Katy Manning

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 »

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: 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 Amazon.co.uk and Play.com 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.]