Colin Baker swaggered onto screens as the Sixth Doctor in the final four episodes of Season 21. To say that the public’s initial opinions of him were mixed would be generous. His initial offering, “The Twin Dilemma,” left audiences cold and a little unsure of what kind of hero they’d be getting following the intensely likable and relatable Peter Davison. But, as Season 22 began, audiences would see more than just the face of the Doctor change. There was a new format and a much, much darker tone, which drew the ire of parents’ groups and watchdogs alike.
Season 22 – 5 January 1985 – 30 March 1985
Script Editor Eric Saward had long been a proponent of longer episodes, citing that, in 25 minutes, writers only have time to wrap up the previous cliffhanger and add a bit more story before ramping up for the next cliffhanger. As such, an experiment was done for the 22nd season of the show: instead of four 25 minute episodes, most stories would be two 45 minute episodes, facilitating only a single cliffhanger and allowing a bit more room for the episode to breathe. It would also be going back to its usual Saturday evening slot, as opposed to Monday and Tuesday or Thursday and Friday evenings, as it had been for Davison.
Saward also upped the violence, as he had in “Resurrection of the Daleks” the previous year, and attempted to make the show more grown-up. However, “violent” does not necessarily equal “adult,” and, in fact, some of the stories are hurt by the desire for more blood, the season premiere, for example. Credited to Paula Moore, Attack of the Cybermen was actually written by Saward himself with contributions from uber-fan, and friend to producer John Nathan-Turner, Ian Levine. The story deals with a whole heap of Doctor Who’s history, which can be fun if you know it, but can be quite forbidding to people who maybe don’t know it as well.
The TARDIS lands in 1985 at the same junkyard at Totter’s Lane as when we first met the Doctor all the way back in 1963. He’s trying to repair the chameleon circuit to make the time and space machine look like something other than a blue police box. He actually does, and it starts to look like a big stove and later a pipe organ. Elsewhere, the Dalek mercenary Lytton (previously seen in “Resurrection of the Daleks”) is now a London gangster who is hatching scheme with some cohorts to rob the Bank of England of £10 million in diamonds. While in the sewers, Lytton’s crew is met by Cybermen, and Lytton immediately surrenders, having another plan up his sleeve. One of the gangsters, it turns out, is an undercover cop who flees and meets up with the Doctor and Peri, only to be killed when the Cybermen attack the TARDIS.
The Cybermen want to use the TARDIS to get back to their adopted homeworld of Telos, where the Cyber Controller (thought destroyed in “Tomb of the Cybermen”) is still around and wants to go somewhere else. Once on Telos, the good guys also encounter the Cryons, the race that was thought wiped out by the Cybermen when they initially invaded. Then it turns out Lytton’s not such a bad guy or something, but he gets tortured and his hands get crushed, and the Doctor ends up shooting several Cybermen.
Yeah. “Attack of the Cybermen” is basically just fan-wank mixed with Saward’s love of his own anti-hero characters and his desire to make everything more violent. If someone from 1967, who knew the show backwards and forwards, could magically have watched this story, they’d be appalled at what their little spooky sci-fi show had become. It led to even more scrutiny from media watchdog groups as to the level of violence. On top of that, it’s just not a very good story from a writing standpoint, and does not set the scene well for the season, which might be my least favorite in the whole run.
Next up, we have arguably the best of the season, or at least top two, in the form of Vengeance on Varos by Philip Martin. It has the Doctor and Peri ending up on the underground world of Varos, in which people are subjected to torture on television for the masses to consume, and where the Governor has to endure daily votes as to whether he should be killed or left alive to govern for one more day. It’s quite barbaric. The nefarious Sil (Nabil Shaban), a slug-like alien swindler, negotiates with the Governor over the price of the precious Zeiton-7 ore. The Governor puts it to the citizens that they should hold out for a fairer price, but they vote him down and he’s subjected to Human Cell Disintegration Bombardment. While he survives, he’s well aware that one more down vote would surely kill him. To appease the masses, he sets up the public execution of a rebel, though he’d rather not.
