Doctor Who Project: Image of the Fendahl

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You know, I don’t think these cows know anything about the time scanner.

Set on contemporary Earth for the first time in six stories, Chris Boucher’s “Image of the Fendahl” (Story Production Code 4X) nevertheless ranges far back into the past for its antagonist—some twelve million years. While the Doctor and Leela confront mad scientists, evil cultists, and a gran with a mean handbag throughout the tale, their real foe turns out to be an ancient humanoid skull, dated some eight million years older than humanity’s earliest known ancestors. Being a skull, albeit one with a pentagram etched inside it, it doesn’t actually do much for most of the story’s four episodes, relying instead on the aforementioned scientists and cultists to carry out its nefarious plans. The gran, thankfully, turns out to be on the Doctor’s side.

The skull of the Fendahl

To Boucher’s credit, he keeps the audience guessing as to the source of the story’s danger, weaving multiple, broadly sketched plots in and out of focus, though all centered around the skull somehow. The resulting surprise when the various groups realize that they have been but puppets to the force within the skull comes as a refreshing twist on the otherwise tired tale of secretive covens bent on reviving their long-lost masters, as seen in “The Daemons,” “Pyramids of Mars,” and, most recently, “The Masque of Mandragora.”

Mad scientist hard at work

Doctor Fendelman (Denis Lill), a wealthy scientist, along with his associate—and part-time cultist—Maximillian Stael (Scott Fredericks), have been conducting experiments on the skull intended to examine the energy that he claims is locked within it. The “sonic time scan” they use generates a temporal disturbance so threatening to the fabric of space-time that the Doctor must investigate, leading him and Leela to a rural village, ostensibly somewhere in England, that just so happens to nestle near a haunted woods.

Thea Ransome and the Skull

The time scan does more than offend the Doctor’s sensibilities, however—it causes the skull to glow, which somehow also kills a nameless hiker in the nearby mist-shrouded woods and begins to control another scientist working with Fendelman, Thea Ransome (Wanda Ventham). The effects team overlays the amber-hued skull over Ventham’s face, shifting the focus back and forth in time with a droning background rhythm, while the hiker screams and stumbles, filmed by director George Spenton-Foster in quick cuts and jarring camera angles. The overall effect creates definite unease in the viewer, with the linkages between events both obvious and yet completely inexplicable; the tension persists palpably, at least until the Doctor starts talking to cows…
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Doctor Who Project: The Invisible Enemy

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Contact has been made.

Early seasons of Doctor Who suffer from the TARDIS problem—with the ability to get the Doctor out of any trouble, through its inviolable walls and inter-dimensional time and space travel capabilities, the TARDIS requires writers to deploy all sorts of legerdemain to take its plot-skewing powers away from him. Only a change in the Doctor’s attitude, from risk-averse observer to inquisitive hero, solves the otherwise intractable dilemma, with the Doctor finally wanting to stay rather than to flee. Veteran writers Bob Baker and Dave Martin introduce another such problem in “The Invisible Enemy” (Story Production Code 4T) through their invention of K-9, an indestructible robot dog with formidable offensive capabilities and a databank rivaling that of the TARDIS itself. As will become all too common over the next four seasons, the solution here is to have K-9’s batteries run out right when its firepower is needed most. Luckily K-9 has a tow-hook welded on front.

Taking K-9 for a walk.

Which is not to say that this four-part story, focusing on an invasion not from without but from within, lacks for action. Leela racks up her highest body-count to date, K-9 zaps quite a few more, and the Doctor himself even blows up a giant base, all to stop the predations of a long-dormant, sentient virus disturbed from its slumber in deep space by a passing Earth shuttlecraft en route to Titan. Before it lands, all three members of the crew have been “contacted” by the Swarm, and they set about converting the refueling installation on Saturn’s largest moon into a hive that will serve as breeding grounds for future generations of the virus.

Disturbing the Swarm

The TARDIS also stumbles through the viral cloud, and somehow the core intelligence of the virus, the Nucleus, penetrates the shields, interfaces with the TARDIS itself, then passes into the Doctor, who promptly collapses. The virus then attempts to convert with Leela, but for some reason she is immune. With the TARDIS coordinates already set for Titan after the Doctor and Leela received a mayday from the base’s unconverted crew, Leela manages to materialize the ship and awaken the Doctor, who assures her that nothing is wrong. But contact has been made…
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Doctor Who Project: Horror of Fang Rock

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You said I would like Brighton. Well I do not.

Doctor Who may be lovingly needled for its reliance on multiple sequences of people running down corridors. Long-time writer and former script editor Terrance Dicks opens Season Fifteen by slightly altering that formula, with “Horror of Fang Rock” (Story Production Code 4V) featuring multiple sequences of people running up and down a spiral staircase. To his and veteran director Paddy Russell’s credit, it is a very nice staircase.

