Judge Dave Ryan thinks there's no such thing as too much Romana.
"We're all basically primeval slime with ideas above its station…"
The 1980-81 season of the BBC's long-running Doctor Who marked a dramatic shift in the tone of the show, thanks to a new producer, a new script editor, and a new gaggle of writers. Out was the light, breezy, comedic touch of Douglas Adams, targeted mainly at children; in was a renewed focus on "hard" science fiction and a more serious, adult tone. The centerpiece of the season was a three-story arc involving the Doctor and Romana's diversion into "E-Space," a parallel universe. The trio of episodes served as a transition between companions for the Doctor, bidding a fond (and abrupt) adieu to Romana, and saying hello to the ill-fated Adric. Well-regarded by the Who fanbase, the E-Space trilogy is now available as a three-disc boxed set from BBC Video, with restored audio and video and all the extra bells and whistles to which we've become accustomed.
Facts of the Case
State of Decay
The seventeenth season of Doctor Who had been a critical and commercial setback for the show. Ratings were down, and the show faced new competition from ITV's American import Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. The season had been criticized for straying too far from "classic" science fiction and focusing more on slapsticky Doctor-based comedy. It was good comedy, mind you, bearing the imprint of script editor Douglas Adams (who might be a little better known for his novel The Hitch-hiker's Guide to the Galaxy than for his Who scripts), but many felt that it wasn't appropriate for a science fiction show. Plus, "The Creature from the Pit" and "The Horns of Nimon" were just plain ridiculous. For Series 18 (in BBC parlance, seasons of shows are dubbed "series"), the show had a new producer (John Nathan-Turner, who would helm the show until the end of its run in 1989), a new script editor (Christopher Bidmead)…and a desperate shortage of ready scripts. Nathan-Turner and Bidmead brought in a new batch of screenwriters for the season, and moved the show in a more serious, "hard" sci fi direction. The result was a season that fans, in retrospect, consider one of the stronger ones of the show's run—a fitting swan song for Tom Baker, who decided to move on from his career-defining role at the end of the year.
After a strong start ("The Leisure Hive") and a terrible misfire ("Meglos"), a three-episode arc involving the Doctor's adventures in "E-Space"—an alternate universe parallel to ours—was launched with a dual purpose: to bid farewell to Romana (and K-9 Mark II), and to introduce a new companion for the Doctor.
Full Circle, the first E-Space story, isn't a grabber of a Doctor Who story, but it's a good example of everything that was right about the show over its long run: a complex and well-told story, good acting, and shockingly good production values given the absurdly small budget given to the show. Oh sure, the swamp monsters are obviously guys in slapdash rubber suits…but they sell those slapdash rubber suits so well that you willingly suspend your "oh boy do those look ridiculous" instincts and just accept them as scary monsters. At its best, Doctor Who was always greater than the sum of its often limited and bareboned parts; Full Circle fits that description well.
The episode was written, believe it or not, by a pimply Scottish 17-year-old named Andrew Smith. Despite the youth of its author, Full Circle is a detailed story that ends up in a completely different place than you first expect it to go. It's almost Hitchcockian in its twistiness. It's certainly above the level of contemporary 1980 scifi. If you compare the intellectual complexity and sophistication of this story to, say, Galactica 1980 or the Gil Gerard Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, you'll be shocked.
As noted above, Season 18 was the last of Tom Baker's seven seasons. While he's still excellent in the role, he doesn't seem to be playing the character with as much joie de vive as he had back in the "glory days" of the mid-70s. Baker just seems a little tired here. Not enough to detract from the story or the overall quality of the episode, but enough to notice. Part of it may stem from the fact that Full Circle is a more serious story than most; while there is a great deal of wry humor in the tale, that humor is dependent on the dead seriousness of the actors' readings. Baker does get in the occasional zinger (e.g. the quote in the Charge above), but this is, for the most part, a very straightforward and sober performance from him. (Part may also stem from the fact that there was a good deal of friction between Baker and Ward during the filming of this episode—friction that led to their marriage in December of that year.)
And then there's Adric.
