More than 30 Years in the TARDIS

This is what I meant about this blog becoming both more frequent and less regular. I’m forging my way through the wilderness years, but I had to wait until I had a spare 90 minutes set aside to watch this. Technically speaking, this is one I could have skipped, as I’m primarily concerned with fictional things, but they’re my rules and I can break them if I want to.

Plus of course there are some fictional elements to this, but we’ll come to those in a minute. The main purpose is a documentary to celebrate 30 years of Doctor Who, and it manages to pack a hell of a lot in, even considering the luxurious running time of this home video edition. It whooshes its way through the show’s history in a largely linear fashion, but with a few pauses to explore the bigger issues. It’s constructed well, with each topic dovetailing into the next, and lots of lovely archive footage to glue it together.

My favourite was the clip of a particularly pedantic Pertwee on Anne and Nick, utterly undermining their competition, to Nick Owen’s barely disguised distaste. It was their own fault for picking such an ambiguous question. The ad breaks were lovely too – I’d forgotten how much the Prime adverts conflated The Doctor and Romana with Tom and Lalla. The clips from the episodes were always well-picked, and my only complaint is that they were a little stingy with the rushes, but then we’re used to a much more generous portion in the DVD age.

As with the other, much less successful 30th anniversary celebration, it was good to see representatives from so many eras of the show as interviewees, and their family members too in some cases. With the exception of Gerry Anderson, who’s welcome on my television any time, I could have done without the random celebrities. Give me more Lambert, Dicks, Letts and Hinchcliffe, and less Mike Gatting bollocking on about cricket, or Toyah Wilcox remembering her inappropriate sexual awakenings.

I recognised the Douglas Adams interview set-up from Don’t Panic, the equivalent Hitchhikers documentary from a very similar time. That too mixed in the occasional sketch using old monster costumes and actors reprising their roles, but here they were much more ambitious. The classic scenes of Cybermen at St Paul’s and Daleks on Westminster Bridge were recreated beautifully, and Pertwee pissing about with the Whomobile was marvellous.

It all climaxed with the little boy walking through a police box prop and into the TARDIS, which is something we all take for granted these days, but was achieved for the very first time here. This is slightly overshadowed by the truly bizarre and sinister turn that the rest of the narrative takes, where Nick Courtney/The Brig (the lines are deliberately blurred) is driven off by an Auton, and Elisabeth Sladen/Sarah Jane turns into some sort of Sontaran agent and attempts to kill said little boy.

A strange ending, but a very solid documentary, which tells you everything you need to know about how Who was perceived at the time. Having been off the air for a few years, the problems of the later seasons were being forgotten about, and the nostalgia factor allowed the fond memories of yesteryear to become the thing that defined the brand. That was certainly the impression I got as a youngster who was just starting to become a TV obsessive.

RATING: 8

P.S. I’ve only tagged the people/monsters who appear in the sketches, not everyone that was interviewed, or who featured in clips. That would be pretty much all the tags.

Dimensions in Time

Technically, the 1992 VHS version of Shada should come next, but I’ve already watched that, knowing that the animated version is coming up shortly. So instead, today’s treat is a rewatch of what would have been the first Doctor Who I ever saw. I was seven, and distinctly remember sitting down with those 3D glasses from the Radio Times. The version I watched today thankfully included the Noel’s House Party links, in which Jon Pertwee accurately predicts the success of Deal Or No Deal.

We all know that this is awful, but it was slightly more coherent than I remembered (not from when I was 7 – I last watched it at a gathering for the 50th in 2013). The Rani’s plan is not dissimilar to Borusa’s in The Five Doctors, and it seemed like the special was an attempt to do similar things to that story, but in ten minutes, which would have been a tall order even without the added element of the EastEnders crossover. The problem of certain Doctors being unavailable/dead is not handled nearly as well. I could see what they were going for with trapping the first two Doctors in time, but representing Hartnell and Troughton as floating, lifeless, disembodied heads was ill-advised.

