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Doctor Who: The Dominators

Review by: 
Blackgloves
Release Date: 
1966
Studio: 
2 Entertain
Genre: 
Sci-Fi
Format: 
DVD
Region: 
2 PAL
Aspect Ratio: 
1.33:1
Directed by: 
Morris Barry
Cast: 
Patrick Troughton
Frazer Hines
Wendy Padbury
Movie: 
3
Extras: 
5
Bottom Line: 
4

First of all, a little background.

To those of us who first became aware of and grew up with “Doctor Who” during the Pertwee years of the early seventies, when the series developed something of a progressive agenda with regard to subjects such as ecology, and a certain amount of cynicism when it came to tackling the uneasy relationship between, for instance, big business and science -- to have a look now at the series during the Troughton years (or what remains of it) can occasionally provide something of a culture shock. The Cold War looms large in the show’s dealings with the threat of alien invasion during this period in its history, with the usual story pattern involving a base or colony of some kind -- either on Earth or some other planet -- and its attempts to deal with the threat of infiltration or takeover by a war-like alien menace. “The Dominators” is a five-part story from Patrick Troughton’s final season as the Doctor, which opened its proceedings with what now seems like a startlingly reactionary comment on the popular peace movement of the late sixties -- although by the time it was screened it was already out of date, since the whole hippie philosophy of benign pacifism had since taken a sharp turn into violence and darkness. The story takes the Movement’s stated attitudes toward violence and unilateral disarmament at face value though, and in doing so purports to offer a future vision of what would happen to a society run on pacifist principles. Not surprisingly, it isn’t very pretty and mainly seems to involve lots of middle-aged stage thespians running around a sand pit in Kent while dressed in girls’ gym slips and frilly skirts?!! 

This was the third serial written for the show by the writing team of  Mervyn Haisman and Henry Lincoln, who had previously produced two of the most enduringly popular stories of the Troughton tenure -- “The Abominable Snowmen” and “The Web of Fear” -- and came up with the monstrous ‘Yeti’ in the process. This had been their first attempt to devise a replacement monster for the Daleks. In fact, in some ways, the whole of the previous season five can be seen as an extended attempt to do just that, being the point in the history of the series when the formula that saw the Doctor facing a new alien monster each week was first established.

At this stage, Dalek creator Terry Nation’s attempts to turn his most popular monster into a film franchise in Hollywood had resulted in it looking very likely that they would be unavailable to appear in “Doctor Who” from now on. Although monsters such as the Ice Warriors and the Cybermen had become increasingly popular, neither they nor the Yeti had turned into the merchandising phenomena of the Daleks, which since 1964 had spawned at least ninety different Dalek based toys for the BBC. So, “The Dominators”, as well as being Haisman and Lincoln’s two finger salute to the hippie movement, was also meant to produce the new Dalek successor; a robot monster that would finally free the show once and for all of its reliance on an increasingly unreliable pepper pot-like adversary. And this is where things really start to go horrendously wrong. What they came up with has to be one of the most useless Doctor Who monsters in the show's history. 

The whole writing process seems to have been fraught with problems from the start, and ended in a proper bust-up between Haisman and Lincoln and show runners Peter Bryant (producer) and script editor Derrick Sherwin. Sherwin has been interviewed for a featurette that is included on this DVD, in which he describes Haisman and Lincoln’s work as, quote: ‘pretty crappy’! He and Terrence Dicks re-wrote it and lopped off an episode in the process, turning it from a six-part into a five-part story. If that wasn't bad enough, the two writers also got into a dispute with the BBC over the merchandising rights for the story’s robot monsters, the Quarks; although it is difficult to believe that they ever thought such an ill conceived design was ever going to replace the Daleks. They even tried to copyright the name ‘Quark’ for goodness sake, seemingly unaware that it had already been appropriated as the name for the fundamental constituent of atomic matter by physicist Murray Gell-Mann back in 1963. Haisman and Lincoln never worked for the show again after this debacle, and even had their names removed from the credits since they were so unhappy with the way they and their work had been treated. The serial is instead credited to the fictional ‘Norman Ashby’: a name procured by combining the names of the two writers’ father-in-laws. As a side note, it’s interesting to consider that Henry Lincoln later left TV script writing and ended up producing a series of BBC documentaries about the supposed treasure of Rennes-le-Château. This then led on to his co-writing the pseudo-scholarly bestseller "The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail",  which in turn became the inspiration for Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code”. Some might say this was by far the most successful piece of fiction he was ever involved with!

