The Star Wars movie saga ranked from Best to Worst

I’ve just finished a Star Wars movie marathon, courtesy of Disney+ It’s been the first time I’ve done that since the Disney movies started appearing and that seems as good as reason as any to rate the movies from 1 to 12. Note I am not including the television series or the Ewok movies. (Assume they’d be between 11 and 12.)

1. The Empire Strikes Back
Remains Star Wars’ finest two hours. Armed with new box of techniques learnt from the first film, the team produce a film that dares to take the story into disturbing and surprising directions, whilst keeping its sense of heroism and fun. The Imperial Walkers are still intimidating, the asteroid chase remains a SFX gem to rank alongside Ray Harryhausen’s skeleton sword fight, and Darth Vader’s declaration is one the best moments in Hollywood movies.

2. Star Wars
Even though its roots in Errol Flynn, Flash Gordon, The Searchers and WWII movies are clearly on show, this film still feels fresh and exciting. It was amazing to see the science fiction pulp world of books and magazines come alive on the screen back in 1978, as much as seeing dinosaurs walk by in 1993. George Lucas cleverly aids the realism with his occasional newsreel style framing and giving everything a lived-in look. And underneath all this spectacle, there’s humanity, humour and the pleasure of know much of it was made in Britain with familiar British TV and film faces turning up all over the place.

3. Rogue One
I was hard pushed whether this or the film below should come next. Rogue One edges it for it completeness, the sense of satisfaction in seeing a film so perfectly executed, including its reshoots. Maybe it stands on Star Wars’ shoulders, but this movie has stood up to repeated viewings.

4. The Last Jedi
Suddenly the Star Wars universe feels exciting again, in the film that bravely deconstructs many tropes of the series, yet still emerges as hopeful and uplifting. The opening bombing sequence is masterly and Rey and Ben’s battle in the throne room just might be my favourite light sabre sequence. Only loses points for recreating the Hoth battle imagery at the end, instead of finding a fresh alternative.

5. Return of the Jedi
For years a very satisfying conclusion to the saga. The first act is filled with pleasures and makes the characters’ adventures feel dangerous and something really at stake. Great creature effects too. The gigantic space battle cutting in parallel with the Jedi showdown is marvellously paced. The central core of characters are all in charismatic form, and it’s very quotable too.

6. The Force Awakens
Very enjoyable revival, even if it ultimately plays it too safe with so many call-backs to the original trilogy. But the new quartet of young heroes and anti-heroes are excellently cast and work hard to make their characters engaging. The humour generally works and BB-8 is an ingenious creation.

7. Revenge of the Sith
We entering the more problematic half of the list, where the films are still diverting but the flaws are progressively hard to ignore. This film handles the fall of the Jedi and the failure of the republic pretty well. The battle between Obi-Wan and Anakin is spectacular stuff, though suffers from CGI overkill. In fact as with all the prequel films, the fussy CGI often works against the atmosphere and the choreography. Aside from Ian McDiarmid as Palpatine, once people open their mouths the hideous wooden dialogue ruins all the good work elsewhere. That goes double whenever it’s supposed to humorous.

8. The Clone Wars
As a piece of escapist family friendly action adventure, this works jolly well. The art design is ingenious. Ahsoka turns out to one of the series most engaging young characters.

9. Solo
Star Wars goes fully space western and it’s a fun ride, but the largely predictable box-ticking plot shows the weakness of the idea with these kind of prologue films. Alden Ehrenreich does a decent job with the unenviable task of filling Harrison Ford’s boots, but the real star of the film is Phoebe Waller-Bridge as L3, a droid straight out of Douglas Adams’ universe.

10. Rise of Skywalker
The saga sadly ends with this Frankenstein’s monster of a film, patched together by a studio over-reacting to criticism and fearful of losing money. Sadly, most of the interesting ideas brought in by The Last Jedi are thrown out, along with a lot of story logic. It’s a hollow film with moments brightness such as the colourful festival on Pasaana, but mostly its one long chase after another, spliced with lazy borrowing from Return of the Jedi.

11. The Phantom Menace
Undoubtedly impressive alien worlds, the final acrobatic light sabre battle enjoyable, and Jar Jar Binks is a technical innovation. However, the plot is moribund, most of the cast looks uncomfortable, the racial stereotyping is problematic to say to least, and the dialogue is embarrassingly flat and corny.

12. Attack of the Clones
All the problems of the previous film, except the CGI looks extra cartoonish and the romance scenes are toe-curlingly bad. Every line Anakin utters to Padme seems deeply creepy, and Hayden Christensen brings nothing except a shaggy haircut. It’s a clunky, juvenile film even by the series’ standards. Only Temuera Morrison emerges with any credit for the presence he brings to his short appearance as Jango Fett.

Doctor Who – At Childhood’s End Reviewed

Ace and monster rat

It is fair to say that Doctor Who is almost as much a literary world as a television one. Even before Virgin Publishing released the first authorised original novel Timewyrm: Genesys by John Peel in 1991, many fans including myself had followed the Time Lord through the Target novelisations of stories which we thought we would never see on television again. Not to mention the hundreds of pages of fan fiction which had emerged since the Seventies, a handful of whom’s authors would eventually come to create stories for the actual BBC series. So Sophie Aldred’s first novel materialises into an universe already hundreds of books wide. So it is to her credit (and that of Mike Tucker and Steven Cole, who she openly credits as collaborators in the acknowledgements) that it is an enjoyable read that tells a fast-paced space opera with imaginative new alien races. It also captures her fictional persona Ace perfectly and gets the voices of the current TARDIS crew satisfyingly authentic too.

Ace herself has had a more complicated fictional life than most companions. Her status as the Doctor’s current companion when the show was cancelled in 1989 meant that her adventure across the vortex never had an official conclusion until now. So her history is split into many alternatives across books, comics and audios. She’s had heroic deaths, tragic deaths. Grown up to be a hardened space marine, grown old by the Doctor’s side. Settled down in 19th century Paris, or become Earth’s Champion with her own time-travelling motorbike, or a myriad others. Cleverly this novel addresses these alternatives without become bogged down in trying to reconcile them, before setting out to tell its own story of what Ace did next, inspired by suggestions by ex-showrunner Russell T Davis. Davis had said in an interview in Doctor Who Magazine that if he had stayed for a fifth season, an Ace reunion story might have been on the cards, with Ace as a wealthy charity boss whose slick businesswoman facade would have cracked to reveal the baseball bat wielding rebel she still was underneath.

I was a little concerned that the opening chapters of the book read too much like a wish fulfillment fantasy. Ace is a billionaire who lives in a gleaming London skyscraper penthouse, drives an eco-friendly prototype sports car, and has her own secret ‘batcave’ laboratory workshop of gadgets and alien tech. In addition, she owns a global charity organisation called A Charitable Earth and her best friend is a supermodel actress called Chantelle. Frankly if she was anyone other than Ace, this is the kind of character the reader would automatically suspect of being too good to be true. She also has Will, a handsome ex-boyfriend who happens to be in charge of the British Space Programme. So when a large mysterious alien ship appears in the solar system, she’s soon powering into space to rendezvous with it. They do this with the aid of ‘squidget’, a glowing lump of semi-intelligent Plasticine which like the Doctor’s sonic screwdriver can basically do anything the authors need to keep the plot moving, from turning a humble shuttle into a faster than light spacecraft, to interfacing with the TARDIS.

