Doctor Who #494: The Androids of Tara Part 1

"Do you mind not standing on my chest? My hat's on fire."
TECHNICAL SPECS: This story is available on DVD and in a Special Edition boxed set. First aired Nov.25 1978.

IN THIS ONE... Doctor Who does The Prisoner of Zenda. The Doctor goes fishing while Romana finds the fourth segment. The former helps fix a princely android, and the latter is captured by Count Grendel.

REVIEW: I won't lie. Maybe The Prisoner of Zenda is a thing in the U.K. Maybe it's even a thing on this side of the Pond. But I only ever come across it in connection to this Doctor Who serial. The program at least owned the fact that it was ripping off something its viewers would recognize, with the Doctor saying "It's been done before" in regards to Prince Reynart's plan to use a decoy (an android instead of a convenient double) so he can sneak into his own coronation without Count Grendel's interference. Don't worry about convenient doubles, there's one coming anyway, or so the sharp viewer might intuit from Grendel and his striking surgeon-engineer Madam Lamia recognizing Romana. A perfect double for the other noble in line for the throne, Princess Strella, surely. (In the Zenda story, the princess is named Flavia. Sound familiar? A Time Lord by that name shows up in 1983's The Five Doctors, written by Terrence Dicks who also script edited a television Zenda broadcast the following year. Hmm.)

Writer David Fisher's given himself a strong, if not entirely original, narrative base then (something lacking his Stones of Blood), but thematically, he seems to have used Zenda's mirroring and reversal strategy to create certain effects as well. For example, we expect the Zenda plot to center on Reynart and his android ("George" as the Doctor calls it), but a Zenda'd Romana is in the wings. Fisher has created a Medieval/Renaissance culture kept alive by noblemen, but the peasantry is skilled in such things as android-making. The fairy tale castles and idyllic woodland (great locations all around) hide a technologically sophisticated society. And where it's usually the companion who wanders off and gets into trouble, here the Doctor does much the same. With the fate of the universe at stake, he decides to take a break and go fishing (the fourth Doctor is just flaky enough for this not to be completely out of character) while Romana, ever the more competent one (as she also shows with her knowledge of chess), finds the segment of the Key by herself. In another twist, the segment is found in the first few minutes of the serial instead of at the end. Of course, it's immediately impounded by Count Grendel, so this'll be a recovery mission as opposed to a treasure hunt. The Doctor gets into trouble, like a wet companion, but the double-reversal is that so does Romana.

Has Peter Jeffrey ever played Cyrano de Bergerac? His Grendel certainly has the look and presence required. He's quite good as the suave but dangerous swordsman plotting to win the crown of Tara by treacherous default. Lamia (great names on this side of the ramparts, really) has a strange episode at one point where she zones out. What's that about? Thinking Romana is an android, they almost cut off her head, until they notice a swollen ankle. Write it down in your calendars, kids: November 25th, the anniversary of the only time a twisted ankle ever SAVED a companion's life. On the other side of the wood, the Doctor charms the Prince, a gracious sort, but rather written and played to type, by haggling the price of his android-fixing services DOWN. Reynart's guards are brutish non-characters, but they at least allow the Doctor to poke fun at authority figures, which Tom Baker always does well. Oh, and for the kids, there's an ape-like monster in the forest, but it's just a red herring.

THEORIES: I can't believe this is my second Theory post about the TARDIS wardrobe, but more information has come to light. This episode shows Romana enter the room beyond the TARDIS (which I'm sure is on a carousel depending on what's needed) and look at a single rack of disparate costumes apparently classified in alphabetical order. "Tara" (immediately the latest fashion for the exact era) is after Tahiti and Tally-ho. It's an amusing gag, but this tells me at least some of the clothes inside the TARDIS are mathematical constructs just like the capsule's rooms. Romana called up a "file" (T), which the TARDIS adjusted to current temporal location (which might explain some of the coincidences regarding companions walking out of the TARDIS with appropriate garb, like Sarah Jane in The Pyramids of Mars). If the clothes in the TARDIS are such constructs (i.e. were never sown by a person), it could also explain how they change to fit the Doctor when he regenerates into a different body type, or how his coats can have bottomless pockets.

REWATCHABILITY: High - An episode that has its cake and its eat too. It's a science fiction story based on a fantasy romance, and a faux-historical set on an alien world. Bit of everything, with nice locations and sets, plenty of twists and turns already, and a couple of great actors in the guest cast.

1 comments:

Tommy K said...

Don't beat yourself up for not knowing Prisoner of Zenda; I only knew it because Mike Sekowsky ripped it off for a Wonder Woman story back in the '70s. Love this episode; love this serial.

 

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