Tag Archives: Tom Baker

Doctor Who: The Legacy Collection

9 Oct

A review for Doctor Who Magazine, 2013

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DISC ONE

vlcsnap-2012-08-13-11h19m55s137Many have attempted to complete Shada. But it can never be completed in any meaningful way. That’s because we can never know, for certain, what happens to Skagra’s hat.

Similarly, many have pondered whether Shada might have stood as one of Doctor Who’s great, defining adventures. Again, we can never answer that question with confidence. That’s because we simply don’t know what happens to Skagra’s hat.

First, though, we need to fill in the backstory for any newcomers out there.

In 1979, Shada – a wannabe six-part Doctor Who adventure – was abandoned due to a management lock-out at the BBC, with only its location scenes and one-third of its studio work in the can. In the 1980s, a hooky video of the completed material did the rounds of fandom, copied and re-copied until its contents dissolved into a hissing smear. Lost scenes were summarised in screens of strobing text output from an early home computer. It was a wondrous thing to behold.

1992 brought an official BBC Video, the gaps filled with earnest narration from a Tom Baker battling hypnosis by autocue. It’s this version that has been dragged from the brink of obsolescence and cannily tarted up to form the lead feature of this DVD box set.

A decade on, 2003 gave us a spectacularly recast BBC Online/Big Finish animated audio adaptation, also available here as a generous extra. And last year brought Gareth Roberts’ superb novelisation, which enriches and improves upon the source material immeasurably. In the future we can look forward to Shada: The Collectible Card Game, and Shada: The Interpretive Dance Experience, performed twice daily in a shopping centre near you. Shada will just keep on coming. And that’s because, far from being cut short, it has secured its place as the story that will never end.

Skagra – he of the aforementioned hat – is the villain of Shada. It’s a suitably unlovely name for an unlovely sneer of a man. Few characters in Doctor Who have ever looked more intrinsically cruel. His babyish face is fringed with curls, but his features are sharp, like a putto; a vengeful cherub. He has a rip of a scar down his forehead and right cheek. The cause of this scar is, with uncommon restraint for Doctor Who, never revealed, but Skagra wears it with pride. He is clearly every inch the scoundrel, from the hem of his long white cape to the brim of his huge white hat.

It’s a sun hat, of sorts; the kind you might have found Jackie Onassis sheltering beneath during a weekend at the Hamptons. For added pizazz, there’s a spattered constellation of sequins. It’s an uncompromising fashion statement; and Skagra, marvellously, doesn’t give a damn what you think about it. When we first see him in present-day Cambridge, he turns to camera and smirks right back at us. “Yeah?” he’s saying. “What of it?” Truly, he is a man to be reckoned with. Unfortunately, all this boiling self-belief can do nothing to distract us from the fact that he looks absolutely bloody ridiculous.

Skagra has come to Cambridge from space, in search of a leather-bound Time Lord plot device: ‘The Worshipful and Ancient Law of Gallifrey’. He speaks with a precise, clipped voice, like a Nazi from a Sherlock Holmes movie. It’s a measured performance from actor Christopher Neame, who knows he has to take the character a long way up, and then a long way down, from here. “I have come…” he tells Time Lord-in-hiding Professor Chronotis “…for the bok.” He pronounces the word ‘book’ in just the way a chicken might. “Give meee. The bok.” And Skagra gets his bok eventually – thanks to rank stupidity on the part of the Doctor, who’s pelting about Cambridge on a bicycle – after which he takes Romana prisoner and steals the TARDIS. At this point, following a brief dalliance with polyester trousers, Skagra’s back in his hat. He’s clearly very attached to it.

And there’s the problem. Due to the structure of the recording schedule, Neame only recorded one other scene as Skagra before the plug was pulled on Shada. It’s his final moment in the story, by which point he’s a ranting, twitching maniac, driven to distraction – round the bend and loop-the-loop – by the Doctor, who becomes the Inspector Clouseau to Skagra’s Commissioner Dreyfus. And here’s the thing: by this point, Skagra’s not wearing the hat.

So… when does he lose it? Or, more to the point: for how long would he have worn it? Just how many those unrecorded scenes might that hat have stolen? We will never know.

Judging by the script, all the best missing scenes of Shada would have featured Skagra. That calm, confident theft of the TARDIS would have been shocking in the extreme. How rare is it that we see someone other than the Doctor at the controls of his ship, let alone a villain? And though Skagra lacks the charm of the best of the Doctor’s rivals, he roundly outclasses the Master and the like in terms of ambition. Skagra’s plan to become “the Universal mind” – a single intelligence displacing every other consciousness in creation – is an absolute belter of a wheeze, and surely one of Doctor Who’s top five most imaginative evil schemes. Two of the others also come with Douglas Adams’ name on their scripts, but Shada lacks the cheery gimmicks of The Pirate Planet and City of Death – there’s no robot parrot or multiple Mona Lisas – and instead looks toward a colder, higher place in the grand scheme of things. In what might well have been Shada’s most striking scene, Skagra outlines his philosophy to Romana: “Billions of atoms spinning at random,” he says of the Universe. “Expanding energy, running down – achieving nothing. Entropy! But what is the one thing that stands against entropy, against random decay?” And here Skagra would have paused for effect before answering his own question. “Life!

It’s a great irony that, the following year, incoming script editor Christopher H Bidmead would claim to be restoring scientific rigour to a Doctor Who that had become too whimsical. He would give us Logopolis; another story about how the exercise of the mind, the power of rational thought, will be the only way to save the Universe from entropic decay, from running down to nothing. But who would have played this theme better in their season finale: Adams or Bidmead? Well, there’s the rub. Skagra’s big speech about the ultimate destiny of existence is all well and good, but it might have been fatally undermined if delivered while looking like Joan Collins dressed to impress the paparazzi.

But let’s put the unseen and the unknown to one side for a moment, and ponder some of Shada’s more familiar pleasures. The trick – as with most things in life – is to not let the familiarity diminish the joy. The revelation that Professor Chronotis’s Cambridge rooms are a secret TARDIS, for example, is a total blinder. And that first appearance by Skagra on the bridge over the river Cam is a brilliant bit of scripting, as we’ve only just seen him draining brains somewhere and somewhen in outer space. His look-to-camera is really intended to say: “Yes, I’m here too! Good, isn’t it?” It’s certainly some cocksure storytelling, as the Doctor and Romana float blithely beneath in an out-of-control punt.

The punting sequence was, of course, co-opted for use in The Five Doctors, and so is doubly familiar. We know it so well we can recite it as a catechism. The leaves, the colours. May Week’s in June. So was the TARDIS. Definitely Newton. The duck that laughs “waak! waak! waak!” along with Lalla Ward and Tom Baker’s erudite banter. The scene is a goosebumpy breath on the back of our necks, enough to make our fan gene shiver to attention. And here, cleaned up for DVD, and in its proper context, it looks achingly beautiful. The leafiness of those leaves, the colour of those colours. It’s a perfect moment of Doctor Who, caught in a timeless bubble of eternal sunshine.

And it’s perfect for a box set celebrating the legacy of Doctor Who, here on the cusp of anniversary year. For, with this version of Shada, nostalgia settles upon us in layers, because it comes to us from so many different times at once. It comes via The Five Doctors in 1983. It comes from Tom Baker’s wonderfully batty museum-set introduction to the 1992 video, where he wittily re-enters Doctor Who from the exit. “I was irresistible in those days!” he says, which is true enough, but he’s no less irresistible in his recalling of it. In addition, this Shada was put together by 80s producer John Nathan-Turner – and it was a hard-fought labour of love, we must remember – who invited one of his favourite musicians, Keff McCulloch, to provide a score, and so our senses are also jabbed by the flatulent synthesizers of the Sylvester McCoy era. Shada is probably the composer’s most agreeable work for Doctor Who; but then, asking this viewer to name Keff McCulloch’s most enjoyable soundtrack is like asking me to name my most enjoyable toothache.

We now also have a whole new context granted to the story by Doctor Who’s reaffirmed mainstream success. What’s most striking, looking at Shada afresh, is how modern it all is. It’s remarkably assured in the way it plays with familiar situations. For example, we’re tickled by being shown the TARDIS in Chronotis’s room some time before we see the Doctor. Later, when de facto companion Chris Parsons is sent into the ship in search of a first aid kit, the wit is not so much in Romana’s lengthy directions, but in the way actor Daniel Hill exits the police box out of breath, having run all the way back. This playfulness trusts to our intelligence, and is much how Russell T Davies or Steven Moffat might flatter us.

Of course, with two and a half hours to fill, there’s more time for characters to talk. They may do that weird, old fashioned thing of sitting down when they do it, but it’s still recognisably the continuing rolling banter of today’s Doctor Who. The Doctor and Romana’s extended chat with Chronotis is so carefully rehearsed by the cast as to be almost sitcom. A favourite moment is when the Professor is asked why he called the Doctor to Cambridge. “It’s a delicate matter,” says Chronotis, and Romana respectfully looks away, as if the problem might be something only to be discussed between Time Lads. She imagines, maybe, that the Professor wants to show the Doctor a worrisome rash he’s found around his old, y’know, Eye of Harmony.

But Tom Baker looks tired. Around this time, by his own account, our star was burning the candle at both ends while taking a blowtorch to the middle. Or perhaps it’s the same ill-health that would reportedly dog his next and final series as the Doctor, rendering it a muted postscript to his glittering reign. Some of his most Doctor-ish lines don’t quite land with their usual seemingly effortless, perfect placement. But perhaps he would have rallied had production continued – and then, what other great moments of Doctor Who might we have lost?

Well… Quite possibly Doctor Who’s most outrageous climax of all time. And, as ever, it all comes back to that hat.

It’s the big Part Six showdown. On one side of Skagra’s bright yellow command centre, we have the man himself, quite possibly glowering from beneath a large sequined brim. On the other side is the Doctor, who has done everything in his power to out-hat his enemy. The helmet that the Doctor would have built to deflect Skagra’s mind power is described in the script as having “a jagged piece of table attached to it”. Imagine, then, the kind of understated performance we’d have got from a Season Seventeen Tom Baker, on the last day of term, with a piece of table on his head. But even that’s not the half of it. The hat that was actually built is described in the production subtitles of this DVD as having “a rotating drum, covered in flashing lights”. As the Doctor himself comments commented: “With this on my head, it won’t matter whether it works or not. They’ll all be paralysed laughing at me.” And so, it’s sequins versus lights. Evil Quentin Crisp versus a one-man walking wedding disco. It would have been perfectly glorious. Or exquisitely embarrassing.

