A lot of important things happened for the first time on the fifth of October. On the fifth of October 1962, the Beatles’ first single, Love Me Do, was first released. On the fifth of October 1969 the first episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus was broadcast. On the fifth of October 1978 I was born (which was important to me, even if not so much to the rest of you reading this – almost as important as those other things). And on the fifth of October 1988, Daleks went upstairs for the first time.
Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor has a better reputation than Colin Baker’s among Who fandom, but a much worse one among the general public (those of the general public who care enough to remember the different Doctors) and in this case the general public are definitely the ones in the right. Baker was the better actor, and neither actor was blessed with the greatest scripts in the world. The reputation of McCoy’s Doctor rests more on the series of novels written about the character after the show was cancelled than it does on the episodes he was actually in.
McCoy was hired to replace Colin Baker, who was sacked under rather unpleasant circumstances (BBC management only agreeing to continue the show if they sacked their lead actor, and Baker refusing to return to film his regeneration scene) and his first series was an absolute embarassment. McCoy himself was not particularly happy with his early scripts (unsurprisingly, as they were drivel), which lumbered him with the worst companion in the history of the show (Melanie Bush, played by Bonnie Langford, a horribly miscast stunt ‘celebrity’ casting) and turned the Doctor into a buffoonish character who spoke in malapropisms and played the spoons at the slightest provocation, and the 1987 series is generally regarded as the absolute nadir of the show’s 26-year run (it was certainly bad enough that even as a nine-year-old I felt that my intelligence was being insulted).
For the next series, script editor Andrew Cartmel, in collaboration with various scriptwriters, came up with what later became known as ‘the Cartmel masterplan’ – a plan to make the Doctor darker and more mysterious over several years (a plan which was later transferred to the novels once the TV show was cancelled). For some reason Cartmel seemed to think that ‘darker’ meant ‘turn the Doctor into a manipulative sociopath’ and ‘more mysterious’ was ‘tell people every single detail of the Doctor’s past life, and every tedious detail of the internal politics and history of his home planet’, but as the ‘masterplan’ was meant to take several years, the early signs of these changes were mostly positive.
The twenty-fifth series of Doctor Who began with Remembrance Of The Daleks by Ben Aaronovitch (brother of the liar and hypocrite David Aaronovitch, who I actually once played on TV), which was by far the strongest thing that had been done in the show for many, many years. The story (about two warring factions of the Daleks searching for the MacGuffin of Omega, which had been planted by the Doctor, who was secretly doing a ‘don’t throw me into the briar patch’ trick to make the Daleks blow themselves and their home planet up) was a tight one, the humour, while still present, was much more subdued, and the story was genuinely scary at times.
Remembrance was also the first story to feature Sophie Aldred’s Ace (who had been introduced in the previous story) as the main character. Aldred is not a particularly good actor, and Ace sometimes gets some well dodgy lines (as she would no doubt put it), but the central idea of the character (a streetwise tomboy who likes playing with explosives and weaponry) was a refreshing change from the normal screamers – in this story, she gets to beat the shit out of a Dalek with a baseball bat, for example, which one can’t really imagine Jo Grant doing.
The effects were some of the best ever seen in the show (one or two very minor bits of dodgy CSO with the floating coffin, but the Dalek spaceship is done wonderfully, and the Daleks look sleeker and more menacing than ever before), although having the Daleks’ communication device being a plasma lamp ( £9.99 from Maplins – you too can have an interstellar communicator for Christmas! ) was frankly risible. It’s also structured well, especially the first episode, where what would normally be the big reveal (the fact of the Daleks being the villains) is thrown out casually, with the *real* big reveal (that the Daleks can float and are coming up the stairs after the Doctor) being the cliffhanger.
The story also tries to do something rather interesting with the central Nazi imagery of the Daleks, having the war between two Dalek factions essentially be a racial war, and having one faction ally themselves with a white supremacist group on Earth. These points are made too heavy-handedly (Ace looking disgustedly at a ‘no coloureds’ sign in the window of the B&B where she’s staying) and the production team seem far too proud of what were essentially just a couple of platitudes thrown in to the story, but I’m willing to give a lot more slack to people who are trying for something more interesting and falling short of their ambitions than I am to people who aren’t trying to push things at all. And, of course, even platitudinous anti-racist statements still need making, unfortunately.
