Season 17 (Sept 11 - Sept 22)

September 11: Destiny of the Daleks Episodes One & Two
September 12: Destiny of the Daleks Episodes Three & Four
September 13: City of Death Parts One & Two
September 14: City of Death Parts Three & Four
September 15: The Creature from the Pit Parts One & Two
September 16: The Creature from the Pit Parts Three & Four
September 17: Nightmare of Eden Parts One & Two
September 18: Nightmare of Eden Parts Three & Four
September 19: The Horns of Nimon Parts One & Two
September 20: The Horns of Nimon Parts Three & Four
September 21: Shada Parts One, Two, & Three
September 22: Shada Parts Four, Five, & Six

September 11: Destiny of the Daleks Episodes One & Two

That's right, for one story only we're back to calling them "episodes" instead of "parts".

It doesn't open very seriously, does it?  It's slightly surprising to see Romana regenerated for no obvious in-story reason, and the manner in which the regeneration is treated is at odds with how it's been treated before.  In the past, regeneration has been treated as a last resort, with one body essentially dying and being replaced by another, but here it's a much more casual affair, with various bodies being presented in the same manner as which Tom Baker presented various costumes in Robot.

Yet after this opening scene (which also features K-9 with laryngitis, somehow108), Destiny of the Daleks is a surprisingly serious affair.  The scenes of the Doctor and Romana clambering over the ruins of Skaro (not that they know it's Skaro yet) are very atmospheric, and there's a sense of dread that pervades everything.  Well, almost everything; the bit with the Doctor trapped under a pillar and reading a book about the origins of the universe (complete with a Hitch-hiker's Guide to the Galaxy in-joke from new script editor Douglas Adams) is pretty jokey.  And since this is a Terry Nation Dalek story, we have to wait until the cliffhanger for the Daleks to make their appearance, as they threaten Romana.

The second episode is just as serious; the Doctor appears to be taking the threat of the Daleks very seriously, and he keeps making noises about how he thinks he knows what it is the Daleks are searching for in the ruins of the Kaled city, but he won't actually tell us what that is.  "I'll tell you when I find out," he says.  And while he's investigating the ruins, trying to find whatever the Daleks are looking for before they do, Romana is subjected to an interrogation by the Daleks (and looks suitably terrified by them -- you can even see a tear on her face when they finally stop questioning her) and then forced to help them excavate the ruins.  It's honestly pretty brutal, and the atmospheric direction from Ken Grieve (helped by this new technology they're trying out called "Steadicam") helps a lot with this.  And while there's another jokey moment in episode two (the famous bit with the Doctor taunting a Dalek: "If you're supposed to be the superior race of the universe, why don't you try climbing after us?"), for the most part this somber air pervades the whole thing.  Oh, and look: we get our first localized extermination effect (as opposed to the whole picture going negative) -- it's quite a nice effect.

And it turns out that the Daleks are looking for Davros (even though it looked like they killed him at the end of Genesis of the Daleks -- and was the Kaled bunker really under the city in that story?) -- who, the cliffhanger shows, apparently isn't as dead as you might think...

And incidentally, full marks to whoever pulled out the background sound effects from the first Dalek story for use in this story.

September 12: Destiny of the Daleks Episodes Three & Four

It's a bit unfortunate how much things go down in episode three, and most of the issues can be blamed on Davros.  David Gooderson doesn't have the same intensity as Michael Wisher did, and the result is that he frequently sounds, well, bored.  And any time he's not required to deliver dialogue he just sits there -- it could be a mannequin in the chair for all the interactivity he displayes; he doesn't rant, he doesn't rave, and he doesn't object when the Doctor wheels him around the ruined Kaled base.  Maybe Gooderson doesn't have much experience with mask work and it's affecting his performance, but nevertheless it's a problem.  And it doesn't help that when Davros has to move under his own power (as opposed to being pushed around), Gooderson is shuffling so furiously that his upper body wobbles back and forth alarmingly.

This might not be as huge an issue if the episode wasn't devoted to the rematch between the Doctor and Davros, but the result is that this epic showdown feels small and inconsequential.  It culminates in the Doctor's decision to destroy Davros (only thwarted because some Daleks remove the explosive from Davros's chair before the bomb goes off), but because the preceding scenes were so limp this isn't the shocking choice that it should have been; it's just an incident along the way.  Oh, and then there's something about the Movellans (as the Doctor somehow learns the silver-haired humanoids are called) turning evil and placing an unconscious Romana inside a glass cylinder with a huge bomb.

