Remembering Doctor Who writer Terrance Dicks

British writer Terrance Dicks passed away on August 29th.  He was 84 years old.  Dicks worked on such varied projects as the spy-fi series The Avengers, the soap opera Crossroads, and the BBC’s Sunday Classics series of literary adaptations.

However it is for his lengthy association with the science fiction series Doctor Who that Dicks is best remembered.  He first became involved with Doctor Who in 1968 and worked on various incarnations of the show right up until the time of his death.

Terrance Dicks

As Dicks himself readily admitted in his humorously self-effacing style, becoming the assistant script editor on Doctor Who in 1968 was as much a case of him being in the right place at the right time as it was his abilities as a writer.  He came onboard during the show’s fifth season, Patrick Troughton’s second year as the Doctor, during the production of the serial “The Web of Fear.”  Dicks’ enduring memory of that story was the production team’s futile efforts to make the robot Yetis’ roars sound less like a flushing toilet.

The first story Dicks was actively involved in commissioning was “The Krotons” by Robert Holmes.  The sixth season of Doctor Who was beset by various commissioned stories falling apart late in the day, leaving co-producers Derrick Sherwin and Peter Bryant scrambling to find usable scripts.  “The Krotons” was one such last-minute replacement.  For years afterwards Dicks would refer to the Krotons as one of Doctor Who’s silliest monsters.  At the same time, though, the scripts by Holmes were solid, and as Dicks himself was always quick to point out, Holmes would very quickly go on to become arguably the best writer to ever work on Doctor Who.

As script editor Dicks was also the uncredited co-writer of the six-part Brian Hayles serial “The Seeds of Death.”  Due to the ongoing production problems the serial was only in a draft state, needing a significant amount of work before it could go in front of the cameras.

Doctor Who The KrotonsBut it was the final serial of the 1969 season that truly saw Dicks’ baptism of fire.  Those aforementioned production problems led to the simultaneous collapse of the four-part and six-part serials that were to end the season.  In desperation Sherwin instructed Dicks to write a single 10-part serial to close out the year, with the provisos that series regulars Patrick Troughton, Frazer Hines & Wendy Padbury all be written out at the end, that the Doctor’s previously-unrevealed people the Time Lords be introduced, and that the Doctor be exiled to present-day Earth.  Oh, yes, and Sherwin needed Dicks to write those 10 scripts ASAP.

An understandably frantic Dicks corralled Malcolm Hulke, the writer who several years earlier had helped him get his foot in the television door, and with whom he had co-written several episodes of The Avengers. Working at a furious pace, the two of them somehow managed to crank out the scripts for all 10 episodes in less than a month.  Despite the absolutely insane circumstances under which “The War Games” came to be written, it went on to become a well-regarded serial.

The seventh season of Doctor Who saw even more changes and challenges for Dicks.  Sherwin and Bryant both departed, but not before making the aforementioned decision to exile the Doctor to Earth to become the scientific advisor to Brigadier Lethbridge-Stuart and the UNIT organization.  This was Sherwin’s desperate cost-saving measure for a show with declining ratings that the BBC was seriously considering canceling.

Fortunately several things took place that would guarantee Doctor Who’s future.  Jon Pertwee was cast as the new Doctor, the show switched from black & white to color, Barry Letts came onboard as the new producer, and Dicks became the full-time script editor.  Pertwee was a perfect fit for the Doctor, the color production also brought new attention to the series, and Dicks & Letts instantly clicked, becoming not just close collaborators but lifelong friends.

Doctor Who RobotIt was Dicks & Letts who devised the Doctor’s arch-nemesis the Master.  Dicks observed to Letts that the Doctor was very much like Sherlock Holmes, and the Brigadier was like Watson.  So why not introduce a Moriarty for the Doctor?  Letts immediately took to the suggestion, and right away suggested actor Roger Delgado, who he had worked with in the past, for the role.  Delgado was indeed a brilliant casting decision.  Pertwee and Delgado had immediate chemistry as the rival Time Lords, which further energized the show.

Dicks was the script editor for Pertwee’s entire five year stint on Doctor Who.  In that capacity Dicks was basically the uncredited co-writer for the entire Third Doctor era of the series.  In 1974 when Pertwee decided to depart, Dicks and Letts also made the decision to move on, but not before casting Tom Baker as the new Doctor, a decision that would eventually result in the show becoming even more popular.

Dicks also finagled the job of writing Baker’s debut story “Robot,” crafting a four part serial that was simultaneously thought-provoking and humorous.  It contains one of my all-time favorite lines of dialogue from the series, with the Doctor attempting to stop a computer from triggering the simultaneous launch of the world’s nuclear weapons while breezily observing:

“The trouble with computers, of course, is that they’re very sophisticated idiots. They do exactly what you tell them at amazing speed, even if you order them to kill you. So if you do happen to change your mind, it’s very difficult to stop them obeying the original order, but… not impossible.”

Dicks would write several more television stories for Doctor Who.  Robert Holmes became the new script editor, and commissioned Dicks to write “The Brain of Morbius.” Regrettably, due to technical issues Holmes had to do significant rewrites.  As Dicks later recounted:

 “I was furious when I read the rewritten scripts for ‘The Brain of Morbius’. I rang up Bob Holmes and shouted at him down the telephone. Eventually, I said ‘Alright. You can do it, but I’m going to take my name off it’ – the ultimate sanction! Not because it was a bad show, but because it was now more him than me. He asked ‘Well what name do you want to put on it?’ I said ‘I don’t care. You can put it out under some bland pseudonym’ and slammed the phone down. Weeks later, when I saw the Radio Times, I noticed it was ‘The Brain of Morbius’ by Robin Bland. By then, I’d cooled down and the joke disarmed me completely.”

Dicks also wrote ”The Horror of Fang Rock” for Holmes in 1977, and “State of Decay,” which was broadcast in 1980 during Tom Baker’s final season.  “State of Decay” was somewhat revised by the then-current script editor Christopher H. Bidmead.  In that case I personally feel the blending of Dicks’ and Bidmead’s very disparate approaches to the show actually resulted in a much stronger story, one where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.  Dicks’ final contribution to the television series was in 1983, writing the 20th anniversary special “The Five Doctors.”

Doctor Who Auton InvasionAlthough he was no longer working of the TV show itself, Dicks remained a key part of the world of Doctor Who via his prose writing.  Back during his time as script editor he had been commissioned by Target Books to write novelizations of the show’s various serials.  The first one Dicks wrote was Doctor Who and the Auton Invasion, adapted from Robert Holmes’ scripts for Pertwee’s debut story “Spearhead in Space” and published in January 1974.

Dicks was the unofficial editor of the Doctor Who book line.  He would attempt to get the original writers to adapt their own scripts.  Malcolm Hulke and former script editor Gerry Davis each wrote several of the novelizations, as did actor-turned-writer Ian Marter.  However, due to the low pay, most of the time Dicks ended up to writing them himself, and eventually he would pen over 60 of them.

To truly appreciate the impact of these novelizations on Doctor Who fandom, you need to understand the time period in which they were published.  In the 1960s and 70s the BBC would typically air Doctor Who episodes once, with perhaps an occasional repeat of a serial at the end of the season or during the holidays.  If you missed seeing an episode when it first aired, chances were good that you were never going to see it.  There was no home video or DVDs or DVRs or streaming or anything like that.

On top of that, due to videotape being expensive, and film taking up a great deal of space, the BBC routinely wiped videos of older shows, and junked the film copies they made to sell their programs to foreign countries.  Doctor Who was one of many series to be affected by this policy.  By the end of the 1970s nearly all of the Doctor Who episodes from the 1960s were missing from the BBC archives.  A decent-sized chunk of Pertwee’s five year tenure was also absent.

Doctor Who Carnival of MonstersSo, if you were a fan in the early 1980s, between the paucity of reruns, the non-existence of home media, and the seeming destruction of many of the episodes from the first 12 years of the show, the novelizations by Terrance Dicks & Co were literally the only way you could experience older stories.  If you wanted to discover the show’s past, the novelizations were absolutely invaluable.

Fortunately a lot of those missing stories have since been recovered, and a handful of the still-missing episodes have been recreated via animation.  Nevertheless, there are still certain serials that are partly or completely missing where the novelization is a way in which you can experience the story.

I well remember exactly how much the novelizations affected me as a Doctor Who fan.  I started watching reruns on the PBS station WLIW in 1984, when I was eight years old.  I came in at the tail end of Tom Baker’s run, and then saw the Peter Davidson stories.  The stories sometimes referenced the show’s past, and these were tantalizing hints of an exciting history that I had no way of experiencing.

Then one evening at the Galleria shopping mall in White Plains NY, at the Waldenbooks, I came across an entire display of Doctor Who novels.  To my young, excited eyes there were dozens of them, with colorful, exciting covers, featuring aliens and giant monsters and dinosaurs and spaceships and other weird, exciting sights.  (The covers to The Auton Invasion and The Carnival of Monsters by artist Chris Achilleos seen above are good examples of the sort of covers that appeared on the Target novelizations.)  I immediately wanted to buy one… but my father wouldn’t let me.  I don’t know why, but he seemed convinced that I wasn’t going to actually read it.  But over the next week or so, I begged & pleaded.  My father finally gave in, and the next time we went to Waldenbooks he let me buy one.  I finished that book in just a few days, and was soon asking my parents to let me buy another.

Doctor Who Power of KrollNow here’s the humorous part of the story.  That first novelization I got was Doctor Who and the Power of Kroll, written by Terrance Dicks, based on Robert Holmes’ script.  I had never seen the TV story, and I bought it because it had Tom Baker’s Doctor with a really weird gigantic monster on the cover.  Reading the book by Dicks, I became convinced that “The Power of Kroll” had to be an absolutely amazing TV story. A few years later I was certainly in for a rude awakening!

