The Brothers – Series Six. Simply Media DVD Review

Series six kicks off in a typically confrontational way as Edward (Patrick O’Connell) clashes with Merroney over Brian’s future. Will Brian be welcomed back onto the board? Edward wants a fair deal for his brother and – possibly surprisingly – Merroney concurs. But the reason he gives is sure to put Edward’s back up. “Because of the three of you, he’s the only true professional”.

Colin Baker still looks as if he’s enjoying himself enormously as Merroney continues to call the tune, forcing the others to dance to it. His relationship with Brian (Richard Easton) has always been complex.  He values Brian’s business acumen and knows that Brian likes him personally (which has helped create a bond between them) but it’s also plain that Merroney would drop him like a stone if he proved to be unreliable.

Somewhat Godot like, Brian has an influence over events even when he’s not on screen. The series opener, Red Sky At Night, begins with the others awaiting his return. But when he’s not on Don Stacey’s charter-flight there’s concern all round. Where is he? Is his absence further evidence of his unreliability?

When Brian (still sporting the impressive moustache he grew last year) does reappear, it’s telling that it’s Merroney he goes to see. Although both David (Robin Chadwick) and Edward have fought for their brother’s interests in their own ways, Brian clearly feels more comfortable with somebody outside of the family.

Colin Baker, Robin Chadwick and Derek Benfield

Brian’s gradual reintegration back into the business is a running theme during these early episodes as is the question of Jennifer (Jennifer Wilson) and Edward’s adopted baby, William. When the baby’s real mother decides she wants him back, Jennifer starts to feel the strain. One has to wonder why Jennifer and Edward didn’t legally adopt the child (William was abandoned by her mother six months earlier but she now feels more confident that she can look after him).

Our sympathy should be with Jennifer, but there’s something more than a little off-putting about her manic determination to hang onto William whatever it takes. Jennifer Wilson plays these scenes well and since her character’s usually so level-headed and sensible it’s an interesting change to see her put under pressure for once.

Jennifer is happy to cast William’s natural mother, Pat Hawkins (Elaine Donnelly), in a poor light, but that’s not the impression most will get when they hear her story. “Look, I’m just a girl from the local estate, okay? And I got a baby. And I couldn’t explain to my mum and dad why I wanted to keep him. So I did the only thing I could do and I gave him away”.

One might raise an eyebrow at the revelation that Pat’s husband, Alan (Ian Marter), works for Hammonds. Something of a remarkable coincidence it must be said, but this does allow Edward to be pushed over the edge a little further (like Jennifer Wilson, Patrick O’Connell seems to relish these dramatic scenes). Plus it’s always a pleasure to see the late Ian Marter, even in a small role like this.

Jennifer Wilson & Patrick O’Connell

Carleton Hobbs makes a welcome reappearance as Sir Neville Henniswode (Hobbs had appeared in series four but was presumably unavailable for series five, which led to Llewellyn Rees taking over the role). Hobbs had a decent film and television career but for me – and I’m sure for many others – he’ll forever be the definitive radio Sherlock Holmes. Just to hear the timbre of his voice is enough to conjure up images of foggy streets and Hansom Cabs ….

One of the more unlikely developing plotlines concerns the relationship between Sir Neville and Mary Hammond (Jean Anderson), the imposing matriarch of the family. At least this enables Mary to get out of the house every so often and therefore makes a nice change from her usual scenes (which tend to consist of her chivvying one or more of her sons).  Since both David and Brian are currently living with her at the family home, she’s got ample opportunity to fuss around them.

The first half of series six sees the Hammonds struggling to balance their work/private lives. Brian is still finding his way back to fitness slowly, David has never been terribly business minded anyway, whilst Edward and Jennifer are more concerned with the fallout from William’s departure than they are with Hammond Transport.

This leaves Merroney in a strong position, although Bill Riley (Derek Benfield) for one isn’t prepared to roll over for him. Bill’s rise through the ranks has been an entertaining running thread over the last few series. Initially he was a little diffident at board meetings – due to his elevation from the shop floor – but by this point he’s more then happy to speak his mind.

Derek Benfield

He’s matched in the common-sense stakes by his wife Gwen (Margaret Ashcroft). Whilst the majority of the characters in The Brothers are middle-class or higher, the Rileys are resolutely working-class and proud of it. It would be easy for them to be portrayed in a patronising light, but this doesn’t happen – meaning that there’s something charming in the way they enjoy the simple pleasures of life (an evening game of Scrabble, for instance). But they’ve not immune to pressure and Bill’s increasing workload will be seen to have a negative effect on their marriage.

Merroney’s private secretary Clare Miller (Carole Mowlam) still finds that her loyalty is divided between Merroney and David. With neither man in a regular relationship, both are content to use her as a dinner companion and confidant. Although Clare is a character designed to react to others rather than instigate her own plotlines, Mowlam still manages to give Clare a spiky sense of humour, ensuring she’s more than the cardboard character she otherwise could have been.

During S5, Merroney seemed mainly to exist in order to thwart the Hammonds at every turn. But throughout this run of episodes he’s more nuanced – whereas previously he was totally dedicated to Sir Neville and the bank, now he confesses that he’s beginning to side with the Hammonds over certain matters. Although on other occasions he’s quite prepared to steam-roller right through them, if he can ….

