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Doctor Who: The Dæmons (DVD)

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Genre: Television - Doctor Who / Parental Guidance / Actors: Jon Pertwee ... / DVD released 2012-03-26 at 2entertain / Features of the DVD: PAL

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    1 Review
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      29.03.2012 09:48
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      A Dr Who story which used to be revered but which doesn't stand up to repeat viewing

      This 2entertain DVD is currently £13 on amazon.

      The Daemons (1971) is a story from Jon Pertwee's time as the Doctor, and for a long time it had an unassailable reputation among Dr Who fans as perhaps the greatest Who adventure of all time. I suspect this was down to the Target novelisation, written by Barry Letts, co-author of the TV episodes and producer of the series at the time. The Daemons was certainly my favourite Dr Who book when I was a kid, and since no one had seen it since it was first broadcast in 1971, the 80s consensus was that this was one of the best, if not the best of all the good Doctor's escapades.

      Then they finally repeated it on TV and everyone decided it was rubbish after all. Critical opinion has swung between those two positions ever since.

      The 'classic' Doctor Who DVD range is coming to an end - they have almost run out of stories to release now. Several of Pertwee's adventures have been held back for some years because they did not exist in good enough condition to be released on DVD. As technology has advanced, it has finally been possible to patch up, colourise and release most of these early 70s Who stories, with only a couple still unaccounted for.

      The story takes place when the Doctor is exiled to Earth (this was a cost-saving format change of the early 70s). The Tardis doesn't even appear. Instead the Doctor drives around in a tiresome yellow car he calls 'Bessie'. He works for UNIT, a military organisation tasked with keeping the world safe from alien invasion. An unwitting archaeologist unleashes an extremely powerful alien that looks like the devil in a small village. While the Doctor, his companion Jo, and some of the UNIT guys try to stop the creature from destroying the world, the Doctor's archenemy, The Master, posing as the local vicar, has his own ideas...

      This story takes a lot of ideas from elsewhere and shoves them into the Doctor Who format - this is what the series always did, often with great success. Predominantly this takes Dennis Wheatley style satanic cults, glosses them with a bit of sci-fi, and makes them safe for a family audience. The Master gets to invoke the devil (actually an alien called Azal, the shoutiest monster ever) and animate a stone gargoyle; the story gets away with calling itself science fiction by ripping off Quatermass and the Pit. It also borrows loads of Chariots of the Gods stuff about how aliens might have visited earth to guide mankind's development. This was all quite fashionable at the time, and the story contains a load of folkloric tuff including the devil's footprints and some sinister Morris dancers.

      It's a good premise for a story, doing what Dr Who does well - take an existing genre and turn it into a kids' science fiction story. The central idea - of doing a popular horror movie as a Who story - became the show's standard approach in the Tom Baker years, and the scenes with The Master and his coven are probably the most fun parts of this story (the old rogue even misquotes Aleister Crowley).

      Jon Pertwee is far from my favourite Doctor. He seems lazy and patronising and pompous. I can't imagine any other Doctor effectively stopping the story dead in its tracks to deliver a dull slideshow about mythology. He's a crushing bore and constantly criticises other characters for things that he does himself all the time. The Daemons sees him at arguably his worst, as the character never seems to break a sweat, however serious he keeps telling everyone the situation is.

      Happily the supporting cast is mostly rather better. Roger Delgado was a delight as The Master, although the character was terribly overused. Nicholas Courtney as the Brigadier and Katy Manning as Jo are also reliably excellent. There's something slightly knowing about all three performances, as if they're faintly aware of their existence as fictional characters in TV. They never wink at the camera or send it up, but there's a faint whiff of self-knowledge there. Sgt Benton (John Levene) is reliably likeable, and even Mike Yates - the other regular UNIT character, and the worst acted regular cast member in the show's history - is less terrible than usual. Damaris Hayman takes some getting used to as Miss Hawthorne, the local witch, and the rest of the cast are a reliable stock of oo-arr stereotypes.

      Unfortunately, the problems with this probably outweigh the good points for all but the most uncritical of fans. The story itself perhaps throws in too much, as it doesn't have a terribly coherent plot. The black magical trimmings don't feel like they really form an essential part of the story, and there are too many elements that are obviously intended to spice up the story, but which ultimately don't connect to anything in a coherent way. The animated gargoyle, Bok, is never explained (is he just sitting there with the potential to be animated before the Master comes along, or what?). The Morris dancers aren't particularly relevant (or rather, there's no need for them to be Morris dancers), and although the show spends a lot of time having the Doctor angrily dismiss the idea of magic, the local white witch, Miss Hawthorne, seems to have psychic powers anyway.

      There are continuity errors (like the cut phone wire that mysteriously repairs itself between episodes) and - notoriously - one of the worst denouements in the show's history. The special effects are also fairly weak. The bad points overpower the good, and although this might provide some amusing nostalgia for the fans, it is hard to make a case for it as being worthwhile for a general audience.

      The picture quality on this story is not particularly good, but the restoration team could only do so much. It is perfectly watchable, although the image quality is a little fuzzy and some of the skin tones are slightly odd-looking. You get used to it.

      The extras are slightly disappointing given what an iconic story this is, and given that the extras are often the best thing about these Dr Who releases. The commentary - from the director and some of the cast - is a bit annoying, one of those ones where everyone seems to be having a lot of fun except for the audience. There's also a 'making of' documentary and a few other bits and pieces (commentary aside, the extras are on a separate disk, which feels unnecessary, as there aren't that many).

      The most worthwhile extra is a half-hour documentary about the life and work of Barry Letts, who was the show's producer for Pertwee's five-year run. This is good stuff, taking in his career pre- and post-Who, which is rather more interesting than the Dr Who parts, which I already knew about. A shame it couldn't have gone into more detail about his later career, really. Letts died a couple of years ago - one of quite a few important figures from the show's history to die in the last few years - and this is a touching tribute to him, featuring contributions from his sons as well as colleagues like Terrance Dicks.

      Obviously this release is only for the Doctor Who fans, though. If you're new to the series and have a burning itch to sample the Pertwee years, there are better places to start.

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