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Doctor Who - Revisitation Boxed Set

Review by: 
Blackgloves
Release Date: 
1977/1984/1996
Studio: 
2 Entertain
Genre: 
Horror
Format: 
DVD
Region: 
2 PAL
Aspect Ratio: 
1.33:1
Directed by: 
David Maloney
Graeme Harper
Geoffrey Sax
Cast: 
Tom Baker
Peter Davison
Paul McGann
Louise Jameson
Nicola Bryant
Movie: 
5
Extras: 
5
Bottom Line: 
5

The long process of restoring the classic Doctor Who serials -- first for re-broadcast on TV for various anniversary celebrations, then for VHS releases, and later for re-release on DVD -- has been going on since the early nineties, when a small group of technically minded fans first formed the Doctor Who Restoration Team and began developing methods for restoring the colour to old, early-’70s Jon Pertwee serials, most of which only existed in blurry NTSC black and white video tape versions at the time. After BBC Video began re-releasing this material on DVD on a regular basis, the techniques for cleaning, sharpening-up and colourising older episodes became more and more sophisticated, and, inevitably, some of the older releases, although perfectly acceptable at the time – and always way better than any of their VHS counterparts – have begun to look quite primitive in comparison to what would be possible now. Take, for instance, the recent release of 1972’s “The Time Monster” which was once in an absolutely chronic condition, but which now looks absolutely pristine and probably more colourful than it ever did even upon its initial broadcast.

 On top of that, since 2 Entertain began releasing the series in partnership with the BBC, they’ve spent a great deal more time and effort on making sure the quality of the extras has been up to scratch -- producing comprehensive, informed and entertaining documentaries covering all aspects of the series, often even going so far as to offer social history from the perspective of the changing mores made evident by the programme’s development over the years. With that in mind, it’s a pleasure to see these three early DVD releases being re-mastered and re-released for this ‘Revisitation’ box-set. Baring in mind that most fans will already own the three stories included here, 2 Entertain have really pulled out all the stops on this one: the classic Tom Baker story “The Talons of Weng-Chiang” was always a fan favourite and received a lavish two-disc edition the last time it was released in 2003. No problem – this time it gets a three-disc set and the extra content is extensive and well worth the effort. “The Caves of Androzani” was Peter Davidson’s swansong in the role of the Doctor, and has long been considered by many to be one of the best Who stories ever produced. Here it gets a further disc of all-new extras, on top of the extensive set of extras already included on the previous 2001 DVD. The same goes for the 1996 attempt to re-vamp the series after it was taken off air in 1989 -- the 1996 Television Movie, also released on DVD in 2001. This really gets special attention, with a whole heap of new documentaries and even a second commentary track. More important still, all three stories have been completely re-mastered and look even better than they ever have before.

 

THE TALONS OF WENG-CHIANG (1977)

The Doctor (Tom Baker) and Leela (Louise Jameson) arrive in Victorian London in the middle of a spate of disappearances of young women. After being attacked in the street by members of the Tong of the Black Scorpion – a criminal gang who worship the ancient Chinese God, Weng-Chiang -- their investigations lead them to an East End music hall theatre, managed by one Henry Gordon Jago (Christopher Benjamin), whose most successful act is the oriental magician Li H’sen Chang (John Bennett) and his life-like puppet Mr Sin (Deep Roy). The back stage area of this establishment is haunted by a ghastly apparition, while giant rats seem to have infested the sewers that run beneath the theatre. While examining a body recovered from the Thames, the Doctor meets professor Litefoot, who becomes something of a Watsonian figure to his Sherlock.

 Leela and Litefoot are attacked in Litefoot’s home by an autonomous Mr Sin while the Doctor investigates the sinister Li H’sen Chang, discovering that Chang is working for a 51st century war criminal from earth’s future called Magnus Greel (Michael Spice). Half mad, he has travelled back in time using a primitive Time Cabinet utilising Zigma energy, bringing with him the stolen Peking Homunculus (Mr Sin)!Originally a child’s toy, created through a combination of magnetic fields and electronics attached to a pig’s cortex, the Homunculus nearly caused World War VI when his swinish instincts took over. Unfortunately, the undeveloped form of time travel used by Greel to escape justice has ruptured his DNA helix, requiring him to replenish his ‘life forces’ with those of the kidnapped girls brought to him by Li H’sen Chang and his men (who believe him to be their god Weng-Chiang) in his lair beneath Jago’s theatre.

The last outing for the producer and script editing team of Philip Hinchclffe and Robert Holmes, “The Talons of Weng-Chiang” is the apotheosis of their Gothic adventure serial approach to Doctor Who. It also just happened to bring together a number of regular crew who turned out to be working on the show for the final time, and thus plays almost as if there was some kind of committed intent from the outset to make this serial one to remember.

