This month, the BBC is releasing three new Classic Doctor Who DVDs for your consuming pleasure. The three stories in question have a reputation as not being particularly great, but in at least two of the cases that’s neither fair nor correct. And regardless, the DVDs are packed full of fun and interesting extras to enjoy even if you aren’t a huge fan of the episodes themselves. So let’s dive in.
NIGHTMARE OF EDEN
Story No. 107
Season 17 is generally considered the silliest season, with a much greater emphasis on comedy, due in no small part to the season’s script editor, Douglas Adams. Tom Baker was also in full-on over-the-topness mode, as he felt supremely confident in his role. Stories like “The Creature From the Pit” and “The Horns of Nimon” are ridiculous and campy to the max, “Destiny of the Daleks” is just angering, and “City of Death” is considered one of the best stories ever. “Nightmare of Eden” tends to get unfairly maligned and lumped in with the camp cheese of “Creature” and “Horns.” To be fair, it is a bit campy and cheesy, but at its core there’s a very good, very grown up social commentary written by Bob Baker, one of the series’ most accomplished writers delivering his very last story.
Two spaceships fuse together in a hyperspace collision and the Doctor (Tom Baker), Romana (Lalla Ward), and K-9 (David Brierley) arrive to help separate them. However, there’s something even more nefarious at work when people start getting clawed by some kind of giant beast. Things get more complicated when they find that a scientist is storing portions of planets in crystals, having just performed this on the jungle planet Eden. What seems like a strange practice is eventually revealed to be a drug trafficking ring and the Doctor must prevent the dangerous substance from being distributed, and do something about the horrific creatures wandering the halls.
This is a very complicated story, but it’s not as impenetrable as some during this period. Dealing with something as serious as narcotics is something that few would expect from Doctor Who, especially in the late 70s, but it’s handled with care and seriousness. This is a highly inventive story with some memorable supporting characters and a very Who-like premise. Where the episodes really suffer are in the production side of things. As with most shows in this period, the serial is badly over-lit, which wouldn’t be too much of a problem if not for the design of the monsters, the Mandrels, which are about as frightening in harsh light as a teddy bear left outside overnight. There’s also a bit of ridiculousness here and there. For instance: people being shot in the face and grabbing their stomach. A certain member of the supporting cast gives a particularly goofy performance concerning an ill-advised German accent. And, of course, there’s Tom Baker being a lot of a ham, though he does manage to express the severity of certain situations. Overall, though, “Nightmare of Eden” is a very fun, very watchable, very flawed gem in the later Fourth Doctor years that certainly deserves a look.
As always, we have a commentary, this time featuring a revolving group including Lalla Ward (Romana), Peter Craze (who played Costa), writer Bob Baker, effects designer Colin Mapson, and makeup designer Joan Stribling, and the whole thing is moderated by Toby Hadoke. This is a fun and lively commentary, with the participants talking candidly about the ups and downs of doing this particular story, and of the show in general at the time. Hadoke seems particularly keen on bringing up the difficulty the production had with director Alan Bromly, who was semi-retired and aloof at the time and who Tom Baker famously screamed at in the middle of filming, leading to Bromly vacating the project before the final episode was shot. Lalla Ward is a class act, alternately talking about what a pain it sometimes was to work with Tom Baker (her ex-husband), and singing his praises as a professional. A good, fun commentary.
There’s a very brief making-of called “The Nightmare of Television Centre,” in which three of the story’s crew discuss the production. It’s fine, if brief. Next is a 7-minute thing called “Going Solo” where writer Bob Baker discusses writing the one and only Doctor Who story he did without writing partner Dave Martin.
Next is my favorite feature, “The Doctor’s Strange Love,” which is a recurring, 15-minute segment wherein writers Josie Long, Joe Lidster, and Simon Guerrier discuss some of the classic series’ most derided stories in a positive light. They poke fun at the sillier bits, but it’s always done with love. These are always entertaining. Rounding out the disc is a vintage clip of Lalla Ward’s appearance on the BBC’s Ask Aspel, a photo gallery, and PDF materials.
The next two DVDs comprise the “Ace Box,” which are two stories featuring the character of Ace. They’re released together in the UK, but separately in North America.
Like season 17, season 24, the first featuring Seventh Doctor Sylvester McCoy, is also regarded pretty poorly. This difference is, this is a totally deserved distinction. There’s very little to enjoy about the four stories comprising this season, from the goofiness of the scripts, to the clownishness of McCoy, to the screaminess of Bonnie Langford. For the final serial of the year, “Dragonfire,” everything and the kitchen sink was thrown in. It concerns the heroes going to the Iceworld Space Trading Colony, which essentially amounts to a flying, frozen supermarket. They, with the help of old pal Sabalom Glitz and new pal, the earth teenager Ace, they search for the fabled “dragonfire” which is said to be a treasure of immeasurable value. Unfortunately, Iceworld’s evil, Mr. Freeze-like overlord, Kane, also wants the treasure and will kill anyone who stops him from attaining it.
