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.

Caprica Experiment logo

Friends visit Battlestar Galactica and Warhammer

Well I’ve been busy with my BSc in Digital Technology and Solutions lately. First term was a success, but that’s a personal challenge but perhaps not engrossing reading for you. However, whilst I do not have much personal creative news, friends of mine have been busy with great new projects.
John Isles (my co-writer on Auton Diaries 2, amongst other things) is kicking off the new year with an ongoing marathon viewing blog of the 21st century version of Battlestar Galactica. Meanwhile Rik Hoskin will have a short story included in the next Warhammer anthology from the Black Library.

In The Caprica Experiment John and our mutual friend Aaron Small embark on a marathon viewing of the whole Battlestar Galactica saga, beginning with the mini-series that successfully relaunched the beloved, if extremely 70’s franchise. John is long time fan, whilst Aaron is watching it for the first time. They will be recording their impressions as they go. Personally it’s a series I’ve seen one or two episodes of, but for some reason I have never got around to watching properly. Certainly I have been aware of it, for years it was the hottest SF show on television, though somehow it never quite broke into the mainstream in the way Game of Thrones or X-Files did. This seems like a great time to rectify that, so I’ve borrowed my dad’s DVD box set and I’ll be trying to accompany them myself.

Another fantasy universe is at war in Warhammer: Age of Sigmar and Rik has written the short story In the Mists of Chaos for the third Warhammer anthology Inferno! Volume Three. This series features tales from across the Games Workshop worlds. The book is due out in May 2019. For more details, pay a visit to the Warhammer Community news pages.

Finally a reminder that the Fairlight Pantomime Group in the village of Fairlight, near Hastings is performing my Rumplestiltskin on 24-26th January. Wishing them all the best. More information about Fairlight and its busy social life can found on the Fairlight village website .

Rumplestiltskin poster
Alien spaceship in pit

Quatermass and the Pit – Unearthed Again

Great news as the BBC have just released the seminal Quatermass and the Pit on their iPlayer in the Archive section. If you have never seen Nigel Kneale and Rudolph Cartier’s exciting, atmospheric and extremely influential British science fiction serial before, I cannot urge you enough to give it a try, if it is available in your region. It is a permanent resident in my television drama top ten. As child in the 1970’s I remember looking at and later reading my parent’s Penguin paperback editions of the scripts, looking at that handful of photographs in the middle and finding it all so mysterious and intriguing. I’ve no doubt that those books and my first viewing of the Hammer film version had a profound effect on myself and my creativity ever since.

So to celebrate it’s return to the public gaze, I thought I would reprint this old article I wrote for Colin Brockhurst’s marvellous A5 fanzine Circus. It is part of a five part series on the whole Quatermass series and its influence on later works. I’ve been over the article and done a little bit of editing and improving, as well as updating one or two references, so this is the definitive version. I should warn you that there are a few spoilers since this is an overview of a 1950’s television drama, so you may like to watch the programme first if you want a completely fresh experience of it.


Simply, the landmark story. The series which confirmed Professor Quatermass as one of the greats of British TVSF, and which has influenced a generation of science fiction creators with its mixture of the occult and the alien breaking into our present day world. Quatermass and the Pit is one of a handful of TV programmes that have transcended their genre boundaries. It is more than just good SF drama, just as Boys from the Blackstuff and I Claudius are far more than just contemporary drama and historical epic respectively. They are the stuff of phenomena, part of the language of British television.

   Quatermass and the Pit is an archetypal tale of the battle between science and superstition, reason versus instinct. Within it, all the major characters face a challenge to their faith, whether that be in established scientific theories, Christianity or military common sense. Significantly, the alien invasion is only stopped by a combination of supernatural and scientific knowledge, a holistic approach that embraces both sides of human civilisation. The storytelling structure is perfect, with events building slowly, clue by clue, to the shattering conclusion as London is ablaze and ordinary men and women have become something terrible. All the cast’s performances are exemplary; while Rudolph Cartier’s direction is imaginative and large scale in its ambition. The programme’s effect on its viewers was enormous. In a typical anecdote, Hereford city council moved a proposal to adjourn their meeting while they went across the road to a hotel to watch the last instalment. Throughout the country, pubs were empty on Monday nights when Quatermass and the Pit was on. Hob, the final episode appearing to be watched by television’s entire audience and the next day it was the big topic of conversation at the bus stop. But let us begin at the programme’s inception.

Rudolph Cartier and Nigel Kneale were asked by the BBC to consider making another adventure for their popular television creation, Quatermass. They met in Cartier’s office to throw some ideas about, during which Kneale observed that there was a great deal of reconstruction going on in the capital’s blitzed areas. Supposing a group of workmen were to uncover something that looked like an ancient spaceship? The appeal of this was that they could film another alien invasion without repeating the formula of their first two stories. This time the conflict arose from the long-term consequences of an extra-terrestrial contact. Not only that, but the horrors would be based around a contemporary situation that was immediately recognisable to the viewers. To convey the variations of the alien influence in humanity’s psyche, Kneale placed the Professor within a central trio, his companions being archaeologist Dr Roney and military man Colonel Breen.

“It’s a funny word, worn out before anything turned up to claim it. Martians!”

   Quatermass and the Pit‘s premise concerns a mysterious capsule unearthed by a group of archaeologists led by Dr Roney, working on an old blitz site in Knightsbridge. Roney enlists Professor Bernard Quatermass, facing a Whitehall takeover of his British Rocket Group; for his advice and he soon deduces that the cylindrical object is not an unexploded WWII missile but something far older and stranger.

