38 – State of Decay

This was an adventure that really had to grow on me, but really has grown on me. Easily the best adventure of the E-Space trilogy in Tom Baker’s final season, it is also quite possibly the darkest and most sinister adventure to ever feature in the entire classic run. Perhaps that is why I enjoyed it better with age than as a young teenager – easily impressionable, there was something very unsettling about the Gothic horror of the villains of the story.

As readers of the Full Circle review will recall, the Doctor and Romana have managed to get trapped in an alternative universe, and are striving to work out how to return to N-Space. In this adventure they land on an earth like world, where the servile population live in a world were technology is forbidden, and three lords rule over them with an awe inspiring terror. The Doctor soon discovers that the planet is the resting place of the last great Vampire, a fearsome race that the Time Lords only just succeeded in defeating in a Great war. The three lords ruling over the planet, Zargo, Aukon and Camilla are in fact the original commanders of an earth colonist ship, sucked through a CVE like the TARDIS crew themselves, and transformed into vampires through the influence of the dormant Great Vampire. The population meanwhile are the descendants of the original colonists, shaped by generations of fear into cowed obedience.

That one paragraph gives you a pretty full flavour of how dark the story is. The incidental score and production decisions belie the shoestring budget the programme was on, and create a constantly unsettling feeling of tension and dread. In a demonstration of just how great his acting powers are, Tom Baker holds the audience enthralled as he searches the TARDIS databanks for records of the Great Vampire, and reads that any Time Lord finding the surviving vampire should do everything in their power to stop it, even forsaking their life. Shudder at your leisure …

State of Decay is a superb adventure in the best legacy of science fiction. Like all good Doctor Who it is well paced and engaging, even if some of the acting by the supporting cast occasionally veers towards Planet of the Spiders levels. Even the usually challenging Adric makes a worthwhile contribution to the story, albeit already beginning to display signs of the petulance that would make his character difficult to love. There is really only one qualification to this story, which is the dark and horrific themes throughout. Suitably prepared, you will definitely enjoy the story, but it’s not one for the kids (much like Image of the Fendahl) and perhaps best watched with the lights on …

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Enjoying the #missingepisodes: The Moonbase

Ladies and gentleman – I began writing this post in late August, with the intention of doing a full week of missing episode recreation content. As we know now, the BBC have made this somewhat superfluous by announcing that they are animating The Power of the Daleks to be released this November! Nevertheless, I am still publishing this post (more or less) as originally penned, which is still an accurate reflection of my enthusiasm for animating those episodes sadly missing from our DVD collections.

Of the (currently) 97 missing episodes of Doctor Who, nine have been recreated through the efforts of studio animators: episodes 4 and 5 of The Reign of Terror, episode 4 of The Tenth Planet, episodes 1 and 3 of The Moonbase, episodes 2 and 3 of The Ice Warriors, and episodes 1 and 4 of The Invasion. The animators have taken advantage of the unique enthusiasm fans had for Doctor Who, which led dedicated fans to record the audio of episodes as they were broadcast. An excellent feature explaining what this looked like is available as an extra on The Invasion DVD, and is well worth the watch – not least to demonstrate the varying quality between different bootleg home recordings!

We will return to the recordings for my review of The Macra Terror, but for now we will focus on the most recent animated release, Season Four adventure The Moonbase. This animation was certainly a leap into the unknown for BBC Worldwide. Until this point they had only released animated content where the vast majority of the story already existed – both The Reign of Terror and The Ice Warriors required one third of their episodes to be animated.

On paper The Moonbase is no different to previous animation projects, requiring only (!) two episodes in order to plug the gaps. In practice this was a significant jump, given that fully half the adventure was missing. The unspoken question was whether a release that was fifty percent animated would prove just as enjoyable to watch?

I must confess to two biases that influenced my judgement of the story. The first is that I have a particular fondness for the iteration of the Cybermen that featured in Tomb of the Cybermen, making this a story I have wanted to watch ever since Tomb was recovered in 1992. Secondly, before taking the plunge to buy the DVD, I permitted myself to buy the Kindle version of the Target novel Doctor Who and the Cybermen, which is a largely faithful recreation of the Moonbase.

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The cover for the TARGET novelisation of The Moonbase – click the picture to read an online sample via Amazon!

