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.

Class 4G and the Zygons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part One

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

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

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

Did anyone find the beginning boring?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s time for another episode.

Part Two

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

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

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

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

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

What about the Zygons?

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

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

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

Part Three

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part Four

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

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

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

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

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

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

I offer them a chance to make any final points.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Epilogue

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

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

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

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

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

The Five Doctors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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EXTRAS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image of the Fendahl

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

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The DVD release schedule can throw up unique narratives of its own. Recently, for example, we’ve heard from Doctor Who’s three principal 80s script editors – telling us how wonderful things could have been if only everyone else was as clever as them. Each had a very different take on the show, so it’s been amusing to see if we agree with all, one or none. (Send your vote to: Lady Hamilton Bidmead, 45 Eileen Way, E-Space, WV0 2M.) This month we have compare-and-contrast fun with the 1977 adventure Image of the Fendahl, illuminated in an unexpected way by the fact it follows Attack of the Cybermen to the shelves of Sainsbury’s.

Though your reviewer had never considered it before, the two stories have much in common. Once more, the Doctor is slow to join the action, with the TARDIS landing some distance away from this week’s guest stars, allowing our hero a leisurely saunter to the drama. Both he and his companion pack heat – this time using shotguns to fend off slugs the size of shire horses. And again, the plot leaves many key questions frustratingly unanswered. The point is: if we’ve used these sticks to beat one story, it’s only fair they are employed against another.

Image of the Fendahl takes us to Fetch Priory, where Dr Fendleman is operating a time scanner, which allows him to probe history. Passing up the chance to stalk Shakespeare and Abraham Lincoln, Fendleman has found a 12-million-year-old skull which, when the mood takes it, blazes with malign power. Either that or he’s found Ozzy Osbourne’s bedside lamp. And Dr Fendleman is something of a mystery himself. What is that accent? “Aderm! Aderm!” he says to his associate, Adam. “Jus’ theenk for a momend, eh? Zee woods uh suppose’a be haun’ed, eh?” They must be very proud of his success back home in the Austrian ghettos of Mexico City. Meanwhile, a hiker in zee haun’ed woods has his juices sucked out by an unseen force – not as nice as it sounds – and the scanner’s dangerous instability draws the Doctor and Leela to Earth to investigate.

The pieces are all in place for some definitive Doctor Who, but Image of the Fendahl fails to pull everything together. While writer Chris Boucher clearly loves his own characters, he rails against involving the Doctor in his spooky tale. As mentioned, our hero takes an episode to reach Fetch Priory, and as soon as he tips up is shoved into a cupboard. Dr Fendleman is the most interesting figure here, but the Doctor spends mere seconds in his company. The Time Lord is then shunted out of the way for most of Part Three on a wild goose chase. This problem of integration could have been easily fixed by having the Doctor properly investigate the death of the hiker and the mystery of the skull. Unfortunately, he arrives already knowing the whole story, and then has to be kept busy until he can blow it up.

A few months ago, apropos of something else entirely, this page described Image of the Fendahl as “creepy and confident”. However, it’s important your reviewer keeps an open mind as each DVD arrives, and not be driven by tastes and prejudices forged in his youth. It’s impossible, but he should try. And while this story is certainly creepy – the various aspects of the monster are all scary in different ways, and Parts One and Two deliver cracking cliffhangers – it now feels more difficult to argue ‘confident’.

Unfortunately, Image of the Fendahl keeps tripping over its shoelaces. The Doctor offers three different explanations for why the monster has manifested here and now, the final of which is the entirely lame: “On the other hand, it could all be just a coincidence.” Never have bets been more hedged. And for each piece of rousing, trailer-friendly dialogue – “There are four thousand million people here on your planet. And if I’m right, within a year there’ll be just one left alive…” – another line falls flat. One remark, made by archaeologist Adam to his technician friend Thea – “I accept without reservation the results of your excellent potassium-argon test” – is so contrived it sounds like a cue for a song. (All together now: “Geo-chronology is deeply fascinating! But forget the skull, dear Thea… It’s this man you should be dating!”) Later, after Adam stumbles upon the blinking-and-bleeping time scanner, he quips: “I always say that if you’ve seen one jukebox, you’ve seen ‘em all.” Always? How often is that, Adam? Is every night in the Fetchborough Arms enlivened by this hilarious bon mot?

It’s Image of the Fendahl’s pure-cut melodrama that keeps it enjoyable. There’s even a touch of drawing room comedy, as characters constantly sidle in and out of rooms to share nuggets of plot. Someone opens and then closes a door 46 times in less than 100 minutes, which must be a record for Doctor Who. It’s a shame Fetch Priory is short a set of French windows. Adam could bound in, tennis racket in hand, and deliver a wry put-down to the time scanner, just as Leela exits stage left, pursued by an ancient evil from Time Lord mythology. Pop it in the West End and it could run and run.

So, while Fendahl shares some of the flaws of Attack of the Cybermen, it at least lacks the whiff of the torture chamber. This may not be Doctor Who at its most fluid and assured, but it certainly sticks to the show’s cardinal rule: if you’re not being scary, be funny; if you’re not making ‘em laugh, make ‘em jump. Some of those laughs may be unintentional – eh, Aderm? – but they’re no less welcome for that.

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DVD EXTRAS

Sadly, the bonus material on this disc lacks some of the educational rigour we’ve come to expect. Having recently learned: i) the secret of great black pudding; and ii) how to equip his favourite baseball cap with sonar, your reviewer now earns a respectable second income by raiding pig farms in the dead of night. At the very least, we might expect Fendahl to deliver a decent fruitcake recipe. And are we supposed to master our potassium-argon tests single-handedly? Standards are slipping.

Happily, there’s plenty to learn about your actual Doctor Who. The award for the most delightful nugget of trivia goes to the ‘info text’, where we learn that the props buyer took 4lbs of Jelly Babies on location. 4lbs! That’s a lot of confectionary considering we only see a single sweet on screen. Perhaps the production manager gorged on the remainder at the end of filming. One can imagine him, driven crazy by a sugar high, screaming “I’ll be in charge of all this one day!” before toppling face down into a ditch.

The production documentary – with the disappointingly sane title After Image – is solid stuff, telling an upbeat tale of a happy team who loved working together. Everyone had a right old laugh at rehearsal, applied themselves in studio, and adored Daphne Heard’s turn as Ma Tyler above all. “She honours a text when she works,” says Louise Jameson (Leela), with RADA profundity. Daphne is certainly marvellous, and it’s nice to think of her sat alone in a corner of the rehearsal room, carefully teasing out every nuance of the line, “I b’aint your grandma! Don’t ee grandma me!”

There’s black-and-white timecoded video of ‘Deleted and Extended Scenes’, offering a couple of alternative takes and some additional moments of woodland wandering. “BLANK SECTIONS FOR COW INSERTS” reads one explanatory caption, which must be unique. It’s not material any of us will watch more than once, but it’s nice to have and thanks are due its donor.