And we certainly do remember it! Let off the leash by a soon-departing producer, writer and script editor Robert Holmes came up a lovingly crafted, utterly wonderful Victorian London-set adventure pastiche that was to be remembered as one of the most atmospheric and memorable stories in the series’ history, the dwarfish Mr Sin, with his gruesome pig-like grunting and squealing, making for one of its scariest, most grotesque villains. The amazing thing about Holmes’s work is the ingenious way he manages to incorporate just about every late-Victorian or early Edwardian literary reference you could think of so seamlessly and efficiently into one story: Sherlock Holmes, The Phantom of the Opera, Dracula, Pygmalion and Fu Manchu are the primary sources, but then the script is full of allusions to Jack the Ripper and Little Titch, and takes place, as all Gothic Victorian fiction must, amid the foggy backstreets of Limehouse and Whitechapel.

 Just about every cliché of Victorian literature and its subsequent representation on stage and screen is knowingly thrown into the pot: bodies being fished out of the Thames, cackling gypsy hags, a music hall and its ostentatious impresario, a haunted theatre, a sinister Chinese criminal organisation, ‘noxious’ rookeries full of dingy opium dens. You name it, it’s here.  The dialogue is wonderfully heightened Victorian-speak; the sets by Roger Murray-Leach (his last work for the programme) magnificent, combining seamlessly with the Outside Broadcast Unit’s work on location at Northampton Repertory Theatre for the authentic-looking music hall scenes; John Bloomfield creates some wonderful costumes for the Doctor and Leela to blend in amongst this web of contrived Victoriana – the Doctor in full Sherlock Holmes garb, and Leela undergoing a transformation throughout the story, although most male viewers of a certain age probably retain an affection for ‘that’ sewer scene in which she’s down to her vest and bloomers and drenched in cold water, leading to the first and only nipple shot in the history of Doctor Who! And, most importantly, the entire cast (both regulars and guest artists) are clearly relishing the whole thing.

“The Talons of Weng-Chiang” is lovingly remembered for being one of the very few serials in which some of the guest characters become almost as important as the Doctor and his companion: Christopher Benjamin as alliterative music hall manager Henry Jago and Trevor Baxter as professor Litefoot, get to go on their own little adventure in episode five, and although you could say it was really just filler material, so beautiful is the writing and so convincing are the performances by the two actors that Jago and Litefoot have since gathered something of a cult following over the years. Big Finish Productions have even recently started producing audio book adventures featuring the same two actors in the roles. There are less successful elements, of course. Here I speak of the giant sewer rat costume, which is not one of the programmes most convincing special effects, but then what Doctor Who story from the classic era is complete without a dodgy effect or two? Some have questioned the racial stereotyping of Chinese people in this story, but Holmes and Hinchcliffe are clearly affectionately poking fun at the whole ‘Yellow Peril’ genre and its motifs. Even having a Western actor in Chinese make-up playing the role of Li H’sen Chang, instead of a Chinese actor, is simply a nod to Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee in their Fu Manchu roles.

Disc one of the three discs devoted to the story, features all six episodes, a commentary track, a text production commentary of the usual high quality and detail and feature subtitles. The commentary track was recorded for the original 2003 release, but still holds up well. It features actors Louise Jameson (Leela), John Bennett (Li H’sen Chang), Christopher Benjamin (Henry Jago), and producer Philip Hinchcliffe and director David Maloney -- all of whom appear in various combinations throughout the six episodes, only coming together in the last half of the last episode. It’s an approach that works well for keeping a good mix of anecdotes flowing, as the varying participants inevitably gel differently and provoke different kinds of comment. Maloney and Hinchcliffe obviously have more to say about the technicalities of the production concerning, for example, the unusual amount of night shooting in this story; and they also talk about Robert Holmes’s fantastic script and its influences; while the actors are mainly prone to gossip and off-colour jokes about the events on screen, many of which they are seeing for the first time in many of years.  As a whole though, it’s immensely entertaining.

Disc 2 is devoted to all-new material produced especially for this box set. It kicks off with another of 2 Entertain’s mighty ‘Making Of’ documentaries.

“The Last Hurrah” is a thirty-three minute film, featuring Hinchcliffe interviewing Tom Baker in his kitchen, and inter-cut with the other members of the cast and crew reminiscing. Jameson, Benjamin and Trevor Baxter (who played Professor Litefoot), all appear here, and director David Maloney, production designer Roger Murray-Leach and costume designer John Bloomfield go into great detail on the planning and execution of the production. One thing that will interest fans, which is addressed here but not really mentioned in the 2003 commentary, is the issue of the frostiness at the time between Louise Jameson and Tom Baker. It certainly doesn’t come over on screen, but Baker’s dislike of the character of Leela affected Jameson personally during the production and the co-stars were not on the best of terms; although the fact that they have subsequently become friends has probably led to the issue now being a bit easier to discuss than it had been previously. Baker, typically forthright, puts it down to sexual tension – claiming he was simply attempting to deny his attraction to Jameson because she wasn’t interested in him! Leela was originally only going to be a temporary character. Tom Baker didn’t want another assistant after the departure of Elizabeth Sladen. It was during the filming of this story that Jameson was offered the role of Leela on a permanent basis by incoming producer Graeme Williams. The documentary is produced to 2 Entertain’s usual exemplary standards, with clips from the programme, and behind the scenes footage shot at the time (for the ‘The Lively Arts’ documentary, included on disc three) incorporated into an animated music hall stage setting to give it that little extra bit of Victorian ambiance. Excellent!

