29 – Terror of the Zygons

Doctor Who meets the Loch Ness Monster. I mean, what nine year old boy wouldn’t want to see that? So you can imagine my frustration that it was a further ten or so years before my dad finally found a VHS copy of Terror of the Zygons in a second-hand bookstore. (Should you ever find yourself in Northern Ireland I highly recommend popping in for a visit!)

What was extraordinary is that despite the excitement of seeing the exciting shape-shifting Zygons, and wanting to see Harry’s last adventure as a Doctor Who regular, it took about three watches for me to appreciate the story. Perhaps it was due to the video itself being extremely worn out, and being an omnibus presentation – I certainly know that I enjoyed the adventure much more when the episode breaks were reintroduced.

The story itself is a wonderful straightforward adventure that Jon Pertwee himself could have played with aplomb. The Doctor is summoned back from his preceding adventure by the Brigadier, who is investigating mysterious attacks on Scottish oil rigs. While the story was originally constructed around the mythology surrounding the Loch Ness Monster, the genius of the story was to have the monster be the cyborg servant of an invading alien force – the titular Zygons. Shape-shifting beings who are able to take on the appearance of others, these aliens would prove so popular they would be brought back, largely at David Tennant’s request, to feature in the fiftieth anniversary special The Day of the Doctor, before earning their own double-part story in Season 9. The revelation of the Zygon menace at the end of episode one, surely has to rank as one of the greatest cliffhangers in Doctor Who history.

The story features many other pleasing touches – whether it is the Doctor and Brigadier donning Scottish attire, to the performances by the Zygons and their duplicates. The duplicity of the Zygon doubles enables the production team to deliver a combination of pace, suspence, and atmosphere, with an ease that belies its difficulty. At no point does the adventure feel pedestrian, with the only slight drawback being the realisation of the monster; although remembering the production budget of 1970s Doctor Who, the Skarensen is really not that badly presented!

A final note relates to where this story sits within the Tom Baker era. Although filmed and produced with the other stories from Season 12, the story was held back to lead Season 13, enabling the production crew to shift the series’ start from the traditional January slot to September. The story undoubtedly has an uneasy feel as a result; while it feels more akin to Baker’s debut adventure Robot it is also true that Harry plays a much less prominent role compared to other season 12 adventures. I think I prefer to think of Terror of the Zygons as the last story of Season 12; and also that Harry deserved a much better send off than telling the Doctor he preferred to take the train to London!

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Terror of the Zygons
is available to buy on DVD on Amazon

Next time: I introduce a three-part special of reviews …

31 – The Web of Fear

A confession dear readers. When I first compiled my classic Doctor Who countdown list, The Web of Fear was not even on it. It was the summer of 2013, I had almost finished collecting the entire Doctor Who DVD collection, and I ranked only those stories that had I had watched on VHS or DVD (hence The Invasion and The Tenth Planet were included, but The Moonbase was not). That all got knocked for six in October of that year, when we got what was probably the best present to the fans of all in the 50th anniversary year: the return and release of The Enemy of the World and The Web of Fear. Even then, I confess I restrained myself for a while – rumours abounded that the still missing episode 3 of Web had been recovered and would be released with the DVD. We have of course now learned that episode 3 was originally found with the other episodes and taken, but long before then I decided there was no sense in depriving myself of a mostly complete adventure.

This story took a little while to grow on me, but has now become a very firm favourite. Following directly after the preceding The Enemy of the World, it finds the Doctor, Jamie and Victoria drawn to the London Undergound in the 1960s, which is mysteriously deserted save for a military taskforce. It is soon discovered that the city of London is being overrun by two forces – a lethal and impenetrable web that is expanding relentlessly, and an old and familiar foe – the Yeti! It becomes clear that the protagonist of The Abominable Snowmen, the Great Intelligence, has established himself once more on planet Earth, and it falls to the Doctor and his companions to find out what his purpose is, before the city of London is wiped out.

