Sunday, 21 February 2010


Robot 1:

One thing I’ve never really understood when it comes to fandom and its opinions on the classic series is precisely why Terrance Dicks is regarded as one of its best script writers. He’s not bad, certainly, but he never seems to be that inspired to me. Solid but workmanlike material for the most part.

Certainly, this episode is an awful lot of fun, but doesn’t really have the inventiveness of plot that would truly knock it into the region of ‘classic’. What is does have is an infectious, joyous quality, and an incredible lick of pace.

A lot of this is down to Tom Baker. Much as with Dicks, I’m not a massive fan of Pertwee without actually going to the lengths of disliking him. But Tom Baker’s breezy self-confidence blows him away within minutes. The opening ten minutes or so with him in a post-regenerative state are entertaining enough, but it’s in the rest of the story – when he starts to get involved and display character as well as personality – that he really shines. There’s a quirky energy there and it feels such a refreshing contrast to what’s gone before.

That energy seemingly infects the script. Blitzing through the establishment of the new Doctor in half the episode and avoiding the self-indulgence that later episodes would succumb to, the narrative drive in this episode is astonishing. OK, so no one appears to have told Dudley Simpson (his slow, measured ‘K1’ theme, seems completely at variance with the actual material shown, particularly when John Scott Martin’s security man gets the chop), but the amount of material the story gets through is huge. There are one or two moments – particularly when the Brigadier’s description of security arrangements is illustrated as he speaks through montage – where it feels astonishing that, leading man aside, everyone involved in this, be they writer/producer/director, is a remnant of the last regime rather than one for the new. Because this does feel very much like a conceptual shift.

There are other nice touches. Harry is immediately likeable, and his interaction with the Doctor is hugely entertaining. And Miss Winters has the makings of a corking villainess.

It just remains a bit of a shame that there remains the slightly hacky quality to the actual plot. Because everything else is so right.

(Oh, and it’s such an iconic part of the show history that I’ve never really noticed it before – but doesn’t this story have the dullest, most insipid title in the whole of the series?)

14 Feb 2010, 11:17 pm #4
Robot 2:

As seems to happen an awful lot, a story pays for going off at a blistering pace in its first episode by finding it’s run out of plot awfully quickly. I’m going to get well ahead of myself here, but the cliffhanger is a fairly good indication of the problem – a good one to show to anyone who feels the new series cliffhangers are over long to prove it’s not only a twenty first century problem– the Doctor’s attacked by the robot in Kettlewell’s lab… and the entire sequence just keeps on going til we reach a cliffhanger that could easily have happened two minutes earlier, and is essentially just a variation on every individual moment within those two minutes.

Once again, we can pretty much see the entire plot laid out in front of us already. We know who’s behind everything, and not only that but the Doctor does as well (rather pointing up the outrageous coincidence of Sarah accidentally discovering the robot just as the rest of UNIT are investigating its attacks). And this means that the entire episode is just the Doctor wandering around chatting to people and filling in information he already knows, or getting philosophical with Kettlewell.

Of course, it’s fine to have the audience know what’s going on… but having the Doctor work it out so quickly… well, it slightly weakens the villains. I’m rather taken by the entirely alienless sci-fi Who, something not done often enough in my opinion, and Miss Winters is an extremely well performed villain already, but there’s a sense of slightness about the way it all comes together. Like these people aren’t really a match for the Doctor. Certainly, their round the houses plan (stealing plans for a laser gun just so they can break into a safe) isn’t convincing – albeit, that’s mainly on the level of Dick’s just having the idea and not really having a good idea what to do with it. The robot’s got to be attacking someone, but it can’t be achieving anything too quickly. To be fair to him, it’s a difficult square to circle.

But, and this is the important point – it is still fun. Baker’s still an enormously engaging presence, and Marter almost matches him for sparkle (I still think Harry is one of the great underrated companions of Classic Who – for evidence of how to do a similar character badly, just take a listen to Jeremy Fitzoliver). Miss Winters is just arch enough to be simultaneously convincing and entertaining (though the SRS subordinate in this episode doesn’t quite pitch it correctly, looking wooden rather than cold). And the robot, along with Kettlewell, is inching towards a genuinely touching quality, an actually sympathetic ‘monster’. Outside of that, there’s a playful, TV action comic strip quality to the story, a shameless desire to be entertaining. The entirely videotaped look probably helps, giving the production an immediacy. Overall, the plotting and structure is a little wooly, but by and large entertaining performances and witty lines carry it through.