“Moving On”: a short piece in which producer Philip Hinchcliffe tells us about some of the stories he was planning for the next series, before he learned he was to be re-assigned the Patrick Mower film drama detective series “Target” instead. (4 minutes, 36 seconds)

“The Foe from the Future”: it has long been thought that “The Talons of Weng-Chiang” was a re-written version of a story called “The Foe from the Future” adapted by Robert Holmes from an original story by Robert Banks Stewart. Both Philip Hinchcliffe and Stewart explain the actual background to the writing of the story in this 6 minute featurette.

“Now and Then”:  this 11 minute featurette returns to the locations that featured heavily in the story, and compares their appearance now to how they were in 1977.

“Look East”: While location filming was taking place at the Northampton Repertory Theatre in January 1977, a local TV news crew filmed this piece for Look East. It shows footage of the cabinet stage trick scene involving John Bennett and Tom Baker, and Baker being interviewed by reporter David Cass.

“Victoriana and Chinoiserie”: A fascinating historical piece on the literary influences on the story, with Philip Hinchcliffe and University of Westminster lecturer in English literature, Dr Anne Witchard. This is the kind of feature 2 Entertain have excelled at recently, and this film is no exception, offering plenty of analysis of and context for the heady fictional world created by Victorian and Edwardian fiction and which the Robert Holmes story revels in recreating. (8 minutes, 03 seconds)

“Music Hall” Everything you might ever wish to know about the traditions and development of music hall in 21 minutes and 44 seconds. Hosted by Michael McManus, this documentary traces the emergence of variety, from its roots in the supper clubs of the 1830s to the riotous colour of Music Hall and on to the pre-war development of Variety. Performances re-creating the songs of Marie Lloyd and interviews with performers who still uphold the traditions of music hall are included.

“Limehouse –A Victorian Chinatown”: A really excellent documentary tracing the history of the development and portrayal in literature of the Limehouse region of London, where it was frequently fictionalised (as it is in Weng-Chiang) as a warren of opium dens and inscrutable Chinese criminal gangs. Hosted by Matthew Sweet (author of Inventing the Victorians, which has a whole chapter on this subject) and including interviews with Dr. John Steed of Roehampton University, Dr Tom Wareham, the curator of the Museum of London Docklands and Dr Anne Witchard, the film traces the true life history of Limehouse and compares it with the myth as portrayed in fiction, examining the social context for how this misrepresentation came about. Fascinating and evocative stuff, this runs for 19 minutes.

Disc 3 carries the extras originally included on the 2001 two-disc release.  “Whose Doctor Who” is a one-hour documentary presented by Melvyn Bragg for BBC 2’s “The Lively Arts” and broadcast the day after the final episode of “The Talons of Weng-Chiang” was transmitted in April 1977. These days, it has come to be an engrossing look back into the past, telling us how the programme’s status as a cult item was developing at that time, full of interviews with very middle-class children and their impeccably polite parents, all togged out in garish ‘70s getup! There are interviews with educationalist and psychologists who all defend the programme and its values. Surprisingly, there is no representation of the vocal minority of Mary Whitehouse’s Viewers and Listeners Association, who had waged a war on the programme for its allegedly violent content all through Philip Hinchcliffe’s time as producer. There’s quite a peculiar segment in which a very patrician upper class surgeon is shown who appears to be virtually forcing his entire staff to watch the programme so that he can discuss it with them at work the following week! There’s plenty of behind the scenes footage of Weng-Chiang in production, with script meetings, Tom Baker in rehearsals, meetings to plan the music cue timings for Dudley Simpson (who also appears in the finished story as the conductor in the Music Hall sequences) and footage of the sets being built. Michael Spicer is also shown having his head cast applied for the Magnus Greel mask, which only appears on-screen for a split second after Leela rips it off, Phantom of the Opera-style, at the end of episode five.

“Blue Peter Theatre”: Opens with a clip from 1974 when the Blue Peter team had to present the show from the set of the Doctor Who story “Robot” because of a strike, then moves on to a series of weekly clips from 1977 when Lesley Judd and John Noakes built a Doctor Who theatre in weekly instalments. In the final one, sound effects maestro Dick Mills appears to show how to make sound effects with bowls of mud and suction pads, and by scraping keys on a piece of wire. It runs for 25 minutes and 42 seconds.  

“Behind the Scenes”: very blurry black and white footage (production office timecoded Shibaden tape) of scenes from Weng-Chiang being recorded. It’s a truly fascinating look into the on-set atmosphere and rather old fashioned methods of production during this period. (24 minutes)

“Philip Hinchcliffe Interview”: Recorded live for the daily lunchtime magazine show “Pebble Mill at One” in 1977, this features Hinchcliffe being ‘grilled’ by the presenter about the possible effects of too much violence in the programme. It includes the infamous clip from “The Deadly Assassin” in which the Doctor appears to be drowned in a river and which almost certainly led to Hinchcliffe’s being replaced as producer on the programme. (11 minutes, 30 seconds)

“Trails and Continuity”:  some of the vintage BBC announcements for “The Talons of Weng-Chiang” and the “Whose Doctor Who” documentary. (2 minutes, 24 seconds)

Finally a photo gallery and PDF materials featuring Radio Times listings rounds of an truly excellent set of extras for one of the show’s best ever serials.

