Home : Archive : TSV 41-50 : TSV 44 : Review

Carnival of Monsters

Reviewed by Paul Scoones

The Jon Pertwee era is perhaps best remembered for UNIT, the Master, alien invasions, and a high level of action. In this respect Carnival of Monsters is unconventional, and marks the changing formula of the programme in Season Ten following three seasons largely compromised of contemporary Earth-bound tales.

Minorians and Lurmans

A slight twist on the typical Pertwee storyline involving humans facing alien invasion occurs early in the story when the Minorian Officials refer to Vorg and Shirna as 'aliens', (which of course they are to them), and later suspect them of intending to invade Inter Minor.

To us, the Minorians - both the 'Official species' and the slave-like Functionaries - are alien, whilst Vorg and Shirna, although Lurman and not human (or 'Tellurians' as humans are referred to in this story), are certainly 'human' in both appearance and mannerisms. Throughout the first three episodes Vorg and Shirna are in effect a surrogate Doctor and Jo through whom the viewer 'experiences' events on Inter Minor. This point of comparison is touched upon in Episode Four when the Doctor is introduced to the pair.

The Minorians are evidently a very dull and officious society judging by what little we see of it, and this is rather subtly reflected in the grey colouring of their skin, hair and clothes. In contrast the Lurmans are anything but dull. At first they are also clothed in grey, but once they strip off their spacesuit-like outfits, they are brightly clothed and decorated entertainers.

Kalik's plans to overthrow his brother, the unseen but much mentioned President Zarb, fails to engender any interest. This subplot seems to serve no other purpose than to facilitate the escape of the Drashigs, and ultimately provide Vorg with an opportunity to earn the respect and acceptance of the Minorian government.

The Minorian tribunal is petty, procrastinating and officious, but we only realise just how much so when the Doctor arrives on the scene to tell them off. The Pertwee era is loaded with scenes of the Doctor displaying his contempt for petty bureaucracy and although this story is no exception, for once his words are not directed against the Brigadier, scientists or British politicians.


Many Pertwee stories feature an ethical undercurrent regarding the treatment of other races or the environment, with the Doctor representing the high moral ground in his crusade to see justice done. In this respect Carnival of Monsters is no exception.

At the outset it would appear that the moral wrong-doing that will be put right by the Doctor's intervention is the treatment of the Functionaries on Inter Minor, but this is not in fact the case. References are made to the Functionaries' unrest and refusal to work. At the beginning of the story a Functionary dares to ascend to a higher level - perhaps metaphorically as well as literally - apparently protesting at his working conditions, but he is gunned down by Kalik without hesitation, and judging by fellow Minorian Official Orum's reaction, it is apparent that this brutal treatment is completely acceptable. The Officials' contempt for the Functionaries is expressed in Orum's line 'They've no sense of responsibility; give them a hygiene chamber and they store fossil fuel in it' is an adaptation of a famous quote from Britain's General Strike of 1926 (perhaps not coincidentally the same year in which the SS Bernice scenario is set), which expressed a similar lack of respect for the working class: 'Give the miner a bath and he'll store coal in it.'

Retrospectively, it is odd that this aspect of the plot has no resolution, and that the Doctor does not even appear to be aware of the Functionaries' plight, let alone do anything to assist. There is no reason to assume, despite Kalik's failed attempt to reverse President Zarb's new policy of allowing contact with other worlds, that things will change for the proletariat on Inter Minor. This is a far cry from another Robert Holmes story of a few years later, The Sun Makers, in which the Doctor does nothing but bring about a proletarian revolution.

Human Zoo

The moral question which the Doctor addresses in this story concerns the ethics of keeping caged animals in a zoo for the entertainment of others, as represented by Vorg's Miniscope. Shortly after lambasting the Minorian Officials, the Doctor has equally strong words of criticism for Vorg when the Lurman refers to the creatures trapped within the Miniscope as livestock: 'The collection of the simplest animal life-forms is a dubious enough pursuit in itself, but the collection of civilised intelligent beings is a positive crime! Let me tell you that I intend to put an end to this shameful business!' Earlier in the story, the Doctor likens the Miniscope to an ant colony, a peepshow and a rock pool, and tells Jo that he managed to get the scopes banned by the Time Lord High Council as 'an offence against the dignity of sentient life forms.'

The Miniscope also gives rise to some tongue-in-cheek references to television itself. When Vorg says that the scope contains not recordings but 'good old fashioned live entertainment', he might as well be referring to theatre performances or live-to-air television. Shirna's comment when she discovers that the scope's visual circuits have been damaged by the eradicator gun, 'Who's going to pay good credits to see a blob in a snow storm?' takes on a whole new meaning in light of the (illegal) practice of fans purchasing nth generation fuzzy video recordings of Doctor Who episodes.

