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Another case of the screaming oopizootics.

Doctor Who
Season 14 – Worst to Best

The best Doctor Who season? In terms of general recognition and unadulterated celebration, there’s certainly a strong case to be made for Fourteen. The zenith of Robert Holmes and Philip Hinchcliffe’s plans for the series finds it relinquishing the cosy rapport of the Doctor and Sarah in favour of the less-trodden terrain of a solo adventure and underlying conflict with new companion Leela. More especially, it finds the production team finally stretching themselves conceptually after thoroughly exploring their “gothic horror” template over the course of the previous two seasons (well, mostly the previous one).

With this era particularly, it’s virtually impossible to come up with new takes on thoroughly raked over and trawled territory. Unless you count fanning the flames of responses to period insensitivities (see The Talons of Weng-Chiang below). I can’t promise any of that. I have been reading a fair bit of Rudolf Steiner lately, though, and it makes for an interesting angle to view the progress of the season through the lens of his Christian gnostic perspective. Steiner’s take on Ahrimanic and Luciferian forces, both taken individually as negative ones yet on some level necessary to mankind’s ultimate evolution – the Ahrimanic being essentially materialist, the Luciferian of the head/imagination – can easily be projected onto this run of stories, and indeed the often-contradictory impulses the show displays generally.

It can be found in The Masque of Mandragora, with the Doctor scoffing at (Luciferian) mysticism in favour of (Ahrimanic) grounded science and reason. That is, before he backtracks somewhat, recognising, interestingly, that there is essentially validity in this superstition, from a certain perspective. The godlike force of the Helix having manifested in Renaissance Italy, such supernatural influences are then banished from the rest of the season. Confrontations instead revolve around very tangible ideas of science perverted, even when taken to intangible extremes. 

The Hand of Fear gives us a straight-up transhumanist alien race, its chief scientist having adapted the Kastrian form into a silicone-based one. Curiously, this feeds directly into Gallifreyan lore, since they are not a race, it turns out, with a natural, God-given dominion over time. This is more transparent in later stories – notably The Two Doctors, in which we learn of their artificial, symbiotic nuclei connecting them to their time vessels – but the transhumanist heritage is present in The Deadly Assassin too, with its Matrix as a repository for Time Lord mental energy/processes/substance (it’s left nebulous how far this actually extends in terms of continuation of consciousness within the Matrix). Most dramatically so in Episode Three’s dream/mindscape.

The two Chris Boucher stories are perhaps the ultimate embodiment of this theme, if one is to take Xoanon, the Ahrimanic computer, fused with the Doctor. Who ought to be the Christ figure, yet in corrupted form is a Luciferic force, believing “himself” to be as God. The Sevateem are overtly Luciferic while the Tesh, despite their mental powers, are Ahrimanic (over-intellectual and embracing the spiritual only in the sense of a technological construct; they represent a transhumanist sect, actualised through their AI ruler). The Robots of Death takes this further; (Kaldor) society is an at-core materialist, Ahrimanic one, the only Luciferian influences being expressed in the sandminer crew’s downtime (which comes with the suggestion of sensual pleasures, petty jealousies and feuds). The villain is so divorced from his soul that he wills himself as machine. And following in the footsteps of 2001: A Space Odyssey, there is an intentional perversion in making the most sympathetic, “human” character an artificial person (D84).

Finally, the season reverts somewhat, exulting in the contrast between Ahrimanic materialism (pig cyborgs, science run amok) with the more Luciferic impulses of Victoriana (when Ahrimanic influences were held in check by the rise of spiritualism). Indeed, this is overtly recognised and parodied in a manner not dissimilar to The Face of Evil; it is materialist science that grants Chang his supernatural, Luciferian spell over audiences. Ultimately, though, the Doctor is not the ruthless logician his Holmes garb suggests; indeed, he operates effortlessly in both environments, indicating he is able to take the positive and necessary impulses from both, without being diverted by either at the extremes.

6. The Hand of Fear

They’re frequently maligned, but I generally enjoy Bob Baker and Dave Martin’s contributions to Doctor Who. Admittedly, they rarely scripted top-tier fare, but at their best (The Armageddon Factor, Nightmare of Eden, The Claws of Axos) they combined imaginative concepts with engaging plotting. Ironically, they fared worst under the Hinchcliffe-Holmes regime, first with the lacklustre, sterile The Sontaran Experiment and then this, an ostensibly era-appropriate horror riff (The Hands of Orlac) that never finds its groove, clattering from scenario to scenario without ever managing to build any tension. Before falling apart completely in the final episode (barring the extended epilogue).

The Doctor: That hand could set off a change reaction.

This is, of course, Sarah Jane’s fond farewell, and it’s markedly less than auspicious. Her outfit even gets called out for its silliness beyond standard Sarah outfit silliness standards. Sladen has fun being possessed, the more so for her childlike intonation (“She’s a very spooky doll” as Hinchcliffe put it), but she’s entirely eclipsed, reduced to patented shrieky gaspiness, once the formidable Judith Paris arrives as Eldrad’s first incarnation. The epilogue, however, reworked by Baker and Sladen and given a luxurious eight minutes to play out, is really very sweet for its underplaying (“Until we meet again, Sarah” – it’s not for nothing that both subsequent producers, rather lazily, tried to bring her back) and the puncturing of the melancholy (“He blew it!”)

The Doctor: A sort of un-explosion has taken place.

But the story as a whole… The first episode is quite promising, if underlining the unwelcomingly austere tone of the Hinchcliffe era present-day tales post-UNIT family (and even before then, Terror of the Zygons is less than cosy, with its killer Harry; The Android Invasion feels all the colder for a couple of familiar faces, while The Seeds of Doom may as well be back in The War Machines or The Faceless Ones territory). There’s a mighty explosion in a quarry, Sarah finds a good use for Tupperware, and we learn that “Viruses can survive, but not for 150 million years as far as we know” (the Bristol Boys like their space viruses, their properties almost as ludicrous as Earth ones).

Sarah: No, there’s nothing more to say because Eldrad must live.

