Destiny of the Daleks
City of Death
Creature from the Pit
Nightmare of Eden
The Horns of Nimon
"....squarely, magnificently entertaining." by Terrence Keenan 20/5/03
The quote comes form one Gareth Roberts (from an article included in Licence Denied), who was talking about the whole of the Graham Williams era during Tom Baker's run as the Doctor, but also applies to Season 17.
Season 17 is entertaining. Fun, humorous, with a TARDIS tag team on top of their game. So maybe the sets weren't all that great. But when were they ever really all that great in any era?
Why season 17 is brilliant is because all the stories are well told, tightly scripted and filled with big ideas. And it entertained the socks off the viewing public. ITV strike aside, the numbers told the simple fact that lots of people were watching DW in 1979, even after the strike ended. Nimon averaged 12 million per episode. (So there. :p) )
It all starts off with Destiny of the Daleks. Not as bad as fans claim it is. The acting is solid all around. Lalla and Tom have instant rapport. David Gooderson does a passable Davros, who's actually more menacing when not ranting -- very similar to Michael Wisher's Davros in Genesis. What is most memorable to me is in episode three, where the Doc is all ready to kill Davros, and doesn't hesitate to set the bomb off once clear of the bunker. Fans make a big deal (rightfully so) of the Doc's assassination attempt on Davros in Resurrection. I just find it interesting that there's precedent for it in Destiny. One more thing, plus points for stedicam use and the Bo Derek-esque Movellans.
City of Death. It doesn't get any better than this. A story that deserves to stand alone outside of DW. A story that fires on all levels with such perfection that it crushes all competition as to what is the best ever Who story (only The Seeds of Doom comes close, IMHO). Funny, tightly plotted, brilliantly performed. A masterpiece on all levels. (Side Note: Tim Roll-Pickering thinks it's the worst ever. He's entitled to his opinion, although I think he's dead wrong. So, Tim, please, have a couple of pints and watch it again with an open mind. Methinks you'll see it in different terms, mate.)
One more thing about City of Death. For a while, this serial topped a few lists of Greatest DW stories. And a certain segment of fans flipped out, because City of Death isn't an "important" story, like The Deadly Assassin, Genesis of the Daleks, The War Games, The Caves of Androzani or Curse of Fenric. I'm not too sure if this was due to anti-Williams backlash, or because hard-core Anoraks hated that a comedy topped any Who related list. Though it seems that whenever I want to show a Who story to non fans to show what makes this thing of ours so special, they always get it after watching City of Death. Makes you think, doesn?t it?
The Creature from the Pit is probably the weakest of the season. It's also the silliest. Between the Everest Bit, "We call it the Pit", the infamous rude moment between Big Tommy B and Erato, there are laughs galore, intentional and unintentional. Big Tommy B is loads of fun. Lalla is finding her way, and channels Mary Tamm's version of Romana in a few scenes. The rest of the cast vary in performance. However, there's a crackling little story -- riffing off of Galaxy Four's idea of looks being deceiving -- and wild ideas -- the TARDIS towing stars -- that make it fun.
Nightmare of Eden is the most mature story of the season, after City of Death. It's a brilliant mix of big concepts (the warpsmash, the CET machine) crackling one-liners (those bits between Tom Baker and David Daker's Rigg), and the drug angle, which is played with all seriousness. It's the lone solo effort of Bob Baker and hold together quite well. The whole cast is solid, despite Louis Fiander's mutable accent. And then there's that brill moment where Big Tommy B rejects Tryst's feeble explanation with two whispered words and a cold stare. No speeches are necessary, no explanation worth the time.
My first three Who serials ever were City of Death, Nightmare of Eden, and The Horns of Nimon. Made me a fan for life. So, in some respects, I get miffed when "experts" dismiss Nimon as silliness. You call it silly, I say it's brilliant. Why? Lalla steals the show. If you ever wanted to see a female Doctor in action, just watch Nimon. She gets all the Doctor bits to do, and plays it so straight, it's astounding. Big Tommy B is in fully comedy mode in a way not seen since The Androids of Tara. I love Graham Crowden as Soldeed (So there! :P). The rest of the cast is solid enough. And the story in itself is tight, well plotted and filled with good drama underlying the humor.
It's a shame that Shada wasn't completed, because what's left is a bit uneven. Although the concepts are brilliant, and the plot dense enough to justify six episodes. The scenes shot in Cambridge are brilliant looking. Tom and Lalla are their usual brilliant selves. The rest of the cast are solid, not spectacular.
So? Five completed stories that do nothing but entertain with humor and drama, and occasionally astound with big concepts. And one uncompleted story with potential. There's also a TARDIS team on top of their game in a way not seen since Big Tommy B traveled the universe with Lis Sladen.
Season 17 is underrated. I think it's brill. Hell, this is the season that made me a fan in the first place.
Says it all, methinks.
You're a very good season, probably by Rob Matthews 10/9/03
In some ways, abstract ones I admit, the Graham Williams era of Doctor Who kind of resembles the Cartmel/McCoy one; it lasts three years, starts kind of badly, vastly improves around the middle and then is blighted by the occasional throwbacks to the weaker opening season. Additionally both eras violently divide fan opinion, with many considering the latter seasons of both periods to be the ones that go 'too far' - For your Ian Levines, season 17 is too silly, for your Cartmel-haters (don't want to insult anyone here by using them as a Levine analogue!), season 26 is, er, too silly. Whereas for some others, those latter season represent the pinnacle achievements of the producers/script editors/actors in question; You can like season 25's Remembrance of the Daleks, but Curse of Fenric in season 26 is something you either love or hate. You can like season 15's The Androids of Tara, but season 17's Horns of Nimon you're either going to adore or despise. Inasmuch as that term has any real meaning, seasons 17 and 26 are the 'rad' seasons of their respective eras - you're either right on board with them or you're jeering and pelting them with rotten fruit.
