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Doctor Who: Planet of the Spiders (parts two and three)

Conventional wisdom has it that part two of “Planet of the Spiders” is self-indulgent padding, a long chase scene across land, air, and sea that’s just there to give Jon Pertwee a bunch of contraptions to ride in, including his custom car, a “Little Nellie” helicopter, and a one-man hovercraft.

Conventional wisdom has clearly never watched part two of “Planet of the Spiders” with a six year-old. Throw in a comedy policeman who can’t believe everybody speeding past him, a comedy tramp sleeping on a hill, and let Terry Walsh get dunked in the river and you’re in six year-old’s heaven. Then part three ends with Pertwee – and Walsh again, doubling in a couple of shots – going all Venusian karate on a bunch of guards on the planet Metebelis Three. He absolutely loved these episodes. This story is going down in the books as one of his favorites so far.

In fact, he’s so enthralled with the story that he’s wondering what happened to Metebelis One and Metebelis Two. I told him they may be closer to that system’s sun and might not have atmospheres. There’s probably some fanfic, I suppose.

As the action moves into outer space, we picked up a bunch of new characters that nobody likes. The downtrodden population of the planet are played as stereotyped backwoods hillbillies in silly clothes, right down to the violent one and his more sensible brother. The sensible one, at least, is played by Gareth Hunt, who had some great roles in his future. Their mother is played by an actress named Jenny Laird who gives one of the all-time awful Doctor Who performances. (“I shan’t, I shan’t…”) It’s really a shame that the story goes into space, because everything on Earth has been tremendously fun.

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Doctor Who: Planet of the Spiders (part one)

There’s talk that we’re about to finally get season sets of Doctor Who. People have spotted pre-order placeholders for a Blu-ray of season twelve – Tom Baker’s first season – at Best Buy and at Barnes & Noble, only to have the listing scrubbed as “no longer available” right away. That will be so nice. Having an individual release for every single one of 150+ stories has always been a space-filling, expensive pain in the rear.

After a bunch of Region 1 releases went out of print, I bought a DVD player which could be easily hacked to play anything. Unfortunately, it’s already starting to show signs of future failure, but it more than paid for itself by allowing me to buy all these wonderful in-print Region 2 releases from Amazon UK or other sellers, including the great company Network itself during one of its occasional sales. “Planet of the Spiders” is one of the stories I got a Region 2 disk for, since the Region 1 disks were being offered at more than $100. As of today, there are three Region 1 disks available at Amazon, priced at $279, $586.35, and $703.99.

Of course, something is only ever worth what somebody else is willing to pay, and not what some Crazy Grandma Price Guide demands that something is worth. You would have to find a very, very foolish person to spend $703.99 for “Planet of the Spiders.”

As we’ve looked at some other seventies sci-fi shows like Ark II and Space Academy, we’ve noticed where even programs that had nothing necessarily to do with psychic powers and ESP inevitably went all Tomorrow People from time to time. “Planet of the Spiders” is Doctor Who‘s turn.

Things start with Cyril Shaps playing a stage magician who has, to his own horror, slowly been developing psychokinetic powers. Meanwhile, Mike Yates, formerly UNIT’s captain, has joined a monastery – slash – meditation center in the countryside, where some of the other people looking for a quieter, more spiritual life are having group meetings in the cellar around a prayer rug that glows with a blue light as they focus their energy. John Dearth, who had given the seventies supercomputer BOSS its voice in the previous season, plays the leader of this group, who materialize a huge spider between them at the memorable cliffhanger ending.

As is often the case, this starts very well and will start to run out of steam. It’s a very good first episode… just not $703.99 good!

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Doctor Who: Invasion of the Dinosaurs (part six)

I realize that in a serial packed with downright poor special effects, this is like Woody Allen pointing out the lighting choices in porn, but that Triceratops is too big.

Anyway, our son really enjoyed this story, while still wishing that there was some more dinosaur action than what we got. It’s the sort of story you either have to watch when you’re very small and can’t really tell a poor effect from a good one, or old enough to look past them as best you can and appreciate the location work and the acting. Storywise, the Pertwee era formula of five serials a season – two in four parts and three in six – once again got in the way. Cut two episodes from this, and one each from the other two six-parters, and they’d all improve and they could have spent four episodes on a sixth serial. But we have what we have, and this is in the end a very charming adventure with some really good moments despite its many problems.