The Doctor and Romana stage an argument for the Movellans.
(Destiny of the Daleks Episode Four) ©BBC
Episode four is a little better -- David Gooderson is better when he's giving orders to Daleks than when verbally fencing with the Doctor -- but there are some unsatisfying moments nevertheless.  The motivation behind the Movellans turning "evil" (they actually just want to hold on to the Doctor at all costs) makes sense (sort of), but it happens so suddenly that it's still jarring.  Everyone (even the Doctor) seems to believe that the Daleks are now completely inorganic for some reason (is this the "destiny" referred to in the title?).  And rock paper scissors is used to illustrate the logical impasse that the Daleks and the Movellans find themselves in, even though there's no logical reason for the Daleks and the Movellans to be picking the same moves (unless the idea is that the Daleks and Movellans think identically, but that's not really made clear at all).109

Of course, there are some nice moments to make up for this: making the Movellans androids in the first place is an interesting move, and to his credit Terry Nation does follow through with this idea a bit (the logical impasse, the power packs).  The Daleks advancing toward the Movellan spaceship, all loaded down with explosives, is a distinctive scene, and Ken Grieve does a good job with the direction -- their eventual detonations are impressive as well.  And the prisoners' raid on the Movellan ship is also well directed.

But it's not enough to save Destiny of the Daleks.  There's definitely some promise here, and Terry Nation (in his final script for the series) provides some interesting ideas, rather than just rehashing old scripts.  Making the Daleks purely robotic may be a daft move, but it shows that he's at least thought about things somewhat.  But the two central problems (Davros, and the fact that there's not quite enough incident to fill up the four episodes satisfactorily) hang over the production, and a scene like the Doctor confronting Davros after all these years -- which should have been iconic, and looks like (for Nation, at least) the crux of the whole story -- fades into the background.  Not even Ken Grieve's direction (which tries to stay engaged with the action) can save things, and the non-serious material at the top and tail of the story don't help at all.  If they'd had Michael Wisher back as Davros, or if they'd done this a couple years earlier, they might have pulled it off.  But as it is, Destiny of the Daleks ends up being a story that just fades into the background, with nothing to sustain it -- which, given this is a return for the Daleks after four years, is frankly inexcusable.

September 13: City of Death Parts One & Two

In the interests of full disclosure, I should inform you that City of Death is my all-time favorite Doctor Who story, so don't expect a lot of harsh criticism this time around.

It certainly doesn't hurt that they've gone and traveled to Paris for the location filming this time around.  That slow pan across the flowering trees to show the Eiffel Tower is a fabulous shot, and it's clear that the Doctor and Romana are having a great time.  The scenery is pretty, and I at least don't have a problem with the production team indulging themselves with shots of the Time Lords exploring Paris, given how great it all looks.  And the script sparkles, with tons of fabulous lines (such as describing 1979 as "more of a table wine", rather than as a vintage year) and some really striking imagery: the sketch of Romana with a cracked clock for a face is imaginative (and illustrates the problems with time very well), and the shot at the very beginning, of Scaroth's ship taking off and exploding, is really nicely done.  Scaroth himself is a suitably interesting villain -- both in visual and characterization terms; Julian Glover exudes sophisticated, charming villainy, and he's a joy to watch.  Plus that first cliffhanger, where he rips off his fake human face to reveal the Jagaroth underneath, is certainly memorable (though it's not quite clear why he's doing so; maybe he needs to let his real face breathe).

Part two is even more wonderful.  It's chock full of great dialogue ("I say, what a wonderful butler, he's so violent"; "Now, while we're here, why don't you and I find out how they're going to steal it and why.  Or are you just in it for the thumping?"; "You're a beautiful woman, probably..."; "Duggan, why is it that every time I start to talk to someone, you knock him unconscious?"; and scores more), but it's also plotted very cleverly.  The scene with the Doctor talking with Professor Kerensky is fascinating, and the idea of raising money by stealing the Mona Lisa and then selling seven different copies of it is marvelous.  I also love how the Doctor and Duggan are having a conversation in Scarlioni/Scaroth's cellar while Romana is in the background investigating why one of the rooms isn't as big as it should be.  It's all simply gorgeous.

And another great cliffhanger: the Doctor pops back to Renaissance Italy, only to find that Scarlioni is also there...

September 14: City of Death Parts Three & Four

The joyousness continues, as we learn that Scaroth communicates with his other splintered selves across time and has been forcing the human race to progress in order to arrive at a level of technology for his most future self to be able to go back in time and stop his spaceship from exploding in the first place -- only that explosion is what began life on Earth in the first place, as the Doctor seems to realize in his conversation with Captain Tancredi.

There continues to be a great deal of wit on display, such as the Doctor agreeing to tell Scaroth what he knows not because of the threat of thumbscrews but because he can't stand being touched by cold hands, but what separates this from other stories is that the wit goes hand in hand with the threat; the Doctor can make jokes and verbally spar with Scaroth, but he knows what will happen if Scaroth is successful in his goal, and this motivation gives the story an undercurrent of serious intent.  It matters whether the Doctor succeeds, because the entire human race is at stake.