“My name is Quatermass! If that means anything to you…”

Andre Morell is for me the definitive Professor, portraying him as not only a brilliant scientist, but also a compassionate, responsible and ultimately heroic man. He admirable and genuinely likeable, a feature in many of Morell’s performances. In addition his range of expertise is now much broader. As well as rocketry, he displays expert knowledge in the fields of electronics; helping Roney complete his experimental Optic-encephalograph; and biology; identifying the fibres in the capsule as resembling nerve-endings. He has become a general-purpose scientist rather than the rocket engineer of previous tales. Following the trials of Quatermass II, Nigel Kneale seems to have repositioned him as not only the conscientious face of science, but also an anti-establishment idealist, fighting against vested interests and government shortsightedness. In the early committee room scenes it is clear that he has gained the reputation as a troublemaker, treated with long-suffering patronage by most of the other members of the group, except a fellow scientist. (Referred to in the script as the Tweedy Scientist!) His bold statement demonstrates the Professor’s honesty, that he will fight the Ministery’s super weapon, The Dead Man’s Deterrent, all the way. Another man might have compromised or lied to save his position. As far as the military and the minister are concerned, he is yesterday’s man. One who has done sterling work in his time but now stuck in his ways, still clinging to old-fashioned methods rather than facing the larger realities. They barely conceal their relief that Breen, a fervent supporter of the Dead Man’s Deterrent and possibly one of its devisers, is soon to replace him.

Morell also brings out a new, humorous side to the Professor’s character where his predecessors had made him seem a bit dry. He gets in quite a few sly digs at Breen’s obtuseness and his flimsy Nazi weapon theories in the early episodes. Quatermass also displays an amusing flair for deadpan comments. When Potter is unsure whether he can convince Breen to leave the capsule alone, the Professor, who has just left Breen being sick following a Martian sonic assault, remarks, “At the moment I think he’s fairly amenable!” His earlier encounters with the unknown have forced him to have an open mind and so he is more willing to pursue the supernatural elements of the mystery, not because he literally believes in ghosts but because he can conceive that they may be evidence that can point to the truth. Of course, this flexible approach is an anathema to the practical Breen who twists the paranormal elements into further proof of the Professor’s foolishness. That he is susceptible to the Martian influence is a real shock because he has always been the one totally dependable element in earlier stories. In a memorable scene, he fights back against the mental domination and wins only to slip back to his Martian state a few minutes later and attempt to kill Roney. Even though he regains control with Roney’s help, he is fatally tainted and cannot save the world this time.

“Is Colonel Breen an imbecile or a fool?”

Colonel Breen is the complete opposite of the two scientists, not only in outlook but in personality as well. Although he is an officer, he is completely lacking in gentlemanly traits; being aggressive, vulgar, blunt and humourless. There is nothing sympathetic about him. When he tries to be charming, for example, when he is trying to make a fresh start with the Professor at the beginning of his posting as ‘Deputy’ Controller, he comes across only as smarmy and false. The Professor describes him as, “A career militarist of the worst kind.” There is always a danger that his character will slip into pure Monty Python caricature but Anthony Bushell’s performance keeps him on the right side of believability, suggesting a man completely repressed by his military lifestyle. Early on in their partnership the Professor pushes Breen into the Hob Lane problem to see what sort of a man he will be working with and perhaps to try to round off a few of Breen’s sharp corners. His is the classic closed-mind; one that forms a theory almost immediately and then either twists the evidence to fit, in this case that the cylinder is a German V weapon, or ignores it as irrelevant, such as the half-life of the artificially produced radiation at the site being five million years old. All Breen wants to see is that the radiation level is safe and that it will not affect his excavation. Such obtuseness makes his early statement, “This is a problem. I enjoy problems.”, seem more like an affectation since when he is up against a real problem, he doesn’t even try to think his way through it.

Though described as an expert in rocketry, evidence of a good education, Breen’s behaviour is more like that of a philistine. He has no hesitation in bringing in earth-moving equipment to excavate the cylinder, even though he knows it is an archaeological site. When Roney complains that the fossils need care and that a lot of evidence has been destroyed, Breen merely snarls, “You’ve got them haven’t you?” indicating the small pile Roney has salvaged. Fossils have no significance to his job, so he does not care about them, or consider that others might be bothered. His military mind naturally lends itself to secrecy. Even though the cylinder poses no obvious threat or strategic significance, he assumes that his operation is militarily sensitive and his anger at Fullalove the reporter’s presence is way out of proportion. When he reads the reporter’s unkind words in the Gazette the next day, he is almost on the verge of hysteria, evidence that he is becoming increasingly out of his depth as the evidence of the cylinder’s alien origins mounts up. Nothing in Breen’s experience has involved aliens and he lacks the imagination to adapt to the idea. Eventually he cannot cope with the proof, instead pretending that it is not there and replacing it with a pathetically thin story of Nazi propaganda weapons. Unfortunately, the Defence Minister possess a similarly closed mind. He is only concerned with the narrow world of Westminster politics and his own position, a real contrast to Roney’s and the Professor’s readiness to put their good names on the line for the sake of their beliefs. Therefore, it is Breen’s explanation that is accepted, an incredibly frustrating moment of drama. The audience knows that the Professor is right but it also knows that there is no way he can make it sound convincing to men such as these. He is impotent against their ‘common sense’.

“It was a kind of figure! It went through the wall!”

Archaeologist, political hustler, anthropologist and even a bit of an occult expert, Doctor Roney is a man of many parts. Yet although he is an ally and an old friend of the Professor, not to mention being an example of a man who has outgrown his alien inheritance, there is something vaguely unlikable about him. Maybe it is Cec Linder’s tough guy performance but it actually adds to the texture and gives Roney some distinctiveness against the more Oxbridge academic Quatermass as portrayed by Morell. He is excellent in his chosen field but considerably less accomplished at handling the people around him. His passion for his discoveries leads him not only to take risks with his reputation but makes him blunt and short-tempered at times. When the bomb squad arrives, he quickly antagonises Potter by suggesting he is unsuitable to deal with the capsule. His aide Miss Judd is often criticised unfairly as well. Her suggestion that the mysterious cylinder might be a bomb is quite reasonable, given where they are excavating, but he turns on her as though she placed it there deliberately to slow him down. Later when Roney notices her absence during the unearthing of the second skull, he makes a sexist comment that, “She’s probably getting her hair done!” In fact, she is in the library researching the history of Hob Lane for the Professor. Kneale makes a point of contrasting Canadian Roney’s energy and pugnaciousness against the more stoic and convention-bound attitudes of his British contemporaries; especially during the press conference where the cautious attitude of the official host is trampled over by Roney making dramatic predictions about what his discoveries may mean for the story of man’s ancestors.

