Colony in Space

A review of the DVD for DWM, from 2011

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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.

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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.

Day of the Daleks

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

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It’s the night of 11 September, Nineteen Seventy-*cough*, and our world teeters on the brink of World War Three. The Chinese are massing on the Russian border, and they’re not there for the duty-free vodka. Fingers are itchy on nuclear triggers, and the only man who can save us is British diplomat Sir Reginald Styles. But Styles has just been found on the floor of his drawing room at Auderly House, jabbering something about having seen a ghost. Clearly, we’re doomed. Send for UNIT!

It’s hard to feel too worried about the threat facing the Earth at the beginning of Day of the Daleks, perhaps because it’s all so peculiar. If the Chinese fail to attend Sir Reginald’s peace conference, we’re told, then our planet is toast; and he’s the only man who can possibly talk them into coming. Exactly why remains a mystery. It can’t be down to Styles’ natural bonhomie, because he’s as charismatic as a cold sore. Perhaps he’s flying to Peking with photographs of Chairman Mao in a compromising position with Little Jimmy Osmond and Nijinsky. And is Styles – upon whose shoulders rests the fate of humanity –getting the support he needs? When the UNIT investigation threatens to delay his mission, the Brigadier promises to arrange a special escort to the airport. What? You mean he didn’t have one already? What if he got stuck in traffic? A little later, a radio announcement plays into UNIT HQ, broadcasting direct from the United Nations Centre for Melodrama in Geneva. “WAR NOW SEEMS INEVITABLE!” it bellows, boosting the morale of all in earshot. The radio operators glance furtively about the room, perhaps choosing who to drag into the stationery cupboard when the four-minute warning comes.

As the global situation worsens, Sir Reginald’s reported ‘ghost’ drops his gun in the environs of Auderly House. As ghosts generally aren’t in the habit of packing heat – well, maybe some ectoplasmic flintlock, certainly not an ultrasonic disintegrator – the Doctor is quick to deduce that he’s not dealing with a spook, but an interloper from the future. He and Jo Grant decide to spend the night at Styles’ house, where they will await another manifestation. If nothing else, it’s the perfect excuse for a booze-up.

As he chugs back Sir Reg’s best Chianti, gorges on Gorgonzola and name-drops Napoleon, we find the Third Doctor in the absolute prime of his life. He’s often been described as a ‘mother hen’ figure – “keeping his companions safe under his wing” – but that’s total nonsense. More than any other incarnation, Jon Pertwee’s Doctor is a great strutting rooster. He’s the alpha male, the cock of the walk. Yes, he may sometimes look and sound like Quentin Crisp playing James Bond, but don’t be fooled by the lisp, the frilly blouses or the old lady hairdo. Doctor Three is our Time Lord’s most testosterone-fuelled incarnation. He likes his wine vintage and his cheese pungent. He loves fast cars, wears his TARDIS key like a medallion, and no doubt reeks of aftershave (Hai Karate, of course). He’s so powerfully potent, other men are emasculated merely by standing next to him. The boys from UNIT are as swooning and submissive as any girly assistant. Only the Master – the fox circling this hen house – ever poses any threat to the Doctor’s harem, but even all his powers of hypnosis cannot rival a single Pertwee ‘moment of charm’. And when those special scenes come – like here, with the cheese and wine, or later, when the Doctor is tied up in the cellar with Jo, laying out some rudimentary rules for time travel – it is impossible not to succumb to Pertwee’s quiet seduction. He’s a firm favourite of many, of course, but I think it’s fair to say that the Third Doctor dropped out of fashion with Doctor Who fandom for a good couple of decades. But this year, as his stories dominate the DVD schedule, his simple certainties seem like a breath of fresh air, and it’s proving a real treat to fall for him all over again.

