My dream classic season

Hello again! In installment three of my dream/nightmare seasons, I have compiled the best episodes of each slot for the classic run. Now, this endeavor was both easier and harder than it was for the modern show, because I’ve seen only a fraction of the classic episodes so there wasn’t much to consider, but the classic show’s seasons don’t line up well with each other. There seems to be very little rhyme or reason when it comes to the number of episodes in a season. The First and Second Doctors’ seasons lasted seven to ten episodes; the Third Doctor did four to five; the Fourth Doctor’s seasons were five to seven episodes long; and then the Fifth Doctor did seven episodes for all three of his seasons. The Sixth Doctor’s episode numberings are odd, depending on how you treat Trial of a Time Lord. And then then Seventh Doctor did three seasons of four episodes apiece.

As far as my viewing patterns go, as I work through the classic shows, I’m starting with the ones with the highest ratings, so most of the ones I’ve seen are good. Therefore, I won’t be putting together a nightmare season. So, here’s my dream season, which includes the list of episodes I’m choosing from (only the ones I’ve seen in a slot).

Doctor Introduction Episode: “Castrovalva”

183321“Robot” had a great plot and some fantastic comedic sequences (including the Doctor selecting his wardrobe), but “Castrovalva” had a great mind-bending puzzle and I preferred the overall plot (though the sequences of Nyssa and Tegan dragging the zero box through the woods could have been a lot shorter).

List: “Spearhead from Space”, “Robot”, “Castrovalva”, “Time and the Rani”

Episode 1: “Remembrance of the Daleks”

This episode starts out looking like it’s just going to be another “defeat the Daleks” episode, and then you slowly realize what the Doctor is doing, and it’s just stunning. “Arc of Infinity” would have topped this list if they hadn’t dropped the ball in the last half-hour and abandoned Omega’s return to the universe and his recovering from his millenia-long isolation in favor of showing off that they were actually filming on-location in a foreign country.

List: “The Three Doctors”, “Horror of Fang Rock”, “Arc of Infinity”, “Remembrance of the Daleks”

Episode 2: “The Ark in Space”

The Fourth Doctor, Sarah Jane, and Harry Sullivan find themselves on a space station with aliens trying to take over the humans in suspended animation. It sounds pretty trite, but this is an episode that I started watching without any idea about and then started going, “Oh my god, this is a fantastic story.” Whenever anyone asks what’s a good classic episode to watch for an introduction, this is the one I suggest (though I always add the caveat that you have to ignore the dodgy alien larvae that are obviously actors in green bubblewrap). The other two episodes in this list are also very good.

List: “The Dalek Invasion of Earth”, “The Mind Robber”, “The Ark in Space”

Episode 3: “Mawdryn Undead”

Doctor_Who__Mawdryn_UndeadThis was a hard choice. I didn’t really like “Pyramids of Mars,” but I think that’s mostly because I didn’t really get it. It needs a rewatch. “The Deadly Assassin” is very good, but the middle part, where the Doctor is fleeing the assassin in the Matrix, didn’t age well and is very boring. “Mawdryn Undead” is good episode, dealing with death and the curse of immortality, bringing back the Brigadier twice, and introducing Turlough.

List: “Pyramids of Mars”, “The Deadly Assassin”, “Mawdryn Undead”

Episode 4: “The Face of Evil”

I think most people would choose “Genesis of the Daleks,” because of its famous plotline about the choice of genocide, but I prefer “The Face of Evil.” The overall plot is engaging, but I especially like the way they constructed the Sevateem and Tesh societies, and the personal journey of the shaman Neva through the episode makes it shine.

List: “Genesis of the Daleks”, “The Face of Evil”, “Terminus”, “Survival”

Episode 5: “Black Orchid”

On the face of it, just looking at the plot, “Black Orchid” is an average or below-average episode. However, the thing that’s appealing about it is that it’s different. There’s no science fiction element or direct threat in it (just a murder mystery, though it’s terribly written), and instead, you get to watch the Doctor enjoy himself playing cricket, and the rest of the crew get to interact with each other on a social level. I’d like to see episodes like this done every so often.

List: “The Robots of Death”, “Black Orchid”, “Enlightenment”, “Planet of Fire”

Episode 6: “The Talons of Weng-Chiang”

This is a fine story, with a lot of well-created characters, including the villains and the pair of Jago and Litefoot.

List: “The Aztecs”, “The Talons of Weng-Chiang”, “The Keeper of Traken”, “Earthshock”, “Revelation of the Daleks”

Episode 7: “The Five Doctors”

the_five_doctors___oh_no_no_gif_by_limpet666-d5llvrkOkay, so there’s only one episode in this list. “The Five Doctors” doesn’t have the sturdiest plot, but with so many Doctors and companions, and companion cameos, it’s just a lot of fun. Plus, you get to see the Brigadier punch the Master.

List: “The Five Doctors”

(I have not seen any of the later episodes in seasons that lasted longer than seven episodes.)

