Category Archives: Verdicts

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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Prosecution: The Web Planet–Early Who’s Weakest Hour

Last week and during my vacation, my good pal Mith and I got together for gaming, good company, and something we’d been planning for some time: we sat down for a Whoathon of epic proportions. We watched a good 24 episodes of consecutive Hartnell Who plus sundry special features, including some lost episodes and recons. We’d recommitted to watching “it all.” And “all” included, problematically for my sanity, The Web Planet. Even worse, our Whoathon started with The Web Planet. But having watched it one and a half times before (once interrupted by sheer boredom), I was well prepared for what lay ahead. My opinion didn’t change. And so, I represent the Prosecution–this one’s bad. Really bad.

So what do you need to know about Who’s 13th serial, The Web Planet? Well, primarily the three reasons it’s so bad. It’s well worth a watch if you’re a completionist as I am–there are interesting concepts explored, and some pushing of technical boundaries in making a 1965 BBC sci-fi serial. But these interesting concepts ultimately, as you’ll see, fail. In any case, watch it or no, you’ll be well suited knowing these three things about Web Planet, and moving on to the far superior 14th serial, The Crusade. And in no particular order, here are the three things you need to know.

1. An enemy needs periodic anthropomorphizing to hold the audience’s interest. Peter Jackson, in his masterful Lord of the Rings trilogy, made the risky choice to not represent the Big Bad Sauron with any human form throughout his series except in the brief prologue, showing the Big Bad fighting the alliance of Men and Elves. Rather, through the three movies Sauron was represented as a flaming eye, seated atop a large, and faraway tower in Morder. This worked so well in Lord of the Rings since there were proxy enemies aplenty: the Nazgul, Saruman, the orcs in Moria, as well as Gandalf’s (channeling Tolkien’s own words) masterful prose describing the all-too-humanlike enemy and threat Sauran once had been.

In contrast, The Web Planet’s Zarbi, the heroes’ threat through much of the serial, are actors wearing clunky, if impressively bulky, ant suits, who issue streams of repetitive (guaranteed to drive you nuts) electronic chirps that convey nothing of notable complexity. Not so much as an R2-D2-style humanizing with baleful chirrups and whirrs. Nope, these Zarbi are essentially mute drones. The Menoptera, in fact, say as much, telling us the Zarbi are little more than “cows.” How’s that for a thriller–rampaging, mind-controlled cows threaten the heroes for over two hours. And that’s what The Web Planet essentially is.

The Animus, who is revealed as the “real enemy” as the serial wears on, should be built-up so that the viewer will care. But the Animus is never given the full Sauron-treatment. That amazing scene of Tom Baker and Lalla Ward, inside the rocket-ship in Episode Three of State of Decay and waxing nostalgic over childhood tales from Gallifrey of the Great Vampires, is a wonderful example of how such a disembodied enemy can be built-up simply through compelling dialog. It’s much like the scene early in Fellowship of the Ring where Gandalf finally gives Frodo the full story of Sauron the Deceiver. The original crew members in State of Decay serve as chilling stand-ins and reminders of the omnipresent threat of the Great Vampire itself, just like the numerous smart, and Machiavellian, minions of Sauron. That gradual development of the “lore” of the enemy, and the notion that the minions are either zealous believers in some greater evil, or tragic and unwilling servants, gave me frissons of excitement. But there’s no such buildup here, either properly villifying the Animus, or giving us any buy-in to care about the enslaved Zarbis’ plight.

In fact, our Zarbi lack anything more than mute worker-drone “cow status.” The Animus is given little air time until the final minutes of The Web Planet. The Animus appears briefly merely as a disembodied voice in Web Planet Episode 2; only suddenly, in the final moments of The Web Planet, do we actually see the Animus. Small wonder we don’t care about the Animus, except to be thrilled that its destruction means we can finally leave the godforsaken planet Vortis.

2. Ballet moves in a sci-fi serial, generally, look like trash. I actually liked the bee-like Menoptera. After the nonsense Zarbi, the fact that the Menoptera could talk with the TARDIS crew, and had dreams and goals, was refreshing. Sadly, and tragically, given the amount of time spent developing and rehearsing their ballet-like “unique” movements, they’re mesmerizingly preposterous-looking. Their three-beat, ascending lilting sentences, with accompanying elbow waves and closing paws, are so distracting as to both sound like giant Swedish insects with speech impediments, and drown-out any substantive content in the Menopteras’ lines. The effect is all the more distracting when it’s clear that not all the Menopotera actors care enough to complete the effect: the upstart “invasion force” Menoptera that appears later in the serial does none of the bobbing or vocalizing–he merely waves his elbows and hands. His apparent recalcitrance to engage in the “Menoptera dance” jars us out of any suspension of disbelief (or catatonic state) that the serial managed to eke out of us.

