There’s Many a Slap Twixt the Cup and the Lap: Doctor Who Season 24 Blu-Ray Review

It’s an odd feeling when something that you lived through becomes the stuff of legends. I see essays online, written with great authority by fans that weren’t even born at the time, extolling the virtues of the Season 24 as the great game-changer which saved a tired old series and thrust it into a bright new future and I think that this is, at best, a partial truth. Don’t get me wrong, I think that Sylvester McCoy as the Seventh Doctor was magnificent; when he hit his stride, he was up there with the greats. But Season 24 is not him hitting his stride. In fact, as much as I hate to play the game of favourites, if you held a gun to my head and demanded that I choose my least favourite series of Classic Doctor Who, Season 24 would unquestionably be the one.

Now, calm down. Don’t get your nuts in a bunch. I know what Doctor Who fans are like and if there’s a conclusion to be jumped to, you can bet your sweet wazoo that they’ll jump to it. Some of you are probably jumping to it right now. But I’m no hater; I’ve watched and enjoyed every episode and some of them I’ve enjoyed more than others. I’ve been honest and stated up front that this is not my favourite season, but this review is no hatchet-job; I’m going to go through my opinions of what I like and what I dislike about this season and if you don’t agree – that’s fine, everyone is entitled to their own opinions. There is no right and wrong when it comes to personal preferences and anyway, even if it is my least favourite classic series, I’d still rather watch these episodes than a good third of the new series! Watching it again filled me with nostalgia.

In the previous year, the series had returned from hiatus in the form of The Trial of a Time Lord. With 18 months to hone their tools, it should’ve been razor sharp, but it wasn’t; although I was happy to have Doctor Who back, it felt like a diluted version of the show that I was used to, with a shorter season and an all-on-video production style that made it look cheap. The problem was that JN-T had not used the time away to sufficiently change the show (you can choose to blame Eric Saward all you want, but ultimately such major production decisions were JN-T’s and JN-T’s alone) and change was what it needed and eventually got when Jonathan Powell gave Colin Baker the boot and demanded a new lead actor. That new face came in the form of a Scottish cabaret performer and bit-part actor best known for his appearances on Clive Doig’s children’s TV shows such as Vision On and Jigsaw, Sylvester McCoy.

Observed with the benefit of hindsight, it’s clear that there was a conscious production decision to make the new series more appealing to kids. Everything points towards it: the comic-book style logo, the brash new music, the colourful production design etc. And you know what? It’s not such a bad idea. Since its 20th season, Doctor Who seemed to have become mired in its own continuity, with stories like Arc of Infinity, Attack of the Cybermen and The Trial of a Time Lord being impossible to understand if you had no background in the series. By 1987, the first generation of fans were pushing or turning 40 and this sometimes felt like it was a series made for them, to the exclusion of the younger viewers that the series so desperately needed. The problem is that JN-T’s rather middle-class vision of what kids wanted was at complete variance to Andrew Cartmel’s more street vision.

To see this, you need look no further than the two companions who appear in Season 24; on the one hand you’ve got Melanie Bush, who is JN-T’s idea of what kids will like. She’s a computer programmer and kids love computers, right? Only she barely touches a computer on her time on the show and her early promise as being something of a spitfire quickly devolves into being a sub-60s screamer. Then you’ve got Ace, Cartmel’s idea of a character kids will relate to; a disenfranchised, surly teenager; she’s tough and streetwise, she wears clothes that, although they may look dated now, were all the rage in the late-80s. Most importantly, she’s a role model for young girls, an audience demographic that the series has sadly neglected over the last half-decade and is in serious danger of losing altogether.

Time and the Rani, the first story of this season was commissioned by JN-T before Andrew Cartmel came on board, from his old friends Pip & Jane Baker… and boy, does it show! The Rani had been introduced in the Season 22 story The Mark of the Rani, played by Kate O’Mara as a sly, amoral Time Lord scientist. However, inbetween that story and this, O’Mara had found international fame as the bitchy Caress Morell in the American soap opera Dynasty and JN-T, never one to knowingly shun a little publicity, makes the most of her new-found notoriety; quite sedately dressed in The Mark of the Rani, Kate O’Mara’s character is now glamorously made up, with hair coiffed to within an inch of its life and shoulder pads that could take your eye out. Her performance veers between high camp and pantomime as she purrs her opening line, dripping with innuendo: “Leave the girl; it’s the man I want!”

Later, when the Rani wants to co-opt the newly regenerated Doctor, she does so by trying to convince him she’s his companion. Since he’s lost his memory, she could just go up to him and tell him so, but instead she dresses up as Mel, complete with ginger fright wig and ‘I’ll thcweam and thcweam and thcweam until I’m thick’ accent. I can’t help thinking that poor old Bonnie Langford is trying very hard to move away from her screaming schoolgirl image and scripts like this just don’t help at all. For my money, this scene is the all-time low of classic Doctor Who; the point at which it was far closer to Galloping Galaxies than Galaxy 4. Making the series more kid-friendly was a sound idea, but this kind of thing demonstrates a profound misunderstanding of what kids in 1987 wanted to see on TV.

