After several seasons of meh-to-cruddy writing and production, Doctor Who was finally starting to pick up some narrative and thematic traction again in Season 25. Script Editor Andrew Cartmel was focusing evermore on the Doctor’s mysterious past and place as the galactic chess master, which star Sylvester McCoy more than ate up. With the inclusion of companion Ace (Sophie Aldred), the series had one of its deepest secondary characters ever and one whose past and future would be explored fully in the next season. Too bad it was the show’s last.
Season 25 – 6 September 1989 – 6 December 1989
Each of the four stories of this season dealt in some way with the past, be it the Doctor’s or, for most of it, of Ace. The first story, Battlefield, was written by Ben Aaronovitch, the guy behind the previous year’s best story, “Remembrance of the Daleks.” A clear fan of the series, Aaronovitch this go-round brought back UNIT, which hadn’t been seen since the mid-70s, as well as a familiar face to fans of that particular era, Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart played by the legendary Nicholas Courtney.
The Doctor and Ace answer a distress call and end up in modern day England near Lake Vortigern. They quickly encounter UNIT’s new leader, Brigadier Winifred Bambera, who knows the name “The Doctor” and reports it back to headquarters. This news reaches the long-retired Lethbridge-Stewart, who decides to go on one more adventure and is helicoptered to where the Doctor is. Meanwhile, strange occurrences begin, as people who appear to be 8th Century knights in shining armor show up. One knight, Ancelyn, seems to recognize the Doctor as Merlin the Wizard. The Doctor has no memory of being Merlin; however, he may one day become Merlin. Also, the witch Morgaine and her son Mordred travel through a time-space rift like Ancelyn and wish to summon The Destroyer, a beast of untold terrible energy, and only the Doctor and company, as well as Excalibur itself, can stop them.
This is a really fun and interesting way to begin the season, even though it’s probably an episode too long (lots of padding). Firstly, we have UNIT and the Brig, whom I’ll always enjoy. Second, I love the mixture of Arthurian legend and science fiction and “magic” stuff being explained through alien science. Lastly, I really love the idea that the Doctor might one day become Merlin the wizard. Such a bonkers yet totally believable idea, and I’m sure it’ll never be touched on again onscreen, but this idea that the Doctor might go Pertwee again and stay on Earth for an extended period of linear time, but in the middle ages to help King Arthur, is pretty neat.
Unfortunately, “Battlefield” episode 1 has the dubious honor of having the lowest ratings for any single episode of Doctor Who, at only 3.1 million. The ratings would rest squarely around 4 million for the rest of the season, though, as the next story, the last one to be shot despite it being second broadcast, shows us. Ghost Light was written by Marc Platt, a new writer for the show who would go on to be one of the key writers of the Virgin New Adventures novels and Big Finish audio plays. His lone televised story is a head-scratcher, and probably could have used that extra episode “Battlefield” didn’t need.
The Doctor and Ace land in a mansion in 1883 Perivale, Ace’s hometown. It’s a very weird house and under the control of the mysterious Josiah Samuel Smith, who brainwashes everyone living there. The maids all carry rifles and the butler is a Neanderthal named Nimrod. We find out (and I don’t really want to explain how) that thousands of years ago, an alien ship came to catalogue all life on Earth, and the head of this expedition was a creature called Light. He was overthrown and put into hibernation whilst Josiah and some of the other of the house’s caretakers, who were members of the crew, decided to set up shop. Nimrod was one of the specimens they’d taken and had been trained to be a servant. The house is weird and creepy and we find out that it’s the same house Ace burned to the ground when she was younger. She knew it was evil, and the Doctor is now making her come to terms with her feelings about it.
