Shiny Shelf

Doctor Who: Lost in Time DVD

By Eddie Robson on 29 October 2004

I have absolutely no figures to back this up, but it seems to me that 1960s ‘Doctor Who’ doesn’t sell as well as 1970s ‘Doctor Who’. A few months back I picked up all the 1960s ‘Who’ DVDs released thus far for £3.99 from WH Smith. Was there any 1970s ‘Who’ in this bargain-basement promotion? Nope. Not in my local Smiths there wasn’t. There was a bit of 1980s, but all of the 1960s ‘Who’ was in there.

The popular perception still holds that the 1970s was by far the show’s best decade, but this ignores the fact that 1960s ‘Doctor Who’ is the bomb and this obsession with the 1970s is causing a lot of wonderful stuff to go uncherished. ‘Lost in Time’ is therefore to be welcomed with open arms, a pleasant smile, and a round of drinks.

Like much 1960s TV, many of the black-and-white ‘Doctor Who’ episodes no longer exist (108 out of the 253 that were made), having been junked by the BBC in a pre-video age: ‘Doctor Who’ has a particular problem in that its storylines ran across multiple episodes. Today, if a lost episode of ‘The Avengers’ or ‘The Likely Lads’ turns up, it can be enjoyed in isolation: however, if a ‘Doctor Who’ episode is found it generally means we’ve got a quarter of a four-part story, or one-sixth of a six-part story. This brings new meaning to the term ‘fragmented narrative’.

Accordingly the BBC has several odd episodes which don’t make up full stories. In the 1990s these were gradually released three or four to a VHS tape, which was nice at the time but looks rather pathetic next to the mighty ‘Lost in Time’. Stories which are more than 50 per cent complete have been held back for releases of their own, but apart from that this three-disc set contains every loose bit of ‘Doctor Who’ material from the 1960s: 18 complete episodes and numerous clips from otherwise missing episodes.

This release was motivated by the recovery of one of these episodes earlier this year: ‘Day of Armageddon’, the second episode of the 1965/6 story ‘The Daleks’ Master Plan’. Together with the fifth and tenth episodes (which were found way back in the mid-1980s) we can now get a much better idea of the shape of this mammoth 12-part story, which on this evidence is pretty good: the early episodes have a cracking pace which dissipates later on.

‘Day of Armageddon’ also features the best of the six episode commentaries on ‘Lost in Time’, from actors Peter Purves and Kevin Stoney and Dalek designer Raymond Cusick. Of course Purves is now best known as a presenter and applies those skills to the commentary, prompting the others and generally keeping things lively (Stoney’s memory is obviously a little hazy – to be honest, until I heard he was doing this I assumed he was dead). Hopefully Purves will be tapped for commentaries on the four of his ‘Doctor Who’ stories that are actually complete. The other commentaries vary – three suffer from having only one participant from the episode, whilst script editor Derrick Sherwin and director Tristan de Vere Cole admit that they can’t remember a great deal about ‘The Wheel in Space’.

The standard of the episodes varies, as one might expect from a selection dictated by which episodes happened to survive the junking process – which is to say, almost entirely randomly. Disc 1 has six Hartnell episodes, and is definitely the best, moving from lyrical cod-Renaissance drama (‘The Crusade’) through grim space adventure (‘The Daleks’ Master Plan’) to shoestring surrealism (‘The Celestial Toymaker’). These see the series at its most experimental and imaginative, and make a strong case for more Hartnell on DVD.

Disc 2 is all drawn from Troughton’s first year: the first three episodes are rather poor (in fact, ‘The Underwater Menace’: 3 is one of the worst episodes of ‘Doctor Who’ to still exist, and ‘The Moonbase’ isn’t much better) but the latter half is good, comprising two episodes from ‘The Faceless Ones’ and one from ‘The Evil of the Daleks’. Neither story is quite done justice by these segments but they’re quality all the same.

Disc 3 mostly comprises episodes from Troughton’s second year: this was the show’s most formulaic period, in sharp contrast to the tail-end of Hartnell’s run, and as such it’s the weakest disc. It has one great episode (‘The Web of Fear’: 1), a couple of decent ones (‘The Abominable Snowmen’: 2 and ‘The Enemy of the World’: 3) and some right old rubbish (‘The Wheel in Space’: 3 and 6). Troughton’s third and final year in the role was stronger, not that you’d know it from the sole representative here: ‘The Space Pirates’: 2 is desperately tedious.

Yet the atmosphere is wonderful throughout the black-and-white era, even on the dumbest episode (which is probably ‘The Wheel in Space’ 6). These episodes are also blessed with two of the best actors ever to play the role. Hartnell is consistently captivating and, when required, can instantly become a hugely effective comic presence. Meanwhile, the ease with which Troughton carries himself in the role covers for all kinds of nonsense – you never feel that he doesn’t believe in what he’s saying.

Elsewhere, ‘Lost in Time’ is stuffed with bits and bobs which range in appeal. Certainly, fanboys will be transfixed: aside from the convenience of having all this loose material in one place, there are behind-the-scenes films and off-cuts which give an insight into the making of the programme, a recently discovered trailer for Patrick Troughton’s first episode and 8mm film clips of episodes made by contemporary viewers by pointing a camera at the TV screen (these are almost unwatchable, but for those of us who’ve spent years wondering what certain scenes actually looked like they’re fascinating. Honest). There are also some never-before-seen model shots from ‘The Space Pirates’, which is a rubbish story but the model work is the best thing about it. That and the music.

Aside from the handful of newly-discovered bits all this stuff has been released before on VHS, but still it’s worth buying because the remastering is so good. I used to think that old black-and-white films and TV programmes just looked scuzzy: either they’d deteriorated or they’d always been like that, and either way there wasn’t much you could do. A comparison between the unmastered VHS issues of many of these episodes and the ‘Lost in Time’ versions reveals that there’s actually a great deal you can do, and exposes the lack of effort that goes into many other DVD releases of archive material. The final two episodes in this set (‘The Wheel in Space’: 6 and ‘The Space Pirates’: 2) are particularly shiny-looking, having come from 35mm prints (most of the episodes here are drawn from 16mm copies).

It’s tempting to state that this is not a release for the uninitiated, given that amongst nigh-on eight hours of television there isn’t a complete narrative to be had. These are bits of stories, more easily understood by those who know the series very well and can automatically place them in context. But on the other hand, ‘Doctor Who’ was always designed to entertain in 25-minute chunks. Viewed as brief trips into a fantasy world of rockets, monsters and dodgy science, they still work (and frankly the plots often don’t hang together across the whole story anyway). So actually I’d recommend ‘Lost in Time’ to anybody and I don’t care if they never trust me again afterwards.

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By Eddie Robson

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