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Doctorin’ the Tardis: “Doctor Who” on DVD, Part One

If you grew up in the ’70s or ’80s, and your parents extolled the virtues of PBS broadcasting over cheap japanimation, then you are no doubt familiar with Doctor Who. For those of us who fall into this broad generational grouping, Doctor Who was either an exciting Sunday morning diversion or a particularly painful example of why British television never really caught on in the States.

In the United States it is considered rude to mention Doctor Who in polite company. American’s have a soft spot for our friends across the pond, we enjoy British teas, that quirky British accent, and of course their deadpan humor, but Americans despise British television. For the average American, watching British television is akin to watching curling; it’s equally boring and alien. And the mention of Doctor Who, the long running (26 years until it was cancelled in 1989, up and running again in 2005) BBC nerd-fest, will instantly clear a room. While Americans eat up similar American shows like The X-Files, Doctor Who is simply too brainy, too cheap, and too melodramatic.

And yet in the UK (and sundry corners of the globe like Brazil), Doctor Who is a veritable institution. It’s difficult to throw a rock in London and not hit a Doctor Who fan; the visage of the Doctor (we’re on our ninth) has been stuck on book covers, record albums, toys, soft drinks, basically anything and the British consider the series a monument to British inventiveness.

WHO’S WHO

Doctor Who began life as a television series on the BBC in 1962. The show was envisaged as a children’s television program to fill a Saturday evening slot. Sci-fi was popular at the time, and after batting around UFOs, telepathy, and other sci-fi standards, the producers settled on time travel.

Most of the Doctor Who telefilms are two hours in length and are split into something between 4 and 8 individual episodes. Each episode for a given film was broadcast separately, one a week until the whole movie was shown. All of the Doctor Who telefilms were shot on video and film. The video portions (all shot on a soundstage or an interior) have a distinctive early-video look that can either be slightly distracting or utterly infuriating. For fans, it is a fact of the show that is overlooked or lovingly embraced. If you’ve ever seen Dark Shadows, you know the situation.

The main character in the series is the Doctor, that is, Doctor Who. He is a Time Lord, an alien from the planet Gallifrey, and he travels through time in a police call box (a big, blue British box like a phone booth) called the TARDIS (or Time And Relative Dimensions In Space) that he claims to have borrowed but in fact stole. The Doctor also has the odd habit of occasionally changing his face, evolving (regenerating) as it were. (This made it quite easy for various actors to portray the Doctor, each bringing their own quirks to the roll.) The show revolves around the Doctor’s travels through space and time and the fascinating life forms and people he encounters. That sounds awfully dull, but it’s really not all that anthropological – it’s much more a pulp adventure series than anything else.

The first Doctor was portrayed by actor William Hartnell from 1963 to 1966. Hartnell gave the Doctor a dour expression; this was a selfish and pessimistic Doctor, who strutted about with an air of superiority. Yet for all his patronizing and aloofness, he is still a fascinating character. Hartnell would make the occasional appearance in subsequent shows until his premature death in 1976.

The second actor to play the Doctor was Patrick Troughton (1966 to 1969). Troughton gave the Doctor an air of whimsy and scatterbrained genius. He introduced a much more active Doctor, a Doctor actually involved in the affairs to which he was witness, a Doctor given to bouts of hysteria and slapstick. Like Hartnell, Troughton was involved in later episodes, and like Hartnell he died tragically. Sadly, 98 percent of Troughton’s first two seasons were lost (culled from the vaults by the BBC).

The third Doctor was the dapper Jon Pertwee, and to go along with the series going color, Pertwee’s Doctor was garbed in flamboyant clothing (1970 to 1974). Pertwee combined the astute intellectualism of Hartnell’s Doctor with Troughton’s physical, humorous Doctor and this mix resulted in some of the series most popular and engaging episodes.

