The Greatest Show in the Galaxy

An intelligent spambot invades the TARDIS and persuades the Doctor and Ace to visit the galactically famous Psychic Circus. However when they land on the planet Segonax they soon discover all is far from well. Why are circus folk so keen for the audience to take part in the talent contest? What is the secret of a decaying hippie bus with a deadly robot guardian? Is the circus the real reason travellers as different as Nord the Vandal and intergalactic explorer Captain Cook have arrived or is there something more powerful and ancient luring them here? The Doctor and Ace are going to need every trick up their sleeves to survive this big top!

It’s a little surprising to me that The Greatest Show in the Galaxy is the final Sylvestor McCoy story to be released because I think it’s one of his definitive outings. It is a story where script editor Andrew Cartmell’s taste for comic strip narratives, bizarre images and socialist leanings mesh perfectly with a traditional Doctor Who plot about killer robots, mysterious powerful aliens and a happy place generally being not what it seems. Writer Stephen Wyatt, fresh from his first, generally well-received Doctor Who story Paradise Towers serves a gallery of entertaining grotesques. The fact that some of these comic characters turn out to be evil is only enhanced by the way they are presented as being quite funny.

Take Captain Cook, played with theatrical vim by veteran character actor T P McKenna. This bumptious know-it-all is presented as a kind of mirror of the Doctor, a galactic explorer with a sexy goth assistant called Mags. Jessica Martin, best known as an impressionist, is immensely likeable as Mags and under different circumstances it might have been good if she had joined the TARDIS at the end. Her big secret is easily guessed by a series of heavy handed clues starting with the name of her home planet Vulpana. But the pompous Captain is no hero at all. He is entirely selfish and quite ruthless once his life is endangered.  Also caught up in the danger is Nord, a Hells Angel biker played by Daniel Peacock, a cockney actor who seemed to be everywhere in the 80’s. There’s Gian Samanco, best known for being TV’s Adrian Mole and here cast as a rather cruel portrait of an over-earnest fan, just the kind of fanatic who was giving Doctor Who producer John Nathan-Turner a headache in real life. Whilst popping up to play another in her long career of fearsome Cockney landladies is Peggy Mount.

A bit of trivia, Chris Jury who plays circus member Deadbeat would later audition to play the Doctor in the 1996 TV movie. “Aliens” fans might recognise marine “Frosty” aka Ricco Ross as the rapping ringmaster

By this stage Sylvestor McCoy has really cracked who his Doctor is. There are flashes of the old physical comedy business with his umbrella and falling over, but there’s much more of a compassionate adventurer who nevertheless has a darker side that allows him to manipulate and even risk others for a greater good. A pleasing streak of anarchy too. “You’re just an old hippie at heart,” comments Ace. Speaking of whom, Sophie Aldred is very comfortable in Ace’s bomber jacket and her cheerful rapport with McCoy is one her chief strengths.

This was a troubled production as the making of extra “The Show Must Go On” revealed. The location filming had gone smoothly, but then BBC Television Centre was hit by an asbestos scare and it looked as though the studio recording would be permanently lost, making this Doctor Who’s second unfinished production after Tom Baker’s Shada. Uniquely though, the story’s circus tent setting meant that a marquee was set up in the car park at Elstree for the interiors. Nevertheless it was less than ideal due to traffic noise and more time was lost when a fire alarm occurred. All this is covered in a decent documentary, which includes some surprising photos of the cast meeting the cast of ‘Allo ‘Allo!

Other special features include a deleted modelwork sequence of the spambot satellite and a music video created to accompany an original song by cast members Christopher Guard, Jessica Martin and T P McKenna. Frustratingly there is no accompanying information about where this song comes from or why it was recorded. “Tomorrow’s Times” is part of an on-going feature about newspaper coverage of the show and sadly has to record that the McCoy era had largely negative press. Victoria Wood’s slightly odd Doctor Who comedy sketch is included since it came from the same time. Future film star Jim Broadbent plays the Doctor in a brief clip that largely mocks the cheapness and made-up science of the show. “But Doctor! I haven’t brought the ming-mongs!” cries the Doctor’s companion. Composer Mark Ayres was auditioned by being tasked to write music for two sequences from this show and he’s included his versions as an extra too.

It’s a pretty busy and interesting commentary, overseen by DVD regular Toby Hadoke. Sophie Aldred, Christopher Guard and Jessica Martin provide the luvvie insight, whilst Stephen Wyatt, Andrew Cartmell and Mark Ayres represent the production side. There’s also the popular information subtitles and the photo gallery and finally PDF material which you’ll need a computer to access. Here the usual Radio Times clippings are joined by a story board for the spambot sequence.

I’ve always been a fan of this story and it is great to see it released on as well-catered a DVD as this one. Lovely painted cover by Lee Binding too.

White Sand wins an award for Rik Hoskin

I’m delighted to report that Brandon Sanderson’s White Sand, written by my good friend Rik Hoskin, has won Best Graphic Novel at the Dragon Awards 2018, announced at DragonCon on Saturday night 1st September 2018.

whitesand

I’ve mentioned this New York Times bestseller before and it is great to see Rik’s talent being recognised by fans of fantasy from around the world.

White Sand is based on Sanderson’s first ever completed novel, although he never submitted to publishers because he knew it need polishing. In later years the author had always had an ambition to go back and revise the book to improve it, and fit it into his later Cosmere saga. Eventually Dynamite Comics came to him, asking if he had any titles which he would like to be adapted into a comic. Sanderson saw this as an ideal opportunity to revisit White Sand and develop it into a graphic novel trilogy, which is now the canonical version of the story.

On the planet Taldain, the legendary Sand Masters harness magical powers to manipulate sand in spectacular ways. But when they are slaughtered in a sinister conspiracy, the weakest of their number, Kenton, believes himself to be the only survivor. With enemies closing in on all sides, Kenton forges an unlikely partnership with a mysterious Darksider, with secrets of her own.

Available from all good bookshops! Rik and I produced a fantasy audio series called Agents of Psyence which you can listen to and download from this very blog.

About Dragon Con

Dragon Con is the internationally known pop culture convention held each Labor Day in Atlanta. Organized for fans, Dragon Con features more than about 3,000 hours of comics, film, television programming, costuming, art, music, and gaming over four days. For more information, please visit www.dragoncon.org.

For a complete list of this year’s winners, please look at their blog here

Video

Nell Gwynn, appearing at Bolton Little Theatre this September

My favourite theatre is opening its new season with Jessica Swale’s accessible, funny and intelligent play about the infamous 17th century royal mistress. In this take, she is a woman not only of her time, but also ahead of it. She was England’s first well known stage actress, thanks to Francophile King Charles II’s abolishing the stricture that women were not allowed to tread the boards. The author enjoys drawing parallels between 1660 Drury Lane and the West End of today, ruefully pointing out that some problems like good roles for women and the dangers of celebrity have been with us for centuries.