Barbara Judd is a sensible girl. That really sums up much of her character. For most of the time, she remains practical, level-headed and useful, sometimes making connections that her male compatriots do not see. She is the first to examine the ghostly history of Hob’s Lane in any depth. Her controlled personality makes her sensitivity to the Martian influence even more striking and one imagines that for her, losing control like that is very disturbing. During Episode Six – Hob, the scene where she telekinetically attacks Potter, advancing on him impassively while objects whirl around them is marvellous, particularly since we realise, like him, that there is nothing remaining in her to appeal to.

The inclusion of Captain Potter is meant as a contrast to the bombastic Breen. He is younger, more open to reasonable argument and ultimately proves to be one of the humans who has outgrown his violent Martian heritage. Yet against these recommendations, he is frequently as officious and stuffy as his superior; for instance after talking to the Chilcots he patronisingly dismisses them as senile and daft as a brush. Several times he orders Judd away from the excavation site in a manner that suggests that this is no place for a woman. Although there are lines which suggest a possible relationship developing between Judd and himself, there are no real sparks emanating from either of them to justify this. His immunity from the Martian influence shows that not all military people are automatically bad.

“Tearing into angry young men or sex in the coffee bars!

   Quatermass and the Pit sees the return of the Professor’s old ally, James Fullalove, star reporter for The Evening Gazette. Unfortunately, Paul Whitsun-Jones was unavailable to recreate his role from The Quatermass Experiment so Brian Worth replaced him. Worth’s portrayal is much straighter and traditional than the flamboyant, droll character of before but that is probably better for the darker atmosphere of this story. Nevertheless, his opening scene features some good newsroom banter between him and the News Editor. “I’m in conference!” “With these two?” replies Fullalove gesturing at his fellow hacks. Like the Professor, he is interested in finding out the truth about the cylinder, though in his case for the sake of a story. During their examination of manuscripts at the Westminster Abbey archives, Fullalove reveals a slightly surprising ability to read Medieval Latin! Although initially annoyed at his presence and questions, the Professor soon realises that he has a useful friend in the journalist. At the press conference, Fullalove stoutly defends the Professor and tries to help him break up the event, risking his professional impartiality in front of his colleagues from the other papers. Sadly, his dedication to getting the big scoop ultimately leads to his brutal demise.

Kneale has remarked that Quatermass and the Pit has “a cast of thousands” and that he wrote a bevy of colourful supporting characters to illustrate his plot and bearing in mind that it was still live television, allow the cast to shine through. His ear for realistic, succinct dialogue is at a peak in this story, so for once his working class characters are less caricatured than in previous Quatermass adventures. One of my favourite scenes in the whole story comes in Episode Two – The Ghosts when the Professor visits the Chilcots and the prosaic soothsayer Mrs Groom as she scowls into her tea-leaves. They are examples of the simple undramatic belief in the supernatural that many people have. Mrs Groom prediction of a sea journey is amusingly countered by Mrs Chilcot’s practical point that she can hardly leave her husband alone. The Professor’s tactful questioning of the two women shows his charming sympathetic side and they in turn are down to earth normal folk, rather than fearful yokels. The policeman who shows the Professor about the ruined house while gradually becoming more and more nervous is a good cameo, conveying the menacing atmosphere within the building. Sladden, the cheery drilling expert, begins as a comic turn. “I had to get a bloke out of a safe. Secret job, like this one!” But when his latent powers emerge he becomes a fearful figure, his facial features actually contorting into an approximation of a Martian, staring eyes and a gash of a mouth. Following this incident, his demeanour changes from matey confidence to servile insecurity, exhibiting a child-like trust in the vicar who gives him sanctuary and the Professor who says he can find the answers. This vicar represents the old school faith; firmly believing that he is facing with Satan. In fact, he may well be secretly pleased to be facing unequivocal evidence of the supernatural and that he can do something positive and obvious against it; as opposed to unravelling the causes of complex social ills. For if the Devil exists, then God does as well. In one way the Martian inheritance really is the Devil, the source of man’s self-destructive tendencies. He views the Professor as a threat to his faith, an atheist who will scoff at all that seems important to him. “I understand you’re a scientist – Are you going to explain all this away in fashionable terms!” However, the Professor treats him with respect and goes some way to agreeing that what they have encountered is fundamentally evil. Fullalove points out the next day that the church alone cannot defeat this threat; it has already tried in 1341. It is always a pleasure to see prolific character actor Michael Ripper as the gruff but fair Sergeant of the bomb disposal squad.

“What has been uncovered is evil. It’s as diabolically evil as anything ever recorded”

Once again, producer Rudolph Cartier pushed BBC drama’s technical resources to the limit and achieved impressive results. Quatermass and the Pit‘s biggest innovation was TV’s first significant electronic sound effect, created by the newly formed Radiophonic Workshop. Previously, strange sounds had been made by improvisations such as scraping a thumbnail across the microphone to create a rocket’s roar. The ominous vibration that heralds a Martian attack is an impressive debut because it sounds so unnatural.

Cartier’s direction is gripping, atmospheric stuff. He had a real comprehension of the power of that small screen in the corner of the living room. “There is nothing to distract (the viewer) him.” Although he had never reached Hollywood like some of his fellow European emigres, he was extremely in touch with all the methods of the big screen. As with Quatermass II the scenes of rioting crowds are extremely well choreographed, capturing the frenzy and confusion of the alien takeover. The chaos is illustrated aurally as well, when the professor hears the flesh-crawling howls of all the cats and dogs being slaughtered. Earlier the Professor’s conversation with Sladden in the vestry is memorable for the eerie firelight, which illuminates them as the worker tries to describe his vision. There is a feeling of impending evil suffusing that moment. Cartier had always felt that television was the ideal medium for spine-chillers. “The viewer – I like to think – was completely my in power and accepted the somewhat far-fetched implications… in the cinema, there was usually a titter…”

Although still transmitted live, the series made extensive use of pre-filmed sequences, enhancing its cinematic qualities. Sladden’s flight through the lamp-lit streets of Knightsbridge, his footsteps echoing behind him and the alien throbbing sound pursuing him, is worthy of any classic film noir.

