Doctor Who Project: The Leisure Hive

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Well, I can’t get everything right.

For a series built around the conceit of change, by Season Eighteen Doctor Who hadn’t changed much in a very long time. Tom Baker took on the Doctor’s scarf—er, mantle—in Season Twelve, some five and a half years prior, and while the stories and direction undoubtedly bent towards the star’s predilections for humor and action, a shared thread of narrative and visual style linked the Fourth Doctor’s stories with those of his predecessors. John Nathan-Turner, taking over as producer from Graham Williams, a veteran of three seasons himself, turns David Fisher’s “The Leisure Hive” (Story Production Code 5N) into his declaration of intent to bring about as much change in the series as any regeneration of title character ever could.

K-9 Explodes

From the very beginning, nothing about “The Leisure Hive” feels familiar, with a new title sequence and a new title theme causing immediate dissonance: bright, twangy electronic music accompanying the Doctor’s face forming from a field of stars in a bold declaration of newness. Director Lovett Bickford, in his only work for the series, opens with a long tracking shot of a deserted Brighton beach, an ominous gust whipping empty beach chairs and threatening to blow over canvas cabanas. It’s moody and eerie, leading to a bit of a shock when the TARDIS appears amidst the abandoned beach accessories. And then K-9 explodes because Romana gets huffy with him. Nope, this is not Season Seventeen, nor indeed Doctor Who as it has been presented before.

A fanciful dissolve

From that windswept beach, the setting changes—by means of an elaborate dissolve intended to be appreciated on its own rather than as a transitional technique in the background—to the planet Argolis, wracked by radiation after a war that lasted twenty minutes. The remaining few Argolins, rendered sterile by the cataclysm, have set up the Leisure Hive, a recreational resort dedicated not just to entertainment but to fostering an understanding between peoples, so that conflicts can be avoided in the future. The chief draw of the site comes from their burgeoning work with tachyonics, used here as shorthand for the manipulation and reduplication of physical objects from tachyon particles. It’s still technobabble, but with at least a patina of scientific backing.

The Fourth Doctor and Romana seem unsure about this lecture on tachyonics.

The Doctor and Romana arrive on Argolis in search of some leisure time themselves, the Doctor deciding to forego use of the Randomizer circuit installed at the end of Season Sixteen to prevent the Black Guardian from tracking them. While the Randomizer does play a further role in the story, it’s a good example of how Nathan-Turner intends to make frequent use of the series’ back history; now it’s not just fans who remember what happened in episode 4G, it’s the producer, too, and if there’s an oblique reference to be made, or a canonical conflict to be explained away, he’ll do it, rather than letting it slide as past producers might. The story’s action is likewise very specifically dated, to 2290, a start at ironing out, or at least restarting, a wildly conflicting timeline once and for all.

Zero Gravity Squash

It’s not too much of a stretch to suggest that good portions of the story’s action are inspired by the new technology available to the BBC effects department, in particular video editing tools that enable flashy dissolves like that seen at the start as well as more seamless color separation overlay scenes and the ability to separate parts of a moving image on screen. Indeed, without this ability, the concept of tachyonic object manipulation would have required extensive, and likely unsuccessful, model work. Here, in addition to demonstrating zero-gravity squash, it’s used for a particularly frightful cliffhanger, with the Doctor torn, limb from limb as he screams in agony…
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Doctor Who Project: Shada

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Excuse the muddle. Creative disarray, you know.

Modern viewers of Doctor Who breathe a sigh of relief when they reach the Jon Pertwee era, if only because the Third Doctor’s run marks the end of the “missing episodes” that plagued Hartnell and Troughton’s time as the Doctor. It’s all there on film, every moment of the Third through the Eighth Doctor’s exploits. Except, that is, for Douglas Adams’ “Shada” (Story Production Code 5M), the six-part finale for Season Seventeen that was partially filmed but never completed or broadcast due to industrial action at the BBC.

