The Fifth Doctor (3): Season 21 – “Regenerated Yet Unregenerate”

There are three quotes which for me sum up Season 21:

“There should have been another way”

 Warriors of the Deep is another messy script from Johnny Byrne: its biggest problems are a lack of structure and a reliance on the worst elements of Saward’s Season 19 episodes. While last year’s season opener gave us Colin Baker in person, this one introduces the sixth Doctor in spirit with a needlessly confrontational Doctor, who (in Davison’s worst moment) makes a weak James Bond quip as he assaults a security officer. Eric Saward’s vision for the series is taking shape, with squabbling, surname-only military officers urgently declaiming their lines. Everyone speaks in the same voice, and characterisation goes out of the window to be replaced by, well, nothing really. The Silurians say “Excellent!” just like the Cybermen. It’s hardly an original observation – but this is hardly an original script. It’s clearly inspired by Earthshock, with the Silurians, who were never futuristic military villains, shoehorned in. “There should have been another way” is practically the strapline for the next three years, where every victory comes at a terrible cost. So much of what’s wrong begins here. The Doctor’s uncharacteristically negative rant about “pathetic humans” and his general murderousness; the snot-oozing monsters, and the macho posturing are all present and correct. It’s fitting that the story ends on a shot of the Doctor bruised and battered, given that this story does so much to knock the heroism and joy out of his character.

The season gets back on track with The Awakening and Frontios. The difference here is palpable. For a start, we have a range of characters speaking in their own voices – from Polly James’s wonderfully acerbic Jane Hampden to William Lucas’s vaguely ineffectual science officer (who looks more like a 1970s vicar). In The Awakening, the only characters speaking in cod-Shakespearean Sawardish are those possessed by the evil alien Malus and forced to act as warmongering puppets. In Bidmead’s script, the declamatory dialogue is a way to make a point about the colony leaders’ reliance on macho posturing and empty bravado rather than real leadership. In particular, Frontios is completely brilliant – and a clear influence on the new series episodes Utopia and The Hungry Earth. Everything quite literally comes together in its final episode. In the fifth Doctor’s finest hour the last humans are saved, the retrograde attack ends in a truce, and the Tractators are not killed but reduced to harmless burrowing animals. And then there’s the TARDIS’s reconstruction in a climax that’s so cleverly judged that Steven Moffat pretty much repeats it in Blink. This is the polar opposite of Warriors of the Deep‘s massacre, and about a billion times more satisfying. In fact, barring a clumsy death scene for Brazen and some less than impressive monsters, Frontios is near perfect, and the last scene is beautiful.

“It’s stopped being fun”

Given another year to fix its script problems, there is no excuse for Resurrection of the Daleks – and an excuse is definitely needed. The fun and wit of the last 3 weeks is quickly forgotten with an opening massacre on the rain-lashed streets of Southwark. Saward again seems to be going for gritty, military SF, with a pointlessly belligerent and confrontational crew aboard the space station, striding about and shouting at each other (that’s going to happen a lot in the next 2 years, culminating in Brian Blessed). He also throws in body horror, with melting faces, an Alien homage with a Dalek mutant in place of a facehugger, lashings and lashings of Ian Levine-pleasing continuity about the Movellans, and far too many plots. Unlike Earthshock, which built up suspense through a relatively confined and focused first episode in the caves only revealing the Cybermen at the end, here Saward only waits 15 minutes unleash the Daleks. That might get away from the bog-standard Part One “…of the Daleks” cliffhanger, however keeping them off screen longer would at least have let him set up the structure of this world before knocking it down. And yet again, obscenely, the Doctor quickly grabs a gun and carries one practically the whole story. Resurrection of the Daleks is a hollow experience. Like Eleanor Rigby, no-one is saved: everybody dies in futile gestures of defiance. One wonders whether Saward deliberately chose not to differentiate the warring factions of humans and Daleks (even the space station crew change into Dalek mercenary uniforms) to highlight the themes of self-destruction and the pointlessness of conflict. But the episode seems too witless for that. Tegan’s disgust at the Doctors mission to murder Davros hints that Saward at least recognises the morality of the character. But when even the Doctor threatens to abandon that morality in favour of murderous violence (ordering Stein to “deal with” the Daleks’ human allies), the compass of the series is shattered. The Doctor (or rather, Saward) has no defence against Davros’s accusations of weakness. So when he fails to kill Davros, the fifth Doctor does, indeed become what he’s often wrongly accused of being: ineffectual. After the triumph of Frontios, this feels like a deliberate undermining of the character.

