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Doctor Who complete reviews: Four To Doomsday

REVIEWS - DOCTOR WHO

Peter Davison steps into the role of The Doctor, even though it's apparently his second story...

'Four To Doomsday' ('Doctor Who' 1981)

A giant frog with delusions of grandeur? Nope, you haven't stumbled upon an episode of Dangermouse in which our hero's arch enemy - and dead ringer for Ann Widdecombe - Baron Greenback is plotting revenge, but in fact an episode of Doctor Who called Four To Doomsday.

Sounds crazy? Well, you'd be right. But then only in the previous season, we had a talking cactus with designs on the world, so the term "silly" is neither here nor there. Even so, Four To Doomsday requires an awful lot of tolerance on the viewer's part when it comes to dramatic credibility.

Maybe the common link here is Terence Dudley, who, after directing 1980's Meglos, switched his hat to writing. It has to be said though that his contributions to Doctor Who can charitably be described as eccentric. Four To Doomsday gives the impression of a writer who hasn't seen Doctor Who much. The plot runs along fairly tried and tested lines - Doctor and rubbish companions land on a giant spaceship and meet a trio of talking frogs, two of whom manage to take on the appearance of two humans. The head frog hatches a dastardly plan to both wipe out humanity and then pilot his giant ship to the dawn of time, at which point he plans to imagine himself as God (Eh?). Doctor inevitably saves the day and leaves with rubbish companions in the TARDIS.

All standard fare, but what marks out this particular Doctor Who is that it's so simple. It's as if Terence Dudley is trying to over-compensate for the previous season's over-reliance on complex bafflegab and technical terminology. The problem is though that the balance has just gone the other way, with Doctor Who now apparently being geared towards a clutch of playgroup kiddies rather than the average intelligent audience with half a brain cell.

Admittedly, there are some interesting concepts floating around. The idea of a spaceship populated by all cultures and creeds is a nice one, and harks back to 1975's Ark In Space. We even get to see demonstrations of the different cultures in rather quaint pageant displays called Recreationals. So we have the Chinese Mandarins and their traditional dragon; the Ancient Greeks; Princess Villagra and her Mayan people doing a dance; and Kurkutji and his Australian Aboriginal routine. There's something rather Generation Game about these Recreationals - you almost expect Larry Grayson to saunter onto the spaceship with two sets of contestants to do a replica of each pageant. But actually this is one of the more successful elements of Four To Doomsday, in that it's quite different to feature this type of set-piece. It's also a commendable attempt to inject some multiculturalism into Doctor Who, and also to educate the kiddies about other cultures and traditions.

"With such a tricky shopping list of obstacles, actor Stratford Johns is left with quite a task on his green mitts to make Monarch into a remotely believable character - incredibly, Johns manages to achieve this and then some"

Stratford Johns as Monarch in 'Four To Doomsday' (BBC, 1981)Then there's the central character of Monarch, who's an expert lesson in not developing delusions of grandeur. Monarch is written and acted as a rather arrogant politician-style figure. Given that this was made in 1981, you could - if you were so inclined - draw parallels with Margaret Thatcher, who demonstrated a startling display of arrogance and power-mad ambition. Monarch takes these ambitions to ridiculously lofty heights though. The aforementioned Earth inhabitants are in fact androids. Originally, they were the genuine articles, but during the voyage, were converted into androids along the way. Monarch is in fact part what he calls "Flesh Time" as he displays very human tendencies of greed and arrogance - his two buddies Enlightenment and Persuasion are true androids, but Monarch's Flesh Time aspects prove to be his downfall.

Not only does his arrogance lead him to control his android subjects (which are easily converted to rebellion), he's also shrunk to the size of a pin as a result of his deadly poison which is intended to wipe out the human race. With such a tricky shopping list of obstacles, actor Stratford Johns is left with quite a task on his green mitts to make Monarch into a remotely believable character - incredibly, Johns manages to achieve this and then some. Johns goes against type by underplaying rather than hammily overplaying Monarch, and this is a smart move. The end result is a sly take on your average politician with delusions of grandeur - sometimes the fact that he's a giant frog seems almost incidental. Now that's a good performance.

Monarch also has the creepy ability to turn his frog buddies into perfect replicas of drawings that Teabag has provided. Apparently, Persuasion and Enlightenment are meant to be the height of fashion in 1981, although in truth they look like they've just escaped from some crappy end-of-the-pier act like Stutz Bear Cats or The Wall Street Crash. I quite like the performances from Annie Lambert and Paul Shelley though. Shelley had recently come good in a Blake's 7 episode called Countdown as the collander-headed Major Provine. Here, he's stuck with an OTT bouffant, but his plummy delivery is perfect for Persuasion: "Decircuit. THAT!" or my personal favourite, "You may keep the pencil", delivered with a complete lack of irony.

