Monday, 26 August 2013

Doctor Who: The Fourth Doctor Time Capsule – DVD Review

A commemorative set limited to 5000 copies, The Fourth Doctor Time Capsule celebrates Tom Baker's portrayal of the Fourth Doctor...

Released by: BBC Worldwide
Release date: 29 July 2013

To date, Tom Baker holds the record for playing the Doctor on television for the longest continuous length of time. Between 1974 and 1981, Baker enchanted a whole generation of viewers with his fun, scary, powerful portrayal of the Time Lord's fourth incarnation. It is fitting, therefore, that in the year of Doctor Who's fiftieth anniversary, BBC Worldwide has released a special set to commemorate Baker's reign as the Doctor. The Fourth Doctor Time Capsule contains a range of souvenirs of Baker's time on the programme, and a full review of the set will be posted here at a future date. This review, however, will focus on the two DVDs that are included with the set.

"The sea may be calm, but it's never empty"

The Fourth Doctor Time Capsule contains an advance, extras-free release of Terror of the Zygons. This 1975 story launched the thirteenth series of Doctor Who, and writer Robert Banks Stewart's script is captivating, entertaining and unnerving all at once. It certainly gets off to a very ambitious start, as we witness a deadly incident out at sea. This is realised on-screen with model work which, although not ground-breaking, does a very decent job of conveying the action, and provides a suitably explosive start to the story. These days, this scene would probably be a pre-titles 'cold opening', and the concept of a story beginning with a mystery and a teaser of what's to come is one which has been seen many times in Doctor Who over the years. But this has to be among the finest examples of the technique, and – much like the story as a whole – it is made very eerie by its use of sound effects.

There aren't any other Doctor Who stories quite like this one. Terror of the Zygons is a very refreshing and bold series opener, and it sees the Doctor, Sarah (Elisabeth Sladen) and Harry (Ian Marter) arriving in Scotland. This story concludes a run of seven adventures (impressively spanning three series of the show) which, in story terms, occur continuously with no gaps between them. In the closing moments of the previous series, the Doctor received a message from Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart (Nicholas Courtney), asking for help – and Terror of the Zygons reveals why. While the location work wasn’t actually shot in Scotland – various locations around Sussex were used instead – the footage is still wonderfully evocative and atmospheric, and also menacing in its own way. It very much feels like our protagonists are more isolated than we are used to, and in a sense this story takes both the regular characters and the viewers out of their comfort zone.

The fact that almost all of this story is set in a location quite different to Doctor Who's usual stomping ground provides the opportunity for some unusual and experimental creative choices by director Douglas Camfield. They aren’t always completely successful; for example, the overpowering of a few scenes with bagpipe music, while directly referenced in the dialogue, can’t help but become annoying rather quickly. But on the other hand, there are many directorial touches here which enhance the serial's overall quality. Whenever Camfield is in the director's chair, this guarantees an immensely powerful and engaging production. In the case of Terror of the Zygons, this fuses with the strong script to create something very special. The wit, warmth and humour in the script juxtaposes perfectly with its threat and menace, and Camfield always knew how to get the best effect out of any dramatic situation.

By far the greatest merit of the story is the sense of mystery which dominates so much of it. Our fear of the unknown, integral to human nature, causes an almost subconscious emotional response to the danger the characters find themselves in. Perhaps it could be argued that the fourth and final episode isn’t quite as strong as the three which precede it, because by necessity, most of the questions have been answered by that point. Also, the shift of the story away from Scotland and back to London for much of the final episode can’t help but make things feel slightly flat in comparison to the breath of fresh air that prevails for the rest of the story. But this doesn't detract from the fact that this story's ability to build suspense and drama is almost unrivalled. One of the stand-out moments is the cliffhanger ending to Part One. Moreover, it is one of the most memorable scenes in Doctor Who’s history.

Terror of the Zygons is currently the only appearance of the eponymous aliens in televised Doctor Who, although they have reappeared in numerous spin-off media such as books and audio dramas. It has been announced that they are set to return in this year’s 50th Anniversary Special, but it’s interesting that the Zygons have become such iconic creatures even though they have only appeared once on TV within the last 38 years. They are certainly very effective, with a striking design and creepy, whispery voices. The most detailed Zygon costume is that of Broton, warlord of the Zygons, and it looks amazing in close-up. Something this story executes brilliantly is the gradual reveal of the Zygons’ full appearance. We at first only glimpse their hands, hear their voices, and see a very tight close-up of Broton. But this serves to make the full reveal even more startling.