Of course, this is Doctor Who; where, much like Skagra’s hat, it’s quite possible to be both at same time. But the unique thrill of Shada is that we can never, ever know for sure. And – for a series that we have all sliced and diced and roundly ranked and rated to six decimal places, several times over – that uncertainty, that mystery, is perhaps the most valuable thing of all.

DISC TWO

urlThere are many kinds of legacy. And Shada comes with no end of them, as some fine DVD extras remind us.

A first-class set of ‘info text’ production subtitles runs alongside the main feature. It is a consummate piece of storytelling in itself, with the sad story of Shada’s demise – at 11.45am on Friday 30 November 1979 – intercut with a wealth of wonderful trivia. We’re told that Tom Baker was busy in the week before location filming helping to launch a new comic. And so, we can infer, that while the Doctor is pursued on his bike through Cambridge by Skagra’s ‘mind sphere’ in Part Two, he cycles past shops in which the first issue of the very magazine you are holding would have been on sale. There’s a legacy for you.

A wistful production documentary takes members of the cast and crew back to Cambridge, while Baker comments from the bucolic bliss of a walk in the woods with his ebullient lurcher, Poppy. It’s a lovely programme as far as it goes, but sadly stunted in its ambition. Could not more effort have been made into giving some sense of the unmade Shada? Designs exist for Skagra’s command ship and for the titular prison planet of the Time Lords, so wouldn’t this have been the perfect occasion to revive the DVD range’s former obsession with 3D computer modelling of old sets? Couldn’t we have finally had a little poke around Shada? We could have opened cell doors like an advent calendar until a Zygon popped out.

The cast and production team talk about how bonded the crew of Shada became during filming. Actor Daniel Hill – surely a shoo-in for the lead role in Steven Moffat: The Motion Picture – tells us of how he fell in love with production assistant Olivia Bazalgette. They went on to marry, and now have three children together. Now there’s a legacy for you.

(However, Shada’s finest legacy – while we’re on the subject – is to be found elsewhere. For that, you need to seek out Lalla Ward’s talking book version of Gareth Roberts’ novelisation. It is, for sure, the very best way to enjoy Shada. Lalla gives her all playing Skagra’s spaceship; a female artificial intelligence who is persuaded by the Doctor to reprogram herself, and is thoroughly seduced by his Time Lord touch. “Ooh!” says Lalla. “Ooh. Ooooh! That hit the spot, Doctor.” And when you stop to think about who is taking about whom, and what they were up to at the time Shada was in production, you perceive that there really is no end to the madness.)

Strike! Strike! is a first-class documentary looking at the effect of BBC union action on Doctor Who, for good or ill, down the years. It’s a sobering reminder of how lucky we were that Warhead – the serial planned to end Season 20 but abandoned due to strike action – was revived for Season 21 as Resurrection of the Daleks. Can you imagine how many half-baked fan productions of that we would have had to sit through? Meanwhile, former Doctor Who and Sarah Jane Adventures script editor Gary Russell recalls how, back when he worked in a more junior capacity at the Beeb in the 1980s, the management would stamp a little picture of a Christmas tree on the staff files of any likely troublemakers. Russell expresses pride at the fact his file came with two Christmas trees. It’s likely that this is because he was seen as a Trotskyite rabble-rouser – the Roj Blake of the BBC press office – but more enquiring minds might wonder if it was just because of his unreconstructed, unconscionable views on the subject of City of Death.

Watching the documentary Being A Girl must be the closest one can get in this world to experiencing Sutekh’s ultimate doom after the Doctor nobbled his time-space corridor. The start and end of the programme telescope away to infinity, until it feels like one has somehow always been watching it. Its stated objective is to explore the role of women in Doctor Who; their empowerment or otherwise. A female production team would have been a nice idea for a project like this, but instead just two contributors – DWM’s Time Team’s Emma Price and broadcaster Samira Ahmed – are expected to carry the whole thing, fending off a series of eye-crossingly long-winded questions as best they can. Ahmed, discussing the earliest roles for women in Doctor Who over some footage of Barbara Wright, says: “The women in it are kind of whiny, and they’re kind of high-pitched in their voices. And they’re kind of going round like Margaret Thatcher… With their kind of set hair, and sort of corsets.” Ah yes, those famous Margaret Thatcher corsets they all wore in 1963. As statements go, it almost fulfils the 1963 brief for Doctor Who itself; reaching forwards in time, backwards in time… and kind of sideways into a parallel dimension; where it might sort of make the slightest sense at all.

DISC THREE

url-1The other star feature of this box set, the documentary More Than 30 Years in the TARDIS, would have been within its rights to harangue its agent for top billing. It’s one of the crown jewels of the BBC Video and DVD range, and simply a glorious job of work from director Kevin Davies and his team.

An extended version of a programme originally made for BBC One to celebrate Doctor Who’s first three decades, More Than 30 Years piles joy upon joy, pleasure upon pleasure. Hundreds of skilfully curated archive clips are wrapped up with witty star interviews and then tied with a wonderful ribbon of specially-shot drama, featuring the perilous adventures of an imaginative young Doctor Who fan and a hit parade of old monsters. And now, in 2013, with the documentary itself being 20 years old, it’s nostalgia squared.

“Squeezed between the football results and the Tellygoons, a legend was born.” “An essential belief in the ‘rightness’ of things.” “A real popped-up engine.” “The colour for monsters is gween.” “I screamed my way out of the show.” These are just a few of the phrases that have earned their place in the Doctor Who book of quotations along with any of the Doctor’s own most memorable quips. But this viewer’s favourite will always be from a conversation about 1960s movie Daleks between actresses Jennie Linden and Roberta Tovey. “They shot foam, didn’t they?” recalls Linden, aka Big Screen Barbara. “Fire extinguishers,” corrects Big Screen Susan, politely enough, recalling the belching blasts of carbon dioxide vapour. “Yes. That’s the word I was looking for…” replies Babs. “Foam.” Whatever the mundane truth of the matter, she’s bloody well going to have the last word.

Thanks to this DVD, it’s a pleasure to see again so many who have since passed, looking so full of vim and vigour, piss and vinegar. And there are many others looking so wonderfully young. In his trademark polo neck, Terrance Dicks could be leaning out of the back flap of a WH Allen Doctor Who novelisation. Nicola Bryant, however, somehow looks exactly the same in 1993 as she does today. Here, she appears in her best-ever scene with her Doctor, Colin Baker, making warm and witty repartee as a troop of Cyberman follow them down the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral. If they’d been allowed to play Peri and the Doctor like this, without the dead hand of script editor Eric Saward steering their doomed ship, then the history of Doctor Who would have been very different indeed.

But More Than 30 Years’ finest moment comes with its great, final coup de théâtre, as the young boy we’ve been following through the film walks up to the TARDIS, looks back over his shoulder in a seeming moment of doubt, but then smiles and pushes open the door. And then… Oh, and then… For the first time ever, the camera tracks into the control room in what appears to a single, sweeping shot. Accompanied by Mark Ayres’ elegiac music, it’s pure magic, and one of Doctor Who’s most glorious moments. It’s taken another two decades – until our recent Christmas special in fact – for the series itself to deliver a scene for the TARDIS with anything like the same emotional wallop.

More Than 30 Years alone makes this box set an essential purchase. May we dream that the BBC might produce anything half as good to mark the 50th anniversary. However, in an appalling oversight, given the significance of this programme, there’s no commentary from Davies, Ayres or any of the team. There’s a host of tall tales to be told from behind the scenes. How could there not be? One day in TV Centre alone brought together Toyah Willcox, Mike Gatting, Jennie Linden, Roberta Tovey, Roy Castle, Ian Levine and the Emperor Dalek all in a single studio.

Finally, this third disc is rounded out with a few more orphan DVD extras that have drifted in to fill out this already packed release.

Nicholas Courtney Remembered is the least of them; a shoddy tribute to our late Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, based around a few minutes of interview with a clearly very unwell Courtney. The interview couldn’t be completed, and makes for uncomfortable viewing. It should have been abandoned – with regret, of course – but has instead been stitched into this ghastly Frankenstein’s monster of a programme. A tribute compiled purely from archive material, and memories of Courtney’s colleagues, would have been far more appropriate.

One last highlight is Those Deadly Divas, which – as the title alone suggests – does more to celebrate the emancipation of women in Doctor Who than Disc Two’s Being A Girl. It appears to have been on the shelf at 2entertain for some years – probably because of the poor sound quality, having seemingly been recorded in a nightclub toilet.

Kate O’Mara, Tracy-Ann Oberman and Camille Coduri discuss some totemic Doctor Who villainesses. The fun is that they’ve actually watched the episodes in question. There’s a special joy to hearing Jackie Tyler discussing Silver Nemesis in some detail, or the Rani expressing envy of the potent sexuality of Captain Wrack. Shada novelist and TV writer Gareth Roberts entertains with typically droll asides, while former DWM editor Clayton Hickman floats the idea that, in creating Tracy-Ann Oberman’s Doctor Who character – Army of Ghosts’ flamboyant Torchwood boss Yvonne Hartman – writer Russell T Davies was giving us a female version of himself. It’s a persuasive theory, but it only raises another question: has Steven Moffat also written his anima – his suppressed feminine unconscious – into the series?

Hmm… Scots firebrand Amelia Pond, you say? Don’t be silly. It has to be Madame Kovarian. She gets things done. She favours season finales. She’s got the hairdo. If Daniel Hill’s not available for The Moffat Movie, then surely Frances Barber’s a cert.

