Posted in Classic Series, Classic Series Reviews, News, Reviews, TV Reviews

Towel Day Classic Series Review: City of Death

The Doctor and Romana are in Paris, enjoying the culture and art. However trouble is not far behind, just what are the Count and Countess Scarlioni up to and what are their plans for the Mona Lisa? What is causing the time distortions that the Doctor and Romana have felt? And just who is this chap Duggan, and what is his role in all of this? All will be revealed in the ‘City Of Death’.

So where do we begin? Although the writer of this is ‘”David Agnew”, it is in fact a pseudonym for David Fisher (original idea), Graham Williams (producer) and Douglas Adams (God) and it is the last one, Douglas Adams, who really shows his comic sci-fi writing that we all would come to love in The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. After a poor season opener with Destiny of the Daleks, with a script that Terry Nation had phoned in on a bad line, Davros now speaking with more of a Scottish accent then the Dalek-esq vocal harmony that Wisher had given (Watch the clip of Davros saying ‘Davros Lives!’ and hear what I mean), and a case of Daleks that looked more like a kid had made them for a Blue Peter special then the gleaming bad ass machines from the previous story (as you can gather, Destiny may not in fact be my favourite Dalek story, but seeing as Day of the Daleks happens to be that story, what do I know?), City Of Death comes out of this bad patch to bring something to Doctor Who that had been missing for a while – the right combination of comedy and horror.

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Original VHS cover, 1991.

So a quick rundown of the story. City starts with a landscape shot of an alien world, but is in fact Earth in the distant past, and a spaceship attempting to take off. Scaroth (the pilot with a face that looks as if someone put a lot of green spaghetti over his head with a meat ball in the middle) tries but fails, and the end result is the ship exploding into little pieces. Anyway we catch up with the Doctor and Romana (in that School Girl outfit we all love…. , but the major difference here is we are not in some Devonshire quarry, oh no, the BBC have spent some money on the program and shipped the crew to a small place in Europe known as Paris. With wonderful shots of Tom and Lalla walking around the Parisian streets, we get to the story in a small café, the Doctor and Romana feel the effects of a ‘time distortion’. Deciding to go to the Louvre to look at one of the ‘great treasures of the universe‘ the Mona Lisa, they run into Duggan, who is tailing the Countess Scarlioni . Much hi-jinks later, and the three are taken the to Count and Countess home, to discover that there are six Mona Lisa’s bricked up and awaiting to be sold once the real one is stolen. But this hides the true intention of Scarlioni, to fund his time travel experiments, and not the way of producing food, but as a means to get back in time to the spacecraft explosion and stop it from happening. The Doctor must stop him at all costs as this means that life on the Earth will be lost, for it was the explosion that caused life to form on this planet. To cut a long story short, the Doctor finds out that Scarlioni is in fact Scaroth, who is splintered through time and using a mental link to each version of Scaroth to plan his deed. Needless to say, the Doctor manages to stop the plans of Scaroth, and make sure that history is on its true course.

So what can I say about the City Of Death. I cannot lie, it ranks as one of my top five Doctor Who stories of all time as it manages to combine a top acting cast, with Tom Chadbon as a superb casting as Duggan, the bumbling private detective with a habit for punching first, asking questions later. There is are the Count and Countess Scarlioni, played by Julian Glover and Catherine Schell. Both bounce off each other as a believable villainous couple, but it is Glover who brings a double edged side to Scarlioni/Scaroth that is a charm to watch on the screen. Even Tom Baker & Lalla Ward are on top form as the Doctor and Romana as they begin their onscreen (and later off-screen) partnership. But my favourite actors in this story happen to only have a cameo. John Cleese and Eleanor Bron as the two art gallery visitors bring an amusing moment of surreal humour to the show, discussing the artistic nature of the TARDIS, yet neither playing the part for a cheep laugh, but both for their moment on screen, making a believable couple who think that the TARDIS dematerialising is just part of the artists show (and having been to art shows, I could see why)

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2001 VHS Re-Issue

But it is down to the man who wrote City Of Death, Douglas Adams, as to why this is in my top five, and in the top five of many in fandom. Although he is often taken to task for adding too much ‘joke humour’ into the show, it is not just down to him for this as there was pressure from the top to lighten the show after the Hitchcliffe/Holmes Gothic Horror era of the mid 70’s. Adams managed in his story to inject what the show needed, that of a comedic streak but with the seriousness needed to pull it off. Douglas Adams gets a lot of stick in fandom for making the show too jokey during his tenure as Script Editor, but it was not down to him along as there are many factors that add to the change, including Tom himself, but it is stories like City that show humour can be used at the right times, something that we wont see that much in the JNT era of Doctor Who, and doesn’t come back to Doctor Who properly until the new series, though Love & Monsters (A story that I hate with a passion) took it too far, anyone who states that the Douglas Adams era was to jokey should watch that and see he was being far more serious.

City of Death would be the last time that Doctor Who would have a true ‘Classic’ in any sense until the end of Season 18 with Logopolis, and stands out as a classic in the 48 years of the show. What makes City Of Death a joy to watch is that all of the hallmarks of a classic story, that of good writing, casting, directing, and acting, all to be seen here, along with shots of Paris that add to the stories flow, and not detract from it like on other occasions where location filming in other countries has been used (Such as The Two Doctors). In the end I have to give this story my second 10 out of 10 for the fact that it is to this day one of the best Tom Baker stories out there, and ranks as of the top five stories in the history of the show.

City of Death was originally broadcast between September 29 and October 20 1979 as the second serial of Doctor Who‘s seventeenth season. It was released on VHS in July 1991 and reissued in May 2001. It was released on DVD in November 2005, available from the Amazon link below. City of Death was novelised this month by James Goss, our review which can be found Here.

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Posted in Classic Series Reviews, Features, News, Reviews, TV Reviews

Review: The Daleks

Much like with An Unearthly Child, The Daleks will forever stand as an iconic serial in the annals of the show’s history, setting Doctor Who on the road to 51 years of (mostly) success and kicking off the era of Dalekmania.

There can be little doubt that writer [p2p type=”slug” value=”feature-terry-nation-raymond-cusick-birth-daleks”]Terry Nation must share some of the credit[/p2p] for the Daleks with Raymond Cusick, Brain Hodgson, David Whitaker, Christopher Barry and Richard Martin, the script combining in perfect fashion with the iconic design and voice of the creatures, creating the perfect storm that would propel the Skaro pepper pots into the nation’s consciousness. Yet it wasn’t simply the creatures unique look and sound that was vital, the script had to be something special and Nation certainly delivers.

The Daleks represent oppression and war

The Daleks is very much of it’s time, both in terms of storyline and production, bringing forth Cold War fears of nuclear desolation and still remembered fears of the evils of fascism to create a cautionary modern fable, warning of the eventualities of war and race politics. In The Daleks, Nation crafts a tale that speaks in broad strokes, the Thals are representative of peace and oppressed peoples, the titular Daleks of the oppressive and war. We see the beauty of the pacifist Thals and the horror of the Doctor and Ian upon seeing the true form of the Dalek, the personification of the war machine and fascism as monster. There are also clear echoes of the ongoing Cold War between the West and the USSR here, just one year removed from the Cuban Missile Crisis, the closest the world had yet come to nuclear annihilation.

The Daleks as one uniform collective are symbolic of the stereotypical image of Communism, the Thals the democratic and liberal West, the very real “shadow of the bomb” fears played out in the nightmare scenario as radiation destroys life, civilisation and any shred of “humanity” the Daleks may have once had. Here is the true power of the Daleks, the very real fears of an entire generation made real, from the ongoing threat of annihilation to that chilling word heard in such a terrible way during the Second World War, “exterminate” brought very real world images into the minds eye.

The classic cliffhanger to Episode One

Director Richard Martin believed Terry Nation to be [p2p type=”slug” value=”unsung-hero-richard-martin-director-daleks”]a good ideas man[/p2p] as opposed to a good scriptwriter, a belief that many have shared in years since, and The Daleks is a story centered around good ideas. From the TARDIS’ food machine, to the characterisation of the Doctor in the Initial stages, from the obvious central concept to the political commentary, there is genuine sci-fi quality here. Despite the concepts however, the story relies greatly on scenario and incidence, leaving out much in the way of detail as to the story’s background and character’s motivations, particularly as pertains to the Thals and Daleks, being merely told that the Daleks dislike the unlike, their racism given no depth. These broad strokes are typical of Nation, leaving much to the imagination as designer Ray Cusick would attest on the DVD for this story, the writer having a tendency for characters to enter “white featureless rooms,” and leave the rest to the design team’s creativity.

