Earth Story: The Gunfighters & The Awakening

A review of the DVD box set, from 2011

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When you first heard that the 1966 story The Gunfighters would join 1984’s The Awakening in a DVD box set celebrating their not-entirely-unique status as ‘stories set on Earth’, perhaps you – like me – assumed that Mr Big at 2Entertain had finally flipped his lid; that the wheel was still spinning but the hamster was dead. But one must presume there is method to this madness, and that the relative familiarity of Peter Davison’s Doctor will help guarantee sales for the less easily marketable William Hartnell. The Gunfighters, after all, has never been skilled at pulling in an audience. So maybe it’s all to the greater good. It’s nice to think of one incarnation lending a helping hand to his younger self. But really… Earth Story? Is that they best they could come up with? Did nobody notice that these two stories – and no others – feature horses cantering into their opening scenes? There’s your USP, 2entertain! Horse Tales. The Horse Box. The Reins of Terror. A full page advert in Country Life could have attracted a lucrative new audience.

Riding in on these horses, in both cases, are our gun-toting bad guys. In The Gunfighters, the Clanton Brothers – a notorious family of cattle rustlers – hitch up in Tombstone, Arizona in 1881, trigger fingers itching to settle a score. In The Awakening, it’s a little over a century later, and our riders are Sir George Hutchinson and his lackeys, dressed to reenact a key battle of the English Civil War. Both groups take time to tell us a little something about themselves. The Clantons, like everyone in The Gunfighters, talk in the distinctive vernacular of the Old West, so we’re never far away from an animal metaphor (“I’m ready to jump like a mountain hare!” “They’re closer than two fleas on a porcupine!” or the stickily peculiar: “It’ll be as easy as skinning a summer frog!”). Sir George, meanwhile, like everyone in The Awakening, talks in the distinctive vernacular of Doctor Who script editor Eric Saward. “Why, Miss Hampden, you of all people, our schoolteacher, must appreciate the value of reenacting actual events,” he says. One hopes that Miss Hampden doesn’t regularly need reminding of her name and her job, or we might have cause to question her suitability as a guardian of young children. Sir George is miffed because she’s refusing to take part his restaging of the Battle of Little Hodcombe. She’s worried that things are getting out of hand. “So there’s been a little damage,” scoffs Sir George. “That’s the way people used to behave in those days.” Which, considering which days he’s talking about, is rather an understatement.

In both time-zones the TARDIS delivers the Doctor and his two travelling companions – one of each – into the action. And they’re here on a mission. In Tombstone, the Doctor needs a dentist. In Little Hodcombe, Tegan wants to visit her grandfather. With both landings, the TARDIS is displaying a well-tuned sense of humour. The dentist in Tombstone is the notorious gunslinger Doc Holliday, whom the Clantons are hunting on account of how that no-good rattlesnake murdered their brother, so our own ‘Doc’ is set up for a case of mistaken identity. Meanwhile, in England, Tegan’s grandfather just happens to have stumbled across a baleful alien presence – something this family makes a habit of – so it’s lucky she has the Doctor in harness. Tegan, just this once, takes her handbag with her, and one wonders if she’s come to Little Hodcombe to deliver the body of her Aunt Vanessa for burial. The bag’s about the right size.

With these two stories harnessed together for release, it’s fun to look for their similarities, but that can only take us so far. For while they may begin in much the same way, they’re swift to pull apart and race off in different directions. The Awakening is as earnest and straightforward a Doctor Who adventure as you’ll find. There’s mystery, investigation, resolution – bish, bash, bosh. It’s the show moving at a comfortable trot. The Gunfighters, however, is trying to do something very different…

The Gunfighters is a comedy, at least for its first half hour or so. How much of a comedy, and what kind, depends upon who’s on screen at any given moment. As Steven, Peter Purves plays it broad, and never misses a chance for an exaggerated double take. When he and Jackie Lane’s Dodo are forced to sing and play piano for the Clantons, the scene edges into slapstick, and brings back memories of the little plays that winning couples had to perform in the final round of The Generation Game. Finding a better level is William Hartnell, who doesn’t get a word wrong in this, one of his finest performances. His best scene is early, when he meets Doc Holliday and his friend Kate, and the dentist sets about pulling the Doctor’s tooth. There’s a lovely precision and fluidity to everyone’s delivery and movement, and you can tell that Hartnell’s having a marvellous time. But if one’s mind is inclined to wander, later developments in Doctor Who now leave one pondering what happened to the Doctor’s extracted molar. We’ve since learned that, in the right circumstances, a whole new Doctor can be grown from any leftover bits of his body. So it’s lucky that a Time Lord Meta-Crisis wasn’t triggered anywhere near that tooth, as the effect could be terrifying. DoctorDodo would have the boundless intelligence of a Gallifreyan and the wildly oscillating accent of Chorlton-cum-Hackney.

The humour continues to bubble through the second episode of The Gunfighters, most notably in the Doctor’s insistence on calling local marshal Wyatt Earp “Mr Werp”, and the great moment when, after some amateurish spinning of a gun, the Doctor childishly brags to Earp, “I say, can you do that?” – the response is a hilariously deadpan “No”. But after the first murder – of the Clantons’ associate Seth Harper – all this funny begins to fall flat, and the writer knows it. The broader comedic strokes are abandoned, and through its middle hour, the serial plays it more or less straight; or as straight as it can with a burlesque song as counterpoint.

Meanwhile, over in Little Hodcombe, the TARDIS has dropped the Doctor, Tegan and Turlough at a country church that’s seen better days. They’re soon scooped by a troop of latterday Roundheads and delivered to Sir George Hutchinson.

Sir George is the best thing about The Awakening, principally because he’s played by Denis Lill, with wonderful, measured delivery. “Something is coming to our village,” says Sir George. “Something very wonderful… and strange.” It’s Lill’s underplaying of the line that makes it memorable; with less skill, it could sound like they’ve booked Quentin Crisp to open the summer fete.  Sir George is mad for his war game, and insists that every detail be perfect. He certainly practises what he preaches, and has come as King Charles I himself. Coloured feathers shoot from a truly heroic hat, and loose curls of luxuriant hair cascade over his shoulders. All of which may raise a question in the mind of the more easily distracted… is that a wig, or is it Sir George’s real hair? Certainly, we know it’s a wig on Denis Lill, as we’ve seen his shiny dome in Image of the Fendahl, but that’s not necessarily the case for Sir George, as his coiffure stays firmly in place when he later tumbles from his horse. If it is his hair, it means he’s been growing it out for these war games for – what? – two years? He’s the local magistrate, so has been turning up for work done up like a luckless former King of England? Aren’t there rules about that sort of thing? One imagines many of those convicted by Sir George are now seeking appeal; arguing the validity of any sentence handed down by a man styled as a popular brand of spaniel.

The mystery of Little Hodcombe builds over the course of an enjoyable Part One. The Doctor meets Will Chandler, an oo-ar yokel lad who has slipped through time from 1643, and the real Civil War. Will brings stories of the Malus; a local devil. “He makes fightin’ worse. Makes men fight more.” The Malus is forcing bloody history to repeat itself via Sir George’s war game. The Doctor predicts wholesale slaughter – and at just that moment, as the story prickles with danger and possibility, The Awakening is at is very best. And then… Malus come.

A giant, grey, grinning face trundles forward, huffing smoke, its eyes flicking from side to side. The Doctor, dwarfed by it, comes as close as any man has ever been to knowing what it’s like to be run over by Thomas the Tank Engine. “Rrrrroooar,” says the Malus. “Rrrrooooooaar!” it confirms. There’s no answer to that, and because it’s clear the Malus isn’t going anywhere fast, the Doctor and friends slip quietly away.

The Malus, the Doctor tells us, is a probe from the planet Hakol. (And if that’s what their probes look like, imagine their washing machines.) It’s feeding upon the “negative emotions” generated by the war game, and generates a series of solid “psychic projections”; including one of itself, which shows that its face comes attached to a body. The Malus is a huge creature; a great goblin with arms and legs and tail, with most of it buried under the church. And so, we must infer that when the Malus came to Earth it got stuck – bum first and up to the neck – in the soil of Dorset. And then, presumably after much poking with sticks, the locals built a church over it; and not a particularly attractive one at that. No wonder the Malus is in such a pig of a mood. It now wants to use the emotions of the war game to help set it free. It’s a curious expectation, as it’s something the original battle – with all its bloodshed and heartfelt fury – demonstrably failed to achieve.

It’s here that The Awakening fails to come into focus. The idea of a whole village role-playing an old battle, but then slowly being subsumed by their characters, is a good one. But the story doesn’t follow that thread. Sure, Sir George is nuts for the whole thing, but those of his neighbours we get to know well – Jane Hampden and her friend Ben Wolsey – seem entirely immune. There’s no real sense of the village being whipped into any kind of homocidal rage by the Malus. Instead, it appears that Sir George is supported only by a few eager-to-please local thugs, who are enjoying the chance to throw their weight about with the blessing of the local magistrate. Is Sergeant Willow, for example, being controlled by the Malus when he seems poised to assault both Jane and Tegan? That point isn’t made clear, so it appears that Willow is, by nature, a total bastard– perhaps the local estate agent – who’s merely relishing his time off the leash, and the chance to force women to dress as he pleases. Given his cruel behaviour, it’s odd that Willow isn’t killed by the ghostly cavaliers in this story’s final minutes, rather than the non-speaking extra who goes to the sword instead.

If it’s bloodshed the Malus is after, it would feed better upon the events of The Gunfighters. By the end of Part Two, the townspeople of Tombstone are whipped into a murderous frenzy by the Clantons, and are set to take Steven and “string him up from the nearest tree”. The noose is even fitted about his neck. In Little Hodcombe, it’s all the forces of evil can do to get Tegan in the right frock for her execution. In Tombstone, the deaths keep on coming. Doc Holliday kills a man – off screen – merely for his breakfast. Charlie the comedy barman is gunned down. Warren Earp is shot by the Clantons.

Warren’s death is key to any analysis of The Gunfighters. It’s this event that finally draws the Earps into the Clantons’ feud with Holliday, and leads to the gunfight at the OK Corral. It’s the story’s big turning point. Warren dies in his brother’s arms… but we feel nothing. And that’s The Gunfighters all over. It comes with so many distractions. There’s the terrible American accents and that shill, irritating song, and yet it’s brilliantly designed and imaginatively shot. It’s full of comedy business and rootin’ tootin’ banter. But we don’t feel anything for the characters. We can hardly tell the Clantons apart, and the assorted mustachio’d ‘good guys’ are as dreary as can be. We feel some warmth toward Doc Holliday – chiefly because Dodo gets her best-ever scene when she disarms him, in both senses – but we reach that final, legendary gunfight without truly caring about a single participant. Bang bang bang – it goes – bang bang bang. The bodies fall, and we feel nothing. But look at the lovely film stock, we think, and how skilfully the director has composed that final shot, as the victors stand astride the corpses of the fallen. Isn’t that clever? Now, who were they again?

If there’s one thing these Earth stories have in common, it’s that they ultimately fail to stir us. Both serials are rather marvellous in their way – that’s for sure. They are produced with care and conviction, but we quit them feeling unmoved. “The Malus is pure evil,” says the Doctor, which is the laziest possible motivation for a Doctor Who villain. He defeats it by flicking a few switches on the TARDIS console. It’s difficult to know whether we should feel sympathy for Sir George when he tumbles over a low wall to his dusty death. Did his madness wake the Malus, or is he as much a victim as anyone? In Tombstone, the Doctor is nowhere near the gunfight – the only threat to our heroes comes when Dodo briefly cannons into the film sequence as fast as the 10:37 to Ealing can carry her – and he doesn’t take so much as a moment to lament the bloodshed.

Instead, both tales skid to an abrupt handbrake stop. In the case of The Awakening, it’s with as limp and flapping a scene as has ever wrapped a Doctor Who story. That’s that then – everyone says, in Tombstone, in Little Hodcombe – shaking hands, exchanging quips. We sense that our time travellers won’t spare their latest adventure another thought. Not every Doctor Who story has to be profound, or offer some moral message, but they ought to make us feel something as the final credits roll. If they don’t, then you might as well say that the most significant thing about them is the planet on which they happen to be set.

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DVD extras

The commentary tracks for both serials are kept lively and focused by moderator Toby Hadoke, who really is very good at it. The participants for The Gunfighters are now well into their anecdotage – Bat Masterson actor Richard Beale was 90 at the time of recording – and have lots of stories to tell. The continuing health, or otherwise, of absent co-stars is regularly enquired after with a guarded: “Is he still, er..?” and it falls to Hadoke to deliver the happy or sad news. (Or, in the case of one actor now living in New Zealand, both.) Rather wonderfully, Hadoke seems to know the whereabouts of every actor to have ever appeared in Doctor Who. I imagine his secret HQ is dominated by a huge map of the world, with little lights tracking all the surviving cast. One blinks out. Another Quark has joined the choir invisible.

