Tag Archives: Jon Pertwee

The Green Death (Special Edition)

24 Sep

A review of the DVD for Doctor Who Magazine, from 2013

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UK GreenDeathSE DVD-2DLet us take a moment to grieve for Tom the Sea Captain, long since mouldered under the Glamorgan sod. “Who?” you will surely cry, for such is his tragedy. And what of Mrs Cartwright’s ginger cat; nameless and unmourned these last 40 years? Both cat and Captain died a gruesome death. A green death. Each was a victim of the callous indifference of a so-called, self-styled ‘Doctor’. Their blood is on his hands, and it is long past time he was called to account. What he did, he may have done in the name of peace and sanity. But it was not – we can be sure – in the name of Mrs Cartwright’s pussy.

We shall address this lamentable affair in due course. First, we need to get our bearings.

The Green Death is among Doctor Who’s most admired adventures, and rightly so. It’s wildly entertaining, and, as a deft pulling-together of the key themes of its era, it packs real emotional punch. Furthermore, its value has only increased with time. The Green Death is a seed with all the ambition and potential of 21st-Century Doctor Who coiled within, like the infinite whorl of a fractal. And, back in the summer of ’73, that seed fell on fertile ground. In Swansea, it took root in the imagination of Stephen Russell Davies, age 10. In Paisley, it tendrilled through the brain of 11-year-old Steven Moffat And just along the Glasgow Road, it coiled thickly about Peter Capaldi, 15. It would blossom, decades later, with astonishing vigour. Truly, all of modern Doctor Who – a decade of glory, a potent future – is the fruit of The Green Death.

This one story has such significance because it is not just one story – it is three. It’s a love story. It’s a monster story. It’s a ‘message’ story, built to tell us something about how we live our own lives. And if we take some time to tease these stories apart and consider them in turn, we can see that all three have something to say about Doctor Who as it is written today.

“You’ve got all the time in the world,” says the Doctor to his assistant Jo Grant, as he senses that their journey together may be coming to an end. “And all of the space,” he adds, sweetening the deal. “I’m offering them to you.” This sense of the Universe as the Doctor’s gift – something that he might offer to the talented, the blessed, the especially sassy – was, in 1973, something new. Today it is Doctor Who’s main engine. Each new protégée comes to understand, as Jo once did, that she cannot wander forever. She must, in the end, take charge of her own destiny. Generally by sticking her tongue down its throat.

For Jo, destiny takes the dishy form of Professor Clifford Jones, six-foot-something of Nobel laureate: proud and passionate, with a flowing mane, like Aslan trained to walk on his hind legs. From the moment the camera tracks in for his first ‘hero’ close-up, Cliff is presented to us as a god among men. It’s the kind of shot that normally finds and favours the Doctor, but not here, and with good reason. It is often said that women fall in love with men who remind them of their fathers. We know nothing of Jo’s biological father, but there’s no doubt that the Doctor has been emotionally in loco parentis for the past three years. Now, as Jo resolves to travel to Wales to meet Cliff – whose politics she admires – the Doctor says mournfully to himself, “So, the fledgling flies the coop.” It’s clear that he sees himself as a nurturing parent.

p01bqlzbA great joy of The Green Death is quite how brazenly it presents the crusading Professor Jones as a younger version of the Doctor, and then propels him into a karaoke of the Doctor and Jo’s own greatest hits. Their first meeting, over a wrecked science experiment, is a note-for-note encore of that first encounter in Terror of the Autons, but it’s a later duet which proves the sweetest cover version. Famously, Jon Pertwee would lobby his script editor to provide his Doctor with ‘moments of charm’, quiet little scenes where he would be at his most comforting and paternal: a call to a companion’s inner courage perhaps, or a Platonic musing upon the beauty of “the daisiest daisy”. But here, it’s Cliff who gets the goods. Following the death of a coal miner called Bert, Cliff comforts Jo: “You shouldn’t feel ashamed of your grief,” he says, his voice a lulling Welsh sing-song. “It’s right to grieve. Your Bert, he was unique. In the whole history of the world, there’s never been anybody just like Bert. And there’ll never be another, even if the world lasts for a hundred million centuries.” What he’s really saying is that Bert was ‘the Bertiest Bert’ – and Jo is a sucker for precisely this kind of blarney. While the rest of us struggle to keep down our lunch in the face of such nauseating flannel – this moment of smarm – Jo laps it up, and Cliff makes a confident and unchallenged move to first base. Sadly, we’ll never know how much further Cliff might have got that night, with his skilful playing on Jo’s grief. The Doctor harrumphs in and, equally expertly, sabotages any further tangling on the tufted Wilton; perhaps less irritated by Cliff’s theft of his girl than by his stealing his best material.