This rather adolescent political point-making (“bad things are bad!”) is however symptomatic of the failures of the story – and it has some, despite being a well-above-average Doctor Who story. The new script editor and writer were both very young, rather nerdy men, and they were writing the kind of story that is liked by young, nerdy men. This involved an obsession with continuity minutiae.
The story involves a return to the junkyard where the TARDIS was first seen, and is set in 1963. This is OK (even though the junkyard had only been seen three years earlier in Attack Of The Cybermen, another overly-continuity-obsessed story) because the story involves the Doctor following up on a plan that had been put in motion by his first incarnation. But the Daleks’ base is the school where Ian and Barbara taught, for no real reason, and the story also references “the yeti in the underground, the zygon gambit, the loch ness monster”, the Dalek Invasion Of Earth, shows a TV set introducing an episode of “the new science fiction series, doc-” and references the Quatermass stories. While these references individually are fun little things, there is a feeling after a while of deliberately trying to keep out those who aren’t as familiar with the show’s history.
The next story, The Happiness Patrol, contained some heavy-handed allegory about Margaret Thatcher and had the Doctor fighting a robot Bertie Basset. The rest of this series veered between the poor and the average, which made it an improvement over the previous series, but this was the only *really good* story in the 25th series.
The next series was an improvement, but it came too late, both for me (my mum got sick of me wanting to watch Doctor Who when she wanted to watch Coronation Street, and I couldn’t in all honesty argue that the show was good enough to stop her turning over) and for the show, which was cancelled in 1989.
It’s a shame, because the show was quite clearly getting better after the horrible 25th series – writers like Aaronovitch and Marc Platt were doing work which, while having too much of the moody adolescent about it for my personal taste, was clearly a cut above the drivel churned out by people like Pip & Jane Baker. The show was essentially trying to go from Batman & Robin to the Tim Burton Batman and while my tastes are more toward Christopher Nolan or Adam West, I’ll take Tim Burton over Joel Schumaker any day.
While everyone has a favourite and least favourite Doctor or Doctors, I think a dispassionate examination of the series shows that it fluctuated in quality every few years, more or less irrespective of who was in charge. Every one of the first seven Doctors had an opportunity to shine, and every one of them had stories that were tasteless, forgettable or just plain nasty. But throughout the 26 years the original show ran (and the TV Movie and the audios – I’m less than convinced by nuWho, which seems to know the words but have forgotten the tune), the character of the Doctor – five parts Sherlock Holmes to one part each John Steed, Groucho Marx, Bugs Bunny and Mr Spock – shines through, one of the truly great fictional creations of all time.
Apologies if this one is less coherent than some of the other posts – I’ve got a terrible migraine and can barely focus on the screen. I’ve been half-considering leaving this one til tomorrow, but I’ve got quite a busy weekend ahead of me…
I always feel terribly sorry for Colin Baker. There is a certain section of Who fandom that considers him the worst Doctor, by a long way, and considers it acceptable to insult him at every turn (calling him “Fat Colin” and similar but much less complimentary names because, shockingly, he’s not the same weight at 65 that he was at 41). It’s a shame, because Baker was actually one of the best actors to play the part, and certainly the most enthusiastic – he’s described it as the role he was born to play.
However, Baker ended up having the shortest time in the role of any of the actors in the original series, only getting to do two full series (one of which was shorter than any before it), mostly because of events that had nothing to do with him. Many of his scripts were sub-par, the show was actually cancelled for 18 months while he was the Doctor, and the producer and script editor were barely talking to each other by that point.
