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Monday, 27 August 2012

'Doctor Who' Season 16 (1978/9): Six Faces of Adventure

The Doctor wonders if he should move a certain something one foot to the left

 

Season 16 would be another difficult one for the Graham Williams/Anthony Read partnership. In fact, the script editor left after this run. There were further industrial relations problems at the BBC (the first story’s production featured a demarcation dispute over whose job it was to light the flaming torches on set) as Britain was hit by the Winter of Discontent, with widespread strikes, most notably among refuse collectors and undertakers, ultimately forcing the minority government of Jim Callaghan out of office in a no confidence vote – the subsequent election was won by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives.

 

Tom Baker almost left the show – he wanted more control over the creative direction of Doctor Who, which Williams (who felt Baker had been there too long) was not prepared to grant. Eventually, the whole thing was sorted by Head of Drama Graeme McDonald bringing the two parties together – Baker signed a new contract, not getting any of his demands.

 

In addition, Baker managed to provoke a dog owned by a guest star into biting him on the lip during a gap between filming of the first story, “The Ribos Operation” – the injury is visible for a number of episodes of the run and he had to wear a plaster for publicity photos.

 

Not only that, Williams was implementing his planned season-long arc, for what was going to be the 15th anniversary season, which meant a lot of planning and a bit less flexibility in running order if a story ran into problems.

 

In comparison, the incident during “The Power of Kroll” involving a bunch of nearly naked guys having to either take chemical showers at RAF Bentwaters[1] or have their skin scoured at a hotel to remove waterproof green make up (because the make-up artist forgot to order the removal stuff) was light relief.


Season 16’s overall arc involved something called “The Key to Time”. A powerful being – in fact more powerful than the Time Lords, called the White Guardian tasked the Doctor with finding the six segments of a mythic artefact that could control the universe. The Key to Time needed to be put back together to allow for balance to be restored to the cosmos… and kept out of the hands of the evil Black Guardian. The segments were disguised as various objects and the Doctor was given a Tracer device (an expensive and prone to breaking prop) to track the segments, then convert them into their proper form. To avoid spoilers, I won’t reveal what the segments are here.

 

The Doctor couldn’t do this solely with a robot dog (even though the K9 prop was upgraded to make it more reliable), so the White Guardian impersonated the Time Lord President and brought a young (by Time Lord standards) Time Lady from Gallifrey to assist the Doctor. The original plan had been to bring Lis Sladen back as Sarah Jane Smith, but she declined the offer, hence a new and highly memorable companion arrived…

 

Book Smart Beauty – Romana I

 

Romanadvoratelundar, or Romana for short (it was that or “Fred”) is one of the best-loved companions in DW, spoken of in the same breath as Sarah Jane, Jo or Ace. In her first incarnation,  Romana was a Grace Kelly[2]-style ‘ice queen’, bright, haughty and lacking in practical experience of the universe. She was also a superb dresser, although high heels aren’t always best in this gig and even the Doctor noted her attractiveness.

 

The choice out of three thousand applicants for the new role was Yorkshire-born Mary Tamm (1950-2012). Tamm, of Russian and Estonian descent[3], had come to prominence through appearing in The ODESSA File[4] and The Likely Lads. Tamm was highly popular, but was initially reluctant as she didn’t want to be another damsel in distress. In the end, she chose to leave after one season as the character went that way in her opinion.

 

Following Doctor Who, Tamm appeared in a whole lot of guest roles, some films (including one that saw her killed off by Sylvester McCoy) and even computer games, appearing in video for Privateer 2: The Awakening. She recorded a chunk of Big Finish, including a series of audios with Tom Baker, that will be released in 2013.

 

Mary Tamm died of cancer in July 2012, aged 61. This sad news for the fandom was made more tragic when her husband Marcus Ringrose suffered a fatal heart attack a few hours after her funeral.


This was yet another six story, 26-episode run. While the Key to Time hunt plays a role throughout the season, each serial can be watched on its own without too many problems. The stories are a bit less jokey here, with the BBC telling Williams and the directors to remember that they were making a fundamentally serious show. The quality is reasonable, except for two clunkers at the end.

 

I recently bought the box set of this season on DVD (in a sad coincidence, it arrived on the morning of the news of Mary Tamm’s death), so a re-watch with reviews is a possibility. My memories of this one is that most of the run is good – except the last two.

 

The Ribos Operation (4 parts)

 

Ribos, a mediaeval-tech-level world where the seasons last for years. Two confidence tricksters are planning to sell the planet to an exiled tyrant. Little do they know that they actually have the first segment of the Key on them…

 

Bob Holmes’ witty, atmospheric and enjoyable tale starts us off in style, with a rich story, a great “Holmesian double act” and Baker turning in a great performance, along with Tamm, who got on well with him from the get-go.

 

The Pirate Planet (4 parts)

 

The Doctor, Romana and K9 land on what their systems say is Calufrax, but is actually a planet called Zanak… a planet that isn’t your normal sort of planet.

 

The writer’s name on this one alone is highly notable – Douglas Adams. The author of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy in most of its various forms worked on this at the same time as the first THHGTTG radio series and a number of references to Hitchhiker’s turn up in the show here and in other stories by other writers – also, the plot of the third novel, Life, the Universe and Everything was based on a rejected script for this show.

