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Tuesday, 11 September 2012

'Doctor Who' Season 17 (1979/80): The Season of Discontent

Quick, before the electricians turn the lights off!


Season 17, with Graham Williams continuing as producer, but Douglas Adams (1952-2001) doing a one-season stint as script editor, divides opinions among fans. It’s either the show at its height with wonderful dialogue or it’s a campy, silly mess. In fact, it’s probably a bit of both – there’s at least two poor stories here. Budgetary problems due to hyperinflation meant that this season (which saw the Doctor fit a “randomiser” to the TARDIS to stay clear of the Black Guardian) had to operate on a smaller scale – every penny had to count.


Mary Tamm, not happy about the direction Romana was taking, chose not to continue in the role and while willing to do a regeneration scene, wasn’t invited to do one (Williams put a false story that it was because of pregnancy, although at the start of Season 17’s production it would have been an issue). The production team decided to have Romana regenerate off-screen, pretty much, out of choice (although expanded universe theories suggest the regeneration wasn’t entirely voluntary) into someone looking identical to Princess Astra from “The Armageddon Factor”, being played in both cases by Lalla Ward…


Romana II – the blonde version


When your two leads are, for want of a better word, “dancing”, it has an interesting effect on the show – you can apparently spot when Tom Baker and Lalla Ward (who would have a brief marriage after their time on the show – the fact that Ward and Baker have never done an audio or DVD commentary together gives you an idea of how it ended) had just had a row.


The Honourable Sarah “Lalla” Ward (her father was the 7th Viscount Bangor and her half-brother is the current Viscount, so she’s a bona fide aristocrat), born in 1951. Attending the Central School of Speech and Drama, she made an appearance in the 1972 Hammer Horror film Vampire Circus, one of the better-received later films where she plays a vampire and bites small boys, then a number of TV guest roles and played Ophelia in a BBC Shakespeare production of Hamlet starring later Master Derek Jacobi.


After Doctor Who, her screen appearances have been very limited (nothing since 1993 in fact), although she has done a fair bit of Big Finish stuff including an entire spinoff series called Gallifrey. She is now married to celebrity atheist Richard Dawkins and has done some work connected with his books.


The second version of Romana is a slightly softer one. Still a snappy dresser, but friendlier with the Doctor and more experienced overall. She’s my preferred Romana  - and my favourite companion. By the end of her run in Season 18, you can clearly see that she is effectively a female Doctor.


The show was going to be getting huge ratings, but not entirely from its own success…


ITV and the Strike of ‘79


“Percy Wallington arrived home from fishing with his father that warm Saturday in August 1979. Once the family had eaten their dinner, it was time to watch television. As he pressed the button marked “3” on their TV, he settled down and saw the familiar white diamond of Southern Television”.


Today, the entity legally known as Channel Three is one single network with one on-air branding in England, Wales, the Channel Islands and southern Scotland – ITV1[1]. This was not always so. From its pretty controversial creation in 1955 until the eventual merger of most of the companies into one around the beginning of this century, “ITV” (Independent Television) was a group of 15 regional franchises, which came up for renewal every so often - getting a renewal was by no means guaranteed - London getting two of them for weekdays and weekends respectively.


Each of these networks, whose coverage areas overlapped a fair bit, had their own on-air branding and produced some of their own programming, which they often sold to the other networks – it was not unheard for a show to air months apart in different regions. National news was provided by Independent Television, whose best known presenter would be the (now-retired) Sir Trevor MacDonald, the first black British newsreader.


Some of the more famous ones and their more notable shows were:

·         Granada Television (North-West of England): Who produced Coronation Street and the epic historical drama about the last days of British rule in India called The Jewel in the Crown.

·         Thames Television (Greater London daytime): A good deal of cop shows like The Sweeney and  the very long-running The Bill[2].

·         LWT (Greater London weekend – I can still remember the switchover): The original Upstairs Downstairs[3], sitcom On The Buses and game show Play Your Cards Right, hosted for much its time by Sir Bruce Forsyth[4].

·         ATV, later Central (Midlands): Darts-themed quiz show Bullseye, talent show New Faces and anarchic Saturday morning show Tiswas.

