Reviewed: Doctor Who Season 17 – The End of Dr Who

There are times when seasons of Doctor Who slip seamlessly from one to the next. Then there are times of seismic shifts: notably Season 6 to 7 with Troughton replaced by Pertwee and monochrome bursting into colour. But despite the complete regular cast change, behind the scenes there is a continuity. Terrance Dicks sticks around, as does Robert Holmes, and Dudley Simpson scores once more. The Brigadier and UNIT provide a bridge and, while the credits are updated to colour, the theme tune remains the same.

I’m pointing this out because, in my view, the greatest change in classic Doctor Who happens between Seasons 17 and 18. The Doctor and companion continue their travels but virtually everything else changes. The theme is completely re-arranged, incidental music is handed from freelance composers to the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, and regular costumes become more uniform. The new team of producer John Nathan-Turner and script editor Christopher H Bidmead try hard to use new directors and writers (only to be thwarted by a lack of suitable alternatives).

For me, Season 17 is a flawed last hurrah for Doctor Who as it started and what it initially evolved into. It contains one of the most celebrated productions in the series’ history, a few solid stories, some less successful, one real clunker and an intriguing ‘lost’ story.

But what marks Season 17 as unique is the involvement of Douglas Adams as script editor and lead writer. The fact that one of the most lauded and successful science fiction writers in the universe (I don’t care. He’s one of the greatest in the universe!) worked day-to-day on Doctor Who is a surprisingly little-known fact. Look at this list and see who – rather appropriately – ranks at 17 (not 42; that would be remarkable but wholly unfair ranking).

Although clearly a genius, Douglas Adams was never what you could call prolific. Apart from co-writes on a few Python projects and a couple of children’s TV scripts, he only wrote two Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy radio series, one TV show and one screenplay (both based on the radio series). And in terms of novels – what he is best known for – he wrote five Hitchhikers books (again, two of them adapted from the radio series), two Dirk Gently books, and a partly-completed posthumously released book intended to be a third.

So his Doctor Who output: three stories (albeit one under a pseudonym and one never completed) plus script editing an entire season of 26 episodes makes Douglas’s Who work a sizeable chunk of his entire output. If you then factor in the fact that the third Hitchhiker book, Life, the Universe and Everything, was the re-working of an unproduced Doctor Who screenplay (The Krikkitmen), that elements of the unfinished Doctor Who story Shada were worked into the plot of the first Dirk Gently novel, and that one of the leading characters in Hitchhikers – Ford Prefect – was conceived as an amoral version of the Doctor, then you could make the claim that Douglas’ Doctor Who work is nearly as important as Hitchhikers, and a little bit more significant than Dirk Gently.

So, why isn’t this better known? Well, partly because Joe Public (hi, mate) doesn’t give a wet slap about who is script editor, alongside the fact that Douglas’s most successful Who script is credited to David Agnew (who also, notes Joe, wrote the risible Invasion of Time). Add that to the extraordinary calamity that meant Douglas’ six-part Who epic was never completed or broadcast. Meanwhile they managed to produce EVERY SINGLE ONE of Pip and Jane Baker’s scripts. Oh, Belgium.

But, the unavoidable truth is that Douglas Adams wasn’t very good at being a Script Editor. It’s a technical as well as a creative skill. While I’m jolly glad he did get a crack at it, even the chap who suggested him, Anthony Read, noted that script discipline wasn’t Douglas’ greatest skill – as the almost unfilmable (but clearly extraordinary) first draft script for The Pirate Planet testified.

You can see this in the season opener, Destiny of the Daleks. The first scene with the Doctor and Romana as she is regenerating is pure Douglas: surreal, witty, and a bit silly. But then when the TARDIS doors open on a radiation-infected Skaro, it becomes pure gritty Terry Nation territory. The clearest mis-match of their styles is in Part One when the Doctor gets trapped under a collapsed concrete column inside the Dalek city. Nation likes to trap and injure people to inject a clear sense of jeopardy, but Douglas – who predominantly has a Pythonesque approach to injuries and death in his writing – chooses to undermine this with the Doctor joking and reading comedy books while he waits for rescue, seemingly unharmed.

