Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Works of The Devil


The two part The Impossible Planet Parts I & II (The Impossible Planet/The Satan Pit) introduce a new alien species, the Ood, and to my memory this is the first NuWho story where the aliens are actually memorable.  We've had monsters and villains in NuWho (The Lady Cassandra comes quickly to mind), but in many respects the Ood are different.  The Ood are not just one of the best NuWho aliens/monsters to originate with the revived series.  The Impossible Planet Parts I & II is also the first great story of David Tennant's tenure, a breathless, fast-paced story that reminds me of Classic Doctor Who at its most inventive.  It has the requisite terror aspects, incredible performances from both regular and guest stars, and tension that isn't relieved until the end.  The Impossible Planet Parts I & II surprised me at how much I got into the story.  It's been several years since I've seen it, and at least for this one bright shining moment I found myself doing something I have not done in a long time: love NuWho and think that it truly has achieved par with some of the best stories of the Classic Era. 

The Doctor (David Tennant) and his Companion Rose Tyler (Billie Piper) arrive on a mysterious space station.  It is a sanctuary station, one manned by the Ood, a slave race that does so willingly.  The humans here are a motley crew, but one which wants to discover the secret of the world they are in.  The planet  is K37 Gem5 or Krop Tor, The Bitter Pill.  What makes this such an 'impossible' world is that the planet is suspended within a black hole.  Instead of being taken within the black hole, Krop Tor maintains itself there.  The kind of power to hold itself in place without being swallowed by it apparently is so great it would take the power of six to the power of six every six seconds.  As they deal with the crew: acting Captain Zachary Flane (Shaun Parkes), Ethics Commander Danny Bartock (Ronny Jhutti), archaeologist Toby Zed (Will Thorp), science officer Ida Scott (Claire Rushbrook), Security Head Mr. Jefferson (Danny Webb), and Mechanical Trainee Scooti Manista (MyAnna Buring), the Doctor and Rose realize they are now trapped there, the TARDIS having been swallowed up by the planet into the pits.

Oddly, the TARDIS going down is the least of their worries.  The Ood, a docile group who communicate via orbs that allow them to speak, soon begin muttering very frightening things.  "The Beast and his armies shall rise from the Pit to make war against God."  Toby is soon possessed by a mysterious entity, and the Ood soon go from docile to dangerous.  They tell the horrified Doctor and crew that the one who has taken them goes by many names: Abbadon, Krop Tor, Satan or Lucifer, the King of Despair, The Deathless Prince, The Bringer of Night, the Devil.  The Ood have now gone mad and are besieging the base.  Under the possession of this force, Toby kills Scooti, and perhaps literally all Hell is breaking loose.

Marks of The Beast
With everything devolving into chaos it now is up to the Doctor and Rose to work separately to save themselves and everyone.  The Doctor and Scott had gone down to the depths of the planet prior to the Ood uprising and found the Pit, which has now opened.  Rose, left behind and temporarily cut off from the Doctor, takes charge.  The Captain, however, has authorized Strategy Nine: total evacuation of the planet and escape via a field that comes from the black hole which can hold gravity and not be dragged down.  The Beast, the being that has taken over the Ood, wants to break free from his imprisonment, and the Doctor now believes that the Beast is an ancient being who has spread evil across time, and has entered into myths and legends of all faiths (such as the Arkiphets, the Church of the Tin Vagabond, Christianity, and Neo-Judaism among others). 

Rose believes that the Doctor would have urged them to not give into despair but to think their way out of their situation.  With the Captain, besieged but still in control of the power, he guides Rose, Mr. Jefferson, Toby and Danny away from the rampaging Ood, though Mr. Jefferson falls behind protecting them and dies when the Captain is forced to cut his oxygen off to save the others.  Unbeknown to them all, Toby is still possessed by the Beast, and he escapes with the others.  Rose is determined to wait for the Doctor to return, but Strategy Nine won't allow anyone to stay behind, so the crew grab her and force her to the rocket. 

Scott, contemplating her own impending death, helps the Doctor go down to the Pit, where he meets the monsters.  He realizes that the Beast wants to escape but that now it is only the body that remains.  The mind of the Beast is now free, and if the Doctor tries to destroy the body he risks killing everyone.  Despite this, the Doctor does strike at the Beast, knowing that if there is one thing he believes in, it's Rose Tyler.  The body is destroyed, but a horrified crew discover that Toby is still possessed, and he now is going to use the ship to escape as Krop Tor is slowly going into the black hole.  The Doctor, who now has found the TARDIS, gives Rose hope, and with that she quickly manages to fling Toby/Beast into space, and with Scott rescued the Doctor now helps the rocket escape the black hole's pull.  Sadly, the Ood cannot be rescued, but Captain Flane recognizes their sacrifice by noting in the record each Ood's death, with honors, along with Toby's.

