RogerBW's Blog

Doctor Who Re-Watch, series 24 05 November 2015

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

The Doctor - Sylvester McCoy
Mel Bush - Bonnie Langford
Ace - Sophie Aldred

The programme was moved to Monday evenings, directly opposite the perennially popular Coronation Street, supposedly to draw a young audience from a programme that largely appealed to crumblies. This is as close as British TV scheduling gets to the Friday Night Death Slot.

Andrew Cartmel came in as script editor. Like several before him, he wanted to make the series darker and edgier. Unlike them, he was sometimes vaguely competent at it. But he didn't come in soon enough for the initial choice of writers; that was Nathan-Turner's job for the first two stories of this series.

Time and the Rani

And he fell back on two of his old faithfuls. Oh dear.

And Colin Baker didn't come back for the regeneration, so not only does he not get a farewell, we have the unedifying sight of Sylvester McCoy in a curly-haired wig, in the third pre-credits sequence in the show's history. (In the original version of the script, the Doctor would sacrifice himself at the end of the story as Beyus did in the final version; the pre-credits sequence would be some genius getting kidnapped from Earth.) And of course there's never any reason given for the regeneration.

New beepy computery title sequence, and new logo. (And yeah, even when it first came out it looked "obviously computer-based", an expensive computer but still not a patch on the real thing. An upgraded Quantel Paintbox, I gather.)

You must get extra plot-token points for leaving the TARDIS door open. Both the Doctor and the Rani do it here. After 23 years it's the only explanation.

And then the Rani dresses up as Mel and it all goes horribly wrong. Mel screams. And Mel screams some more. And then she squeaks. Somebody at the BBC clearly got a good deal on some glitter-fountains.

The plot is basically horrible; we will technobabble the technobabble in order to technobabble the technobabble, with lots and lots of exposition. All the Rani had to do was pick an uninhabited planet and build or buy some robot servitors, and none of this oppressing the natives nonsense would have been necessary. Dialogue is creaky, and none of the characters ever gets more than one dimension (though to be fair the Bakers didn't know who was going to be playing the Doctor, or have a script editor to guide them). The Lakertyans are generic noble savages, with Wanda Ventham utterly wasted under that makeup. The Tetraps are generic monsters. Kate O'Mara salvages the most of anyone here, by simply playing the Rani as over the top of over the top, with plenty of mayonnaise on her scenery sandwich.

That is the silliest landmine I have ever seen. I want some. (More Paintbox work, though it mostly holds together.) Production in general is very good, especially the use of the quarry for external locations.

There's very noticeable background music from Keff McCulloch, who'd also done the new theme. Parts of it would work quite well in other programmes; parts are just noisy; parts sound as if they're meant to be diegetic effects. I think this is the first time that recognisable strains from the show's theme tune have been used as incidental music.

McCoy as the new Doctor does indeed shove a monster into a trap, perhaps by accident – but he's shocked when he sees the result. What a change from Colin Baker happily running around with a gun. On the other hand for my taste there's rather too much clowning around and physical comedy in what's supposed to be a series of tense situations.

Yeah, this story is basically a runaround. But, particularly once the Rani stops pretending to be Mel, it's not half as terrible as people say.

Paradise Towers

Stephen Wyatt was new to television, but had theatre and radio experience. He comes up here with a curiously uneven story, that I found quite enjoyable to watch but which was full of holes as it failed to back up its parody with solid characterisation or plotting. (Why did nobody ever visit the building? How was the architect prevented from filling the whole place with death traps, rather than just the pool? Why was his brain "trapped in the basement" rather than destroyed, and why was it allowed all that hardware? Why does he want dead bodies other than the one he's going to wear? Why hasn't anyone aged since they arrived? Why have they all forgotten the details of how they got there?)

The Kangs are somewhat tedious during their introduction, but soon improve. On the other hand, the cleaning robots with their drill, buzzsaw and pincers just never make for a convincing menace, with the cast clearly dodging around desperately to stay in front of them to be menaced – not to mention being a very silly design for a cleaning robot in the first place. (Consider how much better this might have been if the Robots of Death had been recycled.)

The feet sticking out from the bin might be funny the first time, and maybe even the second, but by the fourth or fifth… and what are the bodies needed for anyway?

