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Monday, 18 June 2012

Doctor Who Season 11 (1973/4): The Scoop of Her Life

Two much missed legends


There would be a number of departures in this 26-episode season. UNIT would cease to be a regular part of the Doctor’s life; (while they appear in three stories here, they would only appear in one the following season) with Richard Franklin bowing out as Mike Yates.


Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks[1] both decided to move on to pastures new – Letts would produce the first story of Season 12 to allow a transition (“Robot” being a UNIT story), while Dicks would continue Who-related work in a number of forms, most notably Target novelizations (in all he wrote 64 of them).


With Katy Manning already gone, the production team changing, Roger Delgado dead and with his salary increase request declined by the BBC, Jon Pertwee, at that point the longest serving Doctor to date, chose to make this season his last as well.


There were new arrivals too. Firstly, the show got a new title sequence. The “time-tunnel” sequence, created by Bernard Lodge utilising an effect called slit-scan, was inaugurated and would last through Season 17, albeit with a minor change after this season, along with a new diamond-shaped logo called the “diamond logo” by fans[2].


The other new arrival would become much-loved by fans for the rest of her life and beyond.


Sarah Jane Smith – the definitive companion


On the evening of 19 April 2011, the news broke that Elisabeth Sladen had died. It wrecked my entire evening and that of hundreds of thousands of others – very few had known that she was even ill. Her death from cancer at the age of only 65 was national news and the story on BBC children’s news website Newsround reporting it attracted thousands of tributes from her younger fans who had seen her both in the main show and spin-off The Sarah Jane Adventures. When “The Impossible Astronaut” aired four days later, a tribute card appeared before the episode started and a dedicated special was shown on the CBBC children’s channel – a repeat of her final story as a regular, “The Hand of Fear”, also aired on digital channel BBC4.


“Lis” Sladen, born in Liverpool in 1946, started off in repertory theatre as a stage manager who got herself acting roles by making deliberate mistakes as the former. She met her husband Brian Miller when while she was playing her first stage role as a corpse, his doctor character whispered "Respiration nil, Aston Villa two"[3] into her ear and made her spontaneously giggle (something that is known in the business as ‘corpsing’). A number of theatre and television roles followed, including a brief stint as a barmaid on Granada’s very long-running (51 years so far) soap opera Coronation Street.


Lis was not in fact the first choice for the new companion. Another actor called April Walker was cast by Letts without consulting Pertwee. The two didn’t get on and so Walker was quietly let go, being paid an entire season’s fee, with Letts using her in a 1975 production of The Prince and the Pauper by way of an apology[4].


The next set of auditions, with Pertwee approving of the choice and with Sladen at the time not knowing she was up for the role of the new companion, resulted in her casting.


Sarah Jane (although the Doctor himself usually called her “Sarah”) Smith, who would appear for three and a half seasons as a regular, was an investigative journalist and intended to be a card-carrying feminist at the time that Women’s Lib was prominent on both sides of the pond – but ultimately became a far more well-developed character. While definitely not a Buffy (Sladen could scream and get captured like the best of them), Sarah Jane’s toughness, good humour and compassion made her a winning character – while not my personal favourite companion, she’s definitely one of my top three. Sarah Jane also had a marked penchant for ending up hypnotised by baddies or the Doctor to the point it became a running gag and, odd cases (“Andy Pandy”[5] outfit from “The Hand of Fear” for example) aside, rivalling the two Romanas in the fashion department.


After her main stint on the show, Sladen (who as many noted, never seemed to really age) did a variety of other work before going into semi-retirement after her daughter Sadie was born in 1985. She played Sarah Jane on a number of other occasions, including a lot of audios, before reappearing, after initial reservations, in the Season 28 story “School Reunion”, which led to the CBBC spin-off already mentioned. This ran for five seasons – production of the show was halted during season five due to her illness and then ended due to her death, with the three completed episodes being aired in October 2011 to close the series.

