Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Serial 53: The Ambassadors of Death

Doctor: Jon Pertwee (3rd Doctor)
Companions: Liz, The Brigadier

Written by: David Whitaker (and Trevor Ray and Malcolm Hulke)
Directed by: Michael Ferguson

Background & Significance: After six seasons, most television programmes start to show age and wear and tear in their day-to-day proceedings. To counteract this, shows need to evolve or grow in the way they conduct their business (creative business, I mean) lest people get bored with what's happening. And rightly so. Even Doctor Who (which at the time was churning out "stories" as opposed to episodes) had done fifty installments, and the past three seasons had been the formulaic base-under-siege format (or to put another way, a bad case of deja-you've-seen-one-you've-basically-seen-them-all-vu). So it was growing tired and the audience was shrinking to reflect that.

Season seven, then, as we know, was a change. New Doctor. New production team. New format. New colours. New episode/story count. And outgoing producer Derrick Sherwin sought to shore up costs by doing longer, seven-part episodes as opposed to the previously standard six-parters.

Now, the second anyone familiar with Classic Doctor Who (but who hasn't seen season seven) hears "seven-parter" they instantly clam up because... my god. There are five and six part stories that don't work. What hope do the production team have of pulling off three consecutive seven-parters? And yes, that's understandable. And to be fair, after the geniusness of the four-part "Spearhead From Space" it's hard to believe that anyone would want to deviate from such an exquisitely simple structure. And yet the season also has "Doctor Who and the Silurians" from masterful structurer Malcolm Hulke, which manages to be fairly adept at keeping the seven-part structure moving so that it's not too annoying. We'll talk about "Inferno" in just a few short weeks, but today we're covering "The Ambassadors of Death".

Yes. The bastard stepchild of the season. It's the one that's not got the iconic monster (Autons or Silurians, take your pick) or the unique premise ("Inferno") or strong start ("Spearhead"). No. This is the one that was only recently released in full colour, making it less desirable Pertwee than others. Black and white was Hartnell/Troughton, not Pertwee.

Originally pitched as an "Invaders of Mars" type story going back to season six, Whitaker did a lot of work on it, trying to make this story of humanity's first contact with alien life useable. What started as a six-episode 2nd Doctor/Jamie/Zoe story was then molded into a seven episode story featuring The 3rd Doctor, Liz Shaw, The Brigadier, and the new UNIT paradigm.  The reasoning was sound, too. The UNIT era was fresh and new and a straight-up alien invasion, first contact type story fits completely into that particular ouevre. Whitaker did his best and tried his darndest, but couldn't see eye to eye with the production team's desire and gave up after finishing the script to the third episode. He moved to Australia. He never worked on the programme proper again.

Dicks handed off the rest of the serial's four episodes to Malcolm Hulke (and his assistant Trevor Ray had done a heavy re-write on episode one) and collaborated with him to slam out the rest of the scripts based on Whitaker's notes and outlines. They brought in Michael "Seeds of Death" Ferguson to direct and the rest, as they say, is up on the screen for us to see. It's David Whitaker's final contribution to the program (and if you read Sandifer you know how big a deal this is) and so interesting to see how he pushes the series into its still-unsure but potential-packed future. And of course, it's interesting to see what great writers do with other great writers' ideas. You see this most during Robert Holmes's tenure as script editor, in which he strove to make the scripts coming in the best he could possibly make them, re-writing them if necessary. And yet this is a case of Hulke (one of my favorite writers of pre-Tom-Baker Doctor Who) shaping and molding the work of one of the greatest and most important Doctor Who writers of all time. Such a combination is rare, and definitely worth taking apart.

But really I'm mostly just dying to start re-watch it again.

So let's get to it!


Part 1:

One of the things that’s missing (in my opinion) from stories nowadays is the slow build. Yes, you need to capture the audience’s attention and do it quickly, but there’s better ways to do it than shooting your wad early, or setting a precedent that you can’t possibly keep up with after the initial rush.

What strikes me about the opening to this part is how… deliberate it is with the way it doles out information and story. It takes its time but it’s also impossibly methodical about what it’s doing. Nothing says that more than the quiet opening teaser with the astronaut talking to mission control as it’s about to meet back up with the missing Mars Probe. It establishes a specific ominousness to whatever comes next. And the rest of the episode only builds on that unease. Hell, it even grabs The Doctor. He starts by paying some idle attention to the live telecast of the Mars Probe talking and within minutes he can’t even peel his eyes away from the screen for a minute.

