Season 18 – Worst to Best
As the star ratings that follow will attest, I generally rate Season 18 very highly. John Nathan-Turner’s new-broom approach may have been unceremonious towards the old guard, be they actors or production personnel, and was additionally responsible for introducing a slew of bad ideas (bad companions, bad designs, bad directors), but it also saw the arrival of a script editor with commendably strong story-telling instincts – best if you ignore him talking about them, mind – and at least some of the production changes he made genuinely served to refresh and reinvigorate the show. Unfortunately, especially when ploughing through a Blu-ray boxset, it’s a season where, the more one knows about the behind-the-scenes dramas, tensions and perspectives, the less lustrous it can seem. Albeit, that doesn’t often overwhelm what’s actually on screen; the JN-T era began on a high he’d never again come close to equalling.
8. K9 and Company
Strictly speaking, if it’s going anywhere, it ought to go on the Season 19 list, but since K9 and Company has been included with the Season 18 Blu-ray boxset, the first official Doctor Who spinoff show may as well be added to this ranking. It has Bill Fraser and Terence Dudley in common with Meglos, the bona fide dodo of the season, but there isn’t a lot between them, quality wise. Meglos scrapes past K9 and Company, by dint of Tom Baker’s anchorage, but given it has two Toms for the price of one, that says a lot about how off form he is there.
Part of K9 and Company’s problem is that it hasn’t enough time to stretch its legs (or castors/wheels/caterpillar tracks) and establish any sense of the sort of programme it thinks it is. Making it neither fish nor fowl. The rural occult activities are vaguely suggestive of The Daemons and Planet of the Spiders (lots of Barry Letts era references around this time in the show), but they’re at odds with the presentation of the locals, whose objectives – aside from simply practising their rites – are fairly non-descript and reeking of hearsay, give or take the odd horny head, until they decide to sacrifice Brendan. We’re supposed to think they’ve done something to Aunt Lavinia – an unforgivably underused Mary Wimbush, a peerless Aunt Agatha in Jeeves and Wooster a decade later – but they haven’t, and any actual supernatural powers don’t seem to be on writer Dudley’s mind.
Which means much of the proceedings’ nefariousness relates to guessing who’s in the coven and seeing Colin Jeavons playing an incredibly thick bad ‘un gardener (Dudley mistaking a yokel for a medieval peasant when Jeavons exclaims “It was the goddess Hecate’s familiar”). Aside from the title sequence – truly miraculous, particularly the repeated shots, which suggest someone’s been watching Monty Python’s déjà vu sketch – there’s little here that’s out-and-out terrible, but even with the luxury of night shoots, John Black’s direction is as leaden as Dudley’s teleplay.
Sladen’s fine, of course, but Sarah Jane isn’t given enough substance to carry the responsibility of the human lead. John Leeson gets to sing “Merry Christmas”, and K9 shoots a shed load of coveners. We also learn the Doctor must have built him when he was making Mk II (it was sent in 1978). And then there’s Ian Sears as nephew Brendan, easily the most personable of the companions of that era (“Brendan, stop honking!”) He also finished his acting career (to date) playing a werewolf, which has to count for something. Notable that JN-T threw away two episodes of Season 19 on this and never got them back again (and with deadly Dudley writing for the next two seasons, that’s even more he effectively binned).
Meglos may be the runt of Season 18, but it’s also the most accurate harbinger of the form and style of the greater part of ‘80s Who: ideas rendered lifeless through being gutted of wit or humour, then compounded by the hiring of directors with absolutely no aptitude for the demands of the show. Of course, suggesting Meglos has been done down by its transition to the screen is to give it too much credit for having started out with a solid premise. Frankly, the plot stinks.
Which make the frequent comparisons to a Graham Williams era story, but done in JN-T/Bidmead style, rather unfair (that’s actually The Leisure Hive, only with so much style it would end up as a one-off and thus atypical of the era it announced). Most of the Williams run, for all the brickbats aimed its way, was remarkably solid in terms of concept and plotting. Meglos is all over the place, and saddled with the kind of script-editing acumen that makes Andrew Cartmel look like he had a clue. Indeed, if it wasn’t for what followed, one might have reasonably assumed Bidmead’s early successes – this was the third story of the season made, following The Leisure Hive and State of Decay – were entirely down to the skills of the old hands he and JN-T had reluctantly requisitioned.
