Lost Hartnell Stories: Marco Polo

“If you’re half as aggressive with this [sword] as you are with your tongue, Doctor, we can’t lose!” This rather humorous line is spoken by Marco Polo to the Doctor when their caravan is under attack.  Given that his encounter is with the First Doctor, Marco has been on the receiving end of quite a tongue lashing for several episodes now.  It’s too bad we can’t send the Doctor back in time to deliver the same such scolding to whoever decided it was a good idea to get rid of old Doctor Who episodes from the BBC archives.  All seven episodes of Marco Polo, the fourth episode of the first season, are missing.  What would the Doctor have to say about that?  The Doctor, Barbara, Ian, and Susan’s first encounter with a famous historical figure can only be listened to, although there are, at least, many photos from the set that can provide a pretty good idea of how the story may have looked.

Tegana stands between Marco Polo and the Doctor.

Tegana stands between Marco Polo and the Doctor.

While the plot of “Marco Polo” is a bit sprawling, it can basically be boiled down to a few main threads.  The year is 1289.  The Doctor and his companions end up stranded high in the mountains in Central Asia with a broken TARDIS.  They run the risk of freezing to death until their fortuitous rescue by Marco Polo and his caravan.  Marco has long desired to return to Venice and leave the service of Kublai Khan, but the Khan will not grant him permission to leave.  When he learns of the Doctor’s “flying caravan,”   he decides to give the TARDIS to the Khan, because such a spectacular gift will ensure that the Khan has to grant his request.  Therefore, the travelers are forced to accompany Marco to the Khan’s summer palace, all the while trying to regain control of the TARDIS.

The caravan has two other members of note.  The first is the warlord Tegana.  He is an emissary of the recently defeated Khan Noghai, sent to work out the details of the Noghai’s surrender.  It becomes increasingly clear to the travelers throughout the journey that Tegana’s motives are not, in fact, to negotiate a surrender but to ensure that Noghai will take Kublai Khan’s throne.  The travelers are in a dangerous position, as they are often in the way of Tegana’s schemes, and he will let no one stop him from completing his mission.

The second important member of Marco’s party is the lady Ping-Cho.  She is a sixteen year old girl whose  husband-to-be is a man old enough to be her grandfather (he is in his 70s).  She and Susan become confidantes, and she helps the travelers in their struggles.  She remains the one member of the caravan who never questions the motives of the travelers, perhaps because she understands the feeling of being far away from home and wanting to return.

It was a bit difficult for me to obtain the full reconstruction of this story, so I was initially exposed to it by the 30 minute reconstruction from “The Beginning” DVD set.  I really enjoyed the story in its condensed version.  The story itself is a solid one , featuring a clever way to force the travelers to become involved with Marco Polo and the intrigues of the court of Kublai Khan.  The idea of the TARDIS being central to the plot sets it apart from many other early Doctor Who adventures.  The typical early Hartnell story featured the travelers being separated from the TARDIS, and all of their adventures happened until they could find a way to return.  With this story coming on the heels of the rather unusual “Edge of Destruction,” the show is still experimenting a bit with what exactly a Doctor Who story is, and these two stories feature the TARDIS  more prominently than usual.

The Doctor and Susan share a rare affectionate moment while watching Ping-Cho's (rather unnecessary) performance.

The Doctor and Susan share a rare affectionate moment while watching Ping-Cho’s (rather unnecessary) performance.

After seeing the full reconstruction, however, my admiration for “Marco Polo” was diminished a bit.  I still found the story to be a good one and it entertained, but, at seven episodes, it is at least one episode too long (a common problem of the early Hartnell stories).  It felt repetitive in the middle of the story, when almost every episode consists of a failed attempt to steal the TARDIS back from Marco Polo.  Other than that, I think it’s a pretty solid story. The idea of having both Marco and Tegana vying for the TARDIS keeps the story interesting.  Marco keeps the TARDIS from the Doctor and his companion, but Tegana makes things even more complicated, as he schemes to steal the TARDIS for Noghai.  While it is Marco who keeps the travelers stranded, and ultimately is the main antagonist of the story, Tegana is the central villain of the piece. Marco is unaware of the consequences of his actions on the travelers, while Tegana is ruthless in the service of his quest, which he decides would be aided by gaining possession of the TARDIS.  Ultimately, his attempts to kill Marco and the travelers are only foiled by the travelers’ attempts to escape. When his plans to murder the caravan fail, he resorts to planting seeds of doubt in Marco as to the trustworthiness of the Doctor and his companions, ensuring that they cannot get anywhere near the TARDIS.

