The latest batch of Doctor Who stories to be released on DVD includes an interesting double feature: The Invisible Enemy paired with K-9 and Company. The first story features the introduction of The Doctor's robotic companion and the second is the pilot episode for a potential spin-off that was never picked up. These two shows go well together, and while neither of them are outstanding, fans of Doctor Who will be happy to add them to their collections.
Okay, most of you probably already know this, but for those who aren't familiar with the long running SF show, here's a bit of history. Doctor Who started in 1963 with William Hartnell creating the role of The Doctor, a mysterious and crotchety old man who traveled through time and space with his granddaughter Susan, and two of her teachers. They traveled in the TARDIS, a device that looked like a small London Police Call Box on the outside, but on the inside was an immense and spacious time machine.
The show was a hit but in 1966 there was a problem. Hartnell became ill and had to leave the show (though some say it was the new production team rather than illness that caused the departure.) In order to keep the show going the producers and writers came up with an ingenious idea: Since there wasn't much known about the Doctor (aside from the fact that he was an alien) why not have him die and then regenerate his entire body in the form of a new actor. This turned out to be not only a good gimmick to keep the show going, but also made the main character more interesting and mysterious. As the show went on, more details of exactly who and what the Doctor was slowly emerged. It turned out that he was a 700+ year old Time Lord (or over 1000 depending on which Doctor you're talking to) from the planet Gallifrey who stole the TARDIS from a repair bay, which explains why it doesn't always work as well as it should, and was on the lam. He did this because he didn't see eye-to-eye with the rest of his race. He much preferred to get involved and help people out when he could rather than just sit back and watch things happen like the rest of the Time Lords.
As the years went on the show continued to be popular and the BBC went through several actors playing the Doctor and even more traveling companions. This story features one of the most popular actors to portray the Time Lord, Tom Baker.
The Invisible Enemy:
A shuttle heading toward an outpost on Titan travels through a mysterious space cloud and is attacked by something that looks like lightning. The crew becomes infected with the Swarm, your basic APE (All Pervading Evil), a virus-like creature that has lain dormant in deep space for years. When they reach Titan they kill or infect everyone on the base, but not before the commander can activate a distress beacon.
On board the TARDIS, The Doctor (Tom Baker) and Leela (Louise Jameson) answer the SOS signal and pass through the same cloud where the Doctor becomes infected, though temporarily unaffected, but Leela is rejected for some unknown reason. Arriving on Titan they discover the agents of the Swarm are constructing a breading center for the Nucleus, their leader who currently inhabits The Doctor.
As time wears on The Doctor begins to be taken over by the Nucleus. He eventually has so little control over his own actions that he has to put himself into a self-induced coma to save his energy for fighting off the invader. Before he does this however, he instructs Leela on how to program the TARDIS to take them to a near by medical base.
At the medical station The Doctor is treated by Professor Marius and his robotic dog, K-9. Marius can't figure out why Leela wasn't infected, or what to do to cure The Doctor. In one of his infrequent conscious moments, The Doctor instructs Marius to clone he and Leela, which he does. The cloned Doctor removes an instrument from the TARDIS which is then used to shrink the two clones to microscopic size and Marius then injects them into The (real) Doctor's brain where they hope to hunt down and destroy the Nucleus before it can take over the galaxy.
A large part of this show is a direct copy of Issac Asimov's story Fantastic Voyage (which was made into a movie by the same name.) The similarities are so great that I'm surprised they weren't sued. Not only is the basic "shrink to cure a disease" concept the same, but in both the parties have to travel to the brain, are under time pressure before they can no longer function in the body, they both get attacked by white corpuscles and the end is even the same, escaping through the tear duct. The only difference is that Asimov's story was good, but when shoe-horning the idea into a Who adventure it turns silly. (And I won't even mention the giant shrimp at the end.)
