Doctor Who Project: Snakedance

Tell me about the legend.

Surely a papier-mâché serpent would top the list of least-likely villains to return to Doctor Who, but after Omega’s less-than-star return in the prior story, one is hard pressed to be nonplussed at the return of the Mara in Christopher Bailey’s “Snakedance” (Story Production Code 6D), a direct sequel to the psychological slitherer’s first appearance in “Kinda” last season. If producer John Nathan-Turner and script editor Eric Saward are willing to scrounge around in the archives to find a long-lost character with no connection to the current regeneration, why not draw from the Fifth Doctor’s own, more recent past? The real shock comes in seeing how well Bailey and director Fiona Cumming, last entrusted with “Castrovalva,” handle this reptilian reprise.

The ritual representation of the Mara

Unlike other “blasts from the past” in the Fifth Doctor’s run to date, this conclusion to the Mara story stands well on its own, the prior events on the Kinda homeworld that saw Tegan posessed by this malevolent entity being efficiently alluded to without requiring either cryptic asides or elaborate explanations. In short order, the TARDIS lands on Manussa, guided there unwittingly by Tegan, who has been having nightmares about a serpent-mouthed cave entrance. Some quick exposition reveals that very cave to be the site where, precisely five hundred years earlier, the nascent Manussan Federation defeated (sort of) the Mara, under whose thrall the highly-advanced Sumaran Empire fell into degeneracy and decay. The original Federator put paid to the beast by means of the cobalt blue Great Crystal, and his descendants continue to rule Manussa to the present day, with the title soon to fall to the layabout Lon (Martin Clunes), who considers the Mara myth to be a bunch of discredited superstition that is interrupting his nap.

Martin Clunes as Lon

Aware that the Mara is both quite real and very much not destroyed, despite the best efforts of the ancient Federation—and his own swing-and-a-miss with the help of the Kinda—the Doctor whips up a device not unlike an early portable transistor radio to block out external sensations, theoretically allowing Tegan the mental concentration needed to keep control against the remnant of the creature that still lurks in her subconscious mind. But when he drags her and Nyssa out to find the cave, the resulting disorientation causes Tegan to flee. A friendly fortune teller helps her and removes the device in order to converse with her, allowing the Mara to emerge, its presence announced in a crystal ball…

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Doctor Who Project: Arc of Infinity

Not the most welcoming return.

Recurring foes have been a staple of Doctor Who since the Daleks first returned to invade Earth. Typically, though, the Doctor’s repeat nemeses share a certain simplicity of purpose—conquest, domination, revenge—that makes sense even to viewers who have never seen an Ogron or a Sontaran before, their power coming from their present menace as much as their past misdeeds. Not so with Johnny Byrne’s Season Twenty opener, “Arc of Infinity” (Story Production Code 6E), which digs deep into the archives to resurface a complicated villain who took not one but three different Doctors, at the same time, to defeat: Omega.

The Mighty Omega, anti-matter man!

Curiously, Byrne, producer John Nathan-Turner, and script editor Eric Saward never bother to clue viewers in to Omega’s backstory as the most tragic figure in Time Lord history, the ancient solar engineer who became trapped in an anti-matter dimension after triggering the supernova that powers all Gallifreyan time travel. His plans to wreak vengeance upon the Time Lords for abandoning him for millennia required the services of the First, Second, and Third Doctor to defeat, an effort that, supposedly, resulted in his final destruction in a second supernova (with which the Time Lords refilled their time travel tanks for another several thousand years). Without such knowledge, from “The Three Doctors,” which aired some ten years earlier in late 1972 and early 1973—albeit with a rare repeat in late 1981—much of the story of “Arc of Infinity” lacks significance or importance, rendering Omega (Ian Collier) just another in a long line of megalomaniacal madmen in an ill-fitting latex costume and with a litany of ill-defined greivances.

Councillor Hedin (Michael Gough)

Lacking this understanding of Omega’s role in the annals of the Time Lords, it becomes difficult to comprehend why Councillor Hedin (Michael Gough), a member of the High Council of the Time Lords and an old friend of the Doctor, would offer up the Doctor’s “bio-data extract” to Omega, knowing full well that the following chain of events would put the Doctor in great danger. Though Hedin, who wears the orange of the Doctor’s own Prydonian Chapter of Time Lords, exclaims to Omega, “What we are, we owe to you,” such reverence offers thin justification for the acts of treachery he carries out in order to help Omega transfer his being from a state of anti-matter to matter, even if one recalls the minutia of “The Three Doctors.”

Byrne never fleshes out this motivation on Hedin’s part, but he does find time to intercut this taut, tense tale of Time Lord treason with the drawn-out travails of two hitchhikers, Robin Stuart (Andrew Boxer) and Colin Frazer (Alastair Cumming) who decide to sleep rough in an Amsterdam crypt…

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Doctor Who Project: Time-Flight

I’ve never heard such an extravagant explanation.

