Sylvester McCoy is the only classic Doctor to have received major international attention in recent years, thanks to his role as the eccentric, nature-loving wizard Radagast the Brown in The Hobbit trilogy. For anyone who liked him in that role, I recommend this short clip, an interview with him on the set of his first Who story, Time and the Rani.
Season 24, Story 1: Time and the Rani
Season 24 opens with what I initially thought was a really bad 2000’s digital animation of the TARDIS being attacked by the Rani, added to the DVD – but as it turns out, that’s actually the original digital effects from 1987. That’s amazing. This isn’t Star Trek: The Next Generation, which also launched in the US that year, with a comparatively massive budget and effects aid from Industrial Light and Magic; this is 80’s British TV, and a children’s show, and it was on the chopping block. These effects were achieved by innovators who put together their own systems and wrote their own programs to create digital effects. And the first shot is only the beginning.
Injured by the Rani’s assault, the Sixth Doctor regenerates. This regeneration was the first to show any kind of “regeneration energy,” and I was impressed, especially considering that Colin Baker wasn’t actually there. He had been offered the opportunity to return for a regeneration sequence, but he was (understandably) so hurt by his being fired that he turned the offer down. I don’t think this was a digital effect, but whatever it was, it looks good.
The Seventh Doctor’s titles sequence was the first computer-generated one, and it’s rather glorious, in part because the arrangement of the score includes the “middle 8” section of the Doctor Who theme, which has always been my favourite part. (And by that I mean as long as I’ve had the theme in my music library, which is since 2003.) Spinning around a CG galaxy, this sequence did away with the “time tunnel” effect, which had been in use since it was first created in the Jon Pertwee era, though the previous 80’s titles had made it more of a starfield effect. After some bizarre colour grading exercises on the time tunnel in the first half of new Series 7, the tunnel has now similarly been removed from the title sequence. I wonder how long it will be before it returns this time.
The most impressive 1987 technical achievement of all is the “bubble trap” effect, in which live-action, model, and CG elements combine to create an effect which is incredibly convincing. In that regard would say it is equal to, or better than, many TV special effects over the past decade. Unfortunately, that effect is unnecessarily used for a device with a completely dull purpose – it traps people who walk through a tripline, spins them up into the air, and blows them up against a mountainside hundreds of feet away. It’s an amazingly inefficient way to indiscriminately kill people. Wonderful technology should be used first to inspire awe and joy, not misery! They could have finally shown us a true vision of Gallifrey with this technology! But no, we’re stuck in another quarry.
The original idea for this story was that the Rani would travel to 900’s BC Israel to kidnap King Solomon, in order to use his wisdom for some pseudo-scientific purpose. Because of fears that the public would not know who Solomon was, he was swapped for Einstein, whom the Rani kidnaps, along with miscellaneous other historical geniuses. She combines their mental powers into a super-brain, with the ultimate goal of constructing a time manipulator (it’s not worth explaining because it doesn’t make any sense). The Rani, the great amoral scientist, would then be able to play SimEarth with the universe, which I must admit is quite an appealing prospect.
Two alien races are shown. (It has been a while since I found any alien life worth commenting on!) One is an “evil, scary” race of giant, bipedal, flightless, three-eyed bats, who serve the Rani. The other are a reptilian people who are sort of half-Silurian (referring to Eleven’s Silurians, not the classic ones), with scales around their faces but not covering them. They have rockin’ 80’s hair metal / glam rock hairstyles, and, after falling prey to a “bubble trap,” reveal a human skeleton accented with miniature stegosaurus plates.
It’s a level of detail which classic Who seldom had the time or budget for its talented designers to reach, and I was impressed. I was not impressed that the skeleton belonged to a nice young Lakertyan girl. That kind of brutality clashes with the general light, cartoonishly bizarre feel of both this story and the Doctor in it – or rather, Sylvester McCoy’s first attempts at creating his Doctor. (Naturally, he refined the character greatly over the three seasons he had, and fans concur that the show was ended just as he was hitting his stride.)
Trouble with regeneration is again a major plot point. Conventional wisdom indicates that this is never a good way to introduce a new Doctor. Three and Four had got off to roaring starts after regenerating in their debut stories (as did Two from the reconstruction I’ve seen of his), but Five, Six, Seven, and Eight all struggled with regeneration failure. Colin Baker had the worst of it; Six went through wild personality swings in his disastrous debut story, culminating in his trying to murder poor Peri at one point. (That episode, The Twin Dilemma, is consistently ranked the worst Who ever in fan polls, but even it has its supporters.)
