The Hand of Fear

hand of fearWell, I quite liked her, but I couldn’t stand him. 

Never has a companion reflected the views of the viewers more thoroughly.  Judith Paris manages to portray a genuinely alien being in Eldrad. The excellent costume design aids her performance, allowing for the full range of facial expressions, despite the convincingly crystalline appearance. When Stephen Thorne takes over he has to rely on his voice performance, with a costume that allows for much less facial movement.  Vocally he is impressive but, like Omega, he has one setting and it’s loud.

Unless I have forgotten something, this is the first time we encounter another alien race with the ability to regenerate.  Although the means by which it is achieved are different, what happens to Eldrad is functionally exactly the same as a Time Lord regeneration: a change of body and a semi-change of personality.  It is (by accident) hugely ahead of its time, with a gender-swapping regeneration and also one where an incarnation has clearly been modelled on somebody who has come into contact with the person before the regeneration.  Bob Baker and Dave Martin deserve more credit than they tend to get for the intelligence of their writing.  They recognise that the two different locations require very different things of Eldrad.  On earth she has to be clever, cunning, resourceful.  She can’t just shout at everybody.  On Kastria he is reacting to the discovery of the pointlessness of all his plans.  He’s a desperate, raving lunatic of a failure.

So now you are King, as was your wish. I salute you from the dead. Hail, Eldrad, King of nothing.

It’s a stunning moment, one that drains all hope from Eldrad.  So the writers needed two very different things from Eldrad, and achieved that by showing the different sides of his/her nature by literally splitting him/her into two different people.  Stephen Thorne would have been ill-suited to the first half of the story, and Judith Paris playing a shouty maniac would have been a stretch as well, so this is dealt with by regeneration.  It allows for some interesting contrasts: the ways in which the Doctor and Sarah react to the two versions of Eldrad, but more importantly the kind of person Eldrad becomes as a female character in contrast to a male character.  The Judith Paris version is specifically modelled on Sarah, and she gains more from her than her physical appearance.  Interestingly, when Eldrad regenerates he talks about his previous incarnation in terms of “a form that would be acceptable to the primitives of your planet”, and believes that he has “attained my true form at last”, as if the female version of himself was an aberration.  Sarah’s influence taught her to be something better, with at least some hints of emotions beyond anger and pride.  Once he is back to his “true form”, he is simply a generic male shouty alien, and is easily defeated, tripped up by a scarf.  It’s a suitably bathetic end to his story, the consequence of his rejection of the other side of his nature.

This all has the knock-on effect of making the first half of the story much more enjoyable than the scenes set on Kastria, but things are improving compared to the previous season.  An unfortunate theme of Season 13 was a change of location for the final episode of a story, always with the result of the plot fizzling out in a sort of anti-climactic coda.  This happened in Terror of the Zygons (the Skarasen attack), The Android Invasion (moving from the fake village to the real one), and the worst example was the much-loved Pyramids of Mars, where the story re-runs Death to the Daleks for an episode at the end.  The Hand of Fear shares the same kind of problem, but is much better integrated.  Inevitably, though, the Earth-based episodes with an actual intelligent villain are more effective.

What the female-Eldrad part of the story has that the male-Eldrad part lacks is humanity.  It’s not just that Eldrad is a more well-rounded character herself, but we also get another great guest character: Professor Watson.  He comes from the tradition of a base-under-siege Hobson or Dobson or Robson, but he actually makes us care, with that beautifully touching moment when he phones up his daughter and wife, thinking he is going to die.  Classic Doctor Who rarely does these quiet, emotional scenes, but when it does them, it does them well.

Any talk of emotional scenes must of course bring us onto the departure of Sarah Jane Smith.  Whether by accident or not, The Hand of Fear gives us a “best of” for Sarah: an alien stranded on Earth (The Time Warrior), a danger to rural England where the military are called in to fight back (UNIT stories, most recently The Seeds of Doom), a trip in the TARDIS to an alien planet, brainwashing, surviving death traps… it’s all present and correct.  And then we get that lovely final scene between the Doctor and Sarah, fittingly improvised by Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen.

It all feels a bit wrong at the same time, with the Doctor refusing to take Sarah to Gallifrey.  But for long-term viewers it probably makes a lot more sense.  Let’s think back to what happened the last time the Doctor set foot (unwillingly) on Gallifrey.  Specifically, let’s look at what happened to his companions, Jamie and Zoe.  They had their memories of the Doctor wiped from their minds, and were returned home.  For the Doctor, that must have seemed almost as bad as a companion dying.  He was dead to them, after all.  Faced with even the slightest possibility of that happening again, the Doctor had to send Sarah home.  He couldn’t let that happen again.  Not to his Sarah Jane.   RP

The view from across the pond:

On a (rock and) roll with the classic horror movies tropes, Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors gets a turn in Doctor Who in The Hand of Fear.  The thing (no pun intended) was, we’ve seen dismembered hands racing about in many movies and shows.  Thing, from The Addams Family is just one example as was The Beast with Five Fingers (an idiotic title as all people have 5 fingers!  I recall a news broadcast that had the headline “Insane madman goes on rampage” and thought, yeah, you could have just said “madman”, the rest goes without saying!  I digress…)   The setup for this story is pretty fantastic.  After being caught in a rock quarry explosion, both the Doctor and Sarah escape pretty much unharmed with the exception that Sarah has developed a bit of an attachment to a hand (other than her own).  That hand goes on to move about and spends a brief spell living in a tupperware container before reconstituting as a female Kastrian who really just wants to go home.

Let’s take a trip forward some 40 odd years when Doctor Who would go through a major change: the Doctor is going to be played by a woman.  This lead to a lot of negativity from some.  Surely the Doctor was a man!  Frankly, it’s a brave move and I’m very hopeful about Jodie Whittaker’s casting, but this wasn’t the first time Doctor Who showed a gender change.  In 1976, Eldrad of Kastria went from a lovely green female rock monster to an ugly mustached male rock monster after taking a poison filled arrow to the heart.  (Don’t tell me that wasn’t a mustache!  What do you think, he was drinking chocolate rock milk?)  As the female there was something dangerous about her that was clever and devious but also possibly relatable.  I mean, that odd rock beehive was unbecoming, but maybe I’m just a sucker for green alien women.  (The Orions from Star Trek?  No?  Moving on…).   When she became a he, he was voiced by Stephen Thorne, who does megalomaniac so well.  He voiced Omega for the 10th anniversary special, The Three Doctors, and was every bit as convincingly dangerous in this story.    But it was rage, not deviousness, which motivated the male form, so it lost some of its menace.  Sure, he was still dangerous, but not in that subtle, sly-as-a-fox way we had seen with the female.  (Commentary, anyone?)

It’s pretty evident that there’s a whole undercurrent here about the dangers of nuclear energy, but it’s lost to our rock monster when she can absorb all of it.  She’d be a terrible guest to have over when you think about it.  The Doctor does bring her home for a brief stay as King of Nothing which is also ironic when you consider Omega (again, same voice … in male form anyway) also is left as king of nothing.  As irony goes, our Kastrian friend also brings together a couple other things.  Sorry, Things.  Yes, Thing from the Addams Family is a dismembered hand that moves of its own volition but also Thing from Fantastic Four is a rock monster.  Eldrad is a dismembered hand that becomes a fully formed rock monster.  I see a pattern!  I know, very human of me!

