Doctor Who: The Movie

Paul McGann as Doctor Who

I had mixed feelings about this made-for-TV movie when it first aired in 1996.

On the one hand, it was the first new Doctor Who since the original long-running series had finally been cancelled in 1989. I’d stopped watching it by then anyway, but had fond memories of the Doctors I’d watched growing up and would have liked to see the show come back again.

On the other hand, the movie was made by Fox TV in cooperation with the BBC and Universal Studios with the prospect of introducing a new version of the series in America.

While a few British series have been successfully adapted into US versions, the odds are against it. What made the UK show successful is more often altered out of recognition to suit US television standards, or simply doesn’t translate from one country to the other. For example, there have been at least two attempts to transplant Fawlty Towers, both of which crashed and burned. The science fiction/time travel element of Doctor Who might survive, but much of the charm and whimsy of the character would be lost.

So I watched it with a certain amount of hope and trepidation.  And it was okay. I liked Paul McGann’s Doctor, but there were a couple of things in the story that really irritated me.

The movie received good ratings when it aired on the BBC, but not so great on Fox. There was no new series at that time; Doctor Who would have to wait until 2005 to return to television.

I thought little more about this movie for 20-plus years unless I had some reason to list actors who played the Doctor. But since I’ve been viewing and writing reviews of old Doctor Who episodes recently, I thought I’d give it another look.

It’s not as disappointing as I remembered it being in 1996. Viewing it again after 15 years of modern Who, I can see it as the transition between the old and new series. One of the things I disliked about it still bothers me. The other… well, the Doctor does that all the time these days and I’ve gotten used to it.

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The Paternoster Gang: Merry Christmas, Mr. Jago

I won’t have time to review the full set of The Paternoster Gang: Heritage 4 before the holidays, but the story on the first CD is a Christmas tale so I’ve decided to do it separately and save the rest for later.

The Paternoster Gang: Heritage 4

This story sees the return of a character from the classic Doctor Who era: that late-Victorian music hall impresario, Henry Gordon Jago.

Jago (Christopher Benjamin) first appeared in the 1977 4th Doctor’s story, “The Talons of Weng-Chiang,” in which he and Professor Litefoot (Trevor Baxter) assisted the Doctor in investigating the strange disappearances of several young women in the Limehouse streets in the vicinity Jago’s theatre. The two made an amusing double act, and there were jokes about a Jago and Litefoot spinoff–which never came to be on television, but did much later become a popular audio series on Big Finish.  Jago and Litefoot continued their adventures in Victorian London long after the Doctor had gone on his way. The series only ended when Trevor Baxter passed on.

As this story begins, we learn that Mr. Jago is already acquainted with the Paternoster Gang.  He’s on his own this holiday season, since his friend Prof. Litefoot is spending the winter in Egypt, and he’s on friendly enough terms with the Paternosters that they invite him to join them for a Christmas Eve tea.

But before tea-time, Jago–who happens to be dressed like Father Christmas when he calls at Paternoster Row–has a charitable act to perform. He intends to put on a magic show for the entertainment of the children at an orphanage and needs some specially impressive new magic tricks or illusions to use.

Strax helps out by taking him to Old Smallpiece’s Emporium. The entirely dubious Old Smallpiece happens to be the Sontaran’s favorite underworld informant, as well as a merchant of alien artefacts that are out of place in London in the 1890s.

While Mr. Jago is “well versed in alien matters,” because of his work with Prof. Litefoot, he seems rather naïve as he chooses a magician’s wand and the Top Hat of Surprise (or a “a short-range transmat,” as Strax identifies the latter).

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The Paternoster Gang: Heritage 3

The Paternoster Gang: Heritage 3

This third audio-drama boxed set from Big Finish gives us the further adventures of Madame Vastra, a Silurian detective in late-Victorian London, with her Cockney wife Jenny and their Sontaran manservant Strax. I was hoping to get this review done before the newest set, Heritage 4 arrived, but then the package from the UK was in my mailbox a couple of days, so I’d better get moving. 

As with the Heritage 1 and 2 sets, there are three separate mystery stories, each on its own CD.

Family Matters

As suggested by the title, this first story has a family theme. The focus is primarily on Jenny’s estranged family and background, but there are conversations about the family she has now at Paternoster Row as well the blood relatives she left behind years ago.

A mystery involving lions and crocodiles in London leads Vastra to investigate  the sewers beneath the city, when things suddenly turn personal. She ends up kidnapped and chained in a circus sideshow exhibit. She’s not alone; also on exhibit are other human “freaks” and a blue, four-armed alien lady.

“There are no monsters here,” Vastra declares to her new alien friend.

“Personally,” the alien responds, “I have always found humans terrifying.”

There’s just a hint about Vastra’s personal history too, indicating that this is not the first time she’s been exhibited in chains by ignorant 19th-century humans.