This seems to write out Richard Franklin’s character of Captain Yates, who, the Brigadier tells us, will be sent on extended sick leave before getting the chance to quietly resign, but he’ll actually be back in a different capacity before long. The guest stars that I most enjoyed – John Bennett, Martin Jarvis, and Peter Miles – will also return in memorable parts in the future, and director Paddy Russell will also be back for two very good stories with Tom Baker.

Strangely, the farewell with this serial is to writer Malcolm Hulke, who had contributed so many good adventures but apparently was tired of working in television and used an argument with the producers to explain his exit. Part one of this story had a slightly modified title: just “Invasion” part one, not “Invasion of the Dinosaurs.” Hulke, who passed away three years later, was said to have been outraged by this, though what Barry Letts apparently intended was to keep the appearance of the dinosaurs a surprise.

That said, there’s an annoying claim in places like Tat Wood and Lawrence Miles’ About Time series that Letts was being foolish to try and keep the appearance of the dinosaurs at the cliffhanger of part one a surprise, when a pterodactyl and a Tyrannosaurus both show up earlier in part one. They missed the point: when you don’t know what has invaded, as indeed our son didn’t, then the revelation of these monsters at key points in part one is thrilling! It gives huge surprises to the young audience again and again, not only at the cliffhanger.

Some writers who look back at Who from the comfort of middle-aged cynicism sometimes forget that not everybody who absorbs the series does so with the crutches of the Radio Times or blogs or Wikipedia or forums or academic essays. They should watch more of it with a kid. It’s even more fun this way. You can even (mostly) overlook the special effects catastrophes.

Let’s see if my words come back to haunt me when we start the next adventure, because I don’t believe any amount of goodwill from a kid can salvage it.

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Doctor Who: Invasion of the Dinosaurs (parts four and five)

Could we just take a moment to enjoy the Doctor’s wonderful new car? It was made for Jon Pertwee by a famous car designer, Pete Farries, in 1973, and was called “the Alien.” In-continuity, fans refer to it as the Whomobile, though the producer sensibly never allowed that name to be spoken onscreen. Pertwee owned the car for about a decade and occasionally made personal appearances in it. One of the car’s subsequent owners lent it back so it could appear in the 1993 documentary Thirty Years in the TARDIS.

Conventional wisdom has it that parts four and five are very, very slow and full of padding. I think I have to agree with this, especially with all of part four’s slow and quiet creeping about hidden bases, but I was impressed with the on-location chase material in episode five. With the caveat that it’s all that mostly unnecessary running around that mid-serial Doctor Who always seems to give us, it’s shot incredibly well. This isn’t the workmanlike direction of a Paul Bernard or a Michael E. Briant; Paddy Russell is excellent. Her work in the studio is really good, too, but the location stuff is easily on the same level as the (rightly) celebrated Douglas Camfield.

Our son’s really enjoying this one, despite very limited dinosaur business in these two parts. He got a real kick out of the jeep chase in part five. My favorite part is when Sergeant Benton instantly and sadly accepts the Doctor’s claim that Captain Yates has betrayed them, and says that the Doctor had better get on with overpowering him so that he can escape. I love how Benton completely and absolutely trusts the Doctor. Our hero may think of the Brigadier as one of his best friends, but the loyal sergeant never needs any evidence to know that the Doctor is always right.

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Doctor Who: Invasion of the Dinosaurs (part three)

I’m sure that you good readers are over the age of six, and consequently unable to see the beast in the photo above as anything other than a deeply unconvincing puppet. But if you’re six, the scene where the Tyrannosaur wakes up and smashes its way out of the hangar is really amazingly convincing. Our kid was back behind the sofa for the first time in a while, holding my hand and worried out of his mind for Sarah, who was locked inside with it. This provided all the “rampage” that our son required last night, although it was a bit more frightening than he was expecting!

Apart from one bizarrely dunderheaded move – shooting flash photos of the dinosaur in a darkened hangar through a pane of glass isn’t going to result in very good photos, Journalist Girl – isn’t Sarah just awesome in this? She’s not just coming up with alternate theories, she’s checking with scientists at Oxford and the editor of Nature to give them weight. And with one man representing the British government, he’s the man to tackle when she has another theory about where whomever is behind this is getting their energy.

The minister turns out to be Traitor # 2 – it isn’t a surprise at all – but the cliffhanger is one of my all-time favorites. The minister and the two scientists lock Sarah in a room where she’s hypnotized. She wakes up with a nice denim-clad hippie welcoming her to consciousness. She’s been dressed in denim as well, and he reminds her that they’re on a spaceship on the way to their new home. They left Earth three months ago! Plot twists don’t get better. Imagine having to wonder for a week what would happen next.

