Doctor Who Project: Vengeance on Varos

When did they last show something worth watching, eh?

By 1985, Doctor Who has, in keeping with the essentially protean nature of the main character, embodied many genres: historical romps, action adventures, existential ruminations, alien crime whodunnits, twelve-part space operas, and comedic asides. Rarest of the dramatic forms, though, stands the didactic commentary, wherein the Doctor encounters a situation germane to contemporary events. Philip Martin, channeling his inner Roberts (Sloman and Holmes, the keenest practitioners of social commentary on Doctor Who), revives the lost art of pointing fingers at the present in “Vengeance on Varos” (Story Production Code 6V), putting on trial the very idea of television itself as an addiction, a veritable opiate of the masses. But where Robert Holmes made a merry jest of workers overthrowing (and throwing over) the ruling classes in “The Sun Makers,” Martin takes a darker tone from the off.

Jondar (Jason Connery) awaits his fate

After an establishing model shot of a domed city on a barren landscape, director Ron Jones kicks off the ninety minute, two episode story with a close up of a shirtless rebel (Jondar, played by Jason Connery) being tortured via laser blasts, his screams and torment all for the enjoyment of the overworked citizens of Varos, portrayed in miniature by Arak and Etta (Stephen Yardley and Sheila Reid). It’s a discomfiting beginning, with Jondar’s agony mixed at full blast on the audio track; Arak and Etta take it in hungrily as they pick at the meager rations offered for their daily meal, the dissonance between their contentment and the captured rebel’s suffering landing quite effectively. When the bread is lacking, the circuses must be increased.

Arak and Etta (Stephen Yardley and Sheila Reid) enjoying some light torture with their meager meal

Colonized originally as a prison planet hundreds of years in the past, Varosian society holds a strict social demarcation between the descendants of the overseers and those of the prisoners, who toil still in the mines. Varos represents the sole source of Zeiton-7 ore, used to power the engines of “space-time craft,” and thus should be a wealthy planet. An off-world mining conglomerate, represented by the slug-like Sil (Naibil Shaban) seeks to extract as much ore as possible from the planet for the lowest price, and has driven the planet to financial ruin in the process. As part of contract re-negotiations, the Governor (Martin Jarvis) submits his proposal to lower rations in order to hold out for a better price to the viewers, who resoundingly reject the plan, voting in real time on their viewscreens, subjecting him to a near-lethal shock as a consequence. Television ratings have real consequences in this setting—a situation no doubt weighing heavily on the mind of producer John Nathan-Turner at the time, with Doctor Who‘s own fate constantly in the balance.

Nicola Bryant and Colin Baker as Peri and the Sixth Doctor, popping around a corner to say hello

From the moment the TARDIS arrives on Varos, so the Sixth Doctor and Peri can procure Zeiton-7 to reline the “transitional elements” in the power-drained time rotor, we watch Arak and Etta watch our time travellers attempt to escape from the Punishment Dome, where they have fortuitously interrupted Jondar’s execution. Martin continuously puts the viewers (the real ones) a step removed from the action, highlighting the artifice of television and the choices made by the people controlling the screens. The moments of second-order distance, with the Doctor and Peri’s travails frequently observed through screens that are shown on the screen, work tremendously well in highlighting the inherent desensitization caused by watching from afar, made more striking by the CRT televisions of the time, with their slight blurring and glare when themselves filmed.

Watching the Sixth Doctor on television

The cameras constantly follow the Doctor, Peri, Jondar, and his partner Areta (Geraldine Alexander) as they confront the psychological horrors of the Purple Zone, which cause fears to become visually manifest—specifically, a giant fly’s head, which, as an effect, fares slightly better than the mega-rat in “The Talons of Weng-Chiang.” The Chief (Forbes Collins), who is secretly working in league with Sil to undermine the Governor, exalts in the potential for sales of the tapes of the chase and eventual execution to “every civilized world,” a grim commentary of the galactic culture of the time (and, indirectly, of the direction of contemporary international media sales towards gore and violence). Once the Doctor enters the “No Options Kill Center,” the tongue-in-cheek dystopian nomenclature played characteristically straight in this story, the Governor orders the camera operator to zoom in on the Gallifreyan’s death throes, the executive function on Varos at once political and directorial. For yet again, John Nathan-Turner and script editor Eric Saward deliver a cliffhanger in which the Doctor, convinced by the telepathic devices in the Dome that he is suffering from heatstroke, seemingly dies…

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Doctor Who Project: Attack of the Cybermen

This looks familiar.

