Doctor Who Project: The Krotons

Doctor Who Project: The Krotons
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No one goes into the wasteland.

Imagine a warship, piloted by crystalline life-forms, that runs out of energy on a planet populated by a mentally undeveloped species. Because their ship is powered by mental energy, the crystalline life-forms must raise that primitive society to high intelligence over thousands of years in order to find suitable candidates to plug into the engine. Sounds smashing and just a bit sinister, yes? Well, not the Doctor Who version of the story, Robert Holmes’ “The Krotons” (Story Production Code WW).

Despite the relative strength of the concept, “The Krotons” just falls a bit flat in almost all aspects, from the uninspired design of the malevolent Krotons themselves through to the weak characterizations of the native Gonds and their internecine politics. Thrown in a bit of Keystone Kops near-misses between Zoe and the Doctor on one hand and Jamie on the other and the result is a workmanlike yet unremarkable four episode story that nevertheless hews to the overarching theme of the Second Doctor’s tenure: the importance of thinking for oneself rather than letting a machine do it for you.

Looks like (acid) rain.

The story starts agreeably enough, with the Doctor, Zoe, and Jamie arriving on a planet with two suns, necessitating the deployment of the Doctor’s “favorite umbrella” to ward off the heat. The TARDIS lands in a malodorous area of high sulfur content and interesting mineral deposits such as mica and tellurium, allowing the Doctor and Zoe to banter a bit about chemical compositions. And, pleasantly, it’s all foreshadowing, because the particular minerals play directly into the plot’s resolution. For, you see, if you know enough chemistry, you know that tellurium, from which the Krotons’ organic spaceship is conveniently made, is soluble in sulfuric acid, which the Doctor knows how to manufacture from the rocks at hand. It’s fairly clear how this one will end…

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Doctor Who Project: The Invasion

Doctor Who Project: The Invasion
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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.

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Doctor Who Project: The Mind Robber

Doctor Who Project: The Mind Robber
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I have yet to see a robot that can climb.

Just when you thought you knew what was coming next on Doctor Who, the series proves it can still deliver surprises at tea time. Looking beyond the normal stable of writers—and the normal monster-and-threatened-base storyline—the producers brought in an outsider, Peter Ling, for the wholly unexpected “The Mind Robber” (Series Production Code UU), an extended rumination on the meaning of fiction and reality and the interplay between them. And, don’t worry, there are menacing robots, too. This is still late ’60s Doctor Who, after all.

The White Robots Attack!

The cliffhanger from the end of “The Dominators” sees the TARDIS about to be swallowed up by lava, but sadly, the fluid links simply can’t handle the load, and they begin to spew poisonous mercury vapor once more and prevent a normal departure. (Must have been an off-brand of mercury they loaded up with at the end of “The Wheel in Space.”) The only way out is by using the “emergency unit,” which the Doctor is hesitant to install, because “it moves the TARDIS out of the time-space dimension, out of reality.” Jamie forces the Doctor’s hand (literally, by smashing down on his hand and triggering the device) and off the TARDIS goes, to nowhere.

The Doctor wants nothing to do with nowhere and with nothingness, so he instructs his companions to stay in the TARDIS while he makes repairs in the Power Room. He’s positively spooked, in fact, jumping with fright when Zoe walks in during the repairs. Possibly this is due to her having changed into a sparkly jump suit, but more likely has to do with his nervousness at being outside the time-space continuum. Nothing good comes from nothingness. As he tells his pant-suited companion, “It’s only the unknown that worries me, Zoe.”

The TARDIS has been outside of time and space before, arguably in “The Edge of Destruction” and, more definitively, in “The Celestial Toymaker.” As in the latter story, there’s a force out there in the nothingness that tempts the Doctor and his companions out by manipulating the TARDIS scanner, this time showing images of their homes, Scotland (for Jamie) and the City (for Zoe). And no sooner do Zoe and Jamie succumb to the temptation than they find themselves in a Beckett play.

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Doctor Who Project: The Dominators

Doctor Who Project: The Dominators
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Command accepted.

It always comes back to the Daleks. It’s not too far of a stretch to suggest that this odd, educationally-inclined science fiction show with a grandfatherly figure as the lead was catapulted from tea time diversion to lasting cultural phenomenon by the gliding pepperpots of doom. But with Terry Nation effectively controlling the Daleks, the BBC cast about for replacements incessantly. The Cybermen are certainly a strong contender, but they can’t show up every week (though not for lack of trying). So when Season Six of Doctor Who opens with “The Dominators” (Story Production Code TT), by “Norman Ashby” (in reality, Mervyn Haisman and Henry Lincoln), it’s no surprise to find a new robot creature teased at the end of the first episode, like every good Doctor Who villain to date. That creature is the Quark, a boxy robot with a spiky circular head and a sing-song voice under the command of the titular Dominators. Sadly, Quarkmania never quite swept the British Isles like Dalekmania, despite an easily imitated vocal pattern and the simplest dress-up costume imaginable—all you need is a big box and a bowl for your head.