The Doctor spends a quiet night at the big house, but any plans he may have for a champagne-and-caviar breakfast are ruined when a gang of would-be assassins, who have travelled back from the 22nd Century to execute Styles, take him and Jo captive. We’re whizzed through time ourselves – a jump ahead of our heroes, which is odd – to be shown a gloomy future Earth dominated by Daleks, Ogrons, and some uptight ladies in silver nail polish who look more deadly than either race of aliens.

As Daleks go, this bunch are more shrill and fretful-sounding than we’re used to, as if they’re worried that their whole scheme might unravel at any moment. (Given the balance of history, and the fact there are only three of them, this is not an unreasonable view for a Dalek to take.) They’re twitchy enough to begin with, but when they later hear that the Doctor’s in town, they fly into a right old paddy. This lack of cool may be why they miss their big chance, and fail to exterminate their enemy even when he’s strapped to a table right before their eyestalks. Idiots. They could have transmatted back to Skaro as heroes and been showered with prizes by a grateful Emperor. (A family hoverbout! A holiday for two on Darren!) But no – instead they keep busy by nagging their chief human lackey, the Controller, about output at the mines. “There-has-been-a-recent-drop-in-production-figures,” bleats the Gold Dalek. For shame! Doesn’t he know that the overnights are irrelevant in this brave new world – really not even worth mentioning – and to wait for consolidated mining figures later in the week? It’s sunny out, and we already know that the oppressed masses are cheerfully timeshifting.

The Controller is played by Aubrey Woods, and his performance is criticised by the producer on the commentary track of this DVD. Now, Barry Letts was right about many things in his Doctor Who career, but he’s entirely wrong when he describes Woods as being “too theatrical” in Day of the Daleks. Yes, the actor offers a couple of eccentric hand gestures in his early scenes, but this exuberance is soon brought under control, and Woods lends the Controller the air of a man consumed by fear and self-doubt, who’s just about keeping it hidden under a mask of machine-like efficiency. The fact that he conveys all this from beneath an ever-thickening layer of sparkly slap makes the achievement all the more impressive. Woods is the best thing about Day of the Daleks. He’s chilling and charming by turn, and really helps to sell the story’s best scene – where he and the Doctor discuss, over supper, how Earth came to be in this sorry state. However, as the Doctor knocks down each of the Controller’s justifications for working with the Daleks, one can’t help but feel an opportunity is being missed. Actually, it’s more than that. There’s a sense that the story loses track of the natural conclusion that several clues have already pointed us toward.

To explain… By this stage, we’ve learned that the rebels on future Earth have been receiving help from someone in the Daleks’ HQ. We’ve also seen the boss of a factory – a single-scene character – speaking to them on a secret radio, and getting clobbered for his trouble. But is that the end of it? Later in Part Three, the leader of the rebels, Monia, decides to rescue the Doctor. “There’s fresh information from one of our contacts at Control,” he says. “The Doctor is the Daleks’ deadliest enemy.” The key detail here is this: the only person at Control who knows this about the Doctor, at this stage is the story, is the Controller himself. So is he secretly helping Monia and friends? Could the Controller have provided the Dalek time machine vital to their plan to prevent the war? It feels like the story is heading to this revelation, but then loses its way – and that’s a shame. It would have been interesting for the Controller to have had to endure the Doctor’s lecture about being a traitor and a Quisling – without being able to defend himself, because the Daleks were listening – when he was secretly leading the resistance. The Doctor even accuses him of being “from a family of Quislings”, which is a curious detail to include, but perhaps the shame of this ignoble lineage would have offered a credible motivation for a man wishing to wipe away – in a very real sense – all those years of history. The Controller does win a moment of redemption before his ultimate extermination, as he helps the Doctor to escape back to our time, but the nagging feeling remains that – as the most interesting character in the piece – his fate could have been more cleverly entwined with the broader story.

