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Doctor Who for Newbies: The Third Doctor

The 1970s began as a real turning point for Doctor Who. Patrick Troughton had vacated the title role after three popular seasons along with co-stars and main production team. Doctor Who’s continued success was certainly up in the air. As was common for the show, the exiting producer was in charge of casting the next lead actor and making the following season’s premiere story.  Derrick Sherwin had been the script editor from 1968-1969 and became producer for the remainder of season 6.  After the first serial, producer duties were turned over to Barry Letts who worked closely with “The War Games” co-writer Terrance Dicks who had become the script editor and from this point on, the series would be defined be its producer-script editor-lead actor combinations. As a cost-saving measure, the last series ended with the Doctor being exiled to Earth, so alien sets would not have to be built. This presented Letts and Dicks with an interesting challenge of how to make the basic two story types of Earth-bound sci-fi (alien invasion and mad scientist plot) fresh and exciting week after week. This era is also notorious for its liberal (often too liberal) use of CSO or Color Separation Overlay, which was a very crude precursor to blue or green screen effects. It was a cost saving measure, but is often the most objectionable part of an otherwise fine story.

Sherwin’s choice for the Doctor seemed at first an odd one. Jon Pertwee was a light comedy and radio personality appearing in four of the famous “Carry On” series and was a regular for 18 years on the radio sitcom “The Navy Lark,” as Chief Petty Officer Pertwee. As he had made his career playing broad characters with strange voices, Pertwee was unsure of how to portray the Doctor until he was instructed to play it like himself, which also had him baffled. What we got was a very 70s Doctor.

Serious, but with a twinkle in his eye and a heart for adventure, the Third Doctor was very much a man of action where the previous two Doctors had not been.  This Doctor always tried to talk his way out of situations, but when he couldn’t, had no qualms about disarming his opponent by using Venusian Aikido.  He was a dashing, swashbuckling hero. Pertwee’s Doctor has been described as “The Dandy Doctor” due to his choice of frilly shirts, velvet jackets, long capes or cloaks, and bouffant hairstyle.  He built and drove a yellow buggy he named “Bessie,” and was adept at creating contraptions.  He was James Bond and Q rolled into one.  He is also arguably my favorite classic series Doctor, closely followed by Troughton’s Second Doctor and Peter Davison’s Fifth Doctor.

Pertwee’s run spanned five seasons and 24 serials, however, as of this writing, only 14 have been released on DVD making him the Doctor with the most amount of serials yet to be released.  Several of these are what I would consider essential, but in interest of ease of viewing, I will stick to the DVD range as of now, making only casual references to these other stories when necessary.

Okay, fine, I’ll shop at Macy’s!

Story 51 – Spearhead From Space
4 episodes
After the events of the previous story, the newly regenerated Doctor is exiled to Earth and falls unconscious out of the TARDIS in a grassy field right as strange meteorites begin to land.  He is discovered by members of UNIT who’ve come to investigate the meteorites and is taken to a military hospital.  The ER medical staff finds that this strange man has two distinct heartbeats.  Going in and out of consciousness, the man mentions he is called “The Doctor.”  Elsewhere, Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, head of UNIT is briefing Dr. Liz Shaw, the new scientific advisor and possessor of amazing legs.  She is skeptical of the Brig’s claim that there is alien activity around the world and that it’s UNIT’s job to investigate.  The Brigadier is informed that a mysterious man in a police box claiming to be a doctor is currently resting in the infirmary, but is absolutely perplexed when the man bears no resemblance to the man he fought with against Yeti and Cybermen.  Meanwhile, a poacher poking around the meteorites discovers a plastic polyhedron which is actually a power unit for a powerful non-physical alien intelligence known as the Nestene Consciousness. Normally disembodied, it has an affinity for plastic, and is able to animate humanoid facsimiles made from that material, known as Autons. The Nestene have taken over a toy factory in London, and plan to replace key government and public figures with Auton duplicates. The Auton in charge of the factory sends other, less human-looking Autons to retrieve the power units from UNIT and the poacher. The Doctor awakens and discovers the TARDIS has indeed been disabled by the Time Lords and his old friend Lethbridge-Stewart doesn’t believe he is who he says he is.  Still it’s up to the Doctor and Liz Shaw to prove his identity and put an end to the fiendish Nestene plan before the world is overrun by Autons.

