Oh boy. What have I got myself into here?! I should start by saying that I’ve never considered myself a Whovian. I fondly remember watching episodes of Doctor Who in the eighties, all of which had Tom Baker, and I even read a handful of the Target novels, but that mild interest had dissipated by the time I hit my teens. I have friends that rave about the new Doctor Who series that debuted in 2005, but my attempts to watch it have not gone well at all. It all seems a bit too campy to me, with intentionally overdone acting and a level of silliness that I didn’t feel comfortable with in my science fiction. When I initially decided to start RetroSmack, I fully intended to only watch TV shows that originated in 1977 and beyond. I could live with leaving out shows like The Six Million Dollar Man and Wonder Woman. I had to draw the line somewhere. But could I really ignore Doctor Who? I mean, the show ran until 1989, so I’d have to ignore it for 13 years in a row. The answer clearly had to be no, but this caused a bit of a conundrum for me. I’d already accepted that it was beyond human capacity to read every major DC and Marvel comic from its inception through to 1977, but for some reason I didn’t feel comfortable beginning Doctor Who at 1977, with no clue as to what had happened in previous years since its inception in 1963. I decided that RetroSmack would have to wait, and set out to catch up on 14 seasons of Doctor Who, back to back.
My CCCD struggled with all these Doctor Who fans that watch the new episodes without catching up on the first 50 years of the show.
Image Credit: Doctor Who wallpaper (original source unknown)
You’ve probably guessed by now that I failed in my quest. I quickly realised that the blog would likely never happen if I succeeded. We’re talking about 453 episodes after all (ignoring the fact that quite a few have been lost), so even an episode a day would take well over a year. I did however manage to watch the 42 episodes of season 1 before accepting my fate. Did I enjoy it? Hell yes! So much more than I ever thought I would. It was really fascinating to see how much the show got right from the outset, and then how quickly it transitioned into a successful weekly format. It was absorbing to see that The Doctor wasn’t even the hero to begin with, and that the show initially set out to be historically educational, with the sci-fi elements only there to help realise that goal. The infamous Daleks were introduced as early as episode 5, and the TARDIS and companions were there from the first few minutes. Sure, the production quality was low, and the live studio recording resulted in many fluffed lines, but I was hooked. Given my completest nature, it’s painfully difficult for me to skip seasons 2 through to 14, but eventually I’ll get over it. If I have any extra time during the next few years, I will endeavour to watch the rest at my own pace. For now, season 15 it is!
Season 1: I was genuinely surprised at how much I enjoyed season one.
It’s hard to summarise Doctor Who, but I’ll give it a shot. Created by the BBC, the idea for the show was originally developed by the head of drama, Sydney Newman. Over the course of 12 months, the idea was tinkered with by Donald Wilson, C.E. Webber, Anthony Coburn, David Whitaker and Verity Lambert. As mentioned above, at the time it was launched on the 23rd of November 1963, Doctor Who was an educational TV drama depicting a time-travelling alien (played by William Hartnell and yes, the Doctor is an alien) that travels through time to different important events with a bunch of companions. The three companions were his granddaughter Susan Foreman (Carole Ann Ford), her science teacher Ian Chesterton (William Russell) and her history teacher (Barbara Wright). The four of them travel through time and space in the TARDIS, a space ship that externally appears as a blue phone box, yet has an expansive multi-roomed interior. Newman and Wilson never intended for the show to contain “bug-eyed monsters”, so the two of them heavily resisted when the show’s second script by Terry Nation involved mutants (the victims of a neutron bomb) on an alien planet. With time getting away from them, they reluctantly went ahead with the serial, with the infamous Daleks being the result. The monumental success of the Daleks forced a change in direction, with the first few seasons switching between historical dramas on Earth and pure science fiction fare involving alien races across various galaxies.
The Daleks: Had an immediate effect on a stunned audience.
