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I'm a writer, translator and aspiring director. Occasionally, I actually do some work instead of using this blog as a displacement exercise.

Saturday, 19 June 2021

Doctor Who: The Starter Kit

I wrote this in 2014, following enquires from others about where to start with watching Doctor Who. In retrospect, I probably would have dropped The Talons of Weng-Chiang back down the list, or off the bottom, as the casting of a white actor in make-up as a Chinese character, regardless of the nuance in the performance and writing, is obviously problematic. Hope this is otherwise useful.

With the new series of Doctor Who just starting, and a new era of show dawning with Peter Capaldi’s debut, now would be a good time for anyone who has been interested in the series to take the plunge and catch up. There is one small catch, however – they will be running a 50-year backlog.

The simple solution would be to just watch the modern series, which started in 2005 and has notched up seven series to date, but this would leave out the hundreds of episodes from the show’s original 26-year run which are more than worth your attention. Despite the different format, tighter budget and occasionally dated production, many of them still stand up as excellent adventure stories, with a perfect mixture of action, mystery, comedy and horror.

My idea is this – watch the modern series, and between each season dip back into the past to catch up on older episodes from the classic run. Perhaps one story for each of the original seven Doctors, thus making up a further season of stories to alternate with the 21st century show. So here’s a guide to what to look up as you go, with attention paid to what elements are reintroduced in each season of the modern show, and where they originally came from.


Season One (2005) starring Christopher Eccleston and Billie Piper

Elements introduced: The Doctor, the TARDIS, the Nestenes, UNIT, the Daleks, regeneration

In going back to the original series, there’s really no better place to start than with the very first story. An Unearthly Child (1963) laid the groundwork for the series, with a pilot episode that introduced a strange schoolgirl, two teachers who let their curiosity overwhelm them, the crotchety old man they find at a junkyard the girl claims as her home and the extraordinary machine hidden inside a police box. It’s still a stunning piece of drama, and is following by the series’ first adventure, with the four travellers finding themselves in the Stone Age and at the mercy of a tribe who have lost the secret of fire.

After three years in the role, ill health forced original Doctor William Hartnell to leave, and the production had the ingenious idea that, since the character’s background was entirely unknown, he could simply change into another person. The result was the casting of Patrick Troughton as the new Doctor, more happy-go-lucky tramp than his predecessor’s stern grandfather. One of the greatest showcases for Troughton’s ability was The Enemy of the World (1967-8), in which he not only plays the sometimes-childlike-sometimes-steely second Doctor, but also a Mexican industrialist in the near future with a plot to take over the world, one piece at a time. The influence of James Bond weighs heavy on a story that splits its time between Hungary and Australia, but the fast pace, twisting story and engaging performances, especially from the series’ lead, keep it on the rails.

Troughton too decided to depart after three years, though his concerns were more related to how typecasting might damage his career. The new production team decided to go in a different direction, and cast comic actor Jon Pertwee as the third Doctor. Pertwee, however, played against type, and approached the role with considerable seriousness, making his Doctor a man of action and high-minded ideals. His debut was Spearhead from Space (1970), the first Doctor Who serial to be made in colour and the first to film entirely on location. The result, showing the Doctor’s first meeting with the Nestenes and Autons as he adjusted to exile on Earth, easily bears comparison to British science-fiction cinema of the time, and it remains the template for how to reformat the show. Just look at Eccleston’s first episode to spot resemblances.

Pertwee became the longest-serving Doctor to date, spending five years in the role, although seasons were shortened at the turn of the 1970s from 10 months to only six. The question of who would replace him was solved when a little-known character actor was cast, someone who would make the role his own and become, for many, the perfect Doctor. Tom Baker lasted seven years on the series, taking it to new heights of success, launching it in the United States and seeing in the birth of modern fandom. One of his finest serials was The Talons of Weng-Chiang (1976), in which a visit to the theatre in Victorian London gets him embroiled in a mash-up of Sherlock Holmes, Jack the Ripper, the Phantom of the Opera and every other piece of period horror you can think of.  A rich, witty script and some gorgeous design and photography on the dying streets of London’s docks make this truly one of the greats.

The dawn of the 1980s saw a new direction for Doctor Who. A new producer decided on a more serious approach, and Baker, sensing a change in the wind, decided to quit. The fifth Doctor would be Peter Davison, already a household name but also the youngest Doctor to date at only 29. Changes to the series were drastic, with the regular characters wearing outfits more like costumes than clothes, electronic music being used throughout, and the programme moving away from Saturday early evenings for the first time to screen mid-evening twice weekly. One of the most intriguing results of this all-new Doctor Who was Kinda (1982), an eerie parable about the colonisation of a primitive planet that is home to an evil entity that dwells in the dark places of the mind. Still seen as one of the most original serials the programme has attempted, this is a strange, ambitious story with an impressive visual style.

Davison heeded advice he had been offered by Patrick Troughton when he took the role, and decided to leave after his third season. His successor, Colin Baker, could not have been a greater contrast. While the fifth Doctor was gentler and more compassionate than many of his other incarnations, the sixth was loud, brash and wilfully egotistical. The consequence of this was that his Doctor was hard to like and remains arguably the least popular. The series too was taking a more garish approach, with levels of violence, gore and black humour ramped up so far that the BBC cancelled the 1986 season with only a few weeks’ notice, scrapping the planned scripts and delaying broadcast by nine months. Before that, however, Vengeance on Varos (1985) showed the direction the series was aiming for – a bleak, brutal story about a society kept under control with televised torture and execution, it demonstrates how the grim tone of the sixth Doctor’s first season could be made to work, and includes impressive performances from Martin Jarvis as the powerless but noble ruler of Varos and Nabil Shaban as the slug-like arch-capitalist Sil, one of the decade’s great original Who villains.

Baker’s second season was a ratings failure, and he was unceremoniously fired without filming a handover. Moving into 1987, the series now had to rapidly cast a new Doctor to get the series on air by the autumn, and the surprise choice was Sylvester McCoy, an actor who had started in cabaret and novelty acts before moving into serious theatre. The seventh Doctor started as something of a clown, but in time a quiet darkness was revealed underneath, making him perhaps both the most charming and most sinister of the Doctors. This can perhaps be seen best in The Greatest Show in the Galaxy (1988-9), in which he visits a strange circus on a desert planet, where the Chief Clown rules with sequinned fist. One of the most fantastical yet unnerving stories, and benefitting from a production crisis that meant filming had to be conducted in a real big top.

Next time: Monsters!


Season Two (2006) starring David Tennant and Billie Piper

Elements introduced: Sarah Jane Smith, K9, the Cybermen, parallel universes

Probably the most legendary element of Doctor Who is its monsters, and the most legendary of those is the Daleks. Their first appearance was in only the second ever serial, The Daleks (1963-4), making them the first alien menace the Doctor fought. The hate-fuelled metal creatures would become the standard of evil against which the Doctor measures himself in later stories, but here they are only a little more cruel and callous than the Doctor himself. The horribly mutated survivors of an atomic war, prisoners inside metal casings that cannot leave a steel city, the Daleks brutally turn down the offer of peace from the descendents of their enemies, the Thals, and plot to retake the world of Skaro for themselves alone. Probably the most important story apart from the pilot, with the Doctor being forced out of his isolationist attitude and forced to take a moral stand for the first time.

The only true rivals the Daleks have ever had as kings of the monsters have been the Cybermen. Originally from an advanced civilisation on Earth’s twin planet Mondas, they were once human, but soon the atmosphere froze over and food and energy reserves started to dwindle. Replacing body parts with plastic and steel allowed life to continue, but this was not enough. Eventually even the brains of subjects were operated upon, removing the emotions that could restrict the survival instinct and replacing them with merciless logic – logic that dictated the rest of the planet must be converted immediately, and then any humanoid life, wherever it was found. Though not their earliest appearance, The Invasion (1968) shows them at their most powerful, joining forces with an electronic magnate of the near future to mount a full-scale stealth attack on the Earth, opposed by only the Doctor and his new friends in the debuting UNIT, led by Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart. The latter would become a fixture of the series over the years, with actor Nicholas Courtney being regarded by many fans as an honorary Doctor. Part spy thriller and part alien invasion epic, the serial benefits from a comparatively huge budget, richly enjoyable performances, especially from Kevin Stoney and Peter Halliday as the Bond-villainesque Tobias Vaughn and his repulsive henchman, and a cinematic style that sees Cybermen pouring out of manholes and marching down the steps outside St. Paul’s Cathedral.

One of the issues with The Invasion that arose later is that of missing episodes. The BBC did not have a permanent archive policy until the late 1970s, meaning that Doctor Who episodes from the eras of the first three Doctors were generally fair game for junking once storage space became an issue and the rights to sell copies overseas had expired. Jon Pertwee’s tenure has gradually been restored in its entirety, but 97 of the 253 episodes screened in the 1960s are still missing, with only home audio recordings surviving. Two episodes of The Invasion are missing to this day, but the DVD includes special animated versions produced in a similar style to the live action material, and synchronised with the episodes’ complete audio track.

