Reviewed: Doctor Who Season 6 – All the Strange, Strange Creatures

There’s a scene not far from the end of The War Games where the Doctor makes a phone call. It’s not exactly a phone call – it’s a telepathic link, established with a curious ritual involving a self-assembling cube – but the consequence of this singular moment would ultimately change Doctor Who forever. The Doctor is a prodigal son who is wallowing amongst his own metaphorical swine, and who has no choice but to return home with his tail between his legs; nonetheless, his attempts to cut and run do not go to plan, and there are consequences. For the first time – and not for the last – we realise that the Time Lords are people to be feared.

Thomas Wolfe wrote that you can’t go home again, and it’s easy to see why the Doctor didn’t want to. There is a galaxy of delights out there and the Time Lords are content to sit at home thumbing through the brochure, while the Doctor is off backpacking. This state of affairs wouldn’t last, but we got to see a few more of these delights in Season 6, which ran for 44 weeks from August 1968 to June 1969 – somewhere between Rosemary’s Baby and the moon landing – encompassing 7 stories, which range from dreary to outright wonderful. It serves as a last hurrah on a number of levels – both for Patrick Troughton’s Second Doctor and his companions, and for the space-bound nature of the show, which would take a back seat in the next decade, at least for a while.

“It’s sliding down the console. Wipe it away, quickly.”

First up is The Dominators, which opens with an argument between two angry, round-shouldered, and likely impotent men. They’re trying to work out whether the locals would make decent slave labour, and, while there is an obvious hierarchy between them, you get the feeling it won’t always be respected. We then cut to a society of laid-back tourists who dress like they’re on their way to a Greek costume party. It is a full 8 minutes before the Doctor shows up: once he does, the story shifts gears, from ‘plodding’ all the way up to ‘meandering’. The handiwork of two writers (Mervyn Haisman and Henry Lincoln, in their final outing for Who), The Dominators famously lost a week when it was deemed there was too little content for 6 episodes. It’s understandable, given that there’s barely enough for 5; at the risk of sounding churlish, you can essentially reduce the entire script to a single scene where Rago bellows “STOP DESTROYING THINGS!” while a Quark flaps its arms.

I mean, it just isn’t very good, really, is it? There is a kind of innocent charm about the Quarks, and Cully makes for a winning sidekick, but it’s hard to care about the sanguine culture of Dulkis and its cheery inhabitants, particularly when they’re all so insular. There are some interesting discussions about the possibility of alien life, but most of it’s filler while we’re waiting for Jamie to crawl out from another pile of wreckage somewhere. The Dominators is arguably most famous (at least in the UK) for the inclusion of Brian Cant, who pops in to deliver a brief monologue that is the model of calm serenity, just before he’s killed off. Can we be next, Brian?

“Where should I put the spare Quark head?”

“Has the TARDIS ever been buried up to its neck in lava before?”

Like many of its contemporaries, the narrative ends with a cliffhanger that leads directly into the next story, although it’s a good deal more exciting than the Doctor breaking his tooth on a sweet. There’s something endearing about the sight of Troughton staring gleefully at an erupting volcano as the magma rushes towards them, declaring it ‘wonderful’ while Zoe and Jamie frantically fiddle with the controls. The thing you take away from this era of Classic Who, apart from the temper tantrums, is just how reckless the Doctor is: he blows up the Dominators’ ship without a moment’s hesitation or any apparent signs of regret, and there are seemingly no consequences for what is basically an act of murder. This isn’t a problem, but it’s something you couldn’t imagine happening today, at least not without some sort of public service announcement.

Besides, there’s no time for any of that – not when they’ve fallen out of the universe. What can we say about The Mind Robber (written by Peter Ling, mostly) that hasn’t been said already? Put simply, it’s an astonishing tour-de-force that enters the world of imagination (not just a setting, but in fact a vital plot point) and then takes us into great forests of words, in and out of castles, and through sinister blank spaces. Fairy tale characters come to life and lock horns with literary classics. The Doctor is bullied by a group of children who toss riddles like primed grenades. Enormous toy soldiers and robots with vacuum tube arms menace the travelling trio in a story where, paradoxically, they have to avoid the awful fate of becoming fictional characters. It’s metaphysical rubbish, but it doesn’t matter when it’s done with so much visual flair. There is a scene where the TARDIS explodes and the camera lingers tantalisingly on Zoe’s spandex-clad buttocks for a full 8 seconds. (I know this because I checked. 3 times, just to make sure.)

