Not a Review: Doctor Who Season 12

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This is not a review of Doctor Who: The Collection Season 12. I set out to write a review, only to find that I was too close to the material to be truly impartial. You see, Tom Baker’s debut season was my introduction to Doctor Who. Looking back, I had probably seen some of Jon Pertwee’s last season; I have vague memories of the giant spiders and was aware of the Daleks prior to Genesis of the Daleks, but my memories of Tom Baker’s first season are vivid. Although I was only 5 at the time, I know I watched the whole thing and fell head over heels in love with Doctor Who. So no, this isn’t a review, because I cannot – in all truthfulness – be critical of this season.

Instead, what you have here is a celebration of Season 12 on the advent of its Blu-Ray release; part love letter, part memoir, part analysis and it brings in all the surrounding elements that constituted Doctor Who 1975 (yes, I know part of it was in 1974 – don’t get all pedantic on me now) and what it meant to be a Doctor Who fan as the series approached the very peak of its Classic Series success. I say ‘fan’, but fans as such didn’t really exist in the early 70s. Sure, down in London there were probably a few blokes in cardigans who even then were too old to know better, exchanging photocopied single-sheet fan letters, but they were just a bunch of weirdos that nobody really talked about. The real fans the kids… who quite rightly didn’t mingle with those blokes.

The nature of TV in the 1970s meant that Doctor Who was not something you sought out; it was part of the cultural pattern; it was what you did on a Saturday night. You watched Playaway on BBC2 in the late afternoon, played with your toys while the football results chattered away in the background, watched Basil Brush, and then watched Doctor Who. If you were very lucky, you got to watch The Generation Game too. It wasn’t a boys’ series, although I think it would be increasingly aimed that way in the early 80s; everyone watched Doctor Who. There’s a Children’s Film Foundation production (I’m not sure which one, but it might be Danger on Dartmoor) in which some missing kids say that their disappearance will be noticed because they’re expected home in time for Doctor Who. It was that much a part of British childhood in 1975.

Although I was still only 4 at the time when it started, I have distinct memories of Robot. The actual K1 Robot (or the Giant Robot as it was universally known in the pre-anal fan days) was such an iconic design that it’s lodged in my consciousness. The BBC were obviously quite aware of the Robot’s visual impact because although it was a one-off monster, it crops up everywhere from the 1976 Dr Who Annual to the Weetabix collectable cards. Speaking of the 1976 annual; that was my first Dr Who [sic] annual and it relies heavily on photo-reference from Robot, including its fantastic cover. Robot might not be considered such a classic as some of what followed, but it stands up incredibly well to this day. Yes, it’s a Season 11 Jon Pertwee story with Tom Baker in the lead, but isn’t that, to a greater or lesser extent, true of the first story of every Doctor?

Tom Baker jumps into the role of the Doctor with both feet, making a determined effort to differ from his predecessor by playing up the character’s alien qualities. There’s a distinct sense of otherness with Tom Baker in Robot and he’ll never again be quite so determinedly odd. His relationship with the Brigadier is wonderful; you got the impression by the end of the Pertwee era that the Brigadier had eventually become used to the Doctor’s quirks – but he just doesn’t know what the hell to do with Baker! It’s a real shame that their relationship didn’t stretch beyond this story and Terror of the Zygons, because you get the sense that there is so much more there to be explored.

As well as the new Doctor, Robot also introduces us to a new TARDIS team – by far my favourite TARDIS team! Elizabeth Sladen as Sarah (you can call her Sarah in the Baker era – she’s only Sarah Jane with Pertwee) was a hang-over from the final Third Doctor series, but it could be argued that she’s a changed character once Doctor 4 comes along. No longer is she the cut-out-and-dress feminist of Season 11, but a much more rounded character. I suspect that the incoming script editor Robert Holmes was better at writing women than dear old Terrance Dicks and chose to keep an undercurrent of feminism whilst giving her a better colour palette in terms of outer character. Ian Marter’s Harry Sullivan is an absolute joy; instantly more likeable than Mike Yates or Sergeant Benton, and his oddly awkward relationship with Sarah is totally believable for an ex-public schoolboy who’s spent most of his formative years in the barracks with sailors. I’m not quite sure why UNIT has a naval surgeon on their staff, but thank goodness they do.