The scenes with Romana and Duggan are also entertaining in their own way, as Duggan continues to act as the slightly blundering muscle, smashing windows and accidentally setting off alarms around the spot where the Mona Lisa used to be.  Duggan works well as Romana's foil, as she slings withering dialogue at him.  "You know what I don't understand?" Duggan says to Romana.  "I expect so," she says loftily.

Scaroth, last of the Jagaroth. (City of Death Part Four) ©BBC
Part four is to date the Doctor Who episode with the highest ever ratings, as 16.1 million people tuned in.  This is partly because ITV, the other British broadcaster, was on strike at the time, but if there was an episode for people to see, this is a good choice.  There are a number of moments in this episode that seem highly influential; the scene between the Doctor and the Countess ("I recognize the handwriting," the Doctor says.  "Shakespeare's," the Countess replies.  "No, mine," the Doctor corrects her; "he'd sprained his wrist writing sonnets") seems to have been a significant influence on Steven Moffat's approach towards Doctor Who.  And there's the oft-lauded scene with John Cleese and Eleanor Bron as the art gallery visitors, admiring the TARDIS on display in the modern art museum.  It's a perfect scene in a story full of fabulous moments. There are serious moments as well: the shots of Scaroth with his true face revealed, but still in a white suit, are potentially ludicrous looking but actually very effective.  And Duggan, who's been criticized by the Doctor and Romana for most of the story for his brute force methods, saves the human race thanks to a well-placed punch to Scaroth's head on prehistoric Earth.  It's a satisfying solution.

Seriously, City of Death is one of the best things ever.  The whole thing fits together beautifully, and there's a sense of a cast and crew having fun with a superb script.  There's often an awkward tension between drama and levity in this era of the show, but City of Death is the story that strikes the perfect balance between the two.  It's got a cracking plot and tons of quotable lines, and a self-assured production with a cast that knows how to walk the line that the script by David Agnew (aka Douglas Adams and Graham Williams) is asking them to walk.  What more could you possibly ask for?

September 15: The Creature from the Pit Parts One & Two

The Creature from the Pit doesn't start too badly; the jungle set at the beginning is rather nice, and the scene with the Doctor and K-9 reading Beatrix Potter is rather sweet.  And it's also (finally) the debut of David Brierley as the voice of K-9 (since K-9's been absent from the first two stories of this season) -- it's a different approach from John Leeson's, but it still works.

The jungle set, as I said, is nice, and the Doctor and Romana make the most of exploring the odd eggshell that the TARDIS materializes near.  And the wolf weeds are frankly much better than one might have expected; the rolling motion helps sell the effect and demonstrates that they're not just being dragged around with strings.  The other good thing about this episode is Myra Frances as Lady Adrasta.  She's playing the part with very serious intent, and so the danger seems much more plausible than in other stories.  The same can't be said for the bandits who've captured Romana, though; writer David Fisher appears to have made them deliberately stupid for some unclear reason, and so while it's entertaining to watch Lalla Ward command them imperiously, it does make for some rather labored comedy moments later on.

But still, this first episode is quite well done, and the cliffhanger's pretty good too (even if you get a sense that none of the actors quite know how to play the scene leading up to it).  It's in the second part that things start to slip.  Lady Adrasta remains wonderfully straight with her villainy, but the Everest in Easy Stages bit with the Doctor is incredibly lame; at least when they did something similar in Destiny of the Daleks it was an in-joke.  Of course, things improve rather when the Doctor meets Organon, a seer, at the bottom of the pit; Geoffrey Bayldon pitches his performance just right, and he gets some great lines ("Organon, sir. ... Astrologer extraordinary.  Seer to princes and emperors.  The future foretold, the past explained, the present... apologised for").  But then we get our first view of the eponymous creature, and it's... ah... worryingly inappropriate-looking.  It's a bit better when we can see more of this gigantic thing (thanks to CSO shots), but there's still a green fleshy pseudopod probing the air in front of it.  To say it's not realized well is a bit of an understatement.

The realization isn't very good, and there are some misjudged comedic bits (such as anything involving the bandits), but so far there's enough here to keep viewer interest.  It's a nice touch, having the Doctor not be afraid of the creature or consider it evil automatically; if things continue like this, The Creature from the Pit might work out okay.

September 16: The Creature from the Pit Parts Three & Four

Part three isn't really too terrible either.  High praise, I know, but the stuff with Organon trying to break the newly-created wall down, and Lady Adrasta trying really very hard to kill the creature, is quite enjoyable.  And I find I don't even mind the creature itself, other than the ludicrous pseudopods that someone's decided to attach to the thing.  It does look awfully padded in places though; the Doctor's attempts to communicate go on far too long (complete with some incredibly rude-looking interactions with the creature), and the group of bandits continue to be both annoying and a bit boring.  That last bit's not strictly padding, since the plot needs them to take the communication device to the creature, but it's not a very engaging scene.

