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Reviewed: Doctor Who Season 26 – Begin Your Exile

Prisoner at the bar, you have been found guilty of using the word “Meh” to describe Season 26. For this act of grave and gross heresy, the penalty is that no one will ever buy you a drink again, and that your name will become a by-word for all piggy-wiggies and bumheads, among the entirety of fandom, from now until the end of time. Have you anything to say as to why sentence should not be passed upon you?


Meh and meh. 

The problem, really, is that I don’t much like Andrew Cartmel’s approach to Doctor Who. There are those who do; there are those who regard it as hugely creative and as one of the best periods in the series’ 56 year history – and that’s fine. I’m not saying they’re wrong: they can clearly see in it something I can’t and I wish I had their insight, just as I wish I liked either opera or sport, which I don’t like either. Aesthetics is a difficult area: nobody seems to have solved the question of whether something is good because it has some inherent quality or whether it’s all just entirely subjective.

But it seems to me (and please do cry heresy!)… 

Doctor Who has been different things at different periods. It’s variously been a children’s adventure series (which is not at all to denigrate it); an exciting family programme; a drama series with science fiction overtones; horror; a whimsical comedy series; straight science fiction; science fiction/horror comedy-drama –  and then, of course, we have Bubble and Her Fam, a hectoring and self-righteous programme which bears some superficial resemblance to Doctor Who. (Only joking.)

The point is, different people prefer different versions of Who. We all have our favourite type or types.

Under Cartmel’s creative vision, Doctor Who experiences another change in genre. It’s still science fiction, but it’s less of a drama series than it was. That is to say, it doesn’t follow the normal conventions of drama. You can see this especially by comparing it to the Jon Pertwee stories (to take an example). Barry Letts wanted to show how ordinary human beings would react to an extraordinary situation. The human characters are the kind of people you might encounter in any other drama series – but then you put them up against the Daleks. In a way, the creative process for Doctor Who was similar to what you’d get if you took something like Z Cars and then wondered what would happen if the Old Bill in Newtown had to deal with the spearhead of an alien invasion.

Under Cartmel, the programme becomes more fantastic in almost every respect. Fantasy isn’t restricted to the alien elements like the Doctor and his foes; it pervades the whole narrative. As a result, the humans become less human: each one becomes more a representative of a type than a flesh and blood individual. They’re a Nazi, a soldier, a vicar, a pub landlord, an academic, and so on. Types, rather than people. They’re not fleshed out and it’s hard to believe they have much back-story. Their psychology isn’t explored and their motivation isn’t explained. There are no compelling psychological portraits of people like Lupton in Cartmel-Who. We don’t learn much about who the supporting characters are. They’re more plot devices than people, and they’re less interesting as a result.

In this era of Who, then, the fantasy element increases by several notches. There’s a shorthand in the story-telling which perhaps owes more to comic strip style narratives than to “traditional” drama – or even traditional science fiction. Explanations aren’t needed. If most of Classic Who follows the conventions of drama as a whole, it’s fine for the Doctor to have a yo-yo, jelly babies, string, and a cricket ball in his pockets; but it wouldn’t be for him also to be carrying a prehistoric tooth. (Or, in Douglas Adams’ Who, a copy of a book written by someone from Hitchhikers.) In Cartmel’s Who, though, the comic-strip shorthand means you can introduce plot elements like the prehistoric tooth without needing any explanation. It’s just there. It is because it is. Nimrod is a Neanderthal in Victorian England because he is. Sinister servant women glide about in a choreographed dance because they do. It looks good. It’s fun. But it isn’t logical or coherent. It stretches credulity. It’s unreal.

Maybe that’s fine. It seems to me, though, that this shorthand narrative style/“it is because it is” storytelling requires a greater suspension of disbelief than do other, earlier styles of Doctor Who. I don’t buy it – but there are others who do and, again, they can clearly see in it something I can’t.

I think it’s possible to see this comic-strippy approach, if I can call it that, in other aspects of Cartmel Who.

We know, for example, that Oliver Elmes saw Doctor Who as a comic strip and designed the titles accordingly. Maybe that’s by the way. On the other hand, the titles provide the overture to what follows; they set the tone. (The first Pertwee titles and music were deliberately frightening; Pertwee’s reassuring face promised the viewers that he’d see them through the 25 minutes of terror to follow. The Sylvester McCoy titles aren’t frightening and neither is the Stylophone arrangement of the theme tune; they’re pretty anodyne, really. They look and sound quite nice but that’s it.)

What certainly is true is that, under Cartmel, the approach to the character of the Doctor changed considerably.

