When bubble wrap was scary
Much of the popular reputation of Doctor Who revolves around children watching it from behind the sofa (that’s futon for my American readers) waiting for the next terrifying creature to emerge, but not wanting to miss a moment. We now approach the biggest expression of this during the classic era.
The show had a new Doctor (discussed under Season 11) and had gained a new producer, Philip Hinchcliffe, although Barry Letts would handle the first story, filmed as part of the eleventh production block. A certain Robert Holmes would be in charge of the script editing. Although all these stories were commissioned before they’d arrived, the two started to put their own imprint on them, creating an period usually called the “Gothic Horror” era, taking the show in darker and more frightening directions.
For many a young fan who would become an older fan and particularly those who now work on the show, this era scared the living daylights out of them.
If this man was still alive, he’d be up for Hugos – Robert Holmes
Doctor Who was never nominated for a Hugo Award during its classic run – the Dramatic Presentation award back then covered both films and television – so things frequently tended to go to the higher budget American feature films, like Star Wars. Since 2006, it has been up for Short Form every year, with more than one episode up, winning five years out of six (the only exception being its loss to Joss Whedon’s Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog in 2009). Four of those five wins have gone to stories penned by Steven Moffat – he didn’t have a 2010 win as he didn’t write any of the specials, being too busy creating the Eleventh Doctor.
Steven Moffat is probably the best writer of the new era. When it comes to the classic period, the title goes to Robert Holmes (1926-1986), a former police officer and journalist who turned to television writing.
Holmes completed a total of 17 stories for the show (on his own or with others), dying before fully completing his 18th, “The Ultimate Foe” the final segment of “The Trial of a Time Lord”, an act that had massive implications for the future of the show and which we will cover later in the Season 23 entry. This does not include the other stories he script-edited during his three-and-a-half seasons in that role. That count of 17 is greater than any other classic era writer (it’s over 10% of the classic run) and beaten only by Russell T Davies – while RTD has written more overall hours for the franchise, Holmes has the title for the main show. Doctor Who was by no means his only work – he also wrote four episodes of Blake’s 7 and worked on a number of other programmes.
Holmes’ stories have a lot of common themes to them. He liked pastiches of classic horror and sci-fi, he had a particular penchant for trapped villains who are desperate to recover their freedom no matter the cost for others and his double acts, such as Jago and Litefoot from “The Talons of Weng-Chiang”, are fondly remembered. He also did a good number of loveable rogues and more than once killed off pretty much his entire guest cast.
He didn’t have a perfect record – “The Power of Kroll” from Season 16 stands out as one of his failures, but when he hit, he it. In Doctor Who Magazine’s 2009 poll of readers on the entire run of the then 200 stories, three of his stories ended up in the top ten, along with another story from his time as script editor. The winner of the poll? “The Caves of Androzani”, the story that ends the Fifth Doctor’s tenure, written by Holmes.
The man’s contribution to the show cannot be underestimated – this link lists what he created or helped to debut. As you can see, it was a lot.
This 20-episode run is in essence one continued narrative – taking place over only a few days in the relative time of the Doctor and Sarah Jane. The two of them would not be alone for this run, as they were joined by another male companion…
Harry Sullivan – Not an Imbecile
As mentioned in the last instalment, the production team had been looking for a Hartnell-age Doctor, so needed another male character to handle the action scenes (the thought that a woman could easily do it as well wasn’t something that had yet crossed the BBC’s minds), so created Surgeon Lieutenant Harry Sullivan, a Royal Navy officer, who was initially called in to look after the newly regenerated Doctor. A bit old-fashioned and clumsy at times, he made up for it with courage and determination. While a popular character, Baker’s ability to handle the physical side of things meant that Harry was deemed surplus to requirements and written out in the first story of Season 13, although he did make a guest appearance later in that run. I like Harry myself – I’ve also stated my preference for two companions over one (three is too many).
Ian Marter (1944-1986) played Harry, having previously made a guest appearance in Season 10’s “Carnival of Monsters” and had done a variety of bit parts, for both stage and screen, before getting the companion gig. After his run, he continued to be involved with the show, writing nine Target Books novelizations (including two of his own stories) and an original novel, Harry Sullivan’s War, for the range. He also teamed up with Tom Baker to write the script for a never-produced Doctor Who film to be called Doctor Who Meets Scratchman.
A number of his novels were published posthumously – Marter died of a heart attack in 1986, the first companion actor to die.