For me, having seen this story over two weeks, with two episodes per week, it hit so many great notes.  The first weekend was eerie and really well done, building intrigue every step of the way.  Sarah Jane’s “Eldrad mUst live” (capitalized for emphasis on her pronunciation) was magnificent, and slightly too happy (unless Eldrad also came with some candy because there was no reason to be that chipper anyway.  Rock candy, obviously).  Then week two came and so did the big hulking rock monster, with that voice, and the rage.  (I can’t fathom how it would be if I were Thorne’s kid.  Imagining not doing my homework suddenly becomes terrifying!)  The settings were wonderful for Doctor Who – an actually quarry not trying to be anything other than what it was, a nuclear power center which was actually a nuclear power center, and Kastria… which was, in fact, not actually another planet.

But then the ending came.  This was my first real departure in Doctor Who.  It wasn’t right!  Not Sarah Jane!  Not like this.  I had started the show with Sarah Jane; she was a part of the very infrastructure.  But that scene is wonderfully heartfelt and emotional.  You can feel the tears hiding behind your eyes (and some failing to hide in exactly the way kids fail to hide when they hide in plain sight.)  The Doctor tells her he received the call from Gallifrey (pronounced “Gallifree”) and can’t take her with him.  “As a Time Lord I must obey!”  …Um, since when?  When did he actually do anything they asked him?  Damn it, why listen now?!  So he drops Sarah off in Not-Croyden and she walks away whistling for a freeze frame ending.

You know, sometimes, when I’m melancholy and walking somewhere on my own, I still whistle that theme.  That tune stuck with me without ever knowing what it was.  Only today, as I write this, did I even think to look it up.  I don’t know how I feel that all these years, in times of melancholy, I was whistling “Daddy Wouldn’t Buy Me a Bow-Wow”!  I think I feel jilted.  In retrospect it seems it would have been better if Sarah Jane had something a little more “rock” in mind…   ML

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The Brain of Morbius

morbiusAnyone who watched Doctor Who as a child will understand what I mean when I say that it can be difficult to appreciate certain stories without looking at them through the prism of childhood.  Just as we love some stories against out better judgement due to the memory of enjoying them as a child, there are also some stories that we can recognise are impressive, but can’t ever really love.  Mostly for me the stories that fall into that category are the ones that are darker, edgier, maybe a bit violent and depressing, stories like The Brain of Morbius.

I have often mentioned how foolish it is for showrunners to forget the family audience remit of Doctor Who, particularly with reference to the Colin Baker and early Peter Capaldi eras.  On both those occasions Doctor Who was being made in a way that appealed to teenagers and adults primarily.  Morbius, with the gunshot wound and other body horror, falls into the same category, but gets away with it because the whole thing is made with such style and so well acted (mostly).  Never was an acting performance more significant to the success of a story than Philip Madoc as Solon.  I’ll explain why I say that.

So this started off as a Terrance Dicks script, about a robot servant assembling a body for his master after crash landing on a planet, ignorant of aesthetics and just trying to get the job done.  Robert Holmes rewrote it for all the right reasons, but rewrote it badly, leaving bits of plot as relics from the original script.  This left the story with as many holes as a sieve, such as Solon’s obsession with using his ridiculous Frankenstein body and then deciding he wants to stitch the Doctor’s head on top of it, when he could just perform a transplant of Morbius’s brain into the Doctor’s head (the exact same species as Morbius!)  Like most of the flaws in the story, it can be rationalised.  The reason is probably that Solon has devoted his life to creating the monster and has engineered it to be superior (in his eyes) to the human form.  However, this is never explained in the story, and could have been fixed quite easily with an extra couple of lines of dialogue.

Then we have the sisterhood, whose sacred flame is dying until the Doctor does a Dick van Dyke and sweeps their chimney for them.

OHICA: The Sacred Flame! We are saved, High One!
DOCTOR: Soot, that’s all. There’ll be no charge. Of course, you won’t get any Elixir for quite a while yet. This rock’s got to warm right through.
MAREN: And so now, Doctor, you expect us to show gratitude?

…er… yes?  He’s just restored their sacred flame and, in doing so, saved all their lives.  On reflection, a bit of gratitude would be suitable at that moment!  The actions of the sisterhood in betraying the Doctor are bizarre to say the least.  Seriously, they just give him to Solon after he has saved them all.  He should have come back with a fire extinguisher.

So faced with what appeared to be a mess of a script, as much of a stitched together Frankenstein’s monster as Morbius, Uncle Terrance took his name off it.  And he was quite right.  His judgement was sound, as we would expect from one of the greatest ever Doctor Who writers, and one with far fewer turkeys to his name than the man who was editing his script.  On paper this looked like it was going to be a trainwreck, and that’s exactly what it would have been, if it wasn’t for the casting of Philip Madoc.

Take a step back from this and imagine Solon played by one of the other actors who have taken on similar mad scientist characters.  Imagine Solon played by Joseph Furst, doing a Zaroff with him, or Lewis Fiander, doing a Tryst, or even just a flat performance such as Patrick Ryecart’s Crozier.  I suspect The Brain of Morbius would be considered the turkey of the season.  Luckily, Madoc is stunningly good as Solon, managing against the odds to make a silk purse out of the pig’s ear of a script he was given.  It’s an incredible performance, one of the best you will find in Doctor Who.

Although the script does not cohere terribly well, it is a mashup of the writing skills of Dicks and Holmes, so of course there are lots of interesting ideas here.  The Sisterhood provides a contrast with Solon, and it’s a female/male, magic/science, natural/unnatural vibe.  The Doctor waltzes in as somebody who exists equally in the realms of magic and science, and shows the error of the extremes of both.  The Sisterhood has stagnated as a society, allowing their flame to die by rejecting any scientific enquiry, and he brings some simple science to fix their problem.  Solon is using science in a way that is devoid of morality, and the Doctor helps put a stop to that.  He restores the balance.

So that’s it.  Article written.  What’s that?  What about the mind bending competition.  Oh.  Yes.  Well, I suppose it can’t be avoided.  After all, anyone who wants to write about Doctor Who does have to sign a contract that says “I promise to write about the mind bending competition”.

The question that everyone tries to answer is whose are the faces shown after the Third, Second and First Doctors?  We need to look carefully at the evidence to make a judgement.  The first face we see is that of Morbius, and then we have Doctors 4, 3, 2 and 1.  Morbius says “how far Doctor? How long have you lived?” at which point the faces of Pertwee and Troughton are still on the screen, so we can happily dismiss that as evidence for incarnations before Hartnell.  The tricky bit is this: “back, back to your beginnings,” at which time the mystery faces are on the screen.  Evidence for earlier incarnations?  I don’t think so.  Let’s forget about authorial intent for a start, because that will lead us down many a blind alley in Doctor Who.

