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.
In 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 »
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…
The 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 »
The problem with creating a 50th anniversary special for Doctor Who is finding a story that not only has space for all 13 incarnations of the titular character, but one that actually warrants multi-Doctor involvement. It’s not like the Doctor should be going around and dropping in on himself every other week for tea and scones.
In current Who lore, there’s pretty much only one thing big enough to justify the Doctor calling up his own selves as reinforcements. The Time War was a rather brilliant concept introduced by showrunner Russell T Davies in 2005 so that he could sweep away the clutter of too much complex backstory continuity and free the show up for its reboot for a brand new audience complete with a new, dark and angst-ridden central protagonist unlike any Doctor previously seen in the classic era. It did its job superbly – but also became such a huge part of the show’s mythos that it was impossible not to prod and poke it further over the years. Even though RTD’s successor Steven Moffat has been less inclined to utilise it since he took over, the spectre of the Time War has continued to loom over the show and the character with an ever-increasing weight. And that’s because there was an unforeseen problem.
Put simply: the Time War ended when the Doctor annihilated two whole civilisations. That’s bad enough, even if one of them is the Daleks; but when the Doctor is responsible for the genocide of his own people it leaves a stain on our supposedly heroic character that becomes increasingly untenable. The pivotal moment is when you frame the emotionally loaded but entirely warranted question, “How many children did you kill?” as indeed the 50th anniversary special does. Once asked it cannot be taken back, and you soon realise that this act cannot be allowed to stand. No matter how much you try and rationalise it or quarantine off the guilt of the heinous atrocity onto one disowned incarnation of the Doctor, no matter how much the Doctor suffers with the burden of his actions, it will never be enough: a Doctor who did this can no longer be our or anybody’s hero. And that is a big problem for the show. Read the rest of this entry »
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 »
My 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 »
During its wilderness years – after the BBC banished it from television after 1989 not to return until 2005 save for one TV movie that must never, ever be mentioned – Doctor Who was kept alive by a series of novels and audio adventures. The production company Big Finish Productions won the license to produce the latter and is still going strong.
Strangely these new adventures have been relatively unexploited by the BBC in their quest for new radio drama material, when you would think they would be ideal. Until recently the the only such stories to have made it onto the BBC’s Radio 7 spoken word station were those featuring Paul McGann as the Doctor with a new companion (played by the wonderful Sheridan Smith) in an almost entirely separate, self-contained ‘series’ that the Corporation felt could run in parallel with the TV adventures of Eccleston, Tennant and Smith without interfering or confusing.
But this week, in a rather daring and very welcome departure to boost the launch of the new BBC Radio 4 Extra brand, the BBC have bought up a batch of Big Finish stories for the station. These feature not only Peter Davison as the Doctor, but his actual early 80s companion line-up of bolshy Tegan (Janet Fielding – particularly wonderful to have her back!), scheming Turlough (Mark Strickson) and nice Nyssa (Sarah Sutton). And the stories are in four half hour episodes with cliffhangers: it really is like being transported back.
Nyssa was always one of the dullest, least formed, “nicest” companions of 70s and 80s Doctor Who and Big Finish have pulled a nice twist here in setting this story two days after Nyssa departed the crew. In a lovely character touch, Tegan goes from pinning for the departed Nyssa to being incredibly antagonised when she returns, and Tegan is reminded of her former friend’s goody-goody tendencies and made to realise that she has much more in common with the “evil” Turlough whom she had formerly loathed – a nice transition that also fills in a character development gap in the original 80s stories, and I’m sure it’s not a coincidence or accident that it does so.
In fact, while Nyssa’s been gone for only two days, that’s two days Tardis time – but 50 years for her, a marvellous idea that wouldn’t have occurred to the original production team but is very much in the spirit of the Moffat era of playing with time. It gives Sarah Sutton so much more to work with, while playing with time is what this whole “Cobwebs” episode is about – in a wonderfully simple, boiled-down and creepy first episode set in an abandoned station the Tardis crew find what look to be their own bodies, dead for 40 years; and in the second episode, it all starts to come true as they travel back in time. So far, so great.
