“The Face of Evil”

In case you might have noticed, I’ve changed my display name, from “chorenn” to “Shivver.” If you’re wondering why, “chorenn” is an old name I used about ten years ago when I was keeping a blog about a roleplaying campaign I was running back then, in a self-created realm called Chorenn. Since I was the gamemaster telling this story in this world, I thought the world name was the appropriate display name for the author of the blog. Well, that was a long time ago, and when I decided to use the same account to create this blog, I didn’t bother to change the display name. I’ve changed it to “Shivver” now because that’s the online name I’ve been using for my Doctor Who activities, in specific my fanfics, and I thought it was time to bring all of it together.

Over the weekend, we watched the classic episode “The Face of Evil,” and here are my thoughts on it.

Spoilers ahead!

face of evil

The Doctor and Leela are brought in front of the chief and shaman of the Sevateem.

“The Face of Evil” is the Fourth Doctor episode that introduces Leela of the Sevateem, his companion through the latter half of Season 14 and all of Season 15. In it, the Doctor arrives on a planet populated by a tribe of savages called the Sevateem, who live in a tiny area of land surrounded by a wall that keeps out the Phantoms, invisible monsters that devour anything that ventures outside. When the tribe first meet him, they call the Doctor “the Evil One,” who was prophesied to return to destroy them all, and indeed, he finds that his visage is sculpted into the side of a cliff face, to remind the tribe just what the Evil One looks like. He discovers that the tribe worships a god named Xoanon, who carefully nurtures them to fight against another people, called the Tesh, which they attack whenever the wall opens and lets them across. However, all of their attacks have always failed.

Long story short (and this is where you should stop reading if you don’t want to be spoiled), the Doctor figures out that the people, both the Sevateem and the Tesh, came from a spaceship that landed on the planet. While the spaceship had been in flight, the Doctor had visited it and his personality had been imprinted on the computer just as it became sentient, giving it a split personality and causing it to go crazy. When they landed on the planet, the survey team went out to explore while the technicians stayed in the ship, and the computer, which named itself Xoanon, separated them and developed their cultures along different lines – one strong and savage, the other weak and intelligent – then set them against each other to see which was more viable. To stop the senseless fighting, the Doctor removes his personality from the computer, and it heals and the two cultures begin to try to work together. As the Doctor leaves, Leela dashes into the TARDIS so that she can travel with him.

As the audience, you see everything from the Doctor’s point of view, which means from the Sevateem side, as that’s who he encounters first. At first, they seem like simple savages, but then you start seeing weird things: the throne the chief sits on has brushed metal surfaces, the shaman’s ceremonial gear is threaded with bright yellow plastic-sheathed wires and has a spacesuit glove as a headdress, the shaman’s prayer cloak includes a crash helmet, etc. The history of the Sevateem is revealed slowly through visual and linguistic clues: “Sevateem” comes from “survey team,” for example), and the worship gesture the tribesmen make is the gesture one would make when checking the air seals on a spacesuit.

When the Doctor arrives, Leela has just been exiled, and though she knows he’s the Evil One, she accepts his help and then helps him because she doesn’t have much of a choice: either she does or she goes beyond the wall and gets killed. However, the story follows a number of Sevateem characters who slowly learn to trust the Doctor and realize that what they’ve believed their whole lives is not true. Especially interesting is the story of the shaman, Neeva, who is the last to realize that Xoanon has lied to him his entire life, and who sacrifices himself at the end to save everyone else.

The Tesh are less interesting, mostly because you don’t get to get to know them all that well. Their society is highly structured, and they are pompous and contemptuous of the savage Sevateem. Also, their culture hasn’t changed much, since they live on the grounded spaceship, though they do still consider the computer a god, not a technological device, like the Sevateem do.

The only weak part of this episode is the same as many of the classic episodes: the slow, boring action sequences when the Sevateem are battling the phantoms and Leela is trying to hold off a squad of Tesh. I think in general, it’s important to expect that action sequences in classic Doctor Who are going to be slow, especially for the first four Doctors.

