Monday, October 17, 2011


DVD Detail: Doctor Who – The Time Warrior

It’s nearly time for Sarah Jane Smith’s final adventure. She was with the Doctor when I was three and first fell in love with the series, and it’s been wonderful to have her back on screen for five years in The Sarah Jane Adventures (with CBBC showing every single episode this week. Time to catch up). So with today’s and tomorrow’s finale looming, I’m excited but never been so heartbroken at new Doctor Who. Time to go back, then, to 1973 and Doctor Who – The Time Warrior, where both Sarah Jane Smith and the Sontarans made their first appearance… Along with Dot Cotton and Boba Fett!

Jon Pertwee is the Doctor in The Time Warrior, opening his final season, the last before I started watching. It’s a highly regarded and influential story – not just introducing Sarah Jane and the Sontarans, played brilliantly from the first by Elisabeth Sladen and Kevin Lindsay, but a witty script from top writer Robert Holmes that takes us to Medieval England and sets the template for the series’ signature aliens-crashing-into-Earth-history story (effectively rediscovering the earlier The Time Meddler and giving the story a boot up the arse). And, like many Pertwees, it made a terrific book, too. I even recommended it as a Pertwee choice for my Eleven Faces of Doctor Who selection. But I have to admit, I think it falls a bit short of its potential. It’s very good – but a few plot oversights, a tired air throughout Pertwee’s final season, and particularly a director whose attitude seems to be ‘that’ll do’ (albeit boosted slightly on DVD by some shiny CGI effects) all combine to make it flatter than it ought to be. And that’s a particular shame for the Sontarans – for me, a childhood favourite monster, yet none of their stories quite lift into ‘outstanding’ (while top-ranking arch-foes the Daleks, the Master and the Cybermen all have top-ranking adventures to champion them). All that slightly apologetic tone may explain why, though back in September 2009, Doctor Who Magazine 413 published “The Mighty 200” – 6,700 fans’ votes on all 200ish TV Doctor Who stories to that point – and awarded The Time Warrior a sprightly 47th place, I’d put it at least fifty places lower, just about smack in the middle.

While this ‘taster’ may not be short, incidentally, though occasionally brutish, it would be nasty to be too spoilery. So read on without fear of finding out the ending.

Sontaran Spaceships
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That Golden Moment
“What is this?”
“Eh? Oh, just a girl, taken in the forest.”
“Girl? You have two species on this planet?”
“How say you?”
“The girl is not of your kind, Irongron. The hair is finer, the thorax of a different construction.”
“Oh, Hell’s teeth! Have you no girls beyond the stars? No women to do the lowly work?”
“Ah, I understand. You have a primary and secondary reproductive cycle. It is an inefficient system – you should change it.”
For my previous Jon Pertwee story, Colony In Space – influential as his Doctor’s first proper journey in space, as this is his first proper trip back in time – I picked a particularly short ‘moment’, just a few seconds of sudden cliffhanger. Today, I’m turning to Part Two of The Time Warrior for one of Doctor Who’s longest continuous scenes, a good six minutes that suggests some of the ageing director’s preference for theatre. What’s unusual (but rather great) about it is the way that, rather than cutting between different scenes to illustrate different characters, they all come on and go off as if the castle great hall were a stage: ‘Enter IRONGRON, a DRUNKEN MEDIEVAL ROBBER BARON, and BLOODAXE, his even stupider HENCHMAN, with SARAH JANE SMITH, a JOURNALIST – she is angry’; ‘Enter HAL, an ARCHER, held by BRIGANDS’; ‘Enter LINX, a SINISTER ALIEN WARLORD…’; ‘Exit SARAH JANE, on tiptoe’. And while the Doctor pokes his nose about outside, this central scene explores the two big new characters, the new monster and the new companion.

Like a lot of the best drama or comedy (here, pitched neatly in between), the brilliant dialogue is all about people not listening to each other, and here they almost literally don’t speak each other’s language. Irongron and Bloodaxe carouse in cod Olde English idiom (lampshaded by Sarah’s “Let’s talk sensibly”), and don’t bother to try and understand the “crazed wench”; Linx is coldly analytical and alien, constantly realising that his medieval allies don’t have a clue and grasping instantly that Sarah Jane is not of their time; and Sarah Jane herself acts just like we would, suddenly thrust back in time – angry at being pushed around, a little afraid, but mainly trying to make sense of it all. And thankfully this isn’t Hollywood, so Sarah Jane doesn’t predict an eclipse, dazzle her captors with the wonders of nylon, nor show them how to breakdance.

