Season 14 (Aug 3 - Aug 15)

August 3: The Masque of Mandragora Parts One & Two
August 4: The Masque of Mandragora Parts Three & Four
August 5: The Hand of Fear Parts One & Two
August 6: The Hand of Fear Parts Three & Four
August 7: The Deadly Assassin Parts One & Two
August 8: The Deadly Assassin Parts Three & Four
August 9: The Face of Evil Parts One & Two
August 10: The Face of Evil Parts Three & Four
August 11: The Robots of Death Parts One & Two
August 12: The Robots of Death Parts Three & Four
August 13: The Talons of Weng-Chiang Parts One & Two
August 14: The Talons of Weng-Chiang Parts Three & Four
August 15: The Talons of Weng-Chiang Parts Five & Six



August 3: The Masque of Mandragora Parts One & Two

A new font for the titles (serif now!) heralds the start of season 14.  Then we get a quick gag about a boot cupboard and it's on to the brand-new control room -- the "second control room", the Doctor calls it.  It's all wood paneling and brass handrails, with some lovely stained-glass windows (well, roundels) inset along the wall.  It's a nice little set, even if it is covered in dust when we first see it.

A quick unintentional stop in the Mandragora Helix inadvertently leads to some Mandragora Helix energy getting aboard the TARDIS, which then takes the TARDIS to 15th-century Italy. ("Strange," the Doctor remarks.  "Forced landing. ... I didn't touch a thing.")  The Helix energy gets out, which leads to some rather nifty special effects as the energy (which appears to be a red light superimposed on the screen) moves things around and causes explosions and death (the sizzling of the water being a particular favorite of mine).  They did a really good job of making it seem like the light is actually interacting with things on the location.

The time period was well chosen by the Helix, it seems; writer Louis Marks (in his final script for the series) is making the point that this time is, as the Doctor says in part two, "the period between the dark ages of superstition and the dawn of a new reason," and thus the perfect time for the Helix to invade, as it uses the vestiges of one of the ancient religions (the cult of Demnos -- not a real cult or pagan figure, in case you were wondering), on the verge of being wiped out, as the way to cement its power on Earth.

Most of the first episode involves exploring 15th-century Italy, making our way to the seat of power in this area.  Count Federico seems to be the de facto ruler of San Martino (not a real dukedom), with little interest in the new science that the actual Duke, Giuliano, is engrossed in, but little regard for superstitions -- if he can't use it toward his own end, Federico doesn't care.  That includes the Doctor, who's trying to warn them about the Helix ("A ball of heavenly fire has come down to Earth.  It could consume everything in its path.  It could destroy the world").  Federico decides he's of no use and sends him to be executed...

Well, of course he manages to escape, where he not only rescues Sarah from the clutches of the Cult of Demnos but also meets up with Giuliano.  While rescuing Sarah though, he watches as the Helix energy descends upon the Cult -- it seems that the Helix has been communing with Hieronymous, Federico's court seer and the leader of the Cult, and the Doctor provided the Helix with the opportunity to reach Earth.  We also see more evidence of the effect Helix energy has on people -- turning their skin into a bright blue substance, rather like a form of copper oxidation.  But that's about it for this episode, and the cliffhanger is rather lackluster, as it simply involves Sarah being recaptured by the Brotherhood of Demnos; that said, the high priest's final line of the episode -- "Demnos will not be cheated of his pleasure, little one" -- is suitably menacing in its calmness.



August 4: The Masque of Mandragora Parts Three & Four

It's perhaps not that surprising, but the Doctor, it seems, is a fairly accomplished swordsman -- he appears to be holding his own against Count Federico's guards (although it's the arrival of the Brethren of Demnos that ends up chasing the guards away), and it's fun to see him wielding a sword -- even if the stuntman doubling for Tom Baker is wearing a wig that's not quite the right hair color.

There's also some entertainment to be had in Hieronymous's hypnotizing of Sarah, as he convinces her to try and kill the Doctor -- a role which Elisabeth Sladen seems to be relishing, as there's a rather evil smile on her face as she prepares to do the deed.  This stuff is probably more memorable in fandom, however, for Sarah's wondering how she can speak Italian -- this being a clue to the Doctor that something's not right with Sarah.  It's a "Time Lord gift" he allows her to share, by the way, but it's the first time that this has ever been brought up in the series before.

Everything else in this episode is fun but rather unmemorable.  Count Federico's machinations aren't honestly that engaging, and it only matters because he's preventing the Doctor from dealing with the main issue: the Mandragora's takeover of Hieronymous and his followers.  Federico's chaining everyone up in the palace dungeon is just letting Hieronymous gain power.  It's only when the Doctor convinces Federico of the threat Hieronymous poses (as the leader of the Brethren, if nothing else) that Federico accompanies him into the catacombs -- where Hieronymous kills Federico, after revealing that there's nothing behind the golden mask he wears except pure Helix energy...

Hieronymous instructs one of the Brethren of Demnos. (The
Masque of Mandragora
Part Four) ©BBC
Now that Federico is out of the way, part four can concentrate on stopping the Mandragora Helix.  Yet even this feels a bit distant and uninvolved.  The Doctor has some sort of plan involving a metal breastplate and a bunch of wire, but we're not quite sure what it is.  The most engaging part is Duke Giuliano's decision to hold a masque to celebrate his accession to the throne, and that feels rather detached as well.  The dance is rather good (even if it does look a bit small), and while it's going on we see the Doctor confront Hieronymous, but we don't see the final outcome -- so when the Brethren attack the guests at the masque and lead the rest back to the ruined temple in the catacombs, we don't know what's happening, only that something is going on.  It's only at the end, when the Doctor reveals himself to have taken Hieronymous's place, that we work out what's happened: the Doctor grounded himself and drained away Hieronymous's energy, as well as that of the Brethren.  Earth is safe from the Mandragora.

