The Curse of Fenric

We hoped to return to the North Way, but the dark curse follows our dragon ship…The Wolves of Fenric will return for their treasure and then shall the dark evil rule eternally.

The Seventh Doctor

Synopsis

The TARDIS materalises at a secret naval base off the coast of Northumberland during the Second World War. Dr Judson, a scientist there, has created the Ultima Machine, an early computer designed to break German codes. But Judson also has a much more sinister use for the machine. He plans to translate the ancient runes in a crypt of the nearby St Jude’s Church, which will release Fenric, an evil entity from the dawn of time whom the Doctor trapped seventeen centuries earlier.

As Fenric’s Haemovores attack, the Doctor must once again face the entity in a battle which will reveal devastating truths for Ace…

Review

The Curse of Fenric is widely held up to be one of the best examples of late 80s Doctor Who, and to an extent I do agree with that opinion. It is a good story, which attempts to tie up the loose ends left from some other Seventh Doctor stories, and also shows this Doctor at his most manipulative. It’s also a chance for the companion to take centre stage, with Ace’s plot perhaps being a sign of things to come in the revived series, with the focus being more on the companion.

The story is good, although it does feel quite choppy to begin with. I’m not sure if it’s down to the writing, directing or editing but the story jumps quite suddenly and seemingly at random to different scenes which I found to be quite jarring. It settles down in the latter two parts, which is to the story’s credit. I also found that the story stretched credulity a little when it came to Millington’s office being modelled on an equivalent office in Germany. Otherwise, as he is Ace’s creator, it is unsurprising that this is a strong story for Sophie Aldred’s character, concluding some of the mystery surrounding the Time Storm in her bedroom and her family history. Some of this comes across as more melodramatic than intended, however moments like when Ace’s grandmother Kathleen learns of the death of her grandfather Frank, this is really touching. Moments like this are more familiar to viewers of the revived series, having had companion’s families playing a prominent role in the first four series. Ace’s relationship and conflicted feelings over her mother make her feel more relatable to the audience and the roots of this being a part of the show when it came back can certainly be seen here. Having Fenric be responsible for bringing the Doctor and Ace together, and also being responsible for Lady Peinforte’s knowledge of the Doctor in Silver Nemesis is an interesting way of bringing dangling threads to a satisfactory conclusion. I really like that strong faith in something is able to keep people safe from the Haemovores, and equally that the Doctor’s faith is in his previous companions, which is something the story could make a little bit clearer, but it’s still a nice idea.

One of the story’s other strengths is the location work, with filming taking place at Lulworth Cove in Devon and Hawkhurst in Kent, and like other stories that aren’t studio bound, there are some really memorable scenes. One that particularly stands out it the Haemovores’ attack on the church which makes full use of St Lawrence Church, including the roof and the ringing chamber. This is one of the best directed sequences in the story, giving a real sense of threat and urgency. Combined with the rightly iconic shots of the Haemovores rising out of the Bay, this is probably one of the horrifying and gothic stories since the Hinchcliffe-Holmes era. Equally, there are some really nice close-ups here, potentially best when the Doctor realises that Fenric has possessed Judson rather than Millington at the end of Part 4, but equally, the close-up on Millington’s face when he realises that his actions have prevented the base being able to call for reinforcements are impactful.

We play the contest again, Time Lord.

Fenric (via the possessed Dr Judson)

The guest cast here are largely good. Nicholas Parsons is one of the real stand-outs here, as on the surface he would appear to be yet another example of producer John Nathan-Turner’s stunt casting, like casting Beryl Reid as a spaceship captain in Earthshock. What the late Parsons manages to do is give this character a genuine sense of nuance and realism to a vicar who has begun to doubt his faith due to the deaths of innocent people caused by the British bombing raids on German cities. Of course, in a story where strength of faith is all that can keep the characters safe from the Haemovores, Reverend Wainwright’s card was always going to be marked, but Parsons makes us care about his character that his death makes an impact. Equally Dinsdale Landen is good as the disabled scientist Judson, and even better when he is possessed by Fenric, and the same can be said for Tomek Bork, even if his time as Fenric is relatively limited. Two performances that really don’t work are those of Joann Kenny and Joanne Bell as Jean and Phyllis, two young evacuees to the countryside from London. It may be partially because the story doesn’t do them any real favours – like the fact that they immediately seem to strike a friendship up with Ace from nothing – but they are pretty irritating and their London accents are excruciating, making it a relief when they are turned to Haemovores relatively early on.

And the half-time score: Perivale 600 million, rest of the universe: nil

Ace

With the focus being firmly on her character, Sophie Aldred puts in a great performance as Ace. As mentioned above, some of the storyline is a bit melodramatic but Aldred largely accredits herself well, with perhaps the exception of the flirting with Sorin’s guard, but I think that might be more to do with the writing. I really liked how proud she was of being able to solve the inscriptions before the Doctor tells her that this will create more problems and that she finally calls the Doctor out about keeping secrets from her about things that might be important. The final confrontation scene with Fenric is really powerful as we realise how much Ace trusts the Doctor, despite his scheming and manipulation, and we see the Doctor take full advantage of this and, to an extent, destroy it, labelling her, amongst other things a social misfit. Sylvester McCoy takes more of a backseat here to his companion, but is utterly convincing as the Machiavellian schemer. On the lighter side, I love the way Ace and the Doctor manage to blag their way onto the base, criticising the guards for being tardy and the Doctor typing up letters of authority.

