Doctor Who Project: The Five Doctors

Splendid fellows, all of you.

For a series about time travel, Doctor Who focuses on its own past almost as much as the historical past. From Season Eighteen on, under producer John Nathan-Turner and script editor Eric Saward, continuity references, those canonical recollections of various events and dramatis personae, have come to predominate, sometimes to the detriment of the storylines and befuddling more casual viewers who can’t tell an Omega from an Ogron. When faced with a marquee event such as the twentieth anniversary of Doctor Who, then, the danger is that the self-referential aspects will predominate, overwhelming the plot with a long string of cameos and call-backs. Thankfully, veteran Doctor Who hand Terrance Dicks provides “The Five Doctors” (Story Production Code 6K) with a script that neatly balances reverential appreciation of the series’ long tenure with a genuinely well-paced story that creates just as many memorable moments as it summons up from the show’s history.

Janet Fielding, Mark Strickson, and Peter Davison as Tegan, Turlough, and the Fifth Doctor

Airing as a single ninety-minute episode on November 25, 1983, two days past the actual twentieth anniversary of the initial episode of “An Unearthly Child” first appearing on screens throughout the UK, “The Five Doctors” brings all five of the Doctor’s incarnations together in a story that plays to their individual strengths while still respecting the primacy of the current inhabitant of the role, Peter Davison. Well, sort of all five, with Richard Hundall standing in as the First Doctor for William Hartnell, who died some eight years earlier in 1975, and Tom Baker being represented solely through clips from “Shada,” which remained uncompleted and unaired due to industrial action at the end of Season Seventeen. Baker withdrew from active participation after originally agreeing to appear, but as much as it would have been nice to see that curly mop of hair back in action as the Fourth Doctor, his absence gives more room for Hundall, Patrick Troughton, and Jon Pertwee to strut their stuff upon the crowded stage.

Jon Pertwee, Patrick Troughton, and Richard Hundall as the Third, Second, and First Doctors

Dicks’ story breaks very little new ground, being ultimately a rehash of “Arc of Infinity,” with its focus on Gallifreyan politics, and, curiously, the much maligned “Time-Flight” and “Death to the Daleks” in the exploration of an ancient—and lethally guarded—sanctum by the Doctor(s) and companions. His structuring of the story, though, contrives to keep the first three Doctors separate, each having been kidnapped, along with a companion, by a “time scoop” and deposited into a different part of the subtly-named Death Zone on Gallifrey, home of the long-abandoned Game of Rassilon that saw “lesser” beings forced to fight to the death. The Fourth Doctor and Romana (Lalla Ward), meanwhile, are plucked from punting the River Cam and trapped in the Vortex by a failed time scoop, the better to sideline them for the entirety of the story.

Tom Baker and Lalla Ward as the Fourth Doctor and Romana, trapped in a broken time scoop

The Fifth Doctor painfully suffers the loss of each of his prior selves as they are removed from the time stream, and as he slips in and out of consciousness, he sets the TARDIS to find them. The blue box takes him, Tegan (Janet Fielding), and Turlough (Mark Strickson) to “nowhere, in no time,” in the latter’s words, a fine description of the Death Zone, which itself is a foggy plain of rocks, dominated by the Dark Tower, host to the Tomb of Rassilon. The scene, replete with the Third Doctor’s beloved Bessie driving down dusty slate-lined roads, very much calls to mind the antimatter world from the tenth anniversary story, “The Three Doctors,” and in truth, could any celebration of twenty years of Doctor Who fail to feature a quarry?…

Read more

Doctor Who Project: Earthshock

What are we supposed to have done?

Season Nineteen has been about change. A new Doctor stands at the helm of the TARDIS, and producer John Nathan-Turner has interwoven psychedelic psychological drama with pseudo-historical potboilers and manor house murder mysteries. The shift in tone from story to story leaves viewers guessing as to what comes next. None of it quite prepares viewers from Eric Saward’s “Earthshock” (Story Production Code 6B), which takes Doctor Who to brand new ground: a companion dies.