While the Quarks fall somewhere near the Chumblies on the effective robot monster scale, the story itself is not without its charms. We’re freed from the recent spate of “base under siege” stories, and the basic conceit, that of exploring what happens when an advanced but pacifist species is confronted by an aggressive species, dovetails nicely with the Doctor’s own (somewhat fluid) ethos of constructive non-violence. World-building returns to Doctor Who here in a manner not really seen since the First Doctor’s era, with attention paid to the wildly differing cultures and mannerisms between the peaceful Dulcians and the ruthless Dominators (all of whom, handily, speak that galactic lingua franca, British Broadcast English.) Indeed, aside from a few vigorous running sequences, “The Dominators” marks the rare Troughton story that would have suited William Hartnell’s talents and approach to the role.

The Mighty Dominators

And yet, despite its reasonable pace (clocking in at an odd five episodes) and attempts at strong characterizations, the story never quite coheres internally. Is it a rumination on the dangers of nuclear war? A treatise on the need for a strong defense even by a peaceful people? A declaration of the importance of questioning authority? It’s no wonder that Haisman and Lincoln, authors of the reasonably successful Yeti arc, took their names off the story, opting for a pseudonym, because “The Dominators” is ultimately about two shouty guys with extreme shoulder pads and a dwindling supply of robots bullying an entire planet of people who believe curtain ruffles to the be height of fashion.

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Doctor Who Project: The Wheel in Space

Doctor Who Project: The Wheel in Space
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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.

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The Unlikeliest Love Letter: LEGO Dimensions Doctor Who

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I tempered my expectations going into the recently released Doctor Who Level Pack for LEGO Dimensions, the “toys to life” console video game. Playing through the base game (plus The Simpsons Level Pack) provided a bit of fun in seeing Homer and Gandalf running around on the same screen, bashing baddies into bricks and solving simple puzzles, and the tactile component of the game—building and manipulating the LEGO figures and objects as a part of the gameplay—filled me with some nostalgic glee. But, as a game, the experience proved somewhat underwhelming, and once I completed the campaign missions and noodled around in the various themed “adventure worlds” dedicated to the franchises I owned figures for, I shelved the game, almost forgetting that I had the Doctor Who pack on order.

I knew, going in, that each of the Doctor’s regenerations (including, sigh, the “War Doctor”) would be playable, but based on my experience with The Simpsons Level Pack, I figured there would be some minor homages to big moments in Doctor Who‘s recent history and that the playable regenerations would just be minor variants on the default Twelfth Doctor figure.

I was, as they say, wrong.

The First Doctor in the TARDIS in LEGO Dimensions

The level of attention, of detail, to the individual Doctors stunned me. LEGO Dimensions Doctor Who is a love letter to the show.

The First Doctor figure captures, broadly, William Hartnell’s mannerisms, from the lapel-pulling and slightly haughty leaning to his penchant for pulling out a magnifying glass. Even his combat move involves the signature cane (given to him, of course, by Kublai Khan). When the player enters the TARDIS in the game, the interior matches the TARDIS that the specific Doctor used—circular wall panels for the First, Victorian sitting room for the Eighth—with even the appropriate set dressings, like the sitting chair in the First Doctor’s TARDIS. The background music changes as well based on the Doctor, utilizing the dominant theme music for each.

My shock compounded when I explored the “adventure world” for Doctor Who and found one of the locations to be Telos. Yes, that Telos, home of the Tomb of the Cybermen. I can expect most casual fans of the show to recognize the I.M. Foreman scrap yard (it’s in the game), but to reach back to 1967 and the criminally under-appreciated Second Doctor for a setting demonstrates that the team responsible both knows Doctor Who and, more to the point, respects it.

The Second Doctor on Telos in LEGO Dimensions

Even the associated game objective in the area of the Tomb harkens back to “The Tomb of the Cybermen,” which ended with a lone Cybermat escaping the destruction of the Tomb. In the game, Lady Vastra (from the new series) tasks the player with destroying thirty Cybermats before they can awaken the Cybermen in the Tomb. Even though the gameplay associated with it provides no real challenge for an adult gamer, much joy comes from bashing the little cybercreatures with the Second Doctor, who wields a flute (!) as a weapon. I really don’t know that I could ask for more.

While, of course, the majority of the Doctor Who Level Pack focuses on the new series, and the middle Doctors don’t have quite as much focus as the early or late ones, I’m still smiling broadly from my experience thus far with the game. The cost for the base game and the level pack verges on the steep, but I found the experience more than worthwhile for a fan of the series.

Besides, where else can you have the Doctor offer Homer Simpson a jelly baby?