RogerBW's Blog

Doctor Who Re-Watch, series 17 21 July 2014

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

Doctor Who - Tom Baker
Romana - Lalla Ward
K-9 (voice) - David Brierly

After shadowing Anthony Read for the end of the prevous series and doing his best with The Armageddon Factor, Douglas Adams stepped in as full-time script editor for this series; he was the first person who'd grown up as a fan of the series to get a job working on it. Graham Williams continued as producer.

Destiny of the Daleks

Terry Nation was at this point mostly writing for Blake's 7. This was his last script for the show, and wouldn't you know it we're back in a quarry. But first we have the infamous sequence of Romana's regeneration (written by Adams of course), which has caused endless trouble to people who care about canon. To them I say: ha. Ha. Ha. (Though it's a pity Mary Tamm wasn't invited back.) This is also yet another story where K9's written out, with the "laryngitis" being a way to justify the new voice actor; Nation didn't want the Daleks upstaged, and coping with the prop on the rough ground of Winspit Quarry and Binnegar Heath Sand Pit (yes, it's the story that was too big for just one quarry!) would have been more work than the producers really wanted.

While it could have been done last series, this is the first time we really see the Doctor plus Romana double act, where they both know things and are explaining them to each other as a sort of one-upmanship. It's a complete subversion of the Doctor/companion paradigm as we've previously seen it, prefiguring the sort of smart chat that we'd see later in series like Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Given how much Terry Nation was always inclined to write for the 1963 version of the programme, and how little to do he tended to give female characters, I suspect it's Adams' hand encouraging this, and similarly coming up with the very Adamsian idea of the two races of perfect warriors who need someone able to make a mistake in order to win their war. It was certainly Adams who lampshaded the Daleks being unable to follow the Doctor up a vertical shaft; it had been a popular joke for years, even making it into Punch a couple of years later in this cartoon by Peter Birkett, but Nation was always opposed to using it in the programme. (Indeed, it's rumoured that Adams' very extensive rewrites on this script were the principal reason Nation didn't return to the show.)

There is a certain amount of self-parody and self-reference here, but nothing like as much as would come along later, and I at least don't have a problem with it. Tom Baker's in his usual clown mode, but has some good (probably Adams) lines to work with; Lalla Ward's thoroughly upped her acting game since The Armageddon Factor and, apart from her initial cowering in fear from the Daleks, does a great job. (Her parody of the Doctor's costume is also quite effective.) The other acting is mostly forgettable, but hey, it's a Dalek story and we're not here for that. David Gooderson is no Michael Wisher, and the Davros mask didn't even particularly fit him, but he did his best. This one's largely carried by the regulars.

The story is thoroughly written to bring us into the episode breaks: the first appearance of the Daleks at the end of part one, Davros at the end of part two, Romana in the tube at the end of part three. Which means that part three needs to be thoroughly drawn out, with all that shoving Davros' chair about the place. Too many captures and escapes, perhaps, but they're reasonably pleasing ones. There are of course typical Terry Nation Idiot Moments: why take the nova device so far away from the ship? Because the plot requires it. Why would a perfect logician always react in the same way when playing Rock-Paper-Scissors? He wouldn't. And a Terry Nation Continuity Moment, casually stating on several occasions that the Daleks are in fact an entirely robotic species.

The self-burial of the Movellan ship is most curious, not least because it never seems to be mentioned again: for all plot purposes it could just be sitting on the ground. Meanwhile, I am slightly distracted in the first underground chamber by the unmistakable shape of a drogue basket for mid-air refuelling. (It shows up on the surface in episode four, too.)

This is the first time that we've seen the Daleks since series 12 and Genesis (Terry's previous story). As a viewer of the show at the time, I was aware that Daleks and Davros were part of it, but I hadn't actually seen them (except for the odd clip from Genesis). Williams had thought them a bit overused up to Genesis, and had deliberately not brought them in until this point, but they were still very much part of popular culture.