So how does “The Dominators” stand up today? Actually rather better than the unfortunate Quarks themselves as it turns out, although this has very little to do with the lame story and everything to do with the brilliance of Patrick Troughton, who is on top form here. This may have already been announced as his final season, but Troughton looks so comfortable with the role by this stage; effortlessly improvising little bits of business at every opportunity and managing to bring masses of humour to a dull witted story with his sly, clownish imp of a Doctor. The rapport between he and Frazer Hines has become second nature by now and newbie Wendy Padbury adds some pleasant lightness to the show as Zoe, although she’s saddled here with an unbecoming Dulcian leotard costume that keeps coming loose at the back and has to be held together by a large, unsightly clip from the third episode onwards. 

The story begins when The Doctor (Patrick Troughton), Jamie (Frazer Hines) and Zoe (Wendy Padbury) land on the planet Dulkis for a much needed holiday, only to find it has become something of a wasteland since the Doctor last visited it. It turns out that they have landed in the middle of an old test island that was once used for atomic testing centuries ago, although the research has long since been abandoned and the inhabitants have become a race of dress-wearing pacifists. Now all that remains of their violent past is an old war museum that’s still full of operational weapons.

Big mistake!

An enterprising Dulcian called Cully (Arthur Cox) runs sightseeing tours in the area, to give paying tourists a glimpse of what life was like on the planet Dulkis when things were more interesting (i.e. When they were still happy to kill each other in wars). Now the Dulcians have abolished all war life is dull and placid, and the people have little interest in anything very much. It’s amusing how transparently the writers associate pacifism with every negative trait they can think of; and as well as a general wimpishness and soppy girlishness (represented by the men all wearing frilly dresses), they’re also shown to be bureaucratic, dithering and incurious. Exactly the qualities least useful for dealing with the threat posed by a race of violent, uncompromising alien aggressors then. Let’s hope one of those never comes along. Oh, hang on a minute  …

At the same time as Cully and his tourists are pottering about on the planet surface, a flying saucer has landed, sucked up all the radiation left over from the atomic tests and deposited two frowning alien humanoids with massive shoulder pads  who call themselves the Dominators (played by Crossroads star Ronald Allen and Kenneth Ives) and a bunch of their lumbering robot workers called Quarks. This cruel warlike  race flourish by enslaving the inhabitants of weaker, less militaristically developed planets, either putting them to work in service of the Dominators’ empire or, if they’re too weak to be of use, disposing of them altogether. The Dominators are here to turn the entire planet of Dulkis into a molten inferno, destroying it in a nuclear blast to make radiation fuel for their battle fleet. The plan is to bore into  the planet’s volcanic surface at five drill sites, and deposit a rocket into the central one that will then start an eruption that leads to the entire planet exploding in a nuclear catastrophe. The Doctor and his companions meet Cully (the only survivor when the Dominators and their Quarks kill the tourists) and try to convince the peace-loving Dulcians that they have to fight back to save themselves and their planet.

The Dulcians’ plight is portrayed as being akin to that of the extinct Dodo: they have abolished war centuries ago but their aggressive instincts have withered altogether, and now they no longer retain the capacity to mount much of a fight when threatened by an invasive aggressor who is not interested in reason or bargaining. The Dominators are shown to be harsh, cruel and imperious, with no interest in compromise, while the Dulcians lounge around having endless debates and discussions on how they can might appease the aggressors, without ever coming to any solid conclusions on the matter. There’s not much in the story itself to illustrate this so the programme makers fall back on the visual shorthand of having the Dominators behave very stiffly, forced to lurch around dressed in massively bulky shoulder pads (which, incidentally, happen to make them look very phallic) while the wimpy Dulcians are all dressed in wispy skirts. One of the leading Dulcian councillors is played by Brian Cant, who, as the soothing, mellifluous voice of “Camberwick Green” and “Trumpton”, couldn’t be better cast in the role of a leading quiescent Dulcian ninny!  Still, it's a bit hard to believe that a whole planetful of Dulcians is unable to conjure up any kind of struggle against two Dominators (not much of an invasion force!) and a motley collection of toddler-sized robots that find it difficult to stand up.

