Spearhead from Space Blu-ray

Doctor Who’s history has been filled with fortuitous accidents. One of its best known is that due to industrial action at BBC Television Centre, producer Derek Sherwin persuaded his superiors to let him make Jon Pertwee’s debut adventure as the Doctor entirely on film. The meant an especially glossy launch for the colour era of the show. Now over forty years later, that decision means that Spearhead from Space can be genuinely re-mastered from 16mm film print to high definition digital video. It is the only ‘classic’ Doctor Who story which is worth releasing on blu-ray*. Intended as a companion to the last DVD release of the story, it features exclusive documentary extras and a unique re-graded colour scheme.

Exiled to Earth by the Time Lords, a newly regenerated Doctor lies unconscious in a forest as strange meteorites land around him. UNIT, led by Brigadier Lethbridge Stewart, arrive to investigate and recruit him as their new scientific advisor, along with the brilliant Liz Shaw. Together they face the first invasion of the Nestenes and their lethal plastic foot soldiers, the Autons.

The most important question about this new edition is – how good does it look? The answer is – amazing. I’ve sometimes struggled to see that much of a difference between DVD and Blu-ray, particularly with new films, but here the picture quality is startlingly clearer, sharper and smoother than the previous Special Edition release. It’s a cliché to say it looks like it was made yesterday, and it doesn’t anyway, the clothes, technology and atmosphere remain wholly 1970. But it does feel even more like a British cinema film, albeit a low budget SF movie made by Amicus or similar. Because this version is envisaged as an addition to the DVD range rather than a replacement, the restorers have deliberately regraded the colour to a colder hue, giving the story a more subliminally sinister feel. The soundtrack is the same cleaned up one used on the previous DVD, except one or two controversial alterations have been reversed, most notably the return of the stuttering TARDIS landing effect as the Third Doctor arrives.

Spearhead from Space is Derrick Sherwin’s blueprint for what he wanted Doctor Who to be, more adult, contemporary and an emphasis on slick professionals battling the unknown. Writer Robert Holmes partially reworks his own 1966 SF movie Invasion with the addition of the Nestenes, an ingenious idea about formless aliens with an affinity for all things plastic. It gives us the Autons, blank faced plastic dummies with hidden blasters in their hands.

The whole story has a great pace to it. Whilst the Doctor is largely bed-ridden in episode one, there’s plenty of intriguing mystery. Once he’s out of the hospital and dressed in frilly shirt and flamboyant suit, the Third Doctor arrives almost fully formed. Considering this is one of the first times Jon Pertwee has played a leading man heroic role, rather than a comedy eccentric in heavy make-up, he’s remarkably assured. Caroline John makes a good debut too, perfectly cast as a young science high-flyer. Personally I’ve always preferred Liz Shaw’s more mature relationship to the Doctor to Jo Grant’s persona of a favourite niece. Meanwhile as the Brigadier, Nick Courtney is the veteran character here and he basically continues the good work he began in his first appearance during The Web of Fear.

There are some great set pieces, such as an Auton causing an army jeep to crash, a pitched battle between soldiers and Autons at the factory and best of all, shop window dummies coming to life and massacring the shoppers in a London street, a scene so iconic that the revived series paid homage to it in the very first Christopher Eccleston adventure. However it is a shame that the climatic fight between the Doctor and the Nestene mother creature is more risible that exciting, with a gurning Pertwee pretending to fight a host of rubbery tentacles. That should not detract however from what is otherwise a very entertaining SF adventure.

 

Extras

Deciding to not to remake the extensive behind the scenes extras on the Special Edition DVD, BBC Worldwide went in a different direction with two exclusive documentaries on the stars of the show: Jon Pertwee and Caroline John.

A Dandy and a Clown looks at Pertwee’s life story, beginning with his difficult childhood thanks to a cold father and an absent mother, his rebellious school days, life in the navy and going through to his successful career on radio, film and television. The problem with Pertwee’s life is that there is so much to cover, that inevitably this 42 minute programme can only skim the surface. For example it would have been good to learn more about his film career and the stories behind some of the intriguing stills which sail past. As it is, it is left to scriptwriter Terrance Dicks to sum it up in a couple of sentences. The section on his post Doctor Who career is almost completely taken up with Worzel Gummidge, understandable considering it was the actor’s proudest achievement in his career, but I would have like to have heard about his quiz show Whodunnit and other guest roles. Finally Jon Pertwee did have a darker side. There plenty of stories over the years revealing his vanity, egocentricity and insecurity but again these are summed up in a couple of quotes and shunted aside. For better or worse, this is definitely a celebration of Pertwee, rather than a warts and all portrait.

