Doctor Who Project: State of Decay

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Well, I’ve never been a great one for swarming.

For all the monsters and notionally scary moments and themes in Doctor Who, the series seldom veers into out-and-out horror. When it does, however, former script editor Terrance Dicks is usually the writer. His “State of Decay” (Series Production Code 5P) draws heavily on the trappings of Hammer horror to present a tale of ancient space vampires, visually evoking Christopher Lee’s turns as Dracula, but the resulting story winds up casting the bloodsuckers as toothless caricatures instead of fang-some foes, about as frightening as the glowing green goopy Rutan in Dicks’ last offering, “Horror of Fang Rock.”

King Zargo (William Lindsay) and Queen Camilla (Rachel Davies) Resting

The four episode story begins with much promise, even if it does retread ground from “Full Circle” in presenting a society that devolved from a crashed spaceship generations earlier. Trying to find a way out of E-Space, that sparsely populated alternate universe the TARDIS accidentally entered in the prior story, our Time Lords (plus stowaway) land on an unnamed planet with evidence of both high technology and minimal energy output, all focused around a tower and a village. The rulers of the planet, King Zargo (William Lindsay) and Queen Camilla (Rachel Davies), exert complete control over the small rural populace, aided by their councillor, Aukon (Emrys James). Festooned with elaborate facial makeup, the three Lords exert a strange power over their people. Throw in a prohibition on any form of knowledge amongst the peasantry that is quickly subverted when one villager surreptitiously pulls out a radio communicator, and a real sense of mystery begins to unfold.

The Fourth Doctor explains how to use a computer

Horror, after all, relies on a slow drip of fear and uncertainty, and Doctor Who‘s tendency to gradually unveil the monster or threat fits that model nicely, but the first two episodes give themselves over to broad exposition instead, diluting any tension the setting has developed. Dicks takes pains to establish the social structure, with peasants being selected regularly to go to the Tower, where the lucky become guards—and the unlucky are never seen again. In due course, the Fourth Doctor and Romana are captured by rebels who have discovered some technology, leading the Doctor to unpack the origins of the civilization on an ancient computer monitor: an exploratory spaceship from 1990s Earth that was pulled into E-Space over a thousand years prior.

Crew Roster of the Hydrax

The leaders of that spaceship—Captain Sharkey, Navigator MacMillan, and Science Officer O’Connor—look remarkably like Zargo, Camilla, and Aukon, and rather than some grand revelation that they are one and the same, alive for a thousand years as the living dead, the Doctor and Romana instead take a few minutes to discuss folklorist Jacob Grimm’s theory of consonantal shift and theorize that the name MacMillan softened over time to become Camilla and so on. Sociolinguistics, in a vampire story. Though fascinating in a real sense, it’s only marginally less exciting than the Adric trying, and failing, to steal food again…
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Doctor Who Project: Full Circle

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I think I pulled the wrong lever.

By the time “Full Circle” (Story Production Code 5R) first aired in late 1980, Doctor Who had been on the air for nearly seventeen years, enough time for a generation that grew up with the show to start participating in its creation. First time writer Andrew Smith (scarcely 18 at the time) and Matthew Waterhouse (nearly 19), as new companion Adric, both fit into this category, bringing an infusion of youthful, fannish vigor that dovetails with producer John Nathan Turner’s frenetic new vision for the series. The resulting four episode tale, however, with its copious technobabble, extended scenes in a laboratory, establishment of a multi-story plot line, and overall lack of an “actual” villain, feels more like an early Third Doctor tale than a late Fourth Doctor tale—and that’s not a bad thing.

The Fourth Doctor and Romana on Alzarius

The Doctor has always been a scientist at heart; for all the complaints about the Sonic Screwdriver and K-9 serving as easy plot devices to get our heroes out of any quandary, his inexhaustible store of technical and scientific knowledge saves the day far more often than the random contents of his pockets. Jon Pertwee’s Third Doctor leans into this aspect of the Doctor more than any other, so to have Tom Baker’s action-focused Fourth Doctor resolve a story’s basic conundrum by peering into a microscope rather than reversing a generator’s polarity or tricking a callow warlord into blowing up his own base provides a very refreshing callback, reflective, possibly, of Andrew Smith’s own experience of the Third Doctor’s exploits. At the very least, it’s reasonable to assume that he had seen far more Doctor Who than almost any other writer for the series.

