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Doctor Who - The Kamelion Tales

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Release Date: 
2 Entertain
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Directed by: 
Tony Vigo
Fiona Cumming
Peter Davidson
Mark Strickson
Janet Fielding
Nicola Bryant
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The brief and rather muddled history of one of the Doctor’s most short-lived of companions is documented in this three-disc set, featuring two stories from the reign of the fifth Doctor, Peter Davidson. “The Kamelion Tales” box set includes the only two adventures in which we see the android robotic side-kick known as Kamelion -- a character who was originally created to be a regular travelling companion for the Doctor and his various assistants on-board the TARDIS, after producer John Nathan-Turner and script editor Eric Saward were given a demonstration of a prototype robot prop, devised by a small computer development company run by Chris Padmore and Mike Power. This stylishly rendered, silver humanoid figure had a mobile facial design which allowed it to mime along to a pre-recorded speech track. It also had upper-body movement, and Nathan-Turner was promised that it might one day also be able to walk after future developmental work. Strangely, considering John Nathan-Turner was the producer who eventually pulled the plug on the fourth Doctor’s previous troublesome  robot companion K-9, he was keen to go ahead with the idea of adding the device to the series after being very impressed with the pitch given by Padmore and Power.

With the (as it transpired, fortuitous) proviso that he should restrict the robot’s requirement to walk, just in case this aspect of it’s design didn’t pan out as hoped, Nathan-Turner commissioned former director-turned-script writer Terence Dudley to pen the Kamelion’s debut: a two-parter called “The King’s Demons”.  This curiously insubstantial, historically-based science fiction tale takes place in 13th century England, just as King John is due to sign the Magna Carta at Runnymede, setting the country’s history on the long and rocky course eventually leading to Parliamentary democracy.

The Doctor (Peter Davidson) and his two companions Tegan (Janet Fielding) and Turlough (Mark Strickson) arrive in the TARDIS in the year 1215 -- right in the middle of a jousting duel between  Sir Gilles Estram: a French mercenary and now King John’s champion knight -- and the son of Sir Ranulf Fitzwilliam (Frank Windsor). King John (Gerald Flood) and his travelling retinue have journeyed to Sir Ranulf’s castle stronghold in order to extort more tribute, to be used to pay for another military expedition; but the Lord has already been bled dry, and after being insulted by the King, his hot-blooded son Hugh ( Christopher Villiers) issues a challenge which the King’s champion is only too keen to see through to the fatal end.

Estram defeats Hugh easily enough, but just as he is about to deliver the killing sword blow, the Doctor is able to intervene and save the defeated boy; this after King John is strangely unperturbed to see the time travellers arrival, and beckons them to sit beside him, proclaiming them his personal demons. However, the King’s friendly manner towards the intruders only adds to the suspicion of the now ‘dishonoured’ Hugh and his Lordly parents. Meanwhile, the Doctor explains to a cold and petulant Tegan that something is very wrong with this whole situation -- because King John should really be in London at this very moment according to all known historical sources,  preparing to sign the great Charter known as Magna Carta: this is an historical fact that is too well documented to be in error. 

Fitzwilliam tells the Doctor that his cousin Sir Geoffrey de Lacy (Michael J. Jackson) is in London, where he is due to sign the Crusader’s Oath before the king. But King John has not mentioned it at all since his unexpected arrival at the castle. The Doctor becomes convinced that ‘King John’ is indeed an impostor - a conviction that appears to be confirmed when de Lacy arrives bearing the news that he has just left the king in London, and wondering how he could have got to Fitzwilliam's castle so quickly before him. However Sir Giles Estram intervenes, has de Lacy arrested, and is just about to execute the confused knight, when the Doctor insults the King's Champion, forcing him into a duel, during which it is revealed that Sir Giles Estram is in fact his old enemy The Master (Antony Ainley) in disguise! 

Like so much “Doctor Who” in the early eighties, during Peter Davidson’s mild and understated tenure as the travelling Time Lord, “The King’s Demons” looks comparatively lavish and handsome-looking when viewed next to some of the earlier seasons: there is a spacious and detailed castle interior set, (complete with Irish Wolf Hounds in the corner -- brought in for a few brief shots to add some character to the scene) and the filmed exterior sequences around Bodiam Castle at Bodiam in East Sussex, look quite beautiful despite the drizzly November weather. Writer Terence Dudley lards his screenplay with some fairly convincing Medieval-speak - full of mention of terms such as ’scutage’ and the like; set-pieces such as the horseback joust between Sir Giles Estram and Hugh are colourful and convincingly staged and there are some great-looking costumes. All this despite it being director Tony Vigo’s directorial debut. Special mention also has to be made of Jonathan Gibbs’ delightful incidental score, which plays up to the pastoral, medieval character of the story while introducing some subtle synth accompaniment to the lutes and wind instruments which otherwise characterise its melodies. 

