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Thursday, 2 August 2012

'Doctor Who' Season 14 (1976/77): The Mary Whitehouse Experience



He hasn’t taken kindly to Gok Wan’s comments…


The summer of 1976 was famously hot, with a prolonged drought causing crop failures and necessitating the use of standpipes in some areas. However, the drought was promptly ended by a very wet autumn, which arguably helped the ratings for a show that having a solid base, is weather-dependent for a good part of its audience (which is partly the reason for the Season 32 split and Season 33’s late August start this year).


Britain gained a new Prime Minister in the season break, with Harold Wilson stepping down after a total of eight years as PM and being replaced by James Callaghan, who immediately had Labour’s parliamentary majority disappear entirely, making himself leader of a minority government.


Doctor Who’s fandom gained a new major component in 1976, with the establishment of the Doctor Who Appreciation Society (DWAS), officially approved by the BBC. DWAS, whose fanzine (The Celestial Toyroom) has been going monthly since 1976, would be a major force in the fandom for most of the pre-Web age. It provided sources of information on the show’s past that many fans would not have access to and Jeremy Bentham’s enthusiastic liking of “The Celestial Toymaker”, then entirely lost, inflated that story’s standing among fans until Episode 4 (it drags badly) turned up, which resulted in a rapid downwards re-evaluation.


While DWAS would be a boon for the show, the BBC was having something to worry about.


Mary Whitehouse.


Mary Whitehouse – The “Clean-Up TV” Campaigner


Constance Mary Whitehouse CBE (1910-2001), a former arts and sex education teacher, was a socially conservative evangelical Christian who spent much of her life campaigning against what she saw as objectionable content in media i.e. violence, sex and bad language. In 1965, after a Clean-Up TV campaign she founded what would the National Viewers' and Listeners' Association (NVALA, now called Mediawatch-uk), that attracted hundreds of thousands of supporters.


Whitehouse fired at a lot of targets during her life, mostly at the BBC when it came to television, such as Benny Hill (him of “Yakety Sax”) for smut and Till Death Us To Part[1] for bad language, usually with letter-writing campaigns. Her activities hugely irritated Director-General Sir Hugh Greene, who eventually had enough of her and retired in 1969, being replaced by a more conservative DG, Sir Charles Curran. Comedy shows made her the frequent target of jokes as well.


She wasn’t afraid to use the courts – bringing a successful libel case against the writer of Till Death Us Do Part for calling her and her organisation “fascists” in 1967, then topping that by bringing a successful private prosecution in 1977 for “blasphemous libel”, the first since 1922, against Gay Times and its editor for publishing a poem about Jesus having gay sex – they were fined, although a suspended jail team was quashed on appeal. In 1982, another private prosecution[2] for gross indecency against a National Thread play called The Romans in Britain for simulated anal rape collapsed[3], although did establish the precedent that the 1956 Sexual Offences Act could apply to the theatre.


Whitehouse was ultimately unsuccessful in her attempts (I can imagine how she’d react to the stuff on Sky Atlantic today like Game of Thrones), although got a great deal of press and public support. She could claim partial credit for some key legislation on British media and the creation of the Broadcasting Standards Board in 1988, that ultimately became part of Ofcom. Her activities also gave the title to an early 1990s BBC sketch show that forms the title of this entry.


Her Doctor Who-related activities peaked at this time – she described the show as “teatime brutality for tots” and had a particular go at Season 13’s “The Seeds of Doom”. She was going to change the nature of the show dramatically and bring an end to Gothic Horror…

Season 14, with the Hinchcliffe/Holmes partnership continuing, is another classic of the Baker era – not a single story of this six-story, 26-episode run can even be considered a clunker and three have all-time great status. The ratings set a new record for the show, with an average of 11.08 million and only one episode even going below nine million.


It was a time of transition, of new revelations and Rodents of Unusual Size…


The Masque of Mandragora (4 parts)


After an encounter with a space energy thing, the Doctor and Sarah Jane land in ‘Italy’[4] in the late 15th century, where sinister machinations both human and alien are to be found.


The story that established the Time Lord/TARDIS-enabled universal translator, “Mandragora” is an enjoyable pseudo-historical, with superb sets and filming in the Welsh village of Portmerion, best known for the 1960s ITC drama The Prisoner.


The Secondary Console Room


This season saw the one-season use of the wood-panelled “secondary control room” with smaller console too, a smaller set that the Doctor claimed was the original, long closed for maintenance. Hinchcliffe had found the old set too large and difficult to film in, being prone to technical problems as well.