I’m involved with the realising the soundscape and I’ll be one of the sound operators during the week of the show. I had been offered a part but sadly did not have the spare time to take the director up on it. Last Sunday I attended the rehearsal and filmed some of it to create a promotional video, which I’ve just uploaded to social media. Starting off with 40 minutes or so or material, I gradually pared it down to a few clips which were full of movement and expression. The music has been specially recorded for this production and will be heard on the night. I’m pretty pleased with the way this one has turned out, and I hope you like it too.

Nell Gwynn runs 17th to 22nd September 2018 at Bolton Little Theatre. For more information and to book tickets, please visit http://www.boltonlittletheatre.co.uk

Quatermass and the Pit – Unearthed Again

Great news as the BBC have just released the seminal Quatermass and the Pit on their iPlayer in the Archive section. If you have never seen Nigel Kneale and Rudolph Cartier’s exciting, atmospheric and extremely influential British science fiction serial before, I cannot urge you enough to give it a try, if it is available in your region. It is a permanent resident in my television drama top ten. As child in the 1970’s I remember looking at and later reading my parent’s Penguin paperback editions of the scripts, looking at that handful of photographs in the middle and finding it all so mysterious and intriguing. I’ve no doubt that those books and my first viewing of the Hammer film version had a profound effect on myself and my creativity ever since.

So to celebrate it’s return to the public gaze, I thought I would reprint this old article I wrote for Colin Brockhurst’s marvellous A5 fanzine Circus. It is part of a five part series on the whole Quatermass series and its influence on later works. I’ve been over the article and done a little bit of editing and improving, as well as updating one or two references, so this is the definitive version. I should warn you that there are a few spoilers since this is an overview of a 1950’s television drama, so you may like to watch the programme first if you want a completely fresh experience of it.


Simply, the landmark story. The series which confirmed Professor Quatermass as one of the greats of British TVSF, and which has influenced a generation of science fiction creators with its mixture of the occult and the alien breaking into our present day world. Quatermass and the Pit is one of a handful of TV programmes that have transcended their genre boundaries. It is more than just good SF drama, just as Boys from the Blackstuff and I Claudius are far more than just contemporary drama and historical epic respectively. They are the stuff of phenomena, part of the language of British television.

   Quatermass and the Pit is an archetypal tale of the battle between science and superstition, reason versus instinct. Within it, all the major characters face a challenge to their faith, whether that be in established scientific theories, Christianity or military common sense. Significantly, the alien invasion is only stopped by a combination of supernatural and scientific knowledge, a holistic approach that embraces both sides of human civilisation. The storytelling structure is perfect, with events building slowly, clue by clue, to the shattering conclusion as London is ablaze and ordinary men and women have become something terrible. All the cast’s performances are exemplary; while Rudolph Cartier’s direction is imaginative and large scale in its ambition. The programme’s effect on its viewers was enormous. In a typical anecdote, Hereford city council moved a proposal to adjourn their meeting while they went across the road to a hotel to watch the last instalment. Throughout the country, pubs were empty on Monday nights when Quatermass and the Pit was on. Hob, the final episode appearing to be watched by television’s entire audience and the next day it was the big topic of conversation at the bus stop. But let us begin at the programme’s inception.

Rudolph Cartier and Nigel Kneale were asked by the BBC to consider making another adventure for their popular television creation, Quatermass. They met in Cartier’s office to throw some ideas about, during which Kneale observed that there was a great deal of reconstruction going on in the capital’s blitzed areas. Supposing a group of workmen were to uncover something that looked like an ancient spaceship? The appeal of this was that they could film another alien invasion without repeating the formula of their first two stories. This time the conflict arose from the long-term consequences of an extra-terrestrial contact. Not only that, but the horrors would be based around a contemporary situation that was immediately recognisable to the viewers. To convey the variations of the alien influence in humanity’s psyche, Kneale placed the Professor within a central trio, his companions being archaeologist Dr Roney and military man Colonel Breen.

“It’s a funny word, worn out before anything turned up to claim it. Martians!”

   Quatermass and the Pit‘s premise concerns a mysterious capsule unearthed by a group of archaeologists led by Dr Roney, working on an old blitz site in Knightsbridge. Roney enlists Professor Bernard Quatermass, facing a Whitehall takeover of his British Rocket Group; for his advice and he soon deduces that the cylindrical object is not an unexploded WWII missile but something far older and stranger.

“My name is Quatermass! If that means anything to you…”

Andre Morell is for me the definitive Professor, portraying him as not only a brilliant scientist, but also a compassionate, responsible and ultimately heroic man. He admirable and genuinely likeable, a feature in many of Morell’s performances. In addition his range of expertise is now much broader. As well as rocketry, he displays expert knowledge in the fields of electronics; helping Roney complete his experimental Optic-encephalograph; and biology; identifying the fibres in the capsule as resembling nerve-endings. He has become a general-purpose scientist rather than the rocket engineer of previous tales. Following the trials of Quatermass II, Nigel Kneale seems to have repositioned him as not only the conscientious face of science, but also an anti-establishment idealist, fighting against vested interests and government shortsightedness. In the early committee room scenes it is clear that he has gained the reputation as a troublemaker, treated with long-suffering patronage by most of the other members of the group, except a fellow scientist. (Referred to in the script as the Tweedy Scientist!) His bold statement demonstrates the Professor’s honesty, that he will fight the Ministery’s super weapon, The Dead Man’s Deterrent, all the way. Another man might have compromised or lied to save his position. As far as the military and the minister are concerned, he is yesterday’s man. One who has done sterling work in his time but now stuck in his ways, still clinging to old-fashioned methods rather than facing the larger realities. They barely conceal their relief that Breen, a fervent supporter of the Dead Man’s Deterrent and possibly one of its devisers, is soon to replace him.

Morell also brings out a new, humorous side to the Professor’s character where his predecessors had made him seem a bit dry. He gets in quite a few sly digs at Breen’s obtuseness and his flimsy Nazi weapon theories in the early episodes. Quatermass also displays an amusing flair for deadpan comments. When Potter is unsure whether he can convince Breen to leave the capsule alone, the Professor, who has just left Breen being sick following a Martian sonic assault, remarks, “At the moment I think he’s fairly amenable!” His earlier encounters with the unknown have forced him to have an open mind and so he is more willing to pursue the supernatural elements of the mystery, not because he literally believes in ghosts but because he can conceive that they may be evidence that can point to the truth. Of course, this flexible approach is an anathema to the practical Breen who twists the paranormal elements into further proof of the Professor’s foolishness. That he is susceptible to the Martian influence is a real shock because he has always been the one totally dependable element in earlier stories. In a memorable scene, he fights back against the mental domination and wins only to slip back to his Martian state a few minutes later and attempt to kill Roney. Even though he regains control with Roney’s help, he is fatally tainted and cannot save the world this time.

