The Pandorica Opens

pandoricaThis article covers the episodes The Pandorica Opens and The Big Bang, which together form a single Doctor Who story, albeit one with very different individual episodes, but this is the Moffat way with two-parters.  The first thing to notice is that some key players from other episodes this series are back: Vincent Van Gogh, Edwin Bracewell, Winston Churchill, Liz Ten, and of course River Song.  As a sequel to almost every other episode this series, this rewards loyal viewers, but the flip-side is punishing disloyal ones, who would probably have been completely baffled by this, especially as it as all so complicated.  The viewing figures tend to increase for the last couple of episodes of a series, as presumably there are some viewers who only bother to tune in for the big moments.  I do not understand these people, but they do seem to exist.  Moffat actively rejects those viewers with his continuity laden plot, but we can’t have it both ways.

These two episodes are a masterclass in paying off threads woven throughout the series, and are rich with continuity references to the past.  A lot of them are incidental to the plot but are little bonuses for the long-term fans: even the Doctor’s Academy nickname gets referenced, along with some pretty obscure monsters.  Apparently the Drahvins were chosen because their name sounds cool.  Either mentioned or included in the crowd of aliens, we also get the more obvious Daleks, Cybermen, Sontarans, Silurians and Nestene, the slightly less obvious Judoon, Roboforms, Sycorax, Zygons, Draconians, Terileptils, Hoix, and the Atraxi, and then there are the positively obscure Weevils and Blowfish (Torchwood), Uvodni (Sarah Jane Adventures), Haemogoth (from tie-in novel The Forgotten Army), and the Chelonians from various New Adventures books.  It is positively all-encompassing of the wider Doctor Who universe.

We get our scariest Cyberman moment since the 60s, with the disembodied head throwing out its previous occupant and then trying to “assimilate” Amy.  Note the use of the word “assimilate”, cheekily seeming to reference the Borg who originally appeared to be cheekily similar to Cybermen.  The Autons have also developed a stage further.  We have seen them make pretty realistic duplicates before (although not in Rose!) but this time the necessity of their possession of human memories in order to be able to simulate the copied person is explored, with Auton-Rory fighting against his nature and programming due to his remembered love for Amy.  This kind of thing would normally always play out as Rory overcoming his Auton-ness because of the Power of Love, but Steven Moffat just subverts every possible expectation we could bring to this story, including the fact that the Pandorica is actually empty, when it is set up to contain some kind of super villain.

The idea of all the Doctor’s enemies teaming up to save the universe from the Doctor is fascinating, but ultimately shows just why he wins all the time because they are pretty stupid, basing their actions on the false logic that nobody else could pilot the TARDIS, whereas it surely makes much more sense that it would be exploding because he’s not around to stop the explosion.  But they buy into the fairy tale.  They believe the story, the legend.  They make the Doctor into Merlin, trapped in his magic tomb.  But the Doctor transcends that.  He makes his own legends.

And so we move from what is surely the cliffhanger to end all cliffhangers (how can you ever top the destruction of all universes?) to the Doctor making a different story, and of course being the Doctor he does that by cheating.  With not much left of the universe, he abandons the rules he normally plays by (most of the time), and has a whale of a time playing with paradoxes, including sophisticated bootstrap paradoxes where the loop has no origin point, which is probably the most difficult form of paradox to get your head around because it involves retrocausality.  So we get the Doctor effectively getting himself out of the Pandorica by giving Rory his sonic screwdriver after he is out (so how is that paradox initiated?); Amelia left a note to go to the museum, which the Doctor does because he reads the note in the future; and the Doctor shot by a Dalek and playing dead because his future self tells him to.  That last one allows for a fabulous change of tone where we move from all the fun of the timey wimey stuff to the sight of the Doctor dying.

If this kind of fun with time travel seems familiar it is because we have actually seen it before, in the Moffat’s charity sketch The Curse of Fatal Death.  How weird did that seem at the time, and such a fundamental misunderstanding of what Doctor Who does, because time travel in Doctor Who was rarely anything more than a way to get the Doctor to a new adventure.  But not here.  How audacious to do this with a Doctor Who season finale, and what a stroke of genius to make it actually work.  We end with a reset button, but it’s that rare thing in genre television: a reset button that is earned.

Something Old
Something New
Something Borrowed
Something Blue

And something very, very clever.  RP

The view from across the pond:

pandorica2Matt Smith wraps his first season as the Doctor with the two part The Pandorica Opens and The Big Bang.

As is often the case with Doctor Who, big ideas rarely seem to work as well as the smaller ones. Look at Vincent and the Doctor – absolutely a joy, but a simple episode.  But Moffat likes the big show, so he decides to do something that makes no sense whatsoever (and then does it again with The Time of the Doctor – maybe it’s the dessert gong?).  It’s like reading those big comic book events where everyone is going to be there: the Avengers, the X-Men, the Guardians of the Galaxy, the Spice Girls (well, maybe not the last ones) … and it ends up being a million people on a page doing nothing and the reader has to try to see if it makes any sense based on who is saying what.  They all get one line and because of the brevity of the medium, the lines could have been spoken by anyone!  It seems like a weak lure, but people go for it.    Moffat is one of those people.

The Pandorica Opens, um, opens with a great mystery.  The TARDIS is exploding and people from all of Smith’s first season are getting wind of it.  Ironic really, that it’s all people who have met this incarnation of the Doctor.  The Doctor and Amy then set out to find River in ancient times posing as Cleopatra and on they go to Stonehenge where a signal is pulsing out into the universe like a giant dinner gong.  And everyone comes.  I mean, free food, right?  Why not?  Not that we see many of them but we get some jolly fun references including the Chelonians from the book The Highest Science.  (Not to single them out, Tereleptils, Zygons, Drahvin… and a whole host of others hear the dinner gong too.)

I want to sidestep for a second to that rather poorly executed spin-off series, K-9.  If you were not aware that he had his own series in 2010, you didn’t miss anything.  But the first episode, Regeneration, features turtle-like creatures called… Jixen.  Why?  We had the format for the Chelonians and ignored it.  It makes me angry!  I swear to Gamera, why can’t people do their research?!

