Sci-Ence! Justice Leak!

Childe Peter To The Dark Tower Came – The Five Doctors

Posted in Doctor Who by Andrew Hickey on November 27, 2008

John Nathan-Turner, the producer of Doctor Who for most of its last decade, gets a bad rap from much of the fanbase. Sometimes this is deserved – some of the worst episodes of the show ever produced were done on his watch, and often at his instigation.

It is possibly going to appear over the next few days that I am joining in this chorus of disapproval, mostly due to my choices of episodes, so before I do that, I just want to say firstly that for every bad decision Nathan-Turner made he also made a good one; and secondly that Nathan-Turner’s Doctor Who is the version of the show I grew up on.

And that means a lot to me. I was a Doctor Who fan of the most obsessive kind before I was in primary school (the obsession dropped down between the ages of 12 and 25 or so, but much of my love for the programme dates from a very young age). I knew Nathan-Turner’s name written down before I knew how to pronounce it (I still half-consciously read it as Natthan (with a short a) in my head). Peter Davison and Colin Baker were ‘my’ Doctors in a way that Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker were to earlier generations. And my love as a child for that show – flawed as some of it undoubtedly was – inspired my passion for reading (give a Target novelisation to a five-year-old who doesn’t know he’s not meant to be able to read it and you’ll be surprised how quickly his vocabulary expands…), fantastic fiction, eccentric characters in the Sherlock Holmes tradition, non-violent solutions to problems, physics, evolutionary biology, linguistics (specifically a bit in the novelisation of State Of Decay where the Doctor explains to Romana about consonantal shift), logic… while I am actually nothing like the Doctor (in real life I am more like the Comic Book Guy from the Simpsons, but without the social graces and physical attractiveness) , the idealised self-image I have comes from wishing to emulate the Doctor as a child.

So whatever Nathan-Turner’s faults as a producer (and how much he can be blamed for the problems the show had during his tenure is definitely open to question) his years on the show did make at least one small child extraordinarily happy, and that’s something to keep in mind…

The Five Doctors, the show’s twentieth-anniversary special, is the first episode I have a conscious memory of watching when it was broadcast, a little over a month after my fifth birthday (though I’d definitely seen earlier episodes – it’s just no others remain in my memory). I remember being absolutely thrilled – Daleks! Cybermen! K-9! The Master! All the old Doctors who I’d only heard about! – and for years later I could remember the black triangle getting the Doctors, and Peter Davison collapsing, and a couple of other moments, even though I didn’t have a clue what the plot had been.

That is, of course, because there wasn’t one – or at least not one to speak of. While the tenth anniversary show, The Three Doctors, had had a simple brief – do a story with all three Doctors in it – The Five Doctors had to do more – it had to ‘celebrate’ the show by featuring as many old villains and companions as possible, as well as all five Doctors to date. The need to do this made one scriptwriter, Robert Holmes, quit early in the process – Holmes simply couldn’t come up with a coherent story featuring everything that the production team decided was necessary for the show. So Terrance Dicks – another former Who script editor, and at the time a freelance writer who made his living from novelising the TV show (mostly just adding the words ‘he said’ to the scripts if my memory of his books is correct – he was not someone who was known for labouring over his prose in an effort to turn out an exquisitely memorable phrase if instead he could just type “The Dalek shot the prisoner, who screamed and died”) took on the job.

Dicks was actually even more insistent that the production feature *everything* than the production staff themselves were – he had to do a story with Time Lords, the Master and Cybermen because that’s what Nathan-Turner and Eric Saward (the script editor) wanted, but he also insisted that it had to feature at least one Dalek (who gets killed in a most perfunctory manner after about ninety seconds of screen time), K-9 (who gets about two lines) and the Yeti (who most people don’t even notice).

Dicks was entirely right about this, incidentally, from the point of view of absolutely captivating small children, but it gives the story the same flavour as much of nuWho – a bunch of exciting moments strung together by something pretending to be a plot but without any real coherence.

