Season 19 – Worst to Best
Christopher Bidmead’s guiding hand as a script editor – and Barry Letts looking over producer John Nathan-Turner’s shoulder – had ensured the final Tom Baker season was high on distinctiveness and quality, even if only about half the previous year’s audience had shown up to witness it. But salvation was at hand, ever so briefly. Peter Davison and a twice-weekly slot garnered a burst of publicity and renewed interest in the show. Ratings soared. Unfortunately, the content was less spectacular, with temporary script editor Anthony Root and then permanent replacement Eric Saward scrabbling about in their attempts to knock Bidmead offcuts and rejects into shape until a firmer footing was established. The consequence is that Season 19 rather yoyos in quality, tone and style, not helped any by a frequently burdensome complement of fresh-faced companions. It’s a year that finds its footing sporadically, but not enough to convince viewers, two million of whom would leave after the final story and never come back…
First and foremost, it’s worth noting this placed above Kinda and Four to Doomsday in the 1982 Doctor Who Monthly season survey, an aberration duly corrected by every subsequent All Time Greats poll. It’s debatable which is the bigger train wreck, though, this or the next Ron Jones story; Arc of Infinity at least could have been serviceable – it ought to have been, given it rips off The Deadly Assassin so studiously – but I have trouble seeing how Time-Flight might have amounted to anything much, even if Peter Grimwade had directed his script himself.
Actually, even if it was never going to be good, there’s a sense that Time-Flight might have been the trippiest thing this side of the early Pertwee era – given to a director with an eye for the psychedelic (Michael Ferguson, say) rather than a predilection for the third rate. Or perhaps the kind of debauched energy of the Williams era would have worked for it. Only a JN-T production could revolve around air travel in such a po-faced fashion two years after Airplane!
Even down a companion – the balance is brought up again by devoting much of the action to a camp flight crew – this is as turgidly talky and static an example of the JN-T era as we’ve seen thus far. Three episodes of static, turgid talkiness. Because the first isn’t actually too bad, for about fifteen minutes anyway, with some nice wintry location footage of Heathrow, the Doctor pulling the UNIT card to avoid detention (continuity that actually feels relevant for a change), and that opening TARDIS scene (“But Adric wouldn’t wish us to mourn unnecessarily – so let’s open the fizz, eh?”)
Grimwade’s grab bag of elements includes a Bermuda Triangle angle by way of The Time Warrior, with an equivalent mindless menace to The Three Doctors’ Gell Guards and simplistic Star Trek-style good/bad alien factions. And two Concordes (one a model). And Adric, Melkur, a Terileptil and a snake thing. And still it isn’t enough to muster interest. Part of that is down to its peculiarly passive radio play quality. In which the “conflict” somehow extends across a four parter but you aren’t really sure how or why, moving as the proceedings do from cramped citadel room to cramped citadel room with a conspicuous lack of urgency.
As is invariably the case, even with lesser directors, Jones’ location work is reasonable, so it’s possibly a shame he didn’t get to shoot Jurassic earth on a blasted heath somewhere. Also helping the first two episodes along slightly is Kalid, who may be “an appalling racist stereotype of a character” (© Elizabeth Sandifer) but is at least antic enough, in his Arabian Bugs Bunny Claymation way, to make Peter Davison corpse. At one point, the Doctor, somehow anticipating an actual magician, suggests “Behind every illusion there’s a conjuror”, but once this cack-handed illusionist’s secret has been revealed, there’s precious little left to hold the attention.
Yeah, the camp flight crew occasionally raise a smile (Nigel Stock may have been a riot, but he’s as stimulating here as he was in The Prisoner). And Ainley’s toupee is mesmerising. And he gets an occasional memorable line (“So typical of the Doctor’s predilection for the third rate”).
Also in the mix is Tegan finally leaving, but alas not finally, and Nyssa suddenly going all Deanna Troi – “There’s something very unreal about all of this” she concludes of CSO Heathrow – and getting her chance to do some possessed acting. Indeed, there’s no shortage of ideas – Grimwade’s taste for the mythic is writ small – but they’re systematically flattened into obscurity. Maybe it’s appropriate that the concoction should be so scrupulously done for by Jones, as if in rebuke of the Doctor’s passing comment “To be is to be perceived – a naive eighteenth-century philosophy”. If nothing else, the director’s work here makes Peter Moffat’s on Grimwade’s next script, Mawdryn Undead, look almost stylish by comparison.
I suspect the reason The Visitation came second in the DWM season survey is the same one I had for giving it silver at the time: monsters. Which also explained the top slot. Subjected to the test of time, however, some nifty animatronics is about all the Terilepetils have going for them. While director Peter Moffat’s unhurried, unadorned approach was reasonably conducive to the stagier State of Decay, he’s just about the worst pick you could think of here; four episodes fairly light on plot and incident – I’m still not sure how it manages to fill them, as next to nothing happens – needed someone who could make this sprightly and energetic. Rather than a slog. The Visitation’s so slow, you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s playing out in real time.
