The Fifth Doctor takes his companions to England in 1666, where the Great Plague is devastating the population, but a bigger threat has just fallen from the sky. This Special Edition DVD re-issues the story with an improved restoration and additional special features.
THE VISITATION – SPECIAL EDITION
Released by: BBC Worldwide
Release date: 6 May 2013
"I have seen many falling stars, but this was without parallel"
The Visitation is one of those Doctor Who stories which I only had a few select memories about. Before I received this new Special Edition DVD release, the last time I saw it was on UKTV Gold ages ago. But I had very little memory of the story in general, and so broadly speaking, I might as well have been watching it for the first time. Originally shown in 1982, it’s only Peter Davison’s fourth story as the Fifth Doctor…
Right from the beginning, my lack of memory about this story made itself apparent, as I watched an entire sequence which I didn’t know existed. I expected the opening titles to flow straight into the first TARDIS scene, but there’s an entire section before that with characters we never see anywhere else in the story (and one of them is John ‘Fred Elliott’ Savident from Coronation Street, Fact Fans). Set a few weeks before the rest of the story, this sets up the mystery which the Doctor and his companions will investigate, and director Peter Moffatt makes good use of point-of-view shots to keep the story’s monsters unseen for the time being. Aside from the wildly over-exaggerated ‘death acting’ of John Baker as servant Ralph, this scene provided a nice teaser for the rest of the story, and turned out to be a pleasant surprise.
It was still the early days of John Nathan-Turner’s reign as producer, and one of his hallmarks at this point was to directly connect the end of one serial to the beginning of the next. One such example can be found at the start of The Visitation, as the Doctor gives Adric (Matthew Waterhouse) a good telling off for his antics in the previous story Kinda, and Tegan (Janet Fielding) tells Nyssa (Sarah Sutton) about her ordeal under the mental possession of the Mara (Fielding’s mispronunciation of the villain’s name gives away that Kinda hadn’t actually been recorded yet when The Visitation was made). While these references are perhaps fun if you’re watching the stories in transmission order, they can be a bit of a drag to get through if you’re not, as it feels like they are holding back the start of the new adventure.
When things get going, though, we enter a tale of two halves. Doctor Who has a habit of making stories set in the past look stunning, and The Visitation is no exception. The scenes shot on location at Black Park in Buckinghamshire and the Tithe Barn in Berkshire look absolutely amazing, and indeed, it’s always a bit of a shame when the action switches back to the studio. Despite some lovely sets designed by Ken Starkey, the scenes videotaped at BBC Television Centre just aren’t as rich as those shot on location. Fortunately, the film sequences make up a large amount of the story’s running time. Where the studio scenes are concerned, though, special mention must go to Moffatt’s use of glass matte shots to artificially extend certain sets beyond their actual physical size in the studio. If you’re specifically looking for them, you can spot them, but they are very impressive for their time. These days, this sort of thing would be done using CGI, and while the results might be better (emphasis on “might”), the process isn’t nearly as innovative!
What’s the other half, I hear you ask? Well, I’m afraid it’s something I can’t be as positive about: the script. Now, don’t get me wrong – I think the story itself is decent enough. There’s certainly nothing wrong with it, and in fact, the way in which it incorporates the Grim Reaper and the Great Plague with a Doctor Who twist is quite clever. But some of Eric Saward’s dialogue isn’t very good at all. Above, I spoke about the references at the beginning to the previous story, Kinda. The thing which really grates with them is that it all feels rather forced. When the script includes the line “While you were enjoying 48 hours’ peaceful sleep in the Delta Wave Augmenter”, you know you’re in trouble. Saward is understandably reminding viewers that Nyssa didn’t witness the events that Tegan is recovering from, but it’s written very heavy-handedly. There are further instances of this sort of thing dotted around (mostly in the first episode), such as Tegan’s “I’ll bet it isn’t transistor radios” and a sledgehammered-in reference to Adric’s ability to heal injuries at a much faster rate than humans. Once the first episode is out of the way, things improve, but Part One in particular feels like it could have done with a couple more redrafts. The Visitation was Saward’s first Doctor Who script, and he went on to write some fantastic stories (Earthshock is the most obvious example), but this début script from the writer (and soon-to-be script editor) shows signs of Saward trying to work out the sort of dialogue which fits into the programme, and not getting it quite right on his first attempt.
The incidental music was provided by Paddy Kingsland. His score comes in for some stick from the director on the DVD commentary, although in fairness, the style of the music – which is what Moffatt seemed to express issues with – is very much something which Nathan-Turner was steering as he revamped the series. Gone were the orchestral works of composers like Dudley Simpson, replaced by electronic synthesised instruments. It’s undeniably very eighties, and a lot of the scores from this period of the programme’s history have aged more than those from the previous decade for this reason. Despite this, though, Kingsland’s score works rather well. It evokes action, mystery, suspense and menace in equal measure, and I certainly have a fondness for the music from the Davison era. An interesting thing to pick up on is a scene near the end of Part Three, and its reprise at the start of Part Four. The first time around, it has less music than it does in the recap, so you can judge for yourself the effect the music has on the programme!