The fourth Doctor was he of the long scarf, the irascible Tom Baker (1975 to 1981). Baker was by far the most popular and prolific of the actors to portray the Doctor and remains the fan favorite today. In America, there was only Tom Baker and many Americans to this day are ignorant to the fact that eight other actors have portrayed the popular character. Baker’s humor and dynamism, combined with winning production by Phillip Hinchcliffe and various gifted writers (including Douglas Adams) fashioned the series finest episodes. There is little doubt as to why the Baker episodes are those first released to DVD. Despite Baker’s Who fame, he remains reclusive – the Thomas Pynchon of the actors to have portrayed the Doctor.

Peter Davidson (1982 to 1984) filled the Doctor’s shoes when Baker left, and despite the challenge of taking over a series that had come to be defined by Baker’s challenged smile, Davidson did a fantastic job. Davidson is a youthful Doctor and looks startlingly like Howard Jones. He brought a scientific bent and a strong ambassadorial flair to the series.

The sixth Doctor was Colin Baker (1984 to 1986) and his tenure was a troubled one. Ratings troubles doomed Baker to the BBC chopping block, the respected actor becoming a scapegoat for the series’ popularity predicament. The Baker (II) shows were often marked by violence and dark themes and rushed productions (some episodes clocking in at just 45 minutes.) Baker was the only Doctor to have been fired from the show, though he took it well and still makes the con rounds.

Sylvester McCoy (1987 to 1989) was up next as Doctor number seven. Like Baker’s previous years, McCoy came in on the series’ decline. Inheriting a losing show, with a miffed audience and failing ratings, McCoy tried his best to pull it around, but most of the episodes in the first season were lackluster. The final episodes of the series were a return to form, but it was much too late.

The eighth Doctor, appearing only in the Fox Television (U.S.) movie, was played by Paul McGann (1996). The TV movie met with poor ratings in the States (but decent ratings in England) and that was the end of his tenure. The movie was supposed to launch a new series, but it merely quivered for a while and then vanished. McGann is eccentric and he has the ‘feel’ of the Doctor down, but the film was poorly done.

And yes, there is a new series in the U.K. and the ninth Doctor was Christopher Eccleston (2005). Eccelston brought a real, nearly tangible, sense of madness to the character of the Doctor. He was the ladies’ Tom Baker, with a head injury. While he was off to a great start, he left at the conclusion. Stress, he said.

So, that brings us to the 10th Doctor, David Tennant. His series is still in preproduction. So, we’ll see.

During the series, the Doctor faced off against quite a cast of monsters, aliens, and villains. Among them, the most infamous were the Daleks. These tin-can robots (their high-pitched squeal of ‘Exterminate!’ is a rallying call to all Who geeks) became something of a cause celebre in England and quintessential British sci-fi trademarks. But let’s not forget the other memorable beasties: the cybermen, Sontarans, Zarbi, Sea Devils, Axons, Daemons, robots, plants, Zygons, Yeti… and giant maggots.


THE BEST OF DOCTOR WHO: THE REVIEWS

THE GREEN DEATH (1973)


Considered Jon Pertwee’s finest Who episode, The Green Death is an exciting mélange of eco-friendly terrorism, robots run amok, the evils of megacorporations and the infamous – and well-realized – giant maggots. In fact, mentioning The Green Death to any Who fan will immediately result in maggot talk. You can go online right now and find reams of webspace devoted to the beloved rampaging larvae, and it won’t take but a few moments to see why this episode has such a strong following.

The Doctor (Pertwee), Jo (Katy Manning), and the Brigadier (Nicholas Courtney), find themselves in Welsh village of Llanfairfach where a coal mining operation has been halted under strange circumstances, it seems miners have been turning a bright green and dying. The Doctor quickly learns that it all has to do with Global Chemicals, a megalomaniacal supercomputer, brainwashing, a ‘far-out’ fungi scientist and the aforementioned maggots that exude a green chemical that kills (and has a sweet day glo color.)

