Doctor Who: The Leisure Hive Review
Although no one realised it at the time, with The Leisure Hive Doctor Who was entering what was to become by far the most controversial (and, incidentally, longest) production period in its history. The story was the first made under new producer John Nathan-Turner, a man who, more than any other, splits fan opinion right down the middle. There are those on one side of the fence (myself included) who are eternally grateful to the man for giving us ten rollercoaster years, casting three great actors as the Doctor and, arguably, doing more than any of his predecessors in the job to actively promote and push the series forward into the media spotlight (not that, in the end, it did him a blind bit of good). When he was first promoted to the job the series was perceived as being at a crossroads. The previous year, despite having had some of the biggest viewing figures ever for the show, had been seen as a crisis point, a period of comedic excess spearheaded by the twin influences of Douglas Adams’ (yes, that Douglas Adams) stewardship and Tom Baker’s proprietorial stance on the character. Nathan-Turner (or JNT as he was universally known) was determined to rein back on the anarchy, and sober the show up. Out went Adams and in came Christopher H Bidmead, a script editor determined to erase “the silliness” the show had been sliding into over the past few seasons, a man ready to inject more scientific fact into the program. Baker was brought to task as well, given a new “uniform costume” (the start of an unfortunate trend), and told to cut back on his ad-libs and general overbearing attitude to his costars and production team. As the first story to see these changes brought in, The Leisure Hive marks a historic moment for the show.
In the story, the Doctor and Romana (Lalla Ward) decide they need a bit of a holiday, and, after an abortive stop off on Brighton Beach, head for the planet Argolis and its famed Leisure Hive. The Argolans are a dying people, made sterile by a cataclysmic war with the neighbouring Foamasi, a war that has also left the surface of their planet inhospitable due to nuclear fallout from the weapons used during the conflict. Making a living through tourism at the Hive, their only hope of survival is found in the new science of tachyonics, a process that some believe have rejuvenating properties. But not everyone on the Hive is solely interested in the preservation of their people…
As the Who DVDs are not released in any order, each title is left to stand or fall on its own merits, neither helped nor hindered by its position in the series. Even a title such as this, which unquestionably comes at one of the most crucial moments in the entire series’ history, can only be judged on how it stands up on its own taken out of the context of consecutive releases. Hundreds of reviews have previously been written about how it contrasts with the previous season, both positively and negatively, and to repeat them here would be a mistake, given that none of the stories from that season have yet made it to shiny disk. (Speaking of which, can we have City of Death some time soon, please?) Instead, the question must be asked, how does it rank as a story on its own?
Unfortunately the answer is not particularly well. The basic story is actually rather dull, and very run-of-the-mill Doctor Who. Much was made of incoming script editor Christopher H Bidmead’s desire to use “real science” but in actuality the talk about tachyonics doesn’t sound any different from regular technobabble. It doesn’t come across convincingly on the screen either, the shots of various people on the tachyonics screen looking neither hi-tech nor particularly effective. The basic ideas behind the script are good ones – a proud, dying race, under pressure to sell out to their conquerors, struggling to make ends meet, is sound, as is the basic idea of the Hive itself. It’s just that in execution, it all falls a bit flat - it's hard to care about this group of aliens or their predicament, it all seeming a bit remote.
This is not helped by the supporting cast who, with a couple of exceptions, are all rather unmemorable. One of those exceptions is the main villain who, for those who haven't seen it, I won't reveal here. He is revealed slowly, starting out as a seemingly unimportant character before slowly uncovering his true colours. The actor, who has since gone on to become one of British television and stage's most reliable thespians (he was splendid in a theatrical production of Journey’s End I saw earlier this year) protrays the gradual stripping away of his mask subtly and well and, although never coming close to rating in the top flight of Who villains, is certainly effective enough.
The other guest star to make a good impression is Adrienne Corri as Mena, one of the last leaders of the Argolans. She has a regality about her that suits the part, and balances her concern for her people with her own rapidly deteriorating health well. The other characters are not nearly as memorable – John Collin as Brock, especially, doesn’t have any sort of screen presence at all. The Foamasi, when they finally appear, are not individual enough either, and are not helped by the fact they are lit in very bright light, making it extremely difficult to suspend disbelief that they are actually living organisms as opposed to rather dodgy suits (even by Doctor Who standards).
Fittingly for the new regime, the regulars' performances are subdued. This was to be the last year for Tom Baker and his performance here lacks the spark of his best. It is clear that his naturally humourous approach to the role had been drastically pulled back and that, coupled with his more aged appearance, complete with hints of grey in his air, give him a tired, half-hearted air. In a rather fitting metaphor, at one point in the story the Doctor is suddenly turned into an old man by the tachyonics machine, mirroring the fact that there is a general feeling that this is the twilight of Baker’s tenure in the role. He knew it was coming to an end, and you can feel it on the screen. Lalla Ward, equally, is not as playful as she used to be, which is a shame.
One of the many stylistic changes JNT brought in was direction, changing from the static, constrained approach of multi-camera techniques to the more dynamic single camera shooting style. The director for this story, Lovett Bickford, is generally well regarded in fandom, but he's not quite as good as his reputation suggests. While there’s plenty that he does right – the initial teasing shots of the Foamisi, the dynamic camera angles (Bickford taking full advantage of the freedom the single camera affords), the first ever example of the TARDIS dematerialising in a moving shot and a couple of particularly nice individual scenes (the one with the Doctor and Romana looking out over the nuclear winter of Argolis’ surface is especially picturesque) - there are certain shots that just don’t work. The entry of the Foamasi into the Hive, for example, contains a couple of baffling elements that are only properly understood when the commentary is listened to, as well as a couple of bizarre uses of the Doctor's trademark scarf. The director's experimentation with the new Quantel device (which enabled a picture to be zoomed and repositioned) also sometimes comes a cropper, with some telling low-quality zooms appearing. His worst contrivance, however, is the infamous opening shot – a two minute pan along Brighton beach that has no relevance at all to the story and is a sheer directorial indulgence. Although Bickford maintains it has artistic integrity, it ultimately comes across as padding, which is annoying considering the episodes are amongst the series' shortest anyway - one episode only totaling just a little over twenty minutes.
What does work well is Peter Howell's music. Another change JNT made was to replace veteran composer Dudley Simpson (who had almost singlehandedly composed the previous decade's stories) with the Radiophonic Workshop's electronica, which is used here extremely well. Howell's score is playful, riffing off music as varied as Holst's Mars symphony and I Do Like To Be Beside The Seaside at suitable points in the story. Not so good are the sets. For a tourist attraction it’s not a very exciting place to visit, with little decoration other than bizarre jelly-baby like sculptures of one of the Argolans’ war heroes, and, as previously mentioned, is also very overlit.
In a way, the sets summarise the story as a whole – not particularly bad, just a little bit dull. The story as a whole is a strange creature, a curious juxtaposition of the old and the new, the feeling that slowly the old guard is being shunted out. It has a lot of interesting ideas in it, with its concerns about cloning being more relevant today than back then, but in execution it falls flat. Muted performances don’t help either and overall this most explosive of Doctor Who eras begins less with a bang and more of a whimper. Maybe the Doctor and Romana would have been better off staying on Brighton beach.
The disk is exactly the same as all the previous Who releases. Coming in the now familiar grey case with slip-out leaflet containing a short essay on the story within, the disk is dual-layered and encoded for Regions 2 and 4. The main menu has clips of the story playing in the background, with all submenus having static grey backgrounds. The story itself and all extras are subtitled.
The Restoration Team do their usual excellent job. The print looks clean with only a very occasional degradation of picture quality. Although it doesn’t quite match up to picture quality from later stories from the 1980s, it's still perfectly acceptable.
Technical wizard Mark Ayres does it again with an excellent new 5.1 stereo mix, which fully immerses one in the Hive. Corridors echo, dialogue is crisp and the music comes across well – unlike the picture, you could believe this soundtrack came from a just released film. Excellent.
A refreshingly caustic track from Bidmead, Bickford and Lalla Ward. The tone is set right away when Bidmead attacks the opening shot, and it soon becomes clear that none are afraid of speaking their mind about the failings of the others’ contributions (as well as their own). Civility is always maintained, however, but this is still acidic, and makes a change from some of the more genial tracks we’ve had in the past.
A New Beginning
Superb half hour documentary about the sweeping changes JNT made when he became producer. Everything is covered, from story design to title sequence changes, with contributions from most of the people involved (including the late JNT himself, from an interview in 1994). One of the best documentaries the Who DVDs have produced so far.
From Avalon to Argolis
Fourteen minute segment featuring interviews with writer David Fisher and Bidmead (with a couple of clips from the 1994 JNT interview thrown in as well) that covers all aspects of the script’s writing, from initial premise to how they feel about it today. Again, the pair are very open with their criticisms (Bickford in particular coming in for a bashing).
Nine minute featurette about the making of the new title sequence for Season Eighteen. Both Sid Sutton, who designed the titles, and Peter Howell, who composed the new version of the theme, are interviewed, and there is also an archival interview with Howell used, presumably made just after he’d composed the theme. In it he illustrates the various techniques and electronic music techniques he used to come up with the finished product. Interesting.
I have not the slightest interest in costume design, but this is short enough (just under seven minutes) not to outstay its welcome. Designer June Hudson talks through the ideas and materials that went into the costumes for the story and, while I would have welcomed a lot more about the decisions that went into Tom’s new clothes (by far the most important design from the story) she’s still okay to listen to, if a little dry.
A four minute piece from the BBC’s flagship children’s show looking around the famous Longleat exhibition in early 1980. Presenter Tina Heath (nope, I don’t remember her either) engages various monsters in conversation, gives a Sontaran a good spring clean and then has a chat to JNT about the upcoming season (I don’t think he was part of the exhibition – he just happened to be there).
The regular subtitle commentary that all the Who DVDs come with. With a good mixture of trivia, cast credits and the occasional joke, these are always interesting and well worth a read.
Music Only Option
Does exactly what it says on the tin. Listening like this is certainly the best way to appreciate just how different Howell’s music was to Dudley Simpson’s traditional scores.
Not one of the best photo galleries. Half of the shots are from the Brighton beach sequence which, while nice to have in an archival sense, get extremely repetitive to watch. There is a lack of behind the scenes shots as well.
Three and a half minutes of the BBC continuity announcements from the beginning and end of each episode at time of broadcast. Always a nice, nostalgic inclusion to have, and there’s an amusing notice at the end making it clear that the “picture packs” the announcer advertises are no longer available.
The Leisure Hive is generally well liked by fans, but I find it very boring. However, it is here presented on another first class disk from the Restoration Team, who provide a very good transfer, excellent audio mix and another first class set of extras, with A New Beginning being a particular highlight – that alone almost succeeds in pushing this disk into being an essential purchase for the more casual Who buyer.
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Last updated: 19/04/2018 11:52:19