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Terror of the Zygons

7 Jan

A review of the DVD for Doctor Who Magazine, from 2013. See also: Class 4G

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BBCDVD3482 UK Zygons DVD-sc6-1You have to feel sorry for Broton, Warlord of the Zygons. There he is, quietly minding his own business in his cosy home-from-home in the Scottish Highlands, when some seriously antisocial neighbours move in just along the glen: a stinking great oil company, no less. For hundreds of years, Broton and his wee clan have led a peaceful sort of life at the bottom of Loch Ness – entirely self-sufficient thanks their big underwater space cow – and then all of a sudden the neighbourhood goes to pot with this constant banging and clanging and drilling. Broton, as you might imagine, is furious. His family is furious. Even the big underwater space cow is furious. And then comes even worse news for our poor Warlord – there’s been a disaster back where he comes from, and now all his long-lost relatives are coming to stay! It’s terribly fussing. What is he going to do?

What Broton does next is the story of Terror of the Zygons. However, even after four thrill-packed episodes, some key questions go frustratingly unanswered. What the heck has Broton been up to for all those centuries? When did he learn to drive a car? What exactly do Zygons smell of? And how do you milk a Loch Ness Monster? (Actually – we can answer that last one straight away. Carefully.)

While there may be a handful of Doctor Who adventures more widely and wildly adored than this one, there can surely be no finer single episode of Doctor Who than Part One of Terror of the Zygons. It is 24 minutes of perfection, a Platonic Ideal of Doctor Who-ness. You wouldn’t niggle with a single note or nuance of it. The script bubbles with intrigue and fun. The performances are perfectly pitched. The direction – from virtuoso Douglas Camfield – is in a class all its own.

The Brigadier has tugged upon the final, fraying thread of the Doctor’s cosmic leash, and brought him back down to Earth with a bump. Our hero may be delighted to find himself in Scotland, but he’s sorely aggrieved to discover there’s work to be done. Three North Sea oil rigs have been destroyed by an unknown force, and UNIT has been called in to investigate. Our briefing for this crisis – tidily scripted, smartly played – allows each of our lead characters to be absolutely themselves. While Mr Huckle of the Hibernian Oil Company bemoans the loss of millions of pounds, the Brigadier immediately insists that the loss of hundreds of lives is his greater concern. Mention of oil puts the Doctor in a foul mood – trendily fuming about mankind’s reliance on “a mineral slime” – but he snaps straight back to his own good nature when the Brigadier sharply asks of him: “Do you want more men to die?” Sarah, the journalist, is equally true to herself, and sets about interviewing the locals. And Harry, the medic, is off to the infirmary on the hunt for clinical clues. Meanwhile, alien eyes observe our gang’s every move, and alien voices hiss the most wonderful load of old cobblers. “Diastelic reading seven-oh-three,” says one. “Increase the sonic core tone by three remars!” replies another. Everything is so perfectly gorgeous, it makes you want to kiss someone.

The twists of this tale are now so familiar to us – aliens, the Loch Ness Monster – that it’s easy to forget how subtly the story tries to misdirect us at the start. Is this a tale of ghosts and ghouls? Is it even, as the close-up of those brutish eyes and the full moon behind that first collapsing rig might seem to suggest, a tale of werewolves? The first episode tingles with the uncanny as pub landlord Angus McRanald – blessed with ‘second sight’ – tells the story of “a foreigner from the Black Isle” who went missing on Tulloch Moor, or “the Jameson boys”; one of whom disappeared, while his brother was found “two days later… aff his heid! His eyes – his eyes were terrible to see!” It’s pure whimsy, but played and directed with sublime conviction. Elisabeth Sladen is especially good as Sarah here – wide-eyed as she’s slowly drawn in by the ghost story, but then shaking herself out of her reverie with a pragmatic: “Evil spirits don’t destroy oil rigs!”

Doctor Who has always sought to strike a balance between horror and humour. Generally, the scares and the jokes take turns, and that rollercoaster of tone generates the show’s essential manic energy. And at its very best, Doctor Who can seamlessly pitch-bend silly to serious and back again, while standing perfectly still and staring you straight in the eye. “Might as well forget about security in Tulloch,” shouts a flippant Sarah over the sound of Angus’s bagpipes. “The landlord here’s got second sight!” With perfect comic timing, the bagpipes abruptly stop. But then the Doctor, velvet and sepulchral: “You know what he was playing? Flowers of the Forest. A lament for the dead.” The fact that Tom Baker himself wrote that line gives some clue as to how deeply everyone cared about the work they were doing. This kind of grown-up wit smoulders all the way through Terror of the Zygons.

Doctor Who’s greatest episode ends, as it must, with one of Doctor Who’s greatest cliffhangers. It’s another directorial masterpiece: the track-in, the whirl, the crash-zoom and that terrifying, sucking ‘honk’ as a Zygon bears down on Sarah. What an entrance!

zygons_3776It’s entirely self-evident that the Zygons are the most beautifully realized monsters in the history of Doctor Who, but it’s surely worth lingering for a moment to consider why they work so well. They feel so alive: fleshy, bloated and throbbing with alien juices, like something that has really grown, and is still growing. Many monster costumes are ruined by their one-size-fits-all bagginess, but the skin of a Zygon is stretched painfully taut across its ribs and back. And the devil is surely in the detail: the hundreds of ulcerous tubules blistering the shoulders and hips; the natural symmetry of the lines of the bigger, barnacle-like growths that extend four ways from the crown of the head over the backbone and sternum, and along the arms and legs; the thick veins that fill fat fingers. Praise is of course due to costume designer James Acheson, but the real star is surely sculptor John Friedlander, for whom the creatures must have been a labour of love – a love which shows in every grotesque protuberance.

But good looks can only get you so far in this life. The other secret of the Zygons’ success is that Broton, their leader, is gifted with such a deft yet boisterous performance from actor John Woodnutt. He plays the creature in both its natural form and its human disguise as the la-di-da Duke of Forgill, and each is a total delight.

Like all great Doctor Who villains, Duke Broton is absolutely convinced that he’s the hero of his story, and that everyone around has been gathered merely to pay homage to his genius and wit. This essential snootiness and condescension mean that Broton is also – again like all the best Doctor Who villains – quite breathtakingly camp. For a Duke, he really is a proper old queen. As such, he effortlessly passes another key qualifying test for a place in the first division of Doctor Who villainy, and that is this: how easy are they to imagine as a judge on The X Factor or Britain’s Got Talent? Broton, Davros, Harrison Chase, Trau Morgus, Mrs Gillyflower… you can immediately picture any of them passing withering comment on a parade of chirping idiots and clumsy hoofers. Harrison Chase would roll his eyes disdainfully and steeple his black-gloved hands. Mrs Gillyflower would rant and rave and reduce ’em to tears. Davros would idly tap his middle finger next to a big red button marked ‘Total destruction’. Morgus would deliver his putdowns to his own private camera, to one side of the judges’ desk. Our Duke of Forgill would purse his lips, smile an insincere smile, and then tell some poor wannabe from Wolverhampton that she’s totally, utterly unhinged, must be, and that he loathes her abomination of a body. And this kind of approach, one dares suggest, is something that Doctor Who might think a little more about today. The best Doctor Who has the best villains, and the modern series could surely trade a few ‘broken spring’ stories for a few more outrageously self-regarding blackguards who pass the X Factor judge test.

p01d6gsyBroton’s finest moment comes when he sets out from the Zygon spaceship to pose as Forgill at the World Energy Conference in London – an attack on which will spearhead his conquest of the Earth. “When phase two is completed, I shall broadcast my demands to the world,” he says – at which point he pops on a bowler hat and merrily spins an umbrella. Now hold on just one second. We know that the Zygons can morph into a copy of a human in their custody, and that clothes somehow come as part of the magic. But the real Duke doesn’t have a bowler hat, so Broton must have packed one specially. Now that is class. For all his contempt for “puny humans”, there’s a definite feeling that Broton finds greater pleasure in being a Scottish Laird than he does in being a Zygon Warlord. He’s quite brilliant at it, especially when deploying stinging sarcasm in the face of the Doctor’s theories about the Loch Ness Monster  (“Aliens? With wireless sets?”). Broton may be stepping up for the conquest of the Earth, but you feel he’d be much happier just busying about Inverness-shire, roamin’ the gloamin’ in his Range Rover, offering people lifts if he likes them, and pretending to get their names wrong if he doesn’t. After all, the Zygons have been stranded on Earth for hundreds of years, and a secret passage leads from their ship under Loch Ness to the Duke’s antique bookcase, so just how many successive incumbents of Forgill Castle has Broton impersonated? “My family has served this country for seven centuries,” says the Duke at the start of our story. Later we discover that this was Broton talking – but might he still be telling the truth, and speaking of himself and his Zygon crew? They’ve been around for about seven centuries too, and, as they all suckle the lactic fluid of their pet Skarasen, might they not be an actual family? So if the Doctor seems somewhat laid back during this adventure, perhaps it’s because he has Duke Broton sussed right from the start. When our faux Forgill drives away from the Fox Inn in Part One, the Doctor looks contemplatively after him. Later, his voice is loaded with sarcasm when he says “Your Grace”. Clearly the Doctor is onto him. But what gave it away? Well, while the Zygons may be adept at changing their shape, how good are they at changing their smell? This Duke of Forgill probably stinks of fish and stale monster milk, but everyone’s simply too polite to mention it.

While Broton is reasonably competent, his other Zygons let the side down by getting almost everything wrong. They’re certainly nowhere near as good at pretending to be humans. They fail to kill our heroes on several occasions, and when Broton leaves them in charge of their ship, barely five minutes pass before the Doctor blows it up. (There’s a hilarious moment when the Doctor activates the Zygon fire alarm and all the Zygons troop out like schoolchildren. Do they have regular drills? Are they trotting off to ‘Muster Point C’? They really are a deliciously gormless bunch.)

