Doctor Who: Mannequin Mania Review
In 1969, Doctor Who was in serious trouble. Patrick Troughton's final season had not been the ratings success which had been expected and the public were turning off in their droves when faced with stories as poor as The Krotons and The Space Pirates. Pat Troughton was a great Doctor and he did his best with some dodgy material but he always intended to leave after three years and it's clear that, towards the end, his attention was wandering. During the seemingly endless epic of The War Games, the prospect of cancelling the show was seriously considered and only a serious adrenaline shot to the programme's heart was likely to do any good. Luckily, the arrival of Jon Pertwee and colour proved to be exactly the treatment that was needed and it's surely not coincidental that we're still watching essentially the same show in 2011.
Spearhead From Space, the story which launched the 1970 season, is a paradox in that it's an anomaly in the history of the series and also a distillation of the things which made it great. An anomaly because it's the only time the classic series was filmed completely on 16MM film and a distillation because it sums up the things that the show has always been able to do very well - action, solid SF concepts, character comedy, quirkiness - even if it occasionally forgets about some of them.
Directed by Derek Martinus, an old series hand, Spearhead looks absolutely marvellous throughout with a real sense of energy and excitement. The injection of colour is the icing on the cake but the really new element is in the pace which had never been quite so breathless. The story does a lot of things, not least in introducing the new Doctor, but it never hangs around and keeps going as the writer Robert Holmes throws in plot points and bits of exposition while ensuring that we're never more than a few minutes away from a memorable scene. Holmes writes great dialogue and this establishes Jon Pertwee's character straightaway as witty, slightly imperious and unlikely to suffer fools gladly. He also does much to round out the figure of the Brigadier from occasional guest star to much-loved regular companion. We also get the Holmes trademark of oddball supporting characters with nicely villainous moments from Hugh Burden's Channing and due attention paid to much smaller roles such as the poacher Seeley and Mullins the porter. True, he falls down in the depiction of Liz Shaw but then it's blatantly obvious from the start that nobody had a clue what to do with her. She was too bright to ask all the stupid questions required of the companion and too sensible to go wandering off and getting into trouble. By the time of Ambassadors of Death, the decision was obviously taken to just put her in an outrageous mini-skirt and hope nobody asks too many questions but here she has little to do.
Jon Pertwee's first throw of the dice is a memorable one because he makes it clear from the start that this is his character and he's going to play it his way. It's slightly at odds with how he eventually settled into the role, largely because there's more obvious comedy in moments such as the shower scene and the comedy gurning during his encounter with the Nestene tentacles. But he's a very commanding presence and his costume looks fantastic.
The thing everyone remembers about Spearhead is the iconic moment when the shop window dummies suddenly break out onto the street and start shooting innocent passers-by. The fact that it still works so well is a tribute to the direction and also to the special make-up effects which create monsters which are terrifyingly credible. In a way, it's unfortunate that the Autons were so good since little else in the "Yeti sitting on a loo in Tooting Beck" line could match them and future earthbound threats seemed less plausible. Certainly, these plastic creatures are much more effective than the rubbery incarnation of the Nestene Consciousness - the latter being a slightly Lovecraftian concept which is hard to realise on a restricted budget.
The Autons were so memorable that they reappeared within a year at the start of Jon Pertwee's second season. Sequels were far from unheard of in Doctor Who of course - the Daleks appeared after a year as did the Cybermen and the Abominable Snowmen - and it's not surprising that the public reception accorded to the menacing mannequins granted them a return visit so soon. But Robert Holmes, Barry Letts and Terrence Dicks, dissatisfied with the idea of just doing a sequel, decided to make it the showcase for another, flesh and blood menace in the shape of The Master. He was intended to be the Doctor's nemesis, a sort of Moriarty to his Holmes, and it's quickly made clear that he's just as clever as our hero and infinitely more dangerous and cunning. But due to Roger Delgado's charisma and charm, he's also very a attractive character, a real anti-hero whose plans, though doomed to fail, are rarely quite without our sneaking sympathy. Over time, this was a problem since the Master soon became rather like Wile E. Coyote as one complex scheme after another failed to make any headway towards getting rid of the Doctor. But here, in his first appearance, he's a force to be reckoned with.
Terror of the Autons is one of those Who stories which throws in everything but the kitchen sink - literally, because Mrs Farrell's kitchen sink turns out to be made of CSO. It's full of plots and schemes and different instruments of death as if there was a real danger of losing the audience's attention. Robert Holmes' decidedly dark sense of humour is given full reign in images of macabre deaths by plastic chair and hideous troll doll. The tone becomes very bizarre indeed, not unlike that achieved in the Bond film Diamonds are Forever. In the midst of this we have Jon Pertwee at his most regally self-regarding, alienating everybody and repeatedly getting his companions into trouble. He's not a sympathetic figure in this story at all and in a way this works rather well because the Doctor seems genuinely alien, a stranger stranded on an Earth which he finds limiting and depressing.
Not content with being packed with incident, the story also finds time to introduce Jo Grant and Captain Yates. The latter character was intended as romantic interest for Jo but never got fully developed. Jo Grant, on the other hand, became one of the Doctor's most popular companions because she fulfils the interrogatory function of the role to perfection. Katy Manning's appealing performance goes a long way to explain the popularity and she is the ne plus ultra of the Who dolly bird, a caricature which the show then spent the next forty years trying to distance itself from.
It's a tremendously entertaining story, with enjoyable Holmes asides such as the disquisition on boiled eggs and the ridiculous huge headed flower dispensers, and one which occasionally creates some real menace - the Auton policemen are a brilliant stroke as is the death-dealing plastic daffodill. But for me, it's memorable chiefly as the first hurrah for The Master, even if he's allowed to go ridiculously soft at the end.
Spearhead From Space
Jon Pertwee's debut was first issued by the BBC back in 2001 as the third official DVD release from the classic series. What we get in the Mannequin Mania set is an improved edition with an extra commentary and some new featurettes. As it was shot on 16MM film, Spearhead has always looked better than the average story from the time and this new transfer looks lovely. It's been newly restored from the original negative and is crisp, sharp and pristine. The colours look noticeably stronger than on the earlier release. The sound has also been improved with material taken from the original master tapes, and the Fleetwood Mac song which was previously omitted for copyright reasons has now been re-inserted.
There are several new features on the disc along with the trailers and UNIT recruiting film which appeared on the original release.
The 2001 commentary track from Caroline John and the late lamented Nicholas Courtney is present again here and it's a good listen for fans of the era, although it seems a little awkward in comparison with more recent tracks. There's also the new addition of a commentary from Derrick Sherwin and Terrence Dicks which is fascinating. Sherwin is no great lover of the BBC heirarchy of the time and makes a lot of pithy points on the subject while Terrence Dicks talks about how he wanted the show to develop. It's interesting and slightly uncomfortable with little of the mutual affection that you get between Dicks and the sadly missed Barry Letts.
Down To Earth
This tells the story of the programme from the fag-end of the Troughton era to the triumph of Jon Pertwee's casting and the revamped format of Season 7. It's a well-known tale with all the expected anecdotes trotted out - Derrick Sherwin wanted to cast Ron Moody, Barry Letts and Terrence Dicks didn't like being saddled with either clever Liz Shaw as the assistant or the down-to-earth storylines - but it's told engagingly by the main participants, including Jon Pertwee through an archive interview from 1995. The challenges of filming in 16MM on location are also discussed and leave you, as ever, wishing that more of the classic series had been done in this way.
A more technical featurette than some we've seen recently, this short documentary looks at what happened when Doctor Who went into colour.
Along with these features we also get the usual production subtitles and a coming soon trailer for Frontios.
Terror of the Autons
Until 1993, Terror of the Autons only existed in the BBC archives as a black and white film recording - some of you, like myself, may have seen it at the 1983 Longleat Celebration. During the 20th anniversary year, it was re-released in a colourised version based on a colour NTSC tape. This looked slightly ropey but obviously pointed to better things. In 1999, the show was further restored for a potential BBC2 repeat and it has apparently been tinkered with for this DVD release. It's a fantastic job of work which looks virtually indistinguishable from any other episode of the classic series which still exists in its original state. The clear and clean soundtrack is equally impressive.
There are, as ever, a number of special features present.
A strange, rather sad commentary track, not because it's lacking in humour and insight but because two of the participants are no longer with us. It was recorded in 2001 and features Barry Letts, Nicholas Courtney and Katy Manning. All concerned are on good form although anyone with a low tolerance for sugar should probably only listen to anything featuring Katy Manning in very short bursts.
Life On Earth
A study of the earthbound Pertwee years and the impact they had on the resurrection of the show in 2005. The visuals are very groovy with lots of split-screen and there are lots of interesting interviews both with contemporary participants and with observers such as the always-welcome Mark Gatiss. It also, amusingly, comments on Barry Letts and his slight obsession with CSO which led to such marvellous period pieces as Mrs Farrell's CSO kitchen.
The Doctor's Moriarty
This concentrates on The Master, a character who was intended to be to the Doctor what Moriarty was to Sherlock Holmes - although it's worth noting that Holmes only encountered Moriarty twice whereas the Doctor couldn't move in 1971 for bumping into his thinly-disguised Time Lord adversary. Quite rightly, most of the talk is about the great Roger Delgado whose witty take on the character has never been bettered but there is mention of Anthony Ainley and John Simm - although not of Geoffrey Beevors, Peter Pratt or, sadly, of Derek Jacobi whose appearance in Utopia suggested that he could have been the greatest Master of them all. Some of the theories about the character's identity are discussed, principally that he and the Doctor are brothers but since this seems to stem from an off-the-cuff remark by Barry Letts, I'm not sure whether or not to take it seriously.
The 1970s were the decade of plastic (and nylon, but that's another story) and this brief documentary examines the creation of the Autons and contextualises them in early 1970s society.
Add to this production subtitles, a coming-soon trailer and some PDF materials and you have another excellent release from 2 Entertain. Some fans may moan about being forced to double-dip on Spearhead From Space but considering the new transfer and new extras, along with the very reasonable price it's selling for online, I don't think there's much to complain about.