Doctor Doctor Who Guide

Reviews


List:
02 Sep 2003Carnival Of Monsters, by Paul Clarke
01 Sep 2004Carnival Of Monsters, by Jim Fanning
29 Oct 2005Carnival Of Monsters, by Adam Kintopf

After two fairly dire stories, 'Carnival of Monsters' is a welcome reprieve. It is well acted, well scripted, extremely amusing, and boasts great monsters. 

The plot of 'Carnival of Monsters' is suitably ingenious, engaging the viewer by presenting two seemingly unrelated scenarios, one of the Doctor and Jo arriving on board the S. S. Bernice, and the other of Vorg and his assistant Shirna arriving on the bureaucracy-choked world of Inter Minor. Gradually of course, the truth unfolds about exactly where the TARDIS has materialized and where the S. S. Bernice actually is; with this mystery solved, Holmes then introduces further sub-plots, namely the Drashigs and Kalik's schemes to usurp his brother's rule of Inter Minor. Because of the way in which Holmes structures the story, this gradually shifting emphasis throughout the story means that rather a lot seems to happen, making for an immensely satisfying four episodes. Enjoyable though the plot is however, it is the actual script that makes it come alive, as it showcases Holmes' talent for characterisation. 

All of the characters in 'Carnival of Monsters' are distinctive, the result of the excellent script combined with uniformly superb acting from the guest cast. The three principle characters on board the ship - Tenniel Evans' Major Daly, Ian Marter's John Andrews, and Jenny McCraken's Claire Daly - are well acted, and this helps to make them memorable. The script defines them in broad strokes, a necessity given that their situation results in a limited repertoire of lines. Daly is a stereotypical colonial type, worrying about etiquette on one hand (he is keen to offer the Doctor and Jo his hospitality when they first meet), whilst making sweeping and distasteful racial slurs about his plantation workers. Likewise, Andrews is a clichĂ©d square-jawed naval officer, devoted to his ship and bravely facing the threat of plesiosaurs and drashigs alike with stern resolve. He boxes, of course, adhering strictly to Marquis of Queensbury rules. And then there is Jenny, who looks pretty on the arm of her gallant soldier, who stands bravely in front of her when danger threatens. Despite being written as such clichĂ©s, all three characters are brought alive by the actors playing them. This enhances the beauty of these characters, which is that they are on display for the entertainment of others; they are pure stereotypes, beloved by filmmakers of a certain era, and they are present in Vorg's Miniscope as examples of what Tellurians are like. 

In contrast to these deliberate ciphers, we are presented with the characters on Inter Minor. Vorg and Shirna are great characters, again very well acted by Leslie Dwyer and Cheryl Hall. Holmes seems to have a talent for creating rather shifty but generally likeable individuals, and Vorg in particular is a classic example. Desperate to try and justify the cost of his visit to Inter Minor, he generally tries (rather poorly) to con his way into the tribunal's good books, mainly by trying to confuse them or simply by lying. Particularly entertaining is his offering of a note signed by the Great Zarb, who it transpires is a wrestler and not President Zarb of Inter Minor. In this respect, Vorg is best summed up at the end, as he plays "find the lady" with Pletrac. But again, there is more to Vorg than first meets the eye; despite his often cowardly banter and frequent protestations about putting his hand into the Miniscope whilst the Drashig are loose inside, when they eventually escape from the machine, it is Vorg who leaps into action with the eradicator and dispatches them. On the other hand, whilst he is generally rather likeable at first glance, he is also both childish and selfish; realizing that the Drashigs might escape, his first instinct is to abandon the 'scope and sneak off the planet, leaving the Minorians to them. In addition, he displays no concern whatsoever for his "livestock", even in episode four; at best he is indifferent to both the Doctor's survival and his success. It is here that Shirna comes in, since she acts to a degree as his conscience, persuading him to save the Doctor and Jo at the start of episode three, and also convincing to actually bother pulling the phase two switch in episode four, thus saving them a second time. She is also notably more honest with the tribunal than Vorg. Basically, this interaction makes Vorg and Shirna the first example of the so-called "Holmes double-act" in my opinion; together, they work far better than either of them would alone. Vorg is both funnier and superficially a more interesting character than Shirna, but Shirna appeals to his better nature in such a way that he becomes more likeable than he perhaps deserves. Their most amusing moment, in my opinion, is when Vorg tells Shirna to touch a wire, and then when she gets a shock nods wisely and notes that it must be the live terminal. 

