43 – The Ambassadors of Death

Ask most fans to name their favourite serial from Season 7, and the two most likely candidates would be Inferno or Spearhead from Space. It is a testament to the quality of Jon Pertwee’s first season as the Doctor that the other two stories are also absolute humdingers. The Ambassadors of Death is perhaps even more unusual than The Silurians because it should not have been a success. Where Silurians was specifically written for Pertwee, Ambassadors of Death was originally written to feature the Second Doctor with Jamie and Zoe, and suffered innumerable rewrites and production problems. Somehow, despite these issues, the BBC managed to turn out a thrilling and classic adventure.

The story centres around a rescue attempt to bring back lost astronauts from Mars Probe Seven. The rescue capsule returns to earth, but it transpires that the three suited beings inside are not the original astronauts, but alien ambassadors. The Doctor and UNIT have to discover why the ambassadors have come, where the original astronauts are being held, and why their efforts to reconcile earth and the alien powers have been hindered thus far.

We must recognise that a lot is going on in this story, in no small part due to the continual re-writing of the script. Despite this, and perhaps because the story runs to seven episodes, it works astonishingly well. Thread one is the Doctor trying to understand the alien intelligence communicating with UNIT, being continually set back by internal saboteurs. The second thread is the ambition of the head of the saboteurs, namely to hold on to the ambassadors to provoke an interplanetary conflict. On top of that there is a third thread – that the hired muscle employed by the saboteur is keen to use the alien ambassadors to serve his own criminal schemes. The interplay between the three should not work, but amazingly it does.

Perhaps the key reason it works is the character of Reegan, the villain’s hired muscle. Rather like Scorby from The Seeds of Doom, Reegan is amoral, resourceful, and quite cheerfully looking out for his own interests. Every moment that he arranges new sabotage, or engineers a break in, you cannot help but admire his audacity, and it’s the strength of this character that ties the different threads in the story together. The other characters also play their roles superbly, including the highly under-rated Caroline John as Liz Shaw.

This was one of the very last Pertwee DVDs I purchased, not by choice, but because its release was delayed many times as the BBC looked to restore the colour to the surviving black and white prints. While it is occasionally noticable, it certainly does not detract from a story I was very much looking forward to, and certainly not disappointed by. As with all seven part stories, you may well be advised to break the viewing into smaller chunks – but you will thoroughly enjoy the tale that is told!


44 – The Dalek Invasion of Earth

I have to confess to two heresies – that the first version I saw of this adventure was the movie version featuring Peter Cushing as the Doctor; and that I didn’t really enjoy this adventure when I first saw it on UK Gold. I think I expected more, having enjoyed The Daleks very very much indeed when I had first watched it. In time however, I have only come to enjoy and appreciate this story more and more.

Continue reading

45 – Image of the Fendahl

This is a very unusual story in terms of my appreciation of it. I had very good memories of watching the VHS (in part I think because my mum wouldn’t let dad show me it, so we had to watch it covertly!) but then re-watched it years later and was a little disappointed. I then bought the DVD not expecting much, and thoroughly enjoyed it. So I will linger a little to explore why I have had such a hot and cold relationship to the story.

As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, while producer Graham Williams was certainly cleaning up the show’s act in Season 15, Image of the Fendahl would not have been the least out of place during the Philip Hinchcliffe era, and in many ways is just as horrifying as the season opener Horror of Fang Rock. The story centres around a skull that dates back many years before mankind could have existed, with scientists exploring how it could be so old. The skull in fact belongs to a being known as the Fendahl, a  life force draining malevolent being of power rather undermined by manifesting itself later as a rather attractive young lady! The Fendahl is a gestalt entity that influenced the evolution of man to create the carriers (ie. human beings) required to manifest. The chief scientist is in fact being manipulated by his deputy, who heads up a coven believing they can harness the power of the Fendahl to their own ends.

The story is in some ways a darker version (quite literally – most of it is at night-time) than the Pertwee adventure The Daemons – exploring how what appears to be the occult is in fact a form of alien science. It makes for quite a good adventure, and as with many other adventures in this season, it is Baker and Jameson as the TARDIS crew that make the difference – although it has to be said that the supporting cast in this story also acquit themselves very well, not least old Ma Tyler. It is a good watch and a clever story – but perhaps not one you should watch in the middle of the night!

46 – Horror of Fang Rock

Season 14 of Doctor Who pretty much almost got the series banned. Under Philip Hinchcliffe’s tenure, the show had a distinct element of gothic horror that had Mary Whitehouse and her associates crying for his blood. While new producer Graham Williams had a strict mandate to tone down the violence, the first story of Season 15 certainly didn’t tone down the horror element.

I must confess that I did not enjoy this story when I first saw it on VHS – there was a slight element of it being too dark for my tastes. By the time I purchased the DVD however, this had very firmly shifted to an appreciation of just how good and how clever the story is – to the point indeed that earlier I blogged that I would love to see the Rhutans, the villains of this particular story, make a comeback in modern Doctor Who. Worthy to be mentioned in the same breath as other base-under-seige style stories, Horror of Fang Rock is a fine illustration of how the BBC allied economy of means to richness of result.