This story really, truly, is hard to follow. I’m told by some people that you understand it if you watch it multiple times and read the novelization, which fills in some of the gaps that were left when the script was cut from 4 parts down to 3. All I know is that a TV story shouldn’t require extra reading and multiple views to be enjoyable. There’s nothing particularly wrong with the production — it looks nice and the sets and costumes are lovely — but I just don’t get it. I even know what happens, from having read up on it, and I still don’t really get it. *shrug*
Next, we come to The Curse of Fenric, written by Ian Briggs, the man who introduced Ace in “Dragonfire” in Season 23. In this story, the Doctor and Ace go back to WWII-era Northumbria and befriend the people on a British Naval base. A supercomputer called ULTIMA is being used to intercept and decode German communiqué while the wheelchair-bound Dr. Judson also uses it to decipher strange Viking runes warning of an ancient evil named Fenric. The base’s leader, Commander Millington, believes he can harness the power of Fenric for himself. The Soviets are also after ULTIMA for the same purposes.
The Doctor discovers a glowing Oriental vase, one of the Vikings’ treasure pieces, and Judson and Millington confiscate it and plan to decipher it. Soon after, vampiric Haemovores rise from the sea and begin infecting people and making them crave blood as well. While attempting to read it, Judson is hit with energy and becomes imbued with Fenric’s energy. It says it wishes to play the chess game again with the Doctor, inferring that the Doctor knew what Fenric was and has faced him before. Ace also has to deal with the fact that one of the Women’s Royal Navy Service is her grandmother and that the woman’s newborn baby is her hated mother, Audrey. The Doctor is forced to make Ace question her allegiance to him in order to defeat Fenric.
This is a very good story for Ace. She essentially grows up during it, and begins to leave behind her punkish adolescence. We also have great stuff for the Seventh Doctor, and while this again alludes to him being an elder god of the universe, or at least a very ancient figure, which I still don’t like, it’s done a lot better than in “Silver Nemesis.” Visually, this is a very striking outing as well, with the seaside looking particularly lovely and the design of the Haemovores being quite unique, barnicle-y and gross. It’s probably my favorite story of the season, which isn’t saying a whole lot, really, since I’m not as big a fan of Season 26 as most people seem to be. I don’t dislike it, it’s just not my favorite.
The final Doctor Who story for seven whole years is, somewhat ironically, Survival, written by brand new writer Rona Munro, sadly only the third female writer in the whole of the classic series. It finishes up the Ace Trilogy by taking her and the Doctor to present-day Perivale, where the young lady is forced to deal with her upbringing and her old friends she’d left behind. However, that’s not the only thing going on. A weird black cat is wandering around the suburb and finding people to chase until something sucks them into another dimension. That dimension is full of cheetah people, and slowly the savagery of the power of this glowing red world makes the captives turn cat-like as well.
The Doctor and Ace, when taken there, find Ace’s friends as well as, believe it or not, the Master (Anthony Ainley), whose eyes have become feline, but has been able to stave off the full transformation with his Time Lord abilities. We find out that the Master is the one bringing Earthlings here to occupy the Cheetah People so they won’t focus on him. The Master uses Midge, a dude Ace knows who has fully fallen prey to the world, to get back to the regular dimension and Ace, the Doctor, and the other friends are able to follow. In a final battle, the Doctor and the Master go back to Cheetah World, where only one can leave alive.
This is a pretty weird idea, but not a terrible one. The show almost never deals with alternate dimensions or things that can’t be readily explained with pseudo Earth science. It seems strange that, even though the makers of the story didn’t know it was going to be the last until it had been finished, the Master, the Doctor’s most persistent enemy for the whole of the 1980s, would suddenly return after an absence of 3 years. Fitting, though. The story ends with Ace and the Doctor walking off to more adventure and an ADRed line from McCoy which gives the series a bit of a wrap-up.
The Doctor Who gap would be filled in “The Wilderness Years” with novels, fan-made projects, and other such spinoff material, but fans wanted more Doctor Who on their TV screens. When it returned in 1996 for a single 90 minute special, meant to be a backdoor pilot for Fox, it wouldn’t quite be what people remembered, but it would bridge the gap for the eventual return.
When we reconvene, we’ll take a brief look at the Doctor Who TV Movie. Until then, let me know in the comments what your favorite Classic season was and which Doctor is your favorite. And let me know how I’m driving. We’ve only got 8 more of these things; Let’s make them count.