Reviewed: Doctor Who Season 8 – A Master-full Sophomore

Imagine, if you will: it’s 6:30pm on a school night in mid-2012. You’re taking a break from your assessment writing and flick over to the Sci-Fi Channel to see what’s on. You notice the first episode of Season 7 of Classic Doctor Who is about to start. You’ve been told your entire life that you would love this series, but you haven’t ever had the chance to watch it. Now, the opportunity has presented itself, and so, for the first time ever, you hear that haunting opening theme, and are introduced to Jon Pertwee as not only the Doctor, but now and forever, Your Doctor.

Each night, at the same time, they air 2 episodes back-to-back, and over the course of a fortnight, you watch all of Season 7. At this point, your Doctor Who-obsessed friends find out you’ve been watching and tell you to catch-up in time for The Angels Take Manhattan in 2 weeks’ time. So, without questioning it, you jump forward to Christopher Eccleston and begin Nu-Who, completely disregarding Season 8, and most of what follows.

To this day, I have only ever seen scattered moments from Season 8. This goes pretty similarly for the last 3 series of Pertwee’s run, but there is a lot more there that I had seen and engaged with.

Season 8, however, despite its importance for so many reasons, always flew under the radar for me. So, when I was asked which series I wanted to review, this is the one that jumped out to me immediately. “Finally,” I thought, “an excuse to watch those DVDs I spent so many years tracking down.” And as I live in Australia, that was a feat I can’t even begin to describe to you.

In the lead-up to this review, I re-watched The War Games (1969), which I absolutely love, and went straight into Season 7, starting with that gorgeous Blu-Ray release of Spearhead from Space (1970). But once those final credits of Inferno rolled, I was in uncharted territory. It was exciting – like being transported back to my first encounter with Pertwee all those years ago – having no idea what lie ahead but knowing full-well that I was locked in for this ride now, and I had no intention of getting off until I had seen it through.

How this Review Will be Structured

For this review, I will be discussing each episode individually, and then concluding with an overall look at how the serials worked as one complete series. In each of these individual reviews, I will be starting with their respective contexts, wherein I discuss the work of the writer(s) and director, as I am a big believer that this is one of the most important aspects of any serial, followed then by the review itself, and lastly concluding with a “DVD Extras” section where I talk through any notable special features for those readers with these serials on DVD. Though the reviews won’t be recaps, there will be spoilers, so consider yourself warned (if you’ve managed to avoid spoilers over the last 49 years, don’t get it spoiled now). The one thing you won’t see here are numerical scores, but I will be comparing certain aspects of one serial to another and so on, and I certainly do have a favourite; I have never been a big fan of number-based reviews, however.

With all that preamble out of the way, let’s jump right in with our first serial: Terror of the Autons (1971)…

Terror of the Autons

Written by Robert Holmes, Directed by Barry Letts

Or, Doctor Who and the Spray of Death.

Context: Barry Letts was the producer for the entire run of Pertwee’s Doctor, and this was his first time in the directing chair after a season of settling in. And who better to provide a script for this one than Robert Holmes – the writer who came aboard a full year earlier to write Pertwee’s first outing and created the Autons, who were slated to reappear in this series opener? Sadly, this incredible pair would only collaborate once more (on Carnival of Monsters) 2 seasons later; however, both of their historic contributions to Doctor Who were only just beginning.

Actor, Michael Wisher appears in this serial as Rex Farrel – his third of several appearances throughout Doctor Who, but not his most notable. Wisher was actually the first actor to bring to life Dalek creator Davros in 1975’s Genesis of the Daleks. This was his only appearance in the role (canonically, at least), as he was replaced by David Gooderson for 1979’s Destiny of the Daleks, but I digress.

Review: Right from word go, I have to mention the pacing here: it’s brilliant. The way the story is constructed and how it all plays out is fantastic, and it really adds a sense of tension to a story that could have otherwise fallen quite flat in some places. The way it builds up the Doctor and the Master’s relationship over the first 3 episodes makes their first on-screen meeting in Episode 4 all the more enjoyable, and what a meeting it was! The Autons are terrifying – they’re why I’m still nervous around mannequins to this day – but Roger Delgado as the Master brings a whole new level of terror into my very soul, and I love every second of it.