Verdict: A strong story, falling as the penultimate entry in the ‘Classic’ series, The Curse of Fenric demonstrates Doctor Who as a show potentially regaining its confidence. There are some good (and not so good) guest performances here and there are still problems, but it is a good story. 8/10

Cast: Sylvester McCoy (The Doctor), Sophie Aldred (Ace), Dinsdale Landen (Dr. Judson), Alfred Lynch (Commander Millington), Stevan Rimkus (Captain Bates), Marcus Hutton (Sgt Leigh), Christien Anholt (Perkins), Tomek Bork (Captain Sorin), Peter Czajkowski (Sgt Prozorov), Marek Anton (Vershinin), Mark Conrad (Petrossian), Nicholas Parsons (Reverend Wainwright), Janet Henfrey (Miss Hardaker), Joann Kenny (Jean), Joanne Bell (Phyllis), Anne Reid (Nurse Crane), Cory Pulman (Kathleen Dudman), Aaron Hanley (Baby Audrey) & Raymond Trickett (Ancient One).

Writer: Ian Briggs

Director: Nicholas Mallett

Parts: 4

Behind the Scenes

  • Working titles included The Wolves of Fenric, Wolf-TIme, Powerplay and Black Rain. The title seems to have only been decided on late in the day, as the Radio Times stated in the prgramme listing for Ghost Light that the next story would be The Wolves of Fenric.
  • The story was intended to combine studio and location filming, however, Nicholas Mallett eventually persuaded John Nathan-Turner that the story being entirely shot on location would be more effective and realistic.
  • Ace mentions an old house in Perivale – this was originally intended to be broadcast before as the season opener but the rearranging of broadcast order means that it refers back. The story was also supposed to be the debut of the Doctor’s darker coat but it made its debut appearance in Battlefield instead.
  • The character of Dr Judson was based on Alan Turing and Ian Briggs intended for the back story between Millington and Judson to be that they were former lovers. It was considered an inappropriate plot point for a character to be grappling with his sexuality in a family show, so Briggs changed this to him struggling with being crippled in the finished story. The sexuality subplot, which revealed that Millington crippled Judson during a rugby match in a jealous rage, made the novelisation.

Cast Notes

  • Dinsdale Landen was originally cast as Ganatus in The Daleks but had to drop out due to scheduling conflicts and had been considered to play Lord Henry Palmerdale in Horror of Fang Rock.
  • Marcus Hutton went on to appear in the Big Finish Main Range plays The Church and the Crown and The Kingmaker as well as appearing in Bernice Summerfield and Iris Wildthyme stories.
  • Marek Anton makes his second appearance in this season, having previously appeared as The Destroyer in Battlefield.
  • Janet Henfrey would go on to appear in Mummy on the Orient Express and also appeared in Big Finish plays An Eye For Murder and The Day of the Comet, amongst others.
  • Anne Reid would go on to appear in Smith and Jones.
  • Future Doctors Christopher Eccleston and Peter Capaldi were considered for the role of Reverend Wainwright.
  • Two of the Haemovores are played by Sylvester McCoy’s sons, Sam and Joe Kent-Smith.

Best Moment

The Haemovores rising out of the water is a fantastic scene, and rightly iconic.

Best Quote

Love and hate, frightening feelings, especially when they’re trapped struggling beneath the surface.

Seventh Doctor

Previous Seventh Doctor review: Ghost Light

Other Stories Mentioned

Dragonfire

Silver Nemesis

Ghost Light

Is this an asylum with the patients in charge?

Ace

Synopsis

The Doctor brings Ace to Gabriel Chase, a house in her hometown of Perivale which Ace attempted to burn down in her past. This is not the reason why the Doctor has come here though: a mysterious and highly mentally unstable being lurks below the house.

Review

Ghost Light has a reputation for being quite hard to follow. It is probably some of the most mature and advanced science fiction Doctor Who has ever attempted. This was my first time watching it and I think I broadly understood it, although it is probably in a minority of stories that would really benefit from having a fourth part to the story, as there is not a scene or a line wasted, making it very difficult to make notes on! This is a story with Ace at its core and certainly paves the way for the companion development in the revived era.

It’s true, isn’t it? This is the house I told you about.

You were thirteen. You climbed over the wall for a dare.

That’s your surprise, isn’t it? Bringing me back here.

Remind me what it was that you sensed when you entered this deserted house? An aura of intense evil?

Don’t you have things you hate?

I can’t stand burnt toast. I loath bus stations. Terrible places. Full of lost luggage and lost souls.

I told you I never wanted to come here again.

And then there’s unrequited love. And tyranny. And cruelty.

Too right.

We all have a universe of our own terrors to face.

I face mine on my own terms.

Ace and the Seventh Doctor

This story depicts an interesting take on the Doctor and companion dynamic here, something which has only been seen fleetingly in the relationship between Tom Baker and Leela. The Doctor certainly has had an impact on his companions’ through the course of their travels across each and every incarnation, however, before this point there was very little manipulation of the companion to the extent we see here. As a result, the Doctor comes across as quite scheming, whilst he is trying to ensure that Ace develops to face the fear of her own past, something that would certainly become an element of the remaining two stories of the original show’s run. It certainly makes the Doctor unlikeable when Ace realises that not only has the Doctor brought her to a haunted house, but the very haunted house that clearly had a profound effect on the young Ace. Whilst the Doctor’s behaviour here is morally ambiguous in bringing his young companion face to face with her fears, it does allow both him and the audience to understand her a bit more. Ace clearly had a traumatic time when she visited the house in her original years, evidenced by her horror at being back there, the flashing blue lights and her referring to the Doctor at one point as being her ‘probation officer’.