So too their underground cousins the Optera: they sound and look like gruff, gutteral guys hopping around in felt outfits with big eyes and felt tentacles attached to their heads. But they don’t always hop: sometimes the actors decide to walk. And it jars us back to how spotty The Web Planet is. And the subpar triumvirate is complete with the Larvae Guns: they’re often mounted on small carts, rolling smoothly across the landscape–except when they aren’t, and the actors decide to crawl, again breaking the Vaseline-smeared ambiance.

Credit is due, though, to The Web Planet’s semi-thrilling invasion sequences: the scenes of Menoptera gliding through space down to landings on the Vortis surface are fantastic. Suspension wires are nowhere to be seen. And the fight scenes are among the best in the six-part serial. Much time was obviously spent getting these fight and landing scenes right, and it shows.

3. From there to here, from here to there, gaffes on Vortis everywhere. If Hartnell is known for “Hartnell fluffs” or line flubs when the rest of the serials sailed relatively smoothly about him, The Web Planet is famous for how nothing quite seems to work. The actors’ performances are lackluster: one scene where Ian sits on an Vortis bluff, William Russell looks almost detached and impassive while talking with the Menoptera Vrestin about his hopes for retaking its homeworld–a scene that should be filled with trademark William Russell enthusiasm. In that same scene, and all the scenes on the surface of Vortis, Vaseline is smeared on the camera’s lens filter so the scenes look “otherworldly.” Instead, it simply makes the serial look annoyingly smudged and blurry. Multiple times, the plot device of hanging a golden yoke on characters necks–including the necks of the Zarbi–fails simply because the yoke keeps falling off the characters’ necks.

Bill Hartnell sums it up:

Best quote of The Web Planet goes to the Doctor, speaking to the Animus as a creaky plastic shell descends and the disembodied voice booms at him, inviting him to step inside the shell: he dismissively gestures towards the prop, calling it a hairdryer. It sums up the entire creaky Web Planet mess for the viewer.

I, for one, was so irritated by so many of the Web Planet’s failings that I couldn’t wait to get the hell out of the Isop Galaxy.

Convict!

Lime

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Who Verdict on “The Daleks”: Acquittal!

Lime, J, delivers the opinion; Mithradates, J., concurs only in the result: I take issue with my colleague’s apparent willingness to overlook the massive plot holes that rip Titanic-sized logic holes in the serial for me. I also take issue with his implicit conclusion that there is a resolution to these plot holes (“We don’t know how, or whether, these things interrelate, nor their true significance. [But t]he rest of the series is dedicates to tracing the web of clues…”).

However, despite the fact the episode makes absolutely no sense to me, I’m compelled to acquit by my esteemed colleague’s powerful eighth point, that among the “amazing number of plot twists” we find “A new and powerful enemy–the Daleks.”. My colleague has convinced me with this irrefutable logic, and with him, we have both agreed to Acquit! Don’t miss this one!

[Additional comments by Mithradates: I think the plot hangs together a bit better than Lime implies. My understanding of the major plot point is as follows: The Thals believe the Dalek city to be dead and lifeless. And it is, to the casual visitor. The Daleks believe the surface to be lifeless. The Daleks would like to return to the surface, but they reason the radiation levels are too high to survive. So they seize upon the anti-radiation drug as an avenue to restoring their rule over all of Skaro. Unbeknownst to them, however, the radiation is something they need to survive. Now, the hole in this is that the Daleks should know their subterranean city is irradiated. After all, the Doctor finds the geiger counter that informs him that radiation levels are high within the Dalek city itself. I can only surmise that radiation levels are lower underground than at the surface; the Daleks may have reasoned that they could survive the lower levels of radiation underground (if barely -- if they started out looking like the Thals they have suffered greatly), but the higher levels on the surface would be too much. That's reading a lot into the dialogue, granted, but I think much of it is implied, at least on my viewing.]

Who Verdict on “The Daleks”: Full Acquittal!

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