Reviewed: Doctor Who Season 7 – Family UNIT

First up: a confession. When the chance to pick a season of Doctor Who arose, I went out of my way to pick something I had DVDs on the shelf I was overdue watching. While I’d seen Season 7 back in 1970, at the time I didn’t take it all in and, truth be told, a couple of the stories were rather vague in my mind, and not watched since. Well, it was nearly 50 years ago, and I was only 9! So, Season 7 it was, a chance to think about UNIT, Quatermass, and one-season companion Liz Shaw. It’s also a chance to think about a season as a whole, rather than individual stories taken independently.

Context

Let’s remind ourselves of the obvious. From the perspective of the show, we were on our third Doctor, had no companions, and it was very much a relaunch. As a technical aside, it was the move to colour, but while interesting to viewers (and initially expensive to film), it isn’t a major factor on the show’s production, compared to the chance to then move into early special effects techniques such as Colour Separation Overlay (CSO, aka Chroma Key).

Culturally, it was more interesting. In 1969, just after Patrick Troughton left the show, man landed on the Moon. We moved into a new decade – would a show from the 1960s, even in colour, still have a place? We all know the answer, but at the time it would have been far from obvious. What was needed was a good launch and strong stories.

Constraints

Looking back over the four stories (and they’re discussed later, don’t worry!), it’s easy to see the impact of clever series design and good production/ script editing. In reality, a lot will have just happened and we join together dots in our minds that aren’t always there. What is true is the writers had to operate to certain constraints (and not just budget). In my view, key amongst these are:

  • The need to establish Jon Pertwee as the Doctor
  • Avoiding being overtaken by events
  • Having an earth-bound Doctor.

Jon Pertwee is the Doctor

It might have been enough to leave the continuity with Jon emerging from the TARDIS and that being the substitute for Ben and Polly watching the first Doctor’s regeneration, but instead, UNIT came along and the Brigadier became the ersatz (if not actual) companion.

With UNIT comes a lot of the Quatermass feel, the bureaucracy versus recklessness, and being part of a larger order of events even if on Earth. It also brought the bonus of an easy way to start stories, with UNIT being naturally involved in strange events.

Don’t be overtaken by events

Believe it or not, in the 1970s, we felt the move to space would happen in decades, Mars probes were on the cards, and Tomorrow’s World heralded the use of microchips as the future (and they were right, eventually). We couldn’t have a show set in 1970, and from this, perhaps without intention, we get the seeds of the UNIT dating paradox. When are the stories really set? Let’s just go with a few years in the future…

Meanwhile, stuck on Earth

This is the big one for me. The quintessence of the Doctor was a wanderer in space and time (a madman in a blue box, if you will), not the mad scientist tinkering away in a lab surrounded by soldiers. It’s a step-change, and as future seasons would show, not something to base in entire incarnation on. If the Doctor can’t go into Space and Time, what does he do?

Well, it’s obvious, and brilliant. Mohammed-like, the mountains of Space and Time must come to him. I’ll say it again. Brilliant!

Let’s consider the four stories in this light:

1. Spearhead from Space – aliens come to Earth and need defeating;

2. Doctor Who and the Silurians – monsters (horrible word, but they aren’t aliens; maybe foes?) come from history and appear underground;

3. The Ambassadors of Death – humanity has gone to Space, so the Doctor can follow along and also meet some aliens;

4. Inferno – trying to travel through time, the Doctor visits a parallel world (and there’s another threat from pre-history as well!).

Job done. Exotic locations (okay: offices, caves, and control rooms), new and (mostly) interesting villains, and all science fiction – no sneaking off into ghost stories or other territory.

If the idea of being stuck on Earth proved a manageable hurdle, it’s worth also considering other aspects of the seasons as a whole. In particular:

  • The Brig
  • Liz Shaw
  • UNIT
  • The TARDIS and other toys
  • The bad guys.

The Brigadier

A lot pivots on the Brigadier, and Nicholas Courtney does a great job as the man in the middle of everything. He’s the channel through which a lot of the story flows, the link back to Whitehall, the commander of troops on the ground, and the man trying to keep the Doctor in check. Most important of all is his acceptance of this new face as the same old Doctor, if in a new body.

The Brigadier does his best to see things in black and white. The Doctor is good, the latest foe bad, authority to be obeyed, and so forth. We don’t learn much more about his background, but we do see how he interacts with a wide range of stakeholders, and in stories such as The Ambassadors of Death, we see how he tends to stick to the hierarchy until he knows he must do what ultimately is right to save the world.

It’s probably not an exaggeration to say the return of the Brigadier is the single most important facet of Season 7.

Liz Shaw

It’s interesting watching Liz Shaw again. Big Finish audios aside, she was not well-served by Doctor Who. Her character is viable but completely trivialised whenever the Doctor is around. I think there are ways two scientific advisors could work, and where is Liz’s desire to learn from the Doctor?

Caroline John is also dressed in a variety of fashionable outfits, mini-skirts, and strange wigs. I’m not sure any of these work with the character as she seemed to be portrayed, and much of the look is something more associated with Jo Grant. For me, it’s more evidence of not quite knowing what to make of the character.

UNIT

It’s strongly implied in Spearhead in Space that UNIT has just been set up. Liz is recruited and soon it’s all about the Doctor then the Autons. I know it’s harder story-telling, but I’d have liked more of a sense of UNIT as an organisation, not people popping into the Brig’s office for a chat. Why can’t they have several investigations under way at once? Why can’t they mention Mars probes and Stahlman’s project in earlier stories? I realise the way the programmes were made prohibits this, but I think it would be better.

