A Panacea for the Cares of Mind: Doctor Who Season 22 Blu-Ray Review

There’s an awful lot of nonsense written about Season 22 of Doctor Who, a lot of it aimed in the direction of script editor Eric Saward. Why so much poison towards the script editor? Well, for fans of a show which strives to provide a complex picture of the relationship between right and wrong, there are surprisingly few shades of grey in the broadly held opinions of fandom –  you’re either in or you’re out and Eric Saward at this very moment (as these things are wont to change) is out. It’s all a little unfair; yes, there are problems from the very beginning of the Sixth Doctor’s era, but few of them are the responsibility of the script editor. He didn’t cast the new Doctor, nor choose that ghastly outfit. He didn’t decide to move the series to 45-minute episodes or even have that much say in the general tone of the series. All of those things are the responsibility of the producer, but whereas Eric Saward has been controversially outspoken about his time on Doctor Who, producer John Nathan-Turner was supportive until his untimely passing and therein lies the answer.

One of the criticisms most often levelled at Season 22 is that it suddenly became much more violent, ironically stepping in line behind the BBC hierarchy who were looking for excuses to cancel the show. But this was by no means a sudden change; the season that immediately preceded this one featured death by electrocution, beheading, chemical warfare, immolation, gunfire, scalding and strangling (the latter three all in The Caves of Androzani), so to say that Doctor Who suddenly became excessively violent in its 22nd season is to take its instances of violence out of context. If you look at it objectively, the series had been becoming progressively more violent since Season 17, but this has less to do with the production team of the day than it does with the generally gung-ho attitude of the 1980s, where ‘Action Heroes’ permeated the screen and even the most family-oriented American movies and TV shows featured copious amounts of gunplay.

I was 15 in 1985 and at that age, in those times, I didn’t think it was unusual that The A Team were spraying the bad guys’ jeep with automatic machine-gun fire while I was sitting down with the family to eat my tea. Looking back, it is unusual and it had far-reaching consequences by normalising the use of such weapons. By contrast, Doctor Who never trivialises violence and Season 22 is no exception. In the 1993 documentary 30 Years in the TARDIS, Eric Saward reacts to accusations that his era was unusually violent by stating that he tried to show that when violence occurs, it has visible consequences – and he’s right. Three decades on from The A Team being good-guys who casually toted automatic weapons and smiled while they showered their opponents with bullets, we have an America plagued by the spectre of High School shootings, but the same amount of time on from Vengeance on Varos, I’m struggling to think of one instance of a High School student chucking his mates in an acid bath. It’s grand guignol and even kids can see that.

Season 22 was the second season that I videotaped from the TV, so it got a lot of viewings in those months after I finished school and those collegiate afternoons when I was supposed to be studying. As such, I’m rather fond of it, though I’d be lying if I said that The Two Doctors and Revelation of the Daleks didn’t get substantially more viewings than poor old Timelash. To me, aged 15, Season 22 did not feel radically different to all of the series that had gone before and in fact, the first point at which the production of Doctor Who felt radically different to me was when the series returned from its 18-month hiatus with The Trial of a Time Lord and suddenly appeared noticeably cheaper. For this kid growing up with the colour era of the classic series, Season 22 feels like the last year produced in the traditional manner, when the BBC’s funding wasn’t begrudging and all of the Corporation’s resources were available for its use as they had been for the last two decades.

Attack of the Cybermen isn’t the best starting point if one is speaking up in favour of Season 22, but having said that, it’s not the worst story in the season and it’s a damn site better than the Sixth Doctor’s debut in The Twin Dilemma. As is broadly covered in the extras of this boxed set, the authorship of Attack of the Cybermen is subject to debate, though it’s now fairly clear that ‘Paula Moore’ was a pen-name for Eric Saward, with substantial input (or interference, depending how you look at it) from unofficial continuity adviser Ian Levine. Even at the time, the story seemed overly laden with continuity. It’s not as if this was an anniversary season or any cause for nostalgia, so why include Totter’s Lane and copious references to The Tenth Planet, Tomb of the Cybermen and The Invasion? You can’t help thinking that it’s the bare bones of a really good story, weighed down with unnecessary amounts of ‘kisses to the past’.