23But Jo isn’t mere guileless prey in all of this. There’s another neat reminder of how far she’s come, when, trapped up a slag heap with an unconscious Professor, and beset by beasts, she produces a screwdriver and rewires a broken radio, just as she’s seen the Doctor do. It’s a shame the script doesn’t gift Jo the leaving present of allowing her to make the big intellectual leap which saves the world this week; a luxury still reserved for the Doctor. That said, it’s Jo’s ambition to save humankind that ultimately leads her to leave the Doctor for Cliff, and a trek through the Amazon to find a high-protein fungus to feed our teeming billions. But why go such a long way? She should ask at the nearby chemical factory. After all, Quorn was developed by ICI.

When the end comes, it comes suddenly, as true endings are wont to do. Jo is swept off her feet and the Doctor is left – one can’t help but feel – gulping back his tears. Their parting is perfectly shot and perfectly played by Jon Pertwee and Katy Manning. It’s a triumph of understatement, and has, in four decades, not lost a scintilla of its bittersweet magic.

Modern Doctor Who, while well-seasoned with the bittersweet, regularly reassures us that love conquers all. It’s also ringingly clear in its thesis that when the Doctor’s friends leave him, and he travels alone, bad things happen. This we also see demonstrated for the first time in The Green Death, when Jo chooses Wales over a jaunt to the Acteon galaxy’s famous blue planet.

The Doctor is so desperate to see Metebelis III that he’s wired the coordinates into the TARDIS’s steering circuit. (If he’d also wired the pronunciation into the telepathic circuit, we might all have been saved significant later grief.) It proves to be a quite hilariously anti-social destination – the Malia or Faliraki of intergalactic holiday resorts – thrashing him with rocks, spears and tentacles. Never has a planet had it in for the Doctor more than Metebelis III. And like all that’s best in Doctor Who, it’s roundly ridiculous and squarely entertaining at the same time. You have to admire the gusto and creativity with which director Michael E Briant and his team deploy their limited resources. As mayhem rages around him, the Doctor escapes with a precious blue jewel. It’s a bit of souvenir collecting that will ultimately prove the death of him, but one does feel that the production team misses a trick here. In the Third Doctor’s final adventure, we’re told how an ordinary spider is believed to have come to Metebelis in a rocket from Earth as an unseen and accidental passenger, and grew to awesome size and intelligence thanks to the planet’s uncanny radiation. Well, that’s the legend. Surely, instead, that spider was merrily spinning its web around the TARDIS lamp in UNIT HQ, and was actually delivered to Metebelis by the Doctor himself. That would make him in every way the architect of his own downfall.

Giant spiders haunt the Doctor’s future, but it’s giant maggots that await him in Wales, when he joins Jo, Cliff, the Brigadier and his crew. The Green Death is an excellent love story, but it’s an outstanding monster story. “Good grief!” cries the Doctor when the creatures first squirm into view, and you can’t blame him. The maggots are wonderfully realised and repellent to almost all our senses at once, with their greasy bloat, malicious hiss, and – as Jo puts it – “that smell… like something rotting.” Trapped down a coal mine, the Doctor and Jo have to punt a mine cart through a lake of green ooze squirming with a million maggots. And while the special effects deployed may be, well… less than wholly convincing, the twisted brilliance of the idea – and the wild ambition – make the heart sing. Doctor Who might sometimes fail, but it does so in areas where others don’t even dare to try.

Escaping the mine, the Doctor and Jo head to Professor Jones’s gaff clutching a trophy: an egg as big as your head. Later that night it hatches, and the baby maggot – like Cliff mere minutes before – makes straight for Jo’s temptingly creamy neck. However, it’s distracted by a passing villain, bites him instead and makes off into the night. “The egg!” wails the Doctor, on hearing the tale. “It must have hatched out!” Goodness. Who’d have thought? It seems that dumping the egg in Cliff’s post tray was not, after all, the most responsible way to deal with it. The maggot is now on the loose in Llanfairfach. “It can’t be helped,” huffs the Doctor – when it really can, perhaps by organising a search party. The next day, an unsuspecting local milkman complains about the Brigadier’s fixation with the coal mine: “But what about Mrs Cartwright’s ginger cat? It’s at death’s door it is, poor dab! Not to mention Tom the Sea Captain!” The Brigadier ignores him, but with Jones the Milk and his ailing, failing Captain and cat, it’s practically Under Milk Wood. Clearly, the escaped maggot has nibbled them in the coal-black, sloeblack night, and now they’re dying a sea-green, pea-green, mean, gween death. We never hear of their fate, but as a cure for maggot bites is still two episodes away at this point, they’re surely doomed. And it’s entirely the Doctor’s fault. What a git.

