The Reign of Terror

A DVD review for Doctor Who Magazine, from 2013

_________________________________________________________________________

vlcsnap-2013-02-10-18h36m59s72“The streets of Paris, strewn with the carcasses of the mangled victims, have become so familiar to the sight that they are passed by and trod on without any particular notice. The mob think no more of killing a fellow man – one who is not even an object of suspicion – than wanton boys would of killing a cat or a dog.

“It’ll be our most Christmassy Christmas special yet,” adds Doctor Who producer Steven Moffat.

Of course not. A little joke. But it’s to remind us how what we expect from our favourite family drama series has changed during its five decades on TV. These days, every fifth or sixth episode is Christmas. When Doctor Who began, every third or fourth serial featured a much-loved mass homicide from history.

The quoted passage comes from the The Times of London, Monday 10 September 1792. It’s a report on the September Massacres, a bloody foretaste of la Terreur; the French state’s attempt to establish control over the population through the legal and largely unfettered use of violence – literally reigning through terror. It’s a revolution within a revolution. “Terror is nothing other than justice,” says the 35-year-old Maximilien Robespierre, President of the National Convention. “Prompt. Severe. Inflexible.” He believes it to be a virtuous form of government. The word of a virtuous man, he insists, should be enough to condemn a traitor. But Robespierre’s licence to murder is not used merely to help hasten the obliteration of the ancien régime. The merest whisper of treachery is enough to condemn any enemy – a business rival, an unfaithful lover, an enviably successful friend – to death by the guillotine, as grotesque an invention as has ever been conceived by man. By the summer of 1794, the air in Paris is thick with fear, paranoia, and the stench of thousands of rotting corpses heaped high at the Errancis Cemetery. Soon, Robespierre himself will be added to the pile. In two virtuous pieces.

Forgive the lecture. But it’s important to bring the ferocious brutality of the real Reign of Terror into focus. In 1964, this was considered a suitable playground for a children’s serial. Indeed, BBC Head of Drama Sydney Newman thought bleating bug-eyed robot men to be a far less appealing subject matter. And what makes Doctor Who’s teatime Terreur for tots so remarkable is the fact that it does not shirk from portraying the savagery of life in France in 1794. The first episode, especially, is a masterpiece of slowly unfolding horror.

But it begins with whimsy. The Doctor, in a particularly peevish mood, is convinced that he has brought homesick companions Ian and Barbara back to present-day England. They’re not so sure, and to prevent their pilot abandoning them in what could be anywhere or anywhen, they cajole him into joining them outside. Assured writing meets skilled performance in a lovely scene that would shine in any Doctor Who script from the last 50 years. Over one shoulder, Ian soft-soaps the Doctor. “Of course you’re in control,” he smarms. “And your important research must be completed.” Barbara is at the Doctor’s other shoulder, brushing away invisible dust, or possibly space dandruff. When it comes to Barbara, the Doctor’s a pushover. She’s his first human girl crush – and who can blame him? Meanwhile, William Hartnell hilariously double-takes between them. But despite this left-right charm offensive, it’s the suggestion that they might all go for a drink that finally wins the Doctor over. Perhaps it’s a little reflection of real life. Is this is how Hartnell’s colleagues dealt with his more dyspeptic mornings? “Of course you’re in control, Bill.” It’s easy to imagine many a studio quarrel settled over a lunchtime stout at the White Horse, Shepherd’s Bush.

This bright, optimistic start is designed to lend shadow to what follows, as, from the moment the Doctor’s curiosity takes over, the travellers fall into ever darkening danger. In a farmhouse some miles from Paris, they discover documents signed by Robespierre. “The Doctor’s put us down right in the middle of the French Revolution!” boggles Ian. “The Reign of Terror,” adds Barbara. And that’s our lot. We’re trusted – required even – to recognise the name Robespierre and immediately grasp the implications of this. (More explanation would doubtless be needed today; the Revolution has long been absent from the compulsory secondary school history syllabus. The subset of the population now most likely to know the name Robespierre is DWM subscribers. So, one point to Sydney Newman there.)

We meet on-the-run aristocrats Rouvray and D’Argenson. The militia is on their trail; a bickering band of bloodthirsty soldiers, grinning like Alsatians. Which, given that this is northern France, they may well be. Our bold Rouvray almost talks his way out of trouble. Playing on the memory of his lost patrician authority, he orders the soldiers to stand down. One man surrenders his musket, but our arrogant aristo pushes his luck. In an especially nuanced piece of writing, we’re give a flash of insight into both sides of the class conflict. “You can give them uniforms,” sneers Rouvray, “but they remain peasants underneath.” Without any order from his officer, one of the peasants shoots Rouvray dead. “A desperate attempt,” observes the commander. “And it very nearly worked.” The camera shies away as a second shot is fired. D’Argenson has been murdered. We know this from the soldiers’ gleeful laughter.

Already roaring with power, the episode accelerates toward a truly tremendous climax. Ian, Barbara and Susan are taken captive. “If any of them speaks,” says the commander, “shoot them.” Completely helpless, they can only stand in silence as their fate is decided by the squabbling soldiers. And then the farmhouse is set alight. But the Doctor is still inside! The fire spreads rapidly – through a series of generally excellent model shots – and the Doctor collapses, overcome by smoke. The camera pans up as the flames rise ever higher, and the incidental music – from Stanley Myers, and one of Doctor Who’s finest scores – playfully, sarcastically, quotes La Marseillaise. An anthem for life and liberty, just as death and disaster seem inevitable. Hold on flames. Roll credits. What a cliffhanger! They don’t make them like that any more.

The first episode is all about establishing the stakes we’re playing for. It’s made perfectly clear again at the start of the second, when we’re shown the falling blade of the guillotine. It’s mere moments of stock footage, but no less chilling for it. (And this is not some arcane threat from a bygone age. It’s worth remembering that the guillotine was used in France until 1977, and its blade was still hanging in the air until capital punishment was finally abolished in 1981.) “You have no rights,” barks a judge. He’s talking to Ian, Barbara and Susan, but the director has him looking right down the lens of Camera Two, directly at us. “You will be guillotined as soon as it can be arranged.” And with that, we are dragged away to the Conciergerie prison.

Here, writer Dennis Spooner – a true Doctor Who natural, giving us his first work – looks to leaven this brutal business with a few grains of humour. He’s hardly generous with it – though he will be in future – so perhaps script editor David Whitaker is staying his hand. We meet the lumbering jailer, his working class background conveyed through the broadest northern accent, and Jacqueline Hill does a wonderful comic reaction to his bad breath. But really, it’s the merest gesture toward fun. Although the Doctor and others later run rings round the jailer, he’s still a total horror, motivated by lust, greed and fear in turn. He leches over Barbara, offering her freedom if she – though he doesn’t use these words – has sex with him. Barbara merely turns and smacks him round the face. Marvellous.

“Lock ’em away!” bellows the jailer. “In there. It’s a cell I keep… for my special guests! Har har har!” Barbara and Susan are dragged into Doctor Who’s most bleak and dispiriting dungeon of all time. But it’s Ian who seems to get the premium accommodation. His cell is on film, and comes with a hot and cold running storyline. He’s tasked with finding an English spy, James Stirling. “Ask Jules Renan…” whispers a fellow prisoner with his dying breath. “At the sign of… Le Chien Gris.” But what’s with the sudden French? The TARDIS translation circuit must be on the blink – or, like Siri on the iPhone, doesn’t work well at low volume. (“I do not know what that means. Searching Index File for the sign of Lush He Angry.”)

The Reign of Terror comes with a neat little story of plot and counter-plot. It also gets to the heart of the dreadful irony of that time. Robespierre’s idea of justice was based on trust and duty, but no one could be trusted. However, our Doctor Who serial does seem clear on which class of citizen is the more virtuous. Barbara and Susan are rescued from the guillotine by upper-crust counter-revolutionaries Jules and “my young friend” Jean. They’re a sweetly affectionate pair who insist on calling each other by name with every other line (“I’ll go now, Jules.” “Take care, Jean.”), and they put their trust in the English travellers immediately, just as posh Rouvray and D’Argenson did before them. However, any ordinary working man we meet immediately proves devious, truculent and unreliable. The soldiers, the jailer, a roadworks overseer, a shopkeeper and a physician are all ready to abuse or denounce our heroes for personal gain, in the name of the glorious revolution.

But the story, having given us these rules, then subverts them to work its pivotal trick. Citizen Lemaitre, overseeing the Conciergerie, seems to be working for Robespierre, but turns out to be the English spy that Ian is looking for; our Mr Stirling having surely been dispatched on this undercover mission thanks to his having the biggest hooter north of Boulogne. Meanwhile, Barbara takes a shine to Jules’ friend in the resistance, the dashing Leon Colbert. Attentive and seductive, there’s a whiff of Pepé le Pew about Leon as he kisses Barbara’s hand and plies her with wine (“C’est magnifique, mon belle fromage!” he almost but doesn’t quite say.) But Leon proves a stinker in every sense. He’s a double agent for the State, and it was his treachery that led the soldiers to the farmhouse at the start of our tale. Soon, Leon has Ian chained up and ready for torture, but even he is allowed a sympathetic moment. “If you’d seen what France was like six years ago, you’d understand,” he says. “I do understand,” replies Ian. “But I can’t help you.” Actor Edward Brayshaw gives a wonderful, rich performance as Leon. It’s a tragedy that it’s almost entirely confined to the lost fourth and fifth episodes of this story.

So where is the Doctor amidst all this cruelty and tyranny? Early on, Susan tells us that the Reign of Terror is his favourite period of history. One might wonder how such a bloody time can be anyone’s favourite, but the Doctor clearly has a taste for revolution. It’s fitting, given how many he will go on to foment across the galaxy. He’s already managed a couple in the few weeks we’ve known him.  However, the Doctor’s particular affection for the Terror is also a writerly sleight of hand, and one that shows Doctor Who undergoing a revolution of its own. Up to this point, the Doctor has needed history teacher Barbara’s insights to help him cope with life in the past. But Dennis Spooner requires the Doctor to be able to slip straight into a position of authority. And so it is that his special study allows him to know the lay of the land and be able to bluff his way at the highest level. We’ve long since taken this sort of thing for granted; that the Doctor knows everything, and can charm his way to the top. These days, he even has a piece of paper that can do the job for him. Here, it’s mostly played for fun, and leads to The Reign of Terror’s best gag, and it’s a visual gag. When the Doctor barters for the uniform of a Regional Officer of the Provinces, it seems to be only the matter of a jacket and a sash. But the writer and director are deliberately holding back the rest of the outfit for the Doctor’s big entrance at the Conciergerie. He comes down the steps like a Vegas showgirl, swishing his cape and with the greater proportion of an ostrich fanning out from the top of his head. Hartnell is clearly in his element.

Sadly, The Reign of Terror rather fizzles to a close in its sixth and final episode. Ian recalls another clue whispered to him in prison. “Nothing specific,” he says. “Just something about Barras, a meeting and a sinking ship. No! The Sinking Ship.” It’s hardly short on detail, so we’re left to wonder what Ian might have considered a specific message. Perhaps he expected a phone number. He and Barbara head to the pub in question, where politician Paul Barras is trying to recruit the next ruler of the country. As our heroes dress as innkeeper and wife, it all feels a little like a Morecambe and Wise sketch, or one of those clumsy plays that the contestants used to act out in the final round of The Generation Game. Napoleon Bonaparte turns up – thoughtfully dressed like Napoleon Bonaparte to aid recognition – and he and Barras make a deal for France while staring intently at the tips of each other’s noses, as if they’re about to kiss.

But there’s one last shock to come, one last reminder of the horror. Back in the fourth episode, the Doctor met with Robespierre and debated the merits of his policy of state-sponsored murder. Even Robespierre himself is granted an understanding emotional beat. “Do you think I want this carnage?” he wails. “What a memory I shall leave behind if this lasts!” And here is the memory of it, given back to us in a TV series for children that adults adore. In the final episode, we’re shown fate catching up with Robespierre. He is shot, off screen, but then dragged out before us, still alive, his hand clamped over his shattered jaw, and blood running through his fingers. It’s wildly violent and vivid by Doctor Who standards, and a last, sobering reminder of why the series doesn’t tackle real history any more.

It’s not that history is in any way less exciting than aliens and monsters, it’s just that if you subtract those aliens and their devious manipulations, then we’re only left with humans committing acts of barbarity against other humans, and often for no other reason than greed, envy and plain old-fashioned hate. Some monsters are simply too monstrous for teatime; especially now that Doctor Who looks more ‘real’ than ever. These old episodes, black and white and presented as if from under a proscenium arch, still have a power, but keep us at a safe distance. Today, with single-camera filming – and likely 3D filming coming soon – we’d be right in there; amongst the cruelty and the violence, pushed up against it. It can’t be done. Especially not with Christmas coming round as often as it does. You don’t want Robespierre’s splintered jaw with your sherry trifle.

But then, perhaps it’s right that not every Doctor has been allowed free access to the more grown-up bits of history. It’s certainly fortunate that it was his first incarnation who blundered into Paris at this time, and not his third. The Third Doctor would share a cheeky Beaujolais with the dandy Leon Colbert, and then get the good guys and the bad guys thoroughly confused. “Jehosaphat!” he’d say. “I should have known he’d be behind all this!” Jo Grant would be slow on the uptake. “Who, Doctor?” she’d squeak, and her friend would have rubbed the back of his neck in frustration. “Did you also fail basic French at that school of yours?” he’d have huffed. “Lemaitre, Jo!”

 

_________________________________________________________________________

DVD extras

url-1The big bonus promise of this DVD is an attempt to recreate the lost fourth and fifth episodes of The Reign of Terror using animation. This has clearly drawn upon the efforts of many talented and hard-working artists, to whom must go much praise. Unfortunately, the finished product, due to how it has been compiled and directed for presentation here, can only be judged – with a heavy heart – a failure.

The surviving camera script for part four, The Tyrant of France, tells us that there would have been 52 camera shots in an episode of roughly 24 minutes’ duration. So there would have been a shot change, on average, around twice a minute. At one point in the animated episode four, the shot changes three times in one second. Now, this animation shouldn’t follow the original camera script verbatim, and one understands that additional close-ups are necessary to draw our focus. But here, our ‘camera’ spins wildly around the room. Was there no basic storyboard to work from? The result is frenetic, bewildering at best, and thoroughly distracting at worst. You try to follow the story, but each needless shot change is like someone bellowing in your ear.  Early in the fourth episode, Barbara is concerned that Susan is running a fever, but Leon Colbert tells her not to worry. “We’ve done all CUT! we can CUT! Barbara CUT!” says Leon. “Oh CUT! it’s CUT! probably CUT! a chill CUT!” he adds. But Barbara thinks Susan needs a doctor. “You must CUT! know someone CUT! we can trust?” The director seems to have no sense of how many shot changes the poor human brain can cope with. It’s a quiet little character scene.

The animation is also disappointingly inconsistent. In a sequence at the Conciergerie, the Doctor changes face from shot to shot. One moment he looks like an acquisitive turnip, the next a rather crestfallen pufferfish. Within the generous freedoms of the rules of caricature, each of these might be said to be fair descriptions of William Hartnell’s Doctor. But it’s the flicking back and forth between them that’s the terrible distraction; and then there’s the ‘rotoscope’-traced moments of sudden movement, which feel like they come from another place again. It’s as if the director is cutting madly between two or three different animations of the episode, each tackled in a different style.

What most boggles the mind is that, six years ago, the Doctor Who DVD range gave us animated versions of the two missing episodes of The Invasion. It was a production superior to this in every way; calm, consistent and confidently unshowy. Why the huge leap backwards? Some will claim that any reconstruction is better than none, but surely it’s reasonable to at least expect some progress in the field? Some will also say that to call this project a failure is too cold. In justification of that, it’s worth remembering that the sole purpose of Doctor Who is to transport us to another place, even for just a few fleeting moments – to dislocate us from the here and now. It takes a huge amount of work, from every department, to make the entire production process of Doctor Who dissolve away. One misspoken line, one untucked monster costume. An unconvincing model, green screen or unsuitable soundtrack. Any of these things – and a thousand others – will bring us crashing back to our ordinary sofa in our ordinary living room. But this animation makes no effort at discretion. It’s trying too hard to be noticed. It’s just too… animated. For any hope of feeling transported to the summer of 1794 with the Doctor and his friends, then your only option is to, well… close your eyes and just listen to the soundtrack. And if that isn’t a failure, then what is?

