The Greatest Show in the Galaxy

An intelligent spambot invades the TARDIS and persuades the Doctor and Ace to visit the galactically famous Psychic Circus. However when they land on the planet Segonax they soon discover all is far from well. Why are circus folk so keen for the audience to take part in the talent contest? What is the secret of a decaying hippie bus with a deadly robot guardian? Is the circus the real reason travellers as different as Nord the Vandal and intergalactic explorer Captain Cook have arrived or is there something more powerful and ancient luring them here? The Doctor and Ace are going to need every trick up their sleeves to survive this big top!

It’s a little surprising to me that The Greatest Show in the Galaxy is the final Sylvestor McCoy story to be released because I think it’s one of his definitive outings. It is a story where script editor Andrew Cartmell’s taste for comic strip narratives, bizarre images and socialist leanings mesh perfectly with a traditional Doctor Who plot about killer robots, mysterious powerful aliens and a happy place generally being not what it seems. Writer Stephen Wyatt, fresh from his first, generally well-received Doctor Who story Paradise Towers serves a gallery of entertaining grotesques. The fact that some of these comic characters turn out to be evil is only enhanced by the way they are presented as being quite funny.

Take Captain Cook, played with theatrical vim by veteran character actor T P McKenna. This bumptious know-it-all is presented as a kind of mirror of the Doctor, a galactic explorer with a sexy goth assistant called Mags. Jessica Martin, best known as an impressionist, is immensely likeable as Mags and under different circumstances it might have been good if she had joined the TARDIS at the end. Her big secret is easily guessed by a series of heavy handed clues starting with the name of her home planet Vulpana. But the pompous Captain is no hero at all. He is entirely selfish and quite ruthless once his life is endangered.  Also caught up in the danger is Nord, a Hells Angel biker played by Daniel Peacock, a cockney actor who seemed to be everywhere in the 80’s. There’s Gian Samanco, best known for being TV’s Adrian Mole and here cast as a rather cruel portrait of an over-earnest fan, just the kind of fanatic who was giving Doctor Who producer John Nathan-Turner a headache in real life. Whilst popping up to play another in her long career of fearsome Cockney landladies is Peggy Mount.

A bit of trivia, Chris Jury who plays circus member Deadbeat would later audition to play the Doctor in the 1996 TV movie. “Aliens” fans might recognise marine “Frosty” aka Ricco Ross as the rapping ringmaster

By this stage Sylvestor McCoy has really cracked who his Doctor is. There are flashes of the old physical comedy business with his umbrella and falling over, but there’s much more of a compassionate adventurer who nevertheless has a darker side that allows him to manipulate and even risk others for a greater good. A pleasing streak of anarchy too. “You’re just an old hippie at heart,” comments Ace. Speaking of whom, Sophie Aldred is very comfortable in Ace’s bomber jacket and her cheerful rapport with McCoy is one her chief strengths.

This was a troubled production as the making of extra “The Show Must Go On” revealed. The location filming had gone smoothly, but then BBC Television Centre was hit by an asbestos scare and it looked as though the studio recording would be permanently lost, making this Doctor Who’s second unfinished production after Tom Baker’s Shada. Uniquely though, the story’s circus tent setting meant that a marquee was set up in the car park at Elstree for the interiors. Nevertheless it was less than ideal due to traffic noise and more time was lost when a fire alarm occurred. All this is covered in a decent documentary, which includes some surprising photos of the cast meeting the cast of ‘Allo ‘Allo!

Other special features include a deleted modelwork sequence of the spambot satellite and a music video created to accompany an original song by cast members Christopher Guard, Jessica Martin and T P McKenna. Frustratingly there is no accompanying information about where this song comes from or why it was recorded. “Tomorrow’s Times” is part of an on-going feature about newspaper coverage of the show and sadly has to record that the McCoy era had largely negative press. Victoria Wood’s slightly odd Doctor Who comedy sketch is included since it came from the same time. Future film star Jim Broadbent plays the Doctor in a brief clip that largely mocks the cheapness and made-up science of the show. “But Doctor! I haven’t brought the ming-mongs!” cries the Doctor’s companion. Composer Mark Ayres was auditioned by being tasked to write music for two sequences from this show and he’s included his versions as an extra too.

It’s a pretty busy and interesting commentary, overseen by DVD regular Toby Hadoke. Sophie Aldred, Christopher Guard and Jessica Martin provide the luvvie insight, whilst Stephen Wyatt, Andrew Cartmell and Mark Ayres represent the production side. There’s also the popular information subtitles and the photo gallery and finally PDF material which you’ll need a computer to access. Here the usual Radio Times clippings are joined by a story board for the spambot sequence.

