The 20th season of Doctor Who might not have been the slam dunk John Nathan-Turner was hoping for, but the anniversary special, “The Five Doctors,” in November of 1983 sure was. It was broadcast in multiple countries, and led to a huge celebratory gathering of fans and actors which looked like something akin to Woodstock. However, its current star, Peter Davison, had decided that his third year, Season 21, would be his last. JNT would again be faced with a casting change and an opportunity to shake things up even more so than before. Did it work? Well, we’ll get there. But, no, it didn’t.
Season 21 – 5 January 1984 – 30 March 1984
It seems there was a desire to bring back more old foes in Season 21, seeing as it worked so well in Season 20, and so the year began with Warriors of the Deep, a serial that saw the return of both the Silurians and their aquatic cousins, the Sea Devils. It was written by Johnny Byrne, a very solid writer, and offers up quite a few good ideas with its tale of human factions both underwater and on land preparing for mutually-assured destruction while the sentient reptiles of the planet decide they want to make another play for the planet.
A lot of this story works, actually. It’s a bit like a sci-fi version of a Cold War spy thriller, with enemy agents infiltrating Sea Base 4. In 1984, there would have been a whole lot of tension between the Soviets and the Everybody-Else, so it probably would have registered with people watching. The Silurians and Sea Devils make good foils for this kind of plot also, seeing as they also have a legitimate claim to Earth as well. The serial also has pretty fantastic undersea model shots, courtesy of Mat Irvine and the really underappreciated BBC Effects department. Why are they so underappreciated? Probably because of the Myrka.
The reason a lot of people dislike or have a poor opinion of “Warriors of the Deep” is because of the scenes involving the Myrka, a giant reptile beast that is meant to crash through the Sea Base’s walls and attack and eat people. To say nothing of the fact that the wall is made entirely of a substance which is clearly Styrofoam, the Myrka looks like it was made by a fourth grade science class out of garbage bags and acrylic paint. You know how Secretariat looks on The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson? I’m more likely to believe that’s an actual horse than I am to believe the Myrka onscreen is a real lizard creature. It’s a disaster which has sadly sullied the name of this otherwise pretty good story. Shame.
After that debacle, there needed to be something really good. What we got was The Awakening, a two-part story by Eric Pringle, his one and only contribution to the show. It involves the TARDIS crew landing in 1643, during the English Civil War, and dealing with a powerful entity known as the Malus, which had evolved over time from an alien war machine. It’s notable in that it focuses on an era in English history as yet untouched by the series, as well as for its great direction and costuming. It’s a good little two-parter, though it works better as part of the season as a whole than it does if you’re just looking for a Fifth Doctor story to watch.
After this, we get former script editor Christopher H. Bidmead’s third and final script for the series, Frontios. On the titular planet, the last vestiges of humanity are under attack via meteorite bombardment by some unseen enemy. The colony’s leader was just “eaten by the ground,” which leaves his son, with the awesome name of Plantagenet, to assume leadership. The TARDIS gets hit by the meteors and is forced (by gravity) to land and the Doctor, Tegan, and Turlough emerge as the meteorites keep falling. The Doctor then breaks the Time Lord’s cardinal rule about getting involved in fixed points in time as he helps some of the wounded settlers. He wants to make it perfectly clear that he was never there, should anyone ask.
A second bombardment leaves the TARDIS seemingly destroyed. Plantagenet wants to put the Doctor to death, though Turlough intercedes long enough for Plantagenet to have a heart attack, be saved by the Doctor, and get pulled under the ground just like his father. The culprits are soon learned to be the Gravis and his Tractators, giant sentient insectoids who have great power over gravity and have been using the colonists they pull underground as a means of powering their mining operations. Turlough is immediately afraid, as his homeworld was once invaded by the Tractators and he has awful memories buried deep in his psyche. The Doctor must defeat the Tractators at their scheme while tricking the Gravis to reassemble the TARDIS so they can escape.