Any lingering elements of Pertwee that exist in Robot are gone when we get to The Ark in Space. The action is transferred to Space Station Nerva in the distant future and UNIT are gone and forgotten in an instant. A lot of people consider this to be the beginning of the Tom Baker era in earnest and they’re pretty much right; it’s impossible to imagine the more flamboyant Jon Pertwee taking on this stark mixture of science and body horror. If anything, it’s more like a Patrick Troughton story with its claustrophobic base-under-siege elements. Suddenly, the series no longer shares its space with The Avengers and Department S and it is once more, unapologetically science fiction. The premise of The Ark in Space is often quite rightly compared to Ridley Scott’s Alien (which it pre-dated by 4 years), but in a way, the actions of the Wirrn are even more insidious, because the ‘host’ has no idea that anything has even happened to them. They are ‘impregnated’ (for want of a better word) in their sleep and the first time they know that anything has happened is when they start turning into a green blobby bubble-wrap monster.

The Ark in Space is the beginning of an explicit story arc that takes us right up to the end of the series. This was partly due to the budgetary choice of re-using the Nerva sets from The Ark in Space in Revenge of the Cybermen, but it works really well and you don’t even particularly notice that the TARDIS has been sidelined for three stories. The 2-parter The Sontaran Experiment acts as coda to The Ark in Space, showing us what has become of the Earth while the crew of Space Station Nerva have been in hibernation. This is another one that stuck particularly in my young mind, not least because Ian Marter’s book Doctor Who and the Sontaran Experiment was the first Target novelisation that I owned. I still have it to this day and it still has traces of green paint on the cover from when the desk in my bedroom was painted. All of this means nothing to anyone else of course, but it’s all part of the childhood tapestry of Doctor Who to me. Much is written of the Chris Achilleos covers to the early Target books, but for me Roy Knipe’s original cover for Doctor Who and the Sontaran Experiment is just beautiful.

I always loved the Sontarans as a kid, although I’m not sure if I was aware of them prior to The Sontaran Experiment; my limited Pertwee viewing probably doesn’t go back as far as The Time Warrior, as I was only 3 and in hospital with bronchial pneumonia. I used to make my own Sontaran doll by taking the head off an Action Man™ in a silver astronaut costume and replacing it with half an actual potato with a face drawn on it. It was surprisingly effective, although he was disproportionately bigger than my Denys Fisher 4thDoctor doll and after a few weeks he started to shrivel and sprout as if he has some terrible space disease.  My love of the Sontarans even blinded me to just how awful The Invasion of Time was, but that’s a story for another season.

More action figure antics can be attributed to Genesis of the Daleks. Whilst watching the Peter Cushing Dr Who and the Daleks film on Saturday morning TV, I accidentally melted the dome of my Palitoy Talking Dalek in front of the gas fire and ended up having the remainder sawn in half by my Dad so I could combine it with half a damaged Lone Ranger doll to create… Davros! Yes, I was of the generation to whom Davros was inseparable from the Daleks. After 1975’s Genesis of the Daleks it would be thirty years before we saw another Dalek story on TV without him! I’m not sure I even realised that there were Dalek stories without Davros until I started devouring the Target novelisations. In later years he became the subject of much ire from fans, but at the time of Genesis of the Daleks, he was a truly great and original creation, buoyed along by Michael Wisher’s hauntingly still performance that manages to project more emotion through a mask than a lot of actors manage without.

