Thursday, April 30, 2015

Review: Short Trips and Side Steps

(Originally posted to the Doctor Who Ratings Guide on 13 September, 2000.)

In quickie form: ST&SS was another Doctor Who short story collection, full of plusses and minuses.

First, let me just say that the "theme" of ST&SS, that of "out-of-continuity" adventures, rarely if ever works. Most of the stories are ones that work just as well in continuity as out of it, and those that don't are usually distinguished by mind-numbingly painful badness. There's only one that a) is clever, and b) uses its status as being out of continuity to good effect...Face Value, by Steve Lyons, which does clever things with the idea of a musical version of Doctor Who, and is quite funny to boot. So, going down the line in quickie reviews...

The Longest Story in the World is an alright introduction to the series, but not really a 'story' in the sense that it has no ending. Then again, that might be the point. A Town Called Eternity (which is, appropriately enough, split into two parts) seems almost schizophrenic -- like either Lance was planning a farce and Mark a serious story, or the other way around. It's a clever idea, but the style is very inconsistent, which grates slightly. The first three Special Occasions stories are great, and then the fourth derails the whole concept by trying to link the first three into something (I think perhaps The Well-Mannered War, but I'm not sure), and the whole thing falls apart. Nothing At the End of the Lane, which is split into three sections, reminds me of how much I'd like to see Daniel O'Mahoney write for Doctor Who again. It's basically a retelling of An Unearthly Child via a plot device similar to 'Shades of Gray' (the ST: TNG episode), but O'Mahoney has a masterful love of the language that evokes the strange and terrifying in the everyday. It falls apart a bit at the end...OK, a lot at the end...but it's worth reading for its haunting text. Countdown to TV first, I wasn't sure whether to lambast Gary Russell for his agonizingly bad prose, or to let him off the hook by saying, "He's just duplicating the bad dialogue and plots of the comics." Then I thought about it for a moment, and decided to lambast him for deliberately celebrating that which should be left forgotten in the name of nostalgia. It's like doing a pastiche of Timelash, or trying to make a perfume that precisely re-creates the scent of dog vomit. Yes, it can be done, but _WHY_? The Queen of Eros is Doctor Who meets "The King and I", but well done for all that. The Android Maker of Calderon IV is the best story in the whole book, and one that I made all my friends sit down and read. Revenants is alright -- a clever little time puzzle. Doesn't fit into continuity, but who gives a rat's arse? Please Shut the Gate is a cute little one-joke premise that does a good job of nailing down the Second Doctor, and it's short. Turnabout is Fair Play is a nicely done twist on the old 'body switch' idea (nice one, Graeme.) The House on Oldark Moor is a good little story, but was there any reason why this had to be done with the Peter Cushing Doctor? Gone Too Soon is a great story about the Doctor indulging in a little bit of cosmic vandalism that's nicely paced, too. Reunion is a pretty bog-standard Doctor Who story, but not bad. Planet of the Bunnoids isn't nearly as clever as it thinks it is. Monsters is a nice evocation of the Cartmel era of Doctor Who, right down to the scenes of the Doctor being strangely philosophical in ways that turn out to fit into the plot. Face Value is, as I said, quite clever. Storm in a Tikka is, as I've said, not -- and again, why did this have to take place in between Dimensions in Time and Search Out Science, other than the writer wanted to use K-9? Vrs is the second best story in the book, and I'm gonna miss Lawrence, dangit.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Review: Time Zero

(Originally posted to the Doctor Who Ratings Guide on 6 November, 2003.)

Reading Time Zero is a bit like that joke about the man who wanted to test his turn signal. First it was working, then it wasn't, then it was, then it wasn't...

The book reads a bit like that. At first, when Justin is setting the scene and we're getting hordes of minor characters trooped through the place just long enough to give their name, rank, and serial number, it's quite off-puttingly dull. Later, as the action picks up and the characters either develop a personality or helpfully die off, it gets quite interesting. Then, as the Doctor and Sabbath debate quantum physics and the nature of reality, it gets eye-glazingly dull again. Then, as George has to decide whether he'll sacrifice his life to save the universe, it gains a certain grandeur... then it's back to debates on quantum physics, but if you can stay awake long enough to keep through that, there's a nice bit at the end.

The regulars are well done, particularly Anji... except that it's quite frustrating that after a whole book of her realizing she's had the time of her life in the TARDIS, that she misses the Doctor and Fitz terribly, and that she thinks of the TARDIS as "home" now... she then abruptly decides she doesn't want to travel any more in the TARDIS, just so that she can then not get her wish again. God, it's as if Tegan had just asked for a lift home from Amsterdam. :)

The prose is at Richards' usual standard; clear, intelligible, and crisp, if not particularly dazzling. (This may sound like damning with faint praise, but I've always felt that the ability to write clear and intelligible prose is one of the most underrated of writing skills. Sure, you want to be witty, but you also want to be understood.) There are some good bits here and there, and certainly nothing actively bad... except, of course, for the Doctor's habit of dropping in huge chunks of Quantum theory for no apparent reason save that people will need to understand it later when it becomes relevant to the plot. We also learn just what the creature from The Burning was, although I still feel that there are a lot of unanswered questions there.

Ultimately, it's another "mythos" book... you should probably read it, and it's got a decent enough plot that you won't walk away disappointed, but it definitely caters to my personal distaste for "hard science". Oh, and the Doctor broke the universe at the end. Gallifrey, reality... my goodness, the Eighth Doctor's clumsy!

Monday, April 27, 2015

The Zarbi

What most people get right about "The Zarbi" is that it's really weird. It's not just weird, it's disorienting and confusing--everything about this episode feels like something you've never seen on television before. What people get wrong is insisting that this is an accident or a fault--this is actually a deliberate aesthetic choice, meant to evoke the same feelings the TARDIS crew has at being trapped on an utterly alien world.

To that extent, everything works together almost seamlessly. The aliens are more alien than anything we've seen before, even more than the Daleks--sure, there are superficial resemblances to insects, and yes, the costumes do look a bit "stagey" and not at all what we're used to in a modern era of CGI. But it feels like the show has made a conscious effort to create not just an alien look, but an alien mindset--the Zarbi don't speak in anything comprehensible to the audience, a risky decision that pays off in making them feel harsh and inhuman on a level that the costumes alone can't quite pull off. The Menoptra, who are the closest we get to relatable characters, nonetheless behave in a way quite different from anything we've seen before in the series. Their strange and eerily graceful movements, deliberately choreographed by Roslyn de Winter, give the impression that they're not quite from the same series as the rest of the cast. Their bizarre, flat, affectless speech continually reminds you that you're not dealing with creatures who see the world the way we do. Best of all, they examine Barbara's hair with the tentative curiosity of a race who aren't quite sure what the strings of protein dangling from this weird creature's head are, or what they're used for. It's a clever, tangible reminder that we are on an alien world and can take nothing for granted.

And more than that, that we are trapped on that alien world. The episode opens with the TARDIS being stolen, and although the sight of it creeping along the alien landscape as though it's tiptoeing is downright ludicrous, it's another reminder that we don't understand any of the rules here and the one route to safety for us (well, for our proxy selves onscreen) is being dragged off to an unknown fate. The very air seems strange, inhuman, surreal with its odd gleams and refractions of light, and Ian and the Doctor quickly learn that it feels different in their lungs as well. There's a sensation that this is a wrong turn, as though the TARDIS has been dragged not just to a planet but to a narrative where it doesn't belong.

And then we get the ultimate violation--a Zarbi enters the TARDIS. It's the first time any monster has ever gotten into the Ship, and it remains one of only a handful in the series history; the violation feels complete and horrifying, to the point where even the Zarbi itself seems to recoil at its own action. Or else the TARDIS itself repels the invader, both seem equally likely. When the Doctor reacts in cold fury to the intrusion, we completely understand.

The whole episode is just one peak after another of inhuman alienation, reaching perhaps its crescendo when Barbara is forced to watch as the Zarbi rip the wings off a Menoptra to prevent it from escaping. Even without knowing anything about this world, we can instinctively sense the cruelty of the act along with her. The reasons for the act are lost on us, but that only contributes to the sense of dislocation and fear that pervades the whole story to this point. When the Animus finally speaks at the end, it's almost a long last, something here is communicating to us on a level we can understand.

But of course, it's the villain...

Sunday, April 26, 2015

The Web Planet

Good grief, Maureen O'Brien is a treasure! Nothing against Carole Ann Ford, but this is one of the biggest companion upgrades in series history. They're having so much more fun with the character; I don't know whether it's that they're afraid of losing a second actress in a row if they give her nothing to do but scream, or if "future kid" is just a more accessible concept than "alien kid" and lends itself to more story ideas, but she is firing on all cylinders here. The scene between her and Barbara, where she debates whether to take "medieval" aspirin and Barbara offers to instead put on a mask and dance around the fire to drive the evil spirits out of her body, has to be instantly in my Top Ten Doctor Who Character Moments Ever.

Which is good, because I think an episode like this really needs strong character moments to ground you. The story itself is at this point pretty much incomprehensible; so far we've seen giant ants wander around the TARDIS chittering, a squat grub projecting a light show, Ian's pen teleporting, and Barbara being hypnotized by her bracelet. Even if you take it on faith that there's eventually going to be an explanation that links all this together into a logical narrative, it's certainly not there at this point, and it's pretty much the performance of the regulars that's holding all of it together long enough for things to gel.

Hartnell is keeping things going for his part with sheer manic energy; this is really where you start to see the "giggling with excitement and racing around poking at things" version of the character that's going to become the standard for later incarnations. (I can see Matt Smith, for example, doing a lot of the physical aspects of the Doctor in this episode.) We've left the snappish, rude version of the First Doctor pretty far behind, save for a few comedy moments when he accuses Ian of trying to play a prank on him.