Season 16 firmly established Graham Williams as a producer equal to his predecessors, casting off the malaise and uncertainty of his debut season 15 and pulling off high-quality Doctor Who stories in an entirely distinctive vein. This feeling was helped by the fact that the two opening stories of the 16th season were not only by far its best (first impressions and all that), but also by the fact that those stories were each distinctly Graham Williams products despite their striking difference in style. Williams, arguably, was a more creative producer than Hinchcliffe, in that he wasn't merely ploughing a single furrow (the Gothic) story after story - he was willing to experiment a bit. It should be admitted, of course, that he produced quite a few more failures than Hinchcliffe, but I guess that's the price you pay for experimentation. Also, I think in season 16 he gave up on trying to ride Star Wars' ass like he had been the year before, and concentrated on the strengths of Doctor Who - writing and acting. And ideas. And Tom Baker. And intellectual playfulness too, a quality the essentially simplistic Star Wars could ill afford.
Williams' approach didn't really produce stories with 'Do you remember the one where...' moments like Hinchcliffe's did, but while I do think that was probably because of a deliberate attempt to keep 'horror' moments to a minimum, it doesn't necessarily reflect badly on the stories themselves - it could be argued that they were simply less showy, in a different sort of groove, more concerned with wit than shocks, with moments rather than events (there is a sort of mellow, freewheeling feel to a lot of the Williams stories - easy to imagine them being enjoyed at three in the morning by students with spliffs). And though I realise it's fan blasphemy to criticise Phillip Hinchcliffe, certain stories like Terror of the Zygons and, yes, Pyramids of Mars leaned too heavily on 'horror' set pieces, and were in fact pretty empty behind them. This was also true of the Williams-produced Stones of Blood, of course, which came across as a kind of Hinchcliffe pastiche with a more spontaneous, shaggy dog feel - so I'm not suggesting season 16 wasn't uneven.
Season 17, on first sight, isn't quite as good as its predecessor. Production values frequently appear cheaper than a half-litre of White Lightning, and Tom Baker's allowed to get away with a lot more silly stuff, the resulting combination of unusually unconvincing sets and unusually OTT actors bringing to mind that derisive term 'Pantomime'.
On a second viewing season 17 is... well, still not quite as good as 16. An argument could be made that this is because the highs are higher and the lows are lower, but thinking it over, it occurs to me that we're talking highs and lows of a different order anyway. I think the difference is that season 17 veers a lot more often into comedy territory, but rarely does it decisively enough - stories like Creature From the Pit, Nightmare of Eden and The Horns of Nimon have a patina of smirking humour mixed with twitchy self-mockery - Baker in particular takes a couple of breaks from naturalism, and enjoys a nice chomp on the scenery in a way he hadn't the year before. Additionally certain characters seem included exclusively for comic purposes (Organon and the hirsute Monty Python types), and come across as slightly less credible and rounded than, say, Garron or Amelia Rumford (I think the only real example of an overt comedy character in the previous season was Drax). Duggan, in my opinion, falls into this bracket too - he isn't actually that convincing, though he gets away with it because he's a basically normal bloke with a quick temper, and the more one-dimensional he is, the funnier to see him caught up in 4-D Time Lord silliness.
I think whereas season 16 has a core of well-balanced witty play-like dramas (Ribos, Pirate, Tara, Stones, Armageddon), season 17 aims (rightly) to go slightly further with the 'inspired lunacy' element brought to the show largely by Douglas Adams, but produces only one total success in that vein - I doubt I need to tell you which success I'm referring to. Hence the season falls short of its seeming aims.
It doesn't help that its starts off with a Dalek story either. I can't think of a Who producer less attuned to the killer pepperpots than Williams - Daleks are basically pretty silly, and to do them well you really need to have a creative team who'll go all out to make them frightening, to make them the trundling embodiment of evil and hate - that's why Hinchcliffe, who does portentous Who like no-one else, was so successful with Genesis, and why Williams made such a flopperoo out of Destiny. He wasn't much interested in making the Daleks credible - it appears he just assumed fans and kids like them, so bunged 'em in, whatever. In response to a point made by Terrence Keenan, I'd point out that, yes, the Daleks are cheesy, but it's the job of anyone making a Dalek story to eliminate that stink of cheddar, not amplify it. And if you're not going to do that, then why bother with them at all? My real problem with Destiny of the Daleks is that it shows Williams and his team veering away from their real talents, and producing a half-hearted Barry Letts-style story (one riddled with flaws and contradictions at that - among other things, the central impasse idea does not convince). What they really should be doing here is capitalising on the strengths of the previous season, not pissing them away with a semi-jokey semi-plotted runaround.
Also, Destiny provides Who-haters with the stereotypical Doctor Who story - a load of unconvinving rubbish where that man in the scarf runs around in a quarry with a bunch of ranting repetetive Daleks. Another reason to hate it.
Ah, but then... a complete 180 with City of Death, which does build on the previous season's sucesses; outsillying, outfrothing and even outvillaining Pirate Planet, Androids of Tara and Stones of Blood in one fell swoop, and establishing Lalla Ward's Romana as a bloody good companion, the kind who it just puts a big smile on your face to watch. It's just pure, delightful escapism, and like nothing the show had ever done before - Androids of Tara could be seen as a bit of a dry run in terms of fun-loving attitude, but there the plot was straightforward (lifted from Prisoner of Zenda, I'm told), whereas in City of Death it's inspired; outrageously silly but pretty clever too. And what was IMO the main strength of season 16, excellent actors playing bad guys without recourse to rubber suits, asserts itself again here. Scaroth's spaghetti head is wisely kept hidden under Julian Glover's malevolently suave exterior right up 'til the climax (bar a quick cliffhanger, anyway).
Next, a bit of a skid downhill again, though not to the depths of the Dalek serial. Creature From the Pit's an odd one - consistently enjoyable without ever being that good... I think, big green schlongs aside, it looks the poorer because much of the final episode is obviously superfluous. Some good ideas are stretched over too long a running time, it becomes obvious that only about twelve people live on this planet anyway, and nothing very convincing happens after Adastra's deception is revealed. Yet that revelation itself is a very cool scene - just watch the Doctor denouncing 'the petty power cravings of that pathetic woman'. Additionally, Adastra herself is one magnificent bitch, right up there with Cessair of Diplos in the boo-hiss stakes, without being a retread of that character. Add in Geoffrey Bayldon as Organon, and notch up another victory for quality actors. The only real problem for me is that we stay too long at the party - cut this down to three episodes, ditch the lime phallus and the neutron star, and it'd be an underrated gem in a similiar vein to Androids of Tara. A straightforward story with a straightforward moral. In this case: don't judge by appearances. But also with that particular Williams era touch of inspiration - a creature that can weave its own spaceship like a spider weaves a web.
