Saturday, February 23, 2013

Out of the Unknown - The Last Lonely Man

Out of the Unknown is one of those series that holds an almost mythical status. It has never been released in any form of home video and depending on who you talk to, it never will. There is a lot of interesting theories as to why there is a lack of release for Out of the Unknown. One big problem is something that faces a ton of BBC series from the 1970s which is a fair amount of the episodes are missing. The survival rate of this series is not 100% but there is enough episodes which could easily warrant a mutli-disc set kind of like the release to Adam Adamant Lives! Out of the 59 episodes made only 20 still exist.  The bigger problem to this is what a lot of people dub as “rights hell”.

Do you ever go to DVD or home entertainment forums and when there is something that cannot be released it is invariably people say it is because the series is in “rights hell”. The studio cannot get the rights or come to terms with other parties to release the material. One of the classic cases of this was the 1960s Batman series. Two groups had claim to the series but couldn’t come to terms. Who loses out? We do. This is exactly what is happening with Out of the Unknown. For series 1-3, Out of the Unknown took stories from well-established Science Fiction authors and adapted their work for the series. The problem is that it may become too difficult to get the deals sorted out with all of the different writers and may be a very expensive venture or possibly not being able to come to terms with authors or their estates making it that some of the already few existing episodes not get any release at all. Now, I’m not an expert on that; I am just relaying what I have heard from other people. Another problem on top of this is that say the BBC did do a payout to all of the authors; they came to some agreement and release the existing episodes on DVD. Historically, these niche series have not sold as well as the BBC has hoped. It appears Adam Adamant Lives! in particular is one that is often cited for being a low seller. Doomwatch was on the cards to be released but it was scrapped. So, even after attaining the rights and putting together a DVD set, if it under sells that could be a real problem and a major money loser.
Radio Times listing sourced from RandomTVStuff Blog
Now to use my example from above, the good news about Batman is that it still shows up in the TV schedules in different areas. It is not impossible to find. Unfortunately, Out of the Unknown is not quite like that. It aired on BBC2 back in the 1960s and early 1970s never to be seen again apart from one or two examples over the years. It reached mythical status. A lot of us had to turn to other means to view the series we want. I have been lucky as I received copies from a friend who got them from the master 2” tapes or directly from 16mm film prints. It doesn’t change the fact that this would be a great series to buy and support the BBC range.

The Last Lonely Man TX: 21/01/69
This week I take a look at an episode from Series 3. In fact this is the only episode that exists in full from the third series and it is the first series to be made in colour. The episode starts off by confusing me right away.  This is the first time I have even seen it and it begins with a super-fast sequence of a car driving. It’s a man and a woman driving down some country roads in a yellow sports car recklessly driving around. He is trying to impress her and she is loving it. She loves it so much she goes over to him and gives him a big kiss while they are driving so fast. Suddenly a truck pulls out in front of them and they slam right into it. It is very gruesome for 1960s BBC television! There is blood everywhere and they are mangled. None of it matters because it’s a PSA. At least it’s like a PSA which means Public Service Announcement but it’s not one that is bestowing responsible behavior, at least not in a way we would expect.

It is a PSA for Contact. We are not privy to what Contact is right from the start and to be honest by the time the episode ends I am still not 100% clear on what it is. What I do know is that a person gets someone else to be their Contact. Generally family members will have each other as Contacts. Some will have Mutual Contacts.  What happens is that some kind of procedure takes place and gets a person set up so when their person they have Contact with dies, that person’s memories and possibly personality is automatically  transferred into the other person’s brain. Sadly the two young people in the PSA had no Mutuals (the person they would download to after dying) so they are really just dead. Their memories and personality are not passed along to anyone. The moral of the PSA, make sure you have a Mutual Contact. It is a new form of insurance. I think I got it.
It’s a way to introduce us to the concept of Contact. The episode really gets going in a bar. James Hale (played by George Cole) hasn’t been in there for a while but comes in for a drink. He is obviously a very conscientious if not a little dull of a person. As he is at the bar having a drink and chatting to the bartender a man by the name of Patrick (played by Peter Halliday) comes in to the place and he is obviously very drunk. He starts talking to a couple at the table and it is very clear that the woman at the table knows him. The woman at the table whose name is Mary just told Patrick that he has been expunged. Basically means that she has dropped him as his Contact. The way that Contact is spoken about in this episode it’s kind of like a grander form of insurance. It is insinuated that people should not be walking around without having a Contact of any kind. Once Patrick realizes he doesn’t have Contact anymore he gets distraught, drinks more and starts up a conversation with James.

Patrick keeps pouring James drinks and somehow talks him into allowing Patrick to be one of his Contacts just for a couple of days until he can make other arrangements for a new person to be his Contact. They end up going to the airport that night since there is an all-night place that does it. It is there that we start seeing that Patrick is a bit of a jerk to everyone.
Apparently there is no limit to how drunk you can be to get a Contact procedure done. Plus, you can show up publicly drunk and they will still do the procedure to you. It’s kind of odd. The next day, Mary tracks James down to explain Patrick a little better to him. Apparently, Patrick keeps trying to get people to be his Mutual and when they agree he will not leave them alone. He is so worried something will happen to them that he won’t let them out of his sight at any cost. He becomes clingy and horrible. Patrick is in fact a very creepy man.