I feel like a lot of this review will just be me talking about how good the relationship is between Pertwee and Delgado, and it’s not hard to see why Delgado’s untimely death was a big reason for Pertwee to decide to step down. Their dynamic is based on that of Sherlock Holmes and James Moriarty (check out the DVD Extras section below for more on that) and it shows: the way their rivalry is shown on screen proves how good not only the performances are but is a masterclass in how to write and develop tension between characters. And it’s this which sets up the remainder of Season 8 and provides some over-arching storylines, something that hadn’t ever been done in Doctor Who before this point.

A personal favourite moment (outside of everything Delgado does) was at the beginning of Episode 3 when Captain Yates (Richard Franklin) drives an Auton off a cliff… only for it to get back up immediately and start climbing towards him. It was terrifying and really showed how powerful these Autons could have been if used in the right ways. Imagine if Doctor Who had a horror director at the helm for an Auton episode with Jodie Whittaker. I value my sleep too much, but just imagine what that might look like.

This is such a solid serial to open Pertwee’s sophomore series with; it features a familiar foe in an interesting way, debuts a new recurring arch-nemesis, and introduces a new companion (the lovely Jo Grant, played by the even lovelier Katy Manning), all while setting up a series-long arc and pacing itself to perfection. If I weren’t excited to be watching and reviewing this series before, I sure as hell am now. The fun little closing line from the Doctor really sums up how I’m feeling heading into The Mind of Evil: “I’m rather looking forward to it.”

DVD Extras: I cannot recommend enough the two short documentaries under special features: Life on Earth, and The Doctor’s Moriarty. They are both incredible looks back on the process for casting and creating this series, as well as how the role of the Master was crafted. I am a sucker for documentaries and docu-dramas (An Adventure in Space and Time is one of the best ever), and these are both just fantastic.

The Mind of Evil

Written by Don Houghton, Directed by Timothy Combe

Or, Doctor Who and the Pandora Machine.

Context: Don Houghton is making his return after writing Inferno for the last series – one of my all-time favourite serials. So, heading into this one not remembering all that much about it, I have to say I’m extremely excited. I also recognise his name from several Hammer Horror films, so this should be a blast. Director, Timothy Combe is also returning after taking on Doctor Who and the Silurians last series, but unfortunately neither Houghton nor Combe would appear again after this serial.

I also want to shout out to Stuart Humphryes here. Stuart is a multimedia artist who goes by the alias “BabelColour,” and is the reason we have the first episode of this serial in colour. He hand-coloured over 7,000 key frames in order to fully restore it, and his work needs far more recognition. So, when you’re watching Episode 1 of this serial, spare a thought for Humphryes, a God among men.

Review: Sadly, I am very mixed on The Mind of Evil for a few reasons. On one hand, I think this serial is incredibly fun and has some extremely solid moments: I especially loved when the Doctor and Brigadier (Nicholas Courtney) head in to meet the new Chinese delegate and we find out the Doctor is fluent in Mandarin. We just see the Brigadier looking around, wondering what’s hit him, and I just love the way the entire scene is shot and played.

But, on the other hand, I found myself a little disinterested until about an hour into the Doctor and Master coming face to face; this certainly feels like it could have been better as a 4-part serial instead of 6, which brings to light an issue I have with a lot of earlier serials of Classic Who (but more on that a little later). Despite this initial disinterest, I stuck out watching this serial and had a great time by the end of it.

This serial perfectly captures all of the joy I associate with Pertwee’s run. He is so no-nonsense and seems like an action hero that has been placed into a sci-fi show with no idea what he is doing there but nonetheless is just going with it anyway. It’s a pure joy to watch Pertwee in this role and it feels like this is the serial where he really starts to come into his own.

Coming off the back of that, it’s also the serial which really showcased the Pertwee/Delgado relationship; the pair have an incredible on-screen chemistry and it is exemplified and perfected in this serial. I am a sucker for any story where the hero and villain have to put aside their differences and work together to achieve a common goal, and this serial pulls that off with such ease – it’s a pleasure to watch.

All in all, despite feeling a little disinterested to begin with, The Mind of Evil took things to a new level for this era of Doctor Who. I was extremely excited to see Houghton returning to write, and despite preferring his previous work, this one stands out as a solid serial. Combe’s directing and the performances from everyone involved was rock solid, but I would still have to place this at the bottom of my list for Season 8. That’s not to say it’s bad – that’s not at all what I’m saying – but I enjoyed the surrounding 4 serials much more than this one.

