the Mara and twisted into grotesque parodies: the ancient couple playing chess is Adric and Nyssa, the sadistic young man is the Doctor, and the abstract metal sculpture next to them is the TARDIS.  It’s an interesting idea.

The Kinda themselves are an enigma.  At first glance, they do appear to be a very primitive people.  Yet they are actually telepathic.  They wear necklaces that represent the double helix of DNA, indicating knowledge of molecular biology.  They constructed the giant wind chimes, something the Doctor observes would have required a high degree of technical skill.  And they utilize the Box of Jhana, which appears to be a simple wooden container, but which is actually a healing device capable of restoring balance to individuals with severe mental instability.

The Box of Jhana, mental projections of events that are simultaneously past and future occurrences, and the ability of the wind chimes to allow the Kinda to share their dreams: all seem to be examples of Clarke’s Law, i.e. any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.  In fact, one could hypothesize that the Kinda are so incredibly advanced that they long ago passed the point where they needed to rely on conventional technology.  They are now at a point of mental and spiritual development that they live in perfect harmony with Deva Loka, negating any need for houses, mass transportation, weapons, electrical power, or anything else resembling the mechanical devices which we are dependent upon in our daily lives.  Even the Mara, which appears to be some kind of demon or evil god, is probably a powerful alien entity originating from another dimension or plane of existence.

(As I understand it, the Mara’s origins are explored in Bailey’s sequel “Snakedance,” but I haven’t seen that one in a couple of decades so offhand I don’t recall.  I really should to pick it up on DVD one of these days.)

Kinda novelization
Kinda novelization by Terrance Dicks

The one gaping plot hole in “Kinda” is that, when all is said and done, we never do learn what happened to the missing members of the expedition!  In his novelization of the serial, Terrance Dicks has the Doctor hypothesizing that the lost members of the team had each been possessed by the Mara but, unlike Tegan, they resisted giving up control of their forms and were killed.  Dicks was always good at spotting plot holes in Doctor Who stories and coming up with explanations for them in his books, the sort of exposition that there unfortunately wasn’t enough time to delve into within the actual television programs.

Watching the “making of” feature on the DVD, it was at first surprising to learn that Christopher H. Bidmead, the script editor on the previous season of Doctor Who, was the one who first commissioned Christopher Bailey to write “Kinda.”  After all, one of Bidmead goals as script editor was to bring back “hard science” to the series.  In contrast, “Kinda” is a very mystical, metaphysical story.  And many people unfortunately regard science and spirituality as mutually exclusive concepts (although I personally believe that there is room for both in our understanding of the universe).  Of course, “Kinda” is also a very cerebral story, and Bidmead wanted to produce stories that challenged viewers and made them think.  In this respect, “Kinda” is successful.

I think “Kinda” was slightly ahead of its time.  It is a story that is very suited to the age of VHS and DVD, when it can be viewed more than once. “Kinda” is a complex story with a number of layers, and each time I watch it I come away with a little bit more.

Doctor Who reviews: The Keeper of Traken

I’ve decided it’ll be fun to do some random reviews of Doctor Who stories.  First up is “The Keeper of Traken,” which originally broadcast on the BBC in early 1981.

I must have first seen “The Keeper of Traken” around 1984 or so, when I was eight years old.  Doctor Who was showing Monday to Friday on the local PBS station, WLIW Channel 21, and I had only really started watching the series a few weeks before.  So “The Keeper of Traken” was maybe the seventh or eighth Doctor Who story that I ever watched.  I don’t know if I’ve ever had a chance to watch it in its entirety since then, until I recently purchased the DVD.  It was interesting to see what a difference 28 years can bring to your perspective, as well as how different things seem when you are a long-time Doctor Who fan, as opposed to a complete newcomer to the show.

In “The Keeper of Traken,” the Doctor and Adric arrive at the Traken Union, a series of planets that have existed in peace & harmony for millennia due to the bioelectric Source.  The Union is one of the most peaceful groups of worlds in the entire universe.  It is so peaceful, in fact, that normally beings of evil intent who visit it are instantly calcified.  Such is the case with the mysterious Melkur, who arrived on Traken years before seeking to steal the Source, but instead was transformed into an unmoving statue.  The Doctor and Adric have been brought to Traken by the Keeper, a being of immense cosmic power who is nearing the end of his thousand-year existence.  Knowing his death is coming soon, and sensing a terrible evil approaching that he is now powerless to stop, the Keeper hopes that the Doctor will be able to save Traken from its impending peril.