As it goes on, Day of the Daleks has to slow down to fill out its running time – offering as silly an escape sequence as there ever was, where the Doctor is recaptured only because he runs his comedy tricycle into a patch of cow parsley – and then stops dead for a chunk of Part Four in order to lay out the big plot reveal from which the whole story has been extrapolated in reverse. “Styles didn’t cause that explosion and start the war!” the Doctor tells the guerrillas. “You did it yourselves!” As time-paradox tales go, it feels charmingly straightforward in light of the recent adventures of River Song, for example, but it was something entirely new for Doctor Who back in 1972. Sadly, the story pulls its final punch, but while the climactic battle between UNIT and the Daleks has faced criticism over the years – chiefly due, I think, to it featuring one reckless wide shot too many – the real problem is the lack of involvement of any character we care about. The rebels are selflessly surrendering their entire existence to save the world, and no one spares them a second thought. Luckily, the Sir Reginald Styles peace talks seem to stay on track, though one assumes that the Chinese delegate was alarmed to be flown all the way from Peking only to ushered straight through a house which then exploded behind him. Perhaps it was passed off as some kind of special opening ceremony; a festival of fireworks in honour of his culture.

In the final analysis, while I doubt that Day of the Daleks can be anyone’s all-time favourite story – it’s too coolly mechanical for that – it certainly can’t be anyone’s least favourite. If you could feed all of the Doctor Who ever made into a blender and blitz it down, the pulpy concentrate remaining would surely taste of Day of the Daleks. With its Dalek invasion, a trip through time, some rebels, some friends and some monsters, some rescues and some escapes, this story must surely be the precise average of Doctor Who.

And that’s not a criticism – that’s a wonderful thing. Because if even average Doctor Who is as vivid and entertaining as this, then it’s little wonder that it has such a fierce and eternal hold upon us.

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DVD extras

Those Daleks can’t stop invading the Earth. They come to plunder our vital raw materials: our plywood and our castors. However, their most spectacular invasion was never shown on TV, and that’s because it happened at my house. Back in the day, ‘Super Action Transfers’ were the medium of choice for eager young storytellers. These were little drawings, crowded on a plastic sheet, that you could rub down onto a card diorama. The Doctor Who set featured Daleks battling soldiers in front of Buckingham Palace. Forced into a battle they couldn’t possibly win by their deranged commander – hiya!– the loyal lads of UNIT were incinerated by the monsters from Skaro. Oh the humanity! I’d do all the noises too, of course. “Exterm-in-ate!” went the Daleks. (The voice wasn’t perfect – but hey, they always sound different, don’t they?) “Pew! Pew!” went my lasers. “Ka-splat!” went the boys of UNIT. Honestly, it was brilliant.

And so it is that, as I watch the Special Edition of Day of the Daleks on the second disc here, I sympathize with producer Steve Broster’s desire to hear lasers go “Pew! Pew!” and see UNIT soldiers explode in a grim splatter of human potage. I also know that many people will enjoy this new presentation – so primal and visceral are its obsessions – and that any criticism from me will sound churlish in the extreme. But I’m afraid that’s not going to stop me.

I’ve never seen the point in slathering modern digital effects over old episodes. They always look wrong, and only ever jerk me out of the precious, carefully-spun fiction and remind me that I’m watching a television programme. And the arbitrary editing of quirky moments – mistakes, some would call then, but others not – always makes me question the producer’s sense of humour. The most galling example here is the loss of the wonderful “Any complications?”/“No complications!” exchange between the Controller and an Ogron. Surely this moment is one of the unique joys of Day of the Daleks? Furthermore, to cut it is also to imply that what remains is any less silly. This is a tricky thesis to uphold when we find, pasted into Part Four, the overacted extermination of a seemingly super-sized UNIT soldier – which strikes me as far more absurd than “No complications”. You may disagree – as is your right – but that only brings us back to the key point: who is to decide what is and isn’t a mistake to be cut? Can’t we just accept the programme as it was made rather than trying – fruitlessly, unhealthily – to make it somehow more ‘acceptable’? There’s always a creeping sense of shame about it.

