Patrick Troughton

Doctor Who: The Power of the Daleks (1966) [DVD]

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powerdaleksOf the 97 episodes of 1960s Doctor Who that no longer exist thanks to a cost-saving policy of wiping and reusing master video recordings, perhaps the ones whose loss are most acutely felt by fans of the show are the six comprising “The Power of the Daleks”, Patrick Troughton’s first outing in the role. Not only was it the story that established the act of regeneration in series lore (without which Doctor Who would never have lasted 53 years), it’s also one of the very best stories featuring the Doctor’s arch-nemeses the Daleks. Sadly, although fandom rejoiced when two long-lost stories (“Enemy of the World” and “Web of Fear“) were rediscovered a couple of years back, there’s no hope that any such miraculous resurrection will be possible for “The Power of the Daleks” and so instead we’ve had to make do with a novelisation and an off-air sound recording made by a fan at the time of the story’s single airing on BBC television.

That changed this month with the BBC’s release of a specially commissioned animated reconstruction of the serial. It’s not the first time that the BBC has used animation to cover for a lost episode, but in the past this has been limited to when just one or two episodes of a longer serial are missing (“The Reign of Terror”, “The Tenth Planet”, “The Moonbase”, “The Ice Warriors”, “The Invasion”.) It appeared that the BBC had gone off this idea and the part-completed animation of missing episodes of “The Underwater Menace” was abandoned, while the one still-missing episode of “Web of Fear” was replaced by a series of static stills made up of telesnaps (photographs of a television screen taken during broadcast.)

It’s therefore quite a surprise to see the BBC return to the idea of animation, and moreover for a serial where no episodes at all survive save for a few short clips that had been re-used in other programmes. It’s a mark of how highly regarded the serial is, and how keenly fans of the show have wanted a chance to see it in some form or another. The question is, does it work? 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 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: 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: 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 »

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 »

The Box of Delights (1984)

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Part of a festive series of Christmas-themed reviews at Taking The Short View

A Christmas children’s classic right from its opening theme – a spooky and hugely effective reworking of “The First Noël” – right through to the climax at a Midnight Service on Christmas Eve, this is about as festive as you can get. Millions of families will forever associate an annual rewatching of this six part BBC adaptation as being as much a part of the fabric of Christmas as mince pies and roast turkey. Unfortunately it also belongs to that category of stories that you really have to be enchanted with as a child if the same warm fuzzy feelings are to last into later years. It’s not really something you can truly pick up later if you missed out on growing up with the tale, as I sadly did. By the time this adaptation first aired, I was already far too ‘grown up’ to waste my time with such ‘childish things’ and it seems that at some point the possibility of visiting this magical land became a lost opportunity to me.

To me as an adult, the early episodes of this adaptation of the classic 1930s children’s fantasy novel by John Masefield verge on the annoying with their amateurish plotting, which relies far too much on being able to explain away any development as “it’s magical” and in so doing recuse itself from any responsibly to make any logical or coherent sense. Chance meetings happen and lead character Kay Harker (played actually quite commendably by 13-year-old Devin Stanfield who does a good job anchoring the entire story) happens upon key incidents at just the critical moment time and again to a degree of narrative laziness that no modern production could ever allow itself. Adult characters are shuffled out of the way as quickly as they ever were in an Enid Blyton tale so that the children have to fend for themselves, and there’s a total lack of believability in the responses of any remaining adults: police are disinterested in Kay’s pleadings even when children start to go missing for extended periods, something that would today provoke amber alerts, mass searches and media frenzies in no time. Other scenes (such as a visit to the past at King Arthur’s camp) seem thrown in just to provide a random supposedly-enchanting diversion. Whether these are all issues with the source book or is just something poorly conveyed by the television adaptation is something I can’t tell.

At some point, either I gave into the “well, it’s fantasy so anything can happen” philosophy or else things distinctly perked up. The turning point was the introduction of the arch villain Abner Brown, played in deliciously over-the-top style by veteran star Robert Stephens, a high camp scenery-chewing performance every bit as richly and darkly textured as Alan Rickman’s similarly superb turn as Severus Snape in the Harry Potter films. The presence of Abner and his comically inept gang allows the story to pick up pace as we get to learn the purpose and shape of his evil machinations, which drives the narrative in a more efficient and engrossing manner over the second half of the series.

Abner also starts to fill in some of the background of the history and capabilities of the titular box of delights, which has been entrusted to young Kay by the mysterious Punch and Judy performer Cole Hawlings, played by former Doctor Who Patrick Troughton – and given that his role here is of an eccentric 700-year-old man with special powers, one would be forgiven for expecting Troughton to be reprising former glories. In fact, the biggest disappointment is that the delightful actor is in the show for such a short amount of time – just a handful of scenes – before he goes missing. When he does reappear near the end, it’s clear why Cole Hawlings is sidelined for so long: his magic powers are so overwhelming that it’s hard to see why there was any peril for him at all, when one can escape danger merely by throwing one’s cap into the water and having it instantly transform into a rather natty state-of-the-art (for 1935) speedboat. At least the box of delights itself is commendably limited in its abilities (basically the ability to fly, shrink or access scenes from the past) – even if this does make its desirability as the serial’s McGuffin rather odd by comparison with the other powers on display from Abner and Hawlings.

The show’s production is about as quintessentially 1980s Children’s BBC as it’s possible to be. The period detail is lovingly recreated both in the sets and on location (vintage 1930s cars and steam trains are always a delight.) The scenes set in genuine snowy vistas are truly wonderful (less so the later scenes when the snowy tundra has to be recreated in a studio.) It’s also impossible to separate it from contemporary Doctor Who serials, given its reliance on then-fashionable and highly distinctive Quantel Paintbox and chromakey techniques supplying reasonable FX for the day but which have aged poorly, and the unmistakeable work of the BBC Radiophonics Workshop on the musical soundtrack. The serial also makes use of traditional animation for certain effects, scenes and characters, and I reckon you’d have to be a very young child indeed to find these remotely effective or engaging in any way.

The final episode features some unexpectedly big-budget action work with the destruction of the villain’s lair resulting in explosions, flames and flooding in real underground and exterior locations which demonstrate that this was indeed a prestige production for the BBC in its day and given an unusually big budget for a children’s drama (compared with the way the corporation was simultaneously throttling funds to Doctor Who at the same time, for example.) But the final part of the series ends oddly – for no stated reason, the holding of the Christmas Service becomes the most pressing matter even over and above thwarting Abner Brown’s evil plans. And then in the very final scene, there is the sort of ‘twist’ that even in its day is the most disrespectful overt thing any production can do in undermining all that has gone before, and makes one feel that the last three hours have been a total waste of time.

It’s not really a waste of course; there’s plenty to enjoy in the six episode journey despite the final destination, especially if you disengage critical facilities and even better if you can view it through appropriately rose-tinted spectacles. But I couldn’t help but think that with its fabulous opening theme and the intriguing core concept of the magical box of delights, there was so much more that it could have done and that it could have therefore been so much better. But then I started to think that maybe some other series heretofore mentioned in this review might already have ownership rights to the idea of telling the ongoing adventures of an eccentric mad man with a magical box …