“Is Colonel Breen an imbecile or a fool?”

Colonel Breen is the complete opposite of the two scientists, not only in outlook but in personality as well. Although he is an officer, he is completely lacking in gentlemanly traits; being aggressive, vulgar, blunt and humourless. There is nothing sympathetic about him. When he tries to be charming, for example, when he is trying to make a fresh start with the Professor at the beginning of his posting as ‘Deputy’ Controller, he comes across only as smarmy and false. The Professor describes him as, “A career militarist of the worst kind.” There is always a danger that his character will slip into pure Monty Python caricature but Anthony Bushell’s performance keeps him on the right side of believability, suggesting a man completely repressed by his military lifestyle. Early on in their partnership the Professor pushes Breen into the Hob Lane problem to see what sort of a man he will be working with and perhaps to try to round off a few of Breen’s sharp corners. His is the classic closed-mind; one that forms a theory almost immediately and then either twists the evidence to fit, in this case that the cylinder is a German V weapon, or ignores it as irrelevant, such as the half-life of the artificially produced radiation at the site being five million years old. All Breen wants to see is that the radiation level is safe and that it will not affect his excavation. Such obtuseness makes his early statement, “This is a problem. I enjoy problems.”, seem more like an affectation since when he is up against a real problem, he doesn’t even try to think his way through it.

Though described as an expert in rocketry, evidence of a good education, Breen’s behaviour is more like that of a philistine. He has no hesitation in bringing in earth-moving equipment to excavate the cylinder, even though he knows it is an archaeological site. When Roney complains that the fossils need care and that a lot of evidence has been destroyed, Breen merely snarls, “You’ve got them haven’t you?” indicating the small pile Roney has salvaged. Fossils have no significance to his job, so he does not care about them, or consider that others might be bothered. His military mind naturally lends itself to secrecy. Even though the cylinder poses no obvious threat or strategic significance, he assumes that his operation is militarily sensitive and his anger at Fullalove the reporter’s presence is way out of proportion. When he reads the reporter’s unkind words in the Gazette the next day, he is almost on the verge of hysteria, evidence that he is becoming increasingly out of his depth as the evidence of the cylinder’s alien origins mounts up. Nothing in Breen’s experience has involved aliens and he lacks the imagination to adapt to the idea. Eventually he cannot cope with the proof, instead pretending that it is not there and replacing it with a pathetically thin story of Nazi propaganda weapons. Unfortunately, the Defence Minister possess a similarly closed mind. He is only concerned with the narrow world of Westminster politics and his own position, a real contrast to Roney’s and the Professor’s readiness to put their good names on the line for the sake of their beliefs. Therefore, it is Breen’s explanation that is accepted, an incredibly frustrating moment of drama. The audience knows that the Professor is right but it also knows that there is no way he can make it sound convincing to men such as these. He is impotent against their ‘common sense’.

“It was a kind of figure! It went through the wall!”

Archaeologist, political hustler, anthropologist and even a bit of an occult expert, Doctor Roney is a man of many parts. Yet although he is an ally and an old friend of the Professor, not to mention being an example of a man who has outgrown his alien inheritance, there is something vaguely unlikable about him. Maybe it is Cec Linder’s tough guy performance but it actually adds to the texture and gives Roney some distinctiveness against the more Oxbridge academic Quatermass as portrayed by Morell. He is excellent in his chosen field but considerably less accomplished at handling the people around him. His passion for his discoveries leads him not only to take risks with his reputation but makes him blunt and short-tempered at times. When the bomb squad arrives, he quickly antagonises Potter by suggesting he is unsuitable to deal with the capsule. His aide Miss Judd is often criticised unfairly as well. Her suggestion that the mysterious cylinder might be a bomb is quite reasonable, given where they are excavating, but he turns on her as though she placed it there deliberately to slow him down. Later when Roney notices her absence during the unearthing of the second skull, he makes a sexist comment that, “She’s probably getting her hair done!” In fact, she is in the library researching the history of Hob Lane for the Professor. Kneale makes a point of contrasting Canadian Roney’s energy and pugnaciousness against the more stoic and convention-bound attitudes of his British contemporaries; especially during the press conference where the cautious attitude of the official host is trampled over by Roney making dramatic predictions about what his discoveries may mean for the story of man’s ancestors.

Barbara Judd is a sensible girl. That really sums up much of her character. For most of the time, she remains practical, level-headed and useful, sometimes making connections that her male compatriots do not see. She is the first to examine the ghostly history of Hob’s Lane in any depth. Her controlled personality makes her sensitivity to the Martian influence even more striking and one imagines that for her, losing control like that is very disturbing. During Episode Six – Hob, the scene where she telekinetically attacks Potter, advancing on him impassively while objects whirl around them is marvellous, particularly since we realise, like him, that there is nothing remaining in her to appeal to.

The inclusion of Captain Potter is meant as a contrast to the bombastic Breen. He is younger, more open to reasonable argument and ultimately proves to be one of the humans who has outgrown his violent Martian heritage. Yet against these recommendations, he is frequently as officious and stuffy as his superior; for instance after talking to the Chilcots he patronisingly dismisses them as senile and daft as a brush. Several times he orders Judd away from the excavation site in a manner that suggests that this is no place for a woman. Although there are lines which suggest a possible relationship developing between Judd and himself, there are no real sparks emanating from either of them to justify this. His immunity from the Martian influence shows that not all military people are automatically bad.

“Tearing into angry young men or sex in the coffee bars!

   Quatermass and the Pit sees the return of the Professor’s old ally, James Fullalove, star reporter for The Evening Gazette. Unfortunately, Paul Whitsun-Jones was unavailable to recreate his role from The Quatermass Experiment so Brian Worth replaced him. Worth’s portrayal is much straighter and traditional than the flamboyant, droll character of before but that is probably better for the darker atmosphere of this story. Nevertheless, his opening scene features some good newsroom banter between him and the News Editor. “I’m in conference!” “With these two?” replies Fullalove gesturing at his fellow hacks. Like the Professor, he is interested in finding out the truth about the cylinder, though in his case for the sake of a story. During their examination of manuscripts at the Westminster Abbey archives, Fullalove reveals a slightly surprising ability to read Medieval Latin! Although initially annoyed at his presence and questions, the Professor soon realises that he has a useful friend in the journalist. At the press conference, Fullalove stoutly defends the Professor and tries to help him break up the event, risking his professional impartiality in front of his colleagues from the other papers. Sadly, his dedication to getting the big scoop ultimately leads to his brutal demise.

