Mad Norwegian Press
About Time
Seasons 22-26, the TV movie

Author Tat Wood Cover image
ISBN# 0 97594 465 7
Publisher Mad Norwegian Press
Published 2007

Summary: An in-depth look at the second half of the Nathan-Turner era, the TV movie and various odds and ends.


Closure by Thomas Cookson 20/1/08

This was my most eagerly awaited of the About Time books.

I don't really read the 60's and 70's About Time books much. I only ever seem to pick them out when I want to read their critique on a story I've recently seen. Otherwise they just tend to sit there on the shelf. I found About Time 2 underwhelming, with critiques that reiterated the authors' stances quite repetitively. Apart from the fascinating Sergeant Pepper essay, little about that volume interested me. Indeed it hinted that things were getting stale between Tat and Lawrence, and that they'd soon part ways.

But when it comes to covering the 80's, I'm ensconsed. I read About Time 5 quite a lot, particularly the bookend essays on how John Nathan Turner changed everything. The essay on the impact of Star Wars' new brand of 'total cinema' proves very useful when I want to play smartarse in Media Studies class. But it's Tat's essay on how he saw the 80's as misguided from day one, that I connect with most personally. I feel that I see the show the same way that Tat does. And of course that essay was a tantalising preview of About Time 6. It left me hanging for a year but finally that book arrived, covering the show's controversial and frequently ugly last days.

As a fan, I thrive on attempts to make sense of the mess of the 80's. An era that I find completely unfathomable in terms of wrong-headed production decisions. And Tat Wood's assessment is as razor sharp as ever and provides a kind of catharsis about this period where it all went horribly wrong, despite frustrating splashes of greatness occasionally teasing you with how good it could be.

Of course my problem with the 80's era, is much like my problem with the New Series. The producer thinks they can do no wrong and remains unrepentant for their worst excesses, and they even commission story arcs that ensure that the shit sticks. I suppose the 80's producership and the current one are flipsides of the same coin. I think for every story that Russell forced a happy ending onto, like Evolution of the Daleks, there's an 80's story that Eric ensured had a nasty, contrived, pointless bloodbath ending, such as Warriors of the Deep, leaving the pacifist message looking horribly hypocritical.

One producership made the show specifically for the fans, the other is actually rabidly hostile to the fans and obsessed with the trashy mainstream. New Who doesn't offend my standards about what Doctor Who should be. I just find it often simply bad television. Do something that goes against the grain of Doctor Who all you want, as long as it's good and reasonably intelligent. That it is Doctor Who probably bothers me more because normally I would just switch off, but instead I watch it and feel frustrated by both the bad and good episodes because I have to sit through one in the hope of getting to the other, even when the awfulness reaches toxic levels.

Someone once told me that they were a connoisseur of all art and entertainment, including things that they found awful or ugly. They said that anything repulsive compelled them to look closer and read between the lines, because life's too short not to try and see as much as you can, even if it offends your sensibilities.

Basically, to be a fan and review this demoralising era, I think requires both a strong stomach and the articulateness to vent and exorcise your feelings whilst maintaining eloquence and directness without descending into angry, incoherent ranting. As a reviewer, I don't feel I can do that. I get worked up too easily and I never seem able to have the last word on a bad story.

So to vent it here, what bugs me the most about the 80's? Beyond the embarrassing lack of damage limitation, humourless tone, et al, it's the mean-spiritedness.

The 80's was, crucially, where the show's morality went wrong. And, personally, rather than go down this path, I wish the show had ended in Season 20. Ideally a Davison's era with a Master-absent Time-Flight and Resurrection of the Daleks replacing The King's Demons as the last story of Season 20 and the show.

Eric Saward's 'realist' approach did spoil the magic trick. It wasn't necessarily the moral ambiguity and violence at fault, as that it was now so self-conscious about it. In the past, the pacing, elan and escapism allowed you to take a story's ethics in your stride, like in Day of the Daleks where the Doctor shoots an Ogron and then hypocritically tells the Guerrillas that it's wrong to assassinate Styles. Likewise, The Time Monster shows the Master beating the Doctor and escaping by taking advantage of his compassion, without cutting Pertwee down to size or making him look culpable in the Master's later murders. But Warriors of the Deep sets out to make the Doctor look incompetent, letting everyone die because of his pacifist principles. The Twin Dilemma goes some distance to emphasise how violent and unpleasant the new Doctor is. The morally ambiguous Hartnell era that it's supposedly trying to evoke never rubbed it in our collective faces like this.

And that's what was wrong with the violence of the Saward era: it was so rubbed in, so loud and vulgar. In plodding stories like Vengeance on Varos and Two Doctors, the violence stood out, nauseatingly. But Eric had his good and bad days. Earthshock and Revelation of the Daleks were excellent. He helped make Caves of Androzani a winner, but it was his idea to then have the new Doctor strangling Peri (though John Nathan Turner gave that story his eternal praise). Apparently Season 22 is the height of Saward's corrupting influence on the show and the Doctor, yet his one story that season (Revelation) has a very likeable, compassionate Doctor.

