This review contains only moderate SPOILERS for “Dreamland”…
Written by: Phil Ford
Directed by: Gary Russell
For those of you who missed “Dreamland” on its episodic red button and internet airings, we can thoroughly recommend you catch the full 45-minute version airing on BBC2 at 10am this Saturday. Okay, it's in the CBBC slot, but don’t let that put you off. Because in a year of Doctor Who specials this little gem deserves to be embraced as every bit as special as its live action counterparts.
And that's saying something, considering the CG animation is, to put it politely, basic. Arguably it's not even as good as Reboot, and that finished nearly ten years ago. But “Dreamland” is a perfect example of that old adage that a decent story is more important than flashy visuals. A hugely entertaining romp liberally sprinkled with some killer one-liners (which we won’t spoil here because they're a big part of the fun), it feels like a Pertwee adventure given an RTD spit and polish. Oh yes, as the Doctor would say, underground bases, lots of running and plenty of chances for our errant Time Lord to deflate pompous military authority.
The basic idea is so appealingly perfect for Doctor Who it’s surprising it's never been done before – the Doctor visits Roswell in the ’50s at the height of UFObia. Okay, the show has only rarely filmed overseas in its 46-year history, but that’s never stopped them setting shows abroad. But thankfully they never did an Area 51 story, leaving the way open for “Dreamland”, which exploits the idea inventively and colourfully.
So when the TARDIS lands near a diner in the deserts of New Mexico, circa 1958, the Doctor steps out to find the US Army has formed an uneasy alliance with an insectoid race named the Viperox. But when the Doctor also discovers an imprisoned alien from another race (who looks like your typical alien grey, of course) he uncovers the Viperox’s real reasons for being on Earth.
It’s hardly the most complex story, but as the basis for a fast-moving, action-packed, plot-led animated 45 minutes it fits the bill perfectly, especially if taken in the spirit of being a homage to ’50s B-movies. It’s cheesy in places, sure, but gloriously so, and while the character animation may be poor, the actual backgrounds and designs evoke the place and period perfectly (as one person amusingly said on the SFX forum: “I preferred the animation in the stills!”).
Phil Ford, who wrote for the CG Captain Scarlet, seems to know exactly how to marshall the material into a pacy narrative, and proves that he has a great knack for writing Doctor Ten dialogue. And even people who loathe the overuse of the sonic screwdriver will have to admit that here it‘s a great piece of scriptwriting shorthand to let the story just get on with the action.
It’s not flawless. The animation on the human characters is stiff and awkward; facially there’s less going on than with Thunderbird puppets, and Tennant’s hair looks irritatingly like Plasticine. When they walk in full-length shots they look like moonwalking skaters. Luckily the spirited vocal performances and script largely overcome this problem, and the Viperox, being insectoid, get away with the jerky movements.
The two companions are also a bit wasted. Diner waitress Cassie Rice and Native American Jimmy Stalkingwolf are there purely to allow the Doctor to have someone to explain the plot to most of the time. They get something more useful to do in the final couple of episodes, and Jimmy’s heritage does come into play at one point, but it would have been nice to have Cassie more connected to the events in some way.
Better than the rather convoluted "The Infinite Quest", “Dreamland” worked perfectly as a series of short episodes. If you watch the stitched together TV version, you’ll miss the fun of some riveting cliffhangers, but don’t let that put you off. In any format, “Dreamland” is a massively entertaining 45 minutes of trad Who with New Who bells on.
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