The Green Death is pure Doctor Who pulp. Everything beloved about the series – even a little political dissonance – is thrown in to get the youth of the ’70s involved. All six episodes of the film are packed with action, beguiling twists and funky effects. The acting is above par (though there was a fair deal of controversy over this episode amongst fans for it’s portrayal of the Welsh, I can only imagine what the British would think of the way we portray rural Southerners on our television programs) and the episode ends with the departure of Jo (a long time companion of Pertwee’s Doctor). The segment is touching. When Jo began the series she was a prototypical dumb blonde, and by the time she leaves she’s become a practical, if still emotional, blonde.

And let’s go on to those maggots, they are both resplendently simple and simply disgusting. While real grubs are used in long shots, the close ups necessitated the design of these foam beasties, who unlike their natural counterparts roar (yes, like small lions) and have gaping, slime-splotched mouths that eagerly sniff the air for human flesh. (I’ve made them sound a bit more fearsome then they really are, but it reads great.)

The maniacal robot at the heart of the picture, BOSS, is a throwback to the runaway droids of the 1950s and a precursor to the megamachines of today. Voiced by actor John Dearth, BOSS has some choice lines and over-the-top robo-flair.

The Green Death is a timeless Who yarn, one that really lifts the series out of the Children’s show ghetto and onto the hipster radar screen.

DVD: includes commentary with Katy Manning, Barry Letts and script editor Terrance Dicks; ‘Global Conspiracy?’ which looks at the mysterious events that occurred in Llanfairfach in 1973; interviews with actor Stewart Bevan, writer Robert Sloman, visual effects assistant Colin Mapson; production notes; photo gallery. Easter egg: BBC2 continuity announcement.

Rating:

Buy it on DVD from Amazon.com

Director: Michael Briant
Writer: Robert Sloman
Producer: Barry Letts
Starring: Jon Pertwee, Katy Manning, Nicholas Courtney, John Levene, Richard Franklin, John Dearth, Stewart Bevan


THE ARK IN SPACE (1975)

The second telefilm in Tom Baker’s long run as the Doctor, The Ark in Space is a tightly constructed and thoroughly engaging episode. With a tense, claustrophobic atmosphere, the episode is one of more horrific of the Doctor Who films and benefits from one of Baker’s finest performances.

The Ark in Space opens with the Tardis locked in a small room, and the air is dwindling fast. After a tense few minutes, the Doctor (Baker), Sarah (Elisabeth Sladen), and Harry (Ian Marter) escape the room to find themselves aboard a spacecraft drifting through the desolate cosmos. A cursory examination of the craft reveals that it is inhabited only by sleeping space travelers. The Tardis has landed in the 131st century and Earth has been destroyed. These sleeping humans are the last survivors from the devastated Earth. Hand-picked for the journey, they represent humanity’s finest. Yet there is another life form onboard the ark, an alien insect species called the Wirrn. Adept at survival, the Wirrn use the sleeping astronauts as hosts for their larvae. When a Wirrn larva ‘consumes’ a person it not only transforms that person into another Wirrn but absorbs its victim’s memory as well. After awakening several of the Ark’s human passengers, the Doctor joins them in an attempt to defeat the insidious Wirrn.

Long a fan favorite, The Ark in Space is a precursor to the popular Ridley Scott sci-fi/horror film Alien. While many critics have commented on the similarities between Alien and Mario Bava’s Planet of the Vampires and the schlocky It! The Terror from Beyond Space, the blockbuster film has much more in common with this singular Doctor Who episode. And yet, the story – people trapped aboard a small craft (be it a space ship or a sailing ship) and hunted down by some stowaway (alien or not) – is as old as storytelling itself. Several critics have attempted to track down all the various and sundry works that utilize this theme but the overriding impression one gets is that this is simply an archetypal plotline with no one starting point or referenced work. And that’s with good reason: It’s a great device. Having people trapped in a small space provides the tension and claustrophobia and having them hunted down by some unstoppable force only adds to the mounting terror. In Alien, the unstoppable force is a monster as foreign to humanity as possible, a killing/reproducing machine that has much more in common with insects (the most ‘unhuman’ forms of life on our planet) than people. In contrast, the Wirrn are insects that act like people – they have an agenda – and actually consume human memory. (In many respects, The Ark in Space is more like James Cameron’s Aliens than Alien. Both Aliens and The Ark in Space feature a plot device in which the queen alien lays its eggs near a power source.)

