The Ultimate Foe

7 Oct

A short piece about the concluding episodes of The Trial of a Time Lord for Doctor Who Magazine: The Complete Sixth Doctor, from 2002.

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Down the ages, countless philosophers have attempted to prove the existence of God.

One popular line of reasoning is the ‘argument from design’. This points out that if we look at any ineffably complex system found in everyday life — such as predictive texting on your phone, or ticket pricing on Trainline.com — we might reasonably assume that it could not have come about by mere chance and that it had been designed. And so, if we look at the universe as a whole, surely such an intricate mechanism — covering everything from the orbital resonance of the planets circling the sun to the ‘penis fencing’ mating rituals of hermaphrodite sea slugs — must also have been designed; and that designer must be God.

It’s a persuasive argument. I’m a steadfast atheist, but I recall sitting in second-year biology poking at the innards of a sheep’s eyeball with a scalpel — teasing ciliary fibres from vitreous humour — and thinking that such a delicate and functional structure couldn’t have come about purely by chance.

I still feel a shadow of that notion while watching The Ultimate Foe (or whatever you decide it’s called). You see, with most other Doctor Who you can clearly understand how it came to be the way it is. Be it shaped by the whimsical Whitaker, the horror-hunting Holmes, or the comics-loving Cartmel, you can discern a straight line from inspiration, through design, to realisation. But then you watch the crazy mess of ideas that is The Ultimate Foe and the mind can only boggle over how it came to exist at all. As fans, we are blessed with certain insights into the production process. We know that Robert Holmes died with only the first of these two episodes committed to paper. We know that Pip and Jane Baker had to dash off the second in the manner of some bizarre game of Consequences’; extrapolating as best they could from what Holmes had already written. We also know that the only person who might have been able to smooth the join, script editor Eric Saward, had already activated his ejector seat and shot-off through the ceiling of Threshold House, leaving behind on a tear-stained copy of The TARDIS Inside Out and a poisonous interview in Starburst magazine.

Let’s be clear… The climax of The Trial of a Time Lord remains an absolute joy — but whether that’s because of or in spite of the circumstances of its production remains a mystery. The evidence for the defence? Exhibit A is the unexcelled dialogue: “You’re elevating futility to a high art! and “Only by releasing myself from the misguided maxims that you nurture can I be free!” and “I’ve thrown a pebble into the water and killed two birds with one stone!” and more and more. Exhibit B is the remarkable plotting: this is, after all, a story whose climax involves the Doctor’s companion racing to tell some Time Lords to turn the telly off. Exhibit C is the single most impossibly naff/glorious moment in the history of Doctor Who: that final shot of Peri Brown and King Yrcanos framed in a big, pink heart. Aw! Love ya, you dirty old Warlord!

And so it is that, although no-one involved in the making of these episodes — producer, writers, script editors, stars — had the first clue what was going on, they somehow managed to conjure something perfectly sublime, utterly majestic and totally impossible.

But if they didn’t plan it this way, we can only reasonably conclude that there must be a far grander design at work.

The Ultimate Foe. So completely divine, it’s enough to make you believe in God.

The Trial of a Time Lord

6 Oct

A review of the DVD box set for Doctor Who Magazine, from 2008. (The David Tennant/Catherine Tate season had just been broadcast, if that helps you see what I’m trying to do with the opening paragraphs!)

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As a recipe for success, the ingredients are tasty enough. There are certainly some big ideas in the mix… Earth is torn from orbit and dragged across space. Brain surgery turns aliens into slaves. A mystery story, inspired by the work of Agatha Christie, has our heroes hunting a killer. We meet an alternative version of the Doctor, lifted from a point between two incarnations.

Script all this with skill, cast it well, produce it with care, and you can win yourself millions, billions, koquillions of viewers. Back in 1986, they took a different approach, and the fourth episode of this season earned a rating of only 3.7 million and an Audience Appreciation figure of 72. (Or was it a rating of 72 and an AI of 3.7? The memory cheats.) The Trial Of A Time Lord is, in short, a TOATL mess.

The Doctor is dragged before a court of his Time Lord peers, charged with having altogether too much fun. Madame Inquisitor is the judge, the Valeyard prosecuting, and evidence takes the form of three separate adventures. The first, recording the Doctor and Peri’s visit to the planet Ravalox, is about as uneventful as Doctor Who has ever been. If the Time Lords suspect the accused has been running amok through the Universe – enjoying the lead role in a popular television series while they’re stuck at home mopping the Panopticon – then this is a strange way to prove it. The story is lifeless and plodding, lacking in any narrative drive. We have no clear idea what’s at stake for the Doctor, and hence no reason to care. By part two, you want to climb into your TV and give everyone involved a good chivvying.

In this context, the Inquisitor’s regular interjections prove delightfully apt. “What is the relevance of this presentation?” she bristles, her patience understandably tested by the fact she’s craning to watch a TV set placed 20 feet above her head. Later, when she says “I would appreciate it if these brutal and repetitious scenes were kept to a minimum”, it sounds like Linda Bellingham is accidentally reading out Jonathan Powell’s notes on the script. Before these episodes went in front of the cameras, Powell – BBC Head of Series and Serials – set out a lengthy list of suggested changes, describing the story as “lightweight and trivial” and suffering “a fatal lack of conviction”. His notes are recounted on the production subtitles, and it’s hard not to agree with every single criticism. As a comment on a trial story where the sentence is death, “a fatal lack of conviction” is deliciously ironic.

The second segment of evidence takes the Doctor to Thoros Beta, home of the Mentors – represented here by the Doctor’s old foe Sil and his boss, Kiv, who bicker like estranged lovers and insist on being carried around by muscle-bound black men, like Madonna arriving on stage at Wembley. They’re queer fish and no mistake.

This tale of alien vivisection is a step up from the Ravalox debacle, but leaves a nasty taste in the mouth. Horrific things happen to nice people, and as the Doctor’s senses are addled for most of the action, we’re left without the balm of his moral outrage. Peri is murdered in the final scenes, and while the Doctor may stand up in the courtroom to rage against the injustice, we’re left feeling cold and alone. Many have argued that the later revelation of Peri’s escape destroys the impact of one of the series’ most shocking moments – but this reviewer, for one, is happy to know she survived. Peri’s supposed demise is sadistic and grotesque, and has no place in Doctor Who.

Happily, a sense of fun makes a welcome debut with parts nine through 12, when the Doctor dips into his own future to present his tussle with the Vervoids – a race of plant-men in deciduous tracksuits who run riot through a space-liner. We’re left to wonder how much of his destiny the Doctor sneakily jog-shuttled through while compiling his evidence. While seeking information on his eighth incarnation, he must have been surprised to be pointed to a box of comics in the corner.

The Doctor’s defence is a very silly murder mystery, but it’s by far the most entertaining portion of the trial. This is thanks to a script from Pip and Jane Baker, written in a language tantalisingly close to English. Everyone enjoys quoting such weirdness as “I entered this affair as a Judas goat, and intend to readopt that role”, but the worst/best line comes from scientist Doland, explaining why the hold of the Hyperion III is full of Vervoid pods: “We’re merely taking the shucks as an example to fellow Earthbound agronomists.” You can guarantee that sentence will never be spoken again in the history of the world. Even the Vervoids aren’t immunised against the script. “He cannot be permitted to prevent us from reaching planet Earth,” whispers one, over the course of about half an hour. “We are doing splendidly!” hisses another, as if counting up the takings at a cake stall. It’s the campest boast ever delivered by a Doctor Who monster.

Things are even worse back in court. “Are we to be subjected to more chicanery, Sagacity?” tongue-twists the Valeyard. The Inquisitor then challenges the Doctor’s criticism of the Matrix: “Are you questioning its veracity?” At this point, Pip and Jane show remarkable restraint – stopping short of mentioning the Doctor’s tenacity, or the Valeyard’s capacity for mendacity.

The trial winds up in a two-part finale, which is again an improvement on what has gone before. The revelation that the Valeyard is a demonic alter ego of the Doctor, dropped stylishly into casual chit-chat by the Master, cannons the story into entertaining new territory. Valeyard actor Michael Jayston – Trial’s great redeemer – is at his sneering best as we’re taken on a lively adventure into the dream world of the Matrix. With only about 45 minutes left to go, the story finally shifts into third gear.

Looking at these 14 episodes as a whole, it’s during the courtroom scenes that we most keenly mourn what might have been. It’s clear that no one involved in making this season ever stopped to ask themselves what the Doctor was on trial for. I don’t mean the specific charges he faces in the dock, but what the viewer was supposed to take from the experience. The trial is a rotten idea, but might at least have served an opportunity to redefine and relaunch the programme. With better scripts and greater clarity of thought, the Doctor could have vigorously defended everything he believes in, and reminded a weary audience why they once loved him.