The story sees Louise Jameson’s first full season as Leela alongside the fourth Doctor, and they land not in Brighton (as promised) but at Fang Rock lighthouse, where they discover that the group in the lighthouse (to whit – the crew, plus a passengers of a wrecked yacht) are at threat from an unknown alien intelligence. The alien transpires to be a Rhutan – the oft mentioned but until then unseen foe of the Sontaran empire. His purpose is to scout the planet Earth as a potential base for the next attack on the Sontarans, and he is cheerfully wiping out any being that gets in his way. The Doctor’s task is made all the more difficult by the Rhutan’s capacity to change form – so for most of the story he appears in the form of one of the main characters, leading to the startling and dramatic cliffhanger in episode 3, when the Doctor realises: “I’ve made the most terrible mistake. I thought I had locked the alien threat outside … but I’ve locked it in here … with us!”

I make no apologies for my appreciation of Tom Baker as the Doctor, and he is just as stellar in this story as in any other story in his first six seasons. As with quite a number of stories in the top 50, I enjoy them largely because of his singular and unique ability to lift an entire scene through the force of his character. Horror of Fang Rock is a very good example of that, and well worth enjoying.

Don’t judge a lost tale by its orphan

So I finally got around to watching The Underwater Menace DVD yesterday. I echo much of the feedback that has already been shared online – the telesnaps are very disappointing, and do not really convey well the sense of what is going on – certainly compared to the other telesnaps I have seen (The Tenth Planet and The Web of Fear) there is plenty of scope for improvement, and I’d go as far to say that unless Episodes 1 and 4 are recovered, animation is a must.


The most fascinating insight however came from being able to compare the relatively recently discovered episode 2 with episode 3. I agree wholeheartedly with other fans in saying that the story becomes significantly better balanced by enjoying the second episode. Episode 3 is frankly, well, mad. As Anneke Wills (who portrays Polly) would observe in The Moonbase commentary, Patrick Troughton was having too much fun in the role to take it seriously – it took the firmer direction of Morris Barry in The Moonbase to bring out the more serious side of the Second Doctor. Watched in isolation, there is not much to like about The Underwater Menace. With episode 2 included, it is much easier to appreciate what this story was meant to be – I found myself enjoying episode 2, even though the whole story is more than a little bit silly.

The most interesting conclusion out of all of this however is how we judge those stories that only have orphaned episodes remaining. The Enemy of the World was one such story – not very high on fan’s lists for recovery, but rightly now heralded as a hidden gem. Part of the reason it was less desired than the following story The Web of Fear is the contrast between the two orphaned episodes – episode 1 of Web is brilliant, whereas episode 3 of Enemy is only enjoyable in the context of the full six episodes. The Underwater Menace is exactly the same – I suspect had episode 1 or 2 been the orphaned episode, fans would have been more interested to see it recovered in full.

Where does that then leave us? With four stories only possessing one episode: Galaxy 4, Evil of the Daleks, The Abominable Snowmen, and The Space Pirates. At the moment, the desirability of recovering these episodes (leaving to one side the unarguable assumption that any recovered Doctor Who is good) is judged upon the surviving material – hence fans would probably prefer Evil of the Daleks to The Space Pirates. The experience of episodes being recovered however, suggests that we should perhaps not be too hasty to judge a lost tale by its orphaned episode.

47 – The War Games

We proceed briskly from the first regeneration story to the second, and to a story that deservedly is described as ‘epic.’ Much like Hartnell’s final adventure was also significant for the first appearance of the Cybermen, Patrick Troughton’s swansong is not only significant for his departure, but also for the first ever appearance of the Doctor’s home planet of Gallifrey (albeit unnamed in this story). While we had met another of the Doctor’s race before in The Time Meddler (and also in The Daleks’ Master Plan – but we can only speculate on this appearance), this was the first time they were named as Timelords, and the first time we were brought to the Doctor’s home.

The story itself is gargantuan – at ten episodes long it is certainly not fit for consuming in one go. I did so the first time I watched the story (on DVD) and learned very quickly this is not how one should watch it!

It is however a very clever and engaging drama – until episode 2 you are convinced that the Doctor has landed in World War One, and it is not until later it is revealed that they are on an alien world, where a number of different conflicts are played out in different war zones. Behind the scenes, a renegade Timelord known as the War Chief is aiding the native race to kidnap soldiers from earth’s historic conflicts, using them to build the ultimate warrior race.