It's a bit curious how laidback The Masque of Mandragora feels.  For something that could signal the end of the world, there's a lack of dramatic impetus here, as the story is content more to explore the ideas of late 15th century Italy and the interaction between superstition and science than it is to drive home the world-ending threat that we're told the Mandragora poses.  It's charming in its own way, but it definitely feels more like a casual summer stroll than the urgent march we've become used to from similar stories in this era of the show.



August 5: The Hand of Fear Parts One & Two

It opens with a desperate attempt to execute an alien war criminal (well, that's what we seem to be led to believe) before the ability to do so is gone, and the fact that there is a one in three million chance that something might survive is enough to severely worry the executioners -- but they press the button anyway, destroying the ship containing Eldrad the traitor.

I think you can guess where this is going.

The Doctor and Sarah seem awfully dim in their first scene.  They've arrived in a quarry but pay no mind to the blaring sirens; it's not until almost the very last moment that Sarah realizes something's wrong.  The subsequent scenes with all the rubble are suitably dramatic, and when Sarah finds a fossilized hand amidst everything, their troubles really begin.

This first episode does a nice job of keeping things moving.  The Doctor works out that this hand is incredibly old, belonging to a silicon-based lifeform that appears to have come "fluttering down by itself" -- no spaceship fragments are found in the quarry rocks.  Elisabeth Sladen, meanwhile, is clearly relishing the opportunity to play an evil (well, all right, possessed) character, giving a number of unnerving smiles and repeating "Eldrad must live" in a sing-song voice.  And it's already in this first episode that the possessed Sarah causes a panic at the nearby Nunton nuclear facility94, taking the fossilized hand deep into the facility, right next to the nuclear reactor -- which leads into a great cliffhanger as Sarah opens the box she's carrying the broken hand in, and we see it regenerate and then begin to move...

The second episode, it has to be said, feels a lot like the second half of the first; Sarah is rescued and is cured of her possession, but that just means that someone else gets to be possessed and take the hand back inside.  Well, to be fair, the first half of the episode involves working out how to get to Sarah, who's locked herself inside the reactor room, but once they free her it's someone else's turn.  But there are some nice moments nevertheless -- Dr. Watson's phone call to his family when he thinks the plant is going to go into meltdown is often mentioned, and justly so.  There's also the nice little callback to Terror of the Zygons where the Doctor puts Sarah in a trance again -- although this time it's to get her to remember what happened when she was possessed by the hand rather than slowing down her breathing to save oxygen.

But ultimately this episode shows us the Doctor's efforts to get Sarah and the strange hand out of the reactor room, and once he succeeds someone else steps up to take the hand right back in.  Although the cliffhanger does show us something a little different from before, as Driscoll (the hand's new agent) succeeds in opening up the inner door and appears to walk straight into the nuclear reactor with the hand...



August 6: The Hand of Fear Parts Three & Four

So Driscoll walks inside the reactor with the hand -- he's presumably killed (we never hear from him again), but, impossibly, all the radiation appears to have been absorbed and there's something alive inside the reactor, as we can hear it thumping on the door that the Doctor closed.  And not even a nuclear strike by the RAF can stop it -- although one has to wonder about firing nuclear missiles at something that's already proved it can absorb all the radiation from a nuclear reactor.  And sure enough, the missiles do nothing -- there's not even a flash.  What there is is a fully-formed silicon-based female inside the reactor, as all the radiation gave her enough energy to reconstitute herself.

Eldrad sees Kastria on the TARDIS viewscreen while Sarah and the
Doctor look on. (The Hand of Fear Part Three) ©BBC
The result is that Eldrad, as played by Judith Paris, is a nuanced character, telling the Doctor that she's the victim of a planetary war with invaders that attempted to execute her (which doesn't quite match up with what we saw at the beginning of part one) and pleading with him to take her back home to Kastria.  The Doctor seems willing to do this, but before they can get going there's a bizarre moment where Professor Watson opens fire on Eldrad for no obvious reason other than "she's an alien". It's really not clear what he was thinking, but he doesn't do her any damage and she's able to proceed to the TARDIS.  Oh, and this is the episode that introduces the concept of the TARDIS interior being in a state of temporal grace, meaning that weapons don't work inside.  It's an interesting idea that nevertheless is contradicted numerous times in subsequent stories -- but it definitely seems to work here.

We also get a very odd cliffhanger, as Eldrad is shot in the chest with a giant spear-like needle -- it's not often we get a cliffhanger about a guest character, let alone one whose morals are set up as ambiguously as Eldrad's...

Part four is a bit of a letdown, honestly.  Judith Paris is so good as Eldrad that her "death" during the episode is a bit saddening -- but then she's resurrected in her true form, as Stephen Thorne tries to chew up every piece of scenery he can.  It's such a dramatically different performance, with little of the nuance that Judith Paris brought to the role, that it's hard not to be disappointed.  And we learn that the Kastrians were so worried about Eldrad's return (only one in three million chance of survival, remember) that they set up a bunch of booby traps just for him and left him a message just to taunt him from beyond the grave.  And then the Doctor and Sarah cause him to trip and fall into an abyss.  The end.

Well, not quite.  Sarah gets mad at the Doctor and makes a show of getting ready to leave, only for the Doctor to receive "the call from Gallifrey", which means that he has to leave Sarah behind; she can't come to Gallifrey with him.  It's a bit sudden and sad, but it's a nice leaving scene: "Don't forget me," Sarah says.  "Oh, Sarah.  Don't you forget me," the Doctor says with feeling.  And that's the end of Sarah's travels in the TARDIS, being dropped off at what turns out isn't her home like the Doctor thought.95  It's sad to see Sarah go; she's been such an integral part of the show recently, as Elisabeth Sladen brought a cheeky sense of fun to the Doctor's travels.  She made Sarah charming, sweet, and lively, and she made it seem effortless.  What more could you want in a travelling companion?