Now, I don’t know how much of this is Trevor Ray and how much of it is David Whitaker. Sure, we’ll get a chance to see Whitaker more or less untouched over the next two episodes… but this is a fantastic tone-setter in ways few other stories are.

Granted, this episode gets the space to tell its story, and while it moves very story it’s still remarkably engaging for not a whole hell of a lot happening. The vast majority of this involves The Doctor getting involved and then the UNIT action sequence. And if that doesn’t sound like a lot, that’s because it isn’t, and yet I find myself hardly noticing or caring. Everything about this sings because everything about this exudes a tremendous amount of confidence that other part ones don’t necessarily convey. This is a big, big story. It involves space probes and triangulating signals from around the world and newscasts of all things.

And I suppose I should talk about the newscast because… well… it’s rather silly isn’t it? Yet it hits home for reasons that… well…

Okay. So my thinking is this. This past weekend Felix Baumgartner jumped out of a balloon that was floating some twenty-four miles above the ground (or as we should probably think about it, just at the edge of space). I was preoccupied at the time, so didn’t manage to see the ascent and ALL of the nail-biting waiting around while Baumgartner sat on the edge of space waiting to jump out and break like three world records. But I did manage to tune in for a live stream on youtube and watch as he leapt from his capsule and went supersonic without the aid of anything except the pull of gravity. The whole time there was a newscaster reporting what we were seeing on the screen, as we watched this tiny white spec spin and spin and spin in what was seemingly uncontrolled.

Then I watched this episode a few hours later and the reporter in the mission control reminded me a lot of the guy overseeing the livestream. Initially, I questioned the brains behind this (isn’t this mission confidentialish in some way?), and yet it’s no different than the reporter commentating on Baumgartner’s space jump.

It hammered home the fact that what “The Ambassadors of Death” is going for is something that’s more global in scope. Yes the reporter in mission control is a quick and easy way to get across lots of information and it’s a new and clever way to get The Doctor into a story (one that doesn’t involve him having to get called in by The Brigadier). But it also completely blows out the scope of this in the way Russell T. Davies used the explosion of Rose’s department store in “Rose” to blow out the scope of Doctor Who in general. The point (as Davies describes it) was to bring Doctor Who into the public eye. Previous Doctor Who stories happened between the margins. The Doctor would have a huge adventure and no one would know about it. Despite the near cataclysm, people went about their lives. “Seeds of Doom” and “The Web of Fear” are two perfect examples of this. Don’t you think that would raise suspicion?

But not here. Here we have a reporter bringing this story into our television screens and right into our homes. This is a story that will affect people in every way. Now, a lot of it will be settled off-camera (relative to the diegetic viewer at home; we will see everything) but it doesn’t change the fact that it’s the sort of story that people would probably be following regardless of baseline interest. And indeed, what’s there will blossom into a global emergency and one of the key points of the story is one character attempting to convince the world to side with his version of events. All of that is possible because they lay out the worldly scope here and the worldly scope makes this story feel so much bigger than it actually is. I can’t get enough of that or how impossibly clever the use of that newscast is. It’s elegant, and simple, yet its subtext is visceral and drives certain things home. He is talking to you. This story is happening. You’re watching the newscast.

Of course, that’s shattered when we get to things like the tremendous UNIT action sequence towards the end of this episode in which a squad of UNIT soldiers take a warehouse full of baddies.  As an unabashed fan of UNIT action sequences, this is possibly my favorite of all time and with good reason. It’s tense and exciting and extremely badass. The Brigadier takes down three dudes in one three-point turn. UNIT soldiers go down. Enemies crash through windows. There’s carnage and chaos and it’s not like anything you’ve really seen before. Director Michael Ferguson also makes the point to not underscore the scene with music at all, so all you hear is the sound of the gunfire and the replying screams of the gunfire’s targets. And of course it ends on the tensest of moments in which one of the thugs has The Brigadier at gunpoint and ALMOST shoots him. The sweat on Nicholas Courtney’s face says it all. The stakes here are impossibly high. We’re not playing around.

