When the Second Doctor spun away into oblivion in June of 1969, the faithful viewer was likely left totally in shock. This kind of thing had only ever happened once before, but then it was at the beginning of a season, and they had to wait but a week to see this supposed new Doctor in action. As the credits began to roll on Episode Ten of “The War Games,” they didn’t even know who would replace Patrick Troughton, and it would be six months before the Doctor would be on television screens again. When Doctor Who did finally return in January 1970, it was almost unrecognizable.
Just about everything changed between seasons 6 and 7 of Doctor Who, and it would change again, though less drastically, between 7 and 8. The series was now half the number of episodes, was shot in color for the first time ever, and based entirely on Earth, largely as a money-saving measure. The tone also largely changed from the sort of scary family entertainment it had been to be a lot more grown-up, with stories skewing much darker than ever before. There was also, now, a dedicated group, Havoc, who were in charge of creating elaborate stunt sequences for what would now be much more action-based. Seasons 7 also attempted longer stories, also a cost-saving idea, so the 25 episodes only encompassed four stories. However, these four are among the best stories in the entirety of the series, today included, and create what is if not the very best, at least near the top of the best complete seasons of the show ever. It may as well have been a completely new show for how much had changed. Save the police box, it could have been called UNIT and no one would know the difference. So yeah, it was a pretty important year.
SEASON 7 – January 2–June 20, 1970
Former script editor Derrick Sherwin had been bumped up to producer following the end of the black-and-white era and he brought along Terrance Dicks as his script editor. Sherwin cast as the Third Doctor light-entertainment and radio star Jon Pertwee, who was known for funny voices and not for being a dramatic hero. However, Pertwee became exactly that, a man of action, ideals, and condescension but always with a sense of prickly warmth and disdain for authority that wasn’t his own. The Third Doctor would be a huge departure from his rather jovial, welcoming predecessor, who used his seeming buffoonery to disguise his genius and cunning. The Third Doctor definitely blusters more than he doesn’t.
The first story to be shot in color, Spearhead from Space, was Robert Holmes’ third contribution to the series in just about one calendar year. Due to industrial action, the serial was shot almost entirely on location and 100% on film, giving it immediately a unique look and feel to go with the Earthbound story. The Doctor, having been exiled to Earth and made to regenerate, falls unconscious out of his TARDIS just as strange meteorites begin to fall and are discovered by a local farmer. Members of UNIT arrive and find the Doctor, remembering the police box from before, and bring both to headquarters. Meanwhile, Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart (Nicholas Courtney) is welcoming a brand new science officer, Dr. Elizabeth Shaw (Caroline John) to the fold. Liz has zero patience for what the Brig seems to be dishing out about alien activity and paranormal hogwash. They get word about the Doctor and the Brig visits the unconscious Time Lord in hospital, only to see it not be the man he knows at all.
Elsewhere, a plastics company is making a line of life-size figures of current political and military leaders, apparently for an exhibit, but actually to replace them with realistic doubles controlled by the Nestene Consciousness, the powerful, amorphous whatsit that has been sending the meteorites as power units for this scheme. The “human” face of this is Channing, the man in charge of the plastics factory. He is particularly interested in what UNIT has found and sends living dummies, the Autons, to patrol.
After finally waking up and stealing some clothing and a car from the hospital, the Doctor eventually meets up with the Brigadier and Liz and begins to figure out what the Nestenes are up to. He, of course, would much rather leave, but he has forgotten how to use the TARDIS, thanks to the Time Lord’s mind-meddling. While he’s not crazy about the Brigadier effectively making him stay on to help UNIT, he does get along well with Liz and they are able to thwart the Nestenes.
At four episodes, “Spearhead from Space” is the shortest story this season, but it starts the new regime out on a very good note and introduces the basic format and characters that would be staples of the next five years. Liz Shaw is maybe the best and most capable companion (or “assistant,” since they never travel anywhere) the series ever produced. She’s a scientist and doctor herself, so she has a basic grasp and ability that most randos don’t. The Brigadier is stern and, we’ll see later, very much a company man, but he nevertheless legitimately wants to help and have things go smoothly. Throughout much of this story, the two of them and the Doctor have the kind of working relationship, born out of mutual respect and sense of duty, which is incredibly rare for Doctor Who.