Doctor Regeneration Episode: “The Caves of Androzani”

This is one of the best Doctor Who episodes ever. On the one hand,  you have this huge political/economic war going on, while on the other hand, the Doctor is simply trying to find a way to save Peri’s life, a task made difficult by getting innocently embroiled in the battle. The people in all of the factions are complex, with multiple goals motivating their actions, and you never quite know who’s going to succeed in the end, or even if the way it all turns out is actually a good thing.

List: “Logopolis”, “The Caves of Androzani”

 

Hard classic data

As a quick note, I’m going to be out of town for the next week. While I’ll have access to computers at the hotel and I have a keyboard and the WordPress app on the iPad, I’m not sure I’ll be able to post regularly, and certainly anything I do post won’t have images. But rest assured, I’ll be back. (I haven’t tried out the WordPress app yet. I hope it’s easy to use. For some reason, the workings of “productive” iPad apps still elude me.)

IMDB average ratings for classic episodes, with Doctors indicated

IMDB average ratings for classic episodes, with Doctors indicated

Yesterday, I wrote about the TV ratings graphs on GraphTV and discussed the ratings trends of the modern Doctor Who, and today, here’s the graph for the classic series. You can see the real graph here, but the image to the left has the Doctors indicated. I don’t have much time today to really look at this graph, but here are few interesting points.

First, there are few very important things to note about the data itself.

  • The dots indicate episode parts, not episodes themselves. For example, “The Caves of Androzani” is made up of four parts, and so there are four dots on the graph for it. Another important point is that the early episodes had different names for their parts, such as the first episode is in total made up of “An Unearthly Child,” “The Cave of Skulls,” “The Forest of Fear,” and “The Firemaker.”
  • The number of user ratings per dot are much lower for the classic series than for the modern series. These averages are calculated from 100-200 user ratings, while the modern series’ averages are calculated from 1000-2000 user ratings.

In general, it seems that the average rating for each season is about 7.5 across the whole classic series, with a couple of very notable exceptions: the Second Doctor’s second season, the Third Doctor’s first season, the Fourth Doctor’s first three seasons (Sarah Jane and Leela), and the Seventh Doctor’s first season. I don’t really know much about the history of the show itself, so I don’t know why his first season was so bad, but… wow. Not a single episode rated above 7.0. He definitely makes up for it in his last season though.

It looks like the show’s best and most consistent time was from the beginning of the Third Doctor through the third season of the Fourth Doctor: only rarely did the episodes dip below 7.0. I’d be interested in seeing what kinds of changes in the production staff happened at the beginning of season 15 that caused the quality to even back out to 7.5 again. The show’s most inconsistent season is season 6, the Second Doctor’s last season, which has some of the lowest- and the highest-rated episodes in the entire show.

One season that’s worth looking at is season 21, the Fifth Doctor’s last season. Mr. Davison has been quoted as saying that if he had known how good that last season was going to be, he wouldn’t have left the show at that point, and the ratings show this: it started with a low episode (“Warriors of the Deep”), but then shot up and ended the Fifth Doctor’s tenure on one of the best episodes in the entire series. Sadly, the average and slope of the ratings line are destroyed by the Sixth Doctor’s debut episode “The Twin Dilemma,” which unusually counts for season 21, instead of the Sixth Doctor’s first season, season 22.

One other thing that I noticed was that while “The Trial of a Time Lord” is usually mentioned as being one of the low points of the series, on this graph its episodes average around 7.5, the same as most of the other seasons’ averages, and its ratings are tightly clustered around that average, so there aren’t any truly poorly-rated episodes.

That’s that for now. Hopefully I’ll be able to write regularly, but if not, see you all next week! To days to come!

“Planet of Fire”

It’s just been one of those weeks. Meetings to go to, errands to run, tasks to be done. So many demands on my time, I didn’t even visit WordPress at all yesterday. Hopefully it will all go back to normal on Monday. I’ve even not had the time to watch much Doctor Who, and so this discussion of “Planet of Fire” is from watching it three nights ago. I hope I remember everything I wanted to say.

As usual, spoilers ho!

There are some images you find that you just have to post.

There are some images you find that you just have to post.

“Planet of Fire” is the penultimate Fifth Doctor episode, in which Vislor Turlough and Kamelion depart and Peri Brown joins up. I’m going to start with the shallow statement that this episode has something for everyone, as Peri, who spends much of her time in the TARDIS wearing deep-plunging blouses, is introduced in her bikini, while the Doctor, on this desert planet, spends the entire episode in his dress shirt and suspenders. I never realized before how good those tailored high-waisted trousers can look on a man. Ok, back to the actual intelligent discussion of this episode.