But what the other Zygon-humans may lack in brains, they make up for in pure monstrosity. This is one story that certainly lives up to the lurid promise of its title. The Zygon version of Sister Lamont lingers long in the memory of every viewer: blood stickily clotting on her arm, her head cocked and gimlet-eyed, like a carrion bird poised to rip into its prey. “It’s just a scratch,” she says, so softly, before bludgeoning a man with a rock. More terrifying yet is the sequence where Sarah pursues the Zygon version of Harry. Truly, Douglas Camfield’s direction of this story – and of these filmed location scenes in particular – takes the breath away. It’s pure British folk horror: Sarah’s breath frosting as she runs through a wide and bleak landscape of denuded trees and thick ruts of mud. Crows caw behind that wonderful incidental music, as the wistful flutes of Part One gives way to driving strings and urgent clarinet. And then we’re with Zygon-Harry in the barn, as he drives his pitchfork right down the camera lens – straight at us. You’d take an instinctive step back from the TV if you weren’t already sitting down. In his wide shot, Camfield fleetingly establishes thick wooden spikes jagging upward from the floor of the barn. He can’t show the Zygon actually impaled on a stake, but he can suggest it to our subconscious. And then there’s that terrible, primal, echoing ‘moo’ as the creature dies. It’s a moo that sums up Terror of the Zygons in miniature: grotesque, strangely mournful, beautifully judged, and totally unforgettable.

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DVD Extras

Not only is this two-disc set a celebration of one of Doctor Who’s greatest adventures, it’s also a tribute to the skill, imagination and astonishing hard work of the Doctor Who Restoration Team and many of their fellow travellers – the people whose talents have made this DVD range a triumph from first to last. There’s something of a party atmosphere to this release; a loud, lusty and well-earned last hurrah. Terror of the Zygons was long planned to be the last complete twentieth-century Doctor Who serial released on DVD. However, the gods of good fortune have heard our prayers and intervened, meaning that that position will instead be claimed – and hopefully only for a short time – by The Enemy of the World. And here’s a thing… The location filming for Episode 1 of The Enemy of the World took place at Climping Beach in West Sussex. And the only other time this location was used by Doctor Who was for Terror of the Zygons. One is left breathless by the glorious, exquisite timing of it all.

For Zygons, sound guru Mark Ayres has contrived – by some staggering witchcraft – to offer us not only an ‘isolated score’ audio track (and what a score!) but also a 5.1 surround mix. How is this even possible? Maybe we shouldn’t ask. Like staring into the burning heart of the TARDIS, the minds of mere mortals are not built to know such ineffable power.

Producer Ed Stradling provides our behind-the-scenes documentaries. This is right and proper, as Stradling has been behind the majority of the most creative films in the range; he set the standard for others to beat way back on the Earthshock DVD, ten bloomin’ years ago. Here, as then, Stradling deploys a fan commentator to join the dots and act as de facto narrator, so we can all wrinkle our noses and say: “Well, what does he know about it?” The so-called ‘experts’ on Earthshock, whoever they were, have long since been lost to history, so here we have TV Historian Simon Farquhar, who peers sullenly out from under his fringe like Princess Di in her interview with Martin Bashir. ‘TV Historian’ sounds like a cool job, but sadly they don’t teach it in every school. What a shame. Instead of an afternoon of PE, the Fridays of childhood would have been greatly enlivened by double Quatermass followed by an energetic half-hour of Applied Dennis Potter.

The production documentary is a laudably thorough affair. Writer Robert Banks Stewart makes for particularly charming company. “I was fascinated by the idea that either the Loch Ness Monster existed, or it didn’t,” he tells us, so he’s clearly a man who likes to keep all bases covered. As the story behind this story unfolds, even a mere photograph of long-dead script editor and all-time No.1 hero Robert Holmes, with a pipe clamped between his teeth like Hemingway or Tolkien, prompts one to list the limbs that might be cheerfully traded for a chance to spend an hour in his company, learning the most secret alchemy of Doctor Who.

The highlight of the ‘extras’ disc is the outstanding Remembering Douglas Camfield, also from Ed Stradling. It’s a robust and fitting tribute to the great man, placing his Doctor Who work in the context of a hugely successful TV career. Camfield’s son Joggs and actress Celia Imrie (a star of Camfield’s 1981 Scottish sci-fi horror serial The Nightmare Man, scripted by Robert Holmes and notably Zygonesque in atmosphere) pay moving tribute to a man who they loved very much, and who clearly loved them greatly in return. Imrie recalls how, while shots were being set up on location, Camfield would play the ocarina – a particularly haunting instrument. So it’s no surprise that the director brought in Geoffrey Burgon to provide his fluting scores for Terror of the Zygons and The Seeds of Doom, rather than settling for, well… shall we say the more robust charms of Dudley Simpson.

Two gems from the BBC archive capture Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen at their most beautiful. Baker is interviewed, on location for Terror of the Zygons, by the local news programme South Today, and he’s magnificently detached and aloof as the presenter prattles on. He impishly remarks that taking the role of the Doctor means he can no longer enjoy his “bachelor benders” – though he was hardly a stranger to the Colony Room or the Coach and Horses as his years with the show played out. When asked about the episode he’s filming, Baker says that he’s come to this Sussex beach “to make something inventive and agreeable” – which is as charming a mission statement for Doctor Who as any you’ll hear.

Elisabeth Sladen is the host of Merry-Go-Round: The Fuel Fishers – a children’s educational show from 1977, in which we learn how oil rigs work. So evocative of The Sontaran Experiment is her canary yellow raincoat, and so characteristically earnest Sladen’s approach, that it’s almost like a little lost adventure for Sarah Jane Smith. As she flies out across the North Sea by helicopter, Sladen has to react to her own pre-recorded ‘thinks’ track, and we’re reminded of the truth, the fun, and the utter conviction she brought to her performance as Sarah. No one ever believed the magic more.

Joining this curtain call of Doctor Who DVD master craftsmen is Martin Wiggins, who provides a typically majestic set of ‘info text’ subtitles, full of wit, wisdom and whimsy. With Wiggins as our guide, Terror of the Zygons comes to life in all kinds of new ways; not least with the revelation that John Woodnutt would pass the time between takes in the studio by tap-dancing on his mark – in full Broton costume. One prays that the raw studio footage turns up one day.

ian_lis2However, it’s another lost wonder which proves the final great coup of this DVD, and indeed of the whole range, as a long-missing scene of the Doctor, Sarah and Harry arriving in Scotland is restored to us. And how perfectly magical it is to see them together once more, out on location and gathered around their wonderful, tumbledown, potting-shed TARDIS – all so young and handsome and eager for adventure. And it’s surely a perfectly-timed opportunity to admire the manifold skills of the Restoration Team – and colourist Stuart Humphreys – who painstakingly pieced this lost gem together from scattered remnants.

When Terror of the Zygons was first released on VHS videocassette back in 1988, it was edited and chopped down to an omnibus. Now, on DVD, it’s bigger and more beautiful than ever. And if that isn’t a fitting tribute to the dedication, talent and sheer willpower of Doctor Who fans, then I don’t know what is. So let’s celebrate.

After all, it’s our birthday too.

The Face of Evil

8 Apr

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

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The Face of Evil gets straight to the nitty-gritty, and flings us into its fictional world with an opening scene that’s archetypal Doctor Who. “There can be but one punishment for such a heresy…” says a man in judgment of a beautiful girl. “Banishment!” It’s clearly a big deal, because Dudley Simpson blasts straight in with drums and trumpets. Da-da-da-da-daaah! Da-dah! Oh – you think – this is what Doctor Who’s all about. This is why we’re here. It’s leggy Leela who’s facing the banishment punishment, for doubting the existence of the great god Xoanon; if not his ability to pep up a game of Scrabble. Leela’s tribe is in uproar. Insults fly between the accused and high priest Neeva, and their argument fleshes out the idiosyncrasies of this world. We’re in a primitive, wattle-and-daub hut, but – look! – sci-fi gubbins litter the place. There’s no time to ponder that little tease, because Leela’s old dad is dragged away to face “the test of the Horda” and, backstage, delivers the finest scream in the history of Doctor Who. It’s a shrieking symphony in three movements: an epic yodel of horror, part Tarzan, part copulating fox. “You have until sunrise,” says leader Andor to Leela, his voice rumbling with movie trailer portent. “If you are still within the boundary then, you must be thrown to the Horda.” And so it is that we’re served with everything we need for an adventure in fewer than two dozen lines of script. There’s something to be scared of, a mystery to intrigue us, a heroine to cheer for. You can’t imagine how it might be done better… And then Tom Baker arrives, and brings us down to Earth with a bump.

It appears that our star is not quite himself. An actor of limitless horsepower, by his standards he’s barely revving the engine. Perhaps Baker suspects that he’s no longer the centre of attention, given that, as of this week, there’s now a gorgeous girl right alongside him wearing little more than a smile and a suntan. Every eye in the room is on Leela. “I’m going to enjoy lighting that!” calls a voice from the gantry. Reports of these days of recording place the new girl at the focal point of a semicircle of randy studio staff. And this being the 1970s, you picture a room of Les Dawsons with headsets and clipboards, pebble glasses steamed up, all “phwoar!” and “knickers knackers knockers!” Certainly, we know that actress Louise Jameson was wolf-whistled. Today, this would likely provoke a lengthy disciplinary procedure – and a furious, fully-illustrated article in the Daily Mail – but Jameson tells us she felt encouraged by the heartfelt enthusiasm. However, I’ll bet Tom Baker had a face like thunder. He may have the big hat and the coloured scarf, the teeth and the curls, but he’s now playing against acres of womanly flesh held in check by a few square feet of chamois leather. He’s been asking if he can go it alone without a companion, but instead he’s been given the most eye-catching sidekick imaginable. Doctor Who’s centre of gravity has shifted beneath him. And is that The Face Of Evil’s production code he keeps muttering under his breath?

“Leela is here for the dads,” says the producer. But not just the dads, surely? “Doctor Who is made for intelligent 14-year-olds”, adds the script editor. They’ll know that 14 is a particularly sticky time in a boy’s development, and Leela will certainly hold her audience rigid in front of the television for half an hour every Saturday. The irony is that while Leela is the most brazen – some would say cynical – deployment of sex appeal in the series’ history, she is also the most fully thought-through and skilfully played companion the series has ever had. Jameson makes Leela part pedantic toddler and part hunting hound. It’s a crazy-sounding combination, but her hard work makes the character completely real when she should be totally absurd. However, although Leela is certainly lovable, it’s hard to completely give your heart to her. It’s telling how, in The Face of Evil, there’s no romantic subplot for Leela and dishy tribesman Tomas. He seems devoted to her – as well he might – but she doesn’t notice or care. The need to play against all that obvious sexuality means that Leela has to be completely ignorant of such matters. Even the Doctor has to be careful not to touch. And so, Leela will stay childlike and innocent – and at an emotional remove from us – throughout her travels in the TARDIS, until the day she bizarrely decides to start a new life in the city with a middle-ranking policeman.

