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January 27, 2009

Valerie Singleton's Erotic Sausage

 The Rescue/The Romans

Due to Be Released:  23rd February 2009

Produced by 2Entertain

RomansI admit that I might not be typical, but until the DVD range appeared I experienced the Hartnell era of Doctor Who through a series of filters.  Firstly, the alternative universe of Target novelisations and pre-Pixley Doctor Who Weekly/Monthly archives, then via booze-fuelled drinking games in front of UK Gold (usually a series of elaborate bets - if you make it past A Race Against Death you get the dregs of the Diamond White - that kind of thing) and intermittently through bad VHS transfers that seemed designed to repel all but the very strongest or most masochistic.  So it's been a particular pleasure to encounter Hartnell's stories again without any interference aside from my ageing brain.  They haven't all been great, but the discovery and rediscovery is part of the fun.  This latest excellent release features two stories that were produced in one block, but in most other ways are startlingly different. The Rescue is a two-parter, written by the departing script-editor to introduce a new assistant, and features the regular cast (give or take) running around an alien planet trying to find a logical plot. Whereas The Romans is...well where to start?  It's a comedy, an historical epic, a psychological drama, a farce, a story that's way ahead of it's time, and to me personally a complete revelation.  Happily, the supporting extras on this release, particularly alongside The Romans, get to the heart of why the story is so important.

It's unfortunate for The Rescue that it gets overshadowed by its companion story, but it's entirely deserved.  In essence, it's another story by David Whitaker that, like The Edge of Destruction, has only a passing acquaintance with sanity.  The bare-bones of the plot (can I spoil a 44-year old story?) have been taken to pieces many times over the years, usually by fans who get far too angry, but although it's nonsense the adventure is worth it for sporadic moments of genius.  Barbara's bloodthirsty shooting of Vicki's pet sand beast is reminiscent of a sci-fi version of Disney's Old Yeller. I wish they'd have kept her bubbling resentment towards Barbara going for a bit longer, possibly resulting in an assassination attempt a few stories down the line:  "This is for Sandy you murdering bitch!"  Sadly the Doctor snaps her out of it a little too quickly for my taste.   Even better is Bennett's fiendishly cunning loop of tape: "You can't come in!".  I've already contacted Character Options and suggested a talking Bennett doll with a pull-string.  Kids all around the country will be chanting "You can't come in!".  There'll be a spin-off pop hit mark my words.  Or maybe not.  Certainly The Rescue has a leisurely charm, but it takes the length of one new series episode to say "Hello Vicki!" and made The War Games seem snappy.

The Romans on the other hand, is jam-packed with genre-busting action, and it's entirely typical of the story as a whole that it opens by lurching from an actual cliffhanger (featuring the TARDIS falling off a ledge) to the TARDIS crew happily squatting in a villa having a whale of a time relaxing and joking.  And they've apparently been doing this for a month, for which I can't blame them as just surviving The Dalek Invasion of Earth would have taken it out of me, let alone dealing with Bennett's wearying antics.  The switch from drama to comedy continues throughout the story, most obviously, but not exclusively, between Ian and Barbara's experiences of slavery and Vicki and the Doctor's capers in the imperial palace.  It's a tribute to the regulars that they pull this off so well.  Jacqueline Hill is her usual self, that is to say brilliant, while William Hartnell uses all his Army Game background and early experience in farce to more than hold his own against excellent performances from Derek Francis as Nero and Michael Peake as Tavius.  There are so many little bits of comic business going on between the actors in some scenes that you get the impression rehearsals were a lot more fun than usual.  Hartnell in particular is full of tics and quirks, my favourite being when he tries to remember his new alias and goes through so many contortions I half-expected him to regenerate into Rob Wilton and ask if anyone fancied a woodbine.  The scenes of Tigilinus's death and the Doctor miming on the lyre are justly famous and veer from light to dark to pitch-black.  Even the lyre scene, although it seems to show the Doctor making fools of everyone, results in Nero planning to have the Doctor eaten by lions.  It's true that Hartnell's giggling is excessive on occasion (such as in episode 4) but even that is unhinged enough to be vaguely disturbing.  The switches of tone, great performances, and rattling pace all combine to demonstrate that The Romans is a very substantial story, a conclusion reinforced by the thoughtful extras.

