Saturday, April 07, 2012

Doctor Who: The Daemons DVD review

And the hits just keep on coming. “The Daemons,” the onscreen title of which is “The Dæmons” (note the “æ” ligature), is yet another serial deserving of the label classic. It’s one of the most memorable and popular storylines of Jon Pertwee’s era, and probably the first Doctor Who tale to so clearly take mankind’s belief in a higher power to task, via that old chestnut from Arthur C. Clarke, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

The tale turns on the opening of an ancient burial mound in the tiny village of Devil’s End. The event, which will take place at the stroke of midnight on April 30th (Beltane), is to be broadcast on BBC Three, which, in reality, didn’t come into existence until many, many years later. The whole thing is reminiscent to someone of my age of Geraldo Rivera’s opening of Al Capone’s vaults…only in this instance, something is found, or more precisely, unleashed. The Doctor and Jo (Katy Manning) head to Devil’s End to investigate, only to discover the Master (Roger Delgado) is behind the sinister goings-on. He’s summoning forces that have existed since the dawn of man – an alien called Azal, who belongs to a race known as the Daemons, and he’s very displeased with mankind’s lack of progress.

Since most everything that happens on Doctor Who must have some sort of scientific explanation, Barry Letts couldn’t do a straight-up horror tale, but with “The Daemons,” he gave viewers the next best thing, and that’s a tale of science masquerading as, or rather being mistaken for, mysticism, and according to “The Daemons,” which Letts wrote with Robert Sloman under the pen name Guy Leopold, it’s been going on for centuries. The central premise of the story is a great one, and “The Daemons” drips atmosphere and sports one memorable moment after another. There are many different reasons to appreciate all the many different classic Doctor Who stories, but for sheer fun, “The Daemons” is right up there with the best of them. Certainly if you appreciate Hammer horror films – especially fare like The Devil Rides Out, written by Dennis Wheatley, whose work was a clear inspiration for “The Daemons” – then this you just gotta see. (Of course if you know who Dennis Wheatley is, maybe you already have.)

Now all of that said, don’t peel the curtain too far back, otherwise you’ll notice that “The Daemons” is riddled with what I like to call “Yeah right!” moments; the sort of stuff you have to deal with when viewing an action movie, which, when it comes right down to it, is what “The Daemons” basically is: a low budget sci-fi/horror/action film. For instance, in this five-episode tale that’s set entirely within the confines of a tiny English village (which in turn is enveloped by a massive heat barrier for most of the story, so nobody can enter or exit Devil’s End), the Doctor and the Master do not meet until the final episode. It’s mind-boggling that the Doctor never marches several hundred feet over to the church (the Master’s base of operations) to simply confront his enemy head on, especially since he’s been battling the Master in story after story throughout all of Season Eight, which “The Daemons” closes out. To my eyes, that’s a pretty serious “Yeah right!” aspect of the story.

Also to my eyes, neither of the monsters in this tale are realized as well as they could’ve been, due mostly to ill fitting tights. Bok, the stone gargoyle come-to-life, is cuter than he is threatening, and Azal is one of those great examples of how much more effective it is to not see the goods. “The Daemons” does such a fantastic job of teasing the viewer as to Azal’s appearance, that it almost has to be a letdown when he’s finally shown. It sort of is (seriously – keep an eye out for the tights), and the less said about Stephen Thorne’s booming, one note performance as the beast, the better. (This is the same guy who played Omega in “The Three Doctors,” FYI.)

Now all of that said (ahem…), “The Daemons” remains benchmark, must-see classic Who. It’s one of the best UNIT stories, with the Brigadier (Nicholas Courtney), Mike Yates (Richard Franklin) and Sgt. Benton (John Levene) each getting their moments on the spotlight. The Doctor and Jo are both in prime form, with the story thematically being something of a culmination of her season-long introduction to the world of the Doctor, as well as their mentor/student relationship. The script is crammed with great one-liners, with my personal favorite being the moment in which one of the townspeople thinks the Doctor is part of the BBC TV crew because of “the costume and the wig.” To which Pertwee, aghast, replies, “Wig!?”

Then there’s the local white witch, Miss Hawthorne, played to utterly kooky perfection by Damaris Hayman, a character that’s sort of emblematic of how much fun this story is. Another great character is Professor Horner, played by Robin Wentworth. He only appears in Episode One, but every single utterance that comes out of his mouth is priceless. It’s almost a shame he wasn’t kept around for the rest of the story. Words escape me for how perfect Roger Delgado is here. But then, words always escape me for how good he was as the Master. There have been many Doctors, and there have many fine debates over which is the best, but anyone, with any amount of taste, must surely admit that Delgado’s Master has never been bested (and maybe, at this point, never will be). “The Daemons” has finally found its way to DVD, but there’s more to the matter than just the quality of the story. What of the disc itself?         