Nightmare of Eden has a more interesting and original story core - the only TV Who story I can think of concerning drug peddling - and boasts another big dose of imagination, with the dimensionally snagged spaceships and Triste's electronic zoo. Yet it's less watchable than its predecessor because this time the only really good actors are the regulars, and the sets and costumes (particularly the Mandrils) are overtly bad. Superficial stuff, but it puts people off on a first viewing. This story also feels less relaxed than lacking in momentum, harking back to the dull stretches of Underworld and Invasion of Time. Those who hate Baker's overacting are certain to hate this - 'Ouch! My arms! My legs! My everything!' -, those who love Baker's overacting will chuckle along with him and gradually come to realise what a good story he's doing it in. And his final dismissal of Triste will convince you that at least some of his marbles remain.
Until Horns of Nimon, where they all go rolling away... this story is the absolute zenith of OTT Baker, especially in its opening couple of episodes, and accusations of pantomime are hard to refute.
And yet... well, it's the most cleverly plotted pantomime you'll ever see - it's baddy is a facepainted wild-eyed maniac with a touch of the Gloria Swansons about him, it's dashing hero is not the Doctor but Romana, it's classically-referenced hero a daft young boy in need of rescuing. When you first see the Nimon you long for the feral realism of the sodding Mandrils and wonder how you'll ever make it through a story where the monster is a bodystockinged man with a cowpat on his head... and then you just do, because it's so thoroughly entertaining. It's the only story in the season that comes close to City of Death in terms of its blend of sheer enjoyability and cool plotting, but is blighted a little by vanishing production values. Never has the phrase 'cheap and cheerful' felt so apposite as with Nimon.
Still, I think overall this season comes across as a bit of a mixed bag, or rather each of the stories bar one is a little mixed bag in itself. There's nothing wholly bad there, bar Destiny of the Daleks which sticks out like a sore thumb, but there's nothing else up to the standards of City of Death either. My theory is that if Shada had been completed we'd have had three good comic-Who stories to form the core of the season and in a way draw to the surface all the great things about the other ones. And because of that fans would think of 17 as more of a 'heavyweight' season, not a kind of gooey filling between the sturdier 16 and 18.
One other thing it's sorely missing is John Leeson, dammit! But extra kudos must go to Lalla Ward for her work here. After a frankly poor debut as Princess Astra in The Armageddon Factor, she's a revelation as Romana mark II. And also the real star of the two stories I've singled out as the best - no coincidence, I think. Not even the great Tom Baker was ready for this jelly...
True Words Spoken In Jest by Daniel Saunders 30/8/05
Despite its reputation, season seventeen does not, on the whole, look cheap. In fact, it looks surprisingly good considering it was made, in real terms, on about two thirds of the budget of season fourteen, but even without making allowances for that, only in a couple of areas are the comments about the season looking cheap even slightly justified. The corridors in Destiny of the Daleks do look rather unfinished and the Nimon are not terribly impressive, but there is a lot here that impresses. The location footage in Destiny is atmospheric and that in City of Death is superb; we are so used to the fact that it is in Paris that we forget how surprising and impressive this must have looked to viewers at the time. The jungle in The Creature from the Pit is one of the best in Doctor Who (the foliage certainly looks much thicker than in the highly esteemed jungles of Planet of Evil and The Face of Evil). The Mandrels are not the most impressive monsters in the programme's history, but neither are they the worst, while the CSO shots of people looking up at Erato in the cavern also work surprisingly well. The real problems are not that the sets look cheap, but that some of them look bland and ugly (especially the yellow corridors in Nightmare) and while Erato is perfectly satisfactory as an effect, it is a sort of visual double entendre.
The direction is less impressive, however (aside from City and parts of Destiny), and it is probably that which has led to the season's reputation for being cheap, as there is little attempt to cover up the flaws. Ken Grieve's low angle close-ups of the Daleks do make them loom menacingly over the camera, but also make clear that the casings are very old and worn, although these low-angled shots, combined with fast editing, make it harder to see the lacklustre corridors. The Mandrels and the Nimon would be much better with lower lighting, as can be seen by comparing the scenes in the Eden projection with those on the Empress.
However, the real problem in production terms is the acting, or rather some of the actors. The guest cast is very much a mixed bunch. The minor roles tend to be a little wooden, although this is hardly unique to this period and would not matter if the main guest characters were well played. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. Julian Glover, Catherine Schell, Geoffrey Bayldon and Myra Frances all turn in excellent performances, while John Cleese and Eleanor Bron are perfect in their cameo. David Gooderson is acceptable, but not outstanding and his voice should have been modulated.
Graham Crowden's performance is more complicated. There are some scenes where he does not seem to be taking things seriously, but on the whole he understands Soldeed's character development across the story, starting as a megalomaniac who is certain that he is on the point of rebuilding the Skonnon Empire before descending into madness as he realises he has been tricked into destroying his own world, so that his final scene, complete with manic dying laugh, is actually entirely in character. Unfortunately, there are a couple of performances that make the viewer wonder whether the director and producer were actually bothering to tell the cast to take this seriously. David Daker does a reasonable job in quite a thankless role at first, but is terrible when acting drugged. Lewis Fiander's accent would be fine if he was in 'Allo, 'Allo!, but here it means we can not take Tryst seriously. Tom Chadbon is acceptable most of the time, but there are a couple of scenes where someone should have told him that Duggan is really supposed to be an ordinary person out of his depth rather than a complete fool and that it would help both the drama and the humour if played that way.
Thankfully the regulars can be relied upon. Lalla Ward is occasionally a little unnaturalistic (most notably in Creature, the first story filmed), but usually very good. I also fail to see why David Brierley is criticised so much, as I can not think of any aspect of his performance that deserves such vitriol.