What makes the story work is the engaging characters with which the travelers find themselves.  It is vital that the viewer become involved with the characters because, while the travelers are still very much a part of the story, it is not really their story. Their struggle to regain control of the TARDIS is a major issue in the story, but it is, perhaps, the least interesting aspect of it.  The intrigues of Tegana, Marco Polo’s desire to return home (which is blinding him to everything else), and even the fate of Ping-Cho dominate the plot.  The travelers are a bit on the sidelines of the action, witnessing as events play out around them.  The TARDIS is central to two of the storylines (Marco thinks it is the key to his return to Venice and Tegana thinks it will ensure Noghai’s victory over Kublai Khan) ensuring that there are two people who will do anything to keep the travelers from the TARDIS.  This keeps the travelers involved in the events, but, as was true of some of the early Hartnell historicals, they are mostly on the sidelines, watching the course of history unfold.  The main contribution of the travelers to the main storyline is the information they inadvertently gather (through their own sneaking around) about Tegana’s plan to overthrow and assassinate the Khan, but ultimately it is Marco who acts on the information and saves the Khan’s life.

As far as the character development of the regulars, it is early in the show’s run, so the Doctor has very little interest in the affairs of others.  His attempt to win the caravan from Kublai Khan fails, although he is able to save the group in the desert by gathering the condensation from inside the TARDIS (but it’s a happy accident that he discovers it).  He is definitely not the hero of the story, and neither is Ian, the usual hero at this point.  Ian does his share of fighting, but he does not save the life of Kublai Khan, nor does he ever get the travelers back to the TARDIS.  Barbara is not yet the strong, independent woman that she is in her later stories.  She still very much looks to Ian for guidance, although we start to see glimmers of her development in moments like when she decides to follow Tegana to the Cave of 500 Eyes.  Barbara and Ian are also in full teacher mode, with Barbara full of facts about the time period and Ian giving lessons about how the altitude affects boiling points and how condensation forms.  Susan has a bit more to do in this story than in some others, due to  her friendship with Ping-Cho, but she doesn’t really contribute much to the plot and is actually responsible for ruining one of their attempted escapes.

Isn't it a shame that with costumes as vibrant as these, the serial was being filmed in black and white?

Isn’t it a shame that with costumes as vibrant as these, the serial was filmed in black and white?

Even though the execution of the story is not quite as strong as the story itself, “Marco Polo” is still worthwhile viewing.  It introduces a richly developed world, full of interesting characters.  Judging by the production photos, this story was quite a lavish production.  For a Doctor Who episode of this era, they appear to have gone all out with many elaborate sets and colorful costumes. In fact, it seems a shame that Doctor Who was filmed in black and white, because the viewer would never know how colorful everything was.  Perhaps the strangest part of the story of “Marco Polo” is that this serial was sold to more countries than any other, yet no copies remain of it.  It would be nice to see at least one episode of this story returned to the BBC archives, however unlikely that is at this point.  It appears that it was a very cinematic serial and it would be interesting to see if the finished product lives up to the promise of the stills.  Has everybody checked their attics and basements?

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Thoughts on The Name of the Doctor

As a general rule, the finales of Doctor Who have never been among my favorite episodes of the season. I loved “The Pandorica Opens”/”The Big Bang,” but other than that, if I’m going to choose a random episode to watch it’s not going to be a finale.  I feel like the finales often end up overstuffed with ideas and so action oriented that the characters get a bit lost (and I’m not always sure that all of the ideas add up in the end).  Plus, there is just about always a big reset button to get out of whatever trouble the universe is currently in, making it as if none of the events ever happened, which gets a bit formulaic.  Especially with this being the lead in to the fiftieth anniversary special, I was a bit apprehensive about “The Name of the Doctor,” but thankfully I was wrong to worry.  While “The Name of the Doctor” was not probably not my favorite episode of the season, it was a strong ending that has left me eagerly awaiting the anniversary special. Needless to say there are going to be plenty of spoilers in this post.

Clara realizes that she must become the "Impossible Girl"

Clara realizes that she must become the “Impossible Girl”

The story begins with Clara helping (or attempting to help) all of the Doctor’s earlier incarnations before it switches to Victorian London and Madam Vastra meeting with a condemned man (who has murdered 14 women) hoping to save his life with information.  He apparently can hear the whispermen, and has learned about Trenzalore and the discovery of the Doctor’s biggest secret.  He states, “the Doctor has a secret he will take to the grave.  It is discovered.”  This causes Vastra to have a very clever “conference call” with Jenny, Strax (who is enjoying a weekend off, fighting in Scotland), Clara, and River.  Each member joins the conference call by entering a trance-like (or, in Strax’s case, an unconscious) state because time travel has always been possible in dreams.  The call is abruptly ended, however, when the Victorian group comes under attack of the whispermen; Jenny is murdered (but Strax does manage to bring her back to life) and Vastra and Strax are kidnapped.