This was the first, but certainly not the last, time this would happen to me with the novelizations.  The benefits of the prose format was that it allowed Dicks and others to work with an unlimited budget, to not worry about dodgy special effects and cheap sets and rubbish costumes.  Within the imagination of readers such as myself everything was real.

The prose format also allowed Dicks and the other adapters to get into characters’ thoughts, to expand certain scenes, to restore moments that had been left on the cutting room floor, and to fill in plot holes that came about during the series’ always-rushed production schedule.  There were several times when I read novelizations by Dicks before I got to see the actual episodes, and almost inevitably the book versions were better than the original television episodes.

As I discussed in my review of the 1972 serial “Day of the Daleks,” in his novelization Dicks did a superb job of expanding, and improving upon, the television episodes.  Another example that comes to mind is his adaptation of the debut story of the Master, “Terror of the Autons.”  The book improves upon the broadcast version in several ways.   Certainly the cyclopean octopus-lobster hybrid form of the Nestine Consciousness described in the book is a much more formidable menace than the blob of energy we saw on TV screens.

Doctor Who Terror of the AutonsIn the early 1990s Doctor Who had been cancelled and the majority of the serials had been novelized.  The decision was made to begin publishing original novels.  Several of the writers who have worked on the revival of Doctor Who launched in 2005 got their start on these novels.  And also present was Terrence Dicks, who wrote several novels over the next two decades.

It’s interesting to contrast the approaches of the younger writers with Dicks.  Most of the younger writers were very experimental, writing books that were part of larger arcs, and having catastrophic stuff happen to the TARDIS, and making the companions the main characters who drive the plot forward, and showing the Doctor acting as this Machiavellian cosmic chess master.  Obviously this laid the groundwork for a lot of what was subsequently done in the television revival.

Having said that, sometimes it got a bit tiresome, and you wanted to read a novel where the TARDIS just landed somewhere randomly, depositing the Doctor and his friends in the middle of an exciting adventure.  That was the approach favored by Dicks, and he tried to utilize that more traditional story structure in his novels.  Occasionally his books could become too heavily referential to past continuity.  But on the whole they were fun reads.  Certainly I enjoyed his 1995 novel Blood Harvest, which was a sequel to his serial “State of Decay.” I think it contained a nice balance between the new direction of the novels and a more traditional story.

Doctor Who Blood HarvestAnother book by Dicks that really stood out in my mind was Players, which was published in April 1999.  Dicks did a great job writing the Sixth Doctor and Peri.  I’ve made no secret of the fact that I feel Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant were given some underwhelming material to perform when they were on the show.  Reading the novel Players led me to wish Dicks could have worked on the show during the Sixth Doctor’s all too short tenure.  As I said, Dicks loved to reference continuity in his novels, but at the same time he was usually cognizant that you absolutely needed a strong story on which to anchor all of those tie-ins to past adventures.

Dicks continued to write Doctor Who prose fiction after the 2005 revival.  He penned Made of Steel and Revenge of the Judoon, a pair of “Quick Read” novellas starring the Tenth Doctor & Martha Jones, and he did a novelization of “Invasion of the Bane,” the debut episode of Who spin-off show The Sarah Jane Adventures.  A final short story, “Save Yourself,” is scheduled to be published posthumously later this year in the anthology Doctor Who: The Target Storybook.

A gifted raconteur, Dicks was an enthusiastic participant in the Doctor Who DVD audio commentaries & behind the scenes documentaries.  He was a popular guest at conventions.  I had always wanted to meet him.  Unfortunately when he was at the Doctor Who convention on Long Island in 2014 I was unemployed & short on funds, so I was unable to go.

Everyone who knew Dicks spoke warmly of him, and the tributes that have been written over the past week have all been heartfelt.  He certainly was an important and influential figure in helping to make Doctor Who the ongoing success that it is.

The Doctor and The Master: the best of enemies

“That’s my best enemy. He likes to be known as the Master.” – The Third Doctor

On the Doctor Who television series, the Daleks are often referred to as the Doctor’s greatest enemies.  However, our eccentric time traveler also has another arch-foe, an adversary of a more intimate nature, his personal bête noire: a fellow renegade Time Lord known as the Master.

The character of the Master was created in 1970 by Doctor Who script editor Terrance Dicks and producer Barry Letts.  Having compared the relationship between the Doctor and Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart to that of Sherlock Holmes and Watson, they then contemplated who his Moriarty would be.  The two of them devised the Master, a fellow Time Lord of the Doctor’s who was also in exile, but one without morality or conscience, who had devoted his existence to the acquisition of power.

The relationship between the Doctor and the Master has always been complicated and dysfunctional.  Not only did they come from the same world, but they also attended university together, and at one time were even close friends.  But then something occurred to sour that friendship, and they became bitter enemies.

We first saw the Master on television in “Terror of the Autons,” written by Robert Holmes and broadcast in January 1971.  Portrayed by Roger Delgado, the Master was already an infamous criminal.  Appearing regularly on the series throughout the next three years, the Master led a succession of alien menaces to attack the Earth, where the Third Doctor (Jon Pertwee) was temporarily exiled by the Time Lords.

Master Roger Delgado

On the surface, the Master’s goal seemed to be one of conquest.  But underneath it all you got the impression that he was causing all of this death & destruction primarily to annoy the Doctor.  In “Terror of the Autons” the Master ostensibly comes to Earth to aid the Nestine Consciousness in a second attempt to invade the world.  But in fact the Master spends the majority of his time not working to advance the Nestine scheme, but rather repeatedly attempting to kill the Doctor via all manner of complex, sophisticated death traps & ambushes.

The second story to feature the Master, “The Mind of Evil,” had the renegade Time Lord utilizing an alien mind parasite that could psychically kill people by manifesting their greatest fears.  When the parasite is accidentally turned on the Master himself, the results are illuminating: it appears that the Master’s worst nightmare is of the Doctor scornfully, mockingly laughing at him.

In the next serial, “The Claws of Axos,” at one point towards the end of the story it seems that the destruction of Earth by the energy vampire Axos is unavoidable.  The Doctor briefly appears to agree to work with the Master in order to escape the seemingly-doomed planet.  Although skeptical, the Master was also rather pleased at the idea that the Doctor was ready to abandon both humanity and his principles in order to save his own skin.  Of course this was just a ruse by the Doctor to trick the Master into assisting him in defeating Axos.

Following that, in “Colony in Space” written by Malcolm Hulke, the Master is seeking control of the Doomsday Weapon, a device capable of destroying entire planets.  The Master wishes to blackmail the entire universe into obeying him.  And when, after five episodes of padding, the Doctor finally catches up with his foe, the Master, instead of attempting to kill him, surprisingly offers to divide control of the universe between the two of them…

The Master: Doctor, why don’t you come in with me? We’re both Time Lords, we’re both renegades. We could be masters of the galaxy. Think of it, Doctor. Absolute power. Power for good. Oh, you could reign benevolently. You could end war, suffering, disease. We could save the universe.
The Doctor: No, absolute power is evil.
The Master: Select carefully, Doctor. I’m offering you a half share in the universe. You must see reason, Doctor.
The Doctor: No, I will not join you in your absurd dreams of galactic conquest.
The Master: Why? Why?!? Look at this. Look at all those planetary systems, Doctor. We could rule them all!
The Doctor: What for? What is the point?
The Master: The point is that one must rule or serve. That is a basic law of life. Why do you hesitate? Surely it’s not loyalty to the Time Lords, who exiled you to one insignificant planet?
The Doctor: You’ll never understand, will you? I want to see the universe, not to rule it!

This scene is well scripted by Malcolm Hulke.  It is also played extraordinarily well by Pertwee and Delgado.  Throughout the entire exchange you can see the Doctor contemplating the Master’s offer, mulling it over in his head, weighing the pros and cons. Likewise, the Master is genuinely perplexed that the Doctor isn’t being won over.  As the argument continues, the Master becomes more and more frustrated.  He just cannot comprehend why the Doctor isn’t willing to accept what to him is so readily apparent about the nature of the universe and existence.  When the Doctor finally rejects the proposed partnership, the Master is absolutely furious, and in the very next second he is once again quite ready to kill the Doctor in cold blood.

So, even from the start, it was obvious that there was a lot going on beneath the surface when it came to the relationship between Doctor and the Master.

There are definite similarities between the Doctor and the Master.  They are each brilliant, charismatic, sophisticated, and arrogant, as well as not altogether sane.  But the Doctor has a conscience, a sense of right & wrong, an appreciation for the lives of others, things totally absent in the Master.  One can look at the Master and see that he is the Doctor completely unencumbered by any sort of empathy.  The Master is a sociopathic figure who casually uses and discards others, who finds amusement in manipulation and murder.

Master Peter Pratt

Dicks & Letts had planned to write one last story featuring the Master that would explore his exact relationship with the Doctor, an epic swan song for Roger Delgado to go out on.  These plans came to naught when in June 1973 Delgado tragically died in an automobile accident.  The character of the Master quietly disappeared until 1976, when the Doctor was now being played by Tom Baker.

Resurfacing in “The Deadly Assassin,” a serial written by Robert Holmes, the man who had scripted the villain’s first appearance, the Master was now a very different individual.  Somehow having used up all of his regenerations, the Master, portrayed by Peter Pratt, was now literally a walking corpse.  Seemingly driven on solely by willpower, the Master conceived a brilliantly apocalyptic scheme to renew his regeneration cycle, a plan that would have destroyed his home world of Gallifrey.  Part of this plot required a patsy to be framed for the assassination of the Time Lord President.  The Master’s ally / pawn Chancellor Goth protests that using the Doctor for this was too dangerous, and they could have manipulated anyone.  To this the half-decayed Master stubbornly replies…

“Noooo, we could not have used anyone. You do not understand hatred as I understand it. Only hate keeps me alive. Why else should I endure this pain? I must see the Doctor die in shame and dishonor! Yes, and I must destroy the Time Lords! Nothing else matters! Nothing!

