Four To Doomsday

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

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There is a psychological response known as Stockholm Syndrome, which identifies the behaviour of a hostage who develops strong feelings of emotional attachment to their kidnapper, no matter how terrible the acts of cruelty perpetrated upon them.

2008 has proved to be The Year Of Terence Dudley, with three of his four Doctor Who stories released on DVD. Following the anaemic Black Orchid and K9 and Company – which at least have brevity on their side – we now have Dudley’s magnum opus, 1982’s Four To Doomsday. The fact your reviewer finds so much to enjoy in this serial suggests that sustained proximity to its author has eroded his judgement and softened his heart. Marriage would be on the cards if Dudley hadn’t been dead for 10 years.

Turn the colour down on Part One and you could be watching a Hartnell story, as the Doctor and his chorus line of companions pour out of the TARDIS to poke around a spooky spaceship, discuss what various props might be, and greet the opening of a door as if it’s the single most thrilling moment of their lives to date. Nyssa delivers the first of a script-full of daft lines with: “On Traken, the interferometer superseded the crystal.” My god! Really? From that we can deduce… Oh, nothing at all. The Doctor’s reply – “Yes! That’s what’s interesting” – suggests his fifth incarnation either has a worrying lack of perspective, or is a master of sarcasm.

One hour and eight minutes – nearly three episodes – then pass before the Doctor faces any immediate threat to his life, which must be a record. Until that happy moment, it’s all a bit Come Dine With Me, as the Doctor and company meet their host – Monarch the urbane Urbankan – and poke around his home, before enjoying a light meal and a spot of postprandial entertainment. All of Terence Dudley’s stories pause for a cold buffet at some stage.

In fits and starts, we learn that our planet is under threat. Monarch has visited Earth four times, scooping up a gaggle of indigenous peoples and turning them into androids. To help speed the millennia-long journey, he makes them dance for him – a sort of Earth’s Got Talent. On this visit, however, Monarch is coming for good. That’s rather a shame, as we’re left to wonder who from 1981 might have been added to his show bill. Would a robot Roxy Music have been playing out eternity? Bucks Fizz? Joe Dolce? “There is a sensitivity in his persona which suggests what in the Flesh Time was called soul.” “Ah, shaddup-a your face.”

But somehow, despite the dancing and general mooching around, Four To Doomsday holds our interest. It’s almost ‘about’ something, as Dudley seems to be musing upon the nature of identity and free will – and in this, we’re once again reminded of Doctor Who’s earliest years. While you have to unpick some abstruse conversations between Monarch and his Urbankan flunkies, Enlightenment and Persuasion, to get to the subtext, these scenes are lifted by a splendid performance from Stratford Johns, who actually seems to understand the significance of every word Monarch says.

There’s some terrible dialogue flying about. While describing the Time Lords, Adric all but reads out The Doctor Who Programme Guide; with Rassilon, the Eye of Harmony, twin hearts, self-induced trances and even the TARDIS power room mentioned within the space of a few seconds. Why stop there? Throw in the transduction barriers and an ormolu clock while you’re at it. There’s also one of the great Doctor Who Conversations We Never See, when after Nyssa’s first mention of the Master, we cut briefly elsewhere, and then back to Monarch saying: “I grieve for you my child, that your father should have met such a fate.” Clearly Nyssa has just related the plot of The Keeper Of Traken, and possibly Logopolis and Castrovalva into the bargain: “And then – oh, you’ll never guess – it turned out the Watcher was the Doctor all the time!”

But I digress. Stratford Johns is not only the best thing about this story, he gives one of Doctor Who’s most assured guest performances full stop, despite having to peer out through the skin of an unripe avocado. His finest moment comes when Enlightenment alliterates a fawning tribute to him – “Nyssa, as a bioengineer, you, more than most, should marvel at the might of our Monarch” – and Johns gives a little cough, feigning modesty. Sublime.

Also worth the admission is Paul Shelley’s droll Persuasion, especially when he nobbles the rebel android Bigon and the Doctor at the end of Part Three: “De-circuit that! And kill him!” Annie Lambert’s Enlightenment is less cool, but there’s a great moment in the final episode when the Urbankans take a break from the storyline to watch some men’s topless wrestling. Breathy and pouting, Enlightenment’s clearly pining for a bit of the old Flesh Time herself. She also gives a divinely camp little wave when she later casts the Doctor into space. You can’t fake that sort of class.

