For my first full-season review of classic Doctor Who, I picked season 17 (1979-1980). It’s been recently released on Blu-Ray under the title Tom Baker: Complete Season Six in North America, and as The Collection: Season 17 in the rest of the world. In addition to Tom Baker’s Fourth Doctor, the season starred Lalla Ward as the second incarnation of the Time Lady Romana and David Brierley as the voice of K-9. Behind the scenes, the season was produced by Graham Williams and script-edited by Douglas Adams (yes, the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy guy).
Season 17 doesn’t have a reputation as one of the classic series’ stronger runs. While “City of Death” is often cited as one of classic Doctor Who‘s finest moments, other stories such as “The Creature from the Pit” and “The Horns of Nimon” seem to be considered amongst the series’ worst. Does the season deserve all the flak it gets? Let’s break it down story by story.
“Destiny of the Daleks”
Believe it or not, the Daleks didn’t always show up in every season of the classic series. When “Destiny of the Daleks” originally aired in September of 1979, it was the first Dalek story since 1975’s “Genesis of the Daleks”. Unfortunately for all those fans who’d waited four years for the Daleks to return, it’s something of a disappointment.
“Destiny” has little to no ambition. Its one interesting idea is the concept of two opposing forces reaching a logical stalemate, but writer Terry Nation misunderstands his own creations as robots driven by logic (the Daleks are anything but logical). Their nemeses, the Movellans, don’t impress much either. The story also features the Daleks’ creator Davros, but fails to do anything compelling with him that would justify retconning the conclusion of “Genesis” to allow for his survival. Not for the first time this season, Adams injects a bit too much of his trademark humor (“Oh look! Rocks!”) resulting in a bit of an uneven tone. Overall, “Destiny” isn’t exactly a bad story—it’s directed with a little bit of flair and atmosphere, and Nation can at least competently spin a serviceable adventure yarn—but it’s solidly mediocre.
“City of Death”
From the banal to the sublime! “City of Death,” co-written by Adams and Williams, is not only a stone-cold classic, it’s probably the Platonic ideal of what a Doctor Who story should be. The Doctor and Romana start by investigating temporal anomalies and end up involved in an alien’s plot to steal the Mona Lisa (or at least one of seven of them…trust me, this will make sense once you’ve seen the story). The duo of Tom Baker and Lalla Ward are at their best, as is the supporting cast (which includes Julian Glover of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade as the villain). The design is perfect and the location work top-notch. It’s not just the highlight of the season, it’s one of the all-time greats.
One thing I want to address here is the use of humor. There’s a school of thought that this era of Doctor Who (and especially season 17) is a bit too heavy on the humor. I don’t entirely agree; well-timed quips are a trademark of all of Tom Baker’s seasons, even the more “serious” ones (for example, “Can you help me? I’m a spy” from “Genesis of the Daleks” and the bit about Mozart in “The Seeds of Doom”). I’m discussing this as part of “City of Death” because it’s the most overtly humorous serial of the season. But I think the important thing here is that it never becomes flippant, it never sends up the story or the show and you can still take it seriously. Unfortunately that’s not going to be the case for the next three stories.
“The Creature from the Pit”
I’m going to be honest, I just don’t like this one. It has a few good performances, especially from Myra Frances as the villainous Lady Adastra and Geoffrey Bayldon as the astrologer Organon. I also have to say that the wolfweeds are pretty neat, as practical effects go.
That’s where the serial’s charms stop. The idea of a planet where metal of any kind is scarce has potential, but the script doesn’t bother to develop it into anything interesting. Too much screen time is wasted on supposedly “funny” bandits who annoy rather than amuse. And the Creature is one of the series’ all-time design misfires. It’s a gigantic sack that glows green and has a four-foot appendage that looks for all the world like an erect wang (pay special attention to the scene where Tom Baker grabs it and attempts to speak into it).
