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DOCTOR WHO: A Companion’s Companion – Season 17

After the success of “The Key to Time” season, Doctor Who took its largest leap into the silly. Graham Williams was about to begin his third and final year as producer and he’d just brought on Douglas Adams as new script editor, having written “The Pirate Planet” the previous year. Mary Tamm had chosen not to come back for a second season as Time Lady Romana and would need to be replaced. Even John Leeson, who had voiced K-9 for the last two years, would not be around, giving way to David Brierly. Conversely, Tom Baker was beginning his sixth year as the lead of the series, edging past Jon Pertwee as the longest-serving Doctor and, owing to his enormous popularity (and enormous ego), he felt that this show was his. This was to be a witches’ brew for scenery-chewing and insanity that became Season 17, a year that gave audiences three incredibly weak serials, one pretty good one, one hands-down masterpiece, and one that wasn’t even finished due to industrial action. The ‘70s are ending with a real bang.

Season 17 – 1 September 1979 – 12 January 1980

Unlike his predecessor Philip Hinchcliffe, who ushered in the Tom Baker tenure, Graham Williams didn’t have nearly the same control (nor did he seem to want to exercise any) over his lead actor. You get the sense, going through Seasons 15 and 16, that Baker is trying to see how far he can push the craziness and get away with it. It appeared he could push it all the way. By time Season 17 rolled around, Williams was dealing with health issues, Anthony Read’s sure-handed script editing had given way to Douglas Adams’ sci-fi zaniness, and Tom Baker now had free reign.

If it seems like I’m setting up Tom Baker’s egomania a bit too much, it’s because he was, in my opinion, an egomaniac at this point. I’m not going to lie, I really don’t like Season 17, and a lot of it is because Baker is ridiculously over the top. I’m all for silliness in Doctor Who if it’s well handled (and if Adams himself writes the scripts, it seems that it can be well handled), but not if it begins to feel like the people making the show are making FUN of the show at the same time, which this season often did. It didn’t start off on the best foot, either.

Like many seasons in the past had, Season 17 began with the return of an old foe… the Daleks. Unfortunately, it’s one of their worst outings. The final script to be written for the show by Dalek “creator” Terry Nation, Destiny of the Daleks was their first time on the show since 1975’s “Genesis of the Daleks.” The serial begins with an offscreen Romana talking about wanting a change and trying out different looks for her regeneration before finally settling on looking like Princess Astra from the previous story, “The Armageddon Factor.” This was because they wanted to cast Lalla Ward and needed a reason for it. This scene was almost certainly written by Douglas Adams and has his brand of absurdity all over it. Unfortunately, however, so does the rest of the story.

From here, they land on the remnants of Skaro following the complete destruction of the Kaled city after the events of “Genesis.” The Daleks have not been killed off and are using humanoids as slave labor. After the Daleks kidnap Romana, the Doctor meets members of the Movellan race, aliens who are at war with the Daleks. Good for them. Wouldn’t ya know it, though, Davros, the scientist responsible for the creation of the Daleks, isn’t dead either, instead waking from suspended animation. There’s more talk about the Daleks and things, and eventually they are infected with a Movellan virus and defeated, seemingly forever… except not at all.

I find this story all but insufferable. There’s a very specific way the Daleks CAN work, and that is if they’re taken 100% seriously, despite how rather silly they look. As over-the-top as “The Stolen Earth” was at parts, the scene in Torchwood where Captain Jack all but gives up hope when he hears the Daleks are around is exactly the way they need to be handled. They look ridiculous, we get it. They can’t really move very well and they have plungers and egg beaters as weapons. That’s painfully obvious. But if the Doctor openly mocks them, and they simply shout and shout and shout and never do anything, their entire reason for being feared goes right out the window. Very stupid story, and a crap way to begin a season.

Luckily, the second story is one of the best the show ever did. Credited to the fictional David Agnew, City of Death was actually written by Douglas Adams, Graham Williams, and David Fisher. It sees the Doctor and Romana take a trip to Paris, which was actually filmed in Paris! After feeling a time disturbance, the Doctor and Romana encounter the Countess Scarlioni at the Louvre Museum and a slovenly detective named Duggan. Duggan fears the Scarlionis are going to steal the Mona Lisa due to their dealing in a lot of high-end art. What we eventually learn is that Count Scarlioni as actually Scaroth of the Jagaroth, an ancient species of alien, and he is attempting to fund his time travel research to get back to the moment of The Big Bang to prevent it.