For the first time the series enjoyed its own original music rather than relying on Holst’s Mars. Trevor Duncan provided a dramatic opening theme, which accompanied the titles as they slowly emerged from the ground, etched in a stone slab, while throughout the episodes his atmospheric melodies enhanced the monochrome images immensely.

Quite what Bernard Wilkie and Jack Kline thought when they initially read the script is unrecorded but they rose to the challenge magnificently and created a plethora of haunting special effects sequences. The Martians are sinister, believable creations; comparable to insects found on Earth and yet still containing the stylistic influence of a gargoyle. Their initial appearance at the end of Episode Three – Imps and Demons is a superb moment and there are few people seeing it for the first time who will not flinch when one of them jerks suddenly. The climatic appearance of Hob, hovering over the city like an angel of death is disappointing only in that it is confined to just one scene. Thereafter Hob is only referred to by the cast, or indicated by a bright glow at the edge of the screen. To achieve the capsule’s metamorphosis into the shape of Hob a paraffin wax model of the capsule was melted on camera; a process made extremely messy by the addition of Golden Syrup to the miniature to emphasise that the capsule was changing. As the camera panned upwards, the model of Hob was faded in and out of the picture.

On a more physical level, the poltergeist effects as cables shake, objects fly across the room and the very ground flexes and ripples, are almost seamlessly achieved. The forgiving nature of black and white 405-line video is a help for these scenes. More serious was the final explosion as Roney hurls a length of chain into Hob. In the script, Kneale made it clear that this had to be a near-apocalyptic conflagration. The special effects explosive charge was consequently extra-large; so powerful in fact that Cec Linder had to stand between it and the camera or the equipment would have been damaged. The actor had to be wetted down, wear fire-resistant clothing and eye-pads to prevent himself being either set aflame or blinded by the flash. On top of that, he had to reach the correct marker on the studio floor without being able to see. The resulting explosion is worth it though, on screen.

But the special effects highlight is the race memory of The Wild Hunt, the ritual cleansing of the Martian hives. It lasts about a minute but in that time the viewer is assaulted by a rapid succession of images. Armies of insects leaping along, bodies being shattered, close-ups on pulsating eyes and all the time, a cacophony of strange whistling and chirruping. The sequence has the feel of a vivid nightmare and considering this was decades before sophisticated animatronics or computer animation, its effectiveness is a triumph. The Martian swarm were a series of vac-formed plastic miniatures, the first time the technique had been used for a BBC programme. Although cheap to produce, the models were hellish to stick together neatly (Anyone who has attempted a Seven’s Dalek Kit for the first time will know what I mean!) and some ended up held together by sellotape. Meanwhile the flexing alien iris was in fact an inflating condom.

Clifford Hatt’s set design is very effective. The excavation itself was constructed at Ealing studios, requiring several tons of mud to be laid on the floor. To create the impression of the excavation’s increasing depth, the site’s sides were heightened in sympathy. This is best shown by the supervisor’s hut, which begins at ground level but by the last episode, has been raised well above the cast’s heads. The Martian capsule is a subtle design; despite its simplicity, it is recognisably non-human in conception.

On the same night as the final episode, the BBC current affairs show Panorama featured a short interview with Nigel Kneale, accompanied by two of the Martian insect props. During the item, Richard Dimblebly inquired if the writer was “any sort of ghoul” to create such a frightening story. Unsurprisingly Kneale denied the charge. He did not mind frightening adults but he was concerned that children could have been watching because they were “at the mercy of all the special effects …it may be in his bedroom tonight. That’s not something to play with.”

“This Quatermass, he’s big stuff… Rockets.”

To accompany the first episode, the Radio Times featured a half page article by Kneale, illustrated by a photo of the main cast gathered around a patch of uncovered space capsule. In the piece, the author contemplated the Professor’s continuing popularity; putting it down to the public’s awareness of the influence science is having on their lives. The other element of his success of course, Kneale admitted, were the scene-stealing aliens. Meanwhile on the programme details page there was a picture of Potter investigating the mysterious ‘bomb’. The following issue had a photo of Roney examining the skull, while Episode Three – Imps and Demons was promoted by a photo of Breen. Episode Four – The Enchanted details were accompanied by a photo of Potter crouching within the capsule and Episode Five – The Wild Hunt by a portrait of Barbara Judd. Finally, Hob was illustrated by a photo of the Professor inserted within a small artwork of the Martians. When the series was repeated the following year, the columnist Dafydd Gruffyd toasted Quatermass and the Pit in his overview of the BBC’s year as the series that kept millions at home on Mondays. Part one of the omnibus repeat had a photo of the cast watching the Sergeant as he dug at the newly excavated capsule. The second part was advertised with a photo of Potter dragging the hysterical Barbara away from the pit. The credits were more extensive for this repeat.

By now, television had a much higher profile in the arts page of the newspapers, which incidentally made my research a lot easier than it was for the first two articles. Quatermass‘s stature was such that it enjoyed healthy, favourable coverage from just about everybody, especially after its apocalyptic conclusion. The Sunday Times observed that the opening instalment was, “An excellent example of Mr Kneale’s ability to hold an audience with promises alone.” Furthermore the reviewer feared that, “Sharing them with Mr Andre Morell and Mr Cec Linder is an unnerving prospect.” He also picked up on the sub-plot of the Professor being a prisoner of Whitehall mandarins, rather than the pioneer of earlier stories. The Guardian hailed the dramatic finale as “a BBC triumph”. True the reviewer had been hoping for an army of tripod insects descending on the city and thought that Roney’s iron/water solution was too simple; but since “…the scenes of panic and confusion were brilliantly conceived and carried out” it seemed “…uncharitable to complain.” Observing the enormous effect the series had had on the public, the writer concluded that, “If the Martians ever do invade, they might do it simply by way of television.” Over at the Daily Telegraph, their TV columnist L. Marshland Gander pondered that since Kneale was a Manxman it was perfectly understandable that his Martians should have three legs! He added that Kneale had visibly paled when he suggested a fourth Quatermass serial. After the first episode, Clifford Davies of the Daily Mirror predicted that, “The monotony of Keep it in the Family could drive viewers seeking stimulating entertainment into the arms of Quatermass and the Pit!” Six weeks later he praised the conclusion as “A fantastic production,” though he tempered this with the comment, “It was a modern fairy tale, childish in conception, but like all fairy tales, pointed with a moral.” The Daily Mail gave Episode One – The Halfmen a big thumbs up. “Nigel Kneale’s script and Rudolph Cartier’s production values showed the virtues which have made Quatermass a popular favourite.” The programme’s formula summed up as taking its story seriously but with touches of hokum where appropriate. After asking several rhetorical question such as “What is it?”, the article ended with the reviewer promising, “The Professor can count on my sympathetic attention to these problems…” Later, Hob left him quaking in his shoes, “It was a stunning experience.” He appreciated the slow build-up of tension, the evil growing as the Professor’s understanding increased while the team of The Professor, The Doctor and The Colonel were, “An admirable trio.” He just wondered if anyone else could hear a ringing in their ears – from the direction of Knightsbridge?

