Friday, 23 September 2016

DOCTOR WHO - SEASON 19 revisited

ABSOLUTE BEGINNERS
Following on from my post about the Davison era, here are my impressions of the delights (and otherwise) of Peter's debut series in 1982.


'Knocked back into time and space like a straight six
into the pavilion!' (Image copyright: BBC)














1981 was a good time to be young. I was having the time of my life in the Sixth Form and The Skids, Echo and the Bunnymen, The Teardrop Explodes and The Stranglers were all on fire musically.

The concept of the 1980s as they they’re popularly known today – get rich quick in shoulder pads – hadn’t really kicked in. There was a curious dichotomy emerging in popular culture; on the one had it eulogised a mythical British golden age in the TV adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisted and the film Chariots of Fire; on the other, particularly musically, styles forged ahead with the New Romantics and the new genre of pop video, notably Bowie’s ‘Ashes to Ashes’.

The new Doctor Who looked like it was going to be somewhere inbetween. I was inordinately excited by the Peter Davison’s photo call in his bright new costume – cricket stumps on the TARDIS! – but a bit disappointed when his appearance on a float at London’s Lord Mayor’s Show revealed the continuation of the question mark branding that screamed costume-rather-than-clothes in Season 18. No tie, either; I’d have gone with a Marylebone Cricket Club number which would have added that extra touch of class.

January 1982 seemed ages away then, but a lively Panopticon 1981 convention, in which just about everyone from the Doctor Who production office turned up, together with Anthony Ainley, Janet Fielding, Sarah Sutton and Matthew Waterhouse, helped buoy things along. I’d drawn a cover for the fanzine Wheel in Space featuring a ‘Tomb’ Cyberman and I remember the new script editor, Eric Saward, commenting ‘So, you like Cybermen, then?’ Funny how that turned out…

Castrovalva
If Doctor Who had still had individual story titles in 1982, it would have been even more obvious that ‘Logopolis’ and ‘Castrovalva’ are one continuing story. If that was the case, the change of locations via the TARDIS would be seen stops on a long journey and feel natural instead of repetitive.

The back story to the Master’s use of Block Transfer Computation is lost on anyone who hadn’t seen Tom Baker’s final bow, but, for the regular audience, would have been easier to relate to after the customary five month gap between seasons. Eleven is pushing it, but in Christopher Bidmead’s defence, when he was commissioned to write ‘Castrovalva’ he probably thought Doctor Who would be back on in September 1981.

Castrovalvan society is more convincing that some ‘real’ cultures in Doctor Who – Tigella from ‘Meglos’ springs instantly to mind – which is why the twist at the end works so well. For me, the new Doctor sitting down to quietly and calmly research the history of the town (above) defines his new character.

Four To Doomsday
Terence Dudley writes extremely well for the new TARDIS quartet. Years and years before ‘The Long Game’, Tegan does what anyone would do in her situation – she completely freaks out. Nyssa responds to what’s going on with cool scientific inquiry and an outraged moral sense, while Adric is na├»ve and, not wanting to be outshone by the girls, sides with Monarch (the convincingly manipulative Stratford Johns). The new Doctor finds it hard to keep control of the disparate group, to the point where Tegan hijacks the TARDIS. That would never have happened with the omnipotent Fourth Doctor at the helm. Overall, Dudley makes you believe that having a diverse, four-strong regular cast is going to work.

Twenty months into Margaret Thatcher’s historic election victory (whichever way you look at it) in May 1979, Dudley delivers a story about a despotic leader who wants to impose a uniform surveillance culture on us and turn us all into robots (above). To paraphrase Bob Holmes, ‘Four To Doomsday’’s writer was clearly not a man with a head full of turnips.

Dudley (or script editor Antony Root) appears to have carefully considered the scheduling implications of the new twice-weekly slot too, as the cliffhangers all revolve around a major plot revelation, not simply peril or suspense. (The same was true of ‘Castrovalva’ and would continue with ‘Kinda’). It’s a skilfully crafted inducement to tune in again later in the week.

Kinda
Very unusually for Doctor Who, a positive spin on femininity is the dramatic step forward here. All the women in the story are more than one step ahead of the men, from the scientist Todd, through the natives Karuna and Panna (the ethereal Sarah Prince and Mary Morris) to a Tegan possessed by an evil spirit. Todd (Nerys Hughes, fantastically good) is presented as the intellectual equal of the Doctor. Significantly, she outwits the deranged Hindle – Simon Rouse in a truly chilling performance – at the climax, not the Doctor (above).

