RogerBW's Blog

Doctor Who Re-Watch, series 22 10 September 2015

As always, spoilers abound. See Wikipedia for production details)

The Doctor - Colin Baker
Peri Brown - Nicola Bryant

The show returned to its traditional Saturday evening slot, but was now made to a 45-minute target episode length rather than 24-25. This meant fewer cliffhangers and more room for storytelling, in theory.

Attack of the Cybermen

In spite of that, there are blatant extra cliffhangers here to make editing easier for markets that wanted the old 24-minute format: half-way through part one when the cybermen are first revealed, and half-way through part two when the plot is revealed. (Yes, three-quarters of the way through the story.)

Script-writing credit for this story is complicated, and it will probably never be known who actually did what. Eric Saward couldn't get away with script credit for two shows in one series and employed Paula Woolsey, an ex-girlfriend with no previous screenwriting experience. He claimed that she wrote most of it, and he advised her on the Cybermen and edited as he would any scriptwriter. Ian Levine claimed that Saward did all the writing, under Levine's direction. But Levine has often tended to have a recollection of events that differs from those of other people who were there, especially where any work by women is involved. Apparently nobody's bothered to ask Paula Woolsey.

The result, however it was created, starts as three separate stories that clash not only in subject matter but in tone – the Doctor and Peri running around in London, a hard-boiled crime drama, and the prison camp escape on Gravel Pit Telos. Eventually things get together, but even more gets blended in: the Cryons, Halley's Comet (yes, it was very much in the news at the time but this seems cheap), and the Doctor being locked up in a room full of explosives. Because that's a thing you'd do.

(Actually the Cryons aren't entirely bad, though their costumes are inconsistent about whether they should have clear lenses or open holes in the masks, and they come over as a bit Star Trek.)

These cybermen are very weak: injured and killed by gunfire, decapitated by baseball bat, knocked out by sonic lance… and the Doctor happily picks up a gun and starts blasting away with the rest of them. This is not my Doctor Who.

Part two is basically a runaround, with some nastiness of just the sort Mary Whitehouse used to object to when it was rather less gratuitous but actually part of the story. Maybe she had gone on to other things by this point. All of this story is basically a constant blast of stuff happening on the screen, but the moment you start thinking about it it crumbles.

Now, I don't mind someone built like a 24-year-old Nicola Bryant running about in a low- and high-cut hot pink sprayed-on costume, but it's not something that the show has usually been about (though see my comments on series 6) and it ends up feeling rather cheap. It might be better if she got to do something (as Zoe often did!) rather than just scream and run. All right, she confuses one fake policeman.

The Tombs are a good signifier of the sort of thing that was going wrong. The dedicated fan at this point knew that there had been a serial called The Tomb of the Cybermen, and had read the novelisation which said that it was on Telos, but didn't know what it had looked like. Ian Levine insisted the Tombs must be in. But the production team put in the names, but didn't try to replicate the original look, even though they had access to production stills: too expensive, and Jon Nathan-Turner decided that hardly anyone would know the difference anyway. At the same time, trivial things do get preserved: Telos is filmed in the same gravel pit that was used for The Tomb of the Cybermen, and Michael Kilgarriff (the Cyber Controller in that story) plays the Cyber Controller here eighteen years later, though he's clearly gained a bit of weight since 1967.

But it's not just the obsessive credits-watcher who gets thrown references here: we have Foreman's junkyard in Totter's Lane (100,000 BC), Mondas (The Tenth Planet), Cybermen in the sewers (The Invasion), Telos and the Cyber Controller (Tomb of the Cybermen), and even the chameleon circuit. Of course if you actually cared about continuity you might remember the previous year's Resurrection of the Daleks where the Doctor didn't meet Lytton to speak to, though here he claims to have done so; or that aliens A and B think alien C is dead even though they have a live video feed from the room in which alien C is trapped. This isn't continuity at all, in fact; it's pandering to the reference-spotting fan. In fact that seems to be the primary target audience here, and it's surprising to me now that ratings through this series lasted as well as they did. The crucial point, I think, is that all the back-references don't help the story. Totter's Lane is just a junkyard and could have been called anything else; the Cybermen always want to blow up the earth, so the particular reason this time doesn't matter.

