Tuesday, 24 February 2009

DVD Review: Dr Who - The Rescue and The Romans

2 Entertain/BBC’s ‘classic’ Dr Who DVD releases have been concentrating a bit too much for my liking on the 1980s period of the show, when creative inspiration was flagging in direct proportion to the audience’s loss of interest in the series. I was there at the time and I’ve no huge desire to see the majority of the episodes screened after about 1981. But it’s always nice to revisit the show’s glory days, especially the black-and-white 1960s era when William Hartnell was piloting the TARDIS as best he could and the show was still fresh, vibrant and new. The latest DVD release is a handy and surprisingly-impressive 2-disc box set of ‘The Rescue’ and ‘The Romans’, two serials (two episodes and four episodes) from season two (1964-65) when the series was still finding its feet, testing its boundaries and doing all sorts of weird and wonderful things.

There’s a sense in both of these serials that the production team – producer Verity Lambert, script editor/writer Dennis Spooner and writer and former script-editor David Whitaker - were really having fun with the show, well-established and hugely-popular after its first season. Having established the show’s format of ‘adventures in Space and Time’ the series was starting to flex its narrative muscles a bit in season two.

With the original TARDIS crew suffering its first change of personnel – the Doctor’s grand-daughter Susan (Carole Ann Ford) had opted to stay behind to help reconstruct a Dalek-ravaged future Earth in the previous story – ‘The Rescue’ was designed purely to introduce her replacement Vicki (Maureen O’Brien), the new girl aboard the Ship. As such it’s a flimsy, transparent affair but it serves its purpose well enough and even now impresses by its scale and its sense of visual ambition. Viewed by modern eyes it looks cheap and cheesy – the Sand Beast never looks anything less than hilarious – but let’s remember that, on a budget of about £2,000 per episodes the show was creating alien landscapes, civilisations, wrecked spaceships, monsters and working props. As such ‘The Rescue’ is surprisingly effective and, at two episodes, has just about enough going on to keep the viewer’s interest, even if the ‘twist’ in the tail – the real identity of the ‘monstrous’ Koquillion (or “cocky-lickin’” as Ian extraordinarily calls him at one point) – is so obvious it might as well have been the title of the story. The TARDIS lands on the planet Dido where the two survivors of the crew of a crashed Earth spaceship are waiting for a rescue ship to pick them up. But spiky-faced Koquillion stalks the planet with his deadly destructive spanner and Vicki is left along aboard the wreckage of the spaceship looking after the apparently-crippled Bennet (Ray Barrett). ‘The Recsue’ is a nice, warm little story. It’s remarkable how much the Doctor has softened across the first year of the series. Initially spiky and brittle, given to moments of brutality when the need arises and fiercely protective of his own privacy, he’s now become very much the dotty, absent-minded old Grand-dad figure the first Doctor is often remembered as. There are some moments of surprising tenderness as the Doctor pines for his lost Grand-daughter and, instead of treating Ian (William Russell) and Barbara (Jacqueline Hill) as trespassers on his Ship, they’re now his friends and travelling companions and they in turn are conscious of him mellowing, becoming older and less abrasive. Vicki seems like a natural choice as Susan’s replacement. Where there’d been an other-worldliness about Ford’s performance as Susan Vicki, with her short skirt and excitable manner, is more in keeping with the early days of the Swinging Sixties, and she’s clearly created in an attempt to make the young companion figure more easily-identifiable to the kids in the audience than the sometimes aloof and distant Susan. O’Brien does a creditable performance with an unexceptional script and although Vicki would, inevitably, become a bit one-note and irritating in later stories as the writers lost interest, she gives a good account of herself in ‘The Rescue’ and her addition to the TARDIS crew adds a lightness to the series and provides the show with a new character who can express genuine surprise at the dimensions of the TARDIS and the extraordinary places it takes its occupants.