Who was it who said Earthmen never invite their ancestors round to dinner?

The Seventh Doctor

The story has a central theme of evolution. Light, the controller of the alien spacecraft, decides to destroy the Earth after realising that life has progressed on the planet since he originally catalogued it previously, at which time he picked up Nimrod, a Neanderthal who acts as a butler to the mutinous Josiah Samuel Smith. Josiah eventually evolves to the superior living being at the time – Victorian Man – and his ultimate plan to assassinate Queen Victoria. The visiting Reverend Ernest Matthews is a fine example of the members of the Church who stood up against Darwin after the publication of On the Origin of Species and looks the part too, with his mutton-chops evoking the cartoons of the key players of this period of history. Control evolves through the story into a more sophisticated lady of society, which eventually leads to the downfall of Josiah’s plan to commit regicide. Ace ‘evolves’ through the story, as she is seen to elevate herself to make herself acceptable to Victorian norms and values but she also manages to learn from her fear and she is certainly a different character from the one we see at the beginning of this story. The idea of evolution being reversed is also played around with too, especially when it comes to the fates of Matthews, trapped forever in a state between ape and man, and the kindly but ineffectual Inspector Mackenzie, who is reverted to primordial soup. These are quite big ideas being played around with for a show that is so easily dismissed as being a kids’ show.

This story is really well written by Marc Platt and is tightly plotted, although it possibly is a little bit confusing and could benefit from having the additional time and space a fourth part would have afforded it. It is to Platt and script editor Andrew Cartmel’s immense credit that this story makes any sense at all in it’s reduced form and I look forward to potentially understanding it more on future rewatches. An additional 25 minutes would perhaps have allowed some of the subplots, like Control evolving, the story around Mrs Pritchard and Gwendoline , and Josiah’s plot to use Fenn-Cooper to assassinate Queen Victoria some more time to breathe. This is quite a mature story for Doctor Who to tackle with quite a high concept villain and the husks included to provide a more traditional foe, something that John Nathan-Turner insisted on. It’s not surprising that Platt has been asked back to work on the Virgin New Adventures and subsequently Big Finish given that he clearly understands how to write for the show. Here, he takes the haunted house concept and introduces an alien spaceship under the house, which has returned to catalogue all life on the Earth after an original expedition to do so some time previously. This is quite a bleak story with some inventive deaths for the characters, such as those mentioned above for the Inspector and the Reverend, as well as the fates of Gwendoline and Mrs Pritchard after they are finally reunited as mother and daughter and the maid who Light pulls apart to understand how humanity has evolved.

The guest cast here are really strong, and I feel that the regulars feel forced to join them. This is a strong and emotional episode for Aldred and she does a decent job – unlike in Battlefield, there were no moments where Ace acts out like a petulant child, which made a welcome change. John Nettleton is an actor for whom I have a tremendous fondness due to his recurring role in Yes, Minster and Yes, Prime Minister and I was overjoyed to see him here as the Reverend. John Hallam is great in his role as Light, seeming almost ethereal and dithering, but utterly ruthless, making the most of relatively little screen time. All the cast here are well served, despite a feeling that the story is bursting at the seams at times.

Verdict: I’m sure that my appreciation of Ghost Light will only increase with future visits, but I really enjoyed this story that doesn’t feed its audience all the answers. 10/10

Cast: Sylvester McCoy (The Doctor), Sophie Aldred (Ace), Ian Hogg (Josiah), Sylvia Syms (Mrs. Pritchard), Michael Cochrane (Redvers Fenn-Cooper), Sharon Duce (Control), Katharine Schlesinger (Gwendoline), John Nettleton (Reverend Ernest Matthews), Carl Forgione (Nimrod), Brenda Kempner (Mrs Grose), Frank Windsor (Inspector Mackenzie) & John Hallam (Light)

Writer: Marc Platt

Director: Alan Wareing

Parts: 3

Behind the Scenes

  • Working titles included The Bestiary and Life-Circle.
  • Ghost Light was the last serial of the original run to be produced, although The Curse of Fenric and Survival came after it in transmission order. It is therefore, the final story to include any significant footage filmed at BBC Television Centre.
  • Marc Platt is one of two writers in the show’s history to have a script accepted with no professional writing experience. The other is Andrew Smith, who wrote Full Circle.
  • Sylvester McCoy named this as his favourite serial and Andrew Cartmel refers to it as the “jewel in the crown”.
  • The story evolved out of a rejected script called Lungbarrow, which John Nathan-Turner rejected due to it revealing too much about the Doctor’s past. Marc Platt would go on to reuse the rejected ideas for the Virgin New Adventures novel of the same name.
  • John Nathan-Turner was concerned about the lack of a traditional monster, so Platt devised the husks, prior evolutionary forms of Josiah. THe initial idea was to have an army of these, which was cut down to firstly three, then ultimately two for budgetary reasons.