Meanwhile Tom Baker phones it in, with his eyes never breaking contact with the page of script that’s clearly just out of shot, and the worst title sequence in the show’s history is sped up and accompanied by a “updated” (read: “shit”) theme tune remix. But once it gets going, it’s actually rather lovely to see just so many familiar faces taking part. It seems harsh to criticise the endeavour when all these people gave up their time for free, purely to celebrate Doctor Who whilst raising money for charity.

However, it’s obviously not very good. It’s impossible to disguise the fact that the story is cobbled together based on who and what was available, and almost every actor is playing a generic catch-all character, with no time to display any of their own traits. They whizz by so fast it’s hard to clock them all on first viewing, although obviously the fact that they’ve all aged by up to 30 years is a hindrance to instant recognition. It’s the same problem with the menagerie of random monsters that turn up halfway through – it was just a bunch of moving costumes, and none of them got a chance to do… anything, really.

I’m not particularly familiar with EastEnders, so I can’t judge how successful it would have been for fans of the soap, but Mike Reid chewing the scenery was a highlight. Obviously there are troubling continuity questions surrounding the likes of Mel and Leela turning up in Albert Square when they look so similar to people who’d live there in the future. And wasn’t Pauline Fowler dead by 2013? I think Kathy Beale was too, but she got better…

Inevitably, the flimsy conceit completely fell apart by the end. The Rani is suddenly back in her TARDIS after she was defeated by Mandy bumping into her (should’ve been Big Ron), and an attempt to clear up the nature of the time-slips ends up making the story much more confusing. When Leela tells The Doctor that she was in the form of Romana, that implies that all of this is happening to the Seventh Doctor and Ace, but that they’re reverting to previous incarnations at times. Aside from the fact that that doesn’t really make sense for the companion, what about when there’s more than one companion on screen? Or when Romana is on her own, hiding in the Mitchells’ lock-up? They even had K-9 turn up out of nowhere seconds after the explanation!

If this was an attempt at a full-on revival of Doctor Who for the 30th anniversary, then it was a fucking disgrace. But it wasn’t – it was a daft little comedy sketch for charity, and seeing such a huge number of characters from throughout the show’s long history all at once is obviously a joy. It’s just indicative of the show’s standing at the time – in an ideal world, a big anniversary would be marked by a blockbuster episode of a current series, but that simply wasn’t the case for the 30th or 40th. Sadly, Dimensions in Time suffers simply because it’s an emblem of the darkest time in the show’s history.

RATING: 3

Frontier in Space

I feel like I’ve just spent six episodes waiting for a story to really kick off, only to discover that this was never on the cards. Instead of ending with The Doctor having averted war and defeated The Master, we get a cliffhanger leading into the next serial. I’m a big fan of the way the serials used to link together in the first few seasons, but here it just feels like Frontier In Space has been abandoned – left unresolved in the pursuit of the next adventure, without a satisfying conclusion of its own.

It’s a cracking cliffhanger for sure, and it feels similar to the way some modern two-parters have the first episode purely there as build-up to the second (Dark Water, The Magician’s Apprentice), but the difference there is that it’s 45 minutes of build-up, rather than six lots of 25. And although they couldn’t have known it at the time, it’s such a shame that this is the last we see of Roger Delgado’s Master. The character really deserved a much more climactic send off than this, and I feel bereft that I’ve got no more performances to look forward to, but obviously that’s nothing compared to the tragic loss of the man himself.

Still, before it all peters out towards the end, the serial itself is perfectly enjoyable. The sheer number of different settings is impressive, and the production value is high. There are some lovely sets on display – and many of the spaceships featured have a similar aesthetic to the earliest series of Red Dwarf – along with good model work. The Draconians look great, and while I’m concerned to note that there appear to still be only three Dalek props, this was covered up by the direction far more effectively than it was last time.