It has to be remembered that there was no dedicated facility for Doctor Who at Television Centre – so once the recording on this season was done, the scenery for this set went into storage. Where it promptly warped and became unusable for Season 15, resulting in a new set having to be made.


The Hand of Fear (4 parts)


After landing in a quarry[5], the two are caught in a mining explosion. When they awake, Sarah Jane is holding a fossilised hand – a hand that possesses her…


Lis Sladen’s final story as a regular (the Doctor is summoned to Gallifrey and can’t take her), which allows her to play the villain for a while and do it well even when dressed like Andy Pandy. This was re-aired as a tribute to her and still holds up well, but does contain a rather implausible scene involving a nuclear missile strike on a nuclear power station[6]. The final scene, which Baker and Sladen wrote in final form, is wonderfully done.


The Deadly Assassin (4 parts)


The Doctor arrives on Gallifrey, where he becomes the prime suspect in the assassination of the President of the High Council of the Time Lords…


The sole story of the run where the Doctor is on his own with no companion (regular or “guest”) – Baker insisted he could carry the show on this own and this acted as a ‘pilot’ for the concept that wasn’t carried on. Robert Holmes’ story revised the portrayal of the Time Lords, turning them from disinterested godlike creatures into a corrupt and decaying race (with a few sly digs at the USA e.g. the Celestial Intervention Agency), in the process introducing many of the key elements of Time Lord lore, most notably the 12 regeneration limit and “the Matrix”, the Time Lord data net and virtual world. Fan reaction to this change was hostile, with then-DWAS President Jan Vincent-Rudzki declaring “WHAT HAS HAPPENED TO THE MAGIC OF DOCTOR WHO?”. However, the story has been comprehensively re-evaluated and is now considered one of the show’s greatest stories of all-time – getting place 20 in the Mighty 200 poll.


One other aspect of this story was the most controversial bit of the show to date and got Whitehouse et al. up in arms; the freeze-frame of Part Three with the Doctor’s head being held underwater for a protracted period of time. The furore was so much that the BBC’s DG apologised in writing to the NVALA and the master tape was edited to remove most of the scene; it survives in international copies.


The Decaying Master – Peter Pratt and Geoffrey Beevers


This story also features a new version of the Master –a decaying, rotting man who has used up all his regenerations and wants a new body. This version only appears here and in Season 18’s “The Keeper of Traken”, where he acquires said new body. Both Holmes and Hinchcliffe were considering moving on even before the furore this story caused and felt that this type of Master would allow a new production team to change to a new form more easily if they didn’t like him.


Here he is played by the late Peter Pratt (1923-1995), otherwise known for his Gilbert and Sullivan operetta work – his TV work being limited. I’ll discuss Geoffrey Beevers (who took the role for this version’s second appearance) more when I get to “Traken”.


The Face of Evil (4 parts)


The Doctor arrives on a planet in the far future, where a savage tribe worship a god called Xoanon and the Time Lord is called “The Evil One”…


Billed as the start of a new season, due to a six week gap, “The Face of Evil”[7], written by Chris Boucher (who would later script edit Blake’s 7) is a highly impressive tale, particularly for the jungle set, with a lot of good acting and wonderful, if not entirely original, concepts. This story would also see the introduction of one of the show’s most memorable companions.


Leela of the Sevateem – One for the Dads


The new companion actress was chosen from a field of 60 by Louise Jameson (1951-), who has had a long career on British television, including Eastenders, Doc Martin and Bergerac[8]. She’s recently reprised her role as Leela for Big Finish and also played other roles in the BBV spinoff P.R.O.B.E. videos (of which more later).


Leela, partly named after  Palestinian terrorist Leila Khaled, intended to be a one-shot character who was elevated to regular status during scripting (initially for three serials, as Baker didn’t like the character to begin with, but turning into another season after this), was a highly aggressive ‘Eliza Doolittle’-like character, in that the Doctor was aiming to educate her, with a frequent willingness to use a knife or poisonous janus thorns. She only screamed once in her entire tenure. However, she is primarily remembered for one thing. Her costume.


There is a long and not entirely glorious history of attractive female leads in family-orientated science-fiction/fantasy (two words: Starfleet miniskirts), with DW not being exempt, most recently with Karen Gillan’s Amy Pond and her many short skirts. Leela spent most of her stories in a skimpy leather outfit, which had the desired effect of keeping the dads interested, as well as the younger male fans hitting puberty at this point.


The Robots of Death (4 parts)


The Doctor and Leela investigate a murder mystery on a sandminer.


