Thursday, January 17, 2008

Doctor Who - Beneath the Surface

And now for my old reviews of the latest Doctor Who stories released on DVD from the Doctor Who Ratings Guide.

It's another lengthy one this time, as the latest release is a box set containing the three stories featuring the Silurians and Sea Devils. First off Doctor Who and the Silurians:

A strong message and story

Wisely, the second story featuring the Doctor exiled to Earth does not focus in any way on the reasons behind the Doctor's exile and his attitude to it but rather shows just how the Doctor fits into the entire UNIT structure whilst at the same time presenting an interesting variation on the UNIT format showing how flexible it is after only a few stories of the type. It speaks volumes that Jon Pertwee's first scene shows him tinkering with Bessie rather than with the TARDIS and thus showing him attempting to improve his situation on Earth rather than emerging from the TARDIS after yet another failed attempt to depart. Malcolm Hulke's scripts are highly intelligent and challenging, presenting a set of characters who are all highly believable as they face the unusual developments at Wenley Moor.

One feature of the story that stands out is just how much of a loose cannon the Doctor is. He travels about in his own classic car which he has heavily modified, steps in to help with technical problems, ventures off into the caves by himself on several occasions and is routinely out of sync with even the Brigadier. Nevertheless there is a strong bond of respect shown between the two with the result that when the Doctor desperately needs the Brigadier, such as when the plague spreads at the end of Episode 5, the latter is willing to do everything he can to help even though the the Doctor as ever does not provide the greatest of reasons to be trusted.

The guest human characters are all interesting, ranging from Dr Quinn who is driven by vanity to be known as the discoverer of the "Silurians" (okay the name's inaccurate but then so is the alternative version of "Eocenes" given in The Sea Devils and that sounds even worse) to Miss Dawson who doesn't understand much of what is going on around her other than her love for Dr Quinn to Dr Lawrence who becomes increasingly paranoid as the research centre becomes ever more diverted and he appears ever more unable to keep things going. The Silurians themselves are equally well portrayed, evoking both our sympathy for their plight but also our revulsion for the actions taken by the Young Silurian, often at odds with the Old Silurian. The message of the story is clear - that when two highly developed communities encounter one another it must always be the moderates on both sides who must win through to prevent bloodshed - and this is as strong a message today as it was at the time of the story's original transmission when the Troubles in Northern Ireland had only just begun one of their most bloody phases.

Hulke's scripts are backed up by some strong production values which, with the odd exception such as the dinosaur, never let the story down, nor does the cast. One particular good feature is the way that many on both sides are killed off including even normally 'untouchable' characters in a story such as the civil servant (Masters - ably played by Geoffrey Palmer) and the second in command (Hawkins - portrayed by a young Paul Darrow before Blake's 7 made him famous). The Silurian costumes are good and even their head shaking when using their third eye makes sense as it implies that they are focusing their power. CSO makes its first appearance in Doctor Who in this story and it works well here since it isn't used to make the critical action shots. Direction wise this story works well, with the location work giving it a strong edge and also making the plague seem especially menacing as it strikes down commuters at Marylebone Station. Although the story's title is rather silly, this can be easily ignored as a cock up (and there are many books where the 'Doctor Who and...' variant also appears in story titles, such as The Making of Doctor Who) and in no way detracts from a highly rewatchable story that never slows down throughout its seven episodes. 10/10
Next The Sea Devils:

A strong sequel

About a decade ago The Sea Devils was selected to represent Jon Pertwee's time in the series in a repeat run. As an all action adventure, and being the middle story of his middle season it seems a highly appropriate tale to select. However it is noticeable for being set on contemporary Earth and featuring no direct appearance of UNIT at all. This gives a degree of freshness in the early episodes as the Doctor can not immediately call upon the support of the Navy in the way he would be able to do so with UNIT, whilst Edwin Richfield gives an excellent performance as Captain Hart without having to compete with any UNIT regulars.

There is a huge amount of action in this story, ranging from the Doctor's duel with the Master to the scenes of the naval task force attacking the reptiles' base. The story itself is for the most part a rerun of Doctor Who and the Silurians with the Master thrown in as an additional element but the story never noticeably drags. Michael Bryant's direction is strong and competent and makes good use of a mixture of stock footage, visual effects and equipment loaned by the Royal Navy to give the story a strong and slick feeling. Malcolm Hulke's script is well written and the only character to get sent up is Walker, a wonderful caricature of 'patriots' who merely make the entire situation far worse.

On the acting side, Jon Pertwee, Katy Manning and Roger Delgado all give their usual strong performances whilst Clive Morton (Colonel Trenchard) and the aforementioned Edwin Richfield both give exceptionally good supporting roles. Clive Morton brings a strong sense of tragedy to Trenchard, a strong patriot who believes he is doing his country a great service but finds out that he has been merely used by the Master as a means to an end and he then dies guarding his prisoner.