Kneale has remarked that Quatermass and the Pit has “a cast of thousands” and that he wrote a bevy of colourful supporting characters to illustrate his plot and bearing in mind that it was still live television, allow the cast to shine through. His ear for realistic, succinct dialogue is at a peak in this story, so for once his working class characters are less caricatured than in previous Quatermass adventures. One of my favourite scenes in the whole story comes in Episode Two – The Ghosts when the Professor visits the Chilcots and the prosaic soothsayer Mrs Groom as she scowls into her tea-leaves. They are examples of the simple undramatic belief in the supernatural that many people have. Mrs Groom prediction of a sea journey is amusingly countered by Mrs Chilcot’s practical point that she can hardly leave her husband alone. The Professor’s tactful questioning of the two women shows his charming sympathetic side and they in turn are down to earth normal folk, rather than fearful yokels. The policeman who shows the Professor about the ruined house while gradually becoming more and more nervous is a good cameo, conveying the menacing atmosphere within the building. Sladden, the cheery drilling expert, begins as a comic turn. “I had to get a bloke out of a safe. Secret job, like this one!” But when his latent powers emerge he becomes a fearful figure, his facial features actually contorting into an approximation of a Martian, staring eyes and a gash of a mouth. Following this incident, his demeanour changes from matey confidence to servile insecurity, exhibiting a child-like trust in the vicar who gives him sanctuary and the Professor who says he can find the answers. This vicar represents the old school faith; firmly believing that he is facing with Satan. In fact, he may well be secretly pleased to be facing unequivocal evidence of the supernatural and that he can do something positive and obvious against it; as opposed to unravelling the causes of complex social ills. For if the Devil exists, then God does as well. In one way the Martian inheritance really is the Devil, the source of man’s self-destructive tendencies. He views the Professor as a threat to his faith, an atheist who will scoff at all that seems important to him. “I understand you’re a scientist – Are you going to explain all this away in fashionable terms!” However, the Professor treats him with respect and goes some way to agreeing that what they have encountered is fundamentally evil. Fullalove points out the next day that the church alone cannot defeat this threat; it has already tried in 1341. It is always a pleasure to see prolific character actor Michael Ripper as the gruff but fair Sergeant of the bomb disposal squad.

“What has been uncovered is evil. It’s as diabolically evil as anything ever recorded”

Once again, producer Rudolph Cartier pushed BBC drama’s technical resources to the limit and achieved impressive results. Quatermass and the Pit‘s biggest innovation was TV’s first significant electronic sound effect, created by the newly formed Radiophonic Workshop. Previously, strange sounds had been made by improvisations such as scraping a thumbnail across the microphone to create a rocket’s roar. The ominous vibration that heralds a Martian attack is an impressive debut because it sounds so unnatural.

Cartier’s direction is gripping, atmospheric stuff. He had a real comprehension of the power of that small screen in the corner of the living room. “There is nothing to distract (the viewer) him.” Although he had never reached Hollywood like some of his fellow European emigres, he was extremely in touch with all the methods of the big screen. As with Quatermass II the scenes of rioting crowds are extremely well choreographed, capturing the frenzy and confusion of the alien takeover. The chaos is illustrated aurally as well, when the professor hears the flesh-crawling howls of all the cats and dogs being slaughtered. Earlier the Professor’s conversation with Sladden in the vestry is memorable for the eerie firelight, which illuminates them as the worker tries to describe his vision. There is a feeling of impending evil suffusing that moment. Cartier had always felt that television was the ideal medium for spine-chillers. “The viewer – I like to think – was completely my in power and accepted the somewhat far-fetched implications… in the cinema, there was usually a titter…”

Although still transmitted live, the series made extensive use of pre-filmed sequences, enhancing its cinematic qualities. Sladden’s flight through the lamp-lit streets of Knightsbridge, his footsteps echoing behind him and the alien throbbing sound pursuing him, is worthy of any classic film noir.

For the first time the series enjoyed its own original music rather than relying on Holst’s Mars. Trevor Duncan provided a dramatic opening theme, which accompanied the titles as they slowly emerged from the ground, etched in a stone slab, while throughout the episodes his atmospheric melodies enhanced the monochrome images immensely.

Quite what Bernard Wilkie and Jack Kline thought when they initially read the script is unrecorded but they rose to the challenge magnificently and created a plethora of haunting special effects sequences. The Martians are sinister, believable creations; comparable to insects found on Earth and yet still containing the stylistic influence of a gargoyle. Their initial appearance at the end of Episode Three – Imps and Demons is a superb moment and there are few people seeing it for the first time who will not flinch when one of them jerks suddenly. The climatic appearance of Hob, hovering over the city like an angel of death is disappointing only in that it is confined to just one scene. Thereafter Hob is only referred to by the cast, or indicated by a bright glow at the edge of the screen. To achieve the capsule’s metamorphosis into the shape of Hob a paraffin wax model of the capsule was melted on camera; a process made extremely messy by the addition of Golden Syrup to the miniature to emphasise that the capsule was changing. As the camera panned upwards, the model of Hob was faded in and out of the picture.

On a more physical level, the poltergeist effects as cables shake, objects fly across the room and the very ground flexes and ripples, are almost seamlessly achieved. The forgiving nature of black and white 405-line video is a help for these scenes. More serious was the final explosion as Roney hurls a length of chain into Hob. In the script, Kneale made it clear that this had to be a near-apocalyptic conflagration. The special effects explosive charge was consequently extra-large; so powerful in fact that Cec Linder had to stand between it and the camera or the equipment would have been damaged. The actor had to be wetted down, wear fire-resistant clothing and eye-pads to prevent himself being either set aflame or blinded by the flash. On top of that, he had to reach the correct marker on the studio floor without being able to see. The resulting explosion is worth it though, on screen.

But the special effects highlight is the race memory of The Wild Hunt, the ritual cleansing of the Martian hives. It lasts about a minute but in that time the viewer is assaulted by a rapid succession of images. Armies of insects leaping along, bodies being shattered, close-ups on pulsating eyes and all the time, a cacophony of strange whistling and chirruping. The sequence has the feel of a vivid nightmare and considering this was decades before sophisticated animatronics or computer animation, its effectiveness is a triumph. The Martian swarm were a series of vac-formed plastic miniatures, the first time the technique had been used for a BBC programme. Although cheap to produce, the models were hellish to stick together neatly (Anyone who has attempted a Seven’s Dalek Kit for the first time will know what I mean!) and some ended up held together by sellotape. Meanwhile the flexing alien iris was in fact an inflating condom.

Clifford Hatt’s set design is very effective. The excavation itself was constructed at Ealing studios, requiring several tons of mud to be laid on the floor. To create the impression of the excavation’s increasing depth, the site’s sides were heightened in sympathy. This is best shown by the supervisor’s hut, which begins at ground level but by the last episode, has been raised well above the cast’s heads. The Martian capsule is a subtle design; despite its simplicity, it is recognisably non-human in conception.