Ian, meanwhile, has kind of hit the limits of his character here. He's still being played well by Russell, but at this point his "man of action" schtick is becoming a bit too one-note. You can start to understand why he's not going to be sticking around much longer; Barbara gets the jokes and the character bits, Vicki gets to be zany and energetic, the Doctor gets to be the lead, and Ian gets to stare sternly into the middle distance with a steely glare and be ready for trouble. It's not a thankless part, but it's one that definitely doesn't get its Christmas cards out until February, if you know what I mean. (And I almost certainly don't.)

Still, this is an episode that's doing what the classic series did well, creating an alien space and then exploring and defining it, even if it is pushing up against the limits of how "alien" the space can be. It says a lot that the cod-futuristic jargon of "atmospheric density jackets", "teaching machines" and other quaint signs of the Future They Thought We Were Going To Have actually seem normal next to the world we're being inserted into. It feels very much like we're starting to push the envelope of just how weird Doctor Who can really get.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Review: The Suns of Caresh

(Originally posted to the Doctor Who Ratings Guide on 4 December 2003.)

According to rumor, The Suns of Caresh is the product of a disgruntled book reviewer who wished to show the authors of the line "how it should be done". While I have no idea as to whether or not this is true, I think that the book line could do far worse than a few people writing the best book they're capable of in order to improve the general quality of the range -- The Suns of Caresh isn't going to match the greats of the line, but it does go a far way towards keeping up a recent spate of excellent books.

Admittedly, Caresh is a bit thin on plot... actually, "thin" isn't the right word to use, but I'm not sure what is. The book basically breaks down into two sections, the first being on Earth and the second being on Caresh. However, the Earth section takes up the majority of the book, with the Doctor's trip to Caresh being confined to the last third or so. This unbalances the novel a bit, especially since most of the exposition occurs on Caresh; it leaves one with a lingering feeling that very little happens in the first two-thirds of the book.

Amazingly, though, one never gets that feeling while actually immersed in the book. When I'd heard that this was going to be "hard sci-fi", I physically winced -- "hard sci-fi" usually seems to be a euphemism for "sci-fi with bigger words and a smug sense of superiority to people who just call them 'rockets' and 'rayguns'." However, apart from making sure his model of Caresh works, Saint mixes his hard sci-fi in quite effortlessly with the story, letting his characters tell most of the tale. Troy Game, the Careshi trapped on Earth, is a well-drawn and well-realized character, as is Simon Haldane, the human who befriends her, and Roche, the Time Lord whose attitude towards collateral damage is a bit more cavalier than the Doctor's. The prose works nicely, and the time on Earth passes quite quickly (with lots of evil monsters from the Vortex, escapes, and a temporal anomaly that seems to get a bit of short shrift, considering.)

Once we get to Caresh, the exposition flows a bit more, although there's still time for a bit of the traditional Doctor Who runaround -- still, to be fair, the "capture-escape" does function to illuminate Roche's character quite well. (The natives mistake the Doctor for Roche, and we see through their eyes that although Roche is concerned about the welfare of Caresh, he's still terrifyingly amoral.) There's one very ham-fisted plot device on page 238 -- the Time Lord "mercy gun", which will stun the first time and kill the second, seems to be almost sign-posted 'THIS IS A PLOT DEVICE' when you hit it, and sure enough, it's a plot device. The book doesn't often hammer its ideas into your skull, though, so this stands out more or less as an isolated instance of creaky writing. The Doctor's final solution to the problem, too, is clever, and doesn't rely on pointless technobabble. However, something occurs to me about the Doctor's cunning solution to Caresh's problems that's rather disturbing... In the early, Earth-based portions of the book, we learn that the natives of Caresh have "fertile times", based on the proximity of the different suns. This stands out for Troy Game as a prominent difference between Earth and Caresh, since on Earth, we're fertile according to individual biological rhythms, whereas on Caresh, they're fertile (IIRC) at the mid-point between Beacon and Ember.

The Doctor's just shifted Caresh into permanent orbit around Ember.

Doesn't this mean that the Careshi won't be able to breed, and the race will die off of infertility?

On the whole, I'd consider this to be a very worthwhile debut novel, and I hope to see more from Mr. Saint... if that is his real name...

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Review: The Doomsday Manuscript

(Originally posted to the Doctor Who Ratings Guide on 26 February 2003.)

Oh, dear. Oh, dear oh dear oh dear. This is the first full-length novel from Big Finish, and they even went and got Justin Richards -- creator of Irving Braxiatel and one of the major influences on the character of Bernice Summerfield. Richards is known for his tightly-plotted thrillers, and this should have been no exception... so what went wrong? What turned this into the weakest novel Justin Richards has ever written, and a very unimpressive debut for the new Benny line?

What went wrong was the "tightly-plotted" part was missing from the "tightly-plotted thriller" that Richards usually writes. Again, let me say that I hate giving bad reviews to authors I enjoy, especially when said authors are in charge of commissioning books for the BBC Doctor Who line. However, this one has holes in the plot that you can drive a Mack truck through. The first and most fundamental one is the question of how Straklant, the villain of the piece, used Josiah Vanderbilt's identi-disc to get into the Braxiatel Collection when we're told, several times over the course of the novel, that the identi-discs are keyed to a person's individual bio-patterns. (Apparently, he "alters" the identi-discs. Well, if they can be altered so easily and thoroughly that nobody notices the difference between a thirty-something man with a false arm and a two-armed eighty-seven year old, it's not a very good security measure, is it?) Plot problems continue with Straklant, mainly because he's so laughably obvious a villain that it astonished me that Benny and Brax bought his line of patter for even thirty seconds, let alone four-fifths of the novel. He's an agent for a Nazi-esque government called the Fifth Axis, he's impersonating a scientist who can't be reached by any means, he's just killed a man right in front of your eyes, and yet nobody suspects for even a moment that he might be lying when he says it was all in self-defence because the other man was trying to steal an artifact... which wasn't recorded in the collection, and which the other man had no apparent motivation to steal. The story is so fishy that you could serve it with chips, and yet Benny and Brax buy it wholesale.

Add to that the fact that Straklant is so obviously, over the top, ludicrously evil. He kills people he has no reason to kill, and in fact every reason not to. He's traveling with Benny, he's trying to maintain cover, and so what does he do? He doubles back and/or lingers not once but twice to kill someone who's cooperated with them simply because he's that evil. Never once does it apparently occur to him that if Benny wonders what's taking him so long, he's just blown his cover six ways from Sunday. Oh, and when Benny asks about his delays, he gives those "bad guy puns" that always sound like announcements to the effect of "I JUST KILLED THAT MAN!!!!!!" Benny's failure to put two and two together about Straklant utterly sinks this novel.

Which is a shame, because apart from that huge, massive, gaping, grit-your-teeth-every-second-and-wonder-how-your-favorite-character-has-become-a-congenital-idiot plot hole, there's a lot to like in this book. Richards once again nails Benny and Brax perfectly, adding it to a string of great portrayals of the archaeologist. There's some funny bits, some touching bits, and a bizarre, yet cool chase/fight scene involving killer cameras. There are a few continuity holes from The Dead Men Diaries (Benny has Joseph Mark II throughout DMD, but receives him here for the first time), but on the whole, if not for the unbelievability of the villain and the horrible, horrible levels of stupidity required on the part of the heroes to advance the plot, this could have been a wonderful little romp. It's just that the one big plot hole is just too damned big to ignore.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Review: Perfect Timing

(Originally posted to the Doctor Who Ratings Guide on 29 September, 2003.)

As the fortieth anniversary of Doctor Who approaches, I now present to you my thoughts on an anthology designed to celebrate the thirty-fifth anniversary of the program. Let nobody ever state that my reviews aren't timely and current.

Seriously, the reason I'm just now reviewing Perfect Timing, five years after its release, is that it's nigh impossible to get ahold of. An anonymous philanthropist made a copy available to me at last, but in all probability, if you don't already have it, you're not going to get it. This is a shame, because Perfect Timing is one of the best anthologies of Doctor Who short fiction extant, easily beating all of Big Finish and the BBC's efforts and standing on a par with Decalog 3 (which remains, to my mind, the gold standard for Doctor Who anthologies.)

Why is this anthology so much better than all the others? Certainly, a part of it has to be the A-list talent that Mark Phippen and Helen Fayle assembled. The project benefited the Foundation for the Study of Infant Death, and as such generated a lot of goodwill among the community of Doctor Who writers. Many professional Doctor Who authors contributed to it, donating stories that wouldn't necessarily get by their normal editors. But it wasn't just the pros that contributed great work; looking at the list five years on, three or four of the unpublished authors later wound up getting novels for the range... clearly, Phippen and Fayle had a good eye for talent.

In addition, it doesn't hurt that the editors took a slightly loose attitude towards the beast that is 'canon'... although note that I say "slightly", there. There's nothing in here that overtly contradicts anything in the novels, TV series, or audios; it just adds things to the margins that raise an eyebrow or two. (If you're treating Perfect Timing as canon, and I see no reason why you shouldn't, then you should be aware of the following: the First Doctor and Susan had a companion, Jed, before Ian and Brbara; the Voord were good guys; Sarah Jane was married, at least briefly, to a private eye; Kamelion is the last of his kind, and was created to worship a dead god; the Nimon are actually little blobs in giant, unconvincing minotaur suits; Grant traveled with the Doctor for years, during which time the Doctor had a Legion (from Lucifer Rising and The Crystal Bucephalus) as his companion, before finally being dropped off at the Bi-Al Foundation after a severe injury; the Eighth Doctor had or will have a companion named Carmen at some point, during which time he has a multi-Doctor adventure with the Sixth Doctor; the Doctor visited Grace Holloway several times on her birthdays after the telemovie, but could never convince her to travel with him; Bernice Summerfield traveled again with the Eighth Doctor after The Dying Days, but before Oh No It Isn't!, but we still don't know whether they shagged or not; and, finally, after the Doctor dies in some distant future point, one or more people take on his name and mission.) The only piece that's irreconcilable with canon is From the Cutting Room Floor, David McIntee's alternate versions of scenes from The Dark Path, and even some of those work just fine.

