The Doctor is back, and here to stay, in season seven of Classic Doctor Who! This season, and this rewatch, are short, at only four serials. Let’s get to it!
The season opens with Spearhead from Space, one of the more well-known serials in Doctor Who history. Making the leap from the 1960s to the ‘70s, and from black and white to color, it served as a soft reboot to the series, a good jumping-on point for new fans as well as a change of pace for those who had been with the show from the beginning. I, of course, wasn’t there at the time, but even today, it amazes me how much difference in my perceptions a little color makes; this serial was filmed and released just months after the final Second Doctor serial, but to me it looks and feels SO MUCH different, so much newer.
This episode and the next several—up until Season 10’s The Three Doctors—all occur in basically chronological order, and contemporary with their broadcasts, courtesy of the Doctor’s exile by the Time Lords to Earth. Pinning down exact dates is a little harder, but at the same time, not really necessary. Sometimes suggested dates vary more than I think is appropriate, and I may mention those discrepancies from time to time; but I’ll mostly leave the dates unaddressed for the next few seasons, as they can be assumed to be in their broadcast years.
Spearhead introduces another familiar and popular Who villain: The Nestene Consciousness (just called Nestene here, without the “consciousness”), and its servants the Autons. These plastic constructs will be faced more than once in this era, and again by the Ninth Doctor in his first appearance, and by the Eleventh Doctor at the Pandorica. I personally find these early Autons to be far more menacing than their later appearances, though the Consciousness itself seems more bestial. On the other side, the Brigadier and UNIT return, beginning a long run of regular appearances, and bringing with it new companion Liz Shaw, one of my favorites. She’s not a companion in the standard sense, as she never gets to travel in (or even enter) the TARDIS, but she’s the equivalent for this stranded era. I prefer her to her eventual replacement, Jo Grant; she was more than a match for the Doctor in a day when that kind of pairing was unheard of.
The Doctor himself is a new man again, and not entirely pleased with this version of himself. He becomes a UNIT employee (or more likely, contractor) here, a position he never really gives up, as Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor comments in The Day of the Doctor. If Smith owes much to Patrick Troughton, I submit that Peter Capaldi, the Twelfth Doctor, owes as much to John Pertwee, from his clothes to his appearance to his “attack eyebrows”—there’s even a joke here about Pertwee using his eyebrows to communicate! It’s an homage that is fine by me, as you could do far worse than imitation here. He’s noted for the first time to have two hearts; also, edgy for the seventies, he has a tattoo! The question-mark tattoo on his forearm is suggested to have been placed by the Time Lords to mark his criminal status. A final note, that didn’t seem to fit elsewhere, but is worth mentioning: The TARDIS key is seen to be biometric, apparently replacing the 21-position lock mechanism first mentioned by Susan. It’s not a perfect system, but will be revisited often.
Still more new and later-recurring enemies arise (literally!) in Doctor Who and the Silurians. It’s the only serial to ever include “Doctor Who” in the title, and that was by error; a miscommunication among the production staff caused it to be retained from the script to the screen. The titular Silurians appear for the first time here, and will reappear a few more times in both old and new series before becoming a fixture in the person of Madame Vastra in Series (not Season) Seven. These early Silurians look much more piscine than their anthropomorphic NuWho counterparts, but I feel like that can be handwaved by the idea of racial variations within their species (note that the faces seen here appear to be their actual faces, not the masks sometimes worn in NuWho). The series must necessarily take place over the course of several days, perhaps a week, though it’s a little hard to tell from the editing of the episodes.
Another Classic Who icon appears here for the first time: Bessie, the Doctor’s yellow roadster. The fact that the Doctor is trapped on Earth can’t slow him down; the car is a staple of the Third Doctor Era. I’d like to see it make a reappearance in NuWho, just for nostalgia’s sake.