Carrying On reveals the story behind one of the lesser known Doctor Who companions, and it turns out the Caroline John had an interesting life and an acting career that was much more than just one year in a BBC SF show, even if it didn’t turn out to be as successful as she had hoped. She had demonstrated an interest in acting as a child and enjoyed a prestigious career at RADA and then the National Theatre company. Lawrence Olivier was in charge and actors like Derek Jacobi and Michael Gambon were playing supporting roles. So she looked on course for a respectable theatrical career before deciding to audition for television roles, notably trying to shake off her serious image with a portfolio of bikini photos. Only working on Doctor Who for the year and not having her contract renewed put a big dent in her confidence however, and she semi-retired from acting to raise her family. For years she laboured under the idea that she has failed in the part, but thankfully the 1990’s saw her discovering how much Liz Shaw was loved by fans. With her family now grown up she went back to the theatre, along with voiceover work and occasional TV work like Harry Enfield and Chums. The documentary is filled with warm recollections from friends and family and is ultimately quite touching. Sadly a battle with cancer took her from them far too soon.

Making up the remainder of the extras are a collection of short items. Film elements from the creation of the title sequence are likely only to interest the most fervent of fans. There’s a segment showing just how much the original film was cleaned up and enhanced. Finally a coming soon trailer for the Special Edition release of The Green Death on DVD.

If you do not already own one of the two DVD releases, then you may regret the lack of behind the scenes extras, in which case buy the Mannequin Mania boxset containing the special edition and the sequel Terror of the Autons. If on the other hand you own a Blu-Ray player, then this is a unique opportunity to see 70’s Doctor Who in 21st century HD quality. So it is lucky that the story is good enough to deserve the restoration.

The Ice Warriors

The 1968 Doctor Who story which introduced one of the programme’s major league alien foes – the Ice Warriors. After a good start however, it’s frustratingly repetitive plot in which the characters spend hours asking the same questions, interspersed with some slow action scenes and a monster race which is visually impressive but rather boring when talking. Nevertheless the DVD team have once again done an excellent job at restoring the old film prints to better than new, the two missing episodes are recreated with decent animation, and the extras are good value.

It is the Thirtieth Century and human civilisation is under attack from a new ice age. A network of scientific bases are holding the glaciers back with a device called an Ioniser. At the Britannica base, an already strained team, under the dictatorial leadership of Clent, face two unusual sets of visitors. The first is the Doctor, Jamie and Victoria after the TARDIS has landed outside the protective dome. The second are a group of alien warriors found frozen in the glacier. Christened “Ice Warriors” by the scientists, these Martian reptilian soldiers awaken dangerous and suspicious, and the Doctor realises that their entombed spaceship may pose an even greater threat to Britannicus and maybe even the whole world.

If you have read a few of my Doctor Who DVD reviews, then you may know that I’m particularly fond of the black and white era and the Second Doctor in particular. So it’s particularly disappointing to report that this recently restored story is something of a drag.

We start off brightly enough with some good comedy as the Doctor, Jamie and Victoria scramble out of an upended TARDIS into a snowy landscape. The new ice age and the Britannicus base with its conflict-ridden scientists are efficiently introduced: Clent, the rule-bound, officious leader, Penley, the rebellious but brilliant expert, Miss Garrett, the deputy with conflicted loyalties. When a mysterious warrior is brought in, frozen in a block of ice like The Thing From Another World, and reanimates, gasping for breath and flexing its claws, everything seems set-up for an exciting story. Sadly the remaining episodes become a slow relay race between the Britannicus base and the Ice Warrior’s spaceship, with characters going in search of others and missing them on the way, all to pad out the story. Inbetween the big question is, does the spaceship have an atomic drive or not? This will determine whether or not the humans can switch on the ioniser. But that’s not a very interesting question really. There is little in the way of a moral dilemma for the Doctor or his friends. The story’s other big debate about the computerisation of modern life also becomes sterile pretty early on, with Clent and Penley speechifying whilst the Doctor is mostly concerned with the threat of the Martians.

The Ice Warriors were originally conceived by writer Brian Hayles as Vikings with cybernetic implants. But the production team were looking for a more obvious new monster, especially since they were no longer able to use the Daleks. Terry Nation had taken his metal villains to the USA, hoping to make an original TV series. So the Ice Warriors became armoured reptile men and visually they are undoubtedly impressive, with their height, scaly carapaces and blank eyed helmets. Their hissing voices and lumbering gait made them easy for children to imitate too. However they lack personality. Varga and his troops are just a bunch of military thugs, who order people about and threaten to kill people, but don’t have much of a plan or motivation, let alone a sense of humour. Despite being the last of their race, they don’t have any sense of tragedy. Their return appearances would give their race a bit more depth, especially when they became the Third Doctor’s allies in Curse of Peladon but here they only add to repetitive feel to this story.

It’s an unusually strong guest cast with quite a few familiar faces. Peter Barkworth was a respected leading man from Sunday night dramas like The Power Game as well as a theatre grandee. As the straight-laced Clent he gives a memorable if slightly actory performance full of facial tics and a prominent limp. It’s decidedly odd at first to see a young Peter Sallis after years of watching Clegg in Last of the Summer Wine but he’s fine as the clever, cynically humorous scientist Penley. He’s similar to the Doctor in some ways, but shot through with stubborn pride that puts others at danger. But he’s not as unreliable as Storr, a luddite survivalist who befriends Jamie and Penley but later tries to serve the Ice Warriors too. He’s played by professional Scotsman Angus Lennie, later better known as Shuggie the chef in Crossroads.

