Companions: Sarah Jane
Writtten by: Terry Nation
Directed by: Barry Letts
Background & Significance: In the middle of Tom Baker's second season, you'd almost think that Hinchcliffe/Holmes were trying a little too hard to move away from the stories that came before them. As if it wasn't enough that they had clearly moved away from them and into new territory ("Ark in Space", "Genesis of the Daleks", "Revenge of the Cybermen"), it's strange that they would go to such lengths to attempt to reinforce the notion that the UNIT years were over and they weren't coming back again.
If I have one problem to fault them on, it's that. Isn't it enough that you've gone and made UNIT almost redundant in "Terror of the Zygons"? Do you really have to go and needlessly include them here or in "Seeds of Doom", where basically they're the LAPD to The Doctor's John McClaine? You'd think they'd have more confidence in themselves or whatever to not have to resort to kicking an old era to seem better than they actually are. By insisting on returning to Earth (not just Earth, though. UNIT era Earth) instead of forging ahead and making the stories that matter to them (Season 14, anyone?) the Hinchcliffe/Holmes team really are doing a strange thing by not doing stories that play to their strengths. I mean, doesn't it make sense for them to do that?
What we're left with is a bit of an uneven jumble. For one thing, it's totally strange to see Terry Nation write for Doctor Who not utilizing The Daleks as this is the second of only two stories he ever wrote to not feature his beloved creations (meaning that eight of the ten stories Terry Nation wrote for Doctor Who WERE Daleks stories), especially when Nation isn't able to fall back on any of the usual tricks he does with his Daleks. It's also strange to see Barry Letts behind the camera, especially when he was so instrumental in defining the basic everything of the UNIT era and this is so decidedly... not.
More than anything it really cements the notion of how radically new and awesome the Hinchcliffe/Holmes era ended up being. Utilizing new writers/directors/talents was the name of the game during their time, writers who wouldn't ever appear again (I'm looking at you Chris Boucher and Robert Blanks Stewart) and directors who saw their epic last swansong on the show (Rodney Bennett, David Maloney, and Douglas Camfield). But to see such old veterans slash crusty old dudes mixed in amongst this brand new, glossy, shiny, badass interpretation, the story really goes out of its way to make it clear that these two have no business in this new world order.
Which is rather sad, but understandable. I guess we should talk about that.
So let's get to it!
I seem to say it every time we review a Terry Nation episode, but I’ll say it again: I really love the way Terry Nation starts stories.
Now the wheels usually come off the wagon somewhere in the middle of part five. I dunno if it’s that Nation just loses his interest in the source material or that big epic push you always get when you start a new project drops away once the first part is done and in the drawer. Regardless, there’s a certain sense of energy, pace, and mystery to just about every single inaugural episode to a Terry Nation story and this is no different. Not only that, but I really feel like Barry Letts is pouring a lot into this episode. There’s tons of stylistic choices that Letts makes that really enhance all of the moments and beats to what’s happening.
I mean, take the sequence in which the what-we’ll-soon-find-out-are-androids people enter the village and take their positions. That’s just… well-constructed stuff.
Part of what makes the first part of his stories so compelling is Nation being compelled to rely on his characters to explore the mystery he’s laying out ahead of them. Because he doesn’t want to give away the bad guys too early (Daleks in every other story), Nation is forced to sideline his focus on the other players of the story (specifically the bad guys) and he’s not allowed to throw out all his big fatty sci-fi ideas because, again, it’s too early. So what we’re left with is probably harder for Nation, but much more narratively satisfying.
I am talking, of course, about our Doctor and his companion, in this case Tom Baker and Sarah Jane.
Baker and Sladen are really good in this, kids. Really good. And granted, grain of salt and everything, but I’m a massive massive Sarah Jane fan and slowly growing into a more loyal Tom Baker guy (although I’ll never be able to look over his many faults), but god damn do these two just work together. They have such a playful but also completely believable relationship. It’s trust and respect and companionship (ha) and all that good stuff in a relationship that makes for great on screen. But really? It’s just fun to watch.
Not only that, but because the Hinchcliffe/Holmes era helped to reboot The Doctor as an interstellar wandering character, unchained from an exile to Earth or whatever, it’s rather unique to see The Doctor traveling around with only one companion. It’s very proto-now. Before this The Doctor always had multiple people, be they adopted, real companions, or UNIT. And that… that’s not the same as the show as it is now. Think about it, Hartnell and Troughton (minus the odd story) always had at least two companions in the TARDIS, and then Pertwee’s era had the major companion of Jo and/or Sarah Jane, but that was still under The Doctor’s staying on Earth because he was confined there or whatever. But the Tom Baker years are so specifically The Doctor and his plus one, which is really the first time that happened on a consistent basis in the show. So there’s something fundamentally classic and yet intimate about the 4th Doctor/Sarah Jane, I think. They’re both such strong characters who play off each other oh so so well.
