This latest box set release in the DOCTOR WHO range, part of the BBC’s on-going restoration of the classic series’ adventures, is rather an unusual one -- and possibly something of a curate’s egg … Or, at the very least, an offbeat curiosity. It’s a collection that seems to be aimed squarely at the committed Whovian, rather than casual buyers who might also occasionally dip into the ‘classic’ WHO range every now and then because they quite like the current version of the series. We’re presented with three discs in total, two of which are devoted to the unaired and incomplete 1979/1980 six-part adventure “Shada”, which was written by Douglas Adams and starred Tom Baker as the Doctor … Or rather, it features two attempts by two different parties to present various versions of a story that never ever properly saw the light of day in the form that it was originally intended to be screened in. The second disc contains a host of relevant featurettes, two of them directly relating to the aborted making of “Shada”; while the third disc harbours a compelling assortment of documentaries and features headed by the acclaimed BBC documentary “More than Thirty Years in the TARDIS”. The latter was first released on video back in 1994 after originally having been aired on BBC 1 in celebration of the show’s 30th Anniversary the year before. As a whole then, this collection makes provision for a set of rather disparate materials which seem concerned not simply with assessing the classic series from a contemporary standpoint (as the documentary materials presented with other DVD releases in the range invariably do), but also with looking back and evaluating how the series and its history have been assessed and evaluated by other documentarians of its past -- and how our interest in and experience of the show’s legacy, especially during the fallow period when DOCTOR WHO was increasingly considered to be merely an irrelevant part of television history by all but the faithful few, has been developed across the last twenty years. How do we view those times, now that we have the unexpected privilege of living in an era when the show has never been more popular? If this seems like quite a bewildering, head-spinningly self-reflexive, even slightly absurd, situation for the DVD range to find itself in (although it’s a fairly understandable one given that most of the surviving original serials have now been released) – chewing over the history of the history of DOCTOR WHO’s emergence as the saleable franchise that it is itself now part of -- then at least its a situation which also entirely befits the unique and unpredictable imagination and talents of Douglas Adams -- whose genius and sense of the absurd is more than evident in what survives of “Shada”, despite its many flaws and its inherently incomplete nature.
The first version of this ill-fated serial to be presented for public consumption, appeared as a VHS cassette release in 1992, put out by BBC Video to accommodate the show’s still loyal hard-core fan base. These were the fans who had remained interested even though the now-cancelled series hadn’t actually been on air at this point for nearly four years. At the time, very little DOCTOR WHO existed in any officially released home viewing format and this fragmented version of a unseen story only came about at all because former producer John Nathan-Turner was then acting as a freelance consultant for BBC Video. JNT had tried to get the unseen serial released one time before -- in 1985 -- when Colin Baker was still playing the Doctor, intending to put it out as a Christmas special -- but Douglas Adams vetoed that attempt. The only reason this 1992 version ever saw the light of day at all was, according to Adams, because he accidentally signed the release papers for it, sent to him by the BBC, when they were inadvertently included amongst a batch of other forms requiring his signature sent by his agent! A decade later, in 2003 – the show’s 40th anniversary -- a Flash animated webcast version of the same, now legendary story, was produced for BBCi by Big Finish Productions, with Paul McGann voicing the role of the Doctor, Lalla Ward reprising her role as Romana and John Leeson now as the voice of K-9. Both versions are presented on disc one of this set, and the various merits and drawbacks of each will be considered in turn.
Written by DOCTOR WHO’s then -script editor Douglas Adams, who intended the story as his swan song just as “The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” was finally taking off and his recently published novel of the radio series was starting to sell by the bucket load, this six episode story was originally to have been the one that would see out season 17 of the series. Adams would be simultaneously bowing out of his (by all accounts torturous) script editing duties for the show at the same time as current producer Graham Williams vacated his post in favour of the show’s then location unit manager John Nathan-Turner, who would be taking over as producer at the start of the next series run. But "Shada" was not to be. Work on it wound up being abandoned, and the material recorded thus far was left languishing in the BBC vaults, despite JNT’s various attempts to salvage it later, because industrial action by technicians’ unions had resulted in its filming being indefinitely postponed. All five days of the location shoot had already been completed, but only one of a planned total of three studio sessions were in the can. When the strike did finish, a few days later, DOCTOR WHO was not top of the BBC’s priority list, despite its popularity at the time, since the dispute had pulled the plug on the entirety of the company’s output and prestige shows hogged available studio time in the desperate race to catch up.
