In my past few reviews of the Doctor Who DVD releases, I've lamented the randomness of dropping into a story without benefit of some of the surrounding plot points. Most of the stories through the Sixties and Seventies were told in four-six episode arcs. The episode groupings tell full stories but there isn't usually any perspective or backstory of what happened previously. When given even a bit of an introduction, the stories have a much greater impact. The latest release from BBC is set up perfectly by last month's release of the story just preceding it.
The April release, Doctor Who: Carnival Of Monsters (Story 066), is the second story of Season Ten - aired originally in January and February of 1973. It follows directly after last month's release of Doctor Who: The Three Doctors. At the end of the previous story, the Third Doctor (Jon Pertwee) was released by the Time Lords and allowed to travel again in the TARDIS. It's important to know that this is the Third Doctor's first journey with the TARDIS with his companion Jo. They are attempting to go to a planet called Metebelis Three when they end up on a ship in the Indian Ocean called the SS Bernice. They try to hide from the occupants of the ship but are arrested as stowaways. There is also an incongruous appearance of a dinosaur outside the ship. Eventually time resets and they find themselves rearrested by the same ship members who don't remember their previous encounters.
This "time loop" is a common story technique but it's used effectively here. The Doctor and Jo are stuck on the ship trying to figure out why time is repeating and why there are monsters appearing that shouldn't be in that time. Meanwhile, we are seeing intercut scenes of a traveling carnival-type showman, Vorg and his assistant, Shirna. The two entertainers are on the planet Inter Minor and under arrest by three members of the planet's security. It's only by the end of the episode that we figure out that the Doctor and Jo are actually inside Vorg and Shirna's Miniscope. It's a machine that keeps miniature versions of people in different worlds inside to be viewed on different planets almost like a small zoo.
The story gets off to a confusing start as the viewer tries to get a feel for what is happening. But once it's clear how the two stories intersect, there's a nice flow to the episodes. There's the story of the Doctor and Jo figuring out that they are in a machine and escaping into other worlds in the machine. Then there's Vorg and Shirna trying to deal with the Tribunal on the planet and fix their machine before it explodes. The addition of a time element gives the story some needed suspense. Escaping to what they think is outside the machine, the Doctor and Jo are just into a different world and are soon attacked by monsters called Drashigs who follow them back into the workings of the machine.
There's a late addition of a story involving the Tribunal trying to let the Drashigs out of the machine to cause a rebellion on the planet. This story lacks credibility mostly because of the terribly placed bald caps on the heads of the Tribunal. Bad costumes on a monster are easily forgiven in the series, but a low-budget job on a bald cap (one that even moves noticeably at one point) makes it hard to take seriously. The Doctor is able to escape the machine and then has to return to save Jo. The climax is a great payoff for sticking through the four-episode story - with escaped Drashigs and the Doctor trying to save Jo before the machine blows up and Vorg and Shirna trying to escape the planet before the Tribunal causes a rebellion.
The two-disc set includes two audio commentaries - one with Katy Manning (Jo) and producer Barry Letts (the more interesting of the two) and one with Peter Halliday (one of the aliens, Pletrac) and Cheryl Hall (Shirna) and Jenny McCracken (Claire from the ship). There's a different edit of Episode Two, a different ending, and some interesting shorts including "The A-Z Of Gadgets and Gizmos", "Destroy All Monsters!" (a making of) and "Mary Celeste" (discussing famous historical disappearances like the ship). These extras are mostly for super fans. But they also help the casual fan understand some of the more subtle points of the show that are lost in the effort to tell the stories concisely.
Overall this is a very entertaining entry in the Doctor Who canon. There's a creative use of what could be tired stories. These ideas are repeats of some great stories from The Twilight Zone and other late-Sixties sources. But they are combined in a every entertaining way. I like this Doctor and it's nice to see a more traditional Science Fiction story. I think even the most casual fan will be up to speed with at least the basics very quickly. And work through the first episode - there's a fun payoff for the remaining three. Another great entry in the series makes me excited for other Pertwee releases.