The whispermen are the new henchmen of the Great Intelligence, who still has no form, but takes on the appearance of Doctor Simeon. He has kidnapped the Victorian trio to force the Doctor to travel to Trenzalore to save them.  The Doctor realizes what awaits him in Trenzalore and why it is the one place he must never go: it is the site of his grave.  Unfortunately he must go to save his friends, so he and Clara (and a projection of River who is still linked with Clara’s mind because of the conference call) set off for Trenzalore.  To make a long story short, the Great Intelligence wants access to the Doctor’s timeline, which is all that remains of him inside the tomb.  The tomb can only be opened by saying the Doctor’s name, which we thankfully don’t hear because River says it off-screen.  Once inside, the Great Intelligence enters the Doctor’s timeline, destroying himself, but also killing the Doctor everywhere in his timeline at once.  Clara realizes the only way to save the Doctor is for her to enter his timeline as well, which will result in her being fragmented amongst it so that she can help him.  The episode ends with the Doctor entering his timestream to save Clara and the two of them encountering a mysterious unknown version of the Doctor.

This episode delivered in both being a satisfying way to wrap up the Clara mystery and a fitting tribute to the history of the show.  I loved the way that Clara was inserted into clips with past Doctors.  And I especially loved her interaction with the first Doctor, telling him which TARDIS to steal.  It was a great way to show all of the different people who had played the Doctor without having to deal with the fact that they are quite a bit older (although I still do love seeing the Doctor interact with himself).  There were also a few other references to the past, such as the Great Intelligence’s mention of the other names for the Doctor, including the Valeyard.

This episode also delivered a satisfying and unexpected explanation of the truth about Clara.  She really was just an ordinary girl who became the “impossible girl” when she entered the Doctor’s timestream. All the different versions of her came from that moment, and each new version was born and grew up somewhere different, but would end up helping the Doctor in some way, with no knowledge of the others.  That also explains how the Claras could share some characteristics without actually being the same person, since they were all copies of the same person, but growing up under different circumstances made them all turn out slightly different.

The Doctor and his friends gather around the Doctor's "corpse"-the scar left from his travels through time.

The Doctor and his friends gather around the Doctor’s “corpse”-the scar left from his travels through time.

I also liked the pacing of this story more than the previous year’s finale, “The Wedding of River Song.” While that episode has some interesting ideas it was so fast paced that everything just kind of flew by.  This one was fast paced, but it allowed certain moments to have some space and be developed a bit.  For instance, time was allotted to the conference call, allowing for some humor in what is basically a fairly serious episode, but also it allowed the presence of the whispermen to be gradually felt, and allowed a sense of menace to build throughout the scene.  Jenny’s gradual realization of what is going on was an eerie and slightly disturbing moment, which wouldn’t have had the same impact if everything in the episode moved at the same breakneck pace as the previous year’s finale.

The pace also slowed down at other emotional moments, allowing for some great character moments and performances.  Matt Smith gave an excellent performance in this, as did Alex Kingston and Jenna-Louis Coleman.  The moment that really stands out for me was when the Doctor realized just what was waiting for him at Trenzalore and began to cry.  A display of emotion like that from the Doctor is very unusual and I thought that Matt Smith played it well.  To see the Doctor break down added to the sense of doom about going to Trenzalore, but Matt Smith kept it very subtle, as if he just couldn’t quite keep all of his anguish inside.  I’ve always thought that Matt Smith is better than any other Doctor at showing the darkness the Doctor carries with him, reminding us just how old he really is, despite his youthful appearance.

I’ve also never been the biggest fan of River.  I don’t dislike her, mind you, but I’ve never loved her character.  I’m also not a “shipper.”  I actually prefer my Doctor to be a bit more asexual than the recent incarnations of the Doctor have been, which is perhaps why I’ve never been a huge River fan.  That being said, however, I thought she was excellent in this story.  The idea that this was the digital River from the library was a nice parallel with the fact that they were also visiting the Doctor’s “corpse.”  Her goodbye with the Doctor was very touching and was a fitting farewell to the character.

There’s a great deal more to discuss, but I think I’ll save that for another time.  I enjoyed the finale.  I’m not sure all of the timey-wimey stuff actually works, but I’m really not in a mood to nitpick it.  The only part of the story that didn’t completely work for me was the part with the whispermen and the Great Intelligence. I felt that their part of the story was not particularly fleshed out.  I thought Richard E. Grant did a great job, and I was glad to see his role expanded, since he wasn’t given much to do when he first appeared in “The Snowmen.”   The whispermen were creepy and I liked the look of them, but I was left wishing a bit more had been explained.  Where did they come from? Did the Great Intelligence create them (they are a bit more practical that the Yeti)?  What exactly are the Great Intelligence’s powers? Also, how did the convict know about Trenzalore and know who to contact about it?  Still, none of this really diminished my enjoyment of the story as a whole.

