❉ Sil the Mentor is – to use Smash Hits lingo, back, back, BACK!
It’s not easy bein’ green, Muppet ringleader Kermit famously lamented. But there’s been no better time to be the scaly geezer from Thoros Beta… After years in the Doctor Who wilderness, Sil the Mentor is – to use Smash Hits lingo, back, back, BACK!
The second (and for my money, best) of Sil’s two appearances in the series recently enjoyed reappraisal as part of BBC Studios’ jam-packed Blu-ray box set release of Season 23, and now Wholigans can catch up with Sil after the events of Mindwarp in Reeltime Pictures’ latest drama, Sil and the Devil Seeds of Arodor.
This title should hit big with those fans who love 21st Century Who in all its widescreen, mini-movie slickness but will always have an unfashionable soft spot for the charms of old-school, studio-bound, 4×25 minute Doctor Who, as it’s that nostalgic format that Reeltime has adopted for this title. It even boasts a pleasingly ‘80s retro synth score by Alistair Lock reminiscent of the Saward era.
The cast boasts some familiar faces from the show’s past – not just Nabil Shaban himself, reprising the role of Sil with real relish, but also reuniting Sophie Aldred with two of her Season 26 co-stars, Survival’s Sakuntala Ramanee and the great Janet Henfrey, best known to Who fans from The Curse of Fenric and more recently 2014’s Mummy On The Orient Express and a veteran character actor and a familiar face from all manner of British television since the 1960s. It’s good to see her again, and her austere, foreboding countenance makes her perfectly cast as Sil’s one-person judge and jury, as he is taken to task on a lunar way-station for his part in marketing and profiting from the titular ‘Devil Seed’, a powerful toxic drug (shades of Blakes 7: Shadow and Doctor Who: Nightmare on Eden, both from 1979). We also welcome back not-so-Young-One Christopher Ryan as Kiv’s superior, Lord Kiv.
Here, the main draw of this drama is the opportunity to see Nabil Shaban reprise his role as Sil, in a script by his creator, Philip Martin, and he’s exactly as vain, selfish, arrogant, conceited and weak-willed as we remember him.
Of all the original villains our favourite Time Lord faced during the ‘80s, Sil was the most memorable for a number of reasons. Philip Martin scripted a character whose greed, selfishness and vanity was a pitch-perfect satire of ‘80s hypercapitalism that is, depressingly, still relevant now; in the casting of Sil, actor Nabil Shaban made the role entirely his own, embracing and enlarging every character quirk such as his ability to spin on a dime, Basil Fawlty-like, from pompous arrogance to wheedling, pathetic deference, transcending a character outline that, in black-and-white on paper, could be dismissed as a rehash of Henry Woolf’s Collector from The Sun Makers.
Shaban is well-served by Martin’s script, reminding us exactly why Sil was worthy of a comeback, placing him in a series of situations where this amoral, unscrupulous, larger-than-life character has to continually use his wits for self-preservation; whether attempting to bribe the oafish Guards (Jim Conway and John Michael Rooke), fending himself from the manipulative ministrations of Sophie Aldred’s Mistress Na; or casually and callously handwaving away Henfrey’s Adjudicator’s prosecution.
Some of the most enjoyable scenes come when Sil is reunited with his former boss, Lord Kiv, whose latest mind-swap finds him in the body of the bloke who used to play Mike in The Young Ones. With the recent opportunity to revisit the two characters via the Season 23 Blu-ray collection, it’s impressive to see just how seamlessly Ryan recaptures Kiv’s measured tones.
There’s a bizarre ambiguity at the heart of one’s enjoyment of this drama, inasmuch as it’s one thing to relish seeing the supervillain steal the show and enjoy their wickedness in a story where it’s assured that the Doctor will swing in and hoist them by their own petard in the third and final act – this is a showcase for Martin and Shaban’s creation, complete with a rather captivating ten-minute, one-take monologue for Shaban that you certainly wouldn’t find in a typical new series episode, and as one of those bad guys you can’t help enjoying spending time with as a viewer, you’re effectively in the default position of wanting the villain of the piece (especially a cartoon grotesque like Sil) to win the day, rather than get his comeuppance – even after a scene, going for pathos, where Sil is faced directly with the very human result of his drug dealing. But it’s okay – this isn’t Ken Loach social realism and all the better for it.
For this Wholigan, what Reeltime Pictures have done is produced an affectionate recreation of a long-gone era of Doctor Who and TV drama making, and they’re to be applauded for their efforts. In the age of the gig economy it takes real resourcefulness to put anything on the screen without heavyweight support, and while there’s no doubt that by industry standards this a modest production, you can see where every penny has gone – the CGI moonscape sequences are admirably well achieved, and the new, stylised variation of Sil’s latex green carapace is a triumph. British telefantasy fans of a certain age will also get some warm feels from one particular piece of set design that made its debut in 1972’s The Mutants before being brought of storage more times than Bruce Forsyth’s hairpiece – BBC designer Richard Bear’s vacuum-moulded tetrahedron walls deserve an IMDb page of their own; you’ll recognise them from countless episodes of Who and Blakes 7, not to mention the likes of Captain Zep and The Adventure Game.
For some time now, Keith Barnfather’s Reeltime Pictures have been producing independently-made small-screen dramas utilising characters and actors from the world of Doctor Who through a pioneering spirit powered by resourcefulness, ambition, affection and goodwill – and if that doesn’t sum up what the spirit of Doctor Who is about, I don’t know what else does.
❉ Koch Media Presents ‘Sil and the Devil Seeds of Arodor’ on Limited Edition Blu-ray and DVD. Certificate: PG. Runtime: 100 mins plus 50 mins special features. Order now from Amazon.