Sunday, 8 March 2015

Audio Review 25: Renaissance Man, written by Justin Richards (2012)

Released: February 2012

Cast:
The Doctor – Tom Baker
Leela – Louise Jameson
Harcourt – Ian McNeice
Jephson – Gareth Armstrong
Christopher – Anthony Howell
Lizzie – Daisy Ashford
Beryl/Professor Hilda Lutterthwaite – Laura Molyneux
Dr. Henry Carnforth – John Dorney

Main Production Credits
Producer and Script Editor – David Richardson
Writer – Justin Richards
Director – Ken Bentley
Incidental Music and Sound Design – Jamie Robertson
Recording – Paul Midcalf at Audio Sorcery Studios
Title Music – Ron Grainer, Delia Derbyshire and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop
TARDIS Sounds – Brian Hodgson and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop
Executive Producers – Nicholas Briggs and Jason Haigh-Ellery

Story Summary (SPOILERS!):

On a visit to the Morovanian Museum, on Morovania Minor, the Doctor and Leela find themselves in a bizarre recreation of twentieth century Britain, from the ruins of Castles, to a forest and country house estate, where they hear about a mysterious collection. Entering the house, they come upon Harcourt, an “intellectual jackdaw”, whose eagerness about knowledge and learning, prompted him to start a collection upon everything, and anything. The Doctor’s suspicions are raised however, when a couple of his own cultural anecdotes, suddenly appear as part of Harcourt’s impressive exhibits...

The suicide of a Lepidopterist brings the Doctor to the conclusion that Harcourt, is literally draining the knowledge and experience of his intellectual guests, and that he and Leela, are next on the menu. However, the truth is even more perverse. The Doctor and Leela, have arrived at the Morovanian Museum, but have arrived early in one of its new exhibits. The new Renaissance section of the Museum, was built at the behest of one man, Jephson, who seeks to own all the knowledge that has ever existed. This knowledge is drained from its participants, whose consciousness’ are neutralised, before being fed into androids, blank ciphers, who are used as “collectors” of new data, through sight and sound. Harcourt is himself a machine, albeit one with personality, only his prime purpose is as storage for Jephson. The knowledge itself has been realised into physical existence, within the section of the Museum, hence the mish-mash of various historical buildings and cultural environments. Jephson plans to absorb the knowledge of all the experts and intellectuals he has invited to exhibit’s opening.

The Doctor thwarts Jephson, by cunningly giving him new unknown “knowledge”, which he made up himself. The integrity of Jephson’s absorbed data is now comprised, gradually corrupting, until the physical environment of the exhibition collapses. The Doctor and Leela escape in the TARDIS, as the Museum’s systems reboot, restoring those who survive to their former selves.

Story Placement
Between Destination: Nerva (Big Finish Audio) and The Wrath of the Iceni (Big Finish Audio).

Favourite Lines

The Doctor: “How does it feel, not being the cleverest man in the room?”
Harcourt: “I wouldn’t know. How does it feel?”

The Doctor: “Looks like the Game is up, Harcourt!”
Harcourt: “It’s Marshall Harcourt.”
The Doctor: “Really.”
Harcourt: “No, not really.”

Review:

Renaissance Man is a delightful small adventure that exhibits both Doctor Who’s trademark flair for great high concept stories and its light moral wisdom. Renaissance Man is only the second of BIG Finish’s Fourth Doctor adventures on audio, but it is already an improvement on the mixed results offered by debut adventure, Destination: Nerva. Renaissance Man’s premise of an intellectual obsessed with knowing everything, by having a living computer absorb the minds of the Universe’s experts, is a simple and effective concept that wonderfully juxtaposes the archaic with the fantastical. Destination: Nerva did this too, but it wasn’t concise enough an idea to fit itself into the new shorter format BIG Finish has created for the Fourth Doctor audio series. Renaissance, on the other hand is a much better fit; there’s no feeling of an interesting part of the story being left out, and its plot nicely comes to a natural conclusion in the last ten minutes. Or at least it nearly does.

The idea of a scientist or intellectual obsessing and pursuing over becoming a “super” intellect, or mutating into one, is an old idea in fantasy and sci-fi. It can be found in fiction’s long history of genius-like heroes such as Sherlock Holmes and Captain Nemo, superhuman intelligence as explored in Olaf Stapledon’s Odd John, or the plethora of Sci-fi B-movies of the 1930s and 50s. In Doctor Who, the premise of an intellectual person or being that obsesses over knowing everything has also been explored, most notably in perhaps Ghost Light. Also of note, the unmade 1980 TV serial, Shada shares a slight thematic similarity too, due to its’ villain, Skagra, wanting to “become” the Universe. Author Justin Richards gives this old idea, a further novel and dark twist, with the intellectual person, then absorbing the minds of all the universe’s experts to create a perfect visual record of knowledge for a museum. It’s this exhibitionism, treating obscure knowledge as trophies of status that gives Renaissance Man, a welcome and enchanting British flavour to the macabre, that Doctor Who often does so very well.

The plot is also executed efficiently, with a clarity and pace that helps to articulate the rich visuals conjured up, in what is surely one of Justin Richards’ most polished scripts to date. The first 15 minutes is one of the most perfect beginnings to a Doctor Who audio in several years, effortlessly drawing the listener in with small irresistible portions of intrigue, gradually giving us the full picture, like the perfect starter course, setting our senses ablaze in anticipation of the meal to come. Furthermore, the slow build of intrigue, mixed with lots of development, scene setting or action, feels just like some of the best Doctor Who TV stories, whose beginnings, entice the audience into the fantastic world and adventure they’re about to be immersed in. I also love the particularly neat conclusion to the story: The Doctor, bringing down the Villain’s “world” of knowledge with lies and false data, corrupting the entire library of information, to the point where it all collapses in on itself. The idea is so perfectly set-up, and feels like a very Doctor-ish victory to nicely round the story up on.

By the end of episode one of Renaissance Man though, the cracks unfortunately begin to show. The cliff-hanger at episode one’s conclusion sounds especially contrived and perfunctory, considering one of the previous characters was already dead, so another stock character didn’t need to be murdered just to labour the point, and Harcourt’s police masquerade was already in effect, giving the script no dramatic reason to delay the Doctor’s inevitable arrest, except for the artificial manufacture of a cliff-hanger of course. Then, during episode two, after Harcourt’s plans are exposed, and the Doctor sets in motion his counter-plan, the plot suddenly starts running on the spot, engaging in endless escape, run, and capture, which ultimately ends up being little more than padding, imaginatively disguised with as many new locations in the museum and visual gimmicks as possible. Sadly this has the effect, of taking me out of the story for a while, waiting for the action to tick by until it’s just the right time for the Doctor’s end game to reach its climax. For me it ebbs away part of the excitement, in what is for the most part a fairly thrilling adventure. I suspect it’s also partly compounded by the story concept being quite as simple and straight-forward as it is. I could easily imagine this production being 30 minutes long, instead of 50, and you wouldn’t really miss much of real significance out.

The original characters in Renaissance Man are rather simplistic too. True, the nature of what the villain has done to them has rendered them, as mostly mechanical slaves to the needs of acquiring knowledge, but often they mostly feel like a distraction from what’s really going on. Secondly, even in their original state as real people, every new character bar the two protagonists, come across as stock characters either playing out as stereotypes, like Professor Lutterthwaite, or generic amiable characters, adding a hint of their original personality before being changed into mere shells, such as Christopher and Lizzie, although as with Destination: Nerva, the shorter format of the 50-minute stories, does constrain what a writer can do with his character development somewhat. It’s a particular shame, as more time for development would have allowed the listener to get a real sense of the horror, of people losing their identities and personalities. Instead the audio is robbed of a worthy dramatic opportunity, just as with Destination: Nerva, to save time. This I feel is probably one of the few negative aspects of BIG Finish trying to emulate the revived Doctor Who TV series in its format. In the first place, there are some subtleties and drama that are easier to convey quickly on screen, via the physical performance of an actor, or a clever use of imagery and editing by the director. Trying to get away with this on audio is a tall order for any producer, writer or director. Secondly, the TV series has often cut around story events so the audience can move quickly from plot point to plot point. While this helps to maintain an enjoyable fast pace throughout the production, just as often I feel it has equally lost out on some potential drama or character development, that would make its revelations and machinations feel more momentous and substantial. I should add that, this isn’t the case all or most of the time, but enough times to be of note. Inevitably then, BIG Finish’s occasional attempt to replicate the “new series” experience in audio form, has also had decidedly mixed results.

