Tuesday, June 2, 2015

"Carnival of Monsters"

Aired Jan. 27 - Feb. 17, 1973

4 Episodes

Story 66

Written by: Robert Holmes

Directed by: Barry Letts


The TARDIS materializes in the hold of a cargo ship called the SS Bernice, apparently crossing the Indian Ocean in 1926. They soon discover that the ship and all its passengers aren't on Earth, but rather have been abducted, miniaturized and put inside a Miniscope, a high-tech peepshow collection of life-forms. This Miniscope is owned by down-at-the-heels entertainers Vorg and Shirna, who have arrived on the planet Inter Minor in the hopes of setting up a profitable show for the xenophobic inhabitants.

Managing to escape the section of the Miniscope that houses the Bernice, the Doctor and Jo wander through the innards of the device from one exhibit to another, encountering along the way, the fiercely ravenous beasts known as Drashigs. Along the way, the Doctor tells Jo about the history of the Miniscopes, and how he was instrumental in persuading the Time Lords to ban the devices and round them up, though this one must have been missed.

Meanwhile, on Inter Minor, three bureaucrats plot to overthrow the planet's ruler, conspiring to sabotage the Miniscope, releasing the life-forms inside to wreak havoc. In the ensuing chaos, they will push for a change in leadership.

However, the Doctor manages to escape the scope and return to full size. Confronting Vorg and Shirna, he tries to rescue Jo from inside before the machine breaks down completely thanks to the machinations of the Inter Minorians.

The Doctor links the scope to the TARDIS in the hope of returning all the exhibits to their home planets and eras, but the Drashigs do mange to escape and begin wreaking havoc. Vorg uses a Minorian weapon to kill the rampaging beasts, and the Doctor's efforts prove successful. Jo materializes outside the scope, and she and the Doctor leave in the TARDIS.


After having contributed no stories for the 9th season, Robert Holmes comes roaring back with this unmitigated triumph, the first true masterpiece he wrote for the series, though not the last. 

Carnival of Monsters is a satire through and through; of bureaucracy, of racial bigotry, of the English class system. But most cuttingly and brilliantly of all it is a satire of television in general. The central idea is that all of television is just a Miniscope, a cheap and tawdry amusement where a collection of creatures go through the same motions and scenes over and over for our entertainment. In this story, the Doctor and Jo are pursued by monsters through what appears to be an analogue for a television, and the people watching are indicted for enjoying their plight. 

This kind of metatextual commentary was rare for the series, but in the hands of Holmes, it never overwhelms the adventure plot. The Doctor and Jo's journey to freedom is exciting enough to be enjoyed by the kiddies, while the older kids and Mom and Dad could have a chuckle at all the piss he's taking out of the very series and network he's writing for. 

You also get a brilliant double-act in Vorg and Shrina, plus a triple act in Pletrac, Kalik and Orum. The entire cast plays their parts perfectly, with a full knowledge of the tone and tenor Holmes is striving for. Also, Barry Letts proves once again that he's a solid director when he's got a good script from which to work. The design of the story is very nice, gaudy when it needs to be, but understated and lovely when in the more realistic settings. The Drashigs are extremely well-done. They're obviously puppets, yes, but being shot predominantly on film and in slow motion helps enormously, and they remain some of the best leviathan-type monsters the show ever attempted.

This is just about as enjoyable Doctor Who as you can find, and certainly among the best of the entire Third Doctor era.

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