Even at the apparent end of his existence, the Master cannot let go of his rivalry with the Doctor.  His will to survive is equaled by his obsession with humiliating and then killing his old foe.

The Master next appeared in “The Keeper of Traken” in 1981, still in his grim reaper incarnation, now played by Geoffrey Beevers (who would later reprise this incarnation in several of the Big Finish stories).  It was Beevers who observed that this incarnation of the Master, stripped of all his charisma, cultured airs and good looks, was “the essence of the creature,” revealed to all the world as an insane, hateful, murderous figure of death.

Master Anthony Ainley

At the end of “The Keeper of Traken” the Master perpetuated his existence by seizing control of another living being and merging his form with his victim.  As played by Anthony Ainley, he was rejuvenated into a form physically similar to Delgado, although now rather less charismatic, and certainly much more feral & insane.  Still unable to regenerate, the Master embarked on a series of highly implausible, convoluted schemes to further extend his life and generate chaos & destruction.  And no matter what he got up to, the Master always had to drag the Doctor into the proceedings in order to brag about his latest scheme before once again attempting to kill his longtime opponent.

Even after being exterminated by the Daleks, the Master found a way to survive as an ectoplasmic snake-like entity.  Causing the TARDIS to crash-land in San Francisco in late December 1999, this remnant of the Master once again engaged in body-snatching, possessing an ambulance driver named Bruce (Eric Roberts).  Knowing that this human form would not last long, the Master unsuccessfully sought to take over the body of the Doctor (Paul McGann).

The Master, reborn with (appropriately enough) a rather reptilian persona, manipulated the misguided teenager Chang Lee into helping him gain access to the TARDIS, telling the young man that he regarded him like a son.  Later, though the Master quite casually murdered Chang Lee, as well as the Doctor’s friend Grace Holloway.  Understandably enough the Doctor was outraged by these deaths, and he angrily shouted “You want dominion over the living, yet all you do is kill!”  To this the Master’s only response was a snarled “Life is wasted on the living!”  During their struggle, the Master was sucked into the Eye of Harmony and once again seemingly destroyed.

Master Eric Roberts

By the time David Tennant was playing the Doctor, it was revealed that the Master had been resurrected by the Time Lords to fight in the Time War against the Daleks.  Instead the Master had fled to the end of time itself and transformed himself into a human being, losing his memory in the process.

Arriving at the end of time, the Tenth Doctor (David Tennant) encountered Professor Yana (Derek Jacobi).  A brilliant but absent-minded scientist, Yana was a kindred spirit to the Doctor.  The two of them got along brilliantly… at least until the Doctor’s companion Martha Jones recognized Yana’s broken fob watch as a chameleon arch, something which the Doctor himself had also once utilized.  Her interest in the “watch” led Yana to open it, restoring him to his true identity: the Master.  The kindly, benevolent grandfather figure was instantly supplanted by an icy, arrogant, ruthless murderer who shot his long-time assistant Chantho in cold blood.  Before she succumbed to her wounds, Chantho also shot the Master.  Mortally wounded, the Master regenerated into a new, younger body (John Simm).

It is certainly telling that the Master, stranded at the end of time and stricken with amnesia, became a figure very much like the Doctor.  And once he regenerated, the Master, as played by Simm, was very much an evil reflection of the Tenth Doctor, possessing many of his qualities and habits, but none of his positive attributes.

Master Derek Jacobi

By this point, despite their long enmity, the Doctor was desperate to mend the shattered friendship he once had with the Master.  It appeared that he and the Master were the only two surviving Time Lords, the rest of their race having perished in the war against the Daleks. Unfortunately the Master, who had always been decidedly unbalanced, was now barking mad, totally unwilling to listen to the Doctor’s entreaties.

In “The Last of the Time Lords,” captured by the Master, the Doctor is reduced to a feeble old man, unable to regenerate.  The gloating, sadistic Master keeps the Doctor as a pet, forcing him to witness his brutal conquest of the Earth.  At one point the Master even has the Scissor Sisters song “I Can’t Decide” playing as he manically springs about his headquarters, pushing the incapacitated Doctor around in a wheelchair:

I can’t decide
Whether you should live or die
Oh, you’ll prob’ly go to heaven
Please don’t hang your head and cry
No wonder why
My heart feels dead inside
It’s cold and hard and petrified
Lock the doors and close the blinds
We’re going for a ride

That chorus certainly sounds like an apt description of the Master’s ambivalent feelings towards the Doctor.

At the conclusion of “Last of the Time Lords,” with the Master defeated and his year-long rule over of the Earth erased from history, the Doctor is ready to take custody of his arch foe.  However, the Master’s abused wife Lucy shoots him.  The Doctor realizes that if the Master dies he will once again be the only surviving Time Lord and begs his adversary to regenerate.  But the Master wills himself not to.  He would rather perish than become the Doctor’s prisoner.  And, seeing how terrified the Doctor is of once again being alone in the universe, the Master says “How about that? I win.”  With that he dies.  The Master, a being who clung so stubbornly, tenaciously to life, looking for any means to escape death’s embrace, finally lets himself die just to spite the Doctor.

Master John Simm

Of course, even dead and cremated, the Master finds a way back to life.  He’s good at that sort of thing.  “The End of Time” sees him and the Tenth Doctor once more face to face.  Again the Doctor is pleading with the Master to end his latest scheme of conquest and accept his help.  For once, we see the Master hint at regret and sadness at how twisted their friendship has become.  But he is also possessed of a resigned conviction that things can never be the way they once were.

A few writers over the years have attempted to examine what led the Master to become the cold, ruthless monster that he is.  David A. McIntee’s novel The Dark Path and Joseph Lidster’s Big Finish audio play “Master” each had their own ideas.  Russell T Davies also took a stab at it in the revived television series.  We learned that the future Master, at the young age of eight, looked into the time vortex as part of a Time Lord rite of initiation.  The experience apparently drove him mad over time, and in the back of his mind he heard the incessant, unrelenting sound of drums pounding.  Davies stopped short of categorically stating this was the cause of the Master’s insanity, suggesting it is only a theory on the Doctor’s part.

Davies returned to the pounding of the drums in the Master’s psyche in “The End of Time,” and we learn the horrible origin of the mental noise that has plagued him throughout much of his life.

In the final days of the Time War, the Time Lords, corrupted by their immense powers, and driven to desperation by their cataclysmic conflict with the Daleks, decided to re-create reality itself and ascend to a higher plane of existence.  Unfortunately, this would wipe out all other life in the universe.  The Doctor, realizing how dangerous and ruthless his own people had become, apparently destroyed both the Time Lords and the Daleks.  The events of the War became “time locked,” unalterable.

The Time Lords, though, refused to give up.  Rassilon, the resurrected Lord President of Gallifrey, hatched a desperate scheme to escape the time lock.  On the eve of the War’s conclusion, Rassilon learns that the Doctor and the Master are the only two Time Lords who are destined to survive the conflict.  Rassilon orders a signal beamed back centuries through the time vortex, to be intercepted by a young Master during his initiation: the sound of drums.  This signal, which helped drive the Master insane, is something the Time Lords can now fix onto and use to break Gallifrey out of the time lock, freeing the Time Lords to rewrite all of existence.

The Master, the grand manipulator who sought control over all reality, learns in “The End of Time” that he has been someone else’s pawn all along.

At the conclusion of the story the Doctor managed to shatter that link.  Rassilon, the Time Lords, and Gallifrey were all yanked back into the time stream, to once again perish at the end of the Time War.  And this time the Master vanished alongside them.

However, as was revealed in “The Day of the Doctor,” Gallifrey was not actually destroyed.  Instead it was hidden away in an alternate dimension.  And so the potential survival of the Master once again became a possibility.

Missy Michelle Gomez

The Master did indeed eventually resurface to bedevil the Doctor.  Now in his Twelfth incarnation, the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) encountered Missy (Michelle Gomez), the Master regenerated into a female body.  But she was still as insane and demented as ever.  In the two part story “Dark Water” and “Death in Heaven” Missy succeeded in transforming billions of dead humans into an army of Cybermen. When she subsequently reveals that her manipulations have all been enacted in order that she could give the Doctor control of this Cybermen army as a gift, he is absolutely flabbergasted…

The Doctor: All of this… All of it, just to give me an army?
Missy: Well, I don’t need one, do I? Armies are for people who think they’re right. And nobody thinks they’re righter than you! Give a good man firepower, and he’ll never run out of people to kill.
The Doctor: I don’t want an army.
Missy: Well, that’s the trouble! Yes, you do! You’ve always wanted one! All those people suffering in the Dalek camps? Now you can save them. All those bad guys winning all the wars? Go and get the good guys back.
The Doctor: Nobody can have that power.
Missy: You will because you don’t have a choice. There’s only one way you can stop these clouds from opening up and killing all your little pets down here. Conquer the universe, Mr. President. Show a bad girl how it’s done.
The Doctor: Why are you doing this?
Missy: I need you to know we’re not so different. I need my friend back.

This exchange very much parallels the one between the Doctor and the Master many years back in “Colony in Space.”  Once again the Master / Missy is offering the Doctor the opportunity to bring order to the universe, to reshape it in his image.  And whereas before the terms of the offer were “join me or die” here it is “join me or I destroy the human race.”

Christopher H. Bidmead once described the Master as “the devil incarnate.”  That was an apt description.  Not only is the Master an entity of pure evil who wants control over all existence, but he is also a figure of temptation.  On various occasions he has tempted individuals with offers of power.  In the end, after they (metaphorically) sold their souls to him, he inevitably killed them.  The Master sought to bring the Doctor himself over to his side with the promise of equal control of the Doomsday Weapon.  Now once again the Master / Missy seeks to corrupt the Doctor with the offer of absolute power.  If Missy cannot prove that she is superior to the Doctor, then she is instead determined to drag the Doctor down to her level, to demonstrate to both herself and the Doctor that in the end he is no better than her.

