57 – Resurrection of the Daleks

Originally scheduled to be the concluding story of Season 20, a strike by BBC staff resulted in that season ending with the rather less inspiring The King’s Demons, and the intended adventure, originally entitled The Return being pushed back to Season 21. It in the very least ensured that Peter Davison got to face off against the Doctor’s oldest and deadliest enemies …

Owing to a clash with the 1984 Winter Olympics, this story is significant for being recorded as four 25 minute episodes (as per the rest of the season) but released as two 45 minute episodes to work around the Olympic schedule taking the series’ regular timeslot. As with Season 22, it demonstrated that longer episodes did allow for greater character development – it only being a pity that the format was not preserved beyond Season 22.

The story is also significant in providing the first appearance of Terry Molloy as Davros (Michael Wisher originally lined up to return, but unable to make the rescheduled shoot), and the final appearance of Janet Fielding as Tegan. An unrelentingly grim story, it features two concurrent stories between contemporary London, where UNIT are investigating what they think are bombs but are actually chemical weapons, and a space station in the future, where the Daleks have rescued their imprisoned creator Davros. Losing their eternal war against the Movellans (introduced in Destiny of the Daleks) the Daleks seek out their creator to return their cutting edge in battle, and provide an antidote to the chemical weapons (stored on earth) that the Movellans have used against them. Davros however has other plans – intending to create a new race of Daleks loyal to him. As if such a degree of complexity was not enough, it transpires that the Daleks have been duplicating humanity, including the Doctor’s companions Tegan and Turlough, and intend to use a duplicate of the Doctor to travel to Gallifrey to assassinate the High Council of the Timelords.

It all makes for a very good and engaging story, but one that requires several watches to get your head around. There is also no escaping how grim the adventure is, with an incredibly high mortality rate. Perhaps more than anything else, it is Tegan’s departure that marks out this story and provides its significance. I remember strongly resonating with Tegan’s impassioned outburst the first time I watched this story: “It’s stopped being fun Doctor!” A lot of good people end up dead in the story, and it doesn’t feel like many people win as a result – leaving the viewer to identify with the tearful Tegan regretfully concluding that it is time to go. I enjoyed rediscovering the DVD, but can remember why I did not enjoy the VHS – it doesn’t make for cheerful viewing, and is a rather poignant pointer to the quickly approaching end of the Davison era two stories hence …

64 – The Visitation

This serial was foreshadowed to a certain extent by my much earlier review of the serial that followed it, Black Orchid. Coming in a double VHS boxset with the story, I found it hard as a child to get into The Visitation – in part due to an overly sensitive childish reaction to the (off screen) demise of the family whose sole contribution to the story is to die at the hands of the alien invaders in the first two minutes.

This meant that when in 2010 I treated myself to fifty pounds’ worth of Doctor Who DVDs as a Christmas present from me to me, this was the DVD I least looked forward to watching. In that regard it is a striking contrast to The Aztecs, which I bought at the same time, looked forward to watching, and was hugely disappointed by. Long-term readers of the blog will recognise the familiar refrain that my enjoyment of a serial is often shaped by my prior expectations … but I think this tells only half the story.

This was the second story to be recorded in Season 19, and by this stage you could tell that Peter Davison was getting into the swing of the role, in contrast to the very rough-around-the-edges Four to Doomsday. The crowded TARDIS is not actually too great a handicap in this story, which would not be at all out of place in the modern era of the show. The Doctor is attempting to bring Tegan back to Heathrow in the 1980s, and misses by 300 years. They are drawn into a conspiracy by a group of aliens known as Terileptils (later referenced in Matt Smith adventure The Pandorica Opens) who plot to devastate the world with a deadly plague – a theme concurrent with the Black Death ravaging England at the time.