The high production values aren’t always matched by the story, though. The overall concept of The Master engineering a war between two races is solid and well executed, with both the humans and Draconians displaying the necessary moral grey areas for the type of engaging, unpredictable story we’ve come to expect from Malcolm Hulke. But then the plot takes so many detours that it soon becomes clear that there’s not enough story to cover a six-parter, let alone form part of a Masterplan-esque twelve-episode mega-serial. And the padding is all so repetitive – turn up somewhere, get imprisoned, escape, try to convince everyone that there’s a conspiracy going on, head for the next place, turn up, get imprisoned… Seriously, the amount of imprisoning going on here is out of control.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that the journey isn’t enjoyable. There are some great moments, like The Doctor and Jo concealing their ongoing efforts to escape from The Master’s custody by talking complete bollocks for ages until he stops paying attention. Or Jo resisting all the mind control power The Master can throw at her, further underlying how much she’s developed since she first met both Time Lords. I think she might have overtaken Jamie and Zoe as my favourite companion so far.

So it’s far from a bad serial, but overall I can’t help feel my enjoyment was hampered by the preconceptions I took into it. The DVD comes in a package called Dalek War with a picture of the The Master on the front, so I spent the first two episodes pretty much just waiting for my Delgado fix. Then the rest of the serial was spent wondering when the Daleks were going to show up, having assumed they’d have a much bigger role to play than what was essentially an extended cameo. It’s absolutely unavoidable I know, but it is a shame that the one thing missing from this experience is the element of surprise. I wish I’d been born thirty years earlier.

RATING: 7

PS. I’ve just realised – Monday 26th October marked one year since I started this watch through. Subsequently, I’ve further realised that I’m 24 days behind schedule. Oh well – it’ll make it last even longer…

Day of the Daleks

They’re back, after an absence of 134 episodes, equating to about five months’ worth of my marathon. And after a five year break for the production team, it seems like they kind of forgot how to do them. The voices in particular are really off – staccato to the point of sounding hesitant. Where’s Zippy when you need him?

And yeah, you could totally tell that there were only three Dalek props available. I wasn’t aware that there even was an attempt to disguise the fact until I read about it afterwards – I assumed that the entire invasion had been carried off by just three Daleks, one of whom was gold. Maybe it would have been easier to pass them off as dozens if they were all the same colour, rather than attempting to suggest that they all hang around in groups of two greys and a gold.

I kind of liked my interpretation that all they’d subjugated and enslaved an entire planet with just three of them – it fits in to the descriptions in Dalek that made me fall in love with them in the first place. As it is, though, it’s another example of the shoddy workmanship that plagues this serial. The Ogrons weren’t terrible, but they were seemingly only there because they were cheaper to make than more Daleks, and the cheapness showed. With the exception of Aubrey Woods – who I always thought was creepy as fuck in Willy Wonka, so it’s no surprise he makes such a good villain – most of the guest cast are woeful. Then there’s weird little things like CSO elements disappearing from shot to shot, and the theme tune scream appearing after the cliffhanger resolves. Just why?

But the worst thing? You set up a scene at the beginning where The Doctor and Jo are visited by another version of The Doctor and Jo from the near future, seemingly from towards the end of the same serial. And then we get to the end of the serial… and there’s no corresponding scene where The Doctor and Jo visit their past selves. Not even a hastily-inserted line of dialogue to explain what that visit was all about. Unless they do something amazing, like resolve this hanging thread in the last episode of the season, I’m going to come back in time and remove one point from my rating for this episode.

EDIT: Yep, see below.

It’s a shame, because underneath all of that, there’s a decent story to be told, it’s just not the one that involves the Daleks. The stuff with the “ghosts” appearing at the manor house was much more intriguing than the dystopian future – again, Aubrey Woods aside – and that eventually developed into a brilliant timey-wimey story. Just as I was wondering how they could possibly resolve this plot without invoking a paradox, they go and explain that they’d been aware of that all along. It works well, and there are plenty of other good points – Pertwee and Manning are both on fine form, and there’s some great little UNIT moments, particularly those involving Benton, Yates and a plate of cheese.

But the problem is, apart from that little moment where they cycle through pictures of Hartnell and Troughton, I’d kind of rather The Daleks weren’t in it. This is not ideal for a long-awaited comeback. Overall, not an absolutely terrible serial, but I sincerely hope it’s not the best Dalek story I see this week.

RATING: 7 6