For a change, the related merchandise includes more than the published script. That said, the scriptbook is up to the usual high standards of its predecessors. Its Penguin edition features an eerie illustration of a screaming man fleeing the pit and its occupier while against the night sky stands a ruined house. Within were eight pages of monochrome photographs. The Arrow reprint’s cover goes for a marvellous portrait of one of the Martians. The famous Martian sound is preserved on the BBC record, “Twenty Five Years of the Radiophonic Workshop”. More recently a CD of stock music used on Doctor Who in the sixties was released entitled “Space Adventures. Its final bonus track is the stirring theme music from Pit.

In 1988 BBC Video released an omnibus edition on VHS, edited to remove the episodes’ credits and a couple of padding scenes which Kneale had written purely to allow the cast to move to another part of the set during the live transmission. The first missing scene occurs between the scene of the Professor and Roney in the club and the committee room and features a television interviewer questioning passers-by outside the pit. The author approved these edits. In places, the quality improves because the editor incorportated the original 35mm prints where they were available, rather than the telecine copy. Indeed Quatermass and the Pit was one of BBC Video’s better packaged titles, especially compared to the early Doctor Who omnibus titles released at the same time. In 2000, this edition released again as a disappointing DVD without any extras and featuring a rather poor transfer of the VHS. Finally in 2005 the serial was released on DVD along with Quatermass II and the existing episodes on The Quatermass Experiment in a box set entitled The Quatermass Chronicles, unedited and carefully restored by the same team of specialists who were working on the Doctor Who DVD range. It

The homages to this serial deserve an article all of their own. For the moment however it is worth mentioning Doctor Who – The Image of the Fendahl, John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness and Stephen King’s The Tommyknockers as three of the highest profile productions that have re-used Kneale’s storyline. Such was the notoriety of the series, two famous BBC comedy programmes produced their own parodies shortly afterwards. One came the week after the last episode in Hancock’s Half Hour, in an story called The Horror Serial, when the lad ‘imself, still nervous after watching Quatermass’ adventures, is digging in his garden when he uncovers a mysterious ‘pod’. Believing it to be a Martian spaceship, he immediately calls in the army but to his eventual embarrassment, the truth turns out to be all too terrestrial. The Goons meanwhile discovered The Scarlet Capsule and it was up to Neddy Seagoon as Quatermass OBE, and the usual characters to solve its meaning. Interestingly this episode used the authentic Radiophonic Workshop sound effects.

Kneale has maintained that the Quatermass serials always had more humour than horror in them but Quatermass and the Pit is a triumph of disturbing science fiction. Perhaps Kneale and Cartier realised it would be very difficult to surpass it, or more likely Kneale was tired of the character, but it also marked the end of Quatermass’ black and white era. It would be twenty years before he would face another alien menace and by that time, the whole world of television had changed, as had the Professor himself. How it all happened is unsurprisingly a subject for the next article.

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!

 

DVD cover

The Underwater Menace

I used to regularly write reviews for the ciao.co.uk shopping comparison website and earn some pin money, but sadly the company has now folded. A shame because for a period there was a good community of writers there. It definitely helped me practise and hone the craft of review writing, since earning were dependent on good feedback. Over the next few months I am going to republish my favourite of the articles I wrote. Hope you enjoy them.

I’ll confess I had slightly mixed feelings receiving this DVD from the BBC Shop. For this is the end, the last remaining unreleased Twentieth Century story of Doctor Who and the end of over fifteen years of DVD releases. Of course there’s always the happy possibility of more discoveries of lost episodes in foreign countries*, and the current television series will carry on releasing box sets until we’ve started streaming everything in the world. So until then, we can finally re-watch this lost story, the earliest existing one to feature Patrick Troughton as the Doctor. It’s a purest pulp Thirties comic strip adventure featuring Atlantis, a really mad scientist and industrial action from sequined Fish People.

The TARDIS lands on a nameless beach somewhere on Earth. The Doctor, Ben, Polly and new recruit Jamie explore and are soon captured and taken into the bowels of the Earth. Here they excitingly find the lost city of Atlantis, and less excitingly are offered as sacrifices to the sharks swimming in the temple of Amdo. Their execution is halted in the nick of time by Professor Zaroff, “the greatest scientific genius since Leonardo Da Vinci!” according to the Doctor. Soon Ben and Jamie have become slaves in the mines, Polly is scheduled to be transformed into a Fish Person, and the Doctor discovers that Zaroff has gone utterly mad and is about to undertake his greatest ever experiment – the destruction of the whole world!

There really isn’t another Doctor Who story quite like The Underwater Menace and that is the kindest claim I can make for it. These four episodes are branch of science fiction straight out of the Saturday Morning Matinee serials like King of the Rocket Men. Logic is frequently thrown to the winds, and the emphasis is firmly on action, with each cartoonish idea quickly followed by another daring escape. Caves lined with traps, pagan human sacrifice, disguises, a prison escape, Frankenstein-style operations creating half men/ half fish people and a cackling villain in a swirling cape. And I’ve not even reached midway through the story yet. Approached in the right campy mood it can be quite entertaining. There are some hilarious dramatic lines: “You’re not turning ME into a FISH!” “Why do you want to blow up the world? / Why else? For the achievement!” “So you’re just a little man after all. You disappoint me!” Plus one that has entered into fan folklore – Professor Zaroff’s cliffhanger exclamation “Nothing in the world can stop me now!”

