Season 26 – Worst to Best
I’m not a big Seventh Doctor fan. For me, Doctor Who pretty much ended with Season 23 (and not because it was awful: see here). Yes, there have been a few nu-Who reprieves (mostly notably Matt Smith’s first season), but the McCoy era flaunted an abundance of sins, from a lead who wasn’t up to snuff, to a script-editor messaging his social conscience wrapped in a breeze block (or bilge bag), to production values that made any given earlier era look absurdly lavish in comparison. And then there was the “masterplan” (which, by contrast, at least lends Season 24 a rather innocuous and relatively inoffensive air).
Nevertheless, on the occasions I do return to the era, I’m always minded to give it a fair shake. And while that resolve inevitably crumbles within minutes, under the duress of cold harsh reality, it has, at times, led to a positive reappraisal (The Happiness Patrol, and, to an extent, perhaps unfathomably, Time and the Rani). So we’ll see how Season 26 goes, generally feted as the best of McCoy’s three, and the glorious cumulation of all those ideas Cartmel had brewing…
Execrable. Woeful. Shameful. There are a number of McCoy stories vying for the title of the worst classic Who, and this is near the front. You hear a lot of faint defences for Battlefield, along the lines of it not being as bad as all that and how its lowly reputation isn’t justified. And at least it was trying. But really, it completely deserves its pillorying. And I’m really not convinced it was (trying).
Morgaine: He is steeped in blood.
Among the unaccountably positive takes were The Discontinuity Guide: “…this stands up very well as a heroic action yarn with a charming final scene”. It does? And the final scene is? “Trying to do too much at once isn’t the worst of sins.” No, just one of the many. Elizabeth Sandifer claimed it was “easily solid Doctor Who” and “It’s not nearly as disastrous as its reputation”. No, it really is. Even About Time was charitable, referring to “moments of real charm and potential greatness” despite noting that it “looks like children’s television” and expressing the hope that a special edition “might reveal a classic” (it didn’t).
Ancelyn: He has many names, but in my reckoning, he is Merlin.
Most entertainingly profusive was Paul “I adore this Doctor” Cornell announcing “I love Battlefield” in DWM’s The Complete Seventh Doctor. Everything Paul raves over deserves the inverse appraisal (the Arthurian element, the near future setting) or barely registers (the future Doctor element is much vaunted, but is entirely flat in terms of mystique). He also offers the incredibly lame standard defence of the “self-aware” Doctor Who fan that “if you think it’s rubbish, well, it’s no worse than the average person would think a ‘great’ Doctor Who was”: “It’s like an adult walked into the room. The adult would laugh at Pyramids of Mars for not being I, Claudius. But we’ve convinced ourselves that they’d laugh only at Battlefield”. You keep convincing yourself of that, Paul. I’ll stick to being an “oh-so-refined fan” and wince along to it. However, I did have to laugh at his “This is a Doctor who is, aptly, flummoxed by anger, agonised trying to express it…” I mean, that’s true, but it’s true because McCoy can’t act. Paul also attested that, give it another decade, and “Battlefield will be ‘a classic’ once more”. Fifteen years and counting…
The Doctor: I will decapitate you!
I really was giving it a chance, though. I opted for the televised version, as the special edition did nothing for me twelve years ago. And for about, maybe, five minutes, it wasn’t so bad. Maybe I could ride the ham-fisted nuclear message and the standardised speechifying about sexism and racism 4 the kidz (Cartmel is nothing if not Rik from The Young Ones, albeit the approach here really does serve as a template for nu-Who’s general lack of craft in broaching issue and theme).
But no. Boom? Boom. It takes me right back to how toe curling it was the first time (it was really hailed as a classic? That isn’t my recollection. Perhaps among the exclusive ranks of future New Adventures scribes). The action is utterly rank. The visuals resemble home video (and lest this is ascribed to everything from the era as an excuse, Alan Wareing always managed a degree of professionalism). The music from tone-deaf McCulloch hasn’t got better with age. As for the cast…
Bambera: So, are you married or what?
Angela Bruce is abjectly awful as Bambera. I mean, the part itself is dreadful, but she plays it to exactly those merits as well as undergoing the indignity of playing an assault scene while commandeering a 2CV (“Magnificent!”) Marcus Gilbert and Christopher Bowen give it some energy, but to little avail. The “sparring romance” between Ancelyn and Bambera is as well-written as one might expect from Cartmel and his young spunks. Bowen gives Mordred an insane laugh that takes up most of Part Two. And, admittedly, an amusingly obnoxious insult: “With your aspect, it is well that she is blind!”
