Tuesday, 27 December 2016

"Exploration Earth: The Time Machine" by Bernard Venables (October 1976)

Shifting from the Sarah Jane of 2002 to the Sarah Jane of 1976 - just between the start of Season 14’s opening story The Masque of Mandragora and her departure in The Hand of Fear - is a disorientating move in one sense, but entirely apposite in another: this is a time travel show, after all. Exploration Earth: The Time Machine is, nonetheless, a real oddity - firstly, because like Doctor Who and the Pescatons and the subsequent 1980s release Slipback, it is a chance to hear what audio dramas would have been like if they were made alongside the television series, as opposed to several years afterwards. But it is also an oddity because it was made specifically to fit within the BBC Schools radio series Exploration Earth - a study module about geography (and geology in particular). In other words, the characters of the Doctor and Sarah become a vehicle for Bernard Venables to inform the audience about how the Earth was created 4.5 million years ago. Bernard Venables must be one of the most unlikely figures to ever contribute to Doctor Who, but that’s part and parcel of this story’s odd genesis. A conservationist, angler, journalist, cartoonist and author of 18 books about fishing, he was obviously a keen geographer, which must be why he was picked to write this segment; he’s good at the geology but less so the sci-fi (“I’ll just atmosphere-inject it”, the Doctor says of an atmosphere-less capsule).

As for the story itself, it’s a slight little thing; mostly there to educate, as I say, rather than to entertain. On one level it’s rather charming to see Doctor Who briefly return to those educational roots Sydney Newman first conceived for it, in that we see Earth literally being formed and have the process explained to us (a while after The Runaway Bride and a while before City of Death, I should think). In a weird way, it’s like that terrific passing-of-time sequence in Hide where we see the Earth form and progress through the millennia, though far more geology-centric. On another level you quickly remember why Doctor Who shifted away from those roots: it’s not terribly fun, and as such the story feels a bit like a geography lecture at points. The weakest element is not so much the geography lecture, mind, given this is in Venables’ skillset, but it’s the attempt to write rollicking good drama that falls flat - the less said about this story’s uninspiring villain the better! It also rather blandly positions the Doctor as a force of order against a force of chaos - far too Manichaean for my tastes, and ignoring the fascinating extent to which the Doctor is a force of chaos too.

Despite the fact she’s given much less to do, Sladen actually seems a more impressive vocal performer than Baker here; perhaps he was in one of his moods. He’s a bit quiet and subdued, and not in that electrically grumpy way he can sometimes be. Sadly John Westbrook is also fairly naff and booming as the generic and easily-defeated baddie Megron, Lord of Chaos. The production values are - shall we say - a touch rudimentary in comparison to BF’s expansive and glossy-sounding work, but I enjoyed hearing the old Radiophonic Workshop bleeps one more time. An interesting little oddity, but I’m glad it wasn’t any longer than twenty minutes.

Other things:
“There's some malfunctioning of the Relative Dimensional Computer.”/“In English.”/“It means the steering's gone haywire.”
The Doctor has a little two-person capsule in the TARDIS for exploring unoxygenated worlds? Cool!
“It's magnificent. There’s progress. Order is coming to this planet. A vast and lovely process.”
“Everest? A slag-heap.”

Next: Slipback by Eric Saward (July/August 1985)

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