Bidmead entirely has himself to blame for this disaster, drawn toward actor-writers (like himself) with no interest in or experience with science fiction. Why, it would be equivalent to his producer seeking out directors for the show purely because he’d got on well with them on All Creatures Great and Small…
The biggest problem with Meglos, aside from making almost no sense, falling completely flat and being achingly dull, beset by half-hearted performances and variable effects… the biggest problem with Meglos is that its villain is ridiculously unquantifiable. He can do pretty much anything he puts his mind to, it seems, which includes an aptitude for time travel (in this Ian Levine-influenced period, people now know who Time Lords are anywhere you go in the universe). Ostensibly the story has as, if not its core then one if its main themes, the conflict between science and religion, between fact and fantasy, but with no kind of baseline logic to hold onto, any fidelity to said theme goes out the window.
When I saw it as a nipper, the most memorable part – aside from Tom looking like a cactus – was the Chronic Hysteresis. If it’s frequently scoffed at conceptually, like everything else here, its greater failing is that there’s no real zest to the execution; it’s one part you could really imagine Tom and Lalla having enormous fun with during the previous season. Lalla’s actually very good in Meglos, as much as she can be, with some decent interactions with the Gaztacs (running conceptual rings round them). She’s also subject to the only vaguely dramatic moment, when she escapes into the Tigellan city with Brotadac seconds behind her.
Tom, who wasn’t very well at this point, is side-lined again following The Leisure Hive for… Cactus Tom. As has been noted, it’s midway through the second instalment – of episodes even shorter than its predecessor – before the Doctor and Romana arrive on Tigella and become involved in the plot proper. Which mightn’t have been so bad, but to rather burst the bubble of all the praise he gets for playing the title villain, Tom isn’t very good as Meglos; he falls back on delivering one-pitch authoritarian when he isn’t descending into more Tom-ish reflexes. The rest of the cast are variable at best, with Zastor in particular having a ruinous effect on any scene he’s in (George Underdown, whom Baker notes was once a jockey, was not a well man).
It’s Christopher Owen, rather than Bill Fraser or Jaqueline Hill or Frederick Treves, who might be the real star of the guest cast. His earthling is only on screen briefly, but his exchange with Tom is one of the few interactions and instances of humour that land in anything approaching an unforced and natural manner (“Don’t worry about that. We’ll get you back before you leave”: “Good…”). And his augmented Meglos vocal is memorable; he’s much better as the cactus than Baker. Treves’ Brotadac anagram gets a lot of attention, but his and Fraser’s interaction isn’t anything special (Tom as Meglos seems to take a shine to him, however). Still, his delivery of “She’s seen too much! Kill her!” is singular.
Little about Meglos can ultimately be blamed on the cast, though. And as hopeless as the script is, there’s enough there to make something of, even if John Flanagan and Andrew McCulloch are absent any of the inventiveness or imagination that other writing duo, the Bristol Boys, possessed; they simply shunt ideas together with wanton disregard, as if it’s a kids’ cartoon series and no one will care about examining it any closer. No, the leadenness is chiefly down to a different deadly Dudley to the recent axed composer, one who’d be no better utilised writing for the show, but would be gainfully employed directing Triangle a couple of years later. This is stiff, stilted and painfully slow. The jungle looks terrible – The Creature from the Pit did it much, much better the previous year (and I’m not especially a fan of the story) – while the Savants are all bad wigs and worse delivery (via Crawford Logan and Colette Gleeson); it could almost be a homage to a crappy 60s science-fiction show, it’s so pedestrian.
If you wanted to be kind to Meglos, you could say various of the nascent themes of the season – science, in the form of the Dodecahedron, holding back the destructive forces of nature/entropy – are present and correct. There’s the occasional nice shot (the glowing Dodecahedron) and the scene-sync process is reasonably effective. The Meglos makeup is pretty good too, even if Dudley fails to make the most of its horrific potential as an alter of the Doctor. K9 is back in action, even if he’s useless enough to run out of power at an inopportune moment. And the score is okay, but just okay compared to its rousing predecessor, edging incrementally closer to the kind of intrusive tonal dirge that would soon inform the era. Apparently, Gareth Roberts planned to use Meglos again in The Lodger, which would have made about as much sense as anything else about him (Meglos, that is, rather than Roberts).
