Reviewed: Doctor Who Season 25 – Anniversary in Silver

Here we are: the penultimate season of Classic Doctor Who. The penultimate goodbye. After 25 years, this little science-fiction show had taken off to heights no one could have imagined, yet with my sheer luck of being born during the Wilderness Years and seeing Christopher Eccleston kick off his run – albeit from a distance – while I was in primary school, I can’t ever remember a time without this programme. Now with Series 12 (Season 38, in all) in production featuring a (fantastic) female Doctor, several animated missing episodes (with more on the way), countless documentaries, novelisations, comic books, and, most recently, a reconstruction of a First Doctor classic, it’s impossible to forget that Doctor Who exists, and I couldn’t be more thankful for that.

I want to preface this season much as I did my previous ones: with honesty. I have only ever seen Remembrance of the Daleks, and the rest of this season is a mystery to me. Actually, being 100% honest – Remembrance is the only time I have ever seen Sylvester McCoy as the Doctor (bar the beginning of the 1996 TV movie), and I’m very excited to see how this goes. His run, though short, has some episodes within it that many of my friends consider the best of the Classic Series (or at least up there with all the other ones you would expect). With that in mind, and my excitement present – but measured – let’s do this…

Remembrance of the Daleks 

Written by Ben Aaronovitch; Directed by Andrew Morgan

Or, Nemesis of the Doctor. 

Context: The final appearance of the Daleks in the Classic Series, and for good reason too. Aaronovitch makes his first of two contributions to the series (the second and final of which being Battlefield), whereas director Andrew Morgan is here making his second and final contribution (the first being Time and the Rani). We have the return of Terry Molloy as Davros, as well as the introduction of what has come to be known as “The Cartmel Masterplan” (which I had no idea existed before writing this review).

In short, The Cartmel Masterplan is what fans have come to call script editor Andrew Cartmel’s plan of bringing more mystery to the character of the Doctor, as he felt too much had been revealed over the previous 24 years. This wasn’t ever explored to the fullest, as the show went off the air after the 1989 season (spoilers), and Russell T. Davies didn’t pick it up for Christopher Eccleston – though I do have to say that I feel both he and Steven Moffat certainly utilised elements of this storytelling to introduce more mystery, especially in a post-Time War universe (especially in episodes like The Name of the Doctor).

Review: What can I say about this serial that hasn’t been said before? It is absolutely solid, and I can see now exactly why it holds up as one of the best of the Classic series. Having made my way straight here from Season 9, which aired some 16 years earlier, this feels like an entirely different show. I mentioned in my Season 8 review that my first Doctor was Jon Pertwee, and this is true – he was the first I ever saw a complete serial for, but what I didn’t mention was that Remembrance Part One was actually the first episode I ever saw; I watched this first episode, saw that the Sci-Fi channel was looping back to Season 7 the following week, and decided to wait it out. 

Watching this entire serial now – especially having seen a good majority of the Classic series and all of NuWho – I can really appreciate how good it actually is. The pacing is the best I’ve ever seen (noting that I still haven’t experienced every single episode ever) and it made the four parts feel like two when all is said and done. The ending takes a darker turn, and I really enjoy it.

It was a bold move to destroy Skaro, and one that certainly influenced the future of the show; for such an exciting silver anniversary special, ending on the lines “time will tell – it always does” after Ace asks if they’ve done good made me worried about the rest of the season after this. As someone who is going in with knowledge of the Eighth and Ninth Doctors, the Time War and beyond, yet has never seen Seasons 25 or 26, this is definitely something I want to see play out.

DVD Extras: I was fortunate enough to pick up the collector’s edition of this DVD in Australia many years ago, so not only do I get all of the amazing “making-of” and looking-back special features, but I also have a second disc with a documentary entitled Davros Connections, an amazing look back at the creator of the Daleks in all his glory. Fans who were lucky enough to snag a copy of The Davros Collection boxset will also have this extra, and I can safely say it’s worth the investment. 

The Happiness Patrol 

Written by Graeme Curry; Directed by Chris Clough 

Or, The Crooked Smile. 

Context: In researching this serial and its production, I learnt that the team originally considered transmitting the episode in black and white to suit the noir theme, and I really love that. Director, Chris Clough is making his penultimate contribution to the series (the final one being the very next serial), and writer, Graeme Curry makes his sole contribution here. We sadly lost Graeme earlier this year, so it’s only fitting that I dedicate this review to him here – on my first ever viewing of his serial. 

Review: For now and forever, The Happiness Patrol will be known as the second time I ever saw McCoy as the Doctor, and what a follow-up to Remembrance it is. Now, it wouldn’t be a review of mine unless I said the word “pacing” a certain number of times (I’m paid by the “pacing”), so: the pacing. It’s good. Not as good as Remembrance of the Daleks despite this only being three parts, but it still feels tight and works really well. The concept too is something that I deeply enjoy, and it’s executed in a satisfying and clever way.