On the same night as the final episode, the BBC current affairs show Panorama featured a short interview with Nigel Kneale, accompanied by two of the Martian insect props. During the item, Richard Dimblebly inquired if the writer was “any sort of ghoul” to create such a frightening story. Unsurprisingly Kneale denied the charge. He did not mind frightening adults but he was concerned that children could have been watching because they were “at the mercy of all the special effects …it may be in his bedroom tonight. That’s not something to play with.”

“This Quatermass, he’s big stuff… Rockets.”

To accompany the first episode, the Radio Times featured a half page article by Kneale, illustrated by a photo of the main cast gathered around a patch of uncovered space capsule. In the piece, the author contemplated the Professor’s continuing popularity; putting it down to the public’s awareness of the influence science is having on their lives. The other element of his success of course, Kneale admitted, were the scene-stealing aliens. Meanwhile on the programme details page there was a picture of Potter investigating the mysterious ‘bomb’. The following issue had a photo of Roney examining the skull, while Episode Three – Imps and Demons was promoted by a photo of Breen. Episode Four – The Enchanted details were accompanied by a photo of Potter crouching within the capsule and Episode Five – The Wild Hunt by a portrait of Barbara Judd. Finally, Hob was illustrated by a photo of the Professor inserted within a small artwork of the Martians. When the series was repeated the following year, the columnist Dafydd Gruffyd toasted Quatermass and the Pit in his overview of the BBC’s year as the series that kept millions at home on Mondays. Part one of the omnibus repeat had a photo of the cast watching the Sergeant as he dug at the newly excavated capsule. The second part was advertised with a photo of Potter dragging the hysterical Barbara away from the pit. The credits were more extensive for this repeat.

By now, television had a much higher profile in the arts page of the newspapers, which incidentally made my research a lot easier than it was for the first two articles. Quatermass‘s stature was such that it enjoyed healthy, favourable coverage from just about everybody, especially after its apocalyptic conclusion. The Sunday Times observed that the opening instalment was, “An excellent example of Mr Kneale’s ability to hold an audience with promises alone.” Furthermore the reviewer feared that, “Sharing them with Mr Andre Morell and Mr Cec Linder is an unnerving prospect.” He also picked up on the sub-plot of the Professor being a prisoner of Whitehall mandarins, rather than the pioneer of earlier stories. The Guardian hailed the dramatic finale as “a BBC triumph”. True the reviewer had been hoping for an army of tripod insects descending on the city and thought that Roney’s iron/water solution was too simple; but since “…the scenes of panic and confusion were brilliantly conceived and carried out” it seemed “…uncharitable to complain.” Observing the enormous effect the series had had on the public, the writer concluded that, “If the Martians ever do invade, they might do it simply by way of television.” Over at the Daily Telegraph, their TV columnist L. Marshland Gander pondered that since Kneale was a Manxman it was perfectly understandable that his Martians should have three legs! He added that Kneale had visibly paled when he suggested a fourth Quatermass serial. After the first episode, Clifford Davies of the Daily Mirror predicted that, “The monotony of Keep it in the Family could drive viewers seeking stimulating entertainment into the arms of Quatermass and the Pit!” Six weeks later he praised the conclusion as “A fantastic production,” though he tempered this with the comment, “It was a modern fairy tale, childish in conception, but like all fairy tales, pointed with a moral.” The Daily Mail gave Episode One – The Halfmen a big thumbs up. “Nigel Kneale’s script and Rudolph Cartier’s production values showed the virtues which have made Quatermass a popular favourite.” The programme’s formula summed up as taking its story seriously but with touches of hokum where appropriate. After asking several rhetorical question such as “What is it?”, the article ended with the reviewer promising, “The Professor can count on my sympathetic attention to these problems…” Later, Hob left him quaking in his shoes, “It was a stunning experience.” He appreciated the slow build-up of tension, the evil growing as the Professor’s understanding increased while the team of The Professor, The Doctor and The Colonel were, “An admirable trio.” He just wondered if anyone else could hear a ringing in their ears – from the direction of Knightsbridge?

For a change, the related merchandise includes more than the published script. That said, the scriptbook is up to the usual high standards of its predecessors. Its Penguin edition features an eerie illustration of a screaming man fleeing the pit and its occupier while against the night sky stands a ruined house. Within were eight pages of monochrome photographs. The Arrow reprint’s cover goes for a marvellous portrait of one of the Martians. The famous Martian sound is preserved on the BBC record, “Twenty Five Years of the Radiophonic Workshop”. More recently a CD of stock music used on Doctor Who in the sixties was released entitled “Space Adventures. Its final bonus track is the stirring theme music from Pit.

In 1988 BBC Video released an omnibus edition on VHS, edited to remove the episodes’ credits and a couple of padding scenes which Kneale had written purely to allow the cast to move to another part of the set during the live transmission. The first missing scene occurs between the scene of the Professor and Roney in the club and the committee room and features a television interviewer questioning passers-by outside the pit. The author approved these edits. In places, the quality improves because the editor incorportated the original 35mm prints where they were available, rather than the telecine copy. Indeed Quatermass and the Pit was one of BBC Video’s better packaged titles, especially compared to the early Doctor Who omnibus titles released at the same time. In 2000, this edition released again as a disappointing DVD without any extras and featuring a rather poor transfer of the VHS. Finally in 2005 the serial was released on DVD along with Quatermass II and the existing episodes on The Quatermass Experiment in a box set entitled The Quatermass Chronicles, unedited and carefully restored by the same team of specialists who were working on the Doctor Who DVD range. It

The homages to this serial deserve an article all of their own. For the moment however it is worth mentioning Doctor Who – The Image of the Fendahl, John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness and Stephen King’s The Tommyknockers as three of the highest profile productions that have re-used Kneale’s storyline. Such was the notoriety of the series, two famous BBC comedy programmes produced their own parodies shortly afterwards. One came the week after the last episode in Hancock’s Half Hour, in an story called The Horror Serial, when the lad ‘imself, still nervous after watching Quatermass’ adventures, is digging in his garden when he uncovers a mysterious ‘pod’. Believing it to be a Martian spaceship, he immediately calls in the army but to his eventual embarrassment, the truth turns out to be all too terrestrial. The Goons meanwhile discovered The Scarlet Capsule and it was up to Neddy Seagoon as Quatermass OBE, and the usual characters to solve its meaning. Interestingly this episode used the authentic Radiophonic Workshop sound effects.

Kneale has maintained that the Quatermass serials always had more humour than horror in them but Quatermass and the Pit is a triumph of disturbing science fiction. Perhaps Kneale and Cartier realised it would be very difficult to surpass it, or more likely Kneale was tired of the character, but it also marked the end of Quatermass’ black and white era. It would be twenty years before he would face another alien menace and by that time, the whole world of television had changed, as had the Professor himself. How it all happened is unsurprisingly a subject for the next article.

