Reviews

Doctor Who: The Key to Time - Special Collector's Edition

If you're ever stressed by the current dark trends in sci-fi, this set will be a soothing palliative. Take it from me; the future isn’t what it used to be.


Doctor Who

Distributor: BBC Warner
Cast: Tom Baker, Mary Tamm, John Leeson
Network: BBC
US Release Date: 2009-03-03
Amazon

Oh the relief! After participating in the collective suffering caused by the angst ridden, mystically obsessed, drink ‘til you puke silliness that was the end of Battlestar Galactica some good old Tom Baker Doctor Who is a perfect tonic. We’re supposed to be descended from human/cylon hybrids?! You may be but not this reviewer.

I’m 100 percent Golgafrinchan (if you have to Google it, you’re probably reading the wrong review) and damn proud of it. The SciFi channel is giving us a future that’s as bleak, militarized and full of pole dancing as the present day and I for one am heartily sick of it. Let’s set our phasers on mellow.

In The Key to Time The Doctor (Tom Baker) is given a mission by one of the grand poobahs of the space-time continuum, The White Guardian. He has to find and reassemble the six pieces of the Key to Time so that the universe doesn’t descend into eternal chaos. Having been giving their marching orders, The Doctor, his assistant Romana (Mary Tamm) and mechanical dog, K-9 (voice of John Leeson) set off to save the universe with cheerful aplomb for seven DVD’s worth of episodes, none of which contain a single existential crisis.

The search for the first key is chronicled in The Ribos Operation. A pair of interstellar con men Garron (Iain Cuthbertson) and Unstoffe (Nigel Plaskitt) is posing as planetary realtors. They’re hoping to scam the bloodthirsty Graff Vina-K (Paul Seed) into purchasing Ribos, a planet with medieval technology and an elliptical orbit that causes 38 year summers and winters. It’s not an attractive property but Garron and Unstoffe have baited the Graff by using a lump of jethrik, an extremely valuable mineral.

Of course the lump of jethrik is a piece of the key to time as The Doctor and Romana eventually discover. Unfortunately it’s being kept with other Ribonian treasures in their equivalent of the Tower of London. The treasures are guarded by the Shrieves, led by their Captain (Prentis Hancock) and by a large green cave lizard with a nasty temper.

A nastier temper is soon displayed after the Graff and his hatchet man, Sholakh (Robert Keegan) discover the attempted ruse. They gather their forces and the bodies start piling up. Eventually everyone winds up in the catacombs beneath the city after Unstoffe is led there by Binro (Timothy Bateson). Binro is a Ribonian heretic who's being persecuted ala Galileo. The natives of Ribos don’t know that other worlds exist so interstellar travelers just tell them,” We’re from the north”. Strangely it always seems to work.

A slugfest ensues between the Graff and his forces, The Doctor, Romana and K-9, the con men and the Shrieves. Things get so exciting that the cave lizards join in. After the dust settles, The Doctor has the first piece of the key to time.

The second piece is a bit harder to come by since it’s on The Pirate Planet. The Pirate Captain (Bruce Purchase) is a very nasty customer who has taken plundering to a new level. He even comes equipped with a robotic parrot that zaps recalcitrant crewmen and is assisted by the Smee like Mr. Fibuli (Andrew Robertson). The helpless populace is caught between the Captain and the eerie Mentiads, a band of powerful psychics.

It’s all a bit much to sort out, even for The Doctor. Everyone ignores him, tries to put him under arrest or zaps him with psychic force. Through the application of keen wit and a lot of jelly babies, The Doctor and Romana eventually figure out what’s going on and wind up in a battle of wits with Queen Xanxia (Rosalind Lloyd). She’s an ancient tyrant who destroys whole planets in her quest for immortality and her next target is Earth.

While K-9 dukes it out with the robotic parrot, The Doctor and Romana sabotage the Captain’s engines, save Earth and defeat Xanxia. The Mentiads and the citizenry make nice and the second piece of the key to time is found. While the script is far from the best thing written by Douglas Adams, it’s still a pretty good tale.

A far better story is The Stones of Blood. The Doctor and his companions track the third piece of the key to time to 20th century Earth. Their tracking device leads them to a Neolithic stone circle in Cornwall known as “The Nine Travelers” (more aptly named than you would think) but they can’t get a fix. While investigating the stones they befriend Professor Amelia Rumford (Beatrix Lehmann) and Vivien Fey (Susan Engel).

