Tag Archives: William Hartnell

The Reign of Terror

3 May

A DVD review for Doctor Who Magazine, from 2013

_________________________________________________________________________

vlcsnap-2013-02-10-18h36m59s72“The streets of Paris, strewn with the carcasses of the mangled victims, have become so familiar to the sight that they are passed by and trod on without any particular notice. The mob think no more of killing a fellow man – one who is not even an object of suspicion – than wanton boys would of killing a cat or a dog.

“It’ll be our most Christmassy Christmas special yet,” adds Doctor Who producer Steven Moffat.

Of course not. A little joke. But it’s to remind us how what we expect from our favourite family drama series has changed during its five decades on TV. These days, every fifth or sixth episode is Christmas. When Doctor Who began, every third or fourth serial featured a much-loved mass homicide from history.

The quoted passage comes from the The Times of London, Monday 10 September 1792. It’s a report on the September Massacres, a bloody foretaste of la Terreur; the French state’s attempt to establish control over the population through the legal and largely unfettered use of violence – literally reigning through terror. It’s a revolution within a revolution. “Terror is nothing other than justice,” says the 35-year-old Maximilien Robespierre, President of the National Convention. “Prompt. Severe. Inflexible.” He believes it to be a virtuous form of government. The word of a virtuous man, he insists, should be enough to condemn a traitor. But Robespierre’s licence to murder is not used merely to help hasten the obliteration of the ancien régime. The merest whisper of treachery is enough to condemn any enemy – a business rival, an unfaithful lover, an enviably successful friend – to death by the guillotine, as grotesque an invention as has ever been conceived by man. By the summer of 1794, the air in Paris is thick with fear, paranoia, and the stench of thousands of rotting corpses heaped high at the Errancis Cemetery. Soon, Robespierre himself will be added to the pile. In two virtuous pieces.

Forgive the lecture. But it’s important to bring the ferocious brutality of the real Reign of Terror into focus. In 1964, this was considered a suitable playground for a children’s serial. Indeed, BBC Head of Drama Sydney Newman thought bleating bug-eyed robot men to be a far less appealing subject matter. And what makes Doctor Who’s teatime Terreur for tots so remarkable is the fact that it does not shirk from portraying the savagery of life in France in 1794. The first episode, especially, is a masterpiece of slowly unfolding horror.

But it begins with whimsy. The Doctor, in a particularly peevish mood, is convinced that he has brought homesick companions Ian and Barbara back to present-day England. They’re not so sure, and to prevent their pilot abandoning them in what could be anywhere or anywhen, they cajole him into joining them outside. Assured writing meets skilled performance in a lovely scene that would shine in any Doctor Who script from the last 50 years. Over one shoulder, Ian soft-soaps the Doctor. “Of course you’re in control,” he smarms. “And your important research must be completed.” Barbara is at the Doctor’s other shoulder, brushing away invisible dust, or possibly space dandruff. When it comes to Barbara, the Doctor’s a pushover. She’s his first human girl crush – and who can blame him? Meanwhile, William Hartnell hilariously double-takes between them. But despite this left-right charm offensive, it’s the suggestion that they might all go for a drink that finally wins the Doctor over. Perhaps it’s a little reflection of real life. Is this is how Hartnell’s colleagues dealt with his more dyspeptic mornings? “Of course you’re in control, Bill.” It’s easy to imagine many a studio quarrel settled over a lunchtime stout at the White Horse, Shepherd’s Bush.

This bright, optimistic start is designed to lend shadow to what follows, as, from the moment the Doctor’s curiosity takes over, the travellers fall into ever darkening danger. In a farmhouse some miles from Paris, they discover documents signed by Robespierre. “The Doctor’s put us down right in the middle of the French Revolution!” boggles Ian. “The Reign of Terror,” adds Barbara. And that’s our lot. We’re trusted – required even – to recognise the name Robespierre and immediately grasp the implications of this. (More explanation would doubtless be needed today; the Revolution has long been absent from the compulsory secondary school history syllabus. The subset of the population now most likely to know the name Robespierre is DWM subscribers. So, one point to Sydney Newman there.)

We meet on-the-run aristocrats Rouvray and D’Argenson. The militia is on their trail; a bickering band of bloodthirsty soldiers, grinning like Alsatians. Which, given that this is northern France, they may well be. Our bold Rouvray almost talks his way out of trouble. Playing on the memory of his lost patrician authority, he orders the soldiers to stand down. One man surrenders his musket, but our arrogant aristo pushes his luck. In an especially nuanced piece of writing, we’re give a flash of insight into both sides of the class conflict. “You can give them uniforms,” sneers Rouvray, “but they remain peasants underneath.” Without any order from his officer, one of the peasants shoots Rouvray dead. “A desperate attempt,” observes the commander. “And it very nearly worked.” The camera shies away as a second shot is fired. D’Argenson has been murdered. We know this from the soldiers’ gleeful laughter.

Already roaring with power, the episode accelerates toward a truly tremendous climax. Ian, Barbara and Susan are taken captive. “If any of them speaks,” says the commander, “shoot them.” Completely helpless, they can only stand in silence as their fate is decided by the squabbling soldiers. And then the farmhouse is set alight. But the Doctor is still inside! The fire spreads rapidly – through a series of generally excellent model shots – and the Doctor collapses, overcome by smoke. The camera pans up as the flames rise ever higher, and the incidental music – from Stanley Myers, and one of Doctor Who’s finest scores – playfully, sarcastically, quotes La Marseillaise. An anthem for life and liberty, just as death and disaster seem inevitable. Hold on flames. Roll credits. What a cliffhanger! They don’t make them like that any more.

The first episode is all about establishing the stakes we’re playing for. It’s made perfectly clear again at the start of the second, when we’re shown the falling blade of the guillotine. It’s mere moments of stock footage, but no less chilling for it. (And this is not some arcane threat from a bygone age. It’s worth remembering that the guillotine was used in France until 1977, and its blade was still hanging in the air until capital punishment was finally abolished in 1981.) “You have no rights,” barks a judge. He’s talking to Ian, Barbara and Susan, but the director has him looking right down the lens of Camera Two, directly at us. “You will be guillotined as soon as it can be arranged.” And with that, we are dragged away to the Conciergerie prison.

Here, writer Dennis Spooner – a true Doctor Who natural, giving us his first work – looks to leaven this brutal business with a few grains of humour. He’s hardly generous with it – though he will be in future – so perhaps script editor David Whitaker is staying his hand. We meet the lumbering jailer, his working class background conveyed through the broadest northern accent, and Jacqueline Hill does a wonderful comic reaction to his bad breath. But really, it’s the merest gesture toward fun. Although the Doctor and others later run rings round the jailer, he’s still a total horror, motivated by lust, greed and fear in turn. He leches over Barbara, offering her freedom if she – though he doesn’t use these words – has sex with him. Barbara merely turns and smacks him round the face. Marvellous.

“Lock ’em away!” bellows the jailer. “In there. It’s a cell I keep… for my special guests! Har har har!” Barbara and Susan are dragged into Doctor Who’s most bleak and dispiriting dungeon of all time. But it’s Ian who seems to get the premium accommodation. His cell is on film, and comes with a hot and cold running storyline. He’s tasked with finding an English spy, James Stirling. “Ask Jules Renan…” whispers a fellow prisoner with his dying breath. “At the sign of… Le Chien Gris.” But what’s with the sudden French? The TARDIS translation circuit must be on the blink – or, like Siri on the iPhone, doesn’t work well at low volume. (“I do not know what that means. Searching Index File for the sign of Lush He Angry.”)

The Reign of Terror comes with a neat little story of plot and counter-plot. It also gets to the heart of the dreadful irony of that time. Robespierre’s idea of justice was based on trust and duty, but no one could be trusted. However, our Doctor Who serial does seem clear on which class of citizen is the more virtuous. Barbara and Susan are rescued from the guillotine by upper-crust counter-revolutionaries Jules and “my young friend” Jean. They’re a sweetly affectionate pair who insist on calling each other by name with every other line (“I’ll go now, Jules.” “Take care, Jean.”), and they put their trust in the English travellers immediately, just as posh Rouvray and D’Argenson did before them. However, any ordinary working man we meet immediately proves devious, truculent and unreliable. The soldiers, the jailer, a roadworks overseer, a shopkeeper and a physician are all ready to abuse or denounce our heroes for personal gain, in the name of the glorious revolution.

