In 1983, a wholly unprecedented thing happened: Doctor Who reached its 20th season. 20 years! That’s insane. A show that premiered the day after Kennedy was killed was now around into the Reagan and Thatcher administrations. It’s nutty. In some ways, it had changed drastically since those early days, and in some ways hardly at all. As ’83 began, the program had just seen the first season with its first new Doctor since 1974, and it once again became required viewing. As it was now on twice a week on Mondays and Tuesdays, the fact that ratings improved when Peter Davison took over was a testament to how well the audience deals with change and embraces new things, despite having loved the past.
To mark two decades on the air, producer John Nathan-Turner, ever the fan of publicity and gimmickry, decided each story of Season 20 should have a returning villain or threat, though that was really only superficial. No Daleks or Cybermen were seen this year, but it did have the return of a few one-off baddies and one who never seemed to go away in the ‘80s. It did manage to do one of the most atypical and altogether fantastic stories of the entire era, if not the entire show in total, and the year was capped off with a special that was definitely a tribute to the fans. It was a banner year.
Season 20 – 3 January 1983 – 16 March 1983 (plus a one-off special in November)
JNT was a huge fan of taking the show on location outside of the UK, possibly just so he could get a paid holiday out of it, and for Season 20’s first story, Arc of Infinity by Johnny Byrne, the producer decided they should give Amsterdam a try, for seemingly no narrative reason. On Gallifrey, a traitorous Time Lord helps an anti-matter being known as The Renegade by giving it bio-data which allows it access to the Doctor’s TARDIS, and then the Doctor himself. Nyssa, now his only companion, helps him to recover; however, the Renegade is shielded by the Arc of Infinity and they aren’t able to track him. The Doctor decides to go to Gallifrey and track down the supplier of his bio-data, but the Time Lord council has decided that the Renegade is too powerful and the Doctor must be destroyed to prevent the anti-matter monster from bonding with him again. Despite protestations from Nyssa, and the Doctor’s firm belief that his bio-data was tampered with, the sentence is carried out. Not really, though. His mind is placed in the Matrix, and his body is held for safe keeping.
On Earth, in Amsterdam, the Doctor’s former companion, Tegan (Goddammit!), is looking for her cousin, who has disappeared. She meets up with a friend of the cousin and they go to the last place he was seen, the Frankendael Mansion. Unfortunately (and incredibly conveniently), the Renegade’s base of operations just happens to be at the mansionm=, and he scans Tegan and learns that she knows the Doctor. He uses her as bait, the Doctor is restored, there’s treachery on Gallifrey, the Doctor and Nyssa go to Amsterdam to save Tegan, and the Renegade is revealed to be… Omega, the first Time Lord and pioneer of time travel, who was last seen in “The Three Doctors” ten years earlier. He becomes corporeal and looks like the Doctor, there’s a chase, everything works out, and Tegan returns to the crew.
There is an interesting and possibly even compelling story hidden beneath all the ancillary crap in “Arc of Infinity.” It’s just very busy, and things don’t follow properly or are based too much on coincidence. There’s really no reason for Tegan to come back, but there was really no reason for her to have left in the first place, so it’s all meaningless. I really wish there were just some Doctor and Nyssa episodes, because their dynamic is really fun and interesting, and Nyssa’s actually capable and doesn’t whine, which is maybe the best attribute of any companion. Amsterdam is a pretty town, but there’s no known reason for them to be there. Interesting, though, is that Colin Baker, who would become the Sixth Doctor, played the Time Lord guard captain Maxil in this story. See, so there is precedent for actors already having been on the show becoming the Doctor.
For the next returning-villain story, Christopher Bailey was brought back to write the sequel to his trippy and controversial “Kinda,” giving us the next chapter about the Mara, Snakedance. Arriving on the planet Manussa, Tegan gets overwhelmed by nightmares/visions about the Mara, the snake-like entity that possessed her the previous year. The Doctor believes the being is trying to reassert itself in Tegan’s brain, and so they go to seek out the cause of it, but Tegan gets scared and runs away in the marketplace of Manussa, giving the Mara the opportunity to take full control. On Manussa, there is to be an annual celebration of the 500 years since the Mara was banished. Bad timing, guys. The festivities are to be overseen by Lon (Martin Clunes), the lazy and spoiled son of the Federator. The Doctor realizes that the two crystals used in the ceremony will allow the Mara to transubstantiate itself from Tegan’s mind into corporeal form again. However, getting Lon or chief archaeologist Ambril to believe him proves a fool’s errand, and everyone just thinks he’s a nutter.