It is nice how things come together by the end of part three (although, how did the Doctor break down the barrier that the creature created?  The given reason feels awfully facetious...) and there's something compelling about watching Lady Adrasta's carefully constructed house of cards collapsing around her -- Myra Frances continues to impress.  It's a weird cliffhanger, though, that wants us to care about her fate more than the Doctor's; why they didn't stop thirty seconds sooner, with Adrasta threatening the Doctor's life, is beyond me.

Erato uses Lady Adrasta's larynx to communicate. (The Creature
from the Pit
Part Four) ©BBC
No, the real problems set in with part four.  The natural conclusion of this story happens at about 8 minutes in; Adrasta has been killed, the creature (who's really a Tythonian ambassador named Erato) has been set free, and it looks like things are going to be all right for Chloris.  But there're still 12 whole minutes to fill, so we get a bunch of padding with Lady Adrasta's right-hand woman Karela stealing a bit of Erato's spaceship and negotiating with the bandits, followed by some truly bizarre bits involving a neutron star being flung at Chloris and an aluminium shell being able to reduce its gravitational pull long enough to be redirected.  It feels like pure padding; worse, it feels like stupid padding at odds with the rest of the story.  We couldn't even get some extended characterization scenes or a palace coup or something; just nonsense about missile-like stars instead.  It seems pretty clear that The Creature from the Pit's poor reputation rests squarely on the last half of part four, and everything else that goes wrong is just fuel for that particular fire.

Because the thing is, until the second ending tacked onto part four, this story isn't that bad.  There are some questionable decisions, to be sure (why do the production team want to keep making gigantic monsters?  Do they keep thinking, "this time it'll work"?), but the thing holds together better than you might have heard.  Making Erato not automatically a villain is a good move, and Myra Frances and Geoffrey Bayldon both light up the screen.  If there's a plotting problem beyond the ending, it's that it's occasionally too straight-forward; for instance, the bandits bring the communicator to Erato because the plot needs Erato to start speaking rather than for any other reason.  This, combined with all the other problems mentioned, does mean that The Creature from the Pit isn't an underrated gem or anything like that, but it is rather better than you may have heard; there's enough here to keep you entertained despite these issues.

September 17: Nightmare of Eden Parts One & Two

It's a surprisingly mature thing to do to make a Doctor Who story about drugs (you may occasionally hear people claim otherwise; they can safely be ignored), and the fact that it's not terribly heavy-handed in its use is definitely in Nightmare of Eden's favor.  It also helps that this story isn't just about drug smuggling: we've also got a problem with two ships that have accidentally merged with each other, a matter transmuter that might be unstable, and monsters from somewhere that appear to be roaming the larger of the two ships, the Empress.  It's the collision that first interests the Doctor ("Of course we should interfere!  Always do what you're best at, that's what I say"), and his unorthodox method for separating the ships is what drives the plot of these first two episodes.  The drugs are still present, but they're not always the primary focus of things.

It certainly doesn't hurt that the Doctor seems very serious about what's going on, even when he's making light of the situation; much like in City of Death, here we get someone who's trying to put everyone at ease while he works out what's going on, and thus we get the impression that he really does care about things and isn't just clowning around for the hell of it.  Lines like, "I value my life, and this machine makes me fear for it," while delivered rather off the cuff, still nevertheless convey a sense of gravity.  And the depiction of the effects of the drug vraxoin, or "vrax" for short (presumably analogous to cocaine/coke), is surprisingly chilling; watching the navigator Secker laughing his head off while the Empress crashes into the Hecate is genuinely unsettling, as is the moment where someone spikes a drink with vraxoin that looks like it was intended for Romana but ends up with Captain Rigg instead.

Then there are the monsters of the piece, the Mandrels.  While we don't really see them that much in these two episodes, I have to confess that I've never really minded their design.  They do walk awkwardly, but other than that they seem quite effective to me.  The hands are nicely clawed, and the growling sound they make is pretty scary.  Rather less impressive is the bug that attacks Romana -- well, a "bug" was apparently the intention of the script, but all we get is a white light that could be just about anything, and it takes a number of viewings to work out what's actually meant to be happening.

But really, these two episodes move a long at a nice pace, keeping things interesting with additional discoveries, new problems, and lots of great dialogue (such as, "Work for?  I don't work for anybody.  I'm just having fun," the Doctor tells Rigg).  It may have been a nightmare behind the scenes (more on that next time), but the result on screen is so far very good indeed.

September 18: Nightmare of Eden Parts Three & Four

I'm not sure whether it's by accident or design, but the character of Waterguard Fisk is so intensely unlikable that you can't help but feel frustrated by him every time he's on screen.  He's far more concerned about his own promotional prospects than about doing the right thing, and it's the sort of sheer bureaucracy that you instinctively want to rail against.  In other words, whether it's because of the script, Geoffrey Hinsliff's performance, or both, Fisk is a perfect example of the worst kind of villain.