Part of the reason for Baker’s unpopularity is actually because he thought through his performance more than many of the other actors to play the part. His Doctor was intended to start out colder and crueller than earlier Doctors, after his regeneration, and only slowly become more empathetic. He was also intended to be a more alien figure than his immediate predecessor. However, the scriptwriters seemed to be unable to cope with this – some carried on writing him just the same way they would have written any other Doctor, while others wrote him as practically a sociopath, delighting in unnecessary cruelty to Peri. It’s a tribute to the strength of Baker’s performance that he manages to rise above the widely variable scripts and actually deliver a mostly-consistent character who is recognisably the Doctor (Baker really studied the other Doctors’ performances, and incorporated tiny elements of them into his own but in subtly changed ways – even though I’ve often noted Willam Hartnell’s hand gestures and lapel-fiddling, and everyone who’s watched a Colin Baker episode has seen him puff himself up in self-importance while holding his lapels, it hadn’t occurred to me that the latter was a direct, conscious reference to the former til I heard Baker talk about it on the commentary to Timelash - the gesture is used in a very different way, but it implies a continuity of character).One of the things I love most about the Big Finish audios is that Colin Baker is *finally* given the opportunity to play the Doctor in the way he always wanted to, and I would argue that the best Sixth Doctor audio adventures (Jubilee, Davros, Doctor Who & The Pirates and a few others) are possibly the best things ever to come out of the show.
What makes it worse for me is that Baker was ‘my Doctor’. While I watched Peter Davison as a child, the memories I have of the show are almost all of Baker’s era – seeing two Doctors working together in The Two Doctors, the return of the Sontarans, the reveal that the Valeyard is in fact a future regeneration of the Doctor, Terry Molloy as Davros, the half-converted human Daleks, Sil, the return to Totter’s Lane and the chameleon circuit working again, trying to kill Peri, the giant marble statue of the Doctor collapsing onto him (I was *furious* as a six-year-old kid when my mum taped over my Betamax recorded-off-the-TV copy of Revelation of the Daleks). That’s the Doctor Who I grew up on. And there’s some very, very good stuff in there – and a lot more trying to get out from the production problems.
But there were two Colin Baker stories I didn’t remember from my childhood – Mark Of The Rani, which I knew would be rubbish because of its central villain and writing team, so I’ve still not rewatched it, and Timelash. I picked up Timelash on DVD relatively recently with no idea if it was any good – I don’t pay attention to fan ratings, because I’ve noticed that what I like about the show and what the most vocal members of the ‘fan community’ like are two very different things.
However, I wasn’t expecting even the DVD itself to proclaim so loudly that Timelash is, as the fan anagram apparently ‘wittily’ has it, Lame Shit.The blurb on the little insert in the DVD – the *promotional material* – contains phrases like “Timelash, by necessity, fell into the cheaper category. Unfortunately, this tends to show in the finished production with dull, uninspiring sets and costumes.” and “Timelash has been much criticised for its production standards, unimaginative direction, padded scenes and over-the-top acting”. This is the stuff that’s meant to make you want to buy it!
The documentary in the special features is much the same thing. Everyone from the writer to the actors to the script editor seems to be operating from the assumption that the show has no redeeming qualities and that its faults need to be explained. Producer John Nathan-Turner seems to have been chosen by everyone as the whipping boy for this – and one must admit that their reasons do have a ring of truth about them – but it must also be admitted that given that Nathan-Turner is dead it is easy to blame him without him being able to answer back. By the end of the documentary, one is reminded of Jake Blues – “No I didn’t. Honest… I ran out of gas. I, I had a flat tire. I didn’t have enough money for cab fare. My tux didn’t come back from the cleaners. An old friend came in from out of town. Someone stole my car. There was an earthquake. A terrible flood. Locusts. IT WASN’T MY FAULT, I SWEAR TO GOD!”
So it’s quite surprising to watch the actual episode and find it’s not all that bad. It’s far from good – there’s a reason I didn’t remember anything of it from childhood viewing – but it’s by no means the worst piece of TV ever or anything along those lines. The script is bad, of course – the pacing is hopeless and the plot makes little sense – but it’s not *uniquely* bad. In fact its faults are those of the late Tom Baker era (essentially writing science-fantasy panto) and nuWho ( ‘celebrity historical’ guest star writers who get all their ideas from their adventures with the Doctor are something of a staple in the new series, to the point where one could convincingly make a case that Timelash was the template for at least three stories from nuWho). Despite what everyone seems to think, having H.G. Wells adventure with the Doctor and see things that would be turned into pretty much every famous novel Wells wrote – which most people seem to think the saving grace of the story – is not a great idea, it’s a bad fanfic idea, and would be so even had they not portrayed the atheistic socialist humanist Wells as a Catholic spiritualist who used Ouija boards.