A quick note – from here on in, story components were referred to on screen as “Part X” rather than “Episode X”. I’ll stick to using episode and part interchangeably.


The Time Warrior (4 parts)


UNIT are investigating the disappearance of scientists from a top secret facility. The Doctor determines that they’ve been taken to the Middle Ages and takes the TARDIS with him, not realising that a journalist has stowed away on board… When they arrive, they discover an alien warrior who is kidnapping the scientists to repair his spaceship and introducing technology that shouldn’t be present at that time.


The first story featuring the militaristic clone race called the Sontarans (or rather one Sontaran - this clip from part one shows the first appearance of one), Robert Holmes got asked by Dicks to write the first historically set story since Season 5[6] and created the creatures as a result – framing his storyline pitch as a communication between two of them as a relief from boredom. The result is an enjoyable, humorous romp, with Pertwee on fine form – the Doctor’s home world of Gallifrey is named for the first time here.


The Sontarans would make three further appearances in the classic era and have turned up in the new as well. As with the Autons, the Holmes estate partly owns these and so Bob Holmes is credited when they appear – also they appeared in a number of non-BBC video productions due to the then licensing rules about creatures not were not part of the original commission.


Invasion of the Dinosaurs (6 parts, Part One only available in black-and-white[7])


Returning to Earth, the Doctor and Sarah Jane land in a deserted London, where dinosaurs are on the loose. It’s all part of a wider conspiracy, that involves a key UNIT member…


Remembered as the one with the dodgy dinosaurs, Malcolm Hulke’s final story[8] was script edited by Robert Holmes (not credited) and actually contains some decent stuff in here. It’s just the dinosaurs, which were used sparingly, badly distract from it.


Death to the Daleks (4 parts)


The Doctor and Sarah Jane are en route for a holiday when a power drain forces them to land on the planet Exxilion, home to a rare mineral that can cure a plague and a bunch of hostile locals, where they have to form an uneasy alliance with a group of humans… and a group of Daleks…


“Death to the Daleks” gets mixed reviews, while Nicholas Briggs, current voice of the Daleks, loves it, others aren’t so sure. There’s some nice visuals here, but Terry Nation’s story is clichéd and some bad editing to deal with an over-running episode results in a very poor cliff-hanger to Part Three. Personally can’t remember much of this one.


The Monster of Peladon (6 parts)


The time travellers arrive on Peladon 50 years after the Doctor’s last visit, where a labour dispute between the government and trisilicate miners is being exacerbated by random, deadly appearances of the miners’ deity…


This sequel to “The Curse of Peladon” sees the Ice Warriors turn up for the last time – they’ve yet to make another appearance – and attempts, unsuccessfully to do a metaphor on miners’ strikes. It really suffers from a bad case of sequelitus.


Planet of the Spiders (6 parts)


In “The Green Death”, the Doctor made a brief visit to the planet Metebelis III where he “acquired” a crystal, that he gave to Jo as a wedding present. Now a race of giant spiders want the crystal back so they can dominate the universe.


A bit of a disappointing finale to the Third Doctor’s tenure really – it’s padded and the Brigadier gets some awful material in this, although a certain UNIT character gets some good development after his actions in “Invasion of the Dinosaurs”. The contemporary audience research reports from the BBC generally hold the view that the story was merely tolerated.


At the end of this story, the Third Doctor receives a lethal dose of radiation when defeating the creatures – something he knew he would probably get. With a help from a Time Lord buddy, he regenerates into his fourth incarnation… The full regeneration scene can be found here. This is the first time the term “regenerate” is used and the Brig’s handling of having to deal with this again is wonderful.

All in all, ratings were a bit down on Season 10, averaging 8.72 million. Still very good, of course. One notes that today in the US this would be clocking a rating figure of well over 12, far higher than anything currently broadcasting in the country.