However, I’m not really all that taken with either Rex Robinson’s Doctor Carter or Glyn Houston’s Professor Watson. Yes, I know the latter is given a rather touching disaster-movie monologue, foreseeing his demise. It’s also nice that Baker and Martin don’t waste time with supporting characters taking an eternity to put their faith in the Doctor and his crazy ideas. However, most of the nuclear base material is bat-shit crazy on a level that even kids watching would think was a bit suss (come on, attacking a nuclear power station with tactical nukes?! Anyone would think the Bob and Dave were attempting to undermine the fabric of the nuclear story itself). Even more so than the previous excursion to the Nuton Complex. But at least The Claws of Axos had psychedelia going for it. There’s also the way in which the actual location filming – both of the power station and the quarry, where there’s an air of determined realism – rather draws attention to the disparity with the cheap sets (both power station and hospital). Lennie Mayne is much more awake here than on his last couple of Pertwees, but he’s nevertheless unable to pull this together; the story slides from energised to threadbare and creaky with the shift to studio.

Eldrad: Only fools trust.

Almost the story’s saving grace, though, is Paris. In only an episode and a bit, she creates one of the era’s most striking villains (and the design/costuming is second only to the Kaldor robots). Her attempts at self-control, refraining from zapping everyone, make for an engaging character, and there’s a genuinely unsettling moment where she legs it after Watson – who has unwisely decided to start shooting at her – and has him at her mercy or lack thereof. She spins a good yarn to the Doctor too.

Rokon: Hail, Eldrad. King of nothing.

Unfortunately, this dissipates when Mayne’s go-to-choice for a shouty villain enters the fray. Eldrad regenerates in Stephen Thorne, and with him any interest in the character’s fate and motives evaporates. That Eldrad is now a ranting loon only serves to underline that he’s also pretty much a rewrite of Omega: the master scientist saviour of his people who fell from favour and finds himself isolated and alone and vowing revenge. There are a few interesting footnotes here, such as the sheer extent of his abilities. Not only – if he’s telling the truth – did he devise a spatial barrier to keep out the solar winds threatening Kastria, but as a transhumanist – or transkastrianist – he engineered a crystalline silicone form for their future needs. Given his fairly mighty and impressive feats, the response of his fellow Kastrians to his sabotage doesn’t put them in such a positive light; they were entirely dependent on him, after all, and without his acumen opted to end it all rather than continue in “a miserable subterranean existence”. Bunch of quitters.

Sarah: I’m sick of being shot at, savaged by bug-eyed monsters, never knowing if I’m coming or going or been.

Part of the problem with The Hand of Fear, beyond such misfiring motivation and vaguely underwhelming supporting characters, is that it has so little internal tension and such a dissipated structure. There are some sparks once Paris arrives, but that isn’t until Episode Three. And the Doctor’s agreement with her and the subsequent jaunt to Kastria aren’t exactly edge-of-the-seat stuff. Indeed, dispatching Eldrad with a trip of the scarf underlines how underpowered the final episode is. Like the later The Creature from the Pit, it runs out of plot.


5. The Face of Evil

It’s very telling that Hinchcliffe pronounced himself so impressed with this story on the basis that it was “proper science fiction”. Because his era has hitherto been about anything but. The consequence is that, with this and The Deadly Assassin, there’s a sudden shift in the template for his approach to Doctor Who. Not so much in terms of essential atmosphere, but sufficient that it feels like a very different dynamic to the cosiness of the Doctor and Sarah versus Hammer House of Horror. The Face of Evil would slot in seamlessly to a Bidmead or even early Saward season, but here its concept-first approach seems wildly original. Which doesn’t automatically make it some kind of masterpiece.

Leela: I don’t know what to believe anymore.
The Doctor: Well, that sounds healthy anyway, Leela.

Chris Boucher – in combination with his producer and script editor; “The face was my idea” enthuses Philip, generally quite modest about his contributions – has come up with a great premise: The Day God Went Mad. It’s one that taps into the show’s own mythos by daring to deconstruct the main character – he can have a negative impact as well as a positive one – while offering some tastily mature themes like “an experiment in eugenics”. We’ll see some of these ideas again (State of Decay with its devolving understanding of technology; McCoy and beyond with the Doctor treated as a god, albeit here the show isn’t so thick-headed as to believe it’s a good thing).

The Doctor: What do I do, fight it or eat it?

We’ve also seen some of these ideas previously. Such as the high priest used by a superior force (Hieronymus in The Masque of Mandragora only three stories before, Neeva here). The invisible jungle predator (The Planet of Evil). And the power-mad computer is, of course, a standard (WOTAN, BOSS). This is also another variant on ancient astronauts, with its savages’ perceptions of advanced tech prefiguring approaches by Zecharia Sitchin and to the likes of the Bhagavad Gita.

The Doctor: This isn’t a fairy tale. It actually happened.

However, I’ve never felt The Face of Evil quite comes together. It builds strongly for several episodes, but it’s unable to sustain its own narrative tension once we know what is going on. It’s not as if the final episode is devoid of incident, but by this point, it has descended into familiar conflicts and tropes (possessed Leela trying to kill the Doctor; possessed everyone trying to kill the Doctor). About Time is impressed that the story resolves itself with the Doctor curing Xoanon rather than destroying him (and then letting him go about his business). I’m more concerned that it’s felt necessary to insert an apologia for the Doctor’s reckless disregard – “Yours was a mistake anyone could have made” – so encouraging the audience to forget about his culpability.

The Doctor: Well now, it seems I have been here before.

None of these things are the core concern, though. Simply, it’s the director. Now, by all accounts, Pennant Roberts was a lovely chap. And there are times when his happy-go-lucky approach works absolutely fine for the material (The Pirate Planet). But mostly, he isn’t one who has much of a grasp of key components of the Hinchcliffe era. Things like atmosphere and suspense. This is still by far the best work he did for the show, doubtless because of his producer, but aside from the jungle on film in the first episode (annoyingly, they revert to video subsequently), there’s a very four-square studio planet vibe. And Roberts isn’t one for staging and choreography at the best of times (the scene where the Doctor kicks Calib is lousy; when Calib says “You’ve broken my leg!” your left wondering when that happened).

Jabel: We deny the flesh so that our minds may have communion with Xoanon.

There’s lots of potent imagery here – from the Mount Rushmore Doctor, to Tom’s giant roaring Zardoz head in the jungle, to the “Who am I?” climax of Episode Three; okay it’s mostly all trading on the iconography of Tom turned bad – but it would be so much better if one of the Hinchcliffe stalwarts had been awarded the reins. Part of the problem is that the threat fails to take shape effectively. When the Tesh are revealed, in the campest costumes this side of The Happiness Patrol and led by Jabel (Leon Eagles), who would have seemed most at home among the Inter Minorians or on Pluto, you know you’re in trouble (Eagles’ performance is very enjoyable, but there’s zero dramatic heft to it).