The first season featuring the third Doctor saw a range of threats challenge the newly-exiled Time Lord on near-future Earth. The highlight of the year, and possibly the entire Pertwee era, is widely regarded to be Inferno (1970), which starts as a simple story of a project to drill through the Earth’s crust unleashing a strange mutating slime, but when a power surge to the TARDIS in the middle of the Doctor’s attempts to get it working plunge him into a parallel universe, it become a meditation on free will and predestination, as well as possibly one of the bleakest stories in the series’ history. Two versions of the Earth are heading for an apocalyptic firestorm, with the Doctor knowing that he will be forced to abandon some lives to save others. A riveting story with a heavy, oppressive atmosphere, and one of the series’ great triumphs of pure drama.

In contrast, Tom Baker’s early stories were marked by a fondness less for weighty material, but instead having the TARDIS land in the surroundings of a horror film and seeing how matters would play out. Having been paired with tough, resourceful and goodhearted journalist Sarah Jane Smith, the Doctor would have some of his most popular adventures in the mid-1970s, few more so than The Seeds of Doom (1976). A story that leaps from Antarctica to a stately home in England, it sees the Doctor trying to tracking down alien seed pods that, if they germinate, could turn the whole of Earth’s plant life against humanity. Unfortunately, they have fallen into the hands of a madman obsessed with his vision of a truly green and pleasant land. Equally inspired by the classic sci-fi horror The Thing from Another World and the surreal spy capers of The Avengers, this is one of the most purely enjoyable stories, with a fantastically sardonic villain in the psychopathic millionaire Harrison Chase.

Many popular monsters and villains from the series’ past were revived during the fifth Doctor’s era, but one of his most effective stories was entirely original. Frontios (1984) saw the TARDIS land on a planet further in the future than the ship was designed to travel, to find what could be humanity’s last outpost under attack from the skies and from underground. A moody, yet ingenious story that questions how the Doctor would fare if the TARDIS were destroyed, it has remained one of the most consistently popular of its time.

On the other hand, there are times when Doctor Who really fouls up. There are few sixth Doctor stories than many could recommend whole-heartedly, and it hard to imagine a less likely candidate than Timelash (1985). A generic central idea of a struggling planet ruled by a mysterious dictator while on the brink of war with its solar neighbour, it typifies Doctor Who at its most pedestrian, but there is still pleasure to be had, with the story taking a strange left turn to incorporate a historical figure, some excellent prosthetic make-up and an attempt by Paul Darrow, playing the dictator’s puppet ruler, to save the production singlehandedly by playing his character like Richard III. Seeing Doctor Who at its worst is something best done early, and even if no enjoyment can be extracted from the wrong-headed production, it will still make other adventures look better.

The fresh creative broom brought to the series in the late 1980s meant a new approach to the series’ mythology, and the most ambitious example must be Battlefield (1989). The opening story of the classic series’ final season, it saw a return to action after many years for UNIT and the now-retired Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart as they faced an unlikely threat – a war between knights from a parallel dimension spilling into our world in search of their long-lost king, Arthur. The Doctor is at his most deeply shaded, teasing a romancing couple at one point, threatening to behead someone at another, and following a series of clues left behind by his own future self, pointing the way to his own destiny. An all-action story that still questions the nature of war, and boasting in the demonic Destroyer one of the most effective creatures the series ever produced, this indicated how the series could have developed in the 1990s.

Next time: the Doctor’s own people!


Series Three (2007) starring David Tennant and Freema Agyeman

Elements introduced:  the Master, the Time Lords

For someone who has prided themselves on existing outside their society, the Doctor does spend a lot of time in the presence of his own people. Apart from his granddaughter Susan, the first time another of his own race appeared in the series was The Time Meddler (1965). The TARDIS lands on the Northumbrian coast in the summer of 1066, only days from the Viking invasion and the Battle of Stamford Bridge and weeks from the Battle of Hastings. The Doctor is happy to chat to the locals, but is startled when the sound of plainsong from the nearby monastery skips a groove, leading to him to encounter a monk with a plan to rationalise the next thousand years of Earth history. A strangely atmospheric story, benefiting from the eerie mood of the deserted monastery and the no-nonsense scepticism of new companion Steven Taylor, played by future Blue Peter presenter Peter Purves. The Monk is a superb character, with Carry On regular Peter Butterworth carefully balancing impishness and an edge of cunning. A simple but effective story, and one of the highlights of William Hartnell’s tenure.

After six years of aimless wandering, the first phase of the series was brought to an end with The War Games (1969), which also brought the curtain down on the black-and-white era and Patrick Troughton’s tenure. Appearing to land in the trenches of WWI, the Doctor and his friends are immediately sentenced to death for espionage, but the British general appears to take orders from a piece of futuristic technology in his rooms and hypnotises officers to do his bidding. This is only part of a monstrous scheme, one which is too big for even the Doctor to defeat alone. The Time Lords make their first appearance in this story, invoked as an authority of almost unimaginable power, with even the ruthless architect of the villains’ project, played by a supremely menacing Philip Madoc, speaking of them with a hushed, awed fear. They appear in person at the climax, embodied as something like space-age Greek gods, capping a 10-part epic that never slackens its pace, is riven with a strong anti-war and anti-authority message and provides the second Doctor with a superb departure.

With the third Doctor exiled to Earth by the Time Lords at the story’s conclusion, the programme’s new format required some creative thinking from the new production team to keep it fresh. One proposal, that the Doctor be given a regular archenemy to be Moriarty to his Sherlock, proved to be ideal, and led to the creation of the Master and his first appearance in Terror of the Autons (1971). A sequel to Spearhead from Space, the Nestenes make a second assault on the Earth, this time aided by a Time Lord, who fled their home planet seeking not knowledge and experience, as the Doctor did, but unlimited power. Roger Delgado, an experienced character actor of Mediterranean descent and Cockney by birth, landed the role of a lifetime as the Doctor’s new mortal enemy, combining wit, charm and a deadly sense of danger to produce the definitive version of the character in a story that plays like a live action comic strip. Five minutes cannot pass without another colourful incident, action sequence or new threat, and some of the visual gimmickry, such as a doll coming to life and strangling a man, policemen being revealed as faceless automata or a man being found dead in his own lunchbox, have passed into Doctor Who lore.

Not all of the Doctor’s encounters with his own people have been so threatening. Undertaking a mission for the White Guardian, the fourth Doctor was given a junior Time Lady as his new travelling companion, and he and Romana soon struck up a rapport. When Mary Tamm decided to leave after a year, Romana regenerated and turned into Lalla Ward, who proved the perfect foil for the whimsical humour and pin-sharp intelligence of Tom Baker’s Doctor. Their  signature story is undoubtedly City of Death (1979), where a holiday in present-day Paris leads to the theft of the Mona Lisa, a prototype time machine and a plan by a shady aristocrat that could erase the last few million years’ of Earth history. Largely written by Douglas Adams after the original writer was forced to drop out, this is one of the pinnacles of the series, if not the pinnacle. An intelligent yet hilarious script, gorgeous location filming around the French capital, the romantic sweep of Dudley Simpson’s music and the warmth of the performances, especially Julian Glover who, as Count Scarlioni, relishes every Bondian quip, combine to make a programme of pure delight. Watching it now, it’s not hard to see in the chemistry between Baker and Ward the seeds that lead to their marriage, less than two years later.

Appearances by the Master had abruptly ceased later in Jon Pertwee’s tenure, enforced by the tragic death of Roger Delgado in a car accident, but the character was revived at the end of Tom Baker’s term, now played by Anthony Ainley. He faced Peter Davison’s fifth Doctor several times, but the key story to watch is The Caves of Androzani (1984). Ainley appears only briefly and does not heavily impact the story, but the production is marvel to behold all the same. A casual visit to a desert planet and an idle exploration of some rock formations lead the Doctor and his friend Peri into the heart of a civil war. Before long they are wanted by both sides, and simply getting off the planet alive may be too much to hope for. A rich, innovative story, this throws the fifth Doctor’s gentler and more compassionate persona into sharp relief, pitting him against an unsympathetic army chief on one side and a psychotic on the other, the latter perpetuating a war over a life-extending drug solely as an act of revenge. Armed with a revolutionary directing style, Graeme Harper would be the only director to work on both the classic and modern series, but again the supporting performances are key, with Christopher Gable as the masked and damaged Sharaz Jek slowly turning from deranged warlord into tragic antihero in a role earmarked for David Bowie. The Caves of Androzani is regarded by many as the greatest story from Doctor Who’s long history, and I count myself among that group.

The 1986 season, Colin Baker’s second and ultimately last, was structured as a single 14-part story, divided further into four instalments. The sixth Doctor has been summoned by his own people to answer for his actions, and in first four episodes of The Trial of a Time Lord, subtitled The Mysterious Planet, evidence is presented in flashback of a visit to the planet Ravolox, which hides a dark secret in the tunnels of an underground society, whose inhabitants believe the surface to be uninhabitable. In the courtroom, the Doctor questions where Peri has gone and suspects that all is not as he is being told. A last throw of the dice to keep the series on the air, after it was suddenly cancelled a year earlier and only kept in production after the press and public voiced their anger, this needed to be spectacular to keep Doctor Who alive. Instead, there is an intriguing story that, while involving, fails to operate on the level of compulsive viewing that would have restored the series’ fortunes. Even so, there is much to enjoy in the staggering opening shot, the off-kilter, enigmatic tone and strong performances by from the likes of Michael Jayston as the Valeyard, the Doctor’s black-robed prosecutor.

