“This time there’ll be a reckoning with the nameless Doctor whose power is so secret, for I have found his secret out. In good time, I will speak it. I shall be his downfall.” – Lady Peinforte
Why in the world do people disparage this story so much? It’s the 25th anniversary of the show and celebrates it with both a recognition of the past (down to using the exact date) and perhaps more importantly with a view of the future—a signature moment of giving back the Seventh Doctor a mysterious past and mythos. One big complaint you hear is that there are too many characters with too convoluted a plot, but to me that’s what makes the story so interesting as the disparate groups vying for the same prize come together. The other complaint is that it mirrors too closely the plot of Remembrance of the Daleks; here too the Doctor protects an ancient Time Lord device from some of his old enemies and in the end tricks them into it causing their own destruction. Even the show dialogue itself recognizes this parallel. I would argue that the format was so successful it makes sense to reuse it and that there are enough unique elements for this story to have its own vibe.
Of course for me, the standout part of the story were all the layers of very interesting sci-fi elements: living metal fashioned into a statue, a comet set on a recurring orbit that brings historic disaster at each pass, a 17th century sorceress who travels to the future, and the surprise appearance of the Cybermen. I think the show does a great job of making use of these elements to the fullest. I was in wonder at the build up as a kid as the Doctor had Ace recite the dates the comet would have passed and listed war and catastrophe after each one. The reveal of the massive number of ships in the Cyber fleet hanging in what seemed like empty space around the earth is great. And I especially like how Richard freaks out at realizing Lady Peinforte’s grave holds no bones and this ends up being a foreshadowing of what would actually happen to her in the end.
The episode runs a gamut of emotions. It was standard in the show at this point to have a lot of wry humor in side characters and situations. We see that here with the skinheads humorously hoisted by ‘social workers’ or the Doctor nearly running into the Queen and her corgies. These interactions are silly, almost a bit too outlandish, but they fortunately don’t detract from the main plot. Indeed, some of the moments like Lady Peinforte interacting with the American tourist who is the progeny of her rival (“Dorothea Remington did bribe away my cook.”) are almost laugh at loud funny. Meanwhile, I was too young to understand the full implications of the German soldiers in South America and their toast to the Fourth Reich. It’s a surprisingly serious set of enemies for a kid show. Lady Peinforte is also painted as callous and cruel yet there is an amazing moment of humanity when she honestly cannot comprehend love that would drive Richard to loyally stay by her side despite how she treats him. Finally, the hallmark of the show is the air of mystery it generates regarding the Doctor and the implication that he is somehow much more important or powerful than we’ve ever realized. (“Doctor…who are you?”)
There are just a lot of clever or cool moments in this episode overall. I had never noticed the switch from the Nazi leader using his bow to Lady Peinefort doing the same. This visual nicely ties them together as the equivalent villains of their particular timelines, especially as they both have lackeys at work doing calculations in the background. (I also had no idea until looking it up this time that the jazz musician featured was an actual celebrity musician at the time.) I love the continued interplay of the Doctor and Ace. (“I don’t suppose you’ve completely ignored my instructions and secretly prepared any Nitro Nine, have you?” “What if I had?” “Naturally you wouldn’t do anything so insanely dangerous as to carry it around with you, would you?” “Of course not. I’m a good girl. I do what I’m told.” “Excellent. Blow up that vehicle.”) Also especially badass are the scenes with Ace taking on the Cybermen with just a slingshot and some gold coins. I love her bravery here and how the Doctor just leaves her to it with obvious confidence that she can handle herself. She gets another great run through shots and explosions as the camera tracks her run through the warehouse as well as a great shot of her on the gantry. There is a lot that is done well in this story so I am always frustrated that fans don’t seem to like it.
Best (or worst) unsettling moments:
I was disturbed as a kid that the kindly old mathematician who had joyfully just realized his full potential was killed by Lady Peinforte. What I’d forgotten (or repressed) is the even creepier notion that he was killed for her to use his blood in her formula and thus drink it.
I wish De Flores had been played with a little bit more force and menace and therefore have had more weight as an opponent. They could have also added a line of dialogue to explain how susceptible the Cyberman now are to gold so that people wouldn’t belittle the cool elements of Lady Peinforte taking out Cybermen with a gold tipped arrow so much. Also some obvious bits are missing like the Doctor and Ace getting out of Windsor security (one imagines he invoked UNIT credentials) or why the Cybermen guards are following the Doctor and Ace.