The Doctor: I remember once at one of his dinner parties.

Nevertheless, there are many positives. The Doctor-Leela relationship hits the ground running (“It’s true, then. They say the evil one eats babies”). Generally, I’m with Tom regarding the character, and I don’t think Leela sustains herself as a companion, but the dynamic works here without being wearing (and while Louise Jameson is clearly a very fine actress, I’ve always found her approach to Leela too studied and performative). Tom is on great form, whether its threatening to kill a Sevateem with a deadly jelly baby or his “Have you dropped something?” when a Tesh prostrates himself. The moment where he kicks a Horda onto the shoulder of a particularly sadistic Sevateem is a hoot, and his success in the Test of the Horda a delight. His casual slump on Andor’s throne in Episode Two is also disarming (“Ah Neeva! Is it really you? They told me you were dead. Or was it the other way round?”)

Jabel: He is all around us, everywhere.

The Face of Evil also includes at least one classic line that sounds as if it must have been appropriated from someone really clever (“You know, the very powerful and the very stupid have one thing in common. They don’t alter their views to fit the facts. They alter their facts to fit their views…”). It has David Garfield as Neeva, Moby meets Jah Wobble. Wile Miles Elles’ Gentek looks like a proto-Data. My favourite moment sees the Doctor instructing Neeva by pretending to be Xoanon. Neeva agrees to do as he has been told, before saying “Yes, Doctor”. Upon which, the Doctor admits “I underestimated that man”.

The Doctor: Unfortunately, I forgot to wipe my personality imprint from the data core.

This is a society that has undergone a reset at the behest of a controlling elite, or AI. Bu the AI itself is mad, a demiurgic force with no benign impulse towards its creation. And neither the proles nor the Inner Party transhumanists really know what is going on. It takes the true, remiss and forgetful God to come in and set things straight… (at least, that fits with Philip K Dick’s cosmology at one time). Hmmm. Maybe The Face of Evil isn’t so contrary to McCoy era posturing after all.


4. The Masque of Mandragora

Philip Hinchcliffe, evidencing why he was the series’ strongest producer, was quick to home in on the big issue with The Masque of Mandragora, compared and contrasted with its period predecessor and inspiration, Pyramids of Mars. He had “misgivings” about the abstract alien force driving the story and its effectiveness at the climax (it “didn’t quite deliver”). That’s undoubtedly the case, although it might have landed better with a more dynamic director than the BBC classic serials-versed Rodney Bennett (in that respect, though, he was something of a prestige scoop).

Rossini: They say there are places where the bat droppings are twice the height of a man.

The final episode has other problems besides, though. Like the preceding story, The Seeds of Doom, it makes the error of killing off (or removing from the action) the more proactive villain at the end of Episode Three, and there isn’t anything sufficiently versatile to fill his gap. Count Federico as embodied by John Laurimore is scatological delight over the course of three episodes, in a story where it’s up to the actors to energise the proceedings when the director can’t. Such dialogue as “Of course you will, dung head!” and “You can no more read the stars, than you can tell my chamber pot” are pretty unequivocal. But he has a line in general abusiveness that could only come from Bob Holmes – also specialising in period coarseness in the earlier The Time Warrior – warning his underlings they will “breakfast on burning coals” and generally intimidating all and sundry.

The Doctor: I wouldn’t even say no to a salami sandwich.

Episode Four also side lines the Doctor in order for him to do something frightfully clever, which is a bit of a fudge of cleverness, since Tom clearly isn’t using his voice. Compared to other Tom season openers where the Doctor does something terribly clever that involves him disguising himself in some way (The Ribos Operation, The Leisure Hive), this one ends up a little dissatisfying.

Giuliano: I take it that you, like me, are a man of science.
The Doctor: Oh, I dabble a bit.

Mention of The Ribos Operation also leads into this story’s curious relationship with superstition, albeit one entirely consistent with the Hinchcliffe/Holmes von Daniken take on Earth history (and Letts-Sloman one, come to that). Astrology turns out to be legitimate in its influence, despite the Doctor – in common with Marco and Giuliano – debunking it in Episode One. By Episode Four, he is extolling its significance. True, the net is cast fairly wide for the art’s predictive power (the death of Giuliano’s father; Sarah – “Exactly as it was foretold. A maiden fair of face and sturdy of body”), but despite the Doctor’s best efforts and assertion that astrology is “all a great waste of time” and that Hieronymus is an “old fraud”, “The stars will not be mocked”. He will tell Sarah “Nonsense? It isn’t nonsense” before “explaining” that Mandragora dominates and controls by Helix energy, utilising “astral force” rather than conquering physically. And by so doing, it turns man into “Idle, mindless, useless sheep”. Which makes it fitting that, when asked if he is a man of science, he use traditionally occult vernacular (“Oh, I dabble a bit”).

The Doctor: All it requires is a colourful imagination and a glib tongue.
Federico: And you, Doctor, have a mocking tongue. Prepare the execution.

Of course, the history of astrology is as a science (astronomy, certainly modern astronomy, developed from it). Here, it is explicitly compared not only to ignorance and backwardness, but also to black magic; its foremost practitioner leads the Cult of Demnos. And Hieronymus seems to have a keen grasp of the difference between those things he has been involved in manoeuvring (the Count’s death) and those he regards as legitimate. Indeed, “Many years ago, in another place, the voice of Demnos told me how my life would be”, so bringing him to San Martino. This news is actually a little lucky for the Doctor, rather taking the edge off his culpability in bringing the Helix to Italy (“Had it not been you, there would have been other travellers drawn into the Mandragora Helix. Earth had to be possessed”). Perhaps Bob and Phil thought blaming him for setting twoplots in motion in one season would be pushing it. He’s hardly the Seventh Doctor...

Hieronymus: Do you know what power is held by the celestial bodies? They are not at our beck and call.

Paul Cornell commented in The Complete Fourth Doctor Volume One that “Metaphor is used for the first time in the series, a metaphorical monster… Mandragora is superstition and ignorance” (one assumes it was also Cornell pressing the point prior to this in The Discontinuity Guide). Except that this is explicitly stated as its objective, so it’s hardly metaphorical. Indeed, one of the issues with The Masque of Mandragora is that it’s all rather overt and continually reiterated.

