The first season of Doctor Who in the 1970s was an enormous change in just about every facet. Not only was it the first season in color and the first season for Jon Pertwee, but the storytelling was now set entirely on Earth and the series shifted to be far more action-oriented and serious. This change, while initially making the series nearly unrecognizable from its first six seasons, also resulted in a huge ratings boost, as the show was suddenly fresh and exciting again.
By time Season 8 came around, producer Barry Letts and script editor Terrance Dicks were able to exert even more creative changes that shaped the series into what it would more or less be for the remainder of Pertwee’s run. The stories, while still mostly set on Earth, were more fantastical, less based in real or heightened science, and reflected more of the producer’s love of spiritualism and the occult. Letts even directed and wrote stories this year, as he would for the bulk of his time. There was also the introduction of a new cast of recurring supporting characters.
Pertwee’s Third Doctor and Nicholas Courtney’s Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart were obviously sticking around, and John Levene’s role of Sgt. Benton would be expanded, but two new heroes and a new recurring villain also joined the fray. It was determined (erroneously in my opinion) that Season 7’s companion, Dr. Elizabeth Shaw (Caroline John), was somehow too smart to be a proper audience surrogate and that the Doctor needed someone to say “what’s that, Doctor?!” and scream and be plucky and what not. Enter Jo Grant (Katy Manning), a recruit fresh out of college whose uncle was somebody important. She was young and impetuous and often made the wrong choices and needed to be rescued. She starts out as a bit of a nuisance, though she ends up having one of the most defined arcs of any companion in the classic series.
Added to the UNIT family was Captain Mike Yates (Richard Franklin), the Brigadier’s new second-in-command, who could go off and do action stuff whilst the Brig could be more administrative, though the big man did get into skirmishes on occasion. Mike was a bit more irreverent than any of the other UNIT personnel, though he certainly fell in line when it was necessary. He also enjoyed pulling rank and tormenting Sgt. Benton, which, let’s be honest, is nothing you or I wouldn’t do. Benton’s sort of a doofus.
Letts and Dicks also felt that the Doctor deserved an arch-nemesis, a humanoid villain who could match wits with our hero and have a bit of a cat-and-mouse relationship. They decided that the Doctor was a bit like Sherlock Holmes and the Brig was a bit like Watson, so they needed to introduce a Moriarty, a diametric opposite. And what’s the opposite of a Doctor? A Master, evidently. Roger Delgado was cast as the Master, another Time Lord rogue who wants to destroy things and genuinely be a thorn in everyone’s side. Delgado plays the Master with a mixture of erudition, mustache-twirling, and petulance that really plays well off of Pertwee, whose Doctor can be quite peevish himself. It was a genius character idea, and terrific casting; the only downside is that they decided to put the Master in all five stories in Season 8. By the end, the “twist” that he’s behind everything becomes a “duh.”
Despite the repetition, Season 8 has an eclectic blend of the silly and the sublime. A lot of this season is unfairly maligned, and another portion is unduly praised. We dive right in with another premiere story written by Robert Holmes and featuring his creation, the Autons. Terror of the Autons finds the Doctor in what could conservatively be called a “pissy” mood at the thought that his new assistant would not be as qualified as Liz (we agree on this), but he can’t bring himself to send Jo a-packing. At the same time, a mysterious guy who calls himself “The Master” takes mind control of a circus owner in order to use the grounds as a hideout for his TARDIS so that he can retrieve the last piece of the Nestene energy unit, and uses a radio telescope to broadcast the signal into space. He quickly takes over a plastics factory to begin making Autons.
The Time Lords, despite having exiled him, tell the Doctor of the Master’s doings and say it would be a pretty great thing if he’d go ahead and stop his old school chum and rival. He and Jo trace the Master to the circus, where they’re nearly killed, but two policemen come out of seemingly nowhere to help, with the Brigadier and Capt. Yates in pursuit. However, the Doctor and Jo quickly learn that the policemen are Autons and have to make a daring escape. The Master begins making really horrifying dolls with the plastic that go around and kill people, and he even plans to choke the populace of London with heat-controlled plastic daffodils. Eventually, the Doctor tells him that he’s being an idiot and the Nestenes will kill him too, and he changes his tune but gets away before UNIT can capture him. At least, though, the Doctor was able to steal his dematerialization circuit, so he’s not going too far.
