Reviewed: Doctor Who Season 20 – Diminishing Returns

Which one was Season 20? Sorry, I’ll be serious. I like Season 20. I realise that this puts me at odds with one Davison, P., who based his decision to leave (in part) on the stories in this season. I realise that some of the stories are a bit… well, find out below. And yes, there was a giant chicken. But I enjoyed it.

I attended my first Doctor Who convention the year before. Birmingham, it was and a time of excitement. Nick Courtney announced he was making an appearance and told us the name of the story. Peter Davison was there and on good form. Jon Pertwee put in an appearance. And by ‘appearance’, I mean… earthquake, I suppose. John Nathan-Turner announced that it was an anniversary season. Actually, every year is an anniversary. It’s what the word means. But this was the 20th: hence Season 20. Each story was going to feature an element from the Doctor’s past. Oh, we were agog. We were expectant (oh, the temptation). Would the Daleks return? When the cast for Terminus was announced, I was expecting the Vanir to be Ice Warriors – an impression that lasted until they appeared on screen and — I’ll save that for later. JN-T also announced that there would be a 20th Anniversary special. However, that doesn’t officially fall within my ambit for the season. (We were too poor for an ambit when I was a kid, so I like to slip one in every now and then nowadays.)

Okay, on to the stories…

Arc of Infinity

The last time we saw Tegan (Janet Fielding), she was on a rooftop at Heathrow watching the TARDIS take off without her. The tension and suspense of whether we would see our favourite bolshie stewardess again tempered by the press photos of her and Nyssa in Amsterdam.

Ah, Amsterdam! Tulips come from Amsterdam, as that flipping pipe-organ reminded us incessantly. Tegan had lost her job and was visiting the Netherlands to spend time with her favourite cousin. Except he had disappeared – taken by a giant, misshapen chicken and some bloke in fancy robes. Meanwhile, on Gallifrey, the High Council is concerned because someone has read the Doctor’s autobiography. I think. Fancy Robes Guy makes a partial bonding with the Doctor, which is nowhere near as interesting as it sounds. Oh, and there is a traitor among Gallifrey’s High Council. Since the High Council comprises of five people, it’s hardly the most taxing mystery. Fancy Robes Guy is taller than the traitor (“I am not of your dimensions, Time Lord”) and the Sixth Doctor is hanging about with a giant feather on his head waiting to kill the Fifth Doctor. Oedipal much? I could spend this whole section recapitulating the plot. Or I could tell you what I thought of it. Shall we assume you have seen it? Let’s shall.

The Time Lords started out as mysterious omnipotent beings with no interest in cosmic affairs. By the time of Arc of Infinity, they have become galactic monitors. If we had had many more classic meetings with them, they’d have been handing out milk at break time. Actually, they are rather more sinister than that. (No! Really?) Faced with a universal threat, they plump immediately for the option of eliminating the Doctor. No attempt to consider other possibilities. No certainty that it would work. And the magnitude of the danger could be overreaction anyway. Gallifrey, or at least the part we see, is a set of corridors and coffee bars. Maybe the milk monitors are needed after all.

Most of the acting is good. Kudos to the cast for being able to say their lines with a straight face. But those two Australians! Okay one of them spends a lot of time under Omega’s control. Actually, the other one wouldn’t have needed to act, being a zombie. Very handy. Peter Davison’s acting in the climatic chase scene just about convinces me that the threat is: a) real and b) immense.

The script and story are not the strongest. An enjoyable romp but could be better. Thankfully, Johnny Byrne’s next effort is an improvement.

I award Arc of Infinity 5 chickens out of 10.

Snakedance

The last time we saw the Mara, it was a giant draught excluder trapped in a circle of mirrors. But Tegan is having dreams involving caves and stuff. Freud would have had a field day. She sets the controls for Manussa but doesn’t remember doing it. Manussa was formerly part of the Sumaran Empire. Geddit? Su-Maran. I wonder what perils await our intrepid heroes.

The Doctor invents the Walkman to keep Tegan from falling (further) under the influence… of the Mara.

In the meantime, the Manussan Federation is celebrating the overthrow of the Mara. The Federator is represented by his consort and his incredibly bored teenager son, Lon (Martin Clunes). Then the TARDIS arrives and, with it, the Mara. And the rest you know.

At the time, I was ambivalent about Snakedance. Kinda had been a perfect story with a powerhouse performance from just about everyone. Notably Simon Rouse and Richard Todd (who was no doubt buoyed up by Matthew Waterhouse’s tips on acting). The script was sublime. Could Snakedance live up to it? Not quite but very nearly. We had also been promised a solution to the one fault with Kinda: that flipping snake! Part of me was looking forward to Snakedance. Part of me was worried that it would be naff. The rest of me was revising for my finals.

