Reviewed: Doctor Who Season 18 – It All Falls Apart

Regular Doctor Who Companion readers won’t be fooled by the title: it’s not my judgment of Doctor Who Season 18; nor is it a description of shaky sets, props, or K9. Nor is it about the relationship of characters on- or off-screen (though all these feature). ‘It All Falls Apart’ denotes the theme of Season 18: order tends towards chaos, the second law of thermodynamics; Entropy.

Indeed, cake or death…?

Entropy results in the ultimate heat-death of the universe, but it also gives us cake. Without entropy, no matter how hard you tried to mix them, the flour, eggs, sugar, and butter would stay in nice, ordered quarters of the bowl, and that complex magic of chemistry would never happen. No treating family, celebrating with friends, or just getting fat. And there lies the rub – we need entropy, but not too much. So it is with Season 18.

The Leisure Hive

BROCK: Is there anything we can do?
VARGOS: Nothing. His time has come.

It’s all there in that first interminably long shot – panning from Brighton’s new pier with flashing lights, to the Doctor finally appearing slumped in his deckchair, looking ill (though at the time they thought it was just jet-lag), under the backdrop of the old West Pier crumbling into the sea, as the winds of change blow around them. Then K9 unfathomably damages himself running into the sea. Their time has come.

So they head for Argolin, a decaying society, remnant of catastrophic policies of the past, the body politic being preyed on by two forces: the Family’s hostile takeover, and a white supr – sorry, yellow-green supremacist. But what really threatens them is despair (on which the Foamasi play). “Despair is the death of hope,” says Mena, “and all our hope died years ago.” That explains their mindbogglingly dull corridors – so much for the ‘pleasure planet.’ But Hardin finds a new take, heroically Running Through Corridors carrying the dying Mena.

Argolin bodies are literally falling apart; bits drop off as they age. Tom hated looking frail for so long: we don’t like visual portents of our mortality. But their special effects New Toy suggests damaged bodies are not necessarily what they seem. Pangol even explains in his introduction that the images are temporary, so if the original viewers could remember across three weeks, they’d know the failure of his army is inevitable. With the Doctor and Romana’s help, their magic box can run in reverse, giving them hope, and the Doctor back all his youth and vigour – but with uncomfortable evidence that he, too, is vulnerable. This is such an important part of Season 18: Tom’s variable health and reluctant conclusion that it was time to move on adding power and poignancy. The Watcher may not appear until Logopolis, but he casts a long shadow back through time.

There are excellent bits of The Leisure Hive: the understated but believable relationship between Hardin and Mena, roles played with serious commitment; likewise Pangol, slowly but surely ramping up the arrogance, xenophobia, and madness; the clicking, chirruping Foamasi language; the score, always appropriate to the plot; Tom’s new costume (except the question marks); the alienness of the young Foamasi lawyer – more Mormon than Mafia, but creepy nonetheless; Tom and Lalla peeping round the door together; Hardin’s Vulcan Death Grip.™

In contrast, I dislike the Tartrazine disco-era titles immensely – they’ve aged faster than an Argolin. The shift to supposed science stumbles closer to magic here – Hardin: “But this isn’t science!” (compare Jon Pertwee’s exhaustive lab tests), and even if the Foamasi’s skin suit uses the same compression technique as the Slitheen, it’s not physics as we know it. Close-ups of Foamasi costumes fail, model shots of docking shuttles and the exterior Hive are overlong and overused, and they could have done with a few more varied extras.

But it’s a valiant start to the season, with a message – strong relationships and courageous action can defeat corrupt power and despair.

And so the Doctor decides to leave the Randomiser on Argolin, no longer trying to dodge the inevitable. Never have the actor and role been more indivisible. Fact and fiction: Who is hard to leave.

Meglos

Ah, the one with the chronic hysteresis.

ROMANA: ‘Is there any way out?’

The show’s history with studio-bound jungles has its highs. This isn’t one of them.

Partly caught in a time loop to the previous era, there’s a flavour of Douglas Adams’ humour, with the motley collection of comedy mercenaries, their leader’s unfazed reaction to a giant talking cactus (which works both as plant prop and spiky humanoids, but not so much as a hyper-intelligent shade of the colour green), and Romana leading them round in circles. Their costumes are fun, their grungy ship realistic, and dialogue occasionally lifts the mood. Whether as Meglos or the Doctor, Tom seems tired and grumpy, though always watchable. His Meglos is scary enough to unnerve the kids, and he never forgets the Doctor is seriously alien too – talking to K9 in an weird whispered excitement at they break the time loop. Filmed after State of Decay, where the two leads were notoriously out of harmony, his health and their relationship were only just beginning to recover.