Once Ace and Will investigate the alien artifact, they soon run into the Doctor, Graham, Yaz and Ryan, who are exploring themselves. Happily the Doctor’s change of gender is dealt with in a couple of sentences and the interactions between Ace and this new TARDIS gang form a major part of the emotional material. We soon find out that Ace and the Doctor parted on unhappy terms and its interesting to see this seemingly more grounded and empathetic Doctor, really struggling with reconnect with her old friend. Meanwhile the two men take Ace pretty much at face value, but Yaz finds her policewoman’s suspicions and sense of right and wrong twanging by an individual who seems to live entirely by her own rules and keeps Nitro 9 explosives handy. It’s great to see Yaz showing some grit and her arc is one of most interesting. Meanwhile there’s some gentle comedy for Ryan when he meets Chantelle, one of his pin-ups, in the flesh.

By this time the storyline is properly underway, with two new enemy alien races introduced – shape changing rat henchmen the Ratts,and a warrior race of centaurs with horse-shaped heads called the Astingir. The latter could be criticised as being essentially that Klingon trope of soldiers who talk about honour and codes a lot. Nevertheless they are well motivated and described, whilst the Ratts are successfully written as pretty unsettling. The authors have created a story that reaches back to the time storm which abducted Ace in the first place and features numerous call backs to other Doctor Who stories of many medias, without feeling off-puttingly fannish and derivative. The action is well described and the writing propels along at a good pace. The rest of the supporting cast are well sketched in with a few lines.

With a moody, effective cover, this is definitely one of the most pleasurable of the Doctor Who tie-in books related to the 21st century series I have read. I would definitely be interested if this same team chose to write another, either more Ace adventures or an original creation.

Doctor Who The Aztecs Special Edition DVD

Before we begin this revisit to another of my old ciao.co.uk reviews, a quick note that the latest edition of the Talking Pictures TV podcast is now out. Hosted by Scott Phipps, it features a contribution by myself on the 1979 Quatermass series by Thames. Plus lots of interesting reviews about old British gems like Hobson’s Choice and The Snorkel. Listen to it now at Spotify, iTunes etc or its website. Thank you, now back to the marvellous Hartnell era of Doctor Who.

Two very different adventures for the First Doctor: The Aztecs finds the original TARDIS crew trapped in the Aztec empire at the height of its powers, two years before Cortez would arrive to destroy it. When Barbara is mistaken for a god she tries to use her influence to change history and save this civilisation. Meanwhile Galaxy Four sees the Doctor and two of his later friends, Steven and Vicki, caught between two alien races on a dying planet. The beautiful Dravhin women say they are under attack by the ugly inhumanoid Rill but time travellers begin to suspect otherwise.

The cover for this DVD doesn’t do its contents justice, advertising it as simply an improved version of The Aztecs when in fact it really a double bill that also features a recently recovered episode from the Hartnell  era which forms the centre piece of a restored ‘lost’ story Galaxy Four. The Aztecs was the first William Hartnell story to be released on DVD, in 1992 at a time when fan were still buying stories on VHS to complete their collection. It was a natural choice for the fledgling new line, being generally regarded as one of the gems of his period. At the time its picture and sound restoration was impressive but this new version is even sharper and clearer. In addition there are some new extras.

The Aztecs illustrates many of the best qualities of the Sixties era of the show. Very ambitious in scope, with several entwining sub-plots, not to mention recreating the city of Tenochtitlán in a small studio. The script intelligently deals with the moral dilemmas of twentieth century British values clashing with the South American nation’s very different mindset, especially their acceptance of human sacrifice. There is a little bit of time-travel SF as the Doctor tries to stop Barbara from interfering in established history and an educational aspect as writer John Lucarotti explores this ancient culture. All the regulars are in superb form, even Susan whose sub-plot about becoming the reluctant bride of ‘The Perfect Victim” was devised to give actress Carol Ann Ford a well deserved holiday. There’s even some humour as the Doctor’s ignorance of local custom leads to him becoming accidentally engaged to a gentle Aztec woman called Cameca. The serial also benefits from strong guest performances by John Ringham and Walter Randall as the rival high priests. This is possibly my favourite of all William Hartnell’s stories.

If you were to ask any Doctor Who fan what lost story they would like to be rediscovered, it is unlikely that many of them would have named Galaxy Four. Due to the lack of many photographs, virtually no pictures at all of its star monster the Rills, and coming from a less well regarded period of the programme, this is one of show’s more obscure stories. But that means watching it now there is a delightful element of surprise and discovery. Episode 3 – “Airlock” was recovered from a private collector last year. This has been combined with an existing clip from episode one, the surviving soundtrack and a lovingly made fan reconstruction featuring photoshopped images and new modelwork of the scenes where only the robot Chumblies are involved. The producers have made the wise decision to cut out about a third of the reconstructed footage, resulting in a pacier hour long version of the four part story, which does not harm the plot at all, since the original did feature some padding and repetition as characters go to and fron between the two crashed spacecraft and the TARDIS. If you want to experience the complete version, then you can buy the soundtrack on CD.

Galaxy Four is reminiscent of a Star Trek episode in many ways. It has a simple ‘don’t judge by appearances” moral, studio bound desert planet set and it would easy to imagine Captain Kirk trying to seduce one of blonde Dravhan women. What it lacks in sophistication, it makes up for in incidental pleasures such as the endearing Chumblies, robot servants of the Rills which look like three bowls stacked on top of each other. Clearly an attempt to create another money spinning character like the Daleks by author William Emms, the Chumblies failed to catch on with the public. Meanwhile the Rills are purposely rather immobile, unable to leave their ship due to the planet’s atmosphere being poisonous to them but they look suitably bizarre and Robert Cartland provides a fruity theatrical voice for them. Best of all is Stephanie Bidmead as Maaga, the ruthless leader of the Dravhans. She’s intelligent, drily self-aware and a bit of a sadist. Her high point is delivering a memorable speech into the camera as she contemplates the forthcoming death of the Rills and the Doctor. Hartnell and Maureen O’Brien make a good team as they explore together, in fact I think this is as good as I’ve ever seen Vicki.

This two disc set comes with a plenty of extras. There are most of the features from the original release: a Blue Peter item with Valerie Singleton visiting the ruins of Tenochtitlan and giving a potted history of Cortez and Montezuma, “Remembering the Aztecs” – interviews with surviving cast members, “Designing the Aztecs” – an interview with designer Barry Newbury and “Making Cocoa” – an amusing animated guide to making the chocolate drink the authentic Aztec way. Also remaining is the option to watch episode 4 with Arabic dubbing as recorded in the sixties and one of the TARDIS Cams, a series of wordless short videos produced by the BBC’s then newly formed online media department in the early Noughties.

