Monday, December 12, 2011

 

Old Is New Again: Doctor Who – Galaxy 4 and The Underwater Menace

Doctor Who fans were given a spectacular early Christmas present yesterday, when a surprise screening at the BFI revealed that there were two more episodes in existence than everyone had thought there were. For all of us born after the ’60s, this is the first time we can see these performances from William Hartnell in Galaxy 4 and Patrick Troughton in The Underwater Menace – an exciting prospect, even if neither story is universally loved. But in anticipation of these tales of Dalek wannabes and Flash Gordon-style hammery, I have reviews I prepared earlier based on the soundtracks of each. When I see the new old episodes on release next year, how wrong will I be?

The BBC website already has tantalising clips of Galaxy 4 Episode 3: Air Lock and The Underwater Menace Episode 2 to watch, with articles on how they were found both there and on the Radio Times site. If you know nothing about these two stories, be warned that each clip contains spoilers for its story’s key plot point – one implicitly, one directly – and so, unusually, do my reviews below. If you want to wait and see things for yourself, then, stop before the main headings. I will say that both stories, though very different in tone and setting, have monsters with two unusual things in common – and that both were designed to be four-part, ‘typical’ Doctor Who stories of the time and, incredible as it may sound, had comparatively significant cash spent on them to make them look good; it’s widely thought that this may have been more successful in one case than the other. And yet while Galaxy 4 is the one with a particularly well-respected director, of the two clips it’s the one from The Underwater Menace that’s compelling. That even makes up for this, the earliest surviving episode with Patrick Troughton’s Doctor, not being one in which he has his most famous hat – though he does get an outrageous replacement – nor a topless Ben. The clip from Galaxy 4, on the other hand, is visually interesting more in its design than its direction, so perhaps Julia Smith will win out over Derek Martinus after all. Now I’m wondering if the Chumblies are oscillating or merely wobbling (only seeing more of them will tell). Both clips, though, already display a little of what their stories are famous for: painful earnestness saved by Bill Hartnell in one, and an over-the-top mad scientist dragged to Earth by Pat Troughton in the other.

Missing – Presumed in the Skip

Half a dozen years ago, watching the whole of Doctor Who when there was considerably less of it – at both ends, it now happily transpires – I wrote reviews of all of William Hartnell’s stories as the Doctor and the first few of Patrick Troughton’s for an online discussion, and this seems an appropriate day to reprint these two for the first time where more than about half a dozen people can read them below, even if it’s inviting ridicule should things not look as they sounded. But how can I have reviewed these already without ever having seen them, you might ask, being born half a dozen years after their only airing in Britain? Well, I’ve written before about the BBC’s barbarous purges in which they destroyed many of their TV shows from the ’60s, creating what are now disingenuously referred to as “lost” or “missing” episodes. These two are the first surviving episodes to turn up for nearly eight years, since The Daleks’ Master Plan Episode 2: Day of Armageddon back in 2004. Until yesterday there were (or weren’t) 108 of them; now there are only 106 to go, and at least one of them would probably scrape into most fans’ top 100 to be found! Fortunately, for every single story, people recorded the soundtrack at the time, so you can now get the full adventures on CD with linking narration to make them clearer, while there are also many off-screen ‘telesnaps’ which mean we can get a fair idea of what the whole thing looked like for free, assembled into photonovels on the BBC website – and, unofficially, the two have been combined into Reconstructions, which you can get hold of for free as long as you don’t tell the BBC about it.

