Doctor Who: The Time Warrior Review

We’re sometime in the Middle Ages, in the castle of robber baron Irongron (David Daker). A falling star…which turns out to be a spaceship containing Sontaran warrior Linx (Kevin Lindsay), who provides Irongron with advanced weapons in return for shelter. Meanwhile, in the present day, UNIT is investigating the disappearance of many prominent scientists. Linx is the culprit, kidnapping them and taking them back to Medieval times as slave labour on his projects. The Doctor (Jon Pertwee) goes back in time, not realising that someone else has accidentally stowed away on the TARDIS and travelled back with him...

The Time Warrior (Story UUU if you follow the production codes) was the opening story of Season Eleven, though it had been made at the end of the previous season’s block, straight after The Green Death. Back then in 1973, this new season was much anticipated, not least by this then nine-year-old: we’d bought the BBC’s tenth-anniversary Doctor Who special, which previewed all five Season Twelve stories. Not to mention those distinctive new slit-scan titles. If memory doesn’t cheat, I thought that Season Eleven was up to scratch. Three and a half decades on, with this first DVD release from that season, it’s a different picture.

More recently I’ve rewatched all of those stories except Death to the Daleks, on UK Gold, or VHS, or in the present story’s case on DVD. Three and a half decades on, there’s a prevailing sense of tiredness and lack of freshness, a looking for new ideas. That’s nothing compared to the depths the series would later plumb – I stopped watching at the end of the Seventies – and it would soon get a significant boost with Tom Baker as the Doctor and Philip Hinchcliffe as producer and Robert Holmes as Script Editor. But this was Jon Pertwee’s fifth year as the Doctor, two years longer than either of his predecessors. Barry Letts had been producer for all of Pertwee’s stories except the very first, Spearhead from Space and Terrance Dicks had begun as Script Editor even earlier, in Patrick Troughton’s final season. The show had gone through a long period of stability which was now ending. Katy Manning had left as Jo Grant at the end of The Green Death and Roger Delgado (The Master) had tragically died in a car accident. Pertwee himself was fearing being typecast. Letts and Dicks were dividing their time between Who and a new SF series Moonbase 3.

Watching The Time Warrior again, it seems efficient, professionally done, but somehow lacking that vital spark of inspiration. Dicks had the idea of making a story with a historical setting. Robert Holmes’s idea was not a pure historical story (with no SF elements save the presence of the Doctor and his companion(s)), which had been an occasional feature of the Hartnell era but had fallen out of favour shortly afterwards. Holmes’s strength is in his dialogue, with Linx and Irongron given distinctive speech patterns, and the Medieval characters’ dialogue given a flavour of the period without too much gadzookery. The guest cast give good accounts of themselves, and I would have liked to see more of June Brown’s Lady Eleanor than we do. It’s also nice to see the Brigadier again, though he’s only in the first part. (Trivia point: this was the first serial to be in parts rather than episodes.) The costume design by James Acheson – a future Oscar-winner – is first-rate, and the location shooting around Peckforton Castle in Cheshire is another plus. On other hand, Alan Bromly’s direction is uninspired, not helped by some strange decisions. The ending of Part Two is a good example, with a courtyard fight covered in a single high-angled shot, making for a nice abstract pattern but hardly edge-of-seat stuff. Also, the pacing is off, making for a story that occasionally plods. Some may also have issues with the fact that neither the Doctor, nor the companion, but a supporting character is the one who saves the day.

But the real strong point of this serial is the new companion. We first meet Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen) as a journalist, who has assumed her aunt Lavinia’s name in order to gain entry into UNIT. She gets more than she bargained for with the Doctor, not to mention hiding away in that strange police box contraption he has and finding herself in another century. Not all previous companions had been young girls put there to scream and be rescued, but by 1973 feminism was having an impact on popular culture and with it a consciousness that the likes of Jo Grant (who seems very retro nowadays) just wouldn’t do any more. Hence, a more proactive, more autonomous companion. The Time Warrior is very much Sarah Jane’s show, and indeed she has more to do here than she does in some of her other stories. She does well opposite Pertwee, but it was with Tom Baker’s fourth Doctor that she really blossomed – many people’s choice as best ever companion, and certainly the most enduring – and probably a role that Sladen will never escape.