And I love that about this, because that relationship and the focus on it makes this easily the best episode of this mediocre-at-best story.
But it really comes down to the performances, The Doctor going around rustling up problems and trying to discover why there’s weird guys in white suits who have Auton hands and also why there’s freshly minted money and an empty town and the return of the guy who jumped off a cliff (what is it about Terry Nation stories and a grizzly death in the first episode?). It’s good, strong investigation that introduces a whole mess load of mysteries that we’re going to be investigating over the course of the next three episodes. So while I’m not the hugest fan of Terry Nation, I have to give him props for always giving me a first episode I enjoy.
I’m also kinda in love with the aesthetic here. There’s something chilling and total Hinchcliffe/Holmes about the mystery of The Doctor and his companion entering into a wholly functional yet deserted village in the middle of nowhere, where the people have to be shipped in and don’t start living and ’playing town’ until the chimes of a clock. It’s stuff like that which sounds simple but you don’t see enough. It really dials into the sort of Doctor Who story I’m particularly interested in watching. Unfortunately, it all gets a little Terry Nation after this part, but the venn diagram of crossover between Nation and Hinchcliffe/Holmes does resonate in that certain little moment or idea, and I have to say I’m a fan.
Speaking of aesthetic, the bit where The Doctor investigates the mostly-abandoned facility is some really great stuff. This is the sort of Tom Baker stuff that I like, the stuff where he goes investigating and is goofy while really knowing what’s going on. How he flips over a table and then runs away while people shoot at him. There’s something weird about people shooting real guns at The Doctor that makes it feel stakesy and strong. Maybe it’s because it doesn’t happen as often as you might think it does (we’re talking bullet projectile weapons, not lasers), but I feel it happens quite a bit in this era be it in “Seeds of Doom” or “Genesis of the Daleks” or what have you.
Dunno, just something to think about.
Oh, and the cliffhanger to this episode is god awful.
So the wheels aren’t off the cart just quite yet but uhhhhhhh…. Give it another episode.
I find that a lot of this episode is still cracking on all the stuff that I like about this story while still being mostly minimal on the bad. All the good stuff, I think, feels more Holmesian (the mystery of the town and The Doctor’s role in it all) while the rest feels very much in the vein of Terry Nation what with the Kraals and their plan and the HUGE AMOUNT OF FOCUS ON THEM FOR LITTLE TO NO REASON EXCEPT TO EXPLAIN THE NEEDLESS, TEDIOUS BACKSTORY OF THE PIECE. Ahem. But yeah, the point stands that this is not the stuff that I find interesting. Know what is interesting?
Finding things out with The Doctor and his Companion.
I find that this sort of spoon feeding feels out of place. Giving us ancillary characters who exist only for exposition is a very old school thing to do, totally something out of Silver Age comics or something (as the late 60s/early 70s kinda were, really), but because the Hinchcliffe/Holmes stuff feels so modern in comparison to other things, I find it really weird that we’re getting this backstory. And fine, I guess if it’s interesting backstory that’s something, but this premise is not exactly original or enticing to me. I mean, haven’t we all seen this before? Aliens prep for an invasion by “body snatching” and swapping in doubles. That’s… that’s been done. This is nothing special.
Know what is special about this? The Doctor.
That’s the thing I think Doctor Who needs to come back to every single time a story feels stagnant and uninteresting. The Doctor, as it were, has become almost a writer of the stories he’s been in. You know what I mean? That old adage of “Every story’s been told? All that matters is YOUR take on the story because that’s what’s unique?” And that’s I think quite true. Because like I’ve said: I’ve seen this story before. This isn’t new, but what I love is watching The Doctor interact with his environment, jumping into ponds, coming more and more into understanding things, especially that bit where he tests the phone after Sarah Jane calls him.
Likewise interesting is the notion that the Kraal are testing The Doctor and I like seeing this played out between both The Doctor and Sarah.
A lot of that, though, comes down to Sladen’s performance. She’s so good at playing the android playing Sarah Jane. She knows just how to be evil and just how to be manipulative and it’s a performance that rewards multiple viewings, I think. It’s also rare because this story is so much heart on its sleeve and not very subtle, but Sladen’s here giving a total nuance thing that’s totally rad and great. It’s a shame, really, but it also makes it special and unique in this story. So… Yeah. I’m of two minds about this double-edged sword.