If there is one especially weak point to Terror of the Zygons, it is the Skarasen creature. As time goes on and we see more and more of it, the effectiveness of the monster diminishes at an alarming rate. Most of the time, the creature is represented on screen via stop motion animation, which – although a very admirable effort, and a technique which isn't seen very often in Doctor Who – doesn’t integrate very well with the location footage of the Doctor attempting to escape, running through the Scottish countryside. The Skarasen doesn’t look too bad in close-up during these scenes, but whenever the creature moves in any significant way, the viewer is usually pulled sharply out of the drama. But whereas these sequences don’t really succeed in maintaining the viewer’s suspension of disbelief, they come across as masterpieces in comparison to the Skarasen’s final moments. These later scenes were realised in a very different manner. Because they were shot in the studio on videotape, the production team opted to insert the Skarasen with CSO (Colour Separation Overlay, an ancestor of what we know today as green- or blue-screen chromakey). In fairness, the stop motion technique wouldn’t have been suitable here either, due to the video-based nature of these scenes. But the CSO really doesn’t work. It basically looks like Baker is face-to-face with an enormous glove puppet (and he probably was). Whereas the Zygons are a design triumph, the Skarasen is something most people would probably rather forget.

This aside though, the story generally holds up extremely well as a piece of quality television, from the scripts through to the screen. There is so much tension, mystery and atmosphere, yet this is complemented by a warmth and charm, which comes across as genuine without diminishing the story’s dramatic quality. The icing on the cake is the rapport between the cast – Terror of the Zygons is at its best when there is a multitude of characters in a single scene. Baker, Sladen, Marter and Courtney are at the top of their game here, and it is this which really shines on the screen. From the Doctor, Sarah and Harry strolling through the wilds of Scotland to the Brigadier refusing to believe that he has been asleep on the job, everything in Terror of the Zygons is played with absolute conviction by all the cast. Combined with the great script and the haunting incidental music score by Geoffrey Burgon, this makes the story very memorable, and a strong final appearance for Harry as a regular character. It may have its weaker moments here and there, but it remains one of the most celebrated and fondly-remembered stories in the entire history of Doctor Who – and it really isn’t difficult to see why.

"I became that character, I was that character"

Although this version of Terror of the Zygons doesn’t include any special features as such (the full, extras-laden regular release is due in September), there is a second DVD included in the Time Capsule, and this contains something which is exclusive to this set. Interview with the Time Lord is a newly-commissioned interview with Tom Baker. At approximately 25 minutes, it isn’t the most exhaustive or comprehensive feature you could wish for, especially since it will soon be the one and only DVD feature remaining exclusive to this set. Beyond this though, the feature is a strange beast. There are a number of superb moments to be found throughout, but there are a few oddities in its presentation as well.

One of the most interesting aspects of the discussion is Baker’s recollection of how the role of the Fourth Doctor had an immediate and profound impact upon his life. Having previously struggled to find work, Baker suddenly found that once he was cast as the Doctor, he felt that he had actually become the character. As he puts it, he didn’t have to reach for it – the personality of the Doctor become a natural part of Baker’s own persona. While he is usually very upbeat and joyful throughout this interview, there are a couple of points at which his stories take a darker turn. At one particularly affecting moment, he remembers being asked to visit a child who was in a coma in hospital. The actor recalls how he initially found it challenging to come to terms with the responsibilities he now faced; whereas he had never felt important in any way, he now found that he was a hero to an entire generation.

Indeed, a recurring theme throughout the interview is the fact that this is the role which defines Baker as a person, with the actor even stating that “the fans created me”. Speaking of his immense gratitude to these fans, he explains that he had always “wanted to be wanted”, and Doctor Who provided him with that emotional security. His respect for the show’s audience is utterly genuine, and it is both amusing and insightful to hear him describe the love of the fans as “greater than ordinary love”. One point at which this feature does somewhat drop the ball, though, is in its coverage of the Fourth Doctor’s companions – there isn’t nearly enough discussion of the many actors who co-starred alongside Baker. The actor speaks very poignantly about the death of Elisabeth Sladen, and he speaks fondly of Louise Jameson (Leela) as well as making some interesting remarks about his relationship with Lalla Ward (the second Romana), but his other co-stars are either glossed over or totally ignored. This is unfortunate, because the topic of the companions is one which should arguably have been granted the most attention and screen time.