Instead, our putative hero – in his test-card-and-tea-towel coat – sits back in his chair and grumbles about points of order.

There is only one possible verdict.

Send him down.

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DVD EXTRAS

All praise must go to the producers of this box-set for providing a first-class selection of bonus features – the best yet. Prepare to surrender a whole weekend if you wish to partake of every documentary, commentary and ‘info text’ on offer here. However, while there’s a lot to enjoy, there’s also endless repetition of key facts. You’ll be reminded of the production order of these episodes 20 times, and wake up on Monday morning with the words “this season saw the use of OB cameras on location become standard practice for Doctor Who” drumming through your brain. Well, unless you also watched the embarrassing video for Doctor In Distress, in which case you won’t have slept at all. Instead, you’ll be haunted by the unique vocal stylings of Nicola Bryant, trilling the deathless line  “Inside each of their casings was a bubbling lump of hate” in a previously unknown key. H-flat, perhaps. Or K-sharp.

There’s a host of contemporary TV items – Wogan, Saturday Superstore, Blue Peter – promising great things from this adventure, and predicting mass acclaim. They now bring only melancholy, in wave after crashing wave. You’ll need a strong stomach for the discussion show Open Air, which saw angry fans and pompous producer go head-to-head on live TV. Let’s hope we never see its like again.

The new documentary Trials and Tribulations, the highlight of this set, is a more measured response to the events of that year, and charts Colin Baker’s journey with Doctor Who from casting to shock dismissal. A man of parts, Baker’s tragedy was to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Doctor Who blew itself to pieces in 1986, after script editor Eric Saward and producer John Nathan-Turner found themselves at loggerheads, and Saward – emotional and grieving following the death of his friend, writer Robert Holmes – walked away, taking his script for Part Fourteen with him. Commentators have long sought to assign blame for this bust-up to one party or the other, but the sadness and regret with which Baker, Saward and Nathan-Turner discuss these events demonstrates that the situation slipped slowly but irretrievably out of everyone’s control, and that no single individual is responsible. Life can be like that.

Only one aspect of the affair still appears to give pain to an otherwise phlegmatic Baker, and that’s Saward’s decision to attack his former colleagues in print while they were still fighting to get Trial in the can. The fact that Saward provides an independent commentary on Parts One and Thirteen suggests the pair won’t be meeting for a reunion sherry anytime soon. While Baker proves charming company on his commentaries – bantering cheerfully across all 14 episodes with an ever-changing roster of colleagues – Saward delivers a wistful rambling monologue, like the Ancient Mariner.

The Making Of The Trial Of A Time Lord – an epic documentary split over four discs – is another high-quality production, uniting insightful critical comment with informative cast and crew interviews. Not in the same league – though clearly made with love – are shorter programmes looking at Doctor Who cliffhangers, the shooting locations used for Trial, and the stories planned for the first, abandoned version of Season 23. This latter item uses specially commissioned artwork to illustrate such lost adventures as The Nightmare Fair and Mission To Magnus, and any heterosexual teenage boys watching will be delighted by the extensive and loving attention the artist has paid to Nicola Bryant’s knockers. It’s enough to make Sil and Kiv choke on their marsh-minnows.

Time Capsule: November 1977

8 Feb

At the time  – January 2017 – this seemed a fun idea for a new regular(ish) feature for Doctor Who Magazine. Alas, I hadn’t reckoned on quite how many words would be needed to cover, in reasonable depth – and with sufficient jokes so as not to bore everyone to death – even just a single month in Doctor Who history.

Time Capsule was designed to be ‘lavishly illustrated’. I’ll try to add some images to this slew of copy in due course!

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Introduction

Doctor Who is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think the wider canon of Western literature is big – but that’s just peanuts to Doctor Who.

We’re misquoting the great Douglas Adams – from the second episode of The Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy – but there’s a truth to the joke. Over the decades, Doctor Who has been researched and written about in incredible and ever-increasing detail; to such a degree that, as Doctor Who grows and as we move in ever closer, we perhaps lose sight of the big picture: of the whole wild, whirling insanity of it all.

So, rather than looking at one single aspect of Doctor Who – the fact, the fiction, the production of a single story, the work of a particular actor or director – this feature is instead designed to take us on a trip through time. We’re travelling to a single month in the life of the series, to review everything that was happening, all at once, in the universe of Doctor Who.

Our first destination was chosen by our randomiser (asking someone in the office to name a month, then a year, off the top of their head) – but it’s a cracker. It’s a month where the Doctor and Leela battle Fendahl, Sontarans, Vrakons, Cycrans, Terry Wogan and the trades unions. It’s a month where the Liberator lands instead of the Tardis, Sarah Jane Smith loses her parents, and an anti-Dalek agent helps us to save money on cigarettes. Meanwhile, the Doctor meets Julius Caesar, sells baked beans and his sonic screwdriver, and renegotiates his salary. He avoids losing his head in Yorkshire, while holding on to something very precious in Los Angeles.

Welcome to our Time Capsule – and 30 crazy days in November 1977.


TOYS

Nine and a half inches of pure pleasure

For the children of Britain in November 1977, their most thrill-packed, voraciously-devoured book was not some adventure novel – a Blyton or a Dahl – but the Autumn/Winter edition of the Great Universal Home Shopping Catalogue. Its 1,006 richly-coloured pages left you half-dazed with the stink of ink, and possessed a power more spellbinding than any silly old story. The book crackled with possibility and promise. Of course, the opening 932 pages – of “continental style” polyester blouses, terylene net curtains and Schreiber double-divans – were mere prologue. The real magic began on page 933, with the toys and games.

If you leaf through that catalogue today, you’re not only looking back through time, but directly into the dreams of the youngsters of Britain in November 1977. It’s a glimpse of every fantasy of Christmas morning, a sneak peek at every letter to Santa. Here’s Evel Knievel’s stunt motorbike. The Bionic Woman (“with mission purse”). Meccano. Jaws. Chemistry Set 3. Microscope Lab 2. And, grinning out from page 941, in hat and scarf, holding his sonic screwdriver like he’s about to sign an autograph for your Auntie Mabel, is a toy Doctor Who: “Intrepid explorer of the galaxies!” (£3.70, or 19p for 20 weeks.)

But this is not just any toy Doctor Who, this is the first toy Doctor Who.

In the 1960s, vast battalions of toy Daleks conquered the country – pursued by a few plucky Mechonoids – but Doctor Who would be 14 years old before the children of Britain could take the show’s hero on adventures of their own. And what adventures! This Doctor was small enough to hold in one hand, but big enough to fill the world.

The 9½-inch Doctor doll comes with fabric clothes, a plastic hat and plastic shoes. He accessorises with a ribbon of purple necktie and a matchstick sonic screwdriver. (The first item to be lost or broken by his enthusiastic owners.) The doll is also possessed of an irresistible smile. It’s a grin so wide, so white – so sincere – it can only belong to Tom Baker. Well, you’d think… But thereby hangs a tale.

It has been suggested that this first toy of the Doctor is, in fact, nothing of the sort. This isn’t Tom Baker, it has been claimed, but some smirking imposter. The book Doctor Who: The Seventies (Howe, Stammers & Walker, 1993) reported: “The head was of The New Avengers star Gareth Hunt. Between the prototypes being produced and the go-ahead by the BBC, the die [mould] for the Tom Baker head had been lost or damaged. Rather than go to the expense of creating a new one, the company went with what they had, namely Gareth Hunt.” We’ll return to this allegation in due course.

Multiplying the fun, our Doctor is just part of a gang, and travels with a dolly friend and a host of dolly enemies to defeat. These are the big, bold toys of a big, bold entertainment brand. They are promoted in the pages of popular comics, and seen at their best in a television advert for the new range, which aired throughout November 1977. The Doctor’s assistant Leela peers out uncertainly from under a wild fountain of hair; perhaps concerned with the effect her Mae West bosom and Margot Fonteyn feet are having on her centre of gravity. There’s a magnificent Giant Robot (who appears to be just on the verge of remembering something important), a baggy Cyberman and a trim Dalek with an angry red dome. And last, but by no means least, a toy TARDIS co-opts a mechanism designed for a popular Star Trek Transporter Room playset in the USA. This boxy blue shed contains a rotating vertical drum that, with a grinding kerchunk-thunk, helps the Doctor to ‘disappear’ in exactly the way he doesn’t on TV.