Offering some superb design and effects work – the floating Monopticons are particularly impressive – and three entertaining cliffhangers, Four To Doomsday has plenty of hooks. But frustratingly, Monarch’s plan never quite comes into focus, so it’s a struggle to care. First it’s invasion, then mining the Earth’s resources, then something about an accelerating spaceship and a trip at the speed of light to find himself at the beginning of the Universe. Jesus H Bidmead – what’s all that about? In the end, you’re left with a feeling that Four To Doomsday is either very clever or very dumb. But if it’s the former, it’s certainly travelling under a very cunning disguise as the latter. More frog than prince.

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DVD EXTRAS

Though light on extras, this DVD still offers plenty of additional entertainment. For this reviewer, the highlight is a 5.1 surround mix of the Peter Howell version of the theme tune – the soundtrack to his childhood. And it’s the whole shebang, complete with the octave-climbing ‘dum-dum-dum-dum-dum-(there’s seven of these, so bear with me)-dum-dum… Ooo-ee-ooo’ bit. Goosebumpy stuff.

There’s some fascinating footage from the studio floor, covering Peter Davison’s first day in harness. Despite his reported misgivings, the star seems instantly at home, flicking switches with Doctorly elan. This material really brings home what a bizarre job acting is – acting in Doctor Who more so. At one point, Matthew Waterhouse (Adric) receives direction via the floor manager. “Can you look at my hand and look dejected?” he’s told. This doesn’t prove much of a challenge for the lad. He appears thoroughly depressed throughout.

A contemporary item from Saturday Night at the Mill sees Davison interviewed by Bob Langley, for whom the content of his autocue appears to be a ongoing source of surprise. Before stirring up a chocolate milkshake that looks like the product of a sewage outflow, Davison considers his future with Doctor Who, commenting that he’s “dreading addressing the Doctor Who societies”. Hopefully we didn’t prove too scary in the end, Peter. Well, perhaps that man from Norwich with the tattoo of Anthony Ainley.

Sadly, Davison is more muted that usual on the commentary, where the quartet of regulars are joined by director John Black. This holds them back from having their usual bitch, and so they talk a lot about how nice the sets look instead. Oddly, the actors seem to play to character here, with Davison taking a confident lead and Sarah Sutton (Nyssa) just being jolly nice about things. Waterhouse (Adric) is suitably cocky – “There’s a stunningly glamorous photo of me in that spacesuit” – and Janet Fielding (Tegan) bemoans her lot. The actress feels she wasn’t treated with due respect by the BBC while making Doctor Who, but you come to suspect she would still be grumbling even if they’d made three seasons of The Janet Fielding Show and then appointed her Director-General.

The War Machines

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

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Nothing dates more quickly than a prediction of the future. In this adventure from 1966, we meet one Professor Brett, who has the future very much in mind. He’s developed the supercomputer WOTAN, and is poised to link it into a network of other computers around the world. An international network, if you will, with a world-wide web of connections. What a ridiculous idea. But Brett foresees how this innovation might benefit mankind. He’ll be able ‘go online’ to discuss the latest episode of Dr Finlay’s Casebook with friends in Barnsley (“Janet must Go NOW!!1! LOL!”), or poke ex-girlfriends who’ve long since left the country to avoid him.

WOTAN has been installed at the top of Post Office Tower, which is a bad sign. Over the coming decades, the Tower will earn a reputation as a home to malign powers. In the eighties, Noel Edmonds will be found there most Christmases. The Doctor certainly has a bad vibe about the place, and peers suspiciously at WOTAN. WOTAN, who has a face of sorts, peers suspiciously back, one eye narrowed. Never trust a computer with a squint.

The Doctor’s assistant, Dodo, is impressed that WOTAN revels it knows what ‘TARDIS’ stands for, but our suspicions are raised by its possession of such arcane knowledge. And we’re not alone in our doubts. At a press conference to announce the great computer link-up, a reporter asks if WOTAN might get ideas above its station, and decide it can do without mankind altogether. Sir Charles Summer, the man from the ministry, gives the rather limp reply: “Oh, I hardly think it will come to that.” Now that’s not very comforting, is it? Imagine a similar scene in real life: “Does the minister think the nuclear power station might go into meltdown and irradiate the whole of Scotland for 500 generations?” “Oh, I hardly think it will come to that.”

