Dr Who: 1976 and all that…

Thanks to a thread at missing episodes, I’ve discovered there were actually two Dr Who omnibuses prior to Christmas 1976 – Pyramids of Mars on 27th November and The Brain of Morbius on 3rd December, both one hour long and presumably scheduled to fill in the odd mid-season gap between The Deadly Assassin Part 4 on 20th November and The Face of Evil Part 1 on 1st Jan 1977.

An omnibus Seeds of Doom was scheduled to follow the first two repeats on 11th December but was pulled at the last minute in favour of Gerry Anderson’s outer space odyssey Into Infinity.  I’ve heard Into Infinity referred to in the same breath as The Seeds of Doom-omnibus-which-never-was but never quite got the sense of it, assuming that Seeds would definitely have been on 27th December as per usual.  So I’m grateful to Richard Bignell for the correction.

Quite why the Pyramids and Morbius omnibuses have fallen through my memory I have no idea.

Dr Who: the 1970s’ Christmas omnibuses

Dr Who at Christmas: the 1970s Christmas omnibuses: Part 3

A little taste of the times…

Christmas 1974 positively sparkled with an excellent, perhaps the most excellent, adaptation of David Copperfield starring Patience Collier, Martin Jarvis, Arthur Lowe and Jacqueline Pearce whilst in 1975, Crackerjack’s Christmas Pantomime, Robinson Crusoe, featured Windsor Davies, Don Estelle, John Inman and John Lawrie, a different kind of sparkle perhaps.  

Both Christmases were lit up by the annual Dr Who Christmas Omnibus: Planet of the Spiders in 1974 and Genesis of the Daleks in 1975.   

And in 1976..?


1974: Dr Who 
Friday 
27th December, 2.45-4.30
pm 

1.10 Grandstand – introduced by Tony Gubba
2.45 Dr Who: Planet of the Spiders
4.30 The All Star record Breakers
5.00 National News – with Richard Whitmore
5.10 Tom and Jerry [Regional News – not London]
5.20 Top of the Pops – Noel Edmonds and Dave Lee Travis

‘A complete adventure in one programme starring Jon Pertwee as Dr Who… A Tibetan style monastery in rural England; a stage magician with uncanny powers; an alien crystal… these are the strands of the sinister web woven by the Metabelis Spiders’  – Radio Times billing.

 

Or Jon Pertwee regenerates into Tom Baker – again.

Even the fact that this omnibus began not at 4.00 or 3.30 but at 2.45pm was exciting to me as a ten year old. The earlier time made the screening feel somehow more ‘urgent’ and it was less long to have to wait.

Indulgence

For all its shortcomings and accusations of indulgence (actually the much criticised chase takes up only half of episode 2) Planet of the Spiders remains underappreciated.  A well-crafted story arc gently builds on seeds sewn in The Time Monster (the Doctor’s teacher), The Green Death (Jo) and Invasion of the Dinosaurs (Mike Yates) to provide a coherent and poignant close to the Pertwee era.

Thus a moral tale (the emptiness of power, the innate healing quality power of mind, surrender of ego followed by rebirth) coupled with an end-of-an era, retrospective feel makes for an ideal Christmas recipe.

The regeneration game 

Most touchingly of all, this was transmitted only the day before Part 1 of Robot in which Tom Baker picks up the mantle and a whole newplanet-of-the-spiders-byline era of Dr Who begins.  “Tears, Sarah Jane?”  I’m sure I shed some of my own as my familiar white-haired hero was transformed before my eyes into a brown curly-haired stranger for a no less traumatic second time.

As a six-parter, this would have been 2.30 in episode format, so approximately 45 minutes have been lost.

8.6 million viewers tuned in as against a shade over nine million viewers on average for the original.  Throughout the two weeks of Christmas and New Year, BBC-1 showed Holiday Star Trek each weekday morning at 11.45am.  Possibly this may have bumped-up Planet of the Spiders‘ viewing figures.

ITV screen the film Half a Sixpence at 2.25 all the way up to Looks Familiar at 4.50.

Transmutation

Planet of the Spiders is the first omnibus repeat still held in the BBC archives and is included on the DVD release along with the trailer.