It’s a shame, because in other respects Time and the Rani is rather good. The special effects and set design are little short of breath-taking, given the show’s budget, and the bat-like Tetraps, although a bit Doctor Who Annual in conception, are at least impressively manufactured. Keff McCullough’s music, much derided over the years, modernises the series for 1987 (though the over-use of ‘orchestra crash’ dates it somewhat now). And as for Sylvester McCoy; well, he initially seems at a loss for where to pitch his performance, but once he settles down, he owns the role almost immediately. He was born to play the part, but the Seventh Doctor in Time and the Rani is a very different character to the one we will become used to.

Paradise Towers is a quantum leap in the right direction. Here, at last, we have the very beginnings of Andrew Cartmel’s agenda for the show; full of quirky sci-fi ideas and unusual characters, with an edgier graphic novel feel. As is well documented, Stephen Wyatt’s story is loosely based around J.G. Ballard’s 1975 novel High-Rise, in which a community of people in a multi-storey tower block resort to more and more extreme measures to survive; although, to be honest, Paradise Towers makes more sense than Ballard’s highly allegorical novel, because at least in Wyatt’s script an explanation is given for why the residents don’t just leave the dreadful building. And because this is Doctor Who, there are a lot more robots in it – though I expect they’re much clunkier and less versatile than the scriptwriter had originally envisioned.

This is a story that is all about characters and there are a whole bunch of very good TV actors in there to grapple those available, including Judy Cornwell, Brenda Bruce, Elizabeth Spriggs and Clive Merrison. Sitcom royalty Richard Briers is the star attraction as the Chief Caretaker, putting in a performance that is very strong, but probably way too comedic. The problem seems to be that no-one gave this collection of very good actors much direction to play it just a little bit straighter, so the material which is frequently very dark is played mostly for laughs. Only really the young actresses playing the Kangs (including Mark Strickland’s then-wife Julie Brennon) are taking it seriously and since there are so many of them, this is the easily the story in Doctor Who’s long history that has the highest ratio of women to men in the cast.

For a long time, if anyone asked me what’s my favourite story in Season 24 I’d say Dragonfire, but as time has gone on and my tastes have changed, I’d almost certainly now say Paradise Towers. It is far from perfect, but it has a lot more going for it than the rest of this series. The production design, from costumes to sets are simple but effective, with the deliberately box-like rooms and corridors of the tower block lending themselves well to the entirely studio based shoot. Basically, if you’re going to have a story set entirely in studio sets, you can’t do better than deliberately setting it in a bunch of rooms and corridors. The moody lighting is a contrast to the garish Time and the Rani and the whole thing shares the darker tone of seasons 25 and 26.

When I first watched episode 1 of Delta and the Bannermen, I remember really liking it and thinking that the series had once more found its feet. Unfortunately, it goes a little downhill as the episodes progress, but – as with much of this season – the problems do not lie in the easy targets that critics generally blame for its failure. Mention Delta and the Bannermen to a lot of fans and they’ll go ‘Uuh, Ken Dodd!’, but Doddie isn’t the problem here. The Liverpudlian comedian was quite an established straight actor and he’s playing the part of the Toll Keeper exactly as it was written; when he’s later required to do scared at being confronted by Don Henderson’s villainous Gavrok, he pulls that off with aplomb. Neither is it the problem Malcolm Kohll’s script, the only fault of which is that it is perhaps a little too ambitious for Doctor Who’s budget.

No, once again the problem is in the production and the points at which the show’s decimated budget shows through. The 1950s period elements are all great, as you would expect from the BBC, who can do period standing on their head, but the sci-fi elements are a bit tatty. The Bannermen wear generic black coveralls, plastic sunglasses that look like they might have been bought in a pound-shop and a fourth outing for the Earthshock helmets (as far as they last, the rest wear forage caps). Nevertheless, they look quite effective, albeit quite pristine for a bunch of mercenaries. Delta’s outfit is okay, but when her child develops from a (rather impressive) alien puppet into an actual baby with a mildly painted face, it looks like exactly what it is.

Keff McCulloch’s incidental music is at peak brashness here and I’m pleased to say that he does tone it down in later seasons. The 1950s rock ‘n’ roll, which forms a vital part of the plot, is serviceable, but it’s quite clear to modern ears that it was all created on guitar and synth, so it has the feeling of a backing track that an ageing pop star might use on his greatest hits tour of working men’s clubs. In fact, the band at the Shangri-La Holiday Camp appears to anachronistically include a synth half a decade before even the Moog was invented! The feel of the whole production could have been immeasurably perked up by hiring a cheap 50s covers band to play the music of the time on authentic instruments. Between McCulloch’s deafening music and Bonnie’s screaming, Delta and the Bannermen is not a story to watch if you have a headache, but it is a fun and silly way to spend 75 minutes.

