Author Archives: Mithradates

About Mithradates

College professor, game designer, gadabout.

Defense: Planet of Giants

Planet of Giants came out last September on DVD, allowing us to inaugurate the second season in proper fashion. This serial may seem a poor candidate for the defense, as its relative lack of action and plodding dialogue meant that even its creators cut it from the planned four episodes to the rarely seen three.

The serial starts in very promising fashion. While attempting to return to 1960s Earth, the TARDIS experiences a malfunction. Although at first it appears to have arrived without incident, the Doctor and Barbara, Ian and Susan quickly discover that things are not normal at all — they have arrived shrunk to only an inch high!

"We are NOT taking that home with us."

“We are NOT taking that home with us.”

This is a very different sort of predicament than the usual fare, and sets this episode off from any others I, at least, have seen. Moreover, they discover that the wildlife surrounding the TARDIS is all dead, which sparks another mystery. Unfortunately, this part of the serial is the least successful, as there are frequent cutaways to dialogue between individuals previously unknown to us and of which the main characters are unaware. This is a very kludgy way to clue us in on the mystery, and reduces the suspense, as we quickly figure out what is wrong, and the only question remains whether the Doctor and his friends can figure everything out.

Leave it to Susan to sleep on the job.

Leave it to Susan to sleep on the job.

The story is redeemed, in my view, by the very creative way the design team constructed the various “giant size” sets, as well as the special effects used in other scenes. I feel this serial has the best set design of any serials to this point, with the possible exception of the lost Marco Polo, and rates very well with any of the First Doctor episodes. Such objects as a briefcase, drain and plug, notepad, and telephone are constructed very believably, and the characters have appropriate difficulty manipulating things that are far larger than they are. In point of fact, most of the sets were constructed quite simply, but that makes their success all the more noteworthy.

Noteworthy! Ha ha! It's a joke, get it! I am so clever.

Noteworthy! Ha ha! It’s a joke, get it! I am so clever.

Tension is set up fairly adroitly as the Doctor ends up down a drain with a full sink above and a plug about to be pulled, and later faces a pet cat who is looking for something to play with. The cut-down plot ends up working in the serial’s favor, as it would no doubt drag endlessly with an additional episode of padding. They probably ought to have adopted a policy of cutting out an episode’s worth of footage after filming every serial these first few seasons.

The Doctor has an insight.

The Doctor has an insight.

A masterpiece Planet of Giants may not be, but it definitely has enough to make it stand out from the other serials before and after, and for that alone I encourage a verdict of Not Guilty.

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Filed under Dr. Who, William Hartnell

Prosecution: The Myth Makers

Hello again, Mithradates here, and back on the job, sans my erstwhile partner. While I catch up on old reviews, I am continuing forward from my last stopping point, and have decided to post my impressions while they are still fresh. This will mean going out of order, but you can keep up with all reviews past and present via the links on the right-hand side of the page.

On to Mythmakers. Or Myth Makers. Nobody seems quite sure what the title is. Which is appropriate, because the serial is quite forgettable. In fact, I would call it hands down the worst Dr. Who serial to this point in the series. Yes, yes, I know, The Web Planet. But as I will say in my argument for the defense (when it appears: watch this space!), at least Web Planet was ambitious. Myth Makers, by contrast, is puerile.

The curtain opens with the TARDIS appearing on a dusty plain outside of Troy. It appears as Hector and Achilles fight outside the city, and in a true Doctor ex machina the  surprise appearance of the TARDIS allows Achilles to kill Hector. The Doctor is hailed as a manifestation of Zeus by Achilles, which is the first of many promising plot points that will be cast by the wayside.

The biggest flaw in the serial is the utter juvenility of the characters. It would seem that the writer wanted to show the Greek and Trojan heroes with feet of clay, and certainly the tradition from Homer forwards provides many human flaws to work from, but The Myth Makers takes this to absurdity. Menelaus is completely feckless and complains to Agamemnon that he didn’t really want Helen in the first place. Odysseus is sneering and scheming. Paris is a dimwitted coward. Cassandra is a shrewish harpy. Agamemnon is a waffling milquetoast. Priam is a naive bumbler. And on and on. Nobody seems to have any redeeming characteristics whatsoever.

But daaaaaadddd, I want to be a hero too!

But daaaaaadddd, I want to be a hero too!

There is a certain laziness in the entire serial. The sets are plain and cheaply made, not for the first time in the show’s history, but a symptom of the shoddiness that pervades the serial. The actors chew through their lines with little enthusiasm. Odysseus overacts as bad as Tlotoxl from The Aztecs. Priam and Paris bicker like a married couple.

In addition, plot points are picked up and discarded randomly. The Doctor decides to follow Achilles’ lead and pretends to be Zeus, but when his ruse is discovered he drops it without fuss and proceeds to reveal to the Greeks that he is from the future! Vicki does the same thing when she is discovered by the Trojans. Up until this point the Doctor and his companions have taken pains not to divulge their true identities when traveling in Earth’s past; even in Marco Polo when he has to explain how they got to the Himalayas he simply tells Polo that he has a “flying caravan”. He never reveals its ability to travel through time. Here, though, he barely seems to care. He even is willing to show the Greeks how to construct a flying machine!

"While I'm busy contaminating the timeline, how about I invent penicillin for you?"

“While I’m busy contaminating the timeline, how about I invent penicillin for you?”

There are issues with the period dialogue as well. I don’t expect perfect historical accuracy, naturally, particularly when dealing with what is essentially legend, but what is the idea having Cassandra call Vicki a “puny pagan goddess of the Greeks” and Vicki “a heathen sort of name”, as if those terms have any meaning in the Bronze Age! Moreover Vicki, called “Cressida” by Priam, develops a love interest with the Trojan hero Troilus, an obvious attempt to set up the story of Troilus and Cressida. Except that romance was invented by the 12th century French poet Benoît de Saint-Maure.

