A Review by Thomas Cookson 26/5/07
The Graham Williams era is a pretty recognisable era of Doctor Who, remembered for its comical frivolity, K9 and Romana, and for being the epitome of the show's cheap and cheerful charm.
But it didn't find its identity immediately.
The Philip Hinchcliffe era had left very big shoes to fill. It had been the period where the show's consistency of quality had been at its highest, and indeed its most atypical. When judged against the Hinchcliffe era, a lot of the criticisms and faults of the Williams era stick out.
The Hinchcliffe era of Doctor Who was so darn dangerous. I mean, my first exposure to Doctor Who had come with Genesis of the Daleks, which was so bleak and open ended that it really changed the rules of storytelling for me. It gave me my perhaps-not-entirely-representational vision of Doctor Who as an expansive, harrowing and dangerous universe where galaxies can fall, evil remains unvanquished and anyone can die and even the Doctor can fail. Terror of the Zygons retains some of the most terrifying scenes for me. Masque of Mandragora makes pre-renaissance Italy feel just as savage and dangerous as any alien world.
Even watching with hindsight, there are moments where I truly believe the Doctor or Sarah might not survive.
Even the basic limitations of the show never quite got in the way. Many people can point and laugh at the bubblewrap in Ark in Space, but its symbiosis with a terrifying concept makes it look genuinely subversive and it feels skin crawling. The Hinchcliffe era did wonders with the show's limitations, and that is why low-rent, theatre-based stories like Brain of Morbius and Genesis of the Daleks can work on their own terms to be genuinely terrifying and apocalyptic.
And of course the Hinchcliffe era also reinvigorated some of Doctor Who's oldest foes and made them far more terrifying. The Daleks and the Master are made far more volatile and universe shattering than ever. But at the same time both remain open ended and the ball is left in the next producer's court as how to resolve or follow up the next appearance.
The Graham Williams era seems to rather botch the job. Mainly due to the fact that the horror and death has been heavily toned down thanks to the efforts of Mary Whitehouse. In this era the cheap effects seem cheaper, and the protagonists seem like feckless superheroes who never come under any believable real danger (Horror of Fang Rock excepted).
In terms of following up the Hinchcliffe era, the Graham Williams era was hit and miss. As I said, Horror of Fang Rock was a worthy homage to the previous era, and in fact I'd say it was actually far more frightening than most of the stories Hinchcliffe oversaw. One of the other leftovers from the Hinchcliffe era was the character of Leela.
Leela makes me nostalgic for the days when the young female viewers weren't interested in Rose blubbing about boyfriend issues, they were instead fascinated by this strong and volatile woman who was out of touch. Watching The Sunmakers makes me appreciate what Leela brought to the show in terms of a true dynamic and her own tribal ethics. In fact, in regards to that story, and Leela's tribal intuition for men (making her tendency to fall in love at first sight more plausible than it seems) I think it would have been more appropriate had she left the Doctor to marry Cordo (she definitely likes him) rather than that random guard in Invasion of Time.
With The Invasion of Time, Leela reached her end as a companion and the last vestiges of the previous era were cleared away. But at the same time it was a story that showed the failings of the Williams era. The show's budget was shrinking and The Invasion of Time was the runt of the litter. It is one story where the scenes in that school substituting for the studio make me too viewer-conscious to quite believe that this is the high civilisation of Gallifrey.
It didn't help matters that it had been a rushed script with a complete lack of urgency, a witless ending and some incoherent moments. The results were in places quite ugly. Without the air of urgency to the story, the moment where the Doctor eventually guns down the Sontarans seems uncalled for and leaves a not-so-nice aftertaste. Plus the scene where Leela and her rebel friends put harpoons in the backs of the Gallifreyan guards is irredeemably nasty and completely unmitigated. I could criticise The Sunmakers on similar grounds but the violence there is just too comical for me to feel offended.
But certainly the potential was there. The script featured some inspired ideas and Tom Baker's performance as the manipulative megalomaniac Doctor really puts Colin Baker to shame. I think they should have replaced the slot with a finished script, such as Terrance Dicks' unused State of Decay. But I also think they should have saved the story for another year, maybe as the introduction to Season 16. With a few script revisions and more money it could have been a fantastic story. I'd say replacing the Sontarans with the Daleks would have been a good move too for various reasons. Four Daleks taking over Gallifrey would be far more plausible and urgent, and the Doctor blowing them away would be a lot less queasy to watch.
