Tom Baker is arguably the most popular Doctor, even eighteen years after he left the part. Often seen as definitive, he achieved the highest ratings and was among the three best actors to have taken the part. Also sharing a vague yet unpretentious intellect, he had one of the most interesting characterisations of the Doctor. His era lasted for seven years, with more episodes and stories than his four successors put together. As a result, such a long era must be broken down into palatable chunks. Therefore the following overview will be divided into two halves: the Barry Letts and Philip Hinchcliffe productions, followed by the Graham Williams era and finishing with Toms final, John Nathan-Turner produced season...
Although the much-touted City of Death ratings were phenomenal, boosted, (like Destiny of the Daleks) by an ITV strike, a glance at the chart position reveals that its average 36 is nothing compared to the success of The Ark in Space episode two, which was the fifth most-watched programme of that week; the highest chart position for any episode of Who. In fact, the Graham Williams ratings do reflect the (undeserved) negative fan image, being considerably lower than the Hinchcliffe stories. The average ratings of season 15 were actually boosted by an edited repeat of Robots of Death was shown part-way through in Dec/January 77/78. The repeat actually achieved higher ratings than many of the first-run episodes; before Robots the season average was 8.24 million - the episodes screened after got a 10.17 million average. John Nathan-Turner, meanwhile, saw his debut season 18 buried by Buck Rogers on ITV, and even the much-publicised exit of its star couldn't prevent 19 of its 28 weeks falling outside the top 100. The figures, then, were as follows:
Season 12: 10m, 23.65; Season 13: 10.14m, 26.62; Season 14: 11.08m, 20.69; Season 15: 8.98m, 42.81; Season 16: 8.57m, 28.92; Season 17: 11.21m, 38.1 and Season 18: 5.80m, 106.6.
Tom had the three highest-rated stories of all time, and that's not including an edited repeat of Pyramids of Mars, which, if allowed, would come second with 13.7m, chart position 7. The three highest, then, stand as: City of Death (14.5m, 36); Destiny of the Daleks (13.2m, 30) and The Robots of Death (12.7m, 16). Also huge successes were The Deadly Assassin (12.2m, 12); The Android Invasion (11.7m, 17), The Face of Evil (11.2m, 20) and The Ark In Space (11.1m, 18).
Biggest flops were The Leisure Hive (5.1m, 100); State of Decay (5.2m, 131) and, surprisingly, Logopolis (6.7m, 85). Irony is achieved by the fact that only five stories improved their ratings every episode. As an example, two million viewers stopped watching, for whatever reason, between episodes 2 and 3 of Genesis of the Daleks. The stories to improve each week, were: The Face of Evil, Horror of Fang Rock, Image of the Fendahl, City of Death and the ironic stinger... The Horns of Nimon! Attracting an average 1.09 million extra viewers every single week and ending up with 4.4 million viewers than it started out with.
In issue 290 of DWM Steven Moffat argued that season 12 was Tom Bakers finest acting performance. In nearly every important respect, this is completely true. One of the greatest things Tom brought to the role was variety not just in the stories, but in his characterisation. The seven years he was playing the part he brought anger, irony, intellect, indignation and flippancy to name just five. Yet only in his debut season did he bring humility.
This is a man who looks at other actors when theyre speaking, with a character that still comes off second best in fights. Were still a couple of years away from him shouting, "Shut up!" to Leela and K-9 in the Tardis. And its four years before hell roll his eyes as the climax to The Key To Time. He treats his co-stars with respect and applies himself modestly to the scripts.
Thats not to say the stories of season 12 are classic, and certainly theyre not. Theyre pretty good, but until Tom would really make his mark on the series, his earlier tales often feel like Pertwees hand-me-downs. The Sontaran Experiment, for example, relies on physical conflict and a deus-et-machina to resolve the situation. And despite Bakers more intellect-led performance, the stories still lack the full literary sophistication that the middle of his era would attain.
Robot is the most obvious example, all tinkly incidental music and files with "Top Secret" written on them in large letters. The last Barry Letts production, its interesting to see Bakers full-bore anarchy contrasted with the staid and long past its sell-by date UNIT.