I really like “Frontios” quite a bit. It, too, gets a bit overlooked due to the sheer power of the stories that follow, but it’s actually quite entertaining and intelligent. It also gives just the slightest shred of information about Turlough which sets up a little bit of his exit. Bidmead has always been a fan of using the TARDIS in different ways and exploring the boundaries of what it could or could not do, which is quite a fun exercise. The Tractators aren’t the best creatures of all time, but at least their plan is different and not the usual alien invasion plot. This is also the last Fifth Doctor story where nothing is in flux and the road to his regeneration was not quite paved. Seek this one out if you can; it’s a good time.
The next story was written and produced as four 25 minute episodes, but due to scheduling of things, was shown as two 45 minute episodes. That story was Resurrection of the Daleks, by script editor Eric Saward, who was a big fan of the 45 minute format which would become the norm in a year’s time. “Resurrection” did exactly what it said on the tin and brought back the Daleks, who hadn’t been seen since 1979, as well as Davros, their creator. This serial began a trilogy of sorts in that the Daleks would appear once for each of the final three classic Doctors, Davros was always involved, usually heading up a rival faction of Daleks, and the stories were all “R-word of the Daleks.”
“Resurrection” is easily the most violent story of the entire classic series, and has a body count of at least 35 onscreen deaths. The story has the TARDIS caught in a time corridor that brings them to London in 1984. On the other end of the time corridor is a space prison way the hell in the future. On this station is being held the cryogenically frozen body of Davros. Mercenary Lytton (Maurice Colbourne) and his team of Dalek-helpers go to free him. Meanwhile, on Earth, the military is trying to hold off the Daleks and not doing the best job of it.
The Doctor is attempting to warn the military about the dangers of the Daleks when the slug-mutant of an exploded one attacks a soldier. The Doctor himself picks up a pistol and begins firing at it. That’s how bad this has gotten; the DOCTOR is shooting guns at Daleks. Eventually, the Doctor ends up on the space prison where the Daleks want to copy his mind to make a duplicate, which they will also do with his companions. The Doctor is put in the position of being able to destroy Davros, while Davros needs to mutate some Daleks further to obey only him. Tegan, at the end of the story, has seen too much carnage (can ya blame her?) and finally decides she’s had enough of traveling with the Doctor. Tegan (Janet Fielding) is the Fifth Doctor’s longest-serving companion, and despite how irritating she sometimes is, her farewell scene is a good one.
For the first time since the Second Doctor and Jamie, the Doctor is traveling with a male companion and no one else. For one story this happens. It’s Turlough (Mark Strickson)’s time to leave at the end of Planet of Fire by Peter Grimwade. Grimwade had written Turlough’s first story, “Mawdryn Undead,” and it’s nice that he was able to give him a finale. This might explain why Turlough remains one of the only companions to have an actual throughline story arc, even if it wasn’t always intended to be.
The story is about strange triangular symbols, a trip to Lanzarote, Turlough returning to his homeworld, a new companion being introduced in the form of the “American” botany student Perpugilliam “Peri” Brown (Nicola Bryant), the Master controlling Kamelion (remember him?) and other such things. The plot is so convoluted that it’s sort of a wonder it hangs together at all, but it does. I actually quite like this one. It gets rid of Kamelion for the sake of anyone who cared about that thread, it gave Turlough a nice sendoff, answering quite a lot of questions about him, and it introduces Peri who, for the next couple of stories anyway, is a nice change of pace from the usual spate of Doctor tagger-onners, even if she was probably only cast because of her ability to properly wear revealing and low-cut outfits.
Peri barely gets to know the Doctor before it’s time for him to regenerate. For Peter Davison’s final story, Eric Saward turned to a man whose name is synonymous with good Doctor Who: Robert Holmes, the writer with more stories than anyone else. He hadn’t written for the show since 1978, and he returns in a big way with The Caves of Androzani.