The most sensible explanation is that the Doctor is forcing Morbius “back” at this point and the faces we see are his earlier incarnations.  Morbius could just as easily be expressing his intention to send the Doctor “back” rather than what is actually occurring at that point in time, ignorant of how many Doctors there have been.  There’s no reason why a competitor can’t trash talk while he’s losing.  In any case, Morbius is going completely mad, so we can hardly take that one line as indication that the Doctor had regenerated before Hartnell’s incarnation, something that conflicts with the vast majority of evidence throughout Doctor Who’s history.

So this really is a case where K.I.S.S. applies.  Every theory I have seen that tries to rationalise those faces as belonging to the Doctor gets into the realms of tortuous retconning of just about everything.  Personally, the first time I saw this story, free from any knowledge of the significance of the scene, I thought nothing of it beyond the Doctor getting the upper hand in the battle.  For me, that is what comes across on screen, maybe with the nagging impression that there is some kind of a fluffed line in there that makes the scene feel slightly wrong.  It wouldn’t be the only one:

There might be a struggle and the brain could suffer irreparable damage. It must be in perfect condition.

That’s the Doctor’s brain Solon is talking about, the one he is intending to throw in the bin and replace with Morbius’s.  I think the word he was looking for is “head”.  But there’s a better one:

Condo, take their clothes.

Forget the bullet wound, that really would have been an adult approach to Doctor Who.   RP

The view from across the pond:

…And speaking of classic Universal Horror movies, Doctor Who was keen to keep the tradition alive with its own fantastic version of Frankenstein in The Brain of Morbius.  I’m probably biased.  My dad and I watched a lot of horror and science fiction during my youth so seeing Frankenstein made into a Doctor Who story was outstanding.  Even though Doctor Who was one of the few shows we didn’t watch together, it inevitably gave me something to remind me of our movie watching experiences.  I’m sure my dad and I watched The Brain that wouldn’t Die (1962), Donovan’s Brain (1953) and Reanimator (1985) together; all of which are strongly reminiscent of The Brain of Morbius.  I am certain that my dad was ultimately responsible for my love of gothic horror and The Brain of Morbius included such things as the isolated castle, creepy witches, and a Frankenstein’s monster that had to be seen to be believed, so it’s no wonder I loved this story.  While the aesthetics really play a big part, it goes beyond that too.  Let’s face it, the cast was perfectly chosen.  Philip Madoc will forever be Solon.  In everything else he’s done in Doctor Who alone, for me, he is always Solon.  Ironic, since Karloff experienced a similar notoriety with Frankenstein.  No other actress ever quite becomes Maren, no matter how much we like the Sisterhood from the modern era.  Condo is the Igor of the piece, again, perfectly cast.  (And honestly, Ohica struck me as beautiful but we never saw a good looking Sister again.  Karn just doesn’t produce much beauty…)  In fact, that was another thing that made such a compelling story: the planet itself is a “Bermuda Triangle” for ships, even crashing a Mutant ship (The Mutants) and giving us the rare piece of continuity within the Doctor Who universe when we see the Mutt crawling from the wreckage. Then there’s the main setting: that castle on the hill was outstanding.  There is such thickness to the walls that it’s one of the most enjoyable sets in classic Who.  I can easily accept this being the stronghold of a mad scientist intent on resurrecting the dead.

The notion of resurrecting a dead guy too… I mean Frankenstein is probably the most iconic of those images, but as a fan of H. P. Lovecraft I know how many times that’s gone wrong in one way or another.  I know Shelley got there first, but Lovecraft had a number of great moments with brains inside cases too.  Ask the Mi-go.  In The Whisperer in Darkness, brains can be kept in canisters indefinitely.  Herbert West wasn’t the only one bringing the dead back to life, though in movie form he probably had one of the most controversial scenes of any of these poor creatures.  Morbius lives with some great icons of horror fiction!

But Morbius also does create a bit of trouble for fans.  The story does have some weak points, although one would not be realized for decades:  if the sacred flame keeps the Sisterhood alive forever, where is Ohica these days?  Ohila is the Sister we meet during Paul McGann’s regeneration, but that means Ohica should still be around, since they live forever.  Or is it a democracy and people can be voted off the Sisterhood?  “Too good looking for the Sisterhood… off the island, off the island!”   Or is the Elixir of Life now made with aspartame and the effects cause aging and weight gain?  I know Hostess cupcakes are nowhere near as good as they were in my youth; maybe the same applies to the Elixir?  Then the idea of a renegade who wants to conquer the galaxy is not unheard of in Time Lord society.  There is always in-fighting on Gallifrey; like Geico, it’s what they do. (“As long as there’s in-fighting on Gallifrey, Geico can save you 15% or more…”)  But when he was executed and saved by one of his followers, it makes me wonder: how exactly did he have followers?  He was a Time Lord intent on overthrowing the universe through military conquest.  It’s like knowing someone wants to take over your country and siding with them because, what, they have a nice head that would be good for sculpting?  What does that say about Solon!  He’s supposed to be a genius so why remove Morbius’s brain before the execution?  And how did the Time Lords miss that?  “Gee, he’s being very quiet… and drooling on himself.  Morbius never does that at home!  He’s probably not in his right mind, due to the execution.”  (“He wasn’t in his left mind either, unless you meant to say he left his mind…”)  But that’s not even the worst of it, by a long shot.  The real issue comes from the battle between the Doctor and Morbius.  This is often cited as representing that there are Doctors pre-Hartnell.  But there is no evidence of this beyond what Hinchcliffe had intended but failed to make stick.

Let’s look at that fight.  It starts off with Morbius with fishbowl, then without.  Then goes to the Doctor played by Baker.  Then it flashes to Pertwee.  The camera cuts away and we go back again to Baker, Pertwee, Troughton and Hartnell.  We then get eight faces in a row as Morbius says “back, back to your beginning”.  (We know now that those faces were production crew.)   What we see on the screen does not represent a backward progression any more than The Five Doctors scene represented any specific order.  In that special, Davison is under the control of Borusa.  His former selves reach out and connect with him to overthrow Borusa.  The camera looks at each of them too.  There’s no significance to that order other than fan service.  In the battle with Morbius, it seems very likely that those faces could just as easily represent Morbius, summoning his former selves and trying to usurp the Doctor but failing.  His side is taxed and it explodes, resulting in brain damage.  In fact, in many ways, the Doctor is so much younger than this mad renegade, it’s not surprising to see Morbius lose to a younger adversary.  The fact is, regardless of the intent of the time, the “discrepancy” can be explained away easily enough.  While Morbius is trying to push the Doctor back, he may be looking for a weakness that was never there.  He summons his own younger selves looking for what it will take to beat the Doctor, but never finds it.  And it should be noted that Baker’s face, prior to the explosion, is not one of worry or defeat; he’s at ease.  I believe he was winning the whole time and knew it.  The exploding equipment may have jarred him, but prior to that, he has the upper hand.

Now maybe this is me defending a story that ultimately makes me think of a very happy time from my youth with my dad watching old horror movies and I submit: there’s nothing wrong with that.  But I suppose I should be fair and critique something about the episode.  Amazingly, it’ll be Sarah Jane, who I normally adore.  Her blindness scene is so goofy and her acting for her blindness is so bad, one wonders if she’s ever encountered an actual blind person in her life.  That said, I still love Sarah Jane and have such extremely fond feelings about this story that I can easily turn a blind eye to that silliness.