Unfortunately, The Visitation exemplifies the lifeless, listless posture of many an ’80s production, shorn of vitality and struggling to find things for the Doctor and his companions to do. This one has an extra one, in the form of Michael Robbins’ Richard Mace, who ought to be a breath of fresh air in a fairly humourless season (the earliest version of the story, written for an earlier era, was considered too funny by JN-T). And he might have been, but for the manner in which the regulars, the Doctor in particular, treat him like a bad smell (Mace won DWM‘s Best Supporting Character, in the face of a prevailing absence of stiff competition).
This was Davison’s second recorded story, and he’s giving Pertwee a run for his money in the grumpy stakes, getting pissy with not only his regular trio (this being the one where he misses Heathrow by a couple of centuries), but also everyone else he meets. Davo seems to have arrived at a place, by default, where he plays the Doctor as desperately useless and knowing it, which would explain why he’s in a permanently exasperated bad mood with all-comers. When you see stories like this, it’s no wonder Tegan wants to be shot of him. Even when he does something cool (like shooting out a lock), he ruins it by squeaking a high-pitched “You see” to a disbelieving Mace.
Of course, Tegan is a thoroughly iron-clad whinger at this point too (“I know you never listen to anything I say” pleads the Doctor as she begins to release some plague rats). Adric trips over, and ineptly trips someone else over. And kicks an Android in the arse. Nyssa, when she isn’t displaying bafflingly concern over the stealing of wine or horses, blows up said android (the preparations for which seem to take half an episode, and are about as much as Saward can muster in the way of subplots). She does this in the TARDIS, and the story’s lack of tension isn’t helped any by the ease with which anyone can just pop back there, reaching its lethargic nadir when the Doctor uses it to travel to Pudding Lane, engage in a spot of fisticuffs with the Terileptils, and start the Great Fire of London. Sure, other stories use the quick trip option, but they’re at least usually triggered by a sense of last-minute desperation.
I said the animatronics were about the only positive with the Terileptils – certainly, the rest of their design does them no favours (see also Tractators and Vervoids) – but Michael Melia’s really quite good as their leader, even if his motivation is entirely unconvincing (there’s no good reason to wipe out the population, but he’s going to do it anyway). He almost sounds empathetic when he instructs the controlled Tegan “Do not fight it and you will feel no pain”. And then there’s the bit where they’re all inhaling vapours.
But the negatives are overwhelming. The cliffhangers are all rubbish (I suppose credit to the “Not again” is due, for humorous continuity in the face of a lack of inspiration). Moffat manages to make the android disguised as Death a complete damp squib. And the prologue is a terrible waste of John Savident (just a year after Blake’s 7 used him so well in Orbit). I do like the title, but by dint of the content, it manages to feel rather inconsequential.
Oh yes, and the “sonic” – as the Blu-ray booklet wretchedly refers to it – is destroyed. Come to think of it, maybe I found The Visitation a flash in the pan even as a nine-year-old; I seem to recall that, when it was repeated in 1983, my response was “Couldn’t they have found something more exciting?”
The most salient question here is, if JN-T was so attentive to logistics and practicalities when devising the production order, why didn’t he make sure Black Orchid had its location shoot done and dusted before October? When, as Davison says “I remember it was windy and cold” (you only have to glance at the story to confirm this, regardless of how much the ex-Restoration Team have bumped up the reds). The answer obviously, is “It was all PR spin”. And PR really is what Black Orchid is all about: a photoshoot in search of a couple of episodes of plot.
Yes, Magnus Greel’s better-looking cousin is prowling around Cranleigh Manor with a fetish for pretty young things, but Terence Dudley has put as little effort as possible into making this work as a suspense narrative. It’s certainly not a mystery. Which is why the first episode is by some distance more enjoyable, as much of it is simply concerned with – gasp – the Fifth Doctor having a good time! At last, we discover this new Doctor has a skill at something, even if it’s just cricket. And yes, the “A superb innings. Worthy of the master” line is pretty good, even given it’s another addition to the continuity fest the show has become. Davo’s Doctor also gets all rudey-nudey, wandering about in a dressing gown; his pallid incarnation in a state of undress seems much more indecent than Pertwee’s tattooed sailor in a shower cap.
There’s some surprisingly decent work from the regulars throughout, actually. Although, despite having the nominally showcase dual starring part, Sutton has easily the least interesting material. She gets to accuse the Doctor of molesting her, which doesn’t happen every day, at least until the Moffat era. But it’s more fun to see Tegan – also happy for a change – doing the Charleston (as well as, ridiculously, showing off her keen awareness of the history of botany). And Adric, well, scoffing food (“Well, I didn’t have any breakfast”).