You can look forward to my views on novelisations when I review The Abominable Snowmen, but suffice to say reading the novel of The Moonbase made me impatient to watch it! Indeed, despite my earlier reservations that I’d risk having to buy the story again if the BBC had indeed recovered the missing episodes, I enjoyed the story so much I took the plunge and bought the DVD.

Caveats noted, I have no hesitation in saying that I thoroughly enjoyed watching The Moonbase and did not feel at all that the animation detracted from the story-telling. While it makes one sad that the originals are lost, it nevertheless enables you to appreciate what is a rather good adventure. The Cybermen live up to every inch of their imagined menace, and it’s not hard to imagine viewers of the time being completely enraptured by the episode 3 cliffhanger, which the BBC have kindly shared on youtube:

This particular scene benefited from being able to lift several scenes directly from episode four, and you can see similar tricks elsewhere – most notably that any time a Cyberman is killed by the ‘Polly Cocktail’ (a mixture of different solvents that cause the Cybermen’s plastic organs to dissolve) the animators have lifted the death throes of the Cyberman killed by Toberman in Tomb of the Cybermen episode 4. That can be forgiven however for enabling the story to be told, and it certainly progresses at a good rate of knots, enabling one to enjoy the story despite the absent episodes. The regular TARDIS crew are on top form, and you are able to see what Anneke Wills means when she explains that this was the first story in which you see Patrick Troughton learn to be the ‘serious Doctor’, after thoroughly clowning around in the preceding adventure The Underwater Menace. They are complemented by a stellar supporting cast, giving me no hesitation in saying that a complete Moonbase would easily be one of my favourite adventures.

I am still inclined to the view that the animation from The Invasion is the best that has been done in the classic series release – but The Moonbase isn’t at all far behind, and demonstrates that even when a story is 50 per cent animated it can work really well at plugging the gaps. It begs the question of why The Crusades and The Underwater Menace have not been animated, as they also fulfill the twofold criteria of only lacking half their material, and only requiring two animated episodes. It is an even more striking question given that the BBC have made the not insignificant investment to animate all six missing episodes of The Power of the Daleks – a much more substantial investment than a mere two, and a brave step to release a serial with no surviving content.

I therefore return to an observation I made in my very first post relating to the Moonbase – that we need closure on the omnirumour sooner rather than later, so that fans can be freed up to re-create those episodes which will never be found. The uncertainty surrounding the fate of those episodes lives us in limbo, when The Moonbase DVD demonstrates that we now have the capacity to get a feel for what these episodes must once have been like.

In summary: I have really enjoyed the animations of missing episodes thus far, and each story I have watched to date has been enhanced by them. If many of the 97 episodes are indeed lost for all time, I for one would welcome either the BBC or a dedicated group of fans animating the lost material.

The Moonbase is available to buy on DVD from Amazon by clicking on the image below:

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39 – The Face of Evil

This was a story I was itching to get my hands on for a very long time, not least due to the very positive recommendations of others who rated the story very highly. When I eventually did get my hands on the DVD it certainly did not disappoint, and deservedly took a very high slot in my most enjoyed episodes of Doctor Who.

The adventure is noteworthy as the debut episode for Louise Jameson as Leela, and she immediately impresses as the bold and fearless warrior of the Sevateem. Having seen almost all of Leela’s adventures before this one it felt exceedingly strange to finish by watching her first story. It is a testament to how well Jameson played the part that her debut doesn’t disappoint even to one used to Leela’s performances in Doctor Who. It is also a potent reminder that, magisterial though Tom Baker was in many other ways, he definitely needed a wingman to complement him. We can be thankful that the producers won that particular argument and ensured the long term replacement of Liz Sladen with Louise Jameson.

The story itself is wonderfully layered and intriguing, and at no point over the four episodes feels pedestrian. Rather uniquely in the annals of Doctor Who, it doesn’t really have a villain of the piece. While a mad computer called Xoanon has manipulated two sections of colonists (The ‘Sevateem’, originally ‘Survey Team’ and the ‘Tesh’, originally ‘Technicians’) into a constant conflict, the computer is not like the evil BOSS from The Green Death, instead acting as it is because its programme had been unintentionally corrupted – of all people, by the Doctor! The story therefore feels much more like a ‘Howdunnit’ than a ‘Whodunnit’ and is extremely satisfying to watch unfold.