The Fourth Doctor doing the science

“Full Circle” fits firmly that sub-genre of Doctor Who stories where the “monster” is just misunderstood, where blind obedience to an unthinking system serves as the real foe, and, crucially, where the resolution of the problem on offer is to realize it’s not actually a problem to be solved at all. Such stories require a deft hand at world-building and a nuanced approach to the various factions working at cross purposes, traits not often associated with John Nathan-Turner era stories, and the final product features far more running around corridors and incessant action sequences of stunt-men in latex suits flailing away with sticks than, say, “Doctor Who and the Silurians,” “The Ark,” or “The Massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Eve,” all of which inform “Full Circle,” even if at something of a remove. The core concept is there, though, of the Doctor seeing through surface level appearances, coming to understand the multi-generational cycle at work, and realizing the possible extents of co-existence; the best, and sometimes only, solution is to leave well enough alone, or failing that, to just leave.

The TARDIS passing through the charged vacuum emboitement

The Doctor and Romana are themselves stuck, unable to leave E-Space, a problem that will persist for several stories running and form a loose through-line. The TARDIS arrives, confusingly, on the planet Alzarius instead of Gallifrey after encountering some space-time turbulence. The coordinates are correct for the Time Lords’ home planet—10-0-11-0-0 by 0-2—but they are negative coordinates instead of positive coordinates, an impossibility that can only be explained by the TARDIS having passed through a “charged vacuum emboitement” that pushed it into an Exo Space-Time Continuum. So instead of returning Romana to Gallifrey, whence she was summoned at the end of “Meglos,” they find themselves in a completely different universe, right at the pivotal point where a precocious maths student is about to purloin precious river fruit…

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Doctor Who Project: Meglos

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That could have been me.

If “The Leisure Hive” signals new producer John Nathan-Turner’s intention to change Doctor Who into a snappier and more modern show, “Meglos” (Series Production Code 5Q), by series newcomers John Flanagan and Andrew McCulloch, takes the transformation to its logical extreme, nearly writing the Doctor out of his own series. By the time filming commenced on “Meglos,” out of broadcast order mid-way through the Season Eighteen production block, Tom Baker’s departure was all but confirmed, and though the shocking lack of focus on the Doctor in the story was likely coincidental, given the neophytes behind the script, it demonstrates Nathan-Turner comfortability sweeping away as much of his predecessors’ legacy as possible, star included.

Which is not to say that “Meglos” lacks focus on Tom Baker, who gets to play both the Fourth Doctor and a cactus.

My name is Meglos!

Indeed, it is Baker’s double billing as the Doctor and as the title character, Meglos, the last survivor of the desert planet Zolfa-Thura (and, yes, a cactus), that enables him to claim as much of the screen as he does against a wide range of guest stars who hold court in their own right, most notably Jacqueline Hill, returning to Doctor Who some fifteen years after last appearance as Barbara in “The Chase.” She features as Lexa, high priestess of Ti, who oversees the Dodecahedron, a mysterious twelve-sided stone worshipped by the Tigellans living beneath the surface of their planet, located in the same solar system as Zolfa-Thura.

Jacqueline Hill as Lexa

The Dodecahedron serves as the MacGuffin in the story, a boulder-sized polyhedron of unknown provenance providing all the energy needed to maintain the underground city. The Tigellan Savants harness its power but are not allowed to examine it, as the servants of Ti believe it to be a gift from their god. Its energy output has been fluctuating, though, so Zastor (Edward Underdown), the nominal leader of Tigella, invites the Doctor—conveniently an old friend who just happens to be in the right spatial and temporal neighborhood—to help solve the problem.

Meglos-Doctor and the Dodecahedron

Simultaneously, Meglos has summoned a band of interstellar freebooters led by General Grugger (Bill Fraser) and Lieutenant Brotadac (Frederick Treves) to his lair beneath the Screens of Zolfa-Thura, a set of pentagonal metal barriers that are the sole surviving structures on the long-abandoned planet. They have been tasked with providing an “earthling” (Christopher Owen) for the cactus to transfer his essence into, legs apparently providing more mobility than a planter. Armed with appendages, Meglos sets about with his real goal of purloining the Dodecahedron, which turns out to be a power source created on Zolfa-Thura some ten thousand years prior and capable of producing enough energy to vaporize planets when properly harnessed. And to gain access to the Tigellan city, all Meglos needs to do is get the real Doctor out of the way and impersonate him, assuming no one notices the spines…
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Doctor Who Project: The Leisure Hive

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Well, I can’t get everything right.