So far, I’ve liked all of the Leela episodes I’ve seen, and this one is very good. It’s gotten to the point where I want to watch all of the Leela episodes, so that’s the next project, after watching “The Key to Time.” Donna is still my favorite companion, but Leela is easily up in the top five, if not in the top three.

Advertisements

“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.

“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 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.

“11 Doctors, 11 Stories”

11 DoctorsAs part of the 50th anniversary celebration, the BBC released a series of eleven short stories, one for each Doctor and written by eleven different authors of note, then published it this month in a collection called Doctor Who: 11 Doctors 11 Stories. I’m only now getting into the alternate Doctor Who media and am very apprehensive about buying things, because I can never judge the quality of the material beforehand, but so far, in general, I’ve been pleased with the books, comics, and audio plays so far, and this collection is no exception. I enjoyed all but one of the eleven stories.

Here’s the list of the short stories (in Doctor order), with a brief setup of the situation in the story and maybe some opinion. No real spoilers.

“A Big Hand for the Doctor,” by Eoin Colfer: Ok, I have to admit, I didn’t finish this story. I really couldn’t stand the writing style and gave up  halfway through. My husband says it’s a good story, and I will try to finish it some other day.

“The Nameless City,” by Michael Scott: This story is hard to describe without giving things away – even summarizing the first scene will be a spoiler – so I won’t try. It’s very Second Doctor, letting him act the fool while he figures out what’s going on, and Jamie is also very Jamie.

“The Spear of Destiny,” by Marcus Sedgwick: The Third Doctor and Jo Grant investigates a (surprise!) spear in a local museum that seems to affect time in weird ways. As befits the Third Doctors, there’s more action in this story than a lot of the others, and it also takes a stab (sorry!) at showing how legends and myths are made.

“The Roots of Evil,” by Phillip Reeve: The Fourth Doctor and Leela land on an enormous tree floating in space that houses an entire colony of people. The concept behind this story and its setting is very cool, though I was a little disappointed with the motivation of the villain. The trip, though, is worth it.

“Tip of the Tongue,” by Patrick Ness: During World War II, the Fifth Doctor and Nyssa land in an English town in which the children are playing with a new toy that hooks to your tongue and speaks the absolute truth about yourself and what you are thinking. This is one of my favorite stories in the book, because it explores the effect the toys have on the people’s lives; this kind of introspection is one of the things that Doctor Who can do so well. The Doctor is almost completely incidental to the theme.

“Something Borrowed,” Richelle Mead: The Sixth Doctor and Peri Brown attend the wedding of the son of a friend, a species that performs a physical transformation similar to regeneration except only when they get married. This story is a simple adventure, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a fun read.

“The Ripple Effect,” by Malorie Blackman: The Seventh Doctor and Ace are stuck in a space-time bubble and have to blow up a star to push themselves out of it, but this has unforeseen consequences. The concept of this story is fantastic, and the Doctor and Ace get into a fascinating philosophical argument, but I didn’t like the resolution. It was a good enough story, but it really could have been a lot better.

“Spore,” by Alex Scarrow: The Eighth Doctor lands in an American town and discovers that what seems like a space virus has killed all the inhabitants. I really liked the atmosphere of this story and the final resolution was interesting.

“The Beast of Babylon,” by Charlie Higson: The Ninth Doctor makes friends with a girl on a planet that is attacked by cosmic creatures. As he would say, this story is fantastic. It develops the character of the girl and the nature of the threat gradually, keeping you reading to find out how it all fits together. There’s also a very cool tie-in to the Ninth Doctor’s first television story, “Rose.”

“The Mystery of the Haunted Cottage,” by Derek Landy: The Tenth Doctor and Martha Jones land in the story from a book that Martha read when she was a child. You might think this is a revisit to the Land of Fiction, but it’s not. This is one of the weaker stories in the set, because the first couple of parts are uninteresting (it tried and failed to set up a creepy, surreal atmosphere) and the very final part of the resolution is unsatisfying (the previous parts of the resolution were cool).