There’s a reasonable array of extras. Cold Fusion is the cheerful making documentary in which surviving cast and crew look back warmly at filming the series, whilst Bernard Bresslaw’s son recalls his dad’s pleasure at being cast in such an unusual role and visiting him on set. Meanwhile Beneath the Ice interviews the animators at Pup Ltd about recreating the missing episodes with 2D computer animation, and the challenges of working from a set of stills and a sometimes unclear soundtrack. The animation is on a par with their creditable work on another incomplete Second Doctor adventure The Moonbase. They have also animated a BBC trailer from 1968, where only the soundtrack still exists.

Clips from the 1968 Blue Peter Design a Monster Competition have been used in other DVD extras but here is the unedited version, with classic line-up of John Noakes, Valerie Singleton and Peter Purves. Delightfully the BBC kindly made the winning pictures into actual monster costumes. So the Blue Peter studio is invaded by the Steel Octopus, the Hypnotron and the Aqua-Man, in costumes which whilst childish, are not a hundred miles away from aliens which actually appeared in 60’s Doctor Who. What is most striking about these clips is the school atmosphere, a far cry from today’s matey, talking to the children on their level, version we have now. At one point Valerie even tells the viewers how “disappointed” she is by the entrants who copied their monsters from comics.

Frazer Hines and Deborah Watling once again team up on the commentary track and whilst it is reasonably entertaining, the more interesting commentaries are found on the two animated episodes. Part 2 is a montage of clips from people who are no longer with us, including director Derek Martinus and Bernard Bresslaw. On Part 3, Michael Troughton talks about his father, having recently written his biography and it is full of new anecdotes. For fans who want all possible material, the DVD preserves the original telesnap slideshow which was included on the VHS release to bridge the two missing epiodes. It also carries the traditional information subtitles and photo gallery too.

Is The Ice Warriors worth buying? Have you seen Enemy of the World and Web of Fear yet? If not then I’d recommend seeking them out first, far superior examples of the Troughton era. The Ice Warriors is impressively made, but its wooden, preachy story has dated badly.

Terror of the Zygons

The final complete story to be released in the Doctor Who DVD range, I have to admit that this is one of my personal favourites. A cracking SF/horror yarn with a very British sensibility and a lively pace, it also brings us one of the series mostly fondly remembered one-shot monsters – the Zygons. Well I say one-shot but last year saw them finally return as the secondary villains in the anniversary story Day of the Doctors * and it’s a testament to their inspired design that they only needed a minimum of updating.

In the North Sea, oil rigs are being mysteriously destroyed. The Brigadier summons the Doctor, Sarah and Harry back to Earth to investigate. To their amazement they soon find evidence that the culprit might be the legendary Loch Ness monster! The Doctor suspects that some other intelligence must be behind the attacks and he’s right. The Zygons, a desperate race of shape-changing aliens, are secretly planning to conquer the world through acts of terrorism.

Terror of the Zygons is a marvellous example of the Doctor Who formula. It has the classic thread of the Doctor investigating a strange mystery, discovering aliens and then a well laid third act twist that sends the story off in a new direction. It opened Tom Baker’s second season and marked the beginning of the fondly remembered ‘gothic era’, where producer Philip Hinchcliffe and script editor Robert Holmes shamelessly raided Hollywood’s back catalogue for inspiration. However this story doesn’t really have a particular movie precedent in the way that say Pyramids of Mars homages the Mummy genre. It starts as a giant monster movie, evidence building up of a dinosaur-like monster, but the appearance of the shape-changing Zygons sends it into the alien duplicate genre of 50’s films like It Came From Outer Space. With its use of the green muddy moors, eccentric characters and the terribly British UNIT, it frequently feels like the kind of off-beat British SF film that Hammer or Amicus could have made in the late 60’s, sharing a double bill with Fiend Without a Face or Scream and Scream Again.

The Zygons have a lot more personality than the average alien menace. “How I long to free myself from this abomination of a body!” bitches one of them to her friend. John Woodnutt is wonderful as their leader Broton because he adds so much dry Scots humour into him when in his human guise. He even twirls his umbrella when departing his spaceship. As well as their disturbing appearance, a mixture of octopus and foetus, their hoarse whispering voices are equally memorable. Their shapechanging effect is quite stylish, using a similar method to that which created the old title sequence. The show was ahead of its time in its depiction of organic technology too, years before H.R. Giger’s art and Alien made the concept popular. For many the Loch Ness monster, or Skarasen, is a less successful creation, but I rather like it. It’s certainly better that the scaly stars of Invasion of the Dinosaurs and its pursuit of the Doctor across the moors is a great sequence, thanks to the gurgling roar and a sudden unexpected moment of stop motion animation amongst the puppetry. Only the attack on London disappoints, realised with a quick bit of chromakey video effect, it’s a long way from the climactic scene it should be.