The commentary features producer Verity Lambert and actors Carol Ann Ford and William Russell. It’s not that good unfortunately because their specific memories are few and far between, making most of material just comments on what they are watching like three viewers. It was commentaries like this that prompted the DVD makers to start including a knowledgeable fan in the panel for later sixties stories.

As well as Galaxy Four, the second disc features the brand new DVD content. From the BBC2 archives comes an episode of the history series Chronicle. “The Realms of Gold” is wonderful documentary about the story of Cortez and the Aztecs. If it was being made today it would have dramatic reconstructions, CGI and a booming score. There’s something rather relaxing about its more academic tone, with contemporary illustrations, maps, location filming and an austere score by the Radiophonic Workshop. Also from the library comes what is almost certainly the first Doctor Who TV comedy sketch, a clip from Michael Bentine’s “It’s a Square World” featuring Clive Dunn dressed as The Doctor, playing a rocket scientist.

Many people who buy Doctor Who DVD’s are collecting the whole set. This has encouraged the makers to make several multi-part documentaries spread across several titles. “Doctor Forever!” is taking a look at the wider world of Doctor Who as a phenomenon. This episode is about the merchandise. It’s a subject that could easily fill an hour but this twenty minute feature covers a fair amount of ground, from Sixties Dalekmania to today’s highly detailed action figures. Some of the more unusual items are looked at too, such as the TARDIS Tuner and Tom Baker underpants. It’s one of my favourite features in the package. “A Whole Scene Going” was a Sixties magazine programme and there’s a report on the making of the second Dalek film, including a rare interview with Gordon Flemmyng.

This year there are several special editions of the older Doctor Who DVD titles coming out but this one is I think is the most worthwhile. Well recommended.

Doctor Who – Colony in Space DVD Review

As gorgeous as the new Doctor Who Collection blurays are, one of the strengths of the DVD releases was that, for one month, nearly story, regardless of reputation, got its moment in the sun. The center of a collection of DVD extras, memories and artwork. Because there are some adventures that otherwise might always be the roughage of a season, a spacer between other more celebrated titles. Colony in Space is such a serial. The most six-parterly of Pertwee six-parters,

The Master has stolen the Time Lord’s secret files about a legendary weapon hidden on the planet Uxarieus. So they take control of the TARDIS to send the exiled Doctor and Jo Grant on a mission to stop him. Unaware of the true reason for their journey, the pair become embroiled in the conflict between a poor farming colony and a powerful IMC mining exploration team. Uxarieus is also the home a race of primitive tribal warriors who live inside an ancient city of incredible technology, ruled by mutated priests. When the Master arrives in disguise, the Doctor begins to realise that there is a far greater danger than just the ruthless IMC Captain Dent and his troops.

One of my favourite Doctor Who novelisations is Doctor Who and the Doomsday Weapon by Malcolm Hulke, based on his own script for Colony in Space. It’s full of interesting characters and what makes them so vivid is their back stories, which also illustrate Earth’s future civilisation. It is a grim over-industrialised society where people have little experience of the outside and big corporations rule. It was shock therefore when I finally saw Colony in Space on UK Gold and found that the television version has very little of what made the book great, such as the Doctor showing the colonists how to hold a simple funeral, a ceremony they had little experience of in their automated lives. Instead these episodes are a bit of a plod, with a lot of the Doctor moving back and forth between the three camps, slowly working out a fairly simple story. The characters are all fairly stiff as well, although Bernard Kay gives some colour to his role as a sympathetic IMC mineralogist and Morris Perry is coldly effective as the fascist IMC Captain Dent. Coronation Street icon Helen Worth also appears as Mary, the young daughter of the colonist’s leader.

It doesn’t help that the planet looks so boring. Perversely, the Doctor’s first visit to an alien planet in the colour television era finds him driving through a grey/brown quarry for most of the time. Even the alien city is largely rendered in cramped brown rocky corridors and rooms. The Uxarians are not much to get excited about either. Neither the spear-waving primitives or the gargoyle-like priests can talk and despite Jo Grant screaming when they appear, they never seem like much of a threat either. The shrunken Guardian is another disappointment, a very obvious puppet with an actor’s head poking out on top. Speaking of Jo, it’s interesting to compare her first trip in the TARDIS with those of the more recent companions. Whilst Rose, Clara et al greet the universe with wonder and thinks it really cool, Jo steps out of the TARDIS, wrinkles her nose and is asking to be taken back to UNIT HQ within a couple of minutes!

Colony in Space is essentially a western – homesteaders versus the big cattle baron, with the Uxarians playing the Indians. They even have a couple of shootouts with old fashioned rifles.  Thankfully the story does pick up a little once the Master arrives, played with charming evil by Roger Delgado, but its speed never develops into more than a trot.

This DVD is relatively light on extras. “IMC Needs You!” is framed by some amusing South Park style animation but is otherwise a straightforward making-of doc, with much emphasis on the terrible weather and muddy conditions the team had to endure. Probably the most interesting fact is that the script originally called for Dent to have a ruthless female henchman, but Ronnie Marsh the Head of Serials felt that a woman in a leather uniform shooting people was too kinky for family viewing.  All the contributors seem fairly happy with the resulting episodes.

“From the Cutting Room Floor” – features a collection of outtakes and behind the scenes moments from the location filming. It’s one of the more entertaining examples of this feature, with some nice moments of humour from Delgado and Pertwee.

The commentary is a fairly luvvie one this time. Comedian and television historian Toby Hadoke chairs a discussion with stars Katy Manning, Bernard Kay and Morris Perry being joined by director Michael E Briant, Assistant Director Graham Harper (who in recent years has directed Doctor Who and the Coronation Street tram crash) and script editor Terrance Dicks. It’s a jolly conversation, with some laughs at the show’s expense, which frankly this story deserves.

After that there are the standard photo gallery and information subtitles, whilst Frank Bellamy’s marvellous comic strip in the Radio Times which promoted the first episode can be opened as a PDF. Colony in Space is a very average story and one for the fan completest rather than the casual viewer.

Doctor Who – The Ark

Monoid and young woman

If there is one idea science fiction has taught us, its that huge colony ships crewed by generations of humans are generally a bad idea, prone to all kinds of sociological weirdness. Or in the case of this story, employing an another alien race as your servant class is bound to come back to bite you.

Earth is about to fall into the Sun, so the survivors of the human race have set out in a gigantic colony ship to live on the planet Refusis II. Alongside them for the journey are an alien race called the Monoids, who appear to be happy to work as humanity’s servants. When the Doctor (William Hartnell), Steven (Peter Purves) and Dodo (Jackie Lane) arrive, they accidentally infect the crew with the common cold, a virus that future humanity no longer has any immunity to. Soon it looks as if the whole population will be wiped out. Whilst the Doctor races to find an antidote, he is unaware that his presence will shortly have even more significant and unforeseen effect on the future of the human race.

