|Double trouble for the Doctor (Sylvester McCoy) and new companion Ace (Sophie Aldred) in the latest BBC WHO DVD release: ACE ADVENTURES. Images: BBC.|
DOCTOR WHO: ACE ADVENTURES
(A two-disc DVD box set comprising the adventures Dragonfire and The Happiness Patrol)
Starring Sylvester McCoy as the Doctor and Sophie Aldred as Ace.
Released by BBC DVD from May 7th2012
Reviewed by Scott Weller
There’s a fresh time team inside the TARDIS for its late eighties journeys, as comedian/actor Sylvester McCoy takes the controls (and plays the spoons!) whilst young new assistant Sophie Aldred becomes companion twenty eight and brings her own inimitable and volatile trademarks to the series as baseball bat wielding, bomber jacket wearing, nitro nine explosive throwing companion Ace, and things will never be the same again for the show as it enters a bold new direction of action, adventure and colorful fun in the CLASSIC WHO series closing years. Now released by BBC HOME ENTERTAINMENT, fans can finally enjoy two diverse new DVD releases from that era, which showcase this unique and popular fan pairing: a release that certainly lives up to its moniker of ACE ADVENTURES!
“At last. After three thousand years, the Dragonfire shall be mine!”
Probably best known for its quite ridiculous cliffhanger to the end of its part one, the 150th DOCTOR WHO story from 1987, the three-parter Dragonfire, is a kind of return to basics for the series in crafting a more traditional, audience friendly story than we’d seen during the rest of the preceding year, in tales like the offbeat but enjoyable Paradise Towers (killer cleaning robots gone mad in a futuristic tower block, that’s also full of pensioner cannibals and yoof culture gangs gone mad!) and the possibly too light-hearted Delta and the Bannermen (aliens in a 1950’s Welsh holiday camp invaded by Don Henderson! And they’ll be a lot more pesky alien critters getting trapped in Wales from 2005 onwards, not just in Modern WHO but TORCHWOOD as well!). It’s received a bit of a tarnished reputation from fans over the years but, despite that one poorly realized moment, there’s plenty of fun to be had in its ice world setting of the planet Svartos, involving treasure hunters pursued by a memorable villain, ice caves, singing trees, a few audience friendly Zombies and an ultimately benevolent biomechanoid. Svartos holds the key to a unique problem for the mercenary turned shopping planet custodian Kane, whose ambitions to take control of the universe with his constantly acquired, specially preserved in ice Zombie army are being held in check by a legendary mystery which he cannot reach to solve…
|New companion Ace (Sophie Aldred) makes a fine entrance in Dragonfire.|
|Ace encounters the sinister Kane (Edward Peel).|
Collecting fractured souls, enjoying freezing people to death with icy handshakes and chin grasps, whilst longingly admiring a big ice-lolly type sculpture of his late space pirate wife, Edward Peel is a fine Kane, possessing subtle but menacing villainy, whose henchmen are in all-white Nazi-esque regalia and pointed helmets, and assisted by the enjoyable, if a little underused, performances of THE ROCK HORROR SHOW’S Patricia Quinn and PORRIDGE’s Tony Osoba. Caught in the middle of the heroes and villains is the return of that wandering opportunist with a nose for trouble, Sabalom Glitz, continuing to be a terrific character living up to his legendary inception from the late Robert Holmes, and played with grubby charm by Tony Selby: he and Sylvester McCoy make a fine pairing in their hunt for the mysterious Dragonfire treasure. Glitz replaced a similar type of character from the original story-an inspired idea from then producer John Nathan-Turner.
Just as importantly, however, this is the introductory tale to a new type of travelling companion for the Doctor, as Ace (originally known as Alf!), played by then relative newcomer to television Sophie Aldred, makes her spunky mark on proceedings. I have to confess on original transmission that I wasn’t quite sure what to make of the new female character at first, but by the start of the opening story of the following Season Twenty Five I’d quickly gotten used to her and her accompanying ways, her in your face attitudes (but also possessing a genuinely caring personality, too), her liking for nitro nine explosives and carrying an arsenal of supplies in her heavy rucksack. But her most distinctive quality that appealed to her fans and younger viewers, had to be her often fearless, I ain’t no pushoverquality. Hearkening back to the days of Tom Baker’s Leela, but not from an alien tribe or wearing a loin cloth, Ace would be a relatively gutsy modern companion most likely to to take out any threat to her Time Lord “Professor” before he actually had time to defeat them himself!
