Season 17 – Worst to Best
For a good spell, the seventeenth was surely the most reviled season of Doctor Who. Luckily, Seasons 23 and 24 would come along, in the process vilifying the same producer who’d received so many garlands in the wake of Season 18, purported to have mended all the aberrations inflicted by Graham Williams. You know, Graybags, who just didn’t respect the show sufficiently, didn’t take it seriously, couldn’t control Tom Baker and – worst of all – hadn’t a care for continuity.
This was the first full season I recall watching, although I certainly have memories of the previous one (now my favourite of classic – or proper, if you like – Doctor Who). Perhaps significantly, until I’d bought a copy of The Programme Guide, I wasn’t even entirely aware which stories were from which season (so The Leisure Hive and Meglos kind-of merged into 17). I thus perceived no appreciable uptick in drama and/or quality (or conversely, decrease in how much fun it was). Both takes were equally exciting, weird and imaginative to me, and both remain equally enjoyable now (after that, well, it’s a somewhat different story).
Yes, there are occasions where Season 17 goes too far, and Tom is allowed that little bit too much of a leash, and it’s undeniably patchier production-wise compared to the preceding and ensuing seasons (although, it’s still probably more polished on balance than 15). But there are two unalloyed classics in this run and another two that nudge greatness at times. This isn’t a subtle half dozen, no, but the distinction between the Williams producership (or the Williams/Read/Adams stints), in contrast to the JN-T/Cartmel one, is that they know what they’re aiming for and largely hit the target. You may not like that target, but that’s a different issue (I can’t say I’ve been too keen on the nu-Who target generally, but it seemed to be doing what it was setting out to do, at least until Capaldi). So here’s the worst to best for the last season where the show seemed fully secure in itself, before a new era of changing faces, schedules, prospective cancellations and erratically selected Doctors shook things up for good. It’s got arms and legs and everything.
The Creature from the Pit
I’d like to be able to herald David Fisher’s third script for the series as a neglected classic – something I can claim for at least one other this season – as some are ready to do. But despite some cherishable merits, The Creature from the Pit is all over the place. In almost every department. It is thus the season’s least impressive story by some distance, and yet ironically has more dedicated defenders than probably any of its stablemates. Who are also, pretty much universally, keen to lay any blame at director Christopher Barry’s door.
Certainly, Barry frequently gets in the way of The Creature from the Pit, but he’s also responsible for far-and-away the best directed material of the season (anything shot on film in the Chloris jungle; a significant portion of the mine scenes aren’t half bad either). As Philip McDonald commented on accusations of how awful the season looked: “Is the Ealing Studios jungle in Pit shoddier than the TV Centre jungle in Kinda?” Barry – rightly – thought the creature effects, “a phallic plastic bag”, were lousy. Cue Matt Irvine exonerating himself. But Barry clearly had history here, and I’m really not sure the Robot Palitoy tank gets off any easier. Indeed, its only excuse is that it’s onscreen mercifully briefly.
Barry wasn’t generally too happy with the way the series had changed since The Brain of Morbius, nor the way Tom had. Tat Wood asserts “Barry believed he was salvaging the script”, taking “unemployed-miners-gone-bush and makes them bearded troglodytes”. So Tat is asserting he rewrote the script? Is this akin to Wood’s Terry Nation takedown, comprehensively rebutted in Vworp! Vworp!?
“Barry misses the point entirely… Douglas Adams is around it must be ‘comedy’” Hmmm. So who was responsible for all the “My lovely boys” dialogue? And the (rather funny) Teach Yourself Tibetan (Adams: That sort of thing is not so good, and was usually a product of desperation at that point). Indeed, who was responsible for the tone of the surrounding stories that season? But it’s Barry’s fault if Pit is the pits? Now, you’ll get no argument from me that his direction of the Jewish bandits is dreadful, or that John Bryans’ performance isn’t rotten (he surely wins the series award for the give-a-shittest fall ever), but some of the hoops being jumped through to defend Adams v Barry here – the former, don’t you know, “helped supervise a fantastic script here, albeit one that was badly sandbagged by the director” – beggar belief.
Both Lisbeth Sandifer and Wood would have you believe the final episode is actually very clever, but Barry ruins it by “turning it into a ten-minute confrontation between Adrasta and Erato followed by a fifteen-minute mini-episode about stopping a different threat”. Yeah, it’s Barry’s fault: “He mis-paces the whole final episode” and manages to “miss the hints about the neutron star and make it all seem like an add-on to the ‘main’ story rather than inevitable consequences of Adrasta’s folly”. Which is a roundabout way of saying Fisher’s script is purposefully anti-climactic. This smacks of desperately manoeuvring to make the writer’s failures – and I’m a fan of Fisher, but not of how he structures this one – the director’s.
However you cut it, Barry can’t be held accountable for half an episode of epilogue stopping the thing stone dead in its tracks. Much closer to the truth is that, as Larry Miles suggests, Fisher’s plot’s at fault, and there’s “nowhere near enough to sustain four episodes”. Justin Richards proposed a “schizophrenia of realisation” and pointed to the monster (obviously): “The other let-down is the ending. In fact, almost all of the final episode”. Fisher kills off his villain and then expects the story to retain its dramatic integrity (well, what there is of it) without her.
