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Doctor Who: K9 Tales

1/04/2011. Contributed by Geoff Willmetts

Buy Doctor Who: K9 Tales in the USA - or Buy Doctor Who: K9 Tales in the UK

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region 2 DVD: pub: BBC BBSDVD 2744. Price: about GBP 7.80 (UK) if you know where to look. 2 DVDs. 5 episodes 143 minutes with extras.

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K-9 And Company: A Girl’s Best Friend
(pub: BBCDVD 2798. 50 minute story with extras.
stars: Elisabeth Sladen, John Leeson, Ian Sears and Linda Polan

In many respects, the title, ‘K-9 And Company’, is a bit of a bit misnomer as really it’s probably the first ‘Sarah Jane Adventure’, about eight years after she left the Doctor back in the early 1980s relatively speaking.

Sarah Jane Smith (actress Elisabeth Sladen) arrives at her Aunt Lavinia’s large house at Morton Harewood to find her gone, her Aunt’s ward, Brendon (actor Ian Sears), at the local railway station to collect and a box her Aunt has been looking after for her. Said box carries a mark 3 K-9 robot, a present for Sarah Jane from the Doctor. She and Brendon are thrown into a black magic plot where the ward is kidnapped for a blood sacrifice. Sarah Jane uses K-9 to unravel what is going on and who is involved in what.

In many respects, the plot is very messy and looks like it was loosely based on an old 60s film called ‘The Witches’. Sarah Jane succeeds in getting some half-decent meals while letting Brendon starve back at the manse. K-9’s limitations have to be played up or else he’s just too powerful for anything, as witnessed in the final confrontation. Considering that the plot is ritual black magic, one has to wonder what was in the production team’s minds as family entertainment and it probably explains why it got no further than this pilot. Had the K-9 aspect been removed, we might well have had a real ‘Sarah Jane Adventures’ instead.

The audio commentary with actors Elisabeth Sladen, John Leeson and Linda Polan with writer Eric Saward gives a lot of information, especially as why the story was doomed from the start. Sladen points out that the director John Black was ill-prepared and didn’t even have any stage direction for the cameramen to work by. For those of you who want to see what difference this makes will soon understand by how pedestrian the direction is in this pilot with nothing exploited particularly well.

The other extras centre of K-9 both in three versions (essentially with a different coat of paint) in ‘Doctor Who’ and with this story and the complication of getting him to move on the studio floor or any flat surface without breaking down. From what builder Matt Irvine says, it’s obvious K-9 is on wheels although I do wonder why a tank track wasn’t used for certain scenes but I suspect the weight would have multiplied up the type of motor having to be used, let alone the battery needed to drive it.

I find this story an odd curio that gives a taste of how stories were written in the early 80s living within restricted budget and format so little of any of them truly stood out. It’s definitely a reminder of how much more work is given to make stories sparkle today but unless you watch it, you won’t realise how far we’ve come.

Doctor Who: The Invisible Enemy
(pub: BBC BBCDVD 2799. 93 minute 4 * 23 minute episodes story with extras)
stars: Tom Baker, Louise Jameson, Frederick Jaeger, Michael Sheard and John Leeson

In many respects, I tend to think of ‘The Invisible Enemy’ as ‘Doctor Who’ with its most dodgy science, mostly because it borrows heavily from the 1966 film ‘Fantastic Voyage’ but in a really poor way even on a poor budget. Oddly, the other special effects are exploited a lot more in this story although I think had the speed of the space shuttle taking off been slowed down (which would have meant more frames to the second and then run the film at a slower rate) would have looked more impressive.

The TARDIS arrives at a refuelling station near Saturn answering an alarm only for the Doctor (actor Tom Baker) and his companion, Leela (actress Louise Jameson), to discover that the people there had been taken over by a space virus, possession demonstrated by having a frosting over the forehead and cheeks. What the Doctor isn’t aware of is his own infection and Leela’s own immunity. Trying to resist, the Doctor gives the co-ordinates to a nearby medical station to transfer the TARDIS, unaware that the station supervisor (actor Michael Sheard) who comes with them has also been taken over.

