Reviewed: Doctor Who Season 12 – Larks in Space

I began watching Doctor Who in 2005. After seeing Christopher Eccleston’s first series I had to see more. The promotional material leading up to the new series said that there had been lots of Doctor Who before. I immediately sought it out, swapping out one grinning mad man for another, although this one has slightly more hair.

I don’t know what drew me to Season 12, but I doubt I could have picked a better set of stories to dive into the Classic series. Tom Baker’s opening year as the Fourth Doctor holds up very well thanks to a stellar cast, excellent scripts, and a bucketful of imagination.

The Best TARDIS Team

As a reader of The Doctor Who Companion, you may be hard pressed to say who your favourite Doctor is. Those awful online lists that always put Colin last tend to put Tom first, but there is a reason they are bookended by Bakers. To many people all over the world, Tom Baker is the Doctor and Season 12 is just the start of his 7-year reign of power.

Whether he is expounding the virtues of humanity or shouting at Harry Sullivan (Ian Marter), the Fourth Doctor holds your attention. His charisma reaches out of the screen and grabs you, making you watch. It’s sometimes hard to tell where the Fourth Doctor begins and Tom Baker ends. His boggle-eyed madness is so otherworldly that you easily believe that he is a 2-hearted alien.

Tom uses this to his advantage, making the Doctor much less human than his predecessor. This new Doctor has no time for the Brigadier’s (Nicholas Courtney) militarism and can barely be bothered with goodbyes before he tries to fade away in his little blue box. You could never imagine Pertwee grinning like a madman at the prospect of having his brain fried attempting to meld himself with an intergalactic caterpillar.

The show is just as keen as the Doctor to get away from UNIT and does not return to modern day (’70s/’80s?) Earth for the rest of the season – choosing instead to fly into the far future and give us Alien 4 years early. The Ark in Space is a triumph of low budget brilliance. Once you look past the bubble wrap and the opening shot of a washing up liquid bottle in space, the story is incredibly engaging.

Spending the entire first episode focusing on the 3 regulars could not be done if you did not have such engaging characters. Thankfully, Sarah Jane Smith and Surgeon Lieutenant Harry Sullivan are 2 of the finest companions the Doctor has ever had. Their relationship with the Doctor makes even the slightly rubbish Revenge of the Cybermen interesting as they bicker and poke at one another.

Harry Sullivan bumbles onto the show as a fully rounded and interesting character. A navy man on secondment to UNIT, Harry keeps a cool head in most situations, even if he doesn’t know what is going on. He is a doctor and a man of action, elements that are constantly called upon over his sadly short time on the show.

Only a few hours into his adventures, he is ready to smash a Sontaran’s head in with a big stick because he thinks that the alien killed the Doctor and Sarah. Quite how a doctor didn’t realise they were alive is beside the point. He did not hesitate to act.

Likewise, in Genesis of the Daleks, he helps the Doctor out when he steps on a land mine, once again risking his life to save his friends. He might have gotten his foot caught in that big clam, but he means well. The Doctor managed to fall down exactly the same ravine that Harry did, so maybe they’re more alike than they want to think.

(Note, Tom Baker actually broke his collar bone doing that scene in The Sontaran Experiment.)

Harry’s the new boy, but there’s someone else who is perhaps just as iconic as the Fourth Doctor. The incredible Sarah Jane Smith, played brilliantly by Lis Sladen. She was apparently nervous about not fitting in as Ian Marter had initially done many more scenes with Tom and they had developed a rapport. Thankfully, they both embraced her with open arms and so started a Doctor-Companion dynamic that some would say has never been beaten. However, they don’t travel alone together for a while yet, so what is she like in her first season without Jon Pertwee’s mother hen?

Obviously, she’s excellent. This TARDIS trio immediately works perfectly together. Sarah obviously cares for Harry and the Doctor, but will not stand any of nonsense. ‘Call me old girl again and I’ll spit in you eye’. Harry quickly learns not be quite so chauvinistic around Sarah. He is amazed that a woman is in charge of the earth in the far future; Sarah just rolls her eyes.

Locations

Tom Baker’s broken bones were only possible because they went on location for the shoot. Dartmoor was the culprit in that instance, but that didn’t stop production from heading all over the country. They went to Wookey Hole so the Doctor could call Harry Sullivan an imbecile and a quarry doubled as a desolate Skaro, obviously.

All of these locations are used incredibly well. Squeezing every drop of visual flair out of them. Shots of gasmask-wearing soldiers falling down dead among the rocks and fog is a scene that will stay with me for a long time. It may have been the quintessential Doctor Who quarry, but you quickly forget that at the start of Genesis of the Daleks. The Doctor talks to a black-clad Time Lord as mist swirls round the mysterious figure. It lends gravitas to the story that you are about to see… setting up the dark foreboding tale of the madman that created the Daleks.

Revenge of the Cybermen doesn’t quite manage to live up to the previous serial, but Wookey Hole is still an exciting visual. The lighting is sparse, leading to some lovely shots of the Doctor up high on some rocks. It’s not the best story, but at least some of it looks nice. Although, to my knowledge, there is no actual gold in the Somerset cave.

The story that uses its location best is the one that is entirely set outside. The Sontaran Experiment lasts only 2 episodes, a novelty for the era. Our TARDIS team spend their time running across the Moorland, and in and out of rocky features. There are some wonky edits in this story that I think was an attempt to give the place scale, but only led to me being confused about where everyone was. Harry spends a lot of time running between the Doctor and Sarah, conveniently running into them again and again. It makes it seem like they are only a few feet apart.

