Season eleven… Such a breath of fresh air. And just in time, too. It’s the end of an era – an era that had two beginnings, and quickly settled into something very cosy and safe. Yet, back in the early ‘70s, an era that was incredibly popular. Alas, all good things come to an end, and now Jon Pertwee plays his final game… MORE
Season nine, it starts of very well. And, for the first time since the Third Doctor appeared, it feels like a follow on from the previous season, instead of another slight reboot. Although this feeling doesn’t last very long… see more
I have much to say about season eight, say you may want to grab a cuppa and get comfortable. For a start, it almost feels like a completely different show. I don’t think it’s a bad thing, though, since Doctor Who has survived for so long because of its ability to renew itself from time to time. But this is a different kind of reshaping.
Most of the elements that made the previous season such a success are still here, only the tone of the show is so different that it feels like everything has completely changed. The Doctor is still working alongside UNIT, only now he seems quite comfortable in his position. He says he’s trying to repair his TARDIS, and we do see him working on it, but there’s no sense of urgency to his desire to leave Earth – even though he does take a couple of opportunities to escape the planet as soon they present themselves. Each time he ends up back on Earth, and despite his words, his tone and smile implies that he’s really not bothered. If the Doctor’s attitude has changed since we last saw him, then so has UNIT’s. They seem much more relaxed as an organisation – cosy, to use a word that’s bandied about a lot when talking about the Pertwee era. And it’s true. The Brigadier is no longer the only regular officer; he now has Captain Yates as his second, and Sergeant Benton truly becomes a series regular this season. There’s an attempt to extend the ‘UNIT family’ a little further with the introduction of Corporal Bell in The Mind of Evil, but alas she only appears in one more story. Which is a shame. We don’t see much of her character, but it stands to reason that the HQ staff would be the same story by story, and so having familiar faces around makes sense. Alas, beyond the Brigadier, Yates and Benton all we have is the Doctor and Jo. Oh yes, Jo.
Now, I like Jo. Always have. It’s very easy to develop a soft spot for her. She’s so sweet, initially quite naïve, but over time she wins you over with her honesty and obviously love for the Doctor. But her introduction helps to soften up the whole UNIT scenario, adding a very human face to the organisation and serves to anchor the Doctor to Earth even more (curiously doing the exact opposite to what the production team wanted – they were very keen on getting the Doctor off Earth again!). But she’s no Liz. Which is a shame, as I mentioned in the previous season review. I liked the new dynamic, of the Doctor actually having a companion (or assistant, really, in Liz’s case) who was an adult, someone with their own mind and own objectives. Our first bona fide adult companion since Ian & Barbara left. Yes, I know Steven was an adult, but he wasn’t really written in any way equal to the Doctor, whereas Ian & Barbara were never second fiddle to the Doctor, and likewise neither was Liz. But Jo… For all her loveliness, she’s not an adult, but a girl in her late teens with an awful lot to learn. And so we’re brought back to the dynamic of Doctor/Companion we’ve seen time and time again. Luckily the chemistry behind Jon Pertwee and Katy Manning is such that this never becomes an issue, and they sell her completely. Initially he’s frustrated by her, as she does her best to prove herself as a valid UNIT agent, but he slowly softens up and warms to her.
The Brigadier has also changed since we last saw him. As I pointed out, in season seven he very clearly kept the Doctor around for his own purposes. There was no actual friendship between them. But from the outset of this season you can see a friendship there. Sure, it’s still charged at times, a mutual frustration between the two men, both of whom think they’re in charge, but there’s a nice sense of familiarity that wasn’t really there before. Again, this rather suggest a lot transpired between seasons. Another thing I’ve realised about the Brigadier – he really doesn’t believe a word the Doctor has said about the TARDIS or his travels through time. At this point he just accepts what the Doctor says, but really thinks the man is just an eccentric alien, a brilliant one at that, who happens to own a police box. The first time the Brigadier actually sees the TARDIS is in the lab in Spearhead from Space, and he doesn’t even witness it materialise (with a pop! for some reason) until Colony in Space (which is, in narrative terms, at least six years after he first learned of the TARDIS in The Web of Fear). And the Doctor’s line to Jo just after returning from the future says it all; the Brigadier would never believe where they’ve been. As we later learn, the Brigadier really has little idea of what really exist inside the box. I suspect the Brigadier even believes the Doctor built the console while at UNIT.
This season is also notable for introducing the Master to the series. Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks decided the Doctor needed his own Moriarty – a mirror opposite. And so the Master was created, another Time Lord in a similar mould to the War Chief from The War Games. (It’s of no surprise that a large section of fandom believe them to the be the same character – they certainly share a lot of similarities, alas the War Chief may be aware of the Doctor, but it’s very clear from their initial dialogue that the two men have never actually met before The War Games.) The Master is an old friend of the Doctor who is out for universal domination and to just generally cause problems for the Doctor. The only downside with the Master as a recurring villain in season eight is the ease with which he has always beaten, and how often he had to team up with the Doctor to defeat the aliens he brings to Earth. This does somewhat weaken him, and suggests, as many commentators have said over the years, that it’s just some game between the Doctor and the Master. With hindsight, Dicks and Letts have gone on record to say they believe having the Master in every story of season eight was a mistake. There was a time I agreed with them, until this rewatch. I’ve found, to my surprise, that it actually works and creates the first proper season arc since the first season (in which the arc was the Doctor trying to return Ian & Barbara home). The ongoing story of UNIT being on the watch-out for the Master adds a nice layer to the season, creating nice sense of continuity between the stories, given it an almost Nu Who feel. Unfortunately, Colony in Space rather spoils that, other than the bookend scenes with the Brigadier in which he mentions they’re following up reports on Master sightings. Taking the Doctor from UNIT at that point, in the middle of such an arc, only succeeds in damaging the pace of the ongoing story, and when the Master happens to turn up on the same planet… Well, it makes no logical sense at all, and just feels so contrived. With the Master being captured by UNIT at the end of The Dæmons they create a sense of completion, leaving the viewers feeling that that we really have followed a season long story. One with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Just a pity Colony in Space exists in the season, really.
