After the tumultuous era with Colin Baker in the lead and the stay of execution that followed, Doctor Who needed a complete revitalization. When Baker was forced to leave, longtime show producer John Nathan-Turner had planned on leaving as well. However, it became clear that no other producer at the BBC was willing or able to take on the series and, with the fate of the perennial sci-fi staple hanging by a thread, JNT decided to stay on. Since he hadn’t planned on producing season 24, he was faced with a time crunch in finding not only his new lead actor, but script editor as well. For the latter, Nathan-Turner hired inexperienced young writer Andrew Cartmel on the advice of a friend who had been Cartmel’s professor. Cartmel was eager to return some of the mystery to the character and began exploring his backstory and puppet-mastery. He wanted a character who, like the First Doctor, was at once hero and possibly villain. But who could play such a varied character? Again, John Nathan-Turner’s choice proved a surprising one.
Scottish comedian and busker Percy Kent-Smith was better known under the stage name Sylvester McCoy and had been a regular on children’s television in the 70s and 80s. The BBC was anxious to get the show back to its more child-friendly roots and McCoy’s clownish persona was easily relatable to children. Like Patrick Troughton before him, McCoy was small and spritely with the ability to portray both seriousness and buffoonery. However, the comedy angle wouldn’t last long and the Seventh Doctor ultimately became the most complex and Machiavellian rendition of the character yet.
Beginning as very much a silly character, the Seventh Doctor would often mix his metaphors, play the spoons, and make pratfalls. However, this façade was soon pulled aside to reveal a much darker figure with a questionable past and an uncertain future. Despite his tiny frame, this Doctor cast a large shadow and displayed true power on many occasions. He was an intergalactic chess master, moving people around like pawns to achieve his ultimate goals. He is known for wearing a pullover sweater adorned with question marks under a safari-styled jacket, a white panama hat, and always carrying his question mark-handled umbrella. While much quieter than his direct predecessor’s outfit, it was all the same idiosyncratic and specific to his personality. Indeed, as his personality became darker, so too did his outfit, going from white in the early stories to dark burgundy in the later ones.
Michael Grade, the head of programming at the BBC, was a vocal non-supporter of the show, and after implementing all the changes to the series during the Sixth Doctor’s reign, he did perhaps more damage during the Seventh Doctor’s tenure than the Daleks, Cybermen, and Master combined: he moved the show to Monday nights at 7:35pm opposite ITV’s insanely popular “Coronation Street,” the most watched show in all of Britain. That the show got any viewers at all during these years is a feat to behold and it maintained a fairly steady stream of watchers, more or less in keeping with the “Trial of a Time Lord” season. The episode count was kept at 14, split up into four stories: two of four episodes and two of three.
The show got a new version of the theme tune, one even more 80s than the Davison/C. Baker ones, and a new opening title sequence, complete with Commodore 64 graphics and a visage of McCoy doing some weird sex wink. The special effects on the show got almost uniformly better, though they look incredibly dated when viewed now. CGI immediately shows a production’s age while a guy in a rubber suit always looks like a guy in a rubber suit. Before “Toy Story 3,” I watched the first part again and was shocked at how primitive the animation looked. If it happened with Pixar, just imagine how it looks in a fairly low-budget 80s television show. All of these episodes are shot on video, and while normally I find that very noticeable, they are able to do interesting things with it.
As of this writing, only six of the twelve Seventh Doctor serials have been released on DVD in the U.S., but two more are scheduled to come out in the next few months. Sylvester McCoy’s first serial, Time and the Rani, is coming out early in 2011, but it’s worth mentioning briefly. It’s one of the most insane, nigh-psychedelic stories in the show’s history and it also involves arguably the most forced and unmotivated regeneration ever. In the opening moments of the serial, the TARDIS is seen, in its new boxy CGI form, being chased through the stars and eventually (crash?) landing on some planet where a furry, feathery bird man watches. Inside, the Sixth Doctor and Mel lie unconscious on the floor of the console room. Immediately thereafter, the villainous Time Lady the Rani breaks in carrying a weapon and accompanied by hench-creatures. She orders them to bring the man along, at which time the Sixth Doctor is turned over on his back and is shown to be regenerating, eventually becoming the Seventh Doctor. After firing Colin Baker suddenly, they needed some way of explaining why he wasn’t on the show anymore so a hastily written regeneration was added. Baker was offered the chance to appear in the scene, but he refused, rightfully so I think, and so McCoy himself had to don a curly blonde wig. How the crash causes no harm to Mel, yet makes a hard enough impact to trigger the Doctor’s sixth regeneration is quite beyond me, but all the same, it’s a regeneration and so is important.
