Terror of the Zygons

7 Jan

A review of the DVD for Doctor Who Magazine, from 2013. See also: Class 4G

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BBCDVD3482 UK Zygons DVD-sc6-1You have to feel sorry for Broton, Warlord of the Zygons. There he is, quietly minding his own business in his cosy home-from-home in the Scottish Highlands, when some seriously antisocial neighbours move in just along the glen: a stinking great oil company, no less. For hundreds of years, Broton and his wee clan have led a peaceful sort of life at the bottom of Loch Ness – entirely self-sufficient thanks their big underwater space cow – and then all of a sudden the neighbourhood goes to pot with this constant banging and clanging and drilling. Broton, as you might imagine, is furious. His family is furious. Even the big underwater space cow is furious. And then comes even worse news for our poor Warlord – there’s been a disaster back where he comes from, and now all his long-lost relatives are coming to stay! It’s terribly fussing. What is he going to do?

What Broton does next is the story of Terror of the Zygons. However, even after four thrill-packed episodes, some key questions go frustratingly unanswered. What the heck has Broton been up to for all those centuries? When did he learn to drive a car? What exactly do Zygons smell of? And how do you milk a Loch Ness Monster? (Actually – we can answer that last one straight away. Carefully.)

While there may be a handful of Doctor Who adventures more widely and wildly adored than this one, there can surely be no finer single episode of Doctor Who than Part One of Terror of the Zygons. It is 24 minutes of perfection, a Platonic Ideal of Doctor Who-ness. You wouldn’t niggle with a single note or nuance of it. The script bubbles with intrigue and fun. The performances are perfectly pitched. The direction – from virtuoso Douglas Camfield – is in a class all its own.

The Brigadier has tugged upon the final, fraying thread of the Doctor’s cosmic leash, and brought him back down to Earth with a bump. Our hero may be delighted to find himself in Scotland, but he’s sorely aggrieved to discover there’s work to be done. Three North Sea oil rigs have been destroyed by an unknown force, and UNIT has been called in to investigate. Our briefing for this crisis – tidily scripted, smartly played – allows each of our lead characters to be absolutely themselves. While Mr Huckle of the Hibernian Oil Company bemoans the loss of millions of pounds, the Brigadier immediately insists that the loss of hundreds of lives is his greater concern. Mention of oil puts the Doctor in a foul mood – trendily fuming about mankind’s reliance on “a mineral slime” – but he snaps straight back to his own good nature when the Brigadier sharply asks of him: “Do you want more men to die?” Sarah, the journalist, is equally true to herself, and sets about interviewing the locals. And Harry, the medic, is off to the infirmary on the hunt for clinical clues. Meanwhile, alien eyes observe our gang’s every move, and alien voices hiss the most wonderful load of old cobblers. “Diastelic reading seven-oh-three,” says one. “Increase the sonic core tone by three remars!” replies another. Everything is so perfectly gorgeous, it makes you want to kiss someone.

The twists of this tale are now so familiar to us – aliens, the Loch Ness Monster – that it’s easy to forget how subtly the story tries to misdirect us at the start. Is this a tale of ghosts and ghouls? Is it even, as the close-up of those brutish eyes and the full moon behind that first collapsing rig might seem to suggest, a tale of werewolves? The first episode tingles with the uncanny as pub landlord Angus McRanald – blessed with ‘second sight’ – tells the story of “a foreigner from the Black Isle” who went missing on Tulloch Moor, or “the Jameson boys”; one of whom disappeared, while his brother was found “two days later… aff his heid! His eyes – his eyes were terrible to see!” It’s pure whimsy, but played and directed with sublime conviction. Elisabeth Sladen is especially good as Sarah here – wide-eyed as she’s slowly drawn in by the ghost story, but then shaking herself out of her reverie with a pragmatic: “Evil spirits don’t destroy oil rigs!”

Doctor Who has always sought to strike a balance between horror and humour. Generally, the scares and the jokes take turns, and that rollercoaster of tone generates the show’s essential manic energy. And at its very best, Doctor Who can seamlessly pitch-bend silly to serious and back again, while standing perfectly still and staring you straight in the eye. “Might as well forget about security in Tulloch,” shouts a flippant Sarah over the sound of Angus’s bagpipes. “The landlord here’s got second sight!” With perfect comic timing, the bagpipes abruptly stop. But then the Doctor, velvet and sepulchral: “You know what he was playing? Flowers of the Forest. A lament for the dead.” The fact that Tom Baker himself wrote that line gives some clue as to how deeply everyone cared about the work they were doing. This kind of grown-up wit smoulders all the way through Terror of the Zygons.

Doctor Who’s greatest episode ends, as it must, with one of Doctor Who’s greatest cliffhangers. It’s another directorial masterpiece: the track-in, the whirl, the crash-zoom and that terrifying, sucking ‘honk’ as a Zygon bears down on Sarah. What an entrance!

zygons_3776It’s entirely self-evident that the Zygons are the most beautifully realized monsters in the history of Doctor Who, but it’s surely worth lingering for a moment to consider why they work so well. They feel so alive: fleshy, bloated and throbbing with alien juices, like something that has really grown, and is still growing. Many monster costumes are ruined by their one-size-fits-all bagginess, but the skin of a Zygon is stretched painfully taut across its ribs and back. And the devil is surely in the detail: the hundreds of ulcerous tubules blistering the shoulders and hips; the natural symmetry of the lines of the bigger, barnacle-like growths that extend four ways from the crown of the head over the backbone and sternum, and along the arms and legs; the thick veins that fill fat fingers. Praise is of course due to costume designer James Acheson, but the real star is surely sculptor John Friedlander, for whom the creatures must have been a labour of love – a love which shows in every grotesque protuberance.

But good looks can only get you so far in this life. The other secret of the Zygons’ success is that Broton, their leader, is gifted with such a deft yet boisterous performance from actor John Woodnutt. He plays the creature in both its natural form and its human disguise as the la-di-da Duke of Forgill, and each is a total delight.

Like all great Doctor Who villains, Duke Broton is absolutely convinced that he’s the hero of his story, and that everyone around has been gathered merely to pay homage to his genius and wit. This essential snootiness and condescension mean that Broton is also – again like all the best Doctor Who villains – quite breathtakingly camp. For a Duke, he really is a proper old queen. As such, he effortlessly passes another key qualifying test for a place in the first division of Doctor Who villainy, and that is this: how easy are they to imagine as a judge on The X Factor or Britain’s Got Talent? Broton, Davros, Harrison Chase, Trau Morgus, Mrs Gillyflower… you can immediately picture any of them passing withering comment on a parade of chirping idiots and clumsy hoofers. Harrison Chase would roll his eyes disdainfully and steeple his black-gloved hands. Mrs Gillyflower would rant and rave and reduce ’em to tears. Davros would idly tap his middle finger next to a big red button marked ‘Total destruction’. Morgus would deliver his putdowns to his own private camera, to one side of the judges’ desk. Our Duke of Forgill would purse his lips, smile an insincere smile, and then tell some poor wannabe from Wolverhampton that she’s totally, utterly unhinged, must be, and that he loathes her abomination of a body. And this kind of approach, one dares suggest, is something that Doctor Who might think a little more about today. The best Doctor Who has the best villains, and the modern series could surely trade a few ‘broken spring’ stories for a few more outrageously self-regarding blackguards who pass the X Factor judge test.

p01d6gsyBroton’s finest moment comes when he sets out from the Zygon spaceship to pose as Forgill at the World Energy Conference in London – an attack on which will spearhead his conquest of the Earth. “When phase two is completed, I shall broadcast my demands to the world,” he says – at which point he pops on a bowler hat and merrily spins an umbrella. Now hold on just one second. We know that the Zygons can morph into a copy of a human in their custody, and that clothes somehow come as part of the magic. But the real Duke doesn’t have a bowler hat, so Broton must have packed one specially. Now that is class. For all his contempt for “puny humans”, there’s a definite feeling that Broton finds greater pleasure in being a Scottish Laird than he does in being a Zygon Warlord. He’s quite brilliant at it, especially when deploying stinging sarcasm in the face of the Doctor’s theories about the Loch Ness Monster  (“Aliens? With wireless sets?”). Broton may be stepping up for the conquest of the Earth, but you feel he’d be much happier just busying about Inverness-shire, roamin’ the gloamin’ in his Range Rover, offering people lifts if he likes them, and pretending to get their names wrong if he doesn’t. After all, the Zygons have been stranded on Earth for hundreds of years, and a secret passage leads from their ship under Loch Ness to the Duke’s antique bookcase, so just how many successive incumbents of Forgill Castle has Broton impersonated? “My family has served this country for seven centuries,” says the Duke at the start of our story. Later we discover that this was Broton talking – but might he still be telling the truth, and speaking of himself and his Zygon crew? They’ve been around for about seven centuries too, and, as they all suckle the lactic fluid of their pet Skarasen, might they not be an actual family? So if the Doctor seems somewhat laid back during this adventure, perhaps it’s because he has Duke Broton sussed right from the start. When our faux Forgill drives away from the Fox Inn in Part One, the Doctor looks contemplatively after him. Later, his voice is loaded with sarcasm when he says “Your Grace”. Clearly the Doctor is onto him. But what gave it away? Well, while the Zygons may be adept at changing their shape, how good are they at changing their smell? This Duke of Forgill probably stinks of fish and stale monster milk, but everyone’s simply too polite to mention it.

While Broton is reasonably competent, his other Zygons let the side down by getting almost everything wrong. They’re certainly nowhere near as good at pretending to be humans. They fail to kill our heroes on several occasions, and when Broton leaves them in charge of their ship, barely five minutes pass before the Doctor blows it up. (There’s a hilarious moment when the Doctor activates the Zygon fire alarm and all the Zygons troop out like schoolchildren. Do they have regular drills? Are they trotting off to ‘Muster Point C’? They really are a deliciously gormless bunch.)

But what the other Zygon-humans may lack in brains, they make up for in pure monstrosity. This is one story that certainly lives up to the lurid promise of its title. The Zygon version of Sister Lamont lingers long in the memory of every viewer: blood stickily clotting on her arm, her head cocked and gimlet-eyed, like a carrion bird poised to rip into its prey. “It’s just a scratch,” she says, so softly, before bludgeoning a man with a rock. More terrifying yet is the sequence where Sarah pursues the Zygon version of Harry. Truly, Douglas Camfield’s direction of this story – and of these filmed location scenes in particular – takes the breath away. It’s pure British folk horror: Sarah’s breath frosting as she runs through a wide and bleak landscape of denuded trees and thick ruts of mud. Crows caw behind that wonderful incidental music, as the wistful flutes of Part One gives way to driving strings and urgent clarinet. And then we’re with Zygon-Harry in the barn, as he drives his pitchfork right down the camera lens – straight at us. You’d take an instinctive step back from the TV if you weren’t already sitting down. In his wide shot, Camfield fleetingly establishes thick wooden spikes jagging upward from the floor of the barn. He can’t show the Zygon actually impaled on a stake, but he can suggest it to our subconscious. And then there’s that terrible, primal, echoing ‘moo’ as the creature dies. It’s a moo that sums up Terror of the Zygons in miniature: grotesque, strangely mournful, beautifully judged, and totally unforgettable.

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DVD Extras

Not only is this two-disc set a celebration of one of Doctor Who’s greatest adventures, it’s also a tribute to the skill, imagination and astonishing hard work of the Doctor Who Restoration Team and many of their fellow travellers – the people whose talents have made this DVD range a triumph from first to last. There’s something of a party atmosphere to this release; a loud, lusty and well-earned last hurrah. Terror of the Zygons was long planned to be the last complete twentieth-century Doctor Who serial released on DVD. However, the gods of good fortune have heard our prayers and intervened, meaning that that position will instead be claimed – and hopefully only for a short time – by The Enemy of the World. And here’s a thing… The location filming for Episode 1 of The Enemy of the World took place at Climping Beach in West Sussex. And the only other time this location was used by Doctor Who was for Terror of the Zygons. One is left breathless by the glorious, exquisite timing of it all.

For Zygons, sound guru Mark Ayres has contrived – by some staggering witchcraft – to offer us not only an ‘isolated score’ audio track (and what a score!) but also a 5.1 surround mix. How is this even possible? Maybe we shouldn’t ask. Like staring into the burning heart of the TARDIS, the minds of mere mortals are not built to know such ineffable power.

Producer Ed Stradling provides our behind-the-scenes documentaries. This is right and proper, as Stradling has been behind the majority of the most creative films in the range; he set the standard for others to beat way back on the Earthshock DVD, ten bloomin’ years ago. Here, as then, Stradling deploys a fan commentator to join the dots and act as de facto narrator, so we can all wrinkle our noses and say: “Well, what does he know about it?” The so-called ‘experts’ on Earthshock, whoever they were, have long since been lost to history, so here we have TV Historian Simon Farquhar, who peers sullenly out from under his fringe like Princess Di in her interview with Martin Bashir. ‘TV Historian’ sounds like a cool job, but sadly they don’t teach it in every school. What a shame. Instead of an afternoon of PE, the Fridays of childhood would have been greatly enlivened by double Quatermass followed by an energetic half-hour of Applied Dennis Potter.

The production documentary is a laudably thorough affair. Writer Robert Banks Stewart makes for particularly charming company. “I was fascinated by the idea that either the Loch Ness Monster existed, or it didn’t,” he tells us, so he’s clearly a man who likes to keep all bases covered. As the story behind this story unfolds, even a mere photograph of long-dead script editor and all-time No.1 hero Robert Holmes, with a pipe clamped between his teeth like Hemingway or Tolkien, prompts one to list the limbs that might be cheerfully traded for a chance to spend an hour in his company, learning the most secret alchemy of Doctor Who.

The highlight of the ‘extras’ disc is the outstanding Remembering Douglas Camfield, also from Ed Stradling. It’s a robust and fitting tribute to the great man, placing his Doctor Who work in the context of a hugely successful TV career. Camfield’s son Joggs and actress Celia Imrie (a star of Camfield’s 1981 Scottish sci-fi horror serial The Nightmare Man, scripted by Robert Holmes and notably Zygonesque in atmosphere) pay moving tribute to a man who they loved very much, and who clearly loved them greatly in return. Imrie recalls how, while shots were being set up on location, Camfield would play the ocarina – a particularly haunting instrument. So it’s no surprise that the director brought in Geoffrey Burgon to provide his fluting scores for Terror of the Zygons and The Seeds of Doom, rather than settling for, well… shall we say the more robust charms of Dudley Simpson.

Two gems from the BBC archive capture Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen at their most beautiful. Baker is interviewed, on location for Terror of the Zygons, by the local news programme South Today, and he’s magnificently detached and aloof as the presenter prattles on. He impishly remarks that taking the role of the Doctor means he can no longer enjoy his “bachelor benders” – though he was hardly a stranger to the Colony Room or the Coach and Horses as his years with the show played out. When asked about the episode he’s filming, Baker says that he’s come to this Sussex beach “to make something inventive and agreeable” – which is as charming a mission statement for Doctor Who as any you’ll hear.