Altered Perceptions

The 'Circuit Three' scenes on the SS Bernice ultimately serve as one just example of the 'civilised intelligent beings' kept in unwitting captivity within the scope. The fantastical incongruousness of opening a hatch on a cargo ship on the Indian Ocean in 1926 and stepping out into a futuristic environment may have been a novel idea in the early Seventies, but for viewers familiar with the holodeck in Star Trek: The Next Generation, this is nothing out of the ordinary. The failure of the passengers and crew of the cargo ship to recognise certain aspects of their environment such as the deck plates is intriguing, as is the unexplained presence of the pleisosaurus within their time zone.

A group of characters trapped into repeating a set pattern of actions and dialogue (five times in the course of the story by my count) is a disturbing concept reminiscent of something out of Sapphire and Steel. A nice yet subtle touch is the two instances when Claire Daly seems to be almost at the point of perceiving the repetitive nature of their existence.

The Doctor's refusal to believe that they are on Earth seems initially ill-founded given the early absence of clues to suggest that they might be anywhere else. The Doctor is apparently almost certain that they are on Metebelis Three, or at least on a neighbouring planet, right up until the beginning of Episode Four when he learns that he is actually on Inter Minor. It is unintentionally amusing to see the Doctor arguing with Jo over whether they are on Earth or not when crates clearly marked 'Bombay' are stacked behind them, and the Doctor appears to be completely serious when he attempts to communicate with the chickens, reasoning that they might be an alien life form. On this occasion, Jo is right; the chickens are chickens, and for a time it seems (for the uninitiated viewer at least) as if she is also right about their location.

Poor Effects?

The story is sometimes criticised for its poor CSO effects, and whilst certain scenes are quite badly composed, particularly the Episode One cliffhanger in which Vorg removes the TARDIS from the ship's hold, on the whole the story does not suffer unduly in this respect.

The often maligned Drashigs are impressive when depicted bursting out of the swamp or through bulkhead walls, helped by the excellent sound effects of their hideous screams and the effective use of slowed-down footage, giving an illusion of great size. It is only when the Drashigs appear CSO-ed into shots with actors that the illusion is diminished.

Extended Version

The inclusion of the extended Episode Two on the video release is a bonus, though viewers might feel a little cheated to discover that a lengthy portion of one of the additional scenes on Inter Minor also appears in Episode One. Although purists would be up in arms at the idea, I can't help thinking that it might have been wise, to maintain a consistent flow to the story, for BBC Video to have removed the portion from Episode One which properly belongs in Episode Two. As it is, we see Chairman Pletrac converse with the Lurmans in Episode One then approach them for the first time (prior to the repeat of this segment) in Episode Two.

The other aspect of the 'alternative' Episode Two is of course the reworked theme music. In my opinion it was a wise move not to adopt this version back in 1972 as it is completely lacking in the dramatic 'mysteriousness' that makes the Seventies Doctor Who theme music so memorable.

The BBC Video version also contains an alternative Episode Four however this will not be welcomed by fans as it is missing part of the final scene. Although, this missing material in no way detracts from the sense of the story, it is nonetheless a mild irritation. Although BBC Video used this cut version in error, it is hard to see why the edit was justified. Sure enough, Pletrac's headpiece was slipping, but it is not nearly as noticeable as some other 'flaws' within the production - such as Jo's clean, dry trousers in scenes immediately after she is up to her waist in swamp water.

Carnival of Monsters might not be quite worthy of 'classic' status, but it is still an entertaining and surprisingly innovative adventure deserving of fresh appraisal.

That Cut Scene

Part of the last scene is missing from episode four of the recent BBC Video release. The unedited end of the last scene is transcribed here, with the cut sequence in italics:

VORG: ... Now I move them very, very slowly, now watch.
VORG: Watch carefully. Are you watching? You tell me which pod you think the seed is under.
PLETRAC: The middle one.
VORG: The middle one. You wouldn't like to wager say, er, a couple of credit bars on your judgement, would you?
PLETRAC: Certainly. One will wager two credit bars that the seed is under the middle pod. One can hardly discredit the evidence of one's eyes.
VORG: (LIFTS POD) Oh, you're unlucky.
PLETRAC: One was obviously too hasty. One will not make the same mistake a second time.
VORG: Another little wager?
PLETRAC: Five credit bars - no, ten!
VORG: Whatever you say, Pletrac. (TAKES THE CREDIT BARS) Thank you! You know, I'm going to like it here. You remind me of the Wallarians, you know. They're great sportsmen too! There we are...

DOCTOR: I don't think we need worry too much about our friend Vorg.
JO: He'll probably wind up President!
VORG: ... Very, very slowly like that, now keep watching! Now, you tell me which pod you think the seed is under. I'm giving you a chance to...

This item appeared in TSV 44 (June 1995).

Index nodes: Carnival of Monsters