We see some lovely shots of Dartmoor, with Tom Baker and his long scarf bounding across the greenery. In his pursuit of a standard colonist, he makes quite a nimble jump down an incline. It’s all much more impressive that Sarah’s tumble down a small hillock in The Five Doctors. The ravine that Harry and the Doctor fall down seems deep, although the Doctor’s scarf would probably have reached.

Villains

Philip Hinchliffe and Robert Holmes had a vision to bring more science fiction to the show and move away from the earth being invaded all the time. Their bold new vision involved bringing back a lot of old enemies for Tom’s first season. This may have been done to help people adjust to the new Doctor, but as they are both at the end of the series, so I doubt this. It is my understanding that they inherited some scripts from the old production team (notably, Genesis was apparently commissioned by Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks), which is why the later seasons feel more Hinchcliffian, to probably not coin a phrase.

Something else they inherited was the perennial Doctor Who problem of all monsters having to look somewhat like a bloke in a rubber suit, because that’s how they would be portrayed. These issues caused the creature designs to be a mixed bag; a BBC budget and mid-’70s technology can only do so much. We start off well though.

The K1 Robot (Michael Kilgarriff) in Robot is a big robot, that become are giant robot near the end. Of the new monsters introduced this season (all 2 of them), this works the best. It is understandable that someone would build a machine that looks vaguely like a human. He may be a bit of a tubby robot, but the reactions of the cast sell him as a credible threat.

Kettlewell’s (Edward Burnham) interactions with the robot have real heart and keep you guessing as to the real villains of the piece. Kilgarriff is used to playing hulking Doctor Who monsters, having played the Cyber Controller in The Tomb of the Cybermen. He is able to convey complex emotions with a simple shift of his body. It’s a sector of acting that does not get talked about enough.

The Wirrn do not fair quite so well. In DVD extra interviews, Kenton Moore, who played Noah, talks about his extensive rehearsals of being taken over by the Wirrn. He played it like Noah was not in control of his alien-infected hand, always fighting against it, his fingers twitching in odd inhuman ways. Sadly, these acting choices had to stay in rehearsal when they just covered his hand in bubblewrap. You don’t get quite so much nuance out of a plastic mitten.

Nuance is not something the other Wirrn can convey either. It’s up to the actors and the script to tell you how these creatures are really moving and thinking, because, on screen, the adult Wirrn just stumbles forwards very unmenacingly.

There is a particular scene where Harry and the Nerva crew are firing on the creature, forcing it back through a door. The whole scene lacks any sort of energy or sense of weight. The guns look like they have been made on Blue Peter, with no physicality to them. The Wirrn costume cannot articulate pain or movement or struggle, and the whole sequence goes on too long. They work much better as an off-screen existential threat that is cleverly scheming to take Nerva Beacon down, not wobbling down a brightly lit corridor.

Sontarans speak with actions, not words and Styre (Kevin Lindsay) is no exception. Appearing in the last few seconds of the first episode, he makes a startling impact. Sarah thinks he is Lynx from The Time Warrior, because all Sontarans look alike. Styre is quick to educate her on the fact. He addresses her and all the other humans as if they were mice in a lab.

His clinical approach to brutality is as funny as it is terrifying. Tying a man to a rock to see how long he can survive without ingesting liquid; the answer? Not that long. He delights in his tortures… I mean, research. I do wonder if he is actually interested in the military application; he seems to just enjoy causing pain.

Harry lucks out with his short time abroad the TARDIS. He gets to meet Sontarans, Daleks, and Cybermen one after another. The former 2 are excellent; the Cybermen not so much. I don’t want to be too harsh on Revenge of the Cybermen – it’s no Silver Nemesis – but it’s definitely the weak story in the series. Particularly when it follows Genesis. That story regularly tops the lists of best stories and Revenge… doesn’t.

I don’t mind the design for the ’70s Cybermen, but this is the first time they have been seen in a very long time (since The Invasion in 1968) and they deserve more. Their plan to attack the planet of gold, a substance that can kill them, is either brilliant or stupid, but it’s hardly logical.

The Man in the Chair

Davros. Creator of the Daleks. He deserves his own section, I believe.

Terry Nation came to Hinchliffe and Holmes with his standard Daleks-invade-a-place story, probably with some obviously-named planet and a character called Tarrant. He was quickly told to go away and come back with something better. I think we can all agree he succeeded.

Whether you believe it was all the work of Nation or you buy into the conspiracy theory that Robert Holmes wrote huge swathes of Genesis of the Daleks, it doesn’t really matter. We have 6 episodes of television that contain some of the greatest scenes in the history of the show, and almost all of them involve a man in a rubber mask.

I am so used to hearing Terry Malloy as Davros in Big Finish that it took me a moment to get used to the voice of the man who started the ball rolling. Michael Wisher steals every scene he is in, shouting and cackling like only a mad scientist can. He is able to give so much emotion with his voice and the use of one arm. Davros points and gestures with every utterance and it’s very clear where his influences lay. Nobody can press a button as menacingly as Davros. It is testament to his performance that this is probably Davros’ best outing.

Oh, I Say

Season 12 of Doctor Who has the same struggles that the show has always had. It doesn’t have the budget to properly realise the ideas it has, but that doesn’t mean it won’t have a damn good try.

With an excellent TARDIS team at its centre, this series is always watchable and often amazing. Whether this is Tom Baker’s best season I cannot say, but he gets off to an utterly wonderful start.

I only wish Harry had stayed around longer.