This is clearly inspiration for some of the new series' episodes (most obviously The Beast Below, but there's plenty of very conventional horror that doesn't really need the SF setting - slowly advancing robots, lift failures, Things coming up the rubbish chute, blatantly foreshadowed cannibal grannies, and so on)

Production is very evidently on the cheap; sets are sometimes a little too obviously reused (from the same camera angle, and in one case mirror-flipped, which would work better if there weren't an obviously chiral robot in shot), and the background music is another Keff McCulloch hack-job. The most serious problem is the size of the cast, though: over 300 floors, and we see probably fewer than twenty people altogether. Obviously the BBC couldn't afford a horde of extras, but there are ways of shooting them that don't make it obvious, and then there's this (and The Pirate Planet). The neon tubes on the Great Architect are particularly naff.

The Caretakers are some of the weaker points, ending up as generic jobsworths in self-parody uniforms, not to mention the Hitler moustache on the chief. (And when he's taken over, he's basically a drunken shambler, which pokes possibly unintentional fun at all the megalomaniac villains of the series to date.)

There's lots of comic-relief running down corridors and just missing people, which may be better than old-fashioned running down corridors but still exists basically to fill in time. It's desperately padded at times, especially in the middle. A long lecture at the start of part four explains the plot for the hard of thinking, or those who fell asleep during previous episodes.

All Mel really has to do is stroll from peril to peril, with the fluorescent yellow pool-bug only the silliest of them. Her delivery is monotone and she doesn't seem to have any sense of development through the story.

But in spite of all these criticisms I found this actually wasn't too bad at all. It's a bit rough and ready, and heavily padded, but it's not a chore to get through as the last couple of series have tended to be; seeing it in sequence really gives me an appreciation for the attempts of the production team to make the series watchable again, not to mention a cessation of the call-backs to old continuity. Cut it to three parts and give us more characters who aren't placeholders for the Author's Message (yeah, I'm especially looking at Pex here) and it could be really quite good. (The Message itself is fine, it's just ham-handedly delivered.)

I think the key change here is that there's some effort to make a good TV programme. It fails at times, but there isn't the same sense of "meh, good enough, throw in some more gore and they won't notice" that there's been for the last few series.

Delta And The Bannermen

This was the first story fully commissioned by Cartmel. With six-part stories now seeming too ambitious, and recent two-parters such as Revelation of the Daleks and The Ultimate Foe seen as failures, Nathan-Turner decided to have a pair of three-parters to fill up the final six episode slots of the series.

When you're doing high-tech fighting, you don't stand up along the ridgeline. Really, you don't. On the other hand it's really pleasing to me that after all the times it wasn't done and should have been we've finally got people interacting with a spaceship on the ground.

And oh dear, Ken Dodd. One can see why people thought the show was getting a bit Light Entertainment-ish. And shooting him in the back doesn't so much encourage us to think of the space mercenaries (yet more space mercenaries, ho hum) as bad guys, but more as having reasonably good taste.

The satellite looks as though it's meant to be a Vanguard, but the launcher is wrong and not even spin-stabilised. Ah well. Mind you, originally it was to be the secret American satellite launched before Sputnik and lost because of the collision…

What on earth is the point of blowing up the bounty hunter remotely? The mercenaries could just have handed over a briefcase of "money" with a bomb in it, once they actually had their target.

The initial green baby isn't too bad. Once it's an obvious human face in a green romper suit, or a succession of child actors, that's not so good.

After all the fuss that's been made about Billy and Ray's break-up, when they finally meet again, there's nothing between them at all. (Ray was originally intended to be a new companion.) Nor between Billy and Delta for that matter; one can't tell what she sees in him or what he sees in her. But nobody's acting is really terrible here, and most of the rest of the story actually works reasonably well. It's not scrabbling desperately to be mature (except at one point, the destruction of the bus), and therefore it does a better job of actually being mature than we've seen for a long time. Sometimes there's a bit too much happening, and I think the CIA agents could probably have been dispensed with; it would also have been nice for at least some people on Earth in 1959 to find the notion of a bunch of aliens at least slightly worthy of comment.

It's largely a runaround, sure, but it's a runaround on a Vinnie and a Vespa, and that helps just a little. Even Bonnie Langford isn't horrid. It does tend to crumble when you poke it, though. Just how did the Doctor get out of the part two cliffhanger?

Dragonfire

Even when it's naff, this new version of the show isn't completely naff.

Ace doesn't show up too well on her initial introduction: she's let down by the script, being too much the generic bolshy teenager whose writer has glanced through a Guide to Teenage Slang and decided to use all of it. And having been set up as suspicious and moody, she confesses her life story to a total stranger, because, er? On the other hand, her enthusiasm for explosives shows a practicality we haven't seen in a companion since Leela, and Sophie Aldred does her best to overcome the unlikeableness of her lines as written.