 

*

THE CAVES OF ANDROZANI (1984)

The Doctor (Peter Davison) and Peri (Nicola Bryant) arrive on the planet Androzani Minor, and the Doctor’s curiosity soon gets them both embroiled in the violent squabbles of a number of competing factions, who are all fighting to exploit the valuable raw reserves used to make the anti-aging drug Spectrox on the twin planet, Androzani Major.  

Deep in the planet’s dank cave systems, a war for control of the stuff is constantly being waged; The Sirius Conglomerate on Androzani Major owns the valuable Spectrox mines, but their operations have been disrupted by the activities of a lone masked rebel called Sharaz Jek (Christopher Gable), who lives somewhere in the underground cave system with an army of androids he has created from scratch. Gunrunners are operating in the area, supplying Jek with weapons in exchange for illegal supplies of Spectrox; but the CEO of The Sirius Conglomerate, Trau Morgus (John Normington), is financing the activities of a platoon of soldiers sent from Androzani Major (where huge demand for the drug has led to political instability over its uncertain supply), under the command of General Chellak (Martin Cochrane) and Majorn Salateen (Robert Glenister).

When the Doctor and Peri are discovered in the mines after stumbling across a stash of bombs and weapons intended as payment to Sharaz Jek in return for limited Spectox supplies, it triggers a calamities round of violence and paranoia from all parties: Chellak believes the travellers to be gunrunners; while Trau Morgus believes that they are Government spies, sent by the president of Androzani Major -- whom Morgus worries may have figured out that it is actually he who is sending the real illegal gunrunners into the area --  in order to bargain with Jek. In either case, it suites all parties to make a show of having the Doctor and Peri executed. Sharaz Jek, himself, though, is monitoring every move of everyone concerned (he has a spy in the enemy camp!) and has his own interest in the fate of the two unwitting time travellers.

As if they weren’t unlucky enough to be caught in the crossfire between political manoeuvring, selfish plotting, and ruthless greed on all sides, the Doctor and Peri have also both fallen victim to the lethal disease Spectrox Toxemia, caused by exposure to the unrefined Spextrox spores. Only the milk of the queen of the Cave Bats acts as an anti-toxin, but that lies deep in the lower cave systems where the remaining bats all go to die. Somehow, the Doctor must avoid the evil plans of all the competing groups in the region and find the anti-toxin in time to save himself and his companion.  

Rather fittingly, this adventure was another Robert Holmes story (his first for the programme in five years) and it’s another one with an obvious “Phantom of the Opera” theme. Like Magnus Greel in “The Talons of Weng-Chiang”, Sharaz Jek is a hideously facially mutilated madman, who skulks about in a hidden underground cave, plotting revenge against those who have done him wrong. Holmes was specifically re-employed by then script editor Eric Saward because he’d found, when looking back at the tapes of old serials, that Holmes’s stories were consistently some of the best. His decision to bring Holmes back into the fold was nevertheless resisted by producer John Nathan-Turner for some time.

 The Gothic influence on the story – with Jek developing a creepy infatuation with the Doctor’s dying companion Peri – doesn’t mean that it bears the slightest resemblance to Tom Baker’s merry Sherlockian romp in Victorian London, though: as stories go, there has rarely been any other Doctor Who adventure where the Doctor is shown to be as helpless as he is in this one since, perhaps, the days of William Hartnell -- and even then the aged first Doctor always had able-bodied companions with him to help out. Here, the poisoned Doctor is pushed about, shouted at, beaten and generally bullied by a host of unlikable, greedy and single-minded characters, none of whom ever display anything in the way of any redeeming qualities whatsoever. Usually, there are at least some good hearted or likable characters the Doctor can team up with (as in “… Weng-Chiang”, for instance). Not here: this is a relentlessly bleak, sharp and brutal story, where everybody is out for themselves the whole time. The Doctor and Peri are simply tossed around from beginning to end on a tide of competing interests with no possibility of ever influencing the outcome of events, the Doctor’s only real aim being to save his dying friend out of guilt for getting her into this mess in the first place.

This story really becomes something of a Shakespearian tragedy in content and even execution, where everybody dies apart from Peri. Even the Doctor’s fifth incarnation ‘dies’ -- this being Peter Davison’s final story, and perhaps his very best. The Shakespeare angle was unwittingly played up by director Graeme Harper after a bungled stage direction to John Normington (who plays the Machiavellian Morgus) led the actor to speak one of his lines directly down the lens of the camera, creating a kind of Shakespearian aside to the audience which was then used all the way through the story. This proved a stroke of genius. There are many other shots where characters speak or converse while turned away from facing each other and towards the audience, and although Harper says on the commentary track that he was just trying to create interesting shots and didn’t really know what he was doing, the effect is to almost subliminally emphasis the fact that none of the characters are ever honest with each other, all of them angling for position in a game of paranoid mental chess which only leads to more misunderstanding of motives and, eventually, destruction for all.