The basic story is quite simple: the Cybermen want to prevent their home planet Mondas from being destroyed (which happened in The Tenth Planet), so they have stolen a Time Machine, which they plan to use to change history. Unfortunately, they don’t really know how to properly use the Time Machine (there’s a lot of that in this season) and while they’re trying to figure it out, the downtrodden native population of the Cybermen’s adopted planet Telos, the Cryons, have hired ruthless space mercenary Lytton (Maurice Colbourne, last seen in the previous season’s Resurrection of the Daleks) to assemble a bunch of East End tea-leaves on Earth and bring them to Telos to nick the Time Machine. Swerving to avoid Halley’s Comet, the Doctor and Peri land in the middle of all this in London, encounter the Cybermen in the sewers and end up being forced to pilot the TARDIS to Telos, where Lytton fails to steal the Time Vessel, gets partly cybernised and the Doctor commits an uncharacteristic massacre. Did I say it was simple? I must have been lying.

And therein lies the problem with Attack of the Cybermen – it’s a real dog’s dinner. If they’d kept it simple and stripped it down to the core story, it’d probably have been an effective return for the silver giants, but instead thy pile on such a lot of unnecessary extra elements. Take the Halley’s Comet scene in the TARDIS for example; it serves no purpose at all except that the actual Comet was passing close to Earth in 1985 and it allowed the show to be topical. Then there’s Stratton and Bates, two cyber-slaves on Telos who manage to out-Cockney the East End gangsters, shout an awful lot and wander through lots of corridors before being pointlessly killed without completing the task for which Lytton recruited them. If Attack of the Cybermen was in the modern series, you could easily strip away most of this meaningless cack and bring the story in at a comfortable 45 minutes.

On the plus side, Attack of the Cybermen has a lovely cast. As mentioned earlier, Maurice Colbourne is Lytton, Brian Glover is the gangster Griffiths and Terry Molloy is undercover cop Russell. On Telos, we have Sarah Berger and Saturday Superstore presenter Sarah Green as Cryons Varne and Threst and comedienne Faith Brown as senior Cryon Flast would be unrecognisable if it wasn’t for her famously ample bosom. Returning from 1967’s Tomb of the Cybermen is Michael Kilgariff as the Cyber-Controller; he’s noticeably portlier since his last appearance, but still sends a shiver down the spine. The direction by Matthew Robinson is simple but effective and Malcolm Clarke’s clanging score is delightfully doomy, making for an adventure that is enjoyable to watch without ever having to engage your brain too much. Most of these poorly regarded stories have their supporters, but sadly I don’t see many fans raising their heads and cheering for poor old Attack of the Cybermen.

Philip Martin, the writer and creator of the violent, semi-allegorical 1970s crime drama Gangsters, was probably the last person you would have expected to be writing for Doctor Who in the 1980s, yet the two stories that he wrote for the show are broadly considered to be among the best in the Sixth Doctor’s era. Vengeance on Varos is the first and it introduces Sil, the amoral, capitalist slug who represents everything that’s bad about the decade that taste forgot. He’s played, of course, by the magnificent Nabil Shaban, who steals just about every scene that he’s in. Doctor Who has always been better at casting disabled people than representing them, from Destiny of the Daleks’ Tim Barlow to It Takes You Away’s Ellie Wallwork, and Nabil Shaban is a prime example of how casting the net wider than the usual BBC rep can come up trumps. It’s his extraordinary performance that makes the character a classic villain who is criminally overdue for a return to the modern series.

Elsewhere, Vengeance on Varos is a divisive tale that (only slightly too late) offers a commentary on the ‘Video Nasty’ culture of the early 1980s. For anyone too young to remember, video rental stories in the early 80s were largely unregulated and happy to rent copies of lurid, uncertified horror movies to any 12-year old who happened by. This was clamped down upon in a heavy-handed manner typical of the Tory Government of the day and a lot of highly regarded movies such as The Exorcist and The Evil Dead were caught up in the madness and banned. From a modern perspective, it’s easy to mock, but it wasn’t really the likes of The Exorcist that were the problem; it was cheap European exploitation movies that transcended the boundaries of taste and human decency. The likes of The Gestapo’s Last Orgy and SS Experimental Love Camp are quite rightly still banned to this day, because their mixture of Nazi atrocities and pornography are deeply offensive.

