His exile over, the Doctor planned to use his first post-exile self-piloted trip in the TARDIS to visit Metabelis 3. However, he and Jo end up on the SS Bernice, somewhere in the Indian Ocean. They are caught and held as stowaways, but manage to escape, only to find that no-one on the ship remembers them, resulting in them being recaptured multiple times. And everyone seems to repeat the things they said and did only ten minutes before. If this wasn’t strange enough, a Plesiosaurus rises from the ocean, causing panic on board the ship.
Meanwhile, on the planet Inter Minor, members of the ruling class oversee the arrival of their first alien visitors since opening up to foreigners. The two Lermans, Vorg and Shirna are “entertainers,” and the main feature of their act is a miniscope, which they brought with them. This device contains miniaturized life forms from various galaxies, which can be viewed in their habitats on a screen. Among their collection is a vessel containing “Tellurians”–people from Earth. Only there seem to be a couple of extra Tellurians roaming around inside the miniscope…
SPOILER ALERT!! My comments may (and likely will) contain spoilers for those that haven’t seen this serial. If you want to stay spoiler-free, please watch the story before you continue reading!
At the end of “The Three Doctors” (the previous serial), as a thank-you for saving their planet (and the rest of the universe), the Time Lords release the Doctor from his exile. At last, the production team are free from the shackles of Earth imposed on the show by their predecessors at the end of the 60s! This story, therefore, marks the first time the Doctor has flown the TARDIS himself, unaided by the Time Lords, since 1969.
“Carnival of Monsters” was broadcast over January and February of 1973, and was written by Robert Holmes, his first Doctor Who script since “Terror of the Autons” in 1971. I’ve probably said this before, many times, but I consider Robert Holmes to be the finest Doctor Who script writer of the classic series, perhaps one of the best in the show’s history period. And he doesn’t disappoint with this imaginative and well-written story. The idea of the Doctor and Jo trapped inside a carnival peep show along with other “specimens” is irresistible. But Holmes doesn’t stop there. The people of Inter Minor are not all like-minded. In fact, we see shades of opinon, from the president, who wants to open the planet up to alien visitors, to some of his highest officials–including his own son–who disapprove quite strongly. These dissenters consider aliens to be lesser creatures, and resent having to treat them with respect. They conspire to have the Lermans deported, but then hit upon a new scheme that would discredit the president and have one of them succeed him.
It was not uncommon for Who writers in the 1970s to draw upon current events for their stories. On January 1, 1973, the UK’s 1971 Immigration Act came into force, giving opportunity to Commonwealth citizens to live and work in the UK. That same day, the UK joined the EEC, or the European Economic Community, often referred to as the “Common Market”–a precursor to the modern European Union. Those opposed to these measures feared foreign labor taking the jobs of natural-born Brits, and the loss of British independence. I don’t doubt these things influenced Holmes as he developed the script for “Carnival.”
Despite the budget and technology of the time, I think the design and production team did about as well as they could for this story. The set depicting the interior of the miniscope works well, and even the Drashigs are about as monstrous a monster can be when you don’t have the luxury of animatronics and CGI.
The cast of characters Holmes developed are nuanced and well-conceived. Vorg is the consummate showman, willing to bluff his way through any situation, and always on the look-out for a patsy to con with the old “three magum pods and a yarrow seed” trick. Shirna, his young assistant, is a willing accomplice, though she has more of a conscience, and will eventually tell the truth, especially when it’s evident Vorg’s lies aren’t working. The three Inter Minor leaders we encounter, Kalik, Orum, and Pletrac, are not of the same mind. Kalik is the conniver, scheming his way to power, while Pletrac wants to play by the rules.
This serial sees the Doctor make use of his sonic screwdriver to ignite gas to scare away Drashigs. However, when Jo suggests he use it to escape the ship’s cabin, he tells her it only works on electronic locks. In future Doctor who stories, the Doctor will lament that the sonic screwdriver won’t work on wood.
A few other things of note. The Cybermen make a brief appearance as one of the creatures in the miniscope. This is one of only two appearances they make in the Third Doctor’s era, the other being as a hallucinatory image in “The Mind of Evil.” Terrance Dicks has made no secret of the fact that he hates the Cybermen, which explains their absence during his time as script editor. Finally, in a scene where the Doctor is working on the miniscope, Vorg turns to Shirna and says, “You know, Shirna, he could lose that nose of his just like that.” Holmes will write another reference to the Third Doctor’s nose in “The Time Warrior.” Clearly he thought it quite a distinguishing feature! 🙂
This is must-see Who, if only because it’s Robert Holmes, and I think every Whovian should be familiar with all of Holmes’ stories. But it also happens to be a great four-parter, well worth your time.