Back to the Pandorica… The Doctor gets a killer speech (“Hello Stonehenge”) to the dinner guests which is his one truly triumphant moment.  Rory is randomly back from the dead too but there’s never really much logic other than Moffat really didn’t want to write him out to begin with.  Every enemy race he’s ever encountered cram onto a two panel page of this comic book farce and announce they have all teamed up.  (Personally, I think Doctor Doom is behind it!  He’s always behind these big villain team-ups!)  The Doctor gets taken to a box to be locked up forever which lasts all of about 10 minutes.  (No wonder work days can feel like they last forever…)  Rory kills Amy, which lasts for all of about 5 minutes.   The universe blinks out of existence as the exploding TARDIS destroys everything…

Then part 2, The Big Bang, opens and says “ok, maybe not everything has been destroyed.  We might have overstated things there, but see all the other things Moffat did wrong in part one?  Watch this…” and proceeds to give us an hour of fast paced joy.

A timey-wimey opening that is just so much fun to watch, fun with two Amy’s, the Doctor shot by a Dalek, River hunting and terrifying said Dalek, the Doctor getting better from the Dalek blast and saving reality, at least one “Geronimo”, some genuinely magnificent music, a great wrap up where Rory announces at his wedding that he was made of plastic, and a fun wedding dance that I have as a gif to use in so many happy birthday texts… part two makes up for the idiocy of part one.  Like the Doctor himself, part two saves the day.  But I do think Moffat almost lost the plot somewhere along the way and only saved it with a little luck.

What is weird about it is that right after that episode aired, and I wish I were kidding about this, we found a fez in the house.  Now, I’m still not sure where it came from, but I’m betting it had something to do with a rather universal reboot…  Thanks Doctor!  Your first season went out with a bang.  A big one, at that.   ML

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The Fifth Doctor Who Annual

annual6970In line with the other Sixties annuals, the fifth features a good quantity of illustrations, many of which are in full colour. The quality of the artwork is variable, and is generally far superior in the two comic strips, The Vampire Plants and The Robot King, both of which manage to capture the likenesses of Patrick Troughton, Frazer Hines and Wendy Padbury extremely well. Elsewhere, the illustrations are less successful, and the Jamie and Zoe of most of the annual bear no real resemblance to their television counterparts. There are basic mistakes like an inaccurately shaped TARDIS, and the Doctor is often seen wearing his stovepipe hat, a feature only of his earliest television adventures.

The short stories are written to the usual reasonable standard, obviously aimed at children, but quite entertaining despite occasionally seeming rather patronising. The Dragons of Kekokro is a dinosaur story with a twist that gets the annual off to a good start, despite Dr. Who still speaking very much in the manner of his first incarnation (referring to Jamie and Zoe as ‘my children’, for example).

“I told you, child,” said the doctor loftily.  “Those are dinosaurs, my dear, the dominant living species of this era of the Earth’s history.  This will be the Jurassic Age, I should think, millions of years in the past of our own planet.  Most interesting, most interesting indeed.”

Which Doctor does that remind you of?  “Loftily” isn’t a very Troughton adjective.  The problem continues throughout the annual, and it sometimes seems that nobody working on the annuals had ever bothered to watch the show since 1965. Certainly the author of The Mystery of the Marie Celeste never watched The Chase.

“To think we’ve solved two mysteries, Doctor,” said Jamie.  “The mystery of the Marie Celeste and the reality of the sea-serpent.”

“And not a soul in the whole wide world would believe a word we said,” grinned the doctor.

The Singing Crystals is an interesting one, in that it foreshadows some of the things Doctor Who will eventually do on television, with something normal being made monstrous, and a creepy entity recorded on a reel to reel tape machine, and compromising the safety of the Tardis.

Grip of Ice is a run-of-the-mill aliens with “ray guns” and robots story, which plays on the Second Doctor era theme of cold locations (as does The Singing Crystals), but the robot of Man Friday is much more entertaining, unintentionally hilarious with its single, huge leg.  The depictions of aliens throughout the annual seems to be shooting for casual racism, with Cosmos in Grip of Ice described as a humanoid with “several deviations”, including “slant eyes”, and the creatures in Man Friday “ugly and misshapen and black, as would befit creatures from the bowels of the earth”.  Luckily, the latter is subverted when it turns out that all they want is peace.

Slave of Shran features the obligatory giant insects, this time cockroaches, and Run the Gauntlet sees the Tardis land on a jungle world.

“If you think I’m going out for a picnic in those woods, you’re mistaken!” grunted Jamie.

Jamie does a lot of “grunting” throughout the annual.  In fact, the writers’ default interpretation of his character is grumpy Scotsman.  Their default interpretation of Zoe is the woman one.  You know, that gender that does the sewing:

I borrowed some of your thread, Zoe, and unwound it as I came in search of you.  I got the idea from an old Greek legend I read at school.

The final story in the annual, A Thousand & One Doors, reveals that we are living in the “Five Hundred and Third Universe” and there are doors between the universes.  Ours has been sealed off because of all that nasty poisonous stuff called “oxygen”.   The annual concludes with the description of a “fantastic horror in the torn spacesuit, its very organs burning as the oxygen got at them.”  Just in time for the child of 1969 to go off and enjoy their tea.  Those were the days.   RP

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Six Degrees of Who: Detectorists

detectoristsSomething quite beautiful has just come to an end.  Written by Mackenzie Crook, who also plays one of the main characters (Andy), Detectorists is a gentle comedy following the lives of two best friends who share the same hobby: metal detecting.  Over the course of three perfect series, Detectorists explores their lives and those of their friends and enemies, including other members of their metal detecting club.  As always with our Six Degrees articles, before we look at the themes of Detectorists and make some comparisons with Doctor Who, let’s take a look at some superficial connections that might interest fans of either or both series: the actors who crossed over between them.

Toby Jones (Lance) played the Dream Lord in Amy’s Choice.  Rachel Stirling (Becky) played Ada in The Crimson Horror and her real life mother Diana Rigg plays her mother in Detectorists and also did the same thing in The Crimson Horror, Mrs Gillyflower.  Gerard Horan (Terry) played Clark (Father of Mine) in Human Nature.  Lucy Benjamin (Maggie) played the child version of Nyssa in Mawdryn Undead, believe it or not.  Other actors with minor roles in Detectorists include Rachel Bell (Priscilla P in The Happiness Patrol) and Kevin Eldon (Antimony in Death Comes to Time).