Hieronymus: The entire Earth, mine.

Like The Hand of Fear, the story doesn’t really come together satisfyingly from an antagonist standpoint. Norman Jones is as imposing in his own way as Laurimore, but Hieronymus (who somehow manages to fit his beard under his mask) treads an uncertain line between possessed instrument and ambition (he’ll become “supreme rule of Earth”) The uneasy relationship between Federico and Hieronymus is a big plus point though, stories tending to be the more engaging when there is division in the villainous ranks (“this dog of a sorcerer”).

The Doctor: Had a hard day in the catacombs, have you?

All of which means The Masque of Mandragora is second-tier Hinchcliffe. Which still makes it better than anything in some eras. Bennett may not be the most exciting director, and Mandragora the place isn’t very imaginative or eerie, nor is Mandragora the sparkler, but the Portmeirion footage is very nice, some of the action choreography is solid, and the cult give good masks (while the ram’s head at the ball is more disturbing than anything in the catacombs). 

Other things to note: wee Terry Walsh in a wig on a horse “doubling” for Tom, but the actual Tom delivering an impressive drop kick on Hieronymus. The hilariously piss-taking Episode Two resolution (“Excuse me, excuse me. I like to look my best on these occasions”). The explanation for Sarah’s inquisitiveness, having never asked how she understood the local language before, doesn’t make any sense; it’s actually much more worrying if it’s never occurred to her to ask before. “You can’t count, count” would be used again, to fruitier effect, by Garron in The Ribos Operation. And the best delivery of any line here is Marco’s “But what he does there, I know not”.


3. The Deadly Assassin

Creatively and imaginatively, The Deadly Assassin is the peak of the season. But as strange as it may seem to say of a story whose centrepiece is a stylistic Episode Three excursion shot on film, it can’t quite land the execution. I can readily imagine a Douglas Camfield could have taken it that extra mile, but David Maloney, in the first ranks of Who directors as he undoubtedly was, isn’t quite there.

Runcible: Weren’t you expelled or something? Some scandal?

In part, it’s the way the soundtrack continually reminds you that Gallifrey is built on studio flats. In part, it’s the planet-threatening final ten minutes, featuring those flats again, and the Doctor in a tussle with a malignant dwarf. But it’s there in the location footage too. A failure to disguise Terry Walsh standing in for Tom isn’t unusual during the era, but one at least appreciates it when a director tries (or does likewise for a dummy doubling a fall). Then there are the rubber crocodiles and spiders and action men and green corrugated plastic. If this sounds like nit-picking, it is, a bit – The Deadly Assassin can only be a five-star effort, and Larry Miles is grossly overstating marks against it when he calls the story “very, very badly made” – but Episode Four in particular, with its false ending dissipating the tension early on, only to rekindle with a greater threat, needed someone who could rise to that difficult challenge.

Goth: He is abusing a legal technicality.

Episode Three is obviously a tour-de-force, but it’s the first two parts that really impress me, packed with plot in such an onslaught, you could probably have made a whole season from it (if only The Trial of a Time Lord could have been so well-conceived conspiratorially). The first episode moves at a breakneck pace, introducing us to Holmes’ Gallifrey as the Doctor attempts to save the President’s life. There’s so much going on, there’s no need to save the monstrous villain for a big cliffhanger (he almost casually reveals his ravaged features fourteen minutes in). The second shifts again, full of legal wrangling – and a bit of torture – with the Doctor doodling during his hearing and pulling out an inspired (and very plausible sounding) trump card to stave of an impending vaporisation without representation.

The Doctor: Let me go, they’ll kill him!

This is such a rich tapestry in and of itself, it probably didn’t need the left turn taken five minutes from the end – which rather surprised Hinchcliffe, with his Manchurian Candidate/JFK assassination premise in mind – but it’s this that has given the story its lasting legacy. All gasmasks and clowns, biplanes and blowpipes. It’s a phantasmagoric First Blood. Much has been written about how Holmes was ahead of the curve with his virtual realm (although, being well read, he was surely first aware of it from science fiction), but he makes it unique in its application, with its APC, a repository of cells of departed Time Lords. It’s much more rigorous sounding than the cheap gag of the Celestial Intervention Agency (unsurprisingly, not referenced again).

The Doctor: Only in mathematics will we find the truth.

Bob hated the Time Lords” recalled Hinchcliffe. For me, this is the only way to depict them – corrupt, bureaucratic, calcified – that makes any sense, because it’s the only way they have been depicted that isn’t inherently boring. Sure, I’ll give you The War Games, more because of the reveal than their actual manifestation. But where the legacy of Holmes’ approach hasn’t been felt – anything that isn’t The Invasion of Time or The Trial of a Time Lord – the results are decidedly vanilla, or portentous, or both (the other 80s appearances of Gallifrey, the nu-Who regalvanised Gallifrey). You might ask why an armed guard is needed in the Capitol (Shobogan incursions?), or Engin suggests “Precognitive vision is impossible” (perhaps it suits them to have a party line; more likely, as with their relics and regalia, they’ve simply become entirely out of touch with anything relevant). But the truth is, this Gallifrey lands so fully formed, it bowdlerises previous realisations instantly, much to many fans’ chagrin (for a ripping of the story’s internal logic, check out About Time, and then realise it can robustly withstand any attempted integrity assassination).

The Master: You craven hearted, spineless poltroon!

There’s so much to enjoy here, from the Spandrell and Engin double act, to the thoroughly unscrupulous Borusa (issuing the Orwellian edict “We must adjust the truth” and so rewriting Goth as a hero), to superb Hugh Walters as Runcible the fatuous. I’ve never been the biggest fan of Peter Pratt’s Master performance; he’s unimposing, and he ends up acting through his mask, even if that mask is impressively gruesome (a combination of Blake Edmond’s Death Wish and They Live!’s aliens). Conceptually, though, this retooling is inspired, ripping away the character’s cosy moustache-twirling with impressive brutality. The problem is, by Episode Four and no longer having Goth as a front man, this “fiend who glories in chaos and destruction” is just another ranting loon sorely lacking Delgado’s silky suavity and dry putdowns (also curious that the Doctor characterises him thus: “A Time Lord? Yes, a long time ago”).

