Wednesday, October 19, 2016

The Abominable Snowmen


The Abominable Snowmen is one of those stories I think is hard to judge only on audio or reconstruction. It has enjoyable moments, including some of my favourite Second Doctor lines, but it is two episodes too long and has that annoying 'people don't trust the TARDIS crew, then they don and then they don't again' plot threads that are effectively just an excuse to pad out the action for an episode.

The TARDIS lands in Wales...sorry The Himalayas...and it turns out that they dropped down near a Monastery where the Doctor once dropped in before. That time he took away the Monastery's holy bell for protection. This gives him the perfect opportunity to drop it back. Unfortunately, he's arrived at the same time as the Monastery is under siege by the Yeti. Obviously, the Doctor walks smack bang into this situation and gets blamed for everything, including the murder of an English explorer by Professor Travers (Jack Watling). The Warrior Monk Khrisong (Norman Jones) decides to bait a trap with the Doctor. If The Doctor dies, he dies but if the Yeti let him go then he's guilty. A sort of dry version of chucking a witch into the river to see if she drowns.

By the time everything is cleared up it is clear that something strange is afoot. The 'real' Yeti are shy creatures. It turns out the ones attacking the monastery are something else altogether. They are something artificial.

Then there's the mystery Master, Padmasambhava (Wolfe Morris) who lurks about hypnotising the Abbott Songsten (Charles Morgan). Wolfe Morris does a fantastic job of Padmasambhava. There's something of the Gollum in his performance. Or there would be if Gollum came before Padmasambhava. Padmasambhava is not quite the villain of the piece. He's been taken over by The Great Intelligence, which is just a mind floating about the universe. It seems to want corporeal identity and power, which makes me wonder why it doesn't build itself a robot to bung its consciousness in so it can get on with its plans without having to operate through second-hand minds.

The reconstruction I was watching makes Padmasambhava's make-up job look a little shoddy at points but it is hard to tell in reality. Padmasambhava is supposed to be 300+ years old by this time. Kept alive by the Great Intelligence. Indeed, Padmasambhava's death is one of those occasional death's that crop up in Doctor Who where it truly is a release.

Gradually the whole plot is revealed. The Yeti attack but mainly in a bundling Big Daddy kind of way rather than in a wholly terrifying manner. Indeed, part of the problem with this story is that the Yeti are just too damn cute. Big, cuddly fur balls. Like Chewbacca's been eating a lot of pies. They wobbly along looking not at all threatening, whilst the genuine Doctor Who creep factor comes via Wolfe Morris's vocal performance and one or two moments - like Professor Travers flight from the cave - which feel genuinely scary.

Once more Troughton is fabulous. Once more Frazer Hines is excellent. Deborah Watling too is good here, although there is a point - when Thomni (David Spenser) tells her not to do something - where she behaves like a spoiled colonialist child that I felt rather uncomfortable with. She's disturbing though in Part Five when she's hypnotized and trying to get the Doctor to leave the Monastery.

This mention of colonialism brings me on to another unfortunate part of this story, which is all the 'yellow-face' on display. A brief scan of the actor's names above shows a distinct lack of Indian or Tibetan actors. David Spenser was born in Sri Lanka but everyone else is as white British as can be so there's a lot of eye make-up and uncomfortable accent work (which not everyone adopts.) Norman Jones is one of my favourite Doctor Who guest stars but he is a long way from being Tibetan. It's easier to ignore when listening to the soundtrack but if this was to come back into the archive the 'yellow-face' would become obvious and perhaps a little uncomfortable. Yes, I'm sure finding a cast of Tibetan-Chinese-Indian actors might have been difficult in 1967 but you often get the impression that no one even bothered to try. People often mention this issue with The Talons of Weng-Chiang but it doesn't come up often in discussions of this story. I suspect that is because it doesn't exist in its entirety in the archive.

It's also Doctor Who's first introduction to Buddhism, which may crop up again when Barry Letts gets going. But it is interesting that the Doctor takes it seriously enough. Not perhaps as a religion but as a mental control technique. There's no mockery of Buddhism here, even if some of the Monks aren't the brightest of sparks.

So, it's an OK story but it could have been shorter. It introduces us to The Great Intelligence who will crop up again soon and also - eventually - makes an appearance in New Doctor Who, starting with The Snowmen. The implication of The Snowmen is that it is the Doctor's own silliness that gives the Great Intelligence its idea for something that is coming up. Ah, that timey-wimey Mr. Moffat.