Sandifer has already decided Fisher’s story must be great, though, because she thinks it’s about something she agrees with: “Some people, it seems, just don’t understand a proper anti-capitalist screed when they see one”. Screeve, more like. A snivelling one. Sandifer’s as right-on as Rik in The Young Ones on this. As a consequence, “The real resolution isn’t Adrasta getting her comeuppance… but rather the moment where the Doctor blows up a massive pile of metal in order to demonstrate the folly of short-term materialism in response to the failings of the entire planet”. Yes, of course, it was. What devastating repartee! Her blog review is most amusing for how everyone in the comments piles on to tell her she’s talking cobblers, and she still can’t fess up to mistaking her thematic imprinting for actual content. Notable, though is that both this and the vastly superior The Leisure Hive begin Part Four (“You mentioned Foamasi?”) with the assumed villains suddenly able to communicate with our hero and provide some much-needed exposition.
Other curiosities include her assertion “The impact of this story depends on the assumption that the audience is going to mistake the bandits as the good guys”. It does? Despite the first episode making it very clear what they’re like (per Romana)? The bigger takeaway in terms of appraisals is the extremes. It’s either the best thing ever (conceptually) or dreck (per Craig Hinton, it “defies description”. Per Miles, it’s “comedy SF in which the comedy isn’t funny and the SF isn’t very interesting”). Miles also suggests “The new voice of K9 is, incidentally, almost unbearable”, but how Gay-9’s intonation of “some friendly sparrows!” could be perceived that way is quite beyond me.
I do like much of the humour here, the emphasis on rote SF (“Why do you call it the Place of Death?”), everything about Geoffrey Bayldon’s performance, the undermining of establishment science (regarding the egg, “Well, Engineer Doran, in his latest paper on the subject, has proved conclusively that it is part of an ancient building”), the depiction of rulers knowing the greater truth and hiding it from an abjectly subjugated populace (you know, like the Elite), even Torvin’s final line (“Is that really… tempered steel?”) Lalla Ward may not like her performance here, but she’s fine, particularly winding up the bandits.
But where much of the Williams era’s humour is very much my thing, a fair portion is also repetitive (two gags of the Doctor saying Adastra threw people/astrologers at Erato; “How nice to meet a well-mannered guard” gets the drop on violent butlers in production order). There’s also lazily referencing the Minotaur, then having the Nimon two stories later (one might also point to Tythonian vs Typhonian). Crucially, Myra Frances is a bit crap, and certainly no Cessair of Diplos, while Eileen Way is evil, but not in a fun way. And what’s with Tom’s sweats? Class A detox under harsh studio lights?
But it’s gratifying to see that, just as the trusted authority figures lie to the populace as a matter of course, so pronouncements of Organon talking guff because he’s unscientific – “Oh please. No more astrological mumbo jumbo” – are wrong (he’s clearly on the money several times, and we have the precedent of The Masque of Mandragora to back up the art’s veracity). The Creature from the Pit isn’t really much cop. Unlike most of the era, you can feel it struggling to retain any momentum beyond the first episode. Where does the fault lie? No one comes out with a great dignity, so let’s just draw a line and blame Irvine.
Shahhhh-da! I doubt anyone much – well, Lalla maybe – holds out that Shada might have been an all-timer had it been completed. It has enough expectedly solid ideas, as you’d expect from Douglas, but it lacks either the focus of City of Death or the bombardment of brilliantly bananas concepts and characters of The Pirate Planet. It also has the problem of Pennant, called on to deliver something that needs scale and atmosphere, foreign concepts both. If only Michael Hayes had been given two slots in this season, as he was in 16.
I mean, Peter Moffat gets a bad rap – for good reason – but his before-and-after space station in The Two Doctors is much, much more effectively realised than Think Tank here. Part One – by some distance the most complete of the six – is quite amiable, but it’s never more than sedate. Which sums things up, really. Everyone’s enjoying themselves and having a good time, and so are we, to a degree, but Shada never coalesces into something more. I can see why Adams wasn’t mad keen on it, given that he sets up his plot on an enormously unlikely coincidence – Skagra’s after the book at the very same time Chronotis summons the Doctor – and includes further irksome contrivances (the Doctor losing The Worshipful and Ancient Law of Gallifrey he’s taking such care to keep from Skagra and failing even to notice).
And yet, as noted, there are some strong concepts, with time running backwards over a tome – appropriate, given the much-noted literary bent of the Williams era – a non-derivative use of Time Lord lore (something that would be in short supply for much of the next half-decade). There’s a reasonable plan by the villain (Skagra is essentially intent on fashioning himself as demiurge after the fact: “The universe shall be me” – it would be considerably more compelling had he some actual motivation for this. Over and above simply being villainous, of course). There are some fun plays on computer logic (“Dead men do not require oxygen”). And the Cambridge scenes, and Chronotis especially, are quite jolly. Adams’ take on timey-wimey is also far preferable to Moffat’s spastic uses (“Think of me as a paradox within an anomaly, and get on with your tea”). Tom’s behaving himself (probably because the script editor’s writing) and Christopher Neame rocks his hat like a pimp daddy.
As for the animation, well it’s easy enough to get used to, rudimentary as it is, but for what it’s worth, I preferred the general look and execution of Sir Ian’s version. Which also included – naturally, as he simply adores his continuity – some legit old foes imprisoned on Shada. This lot look like rejects from an episode of The Book of Boba Fett. Animated Romana meanwhile is the spit of Victoria Coren-Mitchell. I’d have left real old Tom out of this six-part version, nice as his bit is, and replaced him with an animated equivalent, just to make it more of-a-piece (a two-piece, rather than a three-piece quilt). Generally, the “complete” Shada’s quite an engaging watch, though – MaRk Ayres’ faux-Dudley score is reasonably inoffensive, although his chase music is waaaaay too jaunty in Part Two – and the story is over-extended at six episodes but also base-line decent. Yes, some of the humour flails a bit – and you notice that K9 was given a rosette in the last story and Romana receives a medal in this – and it’s all so tatty looking that it’s hard to believe JN-T was serious about remounting it (since it would have jarred so massively with his new look).
