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Some good ideas left unexplored as the Doctor treads water
on 21 January 2012
Coming only a year after Doctor Who reached record 16.1m ratings with City of Death, John Nathan Turner's first season as producer showed the downward trajectory that would be one of the hallmarks of his tenure when Meglos barely managed a quarter of that figure, with an equally dismal `audience appreciation rating.' Yet despite Turner being handed a seaworthy vessel and proceeding to drill holes in it below the waterline with bad creative decisions and dodgy casting in later years, it's not a bad little story even if the Doctor doesn't have much to do in the first episode, and what little he does he does repeatedly. Unfortunately it's a very undeveloped one, with both plot and character veering too often to the perfunctory and originality largely extending to the villain being... a cactus. A meglomaniacal plant has its possibilities, but there's the feeling that the Doctor had been here before too many times to find much to interest him and the central debate between science and religion - in particular a religion that has been built around unexplained technology whose priests don't want explained or explored - never gets off the ground.
There's one interesting bit of casting in having one of the very first Doctor's original companions from the very first episode, Jacqueline Hill, playing the high priestess, although she's not helped by having to share many of her scenes with Edward Underdown, who gives an embarrassingly bad performance - most of the time he doesn't even wait for his cues. But then maybe the general rushed feeling of the production was contagious - the four episodes are very short, with a lot of repeated footage from the previous episode to pad out the running time. It's not terrible, and you do get the chance to see Tom Baker turning into a cactus, but it has that treading water feeling that typified the Nathan Turner years.
Still, there's a decent selection of extras, as ever: audio commentary by Lalla Ward, Christopher Owen, John Flanagan, Paddy Kingsland and Peter Howell, featurettes on the story's actors-turned-writers (particularly engaging), the Scene Sync special effects technique used for the story, a layman's guide to Entropy (the uniting factor of that season's stories) and a tribute to Jacqueline Hill focussing on her tenure in the series as Barbara, as well as an isolated score, an extended theme tune (hidden away as an Easter Egg), stills gallery and on-screen production notes. Two-and-a-bit stars - one for the completists.