As beloved as Season 7 of Doctor Who is, there’s no doubting it’s a bit of a mish-mash; unlike the modern series, where a showrunner might be allowed a generous amount of time to work out how they want to present the new Doctor, Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks had less than 6 months to pull together a new Doctor, new companion, new format and the switch to colour broadcasting that was having an impact on every production within the BBC. The result was a series of four stories of which three were unusually long and obviously padded and a lot of production design that varied from story to story. Almost despite this, it managed to produce three stories that are justifiably regarded as classics – but the show needed cohesion, it needed a sense of continuity from story to story and Season 8 was where that would come about.
An odd pattern has grown up in the Doctor Who over the years that the second season of any given Doctor is always one of – if not the – best in their run; the actor has found his/her feet, the writers know how to write for them and the whole production has become less of a mad scramble. This is certainly true of the Third Doctor, portrayed by Jon Pertwee between 1970 and 1974. The 1971 season marks the beginning of the ‘UNIT family’ that would define the series for the next 4 years and change certain aspects of the show forever. In comes Katy Manning as Jo Grant, a more traditional companion than the outgoing Liz Shaw, and the Brigadier’s vague roster of UNIT troops is narrowed down to Captain Mike Yates (Richard Franklin) who wasn’t in the previous year and Sergeant Benton (John Levene) who appeared as far back as The Invasion, but only as a sort of glorified extra.
Completing the ‘UNIT family’ – though not a member of UNIT and very much the black sheep of the family – is Roger Delgado as the Master, a renegade Time Lord and most intentionally the Moriarty to the Doctor’s Sherlock Holmes. Either wisely or unwisely (opinions differ), Letts and Dicks elected to include the Master in every story in Season 8, the only time in Doctor Who’s long history that a recurring villain has cropped up in every story of a season (unless you count the Valeyard, which personally I don’t). Of course, all of this is viewed with the gift of retrospect; a viewer watching week-to-week would not have known that the Master would be appearing in every story and could be forgiven for thinking that he wasn’t going to appear in Colony in Space, where he doesn’t crop up until episode 4.
I was only 1 year old when Season 8 was broadcast, so I have no memory of this, or almost any of the Pertwee era, whatsoever. However, when I first started to see ‘old’ Doctor Who stories via the pirate VHS market in the late 80s, the stories from this season were some of the most popular being swapped around, mainly because they existed in fairly clean copies from Australian TV, with the exception of The Mind of Evil – and even that had very good B&W copies doing the rounds. In fact, Claws of Axos was one of the very first Pirate VHS tapes I saw, which is partly why it’s always had a certain fascination for me. For me, Doctor Who’s ‘wilderness years’ were all about discovering the stories that I was too young to see when they were broadcast and Jon Pertwee was kinda my ‘wilderness Doctor’.
The season starts with Terror of the Autons, which is a sequel to Spearhead from Space in the same way that Evil Dead II was a sequel to The Evil Dead – i.e. virtually a remake. A lot of the same cues are there: plastics factory, faceless mannequins, only this time we’ve got the Master taking charge. From the beginning, the production appears different; it’s more colourful, with a greater reliance on Colour Separation Overlay (the primitive form of green-screen known as Chromakey everywhere but the BBC) and the strident electronic tones of Dudley Simpson and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. Simpson even gives the Master his own theme, which will follow the character throughout all the Pertwee-era stories that he wrote the music for.
It’s in this story as well that Letts and Dicks start to develop the Time Lords, seen only briefly in The War Games. During the previous season, the Doctor’s people were only mentioned in passing reference to his exile on earth, but they crop up a couple of times in this series, starting with Terror of the Autons, where a Time Lord dressed as a bowler-hatted businessman (still very much a thing in the 1970s) warns the Doctor of the coming of the Master. Prior to The War Games, where the Time Lords are an aloof, indistinct presence, the only named member of the Doctor’s race had been The Meddling Monk in The Time Meddler and it would be another 2 years before the Doctor’s home planet is finally named as Gallifrey in The Time Warrior. Although they’re subsequently reinvented for the Tom Baker era, Letts and Dicks present an intriguing glimpse into the Doctor’s civilization in these and subsequent stories.
