Tag Archives: Malcolm Hulke

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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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.

The War Games

18 Jul

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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DVD EXTRAS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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