The medical expert, Professor Marius (actor Frederick Jaeger) pin-points the mother of the virus in the Doctor’s brain, explaining why the other converts want him so badly, drawn to him by his intellect. The Doctor gets Marius to clone him and Leela and using the dimension device from the TARDIS shrinks them both to sub-miniature size and injects them in the original Time Lord. Meanwhile, the original Leela and Marius’ robot dog, K-9 (voiced by John Leeson) try to keep the infected ones at bay. The consequence of the miniature versions action ultimately ends up with a giant version of the virus, looking somewhat shrimp-like, escaping the Doctor’s brain and ready to return to the refuelling station to complete its propagation. The Doctor is delayed as Marius produces the discovered anti-toxin to fight it with before following. Things get worse when the Doctor loses the anti-toxin and has to stop the virus in a way Leela originally suggested.

The audio commentary between actor Louise Jameson, voice artist John Leeson, co-writer Bob Baker and visual effects designer Mat Irvine reveal various things. The moon set was the left-over prop from ‘Space: 1999’ with a little dressing and there are still some people are groan-proof in recognising what ‘K-9’ is phonetically. Irvine explains a lot of how the effects were done. Speaking of which, K-9’s remote control was at odds with the new TV cameras and hence often became problematic for a while. If anything, much of K-9’s problems was because it was a prototype and learning curve as to what it could do. Who would have thought where this would have went? The selection of people produced an interesting contrast and complemented each other with various information.

The extras are actually very significant in their detail. The first, ‘Dreams And Fantasy’, gives all kinds of inside details, probably the most significant being a look at the original designs by Ian Scoones for K-9 and how the shape was mostly pinned from the start and it was only the details that were changed. All those who were involved with the design and getting K-9 to move were available to discuss the dog. I can understand now why a tank tread couldn’t be used now, mostly cos apart from weight, there was also a matter of turning K-9 which would have been limited.

If you ever wondered what it was like acting with chroma-key, the twenty minutes showing Tom Baker and Louise Jameson doing so is an act of their patience and it’s interesting seeing the scale of the add on when various arms and stage manager walk through it. If you’re thinking of becoming a TV actor then seeing what is involved might give you food for thought on the levels of concentration involved.

The ‘Special Effects’ extra brings together Mat Irvine with his old boss, Ian Scoones, who shows the detailed storyboards from this particular story which as the latter points out it reminded everyone where they were in production and which he was taught by director Val Guest at Hammer Films. Irvine’s contribution was the different scale shuttle models. When I was watching the story, I thought that if the special effects shuttle footage was slowed down even more, which essentially means filming faster and showing at a slower speed, but as Scoones storyboards showed this was at 48 frames per second and I imagine they didn’t have cameras which could record even faster. If you’re into learning how special effects are created, no matter the time period, you tend to look at any films such as this with intense interest.

For all of this, I still think this is actually a poor story with nothing to do with the older you get the less ‘magic’ you find in such stories. Even when I was young I could pick holes in it. I mean, if you’re going to clone someone, would you really clone their clothes as well? Granted, it might have been problematic having them appear naked but even in paper clothes it would have made sense to distinguish between them and their originals.

Elements of the miniaturisation made it a poor man’s ‘Fantastic Voyage’, a film most of us were familiar with at the time. In many respects, looking at this run of stories today, its producers might have thought the changes would have moved the stories away from the expected monster stories but they were borrowing so much it lose its homage value and lost the ability to create new ideas which had repercussions in later stories.

However, what makes this DVD worth buying, outside of the introduction of K-9, is the extras which are amongst some of the most informative. I just wish we’d seen more of Mat Irvine’s workshop.

GF Willmetts

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