James doesn’t believe Mary as James is a good person and takes people on their word. He will regret this with Patrick. That night, Patrick stays with the Hales. They are having dinner together and Patrick almost leers at James’ wife Rowena throughout the whole meal. Did I mention that Douglas Camfield directed this? Right there you know it’s pretty good. It seems like when we start to get more scenes with Patrick, he is almost lit in a way to look as creepy as possible. Somehow Patrick ingratiates himself into the Hale family to the point that they trust him to watch their twins while they go and see a movie. This is even though they have known Patrick for just over a day. The scene where James and Rowena are at the theatre watching the film has a very Orwell Nineteen Eighty-Four vibe to it. The film is about the virtues of Contact. The film shows old footage of soldiers fighting in a battle before there ever was Contact. The audience watching the film is just laughing at those soldiers because they do not have any Mutuals to pass along. It’s unnerving. It reminds of me of Nineteen Eighty-Four with the 2-minutes of hate that Winston had to endure with other Outer Party members as they screamed hatred at footage of their enemy every day for two minutes.  
Back to our episode, James looks to the back of the theatre and sees Patrick there watching him. Why is Patrick there when he should be watching their twins? James chases Patrick down only to find out the Patrick just wanted to make sure that nothing happened to James on his way to the theatre. The twins are alright but James tells Patrick to get out of their life and I would assume that James will expunge Patrick the next day. He probably should have gone back to that clinic at the airport. That night in bed, Rowena and James come to the conclusion that Patrick might do something awful so in the middle of the night they go to the room Patrick rents. Just as they are about to enter his room Patrick commits suicide. Immediately, James picks up all of Patrick’s memories and bad habits.

James starts acting like Patrick. He starts to lie about things and he is rude to just about everyone. More and more Patrick is taking over James’ mind. James loses interest in the kids. James returns to the bar from the beginning of the episode and sees Mary there again. At first she talks to James not knowing how much Patrick has infiltrated James’ life. Then she realises that she is being played by Patrick from within James’s head. James/Patrick wants Mary to be a Mutual to them. She doesn’t want to do so  which nearly ends in a big fight. Then James collects himself and apologizes. He apologizes that Patrick sometimes takes over. The brilliant part of this is that it is still Patrick talking. Patrick is even duping us, the viewer!
Rowena is supposed to go to Manchester to visit her brother but comes home to find James unpacking her bags. He explains that he wants her to stay. Then he tells her he needs her to stay. She is his only Contact now as James has been expunged from other family members due to his new behavior which Patrick’s personality. He wants to make sure nothing happens to her. At any cost! That is when she realises all of the windows have bars on it. That is when he ultra-bolts the door. She sees he has stored up on canned food. He plans to watch her all the time and will not allow anyone to enter or leave the apartment to make sure nothing happens to her. He pulls out a gun as he says they may need to use it when people come by such as various government services. She is trapped there for the rest of her life and that may not be too long.

When I finished watching this I actually became disturbed and depressed. James was a good, kind man who only wanted to make sure Patrick was taken care of until he could find other arrangements. Patrick has ruined a whole family. It can only be assumed it didn’t work out well for anyone. Contact is an interesting concept. It is one of those plot devices where it has been in service for some time before we join into the episode. Contact isn’t new but even the people who have created don’t think it has been fully developed. In the episode, there are clinics set up to deal with what happens when you get people who have Contact transfer and they take over the other person. It is not something you can just get rid of but more of weekly sessions to help people deal. James already has his father’s memories in him. The question I had is how does human life evolve after generations and generations of taking on other people’s memories and personalities? How many people can fit into one brain? It is even talked about how one side effect is that a lot of people are becoming bisexual because they are taking on memories and personalities of people from the opposite sex. Another side effect on society is that people are taking more and more chances. A lot of people are careless if they get killed because they have this “insurance policy” of basically living in someone else’s brain. I would love to see a story about Contact taking place 100 years after the events of this story and see how humanity had evolved with this process.
The Last Lonely Man is a story by John Brunner and was adapted by Jeremy Paul. Douglas Camfield was the director. What is interesting is that music was composed by Don Harper. He composed the very distinctive music for Doctor Who The Invasion. The music is basically the same as in The Invasion but I like it that way. The music is grim and accentuates the action with harsh moments of a musical clash.

George Cole and Peter Halliday are amazing in this for their own reasons. Peter Halliday plays Patrick very disturbed and creepy. He is a psycho. The scene before he kills himself he is sitting alone in his room with the gun right next to himself just weeping uncontrollably. It is so disturbing. The whole scene is awful which in this case I mean good. It would be easy to think George Cole would play it safe because James is a very straight laced character. After Patrick’s memory starts entering into James, the change is very obvious right away. As the rest of the episode goes on, we see James change into a horrible person. James starts to even talk like Patrick. What I mean by that is George Cole starts to speak in the same cadence that Peter Halliday speaks. It is sadly brilliant.
Now in colour, Series 3 uses the same title sequence created for the black & white series but in colour. At first I assume they achieved this the same way they made the Pertwee title sequence for Doctor Who. That was made in black & white and then “coloured” afterwards but after re-watching the sequence it looks like it had been done that way to a certain degree but other shots had been completely replaced.  It looks great and the sequence itself is very cool and one of the best ever for British television. It changes to something pretty bland for Series 4.  Out of the 13 episodes from the third series, this is the only full episode that exists. There is an extract from Liar! Thirty minutes exist from The Little Black Bag and an off-air audio recording exists for The Yellow Pill. Not a great survival rate. It is also too bad that the final episode of the third series doesn’t exist titled Get Off My Cloud. It has a couple of Daleks in it. I was thinking about it the other day, if it did exist like The Last Lonely Man on colour videotape, we would have a rare look at the original Dalek in their original colour scheme on 1960s colour videotape. I can dream! Don’t get me wrong, I am not lamenting just that one episode is gone; I am frustrated that many of them are gone. Maybe someday one will be found again. The last episode of Out of the Unknown found was Level Seven in 2006. I think we are due for another find!