However, the Doctor appears and is able to free the rebel and the two of them, plus Peri and the rebel’s wife, try to get away through the labyrinthine tunnels. The Doctor is separated and gets put through many horrible trials while the public watches. Though everyone assumes he’s dead, he isn’t, and wakes up as his body is being dragged to acid baths for disposal. He ends up causing the horrible acid-death of two guards. Just like the Doctor. Peri is subjected to genetic experimentation and made to look like a bird. The Doctor is able to convince the Governor of Sil’s treachery and money-grubbing, but the slime ball has already called in an invasion force to claim the ore by force. Oh no!
This story is also very dark and violent, but it’s written much, much better. The idea of the new Roman Coliseums being a form of live broadcast was very prescient at the time with the huge insurgence of reality television going all the way up to today. The character of Sil is probably the last great villain invented for the program until the new series began. He’s just so despicable and yet cowardly at the same time. Shaban does a hell of a job, and it was no wonder they brought him back the following year.
Some people will give me shade for saying Sil is the last great villain when the next story introduced another quite good one. The Mark of the Rani, by the husband-and-wife writing team of Pip and Jane Baker (yes, there’s a man named Pip running around), gives us a Time Lady who’s out for herself and her own experiments, the Rani, played by Kate O’Mara. She appeared twice in the classic series (because “Dimensions in Time” does not and will never count), and by far the better appearance is this one. In 19th Century England, the Rani is posing as an old woman who runs a local washhouse in order to perform her experiments on people to obtain their neuro-chemicals that enable sleep. She rules a planet called Miasimia Goria, and the people there are unable to rest due to all the other experiments she’s done on them. Whilst she’s doing these experiments, she is visited by the Master (Anthony Ainley), who somehow didn’t die in “Planet of Fire.” He proposes the two enter a partnership to take care of the Doctor, who has also shown up, of course.
The Doctor is concerned because there seems to be a gathering of all the finest minds in the Industrial Revolution starting to take place, though no such meeting should have. This is all a plan by the Master to try to speed up human development so he can use the Earth as his base of operations. He tells the Rani that she can visit Earth any time she likes if she helps him get rid of the Doctor and make sure his plan is carried out. The Doctor’s got other ideas, though.
Pip and Jane Baker get derided a lot (rightly, in my opinion) for not being the best writers, though here the production makes up for it a bit. Some things just flatly do not make sense, but the direction is pretty good and it ends up being a fun story. The Rani is a wholly different type of baddie, content to keep to herself and get done what needs to be done, and she plays nicely off of the Master who is, as always, trying to do something ridiculous and over the top, thus drawing attention to himself and getting the Doctor involved.
From there we have the season’s only 3-parter (the equivalent of a 6-parter if these were 25 minute episodes), The Two Doctors. After the success of “The Caves of Androzani” the following season, Saward was keen to get his new friend and Doctor Who legend Robert Holmes back to write for the show. And, hey, why not have it be an event, shooting on location in Spain and bringing back Patrick Troughton and Frazer Hines, and throwing in Holmes’ creation, the Sontarans, which he hadn’t written since their first appearance in 1973? It’s all the ingredients for a really smashing multi-Doctor adventure, right?
Well, no, actually. “The Two Doctors” is overly complicated and highly uneven. There’s no real reason for them to be in Spain since, true to his form, director Peter Moffatt doesn’t really shoot it so we can get the most out of the landscapes. Sure, it’s an excuse for Peri to wear next to nothing again, but they didn’t really need to go to Spain for that. It’s also kind of not about the two Doctors. The Second Doctor gets captured early on, and the bulk of the story is the Sixth Doctor running around with Jamie, which is a lot of fun, no question, but when you have an actor like Patrick Troughton, you sort of want him to be on screen all the time. The Sontarans in this, also, are utter garbage. Firstly, there are two of them and are vastly different heights. They’re supposed to be a clone race. And second, they really aren’t that integral to the story. This is their final appearance in the original series, and they continually got worse through their four outings. You sort of want more from Holmes because, on paper, this should be brilliant.