Definitely, one I'd like to see on video though to make a proper judgment.




Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Tomb of the Cybermen


Here's a thing, I don't enjoy Tomb of the Cybermen as much as I used to. In fact, there are parts of it that really, really annoy me. But because I try to take a positive view of Doctor Who I will start with the good stuff.

First and most important Patrick Troughton is majestic in this story. He's devious, snarky and charming. He sees through Kaftan (Shirley Cooklin) and Klieg (George Pastell) immediately but - for reasons of his own - helps them explore the whole Tomb, which seems a dangerous thing to do. There are two of my favourite Troughton moments in this story: the lovely little chat with Victoria about family and memory and his drawing out of Klieg's insanity in the final episode. Basically, Troughton's the best thing in this.

Frazer Hines and Deborah Watling are also pretty damn good. Jamie and Victoria make a rather sweet partnership. I also like the fact that Victoria, who has just lost her father and spent a huge chunk of time being held hostage by Daleks, doesn't take any rubbish from anyone. Her snarky relationship with Captain Hooper (George Roubicek) is another little highlight of this story.

The rest of the supporting cast are also pretty good even if some of the accents are a little...dubious. This is the first appearance of Cyril Shapps, as Professor Viner, in Doctor Who. Shapps specialises in the highly strung and is always on edge in this story, which is a delight.

Then there's the design and atmosphere. The Tombs looks good, the Cybermen look good and we get a quarry as an alien landscape, which is very Doctor Who. The Cybermen seem to have gone in for graphic design and baffling logic in equal measure. Their own image is stamped all over the place like the logo of a particularly avaricious corporation, which isn't entirely inappropriate. They've also set up the whole Tomb as a bizarre trap to attract the intelligent. Their explanation for this odd activity is rather strange.

Indeed, none of this story makes much sense. The Doctor's actions are odd. Kaftan and Klieg are clearly so up to no good it is astonishing anyone agreed to travel to Telos with them. I wouldn't trust them on a bus. There's also the problem of Kaftan being a white actress 'browned up'. I'm not sure where Kaftan is supposed to be from. I'm assuming North Africa or the Middle-East but she's browned up. Why? Why not just change her name and have a white actress play white? Again, I'm not sure where Klieg is from. George Pastell himself was Greek Cypriot so at least he isn't coloured in.

Most importantly though Klieg and Kaftan are idiotic even by the standards of Doctor Who villains. It's obvious, once they appear, that the Cybermen are bloody dangerous and can't be trusted. They explicitly say that they're going to convert everyone into Cybermen but Kaftan and Klieg persist with their plan beyond the point of sanity. Now, I know Klieg is basically batshit crazy by the end but what's Kaftan's excuse? Also, people keep leaving guns lying around for them to pick up. Too many people in this story are too stupid for their own good. Obviously, Doctor Who stories would be less interesting if the villains behaved like sensible people, i.e. after Klieg's first encounter with the Cybermen he didn't say to Kaftan, "Look, we've made a mistake here. These things will not help us. They will kill us."

Then there's Toberman (Roy Stewart). Toberman is a muscular black man who is virtually silent throughout. No one clarifies his relationship with Kaftan - is he an employee? A guard? A slave? A lover? He's certainly distraught when Kaftan is killed. I'll admit, get a fabulous final scene. It just makes me uncomfortable but I am one of those tedious left-wing political correct types. Toberman is half-converted to being a Cyberman but has enough humanity in him to take the fight to the Cybermen once Kaftan dies. I think it's the way the Doctor talks to him like a child that I don't like. The fact that it follows on so rapidly after Kemel in The Evil of the Daleks doesn't help. It's as if black men are just strong, silent - or near silent.

However, as I said earlier Toberman's final scene does at least have a certain power and dignity to it that Kemel's arbitrary death didn't.

For some reason, all those things got under my skin on this watch. Things like the obvious strings and dummies, which non-Doctor Who fans often pick up on and laugh I can shrug off but the stupidity of Kaftan and Klieg plus the treatment of Toberman really annoys me.

I remember being so excited in 1991 when it was rediscovered. I rushed down to the WHSmiths in Lancaster to buy it on VHS. Yes, young people VHS*  It was fabulous to get a whole new Patrick Troughton story from out of the ether. I remember there was some disappointment that it wasn't quite what people remembered but it is still a firm favourite.

I don't want you to think I hated it. There's enough good stuff to make it entertaining to watch: have I mentioned how brilliant Patrick Troughton is? But there are enough things that annoy me to have it be a story I'm less bothered about re-watching.

