Tag Archives: Peter Davison

Mara Tales: Kinda & Snakedance

10 Oct

A review of the DVD box set, from 2011

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‘Pick of the month!’ shouts an enthusiastic graphic on this page. Talk about understatement. Of the two stories in this DVD box set, the first, Kinda, is among the very best ever made. And the second? Well, no need to equivocate there. Snakedance is the best Doctor Who story ever made. So brace for superlatives.

But first things first. In Kinda, the Tardis brings Doctor, and his Von Trapp family of companions – Tegan, Nyssa and Adric – to a lush jungle world. The ground may seem strangely level and unyielding for a jungle, but as there are hints to there having once been a technologically advanced society here, perhaps they took a paved parking lot and put up a paradise.

Not all of our crew set out to explore. Nyssa needs a nap to recover from a recent script, and stays in the Tardis. It falls to Adric and Tegan to find trouble for the Doctor, which they do with alacrity. Adric goes truffling off into the forest on a trail that ultimately leads us to an alien base – of which more in a moment – while Tegan is lulled to sleep by the ringing of wind chimes, and falls into a dream…

It’s one of Doctor Who’s great once-seen, never-forgotten moments. Tegan’s dream is a triumph of writing and presentation, and among the most memorable and disturbing sequences in the whole of the series. It’s the starkness of the vision that makes it special; the restraint of it. There’s a passing sense of Alice’s Wonderland to begin with – a conversation between the two chess-playing grotesques recalls Tweedledum and Tweedledee and their “contrariwise” bickering – but this is no playful fantasy; it’s full-on nightmare. In this pitch-black nowhere, which feels at once infinite and claustrophobic, Tegan is tormented, her sense of self attacked, by a gloating, sneering incubus. In mythology, an incubus would force himself upon sleeping women against their will, but this one at least needs Tegan’s permission to, well… take her. “You will agree to being me,” it hisses. “This side of madness or the other.” That’s chilling enough, but worse is implied in the amused tone in which it offers Tegan payment for her services. “You would be suitably entertained by the experience,” it promises. These scenes still pack a punch 30 years on. There are plenty of references to sex in modern Doctor Who – companions putting the move on the Doctor, Amy and Rory likely at it like knives in Turlough’s old bed, Captain Jack the sexual omnivore – but it’s still innocent stuff; suggestion, snogging and ‘dancing’. Kinda says less, but implies more. There’s no hiding from the fact that when Tegan wakes in the jungle, her manner is clearly post-coital. She feels… satisfied. Possession has been a familiar theme in Doctor Who from its earliest days, but it’s never been like this.

Elsewhere in the jungle, the Doctor and Adric meet a survey team from another world who are undertaking a study of this planet, called Deva Loka, and its tribal people, the Kinda. Two members of their group have gone missing in mysterious circumstances, leaving only the leader, Sanders, security officer Hindle and scientist Todd. These are wholly traditional Doctor Who characters, but they are turned into so much more by a wonderful script and the finest guest cast of any Doctor Who serial. Richard Todd, playing Sanders, generally receives the least attention, but his performance is a masterclass; Todd nails every nuance of his character’s journey, a subversion of the ‘old colonial officer’ stereotype. Hindle, Sanders’ underling, begins as the junior member of the group, jaw clenched and chest puffed out like a little boy playing soldiers, but after Sanders falls under the spell of the Kinda and regresses to childhood himself, Hindle can loose the tortured adult trapped within – and he’s a bully, both terrified and terrifying.

Simon Rouse’s turn as Hindle is the greatest guest performance in the history of Doctor Who. Only Christopher Gable in The Caves of Androzani and Michael Wisher in Genesis of the Daleks come close. All three are portrayals of spiralling madness, but Rouse has the edge on the others in the way that he can take Hindle on a longer journey – all the time flipping back and forth from seeming rational to outright homicidal – and while never quite losing our sympathy. Hindle’s scary enough when he coldly announces how he will sterilise the jungle – “We will establish a cordon sanitaire around the dome. Method of implementation: fire and acid, acid and fire.” – but that’s nothing compared to when he’s playing children’s games. “But it isn’t a game!” he insists. “It’s real! With measuring and everything!” There are few things in life more disturbing then the unknowable logic of the insane, and watching Hindle play in his cardboard city, and fret over the well-being of its cardboard citizens, after having carefully prepared the extermination of all around him, is more unnerving than any marauding monster. Rather brilliantly, even Hindle gets a happy ending, healed by the Kinda, and it’s credit to the writing and Rouse’s performance that we are pleased for him.