Why it’s important:
Why ISN’T it important?  If any single story since the very first episode could be considered a clean jumping-on point for new fans, this would be it.  It bears a striking resemblance to “Rose” in 2005 when Christopher Eccleston appeared, fittingly fighting the Autons again. It’s the first story in color, the first story in the 1970s, the first story of the Third Doctor, the first regular appearance of UNIT, the first appearance of Liz Shaw as companion, the first appearance of the Autons, and the second story written by one of the most important writers in Doctor Who’s history, Robert Holmes.  That enough for ya?  This story offers some of the freakiest images in the history of the show, with shop mannequins coming to life and marching down London streets.  It’s also the only story in the classic series to be shot entirely on film, a result of a BBC studio strike.  Every other story is studio-bound, and thus on video, or a jarring mixture of the two.  This is the very first classic series episode I watched and it absolutely gave me an idea of what I was getting myself into.  If you’re looking for a good one to start with, I absolutely think this one’s tops.

Hey. What’s up?

Story 52 – Doctor Who and the Silurians
7 episodes
An experimental nuclear power research center built into a network of caves is experiencing mysterious power drains and high incidence of mental breakdowns among its staff.  UNIT are called into investigate and The Doctor and Liz meet the Brigadier at the plant. While exploring one of the caves, one of the plant workers is killed and exhibits strange claw mark-like wounds and a second man’s mind has been traumatized to the extent that he can only scrawl pictures of strange reptilian creatures on the wall of the hospital ward.  The security chief at the center believes it to be a saboteur trying to stop the project, which aims to turn nuclear power directly into electrical energy.  The Doctor senses otherwise and goes into the cave to investigate where he encounters a large, dinosaur-like creature.  They also see fleeting shadows in the cave of something bipedal.  This bipedal reptile turns out to be sentient and among a race of long-dormant lizard people who were the original rulers of the planet, but buried themselves in hibernation for hundreds of millions of years.  The Doctor believes these creatures to be from the Silurian epoch and tries to communicate with them.  He finds out they wish to retake the planet from the humans, by force if necessary.  The Doctor tries in vain to broker a peace between the two species, but in the end his diplomacy is foiled by the Brigadier’s orders to destroy what they perceive to be a hostile, invading force.

Why it’s important:
This is the first appearance of the Silurians, a cousin of whom were featured in the most recent season’s two-parter “The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood,” (which pay tribute to all manor of Third Doctor stories).  It’s the first appearance of the Doctor’s beloved car Bessie and the first of many instances of the Doctor having to be the voice of reason between the alien invasion force and UNIT’s military might.  This was also a way of getting around the alien invasion angle by making the “aliens” Earthlings themselves who’ve actually been on the planet far longer than humans.  At 7 episodes, this story does drag a little in the middle, but it’s atmospheric first three parts, coupled with its exciting and socially relevant last two make it a story well worth watching.

The Doctor and Brigadier think Stahlman is a knob.

Story 54 – Inferno
7 episodes
A massive project called Inferno is attempting to drill all the way down through the Earth’s crust to obtain pockets of a gas that is theorized to provide limitless energy.  UNIT is overseeing security with the Doctor and Liz in tow.  The project’s director, Professor Stahlman, believes this to be the most important discovery in history and refuses to let anything get in the way.  Unfortunately for Stahlman, everything is not going smoothly.  A worker repairing one of the drill pipes encounters a toxic green slime seeping out which mutates him rapidly into a feral beast which attacks and kills a second worker.  The Doctor meanwhile is siphoning power from the drills to repair the console to his TARDIS in another attempt to gain control of it and be free of the Time Lord’s exile.  He suddenly gets shifted out of existence for a moment, saved by Liz, where he sees flashes of great pain and misery.  The drill is overloading due to this power surge and the Doctor goes to fix it where he is encountered by the creature.  Professor Stahlman cannot be bothered by this and pushes the drilling even further, despite having been infected with the green goo himself.  The Doctor fears the drilling is unleashing some evil force, but Stahlman has him removed from the project.  Dejected and annoyed, the Doctor uses the TARDIS console to leave the scene, but instead of going forward or backward in time and space, he travels sideways into a parallel world.  The same project is underway, and everyone looks the same, but something is seriously wrong.  The world is a brutal, fascist dictatorship with the Brigadier now a violent, merciless thug and Liz Shaw a cold-hearted underling.  This world is also several hours ahead of the other one and the drilling is nearing the end.  The problems are the same though, and the continued drilling is turning more and more people into the hideous beasts.  The Doctor is too late to save this existence from complete destruction, but perhaps if he can convince Other-Liz to help him, he could get back to his own Earth and prevent a similar fate.