Unfortunately, Part Two topples headlong into plot apathy, as the Doctor decides to inform his hosts he’s a time traveller and takes the plod on a short trip (“Strike me pink!”). It would have been a more commendable story if it could have retained its “pure historical” element to the extent of ensuring the Doctor also preserved secrecy of his alien status, simply working with the tools of the era to get his way out of a sticky situation. George is more the product of Sherlock Holmes’ The Adventure of the Creeping Man than Agatha Christie, except that, in contrast to both, there’s no actual solving of a mystery.
And there’s also the matter of his demise, treated as it is in an entirely perfunctory manner. He’s only ever a monster so no real sympathy is created, and as such, the coda’s present of the book – and Tegan getting to keep her party frock – makes his death seem even more dismissive.
Nevertheless, I found Black Orchid less of a chore this time round, and Michael Cochrane is very good value. Still, it’s difficult to see the story as more than deeply average, meriting at best tepid compliments. It came third in the DWM season survey, seemingly riding high on aforementioned “pure historical” status, but whatever illusions of distinctiveness it might boast are filtered through a writer (Dudley) and a director (Ron Jones, probably at his most harmless here, all told) who don’t seem interested in making anything special. Bidders was right to think it didn’t have the stuff. That said, it’s a shame JN-T didn’t direct, as he’d initially planned. We might have got lucky, and discovered he was another Chris Carter (that’s a joke).
Four to Doomsday
The Discontinuity Guide, in a fit of what one might charitably label misguidedly wishful thinking, attempted to present the Davison era as a fully-fledged renaissance for the series, one in which even the least likely contenders received a positive reappraisal. Thus Four to Doomsday, in summary “A neglected gem, but a real oddity”. Most have bought into the oddity part, along with its resemblance, structurally and in tone and pace, to an early Hartnell tale. You know, rather than something that would have been competing for viewers with Buck Rogers in the 25th Century the year before (the breadcrumb trail being Terence Dudley’s approach to write for the show twenty years earlier). I can certainly go with the First Doctor comparison, but to call it an oddity suggests, alas, that it’s more interesting than it really is.
Still, as with Black Orchid, I was marginally less dismissive of Four to Doomsday on this viewing. It’s easy to miss positives qualities when confronted by a terminally soporific vibe. There are only so many recreational dances and companions doing lots of nothing very fascinating – Nyssa talking science, Tegan getting upset as ever, and Adric, well Adric being a complete nob is diverting, so I’ll give him that – and cuts back to a mould-encrusted Stratford Johns sitting in a high chair that you can take before you start to nod off. Johns brings a disarmingly convivial tone to the proceedings that nearly makes up for the rod up the back of most of the other elements, while Paul Shelley is effortlessly charismatic as Persuasion in a role where you just wish he had more to do. Philip Locke as Bigon is as performatively variable as ever, meanwhile. But watchable with it.
The bright spots of John Black’s guest cast can do little to sustain Dudley’s doodles, though. You can check out About Time for the many and various ways Four to Doomsday doesn’t make much sense, but the most damning thing about it is that it’s very difficult to care that it doesn’t make much sense. Monarch is so laid back about everything until the last ten minutes that you have to assume the dramatic inertia is, in part, intentional. And I could almost see that working, were it not for Black’s direction. Again, many of the positive comments on the story note how the sets and lighting are terrific, and they are; it’s also been suggested that Black directs like he hasn’t seen the show before. But the only thing that might have made something of his choices would have been emphasising the strangeness of the scenario over the formality.
If Four to Doomsday had ended up more like a stroll around the ’80s equivalent of Axos – and they both boast frogs – where everything Dudley devised, in his devoted lack of imagination and observance of ceremony, was lent the air of the uncanny and offbeat, there might have been a resonance here. After all, there are agreeably odd expressions (“Flesh Time”), and ideas (“We are all going to heaven”), as well as Monarch’s rather endearing belief in himself as god (it might have been instructive if the Doctor had qualified his correction regarding it being impossible to go backwards in time by travelling faster than the speed of light, though).
Monarch’s other various half-baked schemes and/or intentions aren’t really up to serious discussion, despite the disproportionate time the story spends on the TARDIS crew working them out, but this is the point where Adric as blowing-in-the-wind type really gets established, State of Decay being a teaser; as Waterhouse suggests in the “Making of” doc, he comes across as being given a position arbitrarily, so the Doctor has something to react against (he may have been rereading his original comments from The Unfolding Text).
In the mix are some really rather good Monopticon effects, some really rather ropey spacewalk ones (although, in fairness, it’s difficult to conceive how they could have done much better), Davo with short hair, drifting through the proceedings like a limp lettuce, especially when he’s doing his heavy breathing, Adric getting into a couple of fights with women (well, they are, after all, “Mindless, impatient and bossy”), and Tegan – who looks like she’s been on a week-long bender – showing off remarkable artistic and linguistic skills (who knew she spoke all the Aboriginal dialects?) And then having a nervous breakdown in the TARDIS after the strain of all that labour gets too much for her. She’s entirely insufferable in Four to Doomsday, an explosive ball of moaning, while Nyssa is the expressive inverse, so much so she barely reacts when a metal bra is clamped over her eyes and she’s subjected to possibly the least dramatic cliffhanger, let alone end-of-story cliffhanger, ever.