And that’s about all I have that’s good. What’s not so good?
Like I said earlier, all the stuff with the Kraals is completely boring to me. They’re just dull and don’t really have much character or even intrigue. After this episode we know basically everything they’re doing, we just don’t know why. And sure that’s all character or them or whatever because it’s the “why” but honestly, I just don’t care. Their masks are all loose and uninteresting to me (bland, I’d say) and they’re making robots, but there’s nothing special about their robots. They’re just like every other robots I’ve ever seen, or at least, the ones that are not interesting and unique.
It’s also a criminal bad use of Benton and Harry. Seriously you bring back two awesomes and this is what you give me? I demand more. I’m sorry, but I do. To have them this underutilized is a total crime if you ask me.
And then there’s the cliffhanger in which we reveal that Sarah Jane is a robot. But ummm…. Well… first off talk about lame. She just hits the ground and rolls and then her face pops off. I’d question the Kraal’s craftsmanship and such because this is some shoddy work, yeah? I’d say so. But also it’s like… Okay, how is this news? The Doctor realized it wasn’t Sarah so it MUST be an android. So we have to reveal it, but that doesn’t work because we already saw an android earlier in the episode and that thing was destroyed. So the reveal of “OH MY GOD ANDROID WITH CIRCUITS AND BUG EYES WTF” doesn’t have near the impact it would if we didn’t know they were androids. So it’s weird how Nation underminded his own cliffhanger by fetishizing the Kraals themselves. It’s just weak.
Nevermind that it’s episode two and NOW we get the android reveal. It’s not like it’s been in the title for the past two episodes. I don’t need to even lambast you for that.
And the wheels completely come off the horse.
Possibly probably my favourite all time thing about Terry Nation stories comes from how unbelievably ridiculous and insane they are (he’s “Mad Man” Terry Nation for a reason). It’s like he crawled into a world of tropey melodrama and camp ridiculousness and he never crawled out. And that’s totally true. I mean, no other Hinchcliffe/Holmes stories are this level of complete insanity, and it’s the sort of thing you see all the time. Not that these and tropes and styles are exclusive to Nation (they’re absolutely not), but Nation always seems to wander into them. The only time he escapes them are in “Genesis of the Daleks”, and let’s be honest: that’s totally been rewritten and a lot of that is probably not Nation… But I digress.
It turns out that the village and the woods and the lands and the defense facility across the moor or whatever it is is all just reconstructed testing ground space, created by the Kraals in preparation to invade with the androids and all that.
Now this is all cool and well and good, but ummm… guys. You guys.. Let’s think about this. The Kraals created this giant massive testing ground PURELY FOR TESTING PURPOSES. So this invasion isn’t even the real invasion and the Earth is safe so far. Which… okay. First. What the frak is the budget on a place like this? They must have made dozens of androids and perfectly recreated at least a square mile (possibly more) of this world. That? That’s crazy. That’s gotta cost so much Kraal money. There’s two dozen androids, created perfectly from… where, exactly?
I mean, they say a lot about how Guy Crayford (more on him later) helped create everything down to the last detail. So… he created all the people and personalities? Jesus. Give this guy a book to write. That’s an amazing memory.
But I digress. So this whole place has been created. Blah blah blah. Millions and billions of Kraal dollars for a perfect recreation of a place. At least keep this place up until you need to tear it down. But no. NO! Seriously. Styggron the lead Kraal guy just goes out and dissolves the place. All that work and effort dissolved to dust in the matter of seconds. Good god. What a waste of money and funding. This is why no one will insure him. That’s a problem he needs to deal with. But if this whole Earth plan works out he’s probably going to be in good standing and all those people who’ve admonished him for being completely fiscally irresponsible will be shown their place.
Still. Maybe you shouldn’t have destroyed the place, Styggron. No need to burn your boats when you land.
Styggron’s plan is also to infect the entire Earth with a virus (doesn’t that feel Nation to anyone else?) that doesn’t even target humans but all forms of life. Isn’t that a little problematic? Apparently all the budget for this project went to recreating the town and facility as a training ground (which Styggron burned to the ground) and not enough focus went into the development of this super virus. I mean, at least create a strain that doesn’t affect the Kraal. That’s a better idea, don’t you think? Then again, blow your budget on the training ground (which, again, is useful how?) and it leaves the chemists and biological weapons developers with less money, right?