The Inter Minorians are equally interesting. Firstly, it is worth noting that Holmes has a real knack of giving the impression of a larger scale than is seen on screen when he uses an alien setting. To draw a comparison with a later studio-bound alien world in Doctor Who, consider briefly Atrios from 'The Armageddon Factor'. For all the impression we get of Atrios, it might as well be a country at war with its neighbour rather than a planet. It is a classic example of an alien planet represented by one or two small sets, with a cast of characters who might as well be on Earth. There is nothing to convince the viewer in that story that the action is actually taking place on an alien planet, save for mentions of spacecraft. In fairness to that story, this is a problem prevalent in science fiction; consider any alien planet from fiction and then start thinking about the sheer number of countries, religions, ideologies, cultures and environments on Earth and of course it becomes clear that it is virtually impossible to even begin to approach such complexity in a larger story, especially in four twenty-five minute episodes of a television show. The point of all this is that Holmes is better than any other Doctor Who scriptwriter that I can think of at managing to actually give us something of an impression of a larger world. For the sake of simplicity, it is implied that Inter Minor, as with most worlds in the series, has a single ruler whose government is in charge of the entire planet, which is of course a far cry from our current situation on Earth, but we do at least get tantalizing snippets of detail. The Functionaries serve no other purpose but to demonstrate some degree of social complexity on Inter Minor; they are very clearly second-class citizens, and they are apparently starting to rebel. We learn that Zarb has only recently opened up the planet to alien visitors, and that his new, liberal approach is at odds with the views of the more right wing citizens, including Kalik. Even this is not clear cut; however liberal Kalik considers his brother to be, he favours capitol punishment for treason, and there are vague hints that his definition of traitor includes anyone who vocally disagree with him. In short, Holmes' gives us hints of social and political unrest, which makes Inter Minor considerably more than just a studio set with a gun and peepshow in it. 

Individually, the Minorians all work very well. Peter Halliday and Michael Wisher in particular are two of Doctor Who's most reliable occasional actors, and Terence Lodge stands up well next to them as Orum. As the devious Kalik, Wisher is excellent, playing the part in a very Machiavellian manner with frequent smug looks and superior sneers, but never going over the top. Kalik's ruthlessness becomes more and more evident as the story progresses, beginning with him criticizing Zarb's policies to Pletrac and Orum, to the sudden calculating look on his face when he learns of the Drashigs' legendary reputation, and eventually his plan to allow the Drashigs out of the 'scope to satisfy his naked ambition. The fact that he consequently gets eaten immediately on doing so is thus enormously satisfying. Orum is basically Kalik's henchman, easily led and happy to follow Kalik's orders. Lodge brilliantly portrays him as a sniveling, odious figure lacking both the wit and the courage to seek power on his own, but happy to bask in Kalik's intended glory. Finally, Peter Halliday is excellent as the fussy Pletrac, who is honest and even well-meaning, but who is utterly constrained by bureaucracy and obsessed with protocol, a fact that Kalik exploits several times. 

The regulars return to form here, Jo proving useful as she again shows off her escapology skills, and generally coming across as more than just a dumb assistant. This story nicely demonstrates the genuine affection between Jo and the Doctor, chiefly through numerous minor lines dialogue and through the rapport between Katy Manning and Jon Pertwee. Having been on autopilot for the last three stories, Pertwee really seems to be enjoying himself here, possibly happy to be faced with an intelligent and interesting script. Particularly enjoyable is they way in which the Doctor pretty much dismisses the tribunal once he escapes from the 'scope, both by threatening them with official reprisals for allowing a Miniscope to operate on their planet, and generally fobbing them off. Given that much of the Inter Minor subplot has been driven by Vorg's problems with the tribunal, this does wonders for the Doctor's air of authority, which had been watered down in recent stories. 

The Drashigs are great monsters. It's actually quite unusual for Doctor Who monsters to be such literal monsters rather than alien races (hostile or otherwise), but the unintelligent, insatiable Drashigs are real monsters in the mold of dragons or other mythical beasts. They look very effective, despite being puppets, with very convincing teeth and genuinely chilling roars. The Drashigs highlight another worthy aspect of 'Carnival of Monsters', which is Barry Letts' direction. I criticized his over-enthusiastic use of CSO when I reviewed 'Terror of the Autons', but here he uses it more sparingly. CSO from this era is always noticeable, which is simply a limitation of the technology of the time, but when used well it is far less intrusive; even when the Drashigs are loose on Inter Minor, the CSO is passable, and by cutting quickly between model and CSO shots, Letts manages to use it effectively. The location work both on the ship and in the marshes also works very well. 

In summary, 'Carnival of Monsters' is a true gem and in my opinion one of the highlights of the Pertwee era.

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Carnival of Monsters is such an entertaining, imaginative story that somehow it is very hard to review. There are problems with the production, but I am prepared to be lenient on these issues because on the whole this is so enjoyable. 

