Time and the Rani
Delta and the Bannermen
Seasons 23 and 24: A Joint Review by Rob Matthews 29/6/00
Yes, the wilderness years. Two very different seasons of Doctor Who united by one apparent factor: panic. The show had been suspended for eighteen months (both times, I think) and the threat of cancellation was looming overhead. Change was needed, but how was it to be achieved? Season 23, The Trial of a Timelord, took entirely the wrong approach. One overall story lasting for over three months? It was dull and contrived when they did it with the Key to Time season and it's dull and contrived here. Added to which, we had to put up with an exceptionally long binge of Gallifreyan politics and personalities. Even I, watching the season over a mere four weeks on UK Gold, got absolutely fed up of looking at those Time Lord hats and hearing about the Matrix. No wonder we never heard from the Time Lords again during Doctor Who's remaining years!
Seasons 23 and 24 - possibly more so than any of the others - featured a slew of guest stars and well-known figures from British television; Joan Sims, Brian Blessed, Honor Blackman, Wanda Ventham, Richard Briers, Ken Dodd etc (I had a hell of a time getting used to gravy lady Lynda Bellingham as an important figure in Gallifreyan law, but to give her her dues, she was very good in the part). Then there was the introduction of Bonnie Langford as a companion; a cynical move that Eric Saward suggested had something to do with JNT trying to boost his pantomime company. Certainly she was the first companion I'd heard of beforehand.
Season 23 was stodgy and leaden. The Mysterious Planet was a little bit campy. Mindwarp was another season 22-type story, Terror of the Vervoids was an inferior Robots of Death with flowers and vegetables, and The Ultimate Foe was incoherent, and derivate of The Deadly Assassin.
Season 24 tried harder. They changed the Doctor, thus forcing a new look on the show. They made lighter, more comical stories, which - in relation to Trial of a Timelord - were like stretching your legs after a long car journey. Time and the Rani was a hangover from the Colin Baker era, but the remainder of the season occupied itself with skewed visions of Earthly concepts - the apartment complex gone to hell of Paradise Towers, the concept of galactic tourists in Delta and the Bannermen - and a sense of fun; "Let's go exploring under Iceworld!" The 'fun' factor was, in my opinion, pushed a little too far; Doctor Who rarely did comedy well (certain Tom baker episodes and Pat Troughton moments excepted), and several parts of the season were embarrassing.
The show almost certainly suffered over the course of these two series from being lumbered with a producer who didn't want to be there anymore. The sense of confusion and carelessness during this period wasn't helped by the worst regeneration scene ever, when Sylvester McCoy in a wig transformed into, er, Sylvester McCoy. Poor Colin Baker - one of the few actors to play the Doctor who actually wanted to stick around for more than a couple of series - got the boot, with just a short shot of his coat getting chucked into a chest as an epitaph. I maintain that they didn't need to change the actor; all they needed to do was give him some different clothes! Colin could easily have evolved into the 'chess master' figure of the latter series. But I digress.
Here my theory on what happened during these two years, and why the show finally regained its composure:
When the show was suspended, and then given a much shorter series than those before, it was obvious that the ultimate plan was either to kill it off or phase it out. The effect of this on the production team was akin to someone having a heart attack. Doctor Who didn't die, but forever afterwards it would have a heart condition, and a greater sense of its own mortality.
And so JNT and co responded to the imminent death of the show as one would respond to a real death - by going through the following psychological stages:
It's interesting, incidentally, that when John Nathan Turner finally relaxed, Doctor Who regained the Darwinian evolutionary theme that had been an important part of his very first season too, and even ended on that note. The fundamental problem of seasons 23 and 24 was that they tried too hard with material they weren't sure about, and ended up looking desperate. Which, indeed, they were.
Undervalued... by Joe Ford 24/12/03
By far the most maligned season of Doctor Who and somewhat unfairly in my opinion. Whilst it has a list of faults a mile high there is still some fantastic stuff in here waiting to be dug up by a more forgiving fan. When this was an indication of what to expect I can understand the outcry but in the wilderness years of the show (I hate this new term, the classic series, that is being bandied about!) it is fun to look back on the shows twilight years and find out just what was going on. With this aim in mind, my mate Matt and me recently had a McCoy marathon to see if we could discover any merit in the forgotten season twenty-four...
