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

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.

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.

Class – “Like a Hellmouth”

Torchwood High? Doctorloo Road? I suppose it’s appropriate that the latest addition to the Doctor Who family is something of an awkward adolescent itself. There are parts of it that are very good indeed, but there are also moments in these first two episodes when its teeth grindingly annoying too. Considering this is almost acclaimed author Patrick Ness’s first television work, it is confident work, and if the story gears are sometimes a little loud, it is aimed at a slightly younger audience who may not be as big a TV geek as me.

My heart did sink in the first half of For Tonight We Might Die listening to the tiresomely arch dialogue everyone was using, not to mention clunkers like Tanya’s “Isn’t it great not to have to talk about what the white kids want to?” But gradually the script calmed down and became more real, more engaging. The Shadowkin were effective monsters, the action was slick and the amount of blood surprising. The infodump scene about Charlie and Quill’s alien home was enlivened by the cleverness of seeing it through April’s imagination as a kind of paradise school of polite A+ students. I really like the concept of one supposedly enlightened race enslaving another as a ‘punishment’ but being embarrassed when the cruelty is pointed out. It is quite a neat metaphor for colonialism.

Peter Capaldi’s guest appearance was fun, particularly his joke about “strange” Ikea. For a man who says he hates banter, he was quite a puckish mood and surprisingly he was very complimentary about nearly everyone, I’d have thought one pudding brain reference would have got in. Katherine Kelly (Sarah-Lancashire-in-waiting as The Guardian newspaper amusingly put it) was also entertaining, although Miss Quill so far works much better as a comedy character than as a super warrior.

The Coach with the Dragon Tattoo was a definite improvement for me. It felt more confident, the dialogue much more natural and the plot the kind satisfying melding of Science Fiction A plot and emotional B plot that Doctor Who has learnt from Joss Whedon. The Ofsted sub-plot was fun too. They’ve definitely cast this well, all of the leads were impressive here, Fedy Elsayed and Vivian Oparah especially as sports joke Ram and lonely Tanya. Lovely little moment from the dinner lady too, that made her visceral death all the worse.

Class looks like it is going to be enjoyable, if slightly disposable entertainment for the next couple of months. It’s definitely aimed squarely at the Young Adult demographic and not suitable for children because of the amount of gore. Next week’s episode looks promising too. Going off the clips, after Steven Moffat’s emphasis on time paradoxes in the parent series, it’s fun to have one that showcases the monsters again.

The Uninvited

by Michael J Bird

So here the series ends, as far as we can know it, since the final episode The Shattered Eye is long since missing. And a series that had been conceived as a showcase for the best of literary science fiction finishes with a ghost story.

George and Millicent Patterson about to emigrate to Botswana, and are spending their last night in their old, virtually empty flat. But their night turns into a frightening ordeal as they are assaulted by visions which gradually tell the story of a controlling husband who abuses and eventually murders his wife.

It is difficult to review this episode fairly, since we only have a handful of publicity photos which omit most of the cast, plus the soundtrack. The reconstruction therefore illustrates the audio with pages of the original camera script. It is a shame there was not the time or money to re-type the script, since the faded copy we see is quite hard to read in places. Still I would rather have this version than omit the episode altogether.

Although essentially a supernatural story, The Uninvited did remind me of Sapphire and Steel with its limited interior setting and use of an electronic howl to herald each visitation. The events could be explained as some kind of time rift if you cared too. It is difficult to judge how frightening it might have been since it would have depend a lot on how good the visual shocks in the script were realised.

In a season that has generally featured fraught relationships, it is rather lovely to listen the genuinely loving and affectionate marriage of George and Millie, played with easy naturalism by John Nettleton and June Ellis. The fact they are so likeable and committed to each other, definitely amplifies the horror when it begins because I really did not want anything tragic to happen to them. June Ellis was incidentally the wife of producer Alan Bromley. It is almost a shame that Brian Wilde is remembered for playing ineffectual comedy characters in Porridge and Last of the Summer Wine because he excelled playing sinister, slightly pathetic villains, whether the abusive husband Ramsay here or Mr Peacock in Ace of Wands. The moment where he advances on Millie, telling her she must be punished is unsettling even on audio.

Writer Michael J Bird had already written the controversial To Lay a Ghost for this season. He was something of a specialist in writing contemporary dramas with a supernatural flavouring, penning Maelstrom, The Dark Side of the Sun and The Aphrodite Inheritance as well as guest scripts in quite a few long running BBC series. Whilst this episode is lost, interestingly Michael J Bird rewrote his script as In Possession for Hammer House of Mystery and Suspense in 1984. Another missing Out of the Unknown episode The Last Witness was adapted by Martin Worth for the same series, retitled A Distant Scream.

Perhaps the only criticism I can make of The Uninvited is that it would have fitted comfortably into any of the Seventies supernatural anthologies, such as Dead of Night. It demonstrates that Out of the Unknown had lost its distinctive identity and unique selling point. So it was not surprising that indifferent ratings and incoming new executives with fresh agendas led to it not being picked up again. Survivors, Moonbase 3 and Doomwatch would keep the flag flying for BBC adult-aimed science fiction through the Seventies. Eventually, just as Out of the Unknown sprang from in part from Armchair Theatre, so Play for Tomorrow would spin-off from Play for Today. But that is an article for another time.

I’ve not quite finished with this BFI boxset. Coming up next is a review of the brand new documentary Return to the Unknown and the other extras included in this impressive collection.