(*and other stories.)
When I wrote a piece about the blu-ray release of Doctor Who’s twelfth season, I called it ‘This is Not a Review’, because my attachment to Tom Baker’s debut episodes was so strong that I did not feel I could be in any way objective. I didn’t consider that I might have to write similar articles about other seasons on blu-ray. So when Season 19 came along – a season that I like a lot but have less of a personal attachment to – I thought my comments would be more review-y than the previous release, so I titled them a kinda review. I very quickly realised that could also be read as ‘A Kinda Review’, Kinda being one of the more notable stories in the season and… well, it’s a whole can of worms right there, but I guess you get the picture.
I was 11 years old when Peter Davison took control of the TARDIS. Tom Baker had been my Doctor; I grew up with him and the fourth Doctor had been a constant companion in my playtime and my reading time. A lot of fans of my age say that they balked at the thought of a new Doctor, determined not to like him. I didn’t; I’d been reading Doctor Who Monthly and watching The Five Faces of Doctor Whoon BBC2, so I was quite comfortable with the idea of many actors playing the Doctor. And I like change; I’m a fickle fellow. I was excited that the Fourth Doctor had a new costume in Season 18, so the thought that he’d have a new face in Season 19 filled me with even more glee.
I’ll be honest; I was in danger of straying away from Doctor Who. I’d missed several episodes of Season 18 due to watching Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. The Five Facesand the imminent arrival of the Fifth Doctor brought me back. The BBC must’ve noticed the dent that Buck Rogerswas making on their Saturday night audience too, because it can’t be coincidence that this was the first time that they moved the series away from its traditional slot and into a mid-week position. Modern fans would undoubtedly moan the place down at this deviation from the norm, but I thought it was great. Doctor Who was now showing not only on a school night, but twice a week! I remember the terrific sense of warmth that it brought to watch those episodes on a cold winter evening after a double period of Maths and a tortuous session of soaking-wet PE.
Taken out of context, it’s easy to think of Season 19 as being a straight continuation of Season 18, but it’s not. It was all change; Adric, Nyssa and Tegan might have all been introduced with Tom Baker as the Doctor, but none of them ever gelled with him. They were all very much Peter Davison’s companions, no matter how much some fans might try and convince themselves that the Fourth Doctor and Adric were a great partnership (they weren’t; Tom clearly hated him). The feel of the stories is also very different; Season 18 held onto a hang-over of the gothic feel of Tom Baker’s earlier stories, combined with the clinical New Scientist edge of Christopher H. Bidmead’s tutorage. Under the split script editorship of Anthony Root and Eric Saward we have a much cleaner science fiction series, with interesting ideas and some concepts that are so brilliantly obvious that you can’t help thinking ‘why didn’t they do that sooner?’.
The era of the Fifth Doctor doesn’t exactly get off to a roaring start though. There’s a reason why nobody ever hails Castrovalva as a stone-cold classic. It’s widely known that the script situation was chaotic at thee start of Season 19 and Castrovalva was written in a rush. Not a bad story per se, but a story that seems infinitely stretched beyond its natural length. At the heart of Castrovalva is a really tight 2-parter, but instead we have it drawn out to 4 rather slow-moving episodes, with the new Doctor spending much of the first half in a coma and Tegan and Nyssa taking a seemingly unending tramp through a forest in inappropriate shoes. Adric meanwhile is tied to a giant geometry set by the Master and poked with a metaphorical stick. His calculations, it will later be revealed, are what is supporting the illusionary city of Castrovalva.
It’s all very complex and a bit clever-clever. The city of Castrovalva, it seems, is based upon a lithograph of the same name by Dutch artist M.C. Escher, which depicts an actual village in the Abruzzo region of Italy. It’s a pity that the TARDIS didn’t just take them to Italy instead, and then the cast and crew could’ve had a nice holiday and wouldn’t have had to put up with the Master’s incomprehensible plan. The design is very nice and interestingly stylised, but there’s no getting past the fact that this is a terribly dull start for the new Doctor.
Four to Doomsday is a story about a giant frog with delusions of godhood and his intention to repopulate the Earth with his own froggy brethren. Stratford Johns, a powerful British actor best known at the time for seminal police series Z Cars and its sequel Softly, Softly plays Monarch, the aforementioned frog and manages to force out a rather good performance through layers of green make-up. It might never get even close to being regarded as a classic serial, but Four to Doomsday is pretty damned impressive on the acting front; as well as Stratford Johns, you’ve got the RSC and National Theatre’s Paul Shelly and frequently under-rated British-Chinese actor Burt Kwouk, playing humans from Earth’s history that Monarch has picked up on previous visits and converted into robot versions of themselves.