So, now that you've borne with me thus far, a discussion of the individual stories...

Lumping all the very short stuff together... personally, I prefer to see longer pieces in an anthology. If it's not at least a full page, I question the need for its inclusion at all. That said, that's just my personal quirk, so it's hard for me to judge The Use of the Myth, These UNIT Things, Second Hand, Doing It Right, Cheeky Things, Nightmare, and Transitions. None of them really lasted long enough to make an impression on me -- but that's just me.

Bear Paw Adventure, by David Howe, isn't exactly what you'd expect from a story that says it's going to explain the "Mountain Mauler of Montana" reference from The Romans. It's actually a story of a teen's prank gone wrong, and most of the real action takes place off-screen; however, it's well-characterized, and certainly the central idea, that traveling with the Doctor doesn't always leave you better off afterwards, is nicely expressed through Jed.

Always Let the Conscience Be Your Guide, by Mark Clapham and Jim Smith, expands on the world only glimpsed in The Keys of Marinus, and shows the wider conflict through the eyes of Yartek, the Voord leader. It drives home the idea already expressed in Keys, that free will is more important than the guidance the Conscience provides, and it does so with some interesting imagery and vivid prose.

Birth Pains, by Damon Cavalchini, is interesting, if sometimes incomprehensible; it attempts to do an over-view of the series from the perspective of the TARDIS. It's well-written, but the problem with writing from the perspective of something totally alien to human thought is that you wind up with something totally alien to human thought. Worth struggling through, but the very nature of it means you have to struggle.

Venusian Sunset, by Paul Leonard, returns us to Venus, this time with the Second Doctor. (A side note: This story features Ben and Polly, but not Jamie, and is hence set between Power of the Daleks and The Highlanders. Many novels make use of this team, even though it had a very short TV run before Jamie joined the team. Many novels make use of the Second Doctor and Jamie, because the two are such a great team. But nobody seems to want to use Ben, Polly, and Jamie all together. I don't know if this means anything, but there you go.) In any event, we return to Venus, but this story doesn't quite have the impact that Venusian Lullaby did, because it doesn't have that funereal atmosphere that permeated the former. A nice story, but a bit of a let-down as a sequel.

From the Cutting-Room Floor, by David McIntee, consists of excerpts from the unpublished sections of The Dark Path. McIntee's been vocal, publicly and privately, in his condemnation of the editing of The Dark Path, and so I was quite interested to see what was lost. On the whole, I don't think much was. Don't get me wrong, the material here isn't bad; there's a nice little self-contained story that shows the Master and Ailla "at work" before the events of the novel, and establishes their partnership. But I think that part of what makes The Dark Path so good is the focus it shows, and the pieces contained herein would, I think, have diluted that focus. It's nice to see these pieces, though, just like it's always fun to see 'Deleted Scenes' on a DVD. (And I think you could probably do a whole set of short stories or even novels featuring Koschei and Ailla.)

Thicket of Thieves, by Kathryn Sullivan, suffers from a profusion of characters and alien races introduced to each other in rapid succession, all with similar goals but different motivations. That said, it's got some great comedy scenes with the Second Doctor (particularly well-characterized here) and Jamie (likewise).

Entertaining Mr. O, by Paul Magrs, features Iris Wildthyme, and as such, I hated it before finishing even the first page. Iris has long since worn out her welcome with me, having turned from a cleverly post-modern examination of the role of the storyteller within the story into an irritating Mary-Sue who goes about wittering about how much better she is than the Doctor. I'm sorry, but the very mention of her name sends me into fits of rage, and as such, I can't review this story objectively. If you don't utterly hate Iris Wildthyme, you'll probably like this. However, if you don't utterly hate Iris Wildthyme, your name is probably Paul Magrs.

Masters of Terror, by James Ambuehl and Laurence J. Cornford, feels like it was written as part of a bet to see if you could fit H.P. Lovecraft, the Master, and the Silurians all into a single story. Which, mind you, they do, and make it all seem quite natural... it's just that I'm still so amazed that there's a story that juxtaposes those three elements that I can't think about what actually happened. Worth reading, just to see how it all fits.

Baron (Count) Dracula and Count (Baron) Frankenstein, by Stephen Marley, is a beautiful confection that takes place in the same setting as his novel, Managra. Marley has a great comic sensibility, and this piece is a smooth, delightful little comic gem that goes down in moments and leaves a wonderful after-taste in the brain. It makes me wish he'd write another Doctor Who book, or failing that, that BBV, Big Finish, Telos, or one of the other people doing spin-offs would start commissioning a series set in his 'Europa'. It really has the potential for a full series there.

The Aurelius Gambit, by Helen Fayle, commits one of the occasional sins of a Doctor Who short story, that of biting off more than it can chew. It brings in a new love interest for Sarah Jane Smith, while introducing a pair of criminals with access to alien technology who are committing crimes, then framing the Master for them in the sure and certain knowledge that the Master isn't going to care, and UNIT isn't going to catch him. That's a lot of great ideas, but it's also a lot of work for a short story, and unfortunately it all feels terribly unfinished. I'd love to see this expanded, though.

Not Necessarily In That Order..., by Paul Ebbs, is another comic gem. It's a very simple story, more an extended, shaggy-dog joke than an actual "story" per se, but it gains a lot of humor from the fact that the punchline is actually the set-up, and the whole thing is cleverly told out of order. A short, sweet little story.

Child of Darkness, by Daniel Blythe, is a Terminator pastiche, but cleverly done, tied-in well to the mythos, and with a wonderful twist ending. It's also got great prose and nice characterization. But apart from that, you know...

The Zargathon Menace, by Jonathan Morris... well, by now, my admiration of Jonny Morris has solidified into a Salieri-like envious hatred, so you can imagine how reading yet another clever, hilarious, well-written short story from him made me feel. You'll probably be reading his obituary soon enough, and I'll be eating his brains to gain his writing skills. That is how it works, right?

One Perfect Twilight, by Craig Hinton, is basically a solidified chunk of fanwank dropped into the anthology, but frankly you should have figured that out when you saw the name 'Craig Hinton' under the title, right? Fanwank works or doesn't depending on my mood, and I happened to be in the mood for this one; Kamelion's origin story caught my interest, and I polished it off quickly. Others might like it or not, depending on their respective tolerance levels for references to the series.

Ghost in the Machine, by Trina Short, is a cute little story with Turlough solving a cute little problem; I liked it, in no small part because the author paced it well and didn't pad it. Turlough's a bit of a jerk, but then again, that's just excellent characterization more than anything else.

The 6th Doctor Sends A Letter, by Charles Daniels, is a bit OTT, but contains some great lines, and captures the bombastic side of the 6th Doctor well (if, again, exaggerating it a bit for comic effect.)

The Great Journey of Life Ends Here, by Gary Russell, is a story idea mentioned in his introduction to Placebo Effect, but I really thought he was joking. He wasn't. This story is, indeed, a Nimon vs. Macra story, which was turned down to make way for his Foamasi vs. Wirrrn story. Actually, this is better; given a short story instead of a novel, Russell eliminates a lot of the padding that afflicts his longer works, and while the two monsters don't get much time "on-screen", he at least gives them a sense of menace. And I think he's probably been waiting years to explain away the Nimon's costumes.

Wish Upon A Star Beast, by Steve Lyons, suffers from one flaw -- he never does explain why the villainous Santa Claus wants to unleash a horde of vicious killer Meeps upon the unsuspecting children of Earth on Christmas Eve by generating Black Star radiation from the Christmas Miracle Star. But frankly, if that's the plot of your story, who really needs an explanation for it? This is drop-dead hilarious, and a delight to read.

Schroedinger's Botanist, by Ian McIntire, is pretty much everything you ever need to know if you want to do a book set during Grant Markham's time as a companion. Which, admittedly, people haven't exactly been clamoring for, but if anyone does, they should read this story first. McIntire conveys the passage of years through smooth, elegant prose, and develops Grant quite a bit in the process. It also gives him a nice, if very sad, departure scene, something he never got in the books.

Chain Male, by Keith Topping, further develops that weird thing he, Martin Day, and Paul Cornell have worked out with Ian and Barbara's son John becoming a rock star and getting married to Tegan. I'm sure if I'd been following their fan-fiction for decades, I'd get a lot out of this, but I haven't, so it just confused me more.

Ascension, by Stephen Graves, takes place between So Vile A Sin and Bad Therapy, and feels like it fits in perfectly. It's got amazingly good characterization of the post-Roz relationship between Chris and the Doctor, and explores it quite nicely. The plot's another "life-force vampires luring in innocents" one, but well-executed for all that. Another excellent read. (Oh, and the Doctor gets one tremendous line that neatly encapsulates every fan's thought about Chris.)

Caveat Emptor, by Susannah Tiller, is a short, sharp story about the fate of the last human, and the role the Doctor plays in it. I liked it, but it's so short that it's hard to dislike. It certainly doesn't wear out its welcome.

