19 – The Invasion

As covered in last week’s blog, Doctor Who was headed towards an uncertain future in 1969. The show’s popularity had been waning over time, and lead actor Patrick Troughton was giving firm indications that he had little desire to stay on board for a fourth season as the Doctor. Into this mix, the decision was taken to trial a style of adventure that was to shape the next five seasons of Doctor Who; an adventure set not in the far reaches of space, the past, or the future, but on contemporary earth.

The TARDIS lands in 1960s England, broken down and in need of repair. As the Doctor seeks a technician who can aid him in repairing the broken TARDIS circuits, he is delighted to encounter his old friend Colonel Leighbridge-Stewart, last encountered in The Web of Fear, now promoted to Brigadier, and the leader of a new taskforce called U.N.I.T. The Brigadier reveals that U.N.I.T. are investigating a series of unusual disturbances centred around the world’s foremost supplier of electrical goods, International Electromatics. Forced into investigating the organisation when Zoe is kidnapped by their sinister security team, the Doctor discovers that their head, the mecurial Tobias Vaughan, is colluding with an unnamed alien menace, proposing to invade and take over the world. It is only halfway through this eight part adventure that the Doctor and Jamie learn that “some old friends” are Vaughan’s allies: the Cybermen!

This adventure was to provide one of Doctor Who’s most iconic moments, as the invading Cybermen use the London sewers to position themselves all over London, bursting out as the invasion begins. The sight of the Cybermen advancing from St Paul’s Cathedral has to go down as one of Doctor Who’s most memorable cliffhangers; sufficiently so that Steven Moffat would re-use the scene in Peter Capaldi’s debut season as the cliffhanger to Dark Water.

Even above this, The Invasion is eight episodes of excellence, principally due to the utter brilliance of Patrick Troughton as the Doctor, and Kevin Stoney as arch-villain Tobias Vaughan. While very long by Doctor Who’s usual standards, the story never feels padded, and proceeds at an enjoyable pace. The regular crew are supported by a very able supporting cast, while Nicholas Courtney very firmly seized his opportunity to stake a claim for reappearing in future. If this adventure was his audition piece, he passed with flying colours.

The Invasion is sensational in its own right; but is also significant for the groundwork it established for the future. The entire basis of the U.N.I.T. era was gestated in The Web of Fear and The Invasion, before being properly birthed in Spearhead from Space. Here lies the catalyst for U.N.I.T. (and the Brigadier) as season regulars; for earth based adventures; and for the longer stories of Season 7. As I observed in another blog piece, while the U.N.I.T. era is properly associated with Jon Pertwee’s time as the Doctor, The Invasion is not at all out of place from that era; indeed a colourised version of this adventure would fit very well indeed into the Pertwee collection!

A special mention is also due to this adventure for what it has contributed to the DVD collection. Two of The Invasion‘s eight episodes are missing, giving more than enough material for a viable release, but leaving an obvious gap. It was for this reason that this was the very first adventure to experiment with animation to fill these gaps; and arguably the work is among the very best ever done. The subsequent release of The Moonbase, The Ice Warriors, The Reign of Terror, and especially The Power of the Daleks only happened thanks to the BBC having the courage to gamble on animations for this adventure. For that alone, we should be thankful for this adventure … while still hoping we someday get episodes 1 and 4 back!

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You can buy the DVD of The Invasion on Amazon for £5.99

Next Time: Visit the genesis of the great U.N.I.T. dating scandal, as the Black Guardian decides that the Doctor is better off dead …

20 – Spearhead from Space

And so we come to the top twenty! From this point on there is nothing but controversy – every story from this point on is utterly excellent, and almost impossible to choose between. And so it is with the first we come to – Jon Pertwee’s superb debut in Spearhead from Space. There is not a bad word to say about this story – and yet it is not in my top ten. As I have said in previous reviews, often a story has been given what seems a very low number for no other reason that the fantastic quality of Doctor Who as a whole.

Your appetite suitably whetted (I hope!) let me share about the story itself. Faced with financial pressures at the end of Season Six, the BBC decided to cut the costs of Doctor Who so that it could remain on the air. The show was slashed from the 40-odd episodes of the first six seasons (the number varied) to 25; the season would feature four stories, of which three would be seven parters; and the Doctor would be ‘exiled’ to Earth – all of which were intended to reduce the costs to sets. As if all of this change were not enough, Patrick Troughton had also resolved to leave his role as the Second Doctor, determined that his career as a character actor would not be jeopardised by being typecast. His departure indirectly led to his companions, portrayed by Fraser Hines and Wendy Padbury, to also leave the series. Oh, and just for good measure, the BBC decided to broadcast the show in colour.

Bearing all of these background details in mind, and Spearhead from Space is very easily understood as a ‘re-Boot’ from the first six seasons. Perhaps this is what makes it such a good story; there is a definite feel of introduction to it. Nicholas Courtney returns as Brigadier Leighbridge-Stewart, now in a permanent recurring capacity as the head of U.N.I.T., while the lovely Caroline John makes her debut as U.N.I.T.’s resident scientific advisor Liz Shaw – a role that deserved better than Dr Shaw was ultimately to get. For the first two episodes at least, we very much view the story through their eyes – a mysterious meteorite shower in the south of England leading the Brigadier to bring in Liz to investigate. Their investigation is then confounded as an unknown force begins stealing the meteorites; and confused as they find an unknown man next to a familiar blue Police Box. He claims to recognise the Brigadier … but no-one recognises him.