Completing the trio in the dome is Todd, played with great compassion, and much buttoned-up sex appeal, by Nerys Hughes, who quickly establishes herself as the perfect companion for Peter Davison’s Doctor. Would it be too great an indulgence for Big Finish to revisit Todd, and team them up again for audio adventures? Of course it wouldn’t. What is Big Finish for if not to satisfy our fascination with Doctor Who’s great could-have-beens and never-weres?

Of course, Sanders, Hindle and Todd would be nothing without Christopher Bailey’s script, which deftly spins three-dimensional characters and then gifts them some of finest dialogue in Doctor Who history. Ultimately, it’s the words that make both Kinda and Snakedance so special. There’s balance and rhythm to almost every sentence. The best speech goes to Panna, the blind soothsayer of the Kinda played so wonderfully by Mary Morris, who never once blinks. “It is the Mara who turn the wheel,” she intones. “It is the Mara who dance to the music of our despair. Our suffering is the Mara’s delight. Our madness is the Mara’s meat and drink. And now he has returned.” Has any villain in Doctor Who ever come with a better-written introduction?

But ‘villain’ is a crude and inadequate description of the Mara. It’s the creature – if that’s the word – that escapes from Tegan’s dream, although it’s never clear if this Mara is drawn specifically from her unconscious, or if it ‘belongs’ to Deva Loka. That speech of Panna’s refers to the Mara in the plural, almost as a ‘species’, before suddenly using the word ‘he’. This confusion – which continues into Snakedance – leaves the Mara the most mysterious and fascinating of Doctor Who threats, as it wriggles free of some of the series’ biggest clichés. They/he/it never threatens universal domination. In Kinda, it seems only to wish to drive the off-worlders from Deva Loka. It barely even registers the presence of the Doctor.

However, it can’t be denied that this subtlety is briefly rendered moot when the Mara is obliged to take physical form as a whacking great snake. At the time of this story’s transmission, this grinning creation caused Kinda to be voted last in the DWM season poll. (Perhaps along with this story’s adult themes, which would have troubled the many thousands of tween fans who had fallen in love with Doctor Who in Tom Baker’s last years, and were only just that second hitting puberty). Yes, Kinda was judged to be of less merit than Time-Flight or Black Orchid. And the snake clearly offends some to this day, as an option for a new CGI replacement is available here. It’s a smart, ‘how-the-hell-have-they-done-that?’ job of work, but beyond novelty it’s of little interest to this viewer. This snake may seem more ‘real’, but what value is realism here, in our floodlit studio forest? That ship sailed during Part One, Scene One. The deranged-looking original is far more in keeping with the story as a whole, which is less a ‘realistic’ science fiction film than a piece of stylised theatre. This fiddling with ancient special effects is just boys picking at the scabs of old playground battles. And our mums were right when they told us that wounds only heal if we leave the scabs alone. It really is time to stop worrying and love that snake.

In whatever form you can accept it, the Mara is banished to the dark places by the Doctor, but eventually slithers its way back, a season of Doctor Who later, for Snakedance. Sequels rarely ace the original, but while Kinda is sublime, but Snakedance is just that little bit better. It’s essential strengths are the same – characterisation, performance and dialogue – but while Kinda has a few lines of rotten dialogue (“I don’t think much of that as a fighting machine!”), and a few unskilled performances, I defy anyone to identify a single piece of bad dialogue or weak performance in Snakedance. OK, so there is Hilary Sesta as the fortune teller. She’s not in the same league as her co-stars, but we are at least distracted from that by the fact she’s dressed like a nun crashing through a stained glass window. And her wild scream helps make the cliffhanger from the first episode one of the all-time greats.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves, and need to sketch in some plot. The Mara has again taken control of Tegan, and caused the Tardis to land on the planet Manussa, another world on which it once found physical being, and where it ruled over an empire of chaos until it was vanquished by the Federator. For the Manussans, all this is now ancient history bordering on legend, and they are poised to celebrate the defeat of the Mara in a gimcrack ceremony overseen by the Federator’s descendant – the spoiled, brattish Lon – and his patient mother, Tanha. Fussing around them both is the pompous Ambril, curator of antiquities and supposed expert in Manussan history.

Every scene featuring these three characters is a total delight. We learn so much about Manussa from their conversations, and this exposition never feels forced – in fact, it’s almost poetic at times – thanks to the subtlety of the dialogue and the skill of the performances. Colette O’Neil, as Tanha, has a voice as tuneful as the wind chimes of Deva Loka. She almost sings her script, and is particularly wonderful when reminiscing about a visit to the mystical Snakedancers in the deserts of Manussa. “We had to go in disguise. Can you imagine your father in disguise?” It’s a beautiful piece of writing that tells us so much about Manussa, Tanha and even her unseen husband, which in turn speaks to the character of Lon.