The bulk of the episode is set on a planet called Sarn, inhabited by a tribe of people who worship the fire god Logar, but have odd bits of technology that they revere as gifts from the god. The Doctor, Turlough, and Peri (who Turlough had brought into the TARDIS after saving her from drowning; the Doctor didn’t know she was there)  arrive there when the TARDIS is sent there by Kamelion. The Doctor and Turlough get embroiled in the affairs of the tribe, who believe that the prophecies of the volcano erupting and the mysterious “Outsider” arriving as a gift from Logar are coming true, while Kamelion, controlled by and looking like the Master, forces Peri to work against the Doctor. Meanwhile, Turlough is getting far more involved in and concerned about the tribe’s welfare than he normally does, and it turns out that the god Logar and his gifts of technology are the tribe’s misinterpretation of the crash of a spaceship from Turlough’s home planet of Trion, and in fact, the “Chosen One” who directs the tribe is Turlough’s brother. Eventually, the Master’s plan is revealed: he’s been shrunk to about four inches tall due to an accident while working on his TCE (Tissue Compression Eliminator), and came to Sarn because the volcano emits numismaton gas, which will restore him, though it requires the volcano to erupt, which would destroy the tribe.

So, that summary isn’t the most coherent thing in the world, because the episode is far more complex. First, it portrays a religious society and the problems they have with heretics and loss of faith. While Timanov, the head priest, is completely faithful to his god and follows what he believes is the god’s words, the Chosen One, Malkon, questions the god’s apparent orders to execute the unbelievers, and refuses to sentence anyone to death. Meanwhile, there are unbelievers who seek out evidence that the god doesn’t exist and after finding such evidence, have to decide on whether or not to denounce the god, knowing they’d be put to death. Then later, when the “Outsider” appears at the foretold time, they begin to question their own conclusions about the existence of the god.

The arrival of the two Time Lords on the planet also tests their faith. The Master immediately and happily accepts the title of the “Outsider” to make the tribe do what he wants and turn on the Doctor. In contrast, the Doctor refuses to claim that he comes from the god, and in order to save the tribe, explains exactly what’s going on to them, so that they will make the decision to evacuate the planet. In all, it was a very interesting exploration of faith and how it can be twisted and exploited.

I think, though, the best part of the entire episode was Turlough. This was his swan song and his story. He was the one who figured out what was going on – that the spaceship that had crashed was his father’s and the Chosen One was his brother – since he recognized the symbols and the technology he was seeing, and then figured out how to use it to unify the tribe. Malkon, the Chosen One had been shot and was near death, so Turlough, who had the same symbol on his arm as Malkon, stepped up and claimed that he, too, was a Chosen One, then took command of the tribe. He also made the sacrifice to save them: he was a political exile on Trion, and the only way to save them was to call for a rescue ship from there. In doing so, he would be arrested for violating his exile. Luckily for him, general amnesty had been granted and he was free to finally return home.

One last interesting part of this episode was the final interaction between the Doctor and the Master. The four-inch Master finally got the numismaton gas to work and he grew to full size, but he didn’t know that the Doctor had changed the controls, and he became stuck in the flames when the numismaton gas stopped flowing. He begged the Doctor to turn off the flame, first threatening him, then offering him anything, then finally, begging for mercy, before he finally disintegrated. Throughout it all, the Doctor watched him with a stony expression – a very uncharacteristic decision, perhaps spurred by the fact that the Master tried to kill both the Doctor and the whole tribe in his quest for restoration. The other interesting thing about this exchange was the Master’s final words: “Won’t you show mercy to your own -”  The sentence is never completed, and I’m sure there have been multitudes of discussions about how it was going to end.

All in all, it was an enjoyable and thought-provoking episode, and though I haven’t seen all of the episodes in the Peter Davison’s final season, if this is any indication, I can see why he thought that if he had known how good this season was going to be, he would have stayed on for another year. The only thing I think they did poorly in this episode was the scenes of Peri wandering the desert – very obvious filler. I’m looking forward to seeing more of this season, as much as I am looking forward to seeing more Seventh Doctor.

“Robot”

Perfect outfit, Doctor!

Perfect outfit, Doctor!

“Robot” was the first Tom Baker episode ever, with Sarah Jane Smith as his companion previous to his regeneration and with the introduction of Harry Sullivan as his second companion. It was a bit jarring to return to watching a 1974 episode after the 1988 “Remembrance of the Daleks,” but the episode was excellent enough to make me forget that I’d gone back in time 14 years in terms of production values.

Spoilers, ho!

Since “Robot” is a regeneration episode, the first part of it was taken up with the usual hijinks that happen after the Doctor regenerates, and it was certainly fun. The Doctor started out addled enough that the Brigadier orders bedrest for him, and Harry was assigned to take care of him. He attempted to leave, and when Harry tried to stop him, he outwitted the UNIT doctor by basically confusing him with his eccentric behavior. Why the Brigadier didn’t tell Harry that the Doctor was going to be a handful, I don’t know. Later on, after the rest of the story had started, the Doctor tried on many possible costumes, which the Brigadier rightfully disapproved of, until he finally came out of the TARDIS wearing the Bohemian outfit and long scarf that we all know and love. Great scene!