The principal documentary with The Awakening is Return to Little Hodcombe, which takes members of the production team back on location to share their memories. It’s a sweet and sincere piece, seasoned by interviews with local residents such as Maureen Crumpler. Her response to watching this tale of aliens on TV – “It were all so real! So realistic!” – hints that life in the Dorset village of Shapwick might be stranger than we know. It’s nice to get out and about and escape the usual house style for these documentaries, even if it does lead to some rather self-conscious stomping about from Eric Saward. And you wish they’d let poor Michael Owen Morris sit down, rather than keep him standing beside what looks suspiciously like a pile of manure.

The Gunfighters comes with the documentary The End of The Line?, looking at how Doctor Who changed during its third year on TV. It’s an authored piece – with a script from Johnny Morris for producer Ed Stradling – and it’s excellent work, well-argued and balanced. And the interviewees are all first class. A highlight is Maureen O’Brien’s memory of working on Galaxy 4. She tells how the dwarves who played the Chumblies were “always fighting over the women”. It puts one in mind of Judy Garland’s tales of The Wizard of Oz; of how the Munchkins were at it like knives. As there’s never been an interesting word said about Galaxy 4, it’s rather glorious to suddenly imagine the Drahvins run ragged by randy Chumblies.

A Now and Then look at the locations used for The Awakening is the familiar gentle tour of the home counties, peering idly at grass verges and outbuildings and…“OH MY GOD! IT’S A GLASS SHOT!” Well I never. Generally you can spot a visual effect in Doctor Who from three rooms away – the echo of distant laughter is often the clue – but this viewer was staggered to learn that a distant shot of Little Hodcombe church in Part One, as the Doctor chases the handbag thief, was actually a tiny study in acrylics on a well-placed window. It’s always lovely to learn something new.

The only interesting scene among a collection of bits edited from The Awakening is an uncomfortable moment intended to remind viewers that Kamelion is still lurking in the TARDIS somewhere. (Maybe ‘lurking’ oversells it. ‘Leaning’ was about Kamelion’s limit. Although, as he was from an era when the Doctor’s friends liked nothing more than to tut, huff and judge each other, the fact that all Kamelion could do was roll his eyes perhaps makes him the ultimate 80s companion.) Tegan finds Kamelion in a corridor, and while the robot claims he’s doing nothing sinister, he’s clearly either downloading pornography or attempting to defraud the TARDIS cash machine.

Tomorrow’s Times is a romp through newspaper commentary on the Hartnell years. There’s lots of interesting material here… probably. The trouble is, one’s attention is monopolised by the host, actress Mary Tamm, who seems to be enjoying herself rather too much. She begins by greeting each comment with a sardonic half-smile, but her expressions grow steadily more arch and exaggerated. One eyebrow is auditioning for a long-sought-after solo career, and is poised to make good its escape. And just when you’ve got used to that, Tamm introduces a magnificent pout to her repertoire. It’s like being blown kisses by a flirty duck. And as the programme goes on, there’s a sense of her sliding slowly out of shot to the right. It’s totally captivating.

Making the Malus reunites designer Tony Harding and props builder Richard Gregory with their face of evil, which greets them with its usual goblin grin and glance askance. “I wonder where he’s been?” ponders Harding. Any hope that this is a cue for a montage of snatched paparazzi pictures of the Malus falling out of Stringfellow’s at 4am, or water-skiing on the Côte d’Azur, is soon dashed. We learn that the beast has been looked after by one Paul Burrows – a more devoted acolyte than even Sir George – who nailed him to his living room wall. The Malus once frightened the gas man. “But I introduced them,” says Burrows, “and he made friends with it.” How sweet. It’s lovely to know that out of such great evil, some good has come.

Mara Tales: Kinda & Snakedance

A review of the DVD box set, from 2011

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‘Pick of the month!’ shouts an enthusiastic graphic on this page. Talk about understatement. Of the two stories in this DVD box set, the first, Kinda, is among the very best ever made. And the second? Well, no need to equivocate there. Snakedance is the best Doctor Who story ever made. So brace for superlatives.

But first things first. In Kinda, the Tardis brings Doctor, and his Von Trapp family of companions – Tegan, Nyssa and Adric – to a lush jungle world. The ground may seem strangely level and unyielding for a jungle, but as there are hints to there having once been a technologically advanced society here, perhaps they took a paved parking lot and put up a paradise.

Not all of our crew set out to explore. Nyssa needs a nap to recover from a recent script, and stays in the Tardis. It falls to Adric and Tegan to find trouble for the Doctor, which they do with alacrity. Adric goes truffling off into the forest on a trail that ultimately leads us to an alien base – of which more in a moment – while Tegan is lulled to sleep by the ringing of wind chimes, and falls into a dream…

It’s one of Doctor Who’s great once-seen, never-forgotten moments. Tegan’s dream is a triumph of writing and presentation, and among the most memorable and disturbing sequences in the whole of the series. It’s the starkness of the vision that makes it special; the restraint of it. There’s a passing sense of Alice’s Wonderland to begin with – a conversation between the two chess-playing grotesques recalls Tweedledum and Tweedledee and their “contrariwise” bickering – but this is no playful fantasy; it’s full-on nightmare. In this pitch-black nowhere, which feels at once infinite and claustrophobic, Tegan is tormented, her sense of self attacked, by a gloating, sneering incubus. In mythology, an incubus would force himself upon sleeping women against their will, but this one at least needs Tegan’s permission to, well… take her. “You will agree to being me,” it hisses. “This side of madness or the other.” That’s chilling enough, but worse is implied in the amused tone in which it offers Tegan payment for her services. “You would be suitably entertained by the experience,” it promises. These scenes still pack a punch 30 years on. There are plenty of references to sex in modern Doctor Who – companions putting the move on the Doctor, Amy and Rory likely at it like knives in Turlough’s old bed, Captain Jack the sexual omnivore – but it’s still innocent stuff; suggestion, snogging and ‘dancing’. Kinda says less, but implies more. There’s no hiding from the fact that when Tegan wakes in the jungle, her manner is clearly post-coital. She feels… satisfied. Possession has been a familiar theme in Doctor Who from its earliest days, but it’s never been like this.

Elsewhere in the jungle, the Doctor and Adric meet a survey team from another world who are undertaking a study of this planet, called Deva Loka, and its tribal people, the Kinda. Two members of their group have gone missing in mysterious circumstances, leaving only the leader, Sanders, security officer Hindle and scientist Todd. These are wholly traditional Doctor Who characters, but they are turned into so much more by a wonderful script and the finest guest cast of any Doctor Who serial. Richard Todd, playing Sanders, generally receives the least attention, but his performance is a masterclass; Todd nails every nuance of his character’s journey, a subversion of the ‘old colonial officer’ stereotype. Hindle, Sanders’ underling, begins as the junior member of the group, jaw clenched and chest puffed out like a little boy playing soldiers, but after Sanders falls under the spell of the Kinda and regresses to childhood himself, Hindle can loose the tortured adult trapped within – and he’s a bully, both terrified and terrifying.

Simon Rouse’s turn as Hindle is the greatest guest performance in the history of Doctor Who. Only Christopher Gable in The Caves of Androzani and Michael Wisher in Genesis of the Daleks come close. All three are portrayals of spiralling madness, but Rouse has the edge on the others in the way that he can take Hindle on a longer journey – all the time flipping back and forth from seeming rational to outright homicidal – and while never quite losing our sympathy. Hindle’s scary enough when he coldly announces how he will sterilise the jungle – “We will establish a cordon sanitaire around the dome. Method of implementation: fire and acid, acid and fire.” – but that’s nothing compared to when he’s playing children’s games. “But it isn’t a game!” he insists. “It’s real! With measuring and everything!” There are few things in life more disturbing then the unknowable logic of the insane, and watching Hindle play in his cardboard city, and fret over the well-being of its cardboard citizens, after having carefully prepared the extermination of all around him, is more unnerving than any marauding monster. Rather brilliantly, even Hindle gets a happy ending, healed by the Kinda, and it’s credit to the writing and Rouse’s performance that we are pleased for him.

Completing the trio in the dome is Todd, played with great compassion, and much buttoned-up sex appeal, by Nerys Hughes, who quickly establishes herself as the perfect companion for Peter Davison’s Doctor. Would it be too great an indulgence for Big Finish to revisit Todd, and team them up again for audio adventures? Of course it wouldn’t. What is Big Finish for if not to satisfy our fascination with Doctor Who’s great could-have-beens and never-weres?

Of course, Sanders, Hindle and Todd would be nothing without Christopher Bailey’s script, which deftly spins three-dimensional characters and then gifts them some of finest dialogue in Doctor Who history. Ultimately, it’s the words that make both Kinda and Snakedance so special. There’s balance and rhythm to almost every sentence. The best speech goes to Panna, the blind soothsayer of the Kinda played so wonderfully by Mary Morris, who never once blinks. “It is the Mara who turn the wheel,” she intones. “It is the Mara who dance to the music of our despair. Our suffering is the Mara’s delight. Our madness is the Mara’s meat and drink. And now he has returned.” Has any villain in Doctor Who ever come with a better-written introduction?

But ‘villain’ is a crude and inadequate description of the Mara. It’s the creature – if that’s the word – that escapes from Tegan’s dream, although it’s never clear if this Mara is drawn specifically from her unconscious, or if it ‘belongs’ to Deva Loka. That speech of Panna’s refers to the Mara in the plural, almost as a ‘species’, before suddenly using the word ‘he’. This confusion – which continues into Snakedance – leaves the Mara the most mysterious and fascinating of Doctor Who threats, as it wriggles free of some of the series’ biggest clichés. They/he/it never threatens universal domination. In Kinda, it seems only to wish to drive the off-worlders from Deva Loka. It barely even registers the presence of the Doctor.

However, it can’t be denied that this subtlety is briefly rendered moot when the Mara is obliged to take physical form as a whacking great snake. At the time of this story’s transmission, this grinning creation caused Kinda to be voted last in the DWM season poll. (Perhaps along with this story’s adult themes, which would have troubled the many thousands of tween fans who had fallen in love with Doctor Who in Tom Baker’s last years, and were only just that second hitting puberty). Yes, Kinda was judged to be of less merit than Time-Flight or Black Orchid. And the snake clearly offends some to this day, as an option for a new CGI replacement is available here. It’s a smart, ‘how-the-hell-have-they-done-that?’ job of work, but beyond novelty it’s of little interest to this viewer. This snake may seem more ‘real’, but what value is realism here, in our floodlit studio forest? That ship sailed during Part One, Scene One. The deranged-looking original is far more in keeping with the story as a whole, which is less a ‘realistic’ science fiction film than a piece of stylised theatre. This fiddling with ancient special effects is just boys picking at the scabs of old playground battles. And our mums were right when they told us that wounds only heal if we leave the scabs alone. It really is time to stop worrying and love that snake.

In whatever form you can accept it, the Mara is banished to the dark places by the Doctor, but eventually slithers its way back, a season of Doctor Who later, for Snakedance. Sequels rarely ace the original, but while Kinda is sublime, but Snakedance is just that little bit better. It’s essential strengths are the same – characterisation, performance and dialogue – but while Kinda has a few lines of rotten dialogue (“I don’t think much of that as a fighting machine!”), and a few unskilled performances, I defy anyone to identify a single piece of bad dialogue or weak performance in Snakedance. OK, so there is Hilary Sesta as the fortune teller. She’s not in the same league as her co-stars, but we are at least distracted from that by the fact she’s dressed like a nun crashing through a stained glass window. And her wild scream helps make the cliffhanger from the first episode one of the all-time greats.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves, and need to sketch in some plot. The Mara has again taken control of Tegan, and caused the Tardis to land on the planet Manussa, another world on which it once found physical being, and where it ruled over an empire of chaos until it was vanquished by the Federator. For the Manussans, all this is now ancient history bordering on legend, and they are poised to celebrate the defeat of the Mara in a gimcrack ceremony overseen by the Federator’s descendant – the spoiled, brattish Lon – and his patient mother, Tanha. Fussing around them both is the pompous Ambril, curator of antiquities and supposed expert in Manussan history.

Every scene featuring these three characters is a total delight. We learn so much about Manussa from their conversations, and this exposition never feels forced – in fact, it’s almost poetic at times – thanks to the subtlety of the dialogue and the skill of the performances. Colette O’Neil, as Tanha, has a voice as tuneful as the wind chimes of Deva Loka. She almost sings her script, and is particularly wonderful when reminiscing about a visit to the mystical Snakedancers in the deserts of Manussa. “We had to go in disguise. Can you imagine your father in disguise?” It’s a beautiful piece of writing that tells us so much about Manussa, Tanha and even her unseen husband, which in turn speaks to the character of Lon.