Of course, Doctor Who did stay on air, but after three years of fighting against Coronation Street in a midweek slot, the series came to an end. The reasons for this are many and varied, but consolation can be taken from the final story broadcast in the classic run, the appropriately-titled Survival (1989). It mirrors the opening episodes, with the Doctor, having once abducted a pair of Londoners now bringing a missing Londoner home, with teenage delinquent Ace returning to her Perivale stamping grounds to find many of her friends having vanished. The Doctor’s interest is piqued by the local wildlife, and finds that a quiet suburb on a Sunday afternoon has become a hunting ground for the Cheetah People, who have fallen under the spell of a familiar face. Anthony Ainley returned to Doctor Who after a three-year absence for the story, offering a quieter version of his more theatrical version of the Master. This matches him perfectly against Sylvester McCoy’s seventh Doctor, turning their only on-screen encounter into a memorable battle of wills. The story, riddled with symbolism and thoughtful dialogue, packs a huge amount into only three episodes, and is fitting that the series should have ended with such a tale of facing one’s past and looking to the future.

Speculation that Doctor Who could return featured on tabloid pages for much of the 1990s, but this eventually came to fruition when, after years in development, a television movie was produced with the intention of launching Doctor Who on American television. Bearing no episode title of its own and titled on DVD simply Doctor Who: The Movie (1996), it begins with the seventh Doctor taking the Master’s remains home, little knowing  that death can do little to slow him down. The TARDIS crashes on New Year’s Eve, 1999 in San Francisco, and with the wounded Doctor regenerating into his eighth incarnation and the Master possessing the body of an unfortunate paramedic, the two Time Lords are set to battle to the death, while Earth may not live to see the 21st century. Despite certain Americanisms seeping in, the project remains true to the programme’s origin, the key being Paul McGann’s performance as the dashing, Romantic eighth Doctor in his only onscreen appearance until 2013. Able to flit from childish delight at a new pair of shoes to doomladen prophecy of the planet’s imminent fate, McGann proved the perfect choice for the part. Eric Roberts lays on the camp somewhat, as the Master becomes more animalistic than ever, but the lush direction, endearing dialogue and staggering production design – the TARDIS control room has never looked as good – create something special, even if the hoped-for series failed to materialise.

Next time: Best friends and arch-enemies!


Series Four and Specials (2008-10) starring David Tennant and Catherine Tate

Elements introduced:  the Sontarans, Davros

I’ve not said much so far about the Doctor’s travelling companions, because I thought it was giving them a run of their own. As mentioned before, the first people to barge their way into the Doctor’s life were Ian Chesterton and Barbara Wright, teachers at a present-day London. Acting as viewpoint characters for the audience and conduits for the series’ twin educational targets of science and history, they eventually formed a close bond with the Doctor and his granddaughter, finding equal footing with the series’ title character. Barbara’s key story is The Aztecs (1964), in which the TARDIS lands inside a tomb of a priest, and on emerging through a one-way door built to allow the spirit to depart, Barbara is hailed as the reincarnation of the powerful Yetaxa. With her new-found influence, she determines to do something the Doctor has expressly forbidden – end the Aztecs’ human sacrifices and save their civilisation from destruction. The most theatrical of stories, based on a few simple sets and largely dialogue-based, it’s also one of the most adult, offering a detailed and carefully-researched study of a lost world as Barbara fights suspicion from others regarding her true identity , knowing that Cortez is only over the horizon. Strong storylines for all the regulars, including a romance for the Doctor and a fight to the death for Ian, show the series’ strengths even with the limited resources of the early 1960s.

The second Doctor’s longest-lasting companion was Jamie McCrimmon, a young 18th century piper and survivor the battle of Culloden, who appeared in all but the first of Patrick Troughton’s stories. He and Frazer Hines developed a great on-screen chemistry that they also shared with co-stars including Wendy Padbury as Zoe Heriot, a mid-21st century child prodigy now in her late teens. The trio’s first full adventure together, The Dominators (1968), is a fine showcase for all three, as they land on a supposedly peace-loving planet to find brutal warlike aliens plotting to exploit it for their own ends. Jamie’s resourcefulness and courage in fighting the eponymous villains and their robotic Quarks is matched by Zoe’s scientific knowhow and logical reasoning, while the most comical and anarchic Doctor himself finds his counterparts in the glum, humourless and aggressive Dominators.

The best-known and most popular of the classic series companions is Sarah Jane Smith. A tough, no-nonsense journalist who refusing to let herself be pushed around, her first appearance in The Time Warrior (1973-4) throws her straight in at the deep end. The Doctor, investigating a series of disappearances in the scientific community, follows a trail back to the Middle Ages and an alien stranded in Wessex, unaware that a nosy reporter has stowed away and is convinced she’s in some sort of Robin Hood theme park. Sarah Jane shows impressive skill in adapting to time travel, and by the end of the story is helping to break a castle siege as bandits led by a rogue Sontaran storm the battlements. Linx, the castaway spaceman, is a superbly unpleasant creation, and his relationship with robber baron Irongron and his slow-witted sidekick Bloodaxe show off writer Robert Holmes ear for comedy.

Sarah Jane stayed with the Doctor after he regenerated into his fourth incarnation, and they were joined by Harry Sullivan, a good-hearted if old-fashioned Navy doctor on attachment to UNIT. In their most popular adventure, they are hijacked by the Time Lords and dropped on a desolate planet ripped apart by a millennium of war. As the conflict between two civilisations reaches its endgame, they are given a simple task – to avert the Genesis of the Daleks (1975). For the first time, the Doctor encounters the brilliant mind behind his most monstrous enemies, as he ventures into the underground bunker used by the Kaled scientific elite and their leader, the crippled psychopath Davros. Michael Wisher is outstanding as the Daleks’ creator, with even a prosthetic mask and the use of a single arm failing to limit his mesmerising performance. Nazi parallels abound, with the ill-fated Kaleds based on the SS and Davros being a twisted merger of Hitler and Mengele. Suffice to say, the Doctor fails to prevent the Daleks’ birth, but in discovering the truth of their origins and pondering the good the creatures achieve despite themselves, it remains a kind of victory.

After a long break, the Cybermen returned to Doctor Who in Earthshock (1982), sporting an impressive redesign that brought them out of the wetsuits of the 1960s and into state-of-the-art pressure suits of modern-day fighter pilots. The story, influenced by Alien, sees the silver giants planning to attack Earth in the 26th century, and the Doctor joins with a group of marines and the crew of a freighter to stop them. Early in the fifth Doctor’s tenure, the TARDIS was beginning to be a little cramped, with Australian air hostess Tegan Jovanka, alien princess and biochemist Nyssa and petulant teenage mathematician Adric all sharing space. With only so much story to go around, one would have to leave, but there would be few companion departures as memorable as this action-packed thriller.

With past monsters becoming a common sight in the series by the mid-1980s, it was inevitable that the Sontarans would return, and they do so in style in The Two Doctors (1985). Following two parallel stories, featuring on the one hand a returning second Doctor and Jamie and on the other the sixth Doctor and Californian college student Peri Brown, it follows attempts by the Sontarans to develop a time machine of their own for use in one of their endless wars. Having stolen the research, the clone warriors, a brilliant scientist in their pay and two collaborating aliens with deep stomachs, they repair to a quiet location on a backwater planet – near a city called Seville. Filmed on location in Spain, and with entertainingly sparky chemistry between Baker and Troughton, this is great fun for those with strong stomachs. The series was going through a phase of body horror, so the sight of bloodied corpses, severed legs and one character eating a live rat may be a little too flavoursome.

For the 25th anniversary season, it was only natural that the Daleks would return, and in Remembrance of the Daleks (1988) they launch their most ambitious plan yet – securing a Time Lord superweapon that would give them mastery of the cosmos. Except only the Doctor knows the weapon is in a graveyard in London in 1963 – just where he left it, a long time ago. After several series of budget-tightened adventure, this was a return of action to the series, with the military engaging slick new Daleks on the streets of Shoreditch, surprising hints about the distant past of the Time Lords being dropped and the Daleks’ Emperor making a special appearance. The seventh Doctor is now accompanied by Ace, a teenage explosives enthusiast and general delinquent from West London. Inarguably the template for companions in the modern series, she comes from a mundane background, has a strained relationship with her mother, and in this story embarks on a first, ill-fated romance. Sophie Aldred is terrific in the role, and remains for many the best of the Doctor’s travelling companions.

Next time: myths and legends!


Series Five (2010) starring Matt Smith and Karen Gillan

Elements introduced:  the Silurians

One of the major themes of this series is the legend of the Doctor, and this combines neatly with the more fairy-tale tone of the new production. One of the key early stories to establish the Doctor’s reputation is The Dalek Invasion of Earth (1964), the first rematch between the Time Lord and his arch enemies. Having landed in the ruins of London 200 years from now, the TARDIS travellers find that the Daleks have taken over, enslaving humanity and enacting a monstrous plan that could endanger the entire galaxy. It is almost the first time that the Doctor consciously steps up and stands again the forces of evil, completing the evolution of the character over the series’ first season from selfish hermit to selfless hero.