Of course, it can’t have helped that Dicks had to do a story about Five Doctors when he only had three available. The absence of William Hartnell, who had died years earlier, was expected, and they got round it by casting Richard Hurndall to play his part (Hurndall did a passable impersonation of Hartnell, who hadn’t been seen on TV for many years, though the effectiveness of it was hampered by a little pre-credit snippet of Hartnell reminding people what he actually looked and sounded like). What hadn’t been expected, though, was for Tom Baker to turn the story down (mostly because he’d left the show less than two years earlier, but also because he didn’t get on very well at the time with Nathan-Turner). This absence was eventually also covered – by using some footage from the unaired Douglas Adams story Shada (with much better dialogue than the rest of the show) and saying that Baker’s Doctor was caught in a time distortion – but it meant that the script needed extensive rewriting.

Parts of the show work extremely well – especially the interplay between Troughton’s Doctor and Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart (with Troughton ad-libbing furiously most of the time, coming out with stuff about the Terrible Zodin and beasts that used to hop like kangaroos), and the show comes alive in the last few minutes, when all the Doctors are brought together at last (Nathan-Turner thought there’d be ego problems, and so made sure they only had one day of filming together) – the performers get over a mediocre script and spark wonderfully off each other, in a way that makes you wish just for an hour and a half of Davison, Troughton and Pertwee trapped in the TARDIS rather than this disjointed mess.

Most of the classic Doctors could rise above a bad script with a great performance, and Terrance DIcks was familiar enough with the characters to provide them with opportunities to do that, and the script contains several pretty good lines (“A man is the sum of his memories, you know… a Time Lord even more so”) – although several of the best were inserted by the actors. It was great fun for kids at the time, and it has a lot of nostalgia value – I’ve probably watched it more than any other episode, because if you don’t concentrate and just look up for the good bits it can deliver a great rush of childhood affection for the various characters – but it’s just a disposable children’s romp, not something that should be given a ‘twenty-fifth anniversary special edition’ DVD release on two discs with two different edits of the show and three different commentaries.

Ten Years On – The Time Warrior

Posted in Doctor Who by Andrew Hickey on November 25, 2008

I actually only noticed today that many of the stories I’m choosing for A Doctor A Day fall close to important anniversaries for the show – The Invasion was shown over the fifth anniversary, the Five Doctors was shown for the twentieth anniversary, Remembrance Of The Daleks was the start of the twenty-fifth year of the show (and also started broadcasting on the even more important date of my tenth birthday), and today’s story, The Time Warrior, was broadcast just a couple of weeks after the tenth anniversary (which came halfway through The Green Death, another really good story). An odd, and unintended, coincidence – especially when you consider that the two stories I’m looking at that don’t fit this pattern – Destiny Of The Daleks and Timelash – are the ones that are generally considered ‘a bit crap’. Possibly the quality of Doctor Who stories goes in regular cycles, or possibly I’m inferring too much from a tiny and biased sample. You decide…

The Time Warrior was the last story of Jon Pertwee’s penultimate series as the Doctor, and is one of his very best. Pertwee was the second longest-serving Doctor, after his successor Tom Baker, but his five years with the show are not generally regarded as a highpoint (and I must admit that while I try not to defer to popular opinion, he ties with Sylvester McCoy for last place in my personal rankings of the seven original Doctors). In part this was because of the format, imposed by the outgoing production team at the end of Patrick Troughton’s tenure, with which Pertwee’s Doctor was lumbered – stuck on Earth without the ability to operate the TARDIS for most of the first few years of his stint as the Doctor, as Terrance Dicks, the script editor of the time, noted, this only left two stories – the alien invasion and the mad scientist – open for the show.

But also, Pertwee’s Doctor was too much the man of action, and the show in this period owed far more to the contemporary ITC adventure series like Jason King and Randall & Hopkirk (Deceased) (and also to The Avengers, a wonderful non-ITC show of the same ilk, co-created by Sydney Newman before he worked on Doctor Who – Pertwee’s character may have dressed like Peter Wyngarde, but his lines could easily have been spoken by Patrick McNee). Doctor Who at its best was always an innovative show – and it always had the potential to do literally anything – and so to see it following the lead of other, less interesting shows is somewhat depressing.

To make matters worse, most of Pertwee’s scripts were extremely average, and while script editor Terrance Dicks (we will talk more about the importance of script editors to Who tomorrow) was probably the strongest script editor the show ever had as far as plot went, he was not so hot on punching up dialogue, and was infuriatingly sexist, so when given a dull runaround by, say, Terry Nation (of whom more also tomorrow) it would turn into a dull sexist runaround but with a beautifully crafted plot.