The rest of the episode is about the eponymous robot, which was created in a think tank which, unbeknownst to anyone else, secretly wanted to rid the world of unintelligent people and rule by (their version of) science. The interesting part of the episode was the treatment of the robot: it had a “don’t harm humans” prime directive, but the think tank deliberately gave it commands to kill humans, so that it would become confused (“Do I do what was ordered, or do I follow the prime directive?”), and eventually it broke down and became psychotic. The only human it respected was Sarah Jane, who, due to her experiences with the Doctor with aliens and robots, recognized that the robot was sentient and displayed care and understanding of it. The episode was a study of sentience and how humans can easily mistreat other sentient creatures.

Another thing I liked about this episode was its unusual structure. Because the Doctor was incapacitated for the first part of the episode, the story had to be carried by the other characters. Sarah Jane went out to investigate the think tank under the guise of her job as a journalist, and the Brigadier investigated the mysterious thefts and attacks that were going on at military and research centers. It gave us a bit of a look at what the humans would do if a situation came up and the Doctor wasn’t around, something that we don’t get to see again until “The Christmas Invasion” (as far as I know, anyway).

One last thing, which I probably wouldn’t have noticed if we hadn’t been watching whatever episodes happen to be in the house at the time, is that the Fourth Doctor seemed in this episode to be a lot more likable than he was later. I’m referring to him in “The Horror of Fang Rock.” In “Robot, he seemed charmingly eccentric, while in THoFR, he was nearly offensively random – at a few points, he had completely non-sequitur outbursts that almost felt like the writer said, “Oh, he needs to be eccentric, so let’s just make him yell something random here.”

Bottom line, “Robot” was a pretty good episode, not the best, but certainly above average, and a great introduction to the new Doctor.

“Remembrance of the Daleks”

Gah, real life. I hate it when you want to take a few days for yourself, but outside pressures force you to do stuff. Ah well, such is life. I have been having more time to watch classic Doctor Who, so today’s thoughts are about “Remembrance of the Daleks.”

Spoilers, of course.

If you were wondering, there are Daleks in this episode.

If you were wondering, there are Daleks in this episode.

“Remembrance of the Daleks” was the first episode of the 25th season, which was the second to the last season of the classic show and the second season of the Seventh Doctor. Now, I haven’t seen previous Seventh Doctor episodes (except the regeneration episode “Time and the Rani,” which was terrible), so this was my first real introduction to the Seventh Doctor. I had some idea what to expect, since I’ve read a lot about all of the Doctors, and I also knew that this episode is very highly regarded and very important to the overall history of the show.

I was not expecting it to be as mind-blowing as it was.

First, you have to realize that I watched it soon after seeing “Horror of Fang Rock,” and the show jumped decades ahead production-wise. Very few scenes (if any) were filmed in a studio, and the on-location scenes were crisp and clear, unlike the blurry outdoor photography that plagued the older seasons. Because they were filming in real locations, the actors were much more dynamic, probably because they weren’t afraid of knocking over the set, and the action sequences felt far more real. However, I think that just in general, the camerawork, direction, and choreography was just far more modern, since I was jumping a full ten years from the Fourth Doctor to the Seventh Doctor.

The main thing about the episode, though, was the characterization of the Seventh Doctor and the story. In November, 1963 (yes, the same day that the first Doctor Who episode was broadcast), the Doctor returns to Totter’s Lane and Coal Hill School with Ace. He discovers that the Daleks are invading, searching for an artifact called the Hand of Omega that he hid nearby (when he was the Harnell Doctor). He spends the first half of the episode trying to prevent the humans from getting killed and finding out about the Daleks plans. He then starts putting his own plans into motion, and this is the catch: he’s not trying to stop the Daleks, and in fact lets the Daleks take the Hand. His plan is to let the Daleks use the Hand and, as they don’t know as much about it as he does, when they activate it, it destroys their home planet of Skaro.

If I understand correctly, this is the first glimpse we see of the Seventh Doctor’s scheming, manipulative nature, and it’s jarring. Up until now, the Doctor has always met his enemies head-on, looking to stop their plans directly. This Doctor is different, and you can see that the rest of his run is going to be far different – and possibly far more interesting – than anything we’ve seen before.

We also have the benefit of hindsight here. First, the complexity added here affects his later incarnations: as the Tenth Doctor said to Wilf, “It’s not like I’m an innocent. I’ve taken lives. I got worse. I got clever. Manipulated people into taking their own.” He’s not talking about this particular incident, but we can see that it started here. Second, the destruction of Skaro sets in motion the series of events that starts the Last Great Time War, and we all know how that turned out. It’s chilling to think that all of the horrible events of the war and the scars it left on the Doctor were caused by the Doctor himself.

This was a fantastic episode, with heartwrenching twists as we watched the Doctor scheme, despair as his plans had unforeseen consequences, and ultimately attempt to genocide the Daleks (something he didn’t regret). It’s made us really want to see the rest of the Seventh Doctor episodes right now, which is very exciting. You know, I really love this show.

