“The Butcher of Brisbane”

161_The_Butcher_of_Brisbane“The Butcher of Brisbane” is the 161st audio in Big Finish’s main range, and features the Fifth Doctor, Nyssa, Tegan, and Turlough. This is one of the best audios I’ve heard so far.

Spoilers ahead! I’m not writing out the whole plot because it’s too complicated and would really ruin some of the surprises.

While traveling, a mysterious force hits the TARDIS and pulls Nyssa and Turlough out. When the Doctor and Tegan trace back to where it happened, they land in 51st century Brisbane, but Nyssa and Turlough are nowhere to be found. They discover that the area has been destroyed and is considered extremely dangerous, and the people they meet up – a group of journalists with know them. They become embroiled in the problem that the journalists are investigating – what seems to be unethical experiments in time travel – that are occurring just as the world factions are coming together to form a globe-spanning alliance. As they find out more about this new alliance, they discover that the man who is leading the faction known as the Eastern States, Magnus Greel, is also about to get married – to Nyssa. The story is then all about figuring out what Nyssa is doing there, what’s going on with the time travel experiments, and trying to get the alliance to not dissolve into war.

Like I said, I’m not going to give many more details about the story, but if you’re familiar with the classic show, you probably recognize the name Magnus Greel: he was the villain in the Fourth Doctor episode “The Talons of Weng-Chiang.” In that episode, the Doctor encounters Greel in Victorian London, where he’s been deformed and is dying from his travel in his time cabinet, which uses a destructive form of time travel called zygma energy. Assisted by a duped minion and a doll-like animated object called the Peking homunculus, he was draining the life force of kidnapped women to stay alive and power his experiments to heal himself using the time cabinet. The Doctor, of course, stopped him by forcing him into his own life-drain chamber.

This audio, then, explores Greel’s life before the events of “The Talons of Weng-Chiang.” He’s a high government official in the Eastern States and wants to have his faction take over the world (even if it means World War Six), but he’s also dabbling in time travel on the side, through the efforts of an alien named Findecker, who insists that zygma energy is the way to do it. Findecker is dying from zygma energy exposure, so Greel also starts experimenting with draining life force from people, earning him the nickname “the Butcher of Brisbane.” The TARDIS crew become involved because of the zygma beam hitting the TARDIS in mid-flight, and the Doctor finds himself having to figure out what’s going on and try to help the victims of Greel’s and Findecker’s experiments without changing the history he’s already experienced with Greel in his previous incarnation.

Thus, the story has to work on two levels: it has to be a good story in its own right, and it has to fit itself into the history already established in “The Talons of Weng-Chiang.” It does both of these beautifully, and it’s quite a thrill to hear about how all of the things in that episode came to be. The origin of the time cabinet and the Peking homunculus are explained, and the Doctor mentions that he exists elsewhere on the planet, working with the Filipino army in a previous incarnation. The Doctor even introduces himself to Greel as a Time Agent, explaining why Greel is so afraid of them in the TV episode.

Greel himself is a fascinating character. He’s ambitious and amoral, but he is still a likable person (unlike Findecker), and even though you can’t believe it at first, he really does love Nyssa. And, after all that happens, you can see why he’s become what he is in “The Talons of Weng-Chiang.” The Doctor wins and everything is happy again in the end, but the story feels like a tragedy because of Greel and what you know of his fate.

This story is also unique because the Doctor has to constantly dance around the fact that he knows Greel’s future and has to make sure that things happen correctly for him. For example, there are a few instances in which people have to chance to kill Greel or take him prisoner, but the Doctor knows he has to live and has to escape in his time cabinet. There’s no external, hand-wavy reason for what the Doctor has to ensure, like “it’s a fixed point in time.” This time the reasoning is very solid: the Doctor must save everyone while allowing Greel to escape, because not doing so will change his (the Doctor’s) personal timeline.

All in all, this is a great audio, especially if you’re familiar with “The Talons of Weng-Chiang.” I leave you today with the best quote from story, courtesy of Tegan, speaking to the Doctor. “Stop holding time’s hand! It’s bigger than you are. It can take care of itself.”

 

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Circular Time

Circular_TimeIt’s been a while since I listened to the Big Finish audio Circular Time and I’ve been meaning to write a review about it, so today’s the day. I listened to it on the way back from Victoria, and I enjoyed it quite a lot.

Spoilers ahead. You can’t really write a review without at least a few spoilers.