The production documentary Don’t Lose Your Head focuses on The Reign of Terror’s sometimes troubled days in the studio, with help from the detailed memories of Carole Ann Ford (Susan), William Russell (Ian) and production assistant Timothy Combe. Director Henric Hirsch suffered a breakdown on the recording day of the third episode, but the identity of exactly who stepped into his shoes remains a tantalising mystery. It’s a shame that Hirsch could never work on Doctor Who again, because the opening episode of this story proves that he knew his business. However, Carole Ann Ford, for one, certainly found him a struggle to work with. Brace yourself for her vivid retelling of the “Why so maudlin?” story on this documentary. It’s not for the faint of heart.

The clips from The Reign of Terror used in the documentary look like they’ve been filmed through a sock and then scrubbed with wire wool, which brings home the miracle of the restoration work that has been done to the episodes as presented on this DVD. When Lemaitre asks for “the execution list” at the prison, so clear is the picture, we can now see through the back of the sheet of paper that it is neatly titled EXECUTION LIST. Later, he asks for “the execution figures”. Equally neatly: EXECUTION FIGURES. Say what you like about Robespierre, but he kept tidy paperwork. However, there is a small price to be paid for this new clarity. Now, for the first time, we can spot a member of the production team lurking in the background of the first episode. Or perhaps he’s another time traveller, more skilled at staying out of trouble than our lot.

Another tremendous set of ‘Info Text’ subtitles really brings home the magic that was being worked in Studio G at Lime Grove in the summer of ‘64. Doctor Who had been in continuous production for a year, and there were still ten more weeks to go before a break. Every Friday between 8.30pm and 9.45, in a space about the size of a Sainsbury’s Local, another episode would be staged like a play, with even the incidental music played live into the studio. The subtitles take us through every clever trick the team used to weave their adventure in space and time. One favourite detail is that, on Friday 14 August 1964, the day William Hartnell recorded the Doctor’s great promise (“Our destiny is in the stars. Let’s go search for it.”), producer Verity Lambert finally pinned down BBC Controller of Programmes Donald Baverstock and secured a commitment to Doctor Who’s future. 13 more episodes, with an option for 13 more. And – though he never know it – an option for 722 more. And counting.

The audio commentary brings forth some new voices – Jeffrey Wickham (Webster), Neville Smith (D’Argenson) and the great Ronald Pickup, who plays the treacherous physician – with a well-prepped Toby Hadoke on hand to get the best out of them. Another commentary, fascinating in a different way, runs parallel to the long-lost fifth episode, and features ‘missing episode hunters’ Paul Vanezis and Philip Morris.

Morris sounds like a hero for our times. As with many Doctor Who fans of a certain age, the habit of ticking Target books from a list fostered a natural desire to collect the set, to fill the gaps. But when, in 1981, DWM published a list of Doctor Who episodes missing from the BBC Archive, his world was rocked. We all share the sense of dismay that there are these great holes in our common history, but Morris is resolved to bloody well do something about it. As an adult, his work on an offshore oil rig has taken him around Africa. Now, with that experience, he’s formed a company to work with TV archives around the world to help preserve their material.

A recent article in DWM reminds us that many of these archives are in very dangerous parts of the world. There are Home Office Advisory notices issued against travel to the likes of Libya, Uganda and Ethiopia – all of which once broadcast The Reign of Terror and many other lost episodes. But Morris seems determined to leave no stone unturned. “I don’t believe in a no-win scenario,” he says. There’s such a wonderful emotional through-line to this; from the boy who loved Target books to the man knocking on the door of an old TV station down a hot and humid back street in Nairobi or Lusaka. ‘Raiders of the Lost Archive’ is the old cliché headline for a ‘missing episodes’ story, but never has the heroic, exotic sense of it felt more true than here. You feel that if those episodes are there to be found, then Morris is the man who’ll find them.

Nightmare of Eden

A review of the DVD for Doctor Who Magazine, from 2012

____________________________________________________________________________

There’s something seriously awry with the laws of physics out on the west side of the Milky Way. Things just don’t move in the way you’d expect. The mighty space liner Empress, for example, instead of gliding on a steady trajectory through space, just kind of… wafts about the place. The cargo ship Hecate, heading in the opposite direction, takes a similarly non-traditional approach to kinetics. Newton never framed a law for this kind of motion, nor Einstein an equation. Both vessels are orbiting the blue-green holiday planet of Azure, which spins silently beneath them. Well, I say ‘spins’. It turns in a series of hesitant twitches, which must have grave consequences when it comes to the conservation of momentum, and render life down on the surface entirely vexing; what with crockery flying everywhere, and the water forever slopping out of one’s bath. And I say ‘silently’. Musician Dudley Simpson – realising that all this interstellar spectacle might appear to be no more than a couple of crudely animated and chromakeyed models – is trying to makes things feel suitably solid and stately by bellowing “Fortissimo, cobbers! Fortissimo!” at his brass section. With a suitably blaring and adventurous main theme, Dudley almost saves the day.

Given how randomly the spaceships bob around out here, accidents must happen. Nightmare of Eden opens with a doozy. The Empress, in a partially materialised form, whacks into the smaller ship and solidifies around it, leaving the little red Hecate sticking out of its side like a tranquilising dart in a hippopotamus. This is all far-out sci-fi fun, but when we step aboard the Empress, life feels far more familiar. Indeed, if we excuse how flimsy the interior of the ship appears at points – and if we can accept that there might ever be a time when it will be considered acceptable for a middle-aged man in a position of authority to wear a glittery lycra top outside of his own home – then Nightmare of Eden will surely prove to be Doctor Who’s most accurate prediction of the future of space travel. It’s all so believably mundane. The Empress flies “the milk run”, we’re told. “Station 9 to Azure. Azure to Station 9.” Given the giddy excitement of the passengers in cattle class, this is a clearly a holiday package tour, probably run by a future version of one of today’s low-cost airlines; EasyWarp, perhaps, or RyanSpace. On booking, our passengers would have been miffed to discover additional charges for loan of protective overalls and glasses. This is clearly exploitation, because none of the crew have to wear them. Later, when Dymond, the aggrieved owner of the Hecate, arrives on board to remonstrate with Captain Rigg, the talk is not of science, but of blame and claim. “We’re fully covered comprehensive on all third party damage,” says Rigg. “The company will compensate you.” When the Doctor and Romana join in, they pose as insurance agents, which is great fun. It’s a bit of whimsy, of course, but so fresh and clever and neat, it kicks the story off with great vigour; an energy it maintains across all four episodes.

As the Doctor sets about separating the ships, Romana heads to the Empress’s first class lounge, where she meets a xenozoologist called Tryst and his dreary assistant Della. Tryst speaks with a thick, slurred accent that might be Dutch, German, or the result of a serious stroke. Either way, he could make a name for himself as the Low Countries’ leading Liza Minnelli impersonator. But Tryst is a busy man, on a mission to catalogue “effry speches in da galaxy”. That’s an awful lot of speches, so Tryst is clearly a man of no small ambition. He hopes to meet “a sponshur on Ashur” – something which one hopes will be easier done than said. He’s the inventor of the Continuous Event Transmuter, a machine which can hoover up and compress a chunk of a planet’s surface, and all “der floura und der fawna”, into a crystal, with this miniaturised microcosm then available for viewing on a screen. The Doctor calls it “an electric zoo”, but what Tryst has actually invented is surely the ideal medium for the broadcast of I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here. It would allow a jungle full of the likes of Gillian McKeith, Paul Burrell and Coronation Street’s Antony Cotton to be captured in a single crystal that could then be easily and conveniently stepped on. Most of the planets offered by the CET Machine – Vij, Zil, Lvan, Darp – sound like brands of oven cleaner you’d find in a pound shop, so it’s no surprise that Romana’s attention is drawn to Eden. When she dials up the projection the camera slowly tracks in, and shadows in the foliage resolve into the shape of a face peering right back at us. It’s a spine-tingling moment. A lovely Doctor Who scare.

Meanwhile, the Doctor’s investigation of the crash has him follow navigator Secker, who is not in a good way. We learn that he’s been using the drug Vraxion (also known by its street names of ‘Vrax’, ‘Moff’ and ‘Paddy Kingsland’s spunky backpack’, although I might have made some of those up). The Doctor knows Vrax to be dangerous and addictive: “I’ve seen whole communities, whole planets, destroyed by this.” It’s an astonishingly adult topic for Doctor Who to tackle at Saturday teatime – even the use of the word ‘communities’ is an interesting shading there – and one wonders if it would be countenanced today. The progressive effects of Vraxoin are played through the character of Rigg – a great, unsung performance by David Daker – whose drink is spiked with the stuff. The initial high seems similar to that of cannabis, in the sense that Rigg becomes a total bore. “Let’s talk about life,” he says with a giggle. Now, when someone sits down next to you at a party and suggests you might want to talk about life, it’s always best to find another seat; preferably another party. Even at this stage, Rigg should stand as a stark warning to the kids watching. “Don’t do drugs, guys, because they make you more interesting only to yourself.” Soon, the Captain is completely off his chump, and laughs as he watches his passengers murdered by rampaging monsters. “They’re only economy class!” he scoffs. “What’s all the fuss about?” It’s a black joke worthy of Robert Holmes. That’s a thought: how much darker and more satirical might the comedy in this story have been had the scripts passed through his hands? Soon after, Rigg’s comedown proves swift and brutal. “I must have something for this terrible feeling,” he wails at Romana. In a moment he’s screaming at her: “Let me have some or I’ll kill you!” And it’s clear he’s ready to do exactly that. He has her by the wrist, and raises his arm to strike. Rigg is shot before he can actually beat Romana to death, but the implication alone of what he’s about to do makes this a staggeringly brutal scene by Doctor Who standards.

Unfortunately, a couple of production missteps typical of the period take the edge off all this. Rigg is shot – killed, we must assume – by customs officer Fisk, whose official uniform makes him look like he’s on work placement from the Village People. And the monsters who excite Rigg’s mirth – the Mandrels – do, unfortunately, look ludicrous. But while the dressing of this storyline might seem absurd, we mustn’t lose track of what is happening here. To reiterate: a decent, honest man, who is secretly drugged by others, laughs at wholesale slaughter and then, desperate for another fix, tries to kill the Doctor’s companion. This innocent man is then shot in the back and goes unmourned. There has long been a view that the 17th year of Doctor Who is somehow less serious than others; that it is gaudy and whimsical. Well, phooey to that. Doctor Who doesn’t come darker than Nightmare of Eden.

However – yes – the Mandrels are silly. The problem is, they’re just too darn cute. If the Doctor Who title sequence were remodelled after that of The Muppet Show, a Mandrel – all fun-fur and googly eyes – would surely lead the stomp across the bottom row of that tiered colonnade, followed by the Garm and the Ergon. (Up above, the smallest arches would be filled by the Graske, a baby Fendahleen and a trio of friendly clams. The diamond logo would be winched down, and through the ‘O’ of ‘WHO’ the Bandril Ambassador would toot on a trumpet.) Normally it’s the feet that do for a Doctor Who monster, but while the Mandrels have the kind of legs that won’t be seen again until the closing number of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, it’s their arms that really let them down. They’re too long, and flail hopelessly about. With all the will in the world, from the moment a Mandrel comes windmilling in at the end of Part One, it must surely be impossible for anyone over the age of four to suspend their disbelief.

Happily, monsters alone do not a Doctor Who story make, and Nightmare of Eden delivers a steady stream of other pleasures. The electronic effects used to depict the hazy overlap of the two ships are outstanding, especially when accompanied by a clever soundtrack of distant creaks and clangs. The cliffhanger out of Part Two, when the Doctor takes Romana by the hand and they leap into the Eden projection – “We’ll get torn apart!” – is impossibly thilling. It’s easy to imagine how this scene would be reshot today. The projection would be CGI and the camera would sweep left to right with the Doctor to the edge of it, to make it clear that he’s jumping into a two-dimensional screen. There’d be a blup! as the image of Eden ripples and swallows him up. Here, however, the effect is achieved merely by placing the two sets side-by-side, and the thrill is delivered thanks to how well the script has sold the reality of this to us; by the performances; and by the perfect timing of that final cut to the credits. It’s both sublimely simple and devilishly clever.

That cliffhanger also serves to knit together the various strands of this story – the unstable overlap of the ships, Tryst’s CET machine, the Mandrels and the drug smuggling – in a wonderfully stylish way. While inside the Eden projection, our heroes meet Stott. He’s the owner of the face that peeped out at Romana, and with his bouncy perm and cheekbones he looks more like the Denys Fisher Tom Baker doll than Tom Baker ever did. Stott, a drugs officer with Space Corps, explains that he was left for dead on Eden while investigating Tryst’s operation, but was then caught up in the CET crystal. “There were a few times I felt like blowing my brains out,” he says. It’s another dark and adult moment that pulls you up sharp.

It’s been said – many times – that Lewis Fiander’s enthusiastic performance as Tryst, and that Amsterdam pot-dealer accent he deploys, is to the detriment of Nightmare of Eden, as it signposts too clearly that he is the villain. That’s an easy claim to make with hindsight, but if you can imagine not knowing this fact, then you can appreciate that Fiander is, intelligently, trying to make his character seem too silly to be the prime suspect. The problem is actually with the script and the wider casting, which fail to deliver any other suspects. We ought to think that Della could be responsible, but Jennifer Lonsdale’s performance is so flat, and her dialogue so basic – “It’s just that Eden brings back such terrible memories for me. That was where we lost the other crew member” – that she’s never a serious contender. Equally drably-written and played are customs officers Fisk and Costa, who you can’t believe have lived a single day before the events of the story, or will live a single day after. So it’s not that Fiander is too ‘out there’ for this story, it’s that the rest of the cast – David Daker aside – lack the wit and the material to allow them to deliver at the same level.

In the home straight, we learn that Tryst, in league with Dymond, is using the CET machine to smuggle the Mandrels – which are made of pure Vraxoin – from Eden, and is all set to transfer the contents of the Eden crystal over to the Hecate by laser link. So was this their plan all along? Did they merely intend to pull the two ships alongside for the short time it takes for the drop? In which case, are we to believe that the collision – plus the instability of the Eden projection, and no others – is just a honking great coincidence? And if this whole operation is designed to smuggle the Vrax past the super-sensitive shipboard scanner on the Empress, then how was Secker keeping some in a filing cabinet, and where was Tryst hiding the batch he used to dope poor Rigg?

One wishes there had been a final go at the script, which would have, I’m sure, made the accident deliberate, and vital to Tryst and Dymond’s plan. They would have needed the instability to make the Eden crystal accessible again. Secker would have been in their employ, and then drugged – like Rigg – to make it all seem like an accident. One small sample of Vrax would have been hidden in the Hecate, and brought over by Dymond. And maybe Della, who could have served the drugged drinks, would have been our prime suspect for a few episodes; imagined in league with her boyfriend, spotted lurking in the projection.

Doctor Who stories stand or fall by their scripts, I believe. Everything else is trivia; fuel for cheap jokes at the top of a DVD review. Special effects may fail, shots be missed and lines be fluffed due to time and money running out in the studio, that can’t be helped. But there’s less excuse for not finding the hours, days and weeks to polish storylines until they shine, and dialogue until it sings. Nightmare of Eden is a tremendous piece of work, but flawed. And it’s not the comical monsters and a comedy accent that are the problem, but a plot that fails to resolve properly, characters that fail to come fully to life, and a script that follows up every deft line with a clumsy one.

Nightmare cruises an erratic – and a joyously idiosyncratic – course; but one that’s plotted just a few degrees south of true greatness.

_____________________________________________________________________________

DVD Extras

An interview with Romana actress Lalla Ward on an edition of Ask Aspel from 1980 provides a glimpse of lost age of starchy children’s TV. Ward is quite appallingly snooty about the whole thing; rolling her eyes and tossing her hair in response to Michael Aspel’s perfectly reasonable questions. A clip from a BBC Shakespeare production is cued by Aspel: “Here’s a snippet of Hamlet, where you play – guess who – Ophelia.” The seven-year-old viewers of Ask Aspel must have been puffing on their pipes and huffing impatiently: “Well yes, Ophelia of course.” Ward’s illustrations for the book Astrology For Dogs (and Owners) receive a nice plug. This inspirational work is doubtless now favourite bedtime reading of her husband Richard Dawkins, who loves all that astrology stuff.

