Retro Respawn DVD Review – Doctor Who: The Dominators

I’ve decided to try something new this week for the Film and TV section of the website. Today I’ll be looking at a classic episode of one of my favourite TV shows, Doctor Who. I don’t watch a lot of TV any more. I can’t really explain as to why. I used to spend hours every night consumed by the old idiot box, but these days I’m much more likely to be doing other things with my time. One show I still go out of my way to watch though is Doctor Who.

I’ve been a Who Fan™ since the show returned to television back in 2005, and after watching the new series, I decided I would go back and watch previous episodes from the past to see why the show was so enduringly popular. For those not acquainted with the show, Doctor Who recounts the tales of the titular “Doctor” and his/her revolving door of companions as they travel through space and time in the TARDIS time machine.

The Doctor comes from an ancient race of aliens known as Time Lords who have a nifty way of cheating death, whereby they “regenerate” the cells in their body, essentially becoming a new person in the process. This means that there have been fourteen incarnations of the character over the years, which has always been a great way of keeping things fresh.

This may be sacrilegious to some, but I honestly don’t think there’s ever been a “bad” Doctor, in the sense that I think every version of The Doctor has their own merits. Bad writing might have scuppered some of their stories (the sixth incarnation played by Colin Baker especially), but in general I like every Doctor and think they all have their plus points.

The DVD we’re covering this time is a five-episode serial from way back in 1968 called “The Dominators”, starring Patrick Troughton as The Doctor. Whereas William Hartnell’s first incarnation of The Doctor had been grumpy, silver-haired and acerbic, Troughton took a more light-hearted approach to the character. His Doctor played the recorder, had a very 60s-styled haircut and was far more excitable than Hartnell’s version.

I personally love Troughton as The Doctor, and fans of Matt Smith will probably like him too. He has the air sometimes of someone who is almost bungling his way to saving the world, even though most of the time it’s revealed that he’s in far more control than he’s letting on. He’s joined in this story by Scottish Highlander Jamie (Frazer Hines) and Zoe (Wendy Padbury). Jamie was a long-time companion for the Second Doctor, with Troughton and Hines having excellent chemistry together.

The story centres on The Doctor, Jamie and Zoe visiting the planet of Dulkis, a place inhabited by a pacifistic population who reserve things like war to merely a memory. The Doctor has visited Dulkis in the past and, considering the peaceful nature of the native Dulcians, he thinks it would be an excellent spot for a relaxing holiday. However, trouble soon arrives in the form of The Dominators, a race of war-making aliens intent on using the local inhabitants for slave labour.

Along with The Dominators are a number of small yet deadly robots known as Quarks, who are equipped with drills and other assorted weaponry. It soon becomes clear that The Dominators have nefarious designs to blow the entire planet of Dulkis up, but why? The Doctor and his companions set about finding out why, with an aim to stop them if they can.

I personally think the tools are in place to tell a good story here, but unfortunately, everything kind of falls flat. The peaceful Dulcians, being an overly bureaucratic race with no comprehension of war, are obviously outmatched against the more hardened Dominators, which makes for good potential when it comes to storytelling, but ultimately that potential isn’t realised.

The episode’s original script was written by Mervyn Haisman and Henry Lincoln, who had both worked on Doctor Who before. They’d originally planned for the serial to be six episodes long instead of the eventual five, but constant clashes with script editor Derrick Sherwin meant that he eventually cut the last episode and resolved everything without their assistance. Haisman and Lincoln detested the finished script so much that they decided to take their names off it and instead go under the pseudonym of “Norman Ashby” instead.

Haisman and Lincoln had created the Quarks with designs on them becoming a Dalek-level recurring villain in the series. With the Daleks themselves unavailable at the time due to creator Terry Nation trying to create a spin-off for them, the two writers saw an opportunity to fill the Dalek-shaped hole and make some sweet merchandising moolah in the process.

This, however, led to a dispute between the writers and the BBC over who actually owned the rights to the Quarks, which in turn led to a messy legal battle. As a result of this, Sherwin angrily declared that Haisman and Lincoln would never work on Doctor Who again, which they subsequently didn’t, thus meaning the Quarks never returned.

This was probably for the better in the long run as the Quark outfits looked awful and were incredibly hard to move around in. Young child actors were squeezed into the chunky oblong outfits, and they could barely move any faster than a mere shuffle. The frankly pathetic looking arms, which could barely extend fully from the Quarks’ box-like bodies, were the icing on top of the underwhelming cake.

The Dominators themselves were decent enough B level villains, with Ronald Allen putting in an especially good performance as the hyper intense Navigator Rago. In some ways they almost reminded me of prototypical Sontarans with their constant desire to make war almost for the sake of it. Their big shoulder armour and general rough demeanour made them suitably imposing, even though they seemed intent to let the Quarks do most of the work.

Perhaps a more rough and ready society could have done something against them, but the tame Dulcians are no match for them, something which is made abundantly clear when Rago marches into the senate with one lone Quark and essentially takes it over all by his lonesome. It’s an interesting premise which sadly just doesn’t work in execution.

Arthur Cox plays a good supporting role as Cully, the one Dulcian who actually seems like he might be up for a scrap. Probably the best part of the serial is when Jamie and Cully go out into the wilderness for a spot of Quark hunting, which leads to some pretty impressive smoke and explosions. Camera cuts are liberally used to give off the impression that the Quarks are actually capable of doing something in response to these attacks, but the scenes in general are quite exciting.

Troughton apparently really enjoyed this particular story and watched it quite a lot, but to me this is one of his Doctor’s weaker stories. He, Hines and Padbury all have excellent chemistry together, which makes the scenes where they interact together enjoyable at the very least, but overall the story isn’t a particularly strong one.

The DVD comes with commentary featuring Hines and Padbury, as well as a 20-minute documentary detailing how the episode was filmed. Interestingly, a lot of the crew didn’t seem to enjoy working on it that much either. Sherwin and Haisman are both very frank in discussing the issues they had with one another, and the documentary as a whole is a fun and informative watch.

There was actually an audiobook version of this released with narration from Padbury, and the story works much better in that form, mainly because more is left to your imagination. If you’re thinking of giving this story a try, I’d recommend going for the audiobook over the DVD.

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