The trouble is, this is a fairly vapid two-part story in the end, clearly written to order, to introduce the shape-shifting robot companion Kamelion and little else, The story sees Kamelion masquerading as King John after being abducted by the Master from the planet Xeriphas, where the Doctor’s arch nemesis was stranded at the end of the previous season’s adventure, “Time Flight”. But the Master’s plan to stop Magna Carta being signed and thereby prevent Britain’s democracy from developing on course, is even admitted by the Doctor at one point to be ‘small-time villainy’ by his standards, and one expects there to be some extra twist to the tale that never materialises.

The presence of the Master, along with the fruity acting of  Gerald Flood as King John, topples the story into over-theatrical melodrama which undoes all the otherwise convincing historicity of the production. One has to ask how the Doctor fails to notice Anthony Ainley's distinctive features, even when the Master is disguised under a ginger wig and beard! In fact, the plot plays fast and lose with the history of Magna Carta and King John’s involvement with it. The Doctor claims that John was a good King and that he wanted to sign Magna Carta rather than being forced into it by rebellious barons. “He would have been able to crush that rebellion … like that!” he says, clicking his fingers, at one point. Needless to say, that isn't how the history books record events!

The second episode becomes bogged down with the Doctor and the Master’s eternal dispute as they battle to control the shape of Kamelion. The robot is pitched as a being that has its own will, but which can also be dominated by another’s thought patterns; interestingly then, the robot’s appearance can be controlled by another person's emotional state. This was a clever ruse by Dudley to make sure that future stories that might feature the character would not necessarily have to depend on the robot prop if it proved difficult to handle. This was a fortunate ‘out’ for the production team because, despite its superficial impressiveness, the device is clearly not up to the task it has been set (i.e. talking and moving in sync!), even in this story.

Disc one comes with the usual high-quality special features: first up “Kamelion - Metal Man” is a 13 minute featurette with contributions from Peter Davidson, script editor Eric Saward, Nicola Bryant (who appears alongside Kamelion in his second story “Planet of Fire”) and surviving member of the developmental team responsible for the device, Chris Padmore. Davidson claims he always realised that it was unlikely, in 1983, that Doctor Who would become the first TV programme to include a fully functioning robot companion as a cast member, and that the whole thing was down to the enthusiasm of John Nathan-Turner. Eric Saward claims the device worked much better when it was demonstrated and claims that it was ’over-sold’ to them on the basis that it would be able to walk. Chris Padmore, though, claims that this had merely been the eventual aim of the developers rather than a promise, and that after the early death of software engineer Mike Power,  there was simply no one else who understood the software that actually drove the robot well enough to make this aim a reality.

“Magna Carta” is a 22 minute documentary on just that -- with contributions from Dr Conrad Leyser - Tutorial Fellow in Medieval History at Oxford University; Dr Richard Goddard - Lecturer in Medieval History at the University of Nottingham; and Michael McManus - Parliamentary and Political adviser. This is  an engaging primer on medieval feudal society in the 13th century and gives a more historical account of the events that led to the signing of Magna Carta than will be found in “The King’s Demons” itself; it delves into its subsequent reputation as the blueprint for British Democracy, locating the seeds of that belief in the 17th Century disputes between the Stuart Kings and Parliamentarians and in 18th Century America’s war with the British Crown.

There is an audio commentary for both episodes, featuring Peter Davidson, Isla Blair (who plays Sir Ranulf Fitzwilliam’s wife) and Eric Saward, in which the story of Kamelion is dealt with by the participants in even more forthright terms than in the featurette. It’s also quite gossipy, with Isla Blair and Davidson singling out Frank Windsor, who played Sir Ranulf, for being the cause of a great deal of misbehaviour on set with his ebullient personality - spreading a joky atmosphere among the rest of the cast, which rookie director Tony Vigo was unable to control. It seems neither Eric Saward nor Peter Davidson rated Terence Dudley as a writer, Davidson in particular pointing out the hollowness of this particular story. Saward, meanwhile claims the writer could be rather rude about how his scripts were directed. This rather informal, quite jovial but ultimately dismissive commentary is joined by another one (for just the first episode) given solo by director Tony Vigo, who, despite the comments on the other track, seems full of enthusiasm for his debut directing job and has nothing but good to say about the cast -- including Frank Winsor!