Missy Master all incarnations

As I was writing this post, pondering the question of what caused the friendship of these two Time Lords to transform into such a bitter, twisted enmity, a thought occurred to me.  Perhaps it was not only the Master who changed.  Maybe it was also the Doctor who became a different person.

In the very first season of Doctor Who, broadcast in 1963-64, the figure of the First Doctor, portrayed by William Hartnell, starts out as very unsympathetic.  In the first few stories he is, at best, an anti-hero.  If you want to be brutally honest, he is an asshole.

The Doctor is repeatedly insulting and condescending to Barbara Wright and Ian Chesterton.  He kidnaps the two schoolteachers in the TARDIS to prevent his granddaughter Susan from going with them and leaving him.  In Earth’s prehistoric past he is willing to bash in the head of a wounded caveman with a rock, to kill in cold blood, in order to ensure his own survival.  He selfishly sabotages the TARDIS so that he will have a chance to explore Skaro, resulting in him and his companions nearly dying from radiation sickness and then becoming prisoners of the Daleks.  Afterwards, when the TARDIS malfunctions and hurtles back in time out of control, without any evidence he accuses Ian and Barbara of sabotaging the craft, and threatens to throw them out at the very next destination.

Finally, at the climax of “The Edge of Destruction,” a fuming Barbara reads the Doctor the riot act.  She calls him out on all of the crap that he has pulled throughout the previous three serials.  When the Doctor discovers that he was totally incorrect about what was wrong with the TARDIS, and Susan points out to him that he has acted horrible towards Ian and Barbara, the Doctor is forced to eat humble pie.  He reluctantly offers up a mea culpa to Barbara, acknowledging that he was wrong and she was right.  He acknowledges that “As we learn about each other, so we learn about ourselves.”  And from that point on the Doctor began his transformation into the heroic figure we all know & love.

If the Doctor became a better person through his travels and his friendships with human beings, perhaps the opposite is true of the Master.  Perhaps he was once like the Doctor in the old days, arrogant, overconfident and manipulative, yet not truly evil.  But along the way, traveling the universe alone, without the positive influence of others, without anyone to call him out on his mistakes or urge him to change his ways, all of the Master’s negative flaws were left unchecked and allowed to flourish, until eventually he became a monster.

That, I think, is the fascination of the Master as a character.  He is the man the Doctor could have become under a different set of circumstances, if he had made different choices.  The Master is his warped mirror image, an eternal reminder to the Doctor of what he still might yet become, a potent warning that he must ever keep himself in check, lest the same fate befall him.

Doctor Who reviews: Mummy on the Orient Express

“Mummy on the Orient Express” written by Jamie Mathieson, is possibly my favorite episode of Doctor Who Series Eight so far. It very effectively took the mid-1970s “Gothic horror” sensibilities of the early Tom Baker stories overseen by producer Philip Hinchcliffe & script editor Robert Holmes and filtered them through the prism of modern-day Who.

Several weeks have passed since “Kill the Moon.” Despite the furious anger Clara (Jenna Coleman) had towards the Doctor (Peter Capaldi) at the end of that story, by now she realizes she does not really hate him.  That said, neither does she particularly like him anymore, either.  Clara is ready to throw in the towel on her TARDIS traveling, but the Doctor convinces her to join him on one last journey.  He takes her to the far future, where a replica of the famed Orient Express passenger train journeys through outer space from one planet to another.

Clara wanted a nice, quiet, relaxing vacation for this final trip. Unfortunately her hopes are quickly dashed.  One by one, people are dying of sudden heart attacks.  Each of them, in the minute before he or she is killed, perceives the horrific sight of an ancient mummy lumbering towards them, a being they and they alone can see.

Doctor Who Mummy on the Orient Express promo image

The Doctor realizes these deaths match up to a legendary creature known only as the Foretold, a seemingly unstoppable entity that always claims its victims exactly 66 seconds after appearing, a creature whose existence has never been explained. The Doctor also notices that a rather large number of the passengers just so happen to be scientists specializing in alien biology, physics and mythology.  He deduces that they have all been assembled for a purpose.  “If I was putting together a team to analyze this thing, I’d pick you.  And I think somebody has.  Someone of immense power and influence has orchestrated this whole trip.  Someone who I have no doubt is listening to us right now.  So are you going to step out from behind the curtain and give us our orders?”

With that the hidden mastermind, via the Orient Express’ computer system, announces that they have all been gathered to analyze the Foretold, find a way to capture it, and reverse engineer its abilities. And if they do not succeed, well, then they are all going to die at its hands.  This horrifying possibility proves to be all too real, as Clara searches through the train’s records, and discovers that the mastermind has actually attempted this on several other occasions, with scientists on different spaceships… and they all died.

Peter Capaldi is once again magnificent as the Twelfth Doctor. Both his mannerisms, striding in and imperiously taking charge, as well as his attire, again bring to mind Jon Pertwee’s Third Doctor.  There is also quite a bit of Tom Baker’s Fourth Doctor, especially as he played the role during his first three years under Hinchcliffe & Holmes.

“Mummy on the Orient Express” undoubtedly brings to mind the 1975 classic “Pyramids of Mars” written by Holmes. First off there is the obvious connection of mummies who are in fact something entirely different.  The mummies in “Pyramids” were actually service robots created by the alien Osirians.  Similarly, the mummy-like Forgotten in this latest story is not a supernatural entity but a long-dead soldier reanimated by incredibly advanced alien technology, a deadly weapon of war & assassination.

Also present is the coldly analytical attitude of the Doctor. In “Pyramids of Mars,” faced with the threat of Sutekh the Destroyer, a godlike being with the ability to decimate entire planets, the Doctor is focused exclusively on thwarting this apocalyptic entity, to the exclusion of all pleasantries.  When the Doctor and Sarah discover that their ally Lawrence Scarman has been murdered by his brother, whose body is now an animated cadaver controlled by Sutekh, the Doctor is quite cold and blasé about it…

The Doctor: His late brother must have called.

Sarah: That’s horrible! He was so concerned about his brother.

The Doctor: I told him not to be. I told him it was too late.

Sarah: Oh! Sometimes you don’t seem…

The Doctor: Human? [The Doctor examines a deactivated service robot] Typical Osirian simplicity.

Sarah: A man has just been murdered!

The Doctor: Four men, Sarah.  Five, if you include Professor Scarman himself.  And they’re merely the first of millions unless Sutekh is stopped.  Know thine enemy.  Admirable advice.

“Mummy on the Orient Express” sees the Doctor taking a similarly ultra-pragmatic stance. Each time the Foretold appears to a victim, the Doctor attempts to get that person to describe the creature in as much detail as possible before they die.  He knows that he cannot save them, but if enough of the Foretold’s victims provide him with the information he needs to deduce its nature, then hopefully he will eventually be able to stop it from slaughtering everyone on the train.

After the Orient Express’ captain is killed by the Foretold, the Doctor is seemingly unmoved, instead speaking aloud in a rapid stream of consciousness as he runs through the evidence, trying to connect the dots. In an exchange that echoes the aforementioned scene from “Pyramids of Mars,” Perkins the train’s engineer reacts with disbelief at the Doctor’s seemingly callous nature…

Perkins: A man just died in front of us!  Can we not just have a moment?

The Doctor: No, no, no!  We can’t do that!  We can’t mourn!  People with guns to their heads, they cannot mourn!  We do not have time to mourn!

While this is taking place, Clara is at the back of the Express, attempting to comfort Maisie, whose grandmother was the first victim of the Foretold. Then the Doctor contacts Clara on her cell phone.  He has deduced that the next victim will be none other than Maisie, and he wants Clara to bring her up to the scientists so they can once again try to study the Foretold, “observe it in action.”  Clara is, of course, aghast.  She is even more upset when the Doctor tells her to lie to Maisie, to say that the only way he can save her is if she comes to the front of the train.  And Clara very reluctantly does exactly that.  Face to face with the Doctor, Clara accusingly tells him “You’ve made me your accomplice.”

Doctor Who Mummy on the Orient Express Doctor and Clara

It’s very interesting that “Pyramids of Mars” played such an apparent influence on both this episode and on the one it immediately follows out of, “Kill the Moon” written by Peter Harness.  In that, Clara insisted that they should just get in the TARDIS and leave since the Moon did not get destroyed in 2049, because in his travels the Doctor has previously seen it still existing even further in the future.  To which the Doctor responded:

“Clara, there are some moments in time that I simply can’t see.  Little eye blinks.  They don’t look the same as other things.  They’re not clear, they’re fuzzy, they’re grey.  Little moments in which big things are decided and this is one of them.  Just now I can’t tell what happens to the Moon because whatever happens to the Moon hasn’t been decided yet.  And it’s going to be decided here and now, which very much sounds like it’s up to us.”

This very much parallels the scene in “Pyramids of Mars” where Sarah argues that she comes from the year 1980, so it is obvious Sutekh did not destroy the world in 1911. In response, the Doctor takes Sarah back to 1980 in the TARDIS, and she is horrified to discover the Earth has been reduced to a lifeless wasteland.  The Doctor tells her that if they do not go back to 1911 and stop Sutekh then there is no future.

In “Kill the Moon” Clara resented the Doctor for thrusting her into the position of playing God, of making her the arbiter of the fates of others. Now, still attempting to deal with her feelings about the Doctor’s actions, in “Mummy on the Orient Express” Clara witnesses the Doctor reassuming that role.  She is not at all comfortable with either alternative.

In the end the Doctor saves Maisie and figures out exactly what the Foretold really is, thus finding a way to stop it. But this was not something that he was at all certain he would be able to do.  As the Doctor later solemnly explains to Clara “Sometimes the only choices you have are bad ones.  But you still have to choose.”