But the story, having given us these rules, then subverts them to work its pivotal trick. Citizen Lemaitre, overseeing the Conciergerie, seems to be working for Robespierre, but turns out to be the English spy that Ian is looking for; our Mr Stirling having surely been dispatched on this undercover mission thanks to his having the biggest hooter north of Boulogne. Meanwhile, Barbara takes a shine to Jules’ friend in the resistance, the dashing Leon Colbert. Attentive and seductive, there’s a whiff of Pepé le Pew about Leon as he kisses Barbara’s hand and plies her with wine (“C’est magnifique, mon belle fromage!” he almost but doesn’t quite say.) But Leon proves a stinker in every sense. He’s a double agent for the State, and it was his treachery that led the soldiers to the farmhouse at the start of our tale. Soon, Leon has Ian chained up and ready for torture, but even he is allowed a sympathetic moment. “If you’d seen what France was like six years ago, you’d understand,” he says. “I do understand,” replies Ian. “But I can’t help you.” Actor Edward Brayshaw gives a wonderful, rich performance as Leon. It’s a tragedy that it’s almost entirely confined to the lost fourth and fifth episodes of this story.

So where is the Doctor amidst all this cruelty and tyranny? Early on, Susan tells us that the Reign of Terror is his favourite period of history. One might wonder how such a bloody time can be anyone’s favourite, but the Doctor clearly has a taste for revolution. It’s fitting, given how many he will go on to foment across the galaxy. He’s already managed a couple in the few weeks we’ve known him.  However, the Doctor’s particular affection for the Terror is also a writerly sleight of hand, and one that shows Doctor Who undergoing a revolution of its own. Up to this point, the Doctor has needed history teacher Barbara’s insights to help him cope with life in the past. But Dennis Spooner requires the Doctor to be able to slip straight into a position of authority. And so it is that his special study allows him to know the lay of the land and be able to bluff his way at the highest level. We’ve long since taken this sort of thing for granted; that the Doctor knows everything, and can charm his way to the top. These days, he even has a piece of paper that can do the job for him. Here, it’s mostly played for fun, and leads to The Reign of Terror’s best gag, and it’s a visual gag. When the Doctor barters for the uniform of a Regional Officer of the Provinces, it seems to be only the matter of a jacket and a sash. But the writer and director are deliberately holding back the rest of the outfit for the Doctor’s big entrance at the Conciergerie. He comes down the steps like a Vegas showgirl, swishing his cape and with the greater proportion of an ostrich fanning out from the top of his head. Hartnell is clearly in his element.

Sadly, The Reign of Terror rather fizzles to a close in its sixth and final episode. Ian recalls another clue whispered to him in prison. “Nothing specific,” he says. “Just something about Barras, a meeting and a sinking ship. No! The Sinking Ship.” It’s hardly short on detail, so we’re left to wonder what Ian might have considered a specific message. Perhaps he expected a phone number. He and Barbara head to the pub in question, where politician Paul Barras is trying to recruit the next ruler of the country. As our heroes dress as innkeeper and wife, it all feels a little like a Morecambe and Wise sketch, or one of those clumsy plays that the contestants used to act out in the final round of The Generation Game. Napoleon Bonaparte turns up – thoughtfully dressed like Napoleon Bonaparte to aid recognition – and he and Barras make a deal for France while staring intently at the tips of each other’s noses, as if they’re about to kiss.

But there’s one last shock to come, one last reminder of the horror. Back in the fourth episode, the Doctor met with Robespierre and debated the merits of his policy of state-sponsored murder. Even Robespierre himself is granted an understanding emotional beat. “Do you think I want this carnage?” he wails. “What a memory I shall leave behind if this lasts!” And here is the memory of it, given back to us in a TV series for children that adults adore. In the final episode, we’re shown fate catching up with Robespierre. He is shot, off screen, but then dragged out before us, still alive, his hand clamped over his shattered jaw, and blood running through his fingers. It’s wildly violent and vivid by Doctor Who standards, and a last, sobering reminder of why the series doesn’t tackle real history any more.

It’s not that history is in any way less exciting than aliens and monsters, it’s just that if you subtract those aliens and their devious manipulations, then we’re only left with humans committing acts of barbarity against other humans, and often for no other reason than greed, envy and plain old-fashioned hate. Some monsters are simply too monstrous for teatime; especially now that Doctor Who looks more ‘real’ than ever. These old episodes, black and white and presented as if from under a proscenium arch, still have a power, but keep us at a safe distance. Today, with single-camera filming – and likely 3D filming coming soon – we’d be right in there; amongst the cruelty and the violence, pushed up against it. It can’t be done. Especially not with Christmas coming round as often as it does. You don’t want Robespierre’s splintered jaw with your sherry trifle.

But then, perhaps it’s right that not every Doctor has been allowed free access to the more grown-up bits of history. It’s certainly fortunate that it was his first incarnation who blundered into Paris at this time, and not his third. The Third Doctor would share a cheeky Beaujolais with the dandy Leon Colbert, and then get the good guys and the bad guys thoroughly confused. “Jehosaphat!” he’d say. “I should have known he’d be behind all this!” Jo Grant would be slow on the uptake. “Who, Doctor?” she’d squeak, and her friend would have rubbed the back of his neck in frustration. “Did you also fail basic French at that school of yours?” he’d have huffed. “Lemaitre, Jo!”

 

_________________________________________________________________________

DVD extras

url-1The big bonus promise of this DVD is an attempt to recreate the lost fourth and fifth episodes of The Reign of Terror using animation. This has clearly drawn upon the efforts of many talented and hard-working artists, to whom must go much praise. Unfortunately, the finished product, due to how it has been compiled and directed for presentation here, can only be judged – with a heavy heart – a failure.

The surviving camera script for part four, The Tyrant of France, tells us that there would have been 52 camera shots in an episode of roughly 24 minutes’ duration. So there would have been a shot change, on average, around twice a minute. At one point in the animated episode four, the shot changes three times in one second. Now, this animation shouldn’t follow the original camera script verbatim, and one understands that additional close-ups are necessary to draw our focus. But here, our ‘camera’ spins wildly around the room. Was there no basic storyboard to work from? The result is frenetic, bewildering at best, and thoroughly distracting at worst. You try to follow the story, but each needless shot change is like someone bellowing in your ear.  Early in the fourth episode, Barbara is concerned that Susan is running a fever, but Leon Colbert tells her not to worry. “We’ve done all CUT! we can CUT! Barbara CUT!” says Leon. “Oh CUT! it’s CUT! probably CUT! a chill CUT!” he adds. But Barbara thinks Susan needs a doctor. “You must CUT! know someone CUT! we can trust?” The director seems to have no sense of how many shot changes the poor human brain can cope with. It’s a quiet little character scene.

The animation is also disappointingly inconsistent. In a sequence at the Conciergerie, the Doctor changes face from shot to shot. One moment he looks like an acquisitive turnip, the next a rather crestfallen pufferfish. Within the generous freedoms of the rules of caricature, each of these might be said to be fair descriptions of William Hartnell’s Doctor. But it’s the flicking back and forth between them that’s the terrible distraction; and then there’s the ‘rotoscope’-traced moments of sudden movement, which feel like they come from another place again. It’s as if the director is cutting madly between two or three different animations of the episode, each tackled in a different style.

What most boggles the mind is that, six years ago, the Doctor Who DVD range gave us animated versions of the two missing episodes of The Invasion. It was a production superior to this in every way; calm, consistent and confidently unshowy. Why the huge leap backwards? Some will claim that any reconstruction is better than none, but surely it’s reasonable to at least expect some progress in the field? Some will also say that to call this project a failure is too cold. In justification of that, it’s worth remembering that the sole purpose of Doctor Who is to transport us to another place, even for just a few fleeting moments – to dislocate us from the here and now. It takes a huge amount of work, from every department, to make the entire production process of Doctor Who dissolve away. One misspoken line, one untucked monster costume. An unconvincing model, green screen or unsuitable soundtrack. Any of these things – and a thousand others – will bring us crashing back to our ordinary sofa in our ordinary living room. But this animation makes no effort at discretion. It’s trying too hard to be noticed. It’s just too… animated. For any hope of feeling transported to the summer of 1794 with the Doctor and his friends, then your only option is to, well… close your eyes and just listen to the soundtrack. And if that isn’t a failure, then what is?

