After the campy, mawkish, and largely insipid 24th season of Doctor Who, anything would be an improvement. Sylvester McCoy’s Seventh Doctor came out of the gate like a clown on speed, but he and new script editor Andrew Cartmel felt that the character could be a bit darker, maybe not in personality but in motives. They felt the Doctor had lost a lot of the mystery that made him intriguing for the first several years of the program.
For Season 25, they decided to get the ball rolling on the idea that the Doctor is much older and more powerful than anyone had ever known, and that perhaps he was more involved in Time Lord affairs before his stealing the TARDIS than he let on. The notion of the Doctor as some kind of co-creator of the universe and all his moving of intergalactic chess pieces became known in fan circles as “The Cartmel Master Plan,” though the man himself has said there was no such plan.
This season gave a peek into what may be the true nature of the Doctor, what he’s doing traveling through time and space, and how far back in the history of the universe his knowledge goes. Throw in some returning villains, some elder gods, and a bad guy made out of confections, and you have yourself a packed season. And if there’s one thing producer John Nathan-Turner did well, it was anniversaries.
Season 25 – 5 October 1988 – 4 January 1989
To kick things off, Cartmel’s friend a co-conspirator Ben Aaronovitch penned Remembrance of the Daleks, a story that continued the R-word + Daleks trend of the ‘80s and the Dalek factions vying for supremacy, as well as going back to “the beginning” and paying homage to November 23rd, 1963. The Doctor and Ace (Sophie Aldred) land in London in ’63 near the same Totter’s Lane junkyard where everything began all with the First Doctor. They immediately find that Group Captain Gilmore and his military people are fighting off a grey Dalek, which the Doctor destroys using Ace’s Nitro-9. One of the military fellows, a young man named Mike, takes a shine to Ace, but he unfortunately is friends with a fascist working with the Daleks. Bad luck.
While here, the Doctor also seeks to recover a device his first incarnation placed in a grave at a local cemetery. This is the Hand of Omega, a very powerful device which the first Time Lord, Omega (it’s in the name, really) used to create the supernova which led to time travel. However, the Hand can be used as a weapon if the Daleks should find it, which they intend to. And, it’s not just the grey Daleks they have to worry about; the white and gold Imperial Daleks are in the game, too, and have brought their heavy-duty Special Weapons Dalek to take out both grey and human alike.
This is not only the best story of the season or the best Sylvester McCoy story, which it undoubtedly is; it’s also one of the best stories, period, and certainly in the top 3 Dalek-related serials. Everything about it just works so nicely. The plot is referential to the past without being too caught up in it the way something like “Attack of the Cybermen” had been, and the script has lovely nods about the social unrest at the time, as evidenced by the scene where Ace finds the “No Coloureds” sign in the hotel at which she’s staying or Mike’s good-intentioned trust of a fascist regime. On top of this, the direction by Andrew Morgan, on tape but almost entirely on location, is action-packed and exciting the way nothing in Season 24 had been. All in all, it’s just brilliant, and if you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend watching it. Like right now.
After such a high, there’s nowhere to go but down, though some would argue it goes down much farther than I think it does. Writer Graeme Curry’s sole contribution to the program is The Happiness Patrol, a story that, on the surface, looks like the worst thing you’ve ever seen. It’s full of sickeningly bright colors, characters with pink hair, the Doctor joining in on spoons as a guy plays the blues, and a bad guy made entirely of sweets called the Kandy Man. However, the story itself is far darker and malicious than it appears, in a good way.
Ace and the Doctor visit a human colony on the planet Terra Alpha that has entirely outlawed sadness. Cheery music plays everywhere, everything is neon, and the streets are policed by statuesque women adorned entirely in pink called the Happiness Patrol. They not only want people to be happy, they’ll kill them if they aren’t. The goal is for everyone to be happy, but almost no one is, they just hide it so they don’t get murdered by the Happiness Patrol’s executioner, the sweet-based robot Kandy Man, who cooks people into candy. The Doctor has to overthrow this form of neo-fascism with the help of a dissatisfied guard and a renegade bluesman.
I don’t care what anyone else says, this is a good story. It’s sick and twisted and a bit disturbing,the way it takes what we normally visually equate to good things and turns it dark. The Kandy Man IS unpleasant and annoying, and that’s the whole point. The colors ARE upsettingly bright, and that’s the whole point. Stuff is on the nose for sure, but the ideas behind them are really intriguing and feel like something the Third Reich might have done had they tried a different tactic. At any rate, it’s a million times better than the story that followed.
The “actual” 25th anniversary special, meaning the one that aired on November 23rd, is Silver Nemesis, written by Kevin Clarke, who also never wrote for the show again. It might be because it only lasted one more season, or it might be because this story is awful. It sees the return of the Cybermen as they try to obtain the ancient relic from Gallifrey created by Rassilon out of living metal. Also wanting the statue is Lady Peinforte from the 17th Century and some neo-Nazis led by a “Boy from Brazil.” It also supposes the Doctor is, are you ready for this, God. Yes, God. As in… God.
I hate this story so very much, mostly because it makes no sense, but also because I don’t WANT the Doctor to be so powerful. I like the underdog Doctor who has nothing but intellect and a good heart. Later on, in the New Adventures novels, the “Doctor-as-God” idea would be expanded to say that Omega, Rassilon, and the Doctor were the three ancient creators of Time Lord society or some horseshit. No, thank you. I also dislike this story because it’s basically the same plot as “Remembrance of the Daleks” but with Cybermen instead and a lot less interesting characters, themes, and direction. What utter dross.
Luckily (I guess), we end the season with a very weird but also fairly narratively sound story. When basic plot cohesion is a plus, you know it’s a bad time. The story is The Greatest Show in the Galaxy by Stephen Wyatt, and it takes the Doctor and Ace to a circus on a desert planet where people and beings come from all over the galaxy to try to make it as an act. If they don’t, the three spectators (who appear to be a mother, father, and daughter) put their thumbs down and the would-be entertainer is no more. The circus employees include a rapping (heaven help us) ringmaster and a terrifying chief clown. Ace has always been creeped out by circuses.
Other people going to the circus are the shifty safari man Captain Cook, the punk with something to hide, Mags (she’s a werewolf), and Whiz Kid, who is the world’s biggest fan of the circus. This last character was very blatantly meant as a jab at rabid Doctor Who fans who know everything about the show and would probably spend weeks of their life writing a complete history of it like a real loser… Anyway, the three patrons turn out to be the Gods of Ragnarok, and if they aren’t kept appeased at all times, they’ll destroy the universe. Bastards.
There’s lots to admire about “The Greatest Show in the Galaxy,” and some to not like very much. Firstly, it’s very impressive visually, especially considering an asbestos outbreak in the studio meant they had to construct the circus tent in the parking lot and shoot only when planes weren’t flying overhead. The designs of everything are great, and Ian Reddington’s seriously nightmarish performance as the Chief Clown is a huge plus as well. But, like a lot of this season, the allegories aren’t very veiled at all, and the dialogue is very earnest. Still, the Doctor gets to perform magic and then walk away as the circus tent explodes, which is pretty badass.
Little did the makers of the show know there would be but one season left for basically 14 years; however, it would be easily Andrew Cartmel’s most ambitious and would develop the character of Ace in a way that no companion had been heretofore. Is there some silly stuff? Does a lot of it not make sense? Of course; it’s late-’80s Doctor Who. But Season 26 is often considered one of the best ever, so let’s see how it stacks up when the Classic Series winds down.