In concentrating on aspects of production, I have deliberately left Tom Baker's performance until last, because it is with him that aspects of production meet those of scripting, as by this stage it is impossible to draw a clear distinction between the Doctor as scripted and Baker's performance, to the extent that the lead actor is setting the whole tone of the show. Criticism of the jokes made by the Doctor and Romana at the expense of their enemies runs along the lines that it is "sending the programme up" and that "if the Doctor isn't scared, why should we be?" This, I feel, is missing the point. These jokes, seen in context, are arguably more naturalistic than the detractors claim. The Doctor has, after all, been threatened with death and survived hundreds of times by now, so it is understandable if he feels rather blas?about danger. The viewers have also seen him survive many times (apart from the children, who see the danger anyway even if they understand the jokes) and this humour is a way of making the necessary but repetitive aspects of the show more interesting. Indeed, Baker has stated in interviews that he always attempted to find new and unexpected ways to play the programme's clich? to hold the attention of the audience.
This sustained level of comedy might not work in season one, but in a show that has been running for more than fifteen years, so that almost everyone watching knows its conventions and clich?, it could be seen as vital. In any case, the Doctor has never treated authority figures and ranting villains with the respect they feel they deserve and his behaviour here is not out of character, even if it is exaggerated a little. In fact, this comedy can be seen to embody the whole philosophy of the season. Comedy is not simply about being silly. Rather, it is a reaction to the unexpected, so that comedy by its very nature encourages us to look at the world from a different perspective and this is one of the main themes of the season. Destiny of the Daleks' emphasis on the importance of illogical actions establishes the key theme of season: imagination and irrationality, the ability to think about things from an unexpected angle, are essential because nothing is what it seems. There are countless examples, but to list just the most obvious: Erato is an ambassador; there is more than one Nimon and they are manipulating Soldeed, even though he believes he is in charge; and the genial Chronotis is actually the criminal Salyavin. The Doctor takes what he is told by authority figures and turns it on its head to find out the truth, triumphing because he does not simply accept things as they seem to be or as what he is told they are.
The comedy is also justifiable on practical grounds. Science fiction can often seem po-faced and, indeed, silly, especially to people who are not interested in looking for subtexts and just see people with silly names in silly costumes pointing ray guns at each other and shouting portentously. Intentional comedy can get around this. The viewers laugh with the show when the writers want them to, so that they do not laugh at it during the dramatic parts. The ability of both Baker and the writers to turn suddenly from humour to drama can be seen as a strength. The Doctor has many outbursts of moral indignation and the fact that they come after his clowning makes them seem all the more serious. Virtually every story has a scene where the Doctor makes his anger at the villains clear, the most memorable being his "you only get one roll of the dice" speech to Scaroth and his blunt dismissal of Tryst's protest that his drug smuggling was done to benefit science and that the addicts had a choice. This is where the argument that "if the Doctor isn't scared, neither are we" falls down, because this righteous anger, coming from such an affable character, makes the extent of the danger posed by the villain very clear.
This humorous outlook on life is the real core of the season. However, philosophy and wit do not necessarily lead to good television. The other key factor in the season's success is the scripts. There are a few flaws on which criticism of the season unfairly focuses. The Creature from the Pit finishes about ten minutes into the last episode and so has the business with the neutron star tacked on, while Destiny of the Daleks works from a false premise, the Daleks not being robots. More worryingly, several stories rely on convenient plot devices to resolve problems. The capture of Tryst and Dymond is completely unexpected and therefore unsatisfying, while wrapping the neutron star in foil in Creature is more or less inexplicable, as is the use of the Doctor's dog whistle in Destiny and Nightmare. K9 is unforgivably used more or less as a gun throughout Creature and Shada. However, concentration on these few flaw means that the strengths of the scripts are often ignored.
The conclusions of City of Death and Shada are more satisfying than those of the other stories. The Doctor has been trying to stop Duggan knocking people out during the whole story, so when that saves the day, it is unexpected, but follows naturally from the course of the story, as does the Doctor's use of Skagra's sphere against him. The plots are all conceived well, with the season's thematic emphasis on the unexpected giving all the stories a variety of twists that the audience could not have foreseen. The Mandrels are the source of vraxoin (tying the apparently unconnected plot threads up elegantly), Chronotis' rooms are a TARDIS and the theft of the Mona Lisa threatens the entire history of the human race. The plots are complicated enough that even by the middle of each story there are still unanswered questions to keep the audience's attention, yet none of them becomes too complicated to follow. There are also remarkably few loose ends in most of the stories, indicating that the writers and, most of all, Douglas Adams as script editor, are paying attention to the details as well as the main storyline.
The good writing extends to the characterization of the villains. The Deadly Assassin controversy meant that there is still little overt horror and violence here, but there are plenty of monsters for the children. However, in season seventeen (as in much of the Williams era), the really frightening things are not alien creatures, but aspects of human nature. Almost all the villains in this season have clearly understandable motives, usually greed and selfishness, making the science fiction aspects more believable. Several of the characters also have an interesting element of what would be altruism if it was not so ruthless (Scaroth is motivated by a desire to save his race and Tryst believes the benefits of his research justify the methods he uses to fund it). This selfishness leads to a disregard for the feelings and needs of others. The season is full of people imposing their will on others for their own benefit, whether the Daleks using slave labour, the Nimons consuming whole worlds or the drug smugglers making people addicts. The contrast between the selfishness of the villains and their cruelty to others contrasts with the heroism and altruism of the Doctor and Romana, who are constantly willing to risk their lives for people they have only just met. This is, of course, the underlying theme of almost all Doctor Who stories, but the petty motivations of so many of the villains here move the show from melodrama about would-be universe conquerors to an understandable morality play, while keeping the science fiction elements for those interested in them.
Season seventeen is often spurned as a season where poor production values, bad acting, misplaced humour and lazy writing ruined the credibility of the show, turning it into something that could only be enjoyed by children. However, this is the exact opposite of the truth. The production values are far from laughable and the acting ranges from the acceptable to the excellent, with a few unfortunate exceptions. The real strength is in the scripting, where intricate stories and believable characters are able to hold the attention of a family audience. Despite the belief of many fans that jokes automatically render the show "silly" and "childish", this humour in fact expresses the freethinking, imaginative values behind these stories and prevents them becoming portentous and generic sci-fi.