And so most viewers at the time were quite unaware that six episodes of one of the best loved family shows on British TV, primarily written by one of the biggest names currently working in British sci-fi, had been lost, apparently forever. Down the years, though, the unseen serial has, predictably, generated a semi mythic cult status for itself within WHO fandom, since just enough of it was filmed and known to exist to whet the appetites of fans and stimulate their imaginations, regarding what might and should have been. To add to the mystique even more, Adams recycled many elements of the original plot and its setting in his subsequent novel “Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency”. The 1992 video release of “Shada” featured the hours’ worth or so of original scenes shot for the story by director Pennant Roberts back in 1979, edited together with a few newly created effects shots, that were added to complete some of the sequences involving the floating mind-draining sphere that played such a pivotal role in the story, as well as a newly recorded score provided by Keff McCulloch, who attempts to mimic the distinctive in-house style of composer Dudley Simpson (provider of nearly all of the series’ incidental music by the late seventies). McCulloch was previously responsible for the arrangement of the series theme music, heard throughout the whole of Sylvester McCoy’s tenure, as well as for a lot of the show’s incidental music in the late eighties. His synth-based approach here is clearly reminiscent of the McCoy era’s musical identity, despite the attempt to replicate Simpson’s style of arrangement -- reminding the viewer that this is very much a shotgun wedding of sensibilities, a hybrid that melds late-seventies and late-eighties ideas of WHO to create something that’s slightly other and removed from the main body of the series, not just a straightforward recreation of a missing classic.
The linking narration for this project was to be provided by Tom Baker, who was employed to appear on screen, dressed in a suit, to explain what would have been happening during the segments of the story that were never actually filmed. This version starts then, with Baker, ten years older and greying, strolling amongst the monster exhibits that at the time were being displayed at the Museum of Moving Images as part of a Doctor Who themed exhibit called “Behind the Sofa”, reminiscing (‘I was irresistible in those days’) and ticking off some of his past adversaries among the displays (‘Ah, the Giant Robot … beat you cock! Cybermen! Beat you. Daleks! Beat you, too!) Spotting the display stand of a rather obscure creature, composed of jagged piles of what look like hexagonal slates, Baker is induced to remember the one and only appearance of ‘the Krargs’ in the unscreened story “Shada”, and after a few amusing comments on the subsequent careers of some of the cast and crew (‘Douglas Adams! Poor Douglas - whatever became of him?’), the first episode begins proper, with the traditional time tunnel title sequence familiar from the Baker era.
For the first three episodes, Baker’s on-screen contributions as a narrator are only minimally required. But as we move into the later episodes, his scripted summaries of the missing action become longer and much more frequent. In terms of its enjoyment value as a bona fide DOCTOR WHO story, this version is inevitably a slightly frustrating and inadequate proposition. None of the later scenes that are supposed to take place on the Time Lords' prison planet of Shada, for instance, could be included in the on screen action because they would all have been filmed as a block during the third studio session, which, of course, never occurred. Thus, most of the climax of the story is related as a voice-over summery. On the other hand, what did get filmed, especially the five idyllic days of location work shot on 16 mm film in and around Cambridge and its historic colleges, is enormously evocative, suggesting a possible classic might have been in the making. In the end though, it is very difficult to evaluate objectively how it all would have turned out. Douglas Adams, for instance, was adamant that the script wasn’t very good. And yet many participants seem to have found the experience extremely rewarding and are keen to enthuse about it -- and Adams’ script in particular -- at great length. This goes for Tom Baker as well, and he was notorious for usually being savagely scathing and very vocal about the inadequacies of some of the material he was given to work with, especially during the Graham Williams era.