Cast Notes

  • Ian Hogg went on to appear in The Sandman and Protect and Survive.
  • Michael Cochrane had previously appeared in Black Orchid and would go on to appear in Big Finish productions, including No Man’s Land, Brotherhood of the Daleks, Trail of the White Worm/The Oseidon Adventure and The Fate of Krelos/Return to Telos.
  • Carl Forgione previously appeared in Planet of the Spiders.
  • Frank Windsor had previously appeared in The King’s Demons. He was cast in this story as he was well known TV Detective, having played John Watt on Z-Cars.

Best Moment

When Ace realises that the house is Gabriel Chase, the house that she burnt down as a child and that the Doctor has been lying to her.

Best Quote

Sir, I think Mr Matthews is confused.

Never mind. I’ll have him completely bewildered by the time I’m finished with him.

Gwendoline and the Seventh Doctor

Previous Seventh Doctor Story: Battlefield

Battlefield

My blood and thunder days are long past.

Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart

Synopsis

The Doctor and Ace arrive near Carbury, where the Doctor re-encounters UNIT, headed by Brigadier Winifred Bambera, who has a nuclear convoy nearby Lake Vortigern. At the bottom of that lake is a spaceship from another dimension, containing King Arthur held in suspended animation and his sword, Excalibur.

A knight, Ancelyn, arrives on Earth to help his King, but is followed by the villainous Morgaine and Mordred, all of whom recognise the Doctor as Merlin. The involvement of the Doctor ultimately brings Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart out of his cosy retirement to join the inevitable fight.

Mini Review

The Brigadier is in this. So clearly this is a 10/10.

What? You want a full review? Oh, go on then.

Review

Battlefield is probably the weakest story in the final season, but it is not as bad as that would suggest. The final season of the original show’s run is known for perhaps being one of the strongest in its history and Battlefield kicks things off with a nod to the show’s past in the shape of the Brigadier and a romp of a story concerning Arthurian mythology with knights from other dimensions. It’s reputation is probably not helped by the fact that it came from the pen of Ben Aaronovitch, who wrote the superb season opener for the previous season, Remembrance of the Daleks, which I think we’d all prefer to remember as the real 25th Anniversary story than Silver Nemesis. There are flaws, as with a lot of Doctor Who, but to me, Battlefield feels like a comfort blanket.

The problems with this story really circulate around the writing, direction and music. Keff McCulloch’s score feels really overblown and intrusive. Those who find Murray Gold’s early scores to be too over the top should watch this story and see how understated Gold’s music is in comparison. When it comes to the direction, it is interesting to compare this story to the early Jon Pertwee era where the HAVOC team performed a lot of the stunts. Meanwhile here, the action scenes feel rather flat and lifeless, in particular the battle between Mordred’s forces and UNIT, which does make it difficult to take them seriously. When it comes to the writing of the story, there are some really poorly written aspects, such as Ace and Ling Tai’s dialogue, which makes it feel like nobody on the production team had ever spoken to another teenager, and, like in previous review of The Ultimate Evil, Mordred has moments where all he seems to do is manically laugh for what feels like five minutes at a time. It does feel as though there are too many characters here, and perhaps this was realised by the production team as they remove characters like Warmsly and the owners of the hotel later on in the narrative. Additionally, there are some logical leaps, like why Morgaine’s army fight with a combination of laser guns and grenades, but on the other hand, just normal medieval swords. For all the writing problems, there are moments like where the Doctor explains to Ace that the reverse of Clarke’s Law is also true, which reminds me of when Thor explains how Asgard works to Jane Foster in his first movie.

Can someone tell me what on earth is going on?

Well if my hunch is right, the Earth could be at the centre of a war that doesn’t even belong to this dimension!

Shou Yuing and the Seventh Doctor

I’ll move on to something that I think is more positive: the return of the Brigadier. This is a different Lethbridge-Stewart to the one that was last seen in The Five Doctors and Mawdryn Undead, as he is domesticated, only interested in getting involved when he knows that the Doctor is there. It’s a lovely moment between Sylvester McCoy and Nicholas Courtney when the Brigadier immediately recognises him as The Doctor. He is a bit more uncomfortable when it comes to dealing with Ace, addressing her as the latest one, but it is perhaps a poor bit of writing for her reaction. Ace came in immediately as her predecessor, Mel, left, so she doesn’t have the excuse of not knowing that the Doctor has travelled with others before her. Perhaps it is supposed to denote that Ace isn’t like the previous companions, but it is poorly written and makes Ace seem rude to someone she has just met. Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart acts as a comparison to Brigadier Bambera, played by Angela Bruce. Bambera comes across as much more cold and clinical, perhaps understandably as she doesn’t have the same back catalogue of appearances as Lethbridge-Stewart. Her appointment is just one of the sweeping changes that seem to have occurred since we’ve last seen UNIT, which seems to have come on leaps and bounds as a military organisation since we last saw them briefly in The Five Doctors. They seem a lot more capable than they were in the Pertwee era and have made developments It is perhaps surprising, however, that Bambera has not been briefed as to the possibility of encountering the Doctor.