Speaking of executions, the Kandy Man is terrifying. Like, actually. I was genuinely uneasy every time he was on screen. Yes, the outfit is a little ridiculous, but it works in the context of this story beautifully and serves its purpose well. The voice modulation is a perfect blend of sympathetic and scary, and I wish that this character was used more as the story played out.

The writing is where this episode shines. It is witty, fast-paced (there it is again), and downright laugh-out-loud funny at times. One highlight for me was towards the end of Episode Four when we see a destroyed Kandy Man emerge from the chute. Joseph C and Gilbert M are standing there having this fantastic conversation, written and delivered perfectly by their actors (Ronald Fraser and Harold Innocent respectively) – and I actually rewound that part and watched it over. It’s dry, but hilarious, and tells us so much about these characters in a finite number of lines. 

Overall, I loved this serial. I’ve never really heard anyone talk about it, and I think this was mostly due to the fact its DVD release was paired with Dragonfire – a story panned universally. Regardless, I am mad that it took me this long to watch, and the three-part nature of it was a nice change from the standard four to six. This is definitely one I will be revisiting in the future.

It made me happy, and after all is said and done: happiness will prevail.

DVD Extras: In the special features, we have two lovely documentaries entitled “Happiness Will Prevail” (your standard “making-of” doco, which is always a welcome addition) and “When Worlds Collide,” which is a fascinating look back at the political ideologies explored in this story. As someone who was born in the late ’90s (and in Australia), this is the kind of context I value above all else. It’s brilliant, and well worth your time. 

Silver Nemesis 

Written by Kevin Clarke; Directed by Chris Clough

Or, The Harbinger. 

Context: The true 25th anniversary episode. Despite Remembrance kicking off the silver anniversary, it was actually Episode One of Silver Nemesis which aired on 23rd November 1988. No irony was lost there with the title, but this was very much deliberate on John Nathan-Turner’s part. We have director Chris Clough returning from the previous serial for his final Doctor Who contribution, and writer Kevin Clarke making his first and only story for the series. Importantly, it’s also the final appearance of the Cybermen (at least until 2006’s Rise of the Cybermen, some 18 years later).

In terms of actors, this serial is pretty fun. We have the return of Fiona Walker from 1964’s The Keys of Marinus, and actor Leslie French taking the role of the Mathematician. French was actually considered to play the First Doctor before William Hartnell took the role, so to see him pop up in a serial for the show’s 25th anniversary is a really stellar nod to the history of the programme. We also have David Banks back for his fourth outing as the Cyber-Leader, having previously appeared in Earthshock, The Five Doctors, and Attack of the Cybermen.  

Review: Alright, stop me if you’ve heard this one: The Doctor, Ace, a 17th Century sorceress, the Cyber-Leader, and some Neo-Nazis walk into Windsor Castle. No? Okay, let me start from the beginning. We open with strong imagery: a swastika and an oil painting of Hitler accompanied by Ride of the Valkyries. I mean, it certainly sets the scene. We then get a little back and forth between 1988 and 1638, which doesn’t make sense at first, but eventually does (sort of). Actually, that sums up this entire episode, so let me repeat: it doesn’t make sense at first, but eventually does (sort of). 

The first episode sets up the premise extremely well; it feels well-paced with snappy dialogue and very few extraneous moments. I am enjoying the cut down to three-part serials – it takes my six-part problem and literally cuts it in half to a short, sharp, and all-round enjoyable time. But as we move into episodes two and three, things begin to get a little problematic. While the script from Clarke is pretty solid, there are far too many plot threads going on at once to keep track of.

Clarke is attempting to juggle the Doctor and Ace, the Cybermen, the time-travellers, and the Neo-Nazis, and what we get is about three seconds with each of those groups because it cycles around again. There is this lovely moment where Richard (one of the 17th Century time travellers) sees a man hitchhiking and gets an idea for how they can hail down a car, and right as it should hard cut straight to this comedic pay-off, it cuts to the Cybermen for literally five seconds, before going to the Doctor and Ace sitting around, and then back to Richard and Lady Peinforte. It feels like a huge missed opportunity, and a big part of me would love to go in and edit together a new version of this serial with the correct pacing and pay-offs to make this competent script appear that way.

But hey, it’s not all doom and gloom. Like I said, this script is otherwise solid, and there are some absolutely fantastic moments in here. For instance, the Cybermen reacting to Jazz music is the Best Thing Ever. The dry dialogue delivery when they are tracing the signal made me actually belly laugh:

“Is there any pattern to the jamming signal?”  

“It is meaningless!”  

Even though they don’t have expressive faces, the absolute blank stares and head turns whenever the Cybermen hear Jazz is simply incredible. Alongside this, all of the actors are excellent, most notably Anton Diffring as De Flores and Fiona Walker as the aforementioned Lady Peinforte. The Doctor and Ace are in fine form this time around too, with the entire thing feeling very upbeat. With a few tweaks, this could have been one of the better serials in the programme’s later years, but what you see is very much what you get, and sadly we can’t travel back in time to change things. Not one line.

DVD Extras: Considering this is technically the show’s 25th anniversary special (up for debate, but in terms of airdates, it is), there is a severe lack of special features on this DVD. Granted, we have the usual making-of, a great commentary, and more than 20 minutes of deleted and extended scenes…but that’s it. I don’t know what else I would have liked or could ask for, but there are some single disc releases which have triple the amount of content as this one; it left me a little disheartened to see this serial overlooked so harshly, especially considering it’s the final appearance of the Cybermen in the Classic series. 

The Greatest Show in the Galaxy  

Written by Stephen Wyatt; Directed by Alan Wareing

Again, I have all the luck: this is the only serial without a working production title. That is, three for three with season finales. Thanks BBC. 

Context: Here for the final serial of Season 25, we have writer Stephen Wyatt: his final outing after writing Paradise Towers last season. Joining him is Alan Wareing, making his first of three appearances in the director’s chair, returning for Ghost Light and the programme’s final ever episode, Survival the following year. We also have here the first incidental music from Mark Ayres, a role he would continue for two serials of the final season (Ghost Light and The Curse of Fenric), but more on him in the DVD Extras section.  

Review: I’m with Ace here: I hate clowns. But here, in 2019, we have the IT: Chapter 2Joker, and now I’m watching this. Sigh. I’m a sucker for punishment, it seems – yet punishment this serial is not. It’s brilliant; the highlight of the season for sure. It feels just like a season closer should: foreboding, full of action and suspense, and all the while witty and fast-paced. 

The sinister build-up in the first episode is insanely well handled. You aren’t given much (if any) context at all and ending the episode with Ace making a comment about the screaming – something the Doctor can’t hear – left me incredibly intrigued as to what followed. Unfortunately, that thread didn’t lead to or pay off in the way I was expecting (something along the lines of Ace being privy to all of the danger because the Doctor was too busy enjoying himself and/or being controlled/blocked in a psychic way); however that didn’t take away from the serial at all.

While it lost its way a little towards the end, the serial held strong in its beliefs and presented us with an intensely fun end to the silver anniversary season. I would have liked to see the Chief Clown become more prominent mid-way through and take over as the true villain of the serial for the finale; however, having some Gods (of Rrrrrragnarrrrok, no less) behind the scenes pulling strings feels like such a classic trope for the programme at this stage that I can’t really say too much more about it.

I just always wanted more from the Chief Clown; Ian Reddington is absolutely phenomenal and stole the entire serial every time he was on screen. In fact, all of the supporting cast in this episode felt like they were at the top of their game. Peggy Mount as the Stalls lady was hilarious, T. P. McKenna as Captain Cook was irritating (a testament to a brilliant character actor), and Jessica Martin as Mags was amazingly fun to watch. I think this serial takes the cake as the best supporting cast in Doctor Who history, and it’s certainly one I will be revisiting again in the near future.

DVD Extras:  Before being commissioned to compose the music for The Greatest Show in the Galaxy, Mark Ayres was asked by the BBC to write pieces for Remembrance of the Daleks as a test of sorts. Here, on the special features, we have those compositions set to the accompanying visuals for the first time ever, and they are haunting. It’s strange to see those scenes without the original score (composed by Keff McCulloch), but it feels natural, and I couldn’t more thankful that it was included here. Also on the standard DVD release, there is a making-of documentary, plus some unused model shots among a few other bits and pieces. A really nice release to round off Season 25 in style.

Concluding Thoughts 

All in all, as my first time going out with the Seventh Doctor, I had a wonderful time. Though none of the serials in this season were perfect, each of them shone in their own way, and it amazes me simultaneously that a season which feels this strong could be the penultimate one, but also that a show with this many production issues and behind the scenes drama could survive for 25 years in the first place. 

Every time I researched a serial, there were some issues going on, but I think that made me enjoy it all even more. Doctor Who has established itself as nothing if not resilient in the face of adversity – much like the Doctor themselves – so to see these pretty solid episodes come out during such a turbulent time for the programme is tremendous.The Greatest Show in the Galaxy is especially testament to this, using a massive tent when they had to shut the studios due to asbestos.

I think the standout moments of this season came mostly the supporting casts – they were all phenomenal, and the realism I felt inside each of the serials came from their stellar contributions. I also really enjoyed the dynamic between McCoy and Aldred, and in fact I put in the DVD for Battlefield immediately after I removed Greatest Show – I want more, and with only one season to go, I may as well keep watching!

But I guess the burning question: would I recommend this season? Yes. Hell, even as a jumping on point. As I said, Remembrance Part One was the first episode of Doctor Who I ever saw, and it hooked me enough to not only wait for the Pertwee re-runs, but then to continue onwards and begin again with Eccleston. Obviously, there is only one season before this which introduces us to the Seventh Doctor and Ace, but even without that background knowledge, I felt like I already knew McCoy and how he played the Doctor; he feels familiar, and this season feels like a warm hug from someone you haven’t seen in a while.

NEXT: The tea’s getting cold.