So much for The Green Death’s tales of love and loss. What about that ‘message’? While Cliff Jones is the Doctor’s mini-me, he’s also the avatar of Doctor Who’s producer – and the co-writer of The Green Death – Barry Letts. A 1972 issue of The Ecologist magazine, subtitled A Blueprint for Survival, had left Letts boiling with righteous fury. This closely-argued polemic predicted that human civilisation had only a short time left, and that it will all be over by, well… roughly ten years ago. If A Blueprint for Survival doesn’t quite suggest that giant maggots will spew from the rotting carcass of the Earth, it’s certainly forthright in its view that a happy ending is rapidly slipping away out of our grip.

The Professor speaks straight from Letts’ heart, as he condemns the dirty practices of the Global Chemicals facility in Llanfairfach (“More muck! More devastation! More death!”) and the skewed priorities of modern society in general. A Blueprint for Survival makes several references to “a green revolution”, years before ‘green’ was adopted in the mainstream as a shorthand term for environmentalist politics. So, while it’s easy to see The Green Death as one of Doctor Who’s most deliciously basic and lurid story titles – green is the colour of monsters, after all – might it also be a smart play on words by Barry Letts?

The Green Death’s ‘message’ ends up a trifle muddled, however. Quite why the goo being pumped out of the Global Chemicals refinery causes maggots to swell to the size of spaniels is never made clear. The whole operation, we learn – in a left-field twist – is run by a crackpot computer called BOSS, who shares a kind of symbiotic relationship with the managing director of Global, Stevens. It’s a right old laugh – thanks to brilliant playing by actors Jerome Willis and John Dearth as man and mainframe – but even the Doctor doesn’t seem to take it entirely seriously. BOSS is defeated using the blue crystal that the Doctor happens to have just collected from Metebelis III. The maggots are killed by the particular fungus that Cliff happens to have stockpiled in his shed. Rather brilliantly, the writers hide the second of these outrageous coincidences in plain sight, with much talk of ‘serendipity’ – a rarely-heard word that’s simply a poetic way of saying ‘outrageous coincidence’. It does, however, bring home the other great lesson that modern Doctor Who has taken from The Green Death: if you get your romance right, and your frights, then your story will be remembered and lauded forever. It really doesn’t matter if your plot doesn’t quite tie up, or if your resolution relies upon coincidence, or the pressing of a great big OFF switch, or Deus himself leaping gaily ex machina. When all is said and done, it’s the love and monsters they’ll remember.

The words of Professor Jones echo on, however. “Who does like the petrol-stinking, plastic-wrapped society we all live in?” we hear him rumble. It’s a question we may ponder as we peel the polyethylene covering from our Special Edition DVD of The Green Death; or later, when we fail to find a local council with the recycling facilities to process the silver polypropylene box from the 2003 DVD that’s now surplus to requirements. “A thick sludge you can’t break down in any way,” is how Cliff sees it all ending. The only sensible response, of course, is for us each to gift our original DVD to a charity shop, or to an eager relative; a boy or girl aged around 10 or 15 would be ideal. It’s a blueprint for survival. The green life. Plant a seed. Let it grow.

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DVD Extras

The%20Green%20Death%201And, yes, this new edition is definitely worth your investment. The Restoration Team has worked uncanny magic upon the extensive film footage, leaving it fresher and sharper than one would have imagined possible. In addition, there are excellent new commentaries and ‘info text’, and a wealth of interesting new extras crowd out a packed second disc.

What Katy Did Next is a compilation of clips from a 1973 arts and crafts magazine programme hosted by Katy Manning called – for no clear reason, but with surely ultimate serendipity – Serendipity. And it’s pulse-quickening stuff. “We went to a beach in Lowestoft,” our host tells us, cueing a location film, “where I found out how exciting and easy pebble collecting can be.” It turns out to be precisely as easy and exactly as exciting as you might think. Trudging across a gloomy bank of shingle, Manning peers myopically into the distance, perhaps in hopeful expectation of Axos. Then it’s back to the studio for an item on carving, which has her prodding gingerly at a chunk of polystyrene. A dour sculptor asks of the ertswhile Miss Grant: “If I gave you only an old screwdriver and a file, could you make a dog?” She can’t, of course – but she certainly knows a man who can.