“Horror of Fang Rock”

The Doctor in the lighthouse

The Doctor in the lighthouse

“Horror of Fang Rock” is the first episode in Tom Baker’s fourth season as the Doctor, and follows directly after “The Talons of Weng-Chiang,” so it is Leela’s fourth episode. I’m going to say first and up front that I really enjoyed this episode. It was fun and engaging, and its atmosphere was very well-crafted.

Spoilers, of course. Lots of them.

Fang Rock is the location of a lighthouse in the south of England. One of the lighthouse keepers sees a meteor-like light in the sky, but his concerns about it are dismissed. Then, the lighthouse’s power fails, and one of the keepers is found dead. The Doctor and Leela arrive, and they deduce that something is attacking the people in the lighthouse. Meanwhile, a small ship hits the rocks and four of its passengers make it to the lighthouse. Over the course of the show, the Doctor tries to prevent any more deaths while trying to figure out what he’s up against and what the enemy is trying to accomplish.

The story in itself was very engaging. The Doctor makes a number of mistakes while figuring out the nature of the adversary, which costs more lives as the enemy gets stronger and more knowledgeable. Leela, meanwhile, tries to figure out how to attack the enemy head-on, even though she knows nothing about it. Like in other episodes that I’ve talked about, the guest characters have strongly defined personalities and backstories, which adds a lot to the narrative. There’s the gruff, old keeper who is afraid that the legend of the monster that attacks Fang Rock every century or so has returned, and the young inexperienced keeper who is unsure of himself and doesn’t know who to believe. Among the shipwrecked passengers, there’s the owner of the ship who cares only about himself and his money and had forced the ship’s captain to keep going though the lighthouse had failed, because he wanted to get to London to close a deal that would increase his profit, an acquaintance of his who he (the owner) wanted to financially and politically ruin, and his (the owner’s) private secretary. A large part of the story had to do with the ship owner’s attempts to figure out a way to get to London, at the cost of everyone else’s lives if he had to, and the acquaintance’s attempts to stop him, as he knew if the guy got to London, he’d go ahead with his plans to ruin him.

This is one of the few episodes in which I actually noticed the sets and camera work, as they aren’t things I normally pay attention to. There were a few “outside” scenes of the Doctor and Leela clambering around on rocks, which I think were just done in the studio, but beyond that, the rest of the show was set inside the lighthouse, in very tiny, crowded rooms. This would be appropriate for a lighthouse, but the cramped quarters only heightened the feeling of panic. The camera was forced to stay tight to the actors, giving a very claustrophobic feel.

The fact that I could find a shot of this moment tells you how awesome it was.

The fact that I could find a shot of this moment tells you how awesome it was.

Just like in “The Talons of Weng-Chiang,” a lot of the fun of the episode came from Leela. She doesn’t take crap from anyone – not the Doctor, and certainly not from any of the wimpy humans in the lighthouse. She was especially contemptuous of the ship owner’s secretary, a woman who simply whined about everything and completely lost it whenever anyone died. At one point, a body is brought in the room and the woman starts to wail, and Leela immediately slaps her hard. We cheered. I know it wouldn’t be a good idea to completely repeat a companion, but I would love to see a new Leela-like companion in the new show.

I’d definitely rate this episode as one of my favorites from the classic series so far. Next time, something completely different.

“The Talons of Weng-Chiang”

The Doctor and Weng-Chiang share a game of chess

The Doctor and Weng-Chiang share a game of chess

I have to apologize for this post, because these comments about “The Talons of Weng-Chiang won’t be in as much depth as I’d like it to be. What with being busy for the past week and then other things happening, it’s been a week since we watched this episode and I’ve forgotten a lot. We’ve also watched “Horror at Fang Rock” since then, and my head is filled with that episode, so sadly this one is going to suffer.

Spoilers, of course (basic plot summary ahead).

TTWC (sorry, some episode titles are too hard to type)  was the last episode in the Fourth Doctor’s third season, and the third episode with the Sevateem barbarian Leela. It’s set in Victorian England, where the Doctor has brought Leela to experience some culture. They find that women have been disappearing mysteriously, and that it seems to be connected to the Chinese stage magician Li H’sen, who is currently performing at a theater owned and run by Henry Gordon Jago. Li H’sen is secretly trying to help his god, Weng-Chiang, to return to power, and has been kidnapping the girls to feed to him, while trying to locate an artifact called the Cabinet of Weng-Chiang.  The Doctor deduces that “Weng-Chiang” is actually a despot from the future, Magnus Greel, who landed here using the Time Cabinet, the results of a dangerous and failed time travel experiment. Greel is mutating and dying from the effects of the experiment and incorrectly thinks that using the cabinet again will repair his body and take him to a better time period. With the help of Jago and Professor Litefoot (who helps the Doctor figure out what’s going on and happens to have the Time Cabinet in his house), the Doctor manages to defeat Greel.