Doctor-Patient Relationship, by Kate Orman and Jon Blum, is actually from the first draft of Vampire Science, but it's so far removed from what we finally got (since permission was withdrawn to use Grace Holloway) that it's essentially a separate, self-contained story now. And on that level, it works quite well. Wonderful prose, like I expected anything else; great characterization, like I expected anything else; a clever central idea, well-developed -- see points one and two. It's interesting to think that part of the reason they included the bit in Vampire Science about the Doctor making side trips away from Sam was to have room for this opening chapter; instead, that's now become justification for Stacy, Ssard, The Dying Days, and the entire Big Finish run. He must have been pretty eager to ditch her... not that I blame him.

Worm, by Lance Parkin, takes place in that same gap, suggesting that the Doctor and Benny took more than a few side trips on their way to Dellah. It's also a story that takes a great idea and develops it wonderfully -- finally, a race of monsters that takes the Doctor's advice and just surrenders. I've never heard of this "Lance Parkin" fellow before, but I think he just might be someone to watch.

The Ravages of Time, by Mags L. Halliday, shows yet another Eighth Doctor and Benny story, yet another story featuring Poe, and another famous person traveling with the Doctor (anyone want to do a multi-Doctor story with the Sixth Doctor, the Seventh Doctor, H.G. Wells, and Edgar Allan Poe?) Yet, despite all this, it comes off as original, and in its brief space tells a lot of story. It could probably have done without the "story-in-a-story-in-a-story" device, but it's still a good piece.

Emerald Green, by Mark Phippen, isn't bad. It's not great -- for one thing, it labors under the weight of Sam Jones, the anchor who drags all stories down in which she appears -- but it's a decent enough piece of storytelling that doesn't falter or confuse itself.

Sad Professor, by Nick Walters, shamelessly panders to the fanboys by giving us a meeting between the Eighth Doctor, Sam, and Benny, set on Dellah not long before Where Angels Fear. Speaking as a fanboy, I say pander away! Highly enjoyable, but I confess a bias.

Dark Paragon, by Jon Andersen, I wound up not being fond of. The central idea, that the Doctor found a successor to carry on after he died and that she named herself the Doctor as well, is very clever; the further development, that the Master goes after the new Doctor in order to spite his old enemy is also good. But the problem is, there's no story to go with those ideas. The Master relentlessly stalks the new Doctor and, on all the worlds where he catches up to her, yammers on about how the old Doctor wasn't all that good of a person. The story never manages to rise above the three problems with this -- first, that the Master isn't exactly threatening when he relentlessly talks to his foes, second, that the Master complaining about the Doctor's lack of moral rectitude is like Adolph Hitler bitching that Ghandi forgot to buy a birthday card for his grandmother one year, and third, that after the third planet and conversation, the whole thing starts to feel like a Moebius loop. A lot of very good ideas, but I think it needed another draft or two.

So, after all that reviewing, what's my ultimate opinion? If anyone managed to last through what was, quite possibly, the longest review I've ever written (and I don't blame you if you haven't), I'd ultimately say that this was great. Doctor Who has had a slightly spotty record in the short story area, but I think this anthology shows that you can do something amazing with the form.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Review: The Adventuress of Henrietta Street

(Originally posted to the Doctor Who Ratings Guide on 15 July 2002.)

Part of it is that I think I just resonate with Lawrence Miles. Part of it is that I enjoy reading the non-fiction history books that Adventuress emulates. Part of it is that I'm loving finally seeing the consequences of The Ancestor Cell dealt with in some measure. But for all those reasons and more, I loved this book. Small print, thin margins, and all... I'm definitely looking forward to see what happens next. (And incidentally, I no longer believe anyone who tells me that the BBC has moved on to do continuity free adventures with a Doctor who's a tabula rasa, able to adventure free and clear of his convoluted past. Every single one of the above books, not just Mad Larry, had the Doctor remember bits and pieces of his past in throwaway dialogue, and every one of them "resonated" with Ancestor Cell in some way. It's as if all of the authors were champing at the bit to do continuity references, and were restraining themselves with great effort. With Adventuress, we finally start getting some overt continuity, and I for one welcome it. I just wish we had a reality where Lawrence Miles worked better with his fellow authors, instead of alienating them... bringing them along in his visions...*sigh* Oh well. We'll set that aside with our Harlan Ellison Doctor Who book.)

As for Sabbath, well... I'm curious to see what he'll do next. That's about all I can say -- there wasn't really enough of him that I felt I could like or dislike him. I did feel that he crossed a line when he took the Doctor's heart, and that if the Doctor had been in full possession of his faculties (and when he regains them, whenever that is) he would never have allowed it (and will reverse it). But I also felt like I was meant to feel that way -- that it was meant to seem like a violation of the Doctor, not like a "Yaaay!" sort of moment.

I'll be starting on Mad Dogs and Englishmen soon, and I have up through Trading Futures... beyond that, of course, it's down to the vagaries of the distribution system.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

It's New to Me!

I thought this might make a brief, interesting digression--as I've mentioned on occasion, the entire "pilgrimage" project started when I was discussing the Fourth Doctor story 'Warrior's Gate' with the inestimable Robert Smith?, and he was horrified to discover I'd never seen it. From there, I wound up having to admit that there were quite a few Doctor Who stories I'd never seen, and I came up with the idea of watching them all in order to remedy that. But I haven't specified which ones it is I'm watching for the first time. So here's a list of all the stories that for one reason or another, I had no real memories of the televised versions when I started watching episode-by-episode. That doesn't mean I'm not familiar with them--some of them I know from Target novelizations, and nearly all of them I know to some extent from episode guides--but I've either never seen them on-screen, or I have only scattered childhood memories to guide me.

Now you'll know when my posts are first impressions without me having to drearily mention that this one or that one is entirely new to me. They break down roughly as follows:

These are stories that are incomplete, and I'd never watched the reconstructed versions.

Marco Polo
The Reign of Terror
The Crusade
Galaxy 4
Mission to the Unknown
The Dalek Master Plan
The Massacre
The Celestial Toymaker
The Savages
The Smugglers
The Power of the Daleks
The Highlanders
The Underwater Menace
The Moonbase
The Macra Terror
The Faceless Ones
The Evil of the Daleks
The Abominable Snowmen
The Ice Warriors
The Web of Fear:
Fury from the Deep
The Wheel in Space
The Invasion
The Space Pirates

These are stories that I'd not seen since watching them on PBS as a small child, and that I don't remember as televised stories. Most of my memories of these come from episode guides and/or novelizations, and are not reliable.

The Space Museum
The War Games
The Ambassadors of Death
Colony in Space
Day of the Daleks
The Curse of Peladon
The Sea Devils
The Mutants
Frontier in Space
Planet of the Daleks
The Time Warrior
Invasion of the Dinosaurs
Death to the Daleks
The Monster of Peladon
The Masque of Mandragora
The Face of Evil
The Invisible Enemy
The Sun Makers
The Invasion of Time
The Creature from the Pit
Nightmare of Eden
The Horns of Nimon
Full Circle
State of Decay

And these are stories that, for one reason or another, I'd simply missed entirely.

The Sensorites
The Ark
The War Machines
The Enemy of the World
The Dominators
The Krotons
Warriors' Gate
"Cold Blood"

Friday, April 17, 2015


Now this is sumptuous. Dennis Spooner is practically giving a masterclass on how to write 'Doctor Who' here, creating a climax with rising tension in every aspect. Ian and Delos' escape sets up a dilemma for Barbara, Barbara's revelations to Tavius set up a dilemma for the Doctor and Vicki, and the Doctor's accident sets up the great historical event that, in retrospect, we've been leading up to all along. Again, when you look at this next to 'The Reign of Terror', you can see that Spooner has learned all the right lessons from his previous story. Instead of passive observers of history, the Doctor and his companions are now taking a causative role--it's a major shift in philosophy for the series, and in some ways the ultimate climax of the story is the scene between the Doctor and Vicki where she accuses him of causing the Great Fire of Rome. Hartnell's performance is brilliant here; it's clear that this is the first time he's ever shaken off his dispassionate, alien upbringing and thought of himself as an architect of history...and when his response is to giggle madly at the idea, you can understand that we've moved into a whole new era for the program.

Of course, the whole thing wouldn't work if everyone wasn't giving amazing efforts at acting. Derek Francis amps up his petulant, charming monster to entirely new levels as "Inferno" proceeds, his face alternately contorting in fury and crumpling in petulant sadness (and I'll digress for a moment here and giggle like a loon as Hartnell's knowing puns about his own impending death by vicious lion--that is some epic trolling there) before finally lighting with a gleam of madness as he sets Rome alight. Even Hartnell gets upstaged when Francis is on a roll, and that's a pretty impressive feat by this point in the show's history. He's absolutely magnetic everywhere else, to be sure; his mercurial, unpredictable performance allows the show to be whatever it needs to from episode to episode and moment to moment. It's not that he hasn't been this good before, mind you, but this is the story where he really gets to show off what he can do and demonstrates that he can act as an anchor when the program makes great leaps in genre and tone.

This is really one of the moments where the series takes a quantum leap in quality, realizing that it's capable of much more than it's been doing up until now and adding an entire new set of tools to its workbox. They've had jokes in previous stories, of course, but this is the point where they realize that Doctor Who can be a comedy as well as an adventure series without sacrificing tension. It works on a whole different level from the stories before it, and sets a new course for the entire future of the show. Oh, and also it's awesome.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Capsule Review: The Eleven-Day Empire

(Originally posted to the Doctor Who Ratings Guide on 30 March, 2004.)