With seven episodes to play with, Terry Nation has ample opportunity to flesh out our regulars introduced in An Unearthly Child and in honesty, [p2p type=”slug” value=”daleks-contemporary-audience-reaction-reviews-radio-times-thoughts”]as DWW readers indicated in feedback on the story[/p2p], it is perhaps one episode too many, the story’s slow pace dragging with excess padding between the key scenes and action sequences. Here David Whitaker’s superb script editing and assistance to Nation proves invaluable, ensuring continuity and growth of character between the series debut and the impending Edge of Destruction, Nation never a writer to adhere to other stories around his own or established characterisation, struggling somewhat in creating naturalistic dialogue. It is Whitaker who ensures that our leads are developed and grow beyond our opening story, providing some sparkling dialogue to combine with Nation’s central themes and plotting, going on to produce his quite wonderful [p2p type=”slug” value=”story-by-story-review-exciting-adventure-daleks”]novelisation of the story[/p2p] the following year.

Ian takes a central role in The Daleks

William Hartnell gives one of his finest performances as the Doctor here, the viewer still unsure as to whether he is “a good man” as he would ask Clara many years later. He is willing to endanger everyone aboard the TARDIS for his own curiosity, yet his experiences in 100,000 BC and here on Skaro begin to subtlety change him as well. We see his first reaction to the pure evil of the Daleks and determination to stand and fight, showing weakness both in character and physicality while at the same time showing the haughty and even arrogant authority of a leader, of a man used to being obeyed by Susan and in later canon, the attitude that was maybe imbued in him on Gallifrey. Steven Moffat would later canonise this moment as a turning point in the Doctor’s life and as he is faced with pure evil for the first time, it is here that we know that yes, he is a good man, despite his many flaws.

Yet while the Doctor’s manoeuvring into the leadership role of the group is essentially confirmed as he adjusts to the new dynamic, beginning in An Unearthly Child, it is Ian again who takes centre stage here as he shows the alternative to the Doctor, showing the unique traits that each member of the crew brings to the team. As the Doctor’s action man and “muscle” there was a danger that in the hands of a lesser actor, Ian could have become something unlikable, a stereotypical action hero. Yet William Russell’s Ian is portrayed with warmth and civility, he has a subtle genuine outlook, a protective and fatherly attitude amongst the group that doesn’t descend into chauvinism, his bravery not played to impress others or the audience, merely what is necessary to survive, something of an uncomfortable parallel with the beliefs and motivations of the Daleks even.

Meeting the Daleks

Barbera meanwhile is perhaps the most underused of our regular characters, continuing in her reluctance to be a part of the TARDIS crew yet growing in acceptance, her mother role amongst the TARDIS family on display with Susan. Susan for her part shows both more metal than in her debut her but also something of her youth, the other three feeling protective over her as she shows the rebellion and irresponsibility of her age, perhaps feeling a need to prove her worth amongst the adult crew, yet her performance showing her motivations being from a genuine place. With the TARDIS crew establishing itself, their roles developing, there is much material to share and Whitaker ensures all are well served in The Daleks, with strong and growing characterisation throughout.

The visualisation and direction of the serial is superb, both Barry and Martin delivering a story that lives long in the memory. From the image of that first look at the Dalek city to the paranoid desolation of the petrified forest and the Daleks themselves, the serial tense and thrilling in equal measure, particularly as our travellers are beset by sickness and in the story’s resolution. Despite the serial and Doctor Who‘s limitations at the time, there is real innovation here through some creative modelling, special effects and direction, Christopher Barry setting out his stall early as one of the show’s true greats as a director and the rookie Richard Martin as one if it’s most underrated. The Daleks is a story full of legendary imagery and sounds, Tristram Cary delivering his most iconic soundtrack to add the icing to the already very rich cake, the Radiophonic Workshop and Brian Hodgson adding cherries with iconic sounds that are both typically 1960s and yet timeless. From the hum of the Dalek city to the screech of the voice, the whoosh of the doors and the blast of the Dalek gun, the sounds of the Daleks are as instantly recognisable as anything seen on the screen.

A collective effort amongst arguably the most talented production team Doctor Who ever assembled, The Daleks is a classic of both Doctor Who and television science fiction, to say it is iconic may even be an understatement. From it’s fantastic soundtrack to the design of the Dalek creature, from the sparkling dialogue to the core concepts and contemporary statement, The Daleks is the perfect coming together of a series of elements, a coming together that created a phenomenon and the second foundation upon which 51 years of history is built following An Unearthly Child. While the story may be one episode too long and lack some of the depth of later serials, The Daleks isn’t a psychological study but a morality play, a cautionary tale of the dangers of extremism and nuclear conflict, of the need to confront evil, yet being aware of what such entails. It is a tale with something to say, wonderful performances from the leads, excellent core concepts and a thoroughly nasty villain to boot, what more can you ask for. Sublime.


This article is the sixth in our “Story by Story” series running all this week celebrating The Daleks. Starting tomorrow DWW begins our celebration of The Edge of Destruction, running Nov 3 – 9. We welcome all submissions and pitches on the theme throughout the week at dww@doctorwhoworldwide.com. 

In future weeks we shall be celebrating Marco Polo (Nov 10 – 16), The Keys of Marinus (Nov 17 – 23), The Aztecs (Nov 24 – 30), The Sensorites (Dec 1 – 7) and The Reign of Terror (Dec 8 – 14).

Posted in Classic Series, Classic Series Reviews, Features, News, Reviews, TV Reviews

Classic Series Review: An Unearthly Child

There could be an argument that whether An Unearthly Child is actually any good, is largely irrelevant. As the start-point for the longest running science-fiction series in the world and one of the longest running of any genre, it’s place in televisual history is assured. Serving as an introduction to the series, it’s characters and situations, the serial was famously broadcast just a day after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

Reader feedback to DWW often highlighted the differences between the serial’s opening episode and the three set in 100,000 BC, often negatively, with the first episode considered much stronger than the others. Indeed, it is this opening episode whose tropes have been so often highlighted throughout the 51 years that have come afterward – the theme tune, the junkyard, “wanderers in the fourth dimension,” the Doctor’s attitude, Ian and Barbara’s entrance into the TARDIS and so much more.

An Unearthly Child is a serial of jarring contrasts between our own mundane normalcy and the fantastical world of Doctor Who, from the initial mystery of the Junkyard to the cut straight to Coal Hill, from the junkyard once more and into the shocking visual of the bigger on the inside TARDIS, the transition from the fog of London into the light of the spaceship is symbolic as the mystery of the veil is pulled away, our school teachers stepping into the light. We can only imagine whether the viewers of 1963 shared the wonder and amazement of Ian and Barbara in this moment and the unease with the mysterious and possibly dangerous Doctor, yet just as the viewers get time to adjust, we contrast yet again – back to 100,000 BC.

While today travelling billions of years into the future or distant worlds is commonplace and replicated in series’ as diverse as Star Trek, Star Wars and our own ongoing series, on that winters evening it must have been a culture shock to the viewer, a mythological magical door into Narnia, a rabbit hole that could be waiting for anybody in the audience. While some may suggest that a future-set episode or one on an alien world would have been more suitable to start the series, An Unearthly Child plays perfectly into the theme of contrasts, not only with our own world, but that of the technological marvel of the TARDIS.

Yet it isn’t merely set-changes that highlights the otherness of the Doctor and Susan, but the characters themselves. It would have been all too simple to make the TARDIS a “flying saucer” as in original concept notes for the series, to give the characters “alien” features in the vein of the future Mr Spock or futuristic attire. In settling for the like over the unlike, the familiar image of the police box, the normal actions of Susan listening to the Top 40 and old fashioned human attire of the Doctor, the familiarity is both a comfort to the viewer and at the same time, one of unease – they are like us, but they are not us. This is only re-enforced later in the serial with the prehistoric tribe, once again issuing a parallel in terms of being the like we/unlike we.