But that's just the very end of The Hand of Fear.  The rest of the story is entertaining enough, but like the previous story there's a sense of unmemorability, that the events we see aren't given the weight we might like.  It doesn't help that Eldrad doesn't appear fully-formed until part three.  There are definitely some good moments, and we see Baker & Martin's first fully-fledged use of "catchphrases" in the series ("Eldrad must live!"), but it ultimately has a slightly inconsequential feel. 



August 7: The Deadly Assassin Parts One & Two

I like the opening text scroll -- it makes things seem even more important than they otherwise would, setting the events of this story in a (fake but important-sounding) historical context.  And there's admittedly something exciting about the thought of a whole story set on Gallifrey, which also gives things an extra bit of energy.

Intriguingly, Robert Holmes expends little time on doing elaborate set-ups and looks into Time Lord society, preferring instead to toss in details as they come up.  In one sense this can be a bit frustrating, as it sometimes looks like Holmes is just making it up as he goes along (e.g., Engin's comment in part two about how the Doctor appears to have survived being plugged into the APC because "his brain must have an unusually high level of artron energy" -- and yes, this is the first mention of that particular piece of lore), since no time has been taken to establish any of these things.  But ultimately moments like this are outweighed by the more successful application of the same techniques, such as Runcible's off-handed descriptions of the Time Lord chapters, which add a sense of history even if they're about as meaningful to the viewer as talk of "artron energy".  (Although there seems to be some confusion about which colors actually go with which chapters, as what we see doesn't line up with what we're told.)

The other interesting choice that Holmes makes is to make this first episode feel like a political thriller, as the Doctor races to stop the assassination of the outgoing Time Lord President even as the Chancery Guards try to apprehend him; meanwhile, in the shadows there lurks a shadowy, disfigured person who seems to have ensnared the Doctor in some sort of trap.  Still, the Doctor gets pretty far, making it into the main ceremonial chamber (which looks fantastic, by the way) and even up into the balcony, where he finds a convenient form of rifle.  And then, in what's really quite a shocking cliffhanger, we appear to see the Doctor shoot down the President.  Why would he do that?  What's going on?  And who's that mysterious figur–oh wait, the credits say it's the Master.  So, there's that answered, I guess.

The disfigured Master. (The Deadly Assassin Part Two) ©BBC
Part two cheats the cliffhanger reprise a bit by inserting a shot of someone pulling out an energy pistol; this is apparently who the Doctor was actually shooting at.  It takes about half the length of this episode before the Doctor works out that it's the Master behind things.  He's looking a lot worse for wear than the last time we saw the character in Frontier in Space, and it looks like he's motivated more by hatred than anything else -- though why his accomplice is helping him, we can only guess.  The Doctor, meanwhile, only escapes summary execution thanks to some legal trickery where he declares his candidacy for the recently vacated Presidency, which grants him immunity from execution until the election is over.  This gives him a chance to investigate and come to the aforementioned conclusion regarding the Master.  The political thriller aspect gives way to a murder mystery (complete, hilariously, with a chalk outline of the assassinated President), which then itself gives way to something more surreal, as the Doctor is plugged into an advanced sort of computer called both the APC and the Matrix in order to find out where the Master is -- only to find himself in a strange, desolate dreamscape (which looks an awful lot like a quarry), fighting for his life against a masked foe.  This episode's cliffhanger's rather strange, given what's gone before, but it makes sense in the context of what we've just seen, as the Doctor finds his foot trapped in a railroad switch track as his masked foe bears down on him...



August 8: The Deadly Assassin Parts Three & Four

Part three takes place almost entirely inside the Matrix, as the Doctor fights not only for his survival but also to unmask the other presence inside, the person who's working for the Master.  As such, this episode adds almost nothing to the plot -- yet the final result is so good that it's easy to forgive it.  Partly that's because it's filmed well, but it's also because this is the most desperate and vulnerable we've ever seen the Doctor, as he's trapped in the Matrix and forced to play by his unknown opponent's rules.  (All right, it's Chancellor Goth -- a fact we learn roughly five minutes before the Doctor, as his face is clearly visible in the scene where the Doctor shoots him with the poisoned thorn.)  It's a little curious that Goth would pick such Terran objects, though; does Gallifrey have a history filled with samurai, trains, biplanes, and big game hunters?  Or is Goth also fond of Earth culture?

It is a violent episode, to be sure, full of imagery of Goth hunting and shooting at the Doctor, the Doctor wounded and on the run, and lots of physical fighting (as opposed to the more fantastic shootings in the story up to this point).  That said, the set-up is such that it seems more in character than The Seeds of Doom did, and in general it seems intense rather than tawdry.  And, famously, the episode ends with another Maloney freeze frame, this time of the Doctor's head underwater -- an image so terrible, it seems, that Mary Whitehouse, the head of watchdog association the National Viewers' and Listeners' Association (which tried to "clean up" TV), found it particularly objectionable, citing it as one of the scariest moments in Doctor Who and saying that small children would be left with that image for an entire week.  The BBC agreed, and cut the freeze frame from the master tape -- as if it were the freeze frame that was objectionable, rather than the Doctor's attempted drowning.  Nevertheless, the scene has been restored for the DVD.