Circular Time is a Fifth Doctor audio with Nyssa as his sole companion, which places it between “Time-Flight” (the Doctor finally gets Tegan to Heathrow, leaving ) and “Arc of Infinity” (Tegan accidentally encounters the Doctor in Amsterdam and rejoins the TARDIS crew). It’s a collection of four stories titled after the seasons of the year and has a general theme of the time and life, of death and renewal, and cyclic change. It was written by Paul Cornell, the author of “Human Nature”/”Family of Blood,” and it supports my realization earlier this month that he’s my favorite Doctor Who writer.

“Spring” has the Doctor heading to a planet of an avian species at the behest of the High Council because a Time Lord has left Gallifrey and integrated himself into their society, apparently attempting to make them evolve faster. This is probably the most straightforward of the four stories, but it is very interesting because it deals with what happens when a different Time Lord, not the Doctor, decides to break the non-interference policy. In this case, it’s not clear until the end what the Time Lord is trying to accomplish, and you accompany the Doctor on his journey of discovery, because he doesn’t really know what’s going on either.

In “Summer,” the Doctor meets Isaac Newton. While the plot of the story itself eludes me (I really need to listen to it again), the characterization of Newton is striking, almost disturbing. His mind doesn’t work like anyone else’s, and it’s scary to watch what happens to him as he deals with encountering the Doctor, a strange man that he knows is something from beyond his experience.

“Fall” is by far my favorite of the four, and is the one in which Nyssa takes as much of a primary role as the Doctor, if not more so. In this story, the Doctor explains the difference between circular time, the cyclic nature of seasons, days, and regeneration, and linear time, the journey from one point to another, from birth to death. The pair spend a few weeks on earth in autumn, so that the Doctor can play cricket in a village league, something that he likes because it is circular: cricket seasons always returns, and linear creatures like humans return to write themselves into history via stats and stories. Meanwhile, Nyssa takes the time to try to deal with the loss of Traken by writing a novel about her people, but she can’t write the linear story because she doesn’t want it to end. While both characters have a storyline here, they go in completely different directions than they want them to, and Nyssa’s is especially beautiful.

“Winter” is also a wonderful story, but I can’t really describe it at all without giving it entirely away. I will say it’s the only one of the stories that isn’t set between “Time-Flight” and “Arc of Infinity.”

As you can probably tell, Circular Time is not a typical Doctor Who adventure. There’s no running from monsters or evil plots to destroy worlds. These are introspective stories and very suited to the Fifth Doctor. I highly recommend them, especially “Autumn” and “Winter.”

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.

Busy weekend

Too much to do today, no time to write. Here are some more images, just for fun. Ooo, and I found a nice brown tweed women’s blazer that fits me perfectly at the Goodwill yesterday. I guess that seals it as the Eleventh Doctor being my next costume project.

Love the hat.

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The Seventh Doctor and Ace!

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Gorgeous photoshop.

threemoderndoctors

 

Production shot from my favorite episode – quite a small group for an episode. Apparently, they wanted to do a Children in Need spot, but had to be able to shoot it in a single day and use no special effects, and from those restrictions, “Time Crash” was born.

TIME-CRASH-1

An interesting thought about companions

One of the best things about being married to a fellow Doctor Who fan is that we talk about the show all the time and sometimes come up with interesting insights out of seemingly banal conversations. Here is one from today.

Tegan, the token human

Tegan, the token human

Last night, we were watching “The Talons of Weng-Chiang” and were surprised when the Doctor mentioned that Leela was human. We had always thought that her people, the Sevateem, were human-looking humanoids from a different planet, but instead, they’re a regressed tribe of humans from the future. In discussing this, I realized something very interesting about the Doctor’s companions: the Fifth Doctor is the only Doctor that traveled primarily with non-humans. His companions were Tegan (human), Nyssa (Trakenite), Adric (Alzarian), Turlough (Trion), Kamelion (android), and Peri (human) (and Peri was only his companion for two episodes). The Doctor that comes closest to this is the Fourth Doctor, who traveled with the humans Sarah Jane, Harry, and Leela, and with the non-humans Romana, K-9, and Adric (for four episodes). All of the Fourth Doctor non-humans were in the latter half of his run: there were no humans in the TARDIS between the departure of Leela and the arrival of Tegan.

It almost feels like someone decided the Doctor needed to have non-human companions and went overboard with it, and then someone decided to punt them all from the TARDIS at the end of the Fifth Doctor’s run.  Beyond these, the only other non-human companions were Astrid Peth (Tenth Doctor) and River Song (who was human with some Time Lord characteristics).

After seven seasons of the modern show, it would be nice to have a non-human companion. It wouldn’t have to be a non-human-looking companion. A humanoid companion with an alien personality would be really nice, especially if there’s also a human in the TARDIS for us to identify with. Turlough and Romana especially were very interesting companions, and I’d love to see the show do something similar again.

“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.