The villain of the piece, the real “renaissance man”, Jephson, is sadly also a stock stereotype, the ranting manic, who can’t see anything beyond his obsession. I confess it was clever of Richards to disguise him as pretending to be a mechanical slave of Harcourt’s, but it’s a shame that in an audio full of characters meant to be shallow, that the villain turns out to be just as uninteresting, if not more so. Harcourt, on the other hand, proves to be a worthy character foil to the Doctor, but only as one who endlessly spouts witty retorts to him, in their verbal duelling. In every other respect, for reasons that become clear later, he too is essentially a script device; albeit one that is much more entertaining and amusing.

I guess I feel that’s Renaissance Man’s saving grace. Above its flaws and generalised, almost workman-like characterisation, the audio, and Richards’ writing is enormous fun to listen to. The light-hearted manner in the dialogue effortlessly carries you along the narrative; the wit shining through with various amusing Anthony Read-esque* jokes and funny genre homages. Justin Richards’ expert attention to the tone of Doctor Who’s Graham Williams era on Television (contemporary to this Doctor and companion partnership) is very much appreciated by this listener, and in my view certainly pays off. Richards is undoubtedly one of the more successful writers in this approach of writing Doctor Who: taking the best of the past, while leaving behind its flaws, and adding inventions of their own to the mix. I noted it while reading his novel, Apollo 23, a near-perfect evocation of the tone of the early Eleventh Doctor era from 2010. While it’s an approach to Doctor Who that performs well, I don’t believe it should be seen as a template. Most often, it’s the innovations and reinventions to Doctor Who’s mythos, storytelling and characters that succeed the most; but the celebratory approach just happens to be the way that works to Justin Richards’ strengths as a writer.

Renaissance Man proves this further with Richards’ uncanny and attentive characterisation of the Fourth Doctor and Leela. Bringing to life, such an impressive and iconic duo in Doctor Who’s long history, would be daunting to many a writer, but Justin Richards makes it look easy and effortless, his Fourth Doctor sounding like a lost 1970s TV script, full of warmth, wit and wonder. Leela is brilliantly realised too, with better (and sometimes funnier) dialogue than in half of the character’s original TV episodes. Richards acutely and affectionately relays her point of view and literal philosophy, and clearly enjoys showing Leela’s amusing misunderstandings of different language and cultures, paying homage to some of her best and fondly remembered moments on Television.

Another layer of enjoyment to Renaissance Man is of course, the wonderful cast themselves, and Big Finish has chosen a particular fine ensemble for this production. In fact, I feel one or two are bit underused, like Anthony Howell, for instance; both by the constricted demands of the shorter story format on the script, as well as the status of their supporting characters in the narrative. On the other hand, the character of Harcourt seems to be written especially for the wonderful Ian McNeice, such is the verbosity and rich variety of words, the protagonist performs. Even the name Harcourt, is quite possibly an affectionate nod to Ian McNeice’s character in the superb 1985 BBC Drama, Edge of Darkness.

However, the star of the show is undoubtedly the lead man himself, Tom Baker. The contrast with Destination: Nerva could not be greater. The great man is clearly enjoying the madcap world that Richards has conjured up, and the old subtle touches of dry-witted delivery and amusing sudden exclamations, of which I’ve always loved from Baker, have gloriously returned, hopefully, for many audios to come. If I didn’t know better, I would say Tom Baker was getting back into the stride of being the Doctor again, considering the Hornets’ Nest audios, required a different kind of performance, more in keeping with narration. However, this was actually Tom’s second Big Finish recording (the first is Energy of the Daleks), with Destination: Nerva being recorded out of order, a few audios later. To my ears though, I feel this is Tom Baker’s best audio performance so far. Louise Jameson continues her superb and faultless performance, with another strong showing to add to her list of previous superlative audio appearances. Tom Baker and Jameson between them, take you back to those golden moments of 1970s Who, as though they’d never left. I know it feels like I’m sprouting clichés all over the place, but the attention to detail across the production, and the hard work on behalf of all parties to maintain that consistency of tone, makes the listen such a joy to any fan of the period. If that wasn’t enough, then there’s also the non-stop fun of hearing Tom Baker and Ian McNeice, two of Britain’s finest character actors, locked in vocal wordplay, as one tries to out-quip the other. Just 50 minutes of verbal gymnastics with those two would be worth the price of admission alone, but of course, fortunately there’s much more. McNeice also effortlessly slips into his various character parodies, every time he and the Doctor, enter a different section of the museum. The rest of the cast also do a fine job, although the more shallow natures of their characters mean that they don’t always get a great deal to work on.

Renaissance Man’s production is also of a high quality. Castle courtyards, forests filled with birdsong, a busy police station, the clinking of glasses and a honky-tonk piano of a Wild West bar, the ricocheting bullets of a spitfire diving into battle, and the comforting sound of a grandfather clock, lightly ticking away in the living room of a country house – all these victories of superlative sound design prove that Big Finish’s productions sound as fine as they ever did. Jamie Robertson’s music is still on good form, after Destination: Nerva, providing a nice Dudley Simpson-esque atmosphere to events, although on this occasion it’s starting to veer a bit closer to Keff McCulloch’s unflattering Dudley Simpson homage in the attempted BBC Video reconstruction of Shada in 1992. Robertson’s sound design though, seems to be absolutely peerless; although it could be that I’m mis-remembering the success of early Big Finish. I do love how Robertson brings back the specially edited “thump” from the TARDIS landing sound effect, that was used on and off, during the TV series between 1975 to 1978.

Ken Bentley’s direction gives us a much better cast performance on this occasion, and the editing certainly feels tighter (or maybe that’s just the script). There’s far less theatricality on display, and just the right level of irreverence, keeping the production smoothly ticking over, while the enjoyable tone consistently achieved, makes Renaissance Man always entertaining.

It’s teatime in 1977, all over again”, is the tagline for Big Finish’s first full series of new Fourth Doctor adventures on audio, and Renaissance Man is the first of them that I feel genuinely achieves that. A superb cast, and richly creative sound design, bring Justin Richards’ novel high concept story to life with aplomb. Then Richards and Tom Baker win you over with a wonderful layer of wit and whimsy that brings back to me, in part why me, and numerous others, loved the Fourth Doctor in the first place. Tom Baker re-captures what it is to be the Doctor, in a way he hadn’t quite achieved with the BBC Hornets’ Nest series, and it’s a joy to hear once again. Justin Richards succeeds admirably in creating a small love letter to the era in audio form, and I salute him for it. And yet, despite this Renaissance Man ends up becoming a romp. The supporting characters, including the villain, are fairly throwaway and little developed, and the narrative is padded out with action, losing the plot’s earlier pace and substance. In a bizarre way, this is how many mid-1970s serials turned out, so it’s hard for me to work out if this is intentional, or once again a negative constraint of the audio series’ 50-minute format, which likely also prevented much development on the characters too. Even with these flaws though, Renaissance Man is never anything less than great fun, and endlessly re-listenable. The future of the Fourth Doctor at Big Finish looks bright indeed.

