A review of the DVD box set for Doctor Who Magazine, from 2009. By this point, I was starting to massively exceed my allotted word count. And I’ve only got worse. This one is 1,800 words, and I knew I was pushing my luck. I recently submitted 3,400 words for the ‘Earth Story’ double pack. I’m very naughty – and Tom Spilsbury is a very kind editor!
If you want to understand how Doctor Who became a smash success, then forget the Daleks, shelve your Beginning box set, and instead reach for The Rescue and The Romans. Here, in the oval of a Venn diagram labelled with the names of writers David Whitaker and Dennis Spooner, is where the programme we love was born. BBC Head of Drama Sydney Newman may have asked for a show, he might even have named a show, but Whitaker and Spooner gave us The Show. With The Rescue, we see outgoing story editor Whitaker justify all the notes he gave to other, lesser writers, and prove that how he wanted it done was exactly how it should be done. Then Spooner, incoming story editor and genius writer of The Romans, gives the format one final tweak by allowing the Doctor to be cleverer, funnier, cooler – turning him into a hero we could cheer. Between them, Whitaker and Spooner created Doctor Who. They should have been thanked in the closing titles of each episode that followed. Their grandchildren should receive 10% of the sale of every Doctor Who DVD, dolly and duvet cover. It would still be the bargain of a lifetime, because we owe them everything.
The Rescue takes us to the planet Dido, where perky young Vicki and whingeing, pain-in-the-arse astronaut Bennett are the only survivors of a spaceship crash. As the pair await a lifeboat from Earth, they find themselves terrorised by a hideous alien beast called Koquillion. All spiky antennae, googly eyes and glittery accessories, Koquillion looks like the result of an unfortunate teleport accident involving a stag beetle and Danny La Rue. He claims to be Vicki and Bennett’s only protection against the other natives of Dido, who apparently murdered…
STOP! ‘Koquillion claims’? What shilly-shallying. ‘Who apparently murdered’? We simply can’t go on like this. You see, your reviewer had The Rescue spoiled for him by this very magazine when he was just eight years old – over a decade before he had a chance to see the episodes themselves – and he’ll be damned if he’s going to let history repeat. Not so very long ago, it would have been taken for granted that every DWM reader knew what happens in The Rescue. But today, there will be eight-year-olds cruising towards the next paragraph in blissful ignorance. If that’s you, and you’ve never read even the briefest synopsis of the story, then turn the page. Do not come back until you’ve watched the DVD. After three stars, and with just three words, it will be spoiled forever.
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Bennett is Koquillion. Having committed murder aboard ship, he’s covered his tracks by killing the rest of the crew. His disguise is to help sell the lie of homicidal natives to Vicki, who will ultimately act as his alibi. However, the fact that Bennett’s ultimate unmasking by the Doctor reminds us of Scooby Doo leads to that single, dreary criticism of The Rescue – that it is a ‘whodunnit’ with only one suspect. What utter rubbish. It’s no kind of whodunnit at all. To confirm this, your reviewer watched these episodes with a friend who knew nothing of the story, and had also just watched the previous 51 episodes, in order, for the first time. This took some organising by the way. From the start, our newcomer believed that Koquillion was an alien monster – and a beautifully-realised one compared to the Voord and the Sensorites. Only when Bennett’s room is found to be empty did he guess, at the exact moment Whitaker intended him to, that man and monster were one and the same. His response was brief and accurate: “That’s brilliant!”. Only by watching The Rescue this way, in its original context, can the immense ingenuity and wit of its story be properly appreciated. It’s a little work of genius.
A wish to redress this disservice may unbalance this box set review, but that’s not to say The Romans isn’t wonderful. Ambition is the watchword here, not just in the way it remains Doctor Who’s funniest story, but also thanks to its endearing aspiration to be a movie epic. Yes, resources are painfully limited – a fact most ably demonstrated when Ian’s slave galley founders on the Cape of Stock Footage, or when he’s threatened by some unlikely-looking lions (Felis Telecinius in the latin) – but it never stops the production team from trying.
The regular cast are at their very best, notably Jacqueline Hill (Barbara) and William Hartnell as the Doctor. Guest star Derek Francis may be the focus of the fruity farce in episode three, but when he propositions Barbara – “Close your eyes, and Nero will give you a big surprise” – it’s Hill’s expert double-take that turns it into a thoroughly dirty joke.