Elisabeth Sladen is the host of Merry-Go-Round: The Fuel Fishers – a children’s educational show from 1977, in which we learn how oil rigs work. So evocative of The Sontaran Experiment is her canary yellow raincoat, and so characteristically earnest Sladen’s approach, that it’s almost like a little lost adventure for Sarah Jane Smith. As she flies out across the North Sea by helicopter, Sladen has to react to her own pre-recorded ‘thinks’ track, and we’re reminded of the truth, the fun, and the utter conviction she brought to her performance as Sarah. No one ever believed the magic more.

Joining this curtain call of Doctor Who DVD master craftsmen is Martin Wiggins, who provides a typically majestic set of ‘info text’ subtitles, full of wit, wisdom and whimsy. With Wiggins as our guide, Terror of the Zygons comes to life in all kinds of new ways; not least with the revelation that John Woodnutt would pass the time between takes in the studio by tap-dancing on his mark – in full Broton costume. One prays that the raw studio footage turns up one day.

ian_lis2However, it’s another lost wonder which proves the final great coup of this DVD, and indeed of the whole range, as a long-missing scene of the Doctor, Sarah and Harry arriving in Scotland is restored to us. And how perfectly magical it is to see them together once more, out on location and gathered around their wonderful, tumbledown, potting-shed TARDIS – all so young and handsome and eager for adventure. And it’s surely a perfectly-timed opportunity to admire the manifold skills of the Restoration Team – and colourist Stuart Humphreys – who painstakingly pieced this lost gem together from scattered remnants.

When Terror of the Zygons was first released on VHS videocassette back in 1988, it was edited and chopped down to an omnibus. Now, on DVD, it’s bigger and more beautiful than ever. And if that isn’t a fitting tribute to the dedication, talent and sheer willpower of Doctor Who fans, then I don’t know what is. So let’s celebrate.

After all, it’s our birthday too.

The Ice Warriors

25 Oct

A DVD review for Doctor Who Magazine, from 2013

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doctor-who-the-ice-warriors-dvdThe chief protagonist of The Ice Warriors is neither human nor alien; it’s a glacier. This is entirely apt. For as the cold, white vastness of the story rolls inexorably on, you find yourself powerless to resist its numbing creep. First, your higher brain functions begin to slow. Are there six episodes? Sixty? And, as you watch what must surely be the same handful of scenes play over and over, a loss of motor control soon follows. Your jaw drops slackly open, drool stringing to your chest. The soporific drone of the dialogue is drowned out by the thump-thump of your own heartbeat in your ears. And then – thump-thump – even that – thump – gradually gives way – thump – to silence… Weeks pass unheeded. Months. Five thousand years or more slip by, until, one day, a plucky adventurer disentombs your frozen body and puzzles at your fate. Why the expression of horror? Why is one hand desperately clawing out in front of you? And then he’ll see it: tragically just out of reach of your outstretched, frigid finger. The off switch.

The Ice Warriors should be pure gold. It bears the hallmarks of a cherished era of Doctor Who: the now rare and precious middle Troughtons. There’s a lonely outpost of harried humans under threat from alien incursion. There’s a monster menace that will come to be considered one of the all-time greats. There’s even a moral message hidden away in there: that individual free will is no less valuable – and can sometimes be even more valuable – when it cuts against what is considered the common good of society. But, despite this distinguished provenance, The Ice Warriors fails to shine. Key characters are blandly written and some are gravely miscast to damaging effect. The message is mixed and muffled. There’s just about enough storyline to fill an egg cup, and even that is repeatedly sidelined to make room for tedious debate about the correct way to operate a made-up machine. In fact, the majority of the story distracts itself with a conjectured threat that turns out, after five episodes of to-ing and fro-ing, never to have existed at all.

The TARDIS delivers the Doctor, Jamie and Victoria a dozen or more centuries into the future. This Earth, this realm, this England – the whole blessed plot – is disappearing under a thick mantle of snow and ice. Now you might think, reasonably enough, that glaciation is an unlikely subject for a fast-moving drama; but these glaciers, scorning even their own idiom, move like greased lightning. Attempting to halt their onslaught is the staff of Britannicus Base (a stately home under a protective dome, like a snow globe where the snow falls outside) and their Ioniser machine. When the Doctor and friends arrive at the base, there’s mention they might be evacuated to Africa, so that’s clearly where the rest of the population of Britain has scarpered – although presumably the most patriotic held out at least until Cheltenham was chest-deep in Chinstrap penguins. A few of the most bloody-minded still scavenge a meagre existence out on the tundra, stalked by wolves, bears and a mysterious, unseen soprano.

The Ice Warriors is desperate to play its scenario for real. To that end, every scene at Britannicus involves an earnest, worthy and generally tiresome debate. There are arguments about proper procedure, arguments about respect for management, arguments about whether one should play it safe in hope of moderate gains, or play the buccaneer and risk all in hope of the big prize. To sell his ‘real’ world to us, writer Brian Hayles co-opts the voice of the business soap opera. This format thrived on TV in Britain in the 1960s and on into the 80s, through such hit series as The Plane Makers, The Brothers and Howards’ Way. The dialogue of the business soap consists, almost exclusively, of the frequent and urgent declamation of the current state of affairs, preferably backed up with spurious facts and figures. “But you can’t argue with facts, John! Output is down by 13%. If this continues, we could lose everything!” or “Damn it, Jan! Frere Holdings now has a 51% share of Wilde Mouldings!” or “Don’t be a fool, Joan! You realise what’s at stake here? Failure is not an option!” The Ice Warriors further attempts to plug into this kind of ‘reality’ through the casting of Peter Barkworth as Leader Clent. Barkworth had made his name in the mid-60s in The Power Game, a popular soap anatomising the travails of running a family building firm. In The Ice Warriors he is playing, to all intents and purposes, the troubled managing director of Ioniser Incorporated, who vents his daily frustrations upon his loyal secretary Miss Garrett. “If we fail, the whole programme for glacier containment is in danger!” yells Clent. “It’s out of phase! Seven point two four!” “We cannot afford to make mistakes!” “Activate all circuits, woman!” It’s urgent, bang-your-fist-on-the-desk stuff – and there’s reams of it – but we are emotionally untouched. We’re told the stakes are high, but however much they shout and sigh, it’s impossible to feel anything in response other than a dull tension headache. One thing’s for certain, however: if melodrama could melt glaciers, then just one blast from this script would surely drown us all.

What fun is to be found at Britannicus Base depends on how one feels about Clent. Barkworth’s performance has long been fêted as one of Doctor Who’s great guest turns, but it can hardly be said to be an exercise in subtlety. Like when Tony Hancock played Hamlet with a crutch and a parrot, Clent’s not altogether convincing limp was Barkworth’s own idea, and he had to be talked out of throwing in a stammer as well. Of course, Barkworth may be making a sincere attempt to tickle-up what he recognises as page after page of repetitive dialogue, but what we’re left with is a twitchy, immodest performance of the kind that’s normally the preserve of the prime suspect in an episode of Columbo. By that measure, it comes in at a healthy 8 out of 10 on the Patrick McGoohan scale. (Converted back into Doctor Who units, that’s about two Roger Lloyd Packs, but merely half a Paul Darrow.) Gifted by the costume designer with a silver-topped Perspex cane – his eyes must have lit up at first sight of that – Barkworth wildly tripods about the place, wailing his woes and pulling focus like a proper old ham. He’s at his most peculiar in Part Five when required to carry a clipboard. The cane has to go under one arm, and the resultant stiff-legged strut makes Barkworth look like he’s had an accident in his onesie. It’s also notable how the vigour of his showboating is in direct ratio to his distance from the show’s real star. Patrick Troughton does everything by doing almost nothing, and when he comes close he acts as a dampening field upon Barkworth’s full-spectrum broadcast.

Much of Clent’s squawk is on the subject of Penley, his top scientist. Penley’s the only man who knows to how to operate the Ioniser properly, which is surely a serious recruitment oversight given that the future of mankind is at stake. Controlling old Clent has squeezed Penley until his pips squeaked, causing him to run away and shack up with a scavenger called Storr in, of all places, an abandoned greenhouse. The Ice Warriors is lent an unexpected undercurrent thanks to the way Penley and Storr bicker like a middle-aged married couple. When we first meet them, Storr is injured in an avalanche, and Penley leans in to gently brush polystyrene from his cheeks, so we immediately sense a certain tendresse underlying their relationship. (This feeling can be enhanced, if you care to play along at home, by shouting “Go on, just kiss ’im!” every time the pair appear on screen.) Playing Penley and Storr are Peter Sallis and Angus Lennie, fine actors both, but here they’re comically miscast in roles that are poorly written to begin with. Penley, surely, is supposed to be about 20 years old; the firebrand young genius of Britannicus, rebelling against the old, ‘bad’ science that’s brought the Earth so close to its doom. Scavenger Storr should be in his 50s, a Grizzly Adams wise man of the mountains, showing how a trust in Nature herself will ultimately heal the world. Storr should be Penley’s hero. Instead, Sallis and Lennie give us a morose middle-manager beset by his shrewish wife. “You wouldn’t know what to do without me!” shrieks Storr when Penley suggests he might leave him, and it brings to mind McKellen and Jacobi in the sitcom Vicious. “We’re just friends,” covers Penley to a colleague later, but don’t believe a word of it. Storr is a whining, depressive idiot; so it must be love, or Penley would never put up with him. Furthermore, Clent’s own rage – a fury at his own impotence coupled with a burning obsession with Penley, which has prompted the put-upon Penley to fling himself into the arms of another – makes The Ice Warriors feel like a study of a doomed love triangle. You may scoff, but at least this whimsical reading lends a human element to the whole affair. Otherwise, our supposedly heroic Penley is no more than a needy egotist who’s willing to leave the whole planet to freeze just because he can’t get along with his boss.

TwoAndVargaTIWAnd so, thank goodness for Penley’s colleague Arden, who finds a scaly alien frozen into the glacier, drags him home and accidentally thaws him back to seven-foot-something of hissing crocodilian life. Varga the Ice Warrior steals the show, and there’s no denying that he’s an impressive specimen of monsterkind. It’s the details that make him so appealing. The leatherly lips, which fail to quite synchronise with the hissing voice, are oddly unnerving. The huge Lego hands – which must at least make the Ice Warriors the dominant race in the galaxy when it comes to carrying mugs of coffee over long distances – look like they could really do you a mischief. It was Brian Hayles’ avowed intention that his Martians should come across as individuals rather than a series of interchangeable drones like the Daleks or Cybermen. Hidden under Varga’s latex and fibreglass, Bernard Bresslaw makes a spirited effort to find and portray Varga’s unique and troubled soul, but the necessary raw material simply isn’t there in the script. The Ice Warriors’ place in the upper echelon of Doctor Who monsters will be earned through later encounters, chiefly thanks to actor Alan Bennion – the man behind thrice an Ice Lord – who delivers one of Doctor Who’s transcendent monster performances, right up there with Michael Wisher’s Davros.

The Ice Warriors are hissing about from Part Two onwards, but sadly our enjoyment of their company is severely limited by the fact that they share almost all their scenes with Victoria, who is, by a long chalk, the most disagreeably shrill of the Doctor’s many companions. When Varga holds his sonic cannon to Victoria’s head, promising: “Sss – I will burst your brain with noise – Sss”, one’s dark half thrills to the thought. Sadly, there’s no hiding from the fact that if anyone is going to burst a brain with noise today, the smart money has to be on Victoria.

The Ice Warriors crashes itself to a standstill when the Doctor, Clent and his team leap to the conclusion that there might be a spaceship hidden in the glacier with an engine that might explode if the Ioniser is used near it. It really is the most awe-inspiring bit of scripting flounce, as they skip from “There’s a man in the ice!” to “There’ll be five decades of nuclear fallout!” in about 15 seconds flat. Without a single fact available, Clent and company talk up a brilliant excuse for inaction, and three episodes then pass with nothing much happening at all. Everyone bickers interminably, until eventually even Varga asks his lieutenant: “Why are they – sss – so interested in our engines?” But just as you’re shouting back at the screen “We’re not! We’re really not!”, the Ice Warriors dispiritingly start to wonder what kind of power supply the humans might have. As everyone ponders the possibilities of each other’s nuclear reactors, Clent’s computer insists that any action that might be construed as interesting or dramatic should be avoided at all costs. Clent readily agrees, so Varga takes the initiative and freely wanders into Britannicus Base with his men. It’s then that he issues the least scary command ever given by a Doctor Who monster: “Run down that machine as quickly as is safely possible. Sss.” As catchphrases go, it definitely lacks the snap of “Exterminate”.

In the end, despite all the wringing of hands and fretting about engines and reactors and computers, Penley steps up and, encouraged by the Doctor, fires the Ioniser on full power at the Ice Warrior ship and blows them all to kingdom come. The message of the piece proves to be: sometimes you’ve just got to go with your instincts and hang the consequences. “Only a small explosion!” reports Miss Garrett. “We’re safe!” And so, after all that worry, there was never any danger at all. The Doctor quietly slips away, and The Ice Warriors, after stringing us along with six episodes of shaggy dog story, immediately shuts itself down in embarrassment. Sadly, we don’t get to see Clent finally confess his love for Penley and melt into his manly embrace like a freshly ionised glacier. But they surely married in the spring.

DVD extras

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icewarriors_610With Parts Two and Three of The Ice Warriors having been tragically misplaced – and likely in a pretty permanent sort of way – their surviving soundtracks have been matched on this DVD to specially commissioned animation. Now, your reviewer must admit to feeling perplexed as to why cartoons have come to be seen as a natural way to present missing episodes – especially here, where a full set of telesnaps exist and DVD is the perfect medium to present them correctly timed to the audio. However, this animation is a huge improvement upon that presented on the recent Reign of Terror DVD. The likenesses are strong and captured in crisp and simple lines, though quite why the Doctor has been given a darkening five-o’clock shadow, in the manner of Homer Simpson, is a mystery. It’s like he’s just rolled in from the boozer. (Happily, Leader Clent’s toupee is altogether more convincing in animated form.) The characters feel subtly alive, rather than dead-eyed and uncanny, thanks to the clever way their eyes seem to keep their point of focus even as they turn their heads. It all works best when the action is in mid-shot, and luckily that’s an arrangement favoured by the majority of Doctor Who’s screen time between 1963 and 1989, and certainly in as talky a piece as The Ice Warriors. Wider bodily movement feels less natural – it’s a little too loose-limbed, as if elbows and knees are jointed with brass fasteners – but then again, one can only feel sympathy with the animator tasked with bringing vérité to Leader Clent’s uptight waddle.