Of the guest cast, Kevin Lindsay’s Linx is the latest in a long line of distinctive villains who are basically voice parts. Having said that, the ending of Part One, when we see him (or since the Sontarans are a race that reproduces by cloning, perhaps that should be “it”) without his helmet for the first time, his tongue poking obscenely between grey-brown lips, is one of the most memorable introductions to a Who monster ever. Irongron and Bloodaxe (John J. Carney) are a typically Holmesian double-act, played with rather broad-brush villainy by David Daker especially. Donald Pelmear does a good absent-minded scientist as Professor Rubeish, though his character is somewhat superfluous. Meanwhile Jeremy Bulloch, better known nowadays as Boba Fett in the Star Wars films, contributes athleticism and shows himself a dab hand at archery.

So, in retrospect, not the best Who but a middling serial of what proved to be a middling season. It does have its place in series lore for introducing a favourite companion and a recurring villain, but the series had done better in the past and would do so again.

As with their other classic-Who releases, The Time Warrior is presented on a dual-layer disc encoded for Regions 2 and 4 only. Incidentally, this is the first time this story has been available commercially in its original four-episode format. Its VHS release was in the form of an edited “compilation”, of the kind that used to turn up on the BBC a lot in the 70s, especially around Christmas, and have been bread and butter for UK Gold for many years.

As was common practice for 1970s television, this serial was shot – in the 4:3 aspect ratio - with a mixture of videotaped interiors and 16mm exteriors, of which there were quite a bit in this serial. The joins between the two are obvious – as they were on first broadcast. The DVD is mastered from the original 2” videotapes and, given the natural limitations of its source material, looks very good indeed. This was by all accounts, one of the less problematic restorations – especially as some Pertwees have some notable stumbling blocks to be overcome before they see DVD release. The mono soundtrack is also fine, with the dialogue clear and well balanced with the music and effects. Another excellent job by the Restoration Team.

Given that some of the special effects are, if not exactly bad, rather cheap-looking – the falling star of Linx’s spaceship near the beginning and the explosion (stock footage of a quarry blast) near the end, most particularly. This DVD has the option of watching the serial with newly-rendered CGI effects replacing these and others. Restoration is one thing, but redoing effects seems rather too much like retrospective tinkering to my taste – but if your opinion differs, this option is available.

The commentary is by Barry Letts, Terrance Dicks and Elisabeth Sladen. These three have appeared, separately or together, on several commentaries now, and as ever you have the feel of eavesdropping on the chat of old friends who have known each other for decades – as indeed they have. This doesn’t suffer undualy from memory lapses, which commentaries on Sixties Who sometimes do. It’s very pleasant to listen to, with a few hard facts thrown in, mostly by Dicks. For more facts and trivia, there are the information subtitles, provided this time by Richard Molesworth. This is a bit heavy on differences between the script and the final version, but still provides you will all you will ever need to know about this serial.

Apart from the commentary, the main extra is “Beginning the End” (30:16). This has a different look to previous such featurettes as all the interviews are shot at the story’s location of Peckforton Castle. Jon Pertwee, Kevin Lindsay, Robert Holmes, Alan Bromly and John J. Carney are all dead, but this featurette rounds up most of those still alive: as well as Letts, Dicks and Sladen we have Donald Pelmear, Jeremy Bulloch and designer Keith Cheetham. Between them they discuss Jon Pertwee’s impending departure and Elisabeth Sladen’s casting and arrival. There’s an interesting extract from a Z Cars episode which shows an almost unrecognisable Sladen. It was the producer of that series who had recommended her to Barry Letts.

Other extras are familiar from past discs: “Trails and continuity” (1:12), or instant nostalgia for those of a certain age, with a soundtrack that sounds like it was recorded off-air. It ends with an advertisement for the Radio Times Doctor Who Special referred to above. Also on the disc are a self-navigating stills gallery (9:17) and a “Coming Soon” trailer (1:33) for the next release, the six-story box set The Key to Time. Finally, there are a reproduction of the 1974 Doctor Who Annual and the Radio Times listings – and a cover story - for The Time Warrior, both in PDF format.

There are two Easter Eggs on this DVD. The first can be found in the usual place for Who eggs, namely the logo on the top left of the main menu screen. This begins with a nice bit of computer animation as we track in to the Sontaran spaceship, which opens to reveal some Time Warrior trivia. This item runs 1:32. The second egg can be found on the second page of the Special Features menu. Highlight the word “back” and click left, then click on the green logo which appears. This is a forty-second outtake from the featurette, with Terrance Dicks discussing the relationship between Jon Pertwee, Barry Letts and himself, as summed up in a well-known location photograph.

While The Time Warrior is not a favourite serial of mine, there’s enough of interest to make it worthwhile, though probably more for established fans than newcomers. No complaints about the quality of its DVD presentation, once again.

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