On the other hand… twenty per cent of the viewers of part one didn't bother to return for part two (or the rest of the series), but the real reference-spotting stuff doesn't come in until said part two. Part one is just confused and dull.

Vengeance on Varos

This really wants to be a Robert Holmes story. Specifically, it wants to be The Sunmakers. Though actually Philip Martin first pitched it for series 20 (Davison's second), about an alien corporation selling snuff films – obvious a reference to the manufactured panic over "video nasties". Then it fell back to series 21 because it was "too political", and then to 22 because of all the pipe-laying stories needed to explain the total change of cast. (And then it had to be rewritten again for the new episode length.) In spite of all this, it's the strongest story Colin Baker has had so far, wearing its politics on its sleeve but still managing to maintain more interest than the other two.

The scenes with the middle-aged couple who never interact with the rest of the cast except to watch them on television, one of the stronger parts of the story, were added quite late on to pad things out.

Apparently the original version was much more comic and cartoonish. There seems to be a lot of gratuitous nastiness and torture here: the acid-bath sequence, the hanging, the mutations, death by poison vine, and so on. It's not just that they're gratuitous and played half for laughs, half for horror; they're set-pieces, which for the most part fail to advance the plot any more than running along a corridor would. Removing Quillam's mask is all very well as a "gosh wow" scene, but the Doctor has no reason to do it. These shocks could come in any order and the plot would barely twitch.

I can't help getting an echo of those films which would start with a few minutes of moralising as a transparent excuse for the scenes of depravity which would follow. If you enjoy this story, the story tells you you're a bad person for enjoying it. More seriously, if you're going to criticise video nasties, I think you'd do better not to go along the same path as them; it wasn't just Mary Whitehouse who complained about this one. Still, this was the year before Max Headroom.

The ending is abrupt (oh well, the invasion fleet's not coming after all, for reasons that make no sense and are nothing to do with any of the people we've seen in the story). The guest acting, apart from Martin Jarvis' Governor, is forgettable. The effects are a hell of a lot better than they've tended to be lately (it helps that they're not trying to do much); someone put some work in this time.

Mark Of The Rani

Eric Saward was happy to get rid of the Master after Planet of Fire, but John Nathan-Turner insisted on bringing him back. Pip and Jane Baker were veteran TV writers, mostly for non-genre shows, who'd pitched for Who in the 1970s but been turned down. Their script treatment from then was still kicking around, and Nathan-Turner spotted it and hired them to write a new story.

How odd, really, that the Industrial Revolution should never have been a consideration in the show before. I mean, with all those time-travelling Daleks and Cybermen wanting to shut down Earth's technological development before it got started, you'd think one of them would have gone for it. And I can see what this script is trying to do – like The Awakening or The Visitation, it's setting up a historical Earth gone slightly weird. The problem is that to the long-term fan it reminds us all too much of those other stories.

Yeah, all right, the Luddites were a generation in the past by the time Stephenson was doing his thing, and they never went after pit machinery anyway, but hey, good enough for the kiddies.

Colin Baker is finally on something like form as the Doctor, though Peri doesn't have much to do (clearly covering her legs and breasts has cut off the oxygen supply to her brain). Dialogue in general is often pretty leaden, not helped by unreliable accents.

The Rani is a great character idea, not perfectly played by Kate O'Mara but she has her moments. Someone who is not obsessed with ruling the world/galaxy (like the early Master), or with vengeance on the Doctor (like the later Master), but simply wants to be left alone to do her unethical experiments: yes, this is a villain I can find interesting! (And her TARDIS design is excellent, if a bit too obviously whipped up on the cheap.)

