September sees the last (for awhile anyway) month with two Classic Doctor Who DVD releases. We’re running down the list of unreleased stories, and there truly ain’t many left. The two we get this month could not be more different, as they come at nearly the complete opposite ends of the show’s run. First, one of the final unreleased First Doctor stories, 1964’s “Planet of Giants,” the story that began Season 2; second, a special 2-disc edition of “Vengeance on Varos,” the Sixth Doctor story from Season 22. If William Hartnell would have known that twenty years later his part would be played by Colin Baker, I wonder what he’d have said. Probably something irascible followed by “Hmm?”
PLANET OF GIANTS
As was common for a good portion of the Classic Series, “Planet of Giants” was filmed at the end of the first season, but not broadcast until the beginning of the second. Back in those days, there was a new episode around 40 weeks out of the year. Think about that; they were doing eight times as many episodes in 1963 as there are episodes in 2012. Boggles the mind. “Planet of Giants” is also notable for having been scripted and even shot as a four-parter, but trimmed down too three parts when BBC Head of Drama Sydney Newman (the guy who created the damn show) said the pacing was off. Episodes 3 and 4 were spliced together and none of the excised footage exists today. More on that later.
The story takes place on contemporary Earth; however, due to the TARDIS door being slightly ajar during materialization, the ship and her crew are shrunken down. In an interesting turn, there is also a murder mystery going on in the regular-sized world. A scientist refuses to sign off on an industrialist’s new insecticide on the grounds that it kills everything, even things it shouldn’t. The Doctor, Ian, Barbara, and the Doctor’s granddaughter Susan must somehow aid in the solving of this murder, escape the insecticide themselves, and get back to the TARDIS and attempt to be made normal sized again.
It’s a truly unique story in the annals of the show. Aside from the whole “being small” thing, there’s nothing sci-fi about the story at all. There’s a very small guest cast and the four regulars don’t interact with any of them, spending all of their screen time among large scale models of ants, wheat kernels, and matchbooks. There’s some really great stuff from all the main actors and particularly Jacqueline Hill as Barbara, who was always much more subtle than you’d expect. Having now seen this adventure again, it may well be one of my favorite Hartnell stories. It’s just so strange, especially when you see that it is followed by “The Dalek Invasion of Earth,” which is full of big sets, locations, and a fairly huge guest cast.
The main extra is a reconstruction of episodes 3 and 4 as they were, using the original script. William Russell (Ian) and Carol Ann Ford (Susan) came back nearly 50 years after the fact to record their dialogue and guest actors are brought in to approximate the rest of the cast. The guy doing Hartnell is particularly excellent. The visuals are stitched together using dubbed-over existing footage, new shots made to look old, and rudimentary CGI. The result is interesting if not always effective. Still, it’s cool to see what the story might have looked like if not for Sidney Newman’s mandate.
There is a brief making-of for this reconstruction featuring interviews with the people who made it happen. Also aboard are interviews with Carol Ann Ford and the now-late producer Verity Lambert recorded as part of the 2003 documentary, “The Story of Doctor Who.” The audio commentary for this is a bit strange, given that aside from Russell and Ford, no one else involved in the cast or main crew are still alive. As such, we get to hear from vision mixer Clive Doig, special sound creator Brian Hodgson, make-up supervisor Sonia Markham, and floor assistant David Tilley. Moderator Mark Ayres does a good job of getting the most out of this eclectic group of behind-the-scenes folk.
Bottom line – Good First Doctor story; worth a buy.
VENGEANCE ON VAROS: SPECIAL EDITION
Season 22 of Doctor Who was a sharp contrast to the way things had been done before. This is the one and only classic season to have 45-minute episodes as opposed to the usual 24-ish. As a result, most stories are comprised of two of these longer episodes instead of the usual four. This season also had a marked increase in onscreen violence and a much more cynical tone, due in no small part to script editor Eric Saward’s belief in “the darker, the better.” This is the season that nearly killed the show, and, after it, Doctor Who went on an 18-month hiatus before returning with a truncated season returned to 24-minute episodes, which would be the norm for the rest of the run. There aren’t many stories I truly enjoy from this season, but “Vengeance on Varos” is certainly one of them.
The planet Varos is not a nice place to live. The Governor’s every decision must be okayed by a vote from the people, and, should he be voted down, he is immediately subject to the possibly fatal Human Cell Disintegration Bombardment. Torture of rebels is broadcast live for the enjoyment of the citizens, as is just about everything. The Doctor and Peri are in desperate need of the precious metal Zeiton-7 to fix the TARDIS, which Varos has in spades. The price of this ore is being haggled by the Governor and Sil, the representative of the Galatron Mining Corporation. Sil is a greedy, nasty tadpole of a creature and has swindled Varos out of the proper price for the ore for decades, leaving the Varosians with next to nothing. The Doctor arrives just as a rebel is to be put to death over the television. He, of course, stops the murder and is immediately made a fugitive. Now, he must persuade the Governor to renegotiate with Sil before everybody is summarily executed.
There’s a lot of foreshadowing in this story, from the use of CCTV to the perpetuity of reality television. There are two characters, Arak and Etta, who simply watch what’s happening on their home television and comment. The story drew fire from watchdog groups for having a scene where two guards are pushed into an acid bath and the Doctor simply makes a wry comment. Hardly the moral authority that he had been up to this point. The character of Sil (played by Nabil Shaban) is truly repugnant and loathsome, and because of this is easily one of the most memorable villains in the later Classic Series. He eventually returned in episodes 5-8 of “The Trial of a Time Lord.” It’s a much better story than would be expected, but it is exceedingly dark and there’s an air of death all around. Fun, if you’re into that sort of thing.
This was one of the earliest DVD releases, back before there was much in the way of extras, so it was a prime candidate for a two-disc special edition. The extras consist mostly of behind-the-scenes footage, outtakes, and clips from other programs, but there are some newly-produced features as well.
There is a 30-minute making-of hosted by Matthew Sweet (not the musician) featuring interviews with writer Philip Martin, script editor Eric Saward, and other members of the cast and crew. I always like making-ofs, no matter how short. There’s a feature entitled “The Idiot’s Lantern,” which is seven minutes long and discusses how Doctor Who has used television in its storytelling. The other main feature besides the vintage material is another installment of “Tomorrow’s Times,” a look at the contemporary press reaction to the specific Doctor in question. This is one of the better ones in this series for sure, as Colin Baker’s time on the show was anything but easygoing. Also, there’s the commentary from the 2002 release featuring Baker, Nicola Bryant (Peri) and Nabil Shaban (Sil).
Bottom Line: There aren’t many Sixth Doctor stories at all, and even fewer good ones; this one is absolutely worth a look.
For those interested, I will be hosting a screening of “Planet of Giants” in association with BBC Home Entertainment at LA’s Nerdmelt Showroom inside Meltdown Comics at 2pm, Saturday, September 29th. Come on by; it’s FREE!
Next month, we go back to Pertwee with the very long-awaited release of Season 7’s “The Ambassadors of Death.”