Sarah Jane is spitting fire as she’s dragged in – “Get lost! That hurt, you fool!” – and then intelligent as she jumps to the obvious conclusions: play-acting, she thinks, and tells Irongron to “take off that ridiculous gear and go home to your butcher’s shop!”; a film set? No, no cameras; some kind of pre-theme park reconstruction?
“Mind you, I think you’re overdoing the sordid realism a bit.”
All that, yet still not quite as postmodern as Robert Holmes’ previous script, Carnival of Monsters. Another recurring Bob Holmes theme is that he doesn’t think much of Robin Hood: prefiguring his swipes at the legend in The Sun Makers and The Ribos Operation, here he has two Robins – Irongron the robber baron and his band of bloodthirsty outlaws, and Hal, the handsome archer in green… Who’s hauled before Irongron here after a failed assassination, for an interrogation full of (implied) sex and violence. No wonder Sarah Jane – Lis Sladen still brilliantly showing us her working it out in the background – is coming to the conclusion that things are as desperate as they seem even before Linx appears.

The stranded Sontaran’s performance is scene-stealing in quite a different way to the brigands’ coarse humour and Sarah Jane’s brightness – abrupt, functional and dismissive, his clone warrior’s perspective on sex (ironically, less sexist than the Doctor) pleased Terrance Dicks so much that he’s used it again several times since. And he grabs the attention when he uses cold technology to force the truth from Sarah Jane. But just as you’ve suddenly sobered up to take the scene more seriously, Linx brings on the last player in this scene, a robot knight he’s built as part of his rent to Irongron. A remorseless, unstoppable metal killer, this should be the most terrifying part of the alien’s careless toying with human history. But instead of a gleaming suit of armour, the budget only runs to a quilted jerkin for a robot so fabulously rubbish that Linx’s ludicrously oversized remote control looks like it’s compensating for something. Too young to see it as a boy, I read about it with hungry excitement in the novel, and was mystified at the lack of a picture in the Doctor Who robot compendium The Adventures of K9 and Other Mechanical Creatures: the text had it, so what could possibly explain this disappointing omission? I mean, when I was seven or eight, a robot crossed with a knight in armour?! What could possibly have been more exciting, except a robot that was a knight in armour that was also a dinosaur? On which point, I couldn’t understand why there were no pictures from the next story, either. Such innocent days.

Something Else To Look Out For

The Time Warrior starts thrillingly, setting out a new agenda for a new season – a stunning new title sequence (the prototype for Tom Baker’s), and boldly starting off not in the era’s UNIT comfort zone but in a medieval castle with a gang of scurvy cutthroats, then joined by a crash-landing alien warlord. It’s only when he realises that this bunch won’t be able to repair his ship that he reaches through time to capture modern scientists and, after a daringly long absence from the screen, we finally get to see anything resembling business as usual. When it’s the first fully-fledged trip back in time for five or more years, this is an outstandingly confident challenge to the audience – even if the overarching colour of brown in place of the previous year’s glam Technicolor is a more accurate hint to the mood of Pertwee’s final year. It’s just frustrating that an often audacious script so packed with witty dialogue suffers a time-serving BBC staff director with absolutely no spark, pace or energy.

Jon Pertwee gives one of his more engaging performances as the Doctor, and his character’s comparatively un-gittish. But then, with his TARDIS is working again, why is he acting like he’s still in exile? I’ve suggested before that it’s because by now he’s thoroughly institutionalised – this Doctor’s still staying where the Time Lords told him to go even when they’ve “forgiven” him, as if he’s lost all confidence in himself. He travels back in time not for pleasure, but to stop interference in history – naming and claiming his homeworld for the first time, he seems all too thoroughly ‘rehabilitated’ as he volunteers himself to the cause of the “Galactic ticket inspectors”. He’s now such a well-behaved little Time Lord that it’s surely time for a regeneration. Despite his establishment attitudes, perhaps I’m more on his side this time because he’s under fire from all sides – sometimes literally – with critiques not just from Linx and Sarah Jane but, amongst all Bob Holmes’ rude asides, few are as pointed as the Doctor hoping to save Sarah Jane – “I’ve got to go and find a young girl” – followed by Professor Rubeish saying on screen for the first time what everyone would say to that (and I’m with the Professor on wanting chocolate rather than an extended time-tour, too).

