Logopolis [Classic Doctor Who]

Doctor Who has long been my favorite show, but in recent years rewatchings of old episodes have been few and far between.  But lately I decided to spend both some of my birthday spending money and my Christmas spending money on some of these adventures, and enjoy them with one or two of my nerdier daughters.

(Daily Doctor Who #348)

Logopolis

Starring Tom Baker as the Fourth Doctor
Companions: Matthew Waterhouse as Adric, Janet Fielding as Tegan and Sarah Sutton as Nyssa
Written (and Script Edited) by Christopher H. Bidmead.  Directed by Peter Grimwade. Produced by John Nathan-Turner.

Format:  4 episodes, each about 25 minutes long
Originally Aired:  February-March 1981 (Episodes 25-28 of Season 18)

Logopolis is one of the Doctor Who stories that I became familiar with the earliest, not from TV but from the Target novelizations. When I was first discovering the series it was one of the two books that I bought first (the other being Underworld). It wasn’t until a while later that I actually saw it. It is notable of course for being Tom Baker’s last story as show’s lead, but it also was significant in other ways: it was the first time Anthony Ainley really got to play the Master, it debuted Janet Fielding as the long-serving companion Tegan Jovanka, it brought Sarah Sutton back from the previous story and elevated from a guest star to a regular companion, and it was the final story that writer Christopher H. Bidmead worked on a story editor or that Barry Letts was involved with the show as executive producer.

Spoilers Ahead!

Logopolis is a strange animal–portions of it are erudite drama with strongly-developed themes and intellectual dialogue around high-concept ideas. Other parts are overblown, undercooked nonsense which drags on unnecessarily and lacks any narrative tension. Sorting out where one becomes the other and which one has the dominant position is not a simple task, but it’s clear that both are there, competing for attention.

The beginning of the story works quite well. We find the Fourth Doctor and Adric (an unusual pairing, to be sure) reminiscing about recent events and philosophizing about entropy…soon to be established as the story’s central idea. There is a heaviness to these scenes–an almost funereal atmosphere built primarily on the strength of Tom Bakers mature and unexpectedly grim performance. It’s an appropriate tone for the story to take, considering the significance of what is to come. There is even a bizarre “angel of death” figure in the form of the Watcher, whose bizarrely pale visage seems to hang heavily in the Doctor’s eyes, apparently following him wherever he goes.

All of this is intercut with the introduction of Tegan Jovanka, soon to be the newest companion to the Doctor, as played by Janet Fielding. She has the novel qualities of being Australian and almost consistently grouchy about being caught up in the drama. Perhaps this is understandable as she gets lost in the TARDIS for an interminable amount of screentime, even as the Doctor and Adric become aware of the serials threat.

Providing that threat is the Master, who had just been re-introduced to the series the previous story. This was quite a big deal–the Master had returned in a limited fashion after Roger Delgados untimely death in 1973, but now for the first time we had a new “permanent” Master. The show actually keeps him largely unseen for the first two episodes–I read somewhere that this was so that the audience might be fooled into thinking the Monitor, the story’s main guest star played by John Fraser, might actually be the Master. This seems a bit nonsensical if it’s true, as the new Master had been clearly (if even briefly) seen at the end of the previous serial. But either way, the result is that for the first couple of episodes the Master is limited to an off-screen evil chuckle and a number of grotesquely shrunken dead bodies.

What’s frustrating with the Master, however, is the fact that his actions don’t really make any sense. The story begins with the Doctor wanting to go to Logopolis to fix the Chameleon Circuit, which is reasonable, but needing to materialize around a police box first in order to measure it. But the Master manages to show up in advance and surround the police box first, so the Doctor actually materializes around the Master’s TARDIS instead, causing a bizarre recursive trap in which the TARDIS seems to be lost inside itself.