It is hard for me to put into words the loss of Richard Briers. He certainly wasn’t a one-note actor. He always had a playful mischief in his eyes and seemed like just a wonderful feller. It will be weird watching The Good Life in the future knowing that this energetic full of life fun human being is gone. Very soon, I will write up something about him. Rest in Peace Richard Briers.

Next week: I will publish the second 50WHO article as I look at the Ninth Doctor and look at Rose. Not so much just the episode but also the excitement about my favourite series coming back on the air plus the ups and downs of that period of time. When the Doctor explains that Harriet Jones ushers in the golden age to Britain, I feel that Christopher Eccleston brought in the Golden Age for Doctor Who.
From another source, here's the VT Countdown clock!
Have a great week!

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Saturday, February 16, 2013

Blu Ray Review: The House of Cards Trilogy

House of Cards Trilogy 3-Blu Ray Discs (600 min)
Released by BBC Home Entertainment on February 5, 2013. SRP $49.99 (Blu Ray) $39.98 (DVD)
Subtitles: English SDH 4:3 Audio: DTS-HD 2.0 (Main Feature)

On February 1st , Netflix made available to its subscribers an all-new adaptation of the BBC classic The House of Cards. This starred Kevin Spacey as Francis Underwood and is being met with great success. I haven’t had a chance to watch this yet. I plan on watching it and I anticipate it being really good. One reason why I haven’t had a chance to watch the US version is because I have been happily taking my time and going through the recently released Blu Ray set of the original BBC version starring Ian Richardson as Francis Urquhart.

The House of Cards is unintentionally named as the entire series of the Ian Richardson political thriller but it is more appropriately called the The House of Cards Trilogy. The House of Cards is actually the name of the first series made in 1990 followed by To Play the King in 1993 and finished up with The Final Cut. It’s an important distinction. This is a long-awaited release by me since the series was broadcast in Standard Definition(SD) television in the 1990s but was shot on film 16mm film which was still retained in the BBC Archives which allowed a re-transfer of film to create a new High Definition(HD) presentation of this series.
I think I need to point out right now that The House of Cards (the first series) is one of my all-time favorite series ever. Although two more followed it, it would be impossible for them to follow along at the level of quality that was displayed in The House of Cards. The title really says it all. The series was an adaptation of the novel of the same name from author Michael Dobbs aka The Right Honourable The Lord Dobbs.  Lord Dobbs was a former Chief of Staff at Conservative Party Headquarters. Although the series first aired in 1990 I, myself, did not get into it until 2007 when Ian Richardson passed away. I knew of his work and I had the trilogy from the original DVD set. One night I decided to have a look at this. I have friends who love this series and I wanted to see what it was all about. Sometimes it takes me a while to look at things that are considered classics by others. I had a feeling that The House of Cards would be really stuffy. I mean it deals with politics so it can’t be enjoyable, right? I call this the Yes Minister syndrome and I talk about it in my article I wrote about my admiration for Yes, Prime Minister here. It took no time at all to not only be hooked but brought into the story by the charm of Francis Urquhart.

The story surrounding The House of Cards begins with a new election. The series has a sort of pseudo alternate Earth sort of feel to it as it is implied that the outgoing Prime Minister was Margaret Thatcher.  The new Prime Minister will be Henry Collingridge. This is good news for Francis Urquhart as he has worked very hard for Collingridge and expects a very nice position in the new government. Currently Urquhart holds the office of Chief Whip which yields a fair amount of power in the government but Urquhart expects more for him. Much to his disappointment he is overlooked for a prominent position in the new government. In fact, the government is not going to change much at all under Prime Minister Collingridge.
Urquhart takes matters into his own hands. He is tired of being overlooked and has ambitions for higher office. He feels betrayed by Collingridge and he is going to do something about it. I am sure the majority of the people who are reading this may have seen the series before so don’t need to know plot specifics and for those who have never seen it before, I do not want to ruin the excellence that is this series. I will explain in basics. Urquhart takes his knowledge of everyone in the government and in some cases their relatives and clinically dismantles all of them for his own means. He takes information only to feed it to someone else who uses it to Urquhart’s advantage. When I watch it, all I can do is sit back and enjoy the ride. Nobody knows he is doing it.