By 1967, science fiction had taken over Doctor Who completely, making the historical aspect a thing of the past (sorry, I couldn’t help myself). I was a bit sad to find that out, since I felt the first season was all the better for the variety it offered, but change is inevitable in a show that runs for as long as Doctor Who has. Speaking of change, in a stroke of genius, the producers of the show came up with a novel idea in 1966 when it became clear that William Hartnell would not be able to carry on in the title role much longer. His health was the main issue, but from what I’ve read there were other difficulties in the relationship between actor and producers that likely forced their hand. While it wasn’t labelled as such the first two times it occurred, what the producers came up with was the idea of “regeneration”. When the Doctor suffers injury or some other ailment that would normally cause the end of a human life (remember that he’s a Time Lord and not human), he instead takes on a new appearance (along with slightly different personality traits). If we include the modern incarnation of the show, there have been eleven onscreen regenerations resulting in twelve different Doctors. I’m jumping on board for the 15th season, in which the fourth Doctor, Tom Baker, is the star. The first three Doctors were William Hartnell (1963-1966), Patrick Troughton (1966-1969) and Jon Pertwee (1970-1974).
Tom Baker is the fourth of twelve Doctors…so far.
Image Credit: Doctor Who wallpaper (original source unknown)
Watching the 26 episodes of season 15 was like a direct link to my childhood, mostly due to the presence of Tom Baker. He has always been Doctor Who in my mind, and anyone else in the role will no doubt be compared. That being said, I really couldn’t tell you if I’d seen any of these serials before, and I imagine I won’t recognise anything from any that I cover for RetroSmack. It’s just been too long, and I was viewing the show along with a heap of other afternoon TV shows of the time. Rather than give you an overall summary, I thought I would give you a brief rundown of what I thought of each of the six serials that made up season 15.
Serial 1: Horror of Fang Rock – 4 episodes originally screened between the 3rd and the 24th of September, 1977.
Synopsis: The TARDIS lands near a lighthouse off the south coast of England in the early 20th Century. Around the same time an unidentified object crashes into the sea and a thick fog rolls in. Electrical problems occur in the lighthouse and its occupants begin dying one by one. Can the Doctor and Leela figure out what’s going on in time to save the remaining survivors and themselves?
Thoughts: Well, the show was now in colour, but I was almost relieved to see that the production values hadn’t increased all the much in the past decade and a bit. Baker has immense presence whenever he appears onscreen, combining strong authority with gleeful insanity. I wasn’t completely sold on his new companion Leela (Louise Jameson) though. She seemed to be very angry for no reason, scowling and pulling a knife at any opportunity. I was surprised to find that this serial was really a horror story, unlike anything seen in season one. It was pretty effective too, with a strong sense of mystery and danger. For the most part the supporting characters were quite good, although I must admit I was quite pleased when the snobby, constantly overwhelmed Adelaide got killed. Sadly, some of the serial’s gravitas was lost when the enemy turned out to be a glowing green jellyfish looking thing that can’t climb stairs in its natural state.
This serial really was pretty creepy. I’m sure kids would have been hiding behind the sofa.
I didn’t realise how much I missed Tom Baker until I saw him again.
This is a Rutan, an arch enemy of the Sontarans (more on them later). Strange that it can scale a lighthouse, but can’t climb stairs.
Serial 2: The Invisible Enemy – 4 episodes originally screened between the 1st and the 22nd of October, 1977.
Synopsis: Whilst travelling to Titan Base near the outer planets of the solar system, a ship’s crew is infected by a virus that causes them to become part of a collective named the Swarm. On arriving at Titan Base, the crew begins infecting its occupants and setting up a breeding ground. The Doctor and Leela hear a distress call and go to investigate, but the Doctor is quickly infected himself. Leela seems immune, and during a moment of sanity, the Doctor comes up with a crazy plan that just might work.
