From DWM #421. And I think it was the box set releases that ultimately caused me to quit regularly reviewing DVDs for the magazine. So many man hours…
Hmmph! More like Misses and Dead-Ends.
The Time Monster, Underworld and The Horns of Nimon are three of the heaviest thuds in Doctor Who history. Ostensibly linked by each story’s dalliance with Greek mythology, it’s more logical to think of this release as a handy DVD landfill set, ready to be buried deep in your DW collection. Forget about the “beautiful packaging” (thanks, 2|entertain press release), a lead-lined slipcase would be more appropriate.
Too harsh? Well, “Simmer down, Stu!” as we don a baggy protective suit, move into an adjacent room and pry open The Time Monster.
Screened in 1972, it’s a daft mixture of whimsy and hard science. The plot? The Master attempts to raise Kronos, a destructive Chronovore, from the time vortex, and ends up being pursued by the Third Doctor to Atlantis for his pains. Sounds good, but along the way the story is bludgeoned by a mob of weird stylistic tics.
For one thing, there’s a menagerie of odd animal metaphors. Kronos could “swallow a life as quickly as a boa constrictor can swallow a rabbit,” cautions the Doctor. What, fur and all? “Fur and all!” Elsewhere, the Master has summoned the Rapunzel-like Krasis to help him tame the chranky chreature, reasoning: “Surely Kronos obeys the Priest of Kronos as a pet dog obeys its master?” But while he’s commanding the monster to “stay in your kennel”, the hirsute holy man warns the rotter he’s like “a child trying to control a rogue elephant.” Meanwhile, in that ancient city soon to succumb to rising damp, Jo is as “quiet as an Atlantean mouse”, King Dalios proves “too old a fish to be caught in [the Master’s] net” and they all agree Kronos will soon arrive “like a tiger comes when he hears a lamb bleating.” To quote loopy lab rat Stuart Hyde, “Suffering catfish!”
Running alongside this, the script makes woeful attempts to get hip to the lingo of the time. We’re not here to chide a 1972 drama for being indicative of 1972, but it is weird Captain Yates would describe a medieval knight as: “Some goon in fancy dress… the King Arthur bit.” Similarly, with the Master at his mercy, Sergeant Benton rasps: “You’re still in the soup without a ladle.” Has the Brig been sending his boys to jive-talking night classes?
Taking the biscuit – and devouring it as quickly as a bone-crushing reptile can gulp down a soft-coated mammal (yes, fur and all) – is Jo’s info splurge when Kronos reveals itself as Ingrid Bower’s big benign bonce. “But, you’re a girl! A little while ago you were a raging monster and an evil destroyer!”
The plotting is a similarly ill-fated mixture of “I’ll explain later” (the Doctor’s rescued from episode four’s cliffhanger by Jo pulling a TARDIS knob marked “extreme emergency”) and earnest over-elucidation (“Time isn’t smooth, it’s made up of little bits”). But within that, there are some neat moments. The Doctor’s rivalry with the Master is nicely played. From their paralleled reactions about the unfolding plot to their verbal sparring when TARDISes entwine (“What a bore the fellow is,” says the Master), they shine. That, and the bit when the renegade confesses: “I’m sorry about your coccyx too, Miss Grant.”
But for The Time Monster’s apologists, it’s not about the banter, or Ingrid Pitt’s very nearly under-acted Queen Galleia. Nope, it comes down to the Doctor’s “daisiest daisy” speech. This glimpse of our hero learning to find solace in the natural world is a gentle evocation of Buddhist philosophy, and beautifully played by Jon Pertwee. But we plummet from such heights. Twenty minutes later Benton’s making a TOMTIT of himself in his birthday suit.
So let’s tong The Time Monster into a non-corrosive container, and consider Underworld, in which ersatz Argonaut Jackson leads his crew on a quest to find their species’ genetic race bank.
First screened in 1978, it’s initially very impressive – the Fourth Doctor and Leela materialising in a realistic-looking universe staffed by a realistic-looking spaceship. There are also exciting allusions to Time Lord lore, as the Doctor tells of his race’s disastrous prior encounter with the Minyans. Meanwhile, on board the R1C, the crew bandy around Gallifreyan terms. “I’ll dematerialise him!” growls Herrick, while the aged Tala has “gone past the regeneration point”. Steeped in Doctor Who mythos, the potential for where the story might take us is exhilarating.
Three minutes and 18 seconds into part two it’s all gone wrong, as non-speaking, smock-wearing extras feebly flee down chroma keyed cave corridors. Underworld is all but defined by the budget-saving decision to realise its subterranean scenes with bluescreened model shots – and it kind of works. However, it gives the action a horribly stilted quality as folk run in, look for their mark, stop… and then begin their performance. It also feels like a missed opportunity. If you can drop anything in back there, how about something more visually arresting than dreary caves?
Tom Baker does his best to pep things up, mooning around in a gas filled catacomb (“Whatever blows can be sucked!”) and, as the venomous vapour withdraws, playing straight down Camera 3 with: “I wonder where it all went?” There’s also a lovely, tiny bit when drippy Idas asks the Doctor and Leela to take him with them. “No,” says Leela. “Yes,” says the Doctor simultaneously.
