Tag Archives: Patrick Troughton

The Ice Warriors

25 Oct

A DVD review for Doctor Who Magazine, from 2013

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doctor-who-the-ice-warriors-dvdThe chief protagonist of The Ice Warriors is neither human nor alien; it’s a glacier. This is entirely apt. For as the cold, white vastness of the story rolls inexorably on, you find yourself powerless to resist its numbing creep. First, your higher brain functions begin to slow. Are there six episodes? Sixty? And, as you watch what must surely be the same handful of scenes play over and over, a loss of motor control soon follows. Your jaw drops slackly open, drool stringing to your chest. The soporific drone of the dialogue is drowned out by the thump-thump of your own heartbeat in your ears. And then – thump-thump – even that – thump – gradually gives way – thump – to silence… Weeks pass unheeded. Months. Five thousand years or more slip by, until, one day, a plucky adventurer disentombs your frozen body and puzzles at your fate. Why the expression of horror? Why is one hand desperately clawing out in front of you? And then he’ll see it: tragically just out of reach of your outstretched, frigid finger. The off switch.

The Ice Warriors should be pure gold. It bears the hallmarks of a cherished era of Doctor Who: the now rare and precious middle Troughtons. There’s a lonely outpost of harried humans under threat from alien incursion. There’s a monster menace that will come to be considered one of the all-time greats. There’s even a moral message hidden away in there: that individual free will is no less valuable – and can sometimes be even more valuable – when it cuts against what is considered the common good of society. But, despite this distinguished provenance, The Ice Warriors fails to shine. Key characters are blandly written and some are gravely miscast to damaging effect. The message is mixed and muffled. There’s just about enough storyline to fill an egg cup, and even that is repeatedly sidelined to make room for tedious debate about the correct way to operate a made-up machine. In fact, the majority of the story distracts itself with a conjectured threat that turns out, after five episodes of to-ing and fro-ing, never to have existed at all.

The TARDIS delivers the Doctor, Jamie and Victoria a dozen or more centuries into the future. This Earth, this realm, this England – the whole blessed plot – is disappearing under a thick mantle of snow and ice. Now you might think, reasonably enough, that glaciation is an unlikely subject for a fast-moving drama; but these glaciers, scorning even their own idiom, move like greased lightning. Attempting to halt their onslaught is the staff of Britannicus Base (a stately home under a protective dome, like a snow globe where the snow falls outside) and their Ioniser machine. When the Doctor and friends arrive at the base, there’s mention they might be evacuated to Africa, so that’s clearly where the rest of the population of Britain has scarpered – although presumably the most patriotic held out at least until Cheltenham was chest-deep in Chinstrap penguins. A few of the most bloody-minded still scavenge a meagre existence out on the tundra, stalked by wolves, bears and a mysterious, unseen soprano.

The Ice Warriors is desperate to play its scenario for real. To that end, every scene at Britannicus involves an earnest, worthy and generally tiresome debate. There are arguments about proper procedure, arguments about respect for management, arguments about whether one should play it safe in hope of moderate gains, or play the buccaneer and risk all in hope of the big prize. To sell his ‘real’ world to us, writer Brian Hayles co-opts the voice of the business soap opera. This format thrived on TV in Britain in the 1960s and on into the 80s, through such hit series as The Plane Makers, The Brothers and Howards’ Way. The dialogue of the business soap consists, almost exclusively, of the frequent and urgent declamation of the current state of affairs, preferably backed up with spurious facts and figures. “But you can’t argue with facts, John! Output is down by 13%. If this continues, we could lose everything!” or “Damn it, Jan! Frere Holdings now has a 51% share of Wilde Mouldings!” or “Don’t be a fool, Joan! You realise what’s at stake here? Failure is not an option!” The Ice Warriors further attempts to plug into this kind of ‘reality’ through the casting of Peter Barkworth as Leader Clent. Barkworth had made his name in the mid-60s in The Power Game, a popular soap anatomising the travails of running a family building firm. In The Ice Warriors he is playing, to all intents and purposes, the troubled managing director of Ioniser Incorporated, who vents his daily frustrations upon his loyal secretary Miss Garrett. “If we fail, the whole programme for glacier containment is in danger!” yells Clent. “It’s out of phase! Seven point two four!” “We cannot afford to make mistakes!” “Activate all circuits, woman!” It’s urgent, bang-your-fist-on-the-desk stuff – and there’s reams of it – but we are emotionally untouched. We’re told the stakes are high, but however much they shout and sigh, it’s impossible to feel anything in response other than a dull tension headache. One thing’s for certain, however: if melodrama could melt glaciers, then just one blast from this script would surely drown us all.