Tom Baker performance is flying by this time. He’s a man of action but with an off-beat style. He’s frequently funny but it is not so much quips as just the energy he puts into lines like, “Teeth are very serious things Mr Huckle!” or “Maybe it emits some kind of primitive mating call?” Whilst Jon Pertwee’s Doctor felt very much at home with UNIT, no matter what he claimed, Tom Baker’s Doctor is restless, happy to help the Brigadier in an emergency, but very much an alien in a human world. Elisabeth Sladen is particularly good in this one too. Warm, funny and pretty, she seems to enjoy working with Nicholas Courtney and John Levene again. Sarah Jane even does some actual journalistic work for once. It’s also sad to see Harry Sullivan leave the TARDIS in this episode. Maybe Ian Marter’s role as the action man had been supplanted by Baker, but he made Harry such a likeable, down to earth fall guy and the three of them are one of my favourite TARDIS line-ups.

I’ve already hinted that this story has something of a horror bent and there are several effective shocks. Probably the most chilling is a scene where a Zygon disguised as Harry attacks Sarah in a barn, a scene that could easily fit into a more adult programme and it’s doubtful whether it would filmed like that in today’s show. All the cliffhangers are excellent too, especially the first with Sarah’s scream merging with the sting of the closing music. Speaking of music, this story is one of only two to feature the work of multi-award winning composer Geoffrey Burgon, the man responsible for soundtracks such as Brideshead Revisited and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. His work here is one of the series’ eeriest pieces, recognisably Scottish but not clichéd.

Fairly uniquely, this DVD comes with the option to watch a “director’s cut” version of episode one, containing a lovely deleted scene of the TARDIS landing, and Sarah and Harry wondering where they are.

There’s an excellent selection of extras on the second disc. Kicking off we have a decent Making Of documentary – Scotch Mist in Sussex, which benefits from producer Philip Hinchcliffe’s good memory. This was a technically demanding story and the programme celebrates the ingenuity of the BBC team in creating the Zygons and their organic technology, as well as realising Scotland in the cheaper location of Sussex. Most of the same contributors from the documentary also turn up on the commentary, which is unusually production side biased. It features Production Unit Manager George Gallacio, writer Robert Banks-Stewart, Dick Mills of the Radiophonic Workshop, producer Philip Hinchcliffe and make-up artist Sylvia James.

Remembering Douglas Camfield celebrates the life and work of one of the best directors to work on the show. All of Douglas Camfield’s stories have a dynamism and pace to them that belies there television origins. He loved adventure stories, and apart from Doctor Who he directed several excellent period swashbucklers and many crime shows like The Sweeny and Shoestring. Here, co-workers remember his energy and the way he ran his productions with military efficiency. He even proposed two intriguing Doctor Who storylines, and it is a shame that neither materialised.

I’ve mentioned this before in other reviews, but it now seems very odd the way that when companion actresses left original Doctor Who, they generally either disappeared or went back into fairly low profile work, whereas today’s ex-companions depart with the cache to headline at least one major TV vehicle, or more often than not head to the USA. These days, having a recognisable face is considered an asset, but in the Seventies it seemed many television producers regarded typecasting as a real problem, especially for women. Even Elisabeth Sladen, after playing one of the most popular companions in the series, followed that up with a succession of low budget daytime presenting gigs. This DVD contains a typical example, a schools programme called “Merry Go Round” in which Ms Sladen presents a report on an oil rig in the best Blue Peter tradition. Wearing a sou’wester not dissimilar to one that Sarah Jane had, it’s easy to think of her doing this film in her fictional journalist persona.

Not one but two Doctor Who Stories are included, one on Tom Baker and another on Elisabeth Sladen. Both extras have been edited from the extended interviews recorded for the 40th anniversary documentary The Story of Doctor Who. They are both entertaining, although both actors rely on familiar anecdotes that many long term fans will have heard before. Tom Baker circa 1975 also appears in a clip from local news show South Today, fielding some dumb questions from a reporter.

The UNIT Family – Part 3 concludes an examination of the UNIT stories with a look at the post-Pertwee era. To me it was something of a missed opportunity to see how UNIT changed with the times, because it concentrated mostly on the Brigadier. The interesting updating that occurred in their last full story “Battlefield”, introducing a more international team and new technology, are not mentioned for example. Neither is their increasing role as a secret organisation, covering up alien activity.

Explore the menus on the second disc and you’ll also find two worthwhile DVD easter eggs. There are also the traditional but still impressive regular features: a photo gallery, Radio Times listings PDF and information subtitles.

Terror of the Zygons has been released twice on video, once on laser disc, and twice on DVD but this is the definitive version of a classic Doctor Who story.

 

* And since this review was written, also in their own two-part story The Zygon Invasion / The Zygon Inversion.

White Sands, Cemetery Club and other shares

Easter has just passed by and I seem to have reached critical mass with a number of little bits of news about what is happening in my world. So here is one of those occasional news round-up type posts of mine.

I’ve been pretty busy down at Bolton Little Theatre in the last few months. We had an extremely successful screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show with plenty of the audience in costume and some wild behaviour in the aisles! I must admit I was pretty nervous how this night was going to play, so it was a big relief to hear our guests leaving in high spirits and some lovely feedback on the night. We’ll be showing Dirty Dancing on Saturday evening 9th June 2018. Visit the BLT website for tickets and more details.