It’s a phenomenal first episode because everything it does, it does extremely well. It’s taut and specific and exciting and it has me craving the next episode, and not even because the cliffhanger’s that good (it’s fine, but it’s the way it’s shot that makes it really sing). I just want to know what happens next and where it goes. And if that’s what a first episode needs to do then god dammit this is one of my favorite first episodes in all of Doctor Who. For reals. I can’t think of one that is better and I can certainly think of a number that are worse.

Now they just have to not botch the other six.

Part 2:

About two thirds of the way through this episode (as with the last one) there is a giant action set piece involving the capture and retrival of the Mars Space Capsule, which has crashed on Earth.

As with the warehouse sequence in the previous episode, this sequence is really quite exciting and perhaps a little over-elaborate. There’s a dude dropping bombs from a helicopter and the hijacking of the space capsule truck and lots and lots of gun play. And the bad guys manage to successfully hijack the truck, only to have it re-hijacked by The Doctor (who uses a deliciously clever ploy) just minutes later. Now, on paper, it feels like this is just extraneous padding. Actually, I’ll just be honest: it really is just extraneous padding to fill out the run time of this episode.

What makes it work is that it’s so deliciously entertaining. And fine, maybe the UNIT action set piece with the helicopters and the bombs and the guns isn’t your speed. But The Doctor re-hijacking the truck certainly is, and if it’s not we’re never going to agree on anything.

See, padding is something that happens in every story, especially in Classic Who. And rightly so. The four parter is perfect for the show (for most of the stories, anyways). “The War Games” coulda been done in four episodes, but it would have lost most of its dramatic build up and impact. So too, these two episodes could have been one episode, but the context would have been noticeably less. They woulda cut the newscast. They woulda cut the set pieces. We wouldn’t get the excellent scene of Jon Pertwee faking an automobile breakdown. And really, it’s those character moments from a fresh Doctor that really make the Classic series sing. Pertwee is still figuring out his Doctor and this is the sorta thing that really gives him license to mess around with the character and try other things.

Yeah. You don’t need to have this. But it’s fun, so who cares? Does it matter how you get to a place so long as the journey is fun?

And the journey is. This episode features a phenomenal play with the characters and what they do. The Brigadier/Doctor good-cop/bad-cop scene is really excellent and digs into both the danger and ingenuity that Pertwee’s Doctor can have as well as the strong rapport between the two men. If this was four episodes we’d never have gotten the bit where The Doctor makes the reel-to-reel thing disappear by jumping it into something else or another. And these things are flourishes and touches that really make the story sparkle in ways it otherwise wouldn’t.

Again, this story isn’t moving very fast. It’s taking its time, but that’s okay. At seven parts I don’t need to burn through story, nor do I want it to. I’m giving it license to take its time to tell and I feel like it’s rewarding me, even at two episodes in.

See, my favorite thing about this episode (and it’s the thing I remember most about this story in particular) is the cliffhanger, which is… phenomenal. The best cliffhangers are the ones that change the game and make you anxious to know what happens next. It’s not enough to put The Doctor in peril (the first episode did that and it was lackluster), but you have to put the stakes at risk a bit. The easy solution is the peril what with the… stakes involved with peril. But here they go for something different. It’s a complication on top of everything else and the smash cut at the end is really, really excellent.

This, really, is all build-up. We just want to see the astronauts and see that they’re all okay. Of course they won’t be (five more episodes!) but that doesn’t mean the complication isn’t surprising.

What makes it exciting is the way it starts okay but goes horribly, horribly wrong. We get word from the astronauts and it’s really exciting and uplifting! They’re okay! But the message is confused. They don’t need clearance to land on Earth. They’re already here. The capsule is locked from the inside. All they have to do is unlock it and step out. But then the message starts repeating. Cornish tries. Then The Doctor. They’re not responding. There is no sound aside from the sound of the hum of the capsule and the echo of the disembodied voice. We cut across everyone. It’s panic. Editing panic. And suddenly The Doctor screams “cut it open!” and we cut to black.

It’s what’s in the box. It’s elegant and incredibly simple but surprisingly effective. The not knowing kills us. Is there something in the capsule? What is waiting to be unleashed when they cut open the door?