“Shada” as it stands in this compromised early-‘90s attempt to resurrect it, skitters wildly between some of Adams’ most hugely imaginative and freshly executed ideas one minute to some of the most drearily hackneyed and awkwardly staged material the next. The story is brimming with elaborate, mind-twisting ideas and detailed allusions that are typical of Adams’ work in general, hinting that this story has had more of an influence on the show’s current incarnation than one might’ve assumed -- and there are some wonderful supporting characters, too. But, there are also more than a few lazy, throwaway conventions being pandered to in the hopes that people would have taken it all as being somehow ‘ironic’. That said, Adams clearly draws a great deal of inspiration from setting the story in an environment he knows well and which is personal to him, while the screenplay relishes the entwining (as does the viewer) which the familiarity of the contemporary setting enables him to engineer -- bringing a nostalgia for his own past as a Cambridge undergraduate studying literature at St Johns College together with some detailed, complex elaborations on the continuity of one of the country’s most watched sci-fi adventure series.
The basic story sees the Doctor (Tom Baker) and his current companion, the Time Lady Romana (in her second incarnation, played by Lalla Ward), drawn to present day Cambridge after they receive a request for help from an old Gallifreyan friend: this is a retired Time Lord who goes by the name of Professor Chronotis (Denis Carey) and who has been living in his shabby, book-lined rooms at Cambridge University in one guise or another, for the past three hundred years! It turns out that a brilliant but megalomaniacal and narcissistic alien called Skagra (Christopher Neame) has devised a mad plot to control the entire Universe by literally becoming it. He’s conned a load of the Universe’s best and brightest Think Tank scientists and thinkers into helping him develop a spherical device that can remotely store minds inside its advanced circuitry. Unfortunately, his first action is to use this sphere to drain the minds of his colleagues through a method he calls psychoactive extraction. He then sets out to track down a special Time Lord artifact that will help him locate the forgotten planet of Shada: the place where the Time Lords hide away all the most dangerous criminals in the Universe. One of these criminals is a charismatic Time Lord renegade called Salyavin – a being with the power to project his thoughts into the minds of others and thus control them. Combining these two powers will enable Skagra to drain every intelligent life form in the Universe of its mind by using the sphere and insert his own instead with Salyavin’s powers. Thus Skagra will become the Universe, and, effectively, a self-created god!
Let’s deal with the two most disappointing facets of this story first: Skagra is a poor villain with next to no characterisation of any real note. A strutting, empty repository of WHO villain clichés tarted up in a floppy hat and a camp shiny cape, and drawing more than a few querying looks from the students of Cambridge University circa 1979, who can be glimpsed doing bemused double takes in the background of shots as Christopher Neame (“Lust for a Vampire”, ”Dracula AD, 1972”) strides about Kings Parade, Cambridge sporting a glittery white romper suit that makes him look like Dick Emery doubling as a member of ABBA ,while clutching a carpet bag with his precious floating, mind-draining sphere hidden inside. The conceit is that Skagra has, like the Doctor, travelled in his Invisible spacecraft (parked in nearby Grantchester Meadows, next to a cowpat) halfway across the Universe to present-day Cambridge because Professor Chronotis has in his possession the ancient book, once stolen from the Time Lords’ home planet of Gallifrey; a book which is, in fact, one of the artifacts of the first Time Lord Rassilon, and therefore imbued with unfathomable powers. ‘The Worshipful and Ancient Law of Gallifrey’ is written in coded Gallifreyan and contains the answer to the secret of Shada and therefore Salyavin’s whereabouts. Unfortunately, the increasingly absentminded Chronotis has misplaced the book, which has ended up in the possession of one of his undergraduate physics students, a young man called Chris Parsons (Daniel Hill), who takes it to the Cavendish Laboratories to be analysed by his student girlfriend Clare Keightley (Victoria Burgoyne).
