Doctor Who: Ace Adventures on DVD

Two okay stories. Lots of scrummy extras.

 

4 stars

 

 

The new boxset for Doctor Who: The Ace Adventures

Despite seizing the number one spot in DWM's season 24 poll, Dragonfire is that most most beige of Sylvester McCoy stories. It wasn't the calamity of Time of the Rani and didn't share the comic vividness of Paradise Towers and Delta and the Bannermen. In any other season poll, Dragonfire would have hovered around the midway mark, a Frontios or Attack of the Cybermen - the "it's alright" story. Neither smoked salmon nor tinned pork.

 

But for those 1987 viewers shaken by the strong Andrew Cartmel paintstrokes on the previous two stories, Dragonfire was reassuringly trad. Its only concession to the trends of Cartmel Who is its existence as a three-parter, a halfway house between the throwaway nature of the two-episode story and the tough, alpha-maleness of the four.

 

Today, Dragonfire isn't remembered for a particularly amazing villain or some great contribution to the Masterplan. Its defining moment is the famously nonsensical episode one cliffhanger and its historical relevance is that it writes out Mel and writes in Ace. Everything else is just a bit of a shrug.

 

Dragonfire does give us a rare moment of two companions intercoursing. Liz Shaw never passed a Bunson burner to Jo Grant, and Tegan and Peri didn't get to run around together battling Daleks and Rodney Bewes. If you can stomach Ace's dodgy Cockneyisms and overwritten hip speak, then she comes as a bracing change after the miswritten and miscast Mel. When Ace and Mel first come across the dragon, Mel's there screaming her Light Entertainment lungs out, while Ace has a look on her face like she's just seen her parents shagging.

 

It's not a perfect introduction though. Aldred occasionally over-eggs the street kid delivery ("I ain't got no mum and dad, I've never had no mum and dad - it's just me, alright?!" still irks) and Ian Briggs' teen talk ("He's a Grade A 100% div!"; "Gordon Bennett, what a bunch of spods!") is wincingly off-target. But still, she's no Bonnie Langford. And if you've only got that in life, you've got something.

Sylvester McCoy in Doctor Who with a really rubbish alien

 

The "cliffhanger" cliffhanger still manages to grate. It's not a very funny joke anyway, but might have been made slightly funnier if it had been a proper cliff he was hanging from. It's hard to imagine any other Doctor being so moronic as to do that, and it's moments like this, and McCoy's goonish skidding while every other character seems to be perfectly able to walk on frosty floors, that make him so pityingly intolerable in this season.

 

On the commentary, Chris Clough and the cast coo themselves silly over the sets. For 1987, they're not bad and they're lit better than most. The main set - recorded in TV Centre's ginormous Studio 1 - still impresses, even though its Going Live-invoking dimensions suggest Philip Schofield and Sarah Greene are about to wander on at any second, with Trev and Simon in the wings.

 

Production design is also at the centre of The Happiness Patrol, another story defined in the vocab of the day as "studio-bound." "What do you think?" asks the Doctor as they survey the landscape. "Too phoney," replies Ace, "too happy," and you wonder if the designer even read that line of dialogue while he was colouring in those gray slabs.

 

Bertie Bassett in Doctor Who

There's nothing in the script that seems to suggest why approaching this as a partial film noir would make sense. In fact, if there's any story that needed the lights turned up, it's this one, as everyone is being made to live in an artificially perky world. Or at least, that's what the script suggests. Why do the Patrol women attack the blue TARDIS with a dozen cans of pink paint when everything else is brown and gray? There doesn't seem to be a relationship between the Graeme Curry script and what the designers and director want to do. Curry, ever hopeful, described the Kandy Man as a sinister scientist in a stained lab coat (stained from what?) and we get David John Pope dolled up like a David Fincher designed Bertie Bassett.

 

Sheila Hancock is brilliant in this, as is the under-used Ronald Fraser (basically playing Private Eye's version of Denis Thatcher), and Clough casts spit and cough roles very well, from Helen A's doomed gag writer to the two Rosencrantz and Guildenstern type snipers that McCoy shares his Big Scene with. Cartmel likes those pause-the-drama moments. There's the philosophising guard in Dragonfire, these guys in this and the mellow cafe worker in Remembrance, and they tend to be the scenes which linger longer than more essential, plotty moments.

 

Despite the tabloid froth from a few years back, The Happiness Patrol is barely a satire on the politics of the time. Hancock, the old firebrand leftie, may have seized an opportunity to play it as Thatch, but its satiric targets are generic totalitarianism and prescriptive politics, which both left and right are varyingly guilty of.

