The Masque of Mandragora – I spent many years remembering this story as a fairly standard adventure among several more interesting stories. But then the last time I watched it, something strange happened. I found it was actually rather good. By the time the first cliff-hanger rolled around, I was really involved (and this was about my fourth time watching). It’s almost not worth stating at this point, but the BBC are really good at period pieces, and this episode looks beautiful; really convincing renaissance Italy. It also helps that they filmed at Portmeirion, which is a place I just want to run around and play make-believe in. Are Guiliano and Marco the first gay couple in Doctor Who. Or am I just reading too much into Marco’s willingness to be tied up and all sweaty for the sake of his prince… Anyway, they make a cute couple; I’m sure there’s fanart of them somewhere. Oh Sarah, how are you always coincidentally dressed in the perfect attire for whatever era you happen to land in? Speaking of, I don’t think Elisabeth Sladen ever looked more beautiful than she does in the story. And Heironymous’s beard is epic (though the greatest beard in Doctor Who history still goes to Zargo from State of Decay). It’s not a classic by any stretch of the imagination, but can be great fun if you’re willing to get swept up in the adventure. 7/10
The Hand of Fear – Sarah is so creepy and childlike possessed; it helps that she’s decided to dress like a four-year-old today. Incidentally: SARAH WHAT ARE YOU WEARING YOU USED TO BE A SERIOUS INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALIST WHAT HAPPENED? Sorry, I try not to dwell on the shallow side of things, but it is the strangest outfit choice this side of Nyssa’s ‘deck-chair’ look in Snakedance. I still haven’t entirely forgiven the Doctor for coldly allowing that nice Dr Carter to fall to his death. This would never happen on David Tennant’s watch. It’s a pity all the balletic subtlety of Judith Paris’s performance is replaced at the last minute by Stephen Thorne playing… Stephen Thorne. I find this story just basically competent, but it must have some impact, as even after forty years, my Aunt, who I don’t think has watched any Doctor Who since the 70s, still remembers ‘Eldrad must live.’ 6/10
The Deadly Assassin – I’m surprised that Hinchcliffe and Holmes decided to bring back the Master, seeing as at this point he was exclusively a product of the Pertwee era, and all the other UNIT characters had been phased out. Plus, he might as well be a totally different character, seeing as Peter Pratt seething in a garbage bag and ping pong balls bears no resemblance to the affably evil Roger Delgado character. Now that we know Time Lords can change the sex and race of their bodies, I think we finally have an explanation for why everyone in this story was an old white man – being an old white man was fashionable at the time (don’t worry Gallifrey, we have something similar). The scariest moment comes in Part 3 when, lost in the nightmarish reality of the matrix, we see… the Doctor’s bare arms! We hardly ever see the Doctor’s arms exposed and it feels wrong somehow. Miscellaneous thoughts: The scrolling text at the beginning of Part 1 reminds me so much of Star Wars, that I’m surprised that this came first; I never fail to laugh at the chalk outline of the deceased president complete with wacky collar; the Panopticon set receives a lot of praise, but all I can think of is a mint aero chocolate bar (if you’ve ever eaten a mint aero, you’ll know what I mean). This story is fine, but I just find it doesn’t quite live up to all the hype. 6/10
The Face of Evil – What a criminally underrated story this is. I think the jungle sets are everybit as good as the one that get raved about in Planet of Evil; it has a similar aesthetic too, with trees and vines made out of bits of pipes. The first episode ends on a phenomenal cliff-hanger, which must comes as a shock to anyone who doesn’t know it’s coming. The plot overall is pretty intriguing and almost unique, doing the ‘Doctor returns to find his intervention has only made things worse’ decades before Bad Wolf. And of course this is the story that introduces Louise Jameson as Leela, who I think is the strongest actor to ever play a companion. The story does suffer slightly when it moves from the Sevateem to the Tesh, mostly because the Tesh are so robotic it’s hard to not glaze over whenever they’re on screen. Also, I never totally understood how Xoannon was the Sevateem’s god, but they recognised the Doctor as the Evil One, who was apparently Xoannon’s enemy. I guess it’s all to do with the split personality theme. And while there are episodes that fail the Bechdel test much harder than this one does (there is at least one female unspeakng extra in addition to the companion) seeing as we’re supposedly being presented with two races, the fact that they are almost exclusively male does stick out. Not without its faults, but pretty enjoyable nonetheless. 7/10
The Robots of Death – I have to admit I’m not especially enamoured with the crews’ costumes – giant hats and flowing robes seem a trifle impractical for a mining ship – but I like the art deco look of the crews’ quarters on the ships and the design of the robots themselves. D84 is very sweet; part of me wishes that he survived the episode and became a companion, but then I suppose we wouldn’t have had the sassy brilliance of K9. I love Poul as well (mostly thanks to David Collings’s charming performance) and it breaks my heart when he breaks his mind. I hope he recovered after the story’s close. I’ve not even mentioned Pamela Salem who plays a highly competent and likable character in Toos. I love the Doctor’s explanation for how the TARDIS is bigger on the inside – it’s scientifically nonsense, of course, but it has a kind of childlike logic to it. It’s often repeated by the story’s detractors that it’s a whodunit where the identity of the killer is revealed in the title – but that’s not the point. The Doctor identifies the robots as the killers from the beginning; the mystery is who is reprogramming them, and this mystery is handled well. What can I say, I find mystery solving shows strangely comforting (Jonathan Creek, the early episodes of Sherlock) and a Doctor Who murder mystery with a great cast of supporting characters ticks all the boxes for me. 9/10
The Talons of Weng-Chiang – Oh I’ve been dreading this one. The design is beautiful. The acting is phenomenal. The dialogue has the perfect balance of wit and drama. The description of ‘pale eyes’ is so unusual, I try to use it in every short story I write. The whole serial is just dripping with atmosphere. And the villain is played by a white man in yellow face. *Bangs head on desk*. And unlike The Tomb of the Cybermen, I do think the production team at the time should have known better. I’m white, but I try to imagine if I were of Chinese heritage, would be offended by this, like how as a female I’m offended by The Prison in Space, and I think I would be. And while the story doesn’t explicitly state that all Chinese people are evil – and even manages an ironic jab at the way that white people think all Chinese look alike – it does imply it by the fact that the only Chinese people we see are criminals. I think they could have helped their case a lot had they had a sympathetic Chinese character. Maybe Professor Litefoot could have had a Chinese assistant who helped them with the investigation. And you know, cast an actual Chinese actor. Pretty much impossible to mark, so I’m giving it two – 9/10 for production values and story, 2/10 for failing to not include problematic portrayals of race.