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Meep! New Who starts again today, and I'm miles behind with my Classic Who blogging! Let's see if I can catch up before 6:20pm.

First of all, the latest three in UKTV Drama's sequential showing of the Tom Baker era:

Fourth Doctor: The Deadly Assassin
I've seen this one before at least twice, including as recently as last summer (I think - it was definitely since I moved into this house last July, anyway), when some BBC cable channel or other had a massive Doctor Who marathon weekend, featuring one seminal story for each incarnation of the Doctor. But watching it in sequence and from a more informed perspective is quite a different matter.

Obviously, it's unique in a number of ways: there's no companion, Time Lord society is portrayed directly in the fullest detail yet, and almost two entire episodes of it take the form of a ferocious mental battle in which there is next to no dialogue. I thought the absence of the companion worked really well for this specific story, as it allows the Doctor and his fellow Time Lords to interact with one another on their own, alien terms, without the things they are doing being actively and constantly questioned and re-interpreted by a human companion. This actually frees up the Doctor to offer his own critiques of the Time Lords from a 'disenamoured insider' perspective - something which would either get pushed out or become rather repetitive if we were also getting questions and commentary from a human character. Instead, the human perspective is left up to the viewer to construct for themselves - we almost become a silent, passive companion ourselves for the length of this story, in fact. But the decision not to repeat the experiment for other stories was definitely a wise one, though. The companion is very obviously an essential part of the successful format for the show in normal circumstances - and besides, the scenes of the Doctor talking to himself, both in this story and at the start of Face of Evil are just painful!

Showing Time Lord society in such detail is always going to be risky, and there are some aspects of it that inevitably seem a little bathetic. But, then again, we've been primed all along to find them somewhat distasteful, since they did exile the Doctor after all, so it's entirely apt that they should turn out to be collectively bureaucratic, nepotistic, corrupt and unimaginative - with a few minor exceptions. More puzzling is the complete and utter absence of women - because it's not like the existence of female Time Lords had not already been firmly established in the canon by this time (Y HALO THAR, SUSAN!). I was quite surprised, too, that so many of the Time Lords seemed so completely ignorant of the Doctor himself and his history. You'd have thought his original exile would have been pretty scandalous, and thus talked-about, and besides at least some of them have obviously been tracking his progress ever since in order to do things like put him on trial in The War Games (which I really need to see now!), lift his exile to Earth at the end of The Three Doctors and send him off to prevent the creation of the Daleks in Genesis.... As it is, though, the only ones who seem ever to have heard of him are Runcible and Borusa, and I could have done with some kind of explanation for that.

In any case, though, the real highlight of this story for me is the Doctor's lengthy and gruelling mental / physical struggle in the Matrix. This is truly compelling television, taking the series to new places and pushing the Doctor to his very limits. It's tense and claustrophobic; Tom Baker makes you feel every scratch and blow the Doctor suffers; and the lack of dialogue really highlights how alone he is, and how only his own resources of intellect and stamina can carry him through the experience. There are possibly some questions to be asked about how very Terran everything he sees there seems to be - the aeroplane, the WWI soldier, the clown, the trains, the Samurai warrior. This could readily have been explained as hallucinations drawn from the Doctor's own experiences - except that Co-Ordinator Engin, who looks after the Time Lord's archives, specifically states that the Doctor's opponent (later revealed to be Chancellor Goth) has been into the Matrix many times, and 'created his own reality'. Assuming that Goth doesn't have extensive experience of Earth himself, this seems rather strange. But it's still possible that Goth has access to the Doctor's memories, and can draw them out and use them against him, so I'll let it go.

Meanwhile, if the Fourth Doctor happens to get you a bit hot under the collar, then the whole Matrix sequence basically boils down to one whole hour of Four Porn. These are some of the delights it has to offer:
  • For starters, Four in knee-high leather boots and a Byronic / Wildean / Darcyian white, puffy-sleeved, slight translucent shirt, which already offers tantalising glimpses of Neck.
  • Before long, said shirt has come undone at the collar, exposing quite a lot more Neck and also some Chest, while the sweatier he gets in it, the more it tends to cling around the body.
  • If that weren't enough, it then rips up the side, cranking Chest exposure levels up to Dangerous.
  • You can deny this reality as much as you like, Doctor, but you cannot deny Leg-porn!
  • And on top of all this, all the while he is getting increasingly sweaty, muddy and bloody...
  • ...until he finally ends up completely soaking wet:

Woof! What a pity it doesn't seem to be out on DVD yet... ;-)

Fourth Doctor: The Face of Evil
Next, it's time for a proper introduction to Leela, whom I'd met a couple of times while skipping ahead of UKTV Drama's screenings, but had yet to be entirely bowled over by. Actually, there's a hint of a suggestion that the Doctor might have hoped to go back and pick up Sarah Jane at the start of the story, since he emerges from the TARDIS thinking he had landed in Hyde Park (though we don't know when) - but of course it cannot be. And since it can't, in fact this story does do a much better job than the previous two I'd seen of reconciling me to Leela. As a renegade from her own society, she's a good match for the Doctor - and that of course works particularly well when we've just been reminded of the Doctor's own renegade status in Assassin. She's also bright and inquisitive, thinking for instance to ask how it is that the Sevateem can hear Xoanon's voice, and thus setting the Doctor off on new and important trains of thought.