Doctor Who – Most Wanted 11th July 2018

Next week I have the pleasure of taking part in the third Manchester Indie Film Makers Group Doctor Who podcast, following on from discussions about The Daleks and The Doctor. This time myself, Nigel Anderson and Brian Robinson are going back to the 60’s to talk about the missing 97 episodes of Doctor Who. With the classic BBC series finding a whole new audience on Twitch, there’s never been a better time to rave about Hartnell and Troughton.

Most Wanted

Doctor Who is in an unusual position. No other TV drama programme with a similar high profile has such a large gap in its library. Can you imagine 60’s Star Trek or the Twilight Zone with half of their second year missing presumed lost? Yet I’m going to argue that existing in the Schrodinger state has actually enhanced the show and given us fans a chance to exercise our imaginations.

The event will be filmed on multi-cameras and edited for an eventual podcast. However if you are in the area you can take part in the free live debate and the recording, which is being held at Manchester Central Library on 11th July at 6.15pm.

“An evening inspired by the lost episodes of 60’s Doctor Who. Debating the merits of these lost stories and why these treasures need to be returned to the BBC archives for future generations to enjoy once more. With a panel of experts this will be a spirited event for both fans of the show or for anyone interested in the developmental history of TV. Not to be missed.”

Free drink at reception and a chance to win TV memorabilia in our free prize draw. Free prize draw will take place at the event on Wednesday 11th July 2018.

Book your tickets at https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/doctor-who-most-wanted-tickets-47601076100

London, 1965!

 

Paul Ferry’s 10 Favourite Doctor Who Fan Films

Top writer of cult TV and film matters Paul Ferry has just compiled a list of his favourite Doctor Who fan films. I’d agree with a lot of the choices – “Resurrection of Evil” and “the Millenium Trap” especially. He also kindly singles out “Future Investment” for praise, a film I appeared in. He is too modest to mention it but the group he belongs to – Timebase – produced some superb fan films too, especaily “Phase IV”.

Timebase Productions

FANV

Listed below are the 10 Doctor Who fan videos that I have found most entertaining, inspiring and impressive over the many years that I’ve been interested in such things. I use the words ‘fan video’ in the traditional sense, meaning dramatic or comic presentations, rather than clips edited to music (which we called ‘scratch videos’ in my day). They’re listed in chronological order, rather than order of merit, because they’re all equally special to me. If you’re lucky, you might find some of them online.

DAY OF THE DUSTBINS / ALISTAIR ANORAK INVESTIGATES
The West Midlands Whonatics (1987)
I’m cheating a bit by lumping these two together, as they are two distinctly different productions, but they were both extremely influential upon my group of friends when we first started making fanvids. Day of the Dustbins is a below-zero budget spoof of Day of the Daleks, clearly filmed in a…

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The Ark in Space

This week sees the release of the first Doctor Who blu-ray season box set – containing Tom Baker’s first series – Season Twelve. I must admit it looks very tempting, even though I already own all those stories on DVD. In the case of Ark in Space twice. Here is my Ciao review of the special edition DVD released back in 2013. I believe most of the extras I talk about are included on the blu-ray, save for Dr Forever and the footage of Tom Baker visiting Belfast. The latter of which will appear on the box set relevant to the time it was filmed.

In the far future planet Earth has been devastated by solar flares. A colony of specially selected humans lie in suspended animation aboard a space station called Nerva Beacon, waiting for the planet’s surface to becoming habitable again. When the Doctor, Sarah and Harry arrive, they discover that the station has been invaded by the Wirrin, an insectoid race from deep space who plant their eggs inside living hosts. Together with a handful of reawakened humans, they must stop the remains of the human race being consumed and an enhanced deadly generation of Wirrin being unleashed.

A fondly remembered story by fans and a favourite of the late Elisabeth Sladen aka Sarah Jane Smith, Ark in Space was one the earliest DVD’s released in the range, so like other titles from the first couple of years, BBC Worldwide is reissuing it with improved picture and sound, information subtitles and more extras on a second disc.

It truly marks the beginning of the Philip Hinchcliffe and Robert Holmes era, two men who brought a new energy to the series and made it scarier and just a touch tougher as well. Tom Baker was the visible face of this change, replacing Jon Pertwee’s patrician authority figure with a more unpredictable outsider. Ark is something of a triumph on a small budget, designer Roger Murray-Leach creating a space station which looks stylish and practical, whilst the Wirrin, though not as animated as they could be, are nevertheless memorable and visually striking. Less effective however is their laval form, which too obviously looks like a stuntman (series regular Stuart Fell) swathed in green painted bubblewrap. The plot about monsters hiding in the maintenance tunnels and bursting out human hosts anticipates Alien, but Doctor Who takes a more philosophical approach, the Timelord communicating with the Wirrin as much as fighting them. Sarah Jane gets one of her most memorable sequences when she has crawl through the Wirrin infested tunnels. The whole story moves at a good pace, together with strong characterisations from its tight cast.

As with the first DVD edition, the viewer has the option to watch the series with improved CGI special effects, plus uncut model effects footage, a virtual tour of the station, unused alternative opening titles and a short interview with designer Roger Murray-Leach. There is also a reasonable commentary with Philip Hinchcliffe, Elisabeth Sladen and Tom Baker. Whilst the former two have done their homework and have a lot to say, Tom Baker is in a disappointingly muted mood, aside from the odd exclamation. “Look at those buttocks! We could take on the world in those days!” he sighs at the sight of the Doctor and Harry hiding under a desk. Finally there is one of the rather random short videos produced for the old BBC website called “TARDIS Cam”, a mood piece showing the aftermath of a battle with the Cybermen.

The brand new special features show how far the Doctor Who DVD collection has come in both their depth and variety. A New Frontier is a decent Making Of, interviewing the producer and the two main guest stars Kenton Moore and Wendy Williams, who both have fond memories of the story and remain proud of being in it. Then there’s heart-warming local TV coverage of Tom Baker’s 1978 visit to Northern Ireland. For many years Tom Baker has talked about public’s love of the Doctor and the role’s Pied Piper quality and here is the evidence on film. Watching children cluster around him in the playground is delightful. Everywhere he goes it is smiles smiles smiles.  This reissue also gives the DVD producers a chance to show rare amateur 8mm footage taken during the preceding story Robot. My favourite feature however is the latest instalment of Dr Forever a series looking at the wider world of Doctor Who, especially during the period between the original and the revival. Love and War is a great documentary about the history of the Doctor Who original novels. First published by Virgin and later, following the 1996 television movie, by BBC Books, these novels did a lot to keep Doctor Who alive in the sixteen years between its two series. Not only did they give breaks to a substantial number of new writers including Paul Cornell, Ben Aaronovitch and Gareth Roberts, who would all go on to write for the revived television series, but they also helped Doctor Who as a concept to keep evolving in the era of The X-Files and Babylon 5. Interviewing a lot of the highest profile authors and editors involved, including Russell T Davis, the feature looks at the controversial increase in sex and violence and the unfair way the BBC took the range off Virgin when they thought they could make more money in the wake of the possible US TV series. It’s only a shame that the novels published since the series returned fall outside the documentary’s remit.