The tomb of the Doctor

The tomb of the Doctor

Overall, I really enjoyed this episode.  If this had been the fiftieth, I wouldn’t have been disappointed.  It managed to play tribute to the history of the show, while still introducing new developments and twists.  The episode covered a range of emotions and tones without missing a beat.  While some of that credit goes to Steven Moffat, I have to say that the director, Saul Metzstein, did a great job of navigating the tonal shifts in the script (and was largely responsible for the better pacing too, I would assume).  It was moving, funny, scary…all while being engaging and entertaining as well.  It was quite a ride and a great lead in to the anniversary special.  I also loved the way that the Moffat played with the meaning of the title.  It was a relief that the Doctor’s biggest secret was not, in fact, his actual name, although it was the password protecting his secret. The real, important name is the one he chose, which is a promise, and his secret is a version who did not live up to the name.  Of course, this led to the cliffhanger ending in which John Hurt is revealed as this incarnation of the Doctor, the one who didn’t keep the promise of the name.  Who is he?  My suspicions are that he had something to do with the Time War, but that’s probably too obvious.  I guess we’ll have to wait until November to find out.

Thoughts on “Nightmare in Silver”

The last time Neil Gaiman wrote an episode of Doctor Who it was widely considered the best episode of the season; his second episode, therefore, was greatly anticipated.  Unlike “The Doctor’s Wife,” his memorable first outing, “Nightmare in Silver” was a bit of a disappointment.  That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy it, but it is a flawed episode, mainly, I think, due to time constraints.  It was a good episode, it just fell a bit short of the bar that Gaiman himself had set with his first episode.

The battle in the Doctor's head

The battle in the Doctor’s head

If I try to explain all that was going on in this story, it could take all night, so I’ll just run through the basics.  The Doctor brings Clara and her charges, Angie and Artie, to Hedgewick’s World of Wonders, the universe’s best amusement park.  Unfortunately, the park is in disrepair having been closed for some time.  The only inhabitants are a military (punishment) platoon, Impresario Webley and his assistant, Porridge.

The Doctor becomes intrigued by strange insects, so he (and, therefore, his companions) stay to investigate.  He and Clara soon learn about the society in which they find themselves, the main points being that the emperor is currently missing and there was a massive battle between the people and the Cybermen 1,000 years before.  The war ended because they destroyed an entire galaxy to eliminate all the remaining Cybermen.  Of course, it soon becomes apparent that the Cybermen are not extinct and the tiny insect looking things, called Cybermites, begin to take over the minds of Webley and the children.

The bulk of the episode has Clara leading the platoon (and Porridge) against an advancing army of Cybermen and the Doctor battling the Cyber-Planner (who is inside the Doctor’s head) in a high stakes game of chess: the winner gets the Doctor’s mind.

One of the strengths of this story is its characters.  Just about every character you meet has at least a bit of personality to them (even the platoon members, although they are the least developed characters).  Neil Gaiman has a knack for creating interesting, eccentric characters and this episode is no exception.  He even made Clara an interesting character in this story, when I traditionally have had a more neutral attitude towards her.  I really enjoyed the character of Webley, the showman who was willing to settle for a sandwich as payment, and I was disappointed that he was the first converted by the Cybermites (yet, I did enjoy Jason Watkins’ portrayal of the Cyber-Planner, but that also was over too soon).  The most interesting character in this story, however, was Porridge/the Emperor.  Warwick Davis did a great job with the character, portraying a man on the run from his responsibilities, yet he was not an irresponsible man.  He and the Captain of the platoon have some great moments that help develop how each of them ended up on this particular desolate planet (without completely giving away Porridge’s identity).

Warrick Davis as Porridge

Warwick Davis as Porridge

A deserted amusement park is a great setting for a story.  The idea of conducting a battle for survival with only old rides for cover is a great idea, I just wish more use would have been made of it.  We only really see the Spacey Zoomer and Natty Longshoe’s Comical Castle (I know they don’t have the budget for more), and I was disappointed by the Comical Castle.  The platoon captain emphasized the comical part to Clara when she chose it as their defensible location, but nothing really comical was ever seen; it seemed like a regular castle. I wonder if their was more to the castle that got cut because of budgetary reasons or time constraints.

