I’ll admit I can a bit late to the whole Doctor Who craze. Like most folks in America (my side of the pond, as it were), Tom Baker was the first real Doctor. This isn’t to say that I was unaware of the three who came before; rather, it’s only to say, at that point, the whole franchise came together for me in a persona I could more fully appreciate, who didn’t seem to English-stuffy, and who brought the kind of warmth and whimsy so often displayed in Doctors who’ve played the role since. Do I have a favorite Doctor Who? Why, of course, I do! But that isn’t the purpose of this review.
CARNIVAL OF MONSTERS comes from the Jon Pertwee years, and the story – much like so many tales from early Who – actually respectfully delves into a whole host of matters so common attributed to quality science fiction. It explores class structure – government – social disorder – multiple worlds – the technology of shrunken worlds – and almost Matrix-like existence as the Doctor and his companion Jo (played with suitable aplomb by Katy Manning) find themselves trapped inside a Miniscope, a device that shrinks whole environments and the peoples and creatures who populate them, all for the purpose of providing viewing entertainment for others. It becomes a race-against-time as the peepshow device begins to fail, leaving the Doctor’s companion stuck inside and facing death unless he can find a way to rescue her from it before the circuits fail.
I could go on and on discussing the plot and the various delightful shenanigans pulled by the traveling showman, Vorg, and his assistant Shirna (Cheryl Hall) – notice the similarities? An older gentleman with a youngish attractive girl at his side? – as well as dissecting the endless parallels between the story on the outside of the peepshow box and the story on the inside, but what really matters here is that it’s quintessential Doctor Who. It’s a terrific yarn built on an interesting premise, and it’s all detailed with entertaining characters. It’s certainly one of the better pre-Tom-Baker episodes I’ve ever seen, and I’ll definitely watch it again in the future.
However, what I really wanted to rave about here were the special features, which are downright amazing given the fact that what we’re dealing with here is a television production nearly forty years old as of the writing of this review. Despite the age of the piece, the BBC has provided two separate audio commentary tracks – each hosting both onscreen and behind-the-screen talents – and they stories they detail are as vivid as if it all happened yesterday. There’s an honest, appreciable love of the Who franchise by those given the opportunity to play in that universe, and I listened to both with great delight. Granted, there was an awful lot of crossover material – I can’t tell you the number of times it was discussed that Mr. Pertwee loved to ‘lift’ personal souvenirs from the soundstage and location shoots – but it was still all told with great respect and genuine warmth.
But … the extras don’t stop there!
There’s also a wonderful notation track that runs the length of the four episodes. This is a function track – much like a subtitling feature – that is turned on and off by the viewer, and the notes detail interesting trivia and tidbits not only associated to the filming process, but it also goes into incredible behind-the-scenes facts including direct quotations of scenes edited from the shooting script and never filmed! Some of what’s learned is minor, but there’s a great amount of detail here – it’s all told very much in the fashion of MTV’s ‘Pop Up Video’ from several years back – and it’s equally as charming as the audio commentaries.
But … it doesn’t stop there!
There’s a restored edit of the second episode. It’s longer than the one that aired originally on the BBC, and it inserts several short bits that expand slightly the socio-political themes still present but given short exposure in the entirety of the CARNIVAL. Furthermore, the discs come with a ‘making of’ featurette that cobbles together the best moments discussed in greater detail on the commentaries; there’s a feature detailing many of the Doctor’s favorite weapons and gadgets throughout the entire run of the television show; there’s a host of photo galleries and model shots; and there’s even a short video exploring the more famous maritime ship disappearances, a theme central to the main story for these installments. All-in-all, it’s an incredible collection of material involving actors, craftsmen, and other creative personnel like rarely seen before and certainly hard-to-come-by for a television production almost forty years ago!
I’ll give a special shout out to the short feature on actor Ian Marter. He appears in a supporting role in CARNIVAL, but he returns as a completely different companion during Tom Baker’s run. Mr. Marter was so enmeshed in the Doctor Who universe that he even authored several novel adaptations of episodes that aired, and this 20-minute documentary looks back at one of Who’s early key players who left us long before he should have.
It’s an amazing experience that comes from BBC and BBC Warner. The disc is professionally produced, with both visuals and audios solid.
HIGHEST RECOMMENDATION POSSIBLE. If you’re a Who fan, then you owe it to yourself and fandom to experience this Special Edition collection from start-to-finish. If you’re not a Who fan but you’ve thought about jumping aboard to see what all the fuss is about, then this could as well be the disc you’ve been waiting for. It’s easily enough to jump aboard this delightful journey in mid-stream, and Pertwee – while a bit stiff for my tastes – does a great turn as the Doctor. If you’ve absolutely no interest in Doctor Who … then what are you doing still reading my review at this point? Get off your tuckuss, and get out there to buy a copy, watch this, and I guarantee you’ll join the club!
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at BBC Warner provided me with a DVD screener copy of DOCTOR WHO: CARNIVAL OF MONSTERS (Special Edition) for the expressed purposes of completing this review.