Filmed entirely in the studio and seemingly not on an extravagant budget, Four to Doomsday sets Season 19 in a similar vein to its predecessor, when the visually striking The Leisure Hive was followed by the dull and studio-bound Meglos. Having said that, Four to Doomsday is nowhere near as bad as Meglos and contains quite a lot of very intriguing ideas that are never fully put to good use in the propulsion of the story. Although it gets a lot of bad press, I’ve always found Four to Doomsday to be quite a watchable story that only really stumbles on the believability front when the Doctor goes for a spacewalk in his cricketing whites on the end of a nylon rope (bluescreen ahoy!). Like a couple of the other stories on this blu-ray release, Four to Doomsday comes with optional updated special effects that you’ll watch once out of curiosity then never bother with again.
The confusion over scripts that were all ready in place and the rush to get new ones in place sometimes, by pure chance, threw up some absolute gems. Kinda is one of the most unique stories in the history of Doctor Who up to this point; its new-to-Who writer Christopher Bailey threw in elements of Buddhism, Christian Mythology and colonialism to create a story that pretty much defies categorisation. It is the tale of how the twin demons of colonialism and… well, a demon almost destroy the idyllic harmony of a primitive paradise. Janet Fielding as Tegan gets to step to the fore as the TARDIS crew-member possessed by the serpent-like Mara, although watching it again, there’s a lot less Tegan/Mara stuff than I remembered.
Kinda is ahead of its time in several ways. For starters, with the exception of the Doctor, all of the more proactive characters are female and the society of the Kinda folk appears definitely matriarchal. Also, it deals with the issue of mental illness some 30 years before Vincent and the Doctor – though perhaps with a degree less subtlety. Simon Rouse gives an extraordinary performance as Hindle, whose insanity spirals out of control when he is left in a position of authority and who spurns the ‘Box of Jana’ which is ironically the only thing that could cleanse his mind and effectively ‘cure’ him. The fact that Kinda is still remembered as one of the Fifth Doctor’s best stories despite being hamstrung by some very restrictive studio jungle sets and an unconvincing giant snake is testament to the quality of Christopher Bailey’s script.
Next up is a story that I remember really liking at the time – and I still like it now – The Visitation. It’s popular these days for Doctor Who fans to lambaste the scripts of incoming script-editor Eric Saward (for reasons I don’t pretend to understand), but I’m having none of that. I always found his scripts to be well-paced and cinematic and I really don’t see what people’s problem with the guy is. Some of his later attempts to rescue the floundering scripts of other writers – such as The Twin Dilemma and Attack of the Cybermen – seem to suggest that he was far better suited to script writing than script editing. The Visitation is his first script for Doctor Who and it’s a corker!
The Doctor and his gang arrive in a 17th century England plagued by… well, plague. But the Black Death isn’t the worst threat to the local populace (and it’s not often you get to say that) because a gang of escaped convict lizard-budgies, the Terreleptils, are planning to wipe out the human race and take the planet for their own. Only the Doctor, his friends and flamboyant thespian Richard Mace can stop them! It’s classic Doctor Who pseudo-historical fare, with the historical attention to detail that we’ve come to expect from the BBC. It’s not perfect of course; the Terreleptils look cool in still photos but have very restricted motion and the direction contradicts the script a few times (like when one carefully points out that it’s the rats’ fleas that carry the plague, but the other is happy to have Tegan standing next to an open crate full of plague rats with seemingly no threat of infection) but ultimately it’s solid old-school Doctor Who and always worth a watch.
More adventures in history next with Black Orchid, the series first true historical since 1966’s The Highlanders and the last to date (Jodie Whittaker’s first season came close, but no cigar). It’s a bit of an oddity by the standards of the day, being essentially a Conan-Doyle-esque chiller set in a 1920s country house. There’s cricket, the Charleston, a cold collation and lots of other things beginning with ‘C’. It’s also a 2-parter, of which there’d previously been only 3, but became something of a regular occurrence during the Davison years. Not all 2-parters are great; some rush the story and end up being a bit nonsensical, but 2 episodes is just the right length for on this occasion. I’ve always liked Black Orchid, even when I was 12 – which makes a nonsense of the long-held belief within the BBC that kids will only go for sci-fi stories – and it’s a welcome bit of light(ish) relief before the heaviness of what comes next.