John Nathan-Turner takes no chances with Season Twenty-Two, rolling out those crafty bio-mechanical cyborgs as the marquee attraction to open the Sixth Doctor’s first full season in Paula Moore’s “Attack of the Cybermen” (Story Production Code 6T). Indeed, the entire story, told in the new format of two forty-five minute episodes airing weekly in the once-traditional Saturday evening time slot, bespeaks an attempt, at times seemingly desperate, to appeal to Doctor Who‘s roots, with scarcely five minutes passing between references, both oblique and obvious, to the series’ history. The resulting tale succeeds quite resoundingly at integrating Colin Baker’s recently regenerated Doctor into the fabric of the show, but as with prior attempts by producer Nathan-Turner and script editor Eric Saward to reward long-time viewers with moments of in-group recognition, the excessive reliance on audience awareness of key moments and figures from the Doctor’s past mutes the effect for more casual viewers, who are more likely to be confused than thrilled at the mention of Telos…

A puzzled Sixth Doctor (Colin Baker) peers outside the TARDIS

The Doctor’s more immediate history comes into play from the start, with a very familiar face planning a diamond heist in central London, circa 1985: Lytton (Maurice Colbourne). Last seen escaping to 1984 London via time tunnel from the chaos of the exploding Dalek ship in “Resurrection of the Daleks,” with two Dalek-enslaved bobbies in tow, this mercenary from the planet Vita 15 sets up an interplanetary distress beacon that draws the TARDIS to Earth. No expository set-up to his prior role occurs during the first episode, and while Colbourne plays Lytton with an ominous air, the full impact of seeing him only affects those who remember that prior story, which aired almost a year earlier.

Lytton (Maurice Colbourne) scheming again

And where, indeed, does the TARDIS land? Oh, just 76 Totter’s Lane, a nondescript little junkyard owned by one I.M. Foreman. This return to the series’ birth feels so on-the-nose that, frankly, one wonders why it took twenty-two seasons to happen. While it would take a cold heart indeed to not smile at the moment, it’s sadly played here as a one-off, just a visual name-drop in a story filled with knowing nods to the past. In short, there’s reference, but no reverence, as though simply showing the place itself should suffice to convey meaning. The Sixth Doctor and Peri leave as quickly as they arrive, without a word said about the location’s significance.

The Sixth Doctor and Peri (Nicola Bryant) come full circle

The general lack of respect for tradition goes somewhat further in the case of the TARDIS, whose chameleon circuit the Doctor has finally “fixed,” after a fashion. Upon materializing on Totter’s Lane, it takes the form of a painted Victorian cabinet, and later appears as a pipe organ and a wrought iron gate. Even though the chameleon circuit returns to its “broken” state by the end, it’s a discomfiting change from the familiar blue police box, done for no reason other than that it hadn’t been done before. Too, the prior inviolability of the TARDIS has, under Nathan-Turner’s aegis, fallen by the wayside; from being blown up in “Frontios” and invaded by inter-dimensional imps in “The Awakening,” it’s a small step to being easily opened and occupied by Cybermen later in the plot. Entire stories once revolved around Daleks and other ne’er-do-wells laying siege to the previously impenetrable TARDIS doors.

The, erm, TARDIS?

The story’s first episode establishes Lytton’s efforts to lead his heist team into the sewers, with the opening scene showing two workers killed by a mysterious figure whose identity is fairly easily guessed given the cybernetic fuzz of the first-person camera work, should the tale’s title not have sufficed. (And, of course, long-term viewers will remark to their less-than-impressed friends that the Cybermen set up shop in London’s sewers back in the 1970s as well.) The Doctor and Peri track Lytton’s distress signal to a workshop with an entrance to the sewers, and they follow him down below, though not before knocking out Lytton’s two faux-police guardians, who, like the intergalactic rogue himself, are not explained at all for viewers lacking familiarity with “Resurrection of the Daleks.” When the first episode reaches its midpoint, or what would be the normal cliffhanger for a “standard” length episode, the Cybermen finally make their grand entrance, appearing from behind a hidden door in the sewers after Lytton calls to them, suggesting that Moore originally wrote the story for a four-episode format. Old habits die hard…

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Doctor Who Project: The Twin Dilemma

That hardly sounds in character.