It’s all relative, since, as I noted above, I regard Season 18 very highly for the most part, but as one of my lesser faves has risen through the ranks over the years, this, once the top of my heap – and still a fixture there in most polls – has taken something of a tumble. If Bidders is fond of saying how he liked the challenge of integrating the extraneous elements JN-T threw at him, and insists that Logopolis is “a damn good script” – before we rush to concur with his good taste, let us not forget he also sang its writers the praises of Meglos – there are times during the story where it’s clear that he’s struggling to mesh the inrush of new companions, season themes, villainous activities, departing Doctor and all-important “hard science”. The result: sometimes the story sings like no other. At others, it’s a borderline train wreck. A dubious honour, but Logopolis boasts the season’s least seamless marriage of elements, production values and performances.
For a director as capable as he undoubtedly was, half of Peter Grimwade’s four directorial efforts reveal themselves quite unforgivingly at times. Logopolis fails to find a satisfying way to depict the titular planet; it’s not an abomination of Time-Flight’s prehistoric Earth levels, but the limited studio space constantly draws attention to itself, Nyssa’s arrival being a particularly unflattering example. It also decidedly fluffs Tom’s final fall, which is somewhat revised by the Blu-ray’s new special effects, but not remarkably so; most notable is that Anthony Ainley’s cut-out now moves. And the story struggles at times to marble the proceedings with that fabled funereal atmosphere (copyright J Jeremy Bentham, I believe) when it’s having to cut away every five minutes to some tedious bit of nonsense involving Tegan complaining.
Nevertheless, the first episode – one Tom particularly scoffed at on the commentary track – is something very special, Bidmead running with the TARDIS-within-a-TARDIS idea he took from The Keeper of Traken to masterful effect (he’d doubtless have been deflated if Barry Letts had tapped him on the shoulder and said “Been there, done it, Bidders”). Albeit, the Doctor’s suggestion that “it could lead to some unpleasant dimensional anomalies”, in response to Adric suggesting a police box is just like the TARDIS, is rather leading by the nose, since exactly that happens about five minutes later. The ivy-shrouded cloister room and the bell itself have since entered lore, latterly in a rather overused and indiscriminate manner, but here the effect is subtle and morbidly contemplative.
The episode’s contrasts also work well – between the recursion of the TARDIS interiors and desolate bypass – and the presence of the Watcher as an eerie harbinger is again a Pertwee era call back. Perhaps Bidders was a future projection of Barry, shorn of Buddhism and replaced with that hard science. Although, as with the other stories of the season, the science bit is overstated in the sense that it unapologetically fuses with the mythical and mystical, the chanting mathematicians following in the eccentric line of Warriors’ Gate’s I Ching. Uncharitably, one might also put Bidmead’s inspiration for the season’s decay theme on the then-recent last episode of Blake’s 7 Season Three, in which the Liberator suffers a particularly entropic collapse.
These early scenes are commendably delivered by Grimwade, evocatively complemented by Paddy Kingsland’s incidental music (elsewhere, he isn’t so subtle), and there’s a naturalness to the Tegan-Auntie Vanessa relationship that’s in scant supply – between the other characters, obviously – once the latter’s turned into a less than plush doll. The lurking threat of the Doctor’s nemesis is also effective; that said, by the time the Master actually appears in the third episode, we’ve had more than enough of his laugh on a loop to make up for his four-year absence (those claiming Ainley went downhill really need to look at his first reveal to Nyssa and “At last Doctor, at last I’ve cut you down to size” and rethink, since he was prime ham from the first – I say that as someone who relishes his performances).
The whole fixing the chameleon circuit premise is an immensely fannish (Levine-ish?) one, and a few years later, it would reach its “apotheosis” in the immensely fannish Attack of the Cybermen. But here, Bidmead manages to incorporate it – at the behest of JN-T, demanding an actual surviving police box appear in the story – into an immensely unfannish story. It’s one that undoubtedly has its share of missteps: Bidders tries to account for flushing out the Master as reasonable, but it’s silly whichever way you turn it; the Pharos project replica on Logopolis idea now seems ludicrously quaint – why would they use dusty Earth tech?; and the Master’s “Peoples of the universe” broadcast had been presented comically by the very person maligned by the then current production team, Douglas Adams, in The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the TV version of which would soon be broadcast.