Tegan/Mara makes contact with Lon and puts him also under her control. The Doctor goes into the desert to confab with Dojjen, the old hermit who apparently knows about this kind of thing, and then he goes back and stops the Mara just as she becomes a different-looking snake than she was the last time. And Tegan’s okay again.
I don’t like this story nearly as much as “Kinda,” and I think it has to do with the fact that this time, Bailey was given more parameters for writing a more straightforward story. “Kinda” is very bizarre, but “Snakedance” is much more restricted and thus a bit more pedestrian for my liking. However, it’s still a good story, and I especially love the way in which the Doctor is flatly not believed by anyone. In reality, if some guy just charged into a place and started saying “A bad thing’s about to happen, if you listen to me it won’t,” you’d think he’s an insane person. The Doctor’s far too used to being taken immediately as an authority figure and the Fifth Doctor is the best at not being believed and getting irritated by it. Janet Fielding also gives possibly her best performance when she’s under the Mara’s control.
Next, we begin what is called “The Black Guardian Trilogy,” because it is three stories that see the return of the Black Guardian (Valentine Dyall), an all-powerful and evil being that hates the Doctor after meddling with the Key to Time. They also introduce and form a series about an alien boy named Turlough (Mark Strickson), who is trapped on Earth and is tasked by the Black Guardian into killing the Doctor, but eventually eschews this obligation and joins up with the Doctor, though Tegan never really trusts him. The three stories that make up this saga are very different from each other, and the first and third of these are my favorites of the year, while the one in the middle is boring and dumb.
We begin with Peter Grimwade’s Mawdryn Undead, in which we’re introduced to Turlough as he causes trouble at the boys’ school at which he’s stuck, and the math teacher, the now-retired Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart (Nicholas Courtney), who thinks something fishy’s going on. The Black Guardian appears to Turlough and says that if he kills the Doctor, he can leave his exile on Earth. Meanwhile, the Doctor, Tegan, and Nyssa aboard the TARDIS get caught in a “time ellipse” due to a passing Starliner. They get onboard to find it deserted save for Turlough, who’s been transported there by the Black Guardian. The Doctor finds a transmat, which is holding them there, and travels with Turlough to the other end, which happens to be Earth in 1983. Meanwhile Nyssa and Tegan aboard the TARDIS get flung to Earth, 1977. In both cases, the duos run into the Brigadier, who is the Doctor’s only link to his companions in the past. Nyssa and Tegan find an alien in a capsule like that which the Doctor traveled in, and immediately believes it to be the Doctor, despite his brain falling out of the top of his head.
This alien turns out to be Mawdryn, a member of a dying race of once-immortal people. They want the Doctor to siphon off his remaining regenerations to allow them to live again, which he almost grants them as a way of helping his friends escape. Everybody ends up aboard the Starliner, even the Brigadier from both ’77 and ’83, and they need to be kept apart because if they meet, and touch one another, they will trigger the fabled Blinovitch Limitation Effect, which is a time paradox that results when someone physically crosses their own time stream, though it’s sort of ignored later. I rather like “Mawdryn Undead,” despite a fair amount of preposterousness and goofiness. (Why would Tegan and Nyssa immediately think the Doctor had regenerated into something weird and zombie-looking?) Still, the presence of the Brigadier will always warm me to a story, and I like the timey-wimey aspect of it, with the Doctor and his companions separated by a few years but being in the same place for clues to be found.
With Turlough now on board the TARDIS, we go into Stephen Gallagher’s Terminus, which is a pretty appropriate name, given how kind of interminable it is. They all go to a ship that is heading for a space station at the very center of the universe, which has been hit by a horrible plague. Nyssa gets infected by it. There are guards and a dog-like creature called a Garm. The station’s jettisoning of an unstable fuel canister started “The Big Bang,” and it’s preparing to do it a second time to probably destroy everything. That’s bad. Nyssa gets cured, the Second Big Bang doesn’t happen, and everybody’s ready to leave but Nyssa, for some reason, wants to stay behind so she can help the sufferers of the disease. Noble goal. I don’t like this story and it’s sad that Nyssa (Sarah Sutton) was made to leave the show. She’s easily the best of the Fifth Doctor’s companions, but since she never really argued with anyone, they deemed her boring and wrote her out. So, now we’re left with Turlough and Tegan.
However, I ADORE the final story in the Black Guardian Trilogy – Enlightenment, by Barbara Clegg. Wanna hear something shocking, baffling, aggravating, and true? Barbara Clegg is the very first woman to write a Doctor Who story. (In 1966, Lesley Scott was credited as having co-written her husband Paul Erickson’s script for “The Ark,” though she actually did no writing of it.) Not only that, but “Enlightenment” was also directed by Fiona Cumming, who had directed a few stories already, including “Castrovalva” and “Snakedance,” making this story the only one in the history of the program to have been written and directed by women.
