Today: May 28, 2024

Doctor Who: The Collection – Season 8

The question “Doctor who?” was answered 52 years ago. In the climax of the Second Doctor Patrick Troughton’s final adventure The War Games (1969), viewers learned that the Doctor was a Time Lord (and a very naughty one). With the mystery the programme was built on diminished, Doctor Who was reimagined. The show’s seventh season in 1970 was its first in colour and its first to star Jon Pertwee as the Third Doctor. Doctor Who: The Collection – Season 8 presents Pertwee’s second run of stories – Terror of the Autons, The Mind of Evil, The Claws of Axos, Colony in Space and The Dæmons – with a mountain of new bonus features. 

Season 8 has the Doctor stranded on Earth and acting as Scientific Advisor to UNIT, a military organisation who specialise in alien threats. Jon Pertwee spearheads an ensemble cast of regulars – Nicholas Courtney’s steely Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart leads UNIT, flanked by Sgt Benton (John Levene) and Captain Mike Yates (Richard Franklin). Effervescent Jo Grant (Katy Manning) is the Doctor’s assistant, a more relatable replacement for Liz Shaw, a brilliant scientist who appeared in the previous season. Jo acts as a surrogate for younger viewers, asking the Doctor many a “why” and “how”, but she’s also a brave and determined character. Best of all, Manning has a winning chemistry with Jon Pertwee. Finally, always pulling the strings in a natty Nehru suit is a new nemesis – the Master! Devised as “the Moriarty” to the Doctor’s “Sherlock Holmes”, Roger Delgado is utterly magnetic in the role making it impossible to begrudge him turning up in every story. 

UNIT provides a reliable source of action, while drama often emerges from the Doctor’s conflicts with just about everyone around him. Pertwee later described his portrayal as “a kind of science fiction James Bond”, but his Doctor is more curmudgeonly than popularly remembered throughout this run of stories. “I am no sort of chap, sir!” is his response to a publican simply calling him a chap in The Dæmons. The Brigadier makes only a brief appearance in Colony in Space just to be patronised by him. Even the lovely Jo is the victim of the Doctor’s aggro when he calls her a “ham-fisted bun vendor”.  Waspish though he is, this Doctor can be more conscientious than his predecessors; in The Claws of Axos, he lambasts nationalist Ministry of Defence official Chinn “If I could leave, I would, if only to get away from people like you and your petty obsessions! England for the English! Good heavens, man!”. 

With Pertwee, Doctor Who gained a fresh momentum and, increasingly, a crossover adult audience. This era has the dependable flavour of programmes like The Avengers, with the Doctor and Jo’s relationship sometimes mirroring that of Steed and Peel. It’s a colourful, comic strip vision of Doctor Who, with storytelling more visual and threats more relentless than ever before. From the killer inflatable chair and murderous toll droll in Terror of the Autons to the histrionics in the fictional village of Devil’s End in The Dæmons, you certainly couldn’t call these stories subtle but their intensity is largely a strength. The special effects might be little optimistic but the monsters are excellent and still scary today. The Autons have become one of Doctor Who’s most quintessential baddies while the tendrilled Axons and living gargoyle Bok are still well-remembered despite never making a second appearance. Even with the largely earthbound setting, this is Doctor Who at one of its most archetypal phases.

Season 8 has a complicated archival history. Due to the BBC’s wiping policy, only three of the 25 episodes exist in their original PAL videotape form. Though this season was Doctor Who’s second to be filmed in colour, a significant number of its episodes only existed in black and white in the years following transmission. For video releases these stories were variously reassembled using 16mm black-and-white film recordings held by the BBC, 525-line NTSC copies retrieved from Canada and fuzzy colour information from American domestic Betamax and U-Matic sources. The unfathomable advent of “chroma dot recovery” from black-and-white telerecordings endowed previously grayscale episodes with vivid colours for DVD release (only the first episode of The Mind of Evil refused to submit, so it was manually colourised in 2013). Now going over their third or fourth round of restorations, these patchworked episodes look and sound superb considering the ropey quality of much of the source material. Additionally, Terror of the Autons now has optional updated CGI effects expertly weaved in.

Indeed, a huge draw in the Doctor Who: The Collection range is the fresh bonus offerings. Despite so many of this era’s key contributors being no longer with us, the new documentary material on this set is excellent. The irrepressible Katy Manning sits down for an illuminating chat with broadcaster Matthew Sweet in Katy Manning in Conversation. Her zest for life and determination comes through, especially when she speaks of the near-fatal car crash she was involved in aged sixteen. Manning’s ability to remember every name and face from 50 years ago enriches the Gogglebox-style Behind the Sofa features for each story. Some of the other participants tend to coast a little as they zip through truncated episodes. For those who wish Top Gear was a bit more like Last of the Summer Wine there’s The Direct Route, in which directors Michael E. Briant, Graeme Harper and Timothy Combe take an epic road trip across Season 8’s filming locations. Similar is Devils Weekend, where Katy Manning and John Levene return to the village of Aldbourne where they filmed The Dæmons. Perhaps the highlight is Terrance and Me which sees Frank Skinner meet family, friends and colleagues of Terrance Dicks, the celebrated Doctor Who script editor and writer who died in 2019. Dicks’ name became synonymous with the programme thanks to his major contributions including numerous novelisations for Target Books and he was a much-loved figure among fans. Skinner’s admiration is palpable and there is a touching appearance from Terrance’s widow and three sons.

Memorable monsters, extravagant threats and a top team of regular cast members make Season 8 one of Doctor Who’s most enjoyable runs. What’s more, this lovingly restored, extra-stuffed thing of beauty is a world-class release. Us fans are a truly spoilt lot – there surely isn’t another television series being given this kind of luxury treatment. Recommended with a bowl of Sugar Smacks (one for the anoraks).

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