The crafting fun continues in a short documentary about the visual effects of The Green Death, brought over from the original DVD release. “I’m chamfering and shaving the bulbous foam mouth parts,” says visual effects designer Colin Mapson – for the first and last time in the entire history of mankind – as he shows us how to build a giant maggot of our very own. Mapson has the soft voice and hangdog expression favoured by former BBC staff designers, but is adamant when expressing his pride for his work on Doctor Who, and the giant maggots in particular – and rightly so. To make a maggot, Mapson explains, one must begin with a plastic weasel skull. That’s all very well, but there’s no clue offered as to how we might first catch a plastic weasel.

In a pleasing new production documentary, The One With the Maggots – which sounds like a rather outré episode of Friends – the creatures become a prism through which we might view the glamour and cruelties of showbusiness. Karilyn Collier, assistant floor manager on The Green Death, tells us of being tasked with collecting maggots (real ones, that is, not chamfered weasel foam) from London Zoo. “It was was a battle to keep them all in one pot to get them back to TV Centre,” she tells us. “Maggots go as fast as anything!” Now, while it’s easy to be wise 40 years after the fact, one feels that some kind of lid might have helped Karilyn there. These eager little wrigglers were to be background extras for crowd scenes, and perhaps dreamed of making it big at the BBC. But when the director called ‘cut!’, it was the last trump for our long-shot larvae. “We popped them with blow lamps,” chuckles Mapson, “and some were put out in the recycling.” Non-speaking artistes the world over will nod in recognition and sympathy.

This new DVD also invites us to revisit Global Conspiracy, again from the original release. It’s a witty mock-documentary investigation of “the Llanfairfach incident”, written by and starring Mark Gatiss, which outclasses anything else of its type attempted by the range; most notably in its brilliant pastiche of the 1970s current affairs series Man Alive. While it’s a wry look back the anxieties of yesteryear, the film also highlights its writer’s own concerns – at which we might now, ten years on, also take a wry look back. The sketch ends with BOSS and Stevens now in charge of the BBC, demanding “efficiency, productivity and profit” and “an orderly TV schedule.” It’s a dig at the Beeb’s lack of imagination, and desire to play it safe. But the script was written in the summer of 2003, mere months before the announcement of Doctor Who’s return to TV, and Gatiss’s own commission to write The Unquiet Dead. A decade on, there’s nothing Doctor Who fans would like more than “an orderly and productive TV schedule”. Thirteen episodes a year and a Christmas special – that sort of thing.

Chiming in with perfect resonance, the behind-the-scenes story of that second coming is told by Russell T Davies and Jane Tranter in Dr Forever! It’s a first-class documentary from James Goss, though many of its treats have been roundly gazumped by DWM, thanks to great minds thinking alike and going in search of the same story.

While we like to think it a truth universally acknowledged that Doctor Who was always fated to return to TV in one form or another, it’s here, listening to Tranter and Davies tell their story, that it becomes clear that it’s only thanks to their immense willpower and enormous personal integrity that the programme came back as any kind of worthy successor to its former self. Perhaps the most telling revelation is of how Doctor Who’s extraordinarily profitable revival was almost stymied by BBC Worldwide, who argued there was no ongoing interest in the show. Some time in the future, a member of the BBC Worldwide marketing team will stumble upon the secret of time travel. Voyaging back through the years, he will make it his mission to assist with the press launch of Doctor Who in 1963. However, due to the misreading of a vital memo, he will instead accidentally assassinate John F Kennedy.

Finally, all our threads come together thanks to the apt bonus inclusion of The Death of the Doctor, the two-part Sarah Jane Adventures serial which saw Jo Grant – Jo Jones – meet up with the Eleventh Doctor and Sarah Jane, her successor in the role of sorcerer’s apprentice. It’s an exquisite script – so smart, so funny – by Russell T Davies: a love letter to his own childhood.

Even here, the story continues. As Jo wobbles off toward new adventures, Sarah’s young protégé, Clyde, comments to his friend Rani: “That’ll be us, one day.” And he’s right, you know. Everything comes back.

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.

Colony in Space

22 Dec

A review of the DVD for DWM, from 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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DVD extras

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

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

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

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

Day of the Daleks

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.

The Mutants

15 Aug

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.

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