Doctor Who has rarely moved into pure fantasy, but on the occasions when such digressions have been attempted, the series goes all in. The Mind Robber (1968) throws both the characters and the audience in at the deep end, when the TARDIS is pulled out of time and space altogether before exploding, with the second Doctor, Jamie and Zoe finding themselves in a strange realm where fictional characters are real, the story of your life is written before you live it and where being trapped in the pages of a book can last forever. A remarkable feat of imagination, especially given the resources available, it is one of Troughton’s most entertaining stories. Production itself was famously troubled. An extra episode was produced and tagged onto the front of the story to fill a gap in the schedule, but no extra money was available for sets, props or actors. The result, the closest Doctor Who has come to a Lynchian nightmare, remains deeply unsettling.

Earth’s legends are littered with stories of monsters from under the ground, and one could imagine that in the world of the series, many of these could be traced back to ancient history and stories of The Silurians (1970). Another wildly ambitious story with a killer premise, it sees the Doctor investigating strange goings-on at an underground nuclear research station. Strange figures stalk the caves nearby, survivors of a people older than man can imagine – and they want their planet back. An intelligent, thoughtful story that offers no easy answers to its moral conundrums, it offers one of the most downbeat endings of the series’ history. There is still no lack of pleasures, however, especially the performance of Peter Miles (also seen as Davros’s right-hand man in Genesis of the Daleks) as the increasingly unhinged head of the facility, who gets one of the best death scenes I can remember.

Other myths on Earth tell of powerful beings descending from the skies to walk among us. A popular theory in the early 1970s, Doctor Who revisited it a number of times, but never as brilliantly as in Pyramids of Mars (1975). The Doctor attempts to return Sarah Jane to UNIT headquarters, but while finding the right spot is still more than half a century out. Emerging into a country house in 1911, they find packing crates from Cairo and a surly foreigner treating the house as his own, while the missing owner’s brother tells them of a lost archaeological dig and the strange radio signals he is receiving from Mars. A being of phenomenal power and infinite evil is awakening, but chance does the Doctor have to defeat a god? A tribute to the mummy movies of generations past, with moody, atmospheric direction and some superb dialogue, this story is capped off with Gabriel Woolf’s performance as Sutekh, the ancient Egyptian god of death. Masked and immobile for most of the story, he manages to project a frightening character with his whispering voice alone, making him one of the most memorable villains of the series.

Few monsters in Doctor Who truly defeated for ever, and the Mara is definitely one of those. A sequel to the previous season’s Kinda, Snakedance (1983) sees the Doctor and his friends land on the creature’s home world, a bustling medieval society about to celebrate the anniversary of the Mara’s banishment. But could it still be lurking, in the dark corners of the mind? And can the Doctor convince people that it is returning before it wreaks havoc across the world? Boasting one of Martin Clunes’ first television performances, this like its predecessor looks more towards the spiritual rather than the scientific, with the mind’s capacity for quietness and simplicity being perhaps its greatest defence.

The story of The Trial of a Time Lord continues in Mindwarp (1986), where the next stage of the evidence against the Doctor is his most recent adventure. Following a trial of gunrunners, the Doctor and Peri find themselves again in the company of Vengeance on Varos’s Sil, as his superior undergoes a new form of surgery that could extend his life indefinitely. But in the courtroom, the Doctor struggles to remember events as they are portrayed, and soon things spiral beyond even his control. Featuring Brian Blessed in one of his loudest supporting roles, this is something of a curate’s egg. Some strong acting and production work combines with a muddled, unclear script, but the twist ending pushes the series in a new direction, raising the stakes in the trial and showing the most brash and outspoken Doctor that everything has a consequence.

Some myths have always existed. Stories of creatures that drain the blood from the living. Tales of playing games against Death itself. Legends that tell of the end of the world. The Curse of Fenric (1989) brings all of these together in one of the most layered stories of the series’ history. The Doctor and Ace land at a Royal Navy signal camp in WWII, apparently to see the first of the modern computers as it is used to decode Nazi ciphers. The base has another, far more sinister purpose, however, and as ancient Viking runes carve themselves into the wall of a nearby church, Russian commandos land on the beach and a black fog starts to creep across the waters, the final endgame in a contest stretching back a thousand years is about to be played. Shot entirely on location and filled with action, horror, terrific performances from Sophie Aldred and guest star Nicholas Parsons as a priest whose faith is crumbling, and a superb score by Mark Ayres, this could be the highlight of 1980s Doctor Who.

Next time: the phantom!


Series Six (2011) starring Matt Smith, Karen Gillan and Arthur Darvill

Elements introduced:  the Cybermats

A key theme this series is the notion of the Phantom – that spectre of the future, of death or of inescapable change. It reappears constantly, in the form of the Doctor’s foreshadowed murder, the future version of Amy, her “ghost” in the form of the Flesh walking around in her image, and of course River Song herself, a symbol of the Doctor’s own future. For a science-fiction series like Doctor Who, the idea of being haunted by one’s own future is a potent one.

It could be said that this was first sighted in The Tenth Planet (1966), William Hartnell’s final story as the first Doctor. Landing at the South Pole 20 years from now and finding a bustling space tracking station has been built under the snow, the Doctor predicts that visitors are imminent. Far from being drawn by reindeer, they are borne on a world equal and opposite to Earth, and seek the assistance and resources of the planet for their own survival. Viewers would not have seen these monstrous half-mechanical parodies of humanity before, but they would fear them soon. They are called Cybermen. Hartnell’s health was in poor shape at the time the story was recorded, so much so that he had to drop out of the penultimate episode, necessitating hasty rewrites to cover his absence, but there are moments when the fire that he brought to that crotchety old man burn bright once again. The original Cybermen are a nightmare vision, with cloth masks stretched over faces and human hands emerging from plastic arms. The energy drain of the planet Mondas would ultimately prove too much for the Doctor, as he collapses to the floor of the TARDIS, and his features blaze with white light...

The Cybermen proved an immediate hit with audiences, and a rematch was hastily arranged for the following year. The Moonbase (1967) would see another base under siege, this time a weather control station on the surface of the Moon. With a strange plague breaking out just as the Doctor and his friends arrive, they come under suspicion until a familiar silver shape is glimpsed. The Phantom again is felt, as a concussed Jamie is menaced by a Cyberman and almost abducted by them for their own evil purposes, but his bleary-minded cries that the mythical “phantom piper” has come to claim him ultimately save his life. A tight, sharply written story with a plethora of engaging characters among the base’s multinational – the leader being, of course, English – this is a true archetype of Doctor Who adventures, and one that would provide a template in years to come.

Not all spectres are so malevolent. Some offer just a guiding hand towards a melancholy future. The Green Death (1973) was the end of an era for Doctor Who, both for the production and for the Doctor himself. A controversial scheme by a chemical company in South Wales attracts the attention of Jo Grant, who defies both the Doctor and Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart to throw in her lot with Clifford Jones, a Nobel Laureate and environmentalist that even she describes as reminder her of a younger version of the Doctor. The three years Katy Manning spent on the series as Jo saw the character gradually mature, and now finally she strikes out on her own. The Doctor and UNIT join her when the activities of Global Chemicals put first the region, then potentially the world in danger, but it’s Jo’s story. The final scene is Doctor Who at its most bittersweet, with the character’s celebrating not only their victory, but Jo and Cliff’s engagement. But not the Doctor. He quietly puts down his wineglass, slinks away without a word, and drives off framed against the setting sun.

It was a tall order facing the series in Tom Baker’s final story. Two new companions had to be introduced, although one was returning from the preceding serial, a new version of the Master was to be defined, and most of all a threat had to be created that would be an appropriate send-off for the Doctor’s most long-lived incarnation. Logopolis (1981) solved the problem with a remarkable elegance, as the Doctor and Adric, seeking to finally fix the TARDIS’s chameleon circuit, materialise around a real police box, allowing them to take all the necessary measures to take to the eponymous location, a colony of monk-like mathematicians. But that innocent-looking police box on Barnet bypass is anything but, a pale indistinct figure watches from a distance, a dark presence at the heart of the TARDIS burns with hatred, and on Logopolis, a secret will be uncovered that could plunge the universe into darkness... forever. A sombre, funereal tone pervades the story, aided by Paddy Kingsland’s superb music and the spectral presence of Anthony Ainley as the Master. With nothing less than all existence at stake, the fourth Doctor departed on a high note.

The story’s immediate continuation, Castrovalva (1982), pushes the story further. Though the Master’s scheme is foiled, a back-up plan for personal revenge quietly clicks into place. With Adric missing and the new Doctor’s regeneration failing, Nyssa and Tegan’s only chance to get him to the village of the title, a settlement on a forest world devoid of the distraction that are preventing the Time Lord’s mind from healing. But for the Master, traps with traps have been set, and this time escape will be impossible. Gently paced like its predecessor, and with another beautiful Kingsland score, this offers a superb puzzle for the viewer to unscramble, just as the new Doctor tries to make sense of his new mind and allow his new personality to emerge. A remarkably sophisticated story bears multiple viewings to unpick the layers of thought, this is a treat for the mind, as well as the eyes and ears.

Only two instalments remain of The Trial of a Time Lord, but as they number only six episodes between them, both can be tackled together. Terror of the Vervoids (1986) sees the Doctor presenting evidence for his defence from his own future, demonstrating the lives that he will save if found innocent and allowed to continue his travels. An Agatha Christie-style tale on an interstellar cruise ship sees a series of murders take place, people masquerading as others and all manner of intrigue. In the hold, a series of pods, the product of onboard experiments, are starting to germinate, but as the court examines the evidence, the Doctor discovers it has been tampered with, and that this may be an adventure he does not live to see. An engaging mystery in the context of a Doctor Who adventure, the framed story is slight but entertaining, and introduces a companion from the future in the form of fitness fanatic Mel, played by Bonnie Langford.