If you have not seen all three series of Detectorists and have any intention of watching them, stop reading now, because there are spoilers ahead.  Really, just go and buy them.  You will be treating yourself to 19 of the best episodes of television ever made.  Come back and read the rest of this article afterwards.

At its heart, Detectorists is about friendship.  While Andy and Lance go through struggles in their personal lives, the one constant is their time together, enjoying the simple pleasure of their shared hobby in the beautiful English countryside.  It shows us how you don’t have to change the world or be someone “important” for your life to have meaning: family and friendships are what matters.  Andy is constantly set up as somebody who is failing in life, never able to settle to a career.  His jobs mirror his hobby, always sweeping some object over the ground, whether it be a mop or a strimmer or a weed killer spray that he has left the weed killer out of.  When he eventually gets a job in his longed-for field of archaeology, it is just a sham.  His marriage is constantly placed under strain: by the flirtation of a younger woman in the first series, his fear of a big life change in the second, and his lack of job success in the third, but he loves his wife and that is what matters.  Lance on the other hand is settled in his job but his personal life is a mess.  His ex-wife is making use of him, and then when another woman is on the scene he has commitment issues.  A long-lost daughter turns up and turns his life upside down.  The three series give us three aspects of life: relationships, marriage/commitment, and finally finding a place in the world where you belong.

The metal detecting hobby is in one respect about the path to success, never giving up, and the commitment and time that takes, but on the other hand it is also a parable of how the journey is more important than the destination.  There is a joy in insignificant finds, and for Terry an unearthed button can be an emotional moment.  There are also rivalries and careful reading between the lines will reveal the root cause of those rivalries.  Their resolution is joyful.

So, like Doctor Who, Detectorists explores what we might loosely classify as the meaning of life through the lens of a specific genre.  Both series explore what matters.  And both series come to the same conclusion: friendship.  Time and time again the Doctor is shown to be a flawed character who relies on the company of friends to make him so much better than he ever could be on his own.  Detectorists shows the friendship between Andy and Lance as a lifeline to them both in times of trouble, but also their wider friendships are of great significance, particularly with the other metal detecting club members.  And they all have their own paths to follow.  There is one gloriously subtle thread running through Detectorists that puts it ahead of the game in terms of anything else on television: a lesbian relationship that is completely underplayed and just there.  Never shouted about, never made a thing of, just incidental and fully accepted and normalised, just as it should be.  The final episode gives us the defining moment in that plot strand and it just happens quietly in the background, another beautiful dramatic beat among many.  I defy anyone not to get emotional at that moment.  Nothing else on television has ever shown such a level of maturity.  Doctor Who might get there one day.  It’s heading in the right direction.   RP

The view from across the pond:

It’s a particularly cold weekend in March of 2017. My wife has gone to see family for the weekend, overseas. I have to bring the kids to their weekend obligation and won’t have them back until Sunday. My friends are busy. I’ve just completed the latest game I’ve been playing and I’m not sure what to do for the next couple days. I come home from dropping the kids off, open the mailbox and see a package sent from England. Roger has sent me a little unexpected surprise: Season 1 of Detectorists. Six 30-minute episodes; well, doesn’t sound like something I’d go searching the lonely earth for, but why not? I’ll watch one episode and put something else on…

Three hours later, I have finished the first season and am dying to re-watch it with my wife. I want more! How could there only be 6 episodes? It’s mellow. It’s sweet. It’s about friendship and relationships and life. It’s funny. And it’s poignant. The opening music is a regular on my Amazon Echo and it’s pretty damned poignant too. One can only hope to have someone that will go to such lengths for each of us. (You’ll have to listen to know what I mean!)

When my wife returned, we sat to watch it the very next weekend. After episode one she said, “is that all there is?” I was surprised, I thought she’d like it more. Then she said, “Put the next one on”. It seems she was just expecting another show like all the others, and this is definitely not like any other show I’ve ever seen. A few hours later, after we finished season 1, she asked if there was more, and I tracked it down along with a Christmas Special. Eventually season 3 came and finalized this marvelous series. We are both still pining for more, but a good series knows how to go out on a high note and this is no exception.

There are a lot of great shows out there. If you want action and mystery, this isn’t the show for you. But if you want a gentle, relaxing show that makes you laugh and appreciate life, something to unwind with and characters to spend time with, you’d be hard pressed to find anything else like this. Mackenzie Crook gave us a real treat when he made this one, and Roger did shared that treat with us, for which we are still grateful! Seriously, seek it out and give it a shot.

It’s waiting for you…   ML

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The Trial of a Time Lord

trialAll this week we have been looking at the individual sections of The Trial of a Time Lord, although it was actually broadcast as one 14-part story.  In retrospect the whole thing seems like an odd decision.  After a longer than usual break between seasons, this was an opportunity to bring in some new viewers for what would have felt like a fresh start, but having only one jumping on point is a disadvantage.  The trial scenes themselves do get terribly repetitive, but we are looking through a lens of binge-viewing rather than watching one episode per week.  There is no reason not to accord this the same respect as, for example, the Hartnell era, where the only sensible approach to viewing is to make some allowances for the episodic nature of the show.  It is tempting to criticise on the grounds that the VHS schedule was under way, and at this point there were seven Doctor Who stories available to buy, so John Nathan-Turner knew that this would eventually have a life beyond the viewers’ episodic consumption of the story, but really everyone had enough to worry about getting the thing made, let along having to think about making it work for two different media.

A couple of things are apparent right from the start of the story.  Firstly we are back to 25 minute episodes, which seemed at this point to be Doctor Who’s natural format, with everyone having failed to grasp that you can’t just write 45 minute episodes as if they are two 25 minute ones stuck together, without actually picking up the pace a bit.  But the episode count remains at 14 weeks, so in effect the amount of material we get is halved.  Secondly a lot of money seems to have been spent on this.  At least, that’s the impression we get from the clever idea of putting a lot of money on screen in the opening shot.  The space station is a model shot with a motion-control camera, and it looks more than a decade ahead of its time.  As a television special effect in 1986 it was astonishing.