"I hope you know we can't consummate this relationship for another 2500 years."

“I hope you know we can’t consummate this relationship for another 2500 years.”

Plot holes abound as well. Steven is discovered by Odysseus prowling around the Greek camp and is suspected of spying for the Trojans. Yet later Stephen easily convinces Odysseus to let him dress as Diomede and go out to face Paris, even though that would be a perfect way to get back into Troy and report if he were a spy. Later, Stephen proves to be a skilled swordsman even though he comes from our future and would be unlikely to possess such a skill. Finally, the Doctor’s first scheme to defeat the Trojans takes the form of folding giant paper airplanes (ever try to fold parchment??) and shoot them into the city with soldiers attached. “Hare-brained” doesn’t even do it justice. And when Odysseus sees one he remarks that his son  makes them all the time!!! Finally, Troilus kills Achilles at the end of the serial, which seems a curious departure from the legend when all had more or less gone according to “history” by that point.

That last bit is the final death blow to this serial, though. We know what happens to Troy. Although the Doctor makes a half-hearted attempt to convince us that the legend passed down may be very different from what actually happened in history, in the end everything happens as in history, except that Troilus kills Achilles instead of vice versa. There is some tension over whether the Doctor and friends will survive, but they are never in any real danger (although Steven does get a shoulder wound at the end which seems unusually incapacitating for a superficial injury).

Bad characters, bad acting, bad sets, bad dialogue, and bad plotting. That’s the Myth Makers in a nutshell. About the only interesting thing we discover in this episode is that the Doctor happens to carry around a 1920s Flapper outfit in the TARDIS, for reasons unknown. Oh, and Vicki departs. One wonders if a woman from the 22nd century will really find happiness in the 12th century B.C. No doubt she will have lots of time cooking, cleaning, weaving, and watching her many offspring die of childhood diseases to ponder her choice.

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Filed under Dr. Who, Verdicts, William Hartnell

Prosecution: Reign of Terror

The Doctor and his companions visit Revolutionary France, a period that is “the Doctor’s favorite period of Earth history” according to Susan. As I think I have mentioned before, I like these period pieces, as they add variety to series. Although the modern episodes have included more visits to Earth’s past, it seems that every occasion ends in an encounter with aliens, as if humans alone were not interesting enough. Alas.

The serial begins with the kind of uneven portrayal of Revolutionary France that characterizes it as a whole. The travelers find themselves mistaken for French monarchists, and are arrested by a group of rustic sans-culottes. So rustic, in fact, that they have difficulty pronouncing the word “guillotine”! Only the Doctor manages to escape, through the clever tactic of being knocked out. As the farmhouse is set ablaze by the revolutionaries, the fate of the Doctor is momentarily uncertain.

Susan displays her inhuman balancing ability, standing upright while unconscious.

Upon being taken to the Bastille, the three companions immediately try to escape, led by Barbara. Although as a history teacher she ought to be the centerpiece of the episode, she fails to accomplish much in aid of the group. In this instance, characteristically, her efforts to mount an escape attempt are foiled when Susan goes into hysterics after seeing some rats. Ah, how far the intrepid traveler in time and space we met in An Unearthly Child has fallen!

Susan in one of her more useful moments.

Meanwhile, the Doctor comes to and begins to make his way to Paris. There is an amusing interlude in which he is obliged to engage in manual labor, but he quickly escapes and eventually blends in by purchasing a French bureaucrat’s outfit using a ring in his possession. Which is very strange, given that the ring was said in earlier episodes to be a futuristic device. (The ring reappears later in subsequent episodes, so maybe he has a drawer full?).

In Revolutionary France, the man with the goofiest hat makes the rules.

The middle episodes are a bit goofy. There are many times in the first season in which the plot revolves around the travelers becoming separated, in order to prevent them from leaving. This is taken to extremes in Reign of Terror, as every member of the group ends up in prison or in front of a firing squad at one moment or another. Ian, as usual, shows the most pluck, and Susan is the least helpful in escaping. In the process, they become involved with a counter-revolutionary underground, something which seems to phase nobody except Barbara, who delivers an impassioned defense of the French Revolution (you go girl!). The aristocrats say they only know each other by their Christian names, but this leads to an inconsistency as one of the ringleaders is called D’Argançon.

“We are fighting for our God-given right to crush the peasantry beneath our feet.”

The writers attempt to inculcate some suspense by including that British bugbear, Bonaparte, as the rival to Robespierre. However, the Consulate wasn’t established until 1799, well after the death of Robespierre. Napoleon was actually a protégé of Robespierre, and was placed under house arrest after the Thermodorian reaction. Thus, his role in the serial is ahistorical.

“Welease me! Don’t you wascals know I am Wobespierre!”

In the end, some inspired fast-talking (and snazzy dressing) by the Doctor can’t rescue this story from its uneven pacing, non-French-speaking French, and ahistorical history. I ask the jury to find Reign of Terror guilty.

C.U.S. Ratings:

Susan: 4 (gets captured)

Barbara: 4 (gets captured)

Ian: 5 (conveys dying words of British agent, which don’t prove of much use, but form a plot point)

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Filed under Dr. Who, William Hartnell

Rating the Companions

During the first episode of Season 7 of the “New” Dr. Who, Asylum of the Daleks, one of the Daleks intones “records show that the Doctor needs companions.” I found this statement very interesting. Ontologically speaking, the Doctor does need companions, at least, we rarely see him acting without one or more humans in tow, even if they might be separated for plot reasons. An affection for humans is a big part of what makes the Doctor who he is — it is an essential element of his identity, in contrast to other Time Lords. In the same way, one might note that Gandalf ‘needs’ hobbits.