A good script editor would either seamlessly sharpen the existing tone and writing (if it is largely working) or shift it entirely with extensive rewrites (if it isn’t). Douglas doesn’t appear in command of the material, unlike his mastery when originating stories himself. His voice is too distinct to subsume into other author’s writing. Neither is he such as grafter – like Robert Holmes, Terrance Dicks, Russell T Davies, or Steven Moffat – that he would take command of a script and largely reshape it to fit his vision.

Another example is the Douglas-inserted joke about Daleks not being able to scrabble up a ventilation shaft. “If you’re supposed to be the superior race of the universe, why don’t you try climbing after us?” taunts the Doctor to the Daleks. Now, if Douglas had not just dropped that into the scene as a joke, but made a point later about the Movellans (the Daleks’ rivals as superior race) being able to climb up easily, it would have served as a plot point rather than a metatextual witticism.

So what you often get in Season 17 is confusing tonal mis-match. Nightmare of Eden is attempting to offer a serious anti-drugs diatribe. You get the Doctor describing the devastating deadly effects of the drug Vraxoin (“I’ve seen whole communities, whole planets destroyed by this. It induces a kind of warm complacency and a total apathy. Until it wears off, that is, and soon you’re dead”) and then later when grappling with the (presumably meant-to-be) fearsome creatures that are the source of the drug, he larks, “Oh, my fingers, my arms, my legs! Ah! My everything! Argh!” In the same story, the customs officers, Fisk and Costa, who are there to investigate drug smuggling become the recognisably dim police officer-types that appear in Douglas’ other works: “It ain’t easy being a cop!” Out of the wholly Douglas Adams universe, characters like these become a little tiresome.

However, when fully realised in a story of Adams’ own devise, like Duggan in City of Death, they take on a whole new life. Now, I’m not suggesting Duggan is a fully-rounded character but he is endearing (there’s something very sweet about him buying a Mona Lisa postcard at the end) and – despite the Doctor’s protestations about violence – he does end up saving the human race with a punch.

Interestingly, the one writer that Douglas’ interventions do not jar is David Fisher, who already has an Adams-like tone. What holds The Creature From The Pit back is not the writing but the execution. There’s no getting away from the fact that on first appearance, Erato looks like a big green todger (complete with scrotum). When the appendage is later reworked, it still looks like it was cobbled together out of some bin bags and old sofa innards. Creature does boast some effective and a-bit-creepy film sequences. But Erato’s appearance is only likely to induce laughter than – for the want of a better phrase – to put the willies up anyone. Which is a shame because it’s a witty and clever script and, when it’s not dabbling dangerously with antisemitism, the performances are sound. Plus, anything with Geoffrey Bayldon in it has got to be worth watching. Interestingly, this season boasts Bayldon along with Graham Crowden as two actors considered for the role of the Doctor – the first and fourth, respectively.

Graham Crowden’s performance in The Horns of Nimon is nothing if not watchable. Mostly aghast with one’s jaw hitting the floor. His lively antics are at odds with the rather tenuous level of acting we get from the gaggle of kids from Aneth, led by Seth and Teka. Budgetary restrictions (a hallmark of this series) mean that only those two get speaking parts, with the rest of the captured children left to silently wander the Nimon’s labyrinth displaying no sense of jeopardy whatsoever. These are innocent kids due to be slaughtered and yet, as viewers, we’d prefer the bull beasts to just get on with the massacre rather than cheering Romana on as she attempts a daring rescue.

On that point, it would be worth the current Doctor Who production team watching Lalla Ward in Season 17 for some hints as to how to write for a female Time Lord. Romana takes much of the Doctor’s role in The Horns of Nimon (to the point of having her own sonic screwdriver) and proves some of the failings of the current production are not inherently because a female Doctor doesn’t work. Romana is brave, she has authority and expertise – while also being feminine, fun, and interesting. The same is true of Lis Sladen in The Sarah Jane Adventures. Let’s hope Chibnall and his team take note and give Jodie Whittaker the same opportunity to shine in 2020.

But however much Lalla takes the lead in her stride, it cannot elevate this story which remains a nadir in the classic series’ history. Poor production decisions such as silly sound effects and monsters in platform boots don’t help, but this has a dreadful script at the core. It’s a paradoxical combination of DoctorWho-by-numbers and has-no-one-ever-seen-this-programme-before? Douglas Adams and Tom Baker’s attempts to jolly-up proceedings invariably fall flat, leaving it that very rarest of things: a Doctor Who story that has almost no redeeming features. It doesn’t fail because it is overambitious or because it was let down by the production; it’s just a stone-cold clunker.