Doctor Who: Keeper of Traken DVD

I will admit, when I first saw “The Keeper of Traken” nearly three decades ago, I was quite underwhelmed.  There seemed to be an awful lot of talking about scientific principles that went completely over my head.  When there was some action, it was the Doctor and Adric, who are falsely accused of being agents of the Melkur, getting captured, escaping, running around, re-captured, etc.

The story really did not get interesting for me until towards the end of episode three.  The mysterious figure controlling the Melkur statue was revealed as this sinister hooded figure of death, and the Melkur succeeded in taking over control of the Source by becoming the next Keeper.  What a cliffhanger!  I had no clue who this hideous-looking being was, or how the Melkur could just disappear and reappear like that.  After all, I had never heard of the Master.  Neither, until this point in time, did I realized that the Doctor was not the only person with a TARDIS.  But I was very interested in what was going on.  So even though I still didn’t really understand much of what took place in the fourth episode, I definitely enjoyed it.

Actually, I thought the Master was such a cool, evil bad guy that I couldn’t understand why at the end of “The Keeper of Traken” he turned into a relatively normal-looking, albeit quite sinister, man with a pointed beard.  It was probably at least a couple of years before I had an opportunity to see “Terror of the Autons” and I realized that was pretty much how the Master had normally looked before he had  come to his final regeneration.

In any case, re-watching the entire serial of “The Keeper of Traken” in 2012, I enjoyed it a lot more.  There was a crucial aspect of the story that totally went over my head all those years ago that I now caught upon, and I realized just what a tragic story it is.  On the night of his wedding to Kassia, the Traken consul Tremas is named by the Keeper as his successor.  All at the wedding party, Kassia included, know that the current Keeper will soon die.  And so Kassia’s moment of happiness is immediately dashed against the rocks, and she realized that her new husband will very soon be taken from her.  It is this devastating fact that causes this normally virtuous woman to turn to the Melkur for help, to save her husband from becoming the next Keeper.  And that initiates the entire chain of events that leads to so many deaths, including her own horrible demise.

Another element of the story that was new to me was one I feel really did not come through in the final transmitted serial.  Writer Johnny Byrne (no relation to the comic book creator) was inspired by the upcoming Millennium which he explained in the extra features on the DVD.  He reflected that here on Earth, every thousand years humanity experienced tremendous social, political & religious upheaval.  That inspired Byrne to create Traken, a world which for the thousand year reign of each Keeper would exist in tranquility, but at the end of which everything would start to go to hell in a hand basket.  Viewing the serial again after watching the “making of” documentary and listening to the audio commentary, it suddenly made much more sense why everyone on this supposed paradise was acting so violent, fearful and corrupt.  As I said, this really isn’t sufficiently communicated within the actual television program, but I put that down to budget restrictions, as we only see a tiny part of the Traken world, and only meet a few of its citizens.

The Melkur statue

Script editor Christopher H. Bidmead should probably be considered the uncredited co-writer of “The Keeper of Traken.”  As explained on the “making of” extra, Byrne wrote the first draft of the story and went away on vacation.  At this point in time Bidmead made significant alterations to the scripts.  This included, at the behest of producer John Nathan-Turner, replacing the original villain, a being called Mogen, with the Master.  On his return, Byrne then worked on the final drafts.

Certainly all of the scientific & mathematical elements of the story appear to have sprung from Bidmead, who famously sought to bring a much more “hard science” approach to the show.  As I’ve said before, I had difficulty comprehending some of these ideas.  What I will say in Bidmead’s favor is that, despite this, everything does come across as possessing an air of legitimacy and accuracy.  I am thinking about this in direct contrast to something like Star Trek: The Next Generation, where the scripts sometimes drowned in techno-babble, and it often seemed obvious to me that they were making stuff up to get to a quick resolution.  In contrast, Bidmead’s use of scientific principles is presented with a definite conviction, so that even if the viewer does not fully understand what is taking place, it appears  to have the weight of authenticity to carry it.

The acting on “The Keeper of Traken” is typically top-notch.  Nathan-Turner wanted Tom Baker to significantly turn down the humor of his performance of the Doctor during Season Eighteen.  While Baker was reportedly unhappy with this, it did lead to a more subdued, somber Doctor who nevertheless still possesses a definite mischievous quality about him, actually bringing him back in line with his first few seasons on the series.  That is definitely the case with Baker on this story, in that he is a rather serious figure, but definitely still possesses his unique sense of humor.

Over the years, Matthew Waterhouse as Adric had been much maligned by many fans.  I really think a lot of this has to do with the quality of the scripting he was given the year after this one, when the role of the Doctor was taken over by Peter Davison, and it was decided to make their relationship much more contentious.  Here, with Adric spending a lot of time paired up with the Fourth Doctor, the character is perfectly fine.  Baker and Waterhouse have a nice rapport, and Waterhouse does a good job at making the character work.  I realize that if Waterhouse had been given the opportunity to develop a similar relationship with Davison, instead of Adric being written as whiny & petulant, then he might have continued to be a successful character.

