Tuesday, June 30, 2009


DVD Detail: Doctor Who – Delta and the Bannermen

Like yesterday’s Planet of the Dead, last week’s Doctor Who DVD release is a holiday episode in which a bus comes to grief travelling between planets, and which sets a precedent by shooting in a glamorous new country – Wales! Strange scheduling, really; a six-week gap between the May and June DVDs, then three in three weeks. One of Sylvester McCoy’s first stories as the Doctor, this is one that divides opinion, featuring 1950s music, holiday camps and slapstick genocide…

That Golden Moment
“But the brochure shows a space cruiser – not an old bus.”
Old bus? This is a very expensive conversion!”
The Doctor and Mel win tickets for a trip to Disneyland in the 1950s with a gaggle of purple blobby alien rock and roll fans, in itself a marvellous Doctor Who idea – not least because you know something’s going to go wrong long before they reach the land of the Big Frozen Head. There are lovely exchanges about notorious travel firm Nostalgia Trips, with Tollmaster Ken Dodd giving his best ‘oh, I’ve never been so’ looks every time someone disses the sponsor, but the most fabulous moment in the script is when it’s revealed that the tour bus has been converted at great expense from the latest star cruiser in order to look so cheap. That’s got an irresistibly Who-ish ring to it, not least when they open the back up and reveal huge great Star Destroyer engines. And with the bus fitting in, so do the passengers – the aliens all go through a “transformation arch” to put them in human drag. I like to think that the same was true of the tourists in Voyage of the Damned, another doomed time-tour, so that if Kylie had lived, the Doctor’s latest blonde would suddenly have turned back into a blobby purple thing*. Serve him right for being so shallow!

Something Else To Look Out For

There are several entertaining moments and endearing characters in this – I love Sylv’s Doctor operating the console with both hands, a brolly and a foot, clearly inspiring that modern Mr Tennant, just as I suspect the road on which Sarah Jane Smith has her adventures is named not after a Liberal Prime Minister but this story’s red-tongued villains – but what do I think of the whole thing? Well, I love all Doctor Who, obviously, and there’s none of it I don’t enjoy watching. And out of the round-about two hundred Doctor Who stories broadcast to date, this would almost certainly make the top… Two hundred.

If you’ve read other reviews of Delta and the Bannermen, both its defenders and its critics tend to cite its ‘lightweight’ and ‘silly’ nature. My trouble with it, on the other hand, is that while I’m rather fond of lightweight, silly stories, this simply isn’t lightweight or silly enough – particularly with the comedy genocide at the heart of the story, it’s often ickily inappropriate, and much of the dialogue is far too forced to be witty. Its over-emphatic style fails to hit whimsy or archness and instead talks down to the audience, both too earnest and too lightweight about genocide. It would have been much better as a whimsical two-parter of ‘the Doctor’s holiday’, with the murderous Bannermen replaced by, if a villain’s needed at all, someone appropriately camp and unambitious (like the Hooded Claw). Paradise Towers, on the other hand, the story that immediately preceded it and which similarly splits critical opinion, is brilliant, both scarier and much funnier. Let’s hope that one’s out soon. On the bright side, there are two bumbling CIA agents who may contribute little to the plot, but calling the White House from “Wales, in England” was funny at the time and funnier these days (shame there’s no second commentary by the current production team sending it up), despite the improbability of 60-odd-year-old G-Men in 1959 complaining there’s no rock and roll on the radio rather than investigating anyone who listens to it as a sex-crazed commie prevert.

Other elements that may or may not strike a chord include all the ’50s nostalgia – trading in on the music, skating over the unpleasant social attitudes – Don Henderson hamming it up (actually salmoning it up, fact fans), fun with motorbikes and a unique conception of the show that suggests the author hadn’t seen it since Patrick Troughton left two decades earlier in The War Games (out next week, and with a terrific trailer on this disc). There’s a big sky bully / galactic government who the Doctor can report the baddies to for a ticking-off; space and time travel has someone checking your tickets; there’s a contrivedly enigmatic old man who feels like a half-remembered version of a retired Time Lord – it doesn’t refer explicitly to the series’ past, but instead pastiches it to the level of cliché, with all the same clutter in the plot but none of the detail that made it distinctive.

Extra features include commentaries, text notes and surprisingly lengthy scenes plastered onto the menus, but also an edition of But First This which I remember very fondly – not for Andy Crane, as some might, but for Sylvester McCoy writing a fan letter to a rock that appeared in Star Trek every week – a jolly feature on his Doctor’s comic-strip adventures and, intriguingly, a longer edit of Part One. On the down side, though the music score here is probably the most listenable from Keff McCulloch, not Doctor Who’s most celebrated composer, and includes such old favourites as the Devil’s Galop, this is another of those DVDs for which the isolated score exists, but hasn’t been included. Almost all of the ’80s music tracks are still held, but almost none from before then (the Beneath the Surface DVD box set is unique in featuring the full scores from stories shown in 1970, 1972 and 1984), yet there are now half a dozen where the music isn’t there as a separate track on the DVD. Grr.

*When I told young Millennium my theory, I’m afraid he debunked it, but a chap can dream.

Update: This was originally called a “DVD Taster”, as I started off trying to write these short – by my standards – and just to pick out a few things to interest you. But they got longer, and longer, and by late 2011 I gave in and renamed them all “DVD Details”. Even though, compared to the ones I wrote later, this isn’t that detailed.

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