Infamous for his showy hand-to-hand combat, Pertwee here gets a huge fight sequence across the castle courtyard that’s assisted by the unusually large number of extras but hampered by the director’s static long-shots that demonstrate both that there still aren’t enough extras and that he’s running about in utterly aimless loops rather than trying to get away. Yet I still can’t help being excited by his casting a blazing torch into straw, and amused by Irongron’s description after Pertwee’s knocked him over:
“a long-shanked rascal with a mighty nose”.
He’s then clobbered by Sarah Jane, which is a first – there’s a neat idea that she thinks he’s behind everything and then, rather than just argue with him a bit, forms a commando team to nobble him. The actors pull it off, though the script doesn’t quite (being rather tangled on how much she knows about UNIT, or the Brigadier, and coming a cropper on her having witnessed Lethbridge-Stewart being a mate). Well, perhaps it’s a satire on how journalists always have a fixed idea for a story and won’t let facts get in the way. The script’s almost a deconstruction of Day of the Daleks from a couple of years earlier (a story ironically with the working title of “The Time Warriors”, and out on DVD last month): another starting with the premise of a ghost story and turning into a trick of the time, this one saunters in with a brilliant new alien rather than not quite relaunching an old one, is far wittier if less intelligent in its playing with time, and rather than helpless Jo being tied up by guerrillas makes Sarah Jane a guerrilla leader in her first story. Doctor Who stories often throw the Doctor and his companion into a situation to cause chaos – brilliantly, here it’s for each other. The only drawback is that the director of this story makes Day’s look like Peter Jackson.

Sarah Jane Smith: Awesome From the First
“Well, I thought all this might be a good story. I’m a journalist. Sarah Jane Smith.”
Sarah Jane Smith is a star from the word go, the insults she shoots at Irongron still unmatched for a companion’s ‘first confrontation with a villain’. She introduces herself to the Doctor as a journalist, an independent person investigating what UNIT’s up to of her own will, rather than being assigned to him to assist with the Brigadier’s investigations. And though her feminism’s occasionally so brashly written it’s dated, Lis Sladen pulls it off (and the punchline to downtrodden Meg in the castle kitchens is still brilliant, though Sarah’s ruthless “Look at that great spider!” will come back to bite her). In contrast, the Doctor’s oh-so-funny “fair sex” remarks just make him seem like a git, though he’s really at his most sexist in other ways than the one everyone points to: yes, he asks her to make a cup of coffee… But that’s after exposing her as a freeloading impostor who’s wasting everyone’s time and not doing the important scientific job ‘she’s’ being paid and given board for. So what else, in that context, is she qualified to do? Stowing away on the TARDIS and turning out to be brilliant, obviously, but not in a scientific way. No, it’s not the coffee that’s offensive in that scene, but two other underlying assumptions: the Doctor’s control freak hostility to Sarah Jane asking questions shows Pertwee’s incarnation, as ever, to be as terrible a scientist as she’s a good journalist; and that a space research centre should employ Sarah Jane’s aunt as a virologist when all the other scientists we see there are working on alloys and drive mechanisms. What’s the difference? Oh dear. Yes, they’re all men, but Aunt Lavinia’s specialism has to be ‘girly’ because ‘they can’t do engineering’. It’s difficult not to conclude that this scene’s sexist after all, just not in the bit you think it is.

