Reviewed: Doctor Who Season 24 – Hang On In There

Oh dear. I blame the BBC. Or JN-T. Maybe a little too early to blame RTD? But we have to blame someone, right? But, hark, we’re Doctor Who fans, always ready to look for the best in even the worst stories – able to forgive, re-watch, and reappraise. And that’s what I’ve done. Yes, it may not have the greatest stories or the highest viewing figures but it does have a special something that makes it worth ploughing through. Something that marks its place in Doctor Who history. What is that, you cry? Ah, well, you’ll have to read on to find out…

Back in the ar*e-end of 1985, my dad came home one day with a glorious surprise. It was a video cassette recorder. I know. Amazing, right? It was one of those top-loading ones with the buttons that stuck-out the front. It came with a VHS cassette that was an hour long. And for a while we just used that over and over again to record TV programmes to watch the next day.

And by 1987, I had a revelation… with my pocket money, I could buy two E180 (three hour!) video tapes. And that way I could record the whole Doctor Who season: two stories on each tape. And, aged 13, that’s what I set out to do. Season 24 would be with me forever.

But this home video device also opened up a world of Doctor Who from the past. For my 13th birthday, my brother bought me Death to the Daleks – released at a ‘budget’ price in July 1987. It was soon to be joined by The Seeds of Death and Pyramids of Mars in 1987.

Now there’s a famous expression from John Nathan Turner, ‘the memory cheats’. You can see him utter these words while defending the reaction to Season 24. What JN-T meant by the phrase is that people’s memories are rose-tinted, the mists of the past have clouded our judgement.

But, for some of us, that simply was not true. Before Season 24 went out, I had a glorious summer watching and re-watching Death to the Daleks. Which I still love with a passion, but by any reasonable reckoning is not one of the greatest Doctor Who stories. But, for me, it was much better than anything in Season 24. Creaky old Seeds of Death too. And with Pyramids of Mars you scarcely can believe is the same TV show from a little over a decade before. 

We all know the behind-the-scenes turmoil that resulted in Sylvester McCoy’s first season. Eric Saward, consumed with grief over the death of his friend and writing hero Robert Holmes, and frustrations with his producer, had dramatically walked out before the end of the Trial season (23). 

Colin Baker, in retrospect a fine choice for the Doctor, was unpopular with the BBC hierarchy, and – unfortunately – he wasn’t best loved by the viewing public either, or by vocal minority of Doctor Who fans. This was partly the result of a production choice: the Sixth Doctor was introduced as bombastic, arrogant, and unlikable.

Attempts to soften his character and increase Sixie’s appeal never seemed to supercede that initial impression. And he was always going to be saddled with that ‘totally tasteless’ costume. But falling ratings and negative press coverage (largely generated by the BBC’s decision to axe/suspend the show) meant that something had to go. And it was Colin. 

I suspect there was some level of surprise in the Doctor Who production office when they found out there was going to be another season after 23. JN-T, despite all the criticism levelled at him, clearly loved the show. Even more than his career – or mental health I suspect. If there was a time to walk away, this was it. But the combined effect of not being offered another role in the BBC and the problem that no one else wanted to produce Doctor Who meant JN-T nobly stayed on.

The canny producer had already commissioned a script in case of such an eventuality. Thus saving the viewing public 25-minutes of a blank screen and an apology for four weeks. When Time and the Rani was broadcast, many viewers probably wished he’d gone for the other option. 

But I’m being insulting to McCoy’s introductory story. Mostly because it does the same to my intelligence. And yours, idiot. On the surface, Time and the Rani has a lot going for it. There’s some great model work and effects. The alien planet Lakertya is realised extraordinarily well thanks to new electronic effects, employed in a much subtler and more integrated (less garish) way than on the Thoros Beta in the previous season. The Rani’s bubble traps are a wonder to behold – with kudos to the whole production team for giving them a physical presence as they explode into rocks and splash-land on the lake.