Each new Doctor’s inaugural tale must fulfill two objectives, often at odds with each other. In addition to providing a rousing introduction for the new title character, one that establishes a tone, an arc, for the adventures to come, the story must still function as a narrative whole, placing the new Doctor in some engaging situation that puts the fledgling Time Lord’s fresh attitude to the test. Not all of Doctor Who‘s post-regeneration stories work as well as others, and Colin Baker’s proper debut as the Sixth Doctor, in Anthony Steven’s “The Twin Dilemma” (Story Production Code 6S) doesn’t quite deliver the comprehensive punch of, say, Jon Pertwee’s “Spearhead from Space,” which introduced the Third Doctor in as compelling a tale as possible.

Nicola Bryant and Colin Baker as Peri and the Sixth Doctor

In part, this narrative disconnection comes about because producer John Nathan-Turner and script editor Eric Saward seem intent on telling one long story with their run on Doctor Who. Most other Doctors take over at the beginning of a season, with months passing between the prior Doctor’s regeneration and the new Doctor’s first real appearance, separating the audience from their memory of the predecessor. Here, Colin Baker assumes the role in Season Twenty-One’s final story; only six days pass between the Sixth Doctor popping up with a burr under his saddle at the end of “The Caves of Androzani” and the first episode of “The Twin Dilemma.” Having built the Fifth Doctor’s story as a continuous slide into ruin and despair with the first six stories in Season Twenty-One, Nathan-Turner and Saward seem intent on directly addressing the trauma they caused by inducing a regeneration crisis in the Sixth Doctor that leaves him initially with no discernible character at all.

A less-than-impressed Peri taking in the Sixth Doctor's gesticulations

Such a character-driven focus can pay real narrative dividends, and a more daring approach might have seen this as the sole focus of a story, a tight two-episode tale along the lines of Season One’s “The Edge of Destruction,” where the TARDIS crew turns on each other in an existential fugue, revealing far more of their true identities than any encounter with a Dalek ever could. But as with Peter Davison’s initial story, “Castrovalva,” Nathan-Turner’s concept of the “regeneration crisis” in “The Twin Dilemma” starts out strong and then flounders as the “action” part of the plot fails to keep pace. For once again, the notion of magical sums comes into play.

Romulus and Remus (Gavin and Andrew Conrad) -- or maybe the other way around

Two precocious, mathematically gifted twins, with the unfortunate names Romulus and Remus (Gavin and Andrew Conrad), disappear from their home on Earth, kidnapped by Professor Edgeworth (Maurice Denham), who seeks to harness their genius in order to move planets. Adric, it might be noted, similarly found himself trussed up in a skien of webs in the Master’s TARDIS in “Castrovalva,” his own calculation skills used to power the “block transfer equations” that create the mysterious town of the same name out of sheer nothingness. Much of beginning of “The Twin Dilemma” establishes the twins and the efforts of the Earth authorities to rescue them, padding out the story by introducing characters never seen again, save Lieutenant Hugo Lang (Kevin McNally), whose squadron of space fighters explodes while chasing Edgeworth’s space freighter to the asteroid Titan 3.

Maurice Denham as Professor Edgeworth (for now)

The Sixth Doctor, inevitably, turns his sights on supposedly abandoned Titan 3 as well, seeking a hermitage in which to recover his senses; the Fifth Doctor obviously never replaced the TARDIS “Zero Room” he retreated to (and then ejected) during his own regeneration crisis. His behavior immediately after his regeneration veers wildly—madly, even—at turns irascible, cowardly, brash, and, in a frankly shocking twist for the character, violent. Throughout “The Twin Dilemma,” the Sixth Doctor, and indeed Nathan-Turner behind him, seems to be daring the audience to dislike the Doctor. By the time he accuses Peri of being an alien spy and pushes her to the ground, throttling her, one might well say he succeeds…

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In Scale: 1/48 Hasegawa A-4F Skyhawk (Naval Air Test Center, NAS Patuxent River, 1969)

For the first installment of my In Scale series of scale model aircraft builds, I’m pleased to present my just-completed 1/48 scale Hasegawa A-4F Skyhawk, wearing the colorful test livery of BuNo 154175, assigned to the Naval Air Test Center at NAS Patuxent River, circa July 1969 (reference photo).

