Here’s to the Future: Re-Evaluating Delta and the Bannermen

Delta and the Bannermen was the first three-part story of Sylvester McCoy’s debut season. A format relatively untried in the show’s history and necessitated by the cut back to 14 episodes a year imposed in 1986; with this mix of three- and four-part stories, a season could still comprise four separate adventures. For each of Doctor Who’s last three years in the ’80s, both three-parters would be assigned to the same director, with one show filmed on primarily on location and the other studio-bound.

Delta was directed by Chris Clough, a veteran of the previous year’s epic The Trial of a Time Lord, where he had helmed the final six episodes of the run.

The show was all filmed on location in Wales, save for a few in-TARDIS scenes, and while the country would be destined to be the future home of Doctor Who production, it was chosen in this instance primarily for the site of a period Butlins style holiday camp at Barry Island.

Beginning at the tail end of what looks to have been a climatic battle between the green alien Chimerons and the ostensibly human Bannermen, we follow the sole survivor of the fracas, the humanoid Chimeron queen, Delta as she escapes with a precious cargo, vowing that her people will survive.

Meanwhile, the Doctor and Mel arrive at an interstellar toll-port. They land, wondering why the place looks deserted, and are greeted in extraordinary fashion by the eccentric toll attendant who informs them they’ve won the Grand Prize as the 10 millionth customers. With Mel taking up the prize, despite the Doctor’s misgivings, she boards a coach-shaped ‘Nostalgia Trips’ spaceship along with a bunch of Navarino holidaymakers who are bound for Disneyland in 1969. As late arrival Delta joins their party, the Doctor looks on and then follows in the TARDIS. Meanwhile, the Bannerman and their leader, Gavrok are in hot pursuit.

The coach impacts with an early 1960’s low earth satellite during the trip and goes out of control. Thanks to assistance from the TARDIS, the holidaymakers survive but Disneyland is off the menu… in favour of Welsh Holiday camp Shangri-La.

It is still early days for Sylvester and the Doctor’s mixed idioms are still going strong here. Yet he is more than just a bumbler and shows some steel, going in alone to face down Gavrok, challenging the assertion that ‘might is right’. There is plenty of motorcycle chasing and a little physical comedy to keep him busy here too, though in all honesty I don’t think I could imagine any other Doctor riding pillion on the back of a scooter!

Bonnie Langford’s Mel remains underused, as she often was, but plays well with Sylvester. She certainly throws herself into the holiday mood, dancing with Murray the bus driver and rooming with Delta at the camp. Arguably, Mel is most at home here than in other tales of the era – her over-the-top vibrancy and thirst for fun apt for the setting.

Meanwhile, Don Henderson gives his all to a part that calls for evil without any apparent motivation. Gavrok is vile and merciless but surrounded by bumbling henchmen, making him somewhat of a cartoon villain; his swift dispatch of the bounty hunter at the start of Part Two sets out his stall as irredeemably nasty.

Delta herself really does not do much as alien queen. Despite starting out shooting and running from Gavrok in the opening scenes, Belinda Mayne’s role is swiftly reduced to being looked after by Billy and caring for her child, though she does coolly shoot a Bannerman dead at one point as the princess goes into the ‘singing time’. Though not terribly alien in manner, just a little posh and offhand, she does appear to be mildly telepathic and is able to be contacted by bees, an astounding fact that no-one seems to challenge!

Her romantic interest, David Kinder’s Billy, is a bit of a chump, though he does seem to have a bearable singing voice. Falling swiftly for her, he fails to see the adorable Ray as a potential love interest. One question remains though: if Ray grew up with Billy, presumably locally, where is his Welsh accent? Sara Griffiths’ Ray is difficult not to enjoy (ignoring the dodgy accent) and seems a natural fit with McCoy’s Doctor, supplanting Mel for some of the action. Playing the unrequited love for Billy brings us on side quickly, and I adored her wide-eyed reaction to everything. She is frankly thrilled with the fact that the bounty hunter was ionised, and appears to tell everyone she meets!

The wonderful Richard Davies creates a real character in holiday camp manager Burton, and is great value with his military approach and unflappable attitude. That said, it is always been a disappointment when a character has to be convinced by a look in the TARDIS; it feels like a cop-out, especially as we do not get to enjoy his reaction, save for a line, as he exits the craft.

Whilst Ken Dodd’s colourful appearance is brief, it’s not so terrible and perhaps just verging on the annoying in places. This was the era of John Nathan-Turner’s stunt casting, and it appears acting ability was not necessarily a prerequisite as long as it raised the profile of the show. That said, I wonder if we truly needed to see him shot in the back? It is not as though we were in any doubt of Gavrok’s nastiness at that point.