This story also gives us the Autons, who would appear again the following season and then not again until Russell T. Davies used them for his initial episode, “Rose.” In many ways, “Rose” and “Spearhead” are companion pieces. Since this story is, essentially, a hard reboot in just about every possible way, it seemed like the perfect template for Davies, who was bringing the show back after basically a 16 year absence, save a brief respite in 1996. The Autons are a good monster to have in a story set on contemporary Earth. Who hadn’t seen a shop dummy window display in 1970, and how terrifying would it be if they came to life and began killing people, violently even? That Robert Holmes knew what he was doing.
Derrick Sherwin would serve as producer for only this one story, after which he got a different, more powerful position somewhere else. This left the producer position open for Barry Letts, who stayed on for the rest of Pertwee’s time on the show. There’s a real sense of cohesion through the bulk of the Pertwee years, simply because Letts and Dicks remained the main creative controllers and hired the same group of writers over and over again. Holmes wrote four stories for Pertwee, Malcolm Hulke wrote five and a bit (more on that later), Robert Sloman (along with Letts) wrote four, the team of Bob Baker and Dave Martin wrote three, and, aside from Louis Marks, everybody else wrote two. It all feels like the same show, for the most part, and doesn’t shift tone and style very much, certainly not as often as the Troughton years had. However, the real Letts regime would begin in the next season; for now, he had to continue with the stories that had already been commissioned, three seven-parters.
People may have been surprised when the show reverted to studios and videotape with the Malcolm Hulke-penned Doctor Who and the Silurians, but it was still color and it was still much more grown up. NOTE: The title probably was meant to just be “The Silurians,” but nobody thought to change it, nor, indeed, do most of the people involved know that his name isn’t Doctor Who. This story sets up the format for the rest of the season: a scientific research facility stumbles across something weird and UNIT comes in to help. At an early point in the process of having the show set on Earth, Hulke said to Dicks that the only two stories one can do with Earth-based sci-fi are alien invasion or mad scientist. However, this one was an attempt to upend that.
A nuclear power research station built into a series of underground caves is experiencing unexplained power drains and a high incidence of mental breakdown among the staff. This brings in the Brig, the Doctor, Liz, and the rest of the UNIT squaddies along, much to the chagrin of Dr. Lawrence, the facility’s director. What they find causing all the issues are a race of sentient, bipedal lizards, awakened after millennia by the drilling. The Doctor erroneously says they are from the Silurian period and, once contact is made, it becomes clear that they were the original rulers of the Earth, but chose to go into hibernation to when the ice age hit. They want the planet back, which, of course, isn’t going to be an easy task.
The lizards release a toxin that begins to wipe out parts of the population and the Brigadier, being a military man with a duty, wants to strike and attack them. The Doctor, however, believes they can be reasoned with, and that an understanding can be reached between the two species. However, though the Silurians ultimately agree, the Brigadier’s final act in the story destroys the lizard people, much to the Doctor’s horror and disgust.
Hulke, one of the series’ most political writers, delivers a story with the requisite amount of scares, creatures, and sci-fi stuff, but also includes a lot of his own feelings about xenophobia, the “England-for-the-English” mentality of the time, and the supposed right of the military. He clearly has a huge chip on his shoulder for military types, but does a fantastic job of making the Brigadier both sympathetic and out of order. He’s not a bad guy, and at no point are we led to believe he’s doing anything for any reason other than the safety of the human race, but he does, effectively, murder a group of indigenous people to achieve that end, and that is what the Brig can be depending on the circumstance. This, so early on in the new regime, sets up the real struggle for the Doctor, being party to a military organization. He has a sense of superiority to the people of Earth and feels like it’s up to him to make everything okay, at the expense of playing nice with UNIT.
Though credited to David Whitaker, former script editor and writer under the Hartnell and early Troughton years, the third story of Season 7, The Ambassadors of Death, was almost entirely rewritten by Malcolm Hulke and Terrance Dicks. Here, again, we see Hulke’s contempt for military might and fear of the unknown, though this time the Brigadier is not the culprit, instead favoring his usual target of the middle-aged general who has gone off his rocker. UNIT is assigned as security for the British space programme, which is launching a probe into Earth orbit to make contact with the missing Mars Probe Seven and its two astronauts, who haven’t been heard from for eight months. The new probe does make contact, but its pilot is suddenly silenced after hearing a strange, shrill sound. This leads the Doctor and Liz to come in for aid, and they quickly determine that the sounds are coded messages from another world. He then notes reply messages originating only seven miles away. The Brig takes some soldiers to investigate, only to find other soldiers, and they engage in a gun battle.