Nevertheless, the story – even with a very much boxed-in, subdued Baker, unable really to bounce off anyone apart from John Fraser – carries an air of gravitas and impending doom that simply wouldn’t work with any other Doctor. For all that it fails to give Tom a great farewell speech and shoots him from an unflattering angle, the regeneration scene manages to be deeply affecting (“The moment has been prepared for” is all you really need). It’s very much less is more in that regard; you don’t need the overdub of the Watcher having been the Doctor all along (thanks Nyssa), or the Pirate Captain as part of the clips sequence (just what was that all about?). Indeed, the clips generally, bread and butter to the malnourished fan at that time, are a major distraction from the scene’s emotional heft – look, Davros!
Tegan: You’ve seen her?
The Doctor: Well, a little of her.
And you’d be advised to try to forget such gems as Adric creating a diversion, the clumsy reintroduction of Nyssa (“A message from Traken…” – put a lot of thought into that, didn’t you Chris?), jettisoning Romana’s room (oh, the symbolism), the wacka-wacka music as they’re endlessly pursued by security guards in part four, the trio watching Tom drop at their own paces, Tegan spending most of an episode getting lost and it feeling like there’s an episode’s worth of footage of exactly that, Tegan’s taking the Monitor to task (“Back home in Brisbane, we call that a sweatshop”), Tegan holding up an A4 pad for Tom to read, Tegan staying behind on a doomed planet because Tom’s her ticket out of there… Seriously, Tegan does more damage to the fabric of the show’s continuum in this one story than Waterhouse’s performance in the preceding four (Nyssa, in contrast, accusations of Sutton’s plankishness aside, makes too little impression, given the events befalling her). It’s not acting when Tom winces at “I demand to see whoever is in charge of this ship!” The cumulative effect of all these youngsters is that he’s well off out of it (there’s some twisted amusement to be had by his “I’m so sorry” regarding Aunt Vanessa’s fate, before pushing Tegan into a corner).
The Doctor: I envy you your TARDIS, Master.
The Master: Excellent, Doctor. Envy is the beginning of all true greatness.
So how about some positives? Bidmead’s season-encapsulating narrative, in which the encroaching entropy everywhere is revealed as symptomatic of a universe existing on borrowed time, that “long ago passed the point of total collapse” reaches peak resonance; Tom’s departure is so monumental – except to the viewers mass-departed for the 25th Century – that the galaxy may not survive without him. And John Fraser is magnificent as the Monitor, and was clearly a massive influence on Wayne Coyne’s look.
Then there’s Ant, a black hat providing appropriately crude balance to all that conceptual high-mindedness, and lobbing in lines both hilarious (“Causal nexus? You insult my intelligence”) and surprisingly lyrical (“A cold, high place overlooking the universe”); on the down side, Bidmead does little, alas, to draw a layered relationship between the Doctor and his nemesis.
I’m not especially convinced by Elizabeth Sandifer’s notion that the universal genocide is down to the Watcher for sending the Doctor to Logopolis; I’ve always read it that there’s no escaping that future (far more charitable, to both the Doctor and Bidmead’s writing, to believe that the path selected was the least damaging of all possible futures – if the Master predicted where the Doctor’s TARDIS would land, he would likely have gone to Logopolis next anyway). Besides which, one might argue that, for all the destruction he wreaks here, the Master’s only enabling what would have happened anyway, if the universe followed its natural course (give or take the odd murdered relative of a companion, policeman and Logopolitan).
Generally, though, Bidmead does a solid job of distilling the unnuanced essence of the villain, offering him to us in his most straightforwardly scarcely-credibly-motivated form; and as with his first few Pertwee appearances, he instigates a scheme he then has to renege on – briefly – to work with the Doctor.
The twee and the cosmic don’t entirely mesh, but Logopolis gets credit for trying. It’s a story that squeezes Tom out to the edges of the plot (and shrinks him to boot) but still can’t prevent him casting his mighty shadow across it. And if it’s uneven, what’s great about it really is great.