Fortunately Planet of Fire pulls a blinder and resurrects the fifth Doctor, making him full of energy, distracted, but still caring for the welfare of his friends. Even the death of Kamelion is clearly written and performed as an act of mercy, since the Doctor has just had to induce a massive heart attack in the murderous robot to prevent it from killing him and Peri (who is beautifully set up as the new companion – in a very new series way, the Doctor even takes her hand inside the volcano control room). Turlough’s departure is a great exit – there’s a real fondness in his farewell and his parting shot to Peri. It’s possibly the most touching departure since Sarah Jane’s, in a highly under-rated story.

And then, overshadowing the rest of the season, is The Caves of Androzani. In context, this feels like a synthesis of Season 21: it’s set on another desert planet of caves (polished smooth like glass), with an unwieldy monster, poison gas, androids disguised as humans and a military SF feel. That this is done much better than Resurrection of the Daleks isn’t quite the point. What it does show is how nearly Season 21 got to getting it right: the big difference here is partly the characterisation and dialogue – rather than a cod-Shakespearean monotone we have people speaking in slang. And the structure is excellent. Most importantly, Robert Holmes knows that the Doctor must never stoop to the level of his enemies. The second episode makes it abundantly clear that the Doctor and Peri are trapped in a world without morals. Even the upright General Chellak is willing to send a young soldier to certain death in order to cover up his blundering execution of android copies, and the President, although insightful about Morgus’s true motives, is willing to send workers to labour camps – “We might make that seem morally justifiable”. Minor itself, with its poisonous bats’ nests, scalding mud and vicious wildlife, is equally hostile. Never has the Doctor seemed more like the only light in the dark.

This is the end point of Season 21’s descent into darkness. The Doctor has already lost one companion this year thanks to the death and destruction around him. He’s had to kill another, and watch his oldest acquaintance burn. And despite Turlough’s redemption he’s still haunted by his failure to save Adric. The Caves of Androzani is as far as you can go with “There should have been another way” and “It’s stopped being fun”. Everyone on Minor dies, victims of the chain reaction triggered by the Doctor’s arrival. And the Doctor himself realises this: he refuses to lose another friend. He refuses to surrender to the violence and horror of this nasty world, or to buy into its cheap, base motives.  As a result, he’s never been more heroic. The final race to save Peri is genuinely tense. As the whole planet – the whole narrative – collapses around him, the Doctor wins his smallest yet most important victory: saving a single human life. After the massacres of Warriors of the Deep and Resurrection of the Daleks, Robert Holmes has taken the dark, grim horror of this season to its natural extreme, and in so doing purged it. What’s needed now is what the end of this episode promises: change – and not a moment too soon.

“I am the Doctor, whether you like it or not!”

The Twin Dilemma‘s worst crime is that The Caves of Androzani’s closing promise is squandered. The series is, like the new Doctor, unregenerate, not reconciled to change. The new Doctor’s initial bombast and conceit is pleasingly fun, and the very early scenes suggest he and Peri could become a kind of screwball comedy double act.

And then, it all goes horribly wrong.

What this episode needed precisely was not an insane and murderous Doctor forcing himself on his companion. If anything, what it needed was to drop these characters into a colourful story, as different from The Caves of Androzani as possible, to see how they react. To an extent, new Doctors’ first stories are always about the absence of the central character – but they get over this by making their plots exciting and interesting. Instead, The Twin Dilemma has a plot marred by appalling acting and dreadful dialogue, plus a Doctor who isn’t absent but just entirely wrong.

And so, while on the surface you have a story that’s lighter and potentially more fun than anything else this year, you have a Doctor who has internalised “There should have been another way” and “It’s stopped being fun”. The Doctor himself is becoming the horror he’s been fighting against. Whether you like it or not…

One comment

  1. Pingback: The Sixth Doctor (1): Season 22 – “All part of an elaborate theatrical effect” « Canon Alberic's Scrap-Book

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