One of Neil Gaiman’s goals with this episode was to make the Cybermen scary again, and I thought he achieved his goal.  One of the big complaints about Cybermen was that they are quite slow and clunky when they move which is no longer the case with the upgraded Cybermen in this story.  They also are a far scarier enemy with their ability to instantly upgrade to correct weaknesses.  While some of this was a bit hard to believe (I can see them fixing programming errors, but they also seemed to be able to fix physical weaknesses), it made them an undefeatable enemy.  How can you defeat an enemy who can very quickly correct any weaknesses you can find?  I was also a bit disappointed, however, that these Cybermen are even less human than any of the others we’ve seen.  Part of what makes the Cybermen so disturbing is the idea that they used to be just like us, that somewhere in that metal casing is what’s left of a human being. These Cybermen might as well have been completely robotic; with their ability to detach parts of their bodies, what’s left of the human element anymore?

As a huge fan of the Troughton era Cyberman stories, I loved the references the Gaiman scattered throughout this story.   He brought back the Cyber-Planner first used in “The Wheel in Space” and “The Invasion.”  The Cybermen are seen coming out of the tombs first referenced in “Tomb of the Cybermen.” I also think there were also several references to “The Moonbase.” The travelers appear to have landed on the moon when the episode opens and Artie even thinks they are on some kind of “moonbase.”  There is also a reference to the weather controls malfunctioning, which was the purpose of the aforementioned moonbase in the Troughton story.  Finally, the Doctor referenced the Cybermen’s susceptibility to cleaning fluids, which was discovered by Polly and used by Ben, Polly, and Jamie to stop the Cybermen.  Gaiman even references the Cybermen’s weakness to gold, mentioned in the Tom Baker story “Revenge of the Cybermen.”

“Nightmare in Silver” had a great, complex plot, but a lot of things were left unexplained or unclear.  I have a feeling this was due to the editing of the script.  Even Neil Gaiman has mentioned things that were cut for time, like a scene explaining why the children don’t sleep in the TARDIS.   I think an example of this can also be found when the Doctor is first confronting the Cyber-Planner.  He mentions the people who disappeared from the park like it has been mentioned before, but this is the first time the viewers have learned this information.  It seems like their must have been an earlier scene in which the Doctor learned why the park closed, but when it was cut, the Doctor’s line wasn’t changed.  Maybe I’m just biased because I’m a huge Neil Gaiman fan, but I don’t think the gaps are from poor writing, just some sloppy editing to fit the episode into its allotted time.

The newer, scarier Cyberman, a Mondasian/alternate universe combination

The newer, scarier Cyberman, a Mondasian/alternate universe combination

Other than that, I only had a few problems with the story.  I thought the children were a big weakness in the story.  I didn’t particularly care about them (especially not Angie, who just seemed like an obnoxious brat) and they spend most of the story in a walking coma.  Why did they need to be there at all?  Another tiny complaint, but this one was not a big deal for me, was that I would have liked to have seen Matt Smith differentiate a bit more between the Doctor and the Cyber-Planner.  He did the shoulder jerk, and the Cyber-Planner was a bit darker, but he still acted and spoke a lot like the Doctor.  I know he was in the Doctor’s body, but I thought there could have been a bit more of a distinction.

Overall, I enjoyed the episode, but I think it would’ve benefited from being a two parter.  I think that would have eliminated the unexplained events and allowed for more character development.  A two parter would have allowed for the characters to develop at a bit more of a leisurely pace and the back story of the Cyber War and the amusement park could have been explained more fully.  As I mentioned before, I feel like pieces of information that would have been nice to have were cut for time.  Maybe next time, if there is a next time, Moffat will let Gaiman write a two parter.  Maybe, as he’s stated he’d like to, when he creates his own monster?

Thoughts on The Crimson Horror

“Would it be impolite to ask why you and Mr. Sweet are petrifying your workforce with diluted prehistoric leech venom?” the Doctor asks Mrs. Gillyflower.  I’m not sure this question is ever fully answered in “The Crimson Horror,” but, to be perfectly honest, I don’t really care.  “The Crimson Horror” is basically a fun romp.  It’s not meant to be taken too seriously, and, as entertainment, I think it succeeds.  It is a sort of “Doctor-lite” episode, meaning that Madam Vastra, Jenny, and Strax are the main characters for most of this episode, which takes the viewers to 1893 Yorkshire to face an outbreak of the crimson horror.

Mrs. Gillyflower (Diana Rigg) with the Doctor and Clara

Mrs. Gillyflower (Diana Rigg) with the Doctor and Clara

A man comes to Madam Vastra after his brother dies of the crimson horror, which renders its victims rather statue-like and red.  When enlisting her help, the man shows her a photo he took of his dead brother’s eye, showing the image of the last thing he saw before he died. The image is recognizable both to Madam Vastra and the audience:it’s the Doctor! Madam Vastra, Jenny, and Strax all head off to Sweetville, which seems to be the source of the crimson horror. Sweetville is a community created by Mrs. Gillyflower (a chemist and engineer, who has become obsessed with the coming apocalypse).  It only accepts the most ideal candidates (and, obviously, a Silurian or a Sontaran aren’t going to be accepted) so, Jenny is sent undercover to find the Doctor and discover the secrets of Sweetville.  Once there, she finds the Doctor, in chains and apparently suffering from the crimson horror himself.