The bafflingly-titled The Doctor’s Strange Love brings together writers Joseph Lidster and Simon Guerrier, plus comedian – it says here – Josie Long, for a chat about the hits and misses of Nightmare of Eden. “It’s too explicitly anti-drugs,” says Lidster – right on, dude! – which makes one wonder what kind of equivocation he was expecting from a family drama shown at 6pm on a Saturday in 1979. Guerrier wears an expression of such open and childlike delight in the cutaways, you feel there surely must be a particularly wobbly jelly being jiggled just out of shot.

The finest extra here, by a parsec, is Nicholas Pegg’s ‘info text’ subtitles. It’s a flood of facts and fun. And here’s a word of friendly advice on the subject. If you’re in the habit of watching these production notes while listening to the cast commentary, then try to resist the urge. Many insights and jokes in the subtitles bounce from cues in the scripted dialogue, and you’ll be missing a whole level of sly wit if you separate one from the other. The big behind-the-scenes story of Nightmare of Eden is of how a seething production team and cast rose up against the perceived shortcomings of director Alan Bromly – shortcomings that are not particularly evident on screen, it must be said – which led to his dismissal during the final day of studio recording. Pegg teases this tale up front, but then holds back the juicy details until Parts Three and Four, delivering a narrative every bit as intriguing and entertaining as Nightmare of Eden itself.

For some primary-source bitching, turn to The Nightmare of TV Centre, where thoroughly disconsolate visual effects designer Colin Mapson dismisses his spaceship shots as “a disaster, to be quite honest”, and blames the producer for insisting they be shot on videotape rather than film. But it’s the tales of Tom Baker chafing against the authority of Alan Bromly that again prove most fun. Tom’s studio backchat, at first audible only to his fellow actors but then bellowed at the gallery, make him sound quite wonderfully brattish; but he was furious only because he cared so much. And it’s clear that he was not alone in his anger. Floor manager Val McCrimmon suggests that Bromly’s assistant, sat beside him making notes on the script, would deliberately try to stab him with her pen. Whether she actually drew blood is not recorded, but surely on-the-job feedback to one’s line manager doesn’t get more direct than that.

 

 

 

The Sensorites

A review of the DVD for Doctor Who magazine, from 2012

_________________________________________________________________________________

If visualised on a graph, with THRILLS up the y-axis against TIME along the x, The Sensorites would plot a resolute diagonal from top left to bottom right. However, while the story offers steadily diminishing returns over the course of its six episodes – each, it feels, of around 87 minutes – there is at least time for one’s mind to wander to weightier matters. And so it is that today we will consider such thorny questions as: What is the future for mental health care in Britain? Can a fair society be built on fear? How do Sensorites reproduce? And who is Carol Richmond’s secret hair stylist?

But first: praise where praise is due. It’s June 1964, mere months into Doctor Who’s near half-century journey, and we’re seeing it do things for the first time. The TARDIS lands inside the show’s first spaceship – the first of so very many – and this scenario is so radical that the spaceship doesn’t even require a name. On the flight deck, the Doctor and his companions Ian, Barbara and Susan find two crew members slumped over the controls and declare them dead. (It’s the first instance of a leap-to-conclusions fatalism that becomes rather a theme of The Sensorites.) With a shiver, Susan declares an instinctive dread of the place. There’s a sinister rumble of kettledrum courtesy of composer Norman Kay. This has a subtly transporting effect, because Kay also provided the incidental music for Doctor Who’s astonishing first episode. And so, as Susan peers nervously into the gloom, Kay’s sparse, bleak score – flute, timpani and muted trumpet – brings echoes of that foggy junkyard, and the moment crackles with all the possibility and potential of Doctor Who.

But it doesn’t last. From here, that line on our graph begins its steady descent. The uncanny atmosphere is dissipated by the waking of the crew of the SS Spaceship, who prove immediately unbearable. In charge is the lettuce-limp Captain Maitland, who speaks like English is entirely new to him. In fact, he speaks like speech is entirely new to him. “My. Name. Is Maitland,” he tells us, in swoops and pauses. “This. Is Kerril Richmond. My co-astro-not.” He means Carol Richmond, his co-astronaut. Carol is very posh most of the time, and when asked by Barbara where the water is kept, she gives her best Celia Johnson: “It’s deyn thar.” These astronots, born in the 28th century, provide Doctor Who’s very first insight into what the future holds for the human race. In their time, the whole south of England is “Central City”, so it’s uninterrupted tarmac from Brighton to Birmingham. This news will undoubtedly depress anyone currently campaigning to save the Chilterns from High Speed 2.

Maitland’s ship is trapped in the orbit of a planet called the Sense-Sphere, and he and Carol have been held in suspended animation. They sense that the local inhabitants, the Sensorites, have popped up to feed them from time to time. This conjures a fleeting, bizarre image involving spoons, bibs and an awful lot of wet wipes. As Maitland talks, we’re shown mysterious hands stealing the TARDIS lock. This is happening no more than five yards away, so it tests one’s patience when nobody notices.

The ship shakes violently. It’s falling out of orbit towards the planet. What follows, as the Doctor fights to save the ship from crashing, seems so familiar as to be cliché – but again, this is his first time. “Stabilisers, Maitland!” he shouts. “We’re going to hit!” screams Susan. “Jet reverse port!” yells the Doctor. “Jet reverse starboard!” The planet races up to meet them, filling the viewscreen. “We’re heading straight for point of impact!” shouts Carol, rather self-evidently. It’s a shame that the Doctor merely twiddles some small knobs on the control panel, and doesn’t elbow Maitland – who’s an unmitigated liability – out of the pilot’s chair so he can grapple with the big control levers; physically heaving the ship out of its nosedive. But while the Doctor saves the day, the chance for an iconic hero moment is missed. It’s something the show will learn to do much better. Furthermore, the reason for this sudden panic remains unclear. It’s suggested that the Sensorites are trying to scare the bejesus out of the humans, leaving their minds more susceptible to control, but that doesn’t really fit with what we later learn about them. Swap two pages in the script and it might have served as a cunning distraction for the Sensorites’ lock-stealing antics.

A sense of the strange is recaptured for a few moments as Barbara and Susan explore the ship, where they are menaced by a third crew member, called John, who shuffles about like a zombie. (That said, even in his living death, John shows more wherewithal than Maitland and Carol put together.) We score our first proper look at a Sensorite with the first cliffhanger. It startles Ian as it peers through the flight deck window from space, seemingly trying to find a way in. It’s hardly Salem’s Lot, but it’s still a spooky moment. Sadly, the Doctor isn’t impressed. “Oh, just ignore it!” he huffs, with a dismissive flap of the hand, which rather ruins the mood.

When compared with other humanoid aliens of the Hartnell era – the Voord, the Aridians, the Monoids – the Sensorites must be considered a success. With their stiff and shiny skin, bulging cheekbones and coal-black, unreadable stare, they put one in mind of recent chat show appearances by Madonna. And though essentially bald, they do wildly creative things with the rest of their facial hair. Long strings of beard are plastered up to their eyes like inverted sideburns. It’s not so much a comb-over as a comb-under. However, for all their little absurdities, you do find yourself believing in these peculiar pixies – most of the time – and that must be the ultimate accolade for any Doctor Who monster.

The Sensorites’ standoffishness stems from the fact that humans have visited the Sense-Sphere before, and since that day the Sensorites have been dying “from a fearful affliction”. They have used their telepathic abilities to keep Maitland and crew safely in cold storage, but this power has unpicked the seams of John’s brain. The Sensorites say they can cure him, but Carol – who’s supposedly in love with John – is surprisingly defeatist, and seems ready to wash her hands of him. “He might as well be dead!” she wails. Perhaps Carol’s attitude offers an insight into the state of healthcare on 28th century Earth? Are loved ones abandoned at the first sign of mental inconstancy? Carol refuses to believe that John can be saved. “Oh, it’s no use. It’s too late.” We might feel some sympathy if the scene did not immediately cut to Barbara talking to a Sensorite. “You can do something for John?” she asks. “Oh yes,” says the Sensorite.

Some might consider it a tragedy that Barbara remains on the ship for two episodes as her friends descend to the planet. But as Maitland stays with her, it’s a good deal for the viewer. The Sense-Sphere proves a curious place, and we are given many happy hours in which to idly ponder its mysteries. Sensorite society is based on a hardcore communist model, with individuals assigned fixed roles in society during childhood that will define them for the rest of their lives. From each according to their ability, as Marx put it. There is reference to a “lower caste”, but the First Elder assures Ian that all Sensorites are happy with their lot. Ian riffs on Animal Farm to suggest, “maybe some are happier than others.” It proves a pertinent point, for there are clues to suggest the Sense-Sphere has a sinister history. We learn they have capital punishment, and discover, hidden in the palace of the Elders, a weapon called “the disintegrator”. This can tune in on an individual Sensorite and boil his brains out through his nose, without him even knowing he’s been targeted – although he may come to suspect something is amiss when his frontal lobe froths into his lap. It’s a terrifying weapon when you think about it, more chilling in its implications than even the Conscience machine of Marinus, or Google, and makes one wonder if this ordered society might have been founded upon the threat of unwarned and instant execution by the state.

The Sensorites was made in 1964, and it’s clear that Maoist China was the inspiration for the Sense-Sphere. The Sensorite Elders, whiskery and inscrutable, speak pure fortune-cookie homily. “No opinion can be worse, sometimes, than a very dogmatic one,” cautions the First Elder of a colleague. Later, the City Administrator voices his dread of the alien visitors: “Their pleasant smiles conceal sharp teeth.” (Although this may be more then just a figure of speech given how, in moments of anger, the First Doctor can come at you with his little Adipose fang.) It’s familiar science fiction shorthand to use a foreign culture as a touchstone for an alien race, but when a key plot point of The Sensorites turns out to be how, to humans, “they all look the same”, the whole thing starts to feel rather crass and insulting to our intelligence. We must be thankful that they weren’t given “me velly solly” accents.

In all our time on the Sense-Sphere, we only meet male Sensorites. However, mention of a “family group” might be taken to imply there are ladies stashed away somewhere. Perhaps they’re cowering indoors, feeling bashful; after all, a polycotton onesie can be such an unforgiving garment. Or maybe there’s only one gender on the Sense-Sphere, and when it comes to making baby Sensorites, the ‘boys’ get together and mingle some unseen pseudopodia. The tubby Administrator may be six months gone for all we know. It’s a troubling image. Either way, there’s certainly a feminine side to the Sensorites hidden away somewhere. Between episodes, Carol scores a sexy new hairdo, and someone must help with that. The state-designated stylist likely leapt on her with giddy enthusiasm, desperate for a new challenge after a life spent backcombing ear hair into eyebrows.

Meanwhile, the plot plods on. It takes the Doctor roughly two seconds to realise that the cause of the Sensorite plague is poison in the water supply. It takes the viewer less than half that time. The Sensorites’ long-term failure to solve this childish conundrum rather erodes one’s sympathy for them. If even the planet’s brightest brains hadn’t considered the possibility of poison, then this might just be natural selection taking the scenic route. Happily, the Doctor appoints himself a one-man CSI: Sense-Sphere, and in one of the story’s more vividly directed sequences, he identifies the toxin – deadly nightshade – through application of the classic montage technique. However, in the face of his not inconsiderable efforts, the Sensorites prove no less defeatist that Carol. After Ian is poisoned, the First Elder waves his hands and moans: “Your friend his dying! There is no hope!” When the Doctor later makes a solo trip into the tunnels of the local aqueduct to find the source of the poison, the Elder wails to Susan: “There is no hope! You cannot save your friend!”

All this panic and melodrama does nothing to disguise the fact that The Sensorites suffers from a chronic lack of jeopardy. When the Administrator intercepts the vital antidote on its way to Ian and smashes it, you go: “Ooh! Nasty!” But then, one minute later, we cut to a mostly recovered Ian, with Susan saying: “It’s lucky I could get some more.” Actor Peter Glaze does his best as the Administrator, the villain of the piece; tilting his head back to suggest haughtiness, and that the humans might just be stinking the place out. But overall he feels about as threatening as a petulant toddler. The best performance in the story comes from John Bailey in the final episode, playing the deranged Ben Gunn of an Earth astronaut hiding out in the aqueduct. With just a few lines he conveys a complete inner life to his character, and it all suddenly feels real for one glorious fleeting moment.

The star of the show, the man who makes it all worthwhile, is William Hartnell. Here, we see the First Doctor complete his journey from anti-hero to plain hero, and Hartnell’s total conviction keeps the whole thing alive. And Doctor Who is already cheerfully re-writing its own myth. “We’ve never had an argument,” he says to Susan, conveniently forgetting that this whole business may have started as a mild curiosity in a junkyard, but continued as a right old barney in a police box. Back then, when we first met the Doctor, he appeared to be hiding from the Universe. By the time of The Sensorites, he’s the gadabout troublemaker we know and love, and apparently always has been. Before Ian and Barbara, he met Beau Brummel and the telepathic plants of Esto, and lobbed a parson’s nose at Henry VIII.

As the Doctor faces down the Sensorites when they steal his lock, he has a line that sums him up perfectly. “I don’t make threats,” he says – friendly, but with an edge of steel. “But I do make promises. And I promise that I will cause you more trouble that you’ve bargained for.”

You can easily imagine Matt Smith saying that line. For a moment, past and present click together, and your hair stands on end. That flash of connection you can feel is – as the Doctor puts it – quite the great spirit of adventure.

______________________________________________________________________________________

DVD Extras

Hurrah for the Restoration Team! The clean-up job on The Sensorites is sensational; a great achievement. If you’re in any doubt about that, then take a moment to check the version of these episodes available on YouTube. They’re splattered with muck and flicker like a zoetrope.

We are also spoiled, as ever, by excellent production notes and a wonderfully wide-ranging commentary track. Moderator Toby Hadoke has become a real hero of the DVD range – so well-prepared, so unassuming – you find yourself wishing he had joined the team years ago. Hadoke is also the on-screen presenter of the documentary Looking For Peter, in which he dons his best fan hat and sets out to discover the life story of The Sensorites’ forgotten writer, Peter R Newman. His wingman is researcher Richard Bignell, whose eyes shine at the thought of archives unexplored. At one point, they dash off on separate missions to either side of the camera, like Batman and Robin.

Looking For Peter is, to my mind, the finest Doctor Who DVD extra yet, so sharp is its focus, so skilled its execution, and so complete its fulfilment of its promise. It’s a brilliant job of work by producer and director Chris Chapman. And it has a very moving tale to tell. When Hadoke discovers that Newman didn’t commit suicide – as fan rumour has suggested – he says, with relief: “I’m looking to discover some fun stuff about Doctor Who, not uncover a man’s disaster.” However, there’s no little sadness to Newman’s own story – the story of a war hero whose ultimate enemy proved to be his own self doubt, and whose life would end in a sudden and bizarre tragedy. But there’s joy here too, as Doctor Who gives something back – providing some comfort to Newman’s family after so many years by showing that his name and his work lives on.

This review may have had some fun with The Sensorites; but here we are, discussing it in absurd depth. That’s still a compliment. And Newman would surely be tickled to know there’s an acoustic rock duo, based in Liverpool, called Sensorites [www.sensorites.com]. The Sensorites themselves wouldn’t approve of all that loud noise in dark rooms, but it’s Newman’s work that inspired the name. It just goes to show that we can never know where a Doctor Who story – even one made 48 years ago – might take us next.

The Underwater Menace episode 2 & Galaxy 4: Airlock

A review of two recovered black-and-white episodes for DWM, 2011

_________________________________________________________

Hopefully you will accept that I’m being more honest than churlish if I make the observation that, had Doctor Who fans been invited to vote for two missing episodes to be miraculously returned to us, this pair would have been near the bottom of the list. The words ‘The Underwater Menace Episode 2’ have surely never caused anyone a rush of blood to the head. And most, I think, would have been hard-pressed even to put a name to the third instalment of Galaxy 4.

But that’s what makes this double discovery so delicious. We can relax. Our expectations are managed. If we’re already anticipating something approaching the worst, our delight on finding that these episodes are actually pretty darned good – full of sharp little pleasures – is felt all the more keenly.