A warm commentary features Louise Jameson, Wanda Ventham (Thea) and Edward Arthur (Adam) reporting from planet Earth, with Tom Baker beaming in from his own dimension. Eccentric he may be, but Baker soon fingers Fendahl’s chief shortcoming. After silently watching 10 minutes of scientists staring intently at oscilloscopes, our star grumbles: “When do I come on?” Later, he muses: “There’s something missing here… Oh yes, it’s me.” And he’s not wrong. Meanwhile, Ventham has a lot to say about her wig and her shoes, though she tackles weightier issues as the story progresses – commenting wistfully during Part Two: “I really want to see a shot of that cooker again.”

If you listen to the commentary as you watch the ‘info text’, there’s a moment of deliciously cruel irony. Boucher’s script was treated roughly during the cast read-through, and a caption recalls a memorable DWM interview with the writer. “For a long time,” he said, “my ambition was to see Tom Baker die in a cellar full of rats.” Seconds later, we have Baker on the commentary: “Who wrote this? Who? Chris Boucher? Isn’t that funny. I can’t remember him at all.” That’s show business! It also reminds us how times changed. Doctor Who writers can be celebrities these days. Russell T Davies was recently mentioned in EastEnders, and that sort of thing never happened in the 70s. Well, unless a lost episode of Crossroads saw Amy Turtle hobble up to reception saying: “I’ve jus’ bought a copy of Doctor Who and the Zarbis, Miss Jill. It’s signed by Bill Strutton an’ all!”

As the story slithers through Part Four, Baker is increasingly contemplative. “Life’s been downhill ever since I left Doctor Who,” he muses, and we’re left to ponder which of the other Doctors would agree with this sentiment. One thing’s for sure – David Tennant will escape Baker’s fate. He’s a Doctor Who fan after all, and so will know the one great lesson to be learned from Image of the Fendahl

As one door closes, another opens.

Attack of the Cybermen

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

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Attack of the Cybermen gets off to a flying start. The opening scene, as two workmen are attacked in a London sewer by an unknown menace, is double-distilled Doctor Who. It’s timeless stuff, and we could imagine cutting from there to any Doctor in the TARDIS, from Hartnell to Tennant and beyond. But then it all goes wrong. Grotesquely and shamefully wrong.

The storyline is like a fraying sweater. Pull on any of a dozen loose threads and the yarn unravels entirely. It doesn’t help that the pacing of the story is all to hell. Doctor Who’s 22nd season was gifted with 45-minute episodes, but nobody knew what to do with them, least of all the script editor – and writer of this adventure – Eric Saward. Attack, as with every other story from this year bar perhaps Timelash, sees the TARDIS land well away from the action, requiring the Doctor and Peri to hike miles in search of the drama, sniping every step of the way. Here, they are obliged to chase a distress signal broadcast in a madly complicated way, for reasons never made clear, by alien mercenary Lytton. After 17 minutes, they return to the TARDIS to discuss it further. By the 33rd minute, after more wandering about, the Doctor decides to go back to the TARDIS again, and only then does he finally collide with the plot. To be fair, in the meantime the Doctor and Peri do meet Lytton’s two policeman lackeys, one of whom the Doctor beats up before he has any reason to suspect he’s not a real copper. They capture the second officer but, bizarrely, make no attempt to question him. It’s almost as if the Doctor’s read the script and knows it’s too soon for him to find out anything interesting.

Meanwhile, the Cybermen are up to no good beneath Fleet Street. They’ve been there for a little while, converting sewage workers and building walls – which leaves us with the appealing image of a Cyberman carefully mixing sand and cement, and tapping bricks into place with the back of a trowel. Later we learn these are Cybermen from the planet Telos in the far future (as seen in Tomb of the Cybermen) who have shuttled down via the moon, somehow, as part of a plot to smack Halley’s Comet into Earth (you may want to pause for a breath now) in order to alter history and save the other Cyber world, Mondas (as seen in The Tenth Planet) from destruction. Blimey. To understand how insanely inappropriate this story is, imagine watching Doctor Who in the year 2027, and the next 22nd series launching with a story where some Cybermen who escaped the destruction of the Cyber King (as seen in The Next Doctor) find a time machine and use it to alter history to prevent the rest of the race from crossing from their parallel Earth (as seen in Army of Ghosts). It’s the kind of story that breeds in the darkest corners of the internet, and should never be broadcast at Saturday teatime on BBC1.

Attack of the Cybermen would be just about acceptable if it was played out in the company of charming characters, but this certainly isn’t the Doctor Who your reviewer signed up for. The cruelty and brutality leave a nasty aftertaste. By halfway through episode one, both the Doctor and Peri are carrying loaded pistols in their pockets. At the end of the story, the Doctor employs all the wit and ingenuity for which the character has become famous by shooting the Cyber Controller in the chest. That’s not merely bad Doctor Who, it’s the opposite of Doctor Who.

To prevent this review being an entirely joyless rant – by someone who hates joyless rants – let’s give some praise where it’s due. Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant do their best with the material they’re given, and so no blame to them. The guest cast are, without exception, brilliant – and special mention must go to Maurice Colbourne and Brian Glover as Lytton and Griffiths, who deliver one of the most interesting supporting partnerships of the era. And the Cybermen are never less than adorable. You can only love the one who discovers a roomful of explosives in the story’s closing minutes and selflessly waves to his friend as if shouting: “Run, Jeremy, run! Save yourself!” Also, watch the scene in Cyber Control at 32’26” into episode one to enjoy the Cyber-extra who picks his way tentatively across the back of shot, clearly trying to remember which arm to move with which leg. He’s so sweet. It’s like having Adric back.

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DVD EXTRAS

The Cold War, from producer John Kelly, is a masterclass in how to deliver an informative and intelligent behind-the-scenes documentary. For your reviewer, it’s even a piece of interactive television, as he thoroughly enjoys shouting ‘WRONG!’ at every pronouncement by Eric Saward. Discussing the appalling scene where Lytton has his hands crushed by the Cybermen, Saward is unrepentant. “I don’t feel at all guilty,” he says. “It’s what would have happened.” What a specious argument. Yes, if a robot monster with the strength of ten decided to punish an upstart mercenary from Riften V, the result might well be a couple of handfuls of bloody pulp. But such a thing will never happen because this is just a TV programme, so the brutality is entirely Saward’s gift. A Cyberman might equally well decide to rip out Lytton’s large intestine and festoon it about his ear-lugs like tinsel, but only if Saward wanted him to. A line must be drawn somewhere, and it’s the production team’s responsibility to stop violence becoming gratuitous. In Saward’s defence, we learn that producer John Nathan-Turner wanted even more gore on display. The mind boggles.