The first nine episodes largely involve the Doctor resolving the crisis on the planet – and while he defeats the War Chief, it is at the cost of summoning the Timelords to help return the captured humans to their rightful time and place. Episode ten almost stands alone to focus on the dramatic moment that the Doctor is placed on trial for breaking the Timelord code to never interfere. At this stage, Patrick Troughton had decided that three years was enough, and had tendered his resignation to avoid becoming typecast. With Fraser Hines and Wendy Padbury also electing to leave, the producers took the opportunity to return Jamie and Zoe to their own times, having forgotten all but their first adventure with the Doctor. The Doctor meanwhile, would be sent into a permanent exile on earth, unable to travel through time, and with his appearance changed.

It is quite interesting to see how production decisions to completely recast the TARDIS team and to keep costs down by having adventures on earth, were worked out so well in the script. But to focus just on episode 10 is to do a massive disservice to the other nine episodes. The War Games is very much to be enjoyed at leisure rather than in haste, but is a fitting end to the Patrick Troughton era. In contrast to Planet of the Spiders, you feel more like one does at the end of Logopolis – rather sorry that the Doctor is saying goodbye …

Have we found out why animations are on hold?

Fans who frequent this blog for ongoing missing episodes updates will probably have already seen this very interesting post by the BBC last week, released to coincide with BBC Store releasing the animation of lost Dad’s Army story ‘A Stripe for Frazer.’ The article features an interview with the team responsible for the animation, and makes explicit reference to lost episodes of Doctor Who that were animated for release – in particular, Patrick Troughton adventure The Invasion.

Some sentences in the article do stand out, and merit further attention. This section below for example, is very enlightening as to why animations may well have dried up:

Rumours had begun percolating through various bits of the BBC that some previously lost 1960s television programmes had been re-discovered somewhere in a film vault in central Africa. However, cards were (with some justification) having to be played very close to people’s chests […] Given the uncertainty, the whole Dad’s Army animation project was quite sensibly put on hiatus – until everyone could be sure what had happened […] There still remained a good deal of secrecy about what other material (if any) may have also been found at the same time […] finally, in March 2014, I phoned Philip Morris directly to ask if he was yet in a position to confirm one way or the other. There were perfectly reasonable limitations on what he felt able to talk about with regards to ongoing negotiations with other archives. However, after a short discussion of our situation, he was able to confirm that no Dad’s Army had been found in any form.

What is quite interesting about this is that the animation team took the decision to press pause, before finally taking the commercial decision to pester Philip Morris. It confirms some ideas we have already heard, and leads me to make the following inferences:

  1. The BBC (and animation teams) are not going to risk animating episodes where there is a prospect of it turning up. What we cannot be certain about is whether The Tenth Planet episode 4 or The Moonbase were released on DVD in the full knowledge that they are definitely missing, or because the animation work was so far along that the BBC felt they had no choice. My own instinct is that we cannot rule out the latter – the BBC animations had been commissioned in house rather than offered by an outside body.
  2. There must be a reasonable prospect that a number of episodes are viable in some shape or form – and I am inclined to believe that The Underwater Menace may be one of them. While it is possible that sales of The Moonbase deterred further DVD releases and made BBC Worldwide reluctant to continue with the release of The Underwater Menace on DVD, it is more consistent with the article to presume that the BBC weren’t prepared to risk resources on an animation when they had some chance of getting back the original.
  3. The search appears to be ongoing – in whatever form that is. Whether this is following up good leads, or carefully negotiating the release of film canisters from a known location, it certainly seems that in 2014 Philip Morris had not concluded that the well was dry. Whether this is in any way related to his experience of having The Web of Fear episode 3 pinched from under his nose, we can only guess. We can also only guess whether the search is still ongoing, and what phase it is in.
  4. There must be more material out there – otherwise why was Philip Morris negotiating in 2014? If so, it may explain why he’s been so keen to fly under the radar since the 2013 reveal – publicity is not his friend when he just wants to get episodes out of the hands of archives and back to Auntie. It also raises the painful prospect that we may have been better off if Enemy of the World and Web of Fear had not been rush released back in 2013 – perhaps less publicity would have hastened the release of other material in known locations.

We also have learned that circumstances have seemingly changed at BBC Worldwide:

I went back […] and the project was put back on the desk of the commissioners at BBC 2. Sadly however, it seemed we had missed the boat. There had been a number of changes since we’d rested the project and for various reasons, the decision was made not to take things any further.

I have speculated before that A Stripe for Frazer was to be the precursor to assessing if animated Doctor Who could be a success on BBC Store. This little nugget rather suggests that internal changes at the BBC may also have been a contributing factor – and does make one wonder what the changes were that made them decide against the release. Regardless of the ‘various reasons’, is this good news or bad news for a complete Doctor Who catalogue?

One thing that we can definitely be encouraged by is the skill of the animators, who managed to turn around the animation in the almost incredible deadline of 3 months. The skill set, to say nothing of the ever improving technology, exists should the BBC wish to re-create missing Doctor Who, or indeed to animate some Big Finish adventures. We just have to hope that the delay is only due to the prospect of more material being returned … and that it is not too long before Philip Morris is able to release the animators to fill whatever gaps remain.