A very nice staircase

The action of this fear-tinged story takes place almost exclusively on the four levels of an isolated, fog-shrouded lighthouse off the English coast in the Edwardian era, roughly around the turn of the century. Carrying on from the last story, the BBC’s fog machines get quite a workout, with most of the first half of the four episode story shot in low light suffused with haze. Sporadic electrical faults in the lighthouse provide further narrative justification for the omnipresent darkness. Given the lackluster quality of the special effects, the dimness works to the story’s favor, concealing, for instance, the obvious nature of the model ship that provides as the first episode’s cliffhanger—which, in motion, does not so much wreck against the rocks as bounce off them—to say nothing of the actual “horror” that lurks on Fang Rock.

Shipwreck on Fang Rock

The overall effect of the confined space and limited cast of characters (nine total, including the Doctor and Leela) does lend itself to a claustrophobic anxiety. Russell strives to keep the camera close to the action, shrinking the area further, as though the viewer were leaning into the shot; her solid work with blocking and camera angles adds more menace to the proceedings than Dicks’ tale of unseen horror frankly deserves.

As ever in Tom Baker’s era, the Doctor and Leela arrive on the heels of an unexplained murder, this time in the lighthouse. Just prior to the TARDIS materializing on the rocky shore nearby, a purple flash of light streaks through the sky into the surrounding sea. After dismissing the strange occurrence, the three lighthouse keepers spend several minutes debating the relative merits of oil versus electric light sources for lighthouses. The story’s pacing doesn’t pick up markedly from here, at least until the final episode.

The Lighthouse Lads, in happier times

After the pro-electric Ben (Ralph Watson) dies at the hands of an unseen assailant in the boiler room, much of the first episode focuses on keeping those boilers stoked. The electricity goes on and off unexpectedly throughout the story, drawing individuals to the boilers, where more often than not they perish, with no clue as to the assailant’s presence besides a chill in the air and an ominous green glow. Often the audience is granted a wider understanding than the characters in Doctor Who, but here there’s a real resistance to unveiling the culprit, which is only first seen in a blurry long-shot near the end of the second episode. This approach undoubtedly builds tension, but the fact that it’s just a green ball of goo may also have something to do with it…
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Doctor Who Project: The Talons of Weng-Chiang

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I will now ask my eager volunteer kindly to step into the Cabinet of Death!

Take one part Pygmalion, one part The Phantom of the Opera, stir in a healthy dollop of Sherlock Holmes, then rent a fog machine, and you have Robert Holmes’ “The Talons of Weng-Chiang” (Story Production Code 4S), the most interesting story of Tom Baker’s run thus far. Though many a threat from the future has found its way to Earth’s past in Doctor Who, the setting in Victorian London feels fresh; there’s no invasion here, no plan to take over the planet, just individual greed, hubris, and tragedy on a smaller stage. Characters grow and change within the span of six episodes, and Holmes (also the series script editor) and veteran director David Maloney deploy the large cast with skill, slowly unveiling new plot dimensions without the audience being cheated or blindsided by sudden revelations. One even feels charitably inclined to overlook the dodgy giant rat. It’s a shame, then, about the blithe portrayal of the Chinese as a stereotyped other behind which a stranded time traveller works his malevolent plans.

A foggy Victorian night.

The historic verisimilitude of Victorian attitudes towards the Chinese notwithstanding (and, indeed, verisimilitude has often taken a back seat to dramatic necessity on Doctor Who), the overall treatment of the Chinese by the script feels at odds with the ethos of the series; the Silurians, the Ice Warriors, and even the Daleks have come in for more nuanced portrayals than the Chinese in “The Talons of Weng-Chiang,” with their supposed servility, fanaticism, and lack of individuality serving as plot points. Overbroad pastiches of Victorian England also feature prominently here, but the invocation of Cockney rhyming slang and overwrought fishwives is played for self-knowing humor rather than the slightly meaner presentation of the Chinese. To his credit, Holmes writes the Doctor as being above such beliefs. While not directly countering the prevailing attitudes, the Doctor does display an abiding respect for and interest in Chinese culture and language.

John Bennett as Li Hsen Chang

Casting John Bennett as the key character of Li Hsen Chang requires the use of extensive facial prosthetics, to the extent that the actor could not blink for fear of disrupting the heavy makeup; the overall effect is jarring and likely could have been avoided through casting an actor with a Chinese background. The casting seems stranger still given that many of the other Chinese characters are played by actors who seem to have such a background. This is not to take away from Bennett’s performance, which carries some depth of nobility amidst the stereotyped mannerisms and thick prosthetics, but rather to note that the casting, like the incessant stereotyping, creates an unpleasant dissonance in an otherwise engaging tale.

