Attack of the Cybermen

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

_____________________________________________________________

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.

_____________________________________________________________

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.

_____________________________________________________________

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.

_____________________________________________________________

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. 

_____________________________________________________________

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.

_____________________________________________________________

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!

_____________________________________________________________

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.

*   *   *

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.

_____________________________________________________________

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. 

_____________________________________________________________

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.

_____________________________________________________________

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.

The Brain of Morbius

A DVD review for DWM

_____________________________________________________________

A joy from start to finish, The Brain of Morbius is the quintessential Doctor Who story. If someone – perhaps a Stargate fan with a Guinness Book of Records in his bag and a chip on his shoulder – took a match or a big magnet to the BBC Videotape Archive, and only The Brain of Morbius survived the apocalypse, then future generations could easily extrapolate everything that’s important about Doctor Who from these four episodes alone, so neatly is the show’s entire DNA coiled into every second. The product of a deliciously twisted imagination, bursting with quotable dialogue and wholly committed performances, these 100 glorious minutes would tell a curious historian all he needs to know about our preposterous programme.

In 2004, when Doctor Who was announced as being on its way back to our screens, the favoured press release slogan for the new series was “full-blooded” – suggesting both great energy and a steadfast refusal to compromise. It’s exactly the right adjective to describe Doctor Who at its best; and when selling that future, we can be sure Russell T was remembering The Brain of Morbius. The plot may be basic – famously a reworking of Frankenstein, as the Doctor battles to stop an evil genius transplanting the brain of his Time Lord master into a new body – but it’s made special because everything is taken to such glorious extremes. Philip Madoc gives one of the all-time great guest turns as mad-as-a-mooncalf scientist Solon. His castle laboratory is as creepy as heck and a triumph of production design, with something bubbling in every corner. Even the body Solon assembles for his hero is made out of the best bits of other monsters. In short, The Brain of Morbius is as full-blooded as it gets. It’s Doctor Who turned up to 10.

Looking at that mish-mash monster, it’s a credit to the costume designer that the creature remains scary despite looking hilarious. This new Morbius may be proud to have the lungs of a Birastrop, but he also has the face of a cross-eyed Dalek and a backside like two sacks of soil. There’s a cute moment when he spots his reflection for the first time, and puts a hand to his absent mouth in shock. “What the hell do I look like?” he’s clearly thinking – a reaction many of us will have shared with the bathroom mirror on a morning after a night pickling our brain.

While the brain of Morbius may hog the title of this story, it’s his left hand that really matters, as it ultimately brings about his downfall. Solon has callously thieved the arm from his servant Condo in a display of unfeeling arrogance that karmically comes back to bite him. When Condo discovers what’s now attached to the sticky end of his long-lost limb, he turns upon his master and – in a cunning bit of writing – what has seemed no more than an entertaining subplot becomes the engine of the story. If Solon hadn’t been so mean then Condo would have remained loyal to the cause, and there would be no reason to rush the transplant of Morbius’ fundamentals into a fruit bowl. After that disaster, the already doolally Time Lord goes completely nuts.

Even then, that arm continues to hog the limelight. When the creature is up and on the lurch, its left hand takes on new significance as the only part of actor Stuart Fell that can be seen by the audience. And you can’t take your eyes off it. With his arm giving its all, Morbius’ gestures become delightfully showy. “My brain functions perfectly!” boasts the creature at one point, and Fell’s forefinger whips up to point helpfully at the organ in question, in case we’ve lost track of it in all the fuss.

First hindering and then helping the Doctor, as he wrestles the arm of Morbius, is the Sisterhood of Karn. They’re the highlight of the story for this reviewer – thanks to wonderful performances by Cynthia Grenville and Gilly Brown – and without doubt the campest troop ever to follow the Doctor into battle.

They also provide much food for thought. We learn that the Sisterhood has an uneasy pact with the Time Lords, with whom they share the product of their fountain of youth: the precious pentapeptides of the Elixir of Life. But come on… there has to be more to it that that. At this point, we’ve seen Gallifrey as a planet occupied solely by men. And here is Karn, world of the women. One imagines a bitter divorce back in the day, with the Sisterhood winning their sacred flame in the settlement, and the Time Lords keeping the secret of putting big boxes inside little ones. They’d have much more fun if the boys and girls got back together again. Ohica could flash her eyes at Castellan Spandrell across a crowded Panopticon. High priestess Maren could melt into the manly embrace of Cardinal Borusa. With eternal youth and infinite life on their side, they could party the Universe away.