And really, how is this training ground even necessary? They’re going to be doing some body switching, sure, but once they take over the facility and spread the virus do they really have to fear anything? I guess the androids are necessary because the virus won’t affect them but it will affect the Kraal. Again, not the best plan I’ve heard. Spend more of your money on research and development rather than androids because those things cannot be cheap. They have to train technicians to wipe/recreate brain patterns, build the android and all that… That can’t be cheap.
But enough of that. What else?
I think Guy Crayford is something of a miraculous guy. Jeez he is gullible. I love how he’s been promised so so much and takes the Kraal at their word. That’s a good guy to be if understandable, especially because he thinks humanity has turned its back on him. We all need somebody to lean on. And Crayford likes the Kraal. I mean they rebuilt him and fed him and watered him when humanity left him stranded like that. (Best part of this is when The Doctor looks disgusted that Crayford was recycling his own urine to drink it; just saying).
This, though. I’m not sure I buy it. Crayford must have known the risks. And NASA or whatever shot him up into space. What did he think would happen? Once he’s out there he’s on his own, ain’t nothing can fix that.
So this is all… insane. Crazy. It doesn’t really make any sense, it’s impractical (why was The Doctor left unguarded while he was undergoing examination? And why didn’t they just kill him? “to research him” is bullshit if you ask me; and yet through all this I keep coming back to how much BETTER The Doctor and Sarah Jane make this whole bloody thing. In all this I’m so absolutely enthralled with how much fun I have watching the two of them play off each other and this absolutely bonkers bananas story that Terry Nation dropped in front of us and how Barry Letts’s direction is fine but nothing to sing home about.
I miss Elisabeth Sladen.
I know that comes out of nowhere, but going through this again I can’t help but think how much I do. The two of them are so phenomenal and iconic and wonderful and to think that if she had gone on for a few more years we would have gotten some audioplays with Tom Baker and Lis Sladen back in the TARDIS again. It makes me sad and… I suppose disappointed is a word, but that implies fault and it’s no one’s fault. Especially not Lis’s. It’s not like she wanted to go or was planning on it or anything like that. Nothing like that. No. Ramble ramble blog blog.
So that makes me sad.
But this story makes me happy. And maybe I’m rose colored glasses viewing this thing because I do so love the two of them and even though this is a terrible story I find myself treasuring this purely because I miss her and it’s one of those things that I have to remember her by. That’s the good stuff for me. That’s the context in which I enjoy this, even if it is her big ol’ face plastered on the screen being completely ridiculous as she gets slammed by g-forces, all that matters is that Lis Sladen is still absolutely committed to the story in front of her. And that’s so wonderful to me, because she gave so much of herself to the role, and it’s nice that it shows in this and that we get this and them, even if everything but them isn’t very good at all.
Here endeth the blubbering.
So this isn’t good… and yet…
The thing that I have to mention first and foremost, right off the bat, la dee how can I not, is Tom Baker in this. Remember how a couple weeks back in “Meglos” I mentioned evil Doctor was an awesome thing I hadn’t seen before and how Tom Baker wasn’t super great as Meglos? Well turns out here we get an android replica of The Doctor and… man is Tom Baker good. I think comparing this to the other, it’s clear to see that this is still tom Baker when his Doctor is defined by people other than himself. No one was questioning Tom Baker in "Meglos", but this… This is like, evil Doctor from the Hinchcliffe/Holmes perspective and he’s totally menacing and awesome because he’s a perverse, almost alternate universe evil version of The Doctor.
Sure, I’ll admit that he’s a total waste of a character and a totally wasted opportunity (Android Doctor isn’t in this much), but at the same time, there’s that phenomenal beat where Benton mistakes Android Doctor for The Doctor and puts three shots into his gut. The resulting “Satisfied?” from Tom Baker is absolutely bone chillingly delicious. Same too is the revelation of The Android Doctor to Sarah Jane in the woods, when Tom Baker puts on this sinister, evil grin or even the bit where The Doctor comes face to face with his Android double in the office of the major.
But even without that, and yeah I’m gonna get totally weak in the knees nerdgasmy gasm time here, there’s still the absolute awesomeness of watching The Doctor fight the Android double of himself. And sure. I’ll grant you that this means I’m totally easy, but this is the stuff I like. It’s completely insane and fanboyness, and sure they absolutely did not earn it (okay, maybe they earned it a little), but I kinda don’t care. It’s basically the par on equivalent of The Doctor fighting an Android duplicate of himself with a walking stick (which was also Nation. Hmmm. Coincidence?) and it’s just totally badass. Not only that, but it’s so good that it makes me forget my “The Doctor is a pacifist” stance. I like that for some reason, this early days Tom Baker action stuff, with him kinda utilizing some Venusian akido, but with a bit more natural Ong Bak something or whatever (it’s called something) where he uses someone's energy/force against him.