Then there is Mattie Storin. She is a young reporter for The Chronicle. She is naïve in many ways but wants to make a big impression. She knows that everything that is falling apart around the Collingridge government could bring her a huge story and a big break. She takes the unusual step of going to Urquhart’s private residence to interview him assuming that he will throw her out. She is surprised (as well as Urquhart himself) when he allows her to stay and allows her to ask him questions. The responses can be used in articles under the guise of anonymity. She caught Urquhart at the right moment as his ideas have been rejected by the new government and he’s planning to do something about it. Soon they start having an affair. Mattie is just one of many in this series that is being used by Urquhart. He is able to pass information to her that is false or misleading that will further his own goals and hurt others.
As a political thriller this could easily have been run of the mill but two key things happen in this production which differs substantially from the original novel. In the novel, Mattie and Urquhart do not have a relationship of any kind. In fact, she is investigating the extraordinary events in the downfall of Prime Minister Collingridge. She never has an affair with Urquhart. Having Urquhart use Mattie in the television version is a masterstroke that completely sets apart the two versions. Also, I think the narrative of the series could have been pretty dry but the television series made the bold move of having Urquhart often break through the fourth wall by addressing the viewers. He does this to introduce us to the characters while delivering his commentary on whether or not they are fools. He will explain to us why certain things are done in certain ways. He will also tell us why he needed to do some of the things he did to get to his ultimate goal. The problem is that I could almost sympathize with him. Urquhart has a charming side. He also has an evil side. It’s easy to forget he is the villain of the series. That becomes more apparent as the series goes on. When I started to watch it for the first time, for me when Urquhart first addresses the viewer, I knew I was going to like it. He has a dry wit to him and makes this program stand out because of it.

The House of Cards boasts an amazing cast. Of course Ian Richardson plays Urquhart with a touch of Richard III and as an English gent. Susannah Harker is Mattie Storin. Their relationship is key to how this series progresses. My favourite of all is Colin Jeavons as Stamper who assist the Chief Whip and is privy to much of what Urquhart is doing. What is Urquhart’s ultimate goal? To be Prime Minister which he achieves at the end of the series. It’s not so much a spoiler because how he gets there and who he destroys and how he destroys them along the way is really part of the fun.
To Play The King

By the start of the second series things have moved on quite a bit. Once again in this parallel world Queen Elizabeth II has died. They never mention her by name but it is implied. A new King is crowned. The King has no name in this program. Once again, there is a lot of similarity between this King and Prince Charles. They are the same age and the King in To Play the King has a lot of “Global initiatives” he wants to bring to the government for help.
What the King wants and how Urquhart wants to run his government are at odds with each other. The King needs to be seen to support the government which is not what is happening. In fact the King will start to attack the Prime Minister on their differences in policy publicly. Once again, it is fun to watch Urquhart dismantle anyone in his way. Does enjoying this make me evil?

To Play the King is really good but not as good as The House of Cards. I think a big reason for this is that they are two very different stories. In The House of Cards, Urquhart is playing everyone from behind the scenes. Here he is running the government. He is the face of the government.  A lot of that manipulation is missing from Urquhart. He can take more straightforward means to accomplish what he wants but don’t worry there still is a decent amount of blackmailing present!
A couple of issues for me are that Urquhart runs a thug government. There are a bunch of thugs who strong arm what they want. At times it almost feels like I am watching the Mafia.  I suppose that is the next level after what Urquhart achieved in The House of Cards. There is another great guest cast and at the front of it is Michael Kitchen as the King. He plays it with a snobbish desire to help others without really knowing the logistics of doing so. To those who have seen it before, does it seem like at just about the end of every scene he walks out of a room to another doorway or opens up a bookcase and walks into it? A new character is introduced named Corder. He appears to be a personal body guard to Urquhart but he is so much more. He is a big part of the thuggish government.  One more thing, the King’s Chief of staff David Mycroft is a secondary story in this series. Mycroft went to school with the King. After having a horrible marriage, Mycroft literally stumbles into the life of another man and they begin a homosexual relationship. This side plot is interesting but it’s really not that convincing. It seems forced and not realistic. Just a minor quibble.

The Final Cut
When we rejoin Urquhart he has been in office for about 11 years. We see some visual foreshadowing of things to come in the first scene. We are encountered with a version of Urquhart who is surrounded by enemies and who is also not nearly as sharp as he used to be in previous years. He will be soon challenged for the leadership of the party. Once again, in this parallel universe we start with the funeral of Margaret Thatcher. Yes, I needed to check Wikipedia to make sure I was not imaging things since she is still alive. Urquhart is close to surpassing her in terms of how long they both have been in office as Prime Minister.

A big part of the story surrounds what Urquhart did in Cypress as a soldier in 1956. A Greek man who now lives in London wants to know what happened to two Greek Cypriots who were killed in 1956. This man’s daughter hopes that Urquhart could help her track that information down. Little does she realizes when she speaks to the Prime Minister, she is speaking to her uncles killer. In House of Cards it seems like Urquhart was a good man who kind of decided to take his future into his own hands when he started on his journey to Prime Minister but it appears in this series that Urquhart had been a bad man and murderer most of his life. I am not a huge fan of that.
I think this is the weakest of the 3 series. In fact, watching the first episode I wasn’t really sure what to think at all! I have been waiting so long to see it and was very disappointed. To me, the episode plays out like an amateur production of The House of Cards that Ian Richardson has kindly agreed to take part in for some reason. I don’t mean to disrespect that amazing talents of such artists as Isla Blair, Paul Freeman or Nickolas Grace. I was getting annoyed by everyone calling Urquhart F.U. (Francis Urquhart) which I heard a few times in To Play the King but the nickname is exhausted fairly quickly in this series. Luckily the series redeems itself more towards the end of Episode Two. There is a point in which Urquhart clears his brain a little bit and starts behaving more like the Urquhart that I want to watch.

