Timestamp Special #8: Death Comes to Time

Doctor Who: Death Comes to Time
(5 episodes, 2001-2002)

 

One more round with Sylvester McCoy before returning to the canon timeline.

After a brief introduction filled with metaphor and symbolism, we are witness to a massive and bloody battle in space. General Tannis decimates the fleet and destroys the city of Annit, obliterating nine million people before Admiral Mettna surrenders unconditionally. Thus begins the Canisian invasion of the Santine Republic. The admiral is killed despite her surrender, the Santinian president is assassinated by Tannis himself, and the Republic falls.

As Tannis begins his reign of terror, the Seventh Doctor and his companion Antimony arrive. Antimony knocks out the guard as the Doctor meets Senator Sala, the leader of a blossoming resistance. The Doctor takes the survivors away and works out a plan with them to stop the threat. When the Doctor spots burning trees, he realizes that someone wants to contact him and the travelers depart.

Elsewhere, a being identifying himself as a “God of the Fourth” arrives on a spaceship, enthralls the guards, and rescues a prisoner.

That prisoner is Ace.

Her mysterious benefactor is named Casmus, and he rescued her in order to teach her. He’s very much a Yoda to her Luke Skywalker.

As the Doctor and Antimony travel to the Temple of the Fourth on the planet Micen Island, the Doctor has a premonition which he ascribes to a nightmare. In the temple, they find statues of long dead Time Lords with an inscription: “We serve the many, for the many are One, until twilight falls and death comes to Time.”

The Doctor is met by a fellow Time Lord named the Minister of Chance, and he is the one who sent the fiery message. The Minister informs the Doctor that two Time Lords, the Saints Antinor and Valentine, have been murdered on Earth. The Minister fears a greater evil at work, and he takes over the Santine crisis while the Doctor investigates the threat to their kind.

Tannis punishes his guards for their failures: The lost resistance group nets one guard a bullet while Ace’s disappearance results in her guard Golcrum being exiled to the barren world of Animapersis. As he muses on how even Time Lords die, he reveals bigger plans in motion.

The Doctor and Antimony arrive at a radio telescope analysis center as the Time Lord delivers a lesson in temporal philosophy and mentions an encounter with an allosaurus. They meet with Dr. Kane, who explains that Valentine and Antinor were killed by animals, presumably a dog or large cat. The Doctor asks her what they were investigating, discovering that black holes are being created and expanding at a drastic rate. The fabric of space-time has been torn.

Antimony investigates the crime scene and encounters two policemen, Campion and Speedwell. They grill him before meeting with the Doctor, and Speedwell is called away to another animal attack in the East End. The Doctor accompanies the officer, but Antimony is left behind in handcuffs. The Doctor finds bite marks on the woman’s neck, her corpse drained of blood. They also find the body of a policeman and a bar with twenty additional corpses. A dark figure flees the scene, and back at the laboratory, Antimony encounters Campion in a similar state, and discusses the event with a dispassionate Kane.

Across the universe, Ace wakes from a dream about the edge of a whirlpool and a friendly yet dangerous man. Casmus teaches her how to remember dreams – perceptions uncluttered by shadows of matter – and tells her that they will soon visit the Kingmaker at Mount Plutarch to test her abilities. On Santine, the Minister of Chance arrives, dodges Tannis’s troops, and meets with the leaders of the resistance.

Back on Earth, the Doctor and Speedwell find more corpses and note that there are two distinct styles of killing. Some are for feeding, but others are were just in the way and used as a distraction. The pair dive into a manhole and track down the killer, the vampire Nessican. The police officer’s gun proves useless since severing the spine is the only way to kill a vampire. Nessican attacks the Doctor, but the Time Lord had eaten garlic so his blood poisoned the vampire. The pair get a call pointing them back to Kane, and they arrive at the lab just in time to kill her too. With her dying moments, she tells the Doctor that the tear in time is the work of a Time Lord.

Before his death, Nessican sent a message to Tannis: Earth is rich in resources and defenseless. Tannis is overjoyed by this report.

The Minister of Chance takes Senator Sala to the Canisian army. Captain Carne, the detachment commander, suspects a trap but accepts the gift and sends her away to be tortured. He also plans to kill the Minister at a later time. On the Canisian homeworld, Premier Bedloe and Tannis announce the defeat of the Santine Republic. Simultaneously, Tannis’s troops have surrounded the city and taken Bedloe’s child hostage. When Bedloe confronts the general, Tannis explains that he intends to use the leader as a front while Tannis conquers the universe. Premier Bedloe is left in the care of Major Bander with orders to kill the leader on command.

The Doctor analyzes the black holes and realizes that the tears in space-time could only be caused by another Time Lord misusing his powers. Antimony wonders whether it could be the Minister of Chance, but the Doctor thinks otherwise, planning to strike on Alpha Canis while the Minister occupies Tannis on Santine.

Sala is tortured and returned to her cell with the Minister. The Time Lord heals her wounds, enabling her to infiltrate the base and find the other political prisoners. The Minister sets a trap for Carne.

As Ace and Casmus travel to Mount Plutarch, her lessons continue. There is no true chaos in the Universe, just an order of greater complexity than can be easily perceived.

When the captain interrogates the Minister, he is told that the Santine resistance plans to attack a prison at Luria. The reaction reveals that the prison really exists, which they had not known with certainty. They spring the trap by threatening to inform the general’s incoming envoy – the Fleet Pilot – that Carne revealed the secret, so Carne shows them a prison map in exchange for their silence. The Minister tells him where the resistance intend to attack, then uses a word of power to crash the planetary computers. In the confusion, the Minister and Sala flee while Carne deals with his own skeptical troops.

The Minister has a lot of strange powers that seem overboard for Time Lords.

The Doctor and Antimony arrive on Alpha Canis, and the Doctor explains why they can’t just kill the general outright. The Doctor plans to turn Premier Bedloe against Tannis, and he surrenders himself to the authorities under the pretense that he has kidnapped Bedloe’s children. The Doctor’s ruse works out, but his presence is reported to Tannis. Bedloe questions the Doctor personally, and the Doctor strikes a deal to rescue the children from the general’s personal villa in exchange for Tannis.

After dispatching Captain Carne, the Fleet Pilot reports the Minister’s activities to Tannis. The general orders the Time Lord located so he can deal with the threat personally. Elsewhere, Ace and Casmus stargaze while the human woman realizes that she will never have normal relationships with other humans again. She now has a special relationship with time and is introduced to the loneliness of being a Time Lord.

Nice. She’s being trained as a Time Lord.

The Doctor and Antimony break into the villa, rescue the child, and return him to Bedloe. Unfortunately, their deal is broken when Tannis strikes a new bargain with Bedloe.

On Santine, the Minister of Chance and Sala try to find their way back to the resistance. Sala asks about his name, which he explains is given perhaps by what they did but is unpronounceable by her tongue. In the end, she just calls him “Snake”. The path is treacherous and she is still weakened from the interrogation, so the Minister uses his healing power once again. When she questions why the Minister doesn’t use his powers to save everyone’s lives, he explains that she cannot understand his people’s position. They are soon intercepted by a resistance member and share the intelligence about the Lurian prison camp.