What's even better is that the Master is introduced relatively early, as a way of misleading the viewer as to who the story's villain is going to be. But sadly when he and the Rani meet, it all comes down to childish grabs and games of keep-away. When the Rani is scathing about the Master's obsession with revenge, it's just what the fans had been saying… but it brings the fannish dialogue into the show's own continuity. If even his fellow renegade Time Lords think he's a bit naff, doesn't that rather diminish the Master? And thus make him less effective as a villain? I think this story would have worked better without the Master in it at all.

And after that lovely setup, it's all the more disappointing when the story descends into a generic runaround. People keep shifting back and forth and exposing little extra slivers of plot. And then there comes a set-piece like the mine-cart run, or the mustard-gas volcano. And of course the World's Silliest Landmines (the shock of someone being treed gets undermined when the bloody thing starts moving about) and a blatantly plastic dinosaur.

And the only two possible views of human beings are "walking heaps of chemicals" and "souls". Nothing in between. Yes, we get the point that you're beating into us with a giant club. I suppose it's better than not having a point at all. The whole thing drags, especially in the second part.

And at least here there's a story with whimsy rather than sadism. If that's the choice we have…

The Two Doctors

The last of Nathan-Turner's big expensive location shoots (after City of Death, Arc of Infinity and Planet of Fire). It was originally going to be shot in New Orleans, to try to get in American viewers; with that in mind, Nathan-Turner tried to set up an "event" story, and got Patrick Troughton (who'd enjoyed working on The Five Doctors) and Frazer Hines on board. Nathan-Turner went to Robert Holmes, one of the very few experienced Who writers with whom he hadn't had a row, with the shopping list: New Orleans, Second Doctor, Jamie, and we might as well throw in Sontarans too.

Holmes didn't think much of the list, but tried to make the story one that could effectively use that location, first by introducing a race of alien jazz connoisseurs; that didn't work, so he switched to gourmands (which gave him a chance to put in a Message about his vegetarianism). Then the money fell through and the location was switched to Seville. So much for all that tight integration. All the jokes poking fun at the differences between British and American ways of doing things were cut, and never really replaced.

Jacqueline Pearce had of course played Servalan in Blake's 7, and pretty much recycles that manner here. Which doesn't really portray a person at odds with her nature as she's meant to be, except in one shot near the end, though the script doesn't give her much help. There's a little bit of Bride (or rather Groom) of the Monster, but that's about it. Shockeye is even less effective, basically being a hybrid of comic relief and obligatory male villain to find Peri "pretty", though he's called on to represent his entire irremediable species of comic-relief savages, which seems a bit of a heavy load for anyone to bear as well as deeply inconsistent with the show's attitude in general (at least to its humanoid aliens). But really he's mostly there for the Doctor to kill. Oscar is even more comic relief, and one wonders at times why he's there at all… until his last scene, where it transpires that he was invented purely to bulk up to body count and provide a bit of gore and death and a chance for the Doctor to make another Schwarzenegger-esque quip over a corpse. The Sontarans are basically superfluous, and what's worse are generic monsters who can be casually knifed. Dastari is a nonentity whose characterisation (and particular his sense of ethics) wobble about all over the place.

Because, yeah, this may be a Holmes story, but it's also a series 22 story, and that means lots and lots of gratuitous gore and nastiness, layered on top of a standard runaround. Holmes used to do better than this. And the idea of a genetic key to time machines… no, this is just silly. It doesn't hold the attention for long enough to stop one wondering why the later Doctor doesn't remember the earlier Doctor's experiences in this adventure; the Three and Five Doctors were obviously special one-off showcase stories, but this is meant to be a normal one.

As for the regulars, this was made before Mark of the Rani and they're back to permanent bicker mode. No fun.