A broken mathematics badge

The argument can be made that two prior companions have lost their lives in a story, with Katarina and Sara Kingdom both perishing during “The Daleks’ Master Plan,” but neither really “settles in” to life on the TARDIS to the extent that viewers develop a relationship to them, certainly not to the degree that viewers have come to know Matthew Waterhouse’s Adric, the precocious and persnickety Alzarian maths whiz. Adric’s TARDIS tenure has not been the smoothest—from his first appearance in “Full Circle,” he has been an outsider, the butt of many a joke and never really given a chance to shine, to be the focus of a story. His single outing as the sole companion, “The Keeper of Traken,” sees him sidelined almost immediately by Sarah Sutton’s Nyssa, and in the very next story, “Logopolis,” Janet Fielding’s Tegan comes aboard, to say nothing about the little matter of Tom Baker regenerating into Peter Davison.

A crowded TARDIS

Nevertheless, Matthew Waterhouse does the best he can with the scripts, which so often lean into Adric’s youth and callowness, and though few might proclaim Adric to be their favorite companion, he’s firmly part of the TARDIS team, and indeed is the longest serving cast member by the time Eric Saward and John Nathan-Turner decide to remove him. Saward litters the script with foreshadowing of someone’s demise, and there’s more on-screen death in this story than has been seen in years, but the ending still has the power to shock, because it is ultimately a pointless death. Indeed, the most stunning aspect of “Earthshock” is not that Doctor Who finally had the narrative courage to fatally write off a companion but that it didn’t matter at all to the story’s outcome.

Peter Davison as the Fifth Doctor, mightily annoyed with Matthew Waterhouse's Adric

Which is not to say that Adric is not heroic or that his death does not matter. Rather, to have Adric try, and fail, to alter the course of a gigantic space freighter as it is about to hit prehistoric Earth speaks to the very heart of Doctor Who, particularly the new vision of it as conceptualized by Nathan-Turner and embodied by Peter Davison in the character of the Fifth Doctor. Where every other Doctor in every other story (save the Third Doctor in “Doctor Who and the Silurians“) would have succeeded and rescued Adric, here, the Fifth Doctor fails, even as a plot to destroy Earth is foiled and history falls into its rightful patterns once more. His success, such as it is, comes, finally, at a cost. It’s a sobering moment, one that hints at a depth in the Doctor only suggested before, and one that helps viewers forget that these guys show up again…

Read more

Doctor Who Project: Revenge of the Cybermen

Well, we can’t just sit here glittering, can we?

They brought the Cybermen back for this? After lying fallow for almost seven years, the silver streaks return with a thud in Gerry Davis’ “Revenge of the Cybermen” (Story Production Code 4D). Gone is the sense of unstoppable menace from their last appearance, in Season Six’s “The Invasion,” much less the existential body horror of the original Cybermen that Davis helped Kit Pedler develop back in “The Tenth Planet.” The story on offer here suffers from the same diffused focus as Davis’ last story, the visually impressive yet narratively cluttered “The Tomb of the Cybermen,” which introduced his seminal contribution to Cyberman lore, the Cybermat. A key component of this story, it is cute, cuddly, and oh so carnivorous.

Beware of the Cybermat

Following directly on from “Genesis of the Daleks,” this story sees the Doctor, Sarah, and Harry appear back on Space Station Nerva, the Season Twelve leitmotif. Only the current version of Nerva contains quite a few more dead bodies than the one they left way back at the end of “The Ark in Space.” The Doctor surmises from the technology on display that they have arrived thousands of years before their last visit, when the station was used as a cryogenic ark to safeguard humanity against solar flares. They await the arrival of the TARDIS, which is travelling through time (yet remaining static in space) to meet up with them after their Time Lord-imposed sojourn on Skaro. In the interim, they explore the now-familiar hallways, discovering that there are only three humans left from whatever fate befell the space station.

No running down this hallway.