I felt that much of the Series 5 Silurian story The Hungry Earth/In Cold Blood mirrors this serial, whether intentionally or not. You have human subterranean activity awakening the Silurians from their long sleep, causing them to come to the surface; a Silurian gets injured and captured by a human; a younger Silurian advocates conquest or reclamation of the Earth, while an older Silurian recommends a peaceful solution. (The primary difference, of course, is that in this version, the Silurians are destroyed at the end, creating the first crack of disagreement between the Brigadier and the Doctor.) It’s a good plot, but it was odd to realize how much had been done before.
It seems that keeping the Doctor Earthbound was more restrictive than the writing staff imagined, because it doesn’t take long for him to return to space (sans TARDIS) in The Ambassadors of Death. The serial gives us an accelerated version of the early space era; despite being in the early ‘70s, there are manned missions to Mars in progress. It’s not a continuity problem here, but it becomes a bit of one in NuWho’s Day of the Moon, which establishes the 1969 moon landing as canon. This story introduces the idea that the TARDIS console can be removed and function independently of the rest of the ship, which—in addition to the upcoming serials—will figure prominently in the Eleventh Doctor story The Doctor’s Wife, where the Doctor is forced to construct a partial TARDIS. It gives the lie to the Doctor’s past statements that the console houses the power source, as it will soon be seen to need external power. (Or maybe not? It’s possible the Time Lords simply disconnected the ship’s power, or its link to the not-yet-established Eye of Harmony. There’s just not enough evidence to tell yet.)
This story is a so-far-unusual one for Doctor Who, a story of captured-but-well-meaning aliens who are then exploited. The concept will be revisited often in the future. The spacesuits worn by the aliens were very reminiscent of the ones inhabited by the Vashta Nerada in Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead. This is probably Liz Shaw’s weakest appearance; she comes across as something of a pushover here. Very disappointing when put against her usual image. One more interesting note: The serial used a new “split” introduction, with a short teaser of plot (and I mean short, just seconds long) between two parts of the opening. It remains to be seen whether that will be repeated; it certainly doesn’t appear again this season.
I’m a sucker for parallel-universe stories, and we get our first in season finale Inferno. The Doctor travels to a parallel Earth’s Republic of Great Britain, but not the same one as later visited by the Tenth Doctor, given that this one is destroyed in a volcanic cataclysm at the end. It reminded me of the Stargate SG-1 episode There But For The Grace of God, in that it requires the combining of efforts—and the sacrifice of team members—to get the misplaced person home so he can prevent the same tragedy in his own world. The framing story is nothing new: People becoming transformed (in this case into feral “Primords”, prehistoric semi-human creatures) by a dangerous environmental factor, in this case dredged up at a mantle-drilling project. The Doctor, once transported to the alternate world, sees the outcome if the project isn’t stopped, and must save his own world from the same fate. Along the way, we get to see Liz use the redesigned Sonic Screwdriver—small consolation for what proves to be her final appearance, but it’s something. (Unfortunately there’s no closeup of the new prop at this point.)
In closing, I think it’s worth mentioning that the Doctor isn’t guaranteed to be the same man we know him to be. Like anyone, he has choices to make, and those choices could make him a very different person. It’s been noted that the Leader of the Republic of Great Britain—seen only in a photo—is one of the faces offered to the Doctor by the Time Lords at his regeneration. Some novels have established that in fact, the Leader IS the Doctor, or rather, his counterpart in that universe. If so, I think it gives us a point of deviation between that universe and ours; we can guess that after choosing that face, the Time Lords sent the Doctor back to a point somewhat earlier, where, in the absence of UNIT’s lucky presence (in Spearhead from Space), he reacted quite differently, and took actions that led to the establishing of the Republic and himself as its leader. Interestingly, it’s not really established that this world is “evil” or dark (like the Mirror Universe in Star Trek), though it is seen to be more martial and severe. The Doctor is simply unable to save it.
Next time: Enter the Master! See you there.
All episodes can be viewed on Dailymotion; links are below.