When the Tea was Still Warm: Season 26 Blu-Ray Review

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With expert timing, I became involved in Doctor Who fandom just as the classic series was coming to an end. I don’t think we knew that it was coming to an end… well, not at first anyway. I started attending a couple of local Doctor Who groups and at one of these a nameless source gave my cousin a whole bunch of classified info about Battlefield and The Curse of Fenric for his fanzine. FanMail was the first to publish this information about Doctor Who’s 26th season – before DWM, before CT – and it all sounded tremendously exciting! Unfortunately, due to the nature of fanzine distribution in the 1980s, most people never got hold of a copy of FanMail #2 until our exclusive news was common knowledge, c’est la vie d’un fervent. Never mind, this was the start of my long attachment to Season 26, which would span not only the TV show, but conventions, fanzines, interviews, comic strips, books and all kinds of stuff, culminating in the release of the Doctor Who – The Collection: Season 26 blu-ray boxed set, of which this is ostensibly a review.

In 1989, I went with my cousins Neil and Jill to the Nebula 26 Doctor Who convention in Liverpool. It was my first ever Doctor Who convention and as we walked into the dealers’ room to set up our fanzine stall, a voice called out, “FanMail!” It was John Freeman, the editor of Doctor Who Magazine. This was a famous person, a person I’d heard of, acknowledging something of which I was a part. It was all a bit much for me, I needed a lie down – not least because we’d travelled to Liverpool on an overnight coach and I was absolutely knackered. But there was no time for that because there was so much going on, so much to buy, so much to see. The sight of actual actors from the TV show wandering past blew my tiny mind! I had quite the crush on Sophie Aldred at the time and the idea that I was even in the same building as her made me weak at the knees. Season 26 had not long finished on TV and there were very impressive panels for Ghost Light and The Curse of Fenric at that convention.

Although I had been a Doctor Who fan for as long as I can remember, Season 26 is the first (and for a long time the last) season in which I was completely immersed. I reviewed The Curse of Fenric for FanMail, I drew Doctor Duck spoofs of every story (though the Survival spoof Wildlife on One remains unpublished to this day) and I got to meet both Sylvester and Sophie through the magazine. It’s also, in my humble opinion, by far the best of the Seventh Doctor seasons. You can pretty much split the McCoy era down the middle into great stories and not-so-great stories; Season 24 is fairly irredeemable across the board, knowingly pitched at a younger age group and very colourful and silly as a consequence. Season 25 immediately rescues the series with the astonishing Remembrance of the Daleks, but falls down in other areas (I’m looking at you, Silver Nemesis); it’s a definite step in the right direction, but a faltering one. By Season 26, the era is absolutely hitting its stride; both McCoy and Aldred are superb and the writing and direction is sophisticated and clever.

So, let’s look at the stories, eh? After this lengthy and self-indulgent preamble. First off the mark is Battlefield, written by Ben Aaronovitch. Now, a lot of people don’t rate Battlefield, because they think it’s a retrogressive step. After Remembrance of the Daleks, some folks were expecting Aaronovitch to come up with another heavyweight drama, but Battlefield is much lighter in tone. It’s not a return to the campery of Season 24 though, because there’s death and warfare and potential nuclear Armageddon, but Aaronovitch, being quite a clever fellow, realises that you have to counterpoint that with likeable human characters – and you can’t make people likeable when they’re brooding and backstabbing. Battlefield is also loosely based around Arthurian mythology, so it has to have that slight storybook quality. This had to be more Sword in the Stone and less Excalibur to make it acceptable for broadcast at 7:30pm.

For my part, I’ve always loved Battlefield; it’s one of my ‘comfort food’ stories, along with The Three Doctors and Destiny of the Daleks, which I can sit down and watch on a rainy Sunday afternoon to cheer me up and make me feel warmly nostalgic. It’s also got Nicholas Courtney’s last appearance as the Brigadier in Doctor Who (no, I’m not counting Dimensions in Time, Big Finish or Sarah Jane Adventures, go away), so what’s not to like? The rest of the cast are great too, from Jean Marsh channelling her Willow character as Morgaine, to the ever-reliable James Ellis (was the casting director for this series a fan of Z Cars or something) as Peter Warmsley and Ling Tai as Shou Youing, a rare Doctor Who appearance of an East Asian actor in a setting that isn’t East Asia. Angela Bruce steals the show as Lethbridge-Stewart’s replacement Brigadier Bambera, but sadly this is her one and only appearance. It’s nice to think that Bambera might have become a regular character if the series hadn’t been unceremoniously cancelled after this year.

A complete change of pace next with Ghost Light, Marc Platt’s famously baffling treatise on change and evolution. I say baffling, but if you watch it today, after 8 years of Stephen Moffatt stories, it’s not so hard to figure out if you watch carefully. At least the answers are there to be found, which is more than can be said of quite a few episodes of the modern series. At the time though, it was a revolutionary storytelling style with meanings that were, if not completely hidden, then at least thoroughly shrouded in mystery. At its heart, it’s a ghost story – but a scientific ghost story, in which the ghost is actually an alien and none of those being ‘haunted’ are exactly what they seem. It also takes the first of several massive steps towards developing the character of Ace, to be followed by Ian Briggs in The Curse of Fenric and Rona Munro in Survival. I always loved Ghost Light; it’s my favourite story of a very strong series and I think it also makes best structural use of the 3-episode format so distinctive of the McCoy era.