What’s also clever is how insanely well they build to it. The smash cut at the end is great. And the editing is great. But I love that they don’t want to cut it open, despite that being The Brigadier’s recommendation right up front. Again, it’s interesting seeing the different methods of The Doctor and The Brigadier come into play against each other. The Brigadier is clearly wanting to use military might to prove himself. And it’s interesting that they scoff at him initially but The Doctor (who was adamant they not cut open the hatch) is suddenly screaming that they need to do it. Now. It’s really, really elegantly put together and I can’t explain how much I love it because I love it so so much.

And now I’m dying for the next episode.

Part 3:

Each episode focuses on a different set piece. This one features an excellent chase sequence involving Liz in Bessie running away from some street toughs who want to steal her. As a structure, it makes each episode so far rather memorable and it’s a wonder not every story does something like this.

Honestly, it’s probably too expensive to have a big splashy set piece in every single episode, so that’s why you only get them every so often. Yeah, the Pertwee era definitely has some form of action/adventure in every episode, but all three of these are kick-assingly memorable, and there’s nothing like the beat of watching Liz flip over the bridge and towards the water with the smash cut to the credits. It’s a hell of a beat and a hell of a cliffhanger. Like the “Right! Cut it open!” moment it gets me wanting to know what happens next. I’m sure Liz will be okay in the end, but it doesn’t play the moment for drama. Ferguson cuts it RIGHT when you realize what’s happening and doesn’t linger or give you the chance to process it. All there is is the fear and the “NO!” of the closing credits.

So the ending gets me hankering for the next episode, but that’s not why I love this story. No. I love it because it keeps playing with and subverting my expectations. We learn that the astronauts weren’t in the capsule and The Doctor theorizes they’re still in space and that something else came down in their place.

These astronauts (the seeming villains of the story) are… fascinating and I remember the first time I watched this being unclear as to… them. Unclear in a good way. The episode really cleverly parses out information in the way that only Malcolm Hulke episodes could. We’re afraid of these astronauts because they are toxically radioactive, and yet they’re in a stasis recharge cell for basically this entire episode. Are they evil? Are they not? We really don’t know. All we do know is that they’re around and being used by this batch of government people.

And seriously, there’s nothing so haunting as seeing them lying on a table and breathing slowly. There’s people in there but it’s clearly not human.

That makes me appreciate what this is doing more than perhaps any other story. Yes, I love high concept Doctor Who. I love it when you have an Ancient God attempt to takeover the world from a Pyramid on Mars. And I love when you have an episode involving The Master takeover of Gallifrey or doing Frankenstein as an evil fucking Time Lord of yore. But there’s a simplicity to this that turns my brain up to eleven. It’s not doing anything that’s flashy. It’s just an alien invasion story wrapped up in a massive conspiracy that’s two steps ahead of The Doctor and UNIT at any given moment. And that’s… that’s hard to do. Or seemingly hard to do. It’s hard to keep the audience guessing. And three episodes in we’re absolutely clear what’s going on, but we still have no idea what’s happening.

Three episodes in, this has everything. It’s exciting, elegantly paced, gripping, and mysterious. There’s still a lot more story to go and even more to be revealed and learned. Liz is in peril and there’s spies everywhere. I can’t say how much I love it because it’s really just so excellent that… well… it is. It just bloody is.

Part 4:

So we have this conspiracy that runs deep. The Doctor and The Brigadier have no idea who to trust. And every step of the way leads them to more and more roadblocks and dead ends.

There’s Tartalian, who’s been exonerated of pulling that gun on The Doctor and Liz back in episode one on the grounds that he was following orders from General Carrington. And then there’s Sir James, who has lots of conversations with Carrington and who threatens The Doctor with the truth. By the end of the episode, both of these men are disposed of and (as we can surmise, based on both the briefcase sabotage and the people controlling the Ambassadors) that disposal comes from the same place: the people who have taken Liz Shaw captive.

What I love about this is the way it’s executed. We know that Tartalian is taking orders from Reegan and we see Reegan sabotage the case. We don’t know how he does it until the bomb goes off (he moved the timer from fifteen minutes to zero) but we still know that something’s up.

