Sometimes the extras on the Doctor Who classic series DVDs are side-splitting as well as fascinating, like Terrance Dicks explaining that the alien Alpha Centauri looked like a big penis. Three old-school Doctor Who stories just came out on DVD.
I'll spare you the standard rant about how annoying it is that the Doctor Who classic series is being released in dribs and drabs, instead of proper season box sets like almost every other TV series of the era. The short version is that collecting old-school Who on DVD is an expensive proposition, since the individual stories put together wind up costing more than a whole season would. And the extras are of variable quality, and sometimes only seem to be included to make a stand-alone story seem more attractive. At the same time, these discs are a labor of love by the Restoration Team, who work miracles on behalf of their favorite show.
That said, the three new releases on DVD are "The Curse Of Peladon," "The Monster Of Peladon" and "The Masque Of Mandragora." And two of these stories really are classics, in my book.
First, the "Peladon" duology. Both of these stories come from Jon Pertwee's early 1970s tenure in the role, and they both take place on the mock-medieval world of Peladon. "Curse" is one of the finest Pertwee stories, and if you've never seen any of his era before, this is a really good one to start with. The plot is sort of the Star Trek episode "Journey To Babel," mashed up with some medieval cliches. Peladon is just emerging from barbarism and superstition, and is a candidate to join a galactic Federation — but some people decide they liked the barbarism and superstition just fine. There are mysterious murders, conspiracies, a tormented king, trial by combat, and a mythical beast lurking in the catacombs. In short, it has everything.
The whole thing zips along at a nice pace, and the Doctor is at his most mercurial and charming, convincing everybody that he's the delegate from Earth. The other aliens really are quite alien — and as a nice bonus, the Ice Warriors, villains of two previous stories, appear to be honorable and decent this time around. Getting a greater insight into how the Ice Warriors think is a major plus, and you're left wondering if they could have become Doctor Who's answer to the Klingons if they'd had more exposure.
The second Peladon story, "Monster," feels like a boring retread in a lot of ways. There are a couple of nifty new ideas grafted on: First, Peladon's now ruled by a queen instead of a king, and she needs to be taught to be more assertive. And second, it turns out that joining the Federation really wasn't such a great idea, because now the Peladonians are being exploited for their mineral resources. At six episodes, though, the whole thing is just dragged out far too much. As usual with a Pertwee six-parter, the plot doesn't really even get going until episode four.
So if you're new to the Pertwee era and wanting to sample it, "Curse" is a great choice, but "Monster" is eminently skippable.
The extras are sort of nice, although this is a case where "Monster" could have been a single disc and all of the extras could have been included with "Curse." There are the usual jovial, joky audio commentaries, with production team Barry Letts and Dicks having fun remembering the making of both stories. (With Letts now sadly passed on, any chance to hear his thoughts on the program he helped to reshape is greatly appreciated.)
There's a two-part documentary on the making of both stories, half of which appears with "Curse" and half of which with "Monster." It clocks in at about 45 minutes, total, and probably goes on a bit too much — but the good parts, like the above clip, are very very good. Probably the best, most fascinating feature is a comparison of the original storyboards for the "TARDIS falls off a cliff" scene in "Curse" with the final version. I had no idea how much detail went into storyboarding these sorts of scenes, or quite how complicated that sequence was. The other great feature is a deleted scene from "Monster," which only exists in audio, and the DVD team has recreated it using screenshots. And if you grew up reading the Target novelizations of the original series and feel nostalgic, a documentary about Terrance Dicks' immense contributions to turning Doctor Who into a set of literary tropes will enthrall you. A lot of the other documentaries felt a bit surplus to me.
Then there's the Tom Baker story, "The Masque Of Mandragora," which is one of his better stories. Like the two Peladon stories, it's about a society on the verge of escaping from superstition and breaking free into an age of reason — except this time, it's Renaissance Italy. The Doctor accidentally brings a glowing ball of super-intelligent space energy to Earth, and it decides to make sure the Renaissance never takes hold, as part of its plans to enthrall humanity. There's swashbuckling, sword fights, mind control, horoscopes, cultists, Renaissance intrigue and scheming, Machiavelli, poisonings, and a final showdown that's quite satisfying. The Doctor actually defeats the Mandragora Helix by using science, topped off with an atrocious pun.
Like many of Baker's stories from the mid-1970s, it has a fast pace and a ton of ideas, many of them borrowed from literature or gothic horror. The BBC, especially back then, was always at its best doing historical costume drama, so you can almost pretend you're watching Masterpiece Theater until the red ball of space energy shows up. Plus writer Louis Marks did his thesis on this period in Italian history, so he actually makes an effort to get things right.
The extras include a making-of featurette with some nice facts about the ideas behind the episode — I had forgotten it was filmed in the same weird Welsh village as the 1960s version of The Prisoner. There's also a genuinely great documentary about the interior of the TARDIS, which gets a major redesign in "Mandragora." A group of designers and experts, including the show's 1970s designer Barry Newbery, talk about the cathedral-like 1960s version, the various weird 1970s versions, the sparkly 1980s version, and finally the Eccleston/Tennant version, putting each incarnation in a cultural context. I was genuinely fascinated. Some of the other extras are honestly surplus, but I guess it's nice to have them.
All in all, both "Curse" and "Mandragora" are great choices for fans of the new series who are curious about the mysterious, daunting proliferation of 1970s stories with "Of" in their titles. The featurette on the TARDIS interior that comes with "Mandragora" will even serve as a fun crash course in the time machine's various reinventions, for relative newbies who've just seen their first TARDIS makeover in "The Eleventh Hour." Meanwhile, "Monster Of Peladon" is strictly for fanatics.
"Curse Of Peladon" image by J.L. Fletch.