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The Ultimate Foe

7 Oct

A short piece about the concluding episodes of The Trial of a Time Lord for Doctor Who Magazine: The Complete Sixth Doctor, from 2002.


Down the ages, countless philosophers have attempted to prove the existence of God.

One popular line of reasoning is the ‘argument from design’. This points out that if we look at any ineffably complex system found in everyday life — such as predictive texting on your phone, or ticket pricing on — we might reasonably assume that it could not have come about by mere chance and that it had been designed. And so, if we look at the universe as a whole, surely such an intricate mechanism — covering everything from the orbital resonance of the planets circling the sun to the ‘penis fencing’ mating rituals of hermaphrodite sea slugs — must also have been designed; and that designer must be God.

It’s a persuasive argument. I’m a steadfast atheist, but I recall sitting in second-year biology poking at the innards of a sheep’s eyeball with a scalpel — teasing ciliary fibres from vitreous humour — and thinking that such a delicate and functional structure couldn’t have come about purely by chance.

I still feel a shadow of that notion while watching The Ultimate Foe (or whatever you decide it’s called). You see, with most other Doctor Who you can clearly understand how it came to be the way it is. Be it shaped by the whimsical Whitaker, the horror-hunting Holmes, or the comics-loving Cartmel, you can discern a straight line from inspiration, through design, to realisation. But then you watch the crazy mess of ideas that is The Ultimate Foe and the mind can only boggle over how it came to exist at all. As fans, we are blessed with certain insights into the production process. We know that Robert Holmes died with only the first of these two episodes committed to paper. We know that Pip and Jane Baker had to dash off the second in the manner of some bizarre game of Consequences’; extrapolating as best they could from what Holmes had already written. We also know that the only person who might have been able to smooth the join, script editor Eric Saward, had already activated his ejector seat and shot-off through the ceiling of Threshold House, leaving behind on a tear-stained copy of The TARDIS Inside Out and a poisonous interview in Starburst magazine.

Let’s be clear… The climax of The Trial of a Time Lord remains an absolute joy — but whether that’s because of or in spite of the circumstances of its production remains a mystery. The evidence for the defence? Exhibit A is the unexcelled dialogue: “You’re elevating futility to a high art! and “Only by releasing myself from the misguided maxims that you nurture can I be free!” and “I’ve thrown a pebble into the water and killed two birds with one stone!” and more and more. Exhibit B is the remarkable plotting: this is, after all, a story whose climax involves the Doctor’s companion racing to tell some Time Lords to turn the telly off. Exhibit C is the single most impossibly naff/glorious moment in the history of Doctor Who: that final shot of Peri Brown and King Yrcanos framed in a big, pink heart. Aw! Love ya, you dirty old Warlord!

And so it is that, although no-one involved in the making of these episodes — producer, writers, script editors, stars — had the first clue what was going on, they somehow managed to conjure something perfectly sublime, utterly majestic and totally impossible.

But if they didn’t plan it this way, we can only reasonably conclude that there must be a far grander design at work.

The Ultimate Foe. So completely divine, it’s enough to make you believe in God.

Time Capsule: November 1977

8 Feb

At the time  – January 2017 – this seemed a fun idea for a new regular(ish) feature for Doctor Who Magazine. Alas, I hadn’t reckoned on quite how many words would be needed to cover, in reasonable depth – and with sufficient jokes so as not to bore everyone to death – even just a single month in Doctor Who history.

Time Capsule was designed to be ‘lavishly illustrated’. I’ll try to add some images to this slew of copy in due course!



Doctor Who is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think the wider canon of Western literature is big – but that’s just peanuts to Doctor Who.

We’re misquoting the great Douglas Adams – from the second episode of The Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy – but there’s a truth to the joke. Over the decades, Doctor Who has been researched and written about in incredible and ever-increasing detail; to such a degree that, as Doctor Who grows and as we move in ever closer, we perhaps lose sight of the big picture: of the whole wild, whirling insanity of it all.

So, rather than looking at one single aspect of Doctor Who – the fact, the fiction, the production of a single story, the work of a particular actor or director – this feature is instead designed to take us on a trip through time. We’re travelling to a single month in the life of the series, to review everything that was happening, all at once, in the universe of Doctor Who.

Our first destination was chosen by our randomiser (asking someone in the office to name a month, then a year, off the top of their head) – but it’s a cracker. It’s a month where the Doctor and Leela battle Fendahl, Sontarans, Vrakons, Cycrans, Terry Wogan and the trades unions. It’s a month where the Liberator lands instead of the Tardis, Sarah Jane Smith loses her parents, and an anti-Dalek agent helps us to save money on cigarettes. Meanwhile, the Doctor meets Julius Caesar, sells baked beans and his sonic screwdriver, and renegotiates his salary. He avoids losing his head in Yorkshire, while holding on to something very precious in Los Angeles.

Welcome to our Time Capsule – and 30 crazy days in November 1977.


Nine and a half inches of pure pleasure

For the children of Britain in November 1977, their most thrill-packed, voraciously-devoured book was not some adventure novel – a Blyton or a Dahl – but the Autumn/Winter edition of the Great Universal Home Shopping Catalogue. Its 1,006 richly-coloured pages left you half-dazed with the stink of ink, and possessed a power more spellbinding than any silly old story. The book crackled with possibility and promise. Of course, the opening 932 pages – of “continental style” polyester blouses, terylene net curtains and Schreiber double-divans – were mere prologue. The real magic began on page 933, with the toys and games.

If you leaf through that catalogue today, you’re not only looking back through time, but directly into the dreams of the youngsters of Britain in November 1977. It’s a glimpse of every fantasy of Christmas morning, a sneak peek at every letter to Santa. Here’s Evel Knievel’s stunt motorbike. The Bionic Woman (“with mission purse”). Meccano. Jaws. Chemistry Set 3. Microscope Lab 2. And, grinning out from page 941, in hat and scarf, holding his sonic screwdriver like he’s about to sign an autograph for your Auntie Mabel, is a toy Doctor Who: “Intrepid explorer of the galaxies!” (£3.70, or 19p for 20 weeks.)

But this is not just any toy Doctor Who, this is the first toy Doctor Who.

In the 1960s, vast battalions of toy Daleks conquered the country – pursued by a few plucky Mechonoids – but Doctor Who would be 14 years old before the children of Britain could take the show’s hero on adventures of their own. And what adventures! This Doctor was small enough to hold in one hand, but big enough to fill the world.

