Classic SF Series Foresees Reality TV [DVD Review]

The Doctor has promised Jo a holiday on Metebelis 3, but the TARDIS materializes not on the famous blue planet, but in the cargo hold of the SS Bernice, sailing to India in 1926. Despite all appearances, the Doctor insists that they are no longer on Earth, but Jo’s not convinced, at least not until a sea dinosaur attacks the ship…

One has to wonder if writer Robert Holmes was clairvoyant enough to see the dawn of reality television when he scripted Carnival of Monsters.

Even though it’s been 30 years since this Doctor Who adventure was conceived, it almost seems as though it was written as a commentary on the exploitation of people as entertainment.

In this 1973 four-parter, the Doctor (Jon Pertwee) attempts to take his companion Jo Grant (Katy Manning) to Metebelis 3 for a vacation, but instead the TARDIS finds itself on a sailing ship in 1926 on Earth. Of course, as it always happens in Doctor Who, nothing is as it seems, providing an entertaining adventure and some social commentary (albeit unintentional, perhaps) along the way.

“Haven’t you ever been to the zoo? Haven’t you ever kept goldfish in a bowl?” The Doctor asks Jo when he realizes they’ve got trapped in a “minascope” run by the traveling entertainer Vorg.

The Doctor, of course, is outraged that he and other creatures have been pulled from their native environment, miniaturized and obliviously held captive for the entertainment of others.

Carnival of Monsters is constrained by the technology of the era, but it’s still a lot of fun. The guest cast, including Ian Marter (who would go on to play Harry Sullivan) and Michael Wisher (the original Davros), all give fine performances, and the creativity despite the constraints put into the overall production is evident in every scene.

The Doctor Who DVD releases are always chock full of extras, and Carnival of Monsters is no different. The release includes a commentary by Katy Manning and director/producer Barry Letts, both of whom have very vivid and fond memories of the production.

There are also extended, deleted and alternate scenes as well as behind-the-scenes footage with the only disappointments being there are no introductions to provide context.

One particularly good extra feature is the explanation of CSO – color separation overlay – which was no doubt the precursor to blue screen (now green screen) technology now employed by special effects houses such as Industrial Light & Magic.

Ultimately, Carnival of Monsters endures because of its universal themes. Beyond the reality TV parallels, there is also a hint of anti-corporate sentiment, something echoed daily in Dilbert strips and found in the conversations of the alien Minorian officials:

“The latest thinking is that the latest outbreak of violence of the functionaries is caused through lack of amusement.”

“More anti-productive legislation.”

“Where will it end?”

This review originally appeared in the online publications Sci Fi Dimensions and Outpost Gallifrey. Gary Hilson is a writer, editor and digital media specialist for hire. He lives in Toronto.

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