Stubby Kaye as Weissmuller is an example of the weird star casting strategy that JN-T favoured in the later years, casting some faded Hollywood bloom that he thought was absolutely fabulous but of whom most of his core audience would never have even heard. What he really needed was someone higher up in the drama department to whisper in his ear, “John, do you really have to spend all this money to fly over Delores Grey for Silver Nemesis when none of the kids watching will have even heard of her?” Stubby Kaye is fine in the role, but it’s a role that could easily have been played by Shane Rimmer or another UK-based North American actor and his air fare could have been used to hire that rock ‘n’ roll band of which I spoke. It often feels in this series like JN-T is going with his gut instinct and not thinking through some of his ideas.

It was known early on that Bonnie Langford wouldn’t be staying on after this season, so a couple of possibilities were put forward, the first being Ray, played by Sara Griffiths in Delta and the Bannermen. Griffiths puts in a great performance as the feisty biker chick, but she doesn’t quite have the edge that would drive Ace as a character in later stories. Luckily, the bike-driven casting threw Sophie Aldred into the mix and she was cast as the displaced lone teen Ace in Dragonfire. It’s no real secret that Ace was influenced by Dorothy Gale from L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, having been caught up in a ‘time storm’ and transported to an exotic locale and… well, having the name Dorothy, but she comes into the series with little explanation of her background – that was already being planned for much later.

Dragonfire is often regarded as the best story of the season and Ian Briggs’ script has a lot going for it, but with the benefit of hindsight, it is let down in several key areas. For starters, it’s glaringly over-lit, which makes scenes like the ANT-hunt (unashamedly influenced by Aliens, released the previous year) look unconvincing and stagey. Also, it very much feels like a much denser script trimmed and trimmed to a point where certain scenes become incomprehensible. Why does the Doctor climb over that ledge…? Where the story really works is in its characterisation and dialogue and we get a lot of the groundwork laid for what will become the identifying factors of the McCoy era. Ian Briggs would go on to prove what a wonderful, complex writer he is in Season 26’s The Curse of Fenric, but Dragonfire seems to be a story weighed down by production politics.

Almost everyone cast in this story is red hot, from Tony Selby returning as Sabalom Glitz, to Edward Peel as the villainous Kane and Rocky Horror Show alumni Patricia Quinn as his deputy Belasz. Tony Osoba takes the relatively minor character of Kracaur and makes him shine and hats off to Chris MacDonnell as the guard obsessed with literature. Glitz doesn’t really need to be there and, as far as I understand it, was drafted in to replace a similar character at the behest of JN-T. At first he seems out of place drinking shakes in a milk bar, but later when we discover that he sold his entire crew into slavery, we start to get a picture of the more ruthless Glitz who appeared in The Trial of a Time Lord. It’s a shame that Glitz never appears in the series again, as he could have made quite a fun recurring character.

The design of Dragonfire is very impressive, from the Pickelhaube helmets of Kane’s troops to the Icy scenarios of Iceworld itself. The biomechanoid creature (again greatly influenced by Alien) looks fantastic, but suffers from being shown full-figure and brightly-lit too much and its rather cautious gait on the studio floor doesn’t help either. The climactic sequence of Kane’s face melting in the unfiltered light of the sun was cut back so as to not be too horrific for kids, but it’s still easily the most explicitly gory sequence ever to grace an episode of Doctor Who. Dragonfire is an impressive story let down by some poor production choices, but it’s still one of the season’s big hitters. Season 24 is pretty much split right down the middle – if there could’ve been more Paradise Towers and Dragonfire and less Time and the Rani and Delta and the Bannermen, it would have been a much more consistent run of episodes.

Anything I find lacking in the episodes is more than made up for by the magnificent collection of extras on display. The Collection releases always excel themselves with their bonus material and this is no exception. Taking to the socially distanced sofa to goggle at this latest bunch of episodes are the late-80s team of Sylvester McCoy, Bonnie Langford and Sophie Aldred, the mid-80s team of Colin Baker and Michael Jayston and the early-80s team of Peter Davison, Janet Fielding and Sarah Sutton. They make for a really nice balance, with McCoy’s gang giving the perspective of those who were there when the stories were made, Baker and Jayston giving a wistful, what-could-have-been air and Davison’s mob bringing the brutal honesty. No offense to Doctor Who’s behind-the-scenes crew, but actors work much better in this format than writers and producers and this is probably the best Behind the Sofa yet.