Extras

The main supplementary documentaries on the set are produced by Steve Broster who, with writer David Harley, was responsible for What Lies Beneath on The Silurians release.  As this was one of the best extras of the range he certainly had a hard act to follow.  But in What Has 'The Romans' Ever Done for Us Broster once again avoids focussing too narrowly on Doctor Who, and sets the story effectively both in its era and in the context of other television representations of Rome and the Emperor Nero.  Former Neros Anthony Andrews and Christopher Biggins appear alongside cast and crew, historian Dr Mark Bradley and series writer James Moran amongst others.  It's a very stylish piece of work, although I felt the very strong opening promised more than the piece ultimately delivered.  Broster's Mounting the Rescue is less engrossing as it's a fairly standard "making of" documentary about a not very interesting adventure, but the often elusive Ray Barrett is good value, and Maureen O'Brien (missing from the commentaries) speaks interestingly about working with William Hartnell and describes the various coping strategies she employed when faced with his consistently grumpy moods. 

Good as these main extras were, I particularly enjoyed Rob Fairclough's excellent Dennis Spooner - Wanna Write a Television Series.  From its pleasing mock-ITC opening titles (complete with appropriate Jason King theme tune) this piece showed that shorter extras don't have to be slighter.  It features interviews with Spooner's friend and colleague Brian Clemens, rare footage of Spooner taking part in amateur dramatics (he made the right career choice) and Rob Shearman making a convincing case for the lasting significance of Spooner's contribution to the development of Doctor Who.  Although not quite at the same level Girls! Girls! Girls! - The 1960s sets out its groovy stall with the canny use of Tachyon TV's favourite tune "Dreamy Party" from The Prisoner, but the piece as a whole rather falls between two stools by trying to analyse a complex cultural scene while desperately cramming every single female 1960's companion into a 17 minute slot.

Special mention has to go to the Blue Peter extra, which has nothing to do with Doctor Who, and is surely only there because it tickled the Restoration Team.  This bizarre look at Ancient Rome features the dream team of Lesley Judd, Peter Purves and Valerie Singleton lounging in togas while scoffing food that is rapidly curling under the million kilowatts of studio lighting.  They are attended to by their slave who, with staggering inevitability, is played by working-class ba gum peasant John Noakes.  Val is particularly fetching in her robes, and the vision of her decolletage while she gnaws on a sausage is an even more erotic sight than Rob Shearman in his maroon shirt.  Extraordinary.

The usual additional extras are all present and correct.  The production notes seem much improved after some dodgy recent efforts (I'm looking at you Black Orchid), although the epic explanation of the Emperor's New Clothes was a mighty sledgehammer for a tiny nut.  As for the commentaries, these old stories are often problematic as left alone the aged participants can wander off-piste and end up talking about their latest trip to the garden centre, whereas moderated commentaries can easily become the DVD equivalent of convention panels.  Actor and comedian Toby Hadoke (friend of Tachyon TV although rather more well-known for his show Moths Ate My Doctor Who Scarf) steps bravely into the breach and acquits himself well.  William Russell, Christopher Barry and Raymond Cusick all do their best on a slightly stilted commentary for The Rescue, but The Romans, much like the story itself, is a real hoot.  As well as those already mentioned, the commentary also features Nick Evans and Barry Jackson, the latter of whom, in a particularly amusing moment, departs from the commentary booth at the same time as his on-screen character is defenestrated.  All involved seem to have a great time, as befits a fun story, but Toby keeps things on track with some well-placed facts and elicits some useful information from the participants as well.  I hope Toby and others get a chance to moderate more commentaries in the future, as even those cast and crew with good memories but a diminishing pool of anecdotes could benefit from the presence of an independent moderator whose name isn't Andrew Cartmel.  If you're reading this Toby, I've already been in touch with Chris "Happy Go Lucky" Boucher and he's agreed to do a commentary with you on every episode of Blake's 7 from his holiday shack in Dungeness.  No, don't thank me.

If the extras on this set don't reach the very heady heights of the best of the range, then that's more of a compliment to the range than a slight on the latest features.  The real star of the set is the brand-spanking new restoration of The Romans, with great support from extras that extoll its many virtues, and rightly praise the largely unsung Dennis Spooner.  I'd recommend that you all buy it, but if you've bothered reading this, then you'll have it on pre-order anyway.  Suffice it to say that I was so full of Hartnell good cheer at the end of my viewing that I immediately reached for The Web Planet to prolong the moment.  But I didn't have any Diamond White left.

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