Time and the Rani: I am far, far too kind to Time and the Rani and I know it but it is 33.333% of my trilogy of laughter, one of three stories (along with the fabulous Chase and the outrageous Warriors of the Deep) that I stick in when I am especially down and never fails to have me in stitches. I mean it's all SHIT, isn't it? Which writers with half a mind would ever conceive a story where the main villain, a camp genius, dresses up as Bonnie Langford to deceive the recently regenerated Doctor into aiding her devious scheme, involving vertically challenged vampire monster (they have 360 degrees eyesight but cannot see what's going on behind them!), a huge, pulsating, talking brain and Albert Einstein. It's just not done is it? In a period where the show desperately needed a deadly serious contemporary Earth story, perhaps with some scary monsters that only come out at night and slaughter millions we get this muddled, cliched, monstrously-scripted nightmare. The sheer delight of this story is that it is highly inappropriate in every respect and what is Andrew Cartmel's excuse... no time sweetheart? Ridiculous excuse... some of the best ever Doctor Who was made in a hurry, look at Shadow in the Glass, a superb book that was rush written to fill a gap in the schedule, or Ark in Space, a hurriedly re-written script that is easily one of the Tom Baker highlights... the simple fact of the matter is that Cartmel was poor script editor and Pip and Jane are bloody awful writers (how they hell they created something as entertaining as Terror of the Vervoids astounds me to this day!).
However the actors charge on regardless, attempting to give it there all. McCoy makes his debut in true eighties style, bloody atrociously. People honestly preferred this goofish clown to Colin Baker's far more assured version? He growls out his dialogue nonsensically, keeps tripping horribly unconvincingly over that laboratory set, turns out to be incredibly naive and if I hear another mis quote in my life I will strangle said quoter with my bare hands. Bonnie is trying to underplay her Mel but the script leaves her no opportunity, she just stumbles over traps and monsters and SCWEAMS AND SCWEAMS! Poor cow, I'm sure given a good script editor something really good could have come out of her involvement with the series (Big Finish anyone?). She is given some of the worst dialogue in the series ("He has qualities you'll never have... something called compassion!", "Where, under the carpet!?", "I've had enough of this drivel!" (mirroring Matt's feelings perfectly), "You don't even sound like the Doctor you miserable fraud!"). Kate O'Mara is clearly up for a laugh and doesn't hold back for a second, camping up the Rani to such an extent McCoy and Bonnie are blown into the distance (I love it when she growls at Urak "Well, find her, you incompetent fool!" and then turns to the Doctor and says sweetly "Coming Doctor!"). Her special scripting "You imbecile!", "I have the Loyhargil!", "Let go of me you interfering maniac!", "I'm overwhelmed!"... it's regularly hysterical the way she hams it up. Oh look, a quarry. How terribly original. In fact that's just what this story could do with, a little bit of innovative thinking. Hackneyed ideas that this story revels in just were not acceptable in 1987 and the tone of the story is somewhere up in the stratosphere when it should have been down to Earth, hard hitting and gripping.
Last Word: If I were a BBC executive in 1987 I would have cancelled the
show there and then but in my older, wiser years I appreciate this story
as a camp classic, one of the few occasions where EVEYTHING went wrong.
It's a bloody brilliant comedy!
Verdict: A plus (or D minus depending on how you look at it).
Paradise Towers: What everybody thought of at the time, as the worst story of the season has been favourably re-evaluated of late. The truth is that everybody criticizes the story for being an embarrassing comic strip production but the simple fact is that this a comic book story so just how the hell could they have done it any differently?
Well sacking Keff the tacky musician for a start. This is the guy doing the theme music for the new series... God help us! While there are direction and acting problems they are nowhere near as substantial as the incidental music issues this story has. Dark gloomy corridors, cannibalistic old ladies, monsters in the basement... this is a story that DEMANDS a spooky score not the jingly jangly gym music we get. The story is sabotaged from the first scene, lacking the atmosphere it deserved.