What fun is to be found at Britannicus Base depends on how one feels about Clent. Barkworth’s performance has long been fêted as one of Doctor Who’s great guest turns, but it can hardly be said to be an exercise in subtlety. Like when Tony Hancock played Hamlet with a crutch and a parrot, Clent’s not altogether convincing limp was Barkworth’s own idea, and he had to be talked out of throwing in a stammer as well. Of course, Barkworth may be making a sincere attempt to tickle-up what he recognises as page after page of repetitive dialogue, but what we’re left with is a twitchy, immodest performance of the kind that’s normally the preserve of the prime suspect in an episode of Columbo. By that measure, it comes in at a healthy 8 out of 10 on the Patrick McGoohan scale. (Converted back into Doctor Who units, that’s about two Roger Lloyd Packs, but merely half a Paul Darrow.) Gifted by the costume designer with a silver-topped Perspex cane – his eyes must have lit up at first sight of that – Barkworth wildly tripods about the place, wailing his woes and pulling focus like a proper old ham. He’s at his most peculiar in Part Five when required to carry a clipboard. The cane has to go under one arm, and the resultant stiff-legged strut makes Barkworth look like he’s had an accident in his onesie. It’s also notable how the vigour of his showboating is in direct ratio to his distance from the show’s real star. Patrick Troughton does everything by doing almost nothing, and when he comes close he acts as a dampening field upon Barkworth’s full-spectrum broadcast.

Much of Clent’s squawk is on the subject of Penley, his top scientist. Penley’s the only man who knows to how to operate the Ioniser properly, which is surely a serious recruitment oversight given that the future of mankind is at stake. Controlling old Clent has squeezed Penley until his pips squeaked, causing him to run away and shack up with a scavenger called Storr in, of all places, an abandoned greenhouse. The Ice Warriors is lent an unexpected undercurrent thanks to the way Penley and Storr bicker like a middle-aged married couple. When we first meet them, Storr is injured in an avalanche, and Penley leans in to gently brush polystyrene from his cheeks, so we immediately sense a certain tendresse underlying their relationship. (This feeling can be enhanced, if you care to play along at home, by shouting “Go on, just kiss ’im!” every time the pair appear on screen.) Playing Penley and Storr are Peter Sallis and Angus Lennie, fine actors both, but here they’re comically miscast in roles that are poorly written to begin with. Penley, surely, is supposed to be about 20 years old; the firebrand young genius of Britannicus, rebelling against the old, ‘bad’ science that’s brought the Earth so close to its doom. Scavenger Storr should be in his 50s, a Grizzly Adams wise man of the mountains, showing how a trust in Nature herself will ultimately heal the world. Storr should be Penley’s hero. Instead, Sallis and Lennie give us a morose middle-manager beset by his shrewish wife. “You wouldn’t know what to do without me!” shrieks Storr when Penley suggests he might leave him, and it brings to mind McKellen and Jacobi in the sitcom Vicious. “We’re just friends,” covers Penley to a colleague later, but don’t believe a word of it. Storr is a whining, depressive idiot; so it must be love, or Penley would never put up with him. Furthermore, Clent’s own rage – a fury at his own impotence coupled with a burning obsession with Penley, which has prompted the put-upon Penley to fling himself into the arms of another – makes The Ice Warriors feel like a study of a doomed love triangle. You may scoff, but at least this whimsical reading lends a human element to the whole affair. Otherwise, our supposedly heroic Penley is no more than a needy egotist who’s willing to leave the whole planet to freeze just because he can’t get along with his boss.