In the accompanying documentary, writer Rob Shearman wonders if Geoffrey Orme, the television journeyman writer behind this tale, was trying to fit in every idea he had ever had for a Doctor Who story. There are virtually no layers or deeper meanings to this tale. It is pure hokum that merely asks, “How will our heroes escape?”

This was Troughton’s third story as the Doctor and his persona had not quite settled down yet. He is still being deliberately eccentric, with his large stove pipe hat, wearing zany disguises and acting in a slightly childlike manner in places, such as his scenes with Zaroff in the professor’s laboratory. It is fascinating to watch him still finding his acting feet in the part. Zaroff was played by Joseph Furst, a respected character actor with a successful career in film and television already behind him and much more to come, including the James Bond movie Diamonds are Forever, and historical drama 55 Days in Peking. Faced with such a melodramatic villain, he seems to have decided to go all out, exaggerating his Austrian accent even more and talking fast and bombastically. I don’t blame him because most Zaroff is clearly an egotistical larger than life character in the first place. “Your people? They’re MY people!” he boasts to the King of Atlantis. Colin Jeavons, a thin faced actor best known for playing unsympathetic characters, does however make the most of Damon, a young science acolyte of Zaroff who clearly burns with ambition to succeed him.

The TARDIS was becoming a bit cramped at this stage with three companions. It is even more of a problem in this story because Frazer Hines as Jamie was a late addition to the story, having been cast on the strength of his appearance in the preceding, sadly lost story The Highlanders. Consequently his lines were most borrowed from Ben and Polly, aka Michael Craze and Anneke Wills. The result is that none of the characters are served well, beyond what charm and energy the actors muster themselves. Polly in particular seems to disappear from the story for quite a while, and when she is there, it is mostly to be menaced by others.

The Fish People are some of the show’s least loved monsters. They wear leotards with sequins glued on and tied with strips of cellophane. Some have sequins on their faces and black felt eyes. Others have to make do with swimming goggles. Clearly the BBC wardrobe department tried their best on the low budget, but these creatures inspire neither fear nor pity, resembling something put together by Year Four for a school play, probably with Disney’s song Under the Sea playing tinnily in the background. Their underwater ballet in episode three may be well-realised considering the limitations of the studio, but at the same time it feels more like a pointless pause in the action rather than a blockade.

Due to managerial decisions beyond their control, the BBC’s unofficial Restoration Team have only be allowed to put bare bones telesnap versions of the missing episodes 1 and 4, accompanied by the restored soundtrack from a fan’s recording. This is a shame because it does not do the team’s abilities justice. Telesnaps are photographs taken from a live television broadcast by an enterprising photographer called John Cura back in the 1960’s. He used to offer his services to television directors who wanted a permanent record of their programme in the pre-domestic video era. Compared to the previous telesnap versions which have been enhanced with Photoshop, stills from other sources, and descriptive subtitles for wordless scenes, this basic slideshow only conveys the episodes in the most crude way. I don’t blame anyone who finds the climax hopelessly confusing when all they can hear is bumps, cries and rushing water, set against a couple of grainy images.

Despite the low budget for this final release, the extras are relatively generous. A Fishy Tale is an entertaining Making Of documentary, interesting because this is a fairly obscure story. We learn about its formidable director Julia Smith, who would go on to create produce Eastenders. Doctor Who Fan and author Rob Shearman has some observant points to make and argues his defence for the story well. The Television Centre of the Universe – Part Two continues the documentary begun on the DVD Doctor Who The Visitation – Special Edition. Peter Davison, Janet Fielding and Mark Strickson carry on their tour of the old BBC Television Centre in the company of Yvette (Most Haunted) Fielding. Along the way they meet a few old faces from the production team in the Eighties. There are some good anecdotes about the art of making drama in the old multi-camera environment, a practice now almost extinct as today’s television dramas are made much more like films. However the documentary does teeter on the edge of indulgence and dare I say a certain smugness from the actors? Including an outtake where Yvette Fielding gets her facts wrong much to the others amusement seems unfair too. However the highlight are some rare behind the scenes clips from Davison’s Cyberman story Earthshock.

We see the two brief clips which were cut from the missing episodes 1 and 4 by Australian television censors. Ironically this means they’ve survived whilst the episodes haven’t. In the first Polly is dragged screaming to the operating table, whilst the second shows Zaroff’s fate. There’s a photo gallery, as good as ever. The rest of the extras are contained in the commentary track. The existing episodes have a lively commentary from Anneke Wills, Frazer Hines, Catherine Howe and special sound creator Brian Hodgson, moderated by Toby Hadoke. Episode one has an interview with Patrick Troughton’s son Michael, who has recently published a frank biography of his father, whilst episode four has a montage of archive interview clips from other participants, including Patrick Troughton and director Julia Smith.

For a year or more it looked as though this DVD would never be released. BBC Worldwide apparently felt that there would not be enough fans willing to pay for one unreleased episode. Episode Three having already been included on the Lost in Time DVD set. So I am delighted that the lobbying of fans and Doctor Who Magazine has had an influence. Whilst The Underwater Menace is nowhere near a good story, it is a fascinating window into an era of the programme which is largely lost. It has incidental pleasures in the acting and the restoration team have done an excellent job making the film prints look as good as they can. This is one for the completests, but at least it is now possible to own every existing episode of Doctor Who in one uniform collection.

 

* Since this review was written BBC Worldwide has released DVD’s of an animated Power of the Daleks, a part-animated Shada and a special edition of Enemy of the World.

Susan Calvin looks at a robot

Little Lost Robot

I have to admire the BFI for digging out some real obscurities for their fantasy and science fiction range of releases. Having done a splendid job restoring and releasing all the existing Out of the Unknown episodes in a box set, they have also brought out a single disc containing all the remains of its 1962 ITV predecessor Out of this World. I recently received it as a Christmas present. The brainchild of ground-breaking TV producer Irene Shubik, and an off-shoot of the prestigious ITV series Armchair Theatre, Out of this World was a thirteen part anthology of science fiction stories, mostly adapted from the page. Sadly only one complete episode still exists – Little Lost Robot.