What made the first series great was what made the third series a little strange. Much of the time in The Final Cut, Urquhart is talking to us. He has always done it but it seems a lot more here. I think one reason is that he has very few allies left that he trusts or has any respect for. He really has no one to talk to except us! Also, it may be a glimpse into how Urquhart himself is losing his grasp on his own reality.
Production wise this plays out very differently from both The House of Cards and To Play the King. The previous two series were directed by Paul Seed who used imagery to sell the ideas such as when Urquhart was up to no good scene changes would be accentuated by a rat running around. The Final Cut was directed by Mike Vardy. To me it lacks any imagination. It is just not as visually stimulating as the other two. Also the music on The House of Cards and To Play the King was done by Jim Parker. I praise his work in my article for Mapp & Lucia here. He has also done music for Midsomer Murders and Foyle’s War. In fact if you are familiar with the music from Midsomer Murders, then pay attention when watching The House of Cards how similar in sound the two scores are in orchestration. I would have bet money that Jim Parker did not do the music for The Final Cut but apparently he did. It does not have the quizzical nuances on the score that lead me into scenes that are often cued by an oboe. Everything on this production feels straight forward and not special or unique. I still liked it and The Final Cut redeemed itself in the end but when you are served a thick slice of prime rib with The House of Cards, I feel I have the right to be disappointed with an Arby’s roast beef sandwich with The Final Cut.

Hmmm…. I have never thought about doing a rating system for reviews before but maybe instead of doing rating system based on stars I do it based on food. No? Ok.

Audio Commentary: Commentary with Ian Richardson and Andrew Davies for the first episode of each of the three series. This was imported over from the DVD set. It is of course a very precious extras as Ian Richardson passed away in 2007 and it is nice to hear him talk about these productions.
An interview with Andrew Davies on the To Play The King controversy: This is an excerpt of the BBC program Bite Back. Viewers react strongly to Andrew Davies insinuating in To Play the King that the King sends out for prostitutes. Why should they care? This is a fictitious King! Well, as mentioned above the correlation between this King and Prince Charles has some strong similarities that did not go unnoticed by members of the public. Watching the clip is fun and I really don’t think Andrew Davies comes out of it too well. This was also in the last DVD release.

Westminster: Behind Closed Doors with Tony Benn: This is hosted by Tony Benn who was a Member of Parliament and a Cabinet Minister. This production is from 1995 and I love it. He takes a camera into interview people who worked there and get an “inside” look into the place. It originally aired in December 1995 on BBC Two. Tony Benn is an approachable and inquisitive host. If you are a Doctor Who fan, you would have seen another program of his on the DVD for The War Machines: One Foot in the Past which this edition focuses on the Post Office Tower. It’s one of my favorite extras in the range. In my opinion, as much as I like newly created content for extras, what really gets me smiling is when stuff like this is included. Older programs that would otherwise gather dust on the shelves in an archive somewhere. I love it! This is new to the set and was not on the previous DVD sets. Thank you to the BBC for this extra.

As I mentioned above, all three series were shown on BBC 1 in SD. The series were shot on film and transferred to tape for edit. In this case the tape would have possibly been 1" for the first series and D3 tape for the other two. For this release, the BBC went back to the original film (I assume the negatives) and re-transferred the film into HD. For the most part I think the new transfers look spectacular. It’s cliché to say but this program never looked better. This restoration started with a 2K scan of the camera negatives, made on the Scanity film scanner at TV Centre. It was graded on Nucoda Film Master through a 42” Dolby reference monitor, with grain management by DVO Tools and Dark Energy and frame cleanup on Dustbuster +. The Final Cut was shot on Super-16, although framed for 4:3. It would have been possible for that series to generate a true widescreen transfer. Thankfully they kept the original 4:3 aspect ratio. 50i masters of all 3 series exist too which could allow for a possible UK release although the original request was to make 23.98fps progressive versions. Though one thing I did notice was that I felt people’s faces were too red in some scenes of To Play the King. Sometimes it looks like their faces were burning or they had a fever. I found this in scenes that had Urquhart and the King outdoors. I also found this in the scene where Mycroft and the King are swimming together. Yet, that may make some more sense since they have been exercising. The fact they went back to the film for a new transfer is great. This is a prestigious series that deserves to look as good as possible. I am very happy with it. To be honest, it’s a much better example of taking care of these precious assets than the debacle with Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. In 2012, Acorn Media released the Blu Ray of the 1979 Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. They did not go back to the original film for this but up-resed the SD picture to be HD. The results to me were very poor. When I watch that series I prefer to watch the DVD over the “HD” Blu Ray. The House of Cards HD transfer is great and I am so glad they did it.

The grading on the faces are a little red
Of course, it wouldn’t be me if I wasn’t unhappy about something. The end credits have been re-made for all 3 series and they are present with the current BBC logo on them opposed to the BBC logo of the time. Now, in my opinion the BBC logo of the time was ugly but I feel it should be there. Now since there is no unofficial House of Cards Restoration Team like there is for Doctor Who, I will just shut up. Perhaps what might happen is that this series could get a re-showing on PBS sometime in HD. Maybe it could be part of the Masterpiece Classics. Having this shown in HD would be really cool!
Below are some examples between the HD and SD versions of the series. Please click on the images to get full resolution.
Restored HD Version

Original SD Version

Restored HD Version

Original SD Version

Restored HD Version

Original SD Version
I think the cover for this is really simple and clean. It’s all you need really with Urquhart standing there looking at you. I do miss the type treatment that included card suits as part of the lettering from the last release of this series. This set is housed in a standard sized Blu ray case that holds 3 discs. The menus are in 16:9 (the programs are in original 4:3 ratio). Once again, the layouts of the menus are simple and clean. It’s very easy to maneuver through and is consistent to the overall style of the set.