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The Curse of Yig

Yig ledger art

The Curse of Yig was a collaborative effort of H.P. Lovecraft and Zealia Bishop.  Bishop provided the idea of a pioneer in the Oklahoma Territory who was terrified of snakes. Lovecraft recrafted this basic concept, making it a psychological horror made manifest–and incidentally adding a new god to his pantheon: Yig, “an odd, half-anthropomorphic devil of highly arbitrary and capricious nature… not wholly evil, and was usually quite well-disposed toward those who gave proper respect to him and his children.”

But those foolish enough to harm the children of Yig (that is, snakes) could expect to feel the wrath of his terrible curse.

The text is online at https://www.hplovecraft.com/writings/texts/fiction/cy.aspx

The story is one that I’d read some years ago, but not one of the Lovecraft stories that I could say I was extremely familiar with. I mean, I knew who Yig was when I first saw that Dark Adventure Radio Theatre was planning to do an adaptation of The Curse of Yig for their next audio drama, but could remember very little about who had been cursed, or why.

Listening to this new DART adventure before re-reading the text, I’m struck by how closely this adaptation has stuck to the structure of the original story, and I make note of the changes the DART guys have made to allow for the very different sensibilities of people nearly a century later.

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Casting the Runes

I’ve written blog reviews of two other adaptations of this, the most influential story written by M.R. James: Night/Curse of the Demon, the 1957 Jacques Tourneur film, and the 1970s ITV version starring Jan Francis. Both adaptations moved the story to a contemporary setting and made changes to the characters and plot, while retaining that central idea of a curse that you can only get rid by passing it back to the man who gave it to you. Three months were allowed.

You can read the original story on the Thin Ghost site.

I was somewhat surprised when I first watched this dramatic recitation by Robert Lloyd Parry; it, too, is an adaptation of James’s story and not a straight reading of the text.

Although the setting hasn’t been changed, there are some notable emendations to the cast of characters with some of the smaller roles in the drama are cut, or their parts revised.

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Dr. Who: The Stones of Blood, Part 4

Vivian and the Stones. It looks like they're performing at an awards ceremony.

Part 3 ended with Vivian Fay (a.k.a. the Cailleach) gloating over trapping the Doctor in hyperspace.

Part 4 starts the same way, but Vivien’s gloat doesn’t last very long. The Magara, those sparkly justice machines the Doctor accidentally unleashed, now float in to intervene–and bring just about everything that was interesting in this story to a screeching halt. They announce that they’ve tried the Doctor while he was busy elsewhere, and in spite of a spirited defense from Sparkly Magara 2, Magara 1  has judged the Doctor to be guilty. The punishment is execution.

Vivian would like to see this execution happen right away, but the Doctor gets the Magara to grant a 2-hour delay so he can appeal the sentence. This “appeal” will take up the greater part of this final episode. Nothing really finishes off a good horror story about blood-absorbing stone monsters quite like a farcical trial with comic robots.

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Dr. Who: The Stones of Blood, Part 3

Vivian zaps with her wandAt the end of Part 2, Romana was zapped by Vivian Fay and beamed out into some other as-yet unspecified place.

Sadly, this story, which has started out so well, begins to go downhill from here. While there are still some good scenes in the next two story parts, there’s a distinct shift from the trappings of folk horror to some rather silly science fiction.

It’s Doctor Who, so you have to expect all things that might be otherwise taken for supernatural events to have a scientific explanation, even a wonky sci-fi one. But did it have to be so- 

Well, we’ll get to that when we come to it.

Over in the secret cellar at the Hall, formerly the home of Mr. DeVries before the stone-monsters got him, the Doctor and Professor Rumford are examining those paintings that were removed from the wall upstairs. All three ladies who used to own this house and the meadow where the stone circle sits look just like Vivian Fay.

Professor Rumford is surprised that Vivian never mentioned that she belonged to the Montcalm family.

She isn’t, the Doctor makes it clear. “She is the Montcalm family,” as well as the two other families that have owned the Hall since the Dissolution. Not to mention being the Mother Superior of the convent that was there before the house. And she probably manages the company that now owns the property that the stone circle is on.

Rumford, who’s still adjusting to these new kinds of ideas, objects. There’s a span of over a 150 years between the three women in the paintings.

The Doctor replies, “What’s 150 years when you’ve been around for 4000?”

For Vivian is the Cailleach, the Celtic goddess whom the Druids have been worshipping. (But that’s not who she really is either.)

Prof. Rumford and the Doctor look at portraits

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The Devil Rides Out

Also known as The Devil’s Bride in the US, which is the title as it appears on the film in the version I have on BluRay.

The Devil Rides Out

This 1968 Hammer film, directed by Terence Fisher with screenplay by Richard Matheson, is adapted from a 1934 novel by Dennis Wheatley. Wheatley had researched into ancient religions, and had made the acquaintance of people like Aleister Crowley; much of what goes on in this story is grounded in the actual practices of black magic.