But anyway, the way had been cleared for Graham Williams to stamp his own identity onto the show. And so came the idea of the Guardians and the Key to Time. The remit was to take the show's lore to the next level, above the Time Lords. The quest gave the season a sense of direction and cumulative narrative, and the idea of polarised elements and forces was very healthy for the stories and their sense of narrative integrity and morality.
The Key to Time Season is one of my favourite seasons of the show. It's up there with Season 13 and the 2005 season. It may go off the rails towards the end, but in terms of the first four serials it is pretty much impossible to isolate which is the best story. Everyone has their personal favourite. For me I would say it was The Pirate Planet, even if I acknowledge that Androids of Tara is in many ways a better piece of television. There were so many memorable moments of the season, such as the Doctor's angry confrontation with the Pirate Captain, the Romana/Fred gag, the walk the plank cliffhanger, the moving stones driving Romana off the cliff edge.
But, as I said, it does slightly lose the plot towards the end. Power of Kroll has gotten a reappraisal in recent years actually, but to me it is Robert Holmes' most stale story. It was the point in the season where I first lost interest in the Key to Time quest, and it seems to prove pretty much all of the Williams era criticisms right.
The scene where the Doctor and his companions are tied up by those shrinking weeds is a case in point of how the frivolity has overridden the gravity and it's hard to take the danger seriously to this invincible Doctor.
I ignored claims that Tom Baker was out of control in this era. I saw him as a master method actor who could do no wrong. Then I saw the scene in this story that made me realise how badly out of control he could be. It was that scene where he puts a cup in his pocket, whilst the rest of the actors are trying to make the illusion work. It's a petty and pointless piece of scene sabotaging that really made me think less of him as an actor. I mean I can watch it easy enough but it's my least favourite Williams story by a mile.
Conversely, I'm one of the few people who are quite fond of The Armageddon Factor as a conclusion. But I will say this, there was a major missed opportunity in this story that I'm amazed went unused. Williams wouldn't touch the Master with a barge pole, which is a shame because this was a perfect slot for him. After all he is the Doctor's antithesis and would have made a worthy Black Guardian agent, which in turn would explain his motivations.
I'm baffled that the Master wasn't introduced to take over the role of the Shadow in The Armageddon Factor. He could have felt really at home in this Frontier in Space-style space opera. He even looked like the Shadow in his emaciated form, and there could have been a perfect link to the miniaturisation device. In fact, the more I think about it, the more it baffles me that they didn't go for it. The opportunity was staring them in the eyes. Killing off the Master would have been a given since Williams didn't want to use the Master again, and after all the Master wasn't originally supposed to outlive the Pertwee era. So we could have been spared a dozen redundant rematches throughout the 80's.
But nevermind, it was then onto Season 17, and the opening story Destiny of the Daleks. Again judged against the Hinchcliffe era it is something of a poor sequel to Genesis. It was a mistake to revive Davros, particularly as arbitrarily as they did, and I feel it was also something of a bad move to bring down the universe-shattering impetus of Genesis by having the Daleks suddenly underfooted by offscreen events. But, with a bit more time and effort, it could have worked poetically. As it is it is certainly watchable and atmospheric, courtesy of some brilliant directing by Ken Grieve.
Rob Matthews commented by email on my Destiny review, pointing out that my review was actually far more eloquent and considered than the episode at hand. He certainly has a point. The Dalek advance is stopped by the Movellans, and in the Graham Williams tradition, this represents how two equal but opposite forces are both denied the upper hand and so peace and stability is maintained. Maybe even a cameo by the White Guardian at the end could have reinforced the theme about cosmic order. But to have that kind of polarity, it would need more of a narrative backbone. It would have needed a lot more tightening up and a more epic tone because as it is, it's just a very loose walk through of an adventure.
Season 17 really is the only season where there is no cumulative narrative at all. Gone is the issue of trying to get the companion home, or the issue of the Doctor's mysterious origins or the familiar backdrop of UNIT or an ongoing crusade against the Daleks, Cybermen or the Master. My flatmate (a big fan of Buffy and Lost) says that would give him no impetus to tune in to see what happens next week, but I find it very accessible for that reason. With City of Death the show had made perhaps its best example of a "preaching to the unconverted non-fans" story. It was also a masterpiece of narrative storytelling with wonderful twists.
