How fitting that the John Nathan-Turner years should begin on Brighton beach, plus what looks like a gay couple visiting space Center Parcs. This announces its entrance and exit with screams courtesy of Peter Howell’s excellent reworking of the theme music (still, for me, the true Doctor Who theme), and from Tom Baker as the Doctor seems to be torn apart. In between, 24 of the strangest minutes in years.
It doesn’t necessarily help establish a bold new direction to rely on a script by David Fisher, whose three and a half stories to a large extent helped define the Graham Williams style. Bubbling under the surface is a much funnier, wittier story bursting to get out, and only kept down at all by layers of electronic effects and a thick plastering of quasi-scientific bafflegab. Tom hasn’t yet reached that place of weary resignation where he spends a lot of his last year. He glitters as brightly as usual, even weighed down by a very handsome but, to my eyes, overly designed new costume.
The Doctor and Romana trying to have a holiday without alerting the Black Guardian, and K9 being out of action is very Season 17. Cosmetics aside, that’s same old, same old. The model work here looks good, but so did most of the model work last season – and the Leisure Hive looks very like the Skonnon power complex. The biggest differences are the production style, and the script editing. Lovett Bickford’s direction is a lot showier than we’ve been used to. There are weird fades and zooms courtesy of the Quantel video effects machine. There are loads of shots through windows or monitor screens, but this isn’t because he’s going for fly-on-the-wall realism since there are an equal number of shots where characters swish towards then away from the camera like they’re in a campy soap opera title sequence. Adrienne Corri is introduced striding into shot like Margaret Thatcher to take command, but her key dialogue (about manipulating time) is muffled as she walks off into the distance. I’m not sure what Bickford’s trying to do with this other than get people to pay attention to the way this is being done (in which case, he succeeds).
The script editing equally makes a point. There’s not much wit. Pangol trumpets Argolis’ creation of ‘a whole new science.’ Later, he promises, ‘For the next hour and a half, we will examine the wave equations that define the creation of solid tachyonic images.’ Sounds a blast. No wonder everyone was switching over to Buck Rogers in the 25th Century* (which ironically makes Pangol’s dismissive griping about Argolis’ more successful commercial rivals the funniest thing about this). The bits that work best are where everyone calms down a bit and lets the show be the show: a glimpse of something reptilian forcing its way into the hive; a claw manipulating the controls; a horrifically gruesome, if bloodless, shot of Visitor Loman’s dismembered corpse, and a tremendous cliffhanger.
Next episode: The Leisure Hive – Part Two
*Addendum: my learnèd colleague James Cooray Smith has highlighted that Buck Rogers‘ transmissions preceded the launch of the new series of Doctor Who, and the low ratings achieved by this story from the outset are suggestive less of people switching over, and more of people not tuning in to BBC1 in the first place. Thanks Jim.