The Impossible Planet Parts I & II astonished me in its inventiveness, its fast pace, its terror quality, and in how good everything was.  Let's start with the two lead performances.  From the moment Tennant and Piper appear, literally laughing at the thought of danger, we see the rapport they have as Doctor and Companion.  Tennant is allowed to make great speeches about what The Beast is, and his declarations of "Brilliant!" are not words of praise but astonishment, which an attribute that can be applied to Tennant himself in the two-part story.  He moves so easily from calm to manic, courageous to thoughtful, that he runs through so many emotions without missing a beat.  Piper's Rose can be a bit clingy, but here at least we see that the stakes are terribly, terribly high and her fierce loyalty to the Doctor is not done out of erotic love but of genuine affection for her friend. 

The guest stars all fill their roles so well you'd think the odds of one of them stumbling would take, but none of them go wrong.  Thorp's Toby Zed (curiously, Zed is the non-American way of pronouncing the letter 'Z', so could there be something there?) goes from frightened to frightening with ease, where one feels sympathy and horror in quick succession.  Seeing his final end made me a little sad, given that Toby was another victim of the Beast.   Parkes' Captain was all business, and he did command the screen whenever he was on.  Webb's Mr. Jefferson was also excellent as the strong security chief, Jhutti's Danny lent lightness and/or fear when needed.  While Buring had a smaller role her final moments of terror sent chills down the spine, and Rushbrook's Ida Scott served as a great candidate for Companion if things had turned out differently.  She went from inquisitive to resigned so well. 

I can't find one performance that was bad or off, and this is not just credit to the individual actors but also to James Strong's apt directing, which kept things moving but which allowed for moments of rest when required.  The pacing was incredible, where the story flowed fantastically without feeling rushed or padded, and there are some beautiful visual moments (such as when in Part II the Doctor is suspended in total darkness, just him in the center). 

I think there is also something subliminal, perhaps accidentally so but still visually striking. Whenever we see the Doctor and Scott walking around in the dark with their space suits, is it me or do they look like Death, skulls moving about?  It adds another element in the 'chilling' aspect of The Impossible Planet I & II, which appears to borrow heavily from Aliens in not just the space station but in the story of having to do battle with a monster that devours all.  The story also appears to echo Dante's Inferno from The Divine Comedy, where in the lowest level of Hell Satan is bound rather than serving as Ruler of the Underworld (though if memory serves correct Shaitan, the Islamic term for Satan, was frozen rather than chained). 

Matt Jones' screenplay uses the motifs of Judeo-Christian theology (the idea itself of the Devil, the subtle quoting of Scripture when the possessed Ood say "We are the Legion of the Beast", the opening moments where the Doctor and Rose are greeted with a 'Welcome to Hell' written on the walls) and trusts his audience to understand what he is referring to.  Moreover, the idea of religion and faith is treated with respect.  The Doctor is not presented as an atheist or a believer of a specific theology.  Rather, when the Doctor states the various faiths that exist in the universe (which does raise the question of how Christianity spread throughout the universe or what Neo-Judaism looks like), he is stating a fact.  He does not pass judgment, he does not ridicule faith itself (in fact, he asks Scott if she has any particular faith, and she says she was brought up Neo-Classic Congregational.  These elements make things familiar without being specific, as if this world could exist. 

The score for The Impossible Planet I & II works so well (deliberately creepy with the elongated violin notes, mournful when at Scott's farewell to the Doctor there is a solitary violin) and the visual effects also work excellently. 

If I were to have any caveats about The Impossible Planet I & II is that we are constantly told how something is 'impossible'.  I counted at least eight uses of 'impossible' in the two episodes.  It was soon becoming silly how nearly everything was 'impossible'. 

As a side note, what I find bizarre is the Matt Jones has never written another Doctor Who story after The Impossible Planet Parts I & II.  While he wrote one Torchwood story (Dead Man Walking), Jones has yet to write again for the Doctor.  Given a.) how good this two-part story was, and b.) how awful repeat Who writers like Toby Whithouse, Gareth Roberts, and yes, Steven Moffat have been, I can find no reason why Jones has not returned for more adventures.