Brian also shows some unexpected facets to his personality (since his breakdown he’s become a more relaxed and far-thinking person). At one point he expresses his new personal philosophy. “You’ve got to feel that what you’re doing is really worth doing. Nobody makes money except the Mint. All the rest of us do is push it around a bit, trying to make sure that we get a little more than the next man. But it’s not wealth. Wealth is enriching. Making money is just debilitating. In the end it leads to a sense of personal isolation”.

When David finds himself rejected by Clare in episode eight  – The Chosen Victim – it serves as something of a wake-up call for him. All his life he’s been able to get whatever he wanted (until Clare). Will this make him a more rounded and less arrogant character? It’ll be interesting to see if his growth continues next series.

Paul Merroney and Jane Maxwell (Kate O’Mara) fractious relationship shows no sign of abating. At one point she tells him he’s “one of the lowest forms of life I’ve ever come across”. But when you learn that Merroney was castigating Jane’s ex-husband, the hard-drinking pilot Don Stacey (Mike Pratt) at the time, it’s easy to understand the reason for her anger.

Kate O’Mara

Don bows out of the series in the sixth episode, Tender (broadcast just a few months before Pratt’s death at the age of 45). Pratt’s gaunt appearance gave the running plotline of Don’s impending medical exam a bitter irony. “Sooner or later they’ll find something that creaks or groans or doesn’t react fast enough and that’s it. You can keep as fit as you like, but Anno Domini gets you in the end”. Don didn’t do a great deal (although his leaving scene was a powerful one) but he was always an amusing character and Pratt, even though he was clearly ailing, always played him with an agreeable twinkle in his eye.

As series six moves towards its conclusion, several familiar faces pop up. Clive Swift plays the shifty Trevelyan whilst Joby Blanshard (best known as the plain-speaking Colin Bradley from Doomwatch) appears as Van der Merwe.

After being somewhat subdued in the early episodes, Edward roars back into life (few sights are more impressive than that of Patrick O’Connell in full flight) whilst Brian and Jane seem to be forming something of an alliance, both personally and professionally. But Brian’s wounded psyche (he has a fear of being touched) might be a problem. Richard Easton, as so often throughout all six series, impresses here.

The sight of April Winter (Liza Goddard) who briefly appears in the penultimate installment – The Bonus – signifies that change is on the way for Merroney. His offhand comment that she’s his fiancee is a real leftfield jolt – although April’s been mentioned on several occassions (which has prepared the ground for her arrival) it’s hard to imagine the coldly efficient Merroney ever being in love. Clare is crushed by the news. Bill later tells Gwen that “the torch that girl carries for him makes the Statue of Liberty look like a candle”.

Hammond Transport has undergone substantial changes over the last few years, morphing from a wholly-owned family concern into a company with strong ties to the bank (where Sir Neville and Merroney reign). But it’s the proposed takeover bid from Kirkmans which threatens to split the Hammond family down the middle. Some, like David, would be happy to sell their shares for a handsome profit whilst Edward (and especially Mary) are resolutely opposed to the deal.

When Merroney goes AWOL (he’s in Amsterdam, meeting with Van der Merwe) the others (especially Edward) are concerned that he’s plotting behind their back. His adventures in Amsterdam are great fun, adding a touch of out-of-season glamour to the series. The sight of his discomforted face as Van der Merwe’s daughter whisks him round Amsterdam at great speed in an open-top jeep is worth the price of admission alone.

The series finale – Birthday – might be partly concerned with Mary’s birthday celebrations but business matters are also on her mind. The takeover from Kirkmans may have foundered but a merger with Van der Merwe’s company is still very much on. But Mary, frustrated at being out of the loop, begins to flex her muscles. As with previous years, the final episode finishes on a strong hook which will lead in nicely to the start of the next series.

The Brothers remains a very moreish and ridiculously entertaining series.  Richard Easton and Colin Baker especially impress, but there’s no weak links here.  Four decades on it’s still easy to see why the show built up such a large and devoted fanbase (not only in the UK but in many other countries as well).  Sharply defined and well-acted characters, placed in perpetual conflict with each other was a key part to its success and the passing of time has done nothing to dull this winning format.

The Brothers – Series Six is released on the 12th of June 2017 by Simply Media and contains thirteen 50 minute episodes across four discs.  RRP £29.99.

Patrick O’Connell, Jennifer Wilson, Richard Easton, Jean Anderson & Robin Chadwick

The Brothers – Series Five. Simply Media DVD Review

The beginning of series five finds The Brothers in something of a transitional phase.  Two key cast members (Gabrielle Drake and Hilary Tindall) had left the show at the end of the previous run, although fresh blood (most notably in the shape of Kate O’Mara as Jane Maxwell) would shortly arrive to shake things up.

The departures of both Drake (Jill Hammond) and Tindall (Ann Hammond) were used to good dramatic effect though.  Ann and Brian had gone through the relationship mill during the previous series and even though their union was now at an end, Brian continues to suffer.  But his broken marriage is just one reason why he goes severely off the rails in the early episodes.