On first reactions, Ace also receives a seemingly implausible introduction to viewers from story writer Ian Briggs: trapped alone on Svartos after being caught in a timestorm that lifted her from Earth (a la WIZARD OF OZ- a deliberate referencing) and planted her on this faraway world of ice and shopping, but I was willing to go with the flow then as I kind of had a hunch that this plotline might eventually mean something somewhere long-term, which it eventually did two years later, in the excellent World War II meets Vampire monsters tale: The Curse of Fenric.
She’s a bit stereotyped eighties FACE magazine reader in this opening story, but Sophie Aldred has raw charm that develops well and comfortably in a mere matter of episodes. Interestingly, prior to her Svartos arrival, Ace also hasn't had a good life, with an individualistic and aggressive streak that was surely an early template for Steven Moffat’s Modern WHO companion of Amy Pond. With Ace, here was a start to make companions more developed personalities-a good move by Script Editor Andrew Cartmel. Aldred shows good acting instincts in both the dramatic scenes and the tender softer side scenes she shares with the Doctors prior companion, Melanie Bush. Despite improving as get time wore in, the character of Pease Pottage’s finest: Mel- possessing a scream capable of breaking the sound barrier- as played by the critically savaged but actually very talented Bonnie Langford, was never properly realised to begin with, despite the actress enthusiasm and exuberance for being in the series. She disappears from the show with Dragonfire with pretty much a modicum of fuss after two years with the series.
|Controversial companion choice Mel (Bonnie Langford) says goodbye to the Doctor (Sylvester McCoy).|
Beyond arrivals and departures, the story as a whole feels reasonably fresh, but has some plot holes here and there (I can’t believe it would really take three thousand years for Kane to find someone capable of finding his creature nemesis!), and some all too obvious references /parallels to superior filmed science fiction/fantasy, like STAR WARS Cantina scenes, SUPERMAN’s icy Fortress of Solitude and holograms, and, the most notable, ALIENS, with Kane’s top killers looking for the roaming biomechanoid in an “ant hunt” that wouldn’t have been out of place in James Cameron’s action-fest sequel if on a much, much smaller budget! The design of the biomechanoid is similar to what we’d already seen in H.R. Giger’s universe of Xenomorphs and chest bursters. It’s ambitious for its TV time and looks okay in darker lighting, but its realisation homages to the original Ridley Scott ALIEN are all too clear in some of the ice world planets overly bright sets. On the flip side of the coin, though, kudos to the stories effects team for some generally high standard film model work.
|The Doctor gets re-acquainted with Glitz (Tony Selby).|
|Mel and Glitz discover the secret of the biomechanoid creature.|
The all-studio made nature of the story is competently handled by director Chris Clough, having taken the reins of this and the location made, back-to-back filming of the previous adventure, Delta and the Bannermen, though it seems that no one is slipping about on the snowy floors except McCoy, in moments that are just very silly. Visually, Kane’s underground lair looks okay in an episode restoration that looks much better than in it did in it’s original 1987 broadcast and on prior shoddy VHS release, though the other ice caves and other cavernous environs look a little thin here and there.
|Different kinds of monster: Stella (Miranda Borman) and the biomechanoid (Leslie Meadows).|
By story’s end, as our heroes race to avert the rebirth of Kane’s galaxy raiding ambitions, quite what the little Shirley Temple-like little girl named Stella (Miranda Borman) is doing running around on her own in and out of the shows ice world set environment I really don’t know-perhaps there’s some kind of clever if obscure film school referencing in it that I’m just not savvy enough or intelligent enough to pick up on-all I know is that it all falls flat on its face in its delivery, whilst the little girl herself is more frightening and repellent to audiences than many of that WHO seasons prime baddies! Fortunately, there is redemption to the tales accompanying rapid loss of character motivations and story logic, as the shocking finale sequence showing Kane’s disintegrating face is ultimately well handled and even now remains shockingly quick but gruesome stuff for family tea-time CLASSIC WHO. It’s a quite adult sequence within what is an ultimately unusual story hybrid gelling of ideas, action and humour.