(If you didn’t see that coming, you might have been hit by the light from someone’s ring…)   ML

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Pyramids of Mars

pyramidsIt’s no wonder the Doctor seems scared.  Sutekh is a threat like no other, a primal, mythical force of destruction, who really can bring a “gift of death” on a massive scale if he is set free.  There is nothing subtle or redeemable about him, no shades of grey.  “Your evil is my good” might sound hackneyed, but it gets the point across.  Even a Time Lord is just his “plaything”.

Sutekh also has power over the narrative and that feels dangerous.  The most obvious example of this is the Doctor’s trip into the future, to show Sarah what will happen if they just walk away and let Sutekh win.  Sutekh is so far the only enemy powerful enough to force a scene like this, to make the Doctor actually use his time travel abilities so Sarah (and the viewers by proxy) can see what is at stake.  It will be a long time before Doctor Who gets round to defining “fixed points in time”, but we are obviously already aware that certain things have happened and will happen.  We know there are things the Doctor cannot change in the past, and it is logical to extrapolate that into the future (which is still largely the Doctor’s own past) even if nobody has attempted to define the mechanics of those limitations yet.  Notably, this story is set in our past, so Sarah is very much the mouthpiece of the viewers: history can’t end several decades ago, can it?  This scene demonstrates the nature of the threat:

It takes a being of Sutekh’s almost limitless power to destroy the future.

A less obvious example of Sutekh’s power over the narrative (i.e. the manner in which this particular story is told), but one that is extremely effective, is Namin and his creepy music performance.  Ominous music played on an organ is very Hammer Horror, but note how it keeps playing when Namin stops being the one who is actually making the sound.  Sutekh’s servant is on his way, and he is twisting the world as he approaches, even taking control of sound so that diegetic music becomes non-diegetic, a rare and clever transition.  Namin is separated from his purpose and function within the story, and is swiftly dispatched, in one of the scariest and most exciting cliffhanger endings ever in Doctor Who.

Sutekh also has power over how the Doctor responds to the story, forcing him to peel away the veneer of humanity as he deals with a threat that genuinely feels out of his league.  Sarah has a point when she rails against the Doctors ‘inhumanity’, because when Marcus is confronted by his brother, the strain in his face clearly demonstrates that he is not beyond hope, despite what the Doctor says.  But the Doctor doesn’t even consider trying to appeal to whatever shred of humanity remains in the man.  This being a Tom Baker story, it is far from being devoid of humour, but at times the Doctor is less likeable than usual, and he also seems to be having a sense of humour failure: “don’t provoke me”.  This all adds up to a sense of unease.  The Doctor really must be worried if he forgets to be the Doctor.

We have seen this kind of Biggest-Big-Bad-Ever story before, but what this one lacks is a punchline.  The power of love ending to The Daemons might not be to everyone’s tastes, but at least it satisfies the monumental nature of the threat.  Here we have the same problem as The Three Doctors, an author who has set up a being of ultimate power, and has the Doctor defeat him by fiddling with a gadget.  But something hugely mythical and powerful is essentially a fantasy or horror concept, and dealing with it by putting it back into a sci-fi box is an unsatisfying cheat.  Something that lacks the power to break out of some sci-fi technobabble time tunnel cannot possibly be the same entity that can twist the narrative into his own shapes and potentially destroy the whole future of the planet, fixed points of established history and all.

Most frustratingly, the biggest mystery of the story is left unexplained.  When Sutekh stands up, it is apparent that some pervert has been warming his hand under Sutekh’s posterior for all eternity, so what happened to him?  Did he escape out into the universe, seeking out cushions to plump up throughout all time and space?

Sit!  Sit before the might of Sutekh!  I am Sutekh’s cushion plumper.  He needs no other.  I bring Sutekh’s gift of duck down and velvet to all men.   RP

The view from across the pond:

It’s easy to understand why Tom Baker’s early years get classified as an absolute success.   The stories are incredibly good.  They have that horror element that I love in Science Fiction which is done right following a tried and trusted formula.  In the case of many of those stories, they were tributes to the classic horror movies released by Universal.  My dad and I used to watch those movies when they’d turn up on our PBS channel, late Saturday night: Dracula, Frankenstein, The Bride of Frankenstein, The Mummy… This last one gets the royal treatment with Tom Baker’s marvelous story The Pyramids of Mars.  The mummies are weird in that they have these overgrown chests that, when they are used to crush a guy to death, strikes us as especially gruesome in its morbidity.  Then there is the harbinger of Sutekh’s might, the faceless destroyer that precedes Sutekh’s arrival.  The faceless mask is disconcerting enough; add burning hands to unrelentingly cut down a worshiper and you’ve got a second level of fearsome enemy.  And then there’s Sutekh.  Let’s waste no time here.  Gabriel Woolf is Sutekh.  His voice is mesmerizing.  (The fact that the creative department behind New Who was able to use that same magnificent voice for The Satan Pit is just icing on the cake.)   What a villain.  With or without that helmet, Sutekh his terrifying.  In fact, I can’t be sure which I like more, but both images instill dread.

Look, fans of the classic series know how good Pyramids is.  This is the “I’m a Time Lord; I walk in eternity” episode.  This is the one that beat Labyrinth to the punch about the two guards, one who lies and one who can only speak the truth, so which-do-you-ask-what-question story.  This is the gauntlet that shows the Doctor measuring glyphs against the length of a stitch in his scarf.  Got it.  All good.  But there are a handful of things we might miss in the awesomeness of the story.

One: Retroactively, by getting Gabriel Woolf to do the voice of the beast in The Satan Pit, it manages to give credence to Sutekh as something approaching the devil (if not the devil itself).  This is verified by the Doctor when he’s rattling off names for Sutekh, one of which is Satan.  These two creatures then cross over into something beyond the evil of something like Daleks or Sontarans or any of dozens of other monsters.  This puts the Doctor up against an actual force of the universe.  That’s interesting because it also presumes there is a force for good out there.  While the Guardians might come close to being similar entities, I’m not sure that they qualify.  They are more akin to squabbling representations of light and dark; like the living embodiment of day and night.  Sutekh, on the other hand, is terrifying.  He is eternal.  And he is trapped in a time tunnel drifting forever… until he’s released.

Two: the presence of Sutekh’s tomb and subsequent uncovered artifacts including the mummies gives rise to the idea that Earth has been visited over the centuries and influenced.  Mind you, one would wonder where the Silence fit in during the time of Sutekh’s time.  (I’ll get there in a second.)  But this is another of those stories that imply we mere mortals were influenced by the gods.  That’s always interesting, but usually done poorly leaving us as not that sharp as a species.  While I don’t see either applying here, it probably offers more story potential and fun stuff to ponder.  If nothing else, it gives us the right to blame someone else because, damn them, they influenced us.  (There’s a great quote that might sum it all up: when you take your life in your own hands, something terrible happens: no one to blame!)

