Fourteen Found: Ncuti Gatwa is the Fourteenth Doctor

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Fresh regeneration news today from Gallifrey (and, er, the BBC), with the announcement that Ncuti Gatwa will take on the role of the Fourteenth Doctor.

As is now tradition with new Doctors, I find myself unaware of Gatwa’s prior work, which says more about my media consumption habits than his CV. His background seems to be in comedy, having starred most recently in the Netflix series Sex Education. It strikes me that very few Doctor Who leads have worked mostly on the comedic side prior to assuming the role. The part of the Doctor definitely requires a light, comedic touch at times, particularly with Russell T. Davies taking the series helm once more, so hopefully he’ll have scripts that play to his strengths there while staying true to the Doctor’s inherently serious mien.

Much like Matt Smith, Gatwa looks to be on the young side for the role, but he’s roughly as old as Peter Davison was upon taking the part of the Fifth Doctor, and Davison’s take on the part was anything but callow. If there’s one thing the BBC knows how to do, it’s casting, so I’m confident that Gatwa’s run on Doctor Who will add something new and interesting to the continuing lore of the series.

It must, of course, be noted that Gatwa will be the first person of color to lead the show, which is nearing its sixtieth anniversary. He is not the first person of color to play the Doctor, that title going to Jo Martin’s Fugitive Doctor, who debuted during Jodie Whittaker’s run as a previously unknown regeneration and fits in somewhere around the First Doctor’s timeline (as best anyone can tell). As with Whittaker’s expansion of the role’s possibilities, Gatwa’s appointment gives credence to the core conceit of the series, that the Doctor can be anyone via the magic of regeneration, and I look forward to following the Fourteenth Doctor’s adventures.

Doctor Who Project: The Keeper of Traken

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Don’t listen to me. I never do.

By the time Johnny Byrne’s “The Keeper of Traken” (Story Production Code 5T) airs, recurring antagonists no longer appear on Doctor Who with distressing inevitability, unlike earlier years when the Daleks were penciled in for at least one appearance per season and the Cybermen would fill in as needed. Producers Phillip Hinchcliffe and Graham Williams avoid old home week quite admirably during their tenures from Seasons Thirteen through Seventeen, bringing back only the Sontarans, the Daleks, and the Master from the Doctor’s dusty rogues’ gallery, and then only once each, the better to heighten their impact on the screen. In their stead, the Fourth Doctor faces fresh foes and new challenges aplenty, making Tom Baker’s run one of constant wonder and surprise.

Adric and the Fourth Doctor conversing with the Keeper of Traken

Thus, at the start of the four episode story, as the Doctor and Adric confront the wizened form of the Keeper of Traken (Denis Carey), an amazingly powerful being capable of breaching the TARDIS thanks to the power of the Source, the audience expects another foray into the unknown. With the Keeper harnessing the Source, a quasi-mystical and ill-defined energy (not unlike the equally inexplicable Dodecahedron in “Meglos“), the Traken Union stands as a paragon of peace and tranquility, such that any evil being setting foot there calcifies and turns, slowly, to stone. This fate befalls the Melkur (Geoffrey Beevers), an ominous living statue that the Keeper warns the Doctor about while seeking the Time Lord’s help to prevent the Source from falling into malign hands.

The enigmatic Melkur

Byrne, who cut his writing chops on Space: 1999, slowly and subtly introduces the real force behind the Melkur. In keeping with new producer John Nathan-Turner and new script editor Christopher H. Bidmead’s focus on rewarding long-time viewers, Byrne and director John Black dole out just enough hints in Episodes Two and Three for audience members steeped in series lore to realize that the Melkur is in fact a TARDIS belonging to none other than the Master, well before the renegade Time Lord’s presence explicitly manifests in the last ten minutes of the final episode.

The view from inside the Master's Melkur TARDIS

Sadly, the impact of the Master’s return fizzles out by waiting so long to reveal him. His motivations receive short shrift indeed, boiling down to the Master’s de rigeur desire for conquest, revenge, and another regeneration. Far from matching wits with the Doctor, as in the finest battles between Jon Pertwee and the late Roger Delgado, the Master here simply waits in his moss-covered TARDIS, cackling occasionally and taking action only through others by dominating them mentally, such that the most dangerous figure for much of the story is an officious guard captain with an eye for a bribe…
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Doctor Who Project: Warriors’ Gate

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Do nothing, if it’s the right sort of nothing.

Where Terrance Dicks’ “State of Decay” suffers from too much exposition, first-time series writer Steve Gallagher’s “Warriors’ Gate” (Story Production Code 5S) leans in the opposite direction, doling out information in penny packets and leaving the audience confused through to the very end of the four episode story. As the final part of the “E-Space Trilogy,” which sees the Fourth Doctor attempting to get back to his own universe, “Warriors’ Gate” focuses very specifically on the predicament in a way the earlier stories in the mini-arc only obliquely touch upon. The demands placed on the narrative further intensify given that Romana and K-9 both leave the series at the conclusion of the tale, posing quite a task for an established script writer, to say nothing of a newcomer to the show. While both strands resolve sufficiently, the overall impression by the story’s close is one of sheer befuddlement.

The TARDIS crew trapped between dimensions (or something)

The entirety of the story takes place in an intermediate time and space dimension, a gateway between E-Space and N-Space (the “normal” universe), a blank white canvas that immediately calls to mind the “nothingness” that so frightened the Second Doctor in “The Mind Robber.” The Fourth Doctor is more sanguine about the trapped predicament he, Romana, K-9, and Adric find themselves in, even after “time winds” smash open the TARDIS doors, allowing a furry humanoid to burst in and set the coordinates all to zero—the intersection between E-Space and N-Space.

Biroc the Tharil (David Weston) on the loose in the TARDIS

The humanoid, a Tharil named Biroc (David Weston), has escaped from a spaceship crewed by humans from an indeterminate era and background, though their mannerisms and colloquialisms suggest they’re originally from Earth, like pretty much every human civilization encountered in the series. These humans, commanded by Captain Rorvik (Clifford Rose), use the Tharils as navigators for their ship, employing their time sensitivity to enable them to plot a safe course through time and space. Far from a mutually beneficial relationship, humans enslave the Tharils for this purpose, apparently journeying into E-Space, whence Tharils originate, on slaving expeditions.

Captain Rorvik (Clifford Rose) and crew

Rorvik’s ship, filled with a cargo of Tharil slaves in suspended animation, has, somehow, also been stranded in the intermediate zone, ostensibly because Biroc guided it there in a bid for freedom. Along with the narrative uncertainty, director Paul Joyce’s adds visual discomfort through his incessant use of jerky, stuttering, stop-start filming to portray moments of time shifting and phasing. Though a clever approach, the excessive use of the technique leads to an unpleasant viewing experience, particularly in the first episode where several minutes are filmed in this manner.

Romana and the Fourth Doctor, slightly out of phase

Tonally as well, “Warriors’ Gate” shifts around, moving not just from the serious to the silly but from the present to the past, and this aspect of the story adds interest and moves the plot forward. Along with the “futuristic” spaceship (bearing a passing resemblance to the one from “Meglos“) and the TARDIS, the scruffy all-white wasteland of the intermediate dimension also houses an elaborate stone castle gate, inside of which the Doctor finds a decaying feast hall, festooned with cobwebs, skeletons, dusty mirrors, and suits of armor that, inevitably, come to life…
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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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