But my main job in the last few months has been as sound designer and operator for various productions on both of our stages. Absurd Person Singular by Alan Ayckbourn was a particular challenge, requiring party sounds every time the kitchen door was opened, and that door gets used an awful lot. Another tricky part was that each act opened with a Seventies Christmas pop song, which faded from normal to mimicking the tinny sound coming from an onset radio. But I pulled that off and this brilliant play about materialism and self-delusion was brilliantly acted by an excellent cast. I thought it was one of our best productions in a while. Although The Pitmen Painters by Lee Hall, which I was only tangentially involved with, was every bit as good in every department.

Currently I am rehearsing The Cemetery Club by Ivan Menchell, a witty comedy about love in New York’s senior citizen community. the sound requirements for this are relatively modest, probably the most challenging of which is a whistling kettle and getting the volume of it right. But its still quite a time commitment and will take up most of this and next week’s evenings. I’ve also put together a promotional trailer, which you can watch below:

Overlapping with that production is Agnes of God by John Pielmeier, an intense interrogation drama set in a New York convent. I’ve already recorded some voiceovers for it and will shortly be assembling the choral musical cues with the director. Earlier last year I recorded the three woman cast at a readthrough, and so was able to create a particularly effective trailer, my favourite in a while:

With all this tech work, and editing a monthly BLT newsletter, there has been a knock on effect on my writing but I’m becoming more productive now with a couple of projects. One I can’t discuss yet but hopefully might turn into my biggest theatrical script yet. The other is a short video about my love for Michael Mann’s 1983 horror movie The Keep. I am currently writing the script. This will be the second in a new series Westlake Films is producing. The first episode, in which Carl Bowler rhapsodies about Scott Pilgrim vs The World, has just been released online. Carl does an excellent job in praising what makes the cult comic strip adaptation tick and how it links with his own life. You can find it on Westlake Films’ Youtube channel. Or indeed, right here!

My fellow writer Rik Hoskin has had several exciting projects published lately. His marvellous six-part SF comic Red Rising: Sons of Ares has been collected into a handsome graphic novel. Based on the hit YA series Red Rising by Pierce Brown, the comic tells of the origins of resistance leader Fitchner Au Barca. Born as a Gold, one of the ruling class of a brutal future human solar empire, the misfit Fitchner soon recognises the cruelty of the system. To protect his secret wife and son, who come from the lowest caste, Fitchner’s fight against the Empire leads to tragedy and the seeds of a rebellion. The artwork is engrossing and Rik’s storytelling skills are well in evidence.

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Speaking of graphic novels, the sequel to the New York Times bestseller White Sands, which was also written by Brandon Sanderson and Rik Hoskin, is out now. White Sands Volume Two continues the adventures of a young magician on an alien world where sand can be magically wielded to create and destroy. It is adapted from an unpublished manuscript of Sanderson’s and is a part of his Cosmere universe. Both this and Red Rising: Sons of Ares are published by Dynamite Comics.

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Outlanders may have concluded but Rik is now involved with a new series of action novels – SEAL Team Six, alongside Max KentIt depicts the all action secret missions of a group of Navy SEALS – the proverbial best of the best of the best. Executive Order sees them dispatched to track down a ruthless ISIS group which has got its hands on US drone technology. I’m currently reading it and it’s great entertainment.

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Finally you can learn more about Rik by reading this recent interview, carried out by fellow comic and magazine writer John Freeman for his blog downthetubes.org. Click here for 10 Questions

 

The Underwater Menace

I used to regularly write reviews for the ciao.co.uk shopping comparison website and earn some pin money, but sadly the company has now folded. A shame because for a period there was a good community of writers there. It definitely helped me practise and hone the craft of review writing, since earning were dependent on good feedback. Over the next few months I am going to republish my favourite of the articles I wrote. Hope you enjoy them.

I’ll confess I had slightly mixed feelings receiving this DVD from the BBC Shop. For this is the end, the last remaining unreleased Twentieth Century story of Doctor Who and the end of over fifteen years of DVD releases. Of course there’s always the happy possibility of more discoveries of lost episodes in foreign countries*, and the current television series will carry on releasing box sets until we’ve started streaming everything in the world. So until then, we can finally re-watch this lost story, the earliest existing one to feature Patrick Troughton as the Doctor. It’s a purest pulp Thirties comic strip adventure featuring Atlantis, a really mad scientist and industrial action from sequined Fish People.

The TARDIS lands on a nameless beach somewhere on Earth. The Doctor, Ben, Polly and new recruit Jamie explore and are soon captured and taken into the bowels of the Earth. Here they excitingly find the lost city of Atlantis, and less excitingly are offered as sacrifices to the sharks swimming in the temple of Amdo. Their execution is halted in the nick of time by Professor Zaroff, “the greatest scientific genius since Leonardo Da Vinci!” according to the Doctor. Soon Ben and Jamie have become slaves in the mines, Polly is scheduled to be transformed into a Fish Person, and the Doctor discovers that Zaroff has gone utterly mad and is about to undertake his greatest ever experiment – the destruction of the whole world!

