(Robert) Holmes Under The Hammer

Judging by that title you’d expect this to be all about how wicked (in all senses) ol’ Bob Holmes’s Doctor Who stories were influenced by Hammer Horror films. Wrong!

It’s not quite that straightforward, because Holmes wasn’t a simple writer of gruesome gothic tales. He gave us the colourful ideas-driven Carnival of Monsters, the sci-fi-sword-and-sorcery of The Time Warrior, heist fantasy comedy The Ribos Operation; he even gave us (without anyone asking) The Krotons

What unites all his stories (even in its absence) is death! Death! Death! Bob practically invented the condition to liven up the show. OK, so there’s always been killing in Doctor Who. I mean, in the very first story, the Doctor was just a schoolteacher’s clench away from braining a caveman with a boulder…

But until Bob came it was mostly run-of-the-mill shootings, stabbings and monster munching. Holmes brought a certain style, black humour, gore and grandeur to death in Doctor Who. You could say he brought death to life, and here’s how…

Mass murder through the menswear window

Up to this point in Who, there had been attacks on planet Earth, and in most cases it had been monsters versus soldiers (cf. The War Machines, The Web of Fear, The Invasion). The classic scene in Spearhead from Space Episode Four when the Autons break through the shop window is justifiably lauded, celebrated for the Auton’s creepy shop window awakening.

What follows that initial jolt is even more frightening: ordinary people, shopping, waiting for buses, cycling in strange hats… all mercilessly killed. The slaughter starts with a hapless policeman being gunned down. Then you basically see your gran, your mum, your aunty, your dad, your older brother and sister all casually slaughtered in the street by unstoppable automatons, with no hope of rescue from cops or soldiers. Even the Doctor is hauled up in the lab: ‘It’s started,’ he says, then goes back to fiddling with his instruments. You’re on your own, kids. Thanks Uncle Bob, we just spilled Tizer all over our jam sandwiches and copies of Whizzer and Chips

Nowadays nearly every new Who series finale attempts to ape the shock of Holmes’s shopping centre massacre. But, interestingly, Bob never did. After Spearhead, death became more personal, more bloody, more inventive, and more macabre…

Putting the laughter back in slaughter

Terror of the Autons is Holmes let off the leash. It’s chock-full of new and innovative ways to murder folk. And the scene of minor character George McDermott’s execution is a case in point. He’s not central to the plot. His death has no real consequence in the story. He’s just there to show what a heartless b*stard the Master is.

This blackly comic scene of a middle manager suffocated by an inflatable plastic chair in his office is awarded an extraordinary two-and-a-half minutes of screen time. And you can imagine Holmes dreaming up the punchline with a hoot, spraying whisky-and-soda over his Hermes 3000: ‘Sylvia, will you check Mister McDermott’s entitlement on termination of employment, please?’ The line delivered with deadpan finesse in the show by Michael Wisher as the younger Farrell.

While he (and the entire Who production team) were forced to reign in the butchery as the result of a House of Lords debate on TV violence prompted by the serial, Holmes never lost his love of the Grand Guignol (with a guffaw).

See also: Ernie Clements, the bumbling poacher crushed between two mummies in Pyramids of Mars, Marcus Scarman’s instant death after his joyous exclamation, ‘I’m free, free at last!’ in the same story, the Chinese Tong gasping for his last breath – poisoned by a Janis Thorn – while the Doctor asks, ‘Were you trying to attract my attention?’ in Talons of Weng-Chiang

Probably the best example is the fate of poor Joseph Buller, his drowned corpse unceremoniously fished from the Thames with a boat hook (in Talons too). It could have been a poignant scene, but naughty Ol’ Bob couldn’t resist the action being accompanied by the commentary of a toothless hag, spouting cod Victoriana. ‘On my oath,’ she says. ‘You wouldn’t want that served with onions. Never seen anything like it in all my puff. Oh, make an ‘orse sick, that would…’ Genius, Bob. Bad, bad genius.

Death by Makka Pakka

Terror of the Autons doll

A small sub genre of Holmes’s slaying-with-a-smile is the killing of innocent people by cheerie dolls. In Terror, the Autons don disturbing giant happy face masks, straw boaters, and blazers to distribute deadly daffodils. Mr Sin in Talons is another example; a ventriloquist dummy with a strange man/child voice that leaps out of baskets and tries to stab you in your nightgown.