At only three episodes, this story goes all over the place. It’s got elements of Alien, and Raiders of the Lost Ark, and E.T., and stupidness. It features one of the worst cliffhangers in the show’s history, wherein the Doctor, for no reason at all, climbs over a railing on an actual cliff and hangs there by his umbrella. What exactly was he trying to do? This is an important story, I suppose, because it sees the departure of Mel, and who isn’t happy about that? More importantly, of course, is that it introduces Ace, played by Sophie Aldred, who is easily the best written and most well-defined companion in the classic series. Here, she’s very rough around the edges and yells things like “Brill” and indeed “Ace” quite often, but you see the glimmer of the excellent companion who’s to come.
This commentary features another revolving door of people including Sophie Aldred (Ace), Edward Peel (Kane), writer Ian Briggs, script editor Andrew Cartmel, composer Dominic Glynn, and director Chris Clough, moderated by composer and restoration crew member Mark Ayers. There might be too many people on this commentary for such a short story, but Ayers keeps it lively enough. If you buy the DVD, it’s certainly worth a listen.
Next we have “Fire and Ice,” a 35-minute making-of with cast and crew. This is a very good little doc about the production and goes into detail about the creation of Ace and the casting of Sophie Aldred, which is probably the most interesting bit. There’s also a bit of piss taken about the less effective portions of the show.
Speaking of, we get another edition of “The Doctor’s Strange Love,” where Josie, Joe, and Simon talk about what they liked about this serial. Always entertaining. Also there’s a 12-minute featurette called “The Big Bang Theory,” in which new series special effects supervisor Danny Hargreaves compares special effects on the old series to how things are done now. If you’re a pyrotechnics nerd like I am, you’ll find this very fascinating. Also there are deleted scenes, photo gallery, isolated score, and PDF material.
THE HAPPINESS PATROL
Season 25 began with “Remembrance of the Daleks,” which is already out in a great DVD set, so the next unreleased Ace story is 1987’s “The Happiness Patrol.” The Doctor and Ace land on an off-world human colony where it is illegal to be sad. In order to ensure this, the colony is completely adorned with candy-striped colors and bright fluorescent lights. Keeping the people happy are the all-female, all pink-haired stormtroopers known as the Happiness Patrol, who have no qualms about killing you if you’re down in the dumps. Leading things is Helen A, who sends particularly unlucky folks to see her psychotic henchman, the Kandy Man, a robot made of confection. The heroes must free the oppressed society from the tyranny of happiness.
It’s easy to write this one off due to its insane look and tone, but that’d be a mistake. “The Happiness Patrol” is much darker and more sinister than it may first appear, and the allusions to Margaret Thatcher are evident. This story is very emblematic of the period in which it was made, but McCoy is much less of a buffoon as he had been in season 24 and you can see him approaching the way he’d become in season 26. This is not without its eye-rolling moments, but the ideas put forth, about people being killed by sweets and faux-cheerfulness hiding a deep abiding despair, are very interesting. Also, it’s only three episodes long, so even if you start to get tired of it, it doesn’t last much longer. Music also plays a huge part in the story, with awful “lift music” being at odds with underground blues players. I definitely liked this story a lot more than I was expecting.
A very similar commentary to the one on “Dragonfire,” with Aldred, Cartmel, Glynn, and Clough all returning, plus the addition of writer Graeme Curry and moderator Toby Hadoke. This is another pretty good commentary, and everybody knows their stuff quite well. Sometimes I don’t think a moderator is needed for the more recent stories, since the participants all seem to have quite good memories of it, but Hadoke does pepper in questions when needed and leads the discussion well.
Elsewhere on the disc you’ll find a 23-minute Making-Of entitled “Happiness Will Prevail,” which does exactly what you think it does. There are 23 minutes of deleted and extended scenes, which is just a huge amount, almost an entire episode’s worth of deleted material. There’s also easily the best feature on the release, “When Worlds Collide,” a 46 minute documentary written by Nicholas Pegg discussing the political ideologies of the series from the beginning to now. While the BBC, being a public entity, expressly forbids programs from laying forth a distinct political agenda, Doctor Who seems to have gotten away with it quite often. This doc talks about some of the more overt uses of political undercurrent in the show and some of its more outspoken writers. Anytime they can bring political or social discussion into the subject of Doctor Who, I’m immediately enthralled, and this doc is easily one of the best.
Three very interesting discs, I’d say “Nightmare of Eden” and “The Happiness Patrol” are definite buys, and “Dragonfire” is certainly not the best story, but the extras are good enough to warrant a maybe, if you’re a McCoy completist.