Very Brief Doctor Who Reviews – Season Sixteen

The Ribos Operation – For a long time, I considered this to be my favourite story of all time; it was slightly out of a desire to have an unusual answer, and I’d probably go for the more conventional favourite The Empty Child nowadays, but this is still an absolute corker of an episode.  This is one of the very earliest classic series stories I saw, and I was blown away by just how much I enjoyed it. Robert Holmes’s dialogue for Garroffe spinning his con is just gorgeous and the front he puts on is so charming – I could listen to him all day. Mary Tamm was an astoundingly beautiful woman, and her Romana is super cool in how generally unimpressed she is with the Doctor – at least at first. Tom Baker is at the top of his game – I like when the Doctor is funny; like when the Graff glove slaps him, so the Doctor grabs the glove and glove-slaps the Graff back; or how his reaction to being locked up is to sit back and enjoy himself while feeding Garron’s ego. It’s almost not worth saying how beautiful the “Brinro was right” scene is, but I’m going to anyway; if I were a time traveller, that is what I’d do – use my knowledge of the future to give people hope, laws of time be damned. The costumes are great, and even the sets look pretty good for being entirely studio bound; I’ll never understand why this story doesn’t get more attention – it’s just perfect. 10/10

The Pirate Planet – I have a confession to make: I don’t like Douglas Adams as much as I wish I did. I think my problem with him is this: the absurdism overshadows the characters. Take the mentiads: a hive mind of telekinetic psychics who never show any emotion. On paper, and bolstered by some Adamsian prose, that could probably be an amusing premise; but bereft of that, all we’re left with are a bunch of actors in robes failing to emote. It doesn’t help matters that this is one of the cheapest looking episodes. It’s as if they realised they could never hope to realise Adams mad ideas, and so gave up without even trying. The film inserts don’t match the model shots at all; the mining shaft is clear a 20th Century earth mining shaft; and the original spanner effect is so awful that they don’t even have it as an option on the DVD. More positively, there’s something very satisfying about the way the Nurse appears as a background character in Part Two, and steadily moves to the foreground until its revealed that she is the real big bad of the piece (a pity the actress can’t act). Also, K9 gets to be a hero and kill the evil shooty parrot thing, and I will always support K9 getting a bigger slice of the action. And the final twist that the planet Calufrax is the segment and its unusual anatomical structure was making everything go wibbly is such a clever way of using the season’s unique arc. I like it enough; I just wish I liked it more. 6/10

(P.S. Did anyone else catch that the Captain’s bluster really was an act? It took me seven viewings to catch that development.)

The Stones of Blood – Romana and the Professor, the Professor and the Doctor, the Doctor and K9, K9 and the Professor; any way you slice it, the pairings of these characters produce beautiful, funny, and heart-warming scenes. The big reveal about Vivian Faye is both brilliant and botched: the Doctor’s line that she isn’t related to the Montcalm family; she is the montcalm family gives me goosebumps; but then the fact that she’s the villain is signposted from the beginning with her archly smug performance, and the fact that she appears next to Romana dressed in her Callieach costume! Don’t the interior sets of de Vries’s mansion look fantastic; it’s hard to believe they are sets, and not a real home. On the other hand, I wonder how David Fisher imagined the Ogri; did he imagine something more anthropomorphic like the Rockbiter from Neverending Story, or did he really envisage growling pillars on wheels, which is what we get. Like the arrival of the pseudo-historical, it must have come as a surprise that what looked like it would be a gothic horror in the tradition that viewers had become accustomed to, suddenly ends up on a spaceship in hyperspace. It’s quite like The Girl in the Fireplace, in that regard. I won’t so that the story totally loses it once it goes into hyperspace, but the latter two episodes are definitely the weaker half. The megara walk (or hover) the thin line between being funny or annoying, and on which side they fall probably depends on your mood. And then to cap it all off, we get two solutions to the problem – the Doctor’s and Romana’s. although I personally prefer The Ribos Operation, it’s not hard to see why this often comes out highest of the season in polls. 8/10