Without doubt, Patrick Troughton is the great joy of The Underwater Menace. He’s the kind of actor who can steal a scene without even speaking, thanks to the wonderful range of micro-expressions that play across his face; countless nuances of performance that could never be guessed from an audio recording alone. Early in this episode, the Doctor stands well back and watches Professor Zaroff – supposed saviour of the sunken city of Atlantis – bicker with underling scientist Damon about problems with the power supply. We see from the Doctor’s faintly amused look that he is taking all this information in to use against them later. And soon enough he’s at a control panel, quietly fusing vital circuits. Holding a pulled plug in one hand, Troughton puts a finger to his bottom lip, his face a picture of childish innocence. “I can’t think of how I came to be so clumsy,” he says – and you simply cannot help but adore him.

The Underwater Menace’s second episode features the story’s key exposition, as Zaroff reveals his plan to plunge the Atlantic Ocean into the white-hot core of the Earth. This will raise Atlantis from its watery ruin, albeit with the unfortunate side effect of blowing our planet to rubble. As Zaroff, actor Joseph Furst is clearly relishing the chance to play a total crackpot. With no shading to his motivation, what else can he do but go for broke? He certainly delivers an enthusiastic blast of acting for his money – so much so that at one point he seems to be trying to stop himself from laughing. Skilfully balancing the scene, Troughton again plays innocent and flatters the truth from Zaroff – drawing out the scientist’s lunacy.  “Just one small question,” he says in a small, guileless voice, his eyes like saucers. “Why would you want to blow up the world?”

A similarly measured performance is provided by Colin Jeavons as Damon, who makes the most of a minor role. The actor is as bloodlessly baleful as ever, even while labouring under a pair of outrageous fake eyebrows. However, Jeavons almost derails Troughton at one point when he stumbles through a clumsy line of dialogue: “We pick up survivors from shipwrecks who would otherwise be corpses.” The uncertainty proves contagious, and our star fluffs his response. “What a fantasting… conception,” says Troughton, and then pauses. He sucks his cheeks in – physically pulling his mouth back under his control – and saves the scene.

The episode rather wanders when we stray from Zaroff’s lab, as companions Ben, Polly and Jamie make contact with various flavours of oppressed rebels whose assistance will be needed in later episodes. Ben himself does not seem a great boon to this Atlantean Spring however, as he likes to bellow secret plans at the top of his voice while mere feet away from belligerant guards. A trek through tunnels to find a secret entrance to the city brings to mind the slow later episodes of the first Dalek serial, and a scene where Jamie is rescued from some slippery rocks proves a joyless longueur. But at least it gives us time to marvel at how gorgeous the Doctor’s young friends are. Anneke Wills is stunning – her giant, mascara-circled eyes shine like headlamps. Frazer Hines and Michael Craze are boyband beautiful; the latter even offering a Justin Bieber hairdo. They remain the prettiest team of companions to date, and that’s against some strong competition.

Fans of the Eleventh Doctor will particularly enjoy his second incarnation’s powerful hat fetish. And here we find a hitherto unsuspected addition to his collection. After hiding in a wardrobe, the Doctor emerges clutching a raincoat and a sou’wester – and, of course, it’s the hat he delightedly puts on first. But this is nothing compared to the glee with which he greets the remarkable headgear offered by Ramo, priest of Atlantis. It’s an explosion of fleshy tubing styled after a sea anemone, or an advertisement for Cheestrings. “Put this on, could you?” says Ramo. “Could I!” replies the Doctor, his face a picture of childish glee. Later, when we see the Doctor proudly wearing this epic headgear – to this day, his millinery apotheosis – you can still spot him eyeing Ramo’s slightly larger version with envy.

Amongst all the new, it’s sad to note a few details that those familiar with the audio of this episode may have expected or hoped for, but are denied. In episode one, Zaroff delivers one of Doctor Who’s more unlikely threats with: “I could feed you to my pet octopus, no?” We also knew that in episode two he says, of something in a tank: “Ah! So you are hungry today? Did I forget to feed you? Is beautiful, no?” – and surely this famished beauty would be his octopus. But, alas, Zaroff’s tank contains naught but a rather blowsy fish. Is disappointment, no? And while we can at enjoy a early scene of the Second Doctor tootling his beloved recorder, we sadly don’t get to see him wear the tall Beau Brummell hat from his earliest adventures.  However, one charming new moment more than makes up for these small disappointments. While trying to explain to King Thous about Zaroff, the Doctor insists that the scientist is “as mad as a hatter” – which, when you consider the deranged creations of the hatters of Atlantis, is really saying something. To illustrate his point that Zaroff is ‘out to lunch’, the Doctor raps his knuckles sharply on his own head. “Hell-oo?” he calls, and then cups a hand behind one ear. “No answer!” It’s a lovely bit of business – pure Troughton, and impossible to guess from the audio alone – that will surely become a defining moment for this incarnation, and serve as droll punctuation in a thousand clip reels to come.

*  *  *

One cannot deny that the more sombre Galaxy 4 delivers less fizz than The Underwater Menace. Air Lock, in essence, cuts back and forth between two conversations taking place on two spaceships wrecked on an unnamed planet: one between Vicki, the Doctor and a Rill, the other between Steven and Maaga, the leader of the Drahvins. However, it’s certainly no less fascinating a piece of work, and at key moments proves even more lurid than the Troughton episode.

For many years, the Doctor Who world has been in possession of only a single murky photograph of a Rill. They are the ultimate ‘lost’ monster, and long spoken of in reverential tones by those who remember Galaxy 4 from broadcast. And so it is that one cannot help but note that the reality proves less awe-inspiring than those treasured memories suggested. Not quite so enigmatic and obscured as we had been led to believe, the boggle-eyed creature rocks slowly from side to side in its steamy chamber, like someone wafting a freakishly large haddock behind a bathroom window. When the Doctor informs it that the planet upon which they stand has just two days of life left two it, the Rill signals its dismay by wobbling at double speed. It’s all rather two-dimensional and Captain Pugwash – but not too grievous a let down, certainly no embarrassment, and perhaps merely the victim of this viewer’s unmanaged expectation. Happily, the episode offers no shortage of compensations.

Like Troughton, William Hartnell is a total delight. Here, he’s running at the higher pitch of his later years, with his dialogue looping into strings of his favourite little exclamations. “Hmm! Hmm! Yes! Quite so! Carry on!” When contemplating a problem, the fingers of his left hand flutter in mid air, demanding our attention. At times of resolve, they swoop back to the roost of his lapel. But there’s also a real vigour to Hartnell here. Early in the episode he shows a remarkable turn of speed when offered a flat set and clear passage through the Rill ship. When directing the Chumbley robots toward Steven’s aid, he strikes a heroic pose, pointing with his walking stick to an unseen horizon like Wellington pressing his cavalry to battle. The same stick, however, almost proves his undoing early in the episode. Hartnell puts it to one side when examining the Rill’s gas pump, but it slips and clatters loudly to the studio floor. As with Troughton and his line stumble, you actually see the moment where our star decides that it’s not enough of a problem to warrant a costly recording break. The noise draws his irritated glance for a split second, and presses on.

In terms of set design and direction, Air Lock is a stylish serving of 60s Doctor Who. It’s a talky piece, but director Derek Martinus holds our attention. Most interesting is a brief flashback sequence – very rare in Doctor Who – as our Rill recalls an expedition across the planet’s surface shortly after their ship crashed; presumably in some kind of ammonia-filled minibus. The camera positions us at the Rill’s point of view as we find an injured Drahvin guard crawling in the sand. There’s blood dried in rivulets across her forehead  – a shock that, what with blood likewise a rare sight in the programme. Suddenly, Maaga the Drahvin approaches and shoots, and as we are sharing the Rill POV, she’s shooting straight at us. Backing off, we lurk at a distance behind some alien foliage. And just as the picture crossfades out of the flashback, we see Maaga coolly murder her own soldier. It’s a very striking scene.

Maaga is, beyond question, the star of this episode – thanks to a surprisingly rich characterisation, a wonderful performance by Stephanie Bidmead, and some great directorial choices by Martinus. A lengthy scene in the Drahvin ship begins with Maaga expressing frustration at the limitations for her clones, sounding much like any put-upon mid-level manager. “I told them soldiers were no good for space work. All they can do is kill. But they wouldn’t listen. If you are to conquer space, they said, you will need soldiers. So here I am confronted with danger, and the only one able to think!” Maaga picks up a pair of leather gloves and stalks the room, her tone becomes ever more bitter and vengeful. As she fastidiously pulls on the gloves we see her knuckles show through holes cut in the leather. Martinus moves in for a tight close up. Maaga’s face fills the screen. And then for a minute – a whole minute – she delivers a soliloquy straight down the camera lens, looking us right in the eye as she notes that, when she flees this doomed planet, she will not be able to witness the death of the Rills, the Doctor and his friends. “But I, at least, have enough intelligence to imagine it,” she whispers to us. “The fear. The horror. The shuddering of a planet in its last moments of life… And then they die.” Her blood lust is palpable. It’s an electrifying moment – the definite highlight of either of these two episodes – which deserves to lift Maaga from the rank of ‘forgotten’ Doctor Who characters into the pantheon of great Doctor Who villains.

Looking at these episodes together, there’s no denying that they are not among the greatest ever produced. But they are roundly entertaining examples of well-made, low-budget, studio-bound Doctor Who. And with no weight of history or hyped expectation to distract us, we can see the fundamental fabric of our programme showing through; the diligent weaving of the sublime with the ridiculous, the essential warp and weft of Doctor Who.

And that will never be less than a total joy to behold.

Colony in Space

A review of the DVD for DWM, from 2011

_____________________________________________________________

The 2011 DVD schedule began with a six-part Third Doctor adventure – The Mutants – and ends with another. In many ways, Colony in Space feels like a neat entwining of threads and themes we’ve followed across the year. We find ourselves in roughly the same period of future history as both The Mutants and Day of the Daleks, and again we face fascistic, sadistic human foes. We’re also reminded of The Sun Makers, as Colony in Space offers its own bleak vision of a human race destined to become factory fodder, enslaved to vast corporations. And in another motif shared with The Mutants – along with Kinda and Snakedance this year – we’re dealing with the politics of colonialism, as the pictograms of a primitive people hint at how a great civilisation has collapsed back upon itself. There’s even the cordite tang of The Gunfighters; for Colony in Space is essentially a redressed Western. Bullets ricochet through this story of stout-hearted frontiersmen, inscrutable natives and brutal claim-jumpers. All in all, there’s the raw material for half-a-dozen stories here – and we haven’t even got to the fun stuff.

This viewer was born some months after the original transmission of Colony in Space, so can only imagine how thrilling it must have been for the keen young Doctor Who fans of the time; as intoxicated by the series’ new mythology as any devotee of today’s story arcs. There’s a long-awaited second visit to the Time Lords’ planet! We journey to an alien world in the TARDIS for the first time in two years! Better yet, we get to see inside another TARDIS! In context, this is mind-blowing, compulsive stuff. Even four decades out of context, it packs a wallop. Moments like these are the crystal meth of Doctor Who addiction; a drug so pure and potent that those who taste feel an insatiable hunger for the rest of their lives.

With so much fuel its engine room, we’re left to ponder exactly why Colony in Space has a reputation for being slow, for being dull. I think it’s because, in spite of all this power, its journey is too linear, too predictable. It’s the ultimate ‘dog-bites-man’ Doctor Who adventure. Even the story’s two twists – the involvement of the Master and a Doomsday Weapon – are famously blown in the opening scene. Offering no surprises, Colony in Space makes few demands of us, and so we remain fatally dislocated from it. And that’s a shame, because an excellent cast and an imaginative director are clearly working very hard. The script has moments of sparkle and its characters are well drawn. However, the storyline that must carry all this merely chugs gloomily along until disappearing into a fog in Episode Six. But that’s not to say there isn’t fun to be found on the way.

It’s 2472. We’re on the planet Uxarieus (“and another consonant please, Carol”), where a plucky band of colonists are trying to forge a new life away from the hurly-burly of Earth, which is now home to 100 billion souls. Later we learn that, on Earth, “tens of thousands of people die every day”. The list of major causes of death then runs: “traffic accidents, suicides, pollution…” which suggests that the future of our planet will be styled after modern-day Croydon, and explains why even the benighted badlands of Uxarieus look a welcoming prospect. The Doctor has been sent by the Time Lords, and it’s Jo Grant’s first trip in the TARDIS. One has to admire the gusto with which she takes to space exploration. Looking out over a square mile of a dead planet seemingly squeezed from semi-set cement, Jo spots a single, impossible flower… And then immediately yanks it out by the roots. Not one of your ethical, ‘leave no footprint’ travellers is our Jo. Later, in the colony HQ, a graph of crop yields tells the Doctor a tale of incipient famine. ‘Algae’ is right down and even ‘Fungus’ is suffering. The situation sounds bleak, and not a little repellent. A rumour that a single, precious bloom has recently been glimpsed on the upper marshes has, alas, proven unfounded. Jo, meanwhile, invited to dinner, sniffs at the fact there’s only a soup course.

All the surviving fungus is apparently to be found on the faces of the colonists. They’re a hairy bunch and no mistake. And it’s amazing that their rocket ever achieved escape velocity from Earth with the weight of unlikely wigs they must have had stashed in the hold. The background extras look like they’re here to audition as models for the Danish edition of The Joy of Sex. Colony leader Ashe demands to know who the Doctor is working for, because planets like this are regularly chewed up and spat out by interplanetary mining companies. “I can assure you I’m not working for anybody!” insists the Doctor, not entirely telling the truth. Perhaps that’s why the Doctor makes this claim this while rubbing his neck and turning his back on Ashe. It’s not exactly the kind of body language that encourages trust.

While often considered one of the Doctor more ‘physical’ incarnations, Jon Pertwee was never really a man for unnecessary actorly ‘business’. Generally, his left hand remains out of sight at all times, jammed in a pocket, only to emerge when in range of a gear stick or to provide the necessary leverage to spin Pat Gorman about his minor axis. Pertwee’s right hand, meanwhile, assumes a natural resting position, pincer-like, at chest height – in the manner of a Tyrannosaurus Rex. This hand is employed to seize passing props – tools, gadgets, but preferably a sandwich – and can strike with the same speed and general trajectory as Rod Hull’s Emu. When called upon to help signify the Doctor’s pondering of a particularly knotty problem, this right hand will rub its owner’s chin or, at times of maximum stress, the back of his neck – both of which moves having the useful side effect of drawing attention to Pertwee in a two-shot. But a bit of modest hand acting falls a long way short of a full Matt Smith pirouette. For a man in a cape, frilly shirt and a seemingly self-illuminating hairdo, Pertwee gives a remarkably understated performance as the Doctor. And this stillness, this earnestness, can make entire fictional worlds real for us. Pertwee can deliver lines like “Unless I’m very much mistaken, you’ve got far more to worry about than mineralogists” with such calm conviction that we don’t register that it really is a peculiar thing for anyone to say. And he brings out the same quality in his co-stars; his sobriety is contagious. It’s all the straight faces and the earnest delivery that help make Pertwee era seem so charming today. And it can be very funny if you tune your ear to it. One of the joys of Colony in Space, for example, is the overuse of prosaic first names. Everyone is a Tony, a Jim or John. Even when characters bicker about murder or the finer points of interstellar property law, it’s all: “Now look here, Robert” and “Get out of my way, David”. Writer Malcolm Hulke is trying to make this distant future feel familiar, but it soon starts to sound very camp indeed. Perhaps Hulke’s heavy freelance workload was starting to blur for him. He was also writing for Crossroads at the time, where every other line was “Get out of my way, David.”

Robert, David and the other colonists are correct in their suspicion that dark forces are moving against them. When two of their number are killed, apparently by a massive lizard, it requires the Doctor to point out that a 20ft iguana couldn’t have squeezed through the 6ft entrance to the crime scene – a deduction so self evident it’s clear that this colony would have been doomed if the Doctor hadn’t popped by. The deaths, we learn, are the work of a robot controlled by the men of the Interplanetary Mining Corporation, who are trying to scare away the settlers with a scam so ridiculous that even they can’t be bothered to see it through.

