Philip Hinchcliffe, the producer who ushered Doctor Who into a horror-fueled golden age of high production values and high ratings, stepped down after three years. Though his script editor, Robert Holmes, hadn’t quite left, the whole tone of the program shifted when Season 15 began in 1977. Tom Baker and Louise Jameson didn’t get on great behind the scenes (unlike the house-on-fire relationship between Baker and previous companion Elisabeth Sladen), and the introduction of a new producer, Graham Williams, meant a change in the show’s tone, but also an additional, metallic companion and a little less control over the lead actor. In sports terms, Season 15 is a rebuilding year.
Season 15 – 3 September 1977 – 11 March 1978
To those watching at home, the fifteenth season of Doctor Who very much resembled the fourteenth on the outset. This is very likely due to Robert Holmes still being in place, with his sensibilities, and commissioning a script from his predecessor Terrance Dicks. The name of the story is Horror of Fang Rock, and it’s got everything you’d want in a title like that. The Doctor and Leela land on what they think is Brighton in the early 20th Century, but is actually Fang Rock, an isolated lighthouse island to the south of England. It’s very dark and foggy there, but the lighthouse doesn’t seem to be functioning. Upon investigation, the Doctor sees that one of the caretakers is dead and the other two report that a light fell from the sky and that, since then, the power to the light has been erratic. The Doctor deduces that whatever fell from the sky must be draining the power, though the older of the caretakers believes it’s the Beast of Fang Rock, an old superstition.
The darkness has caused a yacht to crash on the island with its four inhabitants, who are varying degrees of pompous and effete. Someone or something has moved the body of the first caretaker and when the Doctor finds it, he sees that it has been desecrated, as though whatever it was was doing an anatomy lesson about humans. Quickly things get worse as members of the party begin to disappear or die and a glowing green light emanates nearby. It turns out that the alien presence is a Rutan, a floating jellyfish-like creature who can imitate other beings. The Rutans, if you’ll remember, are the sworn enemies of the Sontarans and have been fighting a seemingly endless battle with them for centuries. The Doctor needs to stop this particular Rutan before it gets off the planet and brings back the whole armada.
I truly adore this story. It’s like an Edwardian-era slasher movie, but instead of a guy with a knife, it’s an alien that can change shape. It’s sort of like if Halloween and The Thing were mixed together and done by Hammer Films. This is probably Dicks’ best script. It’s tightly-paced, very chilling, and the setting allows for the acting to take center stage as there’s really not much room to do anything else. This story could fairly easily be done as a play. Baker gives another masterful performance and Jameson continues to shine as Leela, still before she began to feel burnt out. At the end of the story, the flash of light from the Rutan ship causes Leela’s eyes to change from brown to blue. This was because Louise Jameson’s eyes actually are blue. She’d been made to wear contacts for her first few stories, but objected to them as they were uncomfortable. Nice they could make that work.
To me, even if his name is on “Horror of Fang Rock,” the Graham Williams-era of Doctor Who truly begins with The Invisible Enemy, a story I don’t like very much. Written by the Bristol Boys, Bob Baker and Dave Martin, “The Invisible Enemy” begins the steady and steep moving of the series away from horror toward “hard” sci-fi (though not really for anyone who actually enjoys hard sci-fi) and toward a much younger audience. The TARDIS is traveling through space and passes through a mysterious cloud, the contents of which infects the Doctor and causes him to begin effectively losing his mind. Leela manages to get the TARDIS to a deep space hospital, whereupon the eccentric physician, Professor Marius, and his dog-shaped computer K-9 can help. They decide, incredibly, the only way to help the Doctor is to send miniature clones of the Doctor and Leela into the full-size Doctor’s brain to get rid of what ails him. Once in, the culprit, a sentient microscopic organism called the Nucleus, figures out a way to escape, grow to human size, infect the hospital’s staff, and head somewhere to spawn. It’s up to the Time Lord, the warrior woman, and the tin dog to finish off this fiendish disease.
There’s a lot of stupid going on here, and, granted, a lot of it has to do with the direction, which was done by theater director Derrick Goodwin in his only Doctor Who job. The bulk of what goes on inside the Doctor’s brain is a model, and Baker and Jameson are superimposed over it. It doesn’t look very convincing. The Bristol Boys never wrote anything great; in fact, their Who work was standard and passable at best, yet they ended up writing eight stories for the program. Making a clone of yourself to go inside your own head? That’s ridiculous! Even for a show with a blue box that’s bigger on the inside and can travel through time. They are also responsible for bringing us K-9, who I suppose works as a thing children like, but is incredibly insipid and more of a magic wand than the sonic screwdriver. Writers in the future would go out of their way to keep K-9 out of the way because he’s that big a drama-killer. He can think everything out instantly and shoot things with his laser nose cannon; why would you ever not use him? Because it’s boring? Okay.
As the story goes, it was never really intended for K-9 to be a continuing companion, but they thought they could get more use out of him given the intense cost that went into creating him. Graham Williams is to blame for him sticking around as long as he did, and I’m sure the merchandising prospects were a big draw. Even today, this silly dog remains a constant in the toy arm of Doctor Who’s swag. He’s going to be with us for the next several installments, so I’m not going to keep complaining about him, but let’s just take it as read that I’m not a fan.
Luckily, or unluckily, the next story, Image of the Fendahl, cleansed the palate a bit, as this was the final story to be written by Chris Boucher, and the final story to be script edited by Robert Holmes. As such, this is the last gasp of horror before it’s officially wiped from the docket for the whole of the rest of the Classic Series. In a priory village in the English countryside, four scientists do research on a skull they found on expedition in Kenya. The skull is, apparently, 12 million years old, even though humans or human-like ancestors didn’t show up on Earth until only tens of thousands of years ago. They begin to try to do a sonic scan of it to get a sense of who it might have belonged to, and it reacts in a very strange and distressing manner. It fixates on Thea (Wanda Ventham), one of the scientists, and creates a creature that kills a hiker nearby. The Doctor catches a glimpse of this scan on the TARDIS’ sensors and decides to investigate.
The skull, it turns out, is a descendent of a Fendahleen, a creature from Gallifrey mythology, which apparently were destroyed when the Fifth Planet broke up. He and Leela decide to pay a visit to the Fifth Planet only to find it has been placed in a time loop by the Time Lords, making any contact or records keeping impossible. Time Lords aren’t supposed to do that. Thea has slowly been turned into the core of the Fendahl, a creature that feeds upon the energy of life, leaving nothing behind. It needs to complete a circle, like in black magic, to complete its transdimensional plan and the Doctor and company must stop this from happening.
If this is the end of horror on Doctor Who, it certainly goes out with a bang. A couple, actually. This is just a very bleak and upsetting story. Firstly, the character of Thea is shown desperately wanting the Doctor’s help but can’t get it before she changes. Second, there’s a part where the Doctor hands a doomed man a pistol so that he can shoot himself, and he does. And, third, there’s the whole world-ending, life-eating monster mash. It’s also heavily implied that the Fendahl may have been someway involved in the evolution of humanity, something certainly not new to Doctor Who, but always interesting. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but it’s atmospheric as all get-out and it’s quite chilling in places. Farewell, horror.
Robert Holmes’ replacement as script editor was Anthony Read, who I’m fairly certain is the only reason any of the stories work during his time under Graham Williams. Williams was apparently a huge pushover, and didn’t like confrontation, and so Tom Baker began to more and more assert his own will on the program, making it truly his show more than it already had been. Read is somehow able to channel Tom’s ideas through his writers’ words and create something halfway decent. It doesn’t always work, but I think if it does at all, it’s due to Read.
Read had the luxury of his first story as script editor written by the man whose job he took, Robert Holmes. In his years with Philip Hinchcliffe, Holmes had written quite a lot, but almost all of them were horror-based; however, under Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks, he had been quite adept at doing comedic or satirical sci-fi stories, and his next script, The Sun Makers, was just that. A thinly-veiled jab at the high taxes in Britain at the time, the story took place on a world (Pluto, to be precise) where the inhabitants are taxed to the point of depression. One such citizen is so downtrodden by his tax bill that he decides to kill himself by jumping off of a very tall building. The TARDIS arrives at that very moment, and the Doctor and Leela save him, much to his dismay.
The Doctor marvels at the artificially-created suns that have helped Pluto to become habitable, however, the private company that made the suns has a stranglehold on the people of Pluto and instilling more and more taxes on them in some kind of planet-wide extortion scheme: pay up or we kill you. The person in charge of this is the diminutive and devious Collector who sends troops to make sure the taxman is paid. There is a small but vocal contingent of people who are fed up with the way things are going and want to stage a revolt, which Leela and K-9 decide to join when the Doctor is incarcerated.
This is a very clever story, which is enjoyable and wholly different to anything else in the season, or, really, even the Williams-produced series et al. For a show that was under pressure to appeal to younger children in a less frightening way, a serial about people paying taxes and overwhelming the corrupt private company that owns everything smacks of not paying attention to authority, something at which Holmes excelled. The way Pluto is portrayed onscreen is exactly how it should be, as bleak and bland as an over-taxed corporate wasteland should be. Louise Jameson has said this is her favorite Who story, which is interesting, but is easily the last one that does anything of note with her character.
After “The Sun Makers” is the return of Bob Baker and Dave Martin for a second serial in one year. This time, it’s Underworld, which, in the illustrious Doctor Who Magazine Top 200 poll in 2009, came in at a 197, making it easily the lowest-ranked Tom Baker story by a country mile. I’ve seen this one once and I don’t remember much about it, but what stands out most is that almost the entire program was shot using CSO, or Colour Separation Overlay, a form of ancient green screen technology typically called “Chromakey.” That’s right – everything. Models were built as sets and holes were cut in them through which the Doctor and Leela can walk for short periods of time before they step off the screen and the shot is ruined. It doesn’t work well at all.
Thankfully, the season doesn’t end there, and instead we get a six-parter written by the fictional David Agnew, who was really Anthony Read and Graham Williams. This story is The Invasion of Time, a story which sees the Doctor return to Gallifrey with motives altogether unknown to Leela and K-9, and, indeed, to most of the Time Lords. After encountering some aliens in space, the Doctor returns to his home world to claim his rightful place as the President of the Time Lords (after the events of “The Deadly Assassin”). He demands that his new quarters be lined with lead and that Leela be banished from the Citadel to fend for herself in the wastelands. He then does everything he can to allow non-corporeal alien visitors, the Vardans, access to the Citadel and, indeed, for them to take over the Time Lord capitol. In a secret meeting in his chambers with his former teacher, Chancellor Borusa, the Doctor explains that the lead in the room is to prevent the Vardans from entering via thought wave. He claims he sent Leela away for her own protection and that now he and Borusa can figure out some way of defeating the Vardans.
But the Vardans are the least of their worries, as once they are defeated, a group of Sontarans infiltrates the Citadel, given the defenses are still down from the Doctor’s rouse. In a scene right out of science fiction Benny Hill, the Sontarans chase the Doctor and Leela through the enormous vastness of the TARDIS, passed the swimming pool, the art gallery, the huge old-hospital-corridors, and all the rest of it. At the end of the serial, the Sontarans defeated, Leela decides to stay on Gallifrey after having fallen in love with a character that is so inconsequential that I didn’t even bother to mention him here. The Doctor leaves K-9 with her and goes on his way, only to discover a K-9 Mark II box in the TARDIS already.
This is a very weird story, and is really the first one where Tom Baker begins to show he’s a little nuttier than we had originally thought. I don’t love seeing the Doctor act, or at least appear, evil or fiendish and though it does all make sense, it really is a weird and convoluted plan. The final two episodes with the Sontarans are entertaining enough, and the trip through the TARDIS is a lot of fun, even if it’s clear they just shot in a big disused hospital for most of it. Leela gets a very poor goodbye, and this begins the sad trend of giving new companions excellent beginnings but really terrible endings.
One thing that wasn’t yet ending was the working relationship of Graham Williams, Anthony Read, and Tom Baker. They would be together for one more season, and this would be one of the most daring of the whole run: a season-long quest arc that takes the characters from place to place attempting to assemble an ancient and terrible relic before an evil force does. We also, finally, get a companion who is a Time Lady, and truly a mental equal to the Doctor. Saddle up, because next time it’s the Doctor, Romana, and the Key to Time.