All the story’s location shooting in and around Cambridge had taken place and the first of three studio sessions was in the proverbial can when a strike stopped all filming. The knock-on effects of multiple shows scrambling for studio space and technical crews once work resumed clearly revealed Doctor Who‘s place in the BBC hierarchy at the time: dead last. Other shows received preference for scarce resources, and the decision was ultimately made to cancel the production entirely rather than spend money storing props and sets and keeping options on actors with other jobs to get on with.

Punting the Cam

As the swan song for both producer Graham Williams and writer and script editor Douglas Adams, “Shada” would have been quite an achievement on the strength of the extant footage alone: between an inventive (if slightly incomprehensible) story and a superlative guest cast, this tale about a secret Time Lord prison and a megalomaniacal scheme to absorb every mind in the universe into one giant consciousness hints at being as good as anything in Season Seventeen, and potentially one of the best stories in the series to date. To that end, several efforts were made to complete “Shada,” including a version in 1992 with linking narration by Tom Baker between existing footage, an audio play in 2003 (with Paul McGann’s Eight Doctor subbing in for Baker’s Fourth Doctor), and a full animated reconstruction of the unfilmed scenes in 2017 featuring the original cast, which forms the fullest version of the story.

An animated K-9!

“Shada” sets up in Cambridge, where the Doctor’s old friend and fellow Time Lord, Professor Chronotis (Denis Carey), keeps quarters at (fictional) St. Cedd’s College. Despite having a name even Terry Nation might have blanched at, Chronotis possesses a warmth in his bumbling absent-mindedness, suggesting both age and wisdom in equal measure and played brilliantly by Carey, who gamely takes on all of Adams’ dialogue. He invites a junior teacher, Chris Parsons (Daniel Hill), to borrow several books, one of which just happens to be radioactive, capable of reversing time, and allows access to the long-forgotten prison of the Time Lords—Shada. Worse still, the book is being sought by the evil mastermind Skagra (Christopher Neame), who strides out of his invisible spaceship in his disco best, with a carpet bag full of voices. (Yes, this was made in 1979, in case there were any doubt…)
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Doctor Who Project: The Horns of Nimon

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Oh, well, people often don’t know what you’re talking about.

Anthony Read began his tenure on Doctor Who as script editor for “Underworld,” a dismal retelling of the myth of Jason and the Argonauts and possibly the worst story of the Fourth Doctor’s entire run. Fitting, then, that he would make his last contribution to the series by writing another mythological story, “The Horns of Nimon” (Story Production Code 5L), that shows just how well legendary fables can be repurposed into futuristic tales. The trick, it turns out, is to be blatantly obvious about the borrowing, letting the audience in on the secret from the beginning.

Beware the Nimon!

Read signposts his recounting of Theseus and the Minotaur by simply scrambling letters in proper names, opening proceedings in this four episode story on a decrepit spaceship bound for Skonnos (cf. Knossos, primary city of the ancient Minoan culture on Crete), bearing human sacrifices from the defeated planet Aneth (cf. Athens). The tributes are to be handed over to the Nimon, who, yes, just happens to be a horned creature, half-bull and half-human, better known as the Minotaur. To be fair, Read builds the layers up slowly, so that the audience feels clever at recognizing the allusions and noticing the parallels before they become so explicit as to be painfully obvious.

Jury-rigging the TARDIS

The Doctor, meanwhile, has disassembled the TARDIS control console, preventing the blue box from dematerializing or putting up defense shields, helping set up a chance collision with the Skonnon spaceship. Both craft are caught in the pull of a nascent black hole, and they come close enough that the Doctor is able to create a passage between them. There they discover the tributes from Aneth, seven young people in golden yellow jump suits, one auspiciously named Seth (Simon Gipps-Kent). (In the original telling, Athens regularly provided Minos with seven boys and seven girls to be sacrificed to the Minotaur, and the hero Theseus—Seth—took the place of one of the youths in order to defeat the monster. Having fourteen tributes here might have taxed the guest cast budget.)