The Doctor Who range of dolls was produced by Denys Fisher Toys Ltd of Wetherby, North Yorkshire. The company was formed in the mid-1960s by Denys Fisher himself, a skilled engineer and mathematician who had developed timer mechanisms for bombs during World War II. He made his fortune with the drawing toy Spirograph; a set of fine-toothed plastic wheels and rings which allowed the user to trace out an infinite number of repeating mathematical curves – to beautiful effect, if you could keep a steady hand. Spirograph was named Toy of the Year in 1968.

“Denys was a huge, brilliant, eccentric man with an unexpectedly high-pitched voice who wore flip-flops mostly,” recalls Peter Viner, who joined Denys Fisher Ltd as a development engineer in 1969, and through the next decade worked his way up to Head of Research and Development. In 1970, Denys Fisher Ltd was bought by the massive US food combine General Mills, which was furiously diversifying. It snapped up a swathe of toy manufacturers, including Parker Bros and Kenner in the States, and Palitoy, Chad Valley and Denys Fisher in the UK.

“We operated independently, but each company was fed product from the worldwide group,” explains Peter. “Merchandise based on popular TV characters took over, and we inherited the Six Million Dollar Man range of toys, which was a phenomenal success, resulting in rapid growth… All too rapid, as it turned out.”

Imported TV action heroes The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman sold very well in 1976, but Denys Fisher Ltd was eager to find a home-grown hero, which is where the Doctor and his coterie enter the scene. However, whereas the ‘Bionic’ figures came to the UK fully-formed from Hong Kong – their US Kenner packaging replaced by Denys Fisher branding – the Doctor Who range was, at least in its details, a more British endeavour.

“The bodies for the Doctor Who dolls were ‘off the peg’,” explains Peter. (Indeed, young fans keen to explore the mysteries of the Gallifreyan reproductive system would eagerly divest the Doctor of his jacket, vest and slacks only to discover nothing more revealing than the message ‘(c) 1976 Mego Corporation. Made in Hong Hong’ across their hero’s skinny back. Mego, another major US toy manufacturer, provided the basic articulated doll that could be found under the clothes of many a licensed toy at the time, from Steve Austin to Starsky and Hutch, Captain Kirk to Cher.)

“The dolls were bought in, but we provided the heads and accessories,” Peter continues. “I commissioned a local guy called Colin Davidson to sculpt the heads, and my friend John Dockray in the marketing department recalls a very pleasant meeting with Louise Jameson. John’s auntie provided the scarf samples, and a local seamstress made the dolls’ outfits.”

And what does Peter say to the suggestion that this is actually a New Avengers doll in Doctor Who clothing?

“I’m sorry to dispel that conspiracy theory,” says the man who oversaw the development of the toy. “But it didn’t happen. I suppose it’s a reflection on people’s feelings about the accuracy of the sculpting. These days a face can be scanned and a much more accurate likeness achieved.”

Furthermore, in Denys Fisher’s earliest marketing material for the toys – prepared for toy business trade fairs in November 1976 and January 1977, when the manufacturers offered up their best prospects for the following Christmas – the prototype Doctor Who doll proudly wears the same face as the finished production doll. And it’s a face that captures the spirit of Tom Baker’s Doctor better than any scan or 3D printer ever could.

Sadly, even as the Denys Fisher’s Doctor Who figures lined up on the shelves of Britain’s toy shops in November 1977, the company fell victim to the fast-moving nature of character-based merchandise. The Leela dolls were released just as actress Louise Jameson announced her departure from Doctor Who. Meanwhile, the Doctor’s own popularity was in danger of being eclipsed by his newly unleashed robotic dog, K9. Denys Fisher added a cute, to-scale K9 figure to the range the following year, but by this stage the company was struggling to stay ahead of the game.

Star Wars was the big story coming up,” explains Peter Viner. “But that range went to our sister company Palitoy and we couldn’t find anything to compete. Denys Fisher Toys and Chad Valley were closed in 1979 and Palitoy inherited the valuable assets. I was offered a post at Palitoy but opted to go it alone. I launched my Design 4 Plastics company in one of the small buildings occupied by Denys Fisher Toys, and we’re still going strong to this day.”

Denys Fisher’s gorgeous, grinning Tom Baker did have a brief second life, however. The doll was repackaged and re-released in Italy in 1979 by the Italian toy company Harbert. When in Rome, the Doctor was “intrepido esploratore della gallassie!”, and the back of his box promised that he would soon be joined on his Mediterranean adventure by his companion “Lella” and the fantastici monstri “Super Robot” and “Cibernaini”. Alas, none of these other variants appear to have reached the shops of Milan or Turin; and given that Italy didn’t begin screening Doctor Who until 1980, perhaps that’s no surprise.

Star Wars – which opened in the USA in May 1977 – would not only change the business of movies forever, it would turn the licenced toy industry upside down. In just a few months, ‘big’ dolls like the Doctor and Leela and would look clumsy and old-fashioned. The future for action figures (and it would be a destiny shared by Doctor Who toys, eventually) would prove long and lucrative – but also less than four inches tall.


BROADCAST

Astronauts ancient and modern

The four Saturdays of November 1977 thrilled to the transmission of the Doctor Who serial Image of the Fendahl – parts two to four – and the opening instalment of The Sun Makers.

Between them, these consecutive adventures contrive to cover almost the entire journey of human life through the fiction of Doctor Who: from a pit in Africa 12 million years before modern man, to a point in the distant future (“right through the time spiral” as the Doctor puts it) where humanity has been forcibly resettled to Pluto by a malevolent alien. However, even with this alpha-to-omega history as their backdrop, these stories address – for 1977 – distinctly contemporary concerns.

In Image of the Fendahl, the Doctor and Leela meet a team of scientists, of varying shades of sanity, who are investigating an ancient skull, at first sight human, found buried in volcanic sediment in Kenya. A potassium-argon test of the most excellent kind dates the sediment as having been laid down “eight million years before [the owner of the skull] could have possibly existed.” Musing upon this, one of the scientists, the benign Adam Colby, takes his dog Leakey for a walk. (“More bones is it? You old bone hunter you!”).

As well as being Doctor Who’s first joke about incontinence, Leakey the dog is named in honour of the famous husband-and-wife team of anthropologists, Louis and Mary Leakey, whose discovery of prehistoric bones and primitive tools in East Africa in the 1950s massively advanced our understanding of the ascent of man. Or, perhaps, Leakey is named for their son, Richard Leakey, also an anthropologist – and the cover star of the Monday 7 November 1977 issue of Time magazine, published during transmission of Image of the Fendahl.

On his Time cover, Leakey is seen crouching in the desolate Rift Valley in Kenya, alongside a querulous-looking Homo habilis; a two-million-year-old predecessor of modern man, but really a local volunteer in a latex mask. The mask is modelled upon a skull recently unearthed from nearby volcanic sediment by Leakey and his team. The discovery of Homo habilis challenged established scientific thinking on the origins of man. So when, in Image of the Fendahl, barmy scientist Dr Fendleman exults to Colby: “Your discovery could be one of the most important milestones in human development! Your work will fundamentally affect how man views himself!” it shows just how timely and ‘ripped from the headlines’ this Doctor Who story was. That said, Colby’s skull later proves to be an alien life form trying to reconstitute itself on Earth – which is just one of the many ways in which Doctor Who demonstrates its superiority to real life. The article in Time magazine sadly fails to detail any attacks on Richard Leakey’s excavation by a seven-foot tall and very hungry caterpillar.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the time spiral, The Sun Makers also lifted its story straight from the news, and the immediate day-to-day woes of its adult viewers, as the UK economy circled the plughole in the late 1970s. “We’re being taxed to death!” wailed one commentator in The Times newspaper of Wednesday 30 November 1977. It’s a figure of speech made flesh by The Sun Makers.

Given that its bleak tale of the knackered stragglers of humanity – banged-up on Pluto and drugged, overworked and taxed to near-extinction by rapacious aliens – The Sun Makers delivers more than its fair share of laughs. And its playful satire was certainly appreciated at the time. “Viewers warmly welcomed the more realistic, less fantastic nature of the theme (widely interpreted as an exposé of super monopoly capitalism),” noted a contemporary BBC Audience Research report. “It was, in their opinion, entertaining and even compelling viewing, which was ‘well up to the usual high standard of Doctor Who adventures’.”

Image of the Fendahl and The Sun Makers delivered high ratings and audience appreciation figures. The trio of Tom Baker’s virtuoso Doctor, Louise Jameson’s eye-catching Leela and the charming K9 (“The best innovation of the Autumn viewing season!” raved trade newspaper Television Today) proved irresistible. All four episodes of The Sun Makers made it into the national Top 50 programmes.