Ace is subjected to a test known as the “Cavern of Infinite Death”, wherein she must pass through the cave on the stalagmites without touching the red liquid covering the floor. Ace gives it the old college try, but falls in nonetheless. When she panics, Casmus reveals that the liquid is benign. The lesson: Soon she will be able to break the rules of the universe, but such power can easily be misused even with the best intentions.

In this particular story, Time Lords guard time and can manipulate it with a thought. The power is that over creation itself, and the place of a Time Lord is only to fight evil, not destroy it with a single stroke.

This is rather intriguing.

General Tannis threatens to shoot the Doctor or Antimony, and then reveals his secret: He is a Time Lord. Of course, unlike the Doctor, the Minister, or any of the other Time Lords, he wants to use his powers to rule the Universe. The Doctor tells Antimony to run, but the companion refuses, and Tannis suggests that Antimony sees the Doctor as his father. The next big reveal: Antimony is a robot, which Tannis displays by shooting the companion multiple times. Having seen so many companions leave or die, the Doctor built a companion who would always stay with him. Unfortunately, while Tannis taunts the Doctor, the general shoots Antimony in the head and leaves the Doctor to watch his companion die.

Tannis returns to Santine and discusses the Minister with his Fleet Pilot. Tannis realizes that the Minister cares for Sala, and he explains why he’s concerned about the Time Lord. One time, Tannis dropped a plague on a particularly obstinate planet to exterminate the population, but three days later, the plague was gone and the population was unharmed. Later, Tannis discovered a cult dedicated to a god they called “Manaster,” whom the general presumed was the Minister.

The Santine resistance mount their attack on the Luria prison, but Tannis traps them with a fleet and orbital fire. Sala pleads with the Minister to use his powers to save them, and he refuses until Sala is killed. The Minister loses his self-control and unleashes a hellish rage upon Tannis’s ships. Despite his extensive losses, Tannis orders retreat and decides to visit Earth.

Finally arriving at the home of the Kingmaker, an old woman who watches over the Time Lords, Ace is tested with a mission to Animapersis, the same world where Golcrum was exiled, a planet ravaged by biological and psychic warfare. She is tasked with restoring the planet to its rightful inhabitants without abusing her new powers. She is given a TARDIS and a wand, the latter of which she is told can manipulate time, but is warned against using. Casmus promises to wait for her, but the Kingmaker knows his time is nearing an end.

Ace arrives on Animapersis to find a cave filled with terrified survivors. She declares that she intends to defeat the ghosts and reclaim the planet, and a young woman named Megan offers to guide her to the nearby crater.

While he waits for his student, Casmus is visited by Tannis. The general explains that he has killed off the rest of the Time Lords and set the Doctor and the Minister at odds against each other. Tannis demands to know where the girl from his ship is located, and Casmus tells him that she is on Animapersis. Casmus toys with Tannis, explaining that the more important discussion is what Ace has become. She means something to both Casmus and the Doctor, which is why Tannis wants her dead.

She is a Time Lord not because of anatomy or appearance, but because of what she embodies and does. She is the envoy of a new age.

On Animapersis, Ace and her companion reach the edge of the crater and descend into its depths, facing the entrancing whispers of the spirits within. The spirits threaten to take Ace’s TARDIS and terrorize the universe unless she gives them Megan. Ace is overwhelmed and collapses, awakening on her TARDIS with a strange but talkative man who we know as Golcrum. The survivors are missing, and Ace realizes that she has killed the spirits and survivors with her newfound powers.

The Doctor visits Mount Plutarch, distraught and pleading with the Kingmaker for help in stopping Tannis. Since the general has not broken any laws of time despite amassing power and weapons, the Kingmaker refuses to interfere. She also points out that Tannis is the mirror of the Doctor’s power, and that the Doctor was summoned here to destroy the Minister for his violations.

Ace and Golcrum return to Casmus’s garden to find her mentor dead. The Doctor reunites with his former companion and brings word that Tannis killed Casmus. In turn, she reveals what she did on Anamapersis. The Doctor consoles her with the revelation that it was a test, and that every person there was an illusion. It was a Kobayashi Maru-style scenario designed to instill a memory of failure in recruits and remind them of the scope of their power, a power that that Ace does not yet possess. She mentions the wand, but the Doctor has her look at it again with new eyes. The wand is nothing more than a fancy stick.

The Doctor and Ace formulate a plan to stop Tannis: Ace and Golcrum head for Earth to intercept Tannis while the Doctor deals with the Minister. On the Canisian homeworld, the Doctor finds a village in flames. He confronts the Minister on a nearby mountain, pleading for help against Tannis. When the Minister refuses to help, the Doctor revokes the Minister’s ability to travel via TARDIS, a move that opens the former Time Lord’s eyes and guilt.

On Earth, in the NASA mission control room, the operators (does anyone else want to beat Bob with Ace’s stick?) are startled to find a fleet of spaceships approaching the planet. The President of the United States is informed, and Tannis offers an ultimatum: Surrender or he will bomb London. While the President stalls, the Prime Minister calls with word of countermeasures. The bomb explodes inside the gunship’s hold and a fleet of shuttles emerges from behind the moon, commanded by none other than Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart with Antonín Dvořák’s epic Symphony No. 9 (New World): IV. Allegro at his wings.

Tannis orders a ground invasion, descending on Stonehenge to begin a march on London, but they are confronted by Lieutenant Colonel Speedwell (who was previously undercover, I suppose) and the might of UNIT. As the battle rages, Tannis abandons his troops and searches for the Doctor. He finds Ace first and starts beating her, but the Doctor intercedes. Tannis knows that, under the law, the Doctor cannot use his powers to stop him, but the Doctor surprises Tannis with a flash of blue behind his eyes. With a choice between abusing his powers or leaving Tannis to abuse his own, the Doctor decides to unleash the might of the Time Lords, an act that destroys Tannis and kills the Doctor.

As UNIT celebrates their victory over the invasion, Ace brings word to the Brigadier of the Doctor’s fate. She travels to Mount Plutarch where the Kingmaker confers the full power of the Time Lords upon Ace, marking the beginning of a new age.

 

This story was an amazing extension of the mythology constructed in the classic era, presenting a natural path of evolution for the Time Lord civilization. If it were placed in the franchise’s continuity, it would act like a world-breaking tale that could potentially reboot everything and carry it forward with fresh eyes.

And, oh, would I love to see more adventures with Ace in her new role, because she is amazing.

But it would also mean the end of the Doctor, and presumably, the end of the series under the title Doctor Who. In that regard, I’m glad we didn’t get that path going forward.

 

Rating: 4/5 – “Would you care for a jelly baby?”

 

UP NEXT – Doctor Who: The Movie

 

The Timestamps Project is an adventure through the televised universe of Doctor Who, story by story, from the beginning of the franchise. For more reviews like this one, please visit the project’s page at Creative Criticality.

 

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Timestamp Special #7: Dimensions in Time

Doctor Who: Dimensions in Time
(2 episodes, 1993)

 

Celebrating thirty years.

Starting off with a little backstory, this was shown as part of the 1993 Children in Need telethon over two nights. Both parts were bracketed by host Noel Edmonds, and the first part involved a short intro sketch with Jon Pertwee in character as the Doctor. Sadly, this was his last on-screen performance before his death.