In short order, the viewer learns that one of the survivors, Keller, has orchestrated the deaths as part of an overly-elaborate plan to lure the Cybermen to Nerva Beacon, built to warn passing spacecraft about the presence of Voga, a rogue planetoid captured by Jupiter’s gravity fifty years prior. The bait for the Cybermen turns out to be Voga itself, a planet whose copious gold reserves turned the tide of the Cyberwars some generations in the past. As the Doctor helpfully points out, the non-corrodible metal coats the breathing apparatus of Cybermen, suffocating them, and the combined forces of humanity and the Vogans used “glitter guns” to end the conflict. In the long years since, the Vogans have hidden deep within their wandering planet, in fear of the remnants of the Cyber Fleet.

One faction of Vogans, encountered by Keller during his exploration of the planet, wants to end that threat, so in exchange for gold (of course), Keller somehow contacts the ages-lost Cybermen offering the location of their arch nemesis. The Cybermen (again, somehow) send him a Cybermat with instructions to kill all but four people on the beacon. Meanwhile, the Vogan faction builds a rocket that they will use to destroy Nerva once the last remaining Cybermen are on board. And why do the Cybermen want four humans left alive? Because Cybermen don’t do manual labor, apparently—they want the humans to carry the Cyberbombs (yes, really), complete with trapped explosive harnesses, to the heart of Voga to blow it up.

Read more

Doctor Who Project: The Invasion

Doctor Who Project: The Invasion

Ah, shut up, you stupid machine!

On tuning in to “The Invasion” (Production Code VV), you could be forgiven for thinking you were watching ITV instead of the BBC. That moody, suspenseful, jangling music! The sense of dread and dark shadows caused by the angular camerawork! Is this Doctor Who or Danger Man? Only seeing Patrick Troughton instead of Patrick McGoohan puts the matter firmly to rest.

Patrick Who?

While writer Derrick Sherwin (working from a story by Cyberman creator Kit Pedler) grounds events firmly in the realm of Doctor Who, there can be little doubt that director Douglas Camfield kept abreast of his contemporaries’ work. The style breaks new ground for the show, bringing a more modern feel to the framing and pacing, and carrying on from his earlier work on “The Web of Fear.” Indeed, in many ways, “The Invasion” serves as a sequel of sorts to that show about Yeti in the London Underground, as the Doctor and his companions Jamie and Zoe arrive in contemporary London and seek out Professor Travers, himself a veteran of “The Abominable Snowmen” and “The Web of Fear,” for help in repairing some faulty TARDIS circuits.

Prior to reaching London, however, there’s a little matter with a missile. Upon materializing in orbit around the dark side of the moon, the TARDIS finds itself under attack and just barely escapes a missile fired at it from an unknown lunar base that has a spaceship guarding it. The TARDIS makes an emergency materialization on a farm in the English countryside, and, in the first of many curious non-sequiturs in this eight episode story, the focus turns directly to fixing those circuits, with no more worry paid to the source of the missile. The Doctor and friends hitch a ride to London from a truck driver, who quickly pulls off the road to hide. The TARDIS has arrived inside The Compound run by The Company, and when the driver realizes that they are not part of The Community, he endeavors to sneak them out. The weight given those words echoes, perhaps unintentionally, another ITV product, The Prisoner. There’s a very real sense of danger and the unexpected, rather new for Doctor Who, compounded by the driver being gunned down in a most violent fashion by toughs in dark glasses and motorcycle helmets after he has gotten the Doctor, Jamie, and Zoe out of harm’s way.

And then, in an exceedingly odd transition, we’re treated to a fashion show.

Read more

Doctor Who Project: The Wheel in Space

Doctor Who Project: The Wheel in Space

There seems to be rather a lot of metal around us.

Season Five of Doctor Who ends more or less as it began, with the Second Doctor facing off against the Cybermen. Regular series writer David Whitaker takes his first crack at the metal monstrosities in “The Wheel in Space” (Story Production Code SS), based on a story by Cybermen originator Kit Pedler. They’ve become much more Dalek-like in their intentions, looking to conquer the Earth with a convoluted plan that hinges on capturing Station Three, the titular wheel in space. It’s certainly not the first time the Cybermen have tried to take over Earth, but one wouldn’t know it from this story, as no one on the station seems to have ever encountered a Cyberman previously. Even though, um, the planet Mondas appeared in Earth’s sky back in the 1980s and the Cybermen invaded the Moon in the year 2070, both events prior to the setting of this story.

