Injured spaceman with helpers

BERGcast – The Quatermass podcast we’ve been waiting for

The history of Professor Quatermass in all his many incarnations across television, cinema, books and stage is a particular love of mine, so I would be a cheerleader for this new podcast series, even if I wasn’t one of it many contributors.

It’s the brainchild of cult tv enthusiast, Jon Dear and Howard Ingham, and over the next few months will cover every serial, film, and spin-off, together with a couple of diversions into media which is closely connected to the development of Quatermass.

Episode one is out now, in which Jon is joined by writer, comedian and television historian Toby Hadoke to talk about the origins and significance of BBC’s The Quatermass Experiment, and analyse the first episode “Contact has been established”. The remainder of this now largely lost serial will be covered by them in the next segment.

It’s an excellent debut. Ingham writes a fascinating introduction in which he points out that in many ways, watching Experiment is to witness not so much a show as the ghost of a television programme. The subsequent conversation between Dear and Hadoke is full of fascinating information that I didn’t know about the making of the serial. Hadoke is the ideal guest to start off this series, since he has been corresponding and interviewing as many people behind the scenes of the Quatermass serials as he could since he was teenager. Since few of the cast and crew involved are still with us, this has resulted in a unique archive of memories. He has also spent hours in the BBC archives reviewing the paperwork and uncovering all kinds of incidental gems, such as the cat being recast because the original was “too savage”.

You can listen to it at Jon’s blog Views from a Hill or with the Podbean app.

Sixth Doctor action figure, with DVD

Vengeance on Varos

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.

Regeneration book open and six DVD discs next to it

Doctor Who – Regenerations Box Set

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.

Ambassadors of Death DVD case

The Ambassadors of Death

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.

Alien spaceship in pit

Quatermass and the Pit – Unearthed Again

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is Colonel Breen an imbecile or a fool?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dalek

Doctor Who – Most Wanted 11th July 2018

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

Most Wanted

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

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

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

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

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

London, 1965!

 

The Ark in Space

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Terrileptil and robot

The Visitation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DVD cover

The Green Death

If some strangely specific catastrophe destroyed copies of all Jon Pertwee Doctor Who stories bar one, The Green Death would be the ideal story to save. It’s hard to think of another adventure that so definitely captures his era’s strength’s and foibles. It’s got the Doctor at his most patrician yet caring, all the UNIT regulars, an issue driven story, a memorable monster, Venusian akido, lots of location filming, action by HAVOC, and some very Seventies fashion sense. The original DVD had been disappointing. In putting six colour episodes and several features on one disc, the picture quality was noticeably pixelated at times. So this is the probably one of the most justified of all the recent Special Editions. Not only that but it allows for an impressive second disc of new and old extras.

Controversy surrounds the Global Chemicals plant at Llanfairfach. Chief executive Stevens promises a new highly efficient way of refining crude oil into petrol, bring new wealth to the region. Environmentalist Professor Clifford Jones and his team warn that the plant is destroying the local environment. When a miner is discovered dead from a mysterious glowing slime, UNIT are called in to investigate. Meanwhile Jo Grant has sided with Jones’ protestors, whilst the Doctor is more interested in visiting the paradise planet of Metebelis 3. Soon all of them are drawn into an ecological nightmare as mutated giant maggots fill the old coalmine, humans are put under mind control and the mysterious BOSS plans to make profits at the cost of the very Earth.

As revealed in the Making Of extras, The Green Death came about after Barry Letts came into the Doctor Who production office one Monday morning feeling particularly gloomy. He had just read a Sunday Times special pull-out entitled “Blueprint for Survival”, which laid out the terrible environmental damage happening across the world. Letts wanted to make a documentary about it, but couldn’t. Terrance Dicks, script editor and associate producer, reminded him that he was the producer of a high-rating BBC drama show, so why not get his feelings across in a Doctor Who story? Letts brought in his regular writing partner Robert Sloman, who took sole credit for BBC policy reasons, but nevertheless this story was written by both men.

In the seventies, fear of pollution replaced atomic energy as the main driver of many science fiction and horror films. Perhaps we should be thankful that the programme resisted the urge to create a new mutant monster, which might have seemed too silly even to children (see Godzilla vs the Smog Monster) but instead went for the far more frightening and unsettling threat of swarms of giant maggots erupting from the ground. The maggots are realised with varying levels of effectiveness. The individual large puppet ones are disgustingly effective, but their en masse appearances are too obviously real piles of maggots filmed on model sets. But these creatures are just a symptom of the real villainy, represented by smooth, ruthless Stevens, played effectively by Jerome Willis, and his BOSS who’s the sinisterly jovial tones are provided by John Dearth.

