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“I Deny This Reality”: On the Broken Reality of Philip Hinchcliffe and Robert Holmes’ “Doctor Who”….

The fourteenth season of the classic Doctor Who was recently released on blu ray. In an unprecedented movie, there is a reissue of the blu ray box set coming in July. With the twelfth and fourteenth seasons available on blu ray, the bulk of the era overseen by producer Philip Hinchcliffe has been packaged on the latest home media format. As such, I thought it might be worth taking a moment to reflect on the era, and its subtext – which is eerily resonant on contemporary rewatch.

For an entire generation, Tom Baker will always be the star of Doctor Who. There is a reason, after all, why Baker was the only previous lead actor to get a major role in The Day of the Doctor, as opposed to being shunted off into specials or shorts or other supplemental material. There’s a number of reasons for this. Part of it is simple math, with Baker spending more time in the role than any other actors. Part of it is simply that Baker’s performance is iconic. Part of it is that Baker was the actor who tended to be featured on airings of the show on PBS in the United States.

However, there’s also the simple fact that Tom Baker had a pretty good run – at least at first. While there are certainly defenders of Baker’s final four seasons in the role, Baker’s first three years headlining Doctor Who count among the most consistently satisfying periods in the history of the show. From his admittedly rough around the edges introduction in Robot to his third season finale in The Talons of Weng-Chiang, there is a remarkable consistency to Doctor Who. Arguably it is the longest such period of consistency until Peter Capaldi was cast nearly four decades later.

These three seasons were overseen by producer Philip Hinchcliffe and script editor Robert Holmes. Hinchcliffe and Holmes were lucky to be inheriting the show from a successful pairing of producer Barry Letts and script editor Terrance Dicks, which gave them a solid springboard from which they might launch themselves. Hinchcliffe and Holmes immediately veered the show towards horror, with stories like The Ark in Space or The Sontaran Experiment. It was a radical departure from the action adventure that defined the previous era, but was just what the show needed.

Hinchcliffe and Holmes codified a certain aesthetic of Doctor Who. Indeed, within the revival, there’s about a fifty-fifty chance that any historical episode is going to play like an homage to their work, with examples like The Unquiet Dead or Tooth and Claw coming to mind. This was the era that attracted the ire of Mary Whitehouse, who famously described it as “teatime brutality for tots.” It codified the idea of watching Doctor Who from “behind the sofa.” When writer Peter Harness was commissioned to write Kill the Moon, he was directed to “Hinchcliffe the sh!t” out of the first half.

Rewatching these stories today, it’s interesting how much they resonate and how much the horror at their core still works. This era of Doctor Who has its fair share of iconic monsters like the Wirrn from The Ark in Space, but a lot of the horror is abstract. The Hinchcliffe era is firmly anchored in classic horror stories, with Pyramids of Mars and Brain of Morbius most overtly evoking Hammer Horror and stories like Planet of Evil drawing from stories like The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde, but its horror is more existential than that.

The Hinchcliffe era is preoccupied with the notion of long-dormant threats resurfacing and threatening the established order of the universe, long-vanquished foes reviving themselves and causing existential crises. More than that, these three seasons are particularly preoccupied with the anxiety about a fracturing and warping reality, in a way that feels strangely prescient and probably resonates even more strongly these days than it did on original broadcast.

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Doctor Who: The Sound of Drums (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 Sound of Drums originally aired in 2007.

Doctor.

Master.

I like it when you use my name.

You chose it. Psychiatrist’s field day.

As you chose yours. The man who makes people better. How sanctimonious is that?

– the Doctor and the Master

The Sound of Drums is really more interesting than it is successful. Building off Utopia as the second part of a three-part finalé, building the longest single story in the revived Doctor Who, The Sound of Drums does an excellent job moving the characters along and getting everything where it needs to be for the requisite cliffhanger. Unfortunately, Davies’ weaknesses when it comes to plotting are at play here. While Utopia took advantage of a leisurely pace and conventional plot in order to do some nice set-up, The Sound of Drums doesn’t have that luxury. Utopia came out of left-field, with the last ten minutes taking the audience by surprise. Now the audience knows the game is afoot, so the rules have changed.

The Sound of Drums kicks off with everything in full swing, and Davies has to ratchet up the tension from there. The result is that Davies does solid character work, but that the plot points and set-ups occasionally feel a bit forced. That’s especially true when it comes to the ideas that will be important to the resolution of The Last of the Time Lords.

The End of the World... oh, wait, we already did that one...

The End of the World… oh, wait, we already did that one…

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Doctor Who: The Talons of Weng-Chiang (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 Talons of Weng-Chiang originally aired in 1977.

Ah! Eureka! Do you know what that is?

You ask me so that you can tell me.

That’s right. It’s a trionic lattice, an integral part of a time cabinet. It’s impossible to open it without it.

You mean it’s a key.

Yes. He’s not only a scientific fool, he’s an absent-minded one.

Perhaps he has another eureka.

No, eureka’s Greek for “this bath is too hot.”

– the Doctor and Leela

The Talons of Weng-Chiang is generally agreed to be one of the (if not the) greatest Doctor Who adventures ever produced. It tends to hover around the top of various official polls, with only Caves of Androzani and City of Death coming close to it in public opinion. As such, I feel a little bit guilty when I confess that it doesn’t rank as one of my absolute favourite adventures. I like it a great deal, I think it embodies a great deal of what works about the Philip Hinchcliffe era of the show. However, if I’m looking for a dark pseudo-historical adventure, I am more likely to pick either The Pyramids of Mars or The Horror of Fang Rock.

I can see why a lot of people respond to The Talons of Weng-Chiang, and it has a lot to recommend it, but there are a number of minor problems that hold the serial back from the cusp of perfection, in my opinion.

Read it at your (Yellow) Peril...

Read it at your (Yellow) Peril…

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