A supporting documentary, Beneath the Ice, offers an insight into the animation process from producer Cliff Chapman and members of his team. It’s clearly a pre-emptive strike against the major criticisms levelled at the Reign of Terror’s animation, although it’s polite enough to not mention that project by name. “The challenge is to limit ourselves to what was possible at the time,” says Chapman, drawing out attention to the specifics of shots and the timing of cuts detailed in The Ice Warriors’ camera script. This devotion to accuracy is entirely laudable. And how far off, one wonders, is our first entirely photo-realistic recreation of a missing episode, cast and performed by computer-generated actors? Surely the necessary processing power and algorithms are only – what? – five to ten years from our grasp? These missing instalments of The Ice Warriors, along with all the rest, will be made again before too long. In fact, the computers will likely be too clever, and many hours of human effort will be required to make the episodes look precisely bad enough.

p014y36fSonny Caldinez – who played balloon-headed Ice Warrior cohort Turoc – is the star of the production documentary, Cold Fusion. He vividly conveys the small agonies of life as a Martian. “Whoopee-doopee-doo!” is apparently the sound he made when he fell over, and the costume sliced upwards into his crotch – although one suspects that’s a polite rephrasing of his actual words. Caldinez is also to be found on the commentary to the surviving episodes alongside Frazer Hines (Jamie), Deborah Watling (Victoria) and grams operator Pat Heigham – whose job it was to play sound effects into the studio during recording. It’s not the most edifying of chats, but it’s kept trundling along thanks to the skills of moderator Toby Hadoke. Responding to the ecological issues in The Ice Warriors, resolute climate change sceptic Hines argues that, should the icecaps melt due to global warming, the hot sun will also turn the water into steam, “so the melting ice will just make up for the water we lose as steam.” Where he thinks that steam might be going is anyone’s guess. But then, the episodes Hines is watching are no less of a muddle. Even the Doctor gets confused, boldly claiming at one point that plants produce carbon dioxide by photosynthesis. For that he deserves a rap on the knuckles with Ian Chesterton’s springiest ruler.

The 1967/68 Blue Peter ‘Design a Monster’ competition is a real treat from the archives. Before the winners are revealed, John Noakes is sternly chastising. “We were quite disappointed that some of the entries were copied,” he huffs. That’s rich! You can hardly blame the kids. Doctor Who itself wasn’t exactly fizzing with fresh ideas at the time. The Ice Warriors was the third story in a row with an icy/snowy setting, and the creatures’ reptile form was an eleventh-hour redesign from Brian Hayles’ original idea of a cyborg soldier: a sort of ‘cyber’ ‘man’, if you will. The panicked change came so late in the day that bewildering references to ‘electrical connections’ and ‘tin hats’ still muddle the broadcast script; and someone really should have fixed that. Happily, Noakes’s co-presenter Peter Purves proves less minty, and hints that the winning Blue Peter monsters might even appear on Doctor Who itself. While that promise proved empty, the three finalists still have more surviving screen time – thanks to this clip – than either the Macra or the Chameleons, so that’s a kind of immortality. And as the credits roll, one is left to ponder who would win in a scrap between the Steel Octopus (fronds, feathers, lovely lips), the Hypnotron (a forlorn, shuffling eyeball), and Aquaman (who, with those cankles, really shouldn’t wear Bermuda shorts); but we can never know for sure. You’d hope for it to be settled in a Big Finish audio, if only any of the buggers could talk.

The Green Death (Special Edition)

24 Sep

A review of the DVD for Doctor Who Magazine, from 2013

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UK GreenDeathSE DVD-2DLet us take a moment to grieve for Tom the Sea Captain, long since mouldered under the Glamorgan sod. “Who?” you will surely cry, for such is his tragedy. And what of Mrs Cartwright’s ginger cat; nameless and unmourned these last 40 years? Both cat and Captain died a gruesome death. A green death. Each was a victim of the callous indifference of a so-called, self-styled ‘Doctor’. Their blood is on his hands, and it is long past time he was called to account. What he did, he may have done in the name of peace and sanity. But it was not – we can be sure – in the name of Mrs Cartwright’s pussy.

We shall address this lamentable affair in due course. First, we need to get our bearings.

The Green Death is among Doctor Who’s most admired adventures, and rightly so. It’s wildly entertaining, and, as a deft pulling-together of the key themes of its era, it packs real emotional punch. Furthermore, its value has only increased with time. The Green Death is a seed with all the ambition and potential of 21st-Century Doctor Who coiled within, like the infinite whorl of a fractal. And, back in the summer of ’73, that seed fell on fertile ground. In Swansea, it took root in the imagination of Stephen Russell Davies, age 10. In Paisley, it tendrilled through the brain of 11-year-old Steven Moffat And just along the Glasgow Road, it coiled thickly about Peter Capaldi, 15. It would blossom, decades later, with astonishing vigour. Truly, all of modern Doctor Who – a decade of glory, a potent future – is the fruit of The Green Death.

This one story has such significance because it is not just one story – it is three. It’s a love story. It’s a monster story. It’s a ‘message’ story, built to tell us something about how we live our own lives. And if we take some time to tease these stories apart and consider them in turn, we can see that all three have something to say about Doctor Who as it is written today.

“You’ve got all the time in the world,” says the Doctor to his assistant Jo Grant, as he senses that their journey together may be coming to an end. “And all of the space,” he adds, sweetening the deal. “I’m offering them to you.” This sense of the Universe as the Doctor’s gift – something that he might offer to the talented, the blessed, the especially sassy – was, in 1973, something new. Today it is Doctor Who’s main engine. Each new protégée comes to understand, as Jo once did, that she cannot wander forever. She must, in the end, take charge of her own destiny. Generally by sticking her tongue down its throat.

For Jo, destiny takes the dishy form of Professor Clifford Jones, six-foot-something of Nobel laureate: proud and passionate, with a flowing mane, like Aslan trained to walk on his hind legs. From the moment the camera tracks in for his first ‘hero’ close-up, Cliff is presented to us as a god among men. It’s the kind of shot that normally finds and favours the Doctor, but not here, and with good reason. It is often said that women fall in love with men who remind them of their fathers. We know nothing of Jo’s biological father, but there’s no doubt that the Doctor has been emotionally in loco parentis for the past three years. Now, as Jo resolves to travel to Wales to meet Cliff – whose politics she admires – the Doctor says mournfully to himself, “So, the fledgling flies the coop.” It’s clear that he sees himself as a nurturing parent.

p01bqlzbA great joy of The Green Death is quite how brazenly it presents the crusading Professor Jones as a younger version of the Doctor, and then propels him into a karaoke of the Doctor and Jo’s own greatest hits. Their first meeting, over a wrecked science experiment, is a note-for-note encore of that first encounter in Terror of the Autons, but it’s a later duet which proves the sweetest cover version. Famously, Jon Pertwee would lobby his script editor to provide his Doctor with ‘moments of charm’, quiet little scenes where he would be at his most comforting and paternal: a call to a companion’s inner courage perhaps, or a Platonic musing upon the beauty of “the daisiest daisy”. But here, it’s Cliff who gets the goods. Following the death of a coal miner called Bert, Cliff comforts Jo: “You shouldn’t feel ashamed of your grief,” he says, his voice a lulling Welsh sing-song. “It’s right to grieve. Your Bert, he was unique. In the whole history of the world, there’s never been anybody just like Bert. And there’ll never be another, even if the world lasts for a hundred million centuries.” What he’s really saying is that Bert was ‘the Bertiest Bert’ – and Jo is a sucker for precisely this kind of blarney. While the rest of us struggle to keep down our lunch in the face of such nauseating flannel – this moment of smarm – Jo laps it up, and Cliff makes a confident and unchallenged move to first base. Sadly, we’ll never know how much further Cliff might have got that night, with his skilful playing on Jo’s grief. The Doctor harrumphs in and, equally expertly, sabotages any further tangling on the tufted Wilton; perhaps less irritated by Cliff’s theft of his girl than by his stealing his best material.

23But Jo isn’t mere guileless prey in all of this. There’s another neat reminder of how far she’s come, when, trapped up a slag heap with an unconscious Professor, and beset by beasts, she produces a screwdriver and rewires a broken radio, just as she’s seen the Doctor do. It’s a shame the script doesn’t gift Jo the leaving present of allowing her to make the big intellectual leap which saves the world this week; a luxury still reserved for the Doctor. That said, it’s Jo’s ambition to save humankind that ultimately leads her to leave the Doctor for Cliff, and a trek through the Amazon to find a high-protein fungus to feed our teeming billions. But why go such a long way? She should ask at the nearby chemical factory. After all, Quorn was developed by ICI.

When the end comes, it comes suddenly, as true endings are wont to do. Jo is swept off her feet and the Doctor is left – one can’t help but feel – gulping back his tears. Their parting is perfectly shot and perfectly played by Jon Pertwee and Katy Manning. It’s a triumph of understatement, and has, in four decades, not lost a scintilla of its bittersweet magic.

Modern Doctor Who, while well-seasoned with the bittersweet, regularly reassures us that love conquers all. It’s also ringingly clear in its thesis that when the Doctor’s friends leave him, and he travels alone, bad things happen. This we also see demonstrated for the first time in The Green Death, when Jo chooses Wales over a jaunt to the Acteon galaxy’s famous blue planet.

The Doctor is so desperate to see Metebelis III that he’s wired the coordinates into the TARDIS’s steering circuit. (If he’d also wired the pronunciation into the telepathic circuit, we might all have been saved significant later grief.) It proves to be a quite hilariously anti-social destination – the Malia or Faliraki of intergalactic holiday resorts – thrashing him with rocks, spears and tentacles. Never has a planet had it in for the Doctor more than Metebelis III. And like all that’s best in Doctor Who, it’s roundly ridiculous and squarely entertaining at the same time. You have to admire the gusto and creativity with which director Michael E Briant and his team deploy their limited resources. As mayhem rages around him, the Doctor escapes with a precious blue jewel. It’s a bit of souvenir collecting that will ultimately prove the death of him, but one does feel that the production team misses a trick here. In the Third Doctor’s final adventure, we’re told how an ordinary spider is believed to have come to Metebelis in a rocket from Earth as an unseen and accidental passenger, and grew to awesome size and intelligence thanks to the planet’s uncanny radiation. Well, that’s the legend. Surely, instead, that spider was merrily spinning its web around the TARDIS lamp in UNIT HQ, and was actually delivered to Metebelis by the Doctor himself. That would make him in every way the architect of his own downfall.

Giant spiders haunt the Doctor’s future, but it’s giant maggots that await him in Wales, when he joins Jo, Cliff, the Brigadier and his crew. The Green Death is an excellent love story, but it’s an outstanding monster story. “Good grief!” cries the Doctor when the creatures first squirm into view, and you can’t blame him. The maggots are wonderfully realised and repellent to almost all our senses at once, with their greasy bloat, malicious hiss, and – as Jo puts it – “that smell… like something rotting.” Trapped down a coal mine, the Doctor and Jo have to punt a mine cart through a lake of green ooze squirming with a million maggots. And while the special effects deployed may be, well… less than wholly convincing, the twisted brilliance of the idea – and the wild ambition – make the heart sing. Doctor Who might sometimes fail, but it does so in areas where others don’t even dare to try.

Escaping the mine, the Doctor and Jo head to Professor Jones’s gaff clutching a trophy: an egg as big as your head. Later that night it hatches, and the baby maggot – like Cliff mere minutes before – makes straight for Jo’s temptingly creamy neck. However, it’s distracted by a passing villain, bites him instead and makes off into the night. “The egg!” wails the Doctor, on hearing the tale. “It must have hatched out!” Goodness. Who’d have thought? It seems that dumping the egg in Cliff’s post tray was not, after all, the most responsible way to deal with it. The maggot is now on the loose in Llanfairfach. “It can’t be helped,” huffs the Doctor – when it really can, perhaps by organising a search party. The next day, an unsuspecting local milkman complains about the Brigadier’s fixation with the coal mine: “But what about Mrs Cartwright’s ginger cat? It’s at death’s door it is, poor dab! Not to mention Tom the Sea Captain!” The Brigadier ignores him, but with Jones the Milk and his ailing, failing Captain and cat, it’s practically Under Milk Wood. Clearly, the escaped maggot has nibbled them in the coal-black, sloeblack night, and now they’re dying a sea-green, pea-green, mean, gween death. We never hear of their fate, but as a cure for maggot bites is still two episodes away at this point, they’re surely doomed. And it’s entirely the Doctor’s fault. What a git.

So much for The Green Death’s tales of love and loss. What about that ‘message’? While Cliff Jones is the Doctor’s mini-me, he’s also the avatar of Doctor Who’s producer – and the co-writer of The Green Death – Barry Letts. A 1972 issue of The Ecologist magazine, subtitled A Blueprint for Survival, had left Letts boiling with righteous fury. This closely-argued polemic predicted that human civilisation had only a short time left, and that it will all be over by, well… roughly ten years ago. If A Blueprint for Survival doesn’t quite suggest that giant maggots will spew from the rotting carcass of the Earth, it’s certainly forthright in its view that a happy ending is rapidly slipping away out of our grip.

The Professor speaks straight from Letts’ heart, as he condemns the dirty practices of the Global Chemicals facility in Llanfairfach (“More muck! More devastation! More death!”) and the skewed priorities of modern society in general. A Blueprint for Survival makes several references to “a green revolution”, years before ‘green’ was adopted in the mainstream as a shorthand term for environmentalist politics. So, while it’s easy to see The Green Death as one of Doctor Who’s most deliciously basic and lurid story titles – green is the colour of monsters, after all – might it also be a smart play on words by Barry Letts?

The Green Death’s ‘message’ ends up a trifle muddled, however. Quite why the goo being pumped out of the Global Chemicals refinery causes maggots to swell to the size of spaniels is never made clear. The whole operation, we learn – in a left-field twist – is run by a crackpot computer called BOSS, who shares a kind of symbiotic relationship with the managing director of Global, Stevens. It’s a right old laugh – thanks to brilliant playing by actors Jerome Willis and John Dearth as man and mainframe – but even the Doctor doesn’t seem to take it entirely seriously. BOSS is defeated using the blue crystal that the Doctor happens to have just collected from Metebelis III. The maggots are killed by the particular fungus that Cliff happens to have stockpiled in his shed. Rather brilliantly, the writers hide the second of these outrageous coincidences in plain sight, with much talk of ‘serendipity’ – a rarely-heard word that’s simply a poetic way of saying ‘outrageous coincidence’. It does, however, bring home the other great lesson that modern Doctor Who has taken from The Green Death: if you get your romance right, and your frights, then your story will be remembered and lauded forever. It really doesn’t matter if your plot doesn’t quite tie up, or if your resolution relies upon coincidence, or the pressing of a great big OFF switch, or Deus himself leaping gaily ex machina. When all is said and done, it’s the love and monsters they’ll remember.

The words of Professor Jones echo on, however. “Who does like the petrol-stinking, plastic-wrapped society we all live in?” we hear him rumble. It’s a question we may ponder as we peel the polyethylene covering from our Special Edition DVD of The Green Death; or later, when we fail to find a local council with the recycling facilities to process the silver polypropylene box from the 2003 DVD that’s now surplus to requirements. “A thick sludge you can’t break down in any way,” is how Cliff sees it all ending. The only sensible response, of course, is for us each to gift our original DVD to a charity shop, or to an eager relative; a boy or girl aged around 10 or 15 would be ideal. It’s a blueprint for survival. The green life. Plant a seed. Let it grow.

