The Tom Baker train was picking up a huge amount of steam during Season 13 of Doctor Who. The combination of his energy, the rapport between Baker and Elisabeth Sladen, Robert Holmes’ script editing, and Philip Hinchcliffe’s scare-the-kiddies-and-spare-no-expense production had garnered the biggest ratings yet for the decade-plus-old sci-fi program. This, however, would not last much longer. Elisabeth Sladen, who’d now played companion Sarah Jane Smith for close to three full years, was about ready to leave, agreeing to do the first two stories of Season 14. Likewise, Philip Hinchcliffe, still quite a young producer, was eager to try his hand at something else, despite his success, and would finish up at the end of the season. Even Robert Holmes wasn’t long for the show.
However, despite the finality of all of these elements, Season 14 would continue the trend of solid storytelling and direction and would introduce a new companion who was much deeper and more interesting than her tiny wardrobe would lead you to believe. This year would also see Tom Baker’s one and only companionless story, which is now regarded as one of the best of all time. Yep, Season 14 didn’t lose any mojo.
Season 14 – 4 September 1976 – 2 April 1977
One of the main reasons Lis Sladen agreed to stick around for a couple of stories into the season was the location used for Season 14’s first story, The Masque of Mandragora, the final Who story to be written by utility writer Louis Marks. Hinchcliffe was eager to use the faux-15th Century Italian village look of Portmeirion in North Wales, which was also used as the location for the spy-sci-fi program The Prisoner a few years earlier. To match the exteriors, Marks wrote a story concerning an astrologer, Hieronymous, in the Italian court who is attempting to harness the power of the Mandragora Helix, a living energy vortex. It wants to harness the energy of The Brethren, a new religion springing up in the interim between the Dark Ages and the Renaissance.
Meanwhile, the sinister Count Federico wants his brother, the Duke, out of the way. He gets Hieronymous to predict the Duke’s death so that Federico can poison him and everything will be okay. Next, he wants Hieronymous to do the same for his nephew, Giuliano, who stands between Federico and the Dukedom. When the Doctor and Sarah Jane show up, following the Helix, they get caught up in this family squabble, but it’s a good thing they do, as the Helix and Hieronymous become more connected than could possibly have been conceived.
This story, like most written by Marks, is solid but not spectacular. The locations are gorgeous, the costumes are lush, the performances are all great, and even the plot, though a bit ropey toward the end, is enjoyable and followable. I find myself thinking of adjectives like “serviceable,” “sturdy,” “reliable,” and “fine” to describe “The Masque of Mandragora.” There is really nothing at all wrong with the story, and even a few good things, but I feel it would probably never be listed among many people’s all-time favorites. In fact, its spot at #85 on the list of the top 200 Who stories done by Doctor Who Magazine in 2009 would more or less illustrate this point: it’s slightly above average.
It is notable, however, for introducing the TARDIS’ secondary control room, a wood-paneled, semi-Steampunk room that led to much more interesting lighting and look than the old white-on-white one had for so long. The secondary control room would be the main one used for this entire season, though it would not stick around much past that.
At last we come to the point of Sarah Jane’s departure, and she gets quite a lot to do for her last go-round. The trouble, of course, is that it’s also possibly the weakest story of the season, which really says more about the overall quality of the year than the lack of quality of The Hand of Fear, written by go-to pair, Bob Baker and Dave Martin. They were also trusted with writing “The Three Doctors” four years earlier. Like that story, “Hand” also involves an ancient and terrible criminal who is banished, only to be found millennia later. In this case, the criminal is Eldrad, the quartz-based creature from the planet Kastria, who is obliterated by solar winds except for his hand.