Although Tindall was gone, her character was still alive and therefore a return was always possible (and  indeed Ann did make a fleeting reappearance in a handful of episodes at the start of the seventh and final series).  But Drake wasn’t so fortunate, as Jill is dispatched in the time-honoured way of dealing with soap actors who either can’t or won’t carry on (an off-screen accident).  Talking about this decades later in The Cult of The Brothers documentary, it seems that Drake was a little taken aback at just how ruthlessly Jill was dealt with.

Another character, Martin Farrell, had also left, which results in both personal and professional consequences.  Professionally, it means that the position of chairman is vacant – which seems tailor-made for the ambitious Paul Merroney.

And on a more personal note, it was plain that Edward Hammond’s nose was put out of joint last series by the interest Farrell had been taking in Jennifer Kingsley.  So with Farrell out of the picture, Edward rekindles his own relationship with her.  Lest we forget, Jennifer carried on a lengthy and clandestine affair with Edward’s late father.  Unsurprisingly this meant she has always been viewed with great disfavour by Edward’s mother – the indomitable matriarch Mary Hammond – but it seems that Edward has eventually summoned up the courage to defy his mother and make an honest woman out of Jennifer.  Although I’m sure there’s still going to be a few bumps ahead before they can enjoy a lifetime of wedded bliss.

The series opener, the aptly titled Life Goes On, finds Brian in a pretty poor state. This concerns the bank – they don’t want to see their investment in Hammonds put at risk because the new managing director is feeling flaky – but Paul Merroney has put plans in motion to protect their money ….

Although Merroney was a rather peripheral character during the last series, here he really starts to make his mark. For one thing, he’s gained an assistant – Clare Miller (Carole Mowlam). Apart from signifying Merroney’s increasing significance, Clare also emerges as a character in her own right – becoming close to David, for example.

Baker’s good value in these early episodes as Merroney begins his manoeuvres. Surprisingly, only the bluff Bill Riley realises that Merroney has his eye on the chairman’s job – which doesn’t say much for the business acumen of the others! There’s a delicious sense of duplicity on show from Merroney as he puts the blame for the recent ousting of Edward as managing director firmly on the shoulders of the departed (and innocent) Farrell.

The way the audience learns about Jill’s death is done in a very interesting way which makes a positive out of the fact that Gabrielle Drake was no longer a member of the cast.  Jill isn’t mentioned during most of the first episode, although that wasn’t unusual (she was absent from the first few episodes of series four).  It’s only right at the end of Life Goes On, when David runs into a friend who’s been out of town for several months that we find out Jill is dead.  This is an incredibly jolting moment which provides us with a strong hook into the next episode where her fate is discussed in detail.

The dynamic between the three brothers – Edward, Brian and David – has been the motor which has powered the series to date.  Whilst series five continues to play on their conflicts, the emergence of Paul Merroney as a major player refreshes this somewhat – as an outsider he has quite a different set of loyalties.

But the brothers still dominate the storylines especially, in the early episodes, Brian.  In many ways he’s now got everything he wished for – he’s become managing director of Hammonds, ousting Edward.  Or has he?  We’d seen in previous series that it was Ann who was the ambitious one, constantly pushing him forward.  So the fact that he’s gained in business but lost out in his personal life must come as a bitter irony to him.

Richard Easton continues to impress as Brian, especially when he starts to lose the plot (the episode title Breakdown makes it fairly obvious what’s going to happen).  As his drinking increases, Brian is encouraged to seek psychiatric help.  And always around is Merroney, plotting to oust Brian at one point and then (so the others fear) attempting to buy Brian’s shares so he can gain overall control of the company. But as we’ll see, Merroney is no cardboard villain – he may be mainly motivated by self interest but he’s also not without compassion for the stricken Brian.

As Brian, ensconced in a nursing home, retreats into the background, so other plotlines begin to develop.  The long-running will they/won’t they relationship between Edward and Jennifer is now very much back in “they will” territory and moves forward at a rate of knots.  The problem with Mary (Jean Alexander, as good as always) still has to be overcome though, as the icy disdain she feels towards the woman who conducted a long-term affair with her late husband continues to be a fruitful source of drama.  Even when Mary and Jennifer appear to be on civil terms there’s always the sense that at any moment things could change ….

Although the departure of both Hilary Tindall and Gabrielle Drake left something of a hole, two new female characters filled the gap nicely.  Clare’s divided loyalties (between David and Merroney) generate a good source of drama which plays out as the series progresses whilst Kate O’Mara makes an immediate impression as Jane Maxwell.  Debuting in episode six, Flight of Fancy, Jane is the hard-headed director of an air-freight business which Hammonds have an interest in.  As a proactive business woman she’s something of a rarity in the world of The Brothers (Jennifer might be a board member of Hammonds, but she’s a much more passive character).

Also appearing for the first time in this episode is Mike Pratt as Don Stacey, a hard-drinking pilot.  This would be Pratt’s final television role before his death in 1976 at the age of just 45.  Don would appear throughout the remainder of series five and the first half of series six. Whilst it’s always a pleasure to see Pratt, it’s rather tempered by how ill and haggard he looks.

