The Sixth Doctor (1): Season 22 – “All part of an elaborate theatrical effect”

Much of the argument of my Season 21 review was that script editor Eric Saward had a deeply cynical view of the show. In his fifth Doctor stories, the Doctor invariably carries a gun, shows little compunction in joining in with the violence and every story ends with a massacre or else victory being achieved only through terrible sacrifice. And then we get The Caves of Androzani, which is a kind of catharsis – in which the fifth Doctor sacrifices himself rather than once again being drawn into the sort of violence that killed Adric, sickened Tegan and wiped out the Silurians.

Season 22 therefore offers the chance of a new start, in which a Doctor divested of the failings of the Davison incarnation can get back on course – even if The Twin Dilemma was possibly the worst way to follow up Androzani – giving us a murderous and unlikeable Doctor rather than a winning one, and ending with a huge two-fingered salute to the audience and a “like it or lump it” parting shot from the production team.

But Season 22’s biggest flaw (and it has several) is that it doesn’t define a new direction. Instead, it’s treading water, lazily drawing on last year’s big hit with various masked villains lusting after Peri. The overall impression is of a series clinging to the past because it has no idea what it’s for any more. In that sense, Attack of the Cybermen is an apt season opener. Like Johnny Byrne’s Davison stories, it’s structurally weak – the first sign that the production team have failed to learn anything from Arc of Infinity or Warriors of the Deep. The story jumps between locations and characters without ever giving an idea of how they are related or why. In the new 45-minute episode format, the cliffhanger is at the midway point and should therefore be the tipping point of the story from the set-up and complication of the first part to climax and denouement in the second. But by the end of Part One, it’s impossible to say what the story is about or what’s at stake. And the second episode is equally baffling. Because we never see Mondas, never have any visibility of how it will attack the Earth, or what is really at stake, the whole story revolves around the abstract notion of changing a fictional history (i.e. Doctor Who‘s own continuity) that most of the audience have no sight of. Whole sub-plots, such as Bates and Stratton’s escape, fizzle out in random bloodbaths. Everyone in the universe seems to know about the Time Lords and regeneration. The dialogue is atrocious (what American teenager in 1985 would say, “On one occasion you even referred to me as Jamie!” rather than something like, “You even called me Jamie one time!”?). The violence veers into sadism, with a head being shot off, decapitations, crushed and bleeding hands, one character boiled alive and Lytton begging for euthanasia. Oh, and the Doctor grabs a gun. And this is meant to be business as usual.

Vengeance on Varos, commonly feted as this year’s (sole) success story is better, because it’s actually about something.  For once, the cynical nastiness of Saward’s universe becomes a comment in itself, on a capitalist society that treats people as a commodity, and which will torture and even kill them in search of profit. The much-cited “video nasty” theme is clearly subordinate to the wider critique of Sil’s aggressive capitalism. His admiration for the Governor’s scheme to sell videotapes of the executions – “That is enterprising”, and his treatment of them as “product” make this an obvious mid-1980s anti-Thatcher polemic. Whether you agree with Martin’s politics or not, to treat this as being about video nasties in any meaningful way is to misread the script. The overtones of oppressed miners, the implication of Varosian family values (Peri and Areta are to be transmogrified as an example to women who aren’t obedient), and the idea of an invasion to protect business interests all chime with contemporary attacks on Thatcher’s government. Push it further, and you could see the Governor, hide-bound by the need for regular ballots of a largely indifferent electorate, as a hapless trade union leader trying his best to get a fair wage for his brothers from the capitalists.

But against this, Vengeance on Varos is a pretty unsavoury episode, complete with florid descriptions of decapitation and torture. The acid bath murder is possibly the most controversial scene in all Doctor Who – but what’s actually worse are two later scenes, the first when the Doctor grabs a gun (two out of two stories so far this year) and shoots up the control centre, and then later, rigs a deadly poison trap for Quillam and the Chief of Operations, killing both of them and another guard. Abandoning wit or persuasion and going straight for premeditated, violent death is something no other Doctor would seem to so readily contemplate. Andrew Cartmel, who rarely ventures controversial opinions about his predecessors (ahem) cites this as a good script but a bad Doctor Who story because the Doctor becomes complicit in the violence rather than aloof from it. And it’s hard to argue against that.