Another example of the sheer class of Snakedance can be found in Part Three, as again a mystic gets lyrical about the Mara. Ambril invites his assistant, Chela, to read from the journal of Ambril’s predecessor, which was “written by Dojjen in the months before he decided his particular line of research was best pursued up in the hills with a snake wrapped round his neck.” Everything goes quiet as Chela recites. “Where the winds of restlessness blow. Where the fires of greed burn. Where hatred chills the blood. Here, in the depths of the human heart. Here is the Mara.” During this speech – on the word ‘greed’ – Lon steps silently into the background. By this point he has been possessed by the Mara, and is here to show the truth of Dojjen’s words. It’s the “fire of greed” which burns in Ambril that Lon is here to exploit in order to bring about the Mara’s rebirth.

Everything about Snakedance is perfectly judged. Since Kinda, Christopher Bailey has expertly assimilated the possibilities and limitations of Doctor Who, and produced a script that plays to all its strengths, while still subverting expectation and cliché. Bailey is as good as Robert Holmes at structuring a Doctor Who story and populating his world with characters at once both familiar and strange. In fact, he’s better even than Holmes, as Bailey draws upon a richer, more emotional sensibility.

It’s not just the inhabitants who ‘sell’ this world to us. Manussa is, without doubt, the most rich and vivid alien planet ever created for Doctor Who. Just think of the worlds visited in recent DVD releases alone – Tigella, Solos, Refusis – and it’s clear we’re in an entirely different league. It’s the carefully considered details of place and character that make Manussa feel so real, and not just created for the purpose of telling this one story: the Mara-themed Punch and Judy show; Ambril’s tedious dinner party; Lon’s listless sarcasm; the striking sequence with Dojjen and the snakes; the worn-out patter of the local carny. “Dare you gaze upon the unspeakable? Come face to face with the finally unfaceable? …Children ’alf price.”

And then there’s the Doctor himself. I love the version of the Doctor we meet in Bailey’s stories. In general, Peter Davison’s earliest performances were his best. He brings a wild, youthful energy to Castrovalva, Four to Doomsday and Kinda. This joie de vivre is lost by the middle of his first season – script editor Eric Saward replaces it with a kind of weary, suffering impatience – and rarely returns, but it does in Snakedance, and in spades. Even though he’s trapped in a cell through the whole of Part Three, this Doctor is still pacing, powerful and passionate, walloping the bars in frustation while making a series of brilliant intellectual leaps. I also adore how the Doctor is seen through other eyes here. In Snakedance, he’s considered a charlatan or a madman, just as in Kinda he was dismissed as a fool by Panna. I like the essential modesty of this treatment of our hero. “I’m a gentleman of the Universe” is how the First Doctor described himself, but over the years, there’s been a steady inflation of his place in that Universe. From gentleman to Lord, from Lord to Lord President; and over the last decade, a fannish desire to make the Doctor sound as special as we believe Doctor Who to be means he’s become the focus of overzealous mythologising. He is star fire! He is ice! He’s Time’s Champion, the Upcoming Wind. He is the tear on the face of the little baby Jesus… Oh, it’s all very stirring and melodramatic, but I don’t want the Doctor to be some cross between Peter Pan, Santa Claus and God – that would be so insufferable of him. I want the Doctor of Kinda and Snakedance. A man, not a superman, with as much to learn about the Universe as we do, and who defeats wickedness with wisdom and wit alone, rather than time travel slight-of-hand or a cocky demand that his foes merely “look him up”. Can we have that Doctor back, please?

So the Doctor is perfect in Snakedance. But then, everything is perfect in Snakedance. It’s as funny, scary, silly, imaginative, reckless and just plain brainy as Doctor Who needs to be – with every ingredient in perfect proportion.

“Literature is news that stays news,” said the poet Ezra Pound, and it’s a maxim as true when considering the best of Doctor Who. Snakedance will stay news. We can go back to it time after time after time, and always find a level, a nuance we’ve not seen before. It’s a story for us to grow into and grow old with. It’s a story to inspire and motivate all future Doctor Who storytellers, as both carrot and stick.

Here is Snakedance, we can say. Now beat that.

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DVD Extras

The funny thing is, if a newcomer was invited to form an opinion on these stories based only on viewing the DVD extras, they’d never guess Kinda and Snakedance were anything special. In fact, there seems a deliberate desire to deny the fact.

The Kinda production documentary, Dream Time, is a textbook example of missing the point, and seems determined to identify what might be judged to be ‘wrong’ with Kinda, rather than celebrate everything that is so gloriously right. This means more picking away at scabs, and dredging up of hoary old arguments from 80s. A discussion about how Bailey’s script for Kinda was passed between three script editors drags on and on, while there’s only the briefest discussion of the script’s actual inspiration and content. Doctor Who DVD documentaries are generally developed by editors and directors, so their obsessions lie with the visual, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the very best extras have employed writers to shape the conversation – Jonathan Morris and Nicholas Pegg most notably. And it’s exactly what these stories needed. The Snakedance documentary is better, but it still all feels like a missed opportunity.

