“There are times, Doctor, when the forces within the universe upset the balance to such an extent that it becomes necessary to stop everything.” – The Guardian
After a largely bad year prior, Doctor Who rebounds and revamps for its new season. Trying something relatively new, the producers came up with the clever idea of tying the entire set of stories for the year together by having an overarching mission for the Doctor to pursue with separate individual stories making up legs of the journey. (This was only done in miniature before.) For this to work, the larger part of the story has to first grab us and they do a good job of this by surprising us with the Doctor’s godlike call by the White Guardian. I love the scale that introducing this virtually omnipotent being gives to the story. I also love our sudden introduction to Romana. They quickly pegged that introducing an intellectual equal to the Doctor would serve for some great repartee, from the Doctor’s seeming inferiority complex at first to his becoming the seasoned veteran having to show the youngster that that learning without practical experience isn’t all that great.
We then enter into the first storyline and from the outset it becomes evident that the story is something different. This tale of a couple of space grifters preparing to scam a planetary warlord is modeled after classic movies in the same vein. Just substitute guard dogs for shrivenzales, a third world country for the backwards planet, and a mafia kingpin for the Graff Vynda K and much of the main plot would still work. Indeed, most of the initial story revolves around the Doctor and Romana (and us) just watching the scam slowly unfold from the side. It’s great how the Doctor recognizes the snow job for what it is right away. (You can imagine him being just as great at such as sting.) Once plans fall apart, the story turns more to the Doctor having to extricate himself and his friends from a dangerous tyrant.
More than just a unique story choice, they also pulled out the big bucks to make this one stand out in terms of costumes and sets—elaborate hats and costumes taken from ancient Mongolian design, stonework and heraldry of an old palace, and realistic crypt and tunnels. There’s some good world building in the script and the acting is quite strong on all sides, even down to mad characters like the Seeker. (K9 gets quite a bump up in his usefulness and personality as well.) Most importantly, the script itself is sparkling with lively banter between Garron and Unstoffe, between them and the Graff, and between our heroes and all the rest. Robert Holmes then goes even further and throws in real emotional moments, most notably our encounter with poor old Brino. Your heart just breaks for the kind old man as he weeps with gratitude at having his long held beliefs validated just at the end of his life.
The only problem with the story is that it is so outside the norm for Doctor Who—no alien invasion, no large scale threat—that it doesn’t necessarily stand out for a child. I remember thinking it was not that consequential of a story as it had no excitement or far flung ideas. It’s only as an adult that I can recognize what a great script it is.
Best (or worst) unsettling moment:
Poor Binro. It’s gutting when this little old man dies. But as far as moments that have an edge, I am quite struck by the last scene of the Graff after the death of his lifelong companion Sholakh. It’s subtle but the as he turns away from the Doctor you slowly hear the rising sound of horses and battle until you realize that only the Graff is hearing this in his head and that he has thus truly gone insane.
It’s not necessarily a mistake (especially since the actor is so good) but it seems a bit odd that the Graff is so young yet talks of “So many battles, so many years” as if he were a wizened old man.