Previously on Doctor Who, ‘mad’ meant villains who wanted to blow up the world/conquer the Earth/galaxy/universe. Before ‘Kinda’, the series’ most mature examination of mental illness was General Carrington in ‘The Ambassadors of Death’ (1970), who nearly caused an interplanetary war because of a psychological trauma. Hindle’s problems aren’t on that epic scale and his story is more compelling because of it: he’s a fragile, ordinary man trying to act tough who has a nervous breakdown. The frightening hints about his abusive – possibly strictly religious – childhood are more terrifying than a planet full of Daleks.

If you’ve ever experienced mental health issues, you’ll know exactly how authentic ‘Kinda’’s handling of the subject is. This story increases in stature every time I watch it. It really is remarkable.

Very long term fans may have got a nostalgic, Hartnellesque pang at Nyssa being absent for most of the story but, really, it’s the first sign that having four regular cast members is a serious handicap for the writers.

The Visitation
Eric Saward has said that he hadn’t watched Doctor Who ‘for years’ before he was commissioned to write the script, and you can’t help wondering that the last story to make an impression on him was ‘Terror of the Zygons’ (1975). Both that and ‘The Visitation’ have essentially the same plot: aliens stranded on Earth use folklore to scare the locals, and you can substitute the Loch Ness Monster for augmented plague rats as ‘the ultimate weapon’. The Doctor’s chats with the Terileptil leader (Michael Melia, ably projecting a personality through layers of rubber, above) cover very similar ground to the Fourth Doctor’s conversations with Broton (John Woodnutt) in ‘Terror’.

This was the second story Davison made and his Doctor commands attention, refreshingly exasperated with moaning humans and showing the first signs of this regeneration’s sarcastic streak. The trashing of the sonic screwdriver is the signature ‘fallible Doctor’ moment, but the point is made rather better when he completely messes up the familiar Doctor Who scenario of escaping from a cell, something that would have taken Tom Baker approximately three minutes. Reinforcing the point, Adric and Tegan escape from a locked room without any help from the Doctor.

You can see why Eric was asked to stay on as Root's replacement as script editor. The first scene, with the well characterised aristocratic family led by John Savident, makes you think they’ll reappear but they don’t, a clever twist of the plot. He also writes well for the large TARDIS crew, although this does mean the period feel is left to be carried largely by one supporting role. Richard Mace (Michael Robbins, a million miles away from his most well-known part in On the Buses) does it well, and as a character is vastly preferable to the cynical military types Saward later became obsessed with.   

Black Orchid
Davison has bemoaned the lack of humour in his stories so he must have forgotten about ‘Black Orchid’. For the second time this year, Terence Dudley proves himself a real find, turning in a very funny script in which most of the humour revolves around mistaken assumptions. The mystification of Charles Cranleigh (the perfectly cast Michael Cochrane) over the location of Alzarius – ‘I never could remember all those funny Baltic bits’ – still makes me laugh out loud. Nyssa’s request for a screwdriver cocktail, neatly countered by Cranleigh’s discreet instruction ‘orange juice for the children’, is a great moment too.

Dudley again proves he has a firm hand on the Fifth Doctor and his crew. The joke about ‘the other Doctor… the Master’ (cricketing legend W.G. Grace) is spot on, as is Adric and Nyssa’s confusion over cricket. Pleasingly, all the companions get to throw some shapes, the first time that’s happened since Sarah Jane’s nimble footwork in ‘The Masque of Mandragora’ (1976).

While ‘Black Orchid’ works really well as an interlude where the main characters relax, it’s a shame that the murder story, well plotted though it is, is a bit of an afterthought. After the sophistication of ‘Kinda’, it’s downright offensive that the villain is a physically and mentally scarred man whose family keep locked in the attic, even if their attitude does fit the social context of the 1920s.

Terence Dudley’s script is neatly metaphorical on the theme of doubles, ranging from Nyssa’s physical double Anne (above, allowing Sarah Sutton to show what a good actress she is), through the mistaken identity of the Doctor’s pierrot costume to the double standards of Lady Cranleigh (Barbara Murray): she holds a ball to (presumably) raise money for disadvantaged children but is ashamed of her damaged son. Dudley’s novel of ‘Black Orchid’ – and it is a novel – is excellent too.

Earthshock
There’s no getting around it, I’m afraid: the new Cybermen (left) are the worst thing in this story. Their fussy design and alarmingly bad panto characterisation – butch voices, clenched fists and dull, repetitive conversations – completely destroys the tension director Peter Grimwade admirably creates in the scenes they’re not in. The disparity is so marked it feels like you’re flipping between two different TV shows. The Cybermen sequences are so flat, and Beryl Reid so obviously miscast as a tough space freighter captain, that from Part Two onwards ‘Earthshock’ is robbed of so much forward momentum that I wasn’t bothered about watching the rest of it. That isn’t the case with any of the other stories.