The basic premise, of a machine in which whole worlds can be stored and played for the viewer's amusement, is on it's own rather clever, but Robert Holmes doesn't stop there, parodying 1920s fiction, the entertainment industry, and adding in a little politics. What would you expect from a man who most consistently deserved the accolade of best writer on the show out of all those who wrote for it?

The performances are all commendable. Jon Pertwee gets a chance to stretch his acting talents a little more than usual, now that the Third Doctor is no longer confined to Earth. It's a surprisingly varied performance and goes some way to trouncing the view that he was a somewhat one note Doctor. Michael Wisher is the best of the rest of the small but strong cast.

The production design is a tad tacky, but I won't hear a bad word said about the dinosaur who appears at the end of episode 1. Well, actually I've heard a lot of bad words said about it, but at least it makes only a minimal appearance, so no major damage is done. The Drashigs work marvellously thanks to the Radiophonic Workshop, who supply them with horrifying, eerie screams.

Carnival of Monsters will probably not worry The Caves of Androzani or The Talons of Weng-Chiang in the story polls, but I defy anyone to watch it and not get caught up in the sheer fun of it all. Good stuff!

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The main conceit around which ‘Carnival of Monsters’ is built, that of a ‘human ant farm,’ is enough to fill anyone with apprehension. Plots about shrinking are traditionally more the stuff of fantasy than science fiction – they’ve occasionally been handled well in things like Richard Matheson’s ‘The Shrinking Man’ and ‘Fantastic Voyage,’ yes, but given the inherent limitations of the Doctor Who format (and the tendency towards facetiousness in the previous two stories), we can’t be blamed for approaching ‘Carnival of Monsters’ expecting twee-ness and forced whimsy. And when the first moments of this story present us with a) vaguely Munchkin-like aliens with an absurd dialect, b) a second plot featuring setting and characters that seem to have been copped from ‘Anything Goes,’ and c) a character whose costume is even worse than Colin Baker’s . . . well, as the Minorians themselves might say, one is not encouraged.

But happily, Robert Holmes’s script quickly evaporates any such fears; ‘Carnival of Monsters’ is a brilliant story, full of humor, and yet taking its sillier components just seriously enough to make them work. The approach is satirical without sacrificing the integrity of the ‘straight’ sci-fi approach. The Minorians are obviously fussy bureaucrats, but Holmes fleshes out their society just enough to keep them from being too jokey - the class struggles with the Functionaries, the paranoia about ‘contamination,’ and their strange dependence on the pronoun ‘one’ all combine to distinguish them as a genuine alien culture with its own unique quirks. And the MiniScope (with its ignorant huckster proprietors) is an obvious dig at pop culture on the whole and television in particular, and yet it’s handled with surprising realism and good taste.

In terms of the production aesthetics, the story is a mini-masterpiece (no pun intended); a great example of Doctor Who overcoming its budget constraints. The sets and cast are small, but effective. The Drashigs, as noted many times, are rather surprisingly believable and horrifying monsters. The springing one at the end of episode two is simply fantastic – obviously a puppet, but very lifelike, especially when it suddenly whips its head around to locate its prey. And speaking of the cliffhangers, every one here is a great one – a rare thing indeed for this series!

As for the cast, the familiar faces and voices are a little distracting (Peter Halliday, Harry Sullivan and Davros, all in the same story!), but that’s always part of the fun of Doctor Who anyway. Leslie Dwyer, despite his ridiculous wig, false mustache, and costume that seems to be made partially of candy, is believable and likeable as one of Holmes’s classic charlatan characters. Robert Holmes obviously had great affection for con men and show people, and Vorg is one of his best ‘flawed, but fun’ creations. Michael Wisher is simultaneously comic and sinister as the Shakespeare-esque usurping brother – his dry delivery of the witty lines (and great facial expressions) make the character memorable (and his demise satisfying). Peter Halliday is pompous but sympathetic as Pletrac, Tenniel Evans’s Major is amusingly characterized, and Cheryl Hall and Jenny McCracken turn their smaller roles into ones to remember. (The moment when Claire *nearly* recalls what has happened to them is especially charming.)

And Jon Pertwee is in top form here. This is the mature Third Doctor at his best – vain and condescending to everyone around him (the moment when he tells the Minorians to stop calling him ‘the creature’ is classic), righteously indignant with Vorg when comparing the Miniscope to zoos, but also playful with Jo, vigorous and manly when boxing with Andrews, genteel when reacting to the carnival ‘palare,’ and of course driven by curiosity – possibly the Doctor’s most dominant trait throughout the show’s history. Katy Manning isn’t the star of this story, it’s true, but her performance is also an important part of its overall success.

All in all, ‘Carnival of Monsters’ is a real triumph of the era; if only all Doctor Who stories stood up this well . . . .

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