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Style and Substance
on 8 January 2003
The opening sequence of 'Four to Doomsday' is remarkably effective: an ominious and enigmatic score accompanies a series of panning and tracking shots of a dark, mysterious, and (presumably) gigantic spaceship; a tone both mysterious and threatening is established. The viewer (this viewer, at least) is not disappointed by what follows, for whatever the flaws of 'Four to Doomsday' it manages to work as an intriguing, textured, and sinister piece of science fiction.
Although on a plot-only level 'Four to Doomsday' is a bit long, and a bit of a drag at times, it does succeed in telling a story tinged with engaging ideas and concepts. The first two cliff-hangers rely not on a terrible fate for the Doctor, but on a revelation: the drama for much of 'Four to Doomsday' is the discovery of more and more of the details of the science fiction set up. One theme which emerges from this SF set up is that of 'difference' and 'alienness': the them\us split. Perception, and the different ways different people view 'others', is everywhere. There is Adric, in his usual, petulant self-important tone, making notably bigotted comments about what he sees as being the difference between men and women and girls. The whole premise of the plot is the fact that the spaceship is full of different cultures and races, collected from Earth at various points in history by the Urbankans. And although they are not fully developed, 'Four to Doomsday' touches on questions of how we define 'cultures', and whether it is possible that cultures can be recorded, and stored, and preserved in stasis. What the Urbankans fail to see is the speed with which culture changes: their ability to alter their appearance to become 'like' other cultures is flawed, because it does not allow for natural evolution and change, and also because it is only skin deep. Culture is more than just accent and clothing and native dances.
On other levels, 'Four to Doomsday' is classic Doctor Who hokum. Questions of race, culture, and class aside, there is no doubt that the Urbankans neatly fill the role of the classic, unambiguous, atypical, nasty Doctor Who aliens we see so frequently, and hopefully will see more of soon! Monarch's eloquent, mannered, and 'civilized' English diction, rather than making him sympathetic, simply makes him more sinister, and more alien. There is a superb line during episode two (when Adric and Nyssa are suffocating) where Enlightenment notes that Adric and Nyssa "have lungs", and Monarch replies with sadistic pleasure: "Let them remember that." Chilling.
Overall, deficiencies of plot aside (well, not 'deficiences', as such'... there just isn't a lot happening), 'Four to Doomsday' is an entertaining story. And it has a brain as well. Recommended.