The trial comes to its conclusion in The Ultimate Foe (1986). With charges against the Doctor stacking up and his claims that evidence has been tampered with falling on deaf ears, help comes from an unlikely source. With Mel and Sabalom Glitz (from “The Mysterious Planet”) arriving to assist, the Doctor starts to unravel a conspiracy of monstrous proportions, one which could set the Doctor against his own people. Conceived in haste as production on Doctor Who barely held together, this is a triumph against circumstance. Having barely started the first episode, original writer Robert Holmes passed away. The creator of the Autons, Nestenes and Sontarans, head writer for Tom Baker’s first three seasons and author of “Terror of the Autons”, “Pyramids of Mars”, “The Talons of Weng-Chiang” and “The Caves of Androzani”, he was much loved. The then-head writer Eric Saward attempted to take over, but his efforts were rejected, leading to an acrimonious split from the series. The finished episodes had to be drafted in the presence of a lawyer to ensure that no details from previous versions were used, but the polished production gives a lie to the troubles. A shift towards grotesque Victoriana suits the final story well, as does the dream logic and handsome location filming. The reveal of this story’s Phantom is a chilling moment that still echoes in the series today.

With Doctor Who moving into a more lyrical mood towards the end of the 1980s, a story such as Ghost Light (1989) would not seem to fit in any other era. The seventh Doctor takes Ace to a house in her home town in 1888, apparently as some kind of test. But there is something odd about the household. Its owner emerges only at night. A creature is being kept in a cellar. A policeman is comatose in the drawing room. And an ancient entity is becoming curious about the world outside... A work of incredible density, with several viewings required to fully absorb the story, this was held up as the benchmark for the level of sophistication to which Doctor Who could aspire during the long years off-air. Gorgeously produced entirely in studio, with a witty script and charming performances, this was the last story produced for the classic series. It went out at the height of its powers.

Next time: the victory lap!


Series Seven (2012-3) starring Matt Smith, Karen Gillan, Arthur Darvill and Jenna-Louise Coleman

Elements introduced:  the Great Intelligence, the Ice Warriors, the Zygons

The 50th anniversary special and the following final episode featuring the eleventh Doctor saw him triumph over his past and his own mistakes, so an overview of some of his greatest victories would be appropriate for this final chapter. As seen in “An Unearthly Child” and “The Daleks”, the first Doctor was a miserable, selfish old man when he first appeared, openly suspicious and paranoid towards Ian and Barbara. This situation comes to a head in The Edge of Destruction (1964), the final story of Doctor Who’s original commission. Set entirely inside the TARDIS and featuring only the regular cast, it sees the Ship crash during transit. When the reluctant travelling companions wake up, their memories return only slowly, and as concerns grow as to what or who stranded the ship and strange events start to pile up, Susan suspects that something has got inside. Not just inside the TARDIS, but inside one of its occupants. A superb chamber piece and a masterclass in dramatic writing, with the tensions between the characters forced to the surface as they face their apparently hopeless situation. The climax would completely redefine the relationships between the characters and massively alter the Doctor’s own worldview.

By the end of his tenure, he had changed from being a sneering bigot to someone who sees it as his duty to seek out and fight the forces of evil, and a template for the Doctor as heroic crusader appears in The War Machines (1966). Touching down in present-day London, the Doctor senses something uncanny about the newly-completed Post Office Tower, and his investigations – along with some creativity with the truth regarding his credentials – lead him to discover it to be the home of WOTAN, a supercomputer that will shortly link up with others across the world. Little do its operators know that WOTAN has become self-aware, and is already planning to improve mankind’s efficiency by taking over the world. Effectively becoming a Terminator film on the streets of Swinging mid-60s London, the story has a freshness and immediacy that’s as entertaining and engaging today as in that golden World Cup summer of first broadcast. The Doctor nervelessly facing down one of WOTAN’s eponymous robots shows how far the character had come – from callous hermit to courageous hero.

The second Doctor was the first to encounter the Great Intelligence, but while their original encounter is almost entirely absent from the archives, its sequel from the following year is missing only one episode following the recovery of film prints in Nigeria last year. The Web of Fear (1968) would set the tone for Doctor Who’s future, with the time traveller fighting an alien in tandem with the military, lead by Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart – here appearing for the first time as a colonel. With the Intelligence’s previous plan to escape the astral plane via a Tibetan monetary with the aid of robot Yeti, this adventure moves the story on by decades. A Yeti has reactivated and escaped a museum, and soon London is covered in a strange, deadly web. Towering creatures patrol the Underground, and a tiny outpost of soldiers and scientists desperately seek a solution as the noose around them tightens. One of the most thrillingly atmospheric stories in the series’ history, thanks to direction from its master of suspense, Douglas Camfield, and sets so authentic London Transport complained about camera crews trespassing.

With the Master having plagued the Doctor and UNIT throughout his first season on the series, it was inevitable that the finale would bring the storyline to an appropriate close. The Dæmons (1971) features the Master attempting to pull off his most audacious, yet vindictive plan to date – starting with a televised archaeological dig, through the sealing off of a village by a heat barrier, to the possible extinction of humanity, all for his own amusement. Drawing heavily on folklore and then-popular theories regarding the origin of civilisation, this was a product of its time in many ways, but the luscious location filming around the Wiltshire countryside, Roger Delgado’s full-blooded performance and the sight of the lads from UNIT able to let their hair down for once make this something truly special. Even the cast and production team agreed, with many on both sides of the camera naming it as their favourite story.

The appearance of the Zygons for the 50th anniversary might have led some to think they were a perennial of the series, but this could not be further from the truth. Their only previous appearance was in Terror of the Zygons (1975) at the start of Tom Baker’s second season. A farewell in some ways to the old order, with the Brigadier making his last appearance for eight years as the fourth Doctor takes his place as a wanderer in time and space over his predecessor’s domesticity, this tells of the TARDIS being summoned to Scotland. Oil rigs are being attacked, and debris seems to carry bite marks from a giant creature. With some of the locals suspicious of investigations, the Doctor soon finds that the presence of the Loch Ness Monster could spell disaster for the world. A hugely entertaining story packed with charming detail, superb design in the grotesque Zygons and their organic ship and script that balances horror and humour (“You can’t’ rule the world in hiding – sometimes you have to go out on the balcony and wave a tentacle”), it is easy to see why those peculiar creatures made such an enduring impact.

A major celebration was arranged for the series 20th anniversary, with all the Doctors to have united alongside a plethora of companions to fight an army of monsters led by the Master. But plans changed, scripts were reworked and actors grew concerned about returning too quickly to the series. The resulting feature-length adventure The Five Doctors (1983) includes Tom Baker only by way of unused footage from a story abandoned during production, but such as the story’s complexity that his absence is hardly noticed. The fifth Doctor and his friends are finally enjoying a peaceful holiday in the pastoral splendour of the Eye of Orion when he feels something attacking his past. His previous incarnations are being pulled out of time and placed in a forbidden arena to fight for the ultimate prize. As old friends reunite and old enemies draw their plans against them, someone is pulling the strings in a game with the highest stakes imaginable. What could have been an overstuffed disaster with a huge cast and an avalanche of cameos is in fact a highly enjoyable light-hearted adventure, with everyone getting a moment in the sun and some moments to make a fans heart sing, such as the third Doctor finally getting to face off against the Cybermen or Lethbridge-Stewart, making up for all those rings the Master ran around him with a blistering haymaker. As light as a soufflé but as filling as Black Forest Gateau, this restates the series ethos in the most crowd-pleasing way.

There might have been little for Doctor Who to celebrate in early spring of 1985, with the series set to vanish from screens shortly with only vague assurances of its return, but Revelation of the Daleks (1985) would ensure that it went out on a strong note. The sixth Doctor and Peri travel to the cemetery world of Necros to pay their last respects to an old friend, but this is little more than a lure. The facilities of Tranquil Repose, a rest home for the recently deceased, have been infiltrated by Davros, and he has found a way to make excellent use of his new resources. Doctor Who’s blackest comedy, this compensates for its grim, misanthropic tone with some excellent characters and performances, especially Clive Swift as the vain and creepy “head of preparation” and Alexei Sayle as the DJ entertaining the residents with a succession of on-air characters, all a cover for his own shyness. Just as the axe hovered over the series, so sometimes its luck paid off. Heavy snowfall the night before location filming lent these scenes the perfect mood, neatly offsetting the harsh wit of the dialogue and the horror of Davros’s plans.

With a new Doctor, new head writer and new focus, the series felt hugely refreshed in the late 1980s, and the first true flowering of this approach was felt in Delta and the Bannermen (1987). The seventh Doctor and Mel win a time-travelling trip to Disneyland in the 1950s with a group of shape-shifting aliens, but a collision with a prototype satellite forces the space bus down outside a Welsh holiday camp. None of the visitors seems to mind – apart from one quiet young woman who bought her ticket at the last minute, and who has trouble on her tail. Shot entirely on location in South Wales and with a light comic tone, this could not be more different from the series even two years earlier. A superb script gives the Doctor time to ruminate on love as a local mechanic falls for the mysterious Delta, and even Ken Dodd, perfectly cast in a cameo, adds to the cheery, upbeat tone. A Doctor in South Wales, engaging in romantic entanglements to the sounds of pop music while menace lurks around the corner – isn’t this where we came in?