There are some excellent plot elements at work here – the Terileptils are believable villains, even if their android is a fine example/warning of 1980s production value; the one-off character Richard Mace is a lovable addition to the crew; and there are some fitting nods to history, not least that when the Terileptils are traced to their base in London and trapped by a fire, it is revealed that that the year is 1666, and their base is in Pudding Lane – an alternative explanation to The Pyramids of Mars as to why the Great Fire of London occured …

Memorable as the story in which John Nathan Turner destroyed the Sonic Screwdriver for being a get-out-of-jail-free card, I rather like The Visitation. The plot is simple and enjoyable, with strong characters, believable adversaries, and a good showing from the regular cast members. Anyone looking to investigate the Peter Davison era could do a lot worse than to start with this serial. And the present producers could do worse than to bring the Terileptils back as an adversary.

76 – The Five Doctors

I really don’t know where to begin in describing this simply extraordinary story. Back in the days of yore the BBC would include other videos for sale on the inside of their VHS covers. From this I learned there was a story with all five doctors (I think in my vibrant youth Six and Seven didn’t count …), the Daleks, the Cybermen, and the Master! I had to get my hands on it! In fact, so desperate was I for the serial that I had a proper huff with my dad when he joked that he hadn’t bought it, when in actual fact he had.

So … I was actually somewhat underwhelmed by the story as a youth. Because my Doctor wasn’t in it! Not really – he got gobbled up in some reused footage from the unfinished serial Shada. And it wasn’t the real first Doctor, Bill Hartnell having sadly passed away several years before. As for the Daleks, the story features exactly one (very easily confused) Dalek, and a host of easily betrayed Cybermen. The young man was not impressed.

The older me however could not help but enjoy the story. Yes they had to account for Tom Baker refusing to show up. Yes Richard Hurndall isn’t quite the same as William Hartnell. But the story is still jolly good fun! It was always going to be a thankless task to try to incorporate that many doctors, companions and foes into one coherent storyline – and the fact is that John Nathan Turner deserves credit for doing a more than respectable job of it. Credit also to Terrance Dicks for introducing an enemy well worth bringing back – the Raston Warrior Robot. Utterly deadly in taking out a troop of Cybermen, it would be a more than worthy adversary to bring into modern Doctor Who.

I would hesitate to recommend the story as an introduction to Doctor Who – compared to his outing in The Three Doctors, Patrick Troughton does not get quite the same space to shine in this story, and the same applies to Jon Pertwee. I also admit that my impression of the First Doctor was rather ruined by Hurndall – the opportunity lost here was to persuade Baker to come back and to find some way of using archive footage of Hartnell. Now that would have been a worthy anniversary story! As it is – I’m thankful for what we have got, and it makes for a very enjoyable hour of television.

81 – Planet of Fire

It’s always been a poorly kept secret that the female companion on Doctor Who was intended to be a bit of a looker, in order to keep elder male viewers interested. This story doesn’t even pretend to treat it as a secret – Nicola Bryant’s first appearance as Peri features her in a bright pink bikini that is so abbreviated it must have had Mary Whitehouse hurrumping into her cup of tea! By his own admission, showrunner John Nathan Turner cast Peri with the view to make Doctor Who more accessible to more mature audiences, and to the American market – and with the same flamboyance of one of his Hawaiian shirts, he proudly unveils Peri as the new companion.

Having acknowledged the one aspect of the story that is impossible to ignore, let’s now remember that it makes a very small part of what is quite a clever overall story. From the moment Turlough stepped into the TARDIS in Mawdryn Undead you’re wondering what his backstory is, and Planet of Fire brings his story to a very pleasing conclusion. Of course, it wouldn’t be Doctor Who unless several different story threads were happening at once. So we have three distinct threads – the Doctor and Turlough picking up a distress call in Lanzarote (this being the next overseas production after Arc of Infinity) where they find an alien artefact, and also Peri – who unfortunately plays damsel in distress from the start by having to be rescued from drowning! Meanwhile a group of colonists on the planet Sarn are troubled by earthquakes – a sign in fact that their planet is breaking up. They are beholden to their high priest who insists faithfulness to their god, Logar. Oh, and just for good measure, Kamelion makes his first appearance since The Kings Demons, spending most of the story in the appearance of the menace controlling him – the Master! It transpires that his miniturising gun hit him by mistake, and he is relying on the restorative powers of Sarn’s volcano to return him to full size and health – only to burn when the flames change and then seemingly vanish to nothing.