If there’s a criticism of this story (and of some others that I’ve listened to in the Big Finish line) it’s that they’re simply too clever, intelligent and audacious for their own good. If you’re used to the nice, steady, linear productions that form the bulk of Radio 4’s drama output then these stories can overwhelm and become really quite confusing, as in the case of “Cobwebs” where the third episode goes off on a different tangent altogether and the guest characters we thought we had been introduced to suddenly turn out not to be who we – or even they – thought they were. It’s so many switches and reversals that – taken together with all the advanced timey-wimey stuff playing out as well – could well leave people struggling to maintain a grip with its breathless pace.
I suspect that this shows the roots of the Big Finish production. This is something like the 130th instalment and they’re well into their groove, so for those of us jumping in late in the day it’s hard for us to keep our balance on an already fast-moving vehicle. Also, let’s not forget that these productions were originally created for CD (and download) where listeners would set everything aside and play it when they have the requisite two hours’ of attention to devote to it, not just when it happened to come on the radio even if they were in the middle of doing something else. Such context can make a big difference: perhaps this is drama best reserved to iPlayer scheduling.
Still, it’s surely no bad criticism to say that something’s too clever or too ambitious – better than than safe-but-dull conservatism. And maybe it’s just that I hadn’t engaged my thinking head mode before listening.
This article previously appeared in the Who fan blog Cloister Bell as a guest post. Since that blog is no longer active, I’ve reproduced it here for completeness.
When Peter Davison took over the role of Doctor Who in 1981, he was following the tenure (reign might be a better word) of Tom Baker, who had starred in the series longer than anyone else before or since. By contrast, Davison stayed for just under three seasons (at a time when a season was half the length it was under William Hartnell or Patrick Troughton) and became one of the shortest tenants of the famous police box.
Davison made his decision to leave at the end of his second season, disenchanted with the quality of the scripts and increasingly at odds with the producer John Nathan-Turner (JNT to one and all.) But it’s often reported that Davison took one look at the script and production of his final story, “The Caves of Androzani”, and declared that if he’d had more stories of this calibre then he would have had no hesitation in signing up for a third season. That’s understandable: “Androzani” was indeed one of the finest classic Doctor Who stories, not just of Davison’s era but of all time. But in the Davison retrospective documentary “Come In Number Five” provided as an extra to the special edition DVD of Resurrection of the Daleks in the Revisitations 2 boxset, Davison goes further than this and suggests that as a whole, his second season was a muddled disappointment and his third season saw the show back in top form – and it was this overall trend that made him eventually disappointed to have opted to leave when he did.
This … surprised me. Or to put it another way, I fundamentally disagree with his assessments of the relative strengths of his three seasons.
Let’s start on reasonably safe ground: the 1982 season that started with “Castrovalva”, Davison’s first full story in the title role, was a very strong season, carrying on from what had proved to be an even stronger final season for Tom Baker the previous year. The show seemed to have a renewed sense of purpose and confidence, and was making efforts to take itself seriously again after several years of lampooning around (“Horns of Nimon”) and dealing with sets so shoddily constructed that they collapsed underfoot (“Nightmare of Eden”). There were strong scripts with real science fiction (and science) ideas – where else could you find a show with an entire story constructed around the concept of entropy and the second law of thermodynamics and actually have it work?
Davison’s first series started with a visit to the Big Bang and a cheeky appropriation of MC Escher’s work for “Castrovalva”, while at the same time Davison wowed us with his takes on all the Doctor’s former personalities; then there was the somewhat average but solidly turned-out and enjoyable “Four to Doomsday” before one of the season’s highlights in “Kinda” – not well understood or received at the time but now regarded as one of the finest serials the show ever did. This was followed by a crowd-pleasing historical adventure with “The Visitation” taking the crew back to 1666 Pudding Lane and some brilliantly constructed new alien monsters called Terileptils. The show’s confidence showed through in the next story, a two-parter for the first time in nearly a decade and one that landed the Tardis crew back in 1925, doing away with any science fiction or alien monsters whatsoever. It proved to be the calm before the storm, before one of the show’s most stylish and effective serials – “Earthshock”. The shock return of the Cybermen and the death of a companion: anyone who was a fan of the show back then will have the final, music-less credit roll over a background picture of a crushed and broken gold star for mathematical excellence seared into their memories. It had been a fantastic run of episodes, and if the season finale “Time Flight” was a huge disappointment then it was a shame – but a one-off exception to the rule.
