Jon Pertwee's first year as DOCTOR WHO is widely regarded as the best of the five years in which he played the role. It's certainly the one considered the most "adult" as the series relaunched itself in colour and with a "Quatermass" edginess. The four stories making up this season, SPEARHEAD FROM SPACE, DOCTOR WHO AND THE SILURIANS, THE AMBASSADORS OF DEATH and INFERNO have all had video releases in the past and all but this one are now available on DVD. It might be some time before this story does come out on DVD due to the amount of restoration work required, so this is a very welcome audio release to have.
It's also a very appropriate one at this time of the anniversary of the Moon landings as the story centres around the little known British Space Programme and its very own mission to Mars! Actually this show was made at much the same time and the influence of the style of the presentation of the Apollo missions is strongly felt.
Over the course of these seven episodes (spread across 3 CDs) DOCTOR WHO shows its most James Bondian side with much plotting and counterplotting by villains, spies and counterspies in a tale that's basically about misunderstandings and rather radioactive (in so many ways) xenophobia. There's action aplenty and more than one ghastly assassination along the way as well as a rather funky soundtrack and some passably convincing pseudo-science. It can also get quite gritty and brutal on occasions - Reegan's disposal of his henchmen (or "heavies" as they are - rather too often - called) is particularly nasty - but the soul of the series survives intact and the "don't judge on appearances" message comes across very strongly.
Some people find Jon Pertwee's Doctor to be hard work and it's true that he can be a bit blunt, authoritarian or even pompous at times, but his ability to take control over a situation and his occasional disgust and despair at the xenophobia sometimes shown by the human race can, on occasion, be pretty powerful. People more used to more recent interpretations of the role might need to be reminded that, given time, you can warm to him, and his stories are never less than entertaining. For a lot of people of a certain age, he still remains fondly regarded as THEIR Doctor.
Nicholas Courtney (as the ever dependable Brigadier Lethbridge Stewart) and Caroline John (who plays the Doctor's companion Liz Shaw) provide the usual strong support, and John Levene makes his first appearance as Sgt Benton in the Pertwee series (having popped up alongside Patrick Troughton's Doctor in "Invasion" the year before), on his way to becoming a popular supporting character. Luckily the whole "Is Sergeant Benton a murderer?" debate is neatly sidestepped. There are strong guest performances from some television stalwarts like John Abineri, Cyril Shaps, Ronald Allen as well as William Dysart playing Reegan, possibly one of the nastiest villains ever to be seen in the series.
Caroline John performs the (sometimes quite complex) narration very well, (although the rather melodramatic "of death" part of the episode title becomes tired very quickly) helping to smooth over the more visual aspects of some of the strong action sequences, especially those topping and tailing the story, and there's a pleasant little interview with her after the end of the last episode in which she looks back fondly on her time in the show and her rediscovery of her place in the "Who" family.
As ever, the audio format serves this era of the series very well as it allows you to enjoy the strong stories without being distracted by the shortcomings of the studio production, and as an introduction to early 1970s DOCTOR WHO, it's a pretty good choice to try.
A note to the uninitiated: The strange break in the title music around the recap at the start of the episodes was a deliberate experiment the series was trying at the time, and, whilst it might sound a little odd, it doesn't mean you should think there's anything wrong with your CD player.