Whovember: Battlefield

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In an ideal world, as we draw close to the end of Whovember, I’d be posting a review of a classic tale from the Sylvester McCoy years here. But the only story from that era I’ve watched recently is Battlefield, so that will have to do.

Which is not to say that it’s bad, particularly; cheesy,in many ways, but it’s old skool Who, what else should it be? It is, in fairness, a mixed bag. It has a sense of humour that might have been brilliant in the hands of Adams & Baker, but does at times get a bit silly here. The Arthurian knights from another dimension and the fact that the Doctor, at some point in his future, apparently becomes Merlin, should have been brilliant; unfortunately the fight scenes are mostly just too slow to be believable, and the fact that the knight-aliens slipped into our dimension via a massive plot-hole (or at least, a void where there should have been some inkling of explanation) renders that a bit of a wasted opportunity.

Battlefield is still a lot of fun; the Brigadier is back for a final fling with the good Doctor, and brings Bessie with him, a nice nod to the Doctor’s full-time UNIT days. Of course, ‘the Brigadier’ has retired, and his role is now taken by Brigadier Debb Lister Winifred Bambera; cue slightly sexist assumptions from Lethbridge-Stewart which may have been funny at the time.

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Among the villains, wicked witch Morgaine (or ‘Mummy’, as you sort of expect Mordred to call her) and her pet Destroyer, freshly summoned from Hell and looking pretty demonic actually, for a Doctor Who villain, are almost worth hiding behind the sofa from. In fact, if Morgaine had left her son at home to bring in the Tesco delivery and just brought out the Destroyer from the start, well, it would have been (literally) a different story.

The demon summoned from Hell motif, the chalk circle in which Ace and new friend Shou Yuing take refuge, and the possible relevance of Holy Water lend an air of sorcery and the supernatural to the whole affair that is more Buffy than Doctor Who, and like Buffy takes its lead from a pop culture version of Hell rather than any Biblical interpretation.

All that aside, hiding behind the silliness is a story of human relationships against a background of war. The Brigadier is happily married, but torn from his idyllic retirement with Doris to see action again. Mordred is trying, half-heartedly, to step out from his mother’s shadow. Ancelyn and Winifred fall in love over a sword fight or two. And then, of course, there’s the Doctor and Ace.

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This is why I don’t think the Doctor should ever be female. Ace is a troubled teen who blows stuff up for attention, until the Doctor meets her and takes her under his wing, at the same time giving her someone besides herself to look out for. The Doctor helps her complete her education – albeit in an unorthodox manner – and keeps her somewhere near the straight and narrow; in Battlefield, he specifically forbids her from joining Shou Yuing in an alcoholic drink, and Ace clearly respects his opinion enough to accept this without fuss.

The Doctor as father figure harks right back to the beginning when the Doctor travelled with his own granddaughter, but with Seven and Ace you get a clearer feel for what trouble Ace might have been in, and from that the importance of the man she nicknamed ‘Professor’.

Exotic alien swords are easy to come by. Aces are rare.

The Doctor has (usually) been a male role model who thought things through and talked his way out of trouble before resorting to violence. TV needs those, doesn’t it? And I think the War Doctor would agree, there has been too much of the young, romantic Doctor recently; Twelve (or do we have to call him Thirteen?) can bring something of the father figure back to the Doctor.

Watch this for the dreadful 80s title sequence and incidental music. No, actually, watch it for a fun interpretation of Arthurian myths, and ponder what might have been – or may yet be.

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Whovember: Vengeance on Varos

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I don’t have good memories of the Colin Baker years. Having been introduced to Who by the much-loved Tom Baker, and then growing up to the utterly likeable Fifth Doctor, number Six was something of an unwelcome change. The fact that he was followed by the (also utterly likeable) Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor hasn’t done our Col any favours either.

However, coming back to him in the wider context of Who history, I think I may have done him a disservice. There’s no denying that the wardrobe department did their best to make him memorable for all the wrong reasons, his companions were eye candy at best, and then there was Trial of a Time Lord, which I epically disliked at the time; but for all that, I don’t think it’s fair to blame Colin Baker or his rendition of the Doctor for this being an unpopular era in the classic show.

