Still building up my direct experience of Classic Who, in no particular order. Sorry if these reviews are a bit short.
Spearhead from Space (1970 – Third Doctor with Dr Liz Shaw)
This is a pretty notable episode for a few reasons. It was the first time Doctor Who had been in colour on television; it was the first appearance of the Third Doctor; and it marked the first in a series of Earth-bound adventures with UNIT, the Doctor having been banished to Earth by the Time Lords and rendered unable to use the TARDIS. Upon arrival, the Doctor is soon found by his old friend Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, and is soon helping UNIT investigating some meteorites that have recently fallen. It turns that these meteorites represent the disembodied consciousness of the Nestene, who are planning to take over the planet by constructing living plastic bodies called Autons.
The episode does a good job of setting up the new scenario that the Doctor will find himself in for the time being, as scientific advisor to UNIT; it introduces us to his no-nonsense colleagues, the Brigadier and Dr Liz Shaw, and establishes his relationships with them. The Doctor wants to help, but he has to work with these people on a more equal footing than he’s used to. Jon Pertwee establishes how he’s approaching the role: wise and gentlemanly, but snappish on occasion, and with a touch of comedy, such as when he flees a hospital in a wheelchair. The Autons, with their blank plastic faces, are exceedingly creepy; the scene where they begin bursting onto a high street and gunning people down is particularly well done, creating a sense of far-reaching danger as you wonder just what’s going on everywhere else.
Doctor Who and the Silurians (1970 – Third Doctor with Dr Liz Shaw)
The Doctor and Liz Shaw go to investigate some strange occurrences at a nuclear research centre in the Derbyshire countryside. Within the caves adjacent to the centre, they discover living prehistoric reptiles, including a race of intelligent humanoids dubbed the Silurians. These reptiles dominated Earth millions of years ago before being forced into hibernation – and they’re not pleased to wake up and find that a bunch of primitive apes have taken the planet for themselves.
This is quite a long story, taking place over seven episodes, but it’s generally paced very well: as one issue is resolved, another arises, and things just keep getting more complicated with a peaceful outcome looking less and less likely. There is certainly a strong sense of urgency in the latter stages, as the Silurians’ actions directly impact the populace and it becomes difficult to see how the situation can be saved. The Silurians themselves have a very good visual design, and I like how there is some debate amongst individuals of their race as to how they should approach the ape problem. Admittedly, this could have been handled a little better: the Silurian most in favour of simply killing all humans acts like a whiny brat throwing a temper tantrum. Just about every side of the ambiguous situation is examined, though ultimately there’s only one way it can really end; a certain status quo must be maintained.
Terror of the Autons (1971 – Third Doctor with Jo Grant)
This story has a really brilliant entrance for its main villain. Stepping out of a truck that appeared apparently out of nowhere, he turns to face the nearest bystander with a cold, shrewd stare, and crisply introduces himself: “I am generally referred to as the Master. Universally.” He then proceeds to hypnotise the man and, with the calm efficiency of a businessman, begin acting on his plan to bring the Nestene back to Earth.
Yes, this is the first appearance of the Doctor’s arch-nemesis, as played by Roger Delgado – and he’s absolutely brilliant. It’s not just Delgado’s acting, but the way the Master is written. Not content with just running everything from behind the scenes like some other masterminds, he’s a very active villain, doing much of the dirty work himself. He has a unique understanding of the Doctor, and enjoys playing with him, to the point that he’s actually pleased to see the Doctor escaping his traps. And he has a very confident but polite manner, though this does sometimes slip when he gets pushed.
Terror of the Autons also sees the first appearance of companion Jo Grant, who makes a very good impression: she’s very cheerful, likeable, and eager to be useful. Unfortunately, it’s possibly because of this that the Third Doctor’s rudeness bothers me a bit more in this one than in previous adventures; it’s much more noticeable in contrast to the perky and pleasant Miss Grant, who really doesn’t deserve it. He does have some nicer moments, however, particularly when Jo is recovering from being hypnotised by the Master.
Aside from how fantastic the Master is, Terror of the Autons is an average story with various highs and lows. The Autons are still creepy, and there’s a good action sequence between them and a few UNIT soldiers in the classic Doctor Who quarry setting. But it’s not as exciting as it could be, and has a particularly weak resolution to the conflict at the end. Rating: 3/5.