Three and most importantly: this story does something I’ve mentioned before that makes what happens to David Tennant’s Doctor in The Age of Steel seem insignificant.  The Doctor jumps forward to show Sarah 1980s earth after Sutekh has been allowed to win.  Seeing the devastation, he brings her back with the hope of being able to defeat Sutekh to prevent that devastated future.  But we’ve established time and time again, the Doctor and the TARDIS cannot do that very thing.   The moment he’s traveled into the future, he’s seen “established events” and that’s that.  No reset, game over.  Unless he’s hopping back and forth between parallel earths.  The idea of a parallel earth gives us the ability to correct nearly every broken plot thread in Doctor Who.  The Doctor travelled to an earth where Sutekh did win, showed Sarah Jane, and then headed back to one in which Sutekh had not yet won.   This opens up a whole new line of reasoning.  The Dalek Invasion of 2150 couldn’t have happened when we first meet the Daleks in The Daleks.  Those were a small group in the far future, trapped in their city.  How are they now invading 22nd century Earth?  Because at some point, the Doctor changes the timeline or jumps between parallel Earths.  Atlantis’ three destructions could all have radically different causes because they don’t exist in the same universe.  Pyramids of Mars unintentionally opened up an “out” for the stories that contradict one another.

“But then why would we care about the characters knowing it’s not ‘us’?”  We watch the shows knowing its not us anyway, unless someone watching really thinks the Sarasen really did roam the Thames and Daleks are still coming in 2150.   Supposedly, every decision we make spawns a new reality, at least in theory, so we’re still seeing ‘us’, but it would give an understanding of why there are so many continuity errors throughout the 55 year history of Doctor Who.  It’s unintentionally brilliant!  And will never be acknowledged.  It’s easier to turn a blind eye to the continuity errors than actually fixing them with a clever bit of writing.  Still, we have Pyramids of Mars for illustrating this plot device and all of its potential.  Maybe one day….

Now if only it could make sense of why that hand was under Sutekh’s bottom all that time!   And when it was released, did it head to Earth to star in the TV show The Addams Family?   ML

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Top 10: The Best Laid Plans…

adiposeWe’ve seen some of the winning ideas from Doctor Who’s Monsters and Megalomaniacs.  I never cared for the word “monsters” though.  It always implied something bad rather than something different.  In fairness, considering the evidence from yesterday’s list, that may be warranted.  But I always preferred aliens.  Aliens don’t automatically come with evil plans.  Some are downright angelic.  And so, in the tradition of David Letterman’s Top Ten lists…

The Best Laid Plans of Aliens and Angels

#10) Credit has to be given to Erato from The Creature from the Pit.  He’s made out to be this horrible monster, but his sole purpose is to create a trade agreement.  For his efforts, he’s thrown into a pit and made to molest passing Gallifreyans.  (Or did they molest him?)  Erato’s big idea … maybe that warrants a rethink on the wording… is to come to the planet of chlorophyll and trade greens for metals.  The ruling queen is just too greedy to let that happen.   But all he wanted to do was create some balance in the law of supply and demand.  As ideas go, it’s one worthy of merit.  I should have worked with him on my Supply Chain Management class, but people might have gotten the wrong idea.

#9) Not content to leave well enough alone, some people want to find The Keys of Marinus to instill peace and calm the world over.  As concepts go, it’s a nice one.  Who can blame them for wanting some stability in the universe?  I’d like to find The Keys of the United States, but they’ve been scatter through the Land of Make-Believe.  The idea, however, is sound.  Why not create a world in harmony?  Well, barring that it would put the news channels out of business.  “And today there was an outbreak of hugs when a man accidentally trod on a kids toe and apologized.  One mother was so overcome with calm and peaceful thoughts that she started hugging everyone, and they spread like wildfire.”  If only the news could be so kind.

#8) Vorg and Shirna in Carnival of Monsters get a bum rap.  They wanted to bring TV to a planet where nothing like it existed.  Let’s be honest, the Doctor calls it a peepshow, but as Jo points out, rather accurately, it’s exactly what we are doing watching Doctor Who – we’re watching them live their (obviously real) lives.  We then write about that on blogs.  Sure, things again went wrong when the Drashigs got a whiff of something and ran amok, as they do, which almost leads to an infestation of giant man-eating hand puppets, but Vorg and Shirna would be considered heroes in our books if the BBC didn’t bring us Doctor Who first!  Are we accusing Sydney Newman or Verity Lambert of any wrongdoing for bringing us Doctor Who?   I think not!

#7) “Just this once, everybody lives!” says the Doctor in The Empty Child/The Doctor DancesThese nanobots are truly little angels.  They see that you’re sick and fix you.  How great is that?  Of course they had a bad blueprint so they made everyone suffer the same ailment but that’s not their fault!  On the contrary, they did what they thought was right, as thinking goes in little computers.  It was akin to cloning allergies by accident.  Great job, but they were just machines programmed to do what they did.  Frankly, I’d love to get my hands on these.  Every time something goes wonky, boot up the old nanobot system and Robert is your parents’ male sibling, as it were.

#6) During the investigation of The Curse of the Black Spot, the Doctor finds himself on a ship in the most becalmed ocean the world has ever known.  (Oh for a cruise ship to travel such waters!)  In the process he and his friends encounter a Siren.  She’s a lovely young lady who sings such nice melodies and her entire goal, not unlike the nanobots, (just far better looking) is to fix people.  Like the nanobots, she doesn’t have the right blueprints, so everything is a major issue.  When I was a kid, I was convinced that if I got cut, my mom should throw me away.  Clearly, I hail from a place not far from our Siren friend because she feels the same way.  Decapitation: surgery to fix it.  Paper cut: surgery to fix it.  Seems like there should be degrees.  Still, as alien tech goes, I’d be happy to have her around.  I’d just have to come up with a way to keep her singing without needing surgery all the time.  Or getting mad every time I got a paper cut, because when she was mad, she was scary looking!

#5) So we don’t have metal because of a bad trade agreement and we’re all irritable because, such is life, having no keys to make us happy.  We don’t have a peepshow to watch the Doctor on either and we may or may not get sick.  Well, at least we have friends.  Such is not the case for the Isolus from Fear Her.  But the Isolus doesn’t want to hurt a soul. It wants friends.  As “monsters” go, this is a pretty nice one.  It wants to be back with family.  So it abducts people to and makes artwork that most parents would begrudgingly put on their refrigerators until they find out that it’s where all the neighborhood kids have gone.  This is a lesson on why not to go wandering off when passing inhabited planets.  One moment your with you family of 15 billion and the next, you’re alone making kids draw reasonably childish artwork.  On the plus side, the Isolus returns everyone to their correct place.  They all seem to go back without any clue that they were gone or viewing the world through a piece of paper, but strangely every one of those people have an intimate knowledge of Chloe’s kitchen.

#4) With friendship, sometimes feelings develop.  With feelings comes romance.  Watching movies, singing serenades and reading Shakespeare.  Romeo and Juliet is the Crooked Man’s favorite book in Hide.  This is a ghost story about two rather deformed and eerie people who want to be together, even though they move through stop-motion.  It’s a match made in crooked heaven.  And sure, why not?  The universe is big and complicated and sometimes miracles happen.  Love is one of those miracles and the creatures of Hide prove just how good life can be when you find your soulmate.  Even in a pocket dimension that is about to close and crush you both if you don’t get out of there!