Borusa: As I believe I told you long ago, Doctor, you will never amount to anything in the galaxy while you retain your propensity for vulgar facetiousness.

Interestingly, for a story predicated on MKUltra conceptions, it’s the season entry least reliant on mind control (I’m including reprogrammed Vocs to make my point and taking little notice of the odd Capitol guard). The Doctor hasn’t so much been controlled as baited into following his own causal loop, leaving only the aforementioned Hilred as a Master stooge to be dispatched, Dirty Harry style, by Spandrell. Episode Two’s climax is a bit poor as they go (but then, it was rejigged), and the entire reason for entering the Matrix is desperately thin “If I went in there, I could discover where he intercepted the circuit”). But so what? It makes for one the most ground-breaking episodes the show has seen. And ground-breaking stories as a whole; Holmes and Hinchcliffe briefly shake off the gothic horror – well, aside from the Master – and apply themselves to looting another genre to impressive results. Oh, and there’s Tom flying solo. Ten out of ten. Well, aside from proving that talking to himself isn’t always a good thing.

The Doctor: Oh, goodbye Engin!

Elizabeth Sandifer rightly draws attention to the use of the Panopticon as central to this Gallifrey, but the story generally is emblematic of the surveillance society, manifesting in a cramped urban environment. The difference being, it’s one where the citizens are entirely accustomed to such encroachments as a way of life – after all, they have nothing to hide; they aren’t hideous cackling villains, they’re old giffers with dodgy hips – either psychically, or through biodata extracts, or through TV broadcasts, There’s no safety in one’s own home, and the Doctor cannot go anywhere without being pursued. Even his mind is no haven from intrusion, either projected upon him or by him; as Tegan would later discover, this sacred space is no longer sacrosanct.


2. The Talons of Weng-Chiang

Either the greatest story ever or an appallingly racist embarrassment. And if you think The Talons of Weng-Chiang is the greatest story ever you’re an appallingly racist embarrassment yourself. © Elizabeth Sandifer, whose zeal has waxed since her initial eruditorium article, where the story was merely a “misanthropic piece of dreck”. Elizabeth, bless her, being the wokest evah of woke-nazi Who fans (to the extent that The Celestial Toymaker is “racist anti-Chinese trash”. As opposed to, say, just not being very good).

Jago: It’s my opinion he solves half their cases and then lets them take the credit for it, don’t you agree?

Elizabeth documents several of the defences – reasonable defences – of this aspect of the story, labelling them “pathetic”. Because for Elizabeth, there are no degrees of anything; the supporting characters are all stereotypes. The story is a pastiche, and the Victoriana is as literary a conceit as the evil Chinese Fu Manchu riff. Holmes is fully aware of his motifs, and if the argument that the story “is in fact a satire of racism, not racist in and of itself” is flawed, at junctures it isn’t entirely wrong either. Sandifer identifies the attitudes of the Doctor and Leela as proof that there is nothing here beyond straight-up racism. And specifically, the former’s “little men” and the latter’s “yellow one”. Neither of which supports the satire argument, but I see no reason why Leela shouldn’t be an inveterate racist; she is, after all, an ignorant savage prone to using inappropriate language (the horribly disfigured become “bent-face” for example).

Jago: Why, dash me optics.

The question should really be why we’d expect Holmes to be entirely consistent in his approach. He was not, after all, a nu-Who proselytiser prone to lecturing or rewriting history as an entirely tolerant and multicultural. It’s quite clear Holmes doesn’t intend to present the Doctor in the casually racist manner of the surrounding London populace – “Are you Chinese?”; “Well, they were Chinese ruffians”; “epicanthic eyebrows” was clearly an alliterative play he couldn’t resist, and might be seen as rather mocking Jago – and expecting him to call out everyone he runs into would be incredibly banal and facile. Unless he plans to right the wrongs of an entire society while he’s at it.

Greel: Do not fail me now, Chang.

The idea that we’re supposed to like Jago and Litefoot in spite of their period-accurate attitudes is refreshing. Unless you require the world and everyone in it to function in purely black-and-white terms. And as About Time – and many others – observed, the presentation of Chang, the infamous yellow-face aside, is extremely well considered on Holmes part; he’s one of his best-written villains – nay, characters – and his recognition of the prejudices of his audience are reflected both in his stage act, where he uses pidgin English and makes jokes at his own expense (“One of us is yellow”), and his interactions with others (“I understand we all look the same” he says to the Doctor pointedly).

The Doctor: You’ll have to book a new act tomorrow.

At this stage, a story that was once characterised as a Fu Manchu/Sherlock Holmes pastiche in the way other Hinchcliffe stories were Frankenstein or the Mummy ones, is introduced as a racist Fu Manchu/Sherlock Holmes pastiche. Indeed, in due course, it may be destined to be “cancelled”. But the The Talons of Weng-Chiang isn’t (broadly speaking) loved because of its Fu Manchu riffing. It’s loved because Holmes is grinning like a shot fox with all the Victoriana; his facility for the literary version of 1890s London really comes through. Thus, he creates a marvellous sustainable environment over the space of six episodes, such that he’s able to devote large portions of the plot to stand-alone characters, ones we want to see more of (and never will, sadly, although you can listen to some Big Finishes, if you must). No one talks like Jago? Well, that’s rather the point and the joy of it (I have to admit, I never picked up on the “two Watsons” element, with Litefoot as the literary Watson and Jago as the Nigel Bruce one).

The Doctor: The broth of oblivion.

The Talons of Weng-Chiang is also a fine Doctor and Leela story, of course; she’d never be as well written again, and the Eliza Dolittle element elicits probably the most satisfying chemistry between the two leads (which isn’t saying a whole lot, but “I’ll buy you an orange” is rather delightful, as is “You ask me so you can tell me”). Tom is on probably his most balanced zenith (and I say that as one who regards Season Sixteen as the peak Fourth Doctor season). Dudley Simpson delivers a great score, Roger Murray-Leach and John Bloomfield great design work. And for the most part, David Maloney is ideally suited to this atmospheric rather than pyrotechnic tale; his failings are apparent when it comes to the action, be it a cuddly giant rat (the toy one in Tom’s pocket is more convincing), a cramped run around Greel’s lair with Leela, or the climax at the laundry culminating in the Doctor wrestling a fearsome dummy of dummy Mr Sin.

Jago: Don’t bother coming back on Saturday.