The 9½-inch Doctor doll comes with fabric clothes, a plastic hat and plastic shoes. He accessorises with a ribbon of purple necktie and a matchstick sonic screwdriver. (The first item to be lost or broken by his enthusiastic owners.) The doll is also possessed of an irresistible smile. It’s a grin so wide, so white – so sincere – it can only belong to Tom Baker. Well, you’d think… But thereby hangs a tale.

It has been suggested that this first toy of the Doctor is, in fact, nothing of the sort. This isn’t Tom Baker, it has been claimed, but some smirking imposter. The book Doctor Who: The Seventies (Howe, Stammers & Walker, 1993) reported: “The head was of The New Avengers star Gareth Hunt. Between the prototypes being produced and the go-ahead by the BBC, the die [mould] for the Tom Baker head had been lost or damaged. Rather than go to the expense of creating a new one, the company went with what they had, namely Gareth Hunt.” We’ll return to this allegation in due course.

Multiplying the fun, our Doctor is just part of a gang, and travels with a dolly friend and a host of dolly enemies to defeat. These are the big, bold toys of a big, bold entertainment brand. They are promoted in the pages of popular comics, and seen at their best in a television advert for the new range, which aired throughout November 1977. The Doctor’s assistant Leela peers out uncertainly from under a wild fountain of hair; perhaps concerned with the effect her Mae West bosom and Margot Fonteyn feet are having on her centre of gravity. There’s a magnificent Giant Robot (who appears to be just on the verge of remembering something important), a baggy Cyberman and a trim Dalek with an angry red dome. And last, but by no means least, a toy TARDIS co-opts a mechanism designed for a popular Star Trek Transporter Room playset in the USA. This boxy blue shed contains a rotating vertical drum that, with a grinding kerchunk-thunk, helps the Doctor to ‘disappear’ in exactly the way he doesn’t on TV.

The Doctor Who range of dolls was produced by Denys Fisher Toys Ltd of Wetherby, North Yorkshire. The company was formed in the mid-1960s by Denys Fisher himself, a skilled engineer and mathematician who had developed timer mechanisms for bombs during World War II. He made his fortune with the drawing toy Spirograph; a set of fine-toothed plastic wheels and rings which allowed the user to trace out an infinite number of repeating mathematical curves – to beautiful effect, if you could keep a steady hand. Spirograph was named Toy of the Year in 1968.

“Denys was a huge, brilliant, eccentric man with an unexpectedly high-pitched voice who wore flip-flops mostly,” recalls Peter Viner, who joined Denys Fisher Ltd as a development engineer in 1969, and through the next decade worked his way up to Head of Research and Development. In 1970, Denys Fisher Ltd was bought by the massive US food combine General Mills, which was furiously diversifying. It snapped up a swathe of toy manufacturers, including Parker Bros and Kenner in the States, and Palitoy, Chad Valley and Denys Fisher in the UK.

“We operated independently, but each company was fed product from the worldwide group,” explains Peter. “Merchandise based on popular TV characters took over, and we inherited the Six Million Dollar Man range of toys, which was a phenomenal success, resulting in rapid growth… All too rapid, as it turned out.”

Imported TV action heroes The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman sold very well in 1976, but Denys Fisher Ltd was eager to find a home-grown hero, which is where the Doctor and his coterie enter the scene. However, whereas the ‘Bionic’ figures came to the UK fully-formed from Hong Kong – their US Kenner packaging replaced by Denys Fisher branding – the Doctor Who range was, at least in its details, a more British endeavour.

“The bodies for the Doctor Who dolls were ‘off the peg’,” explains Peter. (Indeed, young fans keen to explore the mysteries of the Gallifreyan reproductive system would eagerly divest the Doctor of his jacket, vest and slacks only to discover nothing more revealing than the message ‘(c) 1976 Mego Corporation. Made in Hong Hong’ across their hero’s skinny back. Mego, another major US toy manufacturer, provided the basic articulated doll that could be found under the clothes of many a licensed toy at the time, from Steve Austin to Starsky and Hutch, Captain Kirk to Cher.)

“The dolls were bought in, but we provided the heads and accessories,” Peter continues. “I commissioned a local guy called Colin Davidson to sculpt the heads, and my friend John Dockray in the marketing department recalls a very pleasant meeting with Louise Jameson. John’s auntie provided the scarf samples, and a local seamstress made the dolls’ outfits.”

And what does Peter say to the suggestion that this is actually a New Avengers doll in Doctor Who clothing?

“I’m sorry to dispel that conspiracy theory,” says the man who oversaw the development of the toy. “But it didn’t happen. I suppose it’s a reflection on people’s feelings about the accuracy of the sculpting. These days a face can be scanned and a much more accurate likeness achieved.”

Furthermore, in Denys Fisher’s earliest marketing material for the toys – prepared for toy business trade fairs in November 1976 and January 1977, when the manufacturers offered up their best prospects for the following Christmas – the prototype Doctor Who doll proudly wears the same face as the finished production doll. And it’s a face that captures the spirit of Tom Baker’s Doctor better than any scan or 3D printer ever could.

Sadly, even as the Denys Fisher’s Doctor Who figures lined up on the shelves of Britain’s toy shops in November 1977, the company fell victim to the fast-moving nature of character-based merchandise. The Leela dolls were released just as actress Louise Jameson announced her departure from Doctor Who. Meanwhile, the Doctor’s own popularity was in danger of being eclipsed by his newly unleashed robotic dog, K9. Denys Fisher added a cute, to-scale K9 figure to the range the following year, but by this stage the company was struggling to stay ahead of the game.

Star Wars was the big story coming up,” explains Peter Viner. “But that range went to our sister company Palitoy and we couldn’t find anything to compete. Denys Fisher Toys and Chad Valley were closed in 1979 and Palitoy inherited the valuable assets. I was offered a post at Palitoy but opted to go it alone. I launched my Design 4 Plastics company in one of the small buildings occupied by Denys Fisher Toys, and we’re still going strong to this day.”

Denys Fisher’s gorgeous, grinning Tom Baker did have a brief second life, however. The doll was repackaged and re-released in Italy in 1979 by the Italian toy company Harbert. When in Rome, the Doctor was “intrepido esploratore della gallassie!”, and the back of his box promised that he would soon be joined on his Mediterranean adventure by his companion “Lella” and the fantastici monstri “Super Robot” and “Cibernaini”. Alas, none of these other variants appear to have reached the shops of Milan or Turin; and given that Italy didn’t begin screening Doctor Who until 1980, perhaps that’s no surprise.