#3) When trees turn up overnight in The Forest of the Night, there’s obviously a sinister intent behind them.  Unless the planet you live on is Mother Earth.  Then plants can be really friendly.  In fact, in the event of looming destruction from above, trees can sprout up overnight and save the day, basically as sacrificial … plants, to burn up and save the day.  They could have single-branchedly changed the outcome of the movie Armageddon if they were paying attention.  Here again is another convenient example of some of the otherworldly occurrences in Doctor Who.  Was it divine power that saved the day?  Maybe!  Of course, what we don’t know is if one of the other alien races on the Earth actually had a hand in causing those trees to sprout up.  If that were the case, Bruce Willis had no hope in Armageddon.  Only in Doctor Who is earth home to Humans, Homo Reptilia, sleeping Racnos, Sea Devils…. The list goes on.  And of course, trees determined to burn to death to save the world.

#2) Coming in very close to number 1 (but missing by a hair) is the one alien invasion that should not have been stopped.  Partners in Crime gives us the Adipose invasion where… I still have a hard time forming the words… the alien race wanted to help us lose weight.  If Arecibo is sending out signals to space, this episode should be part of the package with a note: “we want to lose weight, the Doctor was being sadistic…  Please come help.”  We’re talking: eat anything, like that ice cream sundae I’ve been eyeing, and have zero guilt about it because the fat would just walk away.  Like, who thinks that’s a bad idea?  Seriously?  Was the Tenth Doctor just annoyed that he spent all that time looking slim and now everyone could be equally thin?  And look, as alien invasions go, this was the gift that keeps on giving.  There’s never going to be a time where everyone is thin and even as people get thin, they could eat whatever they want again, get fat and then give back again!  Great jumping gobstoppers, what sadist stops this invasion??

#1) But without a doubt the best alien incursion we’ve seen in Doctor Who actually tops unlimited ice cream.  Twice Upon a Time gives us Testimony; a race that basically makes a copy of everyone in existence at the point of their death so loved ones can still interact with them after they’ve passed.  I want to eat unlimited ice cream as much as the next guy, but if I could speak to my dad again, I could just walk on the treadmill a bit more.  (Or even a bit, let’s be honest.  Where did the “more” come from?)   Testimony comes in and effectively saves a copy of that person before they die, then puts them back in time to move on, but now, there’s a copy of that person for evermore.  What can be better than that?  Grandparents, parents, your old neighbor who was on the shuttle with Bruce Willis when he tried to save the earth from the impending meteor, or the guy who was eaten by a man-eating hand puppet… you could talk to them all and feel like they were still with you.  Best alien race out there!

So the list was not as complicated when it comes to good alien races.  In fact, I had barely enough runners-up to make the list.  I guess we need to focus on the boneheaded aliens to have more fun.  No, that wasn’t an anti-Minbari sentiment.  Now there’s an ice cream calling my name and a treadmill gathering dust in my basement.  More soon!  ML

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New Artwork

smugglersNew, original artwork has been added today to accompany the following articles:

More coming soon…

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Top 10: The Worst Laid Plans…

Two of the remaining TARGET book reviews are Christmas related and will be coming in December.  For now…prof zaroff

So there I am with my wife having dinner at Angelo’s in New York City (not to be confused with New New York) when I look at the picture on the wall next to me.  There, David Letterman sits with Madonna in the very booth we were occupying.  And a thought hit me: everyone loves his Top Ten lists.  The thing is, there are a lot of Doctor Who stories and a lot of contenders for any list.  I’ve tried to really think through some of the most outlandish ideas for:

The Worst Laid Plans of Monsters and Megalomaniacs

#10) I have to give this to the Cybermen’s first appearance in The Tenth Planet.  They want to power up their dying planet by draining the Earth of its energy.  Now, in Tomb of the Cybermen, it’s established that the Brotherhood of Logicians want to bring the Cybermen back because, you know, Cybermen are logical and it would be great to have someone logical running things.  (If only…)  Yet these logical giants are trying to jumpstart their car battery with a Boeing 747 engine.  This would typically send your car flying through the neighbor’s house wiping out their sitting room and mother-in-law’s guest room in the process without actually starting the car!  They don’t realize that hooking their jumper cables from Mondas to Earth will literally blow their entire planet up.  In fact, all the First Doctor has to do through this story is die of boredom.  He lets the Mondasian’s do their thing and watches as the blow themselves to smithereens.  Here’s a better idea: maybe use some of that logic to build a shutoff valve!  Or a gauge!  Or build solar panels…

#9) The Second Doctor encounters his own people in The War Games where the War Lord is building an army to take over the universe.  He’s building it by stealing armies from all time periods and having them fight to the death so that the handful that remain can be his actual army.  Because, you know, they wouldn’t be exhausted by then at all.  And obviously, there is something to be said about the Darwinian solution to weed out the chaff.  Unfortunately for him, this just gets him noticed.  Imagine gun runners testing all their weapons down by the deli… maybe someone will take notice?  This is why underhanded activity is usually done in the shadows.  Alas, Monocle-maniacal geniuses don’t really think things through.  They’re short sighted in both eyes, but wear a monocle which only helps them get half way there.

#8) The Daleks aren’t the sharpest lot in the universe, regardless of what Chris Eccleston said about them in Dalek.  In The Dalek Invasion of Earth their big plan involves hollowing out the earth’s core to fly it around the universe as a really big spaceship.    Why couldn’t they do this with any other planet?  They could pull off their plan without anyone noticing if they used a … I don’t know… deserted planet?  But even so, why do it at all?  What’s wrong with actually building ships?  They’d be more maneuverable, certainly.  Surely there are better ships than a giant planet.  This is obviously a result of them getting transmissions of Space: 1999 and thinking in Dalek, “gee-that-is-a-re-ally-great-i-dea.”    How do you disembark anyway?  Leap?  Oh, wait, “E-le-vate…”

#8a) The Tractators of Frontios are a second runner up for the same genius idea.  Hollow out a planet, boom, there’s a jolly good ship to fly around with.  How do you pilot it?  No idea.  I mean, do you put a helm at the North Pole?  And how do they disembark?  At least the Daleks can levitate.  Ah, make really big ramps, roll up into pill bug roundness, and away they go…

#7) Because his creations are so smart, one has to look at Davros in The Stolen Earth/Journey’s End.  Here, our genius geneticist has a great idea.  And I quote: “Detonate the reality bomb!”  Let’s take a second: your big plan is to wipe out all of reality?   This, typically, involves being caught in the explosion since there is actually nowhere else to hide.  At all.  Fact.  This doesn’t even send the message like the Master does during Logopolis because he’s not even trying to send one (like “all hail the Daleks, destroyers of everything”).  No last minute dose of fear to instill in the universe at large.  He just has this whim to wipe out reality.  Believe me, there are some situations that make me wonder if that’s not actually a great idea, but typically, I can’t see working on such a bomb; one false move and…

#6) It really is hard to say what’s worse: detonating reality, or creating reality TV?  In Bad Wolf the Daleks are pulling humans as livestock to create more Daleks.  They are actually using, in the Doctor’s own words, the “stink of humanity”.  There’s a lot to take in here.  Let’s skip the “reality tv is for the stink of humanity” analysis for another day.  Perhaps if the Daleks were setting up science fiction conventions and having a contest where the winners were taken to the “set of a new film” wherein the Daleks were then harvesting them, they would have had a better class of livestock!  But besides that, gone are the Robomen and, well, every other half-decent idea for pulling in slave labor.  This is literally creating the pretense of a reality show to ultimately do what they were going to do anyway: conquer.  But at least they did it with the ratings in their favor!  The whole story is this long game (<– I know…) where they are creating Daleks while waiting to be found out so they can make their move.   Why didn’t they make their move sooner?  The season wasn’t over yet and they were obviously enjoying the ratings war!