There's a limited degree of humour in the story, such as the Master and Trenchard's exchange about the Clangers being an alien life form or the Doctor's initial attempts to transmit a distress signal resulting in his picking up Jo's favourite DJ, but predominantly the story is serious. There's much less of the moralising of its predecessor, with only one of the reptiles (their Chief) being able to speak and he doesn't appear until the fifth episode and instead this story focuses on the action. Consequently the ending is far less tragic than before but instead focuses on the Doctor and Master escaping and continues the trend of the almost sibling rivalry between the two when the latter waves goodbye as he flees in the hovercraft. Whilst not as strong as its predecessor, The Sea Devils nevertheless presents a strong tale that is complemented by good production values. The music is radically different from the norm, being provided by Malcolm Clarke and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, but this experiment works well and uses many distinctive sounds. By breaking out of the standard formula for the Pertwee years, this story benefits from a degree of originality and so fully deserves its existence as more than a mere sequel. 8/10
And finally Warriors of the Deep:

Definitely Warriors on the Cheap but what about the script?

This story is often called Warriors on the Cheap by harsher critics and the conventional wisdom has it that this is a story that was written with some very strong ideas and premises but which was completely let down by poor direction, having less time than most Doctor Who stories to be completed, weak visual effects, poor design work that was not what the writer had envisaged at all and some terrible lighting that makes the story's weaknesses all the more glaringly obvious. But conventional wisdom can often be wrong and here it is difficult to see much of merit in the script for the story either.

For the series 1984 begins appropriately with an extremely pessimistic vision of the future in which the-then present day divisions of the world are chillingly mirrored and expanded upon. Warriors of the Deep never actually uses terms like 'the Americans' and 'the Soviets' or 'West Block' and 'East Block' (that was only in the novelisation) and so it has been argued that this is a new division of the world but it is clear that writer Johnny Byrne was thinking of the Cold War lasting for another century even if he avoids clarifying which side the Seabase is on. Unfortunately by the time the story's tenth anniversary appeared the world political situation had drastically changed and so although 2084 is a very long way away at the time of writing, it is hard to envisage this story as anything like what that time will be.

This story also sees the revival of the Silurians and the Sea Devils, both last seen in the respective Jon Pertwee stories named after them. Whilst those stories were 14 and 12 years old when Warriors of the Deep was first transmitted, the impact and long lasting effect of Malcolm Hulke's novelisation of the first story should not be ignored and so the revival gap diminishes somewhat. To the non-dedicated fan it doesn't matter if the monsters have appeared before or not - there have been other times when the Doctor has known about new races and characters - but for those who are familiar with the creatures it soon becomes clear that Warriors of the Deep is a big letdown. The costumes are very different, the Silurians' voices are electronic and their third eye has now become a flashing bulb indicating which one is speaking rather than a focusing point for their mental energies and worse still the very premise of the creatures has changed drastically. The earlier stories had clearly established that the reptiles sought merely to reawaken and establish their civilisation once more, with divisions between those who wanted to try for peaceful coexistence with the humans and those who wished to wipe them out completely, but now they are shown as ruthless and making no concessions whatsoever to a chance of any form of negotiated peace. The Doctor and Icthar have met before but it is hard to tell if this is an unseen adventure or a reference to Doctor Who and the Silurians.

The convenient plot device of the Sea Base being stocked with hexachromite indicates a laziness on the script's part, whilst the body count for the story is immense. It is hard to think of a previous story where out of such a large cast and extras virtually every speaking character (bar one) and many extras are wiped out completely. The script is a hideous mish-mash that completely fails to work as much more than a glorified action piece and the Doctor's final line 'There should have been another way' completely fails to convince from the way the story has progressed.

The cast are a mixture of clichés such as Tom Adams' solid Vorshak and utterly bizarre characters such as Ingrid Pitt's Solow who encounters the Myrka and reacts by trying to engage it in martial arts rather than fleeing while she can. The characterisation is generally poor, with the Doctor establishing his credentials all too easily through the crew's discovery of the TARDIS and the whole story limps along. It is hard to feel any sympathy for the deaths of any characters.

The production of this story routinely takes a knocking but it must be said in its defence that the model work of the Seabase and the Silurians' vessel is extremely good. Unfortunately that is just about where it ends. The interior of the Seabase completely fails to come across as an underwater military outpost, whilst the lighting is ridiculously high. There are far too many "secure" doors that look like rubber when they collapse, whilst the Sea Devil costumes completely fail to generate any sense of terror. Much has already been written about the Myrka but this has merely served to distract attention from the other weak elements of the story. All in all Warriors of the Deep is a story that sinks even lower than the Seabase. 1/10
Doctor Who - Beneath the Surface can be purchased from

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