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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…