DVD Extras: One of the only real special features on this DVD release was a short making-of documentary called The Military Mind, which was shot back in 2009 and features the late Nicholas Courtney, among several other cast and crew members. It’s a lovely look back at this serial and very much worth a watch.

The Claws of Axos

Written by Bob Baker and Dave Martin, Directed by Michael Ferguson

Or, Doctor Who and the Vampire from Space.

Context: Director, Michael Ferguson makes his return to Doctor Who, after directing The Ambassadors of Death. Writing duo, Bob Baker and Dave Martin get their first Doctor Who credit in this serial and would go on to write another 7 together, spanning all the way to Season 16’s finale, The Armageddon Factor (1979). Baker and Martin would also be responsible for creating two huge parts of Doctor Who mythos: the ever-loveable companion K9 (in The Invisible Enemy) and the renegade Time Lord, Omega (in The Three Doctors). The contributions this pair, referred to as “The Bristol Boys” by the production team, made to this series is incredible, so I am very excited to be watching the serial where their legacy began.

Review: This is the one serial I haven’t ever seen anything from. The others I haven’t viewed in their entirety, but I have seen clips or moments, sometimes even full episodes, but not this one. I am going in completely blind here.

From the minute it opened, I could tell this would be a tight serial; we are thrown right into the action and moved along at a perfect speed from there. The pacing here is definitely one of this serial’s strengths, but this is amongst a myriad of other strengths which make the entire thing a delight to watch. Originally, this was meant to be a 6-parter, and I can’t imagine what that serial must have looked like with an extra 40 or so minutes tacked on.

I cannot get enough of Roger Delgado as the Master. Seriously. Again, the performances from he and Pertwee blow me away. For instance, during Episode 4 when the Doctor suggests abandoning Earth with the Master, I was genuinely as shocked as the Master was. Part of me absolutely knew that the Doctor had a plan and there was no way he would abandon Jo and the Brigadier… but Pertwee made me believe it for a moment there. It was flawless, and tense, and a testament to how good Doctor Who can be.

The Axons were really intriguing to watch, and the actors portraying them were fantastic; I always get invested in the aliens or races that Doctor Who presents, but the Axons stand out as one of the best I’ve seen. I also have to address that final line: “It seems that I’m some kind of a galactic yo-yo!” Genius. The closing lines for this era of Doctor Who were stellar, and this one could be my favourite.

All in all, I don’t have much else to say about this. The Claws of Axos was well-written, well-directed, well-acted – all-round I think it could be one of my favourite Pertwee serials now, and I’m so mad I hadn’t ever seen it before, but I will certainly be re-watching this one again in the near future. Can’t recommend it enough.

DVD Extras: One of the coolest features here can be found in the Deleted and Extended Scenes special feature: the original opening for this serial wherein the title is still displayed as The Vampire from Space, which I love. This title was used for production of the first 2 episodes, but to see it in the opening titles is a nice little remembrance to what could have been. Much like the other DVD releases, we also get a great making-of documentary called Axon Stations, and if you enjoyed the serial, it’s essential; the interviews were fantastically funny, and it doubled my enjoyment of the episode I had just watched.

Colony in Space

Written by Malcolm Hulke, Directed by Michael Briant

Or, Doctor Who and the Doomsday Weapon.

Context: While this was Michael Briant’s first time directing Doctor Who, it was certainly not his last. I recognised his name immediately as the director of Robots of Death with Tom Baker, though I wasn’t aware he worked on any Pertwee stories. Malcolm Hulke, on the other hand, is a name that any fans of Classic Who should know straight away, especially if you’ve ever encountered any of the novelisations. He penned a total of 8 serials for the Second and Third Doctors, beginning with The Faceless Ones, which was very recently announced as getting an animated release in 2020, and will round out the Hulke set on DVD. Colony in Space is the first of 2 collaborations between Hulke and Briant, with the second coming in the form of The Sea Devils (1972) next season – but more on that later. For now, let’s begin.