Seth (Simon Gipps-Kent) and Romana (Lalla Ward)

Doctor Who seldom deviates from the pattern where the Doctor prevails at the end; one needs to go back as far as the Third Doctor’s inaugural season, with “Doctor Who and the Silurians,” for an example of the Doctor unequivocally failing, though “Horror of Fang Rock” comes close. The journey, the telling, then, becomes more important than the outcome, so the fact that we know Seth will “slay” the Nimon in keeping with the underlying myth adds to, rather than detracts from, the narrative experience. It’s not a spoiler if you already know it’s supposed to happen.

The mythology provides coloring for the characters here, unlike in “Underworld” where the Jason and the Argonauts story yields narrative structure but not any detail or nuance. Still, one could be forgiven for having trouble recognizing that Soldeed (Graham Crowden), the sole scientist on Skonnos, is an analogue for Daedalus, if only because the generally accepted concept of that old artificer does not include manic laughter and overacting sufficient to make even Tom Baker blush…
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Doctor Who Project: Nightmare of Eden

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Always do what you’re best at.

Nothing says Doctor Who quite like monsters running rampant on a spaceship, and Bob Baker’s “Nightmare of Eden” (Story Production Code 5K) delivers a passable, if somewhat overwrought, story where alien beasts drive the narrative forward as the main source of danger in the story while also being victims of the real villains of the piece: drug smugglers. The true nightmare from the planet Eden comes in the form of Vraxoin, a drug so addictive and lethargy-inducing that the only planet known to supply it was incinerated.

Economy Class to Azure

Baker, writing his first solo effort without his usual partner Dave Martin, revels in creating elaborate settings for his stories by means of a few choice details, and when he succeeds, as in “The Armageddon Factor” and “The Sontaran Experiment,” the world feels real without needing to be completely sketched out. Starting proceedings on the interstellar cruise liner Empress, with shots of passengers packed into economy-class seating and wearing protective garb, helps establish the story’s setting; the package tours and entitled tourists of the year 2116 could as easily have been on a chartered 747 to the Canary Islands as on a warp-drive flight to the planet Azure. A collision between the Empress and a small survey craft in the wrong orbit around Azure results in the two ships being dimensionally stuck, with the smaller craft engulfed by the larger when the liner came out of warp.

Smushed Spaceships

The Doctor and Romana arrive on the scene with no explanation and dive straight into attempting to separate the two craft, pretending initially to be agents of Galactic Salvage & Insurance. They soon meet a scientist, Tryst (Lewis Fiander), whose over-the-top German accent and square-framed glasses immediately cast him as suspect. Tryst has been collecting samples of all the flora and fauna in the galaxy using a Continuous Event Transmuter (CET), which dematerializes whole areas of planets and transfers them to laser crystals for storage, an undertaking the Doctor finds both fascinating and horrifying—mostly the latter. The primitive (to the Doctor) technology interacts poorly with the dimensional instability caused by the collision of the two ships, allowing passage into—and out of—the captured milieux.

Gateway to Eden

Between the need to free the ships from their trans-dimensional embrace, the revelation of Vraxoin being present on the Empress, and an unknown assailant who knocks out the Doctor, Baker and director Alan Bromley deliver one of the finest monster reveals in years, even better than Scarlioni’s unveiling in “City of Death,” because it comes as an actual surprise. Though signposted by a crewman who dies with claw marks on his face and neck, the sudden appearance of a large, scaly, green-eyed alien from a hole in the wall cut by K-9 nevertheless delivers as much shock as Doctor Who has provided in ages.
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Doctor Who Project: The Creature from the Pit

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We call it the pit.

In seasons past, one would have expected David Fisher’s “The Creature from the Pit” (Story Production Code 5G) to provide exactly what the title promises: a beastie in an underground labyrinth posing a deadly threat. Season Seventeen, under producer Graham Williams and script editor Douglas Adams, continues to subvert expectations, with the featured creature instead being a well-spoken interplanetary ambassador on a thwarted trade mission, albeit an envoy some two hundred feet in length, covered in a sickly green membrane, festooned with unfortunate appendages, and given to crushing people inadvertently.