The production documentary Don’t Lose Your Head focuses on The Reign of Terror’s sometimes troubled days in the studio, with help from the detailed memories of Carole Ann Ford (Susan), William Russell (Ian) and production assistant Timothy Combe. Director Henric Hirsch suffered a breakdown on the recording day of the third episode, but the identity of exactly who stepped into his shoes remains a tantalising mystery. It’s a shame that Hirsch could never work on Doctor Who again, because the opening episode of this story proves that he knew his business. However, Carole Ann Ford, for one, certainly found him a struggle to work with. Brace yourself for her vivid retelling of the “Why so maudlin?” story on this documentary. It’s not for the faint of heart.

The clips from The Reign of Terror used in the documentary look like they’ve been filmed through a sock and then scrubbed with wire wool, which brings home the miracle of the restoration work that has been done to the episodes as presented on this DVD. When Lemaitre asks for “the execution list” at the prison, so clear is the picture, we can now see through the back of the sheet of paper that it is neatly titled EXECUTION LIST. Later, he asks for “the execution figures”. Equally neatly: EXECUTION FIGURES. Say what you like about Robespierre, but he kept tidy paperwork. However, there is a small price to be paid for this new clarity. Now, for the first time, we can spot a member of the production team lurking in the background of the first episode. Or perhaps he’s another time traveller, more skilled at staying out of trouble than our lot.

Another tremendous set of ‘Info Text’ subtitles really brings home the magic that was being worked in Studio G at Lime Grove in the summer of ‘64. Doctor Who had been in continuous production for a year, and there were still ten more weeks to go before a break. Every Friday between 8.30pm and 9.45, in a space about the size of a Sainsbury’s Local, another episode would be staged like a play, with even the incidental music played live into the studio. The subtitles take us through every clever trick the team used to weave their adventure in space and time. One favourite detail is that, on Friday 14 August 1964, the day William Hartnell recorded the Doctor’s great promise (“Our destiny is in the stars. Let’s go search for it.”), producer Verity Lambert finally pinned down BBC Controller of Programmes Donald Baverstock and secured a commitment to Doctor Who’s future. 13 more episodes, with an option for 13 more. And – though he never know it – an option for 722 more. And counting.

The audio commentary brings forth some new voices – Jeffrey Wickham (Webster), Neville Smith (D’Argenson) and the great Ronald Pickup, who plays the treacherous physician – with a well-prepped Toby Hadoke on hand to get the best out of them. Another commentary, fascinating in a different way, runs parallel to the long-lost fifth episode, and features ‘missing episode hunters’ Paul Vanezis and Philip Morris.

Morris sounds like a hero for our times. As with many Doctor Who fans of a certain age, the habit of ticking Target books from a list fostered a natural desire to collect the set, to fill the gaps. But when, in 1981, DWM published a list of Doctor Who episodes missing from the BBC Archive, his world was rocked. We all share the sense of dismay that there are these great holes in our common history, but Morris is resolved to bloody well do something about it. As an adult, his work on an offshore oil rig has taken him around Africa. Now, with that experience, he’s formed a company to work with TV archives around the world to help preserve their material.

A recent article in DWM reminds us that many of these archives are in very dangerous parts of the world. There are Home Office Advisory notices issued against travel to the likes of Libya, Uganda and Ethiopia – all of which once broadcast The Reign of Terror and many other lost episodes. But Morris seems determined to leave no stone unturned. “I don’t believe in a no-win scenario,” he says. There’s such a wonderful emotional through-line to this; from the boy who loved Target books to the man knocking on the door of an old TV station down a hot and humid back street in Nairobi or Lusaka. ‘Raiders of the Lost Archive’ is the old cliché headline for a ‘missing episodes’ story, but never has the heroic, exotic sense of it felt more true than here. You feel that if those episodes are there to be found, then Morris is the man who’ll find them.

The Sensorites

8 Mar

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

_________________________________________________________________________________

If visualised on a graph, with THRILLS up the y-axis against TIME along the x, The Sensorites would plot a resolute diagonal from top left to bottom right. However, while the story offers steadily diminishing returns over the course of its six episodes – each, it feels, of around 87 minutes – there is at least time for one’s mind to wander to weightier matters. And so it is that today we will consider such thorny questions as: What is the future for mental health care in Britain? Can a fair society be built on fear? How do Sensorites reproduce? And who is Carol Richmond’s secret hair stylist?

But first: praise where praise is due. It’s June 1964, mere months into Doctor Who’s near half-century journey, and we’re seeing it do things for the first time. The TARDIS lands inside the show’s first spaceship – the first of so very many – and this scenario is so radical that the spaceship doesn’t even require a name. On the flight deck, the Doctor and his companions Ian, Barbara and Susan find two crew members slumped over the controls and declare them dead. (It’s the first instance of a leap-to-conclusions fatalism that becomes rather a theme of The Sensorites.) With a shiver, Susan declares an instinctive dread of the place. There’s a sinister rumble of kettledrum courtesy of composer Norman Kay. This has a subtly transporting effect, because Kay also provided the incidental music for Doctor Who’s astonishing first episode. And so, as Susan peers nervously into the gloom, Kay’s sparse, bleak score – flute, timpani and muted trumpet – brings echoes of that foggy junkyard, and the moment crackles with all the possibility and potential of Doctor Who.

But it doesn’t last. From here, that line on our graph begins its steady descent. The uncanny atmosphere is dissipated by the waking of the crew of the SS Spaceship, who prove immediately unbearable. In charge is the lettuce-limp Captain Maitland, who speaks like English is entirely new to him. In fact, he speaks like speech is entirely new to him. “My. Name. Is Maitland,” he tells us, in swoops and pauses. “This. Is Kerril Richmond. My co-astro-not.” He means Carol Richmond, his co-astronaut. Carol is very posh most of the time, and when asked by Barbara where the water is kept, she gives her best Celia Johnson: “It’s deyn thar.” These astronots, born in the 28th century, provide Doctor Who’s very first insight into what the future holds for the human race. In their time, the whole south of England is “Central City”, so it’s uninterrupted tarmac from Brighton to Birmingham. This news will undoubtedly depress anyone currently campaigning to save the Chilterns from High Speed 2.

Maitland’s ship is trapped in the orbit of a planet called the Sense-Sphere, and he and Carol have been held in suspended animation. They sense that the local inhabitants, the Sensorites, have popped up to feed them from time to time. This conjures a fleeting, bizarre image involving spoons, bibs and an awful lot of wet wipes. As Maitland talks, we’re shown mysterious hands stealing the TARDIS lock. This is happening no more than five yards away, so it tests one’s patience when nobody notices.

The ship shakes violently. It’s falling out of orbit towards the planet. What follows, as the Doctor fights to save the ship from crashing, seems so familiar as to be cliché – but again, this is his first time. “Stabilisers, Maitland!” he shouts. “We’re going to hit!” screams Susan. “Jet reverse port!” yells the Doctor. “Jet reverse starboard!” The planet races up to meet them, filling the viewscreen. “We’re heading straight for point of impact!” shouts Carol, rather self-evidently. It’s a shame that the Doctor merely twiddles some small knobs on the control panel, and doesn’t elbow Maitland – who’s an unmitigated liability – out of the pilot’s chair so he can grapple with the big control levers; physically heaving the ship out of its nosedive. But while the Doctor saves the day, the chance for an iconic hero moment is missed. It’s something the show will learn to do much better. Furthermore, the reason for this sudden panic remains unclear. It’s suggested that the Sensorites are trying to scare the bejesus out of the humans, leaving their minds more susceptible to control, but that doesn’t really fit with what we later learn about them. Swap two pages in the script and it might have served as a cunning distraction for the Sensorites’ lock-stealing antics.

A sense of the strange is recaptured for a few moments as Barbara and Susan explore the ship, where they are menaced by a third crew member, called John, who shuffles about like a zombie. (That said, even in his living death, John shows more wherewithal than Maitland and Carol put together.) We score our first proper look at a Sensorite with the first cliffhanger. It startles Ian as it peers through the flight deck window from space, seemingly trying to find a way in. It’s hardly Salem’s Lot, but it’s still a spooky moment. Sadly, the Doctor isn’t impressed. “Oh, just ignore it!” he huffs, with a dismissive flap of the hand, which rather ruins the mood.