5. The Keeper of Traken
The Keeper of Traken typically shows up in polls as Season 18’s silver medallist and has done ever since the Master’s return took original viewers by surprise and delight. In DWM 52, Jeremy Bentham enthused that “In terms of cast, script and production The Keeper of Traken was flawless”. That adjective came up a lot in critiques of the story (check out The Television Companion), but as good as the story is, I’d temper that praise in a key area: John Black.
I’ve seen it suggested that the Traken experience is much like filmed theatre, an observation that, with its sumptuous costume drama stylings, art nouveau production design and staid, formal Union of Traken, could be taken as a compliment and argued as highly appropriate. But the story isn’t merely static speeches delivered to a king’s court, and needed a slightly more vital approach to get the best from the material. Lawrence Miles, broadly an advocate, felt its failing was padding, but I’d argue it isn’t quite all it could be because Black fails to push it along (for further evidence, look no further than the inert Four to Doomsday).
Nice as it looks – particularly at night, complete with moon – the Grove never encourages one to suspend one's disbelief that it’s actually outside (compare to the effective lighting in Christopher Barry’s The Creature from the Pit). Then there’s the failing source in Episode Four, which commandeers some basic wind effects in place of dramatic urgency. That The Keeper of Traken works as well as it does is almost entirely down to Bidmead’s rewrites of Johnny Byrne’s scripts, parcelling out mystery and escalation throughout the runtime – it may be resolved lackadaisically, but the episode one cliffhanger is a great example of others’ misapprehensions spelling trouble for the Doctor – and the performances, which accentuate the sense of a refined, aristocratic society.
That’s not to suggest the script is flawless. Episode One has a rather ungainly construction; typically of the season, it takes the Doctor an age to get involved in the action, but he arrives clued in thanks to the Keeper dropping by and popping on a video. Nevertheless, in contrast to the impediments of Meglos, The Keeper of Traken’s clumsy narrative tool actually works; the call to the Doctor suggests introductions will at least go smoothly, yet they go anything but. And the video also effectively sets up a Traken that changes little with the rolling decades; even youthful fashions remain the same.
If there’s a problem arising from the Keeper’s spiel (with some lovely descriptions such as the baleful influence of Melkur being “a fly caught by honey” and the Doctor bigging Traken up as “people just being terribly nice to each other”), it’s that we see little evidence of how this presiding harmony is supposed to operate on the planet, lenience towards potentially disruptive forces aside. Byrne’s initial concept was cyclic, that things began to deteriorate every millennium or so, which would at least account for the malignant, mercenary Fosters and the consuls being quickly persuaded of the necessity of executing the Doctor and Adric (Bidmead must have been conscious of this plot hole, hence Katura’s “Not really our way, this judicial bloodletting”).
With regard to Melkur, I don't have much time for Elisabeth Sandifer’s take that the villain in the story “is not the Master in any meaningful sense”; her argument appears to derive from a combination of knowing he was added at a late stage and having been spoiled as to his presence. With regard to Melkur becoming the Keeper and how “If you know that Melkur turns out to be the Master then the revelation is flat”, this could be levelled at any spoiled twist ever. Then there’s “If you don’t then it cuts against everything you think you know about the story simply because the story has, by all appearances, not been hiding anything prior to this point”. No, nothing. Apart from the nature of Melkur, of who is inside controlling it, and what their objectives are; everything, pretty much, about Melkur is about his/its doing things that cut against what you know about Traken. That’s the whole point. The twist end of episode three is a superb one, the villain moving his pawns into place to achieve his goal without their even realising it (the Doctor and Tremas aside).
I suppose, to dismiss this argument entirely, we’d have to know how different Melkur’s plan was before the Master was put behind him/it, but if that was still the plan, it’s still a pretty good one. Bidmead, while happy to be Saward-esque in his dismissal of JN-T’s predilections and lack of story nous, claimed he “loved these kind of problems” the producer would bring to him, such as how to integrate the Master into the story. And he charitably suggested they could make an already good story even better (of the Tremas name, he said it was “one of those kind of internal jokes I was very unkeen on in the show” – I have to admit that, while I sympathise, the knowledge of the anagram has never spoiled the character for me; it’s one I can put down to the cosmic lattice of coincidence, and one might even suggest the Master realising it was an anagram put him on to the puerile likes of Sir Giles Estram and later).