Kane is like a lot of Who villains, but turned up to eleven. Edward Peel does a very good job of playing an over-the-top character in a mostly-plausible way. Except at the end, when he starts "spreading terror" before he's got the key item, and engages in utterly pointless destruction, even of his own forces.

Distracting a guard by engaging him in philosophical debate, and this then backfiring because the guard actually wants to engage in the debate, is an excellent touch.

The white Prussian-style helmets are nice, but there's much less sense of place than there has been in recent stories. Going from point A to point B seems to take as much time, and pass through as many other points, as the plot requires at that moment. There's a lot of padding, and I think this could have worked as a two-parter, even though as shot it was over-long. On the other hand this is the only story this series not to be scored by Keff McCulloch, the only one not to rework the theme tune as incidental music, and indeed the only one where the incidental music isn't obtrusive. And the meltyface shot is excellent.

The zombie ex-crew wouldn't be too bad except for their SFX noisy footsteps, and they seem underused. Similarly, Glitz is clearly there not to much to have a narrative role as to give the Doctor someone to talk to. (And to rescue him from the entirely pointless literal cliffhanger at the end of part one, which seems to have failed because the director didn't know what was wanted.)

Why did Kracauer hang around after he'd set the controls to thaw Kane? Why not go somewhere else, or at least run away once Kane started to revive? All he's for in the end is to show that Kane is a nasty person; and Belazs is similarly wasted (Patricia Quinn, who also played Magenta in The Rocky Horror Picture Show!).

The little girl who gets saved by the Power of Moppet is, sadly, a recurring presence through part 3. Oh dear. Was the child somebody's daughter or something, pushed into the script through executive power? Her plot basically has nothing to do with the rest of the story.

I thought for a moment the model Nosferatu might be a recycled London from Blake's 7, but it's not - it just has a similar "handle" on top. And after the far less heavily foreshadowed but similar destruction of a lot of innocents in Delta a few episodes ago, it's remarkably ineffective.

Why didn't Kane send his guards down into the lower levels to hunt the dragon years ago? (It's not a bad Aliens rip-off, though it would have looked even more blatant when it was less than a year since the release of that film.) Or indeed send his entire "mercenary" army? For that matter, why did his captors leave the "dragonfire" power source on the same planet with him? Why did Kane, obsessed with revenge on his home planet, not keep track of what was happening to it? As spacefarers capable of constructing pretty large craft, shouldn't at least some of those people have survived? What's the deal with Kane's body temperature – were all his people like that? And if so why was he exiled to a place that would kill him if the fridge broke down?

In spite of all that, the real problem is that the Doctor doesn't affect the story. If he hadn't turned up, Kane would have done pretty much the same things as he does here and the story would have gone the same way; the only difference is to Ace. Maybe he'd have recruited Ace, maybe not, but either way she'd have been killed on the Nosferatu.

There's a mildly effective farewell scene, but it's all McCoy's, with no reason even given for Mel's departure.

Doctorin' the Tardis

This novelty single, released between series 24 and 25, is notable mostly because it enabled the JAM/KLF to go mainstream. The reason I mention it, though, is as an example of cultural influence and what one might call "mainstream fandom": the record sold not only to the shrinking base of "real fans", but to people who were aware of the basics of the show and felt vaguely positive about it while not actually watching it (any more, or ever).

Overall impressions

It's been so bad for so long that even small improvements seem remarkably good to me. Even when they take the show in directions that seem as far from the Doctor Who of the old days as did the thuggish bullying Doctor of Colin Baker. The first time round I saw maybe a couple of episodes, which didn't leave much impression. This time, well, it's the first time since series 17 that there hasn't been at least one story I really strongly disliked.

And I think that there must have been at least a slight resurgence of morale; some of the directing and effects work is bad, as it's always been, but it no longer feels slipshod and "good enough" (except in Dragonfire where some sequences could really have used another take).

The show was, sensibly, not being made for the fans any more (the fans, after all, would watch anything with a blue box in it, they'd just whine as they did). They did whine that Things Had Changed, and it got some media attention. (And I think that this may be why this is still regarded as the Excessively Comedic Season, before the successes of the final two.)

But Coronation Street was still more popular, in an era when most houses had one television and probably no video recorder, than had been hoped.

(In the gap between this and the next series, Red Dwarf began, and grew unaccountably popular. Some of the science fiction was OK, but the sitcom got all over everything. This series seems to me a much better example of how to do light-hearted and occasionally comic SF.)

Favourite story of this series: Delta and the Bannermen.