The House of Cards is possibly my favorite series. I actually mean the first series but the other two are very good too. The House of Cards sets such a high standard that it’s difficult for the other two to compete. That being said, this set has more good things going for it than bad. It has The House of Cards on it which is worth it on its own, it has a beautiful new HD transfer, it has a new extra that is interesting and you can hear the late Ian Richardson talk about his work on it. Plus, it’s at a really affordable price. It’s a great deal! What? You think I’m biased? You might very well think that; I couldn't possibly comment.
Disc breakdown:

Disc 1: The House of Cards 1-4 (Commentary on Episode 1)
Disc 2: To Play the King 1-4 (Commentary on Episode 1)
Disc 3: The Final Cut 1-4 (Commentary on Episode 1); Andrew Davies Interview on Bite Back; Westminster: Behind Closed Doors with Tony Benn

For further reading I did four articles for each of the episodes of To Play the King in 2012. I was naïve since I wrote them as I was watching the episodes so I made a ton of false guesses as to the overall mystery of the series but the articles are not bad:
Part One

Part Four

Upcoming DVD/Blu Ray Reviews: Something that just showed up in my mailbox is the complete 22 disc set of Foyle’s War from Acorn Media which will be released in March. I am taking my time to savor this World War II era crime series that has lush production values and of course Michael Kitchen!
This Week: For the next couple of articles I was planning to look at a very different kind of comedy with Series 2 of ‘Allo ‘Allo! I may hold that back for a while. It will either be that or an episode of Out of the Unknown.

Have a great week!
Do you have feedback, article requests or want to talk about a program but do not want to leave a public comment? Feel free to drop me an e-mail at

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Also please subscribe to my From the Archive: British Television Blog Facebook Page for updates about new articles.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

DVD Review: Doctor Who - The Reign of Terror

Doctor Who: The Reign of Terror 1-DVD (148 min)
Released by BBC Home Entertainment on February 12, 2013. SRP $24.98 (DVD)
Subtitles: English SDH 4:3 Mono (Main Feature)

When I first got the opportunity to watch the Hartnell era episodes of Doctor Who it was the omnibus versions of the complete stories on PBS. As a young man and as much as I had always wanted to see these stories I initially found them to be a little boring especially when they were all seen in one go. A few years later I got into tape trading and was able to get these stories from WQEX in Pittsburgh in episodic format. I instantly loved the stories much more than I ever did before. These stories broken up in proper episodic format make it so much better to watch. I love the cliffhangers and the ones for the Hartnell stories are unique. You can read about my adventure with all of that here. As I started to get the stories that weren’t on PBS, there was one story that I saw which I loved from my very first viewing. That was The Reign of Terror. One night, I was at a friend’s house and we had an all-night tape dubbing session of making copies of episodes for each other. This was back in 1989. It didn’t seem like these episodes were ever going to be released. In fact, the VHS of this story came out in 2003. It was in the middle of the night and we started to dub The Reign of Terror and I fell asleep only to wake up to the end of A Land of Fear with the Doctor trapped in the burning house. This woke me right up. This was a very different type of story. It’s like a real danger. Not a monster trapping them but an ordinary yet very deadly cliffhanger.  I became a life-long fan of this story.
The Reign of Terror is the final story of the first season of Doctor Who but not the final story recorded in the first production block. That would end two stories later with The Dalek Invasion of Earth. I have read a lot of fans say how boring they think The Reign of Terror is and I respect their opinion but I have a very different one. It is also said with Dennis Spooner writing his first script to the series that there are elements of comedy. Yes, it is black comedy but the story is one that is very dark. I think it is one of the bleakest stories of the series.

The story takes place during the French Revolution; it is the Doctor’s favorite period of Earth history. The TARDIS crew consists of The Doctor, Ian, Barbara, and Susan. They land in France which is a continuation from the end of The Sensorites. At the end of The Sensorites, the Doctor takes poorly to a comment from Ian and declares wherever they land next will be where the two school teachers will be ejected from the ship. The tone of the end of that episode is very serious and is much more relaxed as we get into A Land of Fear. In fact Ian and Barbara, who do not believe for a second that the TARDIS landed in the school teacher’s own time, persuade the Doctor to go with it them to see them off properly.
It’s a good thing they do so because they soon learn that they are nowhere near their own time. It doesn’t take long for them to get caught up in what’s going on. As they explore, they find an old country house that looks deserted. They go in only to find that they have stumbled on a hideout for counter-revolutionaries. This house includes clothes, papers and other materials to move people around in secrecy. The Doctor is knocked out by one of the counter-revolutionaries. Very soon, these same counter-revolutionaries, D'Argenson and Rouvray, encounter Ian, Barbara and Susan and eventually believe they are no immediate threat. As they are about to retrieve the unconscious Doctor, revolutionary soldiers surround the house. D'Argenson and Rouvray are killed and the soldiers take Ian, Barbara and Susan prisoner. As they are led away, the soldiers decide to set the house on fire with the Doctor still inside. Like I said, it is one of my favourite cliffhangers.