Perhaps appropriately, for a story that never got finished, Shada leaves several loose ends. Skagra is defeated and humiliated – by his space ship – but he’s neither killed nor facing justice by the time the credits roll (shades of Count Grendel). And with regard to the prison itself, the Doctor abdicates any responsibility for dealing with the mess (“Let the Time Lords sort it out. I’m not going to play judge and jury”). He seems to believe it will come back on their radar (“It was only forgotten because the professor made us forget”), so one might assume he doesn’t necessarily disapprove of the place.
The Blu-ray proclaimed the six-part version as the definitive, but I dare say all those banked voices will come in handy for a deep-fake recreation in a decade or two. As it is, though, I haven’t heard the McGann one, haven’t submitted myself to the Keffed-up JN-T version in a long time, and I actively dread the prospect of having to endure Gareth Roberts’ novelisation again.
Destiny of the Daleks
Oh, poor Davros! Season 17’s never-the-twain-shall-meet divide between those who savour the Williams era’s “undergraduate” humour and those who considered it a betrayal of all that was sanctified about Doctor Whowas writ large as never before by Destiny of the Daleks. Its litany of crimes were evident from the off, with that regeneration scene, and proceeded apace with gags about Daleks unable to climb stairs, shamefully tatty Dalek props and disco robots who proved absurdly easy to disable. And while I’ll give them the last on the list – everything about overcoming the Movellan threat in the final episode would make even CBBC blush – the story’s humorous pose, along with mostly stylish execution and a deceptively robust, if oddly canon-busting, script more than compensate.
This was – as much as I can remember, anyway – my first Dalek story, one I duly saw twice in a pre-video household (with the following summer’s repeat), so I can only be biased in as much as a story I initially considered quite dramatic became very funny a decade or so later (so in theory, and largely in practice, Season 17 followed suit). Much as Terry Nation – and to a degree Adams – cops flack for the plotting, Destiny of the Daleks can boast slow-but-sure unfolding along with highly memorable cliffhangers: One’s Dalek; Two’s Davros; and Three’s Nova device. Then there’s the Daleks’ murderising response to the Doctor. Paper cut scissors. The advancing of Dalek mythology (buried Davros is akin to the Telos’ tombs for historicity).
The Movellans are pretty cool… until they aren’t (Peter Straker’s deadpan Commander, Suzanne Danielle – the greatest stunt casting JN-T never devised – getting the drop on Bo Derek’s 10 look by a year, Tony Osaba coming on like Steven Moffat from the future). Grieve’s choices, from Steadicam to favouring sound effects over score, are all intuitively correct ones. Lalla’s great (her sigh at Tom’s modesty). It’s only really during the later stages of the final episode that the story loses me; I could maybe buy that the Movellans weren’t expecting to have power-pack problems, what with established Dalek mobility, and that their arms are prone to falling off some times, but reprogramming them so ridiculously easily? It’s The Android Invasion level guff.
Other scenes of note: Davros merging from plume of smoke unscathed after the primed thermal device goes off always makes me laugh. I usually sense Tom is overdoing the signage to deaf Tyssan; well meaning, but slightly patronising. Baker’s on good, exuberant form (“Bye-bye!”; “Now spack off!”)
While I wasn’t conscious of the distinction at the time, I dare say the reason we see a squirmy mutant upfront on the next Dalek appearance is that Ian Levine was so livid about their new status here that he demanded pal Eric retcon them forthwith. It’s first intimated something is up with these Daleks when they question the Doctor’s logic in his willingness to sacrifice himself, but rather than Nick Brigg’s cautious “There’s even a hint there isn’t a Dalek creature inside any more”, its stated outright no less than four times: in answer to “The Doctor knows more about the Daleks than anyone”, Sharrell asks “He’s an expert in robotics?”; when the Doctor finds a mutant, he exclaims “Of course! The Daleks were originally organic lifeforms”. Later, he tells Tyssan the Movellans are “Just another race of robots no better than the Daleks”. This is reiterated by Davros: “The Daleks have met another foe worthy of their powers. Another race of robots”. So there you have it. Robots. Terry said so, so it’s gospel.
Sir Ian, though, had even bigger priorities, way back in 1979. “I could never forgive Graham Williams for the regeneration scene with Romana… where she… tries on six or seven new faces before she settles on the one which she wanted… Now it has been clearly established that a Time Lord can only have twelve regenerations. So how can they have some supposedly responsible female Time Lord… wasting six regenerations? … It is that sort of non-attention to the series that gives me no regard for Graham Williams at all”. Indeed, one might suggest Ian’s view of him was lower than a cockroach. John Tulloch and Manuel Alvarado identified the core problem – as fans at the time perceived it – with the Williams/Destiny approach, one that “drew attention to the bare bones of action drama – and demystified the show’s most venerable villains which angered fans on the grounds of continuity as well as ‘realism’”. Which is why Ian, for a honeymoon period at least, raved over his successor: “Hence the programme’s return (after the Williams era) to encouraging authorship-within-continuity and within ‘generic mythology’ is supported by the most serious fans”.
Destiny fans remain in the minority, it seems: The Discontinuity Guide cited “a tacky, inconsequential feel that comes from a decade of having its best jokes sneered at”. Miles had the knives out, asserting it “sums up everyone’s memories of the days when Doctor Who was cheap, stupid, shoddy-looking and little more than a platform for the man in the scarf”, displayed a “complete misunderstanding of the Daleks’ own mythology”, was “horribly, pathetically slow”, and suffered from “appalling visuals”. He didn’t like the regeneration scene either. Oh, poor Larry!