Yet again, things conclude in the boardroom (episode thirteen, Warpath) as Merroney continues to scheme although it’s possible that in Jane he’s finally met his match (a decade or so later Baker and O’Mara would once again lock horns, this time in Doctor Who).  With Edward under pressure and Brian’s fate still uncertain, things are left nicely poised for the following series to pick up where this one left off.

By now, The Brothers had become a well-oiled machine and series five not only manages to develop the existing characters in a variety of ways but it also develops intriguing new ones as well.  It continues to be highly addictive stuff, especially as the Hammonds, Merroney and Jane jostle for power and superiority.  But there’s time for more personal stories as well (Jennifer’s longing for another child) which ensures that the series isn’t completely boardroom and business based.

The Brothers – Series Five is released by Simply Media on the 27th of March 2017.  RRP £29.99.

The Brothers – Series Four. Simply Media DVD Review

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The story so far.  Following the death of Robert Hammond, control of his thriving haulage firm was split four ways – equal shares were distributed to his three sons – Edward, Brian and David – whilst the fourth equal share went to his mistress Jennifer Kingsley.

With no-one in overall control, there’s a constant power-struggle as elder son Edward (currently managing director) finds himself under attack from his two brothers, both convinced they could run the company better than him.  And the trauma in the boardroom is matched by equal strife in their respective bedrooms.

We’ve previously seen that David’s (Robin Chadwick) recent marriage to the lovely, if rather doormat-like Jill (Gabrielle Drake), has had a few wobbles, mainly because his roving eye was elsewhere.  He hadn’t actually been unfaithful, but Jill’s suspicions created a definite rift which they attempt to heal during this run of episodes.

Middle son Brian (Richard Easton) suffered even more spectacular marriage problems during the third series, although he remained blissfully unaware.  His bored wife Ann (a wonderful performance by Hilary Tindall) found solace in the arms of smooth advertising type Nicholas Fox whilst chugging down far too many sleeping pills and drinking heavily.  Her unhappiness at feeling trapped in a loveless marriage culminated in an overdose, although she appears to be quite her old self again now, even to the extent of restablishing contact with Nicholas.

Elder son Edward (Patrick O’Connell) doesn’t have any complaints on the marriage front, but that’s only because he’s single.  He has his eye on someone though – Jennifer Kingsley (Jennifer Wilson).  His desire to wed his father’s mistress has been a running thread for a while, although Edward’s mother, the powerful matriarch Mary (Jean Anderson), strongly disapproves.  This might have been one of the reasons why Mary keeled over at the end of series three with a heart attack.

So as series four begins, all three brothers face challenges in their personal lives whilst the business of running Hammonds also continues to cause them tremendous strife.  And waiting in the wings is ambitious merchant banker Paul Merroney (Colin Baker), a man who always has his own agenda …..

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Colin Baker and Murray Hayne

The series four opener, Emergency sees Mary seriously ill in hosptal. She was discovered (off-screen) by Edward and Jennifer who had returned from a brief holiday with life-changing news – Edward had proposed and Jennifer accepted. But their happiness quickly evaporates as Edward blames himself for leaving his mother on her own.

We then see a nice visual signifier of the bond between mother and son. Whilst Edward goes to the hospital to await further news, Jennifer stays behind to contact Brian and David as the camera lingers on a framed portrait of Mary and Edward. It’s a clever, unspoken touch which forshadows the dominance Mary will exert over her elder son.

When Mary gets better she has no compunction in telling Edward that he can’t marry Jennifer. Edward might be a hard-headed businessman but he always come off second best with his mother. And this is enough to convince Jennifer that marriage to Edward would be impossible.

Business matters take centre-stage again with episode two, Secret Meetings, as Brian and David plan to offer merchant banker Martin Farrell (Murray Hayne) a seat on the board – the first step in their plan to make Hammonds a public company. Of course they’ve yet to mention this to Edward, so sparks inevitably fly when they do. Having said this, it’s surprising that Edward accepts their plan meekly, but he’s got an idea up his sleeve – if Bill Riley also joined the board then (provided he always votes Edward’s way) the status quo would remain. This is classic Brothers, featuring plot and counterplot.

If David has always irritated me somewhat, then Brian is a much more sympathetic character, even if it’s impossible not to feel a little frustrated by the way he remained oblivious to Ann’s lengthy relationship with Nicholas Fox (Jonathan Newth). But even Brian’s blindness could only continue for so long without it seeming totally unbelievable, and when he finally twigs it’s the cue for high drama. His first reaction, of course, is to reach for a drink (heavy alcohol consumption, along with an equally herculean nicotine intake, is something of a feature of the series).

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Richard Easton

Brian doesn’t confront Ann straight away, which enables him to calmly twist the knife and make her feel even more guilty than she already is. This is a good move – since you know the showdown will happen eventually, making us wait a little simply heightens the expectation. But Brian’s not backward in letting Ann know exactly what he thinks of her when the truth does emerge. “Your whole world begins and ends with yourself. You’re shallow, you’re superficial and utterly self-centered. Nothing matters to you but self, self, self!”