Strong performances and tight direction hold it all together by the seat of its pants when, once again, low budget and lack of time threaten to bring the whole production crashing down. But we do still get the obligatory rubbish, man-in-a-suit monster (in this case, a rubbery magma cave beast) and a few scenes had to be cut altogether (notably the opening TARDIS sequence). Nevertheless, some rate “The Caves of Androzani” as the best Doctor Who story of all time. It has pace, a uniquely cruel and bleak tone, and one of the best cliff-hangers at the end of episode one in the series history, but perhaps it is a bit too atypical of the series’ general style to be considered the very best story ever. It could well be the best regeneration story ever though, with the Doctor remaining the ‘hero’ throughout everything, not because he solves any problems or saves the Universe, or even a lowly planet – but simply because he manages to retain a moral sense in a dark and utterly hopeless situation where such considerations don’t even appear to have relevance anymore; he sacrifices himself to save a friend while everybody else dies for nothing, chasing wealth and power when the political scheming back on Androzani Major means that their plots and double dealings were redundant all along anyway.

Disc one of this newly expanded two-disc edition is the same as the 2001 release, with all four episodes included, along with the usual ‘production notes’ text commentary and an audio commentary featuring Peter Davison, Nicola Bryant and director Graeme Harper. The commentary has a nice blend of amusing banter and information with all the participants obviously retaining a great fondness for the story: it was Davison’s last outing as the Doctor, and the fact that it was such a strong script makes it all the more special for him, as one can tell; meanwhile, Nicola Bryant, newly cast in the role of Peri, was getting to be part of history, as this was a regeneration story -- always a special event in Doctor Who; and this was also director Graeme Harper’s first experience behind the camera after being promoted from floor manager. Harper is the only director from the classic series to still be working on the show in its re-vamped Noughties incarnation – although, of course, that hadn’t yet started when this commentary was originally recorded. An isolated music score audio option is also included for all episodes.

“Behind the Scenes –The Regeneration”: This is the off camera footage of the regeneration being filmed, with Graeme Harper issuing directions, the scene being shot from various angles and Colin Baker filming his first ever lines as the Doctor.  There’s also an audio commentary option with this segment, Davison amusingly pointing out that his acting is being overshadowed by Nicola Bryant’s cleavage as she cradles his head during his final moments as the Doctor! (7 Minutes, 53 seconds)

“Behind the Scenes – Creating Sharaz Jek”: studio footage of scenes involving Sharaz Jek being filmed. This also comes with a commentary audio option in which Christopher Gable talks about the creation of the character and having to apply the uncomfortable make-up. (5 minutes, 4 seconds)

“Extended Scenes”: There are three extended versions of scenes, here: the first one comes with a commentary track audio option by Graeme Harper and Peter Davison (4 minutes, 12 seconds)

Trailer: A brief BBC 1 trailer for the first episode (28 seconds)

News: clips from BBC news of Peter Davison’s departure from the series being announced along with interviews with both Davison and producer John Nathan-Turner on the hunt for a new Doctor. (5 minutes, 21 seconds)

PDF materials are included as always.

Over on disc 2 (which is a single-layered DVD5) we get the main documentary, “Chain Reaction”, which is unusual for these Making Of films -- featuring a presenter, in this case Mathew Sweet, who also hosted the excellent documentary on Limehouse in the Weng-Chiang extras. He interviews script editor Eric Saward in his home about the commissioning of “The Caves of Androzani”, and amid on-screen interviews with all the major cast and crew, from Peter Davison, Nicola Bryant, Maurice Roëves , Robert Glenister and Martin Cochrane, Saward also details how all the players came to be cast. The documentary even includes clips of the actors in other BBC shows.  There is a detailed account of the filming of the story, with Nicola Bryant revealing she suffered frostbite and pneumonia during the quarry shoot in Dorset; Davison remembering the hardship of having to carry Bryant across a quarry and nearly dropping her; and Harper on the impossibility of realising his true vision in the time available. Lastly Sweet gives his verdict on what makes the story so special. (36 minutes, 04 seconds)

“Directing Who: Then & Now”: Graeme Harper gives a unique insight into what the differences are between the way the show was shot back in 1984 (which hadn’t changed substantially since the show began in 1963) and what it’s like to direct it now, in the 21st century. (11 minutes, 44 seconds)

Russell Harty: the infamously smug TV chat show host, in a feature from his live show in 1984, in which he interviews both Peter Davison and his replacement Colin Baker side-by-side (after they materialise in a battered-looking TARDIS prop) and then goes to the audience front row to patronise some Doctor Who Appreciation Society members who’ve been told to dress like incarnations of the Doctor (there’s also a female member dressed as Romana in her “City of Death” sailor’s costume) and who have clearly not been briefed at all on the questions Harty is to ask them. A Cyberman comes on at the end so that Davison and Baker can point to each other and say ‘you want him!’ This is a nostalgic reminder of just how lame and self-satisfied TV could be back in the mid-’80s.  (8 minutes, 36 seconds).