In terms of innovation, this is (correct me if Im wrong) the only time a narration is used over the action. Oh, I guess there was that Paul McGann thing too. But the Brigadier describing events as we see them in episode one is pretty unique for the series. Robot was also the first story to be shot entirely on videotape, which at least makes the interior and exterior filming less jarring. The design of the Robot (and what an unimaginative title) is nice, but the arms are a little unwieldy. By the time hes "grown" by crappy CSO and starts shooting at an Action Man tank credibility has dropped through the floor.
The presence of SRS is a rare example of a fascist organisation in Who (yes, I know Genesis of the Daleks does the same thing, but thats allegory, this is literal) albeit in a 70s, light entertainment sort of way. I guess this was also ahead of its time Hilda Winterss group could easily be the Conservatives under Margaret Thatcher or the National Viewers and Listeners Association.
The debut of Harry Sullivan, Ian Marter was fairly disparaging about this clumsy surgeon. However, while not necessary as a macho type, with Tom more than able to handle the action stuff, hes still more than comedy fodder. The instant rapport between him and Baker is what makes it work, and Id never noticed before that he mimics Toms accent in the first episode. That said, his "second banana" role does become more obvious when you watch his stories in rapid succession.
While the weakest debut story for any Doctor up to that point, Robot is still diverting, and also better than any that followed.
The Ark in Space is a Who story that all fans stain their Dalek Y-Fronts over, but Ive never fully understood why.
Its well written, directed, intelligent and competently acted but for some reason it just doesnt do it for me. Maybe its the brightness of the sets, which make a mockery of the daft "Ridley Scott ripped it off for Alien" theories. The whole thing is very sparse and lacking in event, and consequently lacks the suspense that such minimalistic storytelling should demand.
One notable moment is Tom revealing that he keeps brandy in the Tardis presumably right next to his supply of gin and whisky. The Doctor sides against the Wirrn, largely because theyre green and not human. The notion of the human race sending an elite into cryogenic suspension to repopulate the Earth also seems to contradict the anti-fascist elements of the previous story, albeit in an understated way. Vira even talks about how "regressives" have been eliminated.
Coming on the back of stories such as The Monster of Peladon, Death To The Daleks and Planet of the Spiders, the huge leap in sophistication must have dazzled audiences at the time. The Wirrn look silly, but are taken seriously, while as for Tom can you spell "so much better than Pertwee"? Yet while certainly above average, The Ark In Space is probably a story that youll admire rather than love.
The Sontaran Experiment is a real bite-sized slice of Who, a meagre two-parter with really nothing to say. Okay, maybe theres a vague vivisection debate going on, but generally this is the show at its silliest and most generic. Terry Walsh wanders around doubling as the Doctor, while Tom (whose collarbone was broken) sits around statically and tries to pretend its of any interest. One of just six stories (of 25 minute duration, anyway) that are two-parters, it lacks the depth or characterisation a longer length would afford. As for the Sontaran, Kevin Lindsay suffered from heart problems, so the mask was made more breathable (on screen, more cheap looking) to help. People like to pick fault about how Sarah mistakes him for Linx (from the previous seasons The Time Warrior) despite the fact hes paler and only has three fingers. I mean, for cripes sake, if you saw an alien with a potato face wandering out of a giant golf ball would you really stop and count how many fingers he had? Note the particularly rubbish cliffhanger, the "shock" appearance of the Sontaran negated by the title. Mind you, that never bothered Terry Nation who always did the same thing with the Daleks. Speaking of which...
Genesis of the Daleks sees a fairly staid Terry Nation script (hed just written Planet and Death To, remember) made something special by other factors. One is Robert Holmess heavy involvement in script editing, another the direction. David Maloney brings in slo-mo, hand-held, aerial and many other neat tricks to keep things moving. Its also quite sadistic in its portrayal of violence; a fact not lost on Mary Shitehouse who started her first major rumblings with this story. Here the parochial, middle-class world of Doctor Who introduces the universes ultimate villain... and hes a blind man in a wheelchair. Even his subordinate wears glasses. That said, after the excesses of Terry Molloy, its nice to remember how good Michael Wisher was as Davros. Look out too for the cliffhangers every single one is superb.