I also note the outfits of the soldiers are very generic and brand new, almost as though Spearhead was a bit of a pilot story.

UNIT as a whole isn’t impressive. I’ve seen better tactics in a paintball match-up, and almost all of the UNIT personnel we see are easy to defeat and find it hard to hit anything at 10 paces. The Brig is, of course, the exception!

Across the four stories, the only two soldiers with any credibility are the late Paul Darrow’s Captain Hawkins in Doctor Who and the Silurians, and then John Levene’s Sergeant Benton once he appears in The Ambassadors of Death (being another link back to the Second Doctor, having first appeared as Benton in The Invasion).

The TARDIS (and other toys)

The TARDIS is notable for being almost entirely absent. I know it’s an expensive set to build if you aren’t flying the TARDIS (see also Jodie Whittaker’s almost non-existent TARDIS scenes), but with the box in the corner, surely the Brig and Liz would have popped in for a look?

Also, just how did the console get through the doors? Transdimensional trickery or does it flat pack? Imagine putting it back together and finding the helmic regulator doesn’t fit!

We get Bessie, we get the sonic (mostly used as a door opener in Inferno), and much is in place we recognise as being ‘70s Doctor Who.

The bad guys

Looking back, the main thing missing from the series is a top-grade villain. That would come later. Until then, we had a range of newly minted foes to vanquish. The Autons and Silurians both made comebacks, whereas the aliens in The Ambassadors of Death are rather a puzzle as they get bored and (we assume) go away once they’ve had their ambassadors returned.

The Primords work better on audio (as Big Finish has proven with their sequel to Inferno, Primord, also starring Caroline John’s daughter, Daisy Ashford as Liz Shaw).

There’s no summoning back of previous fan favourites to cement the Third Doctor in place, unlike Troughton’s first adventure, The Power of the Daleks (1966). I take this as adding to the distance between the new Earth-bound era and the previous, it perhaps being too much to imagine another Dalek invasion (plus, 1967’s The Evil of the Daleks was supposed to be their last story anyway), though another outing for the Yeti – copyright permitting – would have been a very strong link back, as perhaps would have been a sequel to The War Machines(1966).

It’s possible to argue the range of enemies might have been different, but I’m not sure they’d have been better, unless the aliens from The Ambassadors of Death could have been a returning race, though they’d have to be radioactive!

Story Length

It’s worth a mention of story length. Across the season, we had 25 episodes, down from the 44 we enjoyed in Season 6. This is attributed to production methods changing, but whatever the reason, it was a shorter run and would have appeared even shorter for only having 4 stories. To us now, having stories of 7 episodes seems long, but remember that across the previous season, we had stories with 4, 5, 6, 8, and even 10 episodes!

Even with that observation, 7 episodes means careful consideration of tension, and a critical eye can find a lot of ways stories could have easily been cut to save an episode; nonetheless I am sure this would not be possible as location filming costs and time mean all the footage should be used.

The 3 longer stories (Silurians, Ambassadors, and Inferno) all use the time to run with 2 plots. In the case of Inferno, the Primord plot is used as filler here and there around the excellent parallel world story, and in Ambassadors, we have a layered set of secrets and conspiracies that manage to come together into a whole. Silurians does it best with the basic menace in the cave dovetailing to the end of the world from plague back to a touch of base-under-siege – the various story beats have time to work and build.

Even though episodes were roughly half as long as today, 7 parts equates to 3 and a half modern episodes. In recent years, we’ve had little approaching that length though Russell T. Davies’ 2-part finales did snuggle close to their previous stories in some cases (e.g. Utopia, Sound of Drums, Last of the Time Lords).

Is there a best format? Both can point to great successes and stories that might have been better treated differently. It’s as easy to want more time for character development as it is to want the story to get on with the action. The jury is out, and the answer is probably a bit of both. Some might argue the season arc gets around some of this, but here isn’t the place for that debate.

The Quatermass effect

If Doctor Who was once intended to be replaced by a Nigel Kneale-involved Quatermass style show, we should consider ourselves fortunate Nigel wasn’t interested in that project.

There’s a clear Quatermass feel to the stories, with government secrets (very much a UK Area 51), military and science clashing, and also what we might now say as very old-school British values. Largely unavoidably, the show is a product of its time, and the beliefs of those involved in its creation. As I’ve said earlier, Nick Courtney’s Brigadier glues this season together and validates Pertwee’s character as the Doctor of old. Once you’ve decided to do that, the rest tends to follow if you don’t want UNIT to be some undercover operation working in the shadows. Military involvement acts as a conduit for stories and a source of equipment, plus a ready number of UNIT soldiers ready to get shot in the cause of storytelling.

Yes, Quatermass looms large over this season (and in particular The Ambassadors of Death) but the Doctor isn’t the Professor (sorry Ace!) and his ethics are informed by both his alien nature and Time Lord perspective. He already knows a lot of the answers and his motive is freedom, not investigation.

And finally…

If you take the view that Doctor Who Season 7 was about a new take on the Doctor and the show finding its feet in the 1970s, it’s fair to say it did a good job. Pertwee’s Doctor has clear needs and the Earth needs a hero. Roll on the next season!

NEXT TIME: You will obey…