Season 23 had been the lowest-rated in Doctor Who’s history as well as being a struggle creatively. Longtime script editor Eric Saward departed in a huff and producer John Nathan-Turner badly wanted to leave. However, it was decided that if JNT left, the show would be canceled and, to his credit or fault, he decided the good of the show was better than his personal well-being. However, BBC Controller Michael Grade didn’t like the show and specifically wanted star Colin Baker out. In between seasons, Baker was unceremoniously fired, despite him asking to have one final season to wrap up his 3 year contract.
JNT needed to find a replacement and for that turned to the world of comedy and to busker and former children’s entertainer Sylvester McCoy. McCoy was specifically hired to be the antithesis of Colin Baker, a lighter and goofier Doctor, even though he would later become much darker and more interesting. To begin with, though, McCoy played the spoons, spoke in malapropisms, did dumb things, and generally jumped around like a crazy person.
JNT also hired a new script editor in the form of Andrew Cartmel, a young and brand new writer at the BBC who had no experience editing scripts and little to no input as far as this season went. He would, however, become a very important figure in the shaping of the next two seasons as well as the tenor of the years of novels that followed the show’s cancellation.
Season 24 – 7 September 1987 – 7 December 1987
Now given only fourteen 25-minute episodes per season, the stories had to be split up into two four-parters and two three-parters, meaning the pace of the show greatly had to change. There would be more outside and location shooting (to save on studio time), but it was all on video instead of film (a carryover from the previous year). The writing for this year also wasn’t the best, nor did the tone of the episodes themselves do a lot to save them. It all became very pantomimetic, and weirdest of all, it started with a regeneration.
At a time in the show’s history that would never dare NOT show a regeneration, the way the Christopher Eccleston season did, one was written in to the beginning of the season’s first serial, Time and the Rani, mercifully, the final story written by Pip and Jane Baker. Colin Baker was offered, rather callously, the chance to come back and film the regeneration, but after the poor way he’d been treated, he declined. Rightfully so, I’d say. So, McCoy himself donned Baker’s insane costume and a curly blond wig for the scene in which the Rani (Kate O’Mara) chases down the TARDIS, though why Mel didn’t die too is beyond me.
The rest of the story has the Rani gathering up history’s greatest geniuses to help her create a “time manipulator” so that she can control and tamper with time anywhere ever. She forces the Doctor to regenerate, then pretends to be Mel so that he, in his muddled state, will think he’s doing good by helping her. Mel, meanwhile, is off trying not to get killed on the barren planet of Lakertya by the Rani’s booby traps and her giant bat-like servants called Tetraps. The Doctor eventually gets his brain working again so he can save Einstein and those guys as well as the lizard-bird-like Lakertyans from the Rani’s evil plan.
This story is utter pants, but there’s something weirdly charming about it. The effects were state-of-the-art at the time and are so very dated now, but still work for the show. The Tetrap costumes are glorious, as is the exterior of the spaceship on Lakertya. McCoy is pretty enjoyable, albeit at his most ridiculous, and Bonnie Langford as Mel screams a whole lot. I don’t know why I like watching this. I shouldn’t, should I? It’s just weirdly fun. One thing I don’t like at all, though, is the new theme tune arrangement by Keff McCulloch, and most of his Casio-based music for the McCoy years. It is garbage.
Nowhere to go but up, right? Well, no. In fact, there really isn’t much good to say about any of the stories in Season 24, but if I were pressed to say something nice about the second serial, Paradise Towers by Stephen Wyatt, it would be that shooting an entire story within the confines of a massive tower block (a set of one, but still) is pretty impressive. That’s sort of it, otherwise. This might be Mel’s crowning achievement in the screaming department, as one of the cliffhangers features her in a pool being menaced and they show this scene twice, once to end the ep, and once to begin the next one. It’s, boy, it’s something.
The story itself concerns the Doctor and Mel going to Paradise Towers for a vacation, but instead they find the giant luxury high-rise in disrepair and in desperate need of some upkeep. The tower is split among roving gangs of teenage girls known as “Kangs,” each group having its own color. There are also two old ladies who are cannibals. The Caretakers are, like the Judges in Judge Dredd, the law-keepers and death-dealers in the place and the Chief Caretaker is as ruthless and insane as they come. The only other male in the block, the last remaining young man (all other able bodied men left to fight a war) is Pex, who fancies himself a hero.
It’s an interesting concept, I suppose, but everyone is playing it like they’re in a weird Off-Broadway play about totalitarianism and pseudo-Nazis and it’s just kind of a mess. Is it more of a mess than the story that follows, Delta and the Bannermen by Malcolm Kohll? That’s for you to decide. But, no, it’s not. “Delta and the Bannermen” sounds like it should be about a garage rock band from the early ‘60s, but is instead about an alien woman and her asexually-produced egg trying to outrun bad guys who look like life-size green army men toys who’ve all come to late-,50s Wales with a group of shape-shifting tourists. The Doctor and Mel are there to help propel the story and there’s a rockabilly-inspired dance sequence as well.
The only thing even remotely good or interesting about the story is the character of Ray (Sara Griffiths), a tomboyish ’50s girl who was written to possibly become the Doctor’s next companion, seeing as Bonnie Langford was ready to leave after the season had ended. Ray was smart and with it and didn’t mind all the weird alien stuff going on. She understood the importance of what the Doctor was doing as was ready to help. In fact, for most of the story, the Doctor is with Ray whilst Mel is off being relentlessly upbeat with Delta who is about as interesting as a piece of 2×4. The Doctor’s camaraderie with Ray is a lot of fun to watch, and one almost wonders what might have been had the following story’s possible-companion not been as great as she was.
The final story of the season was Dragonfire by Ian Briggs, a story that is also very weird and kind of dumb, but brings back the mercenary character of Glitz (Tony Selby) from “The Trial of a Time Lord” and introduced audiences to Ace, played by Sophie Aldred. She is a girl from modern-day Earth, an anarchist and a punk who makes her own very dangerous explosives (like the famous Nitro 9), who somehow, through a freak “timestorm” in her bedroom caused by a chemistry experiment, ended up as a waitress on the massive frozen space trading colony of Iceworld.
Ace here isn’t quite what she’d end up being, yelling things like “Keen!” or even “Ace!” when something cool happens, but there is a glimpse of the deep character she’d become. The rest of the story is, you guessed it, dumb and stupid and, weirdly gory for no reason. The bad guy’s face melts at the end like in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Also, the episode 2 cliffhanger features the Doctor LITERALLY HANGING OFF A CLIFF. And why was he there? He climbed over a railing for seemingly no reason at all. Even if this was meant to be a satire of cliffhangers, it’s dumb and doesn’t make sense.
So, Mel goes off with Glitz at the end, where I’m sure she starts making him use an exercise bike and drink carrot juice, and Ace goes with “the Professor,” as she calls him, for fun and danger. If anything can be said for Season 24, it’s that it happened. In sports, there’s such a thing as a “rebuilding” year, and this definitely was. Everything changed, and it seemed like people were trying to find their footing. In almost every way, this season doesn’t resemble anything that came before, nor really the two seasons that followed. The stories got a whole lot smarter overall, and there was a lot more depth to the characterization of the two leads.
Next time, we hit the quarter-century mark and we go into my favorite McCoy season, which has three really good stories and one piece of shit. Oh, Season 25.