Part four gets things moving again -- although, oddly, it seems to be wrapping up at only seven minutes in: Goth has been exposed as the traitor and the true Presidential assassin (it seems he wanted the Presidency and the outgoing President wasn't going to give it to Goth), and the Master appears to have died.  Cardinal Borusa gets some wonderfully cynical lines regarding the outcome of all this.  "We must adjust the truth," he states, deciding to make Goth into a posthumous hero rather than a traitor and pinning everything else on the deceased Master.  "If heroes don't exist, it is necessary to invent them.  Good for public morale," he adds.  The only thing left unexplained is what the Master's goal was in all of this.

The Doctor tries to prevent the Master from disconnecting the
Eye of Harmony. (The Deadly Assassin Part Four) ©BBC
Well, funny that.  The Master only faked his death; he wants the Sash of Rassilon and the Great Key, because he's worked out that the Sash is a powerful force field and that the Key will unlock the source of the Time Lords' power, the Eye of Harmony (which is described as both "Rassilon's star" and as an object from inside a black hole -- so it's perhaps not unreasonable to think it's a singularity).  The Master wants the power this will grant him, with the destruction of Gallifrey and "a hundred other worlds" as a bonus.96  Fortunately the Doctor is able to stop him before he can finish disconnecting the Eye of Harmony, thus saving Gallifrey.  The Doctor departs with a full pardon -- but the Master, who was believed dead, is also seen to depart...

Part four is a pretty important episode in terms of fan lore: this is the first mention of Rassilon as the architect of Time Lord society (and no effort, it should be noted, is made to reconcile this with Omega's role as described in The Three Doctors -- fortunately both versions are vague enough for them to coexist relatively easily), the first mention of the Eye of Harmony as the source of the Time Lords' power, and the first time an explicit limit is given to the number of times a Time Lord can regenerate -- you only get twelve regenerations, it seems, and then you're done97.  This last part is done to give the Master a more desperate motivation: he's reached his final incarnation and thus basically has no future left -- a fact enhanced by the decrepit look he has in this story.  These parts and all the other details that will endure in the mind of fandom (the Time Lord costumes, that fancy figure-eight design element from Revenge of the Cybermen that shows up everywhere on Gallifrey) means that The Deadly Assassin is an important story, at least in terms of adding to the mythos of the show.  But is it any good?

Fortunately the answer is a definite yes.  The confidence which filled much of season 13 is back in full force here, as Robert Holmes spins a tale that feels important and epic.  The Doctor is on his own and looks as self-assured as ever.  In addition, the sense of increasing desperation that David Maloney injects into this keeps everything moving at a quick pace, making it feel both desperate and urgent.  All the actors do a good job (even if George Pravda as Castellan Spandrell occasionally sounds like he doesn't understand what he's being asked to say) and the design work is fabulous, with lots of dark corners and long shadows mixed with that dark iridescent green creating a fascinating-looking world.  It all adds to an impressive package; The Deadly Assassin is definitely a classic of the show.

And I don't even mind the title that much.



August 9: The Face of Evil Parts One & Two

This story starts, enjoyably, in the middle of events, as a girl named Leela is being banished from her primitive-looking tribe, the Sevateem.  Yet there are bits and pieces of technology scattered around the tribal building, which suggests a far richer history than we might otherwise suspect.

And into this unusual jungle environment (which is a wonder of design -- both minimal in its suggestions (this isn't the same style as the overcrowded, lush jungle in Planet of Evil) and yet with curious details such as the tubing-like vines that make this place look satisfyingly alien), the TARDIS materializes and the Doctor steps out to break the fourth wall, turning the audience into his companion -- it's a really odd moment, to be honest, and is a much better argument for the Doctor needing a companion than The Deadly Assassin was -- as well as being the first really obvious moment of Tom Baker being indulgent with the role (something which will create issues down the line).

But this is the exception to this story rather than the rule; for the most part these two episodes are smart and engaging, and it's not long after this moment that the Doctor encounters Leela, who immediately identifies the Doctor as "the Evil One" -- which means that, for this tribe, the Doctor is the eponymous face of evil -- a clever move.  There's also the matter of invisible monsters which the Doctor deduces must therefore be blind and will react to sound and vibrations: another smart decision from Chris Boucher's debut Who script.  There are lots of nice touches like this; the Doctor's examination of the abandoned technology and the conclusions he draws from both it and the Sevateem's ceremonial gestures ("That gesture you did. ... It's presumably to ward off evil.  It's interesting because it's also the sequence for checking the seals on a Starfall Seven spacesuit.  And what makes that particularly interesting is that you don't know what a Starfall Seven spacesuit is, do you?") are really nice, and there's clearly been a great deal of thought devoted to the set design and the costumes of the Sevateem.  The best part, though, is how the voice of the Sevateem's god, Xoanon -- who we can hear speaking to the Sevateem's shaman Neeva -- is recognizably Tom Baker's.  And then, not long after, we get the fabulous cliffhanger of the Doctor gazing at the giant carving of the Evil One's face in the cliffside, which is clearly the Doctor's face -- so there's another, more obvious face of evil as well.

The second part continues this trend, with more explorations of the Sevateem's culture and speculation on what's going on with Xoanon and the Sevateem -- the most striking aspect being the appearance of the invisible monsters, which are screaming Tom Baker faces.  There's a bit of plot advancement, but most of this episode is a fascinating exercise in world building, expanding on what we've already learned.  There's also a really nice moment where Leela proves her value to the Doctor after the Doctor realizes he can't get past the wall next to the Sevateem village, as it's separated by an impenetrable time barrier (yet another lovely concept): "You know you said nothing could get within that barrier? ... Not light or anything. ... But Xoanon is inside it. ... How do we hear his voice?"