 

It’s typical Adams, with lines like “I’ll never be cruel to an electron in a particle accelerator again” and a whole bunch of outlandish concepts – a lot of trimming was needed to get this workable[5]. It’s a very good story: the guest cast are great, as are the regulars.

 

This story has never been officially novelised – Adams never got round to it before his death in 2001.

 

The Stones of Blood (4 parts)

 

The TARDIS crew arrive in modern Britain, near a stone circle that is attracting the attention of a cult and a not-so-mythical ‘goddess’. To make it worse, some of the stones move…

 

The 100th Doctor Who serial (Part 4 of this was broadcast in the anniversary TV week – the anniversary falling on a Thursday), which was due to feature a birthday scene for the Doctor until Graham Williams vetoed the idea as too self-indulgent[6], “Stones” is a dark, strong tale with strong horror lashings – including the nasty death of two campers just to up the tension. It arguably flags a little near the end, but I like this one a lot. The consistent videotape use throughout helps with this one.

 

The Androids of Tara (4 parts)

 

Political intrigue abounds on Tara, a world of android doubles where a Princess looks exactly like Romana…

 

Featuring Mary Tamm playing no less than four roles, “Tara”, a pastiche of The Prisoner of Zenda[7], is a swashbuckling tale that puts the key hunt to a minor status (Romana in fact collects the segment in Part One). With location filming at Leeds Castle[8] and a dastardly villain in the classic mould of dastardly villains, this is an enjoyable tale with a lot of love – in most quarters. I believe I actually read the Target novelisation before seeing this on TV.

 

The Power of Kroll (4 parts)

 

A struggle is going on between the natives and the crew of a refinery on the marshy planet Delta Magna. Not only that, the natives’ god, a giant squid called Kroll, is starting to awake.

 

Robert Holmes had one or two misfires during his career on this show, especially when he worked under restrictions. This story, his last until 1984, is definitely one of them, with Holmes told to incorporate the then largest monster in Doctor Who history into the adventure. Poor set design (the set designer never worked on the show again), a questionable scene involving an attempted sacrifice of Romana, a cameraman getting bad advice that wrecked a vital split screen effect and poor acting by most of the guest cast pop this one into the ‘clunker’ territory, with Holmes’ weaker than usual script not helping here.

 

K9 does not feature in this story – the marshy terrain was a no-no for him. However, due to another actor having to pull out, John Leeson stepped in front of the camera to play Dugeen, his only on-screen appearance as an actual actor.

 

The Armageddon Factor (6 parts)

 

The Doctor and Romana are caught up in a centuries-long nuclear war between the planets of Atrios and Zeos. It turns out that an agent of the Black Guardian is manipulating events…

 

This Bob Baker and Dave Martin tale (their last one together) should have been a big epic climax – it’s more of an epic clunker… Bad acting, an overly long story and a final climax that’s ultimately a huge let-down render this the worst story of Season 16.

 

Arguably the most noteworthy guest star in this one is one Lalla Ward, who plays a pivotal role in this (she’s a bit wooden here, but there’s arguably a reason for it). Yes, we’ll be seeing her again very soon.


1978/1979 also marked two further milestones for the show in the US. Firstly, the show was shown for the first time on the PBS stations, where it obtained a cult status, especially among students. A previous airing on Time-Life in 1972 had been unsuccessful – the network seems to have not realised the episodic nature of the show and moved it around the schedules too much.

 

Secondly, Who One in Los Angeles became the first US Doctor Who convention.

 

Back in the UK, this run got 8.6 million viewers on average. Again a sizeable hit, things were going to be getting much better, but not due to any of the show’s actions. Industrial action was about to have its biggest impact on Doctor Who.


[1]A now-closed American fighter base (its career included operating A-10s and an Aggressor squadron), Bentwaters now possesses a museum and is also a regular location for filming.

[2]Grace Kelly (1929-1982) while considered one of the most beautiful actresses of all time, had a surprisingly short career, only doing eleven films, three for Alfred Hitchcock. At the age of 26, she married Prince Rainier, the ruler of Monaco, the small principality on the French Riviera and retired.

[3]Tamm’s parents were in fact refugees from Estonia, which had been forcibly reintegrated into the then Soviet Union.

[4]Film adaptation of Frederick Forsyth’s second best known (and excellent) novel, published in 1972. The plot, set in 1963, is about a German reporter trying to find a concentration camp commandant, Eduard Roschmann, the “Butcher of Riga”, who is plotting to provide Egypt with the means to destroy Israel. Roschmann really existed – he was exposed as a result the film and arrested by the Argentine police, but jumped bail, dying in Paraguay in 1977.

 

The film starred Jon Voight, with Tamm taking on the role of his girlfriend Sigi.

[5]Also Douglas Adams was renowned for missing deadlines.

[6]The cake had already been ordered at this point, so the cast and crew naturally ate it.

[7]1894 novel by Anthony Hope about an English gentleman who is persuaded to impersonate the abducted king of Ruritania at his coronation – there have been a lot of adaptations and homages over the years, with this tale having a lot of similar characters. A working title for this serial was in fact “The Androids of Zenda”, but the BBC were understandably concerned about copyright issues.

[8]In Kent, not Yorkshire.

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