Back in 1999, I was over in Britain for a few months. While there I went to a comic book convention in Bristol, England.  The evening of the last day, at the hotel bar, I was hanging out, having drinks and chatting.  Also there was Dave Stone, an author who had written several Doctor Who New Adventure novels.  Talking with him, I discussed how I disliked the depictions of the Seventh Doctor in many of the books, often finding him to be an overly manipulative, judgmental figure.  As an example, I cited some of his actions in the novel Cat’s Cradle: Warhead by Andrew Cartmel.  After listening to what I had to say, Stone simply replied, “The Doctor cannot save everyone.”

That was certainly at the forefront of my mind while watching “Mummy on the Orient Express.” Something that I’ve occasionally observed concerning the episodes with Clara was that she possessed this belief that if the Doctor simply tried hard enough, if he was as clever and brave as he could possibly be, “neither cowardly nor cruel,” that he would somehow always find a way to do the right thing.  We saw this in “The Day of the Doctor” when at Clara’s urgings he managed to alter history and save Gallifrey.  Last week, at the end of “Kill the Moon” it really felt like Clara was rejecting the entire concept of a no-win situation, and that she demonstrated it was possible to find a consequence-free choice where everyone lived happily ever after.  But now, just one episode later, Clara witnesses that sometimes that is just not possible, that sometimes you really are forced to choose the lesser of all evils.

Clara suggests to the Doctor that “being the man making the impossible choice” is an addiction. Immediately after Clara calls Danny and tells him that she is finally done traveling with the Doctor, and she’ll be home soon.  Yet, in the next breath, she turns to the Doctor and tells him that she has changed her mind, she wants to keep traveling with him, and that Danny is okay with this.  Clara lied!

Doctor Who Mummy on the Orient Express Foxes

Going back to the beginning of “Mummy on the Orient Express” there is a sexy chanteuse played by Louisa Rose Allen aka Foxes singing, appropriately enough, a rendition of “Don’t Stop Me Now” by Queen:

Tonight I’m gonna have myself a real good time

 I feel alive and the world it’s turning inside out – Yeah!

 I’m floating around in ecstasy

 So don’t stop me now don’t stop me

 ‘Cause I’m having a good time having a good time

Hmmmm… that could apply to the Doctor as well as Clara. So who is the addict?

I may not be especially happy with how the character of Clara has been proceeding in the last couple of episodes. But I certainly have to acknowledge that Jenna Coleman is doing a wonderful job with the material.

Putting aside all of the brilliant character moments, “Mummy on the Orient Express” is a riveting episode. It was a very effective mash-up of the eerie 1972 movie Horror Express starring Christopher Lee & Peter Cushing and the Japanese anime series Galaxy Express 999 created by Leiji Matsumoto.  The concept of a mummy-like alien creature that is completely invisible & intangible to everyone except its victims, that can teleport anywhere, that will kill you exactly 66 seconds after it appears, is genuinely frightening.  I expect that “Mummy on the Orient Express” must have contained some bona fide modern-day “behind the sofa” moments for younger viewers.

Christopher Barry: 1925 – 2014

Veteran British television director Christopher Barry passed away on February 7th at the age of 88.  Among his numerous credits was a long association with Doctor Who which began in 1963 and continued on and off until 1979.  This made him one of only three people to have directed William Hartnell, Patrick Troughton, Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker on the show.  Barry was interviewed at length in 2002 in Doctor Who Magazine #s 314 to 316, wherein he admitted “I didn’t like being stereotyped as a Doctor Who director.”  Nevertheless, he did very good work on the series, and is fondly remembered for his important contributions.

Barry was, with Richard Martin, the co-director of the second Doctor Who serial “The Daleks” in December 1963, which featured the debut of the Doctor’s instantly iconic arch foes.  Barry and Martin worked together closely in the planning of the seven-episode production, with Barry himself directing parts 1, 2, 4 and 5.  He conceived the famous first episode cliffhanger, shot from a Dalek’s viewpoint, with a plunger-like appendage gliding towards Barbara Wright, who screamed in terror, leaving audiences to wait an entire week to find out exactly what was menacing the schoolteacher.  Barry’s thinking was “Good thriller directors suggest terror rather than explicitly showing it.”  In episode two, Barry was responsible for the first full-shot reveal of the Daleks, as the camera rapidly pulled back from the Doctor, Ian Chesterton, and Susan to show them surrounded by Skaro’s strange, fearsome mutants.

Daleks episode two reveal
A historic reveal: the Daleks make their debut.

Barry directed three other Hartnell stories, “The Rescue,” “The Romans” and “The Savages.” His last contribution to the show’s first decade was directing “The Power of the Daleks” in 1966, which featured Patrick Trougton’s debut as the second incarnation of the Doctor.  Unfortunately this entire six part serial is currently missing from the BBC archives, bar a few short clips that give a tantalizing glimpse of the production.

Five years later Barry returned to Doctor Who.  Jon Pertwee was now playing the lead role, and Barry directed two of his stories, “The Daemons” (1971) and “The Mutants” (1972).  I have unfortunately not had an opportunity to view either of those stories in a number of years, and I have rather foggy memories.  Nevertheless, I do vaguely recall that “The Daemons” was a good story.  Many other fans of the series have cited it as one of their all time favorite stories.  I’ll have to pick it up on DVD one of these days.

In late 1974 Barry was brought in to direct Tom Baker’s debut as the Doctor in “Robot,” written by Terrance Dicks.  This one I have seen a number of times, and the direction is definitely dramatic and suspenseful.  Barry certainly used the eponymous Robot very effectively.  In real life it was probably a cumbersome prop / costume, but Barry makes it appear a menacing figure.  Aside from a few poorly realized special effects in the final episode, it’s a good, solid introduction for Baker.

Brain of Morbius Philip Madoc
Philip Madoc as Solon in “The Brain of Morbius.”

Barry would direct two more of Baker’s serials.  “The Brain of Morbius” (1976) is another of those stories considered a classic by many long-time fans.  It is an interesting, moody, Grand Guignol pastiche of Frankenstein, once again written by Terrance Dicks, albeit with heavy revisions by script editor Robert Holmes.  Barry once again did great work on this story.  He was responsible for the brilliant casting of actor Philip Madoc as the fanatical mad scientist Mehendri Solon.  As Barry explained, “I knew he had a strong presence, and was capable of almost manic intensity, which he indeed conveyed brilliantly.”

It is unfortunate that Barry’s final contribution to Doctor Who was the 1979 serial “The Creature from the Pit.”  This one is often regarded as a rather mediocre affair.  Aside from a somewhat shaky plot, the main point of contention is the alien Erato, a giant green glowing blob-like entity that was inexplicably given a phallic-looking appendage.  Tom Baker, never one to resist an opportunity for humor, infamously had the Doctor attempt to communicate with Erato by blowing into said appendage!  Quite understandably, this caused quite a commotion behind the cameras.

Creature from the Pit Erato
Move along now, nothing to see here.

Barry only accepted the job of directing “The Creature from the Pit” due to having an unexpected hole in his schedule right when it was offered to him, and needing the work.  He acknowledges that, in hindsight, it was not the best note on which to depart from the series, and he found the whole production, as well as the uproar over the poor conception of the Creature, to have been a trying experience.

Despite the fact that Barry would have preferred to have been recognized for the diverse range of productions that he directed on British television, in the end he acknowledged that he was satisfied with most of the work that he did on Doctor Who.  Certainly he was a talented, thoughtful director who played a key role in some of the series’ most significant moments, and who helped bring to life several of its most revered stories.

Doctor Who reviews: The Day of the Doctor

Whew!!!  After six long months of waiting, “The Day of the Doctor,” the 50th Anniversary Special of Doctor Who, aired today, November 23rd.  It was so very cool that it was broadcast here in the States on BBC America at the exact time it was showing on the telly on the other side of the pond.

Ever since “The Name of the Doctor” back in May, there has been a ton of speculation about who, exactly, the mysterious previously-unseen incarnation of the Doctor, played by John Hurt, really was, and why he was the Doctor’s “secret.”  Indeed, “The Day of the Doctor” dealt with exactly that.

I’m really relieved that I managed to view the mini episode that the BBC debuted online a week ago.  Every time they had one of those in the past, I’ve somehow missed them, and didn’t catch them until months later.  Which was a shame, because those short segments had some nice character material, such as the development of the Eleventh Doctor and River Song’s relationship.  But as soon as I started seeing that a bunch of people were posting links to “The Night of the Doctor” on Facebook, I decided to check it out.  And, wow, was I genuinely surprised.

Night of the Doctor McGann

“I’m a Doctor. But probably not the one you were expecting.”  Oh my god, it’s Paul McGann!  Seventeen years after his sole television outing, the Eighth Doctor returned.  I’m glad the BBC managed to keep the lid on this, because it was such a shock.  I thought McGann was brilliant in the 1996 television movie, and he’s done great work continuing as the Doctor in the Big Finish audio plays.  I’m thrilled he was given the opportunity to bring closure to the Eighth Doctor, to show how that incarnation ended.

“The Night of the Doctor” is such a brilliant inversion by Steven Moffat on the typical Doctor Who formula.  You have a set-up where the Doctor arrives to rescue Cass from her crashing spaceship.  At first it seems very similar to many other times when the Doctor gained a new companion.  But the instant she finds out that the Doctor is a Time Lord, she pulls back in horror & anger.  She literally would rather die than be saved by one of them, because of the horrific carnage that has been wrecked all across the universe in the war between the Time Lords and the Daleks.  After the ship crashes on the planet Karn (first seen in “The Brain of Morbius”) the mysterious Sisterhood is able to revive the Doctor for four minutes, and offer him a chance to select the shape & personality of his next regeneration.  And the dying Doctor, who previously refused to fight in the Time War, now believes that his inaction has prolonged the conflict and led to Cass’ death, as well as countless others.  He chooses the path of a warrior, and regenerates into John Hurt’s “War Doctor.”