Doctor Who fans will endlessly debate the subject of who their favorite companion of the Doctor was, and why. (For me, it will always be Sarah Jane, with Romana #2 a close, close second.) There's rarely any argument over their least favorite, though. It's always Adric. Whiny, petulant, moronic Adric. The concept behind the character was sound—cast a teenaged actor as a Doctor's companion to better link the show to its (nominally) intended audience of children. However, the execution was terrible. Poor Matthew Waterhouse (18 at the time) was a woefully inexperienced actor—he had only started acting in 1979; Doctor Who was his second acting job—and it showed. While Adric was supposed to have a teacher/student sort of relationship with the Doctor, that dynamic was never really explored during Baker's remaining tenure, and was almost totally ignored when Peter Davison took over as the fifth Doctor. It was that Davison era that really turned the fans against Adric. Until he was mercifully killed off late in Davison's first season, Adric became a wholly unlikeable and unwanted companion. He wasn't just dumb, he was arrogant and dumb—he thought he knew it all, but actually was just a moron. You know—sort of like a real teenager. Waterhouse's limited acting skills and high-pitched voice made it all the more grating. The writers didn't help him much either. By the end of his run, he had been relegated to third banana behind new (and more traditional—i.e. babelicious) companions Nyssa (Sarah Sutton) and Tegan (Janet Fielding).
While Adric the character is just plain worthless, I found it hard to dislike Matthew Waterhouse, who is all over these discs. He contributes commentaries to this episode and to State of Decay, and there is a full featurette about him on the Warriors' Gate disc. Today, as a full-grown adult, Waterhouse seems to have accepted that his performances aren't well-liked, and has moved on. I wouldn't call him detached from his life as Adric, but he's definitely not defensive or prickly about it. He's the first one to admit that he was inexperienced and young, and that a lot of his acting left something to be desired. He is clearly a bright guy, however, and provides a unique and very honest view of Doctor Who in the late Tom Baker era.
State of Decay, the second E-Space story, is a great story, but not necessarily a great Doctor story. It's a very traditional Gothic vampire tale, presented in the style of (and intended as an homage to) the classic Hammer horror pictures of the '50s, '60s, and '70s. Heck—put Peter Cushing in here somewhere and add some busty wenches, and it IS a Hammer film. The episodes play out in a very Shakespearian way, with lots of ACTING!!! that's intentionally over-the-top, but in a fun way that properly fits the tone and feel of the story. In particular, the late Royal Shakespeare Company veteran Emrys James chews enough scenery as the evil Orkon to feed Africa for a year, but it's actually perfect for this episode. Everything he does is overly dramatic, profoundly hammy, and utterly fantastic.
Although the story does have a sci fi core at its heart, and that sci fi angle is a necessary part of the plot, the story nonetheless doesn't feel very science-fictiony. Which is why State of Decay, although highly entertaining, isn't truly a great example of Doctor Who. The Doctor doesn't need to be involved in this story—it could be anyone solving the mystery. It's an homage—and a good one. But it is somewhat lacking in that intangible Doctor Who feel.
It's also only loosely tied into the whole E-Space concept. There's a reason for that: the script for State of Decay was a retread. It had originally been written in 1977 for use in Series 15. The BBC, however, quashed the production of that script, because its dramatic wing was broadcasting an adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula, and it was felt that the vampire-themed Who episode could be viewed as making fun of said production. Due to the script shortage at the beginning of Series 18, Bidmead was scrounging for filmable scripts, and came across Terrance Dicks' 1977 story. It was put into production, whereupon Bidmead proceeded to completely rewrite it. However, when Peter Moffat—who had been chosen to direct this episode—received the heavily modified shooting script, he refused to make it. Instead, he insisted on filming the script he had been hired to film—Dicks' original story. He won that battle. Hence, State of Decay has only minor nods to the whole E-Space concept, mainly involving the integration of Adric into the story. (It was also originally written for the Doctor and Leela—one of the reasons that Romana seems uncharacteristically useless in this story!)
