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Doctor Who: Terror of the Zygons (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

Terror of the Zygons originally aired in 1975.

Right, let’s see what other damage we can do. Anybody know what this is?

I haven’t the faintest idea.

You tell us.

I will. It’s a self-destructor, and it works like this.

– the Doctor demonstrates to the Duke and Lamont that you don’t ask a question without knowing the answer

Terror of the Zygons is a strange beast. Tom Baker’s first season was bookended by two relics from the Jon Pertwee era. Robot was essentially a Pertwee-era invasion story where the only real difference was Tom Baker’s larger-than-life performance; Revenge of the Cybermen had been commissioned by Barry Letts and felt more like a Pertwee-era space story than anything Hinchcliffe and Holmes would produce.

In contrast, Terror of the Zygons is very definitely an episode of Doctor Who produced by Philip Hinchcliffe and script edited by Robert Holmes. It kicks off one of the show’s strongest seasons, and plays into many of the recurring themes of the era. There are fallen gods and body horror and a sense of the Doctor as a bohemian who won’t be bound by society’s rule. And yet, at the same time, there’s also a sense that Terror of the Zygons is derived from the same basic structure of Pertwee-era invasion story.

In short, Terror of the Zygons feels like it straddles two very different eras of the show, and provides an opportunity for the show to very definitely transform from one form into another.

Let Zygons be Zygons...

Let Zygons be Zygons…

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Doctor Who: The Ice Warriors (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

The Ice Warriors originally aired in 1967.

It’s strange that the Jon Pertwee era tends to attract so much criticism for adhering so rigidly to formula, with Barry Letts and his team rigidly working within well-defined lines and trying hard to produce television that doesn’t suck. Outside of the political criticism of the Pertwee era, there’s a train of thought that suggests the show became a little too formulaic, a little too predictable, failing to really push its own boundaries, with a few scattered exceptions.

And yet the Patrick Troughton era was arguably just as much a slave to routine and formula. The Troughton era is defined by its “base under siege” stories, so massively influential that they’ve become a Doctor Who subgenre unto themselves. Episodes like Earthshock and The Almost People arguably serve as homages to the genre that peaked during the late sixties. Indeed, allowing for some measure of flexibility, six of the seven adventures in this season could be described as “base under siege” stories.

I can’t help but wonder if the destruction of so many Troughton-era stories has led many Doctor Who fans to become blinded by nostalgia reflecting on the era. The Tomb of the Cybermen is, after all, much more exciting as the sole surviving “base under siege” story of the fifth season than it as the first of six adventures loosely adhering to the same structure and conventions.

Ice to meet you...

Ice to meet you…

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Doctor Who: The Hand of Fear (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

The Hand of Fear originally aired in 1976.

Come on, where are we?

We’re in a quarry.

Yes, I know we’re in a quarry, but where?

Well, how do I know? I don’t know all the quarries that–

– the Doctor and Sarah Jane get a bit meta

The Hand of Fear is odd, because it’s the end of an era – but it’s not the end of the era for the rather obvious reason that it bids farewell to one of the franchise’s best-loved companion character. The Hand of Fear is best known as the final story to feature Sarah Jane Smith. Indeed, the DVD comes with a helpful sticker informing any potential purchasers of the story’s significance.

However, watching The Hand of Fear with the benefit of hindsight, it isn’t Sarah Jane’s departure that is the most striking part of the show.

Keep it handy...

Keep it handy…

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Doctor Who: The Keeper of Traken (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

The Keeper of Traken originally aired in 1981. It was the first instalment in the “Master” trilogy.

He dies, Doctor. The Keeper dies!

– Tremas heralds the end of an era

Of course, the entire season has been less than subtle about the point, but The Keeper of Traken is the point at which Tom Baker’s final season builds to critical mass, and reaches the point of no return. Entropy, decay and death have all been crucial ingredients in the year’s collection of adventures, but The Keeper of Traken is the point at which it seems like our character has set himself on an incontrovertible course, a path from which he cannot diverge. Baker’s approaching departure gives The Keeper of Traken a great deal of weight, and helps balance a story that might otherwise seem excessive or overblown. There’s melodrama here, but it feels strangely appropriate.

Lawrence Miles has argued that Logopolis was the funeral for the Fourth Doctor. If so, The Keeper of Traken is his wake – and it’s fitting that Irish poet and writer Johnny Byrne should provide this strangely lively (if morbid) celebration.

Hell of a wake...

Hell of a wake…

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Doctor Who: The Android Invasion (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

The Android Invasion originally aired in 1975.

Is that finger loaded?

– the Doctor

We’re in the middle of one hell of a season here, aren’t we? Indeed, The Android Invasion is sandwiched between two stories that could legitimately vie for the title of “best Doctor Who story ever.” Perhaps that’s why it feels like such a let-down. The Android Invasion isn’t the worst Doctor Who story ever. Indeed, it isn’t the worst Tom Baker Doctor Who story ever, nor is it the worst Philip Hinchcliffe Doctor Who story ever. It is just sort of… there. It’s a very dull and mundane piece of television, one that feels all the more dull and mundane for the fact that it’s positioned in one of the strongest seasons that the show ever produced.

He needs a Doctor...

He needs a Doctor…

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Doctor Who: Planet of the Spiders (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

Planet of the Spiders originally aired in 1974.

Oh dear, this is getting monotonous.

– the Doctor sums it up

Jon Pertwee’s final season is a real shame. The actor was, at the time, the actor who had served the longest period of time in the lead role. Starring as the Doctor for five years, and appearing as the face of the show during an era of renewal and reinvention, the actor deserved a much strong swansong. The year had started relatively strong with The Time Warrior, which I would rank among the best stories of the Pertwee era. However, every story after that just felt like it was treading water, revisiting old triumphs while biding time until the finalé. We had a Dalek episode in Death to the Daleks. We had a Malcolm Hulke lizard story with Invasion of the Dinosaurs. We had an off-world social commentary story in The Monster of Peladon. All felt like the cast and crew were just worn out, just going through the motions.

Sadly, Planet of the Spiders continues this trend, rather than bucking it.

Kiss of the spider-queen...

Kiss of the spider-queen…

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Doctor Who: Invasion of the Dinosaurs (Review)

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the longest-running science-fiction show in the world, I’ll be taking weekly looks at some of my own personal favourite stories and arcs, from the old and new series, with a view to encapsulating the sublime, the clever and the fiendishly odd of the BBC’s Doctor Who.

Invasion of the Dinosaurs originally aired in 1974.

How are you feeling now?

Hungry, tired and I’ve got a headache.

– Mark asks Sarah Jane how her viewing went. I can empathise.

Ah, ambition. It’s hard to fault it… although there is a point where you simply have to. Invasion of the Dinosaurs crosses that line in the first episode. I know that Doctor Who is a BBC television serial. I understand that the classic series hardly had a huge amount of money to hand when it needed special effects. I am well aware that the special effects for the following season’s The Ark in Space amount to some bubblewrap and green paint. There is an art to watching many of these classic stories, and that art involves being wilfully blind to the fact that the special effects aren’t up to scratch. Beyond that, it’s arbitrary. There’ll always be one silly special effect that undermines an otherwise impressive episode – which special effect and which episode will vary from person to person.

However, Invasion of the Dinosaurs makes the special effects the whole point of the exercise. The title tells you that you should be watching the dinosaurs. Malcolm Hulke was given the brief to write a story about dinosaurs in contemporary London. There might be a plot underneath it all, but the serial expects that you are here for the dinosaurs. And, if you are…

I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.

A smashing time...

A smashing time…

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