The Ark is a unique story within the history of the programme, with a twist that must have been a real shock back in 1966. It uses the time travel element of the show in a way that few other stories have, at least until Steven Moffat took over as showrunner. For once it addresses the consequences of the Doctor’s travels and encounters with strange new worlds. Unfortunately aside from that concept, this is a story I enjoyed more for its unintentional humour than its dramatic qualities. A lot of the comedy comes from the monster of the month – the Monoids. They resemble a man sized lizard with a Beatles mop top and a single eyeball in its mouth. It initial appearance is striking but as soon as they start waddling about and using a sign language that resembles a frantic game of charades it is hard to take them seriously. They’re just as funny when they learn to speak and have a charming way of discussing their evil plans out loud, then being surprised when humans hear them. Their leader, simply known as Number One, comes out with one of the show’s most infamous lines, “Take them to the Security Kitchen!”

The humans aren’t much better in their skimpy togas and wooden acting. Of special note is their Commander (Eric Elliot) who delivers every line with a fruity Shakespearian flourish. You’d have to have a heart of stone not to laugh at his deathbed scenes. The pace is slow too, even by the standards of the time. Once or twice the cast just literally stands there waiting whilst what looks like an airport truck rolls in slowly and parks.

According to Peter Purves who played Steven, Hartnell was becoming increasingly difficult to work with as a long term illness began to affect his memory.  There’s the odd stumble in his lines but generally for the viewer he is still the Doctor on good form, sometimes imperious and other times quite twinkly. Peter Purves himself is great. This is a good story for Steven who gets to be heroic and take charge in the Doctor’s absence. Meanwhile this was the first full story for Dodo (Jackie Lane) after having arrived at the end of the last story when she mistook the TARDIS for a real police box. She’s quite likeable and makes a good team with Steven, with a pronounced Northern accent, one that swiftly fades over the course of the four weeks it took to make this story. It’s a shame that most of her stories have been junked.

Despite seeing the flaws I do admire the ambition of the serial, creating a vast spaceship with a jungle inside it, the surface of an alien planet, massive statues and shuttlecraft flying through space, all created in a small studio on a budget that wouldn’t pay for one set in the current series.

As is often the way with Hartnell stories, sadly most of the key players are no longer with us to be interviewed. However Peter Purves who played the companion Steven and director Michael Imison are very much alive and join stand-up comedian and fan Toby Hadoke for an affectionate but honest commentary. There are three major DVD extras: “All’s Wells That Ends Wells” is a documentary on H G Wells’ influence on Doctor Who. It’s a nice little piece, although the links with “The Ark” are tenuous. “One Hit Wonder” is a light-hearted feature that celebrates the Monoids and asks why some monsters only appear once in the programme. “Riverside Story” is partially a reminisce about how television drama was made at the BBC’s Riverside studios and also a look at the making of “The Ark”. All three of these features are ably presented by cultural historian Matthew Sweet. In addition there are the essential photo gallery, info text and Radio Times PDF files.

I did enjoy this story but as a fan who loves the series including its foibles. A more casual viewer might be less forgiving. So this is a DVD for the fans of Sixties Doctor Who.

Gareth Preston

Photo copyright Radio Times

Doctor Who – The Mutants

TARDIS

By the ninth season, the Doctor Who production team of Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks were finding their reliable Earth based formula for adventures beginning to constrain them. Happily they had cleverly written themselves an escape clause. The Doctor’s exile could be temporarily relieved by the Time Lords who had imposed it, when they wanted to hypocritically send him on a mission to interfere with other civilisations, the very crime they were punishing him for. The Mutants is one of those mid-table stories, decently made but perhaps lacking anything to really push it into the more memorable classics, but its excellently presented on this DVD.

The Doctor (Jon Pertwee) and Jo (Katy Manning) are sent by the Time Lords to Solos to deliver a mysterious box to an unknown recipient. Solos is a misty planet colonised by Earth where the native, seemingly medieval Solonians are treated as second class citizens and are not surprisingly bitter about their lives. They are also being terrorised by a spate of horrific mutations, as men and women turn into insect-like creatures nicknamed Mutts. When an ambassador from Earth informs the odious Marshall that their faltering empire is pulling out of Solos and giving it independence, the tyrant cannot bear the thought of losing his power. He arranges for the ambassador to be assassinated. The Doctor and Jo soon find themselves on the run and battling tribal warriors, mutants and Earth troops. Only by solving the mystery of the mutations and exposing the corrupt Marshall can they hope to survive.

It surprising that some fans have recently been complaining about Doctor Who being “preachy” when in Jon Pertwee’s time the programme was often telling allegorical SF tales. Racism had been tackled previously by Letts and Dicks in The Silurians and The Curse of Peladon but this is the most explicitly political take on the subject, a direct comment on South Africa’s apathied regime and the colonial attitudes behind it. There is also an ecological thread about future Earth becoming a barren concrete jungle and thus having to export its pollution to other planets. Mixed in with this is the SF body horror trope of humans gradually changing into something strange and inhuman. John Friedlander’s design of the mutant creatures is splendid and when they are scuttling enmasse through the caves they are pretty scary. On a trivia note, the Mutt made a cameo appearance in Frontier in Space and later was reused as another alien race in The Brain of Morbius.

Paul Whitsun-Jones had a long track record of playing flamboyant, menacing villains on TV and as The Marshall he goes into full Brian Blessed mode, shouting his way through the part in a way that may not be subtle  but is certainly entertaining. Pertwee’s Doctor is at his grumpiest in this story, acting as humanity’s conscience and horrified by the treatment of the Solonians and their world.  Special mention ought to go to Christopher Coll as cockney trooper Stubbs, making a lot out of a fairly generic guard character, even with the handicap that his best friend Cotton is played by Rick James, one of the worst actors ever in the series.

They’ve fitted a surprising amount of extras on this disc considering it is a six-part story. “Mutt Mad” is an in-depth if straightforward making-of doc, heavy on talking heads and BBC paperwork. More interesting is “Race Against Time”, a look at the show’s attitude towards casting ethnic actors. While admitting the show could have done more to promote more black faces in prominent roles, generally the show is given a clean bill of health. Oscar winning costume designer James Acheson gives a fascinating interview about his time on the programme in “Dressing Doctor Who”. He was responsible in part for the look of the Sontarans and the Fourth Doctor’s famous scarf. Then there’s a slightly random clip from Blue Peter in which Peter Purves talks about Doctor Who monster costumes, including a Mutt.  The six episodes enjoy an excellent commentary featuring a rotating cast of contributors led by Katy Manning (Jo Grant), Garrick Hagon (Ky), Christopher Barry (director), Terrance Dicks (script editor), Bob Baker (co-writer), Brian Hodgson (special sounds supervisor) and Jeremy Bear (designer). This good value disc is rounded out by the traditional photo gallery, info subtitles and Radio Times listing in PDF format.

Watching “The Mutants” again on DVD I’ve enjoyed it a lot more this time. I used to think it was too long and slow but in fact there is a lot to stir the mind and enjoy.  Pertwee is in great form, the Mutant transformations are quite creepy and I’ll even forgive the dodgy science about what happens when you get a hole in the side of a space station. (clue you don’t stand by chatting next to it just because the air pressure has ‘equalised’).