There really isn’t another Doctor Who story quite like The Underwater Menace and that is the kindest claim I can make for it. These four episodes are branch of science fiction straight out of the Saturday Morning Matinee serials like King of the Rocket Men. Logic is frequently thrown to the winds, and the emphasis is firmly on action, with each cartoonish idea quickly followed by another daring escape. Caves lined with traps, pagan human sacrifice, disguises, a prison escape, Frankenstein-style operations creating half men/ half fish people and a cackling villain in a swirling cape. And I’ve not even reached midway through the story yet. Approached in the right campy mood it can be quite entertaining. There are some hilarious dramatic lines: “You’re not turning ME into a FISH!” “Why do you want to blow up the world? / Why else? For the achievement!” “So you’re just a little man after all. You disappoint me!” Plus one that has entered into fan folklore – Professor Zaroff’s cliffhanger exclamation “Nothing in the world can stop me now!”

In the accompanying documentary, writer Rob Shearman wonders if Geoffrey Orme, the television journeyman writer behind this tale, was trying to fit in every idea he had ever had for a Doctor Who story. There are virtually no layers or deeper meanings to this tale. It is pure hokum that merely asks, “How will our heroes escape?”

This was Troughton’s third story as the Doctor and his persona had not quite settled down yet. He is still being deliberately eccentric, with his large stove pipe hat, wearing zany disguises and acting in a slightly childlike manner in places, such as his scenes with Zaroff in the professor’s laboratory. It is fascinating to watch him still finding his acting feet in the part. Zaroff was played by Joseph Furst, a respected character actor with a successful career in film and television already behind him and much more to come, including the James Bond movie Diamonds are Forever, and historical drama 55 Days in Peking. Faced with such a melodramatic villain, he seems to have decided to go all out, exaggerating his Austrian accent even more and talking fast and bombastically. I don’t blame him because most Zaroff is clearly an egotistical larger than life character in the first place. “Your people? They’re MY people!” he boasts to the King of Atlantis. Colin Jeavons, a thin faced actor best known for playing unsympathetic characters, does however make the most of Damon, a young science acolyte of Zaroff who clearly burns with ambition to succeed him.

The TARDIS was becoming a bit cramped at this stage with three companions. It is even more of a problem in this story because Frazer Hines as Jamie was a late addition to the story, having been cast on the strength of his appearance in the preceding, sadly lost story The Highlanders. Consequently his lines were most borrowed from Ben and Polly, aka Michael Craze and Anneke Wills. The result is that none of the characters are served well, beyond what charm and energy the actors muster themselves. Polly in particular seems to disappear from the story for quite a while, and when she is there, it is mostly to be menaced by others.

The Fish People are some of the show’s least loved monsters. They wear leotards with sequins glued on and tied with strips of cellophane. Some have sequins on their faces and black felt eyes. Others have to make do with swimming goggles. Clearly the BBC wardrobe department tried their best on the low budget, but these creatures inspire neither fear nor pity, resembling something put together by Year Four for a school play, probably with Disney’s song Under the Sea playing tinnily in the background. Their underwater ballet in episode three may be well-realised considering the limitations of the studio, but at the same time it feels more like a pointless pause in the action rather than a blockade.

Due to managerial decisions beyond their control, the BBC’s unofficial Restoration Team have only be allowed to put bare bones telesnap versions of the missing episodes 1 and 4, accompanied by the restored soundtrack from a fan’s recording. This is a shame because it does not do the team’s abilities justice. Telesnaps are photographs taken from a live television broadcast by an enterprising photographer called John Cura back in the 1960’s. He used to offer his services to television directors who wanted a permanent record of their programme in the pre-domestic video era. Compared to the previous telesnap versions which have been enhanced with Photoshop, stills from other sources, and descriptive subtitles for wordless scenes, this basic slideshow only conveys the episodes in the most crude way. I don’t blame anyone who finds the climax hopelessly confusing when all they can hear is bumps, cries and rushing water, set against a couple of grainy images.

Despite the low budget for this final release, the extras are relatively generous. A Fishy Tale is an entertaining Making Of documentary, interesting because this is a fairly obscure story. We learn about its formidable director Julia Smith, who would go on to create produce Eastenders. Doctor Who Fan and author Rob Shearman has some observant points to make and argues his defence for the story well. The Television Centre of the Universe – Part Two continues the documentary begun on the DVD Doctor Who The Visitation – Special Edition. Peter Davison, Janet Fielding and Mark Strickson carry on their tour of the old BBC Television Centre in the company of Yvette (Most Haunted) Fielding. Along the way they meet a few old faces from the production team in the Eighties. There are some good anecdotes about the art of making drama in the old multi-camera environment, a practice now almost extinct as today’s television dramas are made much more like films. However the documentary does teeter on the edge of indulgence and dare I say a certain smugness from the actors? Including an outtake where Yvette Fielding gets her facts wrong much to the others amusement seems unfair too. However the highlight are some rare behind the scenes clips from Davison’s Cyberman story Earthshock.

