Doctor Who DVD box sets are an exercise in compensation. This was released in the almost theme-free box set Earth Story alongside the Gunfighters, the logic going something like this: neither story is a classic, one of them has a particularly poor reputation (The Gunfighters, undeservingly) so slap them together on some pretext and release them together, offering fans a nice discount on the pair. Earth Story is an extreme example but most of the themed box sets work like this.
Thoroughly Modern Who
I watched this DVD one evening straight after the new series episode The Bells Of Saint John and it struck me that, adjusting for the production values of the era, this story would sit pretty well in modern Doctor Who. The most obvious point of comparison is that an old two-parter, minus the credits and titles in the middle, runs to roughly 45 minutes. The comparisons to New Who goes rather deeper than that.
For a start the explanation behind the supernatural Malus is that it's an alien probe that crashed in the village in the 1640s whose purpose was to psychically stir up violence to soften up the population for invasion. The consequence of this was that the village was levelled in the Civil War and the probe somehow damaged so it stopped functioning until Sir George Hutchinson decides to re-enact the battle in 1984. For those playing along at home this is the stereotype Steven Moffat plot of “alien computer pursues its original programming causing dire unintended consequences”.
Our entry point into the story is that Tegan's grandfather lives in the village of Little Hodcombe and she wants to visit. This is, of course, an utterly typical plot device nowadays with whole episodes having been written about Rose's mum, Rory's dad and Martha's whole family amongst others. True, Andrew Verney's disappearance is a minor plot element in the story and is used pretty much just to provide an info-dump at the beginning of the second episode but by classic series standards this gives unusual depth to the life of a companion.
The emotional through-line of the story comes not from Tegan and her grandfather but from a supporting character: Colonel Ben Wolsey. Wolsey is basically a henchman for Sir George Hutchinson. He's played as a reasonable man in counterpoint to Sir George's increasing mania but, crucially, he continues to go along with the games. He voices muted protests now and again in the first episode but takes no action until Sir George orders Tegan burnt at the stake as Queen Of The May.
In the second episode he changes: admits his misgivings, joins the Doctor's side, frees Tegan and in the end takes responsibility for his complicity in the games and confronts Sir George. Crucially, it is this confrontation that puts Sir George in a position to be defeated. Again, we're looking at unusual levels of emotional content here, especially for a supporting character.
The final point of comparison is that there are continuity errors you don't notice because the story moves so fast as Turlough and Jane both comment on conversations they couldn't possibly have overheard (see also the disappearing pirate in The Curse Of The Black Spot).
Who on Earth is Vislor Turlough?
Okay, so next to all this praise for the writing I should mention the one point where the script (and script editing) falls down: Turlough. This is Turlough's seventh story and the first one to be set on contemporary Earth since his introduction in Mawdryn Undead. Turlough is an alien exiled to Earth from an unknown planet for unknown reasons and reacts not at all to being back on the world of his imprisonment, let alone that the agent who used to keep an eye on him might find him. In fact, in the final scene he joins in the chorus of wanting to stay in Little Hodcombe for a while.
It's a small failing in an otherwise very good script, speaking of which...
A Lady of a Certain Age (and a Young Man from Another One)
Mention should be made of two other supporting characters: Jane Hampden and Will Chandler. Jane is the local school teacher and Peter Davison's effective companion for much of the story. She's played as a sceptic in the first episode: she's the only opposition we see to Sir George's war games and she disbelieves the Doctor until she's confronted by the appearance of the Malus. Just as with Todd in Kinda we see how well Peter Davison plays off a more mature female character better than he does with the younger women usually playing his companions. There's an absolutely wonderful scene where the Doctor reaches for the TARDIS door control and Jane casually beats him to it with a smug smile.