Another example of the sheer class of Snakedance can be found in Part Three, as again a mystic gets lyrical about the Mara. Ambril invites his assistant, Chela, to read from the journal of Ambril’s predecessor, which was “written by Dojjen in the months before he decided his particular line of research was best pursued up in the hills with a snake wrapped round his neck.” Everything goes quiet as Chela recites. “Where the winds of restlessness blow. Where the fires of greed burn. Where hatred chills the blood. Here, in the depths of the human heart. Here is the Mara.” During this speech – on the word ‘greed’ – Lon steps silently into the background. By this point he has been possessed by the Mara, and is here to show the truth of Dojjen’s words. It’s the “fire of greed” which burns in Ambril that Lon is here to exploit in order to bring about the Mara’s rebirth.

Everything about Snakedance is perfectly judged. Since Kinda, Christopher Bailey has expertly assimilated the possibilities and limitations of Doctor Who, and produced a script that plays to all its strengths, while still subverting expectation and cliché. Bailey is as good as Robert Holmes at structuring a Doctor Who story and populating his world with characters at once both familiar and strange. In fact, he’s better even than Holmes, as Bailey draws upon a richer, more emotional sensibility.

It’s not just the inhabitants who ‘sell’ this world to us. Manussa is, without doubt, the most rich and vivid alien planet ever created for Doctor Who. Just think of the worlds visited in recent DVD releases alone – Tigella, Solos, Refusis – and it’s clear we’re in an entirely different league. It’s the carefully considered details of place and character that make Manussa feel so real, and not just created for the purpose of telling this one story: the Mara-themed Punch and Judy show; Ambril’s tedious dinner party; Lon’s listless sarcasm; the striking sequence with Dojjen and the snakes; the worn-out patter of the local carny. “Dare you gaze upon the unspeakable? Come face to face with the finally unfaceable? …Children ’alf price.”

And then there’s the Doctor himself. I love the version of the Doctor we meet in Bailey’s stories. In general, Peter Davison’s earliest performances were his best. He brings a wild, youthful energy to Castrovalva, Four to Doomsday and Kinda. This joie de vivre is lost by the middle of his first season – script editor Eric Saward replaces it with a kind of weary, suffering impatience – and rarely returns, but it does in Snakedance, and in spades. Even though he’s trapped in a cell through the whole of Part Three, this Doctor is still pacing, powerful and passionate, walloping the bars in frustation while making a series of brilliant intellectual leaps. I also adore how the Doctor is seen through other eyes here. In Snakedance, he’s considered a charlatan or a madman, just as in Kinda he was dismissed as a fool by Panna. I like the essential modesty of this treatment of our hero. “I’m a gentleman of the Universe” is how the First Doctor described himself, but over the years, there’s been a steady inflation of his place in that Universe. From gentleman to Lord, from Lord to Lord President; and over the last decade, a fannish desire to make the Doctor sound as special as we believe Doctor Who to be means he’s become the focus of overzealous mythologising. He is star fire! He is ice! He’s Time’s Champion, the Upcoming Wind. He is the tear on the face of the little baby Jesus… Oh, it’s all very stirring and melodramatic, but I don’t want the Doctor to be some cross between Peter Pan, Santa Claus and God – that would be so insufferable of him. I want the Doctor of Kinda and Snakedance. A man, not a superman, with as much to learn about the Universe as we do, and who defeats wickedness with wisdom and wit alone, rather than time travel slight-of-hand or a cocky demand that his foes merely “look him up”. Can we have that Doctor back, please?

So the Doctor is perfect in Snakedance. But then, everything is perfect in Snakedance. It’s as funny, scary, silly, imaginative, reckless and just plain brainy as Doctor Who needs to be – with every ingredient in perfect proportion.

“Literature is news that stays news,” said the poet Ezra Pound, and it’s a maxim as true when considering the best of Doctor Who. Snakedance will stay news. We can go back to it time after time after time, and always find a level, a nuance we’ve not seen before. It’s a story for us to grow into and grow old with. It’s a story to inspire and motivate all future Doctor Who storytellers, as both carrot and stick.

Here is Snakedance, we can say. Now beat that.

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DVD Extras

The funny thing is, if a newcomer was invited to form an opinion on these stories based only on viewing the DVD extras, they’d never guess Kinda and Snakedance were anything special. In fact, there seems a deliberate desire to deny the fact.

The Kinda production documentary, Dream Time, is a textbook example of missing the point, and seems determined to identify what might be judged to be ‘wrong’ with Kinda, rather than celebrate everything that is so gloriously right. This means more picking away at scabs, and dredging up of hoary old arguments from 80s. A discussion about how Bailey’s script for Kinda was passed between three script editors drags on and on, while there’s only the briefest discussion of the script’s actual inspiration and content. Doctor Who DVD documentaries are generally developed by editors and directors, so their obsessions lie with the visual, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the very best extras have employed writers to shape the conversation – Jonathan Morris and Nicholas Pegg most notably. And it’s exactly what these stories needed. The Snakedance documentary is better, but it still all feels like a missed opportunity.

Worse still is Directing With Attitude, ostensibly a tribute to the directorial skill of Peter Grimwade, but actually an infantile little film dripping with the poison of 80s fanzine Doctor Who Bulletin. Everything loops back into an attack on producer John Nathan-Turner. Familiar joy-suckers Eric Saward and Ian Levine are present of course, always ready to explain why every supposed fault of the 80s was Nathan-Turner’s fault, while every success had absolutely nothing to do with him. That the two men who claim responsibility for the script of Attack of the Cybermen should appear on the DVD of Kinda and say they know better how to make Doctor Who takes rare gall. And even the briefest consideration of Doctor Who’s current success now shows Saward and Levine’s arguments to be nonsense. Peter Grimwade went on to write the scripts for the painful Time-Flight and the plodding Planet of Fire. “Using Concorde is not a very sound reason for a story,” snips Saward. No, Eric, it was a perfectly sound reason for a story. Doctor Who would happily play with Concorde today. It’s what Grimwade does with it in Time-Flight that’s unsound. It’s the moment he crashes it into his own dreary plot of Xeraphin and Plasmatons that everything goes wrong. Then Saward hisses: “John got it into his head that Lanzarote would be a good place to make a story.” But it is a good place to make a story, Eric. A very good place. Doctor Who would happily shoot in Lanzarote today. The trick is not to make Planet of Fire. And finally, there’s the old complaint about the producer imposing ‘shopping lists’ on writers – perhaps naming a location, a monster to be used, or identifying when a companion is due to be written out. What despicable control-freakery! It is, of course, exactly the way that Doctor Who works today, to enormous success. So isn’t it time to let go of all this rubbish? Must we foist it upon a new generation of fans via these DVD extras? Can we not at least have some editorial balance?

More bile from darker days taints the commentary track for Kinda. A little of Janet Fielding goes a long way at the best of times, and she swiftly becomes unbearable here. Fielding’s familiar schtick is to dismiss the Doctor Who of her day in the light of what the programme can achieve now. She also seems to think she’s the first person to notice these shortcomings, and that it’s her job to open our eyes to the awful truth. But the thing is, Ms Fielding, we’re not blind to it all. We’re cleverer than that. It’s not that we can’t see these faults, it’s that we have the imagination to see past them. The commentary for Kinda is deeply uncomfortable at times, with Fielding and Davison having a right old laugh at the expense of Matthew Waterhouse, who is in the room with them. It’s rudeness at best, bullying at worst, and terribly undignified. Sure, Waterhouse has come across as a pompous prig in interviews, and certainly does in his autobiography, but I don’t think Fielding has any right to assume the high ground. Back in the day, she was the one who received the praise of fans, but responds today only by being snooty and ungracious. The funny thing is, for all we may criticise Waterhouse’s acting abilities, Fielding really isn’t much better. What she got was the good lines. When it comes to performance, Fielding has far more in common with Waterhouse than she does Davison or Sarah Sutton.

The best extra on these discs – by a country mile – is, for reasons that passeth all understanding, hidden away as an ‘easter egg’. (To access it, you have to open the Audio Options menu, hum three bars of ‘TSS Machine Attacks’, and then say the magic words: “What the hell are you lunatics playing at?”). Here, big-brained Rob Shearman sits down with Christopher Bailey to discuss his inspirations, and put pay to some old fan theories. But more interesting is where the conversation takes them after that, as Bailey admits that he hasn’t been able to watch any recent Doctor Who because his memories of working on the show – chiefly, it seems, regarding his failure to complete a third serial – remain too painful. Shearman is quietly flabbergasted, and explains how Kinda and Snakedance are “temples” to him, and to Steven Moffat. Bailey, in turn, is clearly moved by this revelation. Healed, even. Is that a tear in his eye?

This conversation is a reminder, again, of how the best of Doctor Who remains alive to us at all times, whether it was made thirty years ago or a week last Wednesday. Great Doctor Who stays news – and so here is today’s news: the writer who once inspired Rob Shearman has, three decades on, been inspired by him. It’s a wonderful thing to witness.

Wheel turns.

Frontios

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 act of Frontios; the 1984 adventure that dispatches the Fifth Doctor to the eponymous planet. Curious onlookers may wonder why the Doctor appears to be travelling through space and time with a school uniform fetishist and a prostitute. However, we more experienced hands know these to be his friends, Turlough and Tegan. Well, if ‘friends’ is the word. They seem to take most of their pleasure from pointing out each other’s mistakes and limitations. The Doctor is definitely avoiding them; offering only the flimsiest of excuses for staying out of the control room. Something about a hatstand, he claims. A likely story. Starved of civilised company, he probably sneaks off to the cloisters, where he carefully describes Romana to an obliging Kamelion.

We learn the politics of Frontios via a belch of exposition. Two uniformed men are arguing: one tall, haughty, granite-faced; the other short, bespectacled, harassed. “Are you suggesting that the son of Captain Revere is unfit to rule?” thunders Tall. “As chief science officer, I…” replies Short, but is interrupted. “Oh, don’t go waving your title at me,” huffs Tall. “From now on, this research centre is under military jurisdiction!” And so it goes on. It’s the kind of establishing scene you find when a Doctor Who writer is more interested in plot than character. Here, Christopher H Bidmead hopes that by having his characters bicker impatiently as they tell each other things they already know – their names, their jobs, the absolute fundamental business of their shared lives – it will somehow seem like a perfectly natural thing for them to be doing. This never works. (Although, to Bidmead’s credit, at least no one says “As well you know…” or “Do you think I could ever forget…?”) Perhaps a more subtle approach would be for the writer to turn up at your house in person, switch off the TV, copy out his script in biro on the palm of your right hand and then repeatedly slap you across the face with it.

One thing’s certain: all is not well on Frontios. The ratty band of colonists who represent humanity’s second-to-last hope for survival are being clonked on their bonces by high-velocity meteorites on a half-hourly basis. Food and medical supplies are limited. People are dying. It’s into this mire of misfortune that the TARDIS wheezes, and the Doctor immediately gets to grips with what he believes to be the most significant issue facing the doomed colony. He tries to fix the lights.

It’s peculiar how much of the first episode is devoted o the subject of lighting. Most stories plunge into the business of investigation and adventure. This one seeks merely to establish a steady amperage. And, generously, we’re even offered four ways of achieving this. Will we use phosphor lamps, with electron excitation? Maybe – but take care. “They’re a terrible fire hazard in this sort of container, you know,” cautions Turlough. (“In this sort of container,” is such a gloriously bathetic caveat.) We wouldn’t want to risk a fire, so perhaps a portable mu-field activator and argon discharge globes? Alas no. They’re in the TARDIS and, as Tegan reports: “The interior door’s jammed!” She squawks this information as if it’s the single most dramatic event of her life. News of the murder of her favourite aunt was greeted with nary a flicker. “It’s as if some tremendous force field has pulled it out of shape!” boggles Turlough, regarding said door. It’s a leap of logic that suggests he’s been reading ahead in his script. But never mind that, you cry – what about those lights? Can’t we use the hydrazine steam generator? No! It’s strictly forbidden! But that means we only have one option left… An acid jar, charged by wind power, with some sort of interrupter to raise the voltage. Good news! There’s one in the colony ship. Bad news: someone has to fetch it, and that might take a while.