Star Wars – which opened in the USA in May 1977 – would not only change the business of movies forever, it would turn the licenced toy industry upside down. In just a few months, ‘big’ dolls like the Doctor and Leela and would look clumsy and old-fashioned. The future for action figures (and it would be a destiny shared by Doctor Who toys, eventually) would prove long and lucrative – but also less than four inches tall.


Astronauts ancient and modern

The four Saturdays of November 1977 thrilled to the transmission of the Doctor Who serial Image of the Fendahl – parts two to four – and the opening instalment of The Sun Makers.

Between them, these consecutive adventures contrive to cover almost the entire journey of human life through the fiction of Doctor Who: from a pit in Africa 12 million years before modern man, to a point in the distant future (“right through the time spiral” as the Doctor puts it) where humanity has been forcibly resettled to Pluto by a malevolent alien. However, even with this alpha-to-omega history as their backdrop, these stories address – for 1977 – distinctly contemporary concerns.

In Image of the Fendahl, the Doctor and Leela meet a team of scientists, of varying shades of sanity, who are investigating an ancient skull, at first sight human, found buried in volcanic sediment in Kenya. A potassium-argon test of the most excellent kind dates the sediment as having been laid down “eight million years before [the owner of the skull] could have possibly existed.” Musing upon this, one of the scientists, the benign Adam Colby, takes his dog Leakey for a walk. (“More bones is it? You old bone hunter you!”).

As well as being Doctor Who’s first joke about incontinence, Leakey the dog is named in honour of the famous husband-and-wife team of anthropologists, Louis and Mary Leakey, whose discovery of prehistoric bones and primitive tools in East Africa in the 1950s massively advanced our understanding of the ascent of man. Or, perhaps, Leakey is named for their son, Richard Leakey, also an anthropologist – and the cover star of the Monday 7 November 1977 issue of Time magazine, published during transmission of Image of the Fendahl.

On his Time cover, Leakey is seen crouching in the desolate Rift Valley in Kenya, alongside a querulous-looking Homo habilis; a two-million-year-old predecessor of modern man, but really a local volunteer in a latex mask. The mask is modelled upon a skull recently unearthed from nearby volcanic sediment by Leakey and his team. The discovery of Homo habilis challenged established scientific thinking on the origins of man. So when, in Image of the Fendahl, barmy scientist Dr Fendleman exults to Colby: “Your discovery could be one of the most important milestones in human development! Your work will fundamentally affect how man views himself!” it shows just how timely and ‘ripped from the headlines’ this Doctor Who story was. That said, Colby’s skull later proves to be an alien life form trying to reconstitute itself on Earth – which is just one of the many ways in which Doctor Who demonstrates its superiority to real life. The article in Time magazine sadly fails to detail any attacks on Richard Leakey’s excavation by a seven-foot tall and very hungry caterpillar.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the time spiral, The Sun Makers also lifted its story straight from the news, and the immediate day-to-day woes of its adult viewers, as the UK economy circled the plughole in the late 1970s. “We’re being taxed to death!” wailed one commentator in The Times newspaper of Wednesday 30 November 1977. It’s a figure of speech made flesh by The Sun Makers.

Given that its bleak tale of the knackered stragglers of humanity – banged-up on Pluto and drugged, overworked and taxed to near-extinction by rapacious aliens – The Sun Makers delivers more than its fair share of laughs. And its playful satire was certainly appreciated at the time. “Viewers warmly welcomed the more realistic, less fantastic nature of the theme (widely interpreted as an exposé of super monopoly capitalism),” noted a contemporary BBC Audience Research report. “It was, in their opinion, entertaining and even compelling viewing, which was ‘well up to the usual high standard of Doctor Who adventures’.”

Image of the Fendahl and The Sun Makers delivered high ratings and audience appreciation figures. The trio of Tom Baker’s virtuoso Doctor, Louise Jameson’s eye-catching Leela and the charming K9 (“The best innovation of the Autumn viewing season!” raved trade newspaper Television Today) proved irresistible. All four episodes of The Sun Makers made it into the national Top 50 programmes.

Doctor Who is at its best when its creators are at least as involved in it, in terms of imagination, as we are. This is not always the case. But in November 1977, a real sense of commitment in the writing and performance of Doctor Who lifted it to an imaginative peak. It may have been battling harder than ever for time and resource at the BBC – and those limitations may often have shown on screen – but Doctor Who was as spirited, intelligent and relevant as it had ever been, or ever would be.


On the other side

There were only three television channels in November 1977, but Doctor Who still had to fight for viewers. For a closer look at the competition, we’ll visit the Saturday night closest to the show’s 14th birthday.

On 26 November 1977, the majority of ITV regions pitched the talent show New Faces against the first episode of The Sun Makers. Judges Mickie Most, Terry Wogan, Jack Parnell and Shaw Taylor sifted through such acts as The Xhabo Puppets from Exeter and singer Terry McCann from Bloxwich in the vain hope that any offered greater mainstream appeal than Louise Jameson’s thighs over on BBC1. Elsewhere, four ITV regions – Anglia, Midland, Scottish and London Weekend – offered Giant, an episode of the US adventure series Man From Atlantis.

Man From Atlantis tells the story of Mark Harris, the last survivor of the fabled lost continent, and his adventures in the modern world, battling spies and suchlike. A prodigious swimmer, Mark can propel himself through water – arms tight to his sides, feet together – at tremendous speed, like an eel, or a particularly up-for-it sperm. Mark has webbed hands and feet, super-acute senses, gills, and needs to be dunked in the Pacific every 12 hours without fail. However, viewers are secretly pleased whenever Mark misses this deadline, which he does once per episode, because he turns a lovely shade of mauve.

To the ear of a Doctor Who fan, Mark Harris – as played by Patrick Duffy – has much in common with Leela. He is driven by his instincts and super senses. When speaking, he can not or will not use contractions. He parades about in a state of unselfconscious undress. If Leela was designed “to get the dads watching”, then it was the job of Duffy and his tailored shorts to detain the mums and the funny uncles. However, nothing makes you appreciate the skill of Louise Jameson’s characterisation of Leela quite like 50 minutes in the company of Mark Harris, who is less “noble savage” than nodding simpleton.