There are some really interesting ideas at work here, and a lot of very creepy and startling imagery, not least of which being killer toys, creepy doll-faced guys, and a policeman with no face, but overall I’d say this story is let down by Letts’ direction. He’s doing some really weird things, most of which involve the use of CSO (colour-separation overlay, a shoddy precursor to green screen) all over the place, even just in lieu of actual sets or backgrounds. He also breaks a lot of the basic laws of filmmaking by switching angles, doing weird cut-ins, and breaking the 180 degree rule (film nerd moment). It looks like we’re watching some psychedelic nightmare half the time. Still, Holmes’ story is good, which is amazing given how much he has to introduce, and it begins the Master season on very much the right foot.
The Master doesn’t waste too much time, because by the beginning of the next story, The Mind of Evil by Don Houghton, he’s riding in the back of a Bentley, wearing fur, and smoking expensive cigars. The Doctor and Jo are witnessing a demonstration at Stangmoor Prison of a new device, the Keller Machine, which rehabilitates dangerous inmates by removing all the evil thoughts from their brains. After an inmate named Barnham is given the treatment, leaving him a docile child, the Keller Machine begins to make people see their deepest, darkest fears and, in some cases, kill them in the manner befitting that fear (one guy is afraid of rats and he’s found with bite and claw marks on his body).
Elsewhere, UNIT is overseeing security of a global peace conference in which China is taking part and whose delegate leader is found dead. Captain Chin Lee (played by Don Houghton’s wife, Pik-Sen Lim) is acting weird and trying to heighten tensions between China and the United States, even attempting to murder a Senator using a portable Keller Machine. She is, of course, under the control of the Master, whose ultimate goal is to steal a soon-to-be-decommissioned nuclear missile. At Stangmoor, the next prisoner in line for the Keller Process stages a riot and the Master wants to use these angry prisoners as an army to help him steal the missile. Jo and the Doctor get used as bait for UNIT/bargaining chips, but the Keller Machine has grown sentient and the Doctor and Master will have to work together if they want to stop it once and for all. However, the truce doesn’t last long, and the Master, who lifted his dematerialization circuit from the Doctor, is now free to travel the cosmos.
This is an excellent story, in both script terms and direction. It’s a holdover episode from the Season 7 style, and here the Master fits in perfectly as the power-mad scientist. The director for this serial was Timothy Combe, who also directed “Doctor Who and the Silurians” the season prior. His work is exemplary, especially with the show’s many action set pieces, especially a big gun battle in the prison between UNIT and the prisoners. He, unfortunately, badly overspent and was not asked back to the program. Shame. This would be Don Houghton’s final story for the program as well, though his departure wasn’t quite so dogmatic. Houghton’s two stories, this and “Inferno,” set him up as one of the finest two-and-out writers for the whole of the series, along with Robert Banks Stewart, whom we’ll talk about in Season 13.
One of the stories that is perhaps most remembered of the Pertwee Years is The Claws of Axos, the first by writing partners Bob Baker and Dave Martin (known affectionately as “The Bristol Boys”). A race known as Axons land in England and are in desperate need of refueling. They offer the people of Earth a substance known as Axonite, which, they claim, can replicate any substance, in exchange for energy. This promise leads to the distribution of Axonite across the globe. This is a bad thing, of course, as the Master, having been captured by the Axons, is trying to get to the Doctor’s TARDIS to escape again, his own having been seized by Axos.
Axos wants the secret of time travel for themselves, and the Doctor tricks them to hooking up their vessel to the TARDIS so that the Doctor can send them into a perpetual time loop. He tricks the Master into helping him do it. The loop causes every part of Axos to disappear from Earth, including all of their automatons and the Axonite itself; However, it also means the Master gets his TARDIS back, and is again free to go where he wishes.
This story, I think, gets unfairly maligned. It’s not the best, surely, but it’s certainly better than its reputation. Many fans point to the orange trash bags full of leaves which are commonly referred to as “Axons” and the rather fake-looking interior to the Axon ship as reasons for the low opinion. However, it has some great stuff between the Master and the Doctor, and the Doctor’s even starting to lighten up with Jo a bit. Yes, the monsters are a bit dumb, but the scene in which they’re attacking and UNIT can’t seem to hold them off is very well directed by Michael Ferguson and does build tension as best it can given the limitations of the monster suits. Plus it’s got awesome CIA agent Bill Filer, and you can’t go wrong with Filer. I like it. So there.
After “The Claws of Axos,” the Doctor is finally able to pilot his TARDIS, and does so in the next story, Colony in Space, written by Malcolm Hulke. At least, the Doctor thinks he can pilot it, but really, it’s a mission for the Time Lords to retrieve a horrible Doomsday Weapon. He and Jo land on a planet called Uxarieus, which has a single colony of farmers living on it, in the year 2472. The planet is a huge desert and the farmers are not having the best of luck. They fled Earth a year prior to escape overcrowding and pollution, but their land is yielding little results, and two colonists have been killed by what they believe was a giant lizard. While the Doctor is investigating, he sees that the lizard is actually a mining robot and that the IMC, a corporate mining venture led by the ruthless Captain Dent, has been using the robots to scare away, and now kill, the farmers to make them rescind their claim on the planet and allow the IMC to mine for the precious minerals underground.