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DVD Extras

The%20Green%20Death%201And, yes, this new edition is definitely worth your investment. The Restoration Team has worked uncanny magic upon the extensive film footage, leaving it fresher and sharper than one would have imagined possible. In addition, there are excellent new commentaries and ‘info text’, and a wealth of interesting new extras crowd out a packed second disc.

What Katy Did Next is a compilation of clips from a 1973 arts and crafts magazine programme hosted by Katy Manning called – for no clear reason, but with surely ultimate serendipity – Serendipity. And it’s pulse-quickening stuff. “We went to a beach in Lowestoft,” our host tells us, cueing a location film, “where I found out how exciting and easy pebble collecting can be.” It turns out to be precisely as easy and exactly as exciting as you might think. Trudging across a gloomy bank of shingle, Manning peers myopically into the distance, perhaps in hopeful expectation of Axos. Then it’s back to the studio for an item on carving, which has her prodding gingerly at a chunk of polystyrene. A dour sculptor asks of the ertswhile Miss Grant: “If I gave you only an old screwdriver and a file, could you make a dog?” She can’t, of course – but she certainly knows a man who can.

The crafting fun continues in a short documentary about the visual effects of The Green Death, brought over from the original DVD release. “I’m chamfering and shaving the bulbous foam mouth parts,” says visual effects designer Colin Mapson – for the first and last time in the entire history of mankind – as he shows us how to build a giant maggot of our very own. Mapson has the soft voice and hangdog expression favoured by former BBC staff designers, but is adamant when expressing his pride for his work on Doctor Who, and the giant maggots in particular – and rightly so. To make a maggot, Mapson explains, one must begin with a plastic weasel skull. That’s all very well, but there’s no clue offered as to how we might first catch a plastic weasel.

In a pleasing new production documentary, The One With the Maggots – which sounds like a rather outré episode of Friends – the creatures become a prism through which we might view the glamour and cruelties of showbusiness. Karilyn Collier, assistant floor manager on The Green Death, tells us of being tasked with collecting maggots (real ones, that is, not chamfered weasel foam) from London Zoo. “It was was a battle to keep them all in one pot to get them back to TV Centre,” she tells us. “Maggots go as fast as anything!” Now, while it’s easy to be wise 40 years after the fact, one feels that some kind of lid might have helped Karilyn there. These eager little wrigglers were to be background extras for crowd scenes, and perhaps dreamed of making it big at the BBC. But when the director called ‘cut!’, it was the last trump for our long-shot larvae. “We popped them with blow lamps,” chuckles Mapson, “and some were put out in the recycling.” Non-speaking artistes the world over will nod in recognition and sympathy.

This new DVD also invites us to revisit Global Conspiracy, again from the original release. It’s a witty mock-documentary investigation of “the Llanfairfach incident”, written by and starring Mark Gatiss, which outclasses anything else of its type attempted by the range; most notably in its brilliant pastiche of the 1970s current affairs series Man Alive. While it’s a wry look back the anxieties of yesteryear, the film also highlights its writer’s own concerns – at which we might now, ten years on, also take a wry look back. The sketch ends with BOSS and Stevens now in charge of the BBC, demanding “efficiency, productivity and profit” and “an orderly TV schedule.” It’s a dig at the Beeb’s lack of imagination, and desire to play it safe. But the script was written in the summer of 2003, mere months before the announcement of Doctor Who’s return to TV, and Gatiss’s own commission to write The Unquiet Dead. A decade on, there’s nothing Doctor Who fans would like more than “an orderly and productive TV schedule”. Thirteen episodes a year and a Christmas special – that sort of thing.

Chiming in with perfect resonance, the behind-the-scenes story of that second coming is told by Russell T Davies and Jane Tranter in Dr Forever! It’s a first-class documentary from James Goss, though many of its treats have been roundly gazumped by DWM, thanks to great minds thinking alike and going in search of the same story.

While we like to think it a truth universally acknowledged that Doctor Who was always fated to return to TV in one form or another, it’s here, listening to Tranter and Davies tell their story, that it becomes clear that it’s only thanks to their immense willpower and enormous personal integrity that the programme came back as any kind of worthy successor to its former self. Perhaps the most telling revelation is of how Doctor Who’s extraordinarily profitable revival was almost stymied by BBC Worldwide, who argued there was no ongoing interest in the show. Some time in the future, a member of the BBC Worldwide marketing team will stumble upon the secret of time travel. Voyaging back through the years, he will make it his mission to assist with the press launch of Doctor Who in 1963. However, due to the misreading of a vital memo, he will instead accidentally assassinate John F Kennedy.

Finally, all our threads come together thanks to the apt bonus inclusion of The Death of the Doctor, the two-part Sarah Jane Adventures serial which saw Jo Grant – Jo Jones – meet up with the Eleventh Doctor and Sarah Jane, her successor in the role of sorcerer’s apprentice. It’s an exquisite script – so smart, so funny – by Russell T Davies: a love letter to his own childhood.

Even here, the story continues. As Jo wobbles off toward new adventures, Sarah’s young protégé, Clyde, comments to his friend Rani: “That’ll be us, one day.” And he’s right, you know. Everything comes back.

The Reign of Terror

3 May

A DVD review for Doctor Who Magazine, from 2013

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vlcsnap-2013-02-10-18h36m59s72“The streets of Paris, strewn with the carcasses of the mangled victims, have become so familiar to the sight that they are passed by and trod on without any particular notice. The mob think no more of killing a fellow man – one who is not even an object of suspicion – than wanton boys would of killing a cat or a dog.

“It’ll be our most Christmassy Christmas special yet,” adds Doctor Who producer Steven Moffat.

Of course not. A little joke. But it’s to remind us how what we expect from our favourite family drama series has changed during its five decades on TV. These days, every fifth or sixth episode is Christmas. When Doctor Who began, every third or fourth serial featured a much-loved mass homicide from history.

The quoted passage comes from the The Times of London, Monday 10 September 1792. It’s a report on the September Massacres, a bloody foretaste of la Terreur; the French state’s attempt to establish control over the population through the legal and largely unfettered use of violence – literally reigning through terror. It’s a revolution within a revolution. “Terror is nothing other than justice,” says the 35-year-old Maximilien Robespierre, President of the National Convention. “Prompt. Severe. Inflexible.” He believes it to be a virtuous form of government. The word of a virtuous man, he insists, should be enough to condemn a traitor. But Robespierre’s licence to murder is not used merely to help hasten the obliteration of the ancien régime. The merest whisper of treachery is enough to condemn any enemy – a business rival, an unfaithful lover, an enviably successful friend – to death by the guillotine, as grotesque an invention as has ever been conceived by man. By the summer of 1794, the air in Paris is thick with fear, paranoia, and the stench of thousands of rotting corpses heaped high at the Errancis Cemetery. Soon, Robespierre himself will be added to the pile. In two virtuous pieces.

Forgive the lecture. But it’s important to bring the ferocious brutality of the real Reign of Terror into focus. In 1964, this was considered a suitable playground for a children’s serial. Indeed, BBC Head of Drama Sydney Newman thought bleating bug-eyed robot men to be a far less appealing subject matter. And what makes Doctor Who’s teatime Terreur for tots so remarkable is the fact that it does not shirk from portraying the savagery of life in France in 1794. The first episode, especially, is a masterpiece of slowly unfolding horror.

But it begins with whimsy. The Doctor, in a particularly peevish mood, is convinced that he has brought homesick companions Ian and Barbara back to present-day England. They’re not so sure, and to prevent their pilot abandoning them in what could be anywhere or anywhen, they cajole him into joining them outside. Assured writing meets skilled performance in a lovely scene that would shine in any Doctor Who script from the last 50 years. Over one shoulder, Ian soft-soaps the Doctor. “Of course you’re in control,” he smarms. “And your important research must be completed.” Barbara is at the Doctor’s other shoulder, brushing away invisible dust, or possibly space dandruff. When it comes to Barbara, the Doctor’s a pushover. She’s his first human girl crush – and who can blame him? Meanwhile, William Hartnell hilariously double-takes between them. But despite this left-right charm offensive, it’s the suggestion that they might all go for a drink that finally wins the Doctor over. Perhaps it’s a little reflection of real life. Is this is how Hartnell’s colleagues dealt with his more dyspeptic mornings? “Of course you’re in control, Bill.” It’s easy to imagine many a studio quarrel settled over a lunchtime stout at the White Horse, Shepherd’s Bush.

This bright, optimistic start is designed to lend shadow to what follows, as, from the moment the Doctor’s curiosity takes over, the travellers fall into ever darkening danger. In a farmhouse some miles from Paris, they discover documents signed by Robespierre. “The Doctor’s put us down right in the middle of the French Revolution!” boggles Ian. “The Reign of Terror,” adds Barbara. And that’s our lot. We’re trusted – required even – to recognise the name Robespierre and immediately grasp the implications of this. (More explanation would doubtless be needed today; the Revolution has long been absent from the compulsory secondary school history syllabus. The subset of the population now most likely to know the name Robespierre is DWM subscribers. So, one point to Sydney Newman there.)

We meet on-the-run aristocrats Rouvray and D’Argenson. The militia is on their trail; a bickering band of bloodthirsty soldiers, grinning like Alsatians. Which, given that this is northern France, they may well be. Our bold Rouvray almost talks his way out of trouble. Playing on the memory of his lost patrician authority, he orders the soldiers to stand down. One man surrenders his musket, but our arrogant aristo pushes his luck. In an especially nuanced piece of writing, we’re give a flash of insight into both sides of the class conflict. “You can give them uniforms,” sneers Rouvray, “but they remain peasants underneath.” Without any order from his officer, one of the peasants shoots Rouvray dead. “A desperate attempt,” observes the commander. “And it very nearly worked.” The camera shies away as a second shot is fired. D’Argenson has been murdered. We know this from the soldiers’ gleeful laughter.

Already roaring with power, the episode accelerates toward a truly tremendous climax. Ian, Barbara and Susan are taken captive. “If any of them speaks,” says the commander, “shoot them.” Completely helpless, they can only stand in silence as their fate is decided by the squabbling soldiers. And then the farmhouse is set alight. But the Doctor is still inside! The fire spreads rapidly – through a series of generally excellent model shots – and the Doctor collapses, overcome by smoke. The camera pans up as the flames rise ever higher, and the incidental music – from Stanley Myers, and one of Doctor Who’s finest scores – playfully, sarcastically, quotes La Marseillaise. An anthem for life and liberty, just as death and disaster seem inevitable. Hold on flames. Roll credits. What a cliffhanger! They don’t make them like that any more.

The first episode is all about establishing the stakes we’re playing for. It’s made perfectly clear again at the start of the second, when we’re shown the falling blade of the guillotine. It’s mere moments of stock footage, but no less chilling for it. (And this is not some arcane threat from a bygone age. It’s worth remembering that the guillotine was used in France until 1977, and its blade was still hanging in the air until capital punishment was finally abolished in 1981.) “You have no rights,” barks a judge. He’s talking to Ian, Barbara and Susan, but the director has him looking right down the lens of Camera Two, directly at us. “You will be guillotined as soon as it can be arranged.” And with that, we are dragged away to the Conciergerie prison.

Here, writer Dennis Spooner – a true Doctor Who natural, giving us his first work – looks to leaven this brutal business with a few grains of humour. He’s hardly generous with it – though he will be in future – so perhaps script editor David Whitaker is staying his hand. We meet the lumbering jailer, his working class background conveyed through the broadest northern accent, and Jacqueline Hill does a wonderful comic reaction to his bad breath. But really, it’s the merest gesture toward fun. Although the Doctor and others later run rings round the jailer, he’s still a total horror, motivated by lust, greed and fear in turn. He leches over Barbara, offering her freedom if she – though he doesn’t use these words – has sex with him. Barbara merely turns and smacks him round the face. Marvellous.

“Lock ’em away!” bellows the jailer. “In there. It’s a cell I keep… for my special guests! Har har har!” Barbara and Susan are dragged into Doctor Who’s most bleak and dispiriting dungeon of all time. But it’s Ian who seems to get the premium accommodation. His cell is on film, and comes with a hot and cold running storyline. He’s tasked with finding an English spy, James Stirling. “Ask Jules Renan…” whispers a fellow prisoner with his dying breath. “At the sign of… Le Chien Gris.” But what’s with the sudden French? The TARDIS translation circuit must be on the blink – or, like Siri on the iPhone, doesn’t work well at low volume. (“I do not know what that means. Searching Index File for the sign of Lush He Angry.”)

The Reign of Terror comes with a neat little story of plot and counter-plot. It also gets to the heart of the dreadful irony of that time. Robespierre’s idea of justice was based on trust and duty, but no one could be trusted. However, our Doctor Who serial does seem clear on which class of citizen is the more virtuous. Barbara and Susan are rescued from the guillotine by upper-crust counter-revolutionaries Jules and “my young friend” Jean. They’re a sweetly affectionate pair who insist on calling each other by name with every other line (“I’ll go now, Jules.” “Take care, Jean.”), and they put their trust in the English travellers immediately, just as posh Rouvray and D’Argenson did before them. However, any ordinary working man we meet immediately proves devious, truculent and unreliable. The soldiers, the jailer, a roadworks overseer, a shopkeeper and a physician are all ready to abuse or denounce our heroes for personal gain, in the name of the glorious revolution.

But the story, having given us these rules, then subverts them to work its pivotal trick. Citizen Lemaitre, overseeing the Conciergerie, seems to be working for Robespierre, but turns out to be the English spy that Ian is looking for; our Mr Stirling having surely been dispatched on this undercover mission thanks to his having the biggest hooter north of Boulogne. Meanwhile, Barbara takes a shine to Jules’ friend in the resistance, the dashing Leon Colbert. Attentive and seductive, there’s a whiff of Pepé le Pew about Leon as he kisses Barbara’s hand and plies her with wine (“C’est magnifique, mon belle fromage!” he almost but doesn’t quite say.) But Leon proves a stinker in every sense. He’s a double agent for the State, and it was his treachery that led the soldiers to the farmhouse at the start of our tale. Soon, Leon has Ian chained up and ready for torture, but even he is allowed a sympathetic moment. “If you’d seen what France was like six years ago, you’d understand,” he says. “I do understand,” replies Ian. “But I can’t help you.” Actor Edward Brayshaw gives a wonderful, rich performance as Leon. It’s a tragedy that it’s almost entirely confined to the lost fourth and fifth episodes of this story.

So where is the Doctor amidst all this cruelty and tyranny? Early on, Susan tells us that the Reign of Terror is his favourite period of history. One might wonder how such a bloody time can be anyone’s favourite, but the Doctor clearly has a taste for revolution. It’s fitting, given how many he will go on to foment across the galaxy. He’s already managed a couple in the few weeks we’ve known him.  However, the Doctor’s particular affection for the Terror is also a writerly sleight of hand, and one that shows Doctor Who undergoing a revolution of its own. Up to this point, the Doctor has needed history teacher Barbara’s insights to help him cope with life in the past. But Dennis Spooner requires the Doctor to be able to slip straight into a position of authority. And so it is that his special study allows him to know the lay of the land and be able to bluff his way at the highest level. We’ve long since taken this sort of thing for granted; that the Doctor knows everything, and can charm his way to the top. These days, he even has a piece of paper that can do the job for him. Here, it’s mostly played for fun, and leads to The Reign of Terror’s best gag, and it’s a visual gag. When the Doctor barters for the uniform of a Regional Officer of the Provinces, it seems to be only the matter of a jacket and a sash. But the writer and director are deliberately holding back the rest of the outfit for the Doctor’s big entrance at the Conciergerie. He comes down the steps like a Vegas showgirl, swishing his cape and with the greater proportion of an ostrich fanning out from the top of his head. Hartnell is clearly in his element.

