A review of the ‘K9 Tales’ DVD box set for Doctor Who Magazine, from June 2008
The greatest disappointment apropos the enemy of 1977’s The Invisible Enemy is that it fails to live up to the promise of the title. In part three, the Nucleus Of The Virus Of The Swarm becomes all too visible. It’s the actors you feel sorry for. No one knows quite where to look. When this ludicrous creature – a shrimp inflated to the size of schoolboy – rants at a bed-bound Doctor, it pokes a wiry frond alarmingly close to Tom Baker’s right eye. Our star, bored as you like, bats it lazily aside, his mind perhaps drifting back to happier days when he faced more credible foes, such as 10 square yards of shagpile moonlighting as a giant rat.
But Tom’s got the easy job. It’s John Scott Martin, squished into this rattling monstrosity, who truly deserves our pity. Slaving away on Equity minimum, likely lacerated by fibreglass splinters and high on epoxy resin, it’s a miracle he survived the studio. Thankfully, he’s briefly allowed out of harness in part four when, in one of Doctor Who’s finest technical blunders, John can be glimpsed, sans fronds, in the doorway of a fuel tank on Titan, looking for all the world like he’s sat on the toilet.
Production missteps aside, The Invisible Enemy has a neat idea at its heart. The Doctor is infected with an evil space virus, and our hero has to be cloned, miniaturised and injected into his own head to defeat it. The science is grotesque malarkey of course, but this story of the microcosm making an assault on the macrocosm gives the serial unparalleled scope, having the Doctor race first across the solar system, and later the hemispheres of his brain. Few other stories – then or now – have such fearless ambition, and fearless ambition is the great engine of Doctor Who.
However, it isn’t the zany plot that’s earned this story box-set status, for The Invisible Enemy sees the first appearance of our chirpy robot chum, K9. Over the years, K9 had neatly divided fandom into those who love him, and those who are wrong. You see, it’s not without good reason that he’s still a player in the world of Doctor Who today. Credit is due to writers Bob Baker and Dave Martin for showing uncharacteristic self-control in making K9 a dog in name only. Given the personality of a fussy old man – thanks also to the vocal skill of John Leeson – K9’s pompous pedantry makes him an ideal foil to the freewheeling Doctor, like a little robot Brigadier.
But the true hero of this tale is designer Tony Harding – the man who made K9 beautiful. The chief reason for the dog’s success is that he’s just so pleasing to look at. Something about his very proportions gladdens the heart and brings a smile to the face. It’s a tragedy that as far as today’s The Sarah Jane Adventures is concerned, K9 has his nose stuck in a black hole and his arse jammed in a rights negotiation. Forget the naff cartoon, Bob – and let our puppy run back home. There are a million children ready to play with him.
Mention of Sarah brings us to the other half of this box-set… But first – a public health warning. Laminate your eardrums! Scotchguard your retinas! The titles and theme music of 1981’s K9 and Company have been remastered. Danger! Mistress! Danger!
Searing sharp and shriller than ever, the feeling of astonishment provoked by this opening sequence is only tempered by the sheer horror of it. Halfway through, you have to remind yourself of the necessity to breathe. Sarah’s jogging down a damp country lane is the definite lowlight. Even K9 – having apparently hopped on to a drystone wall to watch his mistress stride gamely past – looks down upon the endeavour with appropriate disdain.
At this point, your reviewer must admit a certain prejudice. He loves K9 and Company with a passion verging on the certifiable. At home, it’s an interactive Christmas treat, offering plenty of chances to boo, cheer, and shout dialogue back at the screen. (“We haven’t got any roundabouts!”) However, mental health issues aside, a more realistic judgment is that, at best, K9 and Company meanders through only the lower levels of excitement.
It could all have been so much better if the script hadn’t dribbled from the lazy, lazy mind of writer Terence Dudley. With April’s DVD, Black Orchid, Dudley gave us a murder mystery without any mystery. Here, in a grim twist, he gives us a murder mystery without any murder. Sure, Sarah is convinced that something nasty has happened to her Aunt Lavinia (the world’s only superstar virologist, who’d probably kill for a chance to be poked by the Nucleus of the Swarm), but it transpires that Lavina merely left for New York early. But given that a black magic coven burns a picture of Lavinia in the opening scene, it means the entire story is predicated upon a whopping great red herring. That takes some nerve. We are then presented with a series of suspects for a crime that hasn’t happened – which is a painful waste of time or an adorable pantomime, depending on your point of view. If you’re willing to kick back and go with this latter assessment, Linda Polan’s voluptuous Juno “She’ll come” Baker is a camp classic. Then there’s Colin Jeavons as the sinister George “I’m Tracy” Tracey. No one does ‘baleful’ like Jeavons – he has the whole Peter Mandelson vibe down pat.
If you’re in the right frame of mind, K9 and Company is total riot. At least there’s plenty happening, and the supporting characters are fun to be around. We also get 45 minutes of Lis Sladen, one of Doctor Who’s greatest performers. Just watch the play of emotions across her face when K9 tells Sarah he’s a gift from the Doctor. In fact, watch her closely in any scene – you’ll never see an actor working so hard to lift such thin material. What a star.
K9 and Company, whatever you may think of it, is a fascinating digression in the story of Doctor Who, so the feeble documentary served up here is a disappointment. Production values are low – with the audio for the interviews seemingly recorded in a bathroom using two plastic cups and length of taut twine – and the content unfocused. And no mention of The Sarah Jane Adventures? Really? Thank goodness for a rewarding commentary and delightfully arch ‘info text’, both full of fascinating anecdotes and trivia.
Back to The Invisible Enemy, where things are much healthier. If you have the patience for a bit of fuzzy black-and-white VHS, then there’s gold to be found among the Studio Sweepings – a collection of raw behind-the-scenes footage. Given the rate the team had to rip through the as-live special effects work, it boggles the mind that these episodes got made at all. We get to see Tom Baker practically direct the show from the studio floor, and so better understand the dichotomy of opinion between the ex-colleagues who remember him as an arrogant monster, and those who fondly recall a creative genius. Inventive and irritable by turn, Tom obliterates the will of every anyone caught within the blast radius of his personality.
The principal documentary, Dreams And Fantasy, is a treat, and catches up with a host of key players from this story. (Well, bar Tom, who appears to be enjoying another self-imposed exile from the Doctor Who nostalgia industry.) Director Richard Higson, new to these DVDs, delivers a witty and considered production, clearly taking his lead from the best contributors to the range, Ed Stradling and Steve Broster. But as for the input of the fan commentator employed here… Well, I’ve been asked to pass on his sincere apologies. He’s got a new job now, so we won’t be seeing him again.
Finally, Visual Effect is an interesting look at the generally superior model work for the story, and sees Mat Irvine chat to Ian Scoones, who looked after the good stuff. Irvine delights the old chap by pulling miniature spaceships from under his seat, and the pair grumble about how computers have replaced traditional special effects techniques. “In those days, if you saw a model landscape, it was real model landscape,” says Irvine at one point. Something for armchair philosophers to ponder there. Ironically, this disc also offers a suite of Alternative Effects, which in some instances contrive to suck all charm from the originals, and will surely be fuel to Irvine’s ire. Sure, there are some nifty lasers, and a famous crack in the paintwork is papered over, but when you have five feet of plastic prawn gibbering its way through the final episode – about which nothing can be done but close your eyes and pray for salvation – it seems rather a waste of time.