After the opening credits, which are full of occult symbols and demonic iconography, we meet our heroes, the elegant Duc de Richleau (Christopher Lee), and the square-jawed and solid Rex van Rys (played by one actor but voiced by another, which is probably why he always seems a little detached even when he’s in the middle of the action).

It’s April of 1929, and the Duc is worried about the son of an old war buddy, Simon Aron. Even though Simon is now of age, de Richleau had promised his  father that he’d look out for him, and the Duc intends to keep that promise no matter what. He tells Rex that he hasn’t seen Simon in three months.

Together, they pay a call on Simon at his new house and find that there’s a party going on. The drawing room is filled with an international group of well-dressed and sophisticated looking people with odd names like the Countess d’Urfe, Tanith Carlyle (Niké Arrighi), and Mr. Mocata (the suavely menacing Charles Grey, last seen here in The Legacy). There are 13 of them.

Satanists party

Simon tells his friends that these people are just a gathering of a little astronomical society he’s joined. Rex has no clue what’s going on, but the Duc knows very well and is appalled.

When the two are asked to leave before the meeting begins, the Duc asks to see the observatory at the top of the house. Simon takes them upstairs, but de Richleau seems more interested in the décor of the room than the telescopes–there’s a distinct astrological theme on the walls and the floor.

When he hears a noise coming from the closet, the Duc investigates and finds chickens in a basket. Not a catered dinner. Literally, two chickens in a large wicker basket.

After he sees the chickens, de Richleau grabs Simon by the lapels and tells him that he’d rather see him dead than dabbling in black magic.
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Dr. Who: The Stones of Blood, Part 2

Continuing the Doctor’s and Romana’s somewhat spooky adventures in contemporary Cornwall as they search for the third Key to Time.

At the end of Part 1, Romana was lured away from the stone circle by a voice that sounded like the Doctor’s calling to her, and luring her off a cliff. Part 2 begins with a literal cliff-hanger.

Romana hanging on the edge of a cliff

Romana is clinging to the edge of the cliff over the ocean and shouting for help. It’s a good thing she’s barefoot; her toes can find tiny footholds in the rock face and help to keep her from falling to her death and turning into Lalla Ward a few months early.

When we last saw the Doctor, he’d been conked on the head by a couple of Druids. They’ve since conveyed him to the stone circle and called an emergency meeting for their grove (which is the proper name for a group of Druids). He now lies trussed up on the flattish stone in the middle of the circle as the Druids prepare him for a human (or, in this case, Gallifreyan) sacrifice.

The Druid leader’s best friend Martha doesn’t like the idea. Cutting an animal’s throat to get some blood for their ceremonies is okay with her–but this is murder!

“It is the will of the Cailleach,” says the leader, DeVreis, as he draws a big, curving knife from its decorative scabbard. They can’t question the will of the goddess, and the Cailleach demands blood.

DeVreis ready for sacrifice Doctor rescued

DeVreis and Martha argue about it for a bit, until the Doctor regains consciousness and asks if that knife is properly sterilized.

The question of whether or not he would have talked them out of sacrificing him remains answered. They all hear the sound of the Doctor’s rescue arriving in the form of an elderly archeology professor on a bicycle.
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Dr. Who: The Stones of Blood, Part 1

My second venture into 1970s Doctor Who and folk horror for this Halloween season.

Stones of Blood

The Stones of Blood is one the Key to Time stories from Tom Baker’s 5th series as the Doctor, an overarching plot that connects all of the stories during that year. The Doctor and his new assistant, a younger Time Lady named Romanadvoratrelundar (Mary Tamm) are sent to various places around the universe by an entity known as the White Guardian to hunt down and collect objects that make up the Key to Time. These objects can be transformed into large crystal fragments once they’ve been found. When all six pieces are collected, they must be assembled to create a device that gives the wielder absolute timey-wimey powers.

Before we get to the actual story, this first episode therefore begins in the Tardis’s unlit and minimalist kitchen with the Doctor and Romana attempting to assemble the two pieces they’ve gathered so far from Ribos and the fun but silly Pirate Planet. Behind them is a 1930s-style fridge, in which they store the Key to Time when they aren’t working on it.

The third planet, on which they have to search for the next piece of the Key, will be Earth. Romana’s never been there, but it’s well known to be the Doctor’s favorite planet so he’s looking forward to showing it to her.

Meanwhile, somewhere on Earth (Cornwall, as it turns out), a scene very like the one at the opening of K9 & Company is being enacted. Robed and hooded cultists have gathered for a midnight ceremony, but this group is meeting at the center of a circle of Stonehenge-like stones instead of a ruined chapel, and the name they’re chanting isn’t Hecate. It’s Cailleach (yes, I did have to look that spelling up).

The cultists pour small bowls of blood onto the stones–and the stones glow red and begin to pulse and make a sound like a heartbeat.

One of the cultists raises her head and cries out:

“Come, O Great One, come! Your time is near.”

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