The siege of the freighter’s bridge riffs on the Cybermen’s finest moments, but as the story is so thin, for once it’s glaringly apparent how nonsensical their grand plan is. If they were going to blow up the Earth with a bomb, why are they hiding on a space freighter going there? Once the bomb was detonated, surely there’d be a complete security shutdown? And how did the Cyberbomb and its protecting androids get to Earth undetected in the first place? If ‘Earthshock’ is the first time Doctor Who put spectacle before story logic, it hasn’t worn at all well.

The story recovers some of the ominous atmosphere of Part One as the freighter approaches a collision with Earth and Adric is stranded aboard. This is the arrival of Eric Saward’s brutal universe in which those that hit the hardest win, an approach that eventually produced arguably the best Doctor Who story ever made. There’s a pleasingly grim dramatic irony in Adric dying an outsider, just like his brother Varsh (left).

At the end, there’s no comforting closing quip or fourth-wall breaking grin from the leading man at the viewers. The rest is, literally, silence as the credits roll over Adric’s smashed Badge for Mathematical Excellence. This was bold, dramatic stuff in 1982 and the climax to Part Four still packs a traumatic punch.

Time-Flight
This was the last story of the season to be made and by now Davison has completely nailed the character – in fact, he’s at the height of his powers and you can tell he’s relishing being the Doctor. Frustrated with the scepticism of the Concorde crew and Professor Hayter, forcefully challenging Kalid in his lair, his confidence crashing as he thinks the Master has finally defeated him… the highlights of Davison’s performance are many and various. It’s also good to see a cricketing reference that isn’t plot driven; there’s a lovely moment when the Doctor slips out of the TARDIS to buy a paper and check on the cricket scores.

What director turned writer Peter Grimwadeis lacks in plot coherence he makes up for with well-defined characters. Professor Hayter (Nigel Stock, left, who, from what I’ve seen, never gave a bad performance in his life) is a superbly well-realised invention, with enough unexplored potential to have inspired several novels in The New Adventures range in the 1990s. Because the Prof’s in ‘Time-Flight’, he’s been completely forgotten about. His spiky relationship with the Doctor is a delight to watch.

OK, ‘Time-Flight’’s visual reach exceeds its grasp in places – although not as many as I remembered – and imagine what it would like with the resources Doctor Who has now. Sixteen years on, I prefer ‘Time-Flight’ to ‘Earthshock’ even more.

****

Getting Tegan to Terminal 3, Nyssa’s collapse, Adric’s death – there’s looser continuity than in Season 18, perhaps, but you still get the sense of watching an unfolding narrative (rather than individual stories with no connection to each other), now purposely written as twice-weekly serial. Fan reviewers at the time bemoaned the clunky story-to-story references but completely undervalued the character development. I remember one critic casually dismissing it as ‘the Davison soap.’

Before Season 19, as Tom Baker famously noted, the regular line up in Doctor Who hardly progressed as characters at all. As far as the companions went – Ian and Barbara aside – if they got any development it was usually in their last story. In 1982, Tegan wanted to go home, found it harder to leave the TARDIS than she realised, decided to stay then, ironically, got left behind in a low-key end of season cliffhanger (left) when the Doctor accidentally got her to Heathrow. With Tegan aboard, Adric became the outsider in the crew which, in the end, had tragic consequences. Nyssa doesn’t get as much of a journey, but by ‘Time’Flight’ she’s a much more relaxed and sympathetic character than the prim aristocrat we first met in ‘The Keeper of Traken’ (1981).

Watching Season 19 in 2016, the care and detail that went into writing and performing the main characters is very striking, easily standing comparison with the modern series. More to the point, these days every popular drama series – not just Doctor Who – has the evolution of the main characters at the centre of it. It’s strange to think we ever lived in a time when that was seen as a negative thing.

Remembering my feelings about the series in 1982, I really liked ‘Castrovalva’, ‘Kinda’ and ‘Black Orchid’, but still had the nagging feeling that, no matter how good Davison was – and, right from the off, he was excellent – something was missing. As an insecure young man, perhaps subconsciously I didn’t want a fallible Time Lord who couldn’t prevent one of his friends from being killed.

With the benefit of hindsight, I now know I missed villains being trounced by intellectual, witty one-liners and a wolfish grin more than I realised.

Next Time…



Tuesday, 6 September 2016

DOCTOR WHO 1982-84 revisited

THE MEMORY CHEATS
We're enjoying the Peter Davison era of Doctor Who properly.