Vengeance on Varos, for instance, is a brilliant piece of Doctor Who that might well have been one of the great stories, given a better costume and a less annoying companion. At the start of the story, with the TARDIS having run out of petrol somewhere in the Gamma Quadrant, the Doctor sinks into a sulky melancholy, looking forward to life after life adrift in deep space, while Peri will have the good fortune of dying in a few years time. In his darker, more serious moments, and with the benefit of a bit more back story, it is easy to see that Baker was actually channelling the First Doctor, and knowing this makes his character a lot more likeable – even when he is being deliberately unlikeable.

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So, with the Sixth Doctor forgiven, on with the story. In brief, they track down a reachable fuel source, the Zeiton-7 mines on Varos, which is a dystopian state in which the people are all but prisoners, subdued by being allowed to watch villains being tortured on TV (I’m a Celebrity, anyone?) while the oil Zeiton-7 barons exploit them by making sure they have no clue of the true value of the stuff they are producing. Into this drop the Doctor and Peri, arriving in the ‘Punishment Dome’, where they are mistaken for a hallucination (a clown and a bimbo getting out of a blue phone box? Easy mistake to make) and rescue the Dome’s current victim.

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Obviously the torture and execution thing means the whole story is much darker than some 80s Who, but it gives the Doctor a chance to be heroic again, instead of just grumpy. He even seems genuinely concerned for Peri’s well-being.

However, our heroes’ attempts to escape the Punishment Dome are just the action that goes on in between the satire of reality TV, political corruption and corporate exploitation of the masses… the portrayal of the voyeuristic masses tuning in for an execution (that isn’t a repeat) especially could easily have been written with 21st Century TV in mind.

Masterminding this Orwellian nightmare is the fuel magnate Sil, a deliciously vile sort of dwarf Jabba the Hutt character whose reign comes to an end when the Doctor tells the current retail value of a gallon of Zeiton-7.

Do you always get the priestly parts?

Obviously the Doctor’s meddling is typically unwelcome, exacerbated by his colour clash to the point that it is decided to off him the old fashioned way: by hanging, an event which is accompanied by much pseudo-religious chanting which again highlights the importance of television to the Varosians (and by extension, all of us).

While the action of the story is unfolding, much of it is being watched by a couple of ordinary Varosian folks, which aside from allowing some very meta observations on the Doctor’s outfit, shows the viewer how the ordinary people see all this torture and exploitation. It also allows for a very nice ending, in which our ordinary working=class Varosians are finally granted their freedom… and have no idea what to do with it.

Watch this to see for yourself that the Sixth Doctor was not a completely horrible Time Lord, and then ponder whether you are putting the various freedoms you enjoy in the internet-enabled Western world to good use.

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Whovember: The Visitation

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At the very end of Genesis of the Daleks, the Fourth Doctor reflects that out of the evil of the Daleks, must come something good. And I’m going to use that as a somewhat tenuous link to this story from Peter Davison’s first series in the TARDIS, because (spoilers?) the Doctor burns much of London to the ground, allowing it to get rid of the Black Death and gain an iconic church. But more on that story later.

In The Visitation, Tegan is packing her bags in readiness for the Doctor to drop her back at Heathrow, which he does – with 300-odd years to spare. Tegan stomps off in a huff, they get lost in the woodland that has yet to become the planet’s busiest international airport, and shenanigans ensue.

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This is very much a typical capture/escape cycle Who story, with no great concept or philosophical substance to it other than that which would spoil the ending. This is your spoiler warning: WATCH IT FIRST!

This is one of those stories that makes me wonder how the Doctor always manages to show up where trouble is brewing. For instance, London in 1666 had enough problems as it was, without a ‘comet’ landing nearby and adding androids and terileptils into the mix, yet the Doctor still manages to turn up unexpectedly and track down the bad guys. I’m sure it’s all down to something wibbly wobbly timey wimey to do with the TARDIS having a mind of its own and taking the Doctor wherever he is needed.

Why are Earth people so parochial?

