Sixth Doctor action figure, with DVD

Vengeance on Varos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Auton, K9, cosplay Doctor, Cybermen

Westlake Films Remastered Part 1

My friends and my experiences writing, acting and gophering have been a big part of my creative life. Looking back we have created quite a varied body of work on a micro-budget. Now Kevin Hiley has decided to give our ten generally accepted best productions the remaster treatment. HD upscaling, picture and sound fixes, and in some places new FX and music. If you have never seen any of these films, there has never been a better time.
With ten of our films getting producer/director Kevin Hiley’s love and attention, I’ve decided to break this article into two posts so that I can properly write about them.

A distant human mining colony on a moon-sized asteroid is devasted by a Cyberman attack. Chinon fears he is the only man left. Soon his thoughts turn from survival to revenge.
A gripping homage to the monochrome years of Doctor Who.

Still our most ambitious film. Not only did we travel to Scotland for several days, filming in the TV studio at Glasgow’s Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, Kelvingrove Park, and then the beaches of Argyll, we hired transport, employed actors and even a make-up artist to create our protagonist’s wounds. Took me years to pay off that credit card, but I don’t regret it because the film is a gem. I still think it is unlike any other Doctor Who fan film I have seen, with the harsh monochrome noir lighting and its nihilistic atmosphere. I remember we were surprised ourselves when we watch the first assembled cut at how tough it was. Shuttle Saves the World and Auton Diaries 2 are funnier, perhaps more accessible, Man of Words is glossier, but Deconstruction remain our most complete film experience.

Some of the cast and crew at RSAMD back in 2001.

It was a film where we pushed ourselves and overcame quite a few unexpected obstacles. For example the battle scenes had been planned out but we realised we were fast running out of time and had not got nearly enough footage. Between Kevin, Tim, John and myself we came up with the idea of throwing out the storyboard and going handheld and improvising close quarter, fast cut fight scenes. The test footage of the fight between myself and John in a hotel room was sight to watch in itself.
The script was based on a short story by Tim Reid published initially on a fan forum called Timelord. We used to write chain stories, called Random Fictions. Many of them didn’t work but the ones that took off were often alot of fun and I learnt a lot about writing from the ones I contributed too. Maybe I’ll post the best to this blog at a later date?

What happened to old Doctor Who monsters when the original television dried up in 1989? Spinoff videos are one answer but every actor knows that this business has as many downs as it has ups. A comedy about the rich inner life of one thesping Auton.

For a little while I seemed to be Bill Bagg’s go to writer for the wackier ideas. This short was made as an extra for the Auton 3 DVD. Auton 2 had already featured a funny skit written by Paul Ebbs in which an Auton with the personality of a fruity old English actor described his resting years. After discussing several ideas, John Isles and I decided that the best follow-up was a film about the return of Doctor Who and how it affected this monster.
Initially I had envisioned a much simpler set-up of the Auton being interviewed in his garden, with a few photos. But John and Kevin pushed me to be much more adventurous, so we ended up with a foundry (filmed at the Manchester Museum of Science and Industry), a theatre, and a recreation of the famous high street invasion from Spearhead from Space. I have made no secret of the fact I think this film is a lot more successful than Do You Have a License to Save This Planet? as comedy, because I kept much more control over it.
Playing the Auton was quite a gruelling experience. As other actors who have donned monster costumes on film over the years have commented, there was little visibility in the mask, and under the bright lights in the theatre I nearly collapsed from the heat at one point. But there is also a freedom in being an anonymous masked alien in public places, (Huddersfield mainly) and I felt free to mess about and react to be public ‘in character’. Mind you, I do remember taking my mask off at one point, only to hear a couple sat nearby jokingly cry out “Uhgh! What a hideous monster!”

Meet Dave Smalls and his robot partner K9. Together they fight crime! And sometimes commit it too. This week, Dave received a mysterious phone call and stumbles into a fast food conspiracy that not even a dog with an IQ of 900 may be able to digest.

The opening titles of K9 and Company are some of the worst ever seen on a BBC programme. When I was given a homemade K9 prop by a family friend, my initial intention was simply recreate them with a chavvy idiot detective replacing the polished, capable Sarah Jane Smith. Once again my friends convinced me to go further and write a whole mini-episode. The ideas came pretty fast, and luckily I had met a talented Manchester actor called Charles Allen-Wall, who was more than happy to be the bloke. Equally happily Alistair Lock agreed to provide his fabulous K9 impression to my words. It was also fun to welcome back Nigel Peever as the villain. Looking back I’m impressed we got it all filmed in a relatively quick time, using our regular locations of the Black Bull pub, my house, and a local Bolton church. The best of our films usually have a clear central idea and that’s exactly what this one has. One of the few films we have made to be mentioned in a commercial publication- Doctor Who Magazine.

We’ll make a Third Doctor out of you yet! Welcome to a very special school for training the very best Intergalactic Dandies.

Tom Baker may be the most recognisable Doctor, but I don’t think there is another incarnation with quite so many clear foibles to impersonate and gently rib as the Jon Pertwee regeneration.
As we have grown older and busier, the opportunities to make films have decreased. And when we do get together, it has to be scripts we can pull off in a day. This is one of the best examples of our later work, just lots of fun and silliness as we improvised ideas around the theme of the Third Doctor’s era. It was Jonathan Miles’ idea initially. Jonathan is a keen cosplayer and provided most of the costumes, whilst I brought the old Auton gear out of wardrobe for one more airing.
I’m particularly fond of Carl Bowler’s Worzel Gummidge character and the classroom scene where he’s just a bit out of sync with the rest of the students.

These are the Doctor Who films that Westlake Films has revived. Next time I’ll take a look at our varied output away from the TARDIS.

Regeneration book open and six DVD discs next to it

Doctor Who – Regenerations Box Set

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ambassadors of Death DVD case

The Ambassadors of Death

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Greatest Show in the Galaxy DVD case

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.

Dalek

Doctor Who – Most Wanted 11th July 2018

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

Most Wanted

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

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

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

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

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

London, 1965!

 

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”.

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.

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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.

DVD cover

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.