The Face of Evil is admired for having a Big Idea at its core, and rightly so. It is, I think, the series’ second attempt at what I’m going to call a ‘broken spring’ adventure. Everything that happens in such a tale is merely the side effect of an unstable system that the Doctor slowly comes to understand, and then repair. It’s a story type that’s been part of the series from the beginning, and now named for the spring that jams the Fast Return switch in Doctor Who’s third story, and spins the TARDIS to the brink of destruction. However, it took until The Face of Evil for the Doctor to encounter his second broken spring mystery. Here, god Xoanon is merely a computer running a corrupted program. It was built to help humans, but thanks to a mistake – and a very special mistake in this case – it is instead doing them harm, without any clear ambition of its own. There are other homicidal computers in Doctor Who, of course – WOTAN, BOSS – but they are portrayed as sentient, and working to a self-serving purpose in the manner of any mad scientist. Xoanon’s breakdown, portrayed here as madness, is the result of a programming error, and the ultimate solution proves to be – as for so many IT problems – to switch it off and on again.

And so, The Face of Evil is one of a rare breed. The only similar stories in the original run of Doctor Who are Underworld – with another computer running degraded software – and Full Circle, where the ‘system’ to be understood by the Doctor is the cyclic evolution of a whole planet, and there’s no one to blame for that. It’s a different matter for modern Doctor Who, where the broken spring idea has featured far more frequently. The Empty Child was the first, and The Girl in the Fireplace, Gridlock and Silence in the Library also gave us machines struggling to fulfil their original program. The idea is there again in The Beast Below, Amy’s Choice and The Lodger, and we saw it five times in last year’s series alone. The Siren, the Flesh, the Handbots, a creepy hotel and the ‘night terrors’ all turned out to be functions or side effects of a misfiring mechanism. It takes someone of the Doctor’s smarts to spot the trap, break the cycle and free the victims. And with no malice aforethought, a happy side effect can be that, sometimes, everybody lives.

Put in this context, and given the calibre of stories that have ploughed the same furrow, it’s no small compliment to say that The Face of Evil is one of the very best of its type. That’s because it delivers a unique and satisfying twist, in that the Doctor is not merely the solution to the problem – he’s also the cause. It’s the Doctor’s fudged repair, in an expedition unseen, that bust Xoanon’s spring in the first place, and left it with a piece of his own personality jammed in its software. This leads to the story’s signature moment, at the end of Part Three, when the Doctor confronts Xoanon. In a beautifully-realised effect that still impresses today, the Doctor’s own distorted face, thrice over, screams back at him in confusion with the voice of a child. It’s one for the all-time clips reel.

Sadly, the story gently trundles downhill through its final episode. There’s a countdown to a nuclear-reactor overload, but it lacks the sense of urgency one normally finds with countdowns to nuclear-reactor overloads – and we’ve seen a few in our time, you and I. Not everybody lives, but Xoanon is cured; or at least that’s how it’s sold to us. We’ll come back to that.

The Face of Evil is, perhaps fittingly, a schizophrenic production, with a fidgety left hand seemingly determined to undo the good work done by the right. The jungle scenes, largely shot on film, are a triumph – moody and sinister – which is no small achievement given that the jungle in question is for the most part a delicate suspension of Hoover hose. These sequences are beautifully lit, but when you step into the huts of the Sevateem, and in front of video cameras, the floodlights sear your retinas. You can close your eyes and still see a glowing outline of Leslie Schofield.

Similarly, while the Sevateem themselves hold our interest, thanks to the sharp script and skilful casting, when we meet their rivals – the whey-faced, uptight Tesh – it’s difficult to stay focused. Sure, the Tesh have an initial impact. They’re playing-card Jacks come to life, like the Queen of Hearts’ harassed footmen. The problem is, unlike the Sevateem, we never feel that that the Tesh have a life outside of the demands of the plot – perhaps because so many are played by extras and stuntmen. And while the story generally keeps us moving along, it fills out its length with little distractions that loop back to where we were a few minutes earlier. The test of the Horda, when we see it, is straight from the medieval zone of The Crystal Maze. “This is a three-minute game, shot entirely on film, and your time starts the second I close the door.” You can imagine a gormless estate agent from Woking wielding the crossbow while his colleagues screech from the sidelines. “Shoot the rope, Darren! Gettin’ thinner as it gets faster, innit!” Later, Leela is hypnotised twice – which looks like carelessness. The second time, the Doctor cures her by sonic screwdrivering a random, unidentified prop. There’s a sneaking suspicion they’re making some of this up as they go along.

But what of Xoanon, and the people he serves? There’s a suggestion that he’s been breeding the Sevateem and the Tesh for specific attributes – one for brawn and one for brains, but it’s not really explained why. Frankly, on the given evidence, he seems to have instead produced one colony of heterosexual men and one colony of homosexual men. The immediate result of bringing them together can only be confusion and disappointment on both sides, like taking a stag party clubbing in Brighton. There’s going to be no end of embarrassment the next morning, and red cheeks all round. However, there is some hope for the future, because although it’s often been commented that when Leela leaves with the Doctor the planet loses its only woman, there is – as Yoda once said – another. A second lady of the Sevateem can be glimpsed in a film sequence. Well, I say lady. Her hair is tight back in bunches, and she stomps past the camera like she’s on her way to the 24-hour garage for a scratchcard and 10 Bensons. But she at least looks the pragmatic type, and might well be game for repopulating the planet. She might even go for a Tesh, if she can see past the velvet knickerbockers and pea-green espadrilles.

That’s if she even gets the chance. For there remains reason to believe that Xoanon still isn’t the full ticket even after the Doctor’s second repair. When commenting on the computer’s crackpot foray into eugenics, Leela says: “That’s horrible!” The Doctor agrees. “It is,” he says – before addressing Xoanon. “Isn’t it horrible?”

“But it’s over now,” smarms the machine, entirely dodging the question. Hmm… That’s a rather suspicious bit of evasion, if you ask me. And was that the sound of a spring going ‘ping’?

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DVD Extras

Into the Wild, the production documentary, is as smart and comprehensive as can be. Special congratulations to the team for finding Anthony Frieze, who provided the child’s voice for Xoanon. It’s the sort of thing the DVD range so is very good at. And if you’ve ever craved a close look at the ‘stone’ head of Tom Baker made for this story, then here’s your chance. The camera caresses the big face so thoroughly, so lovingly, you feel the director won’t be completely satisfied until he’s snogged it with tongues.

An instalment of Tomorrow’s Times looks at press coverage of the Baker years, and rightly lingers over a defining piece of Doctor Who-related journalism: Jean Rook’s hatchet-job interview with Robert Holmes for the Daily Express in 1977, titled: “Who do you think you are, scaring my innocent child?” Rook was one of the great, pompous witches of old Fleet Street, and it’s a treat that she ever bothered with Doctor Who. “I wonder if this inflated ex-children’s programme is over-stretching itself,” she wrote, “and worshipping its own uninhibited cult?” Oh, Ms Rook… Over-stretching itself is what Doctor Who does best. And if you think it was uninhibited then, you should see it now. And while I have you, dear Jean… Let me take this moment to point out that any sentence written by Robert Holmes has more worth, and will live longer, than every single word you ever wrote added together.

The most exciting DVD extra of all is a TV advertisement for the Denys Fisher range of Doctor Who dollies, where a young boy with four teeth that clearly don’t get along is the show runner for a brief – but no less full-blooded and game-changing – adventure. Our tiny Time Lord and a flicky-haired Leela, who looks like she should be held by the feet and used to rinse out wine glasses, are under attack from “a fearful Cyberman, the Giant Robot, and one of the deadly Daleks.” The Giant Robot, while not so giant as it claims, strikes a swishy, hip-swinging pose that clearly puts the wind up the Doctor. “Leela covers him!” gasps the voiceover. “And the Doctor escapes!” What? He leaves the poor girl to fend for herself and just skips off in the TARDIS on his own? It’s like a miniature metaphor for Tom Baker’s dreams.

As a lad, your reviewer begged, cajoled and pleaded for these toys, and they arrived gift-wrapped, one-by-one, over the course of various birthdays and Christmases. Except for poor Leela, that is.  Buying a Sindy or Barbie – albeit one armed with a knife – was a step too far for my parents. Because, although they didn’t know the proper words for it, they already suspected their youngest son was far less Sevateem than Tesh.


The Sun Makers

1 Dec

A review of the DVD for Doctor Who Magazine. From 2011.

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Here’s a contradiction. For a story that’s considered one of the breezier diversions for the Fourth Doctor – a step out into the light from the gloomy gothic of his early years – when we join our hero in the TARDIS at the top of The Sun Makers, he looks likes someone’s spat in his jelly babies.

Fiction and reality are blurring for the Doctor and his companion. Tom Baker loathed the character of Leela, believing her – and rightly, I think – too violent for his series. Baker’s contempt bleeds through into the Doctor (if, that is, the two can ever seriously be considered as separate personalities). This is why, throughout her time in the TARDIS, Leela always feels more passenger than friend. We only have to remember the easy companionship the Doctor shared with Sarah – how her bright little smile could detonate his atomic grin – to see how much has changed. In The Sun Makers, Baker can barely bring himself to look at Louise Jameson when he’s talking to her. He makes eye contact with K9 more often. (Although, the Doctor’s hardly encouraging to his new dog either. “Leela – tell your tin pet to shut up!” he barks, having ordered Leela herself to shut up mere moments before.) But while we understand the backstage tensions, how might we explain away this sour atmosphere within the fiction? Perhaps a long time has passed between adventures, and the Doctor’s nerves become frayed when he’s stuck in the TARDIS for too long. They’ve resorted to playing board games, as one does when a holiday is rained off. Before the chess came out, maybe they completed all the Doctor’s jigsaws of old Gallifrey. “Ah! I’ve found a piece of the Untempered Schism.” “Areas of burnt orange suggest sky, Master.” “Shut up, K9.”