The Androids of Tara – So it’s a blatant rip-off of The Prisoner of Zenda, which I would normally be very annoyed about if it weren’t for the fact that I’ve never heard of The Prisoner of Zenda in any context other than the fact that this rips it off. And the fact that it’s just so much fun. The design of the costumes and sets are beautiful, and even if some fans are annoyed by the illogic of a medieval society with laser guns and androids, I still find the juxtaposition interesting. Maybe it’s a cheat that the issue of finding the segment is got out of the way in the first five minutes, but it was worth doing at least once, and it does give Romana a reason to get involved with the count, plus it shows just how much cooler she is than the Doctor. However, I think the moment where Romana is carried off on the back of Count Grendel’s horse, lamely crying ‘help me’ is the moment the character officially went from unique, resourceful, leading lady to generic damsel. You can pretty much hear Mary Tamm thinking ‘I won’t be renewing my contract.’ The moment when the android prince turns from a real actor into an obvious mannequin just in time for a spear to lodge in his chest is my absolute favourite special effects fail on the show. And this from the same story that gave us the Taran Wood Beast. Yes it’s mostly fluff, but it’s very nice looking fluff. 8/10

The Power of Kroll – ‘Biggest Monster Ever’. That was the brief for this episode. The show that last season couldn’t portray corridors convincingly is going to attempt to give us the biggest monster ever. To be fair though, Kroll ain’t that bad. There are occasions when the line between the film and the model is obvious, but overall it’s pretty good for its time. The worse effect is the exterior shots the Methane refinery, which never doesn’t look like a model in a tub of water. What I don’t understand is: why they didn’t give the ‘biggest monster ever’ brief to Bob Baker and Dave Martin, who probably would have had a great time with it, and the big-epic-concluding-the-story-arc-season-finale slot to Robert Holmes. Holmes just isn’t suited to this type of story. I said back in The Time Warrior review that Holmes doesn’t write monsters, he writes villains. The villains in this story aren’t bad – Thawn’s scheme is suitably despicable: giving weapons to the Swampies so they’ll attack, giving him reason to wipe them out, and blame the whole things on Sons of Earth, just so he can keep the big bucks rolling in from his methane refinery. But the whole things gets buried under the weight of Kroll turning up a few times every episode to kill off an extra. The rest of the refinery staff are severly lacking in the personality department: Philip Madoc’s palpable irritation at having agreed to the wrong role is the only thing that makes his character (whatever his name was) memorable, and the only reason I care about (the very wet) Dugeen is that he’s played by voice-of-K9, John Leeson. Added to this, the Swampies are the most thoughtless ‘mindless savages’ stereotypes possible. It’s got its strength, and its weaknesses; in the end it all adds up to a very average: 5/10

The Armageddon Factor – What a disappointing end to a pretty consistently strong season. I find it very unsatisfying that after all that, the Doctor just disperses the key. I suppose there was never really anything else they could have done with it, but it’s still such an anticlimax. Graham Williams though the Doctor ought to have a reason for his travelling, hence the quest for the Key to Time this season, and the randomiser next season; but I’ve always thought ‘because it’s fun’ is a good enough excuse – why does anyone travel? Speaking of Graham Williams, he’s made the same mistake he did last season, which is not writing a departure scene for the companion in the hope that he could persuade the actress to stay; resulting in two excellent characters getting a hastily written out-of-character exit, or no farewell at all. On the other hand, seasons 15 and 16 do get very good hooks into the next series, so go figure. I’m glad Lalla Ward got the chance to come back and play a regular, because she doesn’t get much of a chance to show off her acting chops here. The Marshall is quite a good human villain, but the shadow a disappointing stand-in villain for the black guardian. I get a chortle out of the scene where the Doctor asks Merak why he wants to know where Astra is, to which Merak replies “I love her,” and the Doctor and Romana just go ‘Oh,’ as if the thought had never occurred to them. On the other hand, the moment where Shap pulls a stupid face, gets shot, and does a comedy pratfall, legs akimbo, into the transmat is so bad it has to be seen to be believed. Like all Baker and Martin scripts it’s fall of inventive ideas – K9 defecting, the time loop business – but doesn’t necessarily have the elegance to quite stick the landing. 5/10

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