Story 146 – Delta and the Bannermen
On an alien planet, the last surviving Chimerons are battling against Gavrok and his evil Bannermen. The Chimeron Queen, Delta, escapes at the very last second with her egg, the future of her species. The Doctor and Mel, meanwhile, have landed on an intergalactic tollbooth and learn that they have won a trip to Disneyland in 1959. They will be going along with a group of Navarinos, shape shifting tourist aliens, who will be travelling in a space ship that looks like a charter bus. The Doctor decides to follow in the TARDIS. Delta has managed to stow away on this bus and sits quietly as Mel and the tourists begin singing. No sooner have the ships departed than the Bannermen arrive and slaughter everyone at the spaceport. The bus/ship accidentally collides with an American satellite and is thrown off course, landing in South Wales instead of Anaheim. They have, luckily enough, landed at a holiday camp called “Shangri-La,” instead of say, the middle of a ditch. The proprietor of the camp welcomes the aliens and gives them rooms while the driver of the bus, Murray, fixes the ship. Mel is roomed with Delta and soon learns about her plight and the struggle against the Bannermen. The queen’s egg then hatches revealing a horrible green baby, but in the next shot it’s just a normal baby painted green. The baby is growing incredibly fast and is soon a small blonde girl. Delta tries to take her mind off the situation by going to the Shangri-La dance that evening, capturing the heart of Billy, the camp’s mechanic – much to the chagrin of tomboy Ray, who loves Billy herself. Ray confides her predicament to the Doctor, and they both stumble across a bounty hunter sending Delta’s position back to Gavrok. The Bannermen are on their way and odds are they aren’t going to be too friendly.
Why it’s important:
It isn’t, but it’s the only serial from season 24 currently available. It’s not necessarily bad; it’s just on the silly side. Also, any time it’s pointed out that the Doctor always ends up in the UK, it takes away from the enjoyment for me. Why even pretend they’re going to go to Disneyland when we know full well they’re just going to end up somewhere in Britain? It’s a British program, I’m aware it’s going to be filmed there and I’m fine with it, but don’t pretend like it’s an accident. That’s just my own pet peeve.
The following serial was entitled Dragonfire and saw the departure of Bonnie Langford as Mel and introduced possibly the best-written companion in the whole of the classic series, Ace played by Sophie Aldred. She was a streetwise chemistry genius from a working class English suburb who was inexplicably transported to the far future. She takes up with the Doctor, whom she almost always calls “Professor,” and she provides him with a protégé and not merely an assistant. In “Dragonfire,” she is a caricature of a disaffected punk, often exclaiming slang like “Brill,” “Fab,” or, indeed, “Ace,” but from that point forward, we saw a very clear arc for the character and saw her grow from a child into a strong adult woman. This is very much the same model that Russell T. Davies employed with Rose in the new series.