The other part worth remarking on is the Doctor's undergoing the test of the Horda -- the Horda being vicious piranha-like creatures.  The Doctor proves his worth fairly easily, but what's curious is how he casually flicks a Horda onto the shoulder of the Sevateem who slaps Leela -- it's a surprisingly callous moment, even if it seems to be done out of a fit of pique.  Still, it only lands on his clothes rather than bare skin, and maybe we can be generous and acknowledge that the Doctor knew this would only scare him, rather than kill.

Odd cliffhanger, though, as one of the Sevateem, Tomas, is threatened by an invisible Tom Baker face.  Apparently we're supposed to care more about the Sevateem than we actually do...



August 10: The Face of Evil Parts Three & Four

The first two episodes focused on the Sevateem out in the jungle; these two focus more on the Tesh, the enemies of the Sevateem who are holding Xoanon captive inside the barrier, according to Sevateem legend.  The Tesh are less interesting -- probably partly because they're not really the main focus, and partly because they're dressed in silly-looking uniforms.  Still, it's clear what Chris Boucher is trying to do, having the Tesh be more intellectual than the Sevateem; it just doesn't quite work.

Leela admiring her handiwork in the Tesh ship. (The Face of
Evil
Part Three) ©BBC
But that's okay for part three, because it's far more interesting learning about the Tesh's ship (even if it's not the most exciting-looking set ever; still, there are some nice angles and such) and hearing from the Doctor as he works out how he caused the problems in the first place, with a really nifty idea at the core.  "I didn't recognise a birth trauma and that was my mistake.  And when I connected my own brain to it, it didn't just take compatible information as a machine should have done.  It took everything. ... When it woke, it had a complete personality.  Mine.  It thought I was itself.  Then it began to develop another separate self, its own self.  And that's when it started to go mad."  The thought of a computer going mad because it has two separate, distinct personalities competing for supremacy is a wonderful idea, and I like how that schizophrenia is mirrored in the development of the Sevateem and the Tesh.  Plus this gives us one of the most wonderfully odd cliffhangers in the series' history, as Xoanon has trouble accepting the new information the Doctor provides and proceeds to psychically assault the Doctor, while a young voice cries out, "Who am I?"

After the superb last three episodes, part four is a bit of a letdown, since a large portion of it consists of Xoanon using the various means at his disposal to try and kill the Doctor while he tries to figure out how to "cure" Xoanon.  That's not to say there aren't some good moments and lines -- for instance, Xoanon's motivation for trying to kill the Doctor, which is that he simply doesn't fit in Xoanon's worldview: "You know, the very powerful and the very stupid have one thing in common," the Doctor remarks, as he's looking for the things he'll need to help Xoanon.  "They don't alter their views to fit the facts.  They alter the facts to fit their views, which can be uncomfortable if you happen to be one of the facts that needs altering." However, this episode feels more like a typical Doctor Who story than the more literary feel the first three episodes had.  The resolution is great though, as the Doctor not only fixes Xoanon in the nick of time (as it's about to blow everything up in a nuclear-fueled explosion) but then has a very pleasant chat with the now Doctor-personality-free Xoanon -- and, as has been remarked elsewhere, it's nice to have a story that doesn't end with the computer being blown up.

And finally, we see Leela become the Doctor's latest companion, despite his reluctance: "You like me, don't you?" Leela asks, after being initially rebuffed by the Doctor to travel with him.  "Well, yes, I suppose I do like you.  But then, I like lots of people but I can't go carting them around the universe with me," the Doctor replies.  But it's too late -- Leela has dashed inside the TARDIS and started its flight.

The Face of Evil is a story that seems to be overshadowed by the surrounding stories, which have received a significant amount of praise.  This is a great shame, as this story is perhaps one of the best examples in Doctor Who of an author thinking his way through an SF conceit and exploring the result -- it's certainly the best example up to this point.  Yes, there are moments where things slip a little, but everything else is so good that the dips are easily forgivable; there's an intelligence at work here, a crisp sharpness that shines through everything else.  It's one of the best "villains" ever, and the ideas and thought involved are top-notch, giving us a production that's just as much at home playing with those ideas as they've been pastiching old horror stories and scaring us.  The Face of Evil is an undeservedly neglected gem.



August 11: The Robots of Death Parts One & Two

Standard and special edition DVDs
It's one of those rare times during the 20th century run of Doctor Who where we get back-to-back stories by the same author, as Chris Boucher returns to write his second story.  In some ways it's different from The Face of Evil -- these two episodes feel significantly less like literary SF than The Face of Evil did -- but in other ways it's similar.  There's a sense of world-building here just as there was in the last story, which helps things along no end.

But the design!  My goodness, what an astonishingly good marriage of costume and set, as everyone involved appears to have gone for an art deco feel.  That means that the sets look nicely opulent while the costumes (albeit somewhat ostentatious) have an interesting look about them, with shapes and lines on the human crewmembers' tunics and headdresses that evoke a bygone sense of decadence.  This carries over to the robot costumes, with beautiful identical faces and wavy hair that adds to the sense of elegance.  And so, in this futuristic-yet-1930s environment, what better story than a murder mystery?

People occasionally comment on how the title rather gives the game away, but that's missing the point.  The question from the audience's point-of-view isn't whether it's the robots who are killing people but rather who's controlling the robots.  It's clear from the first murder that the robots are responsible, even if the crew doesn't know that.  The only other lingering possibility is that the robots are operating of their own accord, but that doesn't quite fit the murder mystery vibe, and the script is intent on focusing on one of the humans aboard the Sandminer as being ultimately responsible.

