And so back to Doctor Who for six stories that fandom has always found pretty divisive. Conventional wisdom: It’s the two that Douglas Adams wrote and four wastes of time. Revisionist thought: This is Doctor Who at its most charming, effervescent, and downright fun.
I confess that I was in the conventional camp for a long, long time. These were the days when list-creating so-called fans, for whom Doctor Who was SRS BSNSS, kept looking back to their program’s glory days instead of looking forward. It took a lot of time, and the help of writer Gareth Roberts, to get me seeing straight. Roberts defended the season – and the Graham Williams era generally – in an excellent essay for the fanzine DWB in 1993, and then wrote a trio of downright fantastic Who novels set among these six serials. I liked all of his Who books that I’ve read, but The Romance of Crime, The English Way of Death, and The Well-Mannered War are all completely superb and I love them all. They sparkle with so much energy and possibility, and are witty, dramatic, and incredibly unpredictable.
Onscreen, things don’t quite look as full of energy as those books suggest. Douglas Adams took over the job of script editor and apparently wanted very badly to really shake up the format and introduce lots of new writers. He failed with both goals; the format of four-part serials was too much work for the new-to-television novelists and short story writers that he approached for pitches, but the format was critical to the show’s budget working out the way that it did. In the end, Adams had to rely on people who already knew Who, and even one of them, David Fisher, submitted a story that wasn’t working and so Adams and producer Graham Williams had to rewrite it from the ground up.
But a lot of the energy came from the stars of the show. Since Mary Tamm had decided to leave the program, they could have just had the Doctor return her character, Romana, to Gallifrey offscreen and meet a new character. Instead, they decided – and it’s kind of weird, when you think about it – to have Romana just up and regenerate and have her new body look just like the character of Astra from the previous story, played by Lalla Ward. And then Baker and Ward fell crazy stupid in love with each other, and you know what? They’re kind of wonderfully fun to watch together. Until a bit in the next season when they started fighting, anyway.
Things got started with “Destiny of the Daleks,” and you can be revisionist until you’re blue in the face, but Tom Baker and Lalla Ward are two of the only three elements of this story worth a hoot. I’ll get to the third one tomorrow. Adams found working on Who to be incredibly dispiriting and disappointing, and here’s four episodes that proved his point. He really wanted to do lots of short, zippy, intricate adventures with weird scientific concepts, a totally fresh outlook, and a fun, frantic pace, but ended up with four installments of Terry Nation phoning in his stock action-adventure cliches and filmed, again, in a rock quarry. The only things that Adams could do for this boring serial was spend extra time in the TARDIS at the beginning with Romana’s fun played-for-laughs regeneration instead of lumbering through an extra set piece on the planet, and insert a gag about a very minor Hitch-Hiker’s Guide character, Oolon Colluphid. He’s the author of a book that the Doctor is reading at one point.
But there are Daleks in it! Not that it matters much, because the story is slow and turgid and done without any urgency at all. There’s even a subplot about our heroes needing anti-radiation pills which is completely forgotten by the time part two begins. There’s no visual continuity between this and the previous Dalek adventure, which is allegedly set in the same place. But there are Daleks in it! And our son strangely didn’t seem to care too much. He grumbled that this was too creepy, again, although he was fascinated by the cliffhanger ending to part two, and the unfortunate revelation that Davros is still alive. Nothing has ever persuaded me that this was a good idea, but he’s curious about what will happen next.
The high point, though, was a fun moment where he speculated about what is going on in this ruined city. In the background of the main “entry level” set, there’s one of those old reel-to-reel computer tape decks. Our son remembered seeing similar props in the 1973 story “The Time Warrior”, although he couldn’t remember details about the adventure. He said “The Doctor HAS been here before, in the one with the alien in the medieval city!” He’d forgotten that “Warrior” was actually set on Earth, but he remembered a prop. I adore that even more than I adore Roberts’ incredibly fun novels.