The random witterings of Jonathan Morris, writer.

Monday, 27 July 2015

I Love Them All

Way back in 2009 I wrote a regular column for Doctor Who Magazine. After they had published a poll of every Doctor Who story ever made, I followed it up with an article pointing out what was great - what was genuinely fantastic - about the stories that had the misfortune of finishing bottom (without exception because of shortcomings of the budget, not a lack of effort of those involved).


Last month, DWM published the results of its poll to find the fans’ favourite stories of all time. But just as there have to be winners, there also have to be losers. The turkeys. The clunkers. The Bandrils.

Except they’re not that bad. Although many of them are insanely off-beam, they’re also the most idiosyncratically Doctor Who-ish stories of them all. Whilst some of the best stories needn’t be Doctor Who at all – they could be movies in their own right – none of these stories could have been part of any other show. And, just as a pop star’s experimental b-sides are often their most interesting songs, these stories all show Doctor Who at its most ambitious and daring. None of these stories could be accused of ‘playing it safe’.

There’s something fascinating about these ‘losers’; they all had the potential to be great but took a wrong turning or fell victim to a lack of time and money. They not only make you appreciate the ‘better’ stories all the more, and make you realise how difficult it was to get any sort of Doctor Who made, good or bad... but sometimes little moments of marvellousness slip through.

They are the stories that only the fans could love. That’s what love is all about – whether it be love for a football team, a television show or a human being – it’s about loving something on the bad days as much as the good and about finding things to celebrate in the failures as well as the successes.

And that’s what this article is here to do; to celebrate the stories that got away. The stories which are as much a part of Doctor Who as The Empty Child or The Talons Of Weng-Chiang. The stories we all secretly adore.


Back when The Twin Dilemma was broadcast there was no such thing as a bad Doctor Who story. So long as it had the music and the words ‘Doctor’ and ‘Who’ at the beginning, I loved it. Only later, when I grew into an oh-so-cynical teenager, did I begin to divide the stories into classics and cringeworthies.

Which, with The Twin Dilemma, is a shame, because there’s so much to love about it. The BBC Micro graphics of the equations game. The glowing overlay when Mestor communes with Azmael. And Helen Blatch as Fabian is an ever-quotable joy; I’m convinced this story started life as a script for Juliet Bravo.

But at the heart of it is Colin Baker’s extraordinarily compelling performance. There’s the bombast – think of that triumphant moment where he’s climbing a mountaintop on Titan Three quoting Excelsior - but there’s also the beautifully-played scene with the dying Azmael. And the Doctor’s attempt to strangle Peri is as audacious as anything any other era of the show has to offer; remember his animal howl of pain as he’s confronted with his own reflection in the mirror.

So what’s great about The Twin Dilemma? Two words; Colin Baker.


It’s probably some kind of indictment of where Doctor Who was in the mid-1980’s that even when a story was totally original they had to pretend it was a sequel to a previous Doctor Who adventure. But that’s what fascinates me about Timelash; the little hints we get of what happened in the earlier Pertwee story where he encountered Megelen and negotiated a grain treaty between Karfel and the Bandrils. Such is the attention to detail that even the sets and costumes look like reconstructions of 1970’s originals.

Timelash also gives us one of the finest iterations of the Doctor Who staple of rebels-in-corridors. How can anyone be a Doctor Who fan and not love rebels-in-corridors? It’s part of a great tradition of rebels-in-corridors stretching back to The Space Museum. It’s part of the show’s DNA.

The other thing I love about it – besides Robert Ashby’s Borad, an excellent performance and make-up job – is the character of Herbert. I know it was only included as ‘padding’, but my favourite scene is the one where he confesses to the Doctor that he’s not terribly brave. If any scene gets to the heart of what Doctor Who is about, it’s this one.