In order to do this, and this is ingenious, he, back in the early 1500s, forced Leonardo da Vinci to paint multiple copies of the famous painting so that Scarlioni could sell them in the future to people for exorbitant amounts of money, and they would each think they owned the real thing. And no one would ever check it because that would be admitting they have a stolen masterpiece. It’s quite the scheme. However, the Doctor, also a genius, writes “This is a Fake” on the back of each of them, even the “real” one. This way Scarlioni can’t sell it, because it’s perceived as a phony.

This story is so good, and the production matches it so well, that it could only have come out of adversity. As the story goes, Fisher wrote the original story, which took place in Las Vegas in the 1920s, but when it was determined that they actually could film in Paris, Williams asked that he change it and drop a number of elements (like K-9). However, Fisher was indisposed, dealing with a messy divorce, and so Williams stuck Adams in a room for a weekend and told him to finish it. The result is arguably one of the most accessible and enjoyable classic Doctor Who stories of them all, and a great one for people who’ve never seen the show before. How could such a thing come from such a crap season?

And it only gets crappier, as the next story is Fisher’s The Creature from the Pit. The Doctor, Romana, and K-9 follow up with a distress signal sent from the planet Chloris. It is a lush and green planet nearly overrun with plant life. They soon discover the humanoid population are ruled by Lady Adrasta, who callously hordes the planet’s last remaining metal mine, which people need to make the tools to cut back all the plants that are choking the resources. Lady Adrasta takes the Doctor prisoner, while Romana and K-9 are taken captive by metal scavengers, who are deeply impressed by K-9.

The Doctor gets thrown into Adrasta’s pit where he encounters Organon, an astrologer who’d been thrown in the pit long ago, and the creature that lives down there, which is a giant, green blob of a thing that has, well, has what appears to be a giant phallus. It turns out that this creature, Erato, is the ambassador from the Tythonian race who has been imprisoned by Adrasta. Adrasta is the real baddie here, as Erato had arrived to negotiate a treaty between Chloris and Tythonus exchanging metal for chlorophyll. Adrasta was keen to keep all the metal for herself, and so kept Erato in the pit; only now, Tythonus has declared war on Chloris. Whatever will everybody do?

This is just the stupidest thing I’ve ever seen. Everybody clearly knows that Erato looks like a writhing bag of nothing with a huge penile-shaped protrusion, but nobody did anything to change it, or maybe that was their idea all along. Tom Baker does some very questionable things with the creature for “comedic” purposes, and K-9 is used about as stupidly here as he ever has been, shooting everything all the time, as though the problem wasn’t there in the first place. It’s hard for me to decide whether it’s this one or “Destiny of the Daleks” I dislike more. Real toss-up here.

I can’t believe I’d ever say this, but, hooray, there’s a story written by Bob Baker next. Baker had been partnered with Dave Martin for eight previous stories, but here the lone Bristol Boy gives us his final script for the show, Nightmare of Eden. Two spacecraft, a cruise ship and a trade ship, come out of hyperspace at the exact same time and coordinates, fusing the two vessels together, quantum-like. The Doctor and Romana must figure out a way to separate them or there could be a massive time-space disaster. The captain of the cruise ship is highly dubious of the Doctor and keeps a keen watch on him.

Elsewhere on the ship is Professor Tryst and his assistant Della, zoologists who, using a Continual Event Transmuter Machine, can literally remove pieces of a landscape to be kept in crystals and projected whenever they want to visit. Their most recent one is the planet Eden, upon which one member of their expedition died.  Romana is sure she can see eyes in the darkness when looking into Eden.  There are also drugs aboard the ship, a highly dangerous hallucinogen called Vraxin, to be precise, and some giant monsters called Mandrels. But what could they all mean and who could be behind it all?

“Nightmare of Eden” tends not to be regarded very highly, and I think a lot of that has to do with the time in which it was made, in a season full of insanity. However, this story is very well plotted and paced, which I think is due to Bob Baker being an old pro at it by this point. The characters are very interesting, and it even tries to put in some anti-drug messages for the young people, which is handled rather well. The director of this serial, Alan Bromly, was harangued off the set by Tom Baker, and the rest of the story had to be directed by Graham Williams himself. The behind-the-scenes unpleasantness does transfer ever so slightly on screen, as do some questionable acting choices from the guest artists, but overall I think the serial works. It’s not great, but it’s good.