Top robot psychologist Susan Calvin is summoned to a spacebase orbiting Saturn, where she is shocked to discover that the local robots have had their most basic rule, “No robot may harm a human or allow a human to come to harm,” reprogrammed to allow them to work on a secret military project. Now one of the robots has taken an engineer’s angry command to “Get lost” literally and has disguised itself amongst twenty-one identical robots due to shipped to another base. Susan must track down the fugitive before an intelligent robot capable of murder escapes.

It is an entertaining episode, even if it doesn’t quite capture the cleverness of Isaac Asimov’s original short story. In the original, part of his celebrated collection I, Robot, Susan Calvin explains the because the First Law has been changed to “No Robot may kill a human”, the Second Law “A robot must obey, where that order does not contradict the First Law” has now taken precedence. In fact as long as the robot is obeying “Get lost!”, this means the Third Law “A robot must preserve its own existence where this does not contradict the First or Second Law.” is now its driving motivation. Making this robot a determined escape artist who will use all its superhuman abilities to avoid being discovered.

This logical dilemma is never properly explained, in fact Asimov’s famous Three Laws are never fully stated. Rather people talk in more vague terms about the robot being dangerous due to its reprogramming. It seems an odd oversight for an episode with plenty of time for discussion and the usually fastidious Irene Shubik in charge. What this adaptation does add is more emotion to all the characters, especially Susan Calvin. In Asimov’s stories she is famously cool and logical, rather like Mr Spock but on television she is much more anxious and even flirtatious towards the end. There’s even a classic example of “mansplaining” as the supposed top expert in robotics has some elements described to her by her male assistant. At least she gets in a dry retort to him. The Chief Engineer is also developed into a character who resents the robots for their seeming air of superiority.

Production-wise the play can be regarded as good for its time. All the sets have a stage backdrop quality to them, but at least they are solid and practical and not in the slightest Flash Gordon-esque. The robots themselves do look as if they have been made for a school production but their blank, slightly Cyberman-like, faces are effective in close-up. The costume also forces the actors to waddle along, which is regrettably humorous. The production has that filmed-as-live-theatre style of direction which was typical of most television drama of the time. Yet for me at least the episode never drags.

Boris Karloff introduces and concludes the episode as the Host. He did quite a few of these hosting roles in later life, his mellifluous voice and urbane presence ideally suited the job. The most famous of these shows was probably Thriller, whilst another was a supernatural series called The Veil. His contribution here is probably about a minute long. Aside from Karloff, the rest of the cast is filled with actors who were familiar television faces of the time. Susan Calvin is played by Maxine Audley, probably best remembered now for her part in the notorious horror movie Peeping Tom.

As I said earlier very little of this series still exists, nevertheless BFI have done their best with the extras. Little Lost Robot is presented as a film print and a VIDFIRE version to replicate the way it would looked in 1962. Collectors of the Doctor Who DVDs will know the latter process as it has been used on nearly all the black and white episodes. There is interesting commentary featuring producer Leonard White and actor Mark Ward, hosted by Toby Hadoke, who has done similar duties on Out of the Unknown and Doctor Who.  Two further episodes exist as audio-only recordings: Cold Equations – a classic drama about an astronaut who discovers he has a stowaway on board who threatens his whole mission, and Imposter – a man is accused of being an alien construct, which was the only television adaptation of a Philip K Dick story until the big-budget US-UK production Electric Dreams. Both have been cleaned-up as much as possible and are presented here. There is also a PDF script of another missing story Dumb Martian. Finally there is an excellently written eighteen page booklet on the history of the series and the thirteen stories.

This DVD makes an excellent companion piece to the BFI’s Out of the Unknown box set, especially now it has come down in price to under £10. It is fascinating to watch this rare bit of British science fiction history and respect ABC for producing adult SF at a time when it was pretty rare on television.

DVD box set and K9 model

Flying Down Under – K9 The Series

Created in response to the popularity of Star Wars‘ R2-D2 and C-3PO, the Doctor’s robotic dog companion has had quite a busy life of his own. He has enjoyed a 1982 BBC spin-off Christmas special, toys, books, and numerous celebrity cameos. For years his creators, Bob Baker and Dave Martin, tried to get a fully-fledged K9 television series on-air and finally succeeded in 2009, no doubt helped by runaway success of the revived Doctor Who series. This boxset collects all 26 episodes of Brightspark’s Australian children’s television series, which was sold to several territories including Channel 5 in the UK. It is essentially a slipcase containing the two previous UK DVD releases.

London in the not too distant future where the government has become increasingly authoritarian. Robot policemen are on the streets. A secret branch of the government called The Division deals with alien incursions. Professor Gryffen works for The Division at his home laboratory, investigating confiscated alien tech, especially a time/space teleporter recovered from a UFO discovered in the Arctic. One night his experiments are violently interrupted, first by homeless teenage hacker Starkey, then a time/space portal opening up and unleashing a pair of reptilian warriors called the Jixen, pursued by K9. Overwhelmed by the Jixen’s attack, the robot bravely self-destructs to save the humans. To their amazement he then regenerates into a new sleeker form which can fly. K9 may have lost some of his memories but he is still super-smart, loaded with gadgets and loyal to his new “master” Starkey and his friends Jorjie, Darius and the Professor. Together they fight new alien invaders and the sinister plans of the security department, aided and abetted by Jorjie’s mother June, head of The Division.

The obvious comparison for this series is The Sarah Jane Adventures, the CBBC Doctor Who spin-off which also featured K9 in its later seasons. On the whole K9 – The Series is a more childish lightweight programme, its characters rarely having the depth of the regulars surrounding Sarah Jane Smith. Its format of individual 25 minute stories, compared to the two part story format of the British series, also means that most of the stories are pretty straightforward, with rarely much space for the characters to grow. But then something remarkable happens in the last ten episodes – it suddenly becomes much better in every department. Looking at the credits there is no obvious new writer or producer. It’s simply as if the team metaphorically drank a can of Red Bull and suddenly got inspired. From “The Cambridge Spy” onwards, the adventures are more exciting, the humour is actually funny and whilst the regulars do not get much richer, they do become more likeable and the acting become less stiff.