Mostly, though, this is Bob Holmes at full strength. Which means yes, he may have been allowed too much head in the sex/violence, complete with steampunk adrenochrome. But rather than misanthropic dreck-like results, there’s considerable warmth to this tale. And insults relating to animals (crabs, both painted ones and underground variety, and crawling mindless dogs). As well as contemptible slatterns. And Patsy Smart. “I’m a lady.” Magnanimous Magnus. Jago’s every alliterative allusion. “Made in Birmingham.” “The cerebral cortex of a pig!”. Greel’s future history, which is truly Holmes at his shorthand best (and so probably Big Finish at its filling-in-the-details worst). “And a bowl of live goldfish.

Leela: Die, bent face!

Where the story slightly disappoints is also in typical Holmes motifs. Greel being a very obvious gnarly Master substitute, such that his right-hand man is again much more interesting. Which means, again, that the story isn’t quite as good after that right-hand man exits (Holmes would repeat this with the amazing-exploding Stike in all-round lesser beast that is The Two Doctors). The last two episodes are superior to most, but they don’t feel as essential as those that come before. And that’s with saving the Doctor meeting Greel for the final episode (it’s a very enjoyable scene, it’s just that Greel isn’t a great villain).


1. The Robots of Death

It’s easy to have a “What the…?” reaction to the idea that Michael E Briant didn’t think much of Chris Boucher’s script for The Robots of Death. And yet, it’s not really very different to Eric Saward’s suggestion of “Don’t get me wrong, it was a good script but…” in relation to the accolades bestowed upon The Caves of Androzani. Namely, that in both cases, if a craftsman hadn’t got their hands on them, the results could have ended up very average. Now, you could argue that of almost any script for Doctor Who, but ones that particularly rely on a notoriously difficult formula (suspense/action/tension) are the ones that really stand out when they get it right. I doubt that either The Caves of Androzani or The Robots of Death would have been a Warriors of the Deep had their choice of director sucked, but then, I doubt Warriors of the Deep would have been a Caves or Robots if its hadn’t.

Uvanov: What are you doing here?
The Doctor: Just standing here, talking to you.

The big deal with The Robots of Death, one that becomes bigger every time one revisits it, is how consistently first-rate Briant’s work is. Because his previous outings for the show all have their merits, but they are also all considerably patchier. If you were to draw up a list of the ten best directed Doctor Who stories – and in fairness, you might well pick a few where the direction doesn’t draw attention to itself, because the needs of the story aren’t in that vein – The Robots of Death would surely be in the Top Five. It’s not only impressive technically – the matte work, the POV camera work – but it’s incredibly tightly shot and edited (and with superb staging and choreography – check out V4 with a probe in his head, or the wriggling hands of the re-programmed robot). Not for nothing Hinchcliffe praised Briant’s ability to bring a filmic eye to studio work. It also boasts one of Dudley’s very best scores for the show, one of those that reminds you – since so much of his work feels drearily interchangeable – that he could indeed be a real asset.

The Doctor: Are you a hunter, Poul?

But all of that is to emphasise that, great writer as Boucher was for the show (and even more so for Blake’s 7), it’s the embellishments that really make The Robots of Death fly. Yes, there’s solid SF grounding in Asimov’s laws of robotics (and let’s not forget Hinchcliffe being influence by Dune), and the essential structure of Agatha Christie/murders on a confined vessel is solid and well-paced, but so much here is down to Boucher and his collaborators looking for a way to make that distinctive.

D84: If I was to tell you the world would end tomorrow, would you merely accept my word?

So you get the Art Deco influence, with the show’s most impressive and enduring robot design. You get the leisure-wear of the crew and their modes of relaxation (in a scene written by Holmes). And you have the diligent approaching to casting, making a crew that might have been nondescript memorable (this is a similar challenge faced in different ways by the likes of Alien and The Thing). To me, The Robots of Death has always seemed a very rich story, but I can well see that pre-Briant coming on board, it might have looked a rather spartan, drably functional thing.

Borg: Ore raiders? There’s no such thing.

As it is, though. The Fourth Doctor and Leela, here and in The Talons of Weng-Chiang, are at their best, perfectly balanced in their uneven teacher-pupil relationship, with the emphasis on the latter’s response to uncanny worlds. Tom’s frequently hilarious, but always authoritative. I love his response to Borg’s “Shut up!” Tom looks like he’s about to corpse, before recovering with “A simple no thank you world have been sufficient”. Russell Hunter and David Collings are absolutely terrific. Pamela Salem is radiant (a shame the idea of Toos becoming a companion was a myth, and my only coherent response to the fact that she was considered for Leela is how anyone who wasn’t blind wouldn’t have picked her). David Bailie has a Gary Glitter face paint thing going on. Brian Croucher (“Why don’t you shut your mouth?!”) Miles Fothergill and Gregory De Polnay make superb robots (Tom wasn’t wrong to want D84 as a companion, although he’d rarely have been able to wheel him out).

SV7: What were you doing in the scoop?
The Doctor: Trying to get out.

And the story is an embarrassment of great scenes. The superb “silly” non-explanation for trans-dimensional engineering (putting a 4D explanation in 3D terms). The entire Doctor interrogation is wonderful (“I’m just standing here, talking to you”). “There was a Voc therapist in Kaldor City…” Bumble bees. Poul’s breakdown (“Oh no. Oh please no!”), D84 waxing lyrical (“It is a Laserson probe…”) Tom converged on by robots (leading to an admonition of “Do not kill me” by one robot in response to V4’s attack). The semi-abstract “I heard a cry…” I don’t think Dask’s reveal in Episode Three is that big a gaffe, since it immediately follows his miraculous “failure” to notice the bloody hands of the robot Poul subsequently comes across.

The Doctor: Would you like to come with me?
D84: Yes please.

Things I don’t like? Killing D84, particularly since “Goodbye, my friend” is the cruellest of cuts to someone who, despite earlier professing “I think you’re very important”, sees his loss as water off a duck’s back.

Poul: Not robots, walking dead.

It’s interesting too how contrasting The Robots of Death’s resolution is compared to the subsequent The Talons of Weng-Chiang, where there’s a nice cosy lead out. Here, despite the tense relationships and bonds, there’s no sight of the survivors following the helium scene – we’re straight into the TARDIS, so no suggestion of how Poul, Toos and Uvanov will fare. That’s probably astute, as The Robots of Death is a story all about maintaining claustrophobia. Once the tension is broken, the only sensible thing to do is get out quickly (the aforementioned The Caves of Androzani, even more of a destruction derby, does something similar, with only the TARDIS offering respite... Which quickly leads to a strangle-happy Doctor).