For a series built around the conceit of change, by Season Eighteen Doctor Who hadn’t changed much in a very long time. Tom Baker took on the Doctor’s scarf—er, mantle—in Season Twelve, some five and a half years prior, and while the stories and direction undoubtedly bent towards the star’s predilections for humor and action, a shared thread of narrative and visual style linked the Fourth Doctor’s stories with those of his predecessors. John Nathan-Turner, taking over as producer from Graham Williams, a veteran of three seasons himself, turns David Fisher’s “The Leisure Hive” (Story Production Code 5N) into his declaration of intent to bring about as much change in the series as any regeneration of title character ever could.

K-9 Explodes

From the very beginning, nothing about “The Leisure Hive” feels familiar, with a new title sequence and a new title theme causing immediate dissonance: bright, twangy electronic music accompanying the Doctor’s face forming from a field of stars in a bold declaration of newness. Director Lovett Bickford, in his only work for the series, opens with a long tracking shot of a deserted Brighton beach, an ominous gust whipping empty beach chairs and threatening to blow over canvas cabanas. It’s moody and eerie, leading to a bit of a shock when the TARDIS appears amidst the abandoned beach accessories. And then K-9 explodes because Romana gets huffy with him. Nope, this is not Season Seventeen, nor indeed Doctor Who as it has been presented before.

A fanciful dissolve

From that windswept beach, the setting changes—by means of an elaborate dissolve intended to be appreciated on its own rather than as a transitional technique in the background—to the planet Argolis, wracked by radiation after a war that lasted twenty minutes. The remaining few Argolins, rendered sterile by the cataclysm, have set up the Leisure Hive, a recreational resort dedicated not just to entertainment but to fostering an understanding between peoples, so that conflicts can be avoided in the future. The chief draw of the site comes from their burgeoning work with tachyonics, used here as shorthand for the manipulation and reduplication of physical objects from tachyon particles. It’s still technobabble, but with at least a patina of scientific backing.

The Fourth Doctor and Romana seem unsure about this lecture on tachyonics.

The Doctor and Romana arrive on Argolis in search of some leisure time themselves, the Doctor deciding to forego use of the Randomizer circuit installed at the end of Season Sixteen to prevent the Black Guardian from tracking them. While the Randomizer does play a further role in the story, it’s a good example of how Nathan-Turner intends to make frequent use of the series’ back history; now it’s not just fans who remember what happened in episode 4G, it’s the producer, too, and if there’s an oblique reference to be made, or a canonical conflict to be explained away, he’ll do it, rather than letting it slide as past producers might. The story’s action is likewise very specifically dated, to 2290, a start at ironing out, or at least restarting, a wildly conflicting timeline once and for all.

Zero Gravity Squash

It’s not too much of a stretch to suggest that good portions of the story’s action are inspired by the new technology available to the BBC effects department, in particular video editing tools that enable flashy dissolves like that seen at the start as well as more seamless color separation overlay scenes and the ability to separate parts of a moving image on screen. Indeed, without this ability, the concept of tachyonic object manipulation would have required extensive, and likely unsuccessful, model work. Here, in addition to demonstrating zero-gravity squash, it’s used for a particularly frightful cliffhanger, with the Doctor torn, limb from limb, as he screams in agony…
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Doctor Who Project: Shada

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Excuse the muddle. Creative disarray, you know.

Modern viewers of Doctor Who breathe a sigh of relief when they reach the Jon Pertwee era, if only because the Third Doctor’s run marks the end of the “missing episodes” that plagued Hartnell and Troughton’s time as the Doctor. It’s all there on film, every moment of the Third through the Eighth Doctor’s exploits. Except, that is, for Douglas Adams’ “Shada” (Story Production Code 5M), the six-part finale for Season Seventeen that was partially filmed but never completed or broadcast due to industrial action at the BBC.

All the story’s location shooting in and around Cambridge had taken place and the first of three studio sessions was in the proverbial can when a strike stopped all filming. The knock-on effects of multiple shows scrambling for studio space and technical crews once work resumed clearly revealed Doctor Who‘s place in the BBC hierarchy at the time: dead last. Other shows received preference for scarce resources, and the decision was ultimately made to cancel the production entirely rather than spend money storing props and sets and keeping options on actors with other jobs to get on with.

