Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Doctor Who #92: The Nightmare Begins

"The Guardian of the Solar System is going away on holiday. He will, no doubt, say a few well-chosen words. Every well-chosen word will no doubt be transmitted."TECHNICAL SPECS: Part 1 of the Daleks' Master Plan, and episode mission from the archives except from one brief clip. Though I've listened to the entire story as narrated by Peter Purves, here I have used an online reconstruction (Part 1, Part 2). First aired Nov.13 1965.

IN THIS ONE... Looking for medicine to save Steven's life, the Doctor lands on Kembel, the jungle planet where lots of aliens are meeting with the Daleks, including Earth's own Mavic Chen!

REVIEW: Remember those Space Security Service guys who took center stage and were killed in Mission to the Unknown? They're back. Well, not the same ones, obviously. New ones. And one of them is Nicholas Courtney in the first of many appearances in Doctor Who (something we can thank director Douglas Camfield for). Not yet the Brigadier, here he's Bret Vyon, butch SSS man from the year 4000! Come to retrieve the previous agents' message and desperate to bring it back to Earth, one gets the sense that though he ends up on the Doctor's side by episode's end, he's a dangerous ally. His devotion to duty may well mean he'll screw the Doctor over if he needs to. Oh, this is definitely an episode about strange bedfellows. In addition to Vyon, we have the sketchy Dalek alliance that the Guardian of the Solar System is a part of (traitor!), and even Katarina, new and unexpected companion, seems at odds with the setting she's been thrown into.

It's hard to imagine what Steven must be thinking. He wakes up from a fever and Vicki's been replaced by one of Cassandra' handmaidens. And there's this macho chap in the TARDIS too - is HE getting replaced as well? In her first episode as a companion, I'm afraid Katarina lacks focus. She seems dazed more than anything. Early scenes do have tension, and the Doctor bravely sets out to find meds for Steven, but there's a lot of moving back and forth for no reason (coming back to the TARDIS to say he found a city, for example), and the point made moot when Bret finds meds in his pockets. But that's Terry Nation for you. Master of the padded episode and king of the cliché B-movie dialog. The Nightmare Begins (indeed!) is full of confusions between various stellar domains, and moments like the Doctor wondering if he's in the solar system makes no sense unless Kembel is one of Sol's newly acquired planets. The probability is that Nation thinks a solar system is a group of stars. Who knows how much power Mavic Chen yields as its Guardian. There's every possibility the dialog between Earth communications personnel Roald and Lizan was meant to be funny and satirical, but the actors' wooden performance doesn't do it justice, so all you hear is Nation making them say random numbers every few seconds. See, that's the thing with Nation's dialog - only the very best actors can make it work, which here includes Courtney and Kevin Stoney (Mavic Chen). Nation's other tic is to introduce new technology in the TARDIS arsenal, even if we never see that technology again. In this case, Bret has to spend a few minutes in a "magnetic chair" of the Doctor's invention. Nonsense best forgotten.

We get some sense of the future, especially in the way the Earthers still watch tv and comment on politicians like Mavic Chen. The Dalek base/city is an obvious model, and Chen's little spinning ship rather cute, but acceptable. Kembel's jungle is well realized, dark and dangerous, and Bret's colleague is killed by the Daleks in a tense, properly fierce moment (the only scene of the episode that has survived). The costumes have an odd but distinctive look which might indicate a caste culture, though the military uniforms are of a quality unmatched elsewhere. (See also Theories.) Certainly, while we've just met Mavic Chen and consequently have no trouble believing in his betrayal, it's still a proper political cliffhanger.

THEORIES: This story seems to present a future Earth in which different ethnicities and cultures seem to have risen over the next 2000 years. It makes perfect sense, though the specifics are perhaps too strange. The bald-headed Technix certainly have a distinctive culture and way of presenting themselves. Mavic Chen is the more interesting character, with his bronze skin and tightly curled white hair, fu manchu and slanted eyes. He's got a slightly alien look and demeanor, and perhaps he's got blood from a non-human species coursing through his veins, we don't know. But in the future, skin, hair and eye types will have mixed to a great degree. Kudos to the production team for at least trying to present this idea, especially using a major non-white character (though played by a white actor).

REWATCHABILITY: Medium - Terry Nation's weaknesses are on show, but who can resist the first appearances of both Nick Courtney and Kevin Stoney in the program? Thankfully, the production moves along quickly enough that it doesn't dwell on the weaker elements.


Craig Oxbrow said...

DWM informs me it's a year since Mr. Courtney passed on, so it's a pleasure to see him pop up today.

Siskoid said...

Today? What a strange, sad synchronicity.