It was this sort of film that Philip Martin was taking a satirical swipe at with Vengeance on Varos, presenting a prison planet on which the inmates are filmed being tortured and punished, only for those recordings to be sold to other planets. The culture is entrenched on Varos and the government are merely figureheads feeding the machine. The public watch the executions on their video screens and if they’re not suitably entertained, they can vote to have the Governor killed by cell disintegration. Martin Jarvis plays the Governor with weary sincerity and he’s surrounded by various shouty, slappy underlings who’re just queuing up to take his job. The members of the public are represented by Arak and Etta (Stephen Yardley and Shiela Reid), who’re a sort of Greek Chorus that comments upon the action being shown on their TV screens without directly participating in it (apart from when voting for or against the Governor). I suppose if it was being made today, this would be accused of being a pastiche of Gogglebox, but that show was 28 years away in 1985.

For all its controversies, Vengeance on Varos is one of Season 22’s big hitters and is often named as the Sixth Doctor’s best story, though I personally prefer another from later this series. Director Ron Jones cleverly uses low light to make the show’s minimalist sets look stark and intimidating and unlike a lot of other Doctor Who stories, there’s a legitimate reason why the streets are empty – everyone is home watching the Punishment Dome on TV. Some of the digital effects are feeble, a fault shared by many stories in the 80s, and this is the first appearance of the dreaded 80s go-cart, later to reappear in The Happiness Patrol, and the ideal escape vehicle if you’re being pursued by someone at a not-too-brisk walking pace. But, by and large, Vengeance on Varos is an adventure that you’ll probably revisit more than most of this season and you always have the option of watching it with updated video effects if that’s your bag.

Next up is The Mark of the Rani by vociferously erudite scribing twosome Pip & Jane Baker. Now, the Bakers are a controversial pair and the level to which they divide fandom is probably only rivalled by Chris Chibnall (who ironically slagged them off in an episode of magazine show Open Air in 1986), but it’s quite universally accepted that The Mark of the Rani is their best work for the series. It’s a solid, old school Doctor Who semi-historical adventure, teaming the Doctor and Peri with famous names from the Industrial Revolution and pitting them against a villain determined to interfere with history. Or a pair of villains, for this story not only introduces the immoral Gallifreyan biologist the Rani, played by Kate O’Mara, but also brings back Anthony Ainley’s chortling iteration of the Master. It’s fair to say that the inclusion of the Master is over-egging the pudding a bit and the story would probably have worked a lot better with just the Rani as the main villain.

With gorgeous direction by Sarah Hellings and authentic locations courtesy of the Ironbridge Gorge Museum, The Mark of the Rani is easily the most handsome episode of the series – if not the entire 1980s – but it’s let down by some simply appalling Geordie accents from London thesps doing their best ‘regional acting’. The three who confront the Master are just inexcusably bad; “Towaks foony, dowarn’t hee? Howald hoard! Is thees hoard eenoof?” but other more experienced actors in the piece, such as Gawn Grainger, Terence Alexander and Peter Childs at least sound vaguely Northern and not as if they’re from another planet. Anthony Ainley, whose performance as the Master varied alarmingly throughout the nine years that he was in the role, is here in full moustache-twirling melodrama mode; it genuinely wouldn’t have appeared out of place if he’d been seen tying Peri to the railway track and disappearing into the shadows with a cackle and  a swirl of his figurative cape.

