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Just bringing myself up to date with my Who reviews here, before I move on to an overall review of the books, films and cult TV I have been gorging myself on for the past twelve months...

Fifth Doctor: The Visitation
This had quite a witty script, and I thoroughly enjoyed the character of the knockabout old actor. But the alien-attack-on-Earth story didn't seem to have very much to it, and although the historical setting made for nice window-dressing (and I appreciated seeing the Doctor start the Great Fire of London!), it didn't take us much further than that. The Terileptil’s attack could have taken place in any era, really, or on any planet – and it would always look ridiculous no matter what.

Still, New Who watch now sees the roots of the scene in The Runaway Bride when the Doctor disables a load of android Santas by sticking his sonic screwdriver in a handy disco sound-system. Nyssa here takes a lot longer to build a sonic booster to deal with the Terileptil's android, but the principle is essentially the same, and Ten's little trick feels less handwavey now I know it rests on a better-developed Classic techno-solution. It is of course somewhat ironic that New Who took this particular bit of sonic screwdriver magic from the very story in which Five's screwdriver is definitively destroyed, but I'm not going to complain about it too much. On the whole, I am pro-sonic screwdriver – though I do admit that it can be sorely over-used, and I think Runaway Bride is a pretty good example of that overall.


Fifth Doctor: Black Orchid
Ooh, what a little gem, eh? I’d seen this one before, I think at OUWho, but had only really remembered the “crickety-cricket” stuff from it, and have been looking forward to rediscovering the rest for ages. I wasn’t disappointed. It’s not just the yummy period costumes and music: this story has some great character moments for all four members of the TARDIS crew, and does some really quite clever things with the themes of concealment and identity. I also very much enjoyed getting to see a pure historical story for once, feeling that it gave the past the chance to really be the past – strange and alien and full of foreign customs and attitudes, and in marked contrast to The Visitation.

The highlight, obviously, is the ball on the terrace, replete with Tegan doing the Charleston, Nyssa and Anne playing coquettish games with their identical costumes and Adric being all awkward and self-conscious, and just wanting to tuck into the food. He, actually, provides a very good example of just how clever this story gets with identity and concealment. There he is, ostensibly playing the role of someone else in his fancy dress costume, but still characteristically Adric in the middle of it all. And meanwhile, pinned on top of the costume is another form of identity-marker which he chooses to wear all the time: his Badge of Mathematical Excellence. If you want to read it that way, it’s quite a clever juxtaposition between a temporary disguise and a permanent one. Meanwhile, you’ve got the Doctor for once not looking like a reject from a fancy-dress ball when his usual costume temporarily becoming a real set of cricket whites; the whole of the TARDIS team adopting the identity of some expected guests who haven’t actually arrived; Nyssa and Ann choosing to subsume the purely ephemeral differences between them by adopting identical butterfly dresses; Lady Cranleigh wearing a mask of respectability and normality while hiding a terrible secret in the attic; and poor old George up in his room, his original appearance and identity stripped from him because of his theft of the black orchid. It’s the kind of clever thematic set-up I always fall for, and I loved it.

The story also passes the Bechdel test due to conversations between Tegan, Nyssa and Ann, and of course allows me to see New Who’s The Unicorn and the Wasp in a whole new light, as the light-hearted 1920s country-house mystery setting of the latter fairly clearly has its roots in Black Orchid. Overall, I’d say this is one of the best Classic Who two-parters I’ve seen, with only The Edge of Destruction outdoing it.


Fifth Doctor: Four to Doomsday
This seemed to me a fairly average story, made notable by two things: a minor portrayal of Greek civilisation and the fact that this was the first story Peter Davison recorded as the Doctor, so sees him defining the character as his own.

The Greek character, Bigon (actually pronounced 'bygone' – boom, tish) is one of the most prominent guest characters in the story, and is played with a very touching seriousness by Philip Locke, whom I know best from his stint as Sir Roderick Glossop in the last series of Jeeves and Wooster. He stands out from the chief representatives of the Australian Aboriginal, Mayan and Mandarin Chinese cultures on board the space ship where the action takes place (again) by dint of being uninterested in the promise of absolute power over his fellow Greeks on Earth which the Urbankans in charge of the mission have made to him.

So far, so good. But that's as far as Bigon's Greekness goes. When the various cultures on board mount a 'recreation', we see his fellow Greeks engage in what looks rather more like Roman gladiatorial fighting (though you could pass some bits of it off as more culturally-appropriate wrestling). And the Urbankan Monarch taunts Bigon at one point by exclaiming, "If it weren't for me you'd still believe your Earth in flat!" OK, so that may be the Monarch's ignorance rather than an accurate statement of Bigon's actual beliefs – but the fact is that Bigon ought to have known perfectly well that the Earth was round.

I think the problem may be that although the popular image of Greek culture (intellectuals, high ideals and fine art) is more in keeping with Whovian values than the popular image of Roman culture (slaves, imperialism, and bloody pastimes), Roman culture is both more familiar to the general public and more visually interesting (cf. games in particular). So it’s terribly tempting for the script-writers to lean towards the Romans when they run out of ideas for characterising the Greeks – especially when they are only aiming to create a generically 'ancient' feel, rather than anything approaching historical 'accuracy'.

Peter Davison, meanwhile, generally claims to have looked primarily towards the Troughton era in defining his take on the Doctor – and I can see that this must be true, for him and the production team in general during this period. But actually on watching him in this story, I saw at least as much of William Hartnell in his Doctor as PT. It came across in a slightly mannered way of talking (e.g. calling Nyssa a 'young lady'), a higher degree of techno-babble than usual, and a tendency to begin explanations by saying 'Ah! Well, you see…' while clapping his hand on his subject's shoulder and looking generally wise and knowing. Coming to this story after having seen seven of his later ones, his performance is also notably different from the one he settled into later on: and it is largely this element of Hartnell that makes it so.