I'm finally getting into the Faction Paradox audios now, and I have to say, these deserve to be getting more interest and praise than they are. The characters are immediately interesting, with Godfather Morlock stepping in, as it were, for the Doctor by acting as the enigmatic mentor, and Cousins Justine and Eliza are each well-drawn (although the first audio focuses more on Justine.) The dialogue is great, a staple of Miles' writing, and while the story doesn't go far (a limitation of one-CD audios), it certainly whets the appetite for The Shadowplay. I loved it.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015


"Conspiracy" has an extremely tricky tightrope to walk. On the one hand, it's a sex-comedy farce for a good portion of its running time, with Nero and Barbara running about the palace and almost bumping into each other and everybody else as Nero engages in an extended "aren't I a naughty boy?" romp, with Barbara as his intended conquest. On the other hand, "conquest" isn't really the right word. "Victim" is really more accurate, here--for the tension that drives rest of the script to work, it has to be very clear that Barbara has been caught in between two of the most dangerous people in Rome, and she takes her life into her own hands whether she refuses Nero's advances or not. (And the tightrope is even tighter when you take into account the change in society's attitude towards sexual harassment and sexual assault over the years--the episode wouldn't have aged nearly as well if they'd played Barbara's sexual peril purely for laughs.)

For the most part, the episode succeeds by making it clear that Nero genuinely is a monster. He's a monster who would be laughable if he wasn't the Emperor, of course; his self-pity, rampant egotism and comic ineptitude is a thing of beauty, especially with Derek Francis chewing exactly the right amount of scenery for the part. But if he's a narcissistic idiot, he's a narcissistic idiot with the power of life and death over everyone else in the story, and that makes him simultaneously hilarious and terrifying. He may be chasing Barbara around the bed like he's in a sub-par Benny Hill skit, but there's no question that if he ever grows tired of chasing her, he can have her put to the sword and nobody will say a word. The death of Tigilinus shows just how thin the line between comedy and drama is, here--after a full episode of narrowly avoiding Nero's wrath, he's killed simply to prove a point.

Everything else in the episode works because it walks the same tightrope. Locusta, the court poisoner, goes about her business with the same matter-of-fact disinterest as an undertaker (albeit a bit earlier in the process). Nonetheless, she's condemned to death for failing Poppaea. Vicki is cautioned not to change history, and responds with a decision that leads to what has to be the best line in the episode: "Oh, by the way, I think I poisoned Emperor Nero." The Doctor manipulates all of Nero's very obvious levers with brilliant aplomb (and it's a treat to see Hartnell and Francis playing off each other in the sauna scene, it really is) but winds up infuriating the Emperor nonetheless. At every stage and every step, comedy and drama perform an uneasy dance together...but the episode rarely puts a foot wrong.

Ian, unfortunately, doesn't get to participate in any of the comedy. His plot is basically a tour of the brutal Roman tropes, so he goes from galley slave to gladiator. His subsequent fight with his new friend Delos is as inevitable as water running downhill, right down to the cliffhanger of the episode. If you put a gladiator fight into a Roman story, is there really any way it doesn't end with the emperor turning his thumb in disapproval?

Monday, April 13, 2015

All Roads Lead to Rome

We're only two episodes in, and it already feels like Spooner has mastered exactly what he's trying to do with the series. There's absolutely none of the longueurs that 'The Reign of Terror' had; Barbara's scenes in the prison are brief, to the point, and move the plot along with brisk characterization. We're in there just long enough to establish her friendship with her fellow slave, introduce Tavius, and then it's off to the auction. Likewise, Ian's time as a galley slave last just long enough for you to get the basic idea of it (hint: it's horrible) and then there's a convenient shipwreck to move him on to his next stop on the Roman Magical Mystery Tour.

And this is also when Spooner figures out what to do with all the historical figures the Doctor keeps bumping into. He wasn't quite sure how to handle Robespierre or Napoleon--too grim, too serious, too...well, historical. He managed some interesting material with the moral dilemma that the architects of the Terror had to face, but it didn't really fit with the rest of the tone the story was aiming for. But with Nero, he finally gets the idea--this is an adventure, not a history lesson! The historical figures need to be treated the same way as the setting, made into near-mythical figures with all their character traits amped up to eleven. So Nero becomes a brilliantly over-the-top representation of the later Roman emperors--capricious, arrogant, narcissistic, and possessed of the power over life and death for his citizens. Derek Francis nails every note of the portrayal, but it's the script that gives his character its shape. Arguably, it's what gives the series its shape; Dickens, Shakespeare, Christie, Queen Victoria and Winston Churchill all owe something of their portrayal to Spooner's conception of Nero in particular and historical figures in general.

And then there's the Doctor. I said it before and I'll say it again--you could show this episode to any fan of the new series and they would instantly recognize the pairing of the Doctor and Vicki. Spooner's Doctor is curious enough to impersonate a dead man just to find out who wanted him killed--he'd already grasped the potential of "Doctor as imposter" in 'Reign', but this is where he figures out how to slot it into the story. In 'Reign', the Doctor knew he was playing a dangerous game and his discomfort showed in every, he's enjoying every moment of it.

This is also where it becomes obvious that the companion dynamic has completely changed. Vicki may be nominally objecting to the Doctor's dangerous plans, but Maureen O'Brien plays the role with an impish smile that a) has to be so incredibly freaking adorable that you want to squeal, and b) makes it absolutely obvious that she's only pretending to object. She's the model for Jamie and Sarah Jane and Ace and Rose and Amy and just about every good companion from here on out. It's no wonder Ian and Barbara have to be split so completely into their own story that they don't even bump into the Doctor...they don't really belong in Spooner's version of the series. They have their moments of enthusiasm for adventure, don't get me wrong, but they still think of the end goal of each adventure as "return to the TARDIS and try to get home". It's a model of events that has fundamentally become obsolete, even if it hasn't been entirely abandoned just yet. All roads lead to Rome...which means that they lead, more than ever, away from the TARDIS.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

The Slave Traders

Structurally, "The Slave Traders" is a real refinement of the concept that Spooner introduced with "A Land of Fear" (the opening episode of 'The Reign of Terror'). In much the same way that his previous story traded on the tropes of the French Revolution, this story plays with the pop culture version of Rome more than the actual history. That isn't to say there's no overlap between the two, but Spooner has left historical Rome behind for schoolboy adventure stories, sword-and-sandal epics, and of course William Shakespeare (who gets a call-out in this episode thanks to Ian).

In fact, it's Shakespeare who probably proves to be the strongest influence on this story--the idioms of speech are different, but this could easily pass for a Shakespearean comedy. The slave traders are written in the style of his villains, rough and lacking in virtue but not significant enough to be more than incidental players in a grander tale. The confusion of identity between the recently-deceased Maximus Pettulian and the alive and utterly mischievous Doctor is straight out of any number of plays (although 'As You Like It' pops immediately to mind, disguises and mistaken identity is a hallmark of Shakespeare's comedic works). The splitting up of fast friends, the complications and peril that owe as much to contrivance as to's all very much reminiscent of the Bard, although his Roman plays rarely had humor in their hearts.

For all that Shakespeare is taught in English class, though, this is light-years from Doctor Who's original mandate as an educational program. This is a story that could never have happened without Spooner's first Doctor Who script breaking that new ground and giving us a non-didactic (and not necessarily accurate) vision of history...but while 'The Reign of Terror' had trouble filling its running time with interest once three quarters of the cast were trapped in Conciergerie Prison and the fourth was stuck miles outside of Paris, here Spooner has figured out how to use his Roman tropes as a hook to hang a ton of plot points on. The Doctor and Vicki are jumping head-first into palace intrigue (and note that wonderfully, their reason is simply that it sounds like fun--we're light-years away from 'Marco Polo' or even 'Reign', where the goal was simply to return to the TARDIS as soon as possible) and Ian and Barbara's capture and subsequent separation allows them to explore their own individual plotlines. Spooner has learned his lesson; a plot like this has to feel overstuffed with incident to work.

It also needs great character work from the regulars, and we get it. Hartnell is now fully occupying the center of the narrative as the Doctor--his dialogue with Ian about pipes could have come out of the mouth of Matt Smith with very little alteration. Ian and Barbara have adjusted to their new, fundamentally reactive jobs of feeding the Doctor straight lines...but Vicki is where the series has really upgraded from one Spooner script to another. This isn't to blame Carole Ann Ford for the production team's decision to write her character as a shrieking neurotic, but Susan absolutely needed to leave the show in order for it to get to this point. Vicki is excited to be adventuring with the Doctor. She's bored with the placid villa life and actively looking for trouble--it's worth noticing that her efforts to dissuade the Doctor from impersonating Pettulian are almost entirely pragmatic, not ethical. She's behaving like the Doctor's partner in crime rather than his petrified granddaughter, and it really allows the show more freedom to become an adventure story rather than a history lesson. Like "A Land of Fear" before it, "The Slave Traders" is a huge step forward towards our modern conception of Doctor Who.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Desperate Measures

If the previous episode was where Hartnell started to shine, "Desperate Measures" is where he makes it absolutely clear that the series belongs permanently to the Doctor in general and to him in particular. It's not that any of the other regulars become any less interesting--Ian and Barbara get some great moments together, and Vicki has an instant rapport with them. The scene where they try to explain their status as unwilling time travelers, and Vicki's response ("You're five hundred fifty years old?") and Ian and Barbara's response to Vicki's's all wonderful stuff.

But the Doctor becomes far more significant. There are two key scenes where he demonstrates his absolute mastery of the role, and in the process centers the narrative entirely around himself. The first scene is his initial meeting with Vicki; it comes at a key point in the narrative for her. The rescue ship is due in perhaps a day, and she'd been hearing for years that her only chance of survival was to listen to Bennett and Koquillion and wait for help to arrive. Ian, Barbara and the Doctor are strangers who immediately disrupt her world on every level--they mock her tormentor, they have a risky plan with very few upsides and potentially catastrophic downsides, they're potentially antagonizing Bennett (it's never overtly stated, but the way she reacts to that tells you volumes about the way he's treated her all these years) and to top it off, Barbara just killed her pet. She has absolutely no reason, no reason at all to trust any of them.