The Doctor is not a likeable character, indeed on An Unearthly Child alone he is certainly not the hero of the story, being confrontational and sinister, kidnapping Ian and Barbara and contemplating nothing less than the murder of Za until stopped by Ian. It is this cold and emotionless approach that is echoed today in Peter Capaldi’s performance, yet one that develops over the course of these early adventures as the Doctor comes to accept Ian and Barbara in his life and Ian and Barbara accept their situation in reverse.

The rest of the TARDIS crew at this stage, even Susan, seem separate from the Doctor, a family under assault by the alien Doctor. Note that Susan is prepared to defy the Doctor, that she sides with Ian and Barbara, the substitute mother and father of the spaceship, it is the Doctor alone that is the “problem,” the one who must adjust to the new status-quo. All the bases are covered, the dashing male hero, the intelligent and beautiful heroine, the audiences eyes and ears in the teenage Susan.

While the first episode is indeed a triumph, an iconic masterpiece with a legacy that is still being felt even today, a pillar of Doctor Who and an British cultural history, the rest of An Unearthly Child falls short of it’s lofty standards. The initial moments of The Cave of Skulls typify the concept of the series however, that of exploration and the fantastic spirit of adventure, the Doctor playing his role as scientist/explorer in a far more dedicated fashion than he possibly would again. Ian and Barbara too convey the sense of wonder perfectly, a natural reaction that soon transforms into the horror of their situation once our heroes are holed up in the cave, an early warning that such wonders and adventures will come with an equal amount of danger.

The politics of the “Tribe of Gum” stand central to the latter episodes and contrast with those within the new TARDIS crew, Ian and Barbara challenging the Doctor’s authority within the off-screen established Doctor/Susan dynamic, both groups having their own issues of leadership and direction to the point that Ian states that the Doctor is indeed the leader of his “tribe,” settling on the future direction and relationships within the series.

An Unearthly Child stands on it’s opening episode alone, a groundbreaking and innovate landmark in British television history. It is a magical door into a world of wonder and while the latter three episodes don’t hold up to the first, it is still a high quality adventure full of character as we see the beginnings of the wonderful chemistry that made this first season such a triumph. It’s contrasts between the like and the unlike sets a tone that would be reused so often in the series and the entirety of a mythology that has essentially remained unchanged for over fifty years all begins here. In that respect, it doesn’t matter just how good it is, it stands as the foundation of everything the series is built upon and it that respect alone, it will never be bettered.

Next Time: The Dead Planet


 This article is the sixth in our new “Story by Story” series running all this week celebrating An Unearthly Child

Starting tomorrow we shall be celebrating The Daleks (Oct 27 –  Nov 2), DWW welcomes all submissions and pitches on the theme throughout the week at dww@doctorwhoworldwide.com. 

In future weeks we shall be celebrating Inside the Spaceship (Nov 3 – 9), Marco Polo (Nov 10 – 16), The Keys of Marinus (Nov 17 – 23), The Aztecs (Nov 24 – 30), The Sensorites (Dec 1 – 7) and The Reign of Terror (Dec 8 – 14).

Posted in Classic Series, Classic Series Reviews, News, Reviews, TV Reviews

Retro TV Review: The Caves of Androzani

Androzani Minor, The Doctor and Peri land in the middle of a war over spectrox, the most valuable substance in the universe. In a battle between Sharaz Jek and Morgus for control of Spectrox, the Doctor must find a way of getting off the planet with the cure for the spectrox poisoning that he and peri have contracted, but is this a battle that the Doctor is destined to lose?

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The Caves of Androzani VHS. Released February 1995 with a cover by Andrew Skilleter.

Caves has been voted the greatest story ever in the shows 50+ year history a few times now. But what is it about this story that gives it the ability to gain such a title? Well the first thing that should be pointed out about this story is who it is written by, and that is Robert Holmes. A former Doctor Who script editor during the Hinchcliffe era, he wrote some of the best remembered classic series stories such as The Brain of Morbius, Terror of the Autons (which introduced the Master), Pyramids of Mars, The Two Doctors and The Krotons (ok, we’ll let that one slide because of the funny South African accents the Krotons have, go on and listen to them I swear it). Here we have a story written by someone who could write a classic story in the first place, and a classic story we get. Now I’m only going to glance over the plot of the story as I would rather you saw the story in full to get the scope of storytelling, but also I wish to get to grips more two key factors in this story, firstly the amazing cliff-hangers that this story has (even if one of them does have a shoddy man in a giant suit), and secondly the gripping the four lead characters in this story.

Anyway to the story. The Doctor and Peri land on Androzani Minor, end up following the tracks near the TARDIS, go to some caves, find a stash of gas bombs hidden by gunrunners, get caught by the fuzz, sorry I mean Chellak’s troops who find the stash, ordered to be executed by Morgus, rescued by Sharaz Jek, told of the reasons he started the war and that they must stay for a lifetime, there’s the normal escaping, running about, recapture, the legendary cliff-hanger from episode three, the finding of the cure, the death of the villains in a final blaze of glory, Peri and the Doctor escaping the planet in time, Peri getting cured with the only bit of bats milk left, the Doctor ending up regenerating to save his own life, the introduction of the Sixth Doctor… oh and there is the matter of the cleavage steeling the limelight at the end (so much so that even Peter Davison comments on it on the commentary) with Peri‘s top being so open that it borders on nudity

But lets get to the main points about this story. Firstly the cliff-hangers of Episodes One and Three (ok, I know that I skip Two here, but to be honest it was a man in a rather bad suit, pretending to be a magma beast, menacing the Doctor and not as memorable as the First and Third Episodes). Firstly we should deal with the ’execution’ of the Doctor and Peri. In a shock play, we see both our heroes shot dead. it’s the first time in a long time that the viewer is left wondering how the hell the Doctor gets out of this situation. Its not until Episode Two that we see that Sharaz Jek has swapped our heroes for androids. But it is the cliff-hanger to Episode Three that I will state is one of the best of the classic series, not for its shock and wonder value, but for the sheer almost out of character moment the Doctor gives us with a ’to hell with you’ attitude and his willingness to crash the ship with all on board to try and save Peri. It’s the final line ‘So you see, I’m not going to let you stop me now’ shouted at Stotz, that the Doctor changes from the being who would put his life ahead of everyone to save the universe, to someone who will sacrifice everyone who gets in his way to save the life of Peri.

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The Caves of Androzani by Terrance Dicks. Released November 1984.

And it is this point that leads me to the first of the four leads in this story – The Doctor himself. Changed here is the old man in the young man’s body. You can see here that the Fifth Doctor changes from the slightly insecure man of his first season. Here he becomes a man who knows his time is up, but will fight until the very end to save his friend, it’s a side of the Fifth Doctor that we sadly only ever see once. But what of the other three. Put simply, Robert Holmes writes three of the best villains of the Fifth Doctor Era in one story, and probably those three wouldn’t be out of place in the top 10 of the classic series in my eyes. Sharaz Jek, Morgus and Stotz all have there classic villain archetype. Sharaz Jek is the maddened man, scared for life in an attempt by Morgus to kill him, who controls the mines with androids and leads us to the main reason he wants Peri, he’s a man alone, and in reality all he wants is for someone to be with, and it is this that makes you feel sorry for him in the end. Even in his death he calls upon his android copy of Salateen to hold him, as Salateen is the closest to a friend that Sharaz Jek has. But then we have Morgus, a ruthless businessman who would not look out of place in an 80’s Bond film. His breaking of the fourth wall, although unintentional, marks someone who has an ego so big that he probably does think that someone is filming him for the masses to see how great he is. The way he dispatches the President when he no longer useful also shows us a man who takes no prisoners. But its Morgus’s lackey Stotz that I like the most of the three. He is the counterfoil for Morgus and Sharaz Jek, and is almost likeable as the gunrunner, with his own agenda. Stotz is the classic mercenary for hire, and it’s a shame that he dies at the end with Sharaz Jek and Morgus as it would have been interesting to of seen him in later stories (more so than Sabalom Glitz who tries to hard to be the loveable rogue in Dragonfire). There is almost a touch of Lytton (Resurrection of the Daleks and Attack of The Cybermen) about him that could of shown up if he had survived for another story that he could of redeemed himself.