As we see via his reflection at the end of “The Night of the Doctor,” the War Doctor actually started out with a young body.  By the time “The Day of the Doctor” opens, on the final day of the Time War, he is now a haggard, weary old man.  The implication is that he has been fighting for decades, perhaps centuries.  Having witnessed carnage & destruction on an inconceivable scale, the War Doctor finally vows “No more.”  He seizes the sentient Time Lord doomsday device known as the Moment.  He intends to use it to totally destroy Gallifrey and the Daleks, finally ending the Time War before all of reality is consumed by it.

Day of the Doctor promo

Arriving in a barren desert with the Moment, the War Doctor reluctantly prepares to commit genocide.  However, the Moment peers into the Doctor’s future time stream and projects an Interface in the form of Rose Tyler (Billie Piper) to communicate with him.  The Interface asks the War Doctor if he is truly certain he wants to take such an apocalyptic action and wipe out billions of lives in an instant.

Elsewhere / when, in present day London, Clara Oswald (Jenna Coleman) is now a school teacher at Coal Hill School, a call back to the very first episode, “An Unearthly Child,” and the characters of Ian Chesterton & Barbara Wright (when “The Day of the Doctor” opened with the original 1963 series credits, I think I made a “squee” noise or something).  Receiving a message from the Eleventh Doctor (Matt Smith), she zooms off on her motorcycle to meet him.  Before the two can start off on their latest trip, UNIT snatches the TARDIS by helicopter grappling hook and whisks it away to the National Gallery.  Kate Lethbridge-Stewart (Jemma Redgrave) needs the Doctor to investigate a mystery involving strange artwork hidden in the museum’s basement, paintings dating back to the reign of Elizabeth I (Joanna Page), specifically events in 1562, when the Queen was romantically involved with none other than the Tenth Doctor (David Tennant).  There’s a complicated plot afoot involving the shape-shifting Zygons, who plan to use stolen Time Lord technology to conquer the Earth.

(Tennant once commented that his favorite Doctor Who monsters from when he watched the series as a child were the Zygons, and he would have liked for his Doctor to meet them.  I’m glad he finally had that opportunity.  Besides, they were just too cool not to eventually bring back to television.)

The Moment Interface generates time fissures, bringing together the War Doctor with his two later incarnations.  The Interface wishes to show the War Doctor what sort of man he will become if he chooses to destroy the Time Lords, a man who hundreds of years later is at first constantly haunted by the death toll, and who even later is furiously struggling to forget all that, to blot out who he once was, and the terrible action he took.

I absolutely loved the interaction between Matt Smith, David Tennant, and John Hurt.  Steven Moffat scripted some superb material for them, with each version of the Doctor alternating between trying to outdo his other selves and congratulating them on their (and therefore his) brilliance.  It led to a lot of genuinely funny moments, as well as some very heartfelt ones.  Smith was his usual great self, and Tennant slipped effortlessly back into the role.  As for Hurt, he was absolutely brilliant.  As the War Doctor, he had the quality of an eccentric, rather mischievous grandfather figure, shades of the Doctor of old.  At the same time he so effectively projected this sorrowful, almost physical burden weighing him down from the long years of fighting.

Day of the Doctor Smith Tennant Hurt

Even after seeing the man (men?) he will become, the War Doctor is still ready to activate the Moment, and with a heavy heart prepares to press down on the Big Red Button… yep, it literally is a Big Red Button.  Previously, when futilely attempting to figure out how the Moment worked, he had wished for one of those, and finally the Interface provided him with just that.  The Tenth and Eleventh Doctors, having come to accept the necessity of what he / they did, are ready to activate the Moment with him, and shoulder the burden & guilt.

Clara, however, begs them to find another way.  She reminds the Eleventh Doctor of what he told her in “The Name of the Doctor,” that when he chose his name he made a promise to himself.  Now she urges him to find some way to keep that promise.  The trio of Doctors realizes that, on their own, none of them would be able to figure out how to alter time and save Gallifrey while still defeating the Daleks and ending the Time War.  But pooling all of their knowledge together, and the power of their TARDISes, they can use the aforementioned technology pilfered by the Zygons to freeze the entire planet in an instant of time and transport that into another reality (or something) leaving the billions of Dalek spaceships to obliterate themselves in their own crossfire.

Next thing you know, you have a dozen TARDISes circling the besieged Gallifrey, as every one of the past incarnations of the Doctor end up working together to enact this plan.  Did I say a dozen?  Actually it’s thirteen, as Peter Capaldi appears in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it surprise cameo as the future Twelfth Doctor.

Later on, back in 2013 at the National Gallery, the War Doctor and the Tenth Doctor both say their farewells.  They each know that when they return to their own point in the time stream, they’ll forget what happened, that they chose to try to save Gallifrey rather than destroy it, at least until they reach this moment in time as the Eleventh Doctor.  Finally on his own, the Eleventh Doctor sits, looking at a painting of the final day of the Time War, a painting alternatively known by two names, “No More” and “Gallifrey Falls.”  He wonders if he really did succeed in saving his people.  And then the museum’s eccentric curator approaches him and, referring to the painting, states that it actually has one title: “Gallifrey Falls No More.”  The Eleventh Doctor realizes that the plan worked, that somewhere his home world once more exists.  Oh, yes, and the fellow playing that odd curator is a certain Tom Baker.

All in all, I think that “The Day of the Doctor” was an excellent anniversary story, especially given time & budgetary constraints, the availability of actors (Hartnell, Troughton and Pertwee have all passed on, Eccleston was very likely not interested in participating, and everyone else  who has played the Doctor looks much older than they did back in the day), and the simple fact that if Moffat had tossed in too many elements of the past, the story might have been incoherent and collapsed under its own weight.  If you want a really great 50th anniversary story with appearances by all eleven Doctors, numerous companions, and a whole bunch of monsters, pick up the twelve issue comic book series Prisoners of Time, which I’ve blogged about a couple of times.  And if you want an anniversary story starring all of the surviving actors who played the Doctor in the classic series (Tom Baker, Peter Davison, Colin Baker, Sylvester McCoy and Paul McGann) there is the audio adventure “The Light at the End” out now from Big Finish.  But as far as the television format goes, I think that “The Day of the Doctor” was probably almost as good as it gets.

Day of the Doctor Zygon

Really, my only major criticism is that the plotline of the Zygon invasion is sort of left unresolved.  The Doctors force Kate Lethbridge-Stewart and the Zygons to sit down and negotiate a peaceful settlement, but we never find out the outcome of that.  I really hope that at some point in a future episode that gets addressed.  It would be interesting to see the Zygons again as, despite their typically belligerent actions, they probably aren’t truly evil (or at least not as evil as, say, the Daleks or the Master) and the only reason why they want to invade Earth is because their own planet was destroyed.

So, was it worth the wait?  Yeah, it was.  “The Day of the Doctor” was great because it demonstrated just why the Doctor is such a great hero.  Despite his many flaws, he tries to use intelligence instead of violence to solve problems, and he genuinely wants to preserve life instead of destroying it.  He’s seen the worst that the universe has to offer, and he still does his best to remain true to his principals.  And, yes, unfortunately sometimes the Doctor fails.  Sometimes he ends up in a no-win situation where he either cannot save the day or he has to compromise his morals in order to save the most lives.  But afterwards he always resolves to try harder next time, to be a better person in the future.

Here’s to the next fifty years of Doctor Who.

Talkin’ ‘Bout My Regeneration

I think that last week’s announcement that Matt Smith will be departing from Doctor Who at the end of the year must have caught a fair number of people by surprise, me included.  Up until that point, it seemed a pretty sure bet that Smith would be playing the Eleventh Doctor for at least another full season.  The news that he would only be around for two more stories – the 50th Anniversary special and the 2013 Christmas story – before regenerating, was actually quite disappointing for me.

Okay, admittedly, four years ago, when David Tennant announced that he was leaving Doctor Who, I also felt let down.  I honestly thought that no one could possibly fill the shoes of the actor who had given the best portrayal of the Doctor since Tom Baker.  And, y’know, Matt Smith’s first year on the series almost confirmed my fears.  It was a wildly uneven set of episodes.  But by the time 2011 rolled around, it was clear that both Smith and showrunner Steven Moffat had found their feet.  Since that time, I’ve really been thrilled by the Eleventh Doctor’s adventures, so much so that, once again, I find myself asking that very same question: why can’t he stay around for just a little bit longer?

For my next role, I will be starring in a remake of The Red Balloon. Geronimo!
For my next role, I will be starring in a remake of The Red Balloon. Geronimo!

Thinking about Smith’s departure has got me reminiscing about the whole regeneration thing in Doctor Who.  It is a truly brilliant concept, one conceived way back in 1966 by script editor Gerry Davis and producer Innes Lloyd as a means to replace the ailing William Hartnell.  The Doctor’s ability to renew himself in such a drastic manner has enabled the series to last an amazing half century, with a number of truly talented actors playing the main role.

Of course, it has been a long time since anyone in the viewing public has been surprised by a change-over in actors, as the BBC publicity machine inevitably announces each forthcoming recasting with much fanfare.  I expect that, in Britain at least, the first and last time anyone might have actually been surprised by the Doctor changing was when “The Tenth Planet” was broadcast in October 1966, and Hartnell transformed into Patrick Troughton in the closing seconds of the final episode.

It was a different story here in the States, at least for a while.  In the early 1980s, before the Internet, news about Doctor Who was much more difficult to come by.  Heck, when I first began watching the series on my local PBS station in 1983, as far as I knew Tom Baker was the one and only actor to have ever played the role of the Doctor.  After catching a handful of his episodes here and there, I finally figured out what channel & time the series was airing, and began following it each weekday night at 6:00 PM on WLIW Channel 21, beginning with “The Horns of Nimon” episode four.  Yeah, not an auspicious start, I know, but when you’re seven years old you can be a lot less critical of these things.