I’ve always been a fan of this story and it is great to see it released on as well-catered a DVD as this one. Lovely painted cover by Lee Binding too.

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!

 

Paul Ferry’s 10 Favourite Doctor Who Fan Films

Top writer of cult TV and film matters Paul Ferry has just compiled a list of his favourite Doctor Who fan films. I’d agree with a lot of the choices – “Resurrection of Evil” and “the Millenium Trap” especially. He also kindly singles out “Future Investment” for praise, a film I appeared in. He is too modest to mention it but the group he belongs to – Timebase – produced some superb fan films too, especaily “Phase IV”.

Timebase Productions

FANV

Listed below are the 10 Doctor Who fan videos that I have found most entertaining, inspiring and impressive over the many years that I’ve been interested in such things. I use the words ‘fan video’ in the traditional sense, meaning dramatic or comic presentations, rather than clips edited to music (which we called ‘scratch videos’ in my day). They’re listed in chronological order, rather than order of merit, because they’re all equally special to me. If you’re lucky, you might find some of them online.

DAY OF THE DUSTBINS / ALISTAIR ANORAK INVESTIGATES
The West Midlands Whonatics (1987)
I’m cheating a bit by lumping these two together, as they are two distinctly different productions, but they were both extremely influential upon my group of friends when we first started making fanvids. Day of the Dustbins is a below-zero budget spoof of Day of the Daleks, clearly filmed in a…

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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.

Planet of the Spiders

Once upon a time the Doctor visited Metebelis 3 and took a large, perfect blue crystal. He gave it to Jo Grant as a wedding present when she and Dr Clifford Jones left for the Amazon. But now she has posted it back to him, claiming that it is frightening their native guides. Meanwhile the disgraced UNIT officer Mike Yates has joined a Buddhist retreat, where he has grown suspicious that some of his fellow students are in contact with some kind of alien power. Earth is in danger from a powerful new enemy, the Giant Spiders of Metebelis 3. To defeat them the Doctor will have to face an evil that he knows will kill him for certain.

These days a Doctor Who season finale story will be an epic that draws together the themes of the year and have a lot of emotion involved. Back in 1975 the programme had a different style that was less demonstrative. Aside from a mention of Jo Grant by letter, there is little in the way of continuity and certainly no grand final tour or choirs as say the Tenth Doctor had in his last story. Planet of the Spiders is simply a traditional story except this time the Third Doctor doesn’t survive.

Originally it had been intended that the Third’s last story would involve a final battle with The Master, ending with the renegade sacrificing his life to save the Doctor. Roger Delgado’s untimely death negated that idea, so Barry Letts and his writing partner Roger Sloman came up with a new story inspired by Buddhist philosophy, a passion of Letts. The Spiders are metaphors for fear, ambition, greed and hatred, elements which hold characters back from enlightenment.

It is an entertaining but somewhat rambling story. Most of part two is taken up by an extended chase scene that ultimately makes no sense and part six features an extremely long reprise of the previous episode, something that wouldn’t have mattered much in the pre-video recorder era but which is very obvious on the DVD. However Tommy the simple minded soul who evolves into a full personality is a touching sub-plot. And John Dearth as terrific as Lupton, an embittered salesman turned potential ruler of Earth. He’s such an unusual bad guy for Doctor Who that it is a shame that he becomes sidelined in the second half of the story.

This is a two disc release and hence there is an impressive amount of extras. The Final Curtain is a comprehensive making of documentary. Producer Barry Letts explains how he deliberately tried to get as many people involved who Jon Pertwee was familiar and comfortable with, to ease his unhappiness as he filmed his last story. It was very much the end of an era, since aside from Elisabeth Sladen, all the major names in front of and behind the camera were leaving the show with this story. Special effects designer Matt Irvine goes into detail with how they created the impressive spider puppets. There’s some welcome honestly about some of the elements which didn’t work as well as they hoped too.

John Kane wrote Terry and June, one of the most popular BBC sitcoms of the seventies and early eighties. Yet as he ruefully points out in John Kane Remembers, virtually all he is ever asked about in fan letters is his performance as Tommy in this Doctor Who story. Irony aside, Tommy is one the show’s most memorable one-off characters, thanks to his touching development from a simple minded, almost childlike man, into a mature, funny adult, thanks to a blue alien crystal. I’d never read an interview with him before and it turns out he has fond and impressively detailed memories of a job he’d done nearly thirty years ago.