Blu-ray Extras
The Masque of Mandragora

Making of – Impressively mounted in Portmeirion, this one, with Hinchcliffe coaxing natural responses and acting as compere. Gareth Armstrong is happy to note that his character was a bit wet and how “Horatio had the better lines” while Tom called Giuliano and Marco “Gert and Daisy”. Laurimore notes that Acheson’s costume “made me feel very, very big”. Jim Sangster reckons the old console room didn’t suit Tom? Piffle.

Behind the Sofa – Tom keeps getting older but can still muster the odd quip (“I still haven’t recovered from that blow” on the Doctor being hit with a rock). There’s discussion of sword training (per the making of) and even Tom notes “Now we’d go much quicker” (Bennett wasn’t afraid of slow and steady). Sophie Aldred – with Peter Purves – is less subtle (“And don’t you love the way it’s so slow as well?”) She recounts she was outraged when Tom took over from Pertwee. Purves has previously seen about four Toms in total. Aldred is happy to hear the proper theme, and is clearly buzzed to be sitting on the sofa with a Blue Peter presenter. She feels obliged, as the “greatest companion character arc evah” to note Sarah didn’t have a lot to do (but didn’t she not do a lot well, Sophie?) Everyone mentions the KKK re Demnos.

The Hand of Fear

Changing Time, the making of doc, is sprawling but engrossing, loosely taking as its remit Sarah Jane’s innings as a companion. As such, there are all sorts of Tom digressions (“a Macbeth that was funny”); he’s on fine form and has evidently done some rare revision on the story under scrutiny. He refers to Houston’s goodbye as “straight out of a Kenneth More film from 1956. ‘Kiss the children for me.’ All that heartrending nonsense”. A perfect description. He also reminisces how Sladen was jealous of Paris’ impressive figure (Sladen, possibly still smarting, calls Paris’ Eldrad “androgynous”. You reckon?) Sladen had been drinking the nu-Who revisionist Kool-Aid by this point, so there’s no doubting her meaning when she references “What’s not said” between the Doctor and Sarah. Yeah, yeah. Whatever. She’s also evidently a bit miffed that her last vocal performance is actually director Mayne (whistling). Good fun, and Tom and Liz’s affection for each other is very evident. The visual conceit of an “in camera” of the individual being discussed behind the talking head is annoying and distracting, however.

Behind the Sofa – Aldred and Purves are much better value than Tom, Louise and Hinchcliffe, who are very much raking over dying coals (somehow, the latter allows himself to be persuaded the story is better than he recalled). Purves is understandably impressed by Paris (“That is an amazing costume”) and also by Tom’s underplaying as opposed to his rep.

Our Sarah Jane – I’m not a fan of Chris Chapman’s production style, certainly on the recent releases. First JN-T, now this. At times, I felt like I was watching the equivalent of Simon Bates’ Our Tune, such are the pervasive, overdone music cues. Then there are the repetitive and annoying “mood-setting” tracking shots. It’s all too much. Nevertheless (and like JN-T) there’s good material here. From daughter Sadie Miller. From Alan Ayckbourn. George Gallaccio. And Tom, of course. Recollecting switching on the Blackpool Lights with Sladen and Ian Marter, he notes it was “a marvellous night, and a great honour”. Also how he didn’t give Jameson the welcome Sladen gave him, and how Liz’s move back to Liverpool was “explained by the fact that she was happy”. Then there are Sladen’s stereotypical mum’s part adverts in the 80s, up for the same ads as Lynda Bellingham, and Barry Letts using her for the Sunday Classics. As Tom says, “Poor Lis. Poor us, eh?

Exploration Earth – Hadn’t listened to this before. An enormous, billowing mass of gases. Volcanoes boiling the rock until it runs like cream. “Come on Megron, time to be beaten.

Sarah Jane Stories – the most notable anecdote is her and Tom doing the Marx Brothers abrupt turn in Pyramids of Mars, even though they were told not to.

The Deadly Assassin

Behind the Sofa – “What a terrible suggestion” admits Tom of his idea that he should go companionless and talk to himself. “That would cause a sensation in Oxford Street” he says of his regalia. “It’s like Star Wars” observes Aldred of the opening scroll, as well as noting the Doctor in his long johns. They all love Runcible (“He’s too good to lose so quickly” says Louise). Aldred likes Spandrell and Engin too, but admits it’s all “a bit home-made” while Purves observes the “ever-so hollow’ sets. “You can’t drown the Doctor on children’s telly” suggests Sophie.

The Matrix Revisited – solid making of, with Jan-Vincent Rudzki rehearsing his outrage at the time. “The script is lovely” but “It’s human. It’s just Earth”.

Dressing Doctor Who must rank as one of the few decent Brendan Shepherd contributions to the range, with a hilariously ebullient James Acheson taking us through his contributions to the show and reminiscing over Leslie Dwyer’s bowler steaming up, wanting to give Tom clothes rather than a costume (see, that’s how you end up winning Oscars) and anecdotes about the costumes for The Masque of Mandragora and John Landis namechecking Doctor Who in an awards ceremony to the audience’s complete mystification.

The Gallifreyan Candidate is okay if you wanted an analysis of the movie rather than comparison with the Doctor Who story. The Frighten Factor is cobblers.

The Face of Evil

Behind the Sofa – There’s more input from the Tom/Louise/Philip here, mostly because Louise has stuff to say. Sophie does too (“My dad loved Leela”) while Purves is impressed by the filmed bits. Aldred is “Woah, very Brechtian” about the Doctor addressing camera (I’ve seen this argued as him looking past the camera, and that he’s talking to himself per the previous story. Which I could go with, but then, I have no problem with Tom breaking the fourth wall. Which is lucky, as he’d be doing it a few times more).

Girls Girls Girls – Typical Dan Hall puff piece.

