With the Key to Time behind us, we’re back, with our Classic Doctor Who rewatch! This week we look at season seventeen. Let’s get started!
At the end of last season, the Doctor added a randomizer to the TARDIS’s navigation system, meaning that even he has no idea where he might land. In Destiny of the Daleks, we see him make a stop at Skaro, though he doesn’t realize it at first. First, however, we see Romana regenerate; she’s actually already begun, as Mary Tamm did not return to film the regeneration. This scene is notorious, as Romana tries out several forms before settling on the form of Princess Astra from The Armageddon Factor. While aware of the scene, I never realized that the Doctor actually tells her to go try out different bodies, indicating that he was aware of her ability to do so. On the surface, it seems she’s wasting regenerations, but that seems unlikely, and a number of answers have been proposed in other media. I prefer simple solutions; I think that, in addition to the fact that a regeneration isn’t truly complete until fifteen hours later (The Christmas Invasion), Romana is probably just some kind of savant with regard to regeneration. Even if this was her first time, the ability could have been diagnosed early and noted in her records.
The story takes place between the years 4500 and 5000; Earth has a deep space fleet and colonies, and Skaro has rested long enough to recover some greenery. As well, the Thals aren’t present—the humans seen are captive slaves from other places. The Daleks cannot hover yet—the Doctor actually teases one about not being able to follow him from level to level—nor do they appear to have time travel, as they would probably have just reclaimed Davros right before his entombment if they did. These Daleks were scary to me, especially in the scenes where they capture and interrogate Romana; they feel much more menacing than previous appearances. These Daleks also don’t appear to be the ones from The Daleks, as they aren’t aware of all the levels of the Kaled city, and don’t require static electricity; if my theory about the one-time split in their ranks is correct, then these are returnees from those that went into space to conquer. It does seem odd to me that upon escaping the bunker after a thousand years (Genesis of the Daleks) they did not recover Davros then; he was hardly buried, just trapped. Now, though, they want him back; his intuition will break the computer-generated stalemate between them and the android Movellans. The Movellans want the Doctor for the same purpose. (Now, there’s an alien race that we can do without in future episodes; they look like racist caricatures, and aren’t really very interesting anyway.)
We get another Douglas Adams signature reference here, in the book the Doctor reads while trapped: Oolon Colluphid’s Origins of the Universe (which, the Doctor notes, is wrong on the very first line—he should have asked someone who was there!). K9 doesn’t do much here, and is under repairs; behind the scenes, they were between voice actors, John Leeson having left. Ostensibly K9 can’t handle the terrain, which is odd, as the Daleks have no trouble with it. Romana is seen to be able to not only stop her breathing, but stop her hearts to feign death. It’s a learned skill, one that the Doctor is unaware of.
It’s back to Earth in City of Death, which may not be a randomized destination; other material indicates the Doctor and Romana used the randomizer extensively between seasons to lose the Black Guardian’s pursuit, so he may not be using it consistently now. They land in Paris, 1979 (coincidentally, the year I was born), and then later proceed to Florence, 1505, and also the distant past. Many millions of years ago, Scaroth of the Jagaroth was splintered across time, a la Clara Oswald, when his refugee ship exploded; this led to the development of human life on Earth. His scattered selves have worked to advance human development so that his twelfth and final self will have the tools needed to go back in time and prevent the accident; somehow this isn’t a paradox, but it is a disaster for humanity, which the Doctor must prevent.
Romana seems to have lost some of her previous self’s overbearing qualities, but unfortunately she’s substituted childishness; in fact, she lies about her age, saying she is 125 rather than the 140 she reported in The Ribos Operation. She does have her own, self-made sonic screwdriver, however, so there’s that. At one point an artist sketches her, but substitutes a cracked clock for her face; the Doctor comments that it’s almost like a crack in time.” Interestingly, when rotated 90 degrees, the crack is very similar to the cracks in time from Series 5. It’s no doubt coincidental, but interesting. K9 is once again unseen, though the Doctor speaks to him off-camera in the TARDIS. The Doctor gets a few good one-liners: “Such a wonderful butler! He’s so violent!” and, to Countess Scarlioni, “You’re a beautiful woman, probably.” The TARDIS, parked in the Louvre, gets mistaken for an art installation; when it dematerializes, the art critics aren’t fazed at all!
The Creature from the Pit takes us to the planet Chloris, with no date given anywhere; the inhabitants probably aren’t human, though they look human. It’s a slow starter of a story, but it picks up toward the end. Lady Adrasta, the local ruler, has a monopoly on metals, which are scarce on Chloris; when a Tythonian emissary—the titular creature—comes to broker a trade agreement, she imprisons him to protect her power. She doesn’t know that his people have not taken it lightly, and are planning to destroy her world. Adrasta is a petty and thuggish villain who surrounds herself with similar people; but I don’t mind that. She’s more realistic than many television villains; there’s no self-indulgent speeches, no melodrama—she simply says what she’s going to do, and does it. She lets her force speak for her. She’s a brute, but she’s okay with that.
The serial is reminiscent of The Beast Below, with a non-harmful creature that can’t communicate being pressed into service by an oblivious ruler, then released by the Doctor just in time to avert a catastrophe. The Tythonians are both massive and psychic (after a fashion, anyway), and also are technologically advanced; they can weave metals in an organic matter, and they can move a neutron star to use as a weapon. The TARDIS is seen to have a gravity-based tractor beam, presaging its role in returning Earth in Journey’s End. K9 returns in this serial, with a new voice actor, David Brierley; John Leeson will return next season.
