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.

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.

DVD box set

Return to the Unknown

It has been a real pleasure to watch and review this British Film Institute box set of Out of the Unknown. Just to wrap up this series, I thought I would take a look at the collection itself – seven DVD’s in a sturdy plastic case and cardboard sleeve. We have been particularly fortunate that after announcing the release, the BFI listened to and cooperated with a group of classic television enthusiasts to produce a remarkably complete collection, for a programme which is regrettably missing so many episodes. The four reconstructed episodes, eleven commentaries, photo galleries, interview with director James Cellan Jones and the forty two minute documentary Return to the Unknown are all high quality fan contributions. Many of these contributors also worked on the Doctor Who DVD range, another series featuring a very high standard of DVD extras.

In fact the documentary Return to the Unknown has a format familiar to any one who has collected the timelord’s adventures. A collection of talking heads filmed against white, interspersed with vintage photos, BBC documents and apposite video clips. It is a warm tribute to all four seasons, with plenty of fond reminiscences and little in the way of controversy. There is predictably alot of anecdotes about the relatively primitive production facilities of time but also the way BBC2 encouraged innovation. Interesting to note that with Head of Drama Sydney Newman overseeing the series, he once again set up a science fiction series with a young female producer Irene Shubik, assisted by a veteran BBC man George Spenton-Foster, in the same way that Doctor Who began with Verity Lambert and associate producer Mervyn Pinfield. At times the narration does irritatingly present opinion as fact, for example that the surviving episode of season three The Last Lonely Man was also one of the finest. Mark Ward – author of the excellent guide to the series published by Kaleidoscope, contributes as well but he comes across as a little too enthusiastic and uncritical, seeming to describe every episode he mentions as “one of the best ever dramas”.

Without the time to cover the whole series in depth, certain episodes are singled out for more detailed treatment including The Machine Stops, Second Childhood and the Issac Asimov robot stories.The best part of the documentary for me were the intriguing clips from the missing episodes. Wendy Craig is on good form as the reluctant new owner of a handsome robot servant in Satisfaction Guaranteed. Several recoloured scenes from Liar! suggest that it was particularly good story and that Ian Ogilvy gave a brilliant performance as Herbie the telepathic robot. Even the striking end credits of The Fox and the Forest and Andover and the Android are tantalising. We learn that the former was only broadcast the once due to the unusually high repeat fees demanded by Ray Bradbury. In fact, another nice touch to the documentary is that the end credits are done in the same striking graphic design as those of the first two seasons.

Most of the contributors to the documentary also turn up in the commentaries, moderated by comedian and writer Toby Hadoke, a safe pair of hands for these, having hosted a fair number of the commentaries of the later classic Doctor Who DVD releases. He always does his research, has a deep knowledge and love for British telefantasy, and also possess an engaging manner which usually brings out the best in his speakers. As a result the commentaries are all of a pretty good standard, even if the passing decades means the contributors rarely have detailed memories of the filming, beyond one or two particular moments. Although often the onscreen action will provoke some extra thoughts, even if it is just amusement at the costumes.

The image galleries on every disc are impressive, with all the episodes getting some coverage. James Cellan Jones, director of Beach Head gives an informative interview but I could have used some photos to break up the static shot of him talking. What I did not realise until I looked him up was the length and success of his directing career, from Compact in 1963 to Holby City in 2001, by way of many TV movies and mini-series. The Deathday film inserts, which are seen on a television in the background of the episode, do not add anything beyond adding to the box set’s feeling of completeness. Finally there is the excellently written booklet by Mark Ward, as well as a useful episode guide. From this 42 page booklet we can learn enjoyable trivia such as the original intention to have Vincent Price introducing each episode, in the way Boris Karloff had for Out of this World. That the series might have been called 12 Tomorrows. Or that record producer and well-known science fiction fan Ian Levine tried to revive the series in 1981.

This box set is one of the highlights of the BFI’s television range and it is hard to see how it could be much improved upon unless more episodes are uncovered, which seems unlikely now. Picture and sound quality have been restored to a good standard and the inclusion of the reconstructions is a pleasant bonus. It is still quite a pricey set but for fans of BBC science fiction and the so-called golden age of science fiction represented by Asimov, Bradbury, Wyndham et al this is great viewing.

You can read more details and learn where to order it from on the BFI site.

Below is a complete episode guide and a checklist of all my episode reviews, in case you would like to read more of them. Thanks for checking with me and the encouraging comments. I will be back to this blog with more cult reviews in the future, but my next posts will be concentrating on my current theatre work.