With this quest to switch the lights on – which continues as Tegan and Turlough struggle to move a heavy battery from one room to another via some complicated business with ropes and pulleys – one imagines that Christopher H would have us believe his characters are using intelligent scientific method to solve a problem. But really, it’s shameless padding and false drama, because the problem is as bogus as all those solutions. The lights are never even switched on in the end. They’re not important, so it’s all just forgotten. Part Two sees attention turn to investigation of the meteorite attacks, and the trail leads underground. But once more the writer is vamping. There’s talk of chemical tests on the soil. There’s discussion of the secret researches of colony’s former leader, the late Captain Revere. There’s suggestion that only scientific method will unravel the mystery of Frontios… And again, it’s a con. The mystery only exists because of Revere’s totally illogical – and entirely reckless – decision not to reveal a single thing he discovered to another living soul, except in cryptic terms to a child.

And so how do our heroes learn the truth about Frontios? Well, Turlough happens to suddenly recall that the same thing once happened on his planet. He even tells us that the monsters lurking down the tunnel are called Tractators. It’s all terribly convenient. “Growing… breeding… spreading the infection,” moans Turlough, channeling a race memory through a froth of spit. “They are the appetite beneath the ground!” It all sounds promising, but sadly implies a far more subtle and sinister threat than the one that bobs into view soon after.

In terms of costume design, the Tractators were apparently inspired by woodlice, but each looks more like a giant halibut up on its tail and struggling to carry a five-drawer filing cabinet on its back. They stagger a kind of solo waltz – one step to the left, two forward, one to the right – and there’s no hiding from the fact that they look very silly indeed. But forget argon globes and acid jars, Frontios only lights up when the Tractators are around. They’re thoroughly endearing, and their leader is a camp classic.

The Gravis (who, depending on how you catch him, sometimes looks like Martin Clunes, sometimes Andrew Lloyd-Webber) has – again very conveniently – heard of the Doctor, “at least by reputation.” He’s also heard of what he calls “the Tardeece”, and he’s mad for it. Our Gravis loves to travel, you see. Those well-buffed walls of his are to channel the gravitational power of the Tractators into an engine that will allow the Gravis to pilot Frontios across the galaxy. (They can control gravity by waggling their antennae, you understand. It’s a typically realistic and ‘hard’ science fiction idea from Bidmead. ) While in the Doctor’s company, the Gravis is positively coquettish, as if they’re on a date. “We will have to know each other a little better before we can discuss that,” teases the fishy beast when the conversation takes a turn for the personal. He’d flutter a fan if he could but hold one.

In an unforgiving costume, actor John Gillett does his best to lend the Gravis some expression, but only has two stunted fins to work with. There’s a charming moment when, after the Doctor apologises for Tegan’s bolshiness, the Gravis says “not at all”, and waggles his flippers palms-out like a Pope humbly waving away a devoted supplicant. Later, circumstances twice cause the Gravis to pitch forward helplessly onto his rubbery snout, and you feel nothing but sympathy for the poor love.

Tractators aside, there are other good things about this story. The production design is imaginative, with the main sets looking like they’ve been chipped from layered slate. Paddy Kingsland’s synthesised pan-pipe music is memorable, and feels fitting. And there’s one bang-on line of dialogue that would go straight into a trailer for the season: “Frontios buries its own dead”. It’s lightly delivered by William Lucas as Mr Range; part of a generally strong support company. Sadly, the cast are regularly served material that sounds like it’s been only loosely translated from Pidgin English via Double Dutch. “Do you think they are connected? The unaccountable deaths and these creatures?” is one lowlight. You sense the hand of script editor Eric Saward in this, but it’s hard to say for sure, as neither he nor Bidmead are celebrated for their naturalistic dialogue. Despite this handicap, Peter Davison is a focused and passionate Doctor – even when nose-to-nose with the Gravis – and actor Jeff Rawle gives a subtle performance as sickly young leader Plantagenet, even though he has to work with some of the most rum material of all. “Try and get some rest,” the Doctor tells him, invoking the First Cliché of Soap Opera. Plantagenet, suffering from malignant melodrama, spits back his reply: “Death is the only kind of rest you bring to Frontios, Doctor!”. You imagine he could go on forever in that vein, given half a chance. “Have a sandwich,” the Doctor might suggest. “Death is the only kind of sandwich you bring to Frontios, Doctor!”

The story’s best moment comes as we enter the home stretch, and the Gravis’s beloved Tardeece is found scattered in pieces through the tunnels of Frontios. (It was apparently destroyed at the end of Part One, you see; although, as neither Doctor nor companions seem particularly fussed about it, you forget that detail for a while.) The image of TARDIS walls splintered through rock is surprisingly unsettling. It makes you feel a bit funny inside; seeing one’s own childhood home – in a manner of speaking – corrupted like that.

The Doctor plays on the Gravis’s need for speed, and traps the creature as it reassembles the ship using its gravity powers. He then dumps the old darling on an uninhabited planet – which seems rather harsh. The Gravis is clearly ripe for rehabilitation. He’s just a needy nerd starved of intelligent conversation, so abandoning him on an intergalactic desert island without so much as eight favourite records and the novelisation of Logopolis surely qualifies as cruel and unusual punishment. The Doctor also assures us that the remaining Tractators, freed from the Gravis’s control, will live on as “harmless burrowing creatures”. Of course, we can be sure the humans will let bygones be bygones, and there definitely won’t be a dozen pink fish heads decorating the throne room wall by teatime.

Without the fun of the Tractators, Frontios wouldn’t amount to much. For while it appears to have the structure of a solid four-part story, the plot is really no more than a string of distractions and conveniences. Solutions and resolutions present themselves without any real work, and without work there can be no sense of reward. Bidmead’s gaseous writing leaves us unmoved. And this is the man who once accused Russell T Davies of taking first draft scripts through to production. You have to admire his gall.

Of course, others will have a different take on the matter. Mr Range is particularly forthright on the subject. “Your minds are being eaten away by this daily disaster we call Frontios,” he insists.

Which is a little harsh. It was only broadcast twice a week.

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DVD EXTRAS

Driven To Distractation wins the award for the most painful title yet for a DVD documentary; a highly contested category. The programme is thorough, thoughtful and well-structured, with a wide range of interviewees, but stumbles when it makes critical judgments of its own. Speaking of Christopher Bidmead’s time as script editor of Doctor Who, the narrator tells that “having seen off the show’s comedy excesses, [Bidmead] guided the programme through a sobering season of scientific sorties.” The guilty words there are “seen off”. The writer of that line clearly held this view back in 1980, but then the wind changed and he got stuck like that. This reviewer is convinced there is no significant caucus of Doctor Who fans who still rally to the cry of: “Hooray, we got rid of Douglas Adams! We swapped the writer of City of Death for the writer of Frontios and saved the show! Clever old us!” Because that would be absurd.

A series of Deleted and Extended Scenes – sadly not presented within the context of the transmitted material this time – offer more flirting from the Doctor and the Gravis, and some fun business with Tegan. Generally, however, it’s a load of Cockerill. (He’s a bolshy guard from a turgid subplot that goes absolutely nowhere, and no one ever said about Frontios: “It’s okay, but what it really needs is more scenes with Cockerill.”)

The Production Subtitles are rigorous and endearingly earnest, especially when they take time to explain what a vol-au-vent is. The commentary – featuring Davison, Saward, Gillett and Rawle – is not the most thrilling ever committed to disc, but the conversation is sincere and civilised.

However, this reviewer is saddened that neither documentary or commentary brings Eric Saward and Christopher H Bidmead together in the same room, so they can play a unique doubles match of their favourite sport of blame-dodging. They should have been styled like Statler and Waldorf from The Muppet Show; heckling from a high balcony despite being entirely in complicit in the middling business unfolding on stage before them.

BIDMEAD: “Who’s responsible for this nonsense?”

SAWARD: “The writer!”

BIDMEAD: “The script editor!” 

And then TOGETHER, with much gleeful cackling: “The producer!”

The Mutants

A DVD review for Doctor Who Magazine from 2011.

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The Mutants is the second-worst Jon Pertwee serial. The Mutants lurks among the bottom 5% of all Doctor Who stories. The Mutants has fewer redeeming qualities than Silver Nemesis. Or Arc of Infinity.

That’s not my opinion. It’s the judgment handed down by the huge Doctor Who Magazine survey of 2009, when every Doctor Who story was dragged squealing into the light, probed and prodded by 7,000 fans, and then brutally ranked to within two decimal places of its life.

In this instance, the verdict of that survey strikes me as unfairly harsh. Certainly, The Mutants is lacking in sparkle and spunk. And yes, there’s not a single memorable line of dialogue (well, not that’s memorable for the right reasons). But at least it has some brains in its head. The Mutants is about something in a way that few Doctor Who stories are. It takes place in the last days of the Third Doctor’s sojourn on Earth, offsetting his Artron footprint. The curious thing about this period is that, despite the Doctor spending so much time on our planet, he was obliged to travel to other worlds and times to discover life in the 20th Century. Down here, it was spitting daffodils, hopping gargoyles, Pigbin Josh and five-rounds-rapid. Out in space we found the miners’ strike, the EEC, the cold war and – in this story, on the planet Solos – Apartheid and the struggle for colonial independence. Stifle that yawn, will you? It’s true that Doctor Who generally becomes less entertaining the closer it gets to a Big Theme, but here our message is woven into the plot with some subtlety. Last issue, I poked fun at the leaden exposition of Meglos. The Mutants, in an early scene, shows how to do it better. The Marshall of Solos, fearful of losing power, is at odds with his superior, the Administrator, about the planet’s imminent secession from Earth’s empire. When they argue, it really feels as if they mean it, as if we’ve just happened to tune in as an ongoing debate has reached its natural climax. We believe these characters have a life, and hence we believe in the whole planet. This is thanks to careful scripting and strong performances, notably from Geoffrey Palmer in his all-too-brief turn as the Administrator. In playing this discussion as a mere irritating distraction from his business, Palmer completely sells it. This is some trick, given that he’s wearing a black cocktail dress at the time. The Marshall, meanwhile – our underrated villain – is wonderfully unbearable to look at. He’s a portrait of greed; a fleshy Freemason from a Hogarth engraving. As he ponders how best to sate his appetites, his fat tongue rolls across his lips, in the manner of Jabba the Hutt or Jamie Oliver.

Planet Solos itself is an excellent job of work, and the scenes filmed in the caves at Chislehurst are as genuinely otherworldly as any you’ll find in the series. Director Christopher Barry certainly seems more alive and attentive on location, but credit is also due film cameraman Fred Hamilton – one of the great unsung heroes of Doctor Who.

In the caves lurk first the sinister silhouettes and then the scuttling reality of our mutants. They’re a rare example of a Doctor Who monster proving even better than the tease. They still look good in the harsh lights of the studio. Meanwhile, most of the CSO and model effects impress 40 years on; and that’s no small achievement.

So the question remains: why, with so much going for it, is The Mutants found lonely and unloved at the back end of that survey?

I think it’s because we never quite feel it. Characters and issues remain at arm’s length throughout, never quite coming into focus. The production seems determined to obfuscate the narrative however it can, both by not drawing our attention to what really matters, or by failing to sell the emotional beats. There’s a disappointing ‘that’ll do’ attitude at times, and many occasions where a second take would have improved matters enormously. I’ll give a couple of examples to illustrate this. They will seem petty grumble when taken in isolation. But I think it’s the drip-drip of many small disappointments and errors that steadily erodes a viewer’s goodwill.

In part five, the scientist Jaegar – played with laudable vim, but variable clarity, by George Pravda – confronts the Marshall over the failure of their plan to convert the atmosphere of Solos to something acceptable to humans. Pravda gets one of the script’s better lines, raging: “You’ve made yourself master of a desert, Marshall!” It’s a good line because it gets right to the heart of the matter. It brings home, in a vivid way, the ultimate pointlessness of the Marshall’s obsession. But the camera isn’t actually on either Jaeger or the Marshall at this moment. It’s peering pointlessly at Jo. So rather than drawing us in to the drama of the Marshall’s spiral into madness, we miss the beat, and our emotions remain unstirred.

That’s an error in direction. It’s one of many moments of misjudged emphasis, but equally often it’s the script that fails to up the ante. Early in the story the Doctor teams up with guards Cotton and Stubbs, who work for the Marshall but decide to help our heroes, at no small risk to themselves. Stubbs is brave and kind and trusting. Jo finds him “sweet”. He gets a friendly nickname. We become fond of Stubbsy ourselves… right up until part five, when he’s shot dead. Sweet, Scouse, Stubbsy-Stubbs – who by all the rules should live to wave the Tardis away at the end – is killed. We should be horrified. Jo should be in floods, swearing to bring down the Marshall personally. Properly played by the writers, and suitably milked by the director (it doesn’t help that Stubbsy appears to be shot in the bum) it could be one of Doctor Who’s all-time great moments. But no. The storyline just steps over the body and sways blithely on.