Why it’s important:
This is one of my top three favorite stories ever.  While seven episodes long, the alternate universe storyline gives the middle episodes a much-needed umph and prevents a lot of drag.  It’s also great to see how the Doctor reacts when he’s utterly alone, caught in a Kafkaesque hell populated by perverse copies of his friends.  Nicholas Courtney gives one of his best performances as both the Brigadier and the Negaduck-version from the alternate dimension.  This story is the last to feature companion Liz Shaw portrayed by Caroline John.  It was decided that while Liz was a great character, as a brilliant scientist herself, she lacked the requisite lack of knowledge that companions needed to be proper audience surrogates.   An absolutely fantastic sci-fi story and one that is utterly unique in the annals of Doctor Who.

I sense danger.

Story 62 – The Sea Devils
6 episodes
The Doctor and Jo travel to the island prison to visit the Master, who is pleased to see them. The Master is the only prisoner on the island. He is watched by CCTV and the island is patrolled by armed guards, trained to resist the Master’s hypnotic powers, and even protected by minefields. He claims to have reformed but refuses to reveal the location of his TARDIS. Once the Doctor is satisfied, he and Jo visit Trenchard, the governor of the prison, who tells them several ships in the nearby sea have mysteriously disappeared.  The Doctor can’t resist investigating and they are soon attacked by an underwater lizard which resembles the underground Silurians.  A member of the crew, driven mad by his ordeal, has dubbed these creatures, “Sea Devils.”  They escape to the nearby naval base and make an alliance with Captain Hart.  The Doctor learns that The Master, assisted by a misguided Trenchard, has been stealing equipment from the naval base in order to build a device to control the Sea Devils.  The navy plans to attack the Sea Devils, but the Doctor again endeavors to negotiate a treaty between the two races.  When the Doctor speaks with the Sea Devil leader, he learns they have been prompted to war by The Master who forces the Doctor to help him finish his device to awaken all the still-hibernating Sea Devils around the world.  The Doctor has a trick up his sleeve to hopefully subdue the Sea Devils and again capture his old nemesis.

Why it’s important:
This is just a high-action water-based adventure populated by great characters and effective monsters.  Episode two features a fantastic sword fight between the Doctor and Master where two men in their fifties toss each other around in the name of entertainment.  Episode six features the Third Doctor’s most famous line, wherein he tells the Master the device didn’t work because he “reversed the polarity of the neutron flow.” All the socially relevant material from the earlier Silurians story but done as action movie instead of straight sci-fi.

Someone’s a bit overdressed.

Story 65 – The Three Doctors
4 episodes
A superluminal signal is sent to Earth, carrying with it an unusual energy blob that seems intent on capturing the Third Doctor.  In the meantime, the homeworld of the Time Lords is under siege, with all the power sustaining it being drained through a black hole. Trapped and desperate, the Time Lords do the unthinkable and break the First Law of Time, allowing the Doctor to aid himself by summoning his two previous incarnations from the past. Unfortunately, the First Doctor is trapped in a time eddy, unable to fully materialize, and can only communicate via viewscreen, but the Second Doctor joins the Third in investigating the origins of the creature and the black hole, while UNIT headquarters faces an attack by the gel-like alien creatures. The First Doctor deduces the black hole is a bridge between universes, and the other two Doctors allow the TARDIS to be swallowed up by the energy creature, which transports them, Dr Tyler, Jo Grant, Sergeant Benton and Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart into an antimatter universe created by the legendary Time Lord Omega. Omega was a solar engineer who created the supernova that powers Time Lord civilization, but was considered killed in the explosion. In actuality, he had been transported to the antimatter universe, where his will and thought turned the formless matter into physicality. Trapped, due to the fact that his will is the only thing maintaining reality, he vowed revenge on the Time Lords who left him stranded.  Now it’s up to the Doctors to work together to break Omega’s near-impenetrable will.