Worse still is Directing With Attitude, ostensibly a tribute to the directorial skill of Peter Grimwade, but actually an infantile little film dripping with the poison of 80s fanzine Doctor Who Bulletin. Everything loops back into an attack on producer John Nathan-Turner. Familiar joy-suckers Eric Saward and Ian Levine are present of course, always ready to explain why every supposed fault of the 80s was Nathan-Turner’s fault, while every success had absolutely nothing to do with him. That the two men who claim responsibility for the script of Attack of the Cybermen should appear on the DVD of Kinda and say they know better how to make Doctor Who takes rare gall. And even the briefest consideration of Doctor Who’s current success now shows Saward and Levine’s arguments to be nonsense. Peter Grimwade went on to write the scripts for the painful Time-Flight and the plodding Planet of Fire. “Using Concorde is not a very sound reason for a story,” snips Saward. No, Eric, it was a perfectly sound reason for a story. Doctor Who would happily play with Concorde today. It’s what Grimwade does with it in Time-Flight that’s unsound. It’s the moment he crashes it into his own dreary plot of Xeraphin and Plasmatons that everything goes wrong. Then Saward hisses: “John got it into his head that Lanzarote would be a good place to make a story.” But it is a good place to make a story, Eric. A very good place. Doctor Who would happily shoot in Lanzarote today. The trick is not to make Planet of Fire. And finally, there’s the old complaint about the producer imposing ‘shopping lists’ on writers – perhaps naming a location, a monster to be used, or identifying when a companion is due to be written out. What despicable control-freakery! It is, of course, exactly the way that Doctor Who works today, to enormous success. So isn’t it time to let go of all this rubbish? Must we foist it upon a new generation of fans via these DVD extras? Can we not at least have some editorial balance?

More bile from darker days taints the commentary track for Kinda. A little of Janet Fielding goes a long way at the best of times, and she swiftly becomes unbearable here. Fielding’s familiar schtick is to dismiss the Doctor Who of her day in the light of what the programme can achieve now. She also seems to think she’s the first person to notice these shortcomings, and that it’s her job to open our eyes to the awful truth. But the thing is, Ms Fielding, we’re not blind to it all. We’re cleverer than that. It’s not that we can’t see these faults, it’s that we have the imagination to see past them. The commentary for Kinda is deeply uncomfortable at times, with Fielding and Davison having a right old laugh at the expense of Matthew Waterhouse, who is in the room with them. It’s rudeness at best, bullying at worst, and terribly undignified. Sure, Waterhouse has come across as a pompous prig in interviews, and certainly does in his autobiography, but I don’t think Fielding has any right to assume the high ground. Back in the day, she was the one who received the praise of fans, but responds today only by being snooty and ungracious. The funny thing is, for all we may criticise Waterhouse’s acting abilities, Fielding really isn’t much better. What she got was the good lines. When it comes to performance, Fielding has far more in common with Waterhouse than she does Davison or Sarah Sutton.

The best extra on these discs – by a country mile – is, for reasons that passeth all understanding, hidden away as an ‘easter egg’. (To access it, you have to open the Audio Options menu, hum three bars of ‘TSS Machine Attacks’, and then say the magic words: “What the hell are you lunatics playing at?”). Here, big-brained Rob Shearman sits down with Christopher Bailey to discuss his inspirations, and put pay to some old fan theories. But more interesting is where the conversation takes them after that, as Bailey admits that he hasn’t been able to watch any recent Doctor Who because his memories of working on the show – chiefly, it seems, regarding his failure to complete a third serial – remain too painful. Shearman is quietly flabbergasted, and explains how Kinda and Snakedance are “temples” to him, and to Steven Moffat. Bailey, in turn, is clearly moved by this revelation. Healed, even. Is that a tear in his eye?

This conversation is a reminder, again, of how the best of Doctor Who remains alive to us at all times, whether it was made thirty years ago or a week last Wednesday. Great Doctor Who stays news – and so here is today’s news: the writer who once inspired Rob Shearman has, three decades on, been inspired by him. It’s a wonderful thing to witness.

Wheel turns.

Frontios

10 Sep

A review of the DVD, from 2011

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“Let me show you how we smooth our walls, Doctor,” gushes the Gravis, queen of the Tractators, his flippers flapping with girlish glee. It’s one of the odder things ever to be said by a Doctor Who enemy, but at least he’s up front about his passions in life. Other monsters clearly harbour a passion for decor and design but – to protect their forbidding reputations – wisely keep schtum. Hidden deep in the mighty Cyber Empire is the mighty Cyber Graphic Design Department; responsible for logos and stencilling. And there must have been a moment in a planning meeting for the new Dalek paradigm when Scientist narrowed his iris at a Dulux ‘New Season Brights’ colour chart, sceptical of Eternal’s assurance that Sunburst Yellow would be “quite slimming”.