From a metanarrative standpoint, the Doctor’s human companions serve many functions. They provide a partner for exposition and dialogue, allow us to experience the strange worlds and times the Doctor visits through a familiar eye, and frequently aid in providing plot points. Many an adventure revolves around the rescue of a companion, or is triggered by something a companion does. In a functional sense, however, the Doctor doesn’t really need companions at all. This very episode is a signal example: Amy and Rory contribute absolutely nothing to the task at hand, and only serve to hinder the Doctor in accomplishing the main goal of the episode. It is interesting that the Daleks of all races would confuse ontological and functional reasons for the companions’ presence.

In any case, the relative uselessness of Amy and Rory in this episode is happily not characteristic of the Doctor’s companions in every episode. Quite commonly, they provide critical assistance at one point or another. This inspired me to create the Companion Usefulness Scale in order to provide a qualitative measurement of a companion’s contributions to a particular serial or episode. With this handy tool, one can measure exactly how useful any particular companion is. A companion’s rating on the C.U.S. is a number from 1 to 10, with 10 being the most useful. To generate a companion’s C.U.S. rating, find the spot on the chart that parallels the single most useful act or service that a companion provides in the course of a serial. Thus a companion who stupidly gets the Doctor into trouble, but nevertheless is responsible for getting the group rescued, will rate highly despite any foolish activity he or she may have done previously. With that said, here is the Companion Usefulness Scale:

1: Companion causes the senseless death of himself or another companion. (Note: in exception to the above, a companion who manages to get someone killed rates a “1” regardless of any redeeming acts performed later in the serial).

2: Companion causes himself, another companion or the Doctor to become captured or otherwise in need of rescue through a palpably stupid or shortsighted act. Examples: Pushing a button that says “do not push”, going against the Doctor’s express orders, etc.

3: Companion  causes himself, another companion or the Doctor to become captured or otherwise in need of rescue through miscommunication or an act that a normal person could not clearly foresee would lead to such a consequence (despite the fact that anyone traveling with the Doctor ought to be more sensitive to such possibilities). Example: Assuming that one’s own cultural mores apply everywhere, such as offering one’s hand to an alien and finding out that that is a deadly insult on their world.

4: Companion causes himself, another companion or the Doctor to become captured or otherwise in need of rescue in a manner that could not reasonably be anticipated or avoided. Example: Arriving in what turns out to be a war zone and immediately being captured by a patrol.

5: Companion provides minor assistance to the Doctor. Examples: bringing tools to the Doctor from the TARDIS, monitoring a dial, guarding a prisoner, etc.

6: Companion rescues another companion.

7: Companion provides assistance that is critical to moving the plot forward. Examples: breaking the Doctor out of a cell, opening a safe that contains a needed key, procuring disguises that are needed to infiltrate an enemy base.

8: Companion provides the key insight or makes the key discovery that solves the major puzzle or problem facing the explorers.

9: Companion saves the Doctor’s life.

10: Companion rescues or saves the life of the Doctor and also solves the major puzzle or problem facing the explorers. In other words, the companion fills the role normally played by the Doctor.

With the Companion Usefulness Scale, it will now be possible to objectively rate the contribution of each companion in upcoming episode reviews!

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Defense: The Sensorites — A Well-Developed Alien Species

Just as The Aztecs marks in some sense the coming-of-age of the historical episodes of the first season, so The Sensorites marks a major development in the science-fiction episodes. That’s not to say that future episodes won’t have their share of goofiness (wait until The Web Planet!), but that the deeper sci-fi that attracted me to Doctor Who in the first place first appears in this serial.

Neither The Daleks nor The Keys of Marinus presented a fully-developed alien society. It’s easy to be influenced by the multitude of later Dalek-oriented episodes, but we learn very little about Dalek society in their first appearance, other than their penchant for extermination. Nor are the Thaals or the Voord much more than thinly-characterized groups. In Peter Newman’s story, however, we find a fully-articulated alien society, different enough from our own for misunderstandings to occur, but possessing deeper similarities, a tension that has made for much science fiction of the ‘self-reflecting’ category over the years — seeing human society from the outside.

The serial begins with a classic situation — the travelers come upon a derelict spacecraft, it’s location unknown, its crew senseless or raving. The crew is revived and the Doctor and companions learn that the spaceship is under the influence of the Sensorites, an enigmatic telepathic race that is able to influence humans, particularly if they are under emotional stress. The audience is thus primed to expect another race of ‘bad guys’, but as they investigate further, they find the truth is much more complicated.

Hi there!

Peekaboo, I see you!

Susan has one of her few bright moments in this story, as she finds herself able to communicate telepathically with the Sensorites. This was welcome, as her ‘unusual’ nature, hinted at in An Unearthly Child, had largely disappeared, replaced by screaming and general uselessness. (Not to blame Carol Ann Ford, as she was constrained by the sexist writing her character was given).

When the travelers finally reach the Sensorites’ home world, the Sense-Sphere, they find a society very unlike our own. All of the Sensorites look alike (a play on our propensity to think all foreigners “look the same”), and their society, government and architecture are all based on different principles than our own. Credit to Newman and the designer, Raymond Cusick (creator of the Daleks) for putting together a coherent alternative society.

The Sensorites turn to be, on the whole, much less malevolent than they appeared at first. This doesn’t remove the tension, however, as conflict nevertheless occurs due to misunderstanding and mistrust between the travelers and the Sensorites. Rather than appearing to be a monolithic group, like the Daleks, rifts are shown among the Sensorites themselves regarding the appropriate attitude to take towards the strangers among them. In fact, this episode is remarkable with respect to the amount of time none of the main characters are on screen. We are shown lengthy conversations between the Sensorites regarding the travelers, which goes a long way to make them a fully-rounded people.