Genesis of the Daleks is, of course, a stone-cold classic, but it came in for a lot of criticism at the time from the NVLA (National Viewers and Listeners Association) and others for its violent content. Cut to 5-year old me in his infants’ school class, sitting next to Jane Ellis who liked to show the boys her knickers, and gleefully drawing a picture of Tom Baker being throttled by a Kaled mutant. He obviously didn’t think it was too violent – he loved it. It’s easy, as an adult, to be oversensitive about such things, but kids don’t think the same way. To see Genesis of the Daleks now is to see Nazi Germany, the horrors of the trenches and the immoral genetic experiments of Josef Mengele; but no child recognises those things in the story. To them, it’s a story about Doctor Who rescuing his friends Sarah and Harry from the nasty Daleks; the subtext is lost on a child, so there’s no danger at all of it scarring them for life.

What’s often overlooked about Genesis of the Daleks is that it doesn’t slow up for a second. The majority of 6-parters start to flag around the episode 4 mark, but Genesis always has something new up its sleeve. In fact, there’s precious little padding at all in Season 12, which I’d argue is one of the tightest seasons script-wise in the show’s history. In other seasons, both before and after, there’s often a serial that feels like a compromise; left in there because they couldn’t get something better in time or hastily rewritten to replace a failed script, but Season 12 feels totally planned. Yes, I know that both The Ark in Space and Revenge of the Cybermen were rescue jobs by Robert Holmes, but that just goes to show what a fantastic script editor he was, because at no point do they feel patched-up in the way that the likes of The Invasion of Time or The Armageddon Factor do.

Although it’s nominally written by Gerry Davis, Revenge of the Cybermen is well known to have been heavily rewritten by Robert Holmes. You can certainly draw a clear line between this and The Caves of Androzani, with their scenes of tough-taking, gun-toting characters wandering through a bunch of caves (although the caves here are the real caves of Wookey Hole rather than some polystyrene BBC caves). It’s generally regarded as the weakest link in the season, but from a season with such high standards, that’s not really too much of a criticism.

I probably remember Revenge of the Cybermen least from its original broadcast, though I was aware enough of the Cybermen to want a Denys Fisher doll of one a couple of years later. It came back into my consciousness in the early 80s, when it was chosen as the very first BBC Video release, which I hired from the video section of the Central Public Library in Sunderland. Quite why they chose Revenge as the first video release is beyond me – it starts as explicitly part of an ongoing arc, with the regulars arriving by Time Ring instead of TARDIS. I remembered the Time Ring because I used to have a large ring magnet as a child (I think it was from the coil of an old TV set) which I used to play with as the Time Ring, but I’m sure anyone who didn’t remember the 1975 series would’ve wondered what the hell was going on. The Blu-Ray set contains the edited feature version of Genesis of the Daleks, which seems like a much better choice for the first VHS release.

This leads me neatly onto the Blu-Ray and the part of this article which is closest to actually being a review. It really is a wonderful collection for any serious fan of Doctor Who. The Blu-Ray upgrades of the stories are just gorgeous and should be more or less future-proofed against when we all have TVs as big as our house. A lot of the special features (look DWM, even the BBC don’t call them VAMs, so pack it in) are from the original DVD releases, but there’s more than enough new or unreleased stuff to make it worth you 40 quid. Particular mention should go to the two new ‘Making Of’ documentaries for The Sontaran Experiment and Revenge of the Cybermen and Tom Baker in Conversation with Matthew Sweet. My favourite new feature though has got to be Behind the Sofa, in which various Who celebs are filmed Gogglebox-style as they watch the episodes. Absolute joy!

Doctor Who Season 12 has a special place in my heart and always will do. If you put a gun to my head and told me that I could save only one season of Doctor Who, old or new, I wouldn’t hesitate for a moment in choosing this one. It has everything that I look for in Doctor Who and nothing that niggles or irritates me. Everyone loves their first Doctor and their first series of Doctor Who; sometimes, in retrospect, they let you down. Season 12 never lets me down. I love it as much 43 years later as I did when I watched it as a 5-year old.

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