Doctor Who is at its best when its creators are at least as involved in it, in terms of imagination, as we are. This is not always the case. But in November 1977, a real sense of commitment in the writing and performance of Doctor Who lifted it to an imaginative peak. It may have been battling harder than ever for time and resource at the BBC – and those limitations may often have shown on screen – but Doctor Who was as spirited, intelligent and relevant as it had ever been, or ever would be.


BROADCAST

On the other side

There were only three television channels in November 1977, but Doctor Who still had to fight for viewers. For a closer look at the competition, we’ll visit the Saturday night closest to the show’s 14th birthday.

On 26 November 1977, the majority of ITV regions pitched the talent show New Faces against the first episode of The Sun Makers. Judges Mickie Most, Terry Wogan, Jack Parnell and Shaw Taylor sifted through such acts as The Xhabo Puppets from Exeter and singer Terry McCann from Bloxwich in the vain hope that any offered greater mainstream appeal than Louise Jameson’s thighs over on BBC1. Elsewhere, four ITV regions – Anglia, Midland, Scottish and London Weekend – offered Giant, an episode of the US adventure series Man From Atlantis.

Man From Atlantis tells the story of Mark Harris, the last survivor of the fabled lost continent, and his adventures in the modern world, battling spies and suchlike. A prodigious swimmer, Mark can propel himself through water – arms tight to his sides, feet together – at tremendous speed, like an eel, or a particularly up-for-it sperm. Mark has webbed hands and feet, super-acute senses, gills, and needs to be dunked in the Pacific every 12 hours without fail. However, viewers are secretly pleased whenever Mark misses this deadline, which he does once per episode, because he turns a lovely shade of mauve.

To the ear of a Doctor Who fan, Mark Harris – as played by Patrick Duffy – has much in common with Leela. He is driven by his instincts and super senses. When speaking, he can not or will not use contractions. He parades about in a state of unselfconscious undress. If Leela was designed “to get the dads watching”, then it was the job of Duffy and his tailored shorts to detain the mums and the funny uncles. However, nothing makes you appreciate the skill of Louise Jameson’s characterisation of Leela quite like 50 minutes in the company of Mark Harris, who is less “noble savage” than nodding simpleton.

Overall, Man From Atlantis suffers a fatal lack of conviction. The drowned continent of legend was surely sunk by the dead weight of these scripts. (“I think this whirlpool might be artificial!” “You mean man-made?” “Whoever made it, it could create tides the like of which… Well, I don’t have to tell you.”). Any viewer who might consider Part One of The Sun Makers to be far-fetched needs to check out Giant; especially the scene where, in a parallel dimension, Mark has to battle through a raging torrent of invisible water – as the show clearly couldn’t afford to provide actual water. Your heart goes out to poor Patrick Duffy. It’s little surprise that Man From Atlantis was cancelled after four TV movies and 13 episodes, but Doctor Who is still with us today.

Meanwhile, if any Doctor Who fan had lingered on BBC2 in the hour before The Sun Makers, they would have been rewarded with a glimpse of the future – or rather, a snatch of the sound of the future. Horizon: The Case of the Ancient Astronauts put forward the theories of cult 70s author and pseudo-scientist Erich von Däniken, who argued that extraterrestrials had visited the Earth throughout prehistory and influenced the development of man – though he unaccountably failed to mention the Fendahl. The distinctive electronic score for this documentary came from Peter Howell of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, who would go on to help define the sound of Doctor Who’s next decade. The Astronauts was released as the B-side to Howell’s sensational 1980 version of the Doctor Who theme.

Anyone on the look-out for visiting aliens on the night of 26 November 1977 would have been better served by tuning in to the early evening news in the Southern ITV region. At 5.10pm, the sound was interrupted by a buzzing noise and a distorted voice claiming to be an ambassador for an “intergalactic association” and warning that mankind must change its warlike ways or face punishment. Exactly what form the punishment might take was not revealed, but viewers tuning in to The Sun Makers later that evening would reason that relocation to Pluto and the enforced wearing of ill-fitting tabards might be involved. The perpetrator of the Southern TV alien ‘hoax’ remains unknown to this day.


BROADCAST

Genie in a bottle

The USA, Australia, Canada, South Korea, Saudi Arabia – and possibly the United Arab Emirates – also broadcast Doctor Who episodes during November 1977. One screening, however, would prove to be of crucial importance.

When British fan Doctor Who Ian Levine heard, from his American fan friend Tom Lundie, that the Jon Pertwee serial The Daemons was to be shown in an omnibus form by TV station KCET in Los Angeles, he took immediate action. In a stroke of luck, Tom’s cousin Mike Lundie lived in the KCET broadcast area, and Ian paid for Mike to rent a Betamax video machine to record the story, along with two one-hour tapes.

15 years later, this recording provided the Doctor Who Restoration Team with the vital colour signal they needed to re-colourise the BBC’s surviving black-and-white copy of the story. So, next time you enjoy The Daemons in colour, it is because that colour was captured, like a genie in a bottle, by a fan’s friend’s cousin in the city of Garden Grove, California – just a few miles from Disneyland – on the evening of 19 November 1977.


 

RECEPTION

Tales from Tardis

The tidily typewritten pages of the November 1977 issue of Tardis, the magazine of the one-year-old Doctor Who Appreciation Society, offers us an insight into the hearts of Doctor Who fans at the time. The leading lights of the Society, many of whom had been watching since the show’s first episode, when aged eight or nine, had grown up to become Doctor Who first generation of angry adult fan commentators.

“The production team seem convinced that Dr Who really is a kids show,” complained John Peel at the top of two paragraphs of block capitals. “Despite superficial glitter, The Invisible Enemy failed miserably as entertainment.

“Continuity was slaughtered,” continued Peel. “Did Leela really fly the Tardis? What happened to Isomorphic Circuitry, Mr Holmes? You invented it, so you stick to it. Anyone who recalls the ‘Watcher’ series in the far off golden days will remember that removing the dimensional control unit results in the ship’s innards shrinking – though now it seems it merely prevents the ship from taking off. (But how?)”

However, Peel reserves his most fiery fury for the Doctor’s latest companions. “He now has a mechanical pet to go with his savage. With stories like this one and ‘Fang Rock’, why not a new time slot as well? Straight after ‘Watch with Mother’. (This programme is going to the dogs!)”

DWAS President Jan Vincent-Rudzki also had reservations about recent episodes. “So far I have thought this season very strange,” he wrote. “‘Fang Rock’ was a good story and basically ‘Invisible Enemy’ was too, even though there were a number of errors and blunders in it. What has surprised and almost shocked me is the terrible way the programme is made, and particularly directed. The camera work is very primitive and unimaginative.”

For many readers of Tardis, however, the most attention-grabbing item was to be found on page two. “Raffle of props from Doctor Who. Tickets (as many as you want) 20p each.” The list of prizes on offer quickens the blood, even 40 years later… “Jon Pertwee has kindly donated some props from Doctor Who actually used in the filming.” These include: “A Mutt mask (The Mutants). A Maggot (The Green Death). Stun Gun (Invasion of the Dinosaurs). A Giant Spider. Tardis control panel. The Sonic Screwdriver.” It all adds up to a mental image of Jon Pertwee gleefully motorbiking home from each day’s filming on Doctor Who with a sidecar full of swag. But it’s all in a good cause. Pertwee’s beloved Grand Order Water Rats – a fraternity of performers and charitable organisation – was the beneficiary.

Also published by the DWAS that same month was The Companion Volume (40p, “featuring the research and documentation facilities of the DWAS Reference Department”). This was a collection of ‘biographies’ of the Doctor’s friends: a mixture of information given on screen and some well-meaning extrapolation by writer Jeremy Bentham. It’s notable, however, that one of the pieces, the Sarah Jane Smith biography, was later adapted by Doctor Who producer John Nathan-Turner into the ‘series bible’ for the spin-off special K9 and Company, and from there influenced the back story of The Sarah Jane Adventures. It was The Companion Volume which first introduced the notion that Sarah was an orphan raised by her Aunt Lavinia.

So rest in peace then, Sarah Jane’s poor mum and dad. Murdered by Jeremy Bentham in November 1977.


OTHER ADVENTURES

Thank Jupiter!

Young fans could enjoy further adventures for the Doctor and Leela in the pages of Mighty TV Comic (Polystyle, 10p). In the concluding episodes of The Devil’s Mouth, the Doctor goes hunting alien Vrakons down a pothole in middle England. Our Time Lord is in a belligerent mood, and doesn’t even engage the visitors in conversation before he slaughters them, blows up their spaceship and seals the cave with concrete. Doctor Who and the Silurians this is not.