Sure enough, WOTAN has decided to do without mankind altogether – well, after mankind has opened some boxes for him – and starts hypnotising people, either in person, or over the phone. Possession has a wide range of effects on people. Dodo, for example, become incredibly sarcastic, taking a pop at anyone who gets in her way. Professor Brett, who has stumbled through his early scenes, suddenly gets very good on his lines, as if WOTAN has uploaded a PDF of the script to his brain. The computer then orders the construction of robots that will aid the subjugation of humanity. This takes us to into part two – and just as wheels are being fitted to the War Machines, the wheels start to come off The War Machines.

This a great little story overall, with an excellent first episode that really hits the ground running, and a lovely performance from William Hartnell. However, when Team WOTAN start to build and test and re-test their robots, the plot slows to a snail’s pace. If a funeral procession moved at this speed, it would be dispersed by the police long before it reached the cemetery. Spunky new companions Ben and Polly help to maintain our interest – with Michael Craze and Anneke Wills bringing warmth and conviction to their performances – until drama finally floods back at the end of part three, thanks to a striking action sequence as the army battle a War Machine. And as the troops retreat, we have one of the series’ best ‘Doctor’ moments, where he stands alone and resolute in the face of the enemy – armed only with his wits and two firmly-clutched lapels.

The War Machines may not have predicted the future of computing with any great accuracy, but it certainly predicted the future of Doctor Who. There’s something fishy going down at a London landmark, and some everyday detail of modern life – in this case, the phone – is subverted by the forces of evil. A moment’s stock footage of Battersea Power Station, suggesting killer robots are being assembled there, reminds us of the Cybermen’s recent rise.

However, there’s only one vital ingredient missing from the mix – a decent villain. Back in 1966, the very idea of machines conquering the Earth would have been scary enough in itself, but now that they have, we feel the absence of a worthy rival for the Doctor. Professor Brett is entirely unburdened by charisma, and WOTAN himself should have worked up a decent speech synthesizer before bending his 16k RAM to the design of groovy tanks. While he may be able to type faster than Polly, and win every game of Trivial Pursuit, WOTAN fails to even program his own robots correctly, rendering them of limited threat.

The Doctor is at his best when facing an intelligence equal to his own – and WOTAN is, without doubt, the most ineffectual villain in the series’ long history.

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DVD EXTRAS

You can become an overnight expert on the Post Office Tower thanks to episodes of Blue Peter and the social history series One Foot In The Past, with each taking a spin in the revolving restaurant. The latter film is fascinating, as our guide is the former Postmaster General, Tony Benn. His distinctive voice is captivating, and his enthusiasm contagious. He’s justly proud of his Powsht Offish Taah.

On Blue Peter, Christopher Trace shows us how we can build a model of the Taah using the huge roll of corrugated cardboard we all have knocking about the house. One hopes that a new generation of fans will construct their own replica in advance of Character Options’ hotly-anticipated release of a Dodo action figure. We have waited too long. Further Blue Peter clips introduce the War Machines and couple of lopsided Daleks built by viewers – one of which reportedly gave an arithmetic lesson to a school in Barnstaple. (“If Dalek Caan requires 40 rels to exterminate the population of Devon, how long would the whole Cult of Skaro need? YOU WILL ANSWER!”)

Praise is due to the Restoration Team for applying the magical VidFire process to these old Blue Peters. In fact, so crisp and beautiful are the clips, your reviewer thought the original videotape had been discovered, until he checked on the internet. And if that isn’t enough, you’ll want to kiss the Restoration Team full on the mouth after watching the documentary WOTAN Assembly, which looks at how The War Machines has been lovingly pieced together from a crazy variety of sources – an off-air soundtrack recording, clips censored in Australia, episodes found in the wilds of Nigeria… The skill, care and ingenuity on display is breathtaking, and I take my Astrakhan hat off to all involved.