1/48 Hasegawa A-4F Skyhawk

Build Overview

The venerable Hasegawa A-4 tooling has been around for nearly a quarter century, first debuting in 2000 and re-released, in Hasegawa’s inimitable way, with new parts and decals over forty times since. This build comes from the A-4E Skyhawk “Top Gun” Limited Edition (2023), which contains parts for both the E and F variants of the Scooter. The kit’s various foibles have been well documented over the years, the most notable being the step in the front slat wells on the leading edges; the real aircraft has a continuous slope from the well to where the wing resumes. I chose not to fix the error, as my scratch repair job would have been far more noticeable than a subtle geometry error that one has to know to look for.

1/48 Hasegawa A-4F Skyhawk

The build itself posed few tricky situations, with more-than-acceptable parts fit in keeping with the “TamiGawa” reputation from Japan’s two major kit makers for effortless builds. I did have some difficulty with three specific areas.

The engine exhaust piece failed to fit snugly once the fuselage was sealed, possibly owing to an imprecise seating of the exhaust trunking, necessitating a fair bit of filler (and, eventually, an aftermarket exhaust cover) before I was satisfied.

1/48 Hasegawa A-4F Skyhawk

The engine intakes, with their red banding and white interiors, turned into a mini-model of their own, needing to be painted, assembled, and masked before they were faired into the fuselage. I removed the molded stiffening plates, in keeping with my prototype, which made matters easier, as the plate, split between the intake piece and the fuselage piece, wasn’t going to match up no matter my sanding or a (mostly) judicious application of force. I added aftermarket intake covers, but mostly for visual interest; rest assured that the intakes are a paragon of precision painting…

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The Not-So-Peaceful Pacific: Le Franc Tireur 16 (LFT) Released

Fresh from French shores comes Le Franc Tireur 16, the latest issue of the well-appointed magazine and scenario combination by the company of the same name for use with Advanced Squad Leader. Focused entirely on the Pacific Theater of Operations during (and shortly after) World War II, the publication, which can be broadly compared in content and approach to Multi-Man Publishing’s ASL Journal, comes as an A4-sized magazine of seventy-eight pages of glossy stock with a thick stock cover. The fifteen scenarios arrive on ten A4-sized glossy stock sheets without much thickness, separate from the magazine, with several scenarios running longer than a single card.

Component overview for LFT 16

Third-party producers have been creating products to be used with the Advanced Squad Leader tactical combat game system for just about as long as the original Squad Leader itself has been around; early issues of TSR’s The Dragon contained new SL scenarios as early as 1980. These days, third-party products—which is to say, any game materials published by other than the holders of the ASL license, Multi-Man Publishing—run the gamut from scenario packs to full-blown modules with maps and counters. LFT 16 also comes with maps and overlays, after a fashion.

Initially, LFT intended to provide twelve double-sided geomorphic maps with LFT 16, as well as seven sheets of overlays, and apparently copies sold outside the USA will contain the components, which are redrawn versions of the original Avalon Hill/MMP PTO maps and overlays, with bespoke terrain graphics. Though details remain thin on the ground, one might assume that the redrawn maps run afoul, at the least, of the tacit agreement that MMP has cordially maintained with the various third-party producers in terms of respecting MMP’s intellectual property rights. Given that images of the maps look busy and cluttered beyond belief, and that LFT itself acknowledges in the magazine’s “Editor’s Foreward” that the new maps’ lines-of-sight differ from those on the real maps, I personally find their omission to be no significant loss (and indeed, the lower price for LFT 16 without them makes for a more palatable purchase).