 Also an isolated music track enables you to enjoy Jonathan Gibbs’ lovely music cues more attentively; it is also featured as the accompaniment to a photo gallery of production and publicity stills from the story.


“The King’s Demons” ended up being a rather limp finale after the planned conclusion to the season, “Resurrection of the Daleks”, had to be abandoned until the following year because of a BBC electricians’ strike. Kamelion had been taken aboard the TARDIS at the end of the story, thereby rescuing the shape-shifter from the Master’s malign influence. But when the series returned, the awkward device was dumped in a back room of the TARDIS somewhere, and never even mentioned on screen let alone seen. The prototype simply hadn't performed anywhere near as well as had been expected by the over-optimistic production team, and with the tight schedules and the regime of limited studio time under which “Doctor Who” operated in the eighties, it was deemed a great deal easier just to ignore it! Aware that there was this lingering continuity problem of a lurking, backroom companion who never emerged on screen, John Nathan-Turner and Eric Saward eventually determined to commission a story in which the failed robot assistant was written out for good.

 In fact, Season Twenty-One  saw the departure of the entire regular cast of "Doctor Who": Janet Fielding and Mark Strickson had both announced their intention to leave, and Davidson was also due to depart soon as well. The producers staggered the departures over various stories, but the mid-season “Planet of Fire” saw writer Peter Grimwade saddled with a shopping list of tasks to accomplish. Janet Fielding had left at the end of the previous story, but now Mark Strickson had to be written out, Kamelion had to be got rid of once and for all, and the Doctor’s new assistant Peri also had to be introduced in preparation for Peter Davidson’s departure at the end of the next story which was to be “The “Caves of Androzani”. It was also decided to write out the Master permanently, since Anthony Ainley’s contract was about to expire. In addition to all this, Grimwade had to come up with a story that could feature the distinctive Lanzarote shooting location -- better known for doubling as prehistoric Earth in Hammer’s “One Million Years BC” -- which had been decided upon after director Fiona Cumming took a holiday in the Spanish Canary Island resort, and realised that its otherworldly desert-like landscape of pinkish-brown volcanic rock would make a perfect alien setting for the series.

 Kamelion’s exit from the show meant that the troublesome mechanism had to be coped with on-set yet again. But it proved to be no more actor-friendly than when it was last used in “The King’s Demons”, and Grimewade sensibly limited the length of time the actual robot had to be used on-screen by having it take either a silvery human form (half-way between its original robot self  and  Peri’s stepfather) or the Master -- who was yet again seeking to control the device.

“Planet of Fire” is a rather convoluted story -- unsurprisingly, considering the amount of comings and goings it has to achieve over the course of its four episodes. Mark Strickson’s character Turlough had before always been something of a series mystery: an alien posing as an English public schoolboy, who usually had his own agenda and had not always been completely loyal to the other inhabitants of the TARDIS. Now Strickson was leaving, Turlough’s origins had to be satisfactorily explained as well, and this becomes the central concern of the story. After the “King’s Demons”, in which he hardly featured at all, it’s good to see Turlough at the centre of the action for once; the character was always intelligent, resourceful and dynamic and the interplay between he and Davidison’s very low-key portrayal of the Doctor was always one of the great joys of this period in Doctor Who’s history. It was just a shame that the character was rarely given anything much to do after the Black Guardian trio of stories in which he was planted as a traitor, working against the Doctor from within his own camp. Usually, in subsequent stories, he spent most of the time being captured and playing very little part in events (see “The King‘s Demons” for some evidence of this!).“Planet of Fire” finally sees Turlough develop and face up to the past he has been running from during his brief spell travelling with the Doctor. It was fortuitous that writer Peter Grimwade had penned the story that first introduced the character, and had already worked out his back story despite not referring to it in that debut adventure at all.

On the volcanic planet of Sarn, the inhabitants worship the fire god Logar: a silvery being said to dwell inside the planet’s central volcano, from where he watches over the Sarnians and indicates his displeasure with their doings by facilitating the occasional volcanic tremor. There are ‘Unbelievers’ among the population though, and these are condemned to the flames at the behest of chief elder Timanov -- here played by Jason King himself, Peter Wyngarde, who is giving his best Peter O’Toole impersonation throughout these episodes.