Yes, I did get my Time Warrior set last Easter. Why do you ask?
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Perhaps the most successful element of the story is that everything comes together first time for the Sontarans. Kevin Lindsay’s powerful performance makes Linx a character, not a monster, aided by a great part as scripted: he’s playing the third Doctor, take two, with an even more hirsute UNIT. An advanced alien with (contrived, improbable, but jolly handy) time travel capabilities stranded among warrior humans he thinks of as primitive and grumpy when they ask him to do them favours rather than get on with fixing his ship? And if you want a critique of the third Doctor, there are few so pointed as Linx being both a more effective scientific advisor and a more competent spaceship mechanic in an hour and a half than the Doctor managed in four years. His and his race’s background are deftly sketched in in dialogue – with more in the book – and, while the Sontarans were inspired by Teutonic soldiery, his way of marching in, ignoring the locals, planting a flag and claiming the planet is as much the British Empire as the Sontaran one. He’s a triumph of design, too, in costume, make-up and spaceship: that famous helmet coming off to reveal a head shaped just like it; that expressive face; that memorable golf-ball ship. I suspect they were all reasons why they were my favourite monsters as a boy, along with their brutality – all brilliantly simple designs that you could draw. So I have to admit they were the first major misstep for me in the Twenty-first Century series’ redesigns, despite excellent actors: making the Sontarans not rugby-player short and stocky but tiny and top-heavy ballet-dancer-legged; making their heads too small for their helmets and their armour too fussy; missing the point of a spherical ship and giving it a cockpit, rockets and go-faster stripes, so it can no longer veer off in any direction and boys can no longer draw it at speed. Here, the only false note for the first Sontaran is that his ‘gun’ is a great interrogation device but a pretty crummy weapon.

Mucking About In History
“Something very odd is happening here.”
“Oh, yes, well if I may say so, Doctor, that is not exactly news to me.”
I’ve always loved the uniquely Who-ish historical anachronisms of aliens or time meddlers when the Doctor travels back to a well-known period of Earth’s history, meets both exactly the sort of people we’d expect him to and some outer space people we really wouldn’t and everything collides. And if the most successful part of this story is the outer space person, the most entertaining parts are Irongron the sozzled bandit who’s squatting a castle and his adoring sidekick Bloodaxe, whose cod-Shakespeare and utter cluelessness make them loveable. Particularly when one’s roaring for wine, and the other’s lost in admiration at his boss’s “cunning plan”. I’m not the biggest admirer of director Alan Bromly, infamously so lethargic that on his only other Who he was one of the series’ few directors ever to be fired, but I can’t fault him on casting David Daker in both his stories. Irongron’s just as brilliant a double act as the Brigadier to Linx, constantly rowing with each other (and the human constantly coming off worst). They’re far more memorable than effete wounded crusader Sir Edward, though you can’t help but spot that his feisty, plotting wife (given some of the best lines, and described by the producer as a “goodie Lady Macbeth”) is June Brown, now Dot Cotton, just as the archer she sends to kill the uncouth next-door-neighbour is Jeremy Bulloch, famous as Boba Fett (and a regular in Robin of Sherwood, though not with a bow). Most of the actors are so good you can almost forgive the gate guard auditioning for the prize of most wooden performance in Doctor Who.

The story’s greatly helped by its location footage at a real fake castle, some of which looks gorgeous. It’s not much helped by the director often seeming to think just pointing the camera at the scenery and leaving it will make the best of it, not least in the big battle for Part Three. He has one good idea – with the two sides now established as the Doctor with Sir Edward and Linx with Irongron, the two aliens are playing chess with real pieces, and holding Linx in close-up as Irongron’s scruffy band try to storm Sir Edward’s castle in the background emphasises this. The trouble is, he doesn’t then make much of the Doctor on the battlements as the other ‘player’, and showing Irongron’s men in long shot again proves that, while there are more of them than in many Doctor Whos, there are nothing like enough. Even the script, though, falls down a little here: great at being witty, it’s not really thought through the pitched battle, with the grim Beau Geste idea of dead men at the embrasures (used to great effect in the following year’s series) made lightweight by having mere wooden ‘soldiers’ and the Doctor being better at tactics than strategy – he needed to combine his multiple ‘effects’ of full walls, Satanic attack and arrows, rather than spreading them out one by one so that anyone watching can see the trick of each. I suspect the joint reasons are so that the camera can gradually spin out the different stages of defence for maximum screen time, and that they didn’t want to show the Doctor killing people. But if that’s the case, mounting a medieval siege in the first place wasn’t the best notion. Called a “Norman ninny,” the Doctor doesn’t even pass muster as a Pythonian French Taunter. The script similarly bungles its sense of scale in Part Four, when the Doctor and Sarah Jane constantly yo-yo back and forth between castles with the same ease and in about the same time as Linx pops up and down the stairs. I wonder if the final two episodes might not have been better cut down to one, making a story already taut by Pertwee standards run at a proper clip? I know I shuddered at Barry Letts’ suggestion that because it was so enjoyable it should have been dragged out to six parts instead…