This story also introduced K-9, the Doctor's new companion. Let me start this discussion of the robot dog by saying that I hate K-9. The name was stolen from a Bugs Bunny cartoon (did the writers of this story come up with anything original?? Oh yeah, the six foot tall shrimp that I promised I wouldn't mention.) and the character was basically a crutch for writers even in this introductory story. Supposedly a medical computer in the shape of a dog, K-9 has a potent laser hidden in his nose for no apparent reason, and is impervious to all attacks. In this story he scoots (noisily) into the middle of a hall where Leela is holding off attackers. The villains all shoot at the dog, doing no harm at all, and he calmly picks off the ones who are too stupid to hide behind something. Believing in fair-play apparently, K-9 doesn't advance and finish off the rest of the attackers, but rather stays where he is firing ineffectively. When the writers need the inhabited hosts to actually be in the same room with The Doctor, K-9 simply runs out of power. Simple really. He'd be used like this for the rest of his tenure on the show.
The special effects on Doctor Who are usually pretty horrible, but this story is different. Some of the scenes taking place inside The Doctor's brain look absolutely wonderful, especially for the time they were done. Some of these scenes look like alien landscapes and others seem wet and gooey and just what you'd think the inside of someone's brain looked like. Those just made the cheap sets look all the more horrible. Some of the sets were just decorated with torn bits of cloth draped on the walls and in front of the actor's faces. Really horrible looking.
When all is said and done, there are some fun bits in this show, but for me this is where Tom Baker's run starts to slowly decline. The whole story is pretty stupid, and traipsing around The Doctor's brain for more than an entire episode was really dull.
K-9 and Company:
The second disc includes the 1981 pilot for a spin-off series that never got past this first episode: K-9 and Company. It pairs two of The Doctor's most popular companions, Sarah Jane Smith (Elizabeth Sladen) and the mechanical dog, K-9 (voiced by John Leeson). Though these two characters never met in Doctor Who, Producer John Nathan Turner thought that teaming the two companions was a no-loose proposition. He was wrong.
In the show Sarah travels to her Aunt Lavinia's (a character that was mentioned in Doctor Who) for Christmas. When she arrived she discovers a note letting her know that Lavinia has gone to America for a speaking engagement. Her aunt's ward, Brendan Richards (Ian Sears) turns up at the house too, and together the pair discovers an old box with Sarah's name on it. Inside is, you guessed it, K-9. He mentions that he's a gift from The Doctor, and that's that. Aside from a cursory, "How is The Doctor" the investigative reporter is remarkably un-curious about this gift.
The plot itself involves Sarah and Brendan stumbling onto a coven of witches that are practicing human sacrifice. The bumbling Brendan is caught and scheduled to be the guest of honor at the next killing. It's up to Sarah and K-9 to find him before it is too late.
This program was broadcast as a Christmas special in 1981 in the UK. It was instantly a 'must-see' among Who fans as it not only features two companions, but it was the first spinoff from the long running series. Bootleg tapes made the rounds for years until the first official release of the show on VHS.
While it holds an interesting place in the Doctor Who universe, the program just isn't that good. Fans know they're in for a rough time during the opening credits, one of the worst ever broadcast. It consists of a laughably bad theme song that features John Leeson screeching "K-9" (in the 'dog's' voice) over and over to some abysmal electronic music while the camera jumps in and out on images of Sarah (drinking a glass of wine, jogging down the lane, or, most exciting of all, getting into her car) and K-9 (sitting on a stone fence (??), plunked down in the middle of the street, etc.)
The 50 minute show also drags during most of its running time. After K-9 is introduced about 17 minutes in, the plot shifts into low gear and plods on for the next half hour. The show had some inherent difficulties to over come, and it never managed to. The most notable are that both Sarah and K-9 were supporting actors in Doctor Who. They weren't the main focus of attention. The first thing the writers of this spinoff had to address is the question "What's so fascinating about Sarah Jane Smith and a mechanical dog?" They never really answered that in this show. Sarah muddles around asking questions and K-9 stays hidden most of the time. At the end of the show no one is thinking "Wow! I want to see what they do next!"
That's not to say the show is all bad. It does manage to become eerie and atmospheric during the night sequences with the coven, and Sarah's paranoid feelings were aptly conveyed. The acting was okay, not as bad as some have said but no where near 'really good'. When all is said and done, this show is a very nice bonus to include with this Doctor Who adventure. It's certainly worth watching, especially if you've never seen it before, but as a television show it's pretty weak and it's easy to see why it was never picked up.
