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Doctor Who: The Twin Dilemma (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 Twin Dilemma originally aired in 1984.

Whatever else happens, I am the Doctor, whether you like it or not. 

– the perfect sentiment on which to enter a nine-month gap

Some mistakes only seem obvious in hindsight. Some errors are easy to judge with the weight of experience and history behind you. Some calls are easy to dismiss and ridicule retroactively, completely divorced from the context in which they were made.

Of course, some mistakes should have been blindingly obvious when they were made in the first place.

Go on, guess which one The Twin Dilemma was.

Hardly a moment of triumph...

Hardly a moment of triumph…

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Doctor Who: The Sun Makers (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 Sun Makers originally aired in 1977.

Why did you come here, then?

Because my new little chum here seemed unhappy about something.

Mandrell discovers all he needs to know about the Doctor

The Sun Makers was reportedly written as a result of a disagreement between writer Robert Holmes and the British Revenue and Customs. That’s the oft-cited background to the story, so well known that it’s even included on the notes included in the DVD release. With that summary, you’d expect The Sun Makers to be a condemnation of the tax system, and a protest at the government’s funnelling off of money from the individual to pay like pesky things like roads or schools or hospitals.

Instead, Holmes has crafted The Sun Makers as something altogether more compelling and instructive. Rather pointedly, while The Sun Maker is a story about excessive taxation, the episode casts a large interstellar corporation as the villain of the piece. The episode’s primary antagonist isn’t a state official, it’s a single-minded number-crunching accountant who operates a large corporation that has managed to turn light itself into a financial commodity. This isn’t the story about individuals fighting for the right not to pay tax, it’s people fighting for decent working and living conditions.

Indeed, it’s quite easy to read The Sun Makers as a rather socialist piece of Doctor Who, ending with the massive organisation of the working class to resist their greedy capitalist overlords. That’s quite a radical shift from the story you’d expect given the background. In that respect, it seems almost like a call-forward to the pointed subversive social commentary of the Cartmel and even Davies eras.

I see the future...

I see the future…

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Doctor Who: The Five Doctors (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 Five Doctors originally aired in 1983.

There was one chap we tried to get hold of. What was his name? Used to be your scientific advisor.

Oh, the Doctor.

Yes that’s right.

Wonderful chap. All of them.

– Crichton and the Brigadier get into the spirit of things

The Five Doctors is a big anniversary celebration for the franchise, reuniting all five… er, four… er, three of the actors to play the lead role and one guy in a dodgy wig. Written by Terrance Dicks, The Five Doctors is 100 minutes of pure celebration, without too much in the way of depth or drama or development. It’s a beautifully packaged “greatest hits” collection for the franchise, to the point where the generally nostalgic atmosphere of the rest of the twentieth season (pairing up the Doctor with foes from his twenty-year history) can’t help but feel a little a little shallow in comparison.

Producer John Nathan Turner and script editor Eric Saward tended to fixate a bit too heavily on the show’s history and its continuity, with stories often becoming oppressively burdened with in-jokes and references to events that took place decades ago. In contrast, Dicks is able to craft a healthy slice of nostalgia that remains accessible and enjoyable, giving everybody their moment in the sun.

Well, everybody but the Cybermen.

Terrance Dicks does not care for the Cybermen...

Terrance Dicks does not care for the Cybermen…

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Doctor Who: Vengeance on Varos (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.

Vengeance on Varos originally aired in 1985.

It’s a question of re-imprinting their identities, of establishing again who they are.

– Colin Baker spots the problems with the Colin Baker era

Vengeance on Varos is a serious contender for the best Colin Baker Doctor Who story. Not that there’s too much competition. It’s either this or Revelation of the Daleks. I’m also reasonably fond of The Two Doctors, but I’ll accept that I’m in the minority on that one. Colin Baker’s first season is an absolute mess. It has a scattering of half-decent ideas (paired with some atrocious ones, to be fair) executed in a rather slapdash manner.

The season is obsessed with violence and politics and power and the Doctor’s strange ability to accrue large body counts while nominally remaining a pacifist. Like the last year of Peter Davison’s tenure, there’s a sense that the show doesn’t really like its protagonist. Attack of the Cybermen seems willing to trade him for a murderous sociopath. Still, there’s the nugget of an interesting idea there; it’s telling that the revived series would explore some of these ideas in a more insightful and intelligent manner.

However, Vengeance on Varos and Revelation of the Daleks stand apart from the rest of the season because they explore these issues with nuance and sophistication. Vengeance on Varos is wicked social satire that still stings today, an indictment of reality television that was broadcast almost two decades before the format took over television.

It's okay, the audience seems to actually like this one...

It’s okay, the audience seems to actually like this one…

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Doctor Who: Timelash (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 (and not-so-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.

Timelash originally aired in 1985.

I don’t trust you. You’re being too reasonable.

– Peri’s on to him

Timelash is on the short list of serials broadly agreed to be “the worst Doctor Who stories ever.” Given how prone science-fiction fans are to bickering about absolutely everything, and how impossible it is to find consensus, that’s really saying something. More than that, it ranks with quite a few Colin Baker stories among that list. I can’t help but wonder if part of the problem with Baker’s tenure isn’t a lack of classic episodes (Revelation of the Daleks and Vengeance on Varos surely count), but the batting average skewed by so many truly terrible stories.

Any season containing Timelash would be ridiculed, but it’s hard to imagine that any year of television containing Attack of the Cybermen, Timelash and The Mark of the Rani couldn’t help but raise questions about the show’s future at the BBC.

The face of evil...

The face of evil…

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Doctor Who: Planet of Fire – Special Edition (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 Fire originally aired in 1984.

I don’t know where the girl is. I don’t have the comparator!

Commence the burning!

No! You must believe me!

Oh, but I do believe you. Commence the burnings!

Stop this!

You are quite powerless. Continue the sacrifices. See that this Doctor burns slowly.

– The Doctor and the Master continue the theme for the year

Planet of Fire is a strange little episode, positioned as it is directly before The Caves of Androzani. Writer Peter Grimwade was effectively assigned a set of list of story points to get through (write Kamelion and Turlough out, kill the Master, write Peri in) and manages to hit just about all of them successfully. It’s a wonder that the serial isn’t a gigantic mess, especially given that it comes from the writer of Time-Flight. On the other hand, though the serial starts off in a rather interesting manner, it ends as a disappointingly conventional adventure, calling to mind Frontios from earlier in the season.

Davison's not waisted here...

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Doctor Who: Enlightenment – Special Edition (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.

Enlightenment originally aired in 1983. It was the third and final instalment in the Black Guardian Trilogy.

Enlightenment is easily among the very best adventures to feature Peter Davison in the role of the Doctor. It helps that it has a story that seems to perfectly suit his version of the character, one that’s arguably more cerebral and fanciful than it is dark and horrific or adventurous and action-packed. Enlightenment features one of the most quintessentially British storylines in Doctor Who, capturing the quirky appeal of the series almost perfectly, with a boat race in space… with pirates! It’s fun, it’s clever and the special effects aren’t ground-breaking, but they’re stylish enough to pull it off.

No matter how you cut it, Enlightenment is a win.

Sailing into the sunset...

Sailing into the sunset…

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