Funnily enough, Davison stories like Kinda, Snakedance and the Black Guardian trilogy were very spiritual and concerned with matters of the soul and sanctity of life and people's better angels, and avoiding rashness. For instance, the lepers of Terminus provoke fear and revulsion, but the story demonstrates why it would be wrong to destroy the lepers thoughtlessly. Meanwhile, Warriors of the Deep and The Two Doctors inadvertently or deliberately encourage a right-wing, violent stance. Yet there's glimpses of spirituality in Saward's Dalek stories when the Doctor and Davros meet, conveying how good and evil is a state of mind.

It's not so much whether Saward's violent, morally murky approach was right or wrong, as whether it was actually done right. And the truth is it wasn't. It was often schizophrenic, vulgar and devoid of empathy. But I think that his approach has been done right since. Rob Shearman's Dalek featured a psychotic Doctor and an operatic body count, and did it beautifully. Likewise, Dalek Empire features excess massacres, though of characters we actually care about, and fallible, morally ambiguous heroes, but ones with conscience and remorse. The characters are immoral, but the story isn't. In fact, it's rather humanist. But, again, later entries of Dalek Empire show how that approach would, eventually, become desensitising and nasty and degenerates into a pointless, confused mess when overused.

I hated the preachiness of the 80's, especially when it was wrongheaded beyond words. Peri must forgive the Doctor for trying to strangle her. The Doctor must forgive Lytton. The Sea Base crew must turn the other cheek when the Silurians massacre them. That kind of thing just leaves a nasty aftertaste, when forced down my throat. And moral preaching can be very mean spirited, and demonising, especially when implying someone's worthlessness and deserving of death and damnation for not rigidly abiding by those moral rules.

Tat Wood seems okay with the morally murky Sixth Doctor. Many of us expected otherwise, since he'd penalised Seeds of Doom for the Doctor's brutality there.

I think Tat considered Seeds of Doom's violence too glorified, since it concerned deserving bad guys, and because Tom Baker's Doctor was the children's role model. But since Colin Baker's Doctor was established as an anti-hero, then he could be amoral without the show following suite. I was disappointed, though, with the 'How Good is the Doctor' essay; I was expecting far more from that.

As usual, destroying Cybermen and Daleks is fair game because they are mechanised and soulless, and represent stagnation and entropy. In fact, Tat nicely quotes The Art of War when defending the Doctor's destruction of Skaro. Tat praises Mindwarp quite lavishly and considers its amoral Doctor 'an opportunity too good to miss', and describes it as The Twin Dilemma done right. He also regards Vengeance on Varos as Season 22's best story.

Therefore, it's probably Troughton's words of approval that make Tat condemn The Two Doctors as a fascist story, advocating racial purity and a caste system. But Tat also highlights that he feels Holmes is espouting such messages unknowingly. After all, it's specifically the confused approach to violence in this era that leaves the worst aftertaste, probably down to Saward's interference. Tat's review sums up a mean-spirited era where Doctor Who was dissecting itself and exposing all its inner ugliness and deranged savagery, and falling to pieces.

However Rob Shearman guest-defends, arguing that it sums up the rare punkish subversive quality of the erratic 80's that he adores. That in some ways it's so ridiculously, nakedly fascist that it's practically anti-fascist, the converse of Warriors of the Deep's absurd pacifism if you like.

It probably should be pointed out that fascistic entertainment had been depressingly commonplace in American cinema at the time. Remember in Die Hard when the pacifist cop, finally pulling his gun and shooting a bad guy was treated as a moment of celebration? It was also nicely parodied in The Naked Gun when Leslie Nielsen is given an award for killing his hundredth drug dealer, and explains in his acceptance speech that the last two he accidentally ran over. "Fortunately, they happened to be drug dealers." But Britain had always maintained a moral high ground, even when dealing with anti-heroes. James Bond's brutality was severely toned down after Dr. No; Blakes 7's crew would never gun down Servalan cold bloodedly no matter how many chances they got; and just when Carter has got his revenge, the murderous retribution he dished out to others comes right back round to him.

This is a point that Tat keeps harking at. How Doctor Who was a freak televisual anomaly in an era of oppressive, lobotomising conformity. And it's a point that he draws something quite cohesive out of. Attack of the Cybermen describes the 80's obsessive machoness, Paradise Towers describes the 1980's anti-society and chav culture, and Season 26 is praised for displaying more intelligence than 1989's lobotomised youth TV. It's mainly in his essays on both Continuity and the Anorak stereotype where he explores fandom as a whole. Some of his remarks about hardcore fandom are quite sneery; still, there's nothing quite as unrelentingly nasty as Lawrence Miles' hateful verbiage about 'geekscum'.

Besides, you can almost sympathise with Tat's frustration as he describes how the more extreme corners of fandom drove Doctor Who into a depressing mechanised, soulless continuity fest. The continuity essay is actually very cathartic, particularly if you're wound up about the show's continuity issues. It also nicely sums up why we still followed the show when it was delivering travesty after travesty, by invoking the metaphor of supporting a football team that keep getting beaten but still enfosters fond memories of their past glory days. And, gradually, a picture comes together of how, despite the soulless excesses, the show was worth carrying on and that its survival was a triumph. That it eventually regained its essential soul and offered something thoughtful, intelligent and different that had real value at a time when everything else was soulless and vacuous. That it was essential, individual TV in a time before shows like Spaced and League of Gentlemen.