This story is one of the greatest of all of the classic history, and in an era of Doctor Who that was fraught with bad stories (Warriors of the Deep and The Twin Dilemma to name a couple) it is shining beacons such as this story that showed how great the show still was and could be with the right team behind it. I give it a 10 out of 10 and I doubt that there will be many stories out there that can equal what this story gave us (unless we count Dimensions In Time, that’s an 11 out of 10 and wins the award for the best story ever*)

*It should be pointed out that this is a joke of the highest distaste, like I would give DIT 11 out of 10.

The Caves of Androzani was originally broadcast between March 8 and 16 1984 as the 6th serial of Doctor Who’s 21st Season. It was released on VHS in January 1992 and on DVD in June of 2001. The serial was re-released as a special edition as part of the Revisitations boxed set in October of 2010, available below singularly from Amazon. The story was novelised by Terrance Dicks and released in November of 1984.

Posted in Classic Series, Classic Series Reviews, News, Reviews

Retro TV Review: The Claws of Axos

Doctor Who, let’s be realistic here, can sometimes be quite…..shall we say……weird. It can be comprised of a wide variety of bizarre and disparate elements, sometimes from a strange checklist of plot points or ideas dictated by a Producer, sometimes just from vivid imaginations. Sometimes the elements coalesce and form something very potent. Sometimes the mix produces something genuinely discordant and odd. Whatever happens, it’s rarely dull.

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The Claws of Axos was released on VHS in May 1992.

The Claws of Axos is not dull. It’s outrageous, but played straight. In essence, it’s a greeks-bearing-gifts tale. The organic ship Axos arrives on Earth offering an element, Axonite, a ‘growth molecule’ which could end global famine. However, and unsurprisingly, as this is Doctor Who, Axos and its inhabitants are one creature, that creature is in league with the Master, and it’s actually a parasite that wants to suck Earth dry. That’s the straightforward bit.

This story marks the debut of the engagingly bonkers duo of Bob Baker and Dave Martin, a writing duo from Bristol with big imaginations and a cheerful disregard for BBC budget constraints. If they’d had their way, a skull shaped ship would have landed in Hyde Park, and a fifty foot carrot would have been involved. Axos began life in 1969 and was nursed by Terrance Dicks as a pet project through various drafts until it arrived in early 1971 in its full technicolour bonkers glory.

There are expanding frogs and incoherent tramps, evil duplicates and comic book G-men. There are nuclear reactors and a living spaceship full of apparently benevolent golden people who turn into orange tendril monsters that disintegrate you, absorb you, or age you to death. There’s a bumbling xenophobic twit from the ministry who’s looking to profit from this. There are time loops and a deeply sarcastic minister. There’s the Master, in his third story, appearing variously as prisoner, double agent, and traitor. Meanwhile, the Doctor (who, is incidentally in possibly the worst mood we’ve seen him since the pilot episode) seems to be trying to use the Axonite to try and escape Earth. Finally, Miss Grant is wearing purple pants. Sorry, but you really can’t miss them.

And this is what happened after the script was toned down.

The Claws of Axos comes from the era of late psychedelia, progressive rock and glam, and is the most full-on and trippy assault on the senses Doctor Who had produced up to that point. For sheer, glitzy oddness it’s still unmatched now.

Director Michael Ferguson, no stranger to weird, disquieting images (and quite fond of using many techniques to get them, including kicking the BBC’s action replay machines used for Match of the Day) goes to town. The organic ship Axos is very much a product of the time, but is the most effective ‘alien’ environment the series had yet come up with, with the possible exception of the rather unfortunate phallic-looking ‘eye’ of Axos, which dangles limply. The soundscape is memorable, it’s strangely fuzzy and distorted throughout, and full of ominous heartbeat noises, hisses and screams, as well as the uneasy listening of one of Dudley Simpson’s more berserk synth scores. Perhaps this is why Jon Pertwee is shouting so much, if all that lot was coming through the studio monitors it’s no surprise, it sometimes drowns the dialogue.

The Axons in their monstrous form are a mixed bag, one of them, the particularly tendril-y one is great, it looks horrible. The others, including one in particular that Ferguson uses in a lot of the shots, look like melted bean bags covered in baked beans. Visually, it’s all CSO, fly-eye filters, oil wheels, strange projections. Faces melt, and there are tentacles everywhere. Even the weather can’t make up its mind, lurching from sun to snow from shot to shot, and prompting Terrance Dicks to write in a line about ‘freak weather conditions’.

The story is pacey, UNIT four parters are a comparatively rare thing at this point. There’s plenty of stunts, fighting, gunfire, and explosions. Katy Manning is on fine bubbly form and Nicholas Courtney is great as ever. Richard Franklin and John Levene are mostly here to do the running around, although Yates does get to blow up an Axon with a grenade. The guest cast range from good to a trifle stilted, with Bernard Holley’s impassive Axon Man and Peter Bathurst’s blustering Chinn both standing out.

The Claws of Axos
The Claws of Axos Original Edition Cover

Really though, this story belongs to the Master, who seems to be having his own adventure a lot of the time. Roger Delgado owns every scene, and gets some great moments, like when he creeps out of Axos to shoot Stuart Fell, or his wing mirror hypnosis of the driver of the truck he jumps on the back of. He ends up working with UNIT and then the Doctor to try and defeat Axos in the end, leading to a startling bit of role reversal, where the Doctor, having got the TARDIS working, seemingly decides to abandon everybody, even Jo to the advancing Axons.

It’s shocking, as we’ve not seen this Doctor act this way before, but it’s seeded neatly through the story, which begins with Chinn leading an enquiry into the Doctor’s activities. The Doctor’s bad mood seems to make more sense in this context. Later on, having checked out Winser’s particle accelerator, he sees some potential and asks for the TARDIS to be sent over.

Of course, it’s all a front, and he uses subterfuge to trap Axos in a time loop, but you do wonder if the Doctor’s really on your side for a minute.

It’s all wrapped up shortly afterwards, with possibly the most insane moment in the whole story. A nuclear reactor goes critical, everyone runs away, then they return to wrap it up with Pertwee’s “Cosmic Yo-yo” punchline…..standing in the no-doubt lethal radioactive ruins of the power plant, a comic strip incredulous moment too far. Terrance must have missed that, probably too busy on Colony in Space.

Never mind, just imagine a cut line of dialogue about Axos absorbing all the radiation, and all will be well, it’s no less silly than the UNIT dating conundrum, or the Doctor and Leela’s fully clothed clones from The Invisible Enemy. Just suspend your disbelief, and enjoy this, four of the most barking mad, ambitious, and fun episodes of Doctor Who ever.

The Claws of Axos was originally broadcast between March 13 and April 3 1971 as the third serial of Season Eight. It was released on VHS in May 1992 and DVD in April 2005. A Special Edition, available now via the Amazon link below, was released in October 2012.

Posted in Classic Series, Classic Series Reviews, News, Reviews, TV Reviews

Retro TV Review: Delta and the Bannermen

The Doctor and Mel win a trip to Disneyland in the 1950’s. However the Bannermen lead by Gavrok will interfere with those plans in their search for the Chimeron Queen. Delta. How do all of these elements come into play with a 1950‘s Welsh Holiday camp? We shall find out in Delta and the Bannermen.



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Delta and the Bannermen VHS cover, released in March 2001.


McCoy’s tenure as the Doctor marked a change with the previous Doctor. Gone had the multi-coloured coat (which as I get older I like more and more) and the team of Eric Saward and John Nathan-Turner. Saward was replaced by Andrew Cartmel, who would take the show into a new and darker direction, which would never be ultimately realised on screen but in The New Adventures Books and Big Finish’s The Lost Stories for the lost Season 27. However Cartmel would have to start off with the mess left over from Season 23’s ’The Trial Of A Time Lord’ and the sacking of Colin Baker, and shape the new direction of the Seventh Doctor in 4 stories. Delta and the Bannermen is the third of the season, and by now some of the threads of the Cartmel Master Plan had begun to shine through.