In this sense, Interview with the Time Lord is somewhat inconsistent. Most things are covered reasonably well, but a few are denied additional screen time, while clearly crying out for it. Sadly, there are also some issues with the editing. The interview was shot with two cameras, and there is one moment when a cut from one angle to the other (while keeping the same audio running) results in the audio and video being obviously out-of-sync for one (thankfully brief) shot. The choice to use the 1980 arrangement of the Doctor Who theme music during the intertitles and credits is bizarre, considering that this version was only used for the last of Baker’s seven series. The arrangement that was heard during his other six series would have been more appropriate (although it is heard during the opening sequence, at least). It is also disappointing that the only clips to appear are from Terror of the Zygons – representation of any other stories from Baker’s era is only present in the form of still images.

But some of the finest moments occur towards the end, as the topic turns to the events leading up to Baker’s departure from Doctor Who, and things that have happened in subsequent years. There are times when he becomes somewhat candid in his reminiscences, rarely more so than when he recalls that he and John Nathan-Turner (producer of Baker’s final series in 1980/81) were “diametrically opposed”. By Baker’s own admission, he had become difficult to work with; this has been anecdotally referenced by various people on countless occasions over the years, but it is fascinating to hear Baker’s own take on the mood at that time. It is perhaps fitting that one of the last subjects to be explored in this interview brings us right up to the present day, with Baker’s participation in Big Finish’s range of full-cast Doctor Who audio dramas. For many years, he was notorious for his refusal to participate in these releases, but (after working on some AudioGO productions) he finally arrived on a Big Finish title at the beginning of 2012. Baker cites Louise Jameson as the person who finally persuaded him to take part, and it’s great to hear him expressing such delight at reuniting with some of his former companions on audio, as if no time at all had elapsed. This sums up both the character of the Fourth Doctor and the actor who plays him. This interview may be a mixed bag (although the positives thankfully outweigh the negatives), but Baker shines throughout, and there was one resounding thought which I came away with afterwards. He may have ceased playing the role on television back in 1981, but – especially following his reprisal of the character in the audio medium – Tom Baker is still the Doctor to this day. And he always will be.


Confession time – this reviewer does not currently have a surround sound system! Sadly, therefore, I am unable to comment on the optional Dolby 5.1 surround mix that is included for Terror of the Zygons (and will also appear on the story’s standalone release in due course). The work of audio wizard Mark Ayres, the 5.1 remix takes advantage of the fact that the incidental music for this story still exists in isolation from dialogue and effects. There isn’t a similarly clean copy of the dialogue in existence, however, so Ayres has employed some very clever techniques to make the story available in surround sound. This DVD’s default audio track, though, is the original mono mix that was heard by viewers back in 1975. This has also been cleaned up and restored by Ayres, and the resulting audio stands up to the level of quality that we have become used to from the other stories of this period. Dialogue, music and sound effects all come through clearly, with no issues to report.

When Terror of the Zygons is released with a full package of special features next month, this will include a never-before-seen deleted scene from Part One – thought lost for many years, the scene has been rediscovered in recent years. However, as a vanilla DVD (apart from the 5.1 mix), this additional scene is NOT included here.

As per the norm for Doctor Who during this period, Terror of the Zygons (4:3) is a mix of studio scenes and film inserts. The videotaped studio material generally looks great, although there are some issues visible in a couple of scenes, with static horizontal lines burnt into the image. This is inherent in the source material (and not possible to fix), but it does not pose a significant problem because it only affects a very small section of the programme. The original film elements for half of Part Two and all of Parts Three and Four survive, and these have been granted a new transfer, providing a significant upgrade from the lower quality which 1970s telecine equipment was limited to (you can tell the difference by comparing the film sequences from later in the story with those from earlier on). The result is that the location work looks fantastic during these retransferred sequences. The colour palette of the location material is intentionally rather bleak, so while the image doesn’t provide quite so much vibrancy of colours as some other stories with original film surviving, there is nevertheless a very pleasing level of quality in the image.


Terror of the Zygons is a fine story indeed, but because a standalone release (including extras) is imminent, it isn’t really a reason to purchase The Fourth Doctor Time Capsule. That means that as far as the set’s DVD content goes, the make-or-break item is Interview with the Time Lord. As discussed above, that feature is certainly flawed – it's hard to believe that the out-of-sync shot got through, for one thing. But there’s plenty to enjoy, because of Baker's wit and personality. There isn’t much information here which you can’t find elsewhere (and it would have been nice if the interview had been a bit longer), but some of Baker’s comments and anecdotes are genuinely funny. Of course, this set comes with a high price tag attached, and it's a shame that many people will probably miss out on seeing the interview for this reason. Perhaps it could one day surface on another release – let's hope it does, because while it has problems, it deserves to be seen by as many people as possible, solely because Tom Baker is on top form.

Part two of Telly Tech's review of The Fourth Doctor Time Capsule is coming soon.

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Thanks to BBC Worldwide

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