Score: 7/10

(* = Graham Williams was the producer of Doctor Who on TV from 1977-1980. Anthony Read was the Script Editor of Doctor Who on TV from 1977-1979)

Saturday, 31 January 2015

TV Review 13: The Web Planet, written by Bill Strutton (1965)

Broadcast: 13th February 1965 – 20th March 1965

Cast:
The Doctor – William Hartnell
Ian Chesterton – William Russell
Barbara Wright – Jacqueline Hill
Vicki – Maureen O’Brien
The Menoptera:
Vrestin – Roslyn De Winter
Hrostar – Arne Gordon
Hrhoonda – Arthur Blake
Prapillus – Jolyon Booth
Hlynia – Jocelyn Birdsall
Hilio – Martin Jarvis
Voice of the Animus – Catherine Fleming
The Optera:
Hetra – Ian Thompson
Nemini – Barbara Joss
The Zarbi – Robert Jewell, Jack Pitt, Gerald Taylor, Hugh Lund, Kevin Manser, John Scott Martin

Main Production Credits

Producer – Verity Lambert
Script Editor – Dennis Spooner
Writer – Bill Strutton
Director – Richard Martin
Designer – John Wood
Costumes – Daphne Dare
Title Music – Ron Grainer, Delia Derbyshire and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop
Special Sound – Brian Hodgson and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop
Make Up – Sonia Markham
Production Assistant – Norman Stewart
Studio Sound – Ray Angel
Studio Lighting – Ralph Walton


Story Summary (SPOILERS!):

The TARDIS is seemingly dragged down by an invisible force onto the surface of the planet Vortis, and is unable to leave. Upon exploration, the Doctor and his friends get split up, and discover the endangered insect society of the Menoptera, under threat by a malignant, all conquering alien parasite creature, known only as the Animus. This ever-growing and domineering creature has taken over the minds of Vortis’ lesser creatures, the ant-like Zarbi and the larvae guns, in an effort to destroy the remaining free Menoptera for good, and take over their planet.

While the Doctor and Vicki bewitch the Animus creature, Ian and Barbara join forces with the Menoptera’s pre-prepared army (later helped by the Doctor too), and their underground descendents, the Optera; and work to get their new weapon, the Isop-Tope, through to the Animus’ exposed heart. In an exhausting combined effort, they succeed just in time to destroy the Animus. The Time-travellers leave as life begins to return to Vortis, and its civilisation reunites, hopeful in their promising future.

Story Placement
Between The Eleventh Tiger (BBC Books) and The Dark Planet (BIG Finish Audio)

Favourite Lines
Barbara Wright: Oh, so you studied medicine at school, did you.
Vicki: Yes, of course, I did. Didn't you teach it?
Barbara Wright: No. We worked upwards from the three R's.
Vicki: Hmm?
Barbara Wright: Reading, writing, 'rithmetic.
Vicki: Oh, it was a nursery school?
Barbara Wright: It was not!
Vicki: Oh! I wish I'd gone to your school. We had to take a certificate of education in medicine, physics, chemistry...
Barbara Wright: Now, wait a minute. How old were you?
Vicki: Well, I was ten when I took those, and then...
Barbara Wright: Ten! What did you do in your time? Live in the classroom?
Vicki: Live in the what?
Barbara Wright: Classroom. Lecture hall. How long did you study?
Vicki: Almost an hour a week.
Ian Chesterton: I've seen a colony of ants eat their way right through a house. That size, they could eat their way through a mountain.

Prapillus: It must be a Temple of Light. The ancient song-spinners of our race sang of their beauty, but I thought they could never be found again.
Barbara Wright: There are others?
Prapillus: So the legends say – sewn into the craters and plateaus of Vortis, being slowly unwoven by the silence of time, and their entrances long forgotten by our species.

Nemini: The wall is not friendly. We must break it!
Ian Chesterton: What's wrong?
Hetra: A silent wall. We must make mouths in it with our weapons. Then it will speak more light

Review:

The Web Planet is one of Doctor Who’s most iconic stories ever, not just in the 1960s, but of all-time, and rightly so. It is a serial of both great imagination and ambitious production; in fact easily the most ambitious since the TV series began till perhaps The Daleks’ Masterplan just a matter of months later. In a way it reinforces how revolutionary and exciting those early years of Doctor Who were. Every couple of months or every other story, the production team would come up with new ideas, approaches and creative ambitions, either on the written page, or in a concerted effort to make the show look visually better on the screen than ever before. Nearly every other story in Doctor Who’s first three years makes an important lasting impact on its long term narrative and genre development, as well as its own maturity and complexity in storytelling.

In particular, The Web Planet brought us the most alien location ever depicted in the TV series up till at least Full Circle fifteen years later, or it could be convincingly argued to be the most alien ever. Vortis, the planet featured, is a vast, cold and barren world, full of crags, valleys and craters, like an exaggerated version of our own Moon, made ever spookier by the cunning artistic blur on screen, efficiently realised with a camera filter fitted to the lens. Then there’s it’s even more fascinating residents.

The idea of giant insects may be an unoriginal staple of the Hollywood B-movie horrors of old, but writer Bill Strutton’s invertebrate civilisation defies all the clichés by giving us an intricate and multi-layered society, with each species cleverly written, not just in concept, but also in dialogue, thought patterns, and background history. Even the director, Richard Martin, tries hard to convey this visually by hiring choreographers to craft special movements and physical mannerisms as they manoeuvre themselves on camera. The striking costume designs for the creatures are also very imaginative and impressive for their day, helping to add to the layer of surrealism that permeates this serial.

There are five distinct species, most with their own unique character outlook, and yet also quite cleverly on the part of Bill Strutton, share a poetic language and philosophy, that dresses up its actions and history like the myths of a fantasy storybook, full of metaphors and lyrical description that sets the imagination ablaze. The Menoptera, while obviously men in giant Butterfly costumes, are articulated and realised quite effectively with their irregular speech intonations, nervous natures, and choreography, although their excessive hand waving can be a bit silly and distracting at times. The Zarbi on the other hand, are visually impressive on screen, but rather refreshingly don’t speak, or at least not in terms of speech, nicely emphasising the starkly alien World in comparison. The noise the Zarbi make is equally imaginative and starkly alien, but after four episodes of it, let alone six, I can guarantee you’ll be screaming for it to stop, as the constant stream of noise started to give me a headache come the end of the story. The Larvae Guns meanwhile are far from impressive, but as they’re clearly supposed to be living weapons anyway, their total absence of character is perhaps to be expected.

The Optera are somewhere in-between the species in the quality of execution, having an average visual realisation, but also with a fascinating and unique characterisation of their own. Their species seems to have devolved from a group of Menoptera who hid underground from their powerful foe, the Animus, becoming stuck in a religious cult, now worshipping the forms of their earlier missing selves. Interestingly, this also hints at how long the planet Vortis has since been occupied by the Animus, indicating several years, if not centuries. During that time, the Optera have lost all the shared history, knowledge and skills of their past, partly through a lack of education, but maybe also due to the sheer number of years of isolation they have endured. As a result of these circumstances, they have developed an unsentimental and relatively utilitarian character, which has helped them survive in their harsh conditions; but furthermore their language and intelligence has also evolved into an entirely new form as well. The Optera characterise their world and surrounding as if they were living things, or at least describe them in the same terms as they would describe themselves. Therefore holes in the walls and ground are called “mouths” and stalagmites and stalactites are called “teeth”. The most striking example of the Optera’s utilitarian outlook is when one of their number fearlessly, and without any second thought sacrifices themselves in a burst opening from the acid pools in order to save the others. The moment is so dark, surreal, and without any prior explanation, that it’s actually mildly shocking on first viewing.

The ever-present and lethal influence of the Animus meanwhile, is just as interesting, but more from a stylistic point of view. As a concept it represents an impressive, foreboding and unstoppable cancerous parasite; draining and destroying all life on Vortis and leaving just dust and poison in its place. The visual realisation on screen of the Animus is equally imaginative and creepy; an ever growing and expanding mass of weird foliage and grotesque weeds and tendrils, with an eerie giant spider-like creature at its centre. As a character though, the Animus is merely just another one-dimensional villain, with a single-minded desire to conquer all. I suppose it fits in with the conceptual metaphor of the Animus being a near-indestructible cancer, but by the end of the story, I was left yearning for a more satisfying protagonist to justify six episodes of struggle and plot (well, maybe four episodes judging by the padding).

