Jon Pertwee

Doctor Who: Planet of the Daleks (1973) [DVD]

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Sometimes when you’re writing about an episode of long-running TV show, there’s a lot to include: maybe it’s a particularly excellent example of the show in question, or perhaps it does something new and original. Or possibly it’s a particularly poor example of the series in question which gets the blood boiling. But by and large, and almost by definition, most instalments of a show are actually bound to be more or less average: solid, predictable, quite entertaining but nothing to get all that excited about.

When it comes to Doctor Who, the 1973 story “Planet of the Daleks” is one of those that is largely and literally unremarkable – and therefore hard to say all that much about. In fact if you look in Doctor Who Magazine’s 2013 reader poll of the first 50 years of stories, then you’ll find it almost precisely at the midway point of the 241 entries included in the survey. Read the rest of this entry »

Whodunnit? The Complete Series 1 (1972-3) [DVD]

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This vintage television series is almost as old as I am, and definitely not to be confused with the more recent short-lived US show by the same name from CSI creator Anthony Zuiker which had something of the same overall approach, albeit modernised and infused with reality show trappings. The original Whodunnit? is an altogether more homespun affair, and was created by comedian Lance Percival and comedy writer Jeremy Lloyd (Dad’s Army, ‘Allo ‘Allo). Each episode features a dramatised crime – usually a murder – after which a panel of celebrities tries to guess the identity of the perpetrator and as many tell-tale clues among the red herrings as they can find.

whodunnit-dvd-coverI watched this ITV show as a kid mainly because it was hosted by Jon Pertwee in his first post-Doctor Who gig, and it’s entirely possible that this programme along with Scooby-Doo! are the main reasons why I’ve been into crime procedurals and mystery stories ever since. However, Pertwee isn’t in charge for the seven stories contained in this DVD set, which include a pilot episode presided over by Shaw Taylor (presenter of Police 5, an early Crimewatch-type show) followed by all six shows from the full first series that followed a year later where actor Edward Woodward took over as presenter. His presence is why the barebones DVD of season 1 was among those included in a recent weekend flash sale held by distributors Network, which meant it was available for well under half the price Amazon were charging for the same item – and was why it was most definitely worth my picking up if only to see whether the golden haze of nostalgia could survive a face-to-face encounter with the brutal reality 40 years down the line. Read the rest of this entry »

The very welcome Horror of Who

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This is not a review as such, but more a rare foray into public service announcements for anyone who is a fan of the classic Doctor Who era of stories and who has access to CBS Studio’s Horror Channel digital satellite and cable station in the UK.

horrorIn case you missed the recent announcements, the Horror Channel recently just completed a deal with BBC Worldwide to show a number of Doctor Who stories from the original run between 1963 and 1989 and starring William Hartnell, Patrick Troughton, Jon Pertwee, Peter Davison, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy – and of course the iconic Tom Baker, who has been also lending his voice to a number of on-air promotional trailers that have been running in the past week. Read the rest of this entry »

Doctor Who: The Regeneration Game

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After a busy week packed with reviews, I’m taking a short break from all that and offer instead this feature story about a vital aspect of the Doctor Who television series – specifically, the single inspired concept that has allowed the show to continue for 50 years and could easily see it extend for another 50 years, or indeed more…

line-upThe Doctor Who TV series has just celebrated its 50th birthday and 800th episode, something that the production team that launched it back in 1963 could never have believed for one minute was possible as they struggled to survive beyond the original 13-week run that the BBC had commissioned.What’s amazing is how much of the show’s essential DNA is in place even in those early days: the concept of the mysterious alien stranger and the time machine with its iconic police box exterior with its ‘bigger on the inside than on the outside’ properties are familiar to us now but were then genius inspirations of the highest order. And then at Christmas the Daleks arrived which propelled the show to extraordinary early heights of popularity.