This is a noteworthy tale, even before the remarkable story of its loss and unlikely recovery from Nigeria. Following the popularity of the Yeti in their debut story, the BBC quickly arranged for a follow up adventure to maximise their appeal. While their debut story is still sadly officially missing (though I am hopeful of its return!) we are still able to enjoy their return. The story has a particular significance however for the debut of a character who would become a firm fixture for seasons 7 to 11 – Colonel Alastair Gordon Leighbridge-Stewart. Here only a Colonel, this story would pave the way for the U.N.I.T era, and indeed features the hallmarks that would characterise the Pertwee era – an adventure set on earth, against an invading alien force, with the Doctor working alongside military and scientific groups to repel the invasion. It is a huge pity that Leighbridge-Stewart’s debut episode is the one that was appropriated by the unknown collector, and we can only hope it is not lost beyond all hope.

Even aside of this significance, The Web of Fear is a genuinely good story in its own right. Patrick Troughton is at the height of his powers as the Doctor, ably assisted by Fraser Hines and Deborah Watling. The supporting cast are also superb; a special mention is due to Jack Woolgar portraying the irascible Staff-Sergeant Arnold, but every single actor puts in a first class turn. The production team also manage to deliver a wonderfully claustrophobic and atmospheric story – they reproduced the London Underground so well that the BBC were accused of illegally using the actual Underground lines without permission! As base-under-siege stories go, this one is easily one of the best.

I know several fans were surprised to not enjoy this adventure as much as The Enemy of the World, in part because a mythology had developed around The Web of Fear that simply had not around the preceding adventure. As you will soon read, there are reasons that I still prefer Enemy to Web, but that is no disservice to Web. This is an outstanding adventure from the Troughton era, and a joy to watch even partially incomplete. I can only imagine fans enjoying it even more if episode 3, and indeed The Abominable Snowmen are ever recovered.

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The Web of Fear
is available to buy on DVD on Amazon

Next time: “Grendel? You’ve forgotten your hat!”

35 – The Mind of Evil

By 2014 I was tantalisingly close to completing my Doctor Who DVD collection. Notwithstanding the agonising over whether to buy the DVDs with currently missing material (The Moonbase for example) a few stories remained, not least this one. And while it was kept until last, it was certainly one of the best!

First of all, let me share why such an excellent adventure was off the shelves for so long. Not only did the BBC get rid of the original broadcast tapes for the Hartnell and Troughton eras, Jon Pertwee’s era was also badly affected. While his entire era survives, certain of his stories only survived in broadcast quality in black and white – examples including Terror of the Autons, The Daemons, and The Ambassadors of Death. For most, they were able to procure low grade colour versions, which could be combined with the high resolution black and white prints to produce something approximating the original broadcast tape – the Destruction of Time website has a good account of this process.

The Mind of Evil is somewhat unique however, in that no colour footage at all survives of the story. To recover the original colour, the BBC had to use an ingenious process called “Chroma Dot Recovery.” In short – when the BBC converted the original broadcast tapes to black and white film to sell overseas, little dots (the aforementioned chroma dots) were included, indicating what the original colour had been. Using this information, the producers were able (at length and great expense) to recreate the original colour, as they had done for the Ambassadors of Death – a video showing how this process was used for Dad’s Army can be watched here.

So far so good. Except episode one doesn’t have any chroma dots! As Richard Molesworth would explain in Wiped! the dots were due to a mistake in the process of creating the film, and for the first episode the BBC technicians had processed the film properly – leaving no dots! For us in the 21st century, the only way we are now able to enjoy this episode in colour is thanks to the reconstruction team who painstakingly coloured in EVERY SINGLE FRAME of the 25 minute episode. With that in view, the greatest miracle is that they were able to produce the DVD at all!

Once complete and colourised however, the story is far from a disappointment, and is a real highlight of the U.N.I.T. Era of Doctor Who. The Doctor and Jo travel to Stangmoor Prison to watch a ruthless criminal be processed by the ‘Keller Machine’, a device supposedly able to deprive individuals of their most evil impulses. The Doctor suspects all is not well, and he is right to do so – for his old enemy the Master is at work in the background. The machine is in fact an alien creature that targets the worst impulses of those who come into contact with it and imbibes them. The Master proposes using the device to seize control of the prison, then to use the inmates to steal a highly destructive weapon from U.N.I.T (it must be acknowledged that this story is not Captain Yates or Sergeant Benton’s finest hour …)

Convoluted though the plot perhaps is, as ever it is the principle stars that make the story a joy. Delgado and Pertwee shine in every scene, especially where they face one another, and Katy Manning very quickly shakes off the damsel in distress stereotype of Terror of the Autons, being active and assertive. And of course, who can forget the wonderful moment in episode five where the Brigadier infiltrates the prison, dressed in civvies and affecting a Cockney accent …

You may reach the end and ask one pertinent questions: why is the Master trying to start World War 3? Why seize control of the prison in such a convoluted manner? How come Benton and Yates are the only people not murdered by the convicts? To pick on these quibbles however is to rob yourself of the enjoyment of an excellent, gripping, and entertaining drama. It may have been the Pertwee story I waited longest for, but the wait was certainly worth it!

