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