I think the last time Your Humble Blogger wrote about Doctor Who, we were watching Season Twenty. At some point, the Youngest Member decided that watching terrible episodes wasn’t superior to watching good episodes, so we dialed ourselves back to Season Seven, originally broadcast in 1970 and the beginning of the Jon Pertwee, or Fourth Doctor, era. I had only seen one of the four stories in its entirety before starting this series; they are common enough sources of clips but weren’t broadcast on my local station, when that was how we watched the show. Anyway, I have been really, really enjoying the season.
For anyone who watches the current show and hasn’t watched the old one, the format of the show was half-hour episodes, with a season comprised of several stories, each itself comprised of several episodes. Eventually, the show settled on a standard of four-episode stories, with occasional six- or two-episode stories. In the early years, though, stories varied in length much more widely. Season seven is twenty-five episodes but only four stories, with three seven-episode arcs and only one four-episode arc.
The other thing about Season Seven is that it’s the Season of Exile—the Doctor is on Earth in the near-future (viewed from 1970, anyway) and is unable to use the TARDIS to travel in time or space. This utterly changes the dynamic—instead of learning a new world (or era) each story, all the stories are within the same world, assumed to be much like the viewers’ world and require no explanation. The creativity of the writers in putting speculative elements into the stories is constrained—there are three alien species in the four stories, but only one real invasion-and-conquest attempt.
Instead, the writers go absolutely loopy. It’s marvelous.
The first story (Spearhead from Space) is the four-episode one, and contains—let me think, a plot to replace key government figures with plastic replicas controlled by an alien consciousness, the Doctor rolling downhill at high speed while strapped in to a wheelchair, a comic poacher and his wife and the infamous attack of the department store mannequins. The second story (Doctor Who and the Silurians) starts out as a story about why the research station isn’t working properly, brings in a man makes cave drawings in the infirmary, has a mysterious cavern-dwelling monster, and veers into bureaucratic infighting between UNIT and the government. Then it has the actual Silurians, who aren’t explained at all until very late in the story, and then after that, there’s the Silurian coup and the release of the plague bacteria, and tracking down the victims before the plague spreads, and then there’s the threat to destroy the Van Allen belt and the nuclear reactor set to blow up. It just keeps getting wilder and wilder. The third story (The Ambassadors of Death) starts with a slow and spooky space-mission-gone-awry scenario, has a totally unexplained (and unexplainable) gun battle between UNIT and some paramilitary force, then in the second episode reveals a wide-ranging conspiracy that includes stealing a re-entry module, more random shooting of sympathetic characters, Liz Shaw in a car chase, spacesuits with radiation-eating aliens we don’t see until episode six, a megalomaniac’s plan to dupe the world into interspecies war, the villains double-crossing each other, one villain’s slowly-built-up turn to the good side ending in his murder before he can do anything at all, the Doctor randomly flying (and being allowed to fly) a human spaceship (which of course is sabotaged and nearly blows up), and the Brigadier being arrested and going rogue. The final story (Inferno) has zombies, werewolves, the end of the world and the Doctor being trapped in an alternate universe where the Brigadier is evil and wears an eye patch.
What I’m saying is, it’s marvelous.
Yes, it’s slow-paced (although in The Ambassadors the slow pacing actually works to build suspense in the early episodes) and yes, I prefer the four-part episodes generally, but this whole season is just utterly surreal. I think it’s because taking away time-travel and other planets made them come up with outrageous plot nonsense to compensate. And in part, I guess, because they were having different writers write different episodes for some of it. But it’s magnificent, for whatever reason.
I don’t necessarily mean this as a recommendation, mind you—if you aren’t already watching old Doctor Who, don’t start just to watch this nonsense. And for goodness’ sake don’t binge-watch them. They’re designed to be watched one episode a week, and just about survive being watched two a night, but any more than that and the pacing would ruin it. No, I mean it more as an observation, that I’m delighted to discover that after thirty-odd years of my watching the show, and after having seen some hundreds of stories in it, I can still find bits of it delightful and entertaining.
Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,