When compared with other humanoid aliens of the Hartnell era – the Voord, the Aridians, the Monoids – the Sensorites must be considered a success. With their stiff and shiny skin, bulging cheekbones and coal-black, unreadable stare, they put one in mind of recent chat show appearances by Madonna. And though essentially bald, they do wildly creative things with the rest of their facial hair. Long strings of beard are plastered up to their eyes like inverted sideburns. It’s not so much a comb-over as a comb-under. However, for all their little absurdities, you do find yourself believing in these peculiar pixies – most of the time – and that must be the ultimate accolade for any Doctor Who monster.

The Sensorites’ standoffishness stems from the fact that humans have visited the Sense-Sphere before, and since that day the Sensorites have been dying “from a fearful affliction”. They have used their telepathic abilities to keep Maitland and crew safely in cold storage, but this power has unpicked the seams of John’s brain. The Sensorites say they can cure him, but Carol – who’s supposedly in love with John – is surprisingly defeatist, and seems ready to wash her hands of him. “He might as well be dead!” she wails. Perhaps Carol’s attitude offers an insight into the state of healthcare on 28th century Earth? Are loved ones abandoned at the first sign of mental inconstancy? Carol refuses to believe that John can be saved. “Oh, it’s no use. It’s too late.” We might feel some sympathy if the scene did not immediately cut to Barbara talking to a Sensorite. “You can do something for John?” she asks. “Oh yes,” says the Sensorite.

Some might consider it a tragedy that Barbara remains on the ship for two episodes as her friends descend to the planet. But as Maitland stays with her, it’s a good deal for the viewer. The Sense-Sphere proves a curious place, and we are given many happy hours in which to idly ponder its mysteries. Sensorite society is based on a hardcore communist model, with individuals assigned fixed roles in society during childhood that will define them for the rest of their lives. From each according to their ability, as Marx put it. There is reference to a “lower caste”, but the First Elder assures Ian that all Sensorites are happy with their lot. Ian riffs on Animal Farm to suggest, “maybe some are happier than others.” It proves a pertinent point, for there are clues to suggest the Sense-Sphere has a sinister history. We learn they have capital punishment, and discover, hidden in the palace of the Elders, a weapon called “the disintegrator”. This can tune in on an individual Sensorite and boil his brains out through his nose, without him even knowing he’s been targeted – although he may come to suspect something is amiss when his frontal lobe froths into his lap. It’s a terrifying weapon when you think about it, more chilling in its implications than even the Conscience machine of Marinus, or Google, and makes one wonder if this ordered society might have been founded upon the threat of unwarned and instant execution by the state.

The Sensorites was made in 1964, and it’s clear that Maoist China was the inspiration for the Sense-Sphere. The Sensorite Elders, whiskery and inscrutable, speak pure fortune-cookie homily. “No opinion can be worse, sometimes, than a very dogmatic one,” cautions the First Elder of a colleague. Later, the City Administrator voices his dread of the alien visitors: “Their pleasant smiles conceal sharp teeth.” (Although this may be more then just a figure of speech given how, in moments of anger, the First Doctor can come at you with his little Adipose fang.) It’s familiar science fiction shorthand to use a foreign culture as a touchstone for an alien race, but when a key plot point of The Sensorites turns out to be how, to humans, “they all look the same”, the whole thing starts to feel rather crass and insulting to our intelligence. We must be thankful that they weren’t given “me velly solly” accents.

In all our time on the Sense-Sphere, we only meet male Sensorites. However, mention of a “family group” might be taken to imply there are ladies stashed away somewhere. Perhaps they’re cowering indoors, feeling bashful; after all, a polycotton onesie can be such an unforgiving garment. Or maybe there’s only one gender on the Sense-Sphere, and when it comes to making baby Sensorites, the ‘boys’ get together and mingle some unseen pseudopodia. The tubby Administrator may be six months gone for all we know. It’s a troubling image. Either way, there’s certainly a feminine side to the Sensorites hidden away somewhere. Between episodes, Carol scores a sexy new hairdo, and someone must help with that. The state-designated stylist likely leapt on her with giddy enthusiasm, desperate for a new challenge after a life spent backcombing ear hair into eyebrows.

Meanwhile, the plot plods on. It takes the Doctor roughly two seconds to realise that the cause of the Sensorite plague is poison in the water supply. It takes the viewer less than half that time. The Sensorites’ long-term failure to solve this childish conundrum rather erodes one’s sympathy for them. If even the planet’s brightest brains hadn’t considered the possibility of poison, then this might just be natural selection taking the scenic route. Happily, the Doctor appoints himself a one-man CSI: Sense-Sphere, and in one of the story’s more vividly directed sequences, he identifies the toxin – deadly nightshade – through application of the classic montage technique. However, in the face of his not inconsiderable efforts, the Sensorites prove no less defeatist that Carol. After Ian is poisoned, the First Elder waves his hands and moans: “Your friend his dying! There is no hope!” When the Doctor later makes a solo trip into the tunnels of the local aqueduct to find the source of the poison, the Elder wails to Susan: “There is no hope! You cannot save your friend!”

All this panic and melodrama does nothing to disguise the fact that The Sensorites suffers from a chronic lack of jeopardy. When the Administrator intercepts the vital antidote on its way to Ian and smashes it, you go: “Ooh! Nasty!” But then, one minute later, we cut to a mostly recovered Ian, with Susan saying: “It’s lucky I could get some more.” Actor Peter Glaze does his best as the Administrator, the villain of the piece; tilting his head back to suggest haughtiness, and that the humans might just be stinking the place out. But overall he feels about as threatening as a petulant toddler. The best performance in the story comes from John Bailey in the final episode, playing the deranged Ben Gunn of an Earth astronaut hiding out in the aqueduct. With just a few lines he conveys a complete inner life to his character, and it all suddenly feels real for one glorious fleeting moment.

The star of the show, the man who makes it all worthwhile, is William Hartnell. Here, we see the First Doctor complete his journey from anti-hero to plain hero, and Hartnell’s total conviction keeps the whole thing alive. And Doctor Who is already cheerfully re-writing its own myth. “We’ve never had an argument,” he says to Susan, conveniently forgetting that this whole business may have started as a mild curiosity in a junkyard, but continued as a right old barney in a police box. Back then, when we first met the Doctor, he appeared to be hiding from the Universe. By the time of The Sensorites, he’s the gadabout troublemaker we know and love, and apparently always has been. Before Ian and Barbara, he met Beau Brummel and the telepathic plants of Esto, and lobbed a parson’s nose at Henry VIII.

As the Doctor faces down the Sensorites when they steal his lock, he has a line that sums him up perfectly. “I don’t make threats,” he says – friendly, but with an edge of steel. “But I do make promises. And I promise that I will cause you more trouble that you’ve bargained for.”

You can easily imagine Matt Smith saying that line. For a moment, past and present click together, and your hair stands on end. That flash of connection you can feel is – as the Doctor puts it – quite the great spirit of adventure.

______________________________________________________________________________________

DVD Extras

Hurrah for the Restoration Team! The clean-up job on The Sensorites is sensational; a great achievement. If you’re in any doubt about that, then take a moment to check the version of these episodes available on YouTube. They’re splattered with muck and flicker like a zoetrope.

We are also spoiled, as ever, by excellent production notes and a wonderfully wide-ranging commentary track. Moderator Toby Hadoke has become a real hero of the DVD range – so well-prepared, so unassuming – you find yourself wishing he had joined the team years ago. Hadoke is also the on-screen presenter of the documentary Looking For Peter, in which he dons his best fan hat and sets out to discover the life story of The Sensorites’ forgotten writer, Peter R Newman. His wingman is researcher Richard Bignell, whose eyes shine at the thought of archives unexplored. At one point, they dash off on separate missions to either side of the camera, like Batman and Robin.

Looking For Peter is, to my mind, the finest Doctor Who DVD extra yet, so sharp is its focus, so skilled its execution, and so complete its fulfilment of its promise. It’s a brilliant job of work by producer and director Chris Chapman. And it has a very moving tale to tell. When Hadoke discovers that Newman didn’t commit suicide – as fan rumour has suggested – he says, with relief: “I’m looking to discover some fun stuff about Doctor Who, not uncover a man’s disaster.” However, there’s no little sadness to Newman’s own story – the story of a war hero whose ultimate enemy proved to be his own self doubt, and whose life would end in a sudden and bizarre tragedy. But there’s joy here too, as Doctor Who gives something back – providing some comfort to Newman’s family after so many years by showing that his name and his work lives on.