We know about the Cartmel Masterplan. We know Cartmel wanted to re-inject some mystery into the character of the Doctor and to ask, again, “Who is Doctor Who?” As a consequence, the Doctor becomes much more fantastic; sometimes, he’s getting on for a demi-god, a superhero. He can verge on omniscience. He’s less fallible, more alien, more peculiar. Odder.

Again, whether that works is a matter of taste; Sylvester McCoy isn’t my favourite Doctor but he’s extremely effective – in the way he takes the character into new areas and in how he contrasts hugely to his predecessors. And yet I prefer the Doctor to be a hero who can get things wrong, sometimes disastrously, who doesn’t know all the answers, and who has to work things out as he goes along. Cartmel’s attempt to rewrite the programme’s backstory involves dumping too much of its continuity. Even fairly casual viewers knew he’s a Time Lord who stole a TARDIS and ran away from his home planet. To imply that everything we thought we knew is wrong is trying to put the genie back into the bottle – and in any case, the gaff is blown by the novels, when it’s blindingly obvious that “The Other”, who works with Rassilon and Omega in the primordial times of Gallifrey, is the Doctor. Introduce some more mystery, then immediately solve it. Why bother?

(It’s noteworthy that NuWho dumped not only the half-human Doctor of the movie, but the whole of the Cartmel Masterplan as well. Eccleston to Whittaker are the renegade Time Lord from Gallifrey, not a demi-god from a dark time.)

Moving on. I confess to coming from a period when the received fan wisdom what that all John Nathan-Turner Who, bar his first season (Tom Baker’s last), was no good. This was too harsh, of course, though I partly shared that view at the time. I like the McCoys now more than I did when they were first shown (I was 24 when Survival went out). Sylvester and Sophie are one of the most effective double-acts in the programme’s history. Visually, Season 26 looks very good indeed. It’s a bit dated, perhaps; the video location work is harsh and looks a bit brash by today’s standards, in contrast to the softer and deeper location work achieved in the past on 16mm film. The design work is generally excellent.

But the stories… the stories. Russell T Davies takes the view that the scripts have to be first rate. If they aren’t, no amount of good visuals can compensate; you’re just building on foundations of sand. JN-T encouraged new talent, in writing and directing. Cartmel made it a policy solely to employ new writers – which is fine if they’re good, but, as Terrance Dicks and Eric Saward have stressed again and again, Doctor Who is a very difficult show to write for. Employ rookies with little experience (and especially if you employ rookies like Kevin Clarke who’ve never even seen it) and unless they’re supremely talented, you’re likely to end up with turkeys.

None of Season 26’s writers was highly experienced. Some had done more than others; two had written for Who before. They’re clearly talented. We didn’t get bilge like Delta and the Bannermen or Silver Nemesis this season. But they’re just not in the same league as Robert Holmes or Malcolm Hulke, or (for later seasons) Philip Martin. They show promise. I’m just not sure that showing promise is enough. 

My own view, for what it’s worth, is that the two better stories of Season 26 are Battlefield and Survival. Battlefield isn’t great. It’s workmanlike. It’s well constructed. It’s effective.

It’s okay.

It certainly looks very good, and there are fine performances from some of the guest cast, especially Jean Marsh, Angela Douglas, and Jimmy Ellis. It’s nice to see Bessie again, even with the new numberplate. It’s marvellous to have the Brigadier back and Nick Courtney is as wonderful as ever. The Destroyer is a thing of beauty. And yet… it’s all a bit hackneyed, isn’t it? Arthurian legend hasn’t been done in Doctor Who before but it’s been done to death elsewhere. Some of the plot seems to rely on magic (Morgaine’s healing powers and the chalk circle’s providing supernatural protection), which doesn’t really fit in with a science-fiction premise. So the Doctor’s Merlin, is he? This huge revelation left this viewer unconvinced – and totally baffled on the initial viewing, because on seeing Sylvester for the first time, Ancelyn hails him us “Hmurgh”. (Yes he does. Play it back. He definitely says “Hmurgh”. You have to wait a while to realise that “Hmurgh” is how recovering Arthurian knights say “Merlin”. Let us not go to Camelot. It is a silly place.)

Battlefield’s not bad. It’s not great. It’s got some good bits.