On to the story…

The Rani is traveling with her companion, previously having captured (busts of) the First and Second Doctors in an attempt to assemble a menagerie of sentient life-forms to control the universe. That’s kind of her thing, really. Her companion checks off a Cyberman and a Time Lord from Gallifrey, noting that they need a human from Earth to complete the collection.

Elsewhere, the Fourth Doctor (in his Eighteenth Season garb) issues a warning to all of his other incarnations. It appears that he’s too late as the Rani takes aim on the TARDIS and knocks the capsule off course. Instead of landing in China, the Seventh Doctor and Ace materialize on the docks at the Cutty Sark Gardens, circa 1973. As Ace calls for help, the Seventh Doctor transforms into the Sixth Doctor, and both of them are instantly transported to (the fictional) Albert Square. The Sixth Doctor remarks that they have “slipped a groove” in time, and somehow he knows who Ace is.

This timey-wimey-wibbly-wobbliness will drive the rest of the adventure.

As Ace spots a clothing stand and a discount on a jacket from Sanjay and Gita (of The EastEnders), the Sixth Doctor discovers that they are now in 1993. The slipped groove has also slipped them two decades into the future. Just as he begins to question things, the slip happens again, leaving behind the Third Doctor and Mel. The Third Doctor believes that someone is rooting through his timeline and extracting previous incarnations and companions. The pair stop and ask two shop owners (Pauline Fowler and Kathy Beale from The EastEnders) what year they are in, and they are shocked to discover that they are in 2013.

The slips come fast and furious now, bouncing between 1973, 1993, and 2013, all in an attempt to separate the Doctor from the TARDIS and seal all of the Doctors together. One slip occurs, revealing the Sixth Doctor and Susan Foreman, the latter of whom is eager to find her grandfather, Ian, and Barbara. Another slip brings Sarah Jane and the Third Doctor back together. The next reunites the Fifth Doctor, Nyssa, and Peri, and this time they’re under attack from the Rani’s menagerie because our heroes (in all their guises) are too close to the truth.

They face off against a host of villains from the last thirty years (including an Argolin, a biomechanoid, a Cyberman, a Mentor, an Ogron, a Sandminer robot, a Sea Devil, a Tetrap, a Time Lord, a Tractator, a Vanir and a Vervoid, and even Fifi), and after they attempt to warn Pat Butcher (The EastEnders) of the danger – a futile effort, it seems – they are trapped by the Rani outside the Queen Victoria (once more, The EastEnders).

The Fifth Doctor psychically summons the Third Doctor in his place, an act that replaces Nyssa and Peri with Liz Shaw. Liz attempts to disarm the Rani, but then flees after Mandy (The EastEnders) distracts the villain. Mike Yates arrives in Bessie and shoots the gun out of the Rani’s hands, offering the Doctor a way out. Together they flee to a helicopter and the Brigadier.

Another slip occurs, exchanging the Third Doctor for the Sixth as they reach safety. As another slip occurs, the Rani and her companion set course for the Greenwich Meridian to find their missing human specimen. In a garage, the second Romana is flushed out of her hiding spot by Phil and Grant Mitchell (you guessed it, The EastEnders), who point her to their doctor, Harold Legg. As she passes the Queen Victoria, the Rani captures her.

In 1973, the Third Doctor and Victoria Waterfield discuss the nature of the Rani as they return to the TARDIS. Time slips once again, and the Seventh Doctor lands in 1993 and encounters Leela, who has escaped the Rani after being cloned in the form of the second Romana. This is the key that the Doctor needs, since the Rani now has an extra Time Lord brain imprint instead of the human one she needed. The Seventh Doctor, Ace, and K9 rig up a device to overload the time tunnel, capturing the Rani inside while breaking the other Doctors free.

Triumphant, the Seventh Doctor and Ace board the TARDIS for their next adventure, confident in the fact that the Doctor(s) are difficult to get rid of.

 

This was fun but chaotic, and a decent nod to the franchise on its thirtieth anniversary.

 

Rating: 3/5 – “Reverse the polarity of the neutron flow.”

 

UP NEXT – Doctor Who: Death Comes to Time

 

The Timestamps Project is an adventure through the televised universe of Doctor Who, story by story, from the beginning of the franchise. For more reviews like this one, please visit the project’s page at Creative Criticality.

 

Timestamp #159: Survival

Doctor Who: Survival
(3 episodes, s26e12-e14, 1989)

 

As the classic era sails into the sunset, Ace comes home.

We open on a modern suburban street as a man washing his car is terrorized by an animatronic cat. The Doctor and Ace arrive shortly afterward and wander the streets of Perivale. Ace wondered how her grandmother and friends were doing and the Doctor obliged by taking her home. Unfortunately, Perivale has changed a lot since Ace has been gone.

The travelers wander into an abandoned coffee bar and stumble into a self-defense class led by Sergeant Paterson. As Ace gets news of the village’s history, the Doctor investigates the cat (who seems to be an avatar for a familiar shadowy figure), and the pair continue on their walk. The Doctor ends up in a store where he shops for cat bait.

The entire story seems saturated in metaphors for survival of the fittest.

As the pair continue on, the Doctor puzzles over the cat. Meanwhile, the cat attacks another citizen, teleporting a runner somewhere else. The Doctor sets a trap for the cat as Ace moves to a local park where she encounters a cheetah creature on a black horse. After a brief chase, Ace is teleported away as well, and she lands on a strange planet with a blood red sky. She spots the car washing victim from earlier but is chased again by the cheetah. She’s rescued by the runner, who is mauled by the cheetah for his efforts, and then finds friends of hers who are stranded here. The Doctor and Paterson, after a humorous chase through Perivale, also end up on the planet in a camp of cheetah people. As the Doctor is herded toward a tent, he looks inside to find the Master.

What an unexpected pleasure. What a way to end the classic run.

The Master, somehow infected with feline traits, occupies the cheetah people with Paterson as he confers with the Doctor. The Doctor is unwilling to let Paterson become cat food, so he steals a horse and rescues the sergeant. The cheetah people hunt by teleporting from planet to planet and seeking carrion, so the Doctor is confused at their presence on Earth, so far out of their normal range. As they ride on, they stumble into a trap set by Ace, uniting them once again.

The group slowly make their way through an area swarming with cheetah people, but when an unexpected new arrival teleports in, all hell breaks loose. The cheetahs chase anyone who runs, and Ace saves the horse-riding cheetah after giving it a concussion with a rock. The Doctor and the Master are reunited, and the Master explains that the fighting is feeding the destruction of the planet. The Master asks for help to leave the planet since he is unable to find a way himself. He tells of the indigenous people to this planet who bred the kitlings (the black normal-size cats) and used them to see the universe, and of how those people were transformed by that power into the cheetah people. The Master himself is succumbing to the same fate.

The Doctor finds Ace tending to the injured cheetah, Karra, who turn is entranced by the Soviet cap badge she was given by Captain Sorin. The Doctor believes that the only way home is for one of them to transform into a cheetah and then teleport their prey home. As Ace’s friends rally around Paterson and warfare, one of them (Midge) succumbs to animal instinct and kills a cheetah, eventually being captured by the Master and transforming into one himself. Midge is able to teleport himself and the Master back to Earth, and Ace begins to transform as well.