This story comes with the original mono soundtracks which sounds fine. While none of the episodes have much in the way of bass, their range is passable. There are a few sections in the first series where the dialog is just a little muddled, but it was undoubtedly recorded that way.
The Restoration Team has done another wonderful job on the video to this show. The full frame color transfer looks very good. The colors are bright and solid and the detail is very good. While the image is just a tad soft, it is much sharper than I remember it being when it was shown on PBS years ago. There is a bit of a mosquito noise some shots and there are a few scenes where whites bloom, but aside from that these are very nice looking discs.
As with most of the Doctor Who releases, this one comes with a good amount of bonus material. First off is an audio commentary with Louise Jameson (Leela), John Leeson (the voice of K-9), co-writer Bob Baker, and visual effects designer Mat Irvine. This track was okay though it did drag in parts. Mat Irvine's comments were the most interesting, he talks about how the (original) special effects were done and comments about the models he built for the program. The making-of featurette, Dreams and Fantasy, lasts about 20-minutes and has interviews with the people on the commentary track along with some footage of the director who passed away a few years ago. It was a little on the superficial side and I would have enjoyed are discussion about the writing of the show (did they think that no one would have remembers Fantastic Voyage??) and how the changes that were taking place in the series were met by the cast and crew. Unfortunately, Tom Baker does not make an appearance.
Studio Sweepings is a 20-minute reel of alternate takes of scenes that occur in The Doctor's brain. These are a bit SFX intensive (for Doctor Who at least) and it was interesting to see the raw footage. Next up is Visual Effects, a 16-minute talk between two of the people who worked on the special effects for the show, Mat Irvine and Ian Scoones. I enjoyed this as it was fun to see the two old friends reminisce about the shoot and reveal some of their secrets. There's also a four-minute clip from Blue Peter, a children's show from England. This clip features K-9 and was broadcast the week after his first appearance on the show. It's obvious that they were trying to build up interest in the mechanical dog from the beginning.
Each episode also comes with an optional pop-up trivia track that's very good, as usual. While some of the information isn't that interesting (like the date some scenes were filmed) most of it is well worth watching. They relate behind-the-scenes anecdotes, the history and filmographies of supporting characters, and changes in the story from the original shooting script. Though I prefer to watch the episodes once through without the trivia track since it can be a bit distracting from the show, it's a great reason to spin the DVD a second time.
There is also the option of watching the adventure with updated special effects. The classic Who was never know for it's good effects, and the updated visuals generally make the show more 'watchable' and they don't ruin the low budget charm the series has. While I'm glad they included the original version of the show, it was more fun to watch with the redone effects.
The second disc has some extras relating to K-9 and Company. There's a commentary track with actors Elisabeth Sladen, John Leeson, Linda Polan and script editor Eric Saward. Though they talk over the opening song, it's rather odd that none of them comment on it. To their credit, they don't laugh either, something my two sons were not able to do. The track is okay, but not great. Since the series was never picked up, the behind the scenes anecdotes aren't nearly as interesting.
There's also an 11-minute making of featurette, The K-9 Files, which covers the genesis of the show as well as the production and features interviews with the director, actors and crew. Like the other making of featurette in this set, I would have enjoyed a bit more depth, but this is fine. K-9: A Dog's Tale is a comic interview with the dog star that lasts 3 minutes and Pebble Mill at 1 (2 minutes) is an excerpt from an appearance on a TV show K-9 made to promote his program. There's also the pop-up text feature, some .pdf files that have the Radio Times listing for the show as well as the K-9 Annual and some of the robot's comic strip adventures. Rounding off the extras are a photo gallery and the BBC voice-overs for the intro and outro of the show.
While The Invisible Enemy isn't my favorite adventure, as a matter of fact I cringe when I remember that K-9 is introduced, it was fun watching the show again. It does have its moments, and though a good part of the script was stolen, umm, I mean pays homage to Fantastic Voyage, it's worth checking out. The same goes for K-9 and Company an unusual entry into the Who universe that almost works but doesn't quite. I'm happy having this disc in my collection, and so it's recommended for fans of the show. Others would be better off renting it.