Bolstering the season’s regressive credentials, I don’t know about the easy-target maligning of The Talons of Weng-Chiang, but Four to Doomsday could be in the running for the most racist Doctor Who story ever – on the Doctor’s part, that is. One the one hand, we’re treated to a display of cultural “sensitivity”, via the various Athenian, Mayan, Chinese and Aboriginal Australian performative arts (one feels one has somehow drifted into an educational item on Blue Peter, and John Noakes will suddenly appear, Shep scampering off set with a frog in his mouth). On the other, Dudley thinks it’s an absolute hoot for the Doctor to throw racist zingers at Lin Futu and bowl a chinaman.
Throw in some completely random continuity – I’m assuming Ian Levine had a hotline to every one of the rotation cycle script editors at this point – that manages to mention the Eye of Harmony, of all things, and I guess, yes, actually, you do have an oddity. But one that, on first broadcast, I managed to have no recall of whatsoever (in contrast to the rest of the season). So that’s a testament, of sorts. I like the (memorable) title, though, in a rubbish kind of way.
Picking up where Christopher H Bidmead left off with Logopolis, with all the ungainly plotting and mechanical dialogue that entails. And great ideas. And some great plotting. And some great dialogue (the cod-Shakespearean Castrovalvans have several choice turns of phrase). Ever modestly – seriously, he’s president and fully paid-up member of his own appreciation society – Bidders has referred to the story as “brilliant”. And to be fair, it’s hard to argue that, conceptually, it isn’t up there with the best. The script he has bashed and out and the execution thereof are quite another matter, though.
JN-T’s reasons for shooting Castrovalva fourth were complete guff, of course – in a story where the Doctor is required to find his feet, doesn’t it make sense for the actor to be doing likewise? – but there is an intriguing glimpse of another Doctor early on, before Davison retreats into uniform exasperated, beige breathlessness; when he’s in the Zero Room, handing out the companions their tasks, he’s measured and sage in delivery, and even Tegan listens to him. Rather than a young/vulnerable Doctor, a young/insightful one might have been the difference between an era that wavered in wounded fashion and one that came together with purpose.
As a debut story, Castrovalva is also inevitably awash with continuity – references to Daleks, Ogrons and past companions, Davo inadvisably providing a take on earlier Doctors’ lines and impressions – and regeneration trauma. But where any other introduction (even with a newbie like Liz Shaw) could withstand the Doctor being indisposed, here, where he really is indisposed, the TARDIS crew just aren’t up to the task. And that’s with Adric being suspended from a climbing frame to make management of the unwieldy trio a touch easier. Events quickly succumb to a bad case of “How much longer do we have to spend with these people?” (I’m generally a denier of Sutton’s alleged plankdom, but she’s hardly doing herself any favours here).
At his best, Peter Grimwade was one of the show’s most versatile directors, even if there were usually patchy elements in his stories. Fiona Cumming wasn’t in his league, although, with all the right elements in place, the finished article could end up reasonably ship-shape (Enlightenment). Castrovalva would have benefited from someone inspired – a Paul Joyce or Lovett Bickford – rather than dependable to make the most of Bidmead’s more esoteric elements. And someone who could make Part Two other than a complete snooze.
To get to the good stuff in Castrovalva – for a change, much of it’s in the final episode – we have to battle through a limply-staged resolution of the Pharos Project thread (full marks to Sutton for pretend vehicular bump acting; we won’t see the like again until Remembrance of the Daleks). The remaining twenty minutes of the first episode are TARDIS-bound, very much the kind of thing we might have encountered in the Hartnell era (with a surfeit of companions too, although there, they were generally well used). And they’re equal parts inspired (the new Doctor getting lost, the Zero Room, fake Adric) and desperate (anything with Tegan talking to herself).
Bidders goes great guns with the concepts, but he needs the characters (and actors) to deliver them, and these companions simply can’t pass muster. It doesn’t help that Waterhouse is really trying hard, and evidently getting quite, erm, excited by the challenge, convinced he has a really important role in the story. And he does, relatively, despite limited screen time, but that doesn’t excuse him. And then you have the Master, over-announced as the continuing villain, although it does foster an absolutely hilarious cliffhanger, the TARDIS heading for Event One and Ainley in giddy fits as he announces “Farewell, my friends, farewell for ever!”