We see the two brief clips which were cut from the missing episodes 1 and 4 by Australian television censors. Ironically this means they’ve survived whilst the episodes haven’t. In the first Polly is dragged screaming to the operating table, whilst the second shows Zaroff’s fate. There’s a photo gallery, as good as ever. The rest of the extras are contained in the commentary track. The existing episodes have a lively commentary from Anneke Wills, Frazer Hines, Catherine Howe and special sound creator Brian Hodgson, moderated by Toby Hadoke. Episode one has an interview with Patrick Troughton’s son Michael, who has recently published a frank biography of his father, whilst episode four has a montage of archive interview clips from other participants, including Patrick Troughton and director Julia Smith.

For a year or more it looked as though this DVD would never be released. BBC Worldwide apparently felt that there would not be enough fans willing to pay for one unreleased episode. Episode Three having already been included on the Lost in Time DVD set. So I am delighted that the lobbying of fans and Doctor Who Magazine has had an influence. Whilst The Underwater Menace is nowhere near a good story, it is a fascinating window into an era of the programme which is largely lost. It has incidental pleasures in the acting and the restoration team have done an excellent job making the film prints look as good as they can. This is one for the completests, but at least it is now possible to own every existing episode of Doctor Who in one uniform collection.

 

* Since this review was written BBC Worldwide has released DVD’s of an animated Power of the Daleks, a part-animated Shada and a special edition of Enemy of the World.

Star Trek Deep Space Nine – From Worst to Best

Season One of Star Trek Deep Space Nine (or DS9 as I’ll refer to it from now on) has got a lot of ‘boiler plate’ episodes, not actually bad as simply predictable stories with no real impact or stakes to them. Episodes where the dread word ‘anomaly’ tends to get passed about a lot. In Trek anomalies are convenient bits of pseudo-science, essentially magic, which creates a very plot specific effect that will require another bit of made-up science to fix.

I’m planning to watch DS9 from start to finish in order for the first time ever, courtesy of Netflix. In the past I’ve watched a majority of the episodes in different ways: VHS, BBC2 and Sky TV, and in a patchy order. Will viewing it as one long epic make me feel differently about some episodes and characters? Will I discover some lost gems or find my memories do not live up to harsh reality of the screen?

Back to Season One. At this moment the production team still seem to be finding out what kind of show they are making. Compared to these high pressure days where a network  show can be cancelled after a handful of episodes, it seems remarkable that they were given three seasons to really exploit how good their premise was. Anyhow at least I can rely on Odo and Quark to enliven any story with some banter, and already there are hints that this was a show prepared to end an episode without every problem neatly reset. Then there is religion. DS9 is still the only Trek incarnation to really grapple with faith in anything like a nuanced way. Watching these episodes again, the other element that is leaping out at me is Avery Brooks’ downright odd acting. Because it is Star Trek his distractingly emphasised delivery of his lines somehow fits in, but I couldn’t imagine it working in any other more realistic show like say The Wire or anything involving naturalistic acting. But here amongst all the other fairly broad playing he gets away with it. And after the diplomatic Captain Picard who sometimes seemed a bit too polite, his more aggressive manner does make him a convincing Starfleet military officer.

I’m going to be covering each season’s episode from the least to the greatest of its year.

Dax
An episode focused on Dax in which she largely sits in her room not saying anything. The twist is painfully obvious as soon as the victim’s wife Renora appears. It’s just painfully dull, the kind of characters-earnestly-discussing-a-fantasy-problem situation that sketch writers like to lampoon Trek for. And it only emphasises that the team are not doing enough with a potentially great character.

Move Along Home
Game obsessed aliens is quite a fun idea, but this is an episode made up of budget-saving filler and even the cast look clearly fed-up with some of the challenges in places.

The Passenger
When ideas run out, have a crewmember taken over by an evil alien. This really does feel like a rejected Star Trek The Next Generation plot.

Babel
It’s not bad, just the kind of escapade than any incarnation of Trek (or Stargate or Babylon 5) could do.

The Storyteller
In which Bajorans are basically portrayed as superstitious idiots. With the real heir to the Storyteller job obvious from the start, there’s no sense of jeopardy. However Bashir acting as O’Brien’s publicity officer is amusing.

Past Prologue
Kira’s struggle with her new role as part of the establishment after years of being rebel fighter was her defining quality in season one and it was explored a touch repetitively. This isn’t bad but once again it’s pretty obvious where it’s going.

If Wishes Were Horses
Not quite as bad as I remember, but still a generic Trek episode that any incarnation could do.

Progress
Brian Keith brings a lot of class to his guest star role. But it is yet another rerun of “Kira torn between being a rebel and being part of the establishment”, and so not as interesting a story as it might have been.

Q-Less
Q turns up and whilst John De Lancie is as entertaining as ever, as is Jennifer Hetrick as his partner Vash, it’s basically a shallow, broad comedy episode. However having Quark being openly criminal but still allowed to carry on at the end, does again point out that this is a different kind of Trek.

Dramatis Personae
DS9 characters should be above the Trek trope that characters have to be possessed by aliens to be less than perfect. But this remake of “Day of the Dove” does build on the existing tensions between the characters and thus is more thoughtful than many episodes this season. Plus it gives us our first encounter with slinky evil Kira.

The Forsaken
Quite a sweet episode thanks to the Odo / Luxania sub-plot that builds to a genuinely touching moment. The pompous Federation ambassadors visiting the station are quite funny too.