#5) In the miraculously weak Invasion of the Dinosaurs, a group of scientists want to bring back the Golden Age.  This isn’t the 60s when all good TV was starting out and when channels signed off at night with the national anthem and color bars until morning; oh no!  This group of wizards want to bring us back to prehistoric times.  You know, pre-plumbing.  No hot water, no microwave ovens… not even a digital watch.  (Who will come down from the trees then?!)  Ok, lunatic president or getting eaten by a velociraptor, you decide?  A night in with the wife watching Netflix or a night out hunting saber toothed tigers for food?  A quick trip to the loo where you can flush, or a quick trip to a hole in the ground 50 meter away so you don’t smell it and hope you’re not eaten in the process.  “Where’s daddy?”  “He went to the toilet”  “Wasn’t that three days ago?”  “Yes, but there’s been a T-Rex lurking around down there and I’m still holding out hope that daddy’s hiding somewhere!”   The more I think about it, the more I realize they were probably working on a pitch for a reality sitcom set in the cretaceous.

#4) The Master, known for such genius ideas as summoning a god with the intent to control him or her (on at least 2 occasions), has a great idea.  Take over the Earth by making everyone a clone of himself in The End of Time.  For a megalomaniac, how would this work?  Any one of them would give the other orders that another would not follow because, well, he too is the Master.  Like a computer, you can’t have multiple master drives, and the same should go for the Master.  But no, his big idea is to make so many of himself that if he’s ever put on trial on, say, Skaro, he has plenty of scapegoats and still plenty of chances to get away!  In fact, had he taken over another planet, say Peladon, we could have had an excuse as to why he shows up time after time even having been defeated the episode earlier.  Crushed under a steamroller?  No problem, grab a Peladonian Duplicate and we’ve got another Master story in the works!

#4b) Logopolis really warrants a hard look.  When I reviewed it recently, I realized just how much of it is the Master trying to pull a prank on the Doctor.  He somehow knows the Doctor got a new tape measure for Christmas and gets to an actual police box first, knowing the Doctor will materialize around it solely to measure it.  (Clearly the Fourth Doctor was bored!)  This gives them time with this puzzle box for the Doctor to work on, all while the Master is literally laughing at him.  Every step the Master makes seems designed not to hurt the Doctor but to get a punchline out before the Doctor can see it coming.  It’s impossible to ignore once you watch it with that realization.

#3) The Time Lords, normally a little iffy on their plans anyway, like when Hedin used the Doctor as a template for bringing back Omega instead of any of the less reputable members of society (the Master included), come up with a real whopper in Heaven Sent.  Here, they decide to lock the Doctor up and torture him for 4.5.   Billion.  Years.  Why?  To find out what he knows about “The Hybrid” that will destroy all of Time Lord society.  By Rassilon’s Underwear!  4.5 billion years and nothing happened to Gallifrey in that time and they think there’s validity to this prophesy?  It’s like waiting for that last paycheck from the video store I worked at when I was 16.  I don’t think it’s coming, but maybe I’ll sit by the mailbox waiting.  And that’s no 4.5 billion years ago, contrary to some of my friends beliefs…  Not to mention: a) you think they might just try to ask him, what with him having saved all of Gallifrey from utter annihilation?  Maybe he actually likes his own kind to some extent and deserved a question instead of billions of years of torture!  b) Maybe there are no psychologists on Gallifrey but someone must have read a book!  I mean most Gallifreyans retire to Earth anyway; someone must have gone to a bookstore.  (Earth is Gallifreyan for “Florida”, where all old Time Lords retire.)  Didn’t anyone think: maybe 4.5 billion years of torture might snap the Doctor and make him the Hybrid?  Maybe?  We know what to get any of our Time Lord friends for Christmas: Psychology 101 textbooks?

#2) How can we ignore this Brainiac?  “Nothing in ze world can stop me now!”  I have to hand it to Professor Zaroff in The Underwater Menace, he actually comes up with something more idiotic than the Time Lords.  He’s going to split open a crack in the earth to make the oceans pour into the liquid hot magma to create a pressure cooker that will blow the planet earth up.  He’s not doing this for revenge or any other moderately sensible reason.  You know why he’s doing it?    “The achievement, my dear Doctor. The destruction of the world. The scientists’ dream of supreme power!”  I had no idea that was what motivated scientists!  I’ll never look at Al Einstein the same way again.  Good Time Lord, I’ll have to reevaluate everything Hawking said about black holes now too!  Supreme power to a Dalek may be blowing up a world, although it gives a scary insight into politics on Skaro (and in some cases, perhaps the United States) but I can’t get behind such actions.  I suppose I’ll have to vote for Davros; at least when reality goes out, I expect it will all just stop rather than the terror of blowing up.  Although, maybe I’ll be shot to another planet, just like…

#1)  The winner for the most idiotic plan goes to…:   Mestor, the long eared donkey… no, sorry, not Nestor… Mestor, (also a donkey but under another name) has a plan in The Twin Dilemma.  He’s going to seed the galaxy with his eggs by blowing up Jaconda and letting the eggs float out and land wherever they can. His slug-children will grow up to be well adjusted, I’m sure.  Let’s hope they land on planets where they can breathe, or move assuming gravity works in their favor.  Will “Mess-tor” be there to find out if those eggs didn’t just coast into the sun?  Who knows?  I think it’s a great idea!  Farmers should try this: put all your eggs in one basket, put a grenade next to the basket and watch the eggs go land all over the country where they will undoubtedly grow into healthy chickens.  That’ll work.  Or not…  First off, you need some damned strong eggshells.  Based on how temperamental Mestor was, I’d say his were pretty thin or people wouldn’t have been so afraid of walking on them.  Second, really?!  Look, we know Blon Fel-Fotch Passameer-Day Slitheen tried a similar tactic, but she must have heard about this idea from someone who knew Mestor.  That or she watched John Carpenter’s Dark Star and probably had the song Benson Arizona queued up on her iPod because her idea was to blow up the earth and surf home on the crest of the explosive wave in Boom Town.  That’s a thing?  Sure is!  Mestor was blowing up his children, at least she has a surfboard.  This is like blowing up a marina in New York to coast to Ireland.  It’s a great idea, if I can avoid flying, but that would be one hell of a surfboard.  Anyway, while they may technically both tie for the most horrible idea, Mestor got there first so he takes the #1 position in my book!

