If a television show’s stride can be hit, Doctor Who certainly did that during its 9th season. Despite a lackluster final story (okay, actually a God-awful one), the season was full of memorable stories, returning monsters, and storytelling chance-taking. But, with the program’s tenth anniversary approaching, producer Barry Letts, script editor Terrance Dicks, and star Jon Pertwee would need to step their game up even further. There would be references to stories old, and writers and actors long since removed from the program would be back to help ring in a decade’s worth of Time Lord adventures. And, as this would be his fourth season, Pertwee would officially become the longest-serving Doctor to date, in terms of years. Quite an auspicious season, I think you’ll agree.
Season 10 – December 1972 – June 1973
For the season opener, Letts wanted something very special, a serial that would commemorate the long history of the show already. For it, he sought to unite all three of the actors to play the heroic alien in a single story, and somehow have it make sense. Patrick Troughton was available and willing to join, as was William Hartnell when Letts spoke to him on the phone. Unfortunately, Hartnell’s health had taken a downturn, and his wife informed the producer that Bill couldn’t possibly do it because he could barely stand and his mind would leave him for periods of time. This proved tricky, though a solution was reached that allowed Hartnell to be in the show without having to do more than sit in a room and read cue cards. He is the First Doctor, after all.
And so, The Three Doctors was born. Written by the increasingly-utilized writing team of Bob Baker and Dave Martin, “The Three Doctors” found some way to bring all three incarnations of the character to (roughly) the same space and time for a battle with an ancient and long-vanished Time Lord. An energy blob gets sent to Earth that seems intent on capturing the Doctor. On the Time Lord’s homeworld (still unnamed), all of their power is being drained through a black hole. They need the Doctor’s help, but also know that the Third Doctor could not possibly do it alone. They decide to break the First Law of Time and allow his past incarnations to traverse the timelines and work together. The Second and Third Doctors begin to bicker mercilessly, and the Time Lords think the First Doctor will be able to break it up. However, he gets trapped in a time eddy and can only aid in short bursts via the viewscreen.
It’s determined that something is pulling parts of our universe into an antimatter universe. Eventually, the two Doctors, plus the Brigadier, Jo Grant, Sgt. Benton, a scientist named Dr. Tyler, and a random game hunter named Ollis end up in the antimatter universe and find that it is the construct of Omega, the Time Lord who created the supernova technology that powers Time Lord society. He is incredibly bitter with the Time Lords for having left him stranded in this tangent universe for millennia. He wants to return, but he needs someone to take his place in the antimatter universe lest it collapse. But, he’s been in there so long that his physical body has corroded. He is now just pure, unadulterated will that is believing itself into sustained existence. Then a magic switch thing happens and everybody’s okay.
Now, I’m of two minds about this story. The first is, OMG, there’s three Doctors on my screen!!! And Omega is awesome! And Time Lords! Ahhh!! The other is, this doesn’t make a damn lick of sense, the effects look hokier than usual, and the Brigadier is written so obtuse and idiotic it’s almost like Baker and Martin had never heard of Doctor Who, much less written for it twice before. This is where I’m at with “The Three Doctors.” Patrick Troughton again interacting with Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart and Sgt. Benton is truly a delight, and his onscreen repartee with Jon Pertwee is snappy, combative, but ultimately complimentary. The Second Doctor is one of my favorite Third Doctor companions, actually. It has the requisite amount of Troughton figuring things out and MacGyvering devices and Pertwee doing hand-to-hand combat in slow motion with a monster. It’s pretty obvious Hartnell is too sick to do much, but it’s still so lovely to have him there. All the good in it makes it enjoyable to watch and very nearly drowns out my critical brain’s nagging about plot inconsistencies and poorly-written characters.
How do you follow such an anniversary story? Why, with a typically brilliant piece of writing by the show’s most prolific author. After having not written anything for Season 9, Robert Holmes was back with what would be the prototype for the stories he would write during his time as script editor. It had a unique concept, strange, disparate elements and settings, a bureaucratic and petty alien race, a huckster and his sassy assistant, and a terrifying giant monster or two just to keep things nice and scary. This story is Carnival of Monsters, and it’s very likely Holmes’ best Pertwee-era script.
The Doctor, now with full control of his TARDIS again following his success in the previous story, takes Jo out to see a Metebelis Three. However, when they exit, they are in what looks to be an Edwardian Steamer ship. It’s the S.S. Bernice, to be precise, a ship that disappeared without a trace many years ago. The people they encounter on the ship seem nice enough until it’s clear the Doctor and the Jo aren’t passengers, in which case they’re taken away as stowaways. They don’t have much time to worry about that, because after only a short time, the people begin acting in the manner they had when the Doctor and Jo arrived.