As it turned out, the BBC could muster only four working Dalek casings, but four is more than the three they'd had on a previous occasion, and the story's well-shot to ensure that the rooms never feel too sparse. What's more, on a couple of occasions the innate stealthiness of a Dalek is made a plot point, rather than using them as interchangeable robotic menaces. What money there was went on one of the first uses of a Steadicam rig on British television, and the things that can be done with it (particularly moving round crowded and rubble-strewn areas) are very apparent.

It's a story with a poor rep among the fans (in a series mostly ditto), but it was hugely popular at the time (helped by a strike at ITV), and I don't think it's only nostalgia which causes me to enjoy it now (after all I loved The Pirate Planet first time round). Sure, it's not perfect, but after the direness of much of series 15 and the end of 16 it's great to see more good, workmanlike television.

City of Death

David Fisher's third script for the show began life dealing with a plot to rig the casinos of Las Vegas to pay for time travel experiments. The first rewrite turned it into a Bulldog Drummond spoof, mostly set in 1928. When the production unit manager (John Nathan-Turner climbing the ranks) worked out that it was possible to film on location in Paris with a reduced crew, and with Williams unhappy with the heavy-handed humour and the emphasis on gambling, another rewrite was needed, and since Fisher was unavailable Graham Williams and Douglas Adams did the work on what became City of Death.

Or perhaps a better title would have been "Tom Baker and Lalla Ward have a dirty weekend in Paris at the BBC's expense." But in a good way: Tom's upped his acting game since Lalla came onto the crew, and while neither of them was the world's best they do play off each other most effectively. Lots of shots of our heroes walking around Paris, rather too many in fact, perhaps as a replacement for the running along corridors that Adams so hated. Lalla's schoolgirl costume was her own suggestion, after she'd rejected the silver catsuit that was originally proposed. K-9 is silently dropped, as operating the prop in Paris would have been too expensive. Most of the locations were closed, because Nathan-Turner had failed to take account of the May Day holiday, which made filming more of a challenge than it might have been.

Duggan serves as the audience-identification figure, and shows up the silliness of the suggestion that such a figure is necessary; he's mildly funny, and provides a bit of exposition at first, but really doesn't serve a vital role in most of the plot. (On the other hand, Tom Chadbon was the third and final actor to have been sent to Paris with the reduced crew, and he makes what might have been a generic comic-relief character almost likeable.) And, in the end, the solution to the story is to punch the right person.

Julian Glover steals much of the show, as one would expect from such an experienced actor. He spends much of the later episodes looking splendid, lounging around in his stripy dressing gown, and exuding an air of calm menace that's rarely been bettered. I recognised Catherine Schell from Space: 1999 of course, and she has a lovely moment of physical comedy during the time-skip in the Louvre when the Doctor collapses onto her lap and she fastidiously tips him onto the floor. She doesn't have a great deal to do later on until nearly the end, which is a shame; she's mostly there to give the Count someone to talk to. Kevin Flood as Hermann is an excellently cultured thug who makes the most of his few lines.

Direction is very filmic, and only occasionally does the blocking fall apart. Even the incidental music is an improvement on Dudley Simpson's usual wallpaper. As with Destiny, City was broadcast against a blacked-out ITV, and as a result gathered the show's highest ever ratings.

"Help us, Scaroth, you are our only hope": a conscious call-out to Star Wars, perhaps? After that suggestion that he might be one of the good guys, it's a slight shame that Scaroth's identity as the Count should be the subject of the first episode cliffhanger; it's not as though we haven't seen friendly but weird-looking aliens before. Indeed, the cliffhangers aren't the usual "person we care about in peril" scenes; they serve instead to deepen the mystery.