Anyway, the story: as i said this is your archetypal Saturday tea-time adventure, in this case set in a well known period of British history – I’m pretty sure that even as an 8-year-old viewer I got the significance of the Doctor’s final confrontation with the Terileptil taking place in London’s Pudding Lane.

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Nyssa is very much the hands-on companion in this adventure; Tegan is too busy sulking about not being home yet, and Adric was pretty forgettable (possibly a good thing, as I find him a bit annoying). The Terileptils – fugitives on the run – were interesting aliens who should probably come back at some point, with or without their proto-Kryten android. They also smash the Doctor’s sonic screwdriver, because in their culture ‘Deus ex machina’ is one of the most offensive concepts imaginable. Possibly. Apparently they were the first animatronic aliens in Doctor Who as well, fact fans.

But, whether you like this story or realise that it’s just a plothole large enough to power a TARDIS, this is one that has to be watched for the ending. There is a hint of regret as the Doctor defeats his enemies, yet even as his companions urge him to help them put the fire out, he knows that history has to be left to play out. Presumably Time Lords know which battles they can win and which they can’t.

Watch this for the likeable and quite human Doctor, the 17th century atmosphere, some half decent aliens, and of course that ending.

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Whovember: Genesis of the Daleks

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Let me preface this review by saying that Tom Baker was my Doctor. I think I remember more of the Fifth Doctor, but my introduction to Doctor Who was with the wild-eyed curly-haired scarf-wearing guy with the tin dog, and so there may be a hint of prejudice in this review.

That said, Genesis of the Daleks is one of the all time classic Who stories; it has the definitive Doctor (at least until Ten), the longest serving companion (Sarah Jane Smith), and some Daleks (obviously), and it throws them all together in a whole new time, and gives the Doctor a moral dilemma of epic proportions.

The Daleks had been around the galaxy by 1975, so to breathe new life into them the Doctor is effectively kidnapped by the Time Lord hierarchy and sent to bump the Daleks off wholesale before they set foot (wheel? megnetic levitation device?) off Skaro.

It has to be said that from the outset this is not the Saturday tea-time family viewing that much of Doctor Who has always been; this is a very dark story. The Nazi undertones of the Daleks are very much brought to the fore early in the story, right down to hiring Lieutenant Gruber from Allo Allo to play one of Davros’ henchmen. Oh yes, this is where Davros gets added into the mix; it’s never quite explained where he had got to in the Doctor’s earlier Dalek encounters, but clearly this is the moment where Davros first encounters a Time Lord.

By Paul Hanley

There are some silly moments, most memorably seeing Harry wrestling a giant clam that was supposedly one of Davros’ early genetic experiments, but in general the effects in this serial probably stand the test of time better than others of Tom Baker’s era (now we all recognise bubble wrap, for instance). Also Sarah Jane seems to scream rather a lot, but I’m sure that when she gets used to mortal peril she’ll be able to save the world on almost a weekly basis without a Time Lord companion. Anyway, really this isn’t about looking for plot-holes and wobbly sets, it’s about enjoying what is actually a really good bit of sci-fi telly.

Excuse me, can you help me? I’m a spy.

It has oodles of tension, lots of running down corridors in search of one or more of our heroes, Davros being actually menacing, rather than just plain mental as he later seems, and of course, the big questions.

SPOILER ALERT!

The Doctor is tasked with destroying the Daleks, and indeed manages to get himself into a position where he can, by fiddling with some bad wiring left on set, do just that. But of course this is the Doctor we’re talking about, and he quite reasonably thinks that genocide is a bad thing, and that he could probably just sit down with Davros, have a little chat over a bag of jelly babies and work through his issues in a more constructive manner.

So the Doctor tries his best to set Davros and his armed pepperpots on a less destructive course, but all the time the wibbly wobbly timey wimey nature of what he is doing must be bugging him as he wonders what other evils the galaxy would have thrown his way had the Daleks not been around to exterminate it…

It’s ironic of course that having talked himself out of committing genocide right at the beginning, later episodes such as Nine’s Dalek encounters seem to suggest that he did just that (or at least, attempted it) during The Last Great Time War. Maybe we’ll find out about that soon too…

END SPOILER ALERT!