Finally, a photo gallery of production stills and design stills rounds off a fairly good round-up of extras headed by another beautifully produced documentary from 2 Entertain.

 

**

DOCTOR WHO: THE TELEVISION MOVIE (1996)

The seventh Doctor (Sylvester McCoy) has been given a mission by his people, the Time Lords: to carry the remains of The Master (who has been put to death on the Dalek homeworld of Skaro) back to Gallifrey. But the casket in which the remains have been placed actually contain a snake-like ‘essence’ of the Doctor’s arch-nemesis, which escapes its confinement and slithers into the TARDIS control console, causing the ship to land in San Francisco on New Years’ Eve 19999.  Unfortunately, the TARDIS has also landed in the middle of a violent feud between two armed Chinese-American gangs, and the Doctor is shot and severely wounded by some startled gang members immediately upon exiting the vehicle. However, the Doctor’s untimely intervention has saved the life of Chang-Lee (Yee Jee Tso), and out of gratitude for that, the young hoodlum calls an ambulance. The Master’s evil blob-like essence is also still in the area though, and slithers into the arm of the jacket of the ambulance driver; later, while he sleeps, it snakes into his mouth, allowing The Master (Eric Roberts) to temporarily take possession of his body while he searches for the Doctor.  Unhappily for the Doctor’s seventh incarnation, cardiologist, Doctor Grace Holloway’s (Daphne Ashbrooke) unfamiliarity with Time Lord Physiology leads to the patient appearing to die in the operating theatre. But later that night in the morgue, he regenerates. The new Doctor (Paul McGann), still suffering the aftereffects of the transformation combined with the anaesthetic (which has slowed down the process), has acute amnesia and cannot remember who he is. He does remember Grace, though, and the sound of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, which was playing in the operating theatre while Doctor Holloway worked to save him.

Grace is intrigued by the stranger, especially after his body disappears from the morgue. She speaks to Chang-Lee, who pretends to know his family and steals a bag containing the Doctor’s sonic screwdriver and the key to the TARDIS from the hospital. Chang-Lee gains entry to the Doctor’s Time Machine, but is confronted by the Master who manages to convince him that the Doctor is evil and has stolen his body. There is a link to the source of all Time Lord power, The Eye of Harmony, inside the TARDIS’s cloister room, and with it The Master can track the Doctor’s movements. He needs Chang-Lee’s iris pattern in order to gain access to the Eye’s power, though, because the Doctor (or at least, so it is claimed here – but never again anywhere else in the Who universe!) is half-human and only a human eye can unlock its mechanism. Meanwhile, the Doctor finds Grace, and, after a confrontation with the Master, manages to regain his memory and to convince her that he really is a traveller in Time and Space. The Master plans to force the Doctor to look into the Eye of Harmony, which will allow him to take over his enemy’s body – since the Master’s has come to the end of its thirteen-life cycle. However, the Time Malfunction caused by the Eye opening is already beginning to affect the stability of the whole planet, and will lead to its complete destruction come midnight if the Doctor cannot repair the TARDIS in time to defeat The Master’s selfish plot.

When it appeared on UK television in May 1996 “Doctor Who: The Television Movie” seemed to belong to some kind of weird parallel universe rather than being the official continuation of the story of Britain’s premiere science fiction television programme. A pumped up orchestral arrangement of Ron Grainer’s iconic theme music seemed to reduce the show’s very character to a sort of bland, time travelling Indiana-Jones-in-space action adventure; and when Paul McGann’s foppish young Doctor turns to his companion Grace Holloway and delivers a full-on-the-lips kiss, as romantic strings swell on the soundtrack and fireworks burst over a San Francisco skyline, most Who fans who had been keeping the faith in the fallow years since the programme’s cancellation in 1989, must have been wondering if it was all worth the effort for this travesty!

Strangely, time has blunted the more egregious examples of this telemovie’s worst sins; and it’s interesting to see, in retrospect, how Russell T. Davies’ re-vamped Noughties version of the show takes more from this multi-million pound misfire than we perhaps remember, while also learning a lot from, and avoiding, its worst mistakes. Most of the good things about the film tend to be buried under a pile of Hollywood bluster, or simply implied -- thrown away almost in passing, like the nice touch of having the Doctor keep a spare TARDIS key hidden in a ridge on the roof of the TARDIS, for instance. But Paul McGann’s portrayal of the Doctor as a romantic action hero isn’t actually a million miles away from David Tennant’s pitching of the role ten years later; and the screenplay contains a rather nice idea whereby the Doctor always seems to have intimate foreknowledge of the lives of many of the people he meets during the adventure -- as well as an uncanny ability to see into Grace’s very soul, it seems – which implies that he’s met them all before at some point during his past travels. Not much is made out of this, but it’s actually an embryonic version of the idea that dominates the new series under Matt Smith’s eleventh Doctor, and underpins his relationship with his latest companion, Amy Pond. The series of today takes these sorts of ideas and expands on the human drama inherently contained within them, while also embracing the romantic idea of the Doctor, which this TV movie was the first to develop in such overt form.