For fans of the time unhappy with the way the series had been developing, Dragonfire was a positive indication that the show was slowly but surely finding it's confident space legs again after the shows unfair axing during Colin Baker’s previous era.
|That stupifying cliffhanger to episode one finally explained!|
On the DVD extras horizon, there’s the fun audio commentary from Sophie Aldred, Edward Peel, Chris Clough, Ian Briggs and Andrew Cartmel, all of whom contribute greatly to the accompanying fine making of documentary from Ed Stradling, too-which finally explains that cliff-hanger!, The Doctor’s Strange Love in which three fan figures discuss the story’s pros and cons, and The Big Bang Theory, a fun featurette in which Modern WHO series special effects veteran Danny Hargreaves goes through CLASSIC WHO series explosions and how they created them in comparison to today (watch out for his reactions to the incredible explosions seen in 1988’s Remembrance of the Daleks-his face is a picture regarding health and safety standards seemingly gone kaput!)
|Glitz, watch out! It's a plastic stalactite!|
There’s also some good to see deleted scenes (including a missed opportunity in which Kane could have taken out that annoying Stella, and a long mentioned sequence where the Doctor has to free Glitz from a collapsed stalactite (which actually looks pretty ropey), photo gallery, info text, subtitles, and PDFs.
With Dragonfire, the good ultimately outweighs the bad, concluding an equally mixed results introductory year for McCoy as the Doctor. Fortunately, things are looking great on the horizon for the anniversary year to come, whilst Ace as a character and Sophie Aldred as an actress quickly bring some fresh air and additional much-needed vitality...
KOOL TV RATING: 3 out of 5
THE HAPPINESS PATROL
“Happiness will prevail!”
I remember my brother telling me that he thought the writers of the Sylvester McCoy years of DOCTOR WHO must have been on a constant “trip” of some kind when coming up with stories. I’m sure many of the regular audiences watching DOCTOR WHO in the late eighties were sometimes thinking along similar lines, especially with some of the going-ons with the 1988 transmission of the interesting and diverting three-parter of murder and confectionery, revolution and blues playing transmitted as part of the then 25thAnniversary season: The Happiness Patrol.
Originally known by its working title of The Crooked Smile, this is a satirical black comedy drama set on a world where its forbidden to be sad, run by a matriarch despot, Helen A., who keenly dispatches state policed, red bazooka-like gun wielding death squads- the peacock wig wearing, long legged lovelies of the Happiness Patrol- who haunt the often neutral greys and dark shadows of the colony streets seeking out the “Killjoys” who refuse to live in Helen’s fake and murderous world of perpetual happiness: a place where its forbidden to walk the streets alone or be in the rain without an umbrella. A death sentence for the masses that fail to meet their high expectations of joy over their actual state of misery. This three-parter ultimately incorporates many of the classic and required WHO elements we expect alongside a thinly veiled socialist political commentary on the power and nightmare years of the real-life Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (don’t let anyone tell you otherwise!), and her iconic and affecting dynasty on the country: this was new writer Graeme Curry and series Script Editor Andrew Cartmel’s attempt to do something to shake up the story-telling mix from what had been seen before in the series, especially in the relationship area between WHO and political allegory, and linked to Cartmel’s own ambitious, if not always successful, predilections for bringing a kind of Graphic Novels-esque momentum to the series with Sylvester McCoy.
|Trouble in the tunnels of the Terra Alpha colony for the Doctor and Ace.|
Intriguingly, the melancholia of music-most notably the blues- is well used in the story to underscore the battle being waged by the forces of good and evil on the frontier colony world, whose tales of wholesale murder have reached even the far-off ears of the space and time travelling Doctor, leading him and his newish companion Ace on a nighttime mission to Terra Alpha of both discovery and payback.