“The Keeper of Traken” also introduces Sarah Sutton as Nyssa, although she did not become a regular character until episode two of the next story, “Logopolis.”  It is a nice debut for the Sutton, and she does a good job.  I’d have to say that Nyssa’s introduction is one of the character’s strongest stories.  Like Adric, I don’t know if she was as well served by the writing the year afterwards.  But you can definitely see that there was a lot of potential to the character here, and Sutton really brings it out.

And then we come to Anthony Ainley as Tremas.  It is really weird watching Ainley here, because at the end of “The Keeper of Traken” the Master uses the power of the Source to take over Tremas’ body, and from that point on Ainley played the Master, usually as a very over-the-top, scenery-chewing supervillain.  So seeing Ainley as Tremas was an interesting contrast, because he is the complete opposite of the Master, a benevolent, kindly figure who loves his wife & daughter and enjoys discussing scientific discoveries with the Doctor.  Ainley turns in a low-key, subtle performance, and it really shows that he was capable of playing more than just sneering bad guys.  It is a shame that Ainley was never allowed to bring any of that depth to his portrayal of the Master until his final outing in “Survival” eight years later.  In any case, Ainley’s nuanced performance as Tremas really drives home just how much of a tragedy it is when the Master murders him to gain a new lease on life.

Speaking of the Master, Geoffrey Beevers does a superb job portraying the renegade Time Lord in his corpse-like state.  It is a mostly vocal performance, for much of the time the Master is hidden within the seemingly-inanimate Melkur statue (actually the Master’s TARDIS).  When the Master is finally revealed, Beevers is acting behind heavy make-up.  But he totally makes the performance work.

The Master: the devil incarnate

Watching “The Keeper of Traken,” I was reminded of Bidmead’s description elsewhere of the Master as “the devil incarnate.”  The thing about the original Master, as played by Roger Delgado, was that, yes, he was a murderous sociopath.  But he could also be charming and charismatic when he needed to be.  And here he really is the metaphorical serpent in paradise, gradually luring Kassia from the path of righteousness, until she finds she is in way over her head, at which point the Master reveals his true, malevolent side.  Subsequently, when the Melkur first becomes the new Keeper, the Master acts in a very pleasant, reasonable manner, because his access to the Source is not yet solidified, and he needs to put everyone off-guard with his charm and false humility.  But once he is fully entrenched in his new position, he lets his true colors show, becoming a sadistic, cackling fiend.  Beevers’ delivery of his lines is wonderfully seductive and diabolical, and he totally succeeds in making the Master a memorable arch-foe.

As I mentioned earlier, even as an eight year old, I thought Beevers’ rendition of the Master was superb, and there was that disappointment when Ainley took over the role.  I understand why the Master was revitalized and given a human appearance once again, as there is only so much you can do with the character as a walking corpse.  Nevertheless, I always thought it would have been nice to have Beevers reprise the role.  So it’s been a pleasure to have him return to playing the Master in several of the Doctor Who audio adventures from Big Finish, where he’s definitely recaptured the sly, mocking villainy of the character to excellent effect.

I will admit, I do not know if “The Keeper of Traken” would be as memorable a production if it was not for the inclusion of the Master.  That said, it is definitely an above average entry in the Doctor Who canon.  In addition to the strong acting, there is a lot going for it.  The set and costume design are rich and vibrant.  Roger Limb’s musical score is very effective.  And the direction by John Black is solid.  All in all, the serial is of a pretty high quality.  Perhaps if more of Byrne’s ideas for exploring the upheavals brought on by the Millennium would have made it to the screen, it would have been an even stronger story.  Nevertheless, in most places it works very well.

One last item about the DVD.  Ainley, who passed away in 2004, apparently was not especially fond of publicity.  I don’t believe he was a recluse, because he made a number of appearances at Doctor Who conventions.  But for whatever reason, he was reluctant to give many interviews or participate in any DVD “making of” features or audio commentaries.  The commentary on “The Keeper of Traken” is, as far as I know, the only DVD extra he contributed to before he passed away.  Byrne, who is also on the commentary, does a good job at engaging Ainley, getting his thoughts on various aspects of the production.  It’s definitely worth listening to for Ainley’s thoughts on the story, as well as his portrayal of the Master in general.  Ainley was quite informative, and sounded like he had an enjoyable time recording the commentary, so it’s a shame he did not participate in any other DVD extras.