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I've now notched up another season: 17, this time. I'd already skipped ahead and seen three out of its six stories, so now that I've filled in the gaps, I've linked the write-ups from my earlier viewings in sequence between the new ones.

Fourth Doctor: Destiny of the Daleks
This one was great. I mean, not quite on the same level as Genesis of the Daleks, which is the inevitable comparison. But still clever and compelling and beautifully presented, all the same.

It's our first proper introduction to Lalla Ward as Romana II, although obviously that aspect was slightly lost on me, having already seen her (and liked her very much) in the three stories I'd skipped ahead and seen from this season. Mind you, in between I've watched all six of Mary Tamm's Romana stories, and become very invested in her, too, so that did re-create some of the original 'Will I like this new Romana?' effect for me. And of course I did, because she's ace! She's less supercilious than Tamm's Romana, and much less overtly sexual - but interestingly, although the sassy swagger has gone, it actually allows Ward to portray the character as much stronger and more of the Doctor's equal than Tamm's approach ever did. Her Romana is convincingly studious in a way that Tamm's wasn't quite; grounded in a quiet self-assurance, rather than haughty bragging. That said, I don't want to play them off against each other, really - both are good, and Ward's portrayal of Romana is a convincing direction for the character to take now she's built up a bit of real experience travelling with the Doctor. It's just a pity the Beeb didn't see fit to ask Tamm back for the final regeneration scene (she claims in commentaries on the Key to Time box-set that she would have done it); and instead scraped up a couple of random extras for whom the budget clearly didn't stretch to any actual spoken lines.

For the record, the moment when I really fell for Romana II has got to be her reaction when the Doctor tells the Movellans they've got no hope of defeating the Daleks, since Davros will be helping them - but then can't resist bragging that Davros' computer skills are merely 'almost as good as mine', thus basically inviting the Movellans to force him to help them:

That's what we need from a top-quality companion - and of course, it doesn't hurt that in her pink-and-white version of the Doctor's outfit, she's really rather easy on the eye, too.

The story itself scores on three major fronts - production values, characterisation of the Daleks and central theme. The production values probably look particularly good coming straight from season 15, where they're definitely rather over-stretched, but they still seem better-than-average for Who in this era anyway. The location footage is brilliant, with lots of intriguing semi-ruins about the place; the sets are detailed and shiny (especially the Movellan ship - see above); the model-work is great (again, especially the Movellan ship boring into the ground when it first lands); and the costumes are well worked out, too - OK, so the Movellan costumes look a bit camp and cheesy now, but what they do not look is cheap. None of the above automatically means good Who of course, but it helps.

And meanwhile, what does mean good Who is firmly in place. What I liked most of all was the way the Daleks were portrayed - which is as absolutely ruthless and terrifying monsters, ravaging their way through the Universe. There are two things which really bring this out. One, fairly obviously, is the scene in which the Daleks are in a face-off with the Doctor, who has Davros captive, and get their way by simply randomly exterminating the humanoid on-lookers until the Doctor agrees to terms. The other is the way they treat Romana when they capture her. It's not just that their general brutality: it's the fact that they clearly have a well-oiled system for the capture, interrogation and strategic re-use of prisoners. They categorise her based on standard questions, and then put her to work on the purely rational grounds that she can be more useful to them that way than if she is simply exterminated. Without making a big song and dance about it, it's a clear way of demonstrating just how dedicated and large-scale their war effort has become since we saw them last (in Genesis), and how utterly devoid of conscience or emotion they are.

Finally, it's interesting to note that once again, as in the last episode of the previous season (The Armageddon Factor), the theme at the centre of the story is one of two great war-computers locked in a stalemate. This time, the similarity with War Games is still more marked, as the Doctor demonstrates the impossibility of either side ever winning via a game of Scissors, Paper, Stone - but still four years before that film came out. I'd be interested to know if there's some Classic work of SF I don't know about behind both of them, or if it's simply a theme that was prominent in the public consciousness around this time.

Other minor notes: I actually felt a chill when Davros first appeared - which I suppose is more of a testimony to his portrayal in Genesis than here; but anyway, it's great that Classic Who is still capable of delivering those sorts of reactions. And I squeed madly over the Doctor reading a book by Oolon Colluphid while trapped under a pillar - because (in 'canon' terms) that means that the Whoniverse and the H2G2 Universe are one! Ten's reference to Arthur Dent in The Christmas Invasion doesn't quite cement that for me, because he could just be referring to Dent as a fictional character, so it's nice to see it definitively established here.