As one expects from Douglas Adams, there are huge plotholes. How does a chicken grow to maturity without being fed or oxygenated? How does the Doctor manage to move the TARDIS reliably between 1979 Paris and 1505 Florence, bearing in mind the Randomiser? How does narrative time correlate with theoretically "real" time, given that Captain Tancredi can be made aware of the Doctor by Scarlioni, get information out of him, and pass that information back? But Adams didn't really do consistent plots; he did humour, and indeed fans who don't feel that humour has any place in the show tend to hate this story. Most of the failings are connected to the time-travel plot, I think, and it's characteristic of a fan's influence on the programme that it's here at all: when non-fans were in charge they saw time travel as a way to get the PCs to where the adventure was going to happen, not as a plot element in itself. What the show does well, and this story does particularly well, is assuming that we're smart people, we don't need someone to point out the obvious ("It's a spaceship!"), so let's get on with Tom Baker and Julian Glover exchanging witty insults.

Which is fine when there's still a plot to hang the lines on. It's great stuff to do as a change of pace. When every single story is entirely about snarky one-liners and nobody bothers to provide the plot at all, well, you get the worse moments of the revived series.

The Creature from the Pit

Another David Fisher story, which so far has tended to be a good thing. Also the first story produced for this season, which means that it's Lalla Ward's introduction to the role (in a script clearly written for Mary Tamm), as well as David Brierly's start as K9's voice (I'm not really terribly impressed with him). Ward's put in a curiously glossy makeup which does her no favours, and her floaty slit-skirted white costume is odd at best.

Still, the deadly attack tumbleweeds are quite fun, in a "can't believe they had the chutzpah to try that" sort of way. And the studio set for the jungle is pretty good.

Of course, Romana gets captured and hauled off quickly. All right, she gets herself most of the way out of it, with K9's help. She does a fairly poor job with the Lady Adrasta, though. And Adrasta herself is something of a stock villain; yeah, fine, she's female, but so what? She is however a stock villain out of a different and rather nastier genre from what the show usually allows; rather than the usual blustering idiot, she's a calm killer, and if the script allowed she would even be smart. Geoffrey Bayldon's decent in the part of Organon (having turned down the chance to play the Doctor twice in the 1960s), but he's an old pro; it's the sort of role he can do in his sleep.

The Doctor's leap into the pit is an excellent moment, but things slow down drastically in part two. The monopoly on metal is an interesting idea, and the creature itself… well, it could be worse. But the bandits are tedious padding, mostly there to get the plot token where it's needed. Pacing in general is pretty poor, surprising for the veteran director Christopher Barry (whose last work for the show this was, particularly following shoddy work by the visual effects department which required expensive re-mounts); there's no solid driving force, no real sense of progress through the story. Adams had a fairly light hand on this script (though there are one or two bits that he might as well have signed), and the change in feel is substantial, bringing back memories of the conscious silliness of series 15: there's a pervasive air throughout this story of slapdash and "good enough for the kiddies".

Tom Baker, perversely, does really well with the weak material. This is some of his best acting so far, a careful balance of frivolity and gravity though he sometimes seems basically uninterested in the plot.

And the plot is fairly weak. Why didn't Adrasta agree to the original chlorophyll-for-metal trade, while retaining her own monopoly on distribution of metal on the planet? And it all gets resolved about eight minutes into part four, and (as with The Power of Kroll) the story has to cast about for something else to do: oh, right, let's bring back the bandits, and after having spent all this time telling us that Erato is a good thing make its people turn out to have been causing trouble. Aluminium as a gravity shield. Yeah, right. And let's ignore the Randomiser again, because we do that now.

"Like most stars, it has no guidance system."

It's a poor story compared with what's gone before in this series. Yes, it has its moments, but not many of them.

Nightmare of Eden

Bob Baker without Dave Martin, and I suspect this story's bad rep is in part because of that. I have a soft spot for it; for me, stories set aboard ship always have a slight extra interest to them. This is basically a disaster story like Airport or The Poseidon Adventure, set in space, and admittedly done on a BBC budget.