Duet
Nothing about it is subtle, but this look at the occupation and its legacy on both Bajorans and Cardassians is creditably serious.

Vortex
Great episode for Odo and one of the first stories dealing with the “otherness” of the Delta Quadrant, full of races who don’t care about the Federation at all. The twists are satisfying and there’s a feeling of groundwork being put in for later stories.

Emissary: Parts 1 & 2
The best of the Trek pilots, setting up the scenario, introducing the cast and telling a pretty good SF adventure too. The battle prologue is a great hook and lends an epic quality. Some lovely character moments too, such as Kira mocking Bashir for his patronising “frontier” comment, or Picard slightly awkward but genuinely considerate farewell to O’Brien. The conversation with the wormhole aliens teeters on corny portentousness but the way their timelessness is depicted is clever. It all feels organic and excellently paced.

Captive Pursuit
Another ABC Trek plot but the performances of Colm Meany and Scott MacDonald are splendid and the episode is the kind of combination of action and philosophy that is the bedrock of Trek.

Battle Lines
A great SF idea and a satisfyingly cynical attitude about violent human nature. Getting rid of a significant supporting character was a bold move that sets off a fascinating ongoing storyline in the next season. Surprising to learn that in the first draft that role was taken by an original character, whose loss would have been far too predictable. Good call by the producers.

The Nagus
Yes it’s as broad as a whale wearing a red nose but for entertainment value I loved this episode with the shameless Ferengi. Even if the plot is predictable, there’s plenty of energy and the comedy sings. I actually can say I enjoyed this as much as the later Tribbles episode.

In the Hands of Prophets
This tale of religious and secular intolerance is the moment DS9 really feels like it has gelled into Trek’s boldest incarnation. Even though teacher Keiko O’Brien is meant to be a voice of reason, her barely disguised contempt for the religious protesters makes her almost as unsympathetic as Kai Winn. Both Louise Fletcher and Rosalind Chao are excellent in this. There is a real feeling in this story of the stakes being raised. Kira’s open faith also adds an interesting extra layer to what could have been a very one-sided drama. Her final scene with Sisko is a lovely summing up of the whole season and almost makes one wish the Trek season formula did not always insist on ending with a cliffhanger. Having a satisfying wrap-up can be just as effective and subtler too.

Cornucopia

Whilst looking for an unrelated piece of old fiction that I hope to revise and complete, literally a story for another day, I came across another work which I’d forgotten about. I wrote Cornucopia for a neoartists exhibition. This creative organisation used to renovate old shops, turn them into temporary galleries and exhibit art from its members. Back in 2011 I used to belong to this endeavour, alongside my friend Scott, in a imaginative but ultimately doomed attempt to link creative writing with conceptual art. Hence this story was chosen to be printed, framed and displayed in an ex-carpet shop in Bolton.

The idea behind my piece was to show how English contains an embarrassment of riches when it came to styles and vocabulary. It features the opening line on an imaginary novel, retold in twelve different ways (and twelve different fonts too, which was me trying to think visually, as well as in prose). You can see what the finished piece looked like by downloading a PDF version from here.

It might be a touch portentous but re-reading it I liked it enough to think it deserved a second showing on this blog. Hope you enjoy it too.


Chapter One
She rose from the bed with a smooth movement, pulling the rumpled sheet from her legs and padding over to the bay windows to discover where she had landed this morning.

The woman got up with an enviable sense of purpose, swinging her lean legs down to the carpet and walking over to the large picture window to look at the wooded hills beyond.

The woman in question climbed out of the double bed with an effortless action, drawing the puckered slip away from her limbs and stealing across to the large casement to ascertain where she had alighted at the start of the day.

Cathy floated from the bed, warm from their bodies and alighted at the window, gazing at the rural paradise that somehow seemed to have been created solely for their pleasure, and which they would explore together.

Sunday 7:43am. Female, 31 years old, 11 stone 3 ounces, Caucasian, red hair, mole on left shoulder blade, got out of bed, moved to stand in front of window 2800mm by 1500mm looking out north by norwest.

Int. Bedroom – Day.
CATH wakes and sits up, she looks around the room with curiosity, then glances at the sleeping figure of JED. She pulls back the bed sheets and gets up. She is nude. She walks to the window. Outside is an English countryside landscape.

Young Catherine was never one to linger in bed, not when there was a fresh day to explore.

The dame raised herself up and emerged from the bed like a panther coming out her lair, her toned body moving with oiled grace as she strode towards the sunlight which sternly illuminated her lover-boy’s extra-marital hidey hole.

Thus ye damsel rose fromst her bed and walked across her masters bedchamber to the window, to gazeth upon ye kingdom.

With her client still fast asleep, Catherine quietly tiptoed to the window and watched as Harold’s squat little car slowly wound its way towards the house.

Curvy Catherine (36-24-36) leaves little to the imagination as she sashays across the luxury bedroom of three times married womaniser Jed (age 42).

Used to their expensive isolation, the bedroom curtains had been left open, affording Dimitri a clear view of the girl as walked into his telescopic sight.