The Mutants is a well-structured four part Doctor Who adventure. Unfortunately, it happens a six-part Doctor Who adventure. Writers Bob Baker and Dave Martin were always skilled at pacing their twists and reverses, but here they are all played out by the 100th minute. Thereon in, it all turns rather abstract as the Doctor struggles to (deep breath now) reduce the areas of unstable crystal contamination on Solos using particle reversal transferred through a macrothizer to reduce the nitrogen isotope level. Exciting! Was ever a statement of intent less likely to get the adrenalin pumping than “I’m going to reduce the nitrogen isotope level”?

As we’re hip-deep in the Pertwee Era, mention of the imminent arrival of an Investigator from Earth Control raises hope that the Master might soon get the joint jumping – but no dice. Frankly, to give this tale the injection of life it needs in its final hour would require the surprise arrival of no less than Supreme Commander Servalan of the Terran Federation, having taken a wrong turn while pursuing Blake’s Seven. She could lazily dispatch the Marshall with a plasma bolt in the back, before greeting the Doctor with an intrigued, “And who – pray tell – are you?”  (“Who indeed! Thupreme Commander!”) It’s a happy daydream; but really, is there any TV show that wouldn’t be improved by the arrival of Servalan two-thirds of the way through? She could appear upstage during The X Factor boot camp  – “Kill them all. And kill them now” –  or give the mystery house on Escape to the Country some real surprise value, as a Federation guard appears at each window.

I digress – apologies. The point is that The Mutants uses two whole episodes just to slither to a stop. It’s easy to understand why few people are left cheering for it as the final credits roll. But as you watch again on this DVD, you might see – as I did – that there’s something rather wonderful struggling to show itself between the fluffs, the compromises and the misplaced emphasis. It’s a story that gets the big stuff right, but slowly wears out our patience by muddling the details. Lop off the last hour and The Mutants would be just one draft and a few studio hours away from greatness. That’s a claim that can be made for many a Doctor Who serial, of course. But it’s never more true than here.

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EXTRAS

The highlight of this disc is the documentary Race Against Time; a look at the history of Doctor Who’s depiction of, and casting from, ethnic minorities. In taking every angle on a fascinating subject, canvassing a wide range of views, and drawing upon excellent sources, this film sets a new benchmark for the Doctor Who DVD range. It’s a thoughtful and thorough piece of work that everyone should see.

Our production documentary, Mutt Mad, is a well-made but low key affair; a collection of anecdotes from key players, and our usual chance to check how everyone is ageing. It’s sobering to think that Bob Baker is now the only surviving Pertwee scriptwriter.

The commentary track covers more ground, with an ever-changing roster of participants skilfully kept simmering by moderator Nicholas Pegg. It’s the ideal Doctor Who commentary – positive, jovial and informative – and the oddest little revelations stay with you. A personal favourite – springing from discussion of costume designer James Acheson – is Terrance Dicks’ quiet admission that he used to pop to London’s old Museum of the Moving Image just to, he says, “visit my robot.” By this he means smiley old K1 from Robot. It conjures the delicious image of Terrance sitting down – I think with a flask of tea and a potted meat sandwich – to tell the robot stories of his week, much as Kassia did with Melkur. After an hour, Terrance would perhaps give his old friend a wave and depart with a cheery “Goodbye, Wobot!” Left alone in its display case, K1 would either pine away the days until the next visit, or else silently plot to destroy the one who created him.

Mention of James Acheson brings us to Dressing Doctor Who; a feature devoted to the Oscar-winning costume designer, who tells us of his delight at working on The Mutants: “I rather fancied that Katy Manning, you see.” He’s clearly still proud of his time on Doctor Who. Every anecdote is followed with a gurgling chuckle and wide Aardman Animations grin. Acheson is one of Doctor Who’s genuine, 100%, top-to-bottom geniuses. His talent is proved by the fact that so much of his work can still be seen in the programme today. The Sontarans and the Time Lords survived unchanged, and I’m sure the Zygons can’t be far behind. And while the word ‘iconic’ is bandied about too freely, it certainly applies to Acheson’s other lasting contibution to Doctor Who: Tom Baker’s scarf. It’s a visual shorthand for the show that will stand forever. Actors and producers may change, viewers and reviewers will come and go, but there will always be the Tardis, the Daleks and that scarf. The show’s three great unassailable totems: one a last-minute compromise, the second almost banned by the show’s first executive, the third the accidental gift of an overeager knitter called Begonia. So if you ever hear anyone claim to know the secret of Doctor Who’s success… Don’t believe them.

Image of the Fendahl

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

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The DVD release schedule can throw up unique narratives of its own. Recently, for example, we’ve heard from Doctor Who’s three principal 80s script editors – telling us how wonderful things could have been if only everyone else was as clever as them. Each had a very different take on the show, so it’s been amusing to see if we agree with all, one or none. (Send your vote to: Lady Hamilton Bidmead, 45 Eileen Way, E-Space, WV0 2M.) This month we have compare-and-contrast fun with the 1977 adventure Image of the Fendahl, illuminated in an unexpected way by the fact it follows Attack of the Cybermen to the shelves of Sainsbury’s.

Though your reviewer had never considered it before, the two stories have much in common. Once more, the Doctor is slow to join the action, with the TARDIS landing some distance away from this week’s guest stars, allowing our hero a leisurely saunter to the drama. Both he and his companion pack heat – this time using shotguns to fend off slugs the size of shire horses. And again, the plot leaves many key questions frustratingly unanswered. The point is: if we’ve used these sticks to beat one story, it’s only fair they are employed against another.

Image of the Fendahl takes us to Fetch Priory, where Dr Fendleman is operating a time scanner, which allows him to probe history. Passing up the chance to stalk Shakespeare and Abraham Lincoln, Fendleman has found a 12-million-year-old skull which, when the mood takes it, blazes with malign power. Either that or he’s found Ozzy Osbourne’s bedside lamp. And Dr Fendleman is something of a mystery himself. What is that accent? “Aderm! Aderm!” he says to his associate, Adam. “Jus’ theenk for a momend, eh? Zee woods uh suppose’a be haun’ed, eh?” They must be very proud of his success back home in the Austrian ghettos of Mexico City. Meanwhile, a hiker in zee haun’ed woods has his juices sucked out by an unseen force – not as nice as it sounds – and the scanner’s dangerous instability draws the Doctor and Leela to Earth to investigate.

The pieces are all in place for some definitive Doctor Who, but Image of the Fendahl fails to pull everything together. While writer Chris Boucher clearly loves his own characters, he rails against involving the Doctor in his spooky tale. As mentioned, our hero takes an episode to reach Fetch Priory, and as soon as he tips up is shoved into a cupboard. Dr Fendleman is the most interesting figure here, but the Doctor spends mere seconds in his company. The Time Lord is then shunted out of the way for most of Part Three on a wild goose chase. This problem of integration could have been easily fixed by having the Doctor properly investigate the death of the hiker and the mystery of the skull. Unfortunately, he arrives already knowing the whole story, and then has to be kept busy until he can blow it up.

A few months ago, apropos of something else entirely, this page described Image of the Fendahl as “creepy and confident”. However, it’s important your reviewer keeps an open mind as each DVD arrives, and not be driven by tastes and prejudices forged in his youth. It’s impossible, but he should try. And while this story is certainly creepy – the various aspects of the monster are all scary in different ways, and Parts One and Two deliver cracking cliffhangers – it now feels more difficult to argue ‘confident’.

Unfortunately, Image of the Fendahl keeps tripping over its shoelaces. The Doctor offers three different explanations for why the monster has manifested here and now, the final of which is the entirely lame: “On the other hand, it could all be just a coincidence.” Never have bets been more hedged. And for each piece of rousing, trailer-friendly dialogue – “There are four thousand million people here on your planet. And if I’m right, within a year there’ll be just one left alive…” – another line falls flat. One remark, made by archaeologist Adam to his technician friend Thea – “I accept without reservation the results of your excellent potassium-argon test” – is so contrived it sounds like a cue for a song. (All together now: “Geo-chronology is deeply fascinating! But forget the skull, dear Thea… It’s this man you should be dating!”) Later, after Adam stumbles upon the blinking-and-bleeping time scanner, he quips: “I always say that if you’ve seen one jukebox, you’ve seen ‘em all.” Always? How often is that, Adam? Is every night in the Fetchborough Arms enlivened by this hilarious bon mot?

It’s Image of the Fendahl’s pure-cut melodrama that keeps it enjoyable. There’s even a touch of drawing room comedy, as characters constantly sidle in and out of rooms to share nuggets of plot. Someone opens and then closes a door 46 times in less than 100 minutes, which must be a record for Doctor Who. It’s a shame Fetch Priory is short a set of French windows. Adam could bound in, tennis racket in hand, and deliver a wry put-down to the time scanner, just as Leela exits stage left, pursued by an ancient evil from Time Lord mythology. Pop it in the West End and it could run and run.

So, while Fendahl shares some of the flaws of Attack of the Cybermen, it at least lacks the whiff of the torture chamber. This may not be Doctor Who at its most fluid and assured, but it certainly sticks to the show’s cardinal rule: if you’re not being scary, be funny; if you’re not making ‘em laugh, make ‘em jump. Some of those laughs may be unintentional – eh, Aderm? – but they’re no less welcome for that.

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DVD EXTRAS

Sadly, the bonus material on this disc lacks some of the educational rigour we’ve come to expect. Having recently learned: i) the secret of great black pudding; and ii) how to equip his favourite baseball cap with sonar, your reviewer now earns a respectable second income by raiding pig farms in the dead of night. At the very least, we might expect Fendahl to deliver a decent fruitcake recipe. And are we supposed to master our potassium-argon tests single-handedly? Standards are slipping.

Happily, there’s plenty to learn about your actual Doctor Who. The award for the most delightful nugget of trivia goes to the ‘info text’, where we learn that the props buyer took 4lbs of Jelly Babies on location. 4lbs! That’s a lot of confectionary considering we only see a single sweet on screen. Perhaps the production manager gorged on the remainder at the end of filming. One can imagine him, driven crazy by a sugar high, screaming “I’ll be in charge of all this one day!” before toppling face down into a ditch.

The production documentary – with the disappointingly sane title After Image – is solid stuff, telling an upbeat tale of a happy team who loved working together. Everyone had a right old laugh at rehearsal, applied themselves in studio, and adored Daphne Heard’s turn as Ma Tyler above all. “She honours a text when she works,” says Louise Jameson (Leela), with RADA profundity. Daphne is certainly marvellous, and it’s nice to think of her sat alone in a corner of the rehearsal room, carefully teasing out every nuance of the line, “I b’aint your grandma! Don’t ee grandma me!”

There’s black-and-white timecoded video of ‘Deleted and Extended Scenes’, offering a couple of alternative takes and some additional moments of woodland wandering. “BLANK SECTIONS FOR COW INSERTS” reads one explanatory caption, which must be unique. It’s not material any of us will watch more than once, but it’s nice to have and thanks are due its donor.

A warm commentary features Louise Jameson, Wanda Ventham (Thea) and Edward Arthur (Adam) reporting from planet Earth, with Tom Baker beaming in from his own dimension. Eccentric he may be, but Baker soon fingers Fendahl’s chief shortcoming. After silently watching 10 minutes of scientists staring intently at oscilloscopes, our star grumbles: “When do I come on?” Later, he muses: “There’s something missing here… Oh yes, it’s me.” And he’s not wrong. Meanwhile, Ventham has a lot to say about her wig and her shoes, though she tackles weightier issues as the story progresses – commenting wistfully during Part Two: “I really want to see a shot of that cooker again.”

If you listen to the commentary as you watch the ‘info text’, there’s a moment of deliciously cruel irony. Boucher’s script was treated roughly during the cast read-through, and a caption recalls a memorable DWM interview with the writer. “For a long time,” he said, “my ambition was to see Tom Baker die in a cellar full of rats.” Seconds later, we have Baker on the commentary: “Who wrote this? Who? Chris Boucher? Isn’t that funny. I can’t remember him at all.” That’s show business! It also reminds us how times changed. Doctor Who writers can be celebrities these days. Russell T Davies was recently mentioned in EastEnders, and that sort of thing never happened in the 70s. Well, unless a lost episode of Crossroads saw Amy Turtle hobble up to reception saying: “I’ve jus’ bought a copy of Doctor Who and the Zarbis, Miss Jill. It’s signed by Bill Strutton an’ all!”

As the story slithers through Part Four, Baker is increasingly contemplative. “Life’s been downhill ever since I left Doctor Who,” he muses, and we’re left to ponder which of the other Doctors would agree with this sentiment. One thing’s for sure – David Tennant will escape Baker’s fate. He’s a Doctor Who fan after all, and so will know the one great lesson to be learned from Image of the Fendahl

As one door closes, another opens.

