Doctor Who: The E-Space Trilogy Review
Whenever I think about Doctor Who’s eighteenth season, my overwhelming impression is of a collection of dull, funereally-paced stories full of turgid characters spouting cod-Shakespearean dialogue totally failing to interact with a grumpy Tom Baker who no longer wants to be there. The run of stories from 1980-81 seems to coalesce into one joyless, amorphous whole as grey and lifeless as the hair on Baker’s head, with nary a single spark to relieve the leaden tone at any point between Episode One of The Leisure Hive and Baker’s inept swansong Logopolis. Script Editor Christopher Bidmead’s vision of the show as a serious, science-based series is almost the direct antithesis of my own, and as such, the news that the middle three serials from that season, the so-called E-Space Trilogy, would be the first Classic Who release of 2009 was not one I received with any great favour; indeed, had I not been reviewing them for this site I wouldn’t have been in any great rush to pick up the set, and I'm fairly sure I haven't watched any of them since their VHS release in 1997.
More fool me. While Full Circle, State of Decay and Warriors’ Gate are all perfect examples of the Bidmeadian philosophy, being full of po-faced characters, reams of technobabble and very little levity, they also manage to show his vision for the programme in its best light. The stories are all well-written with, for the most part, more substance than much of what had immediately preceded them, and are realised with fine set work and some extremely ambitious direction. Admittedly the three share a number of similarities – all feature crashed spaceships, a repressed society ruled by a dictatorial few, and, in fairness, some decidedly ropey SFX – but this fact is immaterial given that each story has such an individualistic style that it’s only on subsequent reflection that the parallels become obvious. Taken as a whole, they make for a satisfying trio of tales, a mixture of the very traditional and the very new, which makes one even forgive the fact that the link between them, E-Space itself, is nothing more than a name that has no meaning or relevance in the stories themselves.
The first of the three is Full Circle, written by Andrew Smith who was at the time only eighteen. That Bidmead and producer John Nathan-Turner were willing to employ him might appear to have been a sign of their desperation to find any usable scripts, but his age belies what is an intelligent, thoughtful script. The adventure begins when the Doctor, Romana (Lalla Ward) and K9 (John Leeson) find themselves sucked into the so-called E-Space, a parallel universe which in practical terms is no different from ours except that space is a bit greener and, reportedly, a bit smaller (although we don’t get much evidence of that.) Their first port of call in this new dimension is the planet Alzarius where they soon suffer the immense misfortune of meeting a young man by the name of Adric (Matthew Waterhouse). Adric is a rebellious member of a human-like race who apparently crash-landed on the planet many generations ago and have since been attempting to rebuild their spacecraft the Starliner in order to be able to return to their home planet. Their lives are made complicated by the fact that every so often there descends on the planet a phenomenon known as “Mistfall” during which a group of indigenous Marshmen (who look suspiciously like the Creature from the Black Lagoon) rise up from the surrounding lakes, a phenomenon so terrifying it forces the off-worlders to seek refuge in the Starliner until the monsters return to their aquatic habitats. Adric and his friends “The Outlers”, who look and act like they’ve only turned up because they failed the audition for The Tomorrow People, have decided not to hide in the ship when Mistfall descends, causing a rift with the Deciders, the chiefs of their people Who Have a Secret which makes them particularly keen that their rebellious youths don't upset the carefully balanced order of their society. Of course, once the Doctor turns up that Secret is as good as out, but not before one of the Marshmen have invaded the Starliner, Romana has been bitten by a laughably poor spider creature and K9 has suffered a most undignified injury...
Director Peter Grimwade, making his debut for the series, was reportedly not the easiest man in the world to work with, although the fact he had to deal with both the moody Baker and the impertinent Waterhouse probably didn’t help. Nevertheless, he managed to produce a pacey, well-crafted tale, one which mixes in some questions of weight to give the viewer some food for thought amongst all the action. While the theme of the monsters not being straight-forwardly evil is one that the series has played with ever since the William Hartnell story Galaxy 4, and the related twist is not as surprising as all involved obviously thought it was, there’s some nice interplay between the Doctor and the oppressive Deciders (who, ironically, can’t seem to decide much of anything at all), especially near the end as his indignation at the situation is allowed to spill out. George Baker gets a nice part as a newly elected member of the elite who has to wrestle with his conscious while worrying about his daughter, who is one of the Outlers, and Norman Bacon manages to evoke far more sympathy for a rubber-suited creature than he really has any right to. It isn’t a classic by any means, but aside from the horribly jarring music by Paddy Kingsland makes for an entertaining four parts.