But why are we on a space station at all?  Is it just an excuse for a fancy bit of effects work?  The whole story is a mess, but deep under the surface seems to be the suggestion that these Time Lords are from the Doctor’s future.  That is one of only two possibilities, as the Valeyard himself is from the Doctor’s future.  Either that, or the Valeyard has travelled into the past and engineered everything, but the ridiculous kangaroo-court nature of the proceedings would suggest that at least some of the Time Lords here are complicit in the Valeyard’s scheme, and have brought the Doctor forward in time from his past.    This is supported by just about everything else we see.  The Matrix was previously shown to be a dangerous process to enter, requiring special equipment, but now there is just a door to it on a space station.  Plus, the Doctor is able to use evidence from one of his future adventures, so unless you throw all notions of linearity out of the window and try to rationalise Time Lords somehow living in a fatalistic universe with knowledge of everything that will happen to them then this has to be the future from the point of view of the Doctor and his own personal timeline.  In retrospect it is tempting to place this during or post Time War.

But we’re groping around in the dark here because the whole thing is so incoherent.  Whether filming was started before the season arc had been mapped out or not, it certainly comes across as if it was being made up as they went along, and that was definitely the case with the clumsy retconning of Peri’s death.  The fault here is not so much with the reversal of what happened, which was really something that had to be done if JNT was going to be seen to have taken any notice whatsoever of the too-violent criticisms of the previous year.  The fault is with the decision to kill a companion in such a brutal way in the first place.  There is one thing having a companion die a heroic death, but having an alien transplanted into her head in a way that mimics brain surgery, with all her hair shaved off as well, is just not something Doctor Who could or should ever do.  The retcon is accomplished by taking a shot from Mindwarp and placing it into soft-focus, so the Doctor seems either (a) uncaring, or (b) an idiot, to swallow that story without going to investigate things himself, as he never actually sees any evidence of Peri being still alive; it could just as easily be a bit more tampering with the evidence.  Even if it isn’t, she wasn’t exactly head over heels in love with Yrcanos.  Anti-feminist doesn’t even begin to cover it.  A couple of words to the effect that he will visit her soon and make sure she is happy would have helped, at the very least.

But the Doctor is basically portrayed as a complete idiot throughout the whole story.  He never says the obvious things that the viewers must be thinking in his defence.  His objections to the Valeyard consist of claims of tampering with the evidence and not much else, but the limitations of the distortion of evidence really only relate to whether he is self-centered, self-serving and uncaring or not.  His focus on that distinction kind of proves the Valeyard’s point, when he could instead be defending himself from the point of view of what he actually achieves in the first and third pieces of evidence, saving huge numbers of people on both occasions.  Mindwarp is the one story where he is comprehensively defeated and he never calls out the Time Lords on taking him out of the action when he was about to put things right, instead of allowing it all to end in a massacre.  How can he be expected to answer for the consequences of an adventure he was never allowed to complete?  How many times does the Doctor turn things around at the last minute?  To cut off the conclusion and blame him for the ensuing deaths is utterly bizarre, and the Doctor never makes that point strongly enough.  Then later in the story the whole nature of the charges he is facing gets changed on a whim, as if that makes even a grain of sense.

The structure of the story is that of A Christmas Carol, with a segment from past, present (leading up to the events of the trial) and future.  But the whole point of A Christmas Carol is that Scrooge changes his ways, and despite the Doctor saying he does so, we see no real progress.  His behaviour towards Peri in The Mysterious Planet has already been moderated from the previous series, so in the end there is little noticeable difference between that relationship and the one with Mel, apart from the distorted relationship as shown in the unreliable evidence that is Mindwarp.  The Doctor apparently ends the story every bit as egotistical, arrogant and non-Doctorish as this flawed incarnation has been all along, and the upshot of it all is that this is the last we will see of him.  This is the version of A Christmas Carol where Scrooge doesn’t change, and pays the price with his life.   RP

The view from across the pond:

Over the course of the last week, we’ve been examining The Trial of a Time Lord as 4 individual stories, but I submit that we should look at the Trial itself as well.

This story had an incredible foundation: the Doctor is on trial for interfering in the affairs of others.  The Valeyard offers evidence to illustrate why the Doctor should be punished and the Doctor has to offer his own defense.  I think someone should make a new Trial complete with the scenes from inside the courtroom but different evidence.  Exhibit A: back at the end of season 2 of Star Trek: The Next Generation, in an episode called Shades of Gray, Riker is injured and re-lives moments from the past two seasons.  This idea could have been a fan’s dream come true.  Still a new story with C. Baker on trial, but using clips from all the former Doctors.  If this were done now, “future” evidence could be submitted, like that of The Day of the Doctor for the Doctor’s defense.  Sadly, that wasn’t the way it went down.  Instead we had one horrible story, one fairly weak story, one reasonably good story and a finale that runs the range from weak to strong at various intervals.

But the trial itself is actually quite good.  It’s probably the best thing about this epic.  I submit that the dialog is actually very enjoyable.  One of my favorite moments is so basic but so underutilized in television writing.

Doctor: I protest!
Inquisitor: What now?
Doctor: Yes, now!
Inquisitor: I meant, what are you protesting about this time?

Yes, the misunderstanding.  It’s something that happens all the time in the real world but it is never utilized in storytelling.  I was impressed with the use here even though it’s a gloriously minor moment.

I further submit that the Doctor’s outbursts and calling the Valeyard by various names, such as boatyard, is quite fun to watch.  But to be equally fair, I’d equally argue that name-calling should not be in the Doctor’s arsenal of tricks, however under the circumstances of a vast charade, it can be permitted. And considering he ends up calling himself all these things, it’s less name calling and ends up being self-deprecating.

I do think the final part has merit being called The Ultimate Foe because it represents that the greatest enemy we face is ourselves. But that begs the questions: can the Valeyard really be considered a villain?   We are lead to believe he’s trying to kill the members of the high council as well as the Doctor, but even the Valeyard is unaffected by the explosion and he was right next to it.  So is the Valeyard merely a trickster?  Does anyone actually die at the hands of the Valeyard?  The explosion in the Matrix can be a mental projection and not real, so why take it at face value that he intended to harm anyone at all?  And the Doctor wonders for years if he is a good man, both in dreams (Amy’s Choice) and throughout his 12th incarnation.  That inner demon might also explain why so many pieces of evidence are self-destructive.  The Doctor-side of the Valeyard makes him choose evidence that is damning his cause, while the Valeyard-side of the Doctor makes him choose equally damning footage (like genocide) for his defense.  Can we actually beat our ultimate foe?  I contest that we cannot and the Doctor is no less vulnerable to that.  The Valeyard represents it, but as an idea, cannot ever be beaten or ignored, but never needs to come back as a result because, effectively, he’s always there, in the Doctor’s memory.  And that makes it an amazing idea.