The TARDIS lands on Pluto, which brings us to another contradiction. For a story that’s frequently been dismissed as “cheap”, The Sun Makers delivers a wider range of interesting locations and eye-catching sets than many a modern Doctor Who adventure. Certainly, the ‘cheap’ tag can be applied to an opening shot that sees Citizen Cordo arrive at an appointment with a beige, papery wall that’s been misguidedly enlivened with a clumsy cross of red insulation tape. But that’s a small misstep. The rest of the production goes to great lengths to transport us to an alien world; crossing England to find Pluto’s vast rooftops, endless corridors and dingy underground vaults. To help us mentally join these disparate locations together, the designer cannily invests in several tins of orange paint (‘Coral Canyon’, if you’re looking to match it from the current Dulux range), which he splashes liberally about. This allows the bulk of his budget to be spent on half-a-dozen sets, which range in quality from the perfectly serviceable – the rebels’ base, which seems better suited to a student production of Rent – to the rather fine. The best is the office of deputy chief plutocrat Gatherer Hade, which draws the eye back and up across various levels. However, quite what the Gatherer’s non-speaking staff are up to on their background platforms is anyone’s guess. One man leans raffishly on a railing, watching another randomly poke the air with a spider rest liberated from a snooker table. It seems that in the distant future, rich men will still be free to indulge even their most surreal fetishes.

But all this is mere sideshow. Pluto is not really built for us with sets and props. Truly, it is conjured from the air with words alone. No Doctor Who writer has ever spun alien worlds with the wit, precision and poetry of Robert Holmes. Over the past year, these DVD reviews have proudly taken to task Doctor Who stories that open to a screed of egregious exposition passed off as casual conversation – step forward Meglos, Frontios – and that’s because stories like The Sun Makers hold the rest to a better standard, by proving how cleverly and subtly it can be done. And from page one, line one, the bar is set high.

“Congratulations, Citizen. Your father ceased at 1:10” is surely Doctor Who’s drollest opening line. The brilliant black humour, as that cheery “congratulations” shunts into news of the death of a loved one, takes the breath away. And the conversation which follows – between Cordo and Hade as the former attempts to pay his death taxes – is nothing less than a work of art.

“Not on the desk!” bellows Hade, as Cordo tries put his purse down. “It might scar.” Cordo gives a little gasp of recognition. “It is wood, your honour?” “Of a kind called ‘ma-hog-ay-nee’” mispronounces Hade proudly, adding: “I don’t suppose you’ve ever seen wood before, have you citizen?” “Never,” replies awestruck Cordo. “We learned about it at the preparation centre,” he explains, before giving his own modest boast: “There was even a picture of a tree.” What’s so wonderful is that every line of this seemingly trivial exchange takes us a small step deeper into this world, with the punchline hanging on the most humble of words: ‘even’. In what kind of place might as mundane a thing as a picture of a tree command an ‘even’? With one word, Holmes summons an entire dystopia. And from here, the values of the society on Pluto – the impossible taxes, the high price of ordinary human compassion, the insignificance of the individual – are laid out for us at the same time as we mentally map a bleak world of foundries, walkways and correction centres.

This brings us to another contradiction. For a story that’s known as one of Doctor Who’s comedic outings, The Sun Makers certainly serves up some dark and disturbing ideas. That opening Hade/Cordo scene – in addition to everything else it achieves – even finds time to hide away Doctor Who’s blackest joke. Hade explains to Cordo that only two small cash credits will help offset the 132 Talmar price of his father’s “Golden Death”. The first is his father’s “personal contribution” of seven Talmars; his total savings from 40 years work as a municipal servant, cleaning corridors. “Then,” Hade adds, “there’s a recycling allowance, based on a death weight of 84 kilos, of eight Talmars”. Seven Talmars. Eight Talmars. Robert Holmes has chosen those numbers with care. He’s telling us – and you can almost hear him chuckling wickedly in the background as he refills his pipe – that the decaying meat of this man’s corpse has a greater value than his entire life’s work; that Cordo’s father is worth more to him dead than he ever was alive. It’s a bleak view, to put it mildly. And, while we think about that, what might “recycling” of a body mean on a world without trees, where all food must be artificial? This is twisted, sinister stuff, exquisitely woven into Hade’s breezy enumeration of an invoice.

Again and again, it’s the words that prove The Sun Makers greatest joy. There’s a wonderful little scene with the Gatherer and the Doctor, where they each think they are getting one over on the other. “While you’re here, you must get about a bit,” suggests Hade, as if there might be an open-topped bus tour departing any minute. There’s more fun with the ‘noises off’ of Pluto, with mention of such intriguing ne’er-do-wells as “Wurgs and Keeks”, and the “arrogant Ajacks”. Later, the Gatherer and his boss, the Collector, dismiss the downtrodden masses with alliteration and assonance: they are “factory fodder” and “cellar dwellers”. The Collector is a goblin creature who runs the whole cruel business of Pluto; a snivelling Rumpelstiltskin jealously hoarding his gold. The Gatherer’s habit of buttering-up his tiny boss by using synonyms for ‘large’ is such good fun – there’s “Your Colossus!”, “Your Hugeness!”, “Your Amplification!” and many more – but what’s even better is when things begin to go wrong on Pluto and the flattery becomes more slowly more inappropriate and insulting. “Your Monstrosity!”, “Your Corpulence!”. What a joy it is.

Unfortunately, Robert Holmes rather lets his love of the macabre and the gruesome get the better of him when we meet Pluto’s rebel faction, down in the basement. “Show courtesy to my rank,” spits leader Mandrel, “or I’ll cut your skin off inch by inch.” And the threat of slice-and-dice continues, mostly thanks to Leela. “Before I die, I’ll see this rathole ankle-deep in blood!” she vows. And most wince-inducing of all, she promises Mandrel: “I’ll split you!” It’s vivid stuff, to say the least. Doctor Who couldn’t get away with anything close to this charnel house language today, and that’s no bad thing. It does, however, give us what must stand as the most typical Robert Holmes line of all time: “Mouth those mindless pieties down here, Citizen Cordo, and you’ll get yer throat slit!” It’s just another passing threat, but in it we find all Holmes’ favourite tricks in play at once.

Happily, The Sun Makers has a superb cast to deliver its brilliant script. What’s most striking is how relaxed and well-rehearsed they all are. Tom Baker warms up as soon as he’s away from Leela and working with the guest actors, and he’s clearly having a ball when the Doctor confronts the Collector at the end of the story. He and actor Henry Woolf have made the most of rehearsals and worked out so many little bits of business. The bald Collector’s wistful fondling of the Doctor’s curls is particularly cute, and the moment when he slams his fist down on a vital control, only for it to spring up and be caught in mid-air by the Doctor, is a genuine laugh-out-loud moment of slapstick. When you watch these scenes, try to ignore Baker and focus only on Woolf. You’ll rarely see an actor working so hard. Emotions flutter across his face like colours on a squid; pride then bitterness then glee then confusion then panic. It’s one of the wittiest and most entertaining guest performances ever given in Doctor Who.

“So what’s Contingency Plan B?” jokes the Doctor as he unravels the economy on Pluto and the Collector liquidates himself. The Sun Makers is the first of a particular subset of Doctor Who stories where our hero stumbles across a sick society that is a twisted version of our own world – with one shortcoming of modern life extrapolated to become its defining characteristic – and blasts through it like antibiotics. We’ll see this again in Paradise Towers, The Happiness Patrol, Gridlock and The Beast Below, but The Sun Makers remains the most enjoyable, due in part to the fact that the Doctor’s fourth incarnation lacks the pious streak that can make his successors seem so insufferably smug and superior at times. When he leaves Pluto in the hands of those murderous rebels, with not a single word of caution or advice, there something deliciously reckless about it. It’s refreshing not to be obliged to ponder what we’ve learned this day, or to stop to mourn the terrible sacrifices that have been made in the name of liberty. There’s no call to hail-the-unalive-Pex, to weep for the rubbery mush of the Face of Boe, or salute that brave and noble space whale. Sod ’em. We’re outta here.

Back in the TARDIS, the Doctor explains to Leela how he defeated the Collector. “I fed a two per cent growth tax into the computers, index-linked,” he says. “It blew the economy.” It’s a joke, but it’s not so far from the jargon we now hear on the news every day, in this new era of recession: the quantitative easing, the short-selling, the subprime toxic debt that brought down banks and poisoned economies around the world. And suddenly we see that The Sun Makers packs even more of a satirical punch today than it did on transmission. In 1977, Robert Holmes was stinging from a tax bill, and used Doctor Who to vent his anger. In a decade of spiralling inflation and punishing taxation, older viewers could enjoy the joke of Hade’s list of bizarre taxes, and taxes on taxes. In the Collector, Holmes was clearly mocking the government. But today, we see politicians as almost powerless in the face of the machinations of big business, and watching The Sun Makers, we see Cordo is tyrannised not by a government, but by a corporation – which controls him through his debts, and through his fear of debt. The most chilling detail of all is how the Company keeps its workforce pacified. The PCM gas it pumps into the cities doesn’t simply dope the citizens. Instead, it raises anxiety levels by a tiny degree, so that everyone is so consumed by their own everyday fears and self-doubt, and can never muster the will to rebel. It’s a horrific idea.

Before becoming a writer, Robert Holmes was an army officer on active service, then a policeman and later a crime reporter for a newspaper. One could easy believe that these experiences left him with a jaded view of human nature, but instead it seems to have sharpened the sense of humour he must have needed to survive the jungles of Burma and the mean streets of London. But that special mix of cynicism and optimism ultimately gave us some of the richest, cleverest Doctor Who stories that will ever be written. And The Sun Makers is among that number.