Overall, Man From Atlantis suffers a fatal lack of conviction. The drowned continent of legend was surely sunk by the dead weight of these scripts. (“I think this whirlpool might be artificial!” “You mean man-made?” “Whoever made it, it could create tides the like of which… Well, I don’t have to tell you.”). Any viewer who might consider Part One of The Sun Makers to be far-fetched needs to check out Giant; especially the scene where, in a parallel dimension, Mark has to battle through a raging torrent of invisible water – as the show clearly couldn’t afford to provide actual water. Your heart goes out to poor Patrick Duffy. It’s little surprise that Man From Atlantis was cancelled after four TV movies and 13 episodes, but Doctor Who is still with us today.

Meanwhile, if any Doctor Who fan had lingered on BBC2 in the hour before The Sun Makers, they would have been rewarded with a glimpse of the future – or rather, a snatch of the sound of the future. Horizon: The Case of the Ancient Astronauts put forward the theories of cult 70s author and pseudo-scientist Erich von Däniken, who argued that extraterrestrials had visited the Earth throughout prehistory and influenced the development of man – though he unaccountably failed to mention the Fendahl. The distinctive electronic score for this documentary came from Peter Howell of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, who would go on to help define the sound of Doctor Who’s next decade. The Astronauts was released as the B-side to Howell’s sensational 1980 version of the Doctor Who theme.

Anyone on the look-out for visiting aliens on the night of 26 November 1977 would have been better served by tuning in to the early evening news in the Southern ITV region. At 5.10pm, the sound was interrupted by a buzzing noise and a distorted voice claiming to be an ambassador for an “intergalactic association” and warning that mankind must change its warlike ways or face punishment. Exactly what form the punishment might take was not revealed, but viewers tuning in to The Sun Makers later that evening would reason that relocation to Pluto and the enforced wearing of ill-fitting tabards might be involved. The perpetrator of the Southern TV alien ‘hoax’ remains unknown to this day.


Genie in a bottle

The USA, Australia, Canada, South Korea, Saudi Arabia – and possibly the United Arab Emirates – also broadcast Doctor Who episodes during November 1977. One screening, however, would prove to be of crucial importance.

When British fan Doctor Who Ian Levine heard, from his American fan friend Tom Lundie, that the Jon Pertwee serial The Daemons was to be shown in an omnibus form by TV station KCET in Los Angeles, he took immediate action. In a stroke of luck, Tom’s cousin Mike Lundie lived in the KCET broadcast area, and Ian paid for Mike to rent a Betamax video machine to record the story, along with two one-hour tapes.

15 years later, this recording provided the Doctor Who Restoration Team with the vital colour signal they needed to re-colourise the BBC’s surviving black-and-white copy of the story. So, next time you enjoy The Daemons in colour, it is because that colour was captured, like a genie in a bottle, by a fan’s friend’s cousin in the city of Garden Grove, California – just a few miles from Disneyland – on the evening of 19 November 1977.



Tales from Tardis

The tidily typewritten pages of the November 1977 issue of Tardis, the magazine of the one-year-old Doctor Who Appreciation Society, offers us an insight into the hearts of Doctor Who fans at the time. The leading lights of the Society, many of whom had been watching since the show’s first episode, when aged eight or nine, had grown up to become Doctor Who first generation of angry adult fan commentators.

“The production team seem convinced that Dr Who really is a kids show,” complained John Peel at the top of two paragraphs of block capitals. “Despite superficial glitter, The Invisible Enemy failed miserably as entertainment.

“Continuity was slaughtered,” continued Peel. “Did Leela really fly the Tardis? What happened to Isomorphic Circuitry, Mr Holmes? You invented it, so you stick to it. Anyone who recalls the ‘Watcher’ series in the far off golden days will remember that removing the dimensional control unit results in the ship’s innards shrinking – though now it seems it merely prevents the ship from taking off. (But how?)”

However, Peel reserves his most fiery fury for the Doctor’s latest companions. “He now has a mechanical pet to go with his savage. With stories like this one and ‘Fang Rock’, why not a new time slot as well? Straight after ‘Watch with Mother’. (This programme is going to the dogs!)”

DWAS President Jan Vincent-Rudzki also had reservations about recent episodes. “So far I have thought this season very strange,” he wrote. “‘Fang Rock’ was a good story and basically ‘Invisible Enemy’ was too, even though there were a number of errors and blunders in it. What has surprised and almost shocked me is the terrible way the programme is made, and particularly directed. The camera work is very primitive and unimaginative.”

For many readers of Tardis, however, the most attention-grabbing item was to be found on page two. “Raffle of props from Doctor Who. Tickets (as many as you want) 20p each.” The list of prizes on offer quickens the blood, even 40 years later… “Jon Pertwee has kindly donated some props from Doctor Who actually used in the filming.” These include: “A Mutt mask (The Mutants). A Maggot (The Green Death). Stun Gun (Invasion of the Dinosaurs). A Giant Spider. Tardis control panel. The Sonic Screwdriver.” It all adds up to a mental image of Jon Pertwee gleefully motorbiking home from each day’s filming on Doctor Who with a sidecar full of swag. But it’s all in a good cause. Pertwee’s beloved Grand Order Water Rats – a fraternity of performers and charitable organisation – was the beneficiary.

Also published by the DWAS that same month was The Companion Volume (40p, “featuring the research and documentation facilities of the DWAS Reference Department”). This was a collection of ‘biographies’ of the Doctor’s friends: a mixture of information given on screen and some well-meaning extrapolation by writer Jeremy Bentham. It’s notable, however, that one of the pieces, the Sarah Jane Smith biography, was later adapted by Doctor Who producer John Nathan-Turner into the ‘series bible’ for the spin-off special K9 and Company, and from there influenced the back story of The Sarah Jane Adventures. It was The Companion Volume which first introduced the notion that Sarah was an orphan raised by her Aunt Lavinia.

So rest in peace then, Sarah Jane’s poor mum and dad. Murdered by Jeremy Bentham in November 1977.


Thank Jupiter!

Young fans could enjoy further adventures for the Doctor and Leela in the pages of Mighty TV Comic (Polystyle, 10p). In the concluding episodes of The Devil’s Mouth, the Doctor goes hunting alien Vrakons down a pothole in middle England. Our Time Lord is in a belligerent mood, and doesn’t even engage the visitors in conversation before he slaughters them, blows up their spaceship and seals the cave with concrete. Doctor Who and the Silurians this is not.

The next story, The Aqua-City, would have proved just the ticket for fans who enjoyed Doctor Who but craved some of the fishy flavour of Man From Atlantis. It sees the Doctor battle the robot Cycrans, the vengeful former servants of the undersea ‘Antlanteans’, who cannot remain out of water for long. You can’t say that TV Comic wasn’t keeping up with the times.