The villains of the piece are a bit of a mixed bag: on the positive side, there are Morgaine and the Destroyer, on the negative is Mordred. Jean Marsh does really well with Morgaine, who could become overblown in different hands, but she takes this part and makes it really good. Her scene with Courtney after his helicopter is blown up is great and she does certainly carry off her performance with a sense of majesty. The Destroyer is, from a technical point of view, spectacular especially in a story where the lack of budget is painfully obvious. Unfortunately, as mentioned above, Mordred is rather poor. It’s rare that I find a character so annoying that I was glad when Morgaine was willing to let him die at the hands of the Brigadier, then frustrated when he cropped back up. Having been slightly obsessed with Arthurian legend in my childhood, I liked the idea that they were from an alternate dimension where Arthurian legend was closer to reality.

The Seventh Doctor is central to this story, trapped in a situation orchestrated by his future self, known as Merlin and this is a good performance from McCoy. At times he is utterly bluffing his position but at others, he is utterly in control. He is in his element when he is dealing with the Brigadier and it is utterly believable that he is a future incarnation of Pertwee’s Doctor. Sophie Aldred doesn’t have a lot to do here, and isn’t terribly well written. This story does include her throwing a racial slur at Shou when Morgaine is trying to manipulate them to get her own hands on Excalibur, which is troubling. It also does go some way to explain that Ace is a bit of an outcast and doesn’t really have friends outside of her travels in the TARDIS, something which would be explored more in the season to come.

Verdict: This is no Remembrance of the Daleks, but frankly, few things are. Aaronovitch’s difficult second episode is good fun, if littered with issues around writing, direction and music, but ultimately is quite easy watching. 7/10

Cast: Sylvester McCoy (The Doctor), Sophie Aldred (Ace), Jean Marsh (Morgaine), Nicholas Courtney (Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart), James Ellis (Peter Warmsly), Angela Bruce (Brigadier Winifred Bambera), Christopher Bowen (Mordred), Marcus Gilbert (Ancelyn), Angela Douglas (Doris Lethbridge-Stewart), Noel Collins (Pat Rowlinson), June Bland (Elizabeth Rowlinson), Ling Tai (Shou Yuing), Robert Jezek (Sergeant Zbrigniev), Dorota Rae (Flight Lieutenant Lavel), Stefan Schwartz (Knight Commander), Paul Tomany (Major Husak) & Marek Anton (The Destroyer).

Writer: Ben Aaronovitch

Director: Michael Kerrigan

Parts: 4

Behind the Scenes

  • This story marks Nicholas Courtney’s final appearance in televised Doctor Who ahead of his passing in 2011, and the Brigadier was written out in The Wedding of River Song. Courtney did reprise the role in The Sarah Jane Adventures and in the independent production Downtime, as well as for Big Finish.
  • In the original outline for this story, the Brigadier was going to die, however, when the production team realised that this was going to be largely overshadowed by explosions, they reconsidered.
  • Graeme Harper was approached to direct, however, he was busy working on Boon.
  • The water tank sequence at the end of Part 2 almost caused catastrophy when the glass began to crack, sending water over the studio floor towards live wires. Sylvester McCoy alerted the crew by breaking character and swearing to get Sophie Aldred out of the tank. The majority of the cast and crew, including Aldred, believe that she would have died without McCoy’s intervention, however, Gary Downie disputed that Aldred was at any risk, but the floor crew were.
  • The last story to feature Bessie, the Third Doctor’s vintage car, in original footage. Bessie would appear in The Name of the Doctor, but only in archive footage.
  • The last serial of the original run to feature the TARDIS interior. The scene in Part One was shot on a hastily constructed set, covered up by shooting in semi-darkness. The regular scenery had been accidently disposed of after recording The Greatest Show in the Galaxy.
  • Working titles for this story included Knightfall, Storm over Avallion, Lakes Over Avallion, Pool of Avallion, Song of Avallion, Stormtroopers of Avallion and The Battlefield.
  • Part One had the lowest rating of an episode of Doctor Who at 3.1 million viewers.

Cast Notes

  • Jean Marsh had previously appeared in The Crusade and The Dalek’s Master Plan. Coincidentally, Nicholas Courtney was also in The Dalek’s Master Plan.
  • June Bland had previously appeared in Earthshock.
  • Angela Bruce would reprise her role as Brigadier Bambera in the Big Finish audio story, Animal.

Best Moment

As someone who is fond of the Brigadier, I do quite like his face-off with the Destroyer, followed by the revelation that he is not dead, but prepared to hand his responsibilities over to Ace.

Best Quote

Ahh…little man. What do you want of me?

Get off my world!

Pitiful. Can this world do no better than you as their champion?

Probably. I just do the best I can.

The Destroyer and Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart

Previous Seventh Doctor Review: The Greatest Show in the Galaxy

Further Reading

Remembrance of the Daleks

The Greatest Show in the Galaxy

I’ve always found circuses a little…sinister.

The Seventh Doctor

Synopsis

The Doctor and Ace receive some junk mail inviting them to the self-proclaimed ‘Greatest Show in the Galaxy’ on the planet Segonax. On their arrival, they meet fellow visitors and performers, Cook, Mags and Nord, and discover that the circus is run by the villainous Chief Clown for the Gods of Ragnarok.

