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Classic Doctor Who Retrospective: Season 7

pertwee-third-liz-brig

Guest contributor Michael Coats continues his series looking back at the classic-era, this time with Season 7.

Firstly, a belated Happy New Year to you all! (sorry if this goes up in about two weeks or so.)

At the time of writing, it is 2 weeks since The Snowmen aired. And also, a little something called Christmas Day. Personally, I don’t think it’ll catch on. What do you mean, I mentioned it above? I assure you, I did no such thing. I’ve been recording myself recently, I’ll prove it, just a tick… Oh. I stand corrected. I touched the Memory Worm without using the gauntlets again, apparently. But yes, as I was saying, we are currently going through a turbulent period of change in the show, so what better way to anticipate such change than by returning to a period of similar change in the show? In fact, this was probably the most comprehensive change in the show’s history while the show was airing, arguably barring the end of the RTD era.

Last time, we witnessed the departure of companions Jamie and Zoe, as well as the forced regeneration and exiling of the Second Doctor at the hands of the Time Lords, although not Who (or what, given what Nine later said) he regenerated into. That would be revealed in the first story of this season. Spoilers! It’s the Third Doctor, played by Jon Pertwee. Quite. The Doctor would be joined by the erudite Dr. Elizabeth ‘Liz’ Shaw (Caroline John). Though not (yet) considered a companion, the two would be joined by formerly recurring character Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart (Nicholas Courtney), the leader of UNIT, who first appeared in The Web of Fear; and had now ascended to the status of a regular.

With the Doctor exiled on Earth, the stories are centred around UNIT as an organisation, with the Doctor working as their scientific advisor. The Time Lords have changed the dematerialisation codes of the TARDIS, so that the Doctor is unable to use it. As a result, there are no stories set off Earth. The programme had been under threat of axing, as explained in my last article, but would be given a reprieve because there was nothing to replace it, luckily for us. However, in order to improve ratings, the show had to take cues from the popular shows of the day, shows about secret organisations with an adviser and a mini-skirted assistant. In short, as DWM #449’s 49 up! article says; Doctor Who had become generic, but it was a necessary measure, if not one that I was initially keen on. Oh, and also: colour pictures! What a revelation!

Spearhead from Space

Spearhead from Space, penned by the legendary Robert Holmes, is notable for not only introducing a new Doctor and a new companion simultaneously for the first time; but also for establishing most of what we know about the Doctor’s physiology, particularly his binary vascular system, and depicting regeneration as a difficult process. The story opens with a meteorite storm; a meteorite storm which appears to be flying in formation, and an unconscious, newly regenerated Doctor landing on Earth and falling out of the TARDIS. He is then taken to hospital by a local patrol from UNIT, who are investigating both matters.

As you might have been expecting, the meteorites were actually the introduction to near- perennial Doctor Who foes; the Nestene Consciousness and the Autons, who are invading Earth. To say any more would of course spoil the story, so I shall stop there. I’m going to tread carefully here, given the story is considered legendary in some quarters…but, I really didn’t find it any more than average. I really missed the TARDIS for one thing, although on the evidence of the latter stories in the series it wasn’t necessary for a good story. That’s not to say there aren’t good moments, the scenes of the Doctor singing in the shower and of the Doctor and Liz in Madame Tussauds are particular favourites of mine. However, I was concerned when I watched this story that I wouldn’t grow to like the series much, though, judging by similar feelings towards Season 8’s opener, Terror of the Autons (following on from some strands of this story) and Rose, perhaps I just don’t find the Autons and the Nestene Consciousness particularly inspiring villains. For whatever reason, it is my least favourite story of the series. Also, even at only 4 episodes in length, it just seems a little bit too overstretched.

Doctor Who and The Silurians

Apparently there was miscommunication with the graphics company that created the title sequence that resulted in that… debacle of a title, but yes, following on from the previous story, we have another introduction for a long-running Doctor Who foe, the Silurians. The story is rather dark, what with more or less all characters apart from the Doctor, Liz and and the Elder Silurian being anti-villains, moral ambiguities (particularly of the Brigadier), the depressing ending and the biological horror involved, it could easily pass for an early Torchwood story, albeit without the sex. The story is also notable for introducing the Doctor’s car, Bessie, and behind the scenes, the colour separation overlay technique. It also introduces recurring Doctor Who actors Paul Darrow and Geoffrey Palmer, the latter last appearing in Voyage of the Damned, as well as featuring noted actor Fulton Mackay in his sole appearance on the show. Perhaps 1 or 2 episodes too long.