Why it’s important:
It’s the tenth anniversary special!  Three Doctors in one story!  It’s really great to see all three of them in one place.  William Hartnell by this time was incredibly weak and could not stand so his appearances were limited to him sitting and being shown on the view screen, but he still was able to stick it to the other two, calling his subsequent incarnations, “a dandy and a clown.”  Hartnell would never again play the First Doctor and he passed away on April 23, 1975 at the age of 67.  Troughton and Pertwee are a great double act, playing off each other effortlessly.  At the end of this story, the Time Lords reverse their exile and give the Doctor a new dematerialization circuit for the TARDIS and restore his ability to pilot it.

Darling, can’t you see I love you? And also, clean these up.

Story 69 – The Green Death
6 episodes
The Doctor desperately wants to take the TARDIS to the blue planet Metebelis Three, but he’s being beseeched to accompany the Brigadier and Jo to the South Wales town of Llanfairfach to investigate the death of a coal miner who emerged from the mine glowing green.  Jo wants to meet the acclaimed local environmentalist and Nobel Prize winner Professor Clifford Jones and Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart offers to give her a ride as he investigates.  The Doctor agrees to follow them once he returns from Metebelis Three and it a bit hurt that Jo doesn’t want to accompany him.  Once in Wales, the Brigadier pays a visit to the recently opened Global Chemicals to meet with its head man, Stevens, who claims he can produce 25% more fuel with only minimal waste.  Professor Jones is convinced that the process must create thousands of gallons of waste and is working to prove it.  He also thinks there is a link between the miner’s death and Global Chemicals.  Jo, immediately smitten with the young professor, heads to the mine to investigate herself.  The Doctor’s trip to the blue planet is an unmitigated disaster.  He is attacked by a myriad of beasts and only manages to retrieve a small blue crystal for his troubles.  He eventually gets back home and catches up to the Brigadier just as something causes the mine to cave in with Jo down there.  The Doctor goes in to fetch his assistant and once down there sees several giant carnivorous maggots.  Upon further interrogation from the Brigadier, it’s obvious that Stevens is hiding something and his unseen “Boss” has him in some kind of trance.  The Brigadier is ordered by the Prime Minister to blow the mine despite protests from the Doctor and soon the countryside is covered with the nigh-indestructible maggots.  The Doctor needs to get into Global Chemicals to find out the connection. Luckily, Captain Mike Yates is undercover as a government stooge.  Yates and the Doctor work together to stop “Boss” while Jo and the Professor attempt to find a way to stop the maggots, growing ever closer as they do.

Why it’s important:
This is probably one of the most famous Pertwee stories and it’s a pretty good one.  Some of the CSO towards the end is laughable, but for the most part the maggots are an effective and suitably grotesque monster.  We also get Pertwee getting to dress up in various disguises and put on funny voices, something he’d wanted to do for awhile, a nod to his comedy roots.  This serial sees the departure of Katy Manning as Jo Grant, who goes off to the Amazon with Professor Jones at the end.  In a rare scene for the era, the Doctor quietly leaves Jo’s engagement party and drives away in Bessie, looking sullen. It’s the ending of one of the show’s best Doctor-Companion teams, but it would give way to another.

She is indeed a fiery wench.

Story 70 – The Time Warrior
4 episodes
In the Middle Ages, the bandit Irongron and his rabble of criminals find a crashed spaceship.  The being from outer space exits the ship and claims the land with a flag.  He is Linx, warrior for the Sontaran Empire.  While he makes repairs to his ship, he offers Irongron “magic weapons” in exchange for shelter.  In the “present,” the Doctor and Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart are investigating the disappearance of several scientists from a top research facility.  They are unaware that Linx is using an Osmic Projector to travel forward 800 years and capture the scientists to help him repair his ship, but the projector only allows him to travel for a brief period of time.  While investigating, the Doctor meets an eccentric scientist named Rubeish and a brash young journalist named Sarah Jane Smith, who has infiltrated the complex masquerading as her famed physicist aunt.  That evening, Rubeish is kidnapped and the Doctor is able to track him and follow in the TARDIS, not realizing Sarah Jane has stowed away.  By time they arrive, Irongron has taken control of a castle and is wreaking havoc on the nearby Lord Edward of Wessex who sends his best archer, Hal, to covertly kill Irongron, though he is quickly captured.  Linx has made a robot out of a suit of armor which Irongron decides to demonstrate it on Hal, who is saved at the last minute by the Doctor and Hal and Sarah Jane are able to escape to Wessex Castle.  The Doctor is concerned about what Linx’s presence and his gifting of futuristic weapons will do to the chain of time and sets out to not only stop Irongron but send the Sontaran back from whence he came.