So what is Delta and the Bannermen about? It starts off on the Chimeron (we assume) home world. Delta is fighting for her life as the leader of the Bannermen, Gavrok, commits his troops into an act of genocide. Delta manages to escape (through the weakest of means) with hope of the Chimeron to survive. We then switch to the TARDIS landing at a Toll Port, and the Doctor and Mel being told that they have won a trip to Disneyland in 1959. The Doctor takes the TARDIS while Mel uses the Tour Bus, with the late addition of Delta, having landed at the Toll Port in a stolen Bannermen ship. The Tour Bus runs into trouble and ends up landing in Wales instead of the USA, requiring 24 hours to repair. It is here that the show turns into Hi-Di-Hi and we meet the Camp Leader Burton. Billy, a helpful mechanic and eventual love interest to Delta. Ray, a childhood friend of Billy and in love with him despite him not noticing her affections, As we progress, Billy and Delta fall for each other , even after Delta drops the bombshell that she has a child with her that in the space of 24 hours will grown to be 16years old. Meanwhile the Doctor seemingly has becomes a shoulder to cry on for Ray, while Mel becomes sidelined as the prisoner for Gavrok. As the story goes on, Gavrok finds where Delta is hiding, and a Cat & Mouse game begins between him and the Doctor. The final battle between the two takes place at the Holiday camp, with the banner men’s weekness of sound used by plugging in the new child of Delta to the sound system, causing the Bannermen to lose control and be tied up, and Gavrok dies by activating the booby trap he set for the Doctor.

So after that, how does Delta shape up? Compared to later McCoy classics such as ‘Remembrance of the Daleks’ and ‘The Curse of Fenric’, Delta doesn’t hold up all too well in the story stakes, as it suffers from being thrown together on a limited budget with a limited episode count, and some bad writing and script editing on the parts of Malcolm Kohll and Andrew Cartmel. However as this story was both Kohll’s first TV Script and Cartmel’s first job as a Script Editor, it can be understood as to the little failings of both with their first major television jobs. Yet compared to the rest of Season 24, it holds up as one of the better stories from that season. With the poor attempt of an opening with Time and the Rani and the slightly confused mess that Paradise Towers was, Delta and the Bannermen begins to show the Cartmel Master Plan swing into action. It has the right amount of mystery to McCoy’s Doctor, and the closing of the Second episode with his speech is a real insight to a Doctor we shall see more up later in Seasons 25 and 26. This style is shown to continue into the next story, ‘Dragonfire’ and onwards to the last 2 seasons of Doctor Who.

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Selta and the Bannermen by Malcolm Kohll, released January 1989.

However Delta does have its faults. It suffers from glaring plot holes such as the reasoning behind Gavrok and the Bannermen attack on the Chimeron planet and Delta, and Delta falling in love with Billy seemingly over a meal. Delta and the Bannermen suffers from not having enough episodes (Delta is a three part story, the first one since Hartnell’s Planet Of Giants) to fill in all of these issues. Had this story been a four parter, then much that is hurried along could be allowed the time to breath, and those things that need to be explained, such as the reasons behind the genocide and the love story, could be shown and leave the watcher a little less bemused at the reasoning. Sylvester McCoy and Bonnie Langford have by this point begun to settle down into their roles, especially McCoy’s Doctor who is less prone to mixed metaphors and clowning around. It is here that we see a dark tone to the Doctor, with the manipulative side coming through in dealing with Gavrok, knowing full well that his escape would only be possible due to Gavrok wishing to find where Delta had hidden. Although Langford has settled, she feels wasted in this story, only playing a smaller role compared to a story such as Paradise Towers or Time and the Rani (though some would say that is not a bad thing as we can not hear her scream). This story could be re-written a little to remove Mel from it and just have Ray as the stories ‘companion’ for the majority of it.

But it is the cast in this that can be considered to the make or break part of the story, and yes I will be starting off with the one person who fandom seems divided about. Ken Dodd, in a piece of stunt casting on the part of JNT, may seem to be out of place, yet the personality of the Tollmaster works well with his own acting (lest we forget that Dodd not only started off in the music hall tradition of entertainment, but also had performed Shakespeare on stage). Don Hendersons turn as Gavrok is the best casting in this, as Henderson plays the unscrupulous leader of the Bannermen with guile and cunning (We are talking about someone who was on the Death Star with Lord Vader). The smaller support cast playing Billy, Burton, Murray, Hawk, Weismuller and Delta are rather forgettable, with the exception of the actress Sara Griffiths playing Ray, who had been touted as a replacement for Mel (and thankfully not chosen in the end as not only would we have lost out on Ace, we would have had to of coped with that damn accent) and Hugh Lloyd’s turn as Goronwy, a totally mad beekeeper that seemingly takes all that is happening in his stride.

Despite it’s flaws, Delta and the Bannermen is for all intense and purpose, a rather jolly romp with enough darkness behind it to show the future of Doctor Who in later seasons. Although not the best that Doctor Who can offer, it is watchable compared to other stories from the later part of the 1980’s, and therefore deserves a solid 7 out of 10.

Delta and the Bannermen was first broadcast between November 2 and November 16 1987 as the third serial of Doctor Who’s 24th Season. It was released on VHS in March 2001 and on DVD in June 2009 which is available now from Amazon, a link for which can be found below. The serial was novelised by Malcolm Kohll and published by Target in January 1989.

Posted in Classic Series, Classic Series Reviews, News, Reviews, TV Reviews

Retro TV Review: City of Death

The Doctor and Romana are in Paris, enjoying the culture and art. However trouble is not far behind, just what are the Count and Countess Scarlioni up to and what are their plans for the Mona Lisa? What is causing the time distortions that the Doctor and Romana have felt? And just who is this chap Duggan, and what is his role in all of this? All will be revealed in the ‘City Of Death’.

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Original VHS cover, 1991.

So where do we begin? Although the writer of this is ‘”David Agnew”, it is in fact a pseudonym for David Fisher (original idea), Graham Williams (producer) and Douglas Adams (God) and it is the last one, Douglas Adams, who really shows his comic sci-fi writing that we all would come to love in The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. After a poor season opener with Destiny of the Daleks, with a script that Terry Nation had phoned in on a bad line, Davros now speaking with more of a Scottish accent then the Dalek-esq vocal harmony that Wisher had given (Watch the clip of Davros saying ‘Davros Lives!’ and hear what I mean), and a case of Daleks that looked more like a kid had made them for a Blue Peter special then the gleaming bad ass machines from the previous story (as you can gather, Destiny may not in fact be my favourite Dalek story, but seeing as Day of the Daleks happens to be that story, what do I know?), City Of Death comes out of this bad patch to bring something to Doctor Who that had been missing for a while – the right combination of comedy and horror.

So a quick rundown of the story. City starts with a landscape shot of an alien world, but is in fact Earth in the distant past, and a spaceship attempting to take off. Scaroth (the pilot with a face that looks as if someone put a lot of green spaghetti over his head with a meat ball in the middle) tries but fails, and the end result is the ship exploding into little pieces. Anyway we catch up with the Doctor and Romana (in that School Girl outfit we all love…. , but the major difference here is we are not in some Devonshire quarry, oh no, the BBC have spent some money on the program and shipped the crew to a small place in Europe known as Paris. With wonderful shots of Tom and Lalla walking around the Parisian streets, we get to the story in a small café, the Doctor and Romana feel the effects of a ‘time distortion’. Deciding to go to the Louvre to look at one of the ‘great treasures of the universe‘ the Mona Lisa, they run into Duggan, who is tailing the Countess Scarlioni . Much hi-jinks later, and the three are taken the to Count and Countess home, to discover that there are six Mona Lisa’s bricked up and awaiting to be sold once the real one is stolen. But this hides the true intention of Scarlioni, to fund his time travel experiments, and not the way of producing food, but as a means to get back in time to the spacecraft explosion and stop it from happening. The Doctor must stop him at all costs as this means that life on the Earth will be lost, for it was the explosion that caused life to form on this planet. To cut a long story short, the Doctor finds out that Scarlioni is in fact Scaroth, who is splintered through time and using a mental link to each version of Scaroth to plan his deed. Needless to say, the Doctor manages to stop the plans of Scaroth, and make sure that history is on its true course.

