This Isn’t Croydon: Season 14 Blu-Ray Review


Doctor Who was at the height of its powers in 1977. The gamble of hiring the virtually unknown Tom Baker had paid off and his first two years as the Doctor had seen the series soar in popularity. By a happy coincidence, the media world was being rocked by the unprecedented success of a film called Star Wars and the murmur across the globe was that sci-fi was the next big thing. With this in mind, the BBC was happy to promote the 14-year old series in a way that few 14-year old series could expect to be promoted. If it were not for its build-in ability to refresh itself, Doctor Who could realistically have been expected to be nearing its end; the police series Z-Cars, which started a year before Doctor Who and was one of the drama department’s biggest successes, ended in 1978 after what was considered a ‘good run’. Doctor Who should have expected the same – and yet, in 1977, after 14 years, it was at its peak.

Season 14, the latest blu-ray set released as part of The Collection, is often quoted as the best ever series of classic Doctor Who. It has been for a long time, though every so often, some delicate, achingly-post-modern soul will happen along and wax lyrical about how he prefers The Horns of Nimon to The Deadly Assassin. Been there, done that, heard it all in the 90s. Look, Season 14 is highly regarded for a reason; it’s a collection of very strong episodes. Season 13 was good – but not so much The Android Invasion; Season 12 was great – but Revenge of the Cybermen let the side down a bit. The thing about Season 14 is that there isn’t really a clunker in the bag; this is a solid run of six stories that even manages to present the mythical 6-parter that doesn’t drag – something the classic series will never pull off again! It was a time of change and that change is handled really well, handing over from one of the series’ best-loved companions to another of the same and even managing to slip in a companion-free story for good measure.

The season starts off with The Masque of Mandragora, a story that, when I was growing up, was often overshadowed by the other big-hitters this year; but gradually, over the years, The Masque of Mandragora has increased in popularity. I suppose, because it doesn’t have a classic villain, a companion leaving or a companion joining, it doesn’t stand out as much in the run of Season 14, but it can’t be denied that it’s a rather good story. Written by Louis Marx, who wrote only intermittently for Doctor Who but always seemed to turn out something memorable, it tells the story of the Doctor and Sarah visiting renaissance Italy and accidentally bringing with them a destructive force known as the Mandragora Helix. Something is rotten in the state of San Martino; wicked Count Federico is attempting to wrest power from his nephew Giuliano by reviving the ancient Cult of Demnos – and the power of the Mandragora Helix is exactly what he needs to achieve this.

The Masque of Mandragora has fantastic performances from all quarters, particularly John Laurimore as Count Federico and a young Tim Piggott-Smith as Marco, but is unusual in that apart from Sarah and the odd non-speaking attendee at the masque, there are no female characters. Location filming in Portmeirion, standing in for renaissance Italy is effective and, for the most part, manages to avoid looking too much like the location made famous by the iconic 60s TV series The Prisoner. The first couple of episodes move at breakneck speed with swordfights and horse chases that make it look like a more expensive series, but it does flag a bit in the middle and suffers from the classic Doctor Who curse of episode 3 padding. This serial also features the introduction of the wooden console room in the TARDIS, which looks gorgeous but is sadly underused; there’s a beautiful high shot in Robots of Death as the Doctor and Leela leave the TARDIS, showing a table and chairs and other small details of the set that are never expanded upon.

At the beginning of this season of Doctor Who, Elisabeth Sladen announced that she would be leaving the role of Sarah Jane Smith that she had played since 1974, making her one of the longest running companions to date. The Hand of Fear by Bob Baker and Dave Martin is her last story… and it’s rather a good ‘un. Baker and Martin’s work on Doctor Who can be very variable; if you compare 6-part The Mutants to the 2-part The Sontaran Experiment, it becomes clear that they work much better on shorter, punchier stories. With The Hand of Fear, they wisely break the 4 episodes down into a couple of 2-part acts – the first on contemporary Earth and the second on the devastated planet Kastria, whose dictatorial leader Eldrad was executed by being blown into a million parts, some of which ended up in a quarry on Earth. The special effects of Eldrad’s disembodied hand crawling around on Earth are simply achieved but beautifully effective.