Ah, the one with the chronic hysteresis.

Christopher H Bidmead’s focus on philosophical science-in-harmony-with-the-universe doesn’t work, despite Zastor’s claim that the Doctor is wise enough to hold the two in balance: “The Doctor has the maturity to respect many points of view.” The improbable artefact of compressed power fails to intrigue, the scientists with weird hair and no sense of humour versus the cultists with weird robes and no sense of humanity are formulaic, and the two sides’ wooden grandstanding at each other is hard to endure. Even the one voice of reason is taken in by the doppelganger.

Jacqueline Hill is given an unpromising role, which she makes the best of, but it’s a pale shadow of her Aztecs glory. A Deon priestess would have collapsed in howling horror if her god’s gift had been stolen, not just stood there bewildered. Instead of a satisfying ‘learn and grow’ closure, she was sacrificed to spin out their under-running material. Christopher Owen’s ‘Earthling’ doesn’t even get a name, though he’s so reminiscent of Arthur Dent I keep expecting him to ask for tea. The little moment where he as Meglos strokes his new spiny face, as behind him Brotadac strokes his beard is a lovely directorial flourish.

Ah, the one with the chronic hysteresis.

Without the randomiser, the Doctor pops the earthman home before he left; it all seems too easy. Though the new SFX is quite nicely done – the scale of the ship, the Death Star™ pentagonal screens – the rest feels like painting by numbers.

Oh, and the ‘solid’ door Romana bangs on in the third cliffhanger does shake, badly.

Full Circle

GARIF: Chaos surrounds us!
DOCTOR: Wilful procrastination of endless procedure; you want to hold on to the old order.

The Starliner is the opposite of entropy; ordered, changeless, and going nowhere. Its revered history books go back forever, but there’s no rust or even encroachment of nature, the Doctor can get it flight-ready in seconds. They go round replacing perfectly good components with other perfectly good components (where do they get them? Do they just have a spare of everything and keep rotating, and why does it take 6 people to change one widget)? Everything is in order. And the Doctor whirls in and upturns the applecart. Change, my dears, and not a moment too soon.

Given it is ostensibly about evolution, it pays only lip service to science. I know it’s E-Space, but no evolutionary line should leap from spider, to marshman, to fossilised bureaucracy. But then, as a human, I share 89% of my DNA with a daffodil, so who am I to say?

In contrast to The Leisure Hive’s, I love the corridors: angular, varied, interesting lighting – in fact, the whole crystalline Starliner design is gorgeous. Even the inspection panels are beautiful.

The tiered flight deck isn’t as good, but is trying. The cargo bay is realistic, though its entropy-proof walls shake when hammered on by escaping Marshmen. The ‘monsters’ rising from the mist is a classic shot, in costumes good for the era. The squealing net-bound Marshchild is genuinely disturbing. On the other hand, the spiders are best ignored, and the costumes of the Alzarians are bland, and really don’t help the Outlers (pastel rebels – seriously?) who are as tough and dynamic as blancmange.

And on the subject of wet teens and costume, if I mention the obvious directorial gaze evident in lingering shots of muscular youth in wet skimpy clothing Phil will censor me, so I will leave it to your imagination.

On a totally unrelated note, we need to talk about Adric.

Fan wisdom says if it looks like a dork, walks like a dork, and acts like a dork, it’s probably a dric. Or something like that. But it should’ve fitted the bill: a young man inveigles himself into the TARDIS uninvited; he starts off pretty dodgy, unethical, and open to the lure of the dark side, but ends with a satisfying character arc, and is played brilliantly – by Mark Strickson two years later. Matthew Waterhouse has his moments: his response when challenged to earn the Outler ‘badge’ is strong; he’s game for stunts like swimming under grotty water; and doesn’t hold back in his chase through the woods. But Adric’s neither funny enough to be likeable, nor dark enough to be intriguing, neither a believable genius nor a charming rogue. He’s not even alien enough to excuse his lack of human social skills – young Carole Ann Ford could teach him a thing or two about both.

Romana sulking at being recalled to Gallifrey jars; travelling with the Doctor has made her strong, not petulant. James Bree’s Nefred occasionally talks like his Security Chief from The War Games, but mostly he and Login impress. I must highlight an underrated moment of acting skill: the way Nefred looks at the Marshchild knowing – before the audience does – that it represents his ancestors is superb. This was decades before tech allowed re-watchers to appreciate it.