TwoAndVargaTIWAnd so, thank goodness for Penley’s colleague Arden, who finds a scaly alien frozen into the glacier, drags him home and accidentally thaws him back to seven-foot-something of hissing crocodilian life. Varga the Ice Warrior steals the show, and there’s no denying that he’s an impressive specimen of monsterkind. It’s the details that make him so appealing. The leatherly lips, which fail to quite synchronise with the hissing voice, are oddly unnerving. The huge Lego hands – which must at least make the Ice Warriors the dominant race in the galaxy when it comes to carrying mugs of coffee over long distances – look like they could really do you a mischief. It was Brian Hayles’ avowed intention that his Martians should come across as individuals rather than a series of interchangeable drones like the Daleks or Cybermen. Hidden under Varga’s latex and fibreglass, Bernard Bresslaw makes a spirited effort to find and portray Varga’s unique and troubled soul, but the necessary raw material simply isn’t there in the script. The Ice Warriors’ place in the upper echelon of Doctor Who monsters will be earned through later encounters, chiefly thanks to actor Alan Bennion – the man behind thrice an Ice Lord – who delivers one of Doctor Who’s transcendent monster performances, right up there with Michael Wisher’s Davros.

The Ice Warriors are hissing about from Part Two onwards, but sadly our enjoyment of their company is severely limited by the fact that they share almost all their scenes with Victoria, who is, by a long chalk, the most disagreeably shrill of the Doctor’s many companions. When Varga holds his sonic cannon to Victoria’s head, promising: “Sss – I will burst your brain with noise – Sss”, one’s dark half thrills to the thought. Sadly, there’s no hiding from the fact that if anyone is going to burst a brain with noise today, the smart money has to be on Victoria.

The Ice Warriors crashes itself to a standstill when the Doctor, Clent and his team leap to the conclusion that there might be a spaceship hidden in the glacier with an engine that might explode if the Ioniser is used near it. It really is the most awe-inspiring bit of scripting flounce, as they skip from “There’s a man in the ice!” to “There’ll be five decades of nuclear fallout!” in about 15 seconds flat. Without a single fact available, Clent and company talk up a brilliant excuse for inaction, and three episodes then pass with nothing much happening at all. Everyone bickers interminably, until eventually even Varga asks his lieutenant: “Why are they – sss – so interested in our engines?” But just as you’re shouting back at the screen “We’re not! We’re really not!”, the Ice Warriors dispiritingly start to wonder what kind of power supply the humans might have. As everyone ponders the possibilities of each other’s nuclear reactors, Clent’s computer insists that any action that might be construed as interesting or dramatic should be avoided at all costs. Clent readily agrees, so Varga takes the initiative and freely wanders into Britannicus Base with his men. It’s then that he issues the least scary command ever given by a Doctor Who monster: “Run down that machine as quickly as is safely possible. Sss.” As catchphrases go, it definitely lacks the snap of “Exterminate”.

In the end, despite all the wringing of hands and fretting about engines and reactors and computers, Penley steps up and, encouraged by the Doctor, fires the Ioniser on full power at the Ice Warrior ship and blows them all to kingdom come. The message of the piece proves to be: sometimes you’ve just got to go with your instincts and hang the consequences. “Only a small explosion!” reports Miss Garrett. “We’re safe!” And so, after all that worry, there was never any danger at all. The Doctor quietly slips away, and The Ice Warriors, after stringing us along with six episodes of shaggy dog story, immediately shuts itself down in embarrassment. Sadly, we don’t get to see Clent finally confess his love for Penley and melt into his manly embrace like a freshly ionised glacier. But they surely married in the spring.