Review: I had heard a lot about this serial going into it, but this was yet another I had never seen in its entirety. I noted immediately that it was 6 parts, and as I mentioned earlier, I have a somewhat love-hate relationship with serials being this lengthy (and in the distance I can hear The War Games and The Daleks’ Master Plan scoffing). But, as this was Pertwee’s first off-world journey, I went in with an open mind. I watched the first 2 episodes of this serial and wasn’t incredibly interested in what was happening. I took a short break, made some food, and came back to watch the rest of it. I got through episodes 3 and 4 and found I enjoyed them a lot more than the first 2, but as 4 finished I needed to take another short break to go out and do some shopping before the stores closed. So I returned and finished the final 2 episodes… and I absolutely loved them.

I think that breaking it down in this way made things a lot easier to digest. After all, contextually, this was originally viewed weekly over a month and a half, or in pairs over 3 nights when aired during re-runs. I decided to take the latter approach but do it all in pairs over a few hours, and it definitely helped. The plot for this serial feels very back-heavy to me; the first 2 episodes do drag on, hence why I feel my interest curve spiked in the latter half. One highlight I do have to mention from those first 2 episodes though was seeing Pertwee brandish a spear and take on 3 of the primitives in combat – that was incredible. Harking back to my comment 2 serials ago about him being an action hero in a sci-fi setting – this scene summarises that perfectly.

This serial wasn’t made to be taken in all in one sitting – the action is built up and pays off satisfyingly, even after only a short break between instalments. The writing and pacing are really quite good, and the inclusion of the Master halfway through did come as a genuine shock (despite the fact I saw him included on the DVD box art and Delgado was credited on the Wiki page). His interactions with Pertwee (and I feel like I am repeating myself a lot by saying this) are fantastic: you can see not only their character development, but also the actors becoming closer. The chemistry is unrivalled.

The supporting cast here are all strong and I was actually really surprised by the decision to kill the colonists, only to have them all turn up at the end (sans Ashe). It was handled extremely well and paid off some lovely character moments. After enjoying the hell out of the 4-part Claws of Axos, I was a little trepidatious going into this 6-part trek by comparison, but now and forever, this serial could very well be known as the serial that made me enjoy 6-parters.

DVD Extras: There isn’t very much in the way of extras here, as this is only a single-disc release among a season of double-disc special editions. However, we do get the usual making-of documentary, entitled IMC Needs You, which is a lot of fun. I love these mini documentaries and the way they frame the way the serial was created; as a writer and filmmaker myself, one of the biggest reasons I love Classic Who is seeing the way they innovated and worked with what they had to make the show as best as they could. These documentaries provide such a fascinating look at that process.

The Dæmons

Written by “Guy Leopold” (Barry Letts and Robert Sloman), Directed by Christopher Barry

Or, Doctor Who and the Demons.

Yes, I know that’s not very different, but I was trying to be clever and include one of the working titles for each serial as precursors because I find that kind of thing really interesting – and the working title for this episode was literally just the now proper way of spelling dæmon, lexicon which hasn’t been used widely since the 16th Century. You can’t win ‘em all.

Context: As you eagle-eyed readers might have noticed, this serial’s writing credit goes to one “Guy Leopold,” but is then bracket attributed to Barry Letts and Robert Sloman. At the time this serial was written, Letts found that he didn’t have as much time to dedicate to this serial as he would have liked, so his wife suggested Robert Sloman, a playwright and journalist, to assist him. This was during an era at the BBC where it was looked down upon for producers to write for their own series, so the pseudonym was formed from Sloman’s son and Letts’ middle name respectively. This might very well be my favourite piece of trivia in the history of trivia.

Director, Christopher Barry (The Daleks; The Power of the Daleks; Robot) said on many occasions that The Daemons was his favourite script to work with, a sentiment that was backed by Pertwee himself, who proclaimed this as his #1 serial.

Finally, the legendary Stephen Thorne makes his Doctor Who debut as Azal. He would return in 2 seasons’ time as the Time Lord Omega in The Three Doctors, and then again as Eldrad in The Hand of Fear some 5 years later against Tom Baker’s Doctor. Sadly, we lost Thorne earlier this year at age 84, but with his incredible body of work surviving him, his legacy and contributions to the programme will outlive us all.

Review: Kicking things off, we have an absolutely brilliant scene where the Doctor and Jo are having a discussion about magic vs. science – it’s some of the best dialogue I’ve heard in any episode of Doctor Who, period. It was written and performed flawlessly to the point where I was actually laughing out loud, so from the get-go, I was extremely invested in this serial.