Pertwee’s successor, glimpsed briefly in the final shot of “Spiders”, was Tom Baker. Letts and Dicks were seriously considering casting an elderly actor in the role and created a younger male character (Harry Sullivan) to handle the action scenes, but in the end went for Baker.[9]


The Fourth Doctor – Tom Baker


Close your eyes and think of the Doctor. You might think of a grinning man with a long scarf and curly hair. The legacy of the Fourth Doctor has lasted for over three decades and until David Tennant arrived, he was easily the most popular of the Doctors – especially among Americans. Jon Culshaw frequently did him for the radio and TV versions of Dead Ringers, a British impressions show, including prank calls to Sylvester McCoy and Baker himself, even doing his voice for a small bit in a Big Finish Fifth Doctor story called “The Kingmaker”.


Tom Baker (1934-present[10]) was born in Liverpool. Leaving school at fifteen (as was allowed then), he spent six years as a monk before leaving the monastic life and joining the Merchant Navy, then going into acting. He got his break playing Rasputin in the 1971 film Nicholas and Alexandra, with a role as an evil sorcerer in The Golden Voyage of Sinbad resulting in his casting as the Fourth Doctor. This came at a good time for him – a number of roles had fallen through due to the relevant films being cancelled in quick succession, with Baker working on a building site to pay the bills.


Tom Baker’s Doctor was very much an extension of his own eccentric self. With a penchant for strange jokes, flippancy in the face of most danger (you can tell it’s really serious when he stops joking) and a loving for jelly babies, he was fully capable of fury as well. His eccentric costume, most notably the scarf (one version of which was 24 feet long!) stands out in a crowd. Much loved by the public, spending a record seven seasons in the role and careful to maintain a positive image for his fans (he never drank alcohol or smoked in public while in the role), Baker also acquired a reputation among the cast and crew for being difficult to work with – which is partly true.


Upon leaving the show, he had a brief marriage to Lalla Ward (who played Romana II alongside him) – both have remarried. A large number of TV roles and voice acting gigs have followed since, although Baker was a lot more reluctant to reprise his role than the others – he didn’t do the audio productions until three years ago.

A new Doctor with a somewhat new companion were on the TARDIS, as the show went into new and darker territory…

[1]Who were this season also working on a hard science-fiction series for the BBC called Moonbase 3 that only ran for six episodes; being a ratings and critical failure.

[2]Although the diamond background was commonly omitted from merchandise. The Pertwee era logo before this one is, in a modified form, the now standard “classic” logo, as used on DVD releases.

[3]Football results are announced on the BBC’s “final score” section in this sort of way.

[4]While it was known there had been another “Sarah Jane” for many years, Walker’s identity was only discovered in 2011 when David Brunt, doing research for the DVD info text for “Invasion of the Dinosaurs”, chanced open her name.

[5]A British children’s marionette.

[6]Holmes was not happy with being given this particular set of instructions. As “payback”, Holmes as script editor gave Dicks the requirement to set a story in a lighthouse, which became Season 15’s “The Horror of Fang Rock”.

[7]While the first episode had the on-screen title of “Invasion” to disguise the fact that the dinosaurs were turning up (which the advance publicity revealed anyway) a popular fan theory that the master tape got confused with Season 6’s “The Invasion” and wiped as a result has nothing to actually back it up. While the BBC were still wiping masters at this point, quite how this one got wiped and the rest of this story didn’t remains a mystery.


The recent DVD release of this story saw an attempt to re-colourise this episode, but the results were disappointing and the end product was relegated to a DVD extra.

[8]He worked on the novelizations after this until his death in 1979.

[9]This kind of thing happened with the Eleventh Doctor. Steven Moffat stated he was looking at a Doctor in his 40s and ended up casting 26 year old Matt Smith, the youngest Doctor ever.

[10]Baker, who has noted he is probably statistically speaking, the next Doctor to die, has already purchased his gravestone and gotten it partly engraved.

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