Morgaine giving June Bland back her sight in payment of her son’s tab is a nice enough beat, but let’s not run away with ourselves. Jean Marsh is fine, of course, but like every character here, there’s nothing to Morgaine. And let’s not forget Marsh was being asked to trot out the same performance she gave the year before in Willow, but on a shoestring. In the Cartmel era, characters tend to be statements at best, and whatever Morgaine brings in mythos baggage, none of it survived this incarnation. Similar is true of the Destroyer. Yes, you can rave over the decent prosthetics, but there’s absolutely nothing to speak of in terms of pitch, presence or impact. You saw how even Tim Curry’s charisma was partially hamstrung in Legend? Now repeat that with none of the style, class and impact.
Ace: You scumbag!
The Brigadier? Well, Ben Aaronovitch was right that his death hadn’t been earned. This being his main series send-off is apologetic enough. There are attempts to acknowledge his history and bluster (“What manner of man are you?”; “I just do the best I can”), but it can’t possibly do him justice when he’s sauntering through this embarrassment of disasters. What’s that, Paul? It’s “the best ever use of the Brigadier”?
Shou: I heard you. You called me stupid.
This has Ace blowing stuff up again, of course. And given a playmate in order for her Remembrance of the Daleks self-righteousness to come back and bite her. That’s right; the character of Shou Yuing is only included so Ace can be racist to her and then regret it. There’s a smattering of reasonable ideas on paper: Ace rises from the lake holding Excalibur; the circle temptation. But the execution is entirely off. As for Ace becoming the Destroyer’s “handmaiden in hell” …
The Doctor: There will be no battle here!
Battlefield’s biggest crime isn’t just that it’s trying to be epic and failing not only miserably but also laughably, but that it’s a stinker from conception onwards. Aaronovitch is right to see it as unequivocally bad, noting that he failed to expand his three-parter effectively and he was aiming for Nigel Kneale-lite(!) You can occasionally see how he envisaged this on a grander scale, with better staging, but that makes it the more perplexing that he ever thought any of this could be achieved. And no, I don’t think it would have helped matters bringing Graeme Harper aboard. Why sully his (then) immaculate track record with something so unworthy of his talents?
The Doctor: Now, high drama is very similar to comedy. It’s all a matter of… timing.
Then there’s Sylv. McCoy’s no Olivier, but he can be reasonably likeable when he’s pratting about. Ask him to summon the serious and portentous, though, and he’s all at sea, a contortion of strangled diction and grotesque gurning. It’s almost as if Cartmel perversely decided to double down on his lead’s least proficient performance mode. The Doctor as Merlin is as on the nose as you’d expect from someone who had trouble with the prototype. What’s that you say, Paul? He’s “the dark being who protects those in the light”? Yeah, okay. Have it your way.
Doris: Have something really delicious ready for us when we get home.
Don’t get me wrong, the Cartmel era gets full marks for worthy intentions (well, maybe not so much the comic book approach. Or the Doctor as God thing. Or the arch manipulator. Or the Mike Leigh working class as perceived by the benevolent and superior middle-class aspect. But apart from that). But it’s minus points all the way for execution, more times than not. The thematic content of Battlefield seems to give it a pass in some quarters, but that thematic content is an incoherent mess at best, and entirely dysfunctional and illegible at worst. The ending is pitiful too. Girl’s night out! Guys in the kitchen. You go, Andrew! All the way home to 15, Credibility Street.
The Curse of Fenric
One of the era’s most hallowed objects, The Curse of Fenric has never done anything for me, to the extent that claiming it as an undisputed classic is tantamount to diabolism. I can see all the ingredients that lead to such a claim, but they’re assembled with such staggering lack of finesse and skill that I generally assume those raving over it must be watching a different show. Or edit.
To clarify, I selected the Special Edition for this revisit, the one assembled by mArK aYrEs. As per Battlefield, I wasn’t willing to put myself through multiple versions, and in this case, I wanted to be able to argue I’d viewed the popularly proclaimed “best” version, to give it the best possible chance. To be honest, though, I perceive little difference between them (except that this one actually lacks probably the only really evocative part of the story; the use of voiceover over images of the depths).
Sorin: Black wins, Time Lord.
A grab bag of Viking lore, horror (vampire) tropes, eco-parable, war-is-hell, retconned recent series history and “new” mythology, along with flailing attempts to further explore Ace’s fascinating journey at the behest of her manipulative travelling companion, The Curse of Fenric was given to series auteur Nick Mallett to bring to fruition. Were we lucky it wasn’t the originally pegged Kerrigan? Who knows. I mean, his Knights of God work was serviceable.
As it is, though, The Curse of Fenric is horribly flat while simultaneously afflicted by the frenzied dashing about found in much of this barely-script-edited era. There’s no chance to build atmosphere or tension. The story is very keen on the gothic, but Mallet’s idea of gothic is holiday jaunt handycam footage of a church and a trip down the beach with a few tatty Halloween costumes in tow.