Of the six seasons broadcast in the ’60s that starred William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton as the Doctor, the middle ones were the worst hit; while most stories survive intact from each of Seasons One, Two and Six, there are only four complete adventures from Seasons Three and Five put together and, as I wrote earlier this year when publishing a review of Doctor Who – The Smugglers, not one story still exists in full from Season Four. These two finds don’t complete any stories, but they do offer an ‘orphaned’ episode for Season Three’s Galaxy 4, of which only a clip had previously been known to exist, and add another ‘orphaned’ episode to the already existing one from Season Four’s The Underwater Menace. Both are sure to be released on DVD next year, probably with soundtracks for the “missing” episodes (and, if we’re very lucky, perhaps partial Reconstructions or even, just maybe, animation for the now half-complete The Underwater Menace). Already today, you can buy the other material on the DVD collection Doctor Who – Lost In Time, which includes that extended clip from Galaxy 4 (peculiarly, presented in the middle of a documentary rather than as a menu item on its own) and the infamous Episode 3 of The Underwater Menace, or you can get the soundtracks for the whole stories both as separate releases and in newly remastered box sets, respectively Doctor Who – The Lost TV Episodes Collection No 1 (1964-1965) and Doctor Who – The Lost TV Episodes Collection No 3 (1966-1967). In which each is probably the weakest story…

For DVD reviews, this is usually the point at which I mention that back in September 2009, Doctor Who Magazine Issue 413 published “The Mighty 200” – 6,700 fans’ votes on all 200ish TV Doctor Who stories to that point – and how high they and I scored the stories I’m coming to. And they didn’t think much of these, but, hey, they’re the only episodes with arguably my two favourite Doctors that I have never seen, so my enthusiasm’s racing. Even if the DWM vote put Galaxy 4 down into 172nd place and The Underwater Menace even lower at 194; I might put each of them as much as ten places higher, but no more than that. At the moment, I’m much more ill than usual, and Richard had to wake me with the glad tidings yesterday afternoon; when I crawled from bed to watch the clips some time later, though, even my sounding like a Dalek couldn’t hide my excitement. I promptly rang one of my oldest friends with the news, who was audibly thrilled when I told him two episodes had been found. And then said, “Can’t we ask them to put them back where they found them?” when he found out which two. Yet still, the DVD releases can’t come soon enough! And remember, before you read on – spoilers…
Doctor Who – Galaxy 4
“I told them soldiers were no good for space work. All they can do is kill. But they wouldn’t listen. If you are to conquer space, they said, you will need soldiers. So here I am confronted with danger. I’m the only one able to think!”
Season Three of Doctor Who is a strange one even by the standards of the series as a whole. Like the first two seasons, it’s highly innovative and experimental, but with a new production team (the first ‘new’ production team) it has a very different feel. Companions chop and change far more abruptly and the dangers the Doctor faces continue to get ‘bigger’, with this the first of many exploding planets, all making it an unsettling year – but the ideas get bigger, too, with a lot of ‘big concepts’. The downside is that the endearing characterisation and dialogue-driven drama of the first couple of years doesn’t always fit in with the new brooms. And Galaxy 4 is definitely a sign of things to come…

Mini-Skirts Are In Fashion; Complexity Is Out

There are two ‘big ideas’ that everyone knows about Galaxy 4, from the skimpiest story summaries: the Rills are ugly but good, while the Drahvins are wicked but ‘beautiful’ (in a very ’60s way – the book’s cover of highly posed ‘beautiful space women’ against a blazingly pink sky is easily the campest thing ever painted by Andrew Skilleter); and, linked to that, the Drahvins are the nearest broadcast Doctor Who has ever got to the horrendous old sci-fi cliché of ‘the planet of women’. The trouble is, there’s very little else to know about the story, especially as there’s very little made of the ‘evil women’ side of the plot. Naturally, it’s a relief that Steven doesn’t snog them into being good (as is the norm in such stories in other series), and that they’re mostly just dim and for a good reason, rather than behaving as screaming girlies who happen to have large Freudian weapons (admittedly, Maaga bullies her soldiers and makes them cry, but at least she’s a strong character), but in the gaping hole left by the omission of sexist blather is… Not much.