The DVD extras are pretty good, led by optional CGI that can’t do anything about the poor direction and jumpy editing but improves most of the lacklustre Linx effects (though disappointingly doing nothing with the dull teleport ‘fades’). The exception is a big explosion, where an inappropriate but exciting quarry blast is replaced by something that resembles a small dragon sneezing through some gates, with a notable absence of demolition. The excellent ‘Making of’ is shot mainly on location, with producer Barry Letts, lead writer Terrance Dicks and star Elisabeth Sladen (the same team as on the entertaining commentary) added to bit by bit by other players. Barry wins points for ensuring Sarah Jane was both brave and scared at the same time, but loses them for talking complete bollocks about historical adventures (as I’ve previously demonstrated), while Lis’ list for Sarah Jane’s character is a treasure. The nine minutes of photos, often famous ones, are only let down by having none from the Radio Times Doctor Who Tenth Anniversary Special that’s trailed on here – not even the iconic, story-specific ones of Sarah Jane being stalked by Linx. The text notes aren’t bad for Richard Molesworth, largely because of the masses of extra script there wasn’t room for in Part One, and with a script this good, it’s great to see more of it. After opening well, though, he irritates by noting the story’s surprisingly early start date (a “New Year” season beginning on the 15th of December) but giving us no idea why, by cutting and pasting repetitive details, and by a myriad silly errors that should have been proofread. The Dr Who Annual 1974 in pdf isn’t bad, with uninspired stories but some pretty decent artwork – particularly for the comic strips – that’s improved if you overlook the artist’s clear lack of authorised likenesses for anyone bar Jon Pertwee. I’m forced to admit, though, that the rather wittily edited Coming Soon trailer is my favourite extra on here: “The Key to Time is mine, miiine!”

Sarah Jane Smith Radio Times Special
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Humpty Dumpty flew in a ball
Humpty Dumpty had a big fall
All the thug’s horses and all the thug’s men
Got guns and shit.
Richard, after Chaucer

Doctor Who and the Time Warrior
“Linx was his name. He was a microsecond from obliteration.”
I’ve reviewed several of the Target novelisations recently, so I’ve already set out my view that most of the Pertwee stories are much better on the page than the screen; Doctor Who and the Time Warrior is no exception. Written by Terrance Dicks with Robert Holmes, it gets two massive and immediate boosts, first from Roy Knipe’s outstanding cover painting of Linx, and then from the extended Prologue, all that Bob Holmes completed before he thought it was too much hard work, but a thrilling action piece that provides much of the Sontaran backstory (and, I realised many years after first reading it, is the only Doctor Who book that describes an orgasm). Terrance Dicks rises to the challenge of this opening and makes what was already a very witty story a cracking adventure tale as well, enhanced by much more of the script than made it to screen, both in dialogue and in action (and young Eric’s heroic mission has always been appealing).

Jeremy Bulloch does rather a good job reading the audiobook, the easiest way to get hold of it today, and it’s a real thrill to hear that Prologue. So why not pick this up, too? The TV version’s good – but the book’s better. You might also look out the DVD of Horror of Fang Rock from four years later: Bob Holmes’ revenge on Terrance for making him do homework about history; Terrance Dicks taking inspiration in the crashing spaceship and bringing to the screen the Sontaran’s arch-enemies created here only in dialogue; and even one of the same actors. And, of course, you should be watching The Sarah Jane Adventures. If you missed today’s repeats, Invasion of the Bane and Whatever Happened To Sarah Jane? are particularly outstanding to look out on iPlayer (or, indeed, the whole lot again next week on CBBC). But first, and last, there’s tomorrow…

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