Kate O’Mara is fantastic as the Rani – light years away from her high-camp performance in 1987’s Time and the Rani as a version of the same character clearly inspired by her appearance in Dynasty, complete with Hollywood make-over and massive shoulder-pads. In The Mark of the Rani, she’s full of quiet menace and looks absolutely stunning in her more sedate costume. Her TARDIS interior is magnificent too; not the Doctor’s TARDIS in black, as we mostly get for the Master, but a beautiful redesign full of concentric circles that unfortunately never reappears in the series despite being retained for future use. The Mark of the Rani is probably the least controversial story in this season and if you’re looking for inoffensive fare with a lot of mild excitement then it’s perfectly serviceable. If they had done more like this, then they might not have attracted the ire of the BBC’s upper echelons in respect of violence (though it probably wouldn’t have saved the show).

The Two Doctors is a story that gets a lot of criticism from some quarters and I’ve never really understood why. It’s got a cracking Robert Holmes script, the final appearance of Patrick Troughton as the Second Doctor, the return of Jamie and the first appearance of the Sontarans in almost a decade. Admittedly, when I first heard about it in DWM or wherever, I did wonder why they were doing a multi-Doctor story just randomly in the middle of a season which wasn’t an anniversary or anything. Some have claimed that it was something to do with the twentieth anniversary of Troughton’s casting as the Doctor, but this is typical Who-fan retrofitting and the numbers simply don’t add up; the more likely explanation is that JN-T simply enjoyed working with Troughton and Frazer Hines on 1983’s The Five Doctors and decided to give them a second crack of the whip. Either way, it’s great to see them together one more time, especially since Troughton passed away not that long afterward.

This is a story that seems to bear a lot of the brunt when it comes to accusations of violence and it is, in parts, quite a violent story, but I wouldn’t say more so than The Caves of Androzani or something like The Dalek Invasion of Earth from further back in the classic era. Yes, the Doctor does act out of character when he kills Shockeye, but he’s literally being hunted down and is in fear of his life. The accusations of cannibalism aren’t quite accurate either; the Androgums might look human, but they are aliens, so if they eat a human being, it is not an act of cannibalism. Basically, they’re the ultimate omnivore – they’ll eat anything. Still on the alien front, Robert Holmes brings back his classic creations the Sontarans, played by Clinton Greyn and Tim Raynham; they don’t look their best, being far too tall and wearing ill-fitting masks, but their behaviour is a lot more suitable than the galumphing buffoons if The Invasion of Time. It’s interesting to see how the Sontarans’ single-minded deviousness makes them so easily manipulated by others in the story.

The Two Doctors has a helluva cast; not only are Patrick Troughton and Frazer Hines on top form, but you’ve got Jacqueline Pearce (proving there’s more to her than Servelan) as Chessene; John Stratton, skin-crawlingly disturbing as Shockeye; Lawrence Payne playing the straight man as Dastari and James Saxon and Carmen Gómez as the tragi-comic couple Oscar and Maria. It’s quite a small dramatis personae for such an expansive story, but they’re really filling up the screen. At three 45-minute episodes, this is the equivalent of an old-school 6-parter – the first since 1978’s The Armageddon Factor – but it doesn’t drag the way so many 6-parters of the 70s do. There’s not a lot of padding and the script has a leanness of which Shockeye himself would approve. It’s a shame that this was not Robert Holmes’ farewell to the series instead of The Trial of a Time Lord, as this was Bob firing on all creative cylinders, whereas his 1986 work feels weak and incomplete. It is, however, a fitting farewell to Patrick Troughton’s Second Doctor.

What can one say about Timelash? Well, it was a story in Season 22… yeah, that’s about it. Poor old Timelash; it’s easy to point the finger and say it was a victim of a skimpy budget and actors who weren’t taking it altogether seriously (I’m looking at you, Paul Darrow), but the serial’s problems go a lot deeper than that. I don’t know if the writer Glen McCoy had any background in science fiction, but I’d suspect not, because this is pretty basic fare. There are a few good ideas in there, most of them revolving around the presence of a misplaced young H.G. Wells (David Chandler), but unfortunately there’s not enough of that and far too much of a screaming Peri tied up in some caves being menaced by an unconvincing monster. The story very loosely uses elements from Wells’ work including The Time Machine and The Invisible Man (inferring that this was his influence), but also leans heavily on L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, with the half human / half monster villain the Borad (Robert Ashby) appearing to his subjects as a kindly old man (Shada’s Denis Carey, completely wasted in this role).