I definitely enjoyed this episode a lot, though at this point I can’t put a finger on any specific reasons why. The story was fun, the characters were all great, and the pacing was good, even though it was six-part episode. Jago was a particularly great character – the blustering manager who thinks he’s cleverer and more entertaining than he is – and he was paired well with Litefoot, the more serious and intelligent investigative type. The two characters go on to have more adventures investigating alien phenomena in twenty-four Big Finish audios, and I think the producers chose those characters to expand very well.

Another thing I particularly liked was Leela. I saw her in “The Robots of Death,” and I’m going to talk about her again when I write about “Horror at Fang Rock,” because, well, they handled her character very well in all three episodes. She’s a barbarian, and she’s allowed to be one. When she’s attacked by Li H’sen’s homonculus, she throws a knife at at (it’s an inanimate object, so it doesn’t stop it, but still). When she has nowhere else to run, she dives through a glass window to escape. If something threatens her, she’s got her knife ready and she’s ready to draw up battle plans. Meanwhile, the Doctor is trying to educate her, and she’s trying her best to understand civilization. She doesn’t always succeed, but she does try, and she’s eager to learn. She’s a great character, and enjoyable to watch.

So, in short, this is another great Fourth Doctor episode, definitely worth watching (and free to stream if you’ve got Netflix or Amazon Prime). Next up, “Horror at Fang Rock.”

“The Caves of Androzani”

tcoa“The Caves of Androzani” (henceforth abbreviated TCoA) is the last episode of Peter Davison’s era of Doctor Who, and it’s considered the best episode of Doctor Who ever. That might be hard to believe for people who are primarily familiar with the modern series, that the best episode comes from the classic series (that it’s considered better than, say, “Blink”) and that it’s a Fifth Doctor episode (and not from Tom Baker, Jon Pertwee, Patrick Troughton, or William Hartnell), but it seems to be the general opinion among those who are fans of both the classic and modern eras that if “The Caves of Androzani” isn’t the #1 episode, it’s in the top three.

I watched it back in October or so with no idea that the episode rated so highly, with only the knowledge that it was the Fifth Doctor’s regeneration episode, and as such, I was mostly watching it to see the Doctor get embroiled in some situation, win the day, and sacrifice himself (I knew the circumstances of his death beforehand). As such, I was immensely disappointed and the episode didn’t make much of an impression on me at all. Since then, I’ve learned a bit more about the show and decided to give it another go.

Before I continue, here’s a link to an article that I’ll reference at least once. It’s from a blog called Classical Gallifrey, which did in-depth analysis of all Doctor Who classic episodes. Its treatment of TCoA is a little down the page, behind the “Read More” link at the bottom of the entry. The analysis is extremely long and I only skimmed it very lightly.

Classical Gallifrey

Now, onwards! Spoilers ahead.

I think my second viewing of TCoA was very well-informed by my recent viewing of “The Robots of Death.” I noticed during that episode that a major part of it had to do with the personalities and relationships of the people working on the mining vehicle. In the modern show, the episodes mostly focus on the Doctor and his companions, with the guest characters forming a backdrop against which they play, but in the classic show, it seems that often the guest characters are the meat of the story, with the Doctor and companions being almost completely incidental. This is the case with TCoA. The Doctor and Peri arrive on the planet Androzani Minor and get embroiled in a political war between multiple sides. The planet produces a substance called spectrox that prevents aging, making it “the most valuable substance in the universe,” and everyone wants to control it. The main players in the war at the start of the episode are

  • Morgus: The man who owns the spectrox mining operation and lives on Androzani Major
  • Sharaz Jek: A strange masked man who lives down in the caves and, with an army of androids, steals the spectrox and kills off the miners
  • The President: The president of the government on Androzani Major, who nominally has control but is beholden to Morgus to keep himself young and knows Morgus has bought most of the government
  • Chellak: The general of the army tasked  by Morgus with cleaning Sharaz Jek out of the caves
  • Stotz: A mercenary who supples Sharaz Jek with weapons, but is loyal to whoever pays him

This is just at the beginning of the episode, and only the most important people each faction; there are a couple of other characters that have major effects on the story as it goes along. When we first enter the caves, Sharaz Jek has established his operation in the caves and has been holding off Chellak’s forces for six months, pretty much running circles around the army. With the spectrox mining being hampered, Morgus is not making the profits he’s used to and is getting desperate to get rid of Sharaz Jek. The episode is a tale of political and military maneuvers, as different factions learn what’s going on, stage attacks and schemes, and change allegiances.

Where does the Doctor fit into all of this? He and Peri land on Androzani Minor and enter the caves to explore. They fall into a growth of raw spectrox before being found by Chellak’s men, who accuse them of being gun runners for Sharaz Jek. They spend most of the episodes bouncing back and forth between the different factions, who each believe they are spies for some other faction. Meanwhile, they discover that raw spectrox is toxic to humans (the sickness is called spectrox toxaemia) and that from their brief contact with it, they are both dying. There’s only one antidote for it, the milk of a queen bat that lives far down in the caves where there is no oxygen. None of the factions have the equipment to go down there, and are certainly willing to let the supposed spies die.