Karra arrives and takes Ace on a hunt while, on Earth, the Master revels in his freedom. Ace’s humanity wins out, and the Doctor is able to sway Ace away from Karra. Ace uses her new power to teleport everyone back to Perivale – notably, when Ace teleports them to “home,” the end up next to the TARDIS – and Paterson shakes the whole adventure off as a hallucination.

The Doctor and Ace roam Perivale in search of the Master and Midge. Ace uses her power to divine that they are at the youth club, where the two cats have enthralled the self-defense class to attack and kill Paterson. They track the group to the hill where Ace and Midge used to hang out, and after a motorcycle-based joust, Midge is killed, the Doctor has vanished, and Karra arrives to guide Ace. Karra disperses the enthralled students, but the Master is too strong. The Master kills Karra, then runs past the Doctor (who has ended up in a refuse pile). Karra reverts to human form and says her farewells to Ace before dying in her arms.

The Doctor tracks the Master to the TARDIS. The Master gloats that he will use the power of the cheetah people to destroy the Doctor, and as he teleports them back to the planet, the Doctor nearly succumbs to the power himself before realizing that their conflict will destroy the planet. As the Master aims the killing blow, the Doctor screams one last plea (“If we fight like animals, we’ll die like animals!”) and is teleported back to Earth, leaving the Master on the dying planet alone.

The Doctor returns to Ace’s side as Karra’s body is taken back to the cheetah planet by one of her comrades. With their transformations reversed, the Doctor asks Ace where she would like to go. Surprisingly, she says, “Home.” Unsurprisingly, she means the TARDIS. Together, they walk into the trees arm in arm.

“There are worlds out there where the sky is burning, the seas sleep, and the rivers dream; people made of smoke and cities made of song. Somewhere, there’s danger; somewhere, there’s injustice; and somewhere else, the tea’s getting cold! Come on Ace, we’ve got work to do.”

 

On one hand, it was great to end the classic run with the Master (and the last appearance by Anthony Ainley), as well as putting a bow on Ace’s loose story arc. Ace is amazing, and the chemistry between her and the Doctor is fantastic.

One the other hand, this was a rather average story in comparison. It had good themes, but it wasn’t particularly engaging and (in a rarity) could have benefited from another episode to flesh things out a bit.

The ending was bittersweet. I want another season with the Seventh Doctor and Ace.

 

Rating: 4/5 – “Would you care for a jelly baby?”

 

UP NEXT – Twenty-Sixth Series Summary

 

The Timestamps Project is an adventure through the televised universe of Doctor Who, story by story, from the beginning of the franchise. For more reviews like this one, please visit the project’s page at Creative Criticality.

 

 

Timestamp #158: The Curse of Fenric

Doctor Who: The Curse of Fenric
(4 episodes, s26e08-e11, 1989)

 

Barkeep, a round of your deepest franchise mythology, if you please.

Two inflatable dinghies are rowed to shore by a detachment of soldiers. By their uniforms, they look like Soviet soldiers. Between them and the talk of Germans, we must be in the midst of World War II.

Elsewhere, Ace and the Doctor stroll in to a top secret naval facility and are soon captured at gunpoint by the Royal Marines. They talk their way out of the confrontation and continue on, arriving at the office of Dr. Judson. The Doctor ingratiates himself by noticing the Prisoner’s Dilemma on the board, and while Ace distracts him with an understanding of logic puzzles, the Doctor forges two letters from the Prime Minister and the Head of the Secret Service authorizing their presence on the base. They find an empty set of bunks and Ace goes to sleep.

The Soviet soldiers wash ashore but cannot find their sealed orders. Meanwhile, the camera is focused on an underwater dragon statue with a great sense of foreboding, and the Doctor is wary of eyes watching the base from the darkness. A Soviet soldier finds the orders, which contain Judson’s photograph, but he’s soon killed.

As morning dawns, the Doctor and Ace arrive at the local church as Reverend Wainwright finishes his sermon and talks with Miss Hardaker and her two charges. Ace talks to the girls, evacuees from London’s East End, but later joins the Doctor as he and the reverend seek out Judson. Ace notes the lack of security surrounding the church’s silver, but the reverend is unafraid based on the Viking superstitions. Judson is studying Viking inscriptions using the ULTIMA machine. Presumably, such a machine must be similar to the Enigma of our reality. Ace hears a mechanical sound, but the Doctor dismisses it as organ bellows before they leave Judson to his work.

Elsewhere, Base Commander A. H. Millington (surrounded by Nazi paraphernalia!) analyses some super secret documents before staring curiously at a chess board. The last time we saw a chess board was in Silver Nemesis.

The Doctor and Ace spot a headstone in the Viking graveyard that is sinking, and the pair decide to walk at Maiden’s Point, the same place where Ace was to meet her new friends. Miss Hardaker forbids her charges from visiting the site due to local superstition, and the Doctor and Ace find the (previously) sealed orders packet. The Doctor takes them to the base while Ace remains behind with a warning to stay out of the water. The girls arrive anyway and go for a swim, but Ace does not join them. The girls later find a strange treasure on the beach but reject it when it tingles in their hands. As they leave for home, a sniper nearly kills them but holds his fire when they veer away.

The Doctor finds Wainwright in the church and shares his hunch that some of the transcriptions have already been translated. Sure enough, the reverend’s grandfather did translate some of them, but Wainwright regrets it. The inscription speaks of a dragon ship, stolen treasure, and the curse at Maiden’s Point. The Doctor worries about Ace, but that worry recedes when she arrives. They head for Judson’s lab and show him the translation – on the beach, the sniper throws the tingly treasure into the ocean where it is caught by a mysterious hand – then peek in on the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS) listening station.

Ace meets a baby named Audrey: She’s in love with the baby, but is turned off by the name since Audrey was her mother’s name too. Millington arrives and orders Kathleen (the baby’s mother) to remove Audrey within 24 hours or be dismissed from the service. The Doctor and an angry Ace leave and stumble into Millington’s office, which is a perfect replica of a Nazi cipher room. The Doctor notes that Judson and Millington were classmates before noticing the chessboard with intrigue.

There’s so much foreshadowing in this section of the episode, but it’s done so well.

Millington discusses the Viking translations with Judson, revealing the “Curse of Fenric” – *ding* – which he believes to be nigh. On the beach, the Doctor and Ace find a piece of treasure, a Soviet corpse, and a whole lot of rifles pointed right at them. The soldiers take the travelers to their commander, Captain Sorin. The Doctor tends to another soldier who touched the treasures and is delirious before leaving. The Soviets ambush a British patrol soon after.

Judson continues to decipher the inscriptions, an act that causes more to spontaneously write themselves on the crypt walls and awaken the corpses in the deep. The Doctor and Ace return to the crypt as Judson reports to Millington and receives orders to use the ULTIMA to work on the walls (despite it being needed for the war effort). The travelers investigate the new inscription, then discover a hidden passage and Millington. The commander shows them a natural source of lethal poison, a chemical weapon that could end the war. The Doctor waxes philosophically about the well of Hvergelmir, a place in Norse mythology where serpents spew their venom over the roots of Yggdrasil. Millington is impressed by the Doctor’s knowledge and offers to show him all the rest of the caverns. The Doctor accompanies Millington, but Ace stays behind with a distraught Wainwright. The reverend is having a crisis of faith.