This is one of the stories that kicked off the whole "season 6B" idea: Jamie here knows about the Time Lords, and the Doctor can steer the TARDIS and is knowingly working for the Time Lords, while neither of those things was true in the actual series. Holmes felt this could be squeezed into existing continuity, but fans built on this and other continuity errors to invent an entire untelevised season with the Doctor and Jamie. Hey ho. And then Terrance Dicks put it in New Adventures novels…

A Fix with Sontarans

Ignore the whole Savile thing. Everybody (including Colin Baker) has jumped on the guy's grave to say they never liked him, now that it's safe, but nobody in the business was prepared to say this before he was decreed a suitable object of hate. (And anyway, it seems that John Nathan-Turner was much more into young boys, admittedly of more-or-less legal age, than Savile ever was.) What we have here is much more interesting as an artefact of Doctor Who: that the producers would do anything to get the show talked about. This, more than The Five Doctors, is the real forerunner of the "Doctor Who special".

So we get Janet Fielding in a weirdly different hairstyle, and a costume that she wasn't wearing in the latter days of her time on the show. On the other hand she does a vastly better job standing up to argumentative Colin Baker than Nicola Bryant has; it's an intriguing look at a partnership that works rather better than the ones that got more screen time. The Sontarans and their props are obviously borrowed from The Two Doctors (and indeed this was broadcast just after the second episode of that story). Slightly surprising to my memories of Jim'll Fix It is that the kid isn't made a laughing-stock for the adult audience.

This extra has been deleted from the current DVD release of The Two Doctors. I wonder if earlier versions are suddenly popular with completists?

Timelash

From the would-be sublime, to, well. Beekeeper guards, a hulking android goon, and zappy special effects everywhere… and this was originally going to be a Dalek story, though it comes out as The Horns of Nimon version 2. At least Peri's sensibly dressed, I guess.

A very unimpressive part 1 cliffhanger, not to mention nearly an exact match for the one in The Mark of the Rani – same shot of the Doctor's-eye view of an approaching hazard which will be got away from. Isn't it a producer's job to deal with this sort of thing? Ditto Peri asking about the Daleks when she hasn't met them yet.

Of course there's still gratuitous nastiness, and most of it happens to Peri. (And we have yet another villain lusting over her; is there really nothing else these scriptwriters can think of to do with her? Sharaz Jek, Mestor, Shockeye…) Not that there's any point in chaining her up, as she doesn't have the sense to run away when she has a clear avenue of escape.

And Colin Baker is at his nastiest: doesn't Peri get a say? No, of course not. Pacing is strange too; the second episode degenerates into a series of shocking twists and climaxes (the argument scene in the TARDIS is very obvious padding, as is the cloned Borad). Design is basic in the extreme. Jeananne Crowley as Vena looks as though she's been lightly clubbed round the back of the head just before they rolled the cameras, while David Chandler as H. G. Wells is just another Adric clone.

The two bright spots are the Borad's makeup and Paul Darrow, of whose acting Colin Baker asks on the DVD commentary track: "D'you think that style will ever come back?" Darrow: "As far as I’m concerned it’s never gone away." Darrow is slicing the ham as thick as it'll go; apparently he was channelling Olivier getting his teeth into Richard III. He's pretty much the only reason to watch.

Revelation of the Daleks

We're getting a bit pushed for "(Foo) of the Daleks" titles here, aren't we? And after I praised Saward's Resurrection of the Daleks last series, well, now he throws lots of ideas at the wall to see what will stick. We've got elements of The Loved One, a disgraced Knight Hospitaller, humans as food, humans as raw material, soap-operatic lust and betrayal… and that's before we get to the Daleks and Davros.

There's so much stuff in here that the ideas mostly get name-checked rather than developed. Davros is a villain, of course, but he's the sort of villain who creates monsters to rule the universe; he's not the sort of villain who cares about money. And he's also not a poor man's Satan, offering people immortality if they'll just kill the thing they love most. But here he's squeezed into both roles, and he's not a good fit for either. The Daleks are casually thrown in whenever the story needs to be stretched out a bit; in fact they're not really involved much in the first half, and the Doctor and Peri even less so throughout the story.