Why it’s important:
Another brilliant episode from soon-to-be script editor Robert Holmes.  It’s the first episode from Pertwee’s fifth and final season.  It introduces probably the best loved companion of all time, Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen) who is still around today with a spinoff show of her own.  It introduces the squat, war-obsessed clone race, the Sontarans, as well as mentioning their perpetual war with the Rutans.  This is also the serial that first names the Time Lord’s home planet of Gallifrey which would become a major part of the greater narrative in subsequent seasons.  This is a fun semi-historical with some terrific characters and a very plausible story.  It also features some excellent fighting from the Jon Pertwee, who at this point was 54 years old.

After five years, Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks decided it was time to step down as the production team. Faced with the prospect of working with new people was more than a match for the Third Doctor. Jon Pertwee’s final story, the six part “Planet of the Spiders,” depicts the repercussions of his disastrous visit to Metebelis Three the previous season.  The original plan was to have a duel to the death between the Doctor and the Master, but Roger Delgado died in an automobile accident in between seasons, leaving that story unfinished. This story has not yet been released on DVD and, though it is available in iTunes, I’ve decided to wait to watch it until I can own it.  I figure I owe that to my favorite Doctor not to watch it on a little iPod screen or some bad streaming bootleg.

This was a longer post than the others, but there’s also two extra years of material to go through.  Just wait until next time; Tom Baker was the Doctor for seven years.  Oy, I can feel my fingers getting tired already.

Until next time, Pertwee it up!

Images: BBC

Kyle Anderson is the Associate Editor and the resident Whovian for Nerdist. Follow him on Twitter!

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  1. Collin says:

    eccleston all the way

  2. Collin says:

    doctor who is awesome !!!!!!!!!!!

  3. Miriam says:

    Re-watching some JP last year, having no seen those since I was a kid, I was surprised how dashing and (urgle) sexy JP’s doctor is–certainly an influence on Eccelston’s. “Spearhead from Space” shower scene bonus: this Doctor’s got a tattoo!

  4. Gabriel says:

    @ Kyle,

    Thanks for the info.

  5. Kyle Anderson says:

    @ Gabriel

    I have never met Ms. Manning myself, but from the way she is on several of the commentaries as well as from what people who’ve met her at conventions and such say, she’s nuttier than a fruitcake. Pleasantly so, I must add, but a space cadet nonetheless.

  6. Gabriel says:

    Why did you refer to Katy Manning as bat-shit crazy? I would love to hear about that.

  7. Kyle Anderson says:

    Come on, what other story can you see a contraption with such an improbable name as the TOMTIT Machine?

  8. Stephen says:

    Trying to get through Time Monster as I write. Far more painful that I remembered.

  9. Sara says:

    Just wanted to add my own little bit here.

    The Sea Devils features the wonkiest soundtrack of old Who (that I’ve seen, I have some large gaps in my viewing). Very strange indeed.

  10. Jon Pertwee was the first Doctor I ever saw. I started watching Planet of the Spiders, aged 4 and it took me another 30 years to get my arachnophobia back to an acceptable level.

    The JP era means different things to different age groups. When I was younger, I hated the slowness of the Silurians but the older I get the more I appreciate the “drag-in-the-middle” social commentary.

    JP does have one or two “bad” stories… Time Monster being a good example. At the time, I loved it but watching it recently… it was awful. I still have a soft spot for Monster of Peladon because I remember hiding behind the sofa as those ice warriors burned down the polystyrene door.

  11. yogahz says:

    Thanks again Kyle. Your Who History is a nerdist highlight for me.

  12. Daily P.O.P. says:

    All this and a Negaduck reference too!? Great job!