The enigmatic beekeeper, Goronwy is a great turn by Hugh Lloyd, and could have done with far more screen time as he’s just so watchable. His bee analogies for the Chimerons are fun, if laid on a little thick, and you can’t help but think that he knows more than he lets on. Billy and Ray seems to instantly trust him and I can’t help thinking if there was supposed to be a connection there that got lost in translation. Lloyd, a veteran of Hancock’s Half Hour, is one piece of stunt casting that I wouldn’t dream of challenging.

Hawk and Weismuller, the US agents, are played by American comedy legend Stubby Kaye and Morgan Deare. An amusing double act, but ultimately, they’re the comic relief and don’t add much to the story except a bit of colour. On occasion, they seem to lay the plot on pretty thickly too. The other great comedy turn is Murray the inept pilot and tour leader (Johnny Dennis), who gets some nice scenes with the Doctor covering his attempts to fix the bus.

It is abundantly clear that this is a light-hearted romp and not too serious a story, so space and time tourism in a coach is accepted as par for the course, along with plenty of chase-around motorcycle action and period sounding musical cues to boot. Despite that, the story does have a darker edge, dealing with the genocide of a species and featuring the mass murder of a group of harmless, if mildly annoying, alien holidaymakers.

What troubles me is the amount of back story we are left to guess at, as we remain in the dark over the Bannermen’s motivation. They’re at war with the Chimerons, intent on wiping them out, but over what? Is it purely a racist, anti-green thing? The Bannermen come off as a kind of space mafia, so might there be a financial dimension? Meanwhile, Delta’s baby has an innate defence from birth, with her cooing that swiftly develops into that piercing scream. How long has this war been going on? Has there been some genetic manipulation to create an effective weapon?

There is plenty to be said for the location setting, and it is so typically Doctor Who to promise Disneyland and deliver Butlins. The holiday camp looks suitably grim and the costumes are great. The opening scenes are quite impressive too. Yes, it’s another quarry, but it looks like there’s been quite a bloody battle!

Part One’s cliffhanger is superb, with the Doctor and Ray trapped amid the laundry with the bounty hunter, Keillor (Bryan Hibbard of the a Capella group, The Flying Pickets) as he tells them that killing’s not just his job, but also something he enjoys.

The Bannermen themselves are not so well realised; they aren’t terribly menacing and have a tendency to stick their tongues out in a bizarre victory celebration. Dressed head to toe in black, their impact is somewhat lessened by the banners themselves which seem to serve no purpose, sticking up from the back of the costumes. On the plus side, it is nice to see those Earthshock trooper’s helmets getting another outing. Whilst appearing to be typically rotten shots, they do manage to hit a moving motorbike with a tracker and blow the heck out of Gorowny’s house in Part Three.

Effects have stood the test of time reasonably well. Delta’s green alien baby is suitably grotesque. It is soon substituted for a small human one in a rather obvious hooded babygrow though and develops at an alarming rate, ending up as a near adolescent by the story’s end after a rapid succession of young actresses.

The tale wraps up well with a feel-good ending – except for poor old Gavrok, who nearly gets stung to death by Goronwy’s bees. Billy is off to a brave new alien future, and let’s pass off the potential problems he has set himself up for by ingesting metamorphic alien foodstuffs, let alone seeking to mate with a silver-egg-laying Queen, no matter how good she looks in a white jumpsuit.

Period style music and some songs give a good feel to the show, with composer Keff McCulloch even taking to the stage with a band for Part One’s dance scenes. These days, pop music with vocals is not entirely uncommon in the show. In 1987, it was virtually unheard of and I recall being shocked at the time to have lyrics sung towards the end on the incidental track. However “Here’s to the future, Love is the answer” fits well and suits the optimistic tone at the end of the tale.

The DVD release holds a fascinating ‘first edit’ of Part One, with some earlier TARDIS scenes between Mel and the Doctor revealing that they’re suspicious of the Tollbooth being in virtual darkness and this makes sense of the line about space pirates. Also, this cut has no sound effects or incidental music, making for a fascinating object lesson in how much they add to a television programme. There is also an audio commentary by director, Chris Clough and script editor, Andrew Cartmel, plus Sylvester McCoy and Sara Griffiths (Ray). It is an entertaining listen, if providing little that is new.

Cartmel does address Ray’s companion potential and restates the well-known anecdote that both Ray and Sophie Aldred’s Ace from the subsequent Dragonfire were devised to potentially fill the gap left by the departing Bonnie Langford. While I would not seek to challenge the decision made, as Ace was a superb foil for McCoy and Sophie Aldred a tremendous off-screen supporter of the show, it is interesting to ponder how things might have worked out differently. While Ray would have perhaps been a good fit, I fear she would not have been worldly enough for the show and would have needed to do some growing up fast.

Delta and the Bannermen was written at a time of transition for the show, for an unknown Doctor. To that end, it is lightweight comic book fare with Sylvester still finding his way and somewhat overshadowed by the guest cast. In its favour, there are some good performances, a great cast, and a more than liberal sprinkling of nostalgia mixed with a picturesque location setting. After a couple of less than successful shows, Delta, for me, was the proof that there was a future for the show.