Doctor Who: New Beginnings Review
The news earlier this year that Stephen Moffat is to take over from Russell T Davies as Doctor Who’s Executive Producer in 2010 was greeted with near-universal approval. The screenwriter is rightly considered to have produced some of the finest episodes of the revived series to date, with stories such as The Girl in the Fireplace and Blink hailed as instant classics. If anyone can maintain the level of commercial (if not always critical) success Doctor Who has had over the past few years it’s him and yet, despite having what he describes as “the greatest job in television,” his task is not entirely enviable. No matter what one considers of Davies’s episodes, there’s no doubting that he has been the spearhead of one of the show’s most successful eras ever, and any replacement, no matter how talented, is going to find him a hard act to follow. Of course, a series as long-running as Who has had many changes in behind-the-scenes personnel over the years, but one feels that this is one of the more crucial - it’s Moffat’s job to ensure that Who can sustain its success over the longer period, not easy in the cut-throat world of modern TV, and made even harder by the news that David Tennant won't be the Doctor when he takes over the reins. One slip in the ratings, one dodgy season, and it could very easily be curtains as viewers move on to the next big thing.
It’s a task very similar to that facing John Nathan-Turner when he took over the running of the show way back in 1980. Then, like now, the show was at the peak of its popularity, with the season immediately before JNT became Executived Producer drawing Who’s highest ever ratings. In addition, not unlike Mr Tennant now, the show’s star back then was arguably the most iconic inhabitant of the TARDIS there had ever been, making his mark on the role and becoming part of the popular culture to a far greater degree than any of his three illustrious predecessors. It’s only now, with Tennant’s generation-defining performance, that the definite image of the Doctor as a wild-eyed man with curly hair and a long scarf has faded somewhat and, just as now the Tenth Doctor’s time is drawing to a close, so it was back then for the Fourth's. Unlike Tennant, Baker chose to stay for JNT’s first year in charge, but both producers were or are faced with the same tricky problem: just how does one go about replacing an icon?
This box set, featuring the stories The Keeper of Traken, Logopolis and Castrovalva contain the answer that JNT came up with. He and his new script editor Christopher H Bidmead knew that anything less than an epic would make for a disappointing climax to the Fourth Doctor’s seven-year reign. To that end, JNT decided to resurrect the Master, last seen virtually dead four years earlier in The Deadly Assassin, and make his return inextricably linked with the death of the Doctor. The fate of the universe itself would rest on the outcome of the duel between the two adversaries, a battle which carry on past the Doctor's regeneration and on into the first story of the new Doctor’s era. Along the way the Time Lord would lose his old companions and pick up new ones, so that when the Fifth Doctor finally defeated his foe and set off on his era properly he would be starting completely afresh. A new TARDIS crew for a new decade, to complement the new house style that JNT and Bidmead had introduced at the start of Baker’s last season. If it wasn’t quite planned as a reset button, it wouldn’t be far off.
The thinking behind the idea was sound. Despite the fact the show’s viewership had never been higher, the last couple of seasons pre-JNT had become more and more indulgent. Baker was increasingly proprietorial of the role, and the star’s petulance and mood swings on set were well known within the industry. His unscripted adlibs had thrived during the time of Bidmead’s immediate predecessor Douglas Adams, in whom Baker found a soulmate who shared his flip humour, but unfortunately the lightness had got to such a stage where the Doctor had become ostensibly invulnerable - it felt like no matter what the situation he could just breeze in, throw out some sarcastic bons mots at the villain of the week and with one flick of his sonic screwdriver save the day without breaking into so much as a sweat. JNT and Bidmead wished to bring back a level of drama that had been largely missing, and return the show more to its original conception as a serious science fiction show with a hero far more vulnerable than in the recent past. This was hardly in keeping with how Baker perceived the role and it became clear very early on in their working relationship that Season Eighteen, JNT’s first in charge, would be the actor’s last. His departure, then, was the ideal time to start again, make amends for the silliness, and restore the programme to its former glory.