Fortunately, after filming State of Decay and Meglos, Tom’s health had picked up – to see him after the CVE skidding full pelt into the console room at K9-level is a joy.

Whatever his health, he never phoned in his performance; his rage at the death of the Marshchild still comes across like a fifth universal force.

He’s magnificent. Spine-tingling. Like his ‘Indomitable’ speech from Ark in Space but with a darker undertone, the last flashes of power before the light goes out.

State of Decay

DOCTOR: They just went to pieces.

After Full Circle, I find myself in a world where a powerful, rich elite live high in their heavily-guarded tower, sucking the lifeblood from the population below, which they breed for ‘dullness, conformity, and obedience’ to the status quo. So, for escapism, I turn to State of Decay.

You have to admit it’s stylish. It’s as though they didn’t use a storyboard; they just looked at a gallery of Rembrandts, chiaroscuros, and scenes from Macbeth. The opening throne room glass shot is classy, though when the Doctor mentions the architectural style, I hear Vila’s description ‘Early Maniac.’ The Batcave below is pretty good and I even like Adric’s ‘chosen one’ costume. So how come, when he spends much of the episode mesmerised, unconscious, asleep, dreaming, and In Bed, it’s the only Season 18 episode where he’s not wearing pyjamas?

Generic downtrodden villagers are boring, and the rebel scientists a little better. And is this the story with the most auteur facial hair? Zargo’s outrageously curled creation catches the eye, bobbing up and down as he speaks. The camp vamps are a joy, gliding imperiously around their domain. Zargo and Camilla’s formal dance moves are hilarious. Their Big Bad Rubber Gloves let them down badly, but who cares? This is the mid-season panto. In hindsight, even Zargo’s “yes, we know who you are” is funny.

Aukon – which in some language should mean ‘fake gold’ – is gloriously OTT, though at his best when whispering to Adric as they ‘groom’ him for power (quite disturbing these days), or the killer line to the guard – “then die; that is the purpose of guards.”

Tom’s health, and his relationship with Lalla were low at this point. You can have fun spotting the times they wouldn’t even look at each other, but it left the rest of the cast and crew treading eggshells. Given it was Matthew Waterhouse’s first episode filmed, it’s a wonder it didn’t all fall apart.

One question: Stuart Fell – aren’t you a little short for a palace guard?

Warriors’ Gate

RORVIK: Everything breaks eventually.

Alice in Blunderland.

We move from a Goth pastiche to a New Romantic Zen parable. An ancient door in the middle of nowhere. A ‘magic’ mirror and a feast where the tables are turned. A disappearing guide “like talking to a Cheshire cat.” “A shadow of my past; and of your future.” Another long slow opening shot, with a countdown to nothing. “Nowhere to go and no way of getting there.”

White-out sets in Who have a good track record, from The Mind Robber to The Girl Who Waited. Spooky, unfathomable – Other. Warrior’s Gate is no exception, strikingly different for its colour-mad audience. A sporadically substantial lion-man appearing through the TARDIS walls is the least disconcerting part.

Enjoy executive producer Barry Letts’ Buddhist influence here: Karma (the Tharils suffer the fate they inflicted on others; the slavers bring destruction on themselves); dukkha (life is unsatisfactory, everything is impermanent, ungraspable, and not really knowable; good things don’t last); and Sunyata – like Lao Tse’s ‘wu wei’ – the way of least resistance, which nevertheless takes effort. Summed up by the opening debate:

Romana: “We’ve got to do something!”
Doctor: “Have we?”

The Doctor (and Tom?) accepts the inevitable, choosing not to act on events, but go with the flow.

Doctor: “You get the feeling it’s closing in around you?”
Biroc: “Do nothing; it is done.”

This one is not for the kids.

Adric isn’t engaging enough to keep kids interested, but his relationship with K9 is better, faster, more fluid. His reaction to dust in is face is natural, his cough realistic, likewise his handling the dwarf star alloy like it is actually heavy. And he does save the Doctor and Romana from the slaver crew. Potential that was sadly never realised.

I like that Romana, in her Chinese silk top, uses chopsticks to pick up a pickled onion! Fans will enjoy her quote “Do we have that right?” and her tongue-twister “the back blast backlash will bounce back and destroy everything!” Even seating the Gunden robots with their feet crossed is funny, but humour feels out of place in this mood-piece curiosity.