Its not all good, though, which is what makes Genesis just a **** story and not a full-out classic one. For a start, the philosophical and moral debates are grafted on somewhat artificially to the text. Look at the way Toms okay-but-a-little-silly "Have I the right?" speech is introduced. Sarah precipitates it by asking, "what are you waiting for?" despite the fact that she hasnt even paused before saying it. Toms response should have been "What you on about, you silly tart? I havent even hesitated yet." Instead, the narrative grinds to a halt while the worthy dialogue is unceremoniously crowbarred in.
The Kaleds are a very obvious Nazi allegory, virtually undisguised. This leads to much stereotypical "Nazi" acting from the guest cast, opting for ham and emotionlessness in place of three-dimensionality. Mind you, you only have to look at the death scenes to realise that all concerned were involved in an over-the-top competition.
Lets also not forget about the silly clams, plus the wobbly Dalek in episode four and the appalling dummy Daleks in the final part things Ken Grieve would have been blasted for if hed let them get past. It also has the highest ratio of disjointed Dalek voice/indicator lights in any Dalek story.
Worst of all though is the melodramatic final part, full of screaming and ranting. When this was last repeated on television I remember cringing at the thought of the general public seeing such OTT silliness. It was two years before the programme would fully grow up, so the whole tale feels like a battle between Nations cranky datedness and Holmess sophistication; the series childlike origins and intended adulthood. It works, and is entertaining, but is it the best story of all time? Id say its not even the best Tom or Dalek story. Its elevation in fan rankings is more one of comfortable belonging than genuine belief.
Revenge of the Cybermen is a much-disparaged story with a lowly reputation. However, the storyline is relatively interesting and compelling, despite many plot holes. So good is it that Eric Saward ripped it off wholesale for parts of Attack of the Cybermen, ten years later.
But where it falls is in its camper excesses. Fans just cant come to terms with a hands-on-hips Cyberleader, even those that think David Bankss "excellent!" leader was a triumph. But instead of reading "decent adventure" read "laugh riot" and its a great nights entertainment. Moving from Jeremy Wilkins lip curling hammery to the "daa-da-da-da-da-daaaaaaaaaa" entrance of the Cybership is a touch of brilliance. Follow this up with a South African accented cuddly Cyberleader who says "That meanz the humanz have recently used their transmat bim" and its a work of genius. Not only that, but theres some cracking unintentional innuendo, such as The Doctors plan to "take the Cybermen from behind" and "heading for the biggest bang in history."
Okay, characterisation is a bit hackneyed, but Harry telling Sarah her ankles are chubby stands up with anything in the rest of the season. Theres also the odd nice line, such as The Doctor saying "I dont want to lose my arm, Im rather attached to it" (though following it up with "Its very handy" is admittedly lame) and "Whos the homicidal maniac?" Even limited roles are made palatable by actors such as Ronald Leigh-Hunt.
Rumours of the Cybermens emotions are debatable stuff like "watch it, Doctor, I think youve riled him" are humans applying emotional interpretations to a non-emotive situation. The Cyberleader attacking the Doctor could be a logical decision to warn against rebellion. Similarly, the Doctors "nice sense of irony... I thought for a minute he was going to smile" is his humorous assessment of a non-humorous situation, as is often the case with Baker. In fact, its Toms blasť attitude towards the creatures he found boring that undermine them, the Cybermen are played relatively straight.
The Cybermats make their first return since 1968, and, like the NASA stock footage in the final episode, theyre rubbish. Always a real "actor pretending to strangle himself" moment, this is made even more obvious by making them over a foot long. The CSO bane of the 70s to move them along the floor is also atrocious.
The new sets look a bit cheap and grey (reminded me of the first season of Red Dwarf), but the ones reused from The Ark In Space are still as good as ever. The Wookie Hole OB filming and Vogan citadel are also well realised, even if they do mar it slightly by recreating some of the caves in the studio. Amusingly, many fanwank theories have emerged as the Vogan symbol was so well liked by the production team they reused it for the Seal of Rassilon.
Criticisms of the story are valid but also overpronounced. At the time it must have seemed worse than it is, because Revenge is clearly the weakest Cyberman story up to that date. However, with the possible exception of Earthshock, no Cyber story since has been anywhere near as good. Simple, enjoyable fun.