The final broadcast story of the season was certainly not meant to be that. Former script editor Anthony Read returned to pen The Horns of Nimon, in which Tom Baker is at his least-reined-in, but that doesn’t really matter, because it lets Lalla Ward’s Romana take center stage. Honestly, the best part of this story is that the Doctor is almost Romana’s companion, proving that she is just as, if not more, capable of getting things done. It’s an okay story otherwise, though the costuming of the titular Nimon (a horned beast akin to a minotaur) is a bit silly. The acting of Graham Crowden, who plays the mad dictator Soldeed, is a thing to behold. It’s like he thought the show really had gone into full pantomime, and in some ways it had. The show had, in a way, become a parody of itself.

There might have been a change to that idea had the planned final story of the season actually been finished. Douglas Adams scripted the six-part finale, Shada, and it had been cast, locations were scouted, sets were built, and half of it was even filmed when industrial action (a strike, in other words) caused a halt in production. Unfortunately, when the strike ended, the BBC deemed other programs more important to finish and thus, Doctor Who’s season was cut short and “Nimon” ended the season on a bit of a sour note.

In 1992, the existing portions of “Shada” were released on video with Tom Baker on hand to give linking narration for the bits that were never shot. It’s a weird thing to watch. All of the exteriors were filmed and about 40% of the interiors were shot, meaning everything in certain locations is there, but often, especially toward the end, it’s a continual cut back and forth from one location, to Tom, to the same location again, back to Tom, and so on.

It’s a real shame, as “Shada” could very well have been one of the best stories of the Baker era, and it surely would have been Douglas Adams’ crowning achievement. The story revolves around the lost planet Shada, on which the Time Lords built a prison for defeated would-be conquerors of the universe. Skagra, an up-and-coming would-be conqueror of the universe, needs the assistance of one of the prison’s inmates, but finds that nobody knows where Shada is anymore, except one aged Time Lord who has retired to Earth, where he is masquerading as a professor at St. Cedd’s College, Cambridge. Luckily for the fate of the universe, Skagra’s attempt to force the information out of Professor Chronotis coincides with a visit by the professor’s old friend, the Doctor. It’s a delightful idea with some terrifically funny lines and enjoyable characters. If I were you, I’d watch either the BBCi audio/animated version (featuring Eighth Doctor Paul McGann) and/or read Gareth Roberts’ novelization that came out in 2011. You’ll get the idea.

And so, Season 17 ended with a thud, as did the tenures of Graham Williams and Douglas Adams. Both had led the series into a tone so comedic that it lost its grip on the kind of show it once was. You could blame Adams for it, but yet the stories he actually wrote himself are easily the best. It’s a strange dichotomy. Williams made the series more fun, certainly for its lead actor, and made it much less terrifying for children. But I’m an adult, so I don’t really care for that.

When the show would return in fall of 1980, its new producer, John Nathan-Turner, would have changes galore. His would be the longest tenure of any producer, lasting until the end of the classic series run. There would be a new theme arrangement, new sets, new costumes, a greater focus on hard science, and, by the end of Season 18, a new Doctor. It’s Tom Baker’s end next time.

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  1. amysrevenge says:

    I just watched City of Death for the first time last weekend. It was VERY good. Brief cameo from John Cleese too.

  2. Ray Adamson says:

    Very unfortunate that you obviously do not enjoy this season as much as i do,Mr Anderson.I wish it was more pleasurable for you.There is a definite drop in the quality of the production standards,even compared to other television productions at the same time from the BBC.Retrospectively,that might have been caused by neglect as much as by economic circumstances.I find Destiny Of The Daleks to be an enjoyable curiousity with the strange combination of Adams and Nation.Adams is present in the dialogue in a lot of the script but there is also the usual amount of death and plotting that tends to feature in all Nations stories.For all the problems,i still like a lot of the writing and performances in Doctor Who at this time.I think considering the production quality was so poor that many of the actors thought they would look less ridiculous if they over played things.I don’t think Graham Williams was as much of a pushover as you suggest as Tom Baker has expressed some regret about the number of arguments they had when he was in charge of the programme.

  3. Kouban says:

    Douglas Adams finishing a script in a weekend makes me imagine him being literally chained to his desk so he can’t procrastinate.

  4. Mike Callahan says:

    I really like this article it is the first Dr Who I saw on television, when I was stationed in Europe while I was in the Army.

    After television went digital I did away with televison, get my entertainment on the internet. I just wish that the BBC would have a online station. I wouldn’t mind paying a reasonable subscription fee to watch their programming.