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Reviewed by Ross Ruediger
he last time material from the Jon Pertwee era was released on DVD was two years ago, and that was the “Beneath the Surface” box set. Because it’s been such a lengthy gap since the last Pertwee, I’m probably feeling overly enthusiastic about this set, and yet it’s arguably a remarkable example of this period of the classic series. The Pertwee era was heavily dependent on six-part serials, which are all too often referred to as “padded.” One can say that, but it lacks imagination. Maybe a kinder label should be used. How about “leisurely?” Leisurely works well if you’re into a story and in no particular hurry to see it end. This set is comprised of two such six-parters, “Frontier in Space” and “Planet of the Daleks.”
The title “Dalek War” is a little misleading since it promotes the idea that this is some kind of action-packed extravaganza with Daleks trundling rampant, killing everyone and everything in sight. That isn’t quite the case, and yet it doesn’t make the set itself any less of an extravaganza from a presentation standpoint. Both stories have been given a thorough overhaul, and they’ve never looked better than they do here. Where the real magic becomes apparent, however, is in Episode Three of “Planet,” which has existed only in black and white for the past 30 some odd years – until now. Several techniques, including the new kid on the block, color recovery, have been joined together to achieve this feat, and the results are astounding. Visually, the differences between it and the other five episodes of the story are negligible. “The Silurians” colorization from “Beneath the Surface” was impressive, but this restoration leaves that one in the dust.
If these techniques can be honed further, it’ll be fascinating to see what can eventually be achieved with the other half-dozen Pertwee serials deserving the same kind of attention. It remains to be seen what exactly can be done, as the materials with which to work apparently vary from story to story, and, of course, money is always an issue. Yet this is a huge step forward, not just for the “Doctor Who” DVD range, but for vintage TV (particularly of the BBC kind) in general. There’s so much vintage TV that’s released on DVD these days, and a great deal of it doesn’t get the attention it deserves. As much as I love “Doctor Who,” it’s a real pleasure to view and review the series on DVD, as there are people behind the scenes working overtime to make this material the best it can possibly be, and far more often than not they succeed. If only the classic series weren’t so niche, other DVD producers might take note of what’s happening with this range and adopt the same strategies. It pays off in the long run to do right by shows with a fervent fan base.
Anyway, enough about the technical stuff and on to these two stories, which are linked just enough to essentially turn this into one long 12-part saga. Neither deserves the label “classic” and yet both are infinitely watchable for what they are. They’re from the series’ tenth season, and at this point the Doctor was no longer grounded on Earth, his sentence having been lifted by the Time Lords and so he’s free to roam time and space once again. “Frontier in Space” sees the Doctor and Jo Grant (Katy Manning) immersed in a precipitous situation in the year 2450. Earth and Draconia are nearing war, both planets fear one another, and a third party is exacerbating tensions by playing on those fears. The Doctor attempts to get to the bottom of the situation while also trying to broker peace between the two worlds. Nobody will listen to him.
On the surface, this sounds like many classic “Doctor Who” stories, yet this one manages to tell its version of the story in a considerably different manner. For starters, the action plays out on Earth; a prison colony on the moon; Draconia, the unnamed planet of the Ogrons; and the vast distances of space between all those locations. Oh, and then there are the prison cells; actually, much of “Frontier in Space” is set in various prison cells, as the Doctor and Jo spend an inordinate amount of time in lock-up.
“Frontier” is an ambitious piece of storytelling, steeped in politics and diplomacy. It’s easier to speak of the parts of “Frontier” rather than the whole, because it’s a fairly intimate story set against a much larger backdrop. Even as our heroes idle away the hours under lock and key, we always get the feeling that something huge is happening right around the corner. Two alien races – the Draconians and the Ogrons - dominate the proceedings, and both are great-looking examples of aliens in “Doctor Who” thanks to the half-mask (the extras cover this latex wonder). The Draconians are particularly effective, with a Japanese influence on their fictitious culture – not at all villains, just another race in the Whoniverse. The Ogrons are ape-like mercenaries, first seen in the previous season’s “Day of the Daleks,” working for the pepperpots. The Daleks do make an appearance here, but the less said about it, the better. (Let it be as much of a viewing surprise as possible, given the spoiler-heavy title of the set.)