Tat Wood could only offer a “sort-of” defence, while Sandifer rebuffed Miles’ complaint that the regeneration scene destroys logic and makes the show impossible to care about, but also claimed the story was “a disaster”. Cos Nation. Still, she suggested “There are solid reasons, watching this, to believe that the show has turned a corner”. Anyone would think, reading that, Season 16 was other than the BEST SEASON EVAH. No, Destiny of the Daleks isn’t as good as Season 16 (well okay, it’s better than The Power of Kroll), but until Douglas decides he can’t be bothered to rewrite Terry at a crucial late stage, the combination of chalk and cheese serves the story remarkably well.
The Horns of Nimon
Nimon be praised! If The Creature from the Pit seems to take a downwards tumble in my estimation whenever I revisit it, The Horns of Nimon only rises. The common charges – it’s panto, Crowden is massively over the top, the design work is cheap and tacky, the acting generally is rotten, the TARDIS sound effects, the script fails to disguised how derivative it is – all have some validity, depending on your tolerance levels, as does the Sandifer verdict that “The defence of the story, such as it is, amounts to ‘well it’s supposed to be funny’”. Except that I’ve always found it funny and dramatically engaging.
Part of that is surely down to suspending disbelief with elements others outright scorn. I like the Nimon, and not simply by referring to the original concept that “they were too ugly to look at themselves, and needed vast masks”. As Phil McDonald pondered “… are the Mandrells and the Nimons really any worse than the Foamasi or the Garm?” Their voices – acutely dismissed, but unfairly so, as “electronic indigestion” by Nicola Bryant – are marvellous swirling, rumbling, ominous gargles. The design elements – immobile “mask”, stiletto heels and body stockings – are daffy but have an agreeable visual consistency. Kenny McBain’s direction gets some stick, and he certainly doesn’t always position his monsters to their best advantage, but he’s often keeping the lighting complimentarily low and crucially has a sure grasp of pacing (there’s a number of moments here with imminent Nimon threat that remain effectively tense, be it several sauntering up behind Romana on Crinoth or the Doctor opening a capsule full of them on Skonnos).
The Unfolding Text referenced this execution in respect of “a tendency for more pantomime presentation… where the Doctor and his companions constantly ‘hid’ from the monster while remaining clearly in view”, but that’s hardly anything new to the show. The over-the-top elements – Crowden, Malcolm Terris’ “Weakling scum!”-repeating co-pilot – are funny, and supposed to be, and Crowden’s is one of the gleefully comic performances of the show’s history par excellence. However,I don’t find that mutually exclusive to Nimon landing dramatically (look at Lalla confronting Soldeed in the final episode, playing him dead straight, and sustaining the scene). And the rather drab-hero elements have the piss taken out of them, per The Armageddon Factor and The Pirate Planet, in an effective fashion; Seth isn’t all that as a brave leader, and he’s increasingly wearied by Teka’s unfaltering faith in his stature (the less said about the extras the better, since there’s definitely too much of them and their reactions, or lack thereof, in shot).
Structurally, Anthony Read has also fashioned an interesting piece. The TARDIS crew – far more justifiably than in Meglos, with its clumsy playing for time – don’t land on Skonnos until the second episode, the Doctor until seventeen minutes into it. Romana – Ward is quite right to claim this as a great Romana story – gets much of the meaty action, including an effective trip to Crinoth in the final episode that succeeds where such last-minute sidesteps very often do not (probably partly because it doesn’t require the device of the TARDIS to get there, generating its own “Will she get back?” suspense).
Read, whose script editing on the previous season is nigh flawless, has received it in the ear from some quarters for the script, with Larry Miles, who considered the finished story “a culmination of the worst excess of the Graham Williams era” arguing it was the “sheer hollowness… that’s the hardest thing to take”. Sandifer parroted “Absolutely everything about this script is wrong”. The offence, bafflingly, rests on its appropriation of myth, which should “make things bigger”, “So when you just do myth as literary pastiche where the sole purpose of the mythic content is to show how clever you are… well, it’s more than a bit flat”.
So it’s flat because it isn’t epic, which in any case, it wasn’t trying to be? It’s an intentional deconstruction, so of course it isn’t going to strain for the epic, making Sandifer’s suggestion of “trying to do Star Wars not only without the budget…” entirely fatuous, as if she’s missed the point of the presentation of the Williams era. (Credit too to one of the commentators, who observes Read is asking “what if the king was a sucker and the Minotaur wasn’t just a dumb monster? The close mapping in names and other trappings is justified because the point of the story is to set up the twist”).
Indeed, that side, along with the “mythology” (if you will) Read brings along rather negates the idea that The Horns of Nimon is simply a thoughtlessly rote appropriation. I’m not entirely persuaded by the positronic circuit – neat as it is conceptually – but the “plague of locusts” analogy of the Nimon is smart and in situ (and not just an Axos rip-off). The aforementioned heroes aren’t so heroic, and so Read has a woman leading the way. He’s enjoying his allusions and inversions.
JN-T, who probably didn’t read much unless it was on a coaster – in contrast to Read, who did little else – wasn’t keen on the Williams era style of comedy “relying on a certain privileged information” as The Unfolding Text put it: “In Underworld, Jason’s character was called Jackson, and the spaceship was called P7E – Persephone! And I just think that that’s not very clever at all”. Actually, it’s not not clever, but more to the point, it doesn’t do any damage either way.