The bomb sequence itself is just incredibly masterful suspense. Again, this comes down to the editing and the quick cuts around the room as we know that something’s going on. The Doctor doesn’t know there’s a bomb. Tartalian does, but thinks it’s on a time. We know that the timer is not set for how long Tartalian thinks it’s set for. And Ferguson wisely keeps cutting back to the case just to remind us it’s there and right in the middle of everything. Hell, even the explosion itself is masterfully well done: quick and nasty and just the instant-and-no-more scream of Tartalian as he is removed from this Earth. It’s grizzly, and mostly because it’s all in our head.

How The Doctor managed to escape with just a scratch, though, is beyond me. That looked like a lot of explosives.

We also know that Reegan (with the help of an unwilling Liz Shaw) has managed to gain control over the Ambassadors themselves and can bend them to do his bidding. This leads to an incredible sequence where we have an Ambassador unleashed on the world and wrecking a tremendous amount of havoc that will never seem to end. His touch is a kiss of death and has wildly destructive powers and every time someone goes up against him you know that person is doomed. We have someone shoot at it and it just keeps coming like it’s completely unphased. And Ferguson does some beautiful shooting as it walks in from the sunlight, the lens catching flare that is only blocked when the Ambassador’s imposing figure blots it out.

It’s terrifying, or at least, scary. This thing doesn’t seem stoppable in the slightest and its relentlessness makes it seem like Reegan himself has an unstoppable killing machine on his side that nothing can possibly beat.

And that’s why the cliffhanger is so exciting. We know that The Doctor will get out of it, but it’s different than having a gun pulled on him. The Ambassador closing in as he tries to awaken a newly-dead Sir James is chilling. The Doctor doesn’t know we’re there and yet you can hear all the children watching this episode screaming at the TV “Don’t, Doctor! No! Turn around! He’s right behind you!” It’s gripping and mostly because we have no idea how the hell he’ll get out of it. This is unstoppable and has an agenda that no one’s been able to mess with. Certainly this is serious.

But what’s probably not as remembered in the face of that cliffhanger is the way in which the Ambassador is systematically cripping the things around it. We know Sir James is involved in this conspiracy in some way. We just don’t know how. And here we have the Ambassador trolling around his office obliterating evidence left and right. It sees him as a threat (or at least, whoever is in charge of them sees him as a threat; Reegan we assume, but it might go higher than that) and takes out him and everything he has saved up in response. Again, our heroes are back to square one, and the guy who was going to come clean (or claimed he was coming clean, I highly doubt he actually was) is now taken out of the way so we don’t know anything. And with Tartalian and Sir James dead and Reegan not even on The Doctor’s radar yet (because Liz is missing) The Doctor and The Brigadier just can’t seem to catch a break.

Oh. And The Doctor is in peril.

Part 5:

After the astronaut attack in the previous episode, this episode slows the pace to focus on something different: outer space.

To get this, we get something that you don’t really see at all after this: The Doctor being an astronaut. Oh sure he’s in a spacesuit a number of times, but there’s something iconic and exciting about seeing The Doctor in his spacesuit about to board the rocket for launch. That’s to say nothing of seeing him actually piloting the rocket or, hell, even looking out a viewport at the oncoming cliffhanger. It’s really one of the things that makes this story special, especially because it essentially removes him from the narrative in favor of him going somewhere else. It’s not like he’s anywhere near where the astronauts are, nor is he anywhere he can affect change enough to stop this conspiracy from continuing.

It also allows us to get some marvelous Pertwee face as he’s mashed up against the tremendous G-forces of Reegan’s sabotaging of the blastoff rocket.

What I love most of all, though, is the possibly final farewell of The Doctor and The Brigadier. The Doctor has a rich line about “the view not being what you’d want it to be” if you were to leave earth and never come back, and yet there’s a respectful subtext between them both that harkens to the idea that… there’s no place they’d rather be. It’s a great moment that really digs into their relationship and the respect and care they have for each other. Nothing is better than that handshake and the way it closes off recent events (specifically, what went down at the end of “The Silurians”). They might not always agree, but they’re good friends and (as we know now) they always will be.

Beyond that, we have another excellent sequence (seriously, every episode has one; it’s insane!) in which Reegan attempts to sabotage (and for all intents and purposes, succeeds) The Doctor’s rocket before he can get out of atmo.