I quickly became a fan of the series, watching the entirety of what I now know was Season Eighteen.  And, after several weeks, there came a very odd four part story titled “Logopolis” which ended with the Doctor plunging hundreds of feet off a space telescope where, sprawled on the ground, surrounded by his friends, he somehow transformed into a young blonde-haired man.  And at that point I had absolutely no idea what the hell was going on!

That next night, sitting through episode one of “Castrovalva,” I was very unsettled.  As the altered Doctor seemed to be losing his mind, I kept wondering why they had gotten rid of the guy with the curly hair.  And, once this blond-haired fellow began unraveling the Doctor’s trademark scarf, yep, I was utterly horrified!  Nevertheless, I stuck it out, and three nights later, by the end of episode four, I was thinking to myself, “Maybe this new guy will work out after all.”

Who needs a scarf? Not me!
Who needs a scarf? Not me!

It must have been a few weeks later that I finally started to understand that this was something that had happened on the show before.  I was at the local Waldenbooks, where I discovered that there was an entire line of Doctor Who novels adapted from episodes of the television series.  And on a lot of the covers were individuals other than Tom Baker.  I realized there must have been other versions of the Doctor before him.  This was soon after confirmed for me when “Earthshock” aired on WLIW.  In episode two the Cybermen viewed archival footage of their past encounters with the Doctor, and we saw not just Baker, but also Hartnell and Troughton.

Inevitably I did become a big fan of the Fifth Doctor, Peter Davison.  Looking back on it, as David Tennant would say a number of years later, he was my Doctor.  So, eventually, “The Caves of Androzani” episode four aired on PBS, and the Fifth Doctor, seemingly dying, announced “I might regenerate. I don’t know. Feels different this time.”  And, once again, my jaw dropped.  Oh, no, I thought, now Peter Davison was leaving the show!  Darn it!  Next thing you know, the Doctor has become this very brash fellow who, with a smirk, in response to a confused Peri’s question about what has just happened, informs her “Change, my dear, and it seems not a moment too soon.”

And, as an aside, yes, once I was able to view Colin Baker’s episodes, I ended up becoming a fan of his Doctor, as well.  As I have said before, he gave such an underrated performance on the show.  Nowadays, it’s a real joy listening to the Big Finish audio plays where he reprises the Sixth Doctor.

But, getting back to my original point, this was the very last time I was surprised by the Doctor regenerating.  I think that, unless you live in a cave without an Internet connection, it’s just impossible not to know ahead of time that so-and-so is leaving the series.  This means that, even though Matt Smith’s departure will not be airing for another six months, we know he is on his way out.

Of course, we still do not know who has been cast as the Twelfth Doctor… at least not yet.  I’m sure the news will be announced any day now.  Just as I’m also sure that I’ll do my usual shtick of bemoaning that the new guy isn’t as good as Matt Smith was, at least until I see him in a few episodes, at which point I’ll probably become a huge fan.  And so it goes!

Doctor Who reviews: Trail of the White Worm / The Oseidon Adventure

Since 1999, Big Finish has been producing Doctor Who audio plays featuring numerous actors from the original television series.  For many years, however, they were unable to convince Tom Baker to reprise his portrayal of the Fourth Doctor.  This impasse was finally overcome just recently, and Baker began recording a series of audio adventures, first for the BBC itself, and now for Big Finish.  The first Big Finish “season” sees Baker re-teamed with actress Louise Jameson, returning to her role as Leela, the primitive descendent of a human space expedition that had been stranded on an alien planet generations before the Doctor met her.  The stories in this Big Finish season were set between the on-air adventures “The Talons of Weng Chiang” and “The Horror of Fang Rock.”

The final two releases of this first block of audio adventures are the linked stories “Trail of the White Worm” and “The Oseidon Adventure.”  The attraction these particular stories had for me is that they have Geoffrey Beevers once again portraying the Doctor’s arch-nemesis the Master in his final, death-like incarnation.  He first played that role so very effectively on television in “The Keeper of Traken,” and returned to it many years later at Big Finish in a pair of audio plays starring Sylvester McCoy’s Seventh Doctor.  In addition, “The Oseidon Adventure” features the alien Kraals & their robotic servants from “The Android Invasion.”  Given the ties “Trail of the White Worm” and “The Oseidon Adventure” had to two of my favorite Tom Baker television serials, I could not resist picking them up.

(I do not think I am really giving away any major spoilers by revealing the involvement of the Master or the Kraals, as their images feature prominently on the covers of the CDs!)

Doctor Who: Trail of the White Worm

“Trail of the White Worm,” in certain ways, does a good job capturing the feel of the television stories around which it is set, evincing much of the atmosphere of gothic horror of the Philip Hinchcliffe & Robert Holmes years.  Set in the English countryside of the late 1970s, “Trail of the White Worm” has the Doctor and Leela arriving in the TARDIS to discover that a mysterious creature is menacing a small, isolated village.  The Doctor meets the posh Demesne Furze, played by Rachael Stirling, who relates to him the local legends of the White Worm, which date back two millennia to the time of the Roman occupation of Britain.  Meanwhile, on a nearby estate, Leela comes across the retired Colonel Spindleton, portrayed by Michael Cochrane.  A reactionary with a grudge against progress, the Colonel has a fondness for shooting at trespassers with his remote controlled tank, although he quickly learns that Leela is more than a match for his security arrangements.  She, in turn, discovers that the Colonel has thrown in his lot with the Master, who dangles before him the promise of restoring to Britain its lost greatness.

The ending of “Trail of the White Worm” leads right into “The Oseidon Adventure.”  The Master opens a space/time portal to the Kraal home world, and his alien allies march forward with an armored column and an infantry of android soldiers.  At first, “The Oseidon Adventure” appears to be a straightforward alien invasion story, much in the vein of the early appearances of the Master when the character, as portrayed by Roger Delgado, would summon a succession of extraterrestrial menaces to attack Earth, only to be opposed by the Doctor and UNIT.  However, writer Alan Barnes does a magnificent job of confounding expectations.  Just when you think you know where “The Oseidon Adventure” is heading, he throws in a series of unexpected plot twists, with double and triple crosses coming left and right.  I really should have foreseen something like this, given how the original serial “The Android Invasion” so successfully played with the idea of infiltration & identity theft.  But since Barnes did such an excellent job of making it seem one thing was going on, when in fact something else entirely different was occurring behind the scenes, I was constantly getting caught off guard.  The end result is a suspenseful story that really leaves you guessing what is going to happen next.

Doctor Who: The Oseidon Adventure

Tom Baker return to the role of the Doctor is superb.  It’s almost as if there hasn’t been a three decade lapse in time since he last played the role, and he’s picking up right where he left off.  I do think that his performance in these two stories was somewhat more akin to the rather more silly, buffoonish tone he increasingly adopted during Graham Williams’ tenure as producer than the relatively more serious, somber take of his first three seasons with Hinchcliffe.  That said, it is great to have him back.  If he had perhaps a bit too much fun recording these stories, well, that’s Tom Baker for you.

Louise Jameson also does good work slipping back into the role of Leela.  I know that she has played an older, somewhat more sophisticated version of the character in other Big Finish releases.  So I’m not sure how difficult it was for her to now take a step back and return to the intelligent but uneducated savage she portrayed on television.  I think Jameson does admirable work at recapturing this younger version of Leela.  Together with Barnes’ scripting, this does sound like the character we saw in those classic Doctor Who serials of the late 1970s.

And then there is Geoffrey Beevers.  The man is excellent at imbuing the Master with malicious, sly, sneering malevolence.  Listening to “Trail of the White Worm” and “The Oseidon Adventure,” I was reminded once again why his performance in “The Keeper of Traken” left such a lasting impression on my childhood memories.  Beevers really brings to life the Master, and makes you believe this is a figure that could actually defeat the Doctor.  The ending of “The Oseidon Adventure” leaves open the possibility of at least one more encounter between the Master and the Doctor before the events of “The Keeper of Traken,” so hopefully Beevers will be back in the recording studio with Baker at some point in the near future.

All in all, the actors, writer Alan Barnes, and director Ken Bentley have all excelled at capturing the feel of the original Tom Baker stories.  These two audio plays utilize elements from the television series, while nevertheless crafting stories that develop in new, unexpected directions.  They also take full advantage of the unlimited scope of the audio format.  I seriously doubt that either the immense figure of the White Worm or the massive Kraal army would have been achievable on the limited budget & resources the television show had access to in the late 1970s.

“Trail of the White Worm” and “The Oseidon Adventure” are both entertaining, well-produced tales.  If you are a Doctor Who fan, but you have not listened to any of the Big Finish releases, they make an excellent jumping on point.

Doctor Who reviews: The Android Invasion

Last month my girlfriend got me the DVD of the Doctor Who story “The Android Invasion” as a birthday present.  This story actually has something of significance for me, as part two of it was the very first Doctor Who episode I ever saw.  Way back around 1981 or so, Doctor Who was briefly shown on one of the television networks here in the States on Saturday mornings.  I only ever caught that one episode, and I didn’t remember much about it, but the cliffhanger ending always stuck in my mind.  About two or three years later, when I discovered Doctor Who on my local PBS station, I immediately became a fan and, well, the rest is history.

Admittedly “The Android Invasion” is not an especially great Doctor Who story.  One of the main problems is that for the first two episodes writer Terry Nation struggles mightily to build up this sinister, creepy mystery as to what is taking place in the village of Devesham and the nearby Space Defense Station.  Unfortunately, most of the suspense is completely undone by the title of the story!  Why are the inhabitants of the village, including old friends of the Doctor and Sarah Jane Smith, acting so damn peculiar?  Well, it’s because they are android duplicates, obviously!

This serial had at least two working titles, namely “The Kraals” and “The Enemy Within.”  While neither of these is nearly as dramatic as “The Android Invasion,” at least either of them would have maintained one of the main mysteries of the story’s first half, instead of blowing it wide open in the opening credits.