Thoughts: First things first. I realised the reason Leela seemed so uncomfortable in Horror at Fang Rock was that she was trying to play a lady when she is really a warrior. Back in her more natural, eye-catching attire, she seemed much more comfortable, and her tendency to want to kill and destroy makes sense. It was a surprise to see the Doctor so vulnerable in this serial, depending on Leela and K9 to save his arse. Speaking of K9, I find a lot to enjoy in an encyclopaedic dog-shaped droid, and was pleased to find that he was going to stay on for at least the rest of this season. I was reasonably into The Invisible Enemy for the first two episodes, but things got incredibly silly from then on in. Who the hell decided that the Doctor and Leela cloning themselves and then shrinking the clones down to microscopic size so they can be sent into the Doctor’s brain to attack the Nucleus of the virus was a good idea? Sure, the way it was all handled onscreen was cute, but the idea is utterly preposterous! And I had to laugh out loud when it was finally revealed that the Nucleus was in fact a giant prawn. When I take into consideration the horrible effects seen in the gun battles, I think this has to be the worst serial of the season.
John Carpenter’s The Thing would play with a similar idea a few years later, but was all the more powerful due to the possessed not changing physically.
This is apparently what it looks like inside the Doctor’s brain.
The introduction of K9 was a complete win. The reintroduction of Leela’s tribal attire an even bigger one!
The Nucleus of the Swarm turned out to be a giant crustacean.
Serial 3: The Image of Fendahl – 4 episodes originally screened between the 29th of October and the 19th of November, 1977.
Synopsis: A group of scientists in a priory near Fetchborough are examining a twelve million year old human skull that was uncovered in Kenya. Dr. Fendelman tries to create an image of the skull’s previous owner using a “sonic time scan”, but in doing so releases some sort of creature into the priory grounds. People start dying, and when the Doctor and Leela are drawn to the area by the scan, they set out to find the creature and to stop the planet from being destroyed by a “continuum implosion”.
Thoughts: This serial could be considered horror, similar to Horror at Fang Rock. It begins strongly, utilising six or so minutes to build up the mystery and suspense before the Doctor even shows up, and it remains quite creepy throughout. I’d been impressed by the genuinely funny banter that goes on between the Doctor and Leela in previous episodes, and found myself laughing out loud at some of the stuff that goes on in this serial. They really have great chemistry and ability. As usual, the enemy turns out to be more than a little bit shite, and the science involved is completely nonsensical (“The skull’s absorbing the energy released when the scanner beam damages the time fissure!”), but I enjoyed this well enough for the creepy atmosphere and entertaining dialogue.
Why the Doctor thought putting his hand on a glowing skull was a good idea I’ll never know.
I wonder how many parents complained to the BBC about this episode?
A Fendahleen: One ugly motherf@#$er!
One of the main characters, Thea, was transformed into the new core of the Fendahl. It seems part of that transition is to have eyes painted on your eyelids, or was I not supposed to notice?
Serial 4: The Sun Makers – 4 episodes originally screened between the 26th of November and the 17th of December 1977.
Synopsis: The Doctor and Leela interrupt a citizen of Pluto (named Cordo) who had been attempting to kill himself due to an enormous tax debt. It turns out the company that owns the manufactured suns that allow life on the otherwise freezing planet have set stupendous taxes that are all but impossible to pay. The Doctor is understandably unhappy to hear Cordo’s story, and pays a visit to the undercity resistance with the intention of creating an uprising. A visit to the malevolent Collector is inevitable.
Thoughts: I expected Doctor Who to have all sorts of weird and wonderful creatures. I expected it to have both interesting and completely off the rails science fiction too. What I didn’t expect was that Doctor Who would be so genuinely funny. The Sun Makers is an outright political satire, and it’s very enjoyable indeed. Richard Leech is wonderfully entertaining as the pompous Gatherer, and Henry Woolf suitably hideous and avaricious as the Collector. Baker and Jameson are also in fine form. It’s all very Monty Python really, with completely stupid guards, fellow prisoners all too happy to have a good chat, and outrageously authoritarian behaviour. The Doctor and Leela are becoming way too reliant on K9 by now, with the droid coming to their rescue on a few separate occasions, but this is close to being my favourite serial of the season.
Cordo was having a bad day. A very bad day!
Luckily the restrained Doctor meets a lovely and very helpful chap in the Correction Centre.
Guards never seem concerned that K9 might be dangerous until he fries their arse!
Think of an OCD Dr. Evil and you’ll get somewhere close to The Collector.