This review may have had some fun with The Sensorites; but here we are, discussing it in absurd depth. That’s still a compliment. And Newman would surely be tickled to know there’s an acoustic rock duo, based in Liverpool, called Sensorites [www.sensorites.com]. The Sensorites themselves wouldn’t approve of all that loud noise in dark rooms, but it’s Newman’s work that inspired the name. It just goes to show that we can never know where a Doctor Who story – even one made 48 years ago – might take us next.

The Underwater Menace episode 2 & Galaxy 4: Airlock

28 Feb

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

_________________________________________________________

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*  *  *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Earth Story: The Gunfighters & The Awakening

4 Nov

A review of the DVD box set, from 2011

____________________________________________________

When you first heard that the 1966 story The Gunfighters would join 1984’s The Awakening in a DVD box set celebrating their not-entirely-unique status as ‘stories set on Earth’, perhaps you – like me – assumed that Mr Big at 2Entertain had finally flipped his lid; that the wheel was still spinning but the hamster was dead. But one must presume there is method to this madness, and that the relative familiarity of Peter Davison’s Doctor will help guarantee sales for the less easily marketable William Hartnell. The Gunfighters, after all, has never been skilled at pulling in an audience. So maybe it’s all to the greater good. It’s nice to think of one incarnation lending a helping hand to his younger self. But really… Earth Story? Is that they best they could come up with? Did nobody notice that these two stories – and no others – feature horses cantering into their opening scenes? There’s your USP, 2entertain! Horse Tales. The Horse Box. The Reins of Terror. A full page advert in Country Life could have attracted a lucrative new audience.

Riding in on these horses, in both cases, are our gun-toting bad guys. In The Gunfighters, the Clanton Brothers – a notorious family of cattle rustlers – hitch up in Tombstone, Arizona in 1881, trigger fingers itching to settle a score. In The Awakening, it’s a little over a century later, and our riders are Sir George Hutchinson and his lackeys, dressed to reenact a key battle of the English Civil War. Both groups take time to tell us a little something about themselves. The Clantons, like everyone in The Gunfighters, talk in the distinctive vernacular of the Old West, so we’re never far away from an animal metaphor (“I’m ready to jump like a mountain hare!” “They’re closer than two fleas on a porcupine!” or the stickily peculiar: “It’ll be as easy as skinning a summer frog!”). Sir George, meanwhile, like everyone in The Awakening, talks in the distinctive vernacular of Doctor Who script editor Eric Saward. “Why, Miss Hampden, you of all people, our schoolteacher, must appreciate the value of reenacting actual events,” he says. One hopes that Miss Hampden doesn’t regularly need reminding of her name and her job, or we might have cause to question her suitability as a guardian of young children. Sir George is miffed because she’s refusing to take part his restaging of the Battle of Little Hodcombe. She’s worried that things are getting out of hand. “So there’s been a little damage,” scoffs Sir George. “That’s the way people used to behave in those days.” Which, considering which days he’s talking about, is rather an understatement.

In both time-zones the TARDIS delivers the Doctor and his two travelling companions – one of each – into the action. And they’re here on a mission. In Tombstone, the Doctor needs a dentist. In Little Hodcombe, Tegan wants to visit her grandfather. With both landings, the TARDIS is displaying a well-tuned sense of humour. The dentist in Tombstone is the notorious gunslinger Doc Holliday, whom the Clantons are hunting on account of how that no-good rattlesnake murdered their brother, so our own ‘Doc’ is set up for a case of mistaken identity. Meanwhile, in England, Tegan’s grandfather just happens to have stumbled across a baleful alien presence – something this family makes a habit of – so it’s lucky she has the Doctor in harness. Tegan, just this once, takes her handbag with her, and one wonders if she’s come to Little Hodcombe to deliver the body of her Aunt Vanessa for burial. The bag’s about the right size.

With these two stories harnessed together for release, it’s fun to look for their similarities, but that can only take us so far. For while they may begin in much the same way, they’re swift to pull apart and race off in different directions. The Awakening is as earnest and straightforward a Doctor Who adventure as you’ll find. There’s mystery, investigation, resolution – bish, bash, bosh. It’s the show moving at a comfortable trot. The Gunfighters, however, is trying to do something very different…

The Gunfighters is a comedy, at least for its first half hour or so. How much of a comedy, and what kind, depends upon who’s on screen at any given moment. As Steven, Peter Purves plays it broad, and never misses a chance for an exaggerated double take. When he and Jackie Lane’s Dodo are forced to sing and play piano for the Clantons, the scene edges into slapstick, and brings back memories of the little plays that winning couples had to perform in the final round of The Generation Game. Finding a better level is William Hartnell, who doesn’t get a word wrong in this, one of his finest performances. His best scene is early, when he meets Doc Holliday and his friend Kate, and the dentist sets about pulling the Doctor’s tooth. There’s a lovely precision and fluidity to everyone’s delivery and movement, and you can tell that Hartnell’s having a marvellous time. But if one’s mind is inclined to wander, later developments in Doctor Who now leave one pondering what happened to the Doctor’s extracted molar. We’ve since learned that, in the right circumstances, a whole new Doctor can be grown from any leftover bits of his body. So it’s lucky that a Time Lord Meta-Crisis wasn’t triggered anywhere near that tooth, as the effect could be terrifying. DoctorDodo would have the boundless intelligence of a Gallifreyan and the wildly oscillating accent of Chorlton-cum-Hackney.

The humour continues to bubble through the second episode of The Gunfighters, most notably in the Doctor’s insistence on calling local marshal Wyatt Earp “Mr Werp”, and the great moment when, after some amateurish spinning of a gun, the Doctor childishly brags to Earp, “I say, can you do that?” – the response is a hilariously deadpan “No”. But after the first murder – of the Clantons’ associate Seth Harper – all this funny begins to fall flat, and the writer knows it. The broader comedic strokes are abandoned, and through its middle hour, the serial plays it more or less straight; or as straight as it can with a burlesque song as counterpoint.

Meanwhile, over in Little Hodcombe, the TARDIS has dropped the Doctor, Tegan and Turlough at a country church that’s seen better days. They’re soon scooped by a troop of latterday Roundheads and delivered to Sir George Hutchinson.

Sir George is the best thing about The Awakening, principally because he’s played by Denis Lill, with wonderful, measured delivery. “Something is coming to our village,” says Sir George. “Something very wonderful… and strange.” It’s Lill’s underplaying of the line that makes it memorable; with less skill, it could sound like they’ve booked Quentin Crisp to open the summer fete.  Sir George is mad for his war game, and insists that every detail be perfect. He certainly practises what he preaches, and has come as King Charles I himself. Coloured feathers shoot from a truly heroic hat, and loose curls of luxuriant hair cascade over his shoulders. All of which may raise a question in the mind of the more easily distracted… is that a wig, or is it Sir George’s real hair? Certainly, we know it’s a wig on Denis Lill, as we’ve seen his shiny dome in Image of the Fendahl, but that’s not necessarily the case for Sir George, as his coiffure stays firmly in place when he later tumbles from his horse. If it is his hair, it means he’s been growing it out for these war games for – what? – two years? He’s the local magistrate, so has been turning up for work done up like a luckless former King of England? Aren’t there rules about that sort of thing? One imagines many of those convicted by Sir George are now seeking appeal; arguing the validity of any sentence handed down by a man styled as a popular brand of spaniel.

The mystery of Little Hodcombe builds over the course of an enjoyable Part One. The Doctor meets Will Chandler, an oo-ar yokel lad who has slipped through time from 1643, and the real Civil War. Will brings stories of the Malus; a local devil. “He makes fightin’ worse. Makes men fight more.” The Malus is forcing bloody history to repeat itself via Sir George’s war game. The Doctor predicts wholesale slaughter – and at just that moment, as the story prickles with danger and possibility, The Awakening is at is very best. And then… Malus come.

A giant, grey, grinning face trundles forward, huffing smoke, its eyes flicking from side to side. The Doctor, dwarfed by it, comes as close as any man has ever been to knowing what it’s like to be run over by Thomas the Tank Engine. “Rrrrroooar,” says the Malus. “Rrrrooooooaar!” it confirms. There’s no answer to that, and because it’s clear the Malus isn’t going anywhere fast, the Doctor and friends slip quietly away.