The story soon develops along traditional clichéd “Doctor Who” lines and amounts to little more than a lot of running about in a Buckinghamshire quarry (and the studio recreation of it), while the Dulcians repeatedly fail to be roused into action  by the Doctor‘s panicky remonstrations (apart from Arthur Cox’s Cully and a few others such as the photogenic Felicity Gibson as Kando), the rubbishy Quarks stumble about ineffectually while squeaking in their ridiculous childlike electronic chirps, and the Dominators foolishly waste every opportunity of disposing of the troublesome Doctor and his companions  for the most tenuous of reasons, even when they’re provided with countless chances to do so.

Despite the weakness of the plot, this is still remarkably watchable, thanks mainly to strong, committed performances from the leads and the guest stars  (who make the most of being expected to clamber up steep quarry inclines while dressed in short billowing skirts that tend to reveal their Y-fronts in every other shot), impressive direction from Morris Barry (who also directed “The Tomb of the Cybermen” in the same location), and Barry Newbery’s bargain basement production design. This story is also notable for including almost no incidental music apart from the atmospheric electronic drones and scrapings of Brian Hodgson’s Radiophonic Workshop sound effects. The biggest disappointment has to be the pathetic Quarks themselves: a really bad design which looks like a refrigerator on legs; they stumble along looking like robot toddlers that have just recently learned to walk and are so fragile-looking that one ends up feeling more sorry for them than scare by them when they get knocked over,  incapacitated (Jamie even sits on one at one point) or blown up,  -- which is hardly the reaction one should be having to a murderous Doctor Who monster. Ultimately, writer  Mervyn Haisman sums it all up on the DVD’s accompanying 'Making Of' documentary when he mentions that, as many of the tapes featuring the stories from the Patrick Troughton era were wiped  soon after they were broadcast, it’s a little disappointing (to say the least) that this has to be one of the few to survive in its entirety: ‘They’ve got the whole bloody lot of them!’ he says exasperatedly. 

“The Dominators” gets the usual excellent treatment on DVD from 2 Entertain. First of all, this is the first time that the full uncensored version has been seen since the show was first broadcast. Previous VHS releases had to make do with a censored cut, but the full unexpurgated version, with all that Quark-based violence intact,  has since been unearthed -- and that is the version included here. The print looks remarkably good, although the 16mm filmed inserts are understandably grainier and fuzzier than the studio-based video material, which has been cleaned up rather impressively by the Doctor Who restoration team. 

The moderated extras include a commentary which features various combinations of the following in different episodes: Frazer Hines, Giles Block (who plays one of the rebellious Dulcians, Teel), actor Arthur Cox, make-up designer Sylvia James and Wendy Padbury. It’s the expected mixture of faltering memories and anecdotes in which we learn about Arthur Cox’s reaction to his unflattering costume, Wendy Padbury’s unhappy memories of being ‘bullied’ on location by director Morris Barry, and the unexpected revelation that Frazer Hines fancied guest star Felicity Gibson (anyone familiar with Frazer Hines’s commentary contributions will be getting used to the fact that he appears to have used his time on the show as one long starlet dating opportunity).

“Recharge and Equalise”: a twenty-two minute documentary in which most of the guest stars and many of the key members of the crew are interviewed. The troubled writing and pre-production are covered in depth, as well as the guest stars’ views on where this particular story stands in the Doctor Who pantheon (pretty low down, you won’t be surprised to learn).

“Tomorrow’s Times - The Second Doctor” is a short look at what the press were saying in 1968 when this adventure was first broadcast. It’s narrated by Caroline John who played third Doctor companion Liz Shaw and documents the show’s critical decline during the early years of Patrick Troughton’s tenure, only to be reborn as a cult classic, watched equally by adults as well as children during the period leading up to this, the actor’s final season in the role.

An information text with all the production info and cast biographies you can shake a stick at, as well as subtitles for the hard of hearing are included on the disc, plus a photo gallery scored with the Radiophonic Workshop cues of Brian Hodgson. A ‘coming soon’ trailer for the forthcoming Cyberman Collection box set and Adobe PDF files of Radio Times listings round off another enjoyable Classic Who nostalgia piece. Not the best story ever made for the series, but Troughton gives a mightily enjoyable performance which thankfully saves it from sinking into total mediocrity.

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