Archive for the ‘Classic’ Category

The Aztecs   Leave a comment

The villains are the worst of this one. Though the Doctor explains to Barbara that the High Priest of Sacrifice is motivated by perfectly understandable fear – he sees her as a threat to his culture, as well as a threat to his position – the character isn’t played that way. Instead, Tlotoxl is all cackling evil. Ixta too could have been a sympathetic character if played sincerely, but his exaggerated portrayal makes him a caricature.

Otherwise, “The Aztecs” is an excellent serial. Story shines here, as Barbara sets out to make a difference and fails utterly, almost at the cost of all their lives. The native culture in which the time travelers land is portrayed sincerely and believably. The costumes are as gorgeous as those in “Marco Polo,” the sets even more so. Ian convincingly shifts a slab of foam as if it were a hundredweight of stone.

The Doctor himself is a much more familiar character in this story. He’s affectionate toward his granddaughter, hugging her protectively in an effort to shield her from the horror taking place outside the temple. He’s considerate of Barbara – for the first time, he speaks to her as if he might persuade her rather than berate her, and even apologizes for being too harsh. His insistence that some things can’t be changed – “Believe me, I know!” – reminds me of Ten’s post-Time War agony, and left me wondering what trauma this Doctor has endured. He befriends Cameca with flirtatious charm. Their surprise engagement via cocoa is a comic moment, but authentic too: he cares for this woman, admires her, regrets the necessity of breaking her heart – and ultimately can’t bring himself to leave her token behind.

There’s a lot of food for thought in this story. The Aztec practice of human sacrifice is looked back on with horror, as if we would never do such a thing today. Yet tens of thousands of lives each year are given over, without honor, to our need for cars and guns. Untimely death is normalized as a cost of personal freedom. Further, much as Barbara even as a goddess fails to persuade the Aztecs to change, so we today fail to win hearts and minds by telling people their way of life is wrong – even sometimes when they agree. Humans just don’t work that way. The Doctor knows it; Barbara learns it, to her regret.

The other question I’m left with is Cameca. She wanted to come along; what if the Doctor had accepted? What kind of companion might she have made? The affection between them is sincere. Perhaps he thought – perhaps she agreed – that she was content where she was. Perhaps she wasn’t truly the adventurer she wanted to be. Or perhaps he feared losing her in time and space as he had so nearly lost the others so many times. He’s responsible for Susan as her grandfather, and for Ian and Barbara by accident – perhaps he doesn’t want to be responsible for Cameca as well.

And finally: Where did Ian learn the Vulcan nerve pinch?



Posted July 30, 2018 by Elisabeth in Classic, The Long Way Round

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Further thoughts…   Leave a comment

A few more thoughts on the last few stories.

Female friendships: Verity! just completed a mini-arc of female “companions’ companions.” Ace is the inspiration and main culprit of the arc, but she is far from alone. In “Marco Polo,” Susan develops a proper teen-girl friendship with Peng Cho, whispering together in the dark about dreams and fears and the future and occasionally even boys. In “Marinus,” Susan and Barbara collectively adopt Sabetha, who overcomes hypnotism to become a contributing member of the team. I know there’s more to come: one of my strongest recollections of “The Dalek Invasion of Earth” is an entire episode of Barbara and another woman driving around saving the world. It’s a trend I can get behind – and one of the reasons I particularly adore S1 Rose Tyler.

Plot inconsistencies: A heck of a thing to bag DW for but this one really stood out. Throughout “Marco Polo,” Tegana comes up with a series of “evil plans” which one after another fail to work. Each seems unnecessarily complex, and none seems to forward his finally-revealed mission to kill Kublai Khan. There are a few cases of things changing on the fly – a sandstorm thwarts one attempt, the TARDIS presents a new unlooked-for opportunity – but I was still struck with a remarkable sense of flailing.

Of course, these episodes are designed to be watched once a week and never seen again, under which circumstances the flailing would hardly be noticeable at all.

Major Character of Questionable Morality: Marco Polo brazenly steals the Doctor’s TARDIS for his own gain, and he’s still the good guy. Fortunately his arc includes realizing that he was wrong, and apologizing – though I’m left wondering why, after rejecting all Marco’s offers of an escort home, the Doctor never offered Marco a lift instead. In “Marinus,” Arbitan has created a giant mind control machine, and blackmails the Doctor into helping him repair it. He never gets called out for it, though he does get murdered – and the Doctor disapproves in a general way in his final speech.