The Impossible Planet Parts I & II left me breathless, excited, totally involved in the story.  It had a fantastic performance by David Tennant, who held our attention and commanded the screen as The Doctor.  It had an equally great performance by Billie Piper as Rose Tyler, who reminded us of why so many fell in love with her as a Companion, mixing strength with compassion.  The guest stars are brilliant.  The story moved and felt epic, worthy of a two-parter.  I truly can't find fault in it. At least in this case, I give the Devil his due.


Next Story: Love & Monsters

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

You've Got To Change Your Evil Mind. Doctor Who Story 056: The Mind of Evil


The tricks of the mind are nothing new to The Doctor.  In The Mind Robber the whole story was built around how one being, The Master of Fiction, manipulated the space travelers to build up his universe.  In The Mind of Evil, we see another Master attempting world conquest by appealing to humanity's desire to 'improve' the mind.  The Mind of Evil does a wonderful job of integrating the Master into the story to where we believe it is possible to have him behind the machinations and not just a convenient villain to use, and while I quibble at a few aspects on the whole I was surprisingly pleased how well The Mind of Evil worked both visually and storywise.

The Doctor (Jon Pertwee) and his Companion Jo Grant (Katy Manning) go to Strangmoor Prison to see the Keller Process.  Through a machine, criminals can have all their negative impulses removed, making them docile but functional members of society.  Barnham (Neil McCarthy) is the latest criminal to undergo the Keller Process.  This time, some things remain the same: the prisoners are in an uproar whenever the Keller Machine is used.  Some things, however, are different: under the eye of Professor Kettering (Simon Lack) the Keller Process creates a particularly painful reaction to Barnham.  The Doctor is fiercely opposed to the Process and insists the machine be destroyed.  Needless to say, he is ignored, even after two people end up dead near the machine, including Kettering, who died by drowning in a dry room.

In a seemingly unrelated story, UNIT Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart (Nicholas Courtney) has his hands full with a World Peace Conference.  The Chinese delegate's security detail, headed by Captain Chin Lee (Pik-Sem Lim) comes to the Brigadier with various complaints.  The Chinese delegate's room has been robbed, despite round-the-clock surveillance from UNIT.  However, she herself has stolen the papers, under some form of mind control.  The Chinese delegate now turns up dead, and despite his objections the Doctor is forced back to UNIT HQ by Captain Yates (Richard Franklin), with Jo staying behind.  The Doctor puts things together when he learns that a Chinese girl (Captain Lee) is missing, because a 'Chinese girl' had assisted the mysterious Professor Keller in installing the machine.

Professor Keller unmasks himself (literally).  It is The Master (Roger Delgado), plotting a wild scheme for world domination.  UNIT has been placed in charge of destroying The Thunderbolt, a missile so dangerous it has been universally banned and will be destroyed.  He will take it and use it for blackmail, and failing that, launch it at the Peace Conference and start a world war.  The Master takes advantage of a situation at Strangmoor: a riot where the next person up for the Keller Process, Mailer (William Marlowe) attempts an escape but only manages to take over the prison, taking Jo as a hostage.

The Master offers Mailer a chance to escape with a fortune if he helps him use the prisoners as a private army to seize the Thunderbolt and use it against his enemies, especially the Doctor.  The prison changes hands repeatedly: Jo manages to start a counter-revolution and the guards briefly retake Strangmoor until the Master leads the counter-counter-revolution.  The Doctor is now forced to help the Master, especially since the Keller Machine (which contains a parasite that uses a person's greatest fear to kill them) is growing out of control.  It soon takes a life of its own, moving at will and apparently killing at will too.

The Brigadier learns the Thunderbolt has been taken and mistakenly believes the Master took it to Strangmoor.  Leading a daring raid, he retakes the prison (saving the Doctor and Jo in the process) but discovers through Captain Yates, who was taken prisoner, that it is being stored in a warehouse not far.  The Doctor makes a bargain with the Master: the missile in exchange for the dematerialization unit he took from the Master's TARDIS in their last encounter.  The Master agrees.  Barnham is brought along with the machine because he no longer has evil impulses and thus the machine has no power over him.  However, in the chaos of the confrontation between the Master and the Doctor the machine, the Thunderbolt, and Barnham are all destroyed.

Worse still, the Master has managed to recover his dematerializing unit, while the Doctor is still stuck on Earth in his forced exile on orders of the Time Lords.