“Angel of the North” is the only episode written by veteran Doctor Who and Wallace and Gromit writer Bob Baker and it is definitely the highpoint of the series. The artic base which discovered the Fallen Angel UFO comes under attack from revived alien monsters. Atmospheric, well-paced and featuring some welcome insight into Professor Gryffen, it is the one story that really recalls the feel of Doctor Who. Other highlights are: “The Lost Library of Ukko” which is the only story to feature an alien planet, where Starkey and his regular Division enemy Thorn become trapped, forcing them to work together.  “The Curse of Anubis” where K9 meets a race of Ancient Egyptian-themed aliens who he helped free from slavery in the past. Unfortunately they have turned into tyrants themselves. Soon he and nearly everyone else aside from Darius have been brainwashed into believing K9 is a god. And the aforementioned “The Cambridge Spy” where Starkey and Jorjie are accidentally sent back to the 1950’s and become involved with a suspected traitor.

The series has something of the look of the Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers, with its young cast, bright colours and fairly stagey looking interiors. Its tight budget means that a surprising large ratio of its stories involve going underground so that the same tunnel set can be redressed again and again. Having most of the Division scenes take place inside what looks the back of a van is also distractingly cheap-looking. Sunny Brisbane looks nothing like London either. The aliens vary in quality from fairly credible rubber monster suits like the Jixen to stuff that wouldn’t be out of place at a Halloween party. On the plus side the title music and CGI opening sequence are quite catchy.

Originally it was announced that K9 would have a new voice but following a fan backlash, K9’s original voice – actor John Leeson –  was hired. Personality-wise this K9 has become more of a smart-alec and has lost a bit of his fusty, slightly pompous academic manner which he had in Doctor Who, but he is still recognisable as the same character. Most of the regular actors have gone on to have decent careers in the last few years but it has to be said their performances here are often quite wooden. Daniel Webber (11.23.63, The Punisher) in particular as Darius labours with a pretty poor attempt at a Cockney accent. But the wooden spoon has to go to Connor Van Vuuren as villainous Division agent Drake. My jaw dropped every time this guy was onscreen, seemingly unable to deliver a single line convincingly. He was about as menacing as the Innkeeper in a school nativity. It’s no coincidence that Drake’s eventual removal coincides with the late upswing in quality. The best performance belongs to experienced TV and movie actor Robert Moloney as Professor Gryffen, even though he is a pretty stereotyped eccentric Brit scientist who drinks tea and dresses a bit foppishly.

These four discs are pretty light extras-wise, with only text profiles of the regular characters spread across them. It is a shame that the behind the scenes programme that is apparently on the Australian release was not included, since there is relatively little information available about this series.

K9 – The Series is to quote another SF series – mostly harmless. Not as good a spin-off as The Sarah Jane Adventures or Torchwood, but better at least than the lamentable K9 and Company. It is cheap, cheerful and there is nothing to offend a family audience, although small children may find the lumbering dinosaur-like Jixen a bit scary. As far as I know it is not currently available to stream anywhere, making these DVD’s your only way of seeing it. Doctor Who fans might like to buy it out of completeness but have better be advised to set their expectations to low.

I wrote this review for the Ciao shopping site but it was rejected because this DVD set is now out of print. So I thought I might as well publish it here. Hope you enjoyed it.

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

 

Soldiers in underground bunker

The Man in My Head

by John Wiles

More by accident than design, due to the intervening episode The Last Witness being lost, The Man in My Head continues the theme of the misuse of psychology and drug therapy which Welcome Home began. Not only that but its criticism of the military mind, with its emphasis on obedience and the chain of command, and the way most of it takes place in an underground complex, it also recalls season two’s Level 7.

It is the ultimate in covert operations. A crack team of commandos is on a mission to infiltrate and sabotage a hydro-electric power station, where each soldier has been subliminally programmed to only remember the next stage of their mission when they hear a tone on their radio. They have been equipped with specialised personas and skills tailored for this mission. Not only that, but they have been programmed with a backup cover story in case they are captured, which they will utterly believe when it is activated. It looks foolproof on paper, but when the team hits an unexpected accident, doubt, paranoia and identity crisis are soon eating away at them.

With most of the action taking place in a single large set, there’s very theatrical feeling to this episode. Perhaps that explains the slightly larger than life performances from most of the cast. That kind of over-emphasised, reaction heavy acting that science fiction directors often encourage. Its not necessarily a bad thing, but it lends an artificiality to the episode that makes its final revelations not as much of surprise as it could have been if the episode had been made on film and filmed in a realistic location. Yet theatricality does not mean it is visually flat. Director Peter Creegan makes great use of dramatic camera angles from above and below and the whole production is dramatically lit with the cast’s sweat gleaming faces lit quite noir-ishly in half-light.

Tom Chadbon is excellent as Captain Brinson, the initially cool leader who becomes increasingly unravelled as his leadership and even his personality is challenged by the casually superior Hine, the older scientist who has been working undercover at the plant. It’s a trivial point I’ll admit, but as we reach the end of the series, it is sort of nice to see the return of the dodgy blond moptop wig that was such a staple of the first season. This time it is Kenneth Watson who gets to sport it as Hine.

John Wiles was an experienced television writer with many credits to his name, from Dixon of Dock Green to A Horseman Riding By. He also been a script editor on several BBC shows and produced Doctor Who during most of the later part of William Hartnell’s era, despite not a great fan of science fiction. He had already provided the script for one episode in the fourth season – Taste of Evil – which is now lost. His script is clever in the way it shows how a seemingly logical idea as subliminal programming is filled with pitfalls. Especially when one of the men Fulman triggers his backup programming and becomes a soldier who has accidentally crashed landed in an enemy territory, looking on in bewilderment as his comrades seemingly prepare to carry out a random act of terrorism.

Ultimately the real villains of this piece are the military officers who regard these soldiers are little better than cheap robots who are ultimately disposable. In fact there is an inference that these men and one woman may not even have been real soldiers originally. As a story it still feels quite relevant and is probably the existing episode from this season which could be most easily remade today. It manages to do some fresh with old what-is-real / what-is-imaginary concept that underpins a lot of the fourth season. Unlike Welcome Home, which is based around the mystery of what has been done, The Man in My Head shows us its box of tricks at the start, yet still tells a story with some unexpected twists.