New and Improved Cybermen

This narrative amnesia neatly encapsulates the current state of Doctor Who in 1968 (and, one might say, through to the current day). The needs of the story outweigh the needs of the established canon. Yet at the same time, there’s an almost reverent attention to small continuity details pitched solely at dedicated viewers (who would be the ones most likely to recognize, and resent, this amnesia). In the case of “The Wheel in Space,” the Doctor and Jamie are trapped in their predicament by a faulty fluid link; the escaping mercury vapor requires them to abandon the TARDIS and search (eventually) for more mercury. The fluid link connects back to “The Daleks” some four seasons prior when the First Doctor disabled the fluid links to force an ill-advised exploration of the Dalek city to look for mercury—and for adventure.

As has become somewhat standard, the Cybermen are attempting to infiltrate a base that they need to keep intact, so as to use the equipment therein for various nefarious purposes. This time, they have upgraded substantially, with the little Cybermats having energy beams (and the ability to detect brain waves and corrode metals) and the Cybermen themselves equipped with the ability to control human minds. What they haven’t upgraded is their tactical planning apparatus, as the entire scheme to take over Station Three hinges on ionizing a distant star to create a meteorite storm which threatens the station—so far, so good—and then, ah, hiding in a box.

Read more

Doctor Who Project: The Tomb of the Cybermen

Well, now I know you’re mad. I just wanted to make sure.

Though only two months separate the end of Doctor Who‘s fourth season and the start of its fifth, the difference between “The Evil of the Daleks” and Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis’ “The Tomb of the Cybermen” (Story Production Code MM) could scarcely be more striking. Where David Whitaker’s Dalek magnum opus plodded along several episodes too long and jumped from location to location, Pedler and Davis bring the Cybermen back in a taut, crisp, and focused four episode story that feels unlike any Doctor Who we’ve seen before—mostly because it feels exactly like what we think Doctor Who is supposed to feel like. This story is the ur-Who.

After a brief introductory scene bringing new companion Victoria into the TARDIS, a scene serving mostly to give a refresher about what Doctor Who is all about to new and returning viewers after the summer hiatus, action shifts immediately to a crew of space archaeologists on the planet Telos. It’s actually a quarry, of course, but the setting works inherently because these archaeologists are blasting their way into the buried Tomb of the Cybermen. You can tell because there are Cybermen on the walls next to the (electrified) doors.

I wonder who is buried here?

We’re given no excuse or reason for the TARDIS appearing here, unlike the elaborate explanations of a wonky control console or stuck fast return switch of prior seasons. The TARDIS simply lands and the Doctor and his companions just walk out to have a look around. Further, the archeological team only cursorily question the Doctor about his sudden presence and then the matter is effectively dropped, the show’s internal logic reigning supreme. In this instance, the Doctor is taken to be a rival archaeologist, also seeking the secrets of the long-dead Cybermen, and he goes with it, silencing his young companions when they threaten to blow his conveniently bestowed cover. There’s a story to be told here, so on with it.

The Doctor volunteers to help the expedition get into the tomb, and once there, he vacillates between helping and hindering. Something seems not quite right, with two members of the expedition, Klieg and Kaftan, curiously insistent upon getting in, despite the death of a expedition member by the electrified tomb doors. The Doctor knows the danger of the Cybermen, but he also wants to know just what Klieg and Kaftan are up to with the Cybermen. The story establishes (somewhat ham-fistedly) that they’re up to no good, and by the end of the first episode, there’s a sense of menace without a Cyberman in sight. One does show up right at the end of the episode, but it’s a dummy, albeit a deadly one. We do, however, meet someone new. A cute, cuddly, metallic Cybermat…

Read more