My favorite thing about it is how much Reegan is a real go-getter in his line of work. He has people working for him, but he’s the guy who runs out and makes sure that the shit that needs to get done gets done. I mean, he’s basically running around this facility like a mad man fucking shit up and doing what needs to be done and… what? There’s no one in his employ who could do it? Is he serious? Hell yeah he is. And he has the initiative to not worry about it. There will be no meetings. There will be no discussions. This is happening because it needs to happen now. This conspiracy is built from the ground-up with lots of volunteer work and with a real guerilla mentality. Get the stuff done. Doesn’t matter how. Doesn’t matter if it’s in the budget. We don’t have time for that.

It’s also in this episode that we get the (presumable) end of Lennox, whose only crime was attempting to help Liz Shaw. It’s sad watching him run from the radioactive rod he finds, and the message it sends is really dark and really horrific: these people aren’t messing around. Such behavior will not be tolerated.

As an episode, it’s really quite excellent, and again it’s not that it’s doing anything special, it’s just succeeding at being ridiculously engaging and ridiculously entertaining. I love that it’s so simple and easy and I love that it’s really bloody obvious who the orchestrator of the conspiracy is if you know where to look (hint: it’s the guy who’s had everything go his way and who hasn’t been directly implicated yet). There’s still a ways to go and the final shot at the end of the alien something or another moving through space towards The Doctor is a tremendous game-changer and gets me going to see what happens next.

And really, it doesn’t need to be more complicated than that.

Part 6:

Writing a story is a lot like aiming for a target some ways away and hoping you hit it. The further away the target, the more chance for you to fail.

What’s remarkable is the way Malcolm Hulke succeeds at hitting the target regardless of its distance. In just the previous season, Hulke co-wrote a ten part story and stuck the landing with each and every episode. Later on in Pertwee, he writes a six episode story every season and with the exception of one story sticks the landing just about every time. That’s a pretty insane record, but it’s telling that by the time we get to “Invasion of the Dinosaurs” he’s got his rhythm down pat, to the point where it’s not even worth worrying about him at all. You see Malcolm Hulke’s name and you know it’s going to be a pretty good time.

With this story, Hulke has an extra twenty five minutes to fill. And yet it never feels overwhelming or underwhelming. There’s some criticism of this story that it sags a bit in the middle but is good overall and I have to ask… where does it sag? The last episode was a little saggy I suppose, but it was hardly noticeable. Every episode has had some good stuff in it and it’s incredibly well-paced. Even here we have The Doctor pulled onto the spaceship revealed in the last cliffhanger and meets the astronauts the mysterious aliens are holding until the return of their Ambassadors. It tweaks our information and gives us more about this storyline. So these astronaut “Ambassadors” aren’t evil at all? Then why were they attacking people?

It’s also here that we get the reveal of what these astronauts look like. And this really comes down to editing and the horror that Liz Shaw feels. We hardly get to focus on it at all, but it’s truly grotesque.

Hulke really proves himself here as extremeliy competent at doling out the story’s plot. Could this be six episodes? Sure, but at seven parts I don’t mind it. I worry about what you’d have to cut to get it down to time and how much I love all the character beats in here. The reveal of the astronauts sitting at the mind-control TV and thinking they’re watching a football match is truly, truly jarring, as is the moment when they’re made to sit back down on the chairs and not move until the Ambassador has spoken its piece to The Doctor. It’s so exquisitely timed. We are now ready for this information. It comes neither too early nor too late.

And that’s really this whole episode, isn’t it? It makes sense that The Doctor is captured here (for the first time, no less!) as opposed to earlier. He never really had to escape earlier and it’s worth noting that for a seven part story, there’s not a whole lot of capture/re-capture (when that’s how Hulke structures his later “Frontier in Space”).

Yet it makes sense that for all the foiling of the plans to kill The Doctor, Reegan would take The Doctor into custody rather than killing him. He wants the Ambassadors to help him rob places. And I love that. Reegan is such a small time thinker. What’s going on here is so much bigger than just a couple of bank robberies. I mean, this is the guy who says “Fort Knox?! How about The Bank of England?” I mean… honestly, I’d rather rob a whole hell of a lot of gold than some bank vouchers or whatever. Or cash. Gold is pretty great, isn’t it? I think it is. And with the gold he could buy a cadre of men who would be loyal to him so he wouldn’t have to get his hands dirty so often.