Other things I noticed: we get a great deal of emphasis here on the Urbankans scrutinising the TARDIS crew via the medium of television cameras – as of course the audience would be doing, too. For some reason, the Doctor can understand all known languages except Australian Aborigine – while despite the fact that Tegan comes from a period tens of thousands of years later than the Aborigine character, and that there must be dozens of Aboriginal language in any given period anyway, she can do it easily because she comes from Australia. How's that for characterisation for you? *eye-roll* And the Doctor claims he can only survive in sub-zero temperatures for six minutes – which is something I remember people commenting on with bafflement in relation to a similar claim made by Ten in 42. I mean, I could survive in sub-zero temperatures for more than six minutes, although I admit probably not in the vacuum of space. And anyway, he marched around the Antarctic in The Seeds of Doom perfectly happily with nothing more than his normal coat on. The best fanwank I can come up with for this is that Gallifreyan temperature measurements are different from ours, and they designate a lower temperature than we do as 'zero'. But that sort of translation-glitch doesn't seem to apply when he's talking about any other kinds of measurements, so I'm afraid it remains rather unsatisfactory.


And, as happened previously for the Third Doctor, I have now seen all of the Fifth Doctor stories currently available on DVD. So it's on to Sixie (OMG what am I letting myself in for? ;-p @ miss_s_b) forthwith.

In the meantime, here are some common points which struck me about the Fifth Doctor era:
  • It's notably more Earth-focussed than the Fourth Doctor era – enough, in fact, for it to be acknowledged in the script at the beginning of Black Orchid, when the Doctor asks the TARDIS, “What’s the matter old girl? Why this compunction for planet Earth?” As for so many things from this period, knowing this helps make more sense of the similar approach of New Who. It also means more [pseudo-]historicals than in the Baker era, as the production team try to vary the precise character of the Earth setting a little.
  • Cliff-hangers in this period are also notably different from earlier eras. For Pertwee or Baker, they tend to be terrible things being about to happen to companions and / or big reveals of monsters or terrifying alien devices. For Davison, though, they are much more focussed on him: generally close-ups of his face registering horror, resignation, dismay etc.
  • The stories almost always start out well, but all too often a faint sense of ludicrousness begins to overlay the proceedings (usually at around the same time that the main monster is revealed), soon followed by pointlessness.
  • While the DVD extras of the Pertwee and Baker eras are full of people expressing admiration for each other and remembering what a great time they had, these ones largely consist of people politely trying not to be too rude about Jonathan Nathan Turner. I can't blame them.

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Comments

( 12 comments — Leave a comment )
(Deleted comment)
strange_complex
Jan. 1st, 2009 07:03 pm (UTC)
Erm... *checks* ... yesitis! Does that have a Nicola and Colin commentary (Nicolintary)?
(Deleted comment)
strange_complex
Jan. 1st, 2009 07:11 pm (UTC)
Well, I shall storm into it with my usual general ignorance of these fannish matters, and see what I think for myself. So no spoilers, pls!
(Deleted comment)
qatsi
Jan. 1st, 2009 07:37 pm (UTC)
Yes, I think I would probably count The Visitation as my favourite Fifth story. Richard Mace (Michael Robbins) is surely the best supporting actor since Henry Gordon Jago (Christopher Benjamin) in The Talons of Weng-Chiang.
strange_complex
Jan. 1st, 2009 08:24 pm (UTC)
Yeah, he was great value - but I'm afraid I felt the story going on around him wasn't particularly outstanding.
steer
Jan. 1st, 2009 07:59 pm (UTC)
I may have said this already but I saw Colin Baker this year on stage -- he was terribly good as "Seymour" an alcoholic aging actor in Michael Frayn's "Noises off". He's definitely viewed in widescreen these days.

I thought you would like Black Orchid -- rather nice period piece.

For some reason the "melting" scene at the end of Visitation really scared me as a child -- though I must have been about ten at the time I found it really terrifying. When I watched it again I remembered vividly how scared I'd been.
strange_complex
Jan. 1st, 2009 08:23 pm (UTC)
Yes, I saw him myself in a production of Dracula a few years ago. We all hung around afterwards and were fangirly at him - it was great fun, and he was very sweet about it.

It's funny how those childhood scares can stay with you, isn't it? I think they're an essential formative part of any childhood, and am very glad that the current generation is getting a chance to experience their own.
steer
Jan. 2nd, 2009 10:55 am (UTC)
It's funny how those childhood scares can stay with you, isn't it?

Yes... I can trace some fears which stayed with me for years to certain things I saw when I was younger.
davesangel
Jan. 1st, 2009 07:59 pm (UTC)
As you know, I'm a big fan of the disguise motif wherever it's employed, and layering of identity, etc, so I love your analysis of Black Orchid, and I'd certainly agree with you. But aside from that, I just adored the story. A lot of fans seem to dislike it, and I've heard it dismissed as a story that isn't "really Doctor Who" because the Doctor doesn't do anything in it. But I'd totally disagree, I think the Doctor is indeed important to the story, and it's just so much fun, too!

(The costumes are also superb :D)
strange_complex
Jan. 1st, 2009 08:27 pm (UTC)
Thanks - nice to know a disguise expert shares my views! Generally, I think the story is one of the best Davison ones I've seen so far, and I think the Doctor contributes plenty to the story.
( 12 comments — Leave a comment )

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