What raises this story above being merely an obvious, even crude, allegory for the evils of the industrial age, is the emotional sub-plots for the regulars. This is Jo Grant’s final story and her growing maturity and romance with handsome Professor Clifford Jones, who even she admits is kind of a younger surrogate Doctor, gives this story a bit more depth than normal. Meanwhile the Doctor has to fight with unexpected feelings of jealousy as he loses her. As ever when Barry Letts gets behind the typewriter, he tries hard to give all the regulars at least moment in the spotlight. We see the Brigadier in civvies and later relaxing at the dinner table. Captain Yates gets to go undercover as a spy, and Sergeant Benton gets at least a good comedy moment when he rides with the Doctor into battle with the maggots. More than ever, this a story about how much UNIT has become a family and it feels quite appropriate that it ends at a jovial party. The actual final moments of the story are often cited as one of all-time fan favourite scenes. I shall not spoil it for people who haven’t seen the story, but I will say that well known fans Mark Gatiss and Steve Moffatt paid tribute to it in the recent wedding episode of Sherlock.

There are some well-staged action scenes, particularly a fight between the Doctor and a group of security guards. Jon Pertwee had stated more than once that this was one of his favourite stories and he is clearly enjoying himself. Possibly a bit too much in fact, since one episode sees him disguising himself as comedy Welsh milkman and later dragging up as a cleaning lady, encouraging his co-stars to go for the comedy in their performances. Welsh viewers too might well grimace at the portrayal of the locals. It’s all sing-song accents , liberally sprinkled with “boyos” and “Blodwyns”, and proud but poor mining folk, aside from a couple of environmentalists.

The original DVD’s extras have been carried over to this release. There are excellent interviews with writer Robert Sloman and actors Stuart Bevan and Jerome Willis, plus one of the few genuinely funny comedy sketches in the whole range, a spoof World in Action exposé written by actor/writer Mark Gatiss, who would go on to write several stories in the revived series. In fact the glossy 21st century version of Doctor Who is very present on this re-release DVD.

Dr Forever – the five part series about the so-called wilderness years between the two eras of the programme which has been serialised across these recent DVD Special Editions, comes to an end with a look at how the show was brought back. Russell T Davis has been rightly lauded, but this documentary relates how important BBC execs Jane Tranter and Lorraine Heggessy were to getting the programme re-commissioned and how stubborn they had to be in the face of many fellow execs who believed that family television drama of any kind would be a ratings flop on a Saturday. Russell meanwhile reveals that many of his friends in the TV business thought he was committing career suicide trying to bring back such a seemingly toxic franchise.

A real highlight for me on the second disc is the complete Sarah Jane Smith Adventures – Death of the Doctor, which saw Katy Manning returning as a sprightly pensioner Jo. She and Sarah Jane are summoned to the private funeral of the Doctor at a UNIT base, only to discover that the vulture-like alien Shansheeth have faked his death as part of their sinister plan. Matt Smith also makes a brilliant guest appearance and his scenes with Jo and Sarah Jane are amongst my favourite bits of his era. It’s a funny, energetic and rather sweet story. Not only that but this version also has a gleeful optional commentary by Russell T Davis and Katy Manning.

The One with the Maggots is an in-depth making of documentary, covering the story from Barry Letts’ initial desire to comment on environmental issues, the unconscious casting of Katy Manning’s then real life boyfriend Stuart Bevan as her on-screen romance, the cold locations and the creation of the giant maggots. Although critical of some of the effects and the Welsh stereotyping, generally the contributors are proud of the finished product.

There are two excerpts from local BBC local news programme Wales Today. A mute 1973 film insert from the filming of The Green Death, and a 1994 item with Jon Pertwee opening the new country park that was built on the site of the colliery used in the story. Katy Manning’s immediate post-Who career is revealed by clips from her BBC daytime television show Serendipity, a look at different arts and crafts. Set in small studio, Katy enthuses over the work of a succession of polite middle-aged craftsmen. It’s seems another world away from today, where ex-companions go to Los Angeles to make new glamorous TV series.

I confess I thought the original DVD commentary featuring Barry Letts, Terrance Dicks and Katy Manning was one of poorer examples, mostly due to Ms Manning being in full on performance mode that day, using comedy voices and generally being a bit too hyper. But you now have the option of a brand new commentary with actors Richard Franklin and Mitzi McKenzie, hosted by Toby Hadoke, which is pretty interesting since Mitzi in particular has rarely been interviewed. As if that’s not enough, the double act of Russell T Davis and Katy Manning return with an amusing commentary on episode six. The standard extras of photo gallery, information subtitles and Radio Times clippings in PDF format are all as good as I’ve come to expect from the DVD team.

The Green Death is a marvellous example of Doctor Who. It’s got thrills, warmth and enough cleverness to entertain the whole family. Bringing it back with an improved picture and so many good bonus features makes it probably the best of the five special edition DVD’s released last year.

Blu ray cover

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.