The only remaining crucial item missing from the show’s bible by the end of 1963 was the concept of regeneration. That would come later. But when, exactly, did the process of regeneration actually become a core part – perhaps the most crucial part – of the show’s format in terms of its longevity? Read the rest of this entry »

Doctor Who: The Three Doctors (1972) [DVD]

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With the multi-Doctor 50th anniversary celebrations of last weekend still reverberating in our heads, it seemed appropriate to extend the festivities with a little nostalgia by looking back to the very first time that multiple Doctors shared the screen together – all the way back in 1972.

You’d expect “The Three Doctors” to have been an anniversary special as well, but in fact the BBC wasn’t so big on such things back then and the serial appeared almost a full year before the official tenth anniversary of Doctor Who as something of a Christmas/New Year special instead. Someone simply had the idea to bring together the three actors who had played the Time Lord into one story, and off it went. But it set a precedent for these sorts of occasions that inspired the 20th anniversary “The Five Doctors” special and which meant that by the time we got to the 50th, a single-Doctor approach to a big anniversary was just not on – although with showrunner Steven Moffat being the man he is, the formula had to be ‘tweaked’ for “The Day of the Doctor” by including a brand new former Doctor we didn’t even know we’d missed!

Even so, whichever way you look at it “The Three Doctors” is an important precedent in the life of Doctor Who. It is the first time that the show directly acknowledged its own past as a TV show and set up the Doctor’s different incarnations as distinct people with their own personalities as a usable plot idea, rather than as just some handwaving by the production team to get around a casting change. (You wouldn’t expect to see all the actors who have played a soap role like Ben Mitchell in EastEnders all show up in an episode for a reunion, now would you?) The episode also includes the Time Lords and only the second glimpse of their (unnamed) home world after “The War Games”, and starts to establish some key elements of the show’s mythos such as how they draw the source of power for time travel from a collapsing black hole. Read the rest of this entry »

Doctor Who – The Green Death SE (1973) (DVD)

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In the most recent Doctor Who review I posted, I wrote that I wasn’t a fan of ‘double-dip’ releases. And so the very next Doctor Who DVD I purchase is yet another example of buying a special edition reissue of a title that I already have in my collection: nothing if not inconsistent, me.

In my defence, I have good cause. “The Green Death” might not have the unique selling point of “Spearhead from Space” of being the only classic-era serial that’s possible to release on genuine high-resolution Blu-ray, but it does have a more personal USP as far as I’m concerned as this is the first Doctor Who story that I actually clearly remember watching as a kid. I also vividly recall “The Sea Devils”, but I suspect that’s from a subsequent repeat airing rather than its original 1972 broadcast. I’m sure I had watched episodes before but they’re just now jumbled fragments in my brain. Not so “The Green Death” however, with its vivid imagery (the eponymous emerald-hued fatalities and of course the infamous giant maggots) searing itself into my young mind in a way that proved unforgettable for a lifetime. It’s probably a large part of the reason why Jon Pertwee will always be “my” Doctor regardless of any factual merits of the case. In many ways, the clarity and general fondness I have for this story almost made me fearful to re-watch it again in case it didn’t live up to my expectations and golden memories.

Happily it truly doesn’t disappoint even 40 years later. It’s a fantastically well-paced story that doesn’t flag for a moment and only briefly relies on time-filling runarounds and Venusian Akido fight scenes. It’s a strangely, surreal and inimitable Doctor Who mix of monsters, existential horror, conspiracies, ecology, love and friendship – and even some laugh out loud broad comedy such as the sight of Jon Pertwee in drag successfully (!) passing himself off in disguise as a char lady, or Sgt Benton (John Levene) passing out deadly poison to the giant maggots with an ad-libbed “Here, kitty kitty kitty.” Many of the classic serials – even the six-parters like this – would struggle to fill out a modern hyperkinetic 40-minute episode, but “The Green Death” is an exception that feels as though compressing it into any shorter a running time would be a criminal offence. Read the rest of this entry »

Doctor Who: Spearhead from Space (1970) [Blu-ray]

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Truth be told, I’m not a fan of ‘double dip’ releases or indeed of high-definition versions of television shows, even when the show was originally shot in HD. The advance in quality is rarely worth the extra cost, Game of Thrones being the singular and striking exception to the rule. Both issues would appear to be the case here.