There were exceptions to this, though, especially in Pertwee’s later series. The Green Death, the story directly before this one, is one of the best of any era, and everything written by Robert Holmes, who wrote this story, is golden – Holmes was as good a writer as people seem to think Stephen Moffatt is, writing chilling horror and music-hall patter with equal facility.

We’re very lucky that Holmes was chosen to write this story, which introduced several new elements to the Doctor Who ‘mythos’ (if you’ll pardon the term), one of which was the new companion, Sarah Jane Smith.

Something that has been noted many times about Doctor Who is that almost every new female companion for the Doctor was introduced with “this one won’t be just a typical screamer to get rescued by the Doctor”, but almost every one of them was reduced to shrieking and being captured by villains within two stories. There were exceptions (Tom Baker’s companions mostly got away with having actual characters, and Ace never got turned into a damsel in distress) but normally their personalities got watered down horribly.

On the commentary track for The Time Warrior, Dicks claims that the format demanded the companions be ‘tied to railway tracks’, and that making the characters stronger when they were first introduced allowed this to be done without cheapening the characters – you knew they were strong, so they were then allowed to be weak. There is, no doubt, an element of truth to this. However, Dicks is also the man who replaced Doctor Liz Shaw after one series with Jo Grant, whose function was described *on screen* as ‘someone to wash the Doctor’s test tubes and tell him how brilliant he is’, and who says in the documentary on the Time Warrior DVD “Much to my disgust, feminism was coming along, you see…”, so I’m not *entirely* convinced by his arguments.

But with the character of Sarah Jane Smith, viewers were lucky enough to get a Robert Holmes script, and to get Elisabeth Sladen in the role. Sladen is an absolutely superb actress – easily the best actress ever to take a companion role in Who – and she managed to get enough of a sense of the character from the script that she managed to actually build a coherent character up for Sarah Jane, often in spite of later scripts, and became one of the best-remembered companions of the entire series.

The Time Warrior itself is a great romp, involving a Sontaran (their first appearance) crash-landing on Earth in the medieval period and having to kidnap scientists from the twentieth century using a time-displacement macguffin in order to repair his ship, and getting involved in a local conflict between knights, with the Doctor travelling back in time to sort it out along with a stowaway Sarah Jane. While the feel of the story is Ivanhoe-esque Boys’ Own adventure, the actual plot is closer to farce, being based around cases of mistaken identity, comic-relief absent-minded professors, and the Doctor dressing up as a robot and a monk. It also features one of writer Robert Holmes’ classic ‘double acts’, Irongron and Bloodaxe, who operate in classic Pete’n’Dud intelligent idiot/stupid idiot mode, and some of the overall best acting in the series.

The performances are helped by Alan Bromly’s direction. Bromly was, even at the time, considered an ‘old-school’ director, and in his work, even more than in Waris Hussein’s on An Unearthly Child, you can see the theatrical origin of much of the style of British TV drama. A much less visually imaginative director than Hussein, he just plonks the camera in one spot and sets up the shot, but he frames the shots so well – and more importantly casts actors so perfectly in their roles – that the effect is like watching an extraordinarily good stage performance.

But a Doctor Who story would be nothing without the central performance, and it’s here that The Time Warrior really shines, with Pertwee given one of his rare opportunities to get his teeth into the role. While Pertwee is generally a rather hammy performer (not that there’s anything wrong with that in Who) there are some great little moments here, like when he leans back and considers whether to report Sarah Jane to UNIT, where it’s no longer funny old Jon Pertwee out of Wurzel Gummidge up there, but it’s the Doctor. Pertwee shows here just what he could do with a good script, and it’s a shame that, like Colin Baker later, he was so rarely given the chance to do that.

The Time Warrior is available either as a single DVD or as part of the Bred For War box set (containing all the Sontaran stories at a reduced price, and well worth it even though none of those other stories match up to this first one). It’s also apparently available on iTunes, though why on earth anyone would want to pay Apple for a DRM’d video file that they can’t watch without running the risk of breaking their computer I’m unsure. However you get it, though, it’s a good, solid story at the upper end of the norm for Doctor Who – nothing earth-shattering, but thoroughly enjoyable, and it stands up surprisingly to repeated watching.

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