Monday, June 10, 2013

Doctor Who: The Mind of Evil DVD review

The release of “The Mind of Evil” is an important one, because with it the Jon Pertwee era of Doctor Who is finally complete on DVD – and as a total viewing experience, his era is more complete than it has been since his run first aired back in the early seventies. For ages, several dozen Pertwee episodes existed only as subpar, 16mm black and white recordings. Over the years, the Doctor Who Restoration Team has worked diligently, using a variety of techniques, to get each of these half-hours as close as possible to their original vision. The work that’s been done to “The Mind of Evil” (parts of which were considered to be in the worst shape of the lot) represents the final pieces of the Pertwee puzzle, and it’s been a long time coming, given that the first such work the RT did on afflicted Pertwee episodes was in 1992. Fast forward to today - over 20 years later - and Steve Roberts and company have every reason to climb up on the roof and crow, for they have accomplished what at one time seemed impossible.

And what a story to finish up on! While not emblematic of the Pertwee era as a whole, season eight’s “The Mind of Evil” is more representative of the Doctor Who that almost was. It’s the unintentional addendum to season seven, which featured a trilogy of successive seven-part serials (“Doctor Who and the Silurians,” “The Ambassadors of Death,” and “Inferno”) that saw the show veering into harder adult sci-fi territory than it had in the six seasons prior. “The Mind of Evil”, which has “only” six episodes, turns that trilogy into a quadrilogy warranting serious discussion and admiration; they stand tall, and very much apart from nearly everything else produced for TV under the name Doctor Who. “Mind” is, in fact, the only other Who story from Don Houghton, the man who wrote the crown jewel of the four, “Inferno,” which, rather sweetly, gets its special edition upgrade on the same day this is released. Likewise, “Mind” is directed by Timothy Combe, whose only other Who directing credit is the aforementioned “Silurians” tale. Between the previous credentials of its writer and director alone, for the initiated, “The Mind of Evil” has all the right stuff.

A skeptical Doctor (Pertwee) and his assistant Jo Grant (Katy Manning) head for Stangmoor prison to see a demonstration of the allegedly revolutionary Keller Machine, which its proponents claim is capable of cleansing the minds of violent criminals, rendering them harmless. The prison already appears to be an unsafe place, with the inmates constantly on the verge of rioting, and soon enough the machine proves dangerous as well, when it is revealed to be adept at exploiting fears to the point of death. Soon the curtain is pulled back, and the Master (Roger Delgado) is behind the seemingly alien machine, but his plans are bigger than mind control. With the World Peace Conference on the horizon, and a Thunderbolt missile armed with nerve gas transported smack through the middle of the action, the Doctor will need the help of his friends at UNIT to avert this round of the Master’s sinister plans.

Before “The Ambassadors of Death” was released last year, my excitement was off the charts (and the DVD was a ridiculously enjoyable experience), but when it came down to writing about it, I found it an impossible task; sat down and tried at least a half a dozen times with no success. And as I sit here trying to think of deeper observations to make about “The Mind of Evil,” I feel similarly blocked. These serials are so different from the rest of the series that they almost can’t be talked about within the context of everything else. “The Mind of Evil” has been called a “James Bond style political thriller.” You know what else was called - by Steven Moffat, no less - a “proper James Bond thriller”? “The Bells of Saint John.” Tough to immediately name two Who stories that have less in common than that pair. If you played one after another for the uninitiated, would they even guess they’re from the same ongoing 50-year storyline? In any case, “The Bells of Saint John” has about as much in common with James Bond as a random episode of Happy Days. “The Mind of Evil,” however? More so, for certain. Its over-the-top plot and convoluted plan of the Master’s smack of fare that’s lifted from a Bond movie. And the serial’s got an honest-to-god missile to play with – on loan from the military, who cooperated with and also worked on “Mind.”

A few stray observations, notes and trivia...

“The Mind of Evil” must take place at least six months after “Terror of the Autons” (something about a year is even mentioned at one point). It must have taken the Master at least that long, if not longer, to put all of this together. Further, Jo Grant has grown by leaps and bounds since the previous story. It actually feels as though she’s been through numerous adventures with the Doctor and UNIT. She and the Doctor now have a great deal of respect for each other, and she’s shown to be quite capable of taking care of herself, including getting physical on a couple occasions.

Manning declares “The Mind of Evil” her favorite serial, and claims Pertwee felt the same. Perhaps this should come as no surprise, given that it’s unencumbered by many of the usual bells and whistles (i.e. monsters and technobabble) that normally fuel Doctor Who, and is a relatively straightforward piece that often keeps the actors front and center.

With the serial being from 1971, as well as its initial emphasis on mind-cleansing, at first glance you want to say it’s the Doctor Who reaction to A Clockwork Orange. Maybe…maybe not. This serial and the movie were actually in production concurrently, so Kubrick’s film couldn’t have been an influence, however, it is possible Houghton was a fan of the Anthony Burgess novel. The production notes, I believe, also suggest that the classic Star Trek episode “Dagger of the Mind” may have been an influence, though they also acknowledge that the themes of mind control were quite common at the time.

UNIT is at their very best in this unofficial quadriology. Their role is taken quite seriously, and never is the Brigadier or his staff the butt of a joke or a gag. In later seasons, UNIT wasn’t portrayed with nearly as much respect as in these early outings, and here it’s all serious hardcore espionage and adventure. “The Mind of Evil” has quite a bit of action, and it’s a classy-looking production. Director Combe even went over budget, and was never invited back to the series as a result. Pity.

No doubt some readers would like to know how the video quality stands up, and the answer is “Much better than I expected.” Episode one was, I believe, colored frame by frame with great success, however, the picture quality is probably the softest of the half dozen. The remaining five had the color recovery process applied to them, and are sharper, but of variable image quality ranging from pretty nice to most definitely acceptable. Certainly one must take into account the poor shape these episodes were in to begin with to appreciate how amazing this set really is.

Producer Barry Letts ultimately guided the series back to its more imaginative, family-friendly roots, which was probably for the best in the long run…but there’s no question that “The Mind of Evil” is a pretty special slice of Doctor Who, and it’s no doubt one of the most exciting classic Who releases of the year.

DVD Extras: Imbibing in some of these bonus features feels similar to what it must be like to receive a letter in the mail from someone who has recently died. The commentary track features the late Barry Letts, which is quite the treat. Additionally, the revolving roster of participants features Manning, Pik-Sen Lim (Houghton’s widow, who also plays Chin Lee in the serial), Fernanda Marlowe (Corporal Bell), Combe, Terrance Dicks, and stunt arranger Derek Ware – all moderated by the reliably enthusiastic Toby Hadoke.

“The Military Mind” is a 22-minute making-of filmed mostly on location at the castle which doubled for the prison. Among its participants is Letts once again (looking very frail; it must have been near the end) as well as the mighty Nicholas Courtney. Further, the clips used from “Mind” in this are all taken from the black and white version of the serial, which is quite the retro treat for those of us who first viewed the serial in that manner (granted, they have been cropped to fit the 16x9 aspect ratio, but that’s pretty commonplace on the docs these days). There’s also a “Now and Then” featurette on the locations (again, largely the castle), as well as a vintage piece entitled “Behind the Scenes: Television Centre” from 1971, which I frankly found rather tedious. Funny, because just last month “The Visitation” SE offered up a modern tour of the same building. PDF materials include Radio Times listings as well as images from a 1971 Kellogg’s Sugar Smacks promotion centered on the Third Doctor and UNIT. There’s also a photo gallery, the production notes subtitle option, and a trailer for upcoming Blu-ray release of “Spearhead from Space.”