Unfortunately for Vicki and her sense of adventure, the first place the TARDIS takes her is to Italy in 64AD and ‘The Rescue’ ends with the most literal of cliffhangers as the TARDIS, in an impressive visual effects sequence, materialises on a cliff edge and proceeds to topple over it. As the next story (and disc) opens, the TARDIS is nestling at the foot of a cliff, covered in vines, and its crew are relaxing and languishing about in togas in a Roman villa they've somehow appropriated while its owner is away. Writer Dennis Spooner provides the cast with some lovely, naturalistic dialogue – a bit of a rarity in the series - which allows them to indulge in some witty banter which really gives the impression that these are real people doing the most amazing things in amazing places. In best Dr Who tradition Spooner quickly splits the group up and launches two narrative threads; the Doctor, bored by sitting about and irritated by the chatter of his companions, decides to visit Rome with Vicki tagging along. Ian and Barbara are content to lounge about drinking wine and basking in the sun. But before long the Doctor is mistaken for murdered lyre player Maximus Petullian and Ian and Barbara are kidnapped by slave traders. ‘The Romans’ is the show’s first attempt at a comedy episode. albeit one set within the confines of what had previously been the rather po-faced and educational historical serials which had studded the first series, stories told with a bit of a wagging finger. Spooner’s not so interested in educating his young audience; he just wants to make them have a bit of a laugh. Although there’s a spine of serious drama running through the four episodes there’s a distinct air of farce about proceedings, especially when Emperor Nero (Derek Francis) appears on the scene and starts lusting after Barbara and chasing her around the corridors of his villa. The quips and gags come thick and fast but Spooner’s not one to avoid the clichés of the setting; slave galleys, Roman gladiators, stock footage of a lion…it’s all here and presented with gusto and a serious sense of tongue-in-cheek. Purists and historians may balk at the silliness of it (although, according to one of the documentaries on the disc, the historical trappings are actually quite accurate much of the time) but ‘The Romans’ is a story which knows it’s a romp and it’s quite fun to see the regulars, Hartnell especially, letting their hair(piece) down and enjoying themselves in a fruity, throwaway bit of fluff which, a frightening 45 years later, retains the freshness and vitality it must have had when it was originally-broadcast to a Dalek-hungry Dr Who audience.

All in all, this a welcome DVD package and it would be very nice to see more early days Dr Who making its way onto DVD rather than the succession of pompous, increasingly-tacky 1980s efforts which have been cluttering up the bargain bins in the last year or so.

THE DISCS: The picture restoration on both stories is remarkable, the images pinpoint sharp and a massive improvement on the fuzzy, muffled VHS release from several years ago. The restoration does lay bare the deficiencies in the production though; when the TARDIS lands in the cave on Dido in ‘The Rescue’ and the travellers stumble out through the doors, the rear wall of the cave is now clearly visible through the doors, suggesting that the TARDIS prop was assembled with only three walls! And the shambling, grinning Sand Beast was never ever meant to be viewed with such cold clarity! ‘The Romans’ looks quite gorgeous though; the sets are rich and vivacious, the dressings and costumes (many from the BBC’s then-extensive prop store) impressive and the story looks big and grand and expansive (not to mention expensive). There are some good extras too. ‘The Rescue’ boasts just a twenty-odd minute 'making of’ which offers on-screen memories from William Russll, Maureen O’Brien, Ray Barrett and some fans whilst ‘The Romans’ has an eclectic selection of bits and pieces. ‘What has The Romans Ever Done For Us?’ is an absorbing 30-plus minute look at the history of Rome and the Romans, the making of the story itself and other film and TV depictions of the era with contributions from the likes of Anthony Andrews and (ulp) Christopher Biggins, both of whom have donned togas and done their bit for the Roman Empire on the box. Elsewhere there’s a look at the Dr Who work of writer Dennis Spooner with fond recollections from his friend Brian Clemens and other luminaries involved in his episodes. Spooner, much-missed, is the sort of writer TV is crying out for these days. Then there’s an amusing, but barely relevant, segment from an old Blue Peter where Val, Lesley and Peter indulge in their own Roman banquet with a toga-clad John Noakes acting the slave (and the goat). Surreal. ‘Girls Girls Girls’ is a dynamic piece briskly chronicling the lifes and times of…well, the girls of the show during the 1960s, from Susan in 1963, right up to Zoe in 1969. Terrific fun. Elsewhere there are commentaries, photo galleries and a ghastly preview for the next DVD release, 1985’s ‘Attack of the Cybermen’ which despite the trailer’s dramatic Murray Gold-esque musical score, still looks like a cheap, tacky, tired piece of 1980s sci-fi tat from a show no-one was much bothered about anymore. No thanks.


Sunshine Superman said...

Good review, Paul. Can't have enough Hartnell/Troughton releases in my opinion...but then! Such a shame, you were doing so well until you decided to put down Attack Of The Cybermen. A rare example of some loose ends being tied up years later, I'm referring to Lytton and his evil coppers, of course! Great story. Maurice Colbourne and Brian Glover, can't go wrong there...

Paul Mount said...

Hi Den,

I'm really not at all keen on much post-1981 Dr Who, I'm afraid, and it tends to get fairly short shrift from me. I reckon Dr Who ended in 1981 and came back to vibrant life in 2005! But 'The Rescue/The Romans' has really given me a hunger for b&w Dr Who again, I must day!