So what can I say about the City Of Death. I cannot lie, it ranks as one of my top five Doctor Who stories of all time as it manages to combine a top acting cast, with Tom Chadbon as a superb casting as Duggan, the bumbling private detective with a habit for punching first, asking questions later. There is are the Count and Countess Scarlioni, played by Julian Glover and Catherine Schell. Both bounce off each other as a believable villainous couple, but it is Glover who brings a double edged side to Scarlioni/Scaroth that is a charm to watch on the screen. Even Tom Baker & Lalla Ward are on top form as the Doctor and Romana as they begin their onscreen (and later off-screen) partnership. But my favourite actors in this story happen to only have a cameo. John Cleese and Eleanor Bron as the two art gallery visitors bring an amusing moment of surreal humour to the show, discussing the artistic nature of the TARDIS, yet neither playing the part for a cheep laugh, but both for their moment on screen, making a believable couple who think that the TARDIS dematerialising is just part of the artists show (and having been to art shows, I could see why)

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2001 VHS Re-Issue

But it is down to the man who wrote City Of Death, Douglas Adams, as to why this is in my top five, and in the top five of many in fandom. Although he is often taken to task for adding too much ‘joke humour’ into the show, it is not just down to him for this as there was pressure from the top to lighten the show after the Hitchcliffe/Holmes Gothic Horror era of the mid 70’s. Adams managed in his story to inject what the show needed, that of a comedic streak but with the seriousness needed to pull it off. Douglas Adams gets a lot of stick in fandom for making the show too jokey during his tenure as Script Editor, but it was not down to him along as there are many factors that add to the change, including Tom himself, but it is stories like City that show humour can be used at the right times, something that we wont see that much in the JNT era of Doctor Who, and doesn’t come back to Doctor Who properly until the new series, though Love & Monsters (A story that I hate with a passion) took it too far, anyone who states that the Douglas Adams era was to jokey should watch that and see he was being far more serious.

City of Death would be the last time that Doctor Who would have a true ‘Classic’ in any sense until the end of Season 18 with Logopolis, and stands out as a classic in the 48 years of the show. What makes City Of Death a joy to watch is that all of the hallmarks of a classic story, that of good writing, casting, directing, and acting, all to be seen here, along with shots of Paris that add to the stories flow, and not detract from it like on other occasions where location filming in other countries has been used (Such as The Two Doctors). In the end I have to give this story my second 10 out of 10 for the fact that it is to this day one of the best Tom Baker stories out there, and ranks as of the top five stories in the history of the show.

City of Death was originally broadcast between September 29 and October 20 1979 as the second serial of Doctor Who’s seventeenth season. It was released on VHS in July 1991 and reissued in May 2001. It was released on DVD in November 2005, available from the Amazon link below. City of Death will be novelised in 2015 by Gareth Roberts, a preview for which can be found here.

Posted in Classic Series, Classic Series Reviews, News, Reviews, TV Reviews

Retro TV Review: Horror of Fang Rock

1977, and Doctor Who is at the peak of its powers. The Talons of Weng-Chiang, a last minute replacement story, had ended Season Fourteen on a high, with a gothic horror script by one of the series finest and most prolific writers, a director who knew the show inside out, and the whole thing was reassuringly expensive and clearly the work of a happy and harmonious team.

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Horror of Fang Rock VHS Cover. Released July 1998.

Horror of Fang Rock, another replacement, opened the next series later in the year, with a gothic horror script by another of the series finest and most prolific writers, another director who knew Who of old, but this time it looks as cheap as chips and there’s clearly something going on behind the scenes.

Fang Rock had a fraught birth. It was hastily written by Terrance Dicks to replace his own The Witch Lords, a vampire tale that the BBC vetoed on the grounds that it might detract from a prestigious forthcoming BBC production of Dracula, starring Louis Jordan. The Witch Lords would eventually see the light of day in 1980 as State of Decay, but its replacement also suffered from various other problems.

New producer Graham Williams was already not seeing eye to eye with Tom Baker, two stories into production. He was also about to lose veteran Script Editor Robert Holmes, was facing a slashed budget, and was also under a lot of pressure from his superiors to dial back some of the more extreme violence and horror seen in the previous seasons.

Meanwhile, Baker, now in his fourth season as the Doctor, was already unhappy with companion Leela, as played by Louise Jameson, and now had a new producer that he didn’t get on with imposing a robot dog on him as a regular character.

Jameson, in turn, had a difficult relationship with Baker, felt her character lacked development, and wasn’t enjoying wearing either a leather leotard or uncomfortable brown contact lenses.

To cap off this happy tale, a sudden lack of studio space at Television Centre meant going to Birmingham, to use Pebble Mill studios instead. For those unfamiliar, Pebble Mill at One was a popular daytime current affairs and chat show of the 1970s and 80s, named for the small Midlands studio it was made at. Considering that TV Centre could barely handle Doctor Who’s frequent demands for the impossible at the best of times, and that Pebble Mill had more limited facilities, this wasn’t looking good, despite the enthusiasm of the Pebble Mill staff.

And just to add a bit of extra tension, the star and Director were at loggerheads. Director Paddy Russell had worked with Baker before on Pyramids of Mars. They didn’t exactly hit it off then, but they were really not getting on here, to put it mildly.

Much has been made of Tom Baker’s performance reflecting the by all accounts foul mood he was in for the month of Fang Rock‘s production. He’s sombre here, barely cracking a smile until the Doctor sits on the stairs to have a quick chat with the Rutan. But it’s not just a brooding quality at work here. How much we’re seeing of the Doctor and how much we’re seeing of Tom here is moot, but the abiding impression is that the Doctor just doesn’t really give a shit.

There’s no anger. This is one of the Doctor’s off days. He seems a bit off his game. He takes four episodes to deduce the Rutan’s species. He gets it wrong and locks a psychotic alien in rather than out. He mispronounces ‘Chameleon’. Even when rebuking Leela for her bloodlust, a moment that should ring true, the Doctor sounds more resigned than anything. It’s as if he has his own fog going on.

Paddy Russell does her best with all of this. The result isn’t the brooding brilliance of Pyramids of Mars. The lighting’s atmospheric but sometimes the overall greyness is a bit much, the monster looks a bit rubbish, the model work ranges from pretty ok to pretty poor, and the scenes with all that grey foggy CSO murk in the lamp room suffer a bit too. Visually, it’s fairly murky and not that pretty. However, look through the murk and the bad moods, there’s a lot to love in this strange little story.

Fang Rock is a typically tight Terrance Dicks four part adventure at first glance, but look deeper, this lacks any cosiness, or a happy ending. Everybody dies in this, except the regulars, who are left with a brief, awkward, tacked on last scene. The enemy lacks any real obvious modus operandi except for electrocuting everybody until the last episode, it just wants off Earth and likes killing.

It’s a surprisingly small, bleak story, a studio-bound bottle episode with a small cast. It’s a base-under-siege set in the early 20th century, where a lighthouse comes under siege from a green amphibious electric shape-shifting amorphous blob, The lighthouse, out of commission, causes a ship to hit the rocks. Three survivors reach the lighthouse, where the green blob monster assumes the form of one of the crew, and goes round picking them off. In the meantime, two edwardian businessmen and a secretary argue about shady business deals and double cross each other, whilst the Doctor and Leela run around trying to save everyone, and not doing a very good job of it.

The two gentlemen, Palmerdale and Skinsale are both scoundrels in their own way. Palmerdale is an angry bully. Skinsale is urbane and apparently more reasonable, but sabotages the telegraph, leaving them no communication with the outside world, so that Palmerdale can’t besmirch “his honour”. The secretary, Adelaide, played by Annette Woollett, is perhaps the worst depiction of a gender stereotype in the whole classic series. She screams, shouts, faints, goes into hysterics. She insults everyone except Palmerdale, who she holds a curious loyalty to despite the fact that he’s pretty horrible to her.

It’s almost as if she’s designed to be dreadful, and the actress really runs with it. She seems to mostly be there for Leela to roll her eyes at, and slap, a la Airplane when going into hysterics, she’s there to make Leela look good. In a recent interview for DWM, Terrance Dicks says that he’s not sexist and respects feminism, and recognises the evolution of companions from screamers to increasingly kick-ass independent women as necessary. He says he just likes to get ‘a rise’ out of people for taking what he sees as a gentle dig at feminism. Wherever you stand on that, Fang Rock is still extremely unlikely to pass the Bechdel test. For a show often accused of sexism, Adelaide is surely Exhibit A.

Leela herself is a bit of a mixed bag here. Louise Jameson does an excellent job as usual, and cajoles and nudges the Doctor through the plot, gets in on the physical action, and is as charming as ever.

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Doctor Who and the Horror of Fang Rock by Terrance Dicks. Released March 1978 and noted as Uncle Terry’s favourite cover!