Why it all falls down, though, is probably a result of the mind-bogglingly torturous route to the screen the film was forced to endure, with expatriate American producer Philip Segal’s dream of re-invigorating the programme ending up falling victim to having to somehow fulfil the competing interests of a legion of different production partners over seven years of development hell, from BBC Drama, Universal Pictures, BBC Worldwide Enterprises, Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment and Fox TV, each of whom expected different things from the finished film. It was an impossible task, of course. The story ends up being a proper muddle, high on spectacle but entirely lacking any emotional core, which is one of the things that make this Doctor’s romantic entanglement with Grace so hollow and superficial. Yes, we’ve since gotten used to the Doctor having romantic feelings for his companions in the new series, but those feelings had to develop and have some weight behind them before they were acceptable. In this film, they’re simply lazily tacked on because someone behind the scenes assumed they had to be there. The amount of money that was  thrown at this project did have some positive effect though: there’s never been a TARDIS set that looked more beautiful than the one made for this film and the special effects still look good fifteen years later.

The movie does also seem to have a great deal of trouble trying to marry the concept’s inherent British-ness to an American setting, and The Master is played by a miscast Eric Roberts, first like  Arnold Schwarzenegger in “The Terminator”, and then as a camp “Rocky Horror Picture Show” reject. Ultimately, Paul McGann did become ‘the George Lazenby of Time Lords’, as he predicated he might at the time. But although it doesn’t really satisfy, this telemovie did point the way forward and showed that there was still a future for Doctor Who at a time when there was nothing but unremitting hostility to the idea of resurrecting in some quarters of the BBC. It also showed that the programme was inextricably tied to British culture. Divorced from it, it loses everything that was good about the idea to begin with. Segal tried his best to tie in all the iconic images from the show’s history --- and even some totally unnecessary ones which ended up confusing the issue, like the Eye of Harmony and the Seal of Rassilon – but without the original values of the series to anchor them, they’re all made rather irrelevant; it becomes just another blustery, big budget, inconsequential science fiction adventure with a simplistic story and flashy effects to paper over the cracks.

The two discs in this box set which are devoted to the television movie certainly don’t skimp on the extras, with this re-mastered version delivering another cracking set of documentaries and featurettes on various subjects relating to the movie and the years during which the show was off-air, but in which its memory was kept alive by a cavalcade of other media.

Disc one features the movie itself, and gives you the chance to watch it with an isolated music score or with two commentary tracks. The first was recorded in 2001 for the original DVD release and features director Geoffrey Sax, who gives a fairly technical account of the actual filming of the movie. If you watch the text-based production commentary at the same time, you’ll see that they tend to echo each other, but the production track actually fills in a few extra details so that they in fact work rather well in tandem. The second commentary track is a brand new one recorded for this release, featuring Sylvester McCoy and Paul McGann with helpful moderation by Nicholas Briggs. This starts off fairly nervy and quiet, with McGann in particular not very inclined to say much having not watched the film at all since it was first broadcast in 1996. As the track goes on though, both participants seem to come to life and the memories come flooding back. One particular tit bit I’d not heard previously is that if this back door pilot had led to a series being made, as was originally hoped, Philip Segal had planned to bring the surviving Doctor’s back for the occasional one off special, in order to enable McGann to take the obligatory break from the tough television series schedule. McCoy and Briggs also note that this movie version is a great deal more adult than the series is even now, with McCoy’s exit as the Doctor -- on an operating theatre table with his chest opened up! -- being far too grim for a family programme. This movie was pitched very much at a grown up audience -- maybe another reason why it didn’t quite capture the imagination in the way its 2005 version went on to.  

Disc one also features the longest documentary in the entire set, “The Seven Year Hitch”. The length of it is probably more due to the fact that it takes that long to detail the complex negotiations and ever-changing permutations of the production side of the story than because of the importance of the film in Doctor Who history. Philip Segal is the main interviewee, whose passion for the show really comes across, as does his genuine intention to stay true to the original concept of the series he had grown up loving. Other contributors are BBC executive producer Joe Wright, BBC Head of Series Peter Cregeen, the controller of BBC 2 at the time Alan Yentob, writer Matthew Jacobs and the veteran Graeme Harper -- the director of BBC Enterprises’ ill-fated Doctor Who movie, which was abandoned when the BBC committed itself to Segal’s project instead. This is a meticulous account of the twisting path which eventually brought the telemovie to the screen, with Segal using every method at his disposal to get the BBC interested, and then, once he had piqued their interest (thanks to a fateful intervention from Stephen Spielberg while Yentop was being shown around the set of “SeaQuest” by Segal) to then keep his wary American backers on track. So painful, protracted and complicated was this balancing act of interests that it seems a miracle that the film ever got made at all, and most of this seems to be down to Segal’s sheer bloody-mindedness and tenacity. This is another fine documentary from 2 Entertain. (53 minutes, 53 seconds)