So, so far, Colin Baker’s Doctor is as steeped in violence as the fifth at his worst. And, worse, with his James Bond quips, seems at best inured to it, and at times to even delight in it. Vengeance on Varos also shows that, although Nicola Bryant’s a decent actress, a big part of this year’s problems sit with Peri. Her relationship with the Doctor has become entirely dysfunctional, and it’s poisoning the show. If they look like they hate being together why would the audience want to spend its time with them? The way she cowers when he shouts makes Peri look like a victim of domestic abuse, and shows the Doctor up as a monster. There’s no way the series could conceivably continue in this vein.

It takes the infamous Pip and Jane Baker in The Mark of The Rani to actually make the sixth Doctor anything like a viable proposition. I breathed a sigh of relief when offered a gun the Doctor replied, “I’ve given them up. Guns can seriously damage your health.” Were they not so adamant that they saw Doctor Who as strictly for kids, the Bakers, both Labour Party activists, could have made something more of the implicit politics of a mining community under threat both from modern production techniques and a domineering woman intent on exploiting them to shore up her own power base. That said, a colourful story that appeals to kids is at least better than a gloomy story that appeals to no-one, so things are definitely looking up.

After Pip and Jane rescue the sixth Doctor, it’s another sigh of relief to see Robert Holmes’ name on the titles of The Two Doctors: as we have seen, in his previous script he rejected the Sawardistic universe of Peter Davison’s final season and in so doing redeemed the fifth Doctor. All of which makes this serial doubly baffling. You get the sense that he doesn’t approve of the sixth Doctor – “I haven’t felt at all myself lately” – and is aware of the emerging criticism of his unlikeability. The response, at least in this episode, is to try to make him as much like his earlier incarnation as possible: mercurial and slightly embarrassed when his pomposity is pricked. The second Doctor and Jamie’s opening TARDIS scene – in which Jamie needles the Doctor for his inability to steer the TARDIS – feels like a parody of those endless scenes of Peri doing the same to her Doctor. And throughout, the second Doctor and Jamie are handled in much the same way as the sixth and Peri. Jamie (like Peri) moans a bit and is an object of physical lust for the monster; the Doctor throws his weight about, criticises his companion’s accent (though “mongrel tongue” is pretty cruel for the second Doctor) and reaches for a knife when his life is in danger. The problem is, Troughton and Hines make a much more likeable double act than Baker and Bryant – playing against some of the more confrontational lines and thus robbing them of the unpleasant overtones, so even though Holmes is going out of his way to give us a rather less avuncular second Doctor, he’s still preferable to the current incumbent.

But the real hook of The Two Doctors is an overt theatricality. To an extent, that’s always been a key to understanding Holmes stories from Carnival of Monsters to The Talons of Weng-Chiang. But here, Holmes has coupled it with his other obsessions. The body horror of the Hinchcliffe era is here: Dastari is a latterday Davros, setting Chessene amongst the gods; the idea of alien consumption of the human body (seen in The Ark in Space) is taken to an extreme and mixed with the charnel house horror of The Talons of Weng-Chiang. And the revenge tragedy of Holmes’s last hit, The Caves of Androzani, is evoked with a finale in which most of the characters die horribly, blood flowing freely as the truth behind the double crosses is revealed. In that sense, Oscar quoting Shakespearean revenge drama is surely a deliberate clue: Holmes has given us Titus Androgum.

Titus Andronicus has been described as Shakespeare’s inhuman play, replete with cannibalism and dismemberment, where “justice and cookery go hand in hand”. In Titus Andronicus, a messenger enters carrying a severed hand and heads – and here Shockeye enters carrying Stike’s severed leg. Where it falls down is there’s no Titus; no Hamlet. Dastari – a noble character brought low – is so sidelined that he can’t play the role of tragic hero, and despite a great performance from Jacqueline Pearce, Chessene is unreadable – a blank slate of a character, whose plans to take over the universe are barely articulated and seem to change moment to moment. And elsewhere, Holmes is gleefully unrestrained by any lingering sense of responsibility to children. Oscar is stabbed through the stomach in a grotesque scene that’s written as comedy, and performed by James Saxon as such, but is treated as tragedy by Bryant and Gomez. The perfunctory murder of the Sontarans – and Stike’s triple death – is grossly over the top. The death of Shockeye, like those of the guards in Vengeance on Varos, is made nasty by the Doctor’s quipping response. This is all about effect – the work of a writer perhaps disillusioned with the ingredients he was forced to work with, and cooking up a dish that’s excessively fatty. There’s also the possibility it’s a parody of the excesses of Doctor Who in this era. But all of this is to some extent redundant, because the story is all about impact and sensation. Holmes keeps talking about the Androgums as sensual creatures devoted to sensory pleasures, but with no substance and The Two Doctors is the same – full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Then, after the grisly artifice of The Two Doctors comes the artless disaster of Timelash. There’s a reason why it is often cited as the worst ever story, and it’s hard to defend any aspect of the episode. The dialogue is entirely dreadful (“A period you call 1179 A.D.”, “No-one lives there and few visit other than you”): plot points are introduced without preamble (the ruler is “only ever seen on a screen” and “I thought the Borad had banned all mirrors”), and them reemphasised in the most tiresome, repetitive way (Peri’s bizarre speech about the matt dullness of the planet). Most of the actors are deadly earnest: Jeaneanne Crowley seems to be aiming for ethereal space princess and landing on Prozac junkie. And the disasters just come thick and fast: the rubber Bandril, the beekeeper guardoliers, the TARDIS seatbelts, Peri reading up on Doctor Who continuity and recognising a locket of Jo Grant and remembering the Daleks’ time tunnel from the story before she joined. The Doctor is back to his smug, unlikeable Twin Dilemma self, bellowing at (an admittedly nagging) Peri, and sending her into obvious danger so he can chat with Tekker. Timelash does have one good idea, though: it relies on being made in a period of the show when everyone is expecting old monsters to turn up to re-fight old battles, so the idea of making a sequel to an unseen adventure is par for the course for the “normal viewer” (who this year has already had to sit through a sequel to a story no-one has seen since 1966) – and because the Borad remains unseen for the duration of the first episode, the possibility remains that he will turn out to be a returning villain, which must have got a few fans excited.