But nonetheless, this week I ended up buying the Blu-ray of “Spearhead from Space”, the first story of season seven of the original classic Doctor Who serial that was filmed in 1969 and originally aired in 1970. I have some good reasons for this breach in my home entertainment-buying protocols and am ultimately happy that I did so, but it takes some explanation.

“Spearhead from Space” is a story of so many ‘firsts’ that it surely qualifies as a reboot of the Doctor Who franchise in the modern sense of the word. It’s the first story filmed in colour, the first to star Jon Pertwee, and the first to establish UNIT as the recurring premise of the show after the Time Lords exile a post-regeneration Doctor to Earth, totally overthrowing the series’ previous format of a wandering traveller in time and space. Now he would be lucky to venture outside 1970s English home counties. Read the rest of this entry »

Doctor Who: Regeneration (DVD)

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No, not a discussion of the upcoming departure of Matt Smith from the title role of Doctor Who and who may or may not replace him. Instead, this is the latest offering from the BBC marking the 50th anniversary of the show, and is a deluxe gift boxset containing a handsome coffee table tome about the series and its stars together with six DVDs comprising episodes featuring every one of the 11 actors to have played the role to date.

It does so by collecting together all the stories in which a Doctor regenerates, which is a nice thematic way of showcasing the series’ continuity and well as its longevity, as the concept of the Doctor’s ability to change into a new form is key to the show’s ongoing success. It also connects Matt Smith directly all the way back through Tom Baker to the very first Doctor, William Hartnell, who initially created the iconic role in November 1963.

It’s a beautifully designed product, using symbology from the language of Gallifrey (the Doctor’s home world) as a motif which is carried through to the discs themselves and on to the gorgeous on-screen menus as well. The book has some wonderful photography, treated to an epic black-and-white digital finish with some effective use of stylistic spot colour accents. It’s beautifully typeset and the text itself is well-written and interesting – although it contains nothing itself that will surprise hard core fans, of course. Read the rest of this entry »

Doctor Who: Inferno SE (DVD)

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Tom Baker might be the ‘definitive article’ as the Doctor, and David Tennant for me the best actor to have played the role (with the dearly departing Matt Smith a commendably close runner-up) but as far as I’m concerned my emotional ‘favourite’ actor in the role will forever be the the one who was in the role when I first watched the show as a young child – Jon Pertwee.

“Inferno” was the final serial from Pertwee’s first season as the Doctor and is the story after “The Ambassadors of Death”, which I reviewed about seven months ago when it made its bow on DVD. This was very much an experimental, transitionary year for the show as new producer Barry Letts decided to make it more serious, realistic and Earth-bound, and the Doctor closer to a Quatermass figure than the cosmic hobo of yesteryear. For me this produced one of the best-ever years of Classic Who with some top-notch stories, and judging from the way that current showrunner Steven Moffat has riffed off themes, ideas and even aliens from that year’s serials I’d say I’m not alone.

However the format change did soon develop a very big problem: take away the TARDIS and the Doctor’s ability to go anywhere in the universe and things can get very repetitive very quickly. In “Inferno” for example, we have a misguided piece of cutting edge science go disastrously wrong and unleash a deadly danger from primordial times from deep within the earth that threatens to wipe out all life as we know it. Sound familiar? It would have done at the time, since just two months previously the Doctor had been encountering the Silurians for the first time in very similar circumstances. Read the rest of this entry »

Doctor Who: Hide (BBC1)

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I was going to keep this one relatively short, since I didn’t think that I had a lot to say about the latest instalment of Doctor Who other than that this was one of the best and strongest episodes to date of an otherwise uneven series 7. But it turns out that there’s a lot to say about excellence after all.

Here was a story that was finally let off the leash and allowed to be proper scary in just the way that the previous episode, “Cold War”, didn’t quite have the heart to follow through. I was amazed by the lengths this one went to and what it ended up getting away with: if this were indeed back in the 1970s and Mary Whitehouse was still with us, she would surely have been apoplectic at how much the show must have traumatised the little kids on Saturday night. Or the big kids, come to that – this was seriously frightening stuff. And it felt great to have Doctor Who back to its full-blooded, no-holds-barred best.