Beyond that, there’s little to recommend the story. As the Seventh Doctor’s introductory story, it is appalling. Clearly no lessons have been learnt from The Twin Dilemma, a similarly dreadful first adventure for the Sixth Doctor. Given that more casual viewers will tune in just to see what the new Doctor is like, both these adventures do a huge disservice to the actors and their ultimate interpretation of the part. 

You can understand why many viewers who only watched McCoy’s first story came away with the impression that this was a silly, slapstick Doctor intended for children – and younger children at that. His malapropisms, laid on thick (as in stupidly) by the writers, Pip and Jane Baker, are simply annoying. They are not a character trait, just a distraction – a desperate attempt to give life and eccentricity that falls dreadfully flat. It’s the kind of quirk they would give to a minor character at the tail-end of the run of Rentaghost

The dialogue is diabolical, the characterisation a catastrophe! (That’s my attempt at Pip and Jane Baker’s writing style, which I will abandon now for all our sanity.) Veteran actors like Donald Pickering and Wanda Ventham are exceedingly under-used. You can see them trying their best but the material cannot be elevated, even by their acting experience. Kate O’Mara as the Rani, however, comes out of it pretty well – somehow managing to rise above the absurdity.

But, gah, viewing the story again, it is all rather… watchable. It’s fast, flashy, and unchallenging television. You don’t get bored – exasperated, yes – not bored. But compare this to later McCoys where you are called to piece things together from snatches of dialogue over several adventures. Okay, so all the pieces of the Cartmel Masterplan never quite result in a full jigsaw (partly because it was a season or two off completion), but there’s nothing going on in Time and the Rani apart from the surface, and that’s pretty thin. 

Time and the Rani does get confusing towards the end: ‘I have the Loyhargil!’ exclaims the Rani. Eh? But you don’t feel the need to invest time in finding out what it’s all supposed to mean. It means the Rani has a giant brain that will destroy the universe or some such. There’s no greater purpose or ambition involved. While you’re grateful it’s all over, contemporary viewers must have dreaded whatever came next… 

And the answer – phew! – was something a little bit better. When the Seventh Doctor emerges from the TARDIS in the not-as-creepy-as-it-should-be hi rise in Paradise Towers, he has a confidence and familiarity. It may be hindsight, but McCoy pretty much defaults to the Doctor we come to know and (many of us) love from here on. 

Paradise Towers gives us the first taste of what makes McCoy’s characterisation so distinctive. It’s there in his relationship with the Kangs – they see something young and somehow ‘cool’ about him, despite his age and appearance. It’s there when the Doctor resurrects an old drinks dispenser just to get some fizzy refreshment. And above all, you can see his manipulative mind at work as he uses the Caretakers’ rule book against them – making his escape in the process.

One aspect of this season that has not escaped criticism is the incidental music, with Keff McCulloch (who provides the scores for three out of four stories) singled out for disapproval. His late ’80s pop bombast fits well with contemporary television and chart sounds, but it also matches the stories well here – albeit leaving little room for subtlety. While Keff’s score for Paradise Towers is more hummable and melodic – think the theme he writes for the cleaners stalking the corridors – the story, in my opinion, works a little better with the alternative music.

Thanks to the wonders of DVD technology (don’t worry VHS fans, it will never catch on), David Snell’s rejected score has been restored as an option for all four episodes. It’s more sinister and less obtrusive, reinstating much of the menace that is inherent in the script, but is less fully realised (partly because of poor source material). 

Even so, the alternative score is still not quite right, and you can see why the producer preferred the more overblown approach by McCulloch. What watching with Snell’s music helped me to do was to consider some of the production choices and imagine what would have happened if they had made it creepier and less cartoon. But with robots chopping up caretakers, elderly lady cannibals, and brains stealing bodies, it may not have been fit for early-evening viewing…

Paradise Towers, while a step-up, is certainly not a classic story. But it is seminal in that it’s a departure in tone that leads the way for much of the McCoy era to come, such as The Happiness Patrol and The Greatest Show in the Galaxy. ‘Oddballs’ as JN-T described them. While they have echoes in previous eras (think The Sunmakers and The Mind Robber) and future stories (The Long Game and The Doctor’s Wife), they are only ever in their fullest form in the Seventh Doctor’s era.