Between this and reaching Castrovalva, there’s a lot of chaff. Annoying Bidders quirks, like the obsession with the TARDIS interior/exterior relationships (more of that in Time-Flight, God help us) and an interminable travelogue with the Zero Cabinet on a wheelchair amid scenic views (and Nyssa getting her bum wet). The pace is horrific. There’s a lot of talk about how the viewers the season gained turned off after Time-Flight and never came back, but it’s a minor miracle that didn’t happen to Castrovalva Episode Three.
The audience were wise to persevere, though. Despite some weird hunting-wear, there’s a theatrical flair to the Castrovalvans not very far from Traken, along with the blessing of some strong actors (Michael Sheard, Derek Waring, Frank Wylie). Added to which, Ainley’s Portreeve is an example of both a good performance and good makeup (even in faux-HD, his insane hat does a lot to distract attention from his familiar features).
The geography of Castrovalva is a superb idea, Bidders back in recursive mode via an inspirational Escher print or two, and adequately realised on a limited set (someone else might have gone to town in more sinister fashion, à la Logopolis Part One, but this is fine). As inspired are the limits of the inhabitants’ perceptions, in terms of their realm (trying to draw a town map), and their history (“The books are old, but they chronicle the rise of Castrovalva up to the present day”), and the marvellous line “With my eyes no. But in my philosophy”. Indeed, there’s something vaguely Gnostic about the whole set up, the Castrovalvans being the unwitting playthings of a malevolent god.
Of course, we still have to put up with Bidders creating an elaborate plan – virtual Adric’s a neat notion, but makes you wonder, if the Master could do all that, why not something less convoluted and so guaranteed of success – and thenhaving the Master dump on it, turning into a daft prat with a crowbar when he gets hold of the Zero Cabinet; his not so final fate, to be pulled apart as if by enraged Bacchantes, is probably the best one he gets during the ‘80s, though.
And with Tegan being so utterly awful to them, there’s no comprehensible reason the Castrovalvans didn’t turf her out or stick her on a spit instead of that boar (“I demand to see him” is her first utterance when she enters, nails on a blackboard, followed by equally endearing gems). It’s this kind of unevenness that ensures the Davison era often feels half empty rather than half full, but the good in Castrovalva is at least really good, and it ultimately succeeds because it’s structured (when the structure finally manifests) as a mystery to solve, like the best of Bidders’ work on Season 18.
Kinda lands very similarly to Warriors Gate for me: estimable in many respects, but not quite able to overcome certain deficiencies so as to be labelled an unqualified classic. The story has undergone a conclusive rehabilitation since it came bottom of DWM’s season survey, initially as a kind of set text for Tulloch and Alvarado in laying claiming to the series’ ability to convey sufficient depth and breadth of theme to make it worthy of analysis in the first place. Lance Parkin, in DWM’s The Complete Fifth Doctor, rather played devil’s advocate with its revised status, claiming “There are many worse Doctor Who stories than Kinda, but very few that are worse made”. In certain significant respects, Kinda is a very well-made story, but it undoubtedly has its production demerits.
Such as, for someone who managed to light Black Park atmospherically in the previous season’s Full Circle, there’s absolutely zero attempt by Peter Grimwade to suspend disbelief that Deva Loka is other than a TV studio jungle (complete with leaves on a bare studio floor). And the hallucinatory Wheel of Time sequence is about as makeshift as psychedelia gets, with its assorted digital clocks on plinths. One might also point to the colonial uniforms (complete with pith helmets) and lay the charge that over-emphasising the patently obvious allusion wasn’t altogether conducive.
None of these elements are deal breakers though. And to be honest, neither is the giant inflatable snake, which I have no problem watching over the very evidently CGI one presented as a “now the entire story is saved from abject derision” alternative-viewing option. As giant inflatable snakes go, it’s top notch. No, the big problem with Kinda, which for a talky – a very talky – story has a dramatic urgency and forward momentum glaringly lacking in all those talky Bidmead scripts (whatever their merits in other respects), manifests itself around the mid-point of the third episode.
The Kinda tribe are fairly antiseptic bunch of extras – which should be no surprise, given Grimwade’s weakness with the generally impressive Full Circle was also performance related – but neither are they so essential that this becomes a noose around the story’s neck. And Mary Morris (Panna) and Sarah Prince (Karuna) give a couple of fine performances that can be added to the fine performances of the survey team (Simon Rouse’s Hindle – “Mummy, mummy! Make him go away” – Nerys Hughes’ Todd and Richard Todd’s Sanders).
However, just when Kinda needed to up the ante, we’re subjected to the chief personification of the story’s evil, pre- giant inflatable snake anyway, in the form of Adrian “That’s Life” Mills. This is especially unfortunate, as the story’s ante was already being upped before this, courtesy of ten minutes of a moderately sexualised version of Tegan, Janet Fielding relishing the chance to do something other than nag and moan her way through every scene, via what had been the series’ most compelling exploration of the interior landscape of the mind. Mills’ Aris is possessed by the Mara in Tegan’s place, and the results are entirely underwhelming. On a par with Queen Xanxia (Rosalind Lloyd), except that here, the dramatic import is essential for the story’s later stages to have an impact. As About Time put it, “try to imagine Alan Partridge playing Tarzan”.
