Doctor Who: Delta and the Bannermen Review
It can be hard work being a fan of Sylvester McCoy sometimes. Because his Seventh Doctor only appeared in twelve stories (not counting the McGann movie) each one’s importance is magnified, so that while the undoubted highs of his era gain additional prominence, so too do the lows. The problem is compounded by the fact that, unlike the eras of his two predecessors, the quality of his stories varies wildly and unpredictably – one week we get Remembrance of the Daleks, one of the show’s all-time greats, another we get Silver Nemesis, a story whose fan nickname Silly Nemesis tells you just how bad that particular adventure is. Somewhat fittingly, this capriciousness is reflected in the man himself, whose performance can go from being spine-tingling good to toe-curlingly bad, quite often in the same scene. The net result is a three-season rollercoaster ride, sometimes exhilarating, sometimes terrifying (not always for the right reasons), usually utterly exhausting but never, ever dull.
Unfortunately as far as the DVD range is concerned, we’ve already covered most of the solid gold McCoy classics, and with the release of Delta and the Bannermen we've now started on the dregs. The range has been going for nine years now, but Delta marks the debut of Season Twenty-Four, McCoy’s first, onto DVD. There’s a reason for this; it’s mostly dreadful. Fan opinion can seldom agree on much, but there is a majority view that McCoy’s first four stories come close to being the nadir of the entire series, and while Delta is not the worst of the quartet (that honour falls to Time and the Rani) it’s problems greatly outweigh its few good points. The one problem with the DVD range, however, is that we are perforce invited to evaluate each story entirely on its own merits, shorn of its historical context. Viewed in the running order of the show, Delta actually marks a turning point; after years of identikit, miserable stories featuring death, destruction and a distinctly nihilistic tone, Delta was a ray of sunshine, a jolly, light-hearted romp that remembered that once upon a time Who was as much about joie de vivre and celebrating life as it was overcoming mercenaries wielding giant guns. It marked a moment of transition; sure, it still featured a group of mercenaries, but it also had a jaunty soundtrack, an innocent romance, and a death count far lower than virtually any story from Colin Baker’s time. In and of itself it wasn’t great, but it was the first story which began to recapture some of Who’s magic, and the first in which McCoy’s Doctor began to take form and assert itself.
But now, sandwiched in the release schedule between The Deadly Assassin and The War Games (oh boy I can’t wait for The War Games) all that is forgotten, and standing alone the story becomes the stuff of ridicule and loathing, sentiments expressed most forcefully in the comments section on this site when this release was first announced. I have to be honest and say that some of the vitriol expressed towards the story surprised me; as a piece of drama it’s poorly conceived and amateurishly executed, but it’s also far too frothy to instil any great feelings of malice or hatred. It’s fluffy rubbish, but no more than that. The story follows the eponymous Delta (Belinda Mayne), last of the Chimerons, as she flees from the Bannermen, a group who for reasons unspecified have set out to wipe out her race. She ends up on Earth in the 1950s, hiding out in a holiday camp at the same time as, luck would have it, the Doctor and Mel (Bonnie Langford) have popped in for a stay. Lucky for her she does too, for the Bannermen, let by the raw-meat eating, growly voiced Gavrok (Don Henderson), soon track her down and arrive, determined to finish her off once and for all. Can the Doctor protect her long enough for her newly-born child to complete its rapid aging cycle, thus guaranteeing the survival of her race?
Years before the TARDIS made its permanent home in Cardiff, Delta was filmed largely on location in Wales (not, of course the first time the Doctor had travelled there, having been chased by the Yeti through the mountains of Snowdonia some twenty years earlier.) However, it’s fair to say the Wales of Delta is less Torchwood and more Hi-Di-Hi; despite the grimness of the idea of Gavrok and co attempting to commit genocide, the tone is relentlessly jaunty, accented by Keff McCulloch’s tongue-in-cheek musical score and the comedy Welsh accents of the camp’s owner and Ray (Sara Griffiths). The latter was one of two characters, together with of course Ace from the next story Dragonfire, who was considered a possible next companion for the Doctor when Mel left – thank goodness Ace won, for even at a time when the show was not noted especially for its high standard of performance she looks and sounds like she’s walked straight out of Pobol y Cym - I find it difficult not to laugh every time she swoons over the show’s biker boy Billy (David Kinder) and calls him Beelleeeee – and would not have worked as a long term character. Ray and Billy are just two examples of the vast amount of time and energy the production expends trying to recreate a Fifties atmosphere but rather sadly it never remotely rings true. Despite the period costumes and cover versions of popular tunes, a scene set in a Fifties jive and even a Dean-like biker in Billy, who falls in love with Delta pretty much the second he meets her, the story never convinces that we’re watching anything other than a group of actors pretending to be in the Fifties.
As drama it doesn’t work. The tongue-in-cheek tone is not the problem – Ken Dodd’s Tollmaster, for example, comes in for a lot of stick but within the context of the character is perfectly fine – but that the episode structure is pretty ropey, Most of the second and third episodes consist entirely of the Doctor riding around on Ray’s motorbike, zooming from one location to another, bumping into the various other characters as he tries to organise things, making for a blur of motion that ends up feeling like he’s going round in circles. After a while one doesn’t really care what he’s doing, or why. There are at least two utterly superfluous characters – the US agents (including poor Stubby Kaye, who looks like he’s wondering how the hell he ended up in this rubbish) – while the actions of others are often highly unlikely – Delta, for example, spends time in episode two having a nice picnic with Billy, despite the imminent threat of the Bannermen. When the Doctor beats Gavrok it’s more because it’s time for him to do so than the satisfying conclusion of the arc.
But, while it’s just not fun or amusing enough to get away with its slapstick approach, I can never actively dislike the show. A couple of the performances, taken on their own terms, are likeable – Dodd, Richard Davies’s enthusiastic camp manager who takes all the mayhem in his stride, Hugh Lloyd as the beekeeper who holds the key to defeating the Bannermen – which makes it somewhat regrettable that those front and centre of the drama – Mayne, Henderson, Griffiths – are far less appealing. You can also see McCoy finally getting an idea of what he wants to do with his Doctor – he positively relishes the scene in which he confronts Gavrok – and, through him the production team as a whole. The following story, Dragonfire saw a sharp upturn in the show’s fortunes, and the following season the Seventh Doctor’s era really began to flourish. Looked at now, Delta has little to offer. But back then, it was a deceptively important step to returning some of the magic to Doctor Who.
Presentation and Extras
It's business as usual for this release, with the now familiar initial option to access an Audio Navigation Menu presaging the appearance of the Main Menu. As ever, the story and all extras are subtitled. The quality of the Video is not terrific; the story was shot on 1" videotape and the lower quality picture is clear throughout the story, with a softness and lack of detail that other McCoy DVDs have also demonstrated. Having said that, the print is nice and clean, and while there are some compression artefacts noticeable there's nothing heinous, meaning that the story looks as good as it probably ever will. The Audio is a standard 2.0 mix, unremarkable but perfectly fine, although whether any audio track in which you can hear Keff McCulloch's score clearly can be classed as perfectly fine is debatable.
In the absence of a Making Of, the collection of Extras relies heavily on archive material, of which the most interesting use is the Re-edited Episode One (30:30). Many would feel that making Delta any longer was a somewhat masochistic exercise, but it’s well judged, giving us amongst other things a longer opening battle sequence and an extension of the initial TARDIS scene, as well as a couple of nice editorial flourishes, such as the Doctor’s paean to a pleasant holiday blending into the first scene with Stubby Kaye. The one problem (besides the fact it’s more Delta) is that there’s no music or sound effects included. Although Keff’s music is pretty awful, its absence drains some scenes totally of any atmosphere, while there’s one inadvertently amusing moment when, during the dance hall scene, the Doctor complains about the loudness of the music when they are standing in near silence (very sensitive ears these Time Lords.)
Full marks for whoever dug up the Interview Rushes (16:33) which features the unexpurgated material shot for But First This (6:03) an old Andy Crane CBBC show which in the extract presented here previews the story. I can never see Andy Crane without thinking a) of Edd the Duck, b) him singing along to the end of Willy Fogg and c) him bursting out crying on his last day in the Broom Cupboard, and as such hold a great deal of affection for him, so it’s always nice to see him, even if the clip in question is of the usual bland fare. The Rushes, on the other hand, are quite nice, featuring as they do extended versions of the interviews with McCoy, Langford and Dodd – nothing earth shattering, but a pleasing inclusion. Regional News magazine Wales Today (2:17) also featured a very short look at the story, celebrating the fact it was filmed in Wales and little aware of what the future would bring for the show in Cardiff. Also from the era there’s a Clown Court (5:42) sketch from the Noel Edmonds Saturday Roadshow, a thin excuse to string together a bunch of outtakes from McCoy’s reign (mostly from Delta, hence its inclusion here) and the wit about the same level as Ant and Dec display in the Roadshow’s spiritual descendant Saturday Night Takeaway. We also get the usual Trails and Continuity (3:19) collection of intros to each episode screened at the time (not as interesting as some in the past as they don’t include any extra nostalgic pieces), a bog standard Photo Gallery (8:22) and, via the miracles of PDF, the original Radio Times Listings for the story.
The only newly-commissioned featurette directly related to the story on the disc is Hugh and Us (7:05) in which Hugh Lloyd talks very briefly about his career and part in this story, which is of course added an extra poignancy given the actor died shortly after it was recorded. There’s also the usual Commentary, which in this case features McCoy, Griffiths, the story’s director Chris Clough and producer Andrew Cartmel, and is one of the more enjoyable tracks a Seventh Doctor DVD has had yet. McCoy is on good form and there seems like a good rapport between the four commentators, who, having only three episodes to get through, don’t outstay their welcome. To complement this, there are the Production Subtitles which fill in all sorts of trivia you never knew you didn't want to know about the story. To bolster the extras up also included is the Seventh Doctor episode of the range’s continuing Stripped For Action (21:34) series, which is covering all the Doctor’s comic strip adventures. Just like his television episodes, the Seventh Doctor's two-tone stories were very hit-or-miss (as the new release of collected strips, A Cold Day in Hell, all too readily reminds us) so the contributors, including Doctor Who Magazine editors John Freeman, Gary Russell and Alan Barnes, and writers Simon Furman, Paul Cornell and Andrew Cartmel, end up scrabbling around to try and find anything very positive to say about them. Rounding things off, there’s another fab Coming Soon (1:37) trailer, this time for The War Games. Roll on July!
Innocuous rubbish, supported by a selection of archive extras impressive for their quantity but not quality. It's as good a disc for this story as you could possibly expect, but very far from essential.
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6 out of 10