Gareth Preston

Photo by Chris Sampson, Flickr, used under Creative Commons License.

Vengeance on Varos

Sixth Doctor action figure, with DVD

Television loves a drama about itself. In fact it is almost a surprise it took 22 years for Doctor Who to set a story in a TV studio. Vengeance on Varos cleverly uses the audience’s awareness of both the language of television, and the lively debate about the effects of screen violence, which has rumbled on since popular entertainment was first projected on to a white sheet. Back in 1985, the whole “video nasty” controversy was still fresh in minds of many UK viewers. The early burgeoning video rental market had seen gory exploitation fare like Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Driller Killer and SS Experimentation Camp suddenly leaving the relatively controlled environment of late-night cinemas and into the living rooms of family homes. Not only that, but objectors pointed out that unlike broadcast television, video recorders had the facility to pause, slow-down and replay disturbing scenes. Doctor Who had courted controversy in the past with some of its frights, and this legacy is also re-examined in this Special Edition DVD. For some fans, Vengeance on Varos is the story that crossed the line in the depiction of violence, by explicitly involving the Doctor as a perpetrator. More on his acid bath murders later.

The TARDIS is stranded in space. Only by obtaining the rare mineral Zeiton 7 can the Doctor hope to travel again. He and Peri make an emergency landing on Varos, an ex-prison planet turned brutal mining colony. Here the Governor and his officers control the population through violent repression and lurid reality television, filming what happens in the “Punishment Dome”. They’ve even started selling packaged programmes of the disturbing footage to other worlds. Somehow the Doctor must escape the many death-traps of the Dome, and outwit the loathsome Sil, an intergalactic business shark.

Vengeance on Varos was the first Colin Baker story to be released on DVD. For the time the extras seemed quite generous, most of them based around the unedited studio footage. But the presentation of the programme on DVD has become a lot more sophisticated since then, as has the methods of converting the video tape into digital. Hence this two-disc special edition with improved picture and sound, plus three new featurettes.

The core of the story is a satirical look, both at violence on television and the debate over its effects on the audience, and modern democracy. Its vision of an emotionally deadened audience, watching a constant diet of violence and death 24 hours a day maybe exaggerated but there are some prophetic observations. About the way news is reported and the cynical producers who shape the material to create stories. Or the risk that continual public referendums via TV voting, could result in meaningless democratic choice and poor government. The real complexities of the planet’s problems are reduced to platitudes and soundbites from the Governor when he asks the people for their yes or no vote. Yes, watching this story in June 2019, its hard for a UK viewer not to think about Brexit and the way the referendum has failed to achieve anything so far, except increasing our cynicism in politics.
“Well he makes me sick!” complains Arak to his wife Etta. “He’s the worst governor we’ve had since…well since…”
“Since the last one?” she finishes mockingly.
This bickering couple who watch the story unfold on the video screen in their dingy room, are obvious avatars for the both the the populace of Varos, and the real life television audience at home. But their commentary gives the rest of the story more reality and a lot of their dialogue is entertainingly meta. “I like that one,” coos Etta at the Doctor, “the one with the funny clothes.”

Television is accused of cheapening human life, reducing traumatic experiences to shallow entertainment. But ultimately it is the evil regime and economic poverty that is driving the misery, so it can be argued that the exploitative television is a symptom rather than the cause. The most important quality of this story is that it both entertains and asks serious questions to get the audience thinking. It also features one of my favourite cliffhangers, a clever post-modern moment where the Doctor’s apparent death is being directed onscreen and the episode ends with the line, “And cut it…now!” If only the end titles had crashed in on the Governor’s words, rather than the television static and Sil’s maniacal laughter, and would have been in my top ten of greatest moments in the show.
Writer Philip Martin had some form with this kind of fourth wall breaking. The second season of his Seventies crime drama Gangsters became increasingly self-aware of its nature as a television show, memorably ending with an actress walking off-set in indignation, as the picture pulled back to reveal the studio set.

Sil is the most memorable character, thanks to a marvellous performance by disabled actor Nabil Shaban and a good costume. This greedy squirming amphibian with a gurgling laugh and pompous manner is the highlight of every scene he appears in. A ruthless, cowardly businessman obsessed with profit over lives, he is an obvious comment of commercial greed but Shaban gives the character a powerful, funny personality, with some nice alien touches, particularly his gurgling alien laugh. He was popular enough to be brought back in the following season and has made a further appearance on audio. This year will see him return in his very own Reeltime spinoff video – Sil and the Devil Seeds of Arodor.

Martin Jarvis is excellent too as the haunted,resigned Governor, a leader who is literally tortured by every negative vote. There’s an interesting complexity about him. Although he mostly presented as a sympathetic character, by contrast with Sil and the duplicitous Security Chief, the fact that he originally came up with the idea of selling footage of the torture as entertainment and his willingness to use executions to achieve his aims means that his hands are far from clean. There is certainly no guarantee when the Doctor leaves that the colony is in good hands. Colin Baker is in his early days here and his Doctor is still pretty bombastic and unsympathetic. Colin Baker’s idea that his Doctor would mellow over time proved to be bad choice in my opinion, since his character too often ended up alienating viewers rather than intriguing them. Worse still, in an already violent story, the Doctor seems to come under the influence of the Dome. He fights with two guards who have recently carried his unconscious body into a disposal room. In the ensuring struggle, one guard falls into a vat of acid, and then accidentally drags his compatriot in. Watching them dissolve the Doctor remarks with a smirk, “You’ll forgive me if I don’t join you!” This hardly seems heroic, especially this Schwarzenegger-esque quip at the end. as they thrash and disappear under the bubbles. A completely wrong choice by actor, writer and director there.

Nicola Bryant is meanwhile fine as Peri, although she is pretty much a victim for much of the story. But her natural emphatic reactions to the wrongness of the world around her as a welcome balance in a story so steeped in amoral attitudes.

As I mentioned above, there are three new extras on this release.  Nice or Nasty hosted by Matthew Sweet is a cheery making-of doc that concentrates on the writers for a change, namely Philip Martin and script editor Eric Saward. It looks into the controversy of the story’s violence, as well as the budget problems. The Idiot’s Lantern sees Channel 4 News presenter Samira Ahmed looking at all the instances where television itself has appeared within Doctor Who. It’s a good succinct feature and its striking just how much both televisions and the language of the medium are threaded into the show. Characters frequently watch television (or video monitors). Events are often reported on by TV presenters to give them more reality. Occasionally characters even comment with self-awareness on the show’s own cliches. “Not even the sonic screwdriver will me get out of this one!” announces a worried Fourth Doctor to the camera in Invasion of Time.

Tomorrow’s Times looks at the press coverage of Colin Baker’s tenure. After an initial burst of positivity with his casting and arrival, sadly most of it was pretty critical. This was the time of the 18-month ‘hiatus’ when Michael Grade nearly cancelled the show and it was here that the show seemed to stop being a popular mainstream hit and the narrative became that of a struggling cult series.