After this, Revelation of the Daleks looks like a different programme (although it’s practically a sister piece to The Two Doctors). The direction is astonishing: Harper pulls out all the stops – crash zooms, scrolling frames, direct-to-camera soliloquies, steadicam – to make this visually exciting and energetic. There’s a feeling that he’s trying almost too hard to live up to the awesome reputation he built with The Caves of Androzani. Meanwhile, Saward has also learned from that story: the messy structure of Resurrection of the Daleks is corrected. Instead, Saward keeps this moving by introducing a string of double acts, each with a pretty clearly established motivation. The plot develops through these double-acts and motives overlapping, like a series of Venn diagrams. And sitting outside the action, watching it unfold and passing comment – through the cameras and holographic display screens Harper used on Androzani – are Davros and the D.J.: both literally talking heads (as is Stengos – a reminder of Saward’s more gruesome interests).

Every story this year has featured a theme of bodily transmutation – into a Cyberman, a bird, a tree, an Androgum or a Morlok, so Stengos’s transformation into a Dalek continues that theme of body horror in the most grotesque way possible. In fact, the script delights in its horror: frothing corpses, bodily degeneration, assassination. The worst elements of human nature – pride, greed, cruelty – are on display. The design is superb: the new cream-coloured Daleks look marvellous gliding through the catacombs – their gold finish fitting in with the tasteless, gaudy, glistering Las Vegas kitsch of Tranquil Repose. As Peri remarks, it’s all in the worst possible taste. Saward is telling the kind of story only Doctor Who can tell, plundering various sources to synthesise a unique result. The reality is, Saward has brought the show to the point where the ugly, tasteless, cynical horror of all this doesn’t feel particularly out of place.

Sadly, having kept the Doctor and Peri out of the action while he sets it up, Saward then has them play virtually no part in its resolution: Peri cowers behind the D.J. and, because it’s a Saward script, the Doctor accepts a gun and wanders the catacombs while Takis, Orcini and ultimately the “proper” Daleks sort out the problems. Saward has made the Doctor as redundant fictionally as Michael Grade has in reality. As an afterthought, he at least has the Doctor suggest a solution to the galaxy’s food problems – grow some – but really, this is one of those episodes where everything would pretty much have transpired as it did had the TARDIS never landed. A few minutes into the episode, it dawns on you that this is just another Sawardistic massacre: first Vogel, then virtually everyone else. There should have been another way, but by this point we’ve stopped caring.

As the season ends on a freeze frame and an uncertain future, you might reflect that this is a series that has lost its way: delighting in the worst aspects of cannibalism, torture and corruption. There are no heroes in Saward’s world – Natasha is a murderer, Takis has made a deal with the Daleks, which is implied to involve him becoming the new head of Tranquil Repose. Orcini, the noblest character, is a paid killer. The last two years have seen the character of the Doctor attacked and undermined, the role of the companion reduced to a yapping irritant, every victory accompanied by gory deaths, and a cynical grey universe that no longer deserves to be saved – and a show that no longer deserves to be made. The series has consumed itself. How apt that Season 22 should end with the Doctor finding his own gravestone.

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