Review

Before I’d ever watched The Greatest Show in the Galaxy, there was a part of me that always thought that it was a case of the show trying just a smidge too hard to blow its own trumpet. Throw in the fact that it comes in the late 1980s, in the same season as the absolute garbage that is Silver Nemesis and I didn’t feel too optimistic when I pressed play. To say that I was pleasantly surprised is an understatement, as I was swept along by an interesting and inventive story with some truly engaging characters. It certainly feels with this story that Doctor Who had regained some of its swagger over the course of its twenty-fifth anniversary season, although with the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to see how this confidence might be seen to have been misplaced.

That’s not to say that this story is not without flaws. The rap that starts the story (see above) is pretty cringeworthy, a problem that 80s Who seems to suffer with in abundance when it is trying to be cool. I’d be interested if anyone liked it at the time, but in 2020 it is laughable. Amongst the strong band of characters introduced in this story, we have Nord and Whizz Kid, both of whom are very one-dimensional. Nord is a pretty stereotypical biker type, whilst Whizz Kid is a blatant attack on a certain section of Doctor Who fans who ‘never saw the early days, (but I) know it’s not as good as it used to be’. He is ultimately forced into the ring and ultimately his death by Captain Cook by playing on his fandom For the show to attack sections of its fan base in such a fashion is remarkable, but not unexpected considering John Nathan-Turner’s ‘the memory cheats’ comments about this type of fan.

That being said, the rest of the guest cast are pretty decent here. Jessica Martin, T.P. McKenna and Ian Reddington particularly stand out as Mags, Captain Cook and Chief Clown respectively. Martin plays the werewolf Mags with innocence that means that the eventual reveal is good, despite the story insisting on dropping clues to the audience that mean that the audience reach the conclusion before the Doctor does. I’d be interested in listening to Jessica Martin’s Big Finish adventures as I think she would have potentially been quite an interesting companion for the Doctor. Then we have T.P. McKenna, playing an almost anti-Doctor explorer figure, more similar to a certain Star Fleet captain than the renegade Time Lord. Captain Cook is an explorer of some renown, but it is perhaps his sense of detachment that stands out most of all and McKenna plays it beautifully. He is of course, horrible to his companion Mags, who is free of his influence by the end of the story. The real star is Reddington, who does so much with so little. I wouldn’t say that clowns are something that I am afraid of, unlike Ace, but I do find them ever so unnerving, thanks largely to the efforts of the portrayals of the Batman villain The Joker by Jack Nicholson, Mark Hamill and Heath Ledger. The Chief Clown does not have a lot of dialogue, but it is delivered largely in such a sinister fashion that he is excellently creepy. When things start going off the rails, his voice becomes deeper and more menacing. Reddington’s smile is pretty creepy and the make-up team deserve credit for helping achieve this effect.

I would like to take a moment to discuss why The Greatest Show in the Galaxy feels so different in this season. We have had two stories that have traded (with varying degrees of success) on the show’s past glories in Remembrance of the Daleks and Silver Nemesis, and a political attack in the shape of The Happiness Patrol. The Greatest Show in the Galaxy uses the Psychic Circus as a metaphor for Doctor Who, with Wyatt showing how the circus started in a similar hippy fashion to the 1960s on Earth, with characters like Flowerchild and Bellboy, and somehow lost its way over the years. The Chief Clown’s decision to sell out to the Gods of Ragnarok, who are desperate for entertainment, can be seen to be a parallel to Nathan-Turner’s attempts to sell the show overseas by bringing in companions from the United States and Australia, with the overall result being the same: viewing figures for both Doctor Who and the Psychic Circus are tumbling. It is almost critical of the show for wanting to try and survive, despite the original vision being compromised to a point that it is no longer recognisable as the same entity. It’s a strange choice to close a season, but it is perhaps this that makes it such an interesting story.

You have to hang up your wandering shoes and stop wandering sooner or later, don’t you?

So I’ve been told. Personally, I just keep on wandering.

Morgana and the Seventh Doctor

This is a key story for the Seventh Doctor. The serial opens on the Doctor juggling, whilst reading ‘Juggling for the Complete Klutz’, amusingly losing one of his balls in the process and playing the spoons, more in line with his character in the previous season. However, by the end, we are in no doubt that we have a Doctor Who is one or more steps ahead of his foes, the Gods of Ragnarok, something that would become a theme going into his final televised season and later appearances in other mediums. McCoy does pretty well here, managing to carry off both sides of the character with necessary aplomb. Ace also has a lot to do here in this story and has some good character development. Like the repeated rap, Ace’s continued use of 80s slang (which doesn’t sound as if it was even cool at the time) is a bit grating but we do see her overcome her fear of clowns and operate independently of the Doctor for long stretches of the story. Aldred again does well and I really do enjoy this pairing – they seem to be having a lot of fun together and they have great chemistry.

I am going to finish with some final aspect to praise about an episode that I thoroughly enjoyed The first are the Gods of Ragnarok and the Family that are the sole audience members of the Psychic Circus. The family are particularly eerie, stony faced whilst watching the entertainment and dishing out their ratings. When the Doctor comes face to face with the actual Gods towards the story’s conclusion, I was impressed at how good they looked – I completely bought into their costumes and thought that they looked real and in a season that has also contained the Kandyman, that’s high praise indeed. The second aspect I wish to praise are two cliffhangers, coming at the end of Part One and Part Three respectively. The Part One cliffhanger is particularly effective, intercutting between the Doctor and Ace outside the circus tent and Captain Cook and Mags inside it, with Mags reacting to Bellboy’s torture, which we don’t see but her scream is more than enough to tell us about the horror inside the tent. The Doctor is unaware of this, although Ace hears something making her uneasy, and he gives her the option of going in or not. It is a very effective cliffhanger, and again gives the audience the benefit of more knowledge than the Doctor, something which is similar to cliffhanger to Part 3. This gives us the confirmation that Mags is a werewolf, something which the audience would have previously suspected. The effective thing here is how memorable her transformation is, which feels like vintage Classic Who. Thirdly and finally, I really like the junk mail advertising the Circus at the beginning – it is a fun way of imagining what junk mail could be like in space.