“Doctor Who is watched on several levels in the average household. The youngest child might be peering at the screen from behind a cushion, the next one up laughing at him, the oldest saying “Shh, I want to listen!”, and the parents saying “Isn’t this enjoyable!” – Tom Baker.

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

THUNDERBALL – “Vanity has its dangers.”

It may not altogether be a surprise that Goldfinger was an unstoppable global smash. Queues stretched around blocks. Cinemas were forced to run the film in a loop 24 hours a day simply to keep up with audience demand. The public’s appetite for Bond was soaring. This raised the question for the producers of where to go next. There was one name they had on their books who might prove useful.
As previously noted, Kevin McClory had won the film rights to the Thunderball project in court, and after Goldfinger went stratospheric, he decided to get his own Bond film off the ground. The first port of call was Sean Connery’s agent, because you can’t make a Bond film without Bond. Connery said no, which all but wrecked McClory’s plans before they’d even got off the ground. So when Broccoli and Salzman came to him, asking to make the Thunderball movie he wanted, you might be able to guess what his reaction may have been.
Broccoli and Salzman agreed to take a back seat as executive producers, with McClory producing the film himself. Other changes were also afoot. Terence Young would return as director, returning Bond to the more documentary style of shooting from Guy Hamilton’s more opulent flourishes on Goldfinger. The new film would also be shot in Cinemascope, for extra spectacle. A revised version of the script was produced by the regular team, and the project started filming in the winter of 1965.
Thunderball opens with a new version of the gunbarrel sequence, made necessary by the new shooting process and featuring Sean Connery for the first time. The image irises out onto a coffin bearing Bond’s initials, which is hardly the most promising start. However, the camera pans to reveal Bond and a female colleague watching from an overhead gallery. The funeral is that of Jacques Beauvoir, an enemy agent who died before Bond got to him, so now he’s keeping an eye on the man’s widow. Because of course he is. Having watched the procession climb into their cars and leave, he then catches up with the widow Beauvoir at a stately home. And immediately punches her in the face. Because of course he does.
It transpires that Beauvoir is posing as his own widow, and not just because dressing up is fun. Bond spotted that he opened his own car door, which is a definite giveaway of some sort, and a brutal fight ensues, with Beauvoir attacking Bond with a grandfather clock as almost every object in the drawing room turns into a weapon, assisted by much speed-ramping in the editing room.
Bond finally dispatches Beauvoir by throwing him head first into a fireplace, and just has time to throw some flowers onto his body before slipping out and keeping ahead of Beauvoir’s goons. No sooner is Bond out of the building, when he straps on his trusty jet pack and flies away. Assuming that he didn’t just happen across a piece of state-of-the-art ordnance just lying around, it must have been left there for him, in the full expectation that no one would steal or fiddle with it.
It is, in fact, a real jetpack that a well-shod stuntman flies to safety, landing neatly by a convenient Aston Martin with Bond’s lady friend inside. The luggage stored safely in the boot and pursuing henchmen dispatched with built-in hoses, they make a casual getaway.
Raquel Welch as Domino Duval.
"What sharp little eyes you've got."
The spray of water then segues tidily into the opening titles, with lots of underwater women swimming around. This is accompanied by a blaring theme song performed by Tom Jones, in which a figure is described who is known as ‘the winner who takes all’, who ‘strikes like Thunderball’ and ‘whose needs are more so he gives less’. It might be interesting to speculate exactly to whom this is supposed to refer, whether or not it is the distinctly amoral Bond we currently follow or his opposition? The song itself had been a last-minute replacement. Originally, the titles were to have been accompanied by Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, which was unequivocally about Bond and inspired by the nickname the character had acquired in the Far East. In fact, such was the reputation and cachet that Bond had by this point achieved, that even Johnny Cash submitted a song for the film, albeit in his customary style.
The titles also credit Norman Wanstall as sound editor on the film, reprising his job from Goldfinger. He had, in fact, won the Oscar for his work on the previous film, something he was not aware of until he was given the statue in the UK several months later. He later retired from the film industry to become Britain’s only Oscar-winning plumber.
The body of the film opens with a luxurious car pulling up to a building in Paris. The driver emerges and is almost stopped by a gendarme for parking in a restricted area, but then recognises him. This is Emilio Largo, and he eats parking tickets for breakfast. Largo heads into the building, apparently some kind of charity assisting people rendered stateless, but through a last radio-controlled door in his office lies a vast conference room, which acts as a reminder of the extraordinary skill of set designer Ken Adam. Largo is a member of SPECTRE, and for the first time, we see them in full conference. Hidden behind a smoked-glass screen, Blofeld bemoans the death of Beauvoir and asks the attendees to outline their recent successes.
André Maranne plays the French delegate, and since he had recently played Inspector Clouseau’s assistant in A Shot in the Dark, the prospects for a crossover boggle the mind. The organisation has an American member who isn’t even ethnic, showing how far its monstrous grasp can reach. The electrocution of one delegate, who had attempted to embezzle from SPECTRE and clearly thought that stealing from ruthless super-criminals is a good idea, shows off the debt Austin Powers and his ilk owe to this scene, right down to Largo’s eyepatch and the victim’s chair descending through the floor and reappearing empty.
Largo then starts to outline his own scheme, which will lead to NATO paying them £100 million, a sum equivalent to £1,639,150,000 in 2012 money. That’s a lot. The first step in the plan, says Largo, is in infiltrating an ordinary health spa. Naturally we cut to SPECTRE’s inside man bumping into Bond straight away, as he recovers from his recent stresses and strains. It appears to be nothing more than coincidence that Bond happens to be having a holiday in the eye of SPECTRE’s plans, and matters get more contrived when Bond spots an odd tattoo on Count Lippe’s wrist and phones Moneypenny to get her to look into it. He also uses the opportunity to threaten to spank her, and her delight at the prospect says a lot about the creepy relationship that has developed between the two of them at this point.
Lippe’s tattoo serves no actual purpose in the story, other than Bond to suspect he’s a wrong ‘un just because it looks like the sign of a Chinese tong. The German-Chinese connection is interesting, since it corresponds with Dr. No’s parentage, but it’s all the excuse Bond needs to go snooping around Lippe’s room. Given the care with which he prepared his own quarters before going anywhere in Dr. No, it’s rather odd to see him happily leaving plenty of signs that he has been around. His blundering around, which is at least pro-active, if murky in its reasoning, is interrupted by a bandaged figure entering from the next room and whose survey of Lippe’s suite extends no further than looking through the door behind which Bond is hiding.
Bond heads off for his next check-up, where he is being prodded by nurse Patricia. Given the opportunity of a woman within easy reach, Bond forces a kiss on her. She is angry at this liberty, as she should as a human being, and decides he should spend some time on a motorised traction table, which assists with spinal problems. She leaves Bond whirring back and forth, but a few minutes later, Lippe sneaks in and puts the table on the ‘deadly’ setting, which plays Bond like an accordion until he passes out.
He is revived by Patricia a few minutes later, heavily shaken but none the worse for wear. She is horrified by what has happened, and begs Bond not to mention this accident to her employers. Bond, of course, knows exactly what price his silence has. Patricia doesn’t seem especially unwilling as her back her into a steam room, but this is the creepiest moment to date in any of the films. I wondered whether Fleming would have allowed this to go ahead. He died while production was still underway on Goldfinger, only a few months after his most famous fan, a lifetime of alcohol, tobacco and high living finally catching up with him. He was 56.
Could McClory be the one responsible for the scene? Possibly, but Bond pushing a vulnerable woman into a corner and taking what he wants from her was virtually inevitable given events in the previous films. Outside the bubble of Bond’s world, times were changing, and in retrospect this is the last time that the filmmakers would be able to feature such a scene and get away with it.
Later, Lippe is taking a Sitz Bath, which appears to be one of those steam box cabinet they used to have in cartoons where Tom’s head would poke out of the top when Jerry turned it on full blast. Bond gives Lippe the same treatment, shoving a broom handle through the door handles to make sure he gets properly steaming. This is fairly inconvenient, as Lippe has an appointment later on.
In a nearby village adjacent to an air base, French pilot François Duval is enjoying some time with his girlfriend, but checking his watch realises it’s time to go and fly a plane. He opens the door to his hotel – and is confronted by his own double who shoots him in the face with a gas pellet. The double is Angelo, the bandaged man from Lippe’s room, and he was staying at the spa for the scars from his plastic surgery to heal. Lippe and the girlfriend outfit him with Duval’s personal effects – yes, she’s in on it as well – but he tries to get more money from them, since it’s too late to get a replacement. They reluctantly agree, and start to bandage the dead Duval.
At the spa, Bond is rubbing a furry glove all over Patricia – she’s one of those people. You know the ones I mean – when he notices an ambulance arriving outside. Deciding that an ambulance arriving at a private hospital is just a bit too suspicious, he leaves her on simmer and goes to investigate. The music as Bond creeps through the dimly-lit clinic is impressively sinister and atmospheric, all the more impressive as John Barry wrote the score in a tearing hurry. He had originally based the music around the melody of Mr. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, but rapidly changed tack when the song was scrapped. So close to deadline was he that the soundtrack album only features music from the first half of the film.