As Tulloch and Alvarado note, “What the Williams era did do was to play more consciously on intertextuality – specifically on the potential for relating to parallel narrative development in ‘source’ texts”. Here, they’re addressing the white ship reference to Seth’s ship home, which I do think is unnecessary. It would be like the Doctor dropping in a reference to Zenda at the end of The Androids of Tara. With The Horns of Nimon, it suggests a slight self-consciousness regarding the essential charge, of the cheapness in the borrowing, such that if a joke is made out of it; they know you know it is.
The Nimon’s behaviour is also distinct from the Axons in that they’re pretty much spacefaring Draculas, or adrenochrome addicts; young, prized specimens are shipped off to have their life essences drained, the Nimon speculatively “feeds by ingesting the binding energy of organic compounds such as flesh”. We haven’t had an enemy quite so grim in bent since old bent face himself. And the flim-flam with which they sell this (“He speaks of many things… the Great Journey of Life”) further suggests the kind of New Age-y veneer that masks more suspect misdirections within; the Power Complex is the Tavistock Institute, basically.
But if your takeaway is Goon Show sound effects and K9 getting a rosette pinned on him, Crowden corpsing and Tom taking the piss – hilariously out of the Nimon (“Tell me, are you really, terribly fierce, hmm? Is it true that you’re very, very, very fierce, hmm?”) – it’s likely that you’ll be similarly disposed to Graham Duff: “Things quickly become giddily self-reflexive… Unfortunately, this overconfident fondling of the show’s iconography only serves to nudge us outside of the drama”. There were exceptions. Craig Hinton, who had no love for a number of the era, admitted “I like the story… I cannot divert criticism of the farting TARDIS sound effects, or the tottering high-heeled Nimon itself. But it really doesn’t deserve the annihilating reviews that it receives”.
As McDonald noted of the reaction to the season in the early-80s “My heart sinks to recall the sheer bald contempt in which we held any so-called fan who had the gall to suggest that Destiny of the Daleks was anything other than the worst Doctor Who story of all time – apart from The Horns of Nimon, of course”. I wouldn’t be foolish enough to suggest it has come out the other side as one of the best, as it still languishes whenever a new poll is done, but The Horns of Nimon has at least developed a range of firm adherents, those recognising it isn’t just supposed to be funny (which again, it just is). It’s also a clever, erudite piece of storytelling that caps (in broadcast terms anyway) the nimblest era the show would see.
Nightmare of Eden
“No, I am going to switch it off.” It’s generally held that the last couple of Bob Baker and Dave Martin efforts, one of them with Bob flying solo, are among the dregs of the show. It’s a view I find mystifying. Certainly, they’re clearly not among the most lavish productions Doctor Who has seen – Nightmare of Eden, in particular, suffers from a threadbare-first aesthetic – but the sheer imagination of ideas and plotting, and the unbridled eccentricity of several of the performances easily make up for any deficits. Nightmare of Eden is rarely placed near the first few rankings even in the much-maligned Season 17, but it fully deserves to be. As a plot, it’s as polished as City of Death, possibly more so, and it’s a great shame Chris Bidmead, high on his lofty peak, or Eric Saward – whom you’d have thought would have leapt at the chance to engage someone reliable – decided not to use Baker.
On the other hand, RTD dismissing him with a curt “We don’t use old series writers” amounts to a lucky escape. What he really meant was “We don’t want to be shown up”, as Russell’s average plot could be transcribed on the back of a match box in bold marker, with all the crucial bits obscured by the striking surface, and likely was. Nightmare of Eden’s arrangement of ideas and devices would put the aforementioned Bidders to shame, although Baker would have needed to ladle tachyonics onto every other sentence to ensure Chris would listen, and recursive tachyonics at that. Indeed, when Romana describes Russian Dolls as a model of the universe, it’s very clear the only thing Bidmead trumped his predecessors on was starchy characterisation and sterile delivery.
You’ve got space road rage (hyperspace rage?) on the part of Dymond, peeved to have his ship pronged. The idea of the hyperspace collision creating unstable interfaces. There’s a novel drug (an addiction to ravening monsters, in their dissolute form anyway). The space zoo, taking in ideas both SF and interdimensional (the “electro-magnetic” crystals storing portions of planets, accessible by the CET – Continual Event Transmuter – Machine). Or “Boxes in boxes” as Rigg (David Daker) amusedly observes while off his tits on Vrax (not zip). That the instability of one (the ship) creates instability in the other (the machine) seems entirely consistent in context, as does the solution to the escape by Tryst and Dymond (“something terribly clever”).
The execution can be sniffed at (it seems Williams directed much less of the story than is generally assumed), but I rather like the Mandrells. And jungle (cheap, but well lit). And the chase through passenger lounges in Part Two. And Rigg’s hysterical laughter at passengers being mauled (which could also be taken as very meta). His “Hey. It’s really nice being arrested” sounds like an audition for Neil in The Young Ones. The actual effects of vraxoin are never given much analysis – warm complacency, total apathy, and not sounding much like drunkenness to me – particularly the apparent pronouncement that one sniff of the stuff’s a death sentence.
Indeed, the story, like everything else this season, is only going to work if you’re willing to find it funny, and not worry too much about suspending disbelief. Some will nevertheless say it’s a piddy we can’t see a serious take, but for me, Lewis Fiander – of Not Now, Comrade fame – gives an outrageous performance that least deserves to nudge Crowden’s for kudos, and each viewing yields new nuggets of amusement at who is trying not to corpse in his company (usually Tom commands attention in that regard, but on this viewing I noted Lalla putting on a brave face and even Jennifer Lonsdale – Della – restraining her natural impulses). Peter Craze appears to be competing at times, but with lines like “Well, criminals are like that”, he’s reasonably responding to the character’s (semiotic) thickness on the page.