And then Hartnell turns on the charm. His eyes twinkle, he smiles a warm and brilliantly paternal smile, he sits down and beckons her closer, and Vicki just melts--and the audience melts right along with her. This is entirely a new experience for us--Hartnell's had his moments of vulnerability and warmth, sure, but we have never been subjected to anything remotely resembling a William Hartnell charm offensive. For someone following the series since 'An Unearthly Child', who remembers his initial scenes with Ian and Barbara, this is scarcely even credible. He is transcendent here, bringing a degree of warmth and kindness to this scene that makes Vicki's decision to travel with him instantly believable.

The second scene, of course, is his confrontation with Bennett. It's a magnificent piece of work, from his initial scene sitting in the chair and talking with his back to the villain of the story all the way up through the confession and his snarled, righteously furious, "You're a madman!" He owns this scene, every second of it. Bennett is great too, don't get me wrong; Ray Barrett hits every note of his character perfectly. But it's that very perfection that gives Hartnell the chance to take over the part so completely; Barrett as Bennett is bringing forth every ounce of his charisma and menace, and Hartnell is matching him with an implacable determination that gives him instant authority and gravitas. Obviously, it'll be a while before he can bring that authority to the physical arena--in this case, he's saved by Dido ex machina and a convenient cliff. But he's unquestionably asserting himself as the moral and narrative center of the show. From this point on, Ian and Barbara's days are just as numbered as Susan's were--this show now belongs in spirit as well as name to the Doctor.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

The Powerful Enemy

There are some stories that are better the second time around. A really elegant twist doesn't just reveal something that the audience didn't know before; it illuminates the story in a whole new light, changing the way that you perceive events that you already saw and making you rethink everything you knew. A very good twist makes you want to watch the story all over again to see the story from a whole different point of view.

"The Powerful Enemy" has a great twist, and I'm sorry if you don't know it, because I'm about to spoil it. Bennett is Koquillion. If you don't know that, this is a reasonably interesting episode; the Doctor and his companions encounter a shipwrecked crew trapped by hostile aliens, and have to find some way to outwit them and free the humans. It's the sort of thing that you could expect in this point in the series, and anyone watching it who knew that Maureen O'Brien was going to be the new companion could imagine Bennett sacrificing himself to destroy Koquillion and Vicki going off in the TARDIS.

But if you know that Bennett and Koquillion are one and the same, this is an absolutely terrifying psychological thriller. Because every scene between Vicki and Bennett and between Vicki and Koquillion takes on a whole new light when you know that they're one and the same person. Every time Bennett warns Vicki of the terrible threat that merciless and brutal Koquillion poses to them, you understand that he is terrorizing her. Every time he unleashes his inner sadism while wearing the alien mask, you understand that he is tormenting and brutalizing her into a constant state of dependence on him. When you watch it knowing that Bennett is Koquillion, this is a nightmare.

That brings a whole new meaning to the scene where Vicki meets Barbara. Barbara's sympathetic look feels entirely different, Vicki's panicked insistence that "Koquillion always knows, he knows everything" is absolutely heart-breaking, and all you can think of is how much you want that poor girl to be rescued at once. It gets you on her side instantly and effortlessly. Not that Maureen O'Brien couldn't have done that just with her natural charm, but she's allowed to have a real performance here because of the nuances of the script and she shows what she can do right off the bat. This is definitely Vicki's story, and she steals every scene she's in.

All that makes it sound like not much is happening with Ian and the Doctor, but this is where Hartnell really starts to shine. Hell, he incandesces in this episode. From the beginning, where he shows a new warmth and tenderness to his friends that almost-but-not-quite conceals his aching loss over Susan's departure, all the way to his charming banter with Ian as they escape the temple, he is mercurial and adorably pompous and hilariously dotty and brilliantly sharp ("I can hear you in here") and deductive and everything he needs to be to carry his scenes. It's not that he's never been good before; it's that up until now, this has been an ensemble show and now it's a hero and a supporting cast. Hartnell steps right up, and he's brilliant.

And for all that people complain that "Bennett is Koquillion" is obvious in retrospect, Ray Barrett does an amazing job of making Koquillion seem creepy and alien and menacing. Honestly, my one complaint about the episode is that instead of being involved in the cliffhanger somehow, we instead get a bog-standard deathtrap (from supposedly peaceful aliens--exaggerate much, Doctor?) that we all know Ian's going to get out of a few minutes into the next episode. Still, this is a great piece, well above its reputation as a whodunnit with only one suspect.

Pilgrimage: The First Doctor Index

Since I've now been going through the series in order for a while now, I figured it would be nice to provide people with a way to follow along without having to click on the tag where they find it and go backward. So below is a list of my essays on the First Doctor's run, in order, and I will periodically update it as I do more. I'll do another post for the Second Doctor, the Third Doctor, and so on.

As of now:

'An Unearthly Child':
"An Unearthly Child"
"The Cave of Skulls"
"The Forest of Fear"
"The Firemaker"

'The Daleks':
"The Dead Planet"
"The Survivors"
"The Escape"
"The Ambush"
"The Expedition"
"The Ordeal"
"The Rescue"

'The Edge of Destruction':
"The Edge of Destruction"
"The Brink of Disaster"

'Marco Polo':
"The Roof of the World"
"The Singing Sands"
"Five Hundred Eyes"
"The Wall of Lies"
"Rider from Shang-Tu"
"Mighty Kublai Khan"
"Assassin at Peking"

'The Keys of Marinus':
"The Sea of Death"
"The Velvet Web"
"The Screaming Jungle"
"The Snows of Terror"
"Sentence of Death"
"The Keys of Marinus"

'The Aztecs':
"The Temple of Evil"
"The Warriors of Death"
"The Bride of Sacrifice"
"The Day of Darkness"

'The Sensorites':
"Strangers in Space"
"The Unwilling Warriors"
"Hidden Danger"
"A Race Against Death"
"A Desperate Venture"

'The Reign of Terror':
"A Land of Fear"
"Guests of Madame Guillotine"
"A Change of Identity"
"The Tyrant of France"
"A Bargain of Necessity"
"Prisoners of Conciergerie"

'Planet of Giants':
"Planet of Giants"
"Dangerous Journey"

'The Dalek Invasion of Earth':
"World's End"
"The Daleks"
"Day of Reckoning"
"The End of Tomorrow"
"The Waking Ally"

Review: Doctor Who - The Audio Scripts

(Originally posted to the Doctor Who Ratings Guide on  31 March, 2003.)

I was a little surprised to find out that Big Finish was releasing a book of their audio scripts -- after all, they'd said on their website that they had no interest in putting out print versions of their audios, since the audio was a hard enough format to get people interested in. It's certainly been a hard format to get me interested in, mainly because a lifetime of reading has trained me to tune out the noises around me so I can concentrate on visual stimuli, which is a bad trait to have when you're trying to listen to an audio-only drama.

In other words, I was quite glad to see a book of audio scripts from Big Finish. I hadn't been avoiding their work on any principle of cost or quality, but simply because the medium didn't appeal to me... and this nice hardcover book was going to give me a chance to read some of the Doctor Who I'd missed out on as a result. As it turned out, there was quite a lot of good Who in here (and some bad, as well, but you can't have everything) -- it served as a good read, a nice work of reference on the four audios it contained, and enough of an advertisement that I'm probably going to be buying two of the four audios just to hear the voice performances. So on the whole, I'd call this an excellent success for Big Finish, and I hope very much that this is just the first volume of many.

Loups-Garoux, by Marc Platt, was one of the reasons I bought this book -- I'd heard a lot of raves about the story, and I've also been a huge fan of Platt ever since Ghost Light. I wasn't disappointed, either... this is a great story. Pieter Stubbe is a wonderful villain, filled with a dark and menacing charm, and I find myself wanting to buy the audio just to hear his voice when he delivers lines like, "Huh. Grandmothers. I've had my fill of grandmothers." Doctor Who has given us very few villains as utterly cool as Stubbe, and my only wish is to somehow see him again. The other characters are nice too, and the regulars are dealt with well (I love the Doctor's awkward, tentative stabs at romance), and although the plot sometimes seems a little vague, it's never contradictory and always engaging.

The Holy Terror, by Rob Shearman... wow. This has been billed by many as a comedy (sometimes prefaced with the words "dark"), but don't be fooled. This is actually an intense drama with comic moments strategically placed to relieve the tension like lightning bolts in a storm. The whole thing is an exploration of responsibility -- What responsibility does the Creator have to his Creation? -- and it's dealt with on many levels, from Frobisher hunting down the gumblejack he created out of the TARDIS databanks to Pepin VII refusing to become a god to his subjects to the final, shattering denoument in which we see who the Creator really is, and what he's been doing to his creations all along. It's violent, it's bloody, it's gory, but there's never a moment in which I don't believe that this is the natural, inevitable progress of events -- I've got to get this on audio, because I think it's possibly one of the best works of Who to have shown up in a while. It's on a very high plane, and I recommend it a lot.

The Fires of Vulcan, by Steve Lyons, is... solid. It's like a lot of Steve Lyons books -- the characterization is sound, the plot unfolds well enough, there are reasonably clever moments, and on the whole, there are far worse ways to pass an afternoon (or evening, in my case) than to read it. But don't expect something world-shatteringly good. It's solid. That's probably damning it with faint praise, but there's really nothing else you can say.