The scripts for these stories, by Geoff Cowans, capture the gusto of Tom Baker’s performance as the Doctor, although the habit of other characters to refer to him as ‘Dr Who’ does bring you up short, as does the Doctor’s unlikely catchphrase of ‘By Jupiter!” or “Thank Jupiter!” – an early precursor to the likes of “Fantastic!” and “Geronimo!”.  Leela cuts a rather more fashionable figure than on TV; in skinny jeans, kinky boots and a knotted blouse that lays out the whole shop front. The new look was the work of the artist, John Canning, who clearly enjoyed his job. His style may seem a little old-fashioned today, but, thanks to the exuberant line work and loose ink washes, Canning’s Doctor Who has a unique pell-mell joi de vivre all its own.

The strips of TV Comic were certainly a step up from other spin-off adventures available at the time. The Dr Who Annual 1978 (World Distributors, £1.35) was on sale at all good bookshops in November 1977. Inside, the Doctor is accompanied by an unrecognisable Sarah in a series of text and comic strip adventures that verge on gibberish. It’s a bleak thought that, given the popularity of the TV series at this time and the massive print run for this annual, these grim stories likely stand as some of the most widely-read Doctor Who spin-off fiction ever written. The high point of the book is the comic strip The Traitor; the artwork for which, by Paul Crompton, has a dreamlike, expressionist quality.

The Dalek Annual 1978 (World Distributors, £1.35) also offered a mix of text stories and comic strip – the latter thanks to a reprint of a vibrant TV21 comic from 1966. A factual feature muses upon the possibility of a ‘missing’ fifth planet between Mars and Jupiter, but this would have been old news to viewers of Image of the Fendahl. A puzzle page relates a personal crisis faced by Anti-Dalek Force agent Kel Moran, as readers were invited to work out how many extra cigarettes he could roll using the scraps of tobacco left in 25 fag ends. Useful information for all younger readers there.

Doctor Who and the Talons of Weng-Chiang (Hardback from Allan Wingate, £2.95. Paperback from Target Books, 60p)  joined the range of novelisations of TV adventures available in November 1977, just over seven months after the story’s transmission. A straightforward, no-frills adaptation, Terrance Dick’s lucid prose nevertheless has the power to replay the serial for readers as accurately and vividly as any DVD.

Two further Doctor Who adventures were published in November 1977: the second and third volumes of the educational Doctor Who Discovers… series (Target Books, 75p). Doctor Who Discovers Space Travel has a beautiful cover by Jeff Cummins, but the cover artist for Doctor Who Discovers the Conquerors sadly remains unknown. The books were written, it is presumed, by the range’s editor Fred Newman and illustrated with stills of Tom Baker’s Doctor and assorted stock library illustrations.

In Discovers the Conquerors, the Doctor spends 16 years living in the court of Alexander the Great, before going on to encounter Julius Caesar, Charlemagne and Richard the Lionheart, the latter without letting on that he’d done so before. (“And who are you?” roared the King. “Dr Who,” replied the Doctor. The King’s face turned red with anger. “Tomorrow we do battle with Saladin. Give this Who a sword and let him fight too.”)

Space Travel takes our Time Lord to 1957, where the TARDIS is almost hit in orbit by an early satellite – something that would also almost happen on TV in 1987’s Delta and the Bannermen – and then on to witness the Moon landing and Skylab. Readers at the time would have been particularly taken with the book’s trips to the future. The Doctor travels to 1985 and marvels at a Space Shuttle launch (in 1977, the orbiter was undergoing its earliest tests). In the 21st century, the Doctor visits a 20-mile long Earth-orbiting space station, with farmland and forest tended by several million inhabitants. “The Doctor wanted to discover more about the 21st Century. He could only wonder at what other great feats men would accomplish.” Well, here’s hoping.


In the can

Crosse and Blackwell foods ran a major Doctor Who promotion in the autumn of 1977. Families were invited to swap labels from cans of ‘Doctor Who Baked Beans’ (plus a fee) for a range of booty: an electronics kit, a chemistry set and a Doctor Who colouring book.

The book, with a Police Box cover, offered a series of scenes to colour – including a surreal moment in the TARDIS where the Doctor ponders a giant can of baked beans on scanner – which then folded out into 3D ‘pop-up’.

Crosse and Blackwell would prove something of a fair-weather friend to Doctor Who, turning out only when the series is doing particularly well. In 2009, their cans of ‘Doctor Who Wholewheat Pasta Shapes’ would include little pasta faces of a child wearing a gasmask.



Rub-bish! Rub-bish!

Some strange mutation has befallen the Doctor; some ineffable biological meta-crisis. In his latest incarnation, our Time Lord has regenerated a large blue bird, and has to be carried everywhere by his obliging assistant. Happily, our hero’s intellectual powers are undimmed, as he effortlessly defeats a second invasion attempt by his most implacable foe: the Deadly Dustbins.

The Return of the Deadly Dustbins was the second Doctor Who sketch written by Australian comedian and puppet master Rod Hull, for an episode of the third series of Emu’s Broadcasting Company – broadcast on BBC1 on Monday 14 November 1977. For those unfamiliar with his oeuvre, Emu was a TV megastar of the 1970s and 80s, known for his sudden infatuations with leading celebrities (“Oh, he likes you!”), and equally sudden physical assaults upon on the same. (“Emu! No! Gerrof! Emu!”)

Emu’s Broadcasting Company, a teatime comedy show for kids made by BBC Manchester, ran for five years and was far smarter than in needed to be. Rod and Emu hosted their own TV channel, EBC1, with the help and hindrance of their cameraman (variety star Billy Dainty), their tea lady (actress Barbara New), and Emu’s naughty baby nephews (Denys Fisher Toys, £6.99). EBC1 presented well-observed spoofs of TV shows, including Grandstand of Sport, hard-hitting documentary The Searching Beak of Emu, historical drama The Emudin Line, and – on two memorable occasions – Doctor Emu.

In their first adventure, in 1976, Dr Emu lured the Deadly Dustbins to their seeming doom at the town dump – but now they are back! Emu and friend arrive in their red phone box TARDIS just in time to see a Deadly Dustbin wriggle to the surface and swallow its first human victim. The creatures then run amok in a town centre before Dr Emu cunningly lures them to a nearby canal, and tips them over a lifting bridge.

Yes, it sounds like nonsense, but the remarkable thing about this pastiche is that it is better-made, more stylish – and more scary – than any episode of the season of ‘proper’ Doctor Who being transmitted at the time.