The Keeper of Traken’s probably the exception that proves the rule in that case – a story elevated by retrofitting an old villain into it – and that’s mainly, as Miles puts it, down to “the way it re-establishes Doctor Who as a modern myth”. I’d say “re-establishes” is putting it a bit strongly (although, he’s also talking about this element as it feeds into the trappings of the story generally), as it’s doing exactly the same thing as State of Decay – only this time with an enemy previously known in the series – and indeed much of the season. Previously, such a thing was carried off with old enemies in the likes of The Tomb of the Cybermen, Genesis of the Daleks and, yes, The Deadly Assassin (more difficult to do in the first two cases, with little distance between appearances, and virtually impossible in nu-Who, with its disposable attitude to continuity on tap). And as with other stories in the season, it manages to interrelate to its peer group stories without seeming repetitious; the Doctor’s drive to act, as per Full Circle, pulls against procrastination or easily-influenced elders.
It’s interesting to note, revisiting the story, just how many clues are dropped midway through Episode Two that this is the Master, from Melkur calling the Doctor “Time Lord”, then “Doctor”, and then Adric brainily suggesting “some sort of TARDIS” might be about the place beside the Doctor’s TARDIS. Of course, in Season 18 everyone seems to be aware of Time Lords, but give away that much today and you’d have nothing left to reveal by the time the episode ended (presuming it was even a two-parter). On the other hand, and possibly a legacy of Bidders’ “complete rewrite”, the Doctor seems to have zero interest in the nature of Melkur, his whos and why-fors, until the Master continually prompts him that he should (muttering “I have the oddest feeling we’ve met somewhere before” after Melkur says “This man is known to me, as is his ambition” isn’t exactly canny). Prior to this, the Keeper’s insight seems enough for him: that he’s evil, pretty much.
But this is a good broody Doctor story, alleviated by the odd “Lovely day!” JN-T has now eliminated the “ludicrous line up” of the flawlessly clever trio (and will replace them with three clever clogs and an idiot Australian…) The Doctor gets on well with Adric, who’s fine, never to the extent that he fits in smoothly, but Waterhouse doesn’t actively disrupt the proceedings. And he gets on famously with Tremas (Ainley on good form, but unlike many, I don’t think he ever really stumbled as the Master – he just had too many subpar stories). He also takes the time to tell Neman he’s being an idiot, and offer much-deserved rebukes of the delusional consuls (“Now I’m afraid you’re stuck with him” he observes of their new Keeper).
Nyssa is, in the words of Neil’s dad in The Young Ones, “sweetly pretty” and gets her own unsettling ending. Roland Oliver makes an impact as low-grade mercenary henchman Neman, although he’d fit more seamlessly into a dodgy cop show than the Union (I kept thinking of Lorcan Cranitch in Cracker). John Woodnut makes a particular impression as Seron (I love his perceptive – but not enough – “Intended, Kassia? By whom?”), Denis Carey a fine aging Tefal man Keeper, and Robin Soans is in the John Leeson beta-male mould as malleable Luvic (Byrne might have done better to make his Traken follow up a sequel exploring the disarray resulting from Luvic’s reign as Keeper). I’m never quite sure of Kassia (Sheila Ruskin), however, an odd combination of commanding and slightly wooden.
And while it isn’t presented as such – he’s remarkably cheerful in his goodbyes (“We’re all lucky, Doctor… To have met you”) – Tremas’ tale is a truly tragic one. He loses his first wife, remarries but to a psycho, and then has his body snatched. Luckily, he wasn’t around to see his daughter lose her skirt and hang out in a leper colony for the rest of her days.
Broadly, I’d agree with The Discontinuity Guide’s take on the story, although rather than “the relative disappointment of the last couple of episodes”, I’d focus in on the grand climax as lacking something in execution (even David Maloney slightly tripped up with something similar for The Deadly Assassin, of course). In the roster of Season 18, The Keeper of Traken comes across as a slightly weaker tale, but put it up against any story in any season in the next decade, and it be near, if not at, the top.
Season 18 Worst to Best Part 2 HERE
Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.