So it’s Mills who prevents Kinda from getting the full five. Elsewhere, the story has been rightly acclaimed for Rouse’s riveting portrait of mental disintegration, for the depiction of Tegan’s dark backward (with Jeff “The Bill” Stewart as a kind of proto-Turlough), and the rapport between the Doctor and Todd (ironic that JN-T complained about the unbeatable Doctor-Romana-K9 triumvirate, yet the first time Davison’s version of the character gets someone who really works well with him, she’s another intellectual equal). Even Adric is tolerably well used, albeit the Doctor’s contempt for him isn’t remotely disguised, and the less said about the Tegan-Adric filler in Part Four, the better.
Indeed, I’m not the greatest Davo fan – as Doctor Who, that is – although tending to the clichéd response of finding him bland rather than expressing outright dislike, but this is a pretty good showing for him overall. Even given, or perhaps because of, his essential passivity. Much of that is, as suggested, down to his being minimally weighed down by companions with whom all he can do is bicker/berate, but he’s also allowed turns of phrase and humour and interaction that suit him; his mock offence at being labelled a fool by Panna probably wouldn’t play as well with any other Doctor, and his reasoning for warranting the benefit of the doubt before having guns pointed at him is wittily expressed.
One noticeable issue with repeat viewing this era as transmitted is the pat pronunciations upon which the Doctor tends to end his adventures; they have a tendency of summing things up quite lamely. Here, it’s his assertion that Deva Loka is free of the Mara forever. There’s no real reason he should arrive at such a conclusion, other than it’s a neat bow, and given Tegan’s subsequent re-manifestation, it’s probably safe to say he stands on very shaky ground (particularly if others ever end up dreaming alone).
In terms of singing the story’s praises, I don’t think it matters too much that Chris Bailey – and by implication, the never less than tangible approach of Eric Saward – is as literal as he is with his grab bag of Buddhist themes and phrases (and the accompanying blurring with Christian Edenic ones). None are essential to appreciating the story – indeed, it’s arguable that knowing them rather reduces its lustre, making it seem a little over devised.
What matters most is Kinda’s internal integrity, and on that basis, it’s striking just how different it is to the preceding couple of stories. The characters are motivated, the plot has mystery, and as a viewer, you want to find out where this is all leading. These are the kind of rules the series only sporadically obeyed during the ’80s, and it’s no coincidence that, when it did, the era’s highlights tended to result. Oh, and Richard Todd’s acting while doing push ups, without breaking a sweat, is truly impressive.
For a spell, I think the quality of Earthshock was slightly lost on me. I was more conscious on revisiting the story, when it first arrived on BBC video, of what it couldn’t do (actually compete with a Hollywood blockbuster) than what it could; it’s a remarkably coherent attempt – visually at least – to make a gripping, suspenseful piece of Doctor Who. Getting on for forty years later, it confidently holds up as one of the best its era.
As a production, it stands head and shoulders above anything else attempted that season, showing as impressively what could be achieved in the studio as Peter Grimwade’s other directing stint Kinda illustrated what couldn’t (did he have to do a deal whereby, if he got to keep the lights low in Earthshock, they had to be brutally unforgiving in the jungle?) Inevitably, then, it’s guilty of style over substance, but unlike other attempts at action fests during that era – and it’s much more a precursor to Aliens, with its military force being picked off and multiple unstoppable monsters, than the singular menace it’s clearly influenced by – it manages keep its goals linear and concise and not, for the most part, get bogged down in continuity or cumbersome plot developments. For the most part.
One can pick holes in the Cybermen’s ability to recognise the Doctor for a variety of reasons, but it produces the most germane fan-pleasing clip sequence of the JN-T era. The Cyber plan is, shall we say, inelegant, but the story only really ventures off the rails – and not disastrously so, by any means – when Saward attempts to justify his Chekov’s dinosaur fossils from Part One. The “It is when you have an alien machine overriding your computer” remains just as “Huh?” as ever it did.
But the intricacies of plot count for less than its impact, and the Cybermen, despite foolishly designing a gun that can do for them – I guess it’s all those rogue Cybermen in tombs and sewers that need putting down – are a formidable threat. Grimwade ensures a sense of escalation and palpable tension throughout. Whereby, if Davo seemed a bit out of his depth previously, now he really is all at sea, such overwhelming odds informing the rest of his tenure. All of which is seamlessly complemented by Malcolm Clarke’s standout industrial clank score.