So was Davison’s second season (more accurately, season 20 of the show) such a decline and disappointment, so bad that it resulted in Davison deciding to quit? It certainly had one major problem in hindsight – the fact that it was the twentieth anniversary of the show’s launch in 1963, which led JNT to decide that every single story must have some sort of callback to the show’s past.
It started with “Arc of Infinity” – not perhaps the greatest of stories, but far better than “Time Flight”. Fans got excited about seeing renegade Time Lord Omega back again (he’d last been seen in the tenth anniversary special, “The Three Doctors”); the overseas location shooting in Amsterdam was a first and looked rather good, making even routine runaround chase scenes something special; and Peter Davison himself put in a fantastically haunting performance as a dying “fake” version of himself. Then there was “Snakedance”, a sequel to “Kinda” and the source of all those clips of a young Martin Clunes in funny costumes that they like to embarrass him with on clip shows. It’s not as strikingly original as “Kinda” but in many ways is a better fit for the Doctor Who universe, and better written. This was followed by “Mawdryn Undead”, which certainly suffered from a director who didn’t seem to know how to dim the studio floodlighting to create atmosphere, but on the other hand did feature the return of the wonderful Nicholas Courtney in his signature role of Brigadier Alistair Lethbridge-Stewart, and also the delicious Valentine Dyall as the most evil being in the universe (the Black Guardian, returning in a trilogy of connected stories.) It had a clever time-stream jumping script, and while it rather lost its way and fell into mediocrity it certainly had its moments. “Terminus” showed ambition both in story and in set design (finally, a dark and dirty set with an atmosphere); and, erm, the lovely Sarah Sutton suddenly wearing a very short skirt and low cut top, but that’s not important right now. Next up there was “Enlightenment”, a show of such strikingly original ideas (eternals and ephemerals) and visuals (classic cutters using the solar system planets as marker buoys in a grand sailing race!) and superb cast (Keith Barron, Tony Caunter, Lynda Baron – just don’t mention Leee John) that the spirit of this serial seems to be making a comeback in the 2011 Matt Smith season with the third story “Curse of the Black Spot”. The script may sometimes have exceeded the reach of achievable FX at the time but this was still a magical story of the type only Doctor Who could ever do.
The season once again stumbled at the end with “The King’s Demons”, and sadly lost the story that was meant to be the big finish (featuring the Daleks – more of which in a minute) due to a BBC strike, but then there was the official 20th anniversary celebration “The Five Doctors” which went ahead despite having to recast the first Doctor (Richard Hurndall surprisingly good standing in for the late Hartnell) and having to work around a sulky Tom Baker who refused to return and had to be replaced with archive footage from the abandoned season 17 story “Shada”. (“Tom Baker, you should be ashamed of yourself!” says current series runner Steven Moffat in a recent interview about Baker’s refusal to appear. “”Every day of your life, you should regret the decision you took that day!” Of course, Moffat has his own reasons for looking back – he’s already planning the 50th anniversary special for 2013.)
Despite those compromises, and trying to fit in a galaxy of former Doctors and companions (most not able to be confirmed until the last minute) into a coherent plot was a small miracle of television production, and it’s hard not to look back at that second Davison season as overall being a success, if admittedly not of the same order as the first year. Why Davison should look back upon this group of stories and conclude despairingly that it was time to move on is difficult to fathom.
Now, let’s look at the third season, the one that Davison liked so much that it would have changed his mind about departing if it had come first.
It starts with “Warriors of the Deep”. It’s another show that badly needs some dark, moody, atmospheric direction to succeed – but instead gets some of the flattest floodlighting we’ve seen in the show. As a result, the show’s ‘monster moment’ features the series’ most derided creature, the Myrka. It looks like a two-man pantomime horse painted green and with some frills sown on: it’s utterly derisible. The story angered dedicated fans by riding roughshod over established series mythologies pertaining to the Silurians and the Sea Devils, and to the casual viewer is just dull and boring. Then there’s “The Awakening”, which isn’t bad and certainly looks good, allowing the BBC to play to its traditional strength of historical drama serials: but the story is rather confused, seemingly wanting to be some mishmash of Quatermass and Sapphire and Steel. It’s not bad, but it’s not particularly good either. After this the season moves on to “Frontios”, which has some very striking ideas and visuals – the shattered Tardis remnants littered around the place are truly unsettling. It’s let down somewhat by being very artificially studio-bound, and the story of the human colonists doesn’t really gell, but this week’s monsters – gravity slugs the Tractators – are remarkably effective and creepy. It’s not a story that will appeal to everyone, but on the whole this is one of the season’s hits, albeit flawed and “difficult”.