The story is very grim especially for the first 3 episodes. Ian is separated from Barbara and Susan in the Conciergerie prison. In reality, this is to allow William Russell 2 weeks holiday. I feel this helps the story greatly. It gives us a chance to see how Susan and Barbara handle one of the most difficult settings of their time together. Previously when they have been captured or in danger, a lot of this took place in the “science fiction future”. This is the area of BEMs (Bug Eyed Monsters). Even in some of the other historical settings they encountered, they had the support in some way from the Doctor or Ian. Now, they are completely on their own. They didn’t know what happened to Ian and they had no idea if the Doctor was still alive. It is a great moment for the two characters trapped in the cell trying to survive. Susan didn’t do too well but she is also just a child. She was getting a sickness and probably worried sick about her grandfather. I don’t think people give enough credit to how amazing and strong Barbara is as a character. Ian always seems like the stronger one but Barbara will always give Ian a run for his money. She keeps pushing Susan to try to find a way to escape while always giving words of encouragement. There were a couple of occasions that Susan breaks down over the enormity of the situation. This is where we see that determined Barbara quickly give-way to a compassionate caring woman which understands. She is really quite impressive. This is very much her story.
I think what I really love about this story is its scope and breadth. Remember 4 of the 6 episodes were recorded at one of the tiniest studios in the UK at Lime Grove. Within 6 episodes we are in the outer-country of France which in itself comprises of several locations, we move to Paris where we go for the grimiest of locations of the Conciergerie to opulence of Robespierre’s palace. Within Paris there are a lot of other locations such as Jules Renan’s hideout, a crypt, physician’s office and of course a far off tavern called The Sinking Ship. The Sinking Ship is one of my favorite moments in the story as it takes place in the final episode, Prisoners of the Conciergerie, this is a gloomy tavern on a stormy night well off any well-travelled road. This is where a secret meeting takes place. This is one set piece out of many that is achieved so well.

For me, one of the best parts of the story is the atmosphere it conveys. The pieces that should be gloomy are gloomy. This includes the afore mentioned tavern The Sinking Ship, the Conciergerie, even the woods that the Doctor and his companions land in at the beginning of this story. Places like Jules’ hideout have a safer feel to it. The lighting may still be dark but warmer. The whole production has almost a theatrical stagey feel to it. Some sets are extremely detailed while the shots of the streets of Paris look like it’s on a stage. This actual gives the production some of its charm.  This story definitely benefits from being shot in black & white.
This story has a strong supporting cast to it. No one uses a French accent (except for some reason Ian in Prisoners of Conciergerie) but I actually prefer that. It could so easily fall into the realms of ‘Allo! ‘Allo! if not careful. My favorite is probably James Cairncross as Lemaitre. It’s odd because he actually has a pretty wooden performance especially in the opening scenes of Prisoners of the Conciergerie but I still really like his portrayal of the character. Edward Brayshaw is fantastic and perfectly cast as Leon and Donald Morley plays Jules with the right pitch. He is believable as someone who may need to kill yet is compassionate towards those who need help. Finally, there is Jack Cunningham as the Jailer. People talk about this being a comedic role. I don’t believe so. Once the Jailer and the Doctor start having scenes together he becomes a lot more bumbling but some of those early scenes are downright scary. He tries to make an advance on Barbara. The Jailer is a dark and creepy character.

The Animation
The big news surrounding this release was the announcement of episodes 4 & 5, The Tyrant of France & A Bargain of Necessity were going to be animated. These episodes were destroyed by the BBC years ago with only the audio soundtrack and a few clips existing. This news was met with great enthusiasm as many fans want to see missing episodes animated. The animation was done through Thetamation.

I have watched this animation now a number of times. I am sorry; I am just not a fan of Thetamation’s style or direction for animation. I feel really crappy for saying that as I count myself as part of a group of people who are interested in seeing missing episodes animated. It seems churlish of me to want episodes animated yet to be annoyed about how they look once we get it. I also understand that there were concessions made to be able to afford the animation and a lot of talented people put a lot of time into this production.  I will do my best to be very clear with my criticisms rather than be like “I just don’t like it”.
Sometimes the same actor in live action can look completely different shot to shot but you know it's the same actor.
I think in animation the look of the character should be more consistent.
I do not like the style or look of the characters. In black & white they look like stone statues. The anime style of shadows on them is too harsh and does not play well in the realm of black & white. I can see how this works better in color animation of this style but not here. I believe there was a lot of rotoscoping done to bring movement to the character. In a very brief way of explaining it is tracing the characters from elsewhere such as footage from other episodes repurposing them to these episodes. I don’t think that is a bad thing but it leads to other problems.

There is a massive problem with consistency throughout the two episodes animated. If you ever watch The Simpsons, Family Guy or even the other released animated episodes from Doctor Who: The Invasion, there are simple character rules that are not broken. No matter which way the character turns or which angle we are looking at their face, it is still that character. On these episodes, based on where Thetamation are getting their character from or how they are rotoscoping from other scenes, the characters sometimes look drastically different from scene to scene or even shot to shot. I think William Hartnell is the most affected by this yet to be fair William Hartnell is one of the most difficult human beings to illustrate. If this is being shot live and in a studio and if there is a shot of a real actor who, for whatever reason, does not look like themselves in a particular you still believe it because you know it’s them in front of you. Trying to get away with that in animation is very, very difficult and does not work. In my opinion it is best to come up with clear character designs and not deviate from those character rules.
Another issue is that watching this whole story in one go, once I get to the animated episodes I get taken out of the story. It is not because the action becomes animated. The direction and style of 4 & 5 are completely different from the episodes that still exist. Maybe I’m wrong but I think these should complement the existing episode and not try to be something different from them. The directing style is completely off. In fact the directing style is downright puzzling. In The Tyrant of France there are quite a few successions of quick shots within one second of each other. It makes no sense. There are a couple shots of just Ian’s crotch that I doubt was in the original broadcast episodes! I would have preferred to have the episodes stick closer to the camera scripts. I know firsthand that Dan Hall wanted to break up some of the camera scripts to add shots and give the animation more life and I am not against that. What happened here with camera movements and shots would never have been done in the studio from that period. It would have been impossible to shoot like that for 1960s television production. Also, the end credits list William Hartnell as “Doctor Who” whereas all the episodes from this story, from this era list him as “Dr. Who”. Its small things like that which really irks me. It’s almost like there are multiple groups working on this in isolation with no one bringing continuity to the episodes. I guess the question at the end of the day is were the episodes supposed to be recreated to be a part of the original story or were these meant to be completely its own style? I know which I prefer.