Sadly, The Reign of Terror rather fizzles to a close in its sixth and final episode. Ian recalls another clue whispered to him in prison. “Nothing specific,” he says. “Just something about Barras, a meeting and a sinking ship. No! The Sinking Ship.” It’s hardly short on detail, so we’re left to wonder what Ian might have considered a specific message. Perhaps he expected a phone number. He and Barbara head to the pub in question, where politician Paul Barras is trying to recruit the next ruler of the country. As our heroes dress as innkeeper and wife, it all feels a little like a Morecambe and Wise sketch, or one of those clumsy plays that the contestants used to act out in the final round of The Generation Game. Napoleon Bonaparte turns up – thoughtfully dressed like Napoleon Bonaparte to aid recognition – and he and Barras make a deal for France while staring intently at the tips of each other’s noses, as if they’re about to kiss.

But there’s one last shock to come, one last reminder of the horror. Back in the fourth episode, the Doctor met with Robespierre and debated the merits of his policy of state-sponsored murder. Even Robespierre himself is granted an understanding emotional beat. “Do you think I want this carnage?” he wails. “What a memory I shall leave behind if this lasts!” And here is the memory of it, given back to us in a TV series for children that adults adore. In the final episode, we’re shown fate catching up with Robespierre. He is shot, off screen, but then dragged out before us, still alive, his hand clamped over his shattered jaw, and blood running through his fingers. It’s wildly violent and vivid by Doctor Who standards, and a last, sobering reminder of why the series doesn’t tackle real history any more.

It’s not that history is in any way less exciting than aliens and monsters, it’s just that if you subtract those aliens and their devious manipulations, then we’re only left with humans committing acts of barbarity against other humans, and often for no other reason than greed, envy and plain old-fashioned hate. Some monsters are simply too monstrous for teatime; especially now that Doctor Who looks more ‘real’ than ever. These old episodes, black and white and presented as if from under a proscenium arch, still have a power, but keep us at a safe distance. Today, with single-camera filming – and likely 3D filming coming soon – we’d be right in there; amongst the cruelty and the violence, pushed up against it. It can’t be done. Especially not with Christmas coming round as often as it does. You don’t want Robespierre’s splintered jaw with your sherry trifle.

But then, perhaps it’s right that not every Doctor has been allowed free access to the more grown-up bits of history. It’s certainly fortunate that it was his first incarnation who blundered into Paris at this time, and not his third. The Third Doctor would share a cheeky Beaujolais with the dandy Leon Colbert, and then get the good guys and the bad guys thoroughly confused. “Jehosaphat!” he’d say. “I should have known he’d be behind all this!” Jo Grant would be slow on the uptake. “Who, Doctor?” she’d squeak, and her friend would have rubbed the back of his neck in frustration. “Did you also fail basic French at that school of yours?” he’d have huffed. “Lemaitre, Jo!”

 

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DVD extras

url-1The big bonus promise of this DVD is an attempt to recreate the lost fourth and fifth episodes of The Reign of Terror using animation. This has clearly drawn upon the efforts of many talented and hard-working artists, to whom must go much praise. Unfortunately, the finished product, due to how it has been compiled and directed for presentation here, can only be judged – with a heavy heart – a failure.

The surviving camera script for part four, The Tyrant of France, tells us that there would have been 52 camera shots in an episode of roughly 24 minutes’ duration. So there would have been a shot change, on average, around twice a minute. At one point in the animated episode four, the shot changes three times in one second. Now, this animation shouldn’t follow the original camera script verbatim, and one understands that additional close-ups are necessary to draw our focus. But here, our ‘camera’ spins wildly around the room. Was there no basic storyboard to work from? The result is frenetic, bewildering at best, and thoroughly distracting at worst. You try to follow the story, but each needless shot change is like someone bellowing in your ear.  Early in the fourth episode, Barbara is concerned that Susan is running a fever, but Leon Colbert tells her not to worry. “We’ve done all CUT! we can CUT! Barbara CUT!” says Leon. “Oh CUT! it’s CUT! probably CUT! a chill CUT!” he adds. But Barbara thinks Susan needs a doctor. “You must CUT! know someone CUT! we can trust?” The director seems to have no sense of how many shot changes the poor human brain can cope with. It’s a quiet little character scene.

The animation is also disappointingly inconsistent. In a sequence at the Conciergerie, the Doctor changes face from shot to shot. One moment he looks like an acquisitive turnip, the next a rather crestfallen pufferfish. Within the generous freedoms of the rules of caricature, each of these might be said to be fair descriptions of William Hartnell’s Doctor. But it’s the flicking back and forth between them that’s the terrible distraction; and then there’s the ‘rotoscope’-traced moments of sudden movement, which feel like they come from another place again. It’s as if the director is cutting madly between two or three different animations of the episode, each tackled in a different style.

What most boggles the mind is that, six years ago, the Doctor Who DVD range gave us animated versions of the two missing episodes of The Invasion. It was a production superior to this in every way; calm, consistent and confidently unshowy. Why the huge leap backwards? Some will claim that any reconstruction is better than none, but surely it’s reasonable to at least expect some progress in the field? Some will also say that to call this project a failure is too cold. In justification of that, it’s worth remembering that the sole purpose of Doctor Who is to transport us to another place, even for just a few fleeting moments – to dislocate us from the here and now. It takes a huge amount of work, from every department, to make the entire production process of Doctor Who dissolve away. One misspoken line, one untucked monster costume. An unconvincing model, green screen or unsuitable soundtrack. Any of these things – and a thousand others – will bring us crashing back to our ordinary sofa in our ordinary living room. But this animation makes no effort at discretion. It’s trying too hard to be noticed. It’s just too… animated. For any hope of feeling transported to the summer of 1794 with the Doctor and his friends, then your only option is to, well… close your eyes and just listen to the soundtrack. And if that isn’t a failure, then what is?

The production documentary Don’t Lose Your Head focuses on The Reign of Terror’s sometimes troubled days in the studio, with help from the detailed memories of Carole Ann Ford (Susan), William Russell (Ian) and production assistant Timothy Combe. Director Henric Hirsch suffered a breakdown on the recording day of the third episode, but the identity of exactly who stepped into his shoes remains a tantalising mystery. It’s a shame that Hirsch could never work on Doctor Who again, because the opening episode of this story proves that he knew his business. However, Carole Ann Ford, for one, certainly found him a struggle to work with. Brace yourself for her vivid retelling of the “Why so maudlin?” story on this documentary. It’s not for the faint of heart.

The clips from The Reign of Terror used in the documentary look like they’ve been filmed through a sock and then scrubbed with wire wool, which brings home the miracle of the restoration work that has been done to the episodes as presented on this DVD. When Lemaitre asks for “the execution list” at the prison, so clear is the picture, we can now see through the back of the sheet of paper that it is neatly titled EXECUTION LIST. Later, he asks for “the execution figures”. Equally neatly: EXECUTION FIGURES. Say what you like about Robespierre, but he kept tidy paperwork. However, there is a small price to be paid for this new clarity. Now, for the first time, we can spot a member of the production team lurking in the background of the first episode. Or perhaps he’s another time traveller, more skilled at staying out of trouble than our lot.

Another tremendous set of ‘Info Text’ subtitles really brings home the magic that was being worked in Studio G at Lime Grove in the summer of ‘64. Doctor Who had been in continuous production for a year, and there were still ten more weeks to go before a break. Every Friday between 8.30pm and 9.45, in a space about the size of a Sainsbury’s Local, another episode would be staged like a play, with even the incidental music played live into the studio. The subtitles take us through every clever trick the team used to weave their adventure in space and time. One favourite detail is that, on Friday 14 August 1964, the day William Hartnell recorded the Doctor’s great promise (“Our destiny is in the stars. Let’s go search for it.”), producer Verity Lambert finally pinned down BBC Controller of Programmes Donald Baverstock and secured a commitment to Doctor Who’s future. 13 more episodes, with an option for 13 more. And – though he never know it – an option for 722 more. And counting.

The audio commentary brings forth some new voices – Jeffrey Wickham (Webster), Neville Smith (D’Argenson) and the great Ronald Pickup, who plays the treacherous physician – with a well-prepped Toby Hadoke on hand to get the best out of them. Another commentary, fascinating in a different way, runs parallel to the long-lost fifth episode, and features ‘missing episode hunters’ Paul Vanezis and Philip Morris.

Morris sounds like a hero for our times. As with many Doctor Who fans of a certain age, the habit of ticking Target books from a list fostered a natural desire to collect the set, to fill the gaps. But when, in 1981, DWM published a list of Doctor Who episodes missing from the BBC Archive, his world was rocked. We all share the sense of dismay that there are these great holes in our common history, but Morris is resolved to bloody well do something about it. As an adult, his work on an offshore oil rig has taken him around Africa. Now, with that experience, he’s formed a company to work with TV archives around the world to help preserve their material.

A recent article in DWM reminds us that many of these archives are in very dangerous parts of the world. There are Home Office Advisory notices issued against travel to the likes of Libya, Uganda and Ethiopia – all of which once broadcast The Reign of Terror and many other lost episodes. But Morris seems determined to leave no stone unturned. “I don’t believe in a no-win scenario,” he says. There’s such a wonderful emotional through-line to this; from the boy who loved Target books to the man knocking on the door of an old TV station down a hot and humid back street in Nairobi or Lusaka. ‘Raiders of the Lost Archive’ is the old cliché headline for a ‘missing episodes’ story, but never has the heroic, exotic sense of it felt more true than here. You feel that if those episodes are there to be found, then Morris is the man who’ll find them.

Doctor Who: The Legacy Collection

17 Feb

A review for Doctor Who Magazine, 2013

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DISC ONE

vlcsnap-2012-08-13-11h19m55s137Many have attempted to complete Shada. But it can never be completed in any meaningful way. That’s because we can never know, for sure, what happens to Skagra’s hat. Similarly, many have pondered whether Shada might have stood as one of Doctor Who’s great, defining adventures. Again, we can never answer that question with any confidence. That’s because we simply don’t know what happens to Skagra’s hat.

First, though, we need to fill in the backstory for any newcomers out there. In 1979, Shada – a wannabe six-part Doctor Who adventure – was abandoned due to industrial action at the BBC, with only its location scenes and one-third of its studio work in the can. In the 1980s, a hooky video of the completed material did the rounds of fandom, copied and re-copied until its contents dissolved into a hissing smear. Lost scenes were summarised in screens of strobing text output from an early home computer. It was a wondrous thing to behold. Then 1992 brought an official BBC Video, the gaps filled with earnest narration from a Tom Baker battling hypnosis by autocue. It’s this version which has been dragged from the brink of obsolescence and cannily tarted up to form the lead feature of this DVD box set. A decade on, 2003 gave us a spectacularly recast BBC Online/Big Finish animated audio adaptation, also available here as a generous extra. And last year brought Gareth Roberts’ superb novelisation, which enriches and improves upon the source material immeasurably. In the future we can look forward to Shada: The Collectible Card Game, and Shada: The Interpretive Dance Experience, performed twice daily in a shopping centre near you. Shada will just keep on coming. And that’s because, far from being cut short, it has secured its place as the story that will never end.

Skagra is the villain of Shada. It’s a suitably unlovely name for an unlovely sneer of a man. Few characters in Doctor Who have ever looked more intrinsically cruel. His babyish face is fringed with curls, but his features are sharp, like a putto; a vengeful cherub. He has a rip of a scar down his forehead and right cheek. The cause of this scar is, with uncommon restraint for Doctor Who, never revealed, but Skagra wears it with pride. He is clearly every inch the scoundrel, from the hem of his long white cape to the brim of his huge white hat.

It’s a sun hat, of sorts; the kind you might have found Jackie Onassis sheltering beneath on a weekend at the Hamptons. For added pizazz, there’s a spattered constellation of sequins. It’s an uncompromising fashion statement; and Skagra, marvellously, doesn’t give a damn what we think about it. When we first see him in present-day Cambridge, he turns to camera and smirks right back at us. “Yeah?” he’s saying. “What of it?” Truly, he is a man to be reckoned with. Unfortunately, all this boiling self-belief can do nothing to distract us from the fact that he looks absolutely bloody ridiculous.

Skagra has come to Cambridge from space, in search of a leather-bound Time Lord plot device: ‘The Worshipful and Ancient Law of Gallifrey’. He speaks with a precise, clipped voice, like a Nazi from a Sherlock Holmes movie. It’s a measured performance from actor Christopher Neame, who knows he has to take the character a long way up, and then a long way down, from here. “I have come…” he tells Time Lord-in-hiding Professor Chronotis “…for the bok.” He pronounces the word ‘book’ in just the way a chicken might. “Give me. The bok.” And Skagra gets his bok eventually – thanks to rank stupidity on the part of the Doctor, who’s pelting about Cambridge on a bicycle – after which he takes Romana prisoner and steals the TARDIS. At this point, following a brief dalliance with polyester trousers, Skagra’s back in his hat. He’s clearly very attached to it.

And there’s the problem. Due to the structure of the recording schedule, Neame only recorded one other scene as Skagra before the plug was pulled on Shada. It’s his final moment in the story, by which point he’s a ranting, twitching maniac, driven to distraction – round the bend and loop-the-loop – by the Doctor, who becomes the Inspector Clouseau to Skagra’s Commissioner Dreyfus. And here’s the thing: by this point, Skagra’s not wearing the hat. So when does he lose it? Or, more to the point: for how long would he have worn it? Just how many unrecorded scenes might that hat have stolen? We will never know.

Judging by the script, all the best missing scenes of Shada would have featured Skagra. That calm, confident theft of the TARDIS would have been shocking in the extreme. How rare is it that we see someone other than the Doctor at the controls of his ship, let alone a villain? And though Skagra lacks the charm of the best of the Doctor’s rivals, he roundly outclasses the Master and the like in terms of ambition. Skagra’s plan to become “the Universal mind” – a single intelligence displacing every other consciousness in creation – is an absolute belter of a wheeze, and surely one of Doctor Who’s top five most imaginative evil schemes. Two of the others also come with Douglas Adams’ name on their scripts, but Shada lacks the cosy, cheering upholstery of The Pirate Planet and City of Death – there’s no robot parrot or multiple Mona Lisas – and instead looks toward a colder, higher place in the grand scheme of things. In what might well have been Shada’s most striking scene, Skagra outlines his philosophy to Romana: “Billions of atoms spinning at random,” he says of the Universe. “Expanding energy, running down – achieving nothing. Entropy! But what is the one thing that stands against entropy, against random decay?” And here Skagra would have paused for effect before answering his own question. “Life!