Never let it be said that Doctor Who skimps on season ending stories. For “Time-Flight” (Story Production Code 6C), Peter Grimwade’s Season Nineteen finale, the BBC combines the best of British science fiction with the best of British (fine, Anglo-French) engineering by filming in and around the Concorde. John Nathan-Turner even manages to get permission for Grimwade to put British Airways’ very expensive and prestigious airplane in jeopardy, with not one but two separate supersonic transports disappearing on approach to Heathrow. Try getting a major carrier to allow its livery in even the most benign piece of fiction nowadays.

Two time-trapped Concordes

In keeping with producer Nathan-Turner and script editor Eric Saward’s devotion to continuity, we find the Doctor, Tegan, and Nyssa still in shock over Adric’s demise, with the Doctor adamant that he cannot revisit his own history to undo the young Alzarian’s death. As a peace offering, the Doctor offers to cheer everyone up with a quick visit to the Crystal Palace in 1851 for the Great Exhibition, as one does, only to find the TARDIS on a collision course with another object in time and space. After an emergency materialzation, the TARDIS appears over a runway at Heathrow in the present day (so, roughly 1982) before the Doctor “parks” the blue box in an observation overlook in Terminal One, which of course attracts some slight attention. The Doctor pops out to get a paper to check the cricket scores before being confronted by the authorities as a crestfallen Nyssa and Tegan look on.

The TARDIS in Terminal One, Heathrow

Unlike the Doctor’s last impromptu visit to an airport, “The Faceless Ones,” the Fifth Doctor now has bureaucratic contacts of his own to call upon, and he shamelessly name drops UNIT and Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, a pleasant call-back to a once-important feature of the series and and also a very convenient means of involving the Doctor in the disappearance of Concorde. Indeed, absent Whitehall’s imprimatur, Grimwade would have needed to put the Doctor through a convoluted series of hoops—well, more convoluted, at any rate—in order to have him, Nyssa, Tegan, and the TARDIS as passengers on another Concorde flying the same descent approach as the missing plane into Heathrow, just to test a theory.

Cramped Concorde Cockpit, with Peter Davison as the Fifth Doctor, Richard Easton as Captain Stapley, Keith Drinkel as Flight Engineer Scobie, and Michael Cashman as First Officer Bilton

Which is not to say that Grimwade and director Ron Jones don’t take their sweet time making anything actually happen in this four episode story. Having gained access to Heathrow and Concorde, the BBC take full advantage. Several scenes occur in the cramped cockpit, with the flight crew of the second jet (Richard Easton as Captain Stapley, Keith Drinkel as Flight Engineer Scobie, and Michael Cashman as First Officer Bilton) occupying nearly as much screen time as the Doctor and companions, calling out checklists and repeating radio instructions, while the plane itself, on a side tarmac on a snowy London day, features in plenty of glamour shots as our time travellers climb the long stairs to the entry.

Concorde Glamour Shot

Sure enough, the second Concorde disappears off the radar scope just like the first one, confirming the Doctor’s suspicion that a “time warp” exists over the approach path to Heathrow. But despite the TARDIS registering a temporal displacement some one hundred and forty million years into the past, Stapley lands the Concorde right back at Heathrow, parking where they started. (British Airways wasn’t going to actually move the plane for Doctor Who.) Or so it seems.

Michael Cashman as First Officer Bilton, Richard Easton as Captain Stapley, Keith Drinkel as Flight Engineer Scobie, and Sarah Sutton as Nyssa

The Doctor feels something is wrong, and once everyone disembarks down a ladder that miraculously appears next to the airplane, Nyssa pierces the illusory veil. All around, nothing but rocks, as befits the Earth over a hundred million years prior, and, curiously, a wrecked spaceship and a lone stone building, quite out of place indeed. They have been tricked by a hallucination powerful enough to have momentarily affected even the Doctor, caused by a most unlikely foe…

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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…

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Doctor Who Project: Black Orchid

Why didn’t I leave after the cricket?

The TARDIS may be bigger on the inside than on the outside, but the typical Doctor Who story is larger still: worlds warring, cultures collapsing, aliens attacking, universes unravelling. Terence Dudley’s “Black Orchid” (Story Production Code 6A) shrinks that scope to the quotidian, presenting a simple two episode murder mystery with little on the line except the Doctor’s own fate, and in doing so, produces a tale grander than the usual galaxy-spanning fare. The actors, both guest stars and regular cast, take precedence over special effects and fantastical plotting. While most of Doctor Who‘s best stories are ones that it alone could tell, this noteworthy outing for the Fifth Doctor succeeds because it practically ignores everything unique about Doctor Who—except for the characters themselves.

The Fifth Doctor and Companions at a railway station

After a disorienting opening sequence showing a violent strangulation, then someone who looks very much like Nyssa turning over in bed, then an indigenous South American with a lip plate reading a book, the TARDIS lands on the platform of a railway station in the English countryside on June 11, 1925, where the Doctor is, apparently, urgently expected by Lord Cranleigh (Michael Cochrane). Before the Doctor and companions can catch their breath—to say nothing of the audience—they are whisked away to Cranleigh Manor in a stately green Rolls Royce.