Neame is pretty much forced to camp it up here really, since there’s no attempt to imbue Skagra with any motivation beyond that of the usual megalomaniac who wants to dominate the Universe. There’s only a cursory explanation for how he even knows all about the secretive Time Lord history of Rassilon and the time-prison Shada, an explanation which is quickly shoehorned in unconvincingly at the end of the last episode. The idea that the Time Lords have a special place where they keep all of these kinds of criminals safely locked away in a fortress built into a planetoid in a deliberately forgotten corner of the Universe where they’ll be out of harm’s way, is a typical Douglas Adamsy, jokey way of trying to wriggle out of the fact that this is a pretty lame excuse for a villain -- and his monster henchmen, the Krargs, are even poorer: conscious of the fact that DOCTOR WHO needed its quotient of lumbering men in rubber monster suits in the ‘70s, but with no real interest in catering to that side of the show, Adams comes up with a monster that actually looks like it’s consciously meant to be a massively derisory effort, as though to cynically sneer at the whole folly of the DOCTOR WHO monster as an convention that needs taking down a peg or two. These lumbering Krargs are grown in special vats on Skagra’s command ship, harvested from a non-organic crystalline silicate substrate (making them somewhat tenuous kin to the equally unloved Krotons), then later ‘en-souled’ with Skagra’s stolen and enslaved minds. But they’re characterless and uninteresting in realisation, and spend most of their thankfully limited screen time lumbering about to little gain while providing laser-blast fodder for K-9.
However, the potential was always there to do much more with Skagra as a character, as Gareth Roberts was able to demonstrate in his recent novelisation and expansion of the story. In the end, the per usual rushed nature of the production leaves it suffering all the omissions and botched together inadequacies that affected many scripts during this troubled season – they just look more glaring set alongside the other better, more imaginative elements the story also contains. The mind-emptying sphere, seen surreally floating about the picturesque streets of Cambridge and knocking down shoppers, draining the minds of local riverside anglers and chasing the Doctor across bridges and down quaint Cambridge courtyards, was clearly ripped from Don Coscarelli’s “Phantasm” (but stripped of all that nasty head-drilling business), which came out earlier that same year -- although its gravity defying perambulations don’t seem to bother casual pedestrians on the streets who ignore it completely; or indeed the Cambridge St Johns College Choir, who make an unusual cameo appearance at one point, standing on a street corner singing their a cappella version of Glenn Miller’s “Chattanooga Choo Choo”, and carrying on with the performance even as Baker, trademark scarf flailing colourfully in the autumn sun, cycles by while hotly pursued by the evil silver orb!
Such scenes are indicative of the kind of material that makes “Shada” stand out among its peers from this era though, especially next to the often threadbare stories of the otherwise inflation-hit season 17. The extra money that was set aside to pay for the extensive amount of location footage that graces this serial, shot on 16 mm film, gives it that extra glint of quality. The scenes of the Doctor and Romana (who is kitted out in a stunning Edwardian era summer dress here) punting on the river Cam and those scenes shot around the city of Cambridge and its historic University for instance, particularly the ones that make use of the exterior of Emmanuel College which doubles for the fictional St Chedd’s -- based on Adams’ memories of St John’s College, where he studied English Literature (the production team tried to get permission to film there, but were denied access) -- and the gothic design of the 15th century exterior of King’s College Chapel, imbue the story with a quality air of real-world authenticity sometimes missing from other stories in this season, while only highlighting the camp ridiculousness of Skagra when he’s forced to stalk about this refined setting in his space-age, glam getup. There’s a nice improvised moment courtesy of Tom Baker when, after attempting to blend in by stealing the casual clothes of a motorist he’s earlier carjacked, Skagra confronts the Doctor (who has managed to track down the Gallifreyan code book the villain has been keen to obtain) on one of the many bridges that span the River Cam: Baker looks him up and down and cattily observes: ‘I’m not too keen on your tailor!’