Still, Patrick Troughton's bloody brilliant.



* It looked like this...

*

Sunday, October 2, 2016

The Evil of the Daleks


The Evil of the Daleks ends Patrick Troughton's first season as The Doctor, which has been a pretty successful one for me. Troughton himself has been fantastic. I've enjoyed every story, including the unloved Underwater Menace. With Ben and Polly's departure, the last vestiges of the Hartnell era are gone. He begins this story with one companion, Jamie.

It picks up from the end of The Faceless Ones when the Doctor and Jamie try and find out what's happened to the TARDIS. It turns out that a lot is going to happen before they get back to it. There's Bob Hall (Alec Ross) then Kennedy (Griffith Davies) and Perry (Geoffry Coleville) before we meet Edward Waterfield (John Bailey) a dealer in Victorian antiques who just happens to be an actual Victorian. Even then we're not done. For Waterfield, leads us via time machines and a Dalek, to Theodore Maxtible (Marius Goring) and to an explanation of his experiments with static electricity, mirrors and time travel.

The explanation of Maxtible's theory sounds more like magic than science but we'll let it pass at this point as it doesn't really matter. All we know is that the mention of 'static' causes the Doctor to look worried, which is unsurprising as that's pretty much the cue for the Daleks to make their appearance and explain their long, convoluted plan to get him to where they want him. I love The Evil of the Daleks but the Daleks do make this incredibly difficult for themselves. Daleks don't strike me as the sort of race that lays out riddles for people. They're more the sort of people that pop up and start exterminating whatever moves until they get want they want. It takes the deviousness of the Daleks in Power of the Daleks and adds an almost Master like need to complicate things.

It turns out the Daleks want the Doctor's help in identifying the 'human factor' and have set up an experiment, involving Jamie, to help. At this point, the Doctor gets manipulative as hell as he sets up Jamie, without telling him the whole truth. Jamie, who realises he's being manipulated throws a strop but does exactly what everyone expects him to do. It makes you feel quite sorry for Jamie and Frazer Hines does a stonking good job of conveying everything that's required of him. The Second Doctor is definitely more than capable of matching the Daleks for deviousness, which I like.

Maxtible and Waterfield are helping the Daleks because they've kidnapped Waterfield's daughter, Victoria (Deborah Watling), although it becomes pretty clear that Maxtible has his own agenda. Marius Goring - who appears in one of my favourite films of all time: A Matter of Life & Death - is great as Maxtible, although he does edge towards the OTT as his plan and mind starts to unravel. It's John Bailey as Waterfield who puts in the best of the guest star performances. Waterfield is afraid for his daughter but ashamed by what they are doing to save her. It's a wonderful performance.

I should also note that Maxtible has a Turkish servant, Kemel (played by Trinidadian actor Sonny Caldinez). Kemel is a muscular gentleman who job is to get Jamie but who then joins Jamie to rescue Victoria. Kemel is a large, mute black man. Unfortunately, the next story also features a large, mute black man and it begins to look like the production team can't cast black actors except as silent men. Kemel's a good man though and his fate annoyed me as much as that of Griffith's in Attack of the Cybermen. Basically, he dies because they can't be arsed to write an explanation of what they're going to do with him when he survives and that's mainly because Victoria is intended to join the cast as a new companion.

It's hard to judge Victoria/Deborah Watling at this point because it's her first story but she's charming if a little confused and scared, which is unsurprising. She's also conveniently reduced to the status of an almost friendless orphan by the end of this story so she can head off with the Doctor and Jamie without too much thought. It'll be interesting to see how her status plays out as we go forward.

The Daleks 'human factor' is imported into three test Daleks. It works. They're like little children and one of the things from this story that will live in my memory is Daleks crying out 'dizzy Daleks.' They return to Skaro when called, which I'm thinking is a bit of an oversight in the Daleks plan. However, it turns out the 'human factor' was the blag. The Daleks actually wanted the Dalek factor, which they intend to sow throughout the history of the human race via a Dalekised Doctor and his TARDIS. The first victim is Maxtible. Then the Doctor but at this point, the Dalek's don't know the Doctor isn't human. They just think he is 'more than human' due to all his time travel. So the Doctor turns the turned tables on the Daleks.

This leads to a humanized Dalek v Dalek Daleks civil war and the destruction of the Daleks 'forever'. There's a moment where the Emperor Dalek - which is an impressive piece of design work - is trying to stop the Daleks fighting in front of him. It's the Dalek equivalent of 'Gentlemen! You can't fight in here. This is the War Room' from Dr. Strangelove.