Another short documentary in the Now And Then series is just one script edit short of excellence. Have fun counting the times the word ‘originally’ is used as you take a tour of filming locations with a listless voiceover man in tow. The ‘info text’ is full of facts, from the perfectly practical to the spectacularly useless. It’s a delight to discover that Margot Hayhoe, future production manager of Snakedance, is hidden inside WOTAN, spinning his tape reels by hand. Even the lovely photo library brings small revelations. There’s a shot of actor William Mervyn rehearsing a scene with a fag in his hand. What decadence! One assumes there’s a small sherry just out of frame.

For the best insight into The War Machines, turn to the excellent commentary by Anneke Wills and director Michael Ferguson. It’s rich with detail and humour, even though it must sometimes be difficult for them to look so far back into their own life stories. After all, many of the cast and crew – names to us, but friends to them – are now dead. There’s a moving moment when Ferguson wonders if Michael Craze had a successful career following Doctor Who. “Was he an ambitious man?” he asks Wills. “Michael was ambitious just to be happy,” replies the actress with a melancholy air – watching a beautiful young man with his whole life ahead of him, while mourning an old friend who was taken too soon.

The Invisible Enemy and K9 & Company

A review of the ‘K9 Tales’ DVD box set for Doctor Who Magazine, from June 2008

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The greatest disappointment apropos the enemy of 1977’s The Invisible Enemy is that it fails to live up to the promise of the title. In part three, the Nucleus Of The Virus Of The Swarm becomes all too visible. It’s the actors you feel sorry for. No one knows quite where to look. When this ludicrous creature – a shrimp inflated to the size of schoolboy – rants at a bed-bound Doctor, it pokes a wiry frond alarmingly close to Tom Baker’s right eye. Our star, bored as you like, bats it lazily aside, his mind perhaps drifting back to happier days when he faced more credible foes, such as 10 square yards of shagpile moonlighting as a giant rat.

But Tom’s got the easy job. It’s John Scott Martin, squished into this rattling monstrosity, who truly deserves our pity. Slaving away on Equity minimum, likely lacerated by fibreglass splinters and high on epoxy resin, it’s a miracle he survived the studio. Thankfully, he’s briefly allowed out of harness in part four when, in one of Doctor Who’s finest technical blunders, John can be glimpsed, sans fronds, in the doorway of a fuel tank on Titan, looking for all the world like he’s sat on the toilet.

Production missteps aside, The Invisible Enemy has a neat idea at its heart. The Doctor is infected with an evil space virus, and our hero has to be cloned, miniaturised and injected into his own head to defeat it. The science is grotesque malarkey of course, but this story of the microcosm making an assault on the macrocosm gives the serial unparalleled scope, having the Doctor race first across the solar system, and later the hemispheres of his brain. Few other stories – then or now – have such fearless ambition, and fearless ambition is the great engine of Doctor Who.

However, it isn’t the zany plot that’s earned this story box-set status, for The Invisible Enemy sees the first appearance of our chirpy robot chum, K9. Over the years, K9 had neatly divided fandom into those who love him, and those who are wrong. You see, it’s not without good reason that he’s still a player in the world of Doctor Who today. Credit is due to writers Bob Baker and Dave Martin for showing uncharacteristic self-control in making K9 a dog in name only. Given the personality of a fussy old man – thanks also to the vocal skill of John Leeson – K9’s pompous pedantry makes him an ideal foil to the freewheeling Doctor, like a little robot Brigadier.

But the true hero of this tale is designer Tony Harding – the man who made K9 beautiful. The chief reason for the dog’s success is that he’s just so pleasing to look at. Something about his very proportions gladdens the heart and brings a smile to the face. It’s a tragedy that as far as today’s The Sarah Jane Adventures is concerned, K9 has his nose stuck in a black hole and his arse jammed in a rights negotiation. Forget the naff cartoon, Bob – and let our puppy run back home. There are a million children ready to play with him.

Mention of Sarah brings us to the other half of this box-set… But first – a public health warning. Laminate your eardrums! Scotchguard your retinas! The titles and theme music of 1981’s K9 and Company have been remastered. Danger! Mistress! Danger!

Searing sharp and shriller than ever, the feeling of astonishment provoked by this opening sequence is only tempered by the sheer horror of it. Halfway through, you have to remind yourself of the necessity to breathe. Sarah’s jogging down a damp country lane is the definite lowlight. Even K9 – having apparently hopped on to a drystone wall to watch his mistress stride gamely past – looks down upon the endeavour with appropriate disdain.