The aforementioned Mr. Darrow soars unstoppably over the top in the role of Tekker. According to the ‘making of’ feature, he was asked to stop playing it as an exaggerated version of Olivier’s Richard III, but carried on doing it anyway. It’s a shame because Paul Darrow was a really good actor and he’s not doing himself any favours by treating the material, as poor as it is, with such disdain. Jeananne Crowley as Vena, on the other hand, looks like she’s heavily medicated throughout. The two may not be unrelated. Timelash is also let down by its piss-poor special effects, with the titular vortex being mainly represented by some polystyrene crystals and an awful lot of tinsel. Updated special effects on this Blu-Ray release do their best to make it look a little better to a 21st century audience, but they’re really polishing a turd and the actors still look like they’re clambering over the remnants of sets from the 1984 Christmas edition of Top of the Pops. Timelash is easily the worst story in Season 22 and there are very few who would contradict that, but it’s still watchable in the same way as Time Flight or Meglos are watchable.

The series ends on a high with Revelation of the Daleks, my favourite story of the bunch and, in my opinion, by far the best serial of the Sixth Doctor’s era. Now, you will undoubtedly read contradictory reviews elsewhere and although they will contain one or two criticisms that are undoubtedly true (the Doctor and Peri do very little in episode one, the D.J. is essentially padding etc.) most of the widespread dislike of Revelation is based on the fact that it was written by Eric Saward and that particular gentleman is the bête noire of trendy fandom right now. Sorry, Saward-haters, but you’re cutting off your nose to spite your face; this is a great story! It takes an old foe, which many would see as played out and manages to approach them from a completely original angle. Presented as essentially a black comedy, Revelation of the Daleks is like no Dalek story that went before it and it’s all the more memorable because of that.

The cast of grand grotesques is filled with some of British acting’s quirkiest talent, from Eleanor Bron as Madame Kara to Clive Swift as the delightfully oily Mr Jobel. Trevor Cooper and Colin Spaull make a fantastic double act as Takis and Lilt, as do William Gaunt and John Ogwen as Knight of the Grand Order of Oberon, Orcini and his mucky squire Bostock. The influence of Robert Holmes over his protégé Eric Saward is clear in the presence of these pairings, who swing from comedy to dark drama in a typically Holmesinan fashion. Much as I am a fan of Alexei Sayle’s comedy, I have to confess that he’s not the best fit for the D.J. and his casting was probably based on his fashionability rather than his suitability; personally, I’d had cast Kenny Everett, who was still doing the rounds at the time as both a disc jockey and a character comedian. And, of course, there is Terry Molloy, magnificently demented as a screaming, ranting Davros in what is probably the meatiest of his three appearances in the role.

Everything in Revelation of the Daleks just seems to fit, from the snowbound location filming to the dark and atmospheric sets. Graeme Harper directs with a cinematic panache that is light years ahead of most of his BBC staff director colleagues and brings out an incredible dynamism in the material. As a piece of drama, it looks surprisingly beautiful for something shot in the old location-on-film/studio-on-tape style and Roger Limb’s electronic score, all rumbling tones and descending screeches, adds to the general weirdness of the scenario. Looking at this season as a whole, there are some stories that stand up a lot better than I remember, most notably Mark of the Rani, but Revelation of the Daleks remains the stand-out episode of the bunch. Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant may not become a part of the action until rather later, but when they do, they do so with utmost vitality. The Sixth Doctor is written as we want him to be written, driven and inquisitive, with none of the silly shouting and gesticulating that mar his era elsewhere.

