DVD Review: Doctor Who - U.N.I.T. Files

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Review: Doctor Who - U.N.I.T. Files (PG) / Directed by: Paddy Russell, Barry Letts /Written by: Malcolm Hulke, Terry Nation / Starring: Jon Pertwee, Tom Baker, Elisabeth Sladen, Nicholas Courtney, Richard Franklin, John Levene, Ian Marter / Released: January 9th 2012

In their haste to get the entire classic ‘Doctor Who’ canon released on DVD, the BBC/2entertain have been forced to throw some unlikely bedfellows together in loosely-themed boxsets just to get some of the series’ less-regarded stories out of the way.

2011 gave us curios like the ‘Earth Story’ boxset which combined a 1960s William Hartnell cowboy serial (’The Gunfighters’) with a something-and-nothing Peter Davison 1984 two-parter (‘The Awakening’) purely on the basis, presumably, that both stories were set on Earth. 2012 kicks off with ‘U.N.I.T. Files’, two stories which showcase the antics of the show’s 1970’s six-man army, the United Nations Intelligence Taskforce, the paramilitary organisation commanded by the redoubtable Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart (Nicholas Courtney) which formed the backdrop to the show during much of the run of the third Doctor (Pertwee) and into the early days of his successor (Tom Baker). Unfortunately the stories in this boxset ‘Invasion of the Dinosaurs’ (1974) and ‘The Android Invasion’ (1976) really don’t showcase either U.N.I.T. or ‘Doctor Who’ in the best light. In truth, U.N.I.T. could be better represented by still-unreleased stories such as ‘Terror of the Zygons’ and ‘The Daemons’ but these are far better stories and are clearly destined for higher-profile releases within the next twelve months or so. ‘Dinosaurs’ and ‘Android Invasion’, it seems, have been slung together because they’re on no-one’s list of favourites and they might just as well be randomly partnered in an attempt to bolster one another and to provide a nice shiny new boxset to kick off the new year. 

Determined fans of the original ‘Doctor Who’ have become used to defending their show from cries of “the special effects were lousy!” with the riposte “ah, but it wasn’t about the effects, it was about the stories” - and by and large it remains a fair point. As ‘Doctor Who’ fans we all agree that the risible rat in ‘The Talons of Weng-Chiang’ (1977) and the disastrous dragon in ‘The Caves of Androzani’ (1984) don’t detract from the fact that these are two classic stories whose reputations are barely sullied by one or two ill-judged visuals. The six-part Pertwee serial ‘Invasion of the Dinosaurs’, however, is a trickier proposition; here’s a clever, intelligent story (albeit with a slightly preachy ‘make the most of the world you’ve got’ morality) with some good performances, a sharp script, well-rounded characters… and it’s all utterly scuppered by diabolical visual effects. The story is a prime example of ‘Doctor Who’ doing what it had pretty much always tried to do, its ambition far outreaching the capabilities of its budget but this time falling flat on its face. Because if you call your story ‘Invasion of the Dinosaurs’ you really need to step up to the plate and make sure that your dinosaurs can cut the mustard. But - and to be fair to the production team of the time, it wasn’t all their fault as they outsourced the effects work to a company who assured them they could create some believable dinosaurs for the serial - the creatures presented in ‘Invasion of the Dinosaurs’ looked appalling even in 1974, years before the miracle of CGI would make such animation fairly rudimentary. Trust me, I was there when this was shown originally and I can remember sitting  slack-jawed in disbelief at the ineptitude of the special effects my favourite show had dared to inflict upon its audience. To be fair, the DVD makes no excuses for the effects, preferring to adopt a shrugged-shouldered “Oh well” approach in the disc’s special features, but it’s still hard - sometimes nigh impossible - to immerse yourself in the story properly when every few minutes you’re subjected to some dreadful static shot of a rubber tyrannosaurus waving its feeble arms about and being so clearly manoeuvred by its tail by some desperate off-camera stagehand. If you’ve not seen the story before prepare to be awed by the opening of episode six where a brontosaurus engages in fearful combat with a tyrannosaur by putting its rubber head in its mouth as the inflexible tyrannosaur plainly fails to bend at the knees. Elsewhere we get flapping plastic pterodactyls and the odd grazing stegosaurus which just about passes muster because it’s not required to do anything other than just stand there in a model set and move very slightly.

