GeekPlanetOnline's resident Doctor Who Correspondent Martin Thompson takes a deeper look at the adventures of a mad man in a box, along with his friends, foes and fandom. With over fifty years of rubber monsters, changing faces, dented police boxes, exterminations and pointed goatees to look at, he has more than a few things to say on the subject...
While Peter Capaldi’s first year may be the eighth series of Doctor Who since its 2005 return, in the series overall it’s the 34th. But what of the original eighth series? What was Doctor Who up to then? There are some interesting comparisons to be made as this series built on one of the show’s boldest format changes, featured a stern, grey haired Doctor and had the Master as an ongoing villain.
The original series eight was broadcast 2nd January to 19th June 1971 and we were only on our third Doctor, played by Jon Pertwee. It consisted of five serials, 25 episodes in total, which were Terror of the Autons, The Mind of Evil, The Claws of Axos, Colony in Space and The Dæmons.
Jon Pertwee and Peter Capaldi’s Doctors are similar in many ways: grey, grouchy and aloof - however Pertwee insisted on a ‘moment of charm’ in each story to soften his character up. The Twelfth Doctor has the usual quips of a modern Doctor but few moments when you see behind his frosty façade. His disregard of the military is also odd considering his friendliness with UNIT in his earlier years.
Companion-wise, in the new series eight Clara Oswald has been carried over to assist the Twelfth Doctor, but the Third got a brand new companion in the shape of blonde disaster area Jo Grant, played by Katy Manning. Jo was a complete change from Liz Shaw, the ice cool scientist who helped the Doctor in series seven, and is often seen as the stereotypical screaming companion, but this series proves that she is much more. Like Clara, Jo is protective of the Doctor even when he doesn’t deserve it. He is downright rude to her at times. Jo handles herself well over the series as a UNIT agent, always eager to help and investigate trouble. However while Clara gets a full-blown romance with Danny Pink, the intended relationship between Jo and Captain Mike Yates never worked out.
The new series eight has shifted the show towards a darker tone but back in 1971 things were getting lighter after a much grittier series seven and one the show’s largest format changes, with the Doctor exiled to Earth and attached to UNIT as its scientific advisor. All five serials have different flavours but one linking factor – the Master. Yes, this was the Master series, when producer Barry Letts and script editor Terrance Dicks introduced the Doctor’s Time Lord nemesis, played with relish by Roger Delgado. They later admitted that it was a mistake to feature him in all the stories and reduced his appearances from then on.
This series featured one of Doctor Who’s first arcs (of sorts) in UNIT’s continued hunt for the Master, beginning with their first encounter in Terror of the Autons and lasting until his eventual arrest in The Dæmons. Throughout the rest of the series, even when he is not on screen, there are references to the search whether it’s an FBI agent arriving in The Claws of Axos or cases of mistaken identity such as that incident with the Spanish ambassador…
So what of the stories themselves? Well although all but one is set on Earth and they all have big UNIT action scenes, they are remarkably different tales and opening the series we have Terror of the Autons by Robert Holmes. The Autons returned from the previous year’s Spearhead from Space with more tricks up their sleeves. Building on the previous year’s shop dummies, policemen, phone wires, troll dolls and chairs were amongst their new arsenal. While they may be a bigger threat, it’s the Master who steals the show as he proves to be a formidable foe, staying one step ahead of the Doctor throughout. He was clearly a villain to contend with. This excellent opener also brought its share of complaints proving that the show could still cause controversy.
Although Doctor Who viewers in 1971 would have been used to returning villains, they probably didn’t expect the Master to return quite as quickly as the very next serial. The Mind of Evil by Don Houghton, who wrote the previous year’s Inferno, explores the then hot topic of crime and punishment following the abolition of the death penalty. Houghton asks “what next?” The answer would appear to be an alien in a blender sucking the violent tendencies out of criminals in prison. This probably wasn’t an option considered by the Home Office. Jo shows her bravery once again by stopping a prison riot, UNIT get a couple of action set pieces as they storm the prison and stop the Master’s missile heist. Although the action has dated a touch and it drags on, this serial still has a lot to say.
Next up is The Claws of Axos, which is one of my favourite UNIT era stories and one that perfectly represents the Pertwee years. This story puts another spin on the Earth invasion formula in that the Axons are (at first believed to be) benevolent and willing to help humanity rather than trying to enslave or kill us. Future K9 creators Bob Baker and Dave Martin populate their first story with some wonderful supporting characters including FBI agent Bill Filer and fussy Ronnie Barkeresque civil servant Mr Chinn. It’s clear that the Master is an ongoing threat and of course he turns up again but this time he has been captured by the Axons. For once we get to see him in a more subservient position as he bargains for his freedom. UNIT battle some spaghetti monsters at Dungeness Power station and for a moment you might just believe that the Doctor will escape with the Master and leave Earth to its fate, not unlike the Twelfth Doctor seemingly leaving Clara to decide the fate of the moon in Kill the Moon. In this instance, the Third Doctor returns but he does admit, with a trademark cheeky smile, that he had planned to make a getaway, his TARDIS has been programmed to always return to Earth.
The Time Lords seem to have changed their minds in Colony in Space as the Doctor is allowed to go on his first trip to an alien planet in over two years. The planet Exarius is also Jo’s first jaunt into space and, rather than the doe-eyed wonder of today’s companions, she is terrified and wants to go back home. This story is representative of the more environmental themes that the Pertwee era explored and is scripted by Malcolm Hulke. The main story regards a territory dispute over the planet between some colonists and a mining corporation. Once more it’s the Master, impersonating the Adjudicator, turning up halfway through which livens it up and brings the situation to a head as he searches for a doomsday weapon. It’s too long and dry but there are also some fun moments with the Brigadier book-ending the story as the hunt for the Master continues with a few cases of mistaken identity.
We end on The Dæmons, which was scripted by Guy Leopold, a pseudonym of producer Barry Letts and writer Robert Sloman. The two would go on to write the next three series finales under Sloman’s name. The story took inspiration from British folk horror films, a popular genre at the time, and the novels of Dennis Wheatley (no relation to new series director Ben). It’s also interesting viewing this story in a pre-Wicker Man era. The regulars descend on the village of Devil’s End where mysterious forces are starting to rise. This is another of the Pertwee era’s all-time classics and it rounds the series off in style as UNIT finally get their man. Also included is a Sergeant Osgood who is put in charge of making up one of the Doctor’s contraptions. Surely no coincidence that there is an Osgood still working for UNIT in 2014. Sadly the Third Doctor is at his grumpiest and the story makes some silly narrative leaps in trying to give a plausible explanation for the seemingly occult occurrences. The Master is rarely better than when playing the local Reverend, Mr Magister. By the end he’s been apprehended and driven away by UNIT leaving the Doctor to dance around the maypole. He was to return just two stories and eight months later in The Sea Devils.
It’s nice that the Doctor, the Master and UNIT are still duking it out in 2014 despite regenerations, retirements and upgrades, as that first impressive run of stories back in 1971 showed how varied Doctor Who could be, despite being hampered by the Earthbound format. These days, things have to be bigger and more epic and don’t always work out for the better. Rather than a dingy graveyard in London, perhaps I would rather we were back in a place like Devil’s End with humanity’s fate decided in a small corner of middle England.