Verdict: A story which is perhaps notable for not being sentimental about the past, The Greatest Show in the Galaxy is an excellent story, combining good performances and writing in equal measure. 9/10

Cast: Sylvester McCoy (The Doctor), Sophie Aldred (Ace), T.P. McKenna (Captain Cook), Jessica Martin (Mags), Ricco Ross (Ringmaster), Ian Reddington (Chief Clown), Peggy Mount (Stallslady), Gian Sammarco (Whizz Kid), Daniel Peacock (Nord), Christopher Guard (Bellboy), Deborah Manship (Morgana), Chris Jury (Deadbeat), Dee Sadler (Flowerchild), Dean Hollingsworth (Bus Conductor), David Ashford (Dad), Janet Hargreaves (Mum) & Kathryn Ludlow (Little Girl).

Writer: Stephen Wyatt

Director: Alan Wareing

Parts: 4

Behind the Scenes

  • Up until the release of The Doctor, the Widow & the Wardrobe, this story had the longest episode name for a televised story.
  • Due to the discovery of asbestos in BBC Television Centre, the story was nearly cancelled after the completion of location work. The story’s cancellation was prevented as arrangements were made to put a tent in the car park of BBC Elstree.
  • Sylvester McCoy was coached in magic by Geoffrey Durham (stage name The Great Sporendo) for the sleight of hand magic, marking the first time since The Talons of Weng Chiang that a magic consultant had been involved.
  • The rap song in this story was the first original song commissioned for the series since The King’s Song in The King’s Demons. The next would be Song for Ten in The Christmas Invasion.
  • The explosives placed in the arena in Part 4 were overrigged and the blast was much larger than anticipated, catching McCoy in the heat blast and setting fire to his clothes. McCoy continued walking away, knowing that a second take would not be possible.
  • The first appearance of the TARDIS interior since Dragonfire and the only appearance in Season 25. It is the final appearance of the console room set introduced in The Five Doctors, but the console would appear one last time in Battlefield.
  • The final televised appearance of McCoy’s cream coat, which would be replaced by a darker brown one in the next story, Battlefield, depicting the change in persona for the Seventh Doctor.

Cast Notes

  • Dean Hollingsworth had previously appeared in Timelash.
  • Jessica Martin would go on to reprise the role of Mags for Big Finish, as well as making an audio cameo as Queen Elizabeth II at the end of Voyage of the Damned.
  • Ian Reddington would reprise his role as the Chief Clown for Big Finish in The Psychic Circus and has also appeared in A Death in the Family.
  • T.P. McKenna was previously considered for the part of the Chief Caretaker in Paradise Towers.

Best Moment

The Doctor’s unflinching walk away from the Circus Tent as it explodes.

Best Quote

Enjoying the show, Ace?

Yeah. It was your show all along, wasn’t it?

The Seventh Doctor and Ace

Previous Seventh Doctor review: Silver Nemesis

Posts mentioned:

Remembrance of the Daleks

The Happiness Patrol

Silver Nemesis

Silver Nemesis Nemesis

The bear will not pursue us – such things happen only in the theatre.

Lady Peinforte

Synopsis

The arrival of a mysterious comet heralds impending danger from enemies old and new.

Review

Silver Nemesis is another story, like Time-Flight, where a poor reputation can’t help but damage your impression of it going in.  As anniversary specials go, it certainly feels very different to its predecessors marking the 10th and 20th anniversaries respectively.  Sadly, I found that the reputation is well founded.  It feels very derivative of Remembrance of the Daleks, a story in the same season, and I’d far rather think of the season 25 opener as the anniversary special.  I made the mistake of watching the behind the scenes documentary on the DVD and the writer irritated me so much, so that might explain why I’m not very favourably disposed towards it!

Silver Nemesis

One of the major problems with this story is that there are just too many villains.  You’ve got the Cybermen, De Flores and his neo-Nazis and Lady Peinforte and Richard from 1638.  The Cybermen are more than capable of carrying a story on their own and Lady Peinforte is ‘essential’ to this mess of a story, and considering that we had seen a neo-Nazi group in Remembrance, De Flores’ Nazis could have been scrapped with little to no impact on the plot.  It would certainly save us from Anton Diffring’s disinterested performance throughout this story.  The abundance of villains means that it feels like there are large amounts of time where the story just completely stops for them whilst another group to do something.  This means that the Cybermen feel as though they are just there to be cannon fodder, especially considering the seeming abundance of gold that most characters just so happen to have on their person.  Their entrance into the story at the end of Part One and their fight sequence at the beginning of Part Two are nicely done, but for the rest of the story it certainly seems that they are unable to hit a barn door.