I will draw the line at the “…my legs… my everything” as Tom going too far, but only because he doesn’t make it land. Lalla’s great throughout, her modest “Equal, perhaps” in response to Tryst asking “Are you claiming superior knowledge?” and “Well, I’ll need a screwdriver” on being asked to fix the CET machine. This is also a rare case of the dissolving monster, something that would become a fixture over the next half-decade, so never let it be said Season 17 wasn’t influential.
City of Death
So much has been written about the best story ever – well, about most stories ever, for that matter – there’s surely nothing left worth saying. Tobe Hadoke’s breathless “Look, there’s a good scene, good line, good performance etc” in his cajoling Tom on the new commentaries says it all (perhaps they should have asked Gary Russell: “It’s a bit shit, isn’t it, Tom? Let’s watch Warriors of the Deep instead”).
One can find room for improvement with any story. As with The Hand of Fear, I can see the reasoning, but I’d question any decision to show the monster at the very start. City of Death is sprightly, but it isn’t as confidently staged or lit as either of Michael Hayes’ previous stories (and he ought to have shot primeval Earth on film; it’s better realised than Time-flight, but only by degrees). Glover not being in the monster mask is no deal breaker, but it’s a good thing John Hurt didn’t have that attitude to portraying John Merrick (a matter of months after Glover’s titanic role). Some dedicated thesp Julian is.
The travelogue bits are amiable, but Dudley’s (also amiable) score adds to the feel they are repetitive adornments. It’s very wasteful of Scaroth to tear apart a perfectly good prosthetic mask just to look in the mirror (and if he’s such a dab hand, why not other prosthetics too, expressly designed to keep the countess’ suspicions at bay?) And why did Romana rig the component so “it could only go back in time for two minutes” if she’s convinced “It’s all right. He just wants to get back to his spaceship and reunite himself”?
I won’t list all my favourite moments, as they’re pretty much the entire story, but Duggan drinking from a broken wine bottle always gets me. As does Herman’s “With pleasure, sir” – it’s also Herman who kills Scaroth, of course. Julian Glover, despite my criticism above, plays a blinder. Catherine Schell is equally good. The Discontinuity Guide had it that “It’s a pity that the rest of Doctor Who exists to make this story part of a bigger continuity, as it deserves to stand alone”. But they also have a creepy bit about Emma Thompson massaging their feet.
The aforementioned Gary was offended by the lack of realism, what he perceives as embarrassment on the writers’ parts that leads them to “water it all down with some silly bits” and “if our hero doesn’t take the threat seriously, why should we?”. He’s like Ian, basically. Although Ian said “It was almost a classic, but not quite… It was certainly the best in that lamentable season… It had a very good premise… but too much slapstick, too much comedy thrown in”. Whereas Gary suggested “very little of Doctor Who is placed on quite such a shiny, high pedestal for being so terribly average”.
Elsewhere (About Time), even Mad Larry admitted it was “the one environment in which the Adams / Williams vision of the programme makes perfect sense”. Ironically, the pro-era Wood issues the more suspect critique. He has a dig at Larry with “No one could be so literal-minded as to think that the Doctor can really skim-read that fast, nor yet fly”. Failing to recognise – which is where Gary comes in, to be fair to him and his limitations in accepting format shifts, and JN-T too citing its “undergraduate humour” and “juvenile silliness” – that this is an era where the gag outweighs mundane concerns such as continuity or realism. Yes Tat, the Doctor canskim-read that fast, and fly (unless they teleported down from Duggan), purely for the purposes of that wheeze at that moment in the story. If you don’t like it, tough.
Williams, per The Unfolding Text, admitted City of Death “definitely spoofed the whole series”. It’s inevitable that’s going to turn off some fans, even as its “trad” elements (a robust storyline) have ensured its legacy as one of the most popular stories. The trad is out of Hinchcliffe and Kneale-streaked Von Daniken – Pyramids of Mars, Image of the Fendahl, The Daemons – where ancient aliens have influenced the development of mankind. But Adams makes it cheeky (well, in conception form, Fisher does, by giving the alien funding problems; he’d return to the burdens of capitalisation in both The Creature from the Pit and The Leisure Hive).
JN-T’s vision, initially greeted as the second coming of the great prophet Zarquon by rapt fans – and not entirely misguidedly, as Season 18 is, for the most part, very good – got back to the “true’ traditions of the programme which had been disturbed by a period of ‘send up’”. Of course, his dismissal of “you’ve lost a scene!”, by his anticipation of the audience response to a Cleese cameo taking them out of the story, needs to be placed in context of latterly casting Ken Dodd, Joan Sims and Richard Briers. And Hale and Pace. Adams, in turn, was rather caught trying to over-defend an entirely legitimate take on the show in The Unfolding Text. Far from juvenile, most of the humour of the Williams era, even where there’s slapstick involved, is actually quite sophisticated conceptually. Which makes it markedly unlike, say the majority of those contributing to nu-Who.
So no, I’m going to resist stodgy references to table wine with regard to this season. Much too easy. It’s closer to Renaissance sunshine (the weather in the early part of the sixteenth century being so much more preferable). Whenever you watch City of Death, you can be confident the century that divides you from it will be undone. Well, 43 years’ worth.
Destiny of the Daleks
Return to Skaro: As ever when there’s a new making-of, some judicious editing would be in order, particularly with the variable talking heads. Tom’s looking increasingly skeletal, like Julian Beck in Poltergeist II, but he’s still as sharp as a tack. Kevin Davies discusses the Blake’s 7/Dalek crossover. Is Lalla Ward really seventy? There’s something odd going on there. June Hudson expresses incomprehension over how Tom would make it to work following a typical evening’s carousing.