Ann doesn’t take this lying down. “You are a predictable bore, Brian. You don’t want a wife, you want a second mother. Somebody to cook and clean for you, and tuck you in and say, ‘there, there’ whenever you’re not feeling very well.” Both Richard Easton and Hilary Tindall are firing on all cylinders throughout (the end of episode five – Partings – as Brian knocks a shocked Ann to the floor is one of a number of stand-out moments). If Brian, following his separation from Ann, becomes something of a tortured figure then so does Ann herself. It slowly dawns on her that Nicholas Fox (a serial seducer) has no interest in a long-term relationship ….

David decides to become a racing driver (!) which means that Jill has to wait anxiously on the sidelines, hoping that he won’t be hurt. Frankly, this isn’t much of a role for Gabrielle Drake (compare and contrast to the plotlines dished out to Hilary Tindall) so it’s no surprise that she decided not to return for the fifth series.

Drake might also have been a little miffed that Jill didn’t turn up until the fourth episode and when she does finally make her first appearance it’s only to be once again verbally smacked down by David (he’s less than impressed with her anniversary gift to him – a penthouse flat – complaining that he doesn’t want to be a kept man). He eventually accepts it, but does so with his usual brand of charmless ill-grace.

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Robin Chadwick and Gabrielle Drake

The on/off relationship between Edward and Jennifer allows Martin Farrell to step in (much to Edward’s extreme annoyance) whilst Bill struggles with the responsibilities of having a seat on the board. He’s always been proud to have the respect of the men, will this change now he’s one of the executives?

Brian’s run of bad luck continues in Saturday, but the later part of series four focuses on company traumas. The decision to make Hammonds a public company offers up a new range of storytelling possibilities. Until now, boardroom squabbles have largely been confined between the three brothers, but now that anyone is free to buy shares everything changes.

And this is partly where Paul Merroney comes in. He’s introduced in the fifth episode as a colleague of Farrell’s, brought in to advise how Hammonds should go public and although his screentime throughout series four is quite limited, he’ll become more central in the years to come. But Colin Baker, in his first regular television role, certainly makes the most of the material he’s given.

The wonderful Richard Hurndall guests in Bad Mistake as Clifton, an influential investment manager crucial to Hammonds’ future. Edward’s blunt style leaves Clifton less than impressed, giving Hurndall a chance to demonstrate his familiar icy, amused detachment. This episode also marks the point where Merroney starts to have an influence on company policy, much to Edward’s disgust.

The series finale, the aptly named The Crucial Vote, sees Edward struggling to keep the board united as the infighting intensifies. There’s no doubt that there will be many more twists and turns to come in the battle for Hammonds, which bodes well for future series.

Interweaving numerous plot-threads across its fourteen episodes, series four of The Brothers continues to be highly addictive entertainment. Brian and Ann’s disintegrating marriage is the definite highlight although the unstable powder-keg that is Edward Hammond also entertains. Patrick O’Connell plays Edward as a man constantly struggling to keep his anger in check – which can be seen most clearly any time that Jennifer and Martin Farrell exchange glances. David’s fleeting desire to be a racing driver is less easy to swallow, but at least the one racing-centric episode – The Race – is not without interest, especially for the authentic track footage.

If you’ve yet to sample the world of the Hammond brothers, then now – with the first four series available and the remaining three due out by the end of the year – would appear to be the ideal time to do so.

The Brothers – Series Four is released by Simply Media on the 9th of January 2017.  RRP £29.99.

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Richard Easton, Robin Chadwick and Patrick O’Connell

Blakes 7 – City at the Edge of the World

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Most of the regulars take centre-stage in at least one series three episode.  Avon features heavily in Aftermath and Rumours of Death, Cally’s the main character in both Children of Auron and Sarcophagus whilst Tarrant (and his identical twin brother) stars in Death-Watch.  Danya is the only one who doesn’t really have an episode of her own, unless you count her introductory tale, Aftermath.

For everybody’s favourite thief, City at the Edge of the World is a chance to see a more proactive and heroic Vila.  Even when the script didn’t really feature him, Michael Keating could always be guaranteed to take whatever material he had and make it work to the best of his ability.  Unlike some actors he didn’t do this by upstaging others – it was simply down to his natural comic timing.  A great example can be found in Powerplay.  Vila, wounded and alone in a strange forest, attempts to frighten off any would-be attackers by pretending to be a whole troop of fighting men!  It’s an old gag – and only a throwaway moment – but Keating’s a delight to watch.

But there’s no doubt that it’s good to see Vila right in the thick of things for once.  Too often he tended to end up as either the butt of other people’s jokes or simply blissed out on adrenaline and soma.  In City at the Edge of the World he’s witty, resourceful and gets the girl.  What more could you ask for?

We open with Tarrant being irritating (yet again).  The Liberator needs crystals for its weaponry systems and he’s struck a deal with the mysterious inhabitants of a nearby planet.  It’s simple enough – the crystals in exchange for Vila’s help.  When Vila disappears and the box of crystals turns out to be a booby-trapped bomb, Tarrant is forced to eat humble pie (not before time!)