The results aren’t outright appalling per Battlefield, but they’re tone deaf, and oblivious to pacing, staging and sensitive lighting. Choice (or not) examples include the “wow” sequence of the recited verse/ the runes forming/ the drowned soldier opening his eyes, all of them devoid of the intended cumulative impact. The Haemovore attack on the church, with Sylv mugging and Ace climbing laboriously up and down a ladder, is pretty woeful (except for the moment where the Doctor summons his faith). So too are the monsters rising from sea – not exactly the evocative stuff of the Sea Devils or Marshmen. Of which, “You’ve got to come into the water” “seduction” scene is very funny, but I don’t think that was intentional. The military material generally (both Russian and British) is fairly embarrassing. Dougie Camfield certainly wouldn’t have approved. Matching the visuals point for point, mArK’s overstrained score consistently verges on parody.
Reverend Parsons: I used to believe there was good in the world, hope in the future.
And being the Cartmel era, the over-earnest, politically-posturing signposting is as maturely positioned as only an undergraduate can be. Nicholas Parsons is very good as Reverend Wainwright, and early scenes (“I don’t think right is on anyone’s side in war”) are quite promising, but we’re soon in familiar territory of over-enunciated rehearsals of his failures of faith (“It’s human belief, and you stopped believing when the bombs started falling”), strikingly contrasted with Briggs and Cartmel’s youthful enchantment with communism (“I believe in the revolution”). Naturally, Sorin’s faith in mass-murdering Stalin sees him win through where decadent western religion crumbles. Yay!
Ace: Professor, I’m not a little girl any more.
Cartmel and Briggs, the former on record as aroused by Sophie’s underarm hair, are also keen to offer their insightful exploration of a teenage girl’s burgeoning sexuality. This along with a couple of variably accented mockneys indulging sexual innuendo relating to Maiden’s Point. Ace, being such an inspiring character to all Cartmel’s fantasising writer pals, now gets to seduce a soldier in a scene not so much torrid as horrid (“There’s a wind whipping up. I can feel it through my chiffon nightie”). In tandem is a nascent romance with Captain Sorin, Ace’s very own Bill Wyman. Very suitable. Very appropriate.
Accompanying such highly-charged developments, Ace brandishes traditionally masculine deductive capacities – the flip flop, interpreting the runes, and the “winning” chess move – along with a thunderous lack of female intuitive ones; she’s utterly clueless about ’40s mores – “Are you married?” – and manages to help the villain in his scheme before attesting, missing the bleeding obvious, “I didn’t know she was my mum!” After she has bafflingly announced “I’ll always love you” to her (and there’s an ill-advised flashback to baby mum in this Special Edition during the climax). It has to be said though, Cory Pulmann is very good as Ace’s gran.
Ace’s Gran: Do you have any family yourself?
This is, of course, part of the Seventh Doctor’s MKUltra-wearing down of Ace’s defences. Cartmel and Briggs double down, bringing us both the Doctor’s masterplan and Ace manipulation in one dubious package. The magic of time winds doesn’t sell itself through repetition. Nor the retconning of Lady Peinforte. “Ever since Ice World.” And other dreadful stories you’d be better trying to forget. Obviously, there’s a significant fanbase for McCoy’s Doctor scheming away and always miscalculating and then pulling through, while Ace’s emotional journey bruises her only enough that she can bounce back emboldened. I find it both objectionable and a formula that quickly becomes tiresome. It all turns out well for her, of course: “I’m not scared now”. See? Brainwashing. Works every time.
Judson: We play the contest again, Time Lord.
There are some relatively good Doctor lines and business here. For the first few episodes, he inveigles himself through smarts (the letter, runic language) and only tips over the edge in the third part (“Evil, evil since the dawn of time!” Oops). But Fenric is the least interesting and most nebulous of magical opponents this Doctor has faced (see also the Gods of Ragnarok). Cartmel era nonsense myth (something nu-Who would lap up) comes with pseudo-evocative imagery: “You left me in the shadowy dimensions, trapped for seventeen centuries”. But not that trapped, eh? This is only surpassed for sloppiness by the contest itself. Too much to hope for a carefully conceived strategic battle? Yes: “Brilliant move. The black and white pawns don’t fight each other. They join forces”. Yeah, that’s amazing. If you’ve never played a game of chess. What’s that, you say? It’s symbolic? No, it’s nonsense.
The Ancient One: I am the last. The last living creature on Earth… My world is dead.
The eco-theme is a mess. But so is everything conceptually with the Haemovores (and as for the plan to destroy the Soviet Union with love… sheesh). Greta loves you, Ian and Andrew. We’re told homo sapiens evolve into creatures with an insatiable hunger for blood – er, okay. And that “They devour humans the way you eat fruit”. But presumably only when whisked by a time wind back to where there are still humans (About Time suggests the Haemovores we see were sired by The Ancient One upon being dragged back through time, so I suppose if he/she will be the last living creature on Earth he/she ate everything else)? The Brian Blessed Haemovore is equivalent of Cyber Controller as imposing villains go. And with all this man-made destruction, it’s notable that chemical weapon threat derives from “A natural source of lethal poison”.