Article detail from LFT 16

What is here looks quite promising, at least as far as the scenarios are concerned. The magazine itself contains a variety of articles, including several tournament recaps, a player interview, and some potted history pieces. More useful are primers on playing PTO scenarios, arranging defenses as the Japanese side, and on conducting seaborne assaults, all of which come in quite handy with the actions on the included scenario cards. (If it isn’t obvious, I purchase LFT products almost exclusively for the scenarios; the accompanying articles are an occasional bonus.)

Article detail from LFT 16

Indeed, the scenarios remain the star of the show here, and on a brief perusal of the fifteen encounters on offer, numbered LFT327-341, I see several that jump right to the top of the play queue. Each scenario is set notionally in the PTO, though not all invoke PTO terrain, and other than one scenario, FT338 RJ177, which is termed a “micro-campaign game,” none should take more than a decently-long game day to finish. Four scenarios use the amphibious landing rules—with one, FT336 Fourteen Paddles, giving water transport to both sides!—and two scenarios are set at night, including one of the seaborne assault actions, FT327 Thai Beaches, representing the same landing as in AP83 Thai Hot! from MMP’s Action Pack #9.

Scenario detail from LFT 16

My picks from the scenarios on offer here include the aforementioned FT336 Fourteen Paddles, with New Zealander infantry landing against Japanese forces trying to conduct a seaborne evacuation; a armor-on-armor confrontation between the Japanese and Americans in the Philippines in FT329 Gaining Time at Baliuag; and FT340 Spring Cleaning, a cat-and-mouse affair pitting the French against the Viet Minh in early 1946.

Article detail from LFT 16

It should be noted that three third-party geomorphic maps are required to play all the scenarios in LFT 16: Hz1 from Hazardous Movement and LFT’s own LFT1 and 2. Otherwise, just the regular gamut of MMP maps are required, as is ownership of just about every official MMP module, given the inclusion of Italian, French, British, American, Japanese, Chinese, Axis Minor, and Partisan counters in the scenario set. It’s truly one of those ASL products where to play it all, you have to own it all, and then some.

Cover detail from LFT 16

Given my eclectic tastes in scenarios, LFT 16 is an easy product for me to recommend; putting Thai or Punjabi forces in a scenario makes it a personal must-buy, though I would have been far happier if the scenarios were simply sold as a pack on their own. Your value proposition might be altered by the extra expense of a magazine that is the epitome of a hobbyist publication, for good and for ill. The tactics articles do seem worth their cost this time out, given that they work through some of the wrinkles in the PTO rules, which are not exactly the pinnacle of clean rules writing themselves. For PTO enthusiasts, as well as aficionados of obscure forces and rule sections, it’s worth a look, assuming you own the needed counters and maps.

Doctor Who Project: Peter Davison Retrospective

While Peter Davison might have been the youngest actor, at 29, to take on the title role in Doctor Who when he became the Fifth Doctor in 1981, in many ways he stands as the most adult of the Time Lords to grace our screen. From the very beginning, in “Castrovalva,” Davison’s Doctor shepherds his copious flock of companions to safety, and while they certainly support him in turn, the overall effect throughout his twenty-story run feels very much like a beleaguered teacher on an intergalactic field trip, hoping to get all the kids back on the big blue box bus.

The Fifth Doctor and Companions survey the Urbankan spaceship

In part, this sense of heightened responsibility for his youthful charges—Tegan notionally being oldest, somewhere in her early-twenties—dovetails with producer John Nathan-Turner’s increasing focus on the Doctor being old, not just in terms of having a massive well of off-screen experience to explain whatever might be needed to move the plot along, but also bearing the emotional scars from those hundreds of years of regeneration-fueled existence. And at its best, Davison’s ability to harness this reservoir of painful knowledge imbues his version of the Doctor with a depth of character that transcends the often uneven scripts. For the Fifth Doctor, more than any other, fails.

The Fifth Doctor, Tegan, and Nyssa, realizing Adric is dead

Three stories in particular—”Earthshock,” “Warriors of the Deep,” and “Resurrection of the Daleks“—highlight (for lack of a better word) the ways in which the Fifth Doctor faces the limits of his power and the limitations of his belief system. Like many a person in middle age, he comes to terms with his regrets. It’s no longer a series aimed at children…

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