Tom is wasted battling rubbish androids while Romana outsmarts the slavers, who epitomise “the banality of evil.” The gantry set allows interesting shots and horror-style lighting from below, but they were so afraid it would fall apart that very few actors were allowed on together.

Romana’s relationship with Gallifrey has broken down to the extent that she’d rather go off with Biroc to free the Tharils than return to the TARDIS for any of her room’s considerable collection of clutter. Lalla leaves. K9 has broken down so often he can only function in an alternative universe; he and John Leeson leave. The Doctor and Adric escape E-Space through the collapsing gateway, but at a price.

I like Warriors’ Gate. So what if its timey-wimey imponderables are hard to follow? Have another goblet of wine and you won’t care. Just don’t knock it over.

The Keeper of Traken

TREMAS: With the Source out of control nature reverts to destructive chaos.

As an artist, I love The Keeper of Traken. Art nouveau opulence meets fairy-tale flounce. The set nods towards Gaudi (but never gaudy). Even the Keeper’s super-delux shower screen is a thing of beauty, and does anyone else see TARDIS console in the Source design?

The rest is less satisfying. The production is often stagey, cast impassively watching others Acting. Katura’s “what, in our house?” is straight out of Macbeth. The Melkur could have killed the Doctor with a glance without all that puppeteering. Adric appears to have developed short-term memory loss, telling Nyssa they’re safe now because no one can get in except the Doctor. Okay, there may be many untold stories between Biroc and Traken (oh hi, Big Finish!), but the Keeper’s visitation was only hours past. The wind machine never really works: the sound implies a howling gale – which occasionally ruffles their hair. The cast valiantly try to portray being blown around – with varying success. Actually, Matthew Waterhouse is better at this physical stuff than he is at, say, walking across a room.

He and Tom work well together, especially in the TARDIS scenes, and reasoning out scientific solutions. The ‘apprentice’ role develops here; the writers have remembered he’s supposed to be a genius and a thief – good with locks. Tom shows their growing relationship with careful physical echoing. There’s also a fun bit of non-dialogue ‘business’ between them opening the grove gate.

Nyssa is a fairy-tale princess complete with tiara, but Tremas introduces her with respect. She respects herself as a scientist, is confident and commanding as a high-born girl should be, and able to use a weapon when necessary. Even the Doctor’s “I must remember never to fall out with your daughter, Tremas” seems prophetic.

On the other hand, Kassia never convinces me, especially the relationship with Tremas. He immediately suspects her of Seron’s death, and scarcely reacts to her own. Many of the Melkur’s other victims die of overacting, which should be a lesson to us all.

The rest of the population seem to be decadent, ineffectual, and with terrible peripheral vision. “All-pervading evil” has begun to corrupt the place; Neman’s pragmatic reaction to Tremas’ “if all the stars were diamonds in my power, I still wouldn’t want it” shows the love of money has taken root. While the consuls debate whether fosters should be armed, Neman has gone ahead and done it! They do not believe evil can happen here – which is why it has. It’s clear that people stopped ‘being terribly nice to each other’ long before we arrive.

The Melkur is a good prop, well directed: moved minimally, it’s scary, though the full walking statue lets it down some. Was the reveal a surprise? Geoffrey Beevers’ crispy fried Master is just wonderful. Creepy, tactile, simmering between deranged despot and patient plotter. His hungry enveloping of Tremas’ body is reminiscent of Meglos and the earthman but far more disturbing: orphaned Nyssa isn’t the only one left unsettled.

The portrait of the Doctor nearing his regeneration is painted with finesse. He explains to Adric that Traken was so pure “evil just shrivelled up and died. Maybe that’s why I never went there.” This self-aware candour occurs immediately after the Keeper has complimented his intelligence and called on his help.

Keeper: “The passing ages have taken their toll of me.”
Doctor: “Yes, I know that feeling.”

The TARDIS (symbiotically one with the Doctor) is “in general run-down condition; badly in need of an overhaul.” Tom still looks ill, but nevertheless acts everyone else off the screen. There’s directorial genius in this shot – the Doctor’s throat exposed for sacrifice.

Luvic (Tim Nice-But-Dim) leaps into the Chair just in time to save the day for Traken, but their happy ending is soon to crumble into dust…

Logopolis

MONITOR: “Nothing is solid now; entropy has taken over.”