Bates: They’re insane. They’re trying to control the world with chemical weapons.
There are lots of dialogue howlers here too. Lines like “His mind’s in pieces”; “This isn’t war. This is massacre!”; “War. A game played by politicians…” As well as the occasional “Don’t interrupt me while I’m eulogising”. Dinsdale Landen is nevertheless accomplished as both Judson and Fenric. Alfred Lynch as Millington and Janet Henfrey as Miss Hardaker – “The old bag we’ve been billeted with” – are also worth singling out. They can only do so much, though.
There are many who will agree with the verdict of Elizabeth Sandifer, that “this really may be the classic series’ finest hour” along with the usual pejorative cobblers (“If that isn’t your idea of how to spend two hours of your life, quite frankly, you’re just in the wrong fandom”). However, The Curse of Fenric is a story that desperately wants to deliver John Carpenter horror/WWII/monster fare married to a “grown-up” approach to the Doctor/companion relationship, yet ends up being studiously juvenile/amateurish at everything it attempts.
On the last occasion I viewed it, Survival’s deficiencies stood taller in my mind than its merits. This time, that balance was somewhat redressed. It’s a story aesthetically crippled by a crucial design flaw, and once we arrive on the Cheetah planet there’s precious little plot left to play out, but Alan Wareing brings such conviction to the realisation of Rona Munro’s series debut that he almost pulls it off in spite of itself.
It was JN-T who vetoed an initially subtler Cheetah People design in favour of the more “monsterish” plush toy look we got. A shame, as something more along the lines of the Tharils would have done the story no end of favours. Nevertheless, there are elements that help rally against this deficiency, not least their bloodthirstiness and the Planet of the Apes verisimilitude of appearing on horseback.
Ace: You kill people. You eat people.
Karra: When I’m hungry, I hunt. When I hunt, I eat.
Additionally, if Munro’s script doesn’t have a whole lot left to do by the time it reaches the third episode, such that the Master’s reduced to touting for business down the local youth club, the major benefit is that, unlike any other story this season, Survival is paced closer to the way Doctor Who should be (ie, in direct contrast to most Cartmel era stories). As a consequence, it unfolds with steadily building mystery and intrigue. The opening episode might be the best of these three years, and that’s despite a Hale and Pace cameo and an erratic animatronic cat.
Paterson: Doctor, eh? You’re not in the best of shape yourself, though, are you?
Wareing creates as effective an atmosphere here as he does in Gabriel Chase, with sweltering temperatures boosted by Paintbox and the effectively sinister contrast between Perivale and a BBC gravel pit. And before he’s called upon to over-emote in Part Two – and then ride a motorbike, stick his arse in the air, and pull out the ultra-gurn “If we fight like animals…” in the final part – McCoy’s characterisation is at his most appealing. Forget all the strategist cobblers (mercifully, a development whereby the Master discovers the Doctor has evolved beyond a mere Time Lord was dropped); the Seventh Doctor hiding behind hedges with tins of cat food is much more McCoy’s natural mode.
Karra: Come hunting, sister.
Ace too benefits from Munro’s ability to resist the over-statement common to most of the character’s other writers. Her feline metamorphosis and recognition of sisterhood rely less on over explaining – the story comes complete with lesbian subtext – and painfully over-exerted trauma than it does a pair of contacts, a spot of blood lust and a general sense of the fabular. It helps that Lisa Bowerman, despite her burial beneath fun fur, gives a strong performance as Cat Person Karra.
Derek: Thanks, Ace. Thanks, Doctor. Thanks for saving my life and getting me back home!
I’m not as persuaded by the various other human characters, as it’s here that Munro’s themes are enunciated a little too loudly (the survival of the fittest). Julian Holloway is very good as Paterson, but the characterisation is a tad obvious in its aggressive, closeted bully (his reaction to sensitive, Bowie t-shirt wearing Derek, played by David John). Likewise Midge (Will Barton), although there’s some amusement to be had when he becomes the Master’s lapdog (the suggestion of the Master taking on the persona of a homoerotic Fagin for The Lost Boys set can’t be avoided at the youth club. It also predicts Eric Roberts and his “Asian child”).
Karra: How fast can you run, sister?
Ainley’s great here – he gives good cat person too when the fangs are in. Possibly the juxtaposition between his reserve and McCoy’s indiscipline makes him stand out the more. But it’s also because, as the Doctor notes “I don’t think he’s trying to take over the galaxy this time”. It is a matter of survival for him, and if it doesn’t say much for him that it takes the Doctor to work out his ticket out of there, his attempts to maintain self-control elsewhere are welcome (as is the amusing sight of him standing supreme in Midge’s living room). The metamorphosis element runs throughout the season (well, perhaps not Battlefield) and gains retrospective currency through the way it works so well here, from Ghost Light’s husks to The Curse of Fenric’s ultimate destination for humanity. In Survival, it feels more personal and signposted, making for a stronger overall impact.