The next story should be a slam-dunk success – it’s the “Resurrection of the Daleks” delayed from the previous season, with added Davros. How could you screw this one up? Very easily it turns out. The direction and production design are all top-notch, but the writing for this story is appalling. The violence and body count is so high that at the end, when companion Tegan declares “It isn’t fun anymore, Doctor” and leaves, you’re with her every step of the way and feel like walking out with her. (A more detailed review of this story is available on the author’s own blog.) Then there’s “Planet of Fire”, which benefits from being this year’s “let’s take the production crew on holiday” story – set in the other-worldly volcanic landscape of Lanzarote in the days before it became an overly familiar top tourist destination. It looks great, but someone forgot to pack a story in their luggage: the script has to write out two companions (Turlough and the best-forgotten Kamelion), introduce another (Peri) and have the Master return. It’s overloaded by all this and implodes into indifference under the sun.
Then finally Peter Davison’s time is over, and we’re finishing up with “The Caves of Androzani” – a truly brilliant serial, one of the very best, no question. If Davison was still saying ‘I’d have stayed if they were all like “Androzani”‘ then we’d have no absolutely argument. But ‘if it had been like the third season’ – really? The dreadful “Warriors”, the confused “Awakening”, the difficult “Frontios”, the awful writing of “Resurrection”, the damp squib of “Planet of Fire” make this for me the start of another major slump in Doctor Who’s long history. Here the exception to the rule is “Androzani”, the jewel in the season’s crown, where before the exceptions have been the duds. The next season would see script writer Eric Saward get a Doctor more to his liking – the abrasive Sixth Doctor as played by Colin Baker – and we all know how disastrous that turned out to be.
I’ll take the second Davison season over the third any day: it might not have been as good as the first, it might have been self-indulgent with all those love notes to the series’ past, and it might have faltered and clung on by its fingertips at times, but it just about pulled it off and maintained the quality. By contrast, the third Davison season dropped the ball on multiple occasions (and Baker’s first season couldn’t even find the ball to start playing the game in the first place.)
It’s to Davison’s immense credit that despite being one of the shorter-serving actors in the title role – and at a time when the series was, to put it diplomatically, “struggling creatively” – both he and his portrayal of the Doctor are still very fondly regarded and seen as one of the best periods of the show. Indeed, in the DVD extra “Come In Number Five”, when documentary presenter David Tennant (who knows a thing or two about being a popular Time Lord) reiterates that for him, Peter Davison “was my Doctor” – not only is it heartfelt, he speaks for many of us when he does.
And as accolades and tributes go, it doesn’t get much better than that.
I was recently knocked offline for a week by a problem with my broadband: one of the upsides about not being distracted by any number of online or social media diversions was that it allowed me to spend some time with my ridiculously oversized DVD collection. After having watched the Doctor Who serial Kinda last month (and reviewed it), I followed it up with another Peter Davison adventure – his sole encounter the infamous Daleks.
Davison has a high opinion of this story and seems to regard it as one of the best of his tenure in the lead role. I honestly can’t understand why. If I was to pick out a script that is an example of an utterly dreadful piece of writing and which fails on just about every level required of it, it would be this story. The writer, Eric Saward (who was also the show’s script editor at the time) seems to have gathered together a few disparite threads – creepy policemen in industrial wastelands; a plot to kill, duplicate and replace key people; lots of deaths; Daleks; and, of course, Davros – and thrown them into the same episode in the presumption that this makes for a coherent story. It doesn’t. What we have is about four totally different storylines that individually barely hold together, but en masse don’t connect with each other and force totally unworkable overlaps and coincidences upon events. It doesn’t so much leave believability and credibility behind, as take them out round the back and shoot them point blank in the face. And then shoot them again ten times over for good measure.