But like I say, those flaws aren’t unique, and there are actually some fine performances in the story (Robert Ashby is absolutely superb as the Borad). In fact the pedestrian nature of the original script was in some ways an advantage – Ashby and Baker rewrote a lot of their own lines (Ashby changed “That’s a lie!” into “Another expedition into the realms of duplicity”) giving some of their parts a baroque charm. The real problem is that Paul Darrow, as the central villainous character Tekker, has an absolute contempt for the material. His performance shows signs of having been worked on, but at some point during rehearsals he obviously decided to give up any pretence of taking things seriously, and just do a bad impression of Laurence Olivier as Richard III (I kept expecting him to say “It has been a HARD day’s night… and I… have been workinglikeadog!”).
If he’d been able to hide his distaste for the story, as Ashby and Baker do, rather than walking around with a giant neon sign over his head saying “I’m better than this, I used to be a real star, you know”, then the other flaws in the story (of which there are still many) would be forgivable – everything else is just the result of lack of time, lack of money, or plain incompetence, all of which sometimes happen to the best-intentioned people. Darrow’s performance, though, is plain sabotage.
Despite this, Timelash really *isn’t* as bad as its reputation – on an objective level it’s not that much worse than Destiny Of The Daleks or The Five Doctors. It’s just a shame that Colin Baker’s time as the Doctor was cut so short that this is one of a tiny number of televisual records of his performance. Baker *was* given good scripts on occasion – Vengeance On Varos, Revelation Of The Daleks and The Two Doctors are all strong scripts (though The Two Doctors has its own problems) – but what I wouldn’t give for a TV version of …Ish or Jubilee or even a fun bit of fluff like The One Doctor…
John Nathan-Turner, the producer of Doctor Who for most of its last decade, gets a bad rap from much of the fanbase. Sometimes this is deserved – some of the worst episodes of the show ever produced were done on his watch, and often at his instigation.
It is possibly going to appear over the next few days that I am joining in this chorus of disapproval, mostly due to my choices of episodes, so before I do that, I just want to say firstly that for every bad decision Nathan-Turner made he also made a good one; and secondly that Nathan-Turner’s Doctor Who is the version of the show I grew up on.
And that means a lot to me. I was a Doctor Who fan of the most obsessive kind before I was in primary school (the obsession dropped down between the ages of 12 and 25 or so, but much of my love for the programme dates from a very young age). I knew Nathan-Turner’s name written down before I knew how to pronounce it (I still half-consciously read it as Natthan (with a short a) in my head). Peter Davison and Colin Baker were ‘my’ Doctors in a way that Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker were to earlier generations. And my love as a child for that show – flawed as some of it undoubtedly was – inspired my passion for reading (give a Target novelisation to a five-year-old who doesn’t know he’s not meant to be able to read it and you’ll be surprised how quickly his vocabulary expands…), fantastic fiction, eccentric characters in the Sherlock Holmes tradition, non-violent solutions to problems, physics, evolutionary biology, linguistics (specifically a bit in the novelisation of State Of Decay where the Doctor explains to Romana about consonantal shift), logic… while I am actually nothing like the Doctor (in real life I am more like the Comic Book Guy from the Simpsons, but without the social graces and physical attractiveness) , the idealised self-image I have comes from wishing to emulate the Doctor as a child.
So whatever Nathan-Turner’s faults as a producer (and how much he can be blamed for the problems the show had during his tenure is definitely open to question) his years on the show did make at least one small child extraordinarily happy, and that’s something to keep in mind…
The Five Doctors, the show’s twentieth-anniversary special, is the first episode I have a conscious memory of watching when it was broadcast, a little over a month after my fifth birthday (though I’d definitely seen earlier episodes – it’s just no others remain in my memory). I remember being absolutely thrilled – Daleks! Cybermen! K-9! The Master! All the old Doctors who I’d only heard about! – and for years later I could remember the black triangle getting the Doctors, and Peter Davison collapsing, and a couple of other moments, even though I didn’t have a clue what the plot had been.
