First in the machine is The Time Monster, a story which script editor Terrance Dicks told me “I really don’t remember much,” and it shows. It’s a story which looks like he’s spent very little time on.
Split into three definite parts, this is a story with plenty of good ideas, but which should really have ditched at least one of them. The first two episodes are typical Season Nine fare with a competent regular cast including Roger Delgado going through the motions of a Master-up-to-no-good-in-rubbish-disguise mode messing around with Time experiments which release the terrifying (read awful) Chronovore. This leads to frozen Time, a baby Benton and the Doctor being particularly patronising. There are some nifty ideas but they’re not really expanded.
The next two episodes are the fillers of all fillers as the Doctor and Jo are trapped in a TARDIS within a TARDIS plot aped by the “Nothings ever original now” C H Bidmead in Logopolis and at least show some creativity with the TARDIS and the concept of dimensions, but don’t really go anywhere either.
The last two, a best, episodes take place in Atlantis and have a Peladon feel to them. It’s disappointing these two episodes didn’t make the whole story.
There are good bits all the way through this, but there is some awful stuff too. The main cast are underused or phone in a performance, concepts are looked at then ignored and the Doctor’s legging it from a devastated Atlantis is a bit out of character. It really did require a polish on the script editing front. It really didn’t need the Master, and some of the names – TOMTITT (yik) for instance are just poor. And so is the substandard Words And Pictures Chronovore. As bad as it gets monster-wise.
Extras are good though. A lively and busy commentary features John Levene, Susan Penhalligan, Barry Letts, Production Assistant Marion McDougal, writers Graham Duff, Phil Ford, Joe Lidster and James Moran all moderated by comedian Toby Hadoke and is almost a gag reel, but this is a good thing, and no one is taking this hokum particularly series. Hadoke and Levene are particularly good value for money. Between Now…And Now! is a geek filled documentary about time travel orchestrated by Professor Jim Al Khalili and gives some nice insights. The Restoration Comparison also shows how well the RT clean up these old episodes.
Add to that the usual PDFs and Coming Soons and there is plenty to recommend.
If The Time Monster underperforms, the next adventure, Underworld, by Bob Baker and Dave Martin is a pleasant surprise. Using the Jason and the Argonauts legend as a template, it is a layered, clever and highly watchable piece of Doctor Who, and this might be a surprise given its reputation. The main thing people talk about with this episode is its CSO effects, but these actually aren’t that bad, and in some cases enhance the story – K9 actually hovers, for instance.
Overshadowed by this is some fabulously large and expansive sets and, with the exception of Norman Tipton’s Idas, the cast are universally great. Of course this serial was crippled with budget issues, but bearing that in mind it works brilliantly. It’s a lot better than you think it’s going to be.
I managed to track down Bob Baker to talk about it with me…
Dave Martin talks about a specific strategy in pitching Underworld – giving the producers what they wanted with stories. How did it come about?
I don’t recall a “specific strategy” (unless in hindsight!) It was again, “Boys, come up with a story that doesn’t cost too much.” A usual refrain from the DW office. Dave and I thought over the Greek Odyssey idea after seeing – Oh the Italian movie with the fighting skeletons/combined with an article in Scientific American about the possible future of gene banks. The endless journey was sort of a recurring idea in our work (I recall an outline called “The Road “ which was exactly like the current one – only with a better, even more depressing ending, along the lines of Soylent Green) Of course Underworld was discussed with Bob Holmes before he let us loose on the story
How did you find the change in producers – you’d worked with Barry, Philip and Graham… or was it more the script editors that helped mould the story? How important is that relationship? Both between script editor and writer and writer and producer?
It was super going with Philip, since we’d known him from his ITV days. We got on well with Barry. We found Graham was quite enthusiastic for our mad ideas! We got on very well with Terrance, there was a sort of schoolteacher and pupil feeling at first, since he’d guided us through our first Who’s which at caused him, to quote his letter to us. “Great angst, requiring plenty of Macon from the BBC bar!” We found in Bob Holmes a good mate and a built a rapport, second to none. All editors and producers of “Who” had our respect for what they achieved on the budgets they were given
Do you think Underworld gets undue stick? Watching it, I have to say it was a hundred times better than I “remembered”. The CSO isn’t THAT bad, is it?
Yes, I do think Underworld gets undue stick. Seeing it again it wasn’t half as bad as I thought it was, and the dialogue resembles something like “I Claudius” at times. The CSO even after working in CGI was pretty reasonable and a brave decision to do it by the director. Definitely under-rated
What struck me was the cast – they are almost universally great… how important is it that a cast “gets” what’s going on?
We had no say in the casting of our stories, but in the main, our characters have been cast with appropriate thought and care and was occasionally brilliant – as in Underworld, a superb cast. With such a cast, the story is clear, disbelief is quickly suspended . The entire piece starts to work on an entirely new plane. (Sorry self praise there!)
When you heard about the CSO etc at the start, did your heart sink?
When we heard about the CSO we grimaced, but after seeing the recording of Ep one, our spirits were raised somewhat. We felt it better to experiment than use weak SFX.
It’s fair to say that it’s quite a layered tale, with lots of characters and lots of plot. Perhaps too busy? As a classics student I followed it perfectly now, but for your average viewer at that time do you think it was maybe asking too much?
It is essentially an adventure story – as was The Odyssey. It should work on that level – and those that see the lower layers can enjoy that too. It’s a pretty energetic story anyway. (Like Wallace & Gromit. Kids don’t get the allusions to genres and old movies, but they still like the film.)
Are there any aspects of the story you see now and think don’t work? Or any that do?
I think the story works well. I can’t think of anything too outrageous.
The solid sets are actually very good, aren’t they? The P7E for instance is a massive place…
The P7E was a great piece of design, it was the most used set of course – that how the CSO paid off I guess.
How was Tom by now? There are rumours of unrest, of fights between him and Louise etc? Where you aware of the force of nature he is as you write a story for him?
Dave and I loved writing for Tom Baker, we could give him complicated exposition speeches or the odd joke and he always said it as we’d heard it in our heads – as partners we would say the lines to each other to clarify and hopefully edit things as much as possible. Working in a barn in South Gloucestershire, Dave and I saw little of what went on at the shop floor level. Louise, (Who lived next door to me when at Bristol Old Vic) has never mentioned anything. Though you did hear the odd bit of gossip, but that’s what is was as far as we were concened. Gossip.
You also use K9 “properly” – which of course, you above everyone else would know how to. How frustrating was it to see K9 reduced to a “gun” or a quick fix?
We got very annoyed seeing K9 used simply as a gun. It was irritating that we’d created a real character who could “out think” the doctor at times, who was a real godsend for action set pieces (superior tactics) and also for humour. No, K9 was so often wasted, being stuck around in the set for the odd “Affirmative” and as a piece of artillery, The Doctor of course, disapproved of “Killing”.
Did you think the relationship with the Doctor and Leela worked any better or worse than say, Jo, Sarah or Romana?
There was a tension between the Doctor and Leela, she wasn’t always the obedient servant of the genius master. Less of the “But Doctor?” kind of dialogue. Leela could take care of herself often to the Doctor’s chagrin. I think they worked well as the team and were on a different level to Romana, Jo and Sarah Jane. Not necessarily better, but certainly different.
Was Underworld a frustrating tale? Did it come out as you had imaged?
Underworld, apart from a few changes agreed with Bob Holmes, was pretty well as we wrote it. We were of course delighted with the P7E set. That helped it become something a bit special. (I’m sure they will have used pieces of the set in another Dr Who story some time.)
This was the directors first job wasn’t it? Do you think controlling Tom, working with such ground breaking effects and pacing the story was a daunting task for him? How do you think he did?
All praise to the Director. He chose a rocky path for his first show, but I think he pulled it off brilliantly and we can look back on it knowing that ground was broken on this show – as you said seeing it again after so many years it looks pretty damn good! From the feel and pace of the story I guess he must have controlled Tom, despite being a ‘rookie’ director. All in all I think this is one of our better ones. And that’s a lot down to the director.
Extras wise, this one pulls it off too. There’s an affectionate and heart warming reunion between Tom Baker and Louise Jamieson, who finally seems to actually “get” Tom, ably refereed by Bob Baker. Louise is happy and in reflective mood, Tom is his usual exuberant and erratic self. A joy to listen to. Into the Unknown and Underworld in the Studio are well researched and contributed studies of the making of the serial, with some wonderfully candid scenes of Tom and Louise onset.
The final piece of the mythical pie is the Horns of Nimon, based on the planet Skonnos and wrapped around a Minotaur legend.
Now, where to start. People are either going to love this or hate it. It all depends on where you take your appetite from Doctor Who from. If you like serious, reflective and dark Who, forget it. If you like Tom Baker playing with the biggest toyset in the universe and encouraging others to do the same, then you’ll love it.
This is an episode where nothing is small. Tom is beyond out of control, his Doctor is almost manic most of the time, and he sits and waits on cues “live” on camera. Or perhaps this is the genius that Tom brings to the role. He’s clearly having a ball. And, if you join in, so will you.
An almost unrecognisable Graham Crowden is explosive as Soldeed from start to finish. I sense to ill will towards Who in his waaaaay over the top performance (stand up Paul Darrow), but he is Pantomime Incarnate. Tom told me: “It was heaven to work with Graham Crowden. We did improvise and did offer Kenny new lines. I remember Graham quoting from The White Devil: “I have caught an everlasting cold.” It is a wonderful line and made even more wonderful when after a tiny pause Graham gave a big SNIFF!
“We adored him. I always felt a deep sympathy for his style. He was wonderful in “Heartbreak House” by G. B. Shaw at The National Theatre and of course he was just sublime as the PLAYER in Tom Stoppard’s play “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.” How I hope he is well and happy. He resembled Alastair Sim I think.”
Director Kenny McBain could have struggled to reign in everyone, but in the end allows them carte blanche, even adding his own anarchy with some whistles and bangs as the TARDIS console explodes. Tom has good things to say about him too: “I seem to remember that Kenny McBain enjoyed the piece; we certainly did. Kenny was quite slight physically. He was not at all slight in any other way. I got on well with Kenny. Looking back I got on reasonably with nearly all of them.”
But was, I asked Tom, the absurdity of the story relevant to his own performance? The dafter the better? “The absurdity of the stories never bothered me at all,” he said. “I was brought up as a Roman Catholic in Liverpool so I grew up steeped in absurdity. I still am. I find most of life utterly absurd. And what seemed important years ago now seems to me to be farcical. There seems to me no meaning. The pains and pleasures were all real but meaning? Oh, no.”
And of course, script editor Douglas Adams would have something to do with that absurdity… “ Douglas Adams compelled affection. We loved him and he loved us. I was very amused by his sense of the ABSURD! There we go again! I was deeply grieved when Douglas died. I’m grieved right now to think of him.”
There were rumours of a tumultuous rehearsal period during this time… does Tom remember? “The rehearsals may have been tumultuous. I liked Tumult. I cared about making the story interesting for our fans.”
And he cares about the fans too, that much is obvious… “I still love the fans and often go out to meet them. When I’m in Soho where there is a great deal of new building going I the scaffolders yell out “Aye aye, Doctor.” and I yell back and people on the pavement look amazed and then THEY recognise me and sometimes tell me sweet things as the memories of long ago come swirling back”.
Tom also has a lot of nice things to say about John Leeson and K9. “David Brierly was perfectly competent as K9 but he was not in the same league as John Leeson whose work in rehearsal was sometimes miraculous. The BBC was committed to their version of the Robot Dog and did not see the genius, yes, the sweet genius of John’s work in the rehearsal room. The look on John Leeson’s face when the incomparable Myra Francis barked the line “Point the Dog at the rock.” I wanted to develop it. I thought it would be better if we all looked at each other and someone should say: “What did she say?” And I wanted to say” “She said Point the dog at the Rock!” And then we could all shout together: “POINT THE DOG AT THE ROCK!” (Cue for a song) That line became a catchword from that moment on. But there in the rehearsal room we saw the power of a reaction. Barry Letts would have loved that scene. I think Barry Letts would have seen all the possibilities. More sad thoughts! He was very special.”
So a great time then, Tom? “The Doctor was the best part I ever had. Nothing admits of comparison, nothing. I am so grateful to Barry, to Bill Slater and Shaun Sutton and to Ray Harryhausen who directed The Golden Voyage of Sinbad.”
Extras wise, this has the best of the lot, with Gethan Jones introducing Who Peter, a documentary about the symbiotic relationship between Who and Peter, natch, including many famous faces from both series, including my mate Peter Purves. Genius. This promises more instalments, and I’m really looking forward to them. Add to that a doc about Anthony Read and some interesting Peter Howell music demos and this is a great bunch of extras.