City of Death already seen, and written up here.

Fourth Doctor: The Creature from the Pit
I just want to take a moment here to register my love for the beginning-of-story light-hearted scenes on board the TARDIS which are a regular feature of this era in Who's history. They're nascent in season 15, really established in season 16 and fully mature here - but I don't think I've specifically mentioned them in my write-ups before. I can see why some people might find these scenes annoying: as cheap feel-good humour which undermines the weight and the darkness of the stories they frame, and which turns the TARDIS team into too much of a happy family in space. But personally, I really like the idea that the Doctor gets to have a good time in between the stories we see, and that the show as broadcast is only focussing on the tenser and more dramatic moments in a wider and happier life. Anyway, here we get the Doctor reading Peter Rabbit to K-9 (presumably in an attempt to help him get over the bout of 'laryngitis' he'd been suffering from at the beginning of Destiny), and also Romana rummaging through the TARDIS hold and un-earthing a ball of string which the Doctor once gave to Theseus and Ariadne - an interesting fore-shadowing of The Horns of Nimon later in the season. It's warm, and sweet, and funny, and just - love. More of this, please.

The story itself is fine, without being outstanding or dreadful. It reminded me a bit of The Ribos Operation, with its medieval-style society, struggles over scarce resources, underground caverns and a dotty old man who helps the Doctor. But, fundamentally, the thing that is always going to stand out most of all about it is the Doctor's, er - interactions - with the giant green blob in the pit:

miss_s_b, I think we may need to reopen that conversation about which Doctor had the most inappropriate encounters with aliens... ;-)

Nightmare of Eden already seen, and written up here.

Horns of Nimon already seen, and written up here.

Fourth Doctor: Shada
And, finally, Shada - or at least the video reconstruction of it, anyway. I was actually quite surprised by how much of this exists - I'd really got the impression that nothing more than a few isolated scenes were made, but actually that's not true. The original story would clearly have featured six major locations: Cambridge and its surroundings (including Professor Chronotis' study); the Think Tank; Skagra's spaceship; the TARDIS console room; the lab where Chris and Clare work; and Shada itself. Of these, the last three are all completely unmade, while there are scenes inside a prison-room on Skagra's ship, but not anywhere else. This makes it sound as though about half of the story would be missing - but in fact the Cambridge scenes in particular constitute such a major part of the whole that at a rough guess I'd say that something more like about 70% of the story was actually filmed. And since it's a six-parter, that really does mean quite a lot of footage. The first few episodes clock in at almost their full original length, with only a few scenes missing here and there; and although that's dropped to something more like about 15 minutes or less by the end, as the focus moves away from Cambridge and onto Skagra's ship and Shada, there's still very much enough to make it worth watching.

The video reconstruction itself is OK, and it was very sweet of Tom Baker to agree to come along and narrate the missing parts. But I did feel that a bit more effort could have been made with it. Even on Tom's part, there's a sense that his heart isn't really in it. He tries, bless him, but doesn't seem entirely wrapped up in the story in the way he does when he's acting - perhaps an understandable effect of being asked to read out isolated snippets of descriptive narrative, which don't really make much sense on their own. And I wasn't entirely convinced by the decision to put him in a suit standing in a museum full of past Who monsters, either. Although I get that it meant they could show him looking at and reacting to a Krarg (the monsters for this story), it didn't really have much continuing value once that had been done. I'd have preferred to see him in his battered old costume in the TARDIS console room, telling the story as though he were an older Four, reminiscing about his past adventures. Obviously, that wouldn't really tally with the fact that in 1992 he already looked very different from how he did by the time he regenerated in Logopolis - but then neither does what they actually did, and at least it might have helped him engage with the story a bit more fully, and have some fun 'acting out' the more dramatic parts of it around the console. Still, I guess all that would have cost a lot more money than anyone was prepared to put into it - and it's certainly better to have what we do than nothing at all.