If the story is stylistically informed by Ridley Scott, the use of the Cybermen is all Revenge of the Cybermen. From their plan (take out a tactical threat, either by bombs or by crashing a large object into it), to the use of a human Cyber agent (instead of Kelner, we have the sketchily motivated Ringway), to their thinly veiled sarcasm and macho posturing (Cyber Banks resists putting his hands on his hips, but he definitely knows how to extract the most dramatic juice from dull dialogue: “Prepare to activate the devices”, “Explode the bomb”, “More pow-er”. That said, his “Prepare to break through the bulkhead shields” sounds a little too much like Corporal Jones).
On the other hand, the Leader’s ethical outmanoeuvring of the Doctor in Part Four is devastatingly effective, putting him significantly ahead of Cyber Robbie. It also means he has the upper hand until the climax, when the Doctor goes kill crazy on him (a sign of things to come). Yet one does wonder why they don’t use androids regularly, since they’re both competent and efficient. And while I’m at it, Sentinel’s a better title than the one we ended up with.
Good as Banks is, very ’80s cool – in the right way, which is hard to come by – as the Cyber redesign is, and economical and serviceable as Saward’s first hard-man script proves to be, the success of Earthshock is all about Grimwade. True, there are occasional blunders in staging or editing, but this is an immensely impressive achievement. There’s a real sense of scale to the ship’s cargo hold, and edge-of-the-seat moments you don’t expect to be sustained by an early-evening TV show decades later but are; the shot of activated Cybermen causing Scott’s party to split up is closer to a zombie movie than typical Doctor Who. The assault on the bridge is also proficiently edited. The moment that lets the side down isn’t really the Cybermen chatting; it’s the duplicated split-screen Cyber army at the end of Part Three (couldn’t they at least have staggered the procession?)
While Saward, who adopts the increasing norm of leaving it twenty minutes until the crew sight the plot, manages to divide up the companions more effectively than hitherto in the season, you still have Nyssa doing bugger all (she gets to kill a Cyberman, though). More significantly, Tegan dons Ripley overalls and gets all slaughter happy (when she isn’t complaining; although, in her defence, the Doctor’s as much of a miserable sod as ever).
With all the attention on Waterhouse, he mostly doesn’t kill the proceedings stone dead. Until the final credits, of course. Which is a relief. He has distraction on his side, though, since Clare Clifford’s Professor Kyle is so appallingly drippy, you half wonder if Saward wasn’t putting such characters in on purpose as a distraction from the flawed regulars (see also the Playschool presenter in Resurrection of the Daleks). He didn’t, of course, have a say in the casting, which is why we get Beryl Reid. But Beryl’s alright. I mean, she’s not, but somehow, she makes it work.
Revisiting the VAM for Season 19 is a not dissimilar experience to Season 18, as there’s only so much of certain personalities I can take. Thus, I elected not to return to the commentaries, despite Davison being generally good value. The updated special effects are okay, although they still couldn’t do much with Davo floating in the Zero Room.
The shorter docs (Being Doctor Who, The Crowded TARDIS) are possibly more illuminating than the very leisurely, picturesque new “Making of”, Time Trap.
Behind the Sofa is pretty much a dead loss in terms of the Sophie Aldred/ Mark Strickson pairing, as all she can do is ask dumb questions about what’s happening, while he looks like he’d rather be with anyone who might spark an interesting conversation. Back with the main group, Davo seems to have as a high an opinion of Bidmead scripts as his predecessor.
Four to Doomsday
The doc for this is pretty good, giving the lie to the official story that Davo’s first story being made fourth was all about settling in; JN-T is dropped in it for going on hols, leaving Anthony Root to deal with the irreparable Project Zeta Sigma (the producer was irked to discover it had been dumped when he returned, but Letts chewed him out for his irresponsibility).
The issues with Behind the Sofa are exactly the same here: the entirely redundant Aldred/Strickson, with occasional nuggets from the screen quartet watching themselves. Waterhouse continues to be an uncomfortable presence, with tolerance and mild teasing rather than affection towards him. Fielding cites this as the strongest of the season, and there’s an amusing anecdote from Davison regarding how Robert Hardy couldn’t handle Annie Lambert’s snorty laugh as his wife in All Creatures Great and Small and so had her dumped from the series.
A first-rate “Making of”, one that I’d somehow forgotten. Bailey gives a good showing of his “grievances”, and it’s interesting to hear that Bidders wouldn’t have taken the commission further, despite recognising its quality. Notably, Root really pushed it forward in the face of JN-T’s reluctance, and Eric was left to make it work in the series’ format (Saward is forever characterised as blaming others, particularly his producer, although watching these in succession, it’s clear Bidders and Root are saying exactly the same thing – the only difference being that they didn’t stick around).