It also describes how, despite the 90's chic in geekery and all things indie, the new Doctor Who is made by people determined to avoid anything fannish, geeky or indie, and sell it as something mainstream. This really struck a chord with how I see the New Doctor Who as not only a trashy mainstream show, but a cynic's self-fulfilled view of what trashy mainstream shows are like. In fact, it's as if it's making up for lost time by adopting the more sneery, aggressive conformity of the 80's and the elitism, anti-intellectualism and cruel humour of the Brat Pack flicks. Though the book is actually praising, if reserved about New Who.

I did actually expect the tone of this book to be more pleasant than the rest, thanks to Lawrence Miles' absence. But I was disappointed there. It still offers some quite merciless critical sniping and rubbishing of a lot of popular entertainment. Even the nation's favourites, like Harry Potter, Star Trek and This Life don't escape (still it was nice to see him big up Return to Oz). But of course it's all in the interests of cutting deep and stripping down bullshit, a bit like Pauline Kael's reviews. Personally, the most I could manage in that controversial arena is to say that listening to Creatures of Beauty really makes Memento and American Beauty look mediocre, self-involved, cold and small.

It does strike me rather that fandom has kind of become a grumpy-old-man terrain. Doctor Who's become something we look back on as representing a more innocent, respectful time of positive role models and humanistic, counter-cultural values, whilst we moan constantly about how everything's gone to pot now. So it seemed right I suppose that the New Series began with such a misanthropic, fatalistic Doctor with spiky etiquette holding a mirror to a vacuous, insular modern culture. And then, inexplicably, it degenerated quickly into an unbearable chick flick. But my point is that the About Time books rather speak to that kind of market and that attitude, quite unapologetically. Mind you there's something noticeably more warm and cosy about Rob Shearman's cameo appearance.

So how else does Lawrence's absence affect this volume? Well I'll reiterate that it does make for a more cohesive work by being mono-authored. There is very little said about Michael Grade (Tat seems to think that Grade had a point), and if Lawrence Miles was still on board, things might be different. What few people would miss if they even glanced at the width of this book is how much longer and more chunky it is than any of the editions so far. There is virtually an essay per story (which is to be expected, since both Season 22 and 26 raise the question of what would have happened next if the show hadn't been cancelled), there's an appendix covering the Cushing films (I was wondering when they'd get to them) and the charity specials. Dimensions in Time gets deserved scorn but Curse of Fatal Death gets a charming, smile-raising 'if only this was canon'. I quickly noticed that the previously brief column reviews now stretched out across the page at length. Perhaps Tat is simply overcompensating for Lawrence's absence, or perhaps Lawrence used to function as Tat's editor - though given Lawrence's tendency to drivel on boorishly in his often mean-spirited personal blogs, that's unlikely. In fact, I almost wondered if there'd been a mixup and it was Tat who'd left.

But I get the impression that had Lawrence Miles stayed, this would have been little different. It's ironic that they fell out just before entering an era that they were unanimous over. This probably wouldn't have been a divided schizophrenic critique in the way editions 4 and 5 were. Although they disagree on where it started going wrong, they seem to share the same view of this particular period. Larry might've been more venomous about Season 24, and obviously he'd be defending The Two Doctors. Ironically, they might have taken prosecution and defence roles on Trial of a Time Lord.

Anyhow, Lawrence gets special thanks, which is more than that nasty piece of work deserves, really.

Simply put, Tat only praises three of Colin's stories and regards the rest as the nadir, of rotten leftovers (Attack), fascistic garbage, didactic, anticlimactic and worst of all, bland stories (courtesy of Pip and Jane Baker). But after rock bottom, the only way is up. With McCoy's era, things become more enthusiastic, painting Andrew Cartmel as the show's saviour. Time and the Rani gets a deserved bum rap, but, from there, even the weaker stories, like Delta and the Bannermen and Silver Nemesis are held as examples of how the show is on the up, because even McCoy's worst is now better than Colin's average. By the time of Greatest Show and Ace's trilogy, you can tell that it's become the pinnacle of Doctor Who in Tat's eyes, Ghost Light being his favourite story. And his words on Survival represent nearly a happy ending for the book.

But then we get the TV Movie, which represents the only point where Tat actually sinks to.... my level and expresses a wish to erase it from the canon and deny its existence, and even scurries to find evidence to prove it's non-canon. But even then he's professional in his review and points out the flaws and oversights of the script. I still wonder why he picks this as the worst story, over Colin's mean-spirited stories. The opening paragraph of the review made me laugh like a drain for a few minutes. I was in Subway at the time I read that, and one of the staff asked me about the book since it was clearly so funny.

Overall, this has been a promise delivered. It's my chicken soup for my inner fanboy, which comes to terms with the arse end of Doctor Who's legacy, in such a cathartic way. I'll treasure it.

A trivial point: this is the only About Time where the front cover illustration isn't referenced by the text on the back.