That is, of course, because there wasn’t one – or at least not one to speak of. While the tenth anniversary show, The Three Doctors, had had a simple brief – do a story with all three Doctors in it – The Five Doctors had to do more – it had to ‘celebrate’ the show by featuring as many old villains and companions as possible, as well as all five Doctors to date. The need to do this made one scriptwriter, Robert Holmes, quit early in the process – Holmes simply couldn’t come up with a coherent story featuring everything that the production team decided was necessary for the show. So Terrance Dicks – another former Who script editor, and at the time a freelance writer who made his living from novelising the TV show (mostly just adding the words ‘he said’ to the scripts if my memory of his books is correct – he was not someone who was known for labouring over his prose in an effort to turn out an exquisitely memorable phrase if instead he could just type “The Dalek shot the prisoner, who screamed and died”) took on the job.
Dicks was actually even more insistent that the production feature *everything* than the production staff themselves were – he had to do a story with Time Lords, the Master and Cybermen because that’s what Nathan-Turner and Eric Saward (the script editor) wanted, but he also insisted that it had to feature at least one Dalek (who gets killed in a most perfunctory manner after about ninety seconds of screen time), K-9 (who gets about two lines) and the Yeti (who most people don’t even notice).
Dicks was entirely right about this, incidentally, from the point of view of absolutely captivating small children, but it gives the story the same flavour as much of nuWho – a bunch of exciting moments strung together by something pretending to be a plot but without any real coherence.
Of course, it can’t have helped that Dicks had to do a story about Five Doctors when he only had three available. The absence of William Hartnell, who had died years earlier, was expected, and they got round it by casting Richard Hurndall to play his part (Hurndall did a passable impersonation of Hartnell, who hadn’t been seen on TV for many years, though the effectiveness of it was hampered by a little pre-credit snippet of Hartnell reminding people what he actually looked and sounded like). What hadn’t been expected, though, was for Tom Baker to turn the story down (mostly because he’d left the show less than two years earlier, but also because he didn’t get on very well at the time with Nathan-Turner). This absence was eventually also covered – by using some footage from the unaired Douglas Adams story Shada (with much better dialogue than the rest of the show) and saying that Baker’s Doctor was caught in a time distortion – but it meant that the script needed extensive rewriting.
Parts of the show work extremely well – especially the interplay between Troughton’s Doctor and Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart (with Troughton ad-libbing furiously most of the time, coming out with stuff about the Terrible Zodin and beasts that used to hop like kangaroos), and the show comes alive in the last few minutes, when all the Doctors are brought together at last (Nathan-Turner thought there’d be ego problems, and so made sure they only had one day of filming together) – the performers get over a mediocre script and spark wonderfully off each other, in a way that makes you wish just for an hour and a half of Davison, Troughton and Pertwee trapped in the TARDIS rather than this disjointed mess.
Most of the classic Doctors could rise above a bad script with a great performance, and Terrance DIcks was familiar enough with the characters to provide them with opportunities to do that, and the script contains several pretty good lines (“A man is the sum of his memories, you know… a Time Lord even more so”) – although several of the best were inserted by the actors. It was great fun for kids at the time, and it has a lot of nostalgia value – I’ve probably watched it more than any other episode, because if you don’t concentrate and just look up for the good bits it can deliver a great rush of childhood affection for the various characters – but it’s just a disposable children’s romp, not something that should be given a ‘twenty-fifth anniversary special edition’ DVD release on two discs with two different edits of the show and three different commentaries.
While most people think of Doctor Who‘s different eras in terms of the different actors playing the Doctor – and this is how I’ve broken up my Doctor Who week this week – the show went through far more radical changes when the production team changed, especially the producer/script editor combination. Those two between them would have far more control over the feel of the show than any star could – even Tom Baker, who dominated the show for seven years.
Baker’s tenure as the Doctor was split into three very different eras. His first three years, with Philip Hinchcliffe producing and Robert Holmes as script editor, are widely regarded among the show’s fanbase as the best the series ever had – combining black humour with grand guignol violence, occasionally experimental storytelling, and ‘homages’ to classic adventure fiction from Frankenstein to Fu Manchu. The next few years, which were dominated by producer Graham Williams, were pure pantomime, veering at times closer to the feel of the 1960s Batman series than anything else (they were actually tremendous fun at times, and gained the show its highest ratings). And his final year, after John Nathan-Turner took over as producer, was an attempt to do gothic-tinged ‘mature’ SF, with an air of seriousness and decay over the show.