Punting the Cam

As the swan song for both producer Graham Williams and writer and script editor Douglas Adams, “Shada” would have been quite an achievement on the strength of the extant footage alone: between an inventive (if slightly incomprehensible) story and a superlative guest cast, this tale about a secret Time Lord prison and a megalomaniacal scheme to absorb every mind in the universe into one giant consciousness hints at being as good as anything in Season Seventeen, and potentially one of the best stories in the series to date. To that end, several efforts were made to complete “Shada,” including a version in 1992 with linking narration by Tom Baker between existing footage, an audio play in 2003 (with Paul McGann’s Eight Doctor subbing in for Baker’s Fourth Doctor), and a full animated reconstruction of the unfilmed scenes in 2017 featuring the original cast, which forms the fullest version of the story.

An animated K-9!

“Shada” sets up in Cambridge, where the Doctor’s old friend and fellow Time Lord, Professor Chronotis (Denis Carey), keeps quarters at (fictional) St. Cedd’s College. Despite having a name even Terry Nation might have blanched at, Chronotis possesses a warmth in his bumbling absent-mindedness, suggesting both age and wisdom in equal measure and played brilliantly by Carey, who gamely takes on all of Adams’ dialogue. He invites a junior teacher, Chris Parsons (Daniel Hill), to borrow several books, one of which just happens to be radioactive, capable of reversing time, and allows access to the long-forgotten prison of the Time Lords—Shada. Worse still, the book is being sought by the evil mastermind Skagra (Christopher Neame), who strides out of his invisible spaceship in his disco best, with a carpet bag full of voices. (Yes, this was made in 1979, in case there were any doubt…)
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Doctor Who Project: The Horns of Nimon

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Oh, well, people often don’t know what you’re talking about.

Anthony Read began his tenure on Doctor Who as script editor for “Underworld,” a dismal retelling of the myth of Jason and the Argonauts and possibly the worst story of the Fourth Doctor’s entire run. Fitting, then, that he would make his last contribution to the series by writing another mythological story, “The Horns of Nimon” (Story Production Code 5L), that shows just how well legendary fables can be repurposed into futuristic tales. The trick, it turns out, is to be blatantly obvious about the borrowing, letting the audience in on the secret from the beginning.

Beware the Nimon!

Read signposts his recounting of Theseus and the Minotaur by simply scrambling letters in proper names, opening proceedings in this four episode story on a decrepit spaceship bound for Skonnos (cf. Knossos, primary city of the ancient Minoan culture on Crete), bearing human sacrifices from the defeated planet Aneth (cf. Athens). The tributes are to be handed over to the Nimon, who, yes, just happens to be a horned creature, half-bull and half-human, better known as the Minotaur. To be fair, Read builds the layers up slowly, so that the audience feels clever at recognizing the allusions and noticing the parallels before they become so explicit as to be painfully obvious.

Jury-rigging the TARDIS

The Doctor, meanwhile, has disassembled the TARDIS control console, preventing the blue box from dematerializing or putting up defense shields, helping set up a chance collision with the Skonnon spaceship. Both craft are caught in the pull of a nascent black hole, and they come close enough that the Doctor is able to create a passage between them. There they discover the tributes from Aneth, seven young people in golden yellow jump suits, one auspiciously named Seth (Simon Gipps-Kent). (In the original telling, Athens regularly provided Minos with seven boys and seven girls to be sacrificed to the Minotaur, and the hero Theseus—Seth—took the place of one of the youths in order to defeat the monster. Having fourteen tributes here might have taxed the guest cast budget.)

Seth (Simon Gipps-Kent) and Romana (Lalla Ward)

Doctor Who seldom deviates from the pattern where the Doctor prevails at the end; one needs to go back as far as the Third Doctor’s inaugural season, with “Doctor Who and the Silurians,” for an example of the Doctor unequivocally failing, though “Horror of Fang Rock” comes close. The journey, the telling, then, becomes more important than the outcome, so the fact that we know Seth will “slay” the Nimon in keeping with the underlying myth adds to, rather than detracts from, the narrative experience. It’s not a spoiler if you already know it’s supposed to happen.

The mythology provides coloring for the characters here, unlike in “Underworld” where the Jason and the Argonauts story yields narrative structure but not any detail or nuance. Still, one could be forgiven for having trouble recognizing that Soldeed (Graham Crowden), the sole scientist on Skonnos, is an analogue for Daedalus, if only because the generally accepted concept of that old artificer does not include manic laughter and overacting sufficient to make even Tom Baker blush…
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