On the positive side, it does prevent one from spending too much time wondering why there’s an entire sub-plot devoted to giant rats in London’s sewers…
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Doctor Who Project: The Robots of Death

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Failure’s one of the basic freedoms.

Odds are good in Doctor Who that the robot did it. And if the robot is a butler, as in Chris Boucher’s “The Robots of Death” (Story Production Code 4R), then there’s no question who the murderer will be. Though the title sort of gives it away, too.

A robot of death (because of the red eyes)

Boucher’s second story, following “The Face of Evil” just prior, even manages the neat trick of keeping the real villain hidden until the third of four episodes, sadly with the unfortunate side effect that the events of the first three segments serve mostly as action-flavored filler.

After the Doctor gives Leela an impromptu lesson on trans-dimensional engineering, the TARDIS materializes inside an enormous ground vehicle, a sand miner crawling across a forbidding desert landscape in search of zelanite, a rare and valuable mineral. Staffed predominantly by robots, with a small, coddled human crew to oversee them, the miner has been trawling these wastes for eight mostly uneventful months, but the moment the TARDIS arrives, one of the human crew is murdered.

Robo-vision

There’s no mystery in it—veteran director Michael Briant films the attack from the robot’s blurry point of view. Given the establishing scenes of the crew discussing how utterly impossible it would be for a robot to harm a human, cribbing from Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, the story’s primary question becomes how the robot was able to kill one of the human crew. The violation of this prime directive would mean the end of their civilization, dependent as it is on robot labor for most of its functioning.

The hat makes the man

Boucher and the production team go to great lengths to sketch out a decadent human culture primarily concerned with the acquisition of wealth and prestige. Surrounded by opulence and art, the crew dons unwieldy headgear when performing their assigned tasks on this two year expedition, the symbols of their individual status and position never far from hand—or head. Even when alerted to a murder, the commander of the miner, Ulanov (Russell Hunter), insists that they continue pursuing a rich zelanite deposit before focusing on the fact that someone in their isolated environment has evil intent. He’d sooner return to base with full ore tanks than a full crew, and he almost gets his wish…

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Doctor Who Project: The Face of Evil

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On the other hand, I could be wrong about that.

While many stories feature the Doctor visiting a planet or people he has prior, off-screen knowledge of, far rarer are stories focusing on the Doctor returning to witness the aftermath of his interventions. The First Doctor story “The Ark” shows the direct cause-and-effect of his presence by taking the Doctor into the future of a setting he has just visited (and disrupted); while the Third Doctor visits Peladon over the course of two disconnected stories, the latter relying heavily for its plot twist on the events of the former. But Chris Boucher’s debut script, “The Face of Evil” (Story Production Code 4Q), posits an entire adventure for the Fourth Doctor that viewers have not seen, the outcome of which drives the events of the story on offer.

Have I been here before?

The strength of “The Face of Evil”—and indeed, it is the strongest story of Tom Baker’s reign to date—comes from the careful parcelling out of this “hidden” story about the mistake the Doctor made at some point in the past, a catastrophic error that resulted in generations of strife between the Tribe of Tesh and the Tribe of the Sevateem on this nameless planet. More interestingly, the Doctor himself doesn’t realize his past role in the proceedings until partway through the story, such that the sudden appearance of his face carved into a cliffside comes as a shock to him as well as to the viewer. This cliffhanger, shrouded as it is in genuine mystery, creates more tension than any end-of-episode monster revelation ever could.

A fine likeness.

Though Boucher slowly unveils the Doctor’s past mistake while simultaneously establishing two different factions in the Tesh and the Sevateem, he and director Pennant Roberts keep the story, rife as it is with exposition, moving quickly, a task aided by Louise Jameson’s introduction as Leela, the new companion. The first non-contemporary companion since Jamie and Zoe were returned to their worlds at the end of “The War Games,” Leela brings a much-needed spark to the series, representing as she does a different moral and ethical system. Very little conceptual daylight exists between the Third and Fourth Doctors and Liz, Jo, and Sarah Jane; they, and the audience, broadly see the world the same way as the Doctor(s), and any arguments between them hinge on philosophical nuances. By contrast, the Doctor here has to warn Leela to stop killing people as a matter of course.

Introducing Louise Jameson as Leela

As with the Second Doctor and Jamie, Leela’s non-technical background as a member of a hunter/gatherer tribe allows for more seamless exposition, giving the Doctor (and writers) a reason to avoid too much technobabble. But where Jamie at times seemed bored with the futuristically fantastical and eager to get on with the action, Leela comes across as curious, open-minded, and fearless; the story opens with her rejecting the orthodoxy of the Tribe of the Sevateem, denying the divinity of Xoanon and being banished as a result. Given the sartorial choices of the shaman who speaks for Xoanon, though, it’s not hard to understand her doubts…

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