In 1985, Doctor Who was cancelled, ostensibly for 18 months – although there’s a persistent belief that until fankind fought back, the show would never have returned in 1986. The immediate result was that the planned Season 23 stories were put on hold. However, in the brouhaha that followed the announcement, various BBC bods bashed Season 22 on the entirely justifiable grounds that it was too violent and basically crap. Whether that was actually a motivating factor in the “hiatus” or just a convenient ex post facto excuse is probably unknowable at this stage, but the impact on the production team – who had gone from the high watermark of 1983’s 20th anniversary celebrations at Longleat to the ignominy of not having a show any more can’t be underestimated.
But what did we lose? The actual Lost Stories have their admirers, but they are broadly more of the same that we had in Season 22: badly structured and derivative.
Superficially, The Nightmare Fair should be a winner. There’s a fantastic setting – Blackpool Pleasure Beach – and the opening scenes with the Doctor and Peri having a good time on the rides is lighter and simply more fun than anything we actually saw during Season 22. In its way, it is much a new beginning as The Mysterious Planet, and in many ways a more satisfying one. Equally, the return of an old villain, though a tired cliché by 1985, is handled decently: the Toymaker as a baddie is comprehensible without any real knowledge of his previous encounters with the Doctor – a super-being that treats living creatures as toys is not as arcane as, say, the first of the Time Lords harnessing the power of an astronomical quirk or the Cybermen retconning an adventure from 18 years before.
In the Big Finish audio we get their softened version of the sixth Doctor. Whether he would have been quite so cuddly on TV is open to question, so it’s difficult to say whether this would have seemed as much of a departure from the abrasive Season 22 characterisation. Peri would definitely have benefited from her pairing with Kevin – like the DJ, he’s a foil that brings out the best in her, and we see a side of her that was so often lacking when she and the Doctor grated on each others’ nerves.
The problem with The Nightmare Fair, though, is the same as bugged The Celestial Toymaker: given the scope of the premise, the execution just feels bland. So, what begins as a big adventure for the most tasteless Doctor in the most tasteless location gradually turns into lots of conversations in cells and corridors, and – instead of deadly musical chairs – a videogame climax that probably would have been a bit passé even in 1985.
It’s been years since I read The Ultimate Evil and, sorry Blog, I remember it just well enough to know I wouldn’t want to again – but I remember a tiresome story about two peaceful planets being urged to war by a capitalist alien, which is pretty much the kind of thing Philip Martin gives us. Plus, Daly has the Doctor sent into a murderous rage by a violence ray, which is exactly the kind of thing Colin Baker didn’t need.
There are things that are good about Mission to Magnus, but an equal number of things that don’t come off or, with 25 years hindsight, are just wrong. A battle of the sexes story, set on the planet of the women, was old hat by 1985, and Martin hardly covers himself with glory with some really off-colour jokes that basically imply that what these women need is for the neighbouring planet of the men to come and give them all a good seeing to. The ultimate pay-off, that marriage (with or without consent) is the only thing that can rescue these bad girls, is simply unacceptable, and the sniggering, cruel way that the women are written is equally bad taste.
Learning nothing from the preceding Colin Baker episodes, Martin has also inserted significant roles for child actors, a surfeit of baddies, and yet another Time Lord nemesis for the Doctor. Anzor, apparently the Gallifreyan school bully, is a silly idea that tends to cheapen the Time Lords, a further nail in the coffin for any credibility they might once have had, and the Doctor’s response, cowering and whining to Peri, is pretty demeaning and would have done nothing to enhance Colin Baker’s reputation. Thankfully, Anzor barely appears, and is there only to get the Doctor embroiled in the action.
In its favour are Sil and the Ice Warriors, the only major villains John Nathan-Turner never got round to reviving, are great too. Thought they don’t do much, it’s easy to imagine iconic images of them lumbering through the ice caves of Magnus. Best of all, the second episode – featuring a missing TARDIS, an apocalyptic glimpse into the future and a race against time – injects real energy, and jeopardy for all the characters.
