In the classic series, Doctor Who often had very clever ideas diluted by lacklustre realisation. However, more often, they also had the good fortune to have writers who absolutely understood the format, constraints and design of a perfect Doctor Who story. For many fans, the hallmark is Robert Holmes.
1973’s four-part ‘Carnival Of Monsters’ comes just on the wrong side of ‘classic’ Jon Pertwee and as such is unlikely to be sleeping in the memories of many baby-boomers – no giant green maggots or Sea Devils here – but it’s still a sharply defined adventure. There’s a bit of mindless running around in Episode 2, but generally this is a very tightly constructed quad of episodes.
Mostly, this is because Holmes recognised the structure of classic Who more than most, was able to turn any perceived shortcomings into strengths. The grey-faced bureaucratic aliens are, quite literally, grey-faced bureaucratic aliens and the story’s concept – a form of entertainment where excited kids gaze into a goggle box to catch sight of a scary monster – is almost too clever for words.
What’s startling about viewing these episodes is the relationship between The Doctor and Jo (Katy Manning): he is still the kindly uncle, but he’s certainly a good deal more brusque and distant than we might care to remember, while Jo comes across as quite smart. Sure, she’s ditzy and slightly too groovy, but she’s certainly not stupid. More surprisingly, in this series of episodes at least, she’s not much of a screamer, even when faced with the Drashigs – which, we are told, are the most terrifying creatures in the universe.
It’s heavy with the wit – Doctor Who wouldn’t get this self-reverential until Sylvester McCoy’s ‘The Greatest Show In The Galaxy’ (curiously, also a story about different alien races being brought together for entertainment) – and there’s a great deal of banter between the main characters (it’s clear that Pertwee’s Doctor feels entirely at home on a 1920’s cruise ship, even if he knows it to be fake).
Included in the extras is a tribute to Ian Marter, who makes his first Who appearance in this story. It’s called ‘On Target’, and while it does spend some time speaking well of the actor’s later career as an author of various Doctor Who adventures, it’s much more effective as an affectionate and moving series of memories from the likes of Elisabeth Sladen and Nicholas Courtney, speaking before his death in March.
Also included is a faux-documentary called ‘The A-Z Of Gadgets And Gizmos’, which is presumably intended to be amusing, but is highly annoying to anyone over the age of six. Genuinely more fun is a ‘Making Of’ documentary that’s introduced like a B movie.
Ultimately, the main story itself is a highly entertaining romp, managing to be both scary and funny in equal measure.
Released on DVD on Monday 28th March 2011 by 2entertain.