In defence! by Joe Ford 26/9/05
Possibly the most infamous season of Doctor Who (with only season twenty-four coming in for as much criticism... and for pretty much the same reasons!) for many, many reasons. It's cheap, it's silly, nobody is taking the show seriously any more, K9 is a desperate embarrassment, flat direction, intrusive music, an uncontrollable Tom Baker, cliched stories... oh I've heard all of these and more thrown at poor season seventeen. The final indignity is that it is the only one of two times in history that production difficulties got in the way of a story being made (but this is much more embarrassing than season twenty losing Resurrection of the Daleks because that story was at least made a year later in its entirety). It was the year they couldn't even get the Daleks right.
Well bollocks to all that. I refuse to join the ranks of those seventeen bashers simply because there is so much enjoyment to be found in this unique year of Doctor Who. Admittedly watching the entire year in a row might be a mistake (as I did in my recent Tom Baker marathon) but if you are sick of all the glossy JNT and horrific Hinchcliffe, stick in a season seventeen story and you will suddenly realise how po-faced and bland a lot of good (or the perceived wisdom of what is good) Doctor Who is. This is the year that gave us "Spack Off!", the year that gave us seven Mona Lisas, the year that gave us an astrologer who predicts a terrible shock before getting a bop on the head, the year that gave us two ships stuck together and the year where Lalla Ward got to be wonderfully bossy and scream out the line "Despicable worm!" Come on... what more do you want?
I want to try and dispel some of these myths that have built up around season seventeen and lavish some praise on the work of the four talented people whose chance convergence brought this strange and wonderful year. I am talking, of course, about Douglas Adams, Graham Williams, Tom Baker and Lalla Ward.
One criticism that my mate Matt always brings up when discussing his least favourite year (that's this one by the way) is the terribly embarrassing monsters. Whilst the costumes weren't always ideal (cough, cough) there was a unique attempt to try something different with the monsters in each story.
The Daleks are treated to a brand new back story, a war with another race of robots, that has started offscreen and reached something of a logical impasse where the two races are so logical their space fleets are gridlocked, unable to make a move that the other hasn't already predicted (or as they Doctor brilliantly points out, the perfect recipe for peace). Rob Matthews tries to dismiss Destiny of the Daleks as a pointless waste but this is a fascinating situation and a genuinely logical reason to re-introduce Davros. Others have commented on how shoddy the Daleks look in this story. Erm, I'm not sure how to break this to those people but the Daleks often look a bit shoddy no matter which story they turn up in and at least there are a good number apparent in this story. The worst crime they commit is their banal dialogue, which goes along the lines of "Seek, Locate, Exterminate" (repeat three times!) but shitty Dalek dialogue is also hardly a novelty either.
Scaroth, last of the Jaggoroth, is frankly one of the most ingenious monsters ever to appear in the series. The last of his race who, when his ship exploded in primordial Earth, was splintered through the planet's timeline and pushed the evolution of the species to a point where a machine could be built to send him back in time and avoid the explosion that trapped him here. I won't even try and explain why that is cool, it just is. Needless to say his face looks like a bowl of green spaghetti bolognaise which is gross enough for me!
The much laughed at Erato from Creature from the Pit is unfairly maligned because he looks a bit daft. What people seem to forget is that this is a bold attempt at creating an entirely non-humanoid alien, an amorphous blob that just so happens to be a really nice fella but is treated like a monster because he tramples on people when trying to communicate with them. Don't judge by appearances and all that, the real nasty piece of work turns out to be the beautiful Lady Adastra. An old lesson but one that is worth re-visiting and it makes a damn change to have more nonhumanoid aliens.
The Mandrels are another attempt at something new, monsters that are just obeying their instincts to kill, unfairly smuggled from their natural habitat and given access to a space liner. Once again the "monsters" aren't the real bad guys, they are being exploited by drug pushers Tryst and Dymond, since the result of electrocuting these savage creatures alters them into the narcotic drug Vraxoin. Whilst their padded slippered feet look utterly absurd in the bright lights of the Empress, they are actually quite effective in the half dark of the Eden jungle, with something of a (Web of Fear) Yeti look about them.
The Nimon are probably the most stereotypical aliens of the year but even they are written sharply, preying on the gullibility and greed of other races, to exploit their wish for superior technology and to trick them into aiding the Nimon to migrate their planet. With their top-heavy masks and silly yellow horns they might look ridiculous but the choice to employ ballet dances to play them, to give them a choreographed walk as though they are gliding along is a work of genius, adding to their unusual look.
Douglas Adams appears to enjoy the "things aren't what they seem to be" ability of monsters to surprise and aside from the Daleks none of the above actually turn out to be quite what you expect.
The five stories all hinge on a central plot device, one which the entire adventure revolves around. Davros is the central point in Destiny of the Daleks, who the Daleks have come to find to break their stalemate, who the Movellans want to stop them using to win the war, and who wants to make the Doctor suffer for past indignities. Ingeniously, City of Death revolves around the human race itself, Scaroth's exploding ship creating the very race that will be his salvation and the race he will destroy to save himself. Creature from the Pit uses the Creature to explore its characters, the Doctor's kindness and inability to communicate, Adastra's xenophobia and the Bandits' greed. The CET machine drives Nightmare of Eden, the device that will smuggle the Vraxoin to Azure and thus the reason the two ships are forced into a collision (and Stot, the Narcotics agent's hiding place). The tribute in Horns of Nimon is a double-edged sword; apparently the offerings to the Nimon from Skonnos in exchange for superior technology but in fact the means for the Nimon to invade Skonnos.