Little known fact: "The Robot" was invented by the Sensorites. They taught it to Ian and Barbara, who introduced it to the dance floors of London after their return to Earth in 1965.

Peter Newman’s script seems to present his attitude towards human conflict; that in any interaction between two peoples, there will be suspicion and mistrust on both sides, but that this is ultimately ill-founded. Rather, it is up to men (or aliens!) of good conscience to make a leap of faith and trust the other side. It is ultimately an optimistic view of human relationships. It suggests that there are no truly irreconcilable viewpoints, and that all intelligent beings ultimately want the same things. Which could serve as a motto for Doctor Who as a whole, apart from beings like the Daleks and Cybermen.

Hartnell’s Doctor, often a bit of a spectator in some of the early episodes, is in fine fettle in this story. He confronts the Sensorites early in the episode, showing a hint of ruthlessness in exploiting their weaknesses to compel them to negotiate. Later, he takes charge of the investigation into the poisonings in the Sensorite city, and journeys nonchalantly into the tunnels beneath the city. On the whole, this is one of his finer performances from the first season.

Sizing them up

The most perplexing aspect of the Sensorites are their reverse beards, which grow upwards instead of downwards.

The weakest part of the story are the supporting human characters. The ‘sane’ crewmembers, Maitland and Carol, are less-developed than most of the Sensorites, while the third crewmember, John, spends most of the serial babbling incoherently as a result of Sensorite mind control, leaving little room for character development.

But these small flaws pale beside the serial’s strengths. In short, The Sensorites points the way towards what Who could and would become. Acquit!


Filed under Dr. Who, William Hartnell

Prosecution: The Aztecs

Early Who tried to rotate between “historical” and “sci-fi” episodes, something foreign to this Who watcher for whom actual time-traveling into the past was a rarity for Doctors 3-5 (although this has thankfully been revived for the new episodes). So after visiting the Marinus, the travelers set down in ancient Mexico. This immediately made the episode interesting for me, as I am an archaeologist by trade, and the Aztecs are more unfamiliar to most western viewers than even the Cathay of Marco Polo.

John Lucarotti wrote this story, and Marco Polo as well, so it’s interesting to compare them. This is actually the third ‘travel into the past’ serial, if you count An Unearthly Child. In the first two, the travelers were separated from the TARDIS and the story was relatively simplistic, if at times convoluted: find the way out of there. The Aztecs is much more interesting, as it adds a twist. No longer are the party mere passive observers. The Aztecs poses a much more interesting conundrum: can one change the past? If one can, do you have the moral obligation to try and prevent what you perceive as morally wrong behavior. And if you can’t (or won’t), does that make you an accomplice to the crimes you witness?

The Aztecs begins with the TARDIS setting down in a historically inaccurate combined pyramid temple/tomb, belonging to the high priest Yataxa. As possessor (via theft) of the high priest’s bracelet, Barbara is understood as an avatar of the priest, and a semi-divine being. She appears in the midst of a struggle for power between the priests Autloc and Tlotoxl. The latter is the High Priest of Sacrifice, and looks unkindly upon Barbara’s attempts to stop the practice. Autloc is more flexible (and perhaps more manipulable). (Note: The sacrifice is to bring rain to quench a long drought, so the god being sacrificed to is likely Tlaloc, though I don’t think this is mentioned in the episode).

High Priest Barbara

I think you could use a few more feathers there.

The main story involves the party trying to find a way to get back inside the pyramid, to the TARDIS, and Barbara’s attempts to change Aztec culture from the top down. Through it all, Tlotoxl (played in an over-the-top Shakespearean fashion by John Ringham) works behind the scenes to expose Barbara as a fraud and to kill the travelers.


Maybe I’ll overact a little bit, hmmmmm??

A subplot involves Ian’s enlistment as an Aztec officer and his struggle with the rather stupid warrior Ixta, who feels the honor should be his. Another involves Susan’s arranged marriage to the wonderfully named Perfect Victim. Most of these are dull and tedious, the only amusing moment coming when The Doctor inadvertently proposes marriage to the wise woman Cameca by giving her a cup of cocoa, which she accepts. The Doctor’s first wife!!

Marriage bells

True love for The Doctor?

While the fighting scenes are comical and Ixta’s incompetence more farcical than suspenseful, Barbara’s struggle with her unexpected position — and responsibility — are far more interesting. For once, she is the center of a story, and Jacqueline Hill plays the role well. I think that Barbara intuitively knows that her efforts to stop the practice of human sacrifice are a fool’s errand, but her persistence is reasonable and helps develop her character. In fact, I find everyone’s nonchalant acceptance of their impotence at the end rather off-putting. Even admitting the impossibility of changing a culture overnight, I would have a hard time taking it all in stride. Should Barbara have let the sacrificial rites go on before her, observing them as was her role, without lifting a finger? Isn’t that rather cold-blooded? The episode leaves these questions hanging, for the viewer to ponder after the fact.

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Filed under Dr. Who, William Hartnell

Defense: Keys of Marinus


Not the best vacation spot.