Beyond the dreadful dinosaurs there really is a decent story here, late period Pertwee slipping down a gear from the high points of the year before but still boasting a compelling  storyline (mad/misguided scientist and chums plan to ‘roll back’ time and return the polluted Earth to a prehistoric state) and an intelligent script. Pertwee, never more avuncular, his hair never more bouffant, is looking a little fuller-figured than before but, with the benefit of hindsight (and this was the serial broadcasting when the BBC announced his retirement from the role) it’s clear to see that an era was slowly winding down. Elisabeth Sladen, in her second serial as Sarah Jane Smith, gives the story a bit of extra energy and the first episode, with the Doctor and Sarah arriving in an evacuated, desolate London, is hugely effective and still oddly-creepy. Elsewhere there’s plenty of jeopardy, much escaping and recapturing, some hair-raising character illogicality and ultimately a bit of a flat ending which involves the Doctor pushing a big red lever.

‘Invasion of the Dinosaurs’ is a rare example of a ‘Doctor Who’ serial utterly undermined by its poor visuals and whilst there’s still much here to recommend as a story it’s virtually impossible to look beyond the terrible effects and no amount of creative excuses can paper over the cracks this time.

Two years later the Doctor (Tom Baker) and Sarah arrive back on another apparently-deserted Earth in ‘The Android Invasion’, Terry Nation’s first non-Dalek story for the series since 1964. In the meantime Nation had been working on slick ABC/ITC shows like ‘The Avengers’ and ‘The Champions’ and their influence is startlingly-obvious in the first episode, the best of the bunch, which plays like an episode of ‘Department S’ as the travellers wander around a peaceful English village attacked by spacemen with guns in their fingers. Director (and former series producer) Barry Letts gives the first episode real pace with plentiful atmospheric location footage but the story starts to fall apart from episode two with the introduction of the rhino-headed Kraals and their cumbersome plan to take over the Earth after replicating an English village and replacing its inhabitants with androids. But U.N.I.T. and its troops are pretty much incidental - Nicholas Courtney’s unavailability for filming meant that the Brigadier was “away in Geneva” for the duration and former stalwarts Benton (John Levene, for whom this was to be a last, and rather ignominious, series appearance) and Harry Sullivan (Ian Marter) are emotionless android replicas for most of the serial. As the plot lumbers towards its fanciful and rather dreary conclusion (part of which involves a spectacularly-inane twist involving a major supporting character and an eye patch), it’s really only Tom Baker (still a couple of years away from the point where he started to take the role somewhat less seriously) and Elisabeth Sladen, their on-screen relationship now pretty much fully-established, who keep the story’s momentum going when everything else around them has thundered into tedium. ‘The Android Invasion’ has a bit of mid-1970s period charm to it but it’s stodgy, dreary stuff, one of those unexceptional ‘bedrock’ ‘Doctor Who’ stories which helped cement the series’ ongoing reputation and kept the show ticking over until something more inspired came along.

‘U.N.I.T. Files’ makes a fair fist of presenting two of the series’ less-than-finest serials in a decent light but there’s really only so much even 2entertain can do with a sow’s ear so this boxset can really only be recommended for the die-hard completist and, in the case of ‘Dinosaurs’ for lovers of seriously bad special effects. 

Special features: Both stories are well-served by typically thorough bonus material. Broadcaster Matthew Sweet sensibly ignores ‘Invasion of the Dinosaurs’’ visual shortcomings and focuses upon the story itself in the ‘People,  Power and Puppetry’ documentary, ‘Now and Then’ revisits many of the story’s central London locations and, perhaps not surprisingly, finds many of them either demolished or barely recognisable, a couple of deleted/extended scenes, Jon Pertwee visits Billy Smart’s circus in his latest gadget, the space-age Who mobile (which made its debut in the serial), a short interview with Lis Sladen from 2003 and, as an optional bonus on disc one, the first episode, which has only existed as a black-and-white print in the BBC Archives, restored to colour. It’s not a perfect restoration and it’s certainly not broadcast quality but at least it means the serial is now complete and in colour for the first time in years. A decent extras package is completed by the usual commentaries and production texts. ‘The Android Invasion’ includes a documentary in which Nicholas Briggs revisits the serial’s locations and speaks to locals who were present at the time of the filming and an absorbing feature where producer Philip Hinchcliffe is interviewed by his daughter about his extensive career post-’Doctor Who’ - and it’s a documentary which is worth the price of purchase alone, frankly.

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