I mentioned earlier that there's not as much of an SF feeling from this story, but that doesn't mean it's gone altogether.  The Sandminer itself is an SF concept, as it appears to roam across a barren landscape sucking up minerals in its scoops as it passes through sandstorms, and the whole concept of a society dependent on robots is an SF one.  The difference is simply that they're not the focus of events.  The whodunnit aspect is instead, and it's a solid, entertaining decision -- with the added bonus that the Doctor and Leela are thrown into events in part two as red herrings for the crew.  There's also some great dialogue here: "You know, you're a classic example of the inverse ratio between the size of the mouth and the size of the brain," the Doctor remarks to Borg after Borg repeatedly dismisses everything the Doctor says.  The Doctor also has some interesting comments about robot-human relations:
DOCTOR: Yes.  You know, people never really lose that feeling of unease with robots.  The more of them there are, the greater the unease and of course the greater the dependence.  It's a vicious circle.  People can neither live with them nor exist without them.
LEELA: So what happens if the strangler is a robot?
DOCTOR: Oh, I should think it's the end of this civilisation.
And the second part also has some good complications from the mystery standpoint, as Zilda gets on the intercom and declares that Captain Uvanov is a "filthy murderer" after searching his quarters, only to be killed herself while she's accusing Uvanov.  And someone has sabotaged the "motive units" of the Sandminer, meaning that everyone is going to die in an explosion unless something can be done to prevent it...



August 12: The Robots of Death Parts Three & Four

It's never made clear why the Sandminer is sabotaged; surely if the Sandminer explodes it takes the murderer with it?  But as the whole situation is resolved four minutes into the start of part three, it looks more like an excuse to provide a cliffhanger rather than a legitimate plan on Dask's part.

Oh, and sorry to give the game away so soon, but to be fair, director Michael Briant does the same thing fairly early on in part three -- he apparently had far too much faith in that video effect obscuring Dask's features.  This might honestly not be such a problem if it weren't for the fact that the script carries on as if the identity of the killer is still a mystery, with moments like the reprogrammed SV7 instructing his subordinate robots to kill Toos, the Doctor, and Leela, while he "will kill the others", showing two other corpse markers for the three remaining possible suspects (Uvanov, Dask, and Poul).  Except we know Dask is the culprit, so it doesn't exactly have the same air about it as it wants to.

The Doctor discusses the situation with D84. (The Robots of
Death
Part Three) ©BBC
But this slip-up is made up for by the Doctor's interactions with D84, a robot which isn't what it seems to be, as it's actually working undercover for the unnamed Company that the Sandminer belongs to.  D84 is a wonderful character, acting as a great foil for Tom Baker's Doctor ("I heard a cry," D84 tells the Doctor after startling him.  "That was me," the Doctor says, misinterpreting what D84 is saying) as he bounces bits of the plot off D84, involving him in the investigation.  This is also where we first learn of Taren Capel, a brilliant scientist in the field of robotics who was apparently also raised by robots; he appears to have substituted himself for someone on board (so, Dask) and is behind the robot revolution that's happening.

There's also the matter of Poul's descent into madness as he can't cope with the idea that a robot killed someone -- "Grimwade's syndrome", the Doctor calls it, in a nod to production assistant Peter Grimwade.  This is expanded upon a bit later on, as the Doctor explains robophobia to Leela: "It's an unreasoning dread of robots.  You see, most living creatures use non-verbal signals.  Body movement, eye contact, facial expression, that sort of thing. ... While these robots are humanoid, presumably for aesthetic reasons, they give no signals.  It's rather like being surrounded by walking, talking, dead men."

Obviously things come to a head in part four (since it's the last episode of the story and all), with the robots no longer needing to lurk in the shadows -- and neither does Dask, who's now wearing outrageous robot-inspired facial makeup.  There are some great lines in this episode as well -- I've already mentioned the bit about robophobia, but there's also D84's calm declaration to Leela: "Please do not throw hands at me."  And I realize I never mentioned the calm, smooth voices that all the robots have, which are particularly creepy when they're saying things like, "All humans are to die."  It's only through some clever planning by the Doctor (involving using helium to change Dask's voice so that his voice print won't be recognized by the robots) that the robots are stopped -- even if D84 sacrifices itself in the process.

It's one of those rare stories where everything works.  The design, the script, the acting -- other than a moment here or there (again, the infamous early reveal of Dask) The Robots of Death is firing on all cylinders.  It's hard to find a more engaging story than this, and it's a tribute to everyone involved that the quality on this season is just getting better and better (no mean feat, given they already started at a reasonably high level).  How will they top this?



August 13: The Talons of Weng-Chiang Parts One & Two

Standard and special edition DVDs
For a start, these two episodes look gorgeous.  Through a combination of great locations, impressive sets, and marvelous costuming, the first two parts of The Talons of Weng-Chiang boast some of the finest visuals ever seen on Doctor Who.  This, in many ways, is the most immersive story yet, making us almost believe the production crew simply went back to the end of the 19th century and filmed the story there.  (It probably didn't hurt that Philip Hinchcliffe, in his last story for the show, decided not to worry too much about going over budget.)

And into this environment Robert Holmes has inserted the Doctor and Leela, in a story about Chinese gangs in Victorian London and a strange masked figure lurking underneath the Palace Theatre.  It's a clear pastich√© of the late 19th-/early 20th-century literature, with the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Sax Rohmer, and Gaston Leroux all getting the treatment.  This is a world of fogs and alleys, and a world into which the Doctor has been inserted to distort everything around him.  Thus we get giant rats in the sewers, holograms masquerading as ghosts, and masked figures worrying about "time agents".  This last one is apparently the Chinese god Weng-Chiang (not a genuine god), who the magician Li H'Sen Chang is working for by kidnapping young women to serve as sustenance for his god.

