RogerBW's Blog

Doctor Who Re-Watch, series 23 07 October 2015

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

The Doctor - Colin Baker
Peri Brown - Nicola Bryant
Mel Bush - Bonnie Langford

The show was moved back to 25-minute episodes, shown once per week. However, the episode count wasn't increased, so this series was the shortest in terms of screen time.

That was enough to get John Nathan-Turner to try to leave, but the BBC didn't have any other projects for him, so he was stuck with it. In turn he defended Colin Baker against Michael Grade's attempts to replace him before the start of the series.

Nathan-Turner and Saward, in some desperation because of the production gap and continuing potential cancellation, decided to do another multi-story arc in the style of series 16 (The Key to Time). It took various shapes (including having a first episode dedicated to setting up the trial) before settling on a 4-4-4-2 episode format.

It was announced and titled as a single series-long story, but I'm going to break it up by contracted writer and use the unofficial titles. This was the tipping point for Eric Saward as script editor, who felt casual viewers wouldn't bother to come back if they'd missed an episode of a great big story like this, and he attempted to resign – but the Head of Series and Serials, Jonathan Powell, refused to allocate anyone else to the job, so he had a choice of staying or letting the show be killed.

The Mysterious Planet (1-4)

New theme tune! Jingly jangly. And Nicola Bryant has grown her hair out a bit.

A version of the gorgeous motion-control opening shot of the space station and approaching TARDIS was one of the first 3D sequences I saw rendered on a home computer (an Atari ST, specifically). Not that the fact of its being a space station is ever mentioned in the scripts.

In a normal TV programme this sort of framing story would be an excuse for a clip show, made on the cheap by re-using old footage. It's a great example of the perversity of Who that it confounds expectations by giving us new material instead.

At the same time the frame story doesn't really work, and not only because it's the fourth trip to the well of the Doctor being put on trial by his own people. I mean, completely changing the nature of a charge and potential penalty in mid-trial, in the first episode? Even if you have a weird sort of court where that can be done, it means that anything is up for grabs thereafter. The courtroom scenes are intrinsically static, and the set is without visual interest; the strangest thing about it is the way that the screen is put behind the Inquisitor and jury, so that they have to swivel round away from prosecutor and defendant and look steeply upwards in order to see it. Comments like "can't we see the edited highlights" and "brutal and repetitious scenes" don't help us feel involved. Yes, har har, it's poking fun at the production difficulties.

Meanwhile, down in the real story…

It's mildly amusing to see Tom Chadbon, with the distinctive features of Duggan from City of Death, as a chief guard here. We also get a very standard Holmesian pair of nasty space mercenaries (though they're a bit Ribos Operation at times, turning into a pair of nice harmless con-men). They might have been played by French and Saunders, but their schedules wouldn't allow it. Joan Sims is lost as the warrior queen of the village.

The one good thing about the service robot is that it moves sideways. I mean, yes, it's an obvious Dalek-substitute radio-controlled model, but it's on a pair of actual honest tracks rather than the hidden wheels normally used to make things move around on this show. The main robot, on the other hand, works a little better, particularly the arms. (But claiming the best youths from the host civilisation… it's a bit Krotons isn't it? And they are a bit Twin Dilemma.) Pity the gun is the same old Steyr AUG.

In fact Holmes seems often to be writing for Tom Baker, with his utter contempt for authoritarians, rather than the argumentative mode that Colin Baker had established. Once can certainly see Tom's Doctor doing this story with Romana. There's a jolly good moment at the end of part 2 when the two parties are escaping in opposite directions and run into each other. Of course this is still a Colin Baker story so we have to have a bit of nastiness (the two people the robot kills).

Why should a sapient robot have any less right to life than an organic being? It's rubbish, a completely irrelevant point to the core argument of "you are going to die either way, so the only question is why you should wish to take everyone else with you".

"Five rounds rapid", really? That's pure fan-service.

Things come apart towards the end, with an entirely unreasonable and un-foreshadowed raising of the stakes ("it might destroy the entire universe"), a Komedy! load of green gunge to the face, and then the blatant problem that it's Glitz who solves the robot situation in the end, not the Doctor.