At this point, we’re 25 minutes away from a memorable conclusion, because this would have made such a good four-parter. Unfortunately, we’ve still got 75 minutes to go. Maybe a fast new car will speed things up? We’ll find out after a short break!

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Doctor Who: Invasion of the Dinosaurs (part two)

After the production team finished work on Moonbase 3, they reconvened for a run of five Doctor Who stories that is nobody’s favorite run. It’s probably the weakest run until the mid-eighties, and “Invasion of the Dinosaurs” is, barely, my favorite of the five. In its defense, the location work is nice, and director Paddy Russell put together some really good footage of the abandoned London. There are two absolutely terrific plot twists, and three really great guest actors: John Bennett, Martin Jarvis, and Peter Miles. Really great guest stars are going to be kind of thin on the ground after this for a while. Until Peter Miles shows up again next season, actually.

But of course, it’s not all going to be as good as it could be. This is barely a four-part adventure dragged out to six, for starters. Since it could just as well have started at the beginning of part two as part one, that’s an issue. The first of the absolutely terrific plot twists that I mentioned happens in this episode. It’s revealed that Captain Yates is, for some reason, working for the two scientists – Miles and Jarvis – who are fiddling with time and dropping dinosaurs in central London for several minutes at a stretch. Without spoiling things for my wife, who will read this before seeing what’s to come, there are actually four big plot twists in this story. Two are real stunners and two… well, they’re not stunning at all. In short, this is a story that starts very well and inexorably runs out of steam.

And then there are the visual effects, which are probably as bad as Doctor Who would ever get. I’m sympathetic and understanding, and I get it: the puppeteers simply did not have anything like enough time to do this right. The puppets barely twitch and the yellow-screen chromakey is never aligned right, so the actors just have to guess and hope for the best. It’s all very distracting and looks awful if you’re older than, say, our son.

Our kid is just the right age for this. Any older and he might just join us moaners in complaining. As it is, his only objection so far is that the Tyrannosaurus has really huge nostrils, which is a fair point. He is really happy with the dinosaur action, but he has a stipulation about it. He wishes there was more “rampaging,” as do we all, but I reminded him that all the rampaging dinosaurs in Land of the Lost had him constantly hiding in terror. So he qualified his answer to explain that he’d like to see more rampaging where just buildings get knocked down, but nobody gets scared. Sounds like he’s describing that old video game that they’re adapting to make an “Everything Explodes Again” movie that stars Dwayne Johnson and/or Vin Diesel next year.

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Doctor Who: Invasion (part one)

Regular readers might recall that last month, I explained how Lionheart, the company that syndicated Doctor Who in America, made the call to edit two of the 24 TV movies instead of releasing complete black and white films. “Invasion of the Dinosaurs” – part one is, weirdly and with some controversy, just called “Invasion” – was actually wiped by the BBC just seven months after it was shown, as though they wanted to spare themselves further embarrassment over how dopey it looks. Color prints of parts two through six were recovered a few years later, but only a black and white print of part one could be found.

And yet… there were video traders in the eighties who swore blind that a low-quality color copy of part one was making the rounds. Going to get a little technical here, so bear with me.

Since UK television was on the superior 625-line PAL standard, and North America on the 525-line NTSC, you couldn’t just hook two VCRs together to get a copy of a British tape. Ideally, somebody would take the PAL tape to a video production company and pay $40 or $50 for an NTSC copy of it. Some of us called this a “digital copy,” wrongly. The other way was by pointing a NTSC camcorder on a tripod to a screen where the PAL copy was playing. This was called a “camera copy” and it was always substandard, marred by flickering, faded color, and many other visual defects. In 1987, a guy I knew flew to London with a camcorder, got a hotel room with a TV, taped Sylvester McCoy’s first episode on the camcorder and flew back to Atlanta the next day. That’s dedication!

So there were two copies of “Invasion of the Dinosaurs” part one floating around, and bear in mind that the best one I could get hold of was probably fifth generation. There was the black and white “digital copy” and then an eighth or ninth generation “camera copy” that was allegedly in color. The story went that it was shown in color at a convention in Canada or Koozebaine or someplace and somebody videotaped it. Nine generations later, my copy was mainly various shades of blue, as happened with camera copies, and it suffered from tape hiss and audio that had been recorded via condenser mic from the convention video room’s crappy speakers. I used to say that the copy was so bad that the Tyrannosaurus Rex looked good.