Story 148 – Remembrance of the Daleks
The Doctor and Ace arrive in 1963 London, not long after his first incarnation left with Susan, Ian, and Barbara. They are there, we find out, to recover a powerful Time Lord artifact the Doctor himself left behind. They soon cross paths with Professor Rachel Jensen and Sgt. Mike Smith who are investigating magnetic fluctuations outside Coal Hill School. They travel together to the secondary source of the fluctuations, Trotters Lane Junkyard, where they see that Group Captain Gilmore and his men are being attacked by a grey Dalek, which the Doctor promptly destroys using some of Ace’s Nitro-9 explosives. Sgt. Smith enlists the help of his friend, the fascist leader Mr. Ratcliffe, whose agents recover pieces of the Dalek which Ratcliffe presents to a Dalek Battle computer he has secreted away in his warehouse. The Doctor is troubled by the presence of the “wrong Dalek,” and concludes that the Daleks have followed him through time to find the Hand of Omega before he can. The Hand is a remote stellar manipulator invented by ancient Gallifreyan Omega as a means of creating a supernova to power their experiments and subsequent mastery of time travel. The attempt created a supernova that sucked Omega into the animatter universe and then imploded into a black hole that Rassilon later harnessed to create the Eye of Harmony. So it’s a pretty powerful thing is what I’m saying. The Doctor and Ace travel back to Coal Hill School to investigate and find a transmat device which the Doctor disables. They are soon set upon by a white and gold Imperial Dalek, which Ace eventually blows up with one of Gilmore’s rocket launchers. The Doctor sees that there are very clearly two Dalek factions vying for the Hand: the gray Renegade Daleks lead by a Dalek Supreme, and the Imperial Daleks, presumably lead by a Dalek Emperor. After destroying members of each faction, the Doctor learns that the Renegades are pure Kaled mutant, but the Imperials are mutated forms of other alien races. As always, the Daleks are interested in racial purity and will even fight their own kind to ensure it. Ace sees a cruel reminder of the times when she sees a “No Coloureds” sign in the window of the boarding house in which they’re staying, subtly suggesting that the Daleks might be what becomes of the human race if left unchecked. The Doctor goes to retrieve the Hand himself, which is hidden in a coffin that he himself dropped off in his first incarnation. He then hides the Hand by burying it in a grave, but he never intended for it to stay hidden for long. From the very beginning, the Doctor has been planning to let the Daleks obtain the Hand of Omega, but he needs to make sure it’s the right group of Daleks.
Why it’s important:
This story kicked off the 25th anniversary season and they spared no expense. There are explosions, stunts, dozens of Daleks, and even a full-size spaceship. What’s also so great about it is that there are tons of references to earlier parts of the show, particularly to the first episode of “An Unearthly Child,” but even if you haven’t seen those, the show still works. This is probably the best McCoy serial and one of the best-written stories of the series proper. We also get a glimpse of a new type of Dalek we’ve never seen: the Special Weapons Dalek, which forgoes the suction cup and laser gun for a full-on cannon and looks even more tank-like than do the originals. “Remembrance” is one of the rare occasions where the Doctor is being proactive. He returns to 60s London with the sole purpose of obtaining the Hand of Omega and destroying the Daleks once and for all. Usually, it’s a matter of the Doctor just showing up somewhere right as something awful is about to happen, like an interstellar Jessica Fletcher, but here he’s the one calling the shots. While he does do some silly things, this is where the Doctor begins to take shape as the powerful and plotting Time Lord he would ultimately become. It’s also the very last appearance of the Daleks for sixteen years.