It’s nice that for once Doctor Who is doing a story where ‘ugly’ doesn’t mean ‘evil’; right from The Daleks, the series has a strong current against fascism which is slightly undermined by, for example, the ‘good race’ being blond and ‘perfect’ while we know the others are evil because they’re mutated horrors with funny voices. Unfortunately, while the Rills seem quite an interesting piece of design from the two photos we have of them, all we ever hear is how ugly they are, as if we could miss the moral. Surely the Rills themselves wouldn’t think of themselves as ugly (one of the novels even suggests that Rill social advancement is based on their ugliness, which seems to miss the point)? It doesn’t help that the Rill has the plummiest voice yet heard in the show, which appeals to my own prejudices by suggesting Shakespearean ham, or possibly Lord Melchett. The Doctor has a great moment when he calls this giant alien monstrosity “Young man”, though – we could do with more of that. Their “warning” ammonia bomb is perhaps supposed to recall World War I gas warfare, but (coupled with the Rill’s stern, schoolmasterly tones in telling naughty Maaga to stay indoors) I can’t help but think of it as a stinkbomb. There’s also a teeny bit of a plot hole, where – before we find out the Rills are generous and friendly – they decide to blow up the TARDIS, for no good reason, especially as they’ve deliberately not attacked the spaceship of the Drahvins, who they know are hostile. It’s difficult to imagine any other reason for them to do this than faux-villainous plot convenience in advance of the ‘twist’.

Hands Off My Chumblies

On the bright side, the particularly good Loose Cannon Recon both greatly improves the long clip that’s left of the story by putting it in context and proves that one of the reasons it’s so sad so much of Season Three was tossed into skips and burnt by the BBC is that it seems to have some lovely visuals. Ironically, the first two seasons’ dialogue generally makes them more suited to audio releases, while it looks like there are ‘lost’ higher production standards in the third, where every planetscape appears an improvement on The Chase. The Recon shows some superb design for the time, with great scenery and a very solid ship, as well as re-enacted scenes for the Chumblies, the cuddly little robots that the BBC once again hoped they could cash in on as much as the Daleks (plus someone ‘playing’ Bill Hartnell as, er, a hand waving a knobbly stick). They look quite jolly as they telescope up and down, so again it’s a shame that most of what we have of them is their irritating sound effect on the CD. Ah well [the rediscovered episode means I shall have to take back my observation that if I never hear another Chumblie “oooo-up-ooooom”, it’ll be quite soon enough].

In the end, this is a story with its eye on the big picture; the first planet destroyed in the series, much talk of galaxies, alien races and some rather nice scenery all there to illustrate a big ‘message’. You can’t fault its sci-fi ambition, but it’s as if they spent so much time making it seem ‘big’ that they forgot to fill in any of the details. The galaxy-spanning view makes little sense seen up close, when we realise that the name of the story merely refers to where Maaga comes from and tells us next to nothing, or that her mission to “conquer space!” (and before Sarah Brightman) seems a tad improbable in a backward ship with just a handful of more backward clones to staff it. Added to that, the sheer obviousness of the ‘point’ undermines itself; the story has its heart in the right place, but it goes on and on with little happening, and Season Two’s characters have given way to cardboard that spouts moral messages. It’s never actively bad, but it’s much, much too slight for its length. Photos of Drahvins and Chumblies may look camp and rather exciting, but as we’re drearily reminded, don’t judge by appearances – a simple moral for an even more simple story.


Galaxy 4 – Maaga
 
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In mitigation, with its proto-Jagaroth spaceship and froody alien vegetation, and of course its (sigh) threatening dolly-birds and cute robots, this was clearly made to be seen, so perhaps the plot was secondary and it was deliberately designed as a ratings-grabber to look at? So will seeing it at last save or damn Galaxy 4? I can’t wait to find out. As then-companion Peter Purves has always said how much he hated this story, his commentary will surely be entertaining, too.