“The Doctor’s Strange Love”: When the television film was first transmitted there was a lot riding on it and it was hard not to be dismayed by the many things that were so clearly wrong with it. Now, with the series flourishing and in safe hands for the time being, it is a little easier to be philosophical about this attempt, and to concentrate on the quirkier, more successful elements without getting too upset about the things that didn’t come off.  This featurette is, quite simply, a discussion between writers Joe Lidster and Simon Guerrier and comedian Josie Long, who look back on the film and discuss what they like about it, what works, what doesn’t and what strikes them now when re-viewing it all these years later. It’s a simple approach, but it works and really draws you in. They’re probably a little more forgiving of it than most fans tend to be, but some good points are made and it’s an entertaining watch. (17 minutes, 10 seconds)

The disc also includes four rather ropey audio tracks of the songs which are included in the film, a photo gallery of production stills and the usual PDF files of Radio Times listings.

Disc 2 is packed to the gills with some really excellent stuff, but we kick off with the rest of the extras which were originally included on the 2001 DVD release. These include a pre-production section which includes Paul McGann’s audition tape and VFX tests made by Amblin Imaging in 1994 to show off their CGI redesign of the Daleks, known as the ‘Spider Dalek’ design; then VFX tests from March 1996 give us a timecoded test take of the proposed title sequence for the film, which turns out to borrow much of its style from the Tom Baker era time tunnel effect – still the most atmospheric title sequence in the programme’s history. Next the Production section gives us the Electronic Press Kit put out by Fox in 1996, which is made up of a short documentary consisting of snippets of interviews with the cast and with producer Philip Segal, followed by the full footage of the ‘raw’ interviews which would have been provided so that broadcasters could create their own packages. (15 minutes, 36 seconds). This is followed by a short behind the scenes section (4 minutes, 47 seconds) and Philip Segal’s tour of the TARDIS set (2 minutes, 33 seconds). There are two short alternative takes of some minor scenes (1 minutes, 02 seconds) and the BBC’s TV trails for the movie (1 minutes).

The bulk of the disc is given over to four superb documentaries, each covering a different aspect of Doctor Who and the ingenious ways it found to survive during the years off screen; the first phase, between the cancellation of the series in 1989 up to the broadcast of the television movie in 1996; and the second phase, from the failure of the movie to spawn a new series, up to the appearance of ‘Nu-Who’ in 2005.

“Who Peter 1989-2009”: The second part of a two-part documentary that examines the symbiotic relationship between the children’s TV magazine show Blue Peter and “Doctor Who, this time concentrating on how the show continued to champion Doctor Who even when the programme was off air, thanks to the influence of Blue Peter editor Richard Marson. Former Blue Peter presenter Gethin Jones presents the documentary, which includes contributions from Russell T. Davies as well as Doctor Who Magazine editor Clayton Hickman and writer Robert Sherman. The film moves on to explore the ways in which the new series has continued to seek an intimate relationship with Blue Peter since its return, both programmes now having become venerable BBC institutions. (26 minutes, 42 seconds)

“The Wilderness Years” is yet another first class documentary which details all the various ways in which the memory of Doctor Who was kept alive in the multitude of other media – print, video and audio -- which flourished while the show was off air. Former Doctor Who Magazine editor John Freeman, current editor Tom Spilsbury; Virgin Books editor Peter Darvill-Evans and BBC Books consultant Justin Richards; script editor Andrew Cartmel, video producers Keith Barnfather and Billy Baggs; along with director Kevin Davies and Big Finish producer Jason Haigh-Ellery – all go into wonderful detail on how their various projects got started and how they developed. There are some choice clips included here from the various video projects which starred the surviving Doctors and which were aimed at Doctor Who fans hungrey for product in these sparse years. (23 minutes, 29 seconds)

“Stripped For Action –The Eighth Doctor”: As well as a series of audio books for Big Finish Productions (in which Paul McGann further developed his portrayal of the Doctor), the eight Doctor also survived and developed in comic strip form after the transmission of the TV Movie, in the pages of Doctor Who Magazine. This final part of the history of Doctor Who in comics documents the kinds of stories which were produced during this period, including the creation of the first gay companion for the Doctor in Izzy Sinclair. It also covers the separate Radio Times comic strip which also used the image of the eighth Doctor. This documentary includes contributions from writer Scott Gray, former Doctor Who Magazine editors Gary Russell, Alan Barnes and Clayton Hickman, artists Lee Sullivan, Martin Geraghty and Roger Langridge, author Paul Scoones and historian Jeremy Bentham. (19 minutes, 45 seconds)

“Tomorrow’s Times – The Eighth Doctor” : A What the Papers Say-style look at how the contemporary media of 1996 reacted to the broadcast of the TV Movie, introduced by Nicholas Courtney. (10 minutes, 47 seconds)

This is without doubt the most thorough and totally comprehensive Doctor Who package yet from 2 Entertain.  It gets my highest possible recommendation.

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