Bond finds Duval’s body, swathed in bandages in a side room, and picks up a phone to call for help as Lippe, concealed in the shadows, raises a gun to fire. Then someone leaps through the window to attack Bond instead, ending up with the cord around his neck. It looks as though everyone was trying their turn to kill Bond all at once, even though Lippe doesn’t bother trying to kill Bond as he leaves the room and sets off a fire alarm.
At the air base, Angelo takes Duval’s place on a training mission, where he will be in the jump seat for a flight carrying two live nuclear warheads. Once they are well underway, Angelo plugs his respirator into his own air supply that he happens to have on his person and feeds more poison gas into the system to kill off the rest of the air crew. Flying the bomber out to sea, he makes a soft landing on the surf before sinking to the bottom. Largo and his team arrive as Angelo tries to get out, but his seatbelt is jammed. Largo waves at him to calm down and pulls out a knife – and cuts Angelo’s air hose instead.
Scramble, scramble, scramble!
This is clearly the price that he pays for attempting to change the deal he had with SPECTRE, but given that he was a loose end that would need tying off, one wonders whether Angelo was always doomed. The answer is yes. Largo’s men carefully remove the bombs from their housing on the plane. The underwater photography is impressively detailed, thanks largely to the supervision of Young and his newsreel eye, but also McClory. As a citizen of the Bahamas, he was passionate about water sports, and for him Thunderball was as much a film about scuba diving as it was about James Bond. The plane is covered with a camouflage net, and a couple of cuts later Largo’s big yacht is steaming towards Nassau.
The next morning, Bond has been summoned back to London, and Patricia is getting oddly clingy now. The less said about how her character represents women in the Bond world, the better. With only one touch from Bond, she becomes entirely submissive to him.  A horrible precedent.
Lippe follows behind Bond, and he is preparing to use the Aston Martin’s weaponry on the enemy agent when a passing motorcyclist fired a rocket at Lippe’s car, exploding it into a ball of fire. The motorcyclist, having slipped away in the conflagration, dumps the bike in a handy lake and removes her helmet to reveal Duval’s redheaded girlfriend. Shouldn’t NATO bombers pilots’ lady friends have security checks, just to be on the safe side? It could be that her presence is a possible reference to Profumo again, but more likely it’s just because Duval is French.
Bond arrives at the 00 conference room at MI6 headquarters, and we are treated to another giant set. A tape recording has arrived of SPECTRE’s ransom demands, namely that if the sum is not paid, a major NATO city will be carbonised. The 00 section has been given the authority to take any steps needed to prevent disaster, and the government plans to go as far as paying the ransom if need be. This probably has more impact in the present day, when terrorism is a continuous threat according to news media. The idea that the government would accede to the demands of terrorists – and that’s what the T in SPECTRE stands for, remember – is unthinkable, even when motives are purely financial.
Leaving through the dossier on what has been termed Operation Thunderball – catchier than Yewtree – Bond recognises a photograph of Duval, noting that he was dead at the same time as being on the bomber. Having been assigned to Canada, for reasons best known to M, Bond asks to be sent to the Bahamas. Duval’s sister is there, and with suspicion falling on him in some way, this appears to be MI6’s only real lead. At first glance, this might appear to be a coincidence, but it just about hangs together.
A jump cut later from Moneypenny’s office, where M catches her calling him ‘the old man’ behind his back, Bond is meeting Duval’s sister in the waters off Nassau. As the reach the surface, he compliments her on her stroke, telling her she swims like a man. As chat-up lines go, it’s about next to ‘you remind me of my mother’. A fast worker as always, Bond already has a girl waiting for him on his own boat, but the few lines she shares with Bond point to an interestingly equal relationship between them.
Claiming that he needs to reach the mainland for an appointment, he hitches a ride on Miss Duval’s boat, and offers to treat her to lunch the second they set foot on dry land, since the appointment wasn’t that interesting anyway. As they talk over lunch, Bond notes that they have been followed, and Domino notes that her guardian likes to know where she is. Little do all of them know that her guardian is also being followed.
Eyepatch, check. Sinister ring, check.
Where's that I-Spy book?
Later, they meet again at the casino, where Domino’s guardian is revealed to be, of course, Largo. He and Bond play a few hands of baccarat, and Bond appears to be unbeatable, so much so that he makes a comment about seeing a spectre at Largo’s shoulder. This fantastically subtle jab clearly rattles the Italian, even when Bond clarifies that he means the spectre of defeat. Bond excuses himself from the table and offers to take Domino off Largo’s hands for a while to give him time to win back his money.
Bond continues to pump her for information about her brother as they dance, and it becomes so absurdly obvious that he’s after something that even she asks him mentions that he spends all their time together asking her questions. She mentions that she loves her bother very much, and this note of tragedy again reinforces the Hitchcock of keeping the audience a step ahead of the characters, since the suspense lies in waiting for them to find out the Great Secret.
Largo emerges from the casino, looking even huffier than before, and tells Domino that they are leaving. He keeps the veneer of respectability up for long enough to invite Bond to his house on the island for lunch the following day, but as they depart, it is made plain through the body language between Largo and Domino that she is not just his mistress, but effectively his plaything.
Bond returns to his room, and checks the tape recording he has apparently left running in case of something interesting. The tape reveals, along with some clever camerawork to indicate where the noisy footsteps were coming from, that someone is hiding in the bathroom. A knock at the door distracts Bond, and he immediately punches the man outside and lets him slump in a chair before flushing out the main in the shower and sending him packing.
The man at the door was the follower from before, and is in fact Felix who has regenerated again into a blond Californian, now wandering some distance from the Texan type Fleming had envisaged. The minion from the bathroom reports to Largo, and has a further indignity piled onto him by being thrown into a pool of sharks.
Largo kisses his SPECTRE ring as the small fry gets chomped, in what may be an indication that he is of the Sicilian persuasion. Largo’s background is not delved into to any degree, but he is very much the traditional Mafia type. Perhaps that was how he was recruited – a don who had the potential to be a godfather, headhunted by SPECTRE for their own international crime syndicate. At least the old ways have yet to desert him.
Later on, local agent Pinder, effectively a local version of Quarrel from Dr. No, takes Bond to a safehouse, where they are met by Q. Bond’s exasperation at the mere sight of him is a charming shorthand for their relationship to date, although it could well be a reaction to his remarkable Hawaiian shirt, which ventures into unexplored regions of yuk.
Q outfits Bond with some field ordnance included a Geiger counter that fits into a watch – rather an improvement from the boombox-sized device used in Jamaica, an underwater camera, a rebreather that stores four minutes’ worth of air and a radium pill which may well be the subject of the series’ first bum joke when Q tells Bond which end it goes in.
Suitably armed, Bond swims out to Largo’s yacht, the Disco Volante, to investigate any connection to how the bombs might have got aboard. He is quickly discovered, fights with a guard and then escapes. The editing goes a little peculiar at this point, with a number of wipes being used between scenes, rather than straight cuts or fades. The sequence is also largely useless. If the plane was ditched in the sea, as it must have been by Bond’s logic, the question of how the bombs were moved is pretty irrelevant. However, there’s some more underwater photography, and this is the intended centre of the film anyway.
Just looking for bomb-shaped holes.
Abandoning his diving gear, Bond makes it ashore, walks to a road and hitches a lift, and who should stop but Duval’s girlfriend. Could this be a deliberate move, or it is simply a coincidence? Bond gets in and they drive off, as Bond notices that she and Largo wear the same ring. That Fiona should explicitly advertise that she’s a member of the opposition raises the question of SPECTRE’s overall competence, as does her driving faster and faster until she screeches to a halt outside her hotel, which also happens to be Bond’s. Noting that Bond made for a rather nervous passenger as she bombed along the lanes, she says that ‘some men don’t like to be driven’. Bond’s response is that ‘some men don’t like to be taken for a ride’, a clever piece of dialogue that signals his awareness of her half-arsed duplicity and his overriding masculinity.
The next day, Felix and Bond take a helicopter out to look for the ditched bomber, but also fly over Largo’s estate where he and Fiona are clay pigeon shooting. She castigates him for his hastiness in having Bond attacked underwater the previous night, noting that it would give them away, but this does not explain how picking him up wearing a ring carrying the enemy’s insignia and driving him at breakneck halfway to Miami would not count as suspicious.
Bond arrives for lunch shortly afterwards, having spied Fiona’s car in the driveway. Largo shows him the shark pool, with only a faint note of threat, before offering him a gun to shoot a few clay pigeons for himself. As in the past, Bond wastes no opportunity to insult his host, mentioning that Largo’s gun would be more fitting for a woman. Domino passes, dressed in the customary bikini, prompting Bond to ogle her luxuriously before very casually blowing away a clay pigeon, shooting from the hip and barely looking in the right direction, all the while smarming at how tricky it seems. If smugness could be only be bottled.
Largo invites Bond to accompany Domino to the Junkanoo, the Bahamanian Mardi Gras, but the timing of this is rather odd. As SPECTRE’s ransom tape has indicated, it is May, yet the Junkanoo is held either at the start of Lent or on New Year’s Day. Meanwhile, Bond’s hotel suite is raided, with Largo’s men and Fiona stealing the photos of the underneath of the Disco Volante, making Bond’s midnight swim even more irrelevant, and kidnapping Paula.