The problem was, as with so much of what was to come later on in his time running the show, JNT’s ideas were sound but he didn’t really have the talent either personally or surrounding him to transfer them into successful television. In this case, his desire to hit the reset button with a dramatic Fourth Doctor finale was let down by the fact that Bidmead was often more interested in injecting as much "real" science into the show as he could, often at the expense of the narrative. Like JNT he had some good ideas, but just couldn’t turn them into a successful or interesting narrative - the two stories in this set which bear his byline are perfect examples of this, providing confused, somewhat unexciting tales that fall very short, especially in Logopolis's case, of what they should be.
Indeed, the first and best story of the three in this set, The Keeper of Traken, is the one that he didn't write. Johnny Byrne (who wrote a large number of Space:1999 teleplays) had originally pitched his idea as a standalone story before it was corralled into becoming Part One of the trilogy, in which the Master makes his return. The tale sees the Doctor and his new companion Adric (Matthew Waterhouse) being invited by the titular Keeper to his homeworld, where there is trouble afoot. The Keeper’s role on his planet is to control the Source, a mystical doodad that regulates all life on the planet and keeps it peaceful. The present incumbent in the role is dying, and the quest to find a new one is being manipulated by the mysterious Melkur, a calcified statue that has fallen to the planet from the heavens and which, so local rumour has it, is spreading evil into the utopian society. Can the Doctor work with the Traken Council to prevent a terrible mistake being made, or will the next Keeper be rather less benign in his designs than the last?
There is much to admire about Byrne’s story. It has several very interesting, sound concepts at its heart, and around them he paints an extremely convincing picture of a living, breathing society. This is complemented by some superb design work by Tony Burrough and costumes by Amy Roberts which emphasise the neo-classical style of the civilisation. Director John Black finds things to do in the studio-bound story to keep things visually appealing, and the guest stars are uniformly excellent, with actors such as Sheila Ruskin and John Woodnutt giving dedicated, sincere performances. Indeed, it's only real problem is that it does take itself terribly, terribly seriously. It’s one thing for a lead to be essentially mocking everything that’s happening around him, as Baker was occasionally allowed to do the previous year, but it’s another to have a story with no sign of even the slightest joke in sight. It makes the tone somewhat leaden, where instead the merest hint of a lighter touch could have elevated the tale to near-classic status. As it is, four episodes of cod-Shakespearean dialogue, delivered in near universally grave tones, means that the story is far more leaden than it needs to be, which is a shame as in all other aspects this is one of the very best stories of Baker’s final year.
It also marks the debut to the series of Anthony Ainley, here playing the ill-fated Tremas. His name is a slight hint as to his fate, which leads directly onto the season finale, and Tom Baker’s last story, Bidmead's Logopolis. In this four-parter the Doctor decides it’s time to reconfigure the TARDIS's outer shell, and travels to the mathematical planet Logopolis to perform the necessary calculations. Unfortunately the Master, having possessed the unfortunate Tremas's body at the end of Traken, pursues him to wreak deadly vengeance, and by so doing manages to interrupt the careful mathematical processes by which the Logopolitans maintain stability in the universe. As the very fabric of existence begins to crumble around them there is only one hope: for the Doctor and the Master to team up and try together to stop the destruction before it’s too late…
Unfortunately, while that might sound quite exciting, the reality is that the majority of the story is taken up with conversations about esoteric mathematical and scientific concepts that are for all intents and purposes meaningless, somewhat missing the point about what Doctor Who should really be like. That said, even if the majority of the technobabble was cut out, Logopolis still has many problems in what is a misconceived and clumsy story. Much of the drama of the first episode, for example, revolves around new companion Tegan attempting to change a tyre, while in the next the Doctor has perhaps the daftest plan ever heard of (at least until The Runaway Bride) to flush out (literally) the Master from his TARDIS. Things don't improve once everyone gets to Logopolis - the Master’s plan itself is confused even for him and quickly descends to moustache-twirling villainy with more than a hint of hysteria about it, while the Logopolitans themselves, essentially faceless accountants in space, don't make for especially thrilling people to share the Fourth Doctor's last hours. Likewise the main set is very nondescript, and the lengthy guff about mathematics totally saps any excitement from the piece, making the latter two episodes drag mightily. Which is a pity because amidst the nonsense there are a few elements which are quite good. The idea of the character of the Watcher, a ghostly apparation which follows the Doctor as though a portent of his upcoming regeneration, is a lovely one and nicely handled, while the image of the TARDIS-within-a-TARDIS-within-a-TARDIS is memorable, even if it doesn’t go anywhere (no pun intended.) Early on, when we're not stuck watching Tegan faffing around at the side of a motorway, there’s a real sense of impending doom hanging over the proceedings, from the dour lighting of the console room to the ringing of the cloister bell and the worn, lean face of the Doctor. Sadly, though, that quickly once the TARDIS arrives on Logopolis and the positive points are not nearly enough to salvage what is ultimately an oddly cold and aloof story which manages to make the near-disintegration of the entire cosmos a singularly unthrilling event.
After glimpsing the new Doctor very briefly at the end of that story, following his predecessor's terminal fall from a radio telescope gantry, viewers then had to wait nearly ten months to see what he would actually be like. When he did make his full-length debut, on 4th January 1982, Peter Davison was breaking new ground not only in kicking off his Doctor’s reign but also in his timeslot: for the first time Doctor Who would be broadcast not on a Saturday but twice-weekly on weeknights. (As a reviewer at the time commented “The nine day Doctor Who story is with us.”) Although this meant an essentially foreshortened season, in time if not in number of episodes, this new arrangement did have the advantage of giving Davison’s run an added momentum, and the knowledge that any bad stories would be over much more quickly than in the old days.
Davison certainly had his fair share of them. It would be wrong to say that Castrovalva was one of them; equally it be misleading to suggest it was an especially auspicious start to the Fifth Doctor’s era. Once again written by Bidmead, essentially as a Part Two to Logopolis, it has the same problem as that story in that it starts off showing promise but gets duller as the four episodes progress (although, in fairness, not to the same degree). The initial episode, in which the befuddled Doctor wanders around the TARDIS while the Master kidnaps Adric (just as well I wasn’t in charge, I’ve have let him have him) and cackles malevolently, is reasonably diverting, (although frankly there's no excuse for Davison's cheerfully terrible impersonations of the previous Doctors!) but as soon as the ship lands on the titular world things begin to drag as we find ourselves in another story full of dodgy maths and characters who speak in a terribly stuffy manner. An amusingly histrionic cliffhanger to the third episode and pleasing final scene aside, this is easily the weakest debut story for a Doctor yet (although given the starts Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy were subsequently to have it’s a masterpiece) and not even energetic direction from Fiona Cumming and decent set design from Janet Budden can rescue this one from being forgettable, although in mitigation to Bidmead on this occasion it was a last minute replacement for another story that fell through at the eleventh hour.
And so, despite the fact the stories weren't great, it was mission accomplished as far as JNT was concerned. He had his new Doctor and TARDIS crew and looked forward to a new direction for the Eighties. It wouldn’t be long before Bidmead moved onto pastures new and Eric Saward took over as long-term script editor, heralding what can be politely called an eventful time in the series’s history. I’m very aware that this review might seem overly harsh on the contribution Bidmead made, and it’s true both that throughout he was well meaning and dedicated to doing as good a job he can. And yet, although with many of his stories I can see their merit while not being my cup of tea - The Leisure Hive for instance - this collection of tales annoy, simply because the Fourth Doctor does not get the send-off he deserved. Logopolis’s problems are legion but perhaps most crucially is the fact that it doesn’t seem to understand what the strengths of the Fourth Doctor’s period were (or, if it does, ignores them totally). There’s no wit on display, no memorable characters for him to rub shoulders with and - most tellingly of all - no monsters or sign of real horror to confront the Doctor in his last moments. Indeed, it seems more concerned with introducing what would become the Fifth Doctor’s companions, and almost ignores its departing leading man, a discourtesy which, no matter how difficult Tom Baker was, is very hard, even at this distance to let pass. Surrounded by two stories which are in turns reasonable and forgettable, this is, while not the worst boxset that will ever bear the Doctor Who logo, very far from being the best. If Stephen Moffat is looking back at this time at all for lessons (and given that Davison is “his Doctor” there’s no reason why he shouldn’t) it is at best a reminder that science and Doctor Who don't always mix, and as a guide to things he most definitely should not do when he introduces us to the Eleventh Doctor.
As with nearly all of 2Entertain’s recent Who boxsets, New Beginnings comes in an overall box holding three individually designed amaray cases, one for each story. Each story and all its extras are presented on a single DVD, and nearly all the extras, with the exception of the commentaries, are subtitled.
The Visual presentation is the best these episodes have looked. The completely studio-bound The Keeper of Traken comes off the best, and while there’s a certain softness to the image there are few compression problems and the video looks clean and free from artefacts. The odd film sequence for both Logopolis and Castrovalva are not quite as good, often with a very soft image and lack of detail, but that’s a built-in problem with the source material with which nothing very spectacular can be achieved, while the video-shot interiors are of the same standard as Traken. Likewise the Audio is cleaned up and clear if not as distinct as Who circa 2008, and there’s a Music-Only option for all three stories.
All three of the DVDs come with Production Subtitles, Trails and Continuities, a Photo Gallery, and an Isolated Music Track, as well as PDFs featuring Radio Times listings for each story, the complete 1982 Doctor Who Annual, and BBC Enterprise Season 18 and Season 19 sales literature.
Extras - The Keeper of Traken
Sadly two of the participants on this track, Anthony Ainley and Johnny Byrne, have since passed away which makes this commentary doubly valuable. Sadly Ainley doesn’t contribute a whole lot to actually talking about the story which is a shame, but Byrne is good value and even the fact he is saddled at the start with Matthew Waterhouse for company doesn’t hamper him. In fairness to Waterhouse he’s not nearly as bad as people say he is in these commentaries, and it’s good to hear Sarah Sutton, the final person on the track, getting a chance to actually speak without being overwhelmed by her usual co-commentators Davison and Fielding.
Sarah Sutton on Swap Shop (11:14)
“You don’t half look old on the telly,” the ever-polite Noel Edmonds tells Sutton at one point during this interview from the Saturday morning show. Instead of giving him a smack, Sutton answers viewers’ questions very earnestly but also a little nervously one senses, doing her bit to publicise her debut on the show which was to be shown the same evening. No sign of Posh Paws though.
The Return of the Master (8:40)
After very brief introductory remarks from Bidmead and Black, Geoffrey Beevers, who plays the emaciated Master for the majority of the story, talks at length about his characterisation of the Doctor’s arch nemesis. He has quite considerable insight into the role, which makes this well worth watching and also one wish that he’d had a couple more (visual) appearances in the role.
Being Nice to Each Other (30:04)
Standard talking-heads Making Of, featuring contributions from Beevers, Black, Bidmead, Byrne, Sheila Ruskin and Sarah Sutton, this is a perfectly serviceable documentary, if not particularly distinguished by a single interesting anecdote surrounding the story.
Extras - Logopolis
Good old Tom. There can’t be many commentaries, in Who or elsewhere, in which the lead suddenly pipes up to announce he’s scared of dying, followed by a five minute discussion on how to deal with pain. Bidmead and Fielding are his willing accomplices in a commentary which doesn’t have much in the way of on-set anecdotes but captures its star in a genial mood.
A New Body At Last (50:20)
The main documentary on these discs, featuring reminiscences of those involved in the switchover from Baker to Davison (including the two Doctors themselves, of course) mixed in with extensive studio footage from the time. The first twenty minutes, in which Baker and others are splendidly candid about how difficult he had become to work with by the end of his era, are easily the highlight of the entire DVD set, after which focus is a little lost. A huge amount of time is spent discussing the actual filming of the regeneration itself which is well put together but a bit lengthy, while the part detailing Davison’s first few stories feels as though it was tacked on as an afterthought. Overall though, very entertaining and worth it for Baker alone.
Nationwide (4:30 & 3:40)
Two separate extracts from the old BBC magazine show. The first is a somewhat awkward encounter between a young Sue Cook and Baker in which they discuss his forthcoming departure, while the second is a far more laidback interview with Sue Lawley talking to a pre-Logopolis Davison about his recent casting.
Pebble Mill at One - Peter Davison (12:00)
“Hello and welcome and today the friendly old Pebble Mill lobby is suddenly filled with menace! I’ve got Daleks to the right of me and Cybermen to the left of me and all sorts of monsters filling the place and I’m definitely in need of a bit of assistance, a bit of help, a bit of intergalactic aid if this programme is ever to get on the air. So where are you Doctor Who?” Fortunately for the under-siege Donny MacLeod just at that moment Peter Davison swings by and invites him into the TARDIS, whereupon the presenter takes the chance to interview the new Doctor. This is more fun than the Nationwide extract above as the show had asked viewers to send in their ideas for how Davison’s Doctor should look, with the man himself assessing the results - indeed, one suggestion looks remarkably close to the garb the Fifth Doctor ended up wearing (minus the celery, of course).
News Items (1:55)
Brief snippets announcing Baker and Ward’s marriage, his departure and Davison’s casting.
Extras - Castrovalva
Not one of the better Davison/Fielding yak tracks, this isn’t as annoying as a couple of theirs have been but is a bit dull. Bidmead and Fiona Cumming make useful contributions however, but maybe not enough to merit sitting through this.
Swap Show - Peter Davison (20:40)
Faced with questions demanding to know why he’s wearing a cricket outfit and has a stick of celery stuck to his lapel, Davison tries not to get too giggly in this amusing extract from the Saturday morning show. I wonder whatever happened to the other Peter Davison who rang in?
Blue Peter - Peter Davison (9:15)
Simon Groom and Sarah Greene give a potted history of the show, complete with plenty of clips (including some from subsequently erased episodes) before asking the newly-cast Davison a few questions. One thing to note: Davison mentions that on his way into the studio he ran into Patrick Troughton in the BBC Car Park. Many times since he has said that Troughton had at that time given him the advice not to do more than three years, making this visit to BP far more important in the show’s history than the clip might suggest.
Directing Castrovalva (11:19)
Fiona Cumming reminisces about the making of the story, recounting some of the practical production issues she had to face in a nice extra.
Being Doctor Who (13:29)
A new interview in which Davison talks about his time as the Doctor which makes for an enjoyable featurette, even if plenty of what he says he has said elsewhere hundreds of times before.
The Crowded TARDIS (11:25)
One of the biggest problems of the Davison era was that he was surrounded by a bunch of rotten companions, and never was that clearer than in his first season. It wasn’t so much that there were too many of them - as this extra points out, a number of times during the Sixties the Doctor travelled with the same number - but simply that the characters - and, sometimes, the actors - weren’t up to scratch. This featurette looks at the problem in a fairly bland way, with no one being quite rude enough about the deficiencies of Nyssa, Tegan and Adric.
Deleted Scenes (1:34)
Two scenes thrillingly entitled “Earthquake” and “Dematerialisation” turn out to be little more than cutting room snippets and as such nothing to get excited about.
Theme Music Video (3:34)
Mark Ayres provides a stereo sound mix of the Peter Howell version of the Doctor Who theme which sounds very nice indeed, and comes complete with an edited version of the opening titles. However, there is a slight error in this feature in that it is advertised to also have a 5.1 surround sound mix, which was accidentally left off - see Four to Doomsday for that version.
As with the more recent release of The Trial of a Time Lord it's a case of great extras, shame about the stories. 2Entertain and the Restoration Team present a huge amount of new and archive material, gathering together nearly everyone still alive who was involved in the making of the stories making the set a definitive account of this crucial period of Doctor Who's history. Regrettably that can't hide the fact that the stories themselves aren't up to much, and don't do justice to either of the two fine Doctors who star.
4 out of 10
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6 out of 10
9 out of 10
Last updated: 31/05/2018 18:08:14