 

Steve O'Brien talks on The Ace Adventures DVD

The Happiness Patrol's political themes, and that of the programme's, are explored in Ed Stradling's ├╝ber-super documentary When Worlds Collide. Presented by BBC political correspondent - and fan - Shaun Ley and with contributions from Gareth Roberts and yours truly, it's an absorbing trot through the show's political life. "No art is produced in a vacuum," says Ley, and Doctor Who, while rarely doing message art, certainly borrowed from the climate outside TV Centre, whether it be the pacifism vs action mini debate of The Daleks or the tax assault of The Sunmakers. Only with Cartmel and the new series does it make its political and social points more balls-out, from Ghost Light's "white kids firebombed it" speech to The Christmas Invasion's Belgrano moment. Some handsome chap even makes a good point comparing Harriet Jones' story arc to Nick Clegg's. The Lib-Dem leader is probably safe from Dalek extermination though.

 

With the political dimension of The Happiness Patrol well covered in When Worlds Collide, that gives the normal Making Of documentary - Happiness Will Prevail - an easier job to do. Graeme Curry cuts a calmer and nerdier figure than the football-journo-militant-leftie we'd imagined since 1988 and is at his diplomatic best here, "I've grown to love it," he says about the design of the Kandy Man. Really, Graeme?

 

Sylvester McCoy's Doctor Who audition

Sophie Aldred trots out the old fan story that the BBC considered making The Happiness Patrol in black and white, which is almost certainly bullshit, though no-one's around to say as much. Clough talks of The Third Man being a directorial influence and of his plans to shoot much of the story with Dutch angles (prefiguring The Idiot's Lantern there), before he was dissuaded from using too much imagination.

 

David John Pope aside, there are no actors interviewed here, so Sheila Hancock's thoughts behind Helen A will have to remain hidden for now, though there's a wealth of Happiness Patrol B-roll footage that Stradling punctuates the documentary with.

 

A better Making Of is Fire and Ice on the Dragonfire DVD. Again by Ed Stradling, its interest is in finding Sophie Aldred (who's on here, looking like Prunella Scales by way of Zandra Rhodes) and the insanity of deciding so late in the day that Ace would be carrying on with the Doctor. At the time, it was a toss-up between Ace and Delta and the Bannermen's Ray as to who would be moving into Bonnie Langford's dressing room, and Aldred only got the thumbs up that she'd got the gig after the first day's filming.

 

We learn here that McCoy's final speech to Mel was a blending of Briggs' original dialogue and Cartmel's audition script for McCoy, a portion of which is included here, with Janet Fielding standing in as Mel. There's a lot to love in this feature, from the gloriously cruel Open Air footage of Pattie Coldwell reading out a hatchet review in front of Sylvester McCoy to Cartmel's withering musings on the show's production fails.

 

Clough seems a decent chap, but very much a director whose only real goal was to get the job done on time and under budget. Regarding the derided cliffhanger scene, he's honest about its crappiness ("I watched it the other night and thought, aw, you idiot!" he admits), but it's a damning lapse of logic and judgement. He's regretful too over how he chose to shoot the dragon, which in the story lumbers around looking exactly like what he is, a man in a rubber suit. "I shouldn't have shot it in medium long shot," he opines, but again, it just suggests someone rushing to get the job done ready for last orders.

 

Talking Doctor's Strangelove

The Dragonfire disc gets another edition of The Doctor's Strange Love (who named that?), in which Simon Guerrier, Joe Lidster and Josie Long talk perkily about the story's highs and lows, this time against the backdrop of the Matt Smith TARDIS. There's also The Big Bang Theory where NuWho, sfx hunk Danny Hargreaves takes us through some of the more elaborate exploding effects from old Who.

 

Mark Ayres is the moderate moderator on Dragonfire, which features a rotating array of guest talkers, including Dominic Glynn, Ian Briggs, Andrew Cartmel, Chris Clough and Sophie Aldred. A factoid I never knew, at least, pops up that the philosophy speech in episode two was inspired by Doctor Who: The Unfolding Text by John Tulloch, Manuel Alvarado, a copy of which was laying in Cartmel's office during the script editing process. So somebody read that book.

 

Toby Hadoke is back for The Happiness Patrol chat-track, alongside Sophie Aldred, Graeme Curry, Andrew Cartmel, Chris Clough and Dominic Glynn. It only takes Toby two minutes to inform us that the woman who dies in the opening scene later appeared in Brassed Off and that her husband was in Delta and the Bannermen. Don't ever change, Toby.

 

A couple of ho-hum stories then, but backed by some range-best and - dare we say the word? - wicked extras. Only Greatest Show in the Galaxy to go now for Slyv...

 

Steve O'Brien

 

Ace Adventures is released on 7th May 2012

 

 

 

Doctor Who: Ace Adventures on DVD
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