Thus endeth the Daleks.

Or do they?

It's a pretty bleak ending as the Doctor's friendly Daleks die in the fighting too. It would have been nice if they'd just packed up and done a runner really. Perhaps more human than a series of suicidal attacks. The Doctor keeps saying 'Don't do anything without questioning it' but basically uses the human factor Daleks as his army. Why are they fighting? To prevent their destruction by proper Daleks but why not simply flee. Take over some saucers and go off to fight another day?

Pfft.

I'm making this sound more snarky than necessary, which is unfair because The Evil of the Daleks is an excellent story. It might be a bit too long but as I said in the previous blog that is a sin committed by many a Doctor Who story. It's got fab performances. Troughton, in particular, is amazing. There're a couple of great moments in particular: "What have you done with your infernal meddling!" (And the whole build up to it.) Then there is the lovely line, "I am not a student of human nature. I am a professor of a far wider academy of which human nature is merely a part."

So ignore my snarky snark snarking and go watch/listen to The Evil of the Daleks of which, alas, only a single episode survives in the archive. So either listen to the BBC CD or find a Reconstruction.

Ben & Polly


Like Barbara and Ian, I felt that Ben and Polly deserve a joint blog. Why? Because like Barbara and Ian I felt - and this is purely my own personal head canon - that they're destined to stay together after their time with the Doctor. Perhaps it is just because they depart together but I think there's more to it than that.

From their introduction in The War Machines Ben and Polly were an item. It took Polly to shake Ben out of his foul mood and Ben was insistent that they should find and rescue Polly, which he did. Polly also shook off enough of Wotan's influence to let Ben escape. By the time we get to The Underwater Menace there's no way these two aren't an item. In the final episode, Ben asks the Doctor 'What about Polly?' ignoring Jamie's very existence and it is Ben that Polly rushes to hug. They also choose to leave together in The Faceless Ones and the Doctor tells Polly to 'look after Ben.' So I'm all for Ben and Polly staying together post-TARDIS. I don't think it was ever easy. There's the class difference for a start. The implication was always that Polly was 'posh' and Ben was 'common'. I think they were supposed to be Doctor Who's dip into the modern world.

Ben was Michael Caine - and perhaps it is a coincidence that one of Michael Caine's earliest film appearances was as a sailor (blink and you'll miss him) in 1957's Sailor Beware - the young cockney lad. He wasn't a geezer. He was a nice lad. A bit rough around the edges, inclined to complain and bit but loyal, brave and fun.

Polly was...well...Polly was one of the women of the mid-60s: independent, fun and absolutely refusing to be put in a box. Yes, occasionally she can be a little snobbish, especially to Kirsty in The Highlanders but she's good-hearted. It is her idea to put together the 'Polly Cocktail' in The Moonbase  and she refuses to stay behind when told too. She isn't feisty, which has become something of an over-used word in Doctor Who terms, but she isn't a soft-touch either.

Michael Craze and Anneke Wills make a great team too. They have chemistry. It's such a shame that their time in the programme has been so battered by the destruction of Doctor Who in the archive. Of the 40 episodes of their time in the programme only 13 still exist. The only story in that exists in its entirety is their debut: The War Machines, which makes it hard to make a fair judgement of their time except through audio/reconstructions. But I always liked them as a team. They seemed like normal people who had fun with the Doctor for a while but eventually wanted to go home. After all, there are only so many times one can be knocked out, brainwashed, kidnapped or threatened with death before it seems less like fun and more like duty.

The truth is once Jamie appeared on the scene Ben and Polly's time in the series was limited. Three companions are too many to give properly balance stories too. Someone always has to end up unconscious or missing, which ends up making Ben and Polly's final story a bit of a waste as they hardly feature in most of it. It wasn't exactly going out in a blaze of glory. It seems to be a hangover to the arbitrary way in which companions were written out at the tail end of the Hartnell era the nadir of which was Dodo's departure. It doesn't have the post-departure joy that Ian and Barbara's departure does in The Chase but you hope that they have a happy life post-TARDIS. According to the Sarah Jane Adventures, they're running an orphanage together in India so I'm not the only one who thinks they're destined to be together forever.