Vila’s been brought to the planet by Bayban the Butcher (Colin Baker).  A vision in black, Baker is clearly having a ball (Paul Darrow later repayed the favour by going even further over the top in the Doctor Who story Timelash).  It’s a cartoony performance but it works perfectly in this context.  Following a couple of stories that were played too straight, City bubbles along with an infectious sense of humour and many quotable lines.  This is one of my favourites, courtesy of Bayban who’s peeved to find out that he’s top of the Federation’s Most Wanted list – after Blake.  “What do you mean, ‘after Blake’? I was working my way up that list before he crept out of his creche. WORKING my way up. I didn’t take any political shortcuts.”

Bayban has a crack force of mercenaries, led by Kerril (Carol Hawkins) and Sherm (John J. Carney).  Carney, who’d previously given an excellent comic performance as Bloodaxe in the Doctor Who story The Time Warrior, is just as good here.  He’s got little to do except react to the others – but he does it so well.  Hawkins plays the unlikely love interest (or at least it’s unlikely to begin with).  Their first meeting is memorable – we see Vila cowering at her feet, whilst she mocks him (“little man”).  He then suggests she bathes more regularly (and uses mouthwash too).

The unexpected thaw in their relationship seems to happen after she changes out of her black leathers and into something more feminine.  Possibly Chris Boucher was attempting to make a point here.  She spends the early part of the story attempting to be one of the boys (and acting aggressively) but once she changes clothes she becomes a more passive and submissive character – effectively acting as Vila’s assistant.

To be honest the story isn’t the strongest – a mysterious race seek entry to a new world, but rather carelessly they’ve lost the key to the door.  Only their leader Norl (Valentine Dyall) ever speaks, so they remain rather undeveloped – but then they’re not really the focus here (it’s more of an excuse for Vila to demonstrate his skills and Colin Baker to chew the scenery).  Dyall is compelling though.  He had the sort of voice that instantly commanded attention, so whenever he speaks it’s hard not to listen.

Vila is given a chance to cross over to this new world with Kerril.  It’s a beautiful, unspoiled planet where they could live out their lives in peace.  He declines, and his reason gives an insight into what makes him tick.  “There’s nothing there worth stealing. You know why I neutralize security systems, open safes, and break into vaults? It’s because I can and most people can’t. It’s just that, it’s what makes me, me. Kerril, a thief isn’t what I am, it’s who I am.”

After a couple of average stories, City at the Edge of the World gets us back on track.

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Doctor Who – More than Thirty Years in the TARDIS

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One thing that the range of Doctor Who DVDs (from An Unearthly Child to the TVM) isn’t short of is documentaries.  Just about every release has a plethora of supplementary information – from story-specific features, interviews with people from both in-front of and behind the camera to more tangential featurettes (such as The Blood Show from the State of Decay DVD.  A twenty minute documentary on the use and meaning of blood in society?  No, me neither).

But back at the start of the 1990’s, things were very different.  The only British-made documentary screened during the series’ original twenty-six year run was 1977’s Whose Doctor Who.  Reeltime Pictures catered for the fan market during the 1980’s and 1990’s with the MythMakers series of interview videos, but these (like VHS releases of convention panels) were only preaching to the converted.  A mainstream documentary on BBC1 seemed like a remote possibility.

But 1993 was Doctor Who’s 30th anniversary and even if the show had been off the air since 1989, it still had a certain presence (thanks to healthy VHS sales).  Kevin Davies was keen to make a documentary celebrating the program and he had an impressive calling card – The Making of the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – a popular straight to video documentary that mixed archive footage, outtakes and new interviews.

Thirty Years in the TARDIS was to eventually take very much the same shape – although prior to this format being agreed Davies made numerous other pitches which were rejected.  These included Tomb of the Time Lords which would have featured Ace searching the Doctor’s memory in the Matrix – which would have provided the excuse for a series of clips.  Another intriguing possibility was The Legend Begins, a drama-documentary about the creation of the series (Davies suggested Pete Postlewaite as Hartnell).  We would have to wait another twenty years, and Mark Gatiss’ An Adventure in Space and Time, for this idea to eventually hit the screen.

Thirty Years in the TARDIS was produced by The Late Show team and although Davies had been given a free hand, some higher-ups became concerned with the approach used.  Davies wanted to take the nostalgic route to try and pinpoint why Doctor Who had been such as success whilst The Late Show team felt that the documentary should have a more factual basis and so additional interview material was shot.

In the end, this made the transmitted version a rather uneasy comprise between Davies and his producers.  But even though it was a bit of a hodge-podge, there were still plenty of impressive moments (especially the drama recreations).  However, Davies still felt that there was a better documentary that could be made from the material and so in 1994 More Than Thirty Years in the TARDIS was released on VHS.

Davies had free reign to re-edit the program to his wishes as well as adding an additional forty minutes (bringing the running time up to ninety minutes).  From the perspective of 2015 it’s just another documentary, but back in 1994 it was something rather special.

Although the pirate video network (see Cheques, Lies and Videotape on the Revenge of the Cybermen DVD for more info) was still flourishing at the time (which meant that some of the rarer material featured – studio outtakes, for example – were in circulation) not everybody had access to them.  So a major draw of the VHS were the snippets from studio sessions, including The Claws of Axos and Death to the Daleks , as well as ephemera like the Tom Baker/Lalla Ward Prime Computer adverts.  Even the end credits were fascinating, as they were packed with clips of studio off-cuts.