Hartnell’s brilliant performance in The Romans is only ever bettered by his big scene in The Rescue. (It’s rare to find our lead more at ease in a sci-fi tale, but his confrontation with Bennett is sublime, with the Doctor’s bright little eyes dancing in the darkness.) The Romans feels less rehearsed, and so Hartnell takes his familiar Eric Morecambe approach to the dialogue – saying all the right words, but not necessarily in the right mountain goat. Although he’s far from alone in that. One of Doctor Who’s most tense moments comes when Michael Peake, playing slave master Tavius, slips up on a line and he and Hartnell look at each other in agonised silence for a long moment before our star saves him. You lift up in your seat as your buttocks clench in sympathetic discomfort.
Fumbles and stumbles included, these six stunning episodes form the template from which all future Doctor Who would be cut. You could compile a trailer for the entire series using clips from The Rescue alone. “We can travel anywhere in that old box,” says the Doctor proudly. “And if you like adventure, my dear, I can promise you an abundance of it!”
Even Hartnell, Doctor Who’s great champion, didn’t know how right he was.
All praise must go to the Restoration Team for another expert clean-up job, another labour of love. The results are stunning, sometimes even surprising. You can now clearly see Ian actor William Russell sidling out of shot in the background of Sandy the Sand Beast’s cave, long before he’s due to emerge. Well, one presumes it’s Russell from his sharp suit, but this being the BBC of the sixties, it could equally well be the floor manager or the tea boy.
Mounting the Rescue is an excellent little documentary, perfectly straightforward but never dull. The star of the show is designer Raymond Cusick. Always so still and inscrutable, he’s like watching an Easter Island statue attend a job interview. Only when raw materials are mentioned does Cusick betray what by his standards must be a heady rush of emotion. Watch for when his eyes flash – well, widen by a millimetre – at the mention of “reeded hardboard”. Cusick is another of Doctor Who’s bona fide geniuses, and while his anecdotes may be on the dry side, this reviewer could listen to his measured modesty all day.
There’s an interesting detail hidden away and unacknowledged in the Photo Gallery. Production legend, restated in the documentary here, recounts how Jacqueline Hill came close to serious injury when a flare gun detonated prematurely in the first take of Barbara’s assassination of Sandy. But here’s a photograph showing the very moment of the explosion. It’s during a rehearsal, as Barbara removes the gun from a store cupboard. Zoom in to the picture and you can see how close the flash is to Hill’s face, and imagine how terrifying this must have been for her. With all that hair lacquer, she could have gone up like Vesuvius. It also brings home the craziness of Doctor Who’s as-live production at the time, with actresses expected to stumble through long takes with primed explosives in their trembling hands.
The production documentary for The Romans is a bewildering affair. The Doctor Who material is smart and informative, but then we suddenly have Anthony Andrews discussing his own performance as Nero in the eighties TV potboiler A.D., and Christopher Biggins ruminating on I, Claudius. It leaves a nagging sense of a programme maker either bored of talking only about Doctor Who, or worse, ashamed of it. Input from the outside world is always welcome, but this sort of thing can only work if, at the very least, someone has the balls to show Andrews and Biggins a clip from The Romans and tease out an opinion, however derisory. The link must be directly made; otherwise the whole production appears schizophrenic. Oddly, you can find an example of how to do this properly within the same documentary, as Dr Mark Bradley, lecturer in Ancient Histories at Nottingham University, outlines the true history of Caesar Nero, as far as it is known, and then discusses what The Romans gets right and wrong. Perfect! It’s a shame Dr Mark’s particular field of expertise precludes future DVD appearances – at least until The Myth Makers turns up – as your reviewer would love to see him again. Dinner would be nice.
Girls! Girls! Girls!, a look at Doctor Who’s plucky lady helpers of the sixties, offers groovy graphics, entirely superficial content, and a narrator struggling to finish some epic sentences before they choke her. What should have been an interesting study of the development of the companion proves no more than a collection of hit-and-miss anecdotes from the actresses concerned, who are rather tactlessly presented in front of giant blow-ups of their younger, smoother selves. Reaching The War Games in 1969, we’re told, “This coincided with the close of the most memorable decade of the 20th century”. What thoughtless tosh. Tell that to anyone who lived through the Blitz.
From the same producer, but better in every way, is Dennis Spooner – Wanna Write a Television Series?, which discusses the writer’s Doctor Who work within the context of his long and brilliant TV career. Spooner was a king of pulp drama, but pulp with brains, heart and guts. His sometime writing partner Brian Clemens offers a moving personal tribute, while Who writer Rob Shearman provides a typically insightful commentary. However, his assertion that The Romans is the best story of the black-and-white era cannot go without challenge. Shearman’s nearly right, but it’s not even the best story in this box set – but only because it’s paired with some fine competition.