 

 

No illustrations accompany the billing in Radio Times but on the Saturday 28th December page we have a Pertwee-Baker transmutation across four photos as if in imitation of the superb Radio Times 10th Anniversary Special artwork which blended the features of the first three doctors across a double-page spread, thus creating Hartnell-Troughton and Troughton-Pertwee hybrids.  This Pertwee-Baker version is rather more basic and it’s clear Pertwee’s head has been matted onto Baker’s be-scarfed body but still it’s a nice try and gets the idea across.

For the first time in the 70s, the new Dr Who season is not marked by a Radio Times cover, odd really considering Tom Baker’s debut the week before.  All my research has drawn a blank as to what did make it onto the New Year edition cover.

 


1975: Dr Who: Genesis of the Daleks
Saturday 27th December, 3.00-4.25pm 

12.15 Grandstand – Introduced by Frank Bough
3.00 Dr Who: Genesis of the Daleks
4.25 The Basil Brush Show – with Roy North
4.50 Final Score 
5.05 News/Weather – with Michael Fish
5.15 It’s Cliff & Friends 
5.50 Saturday Night at the Movies: It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, mad World

‘A complete adventure in one programme, starring Tom Baker, written by TERRY NATION… The Time Lords have a mission for the Doctor. He finds himself stranded on Skaro -the planet of the Daleks where a war of attrition is reaching its bitter final stages’ – Radio Times billing.

 

That’s not Terry Nation but TERRY NATION.

Blast off Basil  

No really, Blast Off Basil.

In a bizarre reversal of the usual BBC-1 Saturday evening schedule, Dr Who now precedes Basil Brush which is incongruous given Genesis of The Daleks’ hard-edged, adult themes.  The omnibus would have benefitted immensely had Basil’s twenty-five minutes been added to its running time.  You really need the full exposition to feel the effect.

At the time, I wondered whether the change from Jon Pertwee to Tom Baker might signal the end of the Christmas omnibuses.  Added to that, Season Thirteen had begun not around Christmas 1975 but back in autumn of that year and so was a little past mid-way by Christmas.  There was no longer a need to refresh viewers’ memories and whet their appetites after a six month break.

Butchered 

And yet I was pleased to see Genesis of the Daleks appear in the schedules for 27th December in time honoured fashion.  But with approximately 65 minutes removed, it was the most excised of the omnibuses.

The tough cut was presumably to meet the demands of a crowded schedule.  In retrospect, it perhaps suggests the BBC losing interest in the idea of Christmas omnibuses.

Changing times

Even as an eleven year old comparing my memory of the episodic broadcast nine months earlier with this butchered version, I was aware that dramatic impact had been sacrificed.  For the first time, Igenesis-of-the-daleks-byline felt less than entirely satisfied.

Having made the change from primary to secondary school three months earlier, in retrospect, my more critical response also seems like one which prefigures adolescence.  Three or four years earlier I’d have been grateful for anything.

Added to that, by this time my parents were ignoring Dr Who, my father not being a fan of Tom Baker’s more ironic, send-up style (he really should have seen this though).  Watching alone and being in a new house I didn’t warm to took away something of the cosiness.

Stopgap Who

In Radio Times, Frank Bellamy’s artwork is captioned: ‘The most important mission the Doctor has ever faced – can he prevent Davros creating his Daleks?’ and depicts all three ‘Ds’.

8.5 million viewers tuned in compared to an average of almost 9.6 million for the spring screening.

The ITV Network runs with ski-ing and wrestling as part of its usual Saturday afternoon World of Sport package.

This was the only time an omnibus was screened on a Saturday.  The Genesis omnibus was used as a stopgap as there was no Dr Who serial later that day with The Android Invasion’s final episode screened on 13th December and Brain of Morbius not commencing until 3rd Jan 1976.

 


1976:
Bank Holiday Monday 27th  December 

1.25 [Racing from] Wincanton
2.34 Walt Disney’s Babes in Toyland
4.20 The Superstars

5.30 Evening News – with Richard Whitmore

Tuesday 28th December 

1.00 Racing Grandstand 
2.35 The Nutcracker
4.20 James and the Giant Peach

5.15 Evening News – with Richard Baker

christmas-1976-radio-times

 

And so to my bitter disappointment on discovering that The Seeds of Doom, my favourite Dr Who story since The Green Death some three years earlier was not to be comped come December.