Robot (four parts)
The new Doctor teams up with UNIT to investigate a string of robberies of components for a high-tech disintegrator gun. As they find that a highly intelligent robot is responsible, they have to stop a group of environmentalists prepared to go to huge lengths to get their demands…
“Robot”, produced by Letts and written by Terrance Dicks, is in essence a Pertwee story featuring the Fourth Doctor, with the intent of reassuring the audience. It’s reasonable enough – it gets a more than a bit King Kong at the end and the CSO (the large amount of it meant the location scenes were done on videotape) is dodgy.
The Ark In Space (four parts)
Arriving on Nerva Beacon, a space station in the far future, the Doctor, Harry and Sarah Jane discover some of humanity’s last survivors in suspended animation awaiting Earth’s restoration after massive solar flares, one of whom has been infected by alien eggs…
While John Lucarotti came up with the initial idea, Robert Holmes had to perform a page one re-write after a postal strike put the living-on-a-yacht-off-Corsica Lucarotti effectively out of contact – although he did get a full fee for the job and approved the scripts retrospectively. The result was a classic of the Fourth Doctor’s era, with all the regulars on fine form, especially Lis Sladen. Baker’s speech about the indomitability of human beings is also lovely.
To an extent this is Alien five years early, with alien insects laying eggs in people and marks the arrival of Gothic Horror, of which we’ll discuss more in the next part. OK, the alien bits are made of green painted bubble wrap, but at a time when the material was largely unfamiliar to British audiences, it scared the young audience like nothing else. Steven Moffat, a man who has done his own fair share of scaring, cites this as one of his favourite stories.
The Sontaran Experiment (two parts)
The Nerva crew send the trio down to Earth to check things are OK before they return. As they do so, they discover that a Sontaran is conducting nasty tests on a group of captured humans.
Shot entirely on location using Outside Broadcast video, Bob Baker and Dave Martin’s short story is a dark affair (SJS has a rough time of it) that falls apart when you examine the plot too closely, but is enjoyable if you don’t.
Genesis of the Daleks (six parts)
The time travellers head back to Nerva – or try to. As they do so, the Time Lords intercept them and send them to Skaro at the time when the Daleks were created. Their mission, to prevent them from ever being created…
What might be deemed to be the start of the Time War, “Genesis” is a true classic and fan favourite – Terry Nation’s best Dalek story. Featuring the first appearance of Dalek creator Davros, it’s a dark and horrific affair, that drew the attention of one Mary Whitehouse, of whom more later…
Revenge of the Cybermen (four parts)
The team get back to Nerva, but much earlier in its history, when it is orbiting a recently arrived moon of Jupiter – Voga, the planet of gold. As they wait for the TARDIS to get back to them, they have to stop the Cybermen from destroying said planet, as gold is the one thing that can kill a Cyberman …
The first appearance of the Cybermen since 1968, who would not appear again until 1982 – watching this story, you can see why. “Revenge” is widely deemed Season 12’s clunker. The production itself had a string of bad luck blamed on a “curse” surrounding the removal of Iron Age arrowheads for the caves at Wookey Hole, but that doesn’t excused a poor, convoluted story with flare-wearing Cybermen and the worst use of stock footage I’ve ever seen.
Interestingly enough, this story was the first ever VHS release for the show in 1983. The DVD release groups this in a box set with Season 25’s Cyberman story “Silver Nemesis” – another story also not liked very much; the BBC tends to group serials that have a poor reputation.
This run was hugely popular, averaging 10 million for the first time since Season 2. So much so that the BBC, wanting to improve its autumn line-up, especially against ITV’s Space: 1999 (which ultimately only lasted two seasons), put the planned six-parter that would have ended this one, “Terror of the Zygons” back to be the beginning of Season 13, to start in autumn 1975 rather than winter. This entailed moving production up three months for everything else, so there was effectively no break for the cast and crew.
Not that it would dent on quality – Season 13 was to become of the show’s finest seasons as Gothic Horror was given full and controversial reign…
While “Trial” is officially one story, it has four distinct segments to it and most fans divide it into those parts for discussion purposes.
A cult British sci-fi show that ran from 1978 to 1981 that really warrants its own article.
With rumoured appearances from Vincent Price and British supermodel Twiggy, as well as a finale with a giant pinball table, the movie was planned for cinematic release. Ultimately though, Baker couldn’t get the funding for it or find the time, so the whole thing fell through. The script survives though.
Trivia: Were it not for unavailability, Ridley Scott, then a young director, would have directed “The Daleks”.
Tom Baker in fact broke his collarbone during this but carried on filming with a hidden neck brace – so Terry Walsh had to double for him for most of the stunt sequences.
Two previous Dalek creation stories had appeared in expanded universe media; this is deemed the definitive one.
Gold doesn’t corrode and so blocks up their respiration systems. This particular weakness does not seem to be present in the new era.