Looking back at it now, there is at least one way in which Galaxy 4 – ’50s B-Movie as it is, with its beehived alien Baaaad Girls – feels slightly ahead of its time. By mostly ignoring the gender reversal dynamics and focusing on Maaga, it’s an early example of TV’s Magnificent Bitch, even though she’s played by Stephanie Bidmead rather than Stephanie Beacham (now there’s a thought: Steven Moffat’s already had a Drahvin spaceship making a cameo last year in a story about a more grandiose but more improbable exploding Universe, undoubtedly because he likes women in micro-skirts, so if he ever does a full-on Drahvin story, how’s she for casting…?). For the most part, this makes it camply amusing at the expense of what little credibility it has – even the first episode title, Four Hundred Dawns, suggests she fuels her ship with her wooden compatriots (‘Throw another Dawn in the furnace! …I’m almost out of disposable Drahvins’, as Richard has it) – and it’s difficult not to imagine it turning up the Planet of Women dial to something like the Two Ronnies’ The Worm That Turned, not least because if it had been made in 1980 they wouldn’t have dared call the villain Maaga. Not only is her name often pronounced so it’s just a shade short of The Good Life’s anti-hero, but it’s uncannily similar to that of another blonde Leader, too.

And yet the scene I’m most keen to see from Air Lock – other than the surely unmissable spectacle of Rills reeling about – is one that’s always gripped me on audio, where Maaga gives a virtual soliloquy, barring the occasional dumb comment from one of her dumb subordinates. She starts off merely grumbling about them, and indeed gives her most infamous line, but it carries on to something much better, a proper bit of villainous spite, delivered in a gripping undertone:
“It may be that we shall kill neither the Rills nor these Earth creatures. Not with our own hands, that is. It may be better for us to escape in the Rills’ spaceship and leave them here. And then... When we are out in space… We can look back. We will see a vast, white, exploding planet... And know that they have died with it!”
“But we will not see them die.”
You will not. But I, at least, have enough intelligence to imagine it.”
Her having an imagination is quite the best thing in it, which you could even take as a postmodern commentary that the special effects are never going to live up to your mental picture… And at the end, of course, we get to imagine in exactly the same way about her last moments – which might make it an even more postmodern commentary on the bloodthirstiness of the viewers, who watch all these things for their entertainment.

Or she might just be being beastly.
Doctor Who – The Underwater Menace
“You’re not clumsy, Doctor. You did it on purpose.”
The TARDIS lands at the entrance to what’s left of Atlantis and does Flash Gordon.

Of all the stories with missing episodes so far, this is the one where people seem most likely to want the surviving episode lost, too, as it might be better-regarded if only the short ‘censor’s clips’ had survived to suggest a grim and dangerous story about horrible operations, rather than the load of old codswallop we get to see in the surviving Episode 3 in all its ludicrous glory. Even fans who’ve never seen it tend to know that the final line of that involves the mad scientist exclaiming,
“Nothing in the world can stop me now!”
I’ve read several reviews excusing the story by saying this is the worst episode of the four, but that’s nonsense – both soundtrack and Recon make clear that Episode 1, for example, moves very slowly, the TARDIS crew act like idiots and it’s not even funny. Despite all that, it’s still possible to defend it, simply because the surviving episode is often fun. Is it good? Nah. Is it a pleasure to watch? Go on, go on…