Fresh from their visit to medieval China, the travelers come to Marinus. There they uncover a complex mystery: a strange structure with no obvious entrance; a sea of acid, and several minisubs piloted by humanoids in wetsuits — the Voord. This sets up the frame story for the plot, which reads like something I would have developed as an RPG gamemaster in high school: The building houses the Conscience of Marinus, which has the ability to control the thoughts of everyone on the planet. The machine is inactive, its control keys hidden away by its guardian, Arbitan. However, Marinus is under threat by the Voord, and the machine is both the biggest threat to the planet and the only weapon that can defeat the Voord. So the travelers are coerced by Arbitan to obtain the story’s maguffin: the keys to operate the mechanism. Most of the remainder of the plot consists of small single-episode setpieces that involved a subset of the characters, as they split up to find the keys. Unfortunately, the sets and costumes for Marco Polo ate up much of the design budget, and the wide variety of settings for each episode no doubt required further economies, so that the locations for the serial come across as particularly chintzy. Since the serial is divided up into mini-adventures, it makes the most sense to me to review each on its own. One interesting element is the wrist-transporter, which allows its owner to travel through space in an instant; a handy plot device!


Barbara having a little brain to brain talk.

The Velvet Web is a classic sci-fi plot: the apparent paradise that turns out to be far different than it appears. This is due to a hypnotic trance created by several brain-stalk creatures that appear to be distant cousins of the Gamesters of Triskelion. This episode introduces us to Altos and Sabitha, Arbitan’s servant and daughter, respectively, who are involved in later episodes. Otherwise this episode is not particularly noteworthy, apart from the fact that Barbara ends up as the hero, as she defeats the aliens’ attempt to induce hypnosis and she manages to destroy them with the help of Sabitha. At last the women get something to do!


Couldn’t find the really short ones, eh Altos?

The Screaming Jungle is even less interesting — the team end up in a jungle of mobile plants and flimsy traps, set up by the guardian of the key, a man named Darrius. Ian and Barbara have to figure out a puzzle to get the key and escape, but much of the tension is weakened by their ability to pop out whenever they need to with a twist of their transporters. At least the hypnosis of the previous episode was more insidious.

The Snows of Terror is meant I think as a character study; Ian and Barbara are rescued from the cold wasteland in which they materialize by a taciturn loner named Vasor, who turns out (surprise surprise) to be not entirely trustworthy. Cellophane caverns and stock footage of wolves are the main antagonists here, along with the Slow Moving Silent Knights Who Scream, who turn out to be the guardians of the key. Another ho-hum episode.


Our special ability is moving very slowly and awkwardly. What? You don’t put your best men on a job like this, do you?

Sentence of Death turns out to be the saving grace of the serial, however, as this is in my opinion the best episode of Dr. Who to this point in the series’ history.  Ian appears in the location of the 5th key (albeit alone, for some reason), and find himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. Framed for murder, he must go on trial for his life, in a society in which the accused are presumed guilty. The alien courtroom will be a commonplace among sci-fi television, but it is played to good effect here, as the danger to Ian is palpable. This episode also sees the appearance of the Doctor familiar to fans of the series. Hitherto Hartnell has played the Doctor as a curmudgeonly, often cynical opportunist, perhaps playing off his character’s back story as a fugitive wanderer. In this episode, however, the Doctor is upbeat, even brash, confident in his ability to get Ian off. This marks an important change in the personality of the Doctor, one that will have great resonance in later stories and seasons.

The following episode, The Keys of Marinus, continues the melodrama and Ian is finally freed by a combined effort of the Doctor and all of the companions. Terry Nation does a good job maintaining suspense and providing a false resolution before coming to the denouement. It’s good to see all of the companions play an active role at the same time, and Nation plays with the now-established characters (as he did in several preceding episodes) by having Ian, usually the man of action, forced to cool his heels and wait for the others to rescue him.

By contrast, the final stage of the story is anticlimactic; the Voord take over the tower of Arbitan and a struggle for control of the Conscience of Marinus ensues. Nation plays well with a twist introduced earlier in the plot, but the sequence of events is predictable, and the outcome of all the shenanigans is merely that nothing happens, other than the characters manage to escape Marinus. In short, an uneven story with a few moments of brilliance.

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Filed under Dr. Who, William Hartnell

The Pause that Refreshes

So, as you may have noticed (assuming anyone was reading this to begin with), there have been no reviews since June 2011. That’s not because we abandoned our mission. In fact, it was a combination of factors: My co-author found that he didn’t have time to blog as he had hoped. I held back because I did not want to get too far ahead (given our original objective of parallel reviews). However, it’s clear now that the original plan is unworkable, as my colleague simply lacks the time.

I am more stubborn, however, and intend to resume my reviews. I will not follow the “Acquit or Convict” style proposed by my lawyerly friend. Instead, I will give my own insights and thoughts however they might be. At the moment we just finished The Dalek Invasion of Earth (after temporarily skipping The Sensorites, Reign of Terror, and Planet of the Giants, which are currently not available on DVD). My intention is to resume the reviews by going back to Keys of Marinus and periodically posting as we move ahead. Onward we go!

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Peanuts + Dr. Who = Awesome

The work of Wild Guru Larry.

Found via Bad Astronomy.

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Filed under Dr. Who, Humor

Prosecution: Marco Polo

Many of the early Dr. Who episodes were lost when the tapes containing them were wiped by the BBC (talk about your idiotic decisions!) Marco Polo is the first episode for which we have no video. This is actually rather surprising, as it was a “showcase” episode that aired in some 72 countries. That at least presents some hope of an old tape being found in Portugal or somewhere one of these days. Fortunately, an audio recording survives, as well as many period stills, meaning we can get a good idea of what the episode was like.

It is clear from the number of sets and the sumptuousness of the costumes that Verity Lambert opened the bank account to produce the episode, no doubt buoyed by the decision by the BBC to keep Dr. Who on the air. Perhaps too enthusiastic, as lack of funds was to seriously affect the quality of the sets and costumes for the next episode, Keys of Marinus, as we will see.

The episode begins among the snowy peaks of the Himalayas, where the TARDIS arrives, damaged. Hartnell’s pessimism and irritability is again strange to those of us raised on the latter Doctors. (“We’re all going to starve to death!” he shouts, at one point).

