Another month of Classic Doctor Who DVDs have arrived and, as has been the trend for most of the year, a Third Doctor story is in the mix. I’m definitely not complaining though. This is the new special edition of “Spearhead From Space,” Jon Pertwee’s very first story and the first in color, or “colour.” This story introduced the world to Autons, living malicious shop window dummies. Also out this month is the final Seventh Doctor story to be released, 1988’s “The Greatest Show in the Galaxy,” which takes place at a deadly circus with evil clowns. It’s nightmare fuel this month!
SPEARHEAD FROM SPACE – SPECIAL EDITION
Newly regenerated and exiled to Earth by the Time Lords, the Doctor is out of sorts when he stumbles out of the TARDIS. Luckily, he is picked up by officers from UNIT, the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce, led by his old friend Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart. The Brig is interviewing brilliant young scientist Dr. Elizabeth Shaw for a position with UNIT and is telling her all about the weird and paranormal things they see when he gets word of the Doctor’s arrival. Only this doesn’t look anything like the man he knew. And why does he have two hearts? Meanwhile, a slew of meteorites have landed carrying with them the Nestine Consciousness, extraterrestrial entities which can create living plastic and have decided to make facsimiles of prominent humans in order to enslave and conquer. It’s up to UNIT, Liz, and the Doctor to thwart their evil scheme.
This is a story that was badly in need of revisiting. It was one of the very first Classic Who DVDs released back in 2001 and it was very bare-bones in both the restoration and the extras department. Like “Tomb of the Cybermen,” which was released earlier this year, the “Spearhead” original came out when the technology for restoring these old stories was relatively new. Unlike the entirety of the show’s initial 26 year run, this is the only story to be shot entirely on 16mm film, instead of the usual mix of film for exteriors and video for studio stuff. There was a studio strike in 1969 when this was filmed and instead of having to scrap the story, producer Derrick Sherwin decided to shoot the whole thing on location and on film. The new restoration of this story looks absolutely stunning. It truly looks like a movie. There is a richness and clarity in both the picture and the sound that was absent from the initial release. Since it’s entirely shot on film, this would be the only classic story to benefit visually from being upgraded to Blu-ray, but to my mind it’s already in HD, certainly when compared to the way it used to be.
There are also new extras to go with the feature’s fancy schmancy new look. There is a making-of entitled Down to Earth which discusses the changeover from B&W to color, from Troughton to Pertwee, and from space adventures to Earthbound. It includes archive interviews by Jon Pertwee and producer Barry Letts as well as new interviews by producer Sherwin, script editor Terrance Dicks, costume designer Christine Rawlins, and assistant script editor Robin Squire. More enlightening for me, the ’60s TV nerd, is a featurette called Regenerations: From Black and White to Color which talks about the advantages and challenges that befell Doctor Who in 1970 when it made the big changeover, as well as about color TV back then in general.
This also boasts two commentary tracks. The first was recorded for the 2001 release and features actors Nicholas Courtney (The Brig) and Caroline John (Liz). It’s a very enjoyable listen, but a bittersweet one given that they’ve both sadly passed away, John only recently. The second commentary is by Derrick Sherwin and Terrance Dicks, sadly the only two key people still alive who were involved in the making of the story. It’s about what you’d expect, with Dicks reciting his usual stories from his six seasons as script editor and Sherwin often telling him he’s got his facts wrong. It’s definitely good for a chuckle, and the two men clearly have great admiration for their time on the show.
Rounding out the disc is a funny 5 minute UNIT recruitment film from 1993, a photo gallery, info-text, and trailer.
BOTTOM LINE: This DVD was released last year in the UK as part of a box set with “Terror of the Autons,” and I’d been chomping at the bit to get it over here. It’s gorgeous to watch, a very fun and important story and the extras, while few, are engaging and enjoyable. It’s also part of Season 7, which if you remember topped my list of favorites of the classic series. Buy it, people, because the Third Doctor rules.
THE GREATEST SHOW IN THE GALAXY
Ace hates clowns, but the Doctor still drags her to the universally known Psychic Circus, the titular “Greatest Show in the Galaxy.” Though it starts out innocently enough, with a rapping ringmaster and all kinds of clowns and acrobats, it soon becomes clear that things are far more sinister than originally thought. The circus is actually a rouse by the ancient gods of Ragnarok and the poor performers have to entertain them and the second the gods become bored, they’re killed. The gods themselves aren’t the only threat as the clowns are all evil robots lead by the endlessly creepy Chief Clown.
This, like most McCoy stories, is populated by strange and colorful characters and has a lot more plot than you’d expect for a four-part show. Writer Stephen Wyatt clearly must love giving people weird names. In his first story, “Paradise Towers,” you get people named things like “Bin Liner” and “Fire Escape,” and here we get names like “Bellboy,” “Flower Child,” and “Deadbeat.”
I don’t really know how to feel about this story. Parts of it I really like, not least of which is the location. The exteriors were shot in a particularly deserty-looking quarry which gives it a weird, post-apocalyptic quality, especially with the circus tent sat in the middle of nowhere. I also appreciate that, like “Spearhead,” this production had to improvise when an asbestos scare in BBC Studio Center meant they couldn’t shoot the interiors where they thought. As detailed in the making-of, the whole crew moved to the parking lot at Ealing Studios, erected an actual tent, and shot inside of it. Because of all this, Alan Wareing’s direction is all the more impressive. Also, Ian Reddington as the Chief Clown is thoroughly disturbing.
The rest of it, though, is a bit off kilter and uneven. Especially annoying to me is a character called Whizzkid, who is the Psychic Circus’ “biggest fan.” This was a direct reference to fanatic Doctor Who fans who still like the show now, though “it’s not as good as it used to be.” This character served no real narrative function other than to be more fodder for the gods of Ragnarok and to irritate the other characters by knowing everything about everything. I get the joke, but if it had to be made, it could have been made better.
There’s the usual making-of, here called The Show Must Go On, which details the troubled production of the story with some fun and interesting anecdotes. There are 11 minutes of deleted and extended scenes which, for the most part, simply prove why they were omitted. There’s a two minute thing called Lost in Darkness which discusses the shot-but-not-used space model effects shots from the first episode. There’s a funny short music video featuring a few members of the cast and the serial’s composer singing a song about the Psychic Circus.
‘Remembrance’ Demo features two scenes from “Remembrance of the Daleks” as rescored by composer Mark Ayers which were used as Ayers’ audition for the show. The last big feature is Tomorrow’s Times – The Seventh Doctor, another in the series of featurettes which look at each Doctor’s time via criticism of the time. This one, hosted by Anneke Wills (First Doctor companion Polly), is mostly people slagging off McCoy and the whole show for being silly at first, then slowly coming around to him by the end. I can’t say I disagree.
BOTTOM LINE: Not a huge fan of the Seventh Doctor’s era, but, despite my issues, this is one of the more enjoyable stories. Season 25 was by and large pretty strong (“Silver Nemesis” notwithstanding) and this was a pretty entertaining finish to it. Good extras mean that it’s a buy, but with some reservations.
Next month gives us stories from two completely different Doctors. The First Doctor story “Planet of Giants,” which began Season 2, and “Vengeance on Varos” Special Edition, a revamping of the Sixth Doctor’s arguable best story. Not that there’s a lot of competition. See you next month, kids!