What on Earth could have been so silly that forced JNT and Christopher Bidmead to whip up the eternally funless world of season eighteen? It was no secret that script editor Douglas Adams was a good comedy writer (his Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy was a huge comical hit) and some of that wit and humour leaked into each of the five stories he overlooked. I can think of one laugh out loud moment from every story ("BYE! BYE!", "Mona Lisas!", "The future foretold, the past explained, the present... apologised for", "I wondered why I hadn't been paid", "Digging a black hole on my doorstep!"), moments when Adams' unique vision of Doctor Who is working in perfect sync with the actors and directors. Unfortunately there are quite few moments when Adams' work is misinterpreted and treated as pure send up ("If you're supposed to be the superior race...", "What a wonderful butler - he's so violent!", "By the stars imagine the size of his mummy!", "My fingers, my arms, my everything!", "You are fools! Fooooooooooooools!") and this is due to the (generally) weak directors that were used this year. The biggest issue with season seventeen as far as I am concerned is its bland direction in most of its stories, never quite dynamic or stylish enough to match the astonishing imagination on display. Michael Hayes is, of course, the exception, whose City of Death is exquisitely shot. Occasionally these directors let these hide-behind-the-sofa (in embarrassment) moments through, scenes that probably could have worked with a little tightening up. More often than not the scripts are witty and clever enough to overcome the terrible direction (certainly Nightmare of Eden and Horns of Nimon are the weakest of the lot, directionwise, but they still manage to entertain with their wild concepts and charged performances) but not always.
The design this year has also been moaned about but there is nothing more offensive here than in other years. Destiny of the Daleks has cramped, realistic sets with ceilings (the latter here is a miracle). City of Death (as ever the exception to the rule) is treated with detailed sets, a stunning score and gorgeous location work in Paris. Creature from the Pit has the most realistic jungle set Doctor Who has ever created, a millions miles away from the plastic foliage that would turn up in Meglos and Kinda. Nightmare of Eden and The Horns of Nimon are the weakest of the year because of their entirely studio-bound nature but the Eden set (and the gorgeous join between that and the Tryst's cabin) are exquisite and Horns is designed according to its script, a planet lacking in resources and technology but with a heavily militaristic theme. The special effects are a bit more of a mixed bag, with some stylish effects achieved in Destiny (especially the explosive Daleks) and City of Death (the chicken and egg effect is amazing) but things tailing off towards the end of the season as the money runs out.
Something I noticed was how each story has a very satisfying last episode, usually something of a letdown with Doctor Who stories. Destiny suddenly turns action-packed with Romana fighting with a Movellan to stop the burning up of the atmosphere, Davros sending bomb-strapped Daleks to blow up the Movellan ship and some cool Dalek exterminations. City of Death becomes a race against time to save the human race from being wiped out before they were even created. Creature has two denouements; Adastra's demise is dealt with quickly to make way for the even bigger threat of Erato's people's retribution. Nightmare's whacky ideas all converge in a wonderful climax, featuring the Doctor beaming Tryst and Dymond into the CET for the authorities to pluck out. And Horns of Nimon reveals its monsters' ingenious schemes to the foolish Soldeed whose OTT reactions are just perfect enough to have sat through the whole thing. And what about the genuinely surprising twists? Davros is back! The human race was created and evolved by the Jagaroth! The Creature is a nice guy! The Mandrels are Vraxoin! The Nimon are a race, not a person! I never saw any of them coming when first watching these stories.
Of course two very important reasons that season seventeen works so beautifully is Tom Baker and Lalla Ward, the latter being the most perfectly-matched actress to Tom since Lis Sladen as Sarah. These two are so obviously head over heels in love and their chemistry spills onto the screen in all the best ways. Their relationship is cheeky and domestic, they play with each other (not like that, you pervs), switching roles (occasionally Romana will take over the Doctor's role when he's too busy larking about) and bickering like an old married couple. It is a real marriage of minds too, they speak the same language but both appreciate that the audience needs to be let in on the secret too. Frankly, they are a lot of fun to watch, whether it's playing scissors/paper/stone, holding hands running through Paris, arguing over whether they should interfere with other people's problems, clearing out old junk from the TARDIS or playing swap the sonic screwdriver (the Doctor tries to nick Romana's because hers is better than his, the rogue!). Add a particularly camp-sounding K9 to the mix who is bossier and more arrogant then ever and you have an ideal lineup of regulars to appeal to adults and kids alike.
The loss of Shada is unfortunate and I fear had it been completed people might look back on season seventeen more fondly. It is clear that Williams has learnt his lesson from previous years and saved some money for a more lavish production to finish the season. Certainly the location work that was filmed in Cambridge is gorgeous, as beautiful as Paris was in City of Death and the sets look pretty marvellous too. Being a Douglas Adams script it is loaded with funny jokes but at its core is another case of mistaken identity, the evil criminal Salyavin turning out to be the doddery old professor Chronotis. The plot device is there (the book from Gallifrey), the monsters are there (the horrid Krargs) and it is a much more satisfying use of Gallifrey than Invasion of Time, actually bothering to add to the mythology. A crying shame this was never completed.
City of Death is my favourite, some people might consider this story overrated but I can assure you I am not one of them. It is probably the best thing Douglas Adams ever wrote, packed full of great lines, marvellous performances and a production, which rises to the occasion and refuses to embarrass. Nightmare of Eden would probably come next for its intoxicating blend of mad ideas and mad performances. It is hugely entertaining throughout and the best bits are truly superb. Creature from the Pit comes next, hugely undervalued and containing the campest villainess until the Rani, this is a witty morality tale that has some surprisingly serious moments. Nimon and Destiny are joint last, neither are perfect but both demonstrate much skill, the former in its surprisingly lavish production and the latter with its clever script. Both contain some laugh out loud moments AND some cringe-worthy bits.
Hopefully I have convinced you to give this undervalued year another go. I accept it isn't perfect but there is too much here that works for it to be dismissed as it is. For every silly bit there is an equally wonderful serious moment (The Doctor trying to stop Scaroth warning himself, Adastra's sudden fear of the creature, the Doctor dismissing Tryst) and the season is worth watching just for the amount of imagination knocking about.
A Review by James Neiro 2/11/10
Lalla Ward would join the cast in the season opener, Destiny of the Daleks, and would become the future Mrs. Baker by the end of her run. Her first episode would also see the return of the deadly Daleks on the planet Skaro and the return of their insane creator - Davros. City of Death would follow next, the first time the show would go on location. Filmed entirely in Paris, the two Time Lords would battle the Count Scarlioni. The episode would prove very popular.
