Stop-Start: Doctor Who’s New Beginnings and False Dawns

In the run-up to the new season, rumours are circulating that there are going to some tweaks ‘tonally’ to the series, possibly around the way the Twelfth Doctor is written. This would be a shame: Peter Capaldi’s caustic new Doctor has been a welcome contrast to the energy and ‘bounce’ of the last two incarnations. In terms of the series’ development, it’s not long since Clara was ‘rebooted’ between series, losing the southern accent and the ‘Impossible Girl’ nonsense but left temporarily adrift, character-wise, in the process. Too many volte-faces could be construed as a lack of planning. The plus side is there’s now a strong team in the TARDIS and hopefully any changes will be made with that in mind.

Experimentalism, both in front of and behind the camera, has long been an intrinsic part of the series’ development. Below are just some of the ideas that were picked up and dropped in order to drive things forward, as well as some that looked good on paper, or just looked good, but never went any further…

Season Four

Doctor Who and the Daleks - exactly as it should be!

Crucially, a change that wasn’t actually picked up by the Radio Times on the 5th November 1966 was that though, as the cover rightly said, the Daleks were indeed back on BBC1, the RT failed to mention that even the most lackadaisical viewer at the time would notice when tuning in that the lead actor was completely different.

Power of the Daleks is a classic and Patrick Troughton nails it from the off- it’s the stories that follow where things go awry. The Highlanders and The Underwater Menace feel like leftover Hartnell, saddled with the irritating device of having the Doctor dress up and do silly voices (save it for The Enemy of the World, Pat). The Moonbase offers the first glimpse of the ‘real’ Troughton era, but it’s The Faceless Ones where it properly gets going with the Doctor and Jamie double act and use of contemporary settings. Victoria arrives a story later and the set-up is complete.

Season Seven


Not wishing to call foul on possibly the most uniformly excellent series in the show’s history, but Spearhead from Space set an aesthetic standard that the other stories cannot hold a candle to. Owing to industrial unrest at the BBC, Jon Pertwee’s debut was shot entirely on film, on location. In an era where the show’s principal competition came from Gerry Anderson’s TV21 Productions and ITC’s stable of adventure series- all of which were made on film- Spearhead saw the series enter the colour era and a new decade in considerable style.

Behind the scenes, though, arbitration won out and it was back to the studio for the rest of the season. Great as the other stories are, it’s impossible not to wonder, in particular, what an all-location Inferno shot on film would have been like.

Season Eighteen

Camilla - State of Decay

Again, it’s a new decade, a new regime and a new look. Season opener The Leisure Hive is fast-paced, visually interesting and has all the tricks the synth-heavy, high-tech Eighties can chuck at it. It’s also a rather fun story, with unrequited love, a murder mystery, clone armies and cuddly alien gangsters.

It couldn’t last: suddenly and terribly (to quote an earlier Fourth Doctor outing), the rest of Season Eighteen came along, and the series’ most bohemian, witty era ground slowly to a halt in a sluggishly-paced, talky morass of heavy maths. And Adric. While it’s not in dispute that the series couldn’t carry on under Graham Williams, Douglas Adams and a seemingly out-of-control lead actor, the Tom Baker years deserved a more fitting end than this.

Season Twenty-One

The Five Doctors

Flash forward to 1983, The Five Doctors and a long-overdue lightbulb moment in the production office. The realisation has finally dawned that people don’t want high-concept yawn-fests after a day at work. They want monsters and quarries. The best companions aren’t the wooden maths boy or the dull science girl; people like the mouthy Aussie and the one that keeps trying to kill the Doctor! You can almost imagine the thought processes kicking in: monsters… action… interesting TARDIS crew… let’s do it!

Warriors of the Deep aside, Season 21 was easily the most successful run of the Fifth Doctor years – just in time for Peter Davison, Janet Fielding and Mark Strickson to leave the show. The rediscovered emphasis on action, along with the experiment in fifty-minute episodes forced on the series by the 1984 Olympics would shape (and possibly find its extreme) in the season that followed.

Season Twenty-Five

Remembrance of the Daleks 2

The McCoy era, with its much-vaunted ‘Cartmel Masterplan’, represents one of the more ‘Marmite’ periods in Who history but, love it or loathe it, it needed doing. The series, post-hiatus, was in a parlous state, helmed by a producer who’d rather have been elsewhere by this time (and allegedly was during licensed hours).

It was therefore good that someone cared enough to actually have a masterplan for the show. Season 24 was made up of ‘quirky’ (read ‘not very good’) stories populated by ‘eclectic’ guest stars (read ‘Ken Dodd’). By contrast, the seasons that follow are made of more challenging stuff, topped off by Sylvester McCoy’s darker portrayal of the Doctor. They still cast Hale and Pace in Survival, though.

Perhaps Andrew Cartmel’s lasting legacy was that the themes of the McCoy era and his unused ideas begat Virgin’s line of (equally Marmite) New Adventures novels which helped many fans to keep the faith during the Who-less Nineties.