If you missed Ark in Space the first time around then this is an excellent way to catch up. It is a SF horror story that will entertain fans old and new. Whilst the new features make it excellent value.

Planet of the Spiders

Once upon a time the Doctor visited Metebelis 3 and took a large, perfect blue crystal. He gave it to Jo Grant as a wedding present when she and Dr Clifford Jones left for the Amazon. But now she has posted it back to him, claiming that it is frightening their native guides. Meanwhile the disgraced UNIT officer Mike Yates has joined a Buddhist retreat, where he has grown suspicious that some of his fellow students are in contact with some kind of alien power. Earth is in danger from a powerful new enemy, the Giant Spiders of Metebelis 3. To defeat them the Doctor will have to face an evil that he knows will kill him for certain.

These days a Doctor Who season finale story will be an epic that draws together the themes of the year and have a lot of emotion involved. Back in 1975 the programme had a different style that was less demonstrative. Aside from a mention of Jo Grant by letter, there is little in the way of continuity and certainly no grand final tour or choirs as say the Tenth Doctor had in his last story. Planet of the Spiders is simply a traditional story except this time the Third Doctor doesn’t survive.

Originally it had been intended that the Third’s last story would involve a final battle with The Master, ending with the renegade sacrificing his life to save the Doctor. Roger Delgado’s untimely death negated that idea, so Barry Letts and his writing partner Roger Sloman came up with a new story inspired by Buddhist philosophy, a passion of Letts. The Spiders are metaphors for fear, ambition, greed and hatred, elements which hold characters back from enlightenment.

It is an entertaining but somewhat rambling story. Most of part two is taken up by an extended chase scene that ultimately makes no sense and part six features an extremely long reprise of the previous episode, something that wouldn’t have mattered much in the pre-video recorder era but which is very obvious on the DVD. However Tommy the simple minded soul who evolves into a full personality is a touching sub-plot. And John Dearth as terrific as Lupton, an embittered salesman turned potential ruler of Earth. He’s such an unusual bad guy for Doctor Who that it is a shame that he becomes sidelined in the second half of the story.

This is a two disc release and hence there is an impressive amount of extras. The Final Curtain is a comprehensive making of documentary. Producer Barry Letts explains how he deliberately tried to get as many people involved who Jon Pertwee was familiar and comfortable with, to ease his unhappiness as he filmed his last story. It was very much the end of an era, since aside from Elisabeth Sladen, all the major names in front of and behind the camera were leaving the show with this story. Special effects designer Matt Irvine goes into detail with how they created the impressive spider puppets. There’s some welcome honestly about some of the elements which didn’t work as well as they hoped too.

John Kane wrote Terry and June, one of the most popular BBC sitcoms of the seventies and early eighties. Yet as he ruefully points out in John Kane Remembers, virtually all he is ever asked about in fan letters is his performance as Tommy in this Doctor Who story. Irony aside, Tommy is one the show’s most memorable one-off characters, thanks to his touching development from a simple minded, almost childlike man, into a mature, funny adult, thanks to a blue alien crystal. I’d never read an interview with him before and it turns out he has fond and impressively detailed memories of a job he’d done nearly thirty years ago.

Barry Letts had originally wanted to be a director at the BBC rather than a producer. Consequently as part of his deal for producing Doctor Who, he also had several chances to direct stories and Planet of the Spiders was an obvious candidate.  In Directing Who he recalls his experiences working with three Doctors in the 60’s and 70’s. As usual his contribution is thoughtful, informative and tactful.

Jon Pertwee’s 1989 appearance on Wogan to promote the Doctor Who stage play is a good example of the entertainer at his best. The anecdotes will be pretty familiar to most fans, such as how he was chosen to be the Doctor, where his talent for mimickery came from and his problems piloting the hovercraft seen in Planet of the Spiders. But it’s clear Pertwee was delighted to be on primetime BBC1 again and it’s a good clip.

Unusually for a DVD release, also included is the one hour forty-five minute omnibus edition of the story which was repeated at Christmas 1975. This version is an interesting alternative and quite watchable but unrestored, showing the amount of work the DVD makers put into improving the picture and sound quality of these episodes.

The commentary features Elisabeth Sladen, Nicholas Courtney, Richard Franklin , Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks. It’s sad that by the time it came out, both Sladen and Courtney had died making this virtually their last contribution to the show. As with all the Doctor Who DVD’s, there is also a photo gallery and information subtitles. Another excellent release from the Doctor Who range that is now available at a bargain price from most outlets.

The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters

I was chatting with a friend I hadn’t seen for a while and we moved onto the subject of a documentary about Doctor Who fans which we’d both taken part in.called Fanz. (You can find it on Youtube) My friend remarked that he feared that because of the general niceness of our mutual friend the film-maker, the forthcoming film would present too rose-tinted a picture. I thought about this when I was watching this documentary about vintage arcade game enthusiasts. This is one those interesting documentaries that lifts the lid on a subject I hadn’t thought much about. But sadly it proves that when it comes to personalities and petty politics, fandom is pretty much the same regardless of the subject. I am afraid I could certainly recognise types of characters I’ve encountered over the years of conventions and social events.

Steve Weebie has been a nearly man most of his life. Despite showing teenage promise as a sportsman and rock musician, he never made a break-though, whilst his ambition to follow his father as a Boeing engineer only ended with him being laid off after a few years. Unemployed and depressed, he became obsessed with an old Donkey Kong arcade game in his garage and he proved to be wonderful at it, achieving a new world record, recorded on VHS tape.

The current world record holder is minor celebrity Billy Mitchell, the star of the Twin Galaxies arcade game fan club. He’s surrounded by friends who insist that Weebie couldn’t possibly beat Mitchell’s score and accuse Weebie of cheating with a modified machine. Mitchell himself says that if Weebie’s so good he should prove it at his local arcade. So Weebie travels 3000 miles to play live in front of Twin Galaxies’ judge Walter May. He sets a new record, hooray! An hour later Mitchell’s friend produces a video tape showing Mitchell achieving an even higher score and Twin Galaxies agrees to authorise it, despite suspicions about the tape’s genuineness.

Depressed, Steve Weebie returns home, but is encouraged to have another attempt, especially when he learns that Twin Galaxies’ high scores are going to be submitted to the next edition of the Guinness Book of Records. Over the four days of the competition, tensions rise and the nagging question is, why won’t Billy Mitchell take part?