Maybe the real star of “Frontier” is the Master, as played by Roger Delgado. He’s the standout if for no other reason than this was his final outing as the Doctor’s nemesis, as Delgado was tragically killed in a car accident in Italy several months after this serial was broadcast. He was originally going to return for one final climactic adventure in the following season, but alas, it was not to be. Delgado is one smooth criminal here, and he owns the screen every time he shows up, frequently displaying a wicked, suave sense of humor. The final moments of the story are unfortunately something of a clusterfuck, and if there’s one aspect that truly disappoints, it’s the resolution, especially as Delgado’s last scene is practically nonexistent. Producer Barry Letts explains on the commentary track exactly what went wrong, and seems just as disappointed as the viewer by the strange turn of dramatic events. Luckily, the story swiftly dovetails into the next.
“Planet of the Daleks,” unlike the previous story, is a fairly straightforward action yarn tied together by themes of pacifism. Many have claimed that it’s essentially a reworking of the very first Dalek story from 1963, which in some ways it is, yet the execution is different enough that it stands on its own. (If we had to discount every time “Doctor Who” ripped itself off over the years, we’d have to lose probably a third of its output.) The Doctor and Jo arrive on the hostile planet Spiridon – hostile in that the jungle world is teeming with aggressive plant life. They encounter a group of Thals (last seen as a race of flaccid pacifists in the ’63 serial) who’ve traveled across the galaxy on a suicide mission to destroy an army of hibernating Daleks residing somewhere on the planet.
As the Doctor aids the Thals on their mission, they encounter all manner of obstacles including deadly spores, molten ice (a wonderfully fantastic idea) and the Spiridons, who’ve mastered the art of invisibility, which no doubt saved the production some cash, as they only ever appear wearing massive swathes of purple shag carpet(!). “Planet of the Daleks” is a colorful production (making the restored episode all the more of a treat) and a great deal of fun. Or maybe I’m just a sucker for BBC designed alien jungles (see also “Planet of Evil”)? I’d also be remiss in not mentioning the Thal character Rebec, played by Jane How, who is just utterly transfixing. There are plenty of babelicious British birds who dot the “Doctor Who” landscape, but Jane How is the girl you want to take home to meet mom, and then do nasty things to while mom’s cooking dinner; all this despite the fact she spends the entire story wearing a bulky spacesuit.
Even if nothing else said thus far has convinced you, buy this set for Barry. Barry Letts produced the Pertwee era, and he passed away last October, just days after “Dalek War” was released in the U.K. The guy was pure class, and he’s all over this set. Luckily, he recorded plenty of material for other, yet-to-be-released DVDs, so this isn’t the last we’ll hear from him, but it is a fitting tribute to a man who devoted huge chunks of his life to this wonderful TV show.
Special Features: As is to be expected, this four-disc set is crammed with goodies. The commentary tracks for both stories are great listens. Manning, Letts and script editor Terrance Dicks are present on both, while Clayton Hickman moderates “Frontier” and actors Prentis Hancock and Tim Preece join in for “Planet.” Both stories get Makin-ofs titled “The Space War” and “Rumble in the Jungle,” respectively. The wild card here is yet another two-part exploration of the stories titled “Perfect Scenario,” which is structured as an elaborate piece of drama with actors playing people from the future watching, discussing and debating the merits and downfalls of both stories. It’s a gimmick that works about half of the time, and yet a hat must be taken off to the people behind it for the effort involved. “Roger Delgado: The Master” is a beautiful look back at the career of the first actor to play the Master, and it’s loaded with clips from various BBC productions he was in.
“Multi-colorization” details the intriguing reconstruction of Episode Three of “Planet.” There are two installments of the always engaging “Stripped for Action” series which explores the comic strip end of “Who” – one for the Third Doctor and one for the Daleks. There’s also a Blue Peter item on a missing Dalek, and a couple Easter eggs, as well as all of the usual bells and whistles that accompany a “Who” DVD. Inexplicably, there’s also a coming soon trailer on the “Frontier” disc for “The King’s Demons” and “Planet of Fire,” which isn’t actually coming soon as it hasn’t even been released in the U.K. as of yet. It was originally set to come out over there earlier this year, but it’s been bumped. Hopefully we’ll see it stateside before the end of this year.