Serial 5: The Underworld – 4 episodes originally screened between the 7th and 28th of January 1978.
Synopsis: The TARDIS takes the Doctor, Leela and K9 to the edge of the cosmos, where survivors of the Minyan race continue their 100, 000 year old quest to track down a lost race bank (the Minyans have the technology to regenerate over and over again).They have tracked the device to a nebula and on entering discover that other Minyan survivors have become trapped there, with the massive gravitational pull forming a planet around their ship. Can the Doctor and his companions help the Minyans retrieve the race bank from the ruling computer system named the Oracle?
Thoughts: As seems to be a pattern, this serial showed a lot of promise during the first episode, then struggled to meet its own ambition. There were some decent effects in the first quarter, but once the action left the ship, it all got a bit embarrassing. The producers obviously used some sort of blue screen technology, but it just looks weird, with overly thin inhabitants running around with bits of their bodies missing, shooting at nothing. There’s some terrible physics throughout too, with gravity being treated as some kind of magic. When the villains finally took their helmets off, I could only laugh hysterically. They’re like a cross between Lego men and Iron Man, but nowhere near as cool as that sounds. Oh, and K9 comes to the rescue…again!
I never pictured the TARDIS actually flying as though it were outside time and space. Apparently I was wrong!
The technology used for this episode makes it all a bit ugly really.
At least the laser beams seem to hit their targets in this one, unlike The Invisible Enemy.
My wife came in to see what had me in hysterics at this point. I think it’s the little nose that makes them so ridiculous.
Serial 6: The Invasion of Time – 6 episodes originally screened between the 4th of February and the 11th of March 1978.
Synopsis: The Doctor returns to Gallifrey, claiming the position of President of the High Council of Time Lords. The purpose of this claim is unclear, and when the Doctor banishes Leela and other members of the council into the wasteland outside the Citadel, it appears the mind of the normally benevolent Time Lord has been compromised. Not all is as it seems though, and it soon becomes clear that the Doctor is acting this way intentionally for an unseen audience with mindreading capabilities. Can the Doctor fool everyone around him, including the Vardans who seek to occupy Gallifrey?
Thoughts: This one had me really confused for a while. Not only is the plot designed to keep you wondering what exactly the Doctor is really up to, there is also a lot of talk of things I know nothing about. I was kept pretty interested for all six episodes though, despite an odd silliness that seems to have crept into the script for no apparent reason. The Doctor even does hopscotch down a corridor at a time when he really should be remaining inconspicuous. I do love his response to a Time Lord telling him how fortunate he is to have access to the Matrix. Time Lord: “You have access to the greatest source of knowledge in the universe!” The Doctor: “Well, I do talk to myself sometimes, yes.” Leela is once again completely in her element, even firing a bow to go with her normal knife fights. Oh, and I must mention that there are actually two separate alien enemies in the serial, with the second one being revealed just as it appears the Doctor has defeated the Vardans. At least the Sontarans don’t look like shower curtains, even if they do appear unable to jump over pieces of furniture without falling on their faces.
Every now and then a special effect looks surprisingly cool.
A lot of effort was put into the costumes for this episode too.
I have to admit that for just a moment I wondered whether the Doctor has turned evil.
The end of episode 4 had a wonderful twist, when it was revealed that the Sontarans had been pulling the strings all along.
Season 15 sadly closes with both Leela and K9 deciding to remain on Gallifrey. Apparently Leela fell in love with one of the locals, although that wasn’t hinted at prior to her announcement. I’d become fond of both of them, but I guess I can look forward to meeting a new companion in season 16. And yes, I am looking forward to the next season. It doesn’t matter how many dodgy alien costumes. Nor can any of the scientific nonsense, questionable acting or special effects detract from the overall experience. There’s just something special about Doctor Who. Yep, I’m officially a Whovian!
The moment Leela and K9 revealed their plans to remain on Gallifrey.
The Doctor Who (1977) RetroCard has now been added to the RetroCard Shop. It’s a common card, so therefore costs 10 smacks and has a limited release of 120.
Featured Image Credit: Doctor Who wallpaper (original source unknown)