We’re back, with another season of Classic Doctor Who! We’re approaching the end today as we meet the Seventh Doctor, Sylvester McCoy. Only three seasons (and a television movie) left! Let’s get started!
Seasons from this point forward—or actually, from last season—will be the shortest they’ve ever been, with only four serials each. Unlike last seasons, Season 24 is not a single cohesive story, although we will see the beginning of a loose arc that will take us all the way to the end of the classic series. We open with Time and the Rani. Right away, it’s different from any previous regeneration story; Colin Baker declined to return and film the regeneration after being treated rather badly by the BBC. We open on the TARDIS under attack from an unknown source; after taking a few hits, we find the Sixth Doctor (played by McCoy in a wig with his face turned away) and Mel lying on the floor of the console room. The Rani, with a henchman, enters, and takes the Doctor away; when he is rolled over, his face has already begun to change. (The reason for the regeneration—the radiation from the attacking weapons, which is toxic to Time Lords but not to humans—isn’t stated here, but has since been revealed in a Big Finish audio.) Mel is left behind in the TARDIS, which has crashed to the surface of the planet Lakertya. The date is completely unknown.
It’s a better regeneration than most for the Doctor; although he does have some amnesia, it’s not nearly as total as it usually is—he remembers himself and Mel, the Rani, and Gallifrey, and he has more energy this time. He’s not pleased with himself at first; he comments to Mel (or to the Rani in disguise as Mel), “You don’t understand regeneration, Mel. It’s a lottery! …and I’ve drawn the short plank.” (Later, in The Day of the Doctor, the Tenth Doctor will make a similar, and snide, remark to the Eleventh Doctor.) He tries the outfits of all but the First Doctor, before settling on his trademark jacket, pants, suspenders, pullover, and hat. He claims at one point that he and the Rani are both 953 years old; and given that it’s a precise number that is sort-of backed up by the Rani, I think this is probably accurate. It’s also probably the last accurate count of the Doctor’s age that we will ever get.
The Rani is seeking intelligent minds throughout history—including Einstein and the Doctor—to capture and use an asteroid composed of “strange matter” (a real-world concept, despite the hokey name). Properly obtained and used, it would allow her control of history. She uses the violent Tetraps and the subjugated Lakertyans to carry out her plans, and disguises herself as Mel to manipulate the regeneration-addled Doctor. (The Lakertyans remind me a lot of the Nox from Stargate SG-1.) Her ambitions seem to have grown quite a bit since her last appearance; at the same time, her methods have gotten a bit more ridiculous. Surprisingly, it very nearly works. This is her final appearance in the series so far, although a possible return is often speculated by fans.
Several things stand out about this serial. We return to 25-minute episodes here; the rest of the classic series will be an even split between three- and four-part stories. There’s a new title theme and sequence, the final of each for the classic series; the title sequence represents the series’ first foray into CGI. It’s a bit hokey, but cutting edge for its time. There’s a prop on the table at one point that I could swear is a lightsaber—maybe a nod to Star Wars? Andrew Cartmel joins the series here as script editor; next season, he will initiate the now-infamous “Cartmel Masterplan” for revising the creative direction of the series. I won’t go into the details here—that topic has been beaten to death elsewhere—but it would have represented a significant new chapter in the show’s lore, especially regarding the origin of the Doctor. The plan ultimately failed, not for creative reasons, but because the series will soon be cancelled. My thought on the matter is this: Had it been carried out, I would have accepted it as canon with no issues, as would most fans. It’s only in the face of contradictory canon that the debate arises. I’m happy with how things turned out, but I like to think I’d have been happy with the Cartmel plan too. Of course it lives on today in some novels, mostly, especially Lungbarrow, which I haven’t read but want to. Only slightly related: Does Andrew Cartmel ever age?! Photos of him in the 1980s and 2007 are practically identical. Maybe he’s a Time Lord!
We meet up with the Doctor and Mel again in Paradise Towers. The date is assumed to be about 2157, though evidence for this is thin. There’s also confusion about the world on which the titular Towers exist; it may possibly be Earth, but may instead be on another world called, alternately, Kroagnon (for the designer of the Towers) or Griphos. I’m guessing it’s the latter possibility, and that the planet is a human colony world, not too isolated, as the Towers were originally seen as a sort of resort town. Here, they are in disorder and disrepair, with minor gang warfare among its younger inhabitants. The gangs refer to themselves as “kangs”, and divide based on color, specifically Red, Blue, and Yellow. There are also Caretakers, the police force in nominal control of the Towers; “Old Ones”, the elderly inhabitants of the Towers; and some very murderous cleaning robots which are at least nominally under the control of the Chief Caretaker. The Towers hide a secret: all its middle-aged inhabitants, some time earlier, were taken away to fight in an off-planet war, leaving only the very young (who became the Kangs) and the elderly, as well as a few Caretakers. But there’s a greater secret yet: Kroagnon, the designer of the Towers, is still alive, and ruling from the literal shadows with an iron grip. It is him that the Doctor must find and depose for the sake of everyone in the Towers.
It’s a good time to mention, I think, that we never actually get an origin story for Mel. After her first onscreen appearance in The Trial of a Time Lord, she should have been returned home by the Doctor and allowed to meet him in order; and offscreen, she most likely was. Unfortunately, the firing of Colin Baker and the subsequent, abbreviated regeneration scene eliminated the possibility of seeing that first meeting onscreen. I haven’t confirmed it, but I imagine that the event has been covered in novel or audio form. Mel doesn’t seem to rank high in popularity of companions among viewers, but I like her; she’s far more capable than poor Peri ever was. Nothing seems to faze her, though she can scream with the best.