I think these animated episodes are like a good rough draft but needed more time on them. I don’t think the BBC should stop making animated episodes or stop using Thetamation but I would prefer that they re-examine their process/style and bring some better consistency to their product.

Audio Commentary (Episodes 1,2,3,6) Carole Ann Ford & Tim Combe for the whole story with Neville Smith, Jeffry Wickham, Caroline Hunt, and Patrick Marley coming in with the episodes they appeared in. It is a nice commentary with some wonderful stories. I think that Carole Ann Ford summed up the apparent grumpiness of William Hartnell better than anyone I have ever heard before. She clearly has found memories of him and her time on the show. There is also commentary on episode 4 with Ronald Pickup and Episode 5 with Philip Morris and Paul Vanezis. This is what I wanted to hear the most as these two are missing episodes hunters and was interested in what they had to say. Unfortunately, too much time was wasted with Paul and Toby going back and forth whether it was Paul or Ian Levine who made the BBC aware of who found The Reign of Terror episodes first in Cyprus. Who cares! One major error on the back of the R1 cover is that it doesn’t mention Toby Hadoke as the moderator of the commentaries. He did a great job on these and deserves the recognition for them.
Don’t Lose Your Head: The Making of The Reign of Terror. This is a great feature that takes the perfect amount of time bringing us behind the scenes. We find out about how Henric Hirsch became unwell during the production due to the pressure of working on the series. It includes William Russell, Carole Ann Ford and Tim Combe. I like it when these features are not overly produced or trying to show off but are nice looking and simply presents us with the information of what happened while making this story. That is what this does.

For the animated episodes there are The Set Tour and the Animation Design Gallery. I really enjoyed it. In fact, the Animation Design Gallery is great. It made me excited for the episodes but unfortunately it did not translate well as an animated production for me.
There is the Photo Gallery which, as always is great and the Production Notes. There should really be a credit for the people involved with the Production Notes on the back cover just like on the R2 release because this is a ton of work and they are unsung heroes for these releases.

These episodes have been remastered. Episodes 1 -3 have always looked a bit suspect. Mainly because there were the lesser quality telerecordings that are suppressed field recordings which is a lesser quality recording. Even at that, I think Episodes 1 & 2 look great and hold up very well. Episode 3, A Change of Identity, is a new transfer from a Stored Field Recording and really looks nice. A Stored Field recording is a higher quality telerecording than a Suppress Field telerecording. This version of the film print was not present on the VHS release so this is new for DVD. It looks great! I have been waiting to see how good that episode looks. In fact it looks miles better than the first two episodes. The final episode Prisoners of the Conciergerie always looked good so I know this was going be alright and I wasn’t disappointed by it at all. I love that these episodes are restored and I never take that for granted. It’s always the highlight of the releases for me.

After the release of Shada, there were some questions if the range was moving to clear cases. I think BBC Home Entertainment/Warner just got a good deal on 3 disc cases that just happened to be clear. The Reign of Terror is in a single amary black case.

The cover was done by Lee Binding with a simple yet striking cover. There are a lot of elements to it but it’s not overly complicated. Plus not to put that image of Hartnell for this story would be a crime! It’s a very well-done cover.
The Reign of Terror is one of my favorite stories. Even though I wasn’t thrilled with the animation; it is just my own opinion. Check it out for yourself!  It’s worth buying for more than just the animation. This really is a well put together disc.  I wish that we would have been able to get the original linking material recorded by Carole Ann Ford that was presented on the VHS tape in 2003. There wasn’t room. There some discs which I think the material on them is tangible at best but not this story. I think this has the right amount of content for this story and as usual I think you get a lot for your money!

Disc breakdown:
1 Disc: The Reign of Terror (1-6 with 4&5 animated); Commentaries, Production Notes, Don’t Lose Your Head; The Set Tour; Animation Design Gallery and PDF Materials: Radio Times Listings for this story.

Upcoming DVD/Blu Ray Reviews: House of Cards Trilogy Blu Ray Set.
This Week: I am running behind. For the next couple of articles I was planning to look at a very different kind of comedy with Series 2 of ‘Allo ‘Allo! I may hold that back for a while. It will either be that or an episode of Out of the Unknown.

Have a great week!
Do you have feedback, article requests or want to talk about a program but do not want to leave a public comment? Feel free to drop me an e-mail at
I am on Twitter: @FromtheArchive

Also please subscribe to my From the Archive: British Television Blog Facebook Page for updates about new articles.