The Malus, the Doctor tells us, is a probe from the planet Hakol. (And if that’s what their probes look like, imagine their washing machines.) It’s feeding upon the “negative emotions” generated by the war game, and generates a series of solid “psychic projections”; including one of itself, which shows that its face comes attached to a body. The Malus is a huge creature; a great goblin with arms and legs and tail, with most of it buried under the church. And so, we must infer that when the Malus came to Earth it got stuck – bum first and up to the neck – in the soil of Dorset. And then, presumably after much poking with sticks, the locals built a church over it; and not a particularly attractive one at that. No wonder the Malus is in such a pig of a mood. It now wants to use the emotions of the war game to help set it free. It’s a curious expectation, as it’s something the original battle – with all its bloodshed and heartfelt fury – demonstrably failed to achieve.

It’s here that The Awakening fails to come into focus. The idea of a whole village role-playing an old battle, but then slowly being subsumed by their characters, is a good one. But the story doesn’t follow that thread. Sure, Sir George is nuts for the whole thing, but those of his neighbours we get to know well – Jane Hampden and her friend Ben Wolsey – seem entirely immune. There’s no real sense of the village being whipped into any kind of homocidal rage by the Malus. Instead, it appears that Sir George is supported only by a few eager-to-please local thugs, who are enjoying the chance to throw their weight about with the blessing of the local magistrate. Is Sergeant Willow, for example, being controlled by the Malus when he seems poised to assault both Jane and Tegan? That point isn’t made clear, so it appears that Willow is, by nature, a total bastard– perhaps the local estate agent – who’s merely relishing his time off the leash, and the chance to force women to dress as he pleases. Given his cruel behaviour, it’s odd that Willow isn’t killed by the ghostly cavaliers in this story’s final minutes, rather than the non-speaking extra who goes to the sword instead.

If it’s bloodshed the Malus is after, it would feed better upon the events of The Gunfighters. By the end of Part Two, the townspeople of Tombstone are whipped into a murderous frenzy by the Clantons, and are set to take Steven and “string him up from the nearest tree”. The noose is even fitted about his neck. In Little Hodcombe, it’s all the forces of evil can do to get Tegan in the right frock for her execution. In Tombstone, the deaths keep on coming. Doc Holliday kills a man – off screen – merely for his breakfast. Charlie the comedy barman is gunned down. Warren Earp is shot by the Clantons.

Warren’s death is key to any analysis of The Gunfighters. It’s this event that finally draws the Earps into the Clantons’ feud with Holliday, and leads to the gunfight at the OK Corral. It’s the story’s big turning point. Warren dies in his brother’s arms… but we feel nothing. And that’s The Gunfighters all over. It comes with so many distractions. There’s the terrible American accents and that shill, irritating song, and yet it’s brilliantly designed and imaginatively shot. It’s full of comedy business and rootin’ tootin’ banter. But we don’t feel anything for the characters. We can hardly tell the Clantons apart, and the assorted mustachio’d ‘good guys’ are as dreary as can be. We feel some warmth toward Doc Holliday – chiefly because Dodo gets her best-ever scene when she disarms him, in both senses – but we reach that final, legendary gunfight without truly caring about a single participant. Bang bang bang – it goes – bang bang bang. The bodies fall, and we feel nothing. But look at the lovely film stock, we think, and how skilfully the director has composed that final shot, as the victors stand astride the corpses of the fallen. Isn’t that clever? Now, who were they again?

If there’s one thing these Earth stories have in common, it’s that they ultimately fail to stir us. Both serials are rather marvellous in their way – that’s for sure. They are produced with care and conviction, but we quit them feeling unmoved. “The Malus is pure evil,” says the Doctor, which is the laziest possible motivation for a Doctor Who villain. He defeats it by flicking a few switches on the TARDIS console. It’s difficult to know whether we should feel sympathy for Sir George when he tumbles over a low wall to his dusty death. Did his madness wake the Malus, or is he as much a victim as anyone? In Tombstone, the Doctor is nowhere near the gunfight – the only threat to our heroes comes when Dodo briefly cannons into the film sequence as fast as the 10:37 to Ealing can carry her – and he doesn’t take so much as a moment to lament the bloodshed.

Instead, both tales skid to an abrupt handbrake stop. In the case of The Awakening, it’s with as limp and flapping a scene as has ever wrapped a Doctor Who story. That’s that then – everyone says, in Tombstone, in Little Hodcombe – shaking hands, exchanging quips. We sense that our time travellers won’t spare their latest adventure another thought. Not every Doctor Who story has to be profound, or offer some moral message, but they ought to make us feel something as the final credits roll. If they don’t, then you might as well say that the most significant thing about them is the planet on which they happen to be set.

___________________________________________________________

DVD extras

The commentary tracks for both serials are kept lively and focused by moderator Toby Hadoke, who really is very good at it. The participants for The Gunfighters are now well into their anecdotage – Bat Masterson actor Richard Beale was 90 at the time of recording – and have lots of stories to tell. The continuing health, or otherwise, of absent co-stars is regularly enquired after with a guarded: “Is he still, er..?” and it falls to Hadoke to deliver the happy or sad news. (Or, in the case of one actor now living in New Zealand, both.) Rather wonderfully, Hadoke seems to know the whereabouts of every actor to have ever appeared in Doctor Who. I imagine his secret HQ is dominated by a huge map of the world, with little lights tracking all the surviving cast. One blinks out. Another Quark has joined the choir invisible.

The principal documentary with The Awakening is Return to Little Hodcombe, which takes members of the production team back on location to share their memories. It’s a sweet and sincere piece, seasoned by interviews with local residents such as Maureen Crumpler. Her response to watching this tale of aliens on TV – “It were all so real! So realistic!” – hints that life in the Dorset village of Shapwick might be stranger than we know. It’s nice to get out and about and escape the usual house style for these documentaries, even if it does lead to some rather self-conscious stomping about from Eric Saward. And you wish they’d let poor Michael Owen Morris sit down, rather than keep him standing beside what looks suspiciously like a pile of manure.

The Gunfighters comes with the documentary The End of The Line?, looking at how Doctor Who changed during its third year on TV. It’s an authored piece – with a script from Johnny Morris for producer Ed Stradling – and it’s excellent work, well-argued and balanced. And the interviewees are all first class. A highlight is Maureen O’Brien’s memory of working on Galaxy 4. She tells how the dwarves who played the Chumblies were “always fighting over the women”. It puts one in mind of Judy Garland’s tales of The Wizard of Oz; of how the Munchkins were at it like knives. As there’s never been an interesting word said about Galaxy 4, it’s rather glorious to suddenly imagine the Drahvins run ragged by randy Chumblies.

A Now and Then look at the locations used for The Awakening is the familiar gentle tour of the home counties, peering idly at grass verges and outbuildings and…“OH MY GOD! IT’S A GLASS SHOT!” Well I never. Generally you can spot a visual effect in Doctor Who from three rooms away – the echo of distant laughter is often the clue – but this viewer was staggered to learn that a distant shot of Little Hodcombe church in Part One, as the Doctor chases the handbag thief, was actually a tiny study in acrylics on a well-placed window. It’s always lovely to learn something new.

The only interesting scene among a collection of bits edited from The Awakening is an uncomfortable moment intended to remind viewers that Kamelion is still lurking in the TARDIS somewhere. (Maybe ‘lurking’ oversells it. ‘Leaning’ was about Kamelion’s limit. Although, as he was from an era when the Doctor’s friends liked nothing more than to tut, huff and judge each other, the fact that all Kamelion could do was roll his eyes perhaps makes him the ultimate 80s companion.) Tegan finds Kamelion in a corridor, and while the robot claims he’s doing nothing sinister, he’s clearly either downloading pornography or attempting to defraud the TARDIS cash machine.

Tomorrow’s Times is a romp through newspaper commentary on the Hartnell years. There’s lots of interesting material here… probably. The trouble is, one’s attention is monopolised by the host, actress Mary Tamm, who seems to be enjoying herself rather too much. She begins by greeting each comment with a sardonic half-smile, but her expressions grow steadily more arch and exaggerated. One eyebrow is auditioning for a long-sought-after solo career, and is poised to make good its escape. And just when you’ve got used to that, Tamm introduces a magnificent pout to her repertoire. It’s like being blown kisses by a flirty duck. And as the programme goes on, there’s a sense of her sliding slowly out of shot to the right. It’s totally captivating.