Season 14 is one of the real high points of the history of Doctor Who, with not a single bad story in it. Philip Hinchcliffe was yet to receive his marching orders for the strong Gothic Horror feel of the programme, which means that stories like The Face of Evil were given free reign to tell good robust stories. This adventure combines all of the elements that make for an excellent Doctor Who – great story, great cast, great Doctor and companion, and great little moments to cherish in the dialogue. In that regard, The Face of Evil is definitely a story that fans of the series should strongly consider when choosing a starting point for new fans to discover Doctor Who for the first time!

#MissingEpisodesMonday: Reasons for Optimism

Two weeks after the excitement of the Power of the Daleks animation announcement, and fan excitement for the missing episodes has fizzled out somewhat. It’s pretty easy to guess why – with rumours abounding that there had been a secret screening of episode one of Power, it had become part and parcel of the whole omnirumour. The animation of the entire story has proven quite effective in killing off the anticipation and expectation that a large scale recovery is on the cards.

The animation announcement also stifled the appearance of a certain Philip Morris at the Starburst Convention the week before. Where ordinarily fans would dissect and dine out on such talks for weeks on end, enthusiasm has proven somewhat curbed thanks to the Power animation. This is a pity – because in certain respects the talk (which you can download using THIS LINK) has some interesting gems to grab hold of.

While most Doctor Who fans are obviously interested in cutting to the chase (“Where’s Marco Polo?!!”) it is well worth understanding the wider background to Phil’s work as an archivist. Aside from being genuinely interesting (hey – I’m a historian, I would say that!) it also helps us to understand Phil’s motivation and modus operandi – the aim is never specifically the recovery of high profile British television – however much we might wish it to be the case! The hub of Phil’s work is the premise that there is no reason why film material should be lost in a digital age. If the material exists, and it can be salvaged, then it is imperative to clean it, restore it, and transfer it to a stable medium. Listen to the talk itself for the detail, but the salient point is there – Phil’s work is concerned with ensuring that any kind of media material is not permanently lost.

How does this help us? Well, there are two useful clues hidden away in his observations. Firstly, there is the wider comment on his work in Africa. Phil’s mission is to salvage ALL television archives he finds; as he winsomely puts it: “this is their heritage.” His equipment for doing this lives in the UK, so everything he finds gets shipped back to Phil’s base so that he can transfer it to a secure (ie. digital) medium, to then give back to the original broadcasters. Just this fact alone gives us some sense of the huge project Phil is working on. Anyone who has ever tried scanning in their old photo negatives (like I did once!) knows its time consuming. Phil obviously has tools and resources and expertise to do all of this much more quickly, but it’s still time consuming, and involves getting the film material out of the country and back to England. With that in view, it’s no wonder it may take time to recover lost Doctor Who.

As an aside, this may also explain the delay in recovering any Doctor Who Phil has found. Even if Studio A had all 97 missing episodes sitting on a shelf somewhere, the price of recovering them could well be that the rest of their stock needs to be archived first. Phil stressed not only that archiving was good in it’s own right, but also that it was important for building relationships with station managers and other archive holders.

The second interesting point relates specifically to a painful reality that most fans are now reluctantly accepting- that Web of Fear episode 3 is currently in the hands of a private collector. While a comfort that only 96 episodes of Doctor Who are missing, it doesn’t do us much good while the film is stashed where the majority of fans will never get to see it. And yet Phil gives us grounds for optimism – admitting that he does talk to private collectors, and encourage these collectors to talk to him. And we come back to his modus operandi – his crucial, vitally important modus operandi: preserve cultural heritage at all costs.

Phil’s determination that no material should ever be lost means that his first question to a collector is not “can we have that back please?”, but instead is “Can I help you to preserve the film print?” He accepts that if he gets a reputation as a nasty man who will go blabbing to the BBC when he discovers a private collector has something that ought to be returned, private collectors will say nothing. The longer they say nothing, the longer the film degenerates, potentially to the point of no return.

Out of the entire talk, it was this little snippet, more even than “You will get more Doctor Who when you least expect it!” that most interested me. I think the nightmare scenario for most fans is the prospect that Joanna Bloggs is sitting on a rapidly dissolving copy of Tenth Planet episode 4, which will turn into a sad shriveled heap of vinegar by the time she dies off and leaves it to her disinterested heirs. Phil’s approach offers the hope that perhaps, just perhaps, a collector might be persuaded to ensure their valuable film collection gets securely transferred to something more secure and enduring. In short – if there are other orphans (or indeed complete adventures) in the hands of individuals, then Phil’s approach gives us the best hope that they might yet see the light of day.