The IMC team are the most entertaining characters in Colony in Space. Best is their boss, the amoral Captain Dent, thanks in part to some neat writing but chiefly due to a brilliant performance by Morris Perry. He’s wonderful to watch – with his hooded eyes and pouty Mick Jagger lips – and he downplays his dialogue brilliantly. This really helps ‘sell’ the IMC operation to us, by making its cruelty and cynicism seem perfectly mundane to those working within it. When Dent orders the colonists to leave the planet in their rocket, Ashe warns him: “there’s a fair chance it will blow up on the ground.” Ashe is appealing to Dent’s humanity, but Dent simply turns to an underling and says: “Make sure all IMC personnel are clear of the area before take off, will you?” Perry even copes brilliantly when Dent’s dialogue makes a sudden slip into verse. “You can sit in your ship till you rot,” she says. “Try to get off and you’ll be shot on the spot.” Best of all is how he manages all this from beneath one of most bizarre haircuts in Doctor Who history; a giant scallop-shell of fringe and sideburns combed forward from the top of his head. You feel it might rise at any moment with a malign purpose all its own, like the pneumatic octopus that once winked at Ian Chesterton from the Lake of Mutations.

For much of its first four episodes, Colony in Space is a tit-for-tat skirmish between our would-be farmers and the men of IMC. Things pep up with the not-unanticipated arrival of the Master, who is passing himself of as an Adjudicator from Earth, here to settle the rival claims to Uxarieus. Although Colony is one of the Master’s lesser capers, Roger Delgado is as delicious as ever. But more exciting even than the Master is the opportunity we get for a good poke around his TARDIS. He clearly ordered his ship with the super-villain package of extras: a laser alarm system, poison gas chambers and filing cabinets for his secret plans. It is in one of these that the Doctor finds the records of the real Earth Adjudicator (called Martin), but it’s a shame he didn’t rummage deeper. Close to the folder marked ‘Doomsday Weapon’ the Doctor may have found ‘Daemons’, ‘Daleks’ and ‘Devils (Sea)’, and saved himself a lot of future grief.

The Master is here to find the secret hidden at the heart of the lost civilisation of this planet. By this point we’ve met three different flavours of indigenous life, with each addition to the menagerie putting a greater strain on our credulity. This unlovely trio and will surely comprise the final Doctor Who action figure set ever to be released, just a few months after the end of time itself. Your basic Primitive is a green, lumpy-faced fellow with tufts of curly hair, and looks like the final incarnation of Colonel Gadaffi. He wears a knitted loincloth to protect his modesty, which only serves to raise the question of what might be hidden beneath. All one dares imagine is something akin to a small floret of broccoli. Ruling the Primitives are the High Priests. These little chaps stand nose to nipple with the Doctor, gesticulate wildly, and in their flash Vegas robes have the air of Liberace waiting for the bandages to come off. Finally there’s the Guardian, who lives in a drawer beside the Doomsday Weapon, where he sits on a tiny throne. He has the body of a doll and a head like a partially inflated paper bag, and in his first scene his little dressing gown is pulled up alarmingly high, giving us a Sharon Stone style insight into the limitations of his private life. When the Doctor and Jo meet the Guardian and his gang, and reverentially negotiate their way out of their own execution, it really is – if we’re honest – as ridiculous a scene as any you will find in Doctor Who. And for that reason, it is also completely brilliant. Once again, it is Pertwee’s wonderful earnestness that keeps the whole glorious confection afloat. He looks this crazy little creature straight in the eye and calls it “Sir”. He dares us to believe in it. He helps us to hang on to this reality with our fingertips. It’s such a transcendentally joyous thing; it makes you want to cheer.

Colony in Space ends with a big bang but little emotional impact after the Doctor, rather blithely, allows the Guardian to destroy his entire race just to keep the Doomsday Weapon out of the Master’s hands. Elective genocide seems rather large a sacrifice for a race that has been muddling along fine, minding its own business, for the last few thousand years, and the Doctor really should have made more effort to talk them out of it and tidy up the Time Lords’ mess himself. Especially given the hissy fit he had about the Silurians.

The other curious thing about the climax of this story is that it entirely misplaces its most interesting character. Last seen congratulating himself for having cleared the colonists from the planet, Captain Dent simply disappears from the narrative. No one spares him a single thought. And given that he was responsible for several murders here – and untold deaths on other worlds, it’s hinted – it is the most serious case of a villain going unpunished in Doctor Who history.

Which all gets this viewer to thinking. Since its return to TV in 2005, Doctor Who has been rather short on hissable villains of the calibre of Dent. In six years, only the Krillitane headmaster and Madame Kovarian have delivered his grade of unapologetic wickedness. And as actor Morris Perry is still with us, perhaps it’s time that Captain Dent returned – to wreak his revenge! Or if that’s too wild an idea for the telly, then maybe Big Finish could take the bait? As a special feature on the CD, Dent could do some more of his poetry.

Four decades on from those thoughtless Time Lord spoilers, Colony in Space might yet deliver a twist in its tale.

_____________________________________________________________

DVD extras

Toby Hadoke skilfully moderates an exuberant commentary, full of amusing and informative contributions from lovely mix of cast and crew. The most intriguing remarks come from actor Bernard Kay – good-guy IMC man Caldwell – who makes the production sound far more exotic than we might hitherto have expected, as he recalls lively evenings in a swimming pool with “a beautiful Czechoslovakian wardrobe girl with an amazing figure” and teases us with “a story of Derek Ware and two horses that can’t be repeated.” One is too terrified even to imagine.

Good value on both commentary and the production documentary are director Michael Briant and his former assistant Graeme Harper – long since a beloved Doctor Who director himself. On Colony in Space, they were clearly determined to make the very best television they could, in difficult circumstances, while never losing their sense of humour. And it shows. Colony, along with all their later work, is a credit to their skill and dedication.

From the Cutting Room Floor collects together some lovely snippets from the story’s location and model filming. The footage is silent and set to an instrumental track, so these fragments take on rather a mournful air. As we watch Pertwee grin, glower and mouth curses while fighting a stuntman dressed as big bogey – on a grey afternoon in a clay pit in Cornwall over 40 years ago – one can only imagine the tall stories he might have told of that day, had he lived into the era of DVD commentaries.

I was lucky enough to meet Jon Pertwee several times, but unfortunately it was all too early for me and too late for him. I hadn’t, at that point, come to understand quite how wonderful he was. I’m sad I took so long to join the party, but very glad I got there in the end.

Planet of the Spiders

A review of the DVD for Doctor Who Magazine, from 2011

_________________________________________________________________________________

For Doctor Who, the ‘season finale’ seems a new idea – an American import that came packaged with the ‘story arcs’ we admired back when our own playground was closed and we were left peering through the fence at Buffy Summers, Fox Mulder and the like. Today, arcs and finales are fundamental to Doctor Who. It’s impossible to imagine a season ever again ending on just-another-adventure. And finales are not just about spectacle. A good finale requires more than merely ramping up the threat and blowing the budget. It also has to be intimate and intricate. Perhaps a timeline-crossing jaunt back through the season; or companions present and past flying the TARDIS together; a dying Doctor taking a lap of honour around his who era, adding a grace note to his defining friendships. A good finale is a reward for our loyalty, for our having paid special attention. And we lap it up. It’s Doctor Who giving us a cuddle and whispering thanks for being there.

But it’s not such a new idea, or an import, as Planet of the Spiders proves. The way this story weaves together the warp and weft of an whole era is a beautiful thing. Our departing Doctor, Jon Pertwee, has never looked more glitteringly gorgeous. He’s resplendent in blue from hair to heel, a vision in velvet: 50% Austin Powers, 50% Bea Arthur, 100% cool. Plucky journalist Sarah Jane Smith is chasing down a mystery, just as she should be; poised to tap out a story for Percy the moment she finds a nice pub and a glass of chardonnay. The Brigadier is sweeter than ever, and scores a couple of wonderfully heartwarming moments; the way he leans forward to watch Scheheradzade (that Turkish Delight of the East), and our first hint at his romantic life with mention of Doris – so grateful for services rendered – which allows Nicholas Courtney to play the most expert ‘Ha-rumph!’ in all of Doctor Who. Even Sergeant Benton gets to do one of his little jokes. As a comedian, he’ll make a great used-car salesman that boy. There’s hot coffee in the Doctor’s lab, a final historical name-drop, a last run out in the silly cars and a couple of bouts of aikido. And then a mountain blows up. Perfect.

But it’s not mere respect for the present that makes Planet of the Spiders special, it’s the celebration of the past. There’s Mike Yates – former UNIT Captain turned dinosaur-hugging traitor – who, in seeking redemption, finds one end of our storyline for us. Then there’s Jo Grant, beloved former companion, here in spirit. She took a jiffy bag up the Amazon with her (always well prepared, that girl) and has sent a letter addressed to all her old friends. It’s the first time in Doctor Who we ever hear from a companion after their departure – these days, that’s a whole industry in itself – and Jo’s good wishes are so sweetly comprehensive, it’s a surprise she doesn’t sign off: “…and I hope your next crazy scheme is going well, you silly old Master! Weather here lovely.” Wrapped in Jo’s note is a blue crystal; a pretty plot convenience from an earlier adventure that we had no reason to expect to see again. The crystal is from Metebelis Three, the famous joke planet of the Actaeon galaxy. This was the world the Doctor most wanted to visit when his exile ended and he slipped the surly bonds of Earth, but could never seem to reach, much to Jo’s amusement. He eventually found it alone and, in another joke, the planet he claimed beautiful turned out to be comedically antisocial. And here, for this Doctor’s final voyage, Metebelis Three has the last laugh. This symbol for freedom and reckless adventuring will ultimately prove the death of him.

But we’re getting way ahead of ourselves. Let’s go back to Mike Yates, who has uncovered sinister goings-on at a Buddhist retreat. He explains why he’s there with a bit of sweetly 1970s dialogue: “Everyone’s going on about meditation – of once sort or another – so I thought I’d have a crack at it.” It sound like a presenter’s link from a particularly right-on edition of Blue Peter. Down in the cellar, a gang of whey-faced middle-aged men – of the type you never see on television any more, only on dating websites – chant a Buddhist prayer, calling upon other-worldly powers. Mike brings Sarah to watch, just as our lugubrious bachelors conjure a whacking great spider with a body the size of your head. It springs onto the back of their leader – Lupton, the most sickly-looking of the bunch – and disappears. Altogether, it’s a glorious and uniquely Doctor Who sequence that age cannot wither.

Lupton is a fascinating character, although discussion has traditionally focused on who he isn’t, rather than who he is. He’s not the Master. The death of actor Roger Delgado in 1973 denied us a last battle between this Doctor and his BEF (Best Enemy Forever), so Planet of the Spiders has long been judged a compromise. But that’s unfair – there’s plenty that’s special about Lupton. His motivation is unique in Doctor Who. He wants revenge for the ultimate bad day at work, and will smash the Universe to get it. But are his enemies real or imagined? Bitter at being sidelined from his old company – for whom, as a salesman, he gave 25 years of his life – by “the finance boys”, he paints himself the victim. “Everything I tried to set up on my own,” he tells us, “they deliberately, cold-bloodedly, broke me.” But did those ‘boys’ even spare Lupton another thought, one wonders. Is this just the sound of boiling paranoia? He came to the meditation centre looking for “power”, although why he thought me might find it in such a peaceful place is a mystery. He intends, with his spider’s help, to “take over that company – the country – the world” but it’s clear it’s the first of those that matters most. The world is mere bonus. “I want to see them grovel, I want to see them eating dirt” he spits. John Dearth gives a superb performance as Lupton, twitchy and unsettling. His jacket, two sizes too big for him, suggests a man physically shrinking, eaten away by his own bile. Oddly, the script keeps him and the Doctor apart for all but a few moments, almost as if they can’t quite function in the same programme. Perhaps Lupton’s too real for Doctor Who.

Things are less challenging elsewhere, as we find Doctor Who’s traditional mix of wit, wild thrills and sudden, agonising death. This week, the Doctor has decided – in the manner of an old TV Comic plot – that he’s interested in clairvoyance and telekinesis. To help him, he’s plugged one Herbert Clegg into a television set. Clegg is the Derren Brown of his day, but with bone fide paranormal powers. He can float a tea tray across the UNIT lab, and with a little practice could probably do the whole Spoonful of Sugar sequence from Mary Poppins. Rather marvellously, Clegg can also summon footage from old Doctor Who adventures merely by fondling an appropriate prop. Ian Levine would never let him out of the house. Unfortunately for Clegg, it’s at this point Jo’s blue crystal arrives, which gives him first a vision of spiders and then a massive myocardial infarction. It’s a tragedy, and one is left questioning the Doctor’s next move. He declares Clegg dead within a second of the man’s heart stopping, and even tells the Brigadier not to call for a medic. He goes on to show no remorse for the fate of poor Herbert, who he practically begged to take part in his experiment. One presumes that Benton drags the corpse away and the whole thing is hushed up. But what is this? Manslaughter at the very least? No wonder cosmic karma is hurtling toward this Doctor like an express train. Clegg won’t be the last man to die in that room today.

So while the Doctor is seeing spiders on his television of doom, Sarah is finding them in the meditation centre. It’s an unbelivable coincidence of course, something that Doctor Who generally tries a little harder to avoid. But here the producer is clearly cutting the director some slack, who in turn has allowed the writer to make a few compromises. The fact that all three are the same man, Barry Letts, might explain the generosity. It’s the only time in Doctor Who history that this happens, and rather than producing a kind of auteur vision, we see why these are usually kept as separate jobs. Storytelling priorities are missed in the pursuit of spectacle. The key plot point – that spiders from Metebelis Three want the crystal – is simply guessed by Sarah and then accepted as fact, where really it’s a huge leap given the evidence at hand. But look! A hovercraft and a tiny helicopter!

The chase in Episode Two, after Lupton has nicked off with the crystal, is too long and too silly. By land, by air, by water, it’s Doctor’s day at the Wacky Races, and your reviewer would grant it every indulgence – for sheer novelty value alone – if only it was ever made clear what was at stake. But it’s just pell-mell into the wilderness until… it stops. There’s no race against time, no countdown, no peril, no twists. And Lupton just winks away to safety at the end. It’s frustrating and not a little insulting to our intelligence. Your reviewer watched this episode with his kindly, aged mother (she was visiting, her son had a deadline, hilarity ensued) and she yelled abuse at the screen. Appalling language it was.

In Episode Three, Planet of the Spiders begins to wobble, and continues to wobble until half way through Episode Six.  After all that rushing about, the Doctor’s wonderfully prosaic response is to visit Lupton at the meditation centre, where he politely asks for an appointment and then is kept waiting for nearly 20 minutes. Lupton cunningly outwits the Doctor by staying in his bedroom, though one presumes he’s poised to race off on one of the monastery’s two pogo sticks at any moment. But before you can shout “Sarah! Get off that mandela!” Lupton and Sarah are whisked away through time and space, to that famous brown planet in the Actaeon galaxy, to meet the Metebelis Academy of Dramatic Art.

One mustn’t be too mean. No no. (Sabor my husband my love no.) But really, is there a less convincing alien community in Doctor Who? It’s a perfect storm of underwriting, poor casting and a director with his eye on his special effects rather than the poor actors milling about these charmless scenes. And it’s a funny old place, Metebelis Three. The women seem to be from Chelsea, the men from Cheddar. When Sarah hears the story of the Spiders from Sabor (my husband my love no), it sounds like Joe Grundy describing prize marrows on The Archers. “An’ they got lah-gurr and lah-gurr!” Every single inhabitant of this planet is roundly out-acted by a spider puppet on a cushion.

The Spiders are at their best when interacting with humans – even these ones – and their worst when taking to each other. Then, they strain our ability to believe; especially if one’s eye wanders to the feebly wafting back benches of the spider parliament. Doctor Who writer Gareth Roberts once said that his father had a term for scenes like this: “squabbling rubber”. It’s when two men in monster costumes (or in this case, two puppets) are left taking together, and any sense of reality slowly but surely dissolves. It’s Monoids One and Two, Styggron and Chedaki, and here, Lupton’s spider and her Queen, twitching furiously at each other. It’s a peculiar trick of perspective. A human character’s response is needed to sell a monster to us, and if we don’t get that then very soon – try as we might not to – we’ll notice that we’re looking at two wobbling wire armatures covered in paint brush bristles. The most convincing and frightening spider scenes in this story are when the best actors sell them to us: when Lupton is mentally tortured by his; when the Doctor meets the Great One; and when Sarah finds the Queen on her back – while simultaneously posing for one of the Top 10 Doctor Who photographs of all time.