A word on the ratings. They were high! Better than Doctor Who has had in a very long time, and by far the most consistently rated series in about four years. Whether you like the ‘dumbing down’ of UNIT and the softening of the tone, and I’m still in two minds about it since I adore season seven’s tone, there’s no doubt that what Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks did was create a very successful formula that secured Doctor Who as a real hit once again.
A quick mention of links to the Lethbridge-Stewart series of books (because, you know, it’s how I make my living)… In The Daemons the Doctor points out the Brigadier would have made a good accountant, and later the Brig says he should have run a bank instead. All this suggests the Brigadier is very good with numbers, which makes perfect sense as the Lethbridge-Stewart books reveal he did originally train to be a maths teacher. Another subtle link is the final scene of season eight, reportedly written by Richard Franklin and Nicholas Courtney themselves, in which Yates jokingly asks the Brig if he wants a dance, to which the Brigadier says he’d rather a pint. And thus why, when he arrives in Bledoe in The Forgotten Son, the first thing he does is say he could do with a pint. And, of course, the Brigadier’s lack of belief in half of what the Doctor says is echoed in the Lethbridge-Stewart books: ‘Really, Miss Travers, next thing you know you’ll be expecting a police box to turn up, too.’ Lethbridge-Stewart could tell Miss Travers was disappointed with his response, but he still wasn’t convinced by the idea of time travel, regardless of what Professor Travers had once told him.
And so to the countdown. Well, to be honest choosing a worst and best is incredibly easy. I have a little more trouble with the middle stories (well, second and third best), and they may well change next time I watch it. From worst (and, I’m sorry, but I can’t say least favourite as Colony in Space is just a very dull story, with very little to recommend it) to best, then:
- Colony in Space
- Terror of the Autons
- The Claws of Axos
- The Dæmons
Which makes the winner…
This season, more than any other, is very important to me at the moment. Along with season six’s The Invasion and season five’s The Web of Fear, season seven is the template for the Lethbridge-Stewart series of novels – in tone and style. When Doctor Who felt properly adult, a serious Earth-based science fiction series. It has all the best elements of shows like Adam Adamant Lives!, Department S, Danger Man, The Avengers… And season seven is one of my all-time favourites of Doctor Who. Which makes selecting a favourite story very difficult indeed!
After season six, this season is something of a shock to the system. It almost feels like an entirely new series, more so than ever before. The first use of colour helps to set it apart, but it’s also the aforementioned style and tone of the series. Granted, much of the style seen this season is evident in The Invasion, but the tone of that serial matched the rest of season six. Here though, the tone is mature, serious science fiction, dealing with the world of the now (even though the UNIT-era was supposedly a ‘near future’ version of Earth). The Doctor here is so very different from how he’ll be in the following four seasons — and it’s not just because of character development. It’s how he’s written, how he’s performed. There is a serious, almost snobbish, side to this Doctor that is a far cry from the… I want to say caricature… of himself he becomes later. All the elements that form that caricature are here, but they’re subtle, not played for laughs. There no sense of the ‘homely’ about this season of UNIT stories. There’s no friendship or sparring between the Doctor and the Brigadier, just a grudging acceptance of the situation they are in. That they are both stuck with each other, because they both know they can be a good deal of use to the other. The Doctor needs the Brigadier and UNIT because he has nowhere else to go, and can use their facilities to help repair the TARDIS. The Brigadier needs the Doctor because of his experience and scientific know-how, and besides, rather the Doctor assist him and UNIT then assist somebody else.
Plus, this season has Liz. Easily the most grown up companion since Ian & Barbara left back in ’65. From the moment she walks through the doors of the Brigadier’s office, Caroline John convinces as a very intelligent woman who knows she is better than UNIT. Her relationship with the Doctor is very sound, too. Clearly she knows the Doctor’s knowledge of science far exceeds her own, but they treat each other as equals, typified in the scene in Doctor Who and the Silurians where they work together to find a cure for the plague — no words are needed, they work in silence, both fully aware of the ability of the other. It is a great shame Liz is only in this season, that incoming producer Barry Letts decided he wanted someone less intelligent as a companion. As great as Jo proves to be in the following years, the dynamic between the Doctor and Liz deserved further exploration. I’d argue, the greater challenge would be to find stories that served these characters, instead of getting rid of Liz and lowering the tone to something a bit more homely. But then, I suppose, it was partly that cosy family feel of the UNIT era that made the Third Doctor’s time such a huge success. And it was. The most successful period of Doctor Who since Dalekmania in the mid-’60s.
As for the stories. Only four are on offer, alas. Three of which are seven-part stories to spread the budget and because, as proven, the ratings almost always seem to go down after the first episode of any given story. Thus it was reasoned less episode ones, less chance of the ratings dipping. They were right. Even at its weakest, season seven out-performed season six. So, although we only get four stories, we can four very strong stories. There really isn’t a dud between them. Autons, Silurians, radioactive aliens who are actually friendly, and a parallel Earth where the danger is found to be the planet itself. And man’s arrogance. A common theme this season. Indeed, other than Spearhead from Space, every story this season is a result of ego, avarice — the evil of men.
So, how do I pick a favourite? The only way I can, by picking the very first Jon Pertwee story I saw. Way back in 1988 on VHS…
In order of least preference then:
- Doctor Who and the Silurians
- The Ambassadors of Death
Which only leaves…