Neverland, by Alan Barnes... yeurgh. This is the "bad Who" I was talking about earlier. I understand that Gary Russell wants to show off not just the quality of the scripts, but also the storylines and writers that he's developed at Big Finish. Hence, instead of including a probable crowd-pleaser Eighth Doctor story such as The Stones of Venice, Invaders From Mars, or Seasons of Fear (I'm basing this on the writers involved, not on having heard the audios), he went with one of his own writers, and a story tied strongly in with the Big Finish Eighth Doctor mythos. This proves to be a mistake, in my opinion, because Barnes isn't a very good writer, and Neverland isn't a very good story. The whole thing reads like a second-hand-shop version of the War, and although there are a few cute ideas (dispersed Time Lords continuing to exist somewhere, Time Lords donating lives to soldiers in the fight), there's a lot of codswallop (why do anti-time creatures feed on time? Shouldn't they annihilate each other?) and blather (Zagreus, Zagreus, Zagreus, yadda yadda yadda.) The Eighth Doctor... I will never again claim that the Eighth Doctor in the books doesn't have a distinct character anymore, because now I've read Neverland, and I can at least tell you who he isn't. He's not this guy. Ironic, since Paul McGann actually voiced these lines, but this isn't the Doctor. There are further problems with this as the selection (it relies heavily on knowledge of previous audios, it ends on a cliff-hanger) but the biggest one is that it's just plain bad. Not the best way to end the book.

Still, with four stories and only one being dross (and two being spectacular), that gives it a pretty good claim to be worth picking up -- and it helps that this also doubles as a reference work, for those people who want to refer back to events in The Holy Terror but don't have a good fast-forward/rewind feature on their CD player. I'd love to see another volume of these, perhaps one featuring The Shadow of the Scourge or an all-Excelis edition... and Big Finish needn't worry about this cutting into their audio sales. If anything, it'll increase them.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015


It probably made sense on paper. I mean, in the script the weirdly-edited assemblage of random shots with the tiny model of Ian falling off the paper-mache cliff, the other tiny model of Ian sliding along the cut-out diagram of the tunnel, and the real Ian suddenly falling into shot on a random set we've never seen before was supposed to be Ian surviving the deadly fall to find himself in just the right place to stop the Dalek bomb by blocking the shaft. The shots of Susan and David doing, um...something, somewhere, with stuff...that was supposed to be them sabotaging vital control systems. And the final explosion of random stock footage...that was meant to be a massive volcanic eruption caused by the Dalek bomb exploding too close to the surface, an eruption that took out all the Dalek saucers in the world, because they just happened to be right overhead, while not at all touching the Doctor who was maybe a few hundred yards away...I did stress "probably", right?

But as filmed, it's barely coherent. I don't mean, "It didn't hang together as a piece of drama." I mean, "Many of the scenes as shot and edited do not form a visual narrative in any sense of the word, leaving the viewer to guess at key plot points at what is supposed to be the climax of the story." I complained about the end of the first Dalek serial not living up to expectations, but at least you could actually tell what was happening on screen. Here, there's way too much that the audience simply has to interpolate. It's an unmitigated disaster, even before you start wondering whether every single Dalek on Earth was really gathered in the same place, let alone whether all the other Daleks in the universe are just going to give up on their big plan now that a few of their saucers have been destroyed.

But let's face it, nobody cares, because we're all paying attention to the last scene. It's equal parts gorgeous and infuriating--on the one hand, the Doctor is incredibly patronizing to Susan, simply taking the decision out of her hands by leaving her behind without giving any consideration to whether she has something with David that will truly be deep and lasting or whether he's consigning her to a life of misery on an alien planet billions of miles and millions of years from home. (For all that John Peel deservedly gets hammered by the fans for 'Legacy of the Daleks', his portrayal of Susan and David's relationship as something less than a happy ending was pretty believable.)

On the other hand, the Doctor is doing what he does from a position of love and understanding. He knows that Susan wouldn't leave him behind even if her heart broke in two from the decision. He knows that a moment like this would happen some day, and that the longer he keeps her with him the more she'll grow to resent it. He knows his granddaughter, and he knows that the right thing to do is to take the decision out of her hands. It's possible to see both of those things in that scene, because everyone involved takes the script and brings out every wonderful nuance of it. (The scene where Carole Ann Ford stares at the space where the TARDIS once was, and you realize she's never seen it dematerialize from the outside before, is a triumph that makes you wish they'd given her something to do on the series before now.)

And so the series changes. Susan is left behind, and with it the idea of the Doctor as someone with a family, someone with a home. Someone human. He's finally free to become a wanderer, completely and fully. The show is now fully free to remake him as a character, and the process of shedding its old skin really kicks into gear here.

Monday, April 6, 2015

The Waking Ally

I'm sorry, but there's no getting around it--this episode opens with Ian just straight up murdering someone's pet by bashing it with a rock until it falls into a bottomless pit. I have no idea how the RSPCA didn't step in here. I just bet that in between each and every one of his scenes, the Black Dalek went back to his room and just sobbed openly, fondling the Slyther's collar with his sucker and whispering, "Why? Why?"

Okay, maybe not so much so, but it's still interesting to me that this is an era where the Daleks haven't fully ossified as a concept. They're capable of having pets; they view other life-forms as insignificant and not worthy of notice, rather than as targets to be exterminated. They enslave rather than kill for the most part, and even feel outrage at attacks against them (it's surprisingly funny when one of them talks about the "unprovoked attack on our saucer"). They're conquerors, but they're conquerors with a purpose rather than genocidal maniacs. It's a smaller difference between the Daleks then and the Daleks now than it was in their previous appearance, but it's still noticeable. They're still characters and not monsters. That won't last much longer, so enjoy it while it lasts.

The role of "monster" in this story is taken up by the Robomen, as Larry's search for his brother ends the only way it really can in a story like this. It's still a pretty good scene despite the obviousness of the trope, as Larry begs Phil to remember his wife and family and is shot in the gut for his troubles. None of it is surprising--it's all exactly what you would expect, right down to Phil whispering Larry's name as he too dies--but it's still hard to look away as it's happening. The Robomen really are such a good part of this story that it's amazing how rarely they've been used since--they really are more effective at being Cybermen than Cybermen are in some ways, both because they have this wonderfully horrifying air of neglect and despair, and because of the utterly horrific descriptions of their eventual demise ("they go mad, bash their heads against walls...") They're the dehumanization of oppressed people made brutally literal.

Of course, there's also the other kind of dehumanization that happens to oppressed people on display here. Barbara and Jenny's run-in with the collaborators is far more affecting than the Aaru version (what, you think I was going to get through all six episodes without referencing the Aaru version?) precisely because they never get their comeuppance; in the movie, they die the kind of gruesome death that all traitors deserve, but in this version they're out-and-out rewarded for their treachery and deceit. It's the kind of lesson Doctor Who doesn't always teach...sometimes, the bad guys get away with it.

As with the rest of this story, though, the weak point of "The Waking Ally" remains the star and main character. (And presumably the titular waking ally.) Their segment of the episode is nothing more than a slow trip to join the rest of the cast in Bedfordshire, and even the fact that Susan finally gets something useful to do one whole episode before she leaves the series for good doesn't change the fact that all they get is a boring fight scene and a bit of "science-y" exposition that again sounds like the Doctor is suffering from mild aphasia instead of a technical explanation. Again, it's hard not to feel like Nation doesn't feel like he has to try now that the Doctor is firmly cemented as The Hero; he was much more interesting when Nation saw him as a force for chaos rather than writing him as an agent of order.

But at least we're headed for a climax, right? Ian's hiding in a nuclear bomb, Barbara is infiltrating the Dalek headquarters, and the Doctor and Susan...are somewhere in the general vicinity. Better late than never, Doctor!

Sunday, April 5, 2015

The End of Tomorrow

As with pretty much every six-parter, there's at least one episode that does little beyond padding out the run time...and "The End of Tomorrow" is pretty much a textbook stall. It's not a bad stall; the disappearance of Hartnell forces them to give David a bit more to do, which is nice as he's only got a couple more episodes left to become a romantic lead convincing enough to make us believe that Susan would want to stay with him instead of going off with her grandfather. They don't give Susan any of the Doctor's material, of course, but at this point we're all pretty much resigned to seeing Susan reduced to a portable scream.

But really, it's just an exercise in treading water. Ian and Larry wander around the labor camp narrowly avoiding Daleks and Robomen and stock footage; Barbara and Jenny very slowly work their way out of London; Susan and David wander around the sewers. None of it actually moves the plot forward more than a tiny fraction of an inch, but there's lots of incident to make up for the lack of actual events.

To be fair, one thing does happen. Susan and David bump into Tyler, who is quite frankly the most interesting and competent character onscreen right now. Actually, that's not fair to Jenny...she's terrific, and I find myself wishing she could have been a companion. Her over-protestation at the futility of Dortmun's pointless self-sacrifice is absolutely wonderful. Nation's supporting characters give me a lot more faith in his writing abilities than his regulars; Ashton is deliciously and unrepentantly amoral, and even Wells has realistic motivations and sincere heroism behind his trading with the black marketeer. There's a lot of depth to them, and Nation uses the extra time to develop them much better than supporting characters in Doctor Who usually get.

Other than that, there's not much to say about an episode with not much to say. The Dalek plan is still on "simmer", everyone's heading to Bedfordshire to meet Ian but they can't get there too soon, and Nation's run out of people to kill for now (although Ashton bites it, a bit too soon to be honest). Really, all that's left to comment on is the delightful notion of the Black Dalek's pet Slyther...I find myself wanting to know if he enters it in pet shows with Helen A's Stigorax. Do all the Daleks have Slythers? Are they all the rage back on Skaro, now that the fad for Varga plants has passed? Do they cuddle on the Daleks' laps, and get tickles under the chin with the suction cup? I know. I'm overthinking it. But in an episode like this, there's not much else to think about.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Day of Reckoning

If there's one thing that Terry Nation has a gift for, it's pointless brutality. Um...I mean that in a good way...