Baker is the most fondly-remembered of all the Doctors – and on a good day he’s my favourite – and i suspect part of the reason for this is the amount of inventiveness in the show during his period. In the seven years he was the Doctor, he only did two Dalek stories and one Cyberman one (and two of those three were in his first year and had been commissioned by the outgoing team) – the vast majority of his stories were one-off stories featuring new antagonists.
However, Baker’s two Dalek stories do provide a very good baseline for comparison between the relevant production teams. Both were nominally written by Terry Nation. Both were set on the planet of Skaro, featured Tom Baker as the Doctor, featured both Davros and the Daleks, and centred on a stalemated war in which the Doctor ends up embroiled. So comparing the two should put the differences between production teams into sharp relief.
The reason for the similarities is, of course, Terry Nation. Nation was one of the luckiest men ever to have lived – a hack writer who was lucky enough to have the monsters in his script for a new children’s TV show designed by Raymond Cusick with an inventive voice treatment by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, this meant that he had control over all the rights to the Daleks, and could essentially do whatever he wanted.
What he wanted, it seemed, was to essentially churn out the same script every time. Nation had half a dozen… motifs is probably not the best word for them… that he re-used in pretty much every single script he ever wrote. Nazis are bad; diseases that can destroy all life are also bad. Nuclear war, too, is bad. And women sometimes fall over and hurt their ankle. His first couple of Dalek scripts were genuinely good examples of their kind. The rest… weren’t.
Every year or two, Nation would turn in a four- or six-part story featuring the Daleks, usually with a very simple hook (“the one where the Daleks’ guns don’t work”) and featuring all his usual topics, always in the form of a very skimpy first draft, and it would be left to the script editor at the time to turn it into something watchable.
At the time of Tom Baker’s first series, the previous producer and script editor (Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks) had become quite sick of Nation doing this, and had required him to actually hand in a *new* story, which was then passed on to the incoming team of producer Philip Hinchcliffe and script editor Robert Holmes to turn into Genesis Of The Daleks. It still featured every one of Nation’s usual themes, but it had a new plot (telling of the creation of the Daleks), and featured a very strong central character in Davros, the Kaled scientist who created the Daleks – a half-Mengele, half-Strangelove megalomaniac.
How much of the final script Nation can take credit for, and how much is the work of Dicks (who was the script editor most concerned with tight plotting and shared Nation’s obsession with Naziesque villains), Holmes (whose flair for dialogue, wild imagination, and taste for Gothic melodrama pervade the show) and actors Tom Baker and Michael Wisher (who apparently used to sit in the studio canteen together and rework their dialogue into a more pseudo-Shakesperean form) is unclear, but either way, Genesis managed to be a minor masterpiece – overlong and unnecessarily padded, but with many fine moments and some classic ideas.
Baker wouldn’t appear in another Dalek story until 1979 – Hinchcliffe and Holmes disliked the Daleks and didn’t want to rely on old monsters – and when he did, it was in the first story script-edited by a young writer called Douglas Adams. The story in this case was a rehashing of every single cliche Nation plot element, including all the ones mentioned above, with the addition of robotic rivals in a war with the Daleks (an idea Nation had first used in 1964). Apparently large chunks are *also* recycled from Nation’s then-current TV series Blake’s Seven, but having never seen the episodes in question I can’t really comment on that.