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DVD extras

Principal production documentary Running From the Tax Man is a smart piece of work with a good range of interviewees, and includes some insightful commentary from historian Dominic Sandbrook. The programme guides us through The Sun Makers’ political backstory, and detours for a discussion about Pluto’s demotion from the solar system. However, given that the most significant aspect of The Sun Makers is that it’s very, very funny, this documentary sadly fails to get to grips with the humour of the piece. In 1985, in a rare interview, Robert Holmes made it clear that he knew he was pushing his luck with The Sun Makers: “working at the anarchic boundaries for Doctor Who,” he called it. It’s this anarchy that makes The Sun Makers special, and the documentary doesn’t quite connect with it.

The commentary – which features Tom Baker, Louise Jameson, guest actor Michael Keating and late director Pennant Roberts – is a lot of fun, and shines a light on the relationship between this Doctor and assistant. There’s no doubt that Jameson is among the most talented actresses ever to stand at the Doctor’s side. Leela is an absurd, fantastical character – this pedantic, childlike savage in a leather swimsuit –  and the most high-concept companion there’s ever been, but there’s never a single moment when we don’t believe in her. That’s all down to the skill of Jameson, and her totally immersive and deadly earnest acting style.

But there are all kinds of actors; and when, on the commentary, Jameson is quick to praise the “honest” performance of Cordo actor Roy Macready, Baker laughs. “We didn’t bandy around words like ‘honest’ back then,” he says. Jameson also speaks of “honouring the text”, and we remember that Baker generally liked to ‘honour’ a Doctor Who script by christening it “whippet shit” and frisbee-ing it out the window onto Acton High Street. And the two actors’ differing senses of humour mean that Jameson never seems to know when she’s having her leg pulled. Time and again she takes some bit of Baker whimsy at face value, and we can hazard a guess as to how quickly Baker might have become bored with his jokes not being ‘got’, back in the day. This was never – I think – a meeting of minds, and one can imagine how that might also have been a source of friction on set, above and beyond Baker’s distaste for the character of Leela.

Tom Baker has mellowed over the years, and he and Jameson are now on good terms. For many years, Baker put a great deal of space between himself and Doctor Who, but recently he has returned, and seems eager to – for want of a better way of putting it – give something back to the fans. He’s now “coming soon from Big Finish Productions”; something that would have been thought impossible just a few years ago. Big Finish has always worked hard to recapture the particular atmosphere of Doctor Who’s various eras, but here’s one case where this listener hopes that they fail – in the nicest possible way. Life doesn’t offer many second chances. And so, as Baker and Jameson reassume their roles, it would be lovely to find that, on TV, we only saw the rainy days in the TARDIS. Soon, I trust – and only 33 years too late – we’ll hear the Doctor and Leela laughing together, and finally find them to be the very best of friends.

 

Meglos

2 Aug

A DVD review for Doctor Who Magazine from 2011.

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Meglos begins, and largely remains, on Tigella. It’s one of those dreary single-issue planets – think Karfel, Jaconda or Xeros – found on the unlovely outer rim of Doctor Who. Tigella’s history and culture is laid out in a clunky exchange at the top of Part One. “For thousands of years our lives have been dominated by a mystery,” says Deedrix, assistant under-secretary of exposition. He continues: “The Dodecahedron belongs to all of us, not just the Deons!” “But their religion deserves respect!” replies the elderly Zastor, not wishing us to go uninformed about the nature of these Deons for so much as a second. “Religion! Ha!” scoffs Deedrix, quick to clarify his attitude. And there’s Tigella, ladies and gentlemen. Your reviewer was once knocked down by a speeding Tesco delivery van that introduced itself with more subtlety and wit.

This mysterious Dodecahedron supplies power for the whole Tigellan race – who clearly favour eggs over baskets – but while its output has dwindled for years, its imminent failure is shock news to some. “I tell you that our city is on the edge of total extinction!” wails Deedrix. Zastor responds to this with a startled look of “Holy heck! I’d never considered that!” – which, given that this the only conversation ever held on Tigella, suggests he has a worryingly laissez-faire attitude toward key social issues.

Nothing about Tigella persuades us it could possibly be a real place. If the end is indeed nigh, you think they’d stop squandering their waning wattage on laundry and hair care. The scientist Savants dazzle in Persil biological white, while the cultist Deons shimmy about in acres of chiffon. I say “hair care”, but Tigella is a world of hats, helmets, hoods and headdresses, plus a set of uniquely grievous wigs. In the olden days, the believability of an alien planet in Doctor Who could be measured by the equation T = n ÷ h, where T is the time is minutes until viewer credulity snaps; n is the on-screen population of said planet; and h is the number of hats worn. The Inverse Hat Law means that if everyone is on a given planet has something distracting on their head, there’s no point in trying to tell a considered story about global extinction. (You can, however, have some fun with android princes and crazy weddings.) Modern Doctor Who knows to respect the Inverse Hat Law. Alien planets are a rare sight these days. Alien hats rarer still.

The actors tasked with breathing life into the Tigellans generally acquit themselves well as they fight a losing battle against the syrups and script. Sample dialogue: “Your concurrence, Lexa, can not revoke the laws of physics.” Lexa is the leader of the Deons, and played with quiet dignity by Jacqueline Hill – who in another time was the acme of Doctor Who companions, Barbara Wright. One wonders what the actress made of this trip to a space both strange and familiar. Did she offer Lalla Ward tips on how to act lost in 20ft of jungle? As a High Priestess plotting a human sacrifice, did Hill recall her finest hour as Barbara, battling to prevent one? Did she feel a frisson upon hearing Tigella’s neighbouring world described as “the dead planet”? Hill’s presence short-circuits the first 17 years of Doctor Who, and shows us how little changed over that time.

Here’s something that was as true in 1980 is it was in 1963 – and is in 2011: all good stories need a good villain. Meglos, alas, has Meglos. “I am a plant!” he burbles proudly to his henchmen, the Gaztaks. The conversation that follows, between Meglos and General Grugger of the Gaztaks, is one of the silliest in Doctor Who history. We repeatedly cut between Grugger (actor Bill Fraser arching a pitying eyebrow beneath the flashiest headgear in the whole show; a feral cat asleep under a jelly mould, with a foil star glinting atop the lot in case our attention should wander) and a static shot of a rubber cactus. The scene invites mockery, and deservedly so. It echoes back to us in Victoria Wood’s “I haven’t got the ming-mongs” sketch, David Tennant’s appearance on Extras and countless other send-ups. But it could have been worse. The cactus might have been made to wobble as it talked.

Thankfully, things pep up after Meglos disguises himself as the Doctor. When channeling the rebarbative wit of Tom Baker, he’s at least entertaining. Needing a lift from the Gaztaks, Baker gives Meglos the manner of an arrogant, middle-class homosexual forced to deal with a particularly malodorous and, well… common team of removal men. He can barely bring himself to look at them. On Tigella, when Meglos realizes he needs to pledge himself to a religion he holds in contempt, Baker’s switchback delivery of the line, “I, swear allegiance to Ti? I’ll… I’ll swear allegiance to Ti with great pleasure,” is enormous fun. It’s often said that there’s little difference between Tom Baker’s Doctor and Tom Baker the man, but while the Fourth Doctor is a loveable eccentric 99% of the time, tales from the set paint Baker as an altogether more difficult personality. I think we see some of that cold, cocksure, bullying Baker in his performance here. You can imagine him waving his script in the face of the director. “I, read out this whippet shit?” (Some suitable words of flattery are offered to the recalcitrant star.) “I’ll… I’ll read out this whippet shit with great pleasure.”

All that is interesting about Meglos comes from Tom Baker. Otherwise, he’s Doctor Who’s most lazily sketched villain ever. The Doctor asks him: “Why would a good-looking chap like you want to control the Universe?” Meglos’s reply: “It is beyond your comprehension!” is an epic cop-out that suggests the writers don’t have the foggiest idea either. More irritating still, his fundamental physical nature changes from episode to episode, to suit the whims of what we might indulgently call the plot. First, he’s a self-confessed plant. Later, he seems to be a parasitic intelligence that merely inhabited a cactus in the way then he does a human host. But this is thrown into doubt by a hilarious moment in Part Four when Meglos abandons his human form, and a kind of green carpet bag sidles apologetically from the room. The cast watch it in silent disbelief, studiously avoiding eye contact for fear they might never stop laughing. “He must have modulated himself on a particular wavelength of light,” intuits the Doctor, flying in the face of all empirical evidence. “He must be a latex sack moving on a particular length of string,” would fit the available facts better.

So what’s good about Meglos? As mentioned, there’s a plucky cast doing their best, with Bill Fraser and Frederick Treves as the chief Gaztaks proving the most fun. The first cliffhanger, when Meglos appears as the Doctor, is splendid. The music, from Paddy Kingsland and Peter Howell, the 80s’ most melodic composers, is ahead of its time in Doctor Who terms, offering some catchy themes that would go down well at the Proms.

In the end, however, that counts for little. Fundamentally, Meglos is difficult to love because it’s impossible to care about anything that happens. Our sympathies certainly aren’t roused by the science/religion debate on Tigella – which occupies the lion’s share of this story – as the wig people and the hat people squabble their way to collective suicide. Even the writers appear to lose interest in the Tigellans. We know their underground city and civilisation depends entirely on the power of the Dodecahedron, but then the Doctor disposes of it without offering any substitute. In the final scene, old Zastor is up in the jungle, waving the Doctor farewell as if poised to while away the rest of his days doing a little light gardening. He’ll be fertiliser by sundown.

On the commentary track of this DVD, the story’s co-writer John Flanagan says: “Back then, you could make people believe you were on an alien planet just by having characters say they were, and having a few lights flashing.”

No you couldn’t. And that’s why Meglos went wrong. For a writer, creating a convincing backdrop for a Doctor Who story is the most important task of all. You can’t just decide a cactus wants to take over the universe and think your job is done. We have to be helped believe that characters have an existence beyond what is required by the plot, that they lived in the days before we met them, and will go on living after the Tardis departs.

This principle is what separates good Doctor Who from the bad.

It always has. And it always will.

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DVD EXTRAS

Meglos Men, the disc’s principal documentary, reunites writers Flanagan and Andy McCulloch for a tour of old London haunts. The conceit requires each to tell the other things that they already know. “We’re on our way to the house you’d lived in when we wrote Meglos,” John tells Andrew. “That’s right,” Andrew tells John. It’s all very Deedrix and Zastor.