Terror of the Autons is justifiably regarded as a classic, but it’s more the sum of its many parts than a particularly impressive whole; Jon Pertwee has now completely nailed the character, the UNIT family are all present and correct, Jo is great, the Master is great and all is well with the world. The script is a little thin on the ground and, as I mentioned earlier, is essentially a remake of Spearhead from Space with added bells and whistles. Robert Holmes would write far better material in years to come. But this is the beginning of the golden age of Jon Pertwee’s run and it establishes a tone that the series would adhere to with remarkable consistency right up until Planet of the Spiders.
In years gone by, The Mind of Evil was one of the more problematic serials in the Pertwee era, existing only as a black and white film print and a dodgy telerecording with a piss-poor colour signal. Attempts to restore it to its former glory met with mixed results: the 1998 VHS release was in black and white, but by 2013 when the story was released on DVD, the technology existed to create a full colour version of the story. It wasn’t great then, but the upgrade to Blu-Ray is a definite improvement. It’s still a bit ropey in parts over the last two episodes, but hey, if it means we have the entire Pertwee era in colour (of one sort or another), that’s fine by me and if you don’t like it, you can always turn the colour down on your telly.
Of the stories in Season 8, The Mind of Evil is the one that feels most like a hang-over from Season 7, with its earthy concerns of prison reform and mind control feeling much more like Liz Shaw’s cup of tea than Jo Grant’s. It’s also got the kind of Big UNIT Punch-Up™ that becomes less and less prevalent as the series goes on, but very much defines these early serials. The Master is back as well, but in his cigar-chomping bloke off the Mastermind box mode, he could pretty much be replaced by A. N. Supervillain without effecting the story. There aren’t many instances in this season where it feels like the script has been contorted to accommodate the Master, but Don Houghton’s story is the one that comes closest. Still, an enjoyable, if rather overlong, serial.
Claws of Axos is a great story that I’ve always been a big fan of. Back in the Pirate VHS days that I mentioned earlier, it was one of the first three stories that I got on tape – along with The War Machines and The Talons of Weng Chiang, randomly – and although I’ve always been a fan of Tom Baker’s gothic opus, it was this story that really got to me. There’s an incredible feeling of otherness about it, partly from the incredible design of the Axons and their ship and partly (through sheer serendipity) from the ‘freak weather conditions’, which reduce the depth of field in a lot of shots and give oven outdoor shots an enclosed, claustrophobic feel. Add to that Dudley Simpson’s weird and warbling BBC Radiophonic Workshop score and you’ve got what probably feels like the most alien story in Doctor Who’s history.
Bob Baker and Dave Martin’s scripts often feel like having a machine gun full of ideas fired in your direction, but Claws of Axos, their first script for Doctor Who, feels very contained and shows that they definitely work best in the 4-episode format; Baker and Martin’s 6-parters, The Mutants and The Armageddon Factor are all over the place! All of the regular cast are on top form and this really marks the point at which the UNIT Family completely clicks – from here on in, there’s no looking back! Looked at from a modern perspective, the story is quite heavy-handed with the old CSO (colour separation overlay) but it looks as if these sequences have been touched up for the Blu-Ray release, as there are less noticeable fuzzy yellow lines than I seem to remember. Claws of Axos remains my favourite story from this season.
Colony in Space, on the other hand, is probably the weakest of the bunch. Scriptwriter Malcolm Hulke tries to do something topical about pollution and colonialism, but doesn’t really have enough material to make it interesting. In fairness, it’s probably the fault of the 6-episode format, as Hulke’s Target Books adaptation Doctor Who and the Doomsday Weapon is much tighter and stands as one of the best of the early novelisations. Once again we start with the Time Lords, in the blue and silver colour scheme that would reoccur in the Pertwee era, temporarily breaking the Doctor’s exile on Earth to send him on a mission to another planet. It’s nice to see the Doctor and Jo out among the stars again (or for the first time in Jo’s case), but it’s just a pity that this particular planet looks like a disused clay pit.