And yet, despite all the imagination of Bill Strutton’s concept, and the inspired creative touches of costume design, make-up, visual effects, as well as a few directorial flourishes; The Web Planet is also one of the most divisive Doctor Who stories of the 1960s, or at least for many non-contemporary, post-1960s viewers, including myself sadly. To me, the reasons for this I would suggest are mainly down to just how excessively padded the serial is, accentuated by some rather slow and flat studio direction. Despite how good Strutton’s ideas are; The Web Planet only appears to have enough plot and narrative to last over four episodes, not six. Whether Bill Strutton had to produce six episodes as a condition of his commission from the BBC, or just thought he could, perhaps we’ll never know. However, the serial seems to spend a lot of episodes 3 and 4 going nowhere very fast, with companions getting reunited, split up, or recaptured, and the status quo of events on Vortis staying very much the same as when the story began. The mystery of the surroundings as well as the life on Vortis, mixed with the alien and surreal atmosphere, help sustain the viewers interest across the first two episodes; but when the detail and substance fail to turn up, any further stylish and creative flourishes will only go so far in making up for it. What makes things worse is that even basic scenes seem stretched and full of wordy procrastination, especially for the Menoptera. The overall effect this creates is one of very little actually happening, even on a character level. The problem with this is that, for me, I stopped caring about the characters, and the scene-to-scene events of the story, which is a shame, because episode 5 is where Bill Strutton injects some sudden wonderful character development, and background depth to Vortis’ alien characters, which I partly described in the above paragraphs. However, by this point in the serial, it feels almost too little, too late, as the two previous episodes were both tedious and a struggle to get through. Episode 5 does save the story in my view, but not enough for me to love it, like I did in the opening episode.

However, what in my mind, ends up adding an extra negative and risible vibe to watching The Web Planet is Richard Martin’s mixed studio direction. Now I don’t mean daft things like a Zarbi running into the camera, or William Hartnell clearly forgetting a complete line of dialogue. Innocent mistakes are easy to ignore and overlook, and matter not one jot if they don’t disrupt the flow of the production. No, I’m talking about creative mistakes onscreen. Despite the fascinating hand movements and mannerisms that the actors had to memorise and perform while in their difficult costumes, the direction of their presence in Lime Grove studio, often seems rather laid back, and at times even confused and chaotic. I understand that these early Doctor Who serials were shot on a tight time limit as well as a tight budget, but when you see the quality of direction in the stories immediately around it, like The Crusade, The Romans or even The Space Museum; it’s clear that Richard Martin was struggling as The Web Planet’s production progressed, which is a great shame, considering how great some establishing and creative shots are throughout the early episodes, and the magnificent film work shot at Ealing Film Studios which makes the Menoptera spearhead landing in Episode 4 quite an amazing sight compared to the tight studio set at Lime Grove. Maybe Richard Martin is clearly at his best with film, when the camera is choreographed more than the actors; and where studio work in the BBC environment of that time is more akin to directing in Theatre. Perhaps the worst of Martin’s directorial mistakes though, is the Menoptera’s dummy attack on the Zarbi in Episode Six, where the Menoptera actors embarrassingly jump around the Zarbi, making squealing noises, like kids on a school playground. This scene is without a doubt one of the most awful and uncomfortable moments I’ve ever had to encounter in Doctor Who, even if it’s more out of embarrassment than for any worse reason.

Another unfortunate weak point of The Web Planet is Vortis’ alien characters, which is quite perverse considering how great their conceptions are. Without exception, they all communicate in two-dimensional terms, always following simple lines of thought, feeling and motivation, with little depth in characterisation. Even when Bill Strutton’s puts in his great character development during Episode Five, this is mainly developed background and history, explaining the different philosophies of the species themselves, which while clever and fascinating to find out, giving the audience a more complex understanding of their World, doesn’t actually create any depth in the aliens’ individual personalities. You might as well label the Menoptera characters as “the wise one”, “the arrogant one”, or “the flighty and sensitive one” for all the level of difference and individuality between them. Even the Animus, despite its imaginative appearance and all pervasive presence, is just another all-conquering monster, seeking dominion over all.

However, even the seasoned TARDIS crew, have less characterisation than we’ve come to enjoy over their twelve Television adventures so far. All four of them, get wonderful moments throughout episode one, only to quickly revert to their basic role stereotypes throughout the rest of the script. It’s also hard to tell, how much of the good regular characterisation is down to talented script editor, Dennis Spooner. Given The Web Planet’s long running time, the simplistic characterisation is a clear missed opportunity for Strutton, and one that may have made the serial a whole lot more interesting had it been taken.

Equally simple and basic is the serial’s plot, made all the more straight-forward, by the singular dimensions of its characters. In fact, the overall plot seems to me, to be a simplified variation on the one used in The Daleks, which feels partly ironic and unnecessary considering how similar the two stories’ runtime are. A far simpler narrative, especially on a 2-and-a-half-hour adventure, certainly helps contribute to the amount of padding in The Web Planet, as the plot has to be put on long pauses, so it can save up its meagre developments for later episodes. Once again, if Strutton had filled these gaps with interesting character studies/moments, then the slow pace wouldn’t have been a problem, but their absence plus the drawn-out narrative development just ebbs away much of the enjoyment the production otherwise generates. Once you get past all the weirdness and visual flair of Vortis and its inhabitants, then the story very clearly boils down to The Doctor and his friends, joining forces with the planet’s native peoples to bring down an unfeeling, powerful and destructive monster. The plot even sounds like a generalised and basic version of The Daleks.

One thing that does try to bring the story out of its doldrums is the actors’ wonderful performances and hard work. All the Menoptera cast try their best to inject as much individual personality through their performances as possible, trying to build on the little they have to go on. Perhaps they even invented the individual characters, behind the Menoptera names themselves, no doubt helped, and led, by Roslyn De Winter’s striking choreography and character performance.

Despite whatever dialogue that gets ‘fluffed’, missed or garbled, it’s clear the regular cast is enjoying some of their time on the story, creative and production stresses aside, as all are on fine form throughout. William Hartnell relishes his small comedic moments, and shines in dramatic confrontations with the Zarbi, and the voice of the Animus. Hartnell also peppers his performance with a brilliant subtlety, whether it’s the warm gentleness that suits the Doctor’s more mellow and paternal nature, or a quiet flash of coldness that sparks across his eyes, reminding us of the character’s former demeanour.

Jacqueline Hill meanwhile absolutely sells Barbara’s plight, first at her complete loss of self-control, under the power of the animus; and second, her horror at the conditioned Zarbi’s sadistic treatment of the Menoptera. Hill even gets to have fun with a witty repartee with Maureen O’Brien as Vicki, who continues her fun, endearing and quirky performance from her first two stories. Sadly, O’Brien doesn’t get the chance to continue it for long, before Strutton turns Vicki into the two-dimensional scared damsel, for much of the story; although O’Brien successfully counteracts this in part, with a show of bravado. William Russell sadly ends up with the typical back-to-basics action man stereotype, that has plagued him throughout much of the series, but the determined sincerity in his performance, saves many a scene, and is always convincing. Russell’s only consolation is when he’s able to comedically play off William Hartnell, during some of the TARDIS scenes, where he can at least demonstrate the depth of the characters’ long friendship, when the development in the script is mostly lacking.

The Web Planet was possibly the most ambitious Doctor Who story ever made for Television. A complete alien world, imaginatively conceived, with impressively shot, and surreal visuals; and an intricate alien civilisation, filled with a striking mix of original alien creatures, all cleverly thought up by experienced TV writer, Bill Strutton. However, for all his experience, Strutton’s plot is so slight it can be barely stretched enough to fill the running time, and his characterisation is fairly two-dimensional at best. Add to that some rather chaotic and misjudged studio direction by Richard Martin, and suddenly the whole production turns into something of a chore to watch. The strength of the concept, plus the sterling efforts of the cast and designers should make this a gem of 1960s Television, but the faults at various stages of production, water it down to such an extent, that sadly to some people and fans like myself, it’s more of a curiosity, than a regularly-viewed favourite.