The Doctor also gets to interact with ordinary people here, who become part of the story in a way that seems to anticipate certain tendencies of the style in which the series is scripted today. Chris Parsons as played by Daniel Hill may well be something of a Mary Sue character for Adams, in that he shares various qualities with the author and exists in the same environment as Adams would have during his university years, but there’s a rather sweet mentor-student relationship depicted between the Doctor and Chris that is fairly unusual for the times and which gives Adams a chance to wax lyrical about the provisional nature of scientific knowledge (‘you know all about Einstein, Planck, Shönberg? … then you have an awful lot to un-learn!’) while Chris gets to team up with a rather haughty Romana and K-9 on board Skagra’s invisible ship during the middle part of the story. The story is filled with outrageous Adams-isms, of course – sometimes rather more than the rushed-into-production script is able to make coherent: a written Time Lord code book that affects time itself as its pages are turned within range of the field generated by a TARDIS time rotor; a rule-bound intelligent computer that gets confused by conflicting logical claims; or university rooms that turn out to be Professor Chronotis’ ancient TARDIS – a variety salvaged from a TARDIS scrapheap with hidden steampunk brass controls behind an oak compartment (the TARDIS scrapheap is an idea that cropped up again recently in Neil Gaiman’s story “The Doctor’s Wife”) . There’s a small patch of irrational timelessness &spacelessness hidden behind a tea trolley in Chronotis’ study (the original script placed it ‘behind the sofa’) and when Chronotis apparently dies at one point in the story, he’s able to be resurrected when Chris’s companion, the lab student Claire, inadvertently hits a switch in the Professor’s study rooms cum TARDIS which causes his time fields to get tangled between ‘two irrational time interfaces’. ‘Think of me as a paradox inside an anomaly’ explains the Professor. Later he has to attempt, with Clare’s help, to extricate his TARDIS from this time-based paradox, but in such a manner that he won’t suddenly cease to exist! If this kind of mixed-up, timeline-based, crazy-paving plotting sounds familiar, then you’ve obviously been watching the show recently. In an interview for a recent issue of Doctor Who Magazine, author Gareth Roberts talked about the publication of his novelisation of “Shada”. One of the things he says he noticed when he was reading through Adams’ original scripts and notes as research for the novel was how similar the Doctor’s characterisation was in Adams’ writing to the way he’s written in today’s version of the series, and how much of Tom Baker’s dialogue would have sat equally well in a script intended for Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant or Matt Smith.
But there is also something both playful and intricately rigorous about Adams’ mad flights of fancy and the way they’re mixed in with ordinary everyday details that cause certain elements of “Shada” to remind one heavily of Steven Moffat’s approach to writing in general -- and it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the current show-runner has been heavily influenced by this very story, particularly in the direction some of his story arcs have taken across the three seasons Moffat has so far been able to plot the overall course of the show. A detail such as the Doctor meeting St Chedd’s College porter and finding out that the man already knows him from trips into the college’s past the Doctor hasn’t yet made but will do in his own future, is a detail common to the current series but which was almost never seen in its ‘’classic’ incarnation. Such ideas are used for comic effect to accentuate Professor Chronotis’ absent-minded dottiness (an already slightly senile time traveller is apt to get very confused indeed!), for instance in the scene where Chronotis is first introduced to Romana: ‘Delighted to meet you, I’ve heard so much about you,’ says the Professor in greeting. ‘Have you?’ remarks a confused Doctor. ‘Well not yet, but I will have done!’ Even the causal way the TARDIS is introduced in this story, simply shown sitting unexplained in the corner of Professor Chronotis’ untidy study while he potters around not even noticing it, feels incredibly modern. Perhaps encouraged by the cutting excellence of the scripted dialogue, Tom Baker seems incredibly energised and on form here, during a period when the improvised excesses of his performance were threatening to topple the show into outright parody. An on form Baker lifts any DOCTOR WHO story, but Baker gets all sorts of business here that makes the fourth Doctor seem vital again after the actor had started to seem fed up with the role.