It’s a great irony that, the following year, incoming script editor Christopher H Bidmead would claim to be restoring scientific rigour to a Doctor Who that had become too whimsical. He would give us Logopolis; another story about how the exercise of the mind, the power of rational thought, will be the only way to save the Universe from entropic decay, from running down to nothing. But who would have played this theme better in their season finale: Adams or Bidmead? Well, there’s the rub. Skagra’s big speech about the ultimate destiny of existence is all well and good, but it might have been fatally undermined if delivered while looking like Joan Collins dressed to impress the paparazzi.

But let’s put the unseen and the unknown to one side for a moment, and ponder some of Shada’s more familiar pleasures. The trick – as with most things in life – is to not let the familiarity diminish the joy. The revelation that Professor Chronotis’s Cambridge rooms are a secret TARDIS, for example, is a total blinder. And that first appearance by Skagra on the bridge over the river Cam is a brilliant bit of scripting, as we’ve only just seen him draining brains somewhere and somewhen in outer space. His look-to-camera is really intended to say: “Yes, I’m here too! Good, isn’t it?” It’s certainly some cocksure storytelling, as the Doctor and Romana float blithely beneath in an out-of-control punt.

The punting sequence was, of course, co-opted for use in The Five Doctors, and so is doubly familiar. We know it so well we could recite it as a catechism. The leaves, the colours. May Week’s in June. So was the TARDIS. Definitely Newton. The duck that laughs “waak! waak! waak!” along with Lalla Ward and Tom Baker’s erudite banter. The scene is a goosebumpy breath on the back of our necks, enough to make our fan gene shiver to attention. And here, cleaned up for DVD, and in its proper context, it looks achingly beautiful. The leafiness of those leaves, the colour of those colours. It’s a perfect moment of Doctor Who, caught in a timeless bubble of eternal sunshine.

And it’s perfect for a box set celebrating the legacy of Doctor Who, here on the cusp of anniversary year. For, with this version of Shada, nostalgia settles upon us in layers, because it comes to us from so many different times at once. It comes via The Five Doctors in 1983. It comes from Tom Baker’s wonderfully batty museum-set introduction to the 1992 video, where he wittily re-enters Doctor Who from the exit. “I was irresistible in those days!” he says, which is true enough, but he’s no less irresistible in his recalling of it. In addition, this Shada was put together by 80s producer John Nathan-Turner – and it was a hard-fought labour of love, we must remember – who invited one of his favourite musicians, Keff McCulloch, to provide a score, and so our senses are also jabbed by the flatulent synthesizers of the Sylvester McCoy era. Shada is probably the composer’s most agreeable work for Doctor Who; but then, asking this viewer to name Keff McCulloch’s most enjoyable soundtrack is like asking him to name his most enjoyable toothache.

We now also have a whole new context granted to the story by Doctor Who’s reaffirmed mainstream success. What’s most striking, looking at Shada afresh, is how modern it all is. It’s remarkably assured in the way it plays with familiar situations. For example, we’re tickled by being shown the TARDIS in Chronotis’s room some time before we see the Doctor. Later, when de facto companion Chris Parsons is sent into the ship in search of a first aid kit, the wit is not so much in Romana’s lengthy directions, but in the way actor Daniel Hill exits the police box out of breath, having run all the way back. This playfulness trusts to our intelligence, and is much how Russell T Davies or Steven Moffat might flatter us.

Of course, with two and a half hours to fill, there’s more time for characters to talk. They may do that weird, old fashioned thing of sitting down when they do it, but it’s still recognisably the continuing rolling banter of today’s Doctor Who. The Doctor and Romana’s extended chat with Chronotis is so carefully rehearsed by the cast as to be almost sitcom. A favourite moment is when the Professor is asked why he called the Doctor to Cambridge. “It’s a delicate matter,” says Chronotis, and Romana respectfully looks away, as if the problem might be something only to be discussed between Time Lads. She imagines, maybe, that the Professor wants to show the Doctor a worrisome rash he’s found around his old, y’know, Eye of Harmony.

But Tom Baker looks tired. Around this time, by his own account, our star was burning the candle at both ends while taking a blowtorch to the middle. Or perhaps it’s the same ill-health that would reportedly dog his next and final series as the Doctor, rendering it a muted postscript to his glittering reign. Some of his most Doctor-ish lines don’t quite land with their usual seemingly effortless, perfect placement. But perhaps he would have rallied had production continued – and then, what other great moments of Doctor Who might we have lost?

Well… Quite possibly Doctor Who’s most outrageous climax of all time. And, as ever, it all comes back to that hat.

It’s the big Part Six showdown. On one side of Skagra’s bright yellow command centre, we have the man himself, quite possibly glowering from beneath a large sequined brim. On the other side is the Doctor, who has done everything in his power to out-hat his enemy. The helmet that the Doctor would have built to deflect Skagra’s mind power is described in the script as “having a jagged piece of table attached to it”. Imagine, then, the kind of understated performance we’d have got from a Season Seventeen Tom Baker, on the last day of term, with a piece of table on his head. But even that’s not the half of it. The hat that was actually built is described in the production subtitles of this DVD as having “a rotating drum, covered in flashing lights”. As the Doctor himself would have commented: “With this on my head, it won’t matter whether it works or not. They’ll all be paralysed laughing at me.” And so, it’s sequins versus lights. Evil Quentin Crisp versus a one-man walking wedding disco. As battles go, it’s titfer tat. It would have been perfectly glorious. Or exquisitely embarrassing.

Of course, this is Doctor Who; where, much like Skagra’s hat, it’s quite possible to be both at same time. But the unique thrill of Shada is that we can never, ever know for sure. And – for a series that we have all sliced and diced and roundly ranked and rated to six decimal places, several times over – that uncertainty, that mystery, is perhaps the most valuable thing of all.

DISC TWO

urlThere are many kinds of legacy. And Shada comes with no end of them, as some fine DVD extras remind us.

A first-class set of ‘info text’ production subtitles runs alongside the main feature. It is a consummate piece of storytelling in itself, with the sad story of Shada’s demise – at 11.45am on Friday 30 November 1979 – intercut with a wealth of wonderful trivia. We’re told that Tom Baker was busy in the week before location filming helping to launch a new comic. And so, we can infer, that while the Doctor is pursued on his bike through Cambridge by Skagra’s ‘mind sphere’ in Part Two, he cycles past shops in which the first issue of the very magazine you are holding would have been on sale. There’s a legacy for you.

A wistful production documentary takes members of the cast and crew back to Cambridge, while Baker comments from the bucolic bliss of a walk in the woods with his ebullient lurcher, Poppy. It’s a lovely programme as far as it goes, but sadly stunted in its ambition. Could not more effort have been made into giving some sense of the unmade Shada? Designs exist for Skagra’s command ship and for the titular prison planet of the Time Lords, so wouldn’t this have been the perfect occasion to revive the DVD range’s former obsession with 3D computer modelling of old sets? Couldn’t we have finally had a little poke around Shada? We could have opened cell doors like an advent calendar until a Zygon popped out.

The cast and production team talk about how bonded the crew of Shada became during filming. Actor Daniel Hill – surely a shoo-in for the lead role in Steven Moffat: The Motion Picture – tells us of how he fell in love with production assistant Olivia Bazalgette. They went on to marry, and now have three children together. Now there’s a legacy for you.

(However, Shada’s finest legacy – while we’re on the subject – is to be found elsewhere. For that, you need to seek out Lalla Ward’s talking book version of Gareth Roberts’ novelisation. It is, for sure, the very best way to enjoy Shada. Lalla gives her all playing Skagra’s spaceship; a female artificial intelligence who is persuaded by the Doctor to reprogram herself, and is thoroughly seduced by his Time Lord touch. “Ooh!” says Lalla. “Ooh. Ooooh! That hit the spot, Doctor.” And when you stop to think about who is taking about whom, and what they were up to at the time Shada was in production, you perceive that there really is no end to the madness.)

Strike! Strike! is a first-class documentary looking at the effect of BBC union action on Doctor Who, for good or ill, down the years. It’s a sobering reminder of how lucky we were that Warhead – the serial planned to end Season 20 but abandoned due to strike action – was revived for Season 21 as Resurrection of the Daleks. Can you imagine how many half-baked fan productions of that we would have had to sit through? Meanwhile, former Doctor Who and Sarah Jane Adventures script editor Gary Russell recalls how, back when he worked in a more junior capacity at the Beeb in the 1980s, the management would stamp a little picture of a Christmas tree on the staff files of any likely troublemakers. Russell expresses pride at the fact his file came with two Christmas trees. It’s likely that this is because he was seen as a Trotskyite rabble-rouser – the Roj Blake of the BBC press office – but more enquiring minds might wonder if it was just because of his unreconstructed, unconscionable views on the subject of City of Death.

Watching the documentary Being A Girl must be the closest one can get in this world to experiencing Sutekh’s ultimate doom after the Doctor nobbled his time-space corridor. The start and end of the programme telescope away to infinity, until it feels like one has somehow always been watching it. Its stated objective is to explore the role of women in Doctor Who; their empowerment or otherwise. A female production team would have been a nice idea for a project like this, but instead just two contributors – DWM’s Time Team’s Emma Price and broadcaster Samira Ahmed – are expected to carry the whole thing, fending off a series of eye-crossingly long-winded questions as best they can. Ahmed, discussing the earliest roles for women in Doctor Who over some footage of Barbara Wright, says: “The women in it are kind of whiny, and they’re kind of high-pitched in their voices. And they’re kind of going round like Margaret Thatcher… With their kind of set hair, and sort of corsets.” As statements go, it almost fulfils the 1963 brief for Doctor Who itself; reaching forwards in time, backwards in time, and kind of sideways into a parallel dimension where it might sort of make the slightest sense at all.

DISC THREE

url-1The other star feature of this box set, the documentary More Than 30 Years in the TARDIS, would have been within its rights to harangue its agent for top billing. It’s one of the crown jewels of the BBC Video and DVD range, and simply a glorious job of work from director Kevin Davies and his team.

An extended version of a programme originally made for BBC One to celebrate Doctor Who’s first three decades, More Than 30 Years piles joy upon joy, pleasure upon pleasure. Hundreds of skilfully curated archive clips are wrapped up with witty star interviews and then tied with a wonderful ribbon of specially-shot drama, featuring the perilous adventures of an imaginative young Doctor Who fan and a hit parade of old monsters. And now, in 2013, with the documentary itself being 20 years old, it’s nostalgia squared.

“Squeezed between the football results and the Tellygoons, a legend was born.” “An essential belief in the ‘rightness’ of things.” “A real popped-up engine.” “The colour for monsters is gween.” “I screamed my way out of the show.” These are just a few of the phrases that have earned their place in the Doctor Who book of quotations along with any of the Doctor’s own most memorable quips. But this viewer’s favourite will always be from a conversation about 1960s movie Daleks between actresses Jennie Linden and Roberta Tovey. “They shot foam, didn’t they?” recalls Linden, aka Big Screen Barbara. “Fire extinguishers,” corrects Big Screen Susan, politely enough, recalling the belching blasts of carbon dioxide vapour. “Yes. That’s the word I was looking for…” replies Babs. “Foam.” Whatever the mundane truth of the matter, she’s bloody well going to have the last word.

Thanks to this DVD, it’s a pleasure to see again so many who have since passed, looking so full of vim and vigour, piss and vinegar. And there are many others looking so wonderfully young. In his trademark polo neck, Terrance Dicks could be leaning out of the back flap of a WH Allen Doctor Who novelisation. Nicola Bryant, however, somehow looks exactly the same in 1993 as she does today. Here, she appears in her best-ever scene with her Doctor, Colin Baker, making warm and witty repartee as a troop of Cyberman follow them down the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral. If they’d been allowed to play Peri and the Doctor like this, without the dead hand of script editor Eric Saward steering their doomed ship, then the history of Doctor Who would have been very different indeed.

But More Than 30 Years’ finest moment comes with its great, final coup de théâtre, as the young boy we’ve been following through the film walks up to the TARDIS, looks back over his shoulder in a seeming moment of doubt, but then smiles and pushes open the door. And then… Oh, and then… For the first time ever, the camera tracks into the control room in what appears to a single, sweeping shot. Accompanied by Mark Ayres’ elegiac music, it’s pure magic, and one of Doctor Who’s most glorious moments. It’s taken another two decades – until our recent Christmas special in fact – for the series itself to deliver a scene for the TARDIS with anything like the same emotional wallop.

More Than 30 Years alone makes this box set an essential purchase. May we dream that the BBC might produce anything half as good to mark the 50th anniversary. However, in an appalling oversight, given the significance of this programme, there’s no commentary from Davies, Ayres or any of the team. There’s a host of tall tales to be told from behind the scenes. How could there not be? One day in TV Centre alone brought together Toyah Willcox, Mike Gatting, Jennie Linden, Roberta Tovey, Roy Castle, Ian Levine and the Emperor Dalek all in a single studio.

Finally, this third disc is rounded out with a few more orphan DVD extras that have drifted in to fill out this already packed release.

Nicholas Courtney Remembered is the least of them; a shoddy tribute to our late Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, based around a few minutes of interview with a clearly very unwell Courtney. The interview couldn’t be completed, and makes for uncomfortable viewing. It should have been abandoned – with regret, of course – but has instead been stitched into this ghastly Frankenstein’s monster of a programme. A tribute compiled purely from archive material, and memories of Courtney’s colleagues, would have been far more appropriate.

One last highlight is Those Deadly Divas, which – as the title alone suggests – does more to celebrate the emancipation of women in Doctor Who than Disc Two’s Being A Girl. It appears to have been on the shelf at 2entertain for some years – probably because of the poor sound quality, having seemingly been recorded in a nightclub toilet.

Kate O’Mara, Tracy-Ann Oberman and Camille Coduri discuss some totemic Doctor Who villainesses. The fun is that they’ve actually watched the episodes in question. There’s a special joy to hearing Jackie Tyler discussing Silver Nemesis in some detail, or the Rani expressing envy of the potent sexuality of Captain Wrack. Shada novelist and TV writer Gareth Roberts entertains with typically droll asides, while former DWM editor Clayton Hickman floats the idea that, in creating Tracy-Ann Oberman’s Doctor Who character – Army of Ghosts’ flamboyant Torchwood boss Yvonne Hartman – writer Russell T Davies was giving us a female version of himself. It’s a persuasive theory, but it only raises another question: has Steven Moffat also written his anima – his suppressed feminine unconscious – into the series?

Hmm… Scots firebrand Amelia Pond, you say? Don’t be silly. It has to be Madame Kovarian. She gets things done. She favours season finales. She’s got the hairdo. If Daniel Hill’s not available for The Moffat Movie, then surely Frances Barber’s a cert.