What the Oddballs and Season 24 give us for the first time is comics as a key influence on stories and approach. And by this, I mean Marvel UK in particular, with its quirky characters and outrageous plots. Not the ‘Boys Own’ comic strips that had parallels with the UNIT Pertwee era, nor the horror comics that had echoes in the early Tom Baker Hinchcliffe era. In some ways, this is the TV show playing catch up with Doctor Who Weekly/Monthly which had been featuring ‘oddball’ stories since Doctor Who and the Iron Legion eight years previously. 

Singling out Paradise Towers as ‘oddball’ does rather suggest that what’s to come is somehow more ‘standard’. With a bus spaceship-load of shapeshifting aliens taking a time-travel holiday to 1950s Earth pursued by vengeful militia to a holiday camp in Wales, Delta and the Bannermen is anything but run-of-the-mill. 

I’ve seen so many articles re-appraising this story as the start of the McCoy renaissance, about how it is grown up and brilliant. Because it isn’t cynical and attempting to be ‘dark’ like many stories Eric Saward oversaw as script editor. So I rewatched it again really hoping to find that spark and enjoy the ride. Sorry, but I just can’t unconditionally enjoy this.

There were parts that put a big smile on my face: Burton’s reaction to the Doctor’s explanation of why he has to evacuate the camp (‘Are you telling me that you are not the Happy Hearts Holiday Club from Bolton, but instead are spacemen in fear of an attack from some other spacemen?’); bounty hunter Keillor being ironised – leaving just some smoking blue suede shoes; and the Doctor tearing about the countryside on a Vincent Black Lightning motorcycle and sidecar… Even Ken Dodd’s cameo is okay (until he gets shot and dies like a cartoon nutter).

But this really is painful viewing. Partly because it could/should be a lot better. The Bannermen are supposed to be ruthless genocide perpetrators, but they come across as bumbling keystone spacecops. They can’t shoot straight (I know, no one ever can when they are on-screen faceless mercenaries), except when they suddenly can shoot straight (again, I know…). They don’t say anything – leader Gavrok doesn’t even have a deputy to spark off – and their victory cry is to stick their red tongues out and hiss like, um, tw@ts frankly. It makes me sad and embarrassed just thinking about that brief shot. Doctor Who shouldn’t do that to me.

Then later, they run into a shed that stores honey and bumble about until the jars fall off, break unconvincingly and splat them, then they get stung by bees and run away. They are supposed to be a fearsome, unstoppable army but the whole sequences is sub-Rentaghost.  

In the opening scene, not only are the explosions like an indoor firework display, when the last male Chimeron is shot, why does his mask cover his mouth? Surely they could have made one that opened for his lips to move? A scalpel and a bit of green lipstick would have been enough. It just seems sloppy. 

Then there’s Ray with her ‘Welsh’ accent that’s so appallingly pronounced and theatrical that you can understand why mechanic Billy decides to eat alien baby goo, grow green skin, and fly off in a spaceship with a woman who has all the personality and appeal of one of his old spanners, rather than hang about with Ray looking all doey-eyed and handing him wrenches at every opportunity like an over-keen Welsh Springer Spaniel ready to pounce and lick your face into oblivion. Thank Logar and his mighty vapours that we didn’t end up with Ray as a companion (the alternative option to Sophie Aldred’s Ace).

Worst of all is the newborn Chimeron, who starts out promisingly as an icky, writhing, wrinkled green baby. But in the flick of a Bannerman’s tongue, she turns into a toddler in an ill-fitting baby grow with her face covered in the green makeup they could have applied to the lips of the slain Chimeron in the first scene. The cut between the prosthetic baby and the green-faced toddler may constitute as the most poorly-realised creative decision in the whole of Doctor Who. And, yes, I’ve seen the minotaur in The Mind Robber

And so to Dragonfire. Which, I remember at the time as being something of a relief. It was a more ‘traditional’ tale that – as such – topped the DWM poll that year. Again, like all of this season, it’s easy watching. A bit like enjoying an episode of Terry and June while you eat your dinner and can’t be bothered to look for anything better. But it really only shines in this season because what leads up to it is so disappointing and alarmingly variable.

Season 24 has little in the way of memorable monsters and alien creatures. What it does have is a series of dastardly villains played by prominent guest cast members. As noted, Kate O’Mara’s Rani is good value, despite the fact that she’s undermined at once – overcome by the Doctor wielding a scarf and giving her a quick shove.

Richard Briars plays the un-possessed Chief Caretaker just about on the right side of silly, but loses the plot massively when his body is taken over by the Great Architect. Director Nicholas Mallett should have reigned him in by about 98.6% on the OTT scale, and it’s surprising he didn’t, given how subtle and moving a performance he manages to coax from Nicholas Parsons in The Curse of Fenric. Briars’ performance renders Paradise Towers Episode Four pretty much unwatchable. And, for me, it spoils the many joys of the first three episodes – giving them a pervading sense of dread at how it all ends up.

Delta’s Gavrok, an intense performance by Don Henderson, is also hampered by the material. As soon as they arrive on planet Earth, Gavrok is seen in blazing sunshine of the Welsh countryside surrounded by bumbling mute Bannerman. It’s hard to be convincingly menacing in those circumstances. Gavrok and the Doctor’s ‘white flag’ episode in Delta Part Two – where the unarmed Doctor attempts to bluff his way into getting his friends held hostage back – shows what could have been. Later encounters with Fenric, Morgaine, and Helen A reveal how powerful the Seventh Doctor is when squaring up to evil megalomaniacs. More screen time between the Doctor and Gavrok would have greatly enhanced the story.

Like Henderson, Edward Peel plays Kane – the evil overlord of Iceworld – absolutely straight. It’s a suitably chilling performance, his temptation scene with Ace is a highlight because it actually feels like drama, not light entertainment. However, Dragonfire – like all of this season – suffers greatly from tonal mismatch. Yes, you get the alien hunt, but you also have that little girl wandering around with her teddy bear in her party dress for no apparent reason. It’s not comic relief or a counterpoint to the plot; it’s just padding. In the same way that Hawk and Weismuller either needed to be excised from Delta, or fully incorporated into proceedings. 

Plus in Dragonfire you get the feeling the Doctor has compromised his morals. Returning character Glitz from the previous season is portrayed as a ‘lovable rogue’ but he sold the crew of his spaceship as slaves to Kane. As a result, they lose their memory, and will be used effectively as zombie killers. The reaction of the Doctor (and Mel) to this is to exclaim, ‘Glitz!’ like he’s ignored a phone call from his mother. In Trial of a Time Lord, the Doctor is forced to team up with Glitz, despite him being amoral, self-centred, and treacherous. In Dragonfire, he’s treated like a crazy uncle whose eccentricities you tolerate. 

Glitz’s true character is revealed in his reaction to the destruction of his ship, the Nosferatu. He’s not concerned at the death of all the innocent people on board fleeing for their lives but the loss of his precious vehicle. 

For a season that was meant to tone down the violence, there is a surprising amount of mass murder in every story. The Rani uses killer insects to indiscriminately kill innocent Lakertyans and keep them enslaved, alongside the bubble traps and later explosive devices attached to their ankles. Paradise Towers has a litany of murderous devices: in fact, the whole tower block is designed to kill its occupants – with only a handful left by the end of the story. 

For a rock ’n’ roll romp, Delta deals out death and destruction with alarming regularity. Apart from the Chimeron race nearly being wiped out (for no reason given on-screen) at the start of the story, there’s another spaceship full of innocent people escaping for their lives that get blown into oblivion. The fun-loving Navarinos who set out to enjoy a holiday are all mercilessly killed – caught up in a war they played no part in. This kind of thing does happen in Doctor Who but the chirpy upbeat ending where their deaths are not even acknowledged really grates.

The one person who expresses outrage at their deaths is Mel – the only witness to the atrocity. The much maligned Bonnie Langford really settles into her part this season and, by Delta and Dragonfire, you really get a sense of Mel and the Seventh Doctor as a team.  

Yet Mel is really given a hard time throughout the season. First, there’s the Rani’s rather-too-accurate impression of her – Kate O’Mara’s pitch-perfect capturing of Mel’s bouncy walk, wide-eyed optimism, and wholesomeness. Meanwhile, the real Mel is trapped in an exploding bubble, held captive, and troubled by Tetraps. In Paradise Towers, Mel’s innate goodness is once again used against her as Tilda and Tabby plot to eat the ‘delicious’ young lady.

Mel gets a bit of a respite in Delta but, as noted earlier, it’s Bonnie who expresses grief and anger at the loss of the Navarinos. Despite coming into her own, in the last two adventures Mel is slightly sidelined by the potential new companions, Ray and Ace. But Dragonfire at least sees the uptight Mel let loose a bit as she enthusiastically chucks cans of the explosive, Nitro 9. Ace and Mel work surprisingly well together considering how polar opposite they are – as best revealed in the scene in Ace’s bedroom where Mel feels compelled to tidy Ace’s dirty laundry.

The introduction of Ace is often touted as what saved the Seventh Doctor’s run, adding an element of late 1980s grit to his adventures. But clean-cut Mel is just as good a reflection of that era with Kylie and Jason, and Stock Aitken Waterman dominating the charts. In fact, I remember many people at school being annoyed at this Grange Hill-type character being deposited in the fantasy world of Doctor Who

Plus there is a discrepancy in Sophie Aldred’s performance; on most occasions, she sounds like a Blue Peter presenter before suddenly going all ‘common’ announcing, ‘I haven’t got no mum and dad. I’ve never had no mum and dad, and I don’t want no mum and dad. It’s just me, all right?’ It all gets ironed out by the start of the next season but not since Dodo 20 years previously has a companion’s accent been so variable.

Mel’s leaving scene has a lot going for it – it all sounds very important, but there’s very little substance. It’s McCoy who gets all the best lines and the scene appears to be dropped in out of nowhere at the end of the story. Viewers are left totally baffled about Mel’s choice to leave, particularly to stay with dodgy Glitz and travel the cosmos in an intergalactic frozen supermarket. 

However much I have grown to love Ace and the Seventh Doctor, the end of Season 24 offered little to be optimistic about. The BBC didn’t seem to care about the series – there was very scant publicity and the show was buried in the weeknight schedule against Coronation Street. The Seventh Doctor showed great promise, but the series never felt more like a kids’ programme. Ace appeared to be an attempt to bring a bit of ‘street culture’ into the programme, but in a clumsy artificial way.

So you can imagine me with my two VHS tapes containing Season 24, wondering what on earth might happen next. Not with excitement but with a slight sense of dread. How can they turn this around? My temptation after viewing Season 24 again for this review was to immediately watch Remembrance of the Daleks – just to reassure me that it does get better and things will come good. Really good. Ace, in fact. 

Instead, I left it hanging. And I felt like what I imagine the Seventh Doctor was thinking as he dangled over the cliff in Iceworld… wondering how this happened and believing there is no escape. Only a long drop down to certain death. And that’s what Season 24 has as its dubious claim to fame. It’s the season when Doctor Who hit rock bottom. There are some good parts in these stories. And it’s Doctor Who, so it is always going to be something some people love, while others deride. But it’s a season, and I can’t think of another, where there really isn’t a standout, brilliant story.

But, hang on in there! There may just be something very special coming…