Those soldiers belong to General Carrington, who stages an ambush of the cargo truck carrying the recovered probe, and they steal the truck. The Doctor eventually finds it again, only to see that it’s empty. Carrington assures him that its contents, three spacesuited astronauts, are perfectly safe, but the Doctor is unconvinced. This leads to a series of attempts by the Doctor to figure out why Carrington is doing these things and where the missing astronauts really are. Those in the spacesuits are Martians and can melt things they touch, including people, so the Doctor will have to be careful. All the while, Carrington is attempting to launch an attack on the planet Mars, assuming that the “ambassadors” are harbingers of a large-scale invasion. But are they? And can the Doctor convince the General otherwise?
This story is just phenomenal. It’s exactly the kind of X-Files/Quatermass science fiction I love the most. It’s about twisty plots and mystery more so than horror, though there is plenty of that with the creepy, essentially-faceless astronauts from another planet. The direction is also top notch, with the kind of action you’d want in a show that has a bunch of soldiers from a clandestine outfit. The music by Dudley Simpson, who would eventually become the defacto composer for the show, is super catchy and ethereal in equal measure. Until recently, this story was only available in sporadic black and white, but on the recent DVD release, it’s restored to its vibrant full-color self. The only thing keeping this story from being my favorite of Season 7 is the one that followed.
To close out the season, writer Don Houghton’s first script for the show takes Doctor Who where it had never been, both in tone and content. Inferno begins, as most things do, with UNIT acting as security for a scientific project, this time attempting to drill all the way down to the core of the Earth. For reasons. The Doctor, meanwhile, is attempting to get his TARDIS console working again and moves it (somehow) out of the ship and into his workspace. As the drill gets further and further into the Earth, strange, primordial power begins to rise, turning several scientists and members of UNIT into snarly proto-werewolves (which are called “primords” for promotional purposes). The Doctor realizes it’s the drilling that’s to blame and wants it to end; however Professor Stahlman, who already doesn’t like the Doctor, refuses to let the experiment end. Pissed off at his being utterly ignored, the Doctor decides to hightail it, pulling energy from the project to feed the TARDIS console.
Only, it doesn’t quite work. He appears to still be at the dig site, and, after a bit of walking, he even sees Liz, though she’s in uniform and has dark hair, and she doesn’t recognize him. He’s apprehended and taken to see the Brigade Leader, who looks just like Lethbridge-Stewart except for no mustache and an eye-patch added. It appears the Doctor has come into a parallel dimension, a fascistic and totalitarian one where everyone he knows is evil. This universe’s timeline is slightly accelerated and they are even nearer to cracking the Earth’s core. The Doctor has to, somehow, convince this universe’s Liz that the end is nigh, and get back to his regular universe before it befalls the same fate.
I cannot tell you how much I love this story. It’s so very bleak and intense and exciting. The ticking-clock element is felt for almost the entirety of the second half of the story, and the constant sound of the drill makes for an eerie and maddening backdrop to the frustration the Doctor feels. This could have probably just been a four-parter, but Houghton does the genius thing of adding the parallel universe that we can see play out to its end point the “wrong” way before the Doctor returns to set the proper universe right. We get to see him lose and win in the same story. It’s also just a delight to see Caroline John and Nicholas Courtney portray severe and power-mad versions of themselves, which would surely have been shocking to the kids watching at the time.
After this season, John was not asked to return. Letts apparently felt like the character of Liz Shaw was too smart and capable (dumb thing to think) and hence wouldn’t work as an audience surrogate. When the show returned the following year, the era of Barry Letts would begin in earnest with a grown UNIT family and a whole ton of CSO (colour separation overlay, a shoddy precursor to green screen). However, Jon Pertwee’s first season was a huge ratings hit and brought the show out of its modest slump during the end of the last decade. For one season, Doctor Who became more adult, less schlocky, and almost entirely about ideas and characters. For me, it’s the best single season of the show in history, hands down.
Kyle Anderson is the Associate Editor and the resident Whovian for Nerdist. Follow him on Twitter!