Sure, now I can say "if there's a patch of planetary ground sucked into the machine, how is it that the ecosystem still keeps working?". And "why is there a hatch on the back side of the dispenser for people to adulterate the drinks?". How does the captain escape from custody to attack Romana? Why can't the crystal recording be duplicated for infinite Vraxoin manufacture? But people focus their hate on the Mandrels, and I think they're great. Sure, they're men in suits. So what? So were the Primords, and they looked much worse.

Pacing is odd; an awful lot goes on in the first episode, up to the cliffhanger where the monster first appears, and then things crash to a halt with the first attempt to separate the ships in part 2. Running down the repeated space stairs and through the repeated passenger decks! Comic-relief obstructive policemen! The sympathetic captain being drugged. Parts two and three are really one episode of plot and one of padding.

And yet it still manages to be enjoyable. Yeah, anti-drug Message story combined with a ripoff of Carnival of Monsters, but it basically works. Even the subplot with Stott and Della isn't badly handled at all.

Baker and Ward are mostly solid, though Baker's hamming it up a bit, and his pantomime sequence towards the end doesn't really fit with the feel of the story or indeed of the show. David Brierly's voicing of K9 isn't as offensive as last time. Other players are decent, never excellent but not terrible either (though Lewis Flanders' accent as Tryst can be a bit grating). Sets are surprisingly varied considering the budget, and it's always easy to work out where the action is happening. The script has a decent supply of one-liners, something I must presume Dave Martin had suppressed from the Baker/Martin collaborations.

Which is all quite odd, because production was its own nightmare. The director, Alan Bromly (who'd previously made The Time Warrior in series 11 but who wasn't used to the fast-paced and effects-heavy style of the modern show), had huge fights with Tom Baker and eventually walked out (or was fired, accounts differ even now) towards the end of production. Graham Williams had to double as director for some sequences and post-production, and in part as a result decided he'd leave the show. The direction is pretty lifeless at times but all in all this one isn't bad at all. No City of Death, of course, but then what is?

The Horns of Nimon

The former script-writer Anthony Read returned with this script, his final contribution to the programme. It wasn't planned that way; Graham Williams and Douglas Adams had been trying to recruit new writers, but for various reasons their scripts ended up being unusable, and this one was all that was left. It's another story that's looked on poorly by the fans, and even by Williams, who put it in the fifth story slot in the hope that any shortcomings would be quickly forgotten when Shada was broadcast. Behind the scenes, John Nathan-Turner's appointment as producer was now agreed (when the more experienced George Gallaccio turned the job down), with Barry Letts backing him up as executive producer at first. At the same time, Douglas Adams decided to go back to writing his own material and announced he'd be leaving as script editor.

We open with lots of bangs and flashes and even comedy sproings from Major Bloodnok's Stomach; but meanwhile, the Skonnan costumes are sheerly lovely symphonies in black, especially Sorak's cut-yourself-sharp helmet and massive rubber shoulder capes. (Romana's hunting outfit is rather fine too.) Soldeed's costume is less impressive, but he's beautifully ranty, a cut-price Ming the Merciless (and Graham Crowden had turned down the part of the Fourth Doctor); the tributes' costumes are simply dull, as are most of the tributes themselves (especially the gormless Seth; Teka's a little better, and considering some of the young actors who'd appear in later series…). Fortunately, at least by my current standards, this was the last gasp of David Brierly as the snippy voice of K9. Lalla Ward is excellent, doing the Doctor's usual job and playing it dead straight and perfect; Tom Baker is still not taking things seriously at all, but since we're not expected to believe he's driving the plot this doesn't work too badly.

An odd, probably Star Trek-inspired spaceship design is one of the first strangenesses. The Skonnan sets are a bit basic, and cheap, but that's not necessarily a bad thing; and when we see the decay of Crinoth, echoing some of the structure of the Skonnan labyrinth but in much worse shape, it works remarkably well. The antique electronics lab feel of the two "techy" spaces, Soldeed's lab and the Nimon's lair, is a bit odder, especially when we see a close-up of a twitching "mA" needle.