But how did the Master know where the TARDIS was going to materialize? The Masters goal, it seems, was to get the Doctor to take him to Logopolis, so why cause the trap at all? Indeed, how does the Master even know the Doctor is going to Logopolis at all? And with the trap, the Doctor never outwits it. Instead, it just seems to stop of its own accord, reducing the whole plot point to narrative filler–interesting but irrelevant.

Once we get to Logopolis, the story makes more sense–the Master disrupting the local process in order to sabotage the Doctor is understandable. But it’s all less interesting, partly because the world seems like such a silly place.

Logopolis is interesting conceptually but not in its realization, with its small handful of unconvincing-looking aliens murmuring over abacuses, completely oblivious to the fact that someone is murdering their fellows right in front of them. Nyssa trusting her “father” for an instant, especially after he puts his pain-inducing bracelet on her arm, makes her look hopelessly naive. And the story beat / cliffhanger of the Doctor being trapped inside a shrinking TARDIS goes on for far too long.

Then we push into the last third of the story, where it is at its strongest. The big picture danger to the universe becomes clear (and nicely ties into other stories from earlier in the season). The Monitor, who has so far proven to be a fairly dull character, gets killed off once he’s served his story purpose. And Tom Baker gets one of his best scenes as the Doctor goes against all his instincts to work with the Master to save the universe, telling off his companions in the process. This is a great push into the last episode in which the plot is focused and tight, in which the Doctor and the Master have to get to earth to transmit the signal which will save the universe.

Even so, it’s imperfect. There is a strange flatness to the story when the Master suddenly decides to broadcast to the universe that they all have to bow down to him in order to stay alive. Nevermind the logic of how he is delivering this message, the moment itself is weak. The Master is threatening an unseen, improbably large population in logically suspect way, and it carries no dramatic tension. There are number of things throughout the story that have had this problem, like the way the Watcher is abruptly get Nyssa back into the show, or the way Traken is destroyed. It’s all off-camera, hastily described, and lacking in emotional weight for the viewer.

The visualization of the Doctor’s final struggle on top of the Pharos Project is also pretty iffy–there are times where the action is kind of confusing, and we never really get a feel for how high up the Doctor is (and thus how much danger the Doctor he is in.) And for some bizarre reason, they show the Doctor getting from the dangling wire to the tower framing, including it seems finding a foothold to stand on, before he falls. I think if you just didn’t see him get his feet onto the tower, his eventual plummet would have made a great deal more sense.

I’m being quite negative about Logopolis because the serial does have a lot of problems, but the funny thing is that I still really enjoy it. It brings up so many huge concepts that it’s hard not to appreciate, even with its weaknesses, and it presents them in a way that is slick and interesting. Like I said it boasts a great performance from Tom Baker. Janet Fielding (Tegan) and Sarah Sutton (Nyssa) are welcome additions to the cast, and where I used to find Matthew Waterhouse’s Adric highly annoying, I think he works well here as the story’s “main” companion. Anthony Ainley as the Master is clearly relishing every bit of wickedness he can bring to his performance (including a distinctly strange way he has of pushing buttons)–he’s a bit over-the-top but not unwelcome at this point, his Master being still a fresh-face to the show.

And of course it’s not hurt by the excellent regeneration scene that finishes the adventure, and closes off the era of our longest-serving Doctor. The rhythm and editing of those final moments, including the incidental music, are excellent.

I love the use of flashbacks (the first time this was tied to regeneration) with the montage of first the Doctor’s foes and and then his friends–there is something really tender about it. Peter Davison’s regeneration was more dramatic and ultimately rates higher for me, but this one is the most emotional of the classic era.

For that sequence alone, it’s worth the price of admission.

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One thought on “Logopolis [Classic Doctor Who]

  1. Tom Baker’s departure from Doctor Who, the last season for Blake’s 7 and the TV adaptation of The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy made 1981 one of the most unforgettable years for BBC sci-fi. I’m currently re-watching Logopolis on Britbox and it brings back some fond memories. Thanks, Ben, for your review.

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