Actually the amount of violence is often used as the main criticism of this story – more people die on screen (and brutally) than in any other Classic Who, and by the end the survivors are struggling to find space on the studio floor to walk on without tripping over all the killed-off extras. It even adds the “duplicates” thread so that the same actors can get killed once, cloned, and then promptly shot again just to add to the numbers. And even the Doctor gets in on the act, picking up guns and shooting things with a bloodlust that these days would never be permitted of the noble hero in NuWho. Personally I don’t actually have a problem with this aspect of the script: a story about the real cost and impact of bloody violence is a valid approach, and Tegan’s final speech about how she’s so sickened by the events – especially when an innocent bystander is killed because of her calling out to him for help – that “it isn’t fun any more” and understandably she wants to leave as a result makes this strand of the show actually effective and coherent.
It’s everything else that fails. Basically, things happen in this show because the script requires them to, not because of any internal logic. Where to start? Once a character has finished their purpose in the plot, someone just shoots them for no reason (why then and not half an hour earlier if they were so disposable?) Another character manages to activate a space station’s self-destruct mechanism despite having no idea how and no level of security access, just by poking at buttons at random for five minutes – because anything can be made to work by stabbing buttons long enough, right? The Daleks risk all to retrieve Davros, only to then decide an hour later than it’s rather troublesome and so they’d rather kill him. There’s a time tunnel between the space station and a warehouse in Earth because … because … Well, I couldn’t tell you. There’s some cylinders of a virus lethal to Daleks lying around in the warehouse for some reason, which you’d expect the Daleks to be wary about but instead they seem oblivious and happy to leave them with their enemies. One companion character (Turlough) is allowed to wonder the Dalek base at will: why? Even the Deputy Dalek asks the question, and all his Dalek Supreme can say is “leave him, he’s bait to reel in the Doctor”. Really? At least stick him in a cell if you want him to “act baity” rather than risk him running round and causing problems, surely? Oh – look at what he did. Caused problems and undermined your plans. Davros has some sort of secret weapon that brainwashes humans and Daleks alike to his cause … How? Where did it come from? When the Daleks finally trap the Doctor and take him to be duplicated, they leave him with a single human guard because all the other troopers and Daleks suddenly develop pressing business elsewhere and pile out of the room. Well, it’s not like the Doctor is going to be able to escape LIKE EVERY OTHER TIME THE DALEKS HAVE HAD HIM IN THIS POSITION now is it?!?
Seriously, this is plotting of the laziest and worst kind. It makes absolutely no sense whatsoever and ought to be truly ashamed of itself. And Saward can certainly do much better when he tries – he wrote Earthshock which is regarded as one of Classic Who’s all time best episodes (it’s also criticised by being all surface superficial ‘wow’ and nothing underneath; I disagree and find it eminently rewatchable and well written.) In fact, Resurrection was supposed to be the show that relaunched the Daleks in the same way that Earthshock rebooted the Cybermen – but here it really is all surface action bling and absolutely nothing underneath.
But let’s give the serial its due and admit where it gets things right: that surface bling is really very well done. There’s a high technical level of quality of production that is really hugely impressive, and while they’re rather over-used the scenes of exploding Daleks (and especially one Dalek pushed out of a high warehouse window) give a real thrill. One scene (shamelessly ripped off from the opening of Star Wars where the stormtroopers board the rebel freighter) includes a slight miscalculation in the pyrotechnics that resulted in the biggest explosion ever staged within BBC TV Centre – and a severe reprimand to the production team as a result never, ever to do that again. Looks great on screen, though.
The sets and costumes all look great and are well-lit and well-designed, save for an over-prevalence of ‘Dalek bumps’ everywhere and some lamentably designed trooper helmets with stubby protuberances at the front that can’t help but make it look like they and the Daleks are in some sort of phallic “mine is bigger than yours” contest. The dilapidated locations (in the Shad Thames area next to Tower Bridge that is now fully renovated and the home of the Design Museum) are wonderfully chosen and suitably atmospheric. The guest cast includes some top talent (Maurice Colbourne, Del Henney, Rula Lenska, Philip McGough, Terry Molloy taking over as Davros, a first big role for Leslie Grantham pre-EastEnders stardom, and … err, Rodney Bewes) and is also impressively multi-ethnic for a production of this vintage, something Doctor Who had been very bad about in its recent past. And all that cast is putting in reliable, top-notch performances and believing in what they’re doing, in a way that so many other Doctor Who stories that followed never managed, which is amazing considering what the script gives them to work with (which is nothing.)