Making the Malus reunites designer Tony Harding and props builder Richard Gregory with their face of evil, which greets them with its usual goblin grin and glance askance. “I wonder where he’s been?” ponders Harding. Any hope that this is a cue for a montage of snatched paparazzi pictures of the Malus falling out of Stringfellow’s at 4am, or water-skiing on the Côte d’Azur, is soon dashed. We learn that the beast has been looked after by one Paul Burrows – a more devoted acolyte than even Sir George – who nailed him to his living room wall. The Malus once frightened the gas man. “But I introduced them,” says Burrows, “and he made friends with it.” How sweet. It’s lovely to know that out of such great evil, some good has come.

The Rescue and The Romans

16 Jul

A review of the DVD box set for Doctor Who Magazine, from 2009. By this point, I was starting to massively exceed my allotted word count. And I’ve only got worse. This one is 1,800 words, and I knew I was pushing my luck. I recently submitted 3,400 words for the ‘Earth Story’ double pack. I’m very naughty – and Tom Spilsbury is a very kind editor!

_____________________________________________________________

If you want to understand how Doctor Who became a smash success, then forget the Daleks, shelve your Beginning box set, and instead reach for The Rescue and The Romans. Here, in the oval of a Venn diagram labelled with the names of writers David Whitaker and Dennis Spooner, is where the programme we love was born. BBC Head of Drama Sydney Newman may have asked for a show, he might even have named a show, but Whitaker and Spooner gave us The Show. With The Rescue, we see outgoing story editor Whitaker justify all the notes he gave to other, lesser writers, and prove that how he wanted it done was exactly how it should be done. Then Spooner, incoming story editor and genius writer of The Romans, gives the format one final tweak by allowing the Doctor to be cleverer, funnier, cooler – turning him into a hero we could cheer. Between them, Whitaker and Spooner created Doctor Who. They should have been thanked in the closing titles of each episode that followed. Their grandchildren should receive 10% of the sale of every Doctor Who DVD, dolly and duvet cover. It would still be the bargain of a lifetime, because we owe them everything.

The Rescue takes us to the planet Dido, where perky young Vicki and whingeing, pain-in-the-arse astronaut Bennett are the only survivors of a spaceship crash. As the pair await a lifeboat from Earth, they find themselves terrorised by a hideous alien beast called Koquillion. All spiky antennae, googly eyes and glittery accessories, Koquillion looks like the result of an unfortunate teleport accident involving a stag beetle and Danny La Rue. He claims to be Vicki and Bennett’s only protection against the other natives of Dido, who apparently murdered…

STOP! ‘Koquillion claims’? What shilly-shallying. ‘Who apparently murdered’? We simply can’t go on like this. You see, your reviewer had The Rescue spoiled for him by this very magazine when he was just eight years old – over a decade before he had a chance to see the episodes themselves – and he’ll be damned if he’s going to let history repeat. Not so very long ago, it would have been taken for granted that every DWM reader knew what happens in The Rescue. But today, there will be eight-year-olds cruising towards the next paragraph in blissful ignorance. If that’s you, and you’ve never read even the briefest synopsis of the story, then turn the page. Do not come back until you’ve watched the DVD. After three stars, and with just three words, it will be spoiled forever.

*   *   *

Bennett is Koquillion. Having committed murder aboard ship, he’s covered his tracks by killing the rest of the crew. His disguise is to help sell the lie of homicidal natives to Vicki, who will ultimately act as his alibi. However, the fact that Bennett’s ultimate unmasking by the Doctor reminds us of Scooby Doo leads to that single, dreary criticism of The Rescue – that it is a ‘whodunnit’ with only one suspect. What utter rubbish. It’s no kind of whodunnit at all. To confirm this, your reviewer watched these episodes with a friend who knew nothing of the story, and had also just watched the previous 51 episodes, in order, for the first time. This took some organising by the way. From the start, our newcomer believed that Koquillion was an alien monster – and a beautifully-realised one compared to the Voord and the Sensorites. Only when Bennett’s room is found to be empty did he guess, at the exact moment Whitaker intended him to, that man and monster were one and the same. His response was brief and accurate: “That’s brilliant!”. Only by watching The Rescue this way, in its original context, can the immense ingenuity and wit of its story be properly appreciated. It’s a little work of genius.

A wish to redress this disservice may unbalance this box set review, but that’s not to say The Romans isn’t wonderful. Ambition is the watchword here, not just in the way it remains Doctor Who’s funniest story, but also thanks to its endearing aspiration to be a movie epic. Yes, resources are painfully limited – a fact most ably demonstrated when Ian’s slave galley founders on the Cape of Stock Footage, or when he’s threatened by some unlikely-looking lions (Felis Telecinius in the latin) – but it never stops the production team from trying.

The regular cast are at their very best, notably Jacqueline Hill (Barbara) and William Hartnell as the Doctor. Guest star Derek Francis may be the focus of the fruity farce in episode three, but when he propositions Barbara – “Close your eyes, and Nero will give you a big surprise” – it’s Hill’s expert double-take that turns it into a thoroughly dirty joke.

Hartnell’s brilliant performance in The Romans is only ever bettered by his big scene in The Rescue. (It’s rare to find our lead more at ease in a sci-fi tale, but his confrontation with Bennett is sublime, with the Doctor’s bright little eyes dancing in the darkness.) The Romans feels less rehearsed, and so Hartnell takes his familiar Eric Morecambe approach to the dialogue – saying all the right words, but not necessarily in the right mountain goat. Although he’s far from alone in that. One of Doctor Who’s most tense moments comes when Michael Peake, playing slave master Tavius, slips up on a line and he and Hartnell look at each other in agonised silence for a long moment before our star saves him. You lift up in your seat as your buttocks clench in sympathetic discomfort.

Fumbles and stumbles included, these six stunning episodes form the template from which all future Doctor Who would be cut. You could compile a trailer for the entire series using clips from The Rescue alone. “We can travel anywhere in that old box,” says the Doctor proudly. “And if you like adventure, my dear, I can promise you an abundance of it!”

Even Hartnell, Doctor Who’s great champion, didn’t know how right he was.

_____________________________________________________________

DVD EXTRAS

All praise must go to the Restoration Team for another expert clean-up job, another labour of love. The results are stunning, sometimes even surprising. You can now clearly see Ian actor William Russell sidling out of shot in the background of Sandy the Sand Beast’s cave, long before he’s due to emerge. Well, one presumes it’s Russell from his sharp suit, but this being the BBC of the sixties, it could equally well be the floor manager or the tea boy.

Mounting the Rescue is an excellent little documentary, perfectly straightforward but never dull. The star of the show is designer Raymond Cusick. Always so still and inscrutable, he’s like watching an Easter Island statue attend a job interview. Only when raw materials are mentioned does Cusick betray what by his standards must be a heady rush of emotion. Watch for when his eyes flash – well, widen by a millimetre – at the mention of “reeded hardboard”. Cusick is another of Doctor Who’s bona fide geniuses, and while his anecdotes may be on the dry side, this reviewer could listen to his measured modesty all day.

There’s an interesting detail hidden away and unacknowledged in the Photo Gallery. Production legend, restated in the documentary here, recounts how Jacqueline Hill came close to serious injury when a flare gun detonated prematurely in the first take of Barbara’s assassination of Sandy. But here’s a photograph showing the very moment of the explosion. It’s during a rehearsal, as Barbara removes the gun from a store cupboard. Zoom in to the picture and you can see how close the flash is to Hill’s face, and imagine how terrifying this must have been for her. With all that hair lacquer, she could have gone up like Vesuvius. It also brings home the craziness of Doctor Who’s as-live production at the time, with actresses expected to stumble through long takes with primed explosives in their trembling hands.