It’s an actor’s commentary for this story: Colin Baker, Nicola Bryant and Nabil Shaban discuss their memories in a laid back manner. The original extras, based on the raw studio recordings are all here. Also archive clips of Colin Baker’s first interviews in the role, on Saturday Superstore and Breakfast Time which are quite charming. There is also a deleted French and Saunders sketch in which they play actors in monster costumes who keep spoiling a take, but it is tin-eared and unfunny. In addition there are the traditional high quality photo gallery and information subtitles.

Despite its relatively low budget qualities, such as the guard’s amusingly slow moving electric buggy which is in-advisedly used in an action scene, this story’s ambition and performances make it possibly my favourite of Colin Baker’s short era in Doctor Who.

Doctor Who – Regenerations Box Set

Regeneration book open and six DVD discs next to it

Regeneration is the genius idea that has enabled Doctor Who to become the longest running science fiction series in the world, rather than a sequence of fantasy television programmes aimed at the British teatime audience over the last five decades. So a DVD box set of regeneration stories, dramatic farewells rather than energetic introductions in this case, is an obvious idea. The resulting cross section of nine stories may not always be the programme at its peak, but probably a more honest portrait of the show than a collection of fan chosen favourites would be.

Here’s another review from my Ciao shopping site archives circa 2013, when a small tsunami of Doctor Who merchandise was sweeping through the shops as part of the 50th anniversary celebrations…

There’s a lot of Doctor Who out there for a new fan. It’s exciting but at same time maybe also a little intimidating for some. Presumably it is that kind of viewer that this 50th anniversary box set is aimed at. Its theme of “regeneration” seems an obvious choice for selecting a choice of stories across the show’s history but it throws up problems too. For a start Colin Baker and Matt Smith hardly get a look in, only appearing in the regeneration scenes themselves, whilst Patrick Troughton is over-represented because his final story is a ten episode epic. In many ways a collection of the Doctors’ debut stories might have been a better idea, not least of which is the fact that such stories often focus on the idea of regeneration much more. True Patrick Troughton would then have had the converse problem, since his debut no longer exists* but a compromise might have been found. Nevertheless the stories we do find here show the programme at its best and worst, so at least it is representative in that sense. All the discs contain new menus designed to match the book and the bare episodes only, none of special features are included from their individual releases. For your money you will get:

The Tenth Planet
A frail Doctor faces the Cybermen for the first time when their home planet of Mondas reappears and a squad of cyborgs invade space command at Antarctica.
A fascinating story which is as much to do with a philosophic debate about humanity as it is an action story. Plenty of good characterisation from the guest cast, particularly Robert Beatty as the aggressive General Cutler. The Cybermen look more like the walking dead, kept alive with a creepy life support system. I think it’s a great design and it’s a shame it was dropped so quickly for the more robotic look we’re familiar with. Episode four no longer exists, so it has been recreated in sepia toned animation. Thankfully the animation is a big improvement on the choppy twenty camera cuts a minute style of The Reign of Terror a few months ago and is an entertaining watch. This story will be unavailable to buy on its own until November, but I can’t see many fans buying this box set just to get hold of this story a few months earlier, especially since it lacks any special features.

The War Games
The TARDIS seems to land in No Man’s Land during World War One, but the Doctor soon discovers that he and hundreds of kidnapped human soldiers from across history are part of an ambitious plan by the alien War Lords.
An epic adventure which not only sees off the Second Doctor but introduces the Time Lords and the Doctor’s origins as well. It’s a splendid story packed with colourful characters, great cliffhangers and funky Sixties designs. Edward Brayshaw is superb as the enigmatic War Chief who carries a surprising secret of his own.

Planet of the Spiders
Mutated spiders from Metebelis 3 plan to invade the Earth and beyond using possessed humans and a perfect blue crystal once stolen by the Doctor.
The Third Doctor bows out in a story involving lots action, a plot inspired by its writer/producer’s interest in Buhdism and some surprisingly effect giant spider puppets. As with many six part stories it can drag in places and some of the scenes on the alien planet are rather stiffly acted. But Jon Pertwee’s farewell to Sarah Jane and the Brigadier, lying on the floor of his laboratory, is touching and probably the closest the Doctor has got to a conventional death scene.

Logopolis
The whole universe is in danger of collapsing as the Doctor and a newly revived Master battle on the mysterious world of Logopolis.
The Fourth Doctor’s final adventure is a very sombre affair, with Tom Baker himself looking worn, ill and lacking much of his familiar sparkle. It’s a story of ideas rather than action and should be commended for trying to bring some hard science into the drama, even if it is not completely successful. It also features my favourite regeneration sequence, with lovely music from Paddy Kingsland.

Caves of Androzani
The Doctor and Peri fight to survive in a squalid tale of drugs, gun-running and revenge on the planet Androzani Minor.
The best adventure in this box set, thanks to an engrossing, blackly comic script, a superlative cast and an unusually dynamic visual style thanks to director Graham Harper, who would go on to direct several episodes of the 21st century revival as well. It’s a case of everything clicking together perfectly.

Time and the Rani
An unstable regenerated Doctor is fooled by the Rani into helping complete her project to create a machine capable of reshaping the whole universe to her own design.
Not just the worst story in the set, but one of the worst stories in the whole of Doctor Who. The story is nonsensical, Sylvester McCoy is given very little help in establishing his Doctor, forcing to him to fall back on improvised slapstick, and whole production looks gaudy and light-entertainment. Kate O’Mara is wasted in a role that requires her to pretend to be Bonnie Langford for half of it.

The TV Movie
The Master endangers the world on New Year’s Eve 1999 when he tries to steal the Doctor’s lives.
An entertaining US television movie which the BBC hoped would lead to a new US co-produced series. That was never likely to happen but it did give us a splendid Doctor in Paul McGann and helped re-energise Doctor Who as a whole. The plot goes somewhat silly at the end but there are a lot of incidental pleasures along the way. It’s become a glimpse of what might have been.

Bad Wolf / Parting of the Ways
The Doctor is horrified to discover a vast Dalek fleet has been controlling humanity for centuries from The Game Station.
Superbly confident adventure that mixes reality television satire with SF action adventure, not to mention combining the present and the far future and facing the Doctor with a major moral dilemma. There are so many memorable scenes, from the ‘death’ of Rose to the unveiling of the gigantic Dalek Emperor, to the Doctor’s holographic goodbye.

The End of Time
The Ood warn the Doctor that something terrible is coming to Earth, something that may destroy time itself, and involves the return of the Master.
A frustrating story that has plenty of great moments, but equally plenty of annoying ones too. The plot doesn’t make that much sense and the Doctor himself is curiously unlikeable much of the time, arrogant and wrapped up in himself. However it features an amazing cast of guest stars and a superb cliffhanger to part one. The Tenth Doctor’s final set of journeys to revisit all his old companions does seem an indulgence too far though and makes his near-death status seem rather ridiculous.