A repeat was planned but then dropped for unknown reasons.  What those were, I can’t imagine. Seeds of Doom even had snow!

Scrooges! 

The unexplained absence marked the missing of a much-loved tradition.  Christmases felt truncated, colder even, accentuated for me by a passing from childhood innocence to self-aware adolescence

1976, aged twelve, was the last year I had a Christmas stocking.    

Cold, cold Christmas 

Perhaps the omnibuses ended because Dr Who seasons no longer ran January- June.  Perhaps new producer Philip Hinchcliffe didn’t favour the format, preferring episodic repeats which became a fairly common feature of the mid-late 70s when scattered across the early-evening weekday schedule usually as summer filler.  Or perhaps there were changes to BBC senior management come 1976.

Had the tradition continued, both Seeds of Doom and especially 1977’s Dickensian/Holmesian The Talons of Weng Chiang, with its fog shrouded London streets and mysterious magic cabinet, present1976-dr-who-byline themselves as obvious high calibre candidates.  I struggle once we reach The Invasion of Time (1978) and The Armageddon Factor (1979) admittedly.

For whatever reason, the Christmas feasts were no more.  Inextricably bound to the early-mid 1970s and coinciding exactly with my remembered childhood, the Dr Who Christmas Omnibus tradition had become a magnetic, essential part of my Christmas and still engenders feelings of great warmth forty years on.

Ever since 2005, Dr Who has had a Christmas Special shown on Christmas Day, as if that somehow picked up on a longer established tradition which, like many mythologies, was actually never the case.

A Christmas toast

So perhaps at about 3pm on Tuesday 27th December 2016, I’ll sit down to Seeds of Doom on DVD with a glass of ginger wine and a mince pie or two.

Until then, in the words of William Hartnell in 1966’s The Feast of Steven (the only old Who episode actually broadcast on Christmas Day): “A Happy Christmas to all of you at home!”

img_2523


Dr Who 1970s’ Christmas Omnibuses Part 1
Dr Who 1970s’ Christmas Omnibuses Part 2
Scraps of Dr Who
Dr Who: 1976 and all that 

 

Dr Who at Christmas: the 1970s Christmas omnibuses: Part 1

I’ve stayed shy of posting on Dr Who as it’s such a giant universe unto itself. But as Christmas grows closer, this is the first of three posts on a particular Whovian manifestation and one with a strongly seasonal flavour – the Dr Who Christmas Omnibuses of the 1970s.


christmas-1976-radio-timesDecember 1976… on this day, or thereabouts, forty years ago I got a nasty shock.

The Christmas double-issue Radio Times arrived through our letter box that morning with a reassuring thud, an event which, each year, I anticipated with much excitement.  I turned straight to the BBC-1 listings for 27th December to check the start time for the omnibus Dr Who: The Seeds of Doom only to find… there was none.

Instead of pods, compost crushers and obscene vegetable matter, the afternoon was dominated, with a camp surrealism, by Walt Disney’s Babes in Toyland and sportsfest Superstars.  A quick flick through to 28th and 26th December, just in case, then a scour through the entire magazine showed The Seeds of Doom was nowhere to be found.

To say I felt disappointed or even cheated was an understatement.  Gutted would be more accurate.

On the third day of Christmas…

Doctor Who omnibuses had been a fixture of my Christmas since 1971 when I was seven.  Always scheduled on the afternoons of 27th or 28th December, this Yuletide treat extended Christmas Day and Boxing Day festivities into a third day.

As an only child, Christmas Day and Boxing Day were spent in entirely adult company with my parents and their friends, Vivien and Earnest.  Although this might sound like a hardship to some, I thoroughly enjoyed our Christmases (we played games too!) but it did mean both days were lead by adults whereas 27th December felt like my day.

With the house festooned with decorations and Christmas tree lights deeply glowing as the day darkened, feature-length Dr Who was the perfect afternoon accompaniment to Christmas cake and Yuletide log.

Forty years on, I’m reviving that tradition by revisiting those omnibuses across three posts.  Here I’ll look at why the early 70s offered fertile ground for the omnibuses and at their appeal to an avid, young Dr Who fan.  Then across two further posts, I’ll review the the stories shown each year and my memories of seeing them.