Where I feel there’s a failure on the part of the writing comes from a few places.  First, the Inquisitor herself.  At the end of Mindwarp, she is all too aware of the death of Peri, but later the Master tells the court that Peri lives.  Was she or was she not aware of Peri’s death?  Was she just trying to antagonize the Doctor into being upset and needing a week between episodes to feel a bit better?  I contest that she was not running her courtroom well because she had to know what happened to comment on it, or she was just being willfully cruel.

Another thing that makes me cringe is how many episodes gave us a cliffhanger ending that was merely a close up of the Doctor’s face.  What sort of filming is this?  Yes, he’s under stress, but a zoom in to the actors face might work once.  To try that same trick repeatedly is evil incarnate.  Daleks, Sontarans, Cybermen, cameramen with zooming lenses… evil, degenerate and rotten to the core.  This was worse than those lens flares in Star Trek (2009).  Lastly, that Mel goes off with the Doctor makes no sense.  It would have been easy enough to say the Time Lords were putting her back in her own timeline even if the next episode as planning on picking up where it left off.  But considering it was a McCoy episode that followed, it would have actually made it more convenient to “slip her back into her own timeline” and then there was endless creative potential to do book versions of their first meeting and carry on until Baker’s “end” and McCoy’s beginning.

Objection: speculating unnecessarily.
Sustained.  Please conclude your missive…

Verdict: I was very happy with the trial.  It’s not flawless.  I’d argue that it is flawed, but enjoyable despite those flaws. Like the Doctor, it fights with its own inner demons.  It can never overthrow them but they serve as a great reminder for what we want to avoid in the future.   ML

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The Ultimate Foe

ultimatefoeBetween Seasons 22 and 23 Doctor Who was taken off air for a year longer than normal, and for its return the producer, John Nathan-Turner, was instructed to make it less violent.  If hiring the writer of Vengeance on Varos for four of the episodes seems like an odd decision in light of that fact, how about this: two episodes that take inspiration from the nightmarish Matrix episode of The Deadly Assassin, the last time that violence in Doctor Who caused a big fuss.  As decisions go it kind of defies explanation.

I would say that the end result was inevitably going to be a watered down version of the Matrix horror, which is what we get, but when you consider that we didn’t actually get a watered down version of a Philip Martin script (quite the opposite) then it doesn’t seem so inevitable after all.  Nonetheless, watered-down Deadly Assassin is what we have here.  It’s still quite creepy at times and a lot of fun, in particular the Victorian setting with children singing Ring-a-Ring-o-Roses in the background, and the hands dragging the Doctor into quicksand.  The Valeyard might not have the single-minded aim of hunting down the Doctor and killing him that we saw with Goth in The Deadly Assassin, but the battle between them is interesting because the Valeyard sets himself up as a bureaucratic enemy in the form of Popplewick.  Fighting against bureaucracy is always territory worth exploring for the Doctor, and in fact it picks up on the theme of the Doctor’s trial, a thinly-veiled critique of the trials Doctor Who itself was being subjected to at the time.  The use of Popplewick as a direct lift from The Pickwick Papers is interesting, because Pickwick is actually anti-establishment despite being from the establishment (doesn’t that just perfectly describe the Doctor!), for example fighting against money-grabbing lawyers, so this is the Valeyard wanting to be the Doctor but getting it backwards.  Popplewick is the Doctor as bureaucrat, rather than the Doctor as a force to fight bureaucracy, or perhaps simply an example of the Valeyard throwing the Doctor’s pet hate at him.

We will look at the overarching Trial story and the scenes in the courtroom throughout the whole series tomorrow, but it is worth mentioning here a bit of the background to the final two episodes, as it is important to understanding what we are watching here.  It is fairly well-trodden territory, but just as a very basic run-down:

  • Robert Holmes was supposed to be the writer of these two episodes, but sadly passed away before he could finish the second.
  • Script Editor Eric Saward stepped in and finished the scripts.
  • John Nathan-Turner rejected Saward’s work and Saward resigned.
  • John Nathan-Turner hired Pip and Jane Baker to write a new Part 14, based only on the script for Part 13.  For reasons of copyright, they were not even allowed to see the original Holmes/Saward Part 14, so were completely unaware of the intended resolution to the complex Trial of a Time Lord series arc.  The Bakers had only a few days to accomplish this.

So it is worth taking a quick look at what might have been, had the Saward/Holmes Part 14 gone ahead: the Valeyard was the 13th Doctor (not an inbetweeny thing) who was afraid of dying and wanted to steal the 6th Doctor’s remaining regenerations to live those lives all over again.  The episode ended with the Valeyard and the Doctor fighting to the death, both trapped forever.

Now, it’s pretty obvious that there are a couple of issues with this, and it’s not hard to see why JNT said no.  Firstly, if you have any kind of belief in the long-term prospects of the show then you don’t want to actually make a future incarnation of the Doctor evil.  In fact, if you have any understanding of the character of the Doctor, you don’t want to do that either.  The presence of the Master makes all this very odd indeed, because he is already our dark mirror of the Doctor, so the Doctor doesn’t exactly need to mirror himself.  JNT’s main reason is actually more debatable, because he didn’t want to provide something that seemed like the end of Doctor Who, to give the BBC an excuse to cancel it.  This seems logical, but then again I can’t see it could ever have been a factor in any decision-making process.  If the Beeb wanted to cancel Doctor Who after Season 23 then that’s what would have happened.  I can’t see that the ending of Part 14, or indeed anything that happens within the fictional world of Doctor Who, would ever have played into that kind of decision.  This is the organisation that is quite happy to let Class forever linger on a cliffhanger and I don’t see that things have massively changed in that respect over the years.  So it was the right decision but for probably the wrong reasons.

The one thing I really want to take from all of this is the understanding that the original ending to Trial was going to be complete and utter clichéd, melodramatic drivel.  Pip and Jane Baker don’t exactly have the strongest of reputations amongst Doctor Who fans, but let’s pause for a minute to reflect on the fact that they saved the day here, and did so under astonishing time constraints.  They took the mess that had been assembled over the previous 13 weeks and actually fathomed out something reasonably coherent to wrap it all up.  The identity of the Valeyard might be frustratingly vague, but that is a million times better than actually making him the 13th Doctor.  This was the day that Pip and Jane Baker saved Doctor Who.