At its heart there is a superb idea and the script is almost the perfect way to construct a four-part Doctor Who story. The first episode introduces the setting whilst setting up some intruging mysteries to be solved (Why are the Cleaners killing people and taking them to the basement? Why do the old dears have such an interest in Mel?). Episode two continues the story in exciting fashion (the Doctor menaced by two cleaners, Mel in deadly danger as Tabby and Tilda menace her with toasting forks) and the Doctor handily recaps the story for us (a scene in the Kang headquarters gets us up to speed). Episode three reveals the villain (The architect Kroagnon! He's in the basement without a body... he was trying to escape and start a homicidal march through his own creation!) and episode four sees all the elements of the story (Kangs, Caretakers, Rezzies and even dear old Pex) teaming together to defeat the evil bastard. What a lovely plot, it flows gorgeously to a highly satisfactory and moving conclusion when Pex (the cowardly cutlet) is finally brave and sacrifices his life to save everyone else.
The dialogue and design have much to recommend them too, the former being highly inventive and unusual and the latter being claustrophobic and atmospheric.
Unfortunately there are some serious problems with the direction and not just because Nick Mallet let Richard Briers spend the last episode walking around as though he had a carrot stuck up his bottom. The story lacks discipline, although the story has some elements that verge on the ridiculous at its core it is a serious tale of kids, authority and grannies being abandoned by society and having to cope for themselves. Mallet lets the story trip over into farce far too many times, stupid scenes such as Briers "Tell Daddy!" to Kroagnon, the Doctor falling down 'whoosh' into the brain quarters, any scene where Pex tries to act 'hard', the bizarre moment where Kroagnon keeps chucking the Doctor unconvincingly into the wall... it is as if Cartmel and JNT felt the story needed sugar coating because of some of the more horrific detail (robots trying to drown Mel and her being savaged by a geriatric with a huge knife) but unfortunately the story comes as across as being silly and childish when in reality it is nothing of the sort.
McCoy has thankfully calmed down but is still prone to bouts of unpredictable goofiness. He gets his first great scene where he convinces the Caretakers to let him go. Bonnie is still straining dialogue for every pantomime nuance it's worth which is shame because there are some quite touching moments to be found between her and Pex, a well constructed relationship had it only been played at a more intimate level.
Last Word: Hold up a mirror to Paradise Towers and
you get Greatest Show in the Galaxy, this is a
superbly written story that is damaged by weak direction whilst that is a
patchy script that is realised with utter conviction and style. I still
firmly believe this is the better of Stephen Wyatt's two scripts.
Verdict: B minus
Delta and the Bannermen: This is my personal favourite of the season by a long stretch because it comes along like a breath of fresh air, a story that LOOKS fantastic, lots of stylish locations, budget bursting FX, decent actions scenes and a bloody good music (it's Keff again and its too loud in places but it is a thousand times more inventive than the crap he produced in Paradise Towers).
The story itself is just as bizarre as the first two of the season but it's pitched at a much more convincing level by director Chris Clough. Just the first episode alone sees the return of some reality to the show, sunny fields and unrequited love, hit men from Mars and drop dead gorgeous young men. The fact that people moan about Delta for being too silly and then heap praise on the far stupider Dragonfire baffles me, this simple tale of the last survivor of an alien race finding shelter on Earth and falling in love only to be hampered by the monsters who killed her people is extremely effective and what's more, affecting. I love the silly bits at the toll port, lots of imagination from scene one and Ken Dodd is a welcome surprise, never once descending into O'Mara and Briers daftness.
It's not all perfect however, like many of the McCoy stories there is a surplus of padding that is quite pointless. This story could easily be squeezed into two parts without losing any of the main plot, much of part three is just running around the countryside until the heroes meet the villains and defeat them. Plus there are too many characters around, huge groups of people stand around and some have sod all to say, poor Bonnie gets nothing to say in the last episode! Hawk, Weismiller and Gowronwy could all be lifted from the story all together.