The accompanying slip-cased book is a real thing of beauty, filled with rare photos, exclusive artwork and a thoughtful text by Justin Richards which looks at each story in the set and the regeneration of each Doctor. The design work here is very handsome indeed, printed on high quality paper and it’s a lovely object to handle. My only caveat is that at a mere twenty four pages it is more of a booklet than a proper book. The discs themselves only contain the episodes, with none of the special features included in the main Doctor Who range. Their attractive menus are all specially designed to match the design of the book.

This is the kind of box set that would be terrific to receive as a gift (as in my case), but I think few people would plan to buy this for themselves, since all but one of the stories are already available, and mostly at bargain prices, whilst the book, nice as it is, is hardly essential. As a 50th anniversary celebration I wonder if a “Best of” approach may have produced a better selection of stories since this listing gives us three Master stories but no Daleks save for momentary cameos in The War Games and Logopolis. But if you are looking for a present for the fan in your life and you like them enough to spend nearly £60+ then this set would undoubtedly look good on any coffee table.

* Since this review was written, Troughton’s debut has been released in animated form on DVD and blu-ray.

Quatermass on Network’s blu-ray

Quatermass blu-ray case and novelisation

Twenty years after Quatermass and the Pit thrilled British television audiences, Nigel Kneale created a brand new science fiction adventure for a very different era. Instead of the cramped studios of Lime Grove and 405 line TV cameras, Quatermass was made in colour, on film and made on mostly on location. The result was was an epic piece of science fiction television that divided critics and audiences at the time but has gradually risen in appreciation and is now considered very much a part of the Quatermass saga, as well as a fondly remembered ITV drama.

The near future. Seemingly thanks to a worldwide economic crisis, Britain has descended into a state of anarchy. Professor Bernard Quatermass, now an elderly man, his British Rocket Group a distant memory, has come to London to take part in a live television broadcast celebrating a pointless US/USSR space mission. But really he is trying to find his missing granddaughter Hettie. Then to everyone’s shock the spacecraft is inexplicably destroyed. Escaping the furore with a young scientist called Joseph Kapp, Quatermass discovers that masses of young people are being drawn towards ancient sites. Intrigued he and the Kapps go to the nearby stone circle Ringstone Round, only to witness the horrific sight of the whole crowd being wiped out by a huge energy beam from space. With only limited resources and growing danger from fanatical Planet People, a shaky government and violent gangs, Quatermass tries to uncover the nature of a terrifying wholly alien threat.

Nigel Kneale originally approached the BBC with the idea of a fourth Quatermass story, then titled “Quatermass 79”. Star Wars had brought science fiction back into fashion and the corporation was enjoying success with both Doctor Who and Blake’s 7. However the BBC executive most closely involved left for Thames Television and took the project with him. Thames and its cinema division Euston Films were keen to branch out from the gritty two-fisted action fare like The Sweeny which had made their name and correctly predicted that science fiction was going to be the next big trend. In order to raise the budget the project was planned to be made simultaneously as a four part mini-series and a feature film for the USA market. Kneale later said he regretted the strategy, feeling it harmed the structure his script, producing a television series that was too padded and a film that was too short for the story to be properly developed. I beg to disagree.

This set contains both the television series and The Quatermass Conclusion movie version and it is fascinating to compare them. In order for the story to work as a film, an exclusive scene was filmed to cover certain plot points. The biggest story difference between them is a sub-plot about Quatermass becoming lost after a London gang ambush and joining a community of elderly people living in hiding under a scrapyard. In the movie he simply arrives safely at the hospital and witnesses that bizarre transformation of a young girl hit by the alien ray, something that happens without him in the television version. Another major casualty is Quatermass’ friend Joe Kapp, whose family life and later mental disintegration is largely excised. Generally I much prefer the television version, which has room for its characters to develop and generally become even more sympathetic, which in turn makes the violence and the destruction more horrific. There’s also more room for humour too, such as the fuming of a camp director of a soft-core porn television show, whose studio is taken over to transmit a message.

It is wonderful to see Nigel Kneale’s literate, often downbeat, thoughtful script be realised with such an impressive production. Director Piers Haggard had previously helmed the 1971 cult British horror movie “Blood on Satan’s Claw” and many well regarded television dramas. He gives the series a great sense of scale, creating a convincing urban apocalypse and bringing energy and pace to a fairly conversational script. Compared to other British television SF of the time, such as Blake’s 7 and Tom Baker’s Doctor Who, it looks amazingly glossy, shot mostly on location, featuring night filming, and some impressively large scale sets such as Ringstone Round. Only the space shuttle interior lets the side down, looking distinctly like painted wood and lacking the accurate details. Special mention should also go to Marc Wilkinson and Nic Rowley’s melancholy and imaginative music, blending electronic and conventional musical instruments.

A common criticism of the series was that its main human danger, crowds of mesmerised hippies, was an out of date concept for 1979, a time when punk rock was the major youth movement. I’ve always found this a rather shallow argument. Its’ sense of urban decay seems relevant in any age, whilst the way that Planet People and other influenced humans reject science in favour of New Age beliefs is quite prophetic of the mood of anti-intellectulism that appeared in the nineties and continues to a lesser extent today. “Stop trying to know things!” shouts an angry protester at one point. Kneale himself said he felt the onscreen Planet People were too flower-power when he had intended them to be more manic and aggressive.

Quatermass marked John Mills’ third major British television role. As a well-known film star on both sides of the Atlantic, his participation guaranteed the production’s huge (for the time) £1.2 million budget. Playing the famous scientist at a very different time of his life, Mills brings out the professor’s humanity and decency, a man who regrets the way his obsession with manned spaceflight has damaged his family. Writer Nigel Kneale felt the avuncular Mills was miscast and lacked the authority needed for the character. Yet the Quatermass Kneale has written is initially a beaten, lonely old man who gradually rebuilds himself as the story continues and Mills is fine at playing this. Playing Joseph Kapp, Simon McCorkindale, a few years before his international fame in Dynasty, Falcon Crest and ahem Jaws 3D, in many ways represents the man Quatermass used to be, passionate, principled and driven by his work to the point where he puts his family in second place. Kneale was critical of him too in later interviews, saying he was better at playing foolish lightweight men and wasn’t good at playing an intellectual. Barbara Kellerman is excellent as Clare Kapp, his sensitive wife who begins to show signs of alien influence. Veteran actress Margaret Tyzack makes a good companion for the Quatermass as a government District Commissioner called Annie Morgan. The series is filled with familiar TV character faces like Brian Croucher, Brenda Fricker, Ralph Arliss, David Yip, Kevin Stoney and Bruce Purchase. Sharp eyed viewers will also see a pre-fame pop star Toyah Wilcox as one of the hippie travellers.

The serial has been released on VHS and DVD before but Network have once again worked wonders with the HD restoration of the 35mm film footage. The picture quality is quite incredible, filled with detail I’ve never noticed before and making the most of outdoor set pieces such as the riot at Ringstone Round or devastated London. I was worried that HD would be unkind to the special effects of the day. I shouldn’t have worried because the optical effects look better and more detailed than ever before, whilst the modelwork in the space scenes whilst obviously filmed models, looks perfectly acceptable and does not break the serious mood. The brand new 5.1 surround sound mix is equally impressive. However purists will be glad to know there is also the option of the original mono soundtrack.