The next story, The Aqua-City, would have proved just the ticket for fans who enjoyed Doctor Who but craved some of the fishy flavour of Man From Atlantis. It sees the Doctor battle the robot Cycrans, the vengeful former servants of the undersea ‘Antlanteans’, who cannot remain out of water for long. You can’t say that TV Comic wasn’t keeping up with the times.

The scripts for these stories, by Geoff Cowans, capture the gusto of Tom Baker’s performance as the Doctor, although the habit of other characters to refer to him as ‘Dr Who’ does bring you up short, as does the Doctor’s unlikely catchphrase of ‘By Jupiter!” or “Thank Jupiter!” – an early precursor to the likes of “Fantastic!” and “Geronimo!”.  Leela cuts a rather more fashionable figure than on TV; in skinny jeans, kinky boots and a knotted blouse that lays out the whole shop front. The new look was the work of the artist, John Canning, who clearly enjoyed his job. His style may seem a little old-fashioned today, but, thanks to the exuberant line work and loose ink washes, Canning’s Doctor Who has a unique pell-mell joi de vivre all its own.

The strips of TV Comic were certainly a step up from other spin-off adventures available at the time. The Dr Who Annual 1978 (World Distributors, £1.35) was on sale at all good bookshops in November 1977. Inside, the Doctor is accompanied by an unrecognisable Sarah in a series of text and comic strip adventures that verge on gibberish. It’s a bleak thought that, given the popularity of the TV series at this time and the massive print run for this annual, these grim stories likely stand as some of the most widely-read Doctor Who spin-off fiction ever written. The high point of the book is the comic strip The Traitor; the artwork for which, by Paul Crompton, has a dreamlike, expressionist quality.

The Dalek Annual 1978 (World Distributors, £1.35) also offered a mix of text stories and comic strip – the latter thanks to a reprint of a vibrant TV21 comic from 1966. A factual feature muses upon the possibility of a ‘missing’ fifth planet between Mars and Jupiter, but this would have been old news to viewers of Image of the Fendahl. A puzzle page relates a personal crisis faced by Anti-Dalek Force agent Kel Moran, as readers were invited to work out how many extra cigarettes he could roll using the scraps of tobacco left in 25 fag ends. Useful information for all younger readers there.

Doctor Who and the Talons of Weng-Chiang (Hardback from Allan Wingate, £2.95. Paperback from Target Books, 60p)  joined the range of novelisations of TV adventures available in November 1977, just over seven months after the story’s transmission. A straightforward, no-frills adaptation, Terrance Dick’s lucid prose nevertheless has the power to replay the serial for readers as accurately and vividly as any DVD.

Two further Doctor Who adventures were published in November 1977: the second and third volumes of the educational Doctor Who Discovers… series (Target Books, 75p). Doctor Who Discovers Space Travel has a beautiful cover by Jeff Cummins, but the cover artist for Doctor Who Discovers the Conquerors sadly remains unknown. The books were written, it is presumed, by the range’s editor Fred Newman and illustrated with stills of Tom Baker’s Doctor and assorted stock library illustrations.

In Discovers the Conquerors, the Doctor spends 16 years living in the court of Alexander the Great, before going on to encounter Julius Caesar, Charlemagne and Richard the Lionheart, the latter without letting on that he’d done so before. (“And who are you?” roared the King. “Dr Who,” replied the Doctor. The King’s face turned red with anger. “Tomorrow we do battle with Saladin. Give this Who a sword and let him fight too.”)

Space Travel takes our Time Lord to 1957, where the TARDIS is almost hit in orbit by an early satellite – something that would also almost happen on TV in 1987’s Delta and the Bannermen – and then on to witness the Moon landing and Skylab. Readers at the time would have been particularly taken with the book’s trips to the future. The Doctor travels to 1985 and marvels at a Space Shuttle launch (in 1977, the orbiter was undergoing its earliest tests). In the 21st century, the Doctor visits a 20-mile long Earth-orbiting space station, with farmland and forest tended by several million inhabitants. “The Doctor wanted to discover more about the 21st Century. He could only wonder at what other great feats men would accomplish.” Well, here’s hoping.


OTHER ADVENTURES

In the can

Crosse and Blackwell foods ran a major Doctor Who promotion in the autumn of 1977. Families were invited to swap labels from cans of ‘Doctor Who Baked Beans’ (plus a fee) for a range of booty: an electronics kit, a chemistry set and a Doctor Who colouring book.

The book, with a Police Box cover, offered a series of scenes to colour – including a surreal moment in the TARDIS where the Doctor ponders a giant can of baked beans on scanner – which then folded out into 3D ‘pop-up’.

Crosse and Blackwell would prove something of a fair-weather friend to Doctor Who, turning out only when the series is doing particularly well. In 2009, their cans of ‘Doctor Who Wholewheat Pasta Shapes’ would include little pasta faces of a child wearing a gasmask.


 

OTHER ADVENTURES

Rub-bish! Rub-bish!

Some strange mutation has befallen the Doctor; some ineffable biological meta-crisis. In his latest incarnation, our Time Lord has regenerated a large blue bird, and has to be carried everywhere by his obliging assistant. Happily, our hero’s intellectual powers are undimmed, as he effortlessly defeats a second invasion attempt by his most implacable foe: the Deadly Dustbins.

The Return of the Deadly Dustbins was the second Doctor Who sketch written by Australian comedian and puppet master Rod Hull, for an episode of the third series of Emu’s Broadcasting Company – broadcast on BBC1 on Monday 14 November 1977. For those unfamiliar with his oeuvre, Emu was a TV megastar of the 1970s and 80s, known for his sudden infatuations with leading celebrities (“Oh, he likes you!”), and equally sudden physical assaults upon on the same. (“Emu! No! Gerrof! Emu!”)

Emu’s Broadcasting Company, a teatime comedy show for kids made by BBC Manchester, ran for five years and was far smarter than in needed to be. Rod and Emu hosted their own TV channel, EBC1, with the help and hindrance of their cameraman (variety star Billy Dainty), their tea lady (actress Barbara New), and Emu’s naughty baby nephews (Denys Fisher Toys, £6.99). EBC1 presented well-observed spoofs of TV shows, including Grandstand of Sport, hard-hitting documentary The Searching Beak of Emu, historical drama The Emudin Line, and – on two memorable occasions – Doctor Emu.

In their first adventure, in 1976, Dr Emu lured the Deadly Dustbins to their seeming doom at the town dump – but now they are back! Emu and friend arrive in their red phone box TARDIS just in time to see a Deadly Dustbin wriggle to the surface and swallow its first human victim. The creatures then run amok in a town centre before Dr Emu cunningly lures them to a nearby canal, and tips them over a lifting bridge.

Yes, it sounds like nonsense, but the remarkable thing about this pastiche is that it is better-made, more stylish – and more scary – than any episode of the season of ‘proper’ Doctor Who being transmitted at the time.

The Return of the Deadly Dustbins is shot on film, with a wonderfully creative mixture of shots and angles. After a Dustbin eats a worker on the rubbish tip, we cut to a flock seagulls exploding into the sky. As the Dustbins advance over the canal bridge, there’s a moody, low sunburst from behind (a shot for which The Ambassadors of Death is much praised). There’s no dialogue, bar the Dustbins’ indistinct bleat of “RUB-BISH” and “DIS-POSE!”, and the soundtrack creates an unsettling, uncanny atmosphere. In this way, it evokes the same tone of bleak ‘rural horror’ as the film sequences in Doctor Who and the Silurians and Terror of the Zygons. The score uses, in part, the electronic music of Delia Derbyshire, and so channels the spirit of Doctor Who in a peculiarly primal way.

“It was all filmed in one day, as I recall,” reveals Peter Ridsdale Scott, producer of Emu’s Broadcasting Company. “And looking at it now, you can see the change of light through the day. That’s why the sunlight is very low in the final scenes.

“Working with Rod Hull was a real privilege,” continues Peter, who prior to EBC1 had written, directed and produced episodes of Play School, and would go on become Commissioning Editor for Independent Productions at BBC Manchester – giving the green light to, amongst many other shows, Red Dwarf. “Rod Hull’s act with Emu was stunning. Emu felt very much like a character entirely separate from Rod – it was down to that very clever way Rod could look in another direction and appear unaware of what Emu was doing. So very, very funny.

“The BBC poached Rod and Emu in 1976, and I was asked to help him develop this new series at the Manchester studios. Rod wrote everything, and thanks to his own background as a TV producer back in Australia, he knew exactly what he wanted, and so as long as I got him the right locations and creative staff, he could practically direct everything himself as well. We worked closely together that way, and with the film cameraman. But Rod instinctively knew what worked.

