Doctor Who #336: Carnival of Monsters Part 1

"Our purpose is to amuse, simply to amuse. Nothing serious, nothing political." "Amusement is prohibited. It's purposeless."
TECHNICAL SPECS: This story is available on DVD, both in standard and Special Edition formats. First aired Jan.27 1973.

IN THIS ONE... The TARDIS seems to materialize on a ship in the Indian Ocean. On a gray planet, colorful entertainers try to show off their wares.

REVIEW: The last time Robert Holmes (writer) and Barry Letts (director) collaborated, it gave us Terror of the Autons. Carnival of Monsters has all the makings of the same kind of serial, that is to say, a number of comic book-y set pieces strung together in a makeshift plot. The TARDIS has landed in some kind of collection of objects, people and monsters from around time and space, and without looking ahead (and obviously, I've seen Carnival before), you can guess a lost ship from the 1920s stuck in a time loop and attacked by a plesiosaur, isn't the last such set piece we're likely to get. The cool cliffhanger with a giant hand reaching in as if from the 4th dimension and grabbing the TARDIS is another wonderful comic book image as well. More crazy stuff under that strange metal plate, you can be sure of that. But is it an engaging structure?

On top of that is a completely separate thread on an alien planet that's actually quite well realized. The architecture, the models, the costumes, the backdrops, are all some of the best the series has yet seen made for a "future" setting. Yes, the Lurmans' costumes are outrageously silly, but damn it, they WORK. Vorg and Shirna are clearly circus folk and their colorful duds clash brilliantly with the planet's gray natives, both its functionaries and its "official species". These scenes best show off Holmes' developing talent, both in its creation of comic double acts in both species, and in his send-up of a stifling, unimaginative bureaucracy. The Lurmans' machine hasn't been turned on yet, but the satire on television entertainment is already under way. Here is a society where entertainment is outlawed, pending its re-intruduction if the meeting with the Lurmans goes well, and its inarticulate masses, lacking an opiate, are rising against their masters. If the Doctor and Jo are inside the TV machine, then that time loop on the ship is a direct attack on the medium's repetitiveness. Attacking TV on a TV show is dangerous business. Can Holmes pull it off?

It's rather too bad that the Doctor and Jo aren't part of the satire, but rather inside the meta-textually criticized, "packaged" story. Sure, the Doctor gets to jokingly say he's never wrong and kind of mean it anyway, and Jo produces her skeleton keys to get them out of trouble. And yeah, we get Ian Marter's first appearance on the series, just not yet as Harry Sullivan. But we're all just waiting for the two story threads to tie together, and unfortunately, it's the Doctor-Jo thread that tries one's patience. The redundancy is part of it, because there's nothing really clever done with the repetition, but it's also the mundane setting (dinosaur or not) and flimsy soap elements the guest characters are caught in. The imagination is all in the other thread.

REWATCHABILITY: Medium - Creative alien planet and the beginning of some nice satire, but the Doctor and Jo are trapped in a lackluster scenario. That it's part of the point doesn't really help, not after a single episode.



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