A Time Warrior to India, by Ric Meyers
I like it when the DVDs I review here are similar, but I also really like it when they’re very different. And other than being made by British talents, the DVDs in this edition are about as different as they can get. First, there’s the cultural classic that is A Passage to India. Columbia Pictures decided that marking the 100th anniversary of director David Lean’s birth (March 25, 1908) was a great excuse to remaster three of his films as “2-Disc Collector’s Edition Columbia Classics.” First out of the box is Lean’s final film, a two-hour and forty-four minute “intimate epic” based on E.M. Forster’s lauded novel of the same name.
Lean came at the challenge with a lot to prove. Despite being one of the world’s most respected filmmakers, with an unprecedented run of sweeping successes behind him, the critical thrashing his turgid, half-badly miscast, penultimate film, Ryan’s Daughter, suffered, had sent him reeling into a fourteen year self-imposed exile. He returned to tackle a cerebral, controversial story that many felt was effectively unfilmable, including, according to the DVD’s extras, the author and several actors in the production.
The reaction at the time of its 1984 release ranged from grudging to delirious, though a majority seemed to feel it still wasn’t quite up to his undisputed classics, Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia (the other two films set to be part of this 100th birthday DVD celebration). The passage of time, however, has been great to this particular film, and this new release could do much to elevate its standing, since it’s fascinating, intriguing, beautiful, and in this artificial age of cgi additives, all natural.
The special features are involving, if not as exceptional as the film. They are, at their best, reserved and civilized like the subjects of their interviews. If the producers and actors had been American, there might have been lots of superlatives and hyperbole, but the likes of producer Richard Goodwin, Lean’s young assistant directors, and actors Nigel Havers and James Fox are polite to a fault.
Oscar nominated Judy Davis, who, apparently was something of a pill on set, is referred to as “quite tricky to direct.” The testy, demanding, Lean himself is termed “a bit grumpy.” But, quite rightly, he is also summed up as an “utter perfectionist who wouldn’t accept compromise” – putting him in the company of the greatest directors of all time, such as Stanley Kubrick and Akira Kurosawa.
Once I got into the civilized rhythms of the participants, I found the extras to be a pleasure that left me wanting more. The audio commentary with producer Goodwin is most interesting, with references to history and literature as well as on-set realities. The “making of” is broken into six parts, starting with a short look at the life and work of author E.M. Forster, then into pre-production (including Lean’s year-and-a-half writing the screenplay), the amazing production on location, the jolly mix of new and veteran actors (including the controversial, somewhat jarring, casting of Sir Alec Guinness as an Indian in a film otherwise nearly ethnically accurate), the return to England for studio interiors, and an appreciation of Lean’s life, work, technical, cinematic, and editing skills.
The final special feature, “Reflections of David Lean,” contains clips from an unnamed interview Lean participated in, which concentrates mostly on A Passage to India. It would have been a welcome decision simply to show the entire interview without edits, but this choice is consistent with the reserved approach of the entire endeavor – which includes the observation that the ending of the film is different than the ending of the book … then doesn’t say how (for the record, there is forgiveness at film’s end).
The omissions, however, are mostly overwhelmed by the wealth of revelations in this underrated classic that is worth catching up with, or discovering, depending on your point of entry. The same could arguably said about this coming Tuesday’s American DVD releases from the forty-six year history of England’s greatest television science-fiction icon, Doctor Who. One is a reminder of two great characters about to return, and another is a back-handed compliment to the softest, weakest link in the cosmos-hopping chain.
Timelash is the 142nd story in the series, coming during the era of the sixth, most persecuted, actor to play the regenerating “Time Lord” who tries to make things right in history and the universe. Colin Baker’s tenure in the role was woeful at worst, trying at best, since he was fighting a network and production team who had seemingly come to hate the series and character. The exceptional writing, which had long buoyed the balsa-wood sets and tinsel-wrapped monsters, was missing in action, and the character forced on Colin was purportedly purposely off-putting.
So Timelash could be “enjoyed,” as one reviewer called it, as “Plan 9 from Inner Space,” or as another reviewer “praised” it, “actually not half bad if you’re in the right mood.” In other words, it makes for a great cautionary tale about how a clash of wills can snatch failure from the jaws of victory. One of the best things about these remasterings of even the weakest in the series is that the special feature participants are nearly always willing to call a toad-in-a-hole a toad-in-a-hole, and it’s fun to hear them make lemonade out of what they were faced with.
Colin Baker, co-star Nicola Bryant, and guest star Paul Darrow supply the welcome audio commentary, but the best extra is the half-hour “making of” doc, aptly titled “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,” which goes into detail on the little of the former, the ample middle aspect, and the memorable latter. Rounding out the package is a photo gallery and a fun trivia subtitle track. Of greater interest to the golden Who age fan is The Time Warrior, the 70th story in the series, marking the first episode in the final season for third doctor Jon Pertwee, and the introduction of two integral characters.
First, the villains were The Sontarans, a race of block-headed warrior clones who are about to make their return in the up-coming new season of tenth Doctor David Tennant. But perhaps more important, The Time Warrior introduced the beloved Sarah Jane Smith, a journalist played by Elisabeth Sladen, who not only returned a few years back, but now has her own spin-off series, The Sarah Jane Adventures, which is about to premiere on The Sci-Fi Network. She is a bright addition to the audio commentary, and is joined by producer Barry Letts and writer Terrance Dicks, who supply engrossing information throughout.
Once again, the “making of” doc, “Beginning the End (of Pertwee’s tenure in the role, that is),” is exhaustive and informative, and there’s the customary photos and information subtitles, but given the importance of this story in the continuity, there’s also a cool “Optional Special Effects” feature which allows you to replace the creaky sfx of the original with cutting edge cgi – which makes up in professionalism what they lack in the tacky charm of the original. There are even two Easter Eggs hiding in the time streams, but I’ll let you discover those on your own.
Ric Meyers is the author of Murder On The Air, Doomstar, The Great Science-Fiction Films, Murder in Halruua, For One Week Only: The World of Exploitation Films, Fear Itself, and numerous other books and has (and sometimes still is) on the editorial staff of such publications as Famous Monsters of Filmland, Starlog, Fangoria, Inside Kung-Fu, The Armchair Detective and Asian Cult Cinema. He’s also a television and motion picture consultant whose credits include The Twilight Zone, Columbo, A&E’s Biography and The Incredibly Strange Film Show.