Possibly the best season of the 1970s, which tells you that I clearly loved season thirteen. It’s the second year of Hinchcliffe/Holmes, no longer in the shadow of the successful team of Letts/Dicks. (With one exception, but that’s Hinchcliffe’s fault for asking Letts to direct and Nation to write a script.) But I digress…
This season brings to the fore all the hints we got in the previous season, with the darker aspects found in such stories as The Ark in Space and Genesis of the Daleks. It starts on a high with the impeccable Terror of the Zygons, the last full bona-fide UNIT story. But this is the UNIT of Hinchcliffe/Holmes, not the ever-cosy family of the Pertwee Era. There’s a different kind of spark between the Fourth Doctor and the Brigadier – a very strong friendship, although it’s very clear the Doctor is, at least initially, sulking at being brought back to Earth by the Brigadier. Throughout this season there’s a definite ongoing acknowledgement that the Doctor is no longer interested in being UNIT’s scientific advisor – it’s explicitly stated in Pyramids of Mars for a start – although he does keep on coming back. Partly this is due to Sarah’s presence, since she made him promise to return her home at the end of Terror of the Zygons, which explains why in Pyramids of Mars they arrived in the correct location, but the wrong time, and why they appear to return to Earth in The Android Invasion. It doesn’t, however, explain why the Doctor was on hand to help out in The Seeds of Doom.
Philip Hinchcliffe has gone to great lengths in interviews to explain that he doesn’t dislike UNIT, and would have been happy to keep on using them once a year, but it seems things worked against him. Certainly Nicholas Courtney’s availability became an issue, so in this season twice he’s replaced by a lesser character while the Brigadier is in Geneva. Intentionally or not, this serves to phase UNIT out. In The Android Invasion the only regular UNIT character is Benton, and Harry, and in The Seeds of Doom there’s not a single UNIT character previously known. It’s a shame in some ways. The Brigadier got a lovely final scene in Terror of the Zygons, although they did not know it would be at the time, but poor Benton doesn’t get a goodbye scene at all in The Android Invasion. The last we see him he’s knocked unconscious and replaced by an android duplicate – he could be dead for all we know. Another character who doesn’t get a goodbye scene is Harry – a companion! If he hadn’t been brought back for a needless role in The Android Invasion, then his final scene in Terror of the Zygons would have served as a lovely send-off (alongside the Brigadier). Alas, nobody knew that The Android Invasion would be the last appearance of either Benton or Harry, and both simply never appear again. No goodbye, no fond farewell.
This is the season that people think of when they talk ‘gothic’. With the exception of The Android Invasion (which is a horrible, although fun, throwback to the Pertwee era), every story this season screams gothic horror, and as a result we have five of the strongest stories ever seen in Doctor Who. Very strong scripts, with cracking dialogue, great performances (some of the best guest stars ever!), interesting direction… the list of accolades goes on. Of course, nothing is perfect, and despite being a very interesting idea and a well directed piece, I find Planet of Evil extremely dull to watch. I can’t place my finger on why, but it’s the one story this season that makes me want to sleep while I watch it. Even The Android Invasion is fun to watch, and it’s easily the weakest script Doctor Who has had in years – insane plot holes, motives that make no sense, over-reliance on coincidences, another self-mining of ideas from Terry Nation, and a direction that is competent and safe, and as such it stands out among one of the best directed seasons ever. But for all that it is great fun to watch. Every actor in the show gives it their best, there’s some wonderful location work, but none of this can hide the glaring plot issues. Still, among such greats as Terror of the Zygons, Pyramids of Mars, Brain of Morbius and The Seeds of Doom it was never going to stand out as a great example of Doctor Who. It would have been at home in seasons ten or eleven, but at this point, it just feels like a mis-step and a redundant throwback to an era well and truly over.
Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen continue to shine, going from strength to strength, developing the closest and most enjoyable Doctor/Companion dynamic since the Second Doctor and Jamie, if not the best yet. When, in The Seeds of Doom, the Doctor says ‘this is Sarah Jane Smith. She’s my best friend’, you do not question it. Arguably for the first time ever, the companion really is a friend. Before us are two people who love each other’s company, and have no intention of splitting up. Alas, all good things must end, and soon it will be ‘time’ for the Doctor and Sarah… But not just yet. Three years and they are going strong.
Now, for the first time since beginning this rewatch I honestly can’t pick a favourite. I’ve tried, but I cannot pick between three titles. Every time I try, I think of another reason why each of them are so damn good. So, these are my least favourites…
- Planet of Evil
- The Android Invasion
- The Brain of Morbius
Which leaves these three as equal best:
Edited to add:
The above was posted five years ago, and right now I’m in the midst of another entire rewatch (with an added five years worth of televised Doctor Who, including associated spin-offs produced since 1987 – the first of which is coming up).
My views largely remain the same, although the least favourite stories of the season have switched places. This time around I’m watching the stories episodically, the way they were intended to be watched, in an attempt to view them afresh and, hopefully, to reassess those stories I’ve never really been overkeen on. It has largely worked out well, highlighting the strengths of some stories I’ve always found dull and plodding, while it’s highlighted the weaknesses of stories that feel fun and speedy when watched in one sitting.
This leads me the new line-up, although once again I honestly cannot choose between the winning three. Each has great strengths and very little weaknesses.
So, my 2020 list of season 13 is thus:
- The Android Invasion
- Planet of Evil
- The Brain of Morbius
- Terror of the Zygons/Pyramids of Mars/The Seeds of Doom