However, while Nation is credited as writer, and the plot is certainly Nation-by-numbers, he appears to have had little to do with the final script (as director Ken Grieve puts it on the DVD commentary “He didn’t quite get around to writing the dialogue”), which seems to be mostly the work of Adams and producer Graham Williams, with some contributions by Grieve. The result is a mess – while Adams was one of the finest comic dialogue writers of his generation, he couldn’t really do plot, as anyone who’s read much of his work knows. So what we get is a series of great one-liners, and some wonderful characterisation, laid like a cheap coat of paint on a half-baked plot that they just don’t fit
The performances of the leads help to sell the story – Baker is always watchable, just for the sheer joy he brings to the performance, and he also had the most consistently interesting set of companions (Sarah Jane and Leela both having had actual interesting personalities), but Romana , a fellow Time Lord and the Doctor’s intellectual equal, is the strongest of the lot. This story features the introduction of the second Romana, in a regeneration scene written by Adams, and the chemistry between Lalla Ward, the actress playing her, and Baker is apparent straight away (the two later married briefly, but divorced soon afterwards, and she is currently married to the egregious Richard Dawkins). Aided by some really strong dialogue, the two rise above the workmanlike performances of the rest of the cast (why David Gooderson, the second actor to play Davros, tried to impersonate Michael Wisher but with an added faint Scottish accent, is a question for the ages) and the frankly appaling effects (the Daleks are *very* clearly made of painted wood in this one, and on several occasions the Doctor has to drag Davros about) to make this into a fun romp, and a great piece of children’s TV, but something that really doesn’t even stand up to the slightest scrutiny.
Adams would do better work for the show (City Of Death in the same series, which he co-wrote with Williams, is generally regarded as one of the best stories the show ever had, though I’m not hugely impressed with it myself) but Destiny Of The Daleks shows up the difference between a good script editor and a good writer who was himself often in *need* of an editor – Adams was in the wrong job, and left after only one series.
Destiny Of The Daleks is available on a single DVD, but if you want to watch it you’re best off buying the Davros box set (which you can get for £40 from Big Finish’s website), which includes all four of Davros’ other TV appearances (all of which are better than this one) and all the audio adventures of the character (including the superb Davros and the pretty good The Juggernauts). In that context, it’s a nice little bonus, and an enjoyable brainless way to spend an hour and a half. But taken on its own merits, it’s just what it was meant to be – disposable entertainment that was never meant to be seen again after a one-off broadcast in 1979.
I actually only noticed today that many of the stories I’m choosing for A Doctor A Day fall close to important anniversaries for the show – The Invasion was shown over the fifth anniversary, the Five Doctors was shown for the twentieth anniversary, Remembrance Of The Daleks was the start of the twenty-fifth year of the show (and also started broadcasting on the even more important date of my tenth birthday), and today’s story, The Time Warrior, was broadcast just a couple of weeks after the tenth anniversary (which came halfway through The Green Death, another really good story). An odd, and unintended, coincidence – especially when you consider that the two stories I’m looking at that don’t fit this pattern – Destiny Of The Daleks and Timelash – are the ones that are generally considered ‘a bit crap’. Possibly the quality of Doctor Who stories goes in regular cycles, or possibly I’m inferring too much from a tiny and biased sample. You decide…
The Time Warrior was the last story of Jon Pertwee’s penultimate series as the Doctor, and is one of his very best. Pertwee was the second longest-serving Doctor, after his successor Tom Baker, but his five years with the show are not generally regarded as a highpoint (and I must admit that while I try not to defer to popular opinion, he ties with Sylvester McCoy for last place in my personal rankings of the seven original Doctors). In part this was because of the format, imposed by the outgoing production team at the end of Patrick Troughton’s tenure, with which Pertwee’s Doctor was lumbered – stuck on Earth without the ability to operate the TARDIS for most of the first few years of his stint as the Doctor, as Terrance Dicks, the script editor of the time, noted, this only left two stories – the alien invasion and the mad scientist – open for the show.
But also, Pertwee’s Doctor was too much the man of action, and the show in this period owed far more to the contemporary ITC adventure series like Jason King and Randall & Hopkirk (Deceased) (and also to The Avengers, a wonderful non-ITC show of the same ilk, co-created by Sydney Newman before he worked on Doctor Who – Pertwee’s character may have dressed like Peter Wyngarde, but his lines could easily have been spoken by Patrick McNee). Doctor Who at its best was always an innovative show – and it always had the potential to do literally anything – and so to see it following the lead of other, less interesting shows is somewhat depressing.
To make matters worse, most of Pertwee’s scripts were extremely average, and while script editor Terrance Dicks (we will talk more about the importance of script editors to Who tomorrow) was probably the strongest script editor the show ever had as far as plot went, he was not so hot on punching up dialogue, and was infuriatingly sexist, so when given a dull runaround by, say, Terry Nation (of whom more also tomorrow) it would turn into a dull sexist runaround but with a beautifully crafted plot.