But we get ahead of ourselves. The Tractators don’t appear until the second act of Frontios; the 1984 adventure that dispatches the Fifth Doctor to the eponymous planet. Curious onlookers may wonder why the Doctor appears to be travelling through space and time with a school uniform fetishist and a prostitute. However, we more experienced hands know these to be his friends, Turlough and Tegan. Well, if ‘friends’ is the word. They seem to take most of their pleasure from pointing out each other’s mistakes and limitations. The Doctor is definitely avoiding them; offering only the flimsiest of excuses for staying out of the control room. Something about a hatstand, he claims. A likely story. Starved of civilised company, he probably sneaks off to the cloisters, where he carefully describes Romana to an obliging Kamelion.

We learn the politics of Frontios via a belch of exposition. Two uniformed men are arguing: one tall, haughty, granite-faced; the other short, bespectacled, harassed. “Are you suggesting that the son of Captain Revere is unfit to rule?” thunders Tall. “As chief science officer, I…” replies Short, but is interrupted. “Oh, don’t go waving your title at me,” huffs Tall. “From now on, this research centre is under military jurisdiction!” And so it goes on. It’s the kind of establishing scene you find when a Doctor Who writer is more interested in plot than character. Here, Christopher H Bidmead hopes that by having his characters bicker impatiently as they tell each other things they already know – their names, their jobs, the absolute fundamental business of their shared lives – it will somehow seem like a perfectly natural thing for them to be doing. This never works. (Although, to Bidmead’s credit, at least no one says “As well you know…” or “Do you think I could ever forget…?”) Perhaps a more subtle approach would be for the writer to turn up at your house in person, switch off the TV, copy out his script in biro on the palm of your right hand and then repeatedly slap you across the face with it.

One thing’s certain: all is not well on Frontios. The ratty band of colonists who represent humanity’s second-to-last hope for survival are being clonked on their bonces by high-velocity meteorites on a half-hourly basis. Food and medical supplies are limited. People are dying. It’s into this mire of misfortune that the TARDIS wheezes, and the Doctor immediately gets to grips with what he believes to be the most significant issue facing the doomed colony. He tries to fix the lights.

It’s peculiar how much of the first episode is devoted o the subject of lighting. Most stories plunge into the business of investigation and adventure. This one seeks merely to establish a steady amperage. And, generously, we’re even offered four ways of achieving this. Will we use phosphor lamps, with electron excitation? Maybe – but take care. “They’re a terrible fire hazard in this sort of container, you know,” cautions Turlough. (“In this sort of container,” is such a gloriously bathetic caveat.) We wouldn’t want to risk a fire, so perhaps a portable mu-field activator and argon discharge globes? Alas no. They’re in the TARDIS and, as Tegan reports: “The interior door’s jammed!” She squawks this information as if it’s the single most dramatic event of her life. News of the murder of her favourite aunt was greeted with nary a flicker. “It’s as if some tremendous force field has pulled it out of shape!” boggles Turlough, regarding said door. It’s a leap of logic that suggests he’s been reading ahead in his script. But never mind that, you cry – what about those lights? Can’t we use the hydrazine steam generator? No! It’s strictly forbidden! But that means we only have one option left… An acid jar, charged by wind power, with some sort of interrupter to raise the voltage. Good news! There’s one in the colony ship. Bad news: someone has to fetch it, and that might take a while.

With this quest to switch the lights on – which continues as Tegan and Turlough struggle to move a heavy battery from one room to another via some complicated business with ropes and pulleys – one imagines that Christopher H would have us believe his characters are using intelligent scientific method to solve a problem. But really, it’s shameless padding and false drama, because the problem is as bogus as all those solutions. The lights are never even switched on in the end. They’re not important, so it’s all just forgotten. Part Two sees attention turn to investigation of the meteorite attacks, and the trail leads underground. But once more the writer is vamping. There’s talk of chemical tests on the soil. There’s discussion of the secret researches of colony’s former leader, the late Captain Revere. There’s suggestion that only scientific method will unravel the mystery of Frontios… And again, it’s a con. The mystery only exists because of Revere’s totally illogical – and entirely reckless – decision not to reveal a single thing he discovered to another living soul, except in cryptic terms to a child.

And so how do our heroes learn the truth about Frontios? Well, Turlough happens to suddenly recall that the same thing once happened on his planet. He even tells us that the monsters lurking down the tunnel are called Tractators. It’s all terribly convenient. “Growing… breeding… spreading the infection,” moans Turlough, channeling a race memory through a froth of spit. “They are the appetite beneath the ground!” It all sounds promising, but sadly implies a far more subtle and sinister threat than the one that bobs into view soon after.

