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The Men in the Iron Masks
on 14 February 2014
An ancient adventure that rose from its Tomb, a birthday party and an art-deco whodunit - this collection has three great stories, all with metal-faced adversaries but so different when you lift their masks.
If you don't have the earlier individual releases this set is an essential buy. If you do have them already - the quality of the newly reprocessed `Tomb of the Cybermen' is amazing and there are some great new extras. This is a longish review so thanks if you get to the end. Overall rating 5*
The Tomb of the Cybermen - 5*
I was too young to see any of the Patrick Troughton era stories, but reading the novelisations in the 70s showed me two absolute classics, both thought lost - `The Tomb of the Cybermen' and `The Web of Fear'. I still remember the news story when `Tomb' turned up in Hong Kong in 1992 and buying the VHS release. And it was a great story but like all the others from that time, rather fuzzy and low contrast from the film process. If only we could see it `like new' ...
This `regenerated' release, seen on a modern TV, must be better than watching the original broadcast! With crisp, sharp, stable, high contrast pictures, from the moment Patrick Troughton swirls into view you know this is something very special. Then you can just sit back and enjoy one of the great `Doctor Who' stories. It draws clear parallels with the discovery of Tutankhamen's tomb and the `Mummy' films for characters, iconography and atmosphere, working this together expertly with real science, logic and the Cybermen to produce a classic `Doctor Who' that still works superbly after almost 50 years.
The direction and location filming of the opening scenes are excellent; no gravel pit has ever looked better. Valley of the Kings, Telos, here we are. The story is riveting from the opening of the outer doors to the emergence of the Cybermen two episodes later. The music soundtrack plays a key part in this; building a part futuristic, part ancient atmosphere as the huge doors are opened, then later as the Cybermen slowly emerge from the massive tombs set, in one of the iconic moments of `Doctor Who'. The sets mostly look very impressive for their sheer size and solidity, there are a few wooden-looking levers but the tense story carries you along. The Cybermen of this era look good and suitably massive; the grating, robotic voices of this period do have an unsettlingly inhuman quality. Who would have thought there could be so much menace in the flat statement "You shall be like us."? (Compare this for effectiveness with "upgraded".) I'm still not convinced by the Cybermats - my first thought was `can I get one of those as a wireless mouse?'
Patrick Troughton wears a cloak in the style of William Hartnell's era for much of this story and also seems to cloak himself in some of his former incarnation's strategic ways, manipulating the archaeological team to aid their entry to the tombs while warning against it! As soon as the word `Cybermen' is mentioned he knows he has to discover the motives of the expedition and find exactly what lies buried - or waiting. There are no wasted moments in this script but there are some quieter times and in one of them the Doctor has a sympathetic scene with Victoria (Deborah Watling), aware of her vulnerability after the trauma of the previous Dalek story. `Doctor Who' always `did' emotion, just not to over-sentimental excess.
The strong production benefits from the usual high quality cast of guest actors bringing their stage and screen experience to the programme. The boring myth that classic `Doctor Who' had poor acting is just that, a myth and boring. The style of the time was more stage than filmic because of the way studio work was done, but that's no criticism and it lends seriousness to the results. The three characters of Klieg, Kaftan and Toberman are a good but rather obvious trio of villains - the `eastern' priest and priestess/princess raising the dead (with grisly results for visiting archaeologists) are familiar from Egyptian-themed horror films. When you learn that George Pastell (a notable performance here as Eric Klieg) had played the mummy-raising priest in more than one film, the parallel seems deliberate. Here, Klieg and Kaftan are power-crazed members of an organisation intent on creating the "perfect master race" - guess who that was satirising. But don't judge characters too quickly - Toberman (Roy Stewart in an almost silent but memorable role) ultimately exerts his free will, overcoming even Cyber-conversion to take matters into his own hands. Many of the male characters (not the Doctor, of course) are amazingly sexist in a would-be `protective' way, but set against this the strong female character of Kaftan (Shirley Cooklin) is an excellent villain, ruthless and proud of it. And give a cheer for Victoria's sarcastic put-down line when the tough talking, patronisingly sexist space captain finally loses his nerve.
`The Tomb of the Cybermen' is a five star classic; if parts of it seem dated that's because it's almost half a century old, no time to the Doctor but a long time on Earth.
There's a very good set of DVD Extras. The new commentary is chatty, interesting and full of anecdotes. The main extras are on disk 2:
`The Lost Giants' feature lets cast and crew share some of their anecdotes to camera against CGI tomb backgrounds, very well done.
`The Curse of the Cybermen's Tomb' explores the many links between the story and ancient Egyptian archaeological fact and fiction, this was fascinating.
The feature on the VidFIRE restoration process gives an insight into the remarkable reprocessing that made the recovered film recording look like brand new studio video footage and shows side-by-side comparison sequences demonstrating the amazing results.
An Easter Egg on both DVDs.