As for the rest of the season, it never manages to be as sophisticated as City of Death. Creature from the Pit is the worst of the season and yet I find it very watchable indeed. Nightmare of Eden is another story that I've used to win over non-fans with success because it's just such fun. Horns of Nimon is actually my second favourite story of the season. There's just something about the Nimon that does it for me. Whilst the two leads are never placed in real danger, I keep watching because the fate of worlds still hangs in the balance. Alas the era never got its proper send off with Shada.
I would have loved Graham Williams to have stayed on as producer. I would certainly have liked to have seen him do Season 18 and finish off Shada. Certainly he already had scripts for Leisure Hive, Kinda and State of Decay waiting to be made and they would have made a grand season about death and ancient lore.
I can't hold back from saying it. I wish Graham Williams had held onto his role of producer and had not let the killjoy John Nathan-Turner era happen. I would rather that Graham Williams see the series to its dying days and give the show an air of finality.
Ideally, the show could have ended best under him with Warriors' Gate, with the show ending on its strangest note as the Doctor enters into a new realm where reality has gone sour. I suppose there's no guarantee that it would have gotten made under Williams, but if it had, I'd love to see the show end there with the Doctor joining Romana and the Tharills in N-space.
If the show's final days were to be remembered as the point where 'it all got silly', then I'd rather it be remembered for the Williams variety of silly than the 80's brand of silly. I can tear up the era's faults and missed marks, but I never tire of watching any given Williams era story, whether it be masterpieces like Fang Rock or City of Death, or lowbrow stories like The Sunmakers. I wouldn't jettison a single one of them, but I'd gladly jettison over half the JNT era stories. From a fan view, Nightmare of Eden and Horns of Nimon are now fondly remembered 'so bad they're good', serials. Twin Dilemma and Time and the Rani never will be because they're just eternally repellant.
At its worst, the JNT era couldn't even do farce properly. Time-Flight and Warriors of the Deep may be no less cheap than any given Williams story, but the fact that they're both so serious eliminates any potential fun factor, and simply leaves a major embarrassment at their earnestness juxtaposed with such pathetic acting and effects. Unlike Ark in Space there was nothing competent about them, let alone symbiotic.
Sure the JNT era started on a grand note. Season 18 was very impressive stuff, and Warriors' Gate was the show at its most avant garde, and for the first time in a long time the Doctor seemed vulnerable. But it started the era on the wrong note. After all, unlike the Williams era, Season 18 hadn't made a natural, organic development from the old era to its new niche. It had simply been dragged kicking and screaming into a high standards bar that couldn't be maintained.
It was inevitably going to fall to pieces.
Beyond Season 18 (and the odd highlight like Snakedance, Caves or Revelation), the JNT era was just incompetent. The show was sinking and only after the show hit absolutely rock bottom in Season 24 did the show regain its competence and its cheap and cheerful charm. Only then did the show realise that the Doctor and companion could have emotional depth and weaknesses, but not wallow in them. They still had to remain confident and proactive heroes to look up to. In so many ways, I could see Season 25 following on seamlessly from Season 17.
I believe that had the show carried on into the 80's under Graham Williams, Michael Grade would have still made sure of the cancellation crisis. But Graham Williams loved Doctor Who and so that wouldn't have caused him to delve the show into the kind of hideous self loathing that characterises Season 23.
The fannish monster parades would still be inevitable because of the popularity of DWM in the 80's. But I think the focus would squarely have been on fun. I could see Williams commissioning Five Doctors and Remembrance of the Daleks, but not Warriors of the Deep or other such pointless bloodbaths. Williams also wouldn't have overused the Master, nor done a season set entirely in a Gallifreyan courtroom. He would never have turned the show into a soap opera, or completely emancipated the Doctor, or given us dumb and obnoxious companions (or if he did he'd at least have done them with some irony), or made the stories humourless and lethargic, and would never have relied on cheap shock tactics a la Twin Dilemma.
Maybe Doctor Who had had its time in 1981, and rather than 'modernising' Doctor Who by making it cinematic, po-faced, ultraviolent and soap-like, John Nathan-Turner and Eric Saward would probably have been better off instead doing Terry Nation's criminally unmade Daleks spin-off series. That's the kind of show where those modernisms would fit like a glove and it would have been well aimed at the DWM generation, and the Star Wars boom of the time. It could have been something where melodramatic, vulnerable protagonists in a nasty Sawardiverse would coherently work on its own terms, and would compete and contrast with the more humoured, inclusive and whimsical Doctor Who as Williams had made it. The Williams and JNT eras were worlds apart and I'd say should have been treated as such.
So here's to the Williams era. The show would never be such fun again.