Yet the quirky humour and sparky imagination of “Shada” still aren’t able to help this version of the story function properly as a fully-fledged drama. Too much of the climax of it is left to the imagination of the viewer and characters such as Claire Keightley (good as Victoria Burgoyne is in her handful of scenes) are left underdeveloped and floundering in a vacuum of appropriate context because of the limited amount of material available to make them fully rounded. A second attempt to complete the story was made by the BBC in 2003 when Big Finish were commissioned to make an audio play version which was then presented as a webcast using flash animation of illustrations provided by comic book artist Lee Sullivan. It’s included here as an extra feature accessible by opening a web browser when the disc is placed in the DVD ROM drive of a PC or Macintosh. Gary Russell re-worked the story to make it fit in with the continuity which had been established in the wake of the original story: portions of the material relating to the Doctor’s punt on the river Cam had previously been reused and incorporated into the anniversary special “The Five Doctors” after Tom Baker had refused to appear in that reunion special. In that version, the Doctor and Romana are snatched from time by a time scoop and are prevented from completing the task they came to Cambridge to accomplish. In the animated version, the eighth Doctor, as then played in a range of Big Finish audio dramas by Paul McGann since he first debuted in the 1996 TV movie (his one and only appearance on screen in the role) goes back to Gallifrey where former companion Romana has now become the Time Lord Council President, and persuades her and K-9 to come back to Cambridge 1979 to find out what they were originally meant to have done back when ‘I was all teeth and curls.’ This version allows one to get a clearer grasp of the story, although it’s still full of plot holes and incoherency. There’s a better, frostier characterisation of Skagra from Andrew Sachs, and his illustrated counterpart is a bit more convincing than Christopher Neame’s camp turn. Susannah Harker is given a chance to bring a bit more depth to Clare, although Sean Biggerstaff’s Scottish Chris Parson’s feels wooden and soporific and James Fox’s Professor Chronotis can’t compete with Denis Carey’s excellent performance in the live action version. There are a few extra Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy references included in the re-vamped script and overall this version is an adequate means of experiencing a fully realised version of the story, although it also makes one more aware of some of its other shortcomings as well. The disc also features text based production notes which, in the absence of a commentary for this release, are of even more interest than usual in filling in the background on the troubled production.
Disc two of the set features four excellent documentaries plus a “Shada” photo gallery that’s far more extensive than one would have imagined for a story that was never actually aired. “Taken Out of Time: the Making and Breaking of Shada” is a fairly traditional 25 minute production history of the serial with contributions from actors Tom Baker and Daniel Hill, production manager Ralph Wilton, design assistant Les McCullum, production assistant Olivia Bazalgette and director Pennant Roberts (recorded in 2005). Hill and Bazalgette first met during the location shoot for “Shada” and were later happily married and had children. They’re still together today so the whole experience brings back pleasant memories for the couple, who are seen here revisiting the Cambridge University shooting locations: ‘it was the most glorious week of filming I’d ever experienced,’ says Hill; ‘perfect weather and great communication between the team.’ Hill in particular imparts how he was a huge fan of Douglas Adams’ work and the quality of the script had a hugely positive effect on him. Baker concurs on this (‘… and I could be very stroppy about the scripts!’) and relates how enthusiastic he and everybody else was about getting to shoot so much of the story on location in Cambridge (‘it was so much more interesting than the usual quarry or factory’). However, hints of future troubles for the production occurred after a planned night shoot was disrupted by a lightning strike by an electricians’ union and the whole chase sequence involving the Doctor and Skagra’s Sphere had to be re-organised at short notice to take place the following day in a different location. Angus Smith from the St John’s College choir explains how he and his colleagues came by their cameo appearance, and then the disappointment they all experienced when the serial was never shown. The documentary then moves onto the reversals for the studio blocks and how, after successfully completing the first recording session, the production team found themselves locked out of the studio after lunch. Pennant Roberts’ ambitious attempts to plan around the lost session and record all the material needed to complete the story in the next block unfortunately fell through when it was revealed that other more prestigious BBC shows had priority over available studio time when the dispute ended. Tom Baker expresses deep regret at the end of the film about how badly he treated producer Graham Williams in those days, in light of the fact that his time on the programme ended with this disappointing production failure. This is another comprehensive ‘making of’ which covers everything one needs to know about the circumstances of the original attempt to make “Shada”, but it doesn’t cover the assembling of the 1992 video release – which seems as much a part of the story as anything, considering how that’s the only reason we have the story in its near original form at all.
“Now and Then” is another instalment of the regular series which goes back to the original locations of classic DOCTOR WHO stories: this one is particularly interesting since it also looks at the locations that were originally planned to appear but didn’t because of lack of time or re-scheduling caused by industrial action. Once again, this is informative and engrossing, and comprehensive in the detail assembled by producer Richard Bignell. It runs for 12 minutes.