The Doctor and Peri go to Androzani Minor, a deserted planet next to Androzani Major which houses massive cities full of people. While exploring a cave, they fall down and get a weird substance on them. They soon come across some military guys who work for a mining company, and the general in charge immediately believes them to be working for Sharaz Jek, the mysterious terrorist who sends robots to foil the mining operations. They are mining for Spectrox, a very powerful and expensive substance that is turned into a drug to make very rich people live longer and look more youthful. The Doctor and Peri are rounded up and executed, but they were actually rescued by Jek and replaced by robot duplicates. So they’re okay, right?
Not really, actually; both Peri and the Doctor have the early stages of Spectrox Toxemia, a side effect of falling into a nest early on (hence the weird substance). There are many horrible symptoms, but it always ends in death if not treated with milk from a very dangerous and fake-looking bat in the cave. The Doctor needs to get this to save his and Peri’s life, but in the meantime he has to sort out the dealings of the Phantom-of-the-Opera-like Jek, his hatred for the baroque and corrupt Trau Morgus (the CEO of the mining group), General Chellak, and mercenaries led by Stotz, who is secretly hired by Morgus to mess things up. Jek is obsessed with Peri’s youth and beauty and wants her for himself, while Morgus and Stotz only want money. The Doctor wants none of it, but has to do what he has to do, even if it means sacrificing himself in the process.
The Fifth Doctor’s finest hour comes when, in carrying Peri back to the TARDIS, the pair of them nearly dead from the toxemia, he drops one of the two vials of bat’s milk, meaning there’s only enough left for her. He just met her! And yet he’s willing to give up his own life for hers. What follows is possibly the best regeneration scene in the whole of the series.
And so the audience is left to wonder who this weird and rather curt new man is for a whole year, right? Wrong. Let me remind you that, during the Davison years, the penultimate stories are the best and the final ones are the worst. Well, Davison’s ending is one of the best stories of all time, so it must not end the season. JNT thought it would be a good idea for the audience to get a whole adventure with the new Doctor before the break to get to know him. In theory this is a good idea.
The Sixth Doctor was Colin Baker, an actor who had appeared in Season 20’s first serial, “The Arc of Infinity” and who JNT thought was funny and engaging at a party. That’s it! That’s the criteria for being cast as the Doctor; be an entertaining party guest. However, Colin Baker just happened to actually BE a good actor, though his tenure was plagued by bad writing, behind-the-scenes fiascos, a forced hiatus, and the beginning of the end of the show. Not his fault, though.
Still, when you start your run with something as bad as The Twin Dilemma, written by Anthony Steven, you’re not off on the right foot. The Doctor, having a bit of a regenerative crisis, is behaving very erratically and his moods begin to fluctuate drastically. He appears immediately arrogant and dismissive toward his previous incarnation. At one point, he becomes violent and begins to strangle Peri, though she is able to stop this by having him look at himself, causing a great deal of shame. He decides to hermit himself on the desolate asteroid Titan 3. Peri’s got to come too because he hates her apparently.
While on Titan 3, the Doctor meets his old friend Azmael, who is going by the name Edgewater, and who is the teacher of two twin math whizzes, Romulus and Remus Sylveste, who are terrible at acting and saying the letter “R.” They are being used by the Mestor, a gross kind of slug thing, to figure out a method of changing the orbits of various planets. It’s all very complicated and dumb.
I actually sort of applaud the idea to make the Doctor initially very unlikable and even dangerous, but the trouble is he never really stopped being unlikable even when he’s thoroughly good. The Sixth Doctor is always big on himself and complainy, and he and Peri are forever arguing, at least for the next season; We’re left in “The Twin Dilemma” with him literally saying “I’m the Doctor, whether you like it or not.” Not a great way to endear yourself to a very particular audience, especially when they then have to wait 9 months to see the show again.
But before we look ahead to the tumultuous run of Colin Baker, let us look back at the rather brilliant run of Peter Davison. He did the unimaginable: follow Tom Baker and do a good job. The writing wasn’t always the best, but Davison always brought his A-game and became a Doctor everybody could side with, even if he didn’t end up succeeding, and who the audience could really feel like was looking out for them. He also happened to have been in what I consider three of the best Who stories ever – “Earthshock,” “Enlightenment,” and “The Caves of Androzani.” That’s muy impressive.