Score: 5/10

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

A Smooth Blend of Music Scores on Hospital Radio Chelmsford (Doctor Who special)

In a crossover with some of my other work, here's the link to one of the programmes in my soundtrack radio show on Hospital Radio Chelmsford, that I dedicated and produced for Doctor Who's 51st anniversary last year.

Enjoy!

http://www.mixcloud.com/craigwgreenslade/a-smooth-blend-of-music-scores-doctor-who-hospital-radio-chelmsford/

Monday, 28 July 2014

Reverse the Polarity Films will return...but maybe not in 2014.

Earlier in the year, after getting a major commitment completed, I resolved to try and get my online presence back in gear, publically saying that by April, more Doctor Who reviews will start to appear.

Sadly, I seem to have jinxed myself, because not long afterwords, my work hours went up, and in May, I was given the opportunity to present my own Soundtrack-themed show on Hospital Radio Chelmsford, (I'll explain this properly on my other blog at some point) which I'm greatly enjoying, but along with my music studies, its yet another work commitment that takes away spare time from doing anything Doctor Who-related. So once again, my plans have gone up in smoke, albeit not necessarily for bad reasons.

I think I'll give up making any public date predictions from now on, but the short of it is the fact that once more, my Doctor Who and video pursuits are still on hold, at least until the present situation changes. I'm still working gradually through reviews, I was halfway through The Web Planet before things got really busy.

Reverse the Polarity Films will return, and the reviews will return... maybe in drips and drabs, maybe not properly until next year, but one day, yes one day...

Thursday, 27 February 2014

Reverse the Polarity Films will return...

Hello folks, 2013 was a busy, mad and trying year for all sorts of reasons, most of which I'd never talk about openly, so my online presence petered out from Spring 2013 pretty quickly, and all plans I had to celebrate the 50th anniversary were swiftly abandoned, for now at least.

I'm hoping my fortunes are on the rise now though, and with any luck, I should be back reviewing this most wonderful, complex and fascinating of TV Shows by Easter this year, and I'll take any progress from there.

I still intend to do the "50th anniversary reviews" selected by my readers on facebook and Gallifrey Base, but to keep my interest in reviewing WHO refreshed, I'll mix them in with my audio and chronological TV reviews, which should stop things becoming too formulaic. There's also the side issue of the mysterious goings on in the World of Doctor Who's missing episodes. Whatever the truth of the matter, I've decided to replace the missing Troughton story choices to the recently recovered Enemy of the World and The Web of Fear, which after so long absent from the archives, can at last be reappraised by fresh eyes for the first time.

Eventually, I'll also want to start doing Doctor Who-related essays on here too, and who knows, maybe one day, I'll even be able to make videos again, once I've finally updated and replaced my current computer systems.

Stay tuned for updates in....

Monday, 9 September 2013

TV Review 5: The Keys of Marinus, written by Terry Nation (1964)

Broadcast: 22nd February-4th April 1964

Cast:

The Doctor – William Hartnell
Ian Chesterton – William Russell
Barbara Wright – Jacqueline Hill
Susan Foreman – Carole Ann Ford
Sabetha – Katherine Schofield
Altos – Robin Phillips
Eyesen – Donald Pickering
Kala – Fiona Walker
Arbitan – George Coulouris
Vasor – Francis de Wolff
Tarron – Henley Thomas
Senior Judge – Raf De La Torre
Yartek – Stephen Dartnell
Aydan/Voord/Ice Soldier – Martin Cort
Darrius – Edmund Warwick
Eprin – Dougie Dean
First Judge/Ice Soldier/Guard – Alan James
Second Judge/Voord/Ice Soldier – Peter Stenson
Voice of Morpho – Heron Carvic


Main Production Credits

Producer – Verity Lambert
Story Editor – David Whitaker
Writer – Terry Nation
Director – John Gorrie
Designer – Raymond P. Cusick
Costumes – Daphne Dare
Title Music – Ron Grainer, Delia Derbyshire and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop
Special Sound – Brian Hodgson and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop
Incidental Music – Norman Kay
Make Up – Jill Summers
Production Assistant – David Conroy, Penny Joy
Studio Sound – Jack Brummitt, Tony Milton
Studio Lighting – Peter Murray


Story Summary (SPOILERS!):

The TARDIS arrives on the planet Marinus, on a mysterious island surrounded by an acid sea. At the heart of the island is a Temple that houses the Conscience Machine, guarded by a lone figure called Arbitan, which is used to artificially neutralise the negative emotions and motivations of the planet’s population. However, a rebel cult, known as the Voords, led by Yartek have broken through their conditioning and now attempt to invade the island, hoping to re-program the machine to help them take over and dominate the whole of Marinus. To prevent this, Arbitan and his people initially dispersed the electronic keys the Conscience Machine needs to operate, across the planet, hopefully giving them time to modify the machine so it can be effective once more, before Yartek succeeded.

Now though, the situation has become ever more desperate as Arbitan’s assistants have become lost or killed attempting to retrieve the four remaining keys of the Conscience Machine. With the unexpected arrival of the Doctor and his friends, Arbitan forces them to attempt to find the four keys themselves before he allows them to leave again in the TARDIS.

With the aid of teleportation bracelets, the Doctor and his companions visit different areas of the planet Marinus, searching for the keys, and coming across many dangers, challenges and difficulties along the way. From a society brainwashed into slavery to mutated brain creatures, to a living forest of plants, to an area of ice caves guarded by frozen knights in armour, the time travellers are never safe for long. Fortunately, they numbers are strengthened by an associate of Arbitan’s, Altos, as well as Arbitan’s daughter Sabetha, both originally lost trying to find the keys themselves.

After saving Ian from being falsely charged and executed for the death of an official, the return back to the Temple to find Yartek in control. To prevent the success of the Voords, Ian gives them a false representation of one of the keys found earlier, which causes the Conscience Machine to self-destruct. The Doctor and his companions escape the Temple in the nick of time, and say their goodbyes to Sabetha and Altos before leaving in the TARDIS for adventures new.


Story Placement

Between The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (Virgin Missing Adventure Novel) and The Aztecs (TV Serial)


Favourite Lines

The Doctor – “...and you, my friend...”
Ian – “Yes, what can I do Doctor?”
The Doctor – “Trust me”.

The Doctor – “The important thing is I believe I know who did the killing”.
Barbara – “But how? Tarron’s been working on it all day, you’ve only been here five minutes”.


Review:

The Keys of Marinus is a serial that both entertains and infuriates in equal measure. Terry Nation returned back to Doctor Who for the first time, just weeks after the gigantic success of his Science-fiction epic adventure, The Daleks, which created seismic cultural waves that continue to this day. However, The Keys of Marinus also represents the first real dip in quality of the TV production of Doctor Who since it began. On the surface, the reasons for this are mostly accidental. Terry Nation had indeed already been asked to write a second Doctor Who serial, but was working hard on a historical adventure called The Red Fort. So when one of the other proposed early Doctor Who serials fell through, and was ultimately rejected, Terry Nation was asked to quickly write a six part Sci-fi slanted serial to replace it as pre-production was due to take place in days. The result was the scripts for The Keys of Marinus, rushed and mostly underdeveloped with little time for important script editing by David Whitaker, and for a great deal of the production it shows.

Despite the difficult circumstances of the story’s origins though, Terry Nation wisely creates a simple quest format to the story, splitting up the episodes into separate mini-adventures with their own individual plots as the Time Travellers search for the titular ‘keys’ of the main over-arching plotline. Doing this allows Nation the freedom to come up with nearly anything he likes in most of the episodes, without worrying about what he did the episode before, as well as importantly allowing him time to come with a resolution to the main plot in the last episode. The “quest” format also adds a continuing sense of adventure, following on from the epic voyage in Marco Polo, as well as their recent struggles with Daleks and Cavemen.

