This month, we’re treated to special editions of two of the earliest DVD releases. They’ve been given a face lift and are accompanied by tons of special features, both old and new, that should sufficiently make your wallet weep. That they also happen to be two of the very best stories Classic Doctor Who had to offer is merely icing on the cake.
I’m speaking, of course, about the First Doctor story “The Aztecs” from 1964 and the Fourth Doctor story “The Ark in Space” from 1975. They both initially came out in 2002, and were pretty bare-bones as far as extras are concerned and certainly benefited from a reissue. And since, it seems, there will be no DVDs released in the month of April (my guess is they don’t want to compete with the new series as it goes out), they’ve made sure to bring out two big guns for March to keep us all nice and happy. Let’s dive right in!
The sixth story ever of the show, “The Aztecs” was written by John Lucarotti and directed by John Crockett. Lucarotti had also written serial four, “Marco Polo,” which sadly doesn’t exist at all anymore. Both stories are what are now known as “pure historicals,” meaning a story which takes place in Earth’s history and contains no science fiction elements, save the party’s traveling there in the first place. These stories were very common in the early days, but died off in early 1967 in favor of “pseudo-historicals,” which we have still today, taking place in Earth’s past but containing sci-fi elements.
“The Aztecs” is a fascinating story, compelling from beginning to end. The Doctor and crew (Susan, Ian, and Barbara) land in an Aztec temple where Barbara, the history teacher, begins admiring all of the jewelry on a tomb. She puts on a bracelet and, when they’re discovered by high priests, is believed to be the reincarnation of the High Priest Yataxa and the other three are believed to be her servants. One high priest, Tlotoxl, believes her to be a fake, but the more enlightened Autloc believes her to be true. The nasty one is correct, it must be said. Barbara then attempts to use her new status to end the Aztecs’ practice of human sacrifice, something which the Doctor expressly forbids, owing to the sanctity of historical practices. “You can’t rewrite history! Not one line!” (Obviously, this gets stretched later on.) While this is going on, Ian becomes the rival of Ixta, a brash warrior who wishes to be the head of the peoples’ armies, and the Doctor meets an older lady named Cameca, who wants to get it on with the old crow. Uh-oh, Doctor.
The intrigue and complex moral quandaries at work here are much deeper than you’d expect from the show back then, when it was still considered mainly for kids. It raises lots of great points about how ancient, “savage” cultures had their reasons for doing things, and at one point the line “Ignorance of the rules should not result in punishment” is uttered. Add to this the backbiting and politics of a powerful civilization only a few years before it was to be wiped out by Cortez and his Spanish conquistadors, and you have a very interesting, well-acted, and exciting story. It does, however, contain a large number of “Billy Fluffs,” or instances of William Hartnell trying very hard to remember his lines and not quite getting them right. Charming, really.
Quite a lot of great extras in this 2-disc set. As for what’s returning from the first edition, there’s the commentary with actors William Russell (Ian), Carole Ann Ford (Susan), and producer Verity Lambert. There’s also the informative if dry making-of short, “Remembering the Aztecs,” made before they’d started giving them clever titles, and “Designing the Aztecs,” which is an interview with the serial’s production designer, Barry Newbery. A six-minute doc from 1970 called “Cortez and Montezuma” can also be found, plus some other short odds and ends.
For new stuff, there’s an eight-minute comparison of the restored version of the story with the early version, a full 50-minute episode of the 1969 news magazine Chronicle entitled “The Realms of Gold” about the actual Aztecs, and some other bits and bobs. There is also the first installment of a new series called “Doctor Forever!,” regarding the merchandise surrounding the show. This one is called “Celestial Toyroom,” about all the different lines of toys that have come out over the last 50 years. It’s a lot of fun.
Finally, and most awesomely, is a reconstruction of the 1965 story “Galaxy 4” containing the recently-recovered third episode, “Airlock,” as well as what other clips still survive. This is put together with the off-air audio, still images, and a little bit of CGI to create a 64-minute approximation of the serial, which began Season 3. The story concerns the Doctor, Vicki, and Steven as they land on a strange and empty planet. They soon discover small, scurrying robots which Vicki likes to call “Chumblies” for some reason, and then they meet a race of blonde-haired women called the Drahvins who are fighting with another race, the Rills. The Rills are ugly, so naturally we assume they’re the bad guys. Turns out, though, they’re super nice, and the Drahvins are the bad ones. This is excellently done (the bulk of the recon is from 2007) and makes the whole thing really flow nicely. It’s not maybe the best-remembered story, but in this version “Galaxy 4” is immensely watchable, much more than one would think.
Strong recommendation to buy. There’s a lot of bang for your buck, plus it’s one of the Hartnell era’s best stories.
THE ARK IN SPACE
After Jon Pertwee regenerated into Tom Baker, the character had one story, “Robot,” that was a holdover from the Barry Letts/Terrance Dicks-run Earthbound UNIT stories. The following story, “The Ark in Space,” was firmly in the grasp and tone of new producer Phillip Hinchcliffe and script editor Robert Holmes. Written by Holmes himself from a story by the aforementioned John Lucarotti, “The Ark in Space” really allows Baker to show the kind of Doctor he’s going to be and thrusts the audience into the sci-fi/horror realm that would define the next three years.
Landing on a seemingly-deserted space station, Nerva Beacon, sometime in the future, the Fourth Doctor and companions Sarah Jane Smith and Dr. Harry Sullivan find it to be under a security droid’s deadly watch. When that is taken care of, they discover a room full of people in cryogenic slumber only for a small number of them to awaken. It seems they are in cryosleep until Earth is ready to be inhabited again. They find the carcass of an insectoid alien species (called the Wirrn) and as they investigate, the station’s leader, Noah, is infected by a Wirrn slug and slowly begins to turn into something otherworldly.
There are a lot of similarities between this and Ridley Scott’s film Alien, which would come out four years later: space, dark, small crew, alien species, infection, transformation, etc. Robert Holmes wrote the largest number of Classic Series stories, and he’s uniformly credited as being the best writer to have worked on the show. His storytelling and dialogue are really wonderful. It’s also great in terms of having things for the companions to do, even Harry, who is often overlooked, the action sidekick who didn’t end up doing much action. It’s absolutely a classic, and looks wonderful in the new restored version.
Good mix of old and new features. There’s the initial release’s commentary track featuring Tom Baker, Elisabeth Sladen, and producer Hinchcliffe, a 70-minute TV movie version of the story, a brand new making-of called “A New Frontier,” a whole lot of tiny pieces of vintage footage from various places, including a very short amateur film shot during the making of “Robot,” and some CGI effects footage. Also, another installment of “Doctor Forever!,” this time called “Love and War,” about the Virgin/BBC novel and novelization range produced between 1990-2005 when there wasn’t any show, save the TV movie. I really like this feature; hope we get a few more.
Not quite as much to recommend it extras-wise, but the gorgeousness of the cleaned-up picture and sound plus the genuine awesomeness of the story make it a buy.
If you’re in Los Angeles on March 30th and would like to watch “The Ark in Space” with me at the Nerdist Showroom at Meltdown Comics, come on down. It’s free and starts at Noon this month.