It's true, though. One of his greatest skills is in showing unflinchingly a convincing and realistic portrayal of the nasty side of adventure, and "Day of Reckoning" spares no sensibilities in exploring the consequences of Dortmun's defiant stand against the Dalek conquerors. The episode opens with the raid itself--chaotic and violent, filled with death and desperate flight from an enemy that has proven to be invincible. (The sound effects of Dortmun's bombs, which sound like nothing so much as glass Christmas ornaments when they hit the ground, are perhaps not quite right for this, but I'm not sure how exactly you do foley a dud bomb not exploding when it hits the ground.)

The raid also makes the usual splitting up of the cast feel a little less like authorial fiat and more like the entirely believable result of an utter rout. Ian winds up trapped on the Dalek saucer heading for the mines, the Doctor is dragged off semi-conscious by Baker, Susan (whose ankle appears to have healed up completely between episodes) hides out in the rubble with David, and Barbara returns to the rebel hideout and watches the fallout of the utter failure sink in.

Well, sink in for some. Dortmun's optimism now borders on the delusional--he's convinced that all he needs is another few tweaks to his formula, another few volunteers to toss the bombs (and does it not sink in to anyone that he's claiming his bombs can shatter the otherwise-impervious Dalek armor, but that they can toss them from about ten feet away with no ill effects?) and they'll have their long-awaited victory. Tyler, who has already capitulated to Dortmun once and sent 90% of the previous strike force to their horrible deaths, has pretty much had enough and fucks right off out of the story for a while. Really, Jenny and Tyler's reactions combine to really bring home the reality of the situation--they're both equally cynical about their remaining chances, but they express it in different ways. Tyler abandons his former comrades, deciding that caring about anyone but himself is a waste of time, while Jenny pretends not to care about anyone while showing through her actions that she still cares all too much. The expression on her face at Dortmun's death speaks volumes.

Actually, it would have been fascinating to see Jenny replace Susan as a companion, rather than Vicki. The interactions between her and Barbara, based on a sort of frustrated inability to appreciate each other's point of view, are really some of the best scenes in the whole episode. The best scene, though, has to be Dortmun's death. It's really the culmination of everything Nation's been trying to achieve in the story--his last stand is defiant, heroic, a demonstration of the indomitable human spirit, and utterly useless. The shot of the grenade, detonating with a futile hiss as the Daleks stand confused in front of his broken, lifeless body, is probably the best thing Richard Martin ever did.

Oh yes, and Hartnell's still in the series. He does a better job in this episode, and so does Nation; the scene where he and Susan argue is a bit clunky and clearly setting up her departure in a few episodes' time, but the subsequent bit where David flatters him shamelessly and the Doctor pretends that listening to David's advice is his own idea is the kind of charming egotism you expect from the Doctor, rather than the tiresome arrogance we saw in the previous episode. There's even a nice moment between Baker and Campbell that convincingly sells a friendship between the two, right before the former's departure...and murder, two seconds later, by a Dalek patrol. Did I mention the pointless brutality? Even Ian gets a taste, as he kills the Roboman who was his cellmate an episode ago (although that scene would probably have worked better if they'd mentioned that in the dialogue). Ultimately, Nation succeeds brilliantly at making this story look like a genuine war, occupation and rebellion. It's no wonder he went on to to explore the same themes elsewhere--being grim is kind of his skillset.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

The Daleks

The good news is, there's only one thing about this episode that doesn't work. The bad news is, it's the star of the series and his character, who is taking center stage more and more as the series progresses and is placed front and center here in a fashion the show has never really done before.


There actually is a whole lot to like in this episode. The two pairs of characters (Ian and the Doctor, Barbara and Susan) are in situations that are very different, but that nonetheless allow Nation to deliver some relatively painless exposition as to how the Daleks conquered Earth. It's actually a plausible and fairly vivid scenario--certainly others have commented on Nation's obsession with plagues, in this series and others, but here he paints a bleak picture of a world bombarded by meteorites and laid low by pestilence before the Daleks even made their first move. Not that humanity has given up, of course. Dortmun...

I'm actually going to give Nation a lot of credit for Dortumn. A whole lot. Because he's quite deliberately contrasting the iconography of Dortmun with the actual character, to brilliant effect. Dortmun's character calls to mind a whole host of tropes that were at that time deeply ingrained in living memory, and which still resonate today. The Rifftrax version of the Aaru movie called him "Churchill mixed with FDR", and that's exactly what he's intended to be...a stirring speaker, with an indomitable never-say-die spirit who rallies humanity into battle when our every instinct is to flee, hide or surrender.

But of course, he's completely and totally in the wrong here. Fleeing and hiding are actually pretty good ideas right now, and the hope he brings the resistance is entirely a false hope. And Tyler knows it, too--Bernard Kay plays him with the perfect amount of fatalism, going along with a plan he knows is doomed to get people killed because he understands that Dortmun's plan has such incredible amounts of narrative inexorability that he couldn't stop it if he wanted to. The bomb hasn't been tested, the plan relies on a transparent ruse, they have to commit most of their men to it, and there's no exit strategy--how could it go wrong? (And somewhere, the spirit of Terry Pratchett asks, "What if it isn't exactly a million-to-one chance?")

So there's a bunch of great stuff going on. Really, apart from the Doctor, it's all wonderful. (Okay. The Doctor and the fact that Richard Martin still hasn't learned that cardboard standees of Daleks look like exactly one thing--cardboard standees of Daleks. Seriously, just about everyone watching the Hartnell era complains about what a terrible job he did, and I was prepared to defend him at least a little until the night scene where the Dalek searchlights went not once but twice directly over to where the cardboard Daleks were propped up against a wall. DUDE!)

But complaining about the cardboard Daleks only delays me from talking about the Big Problem of this episode--the Doctor. Since the last time Nation wrote a Dalek story, the Doctor has gone from being a mischievous trickster whose antics got the rest of the crew into trouble to being the Hero of the Show. And while Nation wrote the mischievous Doctor with energy, verve, and moral complexity, he knows that a Hero has to be a flawless figure filled with righteousness and noble spirit and always ready with a witty quip and a brilliant plan.

Which translates in Nation-script to, "I think we'd better pit our wits against them and defeat them!"

The Doctor is awful in this episode. Hartnell tries to do something with the pompous, puffed, smug, arrogant "hero-speak" he's saddled with, but his default mode is to use comic pomposity to undercut his prickliness, and there's nothing funny going on here, which just leaves pomposity layered on pomposity. Every line is a thudding failure, as the Doctor belittles his allies, lectures his enemies, and gibbers out vaguely science-y sounding things as he solves the Dalek puzzle box without even noticing that there's a Dalek about three feet away listening to everything they say and do. Every single scene he's in is painful at best and incoherent at worst, and if Hartnell can't rescue a line, you know it's bad. It's probably a good thing he's going to be out of action for a while, if this is how Nation writes him.

Because the bits without the Doctor in them? Actually pretty good.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

World's End

This is an interesting story, because it feels for the first time like Doctor Who is trying to do "event" television. In a way, it feels very modern, sort of like a season premiere or a season finale on a modern show (and had they not held it back, it would have been). That's almost certainly part of why it's so beloved by fans; it's got the shocking return of the show's most popular enemies, it's got the show's first cast change...we fans tend to be suckers for big events that change the metastory, and this is the first big one. That's a lot of weight for it to carry, and it's no surprise that it frequently winds up being loved more in concept than in execution. It should be a big, epic event, but it doesn't fit into that box at all when you watch it.

It's not without its charms, though. "World's End" plays very well to the strengths of the classic series; the same slowness that people complain about when they watch the old Hartnell stories transforms here into a gradually building atmosphere of dread. This is a story that needs to seep in; giving the regulars a full episode to slowly recognize the creeping wrongness of the London they've arrived in greatly enhances the sense that this is a world where the Doctor and his companions simply should not be.

Every moment of the episode works to heighten that tension. Little details--the lack of sound, the decaying buildings and crumbling brickwork, the weeds growing up and out of every all leads to a sense that this is a London that's not just forgotten but abandoned. The poor costuming and bad effects work on the Robomen actually help to enhance the mood rather than looking silly or cheesy; they look like zombies, like the Daleks have put in the absolute minimum effort in creating their slave labor and don't care about their welfare at all. Tattered clothes? Wasted and wan flesh? As long as there's another human around to take their place, it's irrelevant. They're unbearably creepy, and the story uses them to good effect in this episode by showing them sparingly.

Everything works together to create an excellent atmosphere of looming dread. When the TARDIS is buried in rubble, it feels different than the usual "oh, this is how they keep them in the plot this week" plotting. It feels like they're trapped somewhere they don't belong. When the Doctor asks Ian if he's curious about what's happened, Ian's simple "No," is more effective than any speech. (Which is good, because as the rest of the episode shows, dialogue isn't Terry Nation's strong suit.)

And then the money shot. After a full episode of gradually building wrongness, of a slowly growing and utterly terrifying mystery, we get the Robomen en masse. We get the flying saucer. And then we see it, the first ever recurring enemy coming out of the river. This is the moment that cements the Daleks' place as the Doctor's arch-nemeses, even if it's so badly shot that everyone who remembers it remembers it wrongly (the Dalek begins its ascent from the river before the characters can react to it). The Daleks are back. Even now, over fifty years later, it still feels unimaginably huge.