‘Can we go now Professor; the whole place gives me the creeps?’ Famously, the last Old Testament Doctor Who serial was originally conceived as Lungbarrow, the story that would introduce the Doctor’s family and reveal the existence of pre-Hartnell iterations in the form of the Other, a notion curiously resurrected in 1997 long after the New Adventures had lost interest in it. In a lapse of misjudgement, John Nathan-Turner nixed the idea, and so Marc Platt repurposed his story as Ghost Light and made it about exploring Ace’s dark past rather than the Doctor’s.
‘Simple isn’t it, just like most killings.’ In between plotting that gracelessly lurches from one scene to the next, there’s something very good here that suggests the show is groping towards the kind of ongoing character arcs beloved of 1990s telefantasy. For instance it’s rare for the series to call back to character moments from earlier episodes, but Mordred’s challenge to the Doctor – ‘look me in the eye end my life’ – makes it obvious that Cartmel isn’t just trying to get something in front of the cameras from week to week but wants to do something more ambitious.
‘Now I’m vexed.’ I like that Aaronovitch writes this as a proper “The Two Brigadiers” with the same slight tension and mild sniping between Lethbridge-Stewart and Bambera as we’d get between two incarnations of the Doctor. They even get a memorable first meeting: ‘I am the Brigadier,’ snaps Bambera. ‘So am I,’ announces Lethbridge-Stewart as he emerges from Arthur’s spaceship with the rescued Doctor. Rightly, though, there’s no implication that the old Brig is the better version and barring a couple of snide remarks (‘I thought you’d retired’; ‘Good lord, is that her name?’) the two of them are quickly on the same page. This era of the show likes the popular history of Doctor Who but is confident enough to suggest we’ve never had it so good. Bessie might be back, but the number plate is very clearly Who 7.
‘She vanquished me and I threw myself on her mercy.’ Bits of this look like a bad pop video from circa 1985 (especially Mordred opening a gateway across the dimensions complete with excited muzak, disco lights and a lot of stage laughter). The first five minutes are a chore, with McCoy asked to gargh at Excalibur’s flying scabbard as Christopher Bowen delivers unsayable dialogue.
‘Sideways in time, across the boundaries that divide one universe from another.’ Some of the details in this are brilliant: the Brigadier ending up with Doris; a genuinely internationally-flavoured UNIT and some effort put into getting a more diverse cast; futuristic hints like ‘the King’ and carphones, the little robot coin that could just have been a lump of colourful plastic, but suggests a level of attentiveness and care behind the scenes. Nicholas Courtney’s performance is superb: the moment he tells Doris kindly but firmly, ‘I’m not playing’ at soldiers is very moving. He’s not just “the Brigadier” showing up to tick a continuity box, we get a sense of a man with a life that we haven’t really had since the end of Season Eight.
‘It was your show all along, wasn’t it?’ This one falls apart in the final episode, but it does so quite entertainingly. McCoy’s ability to vamp for the Gods of Ragnarok is a scene that none of the other Doctors (barring, perhaps, Pertwee at his most vaudevillian) could have pulled off quite so well, and even if I don’t really follow what the Gods’ plan is, buy that the Doctor’s been battling them ‘all through time’, understand how Kingpin’s eye medallion is able to destroy them or why they keep shooting at the Doctor when it’s just bouncing back at them (the Emperor Palpatine manoeuvre), it’s all enormous fun to watch.
‘Things are beginning to get out of control quicker than I expected.’ Appropriately for an anniversary story, this is nostalgic with Bellboy and Whizz Kid both eulogising a past that was better than the present. But while Whizz Kid is just going by rote like a good DWB reader, Bellboy is speaking from experience, and Deadbeat’s turn back into Kingpin implies that things can be good again if they stop making it for the impossible-to-please fans in the ring. I wonder if there’s a subtext?
‘Now welcome folks, we’ve got a brand-new act. He’s a real find and no doubt that’s a fact. He’ll entertain you, he’ll make you stare, and our great new act is seated over there!’ Inevitably there are echoes of Paradise Towers. Nord is another take on Pex (with Padawan dreadlocks), the muscle-oaf; Mags looks and acts like a Kang; there’s something evil lurking in the basement, spreading its baleful influence through the once-happy travellers, and there’s a general air of something good having been spoiled, a pervasive sickness that infests every part of the Psychic Circus.
‘He can’t help being a pompous, selfish, self-satisfied meddler.’ I’ve frequently pointed out one of the best things about Doctor Who is the way it puts things that don’t belong together side by side to generate memorable images and stories. Here, it’s a clown in an undertaker’s costume. It might be a reference to Bowie’s Ashes to Ashes video, but it’s also a perfect encapsulation of The Greatest Show in the Galaxy.
‘Doctor who? Have you never wondered where he came from, who he is?’ Lady Peinforte knows the Doctor’s secrets, of Gallifrey and the old time. So, a mysterious time-travelling woman of questionable morals who knows the Doctor, and likes to pick up handsome young men as she searches for ancient, hidden artefacts: Peinforte is clearly the final incarnation of River Song. Her threats are empty, in the end, because (implausibly but brilliantly) the CyberLeader isn’t interested, and so it’s just a shaggy-dog tale. The Doctor’s dark past doesn’t matter, it is irrelevant to who the character is.