Planet of the Spiders is, essentially, six episodes of stalling, of delaying the inevitable. The thing the Doctor is trying to prevent – the Great One getting her crystal – is exactly what must happen in the end. Ultimately it’s what everyone wants, so we just have to busy ourselves until the moment comes. As spider-based storylines go, it makes Incy-Wincy’s exploration of the water spout seem like a bold experiment in non-linear narrative. There are some charming diversions – handyman Tommy’s journey from Ladybird to Tyger, for example, and the Doctor’s discovery that the Lama of the monastery is an old Time Lord friend – but the energy of the piece does ebb for a long while. “Is there any point in saying the same thing over and over again?” groans one of the human conspirators in Episode Four. “Oh dear, this is getting monotonous,” observes the Doctor later. Among all this, the character of Lupton is sadly squandered and lost, which is a great shame.

The end, when it comes, comes in a rush, perhaps to stop us thinking about it too much. The Doctor – motivated by Buddhist sentiment – must face his fears, and give up his life in a confrontation with the Great One. On the documentary with this DVD, script editor Terrance Dicks simply doesn’t buy the idea that the Doctor’s greed – for knowledge that is – can be his downfall. “Greed doesn’t sound like the Doctor,” argues Terrance. “It sounds like Jon. But not the Doctor.” One can see his point. If the Doctor is to be punished for anything this week, it’s should be his arrogance. The body of a old man lies testament to that in the UNIT morgue. Somehow, the story doesn’t quite get to the heart of why this Doctor’s end must come today, and you’re left feeling this parable of fate and rebirth could have been bedded into earlier episodes with more care.

I’m not old enough to have enjoyed Planet of the Spiders on transmission. My first regeneration was Logopolis, and then Androzani confirmed that these were big, showy events; all flashbacks and special effects. These days, the Doctor goes off like a sack of fireworks. So, when I first saw this story, in my teens, the simple roll-back-and-mix from Pertwee to Baker was a disappointment, a damp squib. But that’s a child’s view. Now I see it for what it really: the most sophisticated and moving regeneration of them all. The Doctor doesn’t fall to the ground and immediately begin to change. We’re denied that instant comfort. Here, for the only time, we see him die in front of his friends. Sarah gently closes his eyelids over his sightless eyes. Minutes earlier, fearing him lost, she had taken the Doctor’s old cape from the hatstand and sniffed it. It’s an oddly intimate moment for Doctor Who, but anyone who has lost a loved one will recognise the truth of it. It’s a bravely harrowing end to the programme’s most warm-hearted of eras.

Planet of the Spiders sends the Third Doctor off in style; buried like a Pharoah with all the symbols of his glorious reign. This is a story with much lingering power, and has a greater influence of modern Doctor Who than any other. Russell T Davies was 11 years old when he saw this. Steven Moffat was 13. How could it not have had a life-changing impact? A man is the sum of his memories, a Doctor Who fan even more so. Here, the themes that dominate recent Doctor Who – the importance of family and friends, the tragedy of loss, of self-sacrifice – are writ large in a season finale that’s as affecting as any of them.

Doctor Who continues to excel today not only through being made with passion and with skill, but because the people who make it were inspired by the very best.

__________________________________________________________________________

DVD EXTRAS

A second disc delivers a lovely, thoughtful collection of bonus material. Superb ‘info text’ can be enjoyed alongside a wonderfully warm and upbeat commentary – with the former on hand to gently correct some misfiring memories on the latter. Richard Franklin (Mike Yates) has certainly come prepared, and talks over his colleagues – Letts, Dicks, Sladen, Courtney – whenever he spots his cue. It’s great material. Upon sight of a cup of coffee, he comments: “I love that food is brought into Doctor Who in quite a few episodes. We had sandwiches in Terror of the Autons, I think.” The info text reveals a truly wonderful piece of trivia about Franklin and actress Jenny Laird; no no my husband my love, it’s one of the best facts ever, and it’s more fun to leave you to discover it for yourself.

A Now and Then location guide and a Directing Who mini-feature are pleasant enough distractions, and an edited version of Spiders from its 1974 repeat – with its soft, gritty, unrestored picture – reminds us why the praises of the Doctor Who Restoration Team must be sung long and loud. John Kane Remembers is an interview with the actor who played Tommy – and John Kane remembers a lot. He recalls being particularly impressed by Lis Sladen (Sarah Jane Smith). “She’s one of those actresses with tremendous intensity,” he says – something that anyone who’s met her will confirm. “He sense of the reality of it is so strong. It’s something I’ve only seen again once, in Helen Mirren.” That’s some compliment.

The main documentary is comprehensive and well-structured, with the most thought-provoking part being discussion of that ‘lost’ last Pertwee, The Final Game – its title fusing two Sherlock Holmes themes to suggest the ultimate Reichenbach showdown between the Doctor and the Master. Frankly, this reviewer doesn’t feel he’s missed out. The Master may have been intended to be the Moriarty to the Doctor’s Holmes, but history has proved him to be more the Wile E Coyote to the Doctor’s Road Runner; somehow escaping alive from every hoist petard, and never learning his lesson. Roger Delgado’s death was a tragedy, of course, but the world won’t suffer from having one less Master story in it.

The Ark

A review of the DVD for Doctor Who Magazine, from 2011

____________________________________________________________________

It’s apparent from the first seconds of The Ark that we’re in for something remarkable. A clearly aggrieved hornbill is physically hurled at a monitor lizard – and you don’t see that every day. As Doctor Who openings go, it’s audacious, dramatic… and endearingly ham-fisted. In this sense, it’s also a perfect metaphor for the hundred minutes that follow.

The Tardis has landed in Whipsnade Zoo, at least according to the Doctor’s new companion Dodo. “Ah bet if ya go down dat path dare,” she ventures – her accent rocketing back and forth along the M6 – “you’ll come t’American bison an’ tea bar.” “It’s more likely to be Earth than anywhere else,” replies the Doctor, resignedly. Perhaps he’s started to notice that his travels about the universe, far from random, simply bounce him back-and-forth from our planet like a rubber ball on a short length of elastic. He’s fitted too springy a spring in that Fast Return switch of his.

What’s odd about this discussion of location – which goes on for some time – is that the viewer is already a hare’s leap ahead of our heroes’ tortoise reasoning. Immediately after the hornbill-flinging incident, the director showed us that we’re nowhere near Whipsnade, as his camera enjoyed a lascivious pan up an unlikely looking alien lurking in the shrubbery. The Doctor, Dodo and Steven finally have their true location revealed to them when prodded from the jungle and onto the flight deck of a spaceship. We are – rather marvelously – travelling with the last of humanity as they flee an expiring Earth. It is the 57th Segment of Time, when mankind finally escapes the tyranny of trousers and embraces a fruity new fashion based on those ribboned plastic curtains that divide the potato store from the fryers in provincial fish and chip shops.

Imminent Earth-death aside, this is not some gloomy future; because the relaxed ethics of the age mean that our descendants are allowed slaves. Hurrah for guilt-free exploitation! The Commander of this ‘Ark’ ship – seemingly a retired hairdresser wrenched from the last days of Gran Canaria, flip-flops and all – explains how the alien Monoids, lacking a home of their own, “offered their invaluable services in return for being allowed to come on this joyage… voyage” (his enthusiasm for the whole venture bubbling through at the end there). The key word is ‘allowed’. Was there a point when mankind considered letting the Monoids boil with the Earth had they not ‘offered’ to skivvy for us? Even the Doctor seems broadly accepting of this, the inconsistent old goat.

Ultimately, this is a story defined by its monsters. And again, you can only applaud the ambition. The Monoids are far from the weakest Hartnell-era monster, and in the specific Doctor Who phylum of ‘lizard men’, they certainly look better than the Foamasi from a decade and a half later. The problem with the Monoids is that there’s too much going on. That wandering eye; the big hair; the webbed walk; their love of random, urgent gesticulation… Taken together, your average Monoid looks like Shirley Bassey waddling downstage in a fishtail ballgown, following an enthusiastic facelift from Picasso.

The Monoids wave their arms a lot because they are mute, and treated as if they are deaf. They communicate with their masters via a system of hectic mime that could seem almost random to the untrained observer. “Oblong! Read a book! Doggy paddle!” comments one Monoid, sagely. “Open the windows! Paint the fence! Two giraffes!” sneers a human in reply. “Binoculars!” insists the Monoid. “And jazz hands to you!” It’s impossible to take seriously, but the strangest thing of all is that, later, after the Monoids learn to speak, these frenzied charades will seem the height of sophisticated debate in comparison. But until that happy hour arrives, we’ve a plot to catch up with…

A snotty Dodo has brought a cold all the way from 1966. This is a serious threat to the passengers of the Ark, who have long since rid themselves of all viruses. Well, it’s a bit of a worry when a Monoid dies from this plague, and then a serious threat after a human croaks. Despite being condemned to death by wannabe leader Zentos – a xenophobic loon – the Doctor is allowed to find a cure. This our hero achieves in three minutes, using only some “animal membranes”, a blanket, and a montage sequence. Zentos lurks in the background clearly hoping the vaccine will fail. The extinction of the human race would certainly stand as the ultimate ‘told you so’ moment. Meanwhile, the Doctor also seems to cure Dodo’s shuttlebus “By ’eck, lad, up tha’ apples and pears” accent.

She’s a queer one that Dodo, and no mistake. When the whole happy history of Doctor Who comes to be written, she might well be judged the least effective or affecting companion of all, the poor love. But maybe there’s more to Dodo than meets the eye? A young girl with a silly name who conveniently appears at a time of great need for the Doctor… She’s connected to his past in a strange way… She has a mysterious, unseen aunt… She’s difficult to like… Nowadays, we call this ‘Amy Pond’. So perhaps Dodo is more than just an ordinary girl from Wilmslow-upon-Wimbledon. Like Amy, she’s a complicated space-time event conjured by ineffable calculus of the universe. The Doctor just didn’t notice.

But I digress. Let’s get back to the action in time for The Ark’s moment of stone-cold brilliance. It comes at the end of part two, when the departing Tardis returns to the same spot seven centuries later. The reveal of this, and a stylish hint as to how the status quo has changed, is delivered without words. This requires a leap of understanding, and flatters the viewer. By choosing to not have Dodo say, “The statue is finished! You know, the one that would take 700 years to build! But why does it have the head of a Monoid, I wonder?” this becomes one of the very best Doctor Who cliffhangers from that special category we can label ‘WTF??!’

Sadly, it’s downhill from here. We learn that Dodo’s cold mutated into a form that “sapped the will of the humans”. Given that they were lettuce-limp to begin with, this was no advance in viral evolution. The Monoids were not affected, which implies they were secretly plotting to overthrow their masters all along. That must have been a shock to the humans when the revolution came, and they learned what the Monoids had really been saying during all those hand-waving conversations. (“Maharis, darling. I thought my Monoid just wanted to swim with giraffes! But that meant: ‘I’ll kill you, you idle bastard’. Who knew? And the ‘jazz hands’ business? That was: ‘But not until after you’ve cooked me some chicken. You total git’.”)

Food proves a key symbol of liberation for the newly dominant Monoids. They are particularly fond of potatoes, chicken thighs and red wine. (Their mouths, it turns out, are in their chests. There’s an ‘om-nom-crunch’ as one takes an apple to its breast. A human servant flinches in dismay, perhaps at the aching bathos of it all.) Now, Doctor Who fans have long chortled at the fact the Monoids keep their prisoners in a ‘Security Kitchen’, but given the creatures’ constant demands for room service, it seems an eminently sensible idea. Keep your troublemakers out of the way while also guaranteeing a supply of fast food. It’s the same gift McDonalds offers our society today.

Between meals, the clever Monoids have invented artificial voice boxes, but sadly failed to embrace the concept of names. This leads The Ark gently towards disaster. Our monsters are given terrible dialogue – like petulant infants plotting mischief in a sandpit – and because their voices are provided by other actors, from off set, it’s all then performed in a weird and unnatural way. “At last. A new planet of our own!” says Monoid One. “Yes, One,” replies Three. “But a word of warning! Four is beginning to question your leadership.” At this point, One puts a comforting hand on Three’s shoulder, then peers round with pantomime exaggeration to check he’s not overheard. “Don’t worry! We can easily get rid of him! As easily as we will get rid of this spaceship once we have left it!” It’s glorious stuff, and will stand as the most entertaining conversation between monsters until Ichtar and Scibus slowly spell out their schemes in Warriors of the Deep.

As One has noted, the Ark has arrived at its destination. It’s a planet referred to in earlier episodes as ‘Refusis Two’, but is now simply ‘Refusis’ – probably to avoid the exchange: “You will descend to Refusis Two, Two!” “Excellent, One!” Upon landfall, we discover the world to be inhabited by friendly invisible beings. These Refusians are solid enough, however, which must cause havoc on public transport.

The Doctor and friends have little impact upon proceedings in the final episode, as the Monoids conveniently blurt out their secrets before slaughtering each other in a kind of civil war. But there’s no ‘good’ Monoids, as such, in this battle, so we have no one to cheer. It’s merely a playground scrap that gets out of hand, until it just… stops. The last Monoid standing looks thoroughly despondent, then lets his gun fall to the floor. You can see he’s thinking: “Oh, what’s the bloody point?” Later, as the Doctor departs the Ark, he expresses his hope for a lasting peace between Monoid and man; for a world without masters or servants, where everyone gets off their backside and hydrates their own chicken. Whether this dream of a Big Society comes true is anyone’s guess. Perhaps the Refusians eat the lot of them. And given how selfish and intolerant both races have been, perhaps it’s no more than they deserve.

Now, this has been an unashamedly flippant review. But not every Doctor Who story can claim to carry some deeper significance, or represent some broader truth about the series as a whole. Sometimes, the only thing you can do is laugh along.

That said, if a lesson is to be learned from The Ark, it’s this: you can have the biggest, boldest idea for a Doctor Who story, and the most hard-working and imaginative director yoked to it – but the final production will only be as good as your dialogue. By part three of The Ark, writer Paul Erickson is clearly busking it, with characters burbling the first thing that’s come into his head. And while part four may have ended up as the series’ most technically complex episode to that point – shot out of order, a patchwork of film and video sequences – the words just aren’t there. However ahead of its time it may be in production terms, it’s still just 25 minutes of gentle nonsense.

With the Refusians invisible and the humans forgettable, The Ark will always be the Monoids’ story. And they save it. If approached in the right spirit, they transcend the ridiculous to become a special case of the sublime.

With a Monoid around, there’s always something to smile about.

____________________________________________________________________

DVD Extras

Director Michael Imison and actor Peter Purves (Steven) feature on a commentary sympathetically moderated by Toby Hadoke, who’s in like Flynn with an apt question whenever silence threatens, so the conversation stays focused and fun. Jim Smith’s ‘info text’ subtitles are more fascinating still, and open one’s eyes to the technicalities, the discipline, the essential impossibility of shooting 25 minutes of fantasy drama ‘as live’. Now there’s a thought. Doctor Who, it’s your 50th anniversary very soon… I dare you!

A further interview with Imison forms part of Riverside Stories, a spiffy documentary that takes Purves back to London’s Riverside Studios – home to the later Hartnell stories – to discuss the making of the The Ark in the context of his Doctor Who career and 60s television in general. He’s accompanied and quizzed by cultural historian Matthew Sweet, who also provides a witty and wide-ranging narration, and clearly knows his onions.

All’s Wells That Ends Wells (now that doesn’t work, does it?) takes the The Ark as a stepping off point for a look at how Doctor Who has been influenced by the stories of HG Wells. Quick answer: not by much. Some smart connections are suggested for The Ark, but most of the interviewees here agree with the fundamental truth that, while Wells’ big ideas gave birth to science fiction, Doctor Who has precious little to do with science fiction. If we’re seeking roots for our programme in the 19th century, we should look elsewhere. To this point, Matthew Sweet – speaking from a wing chair in the manner of the Keeper of Traken – suggests Doctor Who is “Wells plus Conan Doyle”. That’s sound enough, but let’s complete that sum another way: Wells + Conan Doyle = Jules Verne.