Millington and the Doctor arrive at ULTIMA, where the commander and Judson reveal that (1) they intend to let the Soviets steal the machine because (2) it is carrying a load of the poison. The Doctor then tours the chemical weapons facility and watches a demonstration where only a few drops kill a cage of doves. To his horror, Millington intends to use the contents of the ULTIMA as a time bomb, set to go off when the Soviets decrypt the word love in a coded message.

In the crypt, a wall shakes loose of its own accord and reveals an urn. The soldiers working there ignore it and seal off the room. On the beach, the girls run into the ocean fully clothed – Miss Hardaker took their bathing suits during a hellfire and brimstone sermon about disobeying her – and are swallowed by a mist.

Nothing good can come of either event.

Millington (mindlessly sketching the mysterious urn) orders the base communications cut off from the outside world – an odd move, to be sure – and that all chess sets are burned. It seems that the latter are quite significant. The Doctor questions the chess set order as the soldiers remove them from the women’s bunkroom, and Kathleen asks the Doctor about his family. The Doctor replies that he doesn’t know, and Kathleen presumes that the war is to blame. She says it must be terrible, and the Doctor apprehensively agrees.

Curiouser and curiouser.

On the beach, the girls emerge as pale creatures with claws who lure a Soviet soldier to his death, then return to Miss Hardaker’s residence and kill her. The Doctor returns to Judson’s lab to find the researcher obsessed by the carvings. The Doctor leaves to talk to the girls as Ace helps Judson unlock the inscription using a logic diagram. The Doctor and Ace find Miss Hardaker’s corpse as the girls move on to Reverend Wainwright, who tries to dissuade the girls (who he believes to be vampires) before the Doctor and Ace interfere. The trio race back to Judson’s lab to stop him from decrypting the inscriptions, but they are too late. The vampire creatures rise from the ocean as Millington revels in his victory. He believes that when the chains of Fenric are shattered all of its power will be his.

He’s a bit verkelmpt when he realizes what he’s done, but I can’t tell if it’s regret or joy.

The Doctor explains that the creatures are Haemovores, mutations from humanity’s far future. Ace rushes off to check on Audrey and Kathleen while the Doctor puts plans into motion. The Doctor, Ace, and Wainwright retreat to the church and research. Ace finds the abandoned urn while Wainwright discovers the descendants of the Viking settlers, linking it to the curse of Fenric making its way through the generations. The Haemovores attack the church, and Ace tries to escape but is cut off. Luckily, the Soviet soldiers come to her aid, but their bullets only slow the creatures instead of killing them. Inside the church, the Doctor is able to drive them off by the power of his faith: He recites the names of his former companions, projecting a psychic power through his his faith in their love for his quest.

Everyone but Sorin retreats to the crypt – the captain needs to tend to his troops – and blow their way into the toxin facility. Ace reveals the urn as she tries to mix up more explosives, but the Doctor recognizes it as the treasure at the source of the curse. They are intercepted by Millington at the end of the tunnel and the commander leaves the Soviet allies for dead, much to the Doctor’s dismay. Millington takes the urn and the research to Judson, then confronts and arrests Sorin when the Soviet captain arrives to negotiate.

Oh, it was joy that overwhelmed Millington earlier. Definitely joy.

Ace returns to Kathleen, consoling the woman when she receives word of her husband’s death. She then confronts the Doctor, understanding that the Doctor knows all of the secrets behind this threat. The Doctor speaks of an ancient evil that has existed since the birth of the universe, one that has gone by many names, but this time it is called Fenric and trapped in the urn. His darkness is on full display here.

The third episode ends in rapid fire: Ace distracts the guards while the Doctor frees Sorin; Wainwright faces off against the girls, but his faith is too shaky and he is killed; and Judson is hit by an energy bolt from the ULTIMA as lightning strikes the dragon ship. The crippled scientist rises on his own legs with a declaration: “We play the contest again, Time Lord.”

The Doctor faced off against this evil before, trapping it in the shadow dimension for seventeen centuries by pulling bones from the desert, carving them into pieces, and posing a challenge that it failed. It teleports away and meets with the Haemovores while Millington has the Doctor and Ace taken before a firing squad. They’re freed by a sudden Soviet assault as Millington revels in the prophecy over a chess board. The Doctor says that he needs a chess set of his own to stop the threat, so he and Ace make their way to the commander’s office. Meanwhile, the girls summon the Ancient One from the depths.

Probably not that Ancient One, but similar in appearance nonetheless.

Ace and the Doctor find the chess set, but it’s rigged with poison gas and explosives. They dive into a bunker as the building explodes (and hits the camera in the process). Luckily, they save the genealogical research, which jogs Ace’s memory: Kathleen has a chess set. As the bullets fly and the Soviets discover the chemical weapons, the travelers make their way to the bunk rooms. The Soviet and British soldiers join forces to stop the chemical threat, and the Doctor secures the chess set and takes it to the chemical weapons bunker while Ace guards Kathleen and Audrey, discussing the spooky house in Perivale.

Fenric has his nurse killed as the remnants of the WRNS detachment are turned into Haemovores. He then orders the Ancient One to deliver the poison into the ocean and kill the rest of the Haemovores. More of the creatures break into the bunkroom, causing Ace and Kathleen to flee to a nearby car. Ace tells Kathleen to take Audrey to 17 Old Terrace in London, home to Ace’s family in this time. Kathleen drives off, offering Ace a photo of Audrey in parting. Ace turns to face the girls, who then melt away.

Body count: A lot.

Fenric finds the Doctor and challenges him to the contest. One move on the chess board will win. In the ULTIMA lab, Millington faces off against the remaining Soviet soldiers and loses, taking a fatal shot. The Doctor confers with the Ancient One, persuading him that Fenric’s plan to poison the ocean will only destroy the Haemovore future. Sorin arrives to kill Judson, but since the captain’s lineage descends from the Vikings, he is touched by the curse. Fenric jumps into Sorin.

Unfortunately, Ace figures out the winning move but doesn’t know that Fenric has taken over Sorin, so she unwittingly shares the solution with the enemy. Fenric wins the game and turns on Ace, revealing that baby Audrey is Ace’s mother, and Ace is touched by the curse. Ace’s faith in the Doctor stops Fenric and the Ancient One, so Fenric gives the Doctor a choice: Surrender or he will kill Ace with the poison gas. The Doctor tells Fenric to kill Ace.

What?

The Doctor reveals that he knew that Fenric was coming back when he saw the chess set in Silver Nemesis. Fenric says it was even before that, all the way back to Dragonfire and the time storm that took Ace from her home, but the Doctor knew even then how important she was. In a twist, the Ancient One takes Fenric to the poison testing chamber and unleashes the gas, forcing the Doctor to run with Ace. As the evil threat goes boom, he apologizes profusely to Ace, explaining that he had to break her faith in order to free the Ancient One and end Fenric’s curse.

Diabolical but clever.

Ace and the Doctor return to the beach where she faces her emotions by jumping into the water. When she emerges, effectively baptized and renewed, her fear and anger are gone. The travelers embrace, their wounds and rift healed, and head off to their next adventure.