Because of a strange triangular marking on his upper arm, and having been discovered on the slopes of the planet’s central volcano when just a child, Malkon (Edward Highmore) has been designated the ‘Chosen One’ by Timanov and the other elders, but he is unhappy about his responsibility for condemning the unbelievers to a fiery death, and is haunted by strange dreams involving a crashed ship. Now that the volcano seems about to erupt, threatening to pour tons of molten lava through the tunnels in which the populace live, Timanov claims that it is a test of faith for the worshippers of Logar, and that with trust in their deity they will survive the cataclysm. This claim is put to the test though when two Sarnians, Amyand and Roskal, risk death totravel to the summit of the volcano and find nothing there except a crater!

This whole religious superstition vs. rationality theme is quite a common one for Doctor Who, and there is even a similar story to this in Russell T. Davies’s "Nu Who"; though, ironically, “The Fires of Pompeii” reverses the scenario of “Planet of Fire”, and posits that the eruption of Mount Vesuvius was in fact the end result of an alien spacecraft being hidden inside the volcano! 

Meanwhile on board the TARDIS, Kamelion taps into some co-ordinates emanating from an alien distress beckon, while plugged into the TARDIS data-banks, and sends the ship to Lanzarote on Earth where the strange transmitting cylinder device has been picked up by a team of archaeologists while sorting through the artifacts found in a sunken galleon off the coast of Spain. We never learn why this device is on Earth but the transmitter has the same triangular symbol on it found on the upper arm of Malkon on Sarn. The team leader, Professor Howard Foster (Dallas Adams) tricks his step-daughter Peri Brown (Nicola Bryant) into boarding a launch boat so that she will miss the flight to Morocco she has secretly arranged after meeting some English guys at the hotel. She decides to swim for shore anyway, but it is too far from the beach and she starts drowning. Luckily, Turlough has spotted her on the TARDIS monitor while the Doctor is away investigating the alien transmitter. He rescues her and brings her to the TARDIS.

The Doctor and Turlough then journey to Sarn (the Doctor unaware that Peri is now on-board) and  while Turlough and the Doctor are on the planet surface, Kamelion is overwhelmed by Peri’s emotional attachment to her step dad and takes on his form while she is dreaming about him. It seems to be an unusually disturbed dream by the way; what’s behind it is never revealed, but a subsequent original Doctor Who novella strongly implied that she may have been abused by him! But this transformation is only a temporary measure, for Kamelion is really now under the Master’s control and soon takes on his form.

During the course of this story we learn that Turlough also has the same triangular marking as is to be found on Malkon’s arm and on the transmitter device. Rather than a religious sign it is actually a prison marking given to political prisoners on Turlough’s home world of Trion. Turlough’s actions throughout this story are driven by his efforts to avoid coming into contact with people from his own world, since his father was on the wrong side in a Trion civil war, and he and his son Malkon were exiled to Sarn while Turlough (his other son) was condemned to live out his days on Earth in the 1980s. The crashed Trion spaceship is the source of the legends about a silver-suited god who lives in the crater. Trion technology has also been used to tap energy from the Volcano’s core.

The Doctor and the TARDIS crew get caught up in the religious strife on Sarn -- with the Kamelion under the control, and still in the shape of, the Master (K-Master) inveigling himself with Timanov and proclaiming himself  The Outsider which legend says will appear as Logar’s emissary. In one of the more entertaining spots of this sprawling story, we learn that the real Master has accidentally miniaturised himself with his Tissue Compression Eliminator and is operating the K-Master from inside a small box inside his TARDIS! He needs to tap the planet’s Numismaton gas emissions to restore himself before the planet is destroyed in the volcanic cataclysm!

In the final moments of the story, there is a suggestion that the Doctor and the Master are brothers when the Master hints as much just before he apparently dies (in fact Anthony Ainley returned during Colin Baker’s first season, and none of this was ever mentioned again!) and the Doctor has a shell-shocked and rather thoughtful expression on his face when he thinks that the Master has been vanquished forever.