Season 13, the fans would have you believe, is where Doctor Who went all "gothic horror". This probably came as a surprise to the people that thought they were watching a colourful childrens programme with jarringly obvious cuts between film and videotape. Often the studio-bound nature of the programme would eat away at the series credibility. Great stories can be done with no location work just look at The Robots of Death the following year but the limitation of such a format is no more obvious than in the weakest Hinchcliffe story, Planet of Evil.
A flat recreation of Jekyll and Hyde, its helmed by David Maloney. Maloney, possibly the most variable of all Whos directors, has been behind classic visual works like The Deadly Assassin, The Talons of Weng-Chiang and The Mind Robber. Yet he was also responsible for bringing The Krotons and Planet of the Daleks to the screen. Evil sees him definitely on an off day, though hes not helped by script that feels half-written, and cheap sets that look as if theyve come straight out of a Pertwee story. When Tom falls over in the final episode he lands against a cliff face... the polystyrene nature of which wobbles. It seems even in the year 37166 they still suffer from shaky cameras and lighting glare on the screen. Im not against tattiness in Doctor Who it goes with the territory but this one looks as if it was rushed off in ten minutes flat, and theres no irony to compensate.
The majority of season 13 is like this. Theres no subtext, no allegory. Just a straightforward "alien invader of the week" show for six months running. It does have a certain kind of naive charm, though without any real intellectual draw, now the effects have dated it contains little to hold an adult audience, save nostalgia. Toms Doctor is notably more "alien" here, though as that chiefly involves doing bug-eyes, staring into space and that hoarse whisper of his, its one of his more self-conscious performances throughout.
The Android Invasion has the benefit of extensive location footage, but is still a pretty weak story. Praise for Sarah-Jane is well justified, however, particularly here. While Elisabeth Sladen isnt the greatest Who actress her obvious rapport with Tom is natural and genuine. I love the scene where she giggles in episode one as he accidentally slaps in her in the face with a tree branch!
The story also reveals the Doctor carries a sizeable knife in his pocket. Lucky he didnt get arrested for carrying an offensive weapon, and whose idea was it to let Roy "Zippy" Skelton voice one of the Kraals? Youd think theyd learn after what he did to the Daleks. And look out for that old cheapo SF staple... a model rocket combined with NASA take-off footage, the second time in two years. Note how many times here and during the season Tom uses the affectation of his hat, a gimmick that was lessened as his confidence grew, starting the following year.
Written by Terry Nation, a hackneyed writer who got lucky with the Daleks, The Android Invasion contains many an antiquated plot device, including Sarah twisting her ankle. Its like the years 1965-1974 never happened. Still, its bearable in small doses (try just an episode at a time), and theres a sense of danger throughout, with no one the Doctor and Sarah can trust. The title, though, gives away any suspense, and The Invasion of the Bodysnatchers homage and major plot similarities mean it comes across as a poor cousin to Terror of the Zygons.
Its not all that bad, of course, and while the lack of ambition crippled the majority of the season into mediocrity, there were some gems. Terror of the Zygons, while as shallow as the rest, has some genuinely scary monsters, excellently shot by Douglas Camfield. Theres a real sense of fun, with Tom, in the final episode, mocking the Zygons and their limited budget. When discussing their attempted take-over of the Earth, he remarks, "Isnt it a bit large for just about six of you?" Upon seeing their transformation powers, he mocks, "Very good... almost impressive... but why bother?" It looks great, is suitably darkly lit, and has one of Whos most famous predictions in featuring an (off-screen) female Prime Minister. Even the Scots stereotypes cant harm it, though Harry is even more of a spare part than usual in his last story. Maybe thats the point, it allows him to slip away virtually unnoticed, while the Scarasen, oft mocked, is not quite as bad as you may recall. The incidental music by Geoffrey Burgon (he also did the score for The Seeds of Doom), is notably better than Dudley Simpsons, who seemed to get extremely over the top this year, particularly for The Android Invasion.
Another good story is Pyramids of Mars, the hugely enjoyable (though also hugely overrated) homage to The Mummy. The plot runs out halfway through episode four and gives way to childish logic games, but its still tremendous fun. There are some genuinely scary bits, too, making a mockery of its "U" certificate. It also has the best-ever goof, with the infamous cushion of Sutekh. The extras hand holding it down as he stands up is brilliant, and why does Sarahs hair blow in the opposite direction to the wind in the future Earth sequence? Its just a shame Mars looks like a studio floor in BBC centre, as this is a rattling good yarn, albeit again lacking in ambition.
