Doctor Who – Colony in Space DVD Review

As gorgeous as the new Doctor Who Collection blurays are, one of the strengths of the DVD releases was that, for one month, nearly story, regardless of reputation, got its moment in the sun. The center of a collection of DVD extras, memories and artwork. Because there are some adventures that otherwise might always be the roughage of a season, a spacer between other more celebrated titles. Colony in Space is such a serial. The most six-parterly of Pertwee six-parters,

The Master has stolen the Time Lord’s secret files about a legendary weapon hidden on the planet Uxarieus. So they take control of the TARDIS to send the exiled Doctor and Jo Grant on a mission to stop him. Unaware of the true reason for their journey, the pair become embroiled in the conflict between a poor farming colony and a powerful IMC mining exploration team. Uxarieus is also the home a race of primitive tribal warriors who live inside an ancient city of incredible technology, ruled by mutated priests. When the Master arrives in disguise, the Doctor begins to realise that there is a far greater danger than just the ruthless IMC Captain Dent and his troops.

One of my favourite Doctor Who novelisations is Doctor Who and the Doomsday Weapon by Malcolm Hulke, based on his own script for Colony in Space. It’s full of interesting characters and what makes them so vivid is their back stories, which also illustrate Earth’s future civilisation. It is a grim over-industrialised society where people have little experience of the outside and big corporations rule. It was shock therefore when I finally saw Colony in Space on UK Gold and found that the television version has very little of what made the book great, such as the Doctor showing the colonists how to hold a simple funeral, a ceremony they had little experience of in their automated lives. Instead these episodes are a bit of a plod, with a lot of the Doctor moving back and forth between the three camps, slowly working out a fairly simple story. The characters are all fairly stiff as well, although Bernard Kay gives some colour to his role as a sympathetic IMC mineralogist and Morris Perry is coldly effective as the fascist IMC Captain Dent. Coronation Street icon Helen Worth also appears as Mary, the young daughter of the colonist’s leader.

It doesn’t help that the planet looks so boring. Perversely, the Doctor’s first visit to an alien planet in the colour television era finds him driving through a grey/brown quarry for most of the time. Even the alien city is largely rendered in cramped brown rocky corridors and rooms. The Uxarians are not much to get excited about either. Neither the spear-waving primitives or the gargoyle-like priests can talk and despite Jo Grant screaming when they appear, they never seem like much of a threat either. The shrunken Guardian is another disappointment, a very obvious puppet with an actor’s head poking out on top. Speaking of Jo, it’s interesting to compare her first trip in the TARDIS with those of the more recent companions. Whilst Rose, Clara et al greet the universe with wonder and thinks it really cool, Jo steps out of the TARDIS, wrinkles her nose and is asking to be taken back to UNIT HQ within a couple of minutes!

Colony in Space is essentially a western – homesteaders versus the big cattle baron, with the Uxarians playing the Indians. They even have a couple of shootouts with old fashioned rifles.  Thankfully the story does pick up a little once the Master arrives, played with charming evil by Roger Delgado, but its speed never develops into more than a trot.

This DVD is relatively light on extras. “IMC Needs You!” is framed by some amusing South Park style animation but is otherwise a straightforward making-of doc, with much emphasis on the terrible weather and muddy conditions the team had to endure. Probably the most interesting fact is that the script originally called for Dent to have a ruthless female henchman, but Ronnie Marsh the Head of Serials felt that a woman in a leather uniform shooting people was too kinky for family viewing.  All the contributors seem fairly happy with the resulting episodes.

“From the Cutting Room Floor” – features a collection of outtakes and behind the scenes moments from the location filming. It’s one of the more entertaining examples of this feature, with some nice moments of humour from Delgado and Pertwee.

The commentary is a fairly luvvie one this time. Comedian and television historian Toby Hadoke chairs a discussion with stars Katy Manning, Bernard Kay and Morris Perry being joined by director Michael E Briant, Assistant Director Graham Harper (who in recent years has directed Doctor Who and the Coronation Street tram crash) and script editor Terrance Dicks. It’s a jolly conversation, with some laughs at the show’s expense, which frankly this story deserves.

After that there are the standard photo gallery and information subtitles, whilst Frank Bellamy’s marvellous comic strip in the Radio Times which promoted the first episode can be opened as a PDF. Colony in Space is a very average story and one for the fan completest rather than the casual viewer.

