Doctor Who has many wonderful qualities, but one thing it’s not particularly known for is surprises. Of course there have been some over the years – the interior of the TARDIS in the very first episode, the deaths of Katarina and Sara Kingdom, the Monoid statue, and of course the change from Doctor One to Doctor Two – but in a show where the revelation of the villains at the end of Part One is usually negated by the inevitable title ‘The X of the Daleks’, it’s fair to say that twists and turns aren’t its stock-in-trade. But Season Eleven would twist and turn like a helter skelter…
The setting for the first story would itself be something of a surprise, as the Third Doctor had only visited (real) Earth history once before, in Season Nine’s The Time Monster, and it also had a wonderful monster reveal as the Sontaran Linx removed his helmet to show the alien face beneath. But it would be with the second story that the twistiness really began. Astonishingly, the production team actually concealed the true name of the story: the title caption for the first episode read simply “Invasion”. For those who watched, the appearance of a dinosaur at the end of Part One may have been a genuine surprise – but it wasn’t the last, or the greatest, bombshell that would be dropped by Invasion of the Dinosaurs.
In Doctor Who, baddies might sometimes pretend to be goodies. On occasions the good guys were initially thought to be the bad guys. Sometimes characters concealed their true motives. But never, ever had one of the Doctor’s close friends – someone who had fought at his side on many occasions – turned out to be allied with the villains. The revelation that Mike Yates was a traitor to his friends, to UNIT, was almost unbelievable. The world of Doctor Who was turned on its head; after that, nothing and no one – except the Doctor himself – could be trusted. It was a huge, astounding, audacious move.
We know who the Doctor’s adversaries will be in Death to the Daleks – surely that title doesn’t allow for any surprises? Well, that depends on how twisty you consider the Doctor actually teaming up with the Daleks, his greatest enemies, to be. That aside, it’s worth mentioning that Death to the Daleks has one of the greatest story openings ever. Sarah Jane Smith, on her first visit to an alien world, finds herself alone, abandoned, with no power, no refuge and no friends. It’s haunting, atmospheric and terrifying, sold completely to the viewer by an astounding performance from Elisabeth Sladen.
Throughout the entire season, we’re constantly wrong-footed. It’s not a spaceship – they haven’t even left Earth! K’anpo-Rimpoche is really the Doctor’s mentor from Gallifrey, and Cho-Je is really K’anpo-Rimpoche! Ice Warriors, who had previously been baddies and then were goodies that the Doctor suspected of being baddies are now actually baddies again but they are pretending to be a different kind of baddies (Federation representatives) than the baddies (traitors in league with the Federation’s enemies) that they actually are. (As the Brigadier might say: “Thank you. That makes everything quite clear.”) And they didn’t even turn up until half way through the story.
The final twist of the season may have been no surprise to viewers who read the newspapers, but was still the biggest twist it’s possible to do in Doctor Who: the Doctor died. Assume you’re a child watching who has no knowledge of things such as ‘moving on’, ‘avoiding being typecast’, or ‘end of an era’. You’ve seen the Doctor in peril so many times, and you’ve been scared for him, but you know he’s going to win out after all, because he’s the Doctor. It’s inconceivable that he could die. Sarah Jane might have spent half an episode of The Monster of Peladon believing he was dead, but of course you knew better. But this time… this time he was really dead. Sarah gently closed his eyes. There was no life left. The Third Doctor was no more.
This had never happened before. The Doctor had gone to his ‘certain death’ many times, but always somehow escaped at the last minute. Not this time. Even the previous regenerations hadn’t touched on it. On the first occasion, the adventure with the Cybermen had been concluded then, almost as an afterthought, the exhausted Doctor changed his face. The second time, the Doctor was on trial, not facing death; there was no moment where he lay lifeless on the floor. But here – we were told that returning to the crystal cave on Metebelis 3 would kill him. The Doctor accepts that he will probably die. We don’t. We’re wrong.
The season of surprises had turned everything upside down once again.
1. “Roooooaaaaarrrrrr!” It’s a Tyrannosaurus Rex! The monsters who are doing the invading are finally revealed. Invasion (of the Dinosaurs) Part One.
2. “Target model destroyed.” The Daleks test new weapons on their limited-edition TARDIS souvenir. Death to the Daleks Part Two
3. “There’s nothing ‘only’ about being a girl, your majesty!” Sarah brings women’s lib to Peladon. Monster of Peladon Part Three
4. “But Tommy, you’re normal! You’re just like everybody else!” “I sincerely hope not.” Sarah and the Doctor meet the new, enlightened Tommy. Planet of the Spiders Part Five