Snakedance is a good story. Martin Clunes, Colette O’Neill, and John Carson give great performances. Jonathon Morris… Well, he might have been having an off moment. Preston Lockwood is fine. I might wish we had seen more of Dojjen but perhaps this would have diminished the effect of the character. Clunes brings depth to what starts as a rather unpromising role.

The costumes are… Ahem. In the case of Lon’s costumes, remember we were only two years away from the Sixth Doctor and his delightfully restrained costume.

Now for the snake. Erm. It wasn’t as bad as Kinda’s draught excluder, mainly because it wasn’t on screen as long. It was not the convincing creature we had been promised.

Snakedance pretty much works. The story is excellent. It only really suffers in comparison with Kinda. Oh and the snake.

9 Faces of Delusion out of 10. Can we do that? Let’s do that.

Mawdryn Undead

The last time we saw the Brigadier (excluding flashbacks) he was standing in a distinctly non-Scottish wood watching the TARDIS take the Doctor and Sarah back to London… eventually. Then he went off to Geneva. Then he retired (temporarily) and became a maths teacher at a private school. As he explained to the Doctor, “I know how many beans make five”. I can only assume the A-level Maths syllabus had been dumbed down that year. Or is the Brigadier descended from Baldrick?

The Black Guardian is back and looking for revenge. He strikes a deal with a shifty schoolboy named Turlough. (Remember the name he will be sticking around.) Turlough, played by Mark Strickson, is to kill the Doctor and the Black Guardian will help Turlough leave Earth. What could possibly go wrong? Well, pretty much everything, actually.

The TARDIS is stranded on a deserted spaceship decorated to the point of decadence and a warp ellipse. The vessel is fully automated and travels through eternity. There are, however, five passengers. Passengers who attempted a very stupid experiment.

It is good to see Nick Courtney on screen again and he turns in two strong performances. I, for one, do not wish William Russell had been available. No disrespect intended to Chesterfield. But the Brig is such an icon. Mark Strickson makes an impressive debut too. Let’s hope they continue to give him enough to do. (Spoiler: they don’t.)

An interesting storyline that hangs on a huge coincidence. But it’s not the first time that has happened and it won’t be the last. Nyssa is underused. At this rate, they won’t hang on to her. David Collings makes a suitably pathetic Mawdryn. Though why Tegan and Nyssa should think a scabby man in a nappy is the Doctor beats me. Even if he does put on the Fourth Doctor’s coat.

The scenes of trying to get the TARDIS out of the warp ellipse (ageing and rejuvenating Tegan and Nyssa) don’t really work. Hard to believe Lucy Baker went on to be Lucy Benjamin from EastEnders.

I like the incidental music. Some have said that it is intrusive rather than incidental. Maybe but I don’t care. I will save my comments on the Black Guardian until next time.

An entertaining, if flawed, story.

5 beans + 3 beans = 8 beans out of 10.

Terminus

The last time we saw the Black Guardian, he was giving Turlough a pasting. The time before that, he was disguised as the White Guardian. He then changed colour and started ranting and raving. He wants the Doctor destroyed. Take one: failed. Now, he has Turlough attempt to destroy the TARDIS.

It was about now that JN-T’s promise of an old element in each story seemed a bit like cheating. Technically, each story does have a returning old character. But in two of them, it is the same returning character (who had also been in the previous story). Never mind, I thought – Maybe this has Ice Warriors in it. Rumours of armour and the Norse sounding names convinced me this was the case. Can you imagine the disappointment in my young breast when they didn’t appear? And by ‘young’, I mean ’21 year old’. Ho hum.

Turlough removes an element from the control panel and the TARDIS begins to break up. A safety device attaches it to the nearest space ship, which happens to be going to Terminus at the centre of the universe. Oh and the ship is carrying lazars. Definitely not lepers. But an equally stigmatic disease that has the same symptoms. Nyssa flees onto the ship and the Doctor follows to bring her back. Two space pirates from the planet ’80s board the ship and are then dumped on by their captain who vamooses. Then the ship reaches Terminus. Turlough, in the meantime, goads Tegan into leaving the safety of the TARDIS. The Black Guardian is not satisfied, however, and sends Turlough after her.

Over to you to fill in the rest.

I wasn’t going to mention Nyssa getting down to her underwear, but I see I just have.

This is Nyssa’s story and Sarah Sutton does not disappoint. Especially in her leaving scene. She shows the full nobility of her character. She says that she has learned so much during her time with the Doctor. The thing that leaps out at me is the realisation that scientific achievements are meant to bring a benefit to humanity. Hers is a truly fitting departure.

Tegan and Turlough are demoted to crawling around ducts. Mark Strickson had four episodes before being relegated to the crawlspace!

I like the Vanir (even though they weren’t Ice Warriors), especially Peter Benson as Bernie Scripps. Erm, Bor.

I like Kari and Olvir too. Okay, I’ll be honest. I fancy Liza Goddard. Olvir is a bit too camp.

Altogether, an enjoyable romp directed by Mary Ridge. As she had recently directed the final episode of Blake’s 7, I was just relieved that our heroes got out alive. Not the best story of the season but better than merely adequate.

7 John Lydeckers out of 10.

Enlightenment

The last time we saw the White Guardian, he was sat in a wicker chair drinking something orange. He had a panama hat on his head. Now he has a seagull. Does that mean his name is Cliff?

The Black Guardian has invested literally a period of time in getting Turlough to destroy the Doctor: all to no avail. Of course, it doesn’t help that Turlough has realised that he picked the wrong side in this particular battle. At the end of Terminus, the Black Guardian seemed to have given up on Turlough and left him either dead or unconscious on the floor of the TARDIS console room. (Spoiler: he was unconscious.)

Someone is trying to contact the Doctor and needs all the power of the TARDIS to do so. When the White Guardian manages to get through, he warns the Doctor that the Black Guardian is living up to his reputation as a wrong’un and just manages to get out a warning that they must not win, when Turlough cuts off the conversation. The Doctor is less than delighted with what the ‘boy’ has done.

The TARDIS materialises on board a sailing ship and the Doctor and Tegan meet Marriner and then Captain Striker. Striker and Marriner are Eternals, beings of immense power but no imagination who are bored. They are presently diverting themselves with a race. Several other vessels commanded by Eternals and crewed by kidnapped humans are racing for the prize: Enlightenment. When Striker warns the Doctor, “Do not ask me. I will not tell you” (in respect of what is his deepest desire), it sounds as if he is being enigmatic and mysterious. Turns out, he doesn’t know what Enlightenment is.

One of the vessels wants to win at all costs. Not exactly cheating as the only rule is not to go beyond. But damned caddish behaviour nonetheless. It then turns out that the race is round the Solar System and the vessels are space ships. The race gets underway. What are the Eternals? What is Enlightenment? What is Wrack up to? What is the Black Guardian up to? With whom will Turlough side? Once again, you can discover this for yourselves.

Doctor Who is a programme that has never been constrained in its format. Enlightenment steps outside what the programme has done before (well, The Mind Robber maybe) and it does it with great elan. It needs concentration just to follow what is going on and I applaud it for that. There is some excellent characterisation. Wrack, Striker, and Marriner all spring to mind. To anyone that might now be screaming that Marriner is a very flat characterisation, I say – he is meant to be. Tegan and Turlough are excellent. Especially Tegan. She clearly has no idea how to cope with the events unfolding around her. The attentions of both Marriner and Wrack (who are interested in her for her mind, rather than her body) disturb her much.

Mansell does not sit easily in such company. This may be because Leee John was not an actor. It may be that he was scripted and directed that way. But he gives a strange performance. Of course, Wrack does too. But Lynda Barron brings greater ability to her portrayal.

The final denouement is gripping. The nature of Enlightenment made clear. There are still a couple of questions unanswered. Is Wrack’s interest in Tegan completely platonic? When did Turlough decide to oppose the Black Guardian? When did the Doctor realise that Turlough was acting for the Black Guardian? Why did we not meet the Eternals and/or Guardians again? Can we have them back in the new series?

A few minor niggles aside (excusable due to the postponement of the story when a strike hit), this is a flawless adventure.

It would be churlish to give less than 10 Leeeeeeeeees out of 10

The King’s Demons

The last time we saw the Master (Anthony Ainley), he was trading TARDIS parts with the Doctor in prehistoric Heathrow. Here, he is playing knights in armour in 13th Century England. The Doctor is trying to get Turlough home. So naturally they end up at Ranulf’s castle in time to meet King John who is visiting and pushing droit de seigneur to breaking point. The king is distinctly unhinged. He is accompanied by a contingent of French knights. One of whom has an obviously false beard. Two false beards if you count… And an unconvincing French accent. That’s right: it’s Sir Bruno Taltalian!

The king declares that the crew from the TARDIS are demons (pot, kettle, the colour black). There is a lot of plotting and 13th Century office (castle) politics. Am I describing this enough to pique your interests? Good.

Peter Davison does not have fond memories of two-parters. I rather like them. This is not as good as Black Orchard–sorry, Orchid, or The Awakening, but it has its moments. Frank Windsor and Isla Blair imbue Ranulf and Isabella with great dignity and nobility. Christopher Villiers plays Hugh as a whinging teenager but that is what he is supposed to be doing.

It’s not a perfect story. It is not the best story of the season. But I enjoyed it. A plaudit for Turlough’s line about calling on Hell. (“I could but so could you. With as much chance of success, I feel.”)

I give it a 6/10. [Oh my dear Tony, you have been naïve. -Ed.]

Okay, these are my thoughts on Season 20. No doubt some of you will disagree. I hope so. I am trying to spark a debate. I also hope some of you will agree. So go on – how many beans make five…?

NEXT: Wonderful chap, all of them.