That said, the first time I saw this serial in full, it came as a complete & total surprise when at the end of the second episode the Doctor deduced that not only was everyone in the village a robot doppelganger, but in fact they were not even on the planet Earth.  Instead, this was a carefully constructed replica built by the rhino-like Kraals on their homeworld Oseidon as a training ground for their duplicate agents, a mock run for their conquest of the actual Earth.

A much derided aspect of “The Android Invasion” revolves around the Kraals’ human agent, astronaut Guy Crayford, who spends the entire story wearing an eye-patch.  Crayford believes that the Kraals rescued him from certain death on a space mission gone horribly wrong, and that is why he is assisting their invasion plans.  He thinks he has to wear the eye-patch because when the Kraals saved his life, they were unable to restore his eye.  That is until the end of episode four, when the Doctor convinces him to take it off, and Crayford realizes he has a fully function eye underneath.

Even as an eight year old viewer, my first reaction was to think “What, in the two years he was a prisoner of the Kraals, Crayford never once took off that eye-patch to take a shower?!?”  If one wants to be charitable, on two separate occasions the Doctor refers to Crayford as having been “brainwashed” by the Kraals, so perhaps he was programmed not to remove the patch.  But if that was the case, why give it to him to begin with, other than to provide a dramatic, out of left field twist when actor Milton Johns yanks it off in the story’s final moments?

There are several other glaringly obvious holes in the plotting.  I could list them all, but we’d be here for a while.  That said, I think most of them only become obvious upon repeated viewings.  And, as producer Philip Hinchcliffe commented, when he was working on Doctor Who, it was never expected that these shows would be re-watched over and over years later.

I also felt that “The Android Invasion” was an unfortunate exit story for the characters of Benton and Harry Sullivan from UNIT.  This would be the last time that actors John Levine and Ian Marter would appear on Doctor Who, and it’s a shame that neither of their characters is given a substantive role.  Hinchcliffe admits in hindsight that if he had known that this was to turn out to be the last appearances of Benton and Harry, he might have given the pair more of a presence in the story.  As it is, it’s unfortunate that these two well-regarded characters have what amounts to little more than extended cameos.  It’s also painfully obvious that Patrick Newell as Colonel Blimp, um, Faraday is a last-minute replacement for Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart.  Although considering what a tiny role in the proceedings the Brigadier would have had if Nicholas Courtney had been available, it’s probably best that he did not show up, as he was given a much more dignified exit in the previous UNIT story, “Terror of the Zygons.”

Doctor Who: The Android Invasion DVD

Well, having gone on at length as to the faults of “The Android Invasion,” I will readily admit I actually quite like this story.  A major reason for this is the team of Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen as the Doctor and Sarah.  Baker and Sladen had this absolutely incredible chemistry and rapport, and they work extremely well off of each other in “The Android Invasion.”  Some of the serial’s best scenes are the ones between the Doctor and Sarah.  They really were one of the greatest Doctor/companion teams in the show’s history, and that is readily on display in this story.

“The Android Invasion” has a really cracking script.  I’m not sure what should be credited to Terry Nation, what goes to script editor Robert Holmes (who was known for performing extensive rewrites to make stories workable), and what was improvised by Baker and Sladen.  Whatever the case, the dialogue is intelligent and witty.  I especially enjoyed the exchange between the Doctor and the Kraals’ chief scientist Styggron in episode three.  Baker does his usual routine of being threatened with death by acting silly and nonchalant.  Left tied to a ticking time bomb by Styggron and his android henchmen who then shuffle off, the Doctor exuberantly calls after the exiting villains…

“Don’t go! Stay! Just for a few minutes, then we can all go together!”

The silly banter between the Doctor and Sarah later in the episode in the Kraals’ duplication laboratory also cracks me up…

The Doctor: I feel disorientated.

Sarah: This is the Disorientation Center.

The Doctor: That makes sense.

Martin Johns does a good job portraying gullible astronaut Guy Crayford.  It would have been easy to play the role as an sneering villain.  Instead, Johns imbues Crayford with both this boyish enthusiasm and a very pitiable quality.  It’s obvious to everyone but Crayford himself that he is a mere pawn of the Kraals, and when the character belatedly realizes how badly he’s been manipulated, you genuinely feel sorry for him.

The direction by Barry Letts is top-notch.  There are some marvelously effective, atmospheric shots.  When a list of the top Doctor Who directors is drawn up, Letts’ name is not typically included.  Understandably, most fans of the show focus on his considerable role as producer in shaping almost the entirety of Jon Pertwee’s five year run alongside script editor Terrance Dicks.  It’s a shame.  I don’t know if I would rank Letts alongside such amazing directors as Douglas Camfield, David Maloney or Graeme Harper.  Nevertheless, Letts does some solid work on “The Android Invasion.”  I think his directing on this serial would be better regarded if he’d had a stronger story, but considering what he was handed, Letts makes the most of it.

The audio commentary on “The Android Invasion” was entertaining and informative.  The participants are Milton Johns (Guy Crayford), Martin Friend (Styggron), producer Philip Hinchcliffe and production assistant Marion McDougal.  I’ve observed in the past that for the older Doctor Who serials, it’s worthwhile to have a moderator to guide the discussion and help jog everyone’s understandably hazy decades-old memories.  Filling that role once again is Toby Hadoke, who does a superb job at leading the proceedings.

The extra feature “Life After Who” looks at Philip Hinchcliffe’s post-Doctor Who career.  Hinchcliffe went on to produce a wide variety of material, ranging from gritty crime series to period dramas.  Unfortunately, I’m unfamiliar with most of this material.  I’d have to check to see if any of it is even available on DVD here in the States.  That said, some of it looked very intriguing, and given the opportunity I’d like to be able to watch some of these projects.  Particularly of interest is Nancy Astor, the story of the controversial first female member of British Parliament.

So, despite its flaws, “The Android Invasion” is an entertaining serial, and the DVD contains some interesting extras.  As I said before, while it will never be considered one of the top Doctor Who stories ever made, it is a personal favorite of mine, in that, for all its silliness and gaping lapses of logic, it is a great deal of fun.  Actually, having written this review, I now feel like sitting down and watching it again.  That’s the hallmark of an entertaining story.

Mary Tamm: 1950 – 2012

It is a strange feeling, learning that someone you grew up watching on television has passed away.  Such is the case with Doctor Who, which I have avidly followed since I was eight years old.  Recently, several past regular actors from the show have died, namely Nicholas Courtney, Elisabeth Sladen, and Caroline John.  Unfortunately, a fourth name has now joined that list: Mary Tamm, the actress who portrayed Romana during the Sixteenth Season of Doctor Who, passed away on July 26th after a year and a half long battle with cancer.  Tamm was 62 years old, too young an age by my estimation.

Prior to her involvement with Doctor Who, Tamm appeared in the 1973 film adaptation of the Frederick Forsyth novel The Odessa File.  In 1977, she was approached by Doctor Who producer Graham Williams to play Romana, a female Time Lord who would embark with the Doctor, then portrayed by Tom Baker, on a season-long quest to locate the six segments of a cosmic artifact known as the Key to Time.  Tamm was drawn to the part by the promise that Romana would be the Doctor’s equal, independent and intelligent.

Romana was certainly a distinctive figure.  Brimming with knowledge and confidence, she was a posh, sophisticated woman with an incredible sense of fashion.  During her season on the show, she sported a series of stylish ensembles, carrying herself with elegant dignity.

Mary Tamm as Romana in the Doctor Who serial The Androids of Tara
Mary Tamm as Romana in the Doctor Who serial The Androids of Tara

In addition to her undeniable air of cultivation, Romana was also actually more intelligent than the Doctor himself.  However, being much younger than him, and having just come from a sheltered existence on the Time Lord world of Gallifrey, it could be argued she was naïve as to the actual dangers of the real world.  One of the aspects of her relationship with the Doctor would be her university education versus his “street smart” knowledge of the universe gained from centuries of travels.  I found this to be interesting source of both drama and humor.  However, this dimension of their characters’ interchange would actually contribute towards Tamm’s decision to depart from the show.

By the end of the Sixteenth Season, Tamm felt she had taken the character of Romana as far as she could.  In a 1991 interview with Doctor Who Magazine, she explained “I realized that I was never going to be on a level with the Doctor intellectually and the fact that Romana was a Time Lord graduate didn’t help her. She had all the text book knowledge but none of the Doctor’s experience and application.”  She added “I felt the role wasn’t stretching me enough as an actress and therefore I was not prepared to tag along with Tom Baker for another nine months just feeding him lines.”

Tamm was “instrumental” in convincing the powers-that-be to hire actress Lala Ward as her replacement on Doctor Who.  At the start of the next season Romana regenerated into her new form, although Tamm was unfortunately not on hand to film the transition.

After her time on Doctor Who, Tamm went on to a long & successful career in British television.  In recent years she returned to the world of Doctor Who, performing in several of the Companion Chronicles releases from Big Finish.  Earlier this year, she was reunited with Tom Baker for a series of full cast audio plays set between her final television story, “The Armageddon Factor,” and her regeneration, in effect a Season 16.5, so to speak.  These are scheduled to be released by Big Finish in early 2013.

One of my favorite Tom Baker serials is from the Key to Time season, namely “The Pirate Planet” which was written by Douglas Adams shortly before he found fame as the author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.  “The Pirate Planet” may not have been the strongest story in terms of its treatment of Romana that season, or in spotlighting Tamm’s acting abilities (that would undoubtedly be the also-excellent “The Androids of Tara” by David Fisher) but it’s a marvelous adventure.  Among its strengths is the interplay between Tamm and Baker.  I’m looking forward to re-watching that story again soon.

Despite her short time on Doctor Who, Mary Tamm made an indelible impression on the show.  Even though she was not able to stretch the boundaries of the role of the Doctor’s assistant as far as she had hoped or wanted, I think she was certainly one of the actresses who helped to lay the groundwork for more assertive, independent companions to appear on the show in the future.

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.