Season 19 of Doctor Who was shot in an order very different to that in which the stories were eventually transmitted, with The Visitation being only the second story which Peter Davison recorded as the Doctor (although it was the fourth to go on-air), and this means that there are some aspects to his character here which went on to be dropped. One example is how Davison’s Time Lord solved problems – the actor was keen to frequently use a piece of string as a multi-purpose tool for the Doctor to improvise his way out of any given problem, but this didn’t last (after all, The Visitation is the story which does away with the Doctor’s sonic screwdriver, which didn’t reappear until 1996). Also noticeable is that the Doctor is considerably grumpier than usual in this story, with echoes of the tetchiness of William Hartnell’s Doctor evident in Davison’s performance. The actor comments on this in both the DVD commentary and the making-of documentary, and it’s something which was toned down quite swiftly afterwards. In many respects, The Visitation gives us a glimpse of an alternative Fifth Doctor – the result of a new actor finding his way into the role.
Tegan Jovanka is in something of a bad mood in this story. Expecting to be returned to Heathrow just half an hour after she left in the TARDIS, it quickly transpires that the Doctor hasn’t materialised the TARDIS quite where (or when) he thought. But for the few minutes that the story pretends to be bidding farewell to Tegan, Janet Fielding gets the chance to show a lighter side of her character as she bids her companions farewell. This may make Fielding cringe on the commentary, but it makes for an amusing contrast with how Tegan behaves as soon as she discovers that she’ll be around for a while longer yet. It’s a shame that Tegan seems to get the lion’s share of the aforementioned dodgy dialogue, but Fielding still shines as brightly as ever in the role.
It’s always interesting to see companions with technological intelligence that isn’t too far behind the Doctor’s, and this is the case with Nyssa and Adric. Sarah Sutton gets a section of the story all to herself, as Nyssa is left in the TARDIS to put together a device. While this doesn’t really give Sutton anything special to do aside from wandering around the TARDIS attaching various wires together, it does say something good about her character. Nyssa is capable enough to be left in a dangerous situation and engineer an effective way out of it. In another scene, Adric and Nyssa pilot the TARDIS by themselves, making them part of the small number of companions to have done so (although funnily enough, Tegan did this just two stories earlier, albeit making rather a mess of it).
The villain of the piece, the Terileptil, is played by Michael Melia. The Visitation sees a breakthrough for Doctor Who, as it is the first story to make use of animatronics – and the result is very effective. The Terileptil’s mouth moves (although how well this synchronises with Melia’s speech varies), and gills on its face pulsate. While the costume does look very rubbery and – the head aside – rather static, the use of animatronics was pioneering, and it could be said that the Terileptil paved the way for many other Doctor Who aliens over the years, right up to the present day. The creature’s voice sounds like precisely what it is: a man beneath a mask. But luckily, Melia’s strong voice helps to compensate for this slightly, and he conveys an impressive range of emotions and characteristics considering that we can’t even see his face.
By far the story’s most memorable character, though, is Richard Mace (Michael Robbins). In fact, I’d say he is the best thing about The Visitation. Robbins lights up the screen whenever he appears, bringing his character of an actor-turned-highwayman to life superbly. Despite my feelings about some of the dialogue in this story, Robbins’ is wonderful. In the hands of any other actor, it could well have been horrific, but the eccentric lines given to Richard Mace by Saward go hand-in-hand with Robbins’ outlandish performance. The phrase ‘loveable rogue’ sounds as though it was invented for this guy.
There are three documentaries new to this Special Edition. The first of these is Grim Tales, a making-of feature by Russell Minton, a newcomer to the DVD range. Minton makes an impressive début, crafting a feature which seems a bit like a blend between a traditional making-of and a ‘now and then’ item. Grim Tales sees Davison, Fielding and Sutton return to Black Park and the Tithe Barn, accompanied by Mark Strickson, who later played companion Vislor Turlough. Seeing the four wandering around Black Park while having an informal chat about The Visitation is a refreshing approach to the making-of, and it’s interesting to see how Black Park looks today, compared to its appearance in the story. It hasn't changed a bit! When they move to the Tithe Barn (a private residence), there’s a lovely surprise waiting for them. Just you wait until you see it – I want one! Although thinking about it, I’d probably never be able to bring myself to eat it... All of this is intercut with more traditional ‘talking head’ pieces, with contributors such as Eric Saward and Ken Starkey, to name just a couple. The way in which it’s all edited together means that the other interviewees often elaborate on what the four TARDIS travellers are saying, and there’s certainly a wide range of conversation – Grim Tales runs to just over 45 minutes. Overall, this is a splendid feature which manages to be both informative and entertaining, and I highly recommend it.