There are extended versions of all four stories in this set and whereas some are more welcome than others, they’re all a lot of fun. The problem they share is that of all ‘special editions’ made without the involvement of the original director and editor – that scenes are not always cut for reasons of timing; sometimes they slow down the pace or just simply aren’t very good. The 1995 Special Edition of The Five Doctors was a classic example of why you should never let a technician re-edit the work of an artist and whereas these aren’t anywhere near as stodgy as that, I think I’d probably prefer to watch the original edits at all times. There are also COPIOUS amounts of unedited raw footage, which are fascinating to watch in small doses, but unless you’re a Seventh Doctor mega-fan, they’re a real challenge to digest in one sitting.

One of the most fascinating extras on this set is a collection of auditions for the part of the Doctor, including not only Sylvester McCoy (hands up everyone who wishes he’d kept that outfit), but also Dermot Crowley and David Fielding. It’s fascinating to see how other actors might have played the role and Fielding in particular would have made a great Doctor – though the ‘tache would definitely have to go! Sylvester McCoy says in the accompanying featurette that his old pal Ken Campbell was up for the part of the Seventh Doctor and it’s a shame there isn’t an audition tape for him because I’d really have loved to see how Campbell tackled the role.

Matthew Sweet’s amazing in-depth interviews are the highlight of these The Collection releases for me and this time he’s deep in conversation with the inimitable Sylvester McCoy. The man behind the Seventh Doctor has always been a fascinating character and Sweet wisely chooses to spend well over half of the interview talking about his life outside of Doctor Who, including his tragic family life, the time he almost became a Roman Catholic Priest and his adventures with that irrepressible bunch of bohemian ne’er-do-wells The Ken Campbell Roadshow. Absolutely riveting stuff for those who like to cast their gaze a little wider than the production of the TV show. Of course, the Seventh Doctor’s TV adventures are covered in equal depth in the feature-length documentary Here’s to the Future, featuring contributions from luminaries from across the season.

However, the chances are we’ll never know the whole story behind Season 24, because being filmed over a number of decades the various features here are frequently contradictory. Jonathan Powell claims that John Nathan-Turner stayed on as producer because no-one else wanted the job, but elsewhere Clive Doig states that he volunteered himself for the role and was knocked back. Perhaps, as JN-T himself infamously claimed in a TV clip also included in this set, the memory cheats. Or perhaps, these people are just getting on a bit and can’t recall every minor factor of a job they did 34 years ago in the kind of detail that Doctor Who fans would like. It’s all a bit of a jigsaw (no pun intended) and the viewer has to make their best possible interpretation of what was actually going on way back in 1987.

Looking back on Season 24, it seems clear to me that at its heart is a tremendous culture clash. On the one hand is John Nathan-Turner, whose vision of the show at this point seems to be bright, colourful and starry; but on the other hand there is Andrew Cartmel, who’s trying to steer the series towards a darker, more complex entity, informed by the graphic novels and cyberpunk literature of the late-80s. In the next 2 seasons (sadly the last full series of the 20th century), Cartmel’s vision wins out and JN-T seems to become less of a hands-on producer. Information that has come to light since seems to suggest that he was being messed around by the BBC and had lost interest to a degree, which is very sad, but at least it allows Cartmel’s vision to come to the fore, making Seasons 25 & 26 some of the best of the 80s.

I read a lot of stuff on Facebook and Twitter – more often from new series fans – saying “I didn’t like [insert story name here] and I won’t ever be watching it again” and I find it impossible to relate to. I am a Doctor Who fan and I will rewatch a story even if there were things about it I didn’t like. Sure, I’m less likely to rewatch Timelash than Pyramids of Mars and I’m less likely to rewatch The Sensorites than Remembrance of the Daleks, but that does not mean I won’t ever watch those stories again – because I’m a Doctor Who fan and I appreciate all aspects of the show. Undoubtedly, there are people who will read this review and broadly disagree with everything I’ve said, but I have not dismissed any story out of hand and I have never passed off my personal preferences as a statement of fact. The fact that this review is far longer than any of the others I’ve done for The Collection shows that I’ve at least awarded it due respect.

Doctor Who Season 24 is an acquired taste and it always was. If you’re a huge Seventh Doctor fan, you’re more likely to overlook its shortcomings – but then the same is true of any season for any Doctor. The fact that it’s not my personal favourite does not mean that I dislike it or that I don’t enjoy watching it. The way I see it, there was room for improvement – and we got it in the next couple of seasons. Given the struggles behind the scenes, it’s little short of a miracle that season 24 even exists; this is the same BBC senior management that was happy to cancel The Tripods and The House of Elliott mid-story, so they wouldn’t have thought twice about canning Doctor Who after The Trial of a Time Lord. The fact that they didn’t (and it’s got sod all to do with letter writing campaigns and Doctor In Distress) means that someone high up in the BBC still had a little fondness for the show, for which we should be eternally thankful.

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