Another all-time great, the ninth best story in the Mighty 200, “Robots of Death” is a wonderfully made story with a rich universe that spawned a spinoff audio series called Kaldor City for Big Finish. It also contains a rather good in-joke, with robophobia (an irrational fear of robots) being dubbed “Grimwade’s Syndrome” after then production assistant, later writer and director, Peter Grimwade, who moaned about the stories he worked on nearly always involving robots.


The Talons of Weng-Chiang (6 parts)


The Doctor takes Leela to Victorian London (appropriately dressed of course) to show her the lives of her ancestors, but get caught up in a plot involving a time travelling war criminal, giant rats, opium dens and a sinister children’s toy…


Number 4 on the Mighty 200 list, Robert Holmes’ corker set in Victoriana involves great dialogue, a memorable double act (Jago and Litefoot – imagine two members of the Mallard Club handling aliens), a location of location filming on Outside Broadcast videotape the first mention of Time Agents and Baker wearing a “Sherlock Holmes”-esque (with deerstalker) costume. The giant rat leaves much to be desired though and is generally kept in darkness to hide the fact.


However, the story has attracted controversy, with a number of North American stations (most notably TVOntario) refusing to air this because a number of the Chinese roles are played by white actors in yellowface – it’s been said that a suitably experienced Chinese actor couldn’t be found in the UK. This said, there is a lot of anti-racist content in the story and yellowface took a while longer to become unacceptable in the UK.


Notably, this was the first story that Christopher Eccleston watched after he was cast as the Ninth Doctor.

Eventually, the BBC (who were publically defending the show throughout) cracked under the Whitehouse-led pressure, with “Assassin” being the final straw. Phillip Hinchcliffe was reassigned to work on a BBC cop series called Target, an effective sacking as producer on DW[9]. The creator of that show, Graham Williams, was moved to Doctor Who, with explicit orders to tone things down from Head of Serials Bill Slater. A return to the UNIT style format of Pertwee was vetoed by Slater and Williams’ idea for a six-story season arc involving the search for the components of an all-powerful ‘Key to Time’ was put back to Season 16 as the lead-up time wasn’t enough otherwise. So Williams and Holmes went for more traditional fare.


This also included the addition of one robot dog…

[1]A long running sitcom that resulted in two sequel shows, it starred Warren Mitchell as Alf Garnett, an East End working class man who railed against society, women, ethnic minorities and anything that wasn’t West Ham United. Always meant to be a figure of ridicule (Mitchell was a socialist and Jewish), although some didn’t get the joke, Garnett remains a household name in the UK.

[2]From 1737 to 1968, when it lost that role, British theatre was regulated by the Lord Chamberlain’s Office, who had to approve all plays before they were performed and applied a broad brush approach to censorship, seeming to possess very dirty minds. British playwrights found ways round the Office, often by performing their plays in private clubs (not covered) or in the notable case of the Windmill Theatre, convincing the Lord Chamberlain that it wasn’t obscene if the naked ladies were standing still and pretending to be statutes.


Following 1968, any prosecutions were at the discretion of the Attorney General, who had decided not to prosecute.

[3] The sole prosecution witness, Whitehouse’s solicitor (Whitehouse herself refused to see the play), was found to have seen the bit in question from 90 feet away and could not be sure what he actually saw, following which the prosecution counsel declined to continue with the case. Whitehouse was ordered to pay £14,000 in costs.

[4]Italy for most of its history has been far more of a concept than an actual country; until full unification in 1861, it consisted of a motley collection of states of varying power, such as Naples, Genoa and the Papal States. The peninsula now only consists of Italy, San Marino and the Holy See, the last being the very tiny remnants of Papal territory being granted to the Catholic Church in the Lateran Treaty of 1929.

[5]An actual quarry for a change. DW has a long history of using quarries for alien landscapes (although less so now) to the point it’s actually sent the idea up, as does much of British sci-fi/fantasy. The US likes the Southern Californian desert, while Canada-based productions (e.g. Stargate) tend to use the forests of British Colombia.

[6]This story filmed in a functioning nuclear power station. You wouldn’t have that happen today!

[7]One working title for this, dropped to avoid causing offence, was “The Day That God Went Mad”).

[8]Jersey-set BBC (produced with Australia’s Seven Network) detective drama that ran from 1981 to 1991 and is still repeated on cable networks. It was created by Robert Banks Stewart, who wrote two DW stories before this.

[9]As he knew he was leaving, he felt free to put a serious amount of money into “Talons”.

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