I came closer to watching this entire season than any other classic season, skipping only the low-rated final story, Revenge of the Cybermen.
Story 1: Robot
Season 12 picks up exactly where Season 11 ended, with Three regenerating into Four at U.N.I.T. headquarters. He’s disoriented at first, and the Brigadier assigns medical officer (and impending companion) Lieutenant Harry Sullivan to take care of him. Just like last time, The Doctor is soon wandering off on his own, and before long it’s time to trade in Jon Pertwee’s “dandy” costume for Tom Baker’s trademark fourteen-foot scarf (which went up to 20 feet long later). This comedic sequence was clearly written for children, but who cares?
Once in costume, Tom Baker quickly offers Sarah Jane a Jelly Baby, the first of dozens of times he will offer people the best candy ever (my lifelong opinion) during his years on the show. He also carries various trinkets from past adventures in his coat pockets, including a scroll he calls the “Freedom of the city of Skaro,” apparently a gift from the Thals way back in Season 1 Story 2, The Daleks. The sheer amount of random junk he carries becomes a running gag whenever the Doctor is ordered to empty his pockets.
Refreshingly, rather than being about a robot which becomes evil of its own accord, Robot is about a good robot which is tragically forced to commit violence against its will. Sarah Jane befriends the robot and defends it, much like Ann in Peter Jackson’s remake of King Kong. The homage to the original Kong becomes obvious toward the end, when the robot is increased in size and carries Sarah Jane over the rooftops of an English town.
It’s a pretty good story, though not one of Tom Baker’s best.
Story 2: The Ark in Space
This is the first of three stories this season involving future Earth space station Nerva. Thanks to Harry Sullivan messing with the helmic regulator, the TARDIS materializes on board it in the far future. It’s being used as an ark to preserve humanity after solar flares devastated the Earth. These solar flares are the same ones which the Starship UK in revival series 5 had been built to escape, but rather than looking for a new home, Nerva was intended to repopulate the Earth. Its people (and unseen plant and animal life) are being held in cryostasis, apparently stacked one-deep on the walls of the station, which seems a very inefficient use of the available space to me. The contrast to the Starship UK is extreme, but this makes sense as Nerva was built early on as an advance project to preserve a genetically selected sample of the human race, whereas the Starship UK was the final ship to leave, cobbled together in a rush from whatever was available, and had been running down for centuries when seen in The Beast Below.
As far as the Doctor knows at this point, Nerva contains every surviving human, and their survival is threateded by an infestation of parasitic wasps from the galaxy Andromeda, called Wirrn (pronounced like “women” but with an R instead of an M). Whereas real parasitic wasps lay eggs which hatch into larvae that eat the paralyzed host, these AndromedaWasps deliver an infection which actually turns people into Wirrn. Late in the episode there’s a sequence in which a wasp pilots a spaceship. Love that!
Like Planet of the Spiders, the bugs are intelligent life forms, even though they’re typecast as evil. I’ll take what I can get when it comes to giant bugs in sci-fi. A good episode, but I’d stop just short of recommending it.
Story 3: The Sontaran Experiment
I added this two-parter to my viewing at the last moment, because it continues the story from The Ark in Space. The Doctor and his companions transmat down to Earth, where the Doctor learns that Nerva doesn’t hold all that remains of humanity when he is caught by the crew of a ship from one of many human colonies. As they (of course) have English accents, it might be reasonable to assume that these are the descendants of the people of the Starship UK, long after the last star whale finally led them to a new home. Sadly, these men are being caught and cruelly experimented on (to the death) by a Sontaran scout. It’s a bleak and disturbing episode, not recommended (except to fans of the Sontarans, obviously). (Disclaimer, I like the Sontarans when they’re not doing stuff like this.)
Story 4: Genesis of the Daleks
I didn’t need to be recommended this one; it had been a known must-watch-whenever-I-watch-Who for years. I didn’t know the Daleks would turn out to be more annoying than fun, but it was still well worth watching. I think it’s the best Dalek story – yes, better than the well-executed but nonsensical Asylum of the Daleks – because it’s not about the Daleks, but rather the people who created them.
The episode opens with highly cinematic slow-motion footage of post-apocalyptic World War I-style trench warfare. It’s haunting, despite the glaring lack of exploding blood squibs.
Having attempted to transmat back up to space station Nerva, where they parked the TARDIS, the Doctor and his companions find themselves brought to old Skaro, where an… impressively dressed Timelord commissions the Doctor to destroy the Daleks at their creation, or to change them to make them less hateful and violent. Surprisingly, the Doctor doesn’t realize that he’s already on Skaro until the Timelord tells him.
It’s a long six-parter, during which we finally learn firsthand about the long war between the then-warrior race of Thals and the scientific race of Kaleds (formerly known as Dals), the race which became the Daleks. We also meet a third group, the mutant “Mutos” who live in the wastes, disfigured by chemical weapons and shunned by both sides. Most of the story’s running time is taken up by the Doctor and his companions taking turns being captured by the three rival factions. Unsurprisingly, there’s next to no interesting culture on either side, but I liked the Kaleds’ strategy map, complete with detailed mountains and model cities.
The Kaleds are led by Davros, the lead Kaled scientist, who has been mutated far more than any of the “Mutos” because he requires the entire prosthetics budget. His natural eyes are blind, so he sees with an electronic third eye in his forehead, and he has no use of his legs or left arm. His scientific commission was to create a life support and transportation structure for future Kaled mutants, although none of the Kaleds we see appear to be impaired at all by whatever mutations they have. He has fashioned the first Dalek enclosure after his mobile life-support wheelchair.
Apparently feeling some superiority about his mutation, he has biologically engineered Daleks, the most mutant form possible of human life (well, Kaled life, but “the definition of the word ‘humanity’ was always rather a complex question, wasn’t it?”), and has removed all compassion and conscience from their minds. This last choice has created opposition among his fellow Kaled scientists and politicians, and the Doctor tries to rally them to take action before it’s too late. Davros cleverly counters his moves, risking everything in the game, like Palpatine would do decades later in George Lucas’s Revenge of the Sith. Predictably, the objecting Kaleds move too slowly, and almost everyone dies. The number of on-screen deaths in this story is staggering by the program’s standards.
The Doctor at one frustrating point has the opportunity to destroy the new Dalek mutants in their nursery, but he fears that he doesn’t have the right to destroy a race – an artificially engineered race of genocidal monsters who are capable of nothing but pride and hate. He thinks that destroying them would make him no better than them. Perhaps he has a different view on that now, after the Time War. He does raise a valid point, though, that he knows races across the galaxy have laid aside their differences and joined together against the Daleks. And the final minutes of episode 6 are absolutely masterful. The Doctor’s closing monologue is in my opinion one of the best endings to any episode of any television show I’ve ever watched. It gives me chills every time I watch it.
I wholeheartedly recommend Genesis of the Daleks. To everyone.
Story 5: Revenge of the Cybermen
I skipped this one, but I did watch bits of it and the second half of the final episode. It’s set once again on space station Nerva, but thousands of years before The Ark in Space; it’s set in the third millennium AD, before the solar flares were even a threat, when Nerva was a sort of space-lighthouse, warning ships away from a dangerous planetoid. The end includes the Doctor’s escape from a crash course with the planetoid by swinging Nerva into extreme low orbit at the last possible moment – quite a ride, and nicely executed by the Who production team.
And there we go – a nicely digestible nugget of a post, written in one evening instead of two months. It’ll still be difficult to catch up, as I’m one story away from Colin Baker’s Sixth Doctor era at this point.