Warriors' Gate, the final E-Space story, is a good example of the downside of Doctor Who for many casual fans: sometimes, it's just too complex for its own good. The story of Warriors' Gate does, contrary to popular belief, make sense—but you have to really pay attention to follow it. If you don't, it comes off as a bunch of technobabble gobbledygook. As with all time-bending stories, it's somewhat hard to follow right from the get-go. But Warriors' Gate feels cramped and rushed—it begs to be told at a more deliberate pace than the 96 minutes it was allotted. Accordingly, exposition comes fast, furious, and awkwardly…except for when things aren't explained well at all. Again, if you pay really close attention, those things are explained, albeit elliptically, within the framework of the story. But it's tough to do—and remember, this is nominally a children's show! There's some tonal dissonance in the episode, too. Mixing a Laurel and Hardy-like hapless lazy worker pair (hah hah!) with slave torture (no hah hah!) was, shall we say, an interesting choice…
There were behind-the-scenes issues as well. According to the "making of" featurette, there was a good deal of friction caused by director Paul Joyce's more cinematic approach to filming. Read as: he spent way too much time and money on this by Doctor Who standards. Nathan-Turner apparently wanted to fire him, but ultimately decided that the shooting script was so confusing that only Joyce could effectively shoot it. (Another triumph in the field of self-preservation!) Joyce used a multi-level set for the spaceship, which necessitated the use of one of the BBC's two (very expensive) handheld Ikegami cameras, since the regular floor cameras couldn't actually maneuver around the set. Mind you, it's not that Joyce is a poor director; it's just that his ambitions overreached what was possible in the context of Doctor Who.
The final problem with Warriors' Gate is the perfunctory end to Romana's tenure with the Doctor. There's no buildup, and no drama—she just leaves. From a certain perspective, that's very in line with Romana's character; she always was a smart, take-charge kind of gal. But it's a rather anticlimactic end for a character who was, by most accounts, the best of the original series' companions.
Romana wasn't a hapless human caught up in the sweep of the Doctor's grandeur. She was a Time Lord herself, giving her a bit more intergalactic gravitas. She's just as smart as the Doctor, and most importantly, not totally subservient to him. Romana was originally played by the statuesque and elegant Mary Tamm, who decided to leave the show after a year in the role. Conveniently, Time Lords (as all good fans know) occasionally undergo transformations, which allowed the role to be recast without a continuity break. Therefore, for Series 16, the sprightly, waifish, and utterly charming Lalla Ward took over the role. It turned out to be an inspired choice. Not only was Ward a talented actress, she was adept at the one thing all Doctor Who actors needed to do: make lemons out of lemonade. Ward, like Tom Baker, had a knack for rising above the material. More significantly, she and Tom Baker had a stormy yet strong rapport (one that carried off the screen as well) that worked well for both characters. It didn't hurt that she was physically lovely, and a fashion plate to boot. Most Doctor Who companions wound up wearing the same thing all the time (see, for example, poor Tegan and her stewardess costume), or were limited to "contemporaneous" outfits that matched their character's background (e.g. Sarah Jane Smith's mid-'70s wardrobe). Romana was given more flexibility, though. Tamm, for the most part, wore flowing dresses. Ward, on the other hand, was given a great deal of latitude and input in costuming. Romana, as played by Ward, was all across the board costume-wise. In fact, there's an entire featurette on the Warriors' Gate disc devoted solely to Ward's costume choices. Ward herself contributes to the commentary on the episode—she remains charming, and while she doesn't provide a huge deal of insight into her Doctor Who experience (also, since everyone here is British, no one was impolite enough to ask her about her brief marriage to Baker), she is engaging, funny, and does contribute to the commentary in her own way.
It should be noted that each of the three episodes in this set is presented as a stand-alone individual DVD—it's really three separate DVD products collected together, not one three-disc set. As such, each episode has the same full set of extras as all of the other releases in the BBC's Doctor Who series has featured. That is to say, there's a lot of extras here. Each episode gets a commentary track, of course. Of the three, the State of Decay commentary—with Waterhouse, the episode's director Peter Moffat, and the extremely funny Terrence Dicks (I've decided he's the English Buddy Hackett), is the best. They joke around with each other, giving the commentary the feel of a bunch of mates sharing a beer and talking about Ye Olden Days. Full Circle's commentary is more focused on Waterhouse and Smith and the stories of how they came to Doctor Who; there isn't as much info about the production itself. Finally, Warriors' Gate has a rather busy commentary with a lot of voices in the mix. It's a lively discussion that's moderated by the wry, self-deprecating wit of director Joyce and the wry, affable wit of John Leeson, the voice of K-9.