The Doctor: But what happens when the next lion shows up?
True, the reverting to type necessitated by a showdown is disappointing, given how distinctive the story feels elsewhere. And the motorbike duel is regrettable. Generally, though, Munro emerges as a much more capable writer than her peers (Wyatt and perhaps Platt aside – Gary Gillat called it ‘The best-written Seventh Doctor script”, which isn’t setting that high a bar). Wareing more than proves he’s leagues better than any of his McCoy era peers. Even Dominic Glynn’s electric guitar works in context (but Survival is very lucky; another director and another composer, and this could have been as impressive as Silver Nemesis).
As a capper to the classic series… Well, the McCoy era wouldn’t have been my choice for the way things were left, but it’s definitely one of his better stories, and in tone and cheap look, it isn’t a million miles from Rose (but arguably much better directed). And if I’m not big on the “Chickens made of ingots, zebras made of slurry. Come on Ace, the kettle’s on” final speech, I can’t deny it’s Cartmel through and through.
I think I probably used to forward the view that everything about Ghost Light is of a very high standard apart from the lead performances, which standout like even bigger sore thumbs thanks to the contrasting quality around them. That isn’t entirely true, however. The story also betrays the Cartmel era’s twin sins of incontinent political gesturing and more damagingly, his inability to time his episodes. Which means Ghost Light is never able to catch its breath.
Director Alan Wareing is probably the star of the show here, but he’s also the one faced with the task of trying to squeeze this unwieldy material into a straightjacketing three episodes. Ghost Light’s bursting at the seams, which means, in concert with mArK AyReS’ incidental music – in fairness to mArK, he admits it has been mixed way too high, but he appears to have taken lessons from Keff in banging things abrasively whenever there’s a hint of action – what should be all atmosphere and brooding menace is too often punctured by the need to gallop about from scene to scene and from cryptic confrontation to cryptic confrontation.
Ace: If you don’t like it, then bog off!
Of course, one of the standard claims levelled at Ghost Light is that it’s confusing (something several of the Behind the Sofa guests proceed to aver). Tat Wood’s convinced it’s a Marmite story (taking up two laborious paragraphs in About Time to explain the analogy) and goes on to make a series of ridiculous generalisations about the types of people who don’t share his views before suggesting anyone not on board has, effectively, received “major blunt-force trauma to the skull”. The ever-delightful Elizabeth Sandifer echoed such sentiments of the not-we (they’re “too thick to understand it”). This probably says more about its staunchest defenders than those they’re so keen to slight. As suggested by this place in the ranking, I don’t dislike Ghost Light, making it something of a rare beast in this era (one of those elusive Bandersnatches Sylv mentions to the baffled Light, no doubt).
There are, granted, things here that do not make a lot of sense; I’m sure there are those who have gone to lengths to justify it, but the biggest problem with Ghost Light’s plot is that Light seems paralysingly dense as to the way life works, making it a wonder he got as far as he did with his survey. Azal comes across as entirely savvy by comparison. Generally, though, the reasons Ghost Light falls short are the reasons I broached at the outset.
The Doctor: I’m not wise. I’ve lit the blue touch paper and found there’s nowhere to retire.
There are places here where McCoy is low key and – by his standards – quietly effective. He can deliver a subdued charm, but such occasions are few and far between. I like his “I’m not interested in money. How much?” and his business with Frank Windsor spitting sandwich on his lapel. And like everyone here, Marc Platt services him with a series of enviable lines. But he’s also responsible for the era’s all-time mega-gurn, complete with clenched fist, at the beginning of Part Three (“And go!”) Generally, he’s hopelessly outclassed by the guest ensemble. And then there’s the issue I have with his magical mystery Doctor, here presented to its least flattering effect.
The manipulative Doctor is a highly unattractive character, even more so than the God-like one who got up to lots of jolly japes with Rassilon. He makes Colin’s look like an angel. He’s entirely up for cruel-to-be-kind, tough-love, psychological torture of his companion, who, through Stockholm Syndrome, ultimately thanks him for it (Aldred seems to have bought into this too, sniffing Cartmel’s “Ace’s journey” glue, whereby the character’s “initiation” would lead to her becoming a Time Lord).
Ace: I face mine on my own terms!
Aldred is being given lots to do, which she does the best she can. Which means one person’s idea of a well-drawn, rebellious, proactive, mould-busting female companion performed by a talented actress is another’s reality of a poorly thought-out male fantasy of a progressive female portrayal that’s about as detached from reality as anyone who says “bog breath” could be. All played by a very middle-class actress of limited range in her mid-twenties (or older).