The following three stories would prove to be quite a let down and weighed the season down quite heavily. The Creature from the Pit, Nightmare of Eden and Horns of Nimon would suffer from lazy plots, bad sets, terrible acting and hopless monster design. By this stage, it was clear a change would be required if Doctor Who would survive into the 1980's.
The unaired season finale, Shada, remained unaired due to a strike at the BBC during filming. In 1992, its recorded footage was released on video using linking narration by Tom Baker to complete the story. The classic era of Doctor Who had now come to an end and the next season would show the biggest changes ever to the series.
"We danced all night, and I lost all sense of time" by Thomas Cookson 27/4/19
Season 17 was the classic show's record-breaker season. Gaining Classic Who's highest ratings and representing the show's last hurrah as popular mainstream television. It also was reviled by fandom for many years after original broadcast. This despite it boasting a fan favourite, City of Death and perhaps the last genuinely likeable Doctor-companion pairing until the seventh Doctor and Ace.
So why the hate?
Well, there's the sense the good stuff this season came too late for our tested patience. Of Tom and Douglas becoming the worst influences on each other. Of Graham Williams, whose own defeatist pessimism was all too reflected in his stories, finally giving up half-way. Knowing he could do nothing about the shrinking budget or Tom's rambunctiousness.
Destiny of the Daleks seemed a shrewd season-opener choice, boasting the Daleks' return. On paper, it had the makings of a fun space adventure. It feels halfway to a classic. The exterior shooting was beautifully atmospheric, mirroring the eerie devastation and periodic explosions of Lebanon's civil war and often capturing an exhilarating raw roughness. Even when Tom blinds a Dalek with his hat, it's still shown as dangerously volatile. Unfortunately where it needed to deliver, it usually falls.
Destiny's chief heresies include mischaracterising Daleks as robots, giving it a cloyingly sanitized feel, neutering the Daleks' bite and bile and tarnishing the genuinely grim first-half. I'll admit Romana regenerating off-screen, frivolously wasting several incarnations is an awkward, painful scene. But given Who's televised theatre roots, the scene existed to humour audiences into accepting Lalla as Mary's understudy, then carrying on.
Destiny's problems were largely beyond Williams' control. The Dalek props had fallen to neglect under Hinchcliffe's veto against reusing them during his time. Terry Nation's script seemed similarly half-finished, leading Douglas Adams to add various comedic Hitchhiker indulgences, compromising our faith in Who lore as its own entity. There I can see why 1980s' fans initially welcomed Ian Levine's vetting presence. Compared to Big Finish, it's weak sauce. A bit more effort and conviction all round could've made Destiny truly dynamic and less languid. The apathetically acted hostage scene, in stronger hands, could've been the season's dramatic highlight.
Fortunately, City of Death rekindles viewers' good will. An elegant diamond amidst a tatty season. Easily Adams' best, most disciplined work, introducing newcomers to the show's essentials exceptionally well. It's a delicate puzzle box, guaranteed to uplift your mood on a bad day. Like a perfect, timeless date that's stayed with us, years after.
There's the sense that its density of ideas makes its four episodes an era unto itself. It's the show's ne plus ultra. Superseding Who's previous cumbersome cliches and action excesses, with beguiling intrigue. The suspense coming from ambiguity, whether maybe the Doctor's the real villain here.
It's perhaps the last time Classic Who exhibited an uplifting life philosophy. Drawing a rich thread about humanity's achievements and historical journey. Making Scaroth a real existential threat, emphasising history's minefield. It's endured beautifully as the idealised version of Williams' era. For a 'childish' era, Lady Scarlioni's death is more cruelly hard-hitting than most Pertwee stories. But there's sadly a sense the Williams era's achieved all it ever would here.
The Creature from the Pit is a trite, hollow, obvious affair. Tom's dialogue seems to come straight from a random lame-joke generator, bombarding us with ceaseless clangers. His allowing Adrasta's death seems downright Neanderthal, particularly if watched after the Eccleston era's fierce humanism.
It's admittedly preferable to most of Davison's po-faced anti-violence preachings (when it's clearly the only language his enemies understand). But, in this scenario, it's disappointing seeing the show succumb to revenge cliches, the Doctor not even trying to pacify the lynch mob. Especially after Tom promised she'd be unharmed when forcing her hand onto Erato's translator, promising he wouldn't let mob justice happen. Before changing his mind, standing aside and letting Erato do exactly that.
Erato being revealed as a wronged innocent, having apparently crushed condemned pit-dwellers by 'accident' when attempting communication, compares poorly with City of Death's clever sucker-punches. That Erato's done this repeatedly makes him seem no less guilty of murder. His dialogue and actions convey no guilt, yet insultingly we're meant to accept his misunderstood noble status?
If Adams thought he was subverting the sci-fi monster genre here, he clearly didn't know the genre. 1950's monster flicks actually were tragedies about the misunderstood monster, provoked and persecuted by mankind's blinkered aggression. It's watchable, but nothing really challenging. It's certainly not a special, unique story that only Doctor Who could produce. Frankly it adds nothing to the show.
Nonetheless, had the season stopped here, it might've seemed relatively professional and competent. Unfortunately, hereon the stories resemble one tiresome comedy sketch that doesn't know when to end.
Nightmare of Eden's on paper a decent, intriguing Carnival of Monsters-redux. There's a genuine air of unpredictability here. The viewer is never sure what'll happen next or where events will turn. Particularly the superb cliffhanger of the heroes fleeing into Eden's mysterious forest. There's a real sense of governing forces falling asleep at the wheel, making our heroes wade through chaos.
However, a certain smugness makes it seem it's taking its cleverness for granted. Its Williamsy excesses become enough for us, leaving this era not really missed. Alan Bromley's routine directing lacks any graceful architecture to its shot composition. Tom traverses the same passenger lounge set twice, without Bromley framing each shot distinctively to hide this.
It resembles an awkward, bulging-at-the-seams cinematic space opera trapped in a cheap BBC light-entertainment production. It feels ramshackle, scuzzy, crude. It's stagey and confined but doesn't feel theatre worthy. It's too trivial for Genesis' or Fang Rock's substantial theatrical punch.