The Ambassadors of Death

2 Jan

A review of the DVD for Doctor Who Magazine, from 2012

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dvd-ambasadors‘Exile’ is too grand a description for the sentence handed down to the Doctor at the end of his original trial. Aside from changing his face – which admittedly could be argued to be a form of capital punishment – all the Time Lords really do is wheelclamp the Doctor’s ship and so deny him access to his favourite of his usual four dimensions. However, while our hero can no longer trip through time, his new incarnation still thrusts out unceasingly in every remaining direction. The first thing he does is to take a vehicle without the owner’s consent – a crime for which he has form, to say the least – after which he barely sits still for a moment. And in the seven-episode adventures that dominate his first year on Earth, we see him explore, in turn, all three dimensions still available to him. To meet the Silurians, he plunges down into the ground. Later, he’ll shimmy sideways into a parallel reality. And this week – to meet the Ambassadors of Death – he rockets straight up into the sky.

These three seven-parters are some of the most measured and mature Doctor Who you can find for your money, although there’s no denying that Ambassadors is the least of them. In being obliged to do more than merely vamp their way to a deferred climax, these longer-than-usual adventures each bridge, like a sonata, to a middle development section that takes us somewhere new; into a darker, minor key. Think of The Silurians and Inferno, with their sidesteps into plague and fiery apocalypse. Ambassadors flips the form. Much of the story is as gloomy and grounded as Doctor Who gets. But in its central digression, it’s all spaceships, hypnosis, trippy Chromakey and a wafty alien who means well but is tragically misunderstood. At this point, producer Barry Letts and script editor Terrance Dicks must have shared a look of mutual understanding. The counterpoint for Ambassadors goes on to become the major repeating refrain for the rest of the Third Doctor’s era.

We have to be careful about describing any Doctor Who adventure as realistic, especially if it tells the story of manned missions to Mars launched from Hampshire in the depths of winter, controlled by a staff roughly the size of that you’d find in a Tesco Metro. But Ambassadors was imagined as taking place a good decade after the time it was made; and in 1970, the idea of delivering an Englishman to Mars would not have seemed so wildly optimistic. Sadly, the world has rather let us down on that score, but the vision of the day-after-tomorrow offered by this adventure remains more readily believable than the T-Mat network, the Gravitron or UNIT’s flying flagship Valiant. Indeed, Ambassadors would prove plausible in an immediate and unique way. On the 13th of April 1970, an oxygen tank exploded on board the service module of Apollo 13, the USA’s third manned mission to the moon. The world held its breath as Commander James Lovell and his crew fought to improvise a new air filtration system and bring the command capsule safely back to Earth. Episode 5 of The Ambassadors of Death, broadcast five days later, saw the Doctor blast off into space, and to his seemingly inevitable death in a sabotaged capsule. These days, it would be surely pulled from the schedule for too closely mirroring a real-life tragedy. It’s a peculiar tribute to Ambassadors’ spirited struggle for realism; a struggle that gives this story a special charm, and makes it a refreshing diversion from Doctor Who’s more familiar forays into the fantastic.

This struggle for realism isn’t shared by every aspect of the production to quite the same degree, however. Take British Space Command for example, where controller Ralph Cornish is in charge of the Recovery 7 mission, dispatched to rescue the crew of the ill-fated Mars Probe 7. Cornish is played by Ronald Allen, who become better known in the 70s as Crossroads’ dishy David Hunter; a performance that would go on to inspire the character of Mr Clifford in Victoria Wood’s tribute to TV melodrama, Acorn Antiques. And so it is that one can’t help but relish a retrospective whiff of Mr Clifford about Mr Cornish (“Did you get bored of Geneva, Brigadier? Or did Geneva get bored of you?”). While issuing commands, Allen keeps his eyes fixed on some distant horizon, as if in steadfast expectation of a bus that’s never going to come. Later in the story, when choosing fuel for his rocket, he has to say: “What about reducing the G by mixing K and M3?” and Allen is so endearingly earnest, we truly believe he’s formulating the next giant leap for mankind. Somewhat less convincing is the mission’s chief scientist, Dr Bruno Taltalian, who comes with an outrrrageous Franche eggsant and facial hair so evidently false that when he first removes his glasses you expect his beard to go with them.

TheAmbassadorsofDeath1-7avi_0001704The Doctor is watching the Recovery 7 mission on TV at UNIT HQ. He’s ripped out the TARDIS’s control console for a good tinker in his laboratory. Or at least we assume this is the case. The more whimsical might note that there’s nothing to say that this isn’t a new design of the TARDIS control room. With its flock wallpaper, stained glass and Meissen porcelain, it has a Jules Verne, fin de siècle decadence that rather suits our time traveller. It’s certainly a more homely environment for the Doctor than the TARDIS’s current TV incarnation, which looks like the inside of a migraine. Also offering a new look is his assistant Liz Shaw, who this week is exhibiting a wig of such extravagant proportion she could surely be slingshot head first into the offside of the Hoover Dam and walk away unscathed. Without doubt, Liz is the most glamorous research scientist ever to have graced the corridors of Doctor Who. One of her five degrees from Cambridge must have been in Applied Funky Fashion. After she’s kidnapped later in the story, the Brigadier reports: “I’ve issued Miss Shaw’s description to every police force in the country.” That must have been some conversation. “What’s that? Any distinguishing features? Well. A huge white hat. Miniskirt. Knee-high white boots… Yes, like Yoko Ono on her wedding day. Last seen in the sort of car you find the clowns driving at the circus. Oh, and she can look surprisingly mannish from a distance. And did I mention the big ginger wig? Hello? Are you still there?”

A screeching transmission from Mars Probe 7 brings the Doctor to Space Command and straight into the story’s best scene – well, its best non-action scene – as the Doctor insists that the signal is a coded message, and bullies Cornish through to the logical conclusion that a second signal must be a reply from Earth. The Doctor is so wildly pompous you want to stand up and cheer, and the Brigadier gets to play what will become Jo Grant’s role, hinting to the Doctor that he might get further by at least feigning some manners and respect for the local hierarchy. Set against the resolutely modernist backdrop of the control room, the Doctor seems positively reactionary. “I never did trust those things!” he huffs about Taltalian’s computer. And when the Frenchman – revealed to be a double agent – demands a vital data reel, the Doctor even seems to call upon supernatural powers, as the tape vanishes before our very eyes. “Zis is no time fer conjerin’ tricks,” insists Taltalian, and you can’t help but agree. “That was simply transmigration of object,” smarms the Doctor. “There’s a great deal of difference between that and real science, you know.” It’s one small moment, but so contrary to the spirit of Doctor Who that it makes you want to climb into your television set, crawl back 40 years, and give everyone involved a firm slap about the face with a stiff halibut. What’s especially galling is that Episode 1 has already offered a plausible set-up for this tomfoolery, thanks to a faulty TARDIS component which has the Doctor and Liz vanishing and reappearing in exactly the same way. Couldn’t the Doctor have had that in his pocket?

Perhaps this was a detail lost in the serial’s troubled journey from story to screen. The scripts for Ambassadors are the work of four writers – the credited David Whitaker, plus Malcolm Hulke, script editor Terrance Dicks and his assistant Trevor Ray. It’s thanks to Dicks in particular that the thing coheres at all, but due to this troubled development Ambassadors never quite comes into focus, never quite builds a momentum. But while it fails to make the most of its potential, it certainly delivers its share of kinetic energy, principally in three wonderful action sequences cooked up by director Michael Ferguson and Derek Ware’s stunt crew Havoc.

In Episode 1, UNIT tracks the source of the transmission to Mars Probe 7 to an abandoned warehouse. The baddies, though briefed not to kill anyone, come out all guns blazing, and soon bodies are crashing through tea chests as stuntmen boldly trampoline hither and yon. Somewhere in the Home Counties must be found the Tomb of the Unknown UNIT Soldier; a massive cenotaph topped by a simple relief of Pat Gorman. Meanwhile, as bullets ricochet around the Brigadier, he falls into a kind of blood frenzy, blasting away in all directions, before it all ends in a wonderfully butch and sweaty stand-off. This probably wasn’t the evening when the Brigadier went home, bounced daughter Kate on his knee and told her his hippy idea about letting the science lead the military.

There’s more action, and better, in Episode 2. Recovery 7 has crashed back to Earth – supposedly with the rescued astronauts aboard – but the villains hijack the UNIT convoy taking the capsule back to Space Command. A helicopter swoops in. Smoke bombs boom and belch. Riders are thrown from motorbikes as they slew sideways in the mud. A soldier briefly clings to one of the skids of the chopper and, while in flight, tries to wrench open the door – but then drops and tumbles down a ravine. In our modern era, Doctor Who, with generous budgets and all the artistry and processing power of The Mill, delivers many a thrilling action sequence. But we still know green screen when we see it – in 2012, just as in 1970 – and so it is that no one else, to this day, has managed to convey the same sense of true and present danger as Havoc at their most fearless. In Episode 3, Liz Shaw is chased pell-mell across a rugby pitch by two heavies, and then, played at key moments by stuntman Roy Scamell, along a weir. For the cliffhanger, Liz tumbles to her seeming-certain doom in the torrent of water below. It all looks mind-bogglingly dangerous, and we shall never see its like again. It’s also the moment when Liz Shaw proves herself a premier league assistant; by keeping her hat firmly jammed on her head throughout, and for giving one of her pursuers a proper wallop of a backhander.

But for all that Ambassadors enjoys getting out and about, it certainly chooses some gloomy terrain. It’s all mist and mud, slurry pit and slag heap. In one chilling scene, two grey-faced corpses are taken to a concrete works, dragged from the back of a van and slowly buried under a landslide of mixed aggregates. However, despite all this gritty action, even by Episode 4 there’s barely been enough plot to fill an egg cup, and what there is seems to pull in every possible direction. The villain of the piece is revealed to be the cold fish General Carrington, who is at times underplayed almost to nothing by John Abineri, which is what makes him so forgettable. The General, we learn, was part of the Mars Probe 6 mission – presumably to investigate the effect of zero gravity upon toupee tape – and saw his crewmate killed by aliens. Exactly how the cause of this death was explained away is anyone’s guess; certainly UNIT knows nothing about it.

originalCarrington has gone on to kidnap three alien ambassadors as part of a plan to provoke Earth into launching a pre-emptive strike against what he believes to be possible invaders, but who the Doctor knows to be essentially benign. Carrington’s chief lackey is Reegan – a more engaging performance from William Dysart – whose principal ambition seems to be to use the alien ambassadors as history’s most high-maintenance team of bank robbers. Quite why Reegan and Carrington cart the space-suited beings back and forth in a van just to commit the odd murder is entirely unfathomable, but it does give us the story’s signature visual moment as one of the ambassadors stalks towards us out of the low evening sun, the light flaring and spotting across his sinister silhouette. Michael Ferguson had pulled the same trick with an Ice Warrior on Hampstead Heath a year earlier, but here he nails it. It’s as beautifully contrived a shot as any you’ll find in the whole history of Doctor Who.

The disconnection of motive and action is, again, the result of the fractured writing process. It’s also why time seems to move at different speeds in different places. At one point, Liz escapes her captors merely to run straight into Bruno Taltalian, who has just appeared in the previous scene, set many miles away. But here he is in a car, suddenly dressed as Sherlock Holmes, and with nary a hint of a French accent.

When the end comes, it comes in a rush, and not with a bang but a whimper. Carrington is poised to unveil his aliens to the world, until the Doctor and UNIT pile in to stop him, and then the General simply hands over his gun and submits himself for arrest. His motivation turns out to be madness brought on by extreme xenophobia – or possibly vice versa – and though this might explain his wildly illogical scheme, it’s not exactly satisfying. From the aliens themselves we don’t hear another peep. And although our hero shows suitably Doctorish compassion toward Carrington, even he seems entirely indifferent as to what might happen next, and casually saunters off the side of the set.

This lack of engagement with the emotions of its characters is why only the swagger and flash of  Ambassadors tends to linger in the memory. Or perhaps it’s the fact that so much of the story features hopeless conspirators waving guns and shouting things like: “I need you to raid a number of isotope stores!”

Ambassadors is a fundamentally schizophrenic adventure. With its guns and gangsters on one side, and rocket ships and exploding briefcases on the other, it can’t seem to decide if wants to be The Ipcress File or Joe 90. But, in much the same way as The Mind Robber, The Happiness Patrol, Love & Monsters, or any of our other favourite eccentrics, The Ambassadors of Death pushes at the boundaries of what we might normally expect of Doctor Who, and should always be cherished for that.

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DVD EXTRAS

deathSHIPLINK-1The production documentary, Mars Probe 7: Making the Ambassadors of Death, opens to urgent strings and stock footage of Apollo 13, and seems set to investigate this adventure’s historical context. You’re braced for Dr Matthew Sweet stalking the corridors of the Science Museum in Dr River Song’s spacesuit; but, alas, we are denied that pleasure. Instead, the highlight is footage from a 1970 documentary about Havoc, which, accompanied by new interviews with the boys themselves, delivers a dizzying whirl of masculinity, derring-do and – let’s be frank – unexpected homoeroticism. After a hard day on the Doctor Who set, the Havoc boys would enjoy a right old rave-up. They’d drink together, go dancing together, or merely share a shower and a sauna. Footage from those communal ablutions allows us to carefully assess Derek Ware’s claim that “Roy Scammell has extremely good legs”, and much more besides.

The stuntmen are also the stars of an excellent commentary, where they take centre stage for the action-heavy second episode. We learn that Alan Chuntz – who spent much of the 70s disappearing head first over Jon Pertwee’s left shoulder – also taught kung fu to the Kray twins, had an uncanny resemblance to Charles Aznavour, and drove a London taxi in his spare time. Come to mention it, this section of the commentary, so thick with avuncular Cockney charm, is rather like finding yourself discussing Doctor Who with your cab driver.  “These days, they’re defying the laws of physics with all that CGI, ain’t they?” opines Derek Ware from the driver’s seat, or possibly hanging from the front bumper. You nod in agreement. This is from a man who knows how important it is to respect the laws of physics. They’ll always get you in the end, especially if you’re tumbling head over heels for Jon Pertwee.

Toby Hadoke moderates the commentary with his customary skill and insight. We must be grateful for whatever quirk of scheduling led to it being taped so far ahead of release. The fact that three contributors – Nick Courtney, Caroline John and Peter Halliday – have died since its recording is a sobering reminder of the great blanket of silence that is slowly unrolling over the history of Doctor Who. And then Terrance Dicks refers to The Sarah Jane Adventures in the present tense, and your breath catches once more.

Ultimately, however, the great, great joy of this release is to see The Ambassadors of Death returned to full colour for the first time since 1970. The sharp little cruelty of this story is that while the first episode survives in perfect condition, the rest has had to be recoloured and reassembled from a wide range of lesser material by the Restoration Team and associates. This task required astonishing ingenuity and invention, and untold hours of tedious amendment and correction by hand. The results can never be perfect, and the finished product is, by necessity, a patchwork. In Episode 3, for example, Liz Shaw’s wig gives off a comforting golden glow, like a Belisha beacon on a foggy night. But it’s nothing short of a miracle that there’s colour here at all. And it’s a shocking omission – scandalous, in fact – that those responsible are not credited anywhere on the DVD or the packaging. And so: thank you, Richard Russell, for your dedicated work on colour recovery; thank you, Peter Crocker, for the painstaking effort required in pulling it all together; thank you, Jonathan Wood, for the final grading; and thank you, Mark Ayres, for your exacting sound restoration.