The opening shot seems reassuring – the familiar TARDIS, with a British Bobby™ at the door. But with a fun bit of mime as he’s dragged inside, the reassurance ends…

There are lots of extraordinary images in Logopolis: the increasingly gloomy Russian TARDISes, Adric on its top, a position not repeated until Series 8’s Listen! The Watcher silently beckoning. The Monitor’s piecemeal disappearance, eaten by entropy. The dramatic organ chords accompanying the cloister bell seem OTT, perhaps necessary for this first encounter. And the set designers had fun with an interesting bit of kit rising out of the console.

“This place is unreal” says Tegan, and yes, the cloister set is unconvincing, with fake ivy and studio floor. Logopolis, too, would have been better for location shooting, but their film budget went on the lay-by, river barge, and ‘Jodrell Bank.’ Then in the midst of stone cells and pink skies, we see a unit where UNIT would be at home; computer desks, screens, and print-outs. The shrunken TARDIS works; the Master’s shrunken Kens and Barbie really don’t; Goodge in Terror of the Autons was so much better – a legend in his own lunchbox.

The travellers and keystone cops running around in the transmitter compound is always funny (try it speeded up to Yakety Sax). But if security’s so hot on the heels of the companions, how come they’re not also gathered round the regenerating Doctor? Respect for the temporarily dead?

Just as ’70s smoking looks dated now, so does the technician’s casual throwing away of single use plastic cup. How times move on.

Adric: I have to say it; he’s better than fan lore dictates. He picks up on the Doctor’s hint and pulls off a good diversion. There’s even character development: when the Monitor says “sabotage”, Adric says “Murder” – the Doctor’s moral influence is clear.

Tegan is brave and curious; as she explores the TARDIS it seems far more flexible, unending, and dangerous than anything the Season 11 set implied. She instantly works out she’s in a ship of some sort – “there must be intelligent life at the end of this lot.” Proactive, she causes a diversion without being asked, so the Doctor can reach the transmitter. Emotional but tough, she won’t ask for help, but will demand explanations – of the TARDIS, of the ‘sweatshop’ conditions. Janet Fielding says she found Tom difficult but her performance is a striking introduction.

Which puts Nyssa into third place; Sarah Sutton isn’t as good here as in Traken, but eloquently shows her shock at its destruction.

And Anthony Ainley ain’t Roger Delgado. He overused a ‘dastardly’ laugh without humour; Delgado played it straight but with amused superiority.

The whispering monks in their gold and black robes are oddly effective. John Fraser (Monitor) is excellent and shows real relief when they think the disaster is averted. I like the wise way he takes care of the young companions. A subtle contrast to the Doctor, who has to tell two teenage girls of their bereavements; he handles Tegan, who he hardly knows, better than Nyssa, whom he later adopts.

The way he takes leave of them all before going off with the Master is Tom at his alien best. Logopolis is littered with phrases around the Doctor’s attitude to his impending doom: “I hate farewells”, “I will not be beaten”, “I’m going to stop him if it’s the last thing I do” – knowing it will be. Lingering close-ups show his growing anxiety, and resolve to complete the mission while he has time. I love that he nervously runs his tongue over his lips before he sets out to meet the Watcher.

The Doctor’s diagnosis – “a change of circumstances that fragments the law that holds the universe together” – beautifully recalls Zastor’s words from Meglos: “He sees the threads that hold the universe together, and mends them when they break.” But it costs him everything. As they climb the tower, in a lovely echo of the season opening, that wind of change blows round him again. After all the Watcher’s hints, the Doctor just seems to release his grip on the structure: Doctor, I let you go.

Logopolis’ regeneration is more tired than triumphant, as Tom flakily fades into Peter Davison. Re-watching this season for the DWC has made me radically reassess my opinion of Tom: as a child, after the avuncular Third Doctor and Jo Grant, I found his Doctor too weird, alien, unpredictable, and dangerous. I never felt safe with him. I knew even then that he was not entirely easy on set, but didn’t sense the artistic integrity and acting passion that make his Doctor consistently rated top. Late to the party, I find his full-blooded commitment to the role fantastic, and long for precisely those qualities I struggled with as a child. But we all have to let go, and who knows what lies ahead? Much as we knew Tom would always be the Doctor, no one expected him to star in the 50th anniverary, or be recording new audio adventures 38 years later. “It’s the end, but the Moment has been stolen by future me, and used/not used depending on your time-of-view, so the Doctor Falls No More.”

That’s the genius of Doctor Who, the anti-humpty dumpty factor: even when it all falls apart, it comes back together. And always will.

NEXT: It wouldn’t be cricket.