“Strike Strike Strike!” is a fabulous 27 minute documentary that looks back at the history of industrial relations in the broadcast industries in the Britain of the sixties, seventies and eighties – and particularly how it impacted on DOCTOR WHO in each decade, both directly, when disputes affected the making of the programme itself, and indirectly when power cuts during the early seventies meant that many viewers never got to see the last episode of “The Curse of Peladon”; or when a lengthy strike by ITV technicians meant that the show actually got its highest ever ratings during the broadcast of “The City of Death”. The demarcation disputes that could flare up at a moment’s notice during the making of the show are examined, and there’s a lovely example of the odd ways such disputes could manifest themselves taken from Tom Baker’s first story “Robot”, when a step-ladder, left on one of the sets during a scene shifters’ strike, had to be written into a number of scenes simply because nobody else but the contracted workers were allowed to remove it. Peter Purves recalls the time “Blue Peter” had to be broadcast from one of the sets of DOCTOR WHO because of a studio strike, and former producer John Wiles is quoted explaining how a dressers’ strike came about after William Hartnell insulted his dresser. This documentary presented by broadcaster Shaun Ley, features contributions from ex union officials, politicians and ex producers and actors involved in the making of DOCTOR WHO from various eras, and shows how strikes sometimes improved the quality of the show as well as hampered it. “Spearhead from Space”, for instance, would never have been entirely shot on location and on film if it had not been for a strike by studio cameramen who wanted more money for operating the new, more complicated and bulky colour cameras recently brought in for the change-over from black & white to colour broadcasting. The second disc is also home to a 30 minute documentary narrated by Louise Jameson that looks at the development of the female companion in DOCTOR WHO from the sixties to the present day, with contributions from broadcaster Samira Ahmed and Emma Price, who analyse how the ‘twisted ankle’ cliché of the early series (in which females were only there to be rescued or scream) gradually gave way to a, at first, rather patronising and grudging treatment of feminism (or ‘Women’s Lib’ at it was often called) which eventually evolved into more complex relationships between the Doctor and his female companions.
Over on disc three, we’re presented with the 87 minute documentary in three instalments, “More Than Thirty Years in the TARDIS” -- at the time the most comprehensive film yet made on the history of the series. Over the course of the three episodes included here back to back, we get some interesting tit bits placed side by side with anecdotes and opinions that will be familiar to most fans. But the film also includes some material that attempts to recreate moments from the then-defunct series, while 1990s ‘celebrities’ and TV personalities such as Toyah Wilcox, Lowri Turner and England cricket ace Mike Gatting discuss their childhood experiences and memories of watching the programme. Jon Pertwee, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy appear, as do companions Carol Ann Ford, Nicola Bryant, Elisabeth Sladen and even Roberta Tovey from the two Peter Cushing Dalek movies, each of them in little mini episodes shot especially for the documentary. Nicholas Courtney comes up against some Autons; and Daleks and Sontarans also make an appearance. Archive footage of Tom Baker and Lalla Ward’s commercial for Prime Computers; faded, super 8 colour home cine-movie footage of William Hartnell making a public appearance in the 1960s; and an interview with his real-life Granddaughter Jessica Carney, add extra interest to this retrospective. The film ends with the teasing possibility of the show’s return under the auspices of Stephen Spielberg (of course, that didn’t quite pan out in the end) and then bows out on a new scene staged on a recreation of the Dalek Emperor set from “Power of the Daleks”, as Frazer Hinds and Debra Watling are menaced by Daleks chanting ‘we will return!’ – a promise they did indeed keep twelve years later!
