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Retrospective: Doctor Who The Collection — Season 24

When the Blu-ray season collections started coming out, I assured myself that:

A) I was only going to buy Tom’s first season, as it had some fantastic extras. That’s it! No more.

B) Okay, I would only buy the collections from the first four Doctors’ seasons, yes.

C) But hold on, I would make an exception for Colin’s first season as it was my favourite of the ’80’s.

D) I… Okay, the dominoes kept falling and I’ve got all of them so far. 

(As I type this, I’m still a month away from Colin’s Season 22 being delivered here in the states, as we get them much later.) 

So hey, there’s always something good about each season, even the naff ones; you just have to find it. With the John Nathan-Turner era, sometimes, it could be a challenge.

Season 23’s The Trial of a Time Lord, usually ranked as the second worst season of the classic era, was indeed a trial, but with a couple of Robert Holmes scripts, and the return of Sil, and, well, Brian Blessed — that alone makes that purchase worth it.

Season 26 had the McCoy era slowly continuing a comeback, so… okay. Season 19 was hard at times, but at least you had Earthshock and The Visitation

But Season 24… No matter how bored I was, no matter how much I craved some Who I hadn’t seen in quite a while (sometimes for good reasons), I kept passing Season 24 by on Amazon. For months (years?). Finally, the completist in me caved. Possibly because Season 2 had been solicited, and I figured, oh, okay, Season 24 is down to $38, and I think I have an pre-existing credit on Amazon. 

What’s interesting in doing this season’s overview is that there were a few more things I picked up on. Although, going into Time and the Rani, a very bizarre idea popped into my head. Take this how you will.

It’s never been a secret that Michael Grade was an enemy of the show. He put it on hiatus after Season 22 and sacked Colin after Season 23. And within the showbiz circles, it was known that Colin Baker used to date Grade’s wife years earlier, which really put an interesting spin on his apparent gunning for the show and Colin in particular. But, I’m sure it was all… a coincidence.   

When casting the Sixth Doctor, JN-T told the story of some huge outdoor event, where he and his friends were entertained for hours by Colin, as he told amusing stories. Nathan-Turner said that was when he decided to offer Colin the role. But the thought occurred:  I don’t know what stories Colin told during the gathering, but I can’t help but wonder if, in the back of his mind, Nathan-Turner didn’t have the nasty little thought “Oh dear, Grade would really hate this guy being the new Doctor!” Of course, take that with a grade of salt, but this is what popped into my head as I watched Kate O’Mara kick over Sylvester in his Harpo Marx wig. 

I watched the extended cut of each of the four stories in Season 24, and there was at least one noticeable, immediate bonus — when Syl was flipped over, thanks to SFX, they added Colin’s face that then regenerated into Sylvester’s. It’s a small detail, but really vital, all things considered. Various other screen graphics were updated as well. 

With the ’60’s era, since they filmed all year round, and had to pad out those weeks, quite often, we’d get a six-parter that really should have been a four-parter. Time and the Rani was a four-parter that would have benefitted from being a three-parter. Maybe even a two-parter. The whole season could have been shrunk down to eight parts. Although I was watching the extended cuts, so maybe that’s on me.

I thought it interesting that Pip and Jane Baker were tapped for writing McCoy’s first adventure, especially after the Open Air debacle, and worse yet, their jet black hair dye debacle. Overall, it gave me the impression that JN-T didn’t quite have the hunger anymore. At times, there seemed to be a lack of professionalism, and things got a bit sloppy, like the season seemed more like a medium budget fan production. 

Mind you, I’m not knocking JN-T in this instance. The Beeb put him in a horrible position. Threatening to axe the show all together, if he didn’t stay on as producer. He was burnt out, he wanted to leave, and it showed here. Although I believe in Seasons 25 and 26, Andrew Cartmel started to gain his footing and took more control with confidence. 

Sylvester McCoy was an interesting choice for number seven. JN-T’s casting choices across the board have usually been controversial. Syl was known for pounding nails up into his nose and playing the spoons, and having quite the gift for physical comedy. Watching Season 24, it was apparent that he was going to utilise that gift every chance he got. Whether it was his own choice, Cartmel’s or JN-T’s, or even the story’s directors telling him to just go nuts, I can’t say. But he did so, with pratfalls, tumbles, and vociferous spoon play. Sometimes, this physical sideshow seemed to have no other purpose than padding.

In Time and the Rani, at one point, he pointlessly runs back and forth, off and on camera, only to return on screen confused, as in, “are we still rolling? Are we using all that?” And this type of thing happens numerous times throughout the season, most notably in Dragonfire in two instances. First, the fact the story took place on Ice World — well, it’s all ice, so everyone is often, allegedly, walking on ice. At least, this was Syl’s take, as he often made a showing of “sliding” around on the ice as he walked, because, hey, Ice World. And it was a further excuse to show off the broad, physical comedy. But he either didn’t share his plans with his fellow actors, or no one bothered to pay attention or play along. 

The second instance was the infamous “cliffhanger” sequence. Most are familiar, but for those who aren’t: the Doctor is running along an ice path that has a railing. Over the railing and looking down is either a thousand foot drop and imminent death, or 15 feet down to a nice big ledge — it all depends on how much or how little they thought the scene through, and the perceived need for additional physical comedy. This scene has earned its place as the nadir of Classic Who. It gives the appearance of everyone having totally given up, except for Syl, who has a gag in mind. 

Forgive me as I try and unpack this. Instead of just continuing to run along the path, the Doctor decides on a whim to climb over the railing and dangle by his umbrella. Switching to a new camera angle, we see imminent death, courtesy of the 1,000 foot drop. Oh dear. Cliffhanger. Imminent death. That he chose freely. For absolutely no reason. (There was a reason, but that doesn’t come across on screen, so for all intents and purposes, there’s no reason.)

At the start of the next ep, Glitz comes strolling by, and because of the Doctor’s pleas for help to save him, he just waltzes down to the convenient ledge that’s only about four feet below McCoy’s dangling shoes at this point. Glitz unnecessarily waits right under him (almost parallel, really) to assist him down the extra stretch of inches. But of course, this turns into some bizarre pantomime meets vaudeville meets OTT wrestling match as Glitz and the Doctor grapple with each other. Hilarity does not really ensue. All unfortunate. 

This type of assumption on the part of the stars or production staff, that the audience is either too dim to notice what’s actually happening, or four years old and too easily amused, is really beneath the show. It’s a 1,000 foot drop for the cliffhanger, but a four foot drop for the gag, none of which even had to happen. Should have done better. Or made the thing a two-parter.

Despite the mugging and tumbling, in Delta and the Bannermen and Paradise Towers, Syl’s acting is head and shoulders above the rest of the crew, whose guests are either disturbing (Gavrok eating a huge piece of raw… something) or amateurishly visually inconsistent (after getting his body possessed, the Chief Caretaker’s moustache blossomed from the Hitler style, to a full, regular version between eps), and it really gave the impression that no one was in control or paying attention. There was also some laziness. How did Ace get to Ice World again? Oh, you know… Time Storm. Syl also butchered proverbs throughout the series. This was arguably worse than Colin’s puns.

In Time and the Rani and Dragonfire, the supporting cast seemed far more competent. It’s obvious JN-T did some unfortunate stunt casting though, like Weissmuller and Hawk in Delta and the Bannermen, and the Rezzies in Paradise Towers. A lot of playing down to the audience.

Okay, elephant in the room. 

Mel. We never did see how she comes to meet the Doctor in the first place, because we just got flung into a future adventure via Season 23’s Trial, where she was already there in Terror of the Vervoids. So we were never properly introduced. That type of thing is almost as off putting as not seeing a proper regeneration. The SFX here fixed the regeneration, but there’s no “fixing” Mel. Nor should there be, as Bonnie Langford is going to be Bonnie Langford. But she was put in this position.

One can criticize her bizarre clothes in Time and the Rani, chalking it up to hideous ’80’s fashion, yet Kate O’Mara kind of pulls it off somehow. Speaking of Kate, go back to Season 22’s Mark of the Rani, and watch Anthony Ainley and O’Mara together. You look at their faces, and tell me they weren’t separated at birth.

So, Mel. The overly theatrical stage presence, the overbearing nature… the screaming. That godawful screeching. There’s even an issue with her vision, apparently. Because in Paradise Towers, if you’re looking at a big, clear indoor pool, it is a physical impossibility to miss the big yellow crab robot just sitting there waiting for you, unless you’re legally blind. Which might actually account for some of the fashion choices. But again, poor plotting and writing.

I’m sorry, Bonnie. It was a mistake to bring you into the show. To be clear, I blame the tone deaf casting on Nathan-Turner. Even Mel’s departure… she just decides it’s time to go? And… with Glitz of all people? How is that a wise choice? It’s certainly not safer. Was Glitz consulted or warned about what all this would mean for him and his waistline? Does he like carrot juice? And her goodbye itself is poorly written, very forced, and straight out of the blue. It’s all just awkward.

On the extras from the collection, one bit stood out: some filmed auditions for the role of the Doctor, which include a few scenes with Syl, and then two other contenders, all playing opposite Janet Fielding. It’s an interesting watch.

Of all the seasons of classic Doctor Who, this would be last on my recommendations list, but if you can get it at a discount, go for it, especially you completists out there. 

Some day, they might sell out, or you might, I don’t know, get caught in a “Time-storm” or something.

Doctor Who: The Collection – Season 24 is out now.

Rick Lundeen

Retrospective: Doctor Who The Collection — Season 24

by Rick Lundeen time to read: 8 min
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