The location proved to be an excellent choice for this adventure and Lanzarote is indeed a strange and beguiling landscape, which gives the series a much more filmic appeal than it usually possesses. There are moments here when you could almost be watching a Star Wars-style epic space opera and the supporting cast, which features a wonderfully overwrought performance by the ever-watchable Peter Wyngarde and an underused, though much appreciated, Barbara Shelley, brings some pleasing gravitas to the whole enterprise. Peter Howell’s music is also rather excellent, ranging from discordant, almost avant-garde sections to wondrously dated eighties-style synth cues. Peri is a curious character though; John Nathan-Turner’s  decision to not only make this new companion American, but to have English actress Nicola Bryant pretend to be an American off screen as well, in order to make the series appeal to a U.S. audience, is eccentric to say the least! Bryant makes the best of a difficult situation though and throws herself into the part with zeal, unaware at this point that she would be spending most of her time trying to reign in Colin Baker’s  wayward and unpredictable incarnation of the Doctor after Davidson’s departure in the very next story.

The trials and tribulations, from Kamelion’s ignoble exit to Anthoney Ainley’s over-the-top performance, and to the various actorly shenanigans indulged in by Peter Wyngarde, are all detailed (along with many other issues and anecdotes) in the entertaining and informative commentary by Peter Davidson, Mark Strickson, Nicola Bryant and director Fiona Cumming. It’s full of diverse stories from what appears to have been an eventful foreign shoot and the banter and anecdotes come thick and fast throughout, with little in the way of dead air. Davidson seems to look back on his years as the Doctor with a mixture of amused nostalgia and slight embarrassment, but he does talk about what fuelled his decision to leave the role, and his mixed feelings about someone else taking over from him.

 “Planet of Fire” comes as a two-disc special edition with extras spread across both discs. “The Flames of Sarn” is an extensive production featurette detailing all the main events of the shoot in Lanzerote with director Fiona Cumming, designer Mark Thornton and director of photography John Walker explaining how they approached the making of the adventure, while the regular cast run through their experiences, including trying to act with the unfortunate Kamelion prop. “Return to the Planet of Fire” sees Fiona Cumming and Malcolm Thornton revisiting the Lanzerote locations and noting the changes and in some cases the complete lack of them. The distinctive ceiling sculpture seen above Peter Wyngarde in the architecturally distinctive café-bar which doubled as Timanov’s dwelling, is still there; and the setting looks almost exactly the same. In “Designs on Sarn” designer Malcolm Thornton talks extensively about his inspiration for the production design of “Planet of Fire”, and an alternate edits & deleted and extended scenes section provides us with what look to be off-cuts from various sequences that were subsequently tightned for pacing reasons.

As well as the usual photo gallery, isolated score, PDF materials with Radio Times listings, programme subtitles and information track that we find on all Doctor Who discs (and which the two-part “The King’s Demons” also features) there is also an amusing “Continuity” section in which we are reminded just how primitive British TV was, even by 1983.

Over on the third disc in the set we also get a fantastic look behind the scenes of the story with the feature “Calling the Shots” in which the fraught and ridiculously rushed nature of studio shooting at the BBC during the ‘80s is revealed in all its glory, and where we learn that the lights went out at ten o’ clock sharp at Television Centre every night no matter what, with the result that the crew could often have as little as thirty seconds to get a scene in the can. The thick atmosphere is palpable in many of these behind the scenes shots, with the desperation in Fiona Cumming’s voice often undisguised. Finally “Remembering Anthony Ainley” is a nice tribute to this cricket-loving and very private actor who did a good job taking over a very distinctive role after Roger Delgado had previously made it his own. Most of the twelve minute feature is taken up with a video-recorded talk given by Ainley at a convention in which he talks amusingly about, among other things, ‘dropping Tom Baker from a great height’ (a reference to the fourth Doctor’s exit from the series by falling from the gantry of a radio telescope before transforming into Peter Davidson).

Most of the third disc is taken up with a movie version of “Planet of Fire”, introduced by Fiona Cumming and presented in widescreen with added digital effects. The CGI looks primitive and artificial though, and is nowhere near the level of the effects seen in the current version of the series. The whole thing seems utterly misguided and probably aimed at younger viewers who have grown up with the newer, flashier version of the series. If anything, it highlights the differences in production techniques between the series as it was then and how it is now rather than making up for them, and the added prologue is simply embarrassing -- sticking out like a sore thumb alongside the blown-up 16 mm film and video (which looks blurry when blown up to a 1:78.1 aspect ratio). This is the kind of thing that will be watched once out of morbid curiosity before you return to the original episodes as presented on the second disc.

Like most of Peter Davidson-era Who, these two stories are stylish and tasteful, yet over-ambitious and deeply flawed; but both are eminently watchable nonetheless, and are a pleasurable addition to the classic Who catalogue.  

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