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.

Frontios

2 Jun

Originally posted on Squabbling Rubber:

A review of the DVD, from 2011

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“Let me show you how we smooth our walls, Doctor,” gushes the Gravis, queen of the Tractators, his flippers flapping with girlish glee. It’s one of the odder things ever to be said by a Doctor Who enemy, but at least he’s up front about his passions in life. Other monsters clearly harbour a passion for decor and design but – to protect their forbidding reputations – wisely keep schtum. Hidden deep in the mighty Cyber Empire is the mighty Cyber Graphic Design Department; responsible for logos and stencilling. And there must have been a moment in a planning meeting for the new Dalek paradigm when Scientist narrowed his iris at a Dulux ‘New Season Brights’ colour chart, sceptical of Eternal’s assurance that Sunburst Yellow would be “quite slimming”.

But we get ahead of ourselves. The Tractators don’t appear until the second…

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The Daemons

12 May

Originally posted on 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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The Trial of a Time Lord

3 Mar

Originally posted on Squabbling Rubber:

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 list of ingredients is sound 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 the opposite approach, and the fourth episode of this season earned a rating of only 3.7 million and an…

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Terror of the Zygons

7 Jan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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DVD Extras

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After all, it’s our birthday too.

The Ice Warriors

25 Oct

A DVD review for Doctor Who Magazine, from 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DVD extras

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

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

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

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

The Green Death (Special Edition)

24 Sep

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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DVD Extras

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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