Jon Pertwee, Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy were interviewed, but Tom Baker and Peter Davison were conspicuous by their absence.  Tom did make an appearance via archive footage though and given that many anecdotes were already calcified by this time (yes, Jon Pertwee does mention Yetis in Tooting-Bec!) this probably wasn’t too much of a drawback.

One notable new section concerned the thorny issue about who exactly created the Daleks (was it Terry Nation, Raymond Cusick or Davros?).  This discussion was intercut with Jon Pertwee’s appearance on the Anne and Nick show where he disagreed that it was Terry Nation (much to the amusement of the studio crew!).

The DVD release of More Than is pretty much a direct port of the VHS master which means that many of the clips look rather grotty.  Along with the staggering number of special features, the amount of restoration work carried out the DVD releases is really highlighted when you see exactly how badly the stories used to look.

If you didn’t live through the 1990’s as a Doctor Who fan, then More Than is probably not going to have the same special appeal today as it did then.  Just about every scrap of interesting material can be found in a more complete form somewhere on the DVD range (you want the whole studio spool from The Claws of Axos? You’ve got it) but More Than does manage to compress twenty six years of history into an entertaining ninety minutes.

This obvious nostalgia apart, it remains a very decent documentary that does its best to explain the magic of the series and I’m glad it ended up on DVD.

There’s nothing you can do to prevent the catharsis of spurious morality. Doctor Who – The Trial of a Time Lord – The Ultimate Foe

Doctor Who

If The Ultimate Foe brings The Trial of a Time Lord to a slightly disappointing conclusion, the somewhat chaotic nature of the scripting of the story is probably the reason why.

Eric Saward had commissioned Robert Holmes to write the two concluding episodes.  Holmes was mid-way through episode thirteen when he was hospitalized and sadly, he was to pass away shortly afterwards.  With Holmes in hospital, Saward completed episode thirteen and, working from Holmes’ story outline, wrote the concluding episode.

JNT wasn’t happy with Saward’s ending (the Doctor and the Valeyard were trapped, apparently for ever, in a Time Vent) and asked for it to be changed.  Saward refused and then resigned as script editor, taking his script with him.  He also attempted to stop his section of episode thirteen from being used, but was unsuccessful.

Pip and Jane Baker were commissioned to write a new concluding episode.  For copyright reasons they couldn’t be given any details of Saward’s script.  So all they had to go on was episode thirteen and to make matters worse they had only a few days to deliver a workable episode.

Holmes’ section of episode thirteen runs up until the Doctor enters the Matrix.  After that (with one exception) the rest was scripted by Saward.  What’s interesting about Holmes’ scenes is how he takes yet another opportunity to tarnish the reputation of the Time Lords.  Holmes had started this process some ten years earlier with The Deadly Assassin.  And in many ways, The Ultimate Foe is really The Deadly Assassin II.

Episode thirteen answers some of the unanswered questions from The Mysterious Planet (although it’s debatable how many people actually remembered the points that are tidied up).  Glitz and Mel are called as star witnesses and the Master pops up.  I love the reveal of Ainley on the Matrix screen as well as his comment that he’s been sat in the Matrix watching everything and “enjoying myself enormously”.

The Master has the best seat in the house
The Master has the best seat in the house

All of the Time Lords’ dirty schemes are revealed (they’re somewhat complicated it has to be said) and there then follows a scene which could have been a game-changer in the direction of the series.

MASTER: You have an endearing habit of blundering into these things, Doctor, and the High Council took full advantage of your blunder.
INQUISITOR: Explain that.
MASTER: They made a deal with the Valeyard, or as I’ve always known him, the Doctor, to adjust the evidence, in return for which he was promised the remainder of the Doctor’s regenerations.
VALEYARD: This is clearly
DOCTOR: Just a minute! Did you call him the Doctor?
MASTER: There is some evil in all of us, Doctor, even you. The Valeyard is an amalgamation of the darker sides of your nature, somewhere between your twelfth and final incarnation. And I may say, you do not improve with age.

The origin of the Valeyard is something of a mystery and is never addressed.  There was further mileage in an evil anti-Doctor (possibly taking over from the Master as the Doctor’s main nemesis) but it was never explored again (on television at least).  But these two episodes do give Michael Jayston a chance to flex his acting muscles (and lose the hat!) and whilst the Valeyard never develops beyond a fairly stereotypical villain, Jayston does give him a bit of class.

Mel - "As truthful, honest, and about as boring as they come."
Mel – “As truthful, honest, and about as boring as they come.”

Given the scripting race against time, episode fourteen is actually a lot better than it could have been.  There’s some nice set-pieces (the Doctor apparantly convicted in a fake trial room and the unmasking of Popplewick aka the Valeyard) but the Valeyard’s ultimate plan (to assassinate various key Time Lords) is a little less than impressive.  But there’s some prime examples of the Bakers unique use of the English language to enjoy – “a megabyte modem” and “there’s nothing you can do to prevent the catharsis of spurious morality” amongst others. 