Aldred always had an uphill struggle making the material work, though, damned by lines that would defeat many a dame of the stage. Cartmel proudly parades how trendsettingly pre-woke he was back in the day, with the ridiculous, bring-the-house-down “White kids firebombed it” (Yes, Elizabeth it is a ridiculous line; it’s rather those pointing to actual events as evidence that those pouring scorn on Ace’s painfully like-no-teenager-who-ever-lived characterisation are ignorant – or blunt force trauma victims – who are missing the point). Other gems include “You’re not my probation officer!”
The Doctor: And while it slept, the survey got out of control.
Control: Control is me.
The Doctor: And the survey is Josiah.
The Victorian setting is an ideal opportunity for Cartmel to enact his crude brand of revisionist right-onism, suggesting the way things should have been. Ace scandalously cross-dresses and Cartmel rights the wrongs of yesteryear. Here, it’s science vs religion. Evolution is all, religion is bad, per the ignorant clergyman reduced to a banana eating ape (don’t ask how Josiah actually achieves this or you’ll be called an idiot – it’s probably similar to the way evolution works). I’ll grant that one might read balance into Platt’s construct – Light could be a satire of the cold, clinical scientist taking things apart – but if that’s the case, Light’s position is effective because it isn’t spelled out, whereas Reverend Matthews’ portrayal is as clumsy as it comes (for more on this, see the power of faith extolled through communism in the next story). Then there’s the Doctor’s persuasive evolution speech, which, since it is predicated on anything being an example evolution, isn’t that at all, making it consequently sloppy.
Josiah: Soon I shall restore the blighted British Empire to its full power and vigour.
But. Much of Ghost Light is head and shoulders above the rest of the McCoy era. The luxury of period sets and costumes helps ensure this is easily the most polished of Wareing’s three stories. Platt’s approach to structure and character means there’s a strong sense of trajectory punctuated by consistently engaging and or compelling characters.
Of whom, the supporting cast are terrific. If some of them (Control) are a bit “cute” conceptually, the performances invariably give them a lift – Sharon Duce, Carl Forgione as Nimrod, John Nettleton embracing the inane entrenchment of Matthew for all he’s worth, Sylvia Sims doing a lot with very little as Mrs Pritchard. Ian Hogg, Britain’s own Gene Hackman and riding high on the back of Rockliffe’s Babies, is marvellous as Josiah, fully capturing the humour and malevolence of the would-be royal (there’s much playing on the relationship between evolution and class consciousness, inevitably, even if it’s only partially successful). John Hallam is a very fey Light, relishing the chance to go entirely excusably over the top. Best of all is probably Michael Cochrane as Redvers Fenn-Cooper (much more memorable than he was in Black Orchid).
And yes, Platt’s dialogue. To my ear, the parts Cartmel has touched up are clear (“Lumpen” to borrow one of Eric’s phrases, springs to mind). Platt, with his allusions “To Java”, “Tricky things, mammoths”, “It’s very old. Perhaps even older”, “Of course, if she was a real lady, I wouldn’t be in her boudoir” and “The cream of Scotland Yard” delivers consistent gems.
Light: I wanted to see how it works. So I dismantled it.
I can quite believe Ghost Light would have landed much more impressively, had Platt not been subjected to the era’s characteristic cuts and freneticism. Perhaps not to the extent that Ghost Light would have stood as the classic, or at least not far from it, that many who aren’t idiots claim it to be. There would still be lots of chaff but contrastingly more wheat.
The making-of is a reminder that this season’s working titles tended to be much better than the final article (Storm Over Avalon). Making-of docs are usually quite watchable, but this is as tedious as the story itself. Kerrigan is very dull, while Gilbert comes across like a Peter Serafinowicz caricature.
As noted, Aaronovitch is at least self-effacing about the story’s quality in the writer interview (and Cartmel can take the blame for the Doctor’s “CND speech”). I couldn’t stomach sitting through the special editions for this (I had a hard-enough job with the four-part original).
Behind the Sofa – an improvement on the unwatchable Season 10 ones. Fielding and Sutton team with randy, eighty-year old Anneke. She seems in much better fettle than the younger, soporific Sylv, paired with Sophie. There’s also Peter McTighe and Joy Wilkinson. Most alarming is how everyone seems to like the thing, particularly responding to its right-on elements. “She’s like Vasquez out of Aliens” attests Joy of Bambera. Erm, are you sure you want to say that, Joy? Wills offers the most cogent critique (whoever wrote it, “they’re helping themselves to everything”).
Work Print Edition – the reinserted material doesn’t really help much because, as per my review above, the issues are more integral to the way Wareing was forced to shoot the story as a mighty rush. There’s no opportunity to retrospectively adjust the pacing, and so nothing here really impacts the content either way.
