This was one of the very first pre-2005 stories I ever saw, having picked up the DVD soon after Series One finished, in my first foray as a newly declared Doctor Who fan. I’ve always loved it, and assumed it was among the very finest serials that the first 26 years had to offer. Having watched it again now, I’ve realised… it’s not.
But that’s only because I now know that the rest of the classic era is mostly brilliant too – it’s not that this is any worse after another viewing, it’s just that other stories are better. That said, despite having seen this two or three times before, I had completely forgotten about the existence of the grey (apart from fleshy patches around their eyes and mouths) people. Perhaps that’s not surprising.
The fact that there’s a separate lower class of the species goes absolutely nowhere, although admittedly that would have been a retread of The Savages. But the sub-plot about conspiracy and sabotage doesn’t end up impacting on the main story either, so it’s baffling that so much time is spent setting up a disaster that’s resolved within seconds while The Doctor’s busy doing something else.
But it would be churlish to deduct too many points for such trivialities, considering how much brilliant stuff there is. All the bits of bureaucracy and xenophobia between the grey chaps and the Lurmans is pure gold – a lighter brand of humour than last time, but just as funny. Leslie Dwyer’s Vorg is one of the most memorable guest characters for ages, plus the very idea of the Miniscope is genius.
It allows The Doctor and Jo to go on three different adventures simultaneously, side-stepping between an historical mystery, a perilous journey and a monster chase throughout the first three episodes. The scenes aboard the SS Bernice are the most successful, especially towards the beginning when they’re still figuring out what’s going on. Seeing the same scenes from different viewpoints is one of my favourite things a time travel story can do – this is basically Back To The Future 2 mixed with Groundhog Day, but with a sozzled old Major and a sailor who looks like Harry Sullivan.
The Drashigs are a decent threat that suit the specification that this story required, but I can’t help but wondering what it would have been like if it had been the Cyberman we glimpsed instead. The quality of the model lets it down in some shots, but elsewhere in the world of visual effects, some of the CSO is unbelievably good for the time. The colour era has been polishing the technique from the start, but here they’re using it to do more and more – growing/shrinking things, forced perspective, and most impressively, joining together elements shot on different sets. Hard to imagine how gobsmacking that would have been in 1973, especially on analogue CRTs where you couldn’t see the joins.
Overall, while it’s probably no longer in my top ten, this is still an absolute classic in my book. I now see why it drew me in a decade ago – it’s so standalone, and with such an accessible premise, that it’s the perfect introduction for someone who wants to get in to old Who.