It's not a great story by the standard of classic Holmes, but the lack of squabbling between the Doctor and Peri, and the usual deft Holmes touch finally recovered after recent disappointments, make this easily better than anything from last series.

This, in the end, was Robert Holmes' last full story for the show. He'd planned to write the last two episodes to finish off the arc, but died of hepatitis before he could get very far. More on that later.

Mindwarp (5-8)

So that one wasn't too bad. But then Philip Martin came back after Vengeance on Varos to write the second segment, and alas brought Sil back with him (John Nathan-Turner actually liked him). Sil was done better as Zirk the space pervert in comics around the same time.

And of course we have the Doctor happily shooting people, again. And arguing with Peri, after the pleasant relief of the previous story. But at least there's also BRIAN BLESSED. Even if he's being a sort of cut-price samurai.

If the Doctor had been all enthusiastic about killing people in a story before Colin Baker started, it would have been a remarkable change in personality. But now it means nothing at all; it's just what he's done before. So when he goes further into his Sinister Personality Change there's no lead-up to it. (Nobody on set was able to explain to Baker whether what he was doing here was meant to be a genuine effect of the machine, a ruse, or tampering with the Matrix.)

After all the transformations of series 22, another one doesn't really have the shock value it ought to. Body swaps, ho hum, we've seen humans turned into Cybermen and Daleks before.

This is really hard to watch. There's lots of running around, everybody keeps stopping to have character moments or explain the plot, and things just get worse and worse until the end. Every time some momentum threatens to get going, we cut back to the courtroom. Nobody can muster a convincing performance; even BRIAN BLESSED seems unenthused (well, as unenthused as he ever gets about anything). I sat through The Twin Dilemma and The Two Doctors and The Android Invasion but I think this really must be the worst story I've seen yet.

The one effective bit is that Peri, who's been in the series purely to be thrown into danger from her first appearance, finally doesn't have a random last-minute escape. This was decreed by Nathan-Turner, unsurprisingly given the directions in which he'd been pushing the show. Of course that was then un-done later.

Terror of the Vervoids (9-12)

This slot was originally going to be filled by a pair of two-parters, Attack from the Mind and The Second Coming. But one set of scripts didn't appear on time, and Saward didn't like the other; he tried getting in other writers, but Nathan-Turner went to Pip and Jane Baker (who could at least always produce stuff on time and to his taste) for a four-parter instead.

Bonnie Langford's casting prompted Eric Saward to stop coming to the office (Nathan-Turner script-edited most of this story) and eventually to resign and make it stick, and caused Ian Levine to go off in a snit… so the results weren't entirely negative. All the screaming is hard work, though.

More interesting is the complete lack of an introduction story. Would having one, like other companions, have made her more popular? I'm reminded of the Torchwood episode Adam in which some new guy is deemed always to have been part of the team, but there it's clearly a signifier that Something Is Wrong. Similarly, the Doctor's relationship with the Commodore is self-evidently made up for the story; it does the job that in other stories has been done by the sonic screwdriver, of preventing the Doctor from simply being locked up until the fuss is over. (Having both these non-introductions at once is perhaps a bit much.)

But apart from that innovative laziness, this story ends up being a "greatest hits" compilation. Another space liner from The Nightmare of Eden; alien pods and plant monsters from The Seeds of Doom; periodic killings and a Christie-ish murder mystery from Robots of Death; the blustery ageing security man who'll screw everything up from Kinda. I don't mind the shape of the story being the sort of thing the show's done many times before, but it feels as though the Bakers just threw old episodes into a blender and used whatever plot elements came out first. There are even two successive "no, no, I'm not your enemy, argh"es straight out of the mad scientist playbook. I suppose the idea is to have a mystery story where everyone has his own sin and his own plot, but the choice of murderer seems arbitrary and relatively insignificant given some of the dodgy deeds others have been up to. (Three separate villainous plots have to be finished off in the final episode.)

The whole past/present/future split of these three four-parters is laid on with a trowel this time. Though why the Doctor should suddenly now be aware of his own future, when he never has been before…

Actors with fluffy hair shouldn't be in CSO shots. The technology requires a hard edge, and it just doesn't look convincing. Let's not even mention the brown "black hole".