Which leads us to Shada. ‘Ah, the untransmitted story,’ says Tom Baker in the original VHS attempt to remount the episodes. No, it was not completed. You can’t transmit only two thirds of a story (with the exception of Ghost Light). But, of course, nothing in Doctor Who is ever left to die. Just as one day all episodes will be animated, re-created, or discovered, Shada was never allowed to escape. Through audio versions, novelisations, script books, and the aforementioned VHS release, there have been many attempts to bring us a complete Shada. And arguably the best attempt to present the story as a TV experience was the 2017 release with surviving footage cleaned up, effects and music added, and the unfilmed sections presented as animations, with the original cast providing the voices.

And it’s a wonder to behold. It’s hard to be dispassionate about the story when so much care and attention has been lavished to bring this abandoned BBC TV production from 1979 to life. We fans always wanted Shada to be an epic City of Death in Cambridge with added Time Lord mythology. Sadly, it isn’t. But it’s a whole lot better than ending the season with The Horns of Nimon.

One of the main issues with Season 17 is sequencing. Like a music album, the order of things in a season is hugely important. Terrance Dicks and Barry Letts, Philip Hinchcliffe and Robert Holmes, and Russell T. Davies were masters at this. Of course, losing Shada was never going to help, but putting three space-set, all-studio productions in a row does not allow each serial to shine. Watching the series in the original running order, when you put Shada at the end, it’s like opening a car window after a long stuffy journey. Shada lets you breathe.

Here’s my suggested improved running order:

1. Destiny of the Daleks – good choice, a Dalek opener, tried and tested;

2. The Creature from the Pit – although also set on an alien planet like the opener, the tone is lighter and the visuals more colourful;

3. City of Death – a little uplift in the middle of the season, set on Earth with lots of external filming;

4. The Horns of Nimon – you’ve got to bury this somewhere so let’s hope it gets a boost from being after City of Death;

5. The Nightmare of Eden – a solid spaceship-set story that manages to be pretty good, despite the extremely troubled production;

6. Shada – lots of external filming after a couple of studio-bound stories. It may not be perfect, but it still has that end-of-season vibe.

And so we draw an end to Season 17. Notable for the two highest audience figures ever achieved for the series, with 14.5 million for City of Death and 13.5 million for Destiny of the Daleks. One can only speculate what it would have been if ITV had not been off air due to a strike at that time, leaving only BBC1 and BBC2 to watch. However, the last few stories settled down to a very respectable average of 9 million. A success by any measure.

But before we move on to Season 18, it is worth noting the loss of longstanding Doctor Who stalwarts who never work on the series again:

  • Terry Nation, writer; first story: The Daleks, 1963
  • Christopher Barry, director; first story: The Daleks, 1963
  • Dudley Simpson, composer; first story: Planet of Giants ,1964
  • Bob Baker, writer; first story: The Claws of Axos, 1971

And, of course, it’s also goodbye to Anthony Read, Douglas Adams (whatever happened to him?), and producer Graham Williams. The Williams era may never be held in as high regard as Letts/Dicks or Hinchcliffe/Holmes but he deserves credit for steering the show during the height of its popularity (with big budget cuts), bringing some great new talent to the series, expanding its mythology, and always keeping a sense of fun.

And that brings us to probably the greatest loss to the series in Season 17: The Fourth Doctor. Of course, he’s back next year. But Tom Baker never again displays the exuberance and joie de vivre that is such a huge part of his incarnation. Yes, the more subdued and solemn Time Lord that we encounter in Season 18 matches the more funerary tone of those stories. While we see flashes of the Fourth Doctor’s anger at injustice in Full Circle, for example, there’s nothing as euphoric as Tom-on-a bike racing through the streets of Cambridge or basking in the bouquet of Paris. His close working relationship with Douglas Adams may occasionally cause him to take the silliness too far, but it definitely energises Tom who has never been more Doctor-like and iconic than in Season 17. It’s the end, but you get the feeling that what comes next is not what Mr Baker has prepared for…

NEXT: Dusty Death.