However (and not for the first time this season) the laughably bad Creature manages to liven up a production that’s overall not very good. You’ll be laughing at the series not with it, but at least you’re having some kind of a reaction, right?
“Nightmare of Eden”
The sad thing about “Nightmare of Eden” is that it has a lot going for it. It has a strong script that deals with a hot-button issue (drug addiction) in a manner surprisingly mature for what was largely considered a show for children. I first saw this story when I was in my early teens and I remember being particularly chilled by Captain Rigg’s fate. I always felt the serial’s monsters, the Mandrels, were one of the era’s more striking designs and they could have been quite effective (the cover of the serial’s Target novelization gives a good idea of what could have been).
Unfortunately, the execution is lacking. The production was plagued with troubles, particularly a budget crunch and a director who managed to alienate pretty much the entire cast and crew including Tom Baker, who didn’t hold back in expressing his contempt. Lewis Fiander inexplicably saddles his character, Professor Tryst, with a terrible and inconsistent German accent. As for the Mandrels…their appearances in the dim, moody jungle sequences just about work. Unfortunately, they also lumber around the harshly and brightly lit spaceship sets and they just look ridiculous.
I’d still rank “Nightmare of Eden” over some of the season’s other offerings on the strength of its script, but overall it’s hard not to walk away from it with the sense that it could and should have been a whole lot better.
“The Horns of Nimon”
Every few years during the classic era, the Doctor Who production team would get a bright idea: do Greek myth as science fiction! And this is why we have stories like “The Horns of Nimon,” which takes the tale of Theseus and the Minotaur and sends it into space. Just in case you don’t get the point, all the character and place names are anagrams of the Greek originals.
This turns out to be nowhere near a clever idea as everybody seems to think it is. “Horns” is simply unimaginative and dull, with a bunch of underwritten characters wandering around an underdeveloped environment acting out an uninspired plot. The Nimon, as a design, simply don’t work. Even Tom Baker doesn’t seem to be having any fun. The story does have a couple of saving graces however. I did appreciate its portrayal of Romana and Lalla Ward’s performance. There’s also guest actor Graham Crowden as the baddie Soldeed—not only does he go over the top, he doesn’t seem to be aware there is a top.
If you’re reading this you probably already know that “Shada” was abandoned about halfway through production due to union disputes. The Tom Baker: Complete Season 6 Blu-Ray set features several reconstructions, including the one I watched, which uses animation (featuring the voices of the original cast) to cover the unproduced scenes.
It is, of course, impossible to say whether “Shada” would have worked if they’d been able to finish it. I do think that the restoration makes a good case for it to have been a good story. Unsurprisingly, it has much in common with “City of Death”: stunning location work, crackling chemistry between Tom Baker and Lalla Ward, a script that’s humorous yet can still be taken seriously. Denis Carey, playing the retired Time Lord Professor Chronotis, steals most of the scenes he’s in, and Christopher Neame plays the villainous Skagra with intelligence and menace.
However, as a six-parter it’s simply too flabby (but then again most six-parters of this vintage are); in particular, the bits where the Doctor interacts with Skagra’s ship’s computer just seem to go on for freaking ever. The supporting characters of Chris Parsons and Clare Keightley are anthropomorphic wallpaper and Daniel Hill and Victoria Burgoyne respectively play them as such. And ultimately, this is the most Adams-y story of the season, which isn’t a problem for me (he’s my favorite writer of all time), but even fans of his style might find it overpowers the fundamental Doctor Who-ness of the production.
While the reconstruction doesn’t make a case for “Shada” as being a potentially great story, I feel it would at least have been a very good one.
So that’s season 17. A bit of a mixed bag I’d say, but they can’t all be winners, now, can they? Even the lesser stories have a couple of things that make them worth watching; admittedly they’re usually bad special effects or diabolical acting, but in these troubled times we take what we can get.
Next month: Lackey watches three stories starring the Master: “The Claws of Axos,” “Planet of Fire,” and “The End of Time (Parts 1 &2)”.
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