Box of delights 

 

I got an immense thrill in the days and hours leading up to these feature-length Whos, counting down the minutes to the start.  The thrill was no less than the anticipation of a brand new Dr Who episode on a Saturday at 5.15, different, yes, but just as intense, like reliving an exciting experience knowing just how amazing it was going to be, also knowing that the excitement would last four times as long.  I couldn’t wait for it to start and when it did, I couldn’t bear for it to end.  I’d count down the minutes towards the closing titles too as if in dread anticipation of my disappointment.

A repeat meant marvelling once more at extraordinary sights like the devil appearing in a village church threatening to destroy the world or the Sea Devils rising from beneath the waves.

It also allowed christmas-dr-who-1opportunities to spot elements of story or setting which had passed me by the first time as well as checking those bits which didn’t reappear.

And the timing made it feel so incredibly special, the perfect Christmas present delivered by the BBC, every year.

Like so many aspects of childhood, this one felt as if it would go on forever.  But it was not to be.  I didn’t know it at the time but the Dr Who Christmas Omnibus tradition had ended with Genesis of the Daleks in 1975.

Repeating itself

Doctor Who repeats were rare indeed.

In the 60s, Evil of the Daleks was the only complete serial to be shown again in June 1967.

Summer 1971 brought a highly unexpected Friday teatime episodic repeat of Jon Pertwee’s debut, Spearhead from Space, perhaps partly as a schedule-filler, partly as an acknowledgement of the series’ rising profile.

Then came Dr Who and the Dæmons, ‘for the first time a complete adventure’, on Monday 28th December 1971.

What may have prompted this first Christmas repeat in a new format?

A Christmas celebration  

Following declining ratings, in 1970 Dr Who was given a chance to prove itself with a new actor, Jon Pertwee, in the title role.  The 1970 season was judged an artistic and commercial success so the series’ future, for now, was secured.

By 1971, with a second season of improved ratings and audience appreciation under its belt, Dr Who merited additional exposure as a further boost to its rising profile.

Evidence that the BBC wanted to get behind the series came in the form of the New Year Radio Times covers which graced the start of all five Jon Pertwee seasons.  Radio Times was very pro-Doctor Who during Pertwee’s tenure.

Throughout the 60s, Doctor Who was shown almost all year round.  But from 1970, seasons were 25 or 26 weeks long only running roughly January-June, meaning the show was off the air throughout the summer and autumn months.  So a Christmas repeat of a story from that year’s January-June run would serve as a curtain raiser for the new season.

deamons-titlesThe story goes that, following original transmission in May, Episode One of The Deamons was discussed by BBC1 controller Paul Fox and Richard Levin, head of television design. Both men commended the quality of the story’s script and production and it was perhaps Paul Fox’s support which producer Barry Letts was then able to leverage to bring about the Christmas omnibus in December 1971.

Could there have been a 1970 omnibus?  Obviously, yes, in theory but three out of four Season Seven stories were exceptionally long seven-parters and probably Barry Letts hadn’t been long enough in the job to propose the idea.  An Inferno omnibus would have been quite something though.

Which story to tell?

What of the choice of stories across Christmases 1971-75?  Each selection surely had to be the story judged ‘best’ from the previous season, whether in terms of ratings, audience appreciation or some other vaguer sense of impact.

An obvious candidate would be the climactic story.  A reprise would remind viewers where they had left Dr Who series six months earlier and create momentum into the start of the new season beginning in christmas-dr-who-1bjust a few days time.  Three out of five stories chosen over 1971-75 were series finales, the exceptions (quite rightly) being The Sea Devils and Genesis of the Daleks.

Despite the much heard criticism that six part stories are too long, all stories given the omnibus treatment were six-parters (The Dæmons is an honorary six parter) perhaps because they tended to be the more expensive, more expansive, higher profile adventures, resembling the blockbuster feel of a one-off feature film.

Yet the BBC could simply have opted for four parters – The Claws of Axos, Day of the Daleks, The Three Doctors, Destiny of the Daleks and Revenge of the Cybermen – and saved themselves the trouble of making cuts.  I’m so glad they didn’t.

Or, worse still, they could have chosen the wrong six-parters – Colony in Space, The Mutants, Frontier in Space, Monster of Peladon.  What a post-Christmas comedown that would have been (it is specifically the non-Earth six-parters which are to blame for the genre’s overlong, overpadded reputation).