However the tone and the style of the story wins me over in the end, the wonderful music stings of the action scenes, the sense of everyone having a whale of a time, the wonderful direction touches that add so much (the gorgeous fade to the morning sunlight as Delta explains to Billy and Mel why a giant bogie has hatched from an egg), even McCoy, who threatens to give an entirely consistent performance but doesn't quite make it despite being very sensitive and dominating throughout the story.
The Last Word: Undeniably silly in places but still a firm reminder of
how good the show could be still, this is the best Who story since
The Ultimate Foe.
Verdict: A minus
Dragonfire: Sorry Rob you're probably gonna hate me for this but this for me was the weakest story of the year. Let me explain, simply put Dragonfire has some of the absolute best scenes of the entire year nestled in its three episodes but unfortunately they are all buried under a silly and lightweight production crammed full of equally BAD moments.
Just watch as McCoy slips and slides on the ice like he's actually funny or his inconceivably stupid decision at the end of episode one. Revel in the flat Mel and Ace scenes, one as characterless as a shadow and the other as childishly written as the Teletubbies! Groan as intergalactic porker Glitz returns and stares at the camera and growls "Kane!" like he's some pantomime character. And worst of all is the pointless and appallingly dressed little girl who wanders about the story contributing absolutely nothing except to provide a last scene that goes to prove that Ian Briggs is too involved in cute details than providing a hole-free plot.
The sets are awful and give the story a horrible plasticky feel, the Singing Trees and the lower levels being especially bad. And that awful set up that mocks the Star Wars Cantina scenes... on a Doctor Who sized budget it's plain embarrassing.
Too much dross to get in the way of the fact that there is a serious idea behind the story, the War Criminal Kane exiled to the ice planet and planning to exact his revenge. Without a doubt Edward Peel's terrifying performance as Kane is the best thing about the story, I wanted the story to stop faffing about all the time and get back to him. I love his scene with the artist ("Gaze on it and die fulfilled") and he opens the story in a really gripping fashion. His shaky relationship with Belaz is played convincingly between Peel and Patricia Quinn; her desire to escape him is rather touching in places. The look on her face when he says go seconds before he kills her is one of the cruellest yet gripping scenes in Doctor Who's entire run.
Also good is the model work in the last episode and McCoy provides one hell of a final scene with Kane despite his pratting around earlier. But the most precious thing about Dragonfire is the music, the only story not to be scored by dear old Keff and it just happens to be the most effective of the year (hmm, telling that!). Very, very atmospheric.
I won't say too much about Ace because I might be nasty except to mention that how people thought this was an improvement on Bonnie is beyond me... maybe next year Aldred might beef the show up a bit but here she is just trite. "Ace!, "Wicked!", "A grade A, hundred percent Div!", "This is naff! This is mega Naff!", "Coorr mega!", "What a bunch of spots!" ...erm, quite.
The Last Word: Why is Dragonfire the weakest of
the year? Well Time and the Rani is pretty much shit
throughout and accepts its fate and produces something truly abysmal to
enjoy, Paradise Towers has enough good stuff to help
you ignore the bad and Delta is a treat of style over
substance... Dragonfire had the potential to be the
BEST story of the year but thanks to some dodgy scripting, Chris Clough
getting bored, goofy acting and terrible designs it is resigned to the
weakest. Such a wasted opportunity.
Well well, one good story, two extremely mixed bags and one dreadful (and yet oddly wonderful at the same time) story... not much to hang your hat on is it? But the simple fact is that season twenty-four has more to offer than anyone realises. On the surface it is a gaudy, childish pantomime, four camped up, overacted romps (what the hell does that word mean?) and yet go digging a bit and you'll see some strong adult themes, intelligent scripting and lots of imagination.
The best thing season twenty-four managed was to dump the continuity that had hung over the last five years or so of the show. No matter how many times Stephen James Walker tells us that the season has an extremely fresh feel because of its original storytelling and lack of old monsters, locations, blah blah... he's right. Come Dragonfire you have reached a far more assured place, storytelling wise than The Ultimate Foe and hope that in future more inventive and new stories are round the corner. Season twenty-four effectively changed the show's identity, on the outside it may have been sinking in bad press reactions but the ideas and themes had never been more refreshing.