Daleks have always been based on stock Nazis to a greater or lesser extent, and one of the ways that manifested was their obsession with racial superiority: Daleks good, everyone else bad. And they never had a problem building up a giant army before: remember Planet of the Daleks? Now all of a sudden they have to convert humans? No; in fact this would have worked better as a Cybermen story, since they have a history of converting humans into their own kind.

(And how much protein is there in one exclusive funeral home, that you can feed several planets on it and build a Dalek army out of it?)

In that opening shot, Peri could almost be Sarah Jane. Ah well. So the botany thing wasn't just a random invention for Timelash, it was meant to be an actual plot point carrying over between stories? I'm probably unduly impressed by this sudden nod to actual continuity. (But having an unexpected double for the villain in two successive stories, and Peri not knowing about Daleks again, is just fine, apparently.)

Visually, the story's great. A transparent Dalek at long last (if a generically Aliens-derived "kill me" using it), the selection of locations, the dressing of the studio sequences: these are all great. Even the bomb disguised as a transmitter looks vaguely like a real piece of electronics, not just a TV remote control. This was Graeme Harper's last outing for the original series, and he did an excellent job here.

Jobel creeping over Peri would be better if we weren't already thoroughly bored with male villains creeping over Peri. And he plots against Davros while looking into the cameras of Davros' surveillance system. Too stupid to live. Jenny Tomasin as his would-be inamorata is just a leaden lump, reciting her lines and trying desperately to simulate human emotion. Eleanor Bron is excellent as always, even if she's basically playing Morgus from The Caves of Androzani with a sex change, but then she's a Real Actress; we could have done with more of her and less of the creep. William Gaunt similarly takes a cynically-written part and puts some life into it. That bloody DJ does at least get involved, unlike the couple in Vengeance on Varos, but just ends up showing how easy it is to blow up Daleks now.

So if he's stolen from five stories ago, and all those double acts are stolen from Holmes over the years, has the autophagy of the show finally caught up with itself leaving it nothing more to consume?

Overall impressions

I've got through this series faster than I expected. I think it's because I'm no longer being disappointed by a lousy story; I just go on to the next one. I no longer have any meaningful memories of having seen this first time round: just flashes, the red eyebrows on the Androgums, the Timelash chamber (which I somehow got reversed), Alexei Sayle in the silly round glasses.

It was some time around the broadcast of The Two Doctors that it was announced that the series would be going "on hold" so that its budget could be spent on other drama. It's still not clear exactly why Michael Grade, at the time Controller of BBC1, chose to do this. It wasn't that the audience was leaving: averaging figures for episodes into overall story ratings shows that things had been burbling along at about the same level since the big drop from series 19 to 20. Maybe improvement had been promised but not delivered. It's been suggested that EastEnders, a soap opera launched around that time, was more of a pet project that could use the money. I suspect that Grade was simply uninterested in science fiction, and in ratings terms saw the show (particularly in this series 22 form) as pandering exclusively to existing fans rather than trying to win any new viewers.

It's also been suggested that this announcement was a cover for a planned cancellation, only averted by Concerted Fannish Action™ – but other shows that got cancelled at the time just got cancelled, with no false hope. Nobody was calling for the show to get the new production team it so desperately needed: the only options were "more of the same", "pause for a bit" or "stop". I think this really was just intended as a money-saving break.

While Grade was and is obviously a philistine (and would probably be happy to admit it), I find it hard to argue with the decision. This has always been a patchy show, but now it's barely even having good moments. Other stuff, without the baggage of twenty or more years of history, had the potential to be much better.

Some of the stories of the planned series 23 look as though they might have been interesting, but most of this series has been so dire that I suspect that when actually produced they'd have been just as terrible as this lot. In any case, they were all abandoned when the format was shifted back to 25-minute episodes.

The show would be off the air for eighteen months, and when it returned it would have significantly lower ratings, down from around 7-ish million to about 5-ish million. From this point on it was on borrowed time.