Minton has also produced a second item for this DVD. The Television Centre of the Universe Part One is poignant given that the building which it explores has closed (in its existing form, at least) since it was filmed. Davison, Strickson and Fielding revisit Television Centre with another Fielding – Yvette Fielding, of Blue Peter fame. Although it touches upon Television Centre’s wider history with both Doctor Who and the television industry in general, The Television Centre of the Universe primarily looks at the group’s memories of working there. In a sense, it shares its format with Grim Tales, in that it consists of a central team of people chatting as they quite literally walk down memory lane, intercut with talking heads such as assistant floor manager Sue Hedden, costume designer Odile Dicks-Mireaux and writer/TV producer Richard Marson (who was responsible for the recent BBC Four documentary Tales of Television Centre). The fondness of everyone involved for Television Centre is immediately evident, and as someone who adores the building myself, I really enjoyed this feature. There’s something genuinely magical about Television Centre, and this documentary evokes that. I’m not sure where Part Two is going to go, but the knowledge that we have a second instalment coming soon is great – it’s an interesting and personal approach to telling the story of the most iconic building in the television industry.
The third and final programme new to this DVD is Dr Forever! – The Apocalypse Element. Part of James Goss’ on-going series on how Doctor Who was kept alive after its 1989 cancellation, this third instalment looks at the medium of audio (primarily the work of Big Finish and AudioGO). The story told here is fascinating. For example, Jason Haigh-Ellery, Nicholas Briggs and Gary Russell talk about how Big Finish initially struggled to get the license from the BBC to make Doctor Who audio dramas. Considering how successful and popular their audio range is today, it’s interesting to retrospectively look back at how they originally needed to convince the BBC of their ability to produce work at the required quality. Representing AudioGO’s output is commissioning editor Michael Stevens, and it’s always fun to look at Big Finish and AudioGO’s output in parallel. A number of clips of various audio productions from across the years are included, and perhaps this documentary might encourage people who have never done so to dip a toe into these wonderful audio ranges. As with the previous two instalments, it’s wonderful to see Russell T Davies interviewed, and Colin Baker and writer Robert Shearman talk about the impact of digital piracy on the audio ranges – the latter making a very amusing comment about people who illegally file-share content. As a series, Dr Forever! has become more and more interesting as it’s progressed, and looking at the topics we still have to come, it seems as though it’s set to continue doing so.
The new set of Production Information Subtitles on this release is written by Nicholas Pegg. The subtitles contain a wide variety of information relating to the development and production of the story, as well as the background and history of story elements such as the Great Plague. Pegg is one of the finest writers of the information subtitles on the DVD range, with his own unique blend of humour. He occasionally makes witty comments which are timed to coincide with specific moments in the story, and you can always tell immediately when a set of these subtitles is Pegg’s work. In the information subtitles on this release, we learn why Black Park features in so many films, what Robbins thought of Richard Mace’s hat, why the owner of the Tithe Barn was having a nuclear shelter set up in the garden, and who on Earth was “fetching his squirter and arousing the street”…
All of the remaining extras are ported over from the original DVD. The commentary features Davison, Fielding, Sutton, Waterhouse and Moffatt discussing the story. The banter between the series regulars is as delightful as ever – they seem to have more of a rapport than any other team from the show’s history. It’s fair to say that their conversation drifts away from The Visitation on a number of occasions, and Moffatt is often quiet for relatively lengthy periods of time, but it’s certainly an entertaining commentary. The actors embrace the idea of reflecting on their past work, and seem to be genuinely enjoying it. It’s interesting to hear them talk about things that could have been done differently, and their perceived strengths and weaknesses in the story. Moffatt’s blunt statement that he doesn’t like the incidental music seems a bit harsh, especially in the light of Kingsland’s comments in another special feature (see below), in which he praises Moffatt’s directorial work. But this slightly irksome moment aside, the commentary – along with most of the others from the Davison era – is well worth a listen.
Just over five and a half minutes of film trims appear. There isn’t really a great deal to be said about them – some are alternative takes of scenes, and others are deleted or extended sections. It’s interesting enough to watch, although none of the deleted material is hugely noteworthy.