Good News For Troughton, Bad News For His Friends

Though at times he’s just as extravagant as in his first two stories, everyone wanting ‘the new Doctor’ toned down a bit is in for a stroke of luck. Opposite Joseph Furst’s Professor Zaroff, he seems relatively underplayed, and not only is he funnier than Furst, at least with the hero we’re laughing with rather than at him. He’s both sharp and funny, particularly when puncturing Zaroff’s plans: “Oh, have I dropped a brick?” or calling his bluff on the explosion being unstoppable and not requiring his finger on the button with “Miss your big moment? I think not.” He’s already getting other people to play on his strangeness, most entertainingly when the lovely Ben bluffs his way past a guard using the old ‘I’ve got a prisoner’ trick: “He’s just not normal, is he?” He tries to bring down Zaroff by suggesting the Fish People strike (a major contrast with Pertwee in The Monster of Peladon), but when it comes down to it, he’s back to what’s clearly already his usual way of foiling an evil plan: blow everything up, as he did on the Vulcan Colony the landing before last. With this strange mix of the gentle and the utterly destructive – ‘Better safe than sorry!’ he seems to think, to make sure the plan’s thoroughly knocked down – you have to feel relieved that Scotland survived in the previous story, or that he didn’t at least blow up the cells and scupper Trask’s boat. By contrast, he also tries to save Zaroff from his horrible end. Meanwhile, with the most ludicrous array of hats seen so far in the series, we see the Doctor delighting in a huge priest’s hat, wearing a fish mask on a stick, and dressed as a gypsy in groovy shades for a very funny ‘action’ scene in the market. You can see why he’s Matt Smith’s favourite Doctor. It’s also the last story he wears his arresting stovepipe hat that appeared in all his early publicity shots, and a little sad that the only surviving episode from one of the ‘stovepipe stories’ is devoid of it, with the telesnaps suggesting that the last person to wear it is Polly…

Although they get to do lots of dressing-up – rubber guards’ uniforms for Ben and Jamie, a shell suit for Polly – it’s not a particularly good story for the Doctor’s three companions. They start well, in a fun little TARDIS scene where everyone thinks about where they’d like to land (it’s difficult to know for sure without the proper episode, but this may feature the rare device of hearing someone’s voice ‘inside their head’ – used in The Moonbase, The Mind Robber and The War Games, but for only one story outside of Troughton), but once they go outside and everyone suddenly wants to explore, now Bill Hartnell’s gone, they rapidly run out of useful things to do after a one-off attempt to use foreign languages. Given that Ben and Jamie have basically the same ‘running around not saying very much’ part, already suggesting too many similar companions, it’s startling how much one-off characters Jacko and Sean are ‘extra companions’, doing companiony things like rabble-rousing the Fish People into striking. Did Geoffrey Orme just not like Ben and Jamie, even in their little rubber outfits? Ben may notice the threat, as he teases new boy Jamie like a younger brother. That’s nothing compared to the distressing fall for Polly, though, as she goes from being a fantastically capable companion to utterly useless here. She’s taken in by Zaroff’s ridiculous bluff to jump the priest Ramo (asking for Ramo to come over so he can “feel the aura of your goodness”), then while they fight she could easily pitch in, but shamefully just squats in the corner looking scared (at least she tries to hit him with a rock later on). Still, the two sexy blondes Ben and Polly look good together, and Joe Orton clearly fancied Jamie in the guard’s outfit, as he wanted to cast Fraser Hines as Mr Sloane on the strength of it!

The Hats of Doom

Despite many attempts by Terry Nation, this is the closest Doctor Who ever gets to the original Flash Gordon film serial, and not always in a good way; the Fish People, the mixture of stereotyped religion and mad science, the hokey dialogue and design work (it’s difficult to believe the executioner with the mask and shell on his chest isn’t from Flash Gordon). Add in elements of Journey to the Centre of the Earth and a horrible physical transformation that’s even less convincing than that in Vengeance on Varos, and you’ve got a story that’s mostly not deliberately funny, but invites being sent up mercilessly by several of the actors and in Nigel Robinson’s novelisation. It’s the reverse of some Hartnell stories written as comedy and ‘straightened out’ in the studio, from a man who also wrote a very forgettable episode of The Avengers. It’s enlivened by Professor Zaroff and his occasional demented exclamations but, as he’s given the brilliant and detailed motivation of being ‘mad’, I can’t help thinking he should be more over the top. He’s not exactly Brian Blessed in full-on shouty mode – more just sniggering. It’s not a good story for Atlantean religion, either, with it all a big con (shock) and the fat priest Lolem apparently played by Christopher Biggins’ funny uncle in a huge hat made of curly bits of newspaper. His bitchy “May the wrath of Amdo engulf you!” to Zaroff is fun, though. At least it’s an exciting story for milliners. And shouldn’t the Atlanteans be able to spot the TARDIS crew aren’t local because they don't have silly eyebrows like everyone else?