What Terry Nation does well is to create five unique settings within his mini-adventures that are both alien and interesting, even if most are far from convincing. The citadel within a large monument, on an island with glass beaches, surrounded by an acid sea, has to be one of the most vividly imaginative creations for a Doctor Who story ever created, even if the events and characters that happen within it, fail to echo that same imagination and skill. Then there’s the society of Millenius, a city where fascinatingly the concept of law is reversed, so a charged or accused person is ruled to be guilty until proven innocent. Terry Nation clearly relished this idea, as his written execution of the last episodes is significantly better than the three before it.

However, the big demand for six episodes in a short time still takes its toll on Nation’s scriptwriting. I’m sure the ideas of a living jungle, or frozen knights coming to life in a cavern of ice caves may have seemed like great concepts for episodes three and four on paper, but ultimately they are little more than set pieces which Terry Nation builds up to and fills out the rest of the two episodes with padding and slow plot meandering. Episode three features gimmick after comical theatrical gimmick, like the android knight of armour with a robotically manoeuvred axe, or the moving statue, or the jail trap, or the falling roof – all of which are there to waste time and artificially contrive tension. Episode four in comparison splits up all of its main characters, so much time is used up by them searching for one another. For such a ‘difficult’ quest, the puzzles of the keys themselves are very simple, but then on the upside, I suppose it makes the episodes very accessible to a casual audience. For viewers hoping for more challenging and complex narratives however, a fair amount of The Keys of Marinus will feel non-eventful or slow.

In contrast, episode two is one of the better-executed of the mini-adventures. The seemingly idyllic city of Morphoton hides a society brainwashed into slavery. While it isn’t an original premise, the conceit of the leisurely paradise and its rotten truth is very well handled and executed. Rather than some gratuitous reveal, Terry Nation instead has the time travellers taken in by their ‘perfect’ surroundings, and makes sure that one of them fails the brainwashing process, so that we then can see the truth through their perspective as they struggle to convince and work against their friends in order to both survive and recover their senses. Brilliantly, it is loosely crafted in the same manner of one of Grimm’s fairy tales, as the Time Travellers are lured into the trap by sleight of hand and cunning illusion. The choice of Barbara as the character who remains uncontrolled is also a perfect one, as it gives a chance for the companion to shine, and maintain herself from the shadow of the other regulars, particularly Ian, who the former schoolteacher is frequently (albeit naturally) paired with considering their older friendship. Another great element in the script is how it maintains and demonstrates how powerful the brainwashing is of the TARDIS team, firstly by them being taken in by false objects, and then even seeing the Doctor amusingly being taken in by a non-existent laboratory. The great conceit though, hides the fact that the motive and beings behind it are, in a daft and frankly corny Sci-fi twist, the brains of humanoids that have become too big for their bodies, and require slaves to survive (since all of the places are within Marinus, and seem to all be humanoid, it’s a reasonable assumption that these brains are humanoid too). This development, coupled with the brains’ gimmicky appearance, complete with “eye-stalks”, has more than just a passing resemblance to the goofy and dumb alien creatures thought up in bad 1950s Sci-fi B movies, and unfortunately is a definite step backward from the otherwise more up-to-date and developed storytelling displayed in the series up to this point. However, given that the 1960s was still a big and popular period for the retro sci-fi style comic, such as The Eagle made in the UK between 1950 and 1969, it’s not surprising that this form of Sci-fi still prevailed in Doctor Who and other television into the 1970s, until Sci-fi in UK comics took a different turn with the arrival of 2000 AD in 1977.

The best segment of The Keys of Marinus though, is clearly the adventure in the city of Millenius, where the Doctor returns to help his friends solve a murder mystery, and save Ian, who has been framed for the crime, from execution by the state. In the mad rush of reeling off production scripts, it’s great to see Terry Nation come up with a more developed plot, and one that judging by how much more fluent and fun it is, he clearly enjoyed writing. After the average first two episodes, and the very mediocre episodes 3 and 4, it comes as a welcome breath of fresh air to get a short story with considerably more meat to it. From the outset, it’s clear that there is conspiracy and intrigue afoot, and pleasingly the mystery is dealt with succinctly and to the point. The Doctor solves most of it in just a couple of minutes, and a lot of the short story involves his struggle to defend Ian in court. Although the Doctor uses some rather dubious methods to unveil the murderer in court, he fails to provide enough proof to exonerate Ian from his fate. I like how the downturn of events comes as a result of the logical process of the trial, and given what the Doctor offers, it’s natural and credible that Ian would still be charged. Despite this though, beyond the Doctor’s initial efforts, the culprits of the crime are very easy to figure out, either down to sloppiness in the script, or a deliberate leaning towards theatrical villainy, that has to reveal itself to the audience and headline its presence in events. Personally I feel it’s a bit of both. Later, some contrived jeopardy occurs with Susan being kidnapped, in another display of increasingly sigh-worthy pantomime villainy by one of the co-conspirators, although it does give Barbara a welcome slice of the detective work for a short moment. However, I do like how once again the other culprits are caught and convicted, through a key piece of dialogue used earlier in episode 6. It sets the audience up for a great little denouement, as the Doctor sets a trap for, and confronts, his intended target; and the TARDIS team celebrate their high spirits and success in a light-hearted conversation with their former accusers.

The overarching basic storyline that frames this serial though is remarkably less satisfying. Despite the interesting ideas thrown up by the first episode (glass beaches, acid seas, a machine that dictates the conscience of the whole planet), it delivers very little overall. The Voords are merely unthinking, unfeeling, one-dimensional villains, even more so than any other villain in the rest of the story, and only seek out the conscience machine for power and dominion alone. Since the machine has to be destroyed in the end, the quest, and the story itself, almost all seems to be for nothing, bar the safe return of Altos and Sabetha, and the defeat of the Voords. So after five and half episodes, the story builds up to a non-existent climax and delivers a flat ending, to an otherwise fairly active story.

Another casualty of Terry Nation’s underdeveloped, sometimes rather basic script is much of the characterisation. Fortunately, most of the regular characters come through unscathed with their integrity intact, but many of the supporting characters leave a lot to be desired. As I mentioned above, the Voords are really disappointing antagonists, one-dimensional characters that rant on about their obsession with power. Then we have Darrius, in episode three, a pathetic and dithering scientist, whose only presence is partly as another obstacle for Ian and Barbara to overcome (the code behind the location of the key), and to give the living jungle idea interesting scientific reasoning – the meddling with nature’s “tempo of destruction”. Episodes 5 and 6, present us with a trio of theatrical and clumsily-scripted murderers and conspirators, Aydan, Kala and Eyesen. Aydan is undoubtedly the worst of the three, who cowardly lashes out violently in private, and very unnecessarily at those that challenge him, in this particular case, his supposed wife, in a rather uncomfortable moment. This controversy aside though, Aydan is still poorly characterised by some quite terrible and unconvincing hammy dialogue, where he ‘accidentally’ says too much and instantly gives himself away so easily and unsubtly, again in the traditions of basic pantomime villainy. I greatly dislike it, when otherwise great (or any other kind of) writers have to resort to such lazy, stupid and contrived characterisation to get their points across. In this case in particular, it robs the Millenius story of a great deal of its intrigue and dramatic tension, and the maintained theatricality of the accomplices merely compounds the problem. Kala by contrast is probably the most interesting and entertaining of the three, and by far the most calculating, (perhaps understandably) murdering her husband, faking grief and worry, delivering barefaced lies with ease; although even she succumbs to theatrical villainy, vocally delighting in and feeding off Susan’s plight and fear. Eyesen on the other hand, is the cool and controlling manipulator, taking everything in his stride, pulling the strings, advising his fellow accomplices and doesn’t feel much emotion, if any whatsoever. Unfortunately, despite the great scene, where he’s caught out by the Doctor at the end, Eyesen too is very undermined through some bad theatrical dialogue, and betraying his importance in the narrative by his utter contempt for Ian, and quite clearly posing as the Doctor’s opponent in court, rather than merely being ambivalent like the judges.