Actually, Maren already seems to have an eye for the Doctor here, discreetly shedding her Black Forest gateau of a hat for his second visit to her shrine, and letting her hair down. The old flirt. Even her whiskers seem more glossy and manageable.

DVD EXTRAS

Settle down to enjoy one of the finest commentaries yet. All the key players are present – producer Philip Hinchcliffe; director Christopher Barry; and stars Tom Baker, Lis Sladen and Philip Madoc – and it’s a pleasure to spend time in their company. The mutual appreciation is constant – Tom compliments Lis, Lis congratulates Chris, Philip applauds Philip, and Philip praises Philip in return – but hey, they all deserve it. In the gaps between back-slaps they get down to the nitty-gritty, pointing out little flourishes of production you might not have noticed, and even throwing in a concise history of film and TV lighting that’s more interesting that it may sound. And Tom’s obviously enjoying himself – especially when the pretty girls of the Sisterhood are spinning across the screen. “Look at all that panting crumpet,” he sighs, probably recalling a happy day on the job.

If you ignore the clumsy narration from Paul McGann, then the production documentary, Getting A Head, is a definite hit. Philip Madoc’s here again, looking more the mad scientist than Solon ever did. He clearly adores these episodes, and gleefully quotes his favourite lines. As he does, one wild, glinting eye seems to follow you around the room. Then it follows you out of the room and into the kitchen. It’s scary stuff. Cynthia Grenville is similarly intense when she recalls how Tom Baker was almost burned to death in studio – though not, as you might expect, consumed by the flames of his own ardour.

Production values on the documentary are commendably high. If you’re of an age to remember when ‘green screen’ was called ‘CSO’, and only worked for viewers with a congenital squint, you’ll find yourself staring in fascination at Grenville’s frizzy hair. Or rather, you’ll be staring through Grenville’s frizzy hair to the computer-generated shrine beyond. This may seem a trivial detail, but it’s a big deal for those of us who’ve been waiting more than three decades for them to crack it.

And speaking of whizzo technology, those CG recreations of the sets are certainly pretty to look at, even if they don’t serve much practical purpose. They’re like something from an unreleased Brain of Morbius computer game. Imagine that on the Wii. You could go looking for Condo’s arm, build a monster out of alien entrails, or wave the controller around your head and dance with the Sisterhood. Casualty departments across the land would be full of Doctor Who fans who’d got dizzy chanting “sacred flame, sacred fire”, and brained themselves on the sideboard.

‘Bred for War’ DVD box set

A DVD review for DWM

_____________________________________________________________

One potato, two potato, three potato, four… If there‘s one thing you can count on with Sontarans, it’s that no two members of the race will ever look, sound or act the same. Odd that – considering they’re clones. But it means this box set of their 70s and 80s adventures offers plenty of variety.

It all starts well. 1974’s The Time Warrior is a little masterpiece, because Sontaran Linx – struggling to return to his fleet but constantly pestered by dimwit humans and a nosey Gallifreyan – is a very funny character. Through this impatient and irritable individual, we see the Sontarans as beings utterly convinced of their own superiority, even if the rest of the universe is sniggering behind their backs and poking twigs in their probic vents. It’s the whiff of Captain Mainwaring and Victor Meldrew about Lynx that makes him seem so real.

Sadly, this entertaining aspect of the Sontaran psyche is then forgotten about until General Staal’s petulant bellyache about not being allowed to play in the Time War, 34 years later. The other stories here bring steadily diminishing returns, with the Sontarans often just stomping and shouting. And as time passes, their looks fade along with their spirit. Linx is sensational – give him a Radio Times cover shoot and he would still turn heads today – but by the time we reach The Two Doctors, Group Marshal Stike appears to be an orange balloon with a face drawn on it.

So clones? No chance! Perhaps this is just a fib Sontarans hide behind because they get embarrassed discussing – y’know – s-e-x. (“Well, Steev, what happens is… Daddy touches mummy’s thorax in a special way, and nine months later a clone is delivered. Honestly.”)