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The Mind of Evil is available to download on the BBC Store for £9.99

Next Time: Set your multi-loop stabiliser for Douglas Adams’ first Doctor Who adventure

36 – The Three Doctors

Back in 1973, a bright spark at the BBC suddenly realised that Doctor Who had reached a significant milestone – its tenth season. To mark the occasion, the producers took the bold step to write a story featuring every one of the Doctor’s incarnations, and the resulting story was entitled exactly what it was: The Three Doctors.

Of all the ‘multi-doctor’ stories, I believe that this one is the best. Unlike The Five Doctors it is not overly self-referential, instead telling quite a good story; unlike The Two Doctors it is clear and cohesive, and reasonably well told! It has to be said that, in my view, it is the participation of the Doctor’s first three incarnations in one story that makes what might have been a quite ordinary U.N.I.T. adventure into a truly great one, and one that is a pleasure to enjoy.

At the beginning of this story the Doctor is still trapped on earth; but having found a variety of different ways to circumvent the BBC’s restriction (or rather, dressing up in different ways sending the Doctor off on missions for the Timelords) the BBC finally gave up and decided it was time to let the Doctor off his leash. The narrative device to restore the Doctor’s freedom was for Gallifrey itself to come under attack from an unknown source, requiring the help of the Doctor to overcome it. When it transpires he requires the assistance of another Timelord, the High Council decide there is only one other person they can spare – the Doctor’s past self!

The villain of the piece is one of the original Timelords – a chap called Omega who harnessed the power of a star near Gallifrey, creating the conditions in which the Timelords would be able to travel in time. He himself was thought lost in the resultant supernova, but had in fact been sucked into a parallel anti-matter universe. The force of his will enables the world to exist, but he cannot escape it without someone else willing it to exist. He is therefore seized of two purposes – to destroy the Timelords (who he felt abandoned him) and to bring to himself another Timelord to take his place and enable him to return to the matter universe.

The Three Doctors does require you to shrug your shoulders and go along for the ride – but it is an extremely enjoyable ride! The scenes between Pertwee and Troughton are genuinely funny rather than forced, leaving it only a pity that Hartnell was so unwell that he could not participate as fully as one otherwise would have hoped, appearing instead in pre-recorded scenes from the TARDIS monitor. It also feels like the beginning of the end for the U.N.I.T. family – at the end of this story the Doctor is given his freedom by the Timelords in gratitude for defeating Omega. As The Brigadier and Benton depart to ‘mop things up’ while the Doctor prepares the TARDIS for take-off, one rather senses that the dismemberment of the U.N.I.T. family, which would start in the season finale The Green Death was already taking place.

The Three Doctors is by no means the most complicated Doctor Who you will ever watch – but it is good fun, easy to follow, and features some extremely enjoyable acting – not least from the three leading men. As the Brigadier famously remarks: “Wonderful chaps. All of them.”

Next time: A savage introduction to a new companion, facing against a schizophrenic computer

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!

49 – Robot

I think this one may surprise some readers. While Tom Baker’s first adventure is certainly enjoyable, is it really more of a classic compared to stories like Remembrance of the Daleks or The Seeds of Doom?

It was certainly a bolt from the blue when first broadcast. Jon Pertwee had been Doctor for five seasons – at that point the longest any actor had portrayed the Timelord. After a lengthy period the BBC elected on the then unknown Baker to become the fourth Doctor. A shot in the dark perhaps, but Baker establishes himself as a tour de force within seconds of the episode beginning. It’s Baker’s debut more than anything else that makes a good story a great story. Whether the comic moments (including a memorable scene in which it takes the Doctor four goes to choose an appropriate outfit) to the sublime, it is an utter joy to see Baker establish himself in the role.