I accept that few will take this matter quite so seriously. Many will argue that I don’t have to watch the Special Edition. “On this DVD, you can still see Day of the Daleks as it was transmitted in 1972,” says Steve Broster on a ‘Making Of’ extra. And that would be fair enough – if it were true. But someone has decided to ‘improve’ that version as well, by forcibly re-grading one scene from day to night, presumably because they’ve decided it was a mistake, and now fits better with the script. In the circumstances, this irritates the merry heck out of me.

Let’s move on to less contentious matters. A View From the Gallery is a nice little discussion piece looking at the work of Doctor Who vision mixer Mike Catherwood. As he chats with Barry Letts in BBC TV Centre, it all seems a little uncomfortable to begin with. Indicating a control panel, Catherwood says, “I remember a guy that made the next generation of mixers. He looked at the BBC desk and went: ‘Gee! Dedicated faders!’” Catherwood and Letts have a proper chuckle at this, although it’s hard to tell what’s so funny. Was this visitor cheering the dedication of said faders, or mocking it? “So there you go!” adds Catherwood, clearly feeling his point well made. Happily, matters soon become clearer, and the programme does a great job of bringing home the absurd, impossible conditions under which Doctor Who was made in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. The entire methodology of production was structured around one factor: the expense of video recording equipment. Every detail of an episode had to be rehearsed and ready to be played out before the cameras in just a couple of hours of a manic evening, because that’s all the time with the recording machine they could afford. Two hours is no time at all; simply by thinking about what was achieved in those studio sessions will always blow the mind of this viewer. A trip to Cathay. The burning of Rome. The glaciers of a new Ice Age. And voyages to any number of alien worlds: to Skaro, to Karn, to Logopolis. All time and space conjured from tiny studios in West London, and always in a race against the clock. Astonishing.

We go out-and-about for a Now and Then programme looking at the filming locations used for Day of the Daleks, which also offers a sweet little insight into the world of the long-term Doctor Who fan. The narration tells us that the canal-towpath location seen throughout this adventure is now inaccessible, “despite the best efforts of your erstwhile producer”. And there’s the thing. It is a firmly-held belief in Doctor Who fandom that the word ‘erstwhile’ means ‘dedicated’, ‘hard-working’ – something of that flavour – as it is being used here. This comes, I think, from early issues of Doctor Who Weekly, where writer Jeremy Bentham would refer to “the erstwhile Sergeant Benton”. But erstwhile – you probably know this – means ‘former’, and Bentham was merely making quiet reference to the fact that Benton received a late promotion to warrant officer.  But it’s a misuse that turns up again and again in Doctor Who writing, and it’s time that someone spoke up. For this documentary alone, it must have got past a writer, a narrator and an executive producer at the very least, and now seems poised to infect a whole new generation of fans. It must be fought!

The final two extras of particular note are a couple of treats from the BBC archive. An item from Blue Peter marks the return of the Daleks to Doctor Who, and a film from Nationwide sees a line of school children preparing for an important visitor. Knee socks are pulled up as they assemble in the playground, duffels and parkas done up tightly against the cold. Then, to the stirring strings of Elgar, a two-foot-high Dalek arrives in a taxi – and that’s not something you see every day. This pint-sized arrival is the children’s prize for winning a Doctor Who story competition, although the kids seem less than entirely overwhelmed. “What’s more frightening than a Dalek?” asks the reporter. “Dracula!” comes the instant reply. “A ghost!” insists another. “A monster with spiny things sticking out of it!” So almost anything then? Please yourselves. “I don’t like it when the Daleks say ‘Disterminate!’” says an earnest little girl. That’s fair enough, my love ­­– but don’t get too attached to the idea. I’m sure someone will be along to fix that in just a moment.

The Sun Makers

A review of the DVD for Doctor Who Magazine. From 2011.