The story itself is a good one, obviously offering lots of opportunity in particular for interesting commentary on religious belief. I'd have found it slightly more satisfying if it had tied in with previous adventures of the Doctor that we'd actually seen (in the manner of New Who's New Earth and then Gridlock), rather than ones apparently being invented as we go along, but I suppose it does make for fanfiction opportunities... And of course the motif of the Doctor having to enter into a mental battle with a deranged version of himself (Xoanon) builds very nicely on the themes of Assassin, and his mental battles with an enemy.

Douglas Adams Watch noted some marked similarities in the way Four reacts to and interacts with a giant sculpture of his own face, and the way Arthur Dent does the same when faced with an enormous statue of himself on the planet Brontitall (in an episode broadcast just three years after this story). And Classics watch also officially approved of the choice of the name Xoanon for the Sevateem's god, but was slightly puzzled by the significance of 'Janus' in the name of the Janus thorns. There's no obvious reason why Janus should be associated with a thorn that paralyses and then kills (dozens of other Classical names, like Nessus, Medea or Socrates (as victim) would be more appropriate there), so I'm reduced to assuming it's supposed to be a reference to Janus' role of standing between civilisation and barbarism, like the Sevateem. It's a bit obscure, but then so is the term Xoanon, so I guess it's plausible.

Fourth Doctor: The Robots of Death
Leela's character development continues very nicely in this next story. She may have forced her way onto the TARDIS against the Doctor's will, but once there we're given plenty more good reasons why she should stay. Has any other companion ever directly requested - and got - an actual explanation for how the interior of the TARDIS fits inside its exterior before? I don't know of one, anyway. She also realises straight away that the Doctor can't really control it, and later genuinely impresses him by the makeshift bandage she creates for Toos on the mining ship, as well as picking up very quickly on his plan to trick the Robots by using helium to modify Dask's voice. So, now that I've seen all that, I'm pretty happy with her - though she'll never be my favourite of Four's companions. (*sighSarahJanesigh*)

The story is a little bit Dune-ish, with its mining ship on a desert planet and its themes of family feuds, and also a little bit Poirot-esque, with its vaguely Art Deco setting and the motif of murders going on within an enclosed setting. And it is of course strongly referenced in New Who's Voyage of the Damned via the resemblence between the Robots and the Host, a couple of specific instances noted on Wikipedia, and even a direct comment from the Doctor: faced with the fact that the mining ship is sinking into the sand, he points out that the situation isn't yet terminal by saying 'This isn't the Titanic'.

The comparison with Voyage doesn't entirely work in Robots' favour, though. The biggest difference is that Voyage's core characters were (mainly) very likeable, so that you cared about whether they escaped or not, and were touched when they died. In Robots, the only characters I really liked were Poul, whose descent into Robophobia was compelling and well played out, and D84, who did a good job of eliciting sympathy for the robot point-of-view and therefore also making Taran Capel's (rather warped) visions of a robot rebellion more plausible. But the others, I found it hard to care for - and that meant it was difficult to engage on any particularly emotional level with the story. Yes, there are references to the possibility of Taran Capel's revolution spreading, and prompting chaos across the galaxy - but that remains too abstract a threat to get worked up about, while the immediate threat to the characters on board the mining ship is of little interest once Poul died. Still, the basic ideas were interesting and imaginative, so I wouldn't want to write the story off. It was just that it could have been more satisfying with a little more sympathy injected into the guest characters.

And there, alas, UKTV is leaving us in the lurch, presumably because New Who is starting up again, and the BBC would rather channel us into watching that. Bad news for those us of who would quite cheerfully have watched both in parallel! They did promise in a continuity announcement that the Doctor would be back later in the year, though, again presumably when the new series finishes showing. But it is frustrating for now to have to stop one story shy of a season finale, and I shall miss my daily fix something rotten.

Well, actually I probably won't, because it's not like I'm entirely dependent on UKTV for my Classic Who viewing. I succumbed some time ago to the temptation of buying the Key to Time box-set, so shall be working my way through that shortly, BBC4 seem to be chipping in with occasional contributions, and in any case it's not hard in these days of modern technology to access pretty well as much Classic Who as you like. So I'll probably survive. In the meantime, there's just one more out-of-sequence story for me to write up:

Fourth Doctor: The Sun Makers
We're a season ahead here, but following on directly from the first two Leela stories I saw, so that I do at least have some sense of general continuity. The dominant themes of the story are corporate exploitation and socialist revolution - which made it interesting to watch next to Robots. While the greed of the tax-collectors in Sun Makers over-burdens their citizens and foments revolution, the greed of the mining ship captain (Uvanov) in Robots similarly endangers his crew and helps to lay his society open to the rebellion of the robots.