As the titular lead, Sylvester McCoy gives one of the most confident performances of his three-year career as the Seventh Doctor: a Time Lord who, despite his clownish appearance and hideous question mark jumper, is now a man with a purpose more than ever before: his characters originally conceived roots from way back in 1963 onwards as a sometimes bumbling but heroic intergalactic traveller now mostly side-stepped by the shows eighties production team as he becomes a kind of demi-god of the galaxy, bringing order to chaos, righting wrongs and showing a method to his madness-a master manipulator of people and events that shows the popular character in a much darker light than previously seen in the series history. A bold move that, even today, still has fans locking their horns over its ultimate merits. There are several of these harder edge moments where McCoy shines well: the episode two scene between the Doctor and two of Helen A’s hit-men being a particular well-staged and atmospheric moment-one of the all-time great WHO series scenes, in fact-well acted by a seemingly unlikely but intimidating McCoy.
|Sheila Hancock as the evil Helen A., with her pet monster, Fifi!|
There’s also a great guest cast that don’t play it for laughs, keeping things decidedly on the right side of straight, despite some of the colourful backdrops and overall theatrical/fantasy look of the stories environment, including the likes of John Normington, Harold Innocent, Lesley Dunlop, Georgina Hale and, in an excellent performance, Sheila Hancock as the tyrannical and dangerous colony leader, Helen A. Hancock clearly enjoys her chance to bring her hatred/thinly veiled portrayal of Margaret Thatcher to life and mocking contempt, ably supported by her restrained husband , Joseph C. (Ronald Fraser), a kind of intergalactic Dennis Thatcher, played by the then soon to be Doctor Love in the 90’s TFI FRIDAY chat/music TV show, Ronald Fraser.
|Sweet danger! The Doctor confront the lethal Kandyman (David John Pope).|
Alongside Hancock’s noteworthy performance, I personally think that her much fan-derided Kandyman monster henchman is one of the cleverest and most intriguing and memorable aliens of not only the show but the entire original CLASSIC WHO- very well realised, combining humour and menace in fine moderation from what must have been an on-set filming nightmare role for actor David John Pope inside the walking sweetie (the characters final on-screen appearance so much better than the regular humanoid villain that was originally planned), and possessing a menacing, often hysteric high pitched voice-truly the stuff of children’s nightmares that I’m sure Roald Dahl would have loved to have created if he’d ever have written for WHO. There’s also a twisted Chitty, Chitty, Bang, Bang feel/quality to it at times. The idea of his Kandy Kitchen and the creature’s killer sweet confectioneries is both fun and disturbing, though, with the way the scientist creature looks onscreen, its no surprise that the Bassett’s sweet company weren’t happy with what they saw as a potential infringement on their copyrights!
Other creatures/aliens seen in the story include Helen A.’s lethal pet, Fifi, which is nicely realized for the time, if a little dated now, especially in its limited movements as a hunting animal when it goes after The Doctor and Ace in the sugar sewers. Inside these underground tunnels are also small sewer creature fugitives that help the duo in times of need, who also pick up some of Ace’s verbal bad habits! Though again nicely created for the most part, these spear wielding little ‘uns sadly contribute very little to the tale.
|The Kandyman in his kitchen.|
Overall, the story’s atmospheric and effective opening episode is the best of the three, with the rest of the plot just about sustaining itself.The claustrophobic streets, designed by John Asbridge, looks a little cheap here and there, but the aforementioned Kandy Kitchen is a standout, what with its overhead matte ceilings of moving pumps. In fact, the sets are reminiscent a bit of late season three episodes of the Adam West BATMAN series: the only thing missing are the askew camera angles visual style that helped make it so iconic-which were themselves ultimately a rip-off from a more serious source-the THE THIRD MAN, a movie much admired by competent story director Chris Clough. Its influences on him, and his overall visual style for the story, are apparent, if paired back, after the first episode. The original notion of having the story filmed in noir-ish black and white would have been interesting but not something that the echelons of the then BBC management would have gone with methinks.
