I absolutely adore “Carnival of Monsters,” which, depending on what day you ask me, might make my list of favorite Doctor Who stories. I love everything about it, from the unbelievably dense and witty script to the sets to the costumes to the better-than-average visual effects for its day. I’m so glad to revisit it and pleased that our son seems to really like it, too. “That was pretty creepy,” he announced with a yelp when a Drashig shows up.
Looking back to his earlier adventures with Krotons and Autons, you can see writer Robert Holmes flexing his muscles and learning how to fill in years of backstory with the tiniest amount of dialogue: the Seely’s marriage, the unhappy Farrell family. Here, he can rely on our familiarity with the culture of the 1920s for those characters, and go to work on the alien civilizations: the bureaucratic and xenophobic ruling class of Inter Minor – one is instantly reminded of how Douglas Adams would later develop the Vogons in The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, even if one doubts very much that these gray people would write poetry – and the Lurmans. I really love how he brilliantly uses our understanding of colorful, down-on-their-luck showpeople with big dreams to give Vorg and Shirna color that the audience can easily grasp, and then sketches in their galaxy and their opinions of Earth people. We’re called “Tellurians” in their far-distant corner of the universe, and they’re so far away from our sphere of influence that Vorg has to think twice to remember the name “Dalek.”
So it’s a great world and a brilliant script, with new information added very slowly, leaving our son wondering what connects these weird space people and a human cargo ship in 1926. Part one ends with one of the all-time great cliffhangers, as right out of the blue a gigantic hand plucks the TARDIS away. Part two has another fine ending, as we meet the roaring, monstrous Drashigs for the first time. Doctor Who would spend the rest of its original run trying to replicate the perfect success of these giant monsters and flopped, the visuals letting them down every single time. Dinosaurs, giant robots, the Skarasen in Loch Ness, Kroll, the Mara, none of them are as effective or as fun as the Drashigs.
Lastly, what a cast! Barry Letts put together a wonderful team of guest stars. Two of the gray bureaucrats of Inter Minor are Peter Halliday and Michael Wisher, each of whom we’ve seen before. On the SS Bernice in what looks like 1926, we’ve got Ian Marter, who would later join the cast as companion Harry Sullivan, and Tenniel Evans, who starred with his good friend Jon Pertwee in the long-running radio comedy The Navy Lark. Vorg and Shirna are played by Leslie Dwyer and Cheryl Hall. While Dwyer had appeared in dozens of films already, both actors would become better known for sitcoms that were in their future: Hi-de-Hi! and Citizen Smith. They’re perfectly cast here. I love these characters, and I love this story.