It feels unfair to condemn Doctor Who stories for turning out badly because of behind-the-scenes problems, whether those problems are strikes, inflation or Margaret Thatcher. You can criticise a script for being so over-ambitious that it could never have been achieved on the Doctor Who budget - hello, Battlefield – but that’s not a charge you could level at Underworld. It was doing everything right up until the point where the Production Manager said, ‘What? I thought you said we were only doing five stories this year? Oh shiiit.’

So instead of lots of exciting action sequences in real-life caves, there’s lot of tedious inaction sequences against blue-screened photographs. What should have been a sci-fi Jason And The Argonauts ended up looking like an episode of Knightmare. Where K-9 has gained the ability to turn transparent at will.

But skip the middle two episodes and you’ve got a story rich with fascinating Time Lord myth-building, imagination, humour and drama. It might not have the makings of a classic, but it doesn’t have the makings of a disaster either.

And, let’s face it, there’s something rather hypocritical about Doctor Who fans criticising a story for looking cheap and having poor special effects. 


I don’t remember disliking Time And The Rani when it was first broadcast. I remember being intrigued by Sylvester McCoy’s Doctor – for all the bumbling,  hat-doffing and proverb-mangling, he’s utterly likeable from his first scene; this is a Doctor with a naughty wink and a cheeky grin. Who then goes on to play the spoons on Kate O’Mara’s breasts.

I also remember being rather gobsmacked by the plot – it might not make a great deal of sense, but when a story begins with someone dressing up to impersonate Bonnie Langford you can’t really accuse it of being predictable.

Time And The Rani also has some of the most preposterous dialogue of any Doctor Who story and yet what is great about it is that the supporting cast take it deadly seriously. In a way, it’s the closest Doctor Who has ever got to Shakespeare, in that the actor’s job is to try to get across an emotional reality when the lines they are given are impenetrably magniloquent. I’m thinking in particular of the scene where Beyus and Faroon learn of the death of their daughter Sarn. Donald Pickering and Wanda Ventham are the unsung heroes of Time And The Rani.


I suppose what Time-Flight illustrates, above anything, is that it’s important for a script to be achievable on a Doctor Who budget. So many of this story’s potentially spectacular set-pieces are sold short; not least the crash-landing of Concorde in a prehistoric wasteland which turns out to be a medium-sized shrubbery in the corner of BBC Studio 8. Similarly you have the fascinating dual nature of the Xeraphin, which was probably a very interesting Proper Science Fiction Concept before the costume designer saw how much money was left.

On the other hand, it has a great opening episode; there’s something thrilling about seeing the Doctor on contemporary Earth in recognisable surroundings. And there’s a marvellous moment where the crew emerge from Concorde into a CSO version of Heathrow which turns out to be a deliberately poor special effect because they have emerged into an illusion.

But best of all, there’s the scene with Adric, including solely so that Matthew Waterhouse would have a Radio Times credit to avoid giving away the ending of Earthshock. The poor kid’s just been killed off, he’s had his leaving party... and then they bring him back the next week to kill him off again!


Okay, so The Space Pirates has a few problems. The Doctor, Jamie and Zoe are sidelined, spending the entire story trapped in a space beacon, a pit, and an office. There’s only enough plot for four episodes, meaning that for the first half, it’s like watching Doctor Who played out in slow motion. Most of it is missing, which means its major selling point – lots of model spaceships – becomes a major flaw as the story grinds to a halt every few minutes for some moody space-wailing. Oh, and Donald Gee is attempting an American accent.

But what’s great about it is that, pretty much uniquely, it’s Doctor Who doing ‘hard’ science fiction, where space is big and space travel is slow. There’s an unusually large amount ‘world-building’ going on – Robert Holmes has clearly thought this universe out in detail – and, with Milo Clancey and his dilapidated spaceship LIZ 79 (which would have looked old-fashioned even in 1969), he’s inventing the genre of steampunk ten years early. And, as the Doctor, Jamie and Zoe attempt to escape from the beacon, the pit and the office, there’s all sorts of fun to be had with magnets, candles, drawing pins and tuning forks.