Other than all that great stuff, the humour in much of the Fourth Doctor’s tenure is brilliant; even here, against the backdrop of neo-nazi’s about to wreak metallic extermination on an unsuspecting galaxy, the Doctor very calmly asks for a cup of tea. And this is quite some years before Arthur Dent would find himself in a similar position, and indeed before Douglas Adams would find himself in the Doctor Who script editor’s chair.

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Maybe the darkness just highlights the humour of that mundane request all the more, or maybe the Fourth Doctor’s child-like grin and belief that a cup of tea and jelly baby will cure the universe of all evil appeals to me. Maybe, when all is said and done, the answer to all of life’s problems is actually a lot simpler than many of us would like to think.

Watch it for Tom Baker’s (definitive) Doctor, for the introduction to (a very evil and menacing) Davros, and for the occasional moment of Adams-esque humour against a dark background.

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Book Review: The Shadow Lamp by Stephen R Lawhead

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No, your eyes do not deceive you; this is indeed an actual review, and not of a book that was toured months ago either. I was on the ball this time – enjoy the moment.

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Anyway, to the point: The Shadow Lamp is the fourth quest in Stephen Lawhead’s Bright Empires series; reading it without a prior grounding in the series will significantly reduce your enjoyment of any of the books, and may even break your brain. For that reason, I won’t waste too much time on how the story revolves around travel though time and space by means of ley lines, or who the Burley Men or the Flinders-Petries are. Readers familiar with the series (or at least reviews thereof) will know them, and be glad to know that all are present in abundance in The Shadow Lamp.

As you would expect in the fourth book in a multiverse-spanning epic such as this, we find ourselves venturing ever deeper into the back stories of various characters, and still meeting new ones. We also find ourselves wandering from familiar haunts like ancient Egypt and Mina’s cafe in Prague, to new and exciting adventures at sea; and to his credit Stephen Lawhead brings all these far flung locations equally to life.


I couldn’t help thinking, however, that this book was very much the calm before the storm. The action seemed to be at much slower pace than in earlier books, although the bigger picture was definitely gaining momentum and there was a sense that the players will soon be taking there places for a final showdown. There’s certainly plenty going on, and some of the action sequences are pretty devastating, but on the whole it was just a bit less epic than the opening book and a half of the series.

There is some quite lengthy exposition going on toward the end, which could easily put a lot of readers to sleep off, but as a science fiction reader and writer, I found the conversations about the relationship between religion, science and the end of the universe quite interesting. Oh, and of course some story elements are getting increasingly ‘Christian’ now, with the Zetetic Society and Brother Lazarus; although I’d say if there was anything preachy in the story it was about science, not Christianity.

The Shadow Lamp may not be the high point of the Bright Empires series, but it’s well written, epic in scope, and I’m sure will turn out to have revealed a bunch of vital clues as the story reaches its finale next year.

Tuesday Tunes: Leyline Top Ten

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This week, as you will have noticed, NaNoWriMo progress has somewhat stalled and I’ve watched as much Doctor Who as I can usefully squeeze in to one week, so the only sensible way to spend a quiet Tuesday evening is to read The Shadow lamp by Stephen Lawhead. And while you do, here’s a short musical interlude brought to you from across the multi-faceted universe of space and time: it’s Top Ten Ley Line Songs…

10. Icelandic Dream Station – Ley Line to Ancient Egypt
And the award for ‘Song Title Most Relevant To The Subject Of The Tour’ goes to… be warned, this is on an album called Sleep and Dream, and if you even try to listen to the full ten minutes of this track that’s just what will happen.

9. Gianluca Galli – Ley Line
Isn’t he the monk who shows Mina how to travel on ley lines?

8. The Pocket Gods – Leyline Blues
The thing about leylines is that they conjure up all kinds of weird psychedelic and new agey images. This isn’t either of those things.

7. Denmantau – Sail The Ley Line
In what weird branch of the multiverse is ‘trumpet rock’ even a thing?

6. Griffin – Leylines
It’s Germany, of course. And you thought would make a joke about the rock band with the body of a lion and the head and wings of an eagle.