The Brain of Morbius continues the seasons trend of alternating good/weak stories, which is a surprise as I used to hate it. How could I have been so wrong? A superbly witty, almost Williamsesque, pastiche of Universal/Hammer Frankenstein films, topped off by Philip Madocs charismatic, self-aware performance.
A blind Sarah finding her way out of the castle and the Doctor leaving Solon alone to destroy Morbius is still contrived, but the obvious studio sets only add to the fun. And theyre shot to their best advantage, with imaginative direction by Christopher Barry. Even when I disliked this story I still acknowledged it had one of the greatest-ever scenes in Doctor Who. Though fannish, the mindbending sequence where the Doctor is shown to have had eight prior lives before Hartnell is a brilliant revelation that turns the whole series on its head. This has since been played down in later stories, and Terrance Dickss novelisation claimed they were past images of Morbius. An Equity-defying use of stills of the production team, the Production Unit Manager and Douglas Camfield look particularly Whoish. Mind you, they all look more like the Doctor than Pertwee.
Easily the best tale of the season, in Toms most superficial collection of stories, it has the densest text. Finally, the story wins the years "most complained about by Mary Whitehouse" award. She should have thought herself lucky. Next year we got The Deadly Assassin.
Finally, The Seeds of Doom concluded the season back on Earth. This is unusual for period, as while almost exactly half of Doctor Whos stories are set on this planet (and even more centre around Earth colonies in space), Toms period as the Doctor had 65% of his stories on other worlds. This is probably the most out-of-character story the Doctor, certainly Toms Doctor, ever got. Chris Bouchers otherwise-wonderful scripts had Tom helping a man to commit suicide, and threatening to break anothers nose. Yet here fans praise the "dark" portrayal of the Doctor. If dark means carrying a gun and constantly punching people in the face then dark this is. Tom brings some notable anger to a pretty good finale, though one which is frought with padding. Set in the aptly-named Chase Mansion, the Doctor and Sarah seem to spend all the middle episodes running around, getting caught, escaping, getting caught... while Harrison Chase placing the Doctor in a waste disposal machine is straight out The Perils of Penelope Pitstop. Chase, played by Tony Beckley, is so camp even John Inman would seem butch in comparison. And whats going on with the Doctor and Tom Challiss Scorby? Ive never seen the Doctor throw around so much testosterone. Why dont they just shag and get it over with? Ms. Ducat, the eccentric who would appear to be a (script-editor) Robert Holmes addition, could possibly have kick-started the idea for Keeping Up Appearances with the debates about her name. "Its Ducat!" indeed! Its a good finish to a nice season, though if Graham Williams had done those model shots of the giant Krynoid and the attacking tendrils then the fans would have been up in arms.
Season 13 was a fun season, though arguably the most derivative Doctor Who ever attempted. Perhaps containing little reference for adults, certainly in the first four stories, its origins were barely disguised. When the series was to return, it saw a huge improvement conceptually, visually and intellectually. Producer Phillip Hinchcliffe would finally come of age...
When it comes to the fans then Season 14 is the most revered of all. Its a fair assessment. For a start, while Tom usually makes even the dullest of stories watchable and has many excellent tales, when it comes to full-out, five-star classics Id say he has just four. Three of these classics happen to occur in season 14.
It doesnt get off to the greatest start with The Masque of Mandragora. Tom travels to medieval Italy to track down a dubbed-on sparkler. It looks great historicals are something the BBC could do blindfolded and the new gothic console room is brilliant. However, while a decent timepasser, theres a major problem: theres no narrative tension.
Having minimal incidental music for the interior scenes does add authenticity but also causes the political wranglings to drag. The lack of a physical protagonist also fails to sustain interest. Instead what we get are scenes of blatant padding. Yes, padding. Tom getting into multiple fights, riding horses and fencing is all very nice (though I dont like a violent Doctor), but what does it do to further the plot? The whole thing has more literary density than Season 13, and is well made, but ultimately goes nowhere. The weirdest bit is hearing the Doctor paraphrasing Shane in the final episode: "A Timelords got to do what a Timelords got to do."