And a special word for the direction of Matthew Robinson (who moved on to EastEnders and remembered Grantham from this production.) He provides a kinetic, fast moving style to the show which at times comes close to being confusing and irritating, until you realise that he’s (a) having to chop around so much because that’s what’s in the script, and (b) the style is papering over the gaping cracks in the story by keeping it hustling along and that consequently slowing down simply isn’t an option. I suspect it’s the energy and visual flair of Robinson that so appealed to Davison and made this one of his favourite serials – he also highly rates The Caves of Androzani which was the product of the show’s other auteur director of the 80s, the delightful Graeme Harper.
But really, if you want to see how important and fundamental the script is to a show, then watch this for an example of how it can go catastrophically wrong. That this should be the work of the same person who wrote Earthshock is bad enough, but that he should be the show’s script editor as well for Heaven’s sake explains why the show went so disastrously off the rails soon after, when Saward finally got a Sixth Doctor more to his liking than ‘wet vet’ Davison but found that absolutely no one else liked his vision of the character or stories that he lumbered Colin Baker with. It really wasn’t Colin’s fault: he could only ever play the part and say the words that Saward put in front of him.
As for the DVD: wonderfully restored as ever and with the usual great selection of extras. There’s a great commentary track featuring Davison, Robinson and Janet Fielding (Tegan) well worth a listen, and the ever-interesting information subtitles. A new Special Edition has also just been released as part of the Revisitions 2 boxset which includes a second commentary from Saward, Molloy and FX man Peter Wragg, moderated by NuWho Dalek operator Nicholas Pegg; there’s also an hour-long documentary retrospective on the Davison years presented by David Tennant which heaps a lot of blame for the series’ problems at this time at the door of producer John-Nathan Turner. The documentary ends with a clip from the Children in Need Time Crash special in which Doctors Five and Ten meet, and then back to presenter Tennant donning the distinctive coat of the Fifth Doctor. It’s an odd moment: Who cognoscenti will be wondering whether Davison knew that his successor and de facto son-in-law and father of his granddaughter Olive had been rifling through his wardrobe at home that morning after breakfast before heading out … ! The extras, as ever, make even the weakest classic Doctor Who serials a must-buy on DVD for any reasonably dedicated fan.
The aforementioned documentary also inspired the writing of a related blog post for Doctor Who blog Cloister Bell comparing and contrasting Peter Davison’s time in the Tardis. Since that blog no longer exists, the “Three seasons of the Fifth Doctor” has now been reproduced here on Taking The Short View.
Kinda is one of the original Doctor Who serials to be very well regarded – indeed, its stock has risen considerably in the intervening years since its first airing in 1982. Coming at a point of a major renaissance of the show following the departure of Tom Baker and the arrival of Peter Davison in the title role, it mixes themes of colonialism with some very deep Buddhist teachings and is very unlike most Doctor Who serials of its age – although in another sense it was following on from a pattern laid down in the previous season of the series with Warrior’s Gate in having one surreal, abstract story in among the more normal alien invasion/science fiction/pseudo-historical fare.
Children who watched it at the time would have been fairly lost by the highly philosophical concepts and disappointed by the lack of any action, fights, guns or even a clear bad guy. The dominant figure is that of security officer Hindle, played by subsequent The Bill regular Simon Rouse, and I remember as a child being perplexed and rather put off by his erratic, hysterical behaviour. In fact, if truth be told, I found the way he was reduced to an infantile state as the serial progressed to be profoundly unsettling without really understanding why; instead, I dismissed it as “I don’t like it.” Being older and marginally wiser now, watching Rouse’s performance as the mentally disintegrating Hindle left me gob-smacked and deeply in awe as one of the more honest, accurate and raw portrayals of a man having a complete nervous breakdown that I can remember seeing on television – which makes it still as profoundly unsettling as it was when I was a kid, although at least now I understand why. How Rouse then ended up stuck in a police soap for 20 years is a mystery and a waste.
The strength of this serial is in the stunningly big name supporting cast: as well as Rouse, there’s also Richard Todd – yes, the star of Hollywood films and The Dam Busters; Nerys Hughes, who was one of the biggest TV stars around at the time; and also the brilliant Mary Morris as an old, blind wise woman. All of them are excellent and well suited to the characters, and by no means evidence of the “stunt casting” which became tiresomely routine in later years. The DVD also reveals another future star is in the show: one of the child extras brought in during the third episode is a seven-year-old Jonny Lee Miller.
