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A Pleseant Surprise
on 3 June 2014
The main thing I take away from this is that it's not nearly so bad as its reputation suggests.
Pertwee is certainly of my least favourite Doctors and part of the frustration is that he's so often presenting a terrible version of the Doctor in an otherwise finely crafted story. Here, whether mellowed by age, or having his scripts in front of him, or simply because you can't see his often hideously aggressive body language towards his companions, Doctor #3 is a far friendlier, relaxed variation on the character. So much of the rest of story up to the usual early 70s level, it makes this better than most of his TV stories. He's a little overly superpowered, as sometimes happened in the Pertwee era... at one point he uses "bone relaxation" to survive falling hundreds of feet off a gantry.
Lis Sladen perfectly embodies Sarah Jane Smith as always and her performance is cast over with the sad foreknowledge she only features in a handful of Doctor Who audios; meanwhile Nicholas Courtney's Brigadier really shines. This is a real return to form for the Brig, as time went by he verged terribly close to being played for laughs but here he's reset to basics, where his defining characteristic is his unflappable acceptance of whatever mad weirdness confronts him, rather than a moronically obtuse denial of it. This is a Brig perfectly at home slashing his way through an alien jungle on a far flung planet, and who, confronted by a T-Rex style alien animal, simply coolly begins pondering his list of the best ways to kill it.
More than that, almost uniquely cast adrift from the rest of the UNIT, the Brig's personal guts and spirit really shine. Rather than standing around shouting orders, here he gets into a dog fight with alien fighter planes while riding his own giant bat and leads a rag tag bunch of dissidents in a commando raid.
The guest cast are largely brilliant, too. Harold Innocent, Peter Miles and Maurice Denham as, respectively, a sociopathic CEO, a sadistic 'head of entertainments' and a doddering President must be among some of the strongest actors you could hope to assemble for a project like this. Meanwhile, the concept itself is a very strong one in line with what you'd expect of Letts- a malignant corporation leapfrogging from world to world in a galactic ponzi scheme, with the resources and wealth of planets depending on siphoning out those of worlds down the line, until it collapses in on itself to cause war and genocide.
All that said, the play is far from perfect. It's greatest problem may be that it's either too long or too short but certainly exactly the wrong length. It would have made a tight, exciting four parter. Or an extra part would have left room, perhaps, for an additional subplot to keep the story rolling over.
As it is, all the pieces are set up by the end of Part Three, ready for what would be a blistering Part Four... but instead the five episode length means the last two episodes are full of treading water. The worst thing about this is how it undercuts otherwise successful elements. When, midway through Part Five, we stop for ten minutes of the Doctor virtually leading his companions through a Powerpoint presentation on the evils of globalization for instance. The villains become increasingly difficult to take seriously and the prose becomes purpler and purpler. It's impossible to listen to the scene of Innocent of describing his lunch in detail - almost orgasmically expounding on his souffle "quivering in anticipation of ravishment" - and not suspect something's gone off the rails.
Some of the plot doesn't quite hang together either. There's a global conspiracy hinting at senior politicians being under some form of mind control but this is forgotten about and never resolved (similarly, the invasion of Earth is set up and then forgotten about). And, most boggling, we're given a totalitarian state where the secret police plant bugs in peoples' brains to spy on them. Yet a plot point later hinges on them not having such a thing as a register of vehicle licence plates and their owners...
The last major problem with the story is Jeremy Fitzoliver. Unlike most, I didn't find him that annoying as a character. He's clearly a Harry Sullivan substitute played just a little too Wodehousian to work quite perfectly. He is, however, utterly pointless. There's perhaps one scene where he gives Sarah Jane someone to exposition to when nobody else is present but that's it. Save for one point where he gets his foot stuck in a tree root for a couple of moments Jeremy doesn't even perform this function of 'getting-into-trouble-and-needing-rescuing'. He doesn't do anything. He's just kind of THERE. But in being there, he sucks time and dialogue away from Sarah Jane and this reinvigorated version of the Brig. And that's unforgivable.