One of the hallmarks of these BBC Video sets have been the informative and well-produced "making of" featurettes prepared for them. This set is no different. Each episode gets its own featurette, and all of them are well-made and informative. But for the lack of Tom Baker (see the Rebuttal below for more on that), they cover their subjects extremely well. There are a number of other featurettes included that focus on more specialized topics. Of the lot, the best is probably the one focusing on Waterhouse, which was mentioned above. The featurette, "The Boy with the Golden Star," is very honest about Waterhouse's rocky times as Adric. To his credit, Waterhouse is also very honest—and, as I mentioned above, he comes off very well. The featurettes on State of Decay are, unsurprisingly, heavily focused on vampires. They're interesting enough, but really don't illuminate Doctor Who in any way. The E-Space oriented featurette on Full Circle is largely useless, and can be skipped. There are some other minor extras—small deleted scenes from Warriors' Gate, photo galleries, and the like—as well.
Video quality is quite good for a 1980-vintage recording. Colors are bright and well-balanced, without the gauzy haze that seems to permeate a lot of late '70s/early '80s video. There are occasions where very bright whites will bleed out, but that's the only really obvious video artifacting present. Whoever cleaned these episodes up did a really superior job—I was shocked at how Romana's vivid red shirt in Warriors' Gate never bled once! Audio is competent but average. The Dolby mono tracks get the job done, but it certainly sounds like a 1980s vintage recording. That's most noticeable when you're listening to the commentaries—the contemporary voices sound rich, with a lot of audio presence; the feature audio sounds compressed and harsh by comparison.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The overriding flaw in all of the Tom Baker-era Doctor Who discs—and it's really not the fault of the BBC Video people who put them together—is, of course, the complete absence of Tom Baker. Baker, who is notoriously prickly and, well, a bit odd, is apparently very ambivalent about his Doctor Who experience. He rarely gives interviews on the subject, or discusses the role publicly, so it's no surprise that he's nowhere to be found here. Until he is somehow persuaded to contribute to these BBC Video releases, they will always feel incomplete.
There's also a bit of behind-the-scenes tension that detracts a bit from the extras. Matthew Waterhouse was not very popular with his co-workers, and some of that animosity has carried on to this day. Most glaringly, it's very clear that Matthew Waterhouse and Lalla Ward did not, and still do not, like each other at all. Even now, almost 30 years later, there's still some sniping going on, from both sides of the aisle. It appears that most people side with Ward, who seems to have been well-loved by everyone who worked with her. Reading between the lines, it appears that Waterhouse was (like many teenagers) convinced that he knew everything, especially about acting, and therefore didn't respond very well to any sort of constructive criticism, an attitude that did not serve him well, and which led to outright contempt from experienced actors like Ward. One of the reasons that the State of Decay commentary is so good is that neither Dicks nor Moffat seem to have any axes to grind with Waterhouse; hence, they all get along famously. In the Waterhouse-free Warriors' Gate commentary, though, Ward gets some very subtle, but very pointed, digs in at Waterhouse's expense. It's a bit offputting.
The E-Space Trilogy episodes aren't considered definitive Tom Baker Doctor Who episodes. Nor do they really hang together as a trilogy. About the only thing they have in common is the E-Space conceit, which barely factors into any of them. However, this package is as good a microcosm of the Tom Baker Doctor Who experience as you can get. It's all here—the good, the bad, and the ugly, wrapped up in BBC Video's typically excellent package. Even the most flawed of the three episodes—Warriors' Gate—is entertaining, and the other two are actually quite good. While Doctor Who: The E-Space Trilogy will probably only appeal to hardcore Whovians, it really is a good sampler for those looking for a taste of Tom Baker, the definitive Doctor Who.
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