“The gratification of pleasure is the sole motive of action. Is that not our law?” – Shockeye
There’s much to love in this one—although I had not remembered how exceedingly violent the story is. In fact, I’d kind of forgotten how strong a story it is overall. Watching this time, I was reminded of many reasons why I consider it my favorite sixth Doctor story. First and foremost is the return of the Second Doctor (and Jamie) in fine form.
It was a very wise move to begin the show in black and white to recall the Troughton era and then subtly turn over to color to place them in the modern day. Yes, you have to ignore that they’re both older (*but not if you subscribe to the 6B theory!), but their interplay and Troughton’s impish charm and indignant sulking are just as good as always.
Second, it’s a great Robert Holmes script with good dialogue and character flourishes and interesting plot development. Some examples of nice touches in the dialogue and storytelling:
- starting with the Second Doctor (rather than Six) and maintaining two tracks of adventure that eventually overlap;
- having the Doctor immediately take an uncharacteristically privileged demeanor with Shockeye showing he knows that it’s the proper way to interact with an Androgum;
- good characterization of the Androgum race and a very sci-fi concept about “technological augmentation”;
- the double play of the Sixth and Second together in anticipating each others’ ideas for escape;
- a grim speech from the Sixth Doctor to Peri about death (“That is the smell of death, Peri. Ancient musk, heavy in the air. Fruit-soft flesh, peeling from white bones. The unholy, unburiable smell of Armageddon.”) and yet a surprisingly tender recognition of how might affect her.
Third, there are a lot of nice scenes and direction in this story as well. By far the two most striking occur at the villa. When we unexpectedly go from the futuristic space station to the countryside of Spain, it’s already a sudden change in gears, but when the music suddenly shifts a gentle flamenco ballad over the tender scene of an old woman praying to the Virgin at her altar, it’s a real shock. It creates an immediate connection to this lonely old woman, one that they use to wear our nerves all the more when we see her rise and scuffle into the violent path of Shockeye who quickly strikes her down. A second standout scene comes as Chessene struggles against her cannibalistic nature. Staring forlornly at the smear of Time Lord blood on the steps, she cannot resist it anymore and falls into it a long shot across the villa entry way, licking the red smear of it on her palm. Her revulsion with herself and yet profound ecstasy are portrayed beautifully. These and other scenes really stand out in this story.
Finally, Seville was just a great location to be filming in with its streets and squares. Even the Sixth Doctor gets to be casual in his shirtsleeves and vest which actually looks quite good as a costume for him. Though the violence is strong and there are a number of missteps as noted below, this really is a good episode over all.
Best (or worst) unsettling moment:
The amount of pure horror and even outright cruelty in this episode is surprising–from Peri finding blood soaked rags to Shockeye’s overt discussions of eating human flesh to the deaths of the most innocent of characters like Oscar. The uncomfortable scene most ingrained in my mind from childhood, however, is Shockeye having Jamie laid out on the table writhing in pain as he uses an electric shock to ‘tenderize the meat. (“Oh, see how the flesh is marbling!”) That description brought images to my mind that profoundly scared me as a child. [But didn’t make me give up meat as is obviously the goal of the writer!]
This story requires you to accept the Season 6B theory that the Doctor was taken out of time before his forced regeneration and put back together with Jamie (and Victoria?) for a series of travels on behalf of the Time Lords. There’s no way around it as he explicitly talks about the Time Lords and his role with them (“officially I’m here quite unofficially”) which simply does not fit with the events of the War Games otherwise. It also helps you reconcile Jamie’s older appearance.
Despite how good much of the story is, it does have some problems that keep it from greatness. Some are just design flaws like why in the world they had Dastari in a metallic jumpsuit or Peri in a headband or the silly design of the time capsule. The monkey bar like scaffolding within the working of the station looks like the cheap set that it is. Unfortunately, the bad costuming and settings take you out of the otherwise good story. Others are problems with story points or characterization like having always strong Jamie turn into a silly growling monster after a few days stuck on the station or making silly Oscar a bit too clownish to be believable.