Good luck getting delivery up here

Here they are discovered by none other than Marco Polo, who inexplicably is traveling through the Himalayas on a journey from Samarkand to Peking. This is akin to passing through New Orleans on a trip from Denver to Albany. At any rate, Marco Polo is escorting two travelers: Tegana, who is a peace envoy from Nogai Khan to Kublai Khan, and Ping-Cho, a well-bred young woman from Samarkand who is to be married to an elderly Mongol noble. Marco Polo agrees to take the Doctor and his companions along with him, along with the Doctor’s caravan, the TARDIS, which they admit can move from place to place. A flying conveyance being of great value, Marco Polo denies them access to it, and decides to offer it to Kublai Khan in exchange for permission to return to Venice.

This is a major plot point, although it is also a major plot hole. The main tension throughout the episode is between Marco Polo and the travelers. Both have a legitimate desire to go home. Both need it to effect their passage. So why, then, does it not occur to anyone to offer to take Marco Polo back to Venice in the TARDIS??? Now, there might be a reason why the Doctor or Susan do not make this offer. Perhaps they feel that giving Marco Polo a glimpse of advanced technology will alter the timeline. Maybe they know that the Doctor cannot actually control where the TARDIS goes (this has been strongly implied, although never explicitly stated, in the series so far). That doesn’t explain why it never occurs, say, to Ian, Barbara, or Marco Polo himself. This also reminds us it’s about time for Ian and Barbara to start getting a little miffed at the amount of time it is taking them to get home. If the Doctor can’t get Marco Polo to Venice, then he can hardly get Ian and Barbara back to 20th-century England. Yet they have never expressed frustration, resignation, or acceptance of this state of affairs. In this episode, they spend weeks traveling under primitive conditions, by our standards. Yet their reactions are entirely based on the short-term situation, not the long-term fact of their indefinite exile from their own time.

Oh, the indignity!

One point of interest: Up until I saw the above still, I had no inkling that the TARDIS was moveable by conventional means. I always felt that part and parcel of its large interior space and impenetrable doors was immovability. Who knew the TARDIS could be rendered completely harmless by the simple expedient of tipping it over so that the doors face down?

The middle parts of the episode are devoted to the long, arduous journey to Peking and the plotting of Tegana, who wishes to finish off the expedition. Why exactly he wishes to do this is unclear. He mentions Nogai is planning a sneak attack on Kublai Khan under cover of peace negotiations, but surely his safe arrival in Peking would be useful in maintaining the fiction of those negotiations?

Follow me all ye who call yourselves Gourdenes!

At any rate, Tegana fails twice to kill the party — an attempt to poison their water supply is foiled by a sudden sandstorm, and the subsequent attempt to kill them in the Gobi by slitting their water gourds does not succeed when the Doctor discovers condensation on the walls of the TARDIS. I am not sure how the latter is physically possible, but no matter. Barbara and Susan become suspicious of Tegana, and Barbara follows him to the Cave of Five Hundred Eyes. There she is captured, and there is much inintentional humor as she is pursued by a series of searchers, in defiance of Marco Polo’s orders not to go looking for her.

Marco! Polo! Marco! Polo! Oh, come on, don't tell me that joke didn't occur to you, too.

In all of this mess, Marco Polo doesn’t come off very well, and I think the writers do a great disservice. Not to the historical figure, but to the character. We come to know the inner thoughts of Marco Polo via the narration of his periodic journal entries. Never mind that this behavior is anachronistic, it gives us a window into the character that we never get from the Doctor or his companions. Marco Polo comes across as a strong leader, honest and forthright. He pursues his own interests, sure, but he is not heedless of the needs of others. However, the development of the plot makes him seem like a complete dolt. He regularly loses control of the expedition, with various members wandering off at regular intervals without permission. His belief in Tegana over the testimony of Barbara and others is believable given the class-oriented nature of that society, but it does him no favors. He nearly leads the party to disaster in the Gobi desert, and is only saved by serendipity. He confiscates the key to the TARDIS, but manages to lose it twice. Most damning, his mission at the start of the episode is to bring Tegana and Ping-Cho to Kublai Khan. He manages to lose both of them along the way, coming before the Khan empty-handed. He does redeem himself by defeating Tegana in a duel when Tegana tries to kill the Khan, but the character, played with great dignity by Mark Eden, deserved better.

But even worse is the behavior of the Doctor. In this episode he is almost completely worthless. That he spends much of the episode sulking in his tent is bad enough (yes, Hartnell couldn’t be present to film the whole episode, but couldn’t they come up with a better explanation?) But what does he do? His discovery of condensation inside the TARDIS is pure luck. He fails to get the key to the TARDIS back from Marco Polo. When they do encounter Kublai Khan, the Doctor befriends him and wins great wealth playing backgammon with him, but fails to persuade him to give up the TARDIS. They only get away when Marco Polo decides to be Mr. Nice Guy and give them the key to the TARDIS at the end.

Way to make yourself useful, Doctor

The one member of the expedition who does something useful is Ian. He manages to get the key to the TARDIS away from Marco Polo the first time, though their escape attempt is foiled. Ping-Cho risks her life to give them the key for the second escape, which is discovered when Susan, who I am disliking more and more, just has to say goodbye to Ping-Cho before they leave.

Although there is much to recommend Marco Polo — not least the setting, the epic sweep of the episode, and the lavish production qualities — the plot holes and the poor performance of the Doctor and friends leads me to suggest a verdict of Guilty. Need I add that Tegana, being a main character, has to be played by an Englishman, unlike most of the extras? And the cringingly offensive portrayal of the way-station keeper, Wang Lo, also played by a non-Asian, of course. Even Kublai Khan, I see, was played by a Westerner. God, the Sixties were backward.