Peter Davison is surprised by an unexpected adversary - Eamonn
Andrews - in March 1982. (Image copyright: ITV)
















I’m really enjoying Peter Davison’s Doctor Who stories this time around. I’ve always liked him as an actor: just look at the quality of The Last Detective, Campion, Sink or Swim and, particularly, A Very Peculiar Practice. Mr. Moffet is a personable interview subject, always has interesting things to say and is very funny, as you can see in his 50th anniversary knees up The Five(ish) Doctors Reboot.

Before the family Fairclough’s current re-watch, I believed the Fifth Doctor Who had enjoyed a handful of superlative stories – the Mara tales, ‘Enlightenment’, ‘Frontios’, ‘The Caves of Androzani’, maybe ‘Black Orchid’ – but that the rest of his tenure was typical 1980s television: nice to look at but rather banal. And, I thought, PD had used Who as a quick stepping stone on to better things.

Where was I at the first time round? I’d been a member of the Doctor Who Appreciation Society since 1977. My acquaintance with the first organised Who fandom in the UK had been quite the eye opener.

One of my favourite Doctor Who pics.
(Image copyright: BBC)
Before joining, I’d liked every story although, obviously, I knew some were better than others. In the first Celestial Toyroom newsletter I received after becoming a paid up member, DWAS president Jan Vincent-Rudzki vividly bitched about how awful ‘The Deadly Assassin’ was; not the production, you understand, but the story – a betrayal of the utopian Time Lord culture we’d seen before, how the Doctor only knew his civilization’s history when it suited the plot (a fair point), etc. etc. I was so influenced by his review that I wrote a letter to the DWAS fanzine TARDIS – I wanted to join in! – that was a very jaundiced review of the next story, ‘The Face of Evil’. Imagine my confusion when I read that Mr. Rudzki liked it. I don’t think I ever sent that letter.

The opinions of others are very influential when you’re growing up; I was 13 going on 14 when I joined the DWAS. Primarily at the instigation of TARDIS ’77 TV reviewer John Peel (not that one), a tide of printed bile was initiated directed at the then current production team led by producer Graham Williams. The general consensus seemed to me to be that Doctor Who was now badly written, shoddily made and that Tom Baker was TOO SILLY. And K9 was crap.

The DWAS had been helped into existence through adverts placed in the short-lived magazine World of Horror, which printed pictures from early ‘70s Who as well as the sc-fi Gothic era of Williams’ predecessor, Philip Hinchcliffe. With hindsight, a negative reaction from the DWAS to Williams’ witty, intelligent and artistic playfulness was perhaps inevitable.

When you’re an awkward teenager – and there were a lot of us in the DWAS – you don’t like people taking the piss. When you’re told your favourite TV show is doing it… well, it was way beyond the pale.

Which was why we all liked the eighteenth season of Doctor Who: serious sci-fi concepts, serious performances, and a real visual flair in the production design and direction. When new producer John Nathan-Turner announced that Tom was leaving, we were over the proverbial moon.

Like I said, you’re very impressionable in your teens. I had a good DWAS friend who, after watching ‘Earthshock’ and for reasons that, thirty odd years later, seem far too trivial to go into now, decried JNT and all his works. Even then, ‘Earthshock’ wasn’t my favourite story of 1982, but I found the dramatic ending, with the pointless death of Adric (a much improved Matthew Waterhouse) genuinely shocking after the previously unassailable Sir Tom, Romana, K9 and co., much as I loved them.

Fans are an odd bunch, in the nicest possible way. Today, you’ll regularly find one declaring on social media ‘I’m never watching Doctor Who again!!’ after an episode goes out that doesn’t conform to his/her view of what the series should or shouldn’t be like. Another friend of mine astutely coined the term ‘powerless elite’ to describe fandoms. It’s an apt phrase, neatly summing up the fan’s dilemma: he or she might know something inside out, but rarely gets the opportunity to make or directly influence the TV series/film/novel/comic strip/band they’re so enthusiastic about. Of course, there are significant exceptions – Russell T. Davies, Steven Moffat and Chris Chibnall to name a few.

Back in the early 1980s it was a different story. The highpoint for professional fandom in those days was editing Doctor Who Monthly (and that’s still an honour a lot of fans would like to achieve). Anyway, my friend decided that JNT HAD TO GO and that Seasons 19-21 were a crashing disappointment after the promise of the 18th. I went along with him. Of course I did – I desperately wanted to fit in.

****

The traditional Annual had a new lease
of life when Peter took over.
(Rob Fairclough collection)
Watching ‘Arc of Infinity’ in September 2016 is like seeing an old friend back in rude health after a long illness. The story twists in unexpected directions, has the Davison era’s mature attitude to what motivates apparently ‘evil’ people, while Colin Baker impressively fleshes out a nothing part (in, coincidentally, the kind of role Patrick Troughton had played in ITC film series prior to his stint in Who). OK, ‘Arc’ isn’t ‘Androzani’, but there are episodes of I, Claudius that can’t match Davison’s swansong.