And into this mix we also get the delightful characters of Henry Gordon Jago, the Palace Theatre owner, and Professor George Litefoot, the local coroner.   Each one has time interacting with the Doctor and Leela that is quite wonderful to behold.  Jago threatens to be a pompous, overbearing character (given to extravagant language use and turns of phrase that would make Pip & Jane Baker blush), but in the hands of Christopher Benjamin, the character is instead a likeable fellow with, it would seem, a heart of gold.  Meanwhile, Trevor Baxter's Litefoot is the soul of a gentleman, despite his profession -- watch how he mimics Leela's style of eating so as not to make her feel self-conscious (although, charmingly, he draws the line at letting her use the tablecloth as a napkin).  They're both wonderful characters, and their interactions with the Doctor snap both pairs of characters into sharp relief.

It's not perfect, of course; there is some racism on display which I don't feel qualified to comment on98, other than to note that Chang (as played by non-Asian actor John Bennett) turns his r's into stereotypical l's only on stage, which is a nice touch.  And there's the frankly odd moment where the Doctor quells his own irritation at Leela's use of a janis thorn (as seen in The Face of Evil) after Leela informs him that "He was trying to kill you," which does feel rather off.  But small quibbles aside, these first two episodes, which seem primarily designed to build and populate the world of the story (Weng-Chiang isn't even introduced until part two), do an excellent job of building things up and making you want to see more.



August 14: The Talons of Weng-Chiang Parts Three & Four

So part two ended with a shot of Mr. Sin, Chang's creepy-looking ventriloquist's doll, moving of its own accord and menacing Leela with a large knife in Professor Litefoot's home.  The pig-like snorting coming from Mr. Sin is memorably bizarre, and the cliffhanger resolution in part three isn't a cheat, as Leela launches herself through the window to (relative) safety.

Part three is primarily Leela's time to shine, as she follows Chang and Sin back from Litefoot's to their hideout, substitutes herself for one of the girls Chang abducts for his master, and even gets in an attempt to take care of Weng-Chiang by throttling him -- only to be foiled in this by the fact that Weng-Chiang is touting an anachronistic laser gun.  And we should stop for a moment and recognize just how good Louise Jameson is as Leela; her approach to the material she's given never feels relaxed or lazy, but rather as someone who's constantly thinking through the implications of what things would mean to the character -- which she nevertheless makes look effortless as she does everything the scripts ask her to do.  Most of it is subtle and nuanced, which helps everything be that much more believable.  It's a great performance.

Chang is told by Weng-Chiang to bring more girls for his "god" to
feed upon. (The Talons of Weng-Chiang Part Three) ©BBC
But yes, while Leela is on the trail of Weng-Chiang, the Doctor is working out more of the plot with Litefoot.  There was a bit of exposition in the first two episodes, with Chang on the villain's side as girls are abducted, but here the Doctor decides to do something about it.  He knows that Weng-Chiang has his lair in the sewers near the Palace Theatre and so he takes a Chinese fowling piece into the sewers to find his way there, only to find Leela in the sewers as well, being attacked by a giant rat...

Honestly, I don't think the rats are that bad.  They're not really any worse than any other effects seen on the show in the last two seasons -- the fur's too clean, but at least David Maloney has shot the thing as best as he can.  Really, the worst shot is that one of the giant rat "scurrying" toward the camera, which doesn't quite come off the way it's intended to, but even that's not that bad.  And besides, it's not a big part of the story anyway -- what's the big deal?

In any event, part four gives us a good deal more backstory than we had previously.  We learned in part three that Weng-Chiang has a special machine that sucks the life from people -- "Sounds like an organic distillation," the Doctor remarks -- and that he's fixated on recovering the cabinet in Litefoot's home, which he calls a "time cabinet" and which the Doctor establishes is from Earth, but in the future.  And near the end, Chang tells the Doctor about how he encountered Weng-Chiang:
DOCTOR: Li H'sen, you know he's not a god, don't you?
CHANG: He came like a god.  He appeared in a blazing cabinet of fire.  I saw him and helped him.  He was tired from his journey. ... He was ill for many months.  I was but a humble peasant, but I gave him sanctuary while the soldiers searched.  I nursed him.
DOCTOR: The cabinet.  What happened to the cabinet?
CHANG: Soldiers of T'ung-Chi99 took it.  Ever since, we have searched for the great cabinet of Weng-Chiang.  The god will not be made whole until it is recovered.
So we learn that the cabinet is important, and that, coupled with all the other clues, suggests that the person calling himself "Weng-Chiang" is in fact from Earth's future.  We still don't know why he wants the cabinet though, other than some references to not being whole without it.

All this and there's still time for an extended sequence in the theatre, as we watch Chang perform his act (with the assistance of the Doctor).  It goes on for quite some time, but it's entertaining nonetheless.  Plus it performs a plot function, as it leads to Chang's downfall -- thanks to Weng-Chiang, who has dismissed Chang from his service and ends up discrediting him on stage by placing a dead body in Chang's magic cabinet for the audience to see.

And finally, this episode ends on one of the most downbeat cliffhangers yet: Weng-Chiang has packed up everything in his lair -- which means he can start all over again somewhere new -- and we see him with the time cabinet, riding away from Litefoot's house and laughing triumphantly with Mr. Sin.  It seems that Weng-Chiang has everything he needs; nothing can stop him now.



August 15: The Talons of Weng-Chiang Parts Five & Six

There's a moment during the cliffhanger for part five where Leela is struggling against Weng-Chiang (who's trying to knock her out with ether or chloroform or some such chemical on a soaked rag) and inadvertently pulls Weng-Chiang's mask off, revealing the twisted and deformed features underneath.  At least, that's presumably how it's scripted, but what we actually get is Louise Jameson slowly and deliberately reaching for the point where the bottom part of the mask is Velcro-ed on, without thinking to struggle too much.