Three features, all produced by John Kelly, are brought over from the previous DVD. The first of these, Directing Who – Peter Moffatt, is an interview with the director about all of his Doctor Who work. Moffatt is no longer with us, which is why these DVD extras are so valuable, as they permanently document the thoughts and recollections of the people who have worked on the series. Moffatt directed six Doctor Who stories between 1980 and 1985, working with five Doctors. Watching this interview with the knowledge that Moffatt passed away in 2007 made for a very touching experience, as he clearly had happy memories of his work on the series. By his own admission, he didn’t really understand the more technical side of production, which meant he wasn’t naturally suited to directing a series like Doctor Who, but he always gave it his best shot. It is this which shows across all his work on the programme, and is evident in the clips featured here. He was a perfectly competent director whom the cast and crew were fond of, and watching this feature, it’s easy to see why.
Writing a Final Visitation is an interview with Saward about how this story came about. Inevitably, because he also appears in this DVD's new making-of, some of the things he says are duplicated across both features, but there are still things which Saward goes into more detail about here. He recalls how he came to the attention of the Doctor Who production office, and that his fundamental ideas for The Visitation were sourced from his memories of how Doctor Who used to be several years earlier. Saward went on to become Doctor Who’s script editor, and his recollections of his thought processes on any given script are always enjoyable to listen to.
Scoring the Visitation is a conversation between Paddy Kingsland and fellow eighties Doctor Who musician Mark Ayres. I am a big fan of the work of both of these composers, so I enjoyed this feature immensely. They talk about key moments in the story, and how Kingsland went about composing music for them. He has very clear recollections of his work back in the early eighties, and it’s great to see him demonstrating some brief sections of music on-camera. The sound levels of this feature aren’t always perfect, and so it can occasionally be a bit difficult to hear what Kingsland and Ayres are saying, especially when there is a section of music from The Visitation playing underneath, which might be a little too loud. But overall, this is an interesting and enjoyable feature.
Speaking of Kingsland, an isolated music track is available, letting you watch the story with just the music and no dialogue or effects. For me, these are always fun to put on in the background, and listening this way means that the gaps between musical cues aren’t as much of an issue. These ‘iso-scores’ often make me notice things I’ve never picked up on before, and so I enjoy them a lot.
As always, a Photo Gallery is included. This one is identical to that on the previous DVD release, and for that reason, it isn’t nearly as sophisticated as what we’re more used to these days. Nevertheless, this gallery runs to over five minutes, and there is a good selection of photos from the story's production. Although, the prolonged zoom into a single photo at the end which lasts for ages is very odd!
The PDF content on these DVDs is always valuable, and here – as well as the regular Radio Times listings, there is a BBC Enterprises sales sheet. The latter is a good read, as it shows how the BBC’s commercial arm pushed the selling points of the serial to potential broadcasters.
Gareth Randall’s Coming Soon trailer is for the next classic DVD release: a Special Edition of the Jon Pertwee story Inferno. Finally, there is an Easter Egg on this DVD, and it’s something which I always enjoy watching…
The audio on this new DVD of The Visitation sounds as good as pretty much any other DVD of a Davison-era story, so there isn’t really much to report here. Dialogue and music in the mono mix comes through clearly, and there aren’t any issues to speak of.
My understanding is that no further restoration work has been done on the videotaped studio scenes since the previous DVD release in 2004, although these do still look a bit better than before, perhaps because of improvements in MPEG-2 encoding technology in the past nine years. There are occasionally some 'tramlines' running down the vertical length of the picture in videotaped sections, but this is inherent in the source material. Generally, the studio scenes are impressive in their sharpness and clarity. The big talking point of this DVD is the 16mm film sequences, though. The A/B roll negatives (as far back in terms of source material as it’s possible to go) have been scanned at 2K, restored, and then dropped back into place over the previous transfer of the film print on a DigiBeta clone of the 2004 master. The film was underexposed on location, so is a bit more washed out than would be ideal, but there is still a noticeable improvement over how these sequences appeared on the previous DVD. Newly graded for this Special Edition, the colours are more vibrant than before and detail is improved. Below are comparisons between the 2004 and 2013 DVD releases – above is the old release and below is the new one. For the best comparison, open each image in its own tab and flick between the old and new version.
While The Visitation definitely has its strong points (specifically its location filming and Richard Mace), I probably won’t be revisiting it in a hurry to be honest. It just feels rather flat overall, and I came away from it feeling a bit indifferent to the whole thing. There are plenty of better Davison stories, and as you’ll know by now, I don’t think some of the dialogue is great. But this is an example of a Doctor Who DVD where the special features are far better than the main feature – two confident début features from Russell Minton and another very strong entry in the Dr Forever! series make up an excellent trio of new features, and the improved film sequences are wonderful, albeit not as good as they might have been if the film hadn’t been underexposed during production. As far as the extras package goes, I’d say that this DVD is full of style and quality.
6 OUT OF 10
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Thanks to BBC Worldwide and Steve Roberts