Nicholas Courtney

Doctor Who: The Web of Fear (iTunes)

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For Doctor Who fans, the 50th anniversary celebrations of the show almost took second seat to the news in October that two serials from the 1960s starring Patrick Troughton – “Enemy of the World” and “The Web of Fear” – had been rediscovered in Nigeria after having been lost for decades following their purging from the BBC archives in the 1970s.

The news was almost too good to be true in the case of “The Web of Fear”, one of the most sought-after lost Doctor Who stories of all time – it was certainly top of my list of serials that I most wished I’d had a chance to watch. The top-level premise alone was utterly irresistible: robot Yeti stalk the deserted streets of London and spread a deadly web-like fungus through the tunnels of the Underground railway network. Who wouldn’t want to see that?!

Unfortunately it turns out that beyond that juicy top-level outline there really hadn’t been much further work done on the plotting. Spread extremely thinly over six 24-minute episodes, very little happens in this story other than the protagonists get an idea (to explore, escape, or counter-attack), set off from their cramped Goodge Street HQ and creep through the tunnels, only to get stymied and have to turn back. They do this time and again, admittedly with such verve that you don’t initially realise that this is even more formulaic than the show’s usual ‘running down corridors’ time-filling activities, but by the point you get to the final episode it really is becoming pretty evident to even the dimmest viewer. There’s not even a credible reason given for what the evil disembodied Great Intelligence (recently revived by the modern show for the 2012 Christmas special) is up to with his takeover of London, vague handwaving about luring the Doctor into some unspecified trap aside. 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: 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: 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.]