Story 152 – Battlefield
The Doctor and Ace arrive at Lake Vortigern in England after receiving a distress call. The sound of explosions leads them to Brigadier Winifred Bambera of UNIT, in charge of a nuclear missile convoy. Following the encounter, long-retired Alistair Lethbridge-Stewart is informed of the Doctor’s arrival and a helicopter is sent to his country home to collect him. Later, Bambera is inspecting the blue police box when she is suddenly caught in the crossfire between two groups of armored knights, using both swords and futuristic weapons. At a hotel in town called the Gore Crow, the Doctor inspects a scabbard hanging on the wall. It is hot to the touch and the hotel owner’s blind wife says she can sense it waiting for someone or something. An archaeologist called Warmsly dates the scabbard to the 8th Century, but the Doctor senses it has been waiting for much longer. Ace and her new friend Shou Yuing discuss their shared love of explosives when a knight suddenly sails through the roof. He is Ancelyn and recognizes the Doctor, calling him “Merlin.” As the Doctor mulls this over, a group of ominous knights arrive lead by Mordred. Mordred is shocked to see “Merlin,” as he was told by his mother Morgaine that Merlin was long incapacitated. Mordred begins some strange ritual and the scabbard is pulled off the wall. Morgaine herself then appears through a rift in time and space and begins to psychically taunt the Doctor. The next day, Warmsly shows the Doctor and Ace the area where the scabbard was unearthed and a rune he cannot decipher. The Doctor reads the rune as “dig hole here,” knowing it to be in his own handwriting. Using Nitro-9, Ace blows a hole in the ground. Lethbridge-Stewart’s helicopter is brought down due to Morgaine’s sorcery and, after a rather friendly conversation, she says she will kill him if they ever meet again. The Doctor and Ace travel underground to a chamber under the lake, finding a door keyed to the Doctor’s voice. He tells Ace that “Merlin” may well be a future incarnation of himself. They realize that the chamber is an organic spaceship and find inside the body of King Arthur. As Ace tries to remove a sword from a plinth, a defense mechanism is activated unleashing a hostile glowing entity. Ace manages to escape with the sword and Ancelyn, talking with Warmsly on the shore, recognizes it as Excalibur. Lethbridge-Stewart finally arrives and is able to rescue the Doctor and destroy the creature. Morgaine and Mordred come to claim Excalibur, threatening to unleash The Destroyer of Worlds if it’s not handed over.
Why it’s important:
It’s the very last UNIT story in the classic series as well as the last appearance by Alistair Lethbridge-Stewart played as always by Nicholas Courtney. The Brigadier is one of my favorite characters and so anytime he’s in a story, I find it more enjoyable. It illustrates the Doctor’s inherent power, if he does become Merlin in his future. I’m a big fan of Arthurian mythology and so this story was especially fun because of that. Sylvester McCoy has a tendency to overact when he’s giving his grand speeches and one of the most infamous examples happens here when he breaks up a possible skirmish between the knights by saying “THERE WILL BE NO BATTLE HERE!!!” “Battlefield” is the first story of season 26, making it the very last season premiere for sixteen years. Episode one of this story bears the dubious honor of having the lowest viewing figures ever for an episode of Doctor Who, coming in at an anemic 3.1 million viewers.
Story 154 – The Curse of Fenric
The Doctor and Ace arrive at a British naval base during World War II. After making friends with some of the base personnel, they learn that the facility, under the leadership of Commander Millington, is being used to intercept and translate German coded messages via its ULTIMA supercomputer as well as to stockpile a supply of nerve gas. Also using the ULTIMA is wheelchair-bound Dr. Judson who is trying to decipher Viking runes in the catacombs beneath the base. The gist of these runes is a warning about a powerful being called Fenric, and Millington believes he can harness the power for himself. Just outside the base, the Doctor and Ace discover a small Russian unit seeking to gain the ULTIMA for the Motherland. The Doctor warns them to leave while the troop’s leader Capt. Sorin and Ace make googily eyes at each other. The Doctor finds a glowing vase (part of the Viking treasure) but Millington takes it from him so that he and Judson can translate its writing. While this is going on, vampiric Haemovores begin to emerge from the sea and start attacking and converting the English and Soviets. While using ULTIMA to read the vase, Judson is zapped with energy and becomes infused with the spirit of Fenric, allowing him to walk. He kills Millington and begins spouting orders to the Ancient One, a Haemovore in control of the others. Ace is able to warn Katherine, a member of the Women’s Royal Navy Service, in enough time for her to escape with her newborn daughter, Audrey. The Doctor reveals that he has faced Fenric once before and defeated him in a chess problem. The Doctor constructs a similar chess problem in the nerve gas stock room as a means of delaying Fenric while a more permanent solution can be found. Sorin finds the room and attempts to kill Fenric, but he is soon possessed himself. Ace, thinking she is helping the man she has feelings for, helps Fenric to solve the chess problem, making him invincible. Fenric then taunts Ace and reveals that Audrey, the little baby Ace has shown so much care for, will in fact grow up to be Ace’s own despised mother and that the Doctor knew the whole time.