But, for me, the most terrifying is the plastic troll doll in Terror that kills the older Mr Farrell in his favourite armchair while perusing the Financial Times. This is mostly because having watched with my kids the extraordinary Cbeebies children’s classic, In The Night Garden, the doll looks startlingly similar to the Garden’s strange cave-dwelling creature, Makka Pakka.

‘Makka Pakka, akka wakka, mikka makka moo…’ In case you think I’ve taken to headbutting my keyboard, theses strange utterances are, in fact, the words of Makka Pakka’s theme song. Which is sung by latter day Master himself, Sir Derek Jacobi. Coincidence? Muah, ha, ha, ha…

Doctor death!

The Ribos Operation 4th Fourth Romana Tom Baker Mary Tamm

‘Good heavens, what on Earth do you take me for?’ eclaims the Third Doctor when Sarah-Jane suggests he is using poisonous gas to drive off attacking soldiers – a line taken from the Holmes-penned Time Warrior. But Bob’s vision of the Doctor is not quite the ‘never cruel or cowardly’ figure, as described by Terrance Dicks, and adopted as the benchmark in new Who.

In fact, he’s quite happy to gas the bad guys if they get in his way. Firstly using cyanide in gas form to bump off Mehendri Solon in The Brain of Morbius, then employing his same favourite poison a few regenerations later, when the Sixth Doctor uses some to suffocates Shockeye of the Quawncing Grig in The Two Doctors. And the Doctor can’t resist a graveyard quip after the dirty deed. ‘Your just deserts,’ he jokes. Then a bit later, when he could have taken a more measured view of the killing, the Doctor says, ‘He’s been, er, mothballed.’ Doctor, you kill me…

And on top of that, Holmes also shows the Fourth Doctor deliberately offing the Graff Vynda-K in The Ribos Operation. Not yet displaying his more enlightened later views on mental illness (as seen in Vincent and the Doctor), our hero uses slight of hand to deposit an explosive on the Graff’s person. In his emerging madness, the Graff unknowingly detonates the device, dispatching himself in the process. Okay, so the Doctor didn’t press the button, but he knew the barmy Vynda-K would. Why didn’t the Doc defuse the bomb when he had it in his possession? From what we know, he’s a bit of a clever clogs when it comes to technology… Nah, blow up the loony. Who’ll miss him?

Gone with a woof

Meg Seeley Spearhead from Space

So this doesn’t count as a death trope the Holmes regularly employs. He only uses it once. But it’s makes the list because it’s hilarious. Spearhead From Space is one of the most classy, well put-together Doctor Who stories of all time. Cast, direction, music, effects, and script combine to create classic Who of the highest order.

So what the flippin heck happened when they came to dub the sound of a dog dying in episode three…?

‘Oh, be quiet, Barney. Stop that row,’ says Meg Seeley. She’s meant to be addressing an off-screen hound, but it sounds to me like she’s rebuking her dim-witted son Barney for his unconvincing doggie impressions. Why didn’t they put on the LP, BBC Animal Sounds Volume II (repressed in 2012 and available from all questionable vinyl stores now), and select track 26: ‘Realistic dog bark then strangulation, performed by an actual dog.’ Arf, arf, arf, arf, meew, meew, meew… thump.

Surely this is a clear case for a 21st Century DVD makeover, using the vocal talents of Nick Briggs to record a more satisfactory demise for beloved Barney? They could call it the ‘Flogging a dead dog’ Spearhead From Space Special Edition…

(Nearly) everybody lives!

The Ultimate Foe Sixth 6th Colin Baker

But it’s not all death, death, and more disturbing death from Bob. He penned a number of stories where very few (particularly in Doctor Who terms) people were killed at all. Only the scheming Kalik and Orum fail to make it to the curtain call in Carnival of Monsters, and their deaths are off-screen. Similarly, only bumbling Irongron and solo Sontaran Linx are bumped off in The Time Warrior.

But in a strange quirk, the Doctor Who writer renowned for his inventive and brutal methods of reducing the cast list, failed to kill anyone off in his final script, the first part of The Ultimate Foe (or the 13th episode of Trial of A Time Lord depending on preference/ pedantry).

It’s a cruel and sad irony – that black humour-loving Bob may have chuckled at – that the only person to cop-it facing The Ultimate Foe was the author himself. Before Pip and Jane Baker came along and massacred the whole story. ‘Make an ‘orse sick, that would…’

Sleep tight children…

(Yes, I probably should have given this article a different headline. But I liked it. So kill me.)