However, it’s as if Dicks isn’t really quite sure what to make of the new girl, having not written for her before, so he tries to cover all bases. Leela clearly thinks the Doctor’s great, and listens to him, and is fiercely loyal. Yet, she’s much more bloodthirsty than in Talons or The Robots of Death here. She has no problem in stepping over the bodies in the crew room to retrieve her knife, in fact she looks gleeful, which is tonally a little off. She’s also given trousers and a jumper in this one, an experiment not to be repeated. This makes it even more incongruous, as Dicks leans more on the tribal aspect of the character and has her talk almost like the yokel folk of Metebelis 3 whilst looking like she’s going fishing. That said, she’s still Leela, and therefore, wonderful.

The other characters are the small lighthouse crew, Colin Douglas stands out as grumpy old Reuben, before and after his identity is assumed by the Rutan. When Douglas plays Rutan-Reuben the difference is striking. He is still, and mostly silent. The eerie, playful-looking smile Douglas puts on when he’s about to murder someone is very effective, and quite disquieting. From walk to demeanour, he’s an entirely different man, which makes it a wonder that it takes so long for the Doctor to notice.

Elsewhere, young Vince, played by John Abbott, is decent but clearly scared, Sean Caffrey as Palmerdale is horrible, and Alan Rowe as Skinsale puts in a fine nuanced performance as a very polite man who might just be even worse than Palmerdale.

The Rutan itself isn’t one of the best-realised monsters the show ever had by any means. It scores high on weird points though, resembling a badly poached egg, but green. It’s mostly glimpsed in long shot until episode four, when it has a chat with the Doctor on the stairs. Tom Baker seems to enjoy this, it’s slightly perverse that the first real smile he’s cracked is when having a relaxed debrief with a psychotic blob monster. Once everyone else is dead, the resolution harks back to UNIT days, basically the Rutan gets blown up, and then the Doctor blows up the Rutan mothership.

Seconds later, outside the lighthouse, and after Leela’s brief blindness and change of eye colour, it’s all larks and smiles, and the Doctor starts reciting poetry before materialising. The Ballad of Flannan Isle, recited here in Baker’s finest doomy baritone is the partial inspiration for Fang Rock. Its inclusion is therefore no great mystery, but the impression I walked away with is that the Doctor is sending what’s just happened up more than a little, and doesn’t really care. It’s more acceptable for Leela to have different attitudes to death. She’s come from a warrior background, and in her fourth story is still learning. The Doctor should know better though. The lack of any sort of remorse for what’s happened is a little jarring.

Horror of Fang Rock is a great story, but looking closer, some of the attitudes lurking beneath the murk, from aspects of the script to the way the Doctor acts are a little suspect.

Horror of Fang Rock was originally broadcast between September 3 and September 24 1977 as the first serial of Doctor Who’s 15th season. The serial was released on VHS in July 1998 and on DVD in January 2005, available via the Amazon link below. The serial was novelised by Terrance Dicks and released in March 1978.

Posted in Classic Series, Classic Series Reviews, News, Reviews, TV Reviews

Retro TV Review: The Mutants

The Doctor is given a package from the Time Lords to deliver to Solos in the 30th centaury. There, the Marshal attempts to hold onto power while the natives demand their freedom. However, what is the cause of the mutations that have started to happen to the native populations, and just how far will the Marshall go to keep control of the planet? All will be revealed in ‘The Mutants’.

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The Mutants UK VHS Cover. Released in February 2003.

So as I got hold of this story, it came to my attention that we have something of a oddity for me. I have been a fan for many years, yet there are some stories out there that I *shock horror* haven’t seen or have only ever seen once (I do not count the missing episodes here, which in fact I have listened to all of them). Sadly in the days before the Internet and DVD, getting Doctor Who on video was a costly past time, and not all of the stories were out (the simple fact is that it took them over 25 years to get all of the surviving stories out on video) or if they were, some were very hard to get hold of. So in short, I have never seen this story in my life. So I can look at this story with a completely fresh view, unlike some stories that I have over and over again.

So what’s the story then? The Doctor is given some donkey work to do for the Time Lords, and that’s to deliver the orb they sent him to the planet Solos. There the native population demands freedom from the Earth Empire, but the Marshall has other plans like all rounded mad men. The Doctor manages to find who the orb was for, Ky, and with the help of Sondergaard, end up discovering that the planet is about to enter its summer phase that will last 500 years, and the mutants that have cropped up on the planet are the Solonians who have begun to change into a final evolutionary phase that will enable them to survive. The Marshal however plans to terraform the planet so that humans can live there, regardless of the cost to the native species there. With the Earth Investigator sent to assess the situation, a final plan of wiping the Mutts out is stopped when Ky begins to mutate to the final stage of evolution, an angel like creature who will survive the change in the season. He kills the Marshal, and with the help of Sondergaard and Cotton, prepare the rest of the population of Solos. The Doctor departs with Jo, their job for the Time Lords now complete

A complex story in it’s ideas of dictatorial overlords, racism and evolutionary ideas, The Mutants has a lot in it to take in. But to the actual review of the story. The trouble I find with later Pertwee is the creeping in of stories with moral overtones, and The Mutants is no different. When it is done well, such as Frontier In Space and The Green Death, it does not detract from the story but adds a level to it that I would assume at the time would of felt very poignant to the person watching and the general out look of the 70’s, and even in today’s view too. The Mutants sadly suffers from a premise of just having people with Napoleon complexes ruling their own little part of the universe, with a borderline racist overtone in an apartheid system. The Mutants comes at a time (1972) where most of the African nations had started to gain independence from their respective colonial masters, and as such is trying to portray in its little way the idea of this. Sadly it doesn’t quite work

While the sets and acting are ok (but the actual Mutt costumes are a little bit unbelievable in their appearance), the tones here detract from the story too much. When satire is done on subjects like inequality, racism and apartheid, it has to be done in a way as to make the person think. A great example of this is the Goodies Episode ‘South Africa’, it is done in a such a way by showing the person how stupid the idea of Apartheid really is but substituting the concept of inequality of Africans with that of people who are short, and really shows just how stupid the idea of apartheid is (The fact that it is renamed ‘Apartheight‘ goes to show as much. Where as I don’t expect Doctor Who to do the same (unless Douglas Adams writes it), the serious nature here is missed totally in the end, so much so that Salman Rushdie missed the whole anti-racist message in the show and mentioned it in his book ‘The Satanic Verses’ as having alleged racist attitudes.

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Doctor Who and the Mutants by Terrance Dicks. Released September 1977.

To come away from the satirical nature of the story however, The Mutants suffers terribly from being overly padded, four episodes could of be sufficient for this story instead of the six it was given (the same can be said for ‘The Time Monster’ afterwards). The trouble with Doctor Who as it went on in the Pertwee era was it suffered from too many six part stories with only enough material for four, with a few notable exceptions (Frontier In Space & The Green Death) it is easy to see why that when Tom Baker took over the role and Philip Hinchcliffe as Producer that the six part story was left for the closing story of the series, or used on rare occasions (The last time being The Two Doctors, which although is a three parter, is the length of a six parter.

Although the story has its good moments, and the basic moral idea behind it is a good one, The Mutants suffers from too many issues that let the story down. From a season that had a great Dalek opener (I love that story) in Day Of The Daleks, a story on the issue with the EU entrance in Curse of Peladon, and the iconic story that is The Sea Devils, The Mutants is a letdown to three strong stories in a season where the cast and crew should have been in there full swing. In light of all of this, and reflecting on other stories on the season, The Mutants gets a 6 out of 10.

The Mutants was first broadcast between April 8 and May 13 1972 as the 4th serial of Doctor Who’s 9th Season. It was released on VHS in February of 2003 and on DVD in January 2011, available via the Amazon link below. A Target novelisation by Terrance Dicks was released in September of 1977.

Posted in Classic Series, Classic Series Reviews, DVD, Blu-Ray & iTunes Reviews, News, Reviews, TV Reviews

Retro Review: The Web of Fear

Well, it appeared after months of rumours three months ago, and it’s still weird to say this…….

At the ripe age of thirty-seven, I can watch (nearly) all of The Web of Fear! It carries on past Episode 1! I blink and it doesn’t disappear from my iTunes! It lives!

The five year old version of me with his well-thumbed Target novelisation would have gaped. The fourteen year old me who nagged his Uncle to tape the orphaned episode 1 as part of the Who weekend on BSB (remember them?) would’ve possibly burst. The late-twenties me who saw Web 1 repeated on a BBC4 night about the London Underground would’ve likely drank a yard of ale, and probably already had before sitting down.