Why it’s important:
It’s got a lot going for it. First, there’s the WWII setting, which immediately gives it a great deal of context and urgency; second, it ramps up Andrew Cartmel’s idea that the Doctor is the ancient puppet master of the cosmos instead of just the travelling do-gooder; and third, it presents another interesting take on vampires. We also get an insight into Ace’s past and family with the mention of her strained relationship with her mother, something we never got from any previous companion.
Story 155 – Survival
The Doctor brings Ace back to her hometown of Perivale, but things are not as they should be. A mysterious black cat is wandering the streets, bringing with it something that hunts humans and sends them to another dimension. Ace is worried as most of her old friends have vanished, but the Doctor is much more worried about the cat. He discovers that the black cat is being controlled by some being in the other dimension who is using the cat’s eyes as monitors to choose which humans to hunt and capture. Ace is chosen and a cheetah person on horseback arrives and chases her, ultimately sending her to the dimension. The Doctor finds a drill sergeant turned aerobics instructor named Patterson who has been teaching the local kids about the art of survival. Soon, both the Doctor and Patterson are hunted down by the cheetah people and find themselves in the strange, red-hued other dimension with none other than the Master there to greet them. It was he who’s been using the black cat to find suitable humans to hunt. The planet is having an odd effect on him as he now has feline eyes and teeth. It appears the planet is alive and causes everything on it to regress into animals – the cheetah people – and he is doing his best to fend off the change, but needs the Doctor’s help to escape. Ace meanwhile has caught up with some of her friends who are hiding in the woods. Other Perivale residents who’ve been taken here have met terrible fates: the cheetah people hunt and eat them for sport. The Doctor and Patterson catch up to the youths and try to make plans to get away when a pack of cheetah people attack. Ace wounds a female named Karra and the two form a strange bond as Ace tries to nurse her back to health. This worries the Doctor and for good reason: Ace soon begins showing signs of feline transformation. One of Ace’s friends has fully fallen under the planet’s spell and is changing rapidly. The Master, knowing only full cheetah people can travel in and out of the dimension, uses the boy to get back to Earth. The Doctor and the others follow using Ace’s rapidly-transforming new powers. Patterson immediately denies anything has happened, reverting to his “survival of the fittest” mantra, and goes off. The Doctor and Ace track the Master and eventually find them at the youth club, where Patterson has been killed for sport. Unable to resist the call of the planet any further, the Master transports the Doctor and him back through the dimensions for a final, feral battle.
Why it’s important:
After 26 years, this is the final story of the classic series, airing its final episode on December 6th, 1989. The trouble is, no one knew it was going to be the final story. The entire production staff wrapped with the expectation of being back the next year, but during the off-season the BBC brass finally decided the show should end. It was, however, always a plan to bring it back after a time to give people some perspective with it, though it was never expected to be gone so long. As such, we never got to see the rest of the so-called “Cartmel Masterplan,” which would have explained the reasons for the Doctor being so hard on Ace and making her face her past and fears; he was grooming her to become a Time Lord, a move that would have jarred the continuity of the series, but would have been an interesting twist. “Survival” stands as the last step in the beginning of Ace’s journey and the first step in the next phase, and is the last appearance of Sophie Aldred as the character. It’s also the final appearance of Anthony Ainley, who had played the Master for the last eight years, though the character of the Master would return on more than one occasion.
The irony of the final story in the longest-running sci-fi series in history being called “Survival” is not lost on me, but in retrospect it makes a lot of sense. The show did survive and is surviving. The serial was NOT the last appearance of Sylvester McCoy as the Seventh Doctor – he would ultimately return seven years later to say a rather whimpering farewell to the character.
Seven years is a long time to wait for a new Doctor Who episode, but to honor the time fans who were forced to sit idly by waiting for the next part of the story to begin, I’m not going to move on to the Eighth Doctor right away. But fear not, faithful readers! Like the Doctor himself, “Doctor Who for Newbies” will not be gone forever.