The cliffhanger to Episode 1 doesn’t seem too bad, surprising you by not being about sharks after all but instead with Polly about to be operated on and a Fish Person peering in, but stick a load together in the ‘Dance of the Fish People’ and they’re jaw-droppingly silly. It’s probably the longest non-speaking sequence in the show up to that point, complete with strings and a terrible electric piano. The only time they look good is in a marvellously colourful DWM Time Team illustration of Zaroff and Nemo the octopus, though the Troughton’s not too good (with a huge nose that looks like a villain from TV Comic). Doctor Who writer Rob Shearman also has a particularly spectacular go at the story, which you may enjoy. The gormless King Thous gets one dignified line as the water surges into Atlantis at the climax, “The everlasting nightmare is here at last,” but the budget doesn’t really allow enough playing with water either, despite an effective image of the goddess Amdo ‘weeping’ as the idol gives way (I’m not sure about leaving nasty Mengele-figure Damon as the new visionary, though).

After all that you might be surprised that this ill-judged attempt to replace history with fantasy in the series was directed by the co-creator of EastEnders, so she probably didn’t put it high up her CV. Another echo of the future is that the whole Atlantis thing and the ‘villain from outside with the crazy destructive plot’ who ‘the ruler is chatted up by and realises is actually a bad thing and “the Doctor was right” too late’ ideas are blatantly ripped off for The Time Monster, which frankly makes you worry about Barry Letts… There is, at least, a great final cliffhanger into The Moonbase as the TARDIS goes out of control: “Do something!” “I seem to have done something!” but overall I’m left with two conclusions. It’s undoubtedly the lowest Doctor Who has aimed so far into the series… But though I don’t usually believe in the ‘so bad it’s good’ theory, this is at least ‘so bad it’s highly entertaining’!


The Underwater Menace – I Should Like A Hat Like That
 
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The scene I’m probably keenest to see from the newly returned episode – given that it’s sadly not one with the stovepipe hat, nor a soaking wet Ben, nor with the probable inner-voiceovers – is probably the full version of the clip on the BBC website, which is delightful. This was only Patrick Troughton’s third story as the new Doctor, with the part only ever having been played by William Hartnell, and as I said above it does him a great favour by casting a villain next to whom he tones it down a bit, before finding his ‘mission statement’ in The Moonbase and then nailing his Doctor perfectly in the sublime The Macra Terror. And it’s fascinating to watch him in that minute that’s been made available, orbiting Zaroff in the background, watching, before he comes into close-up, all the while probing in a deceptively mild manner, hands held close to his chest in quite a Hartnellish mannerism, provoking the mad scientist into his second-most memorable outburst:
“Bang! Bang, bang!”
So, if you happen to have any old friends and relatives with dusty film cans in their attics, why not check to see if they have any more episodes themselves? Oh, and those two unusual things the monsters from each oldly new episode have in common: neither breathes our air; and, unlike the human-looking villains in each story, neither are really monsters at all. You can also read a brief review of the episodes at the British Film Institute yesterday from a lucky blighter who was there.

In the meantime, Andrew Hickey has just reviewed another – far from missing – piece of Dr Who from 1965, while if your appetite’s been whetted for Christmas Doctor Who, there’s a cartoony Reconstruction of the deeply silly 1965 Christmas episode The Feast of Steven online (worth watching for its marvellous closing line), or – from the other end of Doctor Who – the Prequel to this Christmas’ The Doctor, The Widow and The Wardrobe.

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