However it is still a very uneven season, marred by the fact that there is no classic involved (Delta is good but it's a bit irrelevant to be a top tenner). Every story has a number of faults that drag it down a notch and you couldn't really happily show any of them to a non-fan without blushing blood red (my boyfriend's brother came in whilst we were watching Time and the Rani and I was DESPERATE to grab the remote and turn it off!). The tone of the year is very patchy, a nervous period for the show where McCoy was finding his feet, the production team were hurrying much of their work and script editor Andrew Cartmel was still finding the right feel for the show.
There are more collected moments of embarrassment in this season than in any other in Doctor Who's season. Bonnie's presence doesn't help but I could see each of these stories turning up on stage at my local theatre around Christmas time without too much tweaking. The two studio bound stories (Dragonfire and Paradise Towers) feel just that, staged rather than taking place on alien worlds and Time and the Rani is allocated a miserable slate quarry where it proceeds to fill it with rainbow coloured aliens... has Doctor Who lost all sense of subtlety?
But then there are some gorgeous ideas in the season that cannot be ignored. Paradise Towers, the huge tower block that has decayed and is full of mechanical killers is ripe for good horror. The Dragonfire being literally imprisoned inside a robotic dragon is a lovely touch. The multi eyes Tetraps that hang upside down and drink blood are a marvellously scary idea. Gangs of girls given colours and fighting each other, an adolescent way of coping with abandonment, is astonishingly adult. A team of purple, wrinkly aliens transmogrified into humans and sent to the rock and roll years in Wales is pure genius! Simply put, no other show could really pull off these bizarre but appealing concepts.
McCoy is an odd one I'll give you that, he is about 50/50 throughout his entire run, 50% engaging, domineering, impossible to look away from to see what he might do next and 50% embarrassing, farcical and downright silly. He swings between the two alarmingly in his first year with hints of some really powerful stuff but marred by invisible characterisation and some horrid scripting. His first two stories are the worst, he spends them sending up the show in all the worst ways but come Delta and bits of Dragonfire McCoy is giving a much more assured, interesting performance. Despite the ice slipping.
Bonnie is Bonnie pretty much but with added screams. She was forced into some terrible clothes, given some disgraceful lines and managed six stories without a single iota of genuine characterisation. So it is a damn miracle that she even managed to be watchable SOME of the time, let alone ever. Her bluff to Gavrok after the bus explodes (Delta), her quiet leaving scene, her pleas with Ikona and her sensitive handling of Sarn's death with Faroon, even her pained reaction to Pex's lies... these were all great moments for Mel in season twenty-four. Yeah she was squeaky clean, bubbly and hysterical but she still managed to hold back on the whinging.
What can I say about season twenty-four to convince you to give it another try? Engaging ideas, big name guest stars, proper stories more akin to the Tom Baker era than Davison or Colin Baker's, Delta and the Bannermen... okay it's not perfect by a long stretch but I would still give this season a hearty 6/10, if nothing else it is certainly never boring and always raises a smile or two. Plus Mel leaves, so hey, it ends on a high note for most of you.
Give it a go.
"Hip to be square" by Thomas Cookson 3/9/14
Season 24 is more than just a season. It's almost a cultural artifact that happens to be a complete eyesore. In its awfulness and the despair it engendered in fandom, it almost becomes the most important season in Doctor Who history. It's near irredeemable terribleness of mythic proportions. I never lived through the cancellation crisis. But watching these stories, particularly Time and the Rani, gives me a vivid folk memory of that dark period.
For many, Season 24 brought to realization all that had been going wrong with the show under JNT. Yet it almost justified everything surrounding it, giving every other bad JNT season a pass for not being even remotely as awful as this one. Had it come right after Season 17, I think fans would have been declaring Season 17 a masterpiece there and then, as opposed to taking over ten years to realize it.
And those diminished expectations continued into the RTD era, with New Who being unduly elevated to greatness for not being a shameful embarrassment. Even Lawrence Miles used it as a theme to argue that RTD's era was a good example of what if someone did Season 24 'right', and produced a show that's essentially like 'the Morecambe and Wise show with monsters'. Trouble is, under RTD what we got was Season 24's inane moronicness but with unbearable smugness, toxic snarkiness and pretentions of being a British Buffy. Oh and a budget.