Filed under Dr. Who, William Hartnell

Prosecution: Edge of Destruction

My colleague has already penned his defense of Edge of Destruction, so I felt it incumbent upon me to take up the solemn duty of the prosecution. While he mentions several notable qualities of the episode, I feel there are several flaws that did not receive sufficient attention in his review.

The first consists of the episode’s existence in the first place. When one has a new series, it is inopportune to have a “filler” episode as your third installment. The commentary to the episode describes the circumstances: It was normal practice to make the decision whether or not to continue a series after the thirteenth show of the first season. The producers of Dr. Who felt that their product was of sufficient quality that this review was merely pro forma and that they could expect a continuance even before the thirteenth show. Thus, they planned to have the first two episodes stretch over 11 parts, and the third episode would extend past show #13. Well, that plan turned out to be based on false hopes, so the third episode had to be written in only two parts, and with almost no budget (apparently the money had been blown on The Daleks — this inability to manage the show’s finances will continue to plague the first season).

The knife is a metaphor! For stabbing!

The second flaw is the way the episode is structured. While watching, the various strange happenings work successfully to create an impression of confusion and inculcate the idea that the world inside the spaceship is off-kilter. However, in hindsight there are a number of significant inconsistencies. Why does Susan go crazy inside her bedroom? Why does she brandish a pair of scissors, and later rip up her bed with them? Why does she threaten Barbara?

The TARDIS is making me overreact to this melting clock!

Later, the TARDIS apparently melts a large ornamental clock inside the control room, and damages the watches of the crew. How does it do this? Are there microwave emitters throughout the ship, in case the Doctor happens to desire a hot cup of tea and doesn’t wish to walk to the food console? (My colleage also points out that the water dispenser lights work inconsistently in this episode).

Finally, Ian is possessed by the TARDIS, by means unknown, and he attacks the Doctor at the control panel. In order, apparently, to warn the Doctor that the Fast Return switch is stuck. A switch which is on the control panel. Where the Doctor was just looking. The control panel which sent out an electric shock whenever somebody approached it. You’re kind of sending mixed messages, aren’t you, TARDIS old pal?

I wonder how much the magic marker label guy in the TARDIS factory gets paid.

Nevertheless, the character development in the episode and the fact that this is one of the first true sci-fi mindfuck episodes in television history (if you omit the Twilight Zone) spare this episode from the hoosegow. Verdict: Acquittal (just barely).

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So what the hell do we call these things?

A Trekkie born and raised like myself is used to calling each weekly installment of the series an “episode”. Traditionally, these are self-contained narratives, although two-part episodes are familiar to fans of the series, often spanning two separate seasons.

With Dr. Who, however, things get a bit more complicated. An Unearthly Child, for example, aired over four separate dates. Now, following the Trek paradigm, we might call these “episodes”. My colleague adopted this in his first review. The problem then becomes: what do we call the larger stories of which these are components? “Serials”? “Story Arcs”? The BBC DVDs call them “Stories” (urgh). And if we call the larger narrative an “episode,” what of the component segments? Anyway, I thought the best way to answer the question is to take a poll. What should we call the smallest aired segment of each of these stories (e.g. the four parts of An Unearthy Child)?

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Mithradates reviews The Daleks

Hello again. We seem to have gotten out of order here — my colleague was reduced to such a state of torpor after watching The Daleks that he pleaded an inability to write on the topic. My reaction was much more positive, so I have taken it upon myself to set down a few words on the series. I will focus most of my discussion on the first two episodes, as they set the tone for the whole thing.

What set The Daleks above An Unearthly Child for me was the keen air of foreboding that it established in the first episode. The TARDIS flies out of control and ends up in a mystery location. Not even the Doctor knows exactly where or when they have arrived. Susan reports that all environmental sensors check out normal. Except that we see the radiation detector rapidly increasing after Susan looks away from the display.

A brief exploration outside leads to the first mystery: the explorers discover a dead forest, turned entirely to stone. In addition, they find a strange creature, made of metal — a robot? If so, who made it, and why?

The Doctor and Ian look at the mechanical lizard

The second mystery comes when they reach the edge of the forest, and look out over a strange city, unlike anything any of them have seen before. Like the forest, it appears completely lifeless. Unlike the forest, it is clearly made by intelligent beings. Who constructed it? What happened to them?

The Doctor’s curiosity is piqued. This is the first glimpse we get of the irrepressible curiosity that will become the Doctor’s hallmark, and a clear change from the grumpy Doctor of the first series. Unlike An Unearthly Child, when he was trying to keep Ian and Barbara from nosing into his business, the Doctor is in his element here, even if he sorely misjudges the danger of the situation.

On the way back to the TARDIS, Susan lags behind, and becomes alarmed when she feels somebody touch her from behind. We see a shadow, flitting out of the shot. Who is it? Is it one of the builders of the city? An ally, or an enemy? The mystery deepens when the rest of the party discovers a mysterious box lying on the ground outside the TARDIS, containing a number of glass vials. What could they be for? Were they left there deliberately, or dropped accidentally? Is there a connection with Susan’s visitor?

The fourth plot point comes when the team return to the TARDIS. After messing about with the TARDIS’ controls, the Doctor announces that one of its components is damaged, and that mercury is needed for it to become operable. Only we have seen the Doctor remove the component from the TARDIS, deliberately sabotaging it. It is clear that the Doctor does not yet trust his companions, and is willing to behave selfishly to meet his own priorities.

