Doctor Who: Earth Story DVD review

Review James Peaty 28 Jun 2011 - 08:19

A loose pairing of stories for a classic Doctor Who DVD release. James checks out the Earth Story collection...

As the archives wear thin and we draw ever closer to the end of the classic Who DVD releases, one gets the impression that 2/Entertain is sometimes left scratching its head at quite what they can do with some of the curios it has left over. 

This release definitely falls into the 'what the hell are we going to do with these?' category, containing, as it does, two stories that, probably, wouldn't shift a lot of copies on their own. Bundled together under the appropriately vague Earth Story label (well, both stories are set on Earth), I have to confess that I settled down to view these discs with no great enthusiasm. Thankfully, although my initial skepticism wasn't completely dispelled, I actually enjoyed the set a lot more than expected.

The first and far stronger of the two stories on offer is The Gunfighters.  A bizarre and comic ‘pure historical' from the tail end of William Hartnell's time in the role, it finds the TARDIS landing in 19th century Arizona on the eve of the infamous Gunfight at the OK Corral.

The idea of dropping the Doctor, Steven (Peter Purves) and Dodo (Jackie Lane) into a real historical event and then allowing it to play out like a Wild West version of A Comedy Of Errors is certainly an audacious one and, for the most part, it works.

Hartnell, in particular, seems to relishe the opportunity of playing the (knowing) comedic foil to both Doc Holliday (Anthony Jacobs) and Wyatt Earp (John Alderson) and he wears his Stetson and six-gun with some style.  Ably assisted by the sprightly double-act of Purves and Lane, Hartnell is clearly having fun and he brings a welcome sense of impish mischief to his performance.

Naturally, as with all episodes of 60s Who, there's something pleasantly ramshackle about the evocation of the American frontier in Riverside Studios, while some of the American ‘accents' served up wouldn't be out of place in Carry On Cowboy.

But these are all superficial quibbles, and if you approach The Gunfghters in the right spirit, it's possible to see that, at its heart, this story is in many ways the epitome of ambitious, intelligent and, most importantly, funny Doctor Who

Sadly, soon after this story was aired (although not before picking up new companion, Jamie McCrimmon, from 18th century Scotland), the incoming team of producer, Innes Lloyd, and script editor, Gerry Davis, would close the door on historical episodes for the foreseeable future.

It wouldn't be until the early 70s that the Doctor would venture into history once more, but from then on, whenever the Time Lord would brush up against the past it would always involve an alien element.  Shame.

Which, ironically, is a word that could be used to describe The Awakening.  The final story of the Davison era to get a DVD release, it's an overly compressed and fundamentally flawed tale featuring an ancient stone-faced alien living behind a church wall, time-zone shifting yokels, civil war re-enactments and, thanks to Tegan's familial ties, the least convincing grandfather/granddaughter relationship in television history.

To be fair, the pitch for The Awakening probably didn't sound that bad, and certainly lurking somewhere within these episodes there's a half decent story trying to get out. However, the execution of these episodes, on a narrative level, is so shockingly bad that it beggars belief that these scripts were ever deemed ready to go before the cameras.

Rejected by Robert Holmes when he was script editor in the mid-70s, writer Eric Pringle's agent resubmitted the story to the Who office in the 80s and this time, under the far less exacting standards of script editor, Eric Saward, the Who office commissioned him.

As if buying a script that wasn't up to snuff the first time around wasn't bad enough, to then decide to compress a four-part story into a two-parter seems an even more irrational decision.  The net result of this pruning seems to be that every scene that could potentially add some character or flavor to the story is cut, in order to get us down to the business at hand.

Unfortunately, when that ‘business' seems to be little more than moving a bunch of people you don't know or care about from one banal setpiece to another, then you have to conclude that things really have gone wrong somewhere along the way.  

There's also a sneaking suspicion that those cutscenes might also have helped clarify the plot. For example, just what is the Malus planning to achieve? How are time echoes of the English Civil War leaking through into the here and now? And just what superpower does Sir George Hutchinson (Denis Lill) have that enables him to get a bunch of seemingly rational human beings to follow his, frankly, insane and ludicrous plan?

Despite the stories' major shortcomings, in terms of production, the show's actually pretty strong, with debuting director, Michael Owen Morris, making full use of the extensive location work. In addition, the cast, led by regulars Davison, Janet Fielding and Mark Strickson are all on form, while able support is provided by Keith Jayne and TV stalwarts Glyn Houston and Polly James.

Unfortunately, none of the actors are given very much to do, and when they all stand together in the TARDIS in the final scene your thought isn't ‘what a sweet conclusion', but rather what an inappropriate scene this is in a story littered with them.

Extras

The extras on The Awakening disc are, frankly, pretty underwhelming. The most successful are Return To Little Hodcombe, a standard 'making-of' featurette that's enlivened by the addition of the residents sharing their reminiscences of the show visiting their village back in 1983.

Also entertaining is the standard commentary track, this time featuring just director, Michael Owen Morris, and script editor, Eric Saward. It's a fairly sedate affair, although both participants seem engaged throughout, and while it's clearly not a story either is massively fond of, some of Saward's insights into the scripting process are interesting.

Faring much better on the extras front is The Gunfighters. With an enjoyable Toby Hadoke-moderated commentary and the gloriously arch Tommorow's Times featurette keeping the tone light and fun, it makes the impact of this discs main extra all the more potent.

Easily one of the best overviews of an era that the DVD team's produced so far, The End Of The Line is an informative and entertaining documentary that chronicles the trials and tribulations as the show underwent its first major behind-the-scenes change since its inception. With producer, Verity Lambert, and script editor, Dennis Spooner, moving on and their replacements, John Wiles and Donald Tosh, moving in, the show saw a significant tonal shift on screen and definite unhappiness off of it.

Featuring contributions from actors Maureen O'Brien, Anneke Wills and Peter Purves, alongside Donald Tosh, new series writer, Gareth Roberts, and uber fan, Ian Levine, it chronicles that fateful change, the torturous period that Wiles and Tosh oversaw, and the recruitment of their replacements, Innes Lloyd and Gerry Davis. A must for anyone interested in the history of the show, it's almost worth buying the boxset for this documentary alone.

Episodes
The Gunfighters: 3 starsThe Awakening: 1 star1Discs
The Gunfighters: 4 starsThe Awakening: 2 starsYou can rent or buy Doctor Who: Earth Story at Blockbuster.co.uk.

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