Earlier series, especially 14-15, had been criticised for horror and violence, but that horror and violence was generally in the service of telling a story. In this series it's felt gratuitous. But what's worse, perhaps, is the show has become self-consciously a "cult" show, made for the idea of fans, with no attempt to appeal to the general TV audience.

Favourite story of this series: Mark of the Rani.

Doctor in Distress

A bunch of C-list celebrities join some of the cast in singing a terrible song about how wonderful Doctor Who is. Why? Because it's Doctor Who, and anything labelled Doctor Who is by that labelling alone defined as wonderful. There is no other justification needed. And that's exactly the problem that the show suffers from at this point.

This charity single came out a week after We Are The World, the American answer to to Do They Know It's Christmas?.

The FASA Doctor Who RPG

It was during the break between series 22 and 23 that FASA published its Doctor Who RPG, with a Tom Baker/Louise Jameson cover that had been out of date for British viewers since 1978. But the British market probably wasn't their goal: the Tom Baker years were on seemingly endless repeats on PBS. Some interior art gets as late as the Colin Baker era.

It's a very combat-focused game, and complex with it. More importantly it's a game for the sort of fan who wants to argue about just how thick the armour on a Dalek is, or enumerate all the things you can do with a sonic screwdriver, as very much distinct from answering such questions with "whatever the plot requires at that moment". To be fair, most games at the time were like this.

(As a minor aside, the stats for Peri show her as significantly less skilled and capable than a starting player character.)

I've talked more about it at the podcast.

See also:
Doctor Who Re-Watch, series 6


  1. Posted by Michael Cule at 10:40am on 10 September 2015

    I don't remember most of this at all. I know for a fact I didn't watch THE TWO DOCTORS until I found it on VHS many, many years later. (And wished I hadn't.)

    I have the feeling you're not going to like the Sylvester McCoy years either but for me they were a blessed relief after the agonies of watching Colin Baker. Or rather turning on the telly for five minutes, wincing and then forgetting to even turn it on the next week.

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 10:43am on 10 September 2015

    Opinions seem to differ a lot. I didn't like it much first time round, but a lot of people thought it was great, so this time I'm trying to go into it with an open mind. Series 23 to get through first…

  3. Posted by Owen Smith at 11:14am on 10 September 2015

    I don't remember any of this either, and I'm certain I've never watched The Two Doctors. I'm also pretty convinced I didn't know about The Rani until recently.

    I do recall story about a cryogenic villain on a space station and reaching a target temperature. I thought it was a Colin Baker story but I could be wrong.

  4. Posted by RogerBW at 12:16pm on 10 September 2015

    The Cryons aren't villains in AotC. Your description doesn't immediately ring any bells.

  5. Posted by Owen Smith at 09:57pm on 10 September 2015

    Checking wikipedia I was at university when this originally aired, which explains why I saw none of this or indeed probably the previous series.

  6. Posted by Owen Smith at 10:08pm on 10 September 2015

    Series 21 I was around for, I went to uni in Sept 1984. TV watching was limited to when I was home from uni for the next three years, and then I had no TV at all for several years after graduating. I saw some Sylvester McCoy, how I don't know. Maybe it was repeated and I caught it in the holidays?

  7. Posted by RogerBW at 10:15pm on 10 September 2015

    Heh. Whereas five years later I was just about the only person in my hall of residence who didn't have a television set. (I had… a computer. And was the only one who did.)

  8. Posted by Owen Smith at 11:56am on 11 September 2015

    You clearly went to a very different sort of uni. Almost no-one bothered with a TV, there were far more interesting things to do. And more than half of my friends had computers, a variety of BBC micros, Amigas and similar stuff. Plus there was the college's room of BBC micros for those that didn't have their own, and the university IBM mainframe which we all had accounts on.

  9. Posted by RogerBW at 12:05pm on 11 September 2015

    Medical school. Non-study time for most of 'em was divided evenly between drinking, television, drinking, sex, throwing up, and drinking.

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