“The Deadly Dustbins episodes look so good because of Rod’s incredible attention to detail, right down to the graphics. We had a lot more freedom because we were in Manchester, and a very small crew worked very hard. There was no special effects budget for location work. It would have been nice to go for a cup of tea and leave the special effects to do the Dustbins, but that wasn’t possible. In fact, I’m inside one of the bins, dragging it along. That’s how we had to do it.

“The fact that it is appreciated today is testament to the hard work of that Manchester crew, and to Rod Hull’s genius,” concludes Peter.

But just how influential did The Return of the Deadly Dustbins prove to be? In the Doctor Who episode Rose, a malign plastic dustbin attacks Mickey Smith and swallows him whole. It would prove one of the most talked-about scenes from Doctor Who’s big return to TV in 2005. Was this a tribute to Dr Emu’s lid-flapping foe? We asked Rose writer Russell T Davies to comment…

It’s funny,” says Davies. “I don’t remember seeing it, and it’s so memorable and beautifully directed, I’d have thought that would lodge. And I would definitely have been watching Emu – I always watched that sort of thing.

“But still, maybe I did see it, and maybe it made its mark. We can’t know how things sink in without us realising. They’re not memories or homages – they’re deeper than that, they become instincts… So I wonder!”

Alas, this was to be the final adventure for Dr Emu. Rod Hull was tempted back to ITV (where he would develop the anarchic Emu’s World and Emu’s All-Live Pink Windmill Show) in 1981; just as the Doctor crossed paths with a different kind of quarrelsome flightless bird from Australia.


PRODUCTION

Gallifrey, Surrey

Behind the scenes of Doctor Who in November 1977, the programme was in serious trouble. The six-part serial poised to go before the cameras, The Invasion of Time – in which the Doctor would return to Gallifrey to claim the presidency of the Time Lords – would prove to be the series most turbulent production to date. The script, a last-minute replacement, was almost impossibly late, with later episodes delivered to the director and creative departments scene-by-scene. The money was running out, and what was left was, thanks to a high inflation rate, diminishing in value by the day. Furthermore, strike action at the BBC meant that Doctor Who was about to be cast out of Television Centre altogether, and left to fend for itself in the wilds of Surrey.

With annual BBC pay negotiations taking place in the autumn, producer Graham Williams had been braced for strike action during the final months of production of the 1977 series. On 14 October, the Association of Broadcasting and Allied Staffs – the union which represented over half of the BBC’s 25,000 employees – voted to reject an offer of pay increases up to 15%. There was widespread unrest at the Corporation regarding the decline in BBC wages relative to those earned by production staff in the commercial sector. Moreover, there were concerns regarding predicted job losses in the wake of BBC plans to bring in new, lightweight video recording equipment. The first ABS-organised blackouts affected outside broadcasts, news and sport, and their most political move involved blacking-out the Queen’s Speech on Thursday 3 November. The Nine O’Clock News that same evening was replaced by the ‘Potter’s Wheel’ interlude film.

Soon, strike action also affected studio recording and transmission. Part Four of Image of the Fendahl was lucky to see broadcast as scheduled on the evening of  Saturday 19 November. That night, BBC1 was blacked-out from halfway through transmission of the next programme, Bruce Forsyth’s Generation Game. This wasn’t some arbitrary target, but the most-watched programme of the week, with an estimated 19.5 million viewers that night.

The Invasion of Time was able to hold on to one of its three-day studio sessions – from Sunday 6 November to Tuesday 8 November – which was primarily used for taping scenes on the story’s large Panopticon set, which was also repurposed for the open space where the TARDIS lands. This included the scene where Leela bids farewell to the Doctor, in favour of a life of romance on Gallifrey. Graham Williams was keen to keep news of Louise Jameson’s departure under wraps until the New Year, but news leaked directly from the set and into The Times on Monday 7 November.

For the rest of the production, the crew was forced out on location. The ABS strike was primarily over wages, but given that one of the secondary bones of contention was the use of lightweight video equipment, there is some irony to the fact that the same strike forced Doctor Who to complete the balance of scenes for The Invasion of Time using outside broadcast equipment on location.

Studio space at Television Centre was allocated to less adaptable productions. One such programme was Blake’s 7, the BBC’s new science fiction drama series aimed at a more adult audience than Doctor Who, which had begun filming in September. On Monday 21 November, the vast creaking interior of Blake’s spaceship, the Liberator, was raised up in the warm and welcoming interior of studio TC3. Meanwhile, Doctor Who was out in the cold – quite literally – as the interior of the TARDIS took the form of a disused hospital in Redhill, Surrey. Conditions on location were challenging to say the least. Shots were abandoned due to train noise and revving car engines in the hospital car park. In one scene in the Space Traffic Control Room on Gallifrey, the actors’ breath can be seen frosting.

Meanwhile, star Tom Baker was in the midst of renegotiating his contract for the coming year. This might explain the story on the front page of the Daily Express on Saturday 5 November.

“Actor Tom Baker is set to quit as TV’s Dr Who,” reported Christopher Jones. “‘I’ve had enough,’ [Baker] said yesterday. ‘I think I’ve done my bit.’ [He] plans to devote himself to serious acting.”

Perhaps Baker was indeed craving a return to the stage after several weeks recording on CSO backdrops for Underworld, or maybe this was mere sabre-rattling. The actor signed a new deal and a new contract – for the next 26-episode series of Doctor Who – on Friday 25 November. It was a great result for both series and star. After all, if Baker was looking to “devote himself to serious acting”, what could possibly be more serious than a search for the Key to Time?

For, despite Doctor Who’s current production difficulties, Graham Williams was already hip deep in planning the next series. The six stories of the 1978 season would have a linking theme, and in November 1977 he issued notes to prospective writers outlining his idea of the Doctor’s quest to find the six segments of the Key to Time. One of those writers, a newcomer to the series, was Douglas Adams. He had received his formal commission for Doctor Who in October, just a few weeks after a commission for a complete series of his radio comedy series, The Hitch-Hikers Guide To The Galaxy. Through November 1977, Adams was weeping into his typewriter, struggling to complete both projects. He had no way of guessing how influential and well-loved his work on either series would prove to be.

“Space is big – really big,” observed Adams in his script for the second episode of Hitch-Hikers, recorded on Wednesday 23 November 1977. However, by this point the writer was painfully aware of the fact that, while Space may be vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big, Time would forever be in painfully short supply.


 

With thanks to Richard Bignell, Guillaume Brocart, Russell T Davies, Graham Kibble-White, Jack Kibble-White, Ian Levine, Alistair McGowan, Paul Lang, Tom Lundie, Richard Molesworth, Jonathan Morris, Steven Murphy, Nicholas Pegg, Andrew Pixley, Jon Preddle, Paul Scoones, Peter Viner, Peter Ridsdale Scott, and Martin Wiggins.

Doctor Who: The Legacy Collection

9 Oct

A review for Doctor Who Magazine, 2013

____________________________________________________________________________

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 certain, 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 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 a management lock-out 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.

1992 brought an official BBC Video, the gaps filled with earnest narration from a Tom Baker battling hypnosis by autocue. It’s this version that 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 – he of the aforementioned hat – 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 during 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 you 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 meee. 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 those 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 cheery gimmicks 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 can 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 me to name my 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 comments 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. 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.” Ah yes, those famous Margaret Thatcher corsets they all wore in 1963. 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 Daemons

16 Mar

Squabbling Rubber

A review of the DVD for Doctor Who Magazine, from 2012. (Sadly, there was no room for my theory that Bok is the Master’s Tardis. A glow-eyed, peripatetic statue, like a mini Melkur. At the the end of this story, it sits there, cross-legged, in the churchyard, waiting for the Master to escape from prison.)

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There comes a point, in the final minutes of The Daemons, when the Doctor inches perilously close to losing our goodwill. He’s locked horns with the alien Azal – 20 feet tall in his stockinged hooves – regarding the creature’s interference in the development of our race. “Thanks to you, Man can now blow up the world,” our hero heckles. “And he probably will.” Probably? Well, thanks for the vote of faith, mate. Who’s spat in your coffee today?

The Doctor has a chip on his shoulder throughout The Daemons. “I’m…

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Review: The Power of the Daleks. Animated version.

4 Nov

10-quinn-and-bragen

“Nothing dates faster than people’s fantasies about the future,” observed art critic Robert Hughes. He was discussing the architecture of the modernist city of Brasilia at the time, but it’s a truism that holds for many a Doctor Who adventure.

The Power of the Daleks takes us to the Earth colony planet of Vulcan in the far-flung future of 2020; at least according to the serial’s original TV trailer – broadcast 50 years ago to the day. Vulcan is a world where men are men, and a woman is called Janley. It’s an ascetic, cheerless place, patrolled by jack-booted guards and seething with fear and mistrust, devoted to scientific study. It’s a time when humanity has mastered the secrets of interplanetary flight, but not yet found a cure for male pattern baldness. It is a world of mercury pools and widow’s peaks.