The Cyber Story, a trip through the history of the monsters, comes with a shocking script. “The first step in the history of the Cybermen was their appearance,” blithers the narration. Producers of these extras wouldn’t employ a cameraman who doesn’t know how to focus a camera, so why use a writer who can’t focus a sentence? Happily, the interviewees prove more engaging. Sandra Reid, genius designer of the 60s Cybermen, explains why the ailing population of Mondas came to style themselves first as rather startled-looking sock puppets before learning to embrace the couture possibilites of three-inch Hoover hose. Other key players from the Cyberman stories offer a few words, but it all rather peters out after discussion of Tomb. The remainder of the documentary is given over to Kevin Warwick, professor of Cybernetics at Reading University, who claims to be our first “human cyborg”. Sadly, this doesn’t mean he likes to lurk in sewers making unlikely plans for Halley’s comet – unless he does that at weekends. Professor Warwick has a computer chip implanted in his wrist that allows him to control electronic gubbins via his own nervous system. What does this mean for the future? Soon, he might be able to order an oven-ready lasagne by daydreaming about Tesco.com. He could cook it merely by narrowing his eyes at the microwave. This Cyber-conversion process may well signal the end of the well-prepared meal.

There’s more – too much more – of the electric professor in both an ‘easter egg’ and a further extra, where he reveals that hundreds of eager volunteers write to him every week asking if they can be upgraded. He should give them a shock by posting back a grey balaclava and a couple of wire coat hangers. In modern Doctor Who, John Lumic had to throw the homeless into meat grinders to produce his Cybermen. It appears all he really needed was a spread in Wired magazine and a million nerds would have rushed for the chance to beta-test Human 2.0. Although Lumic’s conquest of Earth might have been thwarted after his army stopped every 10 yards to Twitter about it.

The commentary features Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant with guest stars Terry Molloy (Russell) and Sarah Berger (Rost) taking an episode each. It’s a rather dry affair, and the participants seem uninspired by what they’re watching, though we do learn that Bryant’s underwear was regularly stolen from her dressing room during her time on Doctor Who. What wretched behaviour. Couldn’t the thieves have popped next door and taken the Doctor’s coat instead? More informative is an excellent set of ‘info text’ subtitles, full of fascinating production trivia. The least-glamorous and unsung DVD extra, these tracks must take months to research, compile and synchronise to the action on screen, and this is a particularly good offering. “Colin Baker wanted to begin as an unlikable Doctor whom the audience would grow to love as the years rolled by,” reads one caption, reminding us of the central tragedy of this incarnation. The audience didn’t appear to want a hero they couldn’t like – a not unreasonable response – and so this risky idea backfired. However, with a warmer and more welcoming Sixth Doctor proving popular on audio 25 years later, Baker must take some comfort from the fact he fulfilled his goal in the end. 

The Black Guardian Trilogy

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

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The Black Guardian is, by a long chalk, Doctor Who’s most tedious and ineffectual villain. Don’t let the fact he hogs the title of this three-story box-set lead you to believe he’s the star character here, because he really isn’t. He’s a blustering old bore.

Unlike other Doctor Who scoundrels, the Black Guardian is immune to even the most basic psychoanalysis. His very name rules out any shades of grey. We know of old that he seeks to tilt the universe into chaos – not that it needs much help – while his colleague, the White Guardian, beavers away making things agreeable again. While their motivation remains a mystery, it’s clear the pair get along famously. When they come together at the close of this trilogy, it’s like Labour and Tory peers meeting at their Pall Mall club for some polite chitchat. Moreover, we must assume our Guardians catch up on a regular basis. How else can they plan their outfits? It’s a long-established rule of fantasy that the more powerful and ethereal a being is, the more freely he can indulge his latent transvestism. Gods, wizards and Time Lords eschew the practical trouser in favour of a roomy gown. The Guardians themselves dress like dowager aunts. With great power comes the right to let it all hang out; to let the time winds gust up your gusset. And what’s with those hats? The Black Guardian likes to don a suitably malign-looking carrion bird before embarking on a day’s evil-doing. Rook before you reap, as they say in Japan. Meanwhile, White opts for what we must assume to be a dove, the symbol of peace, love and holy spirit. Sadly, it looks more like a startled seagull. And you’d look startled too, if you had the Guardian of Light in Time jammed up your fundament.

Let’s consider these three adventures offered in the name of the Black Guardian. Mawdryn Undead, the first in this set, is adorable and rather brilliant in its quiet way. Doctor Who of old rarely told stories of time-travel trickery, but this circular tale is positively Moffatish. (Is that the right adjective? We’ll work on it.) The Doctor ends up in the same place as his chums Tegan and Nyssa, but separated by six years. Both meet a different version of the Brigadier. It’s a lovely idea, and in a suitably Moffaty manner, the problem becomes part of the solution, as the collision of the two Brigadiers ultimately saves the day. Adding further complication is alien interloper Mawdryn. Found by Tegan and Nyssa, he’s toasted skinless and writhing in agony, looking like one of those teenagers who, with their first wage, go crazy at the local tanning salon in a single-handed attempt to prove the theory of Natural Selection. Given Mawdryn’s parlous condition, Nyssa believes he might be the Doctor, badly injured and regenerating. It’s another neat idea; so neat in fact, it’s surprising Doctor Who hasn’t tried it again. Mawdryn – a sympathetic villain, just about – is well-played by David Collings beneath a deliciously disgusting make-up. His silly robes lessen the overall effect, but as he shares this look with his equally cursed shipmates, we must assume these merely look like robes, and actually grow as part of his body. That may sound absurd, but if you’re cursed with infinite mutation, then all possible variations must occur eventually. Mawdryn might wake one morning with the body of Katie Price and the head of stoat. Or worse, vice versa. Relatively speaking, we’ve caught him on a good day.

Mawdryn Undead is so ahead of its time from a plotting point of view, we now notice where its director misses a trick. With the Tardis team separated by time, but often standing in the same spot, it’s a shame the intercutting isn’t more playful. (Not that I’m suggesting someone re-edit it. That would be a crazy thing to do.) The set designer has done sterling work in styling the two versions of the Brigadier’s quarters – inside and out – to reflect his different states of mind, but you’ll have to watch the ‘film trims’ on the extras here to fully appreciate it, thanks to a nice direct cut between the Brig’s once well-tended, but later overgrown, garden.

As the Brigadier squared, Nicholas Courtney is the star of the show. This isn’t just fannish sentiment talking – Courtney is better than ever here, most notably playing the Brig’s funny turn following the suggestion that, in 1983, he’s not the full shilling. The way the Brigadier’s nervous breakdown lends a human element to this time travel story is, again, positively Moffataceous. The story wouldn’t work nearly so well with Ian Chesterton, as originally planned. The Brig has enjoyed a longer, deeper friendship with the Doctor; and in losing him, loses everything. That said, it’s fun to imagine how the flashback scene in part two might have run with Ian. “Marco Polo you’ll remember of course…” (“Marco Polo! Marco Polo!”) Then: “Something’s just walked over my grave…” “Perhaps it was a Mire Beast… Ian Chatterton!”

Our second adventure, Terminus, is by any measure a step down from Mawdryn Undead. A step down? It takes the express lift to the basement of Doctor Who and then tunnels under the foundations.

It isn’t bad as such – it’s just boring. And you really have to push in all the stops to make Doctor Who boring.