Thus, the episode is a complex web of intrigue, some of which is due to the already tense situation in the caves, and some of which is due to the introduction of the Doctor and his companion, as each faction who finds them assumes they’re enemies and adjusts their plans based on what they think the Doctor and Peri have learned and are going to do. Meanwhile, throughout the episode, the Doctor is completely powerless, at the mercies of whoever has captured him at the moment, but his only concern is to figure out how to save Peri. From the moment he finds out that Peri is sick, all he wants to do is cure her, and when he finds out the sickness is fatal, it becomes his driving force. This desire gives him the impetus to break out of his chains (while he’s in a spaceship and captured by the mercenaries) and commandeer the spacecraft to return to the planet and acquire the milk of the queen bat for the antidote.

There are a couple of other things worth mentioning about this episode. I will note that both of these I got both of these ideas from the Classical Gallifrey link I posted above. First, the direction. This was the first episode Graeme Harper directed for Doctor Who. If you don’t recognize his name, he directed ten episodes during David Tennant’s run as the Doctor, including “Army of Ghosts”/”Doomsday”, “Time Crash”, “Turn Left”, “The Stolen Earth”/”Journey’s End”, and “The Waters of Mars”.

sharazperi2Now, I will tell you plainly that I don’t know a single thing about directing in a show. I can’t tell you if a specific director is good or bad. I can only tell you what I see when I watch something, and to me, it looks like in TCoA, Mr. Harper took Doctor Who in a completely different directorial direction. One of the things that I sometimes have a problem with while watching the classic episodes is the feeling of unreality: the cheap sets, the brightly-lit interiors, the stodgy characters standing in a row delivering their lines to each other, the long shots of slow monsters plodding across a desolate landscape, that kind of thing. Quarries looked like quarries, and caves looked like, well, cheap sets made of papier mache. Mr. Harper turned that on end for TCoA. He used the lighting to darken everything except the most important things in the scene. He positioned the actors in natural poses and arrangements. For some shots, especially the incredibly creepy scenes of Sharaz Jek with Peri, he positioned the camera low and intimate, to draw you closer to the characters. Sure, the sets were still cheap, but he focused you on the characters and the action, and thus you don’t notice the rest. He concentrated on depicting the story, rather than shooting the script, to considerable effect.

The second thing I wanted to mention was a very short bit (probably only two seconds) that has wider implications on the story and the lore of the show. I wouldn’t have noticed this if Classical Gallifrey hadn’t pointed it out. When the Doctor has commandeered the spaceship and is returning to Androzani Minor, he’s already well into the late phases of spectrox toxaemia and, like Peri, is going to die soon. He’s sitting in the pilot’s chair staring at the viewscreen and hallucinates for a moment, seeing vertical lines covering the viewscreen screen. He concentrates and they go away. As it only lasts for a second or two, it just looks like something that was thrown in to emphasize that he’s really sick.

What Classical Gallifrey points out is that the vertical lines weren’t on the screen – they were over his entire field of vision, and if you pay attention to them and to the end of the episode, you’ll see that they’re exactly the same lines that appear in his vision when he starts to regenerate. The point of the scene was not that he was sick, but that he was dying at that moment and willed himself to delay his regeneration until he could save Peri. Up until this point, I had thought that the concept that the Doctor could delay regeneration was invented for the Tenth Doctor’s story in The End of Time, but no, the Fifth Doctor did it first. Also, his stopping his regeneration in order to continue trying to save Peri only underscores his tenacity and his devotion to this companion who he barely knows. (Read Classical Gallifrey’s discussion of this point: it’s far better than anything I could ever write about it.)

I have to admit, on second viewing, I’m still not sure about everything that happened in those caves. There were so many tricks and turnarounds that I’m not sure who ended up on top. But I was completely engaged in the story – all of the characters were intricately designed and interesting to watch, even the ones you end up hating – and I do think that this was a fantastic episode. #1? Not sure. I’d have to watch it a few more times to really grok it. But top 20, at least. I’d put this episode up against the best that the modern show has to offer, and it’ll beat out a lot of them.

“The Robots of Death”

Fantastic hats!

Fantastic hats!

“The Robots of Death” is the second-to-the-last episode in Season 14, which is the third season of Tom Baker’s run. His sole companion at this point is Leela, and the next episode is the highly-regarded “The Talons of Weng-Chiang,” which is next on our viewing schedule.

Spoilers, of course.

Plot-wise, I’d consider this episode to be pretty average. The Doctor and Leela land on a mining vehicle, which is traveling across the surface of a planet prospecting for minerals. It’s run by a group of about six humans, supplemented by a large group of robots. It’s made very clear that the robots have been programmed deeply with the rule to not harm humans. One of the crew is murdered, and it becomes apparent that the robots are killing off the humans one by one. The Doctor eventually deduces that one of the crewmembers is a human who sympathizes with the robots and thinks they should rule the humans, and that he destroyed the no-harm circuits in the robots so that he could order them to kill. The Doctor then tricks the last modified robot into killing the villain.