The performances of the regular cast 1982-84 are the equal of any throughout Who history. What particularly impresses watching Davison, Sutton, Fielding and Strickson is the intelligent subtlety in their acting. The characters have a life beyond what’s written in the script, something that’s true of great TV drama through The Power Game, Secret Army, The Singing Detective and G.B.H. on down.

As far as I can see, the promise of Season 18 wasn’t squandered. I’m very keen on how, apart from a few obvious exceptions, the Doctor’s adversaries have credible reasons for what they’re doing. On the whole, they do morally dubious things because they genuinely believe, through mental or physical illness, boredom or just being misguided, that their actions are justified – Hindle, Lon, Mawdryn, the Eternals, the Silurians, Bragen – or, and very ‘80s, this – personal or corporate greed: Ambril, Terminus Incorporated, Morgus and Sharaz Jek. The latter plot option was so successful it created a successful new narrative for 21st century Who – ‘big business is bad’.

This sophistication extends to the Brigadier, the series’ biggest 1970s icon, played as ever by the fabulous Nicholas Courtney. Yes, the Brig’s back, but he’s retired from UNIT and has had a nervous breakdown he’s in denial about. Character development like this for the commander of UNIT UK would have been unthinkable in 1975. It’s part of the refreshing vulnerability in the regular roles that begins with a young, not-taken-seriously Doctor and runs through companions that are possessed by a malign mental force, coerced into assassination and who, in one case, pleads for death because he’ll never be free of the influence of the Master (Anthony Ainley, above left, on generally fine, grotesque form).

It feels like I’m watching Peter Davison as Doctor Who for the first time.

Actually – we are.

The 1982-84 TARDIS crew back together at the BFI in 2013,
with Graeme Harper (far left) and Justin Johnson.
(Image copyright: BFI)


Friday, 22 July 2016

STRANGER THINGS review

YOUR NEW FAVOURITE TV SERIES
'Why do you want to build a sensory deprivation tank?' 'Fun?'


A mash up of Spielberg, King, Carpenter and Repo Man (1984).
(Image copyright: Netflix)














I love it when a TV series seems to come out of nowhere and captures everyone’s imagination. This month that’s been the case with Netflix’s Stranger Things, created by the unlikely sounding partnership of The Duffer Brothers.

Rather charmingly, it’s a mash up of Steven Spielberg’s movies ET – The Extra-Terrestrial (1982, cute misfit kids racing about on bikes, involved with a strange outsider), John Carpenter’s 1980s film oeuvre, the horror novelist Stephen King – a character is seen reading one of his books in one scene – with a dash of Richard Donner’s The Goonies (1985, a misfit kids’ gang again) and Repo Man (1984): disaffected teenagers mixed up with sinister government types trying to suppress the leak of a paranormal conspiracy.

Appropriately, at the heart of the series are two iconic 1980s actors. Matthew Modine (Married to the Mob, Birdy, Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket) is glacially cool, amoral scientist Dr. Martin Brenner, complete with white hair and sharp three-piece suit, looking like Christopher Walken in A View to a Kill (1985 – C.W. was the best thing in that film, incidentally). Winona Ryder (Beetlejuice, Heathers, Great Balls of Fire!), as neurotic mum Joyce Byers, is clearly going for an Emmy and deservedly so.

There’s also brilliant newbie on the scene (new to me, anyway). David Harbour’s Lee Marvin-voiced Sheriff Hopper, simmering with a troubled history and on medication, is not above beating up suspects to get information.

Give him his own series.

As for the angelic Millie Bobby Brown playing the abused ‘Eleven’… the range of emotion she projects through minimal facial expressions is extraordinary.

Stranger Things is ‘1980s’ in a lot less shouty way than Ashes to Ashes (2008-2010), a relatively recent series also set at the beginning of the decade. For instance, part of solving the mystery is based around photographs that have to be manually developed, instead of using a conspicuously ‘80s angle like, say, the technology on the Space Shuttle or referencing a programme on the new Disney channel. Elsewhere, the musical tastes of Jonathan Byers (Charlie Heaton) include The Clash and Joy Division – well researched, very early ‘80s indie – that are selectively and dramatically used, rather than plastered all over the soundtrack.

The storytelling is clear and unpretentious; accordingly, the cinematography is lit in a very ‘80s way, alternatively washed out, garish or murky. The use of three generations – kids, teens and adults – to tell the story is a simple idea that works fantastically well, often to great comic effect. This is particularly true of the gang of Mike (Finn Wolfhard - really), Dustin (Gaten Matarazzo) and Lucas (Caleb McLaughlin), as they compare the strange happenings to Dungeons and Dragons or Star Wars. Pleasingly, the outsiders in every generation emerge as the heroes, another Spielbergian theme.