These stories are definitely of their era, but there’s good fun in there too.

Posted June 24, 2018 by Elisabeth in Classic, The Long Way Round

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Keys of Marinus   Leave a comment

This is an odd one. A Terry Nation script with no Daleks, but plenty of bug-eyed monsters for Sydney Newman to hate. An adorable model island and tiny toy TARDIS to set the scene. Weird directing choices – strangely off-center shots, too-obvious positioning for effects, bland fades to black – and plenty of flubbed lines. It’s almost as if they didn’t have a budget.



Still, it does its best. Ian gets lots of heroics but Barbara isn’t left out. William Hartnell appears to have gotten several days off; his companions carry the story without him, picking up a couple of companions of their own on the way. The Ian/Barbara ship sails on gloriously. Our heroes visit a whole pantheon of new worlds, saving each in a brisk twenty minutes. It’s not brilliant television, but not a bad way to spend six consecutive Saturday teatimes.

“Marinus” is the first story I’ve streamed for this project on Britbox – I watched The Beginning on DVD, and “Marco Polo” via Loose Cannon. I was surprised and alarmed to note it and several other stories marked “Last Chance!” as if they were shortly to be taken down. Classic DW is the only reason I’m willing to pay for Britbox; should those stories come down, I would be forced to cancel my subscription, and I sent them a note saying so. “Marinus,” unlike many others, is still available at my library and not too expensively on DVD. I’m left suspecting that fans like me are being pushed to buy available DVDs and also retain our subscription for those stories no longer affordable by other means. I’m left not surprised, but disappointed in the strategies of the BBC.

I wonder if I can get all the way through “The War Games” before anything happens…

Marco Polo   Leave a comment

The fourth-ever Doctor Who story is also its most famous loss. Rumors spring up from time to time that the BBC is only waiting for the opportune moment to reveal it, but so far no part of “Marco Polo” has officially been found. A 30-minute reconstruction, pasted together from surviving audio and telesnaps, was released on The Beginning DVD set.

30 minutes out of 7 episodes doesn’t seem like much. Fortunately there’s Loose Cannon.

This highly skilled “amateur” production company did more than painstakingly reconstruct all 7 missing episodes (and many more stories besides). They started with color telesnaps, depicting lush sets and vibrant costumes far beyond the budget of most Doctor Who. Where needed, they colorized, hand-painting individual photographs to match. They added a frame story, featuring original actor Mark Eden as an older Marco Polo looking back on his most unlikely of travels. Eden also provides a charming introduction.

The result is exceptional. The images are gorgeous, vivid, dense with detail. The story is compelling – even at 7 episodes, it never drags. Every character – and there are many – gets a chance to shine. Children of the time must have been fascinated by their heroes’ visit to the exotic court of Kublai Khan. The colonialist perspective and abundant yellowface* make for a harder watch today – but still, I feel, worthwhile.

I once heard a short debate on the merits of telesnap reconstruction versus animation of lost stories. At the time, I fell firmly in the animation camp: I preferred the flow of animation to the stilted awkwardness of snap recons. However, no animator could have captured the lavish detail of Loose Cannon’s “Marco Polo.” Their work has changed my mind.

Loose Cannon can be found online on YouTube, and also here.

* Actress Zienia Merton is half Burmese and was raised in Singapore and Borneo among other places. No other cast member is anything but white white white.

The Edge of Destruction   Leave a comment

This is a strange one.

The third-ever story of Doctor Who is only two episodes long. It features only the main cast and the TARDIS interior. It’s a kind of psychological thriller, a closed-room mystery in which the heroes turn on each other, missing memories and paranoia fueling distrust to the point of violence. There’s little action, no history, no adventure; the cinematography and character development are cool, but I wonder if children in particular found it sufficient to engage their interest.


This is actually one of the creepier shots, as the instant before Ian was slumped unconscious in a chair.

