Regular readers will be aware that I have been feasting my eyes on much of the early Doctor Who which was broadcast before I was born, or old enough to really take it in, and very much enjoying it. In the spirit of experiment, therefore, I have also started watching the classic Who stories broadcast after I had stopped watching – spurred to do this partly because of fannish muttering about how the final season was really much better than what had gone before, and such a shame the Beeb decided to cancel the series then.
The four stories of Season 26 were broadcast in late 1989, as the Berlin Wall fell and revolution swept Eastern Europe. Times were changing, and Doctor Who feels now like part of the old regime struggling to adapt to new demands for a new era. The programme’s makers made a better fist of it than any of the Communist leaderships of Eastern Europe, but it was not enough.
Surely the programme’s makers must have realised what a risk they were taking with an uneven writer for the opening story of a season where the entire programme faced cancellation? Ye who complain about Torchwood, or about how not quite every story of new Who comes up to the standards you have come to expect of Buffy or Battlestar Galactica, some time please sit down and watch Battlefield, and marvel.
Anyway, I should not be wholly negative. Nicholas Courtney puts in one of his best performances as the Brigadier, and has a great confrontation scene with Jean Marsh playing the chief villain. (The two of them had appeared together in Doctor Who 23 years earlier, playing brother and sister galactic agents in The Daleks’ Master Plan.) But that’s about it; even McCoy and Aldred seem to have little idea of what is going on.
One of my big complaints of Who of this era is that so little efffort seems to have been put into getting the settings right: Ghost Light does not suffer from this problem – from the beginning, and indeed all the way through, you feel convinced that this is a Victorian mansion, even when it turns out that the butler is a living Neanderthal and there is a spaceship in the basement.
Also the Doctor’s bringing Ace back to the scene of her childhood crimes is, if I’m not mistaken, practically the first attempt ever to link a companion to his or her back story. More on this later.
It is, however, a story very far removed from the normal territory of Doctor Who – surrealist play meets Agatha Christie, perhaps – and despite the quality of the drama it must have further created doubt about what Doctor Who was actually for. Still, apparently this was the last story of the old series actually filmed (although the third last to be broadcast) and it’s nice to feel that that the cast and team must have felt they were going out on a high.
Well, it is indeed a good story – most memorably, Nicholas Parsons, of all people, playing it straight as the doomed vicar Mr Wainwright; a setting in the second world war that actually looks a bit like it might be the 1940s; vampire villains which now seem an errie foreshadowing of Buffy; secret codes and ancient evils, and the crucial importance of faith. Indeed, of the four last stories, it is the one which most resembles classic Who at its best.
I was not utterly convinced by the plot; I never like stories which crucially depend on some unbroadcast and untold past adventure of the Doctor’s. And although I did like Tomek Bork’s portrayal of Sorin, I was not totally convinced by the behaviour of the Russian soldiers (and to a lesser extent of the British) – as soldiers, that is. However, in general, this was a good ‘un.
The peculiar choice of using videotape for everything didn’t help either, and made the scenes on the planet of the Cheetahs look naff rather than alien. The evil cats, well, let’s not go there. The story, once again, made very little sense; the links between the Cheetah planet and its inhabitants, and why they have picked Perivale as the one place they can teleport to, never properly explained. I thought Anthony Ainley made the best of a bad job with his performance, but was not really convinced by much else. OK, it is not as crashingly bad as Battlefield, but it is not really very good either.
The final words of the classic Who era are oddly out of place for the story, but fit the spirit of the previous 26 years rather well, I think:
“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!”
It was a brave step – I think this was the first time that the unfolding plot had had such an encounter with the past of one of the companions. The UNIT team, of course, were based firmly in their own time and did not need to be removed from it. Both the contemporary and Silver Jubilee parts of Mawdryn Undead were within the narrative flow of the Brigadier’s continuity, ie after Terror of the Zygons. The Doctor himself, of course, had often been confronted with uncomfortable facts from his past, starting with The Time Meddler; but that is a different matter.
Part of the success of New Who has been that it revolved so much around Rose’s family and friends on contemporary Earth, and Season 26 may, I think, have been trying to move Ace in that direction. I don’t think it worked, for a couple of reasons. Partly this is because it was indeed a departure from the classic Who format, of companions arriving, doing their stuff, and moving on changed by that experience as by nothing else in their lives; and the immensity of the attempted change of treatment of Ace, as compared with her predecessors, would have meant a much more significant restructuring of the way Who conceived of its plots than was possible with the resources (and personnel) available.
Also, it was an attempt to inject back-story into a character who had not been sketched strongly enough to sustain it, and to be honest, I’m not sure Sophie Aldred was up to it; while not my least favourite companion, she doesn’t have many great moments (though there are a couple in both Ghost Light and The Curse of Fenric).
Anyway, I guess I shall subject myself to Season 25 next. Though before I do that, I have some more Hartnells, and some other bits and bobs, to write up.