Stranger Things runs to eight episodes, so you could devour it one binge sitting. All the threads of the story are satisfyingly tied up, but like all good script writers the Duffers have left the way open for more. I almost hope the series’ production team resists the temptation, as these eight episodes are almost perfect.

Still, I’d be more than happy be happy to enjoy the company of Hopper, Mike, Joyce and co. second time around.

Wednesday, 6 July 2016

DOCTOR WHO - SEASON 18 revisited

LET'S GET SERIOUS
An epic ramble through Tom Baker's final year. It's been well worth it.

'Nothing like this has ever happened before.'













Tom Baker’s final series over 1980-81 was a personally significant one for me. I hadn’t missed an episode since 1972, which was quite a feat in the days before home video recorders. The fourth episode of ‘Meglos’, on Saturday 18 October 1980, was the turning point.

That was the night Scottish glam punkers The Skids, my second favourite band – The Stranglers were first, and still are – played the University of East Anglia in nearby Norwich. I’d organised a minibus full of Sixth Formers, of which I was one, to go and see them, leaving an anxious Mum in charge of audio recording ‘Meglos’ Part 4. In short, to paraphrase Tom, that summer I’d discovered the pubs, women and music.

Building up all Tom’s stories on DVD again and the recent, mammoth interview with the lad himself in Doctor Who Magazine have put me in a nostalgic mood. Despite the lure of what used to be called ‘going out’, I remained very active in Doctor Who fandom in the early ‘80s. In any case, the PanoptiCons, the annual conventions the Doctor Who Appreciation Society organised, were basically excuses for everyone to get drunk, if you were lucky get laid, and talk all night about television and films.

In 1980, we fans were throwing welcoming garlands of praise at the feet of incoming producer John Nathan-Turner and 1981’s PanoptiCon felt like his canonisation. The stories looked great (translation: expensive), Tom’s Eric-Morecambe-in-space capering had been toned down and THE CHARACTERS MENTIONED OLD STORIES! Can you imagine how impossibly exciting that was in the days before commercial VHS and DVD collections going back to 1963? There was an air of intellectualism and visual inventiveness about the series, the Master was back and, the crowning glory, there was a dynamic new Doctor waiting in the wings.

Reflecting fifty plus years on from all that, Season 18 initially feels as if it was designed to appeal to young men uncomfortable in their adolescence (exhibit A: the first new companion, Adric) and uncomfortable in their love for Doctor Who, which had been through a rough time in the media since the arrival of Star Wars. Rightly or wrongly, those same serious young male fans had considered the series progressively ‘silly’, so JNT – as he soon became known – and his new script editor, computer journalist Christopher H. Bidmead, had done something about it.

With a decent budget, more stories and what we now have to call a ‘story arc’ about the Heat Death of the universe, Season 18 may have been great at the time, but how does it stand up today? After all, Graham Williams’ three series were almost universally maligned by fandom at the time and look at their reputation – rightfully rehabilitated, in my opinion – today. Roll VT...

The Leisure Hive
The startling, filmic direction of ‘The Leisure Hive’ builds an environment rather than navigates the viewer around an atmospheric BBC TV studio. For instance, you initially wonder why the camera is dwelling on the silent Klout, who doesn’t seem at all important. The reasoning becomes clear later on, a technique common in movies. It might not have been the first time this had been done in Doctor Who, but it fits with director Lovett Bickford’s novel, (mostly) carefully considered vocabulary of tracking shots, low angles that show the sets have ceilings, tight close ups, fast cuts and crash zooms. The cliffhanger to Part 1 is still fantastic, as the decapitated Doctor swallows the screen and the closing titles’ star field appears to be taking the viewer down his throat.

As you’d expect from David Fisher, there’s a credibly realised alien society. Following a trend in Season 17, there’s also a clever plot about the subversion of commerce, as well as allusions to Greece and Rome, together with a discreet inter-species love story – Mina (Adrienne Cori, above right) and Hardin (Nigel Lambert). There’s a nice touch of dramatic irony, too: Pangol (David Haig, above left), the only child of a civilization ruined by war, making amends through a community that promotes inter-racial understanding, is a xenophobic war monger. The nicely underplayed point, that the lessons of history can be forgotten or distorted, for me sadly resonates even more today.

It’s also the only story where you’ll see the Doctor knock out a guard using mathematics. Watch it now and you can easily see Bidmead punching the air and shouting ‘Yes!’