There was, to be clear, no way to confirm anybody’s claim that this was a color print. Had any color been present in this recording, it had been lost after eight or nine generations of copying. But a weird little quirk gave us hope. If you traded tapes in those days, you remember how the picture of down-the-line copies would occasionally warp and you’d get interference lines. There were points in this crappy copy where the interference would wash up little smears of color information. Jon Pertwee was standing in front of a brick wall and that little smear of color that belched up was red like the wall should be.

Yes, we know now that it’s because this was a color camcorder trying to record in color, and therefore a color tape even though the subject in the picture was black and white. When the tape would, every few minutes, go ZZZZzzWWWaaarrp and the visuals loop around with a line, that was “color banding,” information from the recording distorted, not color information from the projected print. Any similarity to the actual color of the brick walls was a coincidence.

Some of the Pertwee serials had their color restored by a process called chroma-dot recovery. On the black-and-white 16mm film recording, there are all these tiny, tiny patterns of dots that contain the original color information. It’s absolutely fascinating, and you should read more about it here. Unfortunately, the black-and-white print of “Invasion” part one was too poor, and too damaged, to extract the color at the best quality resolution. The DVD includes the color version as a bonus feature for those who’d like to try it.

Isn’t it neat, though, that a color videotape of a black and white film gave us false hope, while a black and white film of a color videotape gave the technicians the information they needed to restore it?

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Doctor Who: The Green Death (part six)

Getting the bad out of the way, this story features one of the all-time lousy special effects sequences, where Jon Pertwee and John Levene react to an allegedly menacing giant mosquito. But I think the big explosive climax at Global Chemicals, which is awesome, more than makes up for it, and besides, our son was completely thrilled by the big bug and didn’t see anything wrong with it.

Back in 1987 or whenever it was that WGTV started showing the Jon Pertwee serials, I surprised myself by getting a little tearful over Jo’s departure. Doctor Who wasn’t really known, then, for having emotional farewells. These days you can’t spend three episodes in the TARDIS without the universe ending over an overblown Murray Gold orchestral fanfare while somebody drops to their knees when it’s time to stop traveling. I guess since the same production team had just blown right pass Liz Shaw’s departure when the actress Caroline John left, they wanted to do right by Katy Manning.

Jo’s departure is really wonderful. She’s been falling head over heels for the scatterbrained Cliff Jones and happily accepts his fumbled marriage proposal and even though the Doctor knew in his hearts of hearts that she would be flying the coop before he went to Llanfairfach, he’s still devastated that she leaves him. The only time prior to this 1973 story where we saw the Doctor actually hurting that a companion has moved on was back in 1964, when he forced the issue and left his granddaughter Susan behind on future Earth to stay with David Campbell. Jo’s happiness is countered with a shot of the Doctor, sitting sadly by himself in his car. Quietly. Even when the end theme music starts, it does so at a very low volume, not wishing to intrude on the visuals. It’s really, really unlike any other departure in the whole of the series.

Incidentally, there’s a fantastic extra on the DVD called Global Conspiracy? in which Mark Gatiss, in the guise of BBC reporter Terry Scanlon, looks back at the strange goings-on in 1970s Llanfairfach. It’s incredibly funny and full of in-jokes. This “documentary” explains that Jo and Cliff divorced in the 1980s. Happily, this was retconned in a 2010 episode of The Sarah Jane Adventures which notes that the couple are still married and had lots of kids.

Katy Manning didn’t become the star that she should have become after Doctor Who, but she did have a few memorable roles, including the comedy film Eskimo Nell and the one episode of the BBC’s Target that anyone remembers. Before she moved to Australia, she did a celebrated pinup session with a prop Dalek that served much the same function for teen fans in the eighties that Karen Gillan’s appearance in the movie Not Another Happy Ending does these days, I think.

Uniquely, Manning also portrays a second ongoing character in the Doctor Who mythology. Iris Wildthyme is a character in spinoff novels and audio plays who might be a Time Lord and might be the Doctor’s old girlfriend, and, in a postmodern way, is used to suggest that many of the Doctor’s so-called adventures are actually just rewritten versions of her own exploits. Her TARDIS is smaller on the inside, which never fails to make me smile. Iris was created by Paul Magrs, who has written many of her adventures. Manning has played Iris off and on since 2002.

That’s all from Doctor Who for now, but stay tuned! We’ll start watching season eleven later this month!

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