“So it’s not actually from your head, then?”

Perhaps the most notable feature of The Mind Robber is the way in which it handled a case of chickenpox. Multi-companion stories frequently have to find things to keep everyone occupied: The Mind Robber had the opposite problem when Frazer Hines became ill just before they filmed Part 2, but rather than lock Jamie in a dungeon or something, the producers hastily found Hamish Wilson, had him stand in for Hines for a single episode, and then shoehorned an explanation. Said explanation – the Doctor’s failure at producing an identikit likeness of Jamie – is utterly preposterous, but it does give us a keen look at the Time Lord’s scattered mind, and it enables Zoe to look characteristically smug when she’s correcting his mistakes later.

Actually, that’s something Zoe does quite a lot. Not for her the information-soaking mundanity of being the new girl: the woman knows her strengths, and they usually come to the fore when she’s in front of a computer. This manifests several times over the course of the series, whether it’s taking out an irritating switchboard machine (something the Doctor apparently couldn’t do himself) in The Invasion, calculating rocket trajectories on the fly at UNIT HQ, or playing the role of impatient schoolteacher in The Krotons. Logic may be Zoe’s way of being wrong with authority, but it’s hard to complain when she’s so good at it. She even gets time to do a bit of modelling.

“Seriously, I can’t get up.”

“You’re getting fat, Jamie!”

Before we get to all this, we’ll sidetrack. These are stories that may be viewed in any order (although you really do have to do The War Games last), but for various reasons we shall be taking a momentary detour – to the unnamed planet of the Gonds, where the Doctor is helping a stunted society back onto its feet. He’s hindered by a Machiavellian idiot (Philip Madoc, in the first of his TV appearances) and some frankly laughable alien robots. The Krotons are possibly the worst thing about The Krotons, but considering the entire story is an allegory of Plato’s Cave, it’s got a marvellously frivolous streak running right through it. From the ridiculous over-the-top infighting amongst the Gonds to the Doctor’s ‘pretending to be stupid’ scene to the metallic silliness of the Krotons themselves, you get the feeling that nobody is taking this particularly seriously – including writer Robert Holmes, as this exchange over laboratory equipment proves:

BETA: Shall we put a bit more in?
JAMIE: Well, why ask me? 
BETA: Let’s see what happens. We can only blow ourselves up.

That’s the spirit. What’s a little chemical sabotage among friends? In rewatching this scene, I’m reminded, somewhat bizarrely, of Kryten in Series 3 of Red Dwarf, as the emotionally crippled Dwarfers are discussing how to get rid of the Polymorph. “Even if it doesn’t work,” he says, “it’ll be a laugh.”

“I swear that contact lens is here somewhere.”

When you’re preparing a review like this, it’s very tempting to divide stories into Important and Ephemera – filler, perhaps, to be a little more tactful. This sort of thing is much easier when you’re assessing New Who, which is very much arc-based: nonetheless, if we were going to be callous, The Space Pirates clearly comes under ephemera, given that we don’t usually discuss it, very few people remember it, and I forgot I had to include it until the eleventh hour. It doesn’t help that 5 of its 6 episodes are missing, which means you’re left with audio reconstructions to bridge the gaps. It’s like Big Finish, only there’s no sign of Nicholas Briggs. Every cloud.

In truth, The Space Pirates (Robert Holmes again) actually has comparatively little in the way of piracy, at least the swashbuckling sort. Instead, there are some hardened criminals plundering interstellar beacons for their mineral wealth, framed in the context of a set of mining wars between old rivals. In many ways, it’s more authentically western than The Gunfighters – there’s even an old-time pioneer, complete with Stetson and drooping moustache, grizzled but not quite ready to hang up his boots. Mercifully, Episode 2 is still intact – you can see it in the Lost In Time box set, if you’re interested – and thus the story’s most important plot point is also still intact, in all its black and white splendour. It’s a shame we can’t see the rest of it, unless you’re willing to raid the military compounds of Somalia or the skips of Buxton. That’s unless somebody’s nicked it, which probably happens even at Somalian military compounds. “Pirates, yes,” wrote Bob Marley. “They rob I…”

“Was that you, Jamie?”

