‘Come on Romana, come on K9, we’ve got to go back – back to Cambridge, 1979.’ After 24 years and several attempts to resurrect the unfinished 1980 Douglas Adams serial, it finally enters the canon as a Paul McGann story; the other Liverpudlian Doctor stepping in for Tom Baker like Lennon covering I Saw Her Standing There.
Several concessions are made to BBCi: for instance, the opening scene at Think Tank includes dialogue between Skagra and (an alien) Caldera because Gary Russell doesn’t trust the visuals to be able to tell the story alone (or perhaps just had one eye on a CD release). These are understandable. That said, the animation is another leap forward from Real Time – a lot of it is actually animated, for starters – and there are some cool stylistic touches (the Doctor drowning in books as they search for the Ancient and Worshipful Law; screaming faces appearing in the sphere; the line drawings of the eight Doctors as Skagra reviews his history).
There are also several additional sequences which are rather more questionable. I really like the opening scene between the eighth Doctor and Romana which explains why they need to revisit this adventure (Borusa’s interference in The Five Doctors left a gap in their timeline), although it goes on a bit long, and means McGann and Ward don’t get to re-enact the punt scene but head directly to St Cedd’s. I’m much less enamoured of the weary ‘Ford Prefect’ whimsy when Skagra steals a man’s car.
There are some interesting casting choices, too. Rather than bring the surviving 1979 cast back together, director Nicholas Pegg recasts everyone barring Ward and Leeson, with mixed success. James Fox is a good Chronotis, playing it more like an absent-minded old aristocrat. Andrew Sachs is fine as Skagra, but his voice and the animation make him an old man in a hurry rather than the arrogant young upstart Pennant Roberts envisaged. Give me the 1979 Parsons and Wilkins any day.
Thanks to most of it occurring on location or in Chronotis’ study, this is substantially complete as recorded in 1979. The benefits are obvious: the opening on Think Tank can be told with greater economy, through the visuals rather than dialogue (I particularly like the odd little touch of the countdown in Roman numerals). The 1979 way of working, with actors able to rehearse together and refine performances helps too: it’s lifted by some lovely actorly touches, like Lalla Ward’s sad pout when Chronotis says he can’t have a TARDIS any more, and Denis Carey’s contrite little nod when the Doctor chides him for stealing books. As the main link between the two versions, there’s little to choose between Ward’s performances: she’s great both as the 1979 debutante and the slightly snippier Time Lord President of 2003.
The animation kicks in as Parsons cycles back to his rooms – presumably an addition for this version otherwise they would have filmed it on location with everything else. It’s mostly very good, probably the best of the Blu-ray animations (still, the makers are as unable to resist sneaking in Adams references as Gary Russell was in 2003: we all see the Zaphod: My Stories book). Thankfully, though, it’s not asked to do anything too outrageous, because no animation could ever recapture the joy of seeing Christopher Neame swishing through Cambridge.
Next episode: Shada – Part Two