In November 1966, when The Power of the Daleks was broadcast, the year 2020 was a place of fantasy. Here in 2016, it’s just over the brow of the next hill. If we’re lucky. And so today, our dreams for 2020 are more modest. Perhaps the BBC might manage to produce a new series or so of Doctor Who by then. Sure, we’re short on rocket ships and alien colonies, but we can confirm that the first three minutes of the newly-animated version of The Power of the Daleks will be livestreamed on Twitter. ’Tis a brave new world indeed, forged in the white heat of social media marketing.

In the past this viewer has expressed reservations – in the reviews section of Doctor Who Magazine – regarding the value of presenting lost Doctor Who episodes with as animation. The Reign of Terror DVD gave us a nightmare vision of William Hartnell as a talking onion. Six months later, The Ice Warriors took a step forward, but struggled to depict its characters moving in a naturalistic way. The Power of the Daleks takes another step, capturing excellent likenesses of its characters, and the quirks of their facial movements. The cartoon Patrick Troughton is especially persuasive. The animators have captured the way the actor talked from the side of his mouth, as if sucking Popeye-like on a pipe. Troughton’s little black tooth is lovingly rendered. Once you notice it you won’t be able to stop looking at it.

This production is clearly a labour of love (certainly, no one has ever worked on Doctor Who spin-offs for the money) and the production team have given it their all. And that little bit more. At the press screening for the first two episodes – which is all I am able to review here – producer Charles Norton looked ready to slide under his seat with exhaustion. When recalling a particular scene from Episode 1, he couldn’t quite reach the words to describe it, but the shot number came immediately to his lips. He looked haunted, like a soldier stumbling wounded from a harrowing battle. “It’s a triumph!” the gathered civilians assure him, but our producer can, for the moment, only recall the suffering and loss.

The shortcomings of The Power of the Daleks – as has often proved the case with Doctor Who since ever Doctor Who there was – can be ascribed to lack of time and lack of budget. The artwork is exemplary, and some shots are of frameable beauty. But it’s clear that compromises have had to be made to get the job done on a BBC Store/BBC Worldwide budget. Most frames are kept to mid close-up, to avoid having to animate too many arms or legs. It takes a little while to get used to, but you do get used to it. You’ll be won over by the time of the big argument in Episode 2 – where the Doctor tries to convince scientist Lesterson about the dangers of the Daleks – if not before. This scene works especially well thanks to the fast dialogue, which requires frequent changes of shot.

It’s only when characters have to move about in silence that the spell dissipates. If a character has to walk across a room, we will see them bob almost comically across the screen. Every so often, the view will cut to a shot of their feet but, sensibly, we rarely see the whole figure move at once. This puts one in mind of The Sooty Show or The Muppets, when you would sometimes glimpse Sooty or Kermit’s little feet scampering along.

(All of which raises a question in the mind of this viewer. Is 2D animation the only way to recreate these lost episodes? I’d pay good money to see A Very Muppet Evil Of The Daleks. Just think of it. Fozzie as the Doctor. Kermit and Miss Piggy as Jamie and Victoria. Bunsen and Beaker would share the role of Theodore Maxtible. And, on Skaro, the Great Gonzo would be Emperor of the Daleks. No, not Daleks. Chickens. The Doctor must defeat his plan to spread The Chicken Factor through the history of the Muppets. In the final shot, looking down on Gonzo’s burning shed, our hero would utter those immortal words: “The final… end… Wacca wacca wacca.”)

But let’s get back to the matter at hand. The animated Power of the Daleks gifts us a little pre-credits treat of the regeneration sequence from The Tenth Planet, which is practically pornography for fetishists of the TARDIS console. You heart lifts at the simple pleasure of peering deep into the central column, right down to the slotted plastic colander that Rassilon, in his ineffable wisdom, decided was just the thing to restrain the awesome power of the TARDIS engines. When our new adventure begins proper, you recognise some of the colossal challenges of animating old Doctor Who. Patrick Troughton’s first scene contains a good minute of rattling about in a cupboard, and nobody scripting an animation from scratch would ever include a sequence like it. Weirdly, what the new pictures do at times like this is really tune you in to the sound. When this scurrying gerbil of a new Doctor Who barks a sudden “Come here!” at his travelling companions, you sit up in shock.

In retrospect, it’s no surprise that Patrick Troughton was keen to move on from Doctor Who after only three years. He’d long since done everything he could with the part, given that he completely nails it within his first 20 minutes on screen. Because Troughton pulls off this first (and incredibly risky for the programme) regeneration with such seemingly effortless skill, it might be tempting to conclude that the role is actor-proof. But history has proved that not to be the case. Here, even as a line drawing, you feel the full force of Troughton’s charm – a charm that Peter Capaldi, after two years in the role, transmits only in brief, if dazzling, bursts.

The other Power performance you appreciate anew thanks to this animation is Robert James as Lesterston, the scientist obsessed with reactivating the strange machines he has found in a capsule dragged from Vulcan’s mercury swamp. James clearly understands his character. The jealous, insecure scientist is a core Doctor Who archetype, but Lesterson is surely the best of them. There’s a nice subtlety to the way he momentarily resists using the word ‘Dalek’ to describe the alien machines, because he knows it surrenders just the tiniest bit of control of the situation to the Doctor. The animators clearly relish James’s performance too, as Lesterson seems to receive special attention. There’s a nifty shot in Episode 2 where his face is reflected, distorted, in a Dalek’s shiny dome.

The rest of the colony is, at least in the first hour of this story, something of a confusion of middle-aged men. It’s long faces all round on Vulcan, especially in scenes where Lesterson lines up with deputy governor Quinn and chief-of-police Bragen. Here, the animation caused this viewer to appreciate the text in an entirely new way. With their twitching lips and frequent sidelong glances, a powerful homoerotic tension simmers between Bragen and Quinn. Speaking of his troop of manly guards, Bragen boasts: “I pick them for their physical fitness”. “I thought it wasn’t for their IQ,” Quinn cattily replies. Later, the Doctor greets Bragen with the words “A-ha! Fruit!” This kind of language might have been acceptable in the 60s, but now is frowned upon in our polite society of almost-2020.

The Power of the Daleks truly takes flight once dormant Daleks are – and never was the word more appropriate – re-animated in Lesterson’s lab. You truly appreciate the genius and potency of their design, and those voices. As the Dalek eyeball begins to glow; as the gun arm begins to twitch; as Lesterson and his team’s voices rise with delight and anxiety…. This is when you will, if you haven’t already, forget that you are not watching this story in its original form. This ability to mesmerize, across all times and all media, is the true power of the Daleks.

The Dalek voices, when they come, are just a part of a rich soundscape that’s heightened further by Mark Ayres’ gorgeous restoration and remastering in 5.1 surround. Composer Tristram Cary’s atmospherics and jarring metallic clangs come straight from the soundtrack to a nightmare. The scene towards the end of Episode 1, where the Doctor breaks through to the inner chamber of the seemingly empty capsule, may be a steal from Quatermass and the Pit – complete with its sudden, shocking moment of movement – but you can’t watch it without holding your breath. And it’s Cary’s music and Brian Hodgson’s sounds that make it so especially potent.

Of course, the fact that we can hear this story at all is the great miracle of The Power of the Daleks. We must express all gratitude to fan Graham Strong, who wired up his tape recorder to his TV set and bottled this magic for us all to enjoy half-a-century later. This wonderful, fastidious recreation – and surely many more to come even better than this – could not exist without him. And so to Graham… Thank you.

Nothing dates faster than people’s fantasies about the future – or so they say. Well, it depends how you look at it. This new Power is being released in daily instalments on the BBC Store, beginning at 5.50pm on Saturday 5 November – exactly 50 years to the minute from its original transmission. This means that Episode 5 will be available for download on Wednesday 9 November: the day after the US presidential election. Episode 5 of The Power of the Daleks tells the story of a colony taken into the control of a bitter, vengeful fascist.

Hopefully, in this case, fiction will prove to be stranger than truth. If not – then somebody, please, send for the Doctor.


The Power of the Daleks will be available on the BBC Store from Saturday 5 November.

The Twin Dilemma

25 Jul

A review of the DVD for Doctor Who Magazine, from 2009

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It’s such an unfortunate coincidence, you have to laugh.

The very month DWM publishes the results of its Mighty 200 survey, Doctor Who’s 200th most popular adventure is released on DVD. They should pop a sticker on the box to celebrate the fact. ‘From the people who brought you Timelash and Time-Flight‘ perhaps, in large, friendly letters.