The Ark in Space succeeds most because it is unlike most of the Doctor Who episodes before it. The setting is new and distinctive, the set design minimal and stark, the plot is not cluttered with characters or stretched thin by twists, and the overwhelming sense of dread is nearly tangible. This is the only episode of Doctor Who that I can recall being afraid to watch. In fact, seeing it again twenty years later, the film remains frightening. The sets are cheap and the Wirrn costume is obviously foam, but director Rodney Bennett pacing is such that despite budget limitations The Ark in Space feels like a bigger picture.

But the finest moments of the film come from writer Robert Holmes’ script. There is a moral ambiguity at work in the film (this has been discussed at length on numerous Doctor Who fan sites, most notably in Paul Clark’s review of the film on Outpost Gallifrey) and the not subtle suggestion that the Wirrn are in fact the better (ethically) of the two vying species. Doctor Who, recall he is not a human, sides with the human passengers against the Wirrn though the human’s profess a predilection for eugenics and a preference for fascism –
both big no-nos in Doctor Who’s book.

As mentioned earlier, Baker outdoes himself here. His Doctor, always voted the fan favorite, always provides just the right mix of seriousness and sly humor and it’s nice to see this character faced with situations that force him into action.

DVD: a commentary track with Tom Baker, Elisabeth Sladen and producer Philip Hinchcliffe; unused title sequence; original trailer for Episode I; special effects footage; photo gallery; TARDIS-Cam footage; CGI effects; schematics for the Ark. Easter eggs: a pre-credit countdown to episode II and two advertisements for a Doctor Who Exhibition with Tom Baker.

Rating:

Buy it on DVD from Amazon.com

Director: Rodney Bennett
Writer: Robert Holmes
Producer: Phillip Hinchcliffe
Starring: Tom Baker, Elisabeth Sladen, Ian Marter, Wendy Williams, Kenton Moore, Christopher Masters


PYRAMIDS OF MARS (1975)

Doctor Who and Sarah find themselves in England circa 1911 after the Tardis is thrown off course by a mysterious and powerful force. The Tardis materializes on the estate of Professor Scarman, a noted Egyptologist, but he is in Egypt opening a tomb and his underling, the diabolical Ibrahim Namin, is watching over the estate. It is quickly revealed that Namin and Scarman are under the control of Sutek the Destroyer, an Egyptian deity banished to a pyramid on Mars. Sutek communicates with his servants via a sarcophagus through which he eventually hopes to return to Earth. In arranging his return, Sutek has instructed Scarman and Namin (killed early in the picture by his master) to use robotic mummies and build a rocket that will destroy the pyramid on Mars that holds him captive. (The plot sounds needlessly complex but it’s actually quite simple and easy to follow.) The Doctor, joined again by Sarah, must stop Sutek from freeing himself, and to this end they travel across space time to Mars.

Tom Baker’s years filling the Doctor’s shoes contained some of the more inventive, and exciting, episodes in the entire Who cannon. And the Pyramids of Mars ranks as one of the finest. The enemy here is often referred to as the greatest evil (actually, Sutek is a god) that has ever threatened the Earth (in fact, the Doctor transports Sarah to an alternate future in which Sutek’s plan succeeds and the planet is left devoid of life) and he certainly seems like a badass. Situated in the pyramid prison of the dead planet, Sutek has a groovy Egyptian-styled mask and underneath resembles a cross between a jackal and something from the Muppets.