Which brings us neatly to Pertwee. In contrast to Patrick Troughton’s all action debut in Power of the Daleks, Pertwee spends most of episode one unconscious, and only really begins to get his mojo back in episode two. But when he does – he is absolutely scintillating. As far removed as you can imagine from the austere Hartnell or the comical Troughton, Pertwee is a debonair gentleman who charms every scene he walks into. While viewers had now become used to the idea that the Doctor could change, the transition to the U.N.I.T. Era owes much to Pertwee taking hold of the role so brilliantly, and building an instant rapport with John and Courtney.

It doesn’t hurt that the story is brilliant, and features some of the show’s most iconic moments. I guarantee that even if you haven’t heard of the story, you will have seen somewhere the dramatic moment in the final episode when all over Britain, shop window dummies come to life. In a story full of firsts, this story also features the debut of the Nestenes, a plastic based lifeform able to animate all plastic. The ingenious use of a common, everyday item to induce terror in the imagination was a master stroke – so it was entirely understandable that Russell T Davies would re-use the imagery in 2005 for the revival of Doctor ho. Iconic, classic, and brilliant – Spearhead from Space summarised in three words!

Fans wishing to enjoy this adventure have an even more special treat in store. Owing to strike action by BBC engineers (this was the 1970s …) the producers were not able to shoot any scenes in the BBC’s studios. It means that, uniquely in the back catalogue of classic Doctor Who, this is the only episode to be exclusively recorded on film rather than video tape (brief note – the show used video tape in studio as an easier editing medium, and used limited location film inserts where needed). The retention of these film originals enabled the BBC to produce this adventure in glorious high-definition; having sampled both SD and HD I can testify that the colour and sound of the HD version is absolutely gorgeous and the perfect complement for an already stunning adventure. If you do wish to enjoy Spearhead from Space I encourage you to invest in the BluRay – it is very much worth the investment.

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You can buy the Spearhead from Space Blu Ray on Amazon for a bargain £7.00!

Next Time: We investigate the origins of Spearhead from Space, as the nascent U.N.I.T. Organisation repels an invasion from the sewers of London.

21 – Carnival of Monsters

I know several readers will be surprised to see this Jon Pertwee classic so high, above such notable classics as The Enemy of the World or Terror of the Zygons. This is less due to the challenge that you get with the best of Doctor Who (That it’s all brilliant, and it’s like being asked which of your children you like best …) and more due to the fact that it’s a bit, well, crazy! Bright, garish, and very much a product of the 1970s, I didn’t expect to enjoy this adventure at all, which is why I didn’t bother watching the VHS version my dad had recorded off UK Gold back in the early 90s.

So I was pleasantly surprised when I found it free to view on the BBC’s channel on You Tube (sadly no longer the case), and even more surprised to find that I hugely enjoyed it! Having been pardoned by the Time Lords in the previous adventure and granted the ability to travel through space and time again, the Doctor and Jo take the TARDIS for a test drive, and supposedly land on a old steam-ship making its way to India in the interwar years. When the passengers and crew forget about their presence, then proceed to re-enact the scene they had just witnessed, the Doctor suspects that all is not well.

His suspicions are well grounded. On the planet of Inter Minor, showman and confidence trickster Vorg has brought a device called a miniscope to entertain the inhabitants. The scope contains a number of entrapped creatures, including the humans supposedly sailing the Indian Ocean. With the highly xenophobic inhabitants of Inter Minor determined to destroy the miniscope for fear it will contaminate their planet, the Doctor must find a way to escape the miniscope and return the entrapped species to their rightful homes before the miniscope is destroyed … or before the deadly Drashigs entrapped in the scope manage to consume everything they encounter!

The story is played out over three wonderful locations – the steam ship SS Bernice, the plaza of Inter Minor, and the interior of Vorg’s miniscope. The production crew manage astonishingly well for the poor budget, and while Vorg and his assistant Shirna may be dressed in the most hideously outlandish attire one could choose, it weirdly works in the context of the story. The relationship between Vorg and Shirna is one of the real highlights of the story, as the huckster Vorg tries to weasel his way to a profit, much to the cynical Shirna’s despair. Special mentions are also due to three actors who regularly appear in Doctor Who; to Michael Wisher, best known for portraying Davros, who appears in a comparably brilliant role as the Machiavellian and scheming Kalik; then Peter Halliday portrays the bumbling and officious Pletrac, a character almost as incompetent as dear Packer from The Invasion; but not least, this story is the Doctor Who debut for Ian Marter, best known for portraying companion Harry Sullivan in Season 12. All three put in excellent performances.

And that’s really why I enjoy Carnival of Monsters so much. It’s really good fun, really well acted, and reasonably clever in its storytelling. Rather like The Androids of Tara, this is a story I rate rather highly for no other reason than the sheer enjoyment I get from sitting down to watch it.

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The special edition of Carnival of Monsters can be bought in the ‘Revisitations 2’ boxset – highly recommended!

Next Time: One of Doctor Who’s most iconic moments, as shop window dummies spring to life …