The Mind of Evil is a rarity in that it is one of a handful of non-Dalek stories where at six episodes, it does not feel stretched out.  In fact, every ending works, leading to a more and more exciting conclusion.  Even the fact that we had few settings (Strangmoor dominated the story) and that the Peace Conference was basically forgotten by Episode Three does not hamper The Mind of Evil one bit.

Screenwriter Doug Houghton had some brilliant ideas within the story.  Chief among them was to keep the Doctor, the Master, and Jo basically separated for almost half of the story.  It allows for the Doctor to solve this mystery of who is behind the Keller Process and the attacks at the delegates, for the Master's scheme to be exposed, and for Jo to take a more proactive stance.

Certainly Katy Manning is in top for in The Mind of Evil.  She is not the sweet-but-dim Companion she was in danger of becoming.  Instead, she comes across as a kind person (she is hit especially hard by Barnham's death) but we also see that she is unafraid.  Without the Doctor to help her in any way, she uses her wits and inner strength to literally kick-start the short-lived retaking of Strangmoor from Mailer and his lot.  What we see in Jo Grant is a girl who is strong, brave, and endearing. 

It is also a great showcase for Courtney, who is allowed a bit of humor when in Episode Five he goes for a Cockney accent when masquerading as a lorry driver.  Courtney and Pertwee work so well together, allowing for great humor to lighten up a series of killings.  When the Doctor is taken to see the Chinese delegate, someone mentions the delegate speaks a specific Chinese language.  Referring to the ethnic group, the Doctor says, "So he's Hokkien," the Doctor states.  "No, he's Chinese," the Brigadier replies.  As usual, the Brigadier missed the point of the Doctor's comment, making him both a bit thickheaded but endearing.

Courtney and Pertwee show how great a duo they make when in a tense opening to Episode Six, we find it is the Brigadier who saves the Doctor from Mailer's gun.  "Thank you very much, Brigadier," the Doctor says, then adds snappishly, "but do you think for once you can come BEFORE the nick of time?"  The unflappable Brigadier merely looks on and says, "Good to see you again, Doctor."  Here we see how strong and deep their relationship is.

As for the Doctor and the Master, we get a master class in performing.  Pertwee gives the Doctor a full range of emotions: he is light when arriving at the prison, serious when he sees what he believes to be wrong, terror when the machine attacks him, respect when speaking to the Chinese, and a whiff of anger when he realizes the Master can get away while he can't.  Delgado makes the Master a calm, cool, elegant figure, a worthy adversary to the Doctor.  However, we are allowed to see under the veneer of suave calm there is a deeply frightened figure. 

Nothing captures this more than when we are shown the Master's greatest fear.  Each person who has come under the power of the Keller Machine dies by what they fear the most.  For one, it was rats, and another, water.  The Doctor is almost killed when he relives the horror of an exploding world (flashbacks to Inferno).  As for the Master?  His greatest horror is The Doctor Laughing Triumphantly over him. 

Director Timothy Combe has some simply brilliant moments in Mind of Evil.  Granted, the special effects on Classic Doctor Who were never the most avant-garde or lavish, but Combe did wonders with what he had.  The Keller Machine's power of disorientation is done with distorted images and twisted camera work.  There is a beautiful transition from the Doctor to the Master in Episode Four that is astonishing.  Dudley Simpson's score is in turns chilling and exciting.

If there were anything to quibble over it is that yes, some of the special effects are noticeably bad.  The Thunderbolt's appearance is so patently blue/green screen it doesn't even match.  The 'Dragon' that appears in Episode Three is similarly laughable, so much so that its appearance is cut down considerably so as to not draw attention to how fake it is. 

I would also argue that the whole 'parasite inside the machine' bit never worked for me.  It didn't go anywhere and I would have preferred that the Keller Machine just be the Master's own creation that spun wildly out of his control. 

Finally, it should be mentioned that the restoration work on The Mind of Evil is simply brilliant.  The Mind of Evil was virtually lost, and while filmed in color only black-and-white copies existed.  However, the colorization process was worth the wait and release delay, as I was completely unaware that it was not the original print I was watching, but instead a painstaking restoration.  The story simply never looked better.

Minus a few hiccups The Mind of Evil gives one a worthy villain, an exciting series of episodes, and some fine bits of acting and action.  Combining this with great music and camera work we find that in the final analysis, this is indeed a beautiful Mind

Honestly, Jo, who'd think I'D "talk Baby" or 'Horse',
let alone hop up and down
screaming about a 'Golden Ticket'?


Next Story: The Claws of Axos