The second story, Terrance Dicks’s State of Decay, is intriguing, coming across as a direct clash between Bidmead's philosophy and that of one of his illustrious predecessors Philip Hinchcliffe. Hinchcliffe’s era is nowadays renowned as having a “gothic” style paying homage to the genre’s literature and films, and this four-parter, featuring a gang of vampires ruling over a peasant village, harks back to that time. Indeed, Dicks had originally written his tale several years earlier, only to have it mothballed when bigwigs at the Beeb feared it would clash with a big-budget Dracula that was then in the works. By the time Season Eighteen came along said adaptation had long since been forgotten, and Bidmead, always short of material, asked Dicks to revisit the story. Dicks agreed, which was about the last time the two did meet to eye-to-eye as they began to squabble about everything from the title onwards. In the end what ended up on screen bears both writers’ hallmarks, the straight-forward, archetypal Dicksian runaround melded with an infusion of Bidmeadian high-tech courtesy of a computer system the villagers have discovered and believe hold the key to freeing themselves from their vampiric masters.
Hinchcliffe was never afraid of using archetypes at his time, and State of Decay is about as archetypal a vampire story as you can get – with the exception of said computer and a rather neat way of defeating the villains it doesn’t have an original thought in its head. However, Dicks, while not the greatest writer Who ever had, can always be relied upon to churn out an entertaining potboiler, making up for his lack of innovation by just producing consistently entertaining bits of nonsense, and such is the case here. All the guest stars have a great time hamming it up, especially Emrys Jones as the wild-eyed vampire Aukon who revels in his role as bloodsucking charmer, and by the time Lalla Ward is stretched out luxuriously on a sacrificial altar in Episode Four, just waiting for the pointy-toothed ones to have their wicked way with her, one has completely surrendered to this Hammer-lite tale. Admittedly it doesn’t quite have the flair of Hinchcliffe at his best (not helped by an intermittently energyless performance by Baker) but the production manages to fulfil its side of the bargain admirably – the castle is suitably gothic, the villagers suitably terrified and the bats who attack the Doctor and Romana in a gloomy forest footage a suitably unconvincing mixture of stock footage and some dodgy model shots. If there’s one thing that breaks the illusion, it’s the sadly disappointing climax – the rising of the “Great One” turns out to be nothing more than a hand thrusting its way out of the ground in a way that would shame any amateur filmmaker these days, putting a damp squib on what is otherwise a very easy-going and likeable runaround.
The best of the trilogy, however, is saved for last. Back when Who started it was intended that there would be three different types of story; those set in the future, those in the past and so-called “sideways” stories which didn’t fit neatly into either category. What "sideways" actually meant was always rather vague, and after a couple of early attempts, namely In the Spaceship and Planet of Giants the idea was largely dropped because no one really had a clue what else to do with the idea. Stephen Gallagher’s Warriors’ Gate however, is definitely a “sideways” story. It’s easy to imagine that on first viewing it must have mystified the more casual viewers, with its complicated plot complemented by a visual style utterly unique in the series's history. Once again there was trouble on the set, this time seeing director Paul Joyce temporarily removed when his ambitious camera set ups were proving far too time-consuming for the ever-rushed production schedule, but his efforts certainly pay off in the finished product; from the opening series of shots which tour the story’s spaceship, reminiscent of that of Alien, through to his single-camera work prowling the same ship’s gantries and then outside, you know you are watching something quite unlike any other story.
In a way, it’s a shame that Joyce was working on this particular story, in that the most memorable set consists of a completely white void, filmed on green screen. This is the nexus point between E-Space and our own universe, in which the TARDIS lands after being sucked in by Biroc (David Weston). Biroc is a Tharil (but of course he is) one of a number of his race enslaved aboard a human ship which has also ended up in the void, commanded by its increasingly unstable captain Rorvik (Clifford Rose). Centuries before the situation had been reversed, with humans the slaves of Biroc’s people, before mankind fought back with the result they now have the upper hand over the lion-like creatures. Now Biroc is determined to emancipate his people, and his first act of rebellion has been to drag the slave ship into the void. All this backstory is slowly revealed over four, elliptical episodes, during which the Doctor uncovers what’s going on with the help of another gothic castle in the middle of the void, at the centre of which is a mirror which leads... elsewhere, exactly where is unclear. At the same time as Biroc is helping the Doctor understand what's what, Rorvik and his crew are attempting to work out how to break out of the void and control the increasingly rebellious Tharils.
It’s all rather involved and rather magical at the same time. It’s perhaps impossible to follow exactly what’s going on in one viewing (not least because one of the key scenes of exposition is voiced by a robot very difficult to understand) and for that reason (and that reason alone) it's not unlike a couple of Sylvester McCoy stories, Ghost Light and The Curse of Fenric. It is thus an ideal story for DVD, and one worth visiting several times – it’s impossible to describe totally just how effective the white void is until you see it yourself (despite the rather unfortunate black line marking the point where the studio wall meets the floor) or how unnerving the gothic castle (which manages to have a look and feel totally different to the one in State of Decay) actually is. It also has perhaps the best performance of any of the three stories in Rose, who slowly falls apart in the madness he finds himself in, while Kenneth Cope also puts in some good work as his second-in-command. In fact, although once again Baker isn't on top form, on the acting front it’s only a couple of painfully unfunny comic relief characters who really ruin the mood, their banter tiresome and performances unconvincing. They're not enough to detract from what is an unnerving, unique story for the series, although for the second story running the end is less than it could have been, in this case because Romana's departure is so sudden. Classic Who often fumbled the departure scenes of its companions, but there's something particularly irksome about the pre-emptory nature of hers (the short version of which, Romana: Doctor, I’m leaving. Doctor: Alright then. Here, have K9 while you’re at it. Bye! is not much shorter than what appears on screen.)
Warriors’ Gate rounds off a collection of stories which manage to represent much of what was best about the series in the Seventies, with some decent monsters and baddies, exciting stories, some bare-faced rip-offs of genre work and the odd bit of utter insanity. While the overly serious tone does make them slightly less fun to watch than they would have been had they been made under a different script editor and producer (there are the odd moments of humour, but not enough) this is still a strong collection, although as with much of his last year Baker’s performance is extremely variable, one moment superb – such as his anger in Full Circle - the next utterly contemptuous of the whole thing – watch him stride through the forest in State of Decay to see him at his most fed-up. It’s not enough though to make this, for me, a very pleasant surprise, and while it won't convert me to agreeing with what Bidmead did, I shall certainly recall it with slightly more favour than I have done in the past.
At least until Meglos appears on DVD anyway.
As with last year, the first Classic Who release of the year is a three-disc boxset, with each story coming in its own individually-designed amaray case fitting into a holder, each case having a four page booklet detailing the disc's contents. Following the innovation seen in the last release Battlefield once again these discs start with the option for an audio-assisted menu - this continues to cause confusion amongst some fans, although as the instructions are very plain it's difficult to understand why, and otherwise this is a welcome addition to the range. Each story's menu is the same as usual, with a range of clips running by the options, and the story itself and all the extras bar the commentaries are subtitled. As ever, the Restoration Team have cleaned up the episodes and made them look the best they can; there's the odd compression artefact on the Video but nothing terrible and aside from the inevitable softness of image from the material shot on video it looks clean and bright. The Audio is equally problem-free, although given that the often awful music is still perfectly audible that might not be good news for some people.
There's a very evident attempt to try to broaden and diversify the types of Extras seen on Classic Who DVDs on this set, with several rather unusual featurettes complementing the normal things we get, of which more below. Kicking things off, however, there’s the obligatory Commentary for each story, the best being that for Warriors' Gate. Often a track featuring five people, in this case Ward, Leeson, Joyce, Bidmead and Visual Effects Designer Mat Irvine, can be a bit crowded, but here they are a lively group, all with perhaps the exception of Leeson contributing interesting and amusing reminiscences of the shoot, making for an enjoyable listen. It's far more jolly than the commentaries on the other two stories which, while hardly at a level of The Aztecs tedium, aren't especially exciting. That for Full Circle features Waterhouse, Bidmead and writer Andrew Smith, and includes the odd hint that Smith was slightly more unhappy about some of the rewrites to his script than he lets on, although given that Bidmead asks such questions as “How good a script editor was I?” it was probably not politic to make a fuss about them. That for State of Decay meanwhile, benefits from including Moffatt, who died not long after it was recorded (a fact we are grimly reminded about when for the first episode and a half he points out everyone in the production who has since passed away.) One senses that the director still didn't think much of Waterhouse, his co-commentator (one of the first things he says is an oft-told tale of the young actor questioning Baker's acting) while Terrance Dicks, usually one of Who's most entertaining raconteurs, isn't on top form, leading to a track which lapses occasionally into silence or space-filling blather. There's also the usual Production Subtitles which are on good form this time, with some good jokes among the usual production details.
Each story also gets its own Making-Of, and once again the most interesting of the three is the one for Warrior’s Gate, The Dreaming (27:11) as it concentrates almost exclusively on the turmoil surrounding the story’s production. From the moment Bidmead and director Joyce started to rewrite Stephen Gallagher’s script things were difficult (although the author, given his subsequent success, is unsurprisingly fairly unconcerned about it these days), from director Joyce's temporary firing through to Ward's annoyance at how Romana was written out. All involved speak candidly but good –naturedly about the problems, although Joyce still comes across as a very determined character even now. The other two Makings-Of are less exciting, although The Vampire Lovers (20:26) in which Dicks and Bidmead recall their differing views has its moments. That regarding Full Circle, All Aboard the Starliner (24:21) is more genteel with all recollecting the shoot with favour. As ever, all three documentaries have assembled a stellar collection of talking-heads to feature, with the expected likes of Ward, Leeson, Waterhouse and Bidmead (no Tom though) joined by such contributors as George Baker, Clinton Greyn (Ivo from State of Decay) and David Weston (Biroc), as well as making use of archive interviews with the late Grimwade and Moffatt.
Each of the Doctor’s three companions also gets a featurette to themselves. K9 In E-Space (4:39) is an amusing piece in which all involved lay into the Doctor’s four-legged chum and his general rubbishness, with the exception of Ward, who indignantly defends him, and John Leeson, who gets quite animated as he describes the various indignities heaped upon his alter ego. I can’t say that Lalla’s Wardrobe (19:00), which features Ward, her costume designer and others discussing Romana’s fashion sense, is the sort of extra which is ever going to take my attention, but it’s fine, even if the fun notion of asking some Cardiff students their opinions falls a bit flat in that the Time Lady’s garb gets a universal thumbs-down (although I don’t suppose Romana would think much of modern student dress either). At first glance, the similarly-structured The Boy With the Golden Star (19:43) which has Waterhouse talking about each of his stories in turn, isn't a particularly appetising prospect but it’s actually fairly enjoyable. However, after starting off sounding far more sensible than his reputation suggests, the actor then proceeds to reveal exactly why even now he is hardly a popular figure in Who circles, especially when he shockingly describes JNT as a coward for telling him he was to leave via a letter, and rather off-handedly describes how he thought Grimwade “patronising” after the director rang him up to congratulate him for Earthshock. Oh dear.
Waterhouse makes a better show of himself on an archive clip from Swap Shop (8:09) which he appeared on to publicise what Noel Edmonds rather formally insists on describing as “The Doctor Who programme.” (I’m very glad I grew up in the days of Going Live!) Of a similar vintage are the usual collection of Continuities (2:57, 3:32 and 2:01) included for each story. Also included are a collection of very unremarkable Extended and Deleted Scenes (4:13) for Warriors’ Gate and similarly unexciting Film Trims (5:34) from State of Decay which are alternate versions of the model sequences at that story’s climax which manage to make The Great One’s hand look even less convincing, if that was possible. Finally for the regular kind of Who extras there are Radio Times PDFs showing how that venerable magazine listed the episodes, a Coming Soon trailer for The Rescue & The Romans set and a Photo Gallery for each story, which come with optional captions. Sadly these, while occasionally informative, do tend to be rather self-evident – “The Doctor at the TARDIS console” , no, really? There's also an Easter Egg (1:05) on the Warriors' Gate disc in which Mat Irvine reveals his own brief on-screen cameo.
However, as mentioned, there are several other featurettes which are evidently experiments in seeing what else can be put onto a Who disc. Some are more successful than others. The best, E-Space: Fact or Fiction? (14:36) is essentially a beginner’s guide to parallel universes with luminaries such as Stephen Baxter (whatever happened to your Big Finish production, Stephen?) and author of The Science of Doctor Who Paul Parsons, with the odd mention of this trilogy thrown in to explain its presence. Kudos for getting Proper Scientist Dr Andrew Ball to discuss the theories, although the star has to be Patrick Moore who as ever steals the show at the end (although I do rather suspect he has never seen a single moment of the E-Space trilogy). Leaves of Blood (17:06) on the other hand has ultimately no connection to the story it's attached to, State of Decay in that one is a television serial about vampires and the other an examination of the most important literary vampire stories, as opposed to those of a moving picture. It’s reasonably interesting if you don’t know the stuff I guess, and gathers together several experts such as Gallagher and, inevitably, Kim Newman, but serves more as an introduction to the subject rather than an indepth analysis. Far better is The Frayling Reading (4:38) in which Sir Christopher Frayling manages, in his analysis of State of Decay to be twice as insightful and interesting as anyone in either Leaves of Blood or the frankly barking mad The Blood Show. (10:31) This last is a bizarre featurette which talks about random aspects of reactions to blood in society and culture and features the entertainingly eccentric chef Fergus Henderson and Frank the Butcher amongst other. Almost certainly the oddest featurette ever to appear on a Doctor Who DVD.
However, the main thing you'll learn from the Extras is that Christopher Hamilton Bidmead wanted his full name of Christopher Hamilton Bidmead on the credits but that the name Christopher Hamilton Bidmead wouldn't fit he had to make do with just Christopher H Bidmead instead. No opportunity to mention this fact is wasted and, given he also banged on about it on the New Beginnings set I can only appeal to the Powers That Be to include an Easter Egg whenever Meglos does get a release with altered credits, just to give the man some closure on what is obviously a very sore point.
It's a strong start for the Classic Who range this year, with three stories far better than I remembered coupled with the usual collection of stellar extras, as well as admittedly some on which their budget could almost certainly have been better spent.
Last updated: 14/05/2018 05:07:45