If you’re confused, you will get a good idea of the health warning for this story – it is so complicated that you need to watch it twice to get your head around it! When you do however, it is more than satisfying. Davison gives a superb show, making one wish (with no disrespect intended to Colin Baker) that he had given at least another season as the Doctor – his line to Turlough “If you are withholding any information that prevents me from defeating the Master, then our friendship is at an end,” is utterly compelling. Turlough too enjoys a triumphant farewell, rounding off his story, and seeing some form of redemption – not least in being returned to his homeland of Trion, no longer a disgraced criminal. Peri’s debut is sadly less impressive, spending most of it imprisoned by the Master, who is camped up to the maximum by Anthony Ainley. But for all that, it is one of the better stories to grace the 1980s and is thoroughly enjoyable.

82 – Frontios

Frontios is a prime example of the type of stories that might have persuaded Peter Davison to stay for a fourth season as the Doctor. While not spectacular by any means, it is clever, intriguing and well produced, and certainly keeps the viewer engrossed from start to finish. Those who have enjoyed the excellent Series 3 episode Utopia will see evident parallels between the two stories – the Doctor and his companions arrive at the end of the known universe, at a point beyond which the TARDIS is meant to travel. On the planet Frontios, a group of human colonists are fighting to survive, unaware of why their planet is being constantly being bombarded by meteorites. Of course, the Master does not appear in this story, and thus the parallels fall somewhat short!

It turns out that beneath the surface of the planet live a hostile alien race known as the Tractators, possessing several terrifying capabilities, not least manifested when they steal the TARDIS beneath the planet’s surface, seemingly vanished without trace. As cliffhangers go, Davison stating in a would-be-calm voice “The TARDIS has been completely destroyed” has to rank as one that would have left viewers utterly gripped, wondering how he was going to get the TARDIS crew out of this one. In truth, the reason why this story is so effective is because there is so much intrigue and mystery, and the Tractators are not revealed until the denouement. Turlough in particular puts in a sterling performance, with a racial memory of his own people coming under the attack of the Tractators. The race would return in the Big Finish audio The Hallows of Time, a story originally planned for Season 23 – more proof if needed that the BBC were fools not to give Colin Baker a proper second season in 1983!

As with many stories in this section of the review, I really have not got a bad word to say about Frontios. I was very probably too young to appreciate the VHS, but thoroughly enjoyed the DVD and would cheerfully watch it as a standalone four-parter – indeed if you are looking for an entry level to the Davison era, you could do much worse than to start here, with what is a good solid classic Doctor Who story. The only reason is not higher is that we fans wonderfully get to enjoy even more stories that are just as good!

90 – Snakedance

This serial from Peter Davison’s second season as the Fifth Doctor is forever going to be associated with the rather ridiculous get-up Martin Clunes’ character Lon ends up wearing in episode 4. But it is unkind and undeserved, for Clunes plays a good straight performance and I would argue that Snakedance is even more effective than Kinda at exploring the nature of true evil.

For season 20 producer John Nathan Turner wanted to have a returning enemy in every story – but he cheated on an epic scale. The three stories following this one were covered by the return of the Black Guardian, regardless of his own involvement in the story, while the Mara had only appeared in the previous season. Not quite the same as rolling out the Daleks and the Cybermen in Tom Baker’s first season. We can forgive him somewhat however, in that the Mara is a genuinely unsettling villain, and one that could assuredly be used more. Thankfully for Snakedance, the special effects of the snake creature have improved enormously – it helps create the aura of malevolence and evil needed to make the character believable.