Which, by the way, is also excellent here. Cuz he busts his ass to take The Doctor into custody. And it’s a one-man operation that he manages to pull off rather well. Seriously, if he wasn’t roped into this huge conspiracy ordeal he’d probably be able to get a lot of good stuff going. That guy can hustle.

Then there’s the reveal that General Carrington is behind this whole operation. The Doctor wisely remarks that he was pretty damn sure this was what was going on. And it’s obvious. The man’s been in the way for this whole damn operation. But for all his trouble, it’s hard to say it’s not been remarkably effective in getting done all he needed to do. He blocked just about every attempt The Doctor made to stop the conspiracy. He removed all the evidence implicating him. And now he’s going to take out The Doctor because The Doctor’s no good in captivity.

So yeah, the cliffhanger is one of “peril” again, but it works because Carrington is rather a force to be reckoned with. Why wouldn’t you believe he’s about to shoot The Doctor in the face (extra-diegetic information notwithstanding of course).

And that, really, is where I come down with on Hulke. The guy really knows how to structure a good story. It’s not that Whitaker isn’t capable of it (his stories are honestly rather elegant as well), but the combination of the two is a real greatness thing. Everything about this episode is excellent, even down to the reveal that Lennox is dead. All we get is the statement that he was killed by a radioactive isotope, which leaves us with the horrific image of him pushed up against the wall of his cell trying desperately not to die from intense radiation poisoning (which musta been intense for him to have died so quickly).

It’s excellent. And we’ve still one to go.

Part 7:

So it’s seven parts, and it’s… it’s weird to see this show stick a landing this impossibly good. And like… after finishing it, this episode I mean, I find I feel the show has just given me the best hug ever.

But I’ll get to that in a bit. What really makes this work is the way it goes for all the stops to wrap up the story. There’s nothing so discouraging as seeing The Brigadier dragged into custody by a rogue General Carrington or his daring escape in the dead of night from his own UNIT squadron. Nor is there anything so fun as The Brigadier returning to UNIT base and realizing The Doctor’s location and their need to rescue him, realizing they don’t have transportation, and then getting the image of The Brigadier and four UNIT soldiers stuffed into Bessie and trucking down the lane with their guns sticking out of the side of the vehicle. As an image it’s incredible and it’s a wonder that I hadn’t thought of that before.

Really, that’s the ultimate catharsis, or why this whole story is one big catharsis. After the last story, UNIT and The Doctor were clearly at odds with each other. And yet there’s a camaraderie here that really speaks to how UNIT has The Doctor’s back and will always have his back.

The timing of it couldn’t be any better for everyone. I mean… Carrington’s coups over the space institution is really thrilling and really intense. It’s hard to see The Brigadier hauled away. It’s hard to see Cornish locked down despite not doing anything other than being in the wrong place at the wrong time. It’s unnerving to see Wakefield held at gunpoint as he prepares to catalyze what will essentially be an interplanetary war. It’s traumatizing to see Carrington spew his self-righteousness to everyone else, when he’s clearly lost his mind. And it’s hard to see everyone just stand around while we approach cataclysm.

AND YET. The ending is incredible.

But why? Why this? Honestly? It’s because The Doctor leaves. The Doctor gets his groove back with help from UNIT, he marches in with his new alien allies (whom he has freed), he sets the world right. And he walks away.

Yes. He walks away. And that, to me, is what Doctor Who is. Quintessentially.  I love that The Doctor sets things into motion and walks away. He bids his farewell and he walks. Because he knows that, in the end, this case of first contact is not down to him. It’s not about him. It’s about every other person in the room. He was here to right the wrongs that were going down. He did that. He went through hell(ish). And then he fixed the day, but he knew enough to step down and not take the glory. His farewell to everyone is… shocking. Everyone can’t believe he’s leaving. But The Doctor knows it’s the right thing to do.

It makes me feel warm. Seriously. Imagine that happening with any other major character in fiction. Would they walk away? Hell no. They’d be in the picture.