It’s been observed that stories containing the word ‘Time’ in their titles tend to turn out badly; the same seems to hold true for stories with the word ‘Under’. Heaven help us if they ever decide to do a story called ‘The Under Of Time’.

The Underwater Menace has a peculiar it’s-Doctor-Who¬-but-not-as-we-know-it quality. It’s like a live action comic strip, full of wacky but ultimately pointless set-pieces; it’s not so much that it has a plot with some holes in it, it’s that it has a great big gaping hole with a tiny piece of plot in it. The Fish-People and Professor Zaroff are the stuff of panels in TV Comic; the end of episode three sees Joseph Hurst trying to generate a speech bubble through the power of eyebrow movement alone.

And yet this is what is so adorable about it. It’s innocent, ludicrous and larger than life, but you also have Patrick Troughton dragged up as a fortune teller (complete with sunglasses) and Anneke Wills in a dress made of seashells.  And, for the lefties in the audience, there’s a heart-warming moment where the much put-upon Fish People decide to form a trade union and go on strike.


It pained me to see my beloved Paradise Towers in the bottom ten, it really did. On my poll form, I gave it ‘10’. I can only conclude that you’re all bonkers.

I know, I know, some of the performances are a little... ripe. I have no problem with Richard Brier’s Chief Caretaker, but even I wish that the Kangs were a bit more rough and urban and not quite so mannered and well-spoken. And I can see why the bit where Mel decides to go for a swim feels like a broadcast from the planet of stupid.

But I just think there’s something to be cherished about the fact that what was undoubtedly the darkest, blackest and most horrific Doctor Who story in terms of content was performed in a style somewhere between Samuel Beckett and Rentaghost. It’s daring, intelligent, and the only occasion where the character of Mel makes any kind of contextual sense. The scenes with Tabby and Tilda are quite deliciously witty and the Doctor is threatened with a 327 Appendix 3 Subsection 9 Death.

There’s never been nothing like it since... at least, not until Gridlock came along and gave us Paradise Towers Part Two.

192 - FEAR HER

Given the amount of time and resources available to modern Doctor Who, it’s quite an achievement for Fear Her to have scraped into the bottom ten. It’s an odd story; it has that not-quite-right-ness you get in 1970’s annuals; Doctor Who as imagined by somebody who hasn’t quite ‘got’ what Doctor Who is.

For all its faults – the most irritating being the fact that the money intended for a CGI cupboard monster went to The Satan Pit – the idea behind Fear Her is sound; Doctor Who on a domestic scale, taking place all in one house, about a mother and child; like one of those Japanese films with dead girls crawling out of TV sets. It’s that nagging sense of ‘if only’ which is the frustration with Fear Her; if only it had had a little more money, if only it had been directed in the style of Blink, if only they hadn’t included the Olympics sub-plot. Because it should all have been as good as the bit with the scribble monster, or the TARDIS landing gag, or the scene where the Doctor vanishes off-screen. It’s a pity they no longer do novelisations, because Fear Her deserves a second chance.


Surprising to see this story so low in the poll. Okay, so it’s famous for being the Doctor Who where the production team got so bored of making it that they decided to finish a week early and start doing The Mind Robber instead. And it’s reactionary anti-pacifist message is unappealing, at odds with the rest of the series and in particular with the era in which it was made. And someone should have noticed that the character of Cully was supposed to be a reckless teenager, not a chubby, balding fifty-year-old bank manager in a toga.

But I think, when the DVD comes out, everyone will be kicking themselves for scoring this story so low. It’s so gorgeously Flash Gordon. The villains have catchphrases! And the Quarks are both ludicrous and unnerving; their child-like voices and delight in destruction are not so different from the Toclafane. Plus there’s the fact that any kids watching at home would be able to knock up their own, equally-convincing Quark using half a dozen egg-boxes.

Plus, in her first full story as a Doctor Who assistant, Wendy Padbury flashes her knickers in every single scene. Watch the DVD if you don’t believe me.

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