In terms of costume design, the Tractators were apparently inspired by woodlice, but each looks more like a giant halibut up on its tail and struggling to carry a five-drawer filing cabinet on its back. They stagger a kind of solo waltz – one step to the left, two forward, one to the right – and there’s no hiding from the fact that they look very silly indeed. But forget argon globes and acid jars, Frontios only lights up when the Tractators are around. They’re thoroughly endearing, and their leader is a camp classic.

The Gravis (who, depending on how you catch him, sometimes looks like Martin Clunes, sometimes Andrew Lloyd-Webber) has – again very conveniently – heard of the Doctor, “at least by reputation.” He’s also heard of what he calls “the Tardeece”, and he’s mad for it. Our Gravis loves to travel, you see. Those well-buffed walls of his are to channel the gravitational power of the Tractators into an engine that will allow the Gravis to pilot Frontios across the galaxy. (They can control gravity by waggling their antennae, you understand. It’s a typically realistic and ‘hard’ science fiction idea from Bidmead. ) While in the Doctor’s company, the Gravis is positively coquettish, as if they’re on a date. “We will have to know each other a little better before we can discuss that,” teases the fishy beast when the conversation takes a turn for the personal. He’d flutter a fan if he could but hold one.

In an unforgiving costume, actor John Gillett does his best to lend the Gravis some expression, but only has two stunted fins to work with. There’s a charming moment when, after the Doctor apologises for Tegan’s bolshiness, the Gravis says “not at all”, and waggles his flippers palms-out like a Pope humbly waving away a devoted supplicant. Later, circumstances twice cause the Gravis to pitch forward helplessly onto his rubbery snout, and you feel nothing but sympathy for the poor love.

Tractators aside, there are other good things about this story. The production design is imaginative, with the main sets looking like they’ve been chipped from layered slate. Paddy Kingsland’s synthesised pan-pipe music is memorable, and feels fitting. And there’s one bang-on line of dialogue that would go straight into a trailer for the season: “Frontios buries its own dead”. It’s lightly delivered by William Lucas as Mr Range; part of a generally strong support company. Sadly, the cast are regularly served material that sounds like it’s been only loosely translated from Pidgin English via Double Dutch. “Do you think they are connected? The unaccountable deaths and these creatures?” is one lowlight. You sense the hand of script editor Eric Saward in this, but it’s hard to say for sure, as neither he nor Bidmead are celebrated for their naturalistic dialogue. Despite this handicap, Peter Davison is a focused and passionate Doctor – even when nose-to-nose with the Gravis – and actor Jeff Rawle gives a subtle performance as sickly young leader Plantagenet, even though he has to work with some of the most rum material of all. “Try and get some rest,” the Doctor tells him, invoking the First Cliché of Soap Opera. Plantagenet, suffering from malignant melodrama, spits back his reply: “Death is the only kind of rest you bring to Frontios, Doctor!”. You imagine he could go on forever in that vein, given half a chance. “Have a sandwich,” the Doctor might suggest. “Death is the only kind of sandwich you bring to Frontios, Doctor!”

The story’s best moment comes as we enter the home stretch, and the Gravis’s beloved Tardeece is found scattered in pieces through the tunnels of Frontios. (It was apparently destroyed at the end of Part One, you see; although, as neither Doctor nor companions seem particularly fussed about it, you forget that detail for a while.) The image of TARDIS walls splintered through rock is surprisingly unsettling. It makes you feel a bit funny inside; seeing one’s own childhood home – in a manner of speaking – corrupted like that.

The Doctor plays on the Gravis’s need for speed, and traps the creature as it reassembles the ship using its gravity powers. He then dumps the old darling on an uninhabited planet – which seems rather harsh. The Gravis is clearly ripe for rehabilitation. He’s just a needy nerd starved of intelligent conversation, so abandoning him on an intergalactic desert island without so much as eight favourite records and the novelisation of Logopolis surely qualifies as cruel and unusual punishment. The Doctor also assures us that the remaining Tractators, freed from the Gravis’s control, will live on as “harmless burrowing creatures”. Of course, we can be sure the humans will let bygones be bygones, and there definitely won’t be a dozen pink fish heads decorating the throne room wall by teatime.

Without the fun of the Tractators, Frontios wouldn’t amount to much. For while it appears to have the structure of a solid four-part story, the plot is really no more than a string of distractions and conveniences. Solutions and resolutions present themselves without any real work, and without work there can be no sense of reward. Bidmead’s gaseous writing leaves us unmoved. And this is the man who once accused Russell T Davies of taking first draft scripts through to production. You have to admire his gall.