·         HTV (Wales and the West): Robin of Sherwood, a 1990s Famous Five with Jemima Rooper as George and some other dark children’s’ stuff.


Now I’ve made my British audience all warm and nostalgic, onto the strike.


On 6 August 1979, a long-running pay dispute across the whole network that had already seen a one-day nearly national strike came to a head at Thames Television. The electricians union had been working to rule, switching off the equipment at 10pm[5], with the technicians (in the ACTT union) refusing to turn the equipment back on. When the management did it on that day, the technicians refused to work with them, the union representatives got suspended and then the technicians went out on strike, blacking out Thames. When something similar happened at HTV, the staff were “locked-out”. As secondary action was still legal at this time, when the technicians were told to return to work “or else”, ACTT staff at every other network bar Channel Television (where the unions knew a strike would kill the small station off) walked out. As Equity people were not about to start crossing picket lines, no way, pretty much the entire of ITV went off the air, replaced with a caption.


This lasted for eleven weeks, until the networks basically caved in to the pay demands and the network came back on air on 24 October (“Welcome back to ITV. I-T-V!”). During the strike, the only networks broadcasting were BBC1 and BBC2, so anything on those channels got much bigger ratings than normal, including Doctor Who.


Once the strike was over, it would take the ITV networks several months to get original programming back on the air, so the BBC continued to do very well in the ratings. However, industrial action would hit them too…

Destiny of the Daleks (4 parts)


The newly regenerated Romana and the Doctor arrive on Skaro, where the Daleks are attempting to find their long-last creator Davros to give themselves an upper hand in an interplanetary war.


Terry Nation’s final script for the show, this has K9 confined to the TARDIS without any lines due to “laryngitis” – Nation did not want the dog to upstage the Daleks. A lot of quarry filming in this one, which features the show’s first use of the relatively-new Steadicam. I watched this with commentary recently. While interesting, it’s no classic.


City of Death (4 parts)


On holiday in Paris, the Doctor and Romana sense someone has been tampering with space-time. As they investigate, they run across multiple Mona Lisas and an evil alien Count…


Finished by Douglas Adams and Graham Williams when David Fisher proved unable to do the re-writes (the story was the second to go out under the name “David Agnew”), “City of Death” is a strong contender for best story ever, a highly recommended one for introducing people to the show and the best rated story of all time – the overall average was 14.5 million, but the ratings steadily increased, so the concluding part was seen by no less than 16.1 million – over a quarter of the British population. Featuring a fine villainous turn by Julian Glover, a cameo from John Cleese, some truly great dialogue[6] and Lalla Ward in a school uniform [That’s woken the readers up! – Ed.], the serial also boasted the first foreign location shoot for Doctor Who, with filming done in Paris. The absence of K9 in this one doesn’t dent it one iota.


The Creature from the Pit (4 parts)


The Doctor and Romana land on the lush world of Chloris, which has very limited metal and is ruled over by the evil Lady Adrasta, who keeps an alien creature in a pit…


The first story filmed for Season 17, this features Ward having to tackle a script (and a dress) intended for Mary Tamm, a scene with a phallic-looking part of said creature that has to be seen to be believed and Romana getting tied up by a leather-clad dominatrix, basically making this one of the gayest stories in the show’s history. It’s also one of the worst, with a rather illogical plot and a poor guest cast.


Nightmare of Eden (4 episodes)


The TARDIS arrives on a space liner that is locked together with another ship after a collision on exiting hyperspace. A scientist on board is carrying a machine that supposedly records planets that he has visited, while some else is smuggling drugs. Then creatures start escaping from the recordings…


A surprisingly adult anti-drugs tale, “Eden” is one of those “nice idea, shame about the production” cases. Production was a nightmare, with Graham Williams having to replace the highly unpopular director Alan Bromly mid-story after the cast openly revolted and finish things off himself (Bromly, who either quit or was fired, never worked for the BBC again and retired from directing shortly after). That would be bad enough, but there’s also some rather bad acting and effects shots here, including one woman getting shot in the head and clutching her stomach, that make this one of the weaker stories in the show’s history.


It would also be the final time Bob Baker (who was not with Dave Martin for this one) wrote for the show.