Meglos
Parts of ‘Meglos’ are the worst Doctor Who story written up to this point in the series’ history. It’s become fashionable to affectionately dismiss the serial as a Doctor Who Annual story that somehow got on to television, but that really isn’t good enough. If the script editor had been doing his job properly, the clunky expository dialogue between the inhabitants of Tigella, where they explain their own society to each other, would never have made it past the first draft. You can’t believe it’s from the typewriter of the same guy who edited ‘The Leisure Hive’.

Then again, writers John Flanagan and Andrew McCulloch are more interested in having fun with the malevolent, shape shifting cactus of the title and the marauding Gaztak mercenaries of General Grugger (Bill Fraser, above left). This is where the story comes to life, and Tom is clearly having a ball playing a power mad egomaniac.

The unexplored potential here – a parasitic race that can manipulate time and build super weapons that become worshipped – makes you realise why JNT considered bringing Meglos back.

Full Circle
There’s no doubt about it, Matthew Waterhouse (far left) was the wrong choice to play Adric. Either Richard Willis (Varsh) or Bernard Padden (Tylos), playing the other young rebels, would have been preferable. I’ll go further – Waterhouse was the worst choice of actor ever for a leading role in Doctor Who. He just didn’t have enough acting experience. The casting was a seriously questionable decision, but, from what I can remember, fandom at the time was largely in denial about it because they’d got everything else they wanted.

Anticipating the 21st century stories, ‘Full Circle’ is notable for having no villain, but if there is one it’s the concept of the Starliner ruling elite’s blind adherence to propaganda and meaningless procedure – ironically, falsehoods that hold their society together. The character journey of Login (George Baker) follows this rather beautifully, as the most respected man in the community joins the government, slowly has his belief in it destroyed and then finds his own path. Who says Andrew Smith was an inexperienced writer?  The brilliant scene where the Doctor demolishes Starliner society in one confrontation confirms otherwise.

Notably, the opening scene between the Doctor and Romana in the TARDIS may be inspired by continuity, but the economy of the closing dialogue speaks volumes about the characters: ‘You can’t fight Time Lords, Romana.’ ‘You did – once.’ ‘Yes – and lost.’ I bet Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffat wish they’d written that. I wish I’d written that.

State of Decay
The investigate/get locked up/get rescued structure of ‘State of Decay’ is really noticeable after the first three stories went so far away from the old formula.

What makes the story work are the performances. Tom and Lalla Ward (Romana) are at the top of their respective games, two chummy intellectuals who don’t seem too worried about being lost in another universe. In his first recorded story even Matthew Waterhouse isn’t too bad – he doesn’t do much – and I much prefer the original conception of the character as an amoral chancer, which they’d perfect a couple of years later with Turlough (Mark Strickson). Aukon (Emrys James), Camilla (an unrecognisable Rachel Davies) and Zargo (the brilliant William Lindsay – whatever happened to him?) as the vampires (above) are notable for being so deliberately and enjoyably theatrical, though modern viewers might find the baroque acting style a bit hard to take.

For the record, this is the first ‘classic’ Doctor Who young Poppy watched all the way through with us. She loved K9 and Tom Baker but declared the flight of the Hydrax scout ship ‘really fake.’ Don’t worry, love, it’s OK – we thought that at the time.

Warriors’ Gate
Stephen Gallagher’s script is the definitive example of how mature the writing is this year. Throughout, Romana does all the Doctoring, confronting the crew of Captain Rorvik (the peerless Clifford Rose), empathising with the Tharils and rescuing her companions, so that by the end of the story it’s logical that she leaves to effectively become the Doctor, with K9 and her own embryonic TARDIS (above). Significantly, the same idea’s not spelt out with a flashing neon sign and the sledgehammer subtlety the way it would be 34 years later in ‘Hell Bent’.

This time around, ‘Warriors’ Gate’ is my favourite story of 1980-81. It’s a fantastic combination of an articulate, esoteric script and a director pushing for a truly innovative form of visual storytelling.

Paul Joyce isn’t attempting to direct the story either just as a movie or just as a piece of atmospheric, videoed theatre: his approach uses the best elements of both, at the same time ignoring the naturalistic conventions of TV drama. The white void is a blank canvas and the monochrome gardens of the Tharils’ stately home clearly aren’t meant to be ‘real’. The only reality here is the slack workforce of the Privateer, a wonderful, underplayed satire on British industry circa 1979. It’s been said before, but it was a huge loss to Doctor Who that the iconoclastic Joyce was never used again.

The Keeper of Traken
Pleasingly it looks, and in places sounds, like a particularly stylish National Theatre production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which I guess is the point, what with the lyrical metaphor of weeds in the garden representing evil. Here we have a liberal, humane culture that, almost imperceptibly, becomes authoritarian, violent and xenophobic. The more things change, eh?