Alas, it all culminates in “another machine with megalomania”, a line spat-out by Baker. He seems fed-up. So do the rest of the cast. And the crew. And your reviewer. It’s such a let down after that opening, you can’t help feeling fleeced.
Thankfully The Horns of Nimon, from 1979, calibrates your expectations perfectly with its establishing scene of two old men in silly hats bitching. This Greek oddity – in which the Nimon promises to revitalise the shagged out Skonnon empire in return for a stream of supine youngsters and hymetusite crystals (a cocktail that’s got many a former DWM editor through a long night) – turns out to be the most coherent production here. Almost everyone’s pulling in the same direction. Just not very hard.
So you’ve got Malcolm “Weakling Scum” Terris (Lalla Ward, on commentary duty, says he looks like “a furious baby”) whose character doesn’t even merit a name. Then there’s Graham Crowden, delivering Soldeed’s lines by the syllable (“Dis-a-ppeared? What-are-you-talk-ing-about?”). And while soppy Simon Gipps-Kent and Janet Ellis head the de rigeur delegation of identi-clad extras, Skonnan guard captain Sorak’s content hanging around dressed like a satanic paper fortune-teller. Finally, there’s the Nimon – a top-heavy bovine beast who stalks the sets arms akimbo, as though waiting for his deodorant to dry. Brut, presumably.
For the majority of the tale, the Fourth Doctor refuses to take part, instead larking around with K9 in the TARDIS. He’s having a great time, but a lot of this feels like it’s been winged on the studio floor; moments of whimsy that ring with the rhythm of comedy, but not the content. “Define gum tree,” says K9. “Well, it’s a tree that gives gum,” says the Doctor. Oh dear.
It’s a shame, because Anthony Read’s script does sport some terrific lines. In a lucid moment Soldeed explains his relationship with the Nimon: “I fawn to him a little. That satisfies his ego… I play the Nimon on a long string.” A bumper-sticker, there, for producer Graham Williams’ relationship with Tom Baker.
Thankfully, Romana is happy to pull in the slack, and takes charge wherever she goes. Of the Skonnos battle fleet she declares: “A good shout will see them all off”, and it’s telling the last shot of the story is Lalla Ward breaking into the hugest grin. This has been her adventure, even if it was a very silly one.
If anything will persuade you to occasionally disinter this box set, it’ll be some of these…
Between Now… and Now! features Professor Jim Al Khalili taking on the science of The Time Monster. And guess what? Time actually is made up of little bits. Meanwhile, Into the Unknown looks at Underworld’s tumultuous production. The real heroes here are designers Dick Coles and AJ ‘Mitch’ Mitchell who presided over the complete rewiring of Studio 1 just to make those CSO shots possible. At the end, Graham Williams wrote to Coles: “I look forward to working with you again – perhaps on an easier project, such as a remake of Ben Hur!”
The real joy here, though is Underworld – In Studio, grimy video of the story’s recording sessions. In between takes, Tom Baker muses, “I would like to have been born… at the beginning of movies and working with people like Keaton. I would have adored it.” Best bit, though, is when the floor manager asks Tom to enter a scene in a sensible fashion. Uh oh! “I’m supposed to look strange, sir! I don’t come from [bleep!]-ing Ealing!”
The commentary tracks offer up further jewels. On Nimon Graham Crowden recalls how fellow thesp Edward Petherbridge told him: “You’re a ham actor, but beautifully cooked,” while on Underworld, Tom Baker’s in fruity form. “Darling,” he says to Louise Jameson, “what lovely legs you’ve got. They’ve been good to you.” Louise: “Well, they’ve got me an Aladdin or two.”
However it’s The Time Monster track you’ll never forget. The episodes are variously farmed out to different commentary teams, but John Levene’s solo efforts on episodes two and four (if you want to jump straight to them) are utterly brilliant. From his opening “I’m very flattered to be John Levene” to his obsession with who’s wearing “slightly narrower trousers”, it’s wall-to-wall madness. Levene extemporises on simply everything. A poster of Elton John in Ruth’s lab prompts him to reveal his favourite EJ track (we won’t spoil that revelation here), and he talks us through every teeny bit of business Benton manages, from wiping a bead of sweat on his sleeve (“My idea”) to straightening his uniform (ditto). “This is where Benton shines,” he says, as the sergeant blinks in the back of shot. “I show great concern.”
Finally, there’s Who Peter on the Nimon DVD, a wonderful documentary celebrating the long-running relationship between Doctor Who and Blue Peter. Russell T Davies pops up throughout, revealing he’d entered that infamous 1960s design-a-monster competition (his effort was something based on an all-in-one tap), but Janet Ellis steals the show, reminiscing about her stilted chat with Sylvester McCoy shortly after Doctor #7’s casting. “He wasn’t… fluent.”
Who Peter will continue on future releases. Fantastic! Absolutely fantastic! I’m going to certainly look in and see how they get on…