And yet, this story is still crap. All the stuff with the Kraals is positively useless. Why was the virus not released instantaneously? What happened to the rest of the Kraals? And is it passed through touch? Ingestion? The air? They never really explain so it’s neatly wrapped up, kinda like the random “The Doctor randomly reprogrammed the robot and used it to fight the Kraal isn’t that clever?" (which, to be fair, was simply omitted because Barry Letts ran out of time to film it). Why were the robots necessary again? Why did they need to take control of this facility? Seriously, this sorta thing makes this whole story absolute bogusness when you get right down to it.
Not convinced? What about the stuff with Crayford and how he randomly wasn’t harmed at all. The Kraal’s SERIOUSLY put an eyepatch on Crayford, said he lost it, and then made up all that poppycock nonsense about how they healed him and all that?
Now I’ve never lost an eye, but I’m pretty sure I’d be able to feel it if it was still there. Not only that, but if the eyepatch was the thing, I’m really supposed to believe that all through the production of this thing Crayford never took his eyepatch off to check? I’m sorry, but I don’t believe that. Not for a second. When you go to bed you’d probably take the patch off. When you take a shower you’d probably take the patch off. HELL the leftover brain juices still eventually juicing from the eye would make you want to change the patch once in a while.
And lemme break that down not just for Crayford, but as a note to all you eyepatchers out there: change your eyepatch once in a while. The ladies will love you for it AND you can turn it into a fashion statement. Or better yet, get several different eyepatches for different occasions. Maybe ones with smileys that reflect your mood or even one that’s scented and pretty for when you’re out on a night on the town with your special lady friend. Eye patches are a great way to lighten parties or conversation starters, but they shouldn’t be badges of shame. They should be badges of pride. Wear them well and your significant other will love you for it. They’re great. Own it. Love it. All that.
Damn. Shoulda saved that for "Inferno". Ah well.
Seriously, though. I’m sad at how many things this story kinda wasted. It was a mostly waste of Android Doctor. It was a mostly waste of Sarah Jane (love her and The Doctor, but man did this story not do her any favours). It was an absolute waste of a good premise with a needlessly convoluted explanation/story. It’s a waste of a budget (the Kraals, not the story). It’s a waste of an eyepatch (seriously. Horrid). It’s nothing BUT a waste of John “Benton” Levine and Ian “Harry” Marter and an absolutely terrible final story for them….
Sigh. Even when they’re “normal” they’re wasted. It’s just a bummer of a story because it just… yeah. It just ends with a whimper.
Kinda like my discussion of this part. Weird.Final Thoughts?: So it's easily possibly the weakest of the Hinchcliffe/Holmes era. Granted, it's between this and "Revenge of the Cybermen", but I haven't seen that in a while so this might be better? I dunno.
The thing I find most interesting about this is how much the Hinchcliffe/Holmes aesthetic bleeds into what Terry Nation's script does. The stuff with the empty town and the robot duplicates, the horror of this plan happening, being hunted, running, fighting, investigating... All that feels like the stuff of the Hinchcliffe/Holmes to me, and is the kinda stuff that I really really like about their work. Where this story ultimately falls apart, though, is the Kraals, and because they feel more Terry Nation than anything the story itself just frays at the seams and never gets good.
And yet, the thing that really holds this story together is all the stuff with The Doctor and Sarah Jane. Tom Baker and Lis Sladen are always so so good and they have such wonderful, magical chemistry that I can't help but love and adore. It's that stuff that really elevates this story and makes it sing. I love the two of them together (it's so pure or something) and it's with The Doctor and his Companion that really elevates material that is... stagnant or boring or not very original or what have you and elevates it and makes it Doctor Who caliber.
So if this had been written by someone better, someone stronger, I think it would be better. Same with the direction, which is fine, but not helpful to anything really (except in the first episode). One of the only blips on the Hinchcliffe/Holmes era, and because it's too dated to fit the aesthetic. Ah well, you can't win them all.
Next Time!: 5th Doctor! A two parter! Some war re-enactments! Undoubtably lovely sci-fi probably! Maybe some on screen bloopers. And probably some gushing! "The Awakening!" Coming Next Tuesday!