Our DVD review of the next classic Doctor Who release, The Dæmons with Jon Pertwee as the third doctor in what Les descirbes as “a blast”…
Jon Pertwee’s own favourite story, possibly the best Third Doctor story and one of the best classic Whos of them all finally hits the DVD shelf and it is definitely worth the wait. The Daemons first aired in spring 1971 as the finale of Pertwee’s second season and the eighth season overall. On the eve of May Day, an archaeological dig outside the small English village of Devil’s End is being televised live. On seeing this, the Doctor tears down there in Bessie with Jo by his side to prevent Professor Horner opening the underground chamber and unleashing the unspeakable force he suspects is lurking there. Unbeknownst to him, the suavely sinister new vicar of Devil’s End, the Reverend Magister (get it?) has other plans for the dig.
At the time this was made the British public and film industry’s obsession with ‘Gothic romances’ as Peter Cushing preferred to call them was hitting its peak and Hammer, Amicus and Tigon were churning them out with a vengeance. So it seemed only natural for Doctor Who to have its little fling with the genre, in a family-friendly science fictional way, of course. Coming across as Quatermass and the Pit meets Dennis Wheatley this serial, written by Robert Sloman and Barry Letts (under the pseudonym Guy Leopold), balances its disparate elements very nicely. Director Christopher Barry holds it all together very well and the result is an entertaining, satisfying and even occasionally scary romp.
For an early 70s serial, the pacing is breathless at times, helped enormously by Pertwee driving Bessie like a maniac with Katy Manning barely hanging on. Barry even throws in a helicopter vs motorbike chase (very Bond). He also goes in for some interesting camera work with unusually high angles being used and even some unsubtle crash zooms at vital points. The soundtrack is imaginatively put together with a good example being the heat barrier. Given the limitations of the time it is very well-realised. A sprinkling of coal dust on the ground, a few squibs and an eerie sound effect augmented by judicious use of aerial library footage plus the audience’s imagination are all that is required. The casting is spot-on across the board with all of the regulars on top form and the script gives everyone their bit to do. The Brigadier is at his irascible best and he has possibly his best line ever. Robin Wentworth as Professor Horner turns in a classy if brief performance and in common with several other classic Whos, the casting department found a distinctive British character actress to help prop up the whole thing in the shape of Damaris Hayman. She was a well-known face on telly at the time and specialised in playing tweedy country ladies. She slots in here really nicely as Miss Hawthorne the self-styled white witch who complements the Doctor’s rationalism beautifully. Pertwee always played the Doctor as a sophisticated Victorian gentleman-adventurer and his nemesis has to be cut from a similar cloth and here we have Delgado at his silkiest best. He is in complete command of the character and the scene where he ‘persuades’ the villagers to follow his cause is beautifully and effortlessly done. He is also helped by some pretty good costuming. The ritual robes in the black mass scenes are beautifully designed and realised and he was apparently very pleased with them.
In terms of story it was always going to be a tricky one to pull off. There were understandably strict limitations on depictions of black magic in a teatime family show and, to avoid offence to Christians, religious references had to be carefully considered. The chamber beneath the church couldn’t be called a crypt and all references to ‘magic’ had to be rationalised into a more sci-fi context. Even so, for a teatime family drama it really pushes the envelope and some moments made me think ‘How did they get away with that?’. Some of the fight scenes are brutal and intense, far more than would be permitted in Who now. There is implied ritual sacrifice, not just of Jo but of a poor unsuspecting chicken. The Doctor is buried alive, blast-frozen, declared dead and then later bound to the maypole to be burnt at the stake by that staple of English horror, evil morris dancers. This was a whole two years before The Wicker Man. However like all the best Who stories it leavens the jeopardy with well-scripted moments of dry wit, beautifully delivered by everyone.
The serial’s five episodes have a whole disc to themselves presumably to give maximum picture quality. A huge effort has gone into bringing the available materials up to release quality. With the exception of episode four, the original recordings are long since junked and on this release, the junked material has been taken from a 16mm black and white telecine transfer, vidFIREd and with colour restored using a US home recording for reference. The picture quality, given these circumstances, is a noticeable improvement on the ‘colourised’ version transmitted by the Beeb in 1992. As you would expect, it’s not quite as good as a primary-materials transfer and I would describe it as perhaps looking like an extremely good VHS copy. The image is a little soft, colours are muted and the skin tones have a little too much Katie Price about them. There is a moment in episode three where there appears to be a surviving snippet of master tape interpolated and you can really see the difference in quality. However, on the whole the story is so involving, even gripping, that the eye soon adjusts and you really don’t notice after a while. The soundtrack has been beautifully reconstructed. The dialogue is crisp and clear, aided by proper old-fashioned actors who knew how to enunciate. Even the penetrating heat barrier sound effect fails to obscure the dialogue. Unfortunately as the restoration team haven’t updated their website for a while, full technical specs aren’t readily available.
As usual for the Who archive releases we have dialogue subtitles plus the comprehensive production notes supplied on this occasion by Martin Wiggins. Recorded in 2003, the very chatty commentary track features Katy Manning, Richard Franklin and Damaris Hayman (who played Miss Hawthorne) introduced by Christopher Barry. As you would expect, Katy Manning is very bubbly and a little indiscreet while Damaris Hayman is extraordinarily knowledgeable and erudite and clearly having a great time.
All of the extras are presented on the second disc and are listed below. However there are a couple of notable omissions. I would have liked to see a short piece on the reconstruction of the junked episodes, just out of curiosity. The most significant omission though is the 1993 documentary Return to Devil’s End in which Pertwee and various other contributors returned to the village of Aldbourne to reminisce about the making of The Daemons. I imagine it was a copyright issue but it’s a real pity it’s not on this set.
The Devil Rides Out 28m 40s
A warm behind-the-scenes doc with Katy Manning, Richard Frankin, Terrance Dicks, Christopher Barry and, from the archive, Barry Letts. Also contributing are Asst. Floor Manager Sue Hedden and a still-formidable Damaris Hayman. The illustrative clips are taken from the first colourised version of the story and not the new upgraded version.
Remembering Barry Letts 33m 36s
A look over the late Barry Letts’ career with his two sons and Terrance Dicks contributing.
Location Film 6m 42s
Some behind-the-scenes mute Super 8 footage taken during location shooting in Aldbourne (Devil’s End). You know what to expect.
Colourisation Test 25m 1s
The entire first episode of the 1992 colourised version. Just to show us all how much work has gone into creating this new version.
Tomorrow’s World 5m 13s
A power-dressed Judith Hann (on her way to a ceilidh) and the guy-with-curly-hair show us how the first colourisation was done in 1992.
Photo Gallery 6m 12s
The usual collection of behind the scenes stills and promotional pictures.
Coming Soon 1m 56s
Trailer for Nightmare of Eden.
The first two items are presented in 1.85:1 widecsreen while all others are in 1.33:1.
There is also a pdf file containing the original Radio Times listings and articles.
This is a blast. One of the best Pertwee stories and one of the best Classic Whos, with no TARDIS, no sonic screwdriver, no time travel and very few visual effects, just a good solid action romp with a good script, cast and director. It’s not perfect. There are a lot of things that could be improved but the pluses far outweigh the minuses. Mr Moffat please take note and bring back Bessie while you’re at it.
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