Season 1
No Place Like Earth
The Counterfeit Man
Stranger in the Family
The Dead Past
Time in Advance
Come Buttercup, Come Daisy, Come..?
Sucker Bait
The Fox and the Forest
Andover and the Android
Some Lapse of Time
Thirteen to Centaurus
The Midas Plague

Season 2
The Machine Stops
Frankenstein Mark II
Lambda 1
Level 7
Second Childhood
The World in Silence
The Eye
The Tunnel Under the World
The Fastest Draw
Too Many Cooks
Walk’s End
Satisfaction Guaranteed
The Prophet

Season 3
Immortality Inc
Liar!
The Last Lonely Man
Beach Head
Something in the Cellar
Random Quest
The Naked Sun
The Little Black Bag
1 + 1 = 1.5
The Fosters
Target Generation
The Yellow Pill
Get Off My Cloud

Season 4
Taste of Evil
To Lay a Ghost
This Body is Mine
Deathday
The Sons and Daughters of Tomorrow
Welcome Home
The Last Witness
The Man in My Head
The Chopper
The Uninvited
The Shattered Eye

 

No Place Like Earth

I enjoy SF TV anthologies a great deal. American television has tended to dominate this field from The Twilight Zone downwards, but the BBC has provided a handful of worthy entries, none more so than Out of the Unknown. As I was growing up it was a series that was an intriguing mystery for me. Mentioned in passing during articles on Doctor Who but fairly undocumented in the main. Certainly never repeated. I caught up with a few episodes in my tape-trading days but I never thought that an official box set would emerge as handsome as the one that has.

Beginning in 1965 and running for four seasons on BBC2, Out of the Unknown was the brainchild of producer Irene Shubik. An experienced story editor who had worked on the acclaimed ABC anthology Armchair Theatre, she had a long-standing love of literary science fiction and felt intelligent, notable short stories and novels would make good thought-provoking television drama. She probably also wanted to prove that SF could deal with adult dilemmas, as well as simple juvenile escapism.

I recently received the British Film Institute’s splendid Out of the Unknown DVD box set for Christmas. A talented team has not only expertly restored all the existing episodes in the BBC archives, but added four reconstructions of lost episodes, created some interesting looking extras and finished it off with a scholarly booklet on the history of the series. So I thought it might be a fun idea to share my thoughts of the series with you as I watch it.

No Place Like Earth
by John Wyndham
Adapted by Stanley Miller

What is it about most anthology titles sequences that they tend to the sinister? It’s hard to think of any that do not have a feeling of impending threat to them. Out of the Unknown is no different, a sequence of abstract images (including a fear-struck man’s face) whilst Norman Kay’s music features a swooping harp and muted horns that end on a note of suspense. Man is definitely not going boldly to the final frontier here, he is treading warily. It is an effective opening though and feels very much of its Sixties era.

Earth has been destroyed and the remains of humanity are surviving on several small colonies. One of them is Mars, where Bert drifts along the canals, trading his repair skills for provisions and dreaming of the old days. Annika, the mother of one of his favourite Martian families is keen for him to marry her eldest daughter, but Bert is restless. His answer seems to come when a ship arrives from Venus, recruiting men to create a new Earth on that planet. But he soon finds that Venus is far from the brave new start he hoped for.

Based on two Wyndham stories stitched together, Time to Rest and No Place Like Earth, this opening installment still feels a bit padded out. Apparently producer Irene Shubik was unhappy with how the episode had turned out and wanted to launch with The Counterfeit Man by Alan E Nourse but was overruled by head of drama Sydney Newman who preferred using a more famous author. With its canals, noble savage Martians and a jungle Venus it is clearly a whimsical science fantasy and old-fashioned even by Sixties standards. The elegiac theme of Bert’s nostalgia for an Earth that never was recalls to something of the later chapters of The Martian Chronicles, except Bradbury’s stories are richer and their fantastical elements are more clearly shown to be a deliberate style of the novel with his re-imaging of Mars as the American mid-west. It’s not a bad story by any means and well-acted, but it often just plods and everything is spelled out when it could have been left as subtext. The biggest offender is an elderly Venus colonist who gives a long long speech describing the oppressive crooked society that has arisen on Venus since the Earth’s destruction. However Terrance Morgan is a good lead as the idealistic dreamer Bert and it is fine to see a young bewitching Hannah Gordon as Zaylo, the Martian maid who wants to domesticate him.

Designer Peter Seddon’s set for the Martian ruins is an excellent creation, recalling Egyptian and Mayan architecture. The spacesuits and Venus overalls are somewhat cartoonish by comparison but the realisation of the primitive native Venusians is quite clever in using stocking masks to obscure their faces.

Reading the booklet I discovered this episode under-ran by six minutes. It did not feel like that. I think better is to come.