The story itself is relatively straightforward fare, and bears strong continuity marks to the Pertwee era – in this instance it’s a technocratic think tank with strong fascist tendencies that is using the titular Robot (or, as in the TARGET Novelisation, the ‘Giant Robot’) to perpetrate the crimes required to sieze control of the world. It’s not a very complicated plot by any means – in any other season it wouldn’t be a disappointing story, but nor would it be noteworthy.

Which brings us back to a simple premise – enjoyment. I thoroughly enjoyed Matt Smith’s debut story The Eleventh Hour – a combination of an enjoyable story with a likeable; crazy … yet brilliant Doctor. And Robot is very similar in my estimation. While Genesis of the Daleks will always be my first Baker adventure, and Logopolis will be forever tinged with the sadness of Baker leaving the role, Robot has all of the fun of a new beginning. Add into the mix Harry and Sarah as one of the best TARDIS crews ever, and you can see why this understated four parter is such an enjoyable and appreciated adventure!

54 – Doctor Who and the Silurians

Jon Pertwee’s second adventure is most easily remembered for the production gaffe that saw the title appear as “Doctor Who and the Silurians” – after the team neglected to remember the naming convention that it should be curtailed to “The Silurians.” While this alone makes the story unique in the history of classic Doctor Who, there is plenty else to note in this exceptional adventure.

Season 7 was a year of massive transition for the show. Patrick Troughton had left after three seasons as the Doctor, and most unusually the entire TARDIS crew had changed at the same time – a trick not to be repeated until The Eleventh Hour (or, technically, Rose). A number of concurrent production decisions were taken, all with the aim of reducing costs to the programme. A plot device was used to strand the Doctor on earth (reducing the need for expensive sets to set the show on alien landscapes), placing himself alongside new series regulars Nicholas Courtney as Brigadier Leighbridge-Stewart and Caroline John as new assistant Liz Shaw. Very significantly, the show was produced in colour for the first time. Also significant was the decision to halve the season run from 44 episodes making up 7 stories, to 25 episodes making up 4 stories.

The Silurians was the first show to reflect this decision – while preceding story Spearhead from Space was a traditional four-part adventure, this story was a mammoth seven parts, as were the two following adventures Ambassadors of Death and Inferno. For Season 8 the producers would conclude that six episodes was the optimal length for these longer stories, but in Season 7 we have these slightly unusual longer adventures. And I have to confess – I am something of a fan.

One of the highly enjoyable aspects of Season 7 was that it forced the writers to think outside the box, not having the usual capacity to simply whisk the Doctor away in the TARDIS. While Script Editor Terrance Dicks panicked that they were effectively reduced to alien invasion or mad scientist plots, The Silurians is a great example of the lateral thinking brought about through intentional limitation – they dared to ask the question “What if the aliens have been on earth all along?”

The net result is a compelling adventure, that sees the Doctor and U.N.I.T. encounter the titular Silurians, a reptilian hominid race who lived on the earth before mankind and went into suspended hibernation to avoid a global apocalypse. When the Silurians are awoken by activity from a nearby nuclear reactor, the Doctor is forced to try and bring a peaceful resolution between the Silurians and mankind, both believing that the Earth is rightfully theirs.

There are so many excellent story elements at play that it seems wrong to highlight a few. There are the whole range of human reactions – from Dr Quinn trying to make a name for himself by keeping discovery of Silurian technology to himself; Dr Lawrence trying to preserve his own scientific research; and the Brigadier’s concern for global security. We even see the sympathetic appraisal of the Silurians – not merely bug-eyed baddies, but a sophisticated and intelligent race, initially led by an elder Silurian who is willing to broker peace with mankind. When the Brigadier blows up the Silurian base at the end of the adventure, the Doctor is genuinely disgusted – a fantastic example of the show being unafraid to explore ethical dilemmas.

The Silurians is a fantastic story with a fantastic cast – but I do confess it falls behind both its sequel, The Sea Devils (while being a lot better than Warriors of the Deep!); and also the other three stories in Season 7. That is no reason to discredit this story however. It undoubtedly could have been better paced as a four or six part adventure, but it is still an outstanding example of the Pertwee era.