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Here’s a contradiction. For a story that’s considered one of the breezier diversions for the Fourth Doctor – a step out into the light from the gloomy gothic of his early years – when we join our hero in the TARDIS at the top of The Sun Makers, he looks likes someone’s spat in his jelly babies.

Fiction and reality are blurring for the Doctor and his companion. Tom Baker loathed the character of Leela, believing her – and rightly, I think – too violent for his series. Baker’s contempt bleeds through into the Doctor (if, that is, the two can ever seriously be considered as separate personalities). This is why, throughout her time in the TARDIS, Leela always feels more passenger than friend. We only have to remember the easy companionship the Doctor shared with Sarah – how her bright little smile could detonate his atomic grin – to see how much has changed. In The Sun Makers, Baker can barely bring himself to look at Louise Jameson when he’s talking to her. He makes eye contact with K9 more often. (Although, the Doctor’s hardly encouraging to his new dog either. “Leela – tell your tin pet to shut up!” he barks, having ordered Leela herself to shut up mere moments before.) But while we understand the backstage tensions, how might we explain away this sour atmosphere within the fiction? Perhaps a long time has passed between adventures, and the Doctor’s nerves become frayed when he’s stuck in the TARDIS for too long. They’ve resorted to playing board games, as one does when a holiday is rained off. Before the chess came out, maybe they completed all the Doctor’s jigsaws of old Gallifrey. “Ah! I’ve found a piece of the Untempered Schism.” “Areas of burnt orange suggest sky, Master.” “Shut up, K9.”

The TARDIS lands on Pluto, which brings us to another contradiction. For a story that’s frequently been dismissed as “cheap”, The Sun Makers delivers a wider range of interesting locations and eye-catching sets than many a modern Doctor Who adventure. Certainly, the ‘cheap’ tag can be applied to an opening shot that sees Citizen Cordo arrive at an appointment with a beige, papery wall that’s been misguidedly enlivened with a clumsy cross of red insulation tape. But that’s a small misstep. The rest of the production goes to great lengths to transport us to an alien world; crossing England to find Pluto’s vast rooftops, endless corridors and dingy underground vaults. To help us mentally join these disparate locations together, the designer cannily invests in several tins of orange paint (‘Coral Canyon’, if you’re looking to match it from the current Dulux range), which he splashes liberally about. This allows the bulk of his budget to be spent on half-a-dozen sets, which range in quality from the perfectly serviceable – the rebels’ base, which seems better suited to a student production of Rent – to the rather fine. The best is the office of deputy chief plutocrat Gatherer Hade, which draws the eye back and up across various levels. However, quite what the Gatherer’s non-speaking staff are up to on their background platforms is anyone’s guess. One man leans raffishly on a railing, watching another randomly poke the air with a spider rest liberated from a snooker table. It seems that in the distant future, rich men will still be free to indulge even their most surreal fetishes.

But all this is mere sideshow. Pluto is not really built for us with sets and props. Truly, it is conjured from the air with words alone. No Doctor Who writer has ever spun alien worlds with the wit, precision and poetry of Robert Holmes. Over the past year, these DVD reviews have proudly taken to task Doctor Who stories that open to a screed of egregious exposition passed off as casual conversation – step forward Meglos, Frontios – and that’s because stories like The Sun Makers hold the rest to a better standard, by proving how cleverly and subtly it can be done. And from page one, line one, the bar is set high.

“Congratulations, Citizen. Your father ceased at 1:10” is surely Doctor Who’s drollest opening line. The brilliant black humour, as that cheery “congratulations” shunts into news of the death of a loved one, takes the breath away. And the conversation which follows – between Cordo and Hade as the former attempts to pay his death taxes – is nothing less than a work of art.