This hand finds its way to a quarry in modern day England. The Doctor and Sarah Jane happen to land there just as a planned explosion goes off. Sarah is knocked out, but makes contact with Eldrad’s hand in this state. The hand thrives on radiation, and the entranced Sarah brings it to a nuclear power station. After almost causing a complete meltdown, Sarah is released from Eldrad’s power with no memory of her actions. Eldrad has absorbed enough energy and has reconstituted itself, this time in female form, thanks to proximity to Sarah Jane. The Doctor takes Eldrad with them back to Kastria, however it is now a completely barren wasteland. Since Eldrad, who is totes evil still, has no one to conquer, he now wants to go back and conquer Earth, but the Doctor stops him.
As they are leaving in the TARDIS, the Doctor gets an urgent message beckoning him back to Gallifrey. Sarah Jane, who has been blustering about never knowing when or where she is, is told that she isn’t allowed to come and that the Doctor must drop her back at home before heading off to his homeworld. She tells him not to forget her, and he says the same, though it’s still very much implied that they’d see each other again. As she exits the TARDIS for the last time, she realizes the Doctor hasn’t brought her home at all. It turns out, in “School Reunion,” that he left her in Aberdeen.
That final scene between Tom Baker and Lis Sladen is about the best companion farewell we’ve ever gotten, rivaling that of Jo in “The Green Death.” Some companions, due to their chemistry with the Doctor and overall screen presence, become everlasting in the eyes of the public. Sarah Jane, to many, is THE companion, and, along with Jamie McCrimmon and the yet-to-be-seen Teagan Jovanka, is one of the longest-serving companions in the whole of the series. “The Hand of Fear” is a fair-to-middling Doctor Who story, but a really wonderful Sarah Jane-centric story, and for that, it’ll always be of utmost importance.
After Sladen’s departure, Baker didn’t think he needed a companion anymore. Ultimately, this was shot down by Hinchcliffe, seeing as the Doctor would just end up having to talk to himself so the audience would know what was going on, but the Fourth Doctor was able to go solo for a single story, the Robert Holmes-penned The Deadly Assassin. All assassins are deadly, but that’s neither here nor there. Again, Holmes uses literature and film to weave a science fiction story worthy of the Doctor, as well as showing us the Time Lords’ home world and society for, really, the first time, and saddling the show with a massive piece of continuity in the form of the arbitrarily-chosen regeneration limit of 12.
Returning to Gallifrey, the Doctor has a terrible vision of himself assassinating the Time Lord President. He knows this can’t possibly be what he will do, but he’s unsure what it means. Upon landing, he is surrounded by guards, as this Type 40 TARDIS was stolen, and its occupant is ordered arrested. The Doctor sneaks away and gets to a gathering in the Panopticon (or ceremonial square), where the Lord President is set to retire and name a successor. However, before he can, he is gunned down, just as the Doctor foresaw, though it was not he who did the killing. Chancellor Goth (Bernard Horsfall) assumes control of the government and the investigation into the assassination, which they still believe was done by the Doctor. The Doctor, meanwhile, is confiding in Castellan Spandrel (George Pravda), who is the controller of “The Matrix,” the Time Lords’ interactive memory records.
Evidence points to the Doctor’s old adversary, The Master, as being the orchestrator of the assassination, but not the Master as we’ve seen him. He has finally run out of regenerations and his body is beginning to decompose, leaving him little more than a grey skeleton with eyes. The Doctor enters the Matrix to try to clear his name, but a trap is waiting for him, with terrifying hallucinations and someone out to get him. This is all a ruse to allow the Master access to the Eye of Harmony, which is the source of the Time Lords’ continued life. The Doctor must survive the Matrix and get out in order to stop the Master before it’s too late.
Did you ever think Doctor Who could do political thriller? I didn’t until I saw this. Clearly drawing from things like The Manchurian Candidate, Holmes infused the story with mystery, intrigue, and even quite a lot of surrealism in the form of the Matrix. That’s right – Robert Holmes invented the Matrix long before the Wachowskis did. It’s also unique, not only because it doesn’t have a proper companion, though Spandrel somewhat fits that bill for the story, but it deals with very adult concepts and doesn’t have any monsters, besides the grottified Master. This story drew a lot of criticism for the cliffhanger to episode 3 in which the Doctor is being drowned inside the Matrix. This, according to Mary Whitehouse, a woman with way too much time on her hands, made children terrified for a whole week until the next episode, when he would inevitably get out of it. That’s the whole point of the show, Mary.
At any rate, “The Deadly Assassin” is one of the very finest Doctor Who stories of all time, and begins the spate of five consecutive serials to be up to this level of quality. The next one is the first of two in a row by new writer to the series Chris Boucher. The Face of Evil had the unenviable task of introducing the Doctor’s new companion, Leela, played by Louise Jameson, a warrior woman from a primitive human tribe on another planet. She generally wears little more than a short and low-cut leather number, but she nevertheless is bright and cunning, though uneducated by our standards. She may have been designed as eye candy “for the dads,” but her character is definitely one of the more interesting and nuanced.
Landing on a jungle world, the Doctor happens upon Leela, a “savage” woman of the nearby Sevateem tribe. She is immediately afraid of the Doctor, calling him the Evil One. She has been exiled from her people for denouncing their god, Xoanon, who, the Sevateem believe, is being held captive somewhere by the Evil One and his followers, the Tesh. The Doctor attempts to convince her, and the other Sevateem he meets, that he is, in fact, not the Evil One, however, seeing as his visage has been carved into the side of a mountain, it’s hard for him to argue. The Sevateem’s high priest, Neeva, has a direct line to Xoanon, but the Doctor soon learns that it is leftover and abandoned equipment from some kind of expedition.
What, it seems, has happened is decades back a survey team left their ship to scout out the new world upon which they’d crashed, leaving the technicians behind. Over many generations, the survey team’s descendents became the Sevateem while the progeny of the technicians became the Tesh, who still reside in the remnants of the ship, very “above it all” with Xoanon, the ship’s insane computer. The Doctor had fixed Xoanon a lifetime ago, but the impression of his face and personality were left imprinted on the computer, leading to its schizophrenia. Xoanon is, in effect, both the god and the devil to these people.
This is such a deep and interesting story. The concepts at play here are fascinating, from the idea of a mad artificial intelligence, to descendents of a crashed ship becoming warring tribes, to the notion that a past mistake by the Doctor has ruined two sets of very different people. I always love seeing Tom Baker’s Doctor deal with people and playing up one aspect to get his way to another. While the story does have a fair amount of “filler” involving the internal squabbling of the Sevateem, the inevitable confrontation between Xoanon and the Doctor, and Neeva having to deal with his god being false in some fashion, are worth the slower bits. Leela proves herself immediately to be formidable, even killing people with the poisonous Janus thorns. Leela’s tendency to solve problems through violence is one of the main themes of her time with the Doctor. This continues in the next story, also written by Boucher.
The Robots of Death has the Doctor and Leela materialize aboard a giant sandmining vehicle called Storm Mine 4. It travels a largely desert planet sucking up silicon during storms to sell. The crew of the miner are lazy, bourgeoisie, and intensely greedy. They lounge about all day and squabble, because most of the work is done by their compliment of robots: the DUMs, which are mute and do menial labor, the VOCs, which handle interactive tasks, and a single Super-VOC, who controls all the others at the human crew’s behest. This is a bad time for the TARDIS to land here, though, since one of the crew members has just been found murdered, causing the others to accuse each other, though Commander Uvanov only thinks of it in terms of more shares for everyone else. When the Doctor and Leela are found, they are assumed to be the culprit by everyone except Poul (David Collings), who seems to know more than he’s letting on.
The Doctor believes it to be the work of a robot, though that would break the first law of robotics or whatever. However, slowly it seems that he’s right, and the robots are behind the murders, which are picking off characters one by one. There is talk of a man named Taren Capel somewhere else who believes in robotic rights and freeing his ‘brethren’ from the chains that bind them. But, could he possibly be behind this? And what’s the deal with a Dum named D.84 who can speak? Something’s fishy around here.
A lot of people talk about this story as being a futuristic Agatha Christie story. Well, it isn’t, not really. It certainly wants to be one, and superficially it’s got the makeup of something like And Then There Were None, but Christie always used red herrings to draw attention away from the actual culprit, whereas here it’s pretty obvious from the start. Still, this story is notable for the beyond-brilliant production design and look of the robots, which are at once benign and creepy. The direction here was by Michael E. Briant, who had done five serials previously. This is probably his finest hour in a lot of respects, notably the mixture of model shots with actors in a way that doesn’t look stupid at all, even though it’s CSO. The costumes for the human crew are big and ridiculous, but I think that fits their characters, being obsessed with money and personal value. “The Robots of Death” is one of the most watchable and re-watchable stories in Tom Baker’s whole tenure, of which there were plenty.
To round out this season, and to finish up Hinchcliffe’s dazzling three year stint as producer, is a six-part story based on a treatment by Robert Banks Stewart but written by Robert Holmes, his eleventh story overall. The Talons of Weng-Chiang is a mixture of Victoriana, stage magic, Jack the Ripper, Sherlock Holmes, Pygmalion, and time travel weirdery. It’s like a Hammer movie with the Doctor in it.
The Doctor and Leela arrive in London so that he can introduce her to her ancestry, being an Earthling by blood and all. He wants to show her musical theatre in Victorian times, because that’s convenient and gets the ball rolling. They see signs for a Chinese magician named Li H’sen Chang, who has a dummy named Mr. Sin who, it appears, can walk around in his own. The travelers are attacked that evening by Tongs, or Chinese gang members, and Leela kills one. While this is going on, someone is abducting young women, and a cabbie, whose wife is among the abducted, believes Chang is somehow involved, seeing as the wife left after being hypnotized at his show. The theatre’s owner, Henry Gordon Jago (Christopher Benjamin), thinks this is ridiculous, but it’s only because he’s been hypnotized by Chang himself. Professor Litefoot (Trevor Baxter) is the local intellectual in charge of performing autopsies on the various victims, and the Doctor speaks with him about his findings. And there are giant rats in the sewer.
Of course, Chang is indeed behind all of this, although he is doing it in the service of the ancient Chinese god Weng-Chiang. In actuality, though, Weng-Chiang is really Magnus Greel, a 51st Century despot who has traveled to this time and place in a thing called a Time Cabinet. The cabinet is unstable, though, and has caused his body to deform horribly. He needs the life essences of the young women to keep himself alive.
There’s a whole lot going on here, and really it’s more than I care to describe in any detail, but know that this is a really terrific story with some of the best direction the series ever had, courtesy of longtime director David Maloney, who had just directed “The Deadly Assassin,” and after eight serials would say goodbye to the Doctor Who program. Everybody gave this story their all and it really feels like the culmination of a terrific expanse of time. There is, however, a really glaring and quite racist element in having John Bennett, a white man, in yellowface portraying Li H’sen Chang. It was of the time, I suppose you can say, and it’s not as though he gives a particularly offensive performance, but the fact that it was done at all is a bit objectionable by today’s standards.
After three truly fantastic seasons, Philip Hinchcliffe was stepping down as producer of Doctor Who. His era was known for very high production values, inventive and resonant storytelling, top-notch performances, and the highest ratings the program had ever seen to that point, routinely sitting around 11 million viewers, a huge figure by today’s standards. Robert Holmes would remain as script editor for the first half of Season 15, although under incumbent producer Graham Williams, who felt pressure from the BBC to go lighter on the scary stuff, the series lost a bit of its edge. Williams’ tenure would see the program go into a much more comedic area, introduce a tin dog as a companion, and have Tom Baker get ever closer to wild-eyed hamminess. But that will be for next time.