In a nutshell it was a haunted house story with a ghost and a hideous monster lurking in the shadows, being investigated by slightly eccentric paranormal researcher Alec Palmer and his assistant (not companion – this is 1974) Emma Grayling, an empathic psychic. Her talents prove vital to solving the mystery of Caliburn House, but of course it’s the Doctor who provides the brain power in figuring out what’s going on in the first place and what must be done about it – which takes us out of gothic supernatural horror and into a quite wonderfully clever and original science fiction story about time travel. This in turns allows some important character moments between the Doctor and his companion (not assistant – this is 2013) in which Clara gets insight into the Doctor’s world view, and we in turn get insight into the mystery of The Impossible Girl and why she fascinates the Doctor so – although why the Tardis is apparently not also a fan of hers is a whole different juicy strand to things. Read the rest of this entry »

A brief personal history of time travel

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radiotimesMy apologies, it’s been a bit quiet on the review front – for the simple reason that I haven’t been watching, reading or otherwise partaking of anything that warrants a review. It’s just been that sort of start to the year. Hopefully things will pick up as we approach Easter.

In the meantime, to keep the blog ticking over, a little diversion in content. Regular readers will know that I’m rather partial to the series Doctor Who (it’s also pretty obvious from one glance at the site tag cloud!) so I thought I’d do a short-ish piece on my personal history watching the show. Anyone not interested in Doctor Who should probably look away … now. Read the rest of this entry »

Doctor Who: The Ambassadors of Death (1970) [DVD]

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There’s a point midway through this seven-part Classic Who serial from 1970 where you realise: this must have been the season that current Doctor Who showrunner Steven Moffat saw when he was six or seven years old. It’s at that age that an experience most thoroughly impresses itself into one’s psyche and stays there well into adulthood, and there’s plenty of evidence of just how much of series 7 is still alive and well in Moffat’s creative imagination.

The specific scene in “The Ambassador of Death” that reveals this to be Moffat’s most impressionable age is the moment when the eerie, wordless figure in the NASA spacesuit is walking toward the camera, his face hidden by the blank visor of the helmet he’s wearing. It’s just as unnerving and terror-inducing as it is when Moffat himself uses the same visual imagery in his 2008 two-parter “The Silence in the Library”/”Forest of the Dead”. And it pops up again throughout his second season in charge of the show, from “The Impossible Astronaut” onwards.

Mere coincidence and not strong enough proof for you that the classic series 7 is really that pivotal to a young Moffat’s development? Then consider that another story from the season – “Inferno” – introduces a key character wearing an eyepatch (employed in much the same way that Star Trek’s use of a goatee designates an evil parallel universe version of a familiar character in “Mirror, Mirror”) resurfaces in Moffat’s New Who series as sported first by Madame Kovarian and then by the entire cast in the parallel universe-set season finale “The Wedding of River Song.” Or how about the fact that it was under Moffat’s management that the Silurians – who originally debuted in classic series 7 – were revived and reused in New Who? The only remaining monsters from that classic season not reintroduced by Moffat were the Autons, and that’s only because Russell T Davies had already done it in the very first 2005 episode “Rose”. Even so, Moffat brought the Autons back for his first season in charge in a pivotal manner in “The Pandorica Opens”, so that rather completes the representation of series 7 under Moffat and gives strong credence to the theory.

In which case: Moffat has excellent taste. Read the rest of this entry »

Doctor Who: Day of the Daleks SE

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Out this week on DVD is the 1972 classic Doctor Who episode “Day of the Daleks”. It’s a particular favourite of mine, and not just because it stars my favourite Doctor (Jon Pertwee) going head to head with my favourite monsters (the Daleks, obviously!) for the first time.