Into the Wild – the making of. Not perhaps as many contributors as you’d hope for (I’m not sure Anthony Freize really counts as a scoop). Hinchcliffe is good value as ever (“No, you have to have a sprechhund” he recalls of Bob Holmes telling Tom he needed a companion). He was also a bit concerned by “Louise’s womanliness” when the costume first adorned its subject. Jameson is very generous towards Tom’s frostiness (as opposed to, say, Fielding on Logopolis moaning about nothing else) while Philip makes excuses (“I’m not sure he realised the effect he was having on her”). That Tom demurred from attending auditions suggests he wasn’t going to be friendly no matter who it was.

The Robots of Death

Behind the Sofa – Tom is very quiet, apart from on North Acton studio (“I used to sleep there.” He’s not joking). Purves loves it (“It’s a cracker”). Hinchliffe sums it up: “Brilliant direction…”) Annoyingly, the originals talk through all the best bits.

The Sandminer Murders – decent making of from the second DVD release. No one was that impressed with the script, not Tom, not Briant. Briant rising to the challenge (“We could make this like it really could be”). Interesting that Hinchcliffe wasn’t initially convinced by some of the choices (Art Deco robots, Hunter). Tom is good on Salem in rep (“so beautiful, audiences weren’t watching the play”). Croucher is solid gold: “We’re all actors. Some of us don’t like each other… because there’s a lot of ego. But there are some good, cool, laidback actors and Tom Baker was one of them”. More still, “He is a creative terrorist”. Tom returns the compliment about politically literate Brian and agrees with his point about the safe actors having lunch in the cafeteria while the dangerous ones went to the pub. Kids, eh?

Tobe Hadoke’s robots featurette is quite entertaining and chatty. These sorts of things often aren’t.

Ed Stradling’s Serial Thrillers is entirely serviceable but also entirely forgettable, despite a solid selection of talking heads.

The Talons of Weng-Chiang

Behind the Sofa – Sophie’s quick to call out the “slight casual racism there”, but if there were protracted discussions about this aspect, they don’t survive the edit. Jameson notes the “wonderful Silence of the Lambs quality”. Everyone loves the Jago hypnosis scene. Purves isn’t keen on Leela’s tomboy garb and Sophie notes the “very risqué shot” of Leela in a wet t-shirt. There’s an occasional sense that Peter finds Sophie’s vacuous questions trying (it was the same with Mark Strickson). It was Tom’s idea in rehearsals that he should be impressed by Leela in her dress. Tom’s response overall is “a kind of melancholy really” but “I like it when I’m running about”. He loves the cast, “so consummate at what they did”. Overall: “Wonderful, wonderful. Best one I’ve ever seen”. See, Elizabeth? He’s a racist.

The Last Hurrah! A very enjoyable making of from a decade-plus ago, with Hinchcliffe filmed chatting to various collaborators including a very on-form Tom, showing the range of his knowledge (certainly of theatres), referring to Holmes’ “marvellous sardonic quality” and admitting he might have been frosty towards Jameson because he was “making up for unexpressed desire”; since she wasn’t very impressed by him, he pretended not to be impressed by her. There are accolades for Maloney. A brief discussion of the depiction of the Chinese, Patsy Smart taking out her false teeth, John Bloomfield talking about his approach to the costumes (out of place but part of Victorian society for the main duo).

Whose Doctor Who Revisited. Probably the best of Toby Hadoke’s sometimes slightly-off jaunts, with only occasionally overdone production tics (that bloody piano). He talks to Tony Cash (Melvyn Bragg only topped and tailed), grownup Casper Hewitt (now a very affable doctor and coming across like a cross between Gatherer Hade and Robert Picardo), Stephen Payne and Rudzki, the educational psychologist (who earned a rebuke as he didn’t ask for permission to appear) and goes back to the primary school with three of its stars.

Bonus Disc

Moving On. I wouldn’t count it out, but Hinchcliffe’s plans for Season Fifteen sounded too big (Childhood’s End, Brazilian jungles, Rider Haggard) and a bit naff (his monolithic chess piece Dalek). Interesting that he had a theory Williams was pals with Bill Slater rather than his push being instigated by Whitehouse.

Deep Roy doesn’t have very much interesting to say, which is a shame given the breadth of material he worked on. Perhaps they just didn’t ask him the right questions.

Philip Hinchcliffe in Conversation. Matthew Sweet scores well with this one, although he still pushes his luck occasionally (“I’m not going to be psychoanalysed now” says Phil when Sweet impertinently tries to exhume his childhood). It’s also a shame there isn’t more of an overview. Still, there’s good information on his Cambridge days (of course he was Oxbridge), his influences vs Holmes’ and how they married well. Sweet discussing the effectiveness of The Seeds of Doom and suggesting Bunuel, which meets with Philip’s approval. Camfield taking Hinchcliffe to an early screening of Star Wars (“That’s it. We’re done”). Professing there were no issues with Tom misbehaving etc, and very clearly (and quite rightly) stinting on his praise for nu-Who in a number of key respects, mainly Doctor and companion; he’s “sometimes… a bit too human” and the Doctor and Sarah have “not overt Russell T Davies affection, but it’s there”; “I think he’s above that” he rebuffs when Sweet suggests there might be anything more to it. He also stresses that, if he’d been presented with Williams’ remit, he would have demanded an agreement going in for what he’d be doing. Whatever else is the case, it’s very evident the wounded lighting guys took revenge the following year.

Life After Who – this post-Who retrospective with Hinchcliffe’s daughter from the DVD range is, however, less than half as long and much more engrossing. She isn’t nosy the way Sweet is but elicits far more informative answers. I’d have happily watched something twice as long on his subsequent career.

The Consensus
A few notable poll placings over the years:

DWM 1998/09/14

1. The Talons of Weng-Chiang (2, 4, 6)
2. The Robots of Death (5, 9, 11)
3. The Deadly Assassin (11, 20, 21)
4. The Masque of Mandragora (43, 85, 104)
5. The Hand of Fear (67, 96, 101)
6. The Face of Evil (83, 116, 130)

Outpost Gallifrey 2003

1. The Talons of Weng-Chiang (1)
2. The Robots of Death (6)
3. The Deadly Assassin (7)
4. The Masque of Mandragora (48)
5. The Hand of Fear (78)
6. The Face of Evil (88)

DWB 1985/87/89

1. The Talons of Weng-Chiang (12, 5, 1)
2. The Deadly Assassin (11, 12, 11)
3. The Robots of Death (23, 15, 17)
4. The Masque of Mandragora (96, 65, 65)
5. The Hand of Fear (101, 86, 105)
6. The Face of Evil (115, 105, 113)

 

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