When Sue claps her eyes on the DVD’s Episode Selection screen, she doesn’t even try to hide her excitement.
Sue: Only two episodes? I’m in heaven!
Me: I’ll tell you what – if you can correctly guess what makes this story interesting from a production point of view, I’ll give you a nice foot rub during the next story.
And with that deal struck, I successfully distract her during the title sequence (“Could you pass me the lighter, please?” works every time), and then we’re away.
Sue: Ooh, it’s on location. I like it already. Are we in the Lake District?
Sue: Very nice. I wish they could all be on location. It makes all the difference.
Our story begins in a circle of silver spheres.
Sue: Is it the Yeti?
When the Doctor, Harry and Sarah arrive, Sue is drawn to their choice of outdoor clothing.
Sue: I love Harry’s duffle coat. It’s a classic. And, believe it or not, I once had an anorak just like Sarah Jane’s but mine was bright orange.
The Doctor begins to repair the T-Mat terminal while Harry and Sarah decide to explore a desolate and uninhabited Earth. The Doctor tells them, “Trafalgar Square should be that way”.
Sue: They should have gone for a Planet of the Apes moment here. They could have bought a cheap model of Nelson’s Column and they should have buried in some mud and filmed it with forced perspective – it would have looked great. They really missed a trick there. Barry would have CSO-ed it in, I’m sure.
When Harry goes careering down a ravine, Sue is only worried about one thing.
Sue: I hope he doesn’t ruin his coat.
Meanwhile, a group of human astronauts from the Galsec colony are also wandering around on the planet.
Sue: Are they South African? If this was made in the 1970s then I guess these must be the bad guys.
About six years ago, when we lived in a caravan, I used to record episode commentaries for Tachyon TV with a few friends (we were young and foolish) and when it came to record the , we found ourselves singing Spitting Image’s classic ‘I’ve Never Met A Nice South African’ at the top of our lungs. There was only one problem: it was a hot, summer’s day and we had to open all the windows in the caravan. Also, unbeknownst to us, a group of builders were working on site within earshot of our cacophonous singing. This would have been embarrassing enough but the builders in question were also South African. Oh, how we laughed!
Sue: No wonder they did such a bad job. What a bunch of cowboys.
Meanwhile, a Galsec astronaut is being hunted down by a strange robotic contraption.
Sue: What the hell is that supposed to be? Is this yet another replacement for the Daleks? They haven’t got a clue, have they? And it’s not a very practical design for knocking about on the moors and zipping between rocks, is it?
We are expected to believe that this robot is so dangerous, a man will risk his own life before he’ll allow himself to be captured by it; a fact hammered home to us when the poor astronaut falls down a cliff in an effort to escape it.
Sue: Is the robot that scary? It’s a bit of a leap. No pun intended.
Meanwhile, Harry is still stuck in his hole.
Sue: Harry is useless. He could at least try to climb back up. That slope doesn’t look that steep to me. Is he always this pathetic? And he’s completely ruined his coat. He’ll never get those grass stains out. What a waste.
The Galsec astronauts capture and interrogate the Doctor. I notice that Sue always tends to shut up whenever Tom is in full flow. If only Tom were in every scene.
Meanwhile, an alien with stubby fingers monitors the situation from afar.
Sue: Am I expected to recognise who that is just from the hand?
Me: Well, technically, that hand should be no help to you whatsoever.
Sue: What’s this story called?
Me: Er… The Rocks of Doom.
As Harry tries to find his way back to his friends, Sue finds herself transfixed by Dartmoor’s scenery.
Sue: What a lovely place to go for a walk. Did they run Doctor Who tours up on the moors in the 1970s?
Me: No. And have you noticed anything remarkable about this story yet?
Sue: Is it shot entirely on location? On video?
Me: That’s right. Well done. They shot it with an Outside Broadcast unit.
Sue: Did they really? That is interesting.
She is not being sarcastic.
Sue: It looks great. They should make them all like this. It feels very modern.
And then we encounter a spaceship with a very familiar design.
Sue: Oh, yes! I know this! Don’t tell me! I definitely know this.
Me: Oh, for God’s sake, we only saw it a few weeks ago.
Sue: I know this! Don’t tell me!
There is a very long pause.
Sue: What does it begin with?
Sue: Silurians? No, that’s not right.
By this time, the occupant of the ship has emerged, and he is about to remove his helmet when –
Sue: Sontarans! I love the Sontarans.
Sarah mistakenly believes that this Sontaran is Linx from The Time Warrior. In fact, she claims they are identical.
Sue: They aren’t identical at all. This one doesn’t look half as good as the one we saw last time. The mask looks cheaper and less detailed.