It turns out that the Doctor was saved by Ada, Mrs. Gillyflower’s blind daughter, who thought of him as “her monster.”   The victims of the crimson horror are people who don’t survive Mrs. Gillyflower’s attempts to preserve them by dipping them into prehistoric leech venom.  The process didn’t work on the Doctor and rather than dumping him in the river with the other “rejects” (who usually wind up dead), Ada realized he was still alive and decided to keep him as her secret.  This leech venom comes from Mr. Sweet, Mrs. Gillyflower’s “silent partner,” who is not human after all, but a poisonous leech that has survived from prehistoric times. Mrs. Gillyflower plans on using a rocket (yes, a rocket, and don’t bother trying to figure this part of the plan out) to unleash his venom on all of humanity and only the perfect individuals she has chosen will be protected from his deadly venom.  These individuals will then be able to start anew after the rest of humanity is dead. Thanks to the help of Jenny, the Doctor is revived in time to help uncover and stop Mrs. Gillyflower’s plan, with a little help from his friends, of course.

As over the top as it could be at times, I enjoyed this episode.  It was a tongue-in-cheek attempt to capture the feel of a penny dreadful on-screen.  There are the sensational deaths from the “crimson horror,” the creepy coroner who coins the name, a rather melodramatic relationship between Mrs. Gillyflower and her daughter, the mysterious community which people enter, but never leave…It’s an episode meant to entertain, but not to be taken too seriously.  Of course, being set in Victorian times, it also featured the welcome return of Madam Vastra, Jenny, and Strax.  The trio have been entertaining in their previous appearances, and this story was no exception. This story allowed Catrin Stewart to be center stage a bit more, as she is the one who is sent into Sweetville undercover (and she reveals some Mrs. Peel-like moves and a black leather catsuit in a nod to Diana Rigg who plays Mrs. Gillyflower).

Speaking of Diana Rigg, a large part of the success of this episode is due to the performances by her and her real life daughter, Rachel Stirling (the first time they’ve ever acted together).  Diana Rigg, in playing the villain, Mrs. Gillyflower, is able to make her somewhat believable despite the fact that she is clearly insane, with an evil plot to rival any James Bond villain.  However, “Mr. Sweet” is more than just a part of her plan.  Diana Rigg pulls off the difficult feat of convincing the audience that she could love and admire a leech.  She is so attached to him (no pun intended) that she lets him feed off of her, bringing him with her wherever she goes. She even blinded and scarred her own daughter in her attempts to make herself immune to his poison.  The nature of the story is to be over the top, and she plays these scenes with relish, but she still manages to ground the character just enough to keep her from being completely ridiculous.  Diana Rigg is also able to give Mrs. Gillyflower a rather wicked sense of humor; in my opinion, she got the best lines of the episode. Rachel Stirling, however, plays Mrs. Gillyflower’s abused and blinded daughter, a character no less melodramatic in nature, but much more sympathetic.  I wished that there had been more of Ada in the story, because Rachel Stirling gives a fantastic performance.  She is able, with relatively little screen time, to make the audience care about her character; you can actually feel her loneliness and despair.  Since this story is largely comedic, she provides the emotional heart of the story.

Ada mourns the loss of her "monster"

Ada mourns the loss of her “monster”

This story has a great sense of humor.  There are many funny moments throughout the story.  For example, while I will admit to growing a bit weary of humor deriving from Strax’s obsession with weapons, he does have a rather funny exchange with a horse.  The exchange closes with Strax being given directions, using the language of a GPS, by a boy named Thomas Thomas (a rather random joke that I’m still not sure what I thought of).  Still, it was a nice change of pace to have an overtly humorous episode after some of the more serious episodes we’ve seen so far this season.  There’s also a nice reference to the fifth Doctor’s era when the Doctor mentions trying to get an Australian back to Heathrow airport.  This, of course, refers to Tegan and the Doctor’s inability to get her back to the right time and place after she started traveling with him. He also says “brave heart, Clara,” which was something he always said to Tegan (“brave heart, Tegan,” not Clara, but you know what I mean).

Furthermore, I felt that Saul Metzstein did a great job directing this story.  I enjoyed the atmosphere of the story and I particularly liked the flashback to the Doctor’s part of the story.  The sepia toned, kinetoscope quality was a nice touch to both embrace the period and set the flashback apart from the rest of the story.  It added an air of whimsy that really suits Matt Smith’s Doctor.