What’s lovely about these stories is that supporting characters have complete narratives of their own: Mina and Hardin’s love story, Grugger and Brotadac’s alliance of convenience with Meglos, Login’s discovery of the sham of Starliner society, Ivo’s feud with Habris in ‘State of Decay’, Aldo and Royce’s fatalistic malingering in ‘Warriors’ Gate’ and, in ‘The Keeper of Traken’, the rise of the corrupt Proctor Neman (Roland Oliver, above) which can only end badly for him. This isn’t unique in Doctor Who by any means, but the care with which it’s done in Season 18 is quite striking. With that in mind, Sarah Sutton’s Nyssa stands out a mile in a strong cast, so it’s not surprising she was asked to stay on.

Logopolis
Barry Letts was Executive Producer on Season 18 and I do wonder how much influence he had on Tom’s final story. In looking forward, ‘Logopolis’ casts more than a backward glance at Letts’ tenure: the TARDIS inside a TARDIS, a Master who resembles Roger Delgado, a future regeneration of a Time Lord, the Doctor’s last-minute alliance with his nemesis, a death plunge from a radio telescope… you can also detect his hand in the creation of Tegan (Janet Fielding), a young career woman who stows away aboard the TARDIS. It’s a continuity fest that, with hindsight, was an ominous sign of things to come. That said, it’s a shame they didn’t keep enough money back for a stunt fall like the remarkable one at the end of ‘Terror of the Autons’.

Everything’s stripped back for 'the universe isn't big enough for the two of them' show down between the Doctor and the Master and, this time, Anthony Ainley’s darkly camp take on the character is both refreshing and genuinely sinister.

‘Logopolis’ is a combination of funereal gravitas and threadbare production values, which is somehow appropriate for the epitaph of a Doctor who saw out the 1970s. A whole generation of children hadn’t known any Doctor before Tom, which the story treats very seriously, so much so that his famous grin is barely seen until the regeneration, fittingly enough. He was a bit Woodstock, a bit New Wave and defined Doctor Who like no other actor before or since.

In conclusion…

If you want to look at Season 18 within the wider folklore of the series, the End of the Universe in ‘Logopolis’ might be the ‘eternal chaos’ predicted by the White Guardian in 1978’s ‘The Ribos Operation’, the prevention of which never happened because the Doctor dispersed the Key to Time. As the Black Guardian (left) appears at the end of the clips of Fourth Doctor enemies bellowing ‘DOCTOR, YOU SHALL DIE FOR THIS!’ just before he falls to his death, the idea fits. Perhaps the ‘galactic hobo with ideas above his station’ casually dismissed in ‘The Leisure Hive’ wins after all.

Cosmetically, the star field titles haven’t dated as much as I thought they would, probably because they had such an influence on the title designers of the BBC Wales series. The completely radiophonic music is a breath of fresh air – considered, atmospheric, unusual and evocative, far from the generic synth pap it would become when budgets were cut. It’s only in the Gothic stylings of ‘State of Decay’ that the new music doesn’t really work. Long-time traditional composer Dudley Simpson’s marimba is sorely missed.

Summing up, I can’t think of any other series in Doctor Who’s long history where the non-Terran civilizations are so well thought out and diverse. The TARDIS only touches Earth at the beginning and the end of the series and, for once, it’s the least interesting location the Doctor’s ship visits. He only encounters humans or human descendants four times (and that’s assuming the crew of the Privateer are human). The production team should rightly take a bow for such a concerted effort to stay away from Earth. After this, it was a quick slip back into human-featuring or Earth-set stories; by the 21st century, the TARDIS was returning there with monotonous regularity and the buggers had overrun the galaxy.

Behind all the accurate but dull scientific terminology – which, despite what Chris Bidmead might protest, might as well be made up – it’s the conceptual cleverness of Season 18 that impress and inspires today. The Argolins’ Experiential Grid, Meglos’s time loop, the Mistfall evolutionary cycle, the Great Vampire’s planetary bolt hole, the Privateer, the Gateway, the Keepership of Traken, Logopolis… every story has at least one brilliant science fiction idea. ‘The Leisure Hive’, ‘Full Circle’ and ‘Warriors’ Gate’ are packed with them.

This series is a thrilling collision of ‘serious’ science fiction concepts and artistic experimentation. One thing that’s particularly noticeable, watching the stories back, is Bidmead’s fascination with the lies and anarchy lurking beneath the thin skin of civilised society, a theme he’d return to in both ‘Castrovalva’ and ‘Frontios’.

If Season 18 proved anything, though, it was that JNT was only as good as his script editors. It’s very significant that Bidmead asked for a 30% pay rise and when he was turned down, he left.

Phew! That was fun.

And in case you were still wondering, The Skids were fantastic. And still are.

All images: copyright BBC