Elisabeth Sladen gets lots to do in this story and her ‘Eldrad must live!’ hypnotised acting has become legendary (as have her sweet pink candystripe dungarees). The final scene between Sladen and Baker is an absolute delight and was (if legend is anything to go by) rewritten by the two actors themselves to feel more truthful – it certainly does. Judith Paris is superb as Eldrad, quite possibly the best female villain in all of classic Who, but when they travel to Kastria and she reverts to her male form, we get a VERY LOUD Stephen Thorne, giving a performance SO BIG that even Brian Blessed would be encouraging him to turn it down a bit. It’s a shame because Stephen Thorne is a very good actor, but his performance is so markedly different to that of Judith Paris that it’s hard to think of them as the same character. Nevertheless, The Hand of Fear is an enjoyable story and great comfort viewing for a rainy Sunday afternoon.

With both his original companions Sarah and Harry gone, Tom Baker allegedly resisted the idea of a new co-star. Partly to placate him, producer Philip Hinchcliffe had Script Editor Robert Holmes write The Deadly Assassin, which would see the Doctor going solo on his home planet of Gallifrey. As an enemy, Holmes brought back his own creation The Master. Enough time had passed since the untimely death of Roger Delgado for the part to be recast and Holmes the extra step of making this Master one who had reached the end of his regenerative cycle, leaving him an emaciated husk. Cast in the role was former member of the D’Oyly Carte Company Peter Pratt, who gives a suitably operatic performance, albeit slightly hampered by the excellent looking but restrictive mask he has to wear. Revealed elsewhere on this collection – and news to me – is the fact that Robert Holmes wanted to bring back the Master for a second time this season in The Talons of Weng-Chiang, but the idea was nixed by Hinchcliffe. A pity, as it would’ve been nice to see more from Pratt, who passed away before the Master reappeared in 1980.

The Deadly Assassin is a great story that introduces a lot of the lore and iconography of the Time Lords – although much of it is misinterpreted by future productions. The ornate robes sported by the Time Lords for the Presidential Inauguration are described as ‘seldom worn’ and ‘ceremonial’, but by Arc of Infinity in 1982, they’re casual daywear for the Gallifreyan-about-town. Similarly, the Matrix goes from somewhere you can only access via a very dangerous mental link, to somewhere you can access via a door, to somewhere that, according to the most recent series, you can just pop in and out of at will. Anyway, forget what comes after – all these elements work really well in The Deadly Assassin and make for a great serial. I’ve very fond memories of it from my childhood; we had to go over a railway crossing to get to my Grandmother’s house and I was always afraid that the tracks would close up on my ankle and I‘d find a train bearing down on me. As for the drowning sequence that Mary Whitehouse said would traumatise children… well, I’ve no memory of that at all.

Tom Baker failed in his attempt to go solo and new companion Leela (Louise Jameson) is introduced in The Face of Evil by Chris Boucher. I’ve always thought this story was a series of very good ideas that don’t quite fill their 4-episode slot. The first couple of episodes, revolving around the Tribe of the Sevateem and the introduction of Leela are terrific and afterwards there are some individual great moments – the revelation of a huge face of the Doctor carved into a mountainside, the schizoid computer Xoanon screaming ‘Who am I?’ in a child’s voice – but for the most part, once they’re in the realm of the Tesh, the story slows to a crawl. There are a lot of laser battles with poor digital effects in a set which is a bit too small – and get used to it, because we’ll see a lot more of that in years to come! Having said that, although small, the interior sets are beautifully designed, though they don’t hold a candle to the jungle sets which, alongside Planet of Evil, must surely rank as the best jungle sets on any TV.

Louise Jameson makes a startling debut as Leela; it’s an all-round performance, with her body language playing as big a part of convincing the audience that she’s a savage as her delivery. Although the original concept of the Doctor and Leela was that of a Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle relationship, they never over-play it and stay well clear of extended scenes of the Doctor trying to explain stuff to her. In many ways, it’s a much braver move on behalf of the production team than you would ever see on TV today, where Leela’s tribal inheritance would be almost certainly be spoonfed to the audience again and again until they grew tired of it. What you notice again and again from watching these older episodes is that they never talk down to the audience, not even the audience of children and there’s never a thread that doesn’t lead somewhere or a question left unanswered. Modern scriptwriters could learn a lot from these episodes.

Robots of Death is widely regarded as an all-time classic; a studio-bound whodunit in which it’s clear who dunit from the start (spoiler: robots) but the real question is who ordered them to dunit? Chris Boucher returns for the second story in a row with a script that is much leaner than The Face of Evil – there’s really not a pick of fat on this one – and some extra-ordinary characterisation for the multi-racial crew of the sand miner who are being picked off one by one. Okay, so the white folks last longer than Tania Rogers as Zilda and Tariq Yunus as Cass, but that’s kinda got more to do with them being bigger name actors of the day. Russell Hunter, fresh off several years as Lonely on Callan, plays the miner’s captain Uvanov and gives an extraordinary physical performance. Doctor Who favourites Pamela Salem and David Collings are also remarkable as Toos and Poul, the latter giving a particularly striking performance.