There were exceptions to this, though, especially in Pertwee’s later series. The Green Death, the story directly before this one, is one of the best of any era, and everything written by Robert Holmes, who wrote this story, is golden – Holmes was as good a writer as people seem to think Stephen Moffatt is, writing chilling horror and music-hall patter with equal facility.
We’re very lucky that Holmes was chosen to write this story, which introduced several new elements to the Doctor Who ‘mythos’ (if you’ll pardon the term), one of which was the new companion, Sarah Jane Smith.
Something that has been noted many times about Doctor Who is that almost every new female companion for the Doctor was introduced with “this one won’t be just a typical screamer to get rescued by the Doctor”, but almost every one of them was reduced to shrieking and being captured by villains within two stories. There were exceptions (Tom Baker’s companions mostly got away with having actual characters, and Ace never got turned into a damsel in distress) but normally their personalities got watered down horribly.
On the commentary track for The Time Warrior, Dicks claims that the format demanded the companions be ‘tied to railway tracks’, and that making the characters stronger when they were first introduced allowed this to be done without cheapening the characters – you knew they were strong, so they were then allowed to be weak. There is, no doubt, an element of truth to this. However, Dicks is also the man who replaced Doctor Liz Shaw after one series with Jo Grant, whose function was described *on screen* as ‘someone to wash the Doctor’s test tubes and tell him how brilliant he is’, and who says in the documentary on the Time Warrior DVD “Much to my disgust, feminism was coming along, you see…”, so I’m not *entirely* convinced by his arguments.
But with the character of Sarah Jane Smith, viewers were lucky enough to get a Robert Holmes script, and to get Elisabeth Sladen in the role. Sladen is an absolutely superb actress – easily the best actress ever to take a companion role in Who – and she managed to get enough of a sense of the character from the script that she managed to actually build a coherent character up for Sarah Jane, often in spite of later scripts, and became one of the best-remembered companions of the entire series.
The Time Warrior itself is a great romp, involving a Sontaran (their first appearance) crash-landing on Earth in the medieval period and having to kidnap scientists from the twentieth century using a time-displacement macguffin in order to repair his ship, and getting involved in a local conflict between knights, with the Doctor travelling back in time to sort it out along with a stowaway Sarah Jane. While the feel of the story is Ivanhoe-esque Boys’ Own adventure, the actual plot is closer to farce, being based around cases of mistaken identity, comic-relief absent-minded professors, and the Doctor dressing up as a robot and a monk. It also features one of writer Robert Holmes’ classic ‘double acts’, Irongron and Bloodaxe, who operate in classic Pete’n’Dud intelligent idiot/stupid idiot mode, and some of the overall best acting in the series.
The performances are helped by Alan Bromly’s direction. Bromly was, even at the time, considered an ‘old-school’ director, and in his work, even more than in Waris Hussein’s on An Unearthly Child, you can see the theatrical origin of much of the style of British TV drama. A much less visually imaginative director than Hussein, he just plonks the camera in one spot and sets up the shot, but he frames the shots so well – and more importantly casts actors so perfectly in their roles – that the effect is like watching an extraordinarily good stage performance.
But a Doctor Who story would be nothing without the central performance, and it’s here that The Time Warrior really shines, with Pertwee given one of his rare opportunities to get his teeth into the role. While Pertwee is generally a rather hammy performer (not that there’s anything wrong with that in Who) there are some great little moments here, like when he leans back and considers whether to report Sarah Jane to UNIT, where it’s no longer funny old Jon Pertwee out of Wurzel Gummidge up there, but it’s the Doctor. Pertwee shows here just what he could do with a good script, and it’s a shame that, like Colin Baker later, he was so rarely given the chance to do that.
The Time Warrior is available either as a single DVD or as part of the Bred For War box set (containing all the Sontaran stories at a reduced price, and well worth it even though none of those other stories match up to this first one). It’s also apparently available on iTunes, though why on earth anyone would want to pay Apple for a DRM’d video file that they can’t watch without running the risk of breaking their computer I’m unsure. However you get it, though, it’s a good, solid story at the upper end of the norm for Doctor Who – nothing earth-shattering, but thoroughly enjoyable, and it stands up surprisingly to repeated watching.