We’ll look at the whole weird and wonderful(ish) story arc of The Trial of a Time Lord tomorrow.   RP

The view from across the pond:

Accused of genocide at the end of Terror of the Vervoids, the Doctor is in trouble. But help arrives in a rather odd way: two travel pods show up on the station; one containing Sabalom Glitz and the other, Mel Bush.  (How she wasn’t deaf from her own squawking is anyone’s guess!)  How did they arrive?  The Master has been watching the proceedings and is not happy with the way things are going.  So much so, that he actually tries to help his mortal enemy by sending these two as character references.  And the big reveal is made.  The ultimate foe, for whom the story is titled, is not the Master or the Daleks or the Mire but our own inner destructive tendencies. The Valeyard is the Doctor!  A future incarnation to be precise.

I had been building to this all week: the reason the Valeyard makes so many bad choices in the evidence he selects against the Doctor and the reason the Doctor does the same in his defense is that they are both facing that inner destructive power: the ultimate foe.  So how do we overcome that enemy of our own making, and for the trial, how will the Doctor?  With matter dissemination, obviously.

The final story of the Trial is both magnificent and awful.  The Doctor chases the Valeyard into the Matrix where everything is created by the mind.  (If it sounds like the movie The Matrix, there’s a damned good reason for it!)  It’s a sort of Alice-in-Wonderland world where nothing is as it seems.  It’s also the place we will see the ups and downs of the episode.  For instance, the Valeyard is creating a waking nightmare for the Doctor so, obviously, that will entail waiting rooms and red tape.  While this is probably very close approximation of hell (only lacking telemarketers and automated answering systems) the entire Mr. Popplewick stuff gets tired quickly.  It’s weak and barring the occasional laugh (like opening a door one is advised against opening only to have a blast of fire come out), it shouldn’t have lasted more than 5 minutes but instead feels interminable.  By contrast, the scenes on the beach are marvelous with the Valeyard disappearing and reappearing closer and closer to the Doctor.   Visually, a treat!  Sadly, Glitz decides to crack some wise comment ruining the otherwise ominous effect.  Also amazing is watching the Doctor getting pulled under the sand by hands from below.  Unfortunately this gets resolved too quick and ridiculously.   Plus I must ask my friends across the pond: do your sneakers (tennis shoes) all come with little jackets of their own?  We don’t have that here.  If you grab my sneakers as I’m pulled under the sand, you’re not getting little garments that my sneakers wear to the beach… you’re getting my sneakers!

But that all said, the tighter story line (2 parts) works reasonable well for it.  Going back for another battle in the Matrix is the biggest thing in common with the two Bakers – both Tom and Colin find themselves in the Matrix battling an enemy that knows the “terrain” better than he does.  What fails horribly is the idea that the Matrix is so easily accessed.  It’s supposed to be the most impressive computer system created by the most impressive technology in the universe.  But there’s an actual key to get into it and it can be copied…  And you wonder why you missed the Mogarian “oversight”?   The notion that the Valeyard survives is not hard to believe in a world in which you can mentally manipulate everything.  All he has to do is “play dead” and it might look like he really does die.  But the lack of ever getting another battle with him in the series is a disappointment.  The one and only thing it does do is lends credence to Capaldi’s constant questioning: “am I a good man?” because he knows what his future was supposed to look like.

Doctor Who attempted something epic.  Was it?  Was it a good ending for Colin’s Doctor or did it precipitate a premature death?  Did it help or hinder the series overall? Tomorrow we’ll take a look at the linking strands: the Trial itself and cast our verdict!   ML

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Terror of the Vervoids

melvervoidsThis is our future installment of the Trial evidence, and the Doctor is travelling with a new companion.  Mel’s main function at the outset seems to be to get the Doctor to exercise, rather bizarrely and cruelly calling attention to his weight gain: “it’s your waistline I’m concerned about.”  The intention seems to be to show this as a more chummy Doctor/companion relationship with a bit of friendly banter.  With the introduction of Mel the show is finally starting to evolve away from the worst tendencies of the Sixth Doctor’s era.  She wears more clothes for a start.  She is also not defined by being a victim and nothing else, possessing computer skills, intelligence and independence, plus a desire to go exploring and solve mysteries herself.  Yes, she’s a screamer, but there is a clear evolution of the companion role from Peri to Mel to Ace, and we are on the right track.  The casting of Bonnie Langford was unpopular with fans at the time, who felt that it was stunt casting, the kind of wonky thinking that led to similar objections when Billie Piper and Catherine Tate were cast in companion roles.  Mel may not be in the same league as Rose or Donna, but when you consider the material Langford had to work with she actually did a great job of bringing some real charm and quirkiness to a series that had been completely lacking any for the preceding eight episodes.

It’s just a shame Mel is forever remembered for her ability to scream in the same key as the theme music.  Having said that, it’s a fabulous cliffhanger and she really sells the moment, making a refreshing change from John Nathan-Turner’s bizarre insistence on ending virtually every episode on a closeup of the Doctor’s face.  Never was a producer so in love with the reaction shot as a storytelling medium.

At its heart this is obviously a whodunnit, and in the best Agatha Christie traditions nearly everyone has a motive and is guilty of something, but not necessarily the crime being investigated.  There is a maze of ulterior motives behind people’s actions, ranging from wanting to hijack the ship, to wanting to make money out of the Vervoids, to being a secret detective, to roping in the Doctor to help without simply asking him.  It would all work rather well if matters weren’t still being confused by the question of whether what we are watching is reliable evidence or not, but it’s still a whole lot of fun to try to figure out what’s going on.

This is all a very refreshing change from the bleak tone of the last few episodes.  Pip and Jane Baker always tailored their scripts towards a family audience far more than most writers from the same era.  They were skillful in building the story to a point where it can raise the stakes for the final section of the Trial (although we will get to the clumsiness surrounding all that on Friday), with the manner of the Vervoids’ defeat: all very competent and it works efficiently.  As writers they were safe pairs of hands.  However, they could be unambitious and this is a good example.