For all this, though, it’s difficult to argue that Martin’s segment of The Trial isn’t vastly superior in every respect, with a better role for Sil, and an even more perilous second half. Mission to Magnus shows that what might have been isn’t always better than what we actually got.
The Hollows of Time bears many of the hallmarks of its writer, 1980s Script Editor Christopher H Bidmead’s favourite themes – even if it’s unclear how much he would have included had he finished the script at the time. But the 21st Century changes insisted on by the BBC, to eliminate the Master, makes the Big Finish version suffer. The first episode is successful in creating an air of mystery, and of menace, combining the Doctor’s funny turns, the corpses of the sand creatures and the nature of Professor Stream’s history with Foxwell and the Doctor. However, on the whole, the play gets too caught up in its own obfuscation and ends on an unsatisfactory, unresolved note. It’s certainly Bidmead’s weakest story.
So, The Nightmare Fair is a bit so-so, The Ultimate Evil is dross, Mission to Magnus has a planet of women straight out of a 1960s’ Dick Sharples script, and The Hollows of Time betrays Bidmead’s disillusionment with John Nathan-Turner’s list of script requirements, and lacks the sense of scale of the writer’s TV episodes. Yellow Fever and Gallifray remain unknown quantities, although Ian Levine’s précis of their stories in a recent podcast made neither sound especially promising. But we would have ended up with a season that brought back the Celestial Toymaker, Sil, The Ice Warriors, the Master, the Tractators, the Autons and the Time Lords, with a Doctor and Peri who were still bickering. It’s hard not to read something into the fact that the production office scrapped the lot rather than risk repeating the faults that the BBC were now claiming had got the show suspended in the first place.
So, Season 23 was completely rewritten to reflect the siege mentality that apparently existed in the production office. If the show was on trial behind the scenes, so the thinking went, then art should imitate life. Work therefore started on a 14-episode epic and, before that, a six-part story which was the first opportunity the production office had to respond to the criticisms of Season 22.
Slipback is a fascinating curio: the first official BBC Radio Doctor Who story, and the first time anyone really had the idea of continuing the series on audio. And where else would a writer look were they wanting to write sci-fi for radio than The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy? So you have the previously unthinkable spectacle of Eric Saward emulating Douglas Adams, with a drunk and ditzy ship’s computer, insane bureaucracy, a pustulating alien captain and a machine that wants to change the universe. Valentine Dyall’s captain is so similar to Bruce Purchase’s to qualify as homage: both are attended to by nurses and fawning lackeys, and their crews live in fear of their next explosion.
This in itself is fascinating: reacting to criticisms of the show’s violence, Saward is doing just as Graham Williams did and going for comedy instead. Fair enough, it’s only mildly amusing, but that’s a step up from where we have been with this script editor. Even the ubiquitous Doctor/Peri animosity has lost some of its edge. And in the scenes of the Doctor debating with the Inner Voice are probably the best writing Saward’s done for the character (in either incarnation) – discussing his experience of war, evolution, life, the universe and everything. For perhaps the first time, you can believe that the sixth Doctor really is the same man as the first five, under the bluster and bad taste costume. Here we have the sixth Doctor as Big Finish will later develop him: expansive, but avuncular. Not cruel or cowardly, but sad.
But on the other hand, this is another story, like Revelation of the Daleks, where the TARDIS’s presence is entirely irrelevant: as the Time Lords make clear, the Doctor cannot interfere, because the Vipod Mor always did what it is going to do. He doesn’t even meet the captain. If anything, his arrival has just caused problems. So, for the second Saward script in a row, we have a Doctor who is incidental to his own adventures, who lacks both the insight and the influence of his predecessors, and whose meddling has gone from being a risk to himself and his companions, to a risk to the whole stability of time. There’s only one thing the Time Lords can do now…