I was pleasantly surprised when I viewed the DVD, not having hugely fond memories of the VHS – probably because of Clunes’ costume! While not a gripping story by any means, the gentle narrative pace allows the tension to ratchet up notch by notch – you instead wait for the breaking point that you know must come soon. In simple form – the Doctor arrives with Tegan and Nyssa on the planet Manussa – once the focus of the Mara’s power, which subsequently reawakens within Tegan. While the Mara possesses Tegan and Lon, and manipulates them to bring about its rebirth, the Doctor traces local folklore to discover how to repel the monster – and does so. Not complicated – therefore a simple and enjoyable story. I am not at all inclined to ridicule this story for its 1980s production values – rather I feel these are the kind of stories we needed more of in the 1980s.

And it is definitely worth repeating – please please please Mister Moffat – bring back the Mara!

101 – Kinda

There had to be one serial that just fell short of the top one hundred. Fans of the Fifth Doctor please look away now and forgive me, as the dubious honour falls to this four parter from Peter Davison’s first season as the Doctor. And as with many other serials in this range of the countdown, it only suffers from being in the category of story that I enjoy, but am not overly wowed by.

There is a lot to commend this particular serial – for one thing the baddy of the piece is decidedly sinister – a entity of pure evil called the Mara, who dwells mainly in the subconscious, but manifests itself as a giant snake … albeit one that is undeniably a gigantic plastic prop! It enters the world through dreams, and so when Tegan falls asleep on the planet Deva Loka the Mara swoops in to take advantage. In the meantime, the Doctor discovers an impasse between the mostly militant earth colonists (very thinly veiled British Imperialists) and the native Kinda, a race that mainly communicate through telepathy and a shared mind – the Kinda wise woman doing what she can to urge the colonists to leave, and the colonists brutally determined to take advantage of the planet’s natural resources. We could, all by itself, use this serial as an example of the political BBC, alongside The Happiness Patrol, The Sunmakers, and The Mutants to name but a few obvious examples.

Kinda is not just a political commentary however, but also a spiritual commentary – not least the reference to the Buddhist notion of the unbroken wheel and of the unending cycle of construction and destruction. The scene where Tegan is dreaming and the Mara is forcing her to contemplate who she is, is very much unsettling … unless you’re a child, as I was when I first watched the VHS and was more taken by the gigantic snake monster! It is without doubt further evidence of the peace and love brigade of the 1960s beginning to put forward their vision of utopia in the 1980s by contrasting the simple and evidently peaceful lifestyle of the Kinda with the stress, anger and aggression of the mostly male human colonists – which I freely admit is an aspect of the serial I find very wearing!

Aside of these commentaries, there is a good story at play here. This was Davison’s second recorded story as Doctor, and he is properly settled into the role by this stage. It wasn’t anticipated that Nyssa would stay on, so one hastily rewritten contract later put Nyssa in the TARDIS for all of this adventure (apart from brief cameos at the very beginning and end of the story) – demonstrating again that the TARDIS crew would have benefited had there been one less member. And, with apologies to Matthew Waterhouse, Adric demonstrates with great ease in this serial why it would have been better not to have him – his main roles are to cause havoc, and to demonstrate that no-one likes a know-it-all show-off. Tegan on the other hand gets a very good outing, aided and abetted by spending much of the serial possessed by the Mara. I’m often quite harsh on Tegan, but Kinda is one of her finer serials and Janet Fielding is excellent throughout.

It is a pity to put Kinda just outside the top 100, but I’d like to think this is more of a reflection on just how good the quality of classic Doctor Who is. For a very good story like this to have 100 stories ranked before it, speaks volumes for the quality of the stories still to come!

Kinda is also a very neat connection to a series of posts I am planning to do before we begin counting down from 100. The Mara would reappear in the next season in the story Snakedance, and was meant to feature again either in Season 21 or 22, in a story called Maytime. That it was not produced is a great pity, and I still think that Steven Moffat could do worse than to invite Janet Fielding to return as Tegan in Season 9 alongside the return of the Mara. That has given me pause to think which other classic series villains were underused, and ought to make a comeback – so expect a couple of posts featuring these long forgotten villains, and how I’d like to see them re-used in the new Doctor Who!