I haven’t really conveyed the strengths of this documentary in that synopsis, because they are all in the character moments. Despite the film definitely being partial to Steve Weebie and its David versus Goliath sports storyline, there’s plenty of examples of the Twin Galaxies in-crowd being given enough rope and almost invariably hanging themselves. They are frequently rude, aggressive and unbelievably puffed up with self-importance. I can understand obsessing over a hobby, but when they start talking about mind games and virtually breaking into a stranger’s house in order to dismantle his property, it’s clear their priorities have become skewed. I was going to detail them individually but I looked at what I’d typed and decided it might be libellous on a comparison shopping site.

Not that Weebie is entirely innocent either, there are a couple of moments involving his young children that made me worry what effect his devotion to Donkey Kong is having on them. His wife is perceptive and understanding of what drives her husband, but it is clear she’s hoping for a conclusion to his quest.

There is an element of manipulation in this documentary that I’m slightly suspicious of and aside from Weebie, the director doesn’t dig too deeply into what drives these dedicated games players. It might have been interesting for example to have seen more of elderly Q*Bert champion Doris Self, she hardly fits the gamer stereotype that most of the other men do so neatly. (The film is dedicated to her memory) Ulitmately this isn’t a movie about Donkey Kong, it is a story of male egos, cliques and adults behaving as if they never left high school.

The Visitation

If you were to poll Doctor Who fans beforehand, I doubt many would have nominated Peter Davison’s 1982 Jacobean adventure for the special edition treatment. However, thanks to the vagaries of the DVD release schedule both now and then, it’s back with an expanded two disc release, and this time it’s the new documentaries that are the chief selling point.

A star falls from the heavens. A wealthy family is attacked in their home. When the Doctor and his young friends arrive by accident, whilst trying to return Tegan to Heathrow 1982, they uncover evidence of alien activity. Investigating further, with the aid of actor turned highwayman Richard Mace, they discover a small band of escaped Terileptil prisoners are planning to claim the Earth with biological warfare.

Superficially, The Visitation seems like a quintessential Doctor Who story with its historical setting, rubber-suited evil monsters, a robot, theatrical dialogue and a great deal of running about. It certainly benefits from an unusually high amount of location filming, which gives the story a glossier atmosphere during a mostly studio-bound 1982 season. The opening scene is gripping, a witty portrait of an Elizabethan family, headed by John Savident, who are violently attacked by aliens. After that sadly, the story suffers from a lack of pace and a story that soon settles into a series of chases, captures and escapes. Strangely, the Doctor and his friends rarely seem to engage with any of locals, aside from running from them or watching them. The exception is their new friend Richard Mace, a ham actor and occasional highwayman. Played floridly by Michael Robbins, best known for “On the Buses” he’s an entertaining rogue, but it is as if he has sucked the energy out of the rest of the guest cast. The story does comes alive when the Doctor finally meets the Terileptil leader, but their scenes together are all too brief and then we are back to the Doctor leading his companions about, leisurely investigating empty rooms. A sub-plot about Nyssa building a machine to stop the aliens’ robot servant is hardly riveting either. This lethargic pace is reflected in the rather weak cliffhangers, especially the first, in which Nyssa panics at the sight of a brick wall.

The Terileptils are well-made alien race for the time, resembling giant iguanas standing on their hind legs. They were the first Doctor Who aliens to incorporate animatronics into their faces to give them movement. Whilst it is crude here, the technology had to start somewhere and the man who designed them would go on to a Hollywood career. Actor Michael Melia says in the documentary extra that he was disappointed his face could not be seen under the monster mask, but his rich voice goes a long way to giving the villain an aristocratic personality. Their robot was intended to be not just menacing but to look like a beautiful design, reflecting the sophistication of the aliens. Unfortunately, the obvious cricket gloves it is wearing undermine the effect.

Due to technological advances in the last few years, the sound and picture quality of the film sequences has definitely improved over the first DVD. That is unlikely to be the main selling point of this special edition however for most buyers. Instead the lure is the improved set of supporting extras.

With nearly every Doctor Who story gaining a Making Of documentary, the challenge for the DVD producers has been trying to find novel ways to tell their stories, rather than just rely on the talking heads and photos approach. In Grim Tales, the producers take advantage of the story’s attractive locations, and the jovial camaraderie of Peter Davidson and his co-stars that has carried many a DVD commentary over the years. Mark Strickson, aka the Fifth Doctor’s companion Turlough, and now a television producer, is the host of a literal walk down memory lane, leading Davidson, Janet Fielding and Sarah Sutton through the filming locations and seeing what memories are stirred. Everyone’s in a good mood and their conversation is entertaining, even if there are no revelations. The most memorable moment is their group impersonation of actor Matthew Waterhouse’s feeble falling over acting.

This walkie-talkie approach continues in the second documentary The Television Centre of the Universe – Part 1. Peter Davison, Mark Strickson and Janet Fielding are joined by Yvette Fielding of Blue Peter / Most Haunted fame for a stroll around the famous BBC Television Centre. Coming in the same year as BBC4’s extensive Richard Marson documentary Tales from Television Centre on the same place, a lot of their comments seemed familiar, but once again there’s a good mood and when they meet one of their old friends from the make-up room the recollections come thick and fast. The feature ends on a cliffhanger but with no more DVD’s announced, it’s a bit mysterious when Part 2 will be released. *

Dr Forever, the series looking at the wider history of the show during its sixteen year hiatus, is probably my favourite extra on the disc. The Apocalypse Element looks at the Doctor’s life on audio, particularly the licensed stories produced by Big Finish featuring former Doctors and their companions. For a little while, these adventures on CD became quite high-profile in fandom, especially when Paul McGann joined the line-up to star in sequels to his one-off TV movie. Once the show returned to television their profile inevitably faded a little but they are still the company’s biggest sellers. What’s more some of the people involved have gone on to work in the revived series. The documentary also looks at BBC Worldwide releases such as the talking books and the original stories featuring Tom Baker as the Fourth Doctor, known as The Nest Cottage Trilogy. I was a little disappointed that there was no room to include BBV’s range of spin-offs featuring Doctor Who aliens in their own stories. But hopefully this documentary will encourage more people to sample the excellent work of Big Finish.

All the original DVD extras have been brought over to this second disc. Director Peter Moffatt recalls the five Doctor Who stories he worked on, in an interview called Directing Who. Eric Saward looks back at what inspired the story and shares his mixed feelings about the final product in Writing a Final Visitation. Paddy Kingsland explains his musical choices in Scoring The Visitation and there is a fairly critical commentary from Peter Davison, Janet Fielding, Sarah Sutton, Matthew Waterhouse and Peter Moffatt. In addition we get an excellent photo gallery, information subtitles and PDF copies of the Radio Times listings and a sales brochure for the show.

The Visitation Special Edition is going to be bought by new fans or completests like myself, but if you already have the original, there’s little point upgrading unless you really want the Dr Forever documentary or more banter from the Davidson crew.

* Part 2 would eventually see the light of day on The Underwater Menace DVD. See review