 

That was a gorgeous story. It opened a ton of space and let Ace and the Doctor – as well as Sophie Aldred and Sylvester McCoy – spread their wings. It was also tightly crafted and flowed well, expertly employed vampire and religious mythos without being trite, and capitalized on franchise seeds sown since Dragonfire. The body count was high (typical of the era), but if this had been the classic finale, it would have been a good place to end the journey.

 

Rating: 5/5 – “Fantastic!”

 

UP NEXT – Doctor Who: Survival

 

The Timestamps Project is an adventure through the televised universe of Doctor Who, story by story, from the beginning of the franchise. For more reviews like this one, please visit the project’s page at Creative Criticality.

 

 

Timestamp #157: Ghost Light

Doctor Who: Ghost Light
(3 episodes, s26e05-e07, 1989)

 

Welcome to Gabriel Chase.

In the depths of a gothic manor’s basement, a mysterious figure in a solid cage is fed dinner and the Times. The Reverend Ernest Matthews arrives, as does the TARDIS. Ace emerges from the bad parking job into a laboratory (or a nursery), and the Doctor refuses to tell her where they’ve landed. The house staff leaves – “Heaven help anyone who’s still here.” – and locks the door behind them. The clock strikes six and the spookiness ramps up with new servants emerging from the walls.

The Doctor and Ace explore, finding a radioactive snuff box with the initials RFC engraved upon it. Its owner, Redvers Finn-Cooper, is missing in the house, but another explorer is here to find him. This new player pulls an elephant rifle on the Doctor, but seeing his own reflection reveals him to be Finn-Cooper, driven insane. Elsewhere, head housekeeper Lady Pritchard and the owner’s ward Gwendoline encounter the ornery reverend, then retrieve the explorer as the butler Nimrod (a literal Neanderthal) invites the Doctor and Ace to meet with the reverend and Josiah Samuel Smith, the owner of the house.

This story is all over the place. It’s goofy. It’s wacky. It’s chaotic.

It’s frustrating.

Everyone’s going crazy over Ace’s late 1980s fashion, so she is taken away for proper period clothing. Locked in a room, a straight-jacketed Finn-Cooper is exposed to his glowing snuff box, but everyone is driven away from the scene by the occupants of the house. Everyone gathers for dinner as Nimrod opens some kind of control room and is subsequently stricken down by an unseen force.

Ace (looking good in her new fancy duds) figures out that she knows Gabriel Chase from her time in Perivale. It is the house that she burned to the ground in 1983 after sensing a dangerous evil presence. The Doctor brought her here, much to her anger, to understand the horrors that she sensed. As the Doctor presses, Ace runs for the cellar.

Lady Pritchard knocks out the reverend as Smith solicits the Doctor for help in ridding the house of the evil. In the cellar, Ace finds the control room and the incapacitated Nimrod before being attacked by two zombie-like husks, and as the first episode ends I still have no idea what in the world I am even watching.

The Doctor discovers a human in suspended animation, nestled among the insect collection. In the cellar, Nimrod comes to Ace’s defense as the mysterious cell is being opened. In the battle, Ace and Nimrod end up facing off and breaking the light in the wall. The Doctor escapes from the house staff by using his radiation monitor as a mock gun and taking the lift to the cellar with Smith as a captive. Once there, the Doctor figures out that the cellar is a stone spaceship and Smith is an alien of some sort. The Doctor turns the table on Smith and inadvertently frees Control, the being in the cell. As daylight breaks, Smith and the house staff retreat upstairs with the reverend as the master of the house evolves into another husk,

Oh, and Smith transforms the reverend into an ape and places him on display.

The Doctor revives the suspended human, Inspector Mackenzie, while Ace gets some sleep and breakfast before joining the Doctor and Mackenzie just before dark. Nimrod tells a a tale of worship and the light as Control skulks about the house The Doctor puts all the pieces together as the light in the cellar wall, an egg of some sort, hatches. Ace and the inspector explore the attic, finding Smith, Pritchard, and Gwendoline frozen as statues. As the Doctor moves the clock to six, the statues and house awaken, and Control exits the lift followed by a bright burst of light.

The light belongs to an alien surveyor who came to Earth thousands of years before to catalog all life on the planet. It completed its task and collected samples (incluiding Nimrod), it went into hibernation. While Light hibernated and Control was imprisoned to serve as the “control” subject in the scientific observation, Smith mutinied against Light, trapping the surveyor and evolving into a Victorian gentleman. He intended on using Finn-Cooper’s relationship with Queen Victoria to assassinate the monarch and take control of the monarchy.

Light is angry that his catalog is incomplete due to evolution over the millennia, so he decides to eradicate all life on the planet. He kills off a maid, Gwendoline, Pritchard (Gwendoline’s missing mother), and the inspector while Ace fights for her life several times over and Control evolves into a Victorian woman.

The Doctor maneuvers Light into a logic trap, suggesting that the surveyor has not only evolved, but also missed several creatures of myth in his audit. In the end, Smith is imprisoned as the new “control” while Control, Fenn-Cooper, and Nimrod take the alien spacecraft on an exploration of the universe. Light, on the other hand, is dispersed into the house itself, becoming the evil presence that Ace encountered in 1983. When the Doctor asks if she has any regrets, Ace says she should have blown the house up instead.

“Wicked,” the Doctor says, drawing this house of horrors to a close.

 

There is a good story buried in this serial, but the plot is so convoluted and twisted that the narrative path is lost in the weeds. It sheds light on Ace’s character and backstory, and it builds on the Doctor’s mystery and simmering darkness. There’s also a lot to be said for a story that dumps the viewer into the narrative world without guidance, but the good ones guide the audience to understanding and resolution. This one capitalized on frustration in chaos, and that hurt my experience.

 

Rating: 2/5 – “Mm? What’s that, my boy?”

 

 

UP NEXT – Doctor Who: The Curse of Fenric

 

The Timestamps Project is an adventure through the televised universe of Doctor Who, story by story, from the beginning of the franchise. For more reviews like this one, please visit the project’s page at Creative Criticality.

 

 

Timestamp #156: Battlefield

Doctor Who: Battlefield
(4 episodes, s26e01-e04, 1989)

 

The final classic season begins with an old trope and an old friend. We begin with retired Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart shopping for trees with his wife, reminiscing on his days with UNIT. Elsewhere, a familiar-looking sword glows with unearthly light as Brigadier Winifred Bambera and her UNIT soldiers conduct military exercises in the country.

On the TARDIS, the Doctor is tracking a distress signal from Earth that has saturated all of time and space, across the boundaries that divide one universe from another. The TARDIS arrives at the source of the signal, three years in Ace’s relative future. Ace and the Doctor hitchhike with archaeologist Peter Warmsly after the new Brigadier bypasses them. As they drive to a nearby battlefield dig, several armored knights crash land from space. The Doctor and Ace infiltrate the UNIT nuclear missile site with old identification cards, one belonging to Liz Shaw. Bambera confiscates the passes, but one soldier remembers the Doctor from Lethbridge-Stewart’s days.

A space knight investigates the TARDIS exterior while the Secretary General calls Lethbridge-Stewart to tell him about the Doctor’s arrival. Bambera takes the Doctor and Ace to a nearby hotel where they can find accommodations. She then spots the TARDIS and walks into the middle of a battle between the space knights.

At the hotel, Ace meets Shou Yuing, a fellow explosives enthusiast, while the Doctor converses with blind psychic innkeeper Elizabeth Rowlinson. Bambera (and Warmsly) end up at the hotel as Lethbridge-Stewart dons his uniform one more time.  The Doctor and Warmsly talk about the scabbard, which has psychic energy and is linked to a strange woman in a crystal ball.

The battle propels the knight into the hotel’s brewery, driving our heroes to investigate. They find the knight, who is a human named Ancelyn who claims that the Doctor is Merlin. The distress call was Excalibur’s Call and placed the planet in the middle of a war that doesn’t belong in this dimension. As the quartet tries to leave, they are ambushed by Bambera (who tries to apprehend them) and the enemy knights (who try to kill them).

The Doctor tries to negotiate, but Bambera is quick to the trigger. The enemy leader is Mordred, and he warns the Doctor of his mother’s (Morgaine, who has waited twelve centuries) coming reckoning. The enemy retreats, the Doctor’s party retires to the hotel, and Bambera and the knight do the ritual dance of dominance.

Using a brother sword to Excalibur, Mordred conducts a ritual to link his home dimension to modern Carbury. The scabbard on the wall launches toward the lake, Mordred is swimming in Highlander-era fantasy, and Morgaine crosses into our dimension. She calls to the Doctor telepathically, and when he refuses her, she declares war on their “last battlefield.”

In the morning, the Doctor and Ace visit Warmsly’s dig, finding a marker that reads “dig hole here” in the Doctor’s handwriting. Ace blows open the hole and they descend into the ground. As Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart arrives in Carbury, Morgaine attacks his helicopter. The pilot sets it down successfully, although Lieutenant Lavel is injured, and Lethbridge-Stewart sets out for help. He soon encounters Morgaine and her army, and after a discussion, they part ways honorably. Lethbridge-Stewart commandeers Shou’s car.

In the underground tunnel, Ace and the Doctor enter a strange room that obeys the Doctor’s commands. He presumes that the place was built by Merlin, and that he could possibly be Merlin in his own future. The facility is really a spacecraft for traveling between dimensions, and it contains King Arthur (in suspended animation) and Excalibur. Ace accidentally draws Excalibur, releasing an automated defense system. Ace runs the wrong direction and ends up trapped in an airtight chamber that fills with water. The Doctor manipulates some controls and continues to battle the defense system as Ace is ejected to the surface of the lake, echoing the Lady of the Lake legend as she emerges with Excalibur. She passes the sword to Ancelyn, Bambera, and Warmsly as Shou and Lethbridge-Stewart arrive.

In a touching reunion, Lethbridge-Stewart goes into the ship and saves the Doctor, and the duo return to the surface. Meanwhile, Morgaine orders her troops to find Excalibur and kill any who stand in the way. At the inn, Mordred taunts the innkeepers and lusts after Lieutenant Lavel as his mother arrives. Morgaine kills Lavel after extracting military knowledge from her mind, and rewards the innkeepers for their treatment of her son by restoring Elizabeth’s sight.

The hero party returns to the hotel – the women and modern military leaders bristle under Lethbridge-Stewart’s ways – surviving an assault along the way. There, they find that the locals are being evacuated, though Warmsly and the Rowlinsons require a little psychic convincing from the Doctor, but Ace and Shou slip away in the organized chaos. The Doctor and Lethbridge-Stewart hit the road (in Bessie!) to find Ancelyn and Bambera and defend the missile convoy. They leave Ace and Shou at the hotel, armed with a piece of chalk to draw a circle of protection. The former Brigadier also reveals some new hardware from UNIT, including armor-piercing rounds for Daleks, gold rounds for Cybermen, and silver rounds just because. Ace and Shou draw the circle and take refuge as an ethereal darkness falls around them, and Morgaine tries to draw them out with psychic games before summoning a demonic creature.

The missile site is a battlefield with UNIT facing Mordred’s troops. As Ancelyn and Mordred engage each other, the Doctor stops the confrontation but is surprised to learn that the battle was a distraction to allow Morgaine to seek the sword. She stands over Ace and Shou with her summoned creature, the Destroyer. Mordred offers a trade – the captives for Excalibur – but the Doctor succumbs to rage and threatens to decapitate Mordred if Morgaine does not surrender. Morgaine calls his bluff and the Doctor yields, but Lethbridge-Stewart steps up in his stead. Morgaine is unswayed, restarting the battle as the Doctor and Lethbridge-Stewart put Morded in the car and race to the hotel.

Morgaine figures out that she cannot breach the chalk circle, but the Destroyer can. All it needs to is to be freed from its silver shackles. The Destroyer brings the hotel down around the ladies, and Mordred escapes. Morgaine flees with Excalibur and the Destroyer, receiving news that her army has been decimated. The Doctor and Lethbridge-Stewart pursue Morgaine into her portal, and Ace follows with the box of silver bullets shortly afterward. Lethbridge-Stewart is tossed aside by the Destroyer but the Doctor reclaims Excalibur. Morgaine frees the beast as an angry Mordred arrives, and the two return to their realm. The Doctor, Lethbridge-Stewart, and Ace regroup, and the Doctor prepares to face the Destroyer with the silver bullets. Lethbridge-Stewart stuns the Doctor, claiming that he is more disposable than the Time Lord, and faces off with the Destroyer. Three shots of silver later and the creature explodes, but Lethbridge-Stewart escaped with a promise that he is done with all of this.

Morgaine and Mordred kidnap Bambera and attempt to launch the nuclear missile. In the spacecraft, the Doctor, Lethbridge-Stewart, Ace, and Ancelyn restore Excalibur and try to release King Arthur, but a note from the Doctor reveals that the king died in battle. The good news is that they can still stop the missile. The Doctor faces off against Morgaine and appeals to her honor, compelling her to stop the missile’s countdown. She wants to face Arthur in combat, but news of his death devastates her.

Ace jubilantly destroys the spacecraft and the Doctor renders Mordred unconscious. Mordred and Morgaine are turned over to UNIT as our heroes retire to the Lethbridge-Stewart estate. The ladies take Bessie on an adventure while the men are left to chores and cooking supper.

 

This was a good (if final) adventure in the classic era with the Brig, and I enjoyed the references from his era to tie the legacy together. He’s back in fantastic form here for his finale, and it really buoys up a story that could have otherwise drown in tried and once true but now tired story tropes. I mean, I groaned when I saw that this was an Arthurian myth tale, and some of the obvious symbolism (Ace as the Lady of the Lake, for example) drew more of them from me.

I did love seeing Ace bond with Shou over their common attraction to explosives. I also love McCoy’s flourishes and gags that counter his growing darkness. Finally, in a reach back to near the beginning of the franchise, I did enjoy seeing Jean Marsh back in action once again. This time she was Morgaine, but way back when she was once Sara Kingdom.

I settled around a 3.5 rating for this one, and I look forward, so this story takes advantage of rounding up.

 


Rating: 4/5 – “Would you care for a jelly baby?”

 

 

UP NEXT – Doctor Who: Ghost Light

 

The Timestamps Project is an adventure through the televised universe of Doctor Who, story by story, from the beginning of the franchise. For more reviews like this one, please visit the project’s page at Creative Criticality.

 

 

Timestamp #155: The Greatest Show in the Galaxy

Doctor Who: The Greatest Show in the Galaxy
(4 episodes, s25e11-e14, 1988-1989)

 

It’s an awfully meta moment in the late 1980s: The Greatest Show in the Galaxy gets rhythm, and we “ain’t seen nothing yet.”

On the TARDIS, the Doctor is trying to learn how to juggle while Ace (clad in the Fourth Doctor‘s pre-burgundy scarf) looks for her rucksack and Nitro-9. An automated probe materializes in the console room and delivers junk mail: an advertisement for the psychic circus. The Doctor wants to go and the advertising drone goads Ace (who is obviously scared of something) into joining him.

Something sinister is afoot at the circus: Two performers (Flowerchild and Bellboy) are on the run from a clown in a hearse. A rude sandwich eating biker named Nord and our heroes join the mix as well, and the Doctor and Ace are warned away from the circus by a roadside saleswoman. Flowerbell and Bellboy split up, and Flowerbell ends up at an abandoned bus and killed by the robotic conductor. Bellboy is found by the clowns are returned to the circus.

Nord turns down the Doctor’s request to join him, and the travelers are nearly run down by the clown on the road. They encounter Captain Cook and Mags, two more intergalactic travelers questing for the circus, and join them for tea. Ace and Mags find a buried robot, which comes to life and attacks the party, but is defeated by Ace. They carry on to the bus and are attacked by the conductor robot. The Doctor defeats the robot and parts company with the other travelers, disgusted by the captain’s cowardice.

A new player joins the mix: A well-dressed young man on a bicycle.

Nord, Captain Cook and Mags, and the Doctor and Ace arrive at the circus. Mags witnesses Bellboy being punished for his treachery, but her screams are electronically silenced by the ringmaster. Ace can still hear the screams and is hesitant about entering the tent, but the Doctor presses on. Ace’s fear is revealed: She suffers from coulrophobia, the fear of clowns. Based on the ticket-taker’s reaction to the clowns, Ace’s fear may be well-founded.

The Doctor and Ace find a seat in the darkened attraction, which isn’t hard since the place is nearly deserted: The only other party is a family of parents and a single child. The Doctor tries to engage them in small talk, but they’re almost robotic. The show starts with nearly the same rap as before, but one change is that the Ringmaster selects the Doctor to join as a volunteer performer. The Doctor rushes forward in glee and Ace gets trapped by clowns, and the lead clown is intrigued by Flowerbell’s earring, which Ace found at the bus. Ace runs and is pursued by this insane clown posse.

The Doctor is reunited with Captain Cook, Mags, and Nord, but soon realizes that this is a trap and he’s fallen right into it. Captain Cook tricks Nord into performing next. Meanwhile, Ace sneaks back into the circus tent and eavesdrops on the fortune teller and ringmaster talk about the state of the circus. She is given away by the chirping of drone kites and runs from the clowns, encountering a captive Bellboy. It’s revealed that Bellboy built the robotic clowns and only he can repair them. Ace is soon captured again and imprisoned in the clown repair facility.

Nord goes on stage and his performances are judged by the family. When he fails, he is disintegrated, an act that is witnessed by Mags and the Doctor. As the BMX rider, Whizz Kid, is selected to join the captives, the Doctor and Mags escape and find a series of catacombs to explore. They find a deep pit with a large eye (the same eye on the kite drones) at the bottom, but they are captured by the clowns and Captain Cook. Mags notices a symbol that resembles the phases of the moon, and the her reaction provides a distraction for the Doctor to escape.

When the clowns in the repair trailer attack, Ace defends herself until they stop and collapse. Bellboy emerges from the shadows and, noting the earring, learns of Flowerchild’s fate. He tells Ace that Flowerchild made the kites, something of beauty perverted into something sinister, and gives Ace the controller for the robot she defeated earlier. Elsewhere, the Doctor continues to unravel the mystery behind the circus and frees Ace and Bellboy from the trailer. We also discover that Deadbeat, the street sweeper, was once someone named Kingpin.

The clowns return Captain Cook and Mags to their cage, and Captain Cook snaps at Whizz Kid’s admiration of his exploits. He soon turns about and exploits the kid, moving him up in the queue to save the explorer’s own skin. The kid is soon killed for his failure, and the captain is a truly despicable man.

The Doctor, Ace, and Kingpin set out for the pit while Bellboy stays behind the distract the chief clown. Meanwhile, the fortune teller communicates with the eye through her crystal ball, telling it that more will come to feed it and they’ll keep everyone away from the bus. At the pit, the Doctor’s party uncovers the same link. The Doctor sends Ace and Kingpin to investigate the bus while he distracts the circus in the ring. The Doctor suggests that he, the captain, and Mags work together to upset the balance of the game, and Mags coerces the captain into agreeing.

Once in the room, Captain Cook turns the tables by ordering the crew to shine “moonlight” on Mags. The woman transforms into a werewolf, weirdly explaining her reaction to the moon symbols earlier. After a brief show by Cook, during which the Doctor discovers that the audience members are avatars of the eye in the pit, Mags turns on the captain and kills him. Mags and the Doctor are removed from the ring, but as the family demands more entertainment, the ringmaster and fortune teller are forced to perform. They fail and are consumed.

Ace and Kingpin search the bus, not knowing that the clowns have repaired the conductor. Ace tries to open a lockbox and is ambushed by the robot. During the scuffle, the box is broken open and Kingpin finds the rest of his eye pendant inside. His mind restored, he helps Ace defeat the conductor. Together, they head back to the Doctor.

Mags runs off to meet Ace and Kingpin as the Doctor confronts the eye in a psychedelic sequence. He ends up back in the ring, but now it is an ancient arena. The Doctor greets the family as the Gods of Ragnarok, a force he has fought for some time, and the trio demand more entertainment from their captive. The Doctor runs through a series of conjuring tricks to distract them.

Ace, Kingpin, and Mags end up the massive robot and use it to defeat the clowns. They return to the pit as the Doctor continues his performance, pursued by a reanimated Captain Cook. Cook steals the medallion and Ace knocks it into the pit, forcing it to materialize at the Doctor’s feet. The Doctor uses it to deflect attacks from the gods and destroy the arena around them. The Doctor doffs his hat in salute and returns to the circus, calmly strolling out of the tent as it explodes behind him.

He reunites with Ace, leaving Kingpin and Mags to start a new entertainment venture. He politely declines the offer to join them, citing the adventures that ahead. Besides, in a clever plot twist, he finds circuses to be rather sinister.

 

It was a decent adventure, and while the Doctor’s feelings about circuses are awfully convenient, I did enjoy watching Ace confront her fears to save the day. The werewolf subplot was kind of crazy, as was the Gods of Ragnarok twist, but they both did away with the treacherous Captain Cook. That guy was one of the first characters in this franchise that I have actively despised in a long time.

 

Rating: 3/5 – “Reverse the polarity of the neutron flow.”

 

 

UP NEXT – Twenty-Fifth Series Summary

 

The Timestamps Project is an adventure through the televised universe of Doctor Who, story by story, from the beginning of the franchise. For more reviews like this one, please visit the project’s page at Creative Criticality.