Behind the Sofa: I get the impression Matthew Waterhouse always pretends to know less than he does. He’s an irritant and bore, and pairing him with Colin Baker doesn’t help matters any. Nicola Bryant being teamed with Katy Manning keeps the latter’s baby voice in check. Both love Lalla’s cossie. Graeme Harper: “I have to say, the style of shooting on this is terrific. Very, very stylish… very well directed” (although he also seems to think a lot of money was spent on it).
The Ken Grieve interview, the Terry Nation doc (the “soul of amiability” says Terrance Dicks) and The Dalek Tapes are all quite watchable and quite unremarkable. Noisy universe!
City of Death
Commentary: I gave Tom and Toby a listen, the latter a nervy gush of energy, tripping over himself to keep Tom alert and interested and attempting, to no avail, to impart story points. Still, Tom’s as mentally spry as ever, even if he forgets things Hadoke’s told him the previous episode (not that surprising with all the verbal diarrhoea issuing everywhere). These days, the best of Tom is invariably having him digress from Who, and Toby is more than obliging in that regard, so there’s some good stuff on his relationship with Sir Larry. Baker’s also very tickled by Cleese’s preferred credit for his cameo (Kim Bread).
Making Of: This hails from 2005, and there are some enjoyable contributions (and also a snippet of Catherine Schell, which suggests she had absolutely nothing of value to say). It’s also from a time when the Moff was less guarded: “I don’t think the run of stories were that brilliant… I don’t think it was a majestic era of Doctor Who at all”. Says the mechanical digger who would go on to oversee the determinedly non-brilliant, unmajestic Capaldi era. David Fisher accepted 75 percent of the fee: good for him. A real waste that one of Doctor Who’s instantly most attuned writers was ditched as the JN-T era got underway.
Behind the Sofa: Good grief, Waterhouse tests the patience. Colin should have sat on him. His every comment (“Yes, it’s a clever little number”), movement, gesture is irksome to the max. Katy’s rediscovered those annoying kiddie voices. Nicola should have clobbered her. Colin is taken with Romana, genuinely it seems (as opposed to his customary virtue signalling): “They worked very well together, didn’t they… for a while”; “I love Lalla’s Romana”. His “The Jagaroth of Khan” rematch title is quite amusing.
Directing Doctor Who: Michael Hayes recalls that The Androids of Tara and The Armageddon Factor were filmed back to back, but I guess he means it just seemed like it.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Douglas Adams: Some valuable contributions in Paul Vanezis’ tribute, particularly John Lloyd (and John Carter), Kevin Davies (on script editing: “An interesting fit for the job, shall we say”), and Douglas himself (on Wogan, discussing the first story and the show generally: “Part of what went wrong with it was colour”). Tom: “Such a good fellow”, and mentioning Ken Campbell’s Guide production, awareness that “He’s got a voice”. Lalla on getting Romana rewritten on City (and the thirteen-amp fuse), as well as a vague flirtation at one point (he had a lucky escape!) “He kind of was a big child”, which is why the and Tom got on so well.
Andrew Smith being bought his first alcoholic drink by Adams, and Bob Baker getting sloshed over lunch, ostensibly to discuss problems with Eden (which were, basically, a request for more Mandrells). John Lloyd breaking every rule in the Doctor Who bible with The Doomsday Contract, but more to Williams’ concern than Adams. Bidmead on their differences – “silly”, “far too much magic in the show” – and opining on the effects of his huge advance on the novel and his having “no sort of work ethic”. Also how the Hitchhiker TV show “wasn’t for me”, and he believes Adams either, but the idea that a US movie would work was “an outrageous illusion on his part”. Richard Dawkins, scourge of religion everywhere, on the Electric Monk (does your believing for you) as his favourite Adams idea.
The Creature from the Pit
Behind the Scenes: Full marks to Colin calling out Waterhouse (“Are you the girlie costume police?”) He’s ultimately very forgiving, perhaps mindful of the reception of his own stories, and considers it “rather charming”. Harper is on point – “This looks like it was desperate for time” and “well directed but not as stylistic” as the last one. More too: “I find it desperate. It’s a desperate production”. He also “didn’t think much of the script” (it’s nice to get an actual critique here).
Lalla Ward remembers Season 17: It’s curious that I’ve found Ward so annoying on some commentaries I’ve had to switch them off, yet she’s a really good interview here. Effusive with praise for fellow actors (this is pre-Waterhouse, after all), memories of Creature, and Tom and Bayldon getting on, Tom adoring Eileen Way, Frances saying “Point the dog against the rock!” How she (jokingly) wanted to punch Suzanne Danielle as she was introduced to the press as the new girl. Remembering Tom’s rudeness to the Alan Bromly (“I’m getting psittacosis listening to that parrot!”) How she adored Graham Crowden and liked Nimon because she “certainly got a lot to do” She considered Williams a gentleman and a “terribly nice man”. Going to see Alien with Tom and Crowden: “Why don’t they all just go down to the hold and bore the alien to death?” I’m glad I wasn’t at that screening or I’d have tipped Tom into a pit and thrown rocks at him. Working with Patrick Stewart and recalling his disdain for someone doing SF.
The Animal Magic excerpt with Tom – in sweaty coke mode – is rather lovely, particularly since he lists some of the more obscure creatures (shrivenzale, krynoid).
Nightmare of Eden
Behind the Sofa: My God, Waterhouse is insufferable. Does anyone genuinely watch these things and think otherwise? All I can say is that Colin deserves a whole new level of respect for nonchalantly putting up with him. Harper thinks “there’s no energy in this” (I disagree). Everyone’s taken by the “terribly camp” “village people outfits”. Fisk produces more mirth than Tryst. Colin likes the idea. Katy really enjoyed it, and there’s agreement that there were “some very interesting performances there”.