What this does is increase the pressure on the Doctor and Romana even more; now it's not just Mandrels and drug smugglers that they have to contend with, but also small-minded officials who want them shot on sight.  But while this does provide a bit of drama at the cliffhanger, for the most part it's Fisk and his partner Costa who end up dealing with the Mandrel attacks while the Doctor and Romana are inside the Eden projection.  The scene with Rigg laughing, off his head on vraxoin as he watches the passengers being attacked by Mandrels, is quite disturbing, and while it's still wittily written ("They're only economy class; what's all the fuss about?"), you don't really want to laugh along.

So while chaos is reigning in the passenger compartments of the Empress, the Doctor and Romana first learn that Stott, the person who was "lost" during Tryst's Eden expedition, is still alive in the projection and was also on the trail of the smugglers, and then they decide to carry on with the separation of the ships. "Hadn't we better deal with [the Mandrels] first?" Romana asks.  "No, no, no," the Doctor replies.  "Until the ships are separated and the projection is stabilized, it'd be like trying to bail out a small boat with a..."  "Sieve?" Romana supplies helpfully.  "Yes," the Doctor agrees.  There's some fun with setting that up too, both with a Mandrel attacking the Doctor while he's rigging something up in the Empress's power room (which leads to the death of the Mandrel and the discovery that its powdered remains are the source of vraxoin) and with Rigg attacking Romana as he comes down from his high, insisting that Romana give him some more vrax.  Seeing Rigg in this state is just as unsettling as his earlier apathy.

Stott helps drive the Mandrels back into the CET. (Nightmare
of Eden
Part Four) ©BBC
Part four has, infamously, the moment where the Doctor, leading the Mandrels back into the Eden projection after the successful separation of the ships, heads in with them and begins to ham things up tremendously off-screen ("Oh!  Oh!  Oh!  My fingers, my arms, my legs!  Ah!  My everything!").  It's such a dramatic departure from everything that's gone before that it can't help but stick out like a sore thumb.  But as what follows isn't like that either, it's not representative of the story as a whole.  Well, the famous fluff that's also in part four (where Fisk calls Tryst "Fisk" by mistake) probably doesn't help either (or the moment where Della gets shot in the neck and clutches her stomach -- but that's hardly Jennifer Lonsdale's fault), but it's predominantly this scene, I think, that is what's responsible for Nightmare of Eden's poor reputation.  And that's frankly a shame, because so much around it is excellent.  Tryst justifying himself to Della ("They had a choice.  It was their own fault that they became addicted") and then again later to the Doctor ("Tell them.  Tell them that I only did it for the sake of funding my research.  You understand all this.  You're a scientist") are both compelling scenes, even though we know Tryst is in the wrong -- but the Doctor's reply (a quiet "Go away" while he stares off into the distance) is even better, everything we love about Tom Baker distilled down into two words.

With the last story, I suggested that while it was better than its reputation, The Creature from the Pit wasn't actually what you might call good.  There are no such reservations about Nightmare of Eden.  It does, admittedly, look cheap (thanks to Graham Williams holding back money so that the season-ender could have enough money spent on it...), and there are a few duff moments, but so much of this story is well thought-out and well executed that it's easy to forgive these flaws.  The script is a gem, the performances are generally good, and as I said before, I don't even think the Mandrels are that bad.  Considering the nightmare this was made under110, it's amazing that anything watchable was created; the fact that we got something as clever and enjoyable as this is impressive.  This is easily one of the best stories of Graham Williams' entire tenure.

September 19: The Horns of Nimon Parts One & Two

One wonders, watching the first two parts of The Horns of Nimon, how much of this was intended to be played straight and how much was meant to be comedic.  The nagging suspicion arises that the entire thing was meant to be serious, but that somewhere along the way actors got sidetracked into having a laugh instead.  The result is an incredibly uneasy tension between drama and humor.

It certainly looks like this is supposed to be a fairly serious SF retelling of the tale of Theseus and the Minotaur, but somewhere along the line they've thrown in a bunch of jokes; someone's decided it would be funny for Malcolm Terris's character to bellow "Weakling scum!" at the Anethans, someone else has decided it would be funny to see K-9 literally buried in tape (all of which is apparently the full damage report for the TARDIS), a third someone has decided it would be funny to hear comedy sound effects when the TARDIS fails to work properly near the start of part two... It's almost as if, collectively, the cast and crew decided, "Eh, this is the story going out over the Christmas holidays, let's just screw around and have some fun with it."  And so Tom Baker appears to be delighting in every silly moment he can interject (blowing down K-9's "snout" to bring him back to life is just one example), while Graham Crowden, playing the Skonnon scientist Soldeed, appears to be seeing how long he can go without ever blinking (the answer is a long time, although he does blink occasionally).  Yet seeing the two of them together is weirdly an exercise in underplaying, as they both try to deliver their lines in the most matter-of-fact manner possible.

