Doctor Who: Carnival of Monsters Review

Carnival of Monsters, written by Robert Holmes, has two storylines which at first seem to have little relation to each other. On the planet Inter Minor, two entertainers Vorg (Leslie Dwyer) and Shirna (Cheryl Hall) are arrested by the authorities. Meanwhile, the Doctor (Jon Pertwee) and Jo Grant (Katy Manning) take the TARDIS for a test flight, intending to go to the famous blue planet of Metebelis 3. Instead they find themselves on board the SS Bernice, in the middle of the Indian Ocean in 1926. But why does the sun still shine at 8pm? And why does a plesiosaur threaten the ship? Vorg and Shirna have with them a Miniscope, a banned peepshow of miniaturised lifeforms from all over the universe, and the TARDIS has materialised inside it…

First broadcast in January/February 1973, Carnival of Monsters was the second story of Doctor Who’s tenth season. In the series’ story arc, the Time Lords had given the Doctor a new dematerialisation circuit for the TARDIS as a reward for his work in the previous story (The Three Doctors) and three years of mostly earthbound adventures were at an end. Carnival of Monsters began a new plotline that paid off a year later: after trying and failing to reach Metebelis 3 in this story, he finally gets there in The Green Death and takes away with him a blue crystal. In Planet of the Spiders, Pertwee’s final story, the rulers of Metebelis 3 want their crystal back.

Possibly as it was part of the series’ tenth anniversary year, Carnival of Monsters has something of an air of self-congratulation to it. It’s certainly much lighter in tone than some of the stories that came before and after it. Carnival, with its playful tone, is best summed up as a connoisseur’s story. Fans will appreciate it more than general audiences. They’ll spot appearances from actors who were better known for other roles in the series, such as Ian Marter (who later played the Fourth Doctor’s companion Harry Sullivan) and Michael Wisher (who played many roles in the series but will be best known as the Daleks’ creator Davros). Another name to spot in the credits is that of costume designer James Acheson, some years before winning his – so far – three Oscars. (They were for The Last Emperor, Dangerous Liaisons and Restoration. His most recently released film is Spider-Man.) As for the monsters, the Drashigs are nicely realised and make for a jump-out-of-seat cliffhanger to Part Two. On the other hand, the plesiosaur which menaces the Bernice looks pretty tacky. It, like other effects, is marred by obvious use of Colour Separation Overlay (CSO for short, also known as Chromakey) – though to be fair, current TV sets are far in advance of what people would have been watching this on in 1973, presuming they were then watching in colour at all. Carnival is a pleasant four-parter, but no-one will pretend it’s one of the best. Given the wish to release another Third Doctor story on DVD – or even, to be more specific, a Third Doctor/Jo Grant story – there are stronger candidates. There were many longer stories around that time, including some memorable six-parters. It would be nice to see a classic longer story appear on disc sometime.


I have no complaints about the DVD presentation though: the BBC are keeping up their standard for Doctor Who releases. The DVD is dual-layered and encoded for Regions 2 and 4.

This story was shot on videotape for the interiors and 16mm film for the exteriors, though this DVD was restored entirely from the BBC’s transmission videotapes. The video-originated material was in better condition than the film material (for further details, I refer you once again to the Restoration Team website). As with other Who DVDs, the picture looks as good as it probably ever will, though 625-line videotape always will look a little soft when transferred to disc. The difference in grain structure between that and the 16mm material is quite noticeable, but then it was back in the 1970s. Being a transfer of a 1970s TV programme, the picture is in the original 4:3 ratio.

There’s little to say about the sound, except to say that’s it’s a professionally recorded mono track, with dialogue, effects and long-time composer Dudley Simpson’s incidental music all well balanced. There are the usual twenty-four chapter stops, six per episode with two of them being the credits sequences. This BBC DVD is, as you might expect, encoded for both Regions 2 and 4. There are hard-of-hearing subtitles for the dialogue and the commentary, as well as Richard Molesworth’s useful informational subtitles – though, as with the Ark in Space DVD, they are at times a little too determined to provide extensive filmographies for everyone!

Unusually, there are differing versions of Carnival of Monsters in circulation, and three of the extras on the DVD reflect this. A rough cut of Episode Two was inadvertently sold to Australian TV and was deliberately included on the BBC’s VHS release of the story. It has also been shown on UK Gold. The version of this episode on the DVD is the original broadcast version, but the three extended or deleted scenes (which run 3:53 in total) are included as extras. This rough cut also included a new arrangement of the theme tune by Delia Derbyshire and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, using the BBC’s then-new Delaware synthesiser. This was rejected but also appeared on the rough-cut version of Episode Two. The opening and closing credits (with a subtitled explanation) of this version of the episode appear on the DVD. You can see why this arrangement of the famous theme tune didn’t find favour: it’s very tinkly and “Seventies” and if anything more dated than the more familiar and ten-years-older version. The final variation was due to edits made by producer/director Barry Letts for a 1981 repeat transmission, cutting shots of Pletrac’s (Peter Halliday) bald hairpiece obviously slipping. This repeat was part of a short season called “The Five Faces of Doctor Who”, in between Tom Baker’s last story, Logopolis, to lead up to Fifth Doctor Peter Davison’s first appearance. The trailer, featuring clips from all five stories (the very first one, An Unearthly Child, the Trougton-era The Krotons, The Three Doctors, Carnival of Monsters and Logopolis) runs 4:09 and is also included on this DVD.

The audio commentary is provided by Barry Letts and Katy Manning, and was recorded in September 2000, some time in advance of the DVD’s production and release, due to Manning’s presence in the country. She now lives in Australia and at first it’s a shock to hear her voice: deeper than Jo’s and with an accent that wanders all the way from Aussie to Estuary English. The result is a fair commentary, with Manning being somewhat luvvyish at times and Letts being a little dry. There’s a poignancy to this commentary in that many people involved with Carnival of Monsters are no longer alive, notably Jon Pertwee, Robert Holmes, Ian Marter and Michael Wisher.

The remaining extras include 4:09 of 16mm test film for the visual effects, including shots of the Drashigs (they’re glove puppets, but they’re good glove puppets) and the spacecraft which lands at the beginning of Episode One. Further behind-the-scenes material comes courtesy of a 1:42 extract from Looking In, a programme broadcast in November 1972 as part of the BBC’s fiftieth anniversary. The stills gallery is more imaginative than usual: the stills are as if displayed in Vorg and Shirna’s Scope, and include photos of the commentary recording and the Radio Times illustrations from the story’s first broadcast. Barry Letts also features in a CSO training film (running 3:08) produced in-house at the BBC. Unfortunately the demonstrations suffer from the blue fringing that the technique was frequently prone to. The second “TARDIS-Cam” (a CGI sequence produced by BBC Interactive) is also included: a 46-second clip of the TARDIS disappearing into a vortex. Unlike the feature and the other extras, it’s in 16:9 anamorphic.

There are two Easter eggs. Highlight the logo on the subtitles menu and you’ll get the countdown to the studio shoot of Episode Two (“They didn’t teach me this at Cape Kennedy for nothing, you know”). For the second egg, click left from the “Delaware Opening Titles” link and click on the logo which appears, to see the opening title sequence (without story, writer and episode captions).

These extras rather sum up Carnival of Monsters: pleasant but hardly essential, and most likely to be appreciated by, and bought by, established fans than anyone else. Even so, picture and sound quality are very good, and it’s a typically well thought out Doctor Who DVD.

6 out of 10
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