And then it’s all over.  The Doctor is free to go and leaves with Mel (paradoxically before he’s actually met her!) and the Valeyard lives to cackle another day.  Colin Baker’s final words “carrot juice, carrot juice, carrot juice” are perhaps not the most impressive last words he could have had – but, of course, it wasn’t planned to be his final story.

Over the last three weeks or so, I’ve really enjoyed revisiting all of Colin Baker’s stories for the first time in a number of years.  He was something of a victim of circumstances and had things been different he could have gone on for several more years and really established himself as one of the best Doctors.  But even given his rather compromised stint, there’s still plenty to enjoy in S22 and S23 and it’s with a little regret that I bid him farewell.

A web of mayhem and intrigue. Doctor Who – The Trial of a Time Lord – Terror of the Vervoids

vervoids

Anybody who’s ever studied the tortured production history of S23 will probably be aware that Eric Saward had some trouble in finding workable scripts.  Various writers were approached and submissions were made, but many of them came to nothing.  So it’s fair to say that Pip and Jane Baker weren’t his first choice to fill episodes nine to twelve –  they were commissioned more as an act of desperation when everything else had fallen through.

Not that Saward had much to do with the story.  The dispute over his script for episode fourteen (which I’m sure we’ll touch upon when we reach The Ultimate Foe) triggered his resignation and Terror of the Vervoids went through the production process without a designated script-editor (JNT assumed these duties).

The lack of Saward isn’t really notable – as the Bakers were quite able to script a decent story off their own bat (although as per all their stories, sometimes the characters are saddled with very unnatural sounding dialogue).  Vervoids is an entertaining whodunnit, packed with suspects and red-herrings galore.  It may (like the rest of S23) look a little cheap (some of the Hyperion III seems to be cobbled together from stock) but there’s a decent set of actors and minimal interference from the trial, which makes this one of the highlights of S23.

Professor Lasky gets caught by the Vervoids
Professor Lasky gets caught by the Vervoids

Chris Clough was assigned director of the final six episodes and his influence is notable from the first shot – he’s turned down the lights in the Trialroom and everything instantly looks a great deal better.  Although there are a few instances when it appears that the Matrix has again been tampered with, this doesn’t impact the story as badly as it did Mindwarp. And episode nine allows the story time to develop with the trial sequences book-ending the episode – it’s nice, for once, to have an episode where there aren’t delays every few minutes which are devoted to discussing meaningless points.

It’s maybe just as well that the Internet didn’t exist in 1986, as the casting of Bonnie Langford would have caused it to melt.  She wasn’t exactly welcomed with open arms by a certain section of Doctor Who fandom (who clearly saw her casting as the final straw) but looking back at this story she’s perfectly fine.  She does lack any sort of background (inevitable since we’re introduced to her cold in this story) but Mel’s young, keen, headstrong and with a knack for getting into trouble.  She can also scream in tune with the closing sting on the theme music, which is a good trick!

True, her opening scene is somewhat iffy –

MEL: This will wake you up.
DOCTOR: Carrot juice?
MEL: It’ll do you good. Honestly, carrots are full of vitamin A.
DOCTOR: Mel, have you studied my ears lately?
MEL: It’s your waistline I’m concerned about.
DOCTOR: No, no, seriously, though. Is it my imagination or have they started to grow longer?
MEL: Listen, when I start to call you Neddy, then you can worry. Drink up.
DOCTOR: You’ll worry sooner when I start to bray.

But things do pick up after this.  It’s also interesting to note how mellow Colin Baker’s Doctor is – he’s a million miles away from the abrasive character of S22, all his previous arrogance and bluster have gone.

Once aboard the Hyperion, the Doctor and Mel mix with the guests and staff and start to uncover various conspiracies.  Clearly one whodunnit wasn’t good enough for the Bakers, so there’s a diverse series of events and problems which need to be solved.

Honor Blackman and Michael Craig are the main guest stars.  Blackman is good fun as the constantly bad-tempered Lasky, whilst Craig (although he sometimes has the air of a man who wishes he was elsewhere) is solid enough as Travers.  David Allister is quite compelling as Bruchner, the scientist with a conscience, whilst the late Yolande Palfrey manages to make something out of nothing, as the stewardess Janet.

Lurking in the air-conditioning are the Vervoids, who aren’t the most impressive monsters that the series has produced.  They’re just too polite to be particularly threatening (“we are doing splendidly”) and it doesn’t help that the actors in the suits tend to do typical monster acting – lurching from side to side and waving their arms about.

A scary cliff-hanger (something of a rarity in S23)
A scary cliff-hanger (something of a rarity in S23)

But if the Vervoids do lack a little something, then there are still a few scares to be had in the story.  Since the majority of cliff-hangers this season have ended on a crash-zoom of the Doctor’s pouting face, it’s nice to have two that buck the trend.  Episode nine gives us a chance to hear Mel’s ear-splitting scream as the Hydroponic centre explodes whilst episode ten has the creepy reveal of Ruth Baxter.

After twelve weeks, we’re now into the trial’s endgame.  Episodes thirteen and fourteen will either provide a satisfying conclusion to the previous three months or, well, they won’t.  The ultimate foe awaits ….