The Fifth Doctor greets Lord Cranleigh

The initial establishment of the Fifth Doctor as a cricketer in “Castrovalva” pays off here, as Cranleigh needs the Doctor to both bat and bowl in the charity game held in conjunction with the annual fancy dress ball given for a local hospital. And bat and bowl he can, hitting frequently for six and taking several wickets to win the game. Director Ron Jones fully utilizes the location shooting to display Peter Davison’s own cricket skills in a loving montage that stretches nearly five minutes, a fair allocation given that the full runtime of the story is under an hour.

Peter Davision as the Fifth Doctor, getting ready to bat

But it is this attention to detail, to a deliberate development of the setting and character, that sets “Black Orchid” apart from the usual Doctor Who story. We see the Doctor reveling in a passion that has, ultimately, nothing to do with the outcome of the story, and yet it is not just a throw-away segment. Dudley draws upon the series’ larger scope, its vast store of lore, by having the local constable, Sir Robert Muir (Moray Watson) give both the Doctor and the audience a momentary pause:

Sir Robert: “A superb innings, worthy of the master.”

Fifth Doctor: “The Master?”

Sir Robert: “Well, the other doctor.”

The reference, ultimately, is to renowned cricketer W.G. Grace, known occasionally as “the Doctor” himself, but the brief possibility that the Master, or more intriguingly another Time Lord, is somehow involved creates a resonance that never quite goes away. Was this a knowing aside, a hint at the true culprit behind the opening murder? Has the Master summoned the Doctor to break his duck?…

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Doctor Who Project: The Visitation

So much for my friendly aliens.

Even though Eric Saward’s “The Visitation” (Story Production Code 5X) is the second story filmed in the Season Nineteen production block, the character development of the Fifth Doctor and his companions keenly reflects the story’s place as Peter Davison’s fourth televised outing. Typically this tight adherence to the subtle growth of the Doctor’s personality and his relationship with his companions would need to be added in by the production team, but here the snarls and smiles and subtle asides feel organic, integral to the four episodes of this story as well as to the overall trajectory of the Fifth Doctor as a whole, leaving little wonder why Saward would soon take on the script editor role for the series. Though current editor Anthony Root and producer John Nathan-Turner doubtless tinkered with the final script, “The Visitation” demonstrates how a keen familiarity with the overall vision of the series and its often convoluted continuity can take a decent story and elevate it into something even better.

The Fifth Doctor and Companions at Heathrow, 1666

Part of the strength of “The Visitation” comes from a commitment to the “through narrative,” the connecting bits of dialogue that refer to, and indeed build upon, events that took place in prior stories. While not quite as explicit as a formal “arc” as with Season Sixteen’s “Key to Time” stories, this through narrative rewards consistent viewers, albeit at the cost of confusing more casual audience members who might not know why Tegan is still disturbed by thoughts of the Mara or why the Doctor is constantly trying to get back to Heathrow Airport on a very particular day in 1981. Rather than being lore callbacks of a kind to delight people with encyclopedic knowledge of Doctor Who, as prevalently found in Seasons Seventeen and Eighteen, these connecting threads instead ground viewers in these particular characters, providing depth and familiarity as well as a sense that the Doctor’s adventures are interconnected.

The Terileptil's Android

The Doctor does manage to get back to Heathrow as “The Visitation” begins, though in 1666 rather than 1981, a slight error in calculation that puts him, Tegan, Nyssa, and Adric in the vicinity of a manor house that was the scene of a break-in of interstellar proportions. Saward and returning director Peter Moffatt reveal the “monster” in the first five minutes of the first episode, rather than employing the more common first cliffhanger revelation, bursting a brightly colored android (Peter van Dissel) through a drawing room door, where it is met by a fusillade of bullets from the soon-to-be-doomed householders. It’s a clever bit of misdirection, as the real foes of the story, the reptilian Terileptils, appear only midway through the second episode.

A fugitive Terileptil

Fugitives from the justice of their own ruthless kind, the three Terileptils, survivors of a prison ship that exploded in Earth’s atmosphere, plan to rid the planet of its pesky human populace by releasing rats infected with an amplified, bioengineered version of the plague already ravaging Europe at the time. One Terileptil in particular (Michael Melia) remains behind at the manor house perfecting the plague, using villagers, subdued by the same prisoner control bracelets that recently held him and his fellow convicts in check, as a workforce. As far as Doctor Who villain motivations and plans for conquering Earth, it’s pretty run-of-the-mill, but the joy of this story comes not so much from the spectacle of a scaly green alien thundering about in high dudgeon as from the juxtaposition of high tech in a low tech environment that Doctor Who depicts better than any other show, embodied in the person of a jocular thespian (and, yes, occasional highwayman), Richard Mace (Michael Robbins), who all but steals the stage…

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