One of the undoubted highlights of the story, and possibly its main triumph, is the incidental music by then regular season composer Dominic Glynn, which subtly brings menace and childlike fantasy mixed in with the aforementioned serious and melancholy use of blues music, in a way that’s perfect in setting the right tone for the story, and really helping the production out when it sometimes gets a little too stagy. Glynn’s music works especially well for the third episodes penultimate scene, and the final confrontation between the Doctor and Helen A., which should, ultimately, have been the very serious last shot of the story.
On the DVD extras front, there’s the audio commentary from Sophie Aldred, Chris Clough, Dominic Glyn, Graeme Curry and Andrew Cartmel, whilst Ed Stradling’s 25 minute documentary Happiness will Prevail is a worthy examination and look behind the scenes of the story, with contributions from the above plus David John Pope, recalling life as the Kandyman. The doc also includes some nice behind the scenes studio footage from the time.
|Kitchen calamity for the Kandyman and Gilbert M. (Harold Innocent).|
Of special note is the story’s interesting and lengthy deleted scenes- a regular problem for the McCoy stories was their constant episode overrunning, with important story and character material having to be ultimately culled to fit them down to 23 minute timeslots- including Ace and the Doctors first visit to an empty Kandy Kitchen, some more banter between the Kandyman and his assistant/creator Gilbert M. (Harold Innocent), and other additional materials inked to the supporting cast. Some scenes are better than others, but it's nice to have such substantial material on an official WHO DVD, especially in prime original transmission quality.
The other documentary on the disc-the 50 minute When Worlds Collide- if described on paper, would sound pretty boring, but its actually well-written by Nicholas Pegg and directed by producer Stradling, as presenter/broadcaster Shaun Key looks back at CLASSIC WHO’s relationship with politics and the shows own unique political viewpoints and dimensions over the years, an element which has become much more noticeable in the press and public arena since some of the behind the scenes ideals of The Happiness Patrol story conception recently came more to the fore. Some of it may have been slyly presented, some of it clever, some of it unsuccessful, but all the political viewpoints revealed through the show have been indicative of their time periods and history-making events from which they’ve been born. The documentary includes contributions from late producer Barry Letts, writer Gareth Roberts and writers/script editors Terrance Dicks and Andrew Cartmel. It’s an enjoyable piece of time capsule viewing.
Finally, there’s also a little moment of Ace wishing the children’s series Blue Peter a Happy Birthday!, a colourful photo gallery, sub-titles, isolated score, always revealing on-screen info text and PDFs and another exceptionally well-edited Coming Soon trailer for one of my favourite stories; the classic Jon Pertwee tale: Death to the Daleks.
Hurt in its scheduling by the prior anniversary season launching blockbuster Remembrance of the Daleks, The Happiness Patrol is another interesting if not fully successful foray into new and brave territory being carved by late-eighties WHO under the producer-ship of John Nathan-Turner, and his attempts to keep the show story’s as diverse and visually appealing as possible.
It’s the kind of adventure that would probably be better developed today, accompanied with stronger production values today that would have made it more successful. As a blatant and interesting attack on Thatcherite Britain it was also probably way too ahead of its time to be appreciated. Now, in this age of NEW WHO and WATCHMEN, I think it should be reevaluated by fans as a much better, inventive story that its previously been given credit for.
KOOL TV RATING: 3 out of 5
BOX SET OVERALL SUM UP
Of her two season run, Silver Nemesis and The Curse of Fenricwould probably have been the best and most representative box set showcase for the Seventh Doctor’s top companion, had they not already been previously released. Still, what’s included here ably shows us her introduction, alongside a second story that allows her more gutsy qualities to shine through.
ACE ADVENTURES is a worthy release and tribute to Ace: one of the most successfully realized companions of the eighties WHO era, and a clear indication of foundation building for the companions that followed her in the modern series of 2005 onwards....
KOOL TV OVERALL BOX SET RATING (including extras): 3.5 out of 5.
With thanks to BBC DVD for their help and support with this feature.