Attack of the Cybermen

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

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Attack of the Cybermen gets off to a flying start. The opening scene, as two workmen are attacked in a London sewer by an unknown menace, is double-distilled Doctor Who. It’s timeless stuff, and we could imagine cutting from there to any Doctor in the TARDIS, from Hartnell to Tennant and beyond. But then it all goes wrong. Grotesquely and shamefully wrong.

The storyline is like a fraying sweater. Pull on any of a dozen loose threads and the yarn unravels entirely. It doesn’t help that the pacing of the story is all to hell. Doctor Who’s 22nd season was gifted with 45-minute episodes, but nobody knew what to do with them, least of all the script editor – and writer of this adventure – Eric Saward. Attack, as with every other story from this year bar perhaps Timelash, sees the TARDIS land well away from the action, requiring the Doctor and Peri to hike miles in search of the drama, sniping every step of the way. Here, they are obliged to chase a distress signal broadcast in a madly complicated way, for reasons never made clear, by alien mercenary Lytton. After 17 minutes, they return to the TARDIS to discuss it further. By the 33rd minute, after more wandering about, the Doctor decides to go back to the TARDIS again, and only then does he finally collide with the plot. To be fair, in the meantime the Doctor and Peri do meet Lytton’s two policeman lackeys, one of whom the Doctor beats up before he has any reason to suspect he’s not a real copper. They capture the second officer but, bizarrely, make no attempt to question him. It’s almost as if the Doctor’s read the script and knows it’s too soon for him to find out anything interesting.

Meanwhile, the Cybermen are up to no good beneath Fleet Street. They’ve been there for a little while, converting sewage workers and building walls – which leaves us with the appealing image of a Cyberman carefully mixing sand and cement, and tapping bricks into place with the back of a trowel. Later we learn these are Cybermen from the planet Telos in the far future (as seen in Tomb of the Cybermen) who have shuttled down via the moon, somehow, as part of a plot to smack Halley’s Comet into Earth (you may want to pause for a breath now) in order to alter history and save the other Cyber world, Mondas (as seen in The Tenth Planet) from destruction. Blimey. To understand how insanely inappropriate this story is, imagine watching Doctor Who in the year 2027, and the next 22nd series launching with a story where some Cybermen who escaped the destruction of the Cyber King (as seen in The Next Doctor) find a time machine and use it to alter history to prevent the rest of the race from crossing from their parallel Earth (as seen in Army of Ghosts). It’s the kind of story that breeds in the darkest corners of the internet, and should never be broadcast at Saturday teatime on BBC1.

Attack of the Cybermen would be just about acceptable if it was played out in the company of charming characters, but this certainly isn’t the Doctor Who your reviewer signed up for. The cruelty and brutality leave a nasty aftertaste. By halfway through episode one, both the Doctor and Peri are carrying loaded pistols in their pockets. At the end of the story, the Doctor employs all the wit and ingenuity for which the character has become famous by shooting the Cyber Controller in the chest. That’s not merely bad Doctor Who, it’s the opposite of Doctor Who.

To prevent this review being an entirely joyless rant – by someone who hates joyless rants – let’s give some praise where it’s due. Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant do their best with the material they’re given, and so no blame to them. The guest cast are, without exception, brilliant – and special mention must go to Maurice Colbourne and Brian Glover as Lytton and Griffiths, who deliver one of the most interesting supporting partnerships of the era. And the Cybermen are never less than adorable. You can only love the one who discovers a roomful of explosives in the story’s closing minutes and selflessly waves to his friend as if shouting: “Run, Jeremy, run! Save yourself!” Also, watch the scene in Cyber Control at 32’26” into episode one to enjoy the Cyber-extra who picks his way tentatively across the back of shot, clearly trying to remember which arm to move with which leg. He’s so sweet. It’s like having Adric back.

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DVD EXTRAS

The Cold War, from producer John Kelly, is a masterclass in how to deliver an informative and intelligent behind-the-scenes documentary. For your reviewer, it’s even a piece of interactive television, as he thoroughly enjoys shouting ‘WRONG!’ at every pronouncement by Eric Saward. Discussing the appalling scene where Lytton has his hands crushed by the Cybermen, Saward is unrepentant. “I don’t feel at all guilty,” he says. “It’s what would have happened.” What a specious argument. Yes, if a robot monster with the strength of ten decided to punish an upstart mercenary from Riften V, the result might well be a couple of handfuls of bloody pulp. But such a thing will never happen because this is just a TV programme, so the brutality is entirely Saward’s gift. A Cyberman might equally well decide to rip out Lytton’s large intestine and festoon it about his ear-lugs like tinsel, but only if Saward wanted him to. A line must be drawn somewhere, and it’s the production team’s responsibility to stop violence becoming gratuitous. In Saward’s defence, we learn that producer John Nathan-Turner wanted even more gore on display. The mind boggles.

The Cyber Story, a trip through the history of the monsters, comes with a shocking script. “The first step in the history of the Cybermen was their appearance,” blithers the narration. Producers of these extras wouldn’t employ a cameraman who doesn’t know how to focus a camera, so why use a writer who can’t focus a sentence? Happily, the interviewees prove more engaging. Sandra Reid, genius designer of the 60s Cybermen, explains why the ailing population of Mondas came to style themselves first as rather startled-looking sock puppets before learning to embrace the couture possibilites of three-inch Hoover hose. Other key players from the Cyberman stories offer a few words, but it all rather peters out after discussion of Tomb. The remainder of the documentary is given over to Kevin Warwick, professor of Cybernetics at Reading University, who claims to be our first “human cyborg”. Sadly, this doesn’t mean he likes to lurk in sewers making unlikely plans for Halley’s comet – unless he does that at weekends. Professor Warwick has a computer chip implanted in his wrist that allows him to control electronic gubbins via his own nervous system. What does this mean for the future? Soon, he might be able to order an oven-ready lasagne by daydreaming about Tesco.com. He could cook it merely by narrowing his eyes at the microwave. This Cyber-conversion process may well signal the end of the well-prepared meal.

There’s more – too much more – of the electric professor in both an ‘easter egg’ and a further extra, where he reveals that hundreds of eager volunteers write to him every week asking if they can be upgraded. He should give them a shock by posting back a grey balaclava and a couple of wire coat hangers. In modern Doctor Who, John Lumic had to throw the homeless into meat grinders to produce his Cybermen. It appears all he really needed was a spread in Wired magazine and a million nerds would have rushed for the chance to beta-test Human 2.0. Although Lumic’s conquest of Earth might have been thwarted after his army stopped every 10 yards to Twitter about it.

The commentary features Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant with guest stars Terry Molloy (Russell) and Sarah Berger (Rost) taking an episode each. It’s a rather dry affair, and the participants seem uninspired by what they’re watching, though we do learn that Bryant’s underwear was regularly stolen from her dressing room during her time on Doctor Who. What wretched behaviour. Couldn’t the thieves have popped next door and taken the Doctor’s coat instead? More informative is an excellent set of ‘info text’ subtitles, full of fascinating production trivia. The least-glamorous and unsung DVD extra, these tracks must take months to research, compile and synchronise to the action on screen, and this is a particularly good offering. “Colin Baker wanted to begin as an unlikable Doctor whom the audience would grow to love as the years rolled by,” reads one caption, reminding us of the central tragedy of this incarnation. The audience didn’t appear to want a hero they couldn’t like – a not unreasonable response – and so this risky idea backfired. However, with a warmer and more welcoming Sixth Doctor proving popular on audio 25 years later, Baker must take some comfort from the fact he fulfilled his goal in the end. 

The Black Guardian Trilogy

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

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The Black Guardian is, by a long chalk, Doctor Who’s most tedious and ineffectual villain. Don’t let the fact he hogs the title of this three-story box-set lead you to believe he’s the star character here, because he really isn’t. He’s a blustering old bore.

Unlike other Doctor Who scoundrels, the Black Guardian is immune to even the most basic psychoanalysis. His very name rules out any shades of grey. We know of old that he seeks to tilt the universe into chaos – not that it needs much help – while his colleague, the White Guardian, beavers away making things agreeable again. While their motivation remains a mystery, it’s clear the pair get along famously. When they come together at the close of this trilogy, it’s like Labour and Tory peers meeting at their Pall Mall club for some polite chitchat. Moreover, we must assume our Guardians catch up on a regular basis. How else can they plan their outfits? It’s a long-established rule of fantasy that the more powerful and ethereal a being is, the more freely he can indulge his latent transvestism. Gods, wizards and Time Lords eschew the practical trouser in favour of a roomy gown. The Guardians themselves dress like dowager aunts. With great power comes the right to let it all hang out; to let the time winds gust up your gusset. And what’s with those hats? The Black Guardian likes to don a suitably malign-looking carrion bird before embarking on a day’s evil-doing. Rook before you reap, as they say in Japan. Meanwhile, White opts for what we must assume to be a dove, the symbol of peace, love and holy spirit. Sadly, it looks more like a startled seagull. And you’d look startled too, if you had the Guardian of Light in Time jammed up your fundament.

Let’s consider these three adventures offered in the name of the Black Guardian. Mawdryn Undead, the first in this set, is adorable and rather brilliant in its quiet way. Doctor Who of old rarely told stories of time-travel trickery, but this circular tale is positively Moffatish. (Is that the right adjective? We’ll work on it.) The Doctor ends up in the same place as his chums Tegan and Nyssa, but separated by six years. Both meet a different version of the Brigadier. It’s a lovely idea, and in a suitably Moffaty manner, the problem becomes part of the solution, as the collision of the two Brigadiers ultimately saves the day. Adding further complication is alien interloper Mawdryn. Found by Tegan and Nyssa, he’s toasted skinless and writhing in agony, looking like one of those teenagers who, with their first wage, go crazy at the local tanning salon in a single-handed attempt to prove the theory of Natural Selection. Given Mawdryn’s parlous condition, Nyssa believes he might be the Doctor, badly injured and regenerating. It’s another neat idea; so neat in fact, it’s surprising Doctor Who hasn’t tried it again. Mawdryn – a sympathetic villain, just about – is well-played by David Collings beneath a deliciously disgusting make-up. His silly robes lessen the overall effect, but as he shares this look with his equally cursed shipmates, we must assume these merely look like robes, and actually grow as part of his body. That may sound absurd, but if you’re cursed with infinite mutation, then all possible variations must occur eventually. Mawdryn might wake one morning with the body of Katie Price and the head of stoat. Or worse, vice versa. Relatively speaking, we’ve caught him on a good day.

Mawdryn Undead is so ahead of its time from a plotting point of view, we now notice where its director misses a trick. With the Tardis team separated by time, but often standing in the same spot, it’s a shame the intercutting isn’t more playful. (Not that I’m suggesting someone re-edit it. That would be a crazy thing to do.) The set designer has done sterling work in styling the two versions of the Brigadier’s quarters – inside and out – to reflect his different states of mind, but you’ll have to watch the ‘film trims’ on the extras here to fully appreciate it, thanks to a nice direct cut between the Brig’s once well-tended, but later overgrown, garden.

As the Brigadier squared, Nicholas Courtney is the star of the show. This isn’t just fannish sentiment talking – Courtney is better than ever here, most notably playing the Brig’s funny turn following the suggestion that, in 1983, he’s not the full shilling. The way the Brigadier’s nervous breakdown lends a human element to this time travel story is, again, positively Moffataceous. The story wouldn’t work nearly so well with Ian Chesterton, as originally planned. The Brig has enjoyed a longer, deeper friendship with the Doctor; and in losing him, loses everything. That said, it’s fun to imagine how the flashback scene in part two might have run with Ian. “Marco Polo you’ll remember of course…” (“Marco Polo! Marco Polo!”) Then: “Something’s just walked over my grave…” “Perhaps it was a Mire Beast… Ian Chatterton!”

Our second adventure, Terminus, is by any measure a step down from Mawdryn Undead. A step down? It takes the express lift to the basement of Doctor Who and then tunnels under the foundations.

It isn’t bad as such – it’s just boring. And you really have to push in all the stops to make Doctor Who boring.

The story sees the Doctor and companions trapped in a kind of brutal space hospital dedicated to the treatment of the disfiguring Lazars Disease. At some point, the management has decided to help raise morale by painting large skulls on the doors. How thoughtful. On screen, Lazars Disease is directly identified with leprosy; the production team presumably feeling safe to do so because they’d never met any sufferers of leprosy, or ever expected to. But to test how inappropriate this is, try substituting the name of another serious disease in the dialogue – perhaps one that has affected a friend or family member – and imagine how it might sound in a teatime sci-fi show on BBC1.