Despite my misgivings about “The Two Doctors,” it’s about six billion times better than the story that came after it, Timelash, by Glen McCoy. This may be a bold statement, but “Timelash” might well be my least favorite Doctor Who story of all time. It’s painfully stupid, camp and corny for no reason, it sullies the good name of H.G. Wells, and it’s maybe the most irritating Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant ever are together. For whatever reason, Saward was a big fan of the Doctor and companion bickering. He did it with the Fifth Doctor and Tegan and did it through this entire season with the Sixth Doctor and Peri. Why would she keep wanting to travel with him if he was always so mean to her, and why would he want her around if all she ever does is complain? It’s dumb.
There are two (2) good things about this story and they are very minor. One, is the makeup job on the Borad, which is the monster of the piece. It’s a cool sort of half-formed thing where a human face is kind of blending in to become a pseudo elephant seal face. It makes no sense, but the makeup is good. Second, there are references to the Third Doctor and one of his unseen adventures. I love Pertwee so any time we’re led to believe he did something awesome, I’m all for it. But that’s it, folks. On the mighty Doctor Who Magazine Top 200 poll in 2009, “Timelash” was voted 199th best story, only narrowly losing out on dead last by “The Twin Dilemma.” In fact, only one Colin Baker story finished in the top 100.
That story finished this season. Revelation of the Daleks by Eric Saward, which finished 46th on the aforementioned poll, is arguably the writer/script editor’s best, which is ironic considering it’s the story that features the Doctor the least. He and Peri head to the frigid and dour planet of Necros, which is home to the funeral home of Tranquil Repose to find his friend Arthur Stengos, who is in suspended animation. They’re quickly attacked by a mutant, though, who, while dying, tells them that the Great Healer used him as a genetic experiment. Also looking for Arthur Stengos is his daughter, Natasha, and her boyfriend Grigory. They enter the facility illegally and find his stasis pod empty. A little digging later, they find the horribly mutated remains of Stangos inside a clear Dalek shell.
Elsewhere at the facility is Kara, the CEO of a company that distributes food, who is the pawn of the Great Healer, who happens to be Davros (Terry Malloy), now just a disembodied head. She hires the honorable mercenary Orcini and his squire Bostock to kill Davros, which Oricini is more than happy to do. Davros’ plan is to use the bodies at Tranquil Repose to create new forms of Daleks, which the Imperial Daleks, who are only interested in pure, Skaro-born Daleks, are very unhappy about. Also involved in the hootenanny are Mr. Jobel, the lecherous chief embalmer, and his subservient, and rather irritating, assistant Tasambeker, who is in love with him. Commenting on everything is a DJ who, like Peri, is also using a fake American accent. Lots of people, huh?
In truth, this story works a lot better than it should, given how many elements are going on at the same time. As such, the Doctor and Peri are only in it a small amount, comparatively, and are only really involved tangentially for a good long while. They don’t even get to the Tranquil Repose facility until the second episode. However, there’s enough intrigue to keep things going and it’s clear that Saward is channeling Robert Holmes with his use of different threads and double-act in the form of Orcini and Bostock.
This season had decent viewership, but the BBC was no longer interested in it, citing the increased violence, the relatively poor writing, and Colin Baker specifically as reasons for the decline. They had decided to cancel the show, or “put it on hiatus,” and the crew were forced to appeal to the public (including a very ill-conceived “We Are the World”-style benefit song entitled “Doctor in Distress”) to try to change the Beeb’s mind. The show did come back after an 18 month break at which time the Doctor and the show would be on trial for their lives. It’s the “Trial of a Time Lord” season, next time.