There’s no question that with this release, “The Daemons” looks and sounds better – much better – than ever before. This is a story with a problematic history of video and audio quality, and I grew up watching it in black and white, because for years all (well, mostly all…but we’ll get to that shortly) that existed were tapes made from the 16mm monochrome telerecordings. In the early ‘90s, “The Daemons” became one of the Restoration Team’s first projects. Using their own “black magic,” a color version was released on VHS in ’93. I remember being pretty bowled over by it at the time, but by today’s Who DVD standards, it would no doubt look pretty creaky. So another round of work has gone into “The Daemons,” although I’ve honestly no idea what exactly was done to it, or how they got it to the level of quality displayed here. Sorely missing from this release is any kind of featurette on the restoration. Perhaps such mini-docs are considered redundant at this point? They shouldn’t be, as not every fan buys every Who DVD. The Team has recently started updating their site once again (after a period of inactivity), so hopefully they’ll put up an article on this release some time in the near future.

Back to “mostly all,” from above…Episode Four has always existed in its original PAL color videotape form, and as a result, Episode Four looks and sounds amazing on this DVD. The problem is that one ends up comparing the other four episodes to it, and they can’t help but come up a little short in comparison. The location film sequences, of which “The Daemons” has many (more of this story was shot on location than in the studio), still look somewhat muddy at times, but presently this is surely about as good as it gets. It’ll break both of your Whovian hearts to know that, if not for archaic BBC shortsightedness, the entire serial could look as great as Episode Four. Mind you, that’s not a specific criticism of this DVD, just an observation of the cruelty of fanboy life. On the flip side, the videotaped studio material looks really nice, although every once in a while there seems to be some brief color bleed, but I’m talking matters of split seconds here. On the scale of "massive overhaul" type restorations, I’d put this one ahead of “Terror of the Autons,” but still not as near-perfect as “Planet of the Daleks” Part Three, which (for me anyway) remains the gold standard.

DVD Extras: It is in this area that “The Daemons” DVD truly falls short. Although the commentary track featuring Manning, Franklin, Hayman, and director Christopher Barry is a nice one (particularly the contributions from Damaris – the woman’s a hoot), it’s a massive oversight and shame that Barry Letts and Nicholas Courtney weren’t secured for participation. I know for a fact this was Letts’ favorite story, because he told me as much when, upon meeting him back in the late ‘90s, I asked him what his favorite story was. Nicholas Courtney went so far as to call his autobiography Five Rounds Rapid!, after a piece of dialogue from the story – one that is quite possibly the Brigadier’s most famous.

Now there’s a competent enough making of on here (amusingly) called “The Devil Rides Out,” which features the same folks that are on the commentary, plus a few others, including some archival interview footage with Letts (yet not nearly as much as one might’ve hoped for), yet Courtney’s nowhere to be seen. It sure would have been nice if the ’96 doc “Return to Devil’s End” could’ve been secured for this release, as it isn’t owned by the BBC, but its inclusion would’ve made up for some of the other oversights. Rarely do I complain about what’s not present on a classic Who DVD, but this is a case where I feel I must, as the extras here just don’t quite feel like they’re doing “The Daemons” justice.

Aside from the commentary and the making of, also present is a very nice 33-minute documentary called “Remembering Barry Letts,” which traces the man’s career, and features both of his sons discussing him at length. This is a sweet, warm piece, and even though there’s nothing in it that’s “Daemons” specific, it’s a welcome addition. There’s six minutes worth of silent “amateur” 8mm film footage that was made during the original “Daemons” shoot; doesn’t sound all that interesting, yet it really rather is. The entirety of Episode One is also presented as it looked after the very first colorization test in 1992, along with a short piece on the ‘92 colorization from a show called “Tomorrow’s World.” These seem like somewhat baffling inclusions (talk about redundant!) given that they don’t reflect the current work put into this story, although the ability to do a “now and then” comparison of Episode One 1992 vs. Episode One 2012 is fairly enlightening in regards to the strides that have been made in technology over the past 20 years. (Again, here’s where a short piece on the current restoration would’ve fit in nicely.) Finally, there’s the usual photo gallery, production notes subtitle option, Radio Times listings in PDF form, and a coming soon trailer for “Nightmare of Eden” which will be out next month.