The one exception to this pantomimic approach is Lalla Ward; she seems to have realized that no one is taking things seriously and stepped up to address the issue.  Not that Ward typically plays Romana for laughs, but here she easily steps into the Doctor role, treating everything seriously as she confronts Soldeed and then leads the Anethans through the Nimon's Power Complex, and it looks like she's relishing the opportunity to play the straight leading role.

And that's the thing; based on these first two episodes, one gets the impression that former script editor Anthony Read's script was meant to be taken seriously (even if, so far at least, it suffers the same problem as Underworld, in that we're not given an independent reason to care that Doctor Who is retelling Greek myths), but by this point on the show hardly anyone can be bothered to treat these themes with any sincerity.  There are a number of interesting ideas on display (creating artificial black holes, a labyrinth that's constantly shifting its layout), and some of the technical effects are quite good -- especially the collapse of the Anethan husk -- but they're not getting the treatment they deserve.  Ah well, maybe things will improve in the latter half.

All that said, watching the co-pilot's death scene at the part two cliffhanger, and seeing as he falls that he's split his trousers, is terribly funny.  The ultimate indignity.

September 20: The Horns of Nimon Parts Three & Four

The Horns of Nimon Part Three was first broadcast on 5 January 1980, which makes it the very first episode to be broadcast in the 1980s.  Not the most auspicious start to the decade, but you've got to start somewhere.

Although actually these two episodes are a definite improvement over the last two -- probably because this is where the plot really gets going.  And since the plot is finally moving along, it means that Tom Baker has to do plot-related things instead of screwing around for two episodes while Lalla Ward gets on with the real story.  This is, on balance, a good thing, for while Lalla's role is somewhat reduced, as she has to feed standard companion lines to the Doctor, Tom is much more interesting when he has something to react against; it's tiresome when he's just clowning around in the TARDIS, but it's dangerous when he makes jokes in front of the Nimon.  Besides, Romana is soon separated from the Doctor and gets the chance to stand out again in part four.

The Doctor and Romana watch as the Nimon prepares to bring his
brethren to Skonnos. (The Horns of Nimon Part Three) ©BBC
The other good thing about these two episodes is that the plot is actually rather interesting.  Anthony Read has learned from some of the mistakes of Underworld (which he script-edited) and turned this story into more than just a simple retread of the Greek myth by making the Nimon a race rather than an individual -- and showing them beginning to arrive en masse -- and also by making them the main antagonists of the story.  They're shown as being much cleverer than they initially appeared to the Skonnons, tricking them into giving the Nimon everything they needed to ravage Skonnos, and the actual method of transmatting between planets (via two artificial black holes and a hyperspace tunnel connecting them) is quite nice.

It's not all good, of course; Graham Crowden continues to take Doctor Who as an opportunity to overact (infamously, he thought his death scene was only a camera rehearsal, rather than the real thing, but there was no time to go back and redo it -- hence the laughter as he dies), which, while oddly watchable, doesn't contribute much to the believability of the enterprise.  (Of course, John Bailey as Sezom, the last surviving person on the Nimon's last conquered planet, Crinoth, more than makes up for this with his performance.)  And the character of Teka really is blissfully unaware of Seth's complete inability to handle what's going on around him, often annoyingly so.  Meanwhile, the whole thing does look a bit cheap (since, as with Nightmare of Eden, Graham Williams elected to spend less money on this so that Shada would look really good when it was broadcast...), although not unbearably so.

To be honest, if you can get past all the clowning in the first two parts (or if you can sit back and just enjoy it without thinking too much), then The Horns of Nimon isn't a bad story.  Obviously it has some serious issues, but the main plot is a nice twist on the standard "alien invasion" set-up, and there's enough here to remain entertaining.  This does require you to look past said clowning, and it's understandable if you can't do that, but if you can you may be pleasantly surprised.

I'll be continuing on with what there is of Shada for the next couple days, but as that story was killed by industrial action and only about half of it was completed, as far as the viewing public was concerned this was the end of season 17.  It's not the most auspicious end to the season, but this was a very uneven season in general.  Tom Baker clearly wants to goof around and save planets while he's doing it, and this less serious tone is reflected in the scripts of this season; it's also supposedly a reaction to the universe-threatening stories of last season (although even those weren't really large-scale stories), but this season is full of smaller threats (the fate of a planet or a couple ships rather than absolutely everything) that, combined with that less serious tone, means that often times these stories feel slight.  Occasionally this works -- City of Death is so good that you hardly even notice that it's all of humanity at risk until the end, and Nightmare of Eden just wouldn't be as good if there was more to worry about than a couple of ships -- but more often than that the end result is one of apathy on the part of the viewer.  While none of these stories are out-and-out failures, there's still frequently a need for the viewer to work at getting at the good bits -- something that hasn't really been true of most previous seasons.  Doctor Who has become the television equivalent of wallpaper: nice enough if you pay attention, but otherwise just always there in the background, being inoffensive.  For most of the viewing public, this is no longer appointment television, but just something you switch on because there's nothing better on; as fans we know that's not true, but the show's virtues aren't as apparent as they used to be.