The Horns of Nimon (4 episodes)


With the TARDIS needing repair, the Doctor and Romana have to save a group of young people being sacrificed to the bull-like Nimon.


This Minotaur-inspired one goes under the category of “so bad it’s good”. Baker isn’t that great, but Ward’s on fire here. The rest of the cast (with the exception of the late Graham Cowden’s Soldeed) is a bit poor,  the Nimon look silly with visible actor’s necks at times, and the corridor action gets ridiculous, but approach this in the right spirit  [or with the right spirits – Ed.] and you’ll have a good time.


[Shada] (Never transmitted)


Someone wants to conquer the universe. He just needs to find the Time Lord with the mental powers to help him achieve it, incarcerated the Time Lord prison planet of Shada. He’s got to find the place first and the only person who knows is a Cambridge professor, who the Doctor just happens to be visiting.


The season would have closed with this six-parter, another Adams-penned story. However, industrial action[7] meant that only the Cambridge location filming and the first of the three studio sessions planned were completed. By the time the dispute was resolved, Television Centre’s studios were booked solid with Christmas specials and an attempt to redo it for Season 18 failed. The story was never completed – although some footage got used in “The Five Doctors” in lieu of Baker actually being in it.


“Shada” as a result has acquired a sort of mythic status in the fandom that it possibly wouldn’t have had if it was actually transmitted. It has therefore had quite a few “completion” things done on it. 

The completed footage with linking narration by Tom Baker got a VHS release in 1992, some New Zealander fans did a fan novelisation of it (Target Books never reached an agreement to do an official one) that Adams approved of in retrospect, the BBC did an online webcast with Paul McGann’s Eighth Doctor with an older Romana II (with Leeson playing K9) and an official 2012 novelisation by Gareth Roberts. In addition, ‘super-fan’ Ian Levine[8] has done an animated ‘recon’ of the missing scenes with most of the surviving cast, but the BBC has for whatever reason declined to commercially release it and he won’t put this on-line as he does not want to get sued.

Season 17 clocked an average of 11.2m million viewers, still a record for Doctor Who. The strike boosted episodes have a mean of 14 million, a staggering figure, but even the non-strike episodes averaged 9.4, higher than the previous two seasons.


After three years of hyperinflation, a problematic star and capped off with the “Nightmare of Eden” fiasco, Graham Williams decided to quit as producer. His successor was going to take the show in a controversial new direction as time began to run out for Tom Baker’s Fourth Doctor…

[1]Northern Ireland and the rest of Scotland still have UTV and STV respectively. The latter, which covers the old Scottish and Grampian regions, recently spent a few years in a colossal legal row, now settled, with ITV that resulted in a number of programmes from each network not being aired on the other.


There are three other national ITV channels airing on Freeview.

[2]Running from 1984 until 2010), after the 1983 pilot drama called Woodentop, being twice or once weekly for most of the time, The Bill was set in a fictitious area of East London called Sun Hill and revolved around the cases of one relief of the local station. Known for innovative hand-held camera work, doing the “walk and talk” well before Aaron Sorkin’s works and killing off a prodigious number of regulars particularly in its later years, the show (which I watched regularly for nearly the last decade) had the majority of British actors make at least one guest appearance in it – Keira Knightley appeared once in her early career. Also Georgina Moffett had a fairly long stint as the annoyingly stupid daughter of one of the detectives, while Graham Cole, who spent 25 years in the series as PC Tony Stamp, was in a number of monster suits in the 1980s.

[3]A recent BBC1 revival was axed after two seasons.

[4]Recently knighted, “Brucie” is the host of the original British version of Dancing with the Stars, Strictly Come Dancing (the shows in fact share two judges). His long career has seen him host a spawn of two-part, audience-concluded catchphrases like “It’s nice to see you, to see you… Nice!” and “You get nothing for a pair… Not in this game!” that most Brits would instantly recognise.

[5]A common practice in the BBC as well.

[6]“What a wonderful butler! He’s so violent!” for example.

[7]Over, it seems, who was responsible for the operation of the Play School clock!

[8]A highly contentious figure in the fandom. A very successful record producer, he has helped in the recovery or retention of a number of episodes, but his involvement as script consultant on the show in the 1980s upset a lot of people. More on him later.

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