The Ambassadors of Death

Or should that be The Ambassadors--TWAAAANNNG!
OF DEATH?

Sorry about that, I just really like the dramatic nature of the opening of this episode. The story itself was also a real thriller. UNIT becomes embroiled in an investigation of the mystery surrounding the missing Mars Probe 7, and the Doctor and Liz’s curiosity is piqued. A recovery probe, Recovery 7 is launched, but it too gets into difficulties once it encounters the missing probe. When Recovery 7 returns to Earth, the ‘astronauts’ send geiger counters off the scale. As it turns out, they are actually the eponymous ambassadors. What follows is a story of betrayal, kidnap and xenophobia, and there’s actually the Doctor doing some space travel in this one, though not in the TARDIS. It also contains Taltalian’s entertainingly bizarre ‘What is that even supposed to be?’ accent. So say any more would spoil a rather good story, so I won’t. Just trust me that it is very good, though not my favourite of the series.

Inferno

That honour would belong to this story, Inferno. It’s said that there’s no such thing as coincidence that this is the only story of the series to use the TARDIS more than incidentally. UNIT are providing security for a top secret British government project, the titular Project Inferno, but the Doctor is there to run his own experiment, tapping energy from the project in order to get the TARDIS console working. The project involves drilling for Stahlman’s gas, a substance which contains 20 times the energy of North Sea gas and will; in theory, solve the world’s energy problems. This being Doctor Who, naturally that is not going to be the case. Instead, a certain substance, dubbed ‘Stahlman’s ooze’ (oo-er), starts to turn some of the project workers and UNIT operatives that have come into contact with it into primordial, heat-dependent creatures (which the credits refer to as Primords, though this term is never applied in-story). However, the true villain of the serial is the cantankerous and more than slightly unstable Professor Stahlman, a nitwit; as the Doctor terms him. Amongst other things, he sabotages a computer that predicts the project will end in catastrophe, as well as dealing harshly with those that would stall him.

Meanwhile, the Doctor has managed to get the TARDIS console (which is apparently removable and can travel on its own, as long as it has an external power source, so that explains The Doctor’s Wife) partly operational. At first, he ends up in a dimensional void mid-flight, as the power from the project overloads. He is rescued by Liz, who cuts the power to the console. Later, after he has sent her away on a wild goose chase (that wasn’t to the Himalayas, just so you know), he reconnects the console and makes a second attempt. This time, Stahlman notices the power drain at the project cuts power to the Doctor’s hut. The console, along with the Doctor and Bessie, travels sideways in time to a parallel universe, one with a fascist dictator in charge. From hereon in, the story plays out a bit like parts of Rise of the Cybermen/The Age of Steel, with the Doctor encountering alternate versions of the Brigadier, Liz, the insofar unmentioned Benton and other characters, including an even nastier Stahlman. The parallel version of the Inferno Project is also a lot more advanced in terms of drilling, with disastrous consequences.

Notable for being the first serial to feature a parallel universe and also featuring Derek Newark, who had previously played Za in An Unearthly Child as Greg Sutton. The story, while not without its (minor) faults, deserves to be held up amongst the greats of the show. It also has one of the funniest endings of any story in the, with the Doctor insulting the Brigadier and then, thinking the console is fixed; doing a Blon Fel-Fotch Passamer-Day Slitheen (in hindsight I should really have just called her Margaret even if that’s not technically right).

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Before I swagger off back to my TARDIS (bedroom), I feel it’s only right to say a few words about the the Third Doctor and Liz. My feelings towards the Brig and and Sergeant Benton aren’t all that clear at this, so it’s best if they are saved for a future article.

I can’t say I’ve warmed to Pertwee’s Doctor as easily as Troughton’s, nor quite as much. I can’t help but suspect it’s due to the fact that I feel subconsciously that the idea of the Doctor being stranded on Earth for a significant is inherently wrong. However, I do enjoy him being a man of action, particularly his practice of Venusian Aikido. I also enjoy him singing to comedic effect. At the moment though, I find I’m yet to have formed any strong opinion on him. Liz however, is another matter. She has all the typical companion traits, but is also highly intelligent and very well educated, and Caroline’s performance is perfectly understated. Her best story would be Ambassadors of Death, but she’s very good throughout the series. I’ve read that Caroline felt she wasn’t appreciated in the world of Doctor Who, or that she wasn’t good enough. This is a very great shame. As we enter the 50th anniversary year, it is tragic that a character and an actress so understated and underused will not be a part of the celebrations. So, let us raise a glass to both Liz Shaw and Caroline John, and drink to their memories.

Step back in time...

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