An adjudicator from Earth has been sent for, and while they wait, the Doctor and Jo find the remnants of an advanced civilization on Uxarieus that has degraded over time. The colonists call these people “primitives,” but their society is much more advanced than that. The adjudicator arrives and turns out to be (say it with me now) the Master, who tricks the farmers into telling him about the primitive city. It turns out, the Master knew about the city and wanted the ancient Doomsday Weapon that is hidden there. The Master offers the Doctor the chance to rule the galaxy at his side with the weapon, but the Doctor, of course, ain’t having it. The Doctor has to prevent the Master’s plan, whilst ebbing the inevitable battle (or slaughter) between the IMC and the farmers. Oh, yeah, the Master gets away.
I really, really like this story. At six parts, it might be a touch too long, but the themes and ideas are solid. Malcolm Hulke is probably my favorite Doctor Who writer aside from Robert Holmes, so I’m inclined to give any story he writes a good review. It has his trademark disdain for military might, and IMC Capt. Dent works as both the blustering military figure and the conniving corporate stooge. Again, overtly political, Hulke warns of colonialism (again, indigenous people are pawns in a larger game) and of the growing threat of big business on independent farmers trying to make a life and a living. This is, again, a story that gets derided for some of the visuals, but if you can look beyond these and pay attention to the story being told, it’s really stellar.
Rounding out the year is a story that is, without doubt, inexorably linked to the Barry Letts/Terrance Dicks/Jon Pertwee era of the show. The Dæmons was the first to be written by Robert Sloman and writing partner Barry Letts, credited collectively here as “Guy Leopold,” and it puts the occult and witchcraft, not to mention the devil and the existence of humans on Earth, to the forefront. An archaeological dig in the village of Devil’s End is to excavate an infamous Bronze Age burial mound called “The Devil’s Hump.” A local white witch named Miss Hawthorne attempts to stop the dig, saying the horned beast himself will be released, but everybody thinks she’s crazy — everybody but the Doctor, of course, who travels with Jo to the dig site to try and stop it. Miss Hawthorne, meanwhile, goes to see the new town reverend, Rev. Magister, to get him to help plead her case. However, Magister… is the MASTER! So surprised, aren’t we, you guys?!?!? He definitely wants this dig to happen to release the dark entity Azal and his gargoyle servant Bok.
Once the tomb is cracked, the village is suddenly surrounded by an impenetrable, invisible heat barrier so UNIT can’t come in to help, though Capt. Yates and Sgt. Benton arrived just before. The Doctor finds a spaceship at the dig site, and he realizes that the ancient demon Azal, the basis for our idea of “the devil,” was actually an alien. The dæmons have influenced human history for centuries and become tied to the myth. The Master wants Azal to do his bidding, but Azal wants the Doctor present so that he may decide which of them is worthiest of his power. The Master is not pleased about this. Eventually, all sorts of other stuff happens and Azal and Bok are dispatched. The Master attempts to flee again, but he is, finally, captured.
The memorable stuff about this story (including the Brigadier’s line of “Chap with the wings there, five rounds rapid”) is a bit silly, if you ask me, and the stuff that works is almost totally lifted from other, better things. The idea of a dig revealing an ancient alien craft, aliens that were the basis of the Devil, those aliens being responsible for human history, and a great power able to destroy the world were all taken directly from Nigel Kneale’s Quatermass and the Pit, a TV miniseries in the ’50s that was adapted into a Hammer film in 1967. I love that movie and so I initially assumed a Doctor Who version of it would be just as good. However, the serial gets muddied up with a lot of unnecessary hitches in the road and a ridiculous infusion of ideas about the occult and witchcraft which are truly not explained properly. It’s fine, but is remembered more fondly than it probably ought.
Season 8 shifted Doctor Who slightly, but kept the basic tenets of the new regime. A whole season of the Master probably seemed like a good idea at the time, but a story or two off would have done him wonders. As for the stories themselves, none of them are awful, but they’re also no real breakthroughs here either. It was a solid season, if a huge letdown from the season prior. On Thursday, we’ll take a look at a season that has two genuine classics, two uneven but enjoyable ones, and an honest-to-goodness stinker. The Daleks return, too! It’s the fun of Pertwee!