The production documentary for The Romans is a bewildering affair. The Doctor Who material is smart and informative, but then we suddenly have Anthony Andrews discussing his own performance as Nero in the eighties TV potboiler A.D., and Christopher Biggins ruminating on I, Claudius. It leaves a nagging sense of a programme maker either bored of talking only about Doctor Who, or worse, ashamed of it. Input from the outside world is always welcome, but this sort of thing can only work if, at the very least, someone has the balls to show Andrews and Biggins a clip from The Romans and tease out an opinion, however derisory. The link must be directly made; otherwise the whole production appears schizophrenic. Oddly, you can find an example of how to do this properly within the same documentary, as Dr Mark Bradley, lecturer in Ancient Histories at Nottingham University, outlines the true history of Caesar Nero, as far as it is known, and then discusses what The Romans gets right and wrong. Perfect! It’s a shame Dr Mark’s particular field of expertise precludes future DVD appearances – at least until The Myth Makers turns up – as your reviewer would love to see him again. Dinner would be nice.

Girls! Girls! Girls!, a look at Doctor Who’s plucky lady helpers of the sixties, offers groovy graphics, entirely superficial content, and a narrator struggling to finish some epic sentences before they choke her. What should have been an interesting study of the development of the companion proves no more than a collection of hit-and-miss anecdotes from the actresses concerned, who are rather tactlessly presented in front of giant blow-ups of their younger, smoother selves. Reaching The War Games in 1969, we’re told, “This coincided with the close of the most memorable decade of the 20th century”. What thoughtless tosh. Tell that to anyone who lived through the Blitz.

From the same producer, but better in every way, is Dennis Spooner – Wanna Write a Television Series?, which discusses the writer’s Doctor Who work within the context of his long and brilliant TV career. Spooner was a king of pulp drama, but pulp with brains, heart and guts. His sometime writing partner Brian Clemens offers a moving personal tribute, while Who writer Rob Shearman provides a typically insightful commentary. However, his assertion that The Romans is the best story of the black-and-white era cannot go without challenge. Shearman’s nearly right, but it’s not even the best story in this box set – but only because it’s paired with some fine competition.

The War Machines

12 Jun

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

_____________________________________________________________

Nothing dates more quickly than a prediction of the future. In this adventure from 1966, we meet one Professor Brett, who has the future very much in mind. He’s developed the supercomputer WOTAN, and is poised to link it into a network of other computers around the world. An international network, if you will, with a world-wide web of connections. What a ridiculous idea. But Brett foresees how this innovation might benefit mankind. He’ll be able ‘go online’ to discuss the latest episode of Dr Finlay’s Casebook with friends in Barnsley (“Janet must Go NOW!!1! LOL!”), or poke ex-girlfriends who’ve long since left the country to avoid him.

WOTAN has been installed at the top of Post Office Tower, which is a bad sign. Over the coming decades, the Tower will earn a reputation as a home to malign powers. In the eighties, Noel Edmonds will be found there most Christmases. The Doctor certainly has a bad vibe about the place, and peers suspiciously at WOTAN. WOTAN, who has a face of sorts, peers suspiciously back, one eye narrowed. Never trust a computer with a squint.

The Doctor’s assistant, Dodo, is impressed that WOTAN revels it knows what ‘TARDIS’ stands for, but our suspicions are raised by its possession of such arcane knowledge. And we’re not alone in our doubts. At a press conference to announce the great computer link-up, a reporter asks if WOTAN might get ideas above its station, and decide it can do without mankind altogether. Sir Charles Summer, the man from the ministry, gives the rather limp reply: “Oh, I hardly think it will come to that.” Now that’s not very comforting, is it? Imagine a similar scene in real life: “Does the minister think the nuclear power station might go into meltdown and irradiate the whole of Scotland for 500 generations?” “Oh, I hardly think it will come to that.”

Sure enough, WOTAN has decided to do without mankind altogether – well, after mankind has opened some boxes for him – and starts hypnotising people, either in person, or over the phone. Possession has a wide range of effects on people. Dodo, for example, become incredibly sarcastic, taking a pop at anyone who gets in her way. Professor Brett, who has stumbled through his early scenes, suddenly gets very good on his lines, as if WOTAN has uploaded a PDF of the script to his brain. The computer then orders the construction of robots that will aid the subjugation of humanity. This takes us to into part two – and just as wheels are being fitted to the War Machines, the wheels start to come off The War Machines.

This a great little story overall, with an excellent first episode that really hits the ground running, and a lovely performance from William Hartnell. However, when Team WOTAN start to build and test and re-test their robots, the plot slows to a snail’s pace. If a funeral procession moved at this speed, it would be dispersed by the police long before it reached the cemetery. Spunky new companions Ben and Polly help to maintain our interest – with Michael Craze and Anneke Wills bringing warmth and conviction to their performances – until drama finally floods back at the end of part three, thanks to a striking action sequence as the army battle a War Machine. And as the troops retreat, we have one of the series’ best ‘Doctor’ moments, where he stands alone and resolute in the face of the enemy – armed only with his wits and two firmly-clutched lapels.

The War Machines may not have predicted the future of computing with any great accuracy, but it certainly predicted the future of Doctor Who. There’s something fishy going down at a London landmark, and some everyday detail of modern life – in this case, the phone – is subverted by the forces of evil. A moment’s stock footage of Battersea Power Station, suggesting killer robots are being assembled there, reminds us of the Cybermen’s recent rise.

However, there’s only one vital ingredient missing from the mix – a decent villain. Back in 1966, the very idea of machines conquering the Earth would have been scary enough in itself, but now that they have, we feel the absence of a worthy rival for the Doctor. Professor Brett is entirely unburdened by charisma, and WOTAN himself should have worked up a decent speech synthesizer before bending his 16k RAM to the design of groovy tanks. While he may be able to type faster than Polly, and win every game of Trivial Pursuit, WOTAN fails to even program his own robots correctly, rendering them of limited threat.

The Doctor is at his best when facing an intelligence equal to his own – and WOTAN is, without doubt, the most ineffectual villain in the series’ long history.

_____________________________________________________________

DVD EXTRAS

You can become an overnight expert on the Post Office Tower thanks to episodes of Blue Peter and the social history series One Foot In The Past, with each taking a spin in the revolving restaurant. The latter film is fascinating, as our guide is the former Postmaster General, Tony Benn. His distinctive voice is captivating, and his enthusiasm contagious. He’s justly proud of his Powsht Offish Taah.

On Blue Peter, Christopher Trace shows us how we can build a model of the Taah using the huge roll of corrugated cardboard we all have knocking about the house. One hopes that a new generation of fans will construct their own replica in advance of Character Options’ hotly-anticipated release of a Dodo action figure. We have waited too long. Further Blue Peter clips introduce the War Machines and couple of lopsided Daleks built by viewers – one of which reportedly gave an arithmetic lesson to a school in Barnstaple. (“If Dalek Caan requires 40 rels to exterminate the population of Devon, how long would the whole Cult of Skaro need? YOU WILL ANSWER!”)

Praise is due to the Restoration Team for applying the magical VidFire process to these old Blue Peters. In fact, so crisp and beautiful are the clips, your reviewer thought the original videotape had been discovered, until he checked on the internet. And if that isn’t enough, you’ll want to kiss the Restoration Team full on the mouth after watching the documentary WOTAN Assembly, which looks at how The War Machines has been lovingly pieced together from a crazy variety of sources – an off-air soundtrack recording, clips censored in Australia, episodes found in the wilds of Nigeria… The skill, care and ingenuity on display is breathtaking, and I take my Astrakhan hat off to all involved.

Another short documentary in the Now And Then series is just one script edit short of excellence. Have fun counting the times the word ‘originally’ is used as you take a tour of filming locations with a listless voiceover man in tow. The ‘info text’ is full of facts, from the perfectly practical to the spectacularly useless. It’s a delight to discover that Margot Hayhoe, future production manager of Snakedance, is hidden inside WOTAN, spinning his tape reels by hand. Even the lovely photo library brings small revelations. There’s a shot of actor William Mervyn rehearsing a scene with a fag in his hand. What decadence! One assumes there’s a small sherry just out of frame.

For the best insight into The War Machines, turn to the excellent commentary by Anneke Wills and director Michael Ferguson. It’s rich with detail and humour, even though it must sometimes be difficult for them to look so far back into their own life stories. After all, many of the cast and crew – names to us, but friends to them – are now dead. There’s a moving moment when Ferguson wonders if Michael Craze had a successful career following Doctor Who. “Was he an ambitious man?” he asks Wills. “Michael was ambitious just to be happy,” replies the actress with a melancholy air – watching a beautiful young man with his whole life ahead of him, while mourning an old friend who was taken too soon.

%d bloggers like this: