After seven seasons which resulted in him forever being linked to the show, Tom Baker hung up his scarf and left Doctor Who in the hands of new producer John Nathan-Turner. His final season was a return to connected serials, a turn toward science and math-based storytelling, and more of a reliance on seriousness, leaving behind the silliness of previous years. To replace the beloved and recognizable Baker, JNT decided to cast someone younger, conventionally handsome, and already well-known to television audiences. His choice, 29-year-old co-star of All Creatures Great and Small, Peter Davison.
Davison inherited a TARDIS full of companions, three to be precise (Tegan, Nyssa, and Adric), and ratings much lower than when Baker had taken over from Jon Pertwee. The show, which had traditionally been on Saturday evenings, would now be on twice a week, on Mondays and Tuesdays, in prime time. However, Season 19 regained quite a lot of viewers and put the program back as the talk of the town, the last time it would be that until 2005.
Season 19 – 4 January 1982 – 30 March 1982
The script editor for Season 18, Christopher H. Bidmead, returned to write the premiere of the season, having just written the finale. Because of the way shooting lined up, serials 2 and 4 were overseen by interim script editor Antony Root before the rest was turned over to new permanent editor Eric Saward, who would remain with the show, and largely shape the progressively dark and violent tone, until 1986.
But, we begin with the beginning: Bidmead’s follow up to “Logopolis,” Castrovalva. Weak and delirious from his regeneration, the Doctor is taken by Tegan, Nyssa, and Adric back to the TARDIS, where he asks to be put in the Zero Room, a room within the ship that cancels out any mixed up brain or bodily functions, essentially clearing his head so he can recover. While resting in there, Tegan and Nyssa decide to figure out how to pilot the TARDIS. They read the manual (who’d have thought they’d have that?) but the TARDIS begins traveling to a specific place and time: Event One, aka the Big Bang.
This was a trap set by the Master, and the companions are forced to pull the Doctor out of the Zero Room to stop them being destroyed. He does this by jettisoning a portion of the TARDIS’ rooms, which unfortunately includes the Zero Room. He and Nyssa construct a makeshift Zero Coffin from the doors and he decides they should go to Castrovalva, a city of peace and harmony, to recover. But they can’t find Adric anywhere. Adric, it turns out, has been captured by the Master and forced to help him with his evil plan. Castrovalva seems very easygoing and idyllic, but they soon see that attempts to leave only lead them back to the piazza at the center. They’re caught in a “space-time trap!” The city is folding in on itself in a recursive occlusion perpetrated by the Master. Now the Doctor, just getting used to his new body, has to foil the Master yet again and get back to the TARDIS before it’s too late.
I really enjoy this story. No, it doesn’t make any sense I can gather, but I love Peter Davison’s early portrayal, channeling earlier Doctors, and I love his newfound sense of wonder and very clear exuberance, which Tom Baker had certainly not had in his final season. This was Davison’s third story filmed, an idea to let him get used to playing the part before his first onscreen appearance, and it must have helped, because he’s already relaxed and confident. The Fifth Doctor gets irritated more easily and can make the wrong choice, but he’s nevertheless one of the noblest incarnations of the character ever.
Next up is Davison’s actual first-filmed story, Four to Doomsday, written by Terrence Dudley. The TARDIS lands on a strange ship in space. It is run by the Urbankans, green-skinned aliens led by the Monarch and his two associates, Enlightenment and Persuasion. They are very keen to hear about Earth culture, and soon Enlightenment and Persuasion turn to human form and wear “modern Earth” outfits Tegan designed. Also aboard the ship are members of four very distinct Earth cultures: Ancient Greeks, Mandarin Chinese, Australian Aborigines, and Mayans, each with a leader. They share bits of their culture with each other and the Urbankans explain how they’ve picked up things from Earth on each of their journeys.
It turns out that Monarch is actually up to no good. His people were forced to flee Urbanka due to solar flares, and there are billions of people housed on tiny slides, waiting to be reconstituted once they reach their proposed new home: Earth. While he says he wishes for the two species to cohabitate peacefully, that isn’t the case at all. He actually wants to wipe out the human population and take over the planet, Earth being the nicest and pleasantest planet in the universe, apparently. It also turns out that the Urbankan leaders are at least partially cybernetic, and all of the Earth people aboard have been forcibly converted to androids. The Doctor tries to dissuade or stop this proposed invasion, but Adric is, for some reason, impressed with Monarch and doesn’t think he’s doing wrong. Because he’s a jerk, I guess.
This is not a terrible story to watch, but it’s very cluttered and yet painfully simple at the same time. It’s basically your average aliens-want-to-conquer-Earth plot, but with this weird added texture of androids who represent human cultures and aliens who were once organic but aren’t entirely anymore. I get lost a little bit. At one point the Doctor puts on a space helmet and floats around outside the ship, which was done on a blue screen with him leaning on a thing. It’s kind of silly. Not the worst of this season, though, by a long shot.
Once the Earth isn’t destroyed, the TARDIS lands on the beautiful jungle planet of Deva Loka for the serial Kinda (pronounced “Kin-Da,” not like the slang spelling of “kind of”), by Christopher Bailey. A human research expedition is suffering unexplained and troubling losses. Four of the seven members of the crew have disappeared, leaving the remaining three in a state of panic. Upon arriving, Nyssa immediately collapses from exhaustion (a convenient way to drop one of the characters from the story) and remains in the TARDIS for the duration. The Doctor and Adric find the human settlement and befriend Todd (Nerys Hughes), the science officer. While the leader, Sanders, leaves to investigate something, Hindle, the bureaucrat of the group, takes charge and becomes a megalomaniac. Elsewhere, Tegan has been taken over by the spirit of the Mara, a powerful and dangerous entity that takes the form of a snake when corporeal. Tegan finds herself in a terrifying dream state and is forced to speak to herself. Eventually, the Mara fully takes control, only to be transferred to Aris, a member of the local Kinda tribe.
I could try to explain this story further, but even the Doctor doesn’t really understand it. This is one the few, if not the only, Doctor Who stories that relies on surrealism, dream logic, and accepting mystery without comprehending it. As such, I think it’s a wonderful story, even though it was ranked the weakest of the season at the time. The performances and ideas are all wonderful, and the concept of the Mara is truly terrifying. At the end of the story, the Mara manifests as a snake, which is represented by a rather shoddy papier mache puppet, however, the DVD features an optional CGI version of this sequence, which looks a billion times better. So, watch that one.
This all seems to be too much to take for Tegan, and she demands to be taken back to Heathrow so she can continue her dream of being a stewardess. That’s way better than traveling through time and space, right? The Doctor, begrudgingly, agrees, and so begins Eric Saward’s The Visitation. While they do end up by Heathrow, they get there 300 years too early. Oops! Whilst exploring, they smell sulfur and are immediately attacked by villagers. As they run away, they meet Richard Mace (Michael Robbins), a highwayman and thespian who speaks like he’s reciting Shakespeare. He tells the travelers of a comet that had crash-landed earlier in the week. The Doctor knows it was no comet, judging by Mace’s newly-acquired necklace, which is actually used in prisoner control on alien worlds. They come to a house that seems deserted and find an area hidden by the projection of a wall.
Yadda yadda yadda, they eventually find out that the aliens in question, taking over the villagers’ minds, are the Terileptils, vaguely reptilian creatures who use harlequin-looking robots as servants, one of which they dressed up to look like the spectre of death and scare all the townsfolk. The true plan, though, is to use an advanced form of the plague to wipe out the human population. What is it with people wanting to wipe us out? The Doctor’s sonic screwdriver is destroyed (which it would stay for the next 8 seasons), and eventually, the Doctor inadvertently causes the Great Fire of London.
This is an enjoyable story, and the locations are fantastic, though it does seem a bit pedestrian when compared to some of the other stuff during the season. The character of Richard Mace is one that appeared in radio plays written by Saward, and this, being his first story for the program, illustrates the first in his tendency to introduce side characters who he clearly thinks are more interesting than the leads.
Not interesting in any way is the season’s only two-parter, and a story that, with the exception of the TARDIS, contains no science fiction elements at all. This is Black Orchid, another story written by Terrance Dudley. The crew comes to an English country house which is having a fancy dress party. It is the year 1925 and the Doctor is, for once, dressed perfectly normally for the period. He even gets to play some cricket at one point. There is a strange person wearing a mask walking around who may or may not be a murderer. Also, Nyssa is the spitting image of Anne, the niece of the Lord of the manor. There’s something attempting to be a murder mystery in the vein of Agatha Christie, but it really just doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, the cliffhanger is a cheat, and it’s all a bit convenient for my liking. But hey, it’s only two episodes, so that’s something, right?
The next serial begins a peculiar and troubling phenomenon that existed through all three of Davison’s seasons, which is that the second to last story of each year is arguably (though nowhere near arguably in some cases) the best of the year and yet the one that follows, the finale of the year, was by far the worst. I have no idea why this happened or what John Nathan-Turner was thinking, or if it was a case of trying to make sure people watched the finale by having the preceding episodes be exceptional, but for whatever reason, the penultimate story is great and the ultimate story is garbage. Odd.
Anyway, so the best (or second best, “Kinda” fans) story of the year is the second Eric Saward story of the year: Earthshock. It was “shocking” for two reasons; one, it saw the return of the Cybermen, who hadn’t been on screen since 1975, in possibly their most evil and frightening versions yet. The character of the Cyber Leader, played by David Banks, became the de facto supervillain among the Cyber hordes, not unlike the silver, bipedal Davros, though colder and less conniving. He would return every time the Cybermen came back until the end of the classic series.
The second shocking aspect of the serial is that Adric (Matthew Waterhouse) was to be written out, as it was decided there were too many companions and Adric was by far the least popular. He was written as a bit of a know-it-all pain in the ass, and always seemed to side with the bad guys, at least for a bit, but he was actually a pretty interesting character and was certainly deeper than the other two. However, he did have the opportunity to go out with a bang. While attempting to divert a space freighter from careening into the Earth, which would cause the destruction of the dinosaurs (just go with it), Adric’s progress is disrupted by the Cyber Leader, who zaps the keyboard. Adric clutches the keepsake from his dead brother as the ship crashes and explodes. The Doctor, Tegan, and Nyssa in the TARDIS are shocked and distraught as the credits roll over silence and a picture of the mathematical excellence badge Adric always wore.
What the hell, right?! How do you follow up a story like that? Well, as it turns out, with an incredibly stupid one about the Concorde traveling through time and the Master dressed up like a monstrous Buddhist monk for absolutely no reason at all. Yes, the horrible piece of garbage that ended the year was Time-Flight, with unnecessary hyphen and everything, the first script written by Peter Grimwade, who had directed four stories before this (“Full Circle” “Logopolis,” “Kinda,” and “Earthshock”). Grimwade is a phenomenal director on the show, but his scripts are kind of all over the place, this being by far the worst of them.
The only good thing about “Time-Flight,” as far as I’m concerned is that they actually shot at London Heathrow Airport and that there was a character named Captain Stapley, played by Richard Easton. Stapley actually gets to fly the TARDIS and, in an era where everyone in the show gets to go in the TARDIS, actually looks like he’d know what to do. The Master’s in this, too, and it began another trend, which was to have the Master show up once a year just so Anthony Ainley could chew a bit more of the scenery. At the end of the story, the Doctor and Nyssa leave Tegan at Heathrow, but suddenly she’s sad about it and ends up meeting up with them again almost immediately. Ugh. “Time-Flight.”
And so Peter Davison’s first season ended with a whimper. Overall, though, it was an incredibly good way to introduce a new lead. He was heroic and forceful and sensitive and grumpy and everything that his Doctor would be for the following two seasons. Season 19 saw Doctor Who return to a bit of its former glory, but Season 20 reveled in it. Each story would feature some kind of previous villain or monster and it would culminate, months later, with the 20th anniversary story. The season had one of my favorite stories of all time, as well as two of the stupidest. It’s quite a year, but that’s for next time.