Mel does a decent job here; she's actively hauling the tired story into shape and trying to get on with the next bit of it. But what a waste of Honor Blackman, playing a moaning biddy who turns into a boring "science over all" villain, like a less interesting version of the Rani. Now, she chould have played the Rani rather better.

The Vervoids themselves are perhaps the ultimate naff monster: phallic and yonic at the same time. In personality they're basically just more Cybermen, kill killity kill. If they're built as tools, why do they have the poison stingers and methane glands? And what's the solution? Kill them. Perhaps a little regretfully, but kill them anyway.

As for genocide, I have one word for you: Daleks.

The Ultimate Foe (13-14)

So Robert Holmes started writing this, finished a draft of the first part, then died. Eric Saward finally got loose from the script editor post, then wrote a second draft and a script for part two; it's not clear how much this might have adhered to Holmes's original plan. It had a cliffhanger ending which Nathan-Turner didn't like; Saward refused to change it, and finally took his toys and went home. Whom to turn to to get something together in a hurry? Obviously, Pip and Jane Baker again.

Now, they couldn't be told anything about Saward's script because he wasn't allowing it to be used in any way. That's fair enough. But the bizarre thing is that they had no idea what the planned ending of the whole arc was going to be, even though they had written the previous four episodes of it, and indeed they had no idea how it had started either. They had to go and read the earlier scripts to work out what was going on, then cobble something together to tie up the loose ends.

So, dear hypothetical reader, riddle me this. You are the producer and/or script editor of a troubled TV series. You have nine months before production is due to start, rather longer than usual. You have decided to have a season-long story arc. How do you fail actually to have any notes, or anyone with any idea, of what that arc story is supposed to be? Yes, all right, the script editor has walked away, but notes made while he was working would have been the property of the BBC, like the script for part 13 (and in any case no such notes have surfaced later, even though the Saward script for part 14 has shown up).

I have a theory about that. Eric Saward gets credit for having come up with the Trial storyline, but I have a sneaking suspicion that it was Robert Holmes who actually did most of the work, and that the original grand plan died with him.

Anyway. Part one is probably mostly Holmes, up to the point around half-way through where the Doctor enters the Matrix. It's pretty much straight explanatory writing, recapping the few important bits of the previous three stories and explaining the overall plot, with one last great Robert Holmes speech.

The rest of part one is Holmes and Saward, with interference from Nathan-Turner (who had for example decided that Peri shouldn't be dead after all, thus removing the small amount of point that Mindwarp had managed to achieve). I suspect the sand-pit sequence may have been plotted by Holmes; it's pretty much a re-run from The Deadly Assassin. The rest is basically pipe-laying, getting the pieces in place for the conclusion.

And then part two is, well, a Pip 'n' Jane story. The TARDIS set painted black, Colin Baker doing some of the best acting of his stint on the show when he's being a blank-faced zombie, unheralded reverses, more and more stuff thrown in to distract from the lack of connective tissue, and endless runarounds. And after a fairly effective self-sacrifice scene by the Doctor, we have Mel explaining it in small words for the very hard of thinking. These two episodes were the first material Bonnie Langford filmed for the show, and she's rather shakier and more stagey here than she was in Terror of the Vervoids. The Master is simply irrelevant, just as he was in Mark of the Rani, especially once the Valeyard turns from being a smart enemy into a stock cackling villain.

And what's the point of that final-shot reverse? Nothing was ever going to be done with it.

I can't even be bothered to complain about the Matrix now being something that's physically entered. It's too much effort. Similarly when I notice that moving the solar system two light years isn't exactly hiding it, or that the entire trial turns out to have been irrelevant. It's thoroughly obvious that nobody involved in this, including Holmes, gave two thoughts about it, so why should I?

A fourteen-part epic hits the wall, goes "splat", and slowly slides off into a puddle on the floor. It doesn't even manage to offend.

"The catharsis of spurious morality" indeed.

Overall impressions

This was the series where ratings collapsed. The long gap between series was part of the problem; the rest was that it was up against The A-Team. But again, look at overall ratings by story: it wasn't that people hated particular stories and didn't come back, it's that they'd lost interest in the show as a whole.

And the same is true of me. I think I may have seen an episode or two; I have a dim recollection of the spaceship lounge in Vervoids, and of the initial space station sequence. But apart from that? No; Doctor Who wasn't really part of my life any more.