It’s a long-standing obsession with claiming the Doctor as what cliché calls “a fundamentally English hero” that squeezes Monsieur Verne from the standard list of inspirations, but there’s more of the essential spirit of Doctor Who to be found in his books than anything written by Wells. The Doctor begins his life on screen as Captain Nemo from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea – the kidnapper, the enigmatic antihero with his impossible ship. He soon softens into Professor Lidenbrock from A Journey to the Centre of the Earth and then Phileas Fogg of Around the World in Eighty Days. Scientists mostly, gentleman eccentrics certainly, and all are launched upon wild, episodic adventures – dark and funny by turn – that we see through the eyes of the ordinary folk who fall under their spell.

Verne is to Wells as Terry Nation is to David Whitaker, as entertainment is to education. And in the fight for the soul of Doctor Who, the winner of each of those bouts was declared a long time ago. It was at 5.40pm on the evening of 21 December 1963, to be precise. That was when Barbara Wright turned, flattened herself against a wall in terror, and screamed a scream that still echoes down to us today.

Meglos

A DVD review for Doctor Who Magazine from 2011.

________________________________________________________

Meglos begins, and largely remains, on Tigella. It’s one of those dreary single-issue planets – think Karfel, Jaconda or Xeros – found on the unlovely outer rim of Doctor Who. Tigella’s history and culture is laid out in a clunky exchange at the top of Part One. “For thousands of years our lives have been dominated by a mystery,” says Deedrix, assistant under-secretary of exposition. He continues: “The Dodecahedron belongs to all of us, not just the Deons!” “But their religion deserves respect!” replies the elderly Zastor, not wishing us to go uninformed about the nature of these Deons for so much as a second. “Religion! Ha!” scoffs Deedrix, quick to clarify his attitude. And there’s Tigella, ladies and gentlemen. Your reviewer was once knocked down by a speeding Tesco delivery van that introduced itself with more subtlety and wit.

This mysterious Dodecahedron supplies power for the whole Tigellan race – who clearly favour eggs over baskets – but while its output has dwindled for years, its imminent failure is shock news to some. “I tell you that our city is on the edge of total extinction!” wails Deedrix. Zastor responds to this with a startled look of “Holy heck! I’d never considered that!” – which, given that this the only conversation ever held on Tigella, suggests he has a worryingly laissez-faire attitude toward key social issues.

Nothing about Tigella persuades us it could possibly be a real place. If the end is indeed nigh, you think they’d stop squandering their waning wattage on laundry and hair care. The scientist Savants dazzle in Persil biological white, while the cultist Deons shimmy about in acres of chiffon. I say “hair care”, but Tigella is a world of hats, helmets, hoods and headdresses, plus a set of uniquely grievous wigs. In the olden days, the believability of an alien planet in Doctor Who could be measured by the equation T = n ÷ h, where T is the time is minutes until viewer credulity snaps; n is the on-screen population of said planet; and h is the number of hats worn. The Inverse Hat Law means that if everyone is on a given planet has something distracting on their head, there’s no point in trying to tell a considered story about global extinction. (You can, however, have some fun with android princes and crazy weddings.) Modern Doctor Who knows to respect the Inverse Hat Law. Alien planets are a rare sight these days. Alien hats rarer still.

The actors tasked with breathing life into the Tigellans generally acquit themselves well as they fight a losing battle against the syrups and script. Sample dialogue: “Your concurrence, Lexa, can not revoke the laws of physics.” Lexa is the leader of the Deons, and played with quiet dignity by Jacqueline Hill – who in another time was the acme of Doctor Who companions, Barbara Wright. One wonders what the actress made of this trip to a space both strange and familiar. Did she offer Lalla Ward tips on how to act lost in 20ft of jungle? As a High Priestess plotting a human sacrifice, did Hill recall her finest hour as Barbara, battling to prevent one? Did she feel a frisson upon hearing Tigella’s neighbouring world described as “the dead planet”? Hill’s presence short-circuits the first 17 years of Doctor Who, and shows us how little changed over that time.

Here’s something that was as true in 1980 is it was in 1963 – and is in 2011: all good stories need a good villain. Meglos, alas, has Meglos. “I am a plant!” he burbles proudly to his henchmen, the Gaztaks. The conversation that follows, between Meglos and General Grugger of the Gaztaks, is one of the silliest in Doctor Who history. We repeatedly cut between Grugger (actor Bill Fraser arching a pitying eyebrow beneath the flashiest headgear in the whole show; a feral cat asleep under a jelly mould, with a foil star glinting atop the lot in case our attention should wander) and a static shot of a rubber cactus. The scene invites mockery, and deservedly so. It echoes back to us in Victoria Wood’s “I haven’t got the ming-mongs” sketch, David Tennant’s appearance on Extras and countless other send-ups. But it could have been worse. The cactus might have been made to wobble as it talked.

Thankfully, things pep up after Meglos disguises himself as the Doctor. When channeling the rebarbative wit of Tom Baker, he’s at least entertaining. Needing a lift from the Gaztaks, Baker gives Meglos the manner of an arrogant, middle-class homosexual forced to deal with a particularly malodorous and, well… common team of removal men. He can barely bring himself to look at them. On Tigella, when Meglos realizes he needs to pledge himself to a religion he holds in contempt, Baker’s switchback delivery of the line, “I, swear allegiance to Ti? I’ll… I’ll swear allegiance to Ti with great pleasure,” is enormous fun. It’s often said that there’s little difference between Tom Baker’s Doctor and Tom Baker the man, but while the Fourth Doctor is a loveable eccentric 99% of the time, tales from the set paint Baker as an altogether more difficult personality. I think we see some of that cold, cocksure, bullying Baker in his performance here. You can imagine him waving his script in the face of the director. “I, read out this whippet shit?” (Some suitable words of flattery are offered to the recalcitrant star.) “I’ll… I’ll read out this whippet shit with great pleasure.”

All that is interesting about Meglos comes from Tom Baker. Otherwise, he’s Doctor Who’s most lazily sketched villain ever. The Doctor asks him: “Why would a good-looking chap like you want to control the Universe?” Meglos’s reply: “It is beyond your comprehension!” is an epic cop-out that suggests the writers don’t have the foggiest idea either. More irritating still, his fundamental physical nature changes from episode to episode, to suit the whims of what we might indulgently call the plot. First, he’s a self-confessed plant. Later, he seems to be a parasitic intelligence that merely inhabited a cactus in the way then he does a human host. But this is thrown into doubt by a hilarious moment in Part Four when Meglos abandons his human form, and a kind of green carpet bag sidles apologetically from the room. The cast watch it in silent disbelief, studiously avoiding eye contact for fear they might never stop laughing. “He must have modulated himself on a particular wavelength of light,” intuits the Doctor, flying in the face of all empirical evidence. “He must be a latex sack moving on a particular length of string,” would fit the available facts better.

So what’s good about Meglos? As mentioned, there’s a plucky cast doing their best, with Bill Fraser and Frederick Treves as the chief Gaztaks proving the most fun. The first cliffhanger, when Meglos appears as the Doctor, is splendid. The music, from Paddy Kingsland and Peter Howell, the 80s’ most melodic composers, is ahead of its time in Doctor Who terms, offering some catchy themes that would go down well at the Proms.

In the end, however, that counts for little. Fundamentally, Meglos is difficult to love because it’s impossible to care about anything that happens. Our sympathies certainly aren’t roused by the science/religion debate on Tigella – which occupies the lion’s share of this story – as the wig people and the hat people squabble their way to collective suicide. Even the writers appear to lose interest in the Tigellans. We know their underground city and civilisation depends entirely on the power of the Dodecahedron, but then the Doctor disposes of it without offering any substitute. In the final scene, old Zastor is up in the jungle, waving the Doctor farewell as if poised to while away the rest of his days doing a little light gardening. He’ll be fertiliser by sundown.

On the commentary track of this DVD, the story’s co-writer John Flanagan says: “Back then, you could make people believe you were on an alien planet just by having characters say they were, and having a few lights flashing.”

No you couldn’t. And that’s why Meglos went wrong. For a writer, creating a convincing backdrop for a Doctor Who story is the most important task of all. You can’t just decide a cactus wants to take over the universe and think your job is done. We have to be helped believe that characters have an existence beyond what is required by the plot, that they lived in the days before we met them, and will go on living after the Tardis departs.

This principle is what separates good Doctor Who from the bad.

It always has. And it always will.

_______________________________________________________________

DVD EXTRAS

Meglos Men, the disc’s principal documentary, reunites writers Flanagan and Andy McCulloch for a tour of old London haunts. The conceit requires each to tell the other things that they already know. “We’re on our way to the house you’d lived in when we wrote Meglos,” John tells Andrew. “That’s right,” Andrew tells John. It’s all very Deedrix and Zastor.

In the dead of night, they creep up to the home of their Doctor Who script editor, Chronic Hysteresis Bidmead (Address: A Cold High Place Overlooking The Universe). We’re welcomed inside, and it’s nice to have a snoop at the soft furnishings. Sadly, the little Bidmead says is as muddle-headed as ever. “Before I took over Doctor Who, a lot of magic and sorcery stuff had got into it,” he huffs. It’s an ill-informed prejudice based, one imagines, not on the solidly scientific hyperspace storyline of Nightmare of Eden or the neutron star of Creature From the Pit – praised by New Scientist magazine at the time – but upon an unmade Pennant Roberts script left in his desk drawer back in 1980. It was unmade for a reason. It’s not like the season ended with a planet of wizards chanting spells that conjure objects out of thin air. That would be silly.

Finally, there’s mention of Flanagan and McCulloch’s abandoned story Project Zeta Sigma, which was planned to feature a character called ‘Ranwek’ – whose name, the writers tell us with a gleeful chuckle, was an anagram. Gosh. Sometimes this stuff reviews itself.

The undoubted highlight of this DVD is the tribute Jacqueline Hill: A Life In Pictures, which features interviews with the actresses’ husband, Alvin Rakoff, and her friend Ann Davies. It’s a mature piece that stirs emotions. Davies tells how, when her beloved friend was weakened by cancer, she would gently wash Hill’s hair for her. Something about this resonates with the iconography of Barbara Wright – that proud, outrageous hairdo – and the perfect tragedy of it twists at the gut.

Hill died in 1993. But only in one world. In a recent episode of The Sarah Jane Adventures, Sarah told us that Barbara Wright is alive and well and – magically – has never aged a day.

How true that is.

Class 4G and the Zygons

Way, way back in 1995 – when I was editor of Doctor Who Magazine, and when Doctor Who had been off screen for six years – I decided to try a little experiment. I wanted to see how an old serial from the 70s would play to modern 10-year-olds. With the help of the staff of Ibstock Place School in South London, I found a suitable group of kids, and then wrote up their reactions to Terror of the Zygons. (In reproducing the article here, I’ve cut a load of self-indulgent waffle from the start, so we can get straight to good stuff, from the kids.)

It all seemed terribly worthy and bold at the time, talking to ‘a new audience’. Today, with Doctor Who a TV powerhouse, we hear young voices much more frequently. But I think Class 4G had some profound things to say about what Doctor Who‘s priorities should be, and those observations are as true today as they ever were.

These kids are now 26 and 27 years old. Some may well have kids of their own who will be eagerly awaiting Doctor Who‘s return in the autumn. Blimey.

A bit of trivia… It wasn’t appropriate to say at the time, but one of the kids, James, has quite famous parents. 

______________________________________________________________________________

The blurred swarm of children circulating around me eventually coalesces into ten discrete, smiling bodies, each of which settles on a chair, desk or patch of carpet as I call for their attention. All except Willy, who still buzzes around the back of the classroom – enthusiastic but hyperactive. I struggle to maintain some illusion of control as I ask the group to tell me their names (one of them, appropriately, is a Verity), and the names of their favourite television programmes. I invite them to use my first name, which I suspect is taken as a sign of weakness, and they begin chattering again. Their teacher, Miss Brooks, comes to my rescue with some well-chosen words and remarkable voice projection. I leap in and ask how many of them have heard of Doctor Who. All but one put a hand up. James is even able to tell me what the show was about.

Doctor Who is a scientist sort of person who goes into space and then there’s all these monsters that come and get him.” Has he ever seen it? “Yes. About a year ago. It was on Channel Four.” For James, then, Doctor Who was played by Peter Cushing.

A voice from behind me adds: “He goes in a telephone box and travels to different places.”

I wonder if anyone can tell me how long it was on television for. Ben has an answer. “I think it was on for about half-an-hour.” There’s no arguing with that. But what I mean is: how many years was it on for? “Oh, about 50.” Other voices chime out around me. “60 years. 45! 55!”

I take a few moments to fill in a little background about Doctor Who. I then tell them that they’ll be watching a story called Terror of the Zygons, and give a little information about the Doctor, Sarah, Harry and the Brigadier. They show me how to operate the video and we settle down to watch the story.

Part One

I’d watched the serial the previous week with non-fan adult friends, who’d laughed heartily at the opening sequence which seemingly shows the destruction of a one-foot-tall model of an oil rig in a murky bath. My friends warned me that the demanding, wised-up, “ten-year-old-of-today” would be equally critical. However, my junior viewing companions are quiet throughout the episode, and there’s not a chuckle or even a smile as the huge bulk of Bonnie Prince Charlie rig crumbles into the vast expanse of the North Sea.

Some go on to laugh at the Brigadier’s description of the rigs as “three-legged spiders in wellington boots”. Some indicate concern at Sister Lamont’s assurances to Harry that “all his troubles are over”. All seem impressed as a Zygon makes its first appearance and Sarah’s scream slides into the closing theme. As the credits roll, I ask the group to think back to the opening sequence. Jo politely puts her hand up.

“When the man was just sitting there in the oil rig, and then it all fell down, it really brought you into the story,” she says.

Did anyone find the beginning boring?

“Yes,” says Duncan. “I found the end quite a lot more exciting, because the monsters came in and you heard all that funny noise, and you saw the big monster that was chewing up the oil rigs.”

I ask if there were any particular bits they didn’t like. James leans towards my microphone to make sure he’s heard. “It was a bit boring when the men were walking on the moor, it was like…” He searches for the right word and then settles for rolling his eyes and waggling his head in a bored way.

Jo speaks up again: “In some bits I found it hard to follow, but when you keep on watching they explain a lot more about what’s happening.”

If they turned on their TV on a Saturday evening at 6.30pm and watched that episode, would they tune in the following week to see more?

“Yes,” several say. “Definitely!” “Of course!” come the cries of others. I point out that The New Adventures of Superman is now shown at the time when Doctor Who used to be shown. I ask Jo – who had told me it was her favourite programme – why she likes it. “I think it’s very adventurous. I like adventurous stories, and I like the character of Lois Lane. I’ve seen the movie, but I didn’t like it nearly as much as the TV show.”

No-one has listed Star Trek – traditionally seen as Doctor Who’s rival in popularity – as a favourite programme. I mention this, but Karri is quick to point out that he enjoys it. “I like the way they have all the mechanical stuff in it,” he says. “I like the make-up they use as well.”

I observe that one of the main differences between modern Star Trek and  Doctor Who is that the American series rarely has monsters in it. Karri argues the point – “They don’t have monsters, but they have aliens from all kind of planets” – and someone else shouts out, “But they all look the same!”

I wonder what they thought of the special effects in Doctor Who. What about the appearance of the Zygon at the end of the episode? Duncan is the first with his hand up. “The monster is all warty and different colours and it’s got a massive great head that’s all green.” But was it a good monster? “Yes, in Star Trek you have all these different aliens and they’re, like, deformed – their ears are spikey or something – but most of them just have different clothes on, which makes it a bit boring.” He takes a breath and plows on. “Doctor Who monsters are totally different to Star Trek ones because they’re really strange aliens who can do better things.”

Changing the subject, I ask about the actors in the episode. No-one thinks the episode was badly acted, but there are a few comments on the lead character, who they find difficult to warm to. “He’s really weird,” says Ben. “He wasn’t listening to everyone else. He was just playing with his radio or whatever – his jamming thing.” Why was that? “It’s cos he’s not bothered. He came, like, 296 million miles just to deal with oil rigs falling down. He wasn’t very happy about it. He’s more used to worrying about monsters and the Daleks and things like that.”

Jo says that she didn’t like the Doctor. “His hair really gets on my nerves,” she says. “He’s got too much hair.”