His reward from Juliano for saving the Earth is a giant stick of salami. No wonder Sarahs got a smile on her face at the end.
The Hand of Fear begins with post-modern aplomb in a quarry... featured as a quarry. This opens out with one of the ropier guest actors (David Purcell as the quarry manager) and a rare sighting of an Asian actor in 70s Who. That said, Renu Setna does play a Doctor.
The story moves at a fair rate, changing location with regularity. Eldrads home planet might look like Santas grotto but at least its lit darkly. The ending proves the old adage that any story featuring shouty Stephen Thorne appearing in the last episode (The Daemons, The Three Doctors) is bound to end in anti-climax. That said, the whole thing is a reasonably average romp, even if Dudley Simpsons score is all over the place, and Sarah gets a nice leaving scene. Would such a silly, ditzy girl really be a journalist though? While I did prefer this one to Mandragora, its probably the weakest story of the season as with its coal stack monster with a silver box on his head its the final Tom Baker story that could qualify as a Pertwee hand-me-down.
The Deadly Assassin is a thoroughly superb story, one which not only adds to the continuity but succeeds in making it cool, too. Possibly the only story set on Gallifrey (Why is it that Tom insists on calling it "Gallifree"?) that doesnt look tacky, it also has a subplot thats more than a little similar to The Matrix, made 23 years later.
Innovations include it being the only solo Doctor story and the only time a spoken introduction has been used. Okay, that and Runcible the Fatuous are very obvious expositionary tools, but the whole things so well done it really doesnt matter.
Most infamous is the third episode cliffhanger, which Mary Shitehouse still whinges about to this day. Using Hinchcliffes new favourite toy of the freeze frame (Its even used again in this story, for the first episode), it features Toms head being held underwater. I must say, to give the old bag her due, she did perhaps have a point. For what was still really a kids show to feature a punch-up, a man in flames and an attempted drowning is clearly overstepping the mark. That said, I do think its very good drama, and, while I dont normally like the Doctor using violence (thinking its a cheap plot device and also out of character) this instance shows an admirable survival instinct.
The few rubbish bits occur mostly in the cash-strapped fourth part, though odd moments occur throughout. Look out for the "minaturised" Timelords really Action Man dressed up and the rubber alligator, plastic spider and Sash of Rassilon thats clearly a bit of old cardboard. While superimposing the Masters face over the final shot is something that even JNT would have thought twice about. That said, all of these distract little from what is one of the greatest Who stories of all.
One of the most uncompromisingly adult and groundbreaking stories, even what is ostensibly padding in episode three is honed to visual excellence. In fact, while Robert Holmess script is sharply tuned and rarely misses, the near-dialogueless third part is probably the best. The political satire also scores hugely by not being overstated, as Holmess Sunmakers would be the following year. "Im afraid things will never be quite the same again" says Tom, and, on reflection, he was right.
The Face of Evil introduces Leela as the new companion, a much more adult addition than the frivolous Sarah Jane. Is Leela the best companion ever? Shes certainly no lightweight when it comes to the acting dues, Louise Jameson having two-and-a-half-years acting experience with the RSC before joining the show. And while her lack of garments are pure dad appeal, theyre tied in to a more rounded, intelligent characterisation this is light years away from the tits and mouth that was Peri. Youd never hear her scream, either. (Well, except just briefly in Weng-Chiang. Everyone has an off day). Incidentally, Louise is at her prettiest in her debut story.
And what a debut it is. While clearly the "cheap one of the season", its also a very intelligent story, vastly improved by repeated viewings. The notion that the general public can only feed on a diet of cookery and quiz shows is disproved by the fact that this thoughtful tale was earning over eleven million viewers a week. Youd think the Beeb wouldve chucked more money at such a hit. Because while a shallow indictment, the biggest flaw of 70s Who is the obvious difference between film and video/location and sets. Disguised by black and white, and improved by the 80s (Though both decades had their own problems of a different nature), the Pertwee and Baker eras sometimes take a kind eye and a lot of suspension of disbelief. This is more than necessary for The Face of Evil, a masterpiece that is squandered by cheap studio sets and being surrounded by even greater stories. Almost a classic in its own right, it may perpetuate the myth that schizophrenia is a multiple personality disorder, but in basing a story on the Doctors past indiscretions its possibly unique. And while Chris Bouchers lofty ideas are far too big for the budget, it provides many effective moments, not least the superb cliffhangers. The roaring Tom heads are brilliant too (And well realised considering the year and the rest of the production but how do they make footprints in the first episode?), though its rather a shame its best cliffhanger is now so well-known that it can be given away on the video cover. I wonder what it was like to see that as a genuine surprise?