It’s also got a powerhouse cast too: Sylvia Simms, Ian Hogg, Frank Windsor, John Nettleton, Michael Cochrane, John Hallam… the list goes on. There’s not a weak link amongst them, and none of the mugging and hamming that dogged Season 24; this is real period drama and they’re all going for it. Katherine Schlesinger puts in a fantastically ethereal performance as Gwendoline, with her feisty rendition of music hall number ‘That’s the Way to the Zoo’ being one of the most memorable and chilling moments of the season. Marc Platt’s script is a masterpiece and it’s downright criminal that he’s never been asked back to write for the new series (apart from emasculating the magnificent audio Spare Parts for use in Rise of the Cybermen). Another example of the bounty of promise that appeared in Season 26, just too late to make a difference to the future of televised Doctor Who.

The Curse of Fenric is the most old school story in the entire Seventh Doctor era… in a way. In another way, it’s something completely new. It absolutely stormed every new series poll as the best story of Season 26, because to a fandom that were predominantly pining for the likes of The Talons of Weng Chiang and Terror of the Autons, it was a return to the well-loved formula. It had monsters in the traditional sense, it had fast-moving military action, it even had (quite literally) a base under siege, so it did appeal tremendously to those raised on the explosive adventures of Jon Pertwee and early Tom Baker. But there’s much more to it than that; it’s a story about faith and temptation and the morality of war. Uniquely, it works for both fans who want the old school adventure story and those who want something deeper and darker.

The Curse of Fenric is the complete package in terms of production; you’ve got a strong cast including terrific performances from Dinsdale Landen, Tomek Bork and Nicholas Parsons (who passed away just recently), fabulous location filming and the direction to go with it, and a pounding, turbulent music score by Marc Ayres. This is a story in which nothing is as it seems; the monsters are ostensibly the Haemovores, but Alfred Lynch’s Commander Millington is also a monster, made so by his increasing lack of human compassion. As well as the TV version, this package also contains the extended version prepared for the DVD release in 2003, which, if you don’t mind seeing stories edited into a film format, is well worth a look.

Finally, we’ve got Survival, the final story of ‘Classic’ Doctor Who. Though in a way, it really points the way towards what Doctor Who would become when it returned in 2005. The council estate setting could be right out of a Russell T. Davies story and although you don’t get to meet Ace’s mother, she does get a mention, which is more than you can say for the families of 90% of the classic series companions. Basically if you take Survival, the best parts of the 1996 TV Movie and a pinch or two of The New Adventures, you’ve got the post-2005 show. I know that Rona Munro has returned to write in the new series, but it’d be interesting to know if she ever had any inkling that what she was writing in 1989 would be so influential.

It’s strange the things you remember. When Survival was first shown in 1989, I had to set my VHS recorder to tape episode 2 because I was at the theatre seeing a comedy gig by the late, great Rik Mayall. I guess there’s an 80s comedy connection there, because Hale & Pace infamously crop up in this episode as a couple of shopkeepers. They’re quite amusing, but their comedy cameo does look a bit crowbarred in from a modern perspective. You’ve also, of course, got the final TV appearance of Anthony Ainley as the Master – and it’s probably his best performance in the role since Logopolis. He certainly looks a lot better, with his new black safari suit and a real beard for a change.  This serial manages pretty well for costumes on what was probably quite a limited budget; the Cheetah people may not look so hot in comparison to some of the new series’ creations, but they were pretty damn good for the money available, and Lisa Bowerman puts in a great turn as Kara, that would lead to a lifelong connection with Doctor Who.

So, that was Season 26 – pretty bloody good, when you think about it. Whatever you think of McCoy’s first season, you can’t ignore the quantum leap in almost every respect that occurred over the course of three years. Another year could have seen absolute brilliance… but it was not to be. There’s a documentary about that in this set. There are documentaries about A LOT of things in this set, including another of Matthew Sweet’s wonderful in-depth interviews, this time with the irrepressible Sophie Aldred. As well as the extended Curse of Fenric, there’s a longer cut of Ghost Light, but it’s a workprint, taken from a VHS tape with a blurred-out timecode; it’s interesting to watch, but no match for the glorious original. Once again, Behind the Sofa proves to be one of the highlights, as cast and crew from all eras of the show watch the episodes Gogglebox-style. Brilliant stuff!

During the era of Sylvester McCoy, a lot of people who purported to be fans declared – in a future echo of what is going on now – that they were switching off and never watching Doctor Who again. They’re eating their words now and a lot of them may claim that they never acted like that. But they did. I was there. I heard them. Now, I’m not going to make any comment about today’s Doctor Who, but let’s just say that history has a sturdy record of repeating itself. No matter what anybody said in 1989, history has proven Season 26 to be a truly wonderful 14 episodes of Doctor Who, definitely the highlight of the late 80s! Much like the days when I first watched it, Season 26 of Doctor Who was… no, I’m not going to say it. Or am I…? Oh, sod it – it was ACE!

 

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