The Nimon's head is all right, but its body is a bit lacking. Splendid voice work from Clifford Norgate makes up for this as far as I'm concerned. There's some slapstick ducking and weaving when everyone's hiding behind electronics racks, the extras in crowd scenes seem to have no idea what to do, and there's some padded running around in part four (odd, since all attempts to edit it down to fit a standard 25-minute slot apparently failed), but mostly the production manages to keep the pace going even if it's a bit sloppy with various fluffs and errors that there was no time or money to reshoot.

One thing that stands out to me in the final episode is the red flashing light as our heroes run through the maze; it looks very much as though it were added with a video overlay rather than actual red lights. I'm surprised that that was cheaper. As the complex explodes, in the one filmed shot of the whole story, I can't help but notice one of the truncated octagonal-based pyramids that make up the minor buildings spinning towards the camera. Was that inspiration for David Braben and Ian Bell a few years later? We'll never know.

So it's not a good story, but it is an eminently enjoyable one. Not the cleverest the show's ever been; Soldeed and the Doctor are both eating Maria Frankenstein Sandwiches, ham sliced thick with plenty of relish. But not really the best of endings to this series, and to the Williams/Adams production team. They'd planned to go out with a bang.

(Blake's 7 began its third series. It continued to run through early 1980. That would have been the last series, and was written to be, but the Head of Television enjoyed the final episode during its broadcast and called the continuity announcer to tell him to say afterwards that there'd be a fourth series.)


And this was the bang.

Famously part-filmed but unfinished because of strikes at the BBC that prevented the second studio recording session (and the third was lost to Christmas programming). Quite a bit of it was recycled by Douglas Adams (along with bits of City of Death) into Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency in 1987. What had been filmed was released in 1992, after the programme's cancellation (arguably one of the first reconstructions, with narration over the missing parts by Tom Baker); but since I'm more interested in the making of the programme than in the audience's reaction to it, I'm going to talk about it here in the slot when it would originally have been broadcast... even though I have never actually seen it before.

This was the "proper" Douglas Adams script for this series rather than one he'd merely heavily rewritten. Originally he'd planned not to write one at all, but as with Nimon other writers failed to deliver anything usable. Since Adams was in one of his famous dilatory moods, in the end Graham Williams filled in a lot of the boring detail work. Budget had been kept back to make for an impressive production, though what's left doesn't show much sign of it.

Romana's "May Queen" costume is somehow just a little off, and I can't pin it down; she doesn't have much to do in later episodes, not only because her later scenes weren't filmed but because she's mostly kept a prisoner by Skagra. Ho hum. The various bicycle sequences in part two were originally to be done at night, but early rumblings of the strike forced them to be moved to a daytime shoot.

Christopher Neame as Skagra does his best to look like Colin Baker before the fact, but for my mind comes of more as terminally smug (the sort of face one wants to put a brick through, something that Julian Glover managed to avoid in the similar role of Scaroth) than as evil. In fact, the later plot seems as though it would have been better suited to the Master rather than Skagra. The Master always seemed to like teaming up with alien menaces he couldn't properly understand or control.

I don't think it's only the surviving nature of the Cambridge scenes that makes them more appealing than the later ones; they're basically Tom and Lalla clowning around in Cambridge much as they had been in Paris, though without quite the same feeling of dirty weekend about the business.

It's hard to tell whether this would have been the triumphant exit that Williams wanted, but certainly it would have had a better chance than Nimon of being remembered favourably. If the rest of it had been made to the same quality as what survives, I suspect I'd have put it behind City and maybe Destiny but ahead of Nightmare, Nimon and Creature. At least it's a six-parter, one with basically a single plotline at that, which doesn't drag even though on sober analysis the padding is fairly obvious.

There were some attempts to finish the story under the new production team for series 18, but it didn't fit the show's new direction and was abandoned.