DVD extras

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icewarriors_610With Parts Two and Three of The Ice Warriors having been tragically misplaced – and likely in a pretty permanent sort of way – their surviving soundtracks have been matched on this DVD to specially commissioned animation. Now, your reviewer must admit to feeling perplexed as to why cartoons have come to be seen as a natural way to present missing episodes – especially here, where a full set of telesnaps exist and DVD is the perfect medium to present them correctly timed to the audio. However, this animation is a huge improvement upon that presented on the recent Reign of Terror DVD. The likenesses are strong and captured in crisp and simple lines, though quite why the Doctor has been given a darkening five-o’clock shadow, in the manner of Homer Simpson, is a mystery. It’s like he’s just rolled in from the boozer. (Happily, Leader Clent’s toupee is altogether more convincing in animated form.) The characters feel subtly alive, rather than dead-eyed and uncanny, thanks to the clever way their eyes seem to keep their point of focus even as they turn their heads. It all works best when the action is in mid-shot, and luckily that’s an arrangement favoured by the majority of Doctor Who’s screen time between 1963 and 1989, and certainly in as talky a piece as The Ice Warriors. Wider bodily movement feels less natural – it’s a little too loose-limbed, as if elbows and knees are jointed with brass fasteners – but then again, one can only feel sympathy with the animator tasked with bringing vérité to Leader Clent’s uptight waddle.

A supporting documentary, Beneath the Ice, offers an insight into the animation process from producer Chris Chapman and members of his team. It’s clearly a pre-emptive strike against the major criticisms levelled at the Reign of Terror’s animation, although it’s polite enough to not mention that project by name. “The challenge is to limit ourselves to what was possible at the time,” says Chapman, drawing out attention to the specifics of shots and the timing of cuts detailed in The Ice Warriors’ camera script. This devotion to accuracy is entirely laudable. And how far off, one wonders, is our first entirely photo-realistic recreation of a missing episode, cast and performed by computer-generated actors? Surely the necessary processing power and algorithms are only – what? – five to ten years from our grasp? These missing instalments of The Ice Warriors, along with all the rest, will be made again before too long. In fact, the computers will likely be too clever, and many hours of human effort will be required to make the episodes look precisely bad enough.

p014y36fSonny Caldinez – who played balloon-headed Ice Warrior cohort Turoc – is the star of the production documentary, Cold Fusion. He vividly conveys the small agonies of life as a Martian. “Whoopee-doopee-doo!” is apparently the sound he made when he fell over, and the costume sliced upwards into his crotch – although one suspects that’s a polite rephrasing of his actual words. Caldinez is also to be found on the commentary to the surviving episodes alongside Frazer Hines (Jamie), Deborah Watling (Victoria) and grams operator Pat Heigham – whose job it was to play sound effects into the studio during recording. It’s not the most edifying of chats, but it’s kept trundling along thanks to the skills of moderator Toby Hadoke. Responding to the ecological issues in The Ice Warriors, resolute climate change sceptic Hines argues that, should the icecaps melt due to global warming, the hot sun will also turn the water into steam, “so the melting ice will just make up for the water we lose as steam.” Where he thinks that steam might be going is anyone’s guess. But then, the episodes Hines is watching are no less of a muddle. Even the Doctor gets confused, boldly claiming at one point that plants produce carbon dioxide by photosynthesis. For that he deserves a rap on the knuckles with Ian Chesterton’s springiest ruler.