Ironically, Season 24 should have been a return to form. It was, after all, the point where Eric Saward and Ian Levine ceased having anything to do with the show. It should have been a dream come true to see the show free of their influence, but it proved if anything to be a nightmare.
For a while, I've subscribed to a very black-and-white reading of the JNT and Eric Saward problem. The problem is there's plenty to suggest that neither of the two were entirely to blame, yet that both were in their own way quite awful people, especially in their reprehensible treatment of many talented people's good work. It's also hard not to blame JNT's obstinate, petty behavior for bringing out the worst in Eric.
The narrative of the show's fall from grace is a depressing one. Most of the initial success of Season 18 and 19 seems more down to Barry Letts and Bidmead than JNT, and, when they left, it almost immediately all went flat. The show never quite got over the sudden limpness and atrophy it suffered in Time-Flight, which persisted throughout all of Season 20. Suddenly, the show felt stale and tired. But, from hereon, everything wrong with Eric Saward's violence and misanthropy over Season 21 and 22 was down to him reacting against that flatness, and trying to give the show more drama, jeopardy and edge. I should be forgiving of Eric on those grounds, but I'm not.
Yes, John Nathan-Turner exhibited many psychological attributes and narcissisms of any tyrant, and he enforced a situation where the door was closed to the show's former best talents, making a creative drought inevitable. Funny how the DWP podcasters actually tried to suggest this was about getting seasons made quickly under time constraints. Yeah, by getting rid of the most efficient writers. Makes sense? As a result, Eric was probably left in a situation where he didn't feel he could do right for being wrong. In some ways, Eric was a savior, as only thanks to him did we get writers like Barbara Clegg and Robert Holmes bringing some quality to the show.
However, as much as JNT tried to maintain arbitrary authority wherever he could, in ways that made things more difficult, by his own negligence he almost exonerates himself of forcibly driving the show to ruin. Furthermore, I'm certain it was not JNT's unpleasant personality that found its way into the show. It was Eric's. Yes the exploitation of Nicola Bryant highlights how JNT brought some seriously sleazy sensibilities to Doctor Who. But it was Eric who pornographised the violence, cruelty and moral rot that dogged the era.
The bitching spat between Adric and Tegan in Kinda, which made a character-piece episode suddenly feel like it inexplicably hated the subject of its piece? That was Eric, having to write filler to an underrunning episode.
Likewise the moments in Warriors of the Deep and Resurrection of the Daleks where either the Doctor or Professor Styles blames the deaths caused by the invading army on the victims for failing to surrender - in a grossly contemptful insult to everything the show once argued about making a stand against evil - were by him. This is why I can't forgive Eric Saward. In all his talk of violent realism, moments like that are so out of synch and meaningless in terms of survival drama, yet so fixated with adolescent pretensions of somehow making a point that it exposes the hypocritical lie and vulgar apathy at the heart of everything Eric Saward has ever written.
Yet here we end up at a point where the show is actually lost without him, which provides a troubling validation - and, worse, vindication of Saward. It also means that, after six years of no progress, the show ends up almost right back to Season 20 again. Except this time there's nothing underneath the sanitization. Nothing like Earthshock or Enlightenment to almost salvage the season. It's almost an entire season of Time-Flights. Even the potentially witty satire Paradise Towers feels clunky and artificial. There was no season that Saward oversaw that was ever without the odd great story that prevented the season from being worthless, yet it was inevitable that one day there'd be nothing in its place. The BBC's biggest mistake seemed to be not in trying to kill the show, but rather trying to save it when they should have just left it to die to poor ratings in Season 18/19. Instead, it became a downhill struggle that I don't think was ever really worth it. Certainly, I think the show lost more credibility than it gained with each year on air. By now, no one wanted more of this.