“Nothing O’Clock,” by Neil Gaiman: The Eleventh Doctor and Amy Pond arrive on Earth in 2010 only to find that the entire planet is uninhabited. Remember at the top that I said that the stories were released individually and then as a collection? Now, if you don’t want to buy the collection, I will urge you to buy this one story. It is completely worth it. This is absolutely a wonderful story. I won’t tell you any more about it, because you have to read it.

“The Light at the End”

the light at the endMy current project at work is something purely visual, requiring no verbal or critical thought, which is unusual for me, because my previous projects all involved writing, usually documentation. While I’m working, I’m usually listening to music because it’s something that isn’t intrusive; I can continue to work and write with music in the background. However, I realized yesterday that while I’m working on something purely visual, I could be listening to something with actual narrative. I had purchased some Big Finish Doctor Who audio plays a week or so ago, so I downloaded one (luckily, work has a high-speed connection) and played The Light at the End while I worked, as an experiment to see if I could be productive while listening. (The result, by the way, is that I think I was more productive than before, because while my visual mind was working, my narrative mind, which is usually wandering far away and often distracting me with thoughts of “you should go look that up on the Internet!” was absorbed in listening to the story. I finished more work than I normally do in an afternoon.)

I had never listened to any audio plays of any type before this. Well, ok, when I was a kid, the morning radio program my mother used to play every day had two short humorous bits called Chicken Man and The Story Lady, which were about five minutes apiece and were short skits. But as far as I know, the U.S. doesn’t have a tradition of radio plays that lasted into the era of television, while the UK does. If you look on the BBC iPlayer website, there are radio dramas playing every day. Is there radio drama at all in the U.S.? I don’t really know, and I wouldn’t even know where to look.

So, I went into The Light at the End without any clue as to what to expect. I knew that it wasn’t an audiobook (another thing I’ve never experienced, but that will change soon), and that the original actors for Doctors Four through Eight were in it, as well as some companions, but beyond that, it was a fresh new experience for me. And it was a great one!

I had been afraid that I wouldn’t be able to follow what was going on without any visual cues. Who was talking? What were they doing? Can you really see what people are doing? I found that the writers and actors paint a very complete picture of what’s going on. First, the Doctors are all very distinct. Tom Baker and Colin Baker have very unique voices. Sylvester McCoy’s Seventh Doctor has a different accent from everyone else and rolls his Rs magnificently. Peter Davison and Paul McGann sometimes sound a bit similar, but you can usually tell from the words that are put in their mouth which is which; the Doctors all have different personalities and this extends to the way they speak and the words they choose. The companions were harder to distinguish simply by voice (except Leela; no one sounds like Leela), but again, their dialogue was very in-character. Second, the audio plays have sound effects that explain what’s going on, from explosions, to footsteps moving around in stereo, to fogged dialogue to denote dream sequences or characters being spirited away. Third, if something’s not clear, it was made clear in the dialogue, e.g. “Oh, look, here comes Ace.” Thus, I can definitely see that the script was written with its medium in mind, and I found that it was just as enjoyable as a TV episode.

I also very much enjoyed the story itself. (No real spoilers here, other than what you can glean from the episode’s summary and list of actors.) Something’s going wrong in an English town on November 23, 1963, something that will end in catastrophe, and the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, and Eighth Doctors, along with their companions, are trying to figure it out and fix it. Of course, part of the charm of this story is that you have five classic Doctors interacting with each other, but the story is robust and a lot of fun, compelling you to stick around to see just how it all comes out. All of the actors do a great job of bringing their characters to life, and you can really picture them swaggering around (for the Doctors, at least). Ace’s and Peri’s youthful enthusiasm were especially delightful, and, for me anyway, it was nice to meet Charley Pollard for the first time. I would also like to note that the play also provides some very sweet surprises for fans.

Since I was working at the time, I didn’t really get to pay too much attention to the technobabble details of the plot, so I plan to relisten to this sometime, and I’m really looking forward to it. I think this is a great audio play and was a terrific choice for a first-time listener. And, as the classic Doctors’ complement to “The Day of the Doctor” 50th anniversary special for the modern show, it was a great tribute to the old show.