Of course, the story is not perfect.  I wasn’t completely sold on the Frankenstien-ish Matt Smith (while he’s infected with the “crimson horror”), but that fit with the overall campy tone of the story.  I’m also willing to overlook the fact that there is a lot that it not quite explained. How long had Mrs. Gillyflower been crazy? Was it before she found Mr. Sweet or did his poison affect her mind? What happened to the preserved people and the people Mrs. Gillyflower had working for her after she died? Were the people working for her under some kind of control or did they know what they were doing? To explain all these things probably would have taken away from the tone, so I’m willing to accept a bit of ambiguity from this kind of story.

Jenny prepares to fend off the "attack of the supermodels"

Jenny prepares to fend off the “attack of the supermodels”

Overall, I enjoyed the story, but I did not like the ending.  It was a story filled with over the top plot points and characters, but the tone of the story suited them.  When Clara returns from her trip with the Doctor, however, the tone shifts back to a more realistic one.  At this point, Clara is back in the everyday, modern world and I couldn’t suspend my disbelief enough to accept that a) there was a time for any of those photos to have been taken and b) that the children she takes care of would have been able to find them.  I can see from the preview for next week that they will be accompanying her and the Doctor and this was the way to make that possible, but there must have been a better way.  When was their time to take a picture on the submarine?  At what point did everybody stop worrying about the fact that they were stranded way below the surface with an angry Ice Warrior bent on starting a nuclear holocaust and decide to snap a group picture?  Did Skaldak take it?  Of course this also allowed Clara to see a picture of the Victorian Clara, which might have some consequences down the line.  However, for the time being, I felt like this was a lazy way to end the story.

Although I enjoyed the story, it still did nothing to advance the Clara arc.  It was interesting to see Madam Vastra and Jenny’s reaction to Clara, since they knew the Victorian Clara, but they weren’t given much to say on the matter.  They are unable to offer any insight into the existence of this Clara because the Doctor never even bothers to try to explain what is happening and where he met this Clara.  You’d think he’d be curious to see if the Great Detective could figure anything out, since he was apparently trying to go back to Victorian England in 1893 (and perhaps see if he could learn anything from having two Claras in the same time period?).  This is something that I have found a bit frustrating with the story arc for this half season; the mystery about Clara never develops.  We are at exactly the same point that we were in “The Bells of St. John,” at least when it comes to understanding the mystery surrounding Clara.  With only one episode left before the finale, I wish we had picked up a few more clues about Clara’s identity.  At this point all I can say is that I really hope this prolonged mystery has a great payoff.

The Tenth Planet: The End of an Era

I’ve always wondered how audiences reacted to the ending of “The Tenth Planet.”  The idea of regeneration seems perfectly normal now, but it must have come as a bit of a shock to the viewers back in 1966.  What really strikes me is the boldness of the decision.  Not only did they decide to make the main character of the program become a different person, this new person had very little in common, either physically or personality-wise, with who he used to be.  Thinking about it now, I’m not sure you could have made a much more drastic change than to turn the elderly, crabby, dignified William Hartnell into the younger, easy-going, comedic Patrick Troughton. While viewers would have to wait until the next story to really meet the new Doctor, in the fourth (and final) episode of “The Tenth Planet” Polly and Ben witness the first regeneration in Doctor Who history.

Polly confronting a Cyberman with the Doctor looking on.

Polly confronting a Cyberman with the Doctor looking on.

The Doctor, Polly, and Ben have materialized in the year 1986 at an international space tracking station in Antarctica.  Their arrival causes great suspicion, but everyone’s attention is soon diverted by a space probe (and pilots) that are mysteriously being drained of energy and a new planet that appears in the sky near earth.  Everyone is surprised, except the Doctor, who seems to have anticipated this event.

We soon learn that this planet is Mondas, which was Earth’s twin planet until it drifted off to the far reaches of space.  Earth soon gets a visit from the inhabitants of Mondas: the Cybermen.  The Cybermen are people who, as their bodies grew weaker, had their scientists create replacement (i.e. mechanical) parts for them.  Soon, they became almost totally mechanical, even removing emotions, which they consider to be a weakness. They have returned because they are in need of energy; they are planning to drain the energy from Earth and convert the remaining humans to Cybermen. It’s up to the Doctor and his companions to foil the Cybermen’s plans.

I quite enjoyed the story; it was clever and it kept me engaged.  The behavior of the Cybermen was perhaps a bit inconsistent, but not enough to really detract from the story.  By inconsistent, I mean that they seemed, quite randomly, to decide to spare people’s lives and maybe render them temporarily unconscious, while most of the time they just killed people.  I do, however, get that these were people who disobeyed the Cybermen but had to survive that particular encounter because they were needed, plot-wise, later.