The scenes set inside Xoanan are the best, and Toms certainly got a big enough ego to convince as a mad computer. The religious parodies, while verging towards po-faced Trekism, keep enough of the wit and verve of Who to stay relevant. I wasnt that impressed with this one when I first bought the tape. Little did I know I had a gem in my collection.
Just two last points does Tom break the fourth wall in his first scene, pre-Graham Williams, or does it just look that way? And how does the Sevateem tribe survive with only one woman in it?
The Robots of Death begins ten weeks of first-rate Who. Some class direction by Michael E. Briant and effective moments of psychology transform a simple plot into something special. Is this how the Cybermen should have been done? Okay, you can see the throats of the actors occasionally, but these impassive Art Deco robots are scarier than the Cybes ever were. In not being allowed to show expression or emotion theyre terrifying, and their preferred choice of killing strangulation is a fear which can be readily identified with. The incongruity of killers using polite, dulcet tones while committing murder is also strangely unsettling.
Chris Bouchers witty script cannily provides fear from the outset, with Chub telling a story of how a robot twisted a mans arm off at the shoulder. While Bouchers scripts can sometimes seem starched, hearing Tom doling out great lines like the "inverse ratio between the size of the mouth and the size of the brain" is never less than satisfying.
While its obvious from the third episode who the killer is, seeing Dask dressed up as a robot is a real Norman Bates moment. And his "I will release more of our brothers from bondage. We will be irresistible" has to be best double entendre in the series ever. The way the characters go through genuine development not just in themselves but in the way we perceive them is also rewarding. Dudley Simpsons wonderful score is also overlooked by being quite subtle for once.
Behind the scenes Tom was beginning to really play up, insulting the script and reacting against the violent aspects of Leela. With Hinchcliffe due to be moved on after the Shitehouse debacle, a softer producer would see Toms antagonism reach new heights.
The Talons of Weng-Chiang is the highlight of season fourteen, an excellent story following three more excellent stories. In fact, so good is Talons that you quite forget its nearly plotless. Look again: 51st century war criminal Magnus Greel wants to make himself whole by recovering a time cabinet. He gets the cabinet back yet his cells collapse and he dies before he can use it. Even by Who standards, thats slight. Everything else is just padding and decoration, but what padding, what decoration! Like some fine painting, Robert Holmes builds up a rich palette, pastiching Sherlock, Jack the Ripper, Phantom of the Opera, Fu Manchu and even Oscar Wilde.
Scenes where the companion and a supporting character eat together would be time filling desperation in any other era, yet when that companions the savage Leela in mannered Victoriania it becomes an story highlight. The evocation of Victorian London, particularly that shot on film, is superlative. There are knives, poison, guns and bodies from the river. Patsy Smart's gibbering old hag is even reminiscent of Una O'Connor from the Universal horrors. The whole thing has a cultural and literary density rarely, if ever, seen in the programme. This is the only Doctor Who story where someone smokes drugs (opium) on screen. Clearly the production team (Who were on record saying no one under 10 should watch it) were remaking Who as an adults-only show, and all the better for it. Like all of season thirteen it takes its source from other texts, but here it rejigs, reworks and puts its own fresh spin on them. Stylistically its unlike any other Doctor Who story.
My only complaint is heresy, I know Christopher Benjamins Jago, who is written and played as yet another self-conscious Holmes comedy character. Seeing a Caucasian made up as a Chinaman is also unlikely to gain it a repeat screening on terrestrial TV in a post-PC age. Oh, and the giant rat is hilarious of course. Maybe Holmes wrote it knowing it couldnt work on the budget and that it would look funny. A fantastic climax to arguably the greatest season of the series, The Talons of Weng-Chiang is also, with the possible exception of The Power of the Daleks, the finest example of the six-part format in Doctor Who.