We return to Earth for the only confirmed time this season in Delta and the Bannermen. ( I understand that the title is a play on the name of a band, but it wasn’t one that I was familiar with.) The story takes place in South Wales in 1959; surprisingly, it’s the only story of the classic series to be set in Wales, whereas Cardiff is a frequent location in NuWho and Torchwood. Short scenes also take place on the embattled planet Chumeria and at Toll Gate G715. It’s not known where (or when!) the toll gate is located, but “Nostalgia Trips”—which utilizes time travel—leaves from there, so I would place it in the far future. This is not the last time Doctor Who will play with the idea of aliens touring Earth in anachronistic vehicles; NuWho does something similar with the starship Titanic in Voyage of the Damned, and with the Orient Express in Mummy on the Orient Express, though that one doesn’t travel to Earth.
Delta is the last of the Chimerons, the native inhabitants of Chumeria. They are the victims of genocide by the militia-like Bannermen. She escapes in a stolen Bannermen ship, moments after her partner is killed, and flees to Toll Gate G715. From there—and coinciding with a visit by the Doctor and Mel—she hides among a group of alien tourists on their way to Earth, 1959. She’s carrying a secret: an egg which will soon hatch into a fast-growing Chimeron princess. On Earth, the Bannermen arrive and attack, forcing the Doctor and Mel—along with several human allies—to defend Delta and the baby. In the end, the Bannermen are defeated, and Delta and the princess flee to plead their case in court for the preservation of their race. She takes with her a human named Billy, who has begun to transform into a Chimeron.
It’s never made clear what court body Delta appeals to, but as it seems to have jurisdiction over multiple races and worlds, it’s possible that this could be construed as an early reference to NuWho’s Shadow Proclamation. As well, I couldn’t help wondering if the transformation arch used by the alien tourists is somehow related to the Time Lord chameleon arch, another NuWho concept; it doesn’t seem unreasonable to think that this version may have inspired that one. Unfortunately, it’s not enough to save the aliens, as they are blown up by the Bannermen. In fact, a lot of people die needlessly in this serial; I haven’t seen all of the Seventh Doctor’s episodes yet, but this story may well have the highest body count of his term. Interestingly, it’s been a LONG time indeed since we had a three-part story in the 25-minute format; the last one was 1964’s Planet of Giants, with the First Doctor.
We close with Dragonfire. The setting is the planet Svartos, circa 2,000,000; the date is not stated, but it is seen to be Sabalom Glitz’s home time period, and we know from The Mysterious Planet that he hails from that era. Specifically, the events here occur at Iceworld, a trading colony (and secret starship) on the cold side of the tidally-locked planet. Mel departs in this serial, choosing to stay with Glitz and keep him in line; it’s a fine departure for her, and probably makes both of their lives much more interesting. She’s replaced by Dorothy Gale “Ace” McShane; Ace’s full name isn’t given onscreen, but has been well established in spinoff media. We do confirm here that her first name is Dorothy. She comes from 1980s Earth, and was transported seemingly randomly to Iceworld by a timestorm. (In a couple of seasons, we’ll find that this was not random at all.) It’s interesting to see Mel and Ace “hand off” the companionship, especially given that they are the final companions of the classic series; this is something that rarely happens in NuWho. The story is also Glitz’s final appearance, and I wish him well.
The villainous Kane is using Iceworld—along with a mercenary force composed of mind-altered captives—to seek vengeance on the homeworld that exiled him. To that end, he needs the “dragonfire”, a jewel found in the body of the dragon that imprisons him, which serves as the power source for Iceworld’s engines. He doesn’t realize, however, that in his long imprisonment he has outlived the world he seeks to destroy. Without spoilers, I’ll say it doesn’t end well for him; and Sabalom Glitz takes control of Iceworld.
The dragon looks much like a Xenomorph from the Alien series. Iceworld itself, on the inside, strongly resembles the Lunatic Pandora location in the videogame Final Fantasy VIII, with its crystalline hallways and open spaces. There’s a scene with the Doctor dangling from a railing by his umbrella; this scene was recycled for one of Clara Oswald’s fractured lives in The Time of the Doctor, though of course we don’t see her here. I can’t help feeling that Ace is what Clara should have become; she’s lively and ambitious with regard to the extraordinary life she lives, but it doesn’t seem to corrupt her or bring out her worst qualities, as it did with Clara. (Apologies to anyone who is a fan of Clara.) She does have the habit of calling the Doctor “Professor”, which seems to annoy him. Although the BBC once promoted this serial as the 150th television story, it’s only that if you count The Trial of a Time Lord as four stories instead of one. In my post I listed the parts separately, but for the purpose of counting I am listing them as one story, which seems to be consistent with most other counts. By that reckoning, this is the 147th story (or 148th if you count Shada).
Thoughts on this season as a whole: The contrast between Six and Seven is startling. While it took me an entire season to begin to see Six as the Doctor, Seven was the Doctor from his very first line. Sylvester McCoy owns the role right out of the gate, as few before him have done; there’s no adjustment period. I enjoyed Mel’s performance, but I really like Ace; she’s the ideal companion for the Seventh Doctor, and their performances complement each other perfectly. (Being a season ahead in my viewing, I can say that it continues to get better.) After years of a feeling of tension throughout the seasons, these episodes seem very easy to watch; I’m going through them almost too quickly. Seeing Sabalom Glitz one more time was nice, and I’m glad he gets a bit of the redemption that the Sixth Doctor said he deserved. As far as dislikes: I didn’t care for the way the regeneration was handled, of course, but I do feel that the production team did the best they could with what they had to work with. The Rani was goofier in this serial than in her previous appearance, tree mines notwithstanding. Other than that, I really didn’t have much to say in the way of negatives. It’s a good season, and almost felt like a vacation.
Next time: Saying goodbye to some old enemies! See you there.
All episodes may be viewed on Dailymotion; links are below.