The Seeds of Doom (1976 – Fourth Doctor with Sarah Jane Smith)
The Doctor and Sarah are called to a research station in Antarctica where two seed-like pods have been discovered frozen in the ice. One of them germinates and infects a scientist, gradually transforming him into a hostile walking plant. The pods are in fact alien plants called Krynoids, which if allowed to develop, will eventually consume all human and animal life on Earth.
The adventure starts very well, with events on the Antarctic base escalating quickly, combined with complications taking place back in Britain as plant-loving millionaire Mr Chase plots to get his hands on the valuable pods, creating plenty of intrigue. Things stay interesting as the Doctor and Sarah leave Antarctica by the beginning of Episode Three, spending the rest of their time battling Chase and the surviving Krynoid around Chase’s manor. There’s a variety of scenarios throughout, from being holed up and having to use a firebomb to escape, to being attacked by plants in a hostile greenhouse. We end up seeing two different Krynoids: the first remains a humanoid covered in plant matter, which looks nasty and disconcerting enough; but the second ends up mutating into a gigantic mass of tendrils which has some downright frightening moments. Some of the special effects look a bit silly, but that’s all part of the charm with Classic Who.
I’ve said before that Jon Pertwee is my favourite classic Doctor, but I seem to like Tom Baker more with every adventure I see him in. The Fourth Doctor gets to show off a great range in this story. He still has his humourous side – when it looks like Mr Chase is going to kill him and Sarah, he tells her, “What choice does he have? We keep interfering!” – but also some superior, detached moments, like demanding that the infected Krynoid host should no longer be referred to by his name. He even ends up yelling at a couple of points: he reacts quite violently to Sarah being threatened, and later gets angry with the henchman Scorby when he fails to grasp the situation they’re in. Meanwhile, I didn’t find the main villain Mr Chase to be very interesting, and he falls into a lot of Bond villain pitfalls: first he actually wants to show the Doctor and Sarah around his manor before killing them, and then he sticks the Doctor in a deathtrap without sticking around for the result.
Vengeance on Varos (1985 – Sixth Doctor with Peri Brown)
The TARDIS suffers an in-flight failure, which the Doctor can only repair using Zeiton-7 ore. The Doctor and Peri head for the planet Varos to get their hands on some ore, only to find it’s a less-than-pleasant place: living conditions are harsh, there’s a dystopian government which keeps the people entertained with televised executions, and the Governor is struggling in negotiations with a corrupt mining corporation to bring in much needed money.
At the time I watched this, the Sixth Doctor was the only one I hadn’t seen on screen before (though I did listen to him in the Big Finish story “Peri and the Piscon Paradox”). I decided to watch Vengeance on Varos as it’s generally regarded as one of his best adventures, but I still went into it with some trepidation as I haven’t tended to hear very good things about the Sixth Doctor overall. Watching him here, however, my only complaint would be that he was a little bland compared to other Doctors. He still retains the eccentric, gentlemanly nature of many of the Doctor’s incarnations, and seems to have a very casual attitude sometimes. He does show off some behaviour that is not typical of other incarnations, like getting physical with a guard, or his reaction to other guards falling in an acid bath (“Forgive me if I don’t join you”), but that didn’t feel like anything to make a fuss about. Obviously, I’ll need to watch more of his adventures to make a proper judgement. I was much less impressed with Peri, meanwhile – all she seems to do here is get captured a lot.
Vengeance on Varos is a dark story with a bleak atmosphere. I liked a lot of the social commentary: we see the governor struggling in a job where there are no popular solutions to problems; the people don’t seem to like any of the leaders they’ve had; and they are left being distracted with mindless, often gruesome entertainment. It’s certainly still very applicable in the real world 30 years on. Some of the concept reminded me of Bad Wolf, except this story goes one better than Bad Wolf by actually showing us the intended audience so we understand their perspective. The mining corporation representative, Sil, is also a good villain: his unique design of a slug with a face, his gargling voice, and his delight in witnessing the death and suffering of others. Overall, I found it a good introduction to the Sixth Doctor. Rating: 3.5/5.
The blog’s going to be going quiet for a while as I’ll be going away – but I’ll have plenty to talk about when I get back!