Doctor Who reviews: The Children of Seth

I’ve mentioned in the past how much I enjoy the Doctor Who audio plays produced by Big Finish.  I actually reviewed a few of them on Associated Content a couple of years ago, but until now I’ve yet to discuss them in any detail on this blog.

As I wrote in my review of the serial “Kinda,” some of the earliest Doctor Who stories I saw, when I was eight or nine years old, were the Peter Davison ones.  So it’s always a pleasure to listen to one of the Big Finish audios starring him.  Each time, it feels a little bit like it did on those weekday evenings at 6 PM, tuning in to WLIW Channel 21, to catch the next episode of the show.

In the last few years, Big Finish has been adopting for the audio format a number of “lost stories,” i.e. Doctor Who scripts that made it to various stages of completion but, for one reason or another, were never actually filmed.  The obvious choice to start off that range was Colin Baker’s lost season, which would have featured such serials as “The Nightmare Fair.”  Now, having completed a number of these with Baker & Nicola Bryant, Big Finish has turned its attention to Lost Stories from other eras of the show.

“The Children of Seth” was an unproduced script by Christopher Bailey, who also wrote “Kinda” and “Snakedance.”  As readers of this blog may recall, “Kinda” is a favorite of mine, so when I first heard about “The Children of Seth,” I was understandably curious.  I finally had an opportunity to purchase a copy of the story at the New York Comic Con, from the Doctor Who Store.  Peter Davison was a guest at the convention, so of course I had him autograph it.

In addition to its authorship and it featuring the Fifth Doctor, another reason why I decided to get “The Children of Seth” was that it stars Honor Blackman and David Warner, two very good, distinguished actors.  As well as that, Janet Fielding and Sarah Sutton reprise their roles as Tegan and Nyssa.  I always felt that the three person team of the Fifth Doctor, Tegan, and Nyssa was a very strong one, and regrettably that particular line-up only appeared in a handful of stories (sorry, any Adric fans out there, but I think the TARDIS was too crowded with four people, and Matthew Waterhouse was given some really bad material to work with in Season 19).

Doctor Who: The Children of Seth

In “The Children of Seth,” the Doctor receives a cryptic message from the Archipelago of Sirius, a city located inside an immense hollowed-out asteroid.  Arriving in the TARDIS, the Doctor encounters an old acquaintance of his he first met in a previous regeneration, Anahita, the consort to Sirius, Autarch of the Empire.  Anahita has learned that the ambitious Lord Byzan, who has gradually been usurping power from the now-elderly Sirius, is about to propel the Empire into war, a crusade against the mysterious Seth, Prince of the Dark.  Foreseeing the immense loss of innocent life and the potential ruin of the Empire, Anahita, who has been exiled from the court, is desperate to reach Sirius and convince him to intercede.  And she hopes that the Doctor will aid her in thwarting Byzan’s ever-growing web of influence.

“The Children of Seth” is very much a political thriller, with plots and counterplots, schemes and betrayals, machinations and manipulations.  If this story had actually been produced in the 1980s, I’m uncertain if my young self would have actually enjoyed it.  Back then, one of my main reasons for watching Doctor Who was the monsters, and aside from the mantis-like security drones, “The Children of Seth” is extremely notable for the absence of any aliens or strange creatures.

Of course, as an adult, I absolutely loved it!  The characters are all very well developed, and there is a great deal of moral ambiguity to everyone.  Honor Blackman does a superb job portraying Anahita, a well-intentioned but occasionally ruthless figure.  Her reputation as “Mistress of the Poisons” will undoubtedly tell you that she doesn’t always walk the straight & narrow path.  Blackman is just majestic as this at-times inscrutable figure.

Adrian Lukis also is excellent as Byzan, imbuing him with a mix of runaway ambition, megalomania, and paranoia.  It’s interesting that Byzan will crush dissent by gleefully dispatching political prisoners to be mind-wiped & exiled to the mysterious Level 14, and he’s ready to plunge the Empire into a pointless war, but he actually draws the line at cold blooded mass murder.  Having a villain with the slightest of scruples can be much more interesting, and realistic, than having a one-dimensional black-hearted fiend.

Finally, David Warner portrays Sirius, the now doddering figurehead ruler of the Empire.  This was a relatively small part for someone of Warner’s stature, but he gives it his all, bringing to life a once-great man now crippled by nostalgia, the onset of dementia, and an unwillingness to perceive the political corruption taking place around him.  However, once his people are actually threatened, this aged ruler is ready to stand on the front lines again.  And despite his acrimonious relationship with Anahita, when faced with the possibility of losing his wife, Sirius is despondent.

Janet Fielding is given a substancial portion of the action in “The Children of Seth.”  In many ways I think Tegan was almost a prototype for Catherine Tate’s character Donna Noble.  The difference is that too often Tegan was scripted as overly aggressive and pushy, rather than assertive.  One of the few writers on Doctor Who to do the character justice and give Fielding good material to work with was, of course, Christopher Bailey.  So it’s no surprise that Tegan in “The Children of Seth” is an interesting, engaging character, rather than a mouth on legs.  Fielding does an excellent job, especially in the scenes where she is paired with Honor Blackman.

Unfortunately, the character of Nyssa is sidelined for much of the story.  So I felt that Sarah Sutton wasn’t given much to do.  That said, the Fifth Doctor and Nyssa have been featured traveling without Tegan in quite a few of the earlier Big Finish stories, so Sutton has already gotten the spotlight in several of those stories.  Given those circumstances, I enjoyed Tegan featuring in a large portion of “The Children of Seth” instead.

And what about Peter Davison himself?  Well, to a degree the Doctor is also pushed to the sides for a bit, in favor of Tegan and Anahita.  But then Davison is really given an opportunity to give it his all in the final episode of “The Children of Seth,” and he makes the most of it.

From the behind-the-scenes interviews on the CDs, as well as info from Doctor Who Magazine, I gather that Bailey’s scripts for “The Children of Seth” were in the early draft stage when the decision was made to drop the story.  Marc Platt, himself a good writer who has done extensive work for Big Finish, was recruited to transform these into something that could be recorded as an audio play.  Happily, instead of merely dusting off Bailey’s old scripts and finishing them on his own, Platt met in person with him, and they discussed the best way to resolve the various plot problems, as well as come up with an ending to the story.  I don’t know where Bailey’s work ends and Platt’s begins.  Whatever the case, “The Children of Seth” is an excellent story.

One last thing… I would have to say that “The Children of Seth” is not a casual listen.  I was not expecting it to be, though, given that “Kinda” has to be one of the most complicated Doctor Who stories ever made.  I knew what I was in for, that I’d really have to pay careful attention to the audio play to keep track of the characters and plotlines.  It wasn’t easy, but it was definitely worth the effort.

That said, in one respect the audio format is undoubtedly a strength.  It enabled me to envision the Archipelago of Sirius as a vast city with crowds of people, instead of merely a bunch of corridors occupied by a handful of extras, which is probably how in would have appeared if the story had actually been filmed in the early 1980s on a shoestring budget.

In any case, given its complexity, at some point I intend to sit down again to re-listen to “The Children of Seth.”  It’ll be interesting to see what I get out of it a second time.

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.