As all these wonderful episodes are restored to us, one is left gawping open-mouthed in awe at quite how bloody clever people can be.

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Nightmare of Eden

8 Jun

A review of the DVD for Doctor Who Magazine, from 2012

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There’s something seriously awry with the laws of physics out on the west side of the Milky Way. Things just don’t move in the way you’d expect. The mighty space liner Empress, for example, instead of gliding on a steady trajectory through space, just kind of… wafts about the place. The cargo ship Hecate, heading in the opposite direction, takes a similarly non-traditional approach to kinetics. Newton never framed a law for this kind of motion, nor Einstein an equation. Both vessels are orbiting the blue-green holiday planet of Azure, which spins silently beneath them. Well, I say ‘spins’. It turns in a series of hesitant twitches, which must have grave consequences when it comes to the conservation of momentum, and render life down on the surface entirely vexing; what with crockery flying everywhere, and the water forever slopping out of one’s bath. And I say ‘silently’. Musician Dudley Simpson – realising that all this interstellar spectacle might appear to be no more than a couple of crudely animated and chromakeyed models – is trying to makes things feel suitably solid and stately by bellowing “Fortissimo, cobbers! Fortissimo!” at his brass section. With a suitably blaring and adventurous main theme, Dudley almost saves the day.

Given how randomly the spaceships bob around out here, accidents must happen. Nightmare of Eden opens with a doozy. The Empress, in a partially materialised form, whacks into the smaller ship and solidifies around it, leaving the little red Hecate sticking out of its side like a tranquilising dart in a hippopotamus. This is all far-out sci-fi fun, but when we step aboard the Empress, life feels far more familiar. Indeed, if we excuse how flimsy the interior of the ship appears at points – and if we can accept that there might ever be a time when it will be considered acceptable for a middle-aged man in a position of authority to wear a glittery lycra top outside of his own home – then Nightmare of Eden will surely prove to be Doctor Who’s most accurate prediction of the future of space travel. It’s all so believably mundane. The Empress flies “the milk run”, we’re told. “Station 9 to Azure. Azure to Station 9.” Given the giddy excitement of the passengers in cattle class, this is a clearly a holiday package tour, probably run by a future version of one of today’s low-cost airlines; EasyWarp, perhaps, or RyanSpace. On booking, our passengers would have been miffed to discover additional charges for loan of protective overalls and glasses. This is clearly exploitation, because none of the crew have to wear them. Later, when Dymond, the aggrieved owner of the Hecate, arrives on board to remonstrate with Captain Rigg, the talk is not of science, but of blame and claim. “We’re fully covered comprehensive on all third party damage,” says Rigg. “The company will compensate you.” When the Doctor and Romana join in, they pose as insurance agents, which is great fun. It’s a bit of whimsy, of course, but so fresh and clever and neat, it kicks the story off with great vigour; an energy it maintains across all four episodes.

As the Doctor sets about separating the ships, Romana heads to the Empress’s first class lounge, where she meets a xenozoologist called Tryst and his dreary assistant Della. Tryst speaks with a thick, slurred accent that might be Dutch, German, or the result of a serious stroke. Either way, he could make a name for himself as the Low Countries’ leading Liza Minnelli impersonator. But Tryst is a busy man, on a mission to catalogue “effry speches in da galaxy”. That’s an awful lot of speches, so Tryst is clearly a man of no small ambition. He hopes to meet “a sponshur on Ashur” – something which one hopes will be easier done than said. He’s the inventor of the Continuous Event Transmuter, a machine which can hoover up and compress a chunk of a planet’s surface, and all “der floura und der fawna”, into a crystal, with this miniaturised microcosm then available for viewing on a screen. The Doctor calls it “an electric zoo”, but what Tryst has actually invented is surely the ideal medium for the broadcast of I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here. It would allow a jungle full of the likes of Gillian McKeith, Paul Burrell and Coronation Street’s Antony Cotton to be captured in a single crystal that could then be easily and conveniently stepped on. Most of the planets offered by the CET Machine – Vij, Zil, Lvan, Darp – sound like brands of oven cleaner you’d find in a pound shop, so it’s no surprise that Romana’s attention is drawn to Eden. When she dials up the projection the camera slowly tracks in, and shadows in the foliage resolve into the shape of a face peering right back at us. It’s a spine-tingling moment. A lovely Doctor Who scare.

Meanwhile, the Doctor’s investigation of the crash has him follow navigator Secker, who is not in a good way. We learn that he’s been using the drug Vraxion (also known by its street names of ‘Vrax’, ‘Moff’ and ‘Paddy Kingsland’s spunky backpack’, although I might have made some of those up). The Doctor knows Vrax to be dangerous and addictive: “I’ve seen whole communities, whole planets, destroyed by this.” It’s an astonishingly adult topic for Doctor Who to tackle at Saturday teatime – even the use of the word ‘communities’ is an interesting shading there – and one wonders if it would be countenanced today. The progressive effects of Vraxoin are played through the character of Rigg – a great, unsung performance by David Daker – whose drink is spiked with the stuff. The initial high seems similar to that of cannabis, in the sense that Rigg becomes a total bore. “Let’s talk about life,” he says with a giggle. Now, when someone sits down next to you at a party and suggests you might want to talk about life, it’s always best to find another seat; preferably another party. Even at this stage, Rigg should stand as a stark warning to the kids watching. “Don’t do drugs, guys, because they make you more interesting only to yourself.” Soon, the Captain is completely off his chump, and laughs as he watches his passengers murdered by rampaging monsters. “They’re only economy class!” he scoffs. “What’s all the fuss about?” It’s a black joke worthy of Robert Holmes. That’s a thought: how much darker and more satirical might the comedy in this story have been had the scripts passed through his hands? Soon after, Rigg’s comedown proves swift and brutal. “I must have something for this terrible feeling,” he wails at Romana. In a moment he’s screaming at her: “Let me have some or I’ll kill you!” And it’s clear he’s ready to do exactly that. He has her by the wrist, and raises his arm to strike. Rigg is shot before he can actually beat Romana to death, but the implication alone of what he’s about to do makes this a staggeringly brutal scene by Doctor Who standards.

Unfortunately, a couple of production missteps typical of the period take the edge off all this. Rigg is shot – killed, we must assume – by customs officer Fisk, whose official uniform makes him look like he’s on work placement from the Village People. And the monsters who excite Rigg’s mirth – the Mandrels – do, unfortunately, look ludicrous. But while the dressing of this storyline might seem absurd, we mustn’t lose track of what is happening here. To reiterate: a decent, honest man, who is secretly drugged by others, laughs at wholesale slaughter and then, desperate for another fix, tries to kill the Doctor’s companion. This innocent man is then shot in the back and goes unmourned. There has long been a view that the 17th year of Doctor Who is somehow less serious than others; that it is gaudy and whimsical. Well, phooey to that. Doctor Who doesn’t come darker than Nightmare of Eden.

However – yes – the Mandrels are silly. The problem is, they’re just too darn cute. If the Doctor Who title sequence were remodelled after that of The Muppet Show, a Mandrel – all fun-fur and googly eyes – would surely lead the stomp across the bottom row of that tiered colonnade, followed by the Garm and the Ergon. (Up above, the smallest arches would be filled by the Graske, a baby Fendahleen and a trio of friendly clams. The diamond logo would be winched down, and through the ‘O’ of ‘WHO’ the Bandril Ambassador would toot on a trumpet.) Normally it’s the feet that do for a Doctor Who monster, but while the Mandrels have the kind of legs that won’t be seen again until the closing number of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, it’s their arms that really let them down. They’re too long, and flail hopelessly about. With all the will in the world, from the moment a Mandrel comes windmilling in at the end of Part One, it must surely be impossible for anyone over the age of four to suspend their disbelief.

Happily, monsters alone do not a Doctor Who story make, and Nightmare of Eden delivers a steady stream of other pleasures. The electronic effects used to depict the hazy overlap of the two ships are outstanding, especially when accompanied by a clever soundtrack of distant creaks and clangs. The cliffhanger out of Part Two, when the Doctor takes Romana by the hand and they leap into the Eden projection – “We’ll get torn apart!” – is impossibly thilling. It’s easy to imagine how this scene would be reshot today. The projection would be CGI and the camera would sweep left to right with the Doctor to the edge of it, to make it clear that he’s jumping into a two-dimensional screen. There’d be a blup! as the image of Eden ripples and swallows him up. Here, however, the effect is achieved merely by placing the two sets side-by-side, and the thrill is delivered thanks to how well the script has sold the reality of this to us; by the performances; and by the perfect timing of that final cut to the credits. It’s both sublimely simple and devilishly clever.

That cliffhanger also serves to knit together the various strands of this story – the unstable overlap of the ships, Tryst’s CET machine, the Mandrels and the drug smuggling – in a wonderfully stylish way. While inside the Eden projection, our heroes meet Stott. He’s the owner of the face that peeped out at Romana, and with his bouncy perm and cheekbones he looks more like the Denys Fisher Tom Baker doll than Tom Baker ever did. Stott, a drugs officer with Space Corps, explains that he was left for dead on Eden while investigating Tryst’s operation, but was then caught up in the CET crystal. “There were a few times I felt like blowing my brains out,” he says. It’s another dark and adult moment that pulls you up sharp.

It’s been said – many times – that Lewis Fiander’s enthusiastic performance as Tryst, and that Amsterdam pot-dealer accent he deploys, is to the detriment of Nightmare of Eden, as it signposts too clearly that he is the villain. That’s an easy claim to make with hindsight, but if you can imagine not knowing this fact, then you can appreciate that Fiander is, intelligently, trying to make his character seem too silly to be the prime suspect. The problem is actually with the script and the wider casting, which fail to deliver any other suspects. We ought to think that Della could be responsible, but Jennifer Lonsdale’s performance is so flat, and her dialogue so basic – “It’s just that Eden brings back such terrible memories for me. That was where we lost the other crew member” – that she’s never a serious contender. Equally drably-written and played are customs officers Fisk and Costa, who you can’t believe have lived a single day before the events of the story, or will live a single day after. So it’s not that Fiander is too ‘out there’ for this story, it’s that the rest of the cast – David Daker aside – lack the wit and the material to allow them to deliver at the same level.

In the home straight, we learn that Tryst, in league with Dymond, is using the CET machine to smuggle the Mandrels – which are made of pure Vraxoin – from Eden, and is all set to transfer the contents of the Eden crystal over to the Hecate by laser link. So was this their plan all along? Did they merely intend to pull the two ships alongside for the short time it takes for the drop? In which case, are we to believe that the collision – plus the instability of the Eden projection, and no others – is just a honking great coincidence? And if this whole operation is designed to smuggle the Vrax past the super-sensitive shipboard scanner on the Empress, then how was Secker keeping some in a filing cabinet, and where was Tryst hiding the batch he used to dope poor Rigg?

One wishes there had been a final go at the script, which would have, I’m sure, made the accident deliberate, and vital to Tryst and Dymond’s plan. They would have needed the instability to make the Eden crystal accessible again. Secker would have been in their employ, and then drugged – like Rigg – to make it all seem like an accident. One small sample of Vrax would have been hidden in the Hecate, and brought over by Dymond. And maybe Della, who could have served the drugged drinks, would have been our prime suspect for a few episodes; imagined in league with her boyfriend, spotted lurking in the projection.

Doctor Who stories stand or fall by their scripts, I believe. Everything else is trivia; fuel for cheap jokes at the top of a DVD review. Special effects may fail, shots be missed and lines be fluffed due to time and money running out in the studio, that can’t be helped. But there’s less excuse for not finding the hours, days and weeks to polish storylines until they shine, and dialogue until it sings. Nightmare of Eden is a tremendous piece of work, but flawed. And it’s not the comical monsters and a comedy accent that are the problem, but a plot that fails to resolve properly, characters that fail to come fully to life, and a script that follows up every deft line with a clumsy one.

Nightmare cruises an erratic – and a joyously idiosyncratic – course; but one that’s plotted just a few degrees south of true greatness.

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DVD Extras

An interview with Romana actress Lalla Ward on an edition of Ask Aspel from 1980 provides a glimpse of lost age of starchy children’s TV. Ward is quite appallingly snooty about the whole thing; rolling her eyes and tossing her hair in response to Michael Aspel’s perfectly reasonable questions. A clip from a BBC Shakespeare production is cued by Aspel: “Here’s a snippet of Hamlet, where you play – guess who – Ophelia.” The seven-year-old viewers of Ask Aspel must have been puffing on their pipes and huffing impatiently: “Well yes, Ophelia of course.” Ward’s illustrations for the book Astrology For Dogs (and Owners) receive a nice plug. This inspirational work is doubtless now favourite bedtime reading of her husband Richard Dawkins, who loves all that astrology stuff.

The bafflingly-titled The Doctor’s Strange Love brings together writers Joseph Lidster and Simon Guerrier, plus comedian – it says here – Josie Long, for a chat about the hits and misses of Nightmare of Eden. “It’s too explicitly anti-drugs,” says Lidster – right on, dude! – which makes one wonder what kind of equivocation he was expecting from a family drama shown at 6pm on a Saturday in 1979. Guerrier wears an expression of such open and childlike delight in the cutaways, you feel there surely must be a particularly wobbly jelly being jiggled just out of shot.

The finest extra here, by a parsec, is Nicholas Pegg’s ‘info text’ subtitles. It’s a flood of facts and fun. And here’s a word of friendly advice on the subject. If you’re in the habit of watching these production notes while listening to the cast commentary, then try to resist the urge. Many insights and jokes in the subtitles bounce from cues in the scripted dialogue, and you’ll be missing a whole level of sly wit if you separate one from the other. The big behind-the-scenes story of Nightmare of Eden is of how a seething production team and cast rose up against the perceived shortcomings of director Alan Bromly – shortcomings that are not particularly evident on screen, it must be said – which led to his dismissal during the final day of studio recording. Pegg teases this tale up front, but then holds back the juicy details until Parts Three and Four, delivering a narrative every bit as intriguing and entertaining as Nightmare of Eden itself.

For some primary-source bitching, turn to The Nightmare of TV Centre, where thoroughly disconsolate visual effects designer Colin Mapson dismisses his spaceship shots as “a disaster, to be quite honest”, and blames the producer for insisting they be shot on videotape rather than film. But it’s the tales of Tom Baker chafing against the authority of Alan Bromly that again prove most fun. Tom’s studio backchat, at first audible only to his fellow actors but then bellowed at the gallery, make him sound quite wonderfully brattish; but he was furious only because he cared so much. And it’s clear that he was not alone in his anger. Floor manager Val McCrimmon suggests that Bromly’s assistant, sat beside him making notes on the script, would deliberately try to stab him with her pen. Whether she actually drew blood is not recorded, but surely on-the-job feedback to one’s line manager doesn’t get more direct than that.

 

 

 

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