Then there’s The Seeds Of Death. Written by Brian Hayles (with a lot of help from Terrance Dicks), it serves as a love letter to the dying art of space travel – preceding the moon landing by 6 months and the decline of NASA by 10 years – and a warning against over-reliance on supposedly infallible technology. It is also an Ice Warrior story, although as per usual the Martians are far less interesting to watch than the humans they threaten. Seeds Of Death benefits from a tremendous cast, in particular Philip Ray and Ronald Leigh-Hunt, bickering and arguing over how to tackle a difficult situation – but full honours go to Terry Scully as the cowardly, complicated Fewsham, one of the most interesting and believable supporting characters the show’s ever seen.

Really, it’s all a bit been-there, invaded-that, but there are some priceless moments. There’s the booby trap they build on the moon to fry the Ice Warriors, reducing them to dust in a double-heartbeat. There’s Louise Pajo, who excels as self-assured scientist Gia Kelly. And there’s the Doctor, running in terror from a mound of shaving foam. Still, you can’t help thinking that the Base Under Siege thing has been done to death under Troughton, if only because his Doctor is the last person you’d turn to in a crisis. Everybody who’s watched Power of the Daleks knows that the Second Doctor’s brilliance comes from layers of silliness that mask a true intent, but it is that silliness that shines through: when he’s not filling his face with sandwiches, he’s posing for photos outside a substation or jumping and hopping through pyrotechnics with the frenzy of a Warner Bros. cartoon character. Coincidentally, he does all three in The Invasion.

“And you’re certain I’ll be able to see right through her clothes?”

“You can’t just change what I look like without consulting me.”

The Invasion (Derrick Sherwin, from Kit Pedler’s story) is an 8-episode gallivant across the English countryside by way of London, as a sinister electronics corporation sets its sights on global conquest. The company is run by Tobias Vaughan – a man far less intelligent than he thinks he is, given that he’s currently indexed under ‘Villains who thought they could exploit the Cybermen’. Vaughan is played by the wonderful Kevin Stoney, who embodies him with the morals of a politician and the patience of a saint, given that he spends roughly half his allocated screen time chewing out a second in command, the hopeless Packer (Peter Halliday).

It’s famous, of course, for the scene where the Cybermen descend Peter’s Hill, not far from St. Paul’s, and the moment they’re seen walking around a corner and then running out of shot to go and join the back of the line. (The Invasion does this more than once: Tobias Vaughan has two identical offices in different locations because of ‘efficiency’.) It’s a thrilling, inspired cliffhanger – so innovative is the cinematography you really can believe they have an army, even though there are only about 7 of them. This is The Dalek Invasion of Earth all over again – only it’s here and now, which makes it all the more terrifying.

“I GET KNOCKED DOWN / BUT I GET UP AGAIN…”

Still, change takes many forms, and The Invasion is only the top half of the coin. For the other half, we must look to series finale, The War Games (Terrance Dicks and Malcolm Hulke), which chews up the final quarter of Season 6 with a sprawling, ambitious tale of a bizarre extraterrestrial experiment. We’re in sledgehammer and nut territory here: a mysterious alien race wants an army of exemplary soldiers, so rather than just hunt them down or genetically breed them, it embarks on a mass kidnapping and then goes to the trouble of recreating the trenches of Flanders and the farmhouses of Civil War America in painstaking, elaborate detail, so they can watch the rats in the maze. All this is basically an excuse to have the Doctor and his companions escape from Germans only to be pursued by Romans, but as far as unnecessary convolution is concerned, you could be watching Wheel In Space.

That’s quite appropriate, really, seeing as that was Zoe’s first story. Her last has one of the most bittersweet companion farewells you’ll ever see, as the Doctor’s pals have their memories wiped (save that first encounter with him, which presumably would have been too much trouble for the Time Lords to overwrite) and then dumped back where we left them: Zoe under the vague apprehension that she’s forgotten something important; Jamie giving chase to a suddenly terrified Redcoat. It’s monumentally sad, and it follows a rip-roaring adventure where Mexican bandits join forces with British soldiers and people routinely face execution, when they’re not being locked up. And, of course, Troughton bows out – although not after castigating his people for their policy of non-interference (a decision he, or to be more specific, one of his future selves would later live to regret). The regeneration itself happens off-screen, but there is gurning, which arguably paved the way for years of similar antics from Pertwee.