You see, the ship is actually shrunken and inside a Miniscope, a device akin to a nickelodeon machine with living things inside. The ship is being forced to relive the same chunk of time over and over again for the bemusement of whoever should look in it. The Miniscope belongs to Vorg and his assistant Shirna, two interstellar carnies who travel from planet to planet trying to make a quick buck with their acts. Unfortunately, they’ve landed on Inter Miner, a planet made up entirely of grey-faced, boring, pencil-pushers who are forever worried about how what they do will be looked at by the leader. However, they learn that, when something is removed from the Miniscope, it returns to its normal size (Vorg does that with the TARDIS), and the tribunal of bureaucrats want to release a Drashig, a giant snake-worm creature also in the Miniscope, to cause the downfall of their hated leader.
There are so many wonderful things about this story, not least of which is the hilarious dialogue of the tribunal (who are so shady and self-serving it becomes comical), and Vorg and Shirna, who are unscrupulous but somehow charming money-grubbers. Splitting up the action between the Doctor and Jo in the Miniscope, running from the hideous Drashigs, and on Inter Miner with everyone talking about, but never actually doing, things is fantastic, and when the Doctor finally interacts with the others, he’s sort of aghast at just how heartless and stupid they can be. This story is never boring, and is producer Barry Letts’ best outing as director, something he did every season, usually.
Following this, in another attempt to cull things from the show’s past, there were to be two connected six-parters involving the Daleks, hearkening back to “The Daleks’ Master Plan.” However, there’s very little to connect the two stories apart from the mere presence of the Daleks themselves, and could not have been written by two more different writers. The first of these is Frontier in Space, written by my favorite writer, Malcolm Hulke. The second was Planet of the Daleks, written by the most boring and yet weirdly consistent writer, Terry Nation, the creator of the Daleks.
“Frontier in Space” sees the Doctor and Jo landing on an Earth Empire craft in deep space. Almost as soon as they disembark from the TARDIS, the ship is attacked by something. The humans believe it to be members of the reptilian Draconian Empire, the other superpower in the galaxy; However, Jo sees a Drashig and then, for a moment, an Ogron. The Doctor believes right away that someone is using mind control to make the humans believe the Draconians are attacking to ignite their cold war. However, since he is again a stowaway, no one believes him, and he and Jo are sent to speak to the Earth President and her head of military, General Williams. Williams has a disdain for Draconians ever since their last battle, before the peace was brokered and a frontier was created.
The Doctor and Jo are constantly asked why they helped the Draconians and are flatly ignored when they attempt to tell the truth, even despite the lie detector and mind probe evidence to support their claims. Meanwhile, the Draconians have gotten word of this and kidnap the Doctor to ask him why he’s being slanderous against them, as they, too, have experienced attacks by those who they see as human. Clearly, there is one person or group who are using the Ogrons to stage these attacks, and it turns out to be… the Master! Didn’t see that coming, did you? The Master poses as the commissioner of the Dominion, who claims jurisdiction over the Doctor and Jo. While they are prisoners aboard his ship, they attempt to escape several times. Eventually, the Draconian Emperor comes to believe the Doctor’s claim, and Williams sees the error of his ways, and they work together to try to stop the Master, who it turns out is also working for someone… the Daleks! In a final haphazard attempt to stop them, the Doctor is shot by the Master, who flees, and Jo drags the Doctor into the TARDIS.
I cannot tell you how much I love “Frontier in Space.” It’s one of the first times the series did real, proper space opera, about galactic diplomacy and the ignition of war. Surely, as Star Trek had done, Hulke was using the science fiction aspect to talk about the current state of affairs, with the Cold War still in full swing, the use of immoral interrogation tactics, and of being scared to the point of war by “the other.” The design of the Draconians is also one of the best the show ever did, with the makeup and masks good enough for the actors to use their own eyes and mouth but still appear wholly alien. This is also the very last time Roger Delgado appears as the Master, thought it wasn’t meant to be that. Delgado died in a car accident between seasons, and this preempted what would have been his grand finale, which also would have led to Pertwee’s regeneration. As it is, the Master’s exit in this story is abrupt and unceremonious, but within the story, he is nevertheless perfect, and still just as brutal a foil for Pertwee’s Doctor as has ever been.
“Frontier in Space” leads directly into “Planet of the Daleks,” though none of the supporting cast from the former appears in the latter, save the Daleks themselves. The Doctor, badly injured, is able to send a telepathic message to the Time Lords before passing out in the TARDIS. The Time Lords move the ship to a jungle planet and Jo uses the viewscreen to look around for a moment before a plant shoots sap at the lens. Where is the lens on the outside of the TARDIS? Who knows? Jo goes out to explore. and while she does, the plant continues to spray sap on the TARDIS, eventually covering it in a hard shell. The Doctor is trapped and his oxygen is running out. Jo finds a group of blond men who she takes back to the TARDIS. They begin to chip away at the sap just in time for the Doctor to get free and breathe. He recognizes the men immediately as Thals, though they don’t believe he is the famous Doctor of legend. However, they aren’t on Skaro anymore; now they are on the planet Spirodon. But the Daleks have found their way here, too, and are building a new army for a final war against everyone.
There’s a lot more to this serial, story-wise, but none of it is very important. Like a lot of Nation’s scripts, it’s basically all the same, just with new obstacles in the way preventing the Doctor from finishing the story before the allotted six episodes are up. Despite the good direction by David Maloney and the decent performances, this story is a huge snooze fest. Some have called it “Nation by Numbers,” which is very appropriate. It’s just Terry Nation pirating his own first Dalek story, but in the ‘70s now, right down to the jungle and the Dalek city. You absolutely don’t need to watch “Planet of the Daleks” to enjoy “Frontier in Space.” In fact, I’d caution against it.
Luckily, the season didn’t end on this dud, and instead Robert Sloman and Barry Letts were back with their best story for the series: “The Green Death.” The Doctor is still dead-set on taking Jo to Metebelis Three, but she now can’t be bothered; she’s too upset about an environmental issue. It seems a professor named Clifford Jones is protesting the drilling in a Welsh village called Llanfairfach where a miner had died and was found covered in a green, glowing substance. Jo goes and meets Jones and finds him to be a young, attractive man (wouldn’t ya know it) and the Brigadier comes along with UNIT in tow. The drilling is being done by a shady multinational called Global Chemicals and its leader, Mr. Stevens, maintains that it’s creating jobs in the village and is only looking out for the environment. The evidence begins to support the opposite, though, as more miners begin to glow green and die, and giant, writhing maggots are found in nearby caves.
After going to Metebelis Three and extracting a blue crystal (which will be important next time), the Doctor also heads to Llanfairfach, where he’s also concerned about the goings-on. They need to get into Global Chemicals to look around, but their security is very tight. The Doctor even dresses up like a maintenance man and a cleaning lady to gain entrance. The Brigadier keeps attempting to get Stevens to allow him to look around, but the government is on the side of the company, and even sends a liaison. However, that liaison turns out to be Mike Yates, so it’s good to know there’s an ally on the inside. Eventually, it’s discovered that Stevens is under the control of the supercomputer known as BOSS, which is a megalomaniac. The maggots begin turning into deadly, giant flies and UNIT is forced to attack them, somehow. When all hope looks lost, the Doctor figures out that the meat substitute Professor Jones was creating could be the key to fighting off this “green death.” At the end of the serial, Jo decides to go with Professor Jones on a trip to save the Amazon, and to marry him. The Doctor bids her a fond farewell and even gives her the Metebelis crystal as a present, but is incredibly sad to see his friend and protégé leave. While the others are having a celebratory drink, the Doctor rides off in his faithful car Bessie, alone with his thoughts.
This has to be, without a doubt, one of the best companion farewell stories in the entire show. Jo started out as kind of a naïve, well-meaning fool and ended up being much more than that. Throughout Season 10, we see her be much more assertive and capable, even standing her ground against the Doctor when necessary. There’s actually some discernible growth in her over her three seasons, and when she leaves, it’s a satisfying ending, if a sad one. In Professor Jones, she’s found a version of the Doctor (brilliant and full of ideals) but young, human, and knowable. While it’s certainly never stated on the show outright, there’s a fondness between the Doctor and Jo beyond simply adventure. He clearly cares for her and she for him, but it can never be more than that. That this is attached to an exciting, well-written story besides is all the better.
So, a couple minor hiccups aside, the 10th season of Doctor Who was a supreme success. However, the times they were a-changing. Katy Manning and Roger Delgado had left the series, in very different ways, of course, and Barry Letts was talking about stepping down as producer after the following year, which led Terrance Dicks to announce the same. With the “UNIT Family” slowly falling away, Jon Pertwee decided he would bow out as well, but not before one final kick and the introduction of perhaps the most beloved companion in the entirety of the series, one Miss Sarah Jane Smith. Come back here on Thursday for Season 11 and the end of an era.