The story sees the Doctor and companions trapped in a kind of brutal space hospital dedicated to the treatment of the disfiguring Lazars Disease. At some point, the management has decided to help raise morale by painting large skulls on the doors. How thoughtful. On screen, Lazars Disease is directly identified with leprosy; the production team presumably feeling safe to do so because they’d never met any sufferers of leprosy, or ever expected to. But to test how inappropriate this is, try substituting the name of another serious disease in the dialogue – perhaps one that has affected a friend or family member – and imagine how it might sound in a teatime sci-fi show on BBC1.

Issues of taste aside, Terminus is a headachy affair. The armoured Vanir – the warders of this hospital-cum-prison – rattle and clatter about. The soundtrack attempts to distract us with music so tuneless and evil it can only have been composed by the Black Guardian himself, pecking out random notes with his hat. The Doctor frowns his way through the din in the company of space pirate Kari, with actress Liza Goddard managing to generate precisely zero chemistry with Peter Davison. The Fifth Doctor always worked well when teamed with go-getting older women – Todd in Kinda, Jane in The Awakening – so there’s really no excuse for this drippy pairing. Kari’s young colleague, Olvir, is another charisma-free zone. He arrives whey-faced and sweating, blinking mascara from his eyes like he’s just been ejected from an all-night rave. There appears to be Burmese cat sleeping on his head. It’s lucky he doesn’t share any scenes with the Black Guardian, or there’d be feathers everywhere.

The Doctor ultimately reaches the centre of the story – the centre of the Universe, no less – where all creation is put at threat by a conveniently-timed short circuit. By this point, any sane viewer is long past caring, but blessed oblivion is cruelly snatched from us by the Garm, a giant dog monster who calmly resets the drama switch to its OFF position. At least the Garm offers some distraction to the enquiring mind. It may have the voice of a London cabbie – “I draw dur disease from ‘um” – but one wonders what dog-like behaviours it exhibits when unobserved. Does it lick itself clean? Can it scratch behind its ears with those teeny-tiny feet? One thing’s for sure: its home planet must really honk on rainy days.

Our final adventure here, Enlightenment, is another beast entirely. It’s spellbinding – one of Doctor Who’s finest serials – and weaves a mythic, fairytale atmosphere into a robust and rollicking tale of a yacht race in space. In another of those coincidences thrown up by the DVD release schedule, we now see it has much in common with The War Games. Again, ordinary men have been kidnapped from Earth, their memories suppressed. Their officers are cold-fish aliens, in this case Eternals, abusing human instinct and ingenuity for their own ends. The chilliest of these Eternals is also Enlightenment’s best character. Captain Striker’s dark stare is like the tinted windows of a limousine; he can see out, but we can’t see in. As Striker reads the Doctor’s mind, actor Keith Barron’s delivery of the line, “You are a lord of time. Are there lords in such a small domain?” is a master class in underplayed menace, a pitch-perfect performance.

‘Underplayed’ is not a word that can be applied to Striker’s rival, Captain Wrack, however. This is by no means a criticism of the sainted Lynda Baron. The two captains balance each other perfectly, so it’s a shame they never appear together on screen. And if anyone you know ever suggests that modern Doctor Who is somehow more camp than it used to be, then you should direct them to the end of part three of Enlightenment. This sees a highly sexual lady of a certain age – her heaving bosom like two bald toddlers wrestling in a taffeta sack – hissing threats direct to camera and cackling madly. Our closing shot is of a pretty tiara. ‘Camp’ doesn’t even begin to cover it.

It’s this wild blend – the sinister mystery of Striker’s ship, the roistering ebullience of Wrack’s – that helps make Enlightenment quintessential Doctor Who. It also benefits from an on-form Peter Davison – clearly cheered by the chance to play a decisive and heroic Doctor – a brilliant central conceit and some excellent dialogue. The best line goes to Mariner, the creepy Eternal with a crush on Tegan. “You’re not like any Ephemeral I’ve ever met before!” he wails to her locked bedroom door. Brilliant.

The Black Guardian sneers a catalogue of empty threats through all three of these stories. Perhaps he’s only chosen this moment to threaten the Doctor because he rightly suspects the Time Lord will soon interfere in his precious boat race. Come to think of it, describing Black as an old bore – which is where we started – might be a blind alley. These Guardians have tellingly juvenile obsessions; with shiny knick-knacks and complicated games. They once played hide-and-seek with the Key To Time, and here they have Eternals competing for a prize represented by another glittering gewgaw. The Guardians may appear long in tooth and jowl, but it’s easy to imagine them as the children of their race. The Black Guardian – explaining why he’s using Turlough as his agent to kill the Doctor – says, “I cannot be seen to act in this.” We’re never told who he’s worried about, but his long-suffering mother is the obvious candidate. He’s probably expecting Mrs Rose Guardian to rush in and tell him to stop playing with that dirty universe, glowering from under a stuffed flamingo that’s playing havoc with her perm.

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DVD EXTRAS

Coming with a fourth disc, this box-set also offers Enlightmentment: The Special Edition. Though exactly what’s special about it is up for debate.

The avowed intent is to offer a version of the story that might be judged ‘more modern’. Not including title sequences, this means around 10 minutes of material are cut for this feature-length presentation, which is ironic given how many years Doctor Who fans had to fight to stop the BBC from releasing videos in this format. In the main, it’s an opportunity to showcase some bland computer-generated effects. Again this is ironic, as there are few Doctor Who stories less in need of replacement effects than Enlightenment. The original model work is gorgeous, while this substitute material is crude and unsophisticated in comparison, and already looks dated. We now have a version of Enlightenment presented how it might have looked in 1998, which really is the height of pointlessness. In the most heinous crime of all, the story is cropped to a widescreen ratio, losing around a third of the height of the picture and a lot of important narrative detail, rendering a great story little more than a succession of blurry close-ups.

In happier news, these serials are well served by a strong three-part production documentary, delivering a wide range of interviewees. Most interesting are the normally unsung members of the production team – such as sound engineer Scott Talbot, who discusses the problems he had working on Terminus. This serial offers the most entertaining behind-the-scenes tales, as thanks to a BBC strike it proved a nightmarishly stressful production for all concerned.

These documentaries are narrated by Floella Benjamin – for reasons unclear – who delivers her script in a Madly! Enthusiastic! Style!, as if she’s trying to sell us something. It’s peculiar, but quite cheering in its way. An error of judgment has the Mawdryn Undead documentary make a sudden handbrake turn into an exploration of whether immortality – in real life that is, not within a Warp Ellipse – might one day be possible. “Soon you’ll be able to grow the basis of your own nose,” muses a leading plastic surgeon. “Maybe even most of it.” Golly. We have some way to go then. It that case, it’s lucky Mawdryn bumped into the Doctor while visiting Earth. If he’d returned to his spaceship saying “I return, my brothers. I bring the secret of… of growing the majority of a nose”, he would have been greeted with less enthusiasm by his shipmates, who are a dour bunch at the best of times.

Off-cuts from these documentaries form a number of shorter interview items spread across the discs, including some well-illustrated profiles of Mark Strickson (Turlough) and Sarah Sutton (Nyssa). Most welcome is an item on the Guardians, with the children of actors Valentine Dyall and Cyril Luckham offering some warm and welcome memories of their fathers.

Liberty Hall, a short drama featuring Nick Courtney as the Brigadier, is harmless enough. It lacks any real substance, however, as it’s no more than a contrived re-telling of the plot of Mawdryn Undead, with the Brigadier recounting things we already know to a journalist. He’s not much of a journalist, either. While pressing the Brig to reveal trivia, such as the odd way Turlough’s school fees were paid, he entirely misses the big scoop. DWM’s Jason Arnopp would have had the Brig fessing up the secret of the Loch Ness Monster, or dishing the dirt on Corporal Bell’s sordid double life.

Finally, there’s a generous collection of film off-cuts, outtakes and other odds and ends, covering all three stories. It’s all lovely to have, but Terminus: Unused Model Shots, for example, is not something you’ll be revisiting regularly. Though come to that, neither is Terminus.

All in all, the madness of that Special Edition aside, this box set delivers a generous and thorough selection of extras. Add in the entertaining commentaries and info texts, and there’s a good week’s viewing here. However, for this reviewer, his favourite new fact – well, new to him – comes from a bizarre TARDIS Information System item on Enlightenment. Apparently, according to the novel The Quantum Archangel, the fearsome Kronos from The Time Monster was the product of bedroom naughtiness involving a Chronovore and an Eternal. Who’d have thought! So how did that pillow talk go? “You’re not like any big, birdy, Time Vortex-dwelling creature I’ve ever met before.” Smooth moves, Mr Mariner. Get in there, my son.

The War Games

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

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The War Games is an exceptional Doctor Who story, with an outstanding opening episode. It certainly doesn’t hang about. The TARDIS arrives in the midst of the First World War, and the Doctor, Jamie and Zoe are immediately swept into the maelstrom. Dodging a barrage of heavy artillery, they’re picked up by plucky ambulance driver Lady Buckingham (“I say! Are you alright?”), captured by German troops (“Hände hoch!”), before being rescued by Lieutenant Carstairs of the British Army (“I say! Who are those people?”). This is all within the first three and a half minutes.

In the eighth minute – we’re now behind the British lines – we have our first stunning twist; the first of many stunning twists. Sinister General Smythe is online and Skype-ing in his bedroom. Flippin’ ’eck. It makes your mind stand on end. Is Smythe from space? The future? If neither, he really should hurry back to Blighty and file a patent application on that talking telly. By the end of Episode One, the Doctor has been convicted of espionage in a sham court-martial and lined up before a firing squad. There’s a crash of gunfire. Roll credits. And breathe.

1984’s The Caves of Androzani is rightly lauded as one of the greats. But here’s its first episode, 15 years early: the same plot beats, the same panicky feeling in your stomach as events slip so completely from the Doctor’s control, the same astonishing cliffhanger. Like Caves, it’s handled by an outstanding Doctor Who director – again, one of the greats. David Maloney’s location work looks like excerpts from a feature film. In studio, his cameras creep and swoop across some of Doctor Who’s best-ever sets. Maloney’s particularly creative with reverse angles as Smythe and his fellow villains spit vitriol via their webcams. And he’s lining up all these clever shots in something close to real time, with only around 90 minutes to record a complete episode. It’s an astonishing achievement.

Through the commentary and documentary on this disk, The War Games’ co-writer Terrance Dicks can’t stop putting himself and his serial down. “You can pick it up at any time in the next three hours, and nothing much will have happened,” he says mournfully. “It’s Doctor Who’s only ten-part story,” he adds. “Please God, may it never be done again.” We’re charmed by Dicks’ humility – as ever – but he’s completely wrong. Nothing much happens? What nonsense. Whole seasons of Doctor Who have passed with less incident than this one story. Every episode delivers a new twist, with the ground first prepared with subtle clues that flatter our intelligence. The Doctor is saved from the firing squad by a rogue shot from a sniper. It goes unmentioned, but isn’t that a hat from the American Civil Wars he’s wearing? The tall box that appears in Smythe’s room makes the sound of a TARDIS. A bloody TARDIS! Soon, we’re racing through different wars, learning that humans across history have been jumbled up together as part of an alien plan to form an army of galactic conquest. Again, it feels like a movie. Roman soldiers thunder towards us on a chariot. Jamie is hunted down by Confederate soldiers on horseback. Even today, with its budget of millions, Doctor Who rarely delivers such spectacle. And then the tale twists again, as we find ourselves in the command centre of this insane battlefield, and again, when the War Chief and the Doctor make eye contact. The shock of their mutual recognition strikes the story like lightning.

With the cunning born of true genius, the writers keep the War Chief and the Doctor apart for nearly four episodes, and we ache for their confrontation. When it comes, the Doctor is still and sure. The War Chief, in a peerless display of restrained camp by Edward Brayshaw, seems at first to be almost flirting with him. It’s more interesting than any conversation we ever witness between the Doctor and the Master. The Master is never in doubt of his own superiority, but the War Chief is a weak man who’s found strength only by hiding among bullies. He speaks of his desire for power, but really only wants the Doctor’s approval. Patrick Troughton effortlessly takes our hero from errant schoolboy to disappointed father, as the War Chief comes to sound like a panicked child caught in a lie. It’s a sublime scene.

The closing two episodes bring the biggest shock of all, with the Doctor brought to heel by the Time Lords, and finally obliged to explain what he’s all about; what he stands for. The recent DVD release of The Deadly Assassin has that story fresh in our minds, so we can again ponder the Doctor’s relationship with his people. And I maintain my view that the Time Lords of The War Games are the more interesting because they throw the Doctor’s own morality into sharper relief. One imagines it would have been easy – self-indulgent even – for our hero to leave the Gallifrey of The Deadly Assassin; a dull planet of fusty, unimaginative old men. Instead, here we have a Doctor who, when setting out into the universe to fight tyranny, also made a personal sacrifice. He’s abandoned a kind of utopia out of a burning need to do what is right.

The Doctor’s trial for meddling ends not with punishment but complete acquittal. Bowing to the case for the defence, the Time Lords send the Doctor where he can do the most good – though their justification for changing his appearance seems somewhat muddled. As a child, watching this story on a bootleg video, I was bitterly disappointed with the regeneration scene. Having lived through Logopolis and Androzani, this climax seemed absurd and incomplete. But looking now at the details, I appreciate how truly chilling it is. The Doctor’s skin appears to blacken and burn. When he spirals away into oblivion, his hands desperately clutch at the empty space where his head should be. Far from being absurd, it’s the scariest regeneration of them all. It’s also Doctor Who’s finest cliffhanger, at the end of Doctor Who’s greatest adventure.

And so, my final remarks go out to Terrance Dicks, should he be listening… Terrance, you’re my hero. You deserve an OBE, a knighthood. But if you genuinely feel The War Games should come with an apology, then you’re also in need of a good talking to.

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DVD EXTRAS

Kneel before the Restoration Team! All hail the inventors of VidFIRE! This fresh print of The War Games dazzles with its beauty. A whole third disc of extras offers something for everyone. And while this review will offer some hopefully constructive criticism, it’s important to be clear on one point: a first class adventure combined with labour-of-love restoration and excellent bonus material make this the best Doctor Who DVD yet. Thank you, 2entertain.

War Zone, the production documentary, is a smart piece of work and, as with The Deadly Assassin, everyone is full of praise for David Maloney. On that DVD we learned that Maloney’s daughter once saved Tom Baker from drowning. Here we are reminded that his young son helped choose the battles to be fought in each of the time zones. What an athletic, educated family! We should surrender government of the country to them forthwith.

Jane Sherwin is the most charming interviewee, recalling her role as Lady Buckingham with great enthusiasm. She’s equally adorable on the commentary, which is more than can be said of her former husband Derrick, the producer of The War Games, who whines a catalogue of pretty criticisms through the whole thing. At first you feel it’s a pity that he fails to appreciate the excellence of his own work, but soon you’re praying for him just to bugger off is he’s finding it such a terrible chore. Over on the documentary, Sherwin has the look of Steven Moffat’s curmudgeonly uncle.

Time Zones promises ‘the truth behind The War Games’, and invites a likeable gang of historians to explain the background to the conflicts depicted in the serial. It’s well made, but shows poor taste by illustrating descriptions of the true horror of the Somme with footage from a Doctor Who serial. While they remind us that 20,000 young men were slaughtered by machine gun and mortar fire in one day, it’s wrong to cut to a series of squibs let off by the BBC visual effects department on a Brighton landfill. 20,000 men. In one day.

Stripped For Action, looking at the TV Comic adventures of the second Doctor, is another fine addition to the series, with enthusiastic contributors paying tribute to the crackpot creativity of these 60s strips. This is a unique take on Doctor Who, where our hero spends his idle hours inventing mechanical housemaids and indestructible cars, and defeats wily Quarks with little more than the weapons in his utility belt. And as Doctorly catchphrases go, “Die, hideous creature – die!” is some way from “Sorry, I’m so sorry.” The stories may be wild, and artist John Canning’s pan-faced hero may look like he’s been chasing parked cars, but no illustrator since has come as close as capturing the fundamental energy and eccentricity of Doctor Who. This all too brief programme pays him just tribute, and one is left praying for the day when the economics of Doctor Who publishing allow his work to be reprinted in a series of suitably lavish volumes.

Also from producer Marcus Hearn is On Target, the first in a new series looking at the beloved Doctor Who novelisations of the 1970s and 80s. Again, fans warmly salute a creative genius – in this case author Malcolm Hulke, co-writer of The War Games – but the documentary struggles to find a suitable way to communicate the richness of his work to the viewer. Actors read well-chosen excerpts from his novels, but accompanied by jarring montages of clips from the original TV episodes, which serve only to undercut the key point that Hulke’s characters are more vivid and real in his books. A description of the scarred Butler from Doctor Who and the Dinosaur Invasion is matched to footage of the distinctly dapper Martin Jarvis from the telly original, and the disparity chafes the brain. In future instalments, perhaps commissioned artwork would help convey the vivid imagery of these books. Certainly, it’s essential if the series ever reaches Pip and Jane Baker’s work. One highlight of the Terror of the Vervoids novelisation – “The Commodore was unable to suppress a small grin at Mel’s cheeky parting crack” – is a subject upon which the full ingenuity of Adrian Salmon must be brought to bear.

Shades of Grey – a look at the pre-1970 television – is a series of disconnected anecdotes on a subject that deserved to be covered in greater depth. It’s also vaguely patronising. “Looking back, it’s tempting to write off black and white television as one generic whole.” claims the voiceover. No, it isn’t. I don’t feel remotely tempted. But if you have a friend with fond memories of Quatermass the Wonder Horse, then this documentary is for them. “But what was the legacy of 1960s Doctor Who?” ponders our narrator. Oh, I don’t know. 1970s Doctor Who?

Talking About Regeneration is great fun. Fan commentators and actors discuss this most tumultuous of Doctor Who events, offering observations ranging from the sage to the cheekily flippant. However, while one can’t argue with Joseph Lidster’s remarks that Hartnell’s regeneration “must have seemed so mad at the time” and that it “must have been astonishing for a kid watching [Eccleston’s demise],” one is left wishing that a suitable 53-year old and 14-year old had been invited to share firsthand reactions to the death of ‘their’ Doctor. After all, the most important aspect of regeneration is our powerful emotional response to it. Kate O’Mara (the wretched Rani) makes an unexpected guest appearance, and it’s cute how the camera shies from the close-up used for the other contributors. Very chivalrous.

Devious – a fan-produced video drama that roped Jon Pertwee into a crackers tale linking The War Games to Spearhead From Space – is too cute and well-meaning to face criticism here. Having once watched a version of this for a DWM feature back in the day, I was disappointed to find this presentation has modern CG effects slathered over it, which detract from its homespun charm.

I’ve reserved comment on the best until last. Martin Wiggins’ production notes on the second subtitle track must stand as the finest extra ever to grace a Doctor Who DVD. Full of information, insight and droll wit, this brings the story to life in so many different ways. The best bit is in Episode Seven, as the subtitles talk us through the movements of the cameras across the set over the course of a couple of scenes. That may sound dull, but it really, really isn’t. With ‘info text’ switched on, you feel like you’re watching the story for the very first time. And that’s a superlative achievement.

The Rescue and The Romans

A review of the DVD box set for Doctor Who Magazine, from 2009. By this point, I was starting to massively exceed my allotted word count. And I’ve only got worse. This one is 1,800 words, and I knew I was pushing my luck. I recently submitted 3,400 words for the ‘Earth Story’ double pack. I’m very naughty – and Tom Spilsbury is a very kind editor!

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If you want to understand how Doctor Who became a smash success, then forget the Daleks, shelve your Beginning box set, and instead reach for The Rescue and The Romans. Here, in the oval of a Venn diagram labelled with the names of writers David Whitaker and Dennis Spooner, is where the programme we love was born. BBC Head of Drama Sydney Newman may have asked for a show, he might even have named a show, but Whitaker and Spooner gave us The Show. With The Rescue, we see outgoing story editor Whitaker justify all the notes he gave to other, lesser writers, and prove that how he wanted it done was exactly how it should be done. Then Spooner, incoming story editor and genius writer of The Romans, gives the format one final tweak by allowing the Doctor to be cleverer, funnier, cooler – turning him into a hero we could cheer. Between them, Whitaker and Spooner created Doctor Who. They should have been thanked in the closing titles of each episode that followed. Their grandchildren should receive 10% of the sale of every Doctor Who DVD, dolly and duvet cover. It would still be the bargain of a lifetime, because we owe them everything.

The Rescue takes us to the planet Dido, where perky young Vicki and whingeing, pain-in-the-arse astronaut Bennett are the only survivors of a spaceship crash. As the pair await a lifeboat from Earth, they find themselves terrorised by a hideous alien beast called Koquillion. All spiky antennae, googly eyes and glittery accessories, Koquillion looks like the result of an unfortunate teleport accident involving a stag beetle and Danny La Rue. He claims to be Vicki and Bennett’s only protection against the other natives of Dido, who apparently murdered…

STOP! ‘Koquillion claims’? What shilly-shallying. ‘Who apparently murdered’? We simply can’t go on like this. You see, your reviewer had The Rescue spoiled for him by this very magazine when he was just eight years old – over a decade before he had a chance to see the episodes themselves – and he’ll be damned if he’s going to let history repeat. Not so very long ago, it would have been taken for granted that every DWM reader knew what happens in The Rescue. But today, there will be eight-year-olds cruising towards the next paragraph in blissful ignorance. If that’s you, and you’ve never read even the briefest synopsis of the story, then turn the page. Do not come back until you’ve watched the DVD. After three stars, and with just three words, it will be spoiled forever.

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Bennett is Koquillion. Having committed murder aboard ship, he’s covered his tracks by killing the rest of the crew. His disguise is to help sell the lie of homicidal natives to Vicki, who will ultimately act as his alibi. However, the fact that Bennett’s ultimate unmasking by the Doctor reminds us of Scooby Doo leads to that single, dreary criticism of The Rescue – that it is a ‘whodunnit’ with only one suspect. What utter rubbish. It’s no kind of whodunnit at all. To confirm this, your reviewer watched these episodes with a friend who knew nothing of the story, and had also just watched the previous 51 episodes, in order, for the first time. This took some organising by the way. From the start, our newcomer believed that Koquillion was an alien monster – and a beautifully-realised one compared to the Voord and the Sensorites. Only when Bennett’s room is found to be empty did he guess, at the exact moment Whitaker intended him to, that man and monster were one and the same. His response was brief and accurate: “That’s brilliant!”. Only by watching The Rescue this way, in its original context, can the immense ingenuity and wit of its story be properly appreciated. It’s a little work of genius.

A wish to redress this disservice may unbalance this box set review, but that’s not to say The Romans isn’t wonderful. Ambition is the watchword here, not just in the way it remains Doctor Who’s funniest story, but also thanks to its endearing aspiration to be a movie epic. Yes, resources are painfully limited – a fact most ably demonstrated when Ian’s slave galley founders on the Cape of Stock Footage, or when he’s threatened by some unlikely-looking lions (Felis Telecinius in the latin) – but it never stops the production team from trying.

The regular cast are at their very best, notably Jacqueline Hill (Barbara) and William Hartnell as the Doctor. Guest star Derek Francis may be the focus of the fruity farce in episode three, but when he propositions Barbara – “Close your eyes, and Nero will give you a big surprise” – it’s Hill’s expert double-take that turns it into a thoroughly dirty joke.

Hartnell’s brilliant performance in The Romans is only ever bettered by his big scene in The Rescue. (It’s rare to find our lead more at ease in a sci-fi tale, but his confrontation with Bennett is sublime, with the Doctor’s bright little eyes dancing in the darkness.) The Romans feels less rehearsed, and so Hartnell takes his familiar Eric Morecambe approach to the dialogue – saying all the right words, but not necessarily in the right mountain goat. Although he’s far from alone in that. One of Doctor Who’s most tense moments comes when Michael Peake, playing slave master Tavius, slips up on a line and he and Hartnell look at each other in agonised silence for a long moment before our star saves him. You lift up in your seat as your buttocks clench in sympathetic discomfort.

Fumbles and stumbles included, these six stunning episodes form the template from which all future Doctor Who would be cut. You could compile a trailer for the entire series using clips from The Rescue alone. “We can travel anywhere in that old box,” says the Doctor proudly. “And if you like adventure, my dear, I can promise you an abundance of it!”

Even Hartnell, Doctor Who’s great champion, didn’t know how right he was.

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DVD EXTRAS

All praise must go to the Restoration Team for another expert clean-up job, another labour of love. The results are stunning, sometimes even surprising. You can now clearly see Ian actor William Russell sidling out of shot in the background of Sandy the Sand Beast’s cave, long before he’s due to emerge. Well, one presumes it’s Russell from his sharp suit, but this being the BBC of the sixties, it could equally well be the floor manager or the tea boy.

Mounting the Rescue is an excellent little documentary, perfectly straightforward but never dull. The star of the show is designer Raymond Cusick. Always so still and inscrutable, he’s like watching an Easter Island statue attend a job interview. Only when raw materials are mentioned does Cusick betray what by his standards must be a heady rush of emotion. Watch for when his eyes flash – well, widen by a millimetre – at the mention of “reeded hardboard”. Cusick is another of Doctor Who’s bona fide geniuses, and while his anecdotes may be on the dry side, this reviewer could listen to his measured modesty all day.

There’s an interesting detail hidden away and unacknowledged in the Photo Gallery. Production legend, restated in the documentary here, recounts how Jacqueline Hill came close to serious injury when a flare gun detonated prematurely in the first take of Barbara’s assassination of Sandy. But here’s a photograph showing the very moment of the explosion. It’s during a rehearsal, as Barbara removes the gun from a store cupboard. Zoom in to the picture and you can see how close the flash is to Hill’s face, and imagine how terrifying this must have been for her. With all that hair lacquer, she could have gone up like Vesuvius. It also brings home the craziness of Doctor Who’s as-live production at the time, with actresses expected to stumble through long takes with primed explosives in their trembling hands.

The production documentary for The Romans is a bewildering affair. The Doctor Who material is smart and informative, but then we suddenly have Anthony Andrews discussing his own performance as Nero in the eighties TV potboiler A.D., and Christopher Biggins ruminating on I, Claudius. It leaves a nagging sense of a programme maker either bored of talking only about Doctor Who, or worse, ashamed of it. Input from the outside world is always welcome, but this sort of thing can only work if, at the very least, someone has the balls to show Andrews and Biggins a clip from The Romans and tease out an opinion, however derisory. The link must be directly made; otherwise the whole production appears schizophrenic. Oddly, you can find an example of how to do this properly within the same documentary, as Dr Mark Bradley, lecturer in Ancient Histories at Nottingham University, outlines the true history of Caesar Nero, as far as it is known, and then discusses what The Romans gets right and wrong. Perfect! It’s a shame Dr Mark’s particular field of expertise precludes future DVD appearances – at least until The Myth Makers turns up – as your reviewer would love to see him again. Dinner would be nice.

Girls! Girls! Girls!, a look at Doctor Who’s plucky lady helpers of the sixties, offers groovy graphics, entirely superficial content, and a narrator struggling to finish some epic sentences before they choke her. What should have been an interesting study of the development of the companion proves no more than a collection of hit-and-miss anecdotes from the actresses concerned, who are rather tactlessly presented in front of giant blow-ups of their younger, smoother selves. Reaching The War Games in 1969, we’re told, “This coincided with the close of the most memorable decade of the 20th century”. What thoughtless tosh. Tell that to anyone who lived through the Blitz.

From the same producer, but better in every way, is Dennis Spooner – Wanna Write a Television Series?, which discusses the writer’s Doctor Who work within the context of his long and brilliant TV career. Spooner was a king of pulp drama, but pulp with brains, heart and guts. His sometime writing partner Brian Clemens offers a moving personal tribute, while Who writer Rob Shearman provides a typically insightful commentary. However, his assertion that The Romans is the best story of the black-and-white era cannot go without challenge. Shearman’s nearly right, but it’s not even the best story in this box set – but only because it’s paired with some fine competition.

Black Orchid

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

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Somehow, it seems callous to give Black Orchid a bad review – like kicking a puppy. On asking friends what they think of the story, one said: “It’s just a bit of fun!”. Another: “Oh, it’s sweet… It’s harmless.” But when we factor in that Black Orchid is, frankly, quite poor, then something strange is happening. Why is everyone so forgiving?

Here’s a theory: it’s two episodes of Doctor Who that won’t embarrass us in front of our mums. It has ‘mum-friendly’ things in it, like frocks and dancing, rather than a giant fuchsia snake or Anthony Ainley, and nobody says “I know so little about telebiogenesis” or “I wouldn’t dream of interfering with your Monopticons”.

It may sound sane and look pretty – and even prettier today after a spiffing restoration job – but Black Orchid is as insubstantial as smoke. This 50 minutes of froth, often described a ‘country house whodunnit’, is, at best, as ‘why-dunnit’. After all, it’s not as if we’re offered a range of suspects for the crimes at Dalton Hall. From scene one we know the murderer is an attic-dwelling heavy breather in turn-ups and tank top. The story unfolds – well, falls open – with little involvement required from the Doctor and friends, or demanded of the audience. But look! Fancy dress! And isn’t that just the nicest Doctor Who staircase this side of Ghost Light?

The first episode is outrageously padded with an epic cricket montage that feels as a long as a three-day test. (How much more fun would it have been if our hero, for all his bluster and cricket fetish outfit, proved to be rubbish at the game?). Even when the Doctor attempts to join the plot, he can’t seem to find it – instead spending 15 minutes opening and closing doors in a hallway while the storyline is busy stealing his clothes downstairs. Meanwhile, Adric is told he’s a pig for eating spring onions, Nyssa finds she has a twin even more fragile and tremulous than her, and Tegan dulls the pain by ordering a large vodka and tonic – at lunchtime – before flirting with a man twice her age. It’s probably the sort of behaviour that gets her sacked from Air Australia. You can’t carry on like that in Premium Economy.

In deference to younger fans, it would be churlish to reveal the true nature of the killer here. Suffice to say, and we come back to that ‘why-dunnit’, even his given motivation – “he’s mad!” – is suspect. He plots a route through secret passages, steals a disguise, dances a foxtrot and throttles a footman, before ultimately returning his costume, neatly folded, and retiring to his room. Unless obsessive-compulsive disorder is a recognised symptom of his homicidal psychosis, there’s no way this killer will cop a plea of insanity, however stressful his home life might be.

After a nice drive around the county, the story mooches towards a conclusion, where the Doctor’s recklessness endangers more lives (“What will he do when he finds out he’s got the wrong girl?” he wails. Thirty seconds later he tells the killer: “That isn’t Ann!”). Cleverly, the director tries to distract us with some entirely offensive incidental music, which sounds like composer Roger Limb’s cat was left to walk up and down on his synthesizer keyboard. Or Roger Limb was left to walk up and down on his cat. With that in mind, here’s an idea for 2entertain: In the same way some DVDs offer alternative special effects to replace originals that are now deemed too humiliating to show our friends, how about an Alternative Score on a future release? Perhaps to replace some truly excruciating racket, like that on Four To Doomsday or Terminus? Now while I’m sure Murray Gold is far too busy to re-score the Garm, maybe he has some eager protégé who fancies a crack at it? It would be a fascinating experiment to see how the mood of a familiar adventure can change with its music – certainly more interesting than giving Liza Goddard a new laser effect – and how an 80s Doctor Who soundtrack can be improved by the addition of elements once considered irrelevant; such as melody, harmony or musical instruments.

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DVD EXTRAS

Although this is priced as one of the range’s ‘no frills’ releases, it still fields a generous range of extras, with the highlight being an enormously entertaining commentary. Peter Davison is the king of commentaries, and here he’s teamed with his two charming companions and Adric. And what fun! While Sutton has some happy memories of Orchid – she actually got some acting to do – her colleagues hate it with a passion, Davison most of all. The points he makes about the flaws in the production are perceptive, profound, and suggest that even in his youth he was more TV literate than either scriptwriter Terence Dudley or director Ron Jones.

There’s no ‘talking heads’ documentary covering the production of the story, but Richard Bignell does deliver one of his Now and Then tours of the Black Orchid filming locations. While Richard’s attention to detail is laudable, the problem is that the sites used in 1982 were chosen because they still looked like they did in the 1920s. And today they, well… still look like they did in the 1920s. A cross-fade of Quainton Road station ‘Then’ and ‘Now’ just shows the TARDIS prop disappearing, like some shonky roll-back-and-mix. And as proof that there’s such a thing as too much detail, even in a fan production, the voiceover reels off a long list of locations that weren’t used for Black Orchid – an entirely useless catalogue that only serves to take us all a minute closer to our own deaths. However, if you like that sort of thing, here are some other locations that weren’t used for Black Orchid: my house, your house, my mum’s house, the house next door to my mum’s house… Oh, and several others. I hope you’ve found that information enriching.

Also offering little new insight are a half-dozen deleted scenes, featuring some driving, a close-up of a Brazilian, the Doctor opening yet another door, and the news that someone has received a phone call (I won’t reveal who, to maintain the suspense). In addition, Nyssa and Ann perform a particularly annoying dance, which shows that the ‘double’ was a good four inches taller than Sarah Sutton. Couldn’t they have dug a little trench for her to stand in? The director should have done it – he obviously wasn’t busy.

The BBC archive provides a contemporary clip from Points Of View. “Please can we have more monsters and fewer girls?” complains viewer Robert Moore of Hampshire. Host Barry Took infers that Robert’s feelings will change as he grows up. Personally, I wouldn’t bet on that. There’s also a Blue Peter film report from Berman’s and Nathan’s costumiers, which starts sensibly enough, turns insane, and just happens to include a clip from Black Orchid. But be warned… it also offers up presenter Simon Groom in his underpants. And very 1980s underpants at that.

The final gem on this disc is another instalment of Marcus Hearn’s Stripped For Action history of the Doctor Who comic strip – here remembering the superb Fifth Doctor stories from this very journal. These epic, Romantic adventures had a profound effect upon the early development of this reviewer – though perhaps not as much as that Simon Groom footage – and it’s a treat to see artist Dave Gibbons and editor Alan McKenzie discuss their work. Sadly, there’s no sign of Steve Parkhouse – one of Doctor Who’s most creative and influential writers, working in any medium. I hope the production team resorts to blackmail, bribery or kidnap for the Sixth Doctor instalment, where Parkhouse’s involvement is simply essential.