Me: They don’t even have the same number of fingers! You’d have thought that a script that included references to the Sontarans being identical clones would have resulted in costumes and masks that were, er, identical. But, no. Well, that’s Doctor Who for you.
Sue: I do like the Sontarans, though. They are a great idea – very iconic. Some of them are capable of being good guys, you know.
Aside from commenting on how everything looks great when it’s shot outside, Sue also notices a problem with the show’s star.
Sue: Is it just me or does Tom Baker look a bit pale?
Me: He’s isn’t feeling very well.
Sue: Is he hungover?
Me: He’s probably in agony; he broke his collarbone during the making of this episode. The drugs probably haven’t kicked in yet.
Sue: The poor thing.
Sue will wince in sympathy every time Tom Baker moves from now on.
Sue: It must have been quite cheap to film this. No sets at all, really. Just found locations, a couple of props and some costumes. It’s the sort of thing a bunch of fans could make in a spare weekend.
Me: Oh, believe me, they have.
This particular Sontaran, whose name is Styre, decides to subject Sarah to a series of horrific hallucinations.
Sue: Elizabeth Sladen is great when it comes to being terrified. I’m not sure what this does for Sarah Jane’s feminist agenda but she has the ‘rabbit caught in headlights’ look down to a fine art.
Harry tries to rescue a Galsec captive who has been tied to a rock.
Sue: I’m beginning to warm to Harry a little. He’s not as useless as I first thought. At least he’s trying to be brave and resourceful. It’s just the stupid dialogue they give him that lets him down.
We discover that Styre has been experimenting on the humans to analyse their weaknesses, and this poor sod has spent nine whole days chained to a rock without any water.
Sue: This is a bit grim, isn’t it?
Me: If I remember correctly, the book is even more extreme. The actor who plays Harry, Ian Marter, novelised this story, and because the episode was so short, he padded it out with endless scenes of pain and torture. Perfect reading material for young children if you ask me.
Styre’s latest wheeze involves seeing how long it will take for two men to hold a weight over a colleague’s rib cage without dropping it, even though the colleague in question betrayed them. It’s very intense.
Sue: He’s trying out new game show formats for Endemol.
Meanwhile, the Doctor faces off against the Sontaran’s robot sentry with his sonic screwdriver.
Sue: I still don’t like the Sontaran’s sidekick. I guess he must have come flat-packed in the ship? I bet it must have taken him ages to assemble it. It looks like a cross between the Martians from ‘War of the Worlds’ and the robots from the Smash potato adverts.
We learn that a massive invasion fleet is waiting for Styre to file his report.
Sue: This is bit far-fetched. There’s no one left on Earth to invade! Who cares if the humans are frightened of snakes if there’s only five of them and thousands of you? This makes no sense whatsoever.
After receiving a bollocking from his superior for arseing about, Styre goes back to his fiendish experiments.
Sue: This isn’t really an experiment at all – it’s just torture for the sake of it. If he really wanted to know how resilient a human’s ribcage was, he could just drop the bloody thing on him. He’s just pissing around.
The Doctor challenges Styre to single combat and the resultant fight scene isn’t what it could or should have been.
Sue: This is a shame. It’s clearly not Tom Baker but they are making the best of a bad situation, I suppose. It would be easy fight to replicate in a school playground as well – you just have to flail around a bit.
Exhausted, Styre claims he will finish the Doctor off after he returns to his ship to take care of some urgent business.
Sue: He desperately needs a poo.
A few seconds later, Styre emerges from his ship in great pain. He slumps against some rocks and slowly deflates.
Sue: We didn’t need to see that. That looked silly and now I’ll always think that the Sontarans are made of balloons.
Incredibly, it was Harry who saved the day.
Sue: Okay, fair enough. He’s definitely getting better.
The episode concludes with the Doctor telling the Sontaran war fleet to sod off.
Sue: That is either a satire about red tape or it’s a really stupid conclusion to the story. What if they call the Doctor’s bluff? They’ll kill everyone! Who’s going to stop them? I don’t buy it.
Sue: I can’t believe I’m going to say this but it was too short.
Me: You have got to be kidding me!
Sue: It was over before I could get into it. Don’t get me wrong, there was a lot that I liked about it – the pace, the location, Tom Baker – but there was a lot that I didn’t like as well. The plot was terrible, it was impossible for me to care about the guest characters, and it felt very cheap. The set-up in Part One was very effective but the second-half didn’t deliver. I bet I won’t even remember it tomorrow.
Sue: Do they ever make Doctor Who stories with three episodes? That would be perfect.