I’ll be interested to read DWM’s DVD review of this after Matthew Sweet’s recent iTunes release piece, as for me this was the biggest anniversary treat of last year. We were given some lovely shiny new gifts in the anniversary year, and I’m by no means the first to say this, but the return of The Enemy of the World and The Web of Fear is nothing short of a miracle, as unless you were carefully following the Omnirumour, or one of those in the know during the recovery/restoration process, you just couldn’t have seen this coming.

For so many years Web has existed only as blurry telesnaps and crackling soundtrack, and seemed such a remote, lost thing. The version I, and so many other children of the 70s grew up with was Uncle Terrance Dicks’ Target effort, still falling to bits in my bookcase to this day. That famously atmospheric first episode has been a frustration for many years, because before October it opened and closed with cliffhangers that we hadn’t a hope in hell of seeing resolved from either side.  We all know that TV of the time wasn’t designed to stand up to repeated scrutiny. That’s why nobody under fifty was likely to have even seen Web before October. And what we can see now, a slight lag of pace around the Episode 5 mark, a wobbly Perspex pyramid and a slightly rubbish final battle scene aside, is for my money the tightest bit of 60s Who we have.

Director Douglas Camfield gets it absolutely right in terms of pace, camerawork, lighting, and action. You really believe those tube tunnels go on forever. Camfield famously fell out with house composer Dudley Simpson at a dinner party and refused to hire him for any of his Who episodes, so the music comes from stock, and ranges between Bartok, music you’d normally associate with Cybermen bursting through clingfilm, and some otherworldly radiophonic shimmers. The redesigned Yeti impress, they’re now making no pretence at being real Bigfoot, and are imposing, shaggy and violent, with their big glowing eyes and mangy fur. They’re counterpointed nicely by the disembodied whispering voice of the Great Intelligence, which echoes through the tunnels in a wonderfully creepy manner.

Yes, the Intelligence’s scheme to absorb the Doctor’s brain is a bit vague, but it’s presented as part of an unfolding mystery right from the off. The supporting characters are well-drawn, only cowardly welsh Driver Evans grates a little. You have the return of The Abominable Snowmen’s Professor Travers, an early prototype of the modern day recurring character-that’s-not-quite-a-companion.

Here, the aged-up Jack Watling gets right into being curmudgeonly and argumentative, and looks to be having a whale of a time. Shame about his “zombie” acting when possessed by the Intelligence, but hey, it wouldn’t be Doctor Who if something a bit off-centre didn’t happen every other week. He’s joined here by daughter Anne, cool, smart, attractive, even a little flirtatious….a sort of prototype for Liz Shaw. She decided she would be a scientist, and would have made a good companion. On top of them you have dependable old Staff Sergeant Arnold, no-nonsense Captain Knight, odious reporter Harold Chorley, and some mysterious Colonel called Lethbridge-Stewart….

Ah, the Brig. Yes, I know he’s not The Brig yet, but let’s call him The Brig here. It doesn’t matter about his rank – he’s The Brig already.

Unfortunately his first appearance is in the missing Episode 3, represented here by the soundtrack and unfortunately not very many stills, a lot of them quite blurry. As a result Nicholas Courtney’s debut performance is a little hard to judge. The telesnaps and stills don’t capture him at his expressive best, he sounds a bit higher pitched than normal (which could, to be fair, be the soundtrack recording) and that familiar Brig twinkle is absent from the photos, where, no doubt caught mid-line or expression he unfortunately looks a bit frog-eyed. However, come episode 4, and there he is, fully formed, full of authority and that customary playful twinkle.

It’s striking how young Courtney looks here, even compared to his return eight months later in The Invasion, and surprising how much he gets stuck into the physical rough stuff, we’re so used to seeing him deskbound, overseeing missile strikes, or bickering with the Doctor in the lab. He’s set up here as a shady figure. We’re kept guessing as to whether or not he’s the mole working with the GI right up to Episode 6. He’s allowed a rare moment of despair and remorse after returning as the sole survivor from the superbly shot Covent Garden battle sequence with the Yeti. What with the eerily empty shots of London and the sense that Lethbridge-Stewart’s only just escaped with his life it put me in mind of AMC’s The Walking Dead.

All the death throughout makes it feel quite real, right from the off when an impatient Captain Knight tersely answers Chorley’s inane questions on the offscreen death of his former C.O. He looks like he would rather knock Chorley’s teeth out. Compare this to the complete lack of any form of emotional reaction to all those casualties in the Tombs of Telos from anyone (bar Toberman when Kaftan dies, and even that’s coaxed out by the Doctor, who clearly just wants to go home), it’s a minor but quietly grown up moment.

Speaking of the mole, the obvious suggestion apart from The Brig is the aforementioned Chorley, as the finger of suspicion is pointed at him a few times, if only due to his character winding up the others so much that they wish it was him, but this falls a bit flat when he disappears for two whole episodes. It’d be interesting to be a fly on the wall at the original broadcast to see what viewers of the time reckoned. Thanks to the novelisation I know what’s going to happen, but to my eyes reliable old Staff Arnold (played by Jack Woolgar) starts to telegraph his guilt by looking increasingly shifty before his eventual reveal as the Intelligence’s vessel.

The companions come off well here. Jamie is well established by now and he carries a lot of the action with his usual aplomb. Victoria usually gets a bad rap for her screamy shrillness, but Deborah Watling does pretty well, perhaps rising to the occasion a bit more than usual when given an opportunity to act opposite her Father, Jack, and doing a good job of looking brave, but scared.

Patrick Troughton is at his nuanced best here, from slapstick to the deviousness we saw from him in Tomb of the Cybermen. What we had of him before was great, but the more we see of him, the more he uncoils. He’s having a rare old time in Web, there are so many little moments, be it thumping Yeti on the back or tipping away Evans’ tobacco so he can pocket the tin. He’s absent in Episode 2 (on holiday), but more than makes up for his week off when he returns, it’s just a shame that you don’t seem him as a moving image again until Episode 4.

What’s becoming ever more apparent with the return of Enemy and Web is that Doctor Two is a bit of a rogue, the old devil. This Doctor would have gone to town in the modern series, he has none of the awkwardness of Eleven, or the ever-so-up-himself-ness of Ten, but Two would have got in an awful lot of trouble given half a chance. Maybe it’s Pat himself coming through here, Two seems much more keen on girls than most of his successors on the basis of these two stories alone.  Much has been made of his introduction to Astrid in Enemy, but am I the only one to note him flirting with Anne Travers as they work on the Yeti control device? It’s all in the eyes.

Another parallel, which Pat-fan Matt Smith would no doubt love, is the Doctor’s annoyance at the end when the Intelligence has been dispelled back into space.

Everyone’s patting him on the back for saving the day, but he sees it as a failure as he planned to absorb it and put an end to it forever. It shows a shade of darkness to this Doctor, obviously the Intelligence is a disembodied bodysnatching thing as opposed to a living creature, but isn’t that sort of…..genocide?  No wonder the Time Lords exiled him later on for showing such a ruthless streak. Maybe Web-fan Mark Gatiss had this scene in mind when writing 2010’s Victory of the Daleks, his reaction here echoes Smith’s at the end of that episode when the Daleks get away.

Unlike the fairly routine “Daleks-eradicated-forever” move that was pulled more than once in 60s Who, this ending was clearly leaving it open for a further, possibly final return for the Intelligence. As we now know, its eventual return in The Snowmen wouldn’t come for 44 years due to writers Mervyn Haisman and Henry Lincoln’s well documented fall-out with the production team over their troubled scripts for The Dominators, later in 1968.

We know that Web is a beginning of sorts, but it’s more than just a dry run for the UNIT era and your classic “Earth Invasion” story which would become the norm later on. This is the fully concentrated form of what we call “Classic” Who.

All the ingredients are here – a familiar location, tunnels, scary monsters, foam, humour, action, body horror, returning characters, the slightest hint of a story arc with the returns of Travers, the GI, and the Yeti, and a Doctor at the peak of his powers. There’s even a bit of ham in Jack Watling’s dodgy “Possessed” acting for us fans to have a bit of a giggle at.

This one’s got it all, and I for one am thrilled that it’s back, and that it carries on past Episode 1.

The Web of Fear is available now on iTunes as well as to preorder from Amazon and other good retailers.