Fortunately, the next season is going to bring about an awful lot of changes...

September 21: Shada Parts One, Two, & Three

Shada is unique in Doctor Who's history: a story that they actually got halfway through filming (namely, the location filming and the first of the three studio sessions) before it had to be abandoned -- not because the script wasn't working or there was some sort of problem with the cast, but because there was a strike at the BBC.  An effort to remount the taping failed (first because when the strike was over, Doctor Who wasn't considered a high enough priority to be completed, and then later because incoming producer John Nathan-Turner was unable to secure the studio space necessary to finish the story before the regular cast left the show (first Lalla Ward, and then Tom Baker)), and so Shada in fandom became a tantalizing "what if?" and a swansong denied to writer/script editor Douglas Adams and producer Graham Williams (who, you may recall, had been saving up money to spend on this serial).  Then in 1992 permission was secured to release the extant footage on VHS, linked by Tom Baker briefly narrating the missing bits.  This is the version that was released on DVD.

I do quite enjoy the opening bit, as Tom Baker wanders through a Doctor Who exhibit at the Museum of the Moving Image in London and looks at old enemies ("Cybermen; beat you.  Daleks; beat you") before remembering the events of Shada, which leads into the existing footage.  The first thing you notice is how incredibly inappropriate Keff McCulloch's score is.  I actually don't mind most of his work during Sylvester McCoy's time, but it's a very late 80s style of music, which means McCulloch is just about the last person you'd want to score a season 17 story.  (Was Mark Ayres unavailable?)  You might be surprised to learn that McCulloch was attempting to mimic regular composer Dudley Simpson's style; I know I was.

But if you can get past the awful music, there's actually quite a bit to enjoy.  Part one is the most nearly complete episode of the six (there are only two short scenes (and a brief insert) and the cliffhanger missing), which means that you can start to get a feel for how this story was going to be.  The Cambridge scenes are quite nice (including the bit they used for The Five Doctors that everyone's familiar with), and Professor Chronotis's study is also rather lovely, with lots of battered books and furniture strewn about.  The stuff with Professor Chronotis himself is fairly standard season 17, which means there are some clever moments with some lame jokes thrown in.  Denis Carey does a great job as the absent-minded Chronotis though.  The scenes on Think Tank do look a bit cheap, but it's a nice touch to make the countdown in Roman numerals.

Professor Chronotis's mind is drained by Skagra's sphere.
(Shada Part Two) ©BBC
Alas, parts two and three are much harder hit by the missing material, which gives what exists a much more disjointed feel, taking place as it does either on location in Cambridge or in Chronotis's study with almost nothing else in between.  There are still some nice moments (such as the rather charming a capella group singing "Chattanooga Choo Choo" as the Doctor pedals by, "I'm not mad about your tailor", and Wilkins opening up Chronotis's door, only to find a blue void), but it's hard to get a sense of the danger that Skagra represents.  And, sadly, things are only going to be less finished from here on out.

(Well, sort of.  It turns out that superfan Ian Levine did a version of Shada where he animated all the missing bits with most of the original cast.  It's been suggested that this was done with an eye toward including it on the then upcoming DVD, but that never happened (probably for various reasons; Tom Baker didn't participate, for one, and there honestly probably wouldn't have been space to include it and still keep everything else).  But it was made available unofficially on the Internet (a low quality version can be viewed here if you're interested), so out of curiosity I checked it out.  The original cast all participated except for Denis Carey and David Brierley (both sadly no longer with us), and Tom Baker.  Other than the fact that Christopher Neame seems to be playing a significantly less subtle character in 2010/1 than he was in 1979 (a lot more shouting, for instance), and that Paul Jones (playing the Doctor) sounds like he's doing a parody of modern day Tom Baker (instead of late 70s Tom Baker), it's actually surprisingly good.  (It's certainly a lot better than the crude 2003 Flash animation that accompanies the Big Finish version... yes, yes, advances in technology and all that, but nevertheless it's still better.)  The shift between live-action and animation isn't actually that jarring, and while the animation isn't quite up to, say, broadcast animation standards, it's still serviceable (in fact, it reminds me rather of the animated missing episodes on the Ice Warriors DVD).  But, most crucially, it gives you a sense of how the story was meant to be, how it was going to build up the threat over time.  Which isn't to say that it was going to be a lot better than what the existing footage suggests, but you do get a better sense of pacing and danger.  I look forward to seeing the last three parts.)