Sadly Michael Craze died in 1998. Anneke Wills, who I've actually met briefly at a signing or two, has led an amazing life. Her two volumes of autobiography - Self Portrait and Naked - are well-worth reading. Not just for the Doctor Who tales but because she has a lot of stories to tell. It's a life worth reading about. She has worked frequently with Big Finish on Companion Chronicles and where they've re-cast Ben Jackson with Elliot Chapman who does a sterling job. The Companion Chronicles are, by the way, some of the best Doctor Who stories you'll hear so if you've not dipped into Big Finish and you have a fondness for or curiosity about Ben and Polly then this might be a good place to begin.

Enjoy.



Saturday, October 1, 2016

The Faceless Ones


The Faceless Ones is rather good. It's probably a tad too long but that's probably true of a lot of Doctor Who stories. It ends with companions departing having hardly appeared in the story as a whole, which makes it feel like Ben and Polly carried the 'Curse of Dodo' with them from The War Machines.

It's also got a shockingly low body count. The Doctor gets to be the Doctor by finding another way to solve the conflict between the nameless aliens - let's call them Chameleons - and humanity, although it does involve a rather nasty bit of blackmail.

The setting is Gatwick Airport, which is different. The Doctor and companions land the TARDIS in the middle of one of the runways, flee the trouble they may have caused. Then Polly witnesses a murder, which is just the beginning. The Doctor's investigations unravel a people smuggling operation with a twist despite him being on the run for a while, then convincing (sort of) The Commandant (Colin Gordon) and Inspector Crossland (Bernard Kay). In the early episodes, the Doctor is in the 'looks and talks like a mad man' mode. Especially as 'The Chameleons' run rings around him.

They grab Polly and then Ben. But fortunately, the Doctor still has Jamie and is also assisted by Samantha Briggs (Pauline Collins) a Liverpudlian woman who has come searching for her missing brother and gets caught up in the Doctor's investigations. She turns out to be fine possible companion material but Pauline Collins - probably wisely - turned down the opportunity to take the job. She's great though in this story and is again when she pops up in Tooth & Claw almost 30 years later as Queen Victoria.

This story is packed with actors who will pop up in more than one Doctor Who story. Donald Pickering plays Captain Blade and Wanda Ventham Jean Rock, the Commandant's PA. They'll crop up together again in Time and the Rani but they're at their most gorgeous here. Donald Pickering had already appeared in The Keys of Marinus and Wanda Ventham will also appear in Image of the Fendhal

Then Chris Tranchell, who'd only recently is cropped up in The Massacre but is probably best known in Doctor Who circles as Commander Andred in The Invasion of Time the man who captured Leela's heart in one of Doctor Who's least convincing companion exits.

Finally, there's the great Bernard Kay who has three other Doctor Who appearances to his credit: The Dalek Invasion of EarthThe Crusade, and Colony in Space. He's one of the great British character actors and there's a lovely moment when Inspector Crossland is on board a Chameleon Airlines flight, whose passengers are all young people and he finds himself about to start smoking his pipe. It's a masterclass in awkwardness.

I've dwelt on the actors a lot because the performances really make this story I think. Donald Pickering is delicious as Captain Blade, who sounds like he's been captured from an ITC television series of his own and feels like a genuine threat. Colin Gordon's Commandant also does a fine job of official bamboozlement before coming around and becoming officially quite the cold-hearted negotiator. You get the impression the Commandant comes with an impressive war record in Bomber Command because despite his confusion he's not an idiot.

This all helps Troughton raise his game even more. I think you're all going to get tired of my constant praise of the Great and Glorious Patrick Troughton but he's never more brilliant than in the final episode of this story: mischievous, courageous, ruthless, devious, and compassionate. He doesn't want to destroy the Chameleons but nor is he prepared to let them get away with their nasty little plan even if they have the best motives.

This is also the story where Jamie really sets up his place as the key Troughton companion. Both Ben and Polly are effectively sidelined so Jamie steps up to the plate. Frazer Hines is superb, especially when he gets to be the non-Jamie Jamie in the final episode. In the final episode as Jamie and the Doctor go off to look for the TARDIS, like Rick and Captain Renault at the end of Casablanca*, it seems to be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

 Basically, I loved The Faceless Ones. The villains are villainous but have a proper motivation. The Doctor has to be at his cleverest/most devious to win and it is packed full of fantastic actors doing sterling work. No one here is playing it for laughs or treating it as 'just Doctor Who'.

Alas only two of the six episodes exist in the archives. The other four required the use of reconstructions, which helped magnificently as usual. I think this is high on my list of stories I'd like someone to stumble upon in a Church basement or a West African television station.

Give it a go.





*Casablanca is really a love story about Rick and Captain Renault. Possibly.