The 1967/68 Blue Peter ‘Design a Monster’ competition is a real treat from the archives. Before the winners are revealed, John Noakes is sternly chastising. “We were quite disappointed that some of the entries were copied,” he huffs. That’s rich! You can hardly blame the kids. Doctor Who itself wasn’t exactly fizzing with fresh ideas at the time. The Ice Warriors was the third story in a row with an icy/snowy setting, and the creatures’ reptile form was an eleventh-hour redesign from Brian Hayles’ original idea of a cyborg soldier: a sort of ‘cyber’ ‘man’, if you will. The panicked change came so late in the day that bewildering references to ‘electrical connections’ and ‘tin hats’ still muddle the broadcast script; and someone really should have fixed that. Happily, Noakes’s co-presenter Peter Purves proves less minty, and hints that the winning Blue Peter monsters might even appear on Doctor Who itself. While that promise proved empty, the three finalists still have more surviving screen time – thanks to this clip – than either the Macra or the Chameleons, so that’s a kind of immortality. And as the credits roll, one is left to ponder who would win in a scrap between the Steel Octopus (fronds, feathers, lovely lips), the Hypnotron (a forlorn, shuffling eyeball), and Aquaman (who, with those cankles, really shouldn’t wear Bermuda shorts); but we can never know for sure. You’d hope for it to be settled in a Big Finish audio, if only any of the buggers could talk.

The Underwater Menace episode 2 & Galaxy 4: Airlock

28 Feb

A review of two recovered black-and-white episodes for DWM, 2011

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Hopefully you will accept that I’m being more honest than churlish if I make the observation that, had Doctor Who fans been invited to vote for two missing episodes to be miraculously returned to us, this pair would have been near the bottom of the list. The words ‘The Underwater Menace Episode 2’ have surely never caused anyone a rush of blood to the head. And most, I think, would have been hard-pressed even to put a name to the third instalment of Galaxy 4.

But that’s what makes this double discovery so delicious. We can relax. Our expectations are managed. If we’re already anticipating something approaching the worst, our delight on finding that these episodes are actually pretty darned good – full of sharp little pleasures – is felt all the more keenly.

Without doubt, Patrick Troughton is the great joy of The Underwater Menace. He’s the kind of actor who can steal a scene without even speaking, thanks to the wonderful range of micro-expressions that play across his face; countless nuances of performance that could never be guessed from an audio recording alone. Early in this episode, the Doctor stands well back and watches Professor Zaroff – supposed saviour of the sunken city of Atlantis – bicker with underling scientist Damon about problems with the power supply. We see from the Doctor’s faintly amused look that he is taking all this information in to use against them later. And soon enough he’s at a control panel, quietly fusing vital circuits. Holding a pulled plug in one hand, Troughton puts a finger to his bottom lip, his face a picture of childish innocence. “I can’t think of how I came to be so clumsy,” he says – and you simply cannot help but adore him.

The Underwater Menace’s second episode features the story’s key exposition, as Zaroff reveals his plan to plunge the Atlantic Ocean into the white-hot core of the Earth. This will raise Atlantis from its watery ruin, albeit with the unfortunate side effect of blowing our planet to rubble. As Zaroff, actor Joseph Furst is clearly relishing the chance to play a total crackpot. With no shading to his motivation, what else can he do but go for broke? He certainly delivers an enthusiastic blast of acting for his money – so much so that at one point he seems to be trying to stop himself from laughing. Skilfully balancing the scene, Troughton again plays innocent and flatters the truth from Zaroff – drawing out the scientist’s lunacy.  “Just one small question,” he says in a small, guileless voice, his eyes like saucers. “Why would you want to blow up the world?”

A similarly measured performance is provided by Colin Jeavons as Damon, who makes the most of a minor role. The actor is as bloodlessly baleful as ever, even while labouring under a pair of outrageous fake eyebrows. However, Jeavons almost derails Troughton at one point when he stumbles through a clumsy line of dialogue: “We pick up survivors from shipwrecks who would otherwise be corpses.” The uncertainty proves contagious, and our star fluffs his response. “What a fantasting… conception,” says Troughton, and then pauses. He sucks his cheeks in – physically pulling his mouth back under his control – and saves the scene.