A problem with Season 24 is how out of place it feels. It feels like a completely different show with a completely different Doctor to Season 25 and 26. It also doesn't bring any catharsis to the Saward era's previous Darwinist ethos. It reacts against it yes, but so moronically and evasively that it tries to make out you can just pretend the universe is a nice happy sanitized place and that you can continually bluff your way through danger under a flag of truce. It's not solving the problem, it's just more insincerity. It feels worthlessly pat even by Pertwee-era standards. Maybe that was the trap Saward got the show into, where the poisoning philosophy he'd introduced couldn't be properly exorcised by anyone else but him, because only he could discover the key to its catharsis. Maybe there was no way past it. The only possible bridge between Saward and Cartmel is Remembrance of the Daleks, and they had yet to pull it off in 1987.
I don't think Season 24 was ever important enough to kill the show. Had the season been as good as Season 14, it still wouldn't have saved the series. The death sentence was already pronounced. It was just a question of when. But it wasn't the season we wanted, one good enough to leave Grade with egg on his face. It wasn't just disappointing; it outright felt like our beloved show had finally gone completely incontinent. For those in the public who once loved the show, it was a depressing confirmation that it was now a faded version of an old show where all trace of talent from it had long gone.
What's sad is that, in a Seymour and Audrey way, there should have been room for a buffoonish dynamic like Sylvester McCoy and Bonnie Langford, travelling through time and space without a care in the world. In the 80s, pop culture, and especially high school movies, was obsessed with social geography and fashion tribalism at its most nihilistic and arbitrary (an inevitable byproduct of decadence) in ways that fandom has never moved on from. So there should have been something reassuring and sweet about a pair of loveable gawky misfits still making a difference for the better. Instead it was such a disaster, that it made it almost inevitable that, when the show returned, it would have turned to the dark side. So ashamed of the uncool embarrassment it once was that it effectively became a parasite, leeching off the trashiest popular trends in order to camouflage itself.
The problem's much the same as the early Davison era. In terms of social geography at its most belligerent, there's something comforting and welcoming about Castrovalva's society, or the idea of a Doctor who'd befriend any of us, even someone as socially maladroit as Adric.
But the closer you look, the more you realize how reactionary and out of touch the era is. 'Square' in the most depressing sense of the word. How, beneath the appealing veneer of unassuming naivety, there's an unyielding edge of unpleasant angry belligerence and ugliness. The Doctor's always been an old square, but he used to be an affable one. I think the perfect case in point this season is the whole sub-plot where the Doctor is fooled into mistaking the Rani for Mel. And I'm just going to say it. This entire sequence of scenes makes the Doctor feel as unpleasant to know as the main characters in Bottom. It's not just when he's playing the spoons on the Rani's chest, but when he has a go at her for rightly asserting her personal space by chucking the spoons away from her, and even challenges her over daring to think herself above him. This is where the Doctor goes from eccentric to just someone you'd want to avoid. And the manner in which he repeatedly accuses Mel of being the Rani out of dirt-stupid reasoning honestly places him in the same undesirable category as 'the two loonies' Richie and Eddie.
The difference is, Richie and Eddie were supposed to be bitterly sad, unpleasant figures that represented men left behind in a world that had moved on and had no prospects for them anymore. The series was actually a sad commentary on the times of recession, and the social, intellectual and moral poverty that goes with economic poverty. This, however, is supposed to be our great white hope. Our new Doctor who just might make this show worth something again. And it's making us hate him. Worse, it's a depressing confirmation of how far the show's fallen from its principles. Doctor Who used to be about the importance of respect and open-mindedness, particularly in Frontier in Space and Genesis of the Daleks. But from the moment Adric and Tegan began sniping at each other, it degenerated into a nasty show about disrespect, and the kind of unhealthy social maladroitness where chastity dictates male-female interactions be as antagonistic as possible.
It's sad rather, because immediately afterwards we begin to see McCoy's Doctor playing the more affable kind of square. One who is quickly taken to by the Kangs as the coolest of the old ones. Where the fact he's the alien outsider and somewhat old and out of touch allows him to see between youth culture's party conventions, and see what others can't, just enough to understand and comfort Ray's secret sadness and tears over Billy. As silly and trite though her feelings may seem to an alien who has battled genocidal warlords. A reassuring moment showing how even the uncool can find themselves a dancing partner or shoulder to cry on. Because no one's beyond hope.
Maybe that's this season's diamond in the rough.