“Yeah,” chips in Duncan. “He could be one of the monsters. He sits there with his massive great eyes staring at a blank wall. He’s like a zombie.” Willy disagrees. “I think the way Doctor Who acted was good, because he made it realistic. He was quite a weird person so he was interesting as well.”

It’s time for another episode.

Part Two

The group is rowdier this time, more confident, and more inclined to make comments while viewing. When two Zygons drag Harry before their leader, a voice out of the darkness exclaims, with barely-surpressed awe: “There’s millions of them!” I smile to myself. The production team could, in fact, only afford three costumes, so the other 999,997 are likely to stay in the next room. Partway through the episode, Willy realises that Huckle, the oil company official, is supposed to be American, effectively condemning actor Tony Sibbald’s performance to that point. Very politely, many of them also fill me in on the goings-on in the part of the episode I miss when I pop outside to check my tape-recorder.

Then, just as Sarah follows Zygon-Harry into the darkened barn, Karri quietly says “Uh-oh,” and moves to watch from underneath his desk, through the legs of the chairs. If there was a sofa in the room, he would be behind it. However, my warm feeling of “Ah, perhaps some things will never change…” is brutally dispelled when ‘Harry’ thrusts a pitch-fork at Sarah and Willy gleefully shouts “Stab her!”

After the video is switched off, I ask them when they think the story was made. 1955, 1950, 1960, 1960, 1962, 1961, 1962, 1974, 1962, 1968 are their answers. Wondering what made them choose those years, I pick on one of those who said 1960. “The colour of the thing makes it seem a lot older that it probably is,” says Ben. “It didn’t have much colour in.” “And the way it was filmed,” Willy adds. “Like when he was being chased by the Loch Ness Monster and he looked one way and then the other. That was old fashioned.”

Duncan has something to say about the Skarasen. “Well, Jurassic Park  basically copied him completely. It was a massive, fat, big, scaly dinosaur.” What did Duncan think of Jurassic Park’s dinosaurs compared to that one? “Jurassic Park’s are much better,” he says, with a smile. But could he believe in the Doctor Who monster? “Oh yes…” he says. “Just”

Some are unhappy with it: “I thought it was totally unrealistic.” “It was just like an overgrown tortoise.” But James is more tolerant. “Back in the 70s that was the best you could do, –you couldn’t get much better than that.”

What about the Zygons?

“I thought they were very realistic,” says Jo. “The way they talked – the whole of their cheeks and everything moved as they talked which made them look very real.” James agrees: “I thought they were really good. I liked the way their spaceship wasn’t a big metal thing and was like them – all squidgy and bloody.” (The space-ship interior had gone down very well. During the episode, they had all mimicked Broton at the console when he ordered “total dispersion” of Madra – frantically waggling imaginary controls. )

Jo liked the scene that caused Karri problems: Harry’s pitch-fork attack on Sarah in the barn, a scene which was trimmed on the serial’s video release in order to secure the tape a PG certificate. I told her that in the seventies, people thought that scene was too scary for children. She shrugs. “It was quite scary, but it wouldn’t make you have nightmares.”

Willy expands on the point. “It depends on how old you are. If you were six or something it would be too much. It’s okay if you’re 10, but at 12 or 13 you wouldn’t be scared at all. I scare easily, but I didn’t get frightened by that.”

Part Three

The episode passes almost without comment. The audience seem enraptured. During the end credits, I ask for any general observations. Jo, however, wants to get specific. “When the nurse had been shot as a monster and then changed back into a nurse, the blood on her arm was very fake. It looked like it had been moulded in plasticine or something.”

Verity is generous with her praise: “I thought it was all really, really good. Especially when the spaceship came through the water.”

Willy, once again going against the flow, is pessimistic. “I think the end of the last episode is going to be really bad. Like most things, the end is going to be all sloppy, and that’s no good if it’s built up for four episodes.”

Everyone agrees, however, that sinister Sister Lamont is very unnerving. In fact, almost all of the group can already do a passable imitation of her, hissing: “It’s alright, you’re going to be just fine,” or “It’s just a scratch.”

Erin knows what makes a monster disguised as a nurse more scary than the monster itself: “She’s scary because she’s real. You’re going to be scared when you go to the doctors.”

Alex makes an unexpected comparison. “I didn’t like the nurse because she had that horrible stare, a really glassy stare. Just like Doctor Who himself.”

I ask them to compare what they’re watching to their usual television diet. Willy chooses Power Rangers as his reference point again and says, “Doctor Who spends more money on the storyline than on special effects.” Which is more important? “You can forgive a bad special effect but you can’t forgive a bad story. The effects have only got to be good enough. In some programmes they take too much time on the effects. They work out the story, but then they think: ‘Oh we’ll get the story done quickly so we can start working out special effects to make it look that we’re bothered about more than just good special effects.”

Ruby also thinks Doctor Who has its priorities right. “It’s good that they spend as much time getting the clothes and acting and everything right, as they do on the effects.” But some of the boys seem slightly alarmed by this line of thought, and signal caution. “If you have really rubbish special effects then you can get bored. You do want something really massive to blow up every now and again.”

I promise to arrange a really big explosion for Part Four.

Willy neatly demonstrates how Doctor Who’s five-year absence from our screens, barring the odd repeat, has given his age-group a strange view of the series’ nature. “The thing I hate most about Doctor Who,” he says firmly, “is that in each story, whether it’s four episodes or whatever, there is a different Doctor Who. There’s this one we’ve watched with the big hair, and there’s the other one who just wears the hat. It’s always different.” I wonder if he could possibly remember Sylvester McCoy, before asking the group if anyone has seen another actor playing Doctor Who. 

“There’s this other story where the Doctor is really, really grey and he’s an old grump.”

When I ask if anyone has seen the Daleks, almost all respond positively, and several start chanting “Exterminate! Exterminate!”

“Are they the ones that go round on wheels?” asks Jo.

Part Four

25 minutes later, the Zygon invasion has been repelled, the Skarasen is back in Loch Ness and the Doctor and Sarah are off on another adventure. And Verity is the first off the blocks. “I thought that had a really good ending.” She’s almost drowned out. “It was great!” “The explosion was brilliant!”

I invite them to put a hand up if they were disappointed by the ending. Only Duncan’s hand goes up. “They killed everyone on the spaceship just like that,” he says, clicking his fingers. “And they found the right place in London just at the right time.”

James defends the plotting. “It’s because they had the proof already.” Looking like she is about to burst, Jo is keen to be heard. “There’s only one thing I can really say about that movie and it’s that I think it was just brilliant!”

Ruby is unsure of a few things – she’d had to leave during Part Two to attend a music lesson. “I don’t understand how the last Zygon survived and got to London.” Everyone helpfully explains about the true nature of the Duke of Forgill, and how he left the ship before it exploded. Ruby nods. “I didn’t understand that.”

Back to our favourite subject: special effects. What did they think about the Skarasen’s final appearance? Someone shouts “Wicked!”, but Jo is more damning. “I thought it was really funny.”  Verity agrees. “It was so unrealistic.” But Erin doesn’t want any aspect of the serial to be criticised. “I thought it was all brilliant,” she says.

Ruby is still having problems. “But what was the actual aim of the monsters doing what they did?” James neatly summarises the plot for her, without a pause for breath. “Their planet got muffed up or something and they went to Earth to try and take it over using humans as slaves so they could recreate their world… Basically.”

I offer them a chance to make any final points.

Alex: “I loved the film, but the dinosaur wasn’t very realistic.”

Ruby: “If somebody asked me what my three favourite programmes were now, like you did, then that would be one of them.”

Verity: “I thought it was really good, but it was a bit slow at the beginning.”

Ben: “I liked how they had it in four episodes.” I explain that normally the story would have been shown over four weeks, so it would have taken a whole month to see how it ended.

Willy: “I disagree with Ben. A month is a long time to wait to see the end of what is just a two-hour film.”

Jo: “I would watch that. It’s one of those films that I would want to watch on a rainy day.”

James: “I thought it was quite good. I wouldn’t mind having to wait for the next episode. It makes you want to watch it.”

Karri: “I thought the whole thing was good. The special effects aren’t as good as Star Trek, but it didn’t matter because the acting and the story were so good.”

Ben: “I really liked all of it. I loved the fungi in the spaceship. Like Ruby said, if I had to do a list of my best programmes, I’d probably put it as my second-best programme.”

Epilogue

So, after four episodes, what have we learned from Class 4G? Their response to Doctor Who has been enthusiastic and almost overwhelmingly positive. They have championed the importance of a good story above all other factors, including special effects. Most importantly, my new friends have highlighted what a short-sighted decision the cancellation of Doctor Who has proved to be. The series may have lost its primary audience in its last years, but it remains as relevant today as it was on the afternoon afternoon of Saturday 23 November 1963. Its ability to engage the imagination, to excite, to frighten and to thrill is undiminished.

All Doctor Who needs to do upon its return is to rediscover its roots and the few key concepts and ideas upon which it was built. Poor special effects can be forgiven, as long as they are dictated by an ambitious and imaginative script. Doctor Who is so well-loved because it never let its vision be dictated by the limitations of its budget.

Finally, I ask the group perhaps the most important question of all… If Doctor Who came on next week, who would watch it? They all put a hand up enthusiastically. “I’ve got two hands up!” “I’ve got a leg as well!”

Willy, however – always keen to go against the grain – is more reticent.

“It depends what else is on,” he says.

The Five Doctors

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

This my first DVD review for DWM. I was very nervous and I think my lack of confidence shows. But I still like the description of the Raston Robot.

______________________________________________________________________________
The plot of Doctor Who‘s special 20th birthday bunfight – endearing in its simplicity – sees five versions of the our hero, and a gaggle of companions, dragged to Gallifrey, where a mystery foe uses them to reveal a key secret from Time Lord history. They are brought together in the desolate Death Zone – where the Doctor’s people used to set monsters fighting each other for laughs. This must have been like some high-end version of the Battles In Time trading card game. “I have a Navarino,” booms Omega. “Agility 4400”. “Ha-ha!” scoffs Rassilon. “A Voord! Agility 5200! I conquer your slate quarry!”

Ultimately, this uncomplicated story is merely a mechanism to drag guests to the birthday party. And what a party! While – is essentially critic-proof – it would be churlish to pick holes in something so entirely well-meaning – the truth remains that the episode is a rock solid success. The cast are clearly having a ball, and that enthusiasm proves infectious. This is 90 minutes of unalloyed delight.

While Patrick Troughton undoubtedly steals the show – his scenes with Nick Courtney’s Brigadier have an effortless charm – the two other shining stars of the story are more frequently damned for who they are not than praised for who they are. Richard Hurndall’s performance is no mere imitation of William Hartnell. In a few short scenes he creates a new, bone fide incarnation of the Doctor, who more then holds his own against his more established counterparts. You feel he could easily carry a whole new series of adventures on his own – it’s a magnificent achievement. Similarly, Anthony Ainley’s Master is just as much fun to be around as the Roger Delgado model version ever was. His fruity, pouting delivery makes you want to repeat all his lines straight back at him. (Note: for your best Ainley impression, remember to speak with both teeth and buttocks clenched at all times). He’s the star of the early scenes in the Time Lords’ special dining room – with only President Borusa’s preposterous hat offering serious competition.

Doctors and Master aside, it’s the monsters that give The Five Doctors its more impressive moments – and provide some of the most striking images from 80s Doctor Who. The lone Dalek may explode with the dull crack of splintering chipboard, but the chittering, dribbling creature revealed within is genuinely grotesque, and creepier in its way than the chatty starfish that inhabit their modern day cousins. It is odd, however, that the Doctor claims the Cybermen and the Daleks were never previously invited to the Death Zone, because “they played the games too well”. Not on this evidence, they don’t. The Cybermen repeatedly shamble to their own slaughter, most notably at the hands of the Raston Robot pert-bottomed master of the grand jeté and the mini-frisbee. The justly famous ‘Cyber massacre’ sequence holds up well today aside perhaps from the comic moment when five Cybermen turn to camera in a neat row, like Westlife readying for a key change. Any sensible child will especially love the lone trooper who, in the face of this onslaught, chucks up his lunch. Monsters were forever puking in the 80s, but you don’t see so much of that these days. Perhaps such striking, adult imagery is best reserved for Torchwood.

As this double DVD serves up both 1983 broadcast edition of The Five Doctors and the 1995 Special Edition – which incorporates 12 minutes of additional material into a new edit, with souped-up special effects – it’s proof that you can have too much of a good thing. The original version remains the best – as the longer scenes in the re-cut only serve to slow down the action.

Finally, this birthday romp also serves as a timely reminder that Doctor Who celebrates its 45th anniversary this year – and sets one dreaming of a The Ten Doctors special. Just picture it… Tennant and the rest – plus three old blokes in wigs and a waxwork of Christopher Eccleston – chased across Snowdonia by the Graske, two Slitheen and Kate O’Mara. TV gold!

__________________________________________________________

EXTRAS

“1983 was a compelling compendium of a year,” alliterates host Colin Baker in his introduction to the principal documentary on these discs. “Full of creatures, consoles and crowds” Oh yes, you couldn’t move for consoles in 1983 – everywhere, they were. Colin then adds: “It was vintage year for roundels, you might say.” Indeed you might… but I’d rather you didn’t, on account of the statement being entirely meaningless.

This curiously meandering programme, Celebration, looks back at the hype and hoopla of Doctor Who‘s 20th birthday, offers a potted history of the development of The Five Doctors, and remembers the Longleat event of Easter 1983, when over 15 million people (approx) attended a Doctor Who exhibition and meet-and-greet in Wiltshire, queuing for hours in sucking mud for a chance to look at the Ergon. Writer Paul Cornell describes the event as “Doctor Who fandom’s Woodstock” – which, according to the memory of this attendee, glamorises things a little. It was enormous fun, of course, but more like Southport Flower Show than Woodstock, albeit with added creatures, crowds… and a console.

Either of these subjects could happily support a documentary of its own, as the misty-eyed “you had to be there” fan reminiscence seems rather trivial alongside the details of the production team’s battle to stage The Five Doctors at all. Both viewpoints are of interest, of course, but neither is well served by being hitched to the other.

Frankly, the biggest question raised by the celebrity interviews here is: “How the hell does Elisabeth Sladen still look so young?” Never mind Rassilon’s ring – it’s here Borusa should be looking for the secret of immortality.

Lis is the undoubted star of the Companions Commentary on the original Five Doctors, on which she’s joined by Carole Ann Ford (Susan), Nick Courtney (the Brig) and Mark Strickson (Turlough). Now fully adapted to the fast pace modern TV production, you can almost hear Lis’ teeth grinding with impatience during slow-moving scenes. “Cut it now! Go on! Cut!” she shouts as Philip Latham lazily fondles his harp, before quietly reminding herself to find something nice to say. Happily, her resolve crumbles within seconds.

This is just one of three commentaries available here. The Special Edition comes with a rather subdued Peter Davison and Terrance Dicks conversation recorded in 2001 for the US release of the story. Completing the set is a novelty ‘easter egg’ commentary featuring Cardiff-era producer Phil Collinson, script writer Helen Raynor and David Tennant himself. This trio, Doctor Who devotees of long standing, are charmingly enthusiastic but professionally polite. However, while it’s fun to watch an old episode in the company of the show’s current star, you find yourself yearning for some brutally honest criticism – “That Paul Jerricho. He’s rubbish, isn’t he?” – but none is forthcoming. And these people call themselves fans? Tsk.

Contemporary Doctor Who items from Saturday Superstore, and Blue Peter are welcome additions to this set – the latter for the fun of presenter Peter Duncan stumbling his way through an unnecessarily detailed plot summary of The Android Invasion. Features from Breakfast Time and Nationwide offer rare interviews with the adorable Patrick Troughton, where the old rogue enjoys a jolly good flirt with Sue Lawley and Selina Scott.

However, the highlight of this entire set of extras is, without doubt, the fascinating 20 minutes of raw studio footage from the recording of the Tomb of Rassilon scenes, showing shots being lined up, actors gently bickering and Pertwee’s bouffant being re-fluffed every 30 seconds. Star of the show is bossy-boots production manager Jeremy Silberston, an 80s superman in tight denims and ‘Man At C&A’ sweater. Jeremy went on to help co-create Midsomer Murders and Foyle’s War, fact fans, and once stole John Nathan-Turner’s girlfriend. There’s few men in this world who can claim that.