The worst of the story’s protagonists, by some quite considerable margin, is the huntsman, Vasor, on whom nearly every ounce of subtlety and believability is just thrown away. Considering though, that episode four undoubtedly seems to be one of the scripts that took a quality control hit due to the tight deadlines Terry Nation had to bear; it would be unfair of me to completely blame him for all the scriptural flaws that occur, or expect high quality scriptwriting at all come to that. However, the flaws still took place, and Vasor is perhaps an example of some of the worst characterisation to enter into the show so far. A cowardly, self-serving and mean-spirited huntsman, Vasor is almost the very definition of a pantomime villain, explicitly and overtly announcing to the audience in almost every other sentence reasons why he’s the bad character of the piece. You can almost hear the ‘boos’ and hisses in the gaps between his dialogue. Having said that though, Vasor starts off the episode quite natural and calm, but after the first five minutes, it doesn’t take him long before he gradually rises to a crescendo of theatricality. For instance, I can’t think of any credible villains who openly reveal their intentions so easily in comically bad dialogue like, “That door will keep anything out...or in!” Then again, it’s equally possible that Vasor is meant to be a hammy villain for fun; however as the rest of the episode is “performed” and written to be straight drama, it seems unlikely. While the camp theatrics can be laughed off though, the worst and perhaps rather uncomfortable aspect of Vasor is the fact that initially he clearly intends to rape Barbara. While the inclusion of such a serious issue could have worked if used sensitively and in a dramatic context, as The Time Meddler did, its casual use around a comically ridiculous and theatrical character feels crass and inappropriate, leaving something of a bad taste in the mouth.

Fortunately the protagonist characters fare better during The Keys of Marinus. Arbitan for instance, is a cautious and intelligent man, who while clearly an amiable and loving person, has an interesting subtle dark side to him. Arbitan’s desperation to succeed and survive, has lead him to be rather calculating and manipulative. Despite his shadowy machinations in the Temple though, he recognises the TARDIS crew as innocents fairly quickly. Then there’s the question of the conscience machine itself. Is Arbitan merely an authority figure upholding a planet-wide state tyranny? The one-note villainy of the Voords suggests not, and yet by the end of the story, Terry Nation seems to do a complete 180 degree reversal and decides that the machine is an obstacle to civilisation, and best destroyed after all. Due to the motive of the Voords (power) he just gets away with it, but there is certainly a sense of sleight of hand going on, as well as an underlying thought that maybe the quest for the keys was largely inconsequential after all this time.

Sabetha and Altos though, are far less interesting. They’re clearly kind and worthy people, quickly becoming friends with the Time Travellers, but ultimately they’re there firstly to add dramatic weight, scale and depth to the ongoing quest for the keys. The visual presences of Arbitan’s former friends, lost in their own attempts to find them, mythologises the adventures and challenges that await the TARDIS crew during their own attempt, but they also act as dramatic warnings to what could happen to them if they fail themselves. Later Terry Nation adopts Sabetha and Altos as two more pairs of hands to help fulfil the basic action and investigation requirements. However, this has the unfortunate result of actually displacing some of the material for the regulars, which is made all the more unsatisfying by the fact that Sabetha and Altos end up being mainly inferior stereotyped duplicates of Susan and Ian. Nowhere is this more obvious than when Sabetha and Susan are lost together in the ice caves during episode 4, saying exactly the same kind of words, and expressing and feeling in very similar ways. Altos meanwhile pretty much becomes the stock action stereotype after episode 2, but fortunately Ian is saved the same indignities as Susan, by being taken out of some of the action, thanks to him being framed for murder in Millenius, allowing him to take advantage of different and slightly better material. In fact, the added presence of Sabetha and Altos in the second half of the story also helps Nation to pad out his script more easily, until he come up with more meatier material. All these flaws combined make it a struggle to actually care about Sabetha and Altos throughout most of The Keys of Marinus. Seemingly recognising this, Terry Nation tries to contrive a romance between the two of them in the last episode, but it’s far from convincing.

Much of the best characterisation, perhaps predictably goes to our regulars, particularly the Doctor and Barbara. Once more the Doctor continues to evolve and develop before our eyes. In a marked change from previously, he now takes great notice and care of the safety of his friends and companions, and has more affection for them than ever before. Even when faced with the prospect of investigating a fascinating new alien world or culture, it doesn’t overrule his personal responsibility to them. It also says a lot about how much the Doctor’s character has mellowed, that Barbara’s momentary irascibility is now seemingly worse than his!

So just as the Doctor becomes mellowed and more affectionate, so too do we, the viewer, warm towards him in return. The Keys of Marinus shows the first hints of the ensemble dynamic of the regulars beginning to break down, as the Doctor starts to occasionally take the lead of some of the story, and by extension the TV show itself. It’s a beginning of a very gradual process that doesn’t reach its conclusion until The Time Meddler, when the Doctor himself finally develops to become THE lead character of Doctor Who, and the group ensemble lead ends. This change is also evident by the Doctor’s absence during episodes three and four of The Keys of Marinus, when the flow of the story becomes less urgent and starts to meander, but it’s only when the Doctor returns, that we suddenly realise what we’ve been missing all along – not just a decisive and meatier narrative, but also a strong positive leading character to take control of it. Furthermore, the Doctor’s resolutely bold, witty, charming and increasingly warm and kind-hearted nature makes me feel (and I hope the audience too) very fond of him as a character now, much more than previously (much helped by Hartnell’s superb performance), when I was fascinated and thrilled experiencing the Doctor as anti-hero, and gradually developing into a hero. I confess it wasn’t until the Doctor returned after a sizeable absence in episodes three and four of The Keys of Marinus that in chronological terms, I started to feel and consciously root for this character, as opposed to Ian and Barbara, and I suspect that will be the case for most viewers too. Noticeably, the Doctor is becoming a bit more virtuous as well, seemingly looking to do the right thing, not just for his friends, but also in his respectful treatment and integration with Millenius’ society.

Another interesting point is that the Doctor only really decides that the conscience machine, dictating the thoughts of man, is a bad thing, during the final episode, after much consideration. It’s clear that the Doctor’s own perspective on morality is still developing, even now, and still moving even closer to the hero we know, as each story passes.

In contrast, while Barbara’s personality remains  the same, her character is challenged by difficult situations to become even braver and more daring, not just to merely survive, but also to save her friends. The danger the history teacher encounters may get progressively direr as her travels in time and space continue, but no longer does she succumb to fear like in times past. Barbara’s ordeal in Morphoton during episode two is a particular trial-by-fire for her, as she finds herself alone and driven from the city into some dark and dirty dwelling, while her friends are lost to her, and under the control of a tyrannical power. If this wasn’t enough of a hopeless situation to overcome, Barbara singlehandedly infiltrates into the centre of the city; destroys the brain creatures and frees her friends from their brainwashing. No wonder Barbara thought she had the strength of will to change the course of Earth history in The Aztecs. Seriously, Rambo has nothing on Barbara Wright. Sure, the schoolteacher may not be as aggressive or gung-ho as Ripley from Alien (1979) (or Rambo), but she’s just as courageous and gutsy, and as good a hero as TV has ever devised. In fact given that The Avengers’ heroines are more charismatic sidekicks than fully-developed characters, Barbara is quite possibly one of the first multi-dimensional female “action” hero characters ever produced for Television.

Ian on the other hand, is partly sidelined to the duties of being a ‘male action stereotype’ for the first time in the show; he gets some good material and dialogue in the last two episodes, but overall this is the character’s weakest representation to date. There’s not a great deal to talk about, as for this story, Ian is entirely cast in the role of as a supporting character, mainly fulfilling some of the script’s action requirements, and setting up some of its comic moments. Even when Ian is under the sentence of death at Millenius, he still comes across as something of a spare part. Ian eventually gets his moment in the last episode, when he quietly (albeit easily) outwits Yartek with a fake copy of one of the Keys to the Conscience machine. He also enjoys some wonderful exchanges with The Doctor in the last two episodes.