5. Sarah Fleck & The Palpitations – Ley Line Maggie
Best band name of the day. She’s the drummer, if you wondered.

4. Melting Euphoria – Leylines From Azimuth
This is what happens if you do too much Icelandic Dream Station. Just say no!

3. Haight Ashbury – Leylines
Haight Ashbury sounds like it should be somewhere in the Cotswolds, on the ley line between Stonehenge and Dragon Hill, not a hippy neighbourhood of San Francisco.

2. Leylines – Alpha Bravo Gnarly
If Britpop went skateboarding along a ley line, it would come out like this. Which is a good thing, if you were wondering.

1. Ocean Colour Scene – On The Leyline, Waiting
Good old Brummy indie rock from Moseley (which is on the ley line running from Cadbury World to the Hurst Lane Post Office).

The playlist is ready for you to listen along, but don’t forget to visit the other bloggers on the tour, while I patiently watch my stats to see just how many people google that last phrase. Oh, and read some Stephen Lawhead, he’s quite good.

CSFF Blog Tour – The Shadow Lamp by Stephen R Lawhead

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I’m carving some time out of my painfully slow NaNoWriMo progress and incessant Doctor Who blogging to join in the Christian Science Fiction and Fantasy Blog Tour this week, because we will be looking at The Shadow Lamp by Stephen R Lawhead.

The Shadow Lamp is the fourth quest in the Bright Empires series, and epic story involving the usual gaggle of unlikely heroes – known as the Zetetic Society – and their nemesis Archaleous Burleigh, jumping through time and space by means of ley lines, in search of the Skin Map, which will finally and completely reveal the secrets of the ley line network. Or so they have been led to believe.

For some context, I have reviewed the previous books in the series: Book One – The Skin Map; Book Two – The Bone House; and Book Three – The Spirit Well. In summary: I’ve enjoyed the series so far, and will say something about this latest volume later in the week.

In the meantime, why not visit the author’s website, or check out what’s occuring on his facebook page (currently, signed bookplates for The Shadow Lamp).

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Whovember: Spearhead from Space

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A new Doctor, a complete new look, new logo, more Earth-bound stories, starting with the Autons…

It could have been the start of the new Who in 2005, but in fact the start of the Third Doctor’s time in the TARDIS was very similar in all of those ways, and can also be seen as something of a soft-reboot.

The Pertwee era is where the mythology started to come together. The Time Lords, and the Doctor’s relationship to them, were introduced at the very end of Two’s time, but regeneration isn’t given a name until Three becomes Four; that Time Lords have two hearts is discovered in Spearhead From Space. Many characters who would go on to be important parts of the Whoniverse show up in the Pertwee years – the Master and Sarah Jane first appeared with the Third Doctor, while the Brigadier was a regular cast member of this period and went on to be a recurring character, as did UNIT. Also, the logo of this period is still used on classic Who DVDs, and the incorporation of the face of the Doctor into the title sequence (which recently came back with Matt Smith’s image) started here.

Reverse the polarity of the neutron flow!

The Pertwee era – and Doctor Who in full colour – started with Spearhead from Space (although I’m still not sure why; it’s about those aforementioned autons, who don’t throw spears but look rather fetching in 1970’s latest fashions).

It being a post-regeneration serial, the Doctor is a little discombobulated for part of the time, some of the Second Doctor’s comedy showing through before number Three’s rather more serious personality settles in.

Other than that, there’s meteorites, UNIT, autons, the proto-Scully Liz Shaw, and more autons. They probably gave a generation of kids department store-based nightmares for weeks – or at least until the delightful looking Silurians turned up. What’s giving me nightmares is that scene with the Doctor hiding by taking a shower. Scarier than a whole fleet of Daleks, that.

ThreeAlthough Spearhead from Space is decent enough Who (and the Doctor emerging from a smoke-filled TARDIS having failed to get it moving is a good comic moment) it was the start of a long UNIT-based monster of the week phase, which, combined with a very serious Doctor, made for one of the less enjoyable periods of Who history in this blogger’s opinion.

