Tuesday, 29 June 2010

DVD review: Dr Who - Kamelion Tales

Listen...that strange rasping noise you hear is undoubtedly the sound of 2 Entertain, purveyors of all things classic Dr Who on DVD, scraping the very barrel itself as they unleash upon an unsuspecting public surely the least essential Dr Who boxset – nay, the most inessential boxset of anything ever in the shape of two deadly-dull 1980s stories lumped together under the ‘Kamelion Tales’ umbrella Both yarns feature the only two televised appearances of a would-be TARDIS robot companion so inept and clumsy it’s hard to believe, twenty-seven years later, that anyone sane could ever have dreamed that including him in the show could ever be construed as a good idea. Neither story, in truth, cover themselves in glory and both pretty much represent Dr Who at its very nadir.

Incredibly, having learned nothing from the problems caused by K9 just a few years previously, then-producer John Nathan-Turner allowed himself to be creatively seduced by a rudimentary real-life robot pieced together by some techno types who really thought they were at the cutting edge of contemporary robotics by creating a tall, rather ugly gleaming man-machine which could – gasp – move its arms about a bit and flap its mouth. Nathan-Turner was convinced that, programmed correctly, the thing would be wandering all over the set, inter-acting with the human cast and adding an interesting new character dynamic to the show. Has anyone ever been more wrong? Introduced in this boxset’s two-parter ‘The King’s Demons’ Kamelion (fruitily voiced by Gerald Flood) Kamelion – a shape-changing robot acquired by the Master (Anthony Ainley) and used here to...er..double for King John in some rather low-key plot to sabotage the signing of the Magna Carta Kamelion just sort of...sits there. Its mouth flaps open, its hands move about – but it resolutely refuses to stand and perform properly because there was, in truth, no way it ever could. Kamelion opts to join the TARDIS crew at the end of the story and, once its shortcomings became evident, it was sidelined and/or forgotten until near the end of the following season when, just for the Hell of it, it was resurrected just to be killed off in Peter Grimwade’s dreary ‘Planet of Fire’ four-parter. In a story already over-burdened by the need to introduce Peri (In Her Bikini!), write out Turlough (the schoolboy assassin who’d been travelling with the Doctor since the previous season) and possibly the Master, set itself in Lanzarote and a volcanic planet,. Grimwade’s to be admired for having crafted a story which at least manages to put Kamelion’s shape-changing abilities at its core even if it’s got little else going for it. Kamelion is put out of its and our misery at the end of the story when the Doctor (Peter Davison) is forced to use the Master’s tissue compression device on it.

Combining these two stories not only underlines what an appalling idea Kamelion was in the first place, it also reminds us that in ‘The King’s Demons’ and ‘Planet of Fire’ we have two of the blandest and most boring Dr Who stories in the show’s five decades. And yes, I have seen ‘The Sensorites’. Curiously both stories have largely impressive production values; the location filming in ‘The King’s Demons’ creates a real sense of the 12th century even if the irritatingly-clumpy wooden flagstones of the studio castle sets rankle and ‘Planet of Fire’ impresses with its lavish location filming in the Canary Islands (even though suspension of disbelief is ruined as soon as the ‘holiday island’ is identified as Lanzarote and we’re later asked to believe that the all-too-obvious volcanic terrain of the island is really the planet Sarn). But both stories are, in themselves, just crushingly dull. There are no monsters here – no quivering rubber claws, no screeching robot killers, nothing slimy lurking in the shadows. The Big Bad of both episodes is the Master; in ‘The King’s Demons’ he adopts one of Ainley’s infamous disguises – here as Sir Gilles Estram (geddit??), the King’s Champion – and Ainley plays it with an often-incomprehensible cod French accent which would today be considered borderline racist. A clumsy, stagey swordfight between the Doctor and Sir Gilles rounds enlivens part one and it’s a real chore to keep the interest up in part two where really nothing of consequence happens. ‘Planet of Fire’ is duller still and by the time part three rolls around, complete with all its nonsense about the shrunken Master, Kamelion-as-Peri’s camp Stepdad, berobed locals led by Peter (Jason King) Wyngarde moaning about their God Logar, you’ll be willing it all to end quickly and painlessly or, in reality, you may well just switch off and never go back.
Classic Dr Who releases are winding down now – there are some gems still left (‘Day of the Daleks’, ‘Seeds of Doom,’ ‘Terror of the Zygons’) to see the light of DVD day – and I suppose stuff like this has to be released eventually. I have a fairly low opinion of much post-Tom Baker Dr Who, if I’m honest (and I am) but there are a few gems dotted about here and there. ‘Kamelion Tales’ are very definately not amongst them and, unless you’re a completist (or a masochist) you really don’t need this boxset in your life for anything other than the extras...

Speaking of which, a nice, low-key bunch here, the best of which are the features on the making of ‘Planet of Fire’ (where the cast and crew clearly had a much better time making the episodes than is evident from the tedium on screen), designer Malcolm Thornton talking about production design, Thornton and director Fiona Cumming revisiting the Lanzarote locations, a wry look at how Kamelion found his way onto the programme, a frustratingly-brief tribute to the late Anthony Ainley, and the usual bouncy commentaries. On a third disc, Fiona Cumming has re-edited ‘Planet of Fire’, much as she did with ‘Enlightenment’ on last year’s ‘Black Guardian trilogy’ boxset and this particular re-edit, new CGI and all, is final, absolute proof of what they say about silk purses and sow’s ears.

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