William Hartnell

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 »

An Adventure in Space and Time (BBC2)

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Cutting straight to the chase, An Adventure in Space and Time is without doubt one of the best dramas that’s been made this year.

Of course I’m biased, being a long-time fan of Doctor Who to which this biographical docu-drama is an emphatic and unashamed love letter (as it is also to the iconic BBC Television Centre building, so beautifully used as a location throughout.) The 80 minutes tell the story of how the world’s longest-running science fiction programme was created by the BBC in 1963, and of its first three years which starred William Hartnell in the title role. However you don’t have to be a ‘Whovian’ to appreciate just how good this drama is, just as I didn’t need to be a fan of a certain long-running soap to be wowed by the similar The Road to Coronation Street in 2010, which I still rate as one of the best things the BBC made that year.

To true Who fans, all the characters involved and a lot of the events of An Adventure in Space and Time will be as well known as one’s own family myths and legends, and writer (and life-long fan) Mark Gatiss tells them all with a lightness and deftness of touch which keeps everything both breezy and entertaining while at the same time also utterly true and reverential to the documented facts – a very hard high-wire act to pull off as successfully as he does here. For example, scenes showing Hartnell fretting about mapping out what each button on the Tardis console does – and refusing to follow the instructions of a director where it contradicts what he’s mapped out – are very much part of established Who lore and yet are included here as important character traits rather than being shoe-horned in to flatter the Who cognoscenti. 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 »

Them! (1954) [DVD]

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In the 1920s and 30s, horror films largely involved supernatural entities from mythology such as ghosts, vampires and werewolves; but after the real-life horrors of World War 2 such conceits looked quaint and hokey and not nearly as scary as the appalling things that everyone had seen occurring in the world around them, from the loss of life on the battlefields to the slaughter of the holocaust.

A new generation of cathartic monster movies were needed, and in the 1950s they broadly came in two flavours: aliens from outer space such as It Came from Outer Space or Invasion of the Body Snatchers (which were largely sublimations of the Communist red peril paranoia of the day) or else stories of how human scientific progress was turning nature against us by creating oversize creatures such as Godzilla and Tarantula (representing the unease people had of atomic radiation in a time of deep concern over the threat of annihilation from atomic weapons.)

The best of the latter sub-genre is arguably Them!, in which the creatures super-sized by a dose of radiation from the original atomic bomb tests in New Mexico are a colony of ants that have grown to three metres in size. The film certainly gets off to a terrific start, as we join a police search of the desert mid-progress. State trooper Ben Peterson (James Whitmore) discovers a five-year-old girl wondering alone, struck dumb and in a state of profound shock. Further investigation finds that her home has been ripped apart and her parents missing; and as a sandstorm whips up and night falls, they find that a nearby store has been similarly destroyed – and this time there’s a corpse.

It’s an incredibly effective and suspenseful opening 20 minutes, as Peterson is joined by FBI agent Robert Graham (James Arness) and by two government scientists from Washington who seem to have some sort of idea about what’s going on but are unwilling to say what. The ever-delightful Edmund Gwenn plays the elderly Dr Medford like a rotund, amiable version of William Hartnell’s later incarnation of Doctor Who (and there’s a hint that Classic Who monsters the Zarbi have their roots in this film) while Joan Weldon plays the ‘other’ Dr Medford, his daughter Pat. While our introduction to her character is as a pair of shapely legs dangling from the bottom of a military plane as her skirt gets caught, in fact the film pretty soon establishes her as every bit as knowledgeable, brave and effective as any of the men in the group and soon her involvement in the proceedings on a completely equal footing is taken for granted, a surprisingly enlightened attitude for the time and type of film.

After that incredibly spooky opening sequence, the film decides to suddenly reveal its protagonists full-frontal and without warning. Fortunately the ants themselves withstand the scrutiny of the film cameras, and look generally fantastic. Okay, they’re oversized puppets: but they have a physical presence and charm that no measure of pixel-perfect modern day CGI can quite duplicate. Clearly a lot of money has been spent on them, and there’s a lot of the blighters around as well – and it must have been very expensive when so many of them were required to go up in flames as part of the action.

Perhaps the best part of the film is when Peterson, Graham and Pat descend into the ant colony’s nest, which brings to mind something of Ripley’s incursion into the Aliens inner sanctum in films three decades hence. After that the film frankly goes into something of a lull, with the ants off-screen as the action switches to meeting rooms in Washington as the heroes search for further mutant ant colonies across the US. There’s even time for Dr Medford to sit us down and play us a five minute classroom science film about the life and times of real ant colonies in order for the film to deliver on its educational quota.

This part of the film is perfectly well done and even reasonably tense, but can’t carry the effective momentum of the first part of the film: only near the end when the scientists converge on a lead in the storm sewers around Los Angeles (the same iconic setting where the Terminators will duke it out on motorcycles and trucks in The Terminator 2: Judgement Day) do things pick up again into a respectable climax, even if this all-action military finale isn’t quite a match for that terrific mid-film incursion into the first nest.

Overall it’s an excellent film of its type and still thoroughly enjoyable even 58 years on. Yes, the concept of giant ants does seem a bit daft to us now; if the ants had been slimy alien monsters instead then it might have more believability and resonance with modern audiences, but a little dose of willing suspension of disbelief is all it will take to put you right back into the zone.

The DVD: What’s really extraordinary about this film is how stunningly good it looks on the disc. This is one of the finest transfers of a classic movie I think I’ve seen on disc: it is absolutely pristine, not a hint of damage or dirt, with beautifully judged grey levels that mean that the early close-ups of the catatonic young girl in the desert have the quality of black-and-white art photography. And it’s also incredibly sharp and detailed – I swear, you’d be hard pressed to improve on this DVD even if you did a first-class high-def Blu-ray transfer of it. Only in some of the location shooting under low-light conditions (such as in the LA storm drains) does the quality dip and the picture become fuzzy, but that’s entirely understandable and inevitable given the camera and film technology of the day. Sadly, very little in the way of worthwhile extras on this disc with just a scattering of photos and two minutes of outtake footage; but it does come with one of the most terrific ‘tabloid newspaper’-style menu screens I think I’ve ever seen on a DVD.