The simplicity was likely necessitated by the budgetary demands of the following story, “Marco Polo,” which reputedly broke the bank with lush costumes, lavish sets, and a massive cast. Still, “The Edge of Destruction” is not without merit; that merit being mostly Barbara Wright.

Where Ian played the hero in the previous story, this time it’s Barbara’s turn. She faces down the Doctor’s terrible accusations courageously. She cares for Susan even after Susan turns on her. And in the end it’s she, not the Doctor, who understands what the TARDIS is trying to tell them. Barbara, not the Doctor, puts the pieces together and saves all their lives. Ian, on the other hand, spends much of the story half-naked, unconscious, or both. I can’t help feeling some balance restored to the universe.

The Doctor, for his part, fails to apologize, takes credit for Barbara’s success, and still charms her into forgiving him. He’s very much an alien in this story – his alignment unknown, his intent a mystery – but also, already very much the Doctor.

The Mind Robber   Leave a comment

Fictional characters confronting fictionality is one of my favorite tropes – and this time it wasn’t even Moffat!

For once my husband was in the mood for DW, and the Second Doctor is one of his faves – hence my veering from the Classic timeline. There aren’t many extant Troughton stories left that we haven’t seen, but this was one of them. I remembered it as the story where Frazier Hines got sick and Jamie was played by someone else. (That did happen for one episode – and fortunately in the Land of Fiction you can make that work.)

Overall this is a cracking story. It moves fast for its era with no especially notable padding. The interactions with Gulliver and Rapunzel are great fun – Rapunzel is adorable, and I don’t understand why this is her only television role. I also particularly enjoyed the comic-book superhero from the future: grounding Zoe as a character and legitimizing comics as literature in one fake-muscle-bound stroke. However, neither Jamie nor Zoe is at their best in this story, each having little use for their strengths and both being repeatedly and too easily fooled.

A couple of things confused me as well. The title didn’t click for me at first, though after some thought I managed to put it together – the Doctor’s mind was needed to continue creating the fiction, and could not be got by legitimate means. The intent of the primary villain – to empty the earth via stories? never quite made sense. (The secondary villain’s motivation of looking for a replacement so he could retire worked much better.) And then there was that credit at the end of episode 1: The Master, though no new character had been introduced and the Master himself does not appear until the Third Doctor’s era.

I have never even heard another Master mentioned. In story, the character is more accurately called “the Master brain” or something like that – the alien intelligence that kidnapped the human “Master” for its inexplicable purpose. There is no (apparent) relationship between this Master and the Master. Still, I can’t imagine that fandom hasn’t tried to create one.

The story picks up right where the previous story – “The Dominators,” which I haven’t seen – leaves off. It also ends on a cliffhanger, but as far as I can tell that one does not resolve: the following story, “The Invasion,” begins on the moon, and I recall no reference to a prior story. However I haven’t seen it in some time; perhaps in a few years when I get to this spot in my Classic Who (re)watch, I’ll learn better.

On another note, I don’t usually swing that way but I adore this shot:


In the #MeToo era it doesn’t look good. There’s no story value in Zoe’s bum no matter how glorious. We get no corroborating up-skirt shot of Jamie. (A disappointment to be sure.) And truthfully, had this been most any other companion – any modern companion for sure, or any more helpless companion such as Victoria, or more thoroughly sexualized character like Leela – it would be nothing less than crass. But something about Zoe makes it work. One, she is rarely sexualized in the series, and rarely less than fully clothed from chin to sole. And two, according to the stories at least, Wendy Padbury was more than able to hold her own on set. The boys’ club of Troughton and Hines was known for practical joking, generally at the expense of their younger female co-stars. (Deborah Watling reportedly had a difficult time on the show for this reason.) But it’s been said that Padbury could give as good as she got, and was undeterred by any juvenile antics.


I don’t know what Padbury thinks of the shot, or what her young fans at the time felt. For me, I’m reminded that sexuality can also be empowering for women.* I’m reminded, in spite of her detractors and of course Moffat, of Amy Pond.


Your mileage may vary.


*This is a complex arena, but I have acquaintances who are strippers and burlesque dancers, and they are anything but disempowered by a glorious bum.