Not too long after this, we are introduced to 3 members of the supporting cast: David Simeon as Alastair Fergus, Robin Wentworth as Professor Horner, and Damaris Hayman as Miss Hawthorne. The dynamic between Fergus and Horner is absolutely incredible, and their respective actors do a marvellous job – but no one in any serial compares to Hayman. When asked who she is and how she knows what she does, she matter-of-factly answers “I’m a witch” – and I genuinely laughed out loud again. The comedic timing is excellent here, but considering Hayman is known as a comedy actor, I’m not surprised.

In fact, this entire serial feels like a comedy script that someone wrote but then decided to add the Doctor in at the last minute. That’s not to say he feels out of place, but he and the usual suspects (Jo, UNIT, and the Master) all feel like the straight men in an ensemble cast full of incredibly funny supporting actors. It’s a genius stroke of writing and makes the entire serial a joy to watch. I know how many times I’ve said the word “pacing” already, but it is certainly one of the biggest hits or misses with Classic Who especially, and this serial continues the Season 8 tradition of nailing it. From now on, whenever I want to refer to good pacing in any form of media, I’ll compare it to this series – “it needs to have that good Season 8 pacing, you know?”

The gargoyle, Bok, looks equally horrifying and hilarious, and honestly? I love it. A lot. Again, showing the comedy roots of the script and extending that to the costuming – hell, even some of the outfits we see the Master in throughout the serial are hilarious. It all just works, despite feeling on the surface like it shouldn’t. Wrapping up my comments about the comedy gold, there is one line, spoken by the Brigadier, which made me burst out laughing for a third time: “You know, Sergeant, I sometimes wish I worked in a bank.” Brilliantly written, superbly in character, and delivered flawlessly by the ever-amazing Nicholas Courtney.

Finally, a nice fun fact to end on: Sergeant Tom Osgood – UNIT’s technical advisor – is the namesake and (if you’re so inclined to believe it) father of Petronella Osgood from the Eleventh Doctor’s era. Steven Moffat’s original intention for Petronella was that she was related to this Daemons character, though it was never explicitly said. The more you know.

I think that this serial is my favourite of the series. In 5 parts, we get a tight story with some of the best supporting cast I’ve ever seen in Classic Who, a brilliant and engaging story, and a gorgeous closing line to bring this series to its end: “You’re right, Jo; there is magic in the world after all.”

DVD Extras: We have the usual making-of documentary in the form of The Devil Rides Out – solid as always – as well as an extremely touching tribute to Barry Letts, who sadly passed away a few years before this DVD release. It is a wonderful look back at a writer/producer/director who contributed so much to this phenomenal series. Be sure to check that out if you can.

Concluding Thoughts

I gave some real thought to this section (everything else before this though, not so much). Generally, I should end with a recommendation – or a discouragement in some cases – but if you’ve read this far, the chances are you’re either a big fan or interested already, and I doubt my highly-sung praises would have thrown you off.

This series works really well as a collection of inter-linked serials, all of which can be viewed as independent parts, but are best enjoyed like an all-you-can-eat buffet: in several courses, all closely following one another. There’s something here for everyone, and it’s genuinely enjoyable at every turn. The over-arching Master storyline is incredible fun, and the introduction of Delgado in this series brought a whole new energy to not only Pertwee’s portrayal of the Doctor, but to the show itself.

I think it’s really amazing to see the progression in writing and general quality between Seasons 7 and 8; this one felt much larger in scale, and the final serial finished off the series on an incredible high. Perhaps this is symptomatic of the fact that the Doctor’s exile ended mid-way through the series, but even then, we only had one off-world story anyway. It felt like the entire production team stepped up their game and really got into a groove which would define the rest of Pertwee’s era and redefine Doctor Who forever.

So, going back to my previous statement, I want to recommend this series, but conditionally. It’s important to watch Season 7 before this one, as I don’t know how this would work as a standalone season without the previous serials. However, I’m also tempted to recommend watching it without that context, to see how it holds up. I’m torn. If you are wanting to get into Doctor Who and don’t know where to start, I will always recommend Pertwee’s run; Season 7 marks the beginning of a huge change in the programme’s life, and Season 8 is a damn near-perfect follow-up in every way.

But I’m also very interested to know what you, dear reader, think about this series. Love it? Hate it? Generally lukewarm on it? Let us know down below and be sure to come back this Wednesday for my review of Season 9 to see exactly how it follows up this incredible run of stories…