Revisitations 1 box set

DVDIt sounds mealy-mouthed, but the big, box set releases hastened my demise as DWM‘s regular DVD reviewer. Just too much stuff to wade through, and a little soul destroying watching a zillion DVD extras that were often neither very good, nor very bad.

Harumph! This is from DWM #427.
DWM #427The Revisitations 1 box set repackages three Doctor Who stories formerly released on DVD. Say hello again to The Talons of Weng-Chiang (which came out in 2003), The Caves of Androzani (2001) and the Paul McGann TV Movie (also 2001). Back! Back! Back! But bolstered with five hours of new additional material.

Talons, from 1977 and written by Robert Holmes, drops a peak-of-his-powers Fourth Doctor into a tasty chop suey of turn-of-the-century clichés. It’s all here: the pea-souper streets, a Jack the Ripper-esque killer, Fu Manchu rising from his layer and a phantom at the opera. The shadow it casts is long… although not so much that giant rat.

Similarly influential (and also written by Holmes) is Androzani from 1984 – although you could argue its cynicism and grittiness destabilised the programme in the short term; script editor Eric Saward’s attempts to bottle that lightning resulting in a rather mean-spirited series the following year. Succeeding as both political drama and action movie, the adventure also boasts – in the Fifth Doctor’s death – the best ever regeneration scene.

Then there’s The TV Movie, first aired in 1996. Ah, the The TV Movie. It’s Doctor Who’s very own folly, a pretty thing, standing alone, separated by time and place from the rest of the canon. Paul McGann is a terrific, velvety Doctor, but fixed up with Matthew Jacobs’ script, which falls victim to all the muddle and miscommunications of a transatlantic conference call.

Enough! This box isn’t about the stories, so let’s hit the ‘Special Features’ button.

DVD extras

We start with The Talons of Weng-Chiang and on paper it’s benefited most from this re-release, boasting 10 new additional bits (including photo gallery and repros of Radio Times billings). However, to mangle the murmurings of Henry Gordon Jago himself, the cumulative effect is a less-than dazzling display of not-all-that-lustrous legerdemain. It’s a shame, because there’s a lot that nearly comes good. Who doesn’t relish the prospect of former DW producer Philip Hinchcliffe meeting Tom Baker at the latter’s kitchen table?

But that’s to come. First, you can’t take umbrage at The Foe from the Future, a serviceable and swift debunking of the myth Talons started life as an aborted Robert Banks Stewart script. In truth, the story was dropped when RBS was poached – by Verity Lambert! – to write for Thames TV’s lodging house series, Rooms. Philip Hinchcliffe is emphatic the loss of this adventure proved no drama: “It wasn’t panic stations”.

Moving On is another quickie. Now Hinchcliffe’s in the booth, they’re going to get their money’s worth, and he talks about what he would have done with Doctor Who if he hadn’t been leavened out of the show. So there’s an Inca story, something based on Arthur C Clarke’s Childhood’s End and his own notion for a baddy – a giant chess piece on roller skates. The first two sound great, the other hints a rook-y road lay ahead.

The big number is The Last Hurrah!, a making-of that begins with a baffled Hinchcliffe strolling down a country driveway. “Doctor? Doctor?” he hollers, until Tom Baker appears. It’s a bit of business the actor adores: “Hah!” he guffaws as they shake hands. “Do remember The Talons of Weng-Chiang?!” The conversation relocates to Baker’s kitchen, but where one would suppose such a meeting would result in acres of anecdotage, not all that much arises, other than Hinchcliffe challenging Tom on his testy relationship with Louise Jameson (Leela).

Away from Baker’s home, costume designer John Bloomfield remains aggrieved his giant rat was shot in close-up, Trevor Baxter (Professor Litefoot) delicately assesses John Bennett’s performance of Li H’sen Chang as having “a size to it” and Hinchcliffe (who hops all about this thing, appearing together with Jameson at one point, then on his own at another) reveals the final episode of this production gave him “the hairiest studio block of my whole tenure.”

A wonderful report from local news show, Look East, caps off the germane features. Screened in January 1977, it catches up with the cast during filming at the Royal Theatre in Northampton. Speaking to reporter David Cass, Baker is buoyant. “There’s not much opposition to Doctor Who is there?”

Of less – much less – interest are the three off-piste documentaries, Victoriana & Chinoiserie, Music Hall and Limehouse. Does it seem horribly reductive to assert that if you’re producing extra features for Doctor Who DVDs, they should in the main be about Doctor Who? This trio feel more like their true aim is to appear on the show-reel of someone pitching to make Proper Telly. The former is closest to source with Dr Anne Witchard of the University of Westminster highlighting Talons’ debt to Victorian literature. The other two don’t come close. I may like the bits in Talons where the Fourth Doctor chases Magnus Greel backstage at the Palace Theatre, but that doesn’t mean I’m well disposed towards a lecture on the history of music hall. Likewise, a low-powered prowl around Limehouse featuring journalist Matthew Sweet making his interviewees listen to him.

Next disc.

The Caves of Androzani, and my favourite thing is a sequence taken from a 1984 episode of chatshow Harty in which the eponymous Russell gravely announces: “Last Thursday, [the Doctor] died”, before welcoming Peter Davison and Colin Baker on to the programme. Russ is quick to get metaphysical, asking Davison where the Fifth Doctor’s “spirit’s gone”, before expressing the rather more grounded notion “Doctor Who is like a home-made loaf… Star Wars it ain’t”. Finally, it’s to the audience and some limp ‘Who chat with cosplaying fans in the front row. “You’re Romana,” says our host to a demure lady in an Edwardian bathing suit. “What are you dressed as? Stand up, darling, so we can see your costume.”

Directing Who: Then and Now features the ever-ebullient Graeme Harper, and opens with a neat split screen sequence where the director is on the DW set in both the 1980s and noughties, cuing up explosions. Harper loves Who, lapping up its challenges and triumphs. He says that during Androzani they shot half an episode a day. Nowadays it’s three-and-a-half minutes. In the studio he’s an itchy child, thundering around the set. And if there’s dry ice to be wafted, he’ll be doing the wafting.

Matthew Sweet makes a return in this disc’s making-of, Chain Reaction, and atones for his sins chez Weng-Chiang. This pacy and gimmick-free documentary takes as its starting point Androzani’s chart-topping performance in DWM’s Mighty 200 poll. Sweet’s out to discover just what went right, and most signs point to Harper – except one, which sits above Eric Saward’s fireplace, guilelessly emblazoned: ‘Writer’. But even he is quick to identify the director as a genius, while Peter Davison recalls how Harper enthused his cast.

That Androzani was such a success is more impressive when we’re given insight into a production that teetered on chaos – time forcing Harper to settle for two shots instead of seven, a BBC strike, John Normington (Morgus) mistakenly playing his lines straight down camera…

At the end of all this, Peter Davison was off. He recalls being unsettled by his successor’s breezy demeanour on set.  “It was horrible. It’s just the fact they’ve got another Doctor… it’s very uncomfortable.”

They did that again in 1996, you know, and the final disc does a superb job of telling the story. The commentary track, featuring Sylvester McCoy and Paul McGann, is a low-key joy, like eavesdropping on old pals (McGann has an endearing habit of referring to his friend as “McCoy”). Our leading man is gently evasive when moderator Nick Briggs tries to wheedle gossip from him about Eric Roberts, but this most reticent of Doctors has a clear affection for the show. Reflecting on its current success, he joshes with his predecessor, “Maybe they’ll come back for us one day”, and vocalises his own, beautiful, summation of the Time Lord: “He’s not an easy character. He makes this fantastic and ingenuous front, and he’s sociable and brilliant – [but] there’s a sadness to him.” McCoy, meanwhile, has a couple of smart revelations. 1) Had the US series taken off, the plan was for former Doctors to return with some regularity. 2) Roberts’ first business on set was to have the colour of carpet changed in his trailer.

Then there’s The Seven Year Itch, the tale of TV producer Philip Segal’s struggle to bring back Doctor Who after its cancellation in 1989. Right from the opening, with its lovely music, Doctor Who Polaroids on a rostrum and – a DW DVD first! – sensitively chosen fonts, you know something special is in the offing.

The documentary simply gets on with telling a story methodically and thoroughly. While the Talons extras failed to get me excited about Victorian London, you could set almost anyone down in front of this and it’d hook them. Obviously, Segal is our central character, a man for whom resurrecting the Doctor was a “passion project”. Through interviews with the likes of former BBC1 controller Alan Yentob, executive producer Jo Wright, the BBC’s ex-head of series Peter Creegan and Segal himself, we get a flavour of the cocktail that put the Doctor back on screen – an extraordinary act of will, studio appeasement and sheer bloody luck.

Lovely moments abound: Segal, then working for Amblin Entertainment, pouncing on Yentob who happened to be in town and asking for a tour of the company’s sci-fi drama seaQuest DSV; film outfit Coast to Coast’s efforts to dupe Leonard Nimoy into starting shooting on what would be a quickly-aborted DW feature so they could retain the movie rights; Yentob’s horror at plans to bring back the Seventh Doctor… The list goes on.

In the final analysis, Segal looks back on The TV Movie and sees “all the things I wish I’d done better”. So do most of us. But having watched this documentary you’ll realise Doctor Who’s (first) Second Coming was a true miracle.

Treading the same timeline, but on a different path, is The Wilderness Years, a look at how the DW flame kept burning while it was no longer on screen. There’s no one torchbearer here, rather an array of people who took their turn. Most likeable is Bill Baggs, whose BBV productions for the home video market in the 1990s kept many a former Who actor occupied. Baggs recalls putting in calls to both Tom Baker and Colin Baker’s agents when casting the lead in his Stranger series. “And we all know which one came through.”

Then the excellent Who Peter notches up another instalment, covering Blue Peter’s DW coverage from 1989 to 2009. The show’s former editor Richard Marson mirrors Segal’s passion, determined never to let the Doctor Who name die. It’s a little unnerving to see items from 1990, with Vervoid Yvette Fielding talking about the series firmly in the past tense, but by the time it came back in 2005, Marson and co were waiting. As was Sad Tony.

Stripped For Action pays respect to the Eighth Doctor’s run in the DWM strip, which comics historian Paul Scoones describes as the “pinnacle” of the character’s adventures in the funny pages, while Tomorrow’s Times has Nicholas ‘Brig’ Courtney detailing the press’ increasingly proprietorial regard for Doctor Who when detailing its 1996 regeneration (The Sun’s Gary Bushell rating Grace Holloway on a ‘cosmic crumpet’ scale, not withstanding).

A final treat is Paul McGann’s audition tape. It’s all about the eyes, the camera mesmerised, drawn towards them. His Doctor is very much in the room, smiley, quiet, insistent. But the scene he’s given presents a snapshot of the horribly convoluted, self-mythologizing guff Segal thankfully spiked. It’s a two-hander with Borusa, who tells the Doctor: “Ulysses had a second child while exploring the blue planet Earth by a woman of that world… you are that blue-eyed child.”

Revelations, remembrances, regenerations – the features on the Revisitations 1 box set are, in the main, pretty special.

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