The Doctor’s act of genocide is a reasonable solution to the problem he faces… for anyone who isn’t the Doctor.  He quite fairly makes the point that when the choice was the destruction of the Vervoids or allowing them to wipe out all life on Earth, he did the best thing.  But it shows a strange naivety to choose evidence for his trial in which he wipes out an entire species, on the grounds that he saved Earth, without the thought occurring to him that there is anything wrong with genocide until it gets pointed out.  This is entirely inconsistent with several key moments in the show’s past.  In fact it is inconsistent with the character of the Doctor, full stop.  How much better would it have been if he had found a third way: a solution that saved both races, something nobody else would have thought to do.  There would have then been a strong coherence to his choice of this particular future evidence, as that really is a good definition of the Doctor.  He is a man who is often faced with two horrible choices, and chooses the third one.  But not today.   RP

The view from across the pond:

The Doctor gets a chance to defend himself in Terror of the Vervoids.  This is the third story of the Trial of a Time Lord season-arc and we are thrown into a murder mystery worthy of Agatha Christie.  And a heck of a mystery it is too!

Let’s start with the annoying things first.  Two words: Mel Bush.  No, it’s not that she’s actually bad, she’s just sort of a doped up cheerleader.  Bubbly to the point of annoying and worse, she’s introduced as a future companion.  We don’t ever get to meet her and go through the whole “bigger on the inside thing” with her!  At the point she joins up with the Doctor, she’s known him for some time, but at the end of the trial, she goes off with the Doctor, so was her first encounter with him always on the trial ship?  Then there’s Commodore Travers, who the Doctor seems to have met before, but with all of his episodes, we’ve never seen him, so it’s all new to the viewers.  (I’d argue that he should have been played by Leslie Nielson, and we could have tied it this character right in to The Forbidden Planet, but no one thought of that.)  There’s also Professor Lasky, a sharp-tongued annoying scientist who is just about as snarky as you can get without being thrown out of an airlock.

vervoidThen there’s the flip side.  The mystery is really quite good.  And unlike so many mysteries on television, there is a clue left in plain sight for the viewer to figure things out.  You don’t have to be a genius, but you do have to pay attention.  Unfortunately, when it is revealed, if you missed it, you smack yourself like you wanted a V-8 but there’s one little fact that you, oh viewer, can take solace in: Doctor Who often bungled things due to budgetary constraints, so if you did see it and thought nothing of it, it could be that you thought it was an oversight!  Don’t beat yourself up!  The Vervoids themselves are actually a terrifying race.  I love a good plant race that wants to eat humans or make compost heaps out of us.  As one human is slowly transformed into a Vervoid, the effect is deeply disturbing, enhanced by the beating vein on the young woman’s face.  But as far as their looks go… there’s something about their faces that is slightly uncomfortable to look at.  (Remember, I don’t like the Doctor commenting on alien’s looks, but I’m not the Doctor and I can say… there’s something off-putting about this creature!  Go on, tell me I’m wrong!)

I won’t spoil the big mystery here, even if the episode is 30 years old.  (I cried as I typed that.)  It’s still the first solid piece of the trial and hold up fairly well.

The biggest thing to come out of the episode is proof that neither the Doctor nor the Valeyard know how to use evidence to make a case.  The Valeyard shows enough evidence of wrongdoing that he should have been thrown out of court for being a dolt.  But the Doctor finds evidence that shows him committing genocide.  He couldn’t have found better evidence?  (Like maybe the events of The Day of the Doctor?)

I’ll say one major negative about the story though, and it’s a major screw up.  By allowing this idea that future events could be viewed in the Matrix, there’s no reason to ever question the Doctor’s judgment again.  And by allowing that into the history of the show, it takes away from things like the Time War because it implies they could see it coming.  Furthermore, the seer, who warns Rassilon “burning, burning, so burning…” is an over-paid fraud.  All they’d have to do is go into the Matrix, view a future event, and realize the Doctor would save Gallifrey.  Why go through the motions?

Maybe the Time War erases it all.  Maybe it works like rewriting the script.  Let’s hope so.  Otherwise, we may find out that a lot of the history of the show was made up to appease a bad writer…   ML

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mindwarpI like to try to be as positive as possible about every Doctor Who story, so let’s start with this: the Quantel Paintbox effects shot is stunning for the time, and Brian Blessed is HUGE fun as Yrcanos.  Without him to provide some form of entertainment, this would be simply unwatchable.  Sorry, but it’s all negatives from here.  I tried.

Peri is a lot of fun as a companion, entirely thanks to Nicola Bryant being brilliant, but unfortunately is the one who gets the roughest ride, existing almost exclusively to be the victim of men.  Even more unfortunately, one of those men is the Doctor, who in his sixth incarnation has been subjecting her to mental (and initially physical) abuse right from the start, and never really stopped.  The Mysterious Planet showed the potential of a relationship between Peri and the Doctor that worked a bit better, and now Mindwarp shows how well Peri could actually function within a broader companion role than simply being captured and getting rescued.  A key aspect of a companion’s character should always be to learn how to step in and be like the Doctor when he’s not around.  At last, Peri gets to do that, with the Doctor no longer a reliable hero, and she does it very well, right up until we get to that moment where things become too serious for her to win through on her own.  This is normally the point at which we expect the Doctor to show up and help, but it never happens.  Leaving aside the retcon later in The Trial of a Time Lord, we end this segment of the 14 week season with Peri dead, having been killed in the most horrific way.  We’ll look at the retcon later in the week when we try to muddle our way through the overarching plot of the whole 14 episodes.

I have to acknowledge at this point that the death scene is extremely impressive.  Nicola Bryant really goes for it, sells what has happened and makes it as disturbing as she can, which is all she could be expected to do with the material she was given.  But disturbing at this point is the last thing we need.

When Doctor Who was taken off air between the last season and this one, the main criticism thrown at it was that it had become too violent.  So it is something of an odd decision, just four weeks into the new run, to bring back the writer of Vengeance on Varos, one of the most violent stories of the previous series, and then have him do something similar but even more extreme, complete with body horror (and not just Peri: the Lukoser is also a huge step too far into that kind of territory).  All the good work done by Robert Holmes with the Doctor and Peri’s relationship is undone immediately, the Doctor becomes her torturer, and finally she has her hair shaved off (note this is humiliation, not just murder) and another creature takes over her body.  Some of the same themes in Vengeance are retrodden.  After the Doctor tortures Peri on the Rock of Sorrows, Sil has this to say about it:

Just like in the old days. There’s nothing more enjoyable that watching people suffer.