Seeking more information, the Doctor goes to visit De Vries (Nicholas McArdle) who is apparently the head of a local druidic cult. After some chitchat, De Vries knocks The Doctor unconscious and tries to sacrifice him to an ancient Celtic goddess. Fortunately, Rumford rescues him just in time. Then The Doctor rescues Romana who is tricked into almost falling off a cliff. Just when everyone heaves collective sighs of relief, the standing stones come alive, squishing the druids, a few campers and badly damaging K-9.

As if this all wasn’t bad enough, Vivian Fey is the person commanding the stones. It turns out that she’s really Cessair of Diplos, an extremely naughty alien who has been stuck on Earth for four millennia. Over the years she’s been a Celtic goddess, a baroness, an abbess of the local convent and a local landowner. (A girl’s got to keep busy I guess) Cessair can’t escape because she’s tied to her prison ship that’s stuck in hyperspace just a few dimensions away from the stone circle.

After Romana is zapped into hyperspace by Cessair, The Doctor and Rumford fit the pieces of the story together while dodging bloodthirsty boulders. They make a hyperspace generator and off goes The Doctor. He reaches the prison ship and finds Romana but releases two Megara in the process. The Megara were creatures devised to administer justice by an interstellar confederation in the distant past. Since the Megara have all of the logic, compassion and sense of justice that’s found in human resources personnel, they immediately decide to execute the Doctor after a fair trial.

By dint of some fancy footwork, both verbal and actual, The Doctor manages to get the Megara to scan Cessair. The Doctor is let off the hook and Cessair is turned to stone just after the Doctor purloins her necklace, which is, of course, the third piece of the key to time.

The character of Professor Rumford, a doughty little old lady, in the The Stones of Blood is a great example of the wonderful message that runs through all of the incarnations of Doctor Who. The message is that anyone (even you) can save the day. You don’t need to be a genius. You certainly don’t need to be a constantly swearing, hard drinking, unhappily oversexed, leather clad killing machine who’s armed to the teeth and mourning his lost inner child. Just a little pluck will do nicely, thank you very much.

In fact being a lethal badass with inner conflicts and an attitude could put one at a distinct disadvantage, especially when dealing with a giant mutated squid that’s a quarter mile across. That’s what the Doctor and Romana face in The Power of Kroll. Tracking another piece of the key to time, they arrive on Delta 3, the swampy moon of Delta Magna.

All is not well on the swamp moon. The primitive Swampies’ habitat is being threatened by a giant methane processor. The crew of the processor fear the Swampies and the Swampies fear the crew or “dryfoots”. The hard charging head of the methane processor, Thawn (Neil McCarthy), is arranging an underhanded arms deal with Rohm-Dutt (Glyn Owen). Rohm will pretend to be selling the Swampies weapons procured by the environmentalists on Delta Magna. The Swampies will then attack the processor (with faulty weapons), which will give Thawn an excuse to wipe out the Swampies and the means to discredit the environmentalist group back home.

As soon as the Tardis lands on Delta 3, The Doctor and Romana unwisely split up. Soon The Doctor is captured by the technicians and Romana is captured by the Swampies. The Doctor escapes from the methane processor just in time to save Romana from being sacrificed to Kroll. Well, actually it’s just a Swampy in a squid costume. Just as the Swampies are about to ambush the technicians, the real Kroll shows up and starts munching on Swampies whose weapons blow up when they are fired.

Now in a seriously bad mood, the Swampies condemn The Doctor, Romana and Rohm-Dutt to a rather nasty death. They not only escape but find out that Kroll is nothing more than a squid that swallowed a piece of the key to time. Everyone; technicians, The Doctor and Romana, the Swampies and Kroll converge on the methane processor. After the dust settles, the technicians agree to abandon the processor; the Swampies stop worshiping Kroll and the Doctor has another piece of the key to time.

Each DVD is chock full of bonus features. There are so many interviews and behind the scenes stories that an energetic viewer can emerge with a complete and thorough knowledge of all things Whovian. It’s an exhaustive amount of information, which can exhaust any but the most determined of viewers. But it’s all nicely done and well organized. As for myself, I prefer to stick with the stories. If you are ever distressed by the current dark trends in science fiction this set will be a soothing palliative. Take it from me; the future isn't what it used to be.

7

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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