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!”

Enjoying the #missingepisodes: The Abominable Snowmen

In February 2014 I faced a conundrum. The Moonbase had just been released on DVD with its missing episodes animated, but I could not bring myself to buy it. As I was to explain in this post, at that stage fandom was rife with rumours that almost the entire stock of lost classic Doctor Who had been recovered – what is popularly termed the ‘Omnirumour.’ The rumour refuses to die, but in the very least no Doctor Who fan honestly expects the imminent return of every missing episode.

51bskycec2bl-_sy346_This is now, but back then I was a bit at a loss. I’d been patiently building my DVD collection for eight years, and suddenly there was nothing else. At that stage I was reluctant to invest in audios, for much the same reason that I held off buying The Moonbase on DVD – I didn’t want to pay twice if there was the prospect of the episodes being recovered!

My solution was to take advantage of my shiny new Kindle, and to order up the mostly missing Pat Troughton adventure The Abominable Snowmen. At a very reasonable £3, I thought it would be an excellent foray into experiencing lost adventures through the medium of print, without committing to the potentially painful expenditure involved in audio CDs.

My experience with Doctor Who novelisations has proven something of a mixed bag – I couldn’t enjoy Silver Nemesis as a child because it was too different to the TV script, whereas the novelisations of Attack of the Cybermen and The TV Movie managed to make me enjoy and appreciate both a lot better. So I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I started into The Abominable Snowmen.

As it is, I enjoyed the adventure so much that I was compelled to blog not long after that the BBC ought to animate the missing episodes! Terrance Dicks is rightly revered in Doctor Who circles as a wonderful story teller, and he tells this lost tale extremely well. While the action of a six part adventure is (of necessity) rather compacted, the story loses none of its charm or excitement.

While it is more accurate to say that The Web of Fear is the sequel to The Abominable Snowmen, featuring the return of Professor Travers, the Yetis, and The Great Intelligence, for fans like myself who never got to see The Abominable Snowmen when first broadcast it is oddly more appropriate to think of this story as the prequel to The Web of Fear – a Great Intelligence origins story if you like! Knowing what was to come did not really ruin the sense of wonder and exploration as Dicks unpacked the script and told the narrative of the Doctor, Jamie and Victoria arriving at Detsen monastery in Tibet. The reader gets caught up in the terror of the Yeti menace, and develops empathy with the monks, and with the strange English adventurer Professor Travers.

Obviously, reading The Abominable Snowmen is no comparison to actually watching the episodes, but given that the prints are not meant to be coming back any time soon (or are they? Read my thoughts HERE ...) I found the novelisati0n a more than worthy substitute. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this story, and enjoyed it so much that I went on to buy the novelisations of The Moonbase and The Crusades. It remains my hope that BBC Worldwide will consider recommissioning eBooks for every missing adventure, enabling those fans born long after the episodes were junked the opportunity to discover these adventures.

Enjoying the #missingepisodes: The Macra Terror

In anticipation of the release of Power of the Daleks in less than two weeks (!) on BBC Store, I am continuing my series of ways to enjoy the currently missing episodes, and this week focusing on the audio story of The Macra Terror. Next week I will be sharing on the Power of the Daleks telesnap reconstruction to give a point of comparison. Both these stories start from a similar starting point – no episodes have survived, and so we are reliant upon two sources to imagine the story: John Cura’s telesnaps taken of the footage when originally shown, and the off-air fan recordings of the soundtrack. As I was already familiar with telesnap reconstrucuctions through the VHS release of The Tenth Planet and the DVD release of The Web of Fear, I purposefully wanted to experience a story with only sound.

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The Macra Terror was very kindly chosen by my Twitter audience as the starting point for this experiment in experiencing Doctor Who by audio. The story follows on from the last missing adventure I reviewed, The Moonbase, with the TARDIS arriving on a future Earth colony which gives the picture of an idyllic life. Predictably for Doctor Who, surface appearances are not all that they seem, and it transpires that the colony is in the grip of powerful hypnosis and fear by a hidden menace known as the Macra.

In many respects The Macra Terror is no different to many of the base-under-siege adventures of this era. While the arrival of the Doctor and his companions is accidental, the Doctor proves unable to resist ‘getting involved’ once it becomes clear that not all is well. My impression from the audio is that the writers finally seemed to manage the overfull TARDIS of Season Four in this episode, without having to resort to The Moonbase tactic of rendering Jamie unconscious for two episodes! All three companions are given useful roles, even though in poor Ben’s case it largely came down to becoming a brainwashed stooge for most of proceedings.

The biggest pity however is the absence of footage, and it certainly made it a struggle to engage with the adventure. I could well believe that the quality of the linking narration might contribute, but I found it hard to imagine the different scenes played out in front of me without terms of reference. Certainly, I think it would be hard to enjoy the intentionally comic scene in episode one in which the Doctor is ‘smartened up’ without actually seeing the footage! By the second time of listening, I found myself following (and enjoying) the story somewhat better, but compared to animation I found it a major struggle. My next review will comment on whether telesnaps are a reasonable substitute for footage, but I have no qualms in stating my belief that soundtracks alone are insufficient.

That said, The Macra Terror was a very worthwhile experiment. While it confirmed my suspicion that I wouldn’t rate it that highly, and the music is on the distinctly high side of trippy (something I also struggled with in The Underwater Menace) it was interesting to experience lost Doctor Who in this way. While definitely not my preferred method of experiencing the missing episodes, I would still advise that every fan should experience listening to lost audio adventures without visual references at least once.

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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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.

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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 …

68 – The Krotons

This is quite an unusual story for me – a rare instance of a Doctor Who story that I have grown to like less over time rather than more. I suspect the principal reason behind this is that for a long time my family only owned three Patrick Troughton adventures on VHS – Tomb of the Cybermen, The Seeds of Death, and The Krotons. With such a small sample, the latter was quite well enjoyed – which I think reflects on the excellence of Troughton himself.

Why then the fall from grace? Quite possibly that although this is a perfectly enjoyable adventure, it is not the best Troughton adventure. Now that I have been able to enjoy classics like The Web of Fear and The Invasion, The Krotons is somewhat exposed as but a pale shadow compared to these stellar performances.

I concede this is somewhat harsh, because this is a quite well paced and enjoyable four part adventure, and deservedly in my top 50% of classic Doctor Who stories. It is notable as the first Doctor Who adventure to be penned by Robert Holmes, who would go on to write many classic adventures. It has to be said that the Krotons also make for good villains – threatening in their absence in the first two episodes, and imposing in their menace in the final two episodes. They would have made for excellent recurring villains.

Nor can you fault the rest of the cast – unlike in The Seeds of Death, I have the impression that the TARDIS crew wasn’t completely jaded by this point. That said, this serial also gives rise to the unfortunate line in which Troughton’s Doctor, speaking for all of the viewing audience, observes that Zoe’s intelligence gets somewhat annoying at times. Sadly, this is true – companions such as Nyssa showed that a companion could be intelligent without grating on the viewer, while companions like Adric made you long for the days when Jamie misunderstood everything the Doctor told him. Zoe never really worked for this reason – she was never annoying by any means, but it was difficult to like her.

The Krotons however is a thoroughly enjoyable adventure, and certainly one that I am glad survived the cull of the BBC records.