The episode tried to address through dialogue the moral issue of whether or not it’s ok to enslave a robot race, especially when the humans are artificially making them subservient. However, it failed to really compel me to think about it, because ultimately the issue was being forced by a human villain who wanted robot dominance and human death; to be truly thought-provoking, the villain needed either to be a robot with evolving sentience or a human or robot looking to free the robots without the need to destroy. As it was, you don’t feel any compassion towards the robots or their leader. Comparisons can be drawn to “Planet of the Ood” – instead of robots, the Ood were enslaved by artificial means and had no thoughts of anything other than remaining slaves. However, while the Ood were trying to fight back, they were only looking for freedom, rather than dominance, and the real villain was the man who enslaved them. Perhaps it’s harder to care about robots than the obviously organic Ood, but on the other hand, the Ood look like monsters and had been portrayed as treacherous both in “The Impossible Planet”/”The Satan Pit” and in the first half of “Planet of the Ood,” and by the end of the episode, you’re completely on their side. “The Robots of Death” could have done something very similar.

What I really found interesting about this episode was the people in the crew. The first two parts of this four-part episode dealt mainly with the crew and how they reacted to the first murder and other events. For example, the commander of the vessel was mostly interested in the profits to be made from the exploration, so when the murder was reported to him, he more or less blew it off to get back to the survey. Through the actions and reactions of the different people, you start to see that they all have different backstories, attitudes, and aims, which actually have a bearing later on the plot, as the Doctor starts to piece together what’s happening based on what each person knows and wants. It’s far more of a character study than a Doctor Who episode, and honestly, the only reason the Doctor is needed in this show is because he’s the only person that can look at all the events and personalities neutrally and figure out what’s going on.

In summary, I’d say this was a pretty good episode: nothing outstanding, but enjoyable. It’s deep in some ways, and rather trite in others, but in general, worth watching.

“The Dalek Invasion of Earth”

first-dw_dalek-invasion-of-earthLast night’s classic episode was “The Dalek Invasion of Earth,” a First Doctor episode from his second season in 1964. If you couldn’t tell, it has Daleks and it’s set on Earth. It’s the second First Doctor episode I’ve seen, so even though I have a good idea of what he’s like from my reading, I’m really only getting to know him.

Spoilers below, of course, starting with a very short synopsis.

The Doctor, Ian, Barbara, and Susan land near the river in London in the latter half of the 22nd century, to find that the city is devastated: the Daleks have invaded the Earth and taken over. Rather than killing everyone, the Daleks have conscripted humans as slaves and put them to work in a mine in Bedfordshire, and it’s up to our protagonists to find out why and do something about it.

From that description, it doesn’t sound like anything exciting, other than having Daleks to fight against, but I found this episode to be very engaging, and that surprised me. I have to admit that it’s difficult to watch the old episodes without being biased against its slow pacing and terrible special effects, and that bias grows the older the episode is. This episode has its moments of long, tedious shots of lack-of-action and people starting to die long before the Dalek-shooting effect is played, but otherwise, the story moves along very well and it didn’t feel like a six-part episode.

Very early on, the TARDIS crew gets separated. Ian ends up stowed away on a Dalek ship that takes him to the mine, while the human resistance group stages an attack on the Daleks and gets decimated, with Barbara fleeing with a woman named Jenny and the Doctor and Susan fleeing with David Campbell and Carl Tyler. Eventually, the separate groups determine that they need to get to the mine to stop what the Daleks are doing and begin their journeys in that direction, but the real story is what happens along the way. Ian and his traveling companion (I don’t remember his name) have a straightforward story, in which they infiltrate the mine, but Ian gets to display his cunning and resourcefulness. Barbara also takes charge of her situation, taking Jenny, who has lost all hope by this time, under her wing and counseling her, as well as figuring out how to get past the Daleks in a variety of different ways (including stealing a large truck and running over Daleks). The Doctor’s and Susan’s adventures are more interesting, as the Doctor, the expert on the Daleks, clashes over authority with David Campbell, who knows the local situation: the Doctor is the only one equipped to figure out what the Daleks are actually doing, but David knows the lay of the land and how the Daleks are operating. At the same time, Susan and David are falling in love. The Doctor begins to realize this, and it’s touching how he reacts. Thus, all three storylines are interesting, and since the show cuts back and forth between them, you’re kept invested in the story to find out how they all turn out.

This is Susan’s final episode, and it is famous for its final scene, in which the Doctor bids farewell to her. It’s a beautiful scene and worth watching, even if you don’t watch the episode in its entirety.

In short, this was a wonderful episode, with a good story, character development for all of the principal characters, and a heart-rending finale (and Daleks whizzing down ramps – looked like so much fun for the operators). I’d definitely recommend this episode for anyone who wants a good example of the First Doctor, or for any classic Doctor.