I still sense there is an even bigger story behind all of this, but Phil’s comments at Starburst have given me optimism that we can rescue whatever is out there to be rescued. I grant you that I approach this with the patience and optimism of one who (hopefully!) still has more than 50 per cent remaining of his mortal span, but I am not yet letting go of my hope that there is more missing Doctor Who to be found – and that thanks to the efforts of Philip Morris and his team, their survival rates are now better than ever!

What the BBC had up their sleeves …

After months of speculation, we are finally able to answer the question fans have been pondering ever since the BBC mysteriously announced:

“We’re hoping to release more classic Doctor Who and we’ll let you know when we have news.”

And the news, while not the very best, is certainly to be greatly celebrated – on 5th November, 50 years to the day after Patrick Troughton made his debut as the Second Doctor, the BBC will be releasing a fully animated reproduction of his first adventure, The Power of the Daleks.

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Let us begin with the positives of this venture – this is a wonderful vote of confidence by the BBC in the classic Doctor Who brand! This will be the first time that an entirely missing serial has been animated for release. If a success, it promises the hope that regardless of whatever success Philip Morris has had in his search for missing Doctor Who, the BBC are open to the prospect I have long hoped for – replacing the missing back catalogue with animations. We owe much to Cosgrove Hall for the very first Doctor Who animations for The Invasion DVD, and to the team that successfully released the missing Dad’s Army adventure A Stripe for Frazer on BBC Store for pioneering the path that has taken us to the point we can own and watch even entirely missing adventures of classic Doctor Who.

And what a story they have chosen to begin this new range of releases! In anticipation of a series of missing episode reviews (which understandably will be put on the back burner for now!) I watched the Loose Cannon reproduction of Power of the Daleks, and was enraptured by the story. It fully justified the anticipation I expressed in my earlier post, in which I placed Power in the top three stories I most wanted to see recovered. Even with just the telesnaps it was possible to follow the flow of the adventure, and the tension ramps up beautifully across the six episodes. I have no hesitation in saying that this is the most hotly anticipated Doctor Who DVD release I have ever experienced, such is the mystique that surrounds Patrick Troughton’s debut adventure. I’m also hugely thrilled at the prospect of sharing this experience with fans across the world who will be discovering the adventure at the same time.

Positives duly enthused, I will now acknowledge the elephant in the room. Wonderful news though the Power release is, it is not the original episodes that I have long hoped (indeed trusted) had been recovered. Indeed, it brings the painful realisation that if the BBC have made the (not insubstantial) investment to animate Power, it almost certainly means that the odds of ever finding the original episodes are as good as zero. That is a painful sentence to type, much less to contemplate and accept! The pragmatist in me is grateful for whatever reproductions we are able to enjoy, while the part of me that has delighted in the recovery of Tomb of the Cybermen, Enemy of the World, and Web of Fear is saddened we don’t get to enjoy all of the wonderful quirks of Pat Troughton’s acting. It does in certain respects feel similar to the recovery of Enemy and Web, insomuch as that fans have hoped and longed for so long that the rumours were true that some of Power had been recovered.

There also remains certain mysteries, made all the more complicated by the fact that fan rumours can establish myths that take on a life of their own! Two different sources each assured me either that (1) Power was definitely not back, because the BBC were animating it, or (2) The so-called ‘secret screening’ of Power had taken place, and we’d get to watch it soon. It’s easy to jump to the obvious question: ‘Does this spell the death of the omnirumour?’

I think there is a much less obvious question: ‘Why were the BBC so secretive in the first place?’ I will be reading media reports with interest to see if the BBC comment on this, but it seems a little strange that a project that would engender such high media and fan attention was kept secret for so long (until the inevitable leak happened …) – so I am still very much interested in what has been going on in the background. I have heard all sorts of rumours – that prints have been found but are not of broadcasting quality; that prints have been found but the holders are refusing to disclose them; that the search is over, done, and fruitless. One suspects the truth lies somewhere between these three possibilities.

All of which to say, as dear Billy Hartnell once said, “It’s far from being all over!” This story is going to run and run, and us fans will be on tenterhooks until it concludes …

Meanwhile – take this site’s snap poll, and cast your vote for which missing episodes you would like the BBC to animate next! I also hope to blog very soon on Phil Morris’ appearance at the Starburst Conference, and what this means for the ongoing missing episodes recovery debate …