The characters of the Collector and his lackey, Gatherer Hade, are a bit annoying and OTT, but then again, they are supposed to be villains. (And I am glad, now, to understand one of qatsi's userpics which I didn't get before). Meanwhile, the various citizens of Pluto whom the Doctor and Leela meet are quite compelling - especially Cordo, as he makes the transition from down-trodden prole to autonomous rebel. Leela herself is good value here, too, especially in her interactions with the 'Others' (the rebellious outlaws). Their gang-land lifestyle in the Undercity of course matches her roots amongst the Sevateem, so she can really take control of the situation, and even show them how spineless and pathetic they are.

While the overall arc of the story is about the successful ousting of the rapacious Company, though, in some ways it's also rather bleak. The obsessive monitoring of Pluto's citizens via CCTV cameras, credit card transactions and so forth seems depressingly prescient now. And even at the end, I found myself wondering just how marvellous the new society the revolution had brought about was going to be. We'd already seen the rebels merrily hurling the Gatherer off the top of a building, which seems no more compassionate or less extreme than the public steaming meted out to Leela. Cordo, too, at one point expresses the naive view that they won't have to pay any more taxes after the revolution - but of course they will, because you cannot have communal buildings and services without them, and I suspect that the process of finding this out will be rather painful for many of the citizens.

Raising those suggestions, though, is a sign of a strong story. On the whole, this is a well-paced tale, which explores interesting ideas with a good balance between humour and tension. And there was even at least one small Classical resonance in it too - the Doctor's protest when hearing that a reward of 5000 talmars has been offered for his capture ('Peanuts! It's an insult!') reminded me of Julius Caesar's very similar reaction to the ransom of 20 talents offered for his life by pirates at the start of Plutarch's Caesar. You can't knock that.


( 13 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 5th, 2008 03:57 pm (UTC)
Could you clear a Whovian matter up for me? As a kid (we're the same age, give or take a couple of months) I distinctly remember watching a Who were the assistant collapsed, covered in huge spiders that crawled out of marrows. I've been told that its called "Planet of the Spiders" and its from the Jon Pertwee era in 1974. Is this the case?
Apr. 5th, 2008 04:14 pm (UTC)
Well, I haven't seen that story, so I can't be sure, but I can point you towards both the BBC's episode guide for that story and some screencaps from it, which might help you to work it out. And I do at some stage intend to go back and watch Sarah Jane's stories with Three (of which it is the last one), so I may be able to give a more convincing answer then!
Apr. 5th, 2008 04:47 pm (UTC)
Ah, thank you!
Apr. 5th, 2008 04:22 pm (UTC)
No, it's definitely "Full Circle", from Tom Baker's last season in 1981!
Apr. 5th, 2008 04:47 pm (UTC)
Thank you, much obliged!
Apr. 5th, 2008 04:31 pm (UTC)
Full Circle, Baker era.
Apr. 5th, 2008 04:47 pm (UTC)
Thank you!
Apr. 5th, 2008 04:42 pm (UTC)
Ah, there you go then - looks like you have your answer now!
Geoff Saunders
Jun. 1st, 2013 06:29 pm (UTC)
Spiders from marrows
The spiders from marrows are in FULL CIRCLE - one jumps out and lands on Romana's face and made my entire family jump and spill their tea!
Apr. 5th, 2008 07:34 pm (UTC)
I think you have to be in the right frame of mind for The Sun Makers; it appeals particularly to my cynical side. It's by Robert Holmes, of course, as is The Talons of Weng-Chiang, which was one of the first of the classic series to appear on DVD, so - budgets permitting - no problem viewing that one.

kharin bought The Key to Time set and we've watched most of it; generally better than I remember it. The Stones of Blood is still my favourite, by quite a long way; The Ribos Operation and The Pirate Planet were both better than I had thought; I'm not particularly a fan of any in the second half of the season, though none of them are terrible.

Gallifrey, with its smugness, non-interference and xenophobia, is plainly Switzerland. The War Games was a story I knew only through the Target book as a child. Some people think it's rather long and dry, but having seen it on VHS, I think it's worth looking out for.
Apr. 5th, 2008 07:58 pm (UTC)
Oh, I did basically like The Sun Makers as a story - it was clever and funny and raised some serious issues. My reservations are pretty minimal, really.

I haven't got to The Stones of Blood yet, but I've certainly enjoyed the first two stories so far. I've also been really enjoying the spin-off documentaries and commentary tracks - Tom Baker lusting over an on-screen Mary Tamm while she sits there trying not to laugh about it beside him is really funny!
Apr. 5th, 2008 09:02 pm (UTC)
The new series is starting already? Aargh. It's so frustrating waiting until it gets over here!
Apr. 5th, 2008 09:08 pm (UTC)
I think it won't be such a long wait this time as it has been in some previous years. I'm sure I've heard Americans on doctorwho saying that the US start date is only a couple of weeks behind the UK one - people may have mentioned April 18th, but I'm not sure.
( 13 comments — Leave a comment )

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