There it is: a potted history of the series’ forays into, and out of, uncharted waters so far. Continuing the maritime metaphors, will it be plain sailing for the new season or are our expectations to be dashed upon the rocks? Not long now ‘til we find out…

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17 Responses

  1. TimeChaser says:

    Can’t agree with everything here. With the exception of Meglos (and Logopolis to an extent, save for a few great moments), Season 18 was one of the best seasons of the classic series, and of Doctor Who as a whole. Bigger sci-fi concepts on display, some fresh writing, and the E-Space Trilogy is by far one of my favorite attempts at doing an arc in the original run.

  2. Joel Mellor says:

    Totally agree with TimeChaser- Season 18 was brilliant. State of Decay is a sorely under-rated story. Change needed to happen and this season was certainly that. I do disagree with all of Season 24 being described as ‘not very good’ though. Time and the Rani- total stinker, no defence, utter garbage. Paradise Towers could’ve been good had it not been so hammily acted and the set design been so poor. And the dialogue so rubbish. The actual idea and story are not bad at all. Delta and the Bannerman- an under-appreciated gem. OK, Ken Dodd was the worst type of stunt-casting, but it does stand up well on repeated viewing. Dragonfire- brilliant. I love this and my kids love it too. OK, the first two stories were dodgy, but the final two edged the McCoy era to the brilliance it was to (mostly) achieve in seasons 25 and 26.

    • TimeChaser says:

      I ag ree with you about Paradise Towers. A good idea, brought down by poor execution and a major lack of explanation to many key questions. Was Kroagnon alien or human? What war did all the in-betweens go off to fight and why did no one ever come back to the Towers? Where are the Towers? The novelization places it on a space station, I believe.

      • Dr. Moo says:

        Paradise Towers is underrated. People just hate on it because it follows Time & the Rani and has Mel in it.

        • TimeChaser says:

          People who still rag on Mel have obviously never listened to any of the BF audios with Bonnie Langford. Like so many others, BF have given her the chance to do her character properly and not just as a 1980s fitness-freak caricature. No screaming, lots of intelligence, if she’d been done right on TV I’m sure Mel would be remembered as one of the great companions.

  3. Dr. Moo says:

    Seasons 25 & 26 are both beautiful and anyone who dislikes them (as this article implies people do) need to get over McCoy’s debut and watch his other stories. I guess it’s true what they say about first impressions.

    • TimeChaser says:

      Well we know they do, we’ve seen people on this very site comment to that effect and we always correct them. 😉

    • Cryer says:

      I though Silver Nemesis was absolutely awful and Battlefield wasn’t very good. But I would agree about the rest.

      • TimeChaser says:

        I feel Battlefield often gets more of a bad rap that it deserves. It’s not perfect, but certainly better than Silver Nemesis turned out. If you ever have the chance, read the novelization. Like many others, it has extra material not included in the original broadcast, like a prologue with the Future Doctor/Merlin (who is written as being ginger, lol) setting everything in motion.

        • Dr. Moo says:

          Battlefield is proof that UNIT is nothing without a Lethbridge-Stewart in charge.

          • TimeChaser says:

            Which is why I’m glad they brought Kate in for the new series. Its sad they never got a chance to have Nick Courtney actually appear other than in SJA season 1, but I’m glad they have revived the Lethbridge-Stewart clan.

          • Dr. Moo says:

            …complete with Big Finish spinoff!

          • TimeChaser says:

            I’ve already pre-ordered the first collection. 😉 With BF getting the rights to new UNIT and Torchwood, I’m hoping this is an indication that if those series are successful, we may very well get some New Series Who in the near future. Personally, I’d love to have some collections of Ten/Donna on audio. Best New Who team IMO.

  4. Planet of the Deaf says:

    There have always been mini reboots along the way as well as cast members and writers changed. Season 8 had many changes from 7, the new ‘less intelligent’ Companion and a new constant enemy (The Master) throughout the series plus Benton and Yates.

    Sometimes the changes happen over a couple of years, e.g. the full changes from Pertwee/Letts to Baker/Hinchcliffe happened over 2 seasons 12 and 13.

    I don’t think the changes to Series 9 will be that drastic, Capaldi’s Doctor slowly mellowed throughout Series 8, and he’s not suddenly going to become all happy and bouncy. Oh and Clara never had a southern accent in S7, and the changes for S8 were incremental when you look back at her personality traits in S7!

    • TimeChaser says:

      Yeah, I doubt there will be too drastic a difference in Capaldi’s performance. Even Hartnell lightened some over his tenure, but it was a gradual thing and he never entirely dropped his gruff and confrontational manner. I see it developing in that way since I see Capaldi as most related to Hartnell, with a bit of Colin thrown in.

      • Kane Bunce says:

        I see it much the same, though Capaldi has elements of many Doctors in him not just those two. Though he manages to do it all in his own unique way. I even see a little Pertwee in him when he is in one of his happier moods.

        Matt Smithy was the same. He borrowed from many other Doctors, but managed to create his own unique Doctor. When he was angry you even saw a little of Ten’s Time Lord Victorious in him, but in his own unique way.

  5. John McJohnson says:

    No reference to the 1996 Movie, the 2005 series or the 2010 series and choosing season 21 over season 22. Disagree with you there.

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