Intergalactic plenipotentiary and giant blob, at your disposal

Deadpan humor abounds in this story, which sees the Doctor and Romana landing on the planet Chloris—a verdant jungle world, in case the Nation-esque planet name didn’t give it away—after homing in on a distress beacon being sent out by what appears to be a giant egg shell. Unbeknownst to our time travellers, however, they have landed in the “Place of Death,” so named because anyone found there is put to death by the servants of Lady Adrasta (Myra Frances), the most powerful person on the planet thanks to her monopoly on metal. The Doctor’s curiosity about the shell leads Adrasta’s lady-in-waiting, Madam Karela (Eileen Way), to spare the Doctor and Romana, so that Adrasta can question them.

Madam Karela and the Fourth Doctor

No sooner do they head off for Adrasta’s palace than a group of bandits waylays them, intent on stealing as much metal as possible, kidnapping Romana in the process. The bandits’ scruffy appearance, particularly in comparison to Adrasta’s sharply attired guards, serves to highlight her power and wealth and the poverty of the rest of the planet, but the social commentary disappears as soon as the bandits begin to speak. They come across as greedy bumpkins, driven solely by their desire for metal of any kind; their predations stem not from penury but from avarice. While their behavior does emphasize the scarcity of metal on Chloris, the comedic presentation drains them of any degree of menace or threat, a danger sapped even further when Romana just sternly orders them to let her go, which they do, with a little help from K-9.

Romana and K-9 face off against a scruff bunch of bandits

Comedic moments in Doctor Who work best when they provide a counterpoint to the drama and the action, when they stem from the events on screen rather than being the whole purpose of a scene. The earnest yet literal-minded detective Duggan from “City of Death,” for instance, and the glib con-man Garron in “The Ribos Operation,” lighten the mood because they are juxtaposed against more serious events rather than attempting to be humorous in and of themselves. “The Creature from the Pit” feels like everyone wants in on the funny business, from veteran director Christopher Barry through to the deposed court astrologer Organon (Geoffrey Bayldon), who survived being thrown in the dreaded pit after displeasing Adrasta. When the Doctor meets Organon, after he jumps in the pit himself to escape from Adrasta’s clutches, the two exchange such a wildfire patter of witticisms and bon mots that one almost doesn’t notice the green pulsating creature stuffing itself through a doorway, trying to reach them…
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Whittaker Waves Goodbye: Thirteenth Doctor to Regenerate

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The BBC announced today that Jodie Whittaker intends to step down from the role of the Thirteenth Doctor after three seasons on Doctor Who, the final season airing later this year and her run concluding with with a trio of specials in 2022:

Much like with Peter Capaldi’s exit as the Twelfth Doctor, the BBC has made this announcement a good year ahead of Whittaker’s last scenes on the series being aired. News like this, though, would be nearly impossible to keep under wraps in this day and age. The set of specials to end the run calls to mind David Tennant’s departure, and while his specials were uneven at best, being freed from any running arc or companion linkages kept the focus on his Tenth Doctor, as befits a farewell.

Jodie Whittaker deserves no less. Her performance thus far, though hindered at times by the writing just like Capaldi, has kept Doctor Who both fresh and resonant. She has embodied an infectious joy and curiosity in her iteration of our favorite time traveller, with just a bit of the Second Doctor’s cheek and Fourth Doctor’s wit always lurking in the background.

Show runner Chris Chibnall also departs at the end of the specials, marking all change on the series. I frankly haven’t been terribly impressed with his overall impact on the show. While I love Jo Martin’s Fugitive Doctor, and would happily watch a full series of her pre-Hartnell exploits, the wholesale reconfiguration of the Doctor Who canon that accompanied her revelation takes some getting used to, even as someone who accepts the Morbius Doctors without much complaint. Change in general is fine, canon being a secondary consideration to good storytelling, but the story that accompanied the changes here just didn’t earn the right to such wholesale revision.

Jodie Whittaker was, of course, the first woman to play the role of the Doctor, and ideally not the last. One hopes that the BBC continues to expand the definitions of who the Doctor can be.