Doctor Who: UNIT Files DVD REVIEW
Android doubles and puppet troubles
"Hello, Evil Scientist's lab? Sorry, the Evil Scientist isn't here right now. Can I take a message?"
Release Date: 9 January 2011
1974/1975 | PG | 244 minutes | £29.99
Directors: Paddy Russell, Barry Letts
Cast: Jon Pertwee, Tom Baker, Elisabeth Sladen, Nicholas Courtney, Richard Franklin, Milton Johns
While not as desperately tenuous as last summer’s Earth Story, the umbrella title of this latest two-tale Who box set does seem a tad random: UNIT features in both, but neither story is one you’d pick out to showcase the organisation at its best.
There are other connections, too. They could have called this the Sarah* And The Doctor Wander Around Mysteriously Deserted Bits Of England And Encounter Some Bonkers Schemes (With UNIT) box set. Although they’d probably have had to squeeze the font size down a fair bit.
In “Invasion Of The Dinosaurs” the Third Doctor and Sarah land in a Mysteriously Deserted London menaced by the titular prehistoric beasts, which keep popping out of thin air before vanishing just as quickly. It all turns out to be part of a bewildering scheme by a bunch of unlikely eco-warriors. Malcolm Hulke’s script provides a different slant on the ecological concerns of earlier Pertwee tales such as “The Green Death”, imagining where the nostalgic desire to return to a “golden age” could lead blinkered extremists, and leaving you terribly glad that no-one at the Daily Mail has access to time-tampering technology.
The story’s crammed with unlikely plot turns (for one thing, the conspiracy seems to involve absolutely everyone, including one of UNIT’s finest) – but that just makes it all the more entertaining. Only the diabolical dinosaur effects let the side down. Most are tolerably crude, but the T Rex looks like it was constructed from egg boxes by a seven-year-old, which is particularly problematic since several cliffhangers are reliant on its “terrifying” sudden appearance.
Still, who cares about some wonky puppetry when you have Elisabeth Sladen? In the extras, the actress asserts that by this, her second story, Sarah had already become a generic ask-the-questions type, but she’s quite wrong. Over the course of six episodes, Sarah leaps on the back of a knife-wielding maniac, has to be physically restrained from chasing after a sawn-off toting looter, comes up with the vital lead, and forges on with solo investigations when she’s met with a wall of male patronisation. You go, girl!
“The Android Invasion” (written by Dalek creator Terry Nation) involves an equally unlikely and unnecessarily convoluted scheme, and kicks off in similar fashion, with the Fourth Doctor and Sarah materialising in a Mysteriously Deserted English Village and getting caught up in the machinations of the Kraals. These walnut-headed aliens have a penchant for booming Shakespearean delivery; peeping out from behind pointless hatches, Madame Kovarian style; and leaving their victims to die unobserved and unguarded (Haven’t they seen Goldfinger? That never works out).
Some of Nation’s plot points make Hulke’s look perfectly reasonable. Our favourite concerns treacherous astronaut Guy Crawford (a supremely slimy Milton Johns), whom the Kraals have somehow duped into believing he’s lost an eye. It’s difficult not to dwell on this detail, imagining Crayford climbing into bed every night still wearing his eyepatch, waking with it fortuitously still in position, then getting into the shower and carefully flanneling around it.
Although UNIT appeared again later in the year, this story, which features the return of former companion Harry and Sergeant Benton is effectively their swansong, and the absence of Nicholas Courtney’s Brigadier makes it a somewhat unsatisfying farewell. Still, once again, it’s as enjoyable as it is unlikely, particularly the moody first episode, which piles on mystery after fascinating mystery – well, if you can will yourself into a temporary amnesia regarding the story’s title.
Two solid examples, then of regular Who writers producing yarns which, although not their best work, demonstrate their firm grasp of how to write for the series.
On “Dinosaurs”, the key thing of interest is a recovered-colour version of episode one (which previously only existed in the BBC archives in black and white). You can choose to watch the monochrome version if you prefer, but we’d stick with the colour – the quality is pretty ropey, but fans of a certain vintage who used to depend on fifth-generation VHS copies will have seen much, much worse. A Making Of fronted by Matthew Sweet (33 minutes) manfully strives to steer discussion away from the effects to thoughtful discussion of the story’s themes. Meanwhile, the coup of getting little-seen director Paddy Russell to do commentary on parts one and five proves to be rather a blood-out-of-a-stone exercise, though she warms up eventually; the script editor, designer and three actors feature on the other episodes. You also get a “Now And Then” locations featurette (14 minutes) (in which the phrase, “has since been demolished…” occurs with comedic regularity); a 14-minute interview with Lis Sladen (dating from 2003, and originally shot for documentary The Story Of Doctor Who) on her Pertwee adventures; deleted/extended scenes; ten minutes of John “Benton” Levene chuntering over the beginning of episode five (and being unduly proud about his ability to fall on the floor convincingly…); and a rather baffling clip of Jon Pertwee cameoing at a performance of Billy Smart’s Circus (a slide providing context would have been welcome).
On “The Android Invasion”, Making Of “The Village That Came To Life” (31 minutes) sees voice-of-the-Daleks Nick Briggs returning to the story’s locations and, in one charming (if not particularly revealing) sequence, quizzing some of the locals about their memories of filming; elsewhere there’s much guffawing at the Kraals and that eyepatch from the actors concerned. More tangential is a half-hour “Life After Who” piece on producer Philip Hinchcliffe, who’s interviewed (again, rather charmingly) by his own daughter about his subsequent career. Anyone with a general interest in the history of British TV will be interested to discover quite how small a part of his CV those three years on Who form. Hinchcliffe also provides commentary, along with the production manager and Milton Johns. You also get a short Weetabix ad.
Both stories also come with a text commentary, picture gallery and Radio Times PDFs, and there are Easter Eggs to hunt out too.
Read our review of Elisabeth Sladen’s autobiography, and 35 things we learnt from it.
Read more of our Doctor Who DVD reviews.