The Return of the Deadly Dustbins is shot on film, with a wonderfully creative mixture of shots and angles. After a Dustbin eats a worker on the rubbish tip, we cut to a flock seagulls exploding into the sky. As the Dustbins advance over the canal bridge, there’s a moody, low sunburst from behind (a shot for which The Ambassadors of Death is much praised). There’s no dialogue, bar the Dustbins’ indistinct bleat of “RUB-BISH” and “DIS-POSE!”, and the soundtrack creates an unsettling, uncanny atmosphere. In this way, it evokes the same tone of bleak ‘rural horror’ as the film sequences in Doctor Who and the Silurians and Terror of the Zygons. The score uses, in part, the electronic music of Delia Derbyshire, and so channels the spirit of Doctor Who in a peculiarly primal way.

“It was all filmed in one day, as I recall,” reveals Peter Ridsdale Scott, producer of Emu’s Broadcasting Company. “And looking at it now, you can see the change of light through the day. That’s why the sunlight is very low in the final scenes.

“Working with Rod Hull was a real privilege,” continues Peter, who prior to EBC1 had written, directed and produced episodes of Play School, and would go on become Commissioning Editor for Independent Productions at BBC Manchester – giving the green light to, amongst many other shows, Red Dwarf. “Rod Hull’s act with Emu was stunning. Emu felt very much like a character entirely separate from Rod – it was down to that very clever way Rod could look in another direction and appear unaware of what Emu was doing. So very, very funny.

“The BBC poached Rod and Emu in 1976, and I was asked to help him develop this new series at the Manchester studios. Rod wrote everything, and thanks to his own background as a TV producer back in Australia, he knew exactly what he wanted, and so as long as I got him the right locations and creative staff, he could practically direct everything himself as well. We worked closely together that way, and with the film cameraman. But Rod instinctively knew what worked.

“The Deadly Dustbins episodes look so good because of Rod’s incredible attention to detail, right down to the graphics. We had a lot more freedom because we were in Manchester, and a very small crew worked very hard. There was no special effects budget for location work. It would have been nice to go for a cup of tea and leave the special effects to do the Dustbins, but that wasn’t possible. In fact, I’m inside one of the bins, dragging it along. That’s how we had to do it.

“The fact that it is appreciated today is testament to the hard work of that Manchester crew, and to Rod Hull’s genius,” concludes Peter.

But just how influential did The Return of the Deadly Dustbins prove to be? In the Doctor Who episode Rose, a malign plastic dustbin attacks Mickey Smith and swallows him whole. It would prove one of the most talked-about scenes from Doctor Who’s big return to TV in 2005. Was this a tribute to Dr Emu’s lid-flapping foe? We asked Rose writer Russell T Davies to comment…

It’s funny,” says Davies. “I don’t remember seeing it, and it’s so memorable and beautifully directed, I’d have thought that would lodge. And I would definitely have been watching Emu – I always watched that sort of thing.

“But still, maybe I did see it, and maybe it made its mark. We can’t know how things sink in without us realising. They’re not memories or homages – they’re deeper than that, they become instincts… So I wonder!”

Alas, this was to be the final adventure for Dr Emu. Rod Hull was tempted back to ITV (where he would develop the anarchic Emu’s World and Emu’s All-Live Pink Windmill Show) in 1981; just as the Doctor crossed paths with a different kind of quarrelsome flightless bird from Australia.


Gallifrey, Surrey

Behind the scenes of Doctor Who in November 1977, the programme was in serious trouble. The six-part serial poised to go before the cameras, The Invasion of Time – in which the Doctor would return to Gallifrey to claim the presidency of the Time Lords – would prove to be the series most turbulent production to date. The script, a last-minute replacement, was almost impossibly late, with later episodes delivered to the director and creative departments scene-by-scene. The money was running out, and what was left was, thanks to a high inflation rate, diminishing in value by the day. Furthermore, strike action at the BBC meant that Doctor Who was about to be cast out of Television Centre altogether, and left to fend for itself in the wilds of Surrey.

With annual BBC pay negotiations taking place in the autumn, producer Graham Williams had been braced for strike action during the final months of production of the 1977 series. On 14 October, the Association of Broadcasting and Allied Staffs – the union which represented over half of the BBC’s 25,000 employees – voted to reject an offer of pay increases up to 15%. There was widespread unrest at the Corporation regarding the decline in BBC wages relative to those earned by production staff in the commercial sector. Moreover, there were concerns regarding predicted job losses in the wake of BBC plans to bring in new, lightweight video recording equipment. The first ABS-organised blackouts affected outside broadcasts, news and sport, and their most political move involved blacking-out the Queen’s Speech on Thursday 3 November. The Nine O’Clock News that same evening was replaced by the ‘Potter’s Wheel’ interlude film.

Soon, strike action also affected studio recording and transmission. Part Four of Image of the Fendahl was lucky to see broadcast as scheduled on the evening of  Saturday 19 November. That night, BBC1 was blacked-out from halfway through transmission of the next programme, Bruce Forsyth’s Generation Game. This wasn’t some arbitrary target, but the most-watched programme of the week, with an estimated 19.5 million viewers that night.

The Invasion of Time was able to hold on to one of its three-day studio sessions – from Sunday 6 November to Tuesday 8 November – which was primarily used for taping scenes on the story’s large Panopticon set, which was also repurposed for the open space where the TARDIS lands. This included the scene where Leela bids farewell to the Doctor, in favour of a life of romance on Gallifrey. Graham Williams was keen to keep news of Louise Jameson’s departure under wraps until the New Year, but news leaked directly from the set and into The Times on Monday 7 November.

For the rest of the production, the crew was forced out on location. The ABS strike was primarily over wages, but given that one of the secondary bones of contention was the use of lightweight video equipment, there is some irony to the fact that the same strike forced Doctor Who to complete the balance of scenes for The Invasion of Time using outside broadcast equipment on location.

Studio space at Television Centre was allocated to less adaptable productions. One such programme was Blake’s 7, the BBC’s new science fiction drama series aimed at a more adult audience than Doctor Who, which had begun filming in September. On Monday 21 November, the vast creaking interior of Blake’s spaceship, the Liberator, was raised up in the warm and welcoming interior of studio TC3. Meanwhile, Doctor Who was out in the cold – quite literally – as the interior of the TARDIS took the form of a disused hospital in Redhill, Surrey. Conditions on location were challenging to say the least. Shots were abandoned due to train noise and revving car engines in the hospital car park. In one scene in the Space Traffic Control Room on Gallifrey, the actors’ breath can be seen frosting.