The episode rather wanders when we stray from Zaroff’s lab, as companions Ben, Polly and Jamie make contact with various flavours of oppressed rebels whose assistance will be needed in later episodes. Ben himself does not seem a great boon to this Atlantean Spring however, as he likes to bellow secret plans at the top of his voice while mere feet away from belligerant guards. A trek through tunnels to find a secret entrance to the city brings to mind the slow later episodes of the first Dalek serial, and a scene where Jamie is rescued from some slippery rocks proves a joyless longueur. But at least it gives us time to marvel at how gorgeous the Doctor’s young friends are. Anneke Wills is stunning – her giant, mascara-circled eyes shine like headlamps. Frazer Hines and Michael Craze are boyband beautiful; the latter even offering a Justin Bieber hairdo. They remain the prettiest team of companions to date, and that’s against some strong competition.

Fans of the Eleventh Doctor will particularly enjoy his second incarnation’s powerful hat fetish. And here we find a hitherto unsuspected addition to his collection. After hiding in a wardrobe, the Doctor emerges clutching a raincoat and a sou’wester – and, of course, it’s the hat he delightedly puts on first. But this is nothing compared to the glee with which he greets the remarkable headgear offered by Ramo, priest of Atlantis. It’s an explosion of fleshy tubing styled after a sea anemone, or an advertisement for Cheestrings. “Put this on, could you?” says Ramo. “Could I!” replies the Doctor, his face a picture of childish glee. Later, when we see the Doctor proudly wearing this epic headgear – to this day, his millinery apotheosis – you can still spot him eyeing Ramo’s slightly larger version with envy.

Amongst all the new, it’s sad to note a few details that those familiar with the audio of this episode may have expected or hoped for, but are denied. In episode one, Zaroff delivers one of Doctor Who’s more unlikely threats with: “I could feed you to my pet octopus, no?” We also knew that in episode two he says, of something in a tank: “Ah! So you are hungry today? Did I forget to feed you? Is beautiful, no?” – and surely this famished beauty would be his octopus. But, alas, Zaroff’s tank contains naught but a rather blowsy fish. Is disappointment, no? And while we can at enjoy a early scene of the Second Doctor tootling his beloved recorder, we sadly don’t get to see him wear the tall Beau Brummell hat from his earliest adventures.  However, one charming new moment more than makes up for these small disappointments. While trying to explain to King Thous about Zaroff, the Doctor insists that the scientist is “as mad as a hatter” – which, when you consider the deranged creations of the hatters of Atlantis, is really saying something. To illustrate his point that Zaroff is ‘out to lunch’, the Doctor raps his knuckles sharply on his own head. “Hell-oo?” he calls, and then cups a hand behind one ear. “No answer!” It’s a lovely bit of business – pure Troughton, and impossible to guess from the audio alone – that will surely become a defining moment for this incarnation, and serve as droll punctuation in a thousand clip reels to come.

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One cannot deny that the more sombre Galaxy 4 delivers less fizz than The Underwater Menace. Air Lock, in essence, cuts back and forth between two conversations taking place on two spaceships wrecked on an unnamed planet: one between Vicki, the Doctor and a Rill, the other between Steven and Maaga, the leader of the Drahvins. However, it’s certainly no less fascinating a piece of work, and at key moments proves even more lurid than the Troughton episode.

For many years, the Doctor Who world has been in possession of only a single murky photograph of a Rill. They are the ultimate ‘lost’ monster, and long spoken of in reverential tones by those who remember Galaxy 4 from broadcast. And so it is that one cannot help but note that the reality proves less awe-inspiring than those treasured memories suggested. Not quite so enigmatic and obscured as we had been led to believe, the boggle-eyed creature rocks slowly from side to side in its steamy chamber, like someone wafting a freakishly large haddock behind a bathroom window. When the Doctor informs it that the planet upon which they stand has just two days of life left two it, the Rill signals its dismay by wobbling at double speed. It’s all rather two-dimensional and Captain Pugwash – but not too grievous a let down, certainly no embarrassment, and perhaps merely the victim of this viewer’s unmanaged expectation. Happily, the episode offers no shortage of compensations.