At this point, your reviewer must admit a certain prejudice. He loves K9 and Company with a passion verging on the certifiable. At home, it’s an interactive Christmas treat, offering plenty of chances to boo, cheer, and shout dialogue back at the screen. (“We haven’t got any roundabouts!”) However, mental health issues aside, a more realistic judgment is that, at best, K9 and Company meanders through only the lower levels of excitement.

It could all have been so much better if the script hadn’t dribbled from the lazy, lazy mind of writer Terence Dudley. With April’s DVD, Black Orchid, Dudley gave us a murder mystery without any mystery. Here, in a grim twist, he gives us a murder mystery without any murder. Sure, Sarah is convinced that something nasty has happened to her Aunt Lavinia (the world’s only superstar virologist, who’d probably kill for a chance to be poked by the Nucleus of the Swarm), but it transpires that Lavina merely left for New York early. But given that a black magic coven burns a picture of Lavinia in the opening scene, it means the entire story is predicated upon a whopping great red herring. That takes some nerve. We are then presented with a series of suspects for a crime that hasn’t happened – which is a painful waste of time or an adorable pantomime, depending on your point of view. If you’re willing to kick back and go with this latter assessment, Linda Polan’s voluptuous Juno “She’ll come” Baker is a camp classic. Then there’s Colin Jeavons as the sinister George “I’m Tracy” Tracey. No one does ‘baleful’ like Jeavons – he has the whole Peter Mandelson vibe down pat.

If you’re in the right frame of mind, K9 and Company is total riot. At least there’s plenty happening, and the supporting characters are fun to be around. We also get 45 minutes of Lis Sladen, one of Doctor Who’s greatest performers. Just watch the play of emotions across her face when K9 tells Sarah he’s a gift from the Doctor. In fact, watch her closely in any scene – you’ll never see an actor working so hard to lift such thin material. What a star.

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DVD EXTRAS

K9 and Company, whatever you may think of it, is a fascinating digression in the story of Doctor Who, so the feeble documentary served up here is a disappointment. Production values are low – with the audio for the interviews seemingly recorded in a bathroom using two plastic cups and length of taut twine – and the content unfocused. And no mention of The Sarah Jane Adventures? Really? Thank goodness for a rewarding commentary and delightfully arch ‘info text’, both full of fascinating anecdotes and trivia.

Back to The Invisible Enemy, where things are much healthier. If you have the patience for a bit of fuzzy black-and-white VHS, then there’s gold to be found among the Studio Sweepings – a collection of raw behind-the-scenes footage. Given the rate the team had to rip through the as-live special effects work, it boggles the mind that these episodes got made at all. We get to see Tom Baker practically direct the show from the studio floor, and so better understand the dichotomy of opinion between the ex-colleagues who remember him as an arrogant monster, and those who fondly recall a creative genius. Inventive and irritable by turn, Tom obliterates the will of every anyone caught within the blast radius of his personality.

The principal documentary, Dreams And Fantasy, is a treat, and catches up with a host of key players from this story. (Well, bar Tom, who appears to be enjoying another self-imposed exile from the Doctor Who nostalgia industry.) Director Richard Higson, new to these DVDs, delivers a witty and considered production, clearly taking his lead from the best contributors to the range, Ed Stradling and Steve Broster. But as for the input of the fan commentator employed here… Well, I’ve been asked to pass on his sincere apologies. He’s got a new job now, so we won’t be seeing him again.

Finally, Visual Effect is an interesting look at the generally superior model work for the story, and sees Mat Irvine chat to Ian Scoones, who looked after the good stuff. Irvine delights the old chap by pulling miniature spaceships from under his seat, and the pair grumble about how computers have replaced traditional special effects techniques. “In those days, if you saw a model landscape, it was real model landscape,” says Irvine at one point. Something for armchair philosophers to ponder there. Ironically, this disc also offers a suite of Alternative Effects, which in some instances contrive to suck all charm from the originals, and will surely be fuel to Irvine’s ire. Sure, there are some nifty lasers, and a famous crack in the paintwork is papered over, but when you have five feet of plastic prawn gibbering its way through the final episode – about which nothing can be done but close your eyes and pray for salvation – it seems rather a waste of time.