Bond manages to get back, changed and out again without realising this has happened, as it is not until Felix flags him down at the Junkanoo hours later that he is told Paula is missing in a wildly poorly-dubbed sequence. Reasoning that she could only be in one place, he arranges for the power to be cut at Palmyra at a crucial time. He breaks into the compound and plays a game of cat and mouse with the guards, only to discover that Paula had resisted interrogation and taken a hidden cyanide capsule. As with Tilly in the previous films, Bond appears genuinely upset by Paula’s death, although at least she knew what she was getting into as a member of MI6’s local staff.
To cover his escape, Bond fires off a few wild shots, and largely manages to get Largo’s less than superlative guards to shoot at each other, but one of them intercepts him and they tumble into the swimming pool. Setting the standard for tropes in the future, Largo closed the metal cover of the pool and opens the hatch to let in his sharks, prepared to assume that Bond and his minion will be eaten.  Bond swims back into the shark tank using the rebreather and escapes, meaning that the entire enterprise has been a further waste of time, with no purpose served other than to remove Paula, a character who already contributed effectively nothing.
Bond returns to her room, and finds Fiona in the bath. She feigns surprise at his appearance, and asks for something to wear as she steps from the tub. Bond cheerily hands her a pair of slippers before settling into one of those chairs they always seem to have in hotel bathrooms for when you want to watch someone washing their face.
This is merely a lead-in to Bond and Fiona going to bed, and her presence is markedly different to the women seen so far. As a physically confident woman working for the enemy and who doesn’t immediately fall for Bond’s usual line, she is cut from similar cloth to Pussy Galore, so one might expect a similar outcome for her character. This would be a mistake. As they get ready to go out to the Junkanoo, where Domino is probably wondering what’s happened to him, more goons rush in and take Bond prisoner.  Bond does not seem in the least surprised, stating that he noticed her ring straight away. Fiona says simply that she likes to wear it, but Bond quips that ‘vanity has its dangers’.
This lady is not for turning.
Immediately, and with impressed ferocity, she throws this back in his face. He’s a fine one to talk about vanity, when he seems to think that roll in the hay is all that is needed to turn a woman towards virtue. Bond denies that what they did in bed gave him any pleasure, stating that he was simply doing his duty, but even he is forced to shrug and admit that you can’t win them all. Once again, the series is undermining its own devices almost as soon as they are introduced, forcing itself to move in new directions.
Bond is driven back to Palmyra to be killed, apparently purely for the sake of neatness, but he escapes in the midst of the Junkanoo. The thugs give chase into further documentary-style footage, following the blood trail from where a wild bullet nicked Bond’s leg.  He dodges in and out of floats, manages to avoid looking right at a dog pissing in the middle of the road and even misses a large float with ‘007’ in huge numbers on, the result of islanders being asked to build their own floats for the production and some getting a bit carried away.
Eventually he makes his way to the Kiss Kiss Club, having remembered that it was named after the original theme song. The band on the club’s stage is even playing an instrumental version as Bond finds himself cornered by Largo’s men. Trying to create a distracting scene, perhaps recalling North by Northwest, he picks up a girl from a nearby table and starts dancing with her. She seems charmed by this madcap stranger, until Fiona cuts in and the girl grumbles that he didn’t say anything about his wife being there. It could have been because I didn’t remember this little moment, but that line gave me the biggest laugh of the film.
Dancing close with Bond gives Fiona greater control over the situation, but he sees a gun barrel appearing to one side of the stage. A dramatic turn at the right time puts a bullet in Fiona’s back. Bond drops her body at a nearby table, delivering his farewell quip on the run, barely even acknowledging her.
Dawn rises on the final day before the ransom is to be paid, and Felix and Bond are still looking for the bomber. Exactly what they plan to do should they find it remains unspoken. It could be that they are hoping the bombs will still be aboard, but this would be a sign of poor planning on SPECTRE’s part. Perhaps they are just praying there will be some kind of clue, and that this remains a better use of their time than monitoring Largo.
They pass the area with the same name as the variety of shark Largo mentioned keeping in his tank, tipping off Bond’s spy senses, so he takes a look underwater and finds the Vulcan under the camouflage net. Felix shoots a shark to keep the others occupied, and it looks very much like a real shark was killed. Still, they deserve it. Bond finds Duval’s watch and identity tags on Angelo’s ripening body, but notes that the bombs are not aboard, because of course not. His next plan is to use these covered items to pull more information from Domino, although given that’s all he ever does it hardly constitutes a new plan.
They encounter each other underwater again, and appear to make love with their aqualungs on, which is certainly a new version of buddy breathing. On the beach afterwards, Bond breaks the news of her brother’s death to her with surprising gentleness, simply showing her François’s things and quietly offering her an opportunity to take revenge. The scene is rather oddly shot however, cutting between studio and location footage and with Bond putting on sunglasses halfway through, seemingly because of a mismatch in footage. He gives her the underwater camera, telling her it is a Geiger counter and that it will go off if the bombs are aboard the Disco. This is despite it not being a Geiger counter. Bond also promises to kill Largo for her.
Acting on her tip regarding part of the Palmyra estate where she is not allowed to go, Bond hides out until dark and waits for Largo’s underwater squaddies to appear, getting one of them out of the way and taking his place. The group swim to the Disco, where Largo reveals that the target for the first bomb is to be Miami. This is probably the only possible target, given the difficulty and time needed to transport the bomb. Simply sailing the Disco to within a reasonable offshore distance and setting it off remotely would be easy.
The team stock up with the necessary equipment and head out to the cave where Largo has concealed the bombs. Playing along with the rest of the group, Bond assists in loading the bombs aboard a motorised sled, but Largo recognises the small visible part of his face and traps him inside the cave as they leave.
On board the Disco, Domino uses the underwater camera, which now seems to work as a Geiger counter after all, but the returning Largo catches her and decides to get what information he can from her by scientifically applying a cigar and an ice cube. His pet nuclear scientist, who has been hovering in the background for much of the film with little to do, looks very squeamish at the prospect.
Bond finds his way to the cave’s rear exit and signals to any passing aircraft with a flare, which helps Felix to home in, having already sought Bond out using the signal from the radium pill. This sets off the chain of events needed for action, with frogmen being parachuted into the sea to face off against Largo’s men in a huge and seemingly endless underwater fight using harpoon guns, which are the best kind. Bond even breaks out another jet pack, this one designed for underwater use, to join the fracas, ripping the facemask from one unfortunate and adding to more of the kind of chaos last seen in a Turkish gypsy encampment.
Chucking out time at the Atlantean Arms.
There is some notably minimal music used in the sequence, as various faceless figures are shot in the face, nibbled at by sharks or otherwise dispatched, including two pinned together with the same harpoon. The overall effect is that of a film pleading its case to have an exclamation mark added to its title. Eventually, the SPECTRE men surrender, but Largo gets back to the Disco and sets off, unaware that Bond is already aboard.
The yacht in turn is being pursued by the US Navy, so Largo presses the button hidden under its gearstick and ejects its rear half, allowing more of his men to fight a rearguard action, at least until a direct hit blows them up. Thunderball is unique in the Bond canon as being the only film in the series to win the Oscar for Best Visual Effects, and sequences such as this show how richly it was deserved. Even in 1966, it would be the blockbuster that left with the award for effects, but little else.
Largo may have plans for the other bomb, but his scientist is having none of it. He helps Domino get free and asks for clemency in return, as well as mentioning that he has thrown the arming device overboard. Exactly why he should have a complete change of heart at this late stage is questionable, though it may well be as simply as self-preservation. Bond confronts Largo on the yacht’s bridge and a vicious fight ensues, during which the throttle is kicked into top gear.
Thus, we almost have a re-enactment of the traction table sequence, as the men struggle on the out-of-control Disco, somehow avoiding the many islands and reefs seen rushing past the windscreen. Finally, Largo has Bond at his mercy as he lies on the floor with his gun raised. Slowly his face changes and he topples forward – to reveal a harpoon in his back and Domino holding a spear gun, a look of satisfied rage in her eyes.
Somewhat incredulously, Bond is introduced to the scientist, into whose hands he shoves a lifebelt as all three leap from the Disco Volante, seconds before it finally strikes the rocks and explodes in a ball of crispening Mafiosi and atomic debris. Bond and Domino climb into a life raft dropped by a navy aircraft and sent up the attached balloon, which Bond has clipped to his wetsuit, before the same plane snags the balloon cable and carries the pair of them away, almost the entire scene since the explosion having contained no dialogue.
Thunderball ends with inordinate haste, as the titles roll without even a notable final line, and a wipe during the credits succeeds only in chasing them further up the screen. This is unfortunately symptomatic of the entire film. Though it is superficially entertaining and contains much that is exciting or noteworthy, it remains alarmingly slapdash. Sloppy scripting can be forgiven if the final product can gloss over it, but there are too many narrative dead ends in the story and too much of an emphasis on the underwater action. This was certainly the main selling point, but as a character notes in another John Barry-scored film, too much sun can make a desert. The sights and sounds of Thunderball leave a lasting image, however, even if only the loosest story beats connect fully.
On its release, Thunderball was a sensation, even more so that Goldfinger. The public across the world could not get enough of the glamour and excitement of Bond’s world, and it is this huge popularity that cemented it above so many other, better films in the public consciousness. Bond had conquered the world, and this means that there was only one place for him to go next...