As this is ‘The Collection’, there is the usual wealth of extras, including two well-known spoof sketches that aired during the run of Season 22. The Lenny Henry Show has the titular comedian as the first black interpretation of the Doctor – something it’s only taken the show proper 36 years to catch up with! I always loved Lenny’s sketch, although it does contain a lot of the very obvious running-up-and-down-corridors gags, but they’re quite comforting in a way. Less humorous on a number of levels is A Fix with Sontarans, which has been… erm, fixed to remove the offending gentleman (you know who I mean, I don’t have to put his name here) and replace him with the arrival of a Sontaran fleet. “This is only the beginning!” says Colin Baker in a newly-recorded piece of dialogue, though I do wish they’d been less fannish about it and maintained the comedy of the piece by adding a picture of Michael Grade instead.

Speaking of Mr. Grade, he appears on this collection in an interview with Matthew Sweet. I love Sweet’s in-depth interviews and there are three of them included in this set! The Grade interview shows the former Controller of BBC1 unrepentant after all these years and shows that it clearly was his intention to cancel the show back in 1985. A lot of viewers will boo and hiss his appearance, as he’s still the figurative bad guy of the story, but Sweet’s interview shows him as a man who was just doing his job, albeit a little too smugly to be palatable. The interview with Colin Baker is a delight, expounding upon his career before Doctor Who and not dwelling with undue prurience upon his dismissal from the show. Best of the three, however, is his interview with Nicola Bryant, whom I don’t think has spoken so candidly about her time on the show before. Her story about the intricate web of lies that found her pretending to be American both on and off screen for three years is absolutely fascinating, though JN-T doesn’t always come across terribly well in a lot of her stories; casting Janet Fielding in A Fix with Sontarans to send a message of ‘anyone can be replaced’ shows just how controlling the former producer could be.

This season was quite well served for ‘Making of’ documentaries on the DVD releases and most of those turn up here, though The Two Doctors gets a brand new feature. As always, we have Behind the Sofa, the Gogglebox-esque feature with the episodes being watched this time by teams consisting of Colin Baker, Nicola Bryant and Terry Molloy; Peter Davison, Janet Fielding and Sarah Sutton; and Sylvester McCoy and Wendy Padbury. I think this has probably been my favourite of all the Behind the Sofas; often they bring in writers and producers who have to be poked with a stick before they make comment, but actors are naturally more effusive and having an all-actor line-up definitely makes for a more attractive product. It takes some getting used to Peter Davison’s playful ribbing of his successor, but once you get it into your head that it’s all meant in fun, it’s really rather entertaining – and he’s always got Janet Fielding and Sarah Sutton alongside to keep their former Doctor in check.

Hidden among the wealth of other bonus material (far too much to list here) you’ll find Slipback, the radio production broadcast in the school holidays during the hiatus, as part of a children’s radio show called Pirate Radio 4. Slipback is often overlooked, but at the time, for an audience starved of new Doctor Who, it was big news. I remember being on holiday at my Auntie Isobel’s house in Filey when it was broadcast and I had to borrow a radio cassette player to take with me so that I could both listen to and record the new show. Pirate Radio 4 was a long and unwieldy format and I recall waiting impatiently for the Doctor Who instalments to begin. It’s quite light-hearted fare, but it’s beautifully well-made and sounds as crisp today as it did all those years ago. I’m a big fan of Slipback and I think it deserves its place in this collection. The same cannot be said of the ghastly charity record Doctor in Distress, the least said about which the better, except to comment that it is every bit as awful as you might have heard.

If you look at the production history of Classic Doctor Who as a decline and fall, the peak was almost certainly The Five Doctors, after which it began a very slow decline and was pre-emptively cancelled before it had the chance to fall. Season 22 is on the cusp of that decline; it’s where things started to go wrong for Doctor Who as a television production and it would never really recover in its original form. Having said that, it’s colourful, watchable fun and as I have already stated, at age 15 I never saw an appreciable downturn from the series that had gone before. If you quickly peruse the Internet, you’ll see that Colin Baker’s Sixth Doctor is enjoying something of a reappraisal among younger fans and that’s great, he deserves that. With the exception of The Twin Dilemma, which was randomly tagged on the end of Season 21, all of the Sixth Doctor’s TV adventures are now available on Blu-Ray and, flawed though they may be, I enjoy watching them as much today as I did all those years ago.

Available on Blu-Ray from BBC Studios.

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