So, watch it for the introduction to a new era of Doctor Who, for Miss Shaw’s induction into the X-Files, and of course the autons looting the department store from the inside. Don’t watch it for an exceptional alien invasion story, because that isn’t really what it’s about.

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NaNoWriMo update

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This is a terrible way to write a novel. It’s also a terrible way to get enough sleep. And a terrible way to give up caffeine.

This evening I have just squeaked over the 8,000 word mark; still a couple of thousand behind target, but somewhere in the 5,000s I actually found the start of the story, and I’ve got something more of a plan going forward as a result.

Having said that, I’m not sure how much of the 2,000 or so words I’ve done after the beginning of the story proper will make even the first cut; I don’t think I’ve written a single worthwhile sentence yet in terms of literary worth.

Still the reason I’m doing this is to figure out whether my story idea – which is one that’s been rattling round in my head for years – is good enough to work at novel length. At the moment I have only met two characters, so it’s a little early to tell, but any day now I’ll be bringing out the villains, so that should spice things up a little – not least the wordcount!

Whovember: Tomb of the Cybermen

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I’m not all that familiar with the Second Doctor (probably because most of his episodes got binned by the Beeb), but having seen this story recently, I have to say he looks a lot of fun. I can also see where Matt Smith got some of his characterisation for Eleven from… and speaking of Matt Smith, Tomb of the Cybermen is, apparently, among his favourite episodes. So, shall we take a look?

Fresh from rescuing Victoria from the Daleks, the Doctor and Jamie bring her to the planter Telos – coincidentally just as an archaeological expedition is about to open the tomb of the Cybermen, ostensibly to establish why the Cybermen died out. However, human nature being what it is, some members of the dig refuse to let sleeping cyborgs lie and attempt to subvert the whole expedition and use the secrets of the Cybermen for their own purposes.

It struck me that for a scientifically enhanced race, the Cybermen left a lot of pseudo-religious stuff behind them. The Cyberman icons liberally scattered through the tomb seem similar to the sort of religious imagery you might expect in, say, an Egyptian pyramid, or even the crosses you still find in graveyards. And the ritual that surrounds the resurrection of the Cybercontroller… well, to me it was an interesting combination of science and religion.

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The expedition is funded by a woman named Kaftan, and her partner in crime business Eric Klieg, who we discover are members of the Brotherhood of Logicians, possessors of great intelligence but limited physical power (and apparently no common sense). Klieg has come up with the ingenious idea of resurrecting the Cybermen, who will then be so overwhelmed with gratitude that they will do anything for their saviour.

The power cable generated an electrical field and confused their tiny metal minds. You might almost say they’ve had a complete metal breakdown.

It seems there was a flaw in his logic somewhere though, because the Cybermen, far from being grateful, reveal that they had in fact orchestrated this very situation before sealing themselves inside their tomb. (Although, if you could do that, and power the electric gates for centuries, why lock yourselves in a tomb anyway? Why not just hide in a massive plothole until the TARDIS drops by and catch a lift?)

Um, anyway, plotholes aside, this is a fun story with plenty of humour – usually from the Doctor himself:

The Doctor: Don’t you see what this is going to mean to all the people who come to serve Klieg the all powerful? Why, no country, no person would dare to have a single thought that was not your own. Eric Klieg’s own conception of the, of the way of life!
Eric Klieg: Brilliant! Yes, yes, you’re right. Master of the world.
The Doctor: Well now I know you’re mad, I just wanted to make sure.

twoand the cybermen talk like robots from a 1960s TV… oh, right. Well that’s fun too. A slightly less fun sign of this serial’s age is the fact that the expedition’s wealthy benefactress has a black manservant; Steven Moffat would only get away with this by hanging a lamp on it, but that’s already been done for Diggle.

So, watch it for the glimpse of Cyberman ‘religion’, and how they react to the promise of resurrection, salvation, or whatever you want to call Klieg’s intention towards them; and of course their complete refusal to worship him as a result. I guess the moral of the story, as far as its religious themes are concerned, is don’t try and set yourself up as a god unless you can actually demonstrate that you have the powers of a god.

Klieg, for instance, when killed by his would-be subjects, stayed dead.

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