Nightmare of Eden comes across as a sort of Doctor Who PSA; it has a very blatant anti-drug message, with the illegal drug Vraxoin portrayed as being both deadly and scandalous. It’s the year 2116, just a hundred years from now; we know this because the Galactic Salvage and Insurance Company, which the Doctor and Romana claim to represent, went bankrupt twenty years earlier, a date seen on a monitor to be 2096. It’s early in the colonization period, but late enough for some colonies and transport lines to be in place; however, it’s possible that some of the individuals seen are non-human, as the planet Azure is described as an empire, and apparently not an Earth colony. The action occurs above the planet, on the liner Empress, which has collided with the Hecate, thus initiating the story.
The drug being smuggled, Vraxoin, is a byproduct of the death by electrocution of creatures called Mandrels. Rather than transport the drug—and risk discovery—the smugglers are transporting the Mandrels, by means of a Continuous Event Transmuter (CET). It’s a bit like a cross between a miniscope and the Gallifreyan “cup o’ soup” paintings from The Day of the Doctor; it maintains three-dimensional slices of reality as two-dimensional projections. It’s not revealed at first that it actually contains the things it pictures; later the Doctor and Romana specify that it actually leaves “bald patches” on the worlds on which it is used. The drug scenario is reminiscent of the 456 aliens in Torchwood: Children of Earth, in that sentient beings are used to obtain the drugs. While it seems this story would be bland, it isn’t; and there’s a good twist at the end with regard to the villain, so it’s worth a watch.
Due to a strike among BBC workers, the season is terminated early with The Horns of Nimon. No date for the story is evident, though it’s probably in the future. It occurs on and near the planet Skonnos, the center of the failing Skonnan Empire, and also briefly on the planet of Crinoth. The Doctor’s involvement begins when the partly-dismantled TARDIS is pulled in by gravity from a black hole near the system, forcing a landing on a Skonnan ship. Here we see the TARDIS console with the Time Rotor removed; it’s the only time this ever occurs (although the secondary console room lacked a Time Rotor completely). The story is an adaptation of the myth of Theseus and the minotaur, complete with a labyrinth. The Nimon are, in fact, relatives of the minotaur later seen in The God Complex. They’re a cunning enemy, a sort of “galactic locust” which occupies a world until it is used up and then destroyed; then they move to the next world—Skonnos, in this case. With their defeat here, they are apparently destroyed en masse.
We see for the first time that the TARDIS’s defense shields can extend away from the exterior to form, as River Song will say in The Time of Angels, an air corridor. It also occurs in the next, unbroadcast serial, Shada, there used to pass the Doctor between two TARDISes. This serial is the final broadcast serial to use the original 1963 arrangement of the theme song, and the last to use the diamond-shaped logo and its corresponding introduction, though Shada would have shared those features.
I was also able to watch the incomplete Shada, with linking narration by Tom Baker (in character as the Fourth Doctor, though obviously older). It’s not quite a reconstruction in the sense of the early-season reconstructions, but well worth watching. In his opening narration he remarks that he’s “always felt at home in museums”; while probably not intentional, it adds some poignancy to his appearance as the Curator in The Day of the Doctor. Ironically, many of the villain costumes seen here are not Fourth-Doctor villains, but rather, foes of earlier Doctors. The serial was never completed and broadcast, due to what has to be the stupidest labor strike ever: as the TARDIS wiki states, “The industrial action occurred due to conflict over which union had jurisdiction over the operation of an elaborate clock that was featured on the BBC children’s programme Play School.” For THIS we lost a story?
The story is contemporary 1979, set at Cambridge; it seems likely that the off-planet portions are also at that time, as no time travel seems to be available to the villain, Skagra. His goal is to dominate the minds of the galaxy; to do this, he needs the Time Lord criminal Salyavin, who had the unique ability to project one mind into another. Therefore he sets in motion an elaborate plan to locate and raid the forgotten Time Lord prison world of Shada. He steals an ancient and powerful book, The Worshipful and Ancient Law of Gallifrey, from Cambridge professor Chronotis, who is actually a Time Lord in retirement—and who happens to be receiving a visit from his old student, the Doctor. Unknown to Skagra, Chronotis is Salyavin, having previously used his powers to escape Shada and cause the Time Lords to forget its existence. (However, the memories can be recovered with some work, as the Doctor demonstrates.)
Chronotis is on his final regeneration, and in fact dies, but is revived—not regenerated—by his TARDIS, which is hidden in the form of his Cambridge apartment. It’s older than the Doctor’s TARDIS, lacking the hexagonal console and time rotor; he notes that the Doctor’s Type 40 came out in his (Chronotis’s) childhood. It’s also stolen, apparently from the scrap heap; being retired, Chronotis is not permitted to have a TARDIS. Skagra steals the Doctor’s TARDIS, but can’t actually fly it; it is overridden by his use of the book. Chronotis, meanwhile, uses his powers to transfer knowledge to the human Clare’s mind, in a manner reminiscent of Donna Noble’s fate in Journey’s End; however, she is not harmed, and only receives some knowledge, not his full personality. Overall I was pleased with this story; it’s silly, in typical Douglas Adams fashion, but it was enjoyable. Its canonicity is debatable; but then, this Doctor Who—what ISN’T debatable? It doesn’t seem to conflict with established lore, even as it adds to it, so I’m fine with accepting it.
Next time: One more season of the Fourth Doctor! See you there.
All episodes can be viewed on Dailymotion; links are below.