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This is the latest 'classic' Dr Who release. It's currently a fairly outrageous £18 on amazon.
As they've started to run out of old Dr Who stories to release on DVD, the BBC has been bundling more and more of them together into box sets, presumably to try to shift the ones that no one would buy normally. "What's that, Dr Who fan? You want 'The Chase' on DVD? It'll be our pleasure... as long as you don't mind buying 'The Space Museum' along with it and paying twice as much!" Because inevitably, for a low-budget kids' science fiction show made for 26 years, there are good stories and there are bad stories, and we're more or less left with the bad ones now.
The last boxset was widely condemned for forcing Who fans to buy a new version of a story they already had in order to get the other one. But this latest boxset is probably the biggest piss-take of all. Other boxsets at least featured consecutive stories, or stories that featured the same baddie, or *some* kind of thematic link. This, however, features two adventures that were filmed almost 20 years apart, with nothing in common whatsoever. The set's name, 'Earth Story', suggests they're linked by being set on Earth, but more than half of the original series' stories were, so that's hardly anything special. And the two stories are so different - in tone, in production style - that they're only really linked by having a main character called The Doctor who travels in a police box. Needless to say, many fans are not best pleased about this.
I've been reasonably calm about previous rip-off boxsets on the grounds that I sell them all after watching them anyway. But this one irritated me by forcing a story on me that I'd really rather not have bought at all. Anyway, here they are.
This one is from First Doctor William Hartnell's last year on the show, 1966. Back in Hartnell's day, the Tardis would often land in Earth's history and feature adventures which were just about history, with no monsters or science fiction in them, apart from the time travelling regular cast. These were either rather stodgy stories designed to teach kids about, say, The Aztecs; or cheap versions of popular adventures like The Scarlet Pimpernell, but with the Doctor in them. This story is one of the latter, with the Doctor and chums arriving in Tombstone just in time for the gunfight at the OK Corral.
I've wanted to see this for a long time, as it used to have the reputation as being the worst Doctor Who story ever. I'm not sure what that was based on - possibly audience reaction when it was first broadcast - but it's actually a rather gentle comedy in which the Doctor and his companions are the subject of a lot of 'fish out of water' humour. Although bits of it will make you cringe, it's not much worse than Carry On Cowboy.
Hartnell's Doctor had the reputation of being rather fearsome, but here he's only a bit tetchy, and mostly good humoured. Hartnell was good at comedy, although having the Doctor obviously not taking things seriously is a bit of a problem. The script also requires him to behave unbelievably stupidly, something that would be unthinkable in later incarnations. His boy companion, Stephen, is played by Peter Purvis, who is very likeable, even when dressed in a ridiculous cowboy outfit and putting on a dreadful American accent. The Doctor's girl companion is the rather forgettable Dodo, but even she gets some good lines in this.
The supporting cast is made up of interchangeable men with moustaches. The accents are shockingly poor - the evil Johnny Ringo sounds Irish, and Doc Holliday keeps slipping into what sounds like Welsh. Inevitably, the tiny budget means that Tombstone is presented by one rather short street and a few painted backdrops, but the design isn't too bad, and at least they got some horses into the studio.
There's no real drama to the story, with the deaths seeming to be all in jest and no threat to any of the regulars. But it's mildly amusing and generally likeable. Weirdly, there's a song playing over much of it which comments on the story, a tricksy narrative device that I don't think the series ever used again. It's that kind of story - it feels like the cast of Doctor Who have stumbled into a misconceived cowboy pantomime, and it must have seemed utterly outlandish to people watching at the time. But this is certainly better than its reputation suggests - I suspect that people just didn't realise it was meant to be funny.
This one is from 1984. Peter Davison is The Doctor. Normally I avoid stories from this era, as they're the ones I remember well from the time they were broadcast, and nothing spoils a childhood Dr Who memory faster than watching it as an adult. But I remembered virtually nothing about this adventure, so figured it was safe.
By this point in the series history Dr Who is a lot more accomplished, better funded and generally better made, in visual terms. Unfortunately, the era of the last three 'classic' Doctors was produced by a man who liked to make the show look pretty but didn't care about the stories; and at least for Davison's tenure, script edited by someone who had no idea how to write dialogue.
This is a two-part story, so is only the same length as a modern day episode (stories were typically four episodes - The Gunfighters is). The Doctor and chums visit a small English village to try to visit girl companion Tegan's grandfather. But local civil war re-enacters have accidentally brought an alien intelligence called The Malus to life and it is poised to... do something. I'm not sure what the Malus' actual goal is. It's not explained very well.
There's quite a lot that's good about this story. The village locations are nice. The story has the feel of classic children's TV, with ghosts appearing from the past, and just a hint of scariness (there's one apparition that appears in a barn that's would be chilling if the effects were better). It also takes inspiration from earlier Dr Who and from The Wicker Man (there's one death that's stolen very blatantly from that film).
The Malus itself is well designed, a giant goblin face bursting through a church wall. But the problem with the monster is that it never really *does* anything. The story is confusing - who was the guy with one eye? What was the apparition in the barn about? What does the Doctor actually *do* to the Malus at the end? It's a story that doesn't have enough time to breathe, and so fails to make sense. It also contains far too many supporting characters, most of whom are there for the Doctor to explain the plot to.
Davison was always a bit too restrained as the Doctor. At times he could be nicely sarcastic, and irritable in a way that was better than Hartnell. But he very rarely cut loose. Here he just has to run around a lot and shout awful dialogue far too quickly. I'd forgotten how weird the Tardis crew was back then. The Doctor wears a terrible sort-of cricket costume. He travels with girl companion Tegan, an abrasive Australian lesbian; and sarcastic boy companion Turlough, who wears a school uniform, despite obviously being at least 25. What on earth did they all get up to in the Tardis? The supporting cast contains some ripe over-acting, especially from ex-Liver Bird Polly James, but to be fair, the only way to make the dialogue they're given interesting is to overplay it for all its worth.
Apart from the garbled story and dreadful dialogue, the story suffers from other typical problems of the era. The music is not dynamic, having that reedy synth feel that the BBC Radiophonic Workshop brought to everything in the 80s. And the special effects have aged very badly, though they aren't as bad as I'd feared. I never particularly like this era of the show when I see the stories as an adult - it seems to lack in charm - and although The Awakening isn't terrible, it's not really worth watching.
The picture quality on The Gunfighters is pretty good. The Awakening, on the other hand, looked a bit fuzzier than I expected. But they're old TV shows shot on video, so are never going to look pristine.
The Awakening has a curiously weak set of extras. There's the usual commentary and 'making of' documentary (although the latter is more a series of reminiscences from three people who worked on the show than an actual documentary in the usual style). The best extra is probably an outtake of a horse wrecking a prop, presented by Noel Edmonds on the Late Late Breakfast Show.
The Gunfighters does better. The best thing in the entire set is a 45-minute documentary about Hartnell's last year on Dr Who, which fully acknowledges the problems of working with the temperamental and increasingly unwell star. The production team changed three times; some interesting directions were abandoned; and they made a terrible mistake in sacking the best girl companion Hartnell ever had (Maureen O'Brien) and never finding a decent replacement for her. The documentary covers every story made and features contributions from various surviving actors and production staff. Well worth it for fans of the show.
But I'm not really sure if that's enough to make this worth getting. The BBC's really trying its luck with this spurious combination of stories, neither of which is really good enough to warrant buying the other. I hope this is it for the spurious boxset concept but fear we'll soon be seeing more unlikely combinations as the stocks dwindle. The Sensorites twinned with The Android Invasion, anyone?