16 Feb 2010, 11:37 pm #5

Robot 3:

You know you’re in trouble when an episode takes as long as this one does just recapping the cliffhanger (and then bizarrely cutting it a little short at the end). Three minutes in and nothing new has happened. And you get a similar problem as last time at the end of this one as well – an over-extended cliffhanger that takes as long as it possibly can to a cliffhanger that could easily have appeared five minutes before. Yes, the dreaded curse of the non-existant plot strikes again.

This is, in many ways, a typical episode three. All sound and fury with nothing going on. There’s still a vague pretence at investigation – with Sarah’s hiding out at the SRS meeting an obvious example… but nothing’s uncovered that they don’t already know. There are two exceptions – one being Kettlewell’s duplicity… which whilst a genuinely surprising twist is only such because it’s actually fairly unconvincing. And the Doctor already knows this (again for sound, but not terribly convincing reasons – and it does rather make his visit to Kettlewell’s lab at the end of part two nonsensical). The other is the information from Harry about a bunker trip. Harry’s role as a spy has been wasted in the last two episodes, it has to be said. Especially because this little bit of information he passes on could easily be gleaned from elsewhere. By the end it’s clear he’s only there to be a hostage… though why this couldn’t have just worked with Sarah is unclear. Dicks just doesn’t seem to know what to do with the character.

But the big side-step in the episode is the whole SRS group meeting. Apart from giving Miss Winters a good chance to have a rant and a rave and dramatically reveal Kettlewell as a traitor as well, you have to ask the question: Why do they have a meeting at all? You’ve just got everything you want, the nuclear codes, the disintegrator gun… so rather than putting your plan into action straight away, you decide the best plan is to organise a meeting (in the world’s brightest evening) and have a bit of a shout. It’s the worst kind of plot contrivance – there’s not even the faintest attempt to justify the stalling tactics in plot terms. And another issue is becoming clear – the robot itself is pretty much the only menacing element in the story. There’s only so many times we can see it swing forward waving it’s oddly flailing arms and not quite managing to walk properly as an underwhelming musical score accompanies it without a certain degree of… well, shall we say metal fatigue? Oh dear. Perhaps not. (Oh, and that does remind me – notorious as Warriors of the Deep is for its clumsy poison set up, there’s an almost equally appalling one here as Kettlewell mentions his metal destroying poison with all the subtlety of Michael Bay movie – the only thing it has over it’s brother is that it doesn’t happen right in the first episode. It does scream out ‘here’s the solution’).


It’s all rip roaring fun though, it has to be said. The action sequences are fun (if a little daft – how the hell do no SRS members get shot when they escape? Does no-one think to shoot Jellicoe or Winters? Why concentrate the fire on the clearly bullet proof robot?), the dialogue witty and amusing (yes, the ‘foreigners’ gag is another Brig as a figure of fun gag, but it’s genuinely amusing which helps), and the story is pacey and engaging. But it’s uninspired. I bemoaned the lack of imagination in the title in the episode one review… but in some ways it’s as appropriate as they come.
The World of Dorney - Who Reviews, Episode by Episode /Day by Day

Today, 9:13 pm #6

Robot 4:

Something of a damp squib finale, if I’m honest.

I think I’ve mentioned before something I talk about as being ‘David Fisher syndrome’, and it’s something Robot 4 suffers from. A story that runs out of story very quickly in part four… and then has to add another plot on the end for the final episode to make up the time.

And if I’m honest, Robot 4 is a particularly lacklustre example of the type. The problem is that these all powerful major league threats are defeated way too easily at every point. Even if the main plot is finishing early, you still need to have that story resolve in a strong effective manner, or there’s a lingering sense of wondering why you bothered watching in the first place.

Take the Robot itself – big thing, unapproachable with a disintegrator in its hand. But the goodies get past it when it turns round at the wrong point. OK, that’s slightly unfair as it’s mainly incapacitated by its own confusion at the death of Kettlewell… but even then I feel ever so slightly dirty for typing out that last sentence. It sounds so rubbish, doesn’t it? This threat that’s been built up for three episodes is initially defeated by getting a bit confused? Poor dear. It’s been set up in the past couple of episodes I’ll admit… but that doesn’t really stop it being underwhelming. Foreshadowed underwhelming, is still underwhelming. And to top it off, the two main human villains either surrender or are defeated with a punch. You can’t see why it took our heroes this long to stop them.