There are so many fun plans we can look at in Doctor Who.  I had a number of strong contenders for this list, but in the end, I think these are some of the most idiotic we’ve seen to date.  But hey, the universe is a big place and it takes all sorts!  Now and then, there might even be a good plan out there…  ML

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The Power of Three

powerofthreeBack in May I wrote an article about the significance of the number three in Doctor Who, and came to a conclusion that stated three reasons why the number three was important, one of which focussed on the Doctor, the TARDIS and the companions.  I also mentioned the iconic groupings of Doctor plus two companions, and that is the aspect of the number three within the context of Doctor Who that is focussed on for this episode, with a fun little bit of word play: cubed, the power of three.

Within the world of Doctor Who, every number takes on a special significance because it also represents a Doctor, and here we are channelling the spirit of the Third Doctor’s era.  UNIT is back, and the Brigadier’s daughter Kate is introduced for the first time, crossing over into mainstream Doctor Who television episodes from books and unofficial spinoffs, most notably the straight-to-video fan produced Downtime.  We are also playing with the idea of an Earthbound invasion story, with the Doctor stuck on Earth for a long time.  The Pertwee era was adept at making the mundane frightening, most notably in Terror of the Autons, and The Power of Three plays with that too.  The cubes are not everyday objects like a shop window dummy, a sofa, or a telephone, but they are pretty ordinary to start with, just simple boxes, and the length of time they stick around without doing anything makes them take on that quality of a normal object made dangerous, despite them not actually being human-made.

Some degree of logic is sacrificed to achieve this.  The cubes are obviously designed to be interesting and attractive objects that people will want to keep.  They capitalise on the old adage: curiosity killed the cat (and note what the Third Doctor identified as his failing in his final story).  But the Shakri then wait for just long enough for people to start to get bored with them, and eventually we see piles of them discarded next to the bins.  This is one of those episodes that are a huge amount of fun but you really do need to switch off the brain.  Try not to think about why the Shakri don’t just deposit them in a third of homes and have them kill people straight away.  There would have been no defence against that.  But the idea of aliens viewing humans as a pest that needs to be culled is an interesting one.  It’s something we do with animals (badgers are a controversial and recent example in the UK), so it makes perfect sense that some aliens would observe the human race and come to the conclusion that there’s too many of us.  Just as some people look at animals as inferior creatures subject to our decisions, there’s no reason why an alien race wouldn’t view us in the same way.  It’s a gloriously twisted but straightforward idea.  The Doctor’s defence is a strong one:

So, here you are, depositing slug pellets all over the Earth, made attractive so humans will collect them, hoping to find something beautiful inside. Because that’s what they are. Not pests or plague, creatures of hope, forever building and reaching.

…but that’s not so far away from the kind of speech that could be crafted about an animal.  Something attractive that makes us want to collect it?  A magpie does that.  You could interpret this as an animal welfare parable if you’re so inclined.

All this of course is the resolution to the mystery, which is held off as long as possible, because this is one story that is all about the journey rather than the destination.  That’s the point of the “power of three” reference.  Partly it’s an exercise in repeating the fun of The Lodger, with the Doctor showing off while he proves how badly he fits within a normal human existence.  If his manic approach to getting housework done inspired any children watching then this episode did a public service.  That’s all hugely enjoyable and funny to watch, but there’s more to it than that, because we mustn’t forget the presence of a very important number 4 in the story: Brian Williams.  5cubeWe shouldn’t even forget the significance of the fifth semi-regular, getting her introduction here: Kate Stewart.  And those two characters show that there is always more going on than a perfect trio.

The Power of Three in the end is a misleading title.  This is an episode that proves the importance of friendship and family.  Like a tripod, a group of three is strong, but three plus Brian and Kate… that’s not just strong.  That’s amazing.   RP

The view from across the pond:

Three; a mystical number.  The Holy Trinity: Father / Son / Holy Spirit.  Beginning / middle / end.  Past / present / future.  There’s the phrase, “third time’s a charm”.  Or the superstition that things happen in threes.  Even the symbol of Ireland, the Shamrock, has the decency to be a three leaf clover.  And on this side of the pond, what would we be if not for the red, white and blue, three colors that represent a nation?  Probably most important of all, “Who unto Rassilon’s tower would go, must choose above, between, below!”   There is power in the number three.  It’s only natural that there would be a Doctor Who episode called The Power of Three.  Perfectly natural too considering the Doctor is traveling with two of his best friends, Amy and Rory.

The problem is, barring the mythical properties around the number, there’s very little magical about this story.  It’s more of a study in duality than 3’s because it gives a stark contrast for Amy and Rory to decide what life to pursue: the exciting, non-stop action of the Doctor, or the peaceful enjoyment of growing old together on the slow path.  When the cubes arrive, Amy and Rory see that the two worlds can intersect.  It’s interesting too that these are cubes because in mathematics, to cube something is to multiple it by itself three times.  Yet, it’s the duality that faces Amy and Rory and that’s a two sided coin.  That is, unless you consider one thing: merging the two gives us a third take possibility.  There’s Doctor-life, home-life and in this very odd episode, Doctor-home-life.  It can’t happen often, but when it does, it gives us a third option that we didn’t realize could exist.  And it’s a strange story.

While the episode isn’t particularly strong, it does have some positives in its favor.  Kate Lethbridge-Stewart makes her television debut (outside of a radically different version we saw in Downtime).  Kate is marvelous.  Her attitude is so perfectly distilled from her father.  She is completely believable and instantly accepted into the Doctor Who family.  When she locates the Doctor, she comments on his clothing which is something we could easily accept coming from the Brigadier.  The slow-burn realization for the reveal that she is Kate Lethbridge Stewart (which she noticeably fails to say upon first meeting the Doctor) is a wonderful realization. Meanwhile, the Shakri are an odd alien race that never feels that threatening.  Maybe it’s the “old man” look that doesn’t seem particularly menacing.  Or maybe it’s that their name too closely resembles the name of the afterlife according to Vulcan mythology in Star Trek.  Whatever the reason, the threat in this episode never feels like it amounts to anything.  (A threat score of zero, even when cubed, still is zero!)   And in all honesty, this is a little worrisome coming from future showrunner Chris Chibnall.  Let’s hope he subscribes to J. Michael Straczynski’s belief that before a heavy episode, you have to let the audience relax because the episode that followed this one was an emotional rollercoaster ride.

And that’s the episode: it’s a slow one with a hefty dose of comedy from Smith’s Doctor, who is not good with being inactive.  It also gives us a lot of foreshadowing.  Amy gets her glasses, which the Doctor will take and use in the very next story.  Brian voices his concerns for his son and daughter-in-law that one day they won’t come home, which we see fulfilled in the very next story and there’s talk of Amy and Rory’s anniversary as a final reminder of who these two are: a husband and wife who will grow old together.  In that way, it’s a reflective episode, there to remind us of why we love Amy and Rory so much.  Even Brian, who has become a wonderful part of the cast, is signing off in this story.  The end reminds us of the power of three as the three companions walk back into the TARDIS and onto their next and final adventure.   If taken as the calm before the storm, it’s a needed respite.  What’s coming will stick with us for a long, long time…   ML

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