The Daleks, at last   Leave a comment

Announce a new project: it’s a sure way not to have any time to put into the project. :-/

Almost a month has gone by since “An Unearthly Child.” Travel, overbooked weekends, nights at home that got hijacked for other events… with one thing and another, it still took two separate attempts to get through all 7 episodes of “The Daleks.” That’s not even a comment on the quality of the story; it really just takes a long time.

“The Daleks” was the second ever aired Doctor Who story. The concept was originally rejected by Sydney Newman, who famously opposed any “bug-eyed monsters” in his show. However, as it was the only script ready to shoot at the time, Newman was stuck with it.

In spite of Newman’s assessment, something about the strange pepper-pot aliens captured the national imagination. By the end of the story, the number of viewers per episode had topped 10 million, and Doctor Who was a television success. I like to imagine that the scene from “An Adventure in Space and Time” in which Verity Lambert witnesses children on a public bus shouting “Exterminate!” literally happened. Without the Daleks, Doctor Who as we know it today would probably never have existed.

The story opens exactly where the prior story ends: the TARDIS arrives on a new, unknown planet and the radiation dial quietly creeps into the red. Typically of early DW, each episode plays directly into the next, whether they’re part of the same story or not. In fact, “The Daleks” was not known by that name at the time: instead, each episode was provided its own title, its own mini-arc, and its own cliffhanger – even the last one, which sets up the following story.

Ian is unmistakably the hero of the show. He leads the action and looks after his fellow travelers. Barbara, a good character in most ways, gets heavily damseled in this story: hiking through swamps and under mountains in open-toed sandals, clinging to the hand of a male admirer throughout the “scary parts,” and then nearly getting him killed. Susan has a moment or two to shine, but mostly she’s an overplayed stereotype of a horror-movie girl. (I can relate to Carole Ann Ford’s disappointment.) The Doctor is self-centered and callous: he damages the TARDIS himself so the others are forced to let him visit the city that interests him; declines to help the pacifist Thals face their mortal enemy; and then, when he can’t abandon them, tries to force the Thals to help his party. Ian is the good guy of the group: he apologizes to Susan for disbelieving her, drops everything to rush to Barbara’s side when she cries out in fear, and refuses to manipulate the Thals to put themselves in danger for his party. He also has a thing or two to teach the Thals – and the Doctor – about courage.

Overall, the pacing of the story is typical for its time. Episode 1, titled “The Dead Planet,” is edge-of-your-seat intense, with a creepy stone forest, mysterious faraway city, and no sign of life – until someone lays a hand on Susan. The final two episodes, featuring the assault on the Dalek city, are similarly gripping. In between, we spend a lot of time running down corridors, attempting escapes, making terrible plans, having redundant arguments, and generally wandering back and forth over and over again. Not to mention being threatened with extermination!


Does not occur in this story.

A few highlights:

  • Chestright: The Ian/Barbara ship is well sailed in this story, in spite of the momentary infatuation of one Thal whose name I do not recall.
  • Susan and the Doctor also make a delightful pair on their own: the giggly pre-teen and her indulgent grandfather gleefully sabotage a city.
  • The settings are pretty good for the budget. The petrified forest looks amazing; the swamp is convincing; the “city” is more a collection of odd-shaped bits of junk and a string of endless corridors than a city, but it works well enough.
  • The Daleks are valid characters with valid motivation! You even feel sorry for them as the anti-radiation medicine that was supposed to help them live outside begins to kill them instead. (A Dalek screaming in pain is terrifying.)
  • The final cliffhanger: The Doctor runs around the console, banging switches and buttons from every angle, until it explodes – a familiar sight to any fan of 10.

In the end the Daleks lose, of course. The Thals’ hope of cooperation is shattered, but with the visitors’ help they defeat their enemy utterly. The Daleks’ fear of anything different from themselves is established, and it destroys them.

Of course the extermination of his incredibly successful creation did not prevent writer Terry Nation* from shopping them around. Within a year they returned to DW in “The Dalek Invasion of Earth,” and shortly afterward in an alternate version of the story featuring Peter Cushing as the human Dr. Who. Since then they have featured in at least 20 televised stories and remain the most popular DW villain of all time.

Not bad for a bunch of bug-eyed monsters.


*Rhyming is entirely unintentional on my part. Not sure about Mr. Nation.