Issues of taste aside, Terminus is a headachy affair. The armoured Vanir – the warders of this hospital-cum-prison – rattle and clatter about. The soundtrack attempts to distract us with music so tuneless and evil it can only have been composed by the Black Guardian himself, pecking out random notes with his hat. The Doctor frowns his way through the din in the company of space pirate Kari, with actress Liza Goddard managing to generate precisely zero chemistry with Peter Davison. The Fifth Doctor always worked well when teamed with go-getting older women – Todd in Kinda, Jane in The Awakening – so there’s really no excuse for this drippy pairing. Kari’s young colleague, Olvir, is another charisma-free zone. He arrives whey-faced and sweating, blinking mascara from his eyes like he’s just been ejected from an all-night rave. There appears to be Burmese cat sleeping on his head. It’s lucky he doesn’t share any scenes with the Black Guardian, or there’d be feathers everywhere.

The Doctor ultimately reaches the centre of the story – the centre of the Universe, no less – where all creation is put at threat by a conveniently-timed short circuit. By this point, any sane viewer is long past caring, but blessed oblivion is cruelly snatched from us by the Garm, a giant dog monster who calmly resets the drama switch to its OFF position. At least the Garm offers some distraction to the enquiring mind. It may have the voice of a London cabbie – “I draw dur disease from ‘um” – but one wonders what dog-like behaviours it exhibits when unobserved. Does it lick itself clean? Can it scratch behind its ears with those teeny-tiny feet? One thing’s for sure: its home planet must really honk on rainy days.

Our final adventure here, Enlightenment, is another beast entirely. It’s spellbinding – one of Doctor Who’s finest serials – and weaves a mythic, fairytale atmosphere into a robust and rollicking tale of a yacht race in space. In another of those coincidences thrown up by the DVD release schedule, we now see it has much in common with The War Games. Again, ordinary men have been kidnapped from Earth, their memories suppressed. Their officers are cold-fish aliens, in this case Eternals, abusing human instinct and ingenuity for their own ends. The chilliest of these Eternals is also Enlightenment’s best character. Captain Striker’s dark stare is like the tinted windows of a limousine; he can see out, but we can’t see in. As Striker reads the Doctor’s mind, actor Keith Barron’s delivery of the line, “You are a lord of time. Are there lords in such a small domain?” is a master class in underplayed menace, a pitch-perfect performance.

‘Underplayed’ is not a word that can be applied to Striker’s rival, Captain Wrack, however. This is by no means a criticism of the sainted Lynda Baron. The two captains balance each other perfectly, so it’s a shame they never appear together on screen. And if anyone you know ever suggests that modern Doctor Who is somehow more camp than it used to be, then you should direct them to the end of part three of Enlightenment. This sees a highly sexual lady of a certain age – her heaving bosom like two bald toddlers wrestling in a taffeta sack – hissing threats direct to camera and cackling madly. Our closing shot is of a pretty tiara. ‘Camp’ doesn’t even begin to cover it.

It’s this wild blend – the sinister mystery of Striker’s ship, the roistering ebullience of Wrack’s – that helps make Enlightenment quintessential Doctor Who. It also benefits from an on-form Peter Davison – clearly cheered by the chance to play a decisive and heroic Doctor – a brilliant central conceit and some excellent dialogue. The best line goes to Mariner, the creepy Eternal with a crush on Tegan. “You’re not like any Ephemeral I’ve ever met before!” he wails to her locked bedroom door. Brilliant.

The Black Guardian sneers a catalogue of empty threats through all three of these stories. Perhaps he’s only chosen this moment to threaten the Doctor because he rightly suspects the Time Lord will soon interfere in his precious boat race. Come to think of it, describing Black as an old bore – which is where we started – might be a blind alley. These Guardians have tellingly juvenile obsessions; with shiny knick-knacks and complicated games. They once played hide-and-seek with the Key To Time, and here they have Eternals competing for a prize represented by another glittering gewgaw. The Guardians may appear long in tooth and jowl, but it’s easy to imagine them as the children of their race. The Black Guardian – explaining why he’s using Turlough as his agent to kill the Doctor – says, “I cannot be seen to act in this.” We’re never told who he’s worried about, but his long-suffering mother is the obvious candidate. He’s probably expecting Mrs Rose Guardian to rush in and tell him to stop playing with that dirty universe, glowering from under a stuffed flamingo that’s playing havoc with her perm.

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DVD EXTRAS

Coming with a fourth disc, this box-set also offers Enlightmentment: The Special Edition. Though exactly what’s special about it is up for debate.

The avowed intent is to offer a version of the story that might be judged ‘more modern’. Not including title sequences, this means around 10 minutes of material are cut for this feature-length presentation, which is ironic given how many years Doctor Who fans had to fight to stop the BBC from releasing videos in this format. In the main, it’s an opportunity to showcase some bland computer-generated effects. Again this is ironic, as there are few Doctor Who stories less in need of replacement effects than Enlightenment. The original model work is gorgeous, while this substitute material is crude and unsophisticated in comparison, and already looks dated. We now have a version of Enlightenment presented how it might have looked in 1998, which really is the height of pointlessness. In the most heinous crime of all, the story is cropped to a widescreen ratio, losing around a third of the height of the picture and a lot of important narrative detail, rendering a great story little more than a succession of blurry close-ups.

In happier news, these serials are well served by a strong three-part production documentary, delivering a wide range of interviewees. Most interesting are the normally unsung members of the production team – such as sound engineer Scott Talbot, who discusses the problems he had working on Terminus. This serial offers the most entertaining behind-the-scenes tales, as thanks to a BBC strike it proved a nightmarishly stressful production for all concerned.

These documentaries are narrated by Floella Benjamin – for reasons unclear – who delivers her script in a Madly! Enthusiastic! Style!, as if she’s trying to sell us something. It’s peculiar, but quite cheering in its way. An error of judgment has the Mawdryn Undead documentary make a sudden handbrake turn into an exploration of whether immortality – in real life that is, not within a Warp Ellipse – might one day be possible. “Soon you’ll be able to grow the basis of your own nose,” muses a leading plastic surgeon. “Maybe even most of it.” Golly. We have some way to go then. It that case, it’s lucky Mawdryn bumped into the Doctor while visiting Earth. If he’d returned to his spaceship saying “I return, my brothers. I bring the secret of… of growing the majority of a nose”, he would have been greeted with less enthusiasm by his shipmates, who are a dour bunch at the best of times.

Off-cuts from these documentaries form a number of shorter interview items spread across the discs, including some well-illustrated profiles of Mark Strickson (Turlough) and Sarah Sutton (Nyssa). Most welcome is an item on the Guardians, with the children of actors Valentine Dyall and Cyril Luckham offering some warm and welcome memories of their fathers.

Liberty Hall, a short drama featuring Nick Courtney as the Brigadier, is harmless enough. It lacks any real substance, however, as it’s no more than a contrived re-telling of the plot of Mawdryn Undead, with the Brigadier recounting things we already know to a journalist. He’s not much of a journalist, either. While pressing the Brig to reveal trivia, such as the odd way Turlough’s school fees were paid, he entirely misses the big scoop. DWM’s Jason Arnopp would have had the Brig fessing up the secret of the Loch Ness Monster, or dishing the dirt on Corporal Bell’s sordid double life.

Finally, there’s a generous collection of film off-cuts, outtakes and other odds and ends, covering all three stories. It’s all lovely to have, but Terminus: Unused Model Shots, for example, is not something you’ll be revisiting regularly. Though come to that, neither is Terminus.

All in all, the madness of that Special Edition aside, this box set delivers a generous and thorough selection of extras. Add in the entertaining commentaries and info texts, and there’s a good week’s viewing here. However, for this reviewer, his favourite new fact – well, new to him – comes from a bizarre TARDIS Information System item on Enlightenment. Apparently, according to the novel The Quantum Archangel, the fearsome Kronos from The Time Monster was the product of bedroom naughtiness involving a Chronovore and an Eternal. Who’d have thought! So how did that pillow talk go? “You’re not like any big, birdy, Time Vortex-dwelling creature I’ve ever met before.” Smooth moves, Mr Mariner. Get in there, my son.

The War Games

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

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The War Games is an exceptional Doctor Who story, with an outstanding opening episode. It certainly doesn’t hang about. The TARDIS arrives in the midst of the First World War, and the Doctor, Jamie and Zoe are immediately swept into the maelstrom. Dodging a barrage of heavy artillery, they’re picked up by plucky ambulance driver Lady Buckingham (“I say! Are you alright?”), captured by German troops (“Hände hoch!”), before being rescued by Lieutenant Carstairs of the British Army (“I say! Who are those people?”). This is all within the first three and a half minutes.

In the eighth minute – we’re now behind the British lines – we have our first stunning twist; the first of many stunning twists. Sinister General Smythe is online and Skype-ing in his bedroom. Flippin’ ’eck. It makes your mind stand on end. Is Smythe from space? The future? If neither, he really should hurry back to Blighty and file a patent application on that talking telly. By the end of Episode One, the Doctor has been convicted of espionage in a sham court-martial and lined up before a firing squad. There’s a crash of gunfire. Roll credits. And breathe.

1984’s The Caves of Androzani is rightly lauded as one of the greats. But here’s its first episode, 15 years early: the same plot beats, the same panicky feeling in your stomach as events slip so completely from the Doctor’s control, the same astonishing cliffhanger. Like Caves, it’s handled by an outstanding Doctor Who director – again, one of the greats. David Maloney’s location work looks like excerpts from a feature film. In studio, his cameras creep and swoop across some of Doctor Who’s best-ever sets. Maloney’s particularly creative with reverse angles as Smythe and his fellow villains spit vitriol via their webcams. And he’s lining up all these clever shots in something close to real time, with only around 90 minutes to record a complete episode. It’s an astonishing achievement.

Through the commentary and documentary on this disk, The War Games’ co-writer Terrance Dicks can’t stop putting himself and his serial down. “You can pick it up at any time in the next three hours, and nothing much will have happened,” he says mournfully. “It’s Doctor Who’s only ten-part story,” he adds. “Please God, may it never be done again.” We’re charmed by Dicks’ humility – as ever – but he’s completely wrong. Nothing much happens? What nonsense. Whole seasons of Doctor Who have passed with less incident than this one story. Every episode delivers a new twist, with the ground first prepared with subtle clues that flatter our intelligence. The Doctor is saved from the firing squad by a rogue shot from a sniper. It goes unmentioned, but isn’t that a hat from the American Civil Wars he’s wearing? The tall box that appears in Smythe’s room makes the sound of a TARDIS. A bloody TARDIS! Soon, we’re racing through different wars, learning that humans across history have been jumbled up together as part of an alien plan to form an army of galactic conquest. Again, it feels like a movie. Roman soldiers thunder towards us on a chariot. Jamie is hunted down by Confederate soldiers on horseback. Even today, with its budget of millions, Doctor Who rarely delivers such spectacle. And then the tale twists again, as we find ourselves in the command centre of this insane battlefield, and again, when the War Chief and the Doctor make eye contact. The shock of their mutual recognition strikes the story like lightning.

With the cunning born of true genius, the writers keep the War Chief and the Doctor apart for nearly four episodes, and we ache for their confrontation. When it comes, the Doctor is still and sure. The War Chief, in a peerless display of restrained camp by Edward Brayshaw, seems at first to be almost flirting with him. It’s more interesting than any conversation we ever witness between the Doctor and the Master. The Master is never in doubt of his own superiority, but the War Chief is a weak man who’s found strength only by hiding among bullies. He speaks of his desire for power, but really only wants the Doctor’s approval. Patrick Troughton effortlessly takes our hero from errant schoolboy to disappointed father, as the War Chief comes to sound like a panicked child caught in a lie. It’s a sublime scene.

The closing two episodes bring the biggest shock of all, with the Doctor brought to heel by the Time Lords, and finally obliged to explain what he’s all about; what he stands for. The recent DVD release of The Deadly Assassin has that story fresh in our minds, so we can again ponder the Doctor’s relationship with his people. And I maintain my view that the Time Lords of The War Games are the more interesting because they throw the Doctor’s own morality into sharper relief. One imagines it would have been easy – self-indulgent even – for our hero to leave the Gallifrey of The Deadly Assassin; a dull planet of fusty, unimaginative old men. Instead, here we have a Doctor who, when setting out into the universe to fight tyranny, also made a personal sacrifice. He’s abandoned a kind of utopia out of a burning need to do what is right.