While the concepts are quite neat, it's the terrible dialogue that really drags the story down to the level of Play School In Space. The lines are written in this rather odd, stilted fashion, and they never feel real for one minute. Sometimes these daft lines are pushed to breaking point - look at Davison failing to keep a straight face while declaring "I wouldn't dream of interfering with your Monopticons!" And then there are the great info-dump speeches which contain wooden, artificial dialogue that might have passed muster in a copy of The Beano, but not in Doctor Who. The scene in which The Doctor and co are talking about Monarch's plans in their quarters is one such painful example.

"Nyssa, as usual, does relatively little apart from float about in the background like the Phantom Raphaelite of Non-Entities Past. Even when she's asked to look startled at the arrival of a mysterious stranger, Sarah Sutton duly obliges with the expression of a thick goldfish"

Peter Davison in 'Four To Doomsday' (1981)So it's evidently not an easy first story for Peter Davison. Although Castrovalva was his first official story, Four To Doomsday was the first one to be recorded in the season. Davison's performance isn't that bad, but it's blatantly obvious that he's finding his feet and occasionally trying that bit too hard. There are times when Davison seems to be attempting to bring out the eccentric side of The Doctor, but it doesn't quite come off. And why does he do that rather odd high-pitched squeal when he's attempting to sound authoritative? It sounds like his voice never broke. On the plus side, it is a perfectly acceptable first stab, and at least his Doctor is allowed to showcase his liking for cricket in the scene where he's attempting to reach the abandoned TARDIS in space. It's another example of the rather eccentric ideas at work in the story, but at least it utilises a facet of the new Doctor's character than leaving it at the back of the cupboard.

One problem with the new Doctor though is that he blatantly can't keep control of the new team of companions. Although given that this is Nyssa, Adric and Teabag that we're talking about here, that's no real surprise. This is one of the biggest problems of Four To Doomsday, and it's definitely the story that proves that this is the Companion Team From Hell. Nyssa, as usual, does relatively little apart from float about in the background like the Phantom Raphaelite of Non-Entities Past. Even when she's asked to look startled at the arrival of a mysterious stranger, Sarah Sutton duly obliges with the expression of a thick goldfish.

"Given that Adric's got a badge for mathematical excellence, you wonder why a writer's been allowed to reduce the kid to the level of a thick simpleton"

'Four To Doomsday'In the meantime, it's left to Adric and Teabag to wrestle for the prize of Biggest Pain. Adric's certainly a contender, annoying the hell out of everyone else and then demonstrating never-seen levels of gullibility by following Monarch around like a puppy dog in a bowlcut wig. If Monarch commands Adric to jump, then Adric will ask how high and whether he can make him a cup of tea while doing so. Ironically, this time it's not entirely Matthew Waterhouse's fault - although his clunky performance certainly doesn't help matters. Given that Adric's got a badge for mathematical excellence, you wonder why a writer's been allowed to reduce the kid to the level of a thick simpleton. Surely anyone with just a hint of a brain could sense that Monarch's up to no good? Well, evidently Adric doesn't, given that he's constantly gushing about Monarch's grand plans. Totally unbelievable, and maybe the sign of a production team hell-bent on making Adric even more of a laughing stock than normal.

Teabag and Peter Davison in 'Four To Doomsday'But inevitably, it's Teabag who scoops off with the prize. Teabag's penchant for stomping about and carrying on like a cross between a thick toddler and a menopausal shelf-stacker knows no bounds in this story - right from the start when she's whinging on at The Doctor for failing to get her to Heathrow Airport. The nadir of this comes in part three, when she starts shrieking and yelling at The Doctor to get her away from Monarch's ship. When this comes to no good, Teabag decides to hijack the TARDIS and try to pilot it home herself. Cue several embarrassing scenes of Teabag wailing and crying like a three-year-old in a supermarket aisle failing to get her own way after her mum refused to buy her a packet of sweets.

In one way, it does show the fallibility of the new Doctor, who can't keep control of his companions, but my god, the air-hostess is bloody annoying. Janet Fielding's performance is also lots of one-note shrieking and little else, so that doesn't help. Altogether, it's stories like this that threaten to drag the era of the Fifth Doctor down, just because of the awfulness of the companions, who between them seem to have a mental age of five.

At least John Black's direction makes up for these deficiencies. Black's previous assignment The Keeper Of Traken was geared towards Shakespearian drama, but he proves just as adept at futuristic sci-fi. The story boasts some cool production values and set-pieces. The aforementioned Recreationals are handled well, as are the shots of The Doctor trying to reach the TARDIS. There's also the freaky shot in which Bigon reveals himself to be an android at the end of part two.

If Four To Doomsday was to have one redeeming feature, then it's that style-wise, it wins out. The designs of the spaceship, the costumes and the adept direction all combine to form a visual masterpiece. Even though some of the ideas are a bit daft, the plot's too simple, and the unholy trio are obstacles to enjoyment, it's still possible to get the best out of Four To Doomsday. Just leave the brain in the fish tank though.

 

John Bensalhia limbered up for this mammoth task with a full four-series review of Blake's 7, and writes professionally and recreationally all over the web. Check out his portfolio of work at Wordprofectors.

Check out John's previous Doctor Who review, Castrovalva

Read more Doctor Who articles at Shadowlocked


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