Watching the story with the optional information subtitles, it was fascinating to read just how much at odds the writer (Christopher Bailey) and director (series stalwart Peter Grimwade) were in their vision for the story – Grimwade was trying to wrestle it into a more ‘normal’ Who structure while Bailey found this to be undermining and dumbing down the story’s point. Bailey shouldn’t take it personally, as Grimwade was apparently falling out with everyone – Davison describes the on-set atmosphere as somewhere between mutinous and homicidal toward the end. In fact this is one of the occasions when the friction probably proved a creative advantage and the eventual balance achieved is for the best, because in its ‘pure’ state Bailey’s script had some big problems, not least the fact that no one seemed to have told him that Tom Baker was no longer the Doctor, or that there were three companions to write for. One has to be parked back “asleep” in the Tardis for the whole story, another hardly appears for one episode, and only the oft-derided Adric (Matthew Waterhouse) has a constant presence. Instead, the Doctor takes up with colonial scientist Todd (Hughes’ character) as his main companion figure, seemingly to allow for the chance of a spark of romantic interest. As a whole, it all feels very unlike a Who story with the Doctor almost shoe-horned in as an observer into a stand-alone tale, which may be a weakness for some viewers but it allows the story and the guest characters to really blossom into a full-realised, realistic and fascinating environment.
It’s not a perfect story: Adrian Mills (yes, him off of That’s Life) is weak in a key role; instead, series regular Janet Fielding is only allowed a couple of scenes as the “possessed” Tegan when her evil persona could and should have been the outright star of the show (her scenes in the surreal black “wherever” with another The Bill longtime regular Jeffrey Stewart are eerie and brilliant). The show is also totally studio-bound despite being set in a forest paradise with all the problems that implies; although actually I have a weakness for a good studio artificial forest set no matter how fake it looks, as I find the “unreality” works better for an alien world than going on location in a familiar English countryside, garden or the inevitable quarry setting.
But the biggest problem with the original serial was the FX of a giant snake at the climax, which looked like an inflatable bouncy castle and totally shattered any suspension of disbelief even for kids of the day. On the commentary track (which features Davison, Fielding, Waterhouse and Hughes) all four actors deride the bouncy snake and petition for the DVD creators to create new CGI FX for the sequence, which has subsequently been done. It’s one of the most effective bits of retro-FX work I’ve seen, and almost certainly the new CGI snake would have been too realistic and traumatic for the target audience at the time: it’s really quite startlingly chilling and a world away from bouncy castles. The commentary track as a whole is a delight and is the closest thing you’ll get to sitting down to watch a programme with a bunch of well-informed friends as you could hope to get, with all four participants getting on really well – even Matthew Waterhouse, who still sometimes comes over as being as potentially weird and sulky as his on-screen character Adric from 30 years ago. He takes the inevitable ribbing from the others good-naturedly when the old anecdote is trotted out about how he offered to ‘tutor” movie legend Richard Todd in the art of TV acting with all the benefit of his two years experience on the small screen.
But let’s finish off with some words of praise: first for Peter Howell, who despite working with very dated synthesiser sounds for much of the background music, does come up with some stunning sound design for windchimes, the “shriek” of the Mara, and the disturbing soundscape of the black “wherever” which Howell himself feared could be too much for children to handle. (Naturally, we loved it). And the story contains one of the most iconic visual shots I remember from the show – a zoom into the eye of Fielding’s character Tegan and into her black subconscious in one ‘take’ thanks to the loan to the show of then-revolutionary Quantel video effects equipment. It’s still a brilliant moment, augmented with another great bit of sound design from Howell as well.
Kinda has just been released on DVD as part of the Mara Tales boxset with Snakedance, the sequel to this story which is not quite as good and has less originality, but the two make a perfect pairing and one of the series’ stronger boxset offerings and well worth purchasing, with some excellent-as-ever special features. The video restoration for Kinda is once again outstanding, with the first two episodes given a depth and vibrancy of colour and contrast that makes it look far better than I remember it from the original broadcast (although for some reason the picture goes softer and flater in episode three.)