This story is also a triumph of design, of course. The sand miner interiors, the costumes and the robots themselves are all designed in an art deco style that sets them apart from anything else on TV. Try and imagine this with bland, clichéd corridors and a crew in overalls, with clunky functional robots and it wouldn’t be anywhere near as memorable. Maybe the crew’s outfits seem a bit impractical for work wear – so what? They look great and this is TV after all; it’s a visual experience and it needs to catch the eye. I remember watching some of the early episodes of the revived series and feeling so bored at seeing spaceship crews in T-shirts running around corridors that looked like the basement of Cardiff’s Millenium Stadium, and just longing for something more imaginative, something with a bit of style. Well, Robots of Death has style by the bucket load… and it has substance too, so it’s rightly regarded as a classic.

Also regarded as a classic – though it’s somewhat lapsed in popularity in recent years – is The Talons of Weng-Chiang. If there’s one thing the BBC drama department has always excelled at, it’s period drama and Robert Holmes’ script for Talons is a loving homage to the Victorian adventure story, encompassing everything from Sherlock Holmes to Fu-Manchu to The Phantom of the Opera. Philip Hinchcliffe’s final story as a producer is a distillation of everything that made his era great; the story of a futuristic war criminal desperately trying to claw his way back to power, set against a backdrop of Gothic Victoriana. The exterior scenes shot on film look as crisp as any feature film and the blu-ray up-scaling of the rest of the action allows you to see every tiny detail with immaculate clarity. As the characters pass behind the stage at the theatre, you can see racks of period costumes, perfect bill-posters and piles of props; it all goes to show how much effort was put into getting the period setting right for what was essentially a family science fiction show.

The Talons of Weng-Chiang is beautifully cast as well; everyone knows about Christopher Benjamin and Trevor Baxter’s star turn as Henry Gordon Jago and Professor Lightfoot, but every minor character is just pitch perfect, from the doe-eyed waifs who escape the clutches of Weng-Chiang to the morbid old woman who takes great delight in pointing the police in the direction of a ‘floater’. Michael Spice plays Magnus Greel (a.k.a. Weng-Chiang) with golden age Hollywood thunder, teetering constantly on the top but never actually going over it and let’s not forget Deep Roy who takes the thankless part of the Peking Homunculus Mr. Sin and turns it into something unforgettably disturbing. Sin’s story is told with throwaway brilliance, which there’s a lot of in Robert Holmes’ dense script. It’s hard to believe that this was a late replacement for Robert Banks Stewart’s dropped script Foe from the Future (though not a last-minute scramble, as pointed out by Philip Hinchcliffe in one of this story’s many terrific extras).

You can’t discuss The Talons of Weng-Chiang without mentioning the race issue. Now, obviously by any modern standards it’s wrong to have John Bennett in yellow-face as Li H’sen Chang, but Talons seems to get an uneven proportion of stick over this when similar (and more extensive) examples are overlooked in Marco Polo, The Aztecs, The Crusades etc. They’re all products of their time and Talons gets the majority of the criticism because it was the last example. Ironically, they could have got away with it if only they’d shown John Bennett out of make-up in his theatre dressing room, as most ‘oriental’ performers in Victorian musical hall were just white blokes with a thick application of pan-stick and a Mikado accent. That way, it would’ve just been a representation of the different attitudes of the day, which is generally also the excuse for some of the language used in this. How to deal with it is the problem; ultimately, unless something is knowingly offensive, I personally would favour discussion over censorship every time and I think this blu-ray collection misses out by not including an open discussion of the issues raised in this story.

As with all of the ‘The Collection’ blu-ray releases, Season 14 comes with a wealth of extras ranging from the obscure (Tom Baker on a 1977 episode of Call My Bluff) to the well-loved (the Lively Arts documentary Whose Doctor Who and a retrospective feature thereof by Toby Hadoke). There’s another premium interview by Matthew Sweet, this time with producer Philip Hinchcliffe, which as always is one of the best extras on the set. For those interested in such things, there are updated SFX for The Talons of Weng-Chiang, but personally I prefer to watch episodes in their original format; it’s all a matter of taste. On review, I’m still a huge fan of Season 14; along with Season 10, it’s one of my favourite sets of episodes. It’s the Doctor Who that I grew up with and my adoration of the Fourth Doctor’s era has not altered. Given that it was a period of much change, Season 14 does incredibly well to produce such a strong run of stories.


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