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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 Trial of a Time Lord – The Ultimate Foe (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 Trial of a Time Lord originally aired in 1986.

In all my travellings throughout the universe I have battled against evil, against power-mad conspirators. I should have stayed here. The oldest civilisation, decadent, degenerate and rotten to the core. Ha! Power-mad conspirators, Daleks, Sontarans, Cybermen, they’re still in the nursery compared to us. Ten million years of absolute power, that’s what it takes to be really corrupt.

– the Doctor

There really are no excuses for the mess that The Trial of a Time Lord became. I mean, seriously. The producers had eighteen months to plan everything out. The task shouldn’t be that difficult. If you are going to fictionalise the persecution of Doctor Who by the BBC in the form of a trial, you really should have some idea what you plan to do or say at the end of it. If your fourteen episode season-long story arc is about defending a show that is coming close to cancellation, then perhaps it might be a good idea to be able to tell us why it shouldn’t be cancelled. The Trial of a Time Lord is a gigantic mess, and something that makes a stronger case in favour of Michael Grade’s attempts to cancel that show than it does against them.

The Ultimate Foe isn’t as soul-destroyingly horrible as Terror of the Vervoids, but that may be because Pip and Jane Baker only wrote half of it.

Only himself for company...

Only himself for company…

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Doctor Who: The Trial of a Time Lord – The Mysterious Planet (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 Trial of a Time Lord originally aired in 1986.

Well, this is a charade.

– the Doctor gets the idea quickly enough

The Doctor had been off screens for eighteen months following Revelation of the Daleks. Michael Grade was desperately trying to cancel the show, and it only limped back to screen with a significantly reduced budget and much shorter run of episodes. The show length was also reverted back to its default value. This season would only run for fourteen half-hour episodes – what would become the set length for Doctor Who in the years to come. (Indeed, counting the Christmas Special, the revived series also runs to that length, albeit in forty-five minute episodes.)

By all accounts, the production on the infamous Trial of a Time Lord was a disaster for reasons natural and otherwise. Veteran writer Robert Holmes was to provide the opening and closing scripts, but passed away before his work on the finalé could be finished. Script editor Eric Saward and producer John Nathan-Turner clashed over the climax of the trial, prompting Saward to resign and Nathan-Turner to temporarily become script editor himself. Colin Baker couldn’t make sense of Mindwarp. The last episode of the season was written by two writers wrapping up from Holmes’ first part, but unable to examine his notes on how he planned to conclude it.

Believe me when I state that every last ounce of this behind-the-scenes friction was visible on-screen by the end of the year. Luckily enough, the show does a decent enough job concealing these approaching problems in the first story of the arc. That’s not to say that The Mysterious Planet is an unsung classic, merely to point out that it is at least unburdened by the seemingly real time collapse of Doctor Who.

Ah, it's a fourteen-week adventure about watching Doctor Who!

Ah, it’s a fourteen-week adventure about watching Doctor Who!

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Doctor Who: The Visitation (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 Visitation originally aired in 1982.

It’s survival, Doctor. Just as these primitives kill lesser species to protect themselves, so I kill them.

That’s hardly an argument.

It’s not supposed to be an argument. It’s a statement!

– the Terileptil is in no mood for debate with the Doctor

As far as writing débuts go, The Visitation is not a bad first script. Writer Eric Saward had experience writing for radio, but The Visitation was his first live action script to be produced. It’s a pretty solid piece of Doctor Who, even if it’s not anything exceptional. Then again, Robert Holmes’ first script was the perfectly average The Krotons. So there’s room for improvement, and The Visitation is not a bad place to start from.

Of course, Holmes feels like the appropriate comparison here. Not only was Saward a massive fan of Robert Holmes, with the treatment of the ailing Holmes during The Trial of a Time Lord serving as one of the reasons for his departure from the show, but it also seems that The Visitation was very clear attempt to emulate Holmes’ approach to Doctor Who. In fact, it feels like an attempt to update Holmes’ Third Doctor story, The Time Warrior.

Death stalks the countryside...

Death stalks the countryside…

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Doctor Who: The Power of Kroll (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 Power of Kroll originally aired in 1978 and 1979. It was the fifth part of The Key to Time saga.

What? Well, you’d better introduce me.

As what?

Oh, I don’t know. As a wise and wonderful person who wants to help. Don’t exaggerate.

– the Doctor and Romana meet the locals

The Power of Kroll is a strange little serial, apparently the result of Robert Holmes being told to create the largest monster even on Doctor Who. Holmes wasn’t necessarily convinced that this was the best idea (and one can sense that from the story), but the adventure isn’t quite the mess that most people would have you believe. At the very least, it serves as a dry run (see what I did there) for the much stronger Caves of Androzani, but it also has an interesting idea or three along the way.

The power of CSO, more like...

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Doctor Who: The Ribos Operation (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 Ribos Operation originally aired in 1978. It was the first part of The Key to Time saga.

Your name!

What about my name?

It’s too long… by the time I’ve called out “Look out Romanadv…” – what’s your name again?

Romanadvoratrelundar!

By the time I’ve called that out you could be dead! I’ll call you Romana.

I don’t like Romana!

It’s either Romana or Fred!

All right, call me Fred!

Good! Come along Romana!

The Key to Time was a rather ambitious project for the time – the idea being that an entire series of the show would centre around one core arc, suggested in the first story, developed through the rest of the season, and tied up at the end of the year. It helps, when you’re doing something like that, to have an experienced hand at the reins. While The Ribos Operation doesn’t stand as Robert Holmes’ finest contribution to the series, it’s a suitable introduction to the adventure.

Time Lord and Lady...

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Doctor Who: Pyramids of Mars (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.

Pyramids of Mars originally aired in 1975.

Yes, that’s resonating tuner. Part of an anti-gravity drive. Oh! They must be building a rocket.

Egyptian mummies building rockets? That’s crazy.

– the Doctor and Sarah Jane demonstrate how arbitrary “crazy” is on this show

Pyramids of Mars is a classic slice of Doctor Who. It’s a piece of television that I dearly love, even if it is quite clear watching it that Robert Holmes was re-writing it by the seat of his pants. It’s got all the right ingredients for the Philip Hinchcliffe era of the show. Tom Baker is on phenomenal form. Sarah Jane has full adapted to being the only companion again. There’s one of those nice period settings that the BBC does so well. There’s an ancient evil arising to destroy the planet, and maybe the universe. Said evil is deliciously hammy, yet somehow quite intimidating.

Pyramids of Mars is the perfect storm, a carefully mixed cocktail of Doctor Who in the Hinchcliffe era. Given that the Hinchcliffe era is generally regarded as one of the best periods in the show’s history, that should give an idea of just how impressive it is.

Because "Sutekh the Benign" doesn't sound quite so threatening...

Because “Sutekh the Benign” doesn’t sound quite so threatening…

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