The story itself I've kind of already written up on the basis of the audio play, so there's not much more to add there. It's good, and I think would have been really great with the missing elements in place - though of course it's hard to judge entirely from what we've got. Professor Chronotis is excellent - definitely one of Who's great secondary characters - and I also absolutely loved the college porter, who could have been plucked directly from almost any real-life Oxbridge college, even now. Chris and Clare (the ordinary human onlooker characters) are rather weaker - but that may be partly because they've lost a higher proportion of important scenes than the other characters. And Skagra is just great! I'm heavily biased by the fact that he turned out to be played by Christopher Neame, who is also the baddie in one of my very favourite of the Hammer Dracula films, Dracula AD 1972 (just for clarity, I'm not being sarcastic, there - I really, genuinely love that film). But even if he hadn't had that head-start with me, I think his crazy-camp silver-and-white cloak and his malicious grin would have won me over all the same. :-)

It's a pity we miss a painful crawl by the Doctor through a void between Chronotis' TARDIS and his own, as well as an epic mental battle between him and Skagra, as those are the sorts of scenes Tom Baker does brilliantly well. And there are still some elements of the plot I'm slightly confused by - like why Skagra has to go to all the trouble to go to Shada to try to claim Salyavin's mind, when I thought by then he had discovered that since the Professor is Salyavin, he already has it. But, on the whole, a great story with some brilliant ideas and lovely scenes (especially the punting), not to mention some interesting backstory for the Doctor as we learn that his childhood hero was a brilliant renegade who ended up being imprisoned by the Time Lords. Very much worth watching, even if we can never quite see it as originally intended.

And so, that is season 17. It has some great stories (Destiny, City and probably Shada) and some average ones (Creature, Nightmare and Horns), but nothing abysmal, by any means. Overall, it's probably on equal pegging with seasons 15 and 16 - which means not as good as 12, 13, or 14, but pretty chuffing decent all the same.

I've got one season left now, until WOE and ANGST. I think I'll start right now...


( 11 comments — Leave a comment )
Jun. 8th, 2008 04:26 pm (UTC)
I might have to track these down- from your descriptions I think they're about the first ones I remember from the first time round (which must've been about my fifth birthday looking at the air dates). I definitely remember the Movellans, and the enormous cheese in the pit. I've got a vague feeling that the Doctor got knocked into the pit by a spinning wheel materialising behind him- is that right or did I have too much sugar that day?
Jun. 8th, 2008 04:50 pm (UTC)
Sort of, about the spinning wheel. There's a pulley just next to the pit, which he deliberately grabs as he jumps into it. So your memory is a bit distorted, but you're not making it up.

Theoretically, I have the power to burn most of these onto a DVD and send it to you, although I've never actually done it, so I'm not promising anything. I'll see what I can do, though!
Jun. 8th, 2008 06:02 pm (UTC)
There is a nice audio written by Paul Cornell that does contain the line; "You Daleks really are useless. You can't even manage to beat a race whose idea of camouflage would only work in a really camp intergalactic disco."

I think Romana is really rather good in Destiny - from her dress to her miraculous and unaided escape from the slave camp, she is basically being portrayed in the same way the Doctor is. The parade of extras is a bit like Patrick Troughton's regeneration sequence too.

- K
Jun. 8th, 2008 06:36 pm (UTC)
Hee, good old Cornell!

And yes, you're right to point to Romana's escape from the camp as another element in establishing the strength of her character. It wasn't absent in the previous season - she has a pretty independent role in The Pirate Planet, for example. But it's definitely much more consistent and convincing here.

I've yet to see Troughton's regeneration (or at least, I think I've seen the clip, but not in its proper context), so I'll have to bear what you say in mind until then.
Jun. 8th, 2008 07:06 pm (UTC)
I've never actually seen Shada, only the animated version thats on the BBC website. Any chance I could borrow it?
Jun. 8th, 2008 07:44 pm (UTC)
It's all on youtube.

- K
Jun. 8th, 2008 08:22 pm (UTC)
I'm just popping it all onto my data-stick now, and will bring it round tomorrow evening. So, assuming you have a USB port and a spare 1.5Gb on your hard-drive, you have Shada.

What sort of time would you like me to arrive tomorrow, BTW?
Jun. 9th, 2008 07:21 am (UTC)
I do indeed have hadrdrive space so that'll be grand, ta :-)

I should be home from 5.30, so anytime after that would be smashing.
Jun. 9th, 2008 11:53 am (UTC)
Great! I think my arrival time will depend on how I'm getting on with these dissertations I'm marking, but let's say I'll aim for between 7 and 7:30, and will text you if that looks likely to be inaccurate. I'll have eaten by the time I come.
Jun. 8th, 2008 08:35 pm (UTC)
The one thing I liked about Destiny of the Daleks was the idea of a war where not a single shot had been fired. I always thought the Movellans kind of looked like glam rockers.

Good reviews by the way.
Jun. 8th, 2008 08:38 pm (UTC)
I always thought the Movellans kind of looked like glam rockers

Hehe, they do, don't they? Three cheers for that!
( 11 comments — Leave a comment )

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