The Three Doctors - 5*
How do you celebrate your tenth birthday on air if you're over 700 years old? Get some friends round, probably have a couple of annoying relatives drop in, go out for the day, take in a pantomime, set off a few fireworks then all home in time for tea. `The Three Doctors' is `Doctor Who' in full party mode and it works brilliantly. There is a serious back story of the Time Lords in trouble with only the Doctor(s) to save them, but this often seems like a framework on which to hang as many party decorations as possible. Jelly monsters, glittering sets and costumes, the Doctors getting on each others nerves but still working together and the Brigadier light years out of his depth but soldiering on gallantly with some great one-liners - Nicholas Courtney plays it perfectly, with a straight face and militarily precise comic timing.
In the midst of all this frivolity, Stephen Thorne still manages to create the tragic role of Omega, driven mad by his long isolation and desperate to escape. It's one of the best voice performances in `Doctor Who'; Omega's mask is unchanging but his shifting moods of pride, anger and utter despair are clear to see. Still, this show is a birthday party and the intention seems obvious with references to Omega's fortress as "Aladdin's cave" and the point of singularity as the "magic lamp" so I suppose that makes Omega the conjurer - but not really an evil one, the Doctor feels sorry for him at the end. In keeping with the birthday atmosphere, this is a rare (unique?) `Doctor Who' where everyone survives - even Omega, but that's another story ...
The idea of three Doctors in one show works superbly, Jon Pertwee and Patrick Troughton playing off each other expertly and William Hartnell appearing like a wise genie to steer them in the right direction. When the party's over (as William Hartnell's Doctor says) everyone goes home after a thoroughly good time and the Doctor gets a surprise from the Time Lords - just what he's always wanted!
Five shiny silver stars to `The Three Doctors', enjoy it with a smile on your face then watch it again with the sparkling commentary and laugh with Katy Manning and Nicholas Courtney as they open a party bag of anecdotes and happy memories; when Katy Manning provides voiceovers for the orange jelly monsters the joy is complete.
Picture quality is excellent, sharp and colourful, a different world from the VHS release I remember. I don't know how much better this is than the first DVD release but it looks very good indeed for a 40 year old programme.
DVD extras include the entertaining commentary and a mixed selection of other items. On disk 1 the best is the lengthy `Blue Peter' segment (the one with the `Tenth Planet' episode 4 remnant.) The main extras are on disk 2: a very interesting `making of' feature and a superb extra in which Caroline John, Katy Manning and Louise Jameson discuss their time in the show, acting in general, feminism, the fans, costumes and the Doctors.
The Robots of Death - 5*
Monsieur le Docteur exercises the little grey cells and solves the crime most brutal. But what if `the butler did it' and your whole society depends on robot `butlers'?
A murder mystery set in a giant mineral mining machine on a distant planet, `The Robots of Death' was immediately popular and still is almost 40 years later. The story draws on the style of Agatha Christie, technology of `Dune' and the robotic future-lore of Isaac Asimov to create one of the true classics of `Doctor Who'. Strongly scripted, with a varied and interesting cast of characters, we have all the necessary motives for the `country house' drama to unfold - greed, ambition, class friction, thwarted love, concealed madness and a crew that is getting on each others nerves after several years `at sea' on their ship of the desert.
In this `Upstairs, Downstairs' world, the small human crew lives in opulent, even decadent luxury while the work is carried out by a horde of service robots - non-speaking `Dums' down below, more capable `Vocs' on the bridge and in the crew quarters and one `SuperVoc' to manage them all. This is a perfect translation of the below-stairs and above-stairs staff of a Victorian country house, with the butler in charge. But one of the `rules' of classic murder mysteries is that the criminal must always be one of the family or guests, never one of the workers. When the bodies start to mount up, the crew are so busy pointing accusing fingers at each other that nobody suspects the robots ... which all have the perfect alibi - according to the `First Law of Robotics', a robot can never harm a human, it is their Prime Directive. Enter the Doctor and Leela to investigate the crime - after briefly being suspected themselves (as usual!).
The script has the required red herrings and plot twists and introduces many clever ideas around the nature of robots and why, even when they are designed to be attractive and helpful, some people cannot quite shake off the feeling that they are "the walking dead". A diverse and very talented cast brings the script to life in style.
Beyond the interesting concept and enjoyable plot, this story is remembered for its outstanding design of both costumes and sets. The decision to create a luxurious, art-deco inspired environment for the crew was a triumph, as are the crew's lavish costumes that look totally impractical until we remember that this crew doesn't actually do the work on board ship. The robots are defined by their superb masks, designed to look pleasing to the eye (the crew are living surrounded by them for years) but still ... slightly creepy. The cleverly created `art-deco future' style has not aged in 40 years and perfectly echoes the 1930s era that was the high point of the classic English murder mystery. The interior of the Sandminer is a design descendant of one of the great ocean liners of that time with their lavish art-deco architecture and furnishings.
Before production (according to the DVD commentary and features) some people had reservations about the script and others were initially surprised at the style of the robots and costumes. But the combination made an enduring classic which remains very near the top of the fans' favourites decades later, the ultimate proof of success, thanks to an outstanding team in the golden age of classic `Doctor Who'.
Vocs populi (!) - Five stars.
Excellent picture quality shows off the remarkable visuals to best effect; the main DVD extras are `The Sandmine Murders' looking back at the production with a very good set of contributors and `Robophobia', one of the `humorous' items, which is both funny and informative.