It was during the inter-season gap after this that Star Cops, a series for which I still have an unreasonable fondness, was broadcast.

Favourite story of this series: The Mysterious Planet.

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. Dodo
  24. Katarina
  25. Kamelion
  26. Adric

Colin Baker

Michael Grade finally got his way and had Colin Baker fired at the end of this series. (I'm sure it was a complete coincidence that Grade was seeing Baker's ex-wife Liza Goddard at the time.) John Nathan-Turner was made to deliver the bad news, in return for which he was told he'd be allowed to leave the programme. Then the BBC turned round and told him to stay for "one more series". (It may well be that they couldn't find anyone to be enough of a sucker to take over.)

Baker was offered the first four episodes of series 24, but wasn't interested in less than a full series, and indeed wouldn't even come back for the regeneration scene. I can't really blame him.

I've been profoundly unimpressed with this version of the Doctor. I know Baker's redeemed himself in many fans' eyes in the audio plays from Big Finish, but when I say "I don't like the way Colin Baker plays the Doctor" I'm talking about the gestalt of acting, script-writing and direction. The best actor in the world could be made to look unsympathetic with the wrong scripts. And this Doctor is just ghastly; his only decent stories come on the few occasions when he's not arguing with Peri or Mel, he's all too ready to pick up a gun, and Doctor Who is not the right show for Arnie-style quips over dead or dying enemies.

The original plan was for Baker's characterisation to change from nasty to likeable over about three series, but it bounces about even in the two series that he made; in one story he's belittling Peri, next time they're fine with each other, next time he's belittling her again. Doing this and making it work would have needed a rather firmer hand from the script editor, something that this programme has never really managed to do.

But would it have been a good thing even if it had worked? What you get is an unlikeable main character and a companion who seems to have no reason to hang around with him unless she's some sort of co-dependent. And I should come back every week to watch these dreary people?


Peri was designed as the Generic Girl (which Jo Grant and Sarah Jane Smith and Leela and Romana may sometimes have descended into, but it wasn't where they started or spent most of their stories). She gets exactly two personality traits: one is that she's American, and the other is that's she's interested in botany (which I think gets mentioned in three stories).

When the early stories of series 22 put her in a succession of tight and revealing outfits it didn't even have the punch that Leela's famous leather bikini did, never mind Zoe's costumes in series 6. In seven out of her eleven stories, she's lusted over or sexually threatened by someone. It feels as though the writers can't think of anything to do with her beyond peril magnet + female. (And her final fate, as the show consumed itself more than ever, was to be married off off-stage to someone she'd managed just barely to get along with before.)

She ends up in my list just below Victoria, and just above Tegan. When she's not getting into trouble, she's just sort of there. "Sexy Peril Monkey" would be a good band name, though.

Robert Holmes

Holmes wrote seventeen complete scripts for the show, ranging by my lights from some of the best (The Ark in Space, The Talons of Weng-Chiang, Carnival of Monsters) to some of the worst (The Two Doctors, The Power of Kroll). He did more to define the Time Lords than anyone else (The Time Warrior, The Deadly Assassin). He sometimes let his obsessions get away with him (The Sun Makers, The Two Doctors) but had an excellent style for writing ordinary people with jobs who just happened to be doing them in space. It's a pleasant grounding effect from the pure fantasy that other writers have sometimes seemed to be pushing.

  1. Posted by Owen Smith at 02:48pm on 07 October 2015

    I remember little of this series from first broadcast, but then I was at University and without a TV like all my friends (and not missing it). I did try to get TV reception a couple of times on a black and white portable, but being on the ground floor of buildings with three feet thick solid stone walls trying to use an inside aerial was never going to work. Plus analogue TV reception was hard in Cambridge anyway as I subsequently found living here, at least until digital came along.

    I do recall Bonnie Langford with Colin Baker so I must have seen some of this, maybe on repeats. But it left no impression other than "but she's a dancer, what's she doing on Doctor Who?"

    PS. if you're not watching New Who, the recent scenes of the Doctor and Davros stuck in a room just talking (well mostly) were some of the best I've seen in years.

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 01:09pm on 14 October 2015

    Heh. In 1989-1990 I was the only person in my hall of residence without a TV set. And the only one with a computer.

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