The Master turns up half way through the story and things pick up a little, with the story involving the indigenous population and their ancient all-powerful weapon being far more interesting than that of miners trying to force out colonists with the use of lumbering digging machines with silly rubber hands. It’s a well-meaning story with some great acting from Pertwee, Manning and Delgado, but it trundles along at such a stately pace that it’s difficult to actually love. The costumes for the primitives work well enough, but the Alien High Priest, which looks fantastic in photographs, falls down when it has to move and reveals itself for what it is – a rather stiffly-operated puppet.
And finally, we have The Dæmons, the archetypal Pertwee story and widely regarded as the best of his entire run. Written by ‘Guy Leopold’ (actually Barry Letts and writer pal Roger Sloman), it brings a Hammer Horror vibe to Doctor Who, combining Quatermass and the Pit with The Devil Rides Out for a daring teatime orgy of Satanism, imps and demons. Of course, it’s not actually the horned beast who’s behind it all – well, not that one anyway – but Azal, the last of an ancient race called the Dæmons, who’re being coaxed back into being by the Master, posing as the local vicar in the prophetically named English village of Devil’s End. Of course, as is all too often the way, the Master has underestimated his allies and bitten off more than he can chew.
This is the near-perfect UNIT Family story, with the cast operating as more of an ensemble than before or since. The series might be called Doctor Who, but for once the Brigadier, Jo Grant, Captain Yates, Sergeant Benton and the Master all get virtually equal screen time. Oh, and watch out for Sergeant Osgood, father and inspiration of the new series character of the same name. This is pretty much Barry Letts’ statement of intent for the series, with a strong core team of characters orbiting around a fascinating story – and it works like a charm. The Dæmons is another story that existed only in black and white for many years and it was one of the first to have its colour restored; it’s been touched up even more since and looks splendid on Blu-Ray.
As we’ve come to expect from ‘The Collection’, this season of stories come with a mammoth quota of extras, some dating from the DVD release of the stories, but many of them brand new. All of the ‘Making of’ featurettes are from the earlier releases and, seen in bulk, they haven’t all aged well. The Terror of the Autons one for instance, dating from 2011, skirts over the actual story and ends up as a glorified advert for the new series, although The Mind of Evil and Claws of Axos are much better. The Dæmons is one of the most documented stories in the whole of Doctor Who history and it gets an extra disc of brand new bonus features here, including Devil’s Weekend, in which Katy Manning and John Levene return to the story’s location, the picturesque village of Aldbourne. It’s a pity BBC Video couldn’t strike a deal with Reeltime Pictures, who did a similar thing many years featuring Jon Pertwee, Nicholas Courtney and director Christopher Barry – all sadly no longer with us.
As always, there’s another of Matthew Sweet’s fantastic in-depth conversations, this time with the eternally vivacious Katy Manning; and Toby Hadoke follows up his Weekend with Waterhouse with the equally alliterative Living with Levene. Perhaps the most touching new feature in this collection though is Terrance & Me, in which comedian Frank Skinner explores the life and influence of the acclaimed writer and script editor; I defy even the hardest-hearted among you not to have a little lump in your throat as Frank is allowed access to Terrance’s writing room, untouched since his passing in 2019. Shove a mixed bag of deleted scenes, Blue Peter clips and a FULL audiobook reading of Doctor Who and the Terror of the Autons onto that little lot and you’ve got a pretty damned impressive collection of extras.
These Blu-Ray boxed sets aren’t for everyone; they’re a luxury item and to be perfectly honest, the material is of such a vintage that the difference in picture quality between DVD and Blu-Ray is negligible. If you have all of the originals on DVD or have unreasonable confidence in the fact that you’ll always be able to watch then on BritBox, then you might not want to spend your money on something like this. But for the die-hard collector, they do have a remarkable selection of extras and look extremely handsome up there on the shelf. I often wonder if we’ll ever see a complete collection of ‘The Collection’; the monochrome series are rather problematic and New Who has already been released on Blu-Ray. Who knows? But either way, we’ll always have this spanky collection of Season 8 – a quite literally masterful collection of episodes.