“I know you don’t want to go in the middle, but it’s height order. That’s what we agreed.”

A curious thing happens in The War Games. There is that sense of ending, for certain, but it also feels as if the writers are tapping into a vein. The Doctor has been identified as a Time Lord for so long, we don’t even think about it any more – still, how must things have felt back in 1969 when the question was finally (if only partially) answered? Filling in the backstory? Letting us see the home planet? Is this the equivalent of learning why the chameleon circuit is stuck or finding Clara under the bed? And what’s the turnaround time for ingratiating this into continuity? How many years have to pass before things that surprised and angered us simply become part of the myth?

Then there’s the War Chief (Edward Brayshaw) – a secondary antagonist, heading up the front while the glacial War Lord (a deadpan Philip Madoc) surveys operations from his bunker, which probably has a swivel chair and a white cat. But it’s the Chief that you remember, because he’s as hot-blooded and fiery as the Doctor, devious and treacherous to a fault, and the ideal contrast to the War Lord’s clinical calm. It is easy to see, as he attempts to broker a deal with an uncertain Troughton, exactly why this particular renegade ran from Gallifrey, and his malevolent boredom makes him the Doctor’s perfect foil. It’s a situation that’s compounded once the Time Lords show up – in celestial, enigmatic omnipotence that seems a galaxy removed from the fall from grace they would experience in The Deadly Assassin – and you realise that if the story has been trying to explain who the Doctor is, the best way to demonstrate this is to show us who he is not.

The War Chief is a crude prototype for the Master, then, in much the same way that The Invasion serves as a prototype for the early 1970s. The only thing they’re missing is a countryside HQ with inept guards and someone to make the tea. Instead, we have Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart, who’s “gone up in the world” (in a clip that’s used in just about every Nicholas Courtney featurette), and a bunch of astoundingly competent and helpful soldiers who not only believe everything the Doctor tells them but also carry out his requests without so much as a “Well, it’s a bit irregular”. This sort of thing wouldn’t last – if you’re going to give every adventure the same set-up, you need to put in a bit of dramatic tension – but it’s refreshing to see the Doctor instantly at home among friends and allies rather than having to explain his way out of a ramshackle prison cell.

“Was that you, Miss Heriot?”

The UNIT family proper would not be in place until Pertwee’s second series, but these things need brewing time, and Season 6 is the moment the tea leaves are poured into the pot. It’s difficult to tell exactly how much of it was intentional and how much was simply feeling your way in the dark, with seemingly wise decisions actually nothing but happy accidents. It probably doesn’t matter. Stranding the Doctor on Earth at the end of The War Games must have seemed a bizarre idea, and there’s a popular theory, based largely on Terrance Dicks’ recollections of events, that both he and Barry Letts were brought in to wind down a show that was seen to have had its time. That things worked out the way they did – with Doctor Who enjoying a new lease of life under precarious financial circumstances – was an interesting and perhaps unexpected development when it happened, but half a century down the line, it’s merely another step along the bumpy road of history.

But that’s another story, and someone else gets to tell it. 1970 was a rebirth, in many ways, but there is a paradox in a show that is supposedly in crisis – at least when viewed in context – whilst simultaneously churning out some of its finest work. It would happen 20 years down the line, and perhaps history is destined to repeat itself. It inevitably does.

Still: this is Troughton’s swansong, both for him and his loyal companions, and whatever its flaws, it’s a darned fine way to bow out. And when the War Lord has been vapourised and the time lines rectified and sentences handed out – “some shall be pardoned, and some punished” – it is that farewell on the (as yet unnamed) Gallifrey that leaves a lump in the throat. And the image that lingers is that of Jamie, reluctantly shaking the Second Doctor’s hand before he heads back to Culloden, heavy of heart and facing the finality that this is it. “I’ll never forget you, you know,” he says, as he leaves. And of course, he did. But we won’t.

NEXT TIME: A Shaw success?