The Eden jungle feels equally confined, with the script defining its limited space, making us achingly aware nothing threatening awaits beyond the frame. A shame because setting this story entirely on Eden could've been more fun. The Empress's garish interiors are shot sloppily, lacking awe or excitement and dating horribly. Bromley seemingly hadn't realized audience perceptions had evolved since sci-fi of his youth. Much like how early news broadcasts once filmed model warships in water tanks, presented as 'live coverage'.
The result's a sour, murky, hellish, tumultuous production. Resembling some rushed sketch show rather than the solid, hi-tech narrative it should be. Hinchcliffe would've gone fully for the body-horror of drug abuse, compulsively poisoning the delicate well-being of vital irreplaceable organs that can only clean our system so often.
Instead, Adams' comedic sense of 'fun' feels inappropriately tasteless here, given the grim issue at heart. Tom seems unmoved at the end by the deaths. He's aloof and dismissive with co-stars, rambling over them, snubbing Riggs' handshake and being downright punchable. Nothing here feels a collaborative effort. It's Tom being the ball-hogger and coming off as a demystified, overexposed has-been. His final cold rebuke of Tryst falls flat, because there's clearly no love lost there, given Tom's earlier pretentious, perma-sneery attitude towards Tryst's conservation work. Basically, what moral approach is the Doctor actually "for" here? Lalla makes more effort, but the guest cast is weak, particularly Della's melancholy moping and Tryst's egregious accent.
Our heroes rarely feel in danger. Their main predicament involves being framed and chased by security (something most stories resolve early). Likewise, Della and Stott's soap opera leaves us never doubting a happy ending. Gone is Planet of Evil's sense of a dangerous, malignant cosmos. Now it's a cartoon universe of completely survivable space collisions.
Ultimately, it feels pat and inconsequential. The collided ships being coincidentally supplier and dealer. Tryst's compassion for animals making him an unlikely murderer. Even the rampaging Mandrels mauling passengers quickly becomes forgotten as an ongoing crisis. The plot keeps leaving bits of itself behind.
Strict BBC guidelines render the Mandrels literally toothless, without openable mouths, diminishing their visceral fear. Tom neutralizing them via pied-piper routine is disappointing, and let's pretend "my legs, my arms, my everything" never happened.
Nonetheless, Tom trapping Tryst in the CET is ingenious in ways Davison's tiresome Master face-offs cried out for. Likewise, Riggs laughing watching Mandrels munching on the economy class, being lambasted for criminal negligence feels like it's pre-emptively lambasting Warriors' character assassination of the Doctor.
Horns of Nimon ends the season prematurely on a masquerade ball knees-up. The production has an eerie minimalism, suggesting greater foreboding galactic empires. The smoky laser effects alone beg how fandom ever considered Resurrection of the Daleks the superior production to this.
I actually find the Nimon eerily menacing. Their insidious, pitch-black, brutish faceless design, deadly horns and Neanderthal predatory movements. I love their voices' warbling effect, how the story conveys them as galactic locusts. There are breathtaking, grave moments played disquietingly straight. Like Soldeed's bullshit detector quickly deducing the co-pilot's changing story.
Romana's first entering the Nimon hive is very tense. The crumbling corpse, its binding matter sucked dry still makes me jump. Then Tom arrives, clowning with bullfighter cloaks, taunting the Nimon idiotically, getting one sleeping tribute killed. Suddenly becoming a cheap joke rather than a timeless scene.
Tom clearly doesn't care. He's deliberately kept out the plot, given two episodes' comedy shtick with K9, whilst Romana handles heroics in his place. She's fantastic. Her tender promise to keep Seth's secret ("cross my hearts"), tearing strips off the "despicable worm" co-pilot, her roaring final face-off with Soldeed. Her meeting the ruined Sezom on a Nimon-infested Crinoth is sharply poignant. When Soldeed's sabotage strands her, Tom's dreaded reaction, whispering her name is priceless.
But even that moment doesn't last in the mind. It isn't memorable enough in its impact, coming from an inconsistent story/performance that's otherwise played safe and flippant. The problem's fixed easily like incidental dramatic filler that may as well have not happened. The resolution via explosions pre-empts Earthshock's witlessness. Also, Tom's closing joke at Romana's expense makes him seem downright punchable.
It's not the solid finale we deserved. Unlike Talons, there's no iconic, heroic moments for our marginalized hero and perhaps little to entice viewers back next season. Season 16 had a tantalising sense of world-building adventure throughout. Season 17's latter stories blur together indistinctly in their samey flippancy. Our heroes haven't really grown through this season's limp adversities.
Lawrence Miles suggested Nimon should've been about Seth facing his labyrinthian fears. Like The Daleks saw Susan bravely facing and overcoming the terrifying forest alone. But no such catharsis happens because the fear's gone amidst Tom's comedy shenanigans.
Fans would've probably preferred City of Death was a one-off, because the expectation/violation of comedy Who doesn't work with repetition. Tight budgets mean more riding on stories to capture thespian brilliance in one take. Tom's increasing flippancy and lack of commitment wasted that. Whilst Doctor Who's always been light entertainment, with Season 17 nothing distinguished it anymore from its own sketch show parodies (excepting City of Death's French arthouse cinema aspirations).
I understand why fans, longing for the show's original purity that made it strange, threatening, exhilarating, welcomed JNT's earlier State of Decay, Earthshock and The Five Doctors for reasserting that fear and threat.
As Williams' last hurrah, Season 17 was unfortunately rather a whimper. No payoff or punchline, just tired regurgitations of the same. Only City of Death didn't blow the chance to show millions of viewers the series' brilliance.
There's a sense of returning full circle here, to Skaro and humanity's primordial beginnings. Even Nimon feels aesthetically Hartnellian. Destiny provides neat closure on the Dalek threat. Defeated by eternal stalemate, proving Williams' equilibrium of universal balance.
Unfortunately, JNT's era ahead undoes that closure, jettisoning what did work about Williams' run. Substituting gentle, mannered persuasion and world-saving punches with impotent bickering, witless slaughter and total-annihilation plot devices
Ending Doctor Who here (Tom and Romana flying into the Skonnos sunset for centuries more adventures/romance) could've made exploring Classic Who easier for curious newcomers, without the obscuring continuity critical mass afterwards, making the show resemble a protracted unending chore.