Like Troughton, William Hartnell is a total delight. Here, he’s running at the higher pitch of his later years, with his dialogue looping into strings of his favourite little exclamations. “Hmm! Hmm! Yes! Quite so! Carry on!” When contemplating a problem, the fingers of his left hand flutter in mid air, demanding our attention. At times of resolve, they swoop back to the roost of his lapel. But there’s also a real vigour to Hartnell here. Early in the episode he shows a remarkable turn of speed when offered a flat set and clear passage through the Rill ship. When directing the Chumbley robots toward Steven’s aid, he strikes a heroic pose, pointing with his walking stick to an unseen horizon like Wellington pressing his cavalry to battle. The same stick, however, almost proves his undoing early in the episode. Hartnell puts it to one side when examining the Rill’s gas pump, but it slips and clatters loudly to the studio floor. As with Troughton and his line stumble, you actually see the moment where our star decides that it’s not enough of a problem to warrant a costly recording break. The noise draws his irritated glance for a split second, and presses on.

In terms of set design and direction, Air Lock is a stylish serving of 60s Doctor Who. It’s a talky piece, but director Derek Martinus holds our attention. Most interesting is a brief flashback sequence – very rare in Doctor Who – as our Rill recalls an expedition across the planet’s surface shortly after their ship crashed; presumably in some kind of ammonia-filled minibus. The camera positions us at the Rill’s point of view as we find an injured Drahvin guard crawling in the sand. There’s blood dried in rivulets across her forehead  – a shock that, what with blood likewise a rare sight in the programme. Suddenly, Maaga the Drahvin approaches and shoots, and as we are sharing the Rill POV, she’s shooting straight at us. Backing off, we lurk at a distance behind some alien foliage. And just as the picture crossfades out of the flashback, we see Maaga coolly murder her own soldier. It’s a very striking scene.

Maaga is, beyond question, the star of this episode – thanks to a surprisingly rich characterisation, a wonderful performance by Stephanie Bidmead, and some great directorial choices by Martinus. A lengthy scene in the Drahvin ship begins with Maaga expressing frustration at the limitations for her clones, sounding much like any put-upon mid-level manager. “I told them soldiers were no good for space work. All they can do is kill. But they wouldn’t listen. If you are to conquer space, they said, you will need soldiers. So here I am confronted with danger, and the only one able to think!” Maaga picks up a pair of leather gloves and stalks the room, her tone becomes ever more bitter and vengeful. As she fastidiously pulls on the gloves we see her knuckles show through holes cut in the leather. Martinus moves in for a tight close up. Maaga’s face fills the screen. And then for a minute – a whole minute – she delivers a soliloquy straight down the camera lens, looking us right in the eye as she notes that, when she flees this doomed planet, she will not be able to witness the death of the Rills, the Doctor and his friends. “But I, at least, have enough intelligence to imagine it,” she whispers to us. “The fear. The horror. The shuddering of a planet in its last moments of life… And then they die.” Her blood lust is palpable. It’s an electrifying moment – the definite highlight of either of these two episodes – which deserves to lift Maaga from the rank of ‘forgotten’ Doctor Who characters into the pantheon of great Doctor Who villains.

Looking at these episodes together, there’s no denying that they are not among the greatest ever produced. But they are roundly entertaining examples of well-made, low-budget, studio-bound Doctor Who. And with no weight of history or hyped expectation to distract us, we can see the fundamental fabric of our programme showing through; the diligent weaving of the sublime with the ridiculous, the essential warp and weft of Doctor Who.

And that will never be less than a total joy to behold.

The Five Doctors

22 Jul

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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EXTRAS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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