Light in Dark Places – Illuminating Ghost Light. A much more rewarding doc than the Battlefield plod. Hogg is good value, there’s footage of Sophie laughing off a #MeToo moment as McCoy does a “Cover your eyes” gag while putting his hands over her tits (at least he didn’t bite her bum). There’s discussion of director confusion and cast confusion, of Wareing complaining about Sylv not knowing his lines, mArK (kind of) rightly observing that it was “cut, I thought, far too tight”. Cartmel’s flush with his presumed achievements, with Ace, with “It’s George Bernard Shaw on acid” (after explaining the backstory, he has to admit it’s not very well explained). The husks were JN-T’s suggestion (but one that works).
The Marc Platt interview from 1990 is also interesting, detailing the Lungbarrow idea, and how writers were “inspired by Ace”, that a lot was lost in translation but “I still think it works” and his fearlessness towards rewriting the Gallifrey mythos (more’s the pity: see also RTD, Moff, and rughead).
The Ace doc just confirms how off-naffing and bog-brained the character is.
Behind the Sofa – these are very watchable for this season, which is definitely not always the case. It’s one of McTighe’s “very very favourite” stories but he wishes they’d done a bit more with the husks. Sutton admits it’s “passing me by very slightly, this story” and she’s a little bit confused. Anneke utters an exasperated “What was all that about?” when it’s over. Couple of brain-damaged idiots, both.
The Curse of Fenric
Making of – a new documentary, luxuriating perhaps a bit too much in its spacious fifty minutes but nevertheless engagingly delivered. JN-T didn’t like Ian Briggs (I’m tempted to suggest I’m not surprised after Dragonfire). He also nixed the initial Haemovore design on the basis that it looked a bit rude (this from the man who approved the Vervoids). It actually looks a little like The X-Files’ Fluke. It was very cold. Of Mallett: “Nick was terribly laidback”. I can believe. And he “knew exactly what he wanted”. He certainly got it. mArK’s on hand to discuss his marvellous magical score and tell us “Nick is very underrated as a director”. Hmmm. mArK was instrumental in getting the special edition made, which didn’t earn him any brownie points with JN-T, who – in shades of his Peter Grimwade hissy fit – locked Nick out of the editing room and simply slotted a few scenes back in for the VHS release (hence it wasn’t until after both JN-T and Mallett’s deaths that Ayres was able to approach the special edition as intended). Much of the proceedings are devoted Sophie, Sylv and Tomek Bork visiting old locations. And happening upon dear old Nicholas Parsons!
Behind the Sofa – a gushing McTighe announces this is “probably my favourite Doctor Who story”. Look at his nu-Who contributions, and that tells you a lot. He also notes how Sylv was muttering his faith in his companions. But presumably omitting Turlough. And Kamelion. Sarah and Anneke agree it’s the best so far.
A two-part making of, and indulgent but also quite watchable and frank. Sylv gives a good anecdote about his gran taking up booze at one hundred and dying three months later. Cartmel told Sophie how the trio of stories were Ace’s Christmas Carol (past, present, future). That Andrew, he was a genius. He is correct in boasting Munro’s virtues as a writer, though (she could introduce themes “without being thunderingly obvious”; see Andrew, you got it right at the very end). JN-T nixed Ace’s retort to one finger being a deadly weapon. Because innuendo. And also the pack killing Midge. Lisa Bowerman: “I wasn’t expecting fun fur, let’s put it that way”. Her horse hated men. Quite right too. Midge is very sweaty on camera. He ate bracken. Sylv had to suffer sandy contacts. They all had a ruddy good time on location.
Behind the Sofa – “It’s like Stella Street” notes Wilkinson of Hale and Pace. The animatronic cat goes down surprisingly well. Sophie comments “Even though I wasn’t a teenager” at one point. A startling admission. McCoy has about three anecdotes, which means he’s turning into Tom, but less amusing. Anneke thinks the season’s is “a bit camp”. Never.
The Writer’s Room. A bit of a mutual love-in, this. Andrew Cartmel has always had Bidmead levels of self-regard for his work on the series, so that probably shouldn’t be much of a surprise. I rather longed for Eric to show up and casually label someone’s work “lumpen”. Ben’s, most probably.
Still, Aaronovitch is a likeable sort and entirely right to resist the praise for Battlefield. He insists, “I didn’t have the skill to fix it” at the time, and when pushed admits “I like the Destroyer”. Cartmel comments of the future Doctor, “Steven Moffat is doing stuff like that now”. Which shouldn’t be taken as an endorsement. Cartmel also calls it “a stonking script”. Ben notes that if he’d known Courtney spoke Swahili, he’d have weaved it in. Now that would have been lumpen.
JN-T’s nixes end up riding as high in the Cartmel era as those of his predecessors. He didn’t want Lungbarrow. Cartmel was “keen to do something on Darwinism” (of course he was). Platt attempts to defend the Doctor torturing Ace (it’s out of love, as “He wants her to grow”). Marc also, commendably, hates explanations that are “neon lit”.