And – what fun! – The Caves of Androzani is at the top of the list. Two serials, produced on the same watch – with the astonishing final episode of Caves broadcast just six days before the astonishing first episode of The Twin Dilemma – but when we assess their relative worth, we find the whole history of Doctor Who slotted between them. It’s a remarkable thing.

But what does The Twin Dilemma’s placing, and that survey as a whole, tell us about how we judge success and failure within the world of Doctor Who? To my mind, what the top stories have in common is a robust commitment to the fictional world they offer. When we watch Doctor Who we pray that it won’t break its own spell; that it will never make us think of studios, of cameras, of actors. We know it’s a TV show, we revel in the trivia and relish the gossip, but what we really want is to believe, to be transported to another place for 25 or 45 minutes. And so strong is that desire, we are a more forgiving audience than we sometimes affect to be. Even in that Top 10, there’s the Magma Beast doing its budgerigar shuffle through the caves of Androzani. Calamitous clams om-nom-nom beneath the surface of Skaro. In the sewers of Victorian London lurk the results of Weng-Chiang’s unholy experiments in upholstery.

These burdens strain the fragile threads from which our disbelief is suspended, but we accept them. A strong story and a spirited script can weave a new world out of words alone, and still allow latitude for disaster further along the production process. However, when a story falls at that first hurdle – when its script is arrant gibberish from the off – then it’s impossible to forgive. And, as the survey proves, impossible to forget. The Twin Dilemma – a story of alien twins kidnapped by a giant slug to aid his conquest of the Universe – does almost nothing to help us believe in it. At times, it almost looks like a deliberate send-up of Doctor Who.

So let’s accentuate the positive, just for a moment. Skilled guest stars Maurice Denham, Edwin Richfield and Kevin MacNally use what energy they have left after wrestling the script into submission to breathe some life into Azmael, Mestor and Hugo. The twins themselves have long been the target of criticism, but really, they’re not so bad. However, following the casting of the Conrad brothers, someone should have changed the names of their characters. The boys speak with a soft ‘r’, so ‘Romulus and Remus’ is too cruel. Their pronunciation has always invited cheap jokes – but not here. Well, at least not yet.

Also in the ‘plus’ column, the model effects are as good as you’ll find in any 80s tale. But that’s the only compliment we can pay the design and dressing of this story. Look! The twins have a foot-square Rubik’s Cube in their living room, so gosh, they must be clever. A computer console is wrapped in Bacofoil and we’re expected not to notice. Perhaps that lazy zig-zag of gaffer tape on the front was supposed to draw the eye? There’s no more to be said on the subject of the Sixth Doctor’s costume, but it looks positively restrained alongside Hugo Lang’s Quality Street kimono. And our monster, Mestor – imagined as a giant slug when everyone must have known such a thing was impossible to realise – is a disaster. It’s the boggle-eyed Penfold stare and feeble flapping flippers that really do for the stupid thing.

We shouldn’t be surprised. The shoddy monster and the stupid coats are symptoms, not the sickness. They are symptoms of a production team admitting defeat from the off. Anthony Steven clearly didn’t believe a word he was writing. Director Peter Moffatt clearly didn’t understand a word he was reading. As Steven laboured on these scripts – according to lore – his typewriter blew up, causing him to miss deadlines. What a selfless sacrifice on the part of that humble Olivetti. When even inanimate objects turn against you, it’s time to admit defeat; as the forces of Nazi Germany discovered in the final, decisive battle of Bedknobs and Broomsticks.

However, if we are to apportion fair blame for the failure of The Twin Dilemma – and it’s no fun if we don’t – then stand up Eric Saward, our script editor. It was his job to salvage something from this mess. Even if the meandering plot was beyond help, he should at least have worked harder on the dialogue. It’s a challenge to choose the most pathetic line. “I found Zanium on the floor! It looks serious!” is a contender. As made-up space nouns go, ‘Zanium’ is as low rent as it gets, but it’s the mundane qualification of “on the floor” that really brings you down. Perhaps worst of all is the Doctor’s reaction when he learns that Mestor is dispensing “death by embolism.” “Little tiny bubbles go very well in champagne and purgatives, Noma,” he expounds. “But not in the blood.” What? Still, this stands as the Doctor’s first and so far last reference to bowel movements, however oblique. How appropriate that it should occur here.

As for the Sixth Doctor… Well, he’s Saward’s fault too. Colin Baker is doing what he can with the thin material dished up, but he never makes a connection with us, never transmits any warmth through our screens. The shocking bi-polarity caused by regeneration has always been, and will always be, a great idea, but it’s vital to make at least one of the Doctor’s two personalities likeable. We can cope with a smug ying – for a few episodes at least – if the yang isn’t equally insufferable. Here, we’re left feeling uneasy up to and beyond the Doctor’s final insincere smile at Peri.

Of course, stories of a compassionate, friendly Sixth Doctor would eventually come, once Baker was free of Saward’s stewardship and safe in the embrace of his fans. But might some of The Twin Dilemma‘s other players find redemption too? Well, we see a wobbly black sprite of Mestor’s ‘soul’ flee his death in Part Four, so his evil may well survive somewhere. Perhaps he’ll return in Matt Smith’s first series? “And now on BBC1, a new Doctor meets an old adversary…” Similarly, the twins are still in the TARDIS when the credits roll, so who knows what other exciting adventures they had with the Doctor and Peri? Set to it, Big Finish! The Sylvest boys deserve to see the universe – on audio. Romulus and Remus remonstrate with Rutans and Rills on Ravalox and Ribos. Imagine how that might sound.
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DVD Extras

Look 100 Years Younger is a feeble discussion of the Doctor’s costumes, with Colin Baker and ‘media personality’ Amy Lamé stating the obvious for ten minutes. “Ah! There’s the famous scarf!” says Lamé, greeting a clip of Tom Baker wearing his famous scarf. But the vague chunter is all just preamble to this programme’s one great trick, where some nifty computer wizardry intercedes in the final scene of The Twin Dilemma and redresses the Sixth Doctor in a natty black suit and tie, which gives him the look of a civil servant turned serial killer.

Our star pays a visit to Blue Peter in the first of two little gems from the archive offered on this disc. Presenter Janet Ellis has a delightfully mumsy interview style. “Tell me more about the Gastropods,” she says, in the same breezy, matter-of-fact tone she might use to ask a boy scout about his badge for whittling. Having shown a short clip of Mestor, Janet adds: “These enemies of Doctor Who do have a habit of keeping the audience on the edge of their seats.” Indeed they do, but in this case simply to make it easier to reach the ‘off’ switch. A further clip shows the Doctor in full homicidal rage – astride Peri, his hands tight around her throat. A bit early in the evening for that, surely? Was Blue Peter trying to launch a dark new era, serving up teatime brutality for tots? “And now it’s over to Simon, who’s certainly got his hands full today. He’s making another visit to his dad’s farm in Dethick – and those lambs won’t slaughter themselves!”

On a visit to Breakfast Time, Baker is joined by Nicola Bryant. Asked how long he’d like to play the Doctor, Baker replies, “For as long as they’ll have me.” It’s the sort of thing any modest actor might say when joining a long-running series, but in Baker’s case he was exactly right. When Bryant comments, “I’m looking forward to a whole new season with Colin,” the camera makes a queasy lurch to the left. Perhaps a ghost of future calamity was already in the machine, or Michael Grade had a special ‘abort’ control fitted to his desk upstairs.

There’s no production documentary here; perhaps not surprising given than the story’s writer, director, producer and two of its principal guest stars are now dead. It falls to an enjoyable commentary to provide the sweet distraction of gossip. While there’s little new to be learned – with many of the anecdotes now well-enough established to play simultaneously on the ‘info text’ subtitles – we do discover that Maurice Denham was allergic to prawns. The charming Kevin McNally joins Baker and Bryant to recall happy days on set, and acts almost as moderator, questioning and even gently challenging his co-stars.

Sadly, the absence of a documentary means we are deprived of the one thing we really want from this DVD – a chance to see the Conrad twins as they are today. On the commentary, McNally recalls bumping into one of them a few years ago, and reports that he’s now “a very tall boy.” We may presume they both are.

Happily, your reviewer can offer a little more information. At the 2005 TV Bafta ceremony, when the newly-revived Doctor Who won a Bafta for Best Drama, Russell T Davies and team stepped up on stage to collect the trophy. Less than 10 minutes later, Andrew Conrad – once Remus, and much later the producer of Jamie’s School Dinners – was standing in the same spot, to collect the award for Best Factual Series.

It’s such a lovely coincidence, you have to laugh.

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