Barry Letts had originally wanted to be a director at the BBC rather than a producer. Consequently as part of his deal for producing Doctor Who, he also had several chances to direct stories and Planet of the Spiders was an obvious candidate.  In Directing Who he recalls his experiences working with three Doctors in the 60’s and 70’s. As usual his contribution is thoughtful, informative and tactful.

Jon Pertwee’s 1989 appearance on Wogan to promote the Doctor Who stage play is a good example of the entertainer at his best. The anecdotes will be pretty familiar to most fans, such as how he was chosen to be the Doctor, where his talent for mimickery came from and his problems piloting the hovercraft seen in Planet of the Spiders. But it’s clear Pertwee was delighted to be on primetime BBC1 again and it’s a good clip.

Unusually for a DVD release, also included is the one hour forty-five minute omnibus edition of the story which was repeated at Christmas 1975. This version is an interesting alternative and quite watchable but unrestored, showing the amount of work the DVD makers put into improving the picture and sound quality of these episodes.

The commentary features Elisabeth Sladen, Nicholas Courtney, Richard Franklin , Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks. It’s sad that by the time it came out, both Sladen and Courtney had died making this virtually their last contribution to the show. As with all the Doctor Who DVD’s, there is also a photo gallery and information subtitles. Another excellent release from the Doctor Who range that is now available at a bargain price from most outlets.

The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters

I was chatting with a friend I hadn’t seen for a while and we moved onto the subject of a documentary about Doctor Who fans which we’d both taken part in.called Fanz. (You can find it on Youtube) My friend remarked that he feared that because of the general niceness of our mutual friend the film-maker, the forthcoming film would present too rose-tinted a picture. I thought about this when I was watching this documentary about vintage arcade game enthusiasts. This is one those interesting documentaries that lifts the lid on a subject I hadn’t thought much about. But sadly it proves that when it comes to personalities and petty politics, fandom is pretty much the same regardless of the subject. I am afraid I could certainly recognise types of characters I’ve encountered over the years of conventions and social events.

Steve Weebie has been a nearly man most of his life. Despite showing teenage promise as a sportsman and rock musician, he never made a break-though, whilst his ambition to follow his father as a Boeing engineer only ended with him being laid off after a few years. Unemployed and depressed, he became obsessed with an old Donkey Kong arcade game in his garage and he proved to be wonderful at it, achieving a new world record, recorded on VHS tape.

The current world record holder is minor celebrity Billy Mitchell, the star of the Twin Galaxies arcade game fan club. He’s surrounded by friends who insist that Weebie couldn’t possibly beat Mitchell’s score and accuse Weebie of cheating with a modified machine. Mitchell himself says that if Weebie’s so good he should prove it at his local arcade. So Weebie travels 3000 miles to play live in front of Twin Galaxies’ judge Walter May. He sets a new record, hooray! An hour later Mitchell’s friend produces a video tape showing Mitchell achieving an even higher score and Twin Galaxies agrees to authorise it, despite suspicions about the tape’s genuineness.

Depressed, Steve Weebie returns home, but is encouraged to have another attempt, especially when he learns that Twin Galaxies’ high scores are going to be submitted to the next edition of the Guinness Book of Records. Over the four days of the competition, tensions rise and the nagging question is, why won’t Billy Mitchell take part?

I haven’t really conveyed the strengths of this documentary in that synopsis, because they are all in the character moments. Despite the film definitely being partial to Steve Weebie and its David versus Goliath sports storyline, there’s plenty of examples of the Twin Galaxies in-crowd being given enough rope and almost invariably hanging themselves. They are frequently rude, aggressive and unbelievably puffed up with self-importance. I can understand obsessing over a hobby, but when they start talking about mind games and virtually breaking into a stranger’s house in order to dismantle his property, it’s clear their priorities have become skewed. I was going to detail them individually but I looked at what I’d typed and decided it might be libellous on a comparison shopping site.

Not that Weebie is entirely innocent either, there are a couple of moments involving his young children that made me worry what effect his devotion to Donkey Kong is having on them. His wife is perceptive and understanding of what drives her husband, but it is clear she’s hoping for a conclusion to his quest.

There is an element of manipulation in this documentary that I’m slightly suspicious of and aside from Weebie, the director doesn’t dig too deeply into what drives these dedicated games players. It might have been interesting for example to have seen more of elderly Q*Bert champion Doris Self, she hardly fits the gamer stereotype that most of the other men do so neatly. (The film is dedicated to her memory) Ulitmately this isn’t a movie about Donkey Kong, it is a story of male egos, cliques and adults behaving as if they never left high school.

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.