Of course, others will have a different take on the matter. Mr Range is particularly forthright on the subject. “Your minds are being eaten away by this daily disaster we call Frontios,” he insists.

Which is a little harsh. It was only broadcast twice a week.

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DVD EXTRAS

Driven To Distractation wins the award for the most painful title yet for a DVD documentary; a highly contested category. The programme is thorough, thoughtful and well-structured, with a wide range of interviewees, but stumbles when it makes critical judgments of its own. Speaking of Christopher Bidmead’s time as script editor of Doctor Who, the narrator tells that “having seen off the show’s comedy excesses, [Bidmead] guided the programme through a sobering season of scientific sorties.” The guilty words there are “seen off”. The writer of that line clearly held this view back in 1980, but then the wind changed and he got stuck like that. This reviewer is convinced there is no significant caucus of Doctor Who fans who still rally to the cry of: “Hooray, we got rid of Douglas Adams! We swapped the writer of City of Death for the writer of Frontios and saved the show! Clever old us!” Because that would be absurd.

A series of Deleted and Extended Scenes – sadly not presented within the context of the transmitted material this time – offer more flirting from the Doctor and the Gravis, and some fun business with Tegan. Generally, however, it’s a load of Cockerill. (He’s a bolshy guard from a turgid subplot that goes absolutely nowhere, and no one ever said about Frontios: “It’s okay, but what it really needs is more scenes with Cockerill.”)

The Production Subtitles are rigorous and endearingly earnest, especially when they take time to explain what a vol-au-vent is. The commentary – featuring Davison, Saward, Gillett and Rawle – is not the most thrilling ever committed to disc, but the conversation is sincere and civilised.

However, this reviewer is saddened that neither documentary or commentary brings Eric Saward and Christopher H Bidmead together in the same room, so they can play a unique doubles match of their favourite sport of blame-dodging. They should have been styled like Statler and Waldorf from The Muppet Show; heckling from a high balcony despite being entirely in complicit in the middling business unfolding on stage before them.

BIDMEAD: “Who’s responsible for this nonsense?”

SAWARD: “The writer!”

BIDMEAD: “The script editor!” 

And then TOGETHER, with much gleeful cackling: “The producer!”

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 Black Guardian Trilogy

19 Jul

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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DVD EXTRAS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Black Orchid

24 Jun

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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DVD EXTRAS

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

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

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

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

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

Four To Doomsday

16 Jun

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

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There is a psychological response known as Stockholm Syndrome, which identifies the behaviour of a hostage who develops strong feelings of emotional attachment to their kidnapper, no matter how terrible the acts of cruelty perpetrated upon them.

2008 has proved to be The Year Of Terence Dudley, with three of his four Doctor Who stories released on DVD. Following the anaemic Black Orchid and K9 and Company – which at least have brevity on their side – we now have Dudley’s magnum opus, 1982’s Four To Doomsday. The fact your reviewer finds so much to enjoy in this serial suggests that sustained proximity to its author has eroded his judgement and softened his heart. Marriage would be on the cards if Dudley hadn’t been dead for 10 years.

Turn the colour down on Part One and you could be watching a Hartnell story, as the Doctor and his chorus line of companions pour out of the TARDIS to poke around a spooky spaceship, discuss what various props might be, and greet the opening of a door as if it’s the single most thrilling moment of their lives to date. Nyssa delivers the first of a script-full of daft lines with: “On Traken, the interferometer superseded the crystal.” My god! Really? From that we can deduce… Oh, nothing at all. The Doctor’s reply – “Yes! That’s what’s interesting” – suggests his fifth incarnation either has a worrying lack of perspective, or is a master of sarcasm.

One hour and eight minutes – nearly three episodes – then pass before the Doctor faces any immediate threat to his life, which must be a record. Until that happy moment, it’s all a bit Come Dine With Me, as the Doctor and company meet their host – Monarch the urbane Urbankan – and poke around his home, before enjoying a light meal and a spot of postprandial entertainment. All of Terence Dudley’s stories pause for a cold buffet at some stage.

In fits and starts, we learn that our planet is under threat. Monarch has visited Earth four times, scooping up a gaggle of indigenous peoples and turning them into androids. To help speed the millennia-long journey, he makes them dance for him – a sort of Earth’s Got Talent. On this visit, however, Monarch is coming for good. That’s rather a shame, as we’re left to wonder who from 1981 might have been added to his show bill. Would a robot Roxy Music have been playing out eternity? Bucks Fizz? Joe Dolce? “There is a sensitivity in his persona which suggests what in the Flesh Time was called soul.” “Ah, shaddup-a your face.”