For Seven and Eight, the problem is temporary amnesia. In this story, the Rani is able to exploit this by dressing herself as the Doctor’s current companion, Mel; he remembers Mel, but not exactly what she looks like, so the Rani manipulates him into doing engineering work for her. This at least amused me, but it was a ludicrous choice by the writers. It’s the kind of villainy you’d expect in a program meant for three-year-olds.
Also amusing: parodies of the Third and Fifth Doctors’ costumes; but that “question-mark cardigan” can hardly be seen as an improvement. The question mark motif was JNT’s doing; he’d started it back in Tom Baker’s last season, to the latter’s displeasure, and Sylvester McCoy similarly hoped that he’d be able to get rid of the cardigan at some point.
Time and the Rani is a fascinating specimen, if not a good episode of Doctor Who. It’s a waste of talent and hard work on an undeserving story.
The rest of this post covers almost the same episodes as James Bow’s Seventh Doctor Must See List, so see his post for a more mature perspective.
Season 25, Story 1: Remembrance of the Daleks
I am not a serious fan of the Daleks, but this is my second-favourite classic Dalek story (after Genesis), and my favourite Seventh Doctor story, simply because it was such fun to watch. It takes place at and around 76 Totter’s Lane, 1963, the time and place where the TARDIS had first taken the form of a police box in the first Who episode, An Unearthly Child.
The Daleks are threatening enough, but they’re not causing a holocaust here, instead fighting one another, which I find to be great sport. The new Dalek Emperor finally makes an appearance. His mission is racial purging of a new breed of Daleks mutants, which have CLAWS! Having claws seems desirable, considering that Dalek mutants are usually helpless when their shells are destroyed (although even they occasionally strangle and bite people), but this isn’t important to the Emperor. There are some great scenes of the military fighting the Daleks (with impressive new effects) and an explosive final battle. Plus Ace beating up Daleks with a baseball bat: excellent!
The Doctor’s final companion in the classic series, Ace was introduced (and Mel departed) in the Season 24 finale, Dragonfire, having been transported from 1987 Perivale to a space-borne colony by a time-storm in her bedroom. Ace’s final three stories were recommended as the starting point for fans of the new series by Charlie Jane Anders in How To Discover Classic Doctor Who In 3 Easy Steps, which was the first Classic Who article I read. It was written in 2008, with fans of the Russell T. Davies era in mind, thus the heading, “Discover Ace, the Proto-Rose.” Given her appearance in that article, and at the start of this episode (above), I initially assumed she was a failed marketing attempt to appeal to 80’s youth. (Failed, I thought, because the show was cancelled – I know very little what would appeal to kids in the 80’s, but I suppose a stylish young Doctor would have gone over well. The “uncool is cool” wave, which Doctor Who is currently riding, is a recent development of the reaction against the kind of strictly defined cool-image-obsession that reached a pinnacle in the 80’s.) Ace may have been conceived as a “hip street kid,” but her character quickly moves far beyond that. As does her appearance.
A “16-year-old” delinquent schoolgirl, Ace became like a granddaughter to the Doctor, and, to my surprise, she became one of my favourite companions by the end of this story. People usually mention her tough, “streetwise” exterior, which is a façade (and her love of explosives, which is awesome). Ace is a scared child inside, and the Doctor gradually sets out to strengthen her by bringing her into situations where she must face her fears. She’s portrayed by Sophie Aldred, who has a wonderfully soft voice and (judging by interviews) a warm, friendly personality, and she plays both the tough side and the vulnerable side of her character well. She was actually 25 when she took the role, and I don’t see why the character couldn’t have been changed to reflect this, but it’s not too jarring.
Season 25, Story 4: The Greatest Show in the Galaxy
An evil circus in space is claiming lives. I must confess, I’ve never liked clowns or circuses in general. I’ve never really been afraid of them; it’s just that they grate against my innate visual preferences, or “sense of style.” The existence of which may seem doubtful, considering that I like wearing Hawaiian shirts, but there you go. All my life there have been certain things I disliked because they’re not cool – before I even had a word for the concept – and clowns are one of them. However, it’s still possible for me to like a circus-oriented story; I was reluctant to watch Mirrormask for this reason, but I loved it. Nothing like that happened with The Greatest Show in the Galaxy; it irritated me, and offered little to like.