Meanwhile, star Tom Baker was in the midst of renegotiating his contract for the coming year. This might explain the story on the front page of the Daily Express on Saturday 5 November.

“Actor Tom Baker is set to quit as TV’s Dr Who,” reported Christopher Jones. “‘I’ve had enough,’ [Baker] said yesterday. ‘I think I’ve done my bit.’ [He] plans to devote himself to serious acting.”

Perhaps Baker was indeed craving a return to the stage after several weeks recording on CSO backdrops for Underworld, or maybe this was mere sabre-rattling. The actor signed a new deal and a new contract – for the next 26-episode series of Doctor Who – on Friday 25 November. It was a great result for both series and star. After all, if Baker was looking to “devote himself to serious acting”, what could possibly be more serious than a search for the Key to Time?

For, despite Doctor Who’s current production difficulties, Graham Williams was already hip deep in planning the next series. The six stories of the 1978 season would have a linking theme, and in November 1977 he issued notes to prospective writers outlining his idea of the Doctor’s quest to find the six segments of the Key to Time. One of those writers, a newcomer to the series, was Douglas Adams. He had received his formal commission for Doctor Who in October, just a few weeks after a commission for a complete series of his radio comedy series, The Hitch-Hikers Guide To The Galaxy. Through November 1977, Adams was weeping into his typewriter, struggling to complete both projects. He had no way of guessing how influential and well-loved his work on either series would prove to be.

“Space is big – really big,” observed Adams in his script for the second episode of Hitch-Hikers, recorded on Wednesday 23 November 1977. However, by this point the writer was painfully aware of the fact that, while Space may be vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big, Time would forever be in painfully short supply.


With thanks to Richard Bignell, Guillaume Brocart, Russell T Davies, Graham Kibble-White, Jack Kibble-White, Ian Levine, Alistair McGowan, Paul Lang, Tom Lundie, Richard Molesworth, Jonathan Morris, Steven Murphy, Nicholas Pegg, Andrew Pixley, Jon Preddle, Paul Scoones, Peter Viner, Peter Ridsdale Scott, and Martin Wiggins.

The Daemons

16 Mar

Squabbling Rubber

A review of the DVD for Doctor Who Magazine, from 2012. (Sadly, there was no room for my theory that Bok is the Master’s Tardis. A glow-eyed, peripatetic statue, like a mini Melkur. At the the end of this story, it sits there, cross-legged, in the churchyard, waiting for the Master to escape from prison.)


There comes a point, in the final minutes of The Daemons, when the Doctor inches perilously close to losing our goodwill. He’s locked horns with the alien Azal – 20 feet tall in his stockinged hooves – regarding the creature’s interference in the development of our race. “Thanks to you, Man can now blow up the world,” our hero heckles. “And he probably will.” Probably? Well, thanks for the vote of faith, mate. Who’s spat in your coffee today?

The Doctor has a chip on his shoulder throughout The Daemons. “I’m…

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Review: The Power of the Daleks. Animated version.

4 Nov


“Nothing dates faster than people’s fantasies about the future,” observed art critic Robert Hughes. He was discussing the architecture of the modernist city of Brasilia at the time, but it’s a truism that holds for many a Doctor Who adventure.

The Power of the Daleks takes us to the Earth colony planet of Vulcan in the far-flung future of 2020; at least according to the serial’s original TV trailer – broadcast 50 years ago to the day. Vulcan is a world where men are men, and a woman is called Janley. It’s an ascetic, cheerless place, patrolled by jack-booted guards and seething with fear and mistrust, devoted to scientific study. It’s a time when humanity has mastered the secrets of interplanetary flight, but not yet found a cure for male pattern baldness. It is a world of mercury pools and widow’s peaks.

In November 1966, when The Power of the Daleks was broadcast, the year 2020 was a place of fantasy. Here in 2016, it’s just over the brow of the next hill. If we’re lucky. And so today, our dreams for 2020 are more modest. Perhaps the BBC might manage to produce a new series or so of Doctor Who by then. Sure, we’re short on rocket ships and alien colonies, but we can confirm that the first three minutes of the newly-animated version of The Power of the Daleks will be livestreamed on Twitter. ’Tis a brave new world indeed, forged in the white heat of social media marketing.

In the past this viewer has expressed reservations – in the reviews section of Doctor Who Magazine – regarding the value of presenting lost Doctor Who episodes with as animation. The Reign of Terror DVD gave us a nightmare vision of William Hartnell as a talking onion. Six months later, The Ice Warriors took a step forward, but struggled to depict its characters moving in a naturalistic way. The Power of the Daleks takes another step, capturing excellent likenesses of its characters, and the quirks of their facial movements. The cartoon Patrick Troughton is especially persuasive. The animators have captured the way the actor talked from the side of his mouth, as if sucking Popeye-like on a pipe. Troughton’s little black tooth is lovingly rendered. Once you notice it you won’t be able to stop looking at it.

This production is clearly a labour of love (certainly, no one has ever worked on Doctor Who spin-offs for the money) and the production team have given it their all. And that little bit more. At the press screening for the first two episodes – which is all I am able to review here – producer Charles Norton looked ready to slide under his seat with exhaustion. When recalling a particular scene from Episode 1, he couldn’t quite reach the words to describe it, but the shot number came immediately to his lips. He looked haunted, like a soldier stumbling wounded from a harrowing battle. “It’s a triumph!” the gathered civilians assure him, but our producer can, for the moment, only recall the suffering and loss.

The shortcomings of The Power of the Daleks – as has often proved the case with Doctor Who since ever Doctor Who there was – can be ascribed to lack of time and lack of budget. The artwork is exemplary, and some shots are of frameable beauty. But it’s clear that compromises have had to be made to get the job done on a BBC Store/BBC Worldwide budget. Most frames are kept to mid close-up, to avoid having to animate too many arms or legs. It takes a little while to get used to, but you do get used to it. You’ll be won over by the time of the big argument in Episode 2 – where the Doctor tries to convince scientist Lesterson about the dangers of the Daleks – if not before. This scene works especially well thanks to the fast dialogue, which requires frequent changes of shot.

It’s only when characters have to move about in silence that the spell dissipates. If a character has to walk across a room, we will see them bob almost comically across the screen. Every so often, the view will cut to a shot of their feet but, sensibly, we rarely see the whole figure move at once. This puts one in mind of The Sooty Show or The Muppets, when you would sometimes glimpse Sooty or Kermit’s little feet scampering along.