Departed companions to date, ranked by how much I like them:

  1. Zoe
  2. Barbara
  3. Liz Shaw
  4. Leela
  5. Romana II
  6. Romana I
  7. Sarah Jane Smith
  8. Susan
  9. Ian
  10. K-9
  11. Steven
  12. Sara Kingdom
  13. Jo Grant
  14. Jamie
  15. Nyssa
  16. Ben
  17. Polly
  18. Vicki
  19. Victoria
  20. Peri
  21. Tegan
  22. Turlough
  23. Mel
  24. Dodo
  25. Katarina
  26. Kamelion
  27. Adric

Mel

Mel was explicitly designed to be a companion by the production team, rather than being promoted from a one-shot character invented by a writer. She would be red-headed, a computer programmer from contemporary Earth (which I think came up just once), and a fitness fanatic (it was trendy at the time). But note that there's no mention of personality in that lot, and that's the problem. Without anything for her to do or a consistent character for her to be, she ends up complaining and screaming a lot, like a wetter version of Tegan. She's not as terrible as she's been painted, but she's still down with Tegan and Turlough rather than the more interesting companions. She's even more generic than Peri.

(It's been suggested that an arrival story for her was planned for series 24, but Colin Baker's departure prevented its being made.)


  1. Posted by Michael Cule at 12:04pm on 05 November 2015

    You know, I don't think I watched a single one of those: I have a vague memory of watching the infamously bad regeneration though.

    It might have been me being unable to bear the thought of Bonnie Langford but it was more likely to be that it conflicted with my Monday night game.

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 12:19pm on 05 November 2015

    To me this is the point at which the producer has finally realised things have gone horribly wrong, and is promising change. The production side isn't actually sorted out yet, but the workers have got some of their morale back.

  3. Posted by Ashley R Pollard at 03:57pm on 05 November 2015

    For me, Paradise Towers was when the programme started to become interesting again, cemented when Sophie Aldred turned up.

  4. Posted by RogerBW at 04:08pm on 05 November 2015

    Yes, I think that's a fair description of my attitude this time round as well. Which rather suggests that a lot of the things decried by the fans as Jon Nathan-Turner's problems were closer to being Eric Saward's problems, with JN-T unable to get a replacement for Saward.

  5. Posted by Dr Bob at 01:54pm on 06 November 2015

    Oh it IS a bad Aliens rip-off, believe me! I haven't seen Dragonfire since it originally transmitted, and virtually the only bit of it I can recall is the bad Aliens rip-off scene and the face-melting scene. I recall it being glaringly lit, and the body language being more like kids playing at being soldiers than like actual military personnel.

    I know they were trying to depict an ice world, but glaring lighting and filming on videotape just screams "this was shot in a studio!" when you want it to be spooky, or alien, or to just frakking look like Greenland!

  6. Posted by RogerBW at 01:58pm on 06 November 2015

    Part of the problem seems to have been that they decided which story would be location-only (in this case Delta) and which one studio-only at a fairly early stage, before the scripts had really been nailed down. And one thing that none of the script editors seems to have been able to do is say "look, (author), this is how it's going to be mounted, so ease off on the things we can't afford to make look good". Even when they were rewriting large chunks of the script themselves, that doesn't seem to have been something that occurred to them.

  7. Posted by Owen Smith at 01:34am on 07 November 2015

    I think Dragonfire sounds like the episode I vaguely remember about someone's body reaching a target temperature (that was very cold).

    I certainly saw some of this series, as I remember the regeneration and Ace's introduction. How I saw it is a mystery as it was the start of my final year at university, perhaps it was repeated?

    I have always liked McCoy's doctor ("Fit as a trombone!" is a favourite line I recall after regeneration) and Ace. I'm pleased to see you think it was an improvement too. What works with Ace is she has her own agency and an actual character, not just a peril monkey. Though she does occasionally get forced into that role in future episodes.

    I look forward to you reviewing a couple of classic moments I remember from the series left.

  8. Posted by RogerBW at 10:04am on 07 November 2015

    I didn't think much of McCoy first time round. On this re-watch (where I'm seeing more than random episodes here and there) I'm finding more to like (mostly in his acting) as well as more to dislike (mostly in the scripts).

    Being unable to think of anything to do with the female characters has been a problem in this show (and many others) right from the beginning. I don't expect them to fix it all at once.

  9. Posted by Owen Smith at 03:18pm on 07 November 2015

    The problem of bad scripts continues if I recall correctly. McCoy does his best with sometimes good and sometimes bad material.

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