For Susan though, The Keys of Marinus marks the beginning of the inevitable decline in her character and sows the seeds for Carole Ann Ford’s departure in the role at the end of The Dalek Invasion of Earth. Susan may not have been the most fascinating, complex, or exciting of the lead characters, but up until this point, was always interesting and maintained multiple dimensions that made her convincing and enjoyable to watch. However, as the other three lead characters continue to grow and blossom out, not only does the ensemble lead threaten to break up, but Susan is increasingly given less and less meaningful things to say and do as time goes on. Furthermore being sidelined by the inclusion of Sabetha in the continuing story, and left to be the screaming damsel-in-distress, almost acts as a visual premonition of how ineffectual the character will eventually become in subsequent adventures. Fortunately the next two serials (The Aztecs, The Sensorites) will offer Susan a bit more to do, but as of The Keys of Marinus, it’s clear that the character’s shelf-life has been rapidly reduced, and is now continuing under borrowed time.

The quality of the production seems to be just as mixed as that of the script, particularly the direction by John Gorrie. He comes up with some great creative shots like in episode 2 when he shoots from Barbara’s perspective to reveal the brainwashing of the others, or Ian being framed in the foreground with the clock in the background in episode 6 to emphasise the tension around his potential imminent execution. However, there are equally plenty of dull and poorly staged shots too, like the death of Arbitan in episode 1, for instance, or Aydan being assassinated in court in episode 5, which are both so clunky it feels like amateur theatre on a bad day. Then there’s the theatricality of the antagonist characters, which are never reigned in at all (unless they’re accentuated by the director, is even worse), however in Vasor’s case, camp theatricality is probably the only way to make the character entertaining and enjoyable. Then there are some other equally bizarre theatrical moments, seemingly interpreted by the director. The most obvious one that comes to mind is during episode 5, when the Doctor announces that the Millenius murderer while not being Ian, is someone else present in the courtroom. The edit instantly cuts to the Senior Judge, whose eyebrows hilariously leap several inches up his forehead in reaction. Overall the direction feels decent and adequate, but also at times fairly ineffective too. Norman Kay’s incidental music has a similar feel to it too, with the exception that it is effective, but mostly lacks imagination, identity and development, and is used so sparely to the point that it feels music is mainly used just to score over the duller moments in the episodes, and stop viewer interest from completely waning.

In contrast, designer Ray Cusick uses every scrap of imagination and ingenuity at his disposal, having to craft brand new sets, creatures and props for almost every episode, on an extremely slim and stretched budget. In more recent interviews he may have hated working on the serial (understandably so given how much pressure he was put under, even more than Terry Nation), but his work here, clearly helps to prop up the story, and making the most of a meagre budget to reflect Terry Nation’s imaginative ideas very competently. One of my favourite images from the story is the grand view of Arbitan’s temple, surrounded by a field of mini shoulder-height pyramids of glass, reaching out from the ground, like trees in a forest. Simply astounding!

Unfortunately, there’s not a lot to say about the cast performances in The Keys of Marinus, or at least the supporting cast anyway. There are a lot of decent, but also fairly wooden performances throughout the story, by many of the cast, very likely accentuated by the theatricality of the direction and characters they have to play. While the serial is still enjoyable to watch, it does make both the drama and characters in it fairly unconvincing, and appear rather amateurish, so you never really take a lot of it seriously. Apart from the regular cast, there are a few notable exceptions to this. Fiona Walker is a renowned and exceptional actress, which is just as evident here, as Kala, in one of her earlier roles, as it is in the parts that made her famous, such as Agrippina in I, Claudius (1976). Despite John Gorrie’s poor direction to Kala’s feigned reaction to Aydan’s assassination, Walker imbues her character with a feistiness that adds an instant life and energy to most of the scenes she stars in. Donald Pickering as Eyesen, and George Coulouris as Arbitan, are two very reliable quality character actors, who add a bit of welcome gravitas to everything they appear in. Despite being hampered by the weak aspects of the characters they have to play, they are never less than enjoyable to watch.

For the regular cast, The Keys of Marinus is an opportunity to settle down in the roles they’ve grown to understand over the last four productions, and finesse them before more interesting new directions for their characters turn up. William Hartnell and Jacqueline Hill relish their turns leading parts of the story, with Hartnell in particular evidently enjoying himself, and getting his character performance down to an art form. With Ian getting more of a backseat role, you’d think William Russell would get more of a chance to take a break in proceedings, but instead finds himself performing a lot of the main legwork the story requires with none of the character benefits. Carole Ann Ford though gets the most thankless material, with Susan reduced to singular dimensions. Ford does her best, but there’s only so much one can do with a character that’s clearly going nowhere just yet.

However despite a lot of apparent mediocrity in the script, characterisation and direction, The Keys of Marinus does create a fascination innovation in both television and Doctor Who. Firstly, Terry Nation’s management of the ‘quest’ format of the story, along with having several different types of adventures/sub-plots in very different locations (and genres), not only borrows from similar styles of format from early radio, film and comic strips to produce its first implementation on UK Television; but also Nation’s adaption of the format, pre-echoes the kind of plotting that would become prevalent in both videogames and gamebooks.

Secondly, the big range of story types and subgenres that Terry Nation plays with throughout The Keys of Marinus is almost a microcosm of what the early years of Doctor Who and its whole franchise would eventually become: a TV programme that would and could not be easily defined or boxed in by a couple of genres or sub-genres, but one that almost magically danced with ease across every or any genre that ever existed, where there’s a good story to be told. In other words, a TV show, and eventually, multi-medium fictional work that would be an Omni-genre show, if you like, or show which defied genre completely, and refused to belong to one genre in particular. Arguably it’s from this point that the show as a whole (and its production team) began to culturally understand what it wanted to be, completely by accident through broad experimentation in the show’s very first season. This particular unconscious realisation, coupled with the important first steps and innovations of the previous four stories, and the lesser one from the story to come (The Aztecs) meant that at last the production team was able to understand exactly what they were making, and could finally see what it could do, but perhaps more importantly, where they wanted to go with it. Unknowingly, Terry Nation had once again helped to provide an additional element to Doctor Who’s success, to show itself that it could be, and was limitless, could go anywhere, and nearly do anything, and that its imagination and potential was only bound by that of the writer itself. It’s a great shame then that years later, a few subsequent future production teams would go on to consciously narrow Doctor Who’s genre definition. However, that was all in Doctor Who’s future, and I’ll come back to it when I reach the relevant periods. In 1964 though, Doctor Who was expanding and getting bigger, not smaller; going from strength to strength.

Looking back at The Keys of Marinus specifically though, it’s a fascinating curiosity. Born out of necessity, rushed, underdeveloped, sometimes fairly padded and insubstantial, with mostly ineffectual and theatrical characterisation and direction, Keys is a serial that on the surface appears to be doomed to failure. Yet, within this chaotic production lies some magnificent imaginative ideas and concepts, even if they’re not wholly original, some magical performances from the regular cast, especially William Hartnell, and a wonderfully mad range of small stories and sub-genres, all thrown into the mix, and shows Doctor Who laying down its final foundations as a programme and coming of age before it heads off to new, brighter and mostly better horizons.

Score: 7/10

P.S. At this point I have to hold my hands up and confess that part of the conclusions I made in the third and second-last paragraphs of the review are wholly inspired by the astute observations of TARDIS Eruditorum aka Philip Sandifer on The Keys of Marinus. I greatly recommend his writings, which are both very clever, and very culturally knowledgeable, even if I sometimes disagree with his opinions from time to time.

Check out his writing on The Keys of Marinus at:

Or alternatively check out any of his critiques and writings on other Doctor Who stories at: