Doctor Who: The Dalek War Box Set Review
This review is dedicated to the memory of Barry Letts (1925-2009)
This review contains plot spoilers.
By 1973, under the influence of producer Barry Letts and script editor Terrance Dicks, Doctor Who had enjoyed a long period of stability. Jon Pertwee was in his fourth season as the Doctor, and Katy Manning and Roger Delgado were in their third as companion Jo Grant and recurring adversary The Master respectively. Letts and Dicks had moved the show into a direction away from the one it was going in when they had inherited it. The harder-edged, more adult material of Season Seven had given away to the warmer, more family-friendly stories thereafter – and Season Seven's three seven-parters had become a mixture of four- and six-parters that would prevail, with only a couple of exceptions, until the end of the 1970s. At the end of The Three Doctors, the Time Lords had lifted the Doctor's exile from Earth, allowing him and Jo to travel far and wide in time and space again, but reducing the role of the UNIT “family” that had played such a big part of Pertwee's first three seasons. However, change was afoot, some of it brought about in tragically unavoidable circumstances.
The two stories in this box set, both six-parters by different writers, form a kind of twelve-episode epic. This isn't quite the same as the earlier Daleks' Master Plan, another twelve-parter written by two men: that was one more-or-less integrated story, give or take an Christmas interlude in the middle. Here, the first story, via a final plot twist, acts as a lead-in to the second.
Space opera is a SF subgenre that Who only occasionally ventured into, partly due to the expense of putting too many different alien races, environments and hardware on screen. The previous example was The Space Pirates, a little-loved serial of which only the second of six episodes survives. Frontier in Space takes us into the 26th century, when Earth and the Draconian Empire are rivals for control of the Galazy. The TARDIS materialises inside an Earth spacecraft which comes under attack. The Doctor is accused of being a Draconian spy, but he and Jo know the truth: that someone else is orchestrating the conflict for their own ends.
Frontier in Space works similarly to The War Games in that it proceeds from one level to the next, when one threat gives way to a higher threat behind it, in a hierarchy of villainy. The Ogrons, who had featured as the Daleks' henchbeings in the previous season's Day of the Daleks make their appearance halfway through the first episode, in a cliffhanger that isn't, due to re-editing of the serial. But controlling the Ogrons is The Master, who makes his appearance in the third episode. But who is the Master in league with? To viewers at the time, the answer came as a big surprise in the final episode. Less so now: the title of the second serial in this box set gives it away. But Hulke plays fair with viewers, in a way that probably only comes clear on a second viewing, or by watching several episodes at once instead of the intended one a week – there are clues left early on. Frontier in Space holds the attention throughout a complex storyline, only really dropping the ball right at the very end. The Ogron Eater monster really doesn't work though, and its brief appearance is more mystifying than frightening. Hulke's script is intelligent and the acting is strong.
By now Roger Delgado had been established as the show's regular villain, though his appearances had been reduced from every story in Season Eight to once or twice a season. Unfortunately for Delgado, people assumed he was committed full-time to Doctor Who and offers of work were drying up. Letts and Dicks were planning a final story which would write The Master out – but tragically this wasn't to be. On location in Turkey, he died in a road accident. Given that Frontier stands as Delgado's swansong, it's a pity he doesn't get a better ending, more or less vanishing off screen at the end of the serial. As this was the show's tenth anniversary year, there's a sense of “greatest hits” to The Master here, as he seems to be relishing yet another clashing of antlers with the Doctor and Jo. His attempt to control Jo by “working directly on the fear centres of [her] mind” recalls their previous encounter in The Mind of Evil.
I've said some uncomplimentary things about Jo Grant in the past (the character as it was conceived and written, not Katy Manning's playing of her). But it has to be said that in these two serials, Jo had become a much tougher and resourceful character than she had been previously, and especially in Planet of the Daleks carries a fair amount of the dramatic weight aside from Pertwee. However, this was Manning's final season in the role. After these two serials, she had one more - The Green Death - before she departed. The long period of stability that the show had enjoyed was coming to an end, and a year later, Pertwee, Letts and Dicks all moved on.
But meanwhile, Terry Nation had returned to the show after a seven-year gap to write Planet of the Daleks. Wounded in the shootout at the end of Frontier in Space, the Doctor follows the Daleks to the planet Spiridon, With the Doctor in a restorative coma, Jo ventures out into the planet's hostile jungle and meets a party of Thals who intend to destroy the Daleks sent to the planet to discover the natives' secret of invisibility. But it soon comes clear that Spiridon hosts a much vaster army of Daleks...
There's also an anniversary feel to this story, as in many ways it's a remix of Nation's first ever Dalek story, though one episode shorter. While it's by no means at the level of the later Genesis of the Daleks, it's still an entertaining six-parter. Some of the special effects are a little duff though, with the army of Daleks being very obviously of the Louis Marx toy variety.
By this time, Jon Pertwee had very much grown into the role – he was the Doctor for eight-year-old fans like me who hadn't watched William Hartnell and Patrick Troughton in the role. While neither of the pair of stories in this box set are all-time classics, they are both good stories and part of the reason why Season Ten is to my mind the most consistent and satisfying one of the Pertwee years. And, with a large number of Third Doctor stories still unreleased on DVD, it becomes the first Pertwee season to be completely released on disc.
The Dalek War Box Set comprises four dual-layered DVDs, two per story. They are encoded for Regions 2 and 4, except for Disc Two of Frontier in Space which is Region 2 only. For both serials, the six episodes are on Disc One with the commentary, the remaining extras on Disc Two. All four discs have audio descriptive menus available. Disc One of Frontier, but fortunately none of the other discs, begins the advertisement for the Who DVD range (1:01) which previously appeared on The Keys of Marinus and which cannot be skipped, only fast-forwarded.
Eleven of the twelve episodes have always survived on their original two-inch videotapes, and they get the kind of restoration job we've come to expect from 2 Entertain's Classic Who range. However, the significant episode in this set is the third one of Planet of the Daleks, which at some point in the 1970s had its original videotape wiped and only survived as a black-and-white 16mm film recording. Now it is presented in colour for the first time since its original broadcast (and I'm pretty sure my family still had a black-and-white set in early 1973, as did quite a lot of people). This comes about through a combination of VidFIRE-ing the film recording, colourisation and the chroma-dot colour-restoration process (used, amongst other things, to recolour a Dad's Army episode last year). For further details, I refer you to the Restoration Team's website here. The results are remarkable, and it would take a very practised eye to spot the difference between this and an episode that survived on its original videotape. The screengrab below comes from Episode Three.
The soundtrack is the original mono, cleaned up for this DVD release, and it's clear with dialogue, Dudley Simpson's score and sound effects well balanced. English subtitles for the hard of hearing are available for both stories and all the extras except the commentaries. Also available are the invaluable information subtitles, this time the work of Martin Wiggins, which will tell you all you ever needed to know about these stories, from script variations to goofs and much else besides.
The commentary for Frontier in Space is moderated by Clayton Hickman and brings together Katy Manning, Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks. These three have done several commentaries together and as ever the rapport is what makes it a pleasure to listen to. They're clearly proud of the work they did three and a half decades ago, and the chat is good-humoured. Letts especially does discuss some aspects of both serials which didn't quite work. For Planet of the Daleks they are joined by Tim Preece and Prentis Hancock, who do get to say their piece even if the talk is dominated by the other three. And maybe it's me and I've mellowed, but Manning's little-girlisms are much less irksome than they have been elsewhere. A moderator has been used on commentaries for 60s stories, but memories are fallible, and everyone except Manning was the other side of sixty when this was recorded (November 2007), so Hickman does an able job of steering the chat.
The rest of the extras are on Discs Two and Four. Both discs have stills galleries (6:10 for Frontier, 8:59 for Planet) and a coming-soon trailer (1:18) for the box set of The King's Demons and Planet of Fire.
“The Perfect Scenario: Lost Frontiers” (30:05) is the first part of a two-part featurette which is a DVD extra which is science fiction rather than simply about it. In the far future, the inhabitants of Earth live in the Field of Dreams, their minds stimulated by “scenarios”. Zed is a scenariosmith who is looking for inspiration, and finds it in 70s Doctor Who. Into this are inserted interviews with Terrance Dicks, Barry Letts (aged via CGI) and members of the cast and crew. This continues on the second disc for Planet of the Daleks with “The Perfect Scenario: The End of Dreams” (30:04). Janet Fielding shows up to criticise the portrayal of women, in particular Jane How's character Rebec (the character, not the actor's portrayal of her). While much of this is interesting, I found the premise overly gimmicky, which makes this pair of featurettes overlong.
Back to Frontier Disc Two, and “The Space War” (17:58) is the making-of featurette. It features Katy Manning, guest actors Michael Hawkins and Vera Fusek, John Friedlander (whose masks for the Draconians are a tour de force) and special effects designer Mat Irvine. Hawkins and Fusek speak warmly of the late director, Paul Bernard. Dicks and Letts are absent, but they are much in evidence elsewhere on the disc.
As this was Roger Delgado's final story, it's an appropriate DVD for “Roger Delgado: The Master”(31:47). Stephen Greif narrates a profile of the actor, from his birth in 1918 to his untimely demise. Along the way are many extracts from his television work, which will make this featurette invaluable to aficionados of vintage television. Many of the people who knew and worked with him are interviewed, most notably his widow Kismet Marlowe – and I defy you not to have something in your eye when she talks about how she learned of his death.
“Stripped for Action: The Third Doctor” (16:07) is another in the series looking at the show's representation in comics, this time concentrating on the Pertwee years – and it seems that the artists found him harder to capture than they did Hartnell and Troughton! It's interesting, and I suspect even more so to people more involved in comics than I am.
Available on the disc as PDF materials are the Radio Times listings, Cynthia Ključo's design drawings and the serial's sales literature. Also on the disc is an Easter Egg. An early edit of the serial had a new arrangement of the theme tune, but it wasn't found satisfactory and the old Delia Derbyshire version was reinstated. However, somehow the new version (which sounds like it's played on a synthesised jew's harp, so I'm not disappointed it wasn't used) of the theme was used on Episode Five for Frontier's VHS release, and this Easter egg features the opening and closing credits sequences from that. However, I could only access this egg from the audio descriptive menu. If someone can advise how to access it from the normal menu, I will update this review accordingly.
Disc Four (Planet of the Daleks Disc Two) begins with the second half of “The Perfect Scenario”, described above. “The Rumble in the Jungle” (16:49) is the making-of featurette. Again. Dick and Letts are absent but well enough represented elsewhere, but interviewed here are Katy Manning, guest castmembers Jane How, Bernard Horsfall and Tim Preece, designer John Hurst and, via archive footage (he died in 2006), director David Maloney.
“Multi-colourisation” (10:50) is a look at the process of colour restoration for Episode Three, and features Barry Letts, Colour Recovery Working Group leader James Insell, 2 Entertain commissioning editor Dan Hall and colourist Jonathan Wood. It's a complex and fascinating process, and lets hope that it can be used to restore the colour to most if not all of the remaining Pertwee episodes currently only surviving in black and white. Click right on this item on the main menu and highlight the green Who logo that appears screen left, and you access a related Easter Egg. When the commentary was recorded, it was not certain that Episode Three would be able to be restored to colour and may have had to be included on the disc in black and white. So here is an alternative commentary over the opening of the episode, running 2:50.
Next up is a further “Stripped for Action” piece (13:56), this time depicting the appearances of the Daleks in comics, often on their own without any Doctor present. Two Blue Peter extracts follow (12:35 in total), in which Peter, John and Lesley appeal for the return of two stolen Daleks, and a follow-up item when they were found. Oddly, the first extract is black and white and the second in colour.
Also on the disc are PDF materials, comprising the usual Radio Times listings (which also advises that you can buy the theme tune on a record for the princely sum of 46p) and John Hurst's design drawings.
And that's it. While I won't put this quite up there with The War Games as Who DVD release of the year, mainly because I believe that is a better story than these two, in its presentation it's certainly up there with it. And to have an episode in colour for the first time since its original broadcast bodes well for the other problematic Pertwee stories when they eventually see their own DVD releases.