And yet it ends on a wide shot of tomorrow. Of The Doctor walking away from this futuristic setting on the verge of first contact? He’s allowed to go home. And it feels so earned. It feels so right. The Doctor toppled this conspiracy. He managed to do the impossible! He made Carrington see reason! Of course he deserves to walk away. He should. And does. He is their champion, but that doesn’t mean that he’s one of them. It’s… It’s just great. And I know I’m being repetitive. But I can’t say enough how impossibly Doctor Who it is and how impossibly good the ending is. It’s earned. We fought for this. We earned this. Everyone did.

The only word for it is “bliss.”

Final Thoughts?: Yeah. This is my favorite Pertwee story.

What makes it good is how much I can lose myself in it. At seven parts, I never wanted the story to get on with it, nor did I want the story to end or move on.

That's down to Hulke being a master of structure and pacing. Everything here is perfectly timed and perfectly well done. It's also down to Whitaker really doing a lot of great heavy lifting in coming up with a great and thrilling plot about the complications that could come with a first contact scenario. Carrington is clearly a Hulke-creation, but that's down to Hulke improving on Whitaker's script. I'm sure Carrington was just fine in the original, but the subtlety with which Carrington plays it all through this is great. Initially you think it's generic paranoia, and yet by the end it is thrilling and unsurprising and inevitable. In the best of ways.

It's also a great showing for both Pertwee and UNIT. If you like action, this is your story and it's got the best action in all of UNIT history, as far as I'm concerned. The Brigadier is amazingly good in this.

That's to say nothing of Liz Shaw, who, despite being under lock and key for essentially half the story, really shines here. She's really great at being plucky and useful. I love seeing good Liz Shaw, especially because I'm not her biggest fan, and yet, seeing this I realize how impossibly... flawed I am in that thinking. Liz Shaw is a wonderful, fantastic companion who had a great rapport with Jon Pertwee. If anything, I think she might be almost "too independent" from The Doctor (as we'll see in "Inferno"). But being "too independent" isn't a bad thing. That means she can get a spinoff with next to no problems. Hell, I'd love her to get a UNIT spinoff, or at least, I would have. But unfortunately Caroline John died just a few months ago, and it's unfortunate because she really is a "forgotten companion" if ever there could be one. I just have to mention that because she's really phenomenal here and really phenomenal in general.

Oh and I never mentioned Dudley Simpson's score, which is really great. Ethereal and jazzy: perfect for a UNIT alien invasion story.

So it's the best. I'm sorry, it is. The writing is top notch. The direction is excellent. The editing is electric. Pertwee gets a number of phenomenal moments here, probably more than in any other story. The only thing that's missing is excessive eating (no really, that's it). He's great in every episode and absolutely The Doctor in a way that I think he might not always be. Pertwee's always good, but he's always Pertwee. This is a story that calls for The Doctor and it needs The Doctor and he nails it at every turn. He's headstrong, but not pompous. He's incredible when he's making first contact and he's incredible when he's turning first contact over to humans and stepping away. It's amazing to see him be The 3rd Doctor in a way that I don't feel he ever tops after this. It's really great. Really. And I can't... I can't say enough about it. He's just so.... it here.

It's just too bad that the Pertwee era topped out at its third story and in its first season. And yet, I don't care because really, that doesn't mean the rest of it isn't good. It just means that it never again got this good.

But we'll always have this story. And thank god, because I'll watch it again right now.

Next Time!: 4th Doctor! Leela! K-9! The Tax Man! On Pluto! It's Robert Holmes giving you the first Graham Williams story! Cassandra is back next week for her last blog entry with "The Sun Makers"! Coming Next Tuesday!


  1. Hi there! Can I just tell you how much I adore your blog. I'm a twentysomething newcomer to the series as well, finished my first complete watch late last year. I really appreciate the way you approach each episode on its own merits, your lengthy-but-never-dull posts, and your belief (which I share) that there's no need to burn through plot if the story can make the journey entertaining, no matter how long the serial! Looking forward to reading through your archive of posts over time. Thanks! Any thoughts on what you'll do in 2013?

  2. I agree with the above comment entirely - you are a fantastic writer and each post brings something new and encouraging for all whovians! I'm binge-reading these like crazy recently, and every single one is different and interesting. Please (if you have any time) check out my blog, 'Infernoverse!', which is on the same subject but not quite as good and with a couple of creative writing entries too. It's a bit shite, but if you want please take a moment to look!