CLASSIC WHO IN REVIEW: “Carnival of Monsters” (1973)

Dylan gets in on the Doctor Who countdown with a Jon Pertwee favourite. 

What I’ve always liked about Doctor Who is that it doesn’t always have to take on the most epic of subject matters. In exploring the universe, it accepts the fact that many of its billions of inhabitants live humdrum lives. You can build drama about the minutiae happening on another planet, purely because it is another planet. 1973’s four-part “Carnival of Monsters” by Robert Holmes is a classic example of that. Although it sounds like one of corniest serials in Doctor Who history, what emerges is a story with real depth and drama, without ever leaving what is essentially an interplanetary airport.

The plot follows The Doctor (Jon Pertwee) and Jo Grant (Katy Manning) as they arrive in what is seemingly a ship in a 1920’s Pacific Ocean. They soon discover they have landed in a “Miniscope”, a machine by a pair of entertainers, that displays different creatures caught from across the galaxy. From there, he must find a way out, before they are trapped in the contraption forever…

This is seventies Who in all its glory. The aliens and sets are more like something from a glam rock performance than another world. However, with several landscapes and societies explored along the way, it creates one of the strongest senses of a multi-societal universe in the period. One way it does this is by bringing in several different strands of plot and ideas together. Alongside The Doctor and Jo’s adventure, you have the tribulations of the entertainers, and the politics of the planet they have landed on. They are exacerbated with everything from not having the right permit to being accused of being spies in an interplanetary war. It adds an excellent B-story to the serial, and you spend as much time rooting for the aliens as for The Doctor.

It manages to kick-off quickly as well. One of the problems with Who from this period is that the first ten-minutes of an episode are spent wondering through a gravel pit/forest before the main plot is revealed. In the first fifteen-minutes, including The Doctor and Jo, you have creatures from six different timestreams or societies, and it gives the series a pace severely lacking from others in this period. In the quieter moments, genuine effort is spent expanding the mythology and technicalities of everything in the episode. Even the Drashigs, which are essentially giant worms that roar, have a backstory. Bear in mind these “outside the machine” sections could easily be nothing more than bookends in a vaguely sci-fi setting. It has class differences, philosophical outlooks, and different personalities that improve the depth dramatically. This is not a serial with goodies versus baddies in a take over the world  situation. They are just different people forced together through a series of coincidences, and all of them have different motivations throughout the serial.

The whole “Carnival of Monsters” concept never gets too silly either compared to, say, “The Greatest Show in the Galaxy”, which explores an intergalactic circus. It manages to keep it straight, and let the plot flow and expand from the premise. One real success is that it offers a different perspective on humans, rarely seen in the Whoniverse, that refers to them as “Tilurians”, little more than goldfish in a jar.

This is thrown in with a “time resetting” concept that adds a whole new level of interest to the Miniscope machine. The implications of humans having to live a section of their life in a time loop is strong enough for a serial in itself, but here it forms only one part of a wider picture. Science fiction can work so well if a simple concept, in this case a machine that collects and displays different creatures from across the universe, is explored in depth, and this is a fine example of that. This allows The Doctor and Jo to be threatened from many different angles, be it the owners of the machine, the creatures in it, or the machine itself. Combined with the TARDIS going missing, the constant threat from the bureaucracy of the planet, and the machine they’re stuck on, and you have real sci-fi drama here. It just goes to show that good Doctor Who does not have to be about the highest stakes; sometimes it is far more important to boil down a strong idea into pure drama.

Doctor Who production values could never be described as excellent back then, but within this stretch of the programme, they created one of the more convincing worlds. The setting manages to use great sets and real-world locations and bounce them off each other effectively. I am not going to say that the special effects and make-up remain impressive, but each locale has a different feel which improves the story significantly. When everything starts to crash into each other from the third episode onwards, the ambience that has been built-up makes it genuinely inventive and exciting. Weird one I know, but it kind of reminded me of the conclusion to Thor: The Dark World, albeit on a much smaller scale.

Pertwee was always an excellent Doctor, one that would slip into Nu-Who without much trouble, as would Manning’s Jo. This more “uncular” relationship was an excellent model for Calpadi’s Twelfth Doctor to follow, and even the moments of violence work as well. There are points where The Doctor literally punches his way out of trouble, something that seems bizarre in the pacifistic modern age. On a side note, it is nice to see Ian Marter in a cameo before he took on the mantle of Harry Sullivan (see next time’s “Genesis of the Daleks”), playing what is essentially the same character – you can easily see why he got cast! This excellence carries on to the supporting faces. Considering there are around ten major characters including The Doctor and Jo, all of them manage to hold their own in terms of personality and charm.

I don’t want to get too much into the psychological depth of an episode where one of the characters has a jacket that looks like it was made out of Party Rings, but “Carnival of Monsters” is an excellent mash-up of what works about Doctor Who. It manages to bring together humanity, anthropomorphic aliens, terrifying monsters, and bizarre locations all in one, without the plot ever becoming too complex. Whilst there might be more famous Third Doctor episodes, personally, I think this is one of the most underrated. This is one of the more interesting, well-written serials of classic Who, and for those looking to get into the original, “Carnival…” is an excellent four-parter to spend your time on…

Dylan Spicer

Dylan graduated from Brighton Film School and and went on to complete an MA in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University. He has worked on award-winning short and feature films. He is currently experimenting with Narradu Memories, and his online audio drama giantcannibals.co.uk.

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