(All of which raises a question in the mind of this viewer. Is 2D animation the only way to recreate these lost episodes? I’d pay good money to see A Very Muppet Evil Of The Daleks. Just think of it. Fozzie as the Doctor. Kermit and Miss Piggy as Jamie and Victoria. Bunsen and Beaker would share the role of Theodore Maxtible. And, on Skaro, the Great Gonzo would be Emperor of the Daleks. No, not Daleks. Chickens. The Doctor must defeat his plan to spread The Chicken Factor through the history of the Muppets. In the final shot, looking down on Gonzo’s burning shed, our hero would utter those immortal words: “The final… end… Wacca wacca wacca.”)

But let’s get back to the matter at hand. The animated Power of the Daleks gifts us a little pre-credits treat of the regeneration sequence from The Tenth Planet, which is practically pornography for fetishists of the TARDIS console. You heart lifts at the simple pleasure of peering deep into the central column, right down to the slotted plastic colander that Rassilon, in his ineffable wisdom, decided was just the thing to restrain the awesome power of the TARDIS engines. When our new adventure begins proper, you recognise some of the colossal challenges of animating old Doctor Who. Patrick Troughton’s first scene contains a good minute of rattling about in a cupboard, and nobody scripting an animation from scratch would ever include a sequence like it. Weirdly, what the new pictures do at times like this is really tune you in to the sound. When this scurrying gerbil of a new Doctor Who barks a sudden “Come here!” at his travelling companions, you sit up in shock.

In retrospect, it’s no surprise that Patrick Troughton was keen to move on from Doctor Who after only three years. He’d long since done everything he could with the part, given that he completely nails it within his first 20 minutes on screen. Because Troughton pulls off this first (and incredibly risky for the programme) regeneration with such seemingly effortless skill, it might be tempting to conclude that the role is actor-proof. But history has proved that not to be the case. Here, even as a line drawing, you feel the full force of Troughton’s charm – a charm that Peter Capaldi, after two years in the role, transmits only in brief, if dazzling, bursts.

The other Power performance you appreciate anew thanks to this animation is Robert James as Lesterston, the scientist obsessed with reactivating the strange machines he has found in a capsule dragged from Vulcan’s mercury swamp. James clearly understands his character. The jealous, insecure scientist is a core Doctor Who archetype, but Lesterson is surely the best of them. There’s a nice subtlety to the way he momentarily resists using the word ‘Dalek’ to describe the alien machines, because he knows it surrenders just the tiniest bit of control of the situation to the Doctor. The animators clearly relish James’s performance too, as Lesterson seems to receive special attention. There’s a nifty shot in Episode 2 where his face is reflected, distorted, in a Dalek’s shiny dome.

The rest of the colony is, at least in the first hour of this story, something of a confusion of middle-aged men. It’s long faces all round on Vulcan, especially in scenes where Lesterson lines up with deputy governor Quinn and chief-of-police Bragen. Here, the animation caused this viewer to appreciate the text in an entirely new way. With their twitching lips and frequent sidelong glances, a powerful homoerotic tension simmers between Bragen and Quinn. Speaking of his troop of manly guards, Bragen boasts: “I pick them for their physical fitness”. “I thought it wasn’t for their IQ,” Quinn cattily replies. Later, the Doctor greets Bragen with the words “A-ha! Fruit!” This kind of language might have been acceptable in the 60s, but now is frowned upon in our polite society of almost-2020.

The Power of the Daleks truly takes flight once dormant Daleks are – and never was the word more appropriate – re-animated in Lesterson’s lab. You truly appreciate the genius and potency of their design, and those voices. As the Dalek eyeball begins to glow; as the gun arm begins to twitch; as Lesterson and his team’s voices rise with delight and anxiety…. This is when you will, if you haven’t already, forget that you are not watching this story in its original form. This ability to mesmerize, across all times and all media, is the true power of the Daleks.

The Dalek voices, when they come, are just a part of a rich soundscape that’s heightened further by Mark Ayres’ gorgeous restoration and remastering in 5.1 surround. Composer Tristram Cary’s atmospherics and jarring metallic clangs come straight from the soundtrack to a nightmare. The scene towards the end of Episode 1, where the Doctor breaks through to the inner chamber of the seemingly empty capsule, may be a steal from Quatermass and the Pit – complete with its sudden, shocking moment of movement – but you can’t watch it without holding your breath. And it’s Cary’s music and Brian Hodgson’s sounds that make it so especially potent.

Of course, the fact that we can hear this story at all is the great miracle of The Power of the Daleks. We must express all gratitude to fan Graham Strong, who wired up his tape recorder to his TV set and bottled this magic for us all to enjoy half-a-century later. This wonderful, fastidious recreation – and surely many more to come even better than this – could not exist without him. And so to Graham… Thank you.

Nothing dates faster than people’s fantasies about the future – or so they say. Well, it depends how you look at it. This new Power is being released in daily instalments on the BBC Store, beginning at 5.50pm on Saturday 5 November – exactly 50 years to the minute from its original transmission. This means that Episode 5 will be available for download on Wednesday 9 November: the day after the US presidential election. Episode 5 of The Power of the Daleks tells the story of a colony taken into the control of a bitter, vengeful fascist.

Hopefully, in this case, fiction will prove to be stranger than truth. If not – then somebody, please, send for the Doctor.

The Power of the Daleks will be available on the BBC Store from Saturday 5 November.


2 Jun

Squabbling Rubber

A review of the DVD, from 2011


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

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

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The Trial of a Time Lord

3 Mar

Squabbling Rubber

A review of the DVD box set for Doctor Who Magazine, from 2008. (The David Tennant/Catherine Tate season had just been broadcast, if that helps you see what I’m trying to do with the opening paragraphs!)


As a recipe for success, the list of ingredients is sound enough. There are certainly some big ideas in the mix… Earth is torn from orbit and dragged across space. Brain surgery turns aliens into slaves. A mystery story, inspired by the work of Agatha Christie, has our heroes hunting a killer. We meet an alternative version of the Doctor, lifted from a point between two incarnations.

Script all this with skill, cast it well, produce it with care, and you can win yourself millions, billions, koquillions of viewers. Back in 1986, they took the opposite approach, and the fourth episode of this season earned a rating of only 3.7 million and an…

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The Green Death (Special Edition)

24 Sep

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


DVD Extras

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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