In the dead of night, they creep up to the home of their Doctor Who script editor, Chronic Hysteresis Bidmead (Address: A Cold High Place Overlooking The Universe). We’re welcomed inside, and it’s nice to have a snoop at the soft furnishings. Sadly, the little Bidmead says is as muddle-headed as ever. “Before I took over Doctor Who, a lot of magic and sorcery stuff had got into it,” he huffs. It’s an ill-informed prejudice based, one imagines, not on the solidly scientific hyperspace storyline of Nightmare of Eden or the neutron star of Creature From the Pit – praised by New Scientist magazine at the time – but upon an unmade Pennant Roberts script left in his desk drawer back in 1980. It was unmade for a reason. It’s not like the season ended with a planet of wizards chanting spells that conjure objects out of thin air. That would be silly.

Finally, there’s mention of Flanagan and McCulloch’s abandoned story Project Zeta Sigma, which was planned to feature a character called ‘Ranwek’ – whose name, the writers tell us with a gleeful chuckle, was an anagram. Gosh. Sometimes this stuff reviews itself.

The undoubted highlight of this DVD is the tribute Jacqueline Hill: A Life In Pictures, which features interviews with the actresses’ husband, Alvin Rakoff, and her friend Ann Davies. It’s a mature piece that stirs emotions. Davies tells how, when her beloved friend was weakened by cancer, she would gently wash Hill’s hair for her. Something about this resonates with the iconography of Barbara Wright – that proud, outrageous hairdo – and the perfect tragedy of it twists at the gut.

Hill died in 1993. But only in one world. In a recent episode of The Sarah Jane Adventures, Sarah told us that Barbara Wright is alive and well and – magically – has never aged a day.

How true that is.

Image of the Fendahl

21 Jul

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

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The DVD release schedule can throw up unique narratives of its own. Recently, for example, we’ve heard from Doctor Who’s three principal 80s script editors – telling us how wonderful things could have been if only everyone else was as clever as them. Each had a very different take on the show, so it’s been amusing to see if we agree with all, one or none. (Send your vote to: Lady Hamilton Bidmead, 45 Eileen Way, E-Space, WV0 2M.) This month we have compare-and-contrast fun with the 1977 adventure Image of the Fendahl, illuminated in an unexpected way by the fact it follows Attack of the Cybermen to the shelves of Sainsbury’s.

Though your reviewer had never considered it before, the two stories have much in common. Once more, the Doctor is slow to join the action, with the TARDIS landing some distance away from this week’s guest stars, allowing our hero a leisurely saunter to the drama. Both he and his companion pack heat – this time using shotguns to fend off slugs the size of shire horses. And again, the plot leaves many key questions frustratingly unanswered. The point is: if we’ve used these sticks to beat one story, it’s only fair they are employed against another.

Image of the Fendahl takes us to Fetch Priory, where Dr Fendleman is operating a time scanner, which allows him to probe history. Passing up the chance to stalk Shakespeare and Abraham Lincoln, Fendleman has found a 12-million-year-old skull which, when the mood takes it, blazes with malign power. Either that or he’s found Ozzy Osbourne’s bedside lamp. And Dr Fendleman is something of a mystery himself. What is that accent? “Aderm! Aderm!” he says to his associate, Adam. “Jus’ theenk for a momend, eh? Zee woods uh suppose’a be haun’ed, eh?” They must be very proud of his success back home in the Austrian ghettos of Mexico City. Meanwhile, a hiker in zee haun’ed woods has his juices sucked out by an unseen force – not as nice as it sounds – and the scanner’s dangerous instability draws the Doctor and Leela to Earth to investigate.

The pieces are all in place for some definitive Doctor Who, but Image of the Fendahl fails to pull everything together. While writer Chris Boucher clearly loves his own characters, he rails against involving the Doctor in his spooky tale. As mentioned, our hero takes an episode to reach Fetch Priory, and as soon as he tips up is shoved into a cupboard. Dr Fendleman is the most interesting figure here, but the Doctor spends mere seconds in his company. The Time Lord is then shunted out of the way for most of Part Three on a wild goose chase. This problem of integration could have been easily fixed by having the Doctor properly investigate the death of the hiker and the mystery of the skull. Unfortunately, he arrives already knowing the whole story, and then has to be kept busy until he can blow it up.

A few months ago, apropos of something else entirely, this page described Image of the Fendahl as “creepy and confident”. However, it’s important your reviewer keeps an open mind as each DVD arrives, and not be driven by tastes and prejudices forged in his youth. It’s impossible, but he should try. And while this story is certainly creepy – the various aspects of the monster are all scary in different ways, and Parts One and Two deliver cracking cliffhangers – it now feels more difficult to argue ‘confident’.

Unfortunately, Image of the Fendahl keeps tripping over its shoelaces. The Doctor offers three different explanations for why the monster has manifested here and now, the final of which is the entirely lame: “On the other hand, it could all be just a coincidence.” Never have bets been more hedged. And for each piece of rousing, trailer-friendly dialogue – “There are four thousand million people here on your planet. And if I’m right, within a year there’ll be just one left alive…” – another line falls flat. One remark, made by archaeologist Adam to his technician friend Thea – “I accept without reservation the results of your excellent potassium-argon test” – is so contrived it sounds like a cue for a song. (All together now: “Geo-chronology is deeply fascinating! But forget the skull, dear Thea… It’s this man you should be dating!”) Later, after Adam stumbles upon the blinking-and-bleeping time scanner, he quips: “I always say that if you’ve seen one jukebox, you’ve seen ‘em all.” Always? How often is that, Adam? Is every night in the Fetchborough Arms enlivened by this hilarious bon mot?

It’s Image of the Fendahl’s pure-cut melodrama that keeps it enjoyable. There’s even a touch of drawing room comedy, as characters constantly sidle in and out of rooms to share nuggets of plot. Someone opens and then closes a door 46 times in less than 100 minutes, which must be a record for Doctor Who. It’s a shame Fetch Priory is short a set of French windows. Adam could bound in, tennis racket in hand, and deliver a wry put-down to the time scanner, just as Leela exits stage left, pursued by an ancient evil from Time Lord mythology. Pop it in the West End and it could run and run.

So, while Fendahl shares some of the flaws of Attack of the Cybermen, it at least lacks the whiff of the torture chamber. This may not be Doctor Who at its most fluid and assured, but it certainly sticks to the show’s cardinal rule: if you’re not being scary, be funny; if you’re not making ‘em laugh, make ‘em jump. Some of those laughs may be unintentional – eh, Aderm? – but they’re no less welcome for that.

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DVD EXTRAS

Sadly, the bonus material on this disc lacks some of the educational rigour we’ve come to expect. Having recently learned: i) the secret of great black pudding; and ii) how to equip his favourite baseball cap with sonar, your reviewer now earns a respectable second income by raiding pig farms in the dead of night. At the very least, we might expect Fendahl to deliver a decent fruitcake recipe. And are we supposed to master our potassium-argon tests single-handedly? Standards are slipping.

Happily, there’s plenty to learn about your actual Doctor Who. The award for the most delightful nugget of trivia goes to the ‘info text’, where we learn that the props buyer took 4lbs of Jelly Babies on location. 4lbs! That’s a lot of confectionary considering we only see a single sweet on screen. Perhaps the production manager gorged on the remainder at the end of filming. One can imagine him, driven crazy by a sugar high, screaming “I’ll be in charge of all this one day!” before toppling face down into a ditch.

The production documentary – with the disappointingly sane title After Image – is solid stuff, telling an upbeat tale of a happy team who loved working together. Everyone had a right old laugh at rehearsal, applied themselves in studio, and adored Daphne Heard’s turn as Ma Tyler above all. “She honours a text when she works,” says Louise Jameson (Leela), with RADA profundity. Daphne is certainly marvellous, and it’s nice to think of her sat alone in a corner of the rehearsal room, carefully teasing out every nuance of the line, “I b’aint your grandma! Don’t ee grandma me!”

There’s black-and-white timecoded video of ‘Deleted and Extended Scenes’, offering a couple of alternative takes and some additional moments of woodland wandering. “BLANK SECTIONS FOR COW INSERTS” reads one explanatory caption, which must be unique. It’s not material any of us will watch more than once, but it’s nice to have and thanks are due its donor.

A warm commentary features Louise Jameson, Wanda Ventham (Thea) and Edward Arthur (Adam) reporting from planet Earth, with Tom Baker beaming in from his own dimension. Eccentric he may be, but Baker soon fingers Fendahl’s chief shortcoming. After silently watching 10 minutes of scientists staring intently at oscilloscopes, our star grumbles: “When do I come on?” Later, he muses: “There’s something missing here… Oh yes, it’s me.” And he’s not wrong. Meanwhile, Ventham has a lot to say about her wig and her shoes, though she tackles weightier issues as the story progresses – commenting wistfully during Part Two: “I really want to see a shot of that cooker again.”

If you listen to the commentary as you watch the ‘info text’, there’s a moment of deliciously cruel irony. Boucher’s script was treated roughly during the cast read-through, and a caption recalls a memorable DWM interview with the writer. “For a long time,” he said, “my ambition was to see Tom Baker die in a cellar full of rats.” Seconds later, we have Baker on the commentary: “Who wrote this? Who? Chris Boucher? Isn’t that funny. I can’t remember him at all.” That’s show business! It also reminds us how times changed. Doctor Who writers can be celebrities these days. Russell T Davies was recently mentioned in EastEnders, and that sort of thing never happened in the 70s. Well, unless a lost episode of Crossroads saw Amy Turtle hobble up to reception saying: “I’ve jus’ bought a copy of Doctor Who and the Zarbis, Miss Jill. It’s signed by Bill Strutton an’ all!”

As the story slithers through Part Four, Baker is increasingly contemplative. “Life’s been downhill ever since I left Doctor Who,” he muses, and we’re left to ponder which of the other Doctors would agree with this sentiment. One thing’s for sure – David Tennant will escape Baker’s fate. He’s a Doctor Who fan after all, and so will know the one great lesson to be learned from Image of the Fendahl

As one door closes, another opens.

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