The Doctor’s trial for meddling ends not with punishment but complete acquittal. Bowing to the case for the defence, the Time Lords send the Doctor where he can do the most good – though their justification for changing his appearance seems somewhat muddled. As a child, watching this story on a bootleg video, I was bitterly disappointed with the regeneration scene. Having lived through Logopolis and Androzani, this climax seemed absurd and incomplete. But looking now at the details, I appreciate how truly chilling it is. The Doctor’s skin appears to blacken and burn. When he spirals away into oblivion, his hands desperately clutch at the empty space where his head should be. Far from being absurd, it’s the scariest regeneration of them all. It’s also Doctor Who’s finest cliffhanger, at the end of Doctor Who’s greatest adventure.

And so, my final remarks go out to Terrance Dicks, should he be listening… Terrance, you’re my hero. You deserve an OBE, a knighthood. But if you genuinely feel The War Games should come with an apology, then you’re also in need of a good talking to.

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DVD EXTRAS

Kneel before the Restoration Team! All hail the inventors of VidFIRE! This fresh print of The War Games dazzles with its beauty. A whole third disc of extras offers something for everyone. And while this review will offer some hopefully constructive criticism, it’s important to be clear on one point: a first class adventure combined with labour-of-love restoration and excellent bonus material make this the best Doctor Who DVD yet. Thank you, 2entertain.

War Zone, the production documentary, is a smart piece of work and, as with The Deadly Assassin, everyone is full of praise for David Maloney. On that DVD we learned that Maloney’s daughter once saved Tom Baker from drowning. Here we are reminded that his young son helped choose the battles to be fought in each of the time zones. What an athletic, educated family! We should surrender government of the country to them forthwith.

Jane Sherwin is the most charming interviewee, recalling her role as Lady Buckingham with great enthusiasm. She’s equally adorable on the commentary, which is more than can be said of her former husband Derrick, the producer of The War Games, who whines a catalogue of pretty criticisms through the whole thing. At first you feel it’s a pity that he fails to appreciate the excellence of his own work, but soon you’re praying for him just to bugger off is he’s finding it such a terrible chore. Over on the documentary, Sherwin has the look of Steven Moffat’s curmudgeonly uncle.

Time Zones promises ‘the truth behind The War Games’, and invites a likeable gang of historians to explain the background to the conflicts depicted in the serial. It’s well made, but shows poor taste by illustrating descriptions of the true horror of the Somme with footage from a Doctor Who serial. While they remind us that 20,000 young men were slaughtered by machine gun and mortar fire in one day, it’s wrong to cut to a series of squibs let off by the BBC visual effects department on a Brighton landfill. 20,000 men. In one day.

Stripped For Action, looking at the TV Comic adventures of the second Doctor, is another fine addition to the series, with enthusiastic contributors paying tribute to the crackpot creativity of these 60s strips. This is a unique take on Doctor Who, where our hero spends his idle hours inventing mechanical housemaids and indestructible cars, and defeats wily Quarks with little more than the weapons in his utility belt. And as Doctorly catchphrases go, “Die, hideous creature – die!” is some way from “Sorry, I’m so sorry.” The stories may be wild, and artist John Canning’s pan-faced hero may look like he’s been chasing parked cars, but no illustrator since has come as close as capturing the fundamental energy and eccentricity of Doctor Who. This all too brief programme pays him just tribute, and one is left praying for the day when the economics of Doctor Who publishing allow his work to be reprinted in a series of suitably lavish volumes.

Also from producer Marcus Hearn is On Target, the first in a new series looking at the beloved Doctor Who novelisations of the 1970s and 80s. Again, fans warmly salute a creative genius – in this case author Malcolm Hulke, co-writer of The War Games – but the documentary struggles to find a suitable way to communicate the richness of his work to the viewer. Actors read well-chosen excerpts from his novels, but accompanied by jarring montages of clips from the original TV episodes, which serve only to undercut the key point that Hulke’s characters are more vivid and real in his books. A description of the scarred Butler from Doctor Who and the Dinosaur Invasion is matched to footage of the distinctly dapper Martin Jarvis from the telly original, and the disparity chafes the brain. In future instalments, perhaps commissioned artwork would help convey the vivid imagery of these books. Certainly, it’s essential if the series ever reaches Pip and Jane Baker’s work. One highlight of the Terror of the Vervoids novelisation – “The Commodore was unable to suppress a small grin at Mel’s cheeky parting crack” – is a subject upon which the full ingenuity of Adrian Salmon must be brought to bear.

Shades of Grey – a look at the pre-1970 television – is a series of disconnected anecdotes on a subject that deserved to be covered in greater depth. It’s also vaguely patronising. “Looking back, it’s tempting to write off black and white television as one generic whole.” claims the voiceover. No, it isn’t. I don’t feel remotely tempted. But if you have a friend with fond memories of Quatermass the Wonder Horse, then this documentary is for them. “But what was the legacy of 1960s Doctor Who?” ponders our narrator. Oh, I don’t know. 1970s Doctor Who?

Talking About Regeneration is great fun. Fan commentators and actors discuss this most tumultuous of Doctor Who events, offering observations ranging from the sage to the cheekily flippant. However, while one can’t argue with Joseph Lidster’s remarks that Hartnell’s regeneration “must have seemed so mad at the time” and that it “must have been astonishing for a kid watching [Eccleston’s demise],” one is left wishing that a suitable 53-year old and 14-year old had been invited to share firsthand reactions to the death of ‘their’ Doctor. After all, the most important aspect of regeneration is our powerful emotional response to it. Kate O’Mara (the wretched Rani) makes an unexpected guest appearance, and it’s cute how the camera shies from the close-up used for the other contributors. Very chivalrous.

Devious – a fan-produced video drama that roped Jon Pertwee into a crackers tale linking The War Games to Spearhead From Space – is too cute and well-meaning to face criticism here. Having once watched a version of this for a DWM feature back in the day, I was disappointed to find this presentation has modern CG effects slathered over it, which detract from its homespun charm.

I’ve reserved comment on the best until last. Martin Wiggins’ production notes on the second subtitle track must stand as the finest extra ever to grace a Doctor Who DVD. Full of information, insight and droll wit, this brings the story to life in so many different ways. The best bit is in Episode Seven, as the subtitles talk us through the movements of the cameras across the set over the course of a couple of scenes. That may sound dull, but it really, really isn’t. With ‘info text’ switched on, you feel like you’re watching the story for the very first time. And that’s a superlative achievement.

The Rescue and The Romans

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!

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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.

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DVD EXTRAS

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.

Black Orchid

A review of the DVD for Doctor Who Magazine, from 2008. 

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Somehow, it seems callous to give Black Orchid a bad review – like kicking a puppy. On asking friends what they think of the story, one said: “It’s just a bit of fun!”. Another: “Oh, it’s sweet… It’s harmless.” But when we factor in that Black Orchid is, frankly, quite poor, then something strange is happening. Why is everyone so forgiving?

Here’s a theory: it’s two episodes of Doctor Who that won’t embarrass us in front of our mums. It has ‘mum-friendly’ things in it, like frocks and dancing, rather than a giant fuchsia snake or Anthony Ainley, and nobody says “I know so little about telebiogenesis” or “I wouldn’t dream of interfering with your Monopticons”.

It may sound sane and look pretty – and even prettier today after a spiffing restoration job – but Black Orchid is as insubstantial as smoke. This 50 minutes of froth, often described a ‘country house whodunnit’, is, at best, as ‘why-dunnit’. After all, it’s not as if we’re offered a range of suspects for the crimes at Dalton Hall. From scene one we know the murderer is an attic-dwelling heavy breather in turn-ups and tank top. The story unfolds – well, falls open – with little involvement required from the Doctor and friends, or demanded of the audience. But look! Fancy dress! And isn’t that just the nicest Doctor Who staircase this side of Ghost Light?

The first episode is outrageously padded with an epic cricket montage that feels as a long as a three-day test. (How much more fun would it have been if our hero, for all his bluster and cricket fetish outfit, proved to be rubbish at the game?). Even when the Doctor attempts to join the plot, he can’t seem to find it – instead spending 15 minutes opening and closing doors in a hallway while the storyline is busy stealing his clothes downstairs. Meanwhile, Adric is told he’s a pig for eating spring onions, Nyssa finds she has a twin even more fragile and tremulous than her, and Tegan dulls the pain by ordering a large vodka and tonic – at lunchtime – before flirting with a man twice her age. It’s probably the sort of behaviour that gets her sacked from Air Australia. You can’t carry on like that in Premium Economy.

In deference to younger fans, it would be churlish to reveal the true nature of the killer here. Suffice to say, and we come back to that ‘why-dunnit’, even his given motivation – “he’s mad!” – is suspect. He plots a route through secret passages, steals a disguise, dances a foxtrot and throttles a footman, before ultimately returning his costume, neatly folded, and retiring to his room. Unless obsessive-compulsive disorder is a recognised symptom of his homicidal psychosis, there’s no way this killer will cop a plea of insanity, however stressful his home life might be.

After a nice drive around the county, the story mooches towards a conclusion, where the Doctor’s recklessness endangers more lives (“What will he do when he finds out he’s got the wrong girl?” he wails. Thirty seconds later he tells the killer: “That isn’t Ann!”). Cleverly, the director tries to distract us with some entirely offensive incidental music, which sounds like composer Roger Limb’s cat was left to walk up and down on his synthesizer keyboard. Or Roger Limb was left to walk up and down on his cat. With that in mind, here’s an idea for 2entertain: In the same way some DVDs offer alternative special effects to replace originals that are now deemed too humiliating to show our friends, how about an Alternative Score on a future release? Perhaps to replace some truly excruciating racket, like that on Four To Doomsday or Terminus? Now while I’m sure Murray Gold is far too busy to re-score the Garm, maybe he has some eager protégé who fancies a crack at it? It would be a fascinating experiment to see how the mood of a familiar adventure can change with its music – certainly more interesting than giving Liza Goddard a new laser effect – and how an 80s Doctor Who soundtrack can be improved by the addition of elements once considered irrelevant; such as melody, harmony or musical instruments.

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DVD EXTRAS

Although this is priced as one of the range’s ‘no frills’ releases, it still fields a generous range of extras, with the highlight being an enormously entertaining commentary. Peter Davison is the king of commentaries, and here he’s teamed with his two charming companions and Adric. And what fun! While Sutton has some happy memories of Orchid – she actually got some acting to do – her colleagues hate it with a passion, Davison most of all. The points he makes about the flaws in the production are perceptive, profound, and suggest that even in his youth he was more TV literate than either scriptwriter Terence Dudley or director Ron Jones.

There’s no ‘talking heads’ documentary covering the production of the story, but Richard Bignell does deliver one of his Now and Then tours of the Black Orchid filming locations. While Richard’s attention to detail is laudable, the problem is that the sites used in 1982 were chosen because they still looked like they did in the 1920s. And today they, well… still look like they did in the 1920s. A cross-fade of Quainton Road station ‘Then’ and ‘Now’ just shows the TARDIS prop disappearing, like some shonky roll-back-and-mix. And as proof that there’s such a thing as too much detail, even in a fan production, the voiceover reels off a long list of locations that weren’t used for Black Orchid – an entirely useless catalogue that only serves to take us all a minute closer to our own deaths. However, if you like that sort of thing, here are some other locations that weren’t used for Black Orchid: my house, your house, my mum’s house, the house next door to my mum’s house… Oh, and several others. I hope you’ve found that information enriching.

Also offering little new insight are a half-dozen deleted scenes, featuring some driving, a close-up of a Brazilian, the Doctor opening yet another door, and the news that someone has received a phone call (I won’t reveal who, to maintain the suspense). In addition, Nyssa and Ann perform a particularly annoying dance, which shows that the ‘double’ was a good four inches taller than Sarah Sutton. Couldn’t they have dug a little trench for her to stand in? The director should have done it – he obviously wasn’t busy.

The BBC archive provides a contemporary clip from Points Of View. “Please can we have more monsters and fewer girls?” complains viewer Robert Moore of Hampshire. Host Barry Took infers that Robert’s feelings will change as he grows up. Personally, I wouldn’t bet on that. There’s also a Blue Peter film report from Berman’s and Nathan’s costumiers, which starts sensibly enough, turns insane, and just happens to include a clip from Black Orchid. But be warned… it also offers up presenter Simon Groom in his underpants. And very 1980s underpants at that.

The final gem on this disc is another instalment of Marcus Hearn’s Stripped For Action history of the Doctor Who comic strip – here remembering the superb Fifth Doctor stories from this very journal. These epic, Romantic adventures had a profound effect upon the early development of this reviewer – though perhaps not as much as that Simon Groom footage – and it’s a treat to see artist Dave Gibbons and editor Alan McKenzie discuss their work. Sadly, there’s no sign of Steve Parkhouse – one of Doctor Who’s most creative and influential writers, working in any medium. I hope the production team resorts to blackmail, bribery or kidnap for the Sixth Doctor instalment, where Parkhouse’s involvement is simply essential.