One should never underplay the impact of Earthshock. As I mentioned earlier, it’s now de rigueur to dislike the stories of Eric Saward and diminish the impact that they had on the series – but they DID have an impact on the series and they arguably pointed the way to the type of story that we currently enjoy. It’s easy to look at Earthshock from an uninformed modern perspective and to think that it is influenced by Aliens, with its brusque military action, but Earthshock predates Aliens by a good four years! People are quick to criticise the level of violence in Saward’s script, but he foresaw the milieu of the eighties in a way that few other writers on TV did. This was the era of Rambo and Predator, where even seemingly benign films like Back to the Future contain gunplay thrown in with casual abandon. In another 2 years, Doctor Who would be competing against The A Team, with its disturbing culture of kid-friendly gunplay and harmless explosions. At least – as Mr Saward himself pointed out in 30 Years in the TARDIS – his of violence was seen to have consequences.
And boy, are there consequences in Earthshock! Adric may not have been the first companion to die in Doctor Who, but he was certainly the most established; Katarina and Sara Kingdom were both in the series no more than a few episodes before they karked it, but Adric had been around for the best part of a series and a half. He was the elder statesman of the TARDIS crew, predating Nyssa, Tegan and the Fifth Doctor himself and although viewers might have known that the actor was leaving, his actual death was a total shock, unlike the well-signposted soap deaths that litter today’s television. And it’s a real, final end, which packs a punch that is sorely lacking in the limp ‘they’re dead but they’ll be back again later’ endings that we see in the show today. I’m not generally a fan of killing characters off, but I think in this case it works extremely well.
Oh, and there are some Cybermen in Earthshock too. And they’re good. I like 80s Cybermen.
Earthshock should have ended the series, these days it would have; but things were done differently back then and, to cut a long story short… Time Flight. Oh dear, Time Flight; to misquote the late great Ken Campbell, “Not the worst Doctor Who Story in the world… but f***ing close!” Having finally got Tegan back to Heathrow, the Doctor discovers that British Airways have a problem – one of their aircraft is missing. Persuading them to let him take another extremely expensive aircraft one the same route, the Doctor and the crew of Concorde (couldn’t they have found a cheaper plane?) slip back in time, in a plot twist awfully similar to the Twilight Zone episode The Odyssey of Flight 33. But instead of meeting a Claymation dinosaur, they meet the Master disguised as a fat Fu Manchu whose pyramid base is guarded by some of the most rubbish monsters ever seen in the series. It’s all very, very poor and a disappointing end to the series.
There are certain seasons in Doctor Who’s long run that are pivotal; upon which the series can stand or fall. The first regeneration from Hartnell to Troughton is one; the change to Pertwee and the earthbound UNIT years is another. Tom Baker was so established in the role that for a whole generation of fans, he WAS the Doctor; so the switch to a new lead actor could well have killed the series. We’re so used to regeneration now that we shrug it off, but we mustn’t forget that every change of lead actor in the classic series was a big gamble for the BBC. Moving the show to a weekday was also a gamble, but it was essential because of the pounding the show was getting in the ratings from Buck Rogers. Arguably, shifting the show back to Saturday contributed towards its troubles in the Colin Baker era, because it was now up against the extremely popular The A Team or Robin of Sherwood. Keeping it midweek could have resulted in stronger ratings that may have dissuaded the BBC from putting it on hiatus.
I was 12 when this series went out and I saw no problem in either the change of Doctor or the change of timeslot. It definitely felt fresh after the tatty later Graeme Williams stories and JNT’s impressive but mixed-up debut season – and it still does feel fresh. I’ll be honest and say that I tend to overlook the Davison era when I’m looking for something to watch, but this blu-ray boxed set has rekindled my love of the era. These are very impressive stories and look better than ever on this shiny new format. There are some nice new extras on the discs too, including the always-wonderful Gogglebox-inspired Behind the Sofa and a very open and honest interview with Peter Davison by Matthew Sweet. It’s nice to see that Davison’s attitude towards the series has mellowed considerably since the cynicism he displayed in Bill Baggs’ The Doctors 25 years ago. This mellowing seems to come to all the lead actors eventually, so maybe we’ll see Christopher Eccleston providing extras for a re-release of his season in another decade or two.
I really enjoyed re-watching Season 19 on blu-ray and it brought back warm, cosy feelings of watching the series curled up on the sofa in my school uniform while my Mam was doing the ironing. It was a different feeling to Saturday night, but in no way inferior – and the Davison era was in no way inferior to the more highly acclaimed Tom Baker era. This is a strong start and I look forward to seeing blu-ray releases of Seasons 20 and 21 in due course.