But somehow, despite the dancing and general mooching around, Four To Doomsday holds our interest. It’s almost ‘about’ something, as Dudley seems to be musing upon the nature of identity and free will – and in this, we’re once again reminded of Doctor Who’s earliest years. While you have to unpick some abstruse conversations between Monarch and his Urbankan flunkies, Enlightenment and Persuasion, to get to the subtext, these scenes are lifted by a splendid performance from Stratford Johns, who actually seems to understand the significance of every word Monarch says.

There’s some terrible dialogue flying about. While describing the Time Lords, Adric all but reads out The Doctor Who Programme Guide; with Rassilon, the Eye of Harmony, twin hearts, self-induced trances and even the TARDIS power room mentioned within the space of a few seconds. Why stop there? Throw in the transduction barriers and an ormolu clock while you’re at it. There’s also one of the great Doctor Who Conversations We Never See, when after Nyssa’s first mention of the Master, we cut briefly elsewhere, and then back to Monarch saying: “I grieve for you my child, that your father should have met such a fate.” Clearly Nyssa has just related the plot of The Keeper Of Traken, and possibly Logopolis and Castrovalva into the bargain: “And then – oh, you’ll never guess – it turned out the Watcher was the Doctor all the time!”

But I digress. Stratford Johns is not only the best thing about this story, he gives one of Doctor Who’s most assured guest performances full stop, despite having to peer out through the skin of an unripe avocado. His finest moment comes when Enlightenment alliterates a fawning tribute to him – “Nyssa, as a bioengineer, you, more than most, should marvel at the might of our Monarch” – and Johns gives a little cough, feigning modesty. Sublime.

Also worth the admission is Paul Shelley’s droll Persuasion, especially when he nobbles the rebel android Bigon and the Doctor at the end of Part Three: “De-circuit that! And kill him!” Annie Lambert’s Enlightenment is less cool, but there’s a great moment in the final episode when the Urbankans take a break from the storyline to watch some men’s topless wrestling. Breathy and pouting, Enlightenment’s clearly pining for a bit of the old Flesh Time herself. She also gives a divinely camp little wave when she later casts the Doctor into space. You can’t fake that sort of class.

Offering some superb design and effects work – the floating Monopticons are particularly impressive – and three entertaining cliffhangers, Four To Doomsday has plenty of hooks. But frustratingly, Monarch’s plan never quite comes into focus, so it’s a struggle to care. First it’s invasion, then mining the Earth’s resources, then something about an accelerating spaceship and a trip at the speed of light to find himself at the beginning of the Universe. Jesus H Bidmead – what’s all that about? In the end, you’re left with a feeling that Four To Doomsday is either very clever or very dumb. But if it’s the former, it’s certainly travelling under a very cunning disguise as the latter. More frog than prince.

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DVD EXTRAS

Though light on extras, this DVD still offers plenty of additional entertainment. For this reviewer, the highlight is a 5.1 surround mix of the Peter Howell version of the theme tune – the soundtrack to his childhood. And it’s the whole shebang, complete with the octave-climbing ‘dum-dum-dum-dum-dum-(there’s seven of these, so bear with me)-dum-dum… Ooo-ee-ooo’ bit. Goosebumpy stuff.

There’s some fascinating footage from the studio floor, covering Peter Davison’s first day in harness. Despite his reported misgivings, the star seems instantly at home, flicking switches with Doctorly elan. This material really brings home what a bizarre job acting is – acting in Doctor Who more so. At one point, Matthew Waterhouse (Adric) receives direction via the floor manager. “Can you look at my hand and look dejected?” he’s told. This doesn’t prove much of a challenge for the lad. He appears thoroughly depressed throughout.

A contemporary item from Saturday Night at the Mill sees Davison interviewed by Bob Langley, for whom the content of his autocue appears to be a ongoing source of surprise. Before stirring up a chocolate milkshake that looks like the product of a sewage outflow, Davison considers his future with Doctor Who, commenting that he’s “dreading addressing the Doctor Who societies”. Hopefully we didn’t prove too scary in the end, Peter. Well, perhaps that man from Norwich with the tattoo of Anthony Ainley.

Sadly, Davison is more muted that usual on the commentary, where the quartet of regulars are joined by director John Black. This holds them back from having their usual bitch, and so they talk a lot about how nice the sets look instead. Oddly, the actors seem to play to character here, with Davison taking a confident lead and Sarah Sutton (Nyssa) just being jolly nice about things. Waterhouse (Adric) is suitably cocky – “There’s a stunningly glamorous photo of me in that spacesuit” – and Janet Fielding (Tegan) bemoans her lot. The actress feels she wasn’t treated with due respect by the BBC while making Doctor Who, but you come to suspect she would still be grumbling even if they’d made three seasons of The Janet Fielding Show and then appointed her Director-General.

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