September 22: Shada Parts Four, Five, & Six

The Doctor tries to sneak past a burning Krarg. (Shada
Part Four) ©BBC
It's significantly harder to piece the story together based on these last three parts than it was for the first three, as there's so much that went unfilmed.  Parts four and five only have something like five minutes of footage a piece, and while there's more of part six it's almost entirely confined to Chronotis's TARDIS.  It's like watching clips from missing episodes, except here there aren't even any soundtracks to listen to in between scenes.  There is some nice material in what we have (such as the stuff on the derelict Think Tank), but the general sense, watching the stuff for parts four through six, is that there was an awful lot of tea drinking going on.  And one of the all-time stupid Doctor Who moments also exists in what they recorded; no, not the medal ceremony (although that is awfully self-indulgent), but the part where Claire Keightley, trying desperately to hold on to an increasingly hot control, suddenly decides to abandon her station (which has been already emphasized as incredibly important) in order to fetch a pencil so that she can hold down that control.  It's an unbelievably silly way to force the TARDIS controls to explode, and had this story actually aired it would likely be infamous in its execution.

But yes, it's very hard to get a sense of what Shada would have been like, and so it's nice to have the Ian Levine version to help fill in the gaps.  Obviously, as before, it's not a perfect solution (and why did they decide to give the Krargs glowing eyes, given that there's no evidence of this in the one scene with a Krarg that they shot?), but you do get a decent sense of the overall story.  In this version the virtues of the existing scenes become more apparent when spaced out -- instead of all smushed together -- and you get a better sense of what the storyline is and the threat that Skagra represents.  The idea of Skagra trying to put his mind into everyone else's ("With the aid of the sphere I shall make the whole of creation merge into one single mind, one godlike entity ... The universe, Doctor, shall be me!") is a nice one, and if Shada had been filmed the way it appears in the animation, with dark red corridors and lots of shadows (and there's no reason to think it wouldn't have been, since Williams was holding back money for this), then this might have been a winner.  There's also some great unfilmed dialogue (such as Skagra scoffing at the idea of taking over the universe: "How childish.  Who could possibly want to take over the Universe?"  "Exactly! That's what I keep on trying to tell people," the Doctor replies.  "It's a troublesome place, difficult to administer, and as a piece of real estate it's worthless because by definition there'd be no one to sell it to"), and it would have been neat to see the mental battle between the Doctor and Skagra.  If nothing else, the animated scenes suggest that this would have been worth doing -- more interesting than, say, The Creature from the Pit or The Horns of Nimon.

But despite narrations, novelizations, animations, and audio adaptations, we'll never truly know what Shada would have been like.  It's fun to speculate (and, incidentally, has anyone ever talked to designer Victor Meredith about what the unmade sets were going to look like?  He had to have designed them, right?), but that's all we can do.  What we do know about it suggests that it probably wouldn't have been the all-conquering gem that its reputation often claims it would have been -- it has some good ideas, but there's an awful lot of season 17-ness floating around (the milk/sugar joke, the medal ceremony, what one imagines the walk through the vortex would have been like), and there are a number of plotting problems as well (Chronotis's casual revelation to Skagra that he's actually Salyavin, the perfunctory manner in which Skagra is defeated).  But there's enough here to tantalize as well, to suggest that this would have been worth doing.  It would have been hugely flawed, of course, but the strength of the basic storyline makes it look like it would have been compelling despite the flaws.  In effect, it would have been the quintessential season 17 story.


108 The real world reason being that John Leeson has left as K-9 and has been replaced by David Brierley -- but still, they couldn't come up with a better reason than laryngitis?
109 One "error" that isn't, though: About Time wonders how the Dalek that's wearing the Doctor's hat explodes in episode four, but it seems they didn't notice the explosive that the Doctor grabbed and planted on the Dalek right before.
110 So. This story was directed by Alan Bromly, who'd previously directed The Time Warrior and a number of other things since, but at this point in time was in semi-retirement.  He was by most accounts an authoritarian director of the old school, which meant that he butted heads with Tom Baker almost immediately.  It also didn't help that he didn't have a good grasp of how the show normally ran (apparently, he initially wanted to shoot the programme in story order -- something that hadn't really been done since the '60s), and that he also rubbed most of the crew the wrong way.  In addition to all that, Bromly also wasn't very comfortable with all the elaborate effects shots that Doctor Who required (this is the same director, you may recall, who thought that a quarry blast would be an effective substitute for an exploding castle -- this might (might) explain why Della is shot in the wrong place in part four).  All of this meant that Bromly was a very difficult director to work with, and Bromly's inflexibility and strict dictatorial style of direction didn't sit well with the cast or crew.  Baker eventually began to openly revolt on the studio floor, which led to a standstill on the last studio day as Bromly informed producer Graham Williams that he was washing his hands of the whole thing.  Williams was forced to step in and finish directing the serial, and it was agreed that the problems were Bromly's fault and that he would never work on the show again.  This experience, it seems, was the final straw for Williams, who decided he would step down as producer of Doctor Who at the end of the season.