“Enlightenment” sees the TARDIS land aboard what seems to be a racing yacht from the Edwardian era. There’s a crew in barracks and rather strange aristocratic officers running things. When the crew go up on deck, though, they put on strange pseudo-diving suits which don’t seem to make sense. It’s soon discovered that they aren’t at sea, but in space, and that this ship is one of several, each from a different era of Earth history, competing in an interstellar race for “enlightenment,” the prize to end all prizes. The officers are part of a race called Eternals who exist outside time and space, who are all seeing and all knowing, but entirely lack imagination of their own and have to use humans (or “ephemerals”) to amuse themselves. The ship’s second in command, Marriner, begins to creepily fawn over Tegan, which is off-putting, to say the least.
One of the other ships is a typical pirate vessel (with the Jolly Roger and all of that), led by the aptly named Captain Wrack (Lynda Baron). She is really eating up the whole pirate thing and is actually using jewels she gives to her competition to focus energy to make the ships explode. This power, it turns out, is given to her by the Black Guardian, who has grown tired of Turlough’s growing reticence to killing the Doctor. Eventually, the Black Guardian and the White Guardian (Cyril Luckham) sit across from each other with the orb of enlightenment between them, as the winner of the race, the Doctor, comes to claim his prize. He defers his winnings to Turlough for his heroism and Turlough hurls it at the Black Guardian, causing the old bird-headed bad guy to burst into flames. You see, enlightenment wasn’t the gem; enlightenment was the choice.
There is nothing I don’t love about this story. The concept and characters are so rich and interesting, it’s really a wonder the Eternals never returned to the TV show. The direction is nothing short of fantastic, as Cumming actually *gasp* uses darker lighting to convey mood instead of the usual harsh studio lights making everything sort of fluorescent. The sets, particularly the interior of the yacht, are gorgeous and actually make it seem like we’re aboard a ship as opposed to just being on a soundstage. I’ve watched this story probably four or five times and never seem to tire of it. Everyone should go watch it right now.
But, remember the rule for Davison that the second to last story is the best and the final one is crappy, so we finish off the season with another Terrence Dudley two-parter, The King’s Demons. The Doctor, Tegan, and Turlough land in 1215 England, where the Court of King John has come to a castle to extort taxes. The King’s champion is just about to joust the lord’s champion when the TARDIS arrives. The Doctor quickly surmises that this person isn’t and cannot be King John as at that moment; King John was in London taking the Crusader’s Oath. The Lord’s cousin arrives and confirms this, as he’s just come from London and the “King”’s champion is revealed to be… The Master. Yay. The Master is using a shape-shifting robot named Kamelion to impersonate the king to stop, of all things, the Magna Carta from becoming a thing. Rather a trivial Master plan, don’t you think? At the end of the story, the Doctor takes Kamelion aboard the TARDIS as a companion, though that doesn’t quite happen.
This is an example of a story that looks great, given the costumes and location shooting at a real castle, but is absolutely ridiculous. The Kamelion robot was this highly-articulate thing JNT had seen somewhere and wanted to use in the program. However, the inventor-operator died and so nobody really knew how to use him. Hence, useless robot that just sits around and causes issues because of its pre-programmed dialogue. Why they didn’t just have him in human form all the time and cast an actor to play the robot is beyond me, but JNT was nothing if not gimmick-obsessed.
So that ended the season proper, but months later, in November of 1983, the 20th Anniversary special, The Five Doctors, written by the legendary Terrance Dicks, aired. It saw the return of Patrick Troughton and Jon Pertwee to the show. Tom Baker wanted nothing to do with it and William Hartnell had died, so another actor, Richard Hurndall, was hired to portray the First Doctor. It had a Dalek, Cybermen, the Master, a Raston Warrior Robot, and another traitorous Time Lord behind the whole thing. The Doctors all convene at the Temple of Rassilon where the secret to immortality is held. Nicholas Courtney, Carol Anne Ford, and Elisabeth Sladen all returned as companions and there were appearances by Frazer Hines, Wendy Padbury, Caroline John, Richard Franklin, and even K-9 as well. It’s a story that is a whole lot of fun to watch but doesn’t really make sense if you try to look at it as a piece of proper science fiction. It’s an anniversary story and a damned fun one at that.
The 20th season of Doctor Who was memorable but not as full of greatness as it might have been. In fact, it was after this that Peter Davison told JNT that he would only do one more season, after receiving advice from Patrick Troughton that three years is probably the right amount. What would we see from the Fifth Doctor for his final year? Well, you can bet it’s a fantastic penultimate story and a garbage final one. It’s just the way these things work.