There is something that staggers me about the creation of this story.  The writer, Kevin Clarke, was able to call up the Doctor Who production office and get the 25th-anniversary story having never previously written for the show makes my mind genuinely boggle.  Add to that the fact that when he first spoke to John Nathan-Turner, Clarke admits that he did not have any idea of the story he wanted to tell and blagged it and he was not laughed out of town seems ridiculous.  Ultimately, this is a remake of Remembrance of the Daleks in the same season.  The idea of a comet with powerful and desirable contents returning to Earth at 25-year intervals thanks to a previously unseen (presumably Second Doctor) intervention by the Doctor is an intriguing one outside of this context, but along with the neo-Nazis and the conclusion, where the Nemesis weapon is both of Gallifreyan design and used to destroy the Cyber fleet just feels repetitive.  Clarke set out to reveal that the Doctor is, in fact, God, however, this idea seems to get largely lost through the narrative, only returning in the concluding moments when Lady Peinforte reveals that she knows the truth.  Ultimately it feels as though Clarke and the production team took a handful of ideas, threw them at the wall and went from there.

Silver Nemesis De Flores and the Cybermen

Nowhere can this be best exhibited by the celebrity casting of Dolores Gray as the American tourist – I still don’t really understand why she was there – and the whole fake Queen debacle, which just feels ridiculous.  I felt that it harkened back to McCoy’s first season which was incredibly uneven and McCoy delivers a performance to match when he struggles to place where he knows the Queen from.  Surely, once the production team knew that they would be unable to get Prince Edward or any royal involvement, it would have been pretty easy to completely write out this bit.  Dolores Gray doesn’t really look like she knows why she is being asked to be in this story and the scenes in her limo are quite painful to watch.  The cameo by Courtney Pine and the members of his quartet works the best of all of them and the opening scenes with the Doctor and Ace enjoying a break from traveling are probably amongst the best in the story which is largely bereft from good directing.  The exceptions to this are the first appearance of the Cybermen and I quite liked the Cybermen chasing Ace in Part 3 through the factory.  Ultimately though, the story feels as though it has delusions of grandeur of being a better and more important story than it ultimately is, and that is certainly the impression I got of how the writer considers this story.

Normally in Doctor Who stories that have fallen flat for me, I am able to at least find solace in the performances of the Doctor and companion, however, the Seventh Doctor and Ace largely fall flat for me here.  I gather that this may have been due to lack of rehearsal time for this story and general exhaustion on the part of McCoy and Aldred, however, it does really stand out for me here.  There are some moments between the pair that do work – I particularly like the scene with Ace and the Doctor passing the bow around the Cybermen in the castle basement and Ace admitting to the Doctor that she is scared of the Cybermen are all nice moments that can get lost in this disaster.

Verdict: Silver Nemesis feels like rehash of things that worked better in this season’s opening story, and is not helped by having too many villains, uninspiring direction and flat performances from the two leads. 1/10

Cast: Sylvester McCoy (The Doctor), Sophie Aldred (Ace), Anton Diffring (De Flores), Metin Yehal (Karl), Fiona Walker (Lady Peinforte), Gerard Murphy (Richard Maynarde), Leslie French (Mathematician), Martyn Read (Security Guard), Dolores Gray (Mrs Remington), Courtney Pine (As Himself), David Banks (Cyber-Leader), Mark Hardy (Cyber Lieutenant), Brian Orrell (Cyberman), Chris Chering and Symond Lawes (Skinheads), Courtney Pine, Adrian Reid, Ernest Mothle & Frank Tontoh (Jazz Quartet)

Writer: Kevin Clarke

Director: Chris Clough

Parts: 3

Behind the Scenes

  • The official 25th Anniversary story – the first not to feature multiple Doctors and the first to be broadcast in parts since The Three Doctors.
  • The final appearance of the Cybermen until their cameo in Dalek and return in The Rise of the Cybermen.  This ultimately means that this is the final appearance of David Banks as the Cyber Leader.
  • Producer John Nathan-Turner approached Prince Edward to appear in this story, but the Royal Family politely declined.  The use of Windsor Castle was also requested, which was also refused as permission was only ever granted to documentary crews.  Arundel Castle was used as a substitute.
  • Writer Kevin Clarke had seen little Doctor Who and met John Nathan-Turner with no story idea.  His improvised storyline involved the reveal that the Doctor was essentially God, which did not end up being realised.  John Nathan-Turner later requested the addition of the Cybermen.
  • Cameos are made by Nicholas Courtney, Peter Moffatt and Kevin Clarke, amongst others.

Cast Notes

  • Fiona Walker had previously appeared in The Keys of Marinus.
  • Leslie French had previously turned down the role of the Doctor in 1963.
  • Anton Diffring took the role so that he could attend Wimbledon, travelling from his home in France.  It would be his last role before his death in 1989.

Best Moment

It is really difficult to pick a best moment here.  I am going to go for the chase scene in Part 3, as it actually woke me up towards the end of this story.

Best Quote

You fool.  Without the bow, the statue’s power is nothing.

We will shortly obtain the bow.

From tbe Doctor? Don’t delude yourself.  He’s no common adversary.  Do you think he will simply walk in here and hand it over?

Good afternoon.

Doctor.

Yes, here we are.  I’m sorry we couldn’t have been here earlier, but we got held up on the way.

De Flores, Cyber Leader and The Doctor

Previous Seventh Doctor story review: The Happiness Patrol

Silver Nemesis Windsor