Doctor Who – The Mutants

TARDIS

By the ninth season, the Doctor Who production team of Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks were finding their reliable Earth based formula for adventures beginning to constrain them. Happily they had cleverly written themselves an escape clause. The Doctor’s exile could be temporarily relieved by the Time Lords who had imposed it, when they wanted to hypocritically send him on a mission to interfere with other civilisations, the very crime they were punishing him for. The Mutants is one of those mid-table stories, decently made but perhaps lacking anything to really push it into the more memorable classics, but its excellently presented on this DVD.

The Doctor (Jon Pertwee) and Jo (Katy Manning) are sent by the Time Lords to Solos to deliver a mysterious box to an unknown recipient. Solos is a misty planet colonised by Earth where the native, seemingly medieval Solonians are treated as second class citizens and are not surprisingly bitter about their lives. They are also being terrorised by a spate of horrific mutations, as men and women turn into insect-like creatures nicknamed Mutts. When an ambassador from Earth informs the odious Marshall that their faltering empire is pulling out of Solos and giving it independence, the tyrant cannot bear the thought of losing his power. He arranges for the ambassador to be assassinated. The Doctor and Jo soon find themselves on the run and battling tribal warriors, mutants and Earth troops. Only by solving the mystery of the mutations and exposing the corrupt Marshall can they hope to survive.

It surprising that some fans have recently been complaining about Doctor Who being “preachy” when in Jon Pertwee’s time the programme was often telling allegorical SF tales. Racism had been tackled previously by Letts and Dicks in The Silurians and The Curse of Peladon but this is the most explicitly political take on the subject, a direct comment on South Africa’s apathied regime and the colonial attitudes behind it. There is also an ecological thread about future Earth becoming a barren concrete jungle and thus having to export its pollution to other planets. Mixed in with this is the SF body horror trope of humans gradually changing into something strange and inhuman. John Friedlander’s design of the mutant creatures is splendid and when they are scuttling enmasse through the caves they are pretty scary. On a trivia note, the Mutt made a cameo appearance in Frontier in Space and later was reused as another alien race in The Brain of Morbius.

Paul Whitsun-Jones had a long track record of playing flamboyant, menacing villains on TV and as The Marshall he goes into full Brian Blessed mode, shouting his way through the part in a way that may not be subtle  but is certainly entertaining. Pertwee’s Doctor is at his grumpiest in this story, acting as humanity’s conscience and horrified by the treatment of the Solonians and their world.  Special mention ought to go to Christopher Coll as cockney trooper Stubbs, making a lot out of a fairly generic guard character, even with the handicap that his best friend Cotton is played by Rick James, one of the worst actors ever in the series.

They’ve fitted a surprising amount of extras on this disc considering it is a six-part story. “Mutt Mad” is an in-depth if straightforward making-of doc, heavy on talking heads and BBC paperwork. More interesting is “Race Against Time”, a look at the show’s attitude towards casting ethnic actors. While admitting the show could have done more to promote more black faces in prominent roles, generally the show is given a clean bill of health. Oscar winning costume designer James Acheson gives a fascinating interview about his time on the programme in “Dressing Doctor Who”. He was responsible in part for the look of the Sontarans and the Fourth Doctor’s famous scarf. Then there’s a slightly random clip from Blue Peter in which Peter Purves talks about Doctor Who monster costumes, including a Mutt.  The six episodes enjoy an excellent commentary featuring a rotating cast of contributors led by Katy Manning (Jo Grant), Garrick Hagon (Ky), Christopher Barry (director), Terrance Dicks (script editor), Bob Baker (co-writer), Brian Hodgson (special sounds supervisor) and Jeremy Bear (designer). This good value disc is rounded out by the traditional photo gallery, info subtitles and Radio Times listing in PDF format.

Watching “The Mutants” again on DVD I’ve enjoyed it a lot more this time. I used to think it was too long and slow but in fact there is a lot to stir the mind and enjoy.  Pertwee is in great form, the Mutant transformations are quite creepy and I’ll even forgive the dodgy science about what happens when you get a hole in the side of a space station. (clue you don’t stand by chatting next to it just because the air pressure has ‘equalised’).

Gareth Preston

Photo by Chris Sampson, Flickr, used under Creative Commons License.

Westlake Films Remastered Part 1

Auton, K9, cosplay Doctor, Cybermen

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.

The Ambassadors of Death

Ambassadors of Death DVD case

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.

Planet of the Spiders

DVD cover

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.