In Conversation is a disappointment, sadly, with Matthew Sweet unable to spark Bob Baker (since deceased) into especially engaging responses. He’s there, but he’s rambling. I thought the “monumental mason” was going to elicit some revelation, but it turns out Bob’s referring to trade (like Hardy and Jude the Obscure) rather than (necessarily) freemasonry. Interesting too that Dave Martin saw Who as rather beneath him, that Three Doctors had some Huxley in it, and sad that Sweet believes Rigg laughing represents “disturbing images”; he’s missing out if he doesn’t find it hilarious.
The Horns of Nimon
Behind the Sofa: Waterhouse is his usual egregious self – although noting Ward’s costume budget, regardless of the rest of the budget, is a fair call – but Colin is good value, even if he ends up saying he was slightly underwhelmed. He calls Matthew out for describing a scene as “darkly lit” , is appreciative of Tom (“He delivers his lines terribly well, doesn’t he?”) and his scenes with Crowden (“Now, that is too masters of their craft, parrying with their epees”). He also announces “One of my favourite lines ever in Doctor Who” of “You meddlesome hussy!” Bryant has ongoing issues with the monsters (“I personally feel that this creature needs bigger arms”), swapped wetsuits with Ellis once (“But that’s a whole other story”) and felt the whole thing was “a little bit contained”. Harper enjoyed Crowden’s energy which “really helped the story” and appreciated that it “didn’t look rushed”. Hudson thoroughly enjoyed it and is proud of her costume work.
Per the Anthony Read interview, he felt at this point Adams “was not as much in control as he had been” and was finding it “difficult to cope”. He wasn’t impressed with McBain’s direction and thought the humour “got a bit out of hand” and veered into pantomime. Lighten up, Ant. Did you not see The Pirate Planet on your watch?
Doctor’s Composer: a faintly superfluous Dudley interview, a bit like his scores.
Graham Williams overview: Pegg inserting himself on the narration at times is unnecessary, but there’s some good material (often found elsewhere on the box set) here. Including Williams’ widow (who seems very nice), Graham McDonald’s letter noting Kroll looked a bit shit, Fisher and his “collection of awful aunts”, reference to Williams “sense of responsibility” imposed on the Doctor (Key to Time, randomiser) and Read on Tom (“It’s very hard to control a national institution”). The later contribution on the Key to Time DVD release is theWilliams era doc, but this is nothing to sniff at.
Taken Out of Time: An engaging Making/Not Making of. Tom didn’t bother to learn to punt (he protests). Bristol and production assistant Olivia Bazalgette have been together since Shada (aw, sweet). The original Billy Bunter (Gerald Campion; Ronnie Corbet with a bit more voracity) owned bar Jerry’s, which Tom frequented (of course). Sixth Floor nixing the remount was a terrible downer. Why did Roberts have a Howard the Duckposter on his wall?
Behind the Sofa: Colin is again better value than the rest, now with the measure of Waterhouse (“And what do you have to say about Lalla’s costume this time?”) Hudson enjoys the punting (“What a lovely scene”). Neame’s costume is “A little bit camp, even for university” (Bryant). Colin groans at the “B, B, C” joke. Everyone seems to like the animation, although Harper notes it isn’t so great on Lalla. Waterhouse is clearly unpersuaded by the last scene (“Oh, this is the bit were supposed to be moved by… It’s very sweet”). Harper: “I loved his laugh at the end”.
Strike Strike Strike: Engrossing history of strike action as it affected the show. Economically told and to the point.
Tom Talks: Sweet invites Baker to hold forth on subjects tenuously related to the season. If it’s familiar territory – Roman Catholicism – I tend to drift off a bit, but there’s some good material, on France, Francis Bacon, vegetarianism (“I’m by no means an enthusiastic meat eater”) intoxication (he hasn’t drunk at all for the past few years – he’s just “relieved that I’m alive and well and happy”). On the subject of which, enjoying his own longevity at the expense of others who might have taken a job off him (He was “certainly a better actor than I am, but he’s dead, and I’m not dead”).
Best of all is the Blackadder anecdote (accents) where he recounts how Rowan Atkinson came to his dressing room and told him to make the captain boring, as the more boring he was, the more hilarious he would be. The director wondered why all the energy had gone out of Tom’s performance, and when Baker explained, he told Tom to ignore Atkinson: “He does this every week”. So Tom played the part the way he originally he had, and “Rowan cut me dead”. He thought it quite sad that Atkinson, behaved that way, so insecure at Tom getting laughs that he “couldn’t bear it”; “I haven’t forgotten that… He’s very good at looking through people”.
A few notable poll placings over the years:
1. City of Death (7, 8, 5)
2. Destiny of the Daleks (101, 121, 154)
3. Nightmare of Eden (136, 167, 190)
4. The Creature from the Pit (132, 184, 211)
5. The Horns of Nimon (149, 189, 223)
Outpost Gallifrey 2003
1. City of Death (5)
2. Destiny of the Daleks (109)
3. Nightmare of Eden (119)
4. The Creature from the Pit (126)
5. The Horns of Nimon (142)
1. City of Death (36, 28, 31)
2. Destiny of the Daleks (86, 108, 114)
3. The Creature from the Pit (110, 112, 127)
4. Nightmare of Eden (-, 120, 120)
5. The Horns of Nimon (-, -, -) (It was voted the worst story in ’85, but The Gunfighters was 2, telling you something about received wisdom.)