Overall impressions

For me the first time round this was the apex series. I was by now a full-blown fan, willing to watch anything that had Doctor Who in the title, but to my perception it would all be a long slow grind downhill from here. Indeed, while I'm going to go on with this re-watch and review, I'm not looking forward to the later stories with anything like the degree of anticipation that I've had so far. When I started this re-watch, I was planning to pull the plug either here or at the end of the next series with Logopolis.

If the show had been cancelled at this point, no doubt I'd have complained. Be careful what you wish for, alternate-universe me.

I've since discovered that fannish consensus puts the apex series three years earlier, but hey, too bad. I can accept, with modern eyes, that there have been a few more stinkers lately, but I will stand City of Death or The Ribos Operation or Horror of Fang Rock up against The Deadly Assassin or even The Talons of Weng-Chiang. (And let's not forget Planet of Evil and The Android Invasion; there have been plenty of stinkers before.) Similarly I don't think Graham Williams was as terrible a producer as he's sometimes been painted; what he's been bad at is keeping the scriptwriters' visions down to things that can be done on a shoestring budget (thanks to Jim Callaghan for runaway inflation), and maintaining some sort of consistent tone in the direction.

However, I don't think this style of the show was sustainable, even if Williams and Adams had stayed on. Tom Baker in particular was becoming a permanent joker; nobody seemed to be able to get a serious performance out of him. Lalla Ward was doing his job when the script allowed for it, as in Nimon, but most of the writers couldn't cope with such a challenging concept as a woman with agency. (Actually, one has to say, having lost or driven off all the good writers was probably this era's biggest problem. Followed by having lost or driven off all the good directors.)

The party had to end some time, and Serious Fans (yes, there were Serious Fans in those days, mostly Ian Levine) wanted the comedy excised, Proper Science Fiction Stories told instead, and much more reference to the show's own history. And that was more or less what happened. Nathan-Turner also felt the team of the Doctor, Romana and K9 was too powerful; Lalla Ward agreed to be written out, particularly when she was told the comedy elements would be dropped. David Brierly walked out as the voice of K9, and John Leeson was brought back again on the promise that these would be the last few episodes.

For a script editor, Nathan-Turner chose Christopher H. Bidmead, an ex-actor who was particularly keen on Proper Science Fiction rather than humorous content. The revived Who was going to be a serious SF drama show. And certainly it underwent a huge change in style, at least as big as the one that gave us Spearhead from Space, UNIT, Pertwee, and the shift to colour.

Next: What always comes after a really good party.

Favourite story of this series: City of Death, predictably enough.

  1. Posted by Owen Smith at 01:18pm on 21 July 2014

    I remember being enthralled by Destiny of the Daleks as a child watching the original broadcasts. I place the "Putting aside our differences, Doctor, and speaking purely intellectually" conversation with Davros (about there never being a perfect time to attack) right up there with the "Have I the right?" moment with the explosives in Genesis of the Daleks.

    As for Jonathan Nathan-Turner, well history has written him up as the man that slowly but surely destroted Doctor Who. Whether that is as correct assesment I don't know. It is certainly the case that some terrible scripts Sylvester McCoy no favours.

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 01:37pm on 21 July 2014

    I'll admit, part of why I'm pressing on with this (apart from a wish to get all the way through) is a desire to evaluate the later producers (well, producer) and script editors, and to see if I can put my finger on specific problems rather than just a general feeling of "this isn't fun any more".

  3. Posted by Owen Smith at 09:48pm on 21 July 2014

    You failed to mention that parts of Shada were used to include Tom Baker in The Five Doctors since Baker had the hump by then about leaving and refused to take part (or whatever really happened).

    As a child I had no feelings about this being the apex. Peter Davison is as much "my Doctor" as Tom Baker and I remember Davison fondly. In my memory it only went downhill with Colin Baker and the early Sylvester McCoy stories. I still feel McCoy could have been great Doctor with the right material, and Ace is one of my favourite companions.

  4. Posted by RogerBW at 10:02pm on 21 July 2014

    True; I think I was planning to mention that when I got to The Five Doctors.

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