Happily the stories selected, presumably by Barry Letts, were the right ones every time.

I hope you’ll join me for two more posts in the leadup to Christmas when I’ll look at each of these stories in turn, starting next week with 1971-73: The Dæmons, The Sea Devils and The Green Death.

christmas-tree-glowing

Photo Credit: buddymedbery Flickr via Compfight cc


Dr Who 1970s’ Christmas Omnibuses Part 2

 

Created by Brian Clemens – ‘Thriller’

Brian Clemens 1976

Brian Clemens died on January 10th at the age of 83.  His name is inextricably linked with television action-adventure and crime series of the 60s and 70s from Danger Man and Adam Adamant Lives to The Professionals.  Surely his most notable achievement remains The Avengers, a series so innovative and original it almost defines 60s cool.  Clemens himself was responsible for casting Diana Rigg as Emma Peel.

But for me, the name Brian Clemens is most closely associated with the 1973-76 ATV series Thriller.  Clemens created Thriller, wrote the majority of its 43 episodes and storyboarded the others, adding to his already prolific output.

Thriller had a number of good things going for it.  Each episode lasted seventy-five broadcast minutes (typically 65 minutes without commercial breaks), a very specific and unusual length for a British TV drama series.  That schedule-stretching extra twenty minutes seemed to symbolise the import of the series and, when well used, allowed room for a mood of mystery or menace to slowly develop.

Harpsichord stings

Even the shrill blasts of the ATV ident seemed to announce a deliciously terrifying seventy-five minutes was in store.

ThrillerThen there was Laurie Johnson’s doom laden opening music – creepy woodwind and those dreaded dissonant ‘ker-drrrrmmm!’ harpsichord stings accompanying a blood red framed, fish-eyed view of the locations to come – a forbidding old house (often with pillars) or bare trees clawing at a wintry sky.

The anthology format of self-contained episodes had the advantage of providing fresh actors in a new story each week.  It’s a shame that this flexible but reliable format has virtually vanished from television screens today.

Casts were stuffed with well known names – Dinsdale Landen, Peter Vaughan, Hayley Mills, Jenny Agutter, Jeremy Brett, Nyree Dawn Porter, Patrick Allen, Richard Todd, Patrick Troughton, Diana Dors, Tom Conti, Peter Bowles, Denholm Elliott to name but a handful.  To help sales to the States, American actors were planted in some episodes which could make for a slightly contrived feel.

Having seen the entire Thriller series on DVD forty years later, it’s a largely positive experience.  Unfortunately the series lacks the charm of The Avengers and there is a sense that the gin-and-jag world it portrays is a pretty corrupt place where seemingly anyone is prepared to kill, usually for money.

Some of the characters feel interchangeable but that could be down to box-set syndrome.

I don’t have a problem with the studio-bound sets which are actually pretty lavish by 1970s’ TV standards and were something of a hallmark of ATV.

Experiments with supernatural-themed stories work rather less well and the series feels on a firmer footing when these are phased out though Diana Dors is creepily enjoyable as evil nurse Bessie in Nurse Will Make It Better (1975).

I feel a little uneasy that a prevalent theme is a female menaced by a male (Clemens claimed audiences identify more closely with the vulnerability of a female lead) but my favourite Thriller, A Coffin for the Bride  (1974), turns the tables magnificently.

The series can descend into schlock, sometimes nerve-rackingly so as in A Killer in Every Corner (1975) with Max Wall’s first straight role as an obsessive shoe-polishing psychopath much talked about at the time.

When Thriller was sold to the States as a collection of standalone made for TV movies, the atmospheric original titles and music were excised to be replaced by truly terrible garishly coloured openers with generic music plastered over the top and some episodes renamed.  British TV viewers got to see these cheap and nasty versions when Thriller surfaced sporadically across the ITV regions around 1981 though many viewers would have missed these repeats altogether as there was little indication they belonged to the 70s Brian Clemens series.  Thankfully the Network DVD release restores the original fish-eye credits though the export versions are included as extras if you can stomach them.

Several Thrillers do stand out. Here are my two favourites.

