Watching this so soon after Terminus and Mawdryn Undead two things become clear about Peter: one is that his hair has grown dramatically in the filming interim, and the other is that his enthusiasm has dimmed. This is still no phoning in his performance, but from this story up to and including The Five Doctors there's a slight dip in his acting. Not a dramatic lapse, but it is there nevertheless.
To be honest, I hate to admit it but this first episode is nowhere near as good as I remembered. Another slow burner with lots of hot Tardis action (that's irony, right?) it also has almost Nationesque levels of dialogue functionality. "Dead end" observes the normally intelligent Turlough, despite the fact that there's a bloody great big gap in the wall with a door knob attached to it. "No," explains the Doctor, "it's a door." Well, he is a genius after all.
There are a few rare chuckles in the Davison era here though, with the Doctor noting of a group of sailors that "they're sizing us up". As for pigs not being sailors, though - it's a good job the guy's not a stand up comedian, innit? I also really love the music to this story. Like most of the 80s, it's far too loud though, effectively making the term "incidental" a contradiction in terms. A good, if not great, start to the story, though that cliffhanger alone knocks it up a point:
The plot here is quite involving, sort of like a dosser's version of The War Games. Here humans are taken from different periods of history, believing that they're still on their own world. However, this time they're not there to fight a war and die for their alien captors, but just to provide entertainment. Also of interest is Marriner, the Eternal who hangs around Tegan for the whole story. However, while it can be argued that his constant reading of Tegan's mind (which wouldn't take long, surely?) is a form of rape, it's not really worth dwelling on. He's just a pervy git like Simon from Accounts, sniffing round the girls by the photocopier - come on, mate, keep it in your trousers!
An interesting episode, though if you study it closely nothing major really happens. When I first watched this one as a boy I really felt for Turlough in this story, feeling his anguish at being controlled by the Black Guardian and not being able to tell the Doctor. Kind of reminded me of that time I'd accidentally swallowed some bath water and was too scared to tell my mum, who'd informed me that drinking bath water can kill you. Of course, twenty years on and I now realise my mum was making a (slightly callous, in retrospect) point to protect me, A white lie. In the same manner, Turlough's terror has now long since passed me by, and I can't engage with this one as much as I once did. There's no better time to watch Doctor Who than as a kid, is there? One final thing - while some of the planet shots are, as you would expect, not all that great, the production and effects on this story are alarmingly good for something that's now two decades old.
In a recent UK series called Reborn In The USA a bunch of hasbeen popstars competed to win a new recording contract. Leee made the last five, and in the middle of the second gulf war chose to sing Marvin Gaye's anti-war classic "What's Going On?" 'Wow', I thought, 'there's political'. Filming in America, Leee performed this most contentious of soul protests, telling what was probably a pro-Bush audience "Brother, brother, brother… there are too many of you dying." Right on, Leee. Then, he got past the first verse - "okay, everybody, get out of your seats and put your hands in the air, I wanna see you dance." Oh God. This same kind of phenomenally dunder-headed misjudgement is probably what led Leee to believe he could act. Some have said that he's actually in character, playing the part of a bored Eternal, who's hamming it up like a right nancy for his own amusement. It's a nice theory, but I've got a simpler one - he's f***** shite! Less an acting performance, more a loss of bowel control, Leee prances around in thespic ineptitude so great that even his mum would have bitch-slapped him into the middle of next week. "Leee, ya blood clart, get ya buttoutameface!"
Hardly better is Lynda, a knock-off Barbara Windsor, cackling, whooping, and - in one of the very worst moments in the whole of Who - breaking the fourth wall by performing her melodramatic cliffhanger speech direct to camera. With her buxom cleavage and coarse laugh she's the sort of brassy old slapper that you can get any Friday down the local pub just by buying her a Tia Maria. Yeah, the M'Longa is a top tune, but with Captain Wrank and her cronies hamming it up like a Colin Baker tribute party it all starts to come undone. Still, at least Tegan gets 'em out too, I suppose….
Okay, Valentine Dyall. Some readers have commented that I've been easy on the old git, not even giving him a mention throughout his previous two stories. Well, I've been saving it. Giving him his chance. Taking him into the rope-a-dope. Let's make no bones about it, he's dire. Aged and decrepit, like a rancid, piss-soaked alchy, his fingers stained by woodbine roll-ups. "Dire" is actually a note of praise here, because even though his performance is Mr. Bronson for a kid's birthday party ("You boy!!!") he's still light years ahead of Stephen Thorne. But bad he is, and if it's growling "in the name of all that is evil" or throttling Turlough, it's a painful, unintentional send-up that sends Who hurtling into the under-5s sandpit. Of course, everyone mentions the fact that he's got a dead bird on his head, so I won't bother. Oh, go on then - he's got a dead bird on his head. There. Interestingly, his laugh has evolved in this story from a booming roar to a cawing, wheezing cackle, sort of a like a flatulent crow with dysentery. As the real villain behind it all then he undermines everything. Not only does he make the Eternals look like wimps in comparison (Wrack is revealed to be his bitch), but he's also a sore point for anyone who didn't watch the last five minutes of season sixteen. Who are the black and white guardians? Why do they have such an interest in the Doctor? After twelve episodes - six weeks - of his involvement in the season, casual viewers are given their answer: piss off, we ain't telling you. And they wonder why the viewing figures weren't that great any more.
So who saves the day out of an innovative - but underachieving - story? Mark Strickson, who uses the power of the ham. There's good ham and bad ham, you know it by now. And Mark is good ham. Just when you thought last episode's "help meeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!" was loveably OTT, here we get "I'm not spyyyyyyyyyiiiiiiiiiiiiiiing" which is pure ham masterclass. Anything else? Well, Lynda Baron talking about "the plank" while Leee is in shot raises a titter, though the fifth Doctor is as ineffectual as he's always reputed to be. Somehow seeing the Doctor scrabbling around on the floor for bits of shattered pearl (and why didn't he just pick up the rug it was on and lob that? He could have missed a shard) is undignifying.
The climax is a double let down. Okay, I can understand the (intended) suspense by having Wrack and Mansell die off screen, but how on Earth did they do it? Mansell had a sword for God's sake. And somehow having a "well, we beat the enemy but you didn't see it" climax doesn't quite fulfil. Then we have the Guardians, creatures whose literal black and white nature always sits uneasily with any grey ethics in the Who universe. The conclusion of the Faustian plotline (precipitated by Wrack telling Turlough that it can grant the holder whatever they wish) is also extremely anti-climatic, not helped by Dyall gibbering like On The Buses's Blakey having a fit. The final suggestion by Turlough - that they go to his home planet - is strange when you consider just seven stories later it's revealed he's a wanted exile. That's great script editing for you. At least the Doctor's weary "why not?" feels real, Davison apparently method acting it - because by this stage he was obviously bored shitless. Disappointing.
Sadly, this story is probably one of the three best Davison was given, bettered only by Kinda and Caves. The fact that what is still an underachieving and often sloppy tale is one of his best shows how much dross Peter had to contend with. A strong story, but repeated viewings reveal it not to be a great.
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