The Doctor and his companions then proceed to the city, which appears to be completely deserted. The floors are smooth metal, apparently bearing a consistent static charge. Why? The set designers did a bang-up job here, creating an architecture that looks truly alien. The doors are not sized nor shaped for human entry, and there appear to be no stairs or definable spaces, just elevators and corridors. While wandering through the maze-like interior of one building, Barbara becomes trapped in a room, which turns into an elevator, carrying her downwards, to a fate unknown.

While searching for Barbara, the Doctor, Ian and Susan find a room containing scientific equipment. Finally, something the Doctor can understand! Unfortunately, the message is deadly: the planet is bathed in radiation, and the party has only a short time to live. Shortly thereafter, they finally meet the inhabitants of the complex: a strange group of beings who call themselves the Daleks. For fans of the series, this moment is pregnant with ill omen.

What are they? Robots? Or living things within a shell? Their voices suggest the former, but the Doctor and Ian find out the latter is true.

The Doctor & friends meet the Daleks for the first time.

So at this point, we have encountered an amazing number of plot twists and developments:

1. The dead forest and its mystery.

2. The dead city and its mystery.

3. Susan’s visitor

4. The strange box found outside the TARDIS.

5. The Doctor’s treachery — does it conceal a hidden agenda?

6. The odd alien architecture of the city — what does it indicate about those that built it?

7. The imminent threat of death by radiation poisoning.

8. A new and powerful enemy — the Daleks.

This is a very high level of suspense-building, and it is done masterfully. We don’t know how, or whether, these things interrelate, nor their true significance. The rest of the series is dedicated to tracing the web of clues introduced during the first two episodes. Now, my colleague will say that the denoument was a bit tedious. There is, I admit, a lack of tightness to the remaining five(!) episodes, and a certain amount of dramatic padding. (Really, being captured and escaping not once, but twice?). As well as some unfortunate wardrobe choices:

When you've endured generations of radiation poisoning, fashion sense is the first thing to go.

All that aside, however, the sheer brilliance of the beginning is easily enough to put The Daleks above both An Unearthly Child and Edge of Destruction.

Verdict: Acquittal!

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Mithradates: Unearthly Child

Howdy folks. I’m Lime’s erstwhile interlocutor. Like him, I grew up on the third, fourth and fifth Doctors. In effect, my exposure has been limited to what has shown on American TV. I have watched some of the newer episodes with Eccleston and Tennant, but don’t get BBC America. I never saw an episode with Patrick Troughton (unless you count The Five Doctors) until a couple of years ago; my first William Hartnell serial was late last year. So I’m going into this without a lot of background. I happen to be a huge Trekkie, so may be making lots of references to that series in my reviews.

Unearthly Child was unexpected in some ways. When watching Tom Baker and the TARDIS, I always figured in the back of my mind that the sets and special effects (even the theme song) had changed since the series began. After all, John Pertwee had a futuristic car that disappeared in later episodes; I figured there were lots of such tweaks and changes from Doctor to Doctor. And there were so many references to the bum chameleon circuit that I thought it must have worked at one point. So I was unprepared to see the same old TARDIS that I was familiar with (granted, with a few small differences).

This Doctor is very different than the ones I grew up with. Baker, of course, is archetypal for many of my generation, so much so that the newest Doctors mimic his manic personableness. Pertwee was more restrained, of course, but even he was something of a man of action. Hartnell, however, appears in this first serial as a bit of a misanthrope, finding strangers unwelcome and wishing above all to be let alone. He also has much less of a moral compass, as seen when he looks ready to kill the caveman Za after he is incapacitated by a wild animal.

As for the episode in general, my response was much less favorable than my colleague. I felt Ian and Barbara didn’t react quite realistically to being brought across time and space, and subsequently being captured. Neither seem the least concerned about missing their classes or getting fired from their jobs, although such mundane concerns would come quickly to my mind. Conversely, Susan seems very excitable for a girl who was raised by the Doctor.

I also found the caveman plot rather tiring. Of course, I happen to be an archaeologist, so I am sensitive to anachronisms. Granted that the cavemen are a bit more sophisticated than is typical for the 60s, but nevertheless they are clearly anatomically modern (as implied by the original title, 100,000 B.C.) Humans by that time had long mastered the use of fire — it beggars the imagination to conceive of a tribe that has lost the ability to make it. More significantly, they are depicted as being unsophisticated to the point of being rather child-like. There is no reason, however, to think that early humans had social lives any less rich, or language skills less developed, than people in more recent times.

This would be tolerable if it didn’t make the whole drama somewhat farcical. We have four modern humans held prisoner by a group of about a dozen primitives, none of whom exhibit much intelligence. It diminishes the suspense for me markedly. In this respect the next serial, The Daleks, is a considerable improvement. Moreover the second half drags too much, padded as it is with a recapture (a failing also seen in The Daleks). Nevertheless, the curiosity value was high enough to keep me watching even through the slow patches.


Filed under Dr. Who, William Hartnell

Not Dead Yet

The Volokh Conspiracy links to this opinion by Judge Boyce Martin of the Sixth Circuit, where she declares:

Because collateral estoppel precludes future litigation of one specific issue, and because that is what the state effectively asks us to find, we construe their argument as one for collateral estoppel rather than res judicata, despite the substitution of one term for the other in the state’s brief.

Noting in a footnote: “Because Latin is a dead language anyway.”

But wait! Judge Alice Batchelder rides to the rescue! In her concurring opinion, she writes:

I concur in Judge Martin’s opinion.
I write separately only to express my suspicion that, like the reports of Mark Twain’s death, see The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy (Third Edition, 2002), the report of the death of Latin in the majority opinion’s footnote 5 is greatly exaggerated.

Hooray for Judge Batchelder! Lingua latina per aeternam!

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Filed under Appellate Law, Culture, Humor, Languages