This almost wouldn’t matter if it was topped off by a better finale storyline. But it isn’t. What we get is essentially a rerun of the last plot. The story just decides to have the same ending twice, pretty much. Which is, again, stopped overly quickly and easily.

It all seems like it’s Dicks filling in time, and moving hell and high water to get to the bit he’s really looking forward to instead – the giant robot and the King Kong parody. And this is probably the flattest bit of the lot.

Not because of the effects. I can suspend my disbelief enough that they don’t bother me. It’s partially the fact that it all seems so narratively unjustified. He grows to the size of a giant… just because. He’s decided to destroy humanity… just because (the story really tries to have its cake and eat it with regard to the robot’s morality throughout). And picks up Sarah just because.

But it’s also the fact that nothing’s really done with it. There are a few nice stomping around a village bits, and a good stamping on a UNIT soldier death… but it’s not really doing a vast amount more than it did when it was normal size. And even then, it’s over and done with too quickly. This is one of the problems of making it a minor subplot of its own in part four. There simply isn’t time to develop the plot. As it is, we know precisely how the robot’s going to be defeated even before he’s grown, as the Doctor is explicitly off making Kettlewell’s narrative device/virus.

The fun rompy quality remains, but it really only just about hides the fact that this is something of a scrag-end of a final episode. Lots of leftovers and good individual sequences and routines, but not really a strong finale on any level.
The World of Dorney - Who Reviews, Episode by Episode /Day by Day

Saturday, 6 February 2010

Planet of the Spiders

Planet of the Spiders 1:

I’ve always had a fondness for stories where the first episode appears to present two totally unrelated storylines (like, say, Carnival). So this episode is nominally already onto a winner for me. OK, it slightly stretches credulity when you have two connected groups stumbling into the same situation, but then whole episodes of Who stretch credulity so that should hardly be viewed as a major issue, surely?

Unusually, the episode ends with the precise link between the two left unclear. Which is possibly a mistake, as the connection would have a sort of coup de theatre flourish quality that would give added impact to the finale. But nonetheless it still works quite well as a hook.

Otherwise, this is a fairly odd episode. There’s really very little movement of plot from about five minutes in. Once Yates knows Lupton’s up to know good and we know Cyril Shaps is a proper psychic, there’s really very little left for the episode to do, given where it ends. But it does go along quite pleasantly because, as I usually like, the time is used up by going into character stuff. Sloman/Letts are, unsurprisingly, always very good at characterization of the regulars, with the Brig and Benton being particularly entertaining in this part (albeit with the former when he’s not being treated as if he’s a cretin). Yates’ new incarnation is another intriguing take on the character. And the villains are already quite interestingly ordinary. I’m not entirely sure about Tommy. It’s a sensitively done performance, but it’s always a bit hard to make this sort of character anything other than a walking cliché. Nonetheless, it’s hard to dislike the character. It’s a bit of a shame that the (for obvious reasons) respectful treatment of Buddhism is slightly over-shadowed by Kevin Stoney in make-up, but it is nonetheless quite an intriguing world to see in a Who story. It takes the story to a slightly more metaphorical level somehow, a slightly deeper level.

So, a good first episode. Intriguing, and whilst slow and lacking in any real incident, it keeps you involved and is gently amusing.

Planet of the Spiders 2:

There are some episodes you dread reviewing. Planet of the Spiders 2 is one such episode. Notorious for having half its running time devoted to an extended chase sequence, it doesn’t exactly give you much to talk about.

Let’s look at the first half… well, first. There’s a good bit of a gallop to it, seemingly to get through the set up for the chase as quickly as possible. The two stories of episode one are linked together swiftly and efficiently, and the Spiders are very quickly established as an intriguing concept. There are a few nice touches of humour and we begin to get a sense of where the story is going. Lupton is already establishing himself as a rather beguilingly low-key villain. It feels an odd choice for a Doctor’s finale, given that he’s used to fighting more grandiose threats, but he’s all the more interesting for that.

So the second half – well, the commonly held view is that the chase is just pointless running around and padding. And the obvious comment to add to that is: ‘well, it’s a chase. What do you expect?’

Chases are fun. They just are. And I can’t think of a single time when they actually advance the plot. No chase in the history of storytelling couldn’t be cut. Chases are all about delaying the next plot development, not a plot development in themselves. And yet if you consider a rule of storytelling to be that every scene has to change something or advance something, every scene has to be going somewhere… they defy that rule.

Chases are about building tension and suspense. And it therefore helps if they take time. It’s no coincidence that this is the most memorable chase sequence in the history of Who, purely for being longest (unless you want to count stories like DMP and, er, The Chase). It’s better than the TVM one and is all about playing fun variations on a theme – if a smile doesn’t cross your face when a hovercraft pulls up next to the speedboat and there might as well be an on-screen caption telling you precisely what’s going to happen next, then you’ve no soul.

OK, so its definitely got a disappointing finale that appears to make the whole need for Lupton’s attempted escape utterly pointless, but it’s far more interesting than him being captured and it’s timed perfectly. Beyond all that, it’s an entertaining twelve minutes or so. Yes, an odd episode, but an enjoyable one for all that.

Planet of the Spiders 3:

And it was all going so well.

One of the frustrating things about Planet of the Spiders is that there’s so much that’s right with it. But then there’s a lot that’s appalling.

Incredibly quickly after Eckersley, we once again get the joy of the mundane villain (this time joining up with massively powerful alien, admittedly). Lupton’s backstory in this episode, as a disgruntled and now power hungry salesman screwed over by accountants is utterly wonderful on every level. It’s all so wonderfully odd and idiosyncratic (aided by John Dearth’s slightly strange performance – he never seems totally with it to me). People who complain that his cohorts are nondescript are missing the point – they’re supposed to be. These aren’t super-villains, they’re very dull men who are trying to escape their boring natures. Lupton’s spider pretty much explicitly points this up with her continual withering asides about Barnes.

Furthermore, there’s beautiful use of dramatic irony here with everyone ignoring Tommy despite him holding the key to everything. This is definitely part of the overall allegory of the story, with everyone too wrapped up in their own affairs to listen to the simplest, most honest voice. And there are some lovely moments of direction and scripting – the realisation of Sarah’s transportation (taking it from her viewpoint rather than her more traditional and expected slow vanishing) is extremely striking.

So it is rather a shame that this episode takes this, up til now, quirky and unusual tale into the land of generic sci-fi cliché. I’m never really a fan of criticising a story for its effects or costumes… but the sudden lurch into cheap ‘oh my god, we’ve run out of money’ landscape and the jolting contrast with the crisp classiness of K’anpo’s centre and the earlier episodes marks this out as an episode where the reach exceeds the grasp. We’ve gone from the complex and original character of Lupton to a group of walking stereotypes. Hell, even the Spiders seem as generic as can be. It’s a real shame that a story starting out as genuinely quite interesting is resorting to sci-fi cliché to fill in the running time. And Gareth Hunt.

Planet of the Spiders 4:

Any six part story where characters say, in the same episode, ‘this is getting monotonous’ and words to the effect of ‘what’s the point of saying the same thing over and over’ is surely offering a hostage to fortune. So it’s surely odd that repetition and monotony isn’t really a problem with this episode (apart from the blatant filler of Barnes and his cronies standing around failing to do anything) and it’s more that it doesn’t really seem to have any ideas of where to take it.

Actually, that’s probably not really true either. This is a story which clearly knows how it wants to end and where it’s going. It just hasn’t got a clue of how to spend the time whilst getting there. It’s hard not to see it as something of a jumbled mess, and the lack of a strong drive is emphasised with the structure of the individual episodes. There’s a commonly documented series of mess-ups over half this story where material is shuffled and cliffhangers created and this only really reminds you how little is going on.

This episode ends up basically being about three things. The first is padding. By the end of the episode only a couple of things appear to have changed – one we’ll get to in a moment, but the other is the Doctor’s discovery of stones that protect from Spider-blasts. It remains to be seen how much this affects the over-all story, but at the moment it’s underwhelming. Beyond that, the end of this episode (with Sarah and the Doctor captured) is essentially where the previous episode ended. Sarah’s whole ‘hiding under a shawl’ bit and the ‘Doctor in a coma’ routine are just prevarication whilst they wait to be captured again.

The second thing is exposition. This is the episode where we get the explanation of who the Spiders are. It’s all right, if a little pulpy, and it’s made more entertaining by switching between two different tellings.

The third thing is the enlightenment of Tommy, far and away the only properly interesting thing to happen in this episode, almost single-handedly redeeming it. John Kane’s portrayal of the realization, his excitement building as his voice drops away reading a Jack and Jill book is beautifully done. It would be a very good scene in a regular episode, here it’s an easy stand-out. Shame the rest of it doesn’t match it, then.

Planet of the Spiders 5

One of the things that’s becoming gradually clear about this story is that it’s rather throwing away some of it’s bigger assets.

Take Lupton for example. As I’ve said before, he’s an engagingly different and small villain for the show, the neutered former salesman looking for power. So it’s something of a shame that the script doesn’t really know what to do with him. From the moment he arrives on Metebelis 3, he’s pretty much neutered again, simply hanging round a throne room chatting to a bunch of puppets, and trying to get away with having been a bit rubbish. It remains unclear as to why the spiders bother keeping him around, unless his one just needs a lift somewhere once in a while. Like a Superhero threequel, this story is now over-dosing on villains to the degree that it loses track of where the focus should be, and none of them really seem all that threatening anymore. It’s like one of my least favourite Columbo episodes - the UK one, if anyone knows it, where the killers commit their crime by accident and are winging it as clueless idiots, and as a result never really feel like much of a match. Here it’s hard to believe that the petty squabbling spiders, making up plans on the hoof and more concerned with getting one over on each other than any overall scheme, are any real threat. Whilst I know that I’ve been raving about the entertaining banality of Lupton and his cronies, to then team them up with a bunch of equally pathetic super-beings does seem to lose the point.

This does, however, mean that the introduction of the all-powerful Great One comes as a breath of fresh air, albeit one that really makes you realise how pointless her minions are. The scenes with the Doctor under her temporary thrall are the first that really make you feel that this is a story worth sending a Doctor off in. Shame that they really don’t seem to have much connection to the very generic sci-fi gubbins they’re nominally attached to.

In deed, the other thing the Great One throws into view is that there doesn’t really appear to be any idea of what the central thrust of this story actually is. It’s like the title came first. The human revolution on Metebelis suggests that this flat sub-plot is over and done with now, but it was clearly only there to pad the story out.

Still, there’s some good Doctor and Sarah stuff in this episode, so it ain’t all bad. But it mainly is.

Planet of the Spiders 6:

I always find reviews of final episodes difficult. It’s like I’m subconsciously done with the story by that point. Ridiculous, obviously, but once I’ve completed the story, I don’t feel the same immediate urge to write the review as when writing means I’m allowed to watch what happens next. So, as is traditional, I’m coming to write this a little after the fact.

And I’m finding it hard to remember much about it. And that’s got to be odd for the big dramatic finale of a Doctor’s life, hasn’t it? And it’s rather indicative of why the story doesn’t entirely work.

That’s not to say this is a bad episode. A lot of the story is tied off neatly, but a lot of it demonstrates wasted potential.

Whilst the story is nominally that of the Doctor facing his own fear and arrogance, accepting spiritual renewal… well, am I the only one who doesn’t find it that convincing?

It’s all very well K’anpo lecturing the Doctor on how his greed for knowledge led to him taking the crystal… but for my money, that doesn’t entirely square with he actually did. It’s not like he knew it was the perfect crystal that was going to be required in the future, and it’s not like wanting knowledge is a massively awful thing. If the Doctor died because he was reminded how he could be a cock to Jo Grant, then the metaphor might stand a bit stronger. But what happens is the equivalent of us being killed because we took a pebble from a beach.

The realisation of the Great One is also a disappointment, to me at least. Not because the puppet isn’t great – it isn’t, but neither is it actually all that bad – but because giant all powerful spider has potential – and then she doesn’t go anywhere, and is a bit of a loony who doesn’t realise her grand scheme will kill her as well.

After mentioning how Lupton is wasted last episode – and he’s killed off here for no reason either - it’s fairly clear here that Tommy is as well. His ‘enlightenment’ is nicely handled, but ultimately pointless in plot terms (other than it seemingly granting him super-powers for no obvious reason). The reveal about the human’s not having succeeded in their rebellion is a neat reversal of expectation, but it does rather underline the problem.

This story is entirely about good ideas that aren’t really used to their full potential. The themes are strong and solid, but ultimately not done all that well. The approach is good, it’s the final realisation that is flawed.