The crux of his and Bailey’s differences of opinion is that the latter considers “the explanation is less interesting than the thing itself” while Saward is of the view this is lazy, as you end up with nonsense. In the context of what Bailey was pushing for, the answer is probably an uneasy marriage of the two. Which I guess, given that it confused many, is probably what we got. Bailey was disappointed with the production (“It was actually a garden centre”), while the archive footage of Grimwade finds him suggesting the story’s biggest error was to side-line the Doctor (in this case, though, I think he was wrong; it’s only when there isn’t enough else to occupy the viewer that this can become a problem). Notable that Mills is mostly telling tales on Waterhouse when his contribution to the story is the most detrimental.
An agreeable “Making of”. Indeed, all the laidback “Strickson takes charge” location revisits on the Blu-ray box set have been amiably inessential.
The Behind the Sofas with him and Aldred (who sadly – there are no two ways about it – comes across as completely clueless) are an utter waste of time, so it’s left to Davison having fun winding Fielding up about getting rid of companions.
“Making of” Double Trouble is quite watchable; most striking is how much Michael Cochrane has changed, whereas those we’re more familiar with still look the same, give or take being a bit greyer/ more filled out/ wrinkled.
The new doc Earthshocked (imaginative) on this isn’t remotely necessary, as Putting the Shock in Earthshock remains one of the best the range has seen. There’s a bit more on Grimwade’s temperamentality, and it provides a chance for a still-in-shape David Banks to squeeze into his old Cybe outfit (no fat Controller there).
Behind the Sofa showcases Waterhouse’s “endearing” need to identify with Adric. Fortunately for him, he has a supporter; “He’s good, isn’t he, Matthew?” Sophie asks Strickson. Well, she’d be the one to ask.
They missed an opportunity, not calling the doc for this Putting the Shite in Time-Flight. Davo admits he previously tried to back pedal regarding comments on the DVD (I seem to recall this was one where he and Eric were asked to be less negative?), to the effect that its failure was down to budget and the script had good things in it, but “I’m not sure it did, really”. He’s open about the “combination of follies” and how the Plasmatons were “just one more indignity”. We also hear about “Crispin’s Boys”, as Stock and his flight crew trio christened themselves. The message seemingly being that, as shite as it is, it was fun to make.
Behind the Sofa has more of Doctor Who’s answer to Alex Winter, Strickson, looking slightly confounded in response to Aldred’s hopelessness – “I love him!” she says of Kalid, before we cut to Fielding commenting “This is like an episode of It was Alright in the 70s”.
In theory, this ought to have been even more rewarding than his interview with Tom, since Davo’s more approachable, and Matthew Sweet’s very happy to probe wherever he can. But there are surprising longueurs whereby, in an attempt to give a rounded interview and take in family, politics, his accent, musical talents etc, we end up feeling there’s less rather than more.
Focussing in on the old class thing diminishes rather than advances Davo, since he doesn’t seem to be the type who really needs to cite serious demons preventing him from reaching his goals. Neither is the interview as juicy as it might be, given how forthcoming he’s wont to be. There’s stuff on his first dinner with JN-T (“Prawn cocktail, Chicken Kiev, sticky toffee pudding”), “the ultimate in Doctor Who conventions” (in someone’s house), panto, Ainley (“this unspoken toupee barrier” in getting to know him), and his view of Colin’s ousting (“In order to get rid of JN-T, they said we don’t like your choice of the Doctor, but he actually decided to get rid of the Doctor rather than make a stand”) and his essential shyness and vulnerability. Pertaining to the latter, Sweet suggests this is him, and therefore makes Davo a Doctor who, like all Doctors, was playing himself. “I’ll just have to come to terms with it” responds Davo affably. Which the interview is; affable, but unrevealing.
A few notable poll placings over the years:
1. Earthshock (1, 17, 19, 24)
2. Kinda (7, 47, 69, 63)
3. The Visitation (2, 46, 77, 110)
4. Castrovalva (4, 49, 88, 121)
5. Black Orchid (3, 62, 117, 156)
6. Four to Doomsday (6, 139, 173, 218)
7. Time-Flight (5, 155, 196, 237)
Outpost Gallifrey 2003
1. Earthshock (19)
2. Kinda (48)
3= The Visitation (55)
3= Black Orchid (55)
5. Castrovalva (62)
6. Four to Doomsday (144)
7. Time-Flight (159)
1. Earthshock (9, 9, 9)
2. Castrovalva (48, 58, 38)
3. The Visitation (46, 44, 61)
4. Kinda (55, 70, 41)
5. Black Orchid (72, 71, 59)
6. Time-Flight (122, 125, –)
7. Four to Doomsday (–)
1. Earthshock (1, 17, 19, 24, 2/20)
2. Kinda (7, 47, 69, 63, 4/20)
3. The Visitation (2, 46, 77, 110, 7/20)
4. Castrovalva (4, 49, 88, 121, 10/20)
5. Black Orchid (3, 62, 117, 156, 13/20)
6. Four to Doomsday (6, 139, 173, 218, 17/20)
7. Time-Flight (5, 155, 196, 237, 20/20)