Carnival of Monsters - DVD Special

Written by:
Robert Holmes
Directed by: Barry Letts
Starring: Jon Pertwee
Year: 1973
Video Availability: Try

Quite clearly the best story of season ten, Carnival of Monsters finally sees Robert Holmes come into his own with a dose of pure - yet logically grounded - surrealism.

The first of two occasions (the other being The Green Death) where Jon bothered to act in season ten, what's also notable about this season is how much more intelligent, assertive and just plain spunky Jo is. It feels more like Katy Manning playing herself than the patronising portrayal of seasons 8 and 9 - would Jo from The Dæmons really have told the Doctor to "shush"? In a way it's a contradiction of what went before because, while subtle, this is clearly a different, and much more proactive character. But it does at least mean you can like Jo for five stories.

Whereas the production team had seemed to work against the spiralling degeneration of their own quality, here the show fully embraces the tackiness that had threatened to claim it. Like a bizarre hybrid of Graham Williams pastiche and season 24 garishness, the off-centre world of the story really compels.

There's such fantastic stuff in this one, from the "Days of the Raj" parody to the metal plates that only Jo and the Doctor can see. Then there's the time loops - I'm always a sucker for a time loop. While the image and sound might not understandably be as revelatory as the black and white Vidfires, the difference between this and the VHS version is still fairly marked.

If there's a complaint, then I've always thought Leslie Dwyer as Vorg seemed a little self-conscious and overwhelmed by his showy role, more than once hesitating over lines here. But any episode that ends with a giant hand picking up the Tardis has to get (nearly) full marks from me.
* * * * ½

"A bit of brick-a-brack lodged in circuit three" cements Holmes's genius, and the Miniscope is a conceptual forerunner of The Matrix, however lighthearted. When the BBC released this one onto video, they used the Australian edit, which featured the alternate theme that was discarded but got used in Oz by accident. The same trick was also performed for the VHS release of Frontier In Space, which is a nice bonus, though would probably anger purists who would prefer it as an extra apart from the main programme, as it is on the DVD. Yet using the Australian edit of episode two also meant that some scenes from part one were repeated, making the BBC look like complete twits. No change there then, say the more cynical of you.

The DVD has no such failing, though even without the additional scenes (which are contained either in episode one or the extended/deleted scenes special feature) episode two is padded. Yet it's enjoyable padding, and there's a postmodern feel to the obligatory chase/fight sequences ("I suppose we're due for the monster bit any minute now.") The mention of Ogrons being servants of the Daleks is perhaps unfortunate given that they preshadow the Daleks' surprise appearance in the following story.

Probably the most notable thing for me about this one was that it was the first time I'd noticed you can see the tan line where Cheryl Hall's bra straps must have been. Complaints? Not really, though the lightweight nature of the story that makes it so much fun means it also fails to become the classic it cries out to be. It's all wonderful candyfloss, but it really has little to say beyond a few innocuous digs at the series itself. Dudley's score is again lacking, and Roger Liminton clearly reused a lot of the Miniscope circuit designs for The Three Doctors.

There's a more subtly sniping relationship between the two leads here, with Jo determined to prove her new-found intelligence and the Doctor mildly resentful that she doesn't need the plot explaining to her any more. There's also some genuinely impressive CSO work, with Vorg's probe and giant eye spectacular effects for Doctor Who. Finally - the Drashigs. Turn the sound off and they just ain't scary… turn it up and their unearthly screams horrify.
* * * *

One notable part of this episode is Jon doing the "roll up, roll up" bit. He does it so much more convincingly and naturally than Leslie Dwyer as Vorg. That's one of the problems with Dwyer - when the story ends with him performing a con trick (admittedly with bits of plastic on painted cardboard) it always feels like an actor saying carefully rehearsed lines rather than a real con man at work.

The Drashigs are excellent (at least until they board the ship or leave the scope), though it quickly becomes apparent that the scope only has the sets for their world and the SS Bernice. Jon and Katy may have escaped into the scope, but we know we're not going to see anything new. Whenever I've watched this story in the past I've always felt that, while brilliant, it fails to live up to its full potential, though I've never known why. Watched specifically on an episode by episode basis, I realise that it's because, as superb as its concepts are, they're not developed any further past the first half of the story. Instead, they're just repeated and rejigged until the climax.
* * * ½

The mildly disappointing final episode of Carnival sees a story that lessens on repeated viewings. A shame, though Roberts Holmes would have his day during season 14. When the inhabitants of the SS Bernice are returned to their own time, you realise that you've never actually got to care about them because they've never been written above caricature. What was witty in the first two episodes is trite and shallow in the last.

Some notable bits here include Jon's "uh…Omega circuit." Which illustrates his lack of recall with technobabble. Also look out for an amateurish zoom (13'19m in) that brings back memories of Crossroads. Yet I did get much glee out of the "He could lose that nose of his just like that" line. As a climax, though, this can't help feeling a little like a damp squib.
* * * ½

Carnival of Monsters lacks depth and fails to achieve all its innate potential. However, as a superbly imaginative fantasy story it should still comfortably sit in most fans' top forty.
* * * *


One thing I love about commentaries is that they often tell you more about the relationship of the people involved than the actual story. So while Barry Letts seems to believe Ian Marter was offered the role of Captain Yates after appearing in this (or did I just mishear?) his slightly stiff, schoolmasterish way of performing commentary contrasts with Katy's enthusiastic, giggly and Aussie-tinged tones. I also like the way he heavily criticises his own production values, but seems a little ill at ease with Katy doing the same. They get on well enough, and it's entertaining, but like Frazer Hines and Wendy Padbury with their director (and, in this case, also producer) there's a firm feel of rank at times. Worst element is the commentary for the third episode, where Barry stops the conversation no less than three times because he "wants to watch" certain segments. Doesn't he know he was employed to talk?

Away from the commentary (and a rather pointless information text that tells you little), there are over 23 minutes of extras, what I rated as a superb amount until later DVDs have spoiled us even more. There's an advert for The Five Faces of Doctor Who, which not only illustrates how much difference VIDFire makes to the b/w stories (check out the old copy of The Krotons) but at a bum-numbing 4'10m shows how much more pedestrian TV was back then, pre-MTV.

A sequence of the opening and closing titles with alternate theme is a lovely curio, though purists might be vexed by the compulsory addition of informatory text on the sequence. On a similar theme (no pun intended) the hidden easter egg of the opening titles sans writer/story/episode credits is okay but ultimately pointless. There's also some extended/deleted scenes and a moving photo gallery which concludes with Frank Bellamy art, though viewers might quickly get irritated by the bell sound effects.

Barry Lett's alternate ending (basically the same but with bits hacked out to disguise the crap masks) is also good to see, though it might have been nice to have had a commentary option with that too. A special effects sequence is also welcome, though doesn't feature Kalik's head in a Drashig as the episode four informatory text promises.

There's also an instructive film on how to use CSO by Barry Letts, which is worryingly presented without irony. What next - Acting Masterclass with Colin Baker? As for Margo, I wouldn't with yours. At least the "Tardis Cam" is decent by its usual low standards. Yet by far the best is a 1'44 "Behind The Scenes" feature, which gives some idea of how rushed and budget-stricken the programme was. Short of a shot of Jon Pertwee pooing on the toilet, this is as complete a set of extras as you could possibly want from a programme that's over thirty years old.

* * *