Really, the only episode that dragged a bit for me was the third episode, which was the episode in which the Doctor collapses and spends the entire episode resting and the story suffers a bit for his lack of involvement.  Bizarrely, Polly and Ben seemed to have a complete lack of concern for the Doctor when he collapsed.  I had a problem with the fact that the Doctor collapses (and was completely incapacitated), but they don’t seem terribly worried.  Instead, they leave him to recover while they go back to the control room.  I know they still had the problem of the Cybermen to deal with, but since they needed the Doctor to return to their own time, I would think they would be at least a little worried.

While I’m on the topic of Polly and Ben, I will say that they have a bit more to do in this story than in some of their  other stories.  I still feel that they don’t have clearly defined personalities, but they start to become a bit more interesting in this story.  In particular, Ben is crucial to the action and contributes quite a bit to the plot. I will say that he always seems quick to get into a physical confrontation with his adversaries, but he wasn’t particularly successful in the previous story, “The Smugglers.” This time, he figures out how to disarm a Cyberman (by shining the light of a film projector at him) which allows him to help the base overthrow the first round of cyber invaders.  Later on, he is the one who figures out that the Cybermen can’t stand radiation and comes up with a way to temporarily slow the Cybermen’s plans down (until Mondas takes on too much energy, as the Doctor predicted, and destroys all the cybermen). Polly even stands up to a Cyberman, early in the story, but reverts to being pretty useless again soon after.  Her one contribution seems to be that she makes coffee for everyone (which is, apparently, her way of dealing with Cybermen because she makes coffee again in “The Moonbase”). Of course, the Cybermen choose Polly to be their hostage towards the end of the story (she does seem to make an excellent hostage), so by the end of the story all she basically does is scream and get hysterical.

The Cybermen approach

The Cybermen approach

What makes this story particularly interesting is being able to see the origins of the Cybermen.  They are an interesting villain in their first appearance, even though their costumes aren’t quite as good as they are in later stories.  Basically, their outfits look far more fabric-ish than metallic, and they look like they’re wearing a flashlight on their heads (but I wasn’t bothered by the Monoids in “The Ark,” so maybe I have an unusual fondness for bizarre aliens on a low budget).  I liked the fact that the  Cyberman who was speaking simply opened his mouth; it made it easier to identify which Cyberman was which.  Compared to “The Moonbase” and “The Tomb of the Cybermen” I also felt that it was much easier to understand what these Cybermen were saying. Overall, the combination of the costume and the voice of these Cybermen made them come across as a bit more human.  This first appearance really shows that there is a human at the heart of the Cyberman, unlike that later versions which seem far more robotic to me.

Even though this story is the first appearance of the Cybermen, it is most famous for the Doctor’s regeneration at the end of the fourth episode.   It is a very simple scene, yet it is extremely effective.  The first regeneration is quite gentle compared to the more violent regenerations we see on new Who; essentially, Hartnell’s face dissolves into a kind of white light and comes back into focus as Troughton’s face.  It’s interesting that Hartnell’s Doctor does not explain to his companions what will happen, since he is barely strong enough to open the TARDIS doors for them.  This is also the only time that a violent event does not lead to a regeneration. The idea in this story is that the First Doctor’s body simply wears out and he needs a new one.

“The Tenth Planet” is not the best Cyberman story (I’d probably go with “The Tomb of the Cybermen” for that), but it is enjoyable, as I have found all of Kit Pedler’s Cyberman stories to be.  The Cybermen explore the development of man’s interest in cybernetics and “spare part” surgeries in the 1960’s, and nowhere is this more apparent than in their  first appearance.  Pedler created the Cybermen because he wondered what would happen if mankind became too reliant on artificial parts, blurring the line between man and machine. The idea that they are an alternate version of man makes them a bit more complex than some of the other early aliens.  To be perfectly honest, I prefer the early Cybermen stories to the Dalek stories.  Maybe I just prefer the writing of Kit Pedler to Terry Nation, but I was not a huge fan of the early Dalek stories.  I liked “The Daleks,” even though I thought it could have been at least an entire episode shorter, but the other stories didn’t really engage me.  For instance, I can appreciate “The Dalek Invasion of Earth” as an important story, but it wasn’t one of the stories that I enjoyed the most.

The Doctor collapses as he is about to regenerate

The Doctor collapses as he is about to regenerate

Overall, I found “Then Tenth Planet” to be a worthy story for Hartnell’s final story as the Doctor.  It’s not his best story, since he was obviously severely limited in what he could physically do at this point, but it’s not a bad story for him to leave on. Of course this was not William Hartnell’s final appearance as the Doctor, as he had a memorable return in “The Three Doctors,” but I have to admit that I found his regeneration scene a bit more emotional than I expected.  I was actually very sad to see him go.  I wouldn’t have guessed it when I started watching Doctor Who, but I guess I’ve become rather fond of the cantankerous old man after all.