“We believe what our minds tell us to…” – The Doctor
Like his earlier work on Inferno, writer Don Houghton offers a story with rather well-written dialogue and good structure and pacing as it jumps back and forth between different arenas of action. There are certain little touches of dialogue or direction that lift it up above normal. It’s strange therefore that from my first viewing as a child to even now as an adult that I never seem to find this episode very captivating. I think this may be because of a let down in production. The main “monster” though referenced often is never actually seen (except for a brief view at the end) and yet the menace of the piece relies on the horror of how powerful a creature it is and how it slowly starts expanding its reach by moving around the prison. While this is conveyed well in the writing, the fact that all we see is a rather clunky machine seems to undercut that menace.
As I said, however, there are lots of good scenes in the story that lift it up starting with the appearance of Captain Chin Lee. Bursting in on the Brigadier’s office, she is immediately a force to be reckoned with. In an inspired moment of direction, she dazedly walks out of the meeting into a children’s park in front of the building where she pulls out the documents she claimed were stolen and sets to lighting them on fire in the trashcan. Just for that setting and direction alone—with kids all around and the camera up at an angle from the fiery papers in her hand—the scene has way more force than if it had just taken place in a corridor. It’s also a pretty cool scene later when she is being tailed by Sergeant Benton and simply walks out of the phone booth and with a stare knocks him unconscious. We’re definitely not sure what to make of her for a while. And though some may consider the depiction of the Communist Chinese as rather stereotyped, I actually find that there’s a nice bit of cultural awareness within it—like the dig at Western cluelessness to the diversity of cultures: “Fu Peng? He must be Hokien.” “No, no Doctor – he’s Chinese.”
It was probably an actual surprise to have the Master suddenly turn up in disguise in this story since it’s the first instance of it before it became a cliché. At this point, the Master really comes across as a smooth criminal as he drives around in limousines and chomps on cigars. His penchant for wanting to start destructive wars to weaken society begins here. (“Oh, come, Doctor, how can I possibly fail? I launch the missile, wipe out the peace conference – the world is at war.”) The back and forth between him and the Doctor of trying to one up each other in both cleverness and insults (the checkers scene!) continues well. We also get the Doctor’s disdain for authority reiterated as he rather rudely makes side comments during the Keller machine demonstration. He also has a lot of good but obviously affectionate ribbing of the Brigadier. (Also funny to see the Brigadier playing it up undercover!) Jo meanwhile gets to show her motherly side in taking care of poor Barnham and it’s an interesting addition to have the other prisoners so threatened by his serene childlike state that they refer to him as “that zombie”.
The scenes of the prison riot are actually quite gritty (especially when they start shooting down guards left and right) and feel reminiscent of actual prison movies. It’s another well thought out part of the story to have the mood of the prison change (i.e., the riled up prisoners) in conjunction with the activation of the machine. The rather hard-edged action continues with the assault on the missile convoy when it even looks like our friends Yates and Benton are done for. (Indeed, I hadn’t realized until watching the episodes in order how much that Mike Yates came out of the gate as an action hero in his early appearances of the series.) This expanded role for UNIT in handling both the peace conference and the missile move interesting, but it’s admittedly hard to understand how they have a good reputation for taking on such tasks since this is a least the third time we’ve seen them ambushed while transporting dangerous objects! The fact that the two tasks really don’t go well together and should not have been scheduled anywhere near the same time is actually quite a realistic example of bureaucrats forcing bad decision onto the field.
Unfortunately, the whole episode falls apart at the end with the Doctor’s final play at tricking the Master. How could they know the machine wouldn’t just transport itself away to wreak havoc elsewhere? Once Barnham’s dead, why doesn’t the machine affect them? How can you blow up a nuclear powered missile and nerve gas safely?
Best (or worst) unsettling moments:
We’re supposed to feel horrible at the death of poor Barnham, but it’s handled so abruptly on screen that it doesn’t quite come across. Instead, I find the Master’s callous use of Chin Lee much more disturbing, especially how he strokes her chin before grabbing it in roughly. Very sadistic imagery for a kids’ show. The groans of all the prisoners as the machine ramps up its power are quite striking as well.
- Surprise return of the Master
Supposedly evil within the Doctor was drained into the machine. Could it be this essence that somehow becomes the Valeyard one day?
I’ve already noted the sloppy ending. And what’s all the stuff pouring out of the machine at that point? Was the creature held too long in check by Barnham and was weakening/ hemorrhaging? More likely it was just a mistake in production. I suppose Major Cosworth was added for a bit of comic relief but I find him too unlikeable to be a major player in UNIT and could have seen them do without him.