The Eyes Have It

I missed the majority of Thrillers first time round.  Nine year olds were not the target audience (although, surprisingly, some episodes began as early as 8.15, well before the 9pm watershed).

But I did get to see one of the best stories, 1973’s The Eyes Have It on a 1975 repeat.   The sense of excitement at being allowed to stay up to watch this adult drama – and it felt exceedingly ‘adult’ – was immense and, that night, Thriller certainly did not disappoint.  A certain aura surrounded the series, handed down from parents and passed around in gossip at school and it felt great to at last be inducted into this exclusive club.

In 1975, The Eyes Have It thrilled and terrified me in equal measure.  The clichés of ‘glued to my seat’ and ‘unable to look away from the screen’ could not be more apt.  My childhood favourite, Dr Who, was moving into its Gothic period at this time which meant more realistic portrayals of the darker side of human nature in stories like ‘Genesis of the Daleks’ (Sarah being sadistically dangled high over the edge of a rocket’s scaffolding, Nyder’s cruelly complicit smile as the Daleks’ slaughter commences).  In many ways Thriller felt like a natural step-up and satisfied a need in me to be both chilled and excited in greater measures.

The Eyes Have It pre-credits teaser (a key aspect of the series) shows us a doctor murdered by strangers as a young woman stands by apparently unconcerned.  The killer waves his hand across her line of vision as she continues to smile.  Only then, after this unnerving opening does the camera pan to ‘Clinical Training Centre for the Blind’ and we’re into the title sequence.

A group of terrorists have infiltrated the school because its location offers an ideal vantage point from which to carry out an assassination.  The story is of how the blind students gradually become aware of what is happening and, despite the odds being severely against them, seek to overcome the terrorists.

The acting (Peter Vaughan, Sinead Cusack, William Marlowe, Denis Waterman) is very good and there are some wonderfully poignant scenes which stick in the memory, such as the students continuing life as usual while, unbeknown to them, the body of the doctor lies only feet away.  In another nail-biting scene, one of the students seeks help from a stranger only to realise from the familiar feel of his ring that he is one of the terrorists.  The precision of the storytelling and the sense of menace is almost palpable.

A Coffin for the Bride

Once you get over the slightly tacky double murder scenes at the start, this opens out into a thoroughly original mystery.  Michael Jayston plays Mark Walker, a charmer who makes a living out of marrying and then murdering wealthy women.  But his well oiled schemes fall apart when he meets the beautiful Stella Mackenzie (there’s a clue in her being a set designer…)

A Coffin for the Bride relies hugely for its effectiveness on a strong performance from its female lead and a young Helen Mirren is terrific.  I can’t say too much here for fear of spoiling your enjoyment if you’ve not seen it.  Suffice it to say that the ending is as devastating as it is completely unforeseen (well, by me, anyway though I do think Mark might have noticed those dentures before they are pulled out on him).

I played this story a second time and noticed a crucially placed lookalike figure in the background at the health resort.  Whether this passer-by is a purely incidental inclusion or a deliberate one, her presence acts as a subliminal decoy, steering you off the scent of what’s really happening and making the outcome all the more shocking. Subtle and clever.  I got as much enjoyment seeing A Coffin for the Bride for a second time just to enjoy the careful setting up of the story at each stage.

A Coffin for the Bride is reputedly Brian Clemens’ own favourite from the series.

The wrap-up

In some ways, Thriller reminds me of a traditional ‘good night out,’ at a provincial theatre where thrillers have long been a production mainstay and always seem to star Gerald Harper or Christopher Cazenove.  The mood would be one of deadly melodrama threatening to burst through English middle-class self-restraint.

It’s quite rare to see anything approaching genuine psychological motivation in thrillers (Psycho, is a notable exception) and to an extent you have to accept the limitations of the genre to enjoy this collection too.  The thrills are indeed psychological but they stem from imposed plot devices rather than from characters of subtlety and complexity. Thriller takes a premise, setups a scenario which implies a certain endgame and then deliberately subverts that or, in some cases such as I’m the Girl He Wants to Kill (1974), simply plays it out relentlessly.

Thriller Box setYou can enjoy the sense of manipulation when it’s in the name of suspense – and suspense, Thriller delivers in spade-loads.

For all the thrills you could ever want, visit the Thriller website.

The entire series is available on DVD box set.