It’s been frustrating that it’s taken so very long for this one to come out on DVD, when you’d have thought that anything Dalek-related would have been high on the list of titles to issue. It’s a great story, too: a band of guerrillas time-travel back from the future where the world is enslaved by horrible machine monsters, in order to rewrite history to stop the takeover from ever happening. Honestly, you have to wonder whether James Cameron ever saw this story before writing The Terminator! (Oh, okay then, credit where it’s due: both Cameron and Who are actually ripping off La Jetée. Happy now?)

Actually the wait for it to be released has turned out to be a blessing, because with so few classic serials now remaining to be released, the production team behind the DVD releases is able to look at the ones left and go “How do we actually make this really stand out, sparkle and shine?” – even if it takes a bit of extra cash to do it in the process – whereas before it would just have been a case of cleaning it up, slapping on the usual (terrific) set of extras and getting it out the door so they can move on to the next one.

In the case of “Day of the Daleks” it’s meant the opportunity to go back and produce a ‘special edition’ to spruce up the original. Anyone fearing any George Lucas-style heresies can rest assured that the restored original is presented right alongside this special edition, so the digital makeover hasn’t muscled out the gloriously flawed 1972 version, warts and all. Some of those warts are bigger and more grotesque than others and sparked the retro-fitting, but once they started … Well, you know how it is. Once you start painting one wall in the house, everything else looks drab and you just have to keep on going.

The biggest complaint about the original was the Dalek voices which were startlingly poor (it had been five years since they last appeared on the show – it seems they couldn’t get any of the old voice actors who remembered how to do it properly.) The special edition brings in current Mr Voice of the Daleks from the TV show, Nicholas Briggs, to redub them – and ironically it’s the change you notice the least because they simply sound exactly right, how they should have been all along. It makes going back to the aired version even more excruciating.

The production also had a major problem with budget – and with available Daleks. Basically it had three viable units left, and with this the director was asked to mount a full scale Dalek assault on a country house. Erm – never going to happen, was it? The shortcomings are clear and it’s a damp squib of an ending to the original. But the special edition uses new footage of contemporary-built Daleks (even shot on the same model of camera used at the time) to add legions into the scene by CGI and editing, which enables faster paced cutting. Add some wonderful laser gun effects and you have a spectacular finish to the serial now.

One of the gun effects is a chillingly believable disintegrator effect that I genuinely found a little disturbing and wondered how the disc had kept its PG rating as a result; I’m not sure that’s a criticism so much as a high compliment! Added to this are some nice new digitally rendered computer screens which allow some of the original too-long turgid scenes to be broken up with pacier cutting and to clarify the transition from talking head to viewscreen image that was awkwardly presented in the original. There’s an enhanced interior explosion as the country house is attacked, and a CGI effect for the time-travel units which is nice when used as a restrained ‘accent’ in a scene but rather too much when it suddenly expands over the whole screen – although I suspect that’s done intentionally to hide some blatantly bad cross-fade alignment issues in the original footage. Ultimately only the attempt to do a CGI futuristic Dalek city really doesn’t come off, but high profile feature films with millions of dollars have failed far less honourably at such endeavours.

Added to the phenomenal restoration work (studio scenes have such impressive detail, depth and colour that they look like they were shot yesterday), there’s a huge bundle of extras which I’ve still to get through including one on the single biggest question vexing Classic Who fandom – the dating of the stories featuring the Doctor’s Earth-bound UNIT friends. You would not believe the time lost in heated discussion and academic research and dissembling that this one slip-up in series continuity has caused!

Sometimes the extras are the only reason for actually buying some of the worst, shoddiest, most execrable classic Who serials. Happily one doesn’t have to look to the extras to buy this one: the core story is fine as it is, and the rest is just gravy and trimmings. But what a glorious dish it makes of it all as a result.

[Postscript: this was always a day 1 must-buy for me. It came out the same day that HMV was decked out in posters for the release of the Star Wars saga on Blu-ray. When I went to pay at the counter, the member of staff looked at my selection and was clearly startled: “We’ve sold a lot of these today!” he said in wonder. And and listed the title as “temporarily out of stock” the day after release. It seems that even on a day of Star Wars, the “Day of the Daleks” was more than holding its own.]