Season 26, Story 1: Battlefield
A science-fantasy adaptation of the Arthurian legend, which I am not very familiar with. Here its characters are actually beings from another dimension, who identify the Doctor as Merlin. Not a popular episode, I watched it for the Brigadier. In this story he’s happily married, but joins forces with the Doctor one last time. Battlefield may be a weak story with poor execution, but I found it worth watching for the Brig alone. It was also nice to see Three’s beloved car, Bessie.
The Brigadier’s wife in this story is Doris Lethbridge-Stewart, whom I initially assumed to be the mother of Kate Stewart (they are both blonde), but actually Kate’s mother was the Brig’s never-seen first wife, Fiona. The gentleman prefers blondes.
Season 26, Story 2: Ghost Light
Being a “ghost” story set in a Victorian mansion, I had high hopes, but aside from the Doctor talking to a Giant Cave Cockroach (Blaberus giganteus), I was disappointed. It is notoriously confusing, and like most viewers, I didn’t entirely make the connection to the scientific method. So here are some spoilers, without which the story most likely wouldn’t make sense to you any way.
There are three alien beings in the story, who are involved in a science experiment as part of a study of life on Earth. “Light” is the observer and recorder. “Josiah” (adopted name) is the test subject, who goes out into the world and becomes a member of the “dominant species,” in this case a Victorian gentleman. And “Control” is kept on the ship, literally as the control group. The explanation is as bizarre as the serial itself; one can’t get reliable results from a one-member testing group, and there is no conceivable justification for Control’s imprisonment. Her time spent in isolation isn’t going to provide any useful data. In a valid experiment, the treatment group and the control group would share some factor that will change them over time; for example, a common illness, which only the treatment group receives trial medication for. In Ghost Light, Control would merely remain a normal example of her species, so she might as well not be there. She’d be better used if she were sent out into the world like Josiah. But because she has been imprisoned for a long time, Control has been driven mad by her isolation.
So, even understanding this aspect of the story, I think it’s a weak, forced attempt to create a clever concept in a way that just doesn’t work. Then there’s an even weaker attempt to be clever, by having an obnoxious creationist minister de-evolve into an ape.
Season 26, Story 3: The Curse of Fenric
Set by the sea during World War II, the Doctor faces a being of elemental evil from the dawn of time. That would have been a better final story than Survival, but unfortunately the writers didn’t know in time that the end had come, and the planned 27th season was cancelled – although there was a 27th season, in 2005. As it is, Fenric fits where it does because (according to an interview with Sophie Aldred) the Doctor took Ace to face her past fears in Ghost Light, present fears in Fenric, and future fears in Survival. My favourite part in this one: Ace befriends a young mother and takes care of her baby, only to later find out that the baby is her hated mother.
It’s easily the best of this closing trilogy in my opinion. I’ll definitely try to visit the location of Lulworth Cove next time I’m in England; it’s just a few miles east of Weymouth, my family’s traditional holiday destination in Dorset.
Season 26, Story 4: Survival
The last Classic Who serial to air, Survival is a bizarre playing-out of “survival of the fittest” on the Planet of the Furries, whose Cheetah People (not to be confused with Cat-People or Catkind) have regressed from civilization to animal survival instincts. The Master is there, pretty much only as a mouthpiece for the writer’s musings. The question seems to be whether people can stay above basic self-preservation, or must give in to the inevitable consequences of living under the law of natural selection. I don’t think the issues are relevant to the question of “why we fight;” that’s a far bigger and more complex question.
The story begins in Perivale, where we finally see Ace’s hometown and meet her friends, who unfortunately are also 80’s teenagers. It’s suggested in a DVD interview that this “streets of modern Britain” setting later inspired Rose’s background, and that Ace returning home after many months away was echoed in Rose’s story.
It’s a middling serial, but the closing speech is absolutely beautiful. From the TARDIS Wiki:
Having surmised that episode three of Survival was likely to be the last episode of Doctor Who for some time and possibly the last ever, producer John Nathan-Turner decided close to airing that a more suitable conclusion should be given to the final episode. Script editor Andrew Cartmel wrote a short, melancholic closing monologue for actor Sylvester McCoy, which McCoy recorded on 23 November 1989 – by coincidence, the show’s twenty-sixth anniversary.
There are worlds out there where the sky is burning, and the sea’s asleep, and the rivers dream.
People made of smoke, and cities made of song.
Somewhere there’s danger, somewhere there’s injustice, and somewhere else the tea’s getting cold.
Come on, Ace – we’ve got work to do!
Sylvester McCoy’s TV run ended too soon. After returning briefly in the 1996 TV movie, he has since appeared in many Big Finish audio productions.