I bring this up because it's just about the only point in the entire story that lets things down in any way, the only moment which causes the audience to have to stretch their suspension of disbelief (well, unless you're one of those people who can't stand the giant rat -- and honestly, what is it with fandom and disparaging the reasonable-looking monsters in all the best stories?).  Everything else in these six episodes moves so effortlessly that you could (once again) be forgiven for thinking that they just took a camera on location to the 19th century and filmed the events as they happened.

These last two episodes, by the way, are the ones that finally lay all the background details out before us, with the Doctor's descriptions of the Peking Homunculus (aka Mr. Sin) and the failed zygma experiments in time travel in part five, and Weng-Chiang's conversation with the Doctor in part six, where he reveals himself to be Magnus Greel, "the infamous Minister of Justice.  The Butcher of Brisbane," as the Doctor puts it.  These are full of tantalizing hints about the 51st century, with the Peking Homunculus almost starting World War VI and the Doctor being with the Filipino Army "at the final advance on Reykjavik."  We've sort of had an understanding up to this point, but now we know more of the details and why Greel is so desperate to get his talons (sorry) on the time cabinet.

Litefoot and Jago at the mercy of Weng-Chiang. (The Talons
of Weng-Chiang
Part Five) ©BBC
These are also the two episodes that finally see Jago and Litefoot teamed up in the way everyone remembers, with Jago full of bluster but ultimately a coward while Litefoot is much quieter but also much more steely.  The pairing of these two characters is so good that it's little wonder they're so fondly remembered as the quintessential Robert Holmes "double act".  And if that's not enough, we also get a final death scene from Li H'Sen Chang, mutilated by giant rats and doped up on opium, as he curses Weng-Chiang for bringing him to this state of being. "Next month, the Great Chang would have performed before the Queen Empress at Buckingham Palace," Chang says.  "I, the son of a peasant."

Part six gives us the confrontation we've been waiting for between the Doctor and Magnus Greel, and it doesn't disappoint, both with the Doctor's maneuverings and conversations with Greel, and with the final battle inside the House of the Dragon.  Of course, they only got to this point because Greel's henchmen forgot to bring along the all-important key to the time cabinet when they moved from the Palace Theatre to the House of the Dragon.  Clearly, if you want something done right you have to do it yourself.  But yes, a final showdown between Greel and Mr. Sin, and the Doctor and his friends, complete with a dragon statue that shoots lasers from its eyes.  And, interestingly, this appears to be a story where the Doctor wins because he talks sense into one of the villain's henchmen -- in this case, Mr. Sin, who has no desire to be caught up in an implosion when Greel operates the time cabinet again.  Not that that stops Mr. Sin from going homicidal afterwards, but that, it seems, is easily dealt with.

But as I said at the beginning, this is one of those rare stories where everything works: the acting, the direction, the script, the sets and costuming...  Everything is working in this story's favor (so much so that it feels slightly churlish to point out that this trait has become a hallmark of this season) to create a stunning piece of television.  The script Robert Holmes gives us is full of unexplored nooks and crannies -- much like the shadows and alleys we see on screen -- which leaves the viewer wanting to know more, like all the best stories.  It's little wonder this story regularly turns up as one of the all-time favorites of the entire series.

But then, this sense of style and excellence has been the case for the majority of Philip Hinchcliffe's time as a producer.  There's been a concerted effort to make the series a lot darker and a lot less safe than it was under Barry Letts's tenure, and Hinchcliffe and script editor Robert Holmes have delighted in pushing the boundaries, in presenting stories that are scary and macabre.  It doesn't hurt that they've been aided in this by Tom Baker, who, in this stage of the show, is possibly the best actor to ever play the role of the Doctor.  The deadly intent with which he's been playing the role (with flashes of charm to remind us that this is still the Doctor, make no mistake) has elevated all the material, making even dodgier stories like The Android Invasion still worth watching.  Season 14 is something of a high-water mark for this, and after this point things are going to shift as Tom Baker gains more and more control over things, but here and now it's something wonderful.  Season 14 is in some ways the end of an era, as the next few seasons will see a deliberate attempt to be less scary and more humorous, but what a way to go out: a season that just got better and better and better, resulting in quite possibly the strongest season Doctor Who has ever had.









Footnotes

94 We're one letter off from the nuclear complex seen in The Claws of Axos (also by Bob Baker & Dave Martin), which as you'll recall was called Nuton.  Nunton was originally going to be the same place, but then they apparently changed it, sticking the extra letter in to make it different.  It's not clear why they changed it though -- were they worried about having two incidents at the same place in such a relatively short span?  Not that the extra letter really fools anyone as to the original intention, mind...
95 Actually, it's a little odd that the Doctor never comes back for Sarah.  He's clearly fond of her, and their relation prior to this point has been atypical for a companion at this point in the series: Sarah clearly has her own life and does things in between TARDIS trips.  Given that Sarah doesn't really willingly leave (unlike Jo Grant, the only real analogue in terms of this style of companionhood), you'd think that the Doctor would conclude his business on Gallifrey and then come pick Sarah up again.  Maybe he was going to, and then Leela stowed away on the TARDIS and caused him to change his plans.
96 It's sometimes stated that the Master is screwing around with the Eye of Harmony in order to gain the energy to force another regeneration, but this is never actually stated on screen.
97 Although see The Five Doctors for the first suggestion that this limit isn't as hard and fast as it's made to sound here.
98 Interested parties might want to start by looking at Andrew Cartmel's "Weng-Chiang and the Yellow Peril (and Rats)" in Outside In.  Not that he's necessarily any more qualified to discuss it, but I think it works as a reasonable (albeit slightly facetious) starting point.
99 Presumably this is the Wade-Giles system of romanizing Chinese; the modern Pinyin equivalent is Tongzhi.  In any case, unlike Weng-Chiang, this is genuine: the Tongzhi Emperor ruled from 1861 to 1875.