Briggs thinks its “mind-blowing” that they shot a hundred minutes in fourteen days. I don’t know. I’m sure Ed Wood could have managed it too. Most interesting is that Cartmel had considered taking out the Parsons subplot on the basis that, with the overrunning episodes, it would have been relatively seamless.
Briggs admires the way Munro “let scenes run” and there’s a rehearsal of Wareing worrying “As long as we don’t get Puss in Boots”, and JN-T’s overruling of initial plans in favour of “proper monsters”. What’s curious, and rather dents my appreciation for her work, is that Munro bemoans how she assumed she had to put the lesbian subtext in covertly. Cartmel rightly observes that is the ultimate show where “You put it in parable or poetic form. You don’t put things boldly”. Unless you’re doing nu-Who. Which is probably why Munro was happy to get the call. It’s curious that there’s no discussion of the appropriateness of overt discussion of (any) sexuality in the show, probably because everyone sees it as passé now the current iteration has embraced it with the enthusiasm of a Carry On film; the assumption is that it was merely the inhibitions of the era that prevented it.
Overall, quite enjoyable, and makes me wish I liked the season as much as they all clearly do.
Stripped for Action – I gave up on DWM (as a regular reader) sometime in 1990, by which point my interest in the comic strip was long since cursory. This feature seems to reflect that, a mix of “good, interesting and bad”, lacking the consistency of the Sixth Doctor run (and even that was wanting towards the end). Cartmel pops up to claim he had offered a “corrective, where the Doctor was neither dark nor mysterious” Er, Valeyard? Alan Barnes rightly lays into one of Andrew’s strips (Ravens) for the Doctor employing a Samurai to hunt down and slay feral youth (Cartmel excuses himself with “The Doctor doesn’t get blood on his hands”!) A decent featurette, and much more interesting than the related strips I’ve read.
Sophie Interview – Matthew Sweet’s amiable interview with amiable Sophie Aldred illustrates that, like Bonnie Langford, she seems to be one of the nicest people associated with the programme. Even if she did work for a group called the Theatre of Thelema (Aldred seems genuinely surprised to learn of the name’s link to Aleister Crowley). As one might expect, the weakness here is that she doesn’t have a bad thing to say about anyone, and even deflects her disagreements with JN-T, and his initial standoffishness, back on herself. Not being an avid Aldred aficionado, I didn’t know she met Trevor from Trevor and Simon at Manchester University, or that she was in Fiddler on the Roof with Topol. Curiously, she keeps referring to JN-T as the executive producer. She credits Sylv’s generosity for the development of her character and notes Anton Diffring’s verdict on Dragonfire: “But Sophie, you were so fat”. She also comments of doing Big Finish in her late fifties with 16-25-year olds… Some things never change.
The JN-T overview is interesting and quite sad, although I found Chris Chapman’s music choices increasingly irksome (I know they were trying to evoke a showbiz vibe, but you don’t want the naffness to put you off watching). There’s a run through of his early life, his relationship with Gary Downie, his fling with a special lady friend, comments on his strengths from those who have also highlighted his failings elsewhere (Bidders, David Reid).
Archive footage of JN-T claiming “We actually doubled the audience” in Season 19 – yeah, after previously halving it from Season 17! Richard Marsden, who wrote the last word on the producer in the more salacious JN-T: The Life and Scandalous Times of John Nathan-Turner comments of his “creating his own brand”, and there’s repeated reference to how he initially intended to leave at the end of The Five Doctors (I recall the DWM Winter Special 83/84 – I think – where he reiterated that he hoped to depart at the end of Season 21).
After the initial euphoria of becoming the producer of the show, it’s easy to see how the role and his own peccadilloes became a millstone preventing him from moving on (Reid notes how he nixed a Compact redo – which I recall was to be titled Impact). The downturn in his rep from around 1985 onwards, with 1986 as his annus horribilis, is detailed (and has been explored in fine print elsewhere). But as Cartmel suggests, the cruellest rub seems to be the sneaky suggestion that he might have had more of a chance getting a show off the ground if he went freelance, so he resigned, which effectively meant he got rid of himself for the BBC. The consequence being that he was put out to pasture in only his early forties, left mopping up odd jobs at BBC Enterprises. A tale that can’t help but be downbeat, with all JN-T’s flamboyance and acumen ultimately leading to diminishing returns and making him his own worst enemy.
A few notable poll placings over the years:
1. The Curse of Fenric (1, 12, 30, 26)
2= Survival (2, 54, 80, 79)
2= Ghost Light (3, 37, 76, 80)
4. Battlefield (4, 97, 146, 159)
Outpost Gallifrey 2003
1. The Curse of Fenric (14)
2. Ghost Light (33)
3. Survival (69)
4. Battlefield (124)