Baker is in overdrive here, tackling mummies (a most uncomfortable looking costume) and space-time-traveling baddies, all with a mischievous grin, some choice scarf twirling, and horrible one-liners. However, the film works best because of its fast pace. There is no slowing down once the game is afoot and despite the small setting (a manor house, the grounds, and the pyramid on Mars — trust me, it’s a small set) director Michael Briant really goes for broke. Plus, every supporting character, save the recurring ones, is killed off!

Where Pyramids of Mars misses a step is in the deification of Sutek. I found it a little much to have the Doctor up against a god, even a god as ineffective as this guy. Maybe if he had been some long suffering mad scientist, or a cyborg ne’er do well, I’d have believed his threats a bit more. As it turns out, he’s scripted as an armchair god – and having spent enough Sunday’s with armchair quarterbacks, that’s not an engaging thing.

A choice bit of Who nonsense.

Rating:

Buy it on DVD from Amazon.com

Director: Paddy Russell
Writer: Stephen Harris (pseudonym for Robert Holmes and Lewis Griefer)
Producer: Philip Hinchcliffe
Starring: Tom Baker, Elisabeth Sladen, Bernard Archard, Michael Sheard, Gabriel Woolf, Peter Copley, Peter Mayock, Michael Bilton, Vik Tablian


THE TALONS OF WENG-CHIANG (1977)

Sure, go ahead and get the laughs out now. It’s not Wang-Chung, its Weng-Chiang and this is the finest of the steampunk ghastlies that Baker’s run on Doctor Who produced. The thing I like best about The Talons Of Weng-Chiang is it’s similarity to the underappreciated bit of cinematic genius that The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai. The two films almost bookend each other: Both involve time (dimension) travel, both have a garish theatricality, and both share a love for penny-dreadful pulp.

The Doctor (Tom Baker) and the ever bubbly (that’s a joke) Leela (Louise Jameson), a companion from an aggressive Amazonian world, find themselves in 1888 London where a rash of disappearances is shocking the country. It seems, young women are vanishing after having attended a magic show by the preeminent illusionist Li H’sen Chang. Chang, it is revealed is the servitor of the reincarnated Chinese god Weng-Chiang. Ah, but Weng-Chiang is in fact a traveler from a distant war-torn future, his pig like looks (hidden under a metal mask) give that away quickly. And who is that creepy little bastard that sits on Chiang’s knee? Why, it’s a ventriloquists dummy with a pig’s brain, a lust for blood and a startling laugh! Let’s not forget the giant rats that plague the city’s sewers!

This is a tour de force, folks; it’s got everything a kid fed on a steady stream of Lovecraft mythos, Sherlock Holmes, Jack the Ripperology, magic shows, kung fu, and sci-fi could want. If there was some nudity in this, maybe a dash of gore, it would have played Times Square in the early ’80s to sell-out crowds.

The Victorian setting of the film is its biggest boon. Two of the finest characters in the picture are Professor George Litefoot and Henry Gordon Jago (Trevor Baxter and Christopher Benjamin). Litefoot is a quintessential English gentleman while Jago is his flamboyant foil. They are honestly as entertaining to watch as the little pig brained homunculus and the giant rats. (Speaking of which, the rats are actually one of the few downsides to the film. They are either real rats filmed in a most unconvincing manner or horrible plush toy rats passed off as sewer dwelling man eaters. And that raucous they make! They sound like crack-addled penguins.)

For many Who fans this is the finest episode of the entire series. I like The Brain of Morbius more, but this is nearly as good. (Brain of Morbius, you ask? Why, it hasn’t been released to DVD in the states yet.)

Rating:

Buy it on DVD from Amazon.com

Director: David Maloney
Writer: Robert Holmes
Producer: Philip Hinchcliffe
Starring: Tom Baker
, Louise Jameson, John Bennett, Christopher Benjamin, Trevor Baxter, Deep Roy, Michael Spice

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