Extras

With many of the principle people no longer with us, it’s perhaps inevitable that the extras on this release are fairly minimal. No commentaries or new documentary on the production. However this area is more than satisfactorily filled by the enclosed booklet by well-regarded archive TV historian Andrew Pixley. Pixley’s style of writing is exhaustively researched but very accessible. He is already something of a legend amongst cult TV fans for his work documenting series like Doctor Who, Mystery and Imagination, Out of the Unknown and many other Network and BBC DVD releases. Suffice to say that everything you need to know about the making of this series is in this slim volume. He also puts into the context of Nigel Kneale’s whole career.

There is the option for music-only soundtracks for all four episodes, and also whether the view the episodes with the original ITV episode recaps. A silent version of the cinema trailer is there. It’s a shame the soundtrack couldn’t be recreated for it. Probably the least essential extra is a silent, textless version of the movie credits, which is pretty similar to the first scene that opens the TV version. Finally there is an Image Gallery with many rare photos.

As an extra bonus (or gimmick depending on what you think), Network have released the first thousand copies of the blu-ray edition with one of four exclusive covers featuring artwork based on the original four TV title cards. The standard edition features a photo montage which is also used on the DVD release.

This new edition of Quatermass is definitely worth an upgrade if you have a blu-ray player. There is also a restored DVD edition being released simultaneously but with the blu-ray you’ll get a significantly upgraded presentation. It is a thoughtful, excellently made SF event series that deserves to be rediscovered by a whole new audience, as welcome as welcomed back by its admirers.

The Ambassadors of Death

Ambassadors of Death DVD case

Britain’s Mars Probe 7 returns to Earth after a mysterious communication breakdown and its crew are kidnapped by a gangster. These returned astronauts can kill with a simple touch. The Doctor and Liz Shaw soon discover that whoever the silent astronauts are, they can’t possibly be human. What has happened to the original human spacemen? Who is behind a government conspiracy to cover up the UK’s first official alien contact? Why does someone want to provoke Earth’s first interplanetary war?

Jon Pertwee’s era as the Doctor has two distinct periods. The latter involves the UNIT ‘family’, where the Doctor becomes fairly avuncular, his assistants Jo Grant and Sarah Jane have quite young outlooks and personalities and the whole feel of the show is warm. However his first season has noticeably more serious attitude and possibly a more mature one. Pertwee himself is testier, more aggressive and his outfit is mostly sombre colours. Liz Shaw his assistant is definitely a woman with an authority that comes from her impressive academic career. Although her taste for mini-skirts and kinky boots hints at a trendy Seventies outlook too. It could be argued that this season has less variety, with most of the stories taking place in one scientific complex or another and those stories are mostly too long, but I generally prefer this time when the Quatermass influence was more pronounced.

The Ambassadors of Death had a difficult genesis, with veteran writer David Whitaker being asked to produce several drafts, none of which the producers were happy with. Eventually the script editor Terrance Dicks took over the rewrites, along with frequent collaborator Malcolm Hulke. Because of budget problems, it had been decided to extend three of the four stories to seven episodes to save money. Whilst The Silurians brought in a prehistoric plague sub-plot to stretch its story and Inferno gained a trip to a parallel Earth, which helped to transform it into one the programme’s most epic and gripping stories, Ambassadors could only increase the number of kidnappings and attempts on the Doctor’s life, whilst the conspiracy plot hatched by the hidden traitor became both convoluted and full of logic holes. Yet to a large extent these problems do not stop the Ambassadors being entertaining moment by moment, in a Saturday matinee serial sort of way. Director Michael Ferguson is amongst the best directors the original series enjoyed, with a dynamic style and some clever visual tricks which make the most of the limited budget, such as the quick edits in the aliens’ unmasking scene, cutting between the Ambassador and Liz’s reaction. There are several excellent action set pieces, including a gunfight in a warehouse, a helicopter attack on a convoy and a car chase that culminates in Liz Shaw hanging over a raging river. For a while this is as Earthbound as Doctor Who could possibly be, it’s guns and spies and criminals who are motivated by money, damp countryside and television news reports. The Doctor may be an alien but here he could be a younger Professor Bernard Quatermass without any effect on the story. Even the spaceships are merely slightly advanced versions of existing Apollo era tech.

Then at the end of episode five a huge glowing UFO arrives out of nowhere and we suddenly return to a world where the Doctor is our intergalactic ally, exploring its psychedelic alien interior. I quite like the way the aliens never introduce themselves properly and the Doctor has never encountered them before (or since). Their enigmatic nature and briefly glimpsed true forms do help cover the fact they are some of the cheaper aliens the series has featured.

Out of the guest cast, William Dysart stands out as Reegan, the ruthless criminal hired to kidnap and control the aliens. He murders several men in cold blood, but he was also has gallows wit and shrewd intelligence. Cyril Shaps is also memorable as the weasely scientist Lennox, a clever but weak man in far over his head.

For many years this story only existed as a black and white film recording, except for episode one.  There was a colour Betamax recording from America but it was hopelessly blurry. The DVD restoration team have done a marvellous job in restoring the colour. Although the picture is still grainy in a few places, considering they were working virtually from scratch they must be commended. This is a two disc release with the second disc carrying the extras. The main item is “Recovery 7” a making of documentary which concentrates on the stunt men who were a regular feature of Doctor Who’s UNIT era. This seems appropriate considering this is an action heavy story and some coverage was overdue in this range. But it is a shame we could not have learnt more about the earlier versions of the story when it was called “Invaders from Mars” and featured the Second Doctor. The excellent modelwork is also well covered.  “Tomorrow’s Times” is a continuing feature across several of the later Doctor Who DVD’s, looking at the show’s press coverage. Obviously this time it is covering the Pertwee years, and it seems the show got a pretty soft ride from the critics, with only Mary Whitehouse raising complaints over the frightening content of some stories, particularly the killer dolls and policemen in Terror of the Autons. Finally there is the specially shot trailer for Ambassadors, in which Pertwee says key lines from the script (“I don’t know what came down in Recovery 7, but it certainly wasn’t human!”) interspersed with clips from the story. It is quite effective and it is good to see it has survived.

The commentary features a big cast and is one of the most enjoyable for quite a few releases. It is also a little sad that by the time the DVD came out, both Nicholas Courtney and Caroline John had died. But here they are in a cheerful mood, joined by director Michael Ferguson, actors Peter Halliday and Geoffrey Beevers, script editor Terrance Dicks, stunt co-ordinator Derek Ware and stunt performers Roy Scammell and Derek Martin and all moderated by fan and actor Toby Hadoke. Present and correct are the traditional information subtitles and photo gallery.

Whilst as a story it is not up to the standard of the recently released The Mind of Evil, The Ambassadors of Death is a very enjoyable SF adventure story and deserves a re-evaluation by fans, especially if they’ve only seen it edited and in murky monochrome on UK Gold.