Friday, 20 April 2012

54: Inferno - A Countdown To Destruction

Written by: Don Houghton.
Companions: The Doctor, Liz Shaw, The Brigadier, Sergeant Benton.
Monsters/Villains: Primords.
Brief Synopsis: An experimental project drilling through the earth's crust - here and on a parallel world - goes terribly wrong.
Rating: 10/10.

I love Inferno and I thoroughly enjoyed rewatching it. This story has excellent intensity and pacing, a terrific cast, some memorable monsters and it marks the first story to ever use a parallel universe in Doctor Who. When the story was originally submitted by Don Houghton it was based solely around the real life drilling operation to penetrate the earth's crust: Project Mohole. Information on this project and why it was abandoned was never disclosed as it was top secret. It was this secrecy that Houghton developed as an inspiration for his story originally titled The Mo-Hole Project. Producer Barry Letts was concerned that the story was not enough to fill a seven-parter so Terrance Dicks suggest using a parallel universe motif. Houghton happily agreed, the story was eventually renamed Inferno and the rest, as they say, is history.

The last appearance of the original TARDIS console
used since the very first story in 1963.
The cast assembled is first rate. Christopher Benjamin makes his first appearance in Doctor Who as Sir Keith Gold (He later goes on to appear as Henry Gordon Jago in The Talons of Weng-Chiang and in the new series in The Unicorn and the Wasp). The role of Petra was given to Sheila Dunn (Who director Douglas Camfield's wife) after Kate O'Mara was not available to play the part. O'Mara would, years later, be cast as the Rani, a renegade Time Lord. The excellent Olaf Pooley played Stahlman and Derek Newark was cast as Greg Sutton who originally played Za in An Unearthly Child, the very first televised Doctor Who story. Pertwee also gives a fantastic performance.

Christopher Benjamin.
Olaf Pooley.

Derek Newark.
The Doctor is on the scene to act as an advisor on the project to penetrate the earth's crust and also to use the bases nuclear power generator for his experiments with fixing the TARDIS. During one of these jaunts the power is cut, drifting the Doctor, the TARDIS console and his car Bessie side-ways in time in to an alternate reality. Like Doctor Who And The Silurians the project, lead by Professor Stahlman, is dedicated to unearthing a new source of energy. This must clearly have been a contentious issue in the early seventies to have two stories in one season centred around it.

The first use of the Doctor's Venusian Aikido. Too violent? I don't think so.
The pacing is excellent as the narrative flips back and forward between the two realities (albeit with a rather unfortunate tin foil disco ball wipe-cut). The constant sound of the drill throughout adds to the drama making everyone have to almost shout to be heard. The whole story is a ticking countdown to  destruction and also boasts some of the best cliffhangers in the show's history; especially episode 6.

The episode 6 cliffhanger, arguably the best ever. 
The monsters are okay. Not the best, and possibly the only part of this story that doesn't stand up. The Primords start out Zombie-like and fairly subtle but unfortunately end up wolf-like or in Benton's case looking like the Cowardly lion from the Wizard of Oz. I feel like the one thing that could improve this story is removing the Primords entirely. The story is strong enough on it's own and it's a shame the production team felt it required a monster-of-the-week.

Benton just wants some courage.
As I have said before Doctor Who as at it's best when turning familiar things in our everyday life sinister. Inferno succeeds in this with it's alternate reality twist. We get to see characters we have loved turned completely on their heads.

The RSF logo.
UNIT is replaced by the RSF (Republic Security Forces). In this alternate reality there isn't a constitutional monarchy in the UK but a Republic, the Brigade leader even states that the Royal Family were executed. We see kindly Sergeant or should I say Platoon Under Leader Benton firing at the Doctor, Section Leader Liz Shaw reporting on him, and most of all an eye-patch wearing, moustache-less Brigade Leader threaten and even try to kill the Time Lord. If that ain't scary I don't know what is.

Section Leader Liz Shaw and the Brigade Leader.
There is a strong undercurrent of Women's Liberation throughout Inferno. Sutton refers to Petra in a very derogatory way, asking if he might be able to "borrow her" to "dash off a few letters." She scolds him and reaffirms the importance of her position. In the alternate reality the tables are somewhat turned, and at least in Sutton's terms she is the powerful one and a Doctor. She is also the one who restores the power enabling the Doctor to return to his own reality. It is great to see a female character given such a vital plot point especially in the 1970's; without her the whole world would have been destroyed in both realities.

Sheila Dunn as Petra Williams.
After one of the tensest stories ever the disaster is averted with only 35 seconds to go. The shaft is to be filled in and the project is officially abandoned. Tired of trying to help the earth and having no one listen, the Doctor decides to leave in his, now fully functioning TARDIS. He says goodbye to Liz, calls the Brigadier a "pompous self-opinionated idiot" and thusly vanishes. Unfortunately the TARDIS isn't working properly and the Doctor reappears in a nearby rubbish tip. It's a comical end to an intense story but a poignant one. The Doctor and the Brigadier have learned from each other throughout this season. The Doctor hates to admit it but he needs the Brigadier and the Brigadier certainly needs him. The last shot of this story and this season is of Liz laughing and of course this would be Caroline John's last story. Although at first I was never that fond of her as a character, Liz Shaw as certainly proven herself in this story and I feel like she is leaving when she was just getting good.  She never got a leaving story which seems unfair, but she certainly went out on a bang with Inferno.

Goodbye Liz, I feel like we hardly knew you...
This is the end of season seven. The season in which we were first introduced to the Autons, the Silurians, some alien ambassadors and of course the Primords. We gained a companion and UNIT and the Brigadier and, of course, the novelty of colour. All the episodes from here on are extant so no more mourning the missing. My favourite story for this season has to be Doctor Who And The Silurians. I don't have a least favourite. Out of a possible 40 I scored season seven 34/40. Giving it the high average of 85/100, the best I've given a season so far. So this one is technically my favourite, so far. It was a short but perfectly formed season and it will certainly be hard to beat a score like that.

Join me next time for a new season, a new companion, the introduction of a very important character and the return of a certain plastic-based foe in Terror Of The Autons.

Friday, 6 April 2012

53: The Ambassadors Of Death - A Bumpy Take-Off & A Flat Landing

Written by: David Whitaker.
Companions: The Doctor, Liz Shaw, The Brigadier, Sergent Benton.
Monsters/Villains: Astronaut aliens, General Carrington, Reegan.
Brief Synopsis: The Doctor discovers that the astronauts on a Mars probe have been replaced by Aliens.
Rating: 6/10.

Hello, sorry I've been AWOL of late, I've been working a lot of overtime and auditioning a bit too, but I am back with my full report on The Ambassadors Of Death. This one took me a while to watch...

And oh no, it's mad old David Whitaker back at the typewriter, or at least that's how it started. In 1968 the originally titled 'Invaders From Mars' was written by Whitaker for Patrick Troughton's Doctor. In 1969 the script was reworked for Jon Pertwee and renamed 'The Carriers Of Death.' The scripts were handed to Terrance Dick's assistant Trevor Ray who reworked episode one. After going through three different producers, Peter Bryant, Derrick Sherwin and finally Barry Letts, Whitaker was unavailable and or uninterested in reworking his scripts further so episodes two and three were rewritten by Terrance Dicks and Malcolm Hulke, and Four-Seven by Hulke alone. This complicated process sadly reflects on the finish product.

Ambassadors of Death is one of few Doctor Who stories still only available on VHS, and due to the great BBC wiping, the story no longer exists fully in colour, meaning that through the VHS presentation we are constantly flicking back and forth from colour to black and white. A DVD was scheduled for release in 2011, but was postponed due to ongoing restoration issues. All issues were finally resolved in November 2011 and the DVD should see release late 2012/early 2013.

Look at what restoration can do.
The story clearly draws very heavily on the 1953 tv serial The Quatermass Experiment, where an astronaut returning to earth is  replaced by an alien life form.

The Quatermass Experiment (1953)
After the landing of Apollo 11 on the moon in 1969, this story jumped ahead to man landing on Mars (something now considered impossible). The day that episode 4 was being screened on BBC 1 on Saturday 11th April, was also the day that the ill-fated Apollo 13 moon-landing mission launched in the USA. In the days that followed the world was gripped as NASA did everything in their power to return the three marooned astronauts to earth. They were successfully returned on the 17th April just one day before episode 5 was screened were life would appear to imitate art, as that week the Doctor was on his own mission to rescue some stranded astronauts on an ill-fated space mission.

The story starts when Recovery 7 is sent to rescue the astronauts aboard Mars Probe 7 with witch there has been no contact since they departed the red planet 7 months ago. When Recovery 7 returns there is apparently no one aboard. We then learn that the astronauts were removed before the Doctor and UNIT could open the capsule and that the three beings inside are in fact aliens. This story illustrates the lengths to which some people are capable of going in their irrational hatred of other races. The aliens are manipulated into killing by General Carrington, who wants to create world panic, inciting the world into attacking the aliens in the name of protecting the earth.

John Abineri a surprisingly sympathetic villain.
The Doctor pilots another rocket to discover the whereabouts of the real astronauts and is taken aboard an alien spaceship. The alien captain informs him that they will hold the astronauts safely until their ambassadors are returned. The aliens are not planning an invasion but seeking peace and it is General Carrington and his cadre of helpers who are the villains of this story. It is interesting to see a Doctor Who story that relies on  humans as the villains instead of monsters.

The Doctor with the astronauts aboard the Alien ship.
We only get to see the unnamed aliens very briefly. We first glimpse them on a blind-like screen and then spy them again when Liz sees one in the radiation room. It is unknown why the aliens make hardly any appearance, perhaps their make-up was deemed unsatisfactory or perhaps it was an active choice to minimise the focus on aliens and place it on the human 'baddies.' If that is true surely it would have been a more powerful gesture not to show the aliens at all.

A brief glimpse of the unnamed aliens.
In the end it is the aliens who save the day by breaking into the space centre and averting General Carrington's telecast planned to urge the world into attacking the alien ship. Carrington is arrested and it is here where you can really see writer Malcolm Hulke's hand. Like all villains in Hulke's writing the General is certainly not an out and out "bad guy" stating that he was just trying to do his "moral duty." His reasons seem depressingly plausible. The end of the story is a little weak and very flat, there is practically no conclusion and we don't even see the alien ambassadors returned to their ship or the astronauts sent back to earth.

There is a worthy message in The Ambassadors of Death but you have to drudge through quite a lot of padding to find it. Judging by David Whitaker's track record I can't help but think the stronger parts of this story are down to Malcolm Hulke's extensive rewrites. There are some good performances by John Abineri as General Carrington, William Dysart as Reegan and Cyril Shaps as Lennox but sadly the story is overburdened by too many unnecessary and over long action/stunt sequences. This is one of the rare times where I would have preferred the structure of the New series of Doctor Who. This would make a great story if it were condensed and speeded up a little. There are parts of The Ambassadors Of Death that are great but overall the story is hit and miss. I think it is fair to say that a large part of that was due to it's rocky conception.

Join me next time for the end of season 7 with the classic story Inferno...

Thursday, 5 April 2012

BAFTA Wales Screening of Recently Rediscovered Episodes

Yesterday BAFTA Wales announced a special screening of the two recently rediscovered episodes of Doctor Who; Airlock (episode 3) from Galaxy 4 and Episode 2 from The Underwater Menace. The episodes were discovered towards the end of last year, for more information on the discovery click here. The Screening will take place at the Chapter Centre, Cardiff on the 9th May. In attendance will be Peter Purves (Steven Taylor), Anneke Wills (Polly) and Frazer Hines (Jamie McCrimmon), plus a guest from the current production, with an interview panel to follow.

The screening is a private event but a limited number of tickets (about 40) will be available to the general public from today at 3:00pm from the Chapter website: