Tag Archives: Barry Letts

The Ambassadors of Death

2 Jan

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

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dvd-ambasadors‘Exile’ is too grand a description for the sentence handed down to the Doctor at the end of his original trial. Aside from changing his face – which admittedly could be argued to be a form of capital punishment – all the Time Lords really do is wheelclamp the Doctor’s ship and so deny him access to his favourite of his usual four dimensions. However, while our hero can no longer trip through time, his new incarnation still thrusts out unceasingly in every remaining direction. The first thing he does is to take a vehicle without the owner’s consent – a crime for which he has form, to say the least – after which he barely sits still for a moment. And in the seven-episode adventures that dominate his first year on Earth, we see him explore, in turn, all three dimensions still available to him. To meet the Silurians, he plunges down into the ground. Later, he’ll shimmy sideways into a parallel reality. And this week – to meet the Ambassadors of Death – he rockets straight up into the sky.

These three seven-parters are some of the most measured and mature Doctor Who you can find for your money, although there’s no denying that Ambassadors is the least of them. In being obliged to do more than merely vamp their way to a deferred climax, these longer-than-usual adventures each bridge, like a sonata, to a middle development section that takes us somewhere new; into a darker, minor key. Think of The Silurians and Inferno, with their sidesteps into plague and fiery apocalypse. Ambassadors flips the form. Much of the story is as gloomy and grounded as Doctor Who gets. But in its central digression, it’s all spaceships, hypnosis, trippy Chromakey and a wafty alien who means well but is tragically misunderstood. At this point, producer Barry Letts and script editor Terrance Dicks must have shared a look of mutual understanding. The counterpoint for Ambassadors goes on to become the major repeating refrain for the rest of the Third Doctor’s era.

We have to be careful about describing any Doctor Who adventure as realistic, especially if it tells the story of manned missions to Mars launched from Hampshire in the depths of winter, controlled by a staff roughly the size of that you’d find in a Tesco Metro. But Ambassadors was imagined as taking place a good decade after the time it was made; and in 1970, the idea of delivering an Englishman to Mars would not have seemed so wildly optimistic. Sadly, the world has rather let us down on that score, but the vision of the day-after-tomorrow offered by this adventure remains more readily believable than the T-Mat network, the Gravitron or UNIT’s flying flagship Valiant. Indeed, Ambassadors would prove plausible in an immediate and unique way. On the 13th of April 1970, an oxygen tank exploded on board the service module of Apollo 13, the USA’s third manned mission to the moon. The world held its breath as Commander James Lovell and his crew fought to improvise a new air filtration system and bring the command capsule safely back to Earth. Episode 5 of The Ambassadors of Death, broadcast five days later, saw the Doctor blast off into space, and to his seemingly inevitable death in a sabotaged capsule. These days, it would be surely pulled from the schedule for too closely mirroring a real-life tragedy. It’s a peculiar tribute to Ambassadors’ spirited struggle for realism; a struggle that gives this story a special charm, and makes it a refreshing diversion from Doctor Who’s more familiar forays into the fantastic.

This struggle for realism isn’t shared by every aspect of the production to quite the same degree, however. Take British Space Command for example, where controller Ralph Cornish is in charge of the Recovery 7 mission, dispatched to rescue the crew of the ill-fated Mars Probe 7. Cornish is played by Ronald Allen, who become better known in the 70s as Crossroads’ dishy David Hunter; a performance that would go on to inspire the character of Mr Clifford in Victoria Wood’s tribute to TV melodrama, Acorn Antiques. And so it is that one can’t help but relish a retrospective whiff of Mr Clifford about Mr Cornish (“Did you get bored of Geneva, Brigadier? Or did Geneva get bored of you?”). While issuing commands, Allen keeps his eyes fixed on some distant horizon, as if in steadfast expectation of a bus that’s never going to come. Later in the story, when choosing fuel for his rocket, he has to say: “What about reducing the G by mixing K and M3?” and Allen is so endearingly earnest, we truly believe he’s formulating the next giant leap for mankind. Somewhat less convincing is the mission’s chief scientist, Dr Bruno Taltalian, who comes with an outrrrageous Franche eggsant and facial hair so evidently false that when he first removes his glasses you expect his beard to go with them.

TheAmbassadorsofDeath1-7avi_0001704The Doctor is watching the Recovery 7 mission on TV at UNIT HQ. He’s ripped out the TARDIS’s control console for a good tinker in his laboratory. Or at least we assume this is the case. The more whimsical might note that there’s nothing to say that this isn’t a new design of the TARDIS control room. With its flock wallpaper, stained glass and Meissen porcelain, it has a Jules Verne, fin de siècle decadence that rather suits our time traveller. It’s certainly a more homely environment for the Doctor than the TARDIS’s current TV incarnation, which looks like the inside of a migraine. Also offering a new look is his assistant Liz Shaw, who this week is exhibiting a wig of such extravagant proportion she could surely be slingshot head first into the offside of the Hoover Dam and walk away unscathed. Without doubt, Liz is the most glamorous research scientist ever to have graced the corridors of Doctor Who. One of her five degrees from Cambridge must have been in Applied Funky Fashion. After she’s kidnapped later in the story, the Brigadier reports: “I’ve issued Miss Shaw’s description to every police force in the country.” That must have been some conversation. “What’s that? Any distinguishing features? Well. A huge white hat. Miniskirt. Knee-high white boots… Yes, like Yoko Ono on her wedding day. Last seen in the sort of car you find the clowns driving at the circus. Oh, and she can look surprisingly mannish from a distance. And did I mention the big ginger wig? Hello? Are you still there?”

A screeching transmission from Mars Probe 7 brings the Doctor to Space Command and straight into the story’s best scene – well, its best non-action scene – as the Doctor insists that the signal is a coded message, and bullies Cornish through to the logical conclusion that a second signal must be a reply from Earth. The Doctor is so wildly pompous you want to stand up and cheer, and the Brigadier gets to play what will become Jo Grant’s role, hinting to the Doctor that he might get further by at least feigning some manners and respect for the local hierarchy. Set against the resolutely modernist backdrop of the control room, the Doctor seems positively reactionary. “I never did trust those things!” he huffs about Taltalian’s computer. And when the Frenchman – revealed to be a double agent – demands a vital data reel, the Doctor even seems to call upon supernatural powers, as the tape vanishes before our very eyes. “Zis is no time fer conjerin’ tricks,” insists Taltalian, and you can’t help but agree. “That was simply transmigration of object,” smarms the Doctor. “There’s a great deal of difference between that and real science, you know.” It’s one small moment, but so contrary to the spirit of Doctor Who that it makes you want to climb into your television set, crawl back 40 years, and give everyone involved a firm slap about the face with a stiff halibut. What’s especially galling is that Episode 1 has already offered a plausible set-up for this tomfoolery, thanks to a faulty TARDIS component which has the Doctor and Liz vanishing and reappearing in exactly the same way. Couldn’t the Doctor have had that in his pocket?

Perhaps this was a detail lost in the serial’s troubled journey from story to screen. The scripts for Ambassadors are the work of four writers – the credited David Whitaker, plus Malcolm Hulke, script editor Terrance Dicks and his assistant Trevor Ray. It’s thanks to Dicks in particular that the thing coheres at all, but due to this troubled development Ambassadors never quite comes into focus, never quite builds a momentum. But while it fails to make the most of its potential, it certainly delivers its share of kinetic energy, principally in three wonderful action sequences cooked up by director Michael Ferguson and Derek Ware’s stunt crew Havoc.

In Episode 1, UNIT tracks the source of the transmission to Mars Probe 7 to an abandoned warehouse. The baddies, though briefed not to kill anyone, come out all guns blazing, and soon bodies are crashing through tea chests as stuntmen boldly trampoline hither and yon. Somewhere in the Home Counties must be found the Tomb of the Unknown UNIT Soldier; a massive cenotaph topped by a simple relief of Pat Gorman. Meanwhile, as bullets ricochet around the Brigadier, he falls into a kind of blood frenzy, blasting away in all directions, before it all ends in a wonderfully butch and sweaty stand-off. This probably wasn’t the evening when the Brigadier went home, bounced daughter Kate on his knee and told her his hippy idea about letting the science lead the military.

There’s more action, and better, in Episode 2. Recovery 7 has crashed back to Earth – supposedly with the rescued astronauts aboard – but the villains hijack the UNIT convoy taking the capsule back to Space Command. A helicopter swoops in. Smoke bombs boom and belch. Riders are thrown from motorbikes as they slew sideways in the mud. A soldier briefly clings to one of the skids of the chopper and, while in flight, tries to wrench open the door – but then drops and tumbles down a ravine. In our modern era, Doctor Who, with generous budgets and all the artistry and processing power of The Mill, delivers many a thrilling action sequence. But we still know green screen when we see it – in 2012, just as in 1970 – and so it is that no one else, to this day, has managed to convey the same sense of true and present danger as Havoc at their most fearless. In Episode 3, Liz Shaw is chased pell-mell across a rugby pitch by two heavies, and then, played at key moments by stuntman Roy Scamell, along a weir. For the cliffhanger, Liz tumbles to her seeming-certain doom in the torrent of water below. It all looks mind-bogglingly dangerous, and we shall never see its like again. It’s also the moment when Liz Shaw proves herself a premier league assistant; by keeping her hat firmly jammed on her head throughout, and for giving one of her pursuers a proper wallop of a backhander.

But for all that Ambassadors enjoys getting out and about, it certainly chooses some gloomy terrain. It’s all mist and mud, slurry pit and slag heap. In one chilling scene, two grey-faced corpses are taken to a concrete works, dragged from the back of a van and slowly buried under a landslide of mixed aggregates. However, despite all this gritty action, even by Episode 4 there’s barely been enough plot to fill an egg cup, and what there is seems to pull in every possible direction. The villain of the piece is revealed to be the cold fish General Carrington, who is at times underplayed almost to nothing by John Abineri, which is what makes him so forgettable. The General, we learn, was part of the Mars Probe 6 mission – presumably to investigate the effect of zero gravity upon toupee tape – and saw his crewmate killed by aliens. Exactly how the cause of this death was explained away is anyone’s guess; certainly UNIT knows nothing about it.

originalCarrington has gone on to kidnap three alien ambassadors as part of a plan to provoke Earth into launching a pre-emptive strike against what he believes to be possible invaders, but who the Doctor knows to be essentially benign. Carrington’s chief lackey is Reegan – a more engaging performance from William Dysart – whose principal ambition seems to be to use the alien ambassadors as history’s most high-maintenance team of bank robbers. Quite why Reegan and Carrington cart the space-suited beings back and forth in a van just to commit the odd murder is entirely unfathomable, but it does give us the story’s signature visual moment as one of the ambassadors stalks towards us out of the low evening sun, the light flaring and spotting across his sinister silhouette. Michael Ferguson had pulled the same trick with an Ice Warrior on Hampstead Heath a year earlier, but here he nails it. It’s as beautifully contrived a shot as any you’ll find in the whole history of Doctor Who.

The disconnection of motive and action is, again, the result of the fractured writing process. It’s also why time seems to move at different speeds in different places. At one point, Liz escapes her captors merely to run straight into Bruno Taltalian, who has just appeared in the previous scene, set many miles away. But here he is in a car, suddenly dressed as Sherlock Holmes, and with nary a hint of a French accent.

When the end comes, it comes in a rush, and not with a bang but a whimper. Carrington is poised to unveil his aliens to the world, until the Doctor and UNIT pile in to stop him, and then the General simply hands over his gun and submits himself for arrest. His motivation turns out to be madness brought on by extreme xenophobia – or possibly vice versa – and though this might explain his wildly illogical scheme, it’s not exactly satisfying. From the aliens themselves we don’t hear another peep. And although our hero shows suitably Doctorish compassion toward Carrington, even he seems entirely indifferent as to what might happen next, and casually saunters off the side of the set.

This lack of engagement with the emotions of its characters is why only the swagger and flash of  Ambassadors tends to linger in the memory. Or perhaps it’s the fact that so much of the story features hopeless conspirators waving guns and shouting things like: “I need you to raid a number of isotope stores!”

Ambassadors is a fundamentally schizophrenic adventure. With its guns and gangsters on one side, and rocket ships and exploding briefcases on the other, it can’t seem to decide if wants to be The Ipcress File or Joe 90. But, in much the same way as The Mind Robber, The Happiness Patrol, Love & Monsters, or any of our other favourite eccentrics, The Ambassadors of Death pushes at the boundaries of what we might normally expect of Doctor Who, and should always be cherished for that.

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DVD EXTRAS

deathSHIPLINK-1The production documentary, Mars Probe 7: Making the Ambassadors of Death, opens to urgent strings and stock footage of Apollo 13, and seems set to investigate this adventure’s historical context. You’re braced for Dr Matthew Sweet stalking the corridors of the Science Museum in Dr River Song’s spacesuit; but, alas, we are denied that pleasure. Instead, the highlight is footage from a 1970 documentary about Havoc, which, accompanied by new interviews with the boys themselves, delivers a dizzying whirl of masculinity, derring-do and – let’s be frank – unexpected homoeroticism. After a hard day on the Doctor Who set, the Havoc boys would enjoy a right old rave-up. They’d drink together, go dancing together, or merely share a shower and a sauna. Footage from those communal ablutions allows us to carefully assess Derek Ware’s claim that “Roy Scammell has extremely good legs”, and much more besides.

The stuntmen are also the stars of an excellent commentary, where they take centre stage for the action-heavy second episode. We learn that Alan Chuntz – who spent much of the 70s disappearing head first over Jon Pertwee’s left shoulder – also taught kung fu to the Kray twins, had an uncanny resemblance to Charles Aznavour, and drove a London taxi in his spare time. Come to mention it, this section of the commentary, so thick with avuncular Cockney charm, is rather like finding yourself discussing Doctor Who with your cab driver.  “These days, they’re defying the laws of physics with all that CGI, ain’t they?” opines Derek Ware from the driver’s seat, or possibly hanging from the front bumper. You nod in agreement. This is from a man who knows how important it is to respect the laws of physics. They’ll always get you in the end, especially if you’re tumbling head over heels for Jon Pertwee.

Toby Hadoke moderates the commentary with his customary skill and insight. We must be grateful for whatever quirk of scheduling led to it being taped so far ahead of release. The fact that three contributors – Nick Courtney, Caroline John and Peter Halliday – have died since its recording is a sobering reminder of the great blanket of silence that is slowly unrolling over the history of Doctor Who. And then Terrance Dicks refers to The Sarah Jane Adventures in the present tense, and your breath catches once more.

Ultimately, however, the great, great joy of this release is to see The Ambassadors of Death returned to full colour for the first time since 1970. The sharp little cruelty of this story is that while the first episode survives in perfect condition, the rest has had to be recoloured and reassembled from a wide range of lesser material by the Restoration Team and associates. This task required astonishing ingenuity and invention, and untold hours of tedious amendment and correction by hand. The results can never be perfect, and the finished product is, by necessity, a patchwork. In Episode 3, for example, Liz Shaw’s wig gives off a comforting golden glow, like a Belisha beacon on a foggy night. But it’s nothing short of a miracle that there’s colour here at all. And it’s a shocking omission – scandalous, in fact – that those responsible are not credited anywhere on the DVD or the packaging. And so: thank you, Richard Russell, for your dedicated work on colour recovery; thank you, Peter Crocker, for the painstaking effort required in pulling it all together; thank you, Jonathan Wood, for the final grading; and thank you, Mark Ayres, for your exacting sound restoration.

As all these wonderful episodes are restored to us, one is left gawping open-mouthed in awe at quite how bloody clever people can be.

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The Daemons

3 May

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

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

The Doctor has a chip on his shoulder throughout The Daemons. “I’m obviously wasting my time trying to turn you into a scientist,” he huffs at Jo in their first scene. Later, he bitches her up for criticising the Brigadier, even though he’s just done it himself. So why, we might ask, is the Doctor so grumpy today? Well, with his car undergoing its latest comedy upgrade, it’s possible he’s had to take the bus to UNIT HQ this morning. British public transport can bring out the misanthrope in even the most gracious and high-minded of life forms, especially if there’s a 20-minute tailback due to roadworks at Devesham. Two years in, perhaps the chains of exile are starting to chafe, and he’s finding his beloved humanity not so much indomitable as insufferable – they’re fun to hang out with on holiday, but you wouldn’t want to actually live with them. And if our erstwhile citizen of the Universe really can feel the Earth spinning wondrously beneath his feet at a thousand miles an hour, he must be deeply resentful of the fact that, every seventh rotation, it delivers a Tuesday.

We can sympathise. We can forgive the Doctor’s bad mood. Anyway, we don’t want him to be cute and cuddly all the time, do we? The Doctor must be eccentric, of course; but not merely whimsical, and certainly not entirely adorable. The first thing he ever did to a human travelling companion was electrocute the poor bugger, so these catty remarks to Jo are practically a charm offensive. Even today, Matt Smith’s performance is at its most bewitching when the twinkle fades and he turns to ice. His eyes slip their focus, and you sense an old and troubled soul gazing out from behind. And so it is that, from first to last, our hero has shown a dark side. The Third Doctor’s selfishness and sententiousness make him difficult for many to warm to, but they’re the reasons to love him most. Without the brittleness, this era would be long strings of “moments of charm”, and all the syrup and saccharine would rot it away to nothing. Doctor Who’s unique flavour is as much salt as it is sweet.

If you remain unconvinced, and are looking for someone warm and loveable to snuggle up with in The Daemons, then there’s always the Master. Roger Delgado steals the show from the moment of his reveal, early in Episode One, and only Nicholas Courtney’s Brigadier – at his droll best – ever comes close to taking it back from him. The majesty of the idea has perhaps become dimmed with familiarity, so let’s linger for a moment to appreciate the brilliance of seeing the Master in dog collar and thick-rimmed spectacles, but as saturnine as ever, posing as the vicar of an English village. He’s hoping to encourage the aforementioned Azal – an interstellar busybody who’s been bricked up in a local long barrow for centuries – to share his immense power. Witchy Miss Hawthorne, who knows that something’s up, scoffs at the idea of “a rationalist, existentialist priest”. It’s as good a description of a Time Lord as we might find. She thinks that the Master should be worried about “the souls in his care”, but he dismisses the soul as “an outdated concept”. That’s ironic. Later in his life, the Master’s own incorporeal essence will find a home – at various times – in a pocket watch, a signet ring, Nyssa’s old dad, and a string of snot dribbling from the TARDIS keyhole. If anyone in this Universe proves the existence of the soul, it’s our remorselessly reincarnated Master.

As he glides about churchyard and vestry, one has to wonder how long the Master has been playing the role of the Reverend Mr Magister of Devil’s End. He’s recruited a coven of a baker’s dozen to chant at his secret black masses, and that could have taken some time. Our tale begins on the last day of April. Was he here for the winter? Did he have to bless the Christmas crib? Has he invited eager grooms to kiss their spring brides? Has he christened the newborns of the parish? Certainly, his congregation must wonder why their vicar makes them sing He Who Would Valiant Be at every single service, giving them a peculiar kind of glare each time they reach the end of the first couplet.

In Episode Three, the Master seeks to blackmail the whole village into joining his band of disciples. He’s learned all their secrets, you see. There’s Thorpe the grocer, “padding the bills of the local gentry”, and Charlie, defrauding the post office. But best of all is the way the Master skewers poor Mr Grenville. “Has your wife come back from her sister’s yet?” he smarms. “Will she ever come back, do you suppose?” What’s the Master implying? Has Mrs Grenville merely run away with the coal man, or has Mr Grenville poisoned her beef tea and buried her under the rockery? We’ll never know, and it doesn’t matter, because what’s most wonderful is how casually the Master can indulge in this petty gossip and innuendo. The Doctor, whatever his incarnation, is forever struggling to understand humans and their funny little ways. The Master has no such difficulty; which, if you think about it, makes the Doctor look foolish at best, and thoroughly closed-minded at worst. The most recent extrapolation of the Master, by a modern series understandably eager to find a new angle on old material, painted him as psychotic; his mental illness caused by a kind of trans-temporal tinnitus and a fear of being taken out at night by old men to be shown the Doctor Who title sequence. That’s all good fun, but I prefer my Master sane. He shouldn’t represent madness, blind destruction or boring old ‘evil’. He’s temptation; just as the Doctor is salvation. The Master views human weakness, greed and desire with the same cool cynicism as the serpent in the Garden of Eden. And that’s why the Master is at his best in The Daemons, offering the citizens of Devil’s End “whatever they want in this world… whenever they want it”. It’s his finest moment in this, the character’s foremost adventure.

To their well-recorded pleasure, The Daemons serves all its regulars well. Sergeant Benton gets a couple of good punch-ups and Captain Yates joins the mid-story runaround that’s a tradition of this era. It’s padding, of course, but of the highest standard – with car and motorbike stunts and an exploding helicopter – and it displays a wild ambition in terms of physical action rarely seen in Doctor Who since, even in the modern era. Across its five episodes, The Daemons makes the most of its extended time on location. A lovely sequence sees the Doctor beset by morris dancers, of all things. Again, we mustn’t let familiarity distract us from the great wit of it all – especially the moment when the Doctor, hastening to save the world, is roundly beaten with a pig’s bladder on a stick.

The Brigadier, meanwhile, is kept away from the action by a force field placed around the village by Azal. He’d have got in if he hadn’t rocked up late. Lethbridge-Stewart is off to a regimental bash at the start of the story, but when Yates tries to track him down, he’s told that his commanding officer “went on somewhere after dinner – no one knows quite where”. Ooh! It’s another tiny mystery to ponder, but an image of the Brig dancing on a podium at an all-night disco flashes unbidden to the mind of this viewer. The fact that the Brigadier spends the next episode playing catch-up allows Nicholas Courtney to be quite brilliantly deadpan when replying to a report from his captain. “I see, Yates… So the Doctor was frozen stiff at the barrow and was then revived by a freak heatwave, Benton was beaten up by invisible forces and the local white witch claims she’s seen the devil?” Allowing the earnest Brigadier to hang a hat on the absurdity of the whole business only makes it more beliveable.

In addition to the helicopter chase and the maypole scenes, The Daemons’ other great set piece is – well – the whole of Episode One. It’s among the very best opening instalments you’ll ever find, and builds a sense of the uncanny while at the same time being full of genuinely laugh-out-loud dialogue. It’s sublime from scene one; where, late one night, Old Jim and his collie battle home through a storm of nostalgic BBC sound effects. The collie runs away. Old Jim sees something terrifying out of shot, cries out…  and dies from a heart attack, or so the local GP assures us after the cut. “Slight protrusion of the eyeballs, rictus drawing back of the lips over the teeth. Common enough in heart failure,” he says. (Oh, it needn’t be that serious, doc. I display those symptoms myself when watching Arc of Infinity.) Miss Hawthorne, however, is certain the man died of fright, and that diabolic forces are abroad in Devil’s End. It’s a bewitching brew of cliché and melodrama, with the theme of the whole story laid out in this brief exchange. (Sadly, we never do find out what Jim saw that night. It could be the gargoyle Bok, but as he seems to animate for the first time at the end of Episode One, it’s unlikely. And while we’re on the subject, the fate of the dog also remains infuriatingly uncertain.)

Lavishly filmed and well characterised, the first half hour of The Daemons quivers with small pleasures. The quirks of the BBC team visiting Devil’s End for the opening of the barrow are written and played to perfection. A neat directorial gag sees the episode switch from film to videotape for the first time at the moment of presenter Alistair Fergus’s piece direct to camera, turning a familiar and often painful Doctor Who discontinuity into a strength. Actor David Simeon finds every nuance of Fergus’s pastiche dialogue – chewing on his narration like David Frost (“There is. Something strange. About Devil’s End”), or doing an Alan Whicker as he affects to reach for the right word (“Standing here, in this… unquiet… place”). Archaeologist Professor Horner has no time for him, and their mutual dislike is played to great comic effect. Acting as go-between is another endearing character: Harry, the camp BBC assistant. When snapped at by Fergus for asking if he’s okay, Harry huffs: “Well! I only asked. There’s no need to make a production number out of it.” He’s a familiar stereotype of course, but one wonders if the writers found specific inspiration close to home. The Daemons’ production assistant is Peter Grimwade. Taking a similar role on the previous story, Colony in Space, was one Jonathan Turner. A decade later, with the former a director of Doctor Who and the latter the producer (his name, by then, gunning double barrelled), their bitchy snits and spats would become the gossip of the Doctor Who world.

Sadly, the BBC crew heads for the hills after the barrow is cracked and Azal awakes. Following his invocation, the pace of rest of the story is entirely set by the bizarre habits of our Daemon. The Doctor tells us that Azal will manifest three times before we finally learn what he’s about – though quite why, or how the Doctor knows his schedule, is a total mystery. Azal can also change size at will. He first struts across the countryside as a towering Mr Tumnus, stamping on policemen, but then gets all shy and shrinks to a speck in the Master’s cellar for a long while. What’s he doing down there on the floor all that time? Smiting ants? Put together, these affectations mean that Azal can keep us waiting for a couple more hours, but still go ‘ta-dah!’ every so often. It’s almost as if he knows he’s in a multi-episode, cliffhanger-based melodrama.

For his final encore, Azal plays the proper bossy boots, booming judgments through ill-fitting teeth. “THIS PLANET SMELLS TO ME OF FAILURE!” he bellows, though that may be an unfortunate side effect of the fright he gave the Master at the end of Episode Three. Azal considers destroying the Earth, but then decides to give it over to the Master and kill the Doctor. Jo shouts: “Kill me, not him!”, and her noble self-sacrifice causes Azal to blow up – which must be really frustrating for him after all those centuries waiting for his big moment.

It’s far from a fresh observation to say that the climax of The Daemons is disappointing, and Azal’s reaction difficult to swallow. Even the script editor, Terrance Dicks, doesn’t believe in it. So how might it have been handled better? What’s the simplest fix? Well, how about if Azal instead ruled in favour of the Doctor and tried to kill the Master – but Jo still intervened. She would do it because she knows it’s what the Doctor would do, and because no one should die. Minutes before, the Master was poised to cut Jo’s throat, so this would be a properly bewildering act of self-sacrifice. As our representative of humanity, Jo would be proof of how far we have come as a race. Bamboozled Azal goes poof. Church goes bang. A bewildered and broken Master is dragged away by UNIT.

The final scene we leave untouched, of course. The Doctor and Jo Grant, the Brigadier, Yates and Benton, all smiling in the spring sunshine. Around the maypole, the Doctor dances. The Brig would rather have a pint. As we slowly pull back high and away, we leave them together, forever, in an moment of undeniable Doctor Who perfection; in a timeless and perfect bubble of joy.

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DVD Extras

A reel of Super-8 film, shot on location during production, flickers with the rainbow palette of 70s nostalgia. Jon Pertwee and Katy Manning waltz by. Roger Delgado and Nicholas Courtney grin from behind groovy shades. Bok the gargoyle slips off his wellies and into papier maché feet.  Young children roll on the grass of the village green. They’ll be parents themselves now. Grandparents.

Suitably advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, they say. It’s technology that gives the Doctor Who Restoration Team its ineffable powers, but I see only magic. A clip from Tomorrow’s World in 1993 demonstrates the Team’s early sorcery, while the episodes on this DVD show how much further their wizardry has come.

The documentary Remembering Barry Letts pays just tribute to the polymath producer of the Pertwee years, and features interviews with Letts himself, admiring colleagues, and his sons, Dominic and Crispin. The programme rightly puts its subject’s Doctor Who work into the context of a long and high-achieving career, and while one wishes the budget had been available to provide more footage of Letts as an actor – and clips from other TV series on which he worked as producer – it proves an excellent and quietly moving tribute.

The Daemons was a famously jolly job for its cast and crew, and that mood is captured by both the commentary and production documentary here. If you think there’s nothing new to be learned about the making of this serial, then prepare to be surprised; not least by the story of the floor manager’s hat. However, the most rewarding extra here is the ‘Info Text’ commentary, provided by the master of the art, Martin Wiggins. Intelligent, witty and insanely meticulous, it brings the making of these episodes vividly to life. By day, Dr Wiggins is one of the world’s leading Shakespearean scholars. By night, he’s researching and compiling these facts for us; including a list of all the newspapers used to make Bert the Landlord’s coat for the morris dance sequence – and I mean down to the specific days’ editions. Frankly, we should count ourselves lucky that Wiggins is on our side. Because if all this focus and brain power were instead used for evil, there’d be no stopping him. We would all be as dust beneath his feet. As is his will, so mote it be.

Day of the Daleks

8 Dec

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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DVD extras

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Planet of the Spiders

14 Sep

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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DVD EXTRAS

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

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

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

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