But it’s not enjoyable for the viewers.  Bizarrely we are taken to a place in the story where we simply don’t like the Doctor any more.  This is not just one of those moments where we are a bit unsure of his motivations, only for him to do something brilliant and we say “ah yes, that’s what he was up to”.  No, there is really no way to respond to what we are shown other than to thoroughly dislike the man.

PERI: What’s happened to you, Doctor? Why do you hate me so?
DOCTOR: I must do what I think is best.
PERI: I used to think that you were different, that you cared for justice and truth and good. I can’t bear to look at what you are now.

YRCANOS: Now, Doctor, it is your turn to die.

And at that point we just want him to kill the Doctor and make the idiot regenerate into somebody better, because any viewer who cares about what Doctor Who stands for has had enough.

A lot of this is blamed on the confusion over what exactly is going on here.  Option 1: Is the Doctor bluffing, only to be snatched away before he had a chance to carry out some clever plan?  Option 2: Is the Matrix lying?  Option 3: Or is he just a nasty piece of work, perhaps affected by brainwashing?  It is important to note that Colin Baker tried to find out how he was supposed to play all this stuff, and couldn’t get an answer so he was abandoned to act out a script that made little sense, unaware of his motivations at any point.  Which is absolutely appalling, and I think we should remember that little of the blame of what goes wrong during the Colin Baker era is actually anything to do with Colin Baker.  His work with Big Finish proves how amazing his Doctor could have been.  But the fact that Option 3 above even feels like a possibility shows how badly the characterisation of the Sixth Doctor has already gone astray.

Eventually I’m going to have to get around to writing about The Twin Dilemma, which was the point at which I stopped watching Doctor Who as a child, only returning to the show when the Doctor had regenerated once again.  Subsequently I have found plenty to enjoy, watching Colin Baker’s stories, but I am still very glad that I made that decision, because I really wouldn’t have wanted to watch this kind of sadistic, cynical rubbish as a child.  Peri’s entire time with the Sixth Doctor objectifies her, and it’s pretty revolting.  Doctor Who had forgotten how to be family viewing and instead was appealing to… well I don’t know who this was aiming for to be honest.  The cancellation of the Classic Series seemed like such an injustice at the time, but in retrospect we should probably be very grateful that we got the McCoy era at all, and Doctor Who had that golden opportunity to redeem itself before the axe fell, laying the groundwork for the show that would eventually return.  Because it’s a miracle that it was allowed to continue after this point.  Doctor Who was sick, and there wasn’t a Doctor around to heal it any more.   RP

The view from across the pond:

For the next piece of damning evidence during the Trial of a Time Lord, the Valeyard decides to use the events of Mindwarp to illustrate just how the Doctor’s interference is detrimental to the universe.  Like a marksman, he’s targeting the Doctor for execution.  But his choice of evidence is a bit like a marksman using a kaleidoscope sight while standing on the bridge of a George Clooney’s ship during The Perfect Storm.  That’s because taking the Doctor out of events causes more people die, including his companion, while leaving him in potentially could have stopped the Frankenstein’s monster that Crozier was in the process of creating.  The Valeyard then uses Time Lord tech to create an assassination that will be perfectly timed to maximize destruction. This is supposed to implicate the Doctor?!?  I’d call that pretty damning evidence against the Valeyard, far more than the Doctor.   All the Valeyard needed was his VHS copy of Warriors of the Deep where everyone dies except the Doctor and his companions and he’s partly responsible for wiping out what looks like the very last of the Silurian race!  Maybe that was a better choice and a better example of genocide!

Of course, it’s possible that the Valeyard had a different idea in mind.  Realizing the Doctor must have picked up his coat from a guy named Joseph, he decides to use psychedelics to his advantage hitting the courtroom with such an overabundance of mental stimulus that all they want to do is kill the Doctor.  The Doctor lands on the technicolor nightmare world of Thoros Beta.  Though the colors are mind altering on their own, at least Peri is out of that idiotic outfit she wore in the previous story (although this one is only slightly better and her hair is still all “80’s business woman”).  The Doctor’s clothes naturally clash with everything in the universe with the exception of a Broadway musical, so that was nothing new.  Compounding the visual assault with King Ycarnos’s mighty voice and his squires annoying baying, along with the sinister psyco-laugh of Sil’s and the sanity of everyone in the courtroom must have been strained to the limits.  If the Valeyard had said “kill the Doctor and I’ll turn this off” I’d be amazed if the jury didn’t pull out pitchforks from their dimensionally transcendental robes and stab the Doctor on the spot!

That all said, I was a sucker for this story when it aired.  The show has never been about the visuals so the story carried us as it usually did.  And the literal mind-warping finale blew me away so much back in ’86, that I must have watched it a dozen times.  Plus I think Brian Blessed is marvelous.  I loved Prince Vultan when I saw Flash Gordon six years earlier and I still can’t get Vultan out of my head.  Ycarnos is Vultan without wings.  “Who wants to live forever?”  He’s a walking, talking megaphone of awesomeness.  But the plot of Mindwarp centers on what seems to be a very minor life-extending plan, to transfer a mind of a patient into the body of a dead member of his own species.  Let’s talk about evil plans: Crozier wasn’t planning on using living members of any other species.  That came about afterwards when Lord Kiv got all hot and bothered by Peri.  Short of the use of Peri, was this the sort of thing that required Time Lord interference?  Where were they during The War Games, prior to Troughton’s Doctor giving them a call?  How about getting involved even during the very next story when genocide was on the table?  No… the big threat to the Time Lords is transferring a mind into another body!  (Morbius clearly wasn’t as big a problem as the slugs on Thoros Beta!)

When you take Doctor Who as a straight-up adventure, it’s almost always fun.  When you apply thought to the stories, you hope they hold up.  While I did enjoy this one, it does not hold up to logical analysis.  There are better reasons for the Time Lords to get involved in the Doctor’s life.  There are better examples of his wanton disregard for the non-interference policies of his own people.  And there are less mentally assaulting stories from which to get our examples.

I think I’ll get a list together for the next time the Doctor is on trial.  Maybe I’ll get a few of those regenerations if I make my case well enough!   ML

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