The best story of the season, and for me, the best of all the McCoy’s, is the final adventure of classic WhoSurvival has a strong story, it’s well directed, and Anthony Ainley gives his best ever performance as the Master. Hale and Pace guest star at JN-T’s insistence but are actually fine and don’t send things up as the producer hoped they would. I know Alan Wareing didn’t want Puss in Boots and then complained that’s exactly what he got; actually, I think the Cheetah People costumes are very effective. Lisa Bowerman is superb as Karra. It’s rare, alas, to have a woman writer for classic Who; there should have been more. Rona Munro, here at the beginning of her stellar career, produces an impressive script. Cartmel’s final speech for the Doctor was added after the programme was cancelled, or at least after it became clear that the crew wouldn’t be back imminently; it’s good, if a bit whimsical. It’s an enormous shame they had to tack it on at the last minute – as with Turnabout Intruder in classic Star Trek, there wasn’t time to round off the series with a more effective farewell. But at least they tried.

And so to the other two stories. I’m dreading saying anything about them because everyone says they’re wonderful and I think they’re garbage. I’m going to have to plead heresy again, I’m afraid. Ghost Light is marginally better, but not by much. [Takes cover behind metal dustbin lid from hail of rotting vegetables.]

Yes, okay, they both look good. The visuals are very strong. The sets are superb. Mike Tucker’s husks are suitably revolting. The BBC always excels when the drama department is let loose on Victoriana. There’s some excellent acting from, to name a few, Ian Hogg, John Nettleton, Dinsdale Landen, Alfred Lynch, and yes, from Nicholas Parsons. There are some good ideas in both stories.

But The Curse of Fenric also has some bad ideas. Some very bad ideas. Vampires are clichés. Doctor Who’s done them before, and much more effectively, in State of Decay. An evil from the dawn of time who lives in an old jar is a cliché – especially when we’ve never heard of him in the previous 26 years and we’re supposed to believe he’s an ancient antagonist of the Doctor when he’s never mentioned him before. Playing chess against said evil from the dawn of time is a cliché. And it makes the Doctor become a demi-god, a mystical force who can defeat an evil god by moving knight to king’s bishop’s third. This is the stuff of magic, not of science fiction. It’s silly. Ace meets her mum as a baby. Ace is so dumb she doesn’t realise that having babies out of wedlock was not socially acceptable in the 1940s. (No, I’m not saying they were right to think that. It’s just the way they thought in those days. Ace would have known that. The writing here is crass.) The girls playing the evacuees are awful. The vampire make-up is dull and hackneyed. The idea that human beings will evolve into vampires is daft. Mr Wainwright has got hold of a post-War Bible; there were only two translations available then of 1 Corinthians, and both spoke of “faith, hope and charity” (“charity” is an archaism for “love”). The incidental music blares and bellows. There’s a superb cliffhanger when Dr Judson stands up but one nice cliffhanger does not a story make. The direction verges on the inept on occasions. There’s a shot when the Russians creep up on the Doctor and Ace and the picture zooms out to reveal them – and to reveal that they’re in full sight of the Doctor and Ace, who don’t even notice them when they’re blindingly obvious.

Okay, okay, I’m wrong and it’s a masterpiece. Stop throwing rotten turnips at me.

Ghost Light, like Fenric, also seems to have a lot of good ideas, but they don’t cohere properly. Again, the visuals are excellent, even better than in Fenric. But there are lots of funny things going on and they just aren’t explained. It’s atmospheric, but the atmosphere seems to be an end in itself. Mr Matthews is incorrectly addressed as “Reverend Matthews”. Anglican clergymen of the period would never have been called this; “Reverend” is a title which goes with the Christian name rather than the surname, so “The Reverend Ernest Matthews” or “The Reverend Mr Matthews” is correct, but “Reverend Matthews” ain’t. I know this is my claim to a place in pedants’ corner, but it’s a silly mistake and someone should have spotted it. And while John Nettleton (a hugely prolific actor then, and a regular in Yes Minister as the Cabinet Secretary) plays the part well, this is Cartmel-Who and the character is a type – here, Oxford don and cleric – and not a person. The themes about evolution and cataloguing it are clever and original – I just don’t find the story coheres properly.

Do I detect a whiff of Christianophobia in these two stories? Maybe it’s just me. It’s not always easy to distinguish between what’s implied in a narrative and what a reader or viewer infers from them. And I know I’m always banging on about religion when I keep maintaining the DWC shouldn’t be a place for discussing religion, or politics, or ethics. And yet…

There certainly were Victorian biologists who were passionately opposed to Darwin’s theories. An extreme example is in Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son, a memoir about his naturalist dad, Philip. Philip Gosse rejected Darwinism because it couldn’t be reconciled with the accounts of creation in the book of Genesis. (Yes, there are accounts, plural: the story of Adam and Eve was originally a separate creation story from the one of God creating the world in six days; it was also written hundreds of years earlier. The Psalms in the Old Testament suggest there was a third creation story, too, which is now lost.) But Gosse and his ilk were in the minority. Most Victorian Anglican clergymen, like the laity, were enormously relaxed about the idea of evolution; they saw the Genesis stories as parables, not literal accounts of things that really happened. Evolution was fine; they didn’t see it as contradicting the Bible at all. Science good, religion bad is an old chestnut. Is making Matthews an obscurantist and a silly old fool just good storytelling, which relies on conflict (here, between his view and Smith’s)? Or is he just there as the dramatic equivalent of a straw man argument – to say that’s what religion is and isn’t it rubbish hohoho? Wouldn’t it have been more interesting to portray him with less extreme views on Darwin, as most educated men of his time would have held?

Then there’s Mr Wainwright in Fenric. He loses his faith. It’s not really clear on screen why this happens; in the novel, Briggs adds a lot more detail. Wainwright can no longer believe in a God of love and compassion in the face of the horror unleashed by the Second World War. Entirely understandable as a motive, too – though it has to be said this isn’t foregrounded so much in the TV version. (And it makes much more sense than any implied argument against God’s existence in Ghost Light, i.e. that Darwin and Christianity are incompatible.)

But then you get the idea that it’s not Christianity (or the power of God) that defeats vamps, as in classic vampire literature. In the novel of Dracula, the Count is dispatched by judicious use of the consecrated host (the body of Christ) from the Mass; Stoker was a Catholic. It’s usually protestantised in the films, so Christopher Lee’s flesh sizzles away when Peter Cushing holds up some candlesticks in the shape of a cross. Well, anyway. You can’t have God defeating vampires in a science fiction programme. So you get the explanation that it’s the faith that’s key because it creates a psychic barrier (a what?!) which does the vamps’ heads in. But any old faith will do. Faith in the Doctor, faith in God, or faith in Stalin’s kindly and benevolent society which Sorin thinks is so jolly splendid. Hmm. This relativises faith; it’s (just about) acceptable as an explanation in the story, but by relativizing faith, Christian faith is also devalued. Sorin’s faith in Uncle Joe and Wainwright’s (abandoned) faith in God are equally valuable, or valueless.

I don’t know whether Platt and Briggs are using their characters as a way of bashing Christianity. I suspect they are. If they are, I object to it: a) because I think it’s fatuous, and b) because I resent being told what to think, period. Even when I agree with the idea. I don’t like being told to believe things I believe anyway (like the sledgehammer message of “minorities are nice” in Bubble and Her Fam), or to believe things I don’t believe, like all religion is bad. Do not tell me what to think. Tell me stories. If there is an implicit Christianophobia in Ghost Light and Fenric, it may have been the case that JN-T would not allow it to get too overt. JN-T hardly ever talked about his own faith, but he was in fact a practising Christian.

(Having said all that, Wainwright is beautifully and sensitively portrayed by Nicholas Parsons – one of the occasions when JN-T’s stunt casting was a success. By the 1980s, Parsons was better known as the host of Just a Minute on Radio 4, which he’d hosted since the first episode in 1967. He’s still doing it, aged 96 and as marvellous as ever, today. Even in 1989, it was easy to forget what a superb actor he is. The casting must have taken Ian Briggs by surprise; Wainwright in the novel is a much younger man, which presumably reflects the writer’s original intention. It has to be said, too, that The Curse of Fenric works better as a book than it does on the screen, however much lost footage is restored to it.)

And finally. Heresy has been uttered. I quite like Battlefield; I like Survival; I dislike Fenric and Ghost Light. So I only think one story from Season 26 is really good. I’m not a huge fan of any of Cartmel’s output, alas. I’d put Season 26 on a par with Trial of a Time Lord: not terrible, but not great either. It’s a huge shame that Classic Who couldn’t have ended with a stronger season; at the time, of course, we thought it might well have ended for good.

That said, Sylvester McCoy and Sophie Aldred carry the show and carry the viewers with them. They’re totally committed. 30 years later, they remain wholehearted ambassadors for Doctor Who. Both are always wonderful convention guests. Sophie’s been to four of the five of our Bedford Who Charity Cons; Sylvester joined her for our most recent one. They are astonishingly generous and dedicated people; they’re superb at cons because they’re determined to make the fans, not least the children, feel special. They’re people who bend over backwards to help; they’re people who can’t do enough for you. Here’s a lovely picture of them from our Bedford Who Charity Con 5, held last April. I salute them. They’re marvellous.

NEXT: They fit perfectly.

Simon Danes

Reviewed: Doctor Who Season 26 – Begin Your Exile

by Simon Danes time to read: 16 min
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