Next up, a touching 25 minute look back at the life of probably the show’s most loved supporting artist, Nicholas Courtney -- aka Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stuart – presented by his biographer and friend Michael McManus, in “Remembering Nicholas Courtney”. McManus conducted interviews with Courtney intended for a biographical feature on his life but unfortunately the actor became too ill with cancer for the sessions to continue and they only got to talk about his early childhood and the start of his career. Some of this film is included in the early part of this documentary though, along with clips from older interviews and excerpts from various TV appearances. Courtney talks about growing up in Cairo, Egypt while his father worked for the Foreign Office during The Second World War, and how his school days were made miserable as a bullied child who finally learned to stand up for himself after he spurned University for National Service in young adulthood. Egypt was where his love of the English language and of performing were born though, and after acting school Courtney found a job in weekly rep in Northampton, eventually getting noticed by director Douglas Camfield, who cast him in his first role for DOCTOR WHO opposite William Hartnell as space agent Bret Vyon in “The Daleks’ Master Plan”, after he’d moved to London and already obtained several supporting roles in TV series of the day like “The Avengers” and “The Champions” . He was remembered by Camfield and cast again in “The Web of Fear”, also, initially, in a minor role. But fate intervened when David Langton gave up the role of Colonel Lethbridge-Stewart because of other commitments and so Camfield recast Courtney and gave him this much bigger part, where, crucially, he got to survive at the end. When the character appeared again a year later in “The Invasion”, he’d been promoted to Brigadier and put in charge of UNIT, and he was later to become a regular recurring character during the Jon Pertwee years when the third Doctor, exiled on Earth by the Time Lords, came to work as a scientific advisor for the alien invasion-battling task force. The biography naturally breezes through the highlights of Courtney’s several years on the programme and Tom Baker drops in for a chat about their short time together before the UNIT years eventually came to an end. There are clips from his other television appearances included here as well: a sketch from “The Two Ronnies”, a supporting role in “Juliet Bravo” and his first meeting with Peter Davison when Courtney played a bank manager in the sitcom “Sink or Swim”. McManus talks about Courtney’s diligent work for the actors’ union Equity in later life and about his own friendship with the man. This is a fitting tribute to an actor who developed a fairly minor role into one of the show’s best-loved characters, establishing a great rapport with Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker in the 1970s and making several guest appearances as an older version of the same character alongside Davison and McCoy in the eighties.
The “Doctor Who Stories” series continues with Peter Purves ‘ recollections of his broadcasting career in the sixties and seventies for this 14 minute featurette, giving an affectionate if slightly jaundiced account of the lot of a young jobbing actor who found himself briefly appearing every week in one of the most popular shows on TV. Purves talks about his few years on the show with William Hartnell, selecting highlights and a few low lights of the period; then he moves on to ponder on the difficulty he encountered in sustaining his acting career after leaving the show, only to find himself regularly presenting features on DOCTOR WHO in his capacity as presenter for the BBC’s children’s magazine show “Blue Peter” in the 1970s.
“The Lambert Tapes” is an engrossing 11 minute look back at the very beginnings of DOCTOR WHO from the point of view of its first producer, the late Verity Lambert, who talks here about being contacted by head of BBC series Donald Wilson and Sidney Newman as a lowly 27 year-old production assistant, and being offered the job of producer on a new show they were developing. Lambert, interviewed several years ago, talks about turning up on her first day at BBC Centre for a production meeting and finding that Newman and Wilson, the only two people she knew in the building, were both on holiday, and that she was both the youngest and the only woman in the place. There were early battles with the BBC Children’s Programme Department, who regarded the show as the Drama department trespassing on its turf; and Verity talks about how she had to replace the show’s first producer who intended to side-line her and make all the decisions himself. This is a brief but fascinating glimpse into the male dominated culture of the BBC and the beginnings of its entrenched attitudes being challenged in the context of the radical innovations in the channel’s programming, as TV became more and more sophisticated.
Finally, a rather light and fluffy piece called “Those Deadly Divas” running 22 minutes, features writer Gareth Roberts, ex Doctor Who Magazine editor Clayton Hickman and actors Camille Coduri, Tracy-Ann Oberman and Kate O’Mara talking about the show’s best female villains and ‘divas’ down the years, although O’Mara naturally steals it because she is, let’s face it, the ultimate diva!
“Shada” was, of course, never transmitted, so no PDF Radio Times listings for that one. There is, though, a listing and Radio Times summery for “More Than Thirty Years in the TARDIS” included on the third disc which is accessible by placing the DVD in the DVD ROM drive on your computer. There’s more than enough value for money provided with this set, but it is definitely one for the hard-core fan that provides a rich and considered history of the show’s classic era and of its great half-made classic.