    I had disliked Pertwee for ages but when I got back into Doctor who around 2000, I really gravitated toward this Doctor and agree with you on his place amongst favorite incarnations. He epitomizes the 70’s so perfectly and is such a sincere performer that he makes it all work for me, even the lousy adventures are made better by Pertwee.

    I second Daemons as a classic (I plan to review it on my blog soon) along with Carnival of Monsters and Invasion of the Dinosaurs (which has one of the best first episodes in the program’s history).

  13. fletch says:


    Heh yeah I liked Carnival too. Though, the DVD I have has an editing screwup – a scene is out of place and repeated twice. Otherwise, cool episode. Teeny doctor, storing creatures in a machine, monochrome aliens that are slaves to bureaucracy and slightly fascist. Fantastic episode actually, and many themes that would recur again later throughout the series. (Tom Baker gets teeny in an episode (The Invisible Enemy), and also has an episode with alien creatures stored in a small machine (Nightmare on Eden).

  14. Kyle Anderson says:

    @ Doug
    Yep, big error. Correcting it….NOW

    I thought Hungry Earth was a good set-up but that Cold Blood was a terrible payoff. I was left very unsatisfied. There just didn’t seem to be a whole lot of conflict other than the lady and the Silurian woman. One thing I’d say for Season 5 as a whole is that things wrapped up far too quickly and conveniently, with a couple exceptions.

  15. juliaL49 says:

    Lovely series! Both Doctor Who and your posts 🙂

    I did something similar (well, a lot shorter) a while back and so far our choices a mostly the same. I did include The Carnival of Monsters though. Yes, it is absolutely bonkers, but the different “worlds” are wonderful and the solution is pretty ingenious – at least I was wondering how that would work out.

    One thing I wondered since you mentioned The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood: although it is a rip off/best of of the Pertwee era I absolutely hated it. It just took all the wrong bits and put them together in a jarring way. Did anybody else feel that way?

  16. Doug says:

    Pertwee was my first doctor, way back in the early-mid seventies on the PBS station out here in Los Angeles. I was probably about seven. This was before Star Wars and before I got into Star Trek. It’s amazing, reading the above, how much of the plots I can recall, though I haven’t seen the shows in over thirty years. Talk about imprinting! Especially Inferno… For a little kid to take all of that in… a parallel universe, darker versions of our heroes, lava coming up to cover the earth (green slime lava, I guess, hadn’t remembered that part), the Doctor escaping the parallel world just in time to get back here and shout at everyone to stop the drilling… All future sci-fi stories, in one way or another, have been measured against that. Take that, Star Trek’s Mirror Mirror! Though, yeah, you’re really cool too.

    I spent the next several decades hearing from everyone about how Tom Baker was the best Doctor, at least until Tennant came along, but Pertwee has always been it for me. Well, tied with Matt Smith, now… he’s brilliant too.

    One possible error… In your sentence “There is one story for this season on DVD which is the “Claws of Axos,” but I would hasten to recommend this to anyone not already a big fan,” did you mean hesitate instead of hasten?

    Thanks for writing all this up! This series is great.

  17. Kevin says:

    Wow. I haven’t seen anything of the old Who stories, and just recently saw all of the modern Who, and it’s amazing to see how much inspiration was taken from some of the older stories, especially the Matt Smith season. It seems he drew a lot more inspiration that Tennant did.

    Anyway, I look forward to the next post. These posts make my day! Thanks!

  18. Kyle Anderson says:

    See, I enjoyed “The Daemons.” I’m a big fan of “Quatermass” and it felt a lot like “Quatermass and the Pit.”

    But I wholeheartedly agree about “Monster of Peladon.” “Curse” is pretty good, but “Monster” is abhorrently bad.

  19. fletch says:

    Pertwee was great with only a couple of exceptions.

    “The Monster of Peladon” is a pointless re-telling of “Curse of Peladon”, except that it features Sarah Jane in place of Jo. Stay away from this very boring story, or take a nap or something. Both stories feature one of the most annoying alien of Doctor Who history, “Alpha Centauri”.

    Secondly, “The Daemons” is a boring story that just drags on and on and seems to have no point or direction. This one features a toothy witch-psychic lady. Horrible.