“Not on the desk!” bellows Hade, as Cordo tries put his purse down. “It might scar.” Cordo gives a little gasp of recognition. “It is wood, your honour?” “Of a kind called ‘ma-hog-ay-nee’” mispronounces Hade proudly, adding: “I don’t suppose you’ve ever seen wood before, have you citizen?” “Never,” replies awestruck Cordo. “We learned about it at the preparation centre,” he explains, before giving his own modest boast: “There was even a picture of a tree.” What’s so wonderful is that every line of this seemingly trivial exchange takes us a small step deeper into this world, with the punchline hanging on the most humble of words: ‘even’. In what kind of place might as mundane a thing as a picture of a tree command an ‘even’? With one word, Holmes summons an entire dystopia. And from here, the values of the society on Pluto – the impossible taxes, the high price of ordinary human compassion, the insignificance of the individual – are laid out for us at the same time as we mentally map a bleak world of foundries, walkways and correction centres.

This brings us to another contradiction. For a story that’s known as one of Doctor Who’s comedic outings, The Sun Makers certainly serves up some dark and disturbing ideas. That opening Hade/Cordo scene – in addition to everything else it achieves – even finds time to hide away Doctor Who’s blackest joke. Hade explains to Cordo that only two small cash credits will help offset the 132 Talmar price of his father’s “Golden Death”. The first is his father’s “personal contribution” of seven Talmars; his total savings from 40 years work as a municipal servant, cleaning corridors. “Then,” Hade adds, “there’s a recycling allowance, based on a death weight of 84 kilos, of eight Talmars”. Seven Talmars. Eight Talmars. Robert Holmes has chosen those numbers with care. He’s telling us – and you can almost hear him chuckling wickedly in the background as he refills his pipe – that the decaying meat of this man’s corpse has a greater value than his entire life’s work; that Cordo’s father is worth more to him dead than he ever was alive. It’s a bleak view, to put it mildly. And, while we think about that, what might “recycling” of a body mean on a world without trees, where all food must be artificial? This is twisted, sinister stuff, exquisitely woven into Hade’s breezy enumeration of an invoice.

Again and again, it’s the words that prove The Sun Makers greatest joy. There’s a wonderful little scene with the Gatherer and the Doctor, where they each think they are getting one over on the other. “While you’re here, you must get about a bit,” suggests Hade, as if there might be an open-topped bus tour departing any minute. There’s more fun with the ‘noises off’ of Pluto, with mention of such intriguing ne’er-do-wells as “Wurgs and Keeks”, and the “arrogant Ajacks”. Later, the Gatherer and his boss, the Collector, dismiss the downtrodden masses with alliteration and assonance: they are “factory fodder” and “cellar dwellers”. The Collector is a goblin creature who runs the whole cruel business of Pluto; a snivelling Rumpelstiltskin jealously hoarding his gold. The Gatherer’s habit of buttering-up his tiny boss by using synonyms for ‘large’ is such good fun – there’s “Your Colossus!”, “Your Hugeness!”, “Your Amplification!” and many more – but what’s even better is when things begin to go wrong on Pluto and the flattery becomes more slowly more inappropriate and insulting. “Your Monstrosity!”, “Your Corpulence!”. What a joy it is.

Unfortunately, Robert Holmes rather lets his love of the macabre and the gruesome get the better of him when we meet Pluto’s rebel faction, down in the basement. “Show courtesy to my rank,” spits leader Mandrel, “or I’ll cut your skin off inch by inch.” And the threat of slice-and-dice continues, mostly thanks to Leela. “Before I die, I’ll see this rathole ankle-deep in blood!” she vows. And most wince-inducing of all, she promises Mandrel: “I’ll split you!” It’s vivid stuff, to say the least. Doctor Who couldn’t get away with anything close to this charnel house language today, and that’s no bad thing. It does, however, give us what must stand as the most typical Robert Holmes line of all time: “Mouth those mindless pieties down here, Citizen Cordo, and you’ll get yer throat slit!” It’s just another passing threat, but in it we find all Holmes’ favourite tricks in play at once.

Happily, The Sun Makers has a superb cast to deliver its brilliant script. What’s most striking is how relaxed and well-rehearsed they all are. Tom Baker warms up as soon as he’s away from Leela and working with the guest actors, and he’s clearly having a ball when the Doctor confronts the Collector at the end of the story. He and actor Henry Woolf have made the most of rehearsals and worked out so many little bits of business. The bald Collector’s wistful fondling of the Doctor’s curls is particularly cute, and the moment when he slams his fist down on a vital control, only for it to spring up and be caught in mid-air by the Doctor, is a genuine laugh-out-loud moment of slapstick. When you watch these scenes, try to ignore Baker and focus only on Woolf. You’ll rarely see an actor working so hard. Emotions flutter across his face like colours on a squid; pride then bitterness then glee then confusion then panic. It’s one of the wittiest and most entertaining guest performances ever given in Doctor Who.

“So what’s Contingency Plan B?” jokes the Doctor as he unravels the economy on Pluto and the Collector liquidates himself. The Sun Makers is the first of a particular subset of Doctor Who stories where our hero stumbles across a sick society that is a twisted version of our own world – with one shortcoming of modern life extrapolated to become its defining characteristic – and blasts through it like antibiotics. We’ll see this again in Paradise Towers, The Happiness Patrol, Gridlock and The Beast Below, but The Sun Makers remains the most enjoyable, due in part to the fact that the Doctor’s fourth incarnation lacks the pious streak that can make his successors seem so insufferably smug and superior at times. When he leaves Pluto in the hands of those murderous rebels, with not a single word of caution or advice, there something deliciously reckless about it. It’s refreshing not to be obliged to ponder what we’ve learned this day, or to stop to mourn the terrible sacrifices that have been made in the name of liberty. There’s no call to hail-the-unalive-Pex, to weep for the rubbery mush of the Face of Boe, or salute that brave and noble space whale. Sod ’em. We’re outta here.

Back in the TARDIS, the Doctor explains to Leela how he defeated the Collector. “I fed a two per cent growth tax into the computers, index-linked,” he says. “It blew the economy.” It’s a joke, but it’s not so far from the jargon we now hear on the news every day, in this new era of recession: the quantitative easing, the short-selling, the subprime toxic debt that brought down banks and poisoned economies around the world. And suddenly we see that The Sun Makers packs even more of a satirical punch today than it did on transmission. In 1977, Robert Holmes was stinging from a tax bill, and used Doctor Who to vent his anger. In a decade of spiralling inflation and punishing taxation, older viewers could enjoy the joke of Hade’s list of bizarre taxes, and taxes on taxes. In the Collector, Holmes was clearly mocking the government. But today, we see politicians as almost powerless in the face of the machinations of big business, and watching The Sun Makers, we see Cordo is tyrannised not by a government, but by a corporation – which controls him through his debts, and through his fear of debt. The most chilling detail of all is how the Company keeps its workforce pacified. The PCM gas it pumps into the cities doesn’t simply dope the citizens. Instead, it raises anxiety levels by a tiny degree, so that everyone is so consumed by their own everyday fears and self-doubt, and can never muster the will to rebel. It’s a horrific idea.

Before becoming a writer, Robert Holmes was an army officer on active service, then a policeman and later a crime reporter for a newspaper. One could easy believe that these experiences left him with a jaded view of human nature, but instead it seems to have sharpened the sense of humour he must have needed to survive the jungles of Burma and the mean streets of London. But that special mix of cynicism and optimism ultimately gave us some of the richest, cleverest Doctor Who stories that will ever be written. And The Sun Makers is among that number.

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DVD extras

Principal production documentary Running From the Tax Man is a smart piece of work with a good range of interviewees, and includes some insightful commentary from historian Dominic Sandbrook. The programme guides us through The Sun Makers’ political backstory, and detours for a discussion about Pluto’s demotion from the solar system. However, given that the most significant aspect of The Sun Makers is that it’s very, very funny, this documentary sadly fails to get to grips with the humour of the piece. In 1985, in a rare interview, Robert Holmes made it clear that he knew he was pushing his luck with The Sun Makers: “working at the anarchic boundaries for Doctor Who,” he called it. It’s this anarchy that makes The Sun Makers special, and the documentary doesn’t quite connect with it.

The commentary – which features Tom Baker, Louise Jameson, guest actor Michael Keating and late director Pennant Roberts – is a lot of fun, and shines a light on the relationship between this Doctor and assistant. There’s no doubt that Jameson is among the most talented actresses ever to stand at the Doctor’s side. Leela is an absurd, fantastical character – this pedantic, childlike savage in a leather swimsuit –  and the most high-concept companion there’s ever been, but there’s never a single moment when we don’t believe in her. That’s all down to the skill of Jameson, and her totally immersive and deadly earnest acting style.

But there are all kinds of actors; and when, on the commentary, Jameson is quick to praise the “honest” performance of Cordo actor Roy Macready, Baker laughs. “We didn’t bandy around words like ‘honest’ back then,” he says. Jameson also speaks of “honouring the text”, and we remember that Baker generally liked to ‘honour’ a Doctor Who script by christening it “whippet shit” and frisbee-ing it out the window onto Acton High Street. And the two actors’ differing senses of humour mean that Jameson never seems to know when she’s having her leg pulled. Time and again she takes some bit of Baker whimsy at face value, and we can hazard a guess as to how quickly Baker might have become bored with his jokes not being ‘got’, back in the day. This was never – I think – a meeting of minds, and one can imagine how that might also have been a source of friction on set, above and beyond Baker’s distaste for the character of Leela.

Tom Baker has mellowed over the years, and he and Jameson are now on good terms. For many years, Baker put a great deal of space between himself and Doctor Who, but recently he has returned, and seems eager to – for want of a better way of putting it – give something back to the fans. He’s now “coming soon from Big Finish Productions”; something that would have been thought impossible just a few years ago. Big Finish has always worked hard to recapture the particular atmosphere of Doctor Who’s various eras, but here’s one case where this listener hopes that they fail – in the nicest possible way. Life doesn’t offer many second chances. And so, as Baker and Jameson reassume their roles, it would be lovely to find that, on TV, we only saw the rainy days in the TARDIS. Soon, I trust – and only 33 years too late – we’ll hear the Doctor and Leela laughing together, and finally find them to be the very best of friends.

 

Earth Story: The Gunfighters & The Awakening

A review of the DVD box set, from 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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DVD extras

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mara Tales: Kinda & Snakedance

A review of the DVD box set, from 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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DVD Extras

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wheel turns.

Planet of the Spiders

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

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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.

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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.

Frontios

A review of the DVD, from 2011

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

But we get ahead of ourselves. The Tractators don’t appear until the second act of Frontios; the 1984 adventure that dispatches the Fifth Doctor to the eponymous planet. Curious onlookers may wonder why the Doctor appears to be travelling through space and time with a school uniform fetishist and a prostitute. However, we more experienced hands know these to be his friends, Turlough and Tegan. Well, if ‘friends’ is the word. They seem to take most of their pleasure from pointing out each other’s mistakes and limitations. The Doctor is definitely avoiding them; offering only the flimsiest of excuses for staying out of the control room. Something about a hatstand, he claims. A likely story. Starved of